I felt Jasper behind me before I felt him; sometimes he moved in eerie silence, but I knew him so well that I could sense his presence filling up a room even when I didn’t hear his footsteps.
“I’m waiting for the beef to finish roasting,” I said, gesturing to the back. “Robbie’s keeping an eye on it.”
“Oh, you’re trusting him with the meat now? That boy is moving up in this world.”
I grinned. “Well, I figure it’s easy enough for him to see when it’s done. Better than watching him cut his fingers peeling carrots.”
Jasper rolled his eyes, drumming his fingers on the counter in thought. “Rats got into the pantry. Flour and grits are all ruined.”
I breathed. Hell. “All of it?”
He nodded. “Just found it. Luckily, we didn’t have much flour left anyway, and we don’t need it immediately. But we need more grits for the morning. Do you think the miller is still open?”
I peered out the window. It was nearing dusk, but far enough that I could scurry there before the sun went down, and he’d sell me something quick before he closed shop. “If I hurry.”
His mouth twisted a little. “Would you mind?”
“You’d have to finish dinner. And I was hoping to soak the bedsheets in soapy water overnight, but the water is already made so you’ll just have to ask Robbie to put them in.”
Jasper trailed a gentle finger up my forearm. “Thank you.”
I waited for him to realize I would need money, and he hurried back to the study for a bag of coin.
“We don’t need much,” he said, pressing the pouch into my hand. “Just enough for the morning. I figure when you go to market tomorrow you can buy a few loaves of bread, and we’ll have that for breakfast the rest of the week.”
“Do you want me to get them tonight instead? He might have a few extra, and since it’s the end of the day he’ll sell them cheap.”
Jasper shrugged. “If he has them, then certainly.”
I rushed out the door with the coin stowed in my waist-pouch, having run a finger along the blade of the little knife just to remind myself it was there. The sky was that crisp blue that signalled the final minutes of the sun’s descent, the sort of blue that lasted only a few moments before the world went dark.
I had to hurry.
The miller was only a few streets down; the water mill was somewhere on the river, but the shop wasn’t at the mill. There were a few millers in the city, though only one on our side, and they all collected the grain from there and brought it back to their respective shops.
I watched the sky carefully as I trotted across cobblestones and through the dust, noticing the change in the people I passed. During the day, the streets were filled with merchants and families; carts rolling through the dirt packed with goods, and women roaming like mother ducks with a trail of ducklings behind them, some with a baby on their hip. Sometimes a father would be with them, holding his boy’s hand, and I used to imagine Jasper doing the same: lifting a curly-haired boy into the air and tickling him until he screamed with delight.
Now, though, the only people that hadn’t returned home were the ones with no home to return to: the homeless and the drunks. Often difficult to tell apart, both were loud and equally menacing. On my way, though, I heard only a few shouts in my direction, and I was moving quickly enough that they were easily ignored.
I had just yanked my hood further over my head when I reached the miller’s. The door had just closed, but my hasty knock was answered immediately.
Benny, the miller, poked his head out and, hovering a candle close to my face, took a moment to identify me. “Shop’s closed, Lucy.”
“I’m sorry, Benny, but we had an emergency. Rats got into our storage, and we don’t have any grits for the morning.”
He glanced behind him. “I go to the mill on Tuesdays, so I don’t have much left. You could probably feed a dozen with it.”
“That’s enough,” I promised. “We just need to get through the morning.”
He sighed and let me in. “Damn rats. We don’t have much of a problem now, since we got a few housecats to chase ‘em out, but they’ve ruined my supplies more than a few times. Almost had me desperate.”
He shrugged, bending down to scoop the grits into a coarse sack and plopping it into the counter. “What’ve you got?”
I showed him the money I had, and he shrugged. “That’s enough.”
“Any leftover loaves?”
Again, he glanced behind him. “One, I think. When I go to the mill tomorrow I’ll make more, so if you come Wednesday there’ll be plenty.”
I knew his schedule, but I nodded as if it was new information. “I’ll take the one for now.”
He put the loaf in with the grits, and I produced a few more coins.
“No, what you had is enough. I would’ve thrown the loaf out, anyway. Not too long before it molds, so eat it quick.”
I nodded gratefully and slung the bag over my shoulder. “Careful getting home,” Benny called.
“Oh, don’t worry about me, Benny.”
Then, I stepped out the door into darkness.
I’d walked in the dark alone more than a handful of times; the distance back home tonight wasn’t too far, and I wasn’t afraid to cross a few streets after sundown. But tonight, when I passed the drunks, I remembered the knife blade pressed to my throat, foreign hands at my waist, a wicked voice in my ear. I remembered being soiled.
Passing a row of shops, I held my lantern higher, noticing shadows pop in and out of the trees. Nothing to be afraid of; there were squirrels and raccoons darting to and fro at night. But any moment, without any warning, there could be tight hands around me, a silver blade, a nightmare.
Before I realized it, I was running, heaving the sack of grits behind me as I raced back home. I hadn’t run since I was a girl, but it had been that long since I was so afraid. A trail of voices followed me, shouting obscenities, bellowing threats, and I realized that no matter where I went, I would never be safe. I had never been safe.
The wind howled, and it echoed like it was calling my name, Lucy, Lucy, don’t run. Lucy, Lucy, I come for you.
I could not scream. My voice was numb. I had only tears.
I reached the door of The Red Pearl, twisting the knob frantically, until I was faced with a room full of men who stared at my disheveled appearance and the howling fear in my eyes, having heard my yelp of fear.
I hovered in the doorway for a moment, my heart still pounding wildly, eager to close the door on the dark, dangerous night behind me.
Dropping the sack in the pantry, I hurried toward the back to collect myself. Robbie was there, looking at me wide-eyed as he carried the beef in from the spit.
In a moment, whether Robbie had told him or he’d noticed on his own, my husband was beside me. I had a hand on the wall, and I was staring at it as I tried to breathe normally again.
“Lucy,” Jasper said slowly, “did something happen?”
“Yes - I mean, no,” I blathered. “No, nothing happened. I was just afraid.”
“You’ve been alone in the dark a dozen times, and you’ve never been afraid before - did someone bother you?”
“No,” I said, desperately trying to avoid his interrogation. “The night spooked me, that was all. It was my fault.”
“Well, take a minute to regain your sense,” he said, not without sympathy, “before you help me finish the cooking.”
I knew it would take longer than a minute. It would take hours, days, weeks before I could walk alone again. It would take months or, perhaps, a lifetime. “All right,” I called out to his retreating figure. “I’ll be there in just a moment.”