Say No More – Karen Rose

She was going to die. Rhoda knew it was true. There was no way Brother DJ would take her back to Eden, and, even if he would, the result would be the same. She didn’t want to go back. Ever. She cursed the day she’d first climbed into the bed of this truck, all those years ago. How many? She struggled to remember. DJ’s father, Waylon, had been behind the wheel that night that she’d gathered her children in her lap, promising them that everything would be okay. That they were going to a new home where everything would be wonderful and they’d have toys and food and a warm bed to sleep in. How stupid was I? Naive and stupid. Mercy had only been a year old, so she’d never known the scary time before when they didn’t always have dinner because Rhoda hadn’t turned enough tricks the previous night. But Gideon had seen her come home from a night on the streets of San Francisco with bruises on her face and no breakfast for them because a john had refused to pay. When she’d promised her son a better life, he’d believed her, willingly – eagerly – climbing into the bed of the truck that would take them to paradise. To Eden. To Eden.

She’d spit, but her mouth was too dry. Eden had been no paradise. It had been hell. Gideon had only been five years old that day, so precious and smart. Wise before his time. My beautiful boy. He’d be seventeen now. Well on his way to becoming a man. She hoped. Prayed.

Gideon. My beautiful son. She’d never see him again in this lifetime. She hoped he was well, that he’d survived. She’d cursed herself every night for the past four years for leaving him alone on his thirteenth birthday, injured, maybe even dying. Watching Waylon dump his limp body behind a dumpster, trying to catch one last glimpse of her son as Waylon tied her hands behind her, pushing her face-first into the truck bed, then taking his payment for Gideon’s escape from Eden, leaving her torn and bleeding . It had been the worst day of her life. Until she’d climbed into the bed of this truck a third time, her daughter in her arms. This time it was being driven by Waylon’s son, DJ, who’d inherited it when Waylon died. DJ’s price for the ride out of Eden had been the same as when Waylon had driven her to this same bus station while she clutched at an injured Gideon.

And even though she’d been married to other men both times, she’d complied. She’d sold her body before Eden for a lot less. What was food and shelter when the lives of your children were in danger? Nothing. So she’d paid without complaint. The day she’d gotten Gideon out, Brother Waylon had taken her back to Eden to pay for her crimes. She had a sick feeling that today’s outcome with DJ would not be the same. She looked down at the trembling body she held too closely. Mercy was burning up. Eden’s healer hadn’t been able to help, but that hadn’t been too big a surprise. Sister Coleen dealt with colds and minor cuts.

Mercy had an infection. It was bad. Very bad. So progressed that it could be detected by scent alone. Coleen simply wasn’t equipped to deal with such things. Which was why Rhoda had taken this drastic step. Why she’d bartered her own life to get Mercy out. To get her away. Hopefully to safety, although anywhere was better than the place they’d left behind. Eden.

Rhoda quelled what would have been a bitter laugh. She’d welcome death were it not for the small body she held. Lovingly, she brushed a lock of black hair from Mercy’s sweat-covered forehead. How I wanted to see you grow up! Although Mercy was already grown up. She’d had her twelfth birthday nearly a year ago. Rhoda remembered turning twelve. Remembered playing games with her friends. Mercy’s birthday had been nothing like that. Mercy’s birthday had been filled with tears and pain. And fear.

So much fear. It’s all my fault. I agreed to go to Eden. To blindly take my children with me. I believed a stranger. He’d promised her food and shelter and a safe place to raise her children. And Rhoda had believed him, her children paying the price for her stupidity. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Rhoda whispered. ‘So very sorry.’ Mercy’s eyelids fluttered, her lashes lifting to reveal bright green eyes so like those of her brother.

‘Mama?’ Her murmur was hoarse and harsh. ‘It hurts.’ ‘I know, baby. It’ll be better soon.’ Rhoda had no idea if that was true or not. But the words seemed to soothe her precious daughter, who closed her eyes again. Hopefully she was asleep. Or unconscious. Rhoda hoped it was the latter, actually. She hoped that Mercy had been unaware when DJ Belmont had stopped the truck an hour into their trip, and then another hour after that.

And yet another hour after that, taking his payment from Rhoda’s body. But getting Mercy out of Eden would be worth anything Rhoda had to endure. They were almost there. Almost to the bus stop where she’d left Gideon four years before. She leaned down to whisper in Mercy’s ear. ‘Mercy, honey. Are you awake?’ Mercy’s chin dipped in a silent nod. ‘I need you to listen to me. This is important. Find Gideon.

He’ll help you.’ Mercy’s eyes opened wide, her shock apparent. ‘He can’t. He’s dead.’ ‘No, baby. He’s not.’ Please let that be true. ‘He escaped. I smuggled him out that night, just like I’m getting you out now. He is alive and you need to find him.

’ Emotion flashed in her daughter’s green eyes. ‘He is alive? But you said—’ ‘I know what I said,’ Rhoda hissed, prepared for Mercy’s disbelief. I played the part of a grieving mother too well. Except that she hadn’t been grieving his death. She’d grieved the fact that her actions had put both of her children in danger. She’d grieved that she’d left him alone, here, at this bus stop, while he bled and suffered. ‘But you need to believe me now. He is alive. And he will help you. Find him, Mercy.

’ Mercy’s nostrils flared, her eyes narrowing in anger. ‘No.’ Rhoda blinked, stunned to hear the venom in her daughter’s voice. ‘What? Why not?’ ‘He’s selfish and I never want to see him again. He escaped. He lived. While we . ’ Tears welled in Mercy’s eyes. ‘We suffered, Mama. We suffered because he was selfish.

’ ‘No, Mercy. He wasn’t selfish. Never that.’ ‘No. I’ll be fine without him. We’ll be fine, you and me.’ Rhoda’s eyes filled with tears. Not we, my sweet girl. Just you. She wouldn’t be allowed to go with her daughter, she was certain.

‘Mercy, baby. There’s something you need to know about Gideon.’ Mercy turned her face away, clenching her eyes closed. ‘No.’ ‘There was a reason he left.’ A good reason. Good enough that she’d chosen to part with her child. Her only son. Leaving him here, hoping that someone would find him. Help him.

‘I know. He didn’t want to be apprenticed. He didn’t want to work. He was lazy and selfish.’ Mercy spat the words she’d been fed by the community. By Mercy’s own ‘husband’. Words that Rhoda had been too terrified to call what they were: evil lies. Now she was going to lose both of her children, because she was never going to be allowed to live after this latest show of defiance. How had she let this happen? How had it come to this? ‘No, Mercy.’ Rhoda shook her head.

‘He wasn’t lazy. He wasn’t selfish.’ He was attacked. He was beaten. He was all but dead. ‘He was—’ The truck abruptly stopped, and Rhoda cursed herself for putting the truth off too long. It was too late. She had so much to tell her daughter and only seconds to do so. ‘Mercedes,’ she whispered hoarsely. ‘You are Mercedes Reynolds.

’ Mercy’s eyes widened in confusion. ‘What?’ The driver’s door opened. DJ was coming. Seconds. You have only seconds. Choose your words wisely. ‘You are Mercedes Reynolds. Not Terrill.’ Mercy’s brow furrowed. ‘I don’t understand.

’ ‘My parents are Derrick and Ronnie Reynolds in Houston. Find them. They’ll take care of you.’ ‘Mama?’ Mercy’s fingers clenched Rhoda’s handmade coat. ‘You’re not making sense.’ But she was making sense. For the first time since believing a stranger’s lies about paradise, she was making sense. She was making it right. No, she could never make it right. She could only tell the truth.

‘Your brother is Gideon Reynolds. You need to find him. Tell him I’m sorry. Tell him that I love him.’ Her eyes filled with tears and she blinked them away, not caring where they fell. ‘I love you. Always and forever.’ Mercy’s lips trembled. ‘Mama?’ ‘Selena. My name is Selena Reynolds.

’ Then she hissed when the back of Brother DJ’s hand connected with her jaw. ‘Silence!’ DJ thundered. Mercy recoiled, clenching her eyes closed as she stiffened, waiting for the next blow, but DJ didn’t have a problem with Mercy so the blow never came. Touching the tip of her tongue to her bleeding lip, Rhoda met DJ’s dark eyes and said nothing. As she’d been taught. DJ shot her a warning glare. ‘No more of your lies, Rhoda. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.’ Rhoda dropped her eyes to the terrified child in her arms. She’s a child.

The community held that Mercy was a woman grown, but she was not. Rhoda’s daughter was an almostthirteen-year-old girl, scared out of her mind, but too beaten down to fight back. Emotionally and physically. Mercy’s husband had beaten her, had taken her so roughly that she’d bled. Again and again. My fault. All my fault. I should have stopped him. But that was an impossibility. Rhoda had been unable to stop the man’s harsh treatment of her own body, much less Mercy’s.

They’d been possessions. Nothing more. ‘You’ll keep your end of the bargain?’ she asked. DJ nodded once, his expression grim as he held out his arms. Rhoda tightened her hold on Mercy. ‘I’ll carry her,’ she insisted, then swallowed a yelp when DJ hit her again. ‘Stop making trouble, Rhoda,’ he growled, then grabbed Mercy from her arms. Rhoda scrambled to the edge of the truck bed, managing to get one foot on the ground before DJ returned to shove her backward. ‘Stay here,’ he barked. She crawled to one side of the truck so that she could look over the side.

Mercy lay on the asphalt parking lot, curled into the fetal position, her body visibly trembling. What had he done to her? ‘Mercy?’ she called, hearing the fear in her own voice. ‘Mercy—’ But Rhoda’s cry was abruptly muted when DJ grabbed the chain around her neck and yanked it, cutting off her air supply. On reflex, she grabbed the locket at the base of the chain and pulled it away from her throat, trying to give herself room to breathe. But DJ yanked harder and she opened her mouth, gasping for breath. She hated the chain. Hated the locket it held. Hated how the man who’d owned her had used it just as DJ did now. To control her. To show her who owned the very breaths she took.

Not me. She hadn’t owned the breaths she took for twelve long years. The chain wasn’t jewelry. It was a slave’s collar and she’d borne it for far too long. Something sharp punctured her skin before sliding up the back of her neck, beneath the dreaded chain that dug deeper into her throat as black circles began to dance in front of her eyes. She wondered if this was it. Is this how he’ll kill me? But then a loud crunch filled her ears, and the chain went slack around her neck. She gasped in air that burned, one hand circling her throat protectively. The other still clutched the hated locket. Until it was snatched from her hand.

‘Stay here,’ DJ growled. ‘I mean it, Rhoda.’ But Rhoda wasn’t listening anymore. She crawled to the truck’s open tailgate and slid to the ground. Grabbing the edge of the truck’s bed, she made her way to her daughter on unsteady legs. DJ was crouched beside Mercy, one of his big hands yanking at her chain. In his other hand he held a pair of bolt cutters, and he proceeded to cut the chain from Mercy’s neck. But Mercy wasn’t fighting to breathe. She was as limp as a rag doll, pliant in DJ’s harsh grip. DJ rose, holding both chains now.

Rhoda thought he’d put them in the truck, but he strode toward a grassy area and used the bolt cutters to dig a shallow hole into which he threw the lockets. He covered them up, patting at the grass he’d cut away until the area looked undisturbed. Rhoda stumbled to Mercy’s side, dropping to her knees beside her daughter. ‘Mercy? Say something. Please.’ But Mercy remained frozen where she lay, still in the fetal position. Wildly Rhoda searched the area, but the parking lot was deserted. There was no one to hear her. No one to help. DJ was returning, his face dark and furious.

‘What did you do to her?’ Rhoda demanded, beyond caring what he’d do to silence her. All thoughts were for the daughter she’d failed in every possible way. DJ smiled and the sight sent a cold shiver across her skin. ‘I told her that Brother Ephraim was on his way.’ The cold shiver became paralyzing dread. ‘Is he?’ DJ just smiled bigger. And drew a gun from beneath his jacket. Rhoda’s heart stopped. This was it, then. The moment he killed her.

‘No. Not in front of her. Please.’ DJ laughed. ‘You made your bargain, Rhoda. I kept my end. You’re both here. Out of Eden.’ He lifted the gun, but to Rhoda’s horror, he pointed it at Mercy. Rhoda threw herself over her child.

‘No! You promised!’ ‘I promised to get you out. I never promised to let you live.’ Leaning over, he pulled Rhoda away from Mercy as if she weighed nothing. She expected a loud blast, but all she heard was a little pop. Silencer, she thought dully. He planned this. He never intended to let either of us go. Mercy’s body jerked and a bright red stain began to spread on the front of her dress. ‘No.’ No, no, no.

Rhoda was sobbing, reaching for her daughter, but DJ held her just far enough away. ‘Mercy? Mercy. Please. Open your eyes. Please.’ Mercy’s eyelids fluttered open. Mama. She mouthed the word, no sound emerging. ‘Say goodbye to Mama,’ DJ said mockingly as he pressed the gun to Rhoda’s abdomen. Rhoda’s body jolted, a searing pain exploding in her gut.

She screamed, unable to contain the excruciating pain. How was Mercy not screaming? But she wasn’t. Her daughter lay on the ground, staring up at her. She was still breathing, though. She’s still alive. ‘Mercedes,’ Rhoda ground out. ‘Find Gideon. Gideon Reynolds.’ Mercy didn’t respond, continuing to stare, her eyes filled with confusion, pain, and terror. ‘Shut up, Rhoda,’ DJ snarled.

‘She’s not going to find anyone. She’s going to die here. Just like Gideon did. Just like you are.’ Rhoda shook her head hard. ‘Selena. I’m Selena. Not Rhoda. Never again.’ DJ shrugged.

‘Whatever.’ He tried to yank her to her feet, but her knees buckled. ‘Ephraim will kill you for this,’ she rasped. DJ just laughed. ‘No, he won’t. He never does. He can’t.’ That made no sense, but Rhoda’s mind was spinning out of control and not much made sense. ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Because I can.’ He tightened his hold on Rhoda’s arm and dragged her to the truck, hefting her to her feet, leaning her against its side.

‘Watch, Mercy.’ He pressed the barrel of the gun to Rhoda’s temple. This was it, then. ‘Say bye-bye, Rhoda,’ he said, humor in his voice. ‘Selena,’ she gritted out. ‘If you’re going to kill me, at least have the guts to say my name. Selena Reynolds.’ He chuckled. ‘Goodbye, Rhoda.’ Watch, Mercy.

Brother DJ had commanded it, so Mercy obeyed as she’d been taught to do. She watched, a scream frozen in her throat. Mama! But her mother didn’t answer because her mother was gone. Dead. Her mother had collapsed against the side of the truck, a hole in the side of her head. For a moment she stared at Mercy, her eyes wide. Dead. And then Brother DJ lifted her mother’s body, his arm under her legs, and tossed her over the side of the truck into the bed. The bed where he’d taken her mother three times since they’d left Eden. The only home Mercy had ever known.

Her mother hadn’t even protested. It had been the payment for getting them out. Mercy knew that. Her mother had told her so after each time. Mercy had wanted to answer, had wanted to tell her mother that it wasn’t worth it, that she – Mercy – wasn’t worth it, but she’d been unable to speak. DJ hadn’t been gentle, but it was still better than . him. Brother Ephraim. My husband. Just thinking the word made her shudder.

And he was on his way. Brother DJ had told her so. Ephraim would find her here. He probably wouldn’t kill her. Although she’d wish he would. She always wished he’d just kill her, but he never did. Brother DJ rubbed his bloody hands on his pants and began walking her way. ‘Come on, Mercy.’ She just stared up at him, unable to say a word. He leaned down, grabbed her arm, and forced her to stand, but her legs were like limp noodles.

She hurt, everywhere. Her abdomen burned. She pressed her palm to her body, then stared at it dully. Her palm was covered in blood. I’m bleeding. Because he shot me. It was like a dream. Not real. Except it was. Her mother was dead.

And I’m bleeding. ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ he grunted. ‘Not you, too.’ She continued to stare. She’d heard Ephraim use that ‘F’-word, but only when he was really angry. Never in as casual a tone as Brother DJ’s. He began to drag her toward the truck and she suddenly understood what he planned to do. He’s going to kill me, too. He never intended to let either of us go. But why had he driven them all the way here? Wherever here was.

The sign said Redding Bus Terminal. She knew what a bus was, but despite being able to read the other two words, she didn’t understand them. They’d driven for hours. Why come all this way only to kill us both? He could have stopped at any time and killed them on the side of the road. He was toying with us, she realized. Making her mother believe that Mercy would be free. Her mother had been so hopeful . Now she was dead. Mercy squinted when bright lights abruptly blinded her. A car.

Another car had appeared and was pointing its lights at them. ‘Fuck!’ Brother DJ cursed again. He lifted his gun, pointing it at the bright lights. He fired once, then dropped her arm when blue lights began flashing above the bright white lights. ‘Cops.’ He ran to the truck, firing at Mercy again. Every nerve ending in her leg sparked, the shot hitting her midcalf. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound would come. Brother DJ got in his truck and sped away, firing a final time, but the bullet missed her, hitting the asphalt near her head. Shards of stone exploded from the road, and little pricks of pain licked at the side of her face. And then it was quiet, the only sound the soft motor of the car that had spurred Brother DJ to run. Cops. That meant police officers. Who were bad. They’d hurt her. Beat her. Take her to prison. Make sure she never saw daylight again. If they ever catch you, say nothing. Admit nothing. Never tell about the community. Never say ‘Eden’. The threats she’d heard a thousand times from her teachers in the community spun in her mind like a tornado, giving her a rush of energy. Get away. She had to get away. She pushed herself to her hands and knees and began to crawl away from the lights. Toward the grass. Toward the lockets Brother DJ had buried. She hated her locket. But she needed it. Felt . wrong without it. She hated that she needed it. Mama. Her mother’s locket was there, too. Her mother, who was dead. Whose body was in the back of Brother DJ’s truck. Her mother, who’d tried to save her. The car behind her never moved. No people emerged. No one shouted a threat. No one tried to stop her. So she kept crawling. Finally her knees touched grass and she wanted to cry. She hurt. So bad. The world began to spin, but she kept pushing her body forward. Just a little more. A little farther. And then she saw it. The patch of earth Brother DJ had disturbed when he’d buried the lockets. She collapsed next to it and clawed at the dirt until her hand closed around the chain that Ephraim had used as a weapon against her so many times. She dragged it from the ground, then clawed until she found a second chain. The lockets were covered with dirt, hiding the two children kneeling in prayer under an olive tree, all under the spread wings of the archangel Uriel. But Mercy didn’t need to see the engraved image. It was permanently etched in her mind. Just as were the names engraved into the backs of each locket.

.

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