The Lincoln brothers were still behind her.
She couldn’t run so she walked out of the store in a hurry and straight toward home. The Lincolns didn’t allow her to get too close to Bolivar’s bridge and over to the east side of town before they blocked her way.
“I think yo’ dress is pretty,” Richard grinned, his frame casting a shadow that covered her entire height. She stepped back when he stood in front of her.
Mercy backed away with every step he took. She looked up right into his face, the whites of his bright blue eyes contrasting with his black hair and staring right back at her. Her hand gripped tighter around her paper bag. With one hand Richard reached for her hair and twirled her curls around his finger and played with the collar of her dress with the other.
“Where’d you get the money?” Paul, his younger brother, questioned and blocked her left side escape onto the road. Now her sole escape was through the trees, where she did not want to go; there was no place to hide there.
“Home. Where I need to be now.” She said it so fast that it came out as mumbles. They always messed with her; they messed with everybody since they didn’t go to war. But they never followed anyone.
Mercy tried to walk between them, but Paul pushed her back. “Where you goin’ so soon?”
She tried again and this time Richard grabbed her arm.
“I thought we were friends?” Richard poked out his bottom lip then laughed.
Mercy clenched her teeth together and looked around, hoping that someone across the road at the store or the mechanic’s had seen them. The Lincoln boys were both taller than she and had pushed her a good distance from the road in behind the trees.
She attempted again. “I really should be gettin’ home.”
“But we’re havin’ so much fun,” Paul replied, rubbing the back of his pale, cold hand against her face.
Mercy snapped and slapped his hand down with a quick step back. Her mouth dropped open and eyes opened wide. Paul didn’t hesitate a moment before he backhanded her—a blow that knocked her against a tree and caused her to drop her bag. She yelped and held her eye and the right side of her face.
“My Papa and Josiah are coming after me.”
The Lincoln brothers laughed.
“We’ll see about that.”
Richard grabbed both her wrists, holding her back against the tree. She twisted in pain to get out of his grasp, but didn’t attempt to yell. She didn’t want to get hit again.
“Please, I’m sorry.”
Paul raised the left corner of his mouth in a crooked smile as he closed in on her. She breathed shallowly and closed her eyes tightly when he brushed his cool fingertips down the right side of her face, standing so close that she could feel him breathing on her neck. He chuckled softly and began to unbutton the front of her dress slowly.
Just as she felt the heat of the sun touch her exposed chest, a familiar voice ordered, “Leave her alone.”
Mercy opened one eye at a time. And when Paul moved out of Mercy’s line of sight, she saw Levi walk through the trees toward them.
Richard laughed a bit. “Join us, Levi?”
The scowl on Levi’s face shut Richard up. He stared directly at Richard as he walked into the middle, with both Richard and Paul on one side and Mercy, with her back still on the tree, on the other. He didn’t make eye contact with her.
“Get back to the store. My daddy lookin’ for y’all.”
“What he need with us?” Paul retorted.
Levi’s head snapped to Paul. “Get back to the store now. She ain’t botherin’ nobody so you shouldn’t be botherin’ her.”
Levi then stood in front of her, pointing the Lincolns to the direction of the store. As they walked away, the brothers mumbled some words under their breath. Paul spit in their direction then followed his brother. Levi didn’t move until they were completely out of sight. Only then did Mercy bend over and began to snatch up the items that fell out of her bag.
“Are you okay?” He reached for her hand and examined her exposed body. “They didn’t touch you or…”
Mercy didn’t answer him. She wiggled her hand out of his, fixed her dress and continued to pick up her things. Levi took her hand again and caressed it, begging with his grayish-blue eyes. He was starting to look more like his daddy and less like Richard. “Mercy.”
Mercy raised her eyebrow and leaned back with her arms folded. “She ain’t botherin’ nobody?”
“I got rid of them, didn’t I?” She scoffed and snatched away from him when he tried to help her up. “I’ll deal with them later.”
Mercy shook her head and looked away. “How long have you been home?” She spat.
“I got back last night,” he responded slowly, confusion spreading over his face. “Late. We are a long way from New York.”
She exhaled hard and walked away; Levi flanked her right side.
“Your last letter was three weeks ago! You could’ve sent me a letter in three weeks sayin’ when you would be back. Josiah did.”
He stopped. “What does Josiah have to do with anythin’?”
He caught a hold of her wrist as they walked. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“I can’t handle anymore surprises,” she retorted, smoothing down and dusting off the bottom half of her dress. “You still could’ve sent me somethin’.”
He held both of her hands and crouched down to get her attention. “Don’t be mad. Come to the root house later.”
“I don’t want to.” She moved her hands to her hips. “Won’t you mamma and daddy be at home?”
He dusted off the rest of her dress and made sure all of the buttons were fastened. “They’re stayin’ late at the store tonight. Please come. I missed you.”
“Please.” He brought his face so close to her that their lips almost touched. She could smell peppermint and cinnamon on his breath. “Please.”
She closed her eyes then shrugged her shoulders slowly. “Fine…I guess. I have to bring a cake from Mama Nolia by your house anyway.”
Levi smiled and reluctantly let go of her hand when they reached Bolivar’s bridge. Mercy started walking home, looked back at him, and then walked faster knowing Mama Nolia was waiting on her.
* * *
When Mercy returned home, Mama Nolia was standing with her hands on her hips in the middle of the square porch, blocking the front door. Mercy kept her head down when she handed over the wrinkled bag and maneuvered around Mama Nolia to get into the house to clean up. Her hair was a mess and her dress still had spots of dirt stains.
“What happened to you, girl?” Mercy heard Mama Nolia walk through the screen door after her.
“Girl you better turn around and answer me.”
Mercy kept her head low, but looked up at Mama Nolia. Mama Nolia tightened her lips, put the bag down next to the magnolia vase on the end table near the door and brought her hands back to her hips. Her apron was still covered in flour.
Mama Nolia stared long and hard at her. Mercy turned around and speedily disappeared down the dark hallway. The bathroom door and Mama Nolia and Papa’s bedroom door were closed, causing the only light come from the one window at the end of the hallway and her open bedroom door. She rushed past the Jesus, Mary mother of Jesus, and family portraits on the wall before her door and closed it with one hand behind her.
She exhaled leaning against the door. The curtains were closed and everything was neatly in its place—the way she left it. Quickly she unbuttoned her dress, breathing heavily, and used the inside of it with an old cup of water next to her bed to clean off whatever dirt was left on her body and the sweat on her face. She opened her drawer and pulled out a folded red and white polka dot dress that Levi brought home from New York the first time after he was sent back from Europe. It was his favorite. She slipped it over her body before she balled up the old dress and hid it under her bed. In the small mirror above her dresser she fixed her hair, pinning her curls behind her ears with a new ribbon.
When Mercy joined Mama Nolia in the kitchen again, Mama Nolia said, “Girl, you fillin’ out that dress. You might need to stop makin’ these cakes with me.”
Mercy gave a half smile in response and rubbed down the dress. She took the knife from Mama Nolia and iced the cake. Mama Nolia put the finishing touches on it and covered it before she pushed it toward Mercy.
“You be back before supper.”
To get to the west side of town, Mercy had to pass the store again—she could see the Lincoln twins, Mr. and Mrs. Graham and a couple of other customers inside the store—and cross the town center. She crossed the road to be on the side where Levi’s house was so she would not have to cross later with the cake if a car was coming; then she would have to run. The seven houses she had to pass before the Grahams’ were almost identical outside of the colors: two-stories with white- or yellow-painted enclosed front decks, a porch swing on one side and white wicker chairs on the other. The Grahams were the first to paint their front door the same orange as the general store and left the old wooden rocking chair on the porch since Mr. Graham’s daddy died. It was dark inside.
Mercy skipped the front door and walked between the shrubs Mr. Graham planted to mark the end of his property. She walked a ways off behind the Graham’s tall home and backyard, which led to the west side’s Meadow. She pushed the trees and plants out of her way with one hand until she found the wooden doorframe of the root house.
Its flat roof was covered in fallen leaves and was only slightly taller than the base of the largest tree in the Meadow. It was built there many years ago, long before Mercy and her friends discovered it. Back then, all the kids—black kids included—played in building before and after they went hunting with their fathers and grandfathers, conjuring up stories about secret hideaways or praise meetings. A younger Levi put in a bed when all he wanted to do was do homework, sleep alone, and read books. He used to read his favorite books to Mercy in there. They became man and woman together in there.
Mercy knocked four times, kicked the door twice, and then knocked again three times. Levi opened it, dressed from head-to-toe in his tan uniform with colorful badges and hat. She had seen him once like this before—when he left the second time. She frowned.
“I’m glad you came. I thought you would’ve stayed at home.”
“I told you I had to bring the cake.”
“Smells like cinnamon. My favorite.”
He grinned at her and let her in. She watched him as he took the cake out of her hands and looked directly into his eyes when he placed his lips on hers. His hands dropped down to the small of her back as he pulled her to the bed behind him. She let her eyes shut as she kissed him back, feeling the chills surface on her skin as the comfort of his lips and touch took her in. She let him turn her around and gently lay her on the soft quilt and smoothly move his body on top of hers. While he kissed her, she felt his hand slide over her knee, up her thigh and under her dress. Her eyes blinked open, seeing nothing but his forehead and his flattened dark brown hair from the cap that he must have taken off when she closed her eyes. When he started to kiss her neck and lower, she bit her bottom lip and curled her toes in her shoes. She turned her head and stared at the bookcase. It was as if everything Mama Nolia said about boys becoming young men were true and she had allowed herself to be used as only a step in the process.
Levi glanced into her eyes to bring his attention back to her face and lips. He stopped.
“Is this all you asked me here for?” she asked still staring at the bookcase.
He pushed himself up and rolled over to the open space on the bed, blocking her view. “Not exactly.” Mercy propped herself up on her elbows and fixed her dress. “But shouldn’t I be happy that I survived the war to see my wife?”
“I’m not your wife,” she answered lowly and then turned her back to him, now looking at the wooden desk under the only window in the root house. The book they were reading last was missing.
“You are. And I was going to keep my promise to come home you. That’s why I gave you the ring…” He rotated his body to her and caressed her left hand, noticing that it was not gracing her finger. “Where is it?”
Mercy drew back her hand and looked at the door. “I hid it in a safe place.”
“Why aren’t you wearin’ it?”
“People asked me where I got it. I couldn’t tell ‘em. And you know I can’t wear it any time I go to the store ‘cause I’m sure your mama and daddy would know that it was your gran’ma’s. I don’t want give nobody cause to talk about me.”
“Why does it matter? It’s a gift from me to my wife.”
Mercy pushed herself up from the bed and walked past him to the trunk of the tree in the middle of the house. With her arms folded, she looked at him on the bed. “Why do you keep sayin’ that? You forget where we are? You ain’t in Europe no more! You and I both know I’m not your wife. We’re pretendin’.”
“I’m not pretendin’,” he countered as he moved from the bed to the trunk. He glanced down at her with his hand on the trunk, his lips brushing the side of her cheek, and leaned in for another kiss.
Mercy rolled her eyes and pushed him back. “Then why don’t you have a ring? Huh? Why aren’t you wearin’ one when you go out?”
She scoffed at him and paced around the trunk because she couldn’t sit still.
“You’re lyin’ straight through your teeth. And it won’t change anythin’. People will still talk. They’ll know, Levi. They’ll know. And then other things’ll happen.” She took a book from the shelf but didn’t read the title. Instead, she threw it on the floor. “You can leave. You can go back to Europe like you talked about in your letters, move on, and it won’t even matter that I’m still here. I can’t go with you. And if you leave, everyone’ll know for sure about us and talk about how I laid down with a white man and was left on the ground like a dog. They’ll say I’m no good no more, just like they talk about them other girls with white men.”
“You will not be one of those girls,” Levi sighed as he got up from the bed. He glanced down at her, no smile on his face. “You are not one of them. Don’t even compare yourself. I won’t let that happen.”
He attempted to hug her from behind, wrapping his arms around her waist and planting a kiss on the nape of her neck; she broke through his arms.
“What are you gonna do? Tell them that I’m not doin’ nothin’ to nobody like you did your cousins?”
Levi’s face reddened. “Do you want me to go to them right now and make sure they don’t mess with you again? I’m sure they’ll take me seriously then,” he said heatedly, almost to a yell.
“No! That’s—that’s not what I’m asking.” Mercy shook her head back and forth and used her fingers to message her temples. “I’m just sayin’ it’ll be worse if we wear rings and then when the baby comes—” She paused. “You don’t have to deal with these problems.”
She didn’t look at him. “I’m gon’ have a baby.”
Levi suddenly took her in his arms and spun her around. He was extremely excited, asking aloud if he wanted a son or a daughter, how he would hold him or her, what they would name the baby. Mercy did not share his excitement. He put her down and stood in front of her.
“You’re not happy?”
She bit her lip and gazed up at him. “You know I can’t have this baby. What are they gon’ do to me then?”
Levi sat next to her on the bed. “How long have you known?”
Mercy shrugged her shoulders. “I guessed after that time didn’t come twice. Only a couple weeks. I couldn’t tell you sooner. I thought you decided to stay in New York City when didn’t send me anymore letters.”
“I was always comin’ back home.”
Mercy rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “You didn’t send me anythin’ sayin’ when you were comin’ back.”
Levi stood again and paced the floor in front of her. He scratched his head and swallowed hard. “Anyone else know?”
He nodded his head and rubbed his chin. “Good. I’ll think of somethin’.” He kneeled on the floor in front of her and reached for her hands, looking down.
“What are you gonna do? You’re not leavin’ me.” She ran over her words and held tightly to his hand.
He glanced up and smiled. He pushed her hair out of her face. “No. I’m not leavin’. I’ll think of somethin’.”
He kissed her forehead and wrapped his arms around her. With her ear to his neck, she felt his heart rate race and then slow to normal while he held her close. He kept repeating, “I’ll think of somethin’.”