Wait For It


The screen door slammed shut behind me with a reverberating bang, but I kept running. I couldn’t take another second inside that house.

It had been my turn to sit and read to Mama. 

Usually, she stared blankly at the wall with a thin line of drool running down her cheek. Every now and then, her eyes would seemingly dance around the room, focusing on my face for a brief second before bouncing off to something else. Grandmother once told me that they were just filled with the joy of God’s love, but Mama never seemed happy when her eyes were like that.

She would cry out and speak to people who weren’t there. It used to frighten me until I discovered she was sick. 

I wasn’t supposed to have heard, but I was really good at hiding and just as quiet as a little church mouse. Most of the time, people didn’t even realize I was in the room.

Papa had told Mama she was sick with sin and begged her to repent, but she’d just laid there, moaning loudly. I wasn’t sure how the sin had gotten to her when she never left her bed, but if Papa saw it in her, then it must have been true.

Once he left, she’d cried until the pillowcase beneath her head was soaked with tears before calling out for me and my sisters. Her voice was soft like mine, though, so no one ever came.

The July air was thick with humidity, and without even a hint of a breeze to cool things down, it was like running straight into an oven. My gray linen dress clung to my skin, and each inhale felt like I was trying to breathe underwater.

I ran until I reached the hedges lining the perimeter of our small gated community before dropping to my knees with a wince. Sharp leaves and twigs scraped along the exposed skin on my arms and legs, compressing the old and new bruises lining my sides. Still, I took a deep breath and pushed forward until I was completely hidden from view.

It was the only place I knew I wouldn’t be found. At times, the house felt like a living, breathing thing peering over my shoulder. Like it was studying my every move in anticipation.

Out here, it was silent.

A sanctuary.

And right now, I wanted to stay hidden forever. 

Mama hadn’t stayed quiet today.

I hadn’t even gotten through the first chapter before she reached out and grabbed my arm, knocking the book to the hardwood floor. Her grip had been surprisingly firm as she’d yanked me off the chair and into the bed beside her. The sheets were damp with sweat and stunk of sick. Mama’s room always smelled different than the others in the house.

She tucked my back to her chest and wrapped her heated body around mine. While I lay stiffly in her arms, I tried to recall whether she’d ever held me before. 

Perhaps when I was a baby, but if so, those memories had faded long ago. As far as I could remember, she’d always been like this.


“Ari, my little dove,” she’d whispered, her breath warm against my ear. “I’ve been so naïve…about all of it.”

I’d tilted my head up and watched as she licked her chapped lips, surprised to find that her eyes were bright and focused for the first time in ages. “M-m-mama?”

“Shhhh… I’ve got you now. You’re safe.” The soft cadence of her voice had a mesmerizing effect, lulling my body into a relaxed state.

I’d settled against her with a sigh, feeling her mouth curve up into what might have been a smile against my cheek. That was what had made her next words all the more shocking.

I hadn’t been prepared for them.

“He’s going to kill me,” she’d stated simply. “I’m getting in the way of his dreams. I think… I think that maybe I’ve always been in the way because I know the truth. There’s nothing beyond the wall that doesn’t exist here.”

I’d sucked in a breath but hadn’t said a word. My heart had thumped steadily while my curiosity wrestled with Papa’s teachings.

“And I love him… maybe that’s my biggest sin,” Mama had said, her voice remaining steady and calm. “I’ll always love him, Ari. He was so charismatic—I thought we were gonna change the world together.”

“Y-y-you—you s-still c-can—”

I hadn’t meant to say the words aloud.

“Do you remember when that man came to the gate seeking help? I think you were five—maybe six? He came right in the middle of a tropical storm. The streets were starting to flood, and then, there he was, under one of the lights. You could smell the booze on him from a mile away as he hollered to see Pastor James…” Mama’s words had tapered off, and I’d rolled over, expecting to find her asleep again.

Instead, she was mashing her trembling lips together as if to keep from crying. “The man needed help—at the very least, he needed a place to dry out and sober up. Your daddy turned him away and went back inside. 

“I waited until everyone disappeared before slipping out to find him. I handed him an old coat and a sack of—goodness, I don’t even remember what was in it. I just grabbed whatever I could from the fridge and pantry. Do you know what he said to me?”

“W-w-what?” I’d whispered, far too invested to not hear every last detail. Thoughts of life outside our community made the hair on my arms and neck stand tall, yet sparked my curiosity in ways that no other topic could.

Mama’s lips had stretched into a thin smile as she’d brushed the hair back off my forehead. “Told me about how all he wanted to do was get back home to his boy and be a good man. Said he must have prayed the right way to be sent an angel. Do you see what’s wrong with that?”

I’d shaken my head, completely puzzled. 

“I’m no angel, Ari. But that man mistook my kindness for something otherworldly. And that was when I knew that your daddy didn’t want to help people… not really. He wants to lock himself away behind the walls, turning a blind eye to their suffering. No matter what he tells you, we’re no better than they are, little dove. We’re all the same.”

I’d scooted toward the edge of the bed when Mama closed her eyes, only to be tugged right back. She’d crushed my small body to her chest, making it hard to draw a breath. As I didn’t know the next time she’d be lucid, I let her hold me just as tightly as she wanted.

“Need you to promise me something, Ari,” Mama had whispered urgently before cupping my cheek with her palm. “Promise me that when you’re old enough, you’ll get out. You and your sisters will run and never come back here.”

Whatever hold she had on reality loosened, and she began mumbling nonsense about the house listening in on our conversation before slipping back into a state of silence. Her mouth had gone slack, and the tears she’d cried clung to her lashes as she stared unseeingly toward the wall.

It was as if she were dead. I knew better, but my mind dredged up a ghost story my sister, Ashlynn, had once told me. Behaving like the entirely rational child I was, I’d scooped up my book and bolted from the room faster than a prairie fire with a tailwind.

Perhaps it wasn’t how Mama had wanted, but I’d run… right to my hiding spot in the hedges where I was determined to stay until her desperate warning made a lick of sense.

My skin was hot and sticky, and my bladder had suddenly become uncomfortably full. Still, I wasn’t stepping one foot inside that house until Papa and my sisters got back.

As the youngest of six girls, I had a tendency to get stuck with the most tedious of tasks. Sister Sarai oversaw the community library but had fallen ill over the past year. When I wasn’t reading to Mama, I helped out, sorting through the book donations for appropriate additions.

Papa preferred that we only keep books that reinforced our faith in some way. Otherwise, it was as if we were giving our brains junk food.

Trash in, trash out.

Instead of burning the rejects, as was customary, I hid them in the folds of my dress and smuggled them back to my room. I’d always been a voracious reader, and these books were no exception. I kept them hidden in the wooden slats of the box spring beneath my mattress, devouring the words by the soft glow of my nightlight while the rest of the house slept.

I fell in love with Mr. Darcy alongside Elizabeth, wept with Jane over Mr. Rochester’s deceitfulness, and learned about courage and compassion through the eyes of Scout Finch. The one constant in every book was that the world was a flawed, but ultimately beautiful place in which to live.

There’s nothing beyond the wall that doesn’t exist here.

I freed a particularly worn copy from the bodice of my dress and lay back against the earth with a shake of my head. Grandmother had warned us that we weren’t to trust anything Mama said while she was sick, yet here I was, doing just that.

Mama also thinks the house is alive… just like you.

“J-j-just a c-c-coincidence,” I said under my breath. “A s-silly little c-c-coincidence.”


At the sound of Brother Bradley’s voice, my shoulders rolled forward, and I dropped my book before tucking myself into a tight ball. Beads of sweat ran down my arms, stinging the cuts left behind from the thick bushes, but I didn’t dare move.

For the most part, the church followers left me alone. Not Brother Bradley. It was as though the man had a radar that alerted him to my presence. He always needed me to hug him or sit on his lap, things I’d grown too big for years ago.

I would have preferred to sit with Mama while she stared blankly over being alone in the house with Brother Bradley. He made my skin feel prickly, but he and Papa had been friends since they were children, so I was forced to be polite.

“Come on, sweetheart. Your mama is wondering where you ran off to.”

I hurriedly tucked the book back into my dress. Keeping my body close to the wall, I crawled away from the sound of his voice. Had I stayed put, I would never have known the hole existed.

It had clearly been used by animals as they made their way in and out of the neighborhood, yet had somehow remained undiscovered by the security guards.

Grandmother liked to tease me because I was small, but it just meant the hole was the perfect size for me. As I squeezed through, the sleeve of my dress got caught, tearing a small hole in the fabric I’d be forced to explain later.

I stared down at it, my stomach already churning in anticipation. I belched softly, fighting to keep my lunch from coming up onto the sidewalk. “I-I-it was just a l-l-little accident.”

My hands began to tremble as Brother Bradley called for me again. I tucked them across my chest and took in my surroundings.

There were several cars parked along the sides of the street, but otherwise, it was deserted. Brother Caleb sat in the guard booth, reading a magazine. His head was down and his feet propped up against the glass, completely unaware I was nearby.

“I-I-it’s not as if you’re r-run—running away,” I muttered. “Y-you’re j-just looking, so c-c-c—calm down.”

I managed to get the shaking under control after several deep breaths, enough for me to venture away from the wall. Doing my best not to trample across the flower beds, I slipped around the corner.

There was laughter coming from behind a nearby copse of trees. After checking for people, I jogged across a grassy field and crouched beside a chaste tree.

This was a test, plain and simple.

Papa believed it wasn’t safe for us to be out in the world. It was the entire reason he’d developed our little gated community.

The walls are in place to keep us safe.

Either he was lying, or Mama and the books were, and I was not going back in until I knew the truth.

I made it to the tree line, confident in my decision, only to freeze in my tracks at the sharp snap of a twig.

Coming out here had been a mistake.

A heat-induced madness.

Papa had warned us the world was full of evil people— people who wouldn’t think twice about hurting us to get to him. 

And I’d stupidly left behind the safety of the wall to run right into their waiting arms.

I jerked my head wildly to the left and right, hoping to spot the danger before it managed to find me. I could explain away a torn dress, but not a kidnapping. My eyes came to rest on the broken twig beneath my shoe, and I exhaled a shaky breath.

“S-s-see—see? It was you the whole t-t-time. Now, don’t you f-feel s-s-silly?”

“N-no… n-not really,” I responded with a snort before clapping a hand over my mouth.

Well, if my loud stomping hadn’t frightened the evildoers away, the fact I was carrying on a conversation with myself should do the trick.

Another giggle broke free, and I mashed the heel of my hand against my lips, thoroughly amused at the thought of anyone being scared of me.

This time, before taking my next step, I carefully checked for stray twigs and branches. And perhaps I kept a firm grip on the silver cross around my neck until it left indentions on the palm of my hand.

Just in case…

Sweat trailed down my spine, leaving me irritated I couldn’t wear loose-fitting clothing like the boys did during the summer months. Each damp trickle set my teeth on edge. Still, I’d come too far to turn back, so I pushed through the low-hanging branches until a large body of water came into view.

Karankawas Lake.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t known it was there. The library in the main house overlooked the water, and I’d spent many an afternoon idly watching the colorful blur of boats as they zipped past. Seeing the rippling waves left in their wake wasn’t the same as hearing the whir from the motors or breathing in the faint smell of fuel.

Sunlight reflected off the surface of the lake at just the right angle, making it appear as if the water was glowing. Along the shore, young children ran back and forth, shrieking as they splashed lake water at one another. I smiled and resisted the urge to join them before settling back against a large tree trunk with my book. It was the perfect spot.

I could see everything, but no one could see me.

The sun moved across the sky as the hours passed, but I was lost in a world of cotton plantations and southern belles, completely oblivious. Perhaps if I’d been paying more attention, I would have remained ignorant to the ugliness lurking just out of sight.

I initially mistook the sounds of raised voices as my own imagination. Most of the boats were now nothing more than tiny dots of color on the horizon, and the beach—almost deserted. 


Even from where I sat, it was clear the three boys hadn’t come to enjoy the water.

“She was my girlfriend, you son-of-a-bitch!”

I sucked in a breath and flattened my spine against the bark of the tree. The boy who’d spoken turned and glared in my direction. I brought my hand over my mouth, pleading with my body to be silent. An eternity later, he returned his attention to his companions.

A boy with dark hair, who I assumed was the target, stepped forward until his toes were almost even with the angry boy’s. He let out a rough bark of laughter as if seeing someone upset amused him. “You want me to believe that Blair was your girlfriend? How much crack did you smoke before you called me down here?”

My nostrils flared from the exertion of keeping my breathing steady, but no one spared a second glance in my direction. 

Then, without so much as a warning, the angry boy clenched his hands into fists and punched the smug one square in the jaw. The two began to pummel each other while the third boy stood off to the side, clearly not willing to get involved. He was obviously the intelligent one of the group.

Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children…

I’d heard Papa say the words more times than I cared to admit, but it was apparent that no one had ever told the dark-haired boy. Rather than making a scene, he needed to take his correction and choose to do better in the future.

Then again, it seemed they enjoyed being hurt.

After landing a particularly rough hit, the dark-haired boy stepped back and ran a hand through his dark hair. He flashed a triumphant grin, seemingly ignoring the river of blood running from his own nose.

The mistake was in not checking behind him. His heel got caught up in a pile of rope someone had left behind, propelling him backward. As he fell, his head caught the edge of an abandoned metal cooler, and he landed against the dock with a sickening thud.

My lips parted in a silent scream when the boy didn’t get back up. He lay motionless, arms splayed out at his sides. The other two looked at each other in question, but it was clear the fight was over.

“H-help him,” I urged with a whisper, sighing in relief when the angry boy bent to lift his body. Instead of going for help, he dragged him farther onto the dock before unceremoniously dropping him into the water when he reached the end.

My book fell from my lap, forgotten, as I mashed my fist against my lips to keep from screaming.

The smart boy seemed to share my horror. “What the hell, Chris? I said I’d help you fight him, not kill him. Shit, I can’t be a part of this!”  

Get him out of the water.

It was now close to dusk, and the sunset cast an eerie orange glow over everything, but there was no longer beauty in this place. The two boys took off across the beach in a dead sprint while I watched the end of the dock, hoping the boy would resurface.

“H-h-he’s not y-your problem,” I reminded myself, the words bitter on my tongue. The theology I’d cut my teeth on had collided with a new reality. If I held fast to my beliefs, I was condemning someone to death. But if I acted on his behalf, then I was betraying my family and my church.

Fear paralyzed my limbs, keeping me pinned up against the tree. I stayed there until the two disappeared from view before making my decision. 

“Y-you are S-Scar—Scarlett O’Hara,” I hissed. “B-br-bravely f-facing down the Y-Yankees on your way home to T-T-Tara.”

And then, with no regard to the teachings or even my own safety, I ran toward the danger. The water cooled my sweat-drenched skin, yet pushed my small body back to shore. I fought my way past the waves before diving under with a growl. The water was murky, and every blue-green shadow looked like a body until I was right on top of it. 

Just as I began to lose hope, I saw him, caught under the dock. I looped an arm around his chest and tried tugging him toward the shallows. Instead, his dead weight pushed us toward the bottom, and it took all of my strength to propel us in the right direction. My lungs burned something fierce, urging me to let him go and swim for the surface.

Black spots began to move among the blue-green shadows, but I kept swimming, willing my body to relax. I’d been around water my entire life. There was a pool in the community, as well as a small fishing hole. My sister and I had snuck out more than once to visit them when the heat was unbearable, and sleep refused to come quickly.

Sneaking out of the house after curfew hadn’t been easy, but time and time again, Ashlynn and I had gotten past the guards without being seen. She was the one who’d taught me to swim and, later, how to hold my breath for increasingly extended periods.

It was training that had paid off not two weeks ago.

A guard had discovered my nightdress near the fishing hole and begun searching the grounds. Ashlynn had pulled me under as his flashlight skimmed over the water. The minutes had ticked by, and my vision began to blur, but the guard eventually moved on. When the water went dark, we’d kicked our way to the surface, desperately sucking air into our lungs. I’d been forced to sneak back into the house naked as my nightdress had been confiscated, but we’d never been caught.

You can do this.

I relaxed and let the waves I’d fought against moments before carry us lazily toward the shore. Then, using my legs and the last of my energy, I pushed us forward until the sandbar rose up beneath my feet. It was enough for me to propel the upper half of my body above the water with a strangled gasp. After several attempts, I managed to lift the boy’s head too.

Exhaustion set in, but I kept pushing forward, dragging the boy onto the beach before collapsing across his chest with a groan. Waves lapped against the shore, punctuated only by the sounds of my ragged breathing. 

I’d done everything I could. The rest was up to him.

Just as I began to fear I’d been too late, the boy jerked violently beneath me, coughing up mouthfuls of lake water. I gripped his shirt with both hands and weakly pulled him onto his side just as I’d seen Sister Sarai do once for Mama when she got sick in the bed.

“I’ve got you now,” I panted. “You’re safe.”

His eyes remained closed, and I hesitated before pressing my fingers to his jaw. A jolt of something electric arced through my body like an errant lightning bolt had been cast down from the heavens.

I’d often felt a heat quietly simmering away within me, but with one touch, it had built to something like a wildfire. The blood left my limbs, redirecting all of its focus to the muscular organ galloping against my breastbone.

Feeling emboldened, I shifted closer, brushing the water droplets from his long dark lashes. He was, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Up close, I realized he wasn’t a boy, but something closer to a man. His jawline was dotted with stubble, and my fingers moved down, reverently tracing the outline of it.

“It’s time to wake up now,” I whispered softly.

As much as I wanted to stay with him, I had to go back. They were bound to be looking for me by now. But first, I needed to ensure he was going to be okay.

His eyelids fluttered at the sound of my voice before he managed to open them, peering up at me in confusion. Against the darkening sky, his blue eyes appeared almost gray. I continued stroking his cheek, enjoying the roughness against my palm.

Like sandpaper against satin.

“Are you good?” I blurted, immediately regretting the question. He was obviously a good person, or God wouldn’t have placed me in his path. He would have been left to die under the dock.

Down the beach, a couple of teenage girls were laughing loudly as they jogged across the sand while their dog splashed through the water beside them.

He blinked several times before focusing on my eyes once again. I brushed the damp hair from his forehead, committing his every detail to mind before forcing out a stammered cry for help. Something brushed against the back of my hand, and I looked down, surprised to see his fingers moving delicately over my skin. His brows pulled together, and he frowned as if he hadn’t expected me to be real.

Remembering Mama’s story, I felt the need to confess, “I’m no angel.”

He swallowed and opened his mouth just as the girls made it over. I allowed myself one final look before pulling my hand free and darting back into the trees to grab my book.

My shoes were like damp kitchen sponges beneath my feet, squishing loudly every time they came in contact with the earth. By the time I made it back into the clearing, the sun had dipped below the horizon. Not only had I missed dinner, but storytime as well.

It wasn’t until I was squeezing through the hole again that I realized I hadn’t gotten my answer as to whether Mama or Papa was right.

And it would be the next day before it dawned on me I hadn’t stuttered once when talking to the boy.