“Disobeyed…” she whispered. Bella tried to crawl closer to me, my hand now fully encompassing hers as I aided her tired movements.
“Disobeyed what… who?” I questioned as she resettled near the gate, smiling weakly as she inhaled the fresh air of the late afternoon, the sun warming her cheeks.
“Gabriel… disobeyed in my duty… to be with him… resisted… he said I was selfish…” Her brows furrowed in confusion. “I cannot… remember the rest… It is all blurry…”
Sucking in a sharp breath, I whispered, “No, sister!”
A quiet sob slipped from her throat, but the tears could not escape her swollen eyes. “I cannot remember… anything… I think… I was drugged… I…”
“Bella, I am so sorry…”
“Shh… it’s not your fault…” Wincing, biting back pain, Bella managed to shuffle slightly closer, then settled back, only to say, “Gabriel has taken every part of me since I was a child: my innocence, my body, but never my heart. He is not worthy of my love, Mae. The disciples never gave me the chance to find the one man in the world who deserved it. Gabriel is a bitter and twisted monster.”
Pressing my stomach flat to the mud, not caring if I soiled my wedding gown, I leveled my gaze to look straight at my sister’s swollen blue eyes, eyes just like mine. “Bella, you are pure of heart. You are a good person, no matter what he did to you.”
“You are right, my sister, and I will meet our God with a clear conscience,” she rasped in a barely audible, gravelly voice.
My muscles tightened and my breath came in short, sharp bursts. Meet our God?
Lowering her hands, then gripping the iron bars, I frantically pulled at the gate. Lilah joined me. Even working together, it did not move an inch.
“Bella, I shall get you out—” I assured her as we shook the gate harder, but to no avail.
“Stop… stop… I am dying, Mae…”
“No!” I cried in despair as I slumped down to the ground once more, Lilah this time following suit.
Stretching out her boney hand, I grasped my sister’s fingers once more and kissed the broken skin on her palm.
“I want to go, Mae. I want to be with our Lord. I cannot keep living like this,” she confessed.
“No, Bella, please… I need you.”
“I think she has been in this cell, kept like this, for a long time. Maddie and I heard a guard say it has been weeks. Too long, Mae. Bella is badly injured… badly… hurt,” Lilah whispered.
“Where is Maddie?” I suddenly asked, fear seizing my body at the thought of my younger sister being taken too.
Lilah ran her shaky hands down her face. “Brother Moses took her for his Lord’s sharing.”
I winced. She would come back even more of an introvert. Every time Moses took her away for his release, he did things to her. Maddie was a shell: never speaking, barely living. She was a walking ghost.
“Please…” I cried out in frustration to no one, but Bella’s weak squeeze of my hand in hers showed me how far gone she truly was… that she was fading away.
“Please… please stay with me, just while I—”
She coughed up blood; streaks of red dripped down her chin. Squeezing my eyes shut, I stroked her head in comfort.
With a sigh, she forced out, “I must go now, Mae. I must rest. I am so tired…” Her eyes cracked open a fraction and with renewed determination, Bella urged, “When the last breath leaves my body, you run, my sister, you run… and keep running…”
Tears flowed freely down my cheeks, and I whispered, “I love you, Bella. I am so sorry…”
That small, sweet smile of hers returned to her bruised lips but for a moment, and she hushed out, “And I you, my beloved sister. More than you know… tell Maddie… good-bye…”
I do not know how much time passed as I watched her chest slowly rise and fall, but I knew the moment my sister left me. Her hand fell limp in my hand and an eerie stillness seeped into her tiny, broken frame.
A tear slipped down my cheek, and I felt Delilah wrap her arms around me from behind, rubbing at my back, trying to be a comfort.
My throat became so clogged that I scraped at the skin of my neck with frantic fingers just searching for relief. “Delilah, I cannot lose her. She is my family, my best friend, besides you and Maddie. She is my everything.”
“I know, sister, I know. But it is God’s plan.”
“Salome, where are you going?”
I had not even realized I had stood up and started running, that is until Delilah’s hand grabbed my shoulder and stopped me in my tracks—her fingers firmly gripping the material of my bridal gown.
“Wait!” she commanded.
In reply, I gripped her hand and pulled hard, demanding, “Come with me. We will find Maddie, then go.”
Her blue eyes widened. “Outside where?”
“Outside the fence. I cannot stay.”
“But you are meant to marry Prophet David within the hour! Salome, do not disobey or you too shall be punished. I can take no more. Maddie can take no more!”
“Gabriel and Prophet David have killed my sister! How can I marry the prophet now? How can I stay here a moment longer when he sanctions such punishments?”
“But… but… the revelation. You are twenty-three today. You must marry for all our sakes. We will all be damned if not!”