Rachel loved the lighting most of all; a few lanterns cast a dim orange and yellow glow on oak tables, leather stools, the rims of pint glasses, and the man she loved. In one corner of the bar, barely audible beneath the roaring laughter of other friends from her bakery, a guitar player plucked out forgotten melodies while slapping the base of his guitar with the palm of his tree-bark wrinkled hand.
With a flick of her wrist, sore with mixing and kneading all day, Rachel signaled the bartender for another drink. Her body said "wine," but her eyes cried "stout!" Michael, of all people, knew to read her eyes. That message underneath the door…
No, we are not thinking about that. Not now. Rachel glanced at Ethan. He must have seen her when she set the message down, since he was the one who opened the shop. Pretty Ethan. His dark brown hair and eyebrows seemed to dance around his gleaming brown eyes in this light. Yes, that's one more reason to like the lighting, Rachel thought, always one breath away from speaking it. Ethan was busily laughing and flirting with the new delivery girl. Idly, Rachel wondered whether Sarena--Sabrina?-- was even old enough
to be at a bar.
It was always like this. Rachel owned the shop, Ethan worked for her, and Ethan tried to sleep with every young woman coming through the door except for Rachel. He was amazingly charming, for certain, but so much of his calm, hazel-eyed, inquisitive demeanor was a cloak he threw around himself. He hates talking about himself. He's like me. Almost.
His behavior was different for her, possibly because she was older and less likely to get swept off her feet. Sometimes though, with the guitar strumming soft and subtle an hour before the bar closed, she would like for him to let her fall into his stare.
For now, it was enough to drink to a solid day off. The stout, bitter with an aroma of coffee beans, chilled Rachel's tired and rough hands. The sound of people casually chatting about their customers or their week or their products washed out other thoughts from Rachel's head. The guitar player was now strumming an upbeat melody while singing in a voice that sounded like water running through a rusty metal gutter.
And Rachel's mother stood in the doorway of the bar, with her hands stitched together behind her back, rigid backed and tall, staring straight at Rachel with the visage of a tombstone.
Rachel nearly spat her beer on the counter.
The note said, "We need to talk." A woman who cast their children into their fates--as if the children were certainly doomed and not one iota of assistance or care could possibly be given--wanted to "talk."
And now this woman could not be troubled to wait for her daughter to come to her. Her countenance in the bar was like a prohibition of liquor personified. Dim light amplified the serenity and comfort of the hardwood floors or the frosted windows, but Augusta annihilated that radiance with sunken cheekbones and a perpetually livid brow. Rachel could not remember ever having seen her mother smile.
But even on the last day living in her mother's house--the day that Rachel had announced her plans to open a bakery and moved out with her head held high--even then she had not seen her mother so rigid and uninviting. This look-this is something else entirely.
Someone must have died.
Outside, in the dusk of Coburntown, Augusta's gaze cut right through the folds of Rachel's cloak.
"Your sister is in trouble."
Tabitha? "What about it? I haven't seen Tabitha in six years," Rachel replied. Ever since you ran her out of the house with a broom because you caught her with that man. What was his name?
"Read this," Augusta curtly answered, snapping a letter from her pocket to give to Rachel.
Rachel unfolded it, noticing a slight shake in her mother's hand in giving it. She's old, Rachel thought. The letter, rough to the touch as if the parchment had been dragged through a puddle, told of a living child that was born dead, dangerous neighbors, diseases and pests, and begged for any possible assistance that could be given. At the end of the letter, Tabitha wrote "Did I die, at some point?"
"I'm confused. I thought Tabitha had a husband in Namirus," Rachel considered. "I never even knew that she was pregnant. She writes like we should know these things."
"And you never told me about it? You let your daughter, a young, foolish girl, raise a child in a damn jungle just because you carried a grudge towards her about her life choices?"
"Yes," Augusta replied.
"I cannot believe you. I could have helped! My sister might be dead now or missing, and her child could be in serious trouble, just because you couldn't over look your own pride for her-"
"Stop," Augusta snapped. "My pride is dead."
"Really? Because you are standing here glowering just as you always have. Not once have you ever been a mother! And now what? You came here to do what, exactly? Rub my helplessness in my face?"
"I have no one else if…" Augusta stuttered. "I have no one if…"
Red eyes and taut skin reminded Rachel how old her mother was. She was married and pregnant before the world had ended, and raised her daughters, without her father or any of her own family, to be something in a world made of hardship. The woman, who had seemed a strict and terrifying figure in her youth, had nonetheless enabled Rachel to pursue her own dreams.
Augusta began to cry. At first, she maintained the same grimacing expression Rachel had always known, while tears discreetly vanished quickly down her wrinkled face. Then, unable to hold it back any longer, that fearsome visage cracked and quivered, letting sobs come out in jolts. It was like watching a proud flower wilt for the first time. Augusta tried to throw her hands in front of her eyes as if to stop the flow of tears. Rachel moved closer and slowly wrapped her arms around her mother for the first time in many years.
Slightly gasping at the touch, Rachel felt Augusta's thinness. Her mother was gaunt. Rachel wondered how long she had been without eating, slowly piecing together her mother's need to talk to her.
"Rachel!" her mother wept into Rachel's shoulder, muffled by the fabric of the cloak. It was the first time
Rachel had ever heard that sound. "I need you! I need my daughters!"
As bony and cold as her mother was, Rachel wished that she could hold on to her forever.
The next day, which would otherwise have been Rachel's only day off, Rachel packed up her bags, cautiously choosing clothing that seemed suitable for protection. Everything in one pack, everything needed to eat, and a few things that could be used to fight, if necessary--mostly Rachel's own set of knives.
There was no way to know for certain whether Rachel could survive the jungle around Namirus--or Namirus itself for that matter--but she was determined to find her sister and her sister's daughter.
For her mother, for the child, and for a sister losing herself to death in a strange place, Rachel could grit her teeth and convince herself that being a baker could make one strong enough to rescue a loved one.
At the time, Rachel believed that this boldness was all that she had to offer her family.
It would not be enough.