Beauty Chapter Three

Some stories have a will of their own and continue to write themselves in your head even when you’re trying to move onto something else. Well, at least that happens to me sometimes=)

That’s what happened with this story. Although I meant to let it sit for a bit, it continued to run through my head, so hopefully readers don’t mind a new installment with Lila Dean.

For those who may not have read the first two chapters, here’s a brief summary:

Cliff Notes Ch. 1: Lila Dean’s a young girl who lost her mother in a fire and was horribly scarred, both physically and mentally, as a result. Now people just don’t look at her, so when a stranger approaches and asks her to steal the Roy’s ruby to help him save his daughter, she takes the chance to do something good.

But Billy Roy catches her in the theft. To her surprise, he doesn’t stop her, instead he trusts she’s doing it for a good reason. So when Lila Dean goes to give the ruby to the stranger, Michael, she questions his story and it falls apart. She realizes she’s been taken for a fool and runs away. Now she’s determined to return the ruby and make things right.

Cliff Notes Ch. 2: When Lila Dean tries to return the ruby, she arrives to find the town burning and the people taken captive. With the help of her father’s friend, Sheldon Lea, she helps her father and the Roy’s escape but must give up the ruby to the soldiers in the process. (If you’d like to read these in full, they can be found here: Chapter One and Chapter Two.)

Now on to Chapter Three. I hope you enjoy=)

Chapter Three

The soldiers started the fire but couldn’t contain it. They didn’t care as long as the flames moved eastward with the wind.

Lila Dean’s eyes burned with unshed tears. She wanted to yell, scream a warning to the villages in the fire’s path but she could do nothing but watch the orange glow from the ridgeline above town.

Over the angry orange and red hung a black so thick it blotted out any definition of the horizon, which should be glowing with the sunrise but wasn’t. Lila Dean shuddered and looked away from the mass of smoke.

Below her in the town, the soldiers were moving the town’s folk toward the mine in a single file line.

Sheldon Lea had been right, the soldiers were going to use the miners to keep the mine running and would take anything of worth that came from it. What they needed the wealth for she couldn’t guess. Didn’t want to guess.

Michael’s mention of war turned her insides like she needed to hurl.

“What’s happening?”

Lila Dean jerked. She hadn’t heard Billy Roy’s approach.

He settled on his stomach beside her and lifted Sheldon Lea’s looking glass to his eye.

Lila Dean looked away. She hadn’t been bold enough to ask to borrow the glass. Especially since the old spinster refused to look at her again.

But Billy Roy was the golden child. He probably didn’t even hesitate.

She stole a glance at him while he still looked below. His brown hair moved with the wind but everything else about him was still.

As he lowered the glass, she turned away, he’d settled on her right, her scarred side.

“They don’t have tools,” he muttered.

Lila Dean lifted her head. Without the glass, she hadn’t picked up on that small detail. She held out her hand and Billy Roy passed it over.

He was right. The tools lay lined up next to the mine’s entrance but the miners were not picking them up as they entered.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

“Why take everyone below without tools?” she asked.

Billy Roy shook his head.

Lila Dean panned out to view not just the mine but the camp and it’s cages below. There seemed to be fewer soldiers than the night before.

Those that were present carried boxes up toward the mine. Focusing in on the open boxes, Lila Dean’s stomach clenched so hard he fought bile in her throat.

“Explosives,” she backed away form the ridge, tearing into her arms.

“Dean?” Billy Roy followed, confusion pulling his dark brows together.

“Explosives, Roy!” she called over her shoulder, “they aren’t going to work the mine, they’re going to bury it.”

Billy Roy caught up to her and grasped her hand to pull her along faster. Lila Dean stretched her legs as far as she could to keep up but the burn in her scars made her stumble. She pulled her hand away.

“Go, I’ll catch up at camp.”

He nodded and soon disappeared between the trees. Lila Dean braced against her knees, gasping air.

What could they do?

Her heart beat against her ribs, both in fright and from exertion. She was coming to think more exercise would do her well even if the other kids never let her play.

If they ever played again.

Lila Dean fought to control her breath. When it was bearable, she took off at a run again and found herself heaving within seconds. When she finally reached the camp, she was puffing like a black smith’s billows.

“They won’t bury the mine.”

She sucked in air and held it. Had Sheldon Lea just contradicted them?

“They need the wealth from it. It’s basic strategy,” Sheldon Lea continued, not even acknowledging Lila Dean’s arrival. She let out her breath. It was supposed to be quiet but the air whistled through her throat. It prevented her from voicing her objection before Billy Roy spoke up.

“They’ve got explosives and they aren’t taking tools in!”

“I’ll take a look.” Her father held out his hand for the glass Billy Roy borrowed.

Lila Dean pulled it from her pocket.

“Here,” she said.

Her father took the glass as he passed her. No eye contact, no touch.

Lila Dean grabbed his arm. “It’ll take too long,” she said.

He still refused to turn his head. A muscle twitched in the corner of his jaw.

Lila Dean let go feeling as if her fingers burned. Tears threatened as Sheldon Lea followed her father into the trees.

She couldn’t let them see. Turning away from the Roys, Lila Dean blinked furiously. Now was not the time. Swiping the back of her hands across her eyes, she felt childish for still caring.

“She’s right,” Billy Roy said behind her, “we don’t have much time.”

Lila Dean gathered her skinning knife while she listened to them.

“They won’t bury the mine,” Marcus Roy repeated Sheldon Lea like a puppet.

“They will,” Billy Roy insisted. “They don’t need the money now.”

“Why not?”

“Doesn’t matter. They don’t need the mine.”

Billy Roy stood close to his father in height and with them toe to toe at the moment, Lila Dean couldn’t help but feel they were mirror images.

Lila Dean started from the clearing. There was no time for this debate either.

“Miss Dean.”

Her heart stuttered. Why did her father’s friends find it okay to acknowledge her when he wasn’t around? She considered walking away but the part of her mother she remembered wouldn’t allow it.

“Mr. Roy,” she responded and looked back at him over her shoulder, giving him full view of her scars if he chose to make eye contact.

He did. He had eyes like Billy’s but fringed with more lines and a shade lighter.

“Your father would never forgive me for letting you get captured. “

He was serious.

“My father doesn’t even know the color of my eyes.” She responded before walking away. The feeling of their eyes on her back made her skin itch.

“Billy!”

He caught up to her with his own knife hanging from his belt. It was all they had in way of weapons.

“We better hurry,” Billy Roy grasped her hand to pull her along but this time he didn’t push her to falling.

Behind them his father’s shouting still echoed in the trees.

“Why didn’t he stop you?” she asked. She’d never known Marcus Roy to be docile.

“Can’t catch me,” Billy Roy shrugged. “Old mine injury left him with a bad knee.”

Lila Dean didn’t ask more. She was puffing again and couldn’t get words past her dry throat.

“All right,” Billy Roy dropped her hand and turned to face her, “what’s your plan?”

“Back entrance—“

He twitched.

“I know it’s unstable but the soldiers won’t know—“

“The escape tunnel’s safer.”

Lila Dean was already shaking her head.

“Michael knows about it.”

“Michael?”

She glanced at Billy Roy’s throat where the knife had cut his skin. The wound was covered by his collar now but Billy Roy caught the hint. He touched his neck.

“Back entrance then.”

Unlike the escape tunnel, Lila Dean had never been to the back entrance. It was the mine’s original opening but when it became obvious the tunnel couldn’t be made stable, it’d been abandoned for another way.

Billy Roy didn’t hesitate in heading straight to it, though. Lila Dean thought about asking him about it but let it go.

“It’s a ways down before this meets up with the main shaft,” Billy Roy said.

Just inside the entrance they found several lanterns. It was the miners way to leave things behind but even still, the existence of the lanterns make Lila Dean glance around every so often just in case someone was following.

“An explosion might collapse this entire tunnel,” Billy Roy said ahead of her.

“We’ll have to move fast,” Lila Dean shrugged. She couldn’t think of another way and apparently neither could he because he didn’t voice any other options.

“Shutter your lantern.”

Lila Dean complied and they were plunged into darkness. With the lack of sight came the hyper aware hearing she always associated with miners.

The walls echoed with the scrape of hard boot soles on stone. Words like whispers mixed in, too faint to understand.

Lila Dean jerked as Billy Roy found her arm. Thankfully it didn’t make any noise.

“Soldiers,” he whispered. The word fanned his breath across her ear.

“You’re sure?”

“Different boots.”

Lila Dean accepted that. Billy Roy had been down here with his father a few times. He’d know better than she.

They waited. Lila Dean’s body hummed like a bowstring pulled tight. Billy Roy kept his hand on her arm and she clung to the contact to stay still. Her skin barely registered the touch. It was just pressure on her scars, but it was contact and he wasn’t shying away from what must feel very warped to his fingers.

She could hug him for not noticing, not pulling away.

“There they go,” Billy Roy released her arm.

Lila Dean strained to hear what he did and then she caught it, the movement ahead was fading.

“This way,” Roy’s voice drifted to her, pulling her back to their need to hurry.

She un-shuttered her lantern and rushed to catch up and had to side step to keep from running into him when he stopped suddenly.

“Fuse line,” he said, holding his lantern higher to show the lines bundled together at his feet.

“They are buying the mine.” Up till that point Lila Dean hoped Sheldon Lea was right.

“The ruby bought their deaths,” Roy sounded sick.

“Maybe not,” Lila Dean crouched and cut the lines, throwing the first half back up the tunnel to keep sparks from catching the second half.

She headed forward only to look back to find Roy not moving.

“Roy!”

He started. “Right.”

They kept going for another few minutes before other sounds started to reach them. Crying. Lila Dean picked up on the sobs.

“That’s Mary Mae,” she said.

“What?”

“She hiccups when she cries.”

Roy raised brow. Lila Dean shrugged. What else was she supposed to do when she couldn’t play with the others?

In the light of their lanterns, eyes reflected back, then groups of huddled people tied together.

Billy Roy rushed forward to release the first two miners. Lila Dean moved to the next ones.

Surprise lit their eyes, and then they looked away while she cut their cords. She paused. Still they wouldn’t look at her?

Biting her tongue, she cut their feet free. Her hands shook as she moved on to the next person but whether it was nervousness or fury, she couldn’t tell beyond the flush coloring her face.

Ungrateful. Stu-

“Men!” One miner called out. He was free of his ropes and stood at the edge of the lantern light. Lila Dean recognized him as a shift

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

supervisor but she couldn’t recall his name.

“Escape tunnel. Let’s go.”

Lila Dean froze.

“Wait. It’s not safe. Use the back entrance,” Roy called over the general noise.

The man scanned everyone but couldn’t place who’d spoken.

“Back entrance is unstable. Escape tunnel’s safer.” He called, and took off, leading ten or so people behind him.

“No!”

Lila Dean’s shout mixed with Roy’s but the word was lost as those still tied up yelled at those leaving ahead of them.

A touch to the back of her hand pulled Lila Dean’s attention back to the person in front of her. She’d stopped looking at them, just cutting ropes and moving on.

Her eyes met those of Mary Mae. The girl pulled her hand back like she’d been stung.

Lila Dean sliced her feet free and moved on.

“Thank you,” Mary Mae hiccupped.

Lila Dean’s heart skipped. Her throat tightened as she looked back at the girl. Mary Mae was beautiful. She was that girl, the one all the boys had eyes for.

At the moment her blue eyes were lined with red, her cheeks puffy from crying and her hair mussed, sticking up on one side.

She was still beautiful but the mess transformed her into someone approachable.

Lila Dean gave her a nod and pointed to where Billy Roy was explaining to the next miner about the back entrance. Mary Mae smiled, her lips quivering, and moved to join him.

Lila Dean moved down the line of people, her thoughts on those first ten that were now walking straight into the soldier’s explosion.

Her skin pricked, waiting for the concussion to the air of the first charges going off. She’d never been in the mine when explosives were being used and she didn’t want to be now.

Roy went back to cutting people free as the miner took over explaining the escape route to everyone. Lila Dean sighed relief. It was good Roy was with her because she doubted anyone would have listened if she’d tried to explain herself.

What had Roy told them about the escape tunnel? She couldn’t hear the miner’s words but whatever he was saying, no one was arguing.

They only had the two lanterns, so the miners formed groups to lead the town’s people by touch. They instructed the people to hold hands in a line with one miner in front, one in back and then the front man would lead them with his free hand on the left wall.

Lila Dean cut the last person free, marveling at the miner’s courage. The system wasn’t fast but it got everyone moving.

“We’ll take the last group,” Roy informed the miner directing everyone. He nodded and headed out.

Lila Dean joined the last group, wanting to yell at them when they glanced at her and then pointedly looked away.

“They won’t follow me,” she told Roy. She handed him his lantern and moved to the back with her own.

The woman in front of her hesitated to offer her hand. Lila Dean grabbed her right hand with her left, unscarred one.

“I’m not catching,” she muttered. Instead of hearing the woman’s answer, her ears rang and the ground jerked beneath her feet.

“Run!” Roy pulled them forward.

Lila Dean stumbled over rocks and the ground shook again but every one was stumbling, so she doggedly kept on.

They took the tunnel to the back entrance and the walls became less formed. Dirt rained on their heads.

There was a crack and the beam ahead sagged in the middle. They ducked it. Another crack and a whoosh of air and dust caught at Lila Dean’s back as the beam gave behind them. Light appeared ahead through the dust and dirt. They raced from tunnel to open daylight as another explosion shook the ground.

The woman dropped Lila Dean’s hand and turned away.

Roy led them away from the mine, catching up with several other groups along the way.

Lila Dean trailed behind. Their rejection burned at her throat. Before she’d always expected it but somehow she’d thought saving them would earn her some notice, some respect. It made it all the worse instead.

Lila Dean leaned against a tree as her tears escaped. Not even saving them made her acceptable.

I never will be.

“Help!”

Lila Dean’s head pivoted. The cry was faint but then it came again and she was sure she wasn’t mistaken.

Following the sound, she came into view of the escape tunnel—or what was left of it.

“Help!”

She crept closer, bracing herself for blood or amputation or-

Rubble filled the tunnel’s entrance and from it protruded Marcus Roy’s head and torso. His legs disappeared into the mass of rock.

“I heard people down there,” he said, “but the charges blew before I made it to them. The soldiers knew about this tunnel. How could they…” He rambled on, pushing feebly at the rocks on top of him.

Lila Dean didn’t answer. She let him ramble as she pulled rocks away from him.

The other people couldn’t have survived. But Marcus Roy had tried to help even after he’d argued with his son. Lila Dean’s mind rolled almost as much as her stomach.

“Mr. Roy, I need you to push up on this one,” she interrupted him.

His words stopped and he really looked at her.

“Why are you helping?”

Lila Dean frowned. “Push up.” She repeated instead of answering. Did he really think she’d leave him half buried? Did scars somehow make her a monster inside too?

He pushed as she levered under the rock with a stick. It finally rolled free, revealing a broken leg but miraculously nothing worse.

“I think Doc made it,” she said. “Let’s get you to camp.”

Lila Dean settled his arm over her shoulders and groaned as she took his weight to help him stand. He screamed when his broken leg dragged across the ground.

“Why are you helping me?” he repeated through gritted teeth.

It was going to be a long walk back to camp but Lila Dean didn’t know how to answer. She was saved from having to by several men who found them.

“Heard your scream,” one explained as they took over carrying Marcus Roy. He kept his eyes on Lila Dean like he was demanding an answer. When he passed out from pain a few minutes later, she felt a sense of relief she never thought possible when she’d always wanted to be seen.

Lila Dean followed them back to camp where everyone was following Sheldon Lea’s direction. They were moving farther from the town to avoid the soldiers.

She couldn’t place her father among the chaos. Roy passed with the Doc close at his heels. His eyes slid past her like she wasn’t there. She snapped her mouth closed on her question. She’d been about to ask if he’d seen her father.

He’s just worried about his own. 

Her heart didn’t believe it.

***

Moving camp took most of the day with so many people.

Lila Dean huddled against a tree in the dark, listening to people settle behind her.

“How’d they get the ruby?”

Lila Dean cringed, not for the first time. Someone saw the soldiers with the ruby and now the question was going around. The soldiers had been intending to work the mine but with the appearance of the ruby, they’d had enough to buy whatever it was they needed so they changed tactics and buried it instead.

A total of thirteen people were caught in the escape tunnel when it blew. Thirteen dead because of her. Why Billy Roy kept quiet she couldn’t say. She was the monster Marcus Roy expected.

“What now?”

Lila Dean shifted. It was Andre Mel sitting with Billy Roy and Mary Mae. They’d set up their sleeping pads, a collection of long grass collected from the area, off to her left. They hadn’t noticed she sat so close but it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. They’d pointedly ignored her all day, even Billy Roy.

Never acceptable.

“Don’t know,” Billy Roy admitted.

“Was saving us really her idea?” Mary Mae’s soft voice asked a moment later.

Lila Dean’s chest ached. Why would she care. 

“She would’ve tried even if I didn’t help her,” Billy Roy answered.

“Perhaps we’re wrong about her.”

Andre Mel snorted. “Right, because her father would lie.”

No one responded and Lila Dean huddled closer to the tree, glad they couldn’t see her.

What now indeed. What did Andre Mel mean? None of it made sense but after being seen, after interacting normally with Roy, she wasn’t sure she could go back to how it was before.

Something touched her cheek and Lila Dean brushed it away. Her fingers came away smudged black. Ash. The wind had changed. Tilting her head back, Lila Dean watched it rain ash in fine flakes. She never could get away from the fire, it seemed.

The End

 

Blessings,

Jennifer

Beauty Chapter Two

Welcome back for the last part to this week’s story. I don’t usually post stories this long, however, when I asked if reader’s wanted more to a story I posted last month, they responded yes. (Beauty) If you missed the post on Tuesday or the story from last month, here’s the cliff note’s version:

Lila Dean’s a young girl who lost her mother in a fire and was horribly scarred, both physically and mentally, as a result. Now people just don’t look at her, so when a stranger approaches and asks her to steal the Roy’s ruby to help him save his daughter, she takes the chance to do something good.

But Billy Roy catches her in the theft. To her surprise, he doesn’t stop her, instead he trusts she’s doing it for a good reason. So when Lila Dean goes to give the ruby to the stranger, Michael, she questions his story and it falls apart. She realizes she’s been taken for a fool and runs away. Now she’s determined to return the ruby and make things right.

Now for Chapter Two. Thanks for stoping by and I hope you enjoy.

Beauty Chapter Two

Lila Dean refused to look at her nightstand but the deep red of the ruby glared in the corner of her eye. Her room wasn’t big enough to get away from it.

Outside her door came the muffled steps of her father preparing for work. She waited until they disappeared and the latch on the door clicked before emerging into the empty cabin.

During the night she’d made a plan. She’d return the ruby while everyone was away at the mine. The other kids would be at the field again playing ball. If she didn’t show up until later, it wasn’t likely they’d notice.

With any luck, Marcus Roy wouldn’t notice the ruby’s absence for a single morning. Then only she and Billy Roy would ever know. The thought lifted the knot in Lila Dean’s stomach.

Then she remembered she still had to return the gem and the knot came back in full force.

Unlike the night before, it’d be light out when she crawled through the pantry window. The chances of someone seeing her would be much greater.

Lila Dean closed her fingers hard around the ruby she’d stuffed in her pocket. She had to return it.

Letting go, she slung her cloak over her shoulders and left the house.

Most people would walk the main road but Lila Dean never did. People refused to look at her and, in an odd way, it made her feel all the more conspicuous.

She took to the path behind the cabin. It added another fifteen minutes to her walk but no one but hunters tended to use it. There were no averted eyes, no one to remind her of her scars.

As she walked the ruby weighed heavy where is hit her thigh. She wanted to be rid of it and the reminder of Michael’s trick. He’d spotted her for vulnerable and naive and she’d proved him right.

A whiff of smoke caught Lila Dean’s attention. She loved wood smoke, even after the fire. Wood smoke reminded her of home, of a time when her mother held her and rocked her to sleep.

This smoke wasn’t wood smoke. This was burned linens and tar, foundation rock heated too hot and thatch turned to ash.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots

Lila Dean’s breath stopped. She didn’t want to smell it. Her scars pulled tight, almost painful, as she tensed to run away but her legs wouldn’t move.

A plume of black smoke drifted above the trees, confirming her fears.

The town was on fire and her father was there.

As terrifying as the smoke was, she couldn’t run when her father was in danger. Mother would have tried to help but mother wasn’t alive.

Her legs still wouldn’t move under her. More smoke, heavier this time with the stench of burning house, drifted her way. The wind was shifting.

The trees filled with fine black grit that drifted on the air. With the wind came screams and the clank of something unfamiliar.

It was a moment before Lila Dean placed the sound. Weapons. She’d never heard them used in earnest, only heard the precise clack as the other kids practiced with wooden swords.

This sound was more deadly and less precise. A shiver shook Lila Dean. Lots of weapons.

Finally her legs moved as she gasped in the gritty air. Her vision swam and sparked with the breath.

Already the trees were turning black from the ash. Lila Dean passed through them, refusing to look at their darkened bark, until she spotted the back of the Roy’s house. It no longer resembled a house. There was no hint of the pantry window she crawled through the night before. The stone chimney rose above the flickering remains, all that was left to attest to the house’s prior existence.

Lila Dean could see through to Main Street. Men scattered everywhere but they were all unfamiliar in armor the color of blood.

They hemmed in a group Lila Dean did recognize. Mary Mae and Andre Mel sat clutching each other’s hands. Billy Roy darted between two men only to be caught and hauled back by a third.

“-Roy!” Lila Dean started forward. There was no plan, just the need to do something.

Hands grabbed her around the middle. Before she could scream, a hand clamped down over her mouth and she was pulled back into the trees.

When she was spun around, she found herself face to face with Sheldon Lea, her father’s friend.

He gestured for her silence with a finger on his lips.

Lila Dean nodded and he released her but the moment his support disappeared, her legs collapsed.

“Get up,” Sheldon Lea grasped her arm and hauled her to her feet. She vaguely registered the tug on her scars as the old spinster pulled her back father into the forest.

He kept moving until the sight of burning buildings disappeared. Lila Dean collapsed on the trail as soon as he let her go. All her blind courage seemed to have seeped out of her at the first resistance.

Tears streamed from her eyes but she kept them silent. It was habit.

“That won’t help,” Sheldon Lea scolded.

“They have Father?”

He hesitated before giving a jerky nod. He was always honest with her.

“Why?”

“Power, possibly greed.” He scrubbed his face with his hands. Sheldon Lea had been wrinkled for as long as she’d known him but today he looked old, tired. “It’s strategy. Seize a nation’s mines and you cut off its wealth.”

Lila Dean shivered. Her hands shook as she clasped them together. “But why fire?”

“Control.” It was simple but Sheldon Lea’s tone indicated so much more. Lila Dean tried to ask but the look on his face cut her off. She’d never seen him so cold.

“We can’t stay here. Let’s go.”

Lila Dean didn’t follow when he started down the trail. He did a double take when he looked back.

“I won’t wait, girl.”

Lila Dean never argued, never disagreed with an adult but she couldn’t just leave her father behind.

“We can’t leave them,” she protested, still sitting on the ground.

“We can’t help them!”

Lila Dean cringed away as Sheldon Lea clenched his hands into fists at his sides.

She watched him clench and unclench his fingers, realizing she didn’t know this man, not really. The lift of his chin like her countering him was unexpected, the way he always widened his stance when he was surprised. None of these things were from the mines.

Lila Dean would know. She always observed since no one included her. She’d chalked Sheldon Lea’s oddities up to him being a stubborn old man but now she suspected it was more than that.

“We’ll see what they’re doing with everyone,” he finally agreed. “But only then will I decide if there’s anything we can do.”

Lila Dean nodded, pushing to her feet to follow. It wasn’t full agreement but she’d take what she could get for now.

***

The remains of the town looked like a giant smudge in the road heading east to west. A few out lying houses, such as Lila Dean’s cabin and Sheldon Lea’s shack, still stood, forgotten by the attackers simply because they were out of sight from the main town.

Lila Dean lay on her stomach next to the old spinster. He’d taken them to a small ridge west of town. They’d climbed it in silence and then Sheldon Lea had indicated they were to crawl up to the ridgeline.

Lila Dean had crawled without a comment although the motion pulled and rubbed against her scars, setting her entire right side on fire.

Now, stretched out as she was, she focused on the sight below instead of the burn.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

Sheldon Lea had pulled out a glass from the pack he always carried for work. It was an oddity for a mineworker to regularly carry a looking glass but Lila Dean didn’t ask.

Without the glass she could only see the smudge, the small remaining buildings and the movement of people but she couldn’t say what they were doing.

Sheldon Lea lowered the glass with a frown wrinkling his already lined face.

He handed the glass over. Lila Dean cradled it in her hands as gratitude flushed through her. He didn’t even think about including her, he just did it. Not even her father was like that.

A rare smile pulled her lips upward. It pulled her right lip away from her teeth and sent a flare of protest through her skin. She dropped the smile, realizing how grotesque it must look but Sheldon Lea just continued to look at the town. She’d never really thought about it but the old man never had treated her scars as anything disturbing.

Setting the glass to her eye, she focused it and stifled a gasp.

Her father sat on the ground in the confines of a cage big enough for him to stand in but not walk.

Panning out, Lila Dean saw multiple cages in neat rows, all holding people she knew.

“Why cage them?” she wondered aloud.

“Security. They want something and need everyone alive to get it.”

“Want what?”

Sheldon Lea held his hand out and she passed the glass back to him. He took his time scanning the scene below.

“They probably want whatever comes out of the mine. That’d explain keeping the workers.”

“We could collapse the mine,” Lila Dean suggested.

“They’d kill the workers then.”

She shuddered. He was always so blunt.

“We might be able to free your father, maybe the Roy’s, but that’s about it.”

“Why only them?” Lila Dean couldn’t get the picture of Andre Mel and Mary Mae clutching hands as everything burned out of her head. They’d always ignored her but they didn’t deserved being caged.

“Your father and the Roy’s cages are on the end farthest from the camp. With a distraction, we might have enough time for those three cages. Plus, if the distraction’s there,” he pointed, “then no one can see the front of their cages.”

Lila Dean nodded although she still couldn’t get the other kids out of her head. How could she leave them? Maybe with more people they could plan a second escape. It’s what she told herself although a part of her knew, without the element of surprise, another escape attempt wouldn’t be possible.

Sheldon Lea pocketed his glass and pushed back from the ridge.

Lila Dean moved to follow. The motion jammed the ruby into her thigh. She wished that was all she had to worry about. It seemed small, almost silly now.

Moving the ruby to the side of her pocket, she continued back crawling until she reached where Sheldon Lea stood up.

“We need some supplies from my shack,” Sheldon Lea said. “Let’s find our distraction.”

***

Lila Dean clutched the small bag in her hand like it was a priceless treasure. In a way, it was. The black powder inside was her key to the cages. Sheldon Lea had made a comment about no time for lock picking school and then he’s set her down to show her how to put the powder into the locks, then spark it for a small explosion. Enough to bust the locks but not enough to draw attention. There was more finesse to it than Lila Dean would’ve guessed.

She waited in the trees, covered by darkness and the general noise of the invader camp. She asked Sheldon Lea who he thought they were. He shook his head and replied a cryptic, “a lot of trouble.”

Now she wondered if she should’ve pressed for a more specific answer. Sheldon Lea insisted there would be a guard change during his distraction. Lila Dean hadn’t even asked what his distraction was going to be. Now she wished she’d been more bold with the old spinster instead of taking everything at face value like she always did.

“What’sss thiss?”

Lila Dean ducked at the shout but she needn’t have. At the other side of camp several men stoop up, staring at something beyond them.

A wobbly Sheldon Lea stumbled between two of the men, a bottle in hand.

“Coulda—“ He tripped and almost fell, “coulda sworn it’s time for dinner. Where’d the inn go?” He spun in a wobbly circle.

The guard at the cages still stood at his post but he craned his neck around her father’s cage to see what was happening as someone tried to catch Sheldon Lea’s arm and he pulled the man down into a crumbled heap. A nasal laugh erupted from him and he rolled on the ground, sloshing ale over himself and narrowly missing another man grabbing at him.

The cage guard stepped forward, trying to see between his comrades.

Keep going, keep going.

As if on cue, Sheldon Lea knocked another man down by rolling into him. The man gave a surprised cry and the cage guard started forward to join the others.

Lila Dean darted out of the trees with the bag of powder clutched tight.

“Lila Dean?”

She tried to give her father a smile but stopped as she met his eyes. They slipped away from her face, then came back only to slide away again like he couldn’t stand but a moment.

Lila Dean blinked at the tears that threatened behind her eyes.

What’d you expect?

With trembling fingers, she grasped the lock to pour powder into it. Her hand shook and more of the powder hit the ground than the lock.

“Lila Dean, get out of here.” Her father’s feet appeared in front of her through the bars. She refused to look up at him as she poured a bit more powder.

Twisting the bag closed, she shoved it into her pocket and pulled out her flint.

“Stand back,” she warned.

His feet didn’t move for a second but then they retreated without another word.

Lila Dean sparked the flint but missed the lock. Sheldon Lea’s voice rang in her ears. Not like that, angle it or it’ll blow up in your face.

She tried again and cried out as the sparks hit.

A look over her shoulder shielded her face from the blast and confirmed no one noticed her startled cry.

“Give me the bag and go.” Her father held his hand out.

Lila Dean’s fingers closed around the bag. With unfamiliar defiance, she poured a palm full into her hand before handing the rest over. Then, instead of leaving, she headed to Billy Roy’s cage as her father moved to Marcus’.

He shot her a reproving glance but, again, didn’t fully look at her.

Fumbling with the lock, Lila Dean didn’t see him approach. Billy Roy’s hand came through the bars to grasp her wrist.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered.

She glanced up to meet his eyes and he didn’t look away. A dull ache constricted her throat.

“Stand back,” she whispered, almost crying when he listened and released her wrist.

Her hands were steady this time. She sparked her flint and with a hiss, the lock exploded.

Lila Dean pulled the door open.

Her father and Marcus Roy stood by the tree line, waiting. When they saw her free Billy Roy, they retreated into the forest’s shadows, satisfied the kids were right behind them.

“What about the others?” Billy Roy caught her arm.

“No time,” she pulled away with a wave at where Sheldon Lea had been. So close to the cages she couldn’t see the exact spot but Sheldon Lea’s nasal laugh could no longer be heard.

“Dean—“

She spun back, surprised he’d shorten her name again, and froze.

“Fancy meeting you again,” Michael flashed a grin. He held Billy Roy with a knife to his throat.

Lila Dean glanced around. Her father and Marcus Roy must have moved farther into the trees where they couldn’t be seen because they didn’t come back.

And the cages still shielded them from the invader’s camp. Not that that would matter since Michael wore the same blood red uniform as the others.

“You’re one of them?” she asked.

“Who do you think I gamble with?”

Lila Dean swallowed. The knife had cut into Billy Roy’s neck and blood trickled down into the hollow of his throat.

“Let him go,” she begged. The words were supposed to be firm but Lila Dena rarely spoke. She wasn’t used to controlling her tone.

“Why should I?”

“He’s too young to work the mine,” Lila Dean knew as soon as she said the words that Michael didn’t care. He wanted something else.

“None of you are too young. Even you’re familiar with the tunnels, little escape artist.”

Confusion warred with fright on Billy Roy’s face. Lila Dean met his brown eyes, just for a moment, to savor the feel of being seen, to experience the flush of finding something other than revulsion in another’s eyes. Even if he never acknowledged her again, she’d always owe him for the trust she saw there now.

Looking away in shame, Lila Dean pulled the ruby from her pocket. She’d never get to return it now.

Michael’s eyes fixed on it. A half grin, ugly on his handsome face, pulled at the corners of his lips.

“I’ll set this down and step away,” Lila Dean whispered, “then you let him go. He and I will run and you can have the ruby.”

The gem clinked softly as she set it on the cross bar of the cage.

“You have no idea what that ruby will pay for, do you?” Michael asked as she stepped away.

Lila Dean shook her head. She didn’t want to know.

Michael chuckled as he shoved Billy Roy toward her.

“In war, when you don’t make the small sacrifices, a lot of people get hurt.” Michael’s grin said just how much he enjoyed her shock.

“War?”

“What do you think this is?” he gestured around. “Now go!”

Billy Roy grabbed her hand and pulled her into the trees. After a moment, she stopped resisting and followed but not before seeing Michael grasp the ruby. A chill ran her spine at the sight.

***

She’d failed to make it right. Sheldon Lea, Marcus Roy and her father sat eating cold soup. They had no campfire or even a camp, nothing to give their position away.

Lila Dean wasn’t sure how Sheldon Lea had gotten away from the invaders after his ‘drunken’ spectacle. She didn’t ask, either. Now the adults were talking and none of them acknowledged her again.

Maybe Sheldon Lea did it because her father did but no matter his reasons, it hurt.

Lila Dean huddled against a large pine, just outside the small clearing the men sat in, and hugged her knees.

Billy Roy flopped down beside her. She jumped and then looked away, ashamed of her nerves and her foolishness.

“You’re not going to tell me how you knew him?” he asked, his voice pitched low so the adults couldn’t hear.

Tell him how foolish she’d been? She remained silent and he let it go.

“What do you think the ruby will pay for?” he asked instead.

Lila Dean shook her head. “Don’t know.”

His lips pinched in. He didn’t like the answer any more than she did.

“We’ll make it right,” he said after a brief pause.

Lila Dean turned her head to look at him. He was so hopeful, so sure they could fix things.

She gave him a half smile, leaving the right side of her face shielded against her knees to keep the expression from being grotesque.

She hoped he was right but making things right was harder than it sounded. Even just returning the ruby spiraled out of control.

Lila Dean hugged her knees, enjoying for the moment the silence with someone beside her for once.

She really hoped he was right.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer

Beauty Chapter One

After the last several months of upheaval, my husband and I are finally moved and settled into a house with internet. It’s amazing how much I took internet for granted until I didn’t have reliable access to it. I mean, internet’s everywhere anymore, right? Not exactly.

Anyway, no more moving woes. One plus to not being able to post for the last bit is that some stories have had the chance to germinate in my brain and now I get to share them with you.

This next one I might just have to make into a longer piece. Let me know what you think. It’s good to ‘see’ all of you again=)

Beauty

“You’re beautiful in a pathetic sort of way.” His fingers held her chin, forcing her to look at him, to see his half grin like he was apologizing for his words, to see the quirk of his perfect brow as he waited for her reaction.

She imagined she was the bug some boys liked to pull legs off of. It couldn’t have been worse as the group on the field stared, shocked at first because he stopped to talk to her and then because of what he said.

No one spoke to her, almost ever. She was included simply by default of their parents assuming they’d watch out for her, poor, crippled Lila Dean.

The man released her chin with a disappointed click of his tongue. He pivoted and walked away, back toward Main Street.

“Who was that?” Billy Roy asked.

“Never seen him,” Andre Mel shrugged his narrow shoulders. He was an odd one just as his name indicated, but he was good with a ball so he was accepted.

“Creepy,” Mary Mae shivered.

They all agreed and turned back to their game without looking at Lila Dean. Billy Roy turned last, his eyes swept past her. He’d have seen her, truly looked at her, if he’d paused for even a second.

It was the closest any of them came to acknowledging her. Lila Dean’s stomach clenched with gratitude that Billy Roy came so close. He was the only one who consistently did so.

Pulling her legs tight to her chest, Lila Dean hugged them, feeling the pull of her scars down her right side. She’d never be pretty.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots

That was what fire did to a body. It robbed it of flexibility to play ball or smooth skin to dress up. It robbed one of acceptance.

Lila Dean stared at Main Street although the strange man was gone now. Why’d he come out just to say such cruel words?

***

She still pondered the question hours later sitting in the inn. Every one ate in the inn at night. The miners came in after work, trailing their dust and sweat with them like a cloud.

Lila Dean sat at the usual table, waiting for her father to gather their food. He brought two bowls and set one in front of her before digging into his own. Dirt smudged his face and out lined his nails.

She stared at him, watching him eat, but he never looked up. Maybe she looked too much like her mother except with a bunch of horrible scars. She didn’t know. Her mother died in the fire. Giving up that he’d look at her or say a word of blessing like other families did, Lila Dean spooned stew into her mouth. It tasted like mush soaked in gravy but she tilted her head trying not to lose any out the side of her mouth where her lips didn’t quite meet anymore. If she moved slowly, she usually managed without making a complete mess.

Her father finished long before she and, leaving his bowl, he stood to join two men by the hearth.

The men were Marcus Roy, Billy Roy’s father, and Sheldon Lea, an old spinster who refused to retire from the mine. They were her father’s friends but she’d never spoken with them.

Almost spilling stew down her front, Lila Dean returned her attention to her spoon, and caught the strange man sitting in the corner watching her. He tilted his cup to her and drank before looking away.

Lila Dean felt like a deer frozen in fright. What did the man want? He wasn’t a miner. He lacked the dirt caked around his nails.

Finishing her stew, she gathered the bowls and retreated to the kitchen, keeping her head down just in case the man looked up again.

The kitchen sat empty as the cook was eating with the men in the main room. Lila Dean dumped the bowls into the barrel full of hot, sudsy water and buried her hands in after to wash the dishes. The heat stung her left hand like tiny needles but her right couldn’t feel it except as a dull sensation of warmth.

“Hiding?”

She jumped, splashing hot water across her front. To keep her pained cry silent, she bit her lip. Then she peeked over her shoulder.

The stranger.

“Maybe.” The word came out barely above a whisper.

“I meant what I said earlier.”

“Not exactly flattering.” Lila Dean went back to scrubbing bowls.

Footsteps and then the stranger stood across the barrel from her.

“Perhaps not,” he admitted, “but honest.”

“Maybe,” she said again.

“Want to help me with something?” The man grasped her arm, stopping her from drying a bowl. She looked up, surprised, but then couldn’t look away. He had that same quirk to his brow.

“What?”

“You’ve heard of the uncut ruby?”

Lila Dean swallowed, picturing Marcus Roy’s radiant face the day he’d emerged from the mine with the massive gem. It was the day the town knew it’d survive.

“Maybe,” she whispered.

The stranger sighed and released her arm. The expression on his face looked like relief.

“I need that ruby,” he said.

“Why?” the ruby was the town’s prize, the reason they still existed.

“Some men took my little girl,” he leaned against the counter as he explained. “They demanded the ruby in exchange for her. I couldn’t buy it even if Marcus Roy would sell and I can’t get to it. The only way in is through a window about your size.”

Lila Dean set the bowl down gently. It still sounded like a thud.

“You want me to steal the ruby?”

“For my baby girl, yes.”

Lila Dean frowned at her red hands as she tried to piece together what sounded wrong.

“Why you?”

“What do you mean?”

“The men who took your girl, they had to believe you could get the ruby. Why you?”

He grimaced. “While drinking one night I boasted about having a similar gem.”

“Why?”

“Nosy much?”

Lila Dean cringed and looked away. He wanted her to steal the town’s pride. Squaring her shoulders, she forced herself to look up and wait for his answer.

“Fine. I like to gamble. I needed the men to believe I could pay up when I couldn’t, so I bluffed.”

Her heart went out to this man’s daughter. Her own father may not like to look at her but at least he protected her.

“For your girl, I’ll do it but then you leave and you promise to protect your girl.”

The stranger put his hands together like he was praying. “Promise.” Then he smiled and stuck his hand out. “Michael.”

Lila Dean eyed the hand. Michael what? Everyone had a second name. She decided she didn’t care. The less she knew about him, the better.

“Lila Dean.” She shook his hand, feeling the slight pull on her scars.

“Let me show you this window.”

***

She wasn’t agile. Lila Dean gritted her teeth against the pain in her right side. Michael’s window was for the pantry in the Roy’s house. On the outside, the ground came up to just a few feet below the sill. On the inside, the floor dropped a good five feet, sunk below the ground to keep things cool.

Lila Dean’s left foot barely touched the sacks of flour stacked below. Her right foot sat stuck over the windowsill. If she’d been thinking, she would have crawled through feet first on her stomach and dropped both feet at the same time. Hindsight.

Instead, she’d crawled through like the sill was a fence. Left side first sideways.

Her right side screamed as she stretched just a little more to get her foot over the ledge.

Her scars burned like they were tearing. A whimper escaped her as her foot came free and she tumbled onto the floor.

She stilled, waiting for the pain to subside while she listened to see if her noisy entrance went unnoticed.

Nothing stirred in the dark house. Lila Dean rolled over to push to her feet. Moving through the kitchen and then the dining room, she gawked.

The kitchen could hold most of her house within its walls and the mineworkers could fit with room to spare at the dining table. So much space for just a few people. Like herself and her dad, it was just Billy and Marcus Roy. Lila Dean didn’t know what happened to Mrs. Roy.

She shoved the thought of the Roy’s from her mind.

In the living room, Lila Dean’s eyes were pulled to the top of the hearth. On a wooden pedestal sat a red gem the size of a strawberry, all rough edges and dark light reflected from the single candle left burning beside it.

She glanced around but only shadows cast from the candle flickered at the edges of the room. To reach the gem she stepped up onto the fireplace. The stone warmed the soles of her bare feet. Her fingers closed around the ruby. It was warm too.

“Lila Dean?”

She froze. Guilt made her hand shake. He said my name. Somehow, even in her moment of guilt, she felt gratitude that Billy Roy would acknowledge her. Silly…no stupid.

Turning with the ruby cradled in her hand, she met Billy Roy’s confused eyes.

She tried to say his name but all that came out  was a horse, “Roy.”

“What are you doing?” he still didn’t look away from her. She savored the moment that, for once, those brown eyes actually saw her.

“I—“ She dropped her eyes in shame. How could she say, I’m stealing from you? If he ever looked at her again, it’d be with anger and hatred. She couldn’t stand that.

She kept her eyes down.

She didn’t hear him move but a moment later his hand grasped her own around the ruby. He opened her fist to look.

“I see,” he whispered.

“Roy—“ again nothing else came out. She swallowed.

“Dean,” the tone was teasing. Lila Dean looked up in shock. His eyes were still confused but the anger she expected wasn’t there. “Don’t know why you need it but you wouldn’t take it without really needing to.” He closed her fingers back around the rough gem and stepped back.

He didn’t cringe at the scars lacing her fingers.

Lila Dean stared at him, confused. Then he smiled, a small lift to the corners of his lips.

She couldn’t stand it. Stuffing the ruby into her pocket, she ran.

The main door was right there. She smacked into it before remembering to shove the locking bar up. Bolting across the porch, she tripped, stutter stepped down the steps and skidded on her hands and knees at the bottom.

Blood trickled from her palms and stained the knees of her pants but she didn’t notice until she stopped, puffing, at the tree where she was to meet Michael.

Roy’s smile stuck in her mind like the dirt under her father’s nails. He trusted her. Why?

“Got it?”

Lila Dean jumped. She wasn’t used to people approaching her. It was unnerving.

She turned, fiddling to pull the ruby from her pocket and be done with it. The rough corners snagged on the fabric.

Michael grinned, holding his hand out. The look froze her.  Something lit his eyes with an ugly light.

“What’s your little girl’s name?” she asked.

“What?” He finally met her eyes.

“Your girl’s name?”

His jaw twitched before he controlled it and his expression turned pained.

Is that real? Lila Dean wasn’t sure. The expression didn’t fit with what she’d seen a moment before.

“Laura,” Michael said.

It was just a name. Lila Dean’s fingers closed hard around the ruby still in her pocket.

I’m a fool.

“How old is she?” she asked.

The twitch came back in his jaw. Lila Dean took a step back.

“Five.”

He snatched at Lila Dean’s arm just as she jerked away. The sleeve tore. She ran, leaving the fabric in his hand.

He cursed and his heavy footfalls crashed after her. Lila Dean’s lungs burned. She never ran and now, twice in one night, she pushed her body for speed. Her chest protested with fierce fire and, judging from the crashing behind her, it wasn’t enough.

Giving up on speed, Lila Dean veered left, up the hill and toward the mine. Its dark, gaping mouth appeared before her. Without considering the dangers, she ran inside and rolled herself into one of the carts waiting inside. Her breathing rasped in the darkness, almost loud enough to echo.

Quiet!

She sucked in air and held it for a count of five before letting it out slowly.

“Stupid girl!” Michael’s voice exploded not far from her, amplified by the close space of the mine.

Lila Dean jumped and smacked the side of the cart. The thud echoed off the walls like a bell.

“Can’t hide in there forever,” Michael said.

The silence lengthened. Lila Dean listened. He was still there. If she held her breath, she could just make out the whisper of his breathing.

Peeking over the side of the cart, Lila Dean waited for her eyes to adjust until she could see the faint outline of the mine’s mouth. Michael’s dark shape stood there, leaning against the left side. He didn’t seem inclined to venture farther in.

Lila Dean decided to trust the dark. Unlike Michael, she wasn’t backlit by the faint light from the moon. Pulling herself out of the cart, she reached her hand out for the wall. Its rough, cool texture greeted her like an old friend.

“Had you believing,” Michael said and Lila Dean jumped again. Thankfully there was nothing to hit this time.

She glanced over her shoulder but he still leaned against the entrance.

“Didn’t think you’d care about details or I’d have had a whole picture in my head about little Laura…” he described his imaginary little girl. Lila Dean let his words cover the soft crunch of her steps. He paused and she paused until he started again.

“I do have gambling debts,” he continued. “Owe a lot and they’ll take a lot in payment. Maybe an arm or…”

Lila Dean’s hand hit empty space. She turned into the tunnel and, as she moved into it, Michael’s voice faded. It was a secondary entrance. Only there for if the entrance caved in but Lila Dean knew about it because of Sheldon Lea. The old spinster showed it to her right after the fire. He led her down it to relieve her fears of losing her father too. She wouldn’t lose both parents, he said—most likely. Sheldon Lea tended to be honest.

By the time she reached ground level and made her way home, it was late into the night. She wondered if Michael was still waiting at the entrance of the mine. Would he give up before the workers arrived?

Lila Dean cringed. She didn’t really care but her sleeve was missing, her palms and knees were bloody and her clothes were covered in dust from the mine. What would she tell her father?

She hesitated on the small porch but then squared her shoulders and entered.

A single candle burned on the table and her father sat writing in his ledger.

“Never again,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” she answered.

He didn’t look up. Lila Dean went to her room to change, for once glad he didn’t look at her.

Pulling the ruby from her pocket, she set it on her nightstand, remembering Billy Roy’s smile. She’d wronged him. She wasn’t sure how yet but she vowed she’d make it right.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer