Just breathe, Neriah. In and out. This is not forever.
But still the bleating of children pierced through Neriah’s thoughts, causing her to massage her temples. She dragged herself to the tent’s entrance, where she watched the remaining women finish loading their woven baskets onto their backs.
As she was the babysitter—the only job her father considered her worthy of performing—Neriah knew the women wouldn’t depart without first seeing her. When Neriah noticed her grandmother amongst them, staring at her tent, she sighed. There’d be no getting away from them now.
Neriah retrieved her black pouch from beside her sleeping mat and, securing the pouch around her waist, stepped outside. Many of the women visibly deflated when they spotted her, but others waved as she approached. Neriah offered a tentative greeting. However, Miss Deborah, one of the group’s leaders, did not hide her irritation.
“This is unbecoming, dear,” she grumbled through her teeth. “You must not make a habit of keeping us waiting.”
Nana Serah placed a delicate hand on Miss Deborah’s back before her granddaughter could respond. “Her presence matters, Deborah.” Nana Serah smiled. “You must catch up to the others. Neriah will take over from here.”
Miss Deborah and the women nodded, though Neriah was sure Miss Deborah would complain about her to the others like she’d heard her do before.
As Nana waved them off, the women blew kisses to their children, who were too preoccupied with making noise and playing together to notice them.
After the women had vanished beyond the broad evergreen trees, Neriah turned to face the children, locking arms with her grandmother.
“She’d have something to say even if you were ready before sunrise,” Nana said with a shake of her head.
Neriah let out a soft laugh, but her senses were overwhelmed by the noisy children. Her eyes twitched with each shout, and her muscles tensed with each risky rough play. For the last two years, she’d been assigned to babysitting. Even though she despised her job, she knew it was her duty.
She had hoped that it would only be temporary. That it would only take a few weeks, or at the most a couple months, for her to prove herself and transition out to contribute like the others. Neriah continued to wait for that day, growing less and less hopeful it would ever come.
Every day, she stayed on site, watching over the children. Her father was chief, and he and her older brother Kenan led the men on hunts while the women harvested and fished.
As a fourteen-year-old, staying in one place for too long soon became tedious, and she worried it would drive her insane. Though Shiloh was her home, it had evolved into something else in the last couple of years—smaller somehow. Her sacred haven now felt like a cramped cage. Of course, her father and the elders forbid anyone leaving, for everyone’s safety. Even trifling with the thought of leaving was foolish. It only led to danger and fractured homes, where pain made its home in the hearts of the grieving, those left behind.
That she knew too well.
She understood her father’s caution, his worries for his people. But was the best solution really to not make her useful during the day?
Neriah pondered these thoughts—ones she wouldn’t dare voice out loud. She reminded herself to be thankful for her life here. Shiloh is safe. No dangers can hurt us here. We will never leave. Even with those recited words, Neriah knew that deep down, she wanted more—she needed more.
A chill crawled down her spine at the thought of one certainty: Anyone who leaves Shiloh never comes back.
Anxiety rose in her chest, and she soothed her face with her hands. With a few deep breaths, she slowly raised her face to the sun, shutting her eyes as she let the warm rays beat on her ebony skin. For a moment, she ignored the noise and instead imagined the peaceful woods. She pictured herself lying quietly by a stream in a calm meadow, watching the flawless clouds create a line against the blue sky. There were no children, no worries, and no complaints. Just her and the silence.
She blinked her eyes open after hearing a loud boom-thump-thump close to where she was standing.
“Watch it!” she snapped. “That could have hit me.”
She marched up to the two boys who’d been throwing rocks, looking from one kid to the next. The boys cast guilty smiles in her direction. Neither of them waited for Neriah to scold them, and they bolted to safety.
“Born mischief-makers,” Nana would say whenever Neriah didn’t keep them busy. Nana was right.
Still, Neriah couldn’t figure out what to do with the children. She wouldn’t make them do chores, because then they would whimper and whine, which was no help at all. She had tried telling them stories like her grandmother, but they kept interrupting her with questions she couldn’t answer or made strange noises to amuse themselves. After the last several embarrassing incidents, she’d quickly learned she wasn’t a marvellous storyteller like Nana.
As she deliberated about her plans for the day, her eyes settled on her younger sister, Vera, who was sitting by the woodpile. Vera had her knees crossed, and her chin rested in her hands. When Vera was bored, that was a dangerous sign. Not good at all.
Last time Vera took the reins, the children formed a band. They equipped themselves with brass pots, copper pans, and wooden spoons, and the freshly laundered sheets served as their capes and gowns. Neriah swore she’d only been gone for a moment, hanging out some damp clothes to dry while Nana rested, when she heard a commotion that rattled her entire body. She’d looked on in horror as Vera proudly led her troop on a march. Neriah had attempted to put everything back where it belonged before anyone noticed. Unfortunately, the harvest crew had shown up just as she was racing about like a headless chicken, with the children still wearing sheets. Neriah had vowed never to go through that again. How Nana Serah had slept through the whole thing was a mystery to her.
An idea struck her. She climbed up and stood on top of a tree stump.
“Okay, everyone, gather around!” she called out, cupping her hands around her mouth.
The children raised their heads; she waved them over. They trickled toward her.
“What are we going to do for fun?” one child cried, and the others agreed in protest.
“Well, I had an idea…” Neriah said.
The children glared at her, unimpressed.
“No chores,” one protested.
“And no throw-and-catch either,” said another.
“So I guess playing in the Peace Field sounds like a lame idea, too?” Neriah said.
There was silence, and then a roar of cheering startled Neriah as they jumped with joy.
“Okay, okay,” she chuckled, which felt different to do. A good different. “We’ll go together. Single file. And remember to—”
“Stay within the boundaries,” they echoed.
They hurried to form a line behind Neriah. Vera’s face lit up and her deep dimples shone. As they approached the open route to their playing field, Neriah led them past Nana’s tent.
“We’ll be at the Peace Field, Nana,” she called out. “We’ll be back in an hour.”
“Enjoy yourselves,” Nana said while weaving a basket, looping the flat stripes through the pattern.
For the first time all day, Neriah was looking forward to whatever was coming next.
* * *
With one child on her back, Neriah led the way. The others followed closely, trying their hardest not to rush ahead of her. Once they arrived, she put the child down. The children raced around in the tall, untamed grass. Peace Field always smelled like sweet pine and the faint aroma of morning dew. The bushes rustled in the wind, and in the distance, there was the soft hum of the wasps’ nest. It reminded Neriah of her childhood.
When she and her brother, Kenan, used to play at Peace Field, their mother would watch them while she nursed young Vera. Neriah had enjoyed those visits so much; she and Kenan would hide and try to terrify their mother. It seemed like a distant time now, and the field seemed smaller. One thing remained the same—there were still lots of good hiding places.
“Okay, listen up,” she said, clapping her hands so the children would gather. “Who wants to begin the count?”
Vera motioned to the others, and they grouped around her. For a few minutes, they huddled, giggling and whispering. At last, they gazed up at Neriah.
“We all agree that you should count first,” Vera said, and the children all nodded in accord.
Neriah raised a brow. She was normally just an observer. That, for once, they actively sought her company as a playmate intrigued her—and made her suspicious. Neriah narrowed her eyes, studying Vera’s expression.
“I don’t know,” Neriah said, and the children pressed their palms together in a plea.
Maybe this could be fun, she thought.
Neriah threw up her hands in surrender.
Vera turned her around and coerced her towards a tree. Neriah closed her eyes, leaned against the tree and started to count. Scurrying feet scattered in various directions, and Neriah felt how much joy a simple game brought them all. It took her back to the wonderful times when she and Kenan enjoyed nothing but playing. An experience she hadn’t had in a very long time.
In the bright sunlight, Neriah relaxed her posture and eased away from her worries. Shiloh was safe during the day, and she would have all the children back before the adults returned. She would do her duty; they would follow. Shiloh was their safety.
Neriah jolted, realizing she’d stopped counting. “Uh—eight, nine, ten! Here I come, around the bend!”
She turned around and brushed the bits of bark from her skin. A grin spread across her face as her gaze travelled over the peaceful terrain.
Beams of sunlight peeked through the leaves of the tall trees and shone on the Peace Field. Neriah moved slowly and surveyed the field for any sudden movements. A rustling alerted her—she’d found her first targets. Neriah crept up behind the bushes and spotted the two noisy hiders. She leaned close to their shoulders, then tapped their backs at the same time. “I’ve found you.”
They leapt up screaming, and she laughed. The two glanced at each other, impressed by how quickly she’d located them.
“We’re not the best at hiding,” one admitted shyly.
“Maybe you’ll be great at helping me find the others.” Neriah winked, and they giggled.
It wasn’t long before they found more children. Many had ducked behind bushes or hunkered low behind rocks. A handful of them were young pros at blending in with their surroundings and were hiding in small crevices or among fallen trees, but they were still no match for Neriah. Before noon, she’d rounded up everyone—except Vera.
Neriah’s brows knit together as she peered between trees and rocks. She even checked the hiding spots she would have used herself. But Vera was nowhere to be found.
“Found you, Vera!” Neriah said, pretending to have seen her little sister, hoping it would fool Vera. It didn’t.
With each passing minute, knots formed in Neriah’s stomach. The children looked at her expectantly, as if she were about to give them some more instructions.
“Seems Vera is great at this game,” she said. She bit her bottom lip and tried to keep her voice calm, but fear was clear in her tone. “Let’s keep looking.”
Neriah did her best to maintain her composure while the other children called for Vera. Each call returned with no response. Neriah halted when they got closer to the sound of running water—because beyond the stream was the boundary of Shiloh. She wouldn’t.
The pressure in her chest increased, but Neriah wouldn’t make a hasty judgement. Vera was still hiding some place nearby. She had to be. Neriah just hoped that Vera had abided by the rules of the village and remained on site. Surely she had at least that much common sense.
“Vera! You’ve won. You can come out now!” Neriah’s shaky voice reverberated through the forest until it eventually died out. She heard nothing but the sound of rushing water in response.
She let out a deep groan as she struggled to breathe. She toppled backwards against a tree, tugging her hair. It curled around her fingers. The nightmares of her mother’s absence taunted her mind, and she was back in that unforgettable day—her father’s stone-like face, Kenan’s tears streaming down to his neck, and Vera’s cry for comfort broke her heart all over again. Nothing in the world could have prepared her for the discussion she’d had with Nana that night. For knowing that she would never see her mother again.
Where could Vera be?
Uncertainty ripped away her attempts to reassure herself. The thought of losing someone else tore at her lungs and choked her with each breath. What exactly would she tell her father? How could she look everyone in the eye and tell them she had lost Vera? By the time the adults reached the Peace Field, the sun would have already set. There wouldn’t be enough time to look for her—they wouldn’t risk it.
“Ria,” one child said. “Where’s Vera?”
In a single fraction of a second, Neriah’s anxieties rolled up into a ball and found a home in her chest. Her pulse was racing; she felt like she was going to pass out from her worries. What could she tell them?
She had one job, and she was failing at it. Losing Vera would cause her family anguish—again. This time, it would all be her fault.
As the feeling of panic spread through her body, the branches shook overhead. Upside-down, Vera swung in front of Neriah from above.
“Ahhh!” Vera yelled, contorting her face while her eyes flared.
Neriah shrieked and tripped over a raised root. She fell back in the grassy field, and her heart smashed into her ribcage. The children cackled as Vera hung there, mimicking her sister’s terrified expression. A scowl appeared on Neriah’s face.
The dirty little monsters knew all along.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Neriah said as she sprang to her feet.
Vera leaped off the branch and landed on all fours. “I was hiding,” she said, and stood, clapping the grass off her hands.
“And why didn’t you answer me? I’ve been trying to find you all this time!” Neriah grabbed her sister by the shoulders, shaking her.
Vera shook Neriah’s hands off her and strode triumphantly over to the children. “It’s part of the game, and since no one found me, I believe that makes me the winner.” She grinned.
Neriah’s jaw dropped. She couldn’t believe Vera’s sheer lack of empathy. How could she find it appropriate to pull something like this? There was nothing amusing about the cruel trick Vera and the other children planned—probably during their little huddle at the start. This was far from what she had hoped for in coming to the Peace Field.
“Come on,” Vera said, noticing Neriah’s glare. “I didn’t even leave the boundaries.”
Neriah’s anger grew to a boil, and a flash of rage shot through her body. “Nothing about this is funny.” She immediately turned her attention to the children. “And I’m not just talking to Vera.”
The youngsters glanced at one another, and slowly, their smiles disappeared.
Vera sprung to their defence. “You’re just angry because you lost, Ria.”
“Lost?” Neriah responded, her heart pounding in her ears. “Vera, I couldn’t care less about this stupid game. Do you understand how frightened I was when I couldn’t find you? Or have you forgotten what happens to those who get lost and never return? We lost our mother.”
There it was. Fear. Creeping out of her. Overpowering her. Winning her over. The words flew out of her mouth as swiftly as she felt the desire to retrieve them. It was insensitive, yes—but what Vera and her friends unleashed in her was far worse.
“Head back. Now,” Neriah said, pointing to the camp.
The little ones marched back, dragging their feet. Vera was the last to follow. Her head hung low. Neriah let out a heavy sigh and hugged herself. She knew the children didn’t yet understand her terror.
At least the hunting and harvesting parties had something to distract their minds from the worry. Not for her. Neriah tried to dismiss her fears and stop shaking, but it was right there, waiting to pounce again.
It was exhausting.
It was terrifying.
And it never went away.