Seattle, present day
Six days before she turned her back on God for the third time, Elsa Montgomery went to the harvest festival at her church.
It was a bright orange Saturday in October, possibly the last sunny day of the year. She parked her car beneath an old monkey tree and let her dog Charlie out of the backseat. A long-legged black rescue with exuberant energy, he knew to mind his manners in crowds, keeping to her right side as they wandered toward the booths and tents set up on the lawn of the Unity church.
Just as they rounded the edge of the fair, ducking beneath the low arms of a pine tree, Elsa caught the scent of rotten apples. For a moment, she thought it came from an earthly cause, an apple that had fallen behind the booths or lay in the thick grass, forgotten in the rush to get everything ready.
There were certainly plenty of apples. Apples in baskets and apples in pies and apples floating in a tub filled with cold water for bobbing. Washington State was one of the premier apple-growing states in the nation, and local orchards had contributed heavily to the annual church festival.
It took place on the second weekend of October, when the leaves in the Seattle area hung on the trees like construction paper cutouts in shades of red and orange and yellow, and the worst of the winter gloom had not yet set in. The church, a small and humble building that boasted the stained glass art of a now-famous former parishioner, sat unassumingly in the midst of an arts-and-crafts neighborhood, where the houses—and thus the land the church sat upon—were commandingly expensive even after the real estate debacle.
The harvest committee rented booths to local farmers and craftspeople. It attracted a cheerful crowd of well-tended parents, their scrubbed children and obligatory golden retrievers. The families played games and ate caramel apples and plumped up the church coffers better than any other single thing they did every year.
Elsa loved the fundraiser. It had been one of the first things she had created upon her arrival here as minister nine years ago. This year, the sun was shining, but the air was sharp enough that she wore a pink wool sweater and a pair of jeans with boots. She’d left her hair, crazy as it was, loose and curly on her shoulders and she walked along the tables that were set up outside. Tents were erected over them, just in case.
As she moved down the center aisle, again she smelled the sulphurous odor of rotten apples. Insistent, dark. She paused, recognizing the warning.
Something was coming. Something dark and wicked.
She turned in a slow circle, looking for clues. Apples of ten varieties spilled out of baskets, along with pumpkins and squashes and piles of freshly baked bread. In the face-painting booth, Kiki Peterson carefully painted dragons on the face of a little girl wearing a fairy tutu. Next to them was a table set up to serve crepes made by Jordan Mariano, a vegetarian chef who attended the church. The menu offered roast pumpkin and tomato crepes, apples and sugar, or classic chocolate and cream. Nothing seemed amiss. No one who looked out of place. No–
Elsa turned, still half-seeking. A tall man dressed in khakis and a gold shirt strode toward her. He was a member of the finance committee.
“How are you, George?”
“You have a minute, Rev? I want to talk to you about the shortfall in fundraising last week.”
“Let’s talk about that at the meeting on Wednesday, shall we?” She sipped her coffee, seeking a possible escape. “It’s on the agenda—“
“But I don’t think the committee is taking it seriously.”
She touched his arm. “That may be, but let’s enjoy this beautiful day and talk about it on Wednesday.”
“Excuse me.” She headed toward a bent old man sitting in the sunshine. “How are you, Eddie?”
He turned his nearly blind eyes toward her, wispy white hair springing out in Einstein fashion around his head. “If I was any better, I’d already be in heaven.”
She let him take her hand, and squeezed it. “Glad to hear it. How are the new digs?”
“Fine, fine. I have me a cat and some television, so what more does a man need, huh?”
He was eighty-nine, suffering from terminal cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and crippling arthritis, but he put his love in things beyond himself, and that kept his spirits high. “I’m glad to hear it. I’ll be over to see the new place sometime this week, and we’ll say a blessing. How’s that?”
A trio of girls in plaid shorts and t-shirts swirled over. “Reverend Elsa, we made you some dragonfly wings!” The smallest of the trio held up the tissue paper-and-coat-hanger wings, pale purple with green and purple glitter. Their faces, too, had been painted with dragons. She looked over to Kiki and winked.
The teenager smiled. “I can paint your face, too, if you want.”
“Oh, that would be so pretty!” the smallest of the girls said. She took Elsa’s hand and pulled her toward Kiki and the face-painting booth. “Please, Reverend Elsa?”
Elsa capitulated, and let them pull her down into the chair, their cool little fingers and hands touching her arms, her shoulders, her neck. Someone pulled her hair away from her face, gently, pressed it to her temple. “I’ll hold it so you don’t get paint on it.”
“Thanks, Alice.” She gave the tiny redhead a kiss on the wrist.
Alice wiggled happily. “You’re welcome.”
Charlie slumped onto Kiki’s foot. “Do you want a dragon or a rose or something else?” Kiki asked.
“I don’t know. What do you girls think it should be?”
Kiki laughed. “A castle? How about a unicorn?”
“Oooh, yeah!” Alice traced a spot on Elsa’s cheek, the touch as light as gossamer. “Right there.”
“Can I fix your hair?” Davina asked, tilting her head sideways. “I have a brush. I’ll be careful so Kiki doesn’t mess up.”
“I won’t mess up,” Kiki said. “I can do this in my sleep.”
“Sure, then,” Elsa said. “You can fix it.”
Kiki dipped her brush into a pot of iridescent white paint. Her extraordinarily long brown hair, straight and glossy, fell in a silky wash over one thin shoulder and she tossed it back. “Ready?”
“Ready.” Elsa closed her eyes as the liquid touched her cheek. The little ones fluttered their hands through her hair, and one hot plump body leaned into her, probably sleepy. The child suddenly bent over and rested her head in Elsa’s lap. Gently, Elsa touched her back. The pink bubble gum smell of girl wafted around her.
“You’re going to be such a good mom,” Kiki said. “You’re so patient.”
“She’s not married!” Alice said, standing on one foot. “You have to be married to have a baby.”
Kiki smiled, a twinkle in her dark blue eyes. “Well, then she needs to get married.”
Elsa gave her a rueful grin in return. Kiki’s mother, Julia, had been trying to match-make Elsa for months, one very nice man after another, but so far, there had not been a single second date. Julia said she was too hard on men, that Elsa needed to relax a little, but what was the point in that? Why spend your life with someone who wasn’t just right?
Except…she wanted children. She’d always wanted them, at least four, maybe six. It was beginning to seem as if that might not happen. She was thirty-eight, and running out of time. And as much as she loved her work, the congregation, and the children of others, she would really mind if she didn’t have a child of her own.
This, please, she said, a soft prayer sent out above the heads of the sweet-smelling girls, whose hands touched her, patting her hair, painting her face.
It was only as she stood up again that she smelled again the reek of disaster, deeper now, worse, like bloated fish. She swayed.
“You okay, Rev?” Kiki asked.
Elsa touched her arm. “Fine, thanks. Tell your mother I’ll see her tomorrow.”