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Her Final Prayer

Chapter One:

 

"I'm late," Naomi muttered. She turned right out of the trailer
park and heard a faint grinding coming from the white van. She
wondered about the health of the wheel bearings, if the suspension
needed repair. Before Abe died, he kept the family's vehicles in top
condition. Back then, in addition to the van all three sister-wives
had their own cars. Now the family had only the aging van. Naomi
glanced at the odometer: 148,692 miles, most of it on mountain
roads. How long would it last?


A little more than a year since Abe's passing, their world had
become infinitely harder, and Naomi had begun to think of her life
as before and after. Before, they had the big house in town. Mornings were busy but manageable. A calming force, Abe circulated and gave each child a kiss on the forehead and encouraged them
to study hard and make him proud.


After? Naomi pulled back an errant strand of her brown
hair—just beginning to fade at forty-five—and deftly tucked it
back into her topknot. She could think of only one word: chaos.
This morning, a Monday, was a perfect example. Up before
sunrise, the women rushed about in the cramped double-wide
trailer, surrounded by sixteen of their jostling and complaining
offspring. Too many bodies in a small space bred confusion. While
Sariah flipped pancakes, Ardeth fulfilled her status as first wife and
head of the family by shouting orders: "Sit down at the table! Eat!
Get dressed! Don't forget to collect your homework!"

Meanwhile, Naomi tried in vain to quiet the storm for a brief
morning prayer. She had finally calmed the other children when
Kaylynn clamped on to her leg and held tight, scrunching her
eyes shut in rebellion and screaming that she wouldn't go to prekindergarten. Not that morning. Not ever. "Child, let go!" Naomi had shouted. She didn't like raising her
voice with the little ones, but everyone had a limit, and the girl
had found hers. "Kaylynn, I insist you be still. You will obey me.
I am your mother."


In spite of the confusion, by the time the sun came up, the
children had eaten and dressed. The girls in their long prairie dresses
and the boys in khaki pants and button-down shirts rifled through
the dozens of hand-me-down winter jackets that hung from hooks.
At the last possible moment, they all, including Kaylynn, ran out
the door to catch the school bus.


Yet the hubbub delayed Naomi's departure. Forty minutes later
than she'd planned, she left the trailer to work the hives.
Winters in Utah's high valleys could be hard, and she had to
prepare the bees. The first hard freeze was expected that night, and
snow already dusted the mountaintops surrounding the small town
of Alber. If her hives were to live through the frigid months to
come, Naomi had to make preparations. A lot to accomplish—she
had little time to spare. In three hours, Naomi had to return the
van to the trailer so Ardeth could do the family's bi-weekly grocery
shopping.


Considering the time crunch, Naomi wondered if she should
have made the promise the day before. Heading southeast, she
glanced over at the metal and plastic object wrapped in a plastic
bag that sat on the seat beside her.


At Sunday's church service, Naomi had had a long conversation
with Laurel Johansson about her baby, Jeremy. "I'm afraid he's not
getting enough nourishment," Laurel had confided. "Two months
old and he's not much over his birth weight."

Saying she understood the young woman's concerns, Naomi
explained the benefits of using a breast pump. In fact, Naomi said
she had one Laurel could use. "I'll drop it off in the morning."


A big, handsome man with shaggy dark blond hair and laserlike blue eyes, Laurel's husband, Jacob, had stood beside them,
listening intently. "That would be kind of you, Naomi. What
time will you arrive?"


Giving Jacob a broad smile, Naomi vowed, "I'll be there at
seven thirty, no later."


A first-time mother, Laurel had been so grateful that she threw
her arms around Naomi and hugged her.


Naomi turned off the highway, passing the Johansson family's
bison grazing in the surrounding fields. Naomi wondered if Laurel
realized how lucky she was to be Jacob's second wife. He came
from a respected family, one with a business that funded all their
needs. More than a thousand head roamed the Johanssons' 300
acres. Skilled marketers, they sold to high-end meat markets where
big-city folk paid premium prices.


"Envy is the devil's cauldron," Naomi mumbled, reminding
herself to be grateful for all she did have and not resent the good
fortune of others.


Yet she did envy. And what had convinced Naomi to keep her
promise, even though she was running late, was the opportunity
to tell Jacob good morning. As she drove, Naomi thought about
Jacob's two young wives: Laurel and his first wife, Anna, and their
three children. Naomi wondered what it would be like to be in
Ardeth's position as the most senior woman in a family.


A short drive and she reached the gate, with MRJ Ranch in
wrought iron at its crest. She looked beyond it in appreciation of
the wide columns at the front of the impressive house, the vast
maze of corrals that led to a massive barn. Naomi couldn't help
but compare it to the run-down double-wide she lived in, when
she suddenly noticed something that appeared out of place.

Pulling onto the driveway, she eyed a stark white shape that
lay on the ground, the breeze billowing its sides and corners. It
looked like a fallen sail, but that struck her as ridiculous. Alber
lay far from anywhere anyone could use such a boat.


Normally, Naomi would have driven up to the house and parked
near the front door, but something—she wasn't sure what—so
bothered her about the scene that she stopped a hundred feet
back, close to the barn. For a moment, she hesitated, uneasy. Then,
scolding herself for being silly, Naomi plopped the visor down and
took a last look at her light brown hair. She ran her tongue over
her teeth and pinched her cheeks.


She grabbed the bag holding the breast pump with one hand
as she grasped the door handle with the other. Then, again, she
froze. Staring out at the strange object, she decided it looked like
a bedsheet. She considered the outline and spotted three distinct
areas where something appeared to be hidden beneath it: one long,
flat bulge, two smaller and shorter ones.


Maybe they planted fall flowers they want to protect from the
freeze, Naomi thought, readjusting her wire-rimmed glasses on
her long, thin nose.


Fighting a sense of dread, she flung the door open and slid down
onto the driveway. The breast pump tucked against her middle,
the flowing skirt of her denim dress rippling in the breeze, she
approached the house. As she did, she walked closer to the sheet.
Not far away, newly hung wash flapped on a clothesline. A basket
holding more laundry sat below it. Naomi considered the sheet
spread across the ground and wondered if it could have blown
out of the basket or off the line. No, she decided. It was laid out
too precisely. As she thought through the possibilities, she stopped
and stared at the white cotton fabric. Her eyes settled on scattered
bright red spots near all three of the mounds.


Above her, a bird let out a raspy squawk. Startled, Naomi followed the sound to the bare, gnarled branches of a thick-trunked
oak. Three vultures so black their feathers showed blue stared
down at her. One huffed, as if expressing annoyance at her arrival.
Naomi looked again at the sheet, again at the red stains, again at
the vultures in the tree. Her heartbeat hastened.

 

"Dear God," she whispered.


A sharp breeze ruffled the last remaining leaves, and in the tree
one of the vultures beat the air with its muscular wings. As the
gust trailed along the ground, it snagged a corner of the sheet.
It flew up, executed a pirouette, and as it fell folded back into a
twisted triangle. Twice Naomi blinked, trying to make sense of
what the wind had uncovered: smooth, pale flesh exposed between
the hem of a pair of blue corduroy pants and a white athletic sock
that ended in a toddler-size tennis shoe.


"A child," she whispered. Bending down, her heart fluttered as
if one of the gloomy birds had flown from its perch and roosted
in her chest. She picked up the sheet ever so slightly and peeked
beneath it. Naomi gagged back a scream at what she saw: a
motionless boy, his hair matted with something thick, across his
forehead a trail of drying blood.


"Benjamin," Naomi whispered.


Her hand trembling, Naomi dropped the sheet and stood
erect. Her pulse pounded in her ears as she scanned the yard.
Empty. Her eyes traveled over the house, the porch where three
empty chairs lazily rocked in the breeze, surrounded by scattered
children's toys. She gazed up at the dark windows and saw no one
staring down. Turning back to the body, her eyes migrated to the
other two shapes hidden beneath the sheet. Feeling suddenly ill,
she reconsidered the bright red stains.


Naomi reached into her pocket and realized that in the morning's haste she'd left the family's lone cell phone at home. Looking
again at the Johanssons' house, she listened for any sound out of
place. Far off in the field, the bison bellowed, letting loose short
grunts. The buzzards flapped their wings in the tree, impatient. What she feared hearing, she didn't:
Something human.

 

Swallowing a growing panic, Naomi drew closer to the house,
the van's keys in her hand in case anything convinced her to turn
and run. Up the steps, onto the porch, she hesitated at the door.
Her heart felt as if it were a separate being trapped inside her, one
that pounded against the cage of her chest, demanding to be let
out. Ever so cautiously, she edged the screen door open and turned
the handle on the unlocked inner wooden door.


At first, she saw no signs of a disturbance. A well-furnished
house, comfortable-looking, a living room, dining room. She
stopped at the base of the staircase, pausing long enough to confirm
the silence. A few feet farther in, she came to an abrupt stop.
Just inside the kitchen, two thick legs clothed in jeans splayed
out across an off-white tile floor. Before she rounded the corner,
Naomi heard the sound—a rhythmic gurgling. She peeked around
the corner. A man lay there, his chest heaving, struggling to breathe.
Blood bubbled from the front of his neck.


"Dear Lord, Jacob!" Naomi called out. She ran to him and
knelt beside him.


Jacob Johansson's eyes fluttered, opened, found her, and locked
on to her face. Naomi sensed a slight smile, then his lids drifted
down. She put her hand on his chest and felt the rise and fall of
life. "Please, don't die," she whispered. She scanned the room. An
old-fashioned Trimline phone hung near the stove. She rushed to
it, grasped the handset and pushed three buttons. She looked down
and realized that blood stained the front of her skirt.


"Nine-one-one. What's your emergency?"


Naomi tried but couldn't speak.


"Who's calling? What's your emergency?" The operator sounded
impatient, perhaps wondering if the silent caller could be a child
pulling a prank.


Naomi cleared her throat, trying to free her ensnared vocal
cords. "I'm… I'm… at the Johansson ranch southeast of Alber.
Send an ambulance. Send the police. Quick. He's dying."


"Who's dying? Ma'am, who are you?" the dispatcher demanded.
"Are you in danger?"


"I-I'm… Just send help. I saw a body, a little boy, Benjamin. I
think there are more. Jacob is bleeding on the kitchen floor," she
stuttered. Her hands shook so that the phone threatened to drop
from her grasp. Then, from somewhere above her in the house,
she heard a long, shrill cry.

 

The baby