When Cressida Williams received the text message she was sitting in church, sipping lemon tea and listing to a sermon on core values. One by one the pings resonated against the domed ceiling of the grand gathering hall like a modern symphony. Pastor Cunnings, a tall and lanky man with red curly hair who wore a top hat and tuxedo-like suit, paused and pulled out his phone. He read the text and returned the phone to his pocket.
“To continue … we here in Stone look to our forefathers for guidance in keeping community. We do this through a common bond of collective core values. When one of these is broken, a crack forms in our center, a crack that threatens to divide and splinter this solid rock we all call home. We must come together to repair this crack and fortify our place in history.”
With her mother and father sitting silently besides her, Cress could feel many eyes boring into her person, bringing with them a deep and dark energy that crept into her soul. She tried to keep her head lowered and her shoulders curled as a shield. But then someone behind her cleared their throat and while they did so, muttered “slut” loud enough for the pastor to take a long breath and for her to say it again. She recognized the voice: Alyce Musgrove’s, the President of the Tribunal and her senior classmate who had set the trial (if you could call it that) in motion. Cress turned her head slightly and then saw him, Brandt Stone, standing next to Alyce teasing her fingers with his. He was staring at the portrait of Stone’s founder and his ancestor, George Gould Stone, on the far wall. Her heart sank like a boulder into the pit of her stomach. He would not tell the truth now or ever.
The Harlem Cress would have cried out “liars, everyone one of you,” but the Stone Cress knew her accusation would fall on deaf ears. People in this town only heard what they wanted to hear and she was now marked as a “wrong.” Wrongs had no voice. She had learned this the first day she arrived in town six months prior, when she was invited to Alyce’s house—where all of her new classmates were gathered—and where she was told the way things were.
You see, the Williams had come to town as part of a plan instituted by the governor as pressure mounted from the Democratic Party for him to make his home town more appealable to the general public should they chose him for the presidential nomination. The Williams were personally selected and given the equivalent of a lifetime lottery ticket: a flower shoppe to run, a colonial with a white picket fence to live in, and a welcome basket with a contract to sign which binded them and their teenage daughter to the laws of Stone, a tightly knit community of 1500 people in a valley nestled between mountains in upstate New York. It was surrounded on three sides by abutting rivers and on the fourth, a stone wall. The Williams read the bylaws, but since they were written in Latin, a language not taught in Harlem schools, they didn’t really understand them. It was only when the Tribunal explained the charges against Cress in English that they realized what they had agreed to. And by then, they had already had their fair share of lemon tea. Sacrificing their daughter was, well, that was a small price to pay considering what they had come from.
With only a few days left until the punishment, there was little Cress could do to reverse things. She felt as if she were alone on a sinking ship surrounded by hungry sharks. What had happened to that fierce and determined young runner with hope in her heart for a bright future? Things Brandt had told her were irresistible, right before he pulled her close and sunk his tongue into her mouth behind the school cafeteria. She dug her nails into her palm and bit her lip until she drew blood. The blood tasted warm and comforting. Is this how she would feel when the first stones hit her?
Orley was excused from church that morning, due to pink eye—she was still contagious per her father—though they both knew she just had spring allergies. Instead, she sat on her bed and read Anna Karenina, an outlawed book which she had purchased on her last trip to the City for her father to buy medical supplies, and which she had smuggled into town by distracting Sergeant Malloy with a box of Long Island Toffee. When the text came in, Orley was sipping from her filtered water jug—she had yet to grow accustomed to the taste of Stone water, even though it was touted as the “cleanest, most pure form of mountain water.” She was in mid-sentence of a steamy scene and didn’t immediately read it. And then when she did read it and the follow up text instructing all citizens under 18 to report to the Founding Grounds on Tuesday at sunset she thought for certain it was a joke.
She found her father in his study readying to leave—he too had been recused from church to make house calls.
“This can’t be serious, can it?” she asked him waving her phone in the air.
He looked up from his files with wrinkled brow. “I’m sorry, what can’t be serious.”
“This text about the stoning.”
“Oh that. Yes, it is.” He drew out his words as he always did on matters of importance.
“Well, I don’t think …”
“I’m not doing this,” she interrupted.
“You must.” He had taken off his reading glasses and was giving her a stern look.
“You are a citizen of Stone. It is your obligation to follow its laws.”
“But I’m a citizen of the United States too. A place where murder is a crime.”
“Be careful, dear. You wouldn’t want someone hearing you. Besides, Stone is exempt from the laws of the United States. You read the bylaws.”
“That’s absurd. This is unconstitutional. I won’t do it.”
“Then you’ll go to jail.” He said this with a definitive tone—the kind that dared you to question it.
“Dad, you can’t be serious. Why are you supporting this?”
“It is tradition, Orley. It is why we came to Stone—where your great-great grandpa has roots. We came to be a part of something bigger, of something real, grounded in tradition, in history, in protocol. To give our life true meaning.”
Well, there you have it. Her father had finally gone mad.
“Dad, Mom valued life—all kinds. That’s why she fought for prisoners on death row. Remember that? She wouldn’t even let us kill a fly. What would she think now? What would she say?! And what about your Hippocratic oath? Or was it more of a hypocrite oath?” Orley’s heart pounded hard under her goose-bumped skin, and she yelled her words so that they could go directly into his thick skull. She begged him to listen to reason, demanded that he do something to stop this. But through her tears she could see his eyes go blank. He would not help. Somehow, her father, a Harvard trained doctor, had drank the famous Stone lemon tea that made rational people idiots.
“I can’t listen to any more of this. Stay out of it. It is bigger than you.” He gathered up his files, shoved them in his briefcase and walked towards the door.
“We can’t let a girl die because she kissed a boy, dad. It is wrong!” She picked up a glass plaque that the town had given her father the week before to commend him for his outstanding work and threw it against the door. It was too thick to shatter, but it did crack the wood.
Orley found her computer and typed out a letter addressed to the governor, with a cc to the President, the State Senator, the ACLU, and her constitution law professor at her last school. She found email addresses and sent them off marked urgent. Someone will read this, she thought, and they will stop it.
However, she did not see that none of her emails were successfully sent. They did not make it past the town’s firewall.
Alyce Musgrove walked with Brandt and her best friend Birdy Borden down the steps of the church, past the graveyard, towards the gazebo. They walked silently as they crossed over brick pavers which had been laid down generations ago with the names of their grandfathers and their grandmothers and theirs before them. They were walking on history where everything had been done to ensure a prosperous, orderly, and safe future. There was nothing to change, nothing to alter, as everything had been and was perfect in Stone. Walking on this path comforted Alyce, as this been her first Tribunal to lead—a tremendous honor—and the first in several years. She barely remembered the last stoning.
“Who was the previous one,” Alyce asked.
“Joseph Roos. Ten years ago. He had stolen some gumballs from the five and dime,” Birdy replied as she carefully planted one foot in front of the other. She was practicing walking like a model in hopes of making it into the Stoneworth catalog in the summer.
“Oh right,” she replied. She had been seven at the time and her memory was fuzzy. But she had the sensation of a smooth red stone in her palm about the size of a gum ball and now recalled she pretended the stone was a gum ball when she threw it. Here are your gum balls thief! she remembered thinking as she aimed for his head. The boy hadn’t made a sound when all the stones hit him, he just fell to the ground and didn’t move. She remembered feeling proud when her big sister took her hand and said “good job.” The town had a celebration afterwards at the great hall with chocolate ice cream and sprinkles. And the boy was buried right next to George Gould Stone. A great honor. The memory felt uncomfortable to her now for some reason, but she pushed through the thought. She was a Musgrove after all. She had tradition to follow.
They came to the gazebo in the town center when they saw someone taping fliers on the trunks of the ancient sycamore trees lining the park.
“What are you doing, Orley?” Alyce demanded to know after she read the flier. She ripped it down and held it up over her head.
“Exercising my freedom of speech,” she said. “And trying to save a life.”
“Take down those fliers now.”
“No. I will not.”
Brandt and Birdy were already removing the fliers from the trees.
“Orley Styx, you do not want to take this on. This town has been conducting Tribunals since it was founded in the 1600s. If you don’t watch yourself, you’ll be going in front of the Tribunal yourself.”
Orley came up close to Alyce’s face forcing Alyce to take a step backwards. “Your pink eye!” Alyce shuttered and brought her hand up to create space.
“Are you threatening me?” Orley asked, her now clear eyes wide and mocking.
“Of course not. I’m simply telling you the way it is. You … you city dwellers seem to have short memories of the way things work around here.” Alyce spoke calmly with folded arms. She straightened her back like she had been taught. Brandt and Birdy and Randall Awnings, along with several townspeople who had come to see the confrontation, stood behind her.
Orley once again moved in close and whispered. “I have an excellent memory Alyce. I remember all our conversations and all of your secrets.”
Alyce gasped. “You wouldn’t dare,” she whispered back.
Then, Alyce decided to play her Ace. “Orley Elizabeth Styx, I hereby choose you to be the First Stone. To lead our youth in furthering our historical and splendid tradition.”
“Here, here,” a voice said behind Brandt.
Orley peered around Alyce’s golden curls. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Her own father had just shouted out against her.
“First Stone?! No. No. No. You are all crazy,” Orley said, pointing to each and every one of them. She turned to march home.
“You will be there, Orley Elizabeth, at sunset. It is decreed. There are witnesses. You cannot refuse.”
“Whatever you say, Mudgrove,” she muttered as she stuffed her hands in her pocket and walked towards main street.
“It’s Musgrove …” Alyce’s voice trailed behind her.
When she was a safe distance away, Orley pulled out her cell phone and dialed her mother’s brother, Uncle Filbert, the public defender for the City. She hadn’t spoken to him since her mom’s funeral, but he would help, she knew it. But as soon as she dialed, the phone line dropped. She tried again. Once again it also dropped. She tried texting. It did not go through. It was only after she tried her friend, Mika, and that failed, that she suspected something was up.
She walked towards the sheriff’s office and found Sergeant Malloy playing solitaire at the reception desk.
“I’ll like to see Sheriff Pawson please.”
“He’s gone to church and then to brunch at the Farm,” she said without looking up.
“Well, then maybe you can help me. I can’t seem to dial to anyone outside of Stone.”
“That’s a shame. But I don’t see how I can help you.”
“Maybe you can let me use your phone.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Because the phone line needs to be open in case of emergency.”
“This is an emergency. They are going to stone Cressida Williams day after tomorrow. Like they are going to kill her, by throwing stones at her! And for a stupid kiss. Which, I know she did not instigate. Do you understand how insane that is.”
“Did you hear what I said.”
“I did.” Sergeant Malloy continued playing solitaire.
“And you aren’t going to do anything about it?”
“Miss, can’t you see I’m busy here?” she said.
Orley rolled her eyes and made to leave, when she turned quickly and reached over the desk to pick up the phone and dial out.
Sergeant Malloy, a large woman with poor reflexes was too slow to catch her at first.
He picked up on the first ring.
“Uncle Fil – You have to help, there’s going be a stoning!”
“Orley, is that —”
Then the line went dead. Sergeant Malloy had pulled the cord out of the socket.
“Young lady, I’m gonna have to lock you up. For interference.”
“Not if you can’t catch me.”
Orley turned on her heels to leave and on her way out of the door ran smack into Sheriff Pawson’s broad chest. He grabbed her by the arms. “What’s the rush, Miss Orley.”
“Nothing. I was just … just going to get Sergeant Malloy some coffee.”
“You stop her, Sheriff. She is causing trouble,” Sergeant Malloy wheezed as she stood in the center of the reception area.
Orley twisted and turned to break free, but she could not. She wouldn’t be able to help Cress if she were in jail. Her only hope was her uncle, if he had even heard what she had said.
When she was locked up in the jail cell, Sergeant Malloy brought her some evening tea. She took a tiny sip and then spat it out. She recognized the flavor. She would never drink it. But now she had a hunch who had.
Pastor Cunnings invited Cress to meet with him in his office immediately after the service.
She sat in a chair across from him and watched as Mr. Snyder, the town’s funeral director sitting next to her, laid on his desk brochures of various coffins. Mr. Snyder’s son, Edward, who was also a classmate, stood next to him with his arms at his side.
“Now, here we have a very comfortable model, the Sleep Easy. It is economical—won’t put a financial strain on your parents, and it is very stylish. Most of our young diseased people pick this one. Why just last year, May Blossom, who suffered from migraines, selected this one. You can’t go wrong, even if you are “wrong.” Mr. Snyder and Pastor Cunnings chuckled.
“Do I really have to pick one?” Cress asked. Her heart was racing faster than the seconds hand on the clock on the wall overhead. Her mind was cloudy. She could hardly think. What was wrong with her? She had been fine that morning, had even gone on a five mile run before church.
“Why of course. It’s your right. Don’t you want to exercise your right to chose how you will lay down for eternity with our founder George Gould Stone?”
“I guess. But I feel fine. I don’t think I’m going to die soon.”
“Of course you feel fine,” Pastor Cunnings said. “And that is wonderful. A strong Stone will be a delight for our young people to come together.”
She tilted her head to look at him carefully and saw in his place the mad hatter. This was certainly all a bad dream.
“I’d like some lemon tea to help me decide,” she said.
“Of course, of course,” he said. Edward rushed into a side room.
There was a few minutes of silence, smiles and nods, until the tea arrived. They watched her as she lifted the porcelain cup engraved with the Stone seal and sipped from it. It tasted like warm lemonade with extra sweetener. Her head felt lighter, her heart relaxed its beat. A dull glaze washed over the room. She picked up one of the brochures, looked at the pictures, and said with conviction, “I’ll take this one. Thank you for your time and for the tea.”
“Excellent choice,” they all agreed. “We will also have very beautiful flowers. It’s all been arranged with your parents. Don’t worry about a thing.”
She walked out of the room and down the front steps of the church. The Stone Cemetery looked exceptionally beautiful with spring flowers blooming around the tombstones. She couldn’t wait until Sunset on Tuesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before sunset, Sheriff Pawson unlocked the door of the jail cell and commanded Orley to rise. Orley had refused to eat or drink anything the last 48 hours and by now was fatigued and a bit delirious. Her father entered the cell and began pulling out items of food from a picnic basket.
She was suddenly ravenous. As she inhaled the bread and cheese and meat and gulped down the filtered water, her father sat patiently next to her without speaking.
“I’ll go,” she said when she had finished. “I promise I’ll do the right thing.”
“That’s my girl,” he replied.
“I just need to go home and take a proper shower. And get myself ready. Ok.”
“You’ll talk to the Sheriff? Have him leave me alone? After all I am the town’s trusted doctor’s daughter. I just had a bad cup of tea. I’m all better now.”
“I trust you,” her father said. “I’m sure the Sheriff will see things my way too.”
“Thank you, father.”
Half an hour later, Orley had climbed a ladder to Cress’s second floor window. Cress was dressed in a beautiful white dress and lying on her bed staring at the ceiling. With her long black hair she looked like a dark-skinned sleeping beauty. An empty tea cup rested on her nightstand.
“Orley, what are you doing here?”
“I’m here to take you to the Founding Grounds.”
“But first, you have drink this. To keep you hydrated.” She helped Cress drink from the cooler she had brought.
“Yummy,” Cress muttered as she guzzled the beverage.
“Yes it is,” Orley encouraged. In the cooler was an anti-poison, cleansing packet that she had found in her father’s locked desk. She had figured out while in the jail cell that the town’s water had a low amount of poison in it that made folks of weaker dispositions more easily manipulated. The “lemon tea” added just enough more to make strong-minded adults think more like obedient children.
Descending the ladder in her dress was tricky, but Cress managed. The William’s house was a few yards from the woods and a path that lead to the entrance to Stone. Alyce had shown Orley the path the first month she was in town, and made her promise not to tell anyone that this was where her and Brandt would meet. She had told Orley because she needed to tell someone who was an outsider and wouldn’t judge, otherwise her head was going to burst from keeping the secret. Now, she was grateful that Alyce had confided in her—for it was her only hope for getting out.
As she tried her best to rush Cress down the path, she didn’t see the two figures standing outside the makeshift shed a few yards from the entrance. She instructed Cress to be quiet. But Cress was just coming out of her fog and as she focused she realized who the figures were and she rushed towards them with fury, ripping her dress as she ran.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.”
Brandt stepped forward as Alyce slipped back against a tree and bumped her head.
“Whoa,” he said putting up his hands and pushing forward.
“What are you doing here?” Alyce hissed, with one hand on her head.
“Looking to kill you,” Cress said.
“Well, Cressida, actually it’s about sunset and you are supposed to be at the Founding Grounds for the big event.”
“You bitch. You really think I’m going to let you stone me when your boyfriend here seduced me?”
Alyce looked at Brandt like a possum who has just stumbled into a trapper’s cage. He was not meeting her eyes. Instead, he had pulled out his cellphone. Orley tried to stop him. But he was a six-foot tall linebacker. She was a five-foot two long distance runner. She could not reach his arms.
“Run!” Orley shouted to Cress and together they took off towards the entrance. They could see it just there, in reach, and they could also hear the police car sirens blaring in the distance. Cress ran and Orley followed. They were so close to being free. Nothing else mattered but getting through that opening. Orley had made up her mind that she would stop at nothing, not even if Sergeant Malloy pulled her gun.
But when they came close, Sergeant Malloy was not standing at the border. She was in the shed on the phone and didn’t get off when the girls came running through. They ran and they ran until their legs couldn’t move any longer. They both stopped, breath and heart pounding under their rib cage. They looked back but could no longer see the road or the wall leading to Stone. But they heard a whisper on the wind bringing them news.
It was Alyce’s voice saying “Let them go. I know what I must do.”
Alyce stood in the center of the Founding Grounds on top of a small platform lined with plastic. She was wearing her grandmother’s soft pink lace dress, and her wavy hair was pulled off her face and attached with a mother of pearl hair clip. If a stranger had come upon her they would have commented on her elegance, her beauty, and her excellent posture, even with an unsightly bump on her head. She was a true Stone debutante. A wisp of hair blew across her delicate features and she went to reach it to toss it aside, but then remembered that her arms were tied behind her back.
She squinted at the setting sun and then took a deep breath. “I am part of history. I am what makes this town of Stone remain true and good. My grandmother would be proud of me. And my ancestors will remember me as a true Stone, someone who helped bring the community together.”
When the bell began to toll she closed her eyes, smiled, and let the stones hit her until she crumbled to the ground. Her final thought, intertwined with her spirit, left her body with the zeal of youth: Yes, it was all worth it. And I would do it again if tradition asked it of me.