Stella by Starlight
1 Flames Across the Water
Nine robed figures dressed all in white. Heads covered with softly pointed hoods. Against the black of night, a single wooden cross blazed. Reflections of peppery-red flames shimmered across the otherwise dark surface of Kilkenny Pond.
Two children, crouched behind the low-hanging branches of a hulking oak tree on the other side of the pond, watched the flickers of scarlet in the distance in fearful silence. Dressed only in nightshirts, Stella Mills and her brother Jojo shivered in the midnight October chill.
Stella yanked the boy close, dry leaves crunching beneath his bare feet. “Shh!” she whispered, holding him tightly. “Don’t move!”
Jojo squirmed out of her grasp. “It was me that saw ’em first!” he protested. “You’d still be ’sleep if I hadn’t come and got you. So lemme see!”
Stella covered her brother’s lips with her fingers to quiet him. Even though her toes were numb with cold and she knew they needed to get out of there, she could not take her eyes from the horror glimmering toward them from across the pond. “Do you know what would happen if they saw us?” she whispered, shifting her stinging feet, the crushing of dry leaves seeming far too loud.
Jojo pressed himself closer to her in answer.
Besides the traitorous leaves, Stella could hear a pair of bullfrogs ba-rupping to each other, but nothing, not a single human voice, from across the pond. She could, however, smell the charring pine, tinged with . . . what? She sniffed deeper—it was acrid, harsh. Kerosene. A trail of gray smoke snaked up to the sky, merging with the clouds.
“Who are they?” Jojo whispered, stealing another glance.
“The Klan.” Just saying those words made Stella’s lips quiver.
The Ku Klux Klan.
“What are they doing?”
“Practicing, I think.”
Stella paused and smoothed his bushy hair, trying to figure out the best way to answer. Jojo was only eight.
“Nothing good,” she said at last.
A horse whinnied in the distance—it sounded nervous. And there, in the shadows of the trees across the pond, Stella could make out half a dozen of them. The flames must be scaring them, too, she thought. The horses began to stamp and snort as the fire flared.
Stella inched forward, trying to get a better look. One of the harnesses seemed to sparkle in the darkness. Or was it just a stray ember from the flames? The men in the white hoods were now all raising their arms to the sky, and they cried out as one, but their exact words were muffled by cloth and wind.
“Jojo, we’ve gotta get out of here!” she whispered, now edging backward.
“Should we tell Mama and Papa?” Jojo asked.
Stella did not answer her brother. Instead she caught his hand in her tightest grip and ran.