فصل 10کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 11
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The room is quiet and wet-smelling. I open my eyes, shut them real tight, let them come open again slow. Sleep haze hangs over me so that I can’t see too clear. It’s like the river fog came crawling through the shanty windows overnight.
Nothing’s where it’s supposed to be. Instead of the Arcadia’s doors and windows, there’re thick stacked-stone walls. The air smells like the closed compartments where we keep crates of stores and fuel. The stink of mold and wet dirt crawls up my nose and stays there.
I hear Lark whine in her sleep. There’s the squeak of hinges instead of the soft rustle of the pull-down pallets where Lark and Fern sleep.
Blinking, I look up and make out one tiny, high-up window near the ceiling. Morning light pushes through, but it’s dull and shadowy.
A bush scrapes over the glass. Its branches raise a soft squeal. A scrappy pink rose hangs down, half-broke.
Everything comes back in a rush. I remember going to bed on the musty-smelling cot, staring out the window at the rose as the day faded and my brother and sisters breathed longer and slower around me.
I remember the worker in the white dress bringing us down the basement stairs and walking us by the furnace and the coal piles to this tiny room.
You’ll sleep here until we find out whether you’re staying for good. No noise and no carrying on. You’re to be quiet. You are not to leave your beds. She pointed us to five folding cots, the kind that soldiers use in their practice camps along the river sometimes.
Then she left and closed the door behind her.
We huddled quiet on our beds, even Camellia. Mostly I was just glad we were by ourselves again, just the five of us. No workers, no other kids watching with curious eyes, worried eyes, sad eyes, mean eyes, hollow eyes that’re dead and hard.
All of what happened yesterday plays in my head like a picture show. I see the Arcadia, the police, Silas, Miss Tann’s car, the bath line upstairs. A sickness runs over me from head to toe. It swallows me like a backwash of stagnant water, hot from the summer sun, poisoned by everything that’s fallen into it.
I feel dirty from the inside out. It’s not got a thing to do with the cloudy bathwater that was brown with the sand and soap of all the kids who’d used it before me, including my sisters and Gabion.
Instead, I see the worker standing over me while I step into the tub, turning my shoulder to hide myself. “Wash.” She points at the soap and the rag. “We ain’t got time for dallyin’. You river rats ain’t exactly known for bein’ prude anyhow, are you?”
I don’t know what she means or how to answer. Maybe I’m not supposed to.
“I said, wash up!” she hollers. “You think I got all day?” I know for sure she doesn’t. I’ve already heard her yell the same thing to other kids. I’ve heard whining and whimpering and sputtering when heads got dunked to rinse them off. Luckily, none of us Foss kids mind going underwater. The babies and even Camellia made it through the bath line without much trouble. I want to do the same, but the woman seems like she’s got it in for me, maybe on account of I’m the oldest.
I squat down over the water because it’s dirty and cold.
She moves to get a better look at me and stares in a way that raises gooseflesh on my skin. “Guess you ain’t too grown-ish to be in with the little girls after all. Won’t be long, though, we’ll have to move you someplace else.”
I turn my shoulder even more and wash quick as I can.
This morning I still feel dirty from having somebody look me over like that. I hope we’ll be gone from here before it’s time for another bath.
I want the little pink rose outside to disappear. I want the window to change, the walls to turn to wood, the cement floor to shift, and melt, and go away. I want old planks worn down by our feet and the river rocking under our beds and the soft sound of Briny playing his harmonica outside on the porch.
I’ve come awake at least ten times overnight. In the wee hours, Fern squeezed herself in beside me, the sagging canvas pulling us together so tight it’s a wonder she can breathe, much less sleep.
Each time I let myself go under, I’m back on the Arcadia again. Each time I wake up, I’m here, in this place, and I try to make sense of it.
You’ll sleep here until we find out whether you’re staying for good….
What’s that mean…for good? Aren’t they taking us to the hospital to see Briny and Queenie now that we’ve stayed the night here and got cleaned up? Are all of us going or just some? I can’t leave the babies here. What if these people hurt them?
I have to protect my brothers and sisters, but I can’t even protect myself.
Tears turn my mouth sticky. I’ve told myself I won’t cry. It’d only scare the little kids. I promised them everything’ll be all right, and so far, they believe it, even Camellia.
I close my eyes, curl around Fern, let the tears come and seep into her hair. Sobs heave through my stomach and push up my chest, and I swallow them like hiccups. Fern sleeps right through it. Maybe her dreams make her think it’s just the river rocking her bunk.
Don’t fall asleep, I tell myself. I have to put Fern back in her own cot before anybody comes. I can’t get us in trouble. The lady told us not to leave our beds.
Just a minute or two more. Just a minute or two, then I’ll get up and make sure everybody’s where they’re supposed to be.
I drift and wake and drift and wake. My heart slams hard against my ribs when I hear somebody breathing nearby—not one of us, somebody bigger. A man. Maybe it’s Briny.
No sooner does the thought come than the scents of old grease and green grass and coal dust and sweat sift into the room. It’s not Briny. He smells of river water and sky. Morning fog in the summer and frost and woodsmoke in the winter.
My mind clears up, and I listen. Feet shuffle a couple steps in the door, then stop. That’s not Briny’s walk.
I pull the covers over Fern’s head, hope she won’t wake up and move just now. It’s still pretty dim, that same faint light coming through the window. Maybe he won’t notice Fern’s not on her cot.
When I turn my head, I can barely see him from the edge of my eye. He’s big, taller and fatter than Briny by a lot, but that’s all I can make out. He’s a shadow, standing there. He doesn’t move or say anything. He just stands and looks.
My nose runs from all the crying, but I don’t wipe it or sniffle. I don’t want him to know I’m awake. Why is he here?
Camellia rolls over in her bed.
No, I think. Ssshhhh. Is she looking at him? Can he see whether her eyes are open?
He moves into the room. Moves, then stops, then moves, then stops. He bends over Lark’s cot, touches her pillow. He stumbles a little and bumps the wood frame.
I watch through the narrow slits of my eyes. He comes to my cot next, looks down for a minute. The pillow rustles near my head. He touches it twice, real light.
Then he stops at the other cots and finally leaves and closes the door.
I let out the breath I’ve been holding and suck in another one and catch the smell of peppermint. When I throw off the covers and wake Fern, there’re two little white candies on the pillow. They make me think of Briny right off. When Briny hustles money at a pool hall or works on a showboat that’s docked up, he always comes back to the Arcadia with a roll of Beech-Nut Luster-Mints in his pocket. They’re the best kind. Briny plays little riddle games with us, and if we get the answers right, we get a candy. If there’s two redbirds up a tree and one on the ground and three bluebirds in a bush and four on the ground and a big ol’ crow on the fence and an owl in the barn stall, how many birds on the ground?
The older you are, the tougher the questions get. The tougher the questions get, the better the Beech-Nut candies taste.
The peppermint smell makes me want to run to the door and look out and see if Briny’s here. But these peppermints are another kind. They don’t feel right in my fist when I scoop them up and carry Fern to her bed.
By the door, Camellia pops hers into her mouth and munches it.
I think about leaving the peppermints on the little kids’ pillows, but instead, I decide it’d be better to pick them up. If the workers come, I’m afraid we might get in trouble for having them.
“Stealer!” Camellia talks for the first time since the bath line last night. She’s sitting up in her bed, the shoulder of a too-big nighty sagging halfway down her arm. After the baths, one of the workers rooted through a pile and handed us these to wear. “He gave us each a candy. You can’t have ’em all. That ain’t fair.”
“Ssshhh!” She’s so loud, I half expect the door to swing open and we’ll all be in a fix. “I’m saving them for everybody for later.”
“Am not.” Sure enough, Camellia’s back to herself today, but like usual in the morning, she’s in a mood. She don’t wake up easy, even with peppermints. Most times, I’d square off with her, but right now, I’m too tired for it. “I’m saving them till later, I said. I don’t want us to get in trouble.”
My sister’s bony shoulders sag. “We already got trouble.” Her black hair falls forward in mats, like a horse’s tail. “What’re we gonna do, Rill?”
“We’re gonna be good so’s the people will take us to Briny. You can’t try to run away anymore, Camellia. You can’t fight them, okay? If we make them mad, they won’t take us.”
She stares hard at me, her brown eyes squinted into slits so that she looks like the Chinamen who wash river town laundry in big, boiling kettles along the bank. “You think they’ll take us, for sure? Today?”
“If we’re good.” I hope it’s not a lie, but maybe it is.
“Why’d they bring us here?” The question chokes her. “Why didn’t they just leave us be?”
My mind scrambles around, trying to figure it out. I need to explain it to myself as much as to Camellia. “I think it’s a mistake. They must’ve figured Briny wasn’t comin’ back to look after us. But Briny’ll tell them soon’s he finds out that we’re gone. He’ll tell them this is all somebody’s big mistake, and he’ll take us home.”
“Today, though?” Her chin quivers, and she pushes her bottom lip up hard, bolts it the way she does when she’s about to pick a fight with a boy.
“I bet today. I bet today for sure.”
She sniffs and wipes snot with her arm. “I ain’t lettin’ them women get me in that bathtub again, Rill. I ain’t.”
“What’d they do to you, Camellia?”
“Nothin’.” Her chin pokes up. “They just ain’t gettin’ me in there again, that’s all.” She stretches a hand toward me, opens it. “If you ain’t gonna give them candies to everybody, let me have ’em. I’m starved.”
“We’ll save the rest for later….If we get to go outside where the kids were yesterday, I’ll pull them out then.”
“You said Briny was gonna come later.”
“I don’t know when. I just know he will.”
She screws her lips to one side like she’s not believing it for one minute, then turns herself toward the door. “Maybe that man can help us get away. The one who brung us the peppermints. He’s our friend.”
I’ve already thought about that. But who was the man? Why did he come in here? Does he want to be our friend? He’s the first one who’s been nice to us at Mrs. Murphy’s house.
“We’ll wait for Briny,” I say. “We’ve just gotta be good till then, that’s—”
The door handle rattles. Camellia and I fall into our beds both at the same time and pretend we’re sleeping. My heart pumps under the scratchy blanket. Who’s out there? Is it our new friend or someone else? Did they hear us talking?
I don’t have long to wonder. A brown-haired lady in a white dress comes in. I watch her through a thin place in the blanket. She’s stout as a lumberjack and round in the middle. She isn’t one of the women we saw yesterday.
At the door, she frowns, then looks toward our beds, then at the keys in her hand. “All of you, out of bet.” She talks like the family from Norway whose boat was tied up down the way from ours for a month last summer. Bed sounds like bet, but I know what she means. She doesn’t seem mad, really, just tired. “On your feet, and folt the blankets.”
We scramble up, all except Gabion. I have to rustle him from his cot, and he stumbles around and lands on his rear while I take care of the blankets.
“Someone else was in this room duringk the night, yes?” She holds up a key pinched between her fingers.
Should we tell her about the man with the peppermints? Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be in our room? Maybe we’ll get in trouble if they find out we didn’t tell.
“No’m. Not nobody. Just us,” Camellia answers before I can.
“And you are the troublemakingk one, I am tolt.” A hard look comes Camellia’s way, and my sister shrinks a little.
“Nobody came in.” I have to lie too. What else can I do now that Camellia told a fib? “Unless it happened while we were sleepin’.”
The woman pulls the chain on the lightbulb overhead. It flickers, and we blink and squint. “This door shouldt have been lockedt. It was, yes?”
“We dunno,” Camellia pipes up. “We was in our beds the whole night.”
The woman looks at me, and I nod, then make myself busy with cleaning up the room. I want to get rid of the peppermints, but I’m too scared to, so I keep them stuck in my hand, which makes it hard to fold the blankets, but the lady doesn’t notice. Mostly, she’s just in a hurry to get us out of there.
When we leave the room, I see the big man standing there in the basement, leaning on a broom handle next to the fat black boiler stove with slats that look like the mouth on a Halloween pumpkin. The man watches us go by. Camellia smiles over at him, and he smiles back. His teeth are old and ugly, and his thin brown hair hangs down around his face in sweaty strings, but still, the smile is nice to see.
Maybe we do have a friend here after all.
“Mr. Riggs, if you have nothingk else that must be done, see to the branch that has fallen in the yardt duringk the night,” the woman says, “before the children are goingk out.”
“Yes’m, Mrs. Pulnik.” His lips curve up at the edges, and he moves the broom a little as Mrs. Pulnik starts up the stairs, but he doesn’t sweep anything.
Camellia looks back over her shoulder, and he winks at her. The wink makes me think of Briny, so maybe I do like Mr. Riggs a little bit.
Upstairs, Mrs. Pulnik takes us to the laundry room and gives us some things off a pile. She calls them playclothes, but they’re really not much more than rags. She tells us to get ourselves dressed and use the bathroom, and we do, and breakfast looks a lot like the supper they gave us last night after the bath—a little scoop of cornmeal mush. We’re late getting to the table. The other kids have already gone to play. After we’ve scraped our bowls clean, we’re told to get outside too and not to try leaving the backyard and the churchyard, or else.
“Andt you will not be goingk near to the fence.” Mrs. Pulnik grabs Camellia’s arm and Lark’s before we can make it through the door. She leans over us with her round cheeks red and sweat shiny. “A boy tunneledt underneat yesterday. Mrs. Murphy has given him the closet. To be given the closet is very, very bat. In the closet, it is dark. Do you understandt?”
“Yes’m,” I croak out, picking up Gabby and reaching for Lark to get her away. She’s standing still as a stump, not a thing moving but the big old tears dripping down her cheeks. “I’ll make sure they mind the rules till we can go see our mama and daddy.”
Mrs. Pulnik’s big lips push together and curl. “Goot,” she says. “This is a wise choice for you. All of you.”
We get out the door quick as we can. The sun feels like heaven, and the sky stretches out big between the poplars and maples, and the bare dirt at the bottom of the steps is cool and soft. Safe. I close my eyes and listen to the leaves talking and the birds singing their morning songs. I pick out their voices, one by one, Carolina wren, redbird, house finch. The same birds that were there yesterday morning when I woke up on our little shantyboat.
The little girls grab on to my dress, and Gabby hitches himself back against my arms, trying to get down, and Camellia complains that we’re just standing there. I open my eyes, and she’s looking at the tall black iron fence that circles the yard. Honeysuckle and prickly holly and azaleas grow thick over most of it, higher than our heads. There’s only one gate that I can see, and it goes to the playground behind the run-down church house next door. That’s got more of the same fence around it too.
Camellia’s way too big to squeeze under, but she looks like she’s searching for the best spot to try it.
“Let’s go over on the swings at least,” she whines. “We can watch the road from there…for when Briny comes to get us.”
We move across the yard, Gabion in my arms and my sisters in a tight knot behind me, even Camellia, who usually picks a fight at every school we go to quicker than you can say spit. The kids eyeball us because we’re new. We pretend we don’t notice it. We’re usually good at this game—don’t act too friendly; look out for each other; let them know that if they mess with one of you, they’d better be able to whip the bunch of you. But this time it’s different. We don’t know the rules in this place. There’s no teacher around watching. There’s not a grown-up in sight. Nobody but kids, all stopping their games of jump rope and Red Rover to stare at us.
I don’t see the little girl who came with us from the river yesterday. Her baby brother—the one Miss Tann named Stevie—sits in the dirt with a tin truck that’s missing all its paint and one wheel.
“Where’s your sister?” I squat down beside him, Gabion’s weight putting me off balance so that I have to brace a hand on the ground to keep from falling over.
Stevie’s shoulders lift and fall, and his big brown eyes turn watery.
“You can come with us,” I tell him.
Camellia grumbles, “He ain’t our problem.”
I tell her to hush.
Stevie rolls a pouty lip and nods and lifts both arms. There’s a big bite mark on one of them, and I wonder who did it. I scoop him up and push myself back to my feet. He’s older than Gabion, but he weighs about the same. He’s a skinny little thing.
Two girls playing with dented tin dishes look our way. They’ve raked the old dead leaves and made a pretending spot in the shade of the well house, like Camellia and I do in the woods sometimes. “You wanna play?” one of them asks.
“Bugger off,” Camellia snaps. “We ain’t got time. We’re goin’ over to the churchyard to watch for our daddy.”
“You hadn’t oughta.” The girls turn back to their game, and we move on along.
At the gate to the churchyard, a big boy pops out from behind the hollies. Now I see they’ve got a tunneled-out spot in the bushes. There’s four or five of them back there with a deck of cards. One’s carving a spear with his pocketknife. He gives me a squinty look and tests the sharp point with his finger.
The big redheaded boy stands in the gate, his arms crossed over his chest. “You come down here,” he says, like he’s in charge of me. “They can go over and play.” It’s clear enough what he means. He wants me to clamber up under the bushes with the four of them. Otherwise my brother and my sisters can’t go in the churchyard.
My face turns hot. I feel the blood pouring in. What’s he got in mind?
Camellia says what’s just gone through my head. “We ain’t goin’ no place with you.” She braces her feet apart and pokes her chin out about even with his chest. “You ain’t the boss of us.”
“I ain’t talkin’ to you, mudpuppy. You’re hound-dog ugly. Anybody ever tell you that? I’m talkin’ to your pretty sister here.”
Camellia’s eyes bug out. She’s on her way to getting full-out mad. “Ain’t ugly as you, carrothead. Your mama cry when you was born? Bet she did!”
I hand Gabby over to Fern. Little Stevie doesn’t want to turn loose. His arms stay locked tight around my neck. If we’re gonna have a fight, I don’t need a baby hanging on me. The redheaded boy is probably more than Camellia and me can handle, and if his chums come out of there, we’re in real trouble. There’s still no workers anyplace in sight, and one of those ugly mugs has a knife.
The redhead’s nostrils flare, and he uncrosses his arms. Here it comes. Camellia’s put in a bid we can’t pay this time. The boy stands at least a half foot taller than me, and I’m tall.
My mind runs like a squirrel on a spring day, jumping from branch to branch. Think. Think of something.
Always use your brains, Rill, Briny says in my mind, and you’ll find your way out of a scrape quicker’n anything.
“I got peppermints,” I blabber, and reach into the pocket of my borrowed dress. “You can have the whole bunch, but you gotta let us pass.”
The boy pulls his chin back and squints at me. “Where’d you get peppermints?”
“I ain’t a liar.” I can barely choke out the four words because Stevie’s hanging on to me so tight. “You gonna let us pass or not?”
“You gimme the peppermints.” The other rowdies are already shinnying out of their hidey-hole so they can grab their share.
“Those are ours!” Camellia argues.
“Be quiet.” I pull out the mints. They’re a little dirty from being stuck to my hand this morning, but I don’t reckon these boys care.
The redhead opens his fingers, and I dump the candy in. He lifts it up so close to his face, his eyes go crossed, and he looks even dumber than before. A slow, mean smile spreads his lips. He’s got a chipped tooth in front. “You get these from ol’ Riggs?”
I don’t want to bring trouble on the man from the basement. He’s the only one who’s been nice to us so far. “Ain’t your business.”
“He’s our friend.” Camellia can’t keep her mouth shut. Maybe she thinks it’ll scare the boys if they know the big man likes us.
But the redheaded boy just grins. He leans close to my ear, near enough that I can smell his stinky breath and feel his heat on my skin. He whispers, “Don’t let Riggs get you off by yourself. He ain’t the kind of friend you want.”
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