فصل 14کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 15
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It’s getting on toward dark by the time the viewing party slows down, and the workers start gathering kids to put them into cars and take them back home. By then, I almost don’t want to go. All afternoon long, there’ve been cookies and ice cream and licorice whips and cake and milk and sandwiches and coloring books and new boxes of Crayola colors and dolls for the girls and tin toy cars for the boys.
I’m so stuffed, I can hardly move. After three weeks of not enough food, this place tastes better than anything.
I feel bad that Camellia is missing it all, but then I don’t know if she would put up with it either. She doesn’t like to be cuddled…or touched. I steal a cookie for her and slip it in the front pocket of my pinafore dress and hope nobody checks us over before we leave.
The people all call us dearie and sweetie pie and Oh, precious! So does Miss Tann while we’re here. Just like at the bookmobile, she tells tales that aren’t true. Her eyes twinkle, and she smiles, like she’s enjoying getting away with it.
Just like at the bookmobile, I keep my mouth shut about what is true.
“They’re perfect in every way,” she says to the guests over and over. “Wonderful physical specimens and mentally advanced for their ages as well. Many come from parents with talents in music and art. Blank slates just waiting to be filled. They can become anything you want them to be.”
“He’s a fine little thing, isn’t he?” she asks a man and a wife who’ve been holding on to Gabion all day. They’ve played ball and cars, and the man tossed Gabby in the air while he giggled.
Now that it’s time to leave, the lady doesn’t want to give Gabby back. She walks all the way to the front door, and my baby brother holds on around her neck just like Fern is holding on around mine.
“I ’anna ’tay,” Gabby whines.
“We gotta go.” I shift Fern to my other hip as Mrs. Pulnik tries to shoo us forward onto the porch. I don’t blame Gabby for fussing. I hate that we have to go back to Mrs. Murphy’s house too. I’d rather watch Fern read some more books with the nice lady, but the lady left just a little while ago with her mister. She kissed Fern on the head and said, “We’ll see you soon, dearest,” before she handed Fern to me.
“Gab…” I stop myself just before saying the name that’ll get me popped in the head at Mrs. Murphy’s house if Mrs. Pulnik hears me. “Robby, you can’t stay here. Come on, now. We need to find out what happened to Huckleberry Finn and Jim once they got downriver to Arkansas, remember?” I stretch out one arm to him because the other’s holding Fern. Gabby won’t come, and the woman won’t let go either. “We’ll read the book when we get back to Mrs. Murphy’s. Tell the nice lady goodbye.”
“Silence!” Miss Tann looks my way with fire in her eyes, and I pull back, letting my arm drop so quick it makes a loud slap against my leg.
Miss Tann smiles at the woman, then swirls a finger in Gabby’s hair. “Isn’t our little Robby adorable? So charming.” Just as quick as she got mean, she’s friendly again. “I think you’ve hit it off with him.”
“Yes, very much so.”
The lady’s husband steps closer. He gives the collar of his suit jacket a quick tug so that it’s good and straight. “Perhaps we should chat a bit. Certainly arrangements can be made so that…”
“Quite possibly.” Miss Tann doesn’t wait for him to finish. “But I must warn you, this little darling is definitely a popular one. I’ve had several ask after him already. Those lovely blue eyes with the dark lashes and the golden curls. Such a rarity. Like a little angel. He could charm most any mother’s heart.”
They all look at my brother. The man reaches across and pinches Gabby’s cheek, and he baby-laughs real cute. He hasn’t giggled like that since the police took us off the Arcadia. I’m glad he’s happy, even if it’s just for today.
“Take the other children outside.” Miss Tann’s voice goes low and flat. She leans close to Mrs. Pulnik and whispers through her teeth, “Put them in the cars. Wait five minutes there before you let the driver pull away.” Even a little lower, she adds, “But I don’t think we’ll be needing you.”
Mrs. Pulnik clears her throat and uses a friendly, happy voice we never hear at Mrs. Murphy’s house. “To the cars with all of you. Come alongk.”
Lark, Stevie, and the other kids scurry to the porch. Fern kicks her feet against my leg and rocks on my hip like she’s trying to make a stubborn pony walk out of the barn.
“But Ga…Robby.” Roots grow under my feet, and I’m not even sure why at first. The people just want to hug and kiss on Gabby a little more. They like to play with little boys. I’ve been keeping an eye on Gabby, Lark, and Fern all day, whenever I could get away from the couple of men who wanted to know who I was and why I was here, since I’m older than everybody else. I’ve scampered from room to room and window to window, making sure I knew where the babies were and that nobody was being mean to them.
But in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking about Stevie’s sister, who left Mrs. Murphy’s house and never came back. I know what happens to orphans, which Sherry and Stevie are but we’re not. We’ve got a daddy and a mama who’re coming back for us.
Does the woman who’s been playing with Gabion know that? Did anybody tell her? She doesn’t think he’s an orphan, does she?
I take another step toward my brother. “Here. I can get him.”
The woman turns her shoulder to me. “He’s fine.”
“Outside!” Mrs. Pulnik’s fingers close hard around my arm, and I know what’ll happen if I don’t do what she asks.
I touch Gabby’s little knee and say, “It’s all right. The lady just wants to tell you bye-bye.”
He lifts a fat little hand and waves at me. “Bye-bye,” he repeats. His smile fills with baby teeth. I remember when he cut every single one of those.
“To the car.” Mrs. Pulnik’s jagged fingernails dig into my skin. She tugs me, and I trip over the threshold on the way out, staggering onto the porch and almost dropping Fern.
“Oh, goodness. Is she his sister?” the woman with Gabion worries.
“No, certainly not,” Miss Tann says, lying again. “The little ones become attached to the older ones in the home. That is all. It can’t be helped. They forget just as quickly, of course. The only sibling to this little fellow is an infant girl. Newborn. Adopted by a very prominent family, no less. So, you can see that he is no ordinary little boy. You’ve picked out our finest. The mother was a college graduate, an extremely intelligent girl. Died during the birthing process, unfortunately, and the children were abandoned by their father. But they’re no worse for the wear. And wouldn’t this one be adorable on your California beaches? Of course, our out-of-state adoptions do involve special fees….”
Those are the last words I hear before Mrs. Pulnik drags me down the porch steps, telling me under her breath what Mrs. Murphy will do to me if I don’t step it up. Her grip wrenches my arm until I’m sure it’s gonna break.
I don’t even care. I can’t feel anything—not the summer-dry grass crunching under my feet, not the stiff shoes the workers gave me this morning. Not the hot, sticky evening air or the too-tight dress tugging when Fern kicks and wiggles and reaches over my shoulder, whimpering, “Gabby…Gabby…”
I’m cold on the outside, like I just fell off in the winter river and all the blood’s gone deep down inside to try to keep me from freezing to death. My arms and legs seem like they’re somebody else’s. They move, but only because they know what they’re supposed to do, not because I tell them.
Mrs. Pulnik throws Fern and me in the car with the rest of the kids and gets in beside me. I sit stiff and stare toward the big house and wait for the door to open and someone to bring Gabion across the yard. I wish for it so hard, the wishing hurts.
“Where’s Gabby?” Fern whispers into my ear, and Lark watches me with her sad, quiet eyes. She hasn’t said much since we came to Mrs. Murphy’s, and she won’t now either, but still I hear her. You gotta get Gabion, she’s telling me.
I picture him coming across the yard.
I try to think.
What should I do?
Mrs. Pulnik’s wristwatch ticks. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Miss Tann’s words flit through my mind, zipping off the way water striders do when someone throws a rock in the river. They go all directions at once.
Died during the birthing process…
My mama’s dead?
…the children were abandoned….
Briny’s not coming back for us?
The only sibling to this little fellow is an infant girl. Newborn.
One of the babies didn’t die at the hospital? I have a new little sister? Miss Tann gave her to somebody? Is that a lie? Is all of it a lie? Miss Tann can tell a fib so smooth and easy, it seems like even she believes it. Gabby doesn’t have a mama who’s a college student. Queenie’s smart, but she only got through the eighth grade before she met Briny and took off for the river.
It’s lies, I tell myself. Everything she says is a lie. It’s gotta be.
She’s trying to make the party people happy, but they’ll have to give Gabion back because Miss Tann knows our daddy’s coming to get us soon’s he can. Briny would never give us up. He’d never let a lady like Miss Tann take my new baby sister, if I had one. Never. Ever. He’d die first.
Is Briny dead? Is that why he hasn’t come for us?
The car starts, and I jerk toward the window, pushing Fern off my lap. She slides into the seat as I grab hold of the door handle. I’ll run back to the house, and I’ll tell those people the truth. I’ll tell them Miss Tann is a liar. I don’t care what they do to me after.
Before anything else can happen, Mrs. Pulnik has me by the big, fancy hair bow one of the workers prettied me up with this morning. Fern squirms out from between us and lands on the floor with Stevie and Lark.
“You will behave.” Mrs. Pulnik’s lips touch my ear, her breath hot and sour. It smells of Mrs. Murphy’s whiskey. “Shouldt you not, Mrs. Murphy will gif you the closet. And not only will this be for you. We will be tying all of you and leavingk you there, hangingk like shoes by the laces. The closet is cold. And it is dark. Will the little ones enjoy the dark, do you think?”
My heart beats wild as she yanks my head back. My neck crackles and snaps. Hair pops loose from the roots. A white flash of pain shoots over my eyes.
“Is that understoodt?”
I do my best to nod.
She throws me against the door, and my head bounces off the glass. “I did not imagine any troubles would be comingk from you.”
Tears storm into my eyes, and I blink hard against them. I won’t cry. I won’t.
The seat bends, sucking me closer to Mrs. Pulnik’s bulky body. She lets out a purring sigh, like a cat in a sunny chair. “Driver, take us to home now. It is time.”
I worm away and watch out the window as long as I can until the white house with its big columns is gone.
Nobody in the car says a word. Fern crawls back into my lap and we all sit still as stones.
On the way back to Mrs. Murphy’s, I look for the river. A little dream finds its way into my mind while Fern hangs on around my neck, and Lark rests against my knee, and Stevie huddles between my feet, his fingers squeezed over the buckles on my shoes. I pretend that when we pass by the river the Arcadia will be there, and Briny will see the car.
In my daydream, he runs up the banks and makes the driver stop. Briny opens the door and pulls us out, all of us, even Stevie. When Mrs. Pulnik tries to get in his way, he slugs her in the nose, just like he would if someone tried to steal from him in a pool hall. Briny kidnaps us the way Huck Finn’s daddy does in the story, but Huck’s daddy was a bad man, and Briny is good.
He goes back to the house and gets Gabion away from Miss Tann and carries us to a far-off place.
But my dream isn’t true. The river comes and goes. There’s no sign of the Arcadia, and soon enough, the shadow of Mrs. Murphy’s house covers the car. Inside my skin, I’m empty and cold, like the Indian caves where Briny took us camping one time when we hiked up over the bluffs. There were bones in the caves. Dead bones of people who are gone. There are dead bones in me.
Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. She doesn’t live here. Only May Weathers does. Rill Foss lives down on the river. She’s the princess of Kingdom Arcadia.
It’s when we’re marching up Mrs. Murphy’s sidewalk that I think about Camellia. I feel guilty for imagining that Briny rescued us from the car, that he took us away without Camellia.
I’m scared of what she’ll say when I tell her we haven’t got Gabion with us—that I hope he’s coming later on. Camellia will say I should’ve fought harder, that I should’ve bit and scratched and screamed the way she would have. Maybe that’s right. Maybe I deserve to hear it. Could be I’m just too chicken, but I don’t want to get the closet. I don’t want them to put my little sisters in there either.
Dread steals over me when we get inside. It’s the kind of dread that comes on a swolled-up river when the spring melt happens and you see an ice floe headed straight for the boat. Sometimes, the ice is so big that you know there’s no chance of pushing it away with a boathook. It’s about to hit and hit hard, and if the edge slices the hull, you’re sunk.
It’s all I can do not to shake off the babies and turn around and run out Mrs. Murphy’s door before it closes behind us. The house stinks of mold, and bathroom smells, and Mrs. Murphy’s perfume and whiskey. The smells grab me by the throat, and I can’t breathe, and I’m glad when we’re told to go outside because the kids haven’t come in for supper yet.
“And the clothes are not to be soiledt!” Mrs. Pulnik hollers after us.
I look for Camellia in the places where I told her to stay, the safe places. She’s not at any of them. The big boys don’t answer when I ask where she is. They just shrug and go on playing a game of conkers with the buckeyes they pick by the back fence.
Camellia’s not digging in the dirt, or swinging on the swings, or playing house in the shade under the trees. All the other kids are here, but not Camellia.
For the second time in one day, my heart feels like it’ll bust out of my chest. What if they’ve taken her away? What if she threw a fit after we left, and she got herself in trouble?
“Camellia!” I holler, and then listen, but there are only the voices of the other kids. My sister doesn’t answer. “Camellia!”
I’m headed for the side of the house, for the azalea bushes, when I see her. She’s sitting on the corner of the porch with her legs pulled tight to her chest and her face buried. Her black hair and her skin are gray with dirt. It looks like she’s been in a scrape with somebody while I was gone. There’re scratches on her arm, and she’s got a skinned knee.
Maybe that’s why the big boys wouldn’t tell me where she was. Probably they’re the ones she tangled with.
I leave the little kids by the persimmons and tell them to stay right there and not to wander, and I go up the stairs and walk down the long porch to Camellia. My stiff shoes echo against the wood, clack, clack, clack, but my sister never moves.
“Camellia?” Sitting would get my dress dirty, so I squat down beside her. Maybe she’s sleeping. “Camellia? I brought you something. It’s in my pocket. Let’s go out on the hill where nobody can see, and I’ll give it to you.”
She doesn’t answer. I touch her hair, and she jerks away. A little gray cloud puffs out as my hand slides toward her shoulder. It smells like ashes but not like a fireplace exactly. I know the smell, except I can’t place it. “What’d you get yourself into while we were gone?”
I touch her again, and she ducks her shoulder in but lifts her head. She’s got a bump on her lip, and there are four round bruises on her chin. Her eyes are puffy and red, like she’s been crying, but it’s the look inside them that bothers me most. It’s like I’m staring through a window into an empty room. There’s nothing inside but the dark.
The smell comes off her again, and all of a sudden, I know it. Coal ash. Whenever we tied up the Arcadia near railroad tracks, we’d gather up coal that’d fallen off the trains. Heating and cooking. Free for the taking, Briny always said.
Has Briny been here?
As soon as I think it, I know how wrong I am. I know how wrong this is. Something terrible happened while I was gone. “What’s the matter?” I drop down to the porch, too scared to care about my dress. Little splinters poke my legs. “Camellia, what happened?”
Her lips hang open but don’t make a sound. A tear squeezes from her eye and cuts a pink river through the coal dust.
“Tell me.” I lean down to see her better, but she turns and stares the other way. Her hand is knotted in a fist between us. I take it in mine, pry open her fingers to see what she’s holding, and the minute I do, all the cookies and ice cream from the party come up in my throat. Dirty, round peppermints are stuck so tight to my sister’s palm, they’re melted into her skin.
I close my eyes and shake my head and try not to know, but I do. My mind drags me kicking and screaming to Mrs. Murphy’s cellar, into the dark corner behind the stairs where ash coats the coal bin and the boiler furnace. I see thin, strong arms fighting, legs thrashing around. I see a big hand closing over a screaming mouth, the dirty, oily fingers squeezing so hard they leave four round bruises.
I want to run in the house, yell, and scream. I want to smack Camellia for being stubborn and going over by the azaleas when I told her not to. I want to grab her and hold her close and make everything better. I don’t know exactly what Riggs did to her, but I know it’s bad. I also know that, if we tell, he’ll make my sister fall out of a tree and hit her head. Maybe he’ll even do the same to me. Then who’ll take care of the babies? Who’ll wait for Gabion to come back?
I grab my sister’s hand, slap away the peppermints, and let them bounce onto the porch and fall into the flower bed, where they disappear under a trumpet vine.
She doesn’t fight when I pull her to her feet. “Come on. If they see you looking like this when the dinner bell rings, they’ll think you been fighting, and you’ll get the closet.”
I drag her down the porch like a tow sack of wheat and haul her to the rain barrel and, little by little, pour the water over her skin and wash her off, best I can.
“You tell them you fell off the swing.” Even though I’m holding her face in my hands, she won’t look at me. “You hear? Anybody asks about the skinned places, you say you fell off the swing and that’s all.”
Over on the steps, Fern and Lark and Stevie wait for us, quiet as mice. “Y’all stay put…and leave Camellia be,” I tell them. “She ain’t feelin’ good.”
“Yer tummy hurt?” Fern sidles closer, and so does Lark, and Camellia pushes them away hard. Lark looks at me, confused. She’s usually the only one Camellia does like.
“Let her alone, I said.”
“I see London. I see France!” one of the big boys hollers from halfway across the yard. They always start wandering in about now, so they can be first in the supper line. I don’t know why. We all get the same thing, every single meal.
“You hush up, Danny Boy,” I hiss, and pull Camellia’s dress down over her knees. The workers call him Danny Boy on account of he’s Irish. Red hair and a thousand freckles, just like James had. He marshals their pack now that James is gone. But Danny Boy is mean to the core.
He wanders closer, props his hands on the rope that’s holding up his too-big britches. “Well, ain’t you fine and fancy? Guess even them purdy clothes couldn’t getcha no new mama and daddy.”
“We don’t need a mama and daddy. We got one.”
“Who’d want ya, anyhow?” He catches sight of Camellia’s scratched-up arm and leg, pushes in closer to see. “What happened to her? Looks like she’s been fightin’.”
I step up to Danny Boy. If I have to get the closet to protect my sister, I will. “She fell down and bunged herself around a little. That’s all. You got anything to say about it?”
The dinner bell rings, and we line up before anything else can happen.
Turns out that evening it’s not me getting the closet I need to worry about; it’s Camellia. She’s quiet through supper and doesn’t eat her food, but when it’s time for the bath, she comes alive and throws a wild-eyed fit. She screams like an animal and scratches and kicks and leaves long, red fingernail marks on Mrs. Pulnik’s arm.
It takes three workers to hold Camellia down and drag her to the bathroom. By then, Mrs. Pulnik has me by the hair too. “You are not to speak. Not one wordt, or you will see the consequence.” Fern, Lark, and Stevie cling to each other against the wall.
In the bathroom, Camellia roars and squeals. Water splashes. A bottle shatters. Scrub brushes clatter. The door shakes in its frame.
“Riggs!” Mrs. Pulnik yells down the stairs. “Come with my rope. Bring my rope for the closet!”
And just like that, Camellia’s gone. The last thing I see of her is a worker hauling her off down the hall, caterpillar-wrapped in a bedsheet so she can’t kick or hit.
That night, we’re just three. I don’t take out our book to read it, and my baby sisters don’t beg for more of the story. Lark and Fern and me curl up in one cot together, and I hum one of Queenie’s old songs until my sisters fall asleep. Finally, I drift away too.
Sometime before sunup, Fern wets the bed for the first time since she was two and a half. I don’t even holler at her for it. I just clean it up the best I can and open the basement window the little crack it’ll go. I roll up the wet blanket and Fern’s drawers and stick them under the bushes where hopefully nobody will find them. I’ll sneak through the azaleas later and spread them out so they’ll dry before tonight.
It’s when I’m working to spread the blanket over the branches that the wind catches the leaves and they shudder apart long enough for me to see something. Underneath the gaslight by the street, there are people standing and watching the house. In the dawn dark, I can’t make out faces or clothes, just the outline of a crooked old man and a tall, thin boy.
They look like Zede and Silas.
Just as quick as they were there, the leaves fall back, and they’re gone.
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