فصل 16کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 17
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“Rise and shine. Looks like finally some sun today!” Miss Dodd says as she unlocks the door to the basement room. Miss Dodd is new here, since two days ago. She’s younger than the others, and nicer too. If I can get her alone, I plan to ask after Camellia. Nobody will tell me where my sister is. Mrs. Pulnik said to shut my yap about it and stop bothering the workers.
Danny Boy says Camellia’s dead. He says he woke up and heard Mrs. Murphy telling Riggs that Camellia died after they put her in the closet and what to do about it. Danny Boy says Riggs carried her body out to the truck to go dump it in the swamp. He saw the whole thing with his own two eyes. He says my sister’s gone, and good riddance.
I don’t believe a word that comes out of Danny Boy. He’s hateful clean through to the bone.
Miss Dodd will tell me the truth.
Right now, she’s more worried about the stink in the room. It’s moldy and drippy down here when it rains, and on top of that, Fern’s been wetting the bed every night since they took away Camellia and Gabion. I tell Fern not to, but it doesn’t help.
“Mercy, that smell!” Miss Dodd gives us a worried look. “This ain’t a fit place for children.”
I move between her and the wet cot. I’ve piled it with covers because that’s all I can figure out to do to hide it. “I…I spilled the slop pot.”
She looks at the corner. The cement is dry under the pot. “Did somebody have an accident in the bed?”
Tears pop into my eyes, and Lark backs away toward the corner, taking Fern with her. I grab Miss Dodd’s apron and duck my head away at the same time because I’m expecting a smack. Even so, I’ve got to keep her from going upstairs to get Mrs. Pulnik. “Don’t tell.”
Miss Dodd’s brown eyelashes flutter over soft gray-green eyes. “Why in the name a’ Saint Francis not? We’ll just wipe up the mess, and it’ll be all right.”
“Fern will get in trouble.” I guess Miss Dodd doesn’t know yet what happens to kids who wet the bed around here.
“Oh, heaven’s sake. No she won’t.”
“Please…” Panic runs inside me like a flood tide. “Please don’t tell.” I can’t lose Fern and Lark. I don’t know for sure what’s happened to Camellia, and after four days, I figure those people won’t be giving Gabby back either. I’ve lost my brother. Camellia’s gone. Lark and Fern are all I’ve got left.
Miss Dodd puts her hands on either side of my face and holds me real gentle. “Ssshhh. Hush up, now. I’ll see it’s took care of. Don’t you fret, little pea. We’ll keep it just ’tween us.”
My tears just come harder. Nobody’s held me this way since Queenie.
“Quieten down, now.” Miss Dodd looks over her shoulder nervous-like. “We best get upstairs before they come lookin’ for us.”
I nod and choke out “Yes’m.” It’d be the worst thing if I got Miss Dodd in trouble. I heard her tell one of the kitchen women that her daddy died last year and her mama’s sick with the dropsy and she’s got four little brothers and sisters living on a farm up in north Shelby County. Miss Dodd walked and hitched rides to Memphis to find work so’s she could send the money home.
Miss Dodd needs this job.
We need Miss Dodd.
I get Fern and Lark together, and we march through the door ahead of Miss Dodd. Riggs is hanging around by the boiler, nosy as a kitchen-door dog. Like always, I keep my head down and watch him from the corner of my eye.
“Mr. Riggs,” Miss Dodd says just before we get to the stairs, “I’m wonderin’ if you could do me a favor? Ain’t no need in tellin’ nobody about it.”
Before I can stop her, she asks, “You think you might could mix up some Clorox and water and rub it over the cot that’s settin’ there by the door? Just leave me the bucket when you’re done. I’ll wash up the rest afterwhile.”
“Yes’m. I’ll d-do it for ya. I sure will.” His crooked teeth poke out of his smile, long and yellow like a beaver’s. “Reckon these kids’ll b-be movin’ up-upstairs soon.” He waves at us with the handle of his shovel.
“The sooner the better.” Miss Dodd doesn’t know how wrong she is. Once we get upstairs, there won’t be a locked door between us and Riggs. “A room in the basement ain’t right for young’uns.”
“And if the house caught fire, they could wind up trapped.”
“If there’s a f-fire, I’d b-b-bust down that door. I w-would.”
“You’re a good man, Mr. Riggs.”
Miss Dodd don’t know the truth about Mr. Riggs. She just don’t.
“And no need in tellin’ nobody about the cleanin’,” she reminds him. “It’ll be our secret.”
Riggs just smiles and watches us, his eyes white around the edges and winter-bear crazy. You see a bear moving in the winter, you better look out. He’s hungry and he aims to find something to fill that hunger. He won’t care much what it is.
Riggs’s look stays with me through breakfast and even later in the day when the yard’s finally dry enough for us to go outside. Crossing the porch, I look down at the corner and think about Camellia and wonder, Could Danny Boy be telling it true? Could my sister be dead?
It’d be my fault. I’m the oldest. I was supposed to look after everybody. That was the last thing Briny told me before he hurried off across the river. You watch over the babies, Rill. Keep care of everybody, till we get back.
Even the name sounds strange in my mind now. People keep calling me May. Maybe Rill’s still on the river someplace with Camellia, and Lark, and Fern, and Gabion. Maybe they’re drifting down in the lazy low-water summer currents, watching boats pass and barges go by and Cooper’s hawks circle wide and slow, hunting for fish to dive after.
Maybe Rill is only a story I read, like Huck Finn and Jim. Maybe I’m not even Rill and never was.
I turn and run down the steps and across the yard, my dress sweeping up around my legs. I stretch out my arms and throw back my head and make my own breeze, and for a minute, I find Rill again. I’m her. I’m on the Arcadia, our little piece of heaven.
I don’t stop when I get to the gate where the big boys have their tunnel. They’re busy pestering two new kids who came in during the rain yesterday. Brothers, I think. I don’t care anyway. If Danny Boy tried to stop me, I’d make a fist and knock him flat, same as Camellia would. I’d knock him on his back right next to the fence and use him to climb up over it and get free.
I wouldn’t stop running until I got all the way to the riverbank.
I circle the old outhouse still going as hard as I can and take a running leap against the iron bars, trying to get high enough to shinny on over, but I can’t. I only make it a few feet before I slide down and hit hard. I grab the bars and pull and scream and howl like a wild thing fighting a cage.
I keep on until the bars are slick with sweat and tears and tinted with blood. The bars don’t give in to it. They don’t move at all. They just hold as I sink to the ground and let the tears take over.
Somewhere outside my own noise, I hear Danny Boy say, “Pretty girl done gone round the bend, she did.”
I hear Fern and Stevie wailing and Fern calling my name and the big boys teasing them and pushing them down every time they try to get through the gate. I need to go. I need to help them, but more than anything, I just want to disappear. I want to be alone in a place where nobody can find me. Where nobody I love can be stolen away.
Danny Boy twists Stevie’s arm around behind his back and makes him say “uncle,” then keeps on until Stevie’s scream stabs me deep down in the belly. It hits the place I want to make hard as stone. Like Arthur’s sword, Stevie’s scream pierces in.
Before I can even think what I’m doing, I’m back across the churchyard, and I’ve got Danny Boy by the hair. “You let him go!” I yank hard, and Danny Boy’s head pops back. “You let him go, and don’t you ever touch him again. I’ll snap your neck like a chicken’s. I will.” Without Camellia here to do our fighting, all of a sudden, I’m her. “I’ll snap your neck and dump you in the swamp.”
One of the other boys turns Fern loose and backs away. He stares at me, white eyed. From the looks of my shadow, I can see why. There’s hair flying all directions. I look like Medusa from the Greek stories.
“It’s a fight! It’s a fight!” kids yell, and come running to watch.
Danny Boy lets go of Stevie. He doesn’t want to get whipped in front of everybody. Stevie tumbles face-first into the dirt and comes up with a mouthful. He spits and cries, and I shove Danny Boy away and grab Stevie’s hand and Fern’s. We’ve gotten over to the hill before I even notice who’s missing.
My heart hitches. “Where’s Lark?”
Fern puts a fist in her mouth like she’s afraid she’ll be in trouble. Maybe she’s scared of me after what she just saw.
“Waydee.” Stevie babbles out the first word I’ve heard him say since the day we came here. “Waydee.”
I kneel down in the wet grass, look them both square in the face. “What lady? What lady, Fern?”
“The lady got ’er on the porch,” Fern whispers through her fingers. Her eyes rim with tears. “Like this.” She grabs Stevie by the arm and lifts up, dragging him along a few steps. Stevie nods to tell me that’s what he saw too.
“A lady? Not Riggs? Riggs didn’t get her?”
Both of them shake their heads. “Waydee,” Stevie says.
My head is still cloudy with dried-up tears and leftover hate. Did Lark get in trouble? Was she sick? She couldn’t be. When we came to breakfast, she was just like always. They don’t take kids to the sickroom unless they’re burning with fever or throwing up.
I point Fern and Stevie to the playground. “You two, go. You go over there on the teeter-totter, and you don’t get off no matter what, unless I come get you or you hear the bell. You understand?”
Both of them look scared to death, but they nod and link hands. I watch them walk over to the teeter-totter, then I head for the house. On the way past the gate, I let Danny Boy know that if he bothers them, he’ll have me to reckon with.
My courage comes and goes on the way across the yard. I keep looking at the house hoping I’ll spot Miss Dodd. A hammer pounds in my ears when I tiptoe over the porch and head into the washroom. Depending who sees me here, I could get in bad trouble. Somebody might think I’m trying to steal food.
The colored women are at the washer and the ringer when I go by. Do they know what happened to Lark? Would they tell me if they did? Usually we pass like people who’re better off not seeing each other.
They don’t look up, and I don’t ask. Nobody’s in the kitchen, and I hurry through so I won’t get caught in there.
The swinging door groans low when I poke my head into Mrs. Murphy’s front hall. It’s almost too late that I hear her voice and see that her office door is open.
“I think you’ll find her delightful.” Miss Tann is in the room too. Her voice is sticky sweet, so I know she’s talking to someone besides Mrs. Murphy. “Perfect in every way. The mother had a start on a college education before the Depression. Very intelligent young woman and considered quite beautiful. Clearly, it’s an inherited trait. This little one is a regular Shirley Temple, and she won’t even need a permanent wave. She is a bit quiet but very well behaved and mild mannered. She won’t be any trouble to you in public situations, which I know is so important in your line of work. I do wish you’d allowed us to bring her to you there. It isn’t our normal procedure to have new parents come to our boarding homes.”
“I appreciate your making accommodations.” The man’s voice is deep. He sounds like an army commander. “It’s difficult for us to go anywhere without being recognized.”
“We completely understand.” I’ve never heard Mrs. Murphy sound so friendly. “What an honor to have you visiting. Right here in my own home!”
“You’ve chosen one of our best.” Miss Tann comes closer to the door. “And you will be the best, won’t you, Bonnie? You’ll do everything your new mommy and daddy ask of you. You’re a lucky little girl. And you’re very grateful for that, aren’t you?”
Bonnie is Lark’s new name.
I try to hear if Lark answers, but I can’t tell.
“Then I suppose we must let you go, though we will miss you dearly,” Miss Tann says.
A man and a woman step into the hall, bringing Lark with them. The man is handsome, like a prince in a book of fairy stories. The woman is beautiful, with fancy hair and pretty lipstick. Lark is wearing a frilly white dress. She looks like a tiny ballerina.
Air goes solid in my throat. I push the kitchen door open wide. You have to stop them, I tell myself. You have to make them see that Lark is yours and they can’t have her.
A hand grabs my arm and pulls me back, and the door swings shut with a slap. I stumble and stagger as someone drags me across the kitchen and through the washroom to the porch. I don’t even know who’s got me until Miss Dodd spins me around and stands me up, holding both of my shoulders.
“You ain’t supposed to be in there, May!” Her eyes are wide, her skin washed white. She looks almost as afraid as I feel. “You know what the rules are. You bother Mrs. Murphy and Miss Tann, there’ll be the devil to pay.”
The ball in my throat breaks like a fresh hen egg. It drips down, sticky and hot and thick. “M-my sister…”
Miss Dodd holds my face. “I know, darlin’, but you’ve gotta think what’s best for her. She’s gettin’ a mama and daddy that’re movie stars.” She pulls in a breath like she’s just won a prize at the carnival fair. “I know you’ll be sad awhile, but it’s the best anybody could hope for. Brand-new parents and a brand-new home. A whole new life.”
“We’ve got a mama and daddy!”
“Hush! Hush, now.” Miss Dodd starts to drag me down the porch, away from the door. I try to pull free, but she won’t let me. “Hush. You can’t start carryin’ on. I know you wish your mama and daddy could come back after you, but they ain’t able. They signed you over to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Y’all are orphans now.”
“We’re not!” I wail. I can’t help myself. I babble out the truth—all about the Arcadia, and Queenie, and Briny, and my brother and sisters. I tell about Camellia and the closet, and the workers saying different stories of what happened to her, and Danny Boy telling me she got dumped in the swamp.
Miss Dodd’s chin drops and just hangs there. She holds me by the shoulders so tight my skin twists and burns. “Is all that the God’s honest truth?” she asks when I run out of words.
I squeeze my eyes shut, nod, and swallow tears and snot.
“Ssshhh,” she whispers, and hugs me close. “Don’t say nothin’ more now. Not to nobody. You go on out with the other kids. Be good and keep quiet. I’ll see what I can learn about it all.”
When she lets me go, I grab her hand. “Don’t tell Mrs. Murphy. She’ll take Fern away from me. Fern’s all I got.”
“I won’t tell. I won’t leave you either. I’ll find out what happened to your sister. God be my witness, we’ll make this right, but you gotta stay real strong.” She stares into my eyes, and there’s fire in her. The fire’s a comfort, but I know what I’ve just asked her to do. If Mrs. Murphy can make Camellia disappear, she can get to Miss Dodd too.
“D-don’t let them c-catch you, Miss Dodd.”
“I’m a sharper knife than folks think I am.” She shoos me toward the yard, and just like that, we’ve got a friend here. Finally somebody’s listening to our story.
That night, Fern cries and carries on forever, asking for Lark. I even try reading her some of the book, but she won’t hush, and I finally can’t stand it. I grab her and squeeze her arms hard and pick her up and stick my face in hers.
“Stop it!” My voice echoes around the tiny room. “Stop it, you stupid! She’s gone! It’s not my fault! Stop it, or you’re gonna get a spanking.” I lift up my hand, and it’s only after my sister’s eyes blink, blink, blink that I see what I’m doing.
I drop her on the cot and turn away and grab my hair and pull until it hurts. I want to pull all of it out. Every single piece. I want a pain I understand instead of the one I don’t. I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone.
This pain is changing me into a girl I don’t even know.
It’s changing me into them. I see it in my sister’s face. That hurts worst of all.
I fall on the cot that Miss Dodd got all washed and cleaned for us. It smells like Clorox now. Three peppermints roll out from under the dirty pillow, and I throw them at the slop pot.
Fern comes and sits beside me and pats me on the back the way a mama would do to quiet a baby. The day, and this place, and everything that’s happened here goes through my mind. I see it like a motion-picture show, the kind we watch for five cents when the carnivals come through the river towns and shine their projectors on the side of a building or a barn. But the show in my mind is wavy, and blurry, and running too fast.
Finally I sink farther, and everything goes dark and quiet.
In the middle of the night, I wake up, and Fern’s snuggled in beside me. There’s a blanket over both of us. It’s twisted and wadded funny, so I know that Fern must’ve put it there.
I clutch her and dream about the Arcadia then, and it’s a good dream. We’re all together again, and the day is so sweet, it’s like the drops of syrup from a honeysuckle vine. I stick out my tongue and taste and taste.
I lose myself in the smell of woodsmoke and morning fog so thick it cloaks the opposite bank and turns the river into a sea. I run along the sandbars with my sisters, and hide in the grass, and wait for them to come find me. Their voices weave soft through the mist, so that I can’t tell how close or far they are.
On the Arcadia, Queenie sings a song. I sit stone still in the grass and listen to my mama’s voice.
When the blackbird in the spring,
On the willow tree,
Sat and rocked, I heard him sing,
Singing, Aura Lee,
Aura Lee, Aura Lee,
Maid with golden hair,
Sunshine came along with thee….
I’m so lost in her song, I don’t even hear the basement door unlocking until the knob’s turning. I jump up and see it’s morning already. Little strings of sun squeeze through the azaleas and slant across the room.
In the corner, Fern’s getting off the slop pot and pulling up her drawers. After last night, maybe she’s too scared to wet the bed again.
“Good girl,” I whisper, and hurry to straighten the cot.
“No need in that. You’re not going anywhere today.” The voice from the doorway isn’t Miss Dodd’s. It’s Mrs. Murphy’s. It hits me like a whip, crackling all through my body. She’s never come down here before.
“How dare you!” Her mouth tightens so that her cheekbones poke out. Air hisses through her crooked front teeth. In three quick steps, she’s got me by the hair. “How dare you use my hospitality, my kindness, to tell tales against me! Did you think that little hillbilly, that little know-nothing, would really be of help to you? Oh, of course she was foolish enough to believe your lies. But all you’ve done is cost her a job, and Miss Tann will be picking up the little Dodd brothers and sisters soon enough. They’ve been reported to the Shelby County Welfare, and their paperwork is being processed even now. Is that what you wanted? Is that what you had in mind when you filled her ear with lurid tales about poor Mr. Riggs? My own cousin, no less! My cousin, who cleans the mess you bloodsucking nits leave in the yard, and fixes your toys, and sees to the boiler so the little precious ones won’t catch sniffles on cold nights!” She turns a hateful smirk toward Fern, who’s pushed herself as far as she can into the corner.
“I…I…I didn’t…” What can I do? Where can I go? I could try to get away and run out the door, but she’s got Fern trapped.
“Don’t bother denying it. Shame. Shame on you. Shame on you for your lies. I’ve provided you with so much more than river lice like you deserve. Well, let’s see how you feel after you have some time alone to consider the error of your ways.” She pushes me down hard, and I fall backward over the cot. Before I can get up, she’s grabbed Fern.
My sister screeches and tries to reach for me.
“Don’t!” I shout, scrambling to my feet. “You’re hurting her!”
“You’re lucky I don’t do worse. Perhaps we should make her pay for your crimes?” Mrs. Murphy shoves me out of the way as she passes by. “Give me any more trouble, and we will.”
I want to fight, but I don’t let myself. I know that if I do, I’ll only be hurting Fern. “Be good,” I tell my little sister. “Be a good girl.”
The last thing I see is her feet sliding across a spill of coal dust as Mrs. Murphy drags her out the door. The lock turns, and I listen to Fern’s cries getting farther and farther away. Finally, they’re gone altogether.
I fall on the cot and grab the blanket that still holds the warm spots from Fern and me and cry until there’s not a tear left and all I can do is stare at the ceiling.
I wait all day, but nobody comes back for me. I open the cellar window and hear the kids playing outside. The sun goes high, then works its way west. Eventually, there’s the dinner bell.
After a while, the ceiling timbers rattle as everyone marches upstairs for bed.
I’m hungry and thirsty, but mostly I just want Fern. They won’t make her sleep someplace else, will they? Because of what I said?
But they do.
After the house goes quiet, I lay down again. My stomach growls and hurts like a rat’s been chewing at it from the inside. My throat feels like someone’s scratched it raw.
I sleep, and wake, and sleep, and wake.
In the morning, Mrs. Pulnik comes and brings me a pail of water and a ladle. “Drink only small portions. You will be seeingk no one for some time. You will be on restrictions.”
It’s three more days before she brings food. I’m so hungry, I’ve started eating the peppermints Riggs slips under the door, even though I hate myself for it.
One day runs into the next, and the next, and the next. I read all the way through to the end of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck decides he’d rather run off to Indian Territory than be adopted.
I close my eyes and pretend I’m running off to Indian Territory too. I have a big, pretty red horse, with white socks and a blaze, like Tony the Wonder Horse and Tom Mix. My horse is faster than anything, and we just run, and run, and run.
I start the book over again, and I’m back in Missouri on the shores of the big river. I travel along on Huckleberry Finn’s raft to pass the days.
At night, when the branches blow around, I watch out the window, looking for Zede, or Silas, or Briny under the streetlamp. Once when it’s windy, I see them standing there. A woman is with them. She’s too stout to be Queenie. I think it’s Miss Dodd.
Just as quick as they’re there, they’re gone again. I wonder if maybe I’m going soft in the head.
Mrs. Pulnik comes and takes my book away and tells me I got Mrs. Murphy in trouble with the bookmobile ladies. She calls me a thief and smacks me hard across the face for not reminding her that I still had the library’s property.
I’m not sure how I’ll get by without Huckleberry Finn.
I worry about Fern and how she’s making out upstairs all on her own.
Days and days and days pass by. I lose count of how many, but it’s a long time before Mrs. Pulnik finally takes me out of the room and brings me up to Mrs. Murphy’s office. I stink almost as bad as the slop pot, and my hair’s knotted in a big, dirty wad. The light upstairs is so bright, I stumble around and bump into things and have to feel my way.
Mrs. Murphy is just a blurry shadow behind the desk. I squint to see her better, and then I realize it’s not Mrs. Murphy. It’s Miss Tann. Mrs. Murphy is standing behind her by the window.
Mrs. Pulnik shoves me forward. My legs buckle, and I fall hard on my knees. Mrs. Pulnik grabs a handful of dress and hair and holds me there.
Miss Tann stands up and leans over the desk. “I think that is exactly where you belong. On your knees, begging forgiveness for all the trouble you’ve caused. For all the lies you’ve told about poor Mrs. Murphy. You are a wretched, ungrateful little thing, aren’t you?”
“Y-yes’m,” I squeak out in a whisper. I’d say almost anything to get out of that room.
Mrs. Murphy rams her fists into her hips. “Telling lies about my cousin. Lurid, horrible little…”
“Tssst!” Miss Tann lifts a hand, and Mrs. Murphy clamps her mouth shut. “Oh, I think May knows what she’s done. I think she was just looking for attention. Is that the problem with you, May? Are you looking for attention?”
I don’t know what to say, so I kneel there with my guts trembling and my chin quivering. Mrs. Pulnik shoves me harder into the floor. Pain shoots down from the roots of my hair and up from my knees. Tears build inside me, but I can’t let them show.
“Answer me!” Miss Tann’s voice fills the room like a thunderclap. She limps around the desk and stands over me with her finger wagging in my face. Her eyes are the cold gray of a winter storm.
“Well, which is it?”
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
Her fingers close around my chin. She stretches my neck and leans close. I smell talcum powder and sour breath. “Not so talkative now, are we? Perhaps you’ve seen the error of your ways?”
I manage a tiny nod.
A smile pinches her mouth, and her eyes take on a hungry shine, like she can feel the fear in me and she likes it. “Perhaps you should have thought of that before you invented some ridiculous story about your fictitious sister and poor Mr. Riggs.”
Blood pounds in my head. I try to make sense of what she’s saying, but I can’t.
“There never was any…Camellia. You and I both know that, don’t we, May? There were four of you when you came here. Two little sisters and one little brother. Only four. And we’ve done a marvelous job in finding homes, thus far. Good homes. And for that, you are most grateful, aren’t you?” She motions to Mrs. Pulnik. The weight lifts off my shoulders. Miss Tann pulls me up by my chin until I’m standing there in front of her. “There will be no more of this nonsense out of you. Do you understand?”
I nod and hate myself at the same time. It’s wrong. Everything I told Miss Dodd was true. But I can’t go back in the basement. I have to find Fern and make sure they haven’t hurt her. Fern’s all I’ve got left.
“Good.” Miss Tann lets me go and folds her hands one over the other and rocks back on her heels, her dress swaying around her knees.
Mrs. Murphy laughs under her breath. “Well, the little guttersnipes do have brains in their empty heads after all.”
Miss Tann’s lips curve upward, but it’s the kind of smile that makes you cold when you look at it. “Even the most unwilling can be taught. It’s only a matter of what means are needed to properly impart the lesson.” She squints, looking me over from head to toe before the clock on the fireplace mantel chimes and grabs her attention. “I really must be on about my business.” She brushes past, leaving her powdery scent in the room. I try not to breathe it in, but it sticks in my nose.
Mrs. Murphy sits down at her desk and picks up some papers like she’s forgotten I’m there. “From now on, you will be grateful for my hospitality.”
“Y-yes’m. C-could I see Fern now?” It’s all I can do to make myself ask, but I have to. “M-Mrs. Murphy?”
She doesn’t look up. “Your sister is gone. She’s been adopted. You’ll never see her again. You may go outside for playtime with the other children now.” Sorting through the papers, she picks up a pen. “Mrs. Pulnik, please be certain that May has a bath before you move her upstairs to her new bed tonight. I can’t bear the smell of her.”
“I will see that this is accomplishedt.”
Mrs. Pulnik wraps a hand around my arm, but I hardly even feel it. When she leaves me outside, I just sit for a long time on the porch steps. The other kids wander by and look at me like I’m an animal from the zoo.
I don’t pay them any mind.
Stevie comes and tries to crawl into my lap, and I can’t even stand to have him close. It makes me think of Fern.
“Go on and play with the trucks,” I tell him, then walk off across the yard, all the way to the fence behind the church house, and crawl up under a nest of wild grapevines to hide.
I look through the leaves at the bedroom windows where the girls sleep and I wonder, If I jump from one tonight, will I die?
I can’t live without Fern. We’ve been joined at the heart since she was born.
Now my heart’s gone.
I lay my head down and feel the pinpoints of sun on my neck, and let sleep come over me, and hope I won’t wake up.
When I do, someone’s touching my arm. I jerk away and wobble into a squat, thinking it’s Riggs. But the face that looks back at me makes me believe I’m still in a dream.
I must be.
He puts a finger to his lips. “Sssshhhh,” he whispers.
I reach through the bars, my hands shaking and stretching. I have to see if he’s real.
His fingers close over mine. He holds tight. “We found where you was, finally,” he says. “A lady at the hospital got your mama and daddy to sign some papers right after the babies came. They told your daddy if he’d sign it all, he could get Queenie’s doctor bill paid for and the babies would be buried proper. But that ain’t what the papers was for at all. It let them come and take you off the Arcadia. When Briny and Zede went to the police, they said Briny had signed y’all over to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society––there was nothin’ to be done about it, and that’s that. We been hunting y’all for weeks. That lady, Miss Dodd, she finally found us and told us where y’all was. I been comin’ here and watchin’ this place every chance I get, hopin’ to see that you’s still here.”
“They’ve been keeping me inside. I got in trouble.” I look around in the vines. I still can’t believe what’s happening. I must be making it up in my head. “Where’s Queenie and Briny?”
“Takin’ care of the Arcadia. Getting her ready to set off on the river again. She’s been tied up a long time.”
I sag against the bars. My skin goes hot and red. Sweat runs under the ragged nighty I’ve been wearing for weeks now. What’ll Briny think of me when he knows the truth? “They took everybody. They took everybody but me. I couldn’t do what Briny said. I couldn’t keep us together.”
“It’s all right,” Silas whispers. He strokes my hair while I cry, his fingers tangling in the mess. “I’m gonna get you out. I’m gonna come tonight and cut through one of the bars…over there under the holly berries where the brush is good and thick. Can you come out here tonight? Can you sneak off?”
I hiccup and sniff and nod. If James could get down to the kitchen to steal food, I can get to the kitchen too. If I can get to the kitchen, I can get to the churchyard.
Silas studies the fence. “You gimme a little while. A couple hours after it’s full dark to slip in here and cut that bar. Then you come. The less time they’ve got to miss you, the better.”
We make the plan, and then he tells me he better go before anybody sees him. It’s all I can do to let loose of him and crawl out from under the vines and walk away.
It’s only a few more hours, I tell myself. Just the rest of the day, then supper and one more bath, and I’ll be home. Back home on the Arcadia.
But when I start across the yard, I see Stevie looking for me, and I think, What about him?
Danny Boy comes out to rough Stevie up at the churchyard gate.
“You leave him be.” I close the space between us and stand over Danny Boy. I think I got taller while I was in the basement. Thinner for sure. The fist I wave in Danny Boy’s face looks so bony it could be sticking up out of a grave.
“I ain’t gonna fight ya. Ya stink too much.” Danny Boy swallows hard. Maybe he figures, if I made it for weeks downstairs, I’m too tough to tangle with. Maybe he’s afraid, if he gets in a wrangle, they’ll do the same thing to him.
He doesn’t give me or Stevie any trouble all the rest of the day.
When we line up to go in for the evening, I take the front spot for Stevie and me. Danny Boy doesn’t like it, but he hasn’t got the guts to stop me. He settles for making fun of my hair and how I smell. “Heard they’re bringin’ your stupid little sister back tomorrow,” he says behind my back when we go in. “Heard them people don’t want her after all, ’cause she’s too dumb not to wet the bed.”
It’s probably just more of his lies, but a little hope sparks fires anyway. I don’t stamp it out. Instead, I give it tinder and breathe on it real soft. After supper, I get up my guts to ask one of the workers if it’s true that Fern’s coming back. She tells me it is. In the whole time she’s been gone, Fern hasn’t stopped carrying on and asking for me and wetting herself.
“It looks like bullheadedness runs in the family,” the worker says. “Shame. She may never find a home now.”
I try not to look happy about it, but I am. Once Fern’s back, we can both get away, but I’ll need to make Silas wait another day. Tonight, I’ll sneak outside and tell him.
I just have to figure out how to do it without the workers catching me. They might be watching me close since it’s my first time to stay upstairs. But it’s not the workers I’m most worried about; it’s Riggs. He must know where I’ll be sleeping tonight too.
And he knows there’s no lock on the door.
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