فصل 18

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CHAPTER 18

Rill

The house is black as pitch inside. There’s no lights left burning, and the curtains block the moon outside the bedroom windows. Around me, kids rustle in their beds and whimper and grind their teeth in their sleep. After all that time trapped in the basement by myself, it’s a comfort to be with anybody, but, truth is, this is no safe place. These girls tell tales. They say Riggs comes at night sometimes and gets whoever he wants—mostly the little kids he can carry easy.

I’m too big to carry. I hope. But I don’t want to find out.

Quiet as a shadow, I slide from under my blanket and tiptoe across the floor. I already walked it real careful before getting into my new bed tonight. I know where the squeaky boards are. I know how many steps it is to the door, how many to the stairs, the safest way past the parlor room off the kitchen where the workers will be dozing off in their chairs. James told me all about going downstairs to the kitchen at night to steal Mrs. Murphy’s tea cakes. I know just how he got away with it.

But all the things James had figured out didn’t save him in the end, so I need to be careful about sneaking out to tell Silas I’m waiting here for Fern to get back. Soon’s she does, I’ll grab her up, and we’ll slip off in the dark, and Silas will take us home to the river, and all the terrible times will finally be over.

What if Briny and Queenie don’t want me back after what I’ve done? Maybe they’ll hate me as much as I hate myself. Maybe they’ll look at the skinny, sad girl I am now and see someone nobody wants.

I shush my mind, because your mind can ruin you if you let it. I have to pay attention, to do everything right so I don’t get caught.

It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. I’m down the back stairs in no time. A small circle of light seeps from the room off the kitchen. Someone’s snoring loud inside. Near the door, a pair of feet in heavy white shoes is flopped outward like moth wings. I don’t even look to see whose they are. I just slip around the wall by the stove, staying in the shadow like James talked about. My toes test each new floorboard, real careful. The ragged hem of my nightgown catches on the oven’s rough iron surface. I imagine it making noise, but really it doesn’t.

The screen door in the washroom squeaks a little when I tug it open. I stop, hold my breath, stretch my ears toward the house, listen.

There’s nothing.

Soft as a whisper, I go on out. The porch boards are wet with dew, just like the deck of the Arcadia. Overhead, katydids and crickets give the sky a heartbeat, and a million stars shine like far-off campfires. The half-moon hangs heavy, rocking on its back. Its twin rides the ripples in the rain barrel as I pass.

All of a sudden, I’m home again. I’m wrapped in the blanket of night and stars. The blanket is part of me, and I am part of it. No one can touch me. No one can tell one of us from the other.

Bullfrogs croak, and dark birds call as I run across the yard, the thin white gown skimming my legs, light as milkweed silk. Near the back fence, I cling close to the holly bushes, give a whippoorwill’s call.

An echo answers. I smile and breathe in the sweet, heavy smell of jasmine and hurry toward the sound, pushing my way along the big boys’ tunnel until I’m there at the fence. Silas is on the other side. In the moon shadows, I can’t see his face, only the outline of his applejack hat and his knobby legs bent up like a frog’s. He reaches through the bars for me.

“Let’s go,” he whispers, then locks on to one of the bars like he means to pull it loose with his bare hands. “I cut this one most of the way through. It oughta…”

Grabbing his hand, I stop him. If he opens the hole, the big boys will see it in the morning when they come to their hideout. “I can’t.” Everything inside me screams, Go! Run! “I can’t leave yet. Fern’s coming back. The people who took her don’t want her anymore. I have to wait till tomorrow night, so I can bring her with me.”

“You gotta get away now. I’ll come back here for Fern.”

Doubts dart through my mind, skittering this way and that. “No. Once they know I’m gone, once they see the hole in the fence, we’ll never get her out of here. I can sneak away again tomorrow night. And there’s another little boy, Stevie. He’s from the river too. I can’t just leave him here.” How am I gonna manage it? I know where Stevie sleeps, but getting him from the toddler room and bringing Fern and not letting anyone see us…

It doesn’t seem possible.

Even so, Silas being here makes me sure of myself. It makes me brave. I feel like I can do anything. I’ll find a way. I can’t leave Fern or Stevie here. They belong to the river. They belong to us. Mrs. Murphy and Miss Tann stole enough from me already. I want it back. I want to be Rill Foss again.

Before this is over, I’ll find all my sisters and my baby brother and bring them home to the Arcadia. That’s what I’ll do.

Silas reaches out, and his long, thin arms circle me. I lean toward him, and his cap tumbles off. His forehead rests against my cheek, his raven’s-wing hair tickling my face.

“I don’t want you to go back in there.” He slides a hand over my hair, soft and careful. My heart speeds up.

It’s all I can do not to bust through the fence right now. “It’s only one more day.”

“I’ll be here tomorrow night,” Silas promises.

He kisses me on the cheek. Something new shivers through me, and I close my eyes hard against the feeling.

Leaving him there is as hard as anything I ever did in my life. As I crawl off, he packs mud on the bars so nobody’ll see the fresh cuts in the metal. If one of the big boys happens to lean against the fence while they’re in their tunnel, I hope it doesn’t break.

I’m back to the house and up the stairs without even breathing again, it feels like. At the top, I check the hall and listen for sounds before starting around the railing where we line up for our baths. There’s nothing but moon shadows from the stairway window and sleep noises. One of the little kids talks in his dreams. I freeze, but then he goes quiet just as quick.

Only fifteen more steps and I’ll be back in my room again. I’ve made it. Nobody will know where I went. Tomorrow, it’ll be even easier now that I’ve done it once. James was right. It’s not that tough to get away with things here, if you’re smart.

I can fool all of them. The idea swells inside me. It makes me feel like I took something from them, something they stole that was mine. Power. I’ve got power now. When we’re safe on the Arcadia, the river carrying us far away from here, I’ll forget all about this place. I’ll never tell anybody what happened here. It’ll be like it never happened at all.

A bad dream with bad people in it.

I’m so caught in the idea, I step wrong. A floorboard creaks under my foot. I hold back a gasp, look down, then decide the best thing I can do is hurry on in case one of the workers shows up. If I’m in the bed, they won’t have any way to know who was—

I almost don’t see Mr. Riggs till I’m right on top of him. He’s coming out of the toddler room. He stumbles back, and so do I. His shoulder hits the wall, and he whispers, “Ooof.”

I turn to rush off, but he grabs me by a fistful of nightgown and hair. His big hand clamps over my mouth and nose. I smell sweat and whiskey, tobacco and coal ash. He bends my head back so far, I think, He’ll snap my neck right here. He’ll snap my neck and drop me down the stairs and say I fell. That’s how it ends….

I strain my eyes to see him. He looks around, tries to decide where he can take me. I can’t let him get me to the basement. If he does, I’m dead. I know it. Fern will come back tomorrow, and I won’t be here.

Checking the stairs, he wobbles on his feet. His boot comes down hard over my toe, and stars shoot across my eyes, and I moan. He clamps his hand harder, cutting off my air. I hear my backbone crack. I twist and push and try to get free, but he only crushes me tighter against him, lifting me off my feet and dragging me down the hall into the shadows by the bathroom door. His fingers fumble for the handle to open it. I whimper and struggle and pull until finally he growls low in his throat and pins me to the wall so he can get at the door. His belly crushes my chest, and blackness circles around my eyes, and my lungs choke for air.

His face comes close to my ear. “Y-you and me can b-b-be friends. I can git ya p-peppermints and c-c-cookies. Anythin’ y-you want. We can b-b-be best friends.” He rubs his cheek along my chin and my shoulder, his whiskers scrubbing hard as he smells my hair, then sticks his face in around the neck of my nighty. “Y-you smell like out-outside. Y-you b-been meetin’ one of the b-big boys down there? Y-you got a b-boyfriend again?”

His voice seems like it’s coming from far off, echoing the way foghorns do on the river’s cold mornings. My knees buckle. My feet go prickly and numb. I can’t feel the wall or him. My ribs jerk like a fish’s gills when it’s hanging on the stringer.

I see sparkle fairies. They dance wild in the dark.

No! I tell myself. No! But there’s nothing left to fight with. My body’s gone. Maybe I’ll suffocate and die. I hope so.

Just as quick, he lets loose of me, and cool rushes in where his body was, and a breath pours into my belly. I slide down the wall and land in a pile, dizzy, blinking and trying to push off the floor.

“Mr. Riggs?” The sharp voice of a worker comes from the stairway. “What are you doing up here at this hour?”

My eyes clear, and I see him standing in front of me, so she won’t see. I pull back into the shadows, squeeze tight against the wall. If they catch me here, I’ll be the one who’s in trouble, not him. I’ll get locked away again…or worse.

“H-heard thunder while ago. G-gotta close up the w-windows.”

The worker comes around the railing. The moonlight catches her, and I see she’s the new one that came since Miss Dodd left. I don’t know much about her or if she’s mean or not. She sounds mean. She doesn’t like Riggs being up here, that’s clear enough. If she gives him trouble, she won’t last long at Mrs. Murphy’s.

“I didn’t hear anything.” She twists back and forth, looking toward the bedroom doors.

“I’z out-outside when I h-heard it. Was s-some s-s-stray cats yowlin’. T-took my rifle out to k-kill ’em.”

“Good heavens. You’d have woken the whole place. Surely the cats aren’t hurting anything.”

“C-cousin Ida don’t like nothin’ prowling round where it don’t b-b-belong.” By Cousin Ida, he means Mrs. Murphy. He also means to let the new worker know her place.

“I’ll check the windows myself.” She’s not backing down, and I don’t know whether I’m glad or not. If she keeps coming closer, she’ll see me. If she leaves, Riggs will drag me off into the bathroom. “No need in disturbing your sleep, Mr. Riggs, when I’m being paid to watch the children at night.”

He moves away from me and closer to her, his steps uneven and wobbly. At the corner of the railing, he blocks her path. The two shadows melt into one. He whispers something.

“Mr. Riggs!” Her hand swings out of the shadow and back in. Skin slaps on skin. “Have you been drinking?”

“I s-s-seen how you b-been watchin’ me.”

“I have done no such thing.”

“Y-you b-b-be nice, or I’ll tell Cousin Ida. She d-don’t like nobody to g-gimme trouble.”

She sidles to the wall and slides past him, and he lets her by. “You…you will keep away from me, or…or I…I’ll tell her myself. I’ll tell her you got liquored up and were fresh with me.”

He lumbers on toward the stairs. “Y-you oughta look—see the li’l boys first. S-s-somebody tumped outta bed in there.” His feet fall heavy as he walks on down. The boards squeak and sing.

Hugging her arms around herself, the worker watches him before going to see about the toddlers. I stand up on shaky legs and hurry to my bed, and pull the covers all the way to my neck and wrap up. It’s a good thing, because the worker comes in our room next, maybe thinking Riggs was closest to it.

She walks along and lifts covers and looks at every one of us like she’s checking for something. When she comes to my bed, I breathe long and deep and fight hard not to shiver as she pulls the covers off me and feels my skin. Maybe she wonders why I’m wrapped up so tight when it’s sticky hot. Maybe she can smell the night on me like Riggs did.

She stays over my bed awhile.

Finally, she’s gone, and I lay there looking up at the dark. One more day, I tell myself. You only gotta get by one more day.

I think it over and over again, like a promise. I have to. Otherwise, I’d find a way to get that screen off the window, and I’d jump out and hope it’s high enough to kill me.

I can’t live like this.

I fall asleep knowing it’s true.

Morning comes in fits and jerks. I wake and sleep, waiting on the voices of the workers to tell us to get out of our beds and put on our clothes. I know better than to move before that. Mrs. Pulnik made sure to tell me the upstairs rules before she showed me my bed and the little crate underneath where I keep my clothes.

But I won’t be needing that crate for long. I’ll get us out tonight, all three of us—me, and Fern, and Stevie—no matter what it takes. If I’ve gotta grab a kitchen knife and stab it into somebody to get us past, I’ll do it, I tell myself. I won’t let anyone stop me.

It’s not till we’re downstairs for breakfast that I know I’ve been making promises that’ll be hard to keep. First rattle out the box this morning, Mrs. Pulnik spotted sandy footprints in the kitchen. They’re dried, so she knows they were put there last night. They fade out before the stairs, which means she can’t tell where the trail would end up, but the prints are big enough that she’s sure it was one of the older boys. She’s got them lined up, and she’s trying them one by one against the tracks to see who fits.

She hasn’t noticed yet that I’ve got big feet. Standing by my place at the table with the rest of the girls, I squeeze my toes in and hope she won’t look my way.

Maybe one of the boys is the size of the prints, I think, and I know that’s wrong, because I’d be getting somebody in trouble. Bad trouble. Mrs. Murphy’s in the room too, and she’s hotter than a jar fresh out of the canning pot. She’s got an umbrella with all the cloth torn off. She means to whip somebody with it. After that, it’ll probably be the closet.

I can’t get the closet.

But can I stand by and let it happen to somebody else when it’s my fault? It’d be the same as if I was swinging the umbrella myself.

Through the washroom, I see Riggs by the back screen door. He’s watching the show. He nods and smiles at me, and my skin goes cold.

The new worker looks on from the corner, her dark eyes skittering. She’s never seen anything like this. “It…it could’ve been me,” she babbles out. “Mr. Riggs mentioned stray cats outside, and I went to shoo them away.”

Mrs. Murphy barely even hears her. “You will not interfere!” she screeches. “And your feet are too small. Who are you covering up for? Who?”

“No one.” Her eyes dart off toward me.

Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Pulnik try to follow them. Time slows down.

Be still. Be still, I think. Don’t move. I stay frozen.

“C-could be those w-was there last evenin’. Th-th-there’s mud round the rain b-barrel,” Riggs tosses in, now that everyone’s looking at my side of the table. At first, I think Riggs wants to help, and then I understand he just doesn’t want me locked up tonight where he can’t get at me.

Mrs. Murphy bats a hand at him. “You hush. Honestly, you’re far too kind to these little ingrates. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” She slaps the umbrella against her palm, studying my side of the table. “Now…if it wasn’t one of the boys…then who could it be?”

The girl who was in the bed across from me last night, Dora, tips her head back and wobbles around and faints dead away on the floor.

Nobody moves.

“Not her, I guess,” Mrs. Murphy says. “And if not her, then who?” The umbrella swings in a circle like a magic wand. “Step away from the table, girls.” Her eyes sparkle. “Let’s see who our little Cinderella might be.”

The phone rings, and everybody jumps. Then we stand still as statues, even the workers, while Mrs. Murphy decides whether or not to answer. When she does, she half yanks the phone off the wall, but her voice goes honey sweet soon’s she knows who it is.

“Why, yes. Good morning, Georgia. How delightful to hear from you so early.” She pauses and then says, “Yes, yes. Oh, why certainly. I’ve been up for hours. Let me walk back to my office and pick up your call in private.”

The words echoing through the phone come fast like the rat-a-tat-tat of the Gatling guns in cowboy western movies.

“Oh, I see. Of course.” Mrs. Murphy sets down the umbrella and lays a palm on her forehead, her lips pulling back from her teeth in a way that makes me think of Queenie the last night I saw her. “Well, yes, we can accomplish it by ten, but I don’t think it’s advisable. You see…”

More talk comes through the phone, loud and fast.

“Yes, I understand. We won’t be late,” Mrs. Murphy says past her teeth, and when she slams the earpiece back into its holder, she points my way with her eyes narrow and her mouth squeezed into a tight ball. “Take her and clean her up and put her in a Sunday dress. Something blue to match her eyes…and with a pinafore. Miss Tann wants her downtown at the hotel by ten.”

Mrs. Pulnik’s face looks like Mrs. Murphy’s. The last thing they want to do with me right now is wash me up, brush my hair, and get me in a dress. “But…she…”

“Do not question me!” Mrs. Murphy howls, then swats Danny Boy in the head hard, because he’s the one closest. Everybody shrinks away as she sweeps a finger around the room. “What are all of you looking at?”

The kids don’t know whether to sit down or stay where they are. They wait until Mrs. Murphy pounds through the swinging door. Then they slink into their chairs while the hinges are still creaking.

“I will be takingk care with you myself.” Mrs. Pulnik grabs me by the arm, squeezing hard. I know she’s about to get revenge on me one way or the other.

But I also know that, whatever Miss Tann has planned, it could be even worse. There are stories about what happens to kids when the workers take them to hotels.

“And don’t leave any bruises on her!” Mrs. Murphy’s order echoes in from the hall.

Just like that, I’m saved, but then again, I’m not. Mrs. Pulnik yanks my hair and wrenches me around. She tries hard to make the next hour hurt as much as possible, and it does. By the time I’m finally walked out to the car to join Mrs. Murphy, my head is pounding, and my eyes are red from the tears I’ve been told I better not cry.

Mrs. Murphy doesn’t say a word in the car, and I’m glad. I just press myself close to the door and look out the glass, scared and worried and sore. I don’t know what’s about to happen to me, but I know it won’t be good. Nothing here is good.

On the way downtown, we pass by the river. I see tugs and barges and a big showboat. Its calliope music pushes into the car, and I remember how Gabion used to dance on the deck of the Arcadia when the showboats went by. He’d make us laugh and laugh. My heart strains toward the water, hoping to see the Arcadia, or Old Zede’s boat, or any shantyboat at all, but there’s nothing. Across the way, a river camp sits empty. There’s only dead fire pits, trampled circles of grass, and a stack of drift somebody gathered up but never burned. The shantyboats are all gone.

It hits me for the first time that it must be about October by now. Pretty soon, the maples and the gum trees will change, bits of red and yellow edging along their leaves. The river gypsies have already started the long, slow drift south, down to where the winters are warm and the water’s chock full of fat catfish.

Briny’s still here, I tell myself, but all of a sudden, I feel like I’ll never see him, or Fern, or anybody I love ever again. The feeling swallows me whole, and all I can do is let my mind leave my body. I’m not there when the driver parks the car in front of a tall building. I barely hear Mrs. Murphy threatening what’ll happen to me if I don’t behave. It hardly even hurts when she pinches through my dress and twists the skin over my ribs and tells me I better do whatever I’m asked to do in here, and I’m not to tell anyone no, or cry, or carry on about it.

“You’ll be as sweet as a little kitten.” She squeezes my skin harder and holds her face close to mine. “Or you’ll be sorry…and so will your little friend, Stevie. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to him, would you?”

She gets out on the curb and drags me with her. Around us, men pass by in business suits. Women stroll along with bright packages. A mama in a red coat pushes a baby carriage out of the hotel and glances at us as she goes by. She has the kindest face, and I want to run to her. I want to grab on to her coat and tell her everything.

Help me! I’ll say.

But I can’t let myself. I know they’ll take it out on Stevie if I do. And probably Fern too, once they get her back to Mrs. Murphy’s house. No matter what, I have to be good today. I have to do everything they say, so they won’t lock me up when we get home tonight.

I straighten my back and tell myself this is the last time. This is the last time they’ll ever be able to make me do anything.

Whatever it is, I’ll go along.

But my heart flutters, and my stomach tightens like a fist. A man in a uniform holds open the door. He looks like a soldier or a prince. I want him to rescue me the way the princes do in fairy books.

“Good day.” Mrs. Murphy smiles and raises her nose and marches on.

Inside the hotel, people are laughing, and talking, and having lunch at a restaurant. It’s a pretty place, like a castle, but it doesn’t seem pretty today. It seems like a trap.

The elevator man stands like a statue by the buttons. It doesn’t even seem like he breathes while the little box takes us up, and up, and up. When we get off, the man sends a sad look my way. Does he know where they’re taking me—what’s about to happen?

Mrs. Murphy walks me down the hallway and knocks on a door.

“Come in,” a woman calls, and when we do, Miss Tann is sprawled out on a sofa like a cat resting in the sun. Behind her, the curtains are open and a big window shows the whole city of Memphis. We’re so far up, we look down on the roofs. I’ve never been this high in the air in my life.

I squeeze my hands into fists and hide them in the ruffled pinafore and try not to move.

Miss Tann’s got a half-full glass in her hand. She looks like she’s been here a while. Maybe she lives in the hotel?

She swirls the brown drink, lifts it toward a door across from the sofa. “Put her in the bedroom, and then that will be all, Mrs. Murphy. Close the door as you leave her…and instruct her to sit quietly until she’s told otherwise. I’ll speak with him out here first, to make certain our…arrangement is in order.”

“I don’t mind staying, Georgia.”

“If you’d rather.” She watches me as we cross to the door, Mrs. Murphy holding me up under the armpit, so I can’t help but walk uneven. “Honestly, there would be better choices, but I can see why he wants her,” Miss Tann says.

“I don’t know why anyone would want her.”

Inside the bedroom, Mrs. Murphy sits me on the bed and fluffs the frilly dress around me, so I look like a pillow doll. She yanks my hair forward over my shoulders, letting it hang in long curls, and then tells me not to move an inch. “Not one,” she finishes when she’s heading out the door. She closes it behind her.

I hear her and Miss Tann talking in the other room. They chat about the view and share a drink. Then, there’s nothing but quiet and the faraway sounds of the city. Horns honk. A streetcar rings its bell. A newspaperboy yells.

I don’t know how much time goes by before there’s a knock at the front door. Miss Tann answers, sticky sweet, and I hear a man’s voice, but I can’t make out the words until they come closer.

“Of course, she’s all yours…if you’re certain you still want her, that is,” Miss Tann says.

“Yes, and I appreciate your altering our arrangements on such short notice. My wife has struggled terribly these last few years, often to the point of taking to her bed for weeks on end, locking herself away from me. What else can I do?”

“Indeed. I can see where the girl might serve your needs, but I do have other children who are more…tractable,” Miss Tann suggests. “We have many older girls. Yours for the asking.”

Please, I think. Pick somebody else. And then I know that’s wrong. I shouldn’t wish bad things on the other kids.

“No, I wanted her specifically.”

I squeeze the bedcovers. Sweat coats my palms and seeps into the fabric. I dig in my fingernails.

Be good. Whatever it is, be good.

Silas is coming tonight….

“What else can I do?” the man asks again. “My wife is so very fragile. The child will not stop carrying on. I cannot have the constant upheaval and noise around the house. I am a composer, you know, and it interferes with my work. I’ve several scores for films due by the holiday season, and time is running short.”

“Oh, sir, I can practically assure you that this girl will bring you more trouble, not less,” Mrs. Murphy pipes up. “I thought…I assumed you only wanted her for…I had no idea you planned to take her with you permanently, or I would have spoken up sooner.”

“It is of no matter, Mrs. Murphy,” Miss Tann snaps. “The girl is certainly old enough to be compliant with whatever Mr. Sevier should desire.”

“Yes…yes, of course, Georgia. Pardon my interruption.”

“The girl is perfect in every way, I can assure you, sir. Unblemished.”

The man says something I can’t make out, and then Miss Tann talks again. “Very well then. I have her documents for you, and of course, as with your other adoption, it will be one year before the process is decreed final, but I would anticipate no trouble with that, especially for a client of your…stature.”

The conversation goes quiet. Papers rustle. “I only want Victoria to be happy again,” the man says. “I love my wife dearly, and these past years have been a torment. The doctors say that the only hope of overcoming her blue moods is to give her a compelling reason to look forward rather than back.”

“Such situations are, of course, our very reason for existing, Mr. Sevier.” Miss Tann’s voice trembles like she’s halfway to crying. “These poor lost children and the families who need them are my impetus and inspiration for the tireless work I do. Day in and day out, I endure my arduous labor and the sad beginnings of these little waifs so that I might rescue them and give them life and add life to countless empty homes. Certainly, coming from a fine family myself, I could have chosen an easier path, but someone must make the sacrifice to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It is a calling. It is my calling and one I willingly accept with no expectation of accolades or personal gain.”

The man sighs, sounding impatient. “I am most grateful, of course. Is anything else needed to conclude our business?”

“Not a thing.” Footsteps echo, but they’re going away from the bedroom door, not toward it. “All the paperwork is in order. You’ve provided the payment for her fees. She is yours, Mr. Sevier. She is waiting there in the bedroom, and we will leave you two to get acquainted…in whatever way you see fit.”

“I would urge you to use a firm hand with her. She…”

“Come along, Mrs. Murphy.”

Then they’re gone, and I sit very still on the bed, listening for the man. He comes to the door, and stops on the other side of it. I hear him take in a breath, then blow it out.

I clutch the dress hard over my knees, my body shaking.

The door opens, and he stands in it, just a few feet away.

I know his face. He sat beside me on the sofa at the viewing party and asked me how old I was.

His wife was the one who read books to Fern.

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