فصل 20

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CHAPTER 20

Rill

The man’s name is Darren, and the woman’s name is Victoria, but we’ve been told that we’re to call them Papa and Mommy, not Darren and Victoria or Mr. Sevier and Mrs. Sevier. It doesn’t bother me much. I’ve never called anyone Papa or Mommy, so the words don’t have a place in me one way or the other. They’re just words. That’s all.

Queenie and Briny are still our folks, and we’re still going back to them, soon as I can find a way. It won’t be hard as I thought it might be. The Sevier house is big and filled with rooms no one uses, and out back there’s a wide porch that looks over fields of tall trees and green grass, and all of it slopes on down to the best thing ever—the water. It’s not the river; it’s a long, skinny oxbow lake that drains off into a place called Dedmen’s Slough…and Dedmen’s Slough goes all the way down to the Mississippi. I found that out because I asked Zuma, who cleans this place and fixes the meals and lives over the old carriage house, where Mr. Sevier parks his cars. He has three cars. I’ve never even met anybody that has three cars.

Zuma’s husband, Hoy, and their girl, Hootsie, live out there with her. Hoy keeps the yard and takes care of a pen of chickens, Mr. Sevier’s hunting dogs that bark and howl all night, and a pony Mrs. Sevier has been telling us for two weeks now we can go riding on if we want to. I said that we don’t like ponies, even though it’s not true. I let Fern know she better not say any different.

Zuma’s husband is big and scary and black as the dickens, and after being at Mrs. Murphy’s, I don’t want some yardman getting me or Fern off by ourselves anyplace. I don’t want us alone with Mr. Sevier. He’s tried to take us out to the pony too, but only because Mrs. Sevier made him. He’ll do just about anything to keep her from wandering off down the path to the garden where two babies born dead and three that were never born at all have graves with little stone lambs on top. When Mrs. Sevier goes out there, she lays on the ground and cries. Then she comes home and gets in her bed and stays. There’s old scars across her wrists. I know why they’re there, but I don’t tell Fern, of course.

“Just sit in her lap, and let her fix your hair and play dolls with you. Make sure she’s happy,” I tell Fern. “No crying and don’t wet the bed. You hear me?” That’s the only reason the Seviers brought me here in the first place—because Fern wouldn’t stop crying and bed-wetting and carrying on.

Mostly, Fern’s been doing pretty good now. Some days, though, there’s not a thing that’ll help Mrs. Sevier. Some days, she don’t want to be touched by another living soul. She only wants the dead.

When she lays up in her bed and cries over the babies she lost, Mr. Sevier hides in his music room, and we’re stuck with Zuma, who thinks having us around makes too much work for her. Mrs. Sevier used to buy things for Zuma’s little girl, Hootsie, who’s ten, two years younger than me. Now Mrs. Sevier buys things for us instead. Zuma ain’t one bit happy about that either. She’s weaseled enough information out of Fern to know where we’re from, and she can’t see why somebody fine as Mr. and Mrs. Sevier would want river trash like us anyhow. She lets us know it, but she can’t say it where Mrs. Sevier might hear, of course.

Zuma doesn’t dare hit us, but she’d like to. When Hootsie acts up, Zuma wears out Hootsie’s skinny behind. Sometimes, Zuma shakes that long wood spoon our way when nobody’s looking and says, “Oughta be grateful. Oughta be kissin’ the missus feet, her even lettin’ you in this fine house. I know what you is, and don’ you be fo’gettin’ it neither. You’s only here till the missus gits a baby a’ her own. Mister thinks, if she quit worrin’ about it so hard, it gonna happen. When it do, you li’l river rats be gone like smoke. Out wit’ the trash. Y’all only here fo’ now. Don’ be makin’ yo’self to home. I seen it all befo’, jus’ so you know. You ain’t here fo’ long.”

She’s right, so I got no reason to argue. There’s food here, at least, and plenty of it. There’s frilly dresses, even if they are scratchy and stiff, and hair ribbons, and Crayolas, and books, and shiny new Mary Jane shoes. There’s a little tea set for tea parties with cookies in the afternoons. We’ve never even had a tea party before, so Mrs. Sevier has to show us how to play the game.

There’s no lining up for bath time. We don’t have to get naked while other people look on. Nobody hits us in the head. Nobody threatens to tie us up and hang us in the closet. Nobody gets locked in the basement. At least not so far, and like Zuma says, we won’t be here long enough to find out whether it’d happen after the new wears off.

One thing I know for sure is that, whenever the Seviers get tired of us, we’re not going back to Mrs. Murphy’s. At night, after I’m safe in the room next to Fern’s, I look way down across the pasture and see the water through the trees. I watch for lanterns drifting along the oxbow lake, and I spot a few. Sometimes, I see lights, even far off in the slough, floating like fallen stars. All I have to do is find us a way onto one of the boats, and we can go through Dedmen’s Slough to the big river. Once we’re there, it’ll be an easy trip downwater to where the Wolf meets the Mississippi at Mud Island, and that’s where Queenie and Briny will be waiting for us.

I just need to find us a boat, and I will. After we’re gone, the Seviers won’t have the first idea what happened to us. Miss Tann didn’t tell them we’re from river folk, and I bet Zuma won’t either. Our new mommy and papa think our real mama was a college girl and our daddy was a professor. They think she took sick with pneumonia and died and he lost his job and couldn’t keep us. They also think Fern’s just three years old, but she’s four.

I don’t tell the Seviers any different. Mostly, I just try to be good so nothing will happen before Fern and me can get away.

“There you are,” Mrs. Sevier says when she finds us down at the dining table waiting on breakfast. She frowns, seeing that we’re already dressed in the clothes that were set out for us last night. Fern’s wearing a pair of blue check pants with a little top that buttons up the back. It has puffy ruffles around her arms and shows her tummy under the lace at the bottom of the shirt. I’ve got on a purple dress that’s ruffly and fluffy and a little too small at the top. I had to suck in to get it buttoned, and I shouldn’t need to, but I’m growing, I guess. Queenie says we Foss kids always get bigger in spurts.

Either I’m in a growing spurt, or it’s because we eat a lot more than just corn mush here. Every morning, we all sit down to a big meal, and at lunch Zuma makes us sandwiches on a tray. In the evening, we have a big supper too, unless Mr. Sevier is busy in his music room at supper. When that happens, we have sandwiches on a tray again, and Mrs. Sevier plays parlor games with us, which Fern likes to do a lot.

“May, I told you there’s no reason for you to be up so early and making little Beth get dressed too.” She crosses her arms over the silky bathrobe that looks like it oughta be on Queen Cleopatra. Fern and me have robes that match. Our new mommy had Zuma make them just for us, special. We haven’t put them on since. I figure it’s best we don’t get used to fancy things, since we’re not staying long.

Besides that, there’s two little bumps poking out on my chest, and the gowns are shiny and thin, and it makes the bumps show, and I don’t want anybody to see.

“We waited…awhile.” I look down at my lap. She doesn’t understand that all our lives we’ve been up at first light. There’s no other way to live on a shantyboat. When the river comes awake, you do too. The birds speak, and the boats whistle, and the waves wash up one after another if you’re tied anyplace near a main channel. The lines have to be watched, and the fish are biting, and the stove needs kindling. There’s things to do.

“It’s time you learned to sleep until a decent hour.” Mrs. Sevier shakes her head at me, and I don’t know whether she’s playing or if she doesn’t like me very much. “You’re not in an orphanage anymore, May. This is your home.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yes, Mommy.” She lays a hand on my head and leans over to kiss Fern’s cheek, then pretends to gobble up her ear. Fern giggles and squeals.

“Yes, Mommy,” I repeat. It ain’t natural, but I’m getting better at it. Next time, I’ll remember.

She sits at the end of the table and looks down the long hall, resting her chin on her hand, frowning. “I guess you haven’t seen Papa this morning?”

“No…Mommy.”

Fern shrinks in her seat and gives our new mommy’s frown a worried look. We all know where Mr. Sevier is. We can hear the music drifting up the hall. He’s not supposed to go in his music room before breakfast. We’ve heard them fighting about it.

“Dar-ren!” she hollers, clicking her fingernails on the table.

Fern slaps her hands over her ears, and Zuma rushes in with a covered china bowl rattling in her hands. The lid almost slides off before she catches it. The white shows all around her eyes, and then she sees that Mrs. Sevier isn’t mad at her. “I’ll go for ’im, Missus.” She sets the bowl on the table and hollers over her shoulder toward the kitchen, “Hootsie, you bring them platters in befo’ they go cold!”

She sweeps past the table, stiff as a whisk broom, and shoots a mad look my way when our new mommy isn’t looking. Back before we came, Zuma didn’t have to dirty up all these dishes for breakfast. She only had to make a tray and take it to Mrs. Sevier’s bedroom. Hootsie told me. Before we came, sometimes Hootsie’d stay upstairs all morning with the missus, just looking at Life magazines and picture books and trying to keep her happy so the mister could work.

Now Hootsie’s gotta help in the kitchen, and that’s our fault.

She sticks a foot under the table and stomps on my toes when she sets down the eggs.

In a minute, Zuma comes up the hall with Mr. Sevier. She’s the only one who can get him out of his music room when the door’s closed. She raised Mr. Sevier since he was a little boy, and she still takes care of him like he is one. He listens to her when he won’t even listen to his missus.

“You gotsa eat!” she says as she follows him up the hall, her hands waving in and out of the morning shadows. “Here I been, cookin’ up all this food, and it done gone half-cold a’ready.”

“Woke with a melody in mind earlier. Had to work it out before it left me.” He stops at the end of the hall, puts one hand to his stomach, and holds the other one in the air. He dances a little jig like he’s an actor onstage. Then he takes a bow for us. “Good morning, ladies.”

Mrs. Sevier’s frown tugs upward. “You know what we agreed, Darren. Not before breakfast, and meals at the table together. How will the girls ever learn to be a family if you’re locked away by yourself all hours?”

He doesn’t stop at his chair but rounds the table and kisses her square on the lips. “How’s my muse this morning?”

“Oh, stop that,” she complains. “You’re only trying to shake me off.”

“Am I succeeding at it?” He winks at Fern and me. Fern giggles, and I just pretend I didn’t notice.

Something tugs in my chest, and I stare down at my plate, and I see Briny kissing Queenie just that same way when he passed through the shanty heading to the afterdeck.

The food doesn’t smell good all of a sudden, even though my stomach growls for it. I don’t want to eat these people’s breakfast or laugh at their jokes or call them Mommy and Papa. I have a mama and a daddy, and I want to go home to them.

Fern shouldn’t giggle and carry on with these people either. It ain’t right.

I reach under the table and pinch her leg, and she yelps a little.

Our new mommy and papa bend their foreheads at us, trying to figure out what happened. Fern doesn’t tell.

Zuma and Hootsie bring out the rest of the dishes, and we eat breakfast while Mr. Sevier talks about his new music and how just the right tune came to him in the middle of the night. He talks about scores and rests and notes and all kinds of things. Mrs. Sevier sighs and looks out the window, but I can’t help listening. I’ve never heard anything about how people write music down on paper. All the tunes I know come from listening when Briny plays his guitar or harmonica or maybe even the piano in a pool hall. The music always goes deep down inside me and makes me feel a certain way.

Now I wonder if Briny ever knew that people write tunes on paper like a storybook and it gets put in the movies, the way Mr. Sevier talks about. His new music is for a movie. At the end of the table, he moves his hands around in the air and talks wild and excited about a scene where Quantrill’s Raiders ride through Kansas and burn a whole town.

He hums the tune and uses the table for a drum, and the dishes rattle, and I can feel the horses running and hear the guns blasting.

“What do you think, dear?” he says to Mrs. Sevier when he finishes.

She claps and Fern claps too. “A masterpiece,” Mrs. Sevier says. “Of course it’s a masterpiece. Don’t you think so, Bethie?”

I can’t get used to them calling Fern Beth, which they think is her real name, of course.

“Madderpees.” Fern tries to say the word masterpiece with her mouth full of grits.

The three of them laugh, and I just look down at my plate.

“It’s so good to see her happy.” Our new mommy leans around the table to tuck Fern’s hair out of the way so she won’t get grits in it.

“Yes, it is.” Mr. Sevier is looking at his wife, but she doesn’t know it. She’s busy petting Fern.

Mrs. Sevier twirls Fern’s hair around her finger, blending tiny spirals into bigger curls, like Shirley Temple’s. Mrs. Sevier likes it that way best. Most days, I put mine in a braid behind my back, so she won’t get any ideas about doing that to me. “I was worried we’d never get to this point,” she tells her mister.

“These things take time.”

“I was so afraid I’d never be a mother.”

His eyes round upward, like he’s happy. He looks across the table. “She’s ours now.”

No she’s not! I want to scream. You’re not her mother. You’re not our mother. Those dead babies in the graveyard, those are yours. I hate Mrs. Sevier for wanting Fern. I hate those babies for dying. I hate Mr. Sevier for bringing us here. If he’d left us alone, we’d be back on the Arcadia by now, Fern and me. Nobody would be twirling my sister’s hair into Shirley Temple curls or calling her Beth.

I clench my teeth so hard the pain travels all the way to the top of my head. I’m glad for it. It’s just a little ache, and I know where it comes from. I can stop it any time I want. The one in my heart is way bigger. I can’t fix it no matter how hard I try. It scares me so much that I can’t even breathe.

What if Fern decides she likes these people better than she likes me? What if she forgets about Briny and Queenie and the Arcadia? We didn’t have fancy dresses and scooter toys on the porch and stuffed teddy bears and Crayolas and little china tea sets there. All we had was the river, but the river fed us and carried us and set us free.

I have to make sure Fern doesn’t forget. She can’t turn into Beth on the inside.

“May?” Mrs. Sevier is talking, and I haven’t even heard her. I put on a sunshine face and look her way.

“Yes…Mommy?”

“I said, I’m going to take Beth into Memphis for a fitting of special shoes today. It’s important that we correct the leg that turns inward before she’s any older. Once a child is grown, it’s too late, they tell me. That would be a shame, when it’s something that can be cured.” Her head crooks sideways a bit. She looks like an eagle when it’s watching for fish. Pretty, but the fish better be careful. I’m glad my feet are under the table so she can’t see my right leg. We all have the foot that toes in a little. We get it from Queenie. Briny says it marks us as part of the royal line of the Kingdom Arcadia.

Now I feel myself straightening it just in case she takes a notion to look.

“She’ll have to sleep in a brace at night,” Mrs. Sevier tells me. Beside her, Mr. Sevier opens the newspaper, eyeballing it as he eats his bacon.

“Oh,” I mutter. I’ll slip the brace off Fern’s leg at night. That’s what I’ll do.

“I thought I’d take her by myself.” Mrs. Sevier’s words come real careful, her deep blue eyes fastening to me underneath blond curls that remind me of Queenie even if I don’t want them to. Queenie is much prettier, though. She is. “Beth must get accustomed to spending time with her new mommy, just the two of us…without carrying on about it.” She smiles at my sister, who’s busy chasing one of Zuma’s canned strawberries around her plate with a little silver baby fork. The Seviers don’t like anybody eating with their fingers.

Mrs. Sevier claps her hands to get Mr. Sevier’s attention, and he lets the paper down a bit, poking his nose over it. “Darren, Darren, look at her. How cute!”

“Keep at it, trooper,” he says. “After you capture that one, you can have another.”

Fern spears the strawberry, pops it into her mouth whole, and smiles with juice dripping out the sides.

Our new mommy and daddy laugh. Mrs. Sevier dabs Fern’s cheek with a napkin, so she won’t spoil her blouse.

I try to decide whether I should beg to go along to the shoe doctor or not. I’m afraid to let her take Fern away from me. She’ll buy things for Fern, and Fern will like her. But I don’t want to go to Memphis. The last thing I remember about that place is being taken downtown by Mrs. Murphy and given to my new papa in a hotel room.

If I stay home while Mrs. Sevier is gone, I can probably get outside and look around some. She doesn’t like us wandering out there mostly. She’s afraid we’ll catch poison ivy or be bit by a snake. She’s got no way of knowing that we river kids understand all about those things from the time we’re old enough to walk.

“You’ll be starting school soon.” Our new mommy isn’t happy that I didn’t answer right away about Fern going to the doctor. “Beth is still too young for that, of course. She’ll have two years at home yet before it’s time for kindergarten…if we send her to kindergarten at all. I might keep her here an extra year. It’ll depend…” A slim-fingered hand travels to her stomach, spreading gently over it. She doesn’t say the words, but she’s hoping there’s a baby.

I try not to think about that. And I try not to think about school either. Once they send me, Mrs. Sevier will have all day with Fern. Fern will like her better than me for sure. I have to get us away from here before that happens.

Mrs. Sevier clears her throat, and her mister lets the paper down again. “What’s on your schedule for today, darling?” she asks.

“Music, of course. I want to finish the new score while it’s fresh in my mind. Then I’ll call Stanley and play a bit of it for him over the phone…see if he thinks it’s right for the film.”

She sighs, and the wrinkles squeeze around her eyes. “I thought perhaps you’d have Hoy hitch up the pony cart, and the two of you could take a ride.” She looks from Mr. Sevier to me. “Would you like that, May? With Papa along, you wouldn’t have to be afraid of the pony. She’s really very sweet. I had one like her when I was little, back home in Augusta. She was my favorite thing in the whole wide world.”

My muscles tighten up, and my face goes cold. I’m not scared of the pony. I’m scared of Mr. Sevier. Not because he’s done anything to me but because, after Mrs. Murphy’s house, I know what can happen. “I don’t wanna be any trouble.”

My palms sweat, and I rub them on my dress.

“Mmmm…” Mr. Sevier’s brows lower. He doesn’t like the idea any better than I do, and I’m glad. “We’ll have to see how the day transpires, darling. They’ve run so far behind in production on this film, my timeline is shorter than usual, and with the house so chaotic these past weeks because…” His wife lifts her chin, shaking it slightly, and he stops, then says, “We’ll see how the day goes.”

I stare at my lap, and nothing more gets said about riding in the pony cart. We finish breakfast and Mr. Sevier disappears to his music room fast as he can. Pretty soon, Fern and Mrs. Sevier are gone too. I take my Crayolas and a book and sit out back on the wide porch that looks down toward the trees and then the lake. Piano music spills from Mr. Sevier’s studio. It mixes with the birdsongs, and I close my eyes and listen and wait for Zuma and Hootsie to wander off to the carriage house, so I can slip away and look around a little….

I drift off to sleep and dream that Fern and me are down on Mr. Sevier’s fishing dock. We’re sitting on one of those big suitcases they store in the pantry room, near Zuma’s mops and brooms, and we’ve got it packed full of toys to share with Camellia, Lark, and Gabion. We’re waiting for Briny and Queenie to pick us up.

The Arcadia comes into view at the far end of the oxbow lake. She’s fighting her way upwater real slow. Then, all of a sudden, the wind kicks her, pushing her away. I look over my shoulder and there’s a big black car bouncing across the field behind us. Miss Tann’s face is pressed against the window glass. Her eyes are boiling mad. I grab Fern and try to get to the water so we can swim away.

We start running, but the harder we run, the longer the dock gets.

The car grinds right up the dock behind us. A hand snatches me up by my dress and hair.

“You’re an ungrateful little wretch, aren’t you?” Miss Tann says.

I jerk awake, and Hootsie’s standing there with a glass of tea and a lunch plate for me. She smacks them down on the wicker table. The drink splashes all over the tray and the plate. “Be like river food now, won’t it? Nice ’n’ soft.” She gives me a squinty smile.

I pick up the soggy sandwich and take a big old bite and smile back at her. Hootsie hasn’t got any idea how things were for us before we came here. I can eat corn mush with weevils in it and not think twice. Tea spilled on a sandwich isn’t gonna set me off. Neither is Hootsie, no matter how hard she tries. She’s not tough. I’ve seen kids who are tough.

She huffs and sticks her nose in the air, and then she’s gone. After I finish the plate, I set the napkin over it to keep the flies from gathering. Then I wander down the long porch toward the music room. Everything’s quiet now, but I’m careful when I get to the end of the house and round the corner. There’s no sign of Mr. Sevier. I check first before I sidle closer.

When I slip through the screen door, his music room is shadowy, the drapes pulled tight. In the corner, a projector shines a blank square of light on the wall. It makes me think of the traveling picture shows in the river towns. I walk closer and see my shadow, long and thin, little curly pieces of light shining through the hair. I think how Briny made shadow puppets in the window light on the Arcadia sometimes. I try to do one, but I can’t remember how.

Beside the projector, a needle bobs back and forth on a spinning phonograph record. A soft, scratchy sound comes out the side of the cabinet it’s in. I walk over to it, look down into the box, and watch the black circle spin. For a little while, we had one of these on the back porch of our shantyboat, but it was a hand crank. Briny found it in an old house along the river where nobody lived anymore.

He traded it off for firewood a while later.

I tell myself I hadn’t oughta touch this one, but I can’t help it. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. It must be brand new.

I pick up the silver ball that holds the needle, move it back just a hair so the last tiny bit of music plays. Then I do a little more and a little more. It’s turned down soft enough I figure nobody else will hear it.

After a minute, I go over to the piano and think of how Briny and me used to sit together in the pool halls or on the showboats when they were empty. He’d teach me how to play tunes. Of all of us kids, I was the one who was best at picking it up; that’s what Briny said.

The last of the music ends on the phonograph, and the needle scratches.

I find the notes on the piano, just real quiet. I only push the keys a little. It’s not too much work to figure out the music. I like it, so I set the needle back and do a bit more. That part’s tougher, so I have to try harder, but I get it finally.

“Well, bravo!”

I jump up and see Mr. Sevier standing there with one hand on the screen door. He lets go and claps. I scoot off the piano bench and look around for a place to run.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’ta…” Tears ball up in my throat. What if this makes him mad, and he tells Mrs. Sevier, and they get rid of me before Fern and me can take to the river and go home?

He comes in and lets the screen close. “Don’t worry. You’re not going to hurt the piano. But Victoria was determined we should take the pony cart out while she’s gone. I asked Hoy to hitch it up. I have some people coming to build a little cottage along by the lake—a quiet place for my work when the house is too chaotic. We’ll drive the pony cart down and take a look and then rattle around the property a bit. When we come back, I’ll show you how to…”

He moves a few more steps into the room. “Well, you know what? On second thought, the pony won’t mind waiting. She’s a patient old sort.” Mr. Sevier whirls a hand toward the piano. “Do that again.”

The tears drain down my throat. I swallow what’s left of them as he walks across to the phonograph.

“Here. I’ll reset the needle. How much can you do?”

I shrug. “I dunno. Not much. I gotta listen at it real hard first.”

He lets the record go a little farther than I’ve already tried, but I think real quick and get it mostly right.

“Have you ever played before?” he asks.

“No, sir.” He puts the needle back even farther, and we do it all again. I only get a little bit wrong, just on the new part.

“Impressive,” he says.

It ain’t really, but it feels good to have him say it. At the same time, I wonder, What’s he want? He don’t need me to play the piano. He’s real good at it on his own. He’s better than the phonograph record even.

“Again.” He wheels a hand one more time. “Just from memory.”

I do it, but something’s off.

“Ooops,” he says. “Hear that?”

“Yessir.”

“It’s a sharp; that’s why.” He points to the piano. “I can show you, if you like.”

I nod and turn back to the piano and put my fingers on the keys.

“No, like this.” He bends over from behind me and shows me how to stretch out my hand. “Middle C for the thumb. You’ve got good, slim fingers too. Those are the hands of a piano player.”

They’re Briny’s hands, but Mr. Sevier doesn’t know that.

He touches my fingers, one by one. The keys play the tune. He shows me how to do the sharp I’ve been getting wrong.

“That’s the way,” he says. “Hear the difference?”

I nod. “I do! I hear it!”

“You know where the note goes now?” he asks. “In the melody, I mean.”

“Yessir.”

“All right then.” Before I have time to think about it, he’s sitting down beside me. “You play the melody, and I’ll play the chords. You’ll see the way they come together. That’s how a piece is created, like the one you heard on the record.”

I do what he says, and he plays the keys on his end, and we sound just like the record! I feel the music coming from the piano and slipping through my body. Now I know what it’s like for the birds when they sing.

“Can we play it again?” I ask when we get to the end. “More of it?” I want to do more, and more, and more.

He spins the record and helps me find the right keys, and then we play the music together. He’s laughing when we finish, and I am too.

“We should see about arranging some lessons for you,” he says. “You have a talent.”

I look at him real hard to see if he’s teasing. A talent? Me?

I push a hand over my smile and turn back to the keys, and my cheeks go hot. Does he mean it?

“I wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true, May. I might not know much about raising little girls, but I do know about music.” He leans close, trying to see my face. “I understand that it’s hard for you, coming here to a new home, at your age…but I think you and I can be friends.”

All of a sudden, I’m back in the hallway at Mrs. Murphy’s house, in the pitch dark, and Riggs has me pinned between his belly and the wall, and he’s pressing hard into me, blocking out the air, making my body go numb. The smell of whiskey and coal dust slides up my nose, and he whispers, Y-you and me can b-b-be friends. I can git ya p-peppermints and c-c-cookies. Anythin’ y-you want. We c-can b-b-be best friends….

I jump up from the piano bench, smashing the keys so that a handful play all at once. The noise mixes with the sound of my shoes clattering against the floor.

I don’t stop running until I’m upstairs curled in the bottom of my closet with my feet braced on the door so nobody else can get in.

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