Orphan train, p.7
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       Orphan Train, p.7
 

          
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  “But my pins were straight.”

  She sighs. “Mary’s only hurting herself by making you do the work over. She’s paid by the piece, so I don’t know what she thinks she’s doing. But you—well, let me ask you this. Are they paying you?”

  “Paying me?”

  “Fanny!” a voice rings out above us. We look up to see Mrs. Byrne at the top of the stairs. Her face is flushed. “What on earth is going on?” I can’t tell if she heard what we were saying.

  “Nothing to concern you, ma’am,” Fanny says quickly. “A little spat between the girls is all.”

  “Over what?”

  “Honest, ma’am, I don’t think you want to know.”

  “Oh, but I do.”

  Fanny gazes at me and shakes her head. “Well . . . You seen that boy who delivers the afternoon paper? They got to arguing over whether he has a sweetheart. You know how girls can be.”

  I exhale slowly.

  “The foolishness, Fanny,” Mrs. Byrne says.

  “I didn’t want to tell you.”

  “You two get back in there. Dorothy, I don’t want to hear another word of this nonsense, you understand?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “There is work to be done.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Fanny opens the door and walks ahead of me into the sewing room. Mary and I don’t speak for the rest of the afternoon.

  That night at supper Mrs. Byrne serves chopped beef, potato salad stained pink by beets, and rubbery cabbage. Mr. Byrne chews noisily. I can hear every click of his jaw. I know to put my napkin in my lap—Gram taught me that. I know how to use a knife and fork. Though the beef tastes as dry and flavorless as cardboard, I’m so ravenous that it’s all I can do not to shove it into my mouth. Small, ladylike bites, Gram said.

  After a few minutes, Mrs. Byrne puts down her fork and says, “Dorothy, it’s time to discuss the rules of the house. As you already know, you are to use the privy in the back. Once a week, on Sunday evenings, I will draw a bath for you in the tub in the washroom off the kitchen. Sunday is also washday, which you’ll be expected to help with. Bedtime is at nine P.M., with lights out. There’s a pallet for you in the hall closet. You’ll bring it out in the evenings and roll it up neatly in the morning, before the girls arrive at eight thirty.”

  “I’ll be sleeping—in the hallway?” I ask with surprise.

  “Mercy, you don’t expect to sleep on the second floor with us, do you?” she says with a laugh. “Heaven forbid.”

  When dinner is over, Mr. Byrne announces that he is going for a stroll.

  “And I have work to do,” Mrs. Byrne says. “Dorothy, you will clean up the dishes. Pay careful attention to where things belong. The best way for you to learn our ways is to observe closely, and teach yourself. Where do we keep the wooden spoons? The juice glasses? It should be a fun game for you.” She turns to leave. “You are not to disturb Mr. Byrne and me after dinner. You will put yourself to bed at the appropriate time and turn out your light.” With a curt smile, she says, “We expect to have a positive experience with you. Don’t do anything to threaten our trust.”

  I look around at the dishes piled in the sink, the strips of beet peel staining a wooden cutting board, a saucepan half full of translucent cabbage, a roasting pan charred and waxed with grease. Glancing at the door to be sure the Byrnes are gone, I spear a hunk of the flavorless cabbage on a fork and swallow it greedily, barely chewing. I eat the rest of the cabbage this way, listening for Mrs. Byrne’s foot on the stairs.

  As I wash the dishes I look out the window over the sink at the yard behind the house, murky now in the fading evening light; there are a few spidery trees, their thin trunks flayed into branches. By the time I’ve finished scrubbing the roasting pan, the sky is dark and the yard has faded from view. The clock above the stove says 7:30.

  I pour myself a glass of water from the kitchen faucet and sit at the table. It feels too early to go to bed, but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t have a book to read, and I haven’t seen any in the house. We didn’t have many books in the apartment on Elizabeth Street, either, but the twins were always getting old papers from the newsies. In school it was poems I liked best—Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley. Our teacher made us memorize the words to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and alone in the kitchen now I close my eyes and whisper Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time . . . but that’s all I can remember.

  I need to look on the bright side, as Gram always said. It’s not so bad here. The house is austere, but not uncomfortable. The light above the kitchen table is warm and cheery. The Byrnes don’t want to treat me like a child, but I’m not so sure I want to be treated like one. Work that keeps my hands and mind busy is probably just what I need. And soon I will go to school.

  I think of my own home on Elizabeth Street—so different, but truthfully no better than this. Mam in bed in midafternoon, in the sweltering heat, lying in her room past dark, with the boys whining for food and Maisie sobbing and me thinking I’ll go mad with the heat and the hunger and the noise. Da up and gone—at work, he said, though the money he brought home was less each week, and he’d stumble in after midnight reeking of hops. We’d hear him tramping up the stairs, belting out the Irish national anthem—“We’re children of a fighting race, / That never yet has known disgrace, / And as we march, the foe to face, / We’ll chant a soldier’s song”—then bursting into the apartment, to Mam’s shushing and scolding. He’d stand silhouetted in the grainy light of the bedroom, and though all of us were supposed to be asleep, and pretended to be, we were rapt, awed by his cheer and bravado.

  In the hall closet I find my suitcase and a pile of bedding. I unroll a horsehair pallet and place a thin yellowed pillow at the top. There’s a white sheet, which I spread on the mattress and tuck around the edges, and a moth-eaten quilt.

  Before going to bed I open the back door and make my way to the privy. The light from the kitchen window casts a dull glow for about five feet, and then it’s dark.

  The grass is brittle underfoot. I know my way, but it’s different at night, the outline of the shed barely visible ahead. I look up into the starless sky. My heart pounds. This silent blackness scares me more than nighttime in the city, with its noise and light.

  I open the latch and go inside the shed. Afterward, shaking, I pull my knickers up and flee, the door knocking behind me as I run across the yard and up the three steps to the kitchen. I lock the door as instructed and lean against it, panting. And then I notice the padlock on the refrigerator. When did that happen? Mr. or Mrs. Byrne must have come downstairs while I was outside.

  Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011

  Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that “cleaning out the attic” means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack. Out of the two dozen boxes she and Vivian have been through so far, only a short pile of musty books and some yellowed linen have been deemed too ruined to keep.

  “I don’t think I’m helping you much,” Molly says.

  “Well, that’s true,” Vivian says. “But I’m helping you, aren’t I?”

  “So you came up with a fake project as a favor to me? Or, I suppose, Terry?” Molly says, playing along.

  “Doing my civic duty.”

  “You’re very noble.”

  Sitting on the floor of the attic, Molly lifts the pieces out of a cedar chest one by one, Vivian perched on a wooden chair beside her. Brown wool gloves. A green velvet dress with a wide ribbon sash. An off-white cardigan. Anne of Green Gables.

  “Hand me that book,” Vivian says. She takes the hardbound green volume, with gold lettering and a line drawing of a girl with abundant red hair in a chignon on the front, and opens it. “Ah, yes, I remember,” she says. “I was almost exactly the heroine’s age when I read this for the first time. A teacher gave it to me—my favorite teacher. You know, Miss Lar
sen.” She leafs through the book slowly, stopping at a page here and there. “Anne talks so much, doesn’t she? I was much shyer than that.” She looks up. “What about you?”

  “Sorry, I haven’t read it,” Molly says.

  “No, no. I mean, were you shy as a girl? What am I saying, you’re still a girl. But I mean when you were young?”

  “Not exactly shy. I was—quiet.”

  “Circumspect,” Vivian says. “Watchful.”

  Molly turns these words over in her mind. Circumspect? Watchful? Is she? There was a time after her father died and after she was taken away, or her mother was taken away—it’s hard to know which came first, or if they happened at the same time—that she stopped talking altogether. Everyone was talking at and about her, but nobody asked her opinion, or listened when she gave it. So she stopped trying. It was during this period that she would wake in the night and get out of bed to go to her parents’ room, only to realize, standing in the hall, that she had no parents.

  “Well, you’re not exactly effervescent now, are you?” Vivian says. “But I saw you outside earlier when Jack dropped you off, and your face was”—Vivian lifts her knobby hands, splaying her fingers—“all lit up. You were talking up a storm.”

  “Were you spying on me?”

  “Of course! How else am I going to find out anything about you?”

  Molly has been pulling things out of the chest and putting them in piles—clothes, books, knickknacks wrapped in old newspaper. But now she sits back on her heels and looks at Vivian. “You are funny,” she says.

  “I’ve been called many things in my life, my dear, but I’m not sure anyone has ever called me funny.”

  “I’ll bet they have.”

  “Behind my back, perhaps.” Vivian closes the book. “You strike me as a reader. Am I right?”

  Molly shrugs. The reading part of her feels private, between her and the characters in a book.

  “So what’s your favorite novel?”

  “I dunno. I don’t have one.”

  “Oh, I think you probably do. You’re the type.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  Vivian spreads a hand across her chest, her pink-tinged fingernails as delicate seeming as a baby’s. “I can tell that you feel things. Deeply.”

  Molly makes a face.

  Vivian presses the book into Molly’s hand. “No doubt you’ll find this old-fashioned and sentimental, but I want you to have it.”

  “You’re giving it to me?”

  “Why not?”

  To her surprise Molly feels a lump in her throat. She swallows, pushing it down. How ridiculous—an old lady gives her a moldy book she has no use for, and she chokes up. She must be getting her period.

  She fights to keep her expression neutral. “Well, thanks,” she says nonchalantly. “But does this mean I have to read it?”

  “Absolutely. There will be a quiz,” Vivian says.

  For a while they work in near silence, Molly holding up an item—a sky-blue cardigan with stained and yellowed flowers, a brown dress with several missing buttons, a periwinkle scarf and one matching mitten—and Vivian sighing, “I suppose there’s no reason to keep that,” then inevitably adding, “Let’s put it in the ‘maybe’ pile.” At one point, apropos of nothing, Vivian says, “So where is that mother of yours, anyway?”

  Molly has gotten used to this kind of non sequitur. Vivian tends to pick up discussions they started a few days earlier right where they left off, as if it’s perfectly natural to do so.

  “Oh, who knows.” She’s just opened a box that, to her delight, looks easy to dispose of—dozens of dusty store ledgers from the 1940s and ’50s. Surely Vivian has no reason to hang on to them. “These can go, don’t you think?” she says, holding up a slim black book.

  Vivian takes it from her and flips through it. “Well . . .” Her voice trails off. She looks up. “Have you looked for her?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  Molly gives Vivian a sharp look. She’s not used to people asking such blunt questions—asking any questions at all, really. The only other person who speaks this bluntly to her is Lori the social worker, and she already knows the details of her story. (And anyway, Lori doesn’t ask “why” questions. She’s only interested in cause, effect, and a lecture.) But Molly can’t snap at Vivian, who has, after all, given her a get-out-of-jail-free card. If “free” means fifty hours of pointed questions. She brushes the hair out of her eyes. “I haven’t looked for her because I don’t care.”

  “Really.”

  “Really.”

  “You’re not curious at all.”

  “Nope.”

  “I’m not sure I believe that.”

  Molly shrugs.

  “Hmm. Because actually, you seem kind of . . . angry.”

  “I’m not angry. I just don’t care.” Molly lifts a stack of ledgers out of the box and thumps it on the floor. “Can we recycle these?”

  Vivian pats her hand. “I think maybe I’ll hang on to this box,” she says, as if she hasn’t said that about everything they’ve gone through so far.

  “SHE’S ALL UP IN MY BUSINESS!” MOLLY SAYS, BURYING HER FACE IN Jack’s neck. They’re in his Saturn, and she’s straddling him in the pushed-back front seat.

  Laughing, his stubble rough against her cheek, he says, “What do you mean?” He slips his hands under her shirt and strokes her ribs with his fingers.

  “That tickles,” she says, squirming.

  “I like it when you move like that.”

  She kisses his neck, the dark patch on his chin, the corner of his lip, a thick eyebrow, and he pulls her closer, running his hands up her sides and under her small breasts, cupping them.

  “I don’t know a damn thing about her life—not that I care! But she expects me to tell her everything about mine.”

  “Oh, come on, what can it hurt? If she knows a little more about you, maybe she’s nicer to you. Maybe the hours go a little faster. She’s probably lonely. Just wants someone to talk to.”

  Molly screws up her face.

  “Try a little tenderness,” Jack croons.

  She sighs. “I don’t need to entertain her with stories about my shitty life. We can’t all be rich as hell and live in a mansion.”

  He kisses her shoulder. “So turn it around. Ask her questions.”

  “Do I care?” She sighs, tracing her finger along his ear until he turns his head and bites it, takes it in his mouth.

  He reaches down and grabs the lever, and the seat falls back with a jolt. Molly lands sloppily on top of him and they both start to laugh. Sliding over to make room for her in the bucket seat, Jack says, “Just do what it takes to get those hours over with, right?” Turning sideways, he runs his fingers along the waistband of her black leggings. “If you can’t stick it out, I might have to figure out a way to go to juvie with you. And that would suck for both of us.”

  “Doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

  Pushing her waistband down over her hip, he says, “That’s what I’m looking for.” He traces the inky black lines of the turtle on her hip. Its shell is a pointy oval, bisected at an angle, like a shield with a daisy on one side and a tribal flourish on the other, its flippers extending in pointy arcs. “What’s this little guy’s name again?”

  “It doesn’t have a name.”

  Leaning down and kissing her hip, he says, “I’m going to call him Carlos.”

  “Why?”

  “He looks like a Carlos. Right? See his little head? He’s kind of wagging it, like ‘What’s up?’ Hey, Carlos,” he says in a Dominican-accented falsetto, tapping the turtle with his index finger. “What’s happening, man?”

  “It’s not a Carlos. It’s an Indian symbol,” she says, a little irritated, pushing his hand away.

  “Oh, come on, admit it—you were drunk and got this random-ass turtle. It could just as easily have been a heart dripping blood or some fake Chinese words.”

  “Tha
t’s not true! Turtles mean something very specific in my culture.”

  “Oh yeah, warrior princess?” he says. “Like what?”

  “Turtles carry their homes on their backs.” Running her finger over the tattoo, she tells him what her dad told her: “They’re exposed and hidden at the same time. They’re a symbol of strength and perseverance.”

  “That’s very deep.”

  “You know why? Because I’m very deep.”

  “Oh yeah?”

  “Yeah,” she says, kissing him on the mouth. “Actually, I did it because when we lived on Indian Island we had this turtle named Shelly.”

  “Hah, Shelly. I get it.”

  “Yup. Anyway, I don’t know what happened to it.”

  Jack curls his hand around her hip bone. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he says. “Don’t turtles live, like, a hundred years?”

  “Not in a tank with no one to feed them they don’t.”

  He doesn’t say anything, just puts his arm around her shoulder and kisses her hair.

  She settles in beside him on the bucket seat. The windshield is fogged and the night is dark, and in Jack’s hard-domed little Saturn she feels cocooned, protected. Yeah, that’s right. Like a turtle in a shell.

  Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011

  No one comes to the door when Molly rings the buzzer. The house is quiet. She looks at her phone: 9:45 A.M. It’s a teacher enrichment day and there’s no school, so she figured, why not knock out some hours?

  Molly rubs her arms and tries to decide what to do. It’s an unseasonably cool and misty morning, and she forgot to bring a sweater. She took the Island Explorer, the free bus that makes a continuous loop of the island, and got off at the closest stop to Vivian’s, about a ten-minute walk. If no one’s home, she’ll have to go back to the stop and wait for the next bus, which could take a while. But despite the goose bumps, Molly has always liked days like this. The stark gray sky and bare tree limbs feel more suited to her than the uncomplicated promise of sunny spring days.

  In the little notebook she carries around, Molly has carefully recorded her time: four hours one day, two the next. Twenty-three so far. She made an Excel spreadsheet on her laptop that lays it all out. Jack would laugh if he knew, but she’s been in the system long enough to understand that it all comes down to documentation. Get your papers in order, with the right signatures and record keeping, and the charges will be dropped, money released, whatever. If you’re disorganized, you risk losing everything.

  Molly figures she can kill at least five hours today. That’ll be twenty-eight, and she’ll be more than half finished.

  She rings the bell again, cups her hands against the glass to peer into the dim hallway. Trying the doorknob, she finds that it turns and the door opens.

  “Hello?” she says as she steps inside, and, when she gets no response, tries again, a bit louder, as she walks down the hall.

  Yesterday, before she left, Molly told Vivian that she’d be coming early today, but she hadn’t given a time. Now, standing in the living room with the shades drawn, she wonders if she should leave. The old house is full of noises. Its pine floors creak, windowpanes rattle, flies buzz near the ceiling, curtains flap. Without the distraction of human voices, Molly imagines she can hear sounds in other rooms: bedsprings groaning, faucets dripping, fluorescent lights humming, pull chains rattling.

  She takes a moment to look around—at the ornate mantelpiece above the fireplace, the decorated oak moldings and brass chandelier. Out of the four large windows facing the water she can see the sine curve of the coastline, the serrated firs in the distance, the glittery amethyst sea. The room smells of old books and last night’s fire and, faintly, something savory from the kitchen—it’s Friday; Terry must be cooking for the weekend.

  Molly is gazing at the old hardcovers on the tall bookshelves when the door to the kitchen opens and Terry bustles in.

  Molly turns. “Hi there.”

 
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