Coal river, p.1
Coal River, p.1Ellen Marie Wiseman
Books by Ellen Marie Wiseman
THE PLUM TREE
WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Ellen Marie Wiseman
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
A READING GROUP GUIDE
For my darlings,
Rylee, Harper, and Lincoln—
I love you beyond words
In loving memory of our dear friend Billy
Once again, it is with great joy that I express my appreciation for the people who helped, supported, and believed in me during the writing of this book.
To my readers, my online supporters, and the people who live in and around my community, thank you for your warm encouragement and continued enthusiasm. It truly means the world to me.
A thousand thanks to my friends and family for allowing me time to write and meet my deadlines, for celebrating my victories, and for always being there when I need to crawl out of the writer cave. Trust me when I say it is your friendship and steadfast love that make writing a novel possible.
To my mentor, William Kowalski, thank you for giving me the foundation I needed to continue down this path, and for always being in my head when I write. You have my deep, deep respect and gratitude always.
Thank you to my amazingly talented BP family for keeping me sane. We’ve been on quite a journey these last four years, and I thank my lucky stars that we continue to experience the highs and lows of this business together.
Heaps of love and appreciation go out to my friend and cosmic sister, Barbara Titterington, for reading an early draft of the manuscript and for understanding the way my brain works. Together, we feel the world.
Again, my sincere thanks go to my wonderful editor, John Scognamiglio, for your support and continued faith in me, and to everyone at Kensington for your hard work behind the scenes. I’m very fortunate to have such a fantastic team on my side.
I owe the genesis of this story to my agent and trusted friend, Michael Carr. Thank you for your brilliant advice, for working so hard to help make this novel stronger, and for continuing to be all I could ask for in an agent. To say I’m grateful for your wisdom and guidance would be an understatement.
As always, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to my beloved mother and father, Sigrid and Ted, for your unwavering love, support, and friendship, and to my husband, Bill, for your unfaltering belief in me. You are my best friend and my greatest champion. Finally, I want to express my infinite love and gratitude to my children, Ben, Jessica, Shanae, and Andrew, and my precious grandchildren, Rylee, Harper, and Lincoln. Thank you for loving and believing in me. You are my reason for being.
On the last day in June, in the year when the rest of the world was reeling from the sinking of the Titanic, nineteen-year-old Emma Malloy was given two choices: get on the next train to Coal River, Pennsylvania, or be sent to a Brooklyn poorhouse. The doctor had released her from the Manhattan hospital, the Catholic church had donated a small suitcase with a few items of clothing—along with a proper mourning dress, undergarments, a hand brush, and a bar of soap—and her aunt and uncle had sent money for a ticket. After less than an hour to decide, she walked on shaky legs from the hospital to the station in what felt like a trance, said good-bye to the nurse, climbed the passenger car steps, and found her seat. The nurse had said Emma’s escape from the deadly theater fire was a miracle, and she should be forever grateful for this second chance. The only thing Emma knew for sure was that she was an orphan now. It didn’t matter what happened to her, or where she went. Just like her late brother, Albert, her mother and father would be with her everywhere. There was no escaping this wretched grief, this horrible, heavy pain in her chest.
Two days later, when the train exited the long tunnel beneath Ash Mountain and started across the timber trestle above Coal River, the tiny thorns of nerves prickled across Emma’s skin. She had vowed never to return to the isolated mining town named after the black river that roiled through it, and yet here she was, barreling helplessly toward constant reminders of another day she’d give her life to forget.
Outside the train windows, the full weight of summer’s heat bore down on Pennsylvania’s interior, making it feel as if the world and everything in it were roasting inside a giant wood stove. Trees drooped beneath the blazing sun, their withered leaves already scorched yellow around the edges. It hadn’t rained in over a month. Still, the black river beneath the train trestle was deep and swift, boiling along its rocky banks like poisoned pottage. Upstream, the shoreline was wild with trees and brambles, fit for neither man nor beast. In the distance, jagged mountains sloped down toward the riverbed, their steep cliffs cutting off the only other exit out of the valley.
Emma pictured the tiny vial of dark liquid in her drawstring purse, stolen from her hospital bedside when the nurse wasn’t looking. She longed for the bitter taste of tranquility on her tongue. But only a few sips of the laudanum remained, and she didn’t want to waste them. Lord knew she would need the medicine to get through the next few days. She dug her nails into the cloth armrest of her seat, counting the seconds until the passenger car was back on solid ground. Maybe everything has changed, she thought. Maybe this time Uncle Otis will be different. Or maybe I’m just nervous because the train is high on a trestle, hundreds of feet in the air. She wanted to believe those things. With all her heart. But she wasn’t good at telling herself lies.
When the train finally reached the other side of the river, she ran a finger inside the high collar of her mourning dress, the bombazine like gravel against her sweltering skin. In the roasting passenger car, the heavy sleeves and tight neckline felt like a straitjacket or a suit of armor, despite the fact that the garment was several sizes too big. Certainly, some people still believed proper etiquette called for a grieving daughter to wear black for a full year, but why did “mourning costumes” have to be so stiff and restrictive? As if grief weren’t cruel enough.
How she longed for her sailor dress with the loose waist, or a pair of summer trousers. If it were up to her, she would have removed her corset and the cotton slip beneath her skirt and tossed them out the train window within the first few minutes of the trip. She would have rolled up her sleeves, unpinned her hat, and taken off her stockings. But remembering the unsettled glances of the other passengers when she’d unpinned her weeping veil from her hat and stuffed it inside her handbag, she resisted.
Then she remembered that the dress she was wearing, along with the broadcloth skirt, the shawl-collared blouse, and the muslin nightgown in her tattered suitcase, were the only clothes she owned. All the rest, including her sailor dress and her favorite pair of knickers, were gone. Burned to ashes in the fire.
The fire. The words felt like a knife in her heart.
Laughter and conversation faded in and out inside the passenger car, droning in her ears with the clack of iron wheels and the pounding of the locomotive. In a few minutes, when the train came to a stop, she would have to stand up and get out. That was it. There was no reason to think beyond that. Breathing was hard enough. Then the train braked and shuddered, turning a wide, slow curve as it approached the village station, and the valley opened up before her like a black and white sketch from a child’s schoolbook.
Surrounded by peaks stripped nearly bare of trees and foliage, the village of Coal River sat huddled on the edge of Bleak Mountain, a sprawling congregation of wooden houses, shops, stone buildings, and saloons. Slag roads and dirt footpaths led through and around the community, then traveled out through the canyons and valleys, up into the miners’ village and beyond, zigzagging across the earth like the dark legs of a giant spider.
Near the base of the center peak, the nine-story coal breaker of the Bleak Mountain Mining Company loomed above a church steeple, perched above the town like an enormous creature hunched over the earth, its black nostrils spewing streams of dark smoke. The breaker looked like a hodgepodge of different-sized structures piled on top of one another, as if new buildings were added every year with no mind to how each new addition would fit with the others. Rows of multipaned windows lined each story, and at the top was a curious little peak, like a miniature house added at the last minute. Leading up to the highest floor, a railroad trestle rose up from the ground, reminding Emma of the Switchback Railway ride on Coney Island, the one attraction she refused to step foot on because it was so high. Surrounding the breaker lay the rest of the colliery: smoke stacks, a labyrinth of buildings and sheds, railroad tracks and pipes, roadways and steam engines. Piles of mine waste smoldered around the outskirts of the mining site, emitting a thick, white smoke. At night, as a child, Emma used to imagine the red, blue, and orange glow coming from the burning culm banks were the fires of hell.
Farther up the mountain to the right, dirt paths and rows of miners’ houses lined a vast hollow. Emma had never been up to the miners’ village, but she used to envy the children living there, away from the pomp and rigidity of Coal River’s upper class. She imagined them running in the grass and climbing trees, staying outside until dusk, sipping lemonade on the porch in their bare feet. Aunt Ida would have scorched her ears if she had taken her shoes off outside or climbed a tree and stained her dress. Her aunt expected pinkies up at tea and made her walk with books on her head to improve her posture. Emma couldn’t count the number of times she’d fantasized about running away with her brother and hiding in the miners’ village until her parents came back from Manhattan. Maybe if she had, Albert would still be alive.
A flash of red caught her eye to the left, and when she glanced that way, she felt another jolt of dread. Near the north end of town, a three-story mansion stood on a hill surrounded by pine trees and manicured lawns, its red roof gleaming in the afternoon sun. It looked exactly the same, down to the marble fountain in the front yard. Her arms broke out in gooseflesh. Then the train depot blotted the mansion from view.
The train slowed, and the iron wheels caught and screeched, caught and screeched. The passengers stood and gathered their belongings, eager to exit after the long journey. Emma stayed in her seat and peered out the window at the station, a burning lump in her throat. The platform was crowded with people—men in waistcoats and straw hats, children in their summer whites, women in traveling dresses, cooling themselves with paper fans. A group of policemen in peaked caps and knee-length military jackets stood on the left side of the station, Winchesters held to their chests, blocking a mob of scowling miners in shabby coats, newsboy caps, and worn derbies. Everyone looked miserable and hot.
Emma considered staying on the train, continuing on to the next destination, or turning around and going back. But back where? Home? Her parents’ tiny apartment above the theater was gone, destroyed in the fire along with everything in it. Besides, she didn’t have another train ticket. The only thing in her handbag was the laudanum, an empty change purse, and her weeping veil.
She bit down on her lip and scanned the waiting crowd for Uncle Otis. Then she saw him standing opposite the police, talking to a young man in a morning suit and top hat. Her uncle was tall and wiry, the skin on his face and hands pulled tight over his bones, like a side of beef left out to dry in the sun. Streaks of gray lined his horseshoe mustache and mutton-chop sideburns. She thought how terribly old he looked, hard and ravaged by age and a love of whiskey.
If nothing else, the train ride had given her time to come up with a plan, one that might help her escape Coal River. If she played her cards right, it might seem like a good idea to Uncle Otis too. She hoped it would anyway. No, she prayed it would, even though she’d stopped praying after Albert died. If her plan failed, she didn’t know what she would do. She couldn’t spend the rest of her life in this place.
Outside on the platform, the man in the top hat nodded in response to Uncle Otis while searching the train windows, his narrow eyes scanning every car. His lanky, bowlegged frame looked familiar and strange at the same time, as if Emma had met him in another lifetime. Then she recognized the flat, pallid face, like a board with a nose and bulging eyes. It was her cousin, Percy, all grown up. She groaned inside. Percy was still here. Percy, who used to follow her around like a puppy, until she bloodied his lip and told him to leave her alone. Percy, who short-sheeted their beds, and led them down to the river the day Albert drowned.
Emma felt the blood drain from her face as a terrible image assaulted her mind—her eight-year-old brother in his red cap and winter boots, his eyes wide when the ice gave way, his bare hands clawing the slippery surface for something to grab hold. She could hear his screams, his terrified voice yelling her name. And then he was gone, washed away by the swift, cold current of Coal River. The look of horror and confusion in his eyes before he disappeared had burned itself into her memory, haunting every moment since.
She blinked against her tears, struggling to push away the thought of him trapped below the ice, his dark curls stirred by the current, his eyes empty and sightless. It was almost more than she could bear. You were only ten. You warned him not to go out on the ice. And then, in the next instant: He was down by the river because of you.
She touched the spot below her neck where her mother’s silver locket had hung before it disappeared beneath the ice with Albert, and a sudden falling sensation swept over her. She grabbed the edge of her seat to stay upright. She had been prone to nervous spells since waking up in the h
Maybe I’m being punished.
The train shuddered one last time, jerked to a final stop, and let out a blast of steam, jolting the standing passengers back into their seats. Emma stood on shaking legs, ran her hands down the sides of her stiff dress, and picked up her suitcase. She waited until the last passenger had left the car, then lifted the heavy hem of her too-long dress and headed toward the exit, her heart slogging in her chest. She felt like she was watching herself from someplace else, in a dream or on a moving picture screen. Then she stepped off the train and covered her mouth, the sulfuric, rotten egg odor of burning culm confirming the awful truth. She had returned to Coal River.
After Albert died and her parents had taken her back home to Manhattan, she smelled the culm on her clothes for months, no matter how many times her mother washed them. For years, the stench of burning mine waste swirled through her nightmares, emanating from her pillowcase in the morning like a cloying, phantom perfume. Then one day it was gone, and she thought she’d never have to smell the wretched odor again.
Now, she tried not to gag, shaking her head when the baggage handler offered to take her suitcase. The other passengers milled about, carrying their luggage, waving and calling out to waiting friends and relatives. She stood on her tiptoes, trying to see over shoulders and backs, searching the crowd for Percy and Uncle Otis.
Coal River by Ellen Marie Wiseman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes