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No Place Like Home
I started this piece as an assignment for school, but as I planned it, it grew into a larger and more intricate project by the day. It's more than words for a grade now; it's my story, and I hope to continue it. If anyone gets something from this, I hope it's to realize that you should never give up, no matter the circumstances. No matter how hopeless, you can't see the twists in the story that'll change everything. You just have to hang on long enough to get there.
I wasn't upset at the fact that he'd died, just how he died. As disturbing as murder, or fatal accidents, or even death from old age are, nothing really compares to watching somebody die in your room from a disease that you're ninty-nine percent sure is coming for you next. Don't get me wrong, as much as puking my guts out with a nasty headache until I turn into a yellow wax figurine with as much life as my decaying left shoe is an exciting prospect, that's not how I want to go out. I was thinking more along the lines of secret spy work, doing something important and then bam, dead before I know it, and I'm a national hero. But this, walking down the street to pick up some food for mama while thinking every other person must have yellow eyes, this is not what I signed up for. Somehow, I need to find a way to live and keep my remaining family members alive as well.
My mind, unfocused on the task at hand, came up with many creative ideas to avoid the illness. Run off into the wild and survive off of whatever I manage to catch for a few months, build a giant bubble of glass around me and mama, or sneak aboard a ship overseas and arrive at a foreign country where no one speaks my language but also don’t threaten me with diseases. But all those options had their own downfalls, and I knew mama would never go for it, especially with the baby.
“Move it!” I stumbled to the side, dazed, as something collided with my shoulder. A stone under my foot took what little balance I had left, and I went down hard. Even while my head spun, I shoved my dress down to my ankles from where it’d fallen at my knees. Another second went by, and the man who’d pushed me was obvious. Standing over me, shaking his head, about to move on with his day. Rich of course, not a spot on his ridiculous clothing and mouth twisted into that unmistakable rich sneer. He moved on without a word.
A girl, also rich looking with her embellished blue dress and nicely done blonde hair, hurried over. She kept glancing at the man, though he didn’t give us another moment of his precious time. “My apologies,” She whispered, grabbing my hand and hauling me up. “My father is… Entitled.”
“Oh, thanks.” I gave her a small smile. “I shouldn’t have been so distracted.”
“Ah…” I could see something bothering her, behind the otherwise contented green eyes. “I’m Ellie, by the way. Elizabeth really, but I prefer Ellie.”
“Nice to meet you,” I hesitated. Why was this obviously well-to-do girl talking to me? I couldn’t help but self-consciously glance down at my plain, brown dress with worn patches around the knees and elbows. “I’m Clara.”
“That’s a pretty name. Oh, I’m sorry, am I keeping you? You’re not at the market for nothing, especially not these days…”
“Oh yeah! I was here for food… Mama sent me for it.”
“May I walk with you?”
“I - Your pa won’t mind?”
“My father will mind whatever I do. I’m always acting incorrectly for a lady.” Ellie hooked her arm through mine and began walking through the stalls. Sellers called out what they were selling in a cacophony of voices, people swarmed around with arms full of everything from potatoes to soap. Already, the offerings were thinning.
I stopped at a farmers stall, surprised when the usual jostling I endured faded away. Ellie strode up to the front, I followed in awe, and we waited for the people piling their basket with everything they could afford to finish. It took me a moment to process, glancing slightly up at the confident stance of the girl next to me.
“I’ll just have, um, six potatoes and a bunch of carrots please.” I shouted over the noise of the crowd.
“That’ll be 45 cents.” The woman behind the stand said.
“I…” My mind seemed to stop. That was ten more cents than usual, mama hadn’t given me enough to pay extra for everything!
“I know, larger prices, but business is business and everyone wants food. You got it, or do I give this to the next guy?”
“Here,” Ellie fished some coins from a slit in her dress. “Keep the change.”
“You don’t have to-” I started, my mind reeling. Why was this girl helping me so much?
“I don’t, but consider it an apology from my father.” She deposited the food into my arms, and I nearly dropped it. “Is there anything else you needed?”
“Just… Just some eggs and flour.”
“Okay!” She strode off, pulling me after her. The same thing played out at the next stand, where Ellie bought the food for me and I didn’t know what to say. We walked slowly back the way I’d come, and I felt bad for paying more attention than usual to the dusty paths, but I had no idea what to do.
“So what do your parents do?” I was snapped out of my thoughts by the question.
“They, well, my pa died. And then my step-dad just died too, of the fever… He, my step-dad, was a handyman of sorts, never got far though. My pa built houses. Mama’s a seamstress, but we haven’t been here long, she’s not got much business yet.” I rambled a bit, belly churning a little though I didn’t know why.
“Oh… I’m sorry about your fath- Pa.” Ellie said, “Your mother’s a seamstress though? My mother’s been looking for a new one, different style or something. I don’t expect that your mother would be working now, with a recent loss, but what’s her place called?”
“It’s, uh, Fernsby Seamstress, on second street.”
“Perfect! I’ll be seeing you again then. You should get back, stay safe.”
“You too, thanks.” She unhooked her arm from mine, and twirled back into the crowds. I stared for a second, the way she seemed to float stuck in my mind.
I absently wandered back home, weaving between the occasional person, always headed towards the market or away with bags of food. When I was a few houses down from my own, a shriek met my ears.
“Clara! Get in here!” I stopped short, staring at mama as she hung half-way out the door, hair down in messy waves, face pinched into a scowl yet eyes wide.
I sped up my pace, worried. Had the baby gotten sick too? Had she? What was causing her to act so? As I approached the house, her eyes darted around the streets before she lunged forward and pulled me into the house. I rubbed my arm, sore where she’d grabbed it, as she slammed the door behind us.
“Mama, the eggs! They could’ve broken.” I checked the foods hurriedly, thankful none of them seemed damaged.
“The eggs,” She mocked. “What were you doing out there?”
“I… Was getting food, like you asked me to?”
“I did no such thing! I wouldn’t, not now. The sickness! Don’t lie to me, and don’t go outside again.” She swept the groceries from my arms, leaving me in a confused silence by the door. It was then that I noticed the boards haphazardly nailed over the windows, and a pile of wood and nails by the door as well.
“Mama?” I followed her into the kitchen, heart beating quickly.
“What, Clara?” She snapped, shoving the flour into the cabinet.
“Why are the windows boarded up?”
“To stop the sickness! Those people might try to get here and give it to us as well. Go board up the door now that you’re here.”
“That’s… Mama, that’s completely irrational. Why-”
“Don’t argue with me!” She turned abruptly to face me. Her eyes were wild and panicked, and I didn’t see my mama in there. “Do you want to get sick and die? To leave me too? That is not happening, you and Neil will be safe!” She pushed past me, leaving the vegetables out on the table. A few seconds later, the metallic clang of a hammer on nails met my ears. I put the carrots and potatoes in their basket.
I gazed through the crack between the two planks over the window, the one in mama’s room. Mine was closed off, mama was so sure that since there had been a death in there it was either infected or haunted, maybe both. I could pull the board from this window right now, I could escape this house that still stank of puke and death, that was empty of the family that I knew and instead inhabited by a delusional woman and a dead man. Not that I ever like my step-dad, he never gave affection to anyone but mama and could hardly provide for us anyway, but he was still better alive than dead. In my room. Where mama refused to touch him nor let anyone into the house to remove the corpse for us.
This bit of wood, that and a piece of metal half in the wall, that was all stopping me from leaving this behind. Maybe I wouldn’t be much better in the streets without food or shelter, but I might have a better chance than here. I slid a finger through the small crack, a cool breeze caressing my skin, as though attempting to help me out of the window.
I tugged gently at the board, feeling its give. Without the nail in fully it’d come away easily. A wail met my ears, and I turned. Through the open doorway I saw Neil, sitting up in his crib, face red as he cried. Hungry, I could tell. I picked up my hammer, expecting mama to be outside the doorway at any moment and she must see me working. But the seconds passed, became a couple minutes, and the baby’s cries became more insistent.
Grumbling, I threw the hammer down and went over to Neil. “Come here, big guy.” I crooned, picking him up. “Let’s get you some food, okay?” He yelled in my ear.
I went into the kitchen, opening cabinets that were disorganized in comparison to the dependable patterns that the food had always been in. Finally, I found the mashed potato that Neil always liked to eat, and stirred a little milk into it to make it less dry.
He finally quieted, to the delight of my poor ears, as I fed him the potato.
“What are you doing?” I jumped, dropping the spoonful of potato down both Neil and my clothing.
“Mama!” I gasped, “I’m feeding Neil, he’s hungry. Where were you?”
“We don’t have food for that!” She snatched the remaining bit of food from me. “Ask before you eat!”
“He’s a baby, mama, he needs food. Didn’t you hear him?” From my lap, he began to sniffle. Doubtlessly about to begin bawling again at the raised voices and lack of food.
“Of course I did, but there’s nothing I can do about that, is there?”
I didn’t even bother to respond. I nodded curtly, and carried Neil back to the living room where I gave him his favorite blanket. He would never make it on the street, that much I knew. He needed a home, consistent food, and warmth. As of now it was still warm enough outside, but in a few weeks, the winter winds would set in and he wouldn’t last two days. And who knows if mama would let us back in if we left.
I left Neil, for now silent, and went back into mama’s room. I picked the hammer back up and finished nailing the board in. I bit my lip, looking at the finished work. This was the last window, and now it was closed. My fate being closed with the window, my first order of business would have to be finding out how strictly the food rationing was, and how much of mama’s sanity she had left to ration.
I trudged into the kitchen, finding mama sitting on the floor, surrounded in food. So much for rationing. “Mama,” I started, already exasperated.
“Hush, I’m counting.” She muttered, moving one of the six potatoes I’d bought a foot to the right. Then the next one.
I stood there in the doorway, watching her count each piece of food slowly. Then sort the piles again. Neil started to cry again, but mama didn’t so much as look at him. The wails and painfully slow counting began to drive me crazy before mama looked up.
“So what’s the verdict?” I asked tiredly.
“If we eat this a day,” She waved her hand over three potatoes, “They’ll last us two days. And these,” She gestured to the carrots, also separated into groups of three, “They’ll last three. Then the flour and eggs, we can make something that'll last another two or three days. Then we have the bread, we have enough for a week-” I glanced down at the three loaves of bread we had, not large ones by any stretch either. “-And we have the meat as well, if I make a soup we’ll have another week. This can last us a little over three weeks.”
I blinked a couple times, not sure what to say to her. A potato or chunk of bread a day? For nearly a month? We’d never eaten well, but could we even survive on that, especially with the fever going around? I rubbed the bridge of my nose, and looked up at Mama. “That’s not enough to keep us strong enough to fight the fever if one of us gets it.”
“Did I ask your opinion?” She glared at me.
“Well, you said if, that insinuated room for discussion.”
“Don’t be mouthy!” She yelled, “That’s the plan, so you all don’t starve and die! A little’s better than nothing. Go to your room and think about what I’ve always told you about respect.” She turned and began gathering the food up off the floor, all into a single box, which she began carrying with her.
Before she could start up anything else, I walked to the door of my room. I retched at the stench that was coming from in there, now with the sounds of flies buzzing to add to the grisly mental image. Nausea biting at my stomach, I retreated instead to mama’s room, where she was stuffing the box of food under her bed. I flopped down on the mattress anyway.
I heard her sit down near me, and after a moment, pull me into a hug. I kept my eyes closed, trying to pretend things were as they’d always been. That mama was still the kind, generous woman who ran to care for Neil when he cried, who would do silly impressions to make us feel better when we were sad, and who was always the voice of reason, the constant in the sea of variables. It was almost easy to believe, with her arms wrapped around me and hand stroking my hair. Maybe if Neil wasn’t screaming and the body in my room wasn’t smelling, I could ignore the omens of death and change.
“It’ll all be okay, Clara, don’t worry.” Mama whispered, “I’ll keep you safe, neither of us are going anywhere, and neither is Neil. We’ll always be together.”
Was that good or bad, at this point? Before I could give an answer, there was a knock at the door. Mama was up and darting around looking for something quicker than I’d ever seen her move, which left me being half-thrown off the bed. I caught myself before I hit the floor, and saw mama striding for the door with a hammer.
Right before I could stop her, she turned and motioned to the still wailing Neil. “Pick him up and help him, would you?”
I prayed she wouldn’t do anything stupid, but also did. If she did, maybe we’d get help. Or maybe we’d be stranded as orphans in the disease-ridden streets. I picked up my brother, bouncing him lightly in an attempt to quiet him, and stood in the doorway of mama’s bedroom. Were someone to die, some way or another, I didn’t want him to see. Here, I could watch and he couldn’t.
I held my breath as mama opened the door, peering between wooden slats into the outside light.
“Mrs. Fernsby?” A man’s voice asked, somewhat hesitantly. I didn’t blame him, I’d be hesitant to speak to someone who barricaded themselves in their own house too. Well, if it wasn’t mama or me that is, but I’d be hesitant to talk to myself whatever the situation and mama didn’t seem the best conversationalist as of now.
“Yes?” Mama’s voice didn’t sound normal.
“Ah, hello, I’m Doctor Martin. I’m doing a routine check-up, to make sure everyone in the household seems to be healthy. May I… May I come in?”
“No.” Mama’s voice rose, as though deeply offended.
“No…? Ma’am, it’s for-”
“I know full well what you’re doing! You’re bringing that illness into my home and giving it to my children! Killing the lot of us!”
“Ma’am-” The doctor was cut off with a slam. Mama stalked around for a minute, before coming over and taking Neil from me. He continued to sniffle, Mama didn’t bounce him as usual but muttered words that I couldn’t quite catch. I retreated further into the room, tired. I flopped down on the bed, closing my eyes and dozing off a little while things seemed calm enough. I let my breathing slow, clenched fists relax, and drifted off.
A shrieking woke me up, jolting me out of what peace I’d had. I stumbled out of the bed, noticing the light through the cracks in the boarded windows was more dusky than midday. I’d slept too long. I hurried out to the living room, where I saw mama standing a few feet from Neil in his playpen, both wailing.
“Mama, what…?” I asked, pulling her hands down from her face.
“Just… Just look at him!” She yanked her arms away, gesturing at Neil before turning away. Stomach already dropping, I turned to look at my little brother. His eyes were glassy and he’d puked down his front.
I turned back to mama, trying to be positive. “It might not be the fever, babies puke a lot! And… He’s probably just hungry, that’s why his eyes are glassy, he’s not eaten enough and crying. He’ll be fine.” I went and was about to pick up Neil, but mama yanked me back.
“No!” She yelled, pulling me further back.
“Stop!” I yelled back, stepping closer to her. “Just stop! You’re not thinking rationally, okay? He’s a baby! Whether he’s got the fever or not, someone’s got to take care of him, and you’re not doing that!”
“I… You’re so disrespectful!” Mama spluttered. “Do you want to die? I’m doing all this to protect you! You’re going to die unless you listen! Go to your room.”
Habitually, I started going to my room. Not even half-way there, I gagged at the intense smell that grew stronger in that direction, and went to mama’s room instead. I sat there for a moment, listening to the baby crying and mama’s footsteps as she paced the small house.
As I planned my next moves, I was struck by how few of those I had…
A week had passed. Neil had seemed better after a few days, but then everything changed abruptly. First he refused to eat, then he cried no matter what I did, and now his beautiful, brown eyes were ringed with yellow. He was weak, heck, we all were. I tried to have hope, but I had a feeling that he wouldn’t make it. And that if he didn’t I would have to leave. Mama wasn’t any better, she either paced around the house yelling at everyone or stared at the ceiling with tears in her eyes for hours on end. Occasionally she’d come back, with a hug and kind words, maybe even make us a small meal. But it never lasted, and by the day my stomach hurt more, as did my heart.
I rocked Neil back and forth slowly. I hadn’t let mama see that he was sick. She wouldn’t let me hold him, I wouldn’t be surprised if she locked him in the rancid corpse room. Maybe I would get sick, maybe I would die, but I couldn’t just leave my brother to die alone, miserable, to the cacophony of mama’s yelling and crying. So I hid his face when mama’s walks brought her near, I didn’t attempt to feed him anymore because he would just throw it up again, and I did what little I could to comfort him.
Mama made her way into the bedroom and layed down, staring at the ceiling. I looked down at Neil’s little face, thinner that any baby’s face should be and an off-yellow color. My stomach twisted, urging me to put him down and run as far as I could. Maybe scream. Anything but sit here, helpless, hiding my dying brother from my crazy mama. I let out a breath, just to hold the next one in.
He woke up briefly, crying. It was too quiet, no loud wails from the bottom of his lungs like he used to. He didn’t even cause mama to look our way. More of a whimper, as he weakly threw his little fists around. Then he went still again, breathing shallowly, but breathing.
I don’t know how long it was, perhaps hours, maybe just minutes that he stayed still. I held him tight, hunger and sadness gnawing at my stomach. At a point, he opened his eyes and looked right up at my face. His hand reached up, shaking, and gently brushed my cheek. A tear fell from my eye. His hand fell and his breathing slowed to a halt.
“No, no no no no no…” I whispered. Shaking him gently. The tears blurred my vision, sobs clogging my throat. My chest felt constricted, and I was shaking. He didn’t wake up. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry…” I told him, unable to form other words.
I clung to his little body until it grew cold and stiff in my arms. I looked down, and it didn’t look like him anymore. No life, no Neil, no more than a small, yellow figure. Yet I couldn’t let him go.
I heard the bed creak, but couldn’t make myself look up. A hand touched my shoulder, first softly, trying to uncurl me. Then harder, forcing me to sit up and reveal my brother. What used to be him. An inhuman shriek resounded around me, the body was wrenched from my arms, and I could just sit there numbly. Tears still wetting my cheeks. Mama was yelling something, but I couldn’t register what. I didn’t care. I vaguely saw her set Neil down, back in his playpen. Then she came back over to me, and her arms wrapped around me, pulling me onto her lap. I didn’t struggle from her embrace, it was nice. I wasn’t alone. I let the tears flow freely, and I felt some of mama’s fall onto my back.
Maybe things would be okay. Maybe mama was back.
I blearily opened my eyes, the dingy room around me coming into focus. It was mama’s bedroom, but something was different. Not just the lighting, that had been dimmer since the windows were boarded. The stench of rotting was slightly stronger, but that wasn’t it either. The door, usually open, was closed. A single potato with a greenish tinge was on the nightstand. The wood walls seemed a more dark and monotone brown than before, and dust lay over the floors. Mama was next to me, asleep. The room was empty, aside from the bed, nightstand, and potato. No candles, no books, no sewing equipment, nothing.
I sat up, confused, but made no sounds. I slowly made my way to the door, staying close to the bed to prevent the floor from creaking. My stomach grumbled loudly and I froze, glancing back at the bed, sure that must’ve woken mama up. She didn’t move. I put a hand over my stomach, as though that would help anything should it decide to make more noise, and crept my way to the door. I gently pushed on it, and it didn’t budge. I pushed a bit harder, still with no results, and came to the conclusion that it was locked.
I silently went back to the bed and sat down, reality closing in. I was locked in a room with mama and a potato, Neil was gone, and what would happen next? In order to be locked in here, mama must have a key… The lock was on the other side of the door. She’d probably have it on her, which is unfortunate. But did I need a key to escape? Or should I escape? Was there hope? Was I only trying to escape because that had been my plan from the start? I lay back, staring at the ceiling. I felt empty. No energy, little hope, just… Nothing.
Mama rolled over, throwing an arm over me. I could feel her bones clearly, though it’d only been around two weeks, and we weren’t terribly skinny before. I raised a hand to my stomach, and could feel each rib through my dress. I sighed, closing my eyes, preparing to drift off to sleep again and not caring whether I woke up. I couldn’t bring myself to care.
The darkness of my eyelids slowly crept into my mind, bringing me closer to sleep and peace. I succumbed to it gratefully.
And I was standing in the midst of a field of tall grass, wind caressing my cheek and tossing my chocolatey hair about. I took a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air and smiled. I opened my arms, closing my eyes, basking in the freedom and peace, of the world. The sun shone warmly on the skin, the melody of birds chirping was the soundtrack of my dreams, and the air smelt of flowers and vanilla.
I had the feeling that I wasn’t alone, but not in an unsettling way. I cracked an eye, and there was pa, standing in front of me. Healthy, alive, smiling. I ran up to him, launching myself into his arms, hugging him tightly and enjoying his firm hug back.
“I missed you,” I whispered.
“I missed you too,” he broke the hug, holding me at arms length, studying my face. “You’ve grown so much.”
“Can I stay?”
“That’s not for me to decide, dearest.” His eyes were conflicted, yet he didn’t attempt to hide that from me.
“Who then? Who do I… Talk to?”
Pa took my hand, pulling after him at a leisurely pace. After a bit, he crouched down, pointing to the dirt. “See these little guys?”
“Um… The ants?” I was confused. Did the ants determine life and death now?
“Yes. They’re such hard workers, and so many of them. If you dedicated your life to killing them, you probably wouldn’t make a dent in their population. Tough little suckers. Have you ever tried to keep them out of the house? Sure you have, who hasn’t. It’s near well impossible, and once they’re in, you may as well move out. Always a way in. Determined, aren’t they?”
“Oh, and look at this guy here. Dung beetle, he’s called. Sure he looks small, but he probably invented the wheel before us humans! Didn’t invent much after, but still an achievement. And strong too. Did you know it can move over a thousand times his own weight? They live everywhere but the places that are always frozen. And generally thrive too.”
“No one quite knows how, but it is quite interesting, isn’t it?”
“No, I mean, how does this help me? Us? How’s it relevant.”
Pa looked me in the eyes, his mouth twitching up at the side. “Everything is relevant, dearest. We could learn an awful lot from the little bugs that everyone ignores or hates.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t need to, that’s okay. You’ll understand soon enough. I’m just happy that I get to talk to you again, however short it may be.”
“No buts! It’s not for me, or you, to decide. Not yet. Just humor your dear old pa and listen to him chatter. You know, things will be okay. We’ve all got purpose, whether we see it or not, and my purpose was you. You’ll find yours eventually. And you know, you’re a tough one. Always have been, always will be. I believe in you.” He put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. “And don’t you worry. Your brother is safe up here with me,” the world around me and pa started to fade. Neil toddeled out of the grass near us, grinning up at me.
“Take care now, Clara dear.” Pa’s voice echoed in my mind as he and Neil disappeared. I kept my eyes squeezed shut, blackness surrounding me, though I knew I was back in mama’s room and fully conscious. I tried to grasp the image and feeling and sound of pa with me, and I felt tears leaking out of my eyes as the realization that it was just a dream sank in.
And yet I knew that pa was right. Whether that’d been him or my imagination, he was right. The bugs, the purpose. There was a way. Even now. I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and jumped with a gasp.
Mama was staring right at me, face inches from mine, unblinking. “Mama! Is… Everything okay?” I sat up.
She let out a breath, not moving. “My back hurts.” She muttered. Her eyes were glassy, just as Neil’s had been.
“Just… Take a nap, mama. There’s nothing we can do for it now.”
“I am too.” An idea popped into my mind, and I had to control my excitement. “All we have left is that potato, mama. How about I go to the market and get us some more food?”
“No!” She hissed, a sound that seemed to reverberate through my heart and kill the hope. “You’re just going to leave me. Like everyone else! Your brother, your father, they’re all gone. You’re not leaving me too!”
“We… We’ll starve otherwise. I’ll come back, I promise. But we won’t survive without food.”
“At least we’ll be together.”
I lay back, staring at the ceiling again. Hunger seemed the only thing I could register about my surroundings, that and the fact that my mouth was too dry. And I had to get out of here. That must have been what pa was trying to say, in his unclear way. The ants always found a way in, and I might as well move out. The beetle was strong and could live anywhere. That had to be it… That was what I should do.
I could try to get the key, likely somewhere on mama’s body. Even in her state, she’d have to be smarter than to leave it for me to find. Or I could try to take the boards off the window. Oh, if only I’d not been so stupid as to put the nails in all the way… It would be loud to get them off. Whatever the way, I would need to find a way to make sure mama wouldn’t wake up. Or be able to stop me.
There was nothing in the room, but I scanned it anyway. Just the potato and nightstand. Not much I could do with those. I didn’t want to, and wouldn’t, kill mama. That just wasn’t me. I might have to knock her out, but again, with what? The potato wouldn’t be strong enough…
But then I knew. The chances of success were fairly low, but still higher than starving to death with mama, who likely had the fever.
Tonight, while it was dark and no light would betray me… I would escape.
Mama was asleep. The room was pitch black. A slight chill nipped at my toes, as I lay over the blanket. I lay still, listening. Mama’s breathing remained the same, she didn’t move. I had to get this right the first time, and though I couldn’t afford to waste my darkness, I had to be positive she wouldn’t wake up.
Slowly, I slid out of bed, stopping at the slightest noise of the sheets. Listening to the steady breaths, searching for the slightest difference. I heard none, kept moving another inch, and stopped again.
Finally, I was crouching beside the bed, and slid as silently as I could to the nightstand. My hand hit the side, and I froze. Would she have heard that noise? Her breathing stayed the same, and I tried to let my own breath out. I felt shaky, this was a terrible idea. But I had to do this.
Slowly, I fumbled in the darkness until I found the first drawer of the nightstand. I slowly pulled it out, cringing as it scraped against the inside. But I kept pulling, until the drawer came all the way out. I caught it the moment before it would hit the floor, took a deep breath, and tried to compose myself. I’m gonna do this, it’s gonna be okay, breathe. Mama’s breathing is still how it was, it’s okay.
I stalked, slowly, but as fast as I dared, around the bed until I was standing over mama. I tried to keep my breath shallow and silent, to not fumble, to please not mess this up… I could tell she was still sleeping on her side, facing where I should’ve been. It made me sad, what I was about to do. She did just care, in a twisted way…
I raised the drawer up, took a deep breath, and slammed it down on mama’s head. A crack cut through the silence. I lifted the piece of wood, letting out a sigh of relief that it’d broken and not mama. I listened another second, her breath different but she must still be asleep. Unconscious.
I ran to the window, pulling on a board. I didn’t have the strength to pull it off, I could tell that from the get-go. My finger twinged as a bit of wood splintered off into my thumb. No, this wouldn’t work.
Thinking fast, I ran over to the nightstand and attempted to pick it up. Heavey, but more plausible than prying splintered boards from the window. I drug it as close as I could, then lifted it with a grunt. I briefly considered getting the key from mama instead, but whatever way I did this, it would include prying or breaking boards. With what little strength I had, I hefted the dresser up and rammed it into the window.
I bounced back, dropping the dresser on my foot. A sharp pain shot through it, and I jerked it out from under the dresser. No, I didn’t have time for this! I crawled back up to the dresser, yanking the other drawer out. I pushed myself to my feet, yelping slightly as my foot stung in reply. I picked up the dresser again, arms shaking, head spinning. I used every bit of my strength left, and I ran at the window, slamming the dresser and myself into the wood. This time a loud crunch met my ears as the boards broke and the dresser fell out onto the street below. I sat on the ground for a moment, gasping for breath. My ribs hurt, my foot hurt, everything hurt. But I had to keep going. I stood up, leaning on the windowsill, and attempted to get my butt on the sill. Instead, I tumbled out, and white spots danced in my vision. I pushed myself up onto a forearm, the world spinning around me. I tried to drag myself up, but everything spun into darkness.
My cheek was pressed against something rough. A metallic taste hung in my mouth, and everything ached. I opened my eyes, seeing a sideways image that made my heart drop. I was back in the house, the kitchen this time, and mama looked angry. I moved to sit up, just to find my hands stuck behind my back.
“You dare try to leave me!” Mama yelled. Her voice was hoarse, and even with my blurred vision, I could see that her eyes were yellow. She was trembling as she stood, hunched over, looking as though she’d go down at any moment if not fueled by anger.
“You’re staying right here,” she said, voice uneven. “You hear me?”
I nodded slowly, my breath catching in my throat. This was how it ended, wasn’t it? Tied up in my house, mama yelling till she died. I would probably have to watch her die, and then wait a few days to starve.
Mama stumbled over and sat down next to me, “Good, good. You’ll stay with me.” She crooned, running a hand through my knotted hair. I tried not to wince, I knew that wouldn’t go over well, but this wasn’t mama anymore.
This time, I knew there was no escape. She wouldn’t let me go, I didn’t have the means or energy for another escape attempted. I slumped, closing my eyes, willing myself to drift off and not come back.
I did drift off, a few times, but I never saw pa. I didn’t dream. The third time I awoke, the room was dimly lit and too warm. Mama’s hand was rested heavily on my head, and it was cold. I wiggled, gagging at the thought of the dead body touching me. I managed to move out from under her hand, and made the mistake of looking up at her pale face. Her nose, mouth, and eyes were ringed with blood. I puked, gagging again at the rancid smell of pure stomach acid and the image of mama’s face burned into my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut, laying in the only, uncomfortable position I could that both kept my face out of the puke and away from the bony corpse hand. Eventually I drifted back to sleep again.
I screamed as hands touched me, lifting me off the floor. Writhing and begging until they put me back down. Slowly, my eyes focused on two unfamiliar faces. Two black people, a man and a woman.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay darlin’.” The woman said, kneeling in front of me. “It seems you ‘ad an ordeal, an’ it’s over now. Be still while Joe an’ I get you untied, okay?” I nodded, eyes wide, but didn’t resist. It was over, and no matter who these people were, it would have to be better. I would be okay now. And yet I was still terrified, flinching as their hands touched mine in the process of removing the rope.
“Do you ‘ave any other family, darlin’? Anyone to go to?” The woman asked.
I shook my head, unsure if my voice worked. The man helped me to my feet, holding me up as I crumpled under the pain of my foot. They continued talking to me, as they escorted me out of the house, onto the empty streets. We walked, I felt very numb and jumped at the slightest sound. There were few people out, and those who were avoided coming near the others. It was mostly black folks, going into houses and some coming out with bodies, others with people like me. At one point we passed a large hole, bodies lining the inside and more waiting on the edges. I retched again, the image of mama’s face and feeling of Neil’s cold body burned into my mind. That’s where they would go, with no proper burial nor grave to visit.
Eventually, we arrived at a large building filled with beds and blankets on the floor. Each bed had a person, most of which seemed to have the fever. After a moment, a doctor came up to us, I think the same one who’d originally knocked on our door.
“Does she have yellow fever?” He asked, his voice obviously tired.
“We don’t believe so. She seems to have hurt her foot however.”
“Finally, something I can help with.” He muttered, gesturing to an open area by the door. I was sat down there, and the woman knelt in front of me again.
“Well darlin’, you’re in good hands now. You’re gonna be just fine, you hear?” I nodded and offered her a small smile. She smiled back, and then walked out the door.
“What’s your name?” The doctor said, examining my foot. I was mildly embarrassed that I had no stocking or shoes, just my now very dirty dress, but that was the least of my worries.
“Clara Fernsby.” My voice came out small and squeaky, rasping uncomfortably on my dry throat and clumsy over my swollen tongue.
“Clara? Nice to meet you.” He muttered, not really paying attention. He beckoned someone else over, another black woman, and told her to get me some water. He turned back to me. “It seems your foot is broken, but it will heal. You won’t have much trouble. Just stay off it a few days, if you can find crutches or a stick that’ll help you move around. Have you got anywhere to go?”
I shook my head. I wouldn’t go back to that house.
“Okay. You can stay here and help out where you can until this is over, given that you cause no trouble. Have you had the fever?”
I shook my head again, sipping on the water that'd just been handed to me. It was good, and took control not to gulp the whole thing down. But I didn’t know if I’d get more, and wanted it to last.
“Use the usual rules of sickness, then. Avoid being breathed on, touching things, you know those?”
I nodded, taking a larger sip of water. The doctor nodded curtly, moving off into the sea of beds and patients.
The next few days, I managed to find myself some older looking crutches that were no longer in use. They helped me to move around greatly. I helped out among the patients, administering blankets on the cold nights as the first frost approached, or water, or helping family members to find each other. The new people coming in slowed, and soon there were only those recovering.
I began to worry a little more as to what I would do. There weren’t many places in society for young girls without a family. I didn’t know any young men, and even if I did, marriage felt too soon. Not something I wanted. I could pick up being a seamstress after my mother, I knew enough, but could I get customers?
A nice, chilly morning, while I wasn’t needed to do small tasks for anyone, I grabbed my crutches and went for a slow walk. The morning sun glittered on the slowly melting frost on windows or blades of grass amongst the stones of the streets. It was still fairly empty, few people had anything to do. I meandered along familiar roads that all looked so different now.
Eventually, I found myself at the market. The once bright signs and umbrellas over the stalls were faded and cracked, some missing altogether. No sellers were out. Most had likely passed on, as much of the city seemed to. I was limping amongst the stalls, caught up in the nostalgia of the life I’d once had, when a voice behind me startled me.
I almost fell as I turned around quickly, prepared to run. I let out a breath, seeing a familiar face with neat blonde hair and kind green eyes. “Ellie? I.. Hello.” I looked down self consciously at my dirty clothing, shoeless feet, and matted hair around my shoulders. I felt a blush rise in my cheeks.
“Hello,” She smiled, a genuine smile. “I see that the days haven’t treated you very well.”
“No, not particularly.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of. What happened to your foot? I’m sorry, I do know such questions might be rude, but I’m curious.”
“I dropped a dresser on it. And it broke.”
“Ouch,” Ellie winced.
“Yes…” I laughed a little. “How’s life been treating you?”
“Well… Not as badly. My parents are making a fuss, money’s gone down a little. But we’re all alive, and have enough to live on. They needn’t worry because we can’t afford the newest fabrics. I always do tell them to come look out here… But they never do.” She shrugged. “Did your family make it?”
“No,” I looked down, feeling tears form again. “No, they all died. Just me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that…” Ellie said. “Have you anywhere to go?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
I nodded reluctantly.
“I see. You said your mother was a seamstress? Did she teach you?”
“Perfect,” Ellie smiled, “Come along then, this will work out nicely. If you want, that is. But I could convince my parents to give you a place to stay and some food in return for your service. As I said, they’re unhappy about money, but have more than enough food and rooms.”
“I… Can I?” I was baffled. Surely she must be joking.
“Of course. I am quite lonely as well, we could be good friends.” The look of excitement and hope on Ellie’s face convinced me more than words. This would be the best chance I’d have.
~Six months later~
I sat in a nice room, smelling of baked goods. On my lap was a nice lace dress, the color of lavender and roses. I was nearly done sewing the hem. I glanced up, at Ellie lounging on the couch in front of me. She made a face at me, giggling. I couldn’t help but laugh, gazing happily over at her.
“So, about that idea she had…” She said. “What do you think?”
“What, turning my bad experiences into a book? I told you, I can hardly write.”
“I can teach you!” Ellie picked herself up and bounced over to me, picking the sewing up off my lap. “See,” she grabbed a pencil from the small table beside us, putting it into my hand and wrapping her fingers around mine to position them. “You hold the pencil like this, and then you just write letters. Which I’ll teach you!”
“I was almost done with that!” I objected, but I didn’t really mind. I glanced up, her emerald eyes locking onto mine.
“Oh, you’ll write the best story ever. Or I’ll write it for you; you dictate and I’ll write. I bet you could be famous.” The idea did appeal to me, I had to admit. “Come on, mother and father won’t send you away now, I’m way too attached.” She draped herself over the couch. “You can afford to take some little breaks instead of work non-stop, especially to write the next big story! People do love stories.”
“Okay, but once you let me finish that hemming. I think that you’re going to look gorgeous in that. They’re just your colors.”
“Oh, alright.” Ellie dramatically rolled her eyes, handing me back the lacey fabric. “But you are making it so ornate and intricate, I’m afraid you may have to help me put it on.” She winked, prancing out of the room with a giggle.
I shook my head, but couldn’t help smiling. I went for a bite of the biscuit I had, stopping as I saw an ant on it. My smile grew. “Thank you pa, you were right.” I whispered, getting up to let the ant outside.
Middletown, New Jersey