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G e t t i n g   It   W r o n g

 novel from the screenplay

 

COMING SOON 

  Peter loves Maggie.

 Maggie loves Peter.

 Alice loves Peter, too.

 Mary, Maggie's mum loves her daughter.

 Maggie loves her mum and Louisa also

loves Maggie's mum.

 

And Brandon, he loves money even if it isn't his.

 

It got tangled!

  

London, 1948. The city is putting itself together again after the Second World War, and people and families are trying to find a way forward. It's a struggle for all.

 

Peter is a young man who works at the library. He has hopes and dreams of one day being a novelist. His dreams and fantasies help him escape his day to day life where his somber habits inhibit his ways with women. But then he meets the woman with the bright red lips like a movie star.

 

Maggie is a young woman of prominent cheekbones and startling ambition, who wants to be a film star – or, failing that, a novelist. She's about as predictable as a thunderstorm.

 

Alice is the girl next door and works for a literary agent. She loves Peter's writing – and Peter too. But will she find the courage to tell him so?

 

In a slippery tale of stolen hearts and purloined novels, secret loves and hidden ambitions, these lives become irretrievably tangled.

 

Who will end up with whom? Who will end up rich and celebrated? And will art – and love – win out in the end?

 

 

 

 

OPENING PAGES OF THE NOVEL

 

 

 1

 

The mirror hanging next to his door was exactly where it was when Peter took the room at Mrs. Chapman's, not far from Victoria station. Peter never moved it. He didn't like change; it was merely a distraction from what was truly important to him, writing his novel.

 

Each morning, Peter paused to glance at himself in the mirror and check his shirt buttons to make sure they were buttoned all the way up to his throat. He wore his drab gray shirt every day at the library where he worked. Well, he wore it every day, period. Always buttoned up tight.

 

He stood at the door of his room for a moment looking at his watch before going down for breakfast. He never liked being early or late ¾ just on time. Downstairs, Mrs. Chapman always had his tea and toast ready precisely at seven o'clock. She knew that was the way Peter liked it. Not early, never late, just always there for him.

 

"Peter, you never have any of this nice marmalade on your toast."

 

Mrs. Chapman pushed the pot of marmalade towards him along with a motherly smile.

 

He replied with a smile and pushed it back again.

 

"No, Mrs. Chapman. Plain is fine."

 

"Have you ever been late? I mean to the library?" she asked.

 

Peter was perplexed. Have I ever been late anywhere? he pondered. It hardly seemed likely.

 

"No, Mrs. Chapman. Always on time. Never late, never early."

 

Again, he checked the top button of his shirt. It was secure. The morning was progressing as it should.

 

"But what if it rains?" she asked.

 

"I never thought about that." He replied. "It rains most days this month, doesn't it?"

 

At that, Peter grabbed his toast and rushed for the door in case it was raining. He didn't like being late.

 

It was February, and London's streets were still considerably dark that early. Peter moved through the deep shadows headed for Victoria station, where the tube would take him to the central library. He'd worked there since the end of the war. At the library, the doors always opened at nine and closed at precisely six. There no one cared about his drab gray shirt as the dim lights made everything look a bit gray. But then again, he'd never notice had they.

 

It was London's oldest and largest library. It was so old, in fact, that the floors creaked when he pushed his cart down the long aisles. This is certainly the place where one could get lost but probably not realize it until closing time. At least Peter wondered if such was possible.

 

Each morning Peter stacked his cart from the wooden box where returned books were left to be shelved. Shelving books wasn't as boring as one might think as each aisle was filled with new adventures with travel at one end and Victorian novels around the corner stack. He knew where everything was because he'd worked there so long, or at least it seemed like a long time to Peter. In these long rows of racks Peter could get lost in his thoughts, never worrying about being early or late because real time did not exist in his daydreams. There, everything so easily floated on the power of his imagination.

 

On a typical day, and after glancing up and down the aisles for his boss, Head Librarian Woods, he'd pick up a book that he'd been secretly treating himself to a page or two read a day. He loved Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. There was once a time when it had been checked out, which annoyed Peter. Still, he was halfway through the novel, but that day, he'd barely read the first paragraph of a new chapter when Mrs. Woods walked up. He quickly shelved his read and made himself appear busy. But even in the shadowy aisles she knew what people were really up to. Didn't she?  Peter wondered.

 

"Peter, isn't that the same cart of books you were pushing earlier?"

 

"No, Mrs. Woods. Books tend to look alike in this light."

 

She bent to glance closer at his cart.

 

"I see the titles also appear alike, but probably only in this light, I'm sure."

 

Mrs. Woods rolled her eyes and walked on. Peter took a deep breath, and when Mrs. Woods had progressed down the aisle far enough, he reached down to the lowest shelf on his cart and pulled his notebook from hiding. Opening it to the first page, he felt a sense of pride when he looked at the title page, which read "Novel by Peter Tinsley." Well, it yet had a title. That would come, he figured. Then, with no one looking over his shoulder, Peter scribbled a few lines after pausing to contemplate how the warrior Jamie Fraser in Outlander, might teach Claire love like she'd never known? Well, Peter thought, when he figured it out, he'd put it in his own novel. But then again, who knows how love works?

 

Perhaps it's one of those questions that's always chasing after an answer that's always out of reach. But then what if love  really doesn't work ¾ it only happens? Perhaps a bit like miracles. Who thinks they can put one of those on the calendar? Well, Peter was about to find out.

 

~~~~~

 

Things all started on one of those rainy days London is so known for. The library typically got crowded early on wet days as even months after the war, there weren't many jobs. Where else could one wile away the hours for free?

 

Maggie didn't have a job. Every day, she would make her way to the library, where she pulled out every book that might have pictures of film stars, particularly American movie stars as their photos made them appear as though their polished faces glowed in the celluloid dark with eyelashes so long, they made shadows over their faces, both men and women. How can I become one of these goddesses?

 

Maggie sat there all day wondering. At frequent intervals, she pulled out her compact and applied a coat of red lipstick. That surely had to be a step in the right direction. The close-up of Joan Crawford's glossy lips suggested she was on the path to stardom. But how many twists and turns to reach the stars? That was yet to come.

 

Late that morning, Peter slid his notebook back on the bottom of his cart and went back to shelving his books. As he pushed his cart up and down the long aisles, he pondered how the mighty Scotsman Jamie, could teach Claire how to love when he noticed this woman sitting in the other side of study hall. In front of her was the largest stack of books of anyone using the hall that day. He rolled his cart to the racks behind where she sat and pulled a book out so he could get a better glimpse of this creature with lips like a movie star. Suddenly Maggie noticed Peter and slung a wink his way. He ran for cover. Surely, Claire didn't merely wink at Jamie, and that made his knees weak. Warriors don't have weak knees, do they? But then again, if Claire didn't wink at Jamie, what device did she utilize to capture his attention? Peter slid the book back and rolled off to shelf his cart of books. Strangely, the woman's  smile seemed to haunt him as though she was following him through the racks. Could that be possible? Peter looked behind to see. The image of her red lips blazoned in his thoughts.

 

After rolling up and down the aisles, and with what seemed like a hundred books returned to their proper places, it was  nearing six o'clock and the library would soon be closing. Mrs. Woods had given Peter the task of informing patrons when it was near to closing time. He took his assignment seriously; after all, he would be representing the largest library in London. Peter drifted back to the study hall and eventually made his way to the woman with the stack of books.

 

"It's near six o'clock." Peter whispered to the creature with the red lips. But she never looked up from her book. He stood silently waiting at first. Why didn't she respond? he wondered. Did she not hear him? Finally, she paused from flipping pages and gazed up at him.

 

"It sure enough is," she said. "But only for a minute or two… or three. How long can it be near six o'clock? Did they ever figure that out? Go along and find out."

 

With that this woman flipped to another page along with her attention.

 

What? How could Peter not wonder if she was from the continent? Over there people didn't understand the way things were meant to be, as well as the English. After all, hadn't she phrased the question as if it couldn't possibly have an answer? Peter even wondered what she'd truly said. Made no sense. Is she French, then? Must be. She simply didn't understand English, he reasoned.

 

Maggie turned another page and then paused to clarify for this obviously perplexed looking young man in the drab shirt.

 

"And you know, anyone can hold their breath that long. Watch!"

 

Maggie took a gulp of air, plugged her nose, and held it until she turned red.

 

Peter wondered what Mrs. Woods would think of this demonstration? Would she think he'd strangled a patron until her lips turned cherry red?

 

Still, Maggie had better things to do, and went back to breathing naturally and the book on movie stars. Jean Harlow stared up at her, glad she'd returned. It can be lonely being a movie star. They resumed their thoughts together which carried them aimlessly to where time was never a concern as clocks simply did not exist in the celluloid heavens.

 

"The library is closing," Peter announced once again.

 

"Oh, is that what all your six o'clock fuss was about?"

 

"What?" was all Peter could get out.

 

He wondered if this patron plugged her nose again if she'd pass out and drop to the floor? How could this be happening to him at closing time?  His palms got sweaty at the thought. Then the woman who looked like a movie star winked again.

 

"Yeah? Thought you were some kind of perv peeking through the books at me. I saw you; you know."

 

Perv, did she say? There's only pervs in Italy, he thought, and likely France. Certainly not in England.

"The library is closing," he repeated a tiny bit louder; after all, he was the official announcer that the library was closing for the day.

 

"Sit down here."

 

She gestured to the seat next to her.

 

"I want to show you all these move stars. You can help me decide if the boys are prettier than the girls. We'll start on page one."

 

Of course, Peter didn't sit down. All the same, the woman went on flipping the glossy pages ever so slowly as though the library was unlikely to ever close.

 

Peter had never faced such a conundrum. He felt the top button of his shirt to ascertain if it was properly buttoned and  took a deep breath as he waited to see what might happen. Well, nothing did. Wasn't his voice official-sounding, he wondered?

 

"The library is closing…" he all but whispered.

 

Peter wondered what Mrs. Woods would say about a patron defying closing at the proper time? Of course, it had never happened. Certainly not any time after the Norman invasion when law and order was established among the pagans.

 

Apparently not grasping the magnitude of the matter, Maggie opened yet another book from her pile.

Peter stood waiting as the clock ticked away. Yep, the library was closing as it always did, at exactly six o'clock. Not a minute earlier, and certainly not one minute later. This is not Italy, where nothing is on time. No, this is England, where clocks were invented at Greenwich. Weren't they? Well, certainly keeping proper time was!

 

She didn't want to keep him.

 

"I'll lock up when I leave," she warned.

 

"What?" Peter asked.

 

Was this woman an anarchist or something? What should be done? Peter wiped his brow and quickly rolled his cart off, wondering if the library had ever locked someone in all night? If they had, what did they have for supper? Surely the library got cold at night, as it typically was during the day. And then, can one really look at books on movie stars all night long? Peter was starting to get a headache after only a few troubling moments with this woman. It was soon to get much worse.

 

"So strange, that one," Maggie yammered to Joan Crawford looking up at her with polished face and blackened eyelashes all perfectly arranged like picket fences around her eyes, which glistened with a "come-and-get-some" gleam.

 

Peter figured he could always inform Mrs. Woods that he never saw the young woman with the red lips and only barely noticed her companion, Joan Crawford. Perhaps she slipped in after the bell chimed closing. Of course she did. People from across the Channel are known to do strange things, he thought. Makes sense. Surely that's why most of them live over there. Certainly, the English understood what the subtext "over there" meant.

 

It was raining all the way back to Mrs. Chapman's. Peter stood on the crowded tube train thinking about the creature with the red lips and wondering what would happen if she'd never left the library that evening. He was still thinking about this up in his room as he warmed a tin of soup on his two-burner electric plate that he was still making payments on ¾ a payment always on time, every other week.

As the soup steamed, Peter pulled out his notebook to jot down a few more lines. How, he wondered, could he get it right in his novel when women were so obviously strange and wholly unpredictable? Nothing that woman at the library said, he thought, made any sense and yet every word she uttered was still jingling in his thoughts that night. Could she still be there? Sitting in that empty cold study hall with her red lips glowing in the dark as though there was an audience sitting silently below her gaze. Perhaps there counting the moments until their rapture eclipsed their realities.

 

Peter ate his soup from the tin and sucked the last few drops when he realized it was nine o'clock, the time he always put his notebook down and crawled under his comforter. Through the thin walls, he could hear the couple in the other room making love. Her unpunctuated moans were compelling. Under his comforter, Peter wanked to the pleasing rhythm between the couple, with her moans and his jouncing the bed forming a nonverbal communication; well, lovers often communicate as if language has little to do with anything. Still…

 

Jingle, jingle, jingle. The woman's words at the library kept jingling in his thoughts. How was she doing that? Peter fell asleep wondering.

 

 2

 

Over the days that followed, Peter wondered what had happened to the woman with the red lips? His imagination took him to all kinds of places and scenarios. What if she had a secret life at the library where she had long conversations with movie stars, just as he secretly wrote lines in his novel about Scottish warriors and their ladyloves? What if?

 

Then, one night, as Peter was leaving for the day, there she was again, this time standing outside the library exit. Could she have just left from the day he encountered her the week before? Things happen, Peter reminded himself. And no one knows why.

 

"Hey, librarian. I nicked this book," the woman with the red lips confessed.

 

She waved a book in Peter's face. The other librarians looked at Maggie, and then at him.

 

"I may report you," he announced using his official librarian voice.

 

"Yep, but not likely. Know why?" she asked.

 

Peter paused to see what would come next.

 

"Cause you're a perv!" she announced and then looked at the others to gauge their reaction.

 

"You spend all day at the library watching girls wearing tight sweaters."

 

Hers seemed to Peter to be particularly tight that night. Without another glimpse at her tight sweater, he walked off.

 

But Maggie dashed after him and put her arm through his as though they were strolling down the mall to a picnic. Peter shook himself free.

 

"I'm Maggie. Fish and chips? I'm paying."

 

"What? Got to go home."

 

Somehow, even as he was still contemplating how she got her lips so red, he found himself standing next to her at a walk up stand with a plate of fish and chips in front of him. Things happen, you know?

 

"You're not one of those guys who live with their mum, are you?"

 

"Got a room at a house near Victoria station," Peter replied.

 

"One of those places where your girlfriend can't come up?" she asked.

 

"It's near Victoria," he repeated.

 

"Like what do you do when you're not squeezing a peek at me through those dusty ol' shelves?"

 

"Not squeezing… not looking at you," he stammered.

 

"Oh, you're looking at the dust between the books, hey?"

 

"I write."

 

"Write? Like what? Poetry?" she asked.

 

"No."

 

At the fish counter, Peter noticed how quickly men seemed to notice Maggie. Was it her tight sweater? She put a chip to Peter's mouth and held it there until he parted his lips. Where else could he go with this, he wondered? Then she flipped it onto his tongue. He stood pondering what to do, but soon realized he was only staring at her lips. If he failed to chew, would she think he was because he was trying to kiss her?

 

"Novel," he finally got out.

 

He went on chewing slowly, but not because he was concentrating on  her lips all the more. Well, maybe.

 

"You're writing a novel?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Me mum, she once said, 'Maggie, you may not get to be pretty enough one day to be no movie star. 

Plus, you don't got the money to get yourself to Hollywood anyway. Best write a novel then. It's your only hope out'."

 

"Write a novel? You ever read one?" Peter asked.

 

"No, but you see, if you're not a movie star, being a famous writer is almost the same. Sure, it is."

 

"How?" he wanted to know.

 

"Well, writers get piles of money, checks come in the post, you dress smart and go to parties at posh places. You know."

 

"No, I don't," he said, and meant it. "I don't go anywhere and don't want to go anywhere, do I?" He meant that in return.

 

"You're so peculiar," she said. "Are you sure you don't write dirty stories for dirty magazines? You look the type."

 

Maggie reached over and unbuttoned Peter's top shirt button. He quickly buttoned it back up again. Isn't it only Italian men who wear their shirts open because they have chest hair?

 

"What… ?"

 

Upon hearing her comment, he tossed his plate of soggy chips on the counter and walked off.

 

"So, peculiar, that one. He must be a really good writer then!"

 

Joan Crawford may not have heard Maggie but would surely have thought the same. It's been long said she knew more than a few writers in Hollywood and it's oft repeated that she knew them in a biblical sense. Joan would surely have said: 'Oh, well, things happen!"

 

~~~~~

 

At times, Peter woke up early, and to the sounds of the rain against his window, he'd scribble a few lines of his novel. Sometimes, during his restless nights, the images that had stirred in his head kept him awake. He wanted to write things out so he could understand the unfathomable, like Jamie, the Scottish warrior who loved Claire but couldn't truly be a warrior if he got too mushy over her. Could he? But then, things can happen. Peter looked forward to reading a few more pages of the Outlander at the library to see what the author might reveal. With those meandering thoughts, he dressed, grabbed his handwritten manuscript, and headed downstairs, where Mrs. Chapman was sure to greet him with her warm smile.

 

"Here's your toast, Peter. Didn't sleep well last night?"

 

Know the evidence was at the top of his head, Peter patted down his unruly, wavy dark hair, and answered with a smile.

 

"Six more pages for your daughter to type. I just finished them this morning. Here's some money for her, too."

 

He put a coin on the table and sat down to gobble his plain toast and slurp his tea.

 

"Alice says she won't take money. She so enjoys reading your words."

 

"I have to pay her." 

 

"She said you only made one spelling error in all those pages she typed last week," Mrs. Chapman added.

 

"That's good, Mrs. Chapman. Got to go."

 

Peter stuffed the last of his toast into his mouth and dashed as he was never late for work. But then again, he was never early either.

 

The working day at the library was good. Mrs. Woods was too busy to see if Peter was shelving his books or merely riding the aisles, pausing here and there to add to his novel. It didn't seem long before it was six o'clock. Luckily, the rain had stopped that afternoon. Peter could walk back to Mrs. Chapman's to save the tube fare. He grabbed his notebook, slid it under his jacket, and headed for the door, where he followed Mrs. Woods outside.

 

And there she was again ¾ the woman with the red lips.

 

"Here I am!" she screeched to Mrs. Woods as though a surrendering criminal.

 

Mrs. Woods jumped in her tracks.

 

"Petey said he would report me to the King. You see, I nicked this book!"

 

Maggie waved a library book at Mrs. Woods.

 

"Peter. My name is Peter," he said under his breath.

 

Mrs. Woods took the book, and opening it, looked at Maggie as if she was missing her senses.

 

"Miss, your book is not due till next week. Perhaps you should drop a note to the King informing him of such. Given the gravity of the situation, it will assuredly ease his mind."

 

Mrs. Woods handed the book back and walked off.

 

"Why did you do that?" Peter asked.

 

"How should I know?" Maggie replied. "Sometimes it just all comes out wrong. Hey, I got my dole money. I'm treating you to a proper meal for saving me from being shipped off to Australia. That's where they send book nickers, you know."

 

"No, they don't. I got to get home."

 

Peter left Maggie standing with her near-to-being overdue book. Still, she caught up with him. Things can happen when you're least expecting it. In fact, at times they simply jump out at you.

 

"I'm Maggie."

 

"I remember your name," he mused. "You didn't remember mine."

 

She slid her arm through his as she had the week before, but Peter pulled away just as quickly. He wondered what Mrs. Woods would think had she seen him walk off with this strange creature? Perhaps that he was part of a crime dual that purposely, and with deliberate intent, held books out of circulation until they were near to being overdue.

 

It was a crowded pub that Maggie dragged Peter to, never once releasing her clutch along the way.

There was a fireplace near the table where they were seated. Peter didn't notice the glowing fire; he only noticed the prices on the menu and wondered what the waiter would think if he only ordered a glass of water. Shortly after, the waiter appeared with a bottle of wine and two glasses, but Peter was not tempted.

 

"Oh, no. I don't drink," he informed the waiter.

 

Still Maggie had other thoughts and most usually always did.

 

"Yes, two glasses," she shot back.

 

The waiter poured two glasses of wine and left the bottle on the table.

 

A whole bottle? But how much did it cost? Peter wondered, and if they still had debtors' prisons in London?

 

"You in London during the blitz?" she asked.

 

"Yeah. My dad, he wouldn't leave our house. Mum, she wouldn't go anywhere without him. The night the bombs hit, there was nothing left of my folks. Nothing left of our place.

 

"Where were you," she asked.

 

"Mum always made me go to the shelter. Packed me a sandwich every night. Told me to pray for them."

 

"Did you?" she asked. "Pray for them?"

 

"Couldn't figure out who to pray to," Peter replied. "You?"

 

"Me mum went to live with her sister in Cornwall," she said. "I stayed in London. Had a job at the phone company. Lied about my age to get it. Yep, plugged in wires all damned day. I did. Plugged one in for Churchill once. Can you believe?"

 

He could. Things happen.

 

"Your mum?" he asked as he took the first sip of his wine.

 

"Yeah, we live together. Probably always will."

 

"What about your dad?"

 

"Long gone," Maggie said. "Mum only says 'here today, gone tomorrow like the leftovers.' Who cares anyway? Things like that never last, do they?"

 

"Like what? You mean he left you? You and your mum?"

 

"I never knew what happened. That strange?" she said. "But he's still gone, hey?"

 

"I guess," Peter replied.

 

"Maybe he got on a bus and went the wrong way and never came back. You got a girlfriend?"

 

Peter shifted in his seat uncomfortably.

 

"Oh, it don't matter. The men I know, they all chase skirts at work and stay out nights trying to get under one. But you, you're special."

 

"Special?" he asked, and then felt compelled to take a second sip of wine. "No, not special. Work at the library."

 

"But you're writing a novel. A real novel."

 

Maggie gulped the rest of her wine and poured a second glass. She started to refill Peter's glass, but it was still near to being full.

 

"You read? I mean novels?" he asked.

 

Maggie was uncomfortable with this question and gazed  into fire.

 

"Petey, I never tell people, but I can't read or write. Well, no more than my name and address, I guess."

 

"But I often see you at the library reading stacks of books."

 

"Not reading. Just looking at the pictures of movie stars. You see, I had to go out and work when I was a kid. Me and Mum, we cleaned houses. Never went to school. When a truant officer sent a letter asking about me we just cleared out. Moved a lot back then. Yeah, but maybe it was because we couldn't make rent. Don't know. It's always been hard for us."

 

Maggie put down her glass.  Her sadness seemed to evaporate with her smile.

 

 "Yeah, right… Huh? There's always a new day, hey?"

 

For the first time, Peter and Maggie's eyes wandered into each other's even as the conversation went silent. It was as if there was a silent communication between them. He could feel it, and wondered if she did, too. But did he like that feeling? Were his knees a bit weak? He reached down and grabbed his knee to see. But nothing was shaking. Not that much anyway. Warrior Jamie Fraser would have been proud.

During supper the light from the fire danced across Peter's features and made his wavy dark hair shiny. Maggie smiled and went on, but there was a sadness in her eyes and her voice became soft as though she was revealing things she'd kept hidden.

 

"Petey, you know me mum, she was once pretty. Yeah, she was. But look what it did for her…"

 

"What do you mean?" he asked. 

 

Maggie took another sip of wine and paused before continuing.

 

"Well, she sure ain't no movie star, is she?" Maggie declared defiantly. "Never even met a man who'd take the time to look past her pretty face. But Petey, a pretty face, it don't last long when you're down on your knees scrubbing floors. I can see it in my Mum's eyes."

 
"See what?"

 

"Sadness, I think. Even when she's smiling. You know? She feels worn out, is what I mean."

 

"You really want to be a movie star?" he asked.

 

Movie stars seemed so far away to Peter, but then he recalled his mum once saying that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had a country house outside of London. It seems they were always there when they weren't making films in America.

 

"Don't know really," she said. "I guess I just don't want to end up like me mum. Maybe nothing scares me more. I look at her and I know that's gonna be me one day, sooner or later. Nothing but a worn-out cleaning rag ain't nobody could ever care about!"

 

"But who knows what that 'later' will be like, I mean, until we get there?" he asked, and in the flash of the moment, wondered how Claire and Jamie looked into their own futures. And what if they were out there still looking? Looking for each other in some other place and time that had yet come for them. Yet isn't that the way it is for all lovers? Peter never stopped pondering the imponderables that he collected his thoughts.

 

"Easy for you. You're a man," she said. "It don't matter how pretty you are unless you want to be a movie star. Hey? Don't you think Tyrone Power is the most beautiful man in the world?"

 

"Never thought about it. I mean, I guess," Peter answered.

 

All the way home, Peter thought about what Maggie had said. About how things were for women after they'd lost their beauty; that is, if they started out with it. Perhaps it was easier for women who weren't pretty. Peter thought himself lucky he didn't really worry about his looks. Well, except when he was glued to the mirror, wondering if anything looked different than the day before, what with the curls in his hair never heading the same direction after waking.

 

 3

 

Mrs. Chapman had known Peter since the war. She and her daughter met him in the air raid shelters, which, for their district, was deep below the Victoria tube. Come dusk, everyone scrambled below ground, knowing that sooner or later, the bombers would come in waves. They all tried to put on their best faces with the knowledge that the night could be the one that leveled their home and put them living on a street of rubble. 

 

Down in the near darkness, people sang in a big chorus, loud enough so that the bombers might think they were so fearless they'd  know it would be pointless to return the next night. But the bombers came anyway and did so in waves. One of the few houses spared in that district was Mrs. Chapman's, where her daughter had been raised. Life had not been easy for them before the war, and only the fact that their house survived the blitz enabled them to get on. You see, Mrs. Chapman had a few extra rooms she could let to make ends meet. She and Alice shared the maid's room off the kitchen and had boarders in the rooms upstairs. The house had been, back in the day, the home of a shopkeeper, and he displayed his prosperity by having a live-in maid. Now, Mrs. Chapman was the maid, did the cleaning, and prepared meals for some of the boarders while Alice kept an office job. They both worked hard to keep things going and felt so much more blessed than those, like Peter's folks, who had no place to go home to after the bombers came. There in the dark of the shelter, Mrs. Chapman would chat to Peter as Alice slept with her head on her mum's lap. At times, Peter was afraid, and seemed to know that the day might come, and he'd have no place to call home. The war wasn't over when Peter moved into Mrs. Chapman's. Soon, he was working at the library, which fulfilled his need to always be surrounded by words; those mysterious devices that can easily convey one to far off places without a ticket or even the means to buy one.

 

Peter had worked at the library for some time before the woman with the movie star lips seemed to glide into his life. Perhaps the way movie stars drift into the daydreams of the worshipful.

 

During the winter days, after Peter first saw the woman with the red lips, he shelved his books, and when Mrs. Woods wasn't looking, read from the Outlander, or wrote a few more lines in his novel. The time passed quickly, and before he thought about it much, it was already six o'clock. Life was fairly predictable. His only concern most days was whether to splash out on a tube fare or walk and save his money. Well, the habits of wartime economies don't fall off easily.

 

Back at Mrs. Chapman's, Peter had just put down his notebook and unbuttoned his shirt when there was a tap at his door. He quickly buttoned back up and went to answer.

 

"Peter, did you forget?" Mrs. Chapman asked.

 

"Forget?"

 

He checked his top button. No, everything was in order.

 

"You're eating with us. Alice has a nice pie. Apple, I think.

 

Peter smiled and nodded.

 

"I'll be right down."

 

He closed the door to check the mirror. His wavy hair was mostly in order, as much as it ever was, so he headed downstairs to the kitchen, delighted that he didn't have to eat tinned soup that night.

 

Alice was placing the plates around the table when Peter came in. She greeted him with a bright smile.

 

She always smiled when she saw Peter. There was a glint in her pretty brown eyes that always made him want to smile back.

 

Mrs. Chapman showed Peter the apple pie. It was a treat as, during the war, sugar was rationed, and few had puddings of any kind.

 

"Peter, your writing is so lyrical. I could read your pages over and over," Alice remarked.

 

She smiled again at him. Mrs. Chapman smiled, too, which made Peter think of how much alike they looked.

 

"Yeah?" he responded and took a seat.

 

"Like when Tom takes Pippa's hand ¾ she pulls back but he takes it again and brings it to his mouth. He looks at her intensely and kisses it. You write that she's never been kissed before. Can't imagine how it felt. When will you start looking for an agent?"

 

Peter looked puzzled.

 

"Agent?"

 

"All novelists have an agent, so they don't get cheated by the publisher."

 

"Don't know," he replied. "I guess. One day, I mean."

 

"Peter's not yet finished. Are you, dear?" Mrs. Chapman asked and sat down as Alice passed him a plate of pot roast.

 

For the rest of the supper, Alice talked about the novel, which had carried her along on a journey to another time, place, and love. To Peter, it seemed as though she loved his words so much she'd memorized them. How much will women love his novel; he wondered as the question settled into his dreams of the future.

 

The next day, Peter was in such a good mood that he thought about sleeping in a bit, but then he was never late, so he got up and went over to the mirror to see which way his curls had settled. If they fell the way he thought looked best, he predicted a good day was ahead for him.

 

On the way to the library, Peter wondered if Maggie would be there. After all, there's only so many pictures of movie stars one can look at, and then what? Well, perhaps movie stars fade into the fantasies we conjure after the lights go down and dwell forever there with us. What if…?

 

Peter's cart of books seemed to pull him towards the table she typically sat at. He wanted to gaze at her from hiding as if he might somehow come by a few clues that explained her strangeness. Maybe the kind of strangeness that the vulnerable frequently swaddle themselves so no one expects them to conform in a world that they suspect will reject them all the same.

 

Peter smiled. Yes, there she was again, her head deep in a big book. The title was printed large and read "Hollywood Legends." He pondered how this creature could be so enthralled by the black and white images that she never noticed him peeking between the books. But that's not what happened. No, things happen other than as we might expect, and that can be confounding. Even without looking his way, she motioned for him to approach with her finger. Come here, it beckoned. But could that mean women can see through books as they seem to see through men? Peter rolled his cart around the racks to where she was sitting. The library table lamp flickered and then went out. The dim light hanging above made her cheekbones look, well, like Joan Crawford's.

 

"Is it?"

 

"Is what it?" he asked.

 

Still, she didn't look up.

 

"In case you're wondering," she finally said, "it's not six o'clock. But it could still happen."

 

"What? What could happen?" he asked.

 

Why was this creature so unsettling? Peter wondered.

 

"I want you to read your novel to me," she announced.

 

"Why?"

 

No one had asked him to read the novel, but then again, only Mrs. Chapman and Alice knew he was writing one.

 

"Why? she asked. "Because I want to be the first to know what happens."

 

"Happens?"

 

"Something always happens in novels. Something real pretty does, even if it never does in real life."

 

"I can't read my novel in the library," he informed her in his official librarian voice that would surely have impressed Mrs. Woods.

 

"I know. Reading's not permitted in the library."

 

Peter could only wonder what this woman was talking about now as nothing she ever said seemed to make sense. Or at least not the kind of bottled-up sense he was comfortable in. There was a long pause as Peter put his thoughts in order.

 

"Read…?" He all but stammered.

 

"Come by on Sunday," she said. "Mum will cook, and you can read to us."

 

"I have to work Sunday," Peter informed her. His mouth couldn't come up with anything else. His gaze locked on her as if his eyes didn't want to move on, or perhaps he didn't want them to.

 

"The Library is closed," she said and flipped the page to Carol Lombard, who smiled up at Maggie as though she'd long been waiting to chat.

 

"It is? Nobody ever told me that," he replied.

 

"You stand outside the library on Sundays waiting for it not to open, hey?"

 

"No. I was kidding… Sort of. I work on my novel Sundays."

 

"Number Seven, Baker Street. Just down from Victoria Station. Six o'clock. You can remember six o'clock because you go around telling everyone it's six o'clock all the time."

 

"What? No, I don't!" he declared. "Only when the library is closing."

 

"It's Sunday. It's not open."

 

"Of course, I know that. I'll come… at six. Will that do it?"

 

"Why are you always so difficult?" Maggie demanded.

 

"What? Me, you say?"

 

"I think your books are way overdue!" she said before slamming her book closed and walking off.

Peter yelled after her loud enough for the library patrons to shush him.

 

"No, they're not!"

 

Peter checked his top shirt button. But only he had come undone.

 

"I've never had an overdue book!"

 

Well, who would have thought otherwise?

 

Peter walked away convinced that Carol Lombard and snickered at him from the cover of the book.

 

Well, perhaps.

 

 4

 

Peter left early for supper at Maggie's because he's never late, but he had problems finding No. Seven. Knowing how deliberately perplexing this woman was, he presumed she had most likely moved the house to another number just to confound him, and then he'd be late for supper. Peter was never, ever late. Would she do something like that? He asked a passerby where her place was. She knew where Maggie lived and pointed to the right building.

 

Maggie's mum answered the door.

 

"Come in. You're the near-to-being famous writer that Mags is always talking about," she said. "And she never let on that you're as cute as they come!"

 

"Me? Not cute, I work at the library," Peter said denying his cuteness. Because didn't he rely on the man in mirror by his door to remind him that he wasn't all that cute? They met to exchange glances every morning at the same time.

 

Mary ushered him to the kitchen where pots were steaming, and chops frying. The table was set with different sizes of plates with flowers and such. Peter looked them over to see if any matched. None did, except in their unique floral borders.

 

"You noticed my plates? Every time one of the neighbors move, they end up giving me a plate or two. I think I have nearly a dozen now. Aren't they pretty? Told Mags I'd give them to her when she got married."

 

"What did she say?" Peter asked.

 

"Oh, I guess she don't care about my plates," Mary said. "Don't know if it's because they're not posh enough, or she thinks I want her to settle down and, well, you know?"

 

But no, he didn't.

 

Moments later, Maggie swept in like she was Loretta Young making her grand entrance on her television show. Peter wondered if she was late coming to the table because it had taken her so long to put that many coats of lipstick on. Is that possible?

 

"Peter, you found us?" Some people don't, you know?" Was this a confession of sorts? "Because it's not really Number Seven here, is it, Mum? It's Number Seventeen, but someone nicked the "one," so the post would never get his bills to the right address."

 

Peter wondered why he expected Maggie to say such a thing. Because she was a self-confessed book nicker? You see, by the same token, Peter thought they would never get a letter from the library informing them their book was overdue.

 

As soon after they sat down, Peter felt the women watching his every move. He slowly lifted his fork towards his mouth. They paused to see what would happen next. Before he'd taken his second bite, Mary was planning the second.

 

"Have another chop, Peter." Mary forked one over to his plate, where it dropped on the one he'd barely taken the first bite from.

 

"Yes, Mrs…" was all he could get out.

 

"Call me Mary."

 

"That was my mum's name," Peter mused as he'd just been thinking that Mary was as warm and soft-spoken as his mum.

 

"Oh, how sweet," Mary said. "Huh, Mags?"

 

"Nothing sweet about it. Just a coincidence," Maggie demurred.

 

"Don't mind her. She only sees things through a block of ice!"

 

"That ain't never gonna melt!" Maggie replied.

 

As soon as Peter's last bite reached his mouth Mary went for the dessert plates and Maggie quickly cleared away the dishes for his reading.

 

"Oh, I have cake, Peter," Mary said. "Got it with my rations. Can you believe the war's been over this long and we're still clipping rationing coupons?"

 

"Mum and Churchill were the only ones certain we'd win. The rest of us were learning German and trying to swallow a lot of sauerkraut to see if we could keep it down."

 

Mary put a big piece of cake on a plate and handed it to Peter with a wink as if it was his birthday. He smiled. It was the kind of happy moment that reminded him of his folks.

 

"So, now it's time for Petey's novel," Maggie announced the moment Peter put down his dessert fork after the last bite of cake.

 

"Can't wait! I'll turn out the lights. It'a be like the cinema."

 

"Mum, how's he going to read in the dark?" Maggie complained.

 

"I'll light a candle," Mary said.

 

Mary went over to the cabinet and pulled out a tall church candle in a jar, lit it, and placed it in front of Peter.

 

"Had this during the war when we had to put the lights out," Mary said.

 

"And light all the candles we could find so the bombers would think we were in church and wouldn't bomb us. Right, Mum?" Maggie added.

 

Mary waved Maggie off, and Peter opened his manuscript to the pages that Alice had typed only that week and began reading by candlelight. The flickering light seemed to dance over their faces as it does when movie stars look down from the silver screen to see their aura reflected from the smiling faces below.

 

"Then, she heard pebbles tossed at her window," Peter read. "She knew he would come, despite everything that had come between them. She dashed from her bed to open the window. But it wasn't him. It was the man that never in her dreams did she expect to see again. At that moment she realized that she'd never lost her love for him. Across the room flooded with moonlight, he carried her back to her bed in silence. One that would endure the rest of the night for them…"

 

As Mary dabbed tears from her eyes, Maggie looked lost in the moment. Peter closed his manuscript. He could see that these women were taken by his story.

 

"That's nearly the end of the last part," he said to break the silence.

 

"I know you're going to be a big star!" Mary announced.

 

"He's a writer, Mum, not a film star," Maggie, the ice queen said.

 

"Oh, what's the difference? Who's ever heard of you?"

 

"Don't you think Petey looks like Tyrone Power?" Maggie stood behind his chair weaving her fingers through his hair.

 

"Well, I think he looks more like Errol Flynn," Mary said,  "when he was Robin Hood and lived in Nottingham Forest. That's not far from us, huh, Mags?"

 

"No, Mum. It's just around the corner where all the movie stars live."

 

"Ice, like I told you, Peter. That's my Maggie."

 

Maggie mussed Peter's wavy hair pushing the part to the other side.

 

"See, if he parted his hair like this, he'd look like Errol Flynn. You think, Mum?"

 

Mary was delighted and clapped as Maggie gave Peter a big kiss on the cheek, which left a spot of lipstick.

 

"Lipstick! Now everyone will know you have a girlfriend."

 

Peter smiled contentedly. He was in rapture from all the attention these women had heaped on him.

 

"Peter, you must be hungry. Another piece of chocolate cake?" Mary asked. Her voice echoed that of Peter's own mum from a special chamber of his recollections. He smiled at the thought.

 

  

 

 NOVEL-IN-PROGRESS

 

FROM THE SCREENPLAY

 

 

T H E   R E V E N G E

 

 

(formerly Another Color as screenplay)

 

 

 

NOVEL EXCERPT COMPETITION

 

JUDGE'S COMMENT

 

OPENING PAGES ONLY

 

 

There's a lot of interesting details in this part and an ominous, spooky atmosphere that primes readers to feel dread at the situation depicted.  Sensory details like the light on Severine's hair catch attention, and the character portrait of a desperate mother is effective.

 

The dialogue is vivid and interesting; having more characters for Severine to interact with definitely seems like a great choice. The story picks up once Jane leaves and has a lot of interesting beats.

 

 

(A THOUGHT ON THE JUDGE'S COMMENT FROM JUSTIN SWINGLE: THIS NOVEL IS ADAPTED FROM THE  SCREENPLAY. THE STORY ISN'T ACTUALLY ABOUT SEVERINE. IT'S ABOUT HER TWIN  DAUGHTERS; ONE OF WHOM APPEARS BLACK, THE OTHER WHITE. THEIR STORY KICKS IN AFTER THE FIRST FEW PAGES).

 

 

 

1.

 

 

Albin had long known his way through those alleys. So dark were they that at times he could see little beyond his hand. He held it in front of his face, knowing that when the shadows stirred, the darkness could bleed evil. Like others along those old canals, Albin carried a knife tucked into his boot. He could reach it even in the dark. Yet the darkness never stopped him from finding his way to her.

 

Severine's people had long lived in New Orleans. No one cared where they came from, although rumors had it that they were from France. Yet didn't they all claim French descent in the Quarter? Most even knew enough French to argue their claims. Still, there are tales to be told in all languages. Yes, along the canal, lies were built upon lies until, over time, they were shaded to resemble the truth, or so it was said. But even that was a lie. But who was looking?

 

Time and circumstances drifted until Severine found herself driven deeper into the shadows. From there, she remained ever vigilant for the dangers that could send her reeling to the next alley or to the very edge of the canal itself. Yes, she too knew her way around the French Quarter. Along with every quick exit.

 

At the marketplace, Severine made her way through the crowd with her covered basket and so little else. To disappear among them, she'd pull her golden-brown hair up under a tattered, long scarf she wrapped around her head. It never seemed peculiar to her as many domestics wore it this way to protect against the sun. And then wouldn't that rag serve to conceal her beauty from the men who strayed? When she noticed eyes following her, she'd tug her scarf down and wrapped the end around her mouth and long neck. 

 

There, at the marketplace, Severine moved fast and grabbed what she could when the vendors weren't looking and quickly tucked it under a rag in her basket. Perhaps two or three potatoes, if she could grasp them quickly enough. Small ones, her thoughts triggered, despite the magnitude of her hunger. She once tossed a fish in there. The fishmonger chased her forever. Forever, it seemed, because even days later, she still looked over her shoulder to see if he was gaining. In so many ways, he was.

 

When Severine was frightened she easily conjured the faces of her little ones, Marbella and Petite Mere. But that was yet to come. These little ones would one day be the reason she risked the wrath of fishmongers. It was for their smiles. Didn't they beam when she returned to their shanty near the docks with enough in her basket for potato soup or fish stew? And, on a good day, maybe an orange to share. Their smiles were what she lived for, even if there'd been something else. But there wasn't. Severine was dying. The hourglass ticked louder as the days floated away along with her weakening breath. Still, she didn't need no clock to see what lay ahead, as there was nothing there to look for.  So, what in the final days and afterwards would become of her jeunes filles, Marbella and Petite Mere? It haunted her every thought until finally it became a living nightmare. Could she silence the ticking of time long enough to glimpse what might lie ahead for her two girls when she was no more? No, it kept ticking in her thoughts. No, again and again. There was nothing up ahead for these children. No better days to hope for. All Severine's prayers were used up. She'd long lived on 'what if's'. Like what if she could somehow hold on to her closing hours until her babies were safely protected? What if blessings truly come to those most in need as the priests said? And still, the days pounded on her exhaustion.

 

2.

 

It had been hard for Severine even before the babies came. They were born together; Marbella arrived an hour before Petite Mere, who was tiny, but demonstrated from her first days a strong will for preservation. You see, Severine had no husband. It was always hard for those women. Where do you go, if you can still run? All the same, who'd hear your pleas even if you got there? Not through the din of desperation from those crowding the edges of the canal. Desperation can plunge you over the embankment and into the brackish water when there's no other place waiting for you. Quickly, and without one last thought, drop yourself over the edge, breathe in the black water before you can smell it and all will be quickly over. The voices in her head told her so, and when she tried not to hear, they spoke louder. Was your stumble to the edge of darkness because they couldn't hear your stomach growling?  It never stopped passing through her thoughts. But they won't hear your splash either, echoed back. To escape these ruminations, there were places where Severine let her thoughts wander. But just as quickly, she'd turn and head in another direction as thoughts of a better place only serve to make the pain sting greater. Still, the voices follow; always there and always growing louder. Let the chains of shame drop off as leaving one's past behind is one way, perhaps the only way, to survive. No, you can't carry all that bondage wandering down alleys when it's only your hopes that might come to deliver you to one more day. Nothing else in your pocket's gonna do it as there's nothing there. Maybe that's a blessing. Count them when you see them, but then double the numbers when you don't. It's for the better. It's not always easier to have no history, no recollections of past lives, but then still no pain dragging you down. How long will you hear your own splash when it's all that's left for you? The canal offers no answers, only solutions. Still, you beg for peace. You keep wondering; how long will it take after the water folds over my head and my life falls under the currents? Tick, tick, tick slowly goes the hourglass, and it's starting to rhyme with the rumblings in my head. You can't count the days ahead as they don't belong to you, and the seconds you still own will quickly become invisible before you can possibly count them. "Jump", the voice keeps ringing. Painlessness is only a step away. Jump. And the ticking in your head will then stop. Finally. And then all that's left is to drift under the currents for a moment or two. But is that a promise? How far away is the edge of everything? Can I even get that far? How long are the voices' lies? So, what then if they're longer than my prayers? Jesus, where are you in this darkness?

 

One morning, long before Jesus gave her Marbella and Petite Mere, Severine wandered far from the alleys over to the French Quarter without her basket. All its emptiness had grown too heavy for her. The dizziness that hunger brings does that. If anything was going to come her way, there across from the Rampart was the only place it might. But truly? She clung to the hope she'd find something to eat. Over there. Surely. Although her thoughts were often pierced with jabs of hunger, she could still see a loaf of bread sitting in that kitchen window she'd never come upon before, and yet, still held to the hope she'd pass by one day. If she was blessed, by that many days. Bread, sitting in some rich person's kitchen window cooling. Maybe there'd be two loaves and no one looking. Two, one she could sell. But that day there was no open window with bread waiting. Alas, there was little else but thoughts of the canal. These thoughts kept jumping ahead of her. Maybe they aimed to trip her over the edge.

 

But then Severine saw a tub woman as she stepped into the alley to dump her tub water. The woman motioned to her.

 

"Hey, you are over there!"

 

At first, she glared at Severine.

 

"You a whore?"

 

"What…?" is all that Severine's throat could summon. She knew whores were chased off just as fast as they were chased after by them Frenchmen with a coin or two in their pockets. How could it matter which way you ran? It didn't matter if you were not one of those women. All the same, Severine had no run left in her.

 

The tub woman looked Severine up and down, perhaps like a priest counting one's sins as if they were stains running down her threadbare dress The stains of sin. But this Black woman, with a bandana tied around her head like a tub woman was no priest and harbored other thoughts.

 

"You come over here." The tub woman motioned Severine through the back gate and into the garden. Severine obeyed.

 

"I got a sick lady up there," the woman gestured to the big house that loomed behind her. "I need me some help with my tubs. I can't get to 'em and do all my house chores. I got no money, but I feed you. I feed you good. My lady up there, she's rich. She gots plenty of food in there. I feed you," she repeated. The last time Severine heard her for real.

 

Severine had no plans for the day, and her hopes had already gone looking for the canal. She followed the woman over to the wash house. Inside, piles of sour-smelling clothes awaited someone desperate enough to roll up her sleeves and attend. Yet Severine backed off at the sight, as she could hardly stand upright. Even with the morning light streaming through the broken washhouse window, her vision blurred as though it was suddenly growing dark; the blur that comes when your blood drains to your feet, even as they struggle for an exit. Or perhaps to put a foot down in the next life.

 

But the tub woman knew why Severine could barely stand. All tub women know the signs. Been there, haven't they?

 

"I got food. I feed you good!"

 

Severine placed a wager on the moment, one she had so little to back. If she could make it to the next meal, she might make it to the next day. Yes, there was only one plate of food between her and the canal. She slowly tugged her sleeves up and went to work. As soon as the tub woman saw that Severine could work a washboard, she left. But soon returned with a tray.

 

"Food," the woman said. "Sit down over there on the cot."

 

Severine sat. No, she fell over onto the cot. "Put your fears aside," the voice that shadowed her whispered, "the canal will always be there." The woman set the tray next to Severine and pulled the cloth off. Half or so of what had been left of a roasted chicken, boiled red potatoes, and bread. It was still warm. There was plenty of butter, too. She could eat the apple later and slid it into her pocket as she'd done with the one from the market. The one she'd eaten days before or even before that. The instinct to steal never leaves those who hunger. It goes sharp on you when your pockets are empty, and no priest is gonna change that with prayers to redeem your soul. Was it redemption from the hell that life along the canal tendered?

 

"Right here," the tub woman said. "You sleep here. Ain't nobody gonna bother you in this here washhouse. When I 'member, I come out at night and latch the gate to the alley. That gate's for tradesmen.  Me, I used to sleep right here, but my lady told me to come up and sleep on the rag rug next to her bed. Maybe she gonna need a glass of water middle of the night. It don't matter. It's warmer up there come winter."

 

How'd she know? How long had it been? How did this tub woman know that she'd hardly slept in days? Been there, hadn't she? All the same, she ate well that morning and later slept peacefully.  How long had it been?

 

3.

 

Severine got through that day and so invited more to follow. It had been a while since she had eaten more than once a day, and even then only here and there. But then she worked hard for what she got, knowing she had that cot and a door to shut out the bleak night of the alley. But there would come a night when she would find not all of it.

 

Early one morning, Jane, the tub woman, came in and dumped a pile of her lady's laundry at Severine's feet.

"First, we go to the church. Come, we go now 'fore it gets hot."


Severine shook her head. She wasn't going to no church. She hated the way the priests looked at her, not like they looked at them rich women at Mass. No, their smiles went stiff when she knelt at their feet with hands uplifted to receive the host. Perhaps she didn't pray hard enough. Church is a place to wonder about such things while pondering the Lord's resurrection, along with what those long burnt-out candles were truly thinking. Before their flicker went out, did they convey the prayers of the suffering to Jesus as the priest claimed?  Maybe he lied. Else why am I still here? she wondered, when the canal still beckons?

 

"Yeah, you come alright," Jane said again. "Today, they hand out clothes. Things them fancy French women don't want no more. They leave 'em off in a pile at the door thinkin' they's goin' to heaven for it. Huh! They ain't goin' no place but down."

 

She pointed to the dirt at her feet, the depths of which, in Jane's mind, was where hell awaited the rich.


"Come, we get there early and find something good for you 'fore the others pick 'ems over."

 

Severine nodded. From the door of the shed, Jane looked up to see if her lady was standing at the window up there. But her drapes were still pulled. Jane smiled and nodded to Severine. It was going to be a good morning.

 

"What's the matter with your lady up there?" Severine asked once they were out of sight of the big house.

 

"Miss Marie? Ain't nothin' wrong with that woman. She's just lazy as a sow pig, is all. I reckon she done had somebody come dump her chamber pot all her damned days. And let me tell you, folks in the quarter say she's a kept woman. Don't know, do I? 'Cause I sure ain't seen no man 'round. Nope. But she doin' fine whatever she doin', ain't she now?"

 

Jane's laugh was hearty from the gut.

 

"Then why you stay with her?" Severine asked.

 

"Like I tol' you, she gots food. They brings something or 'nother by every other day or so, don't they now? Yep, right through that back-alley gate."

 

"What? Who?" Severine had never heard of such a thing. "Who brings food by?"

 

"You name it. She done got herself rich woman's accounts all over the Quarter, don't she? Yes, Ma'am. Grocer come by and put it on the table just after dawn. Miss Marie, she don't come down, so she don't even know what they brung, and she don't care none. Well, then she hardly ever leaves her room, do she?"

 

About then, Severine's stomach growled from hunger. Jane chuckled.

 

"We go over to the fish shack down at the docs to fill your empty belly after we get you a blouse or skirt at the church. Yeah, we get us some fried fish."

 

"You got money?" Severine asked.

 

"Money? I tol' you. She don't never know what they brung by. I sell a few things here and there. That's all there is to that!" Jane replied. But was it to Severine's question?

 

The fish shack was down at the docks, near where the fishing boats came in. There, the man would fry up the best of the catch what come in that morning. Severine smiled. The fish was good. It was rolled in cornmeal and fried right there. Got even better when he brought another plate of it. Jane grabbed pieces with her fingers. The Black man, tall with broad shoulders, called Albin, winked at Jane and she shot one back with a giggle. Severine and Jane left without putting no money on the counter. Well, well, Severine thought. Well, well indeed.

 

So, the following week, Severine worked the tubs for her cot and a plate of food, and watched closely as Jane showed her how to survive on her side of the Quarter where someone brings food 'round and nobody thinks a thing of it. What else mattered but working through those piles of clothes? The smell of Jane's cooking easily brought the answer. Severine knew that later, when Jane could get out, she'd bring a big plate of it back to the wash house along with some bread. And sometimes an apple.

 

4.

 

Long days spent bent over a tub is a good time to chase down your thoughts, as there ain't nobody else to talk to but yourself. You keep asking, like how could that old lady up there go through so many clothes and linens in a week? That is, if what Jane had said was true; that she never left her bedchamber. And didn't she also say her lady was blind and deaf? So, maybe the old woman kept secrets. Don't all rich folks dwell somewhere on the other side of their secrets? Severine wondered. She had a dress and a few things she'd picked up at the church with Jane. She wore them for days on end, and when she had it left in her, she'd stay up late to wash and iron them dry for the following day.

 

Early one morning, when Severine had barely started her first tub, Jane flew in with a pile of laundry, which she dropped at the washhouse door, and quickly walked off. But soon, she returned with a big piece of buttered bread and a crock mug of coffee. Severine smiled. It had sugar.

 

"Eat," Jane said. "Later we go to the market and then to the docks. Albin, he gonna have a good piece of fish for us. Big one."

 

Severine smiled again, took another bite of her bread, and went back to her tub. It was another morning when thoughts of the canal all but floated away, perhaps like driftwood that had no past life anyone cared to remember.

But late afternoon came around, and yet Jane hadn't. Severine figured maybe she'd forgotten their plans and wandered off by herself. But then Jane opened the back door and whistled as she swept off the stoop. That was the signal for Severine to get ready, as they'd soon be hightailing it off through the back gate and down the alley. Guess Miss Marie was lost somewhere in her afternoon nap. Still, they slipped out to the alley quietly. But why thus? One mustn't disturb the secrets… pierced Severine's thoughts.

 

"I go to the fish shack to see my man whenever I can get away. Don't you know, we're gonna be taking off soon."

 

"Taking off? Where?" Severine asked. Taking off was another notion she'd never held as she'd long thought there was no place to take off to. Who'd told her that only a swamp full gator existed past New Orleans? She couldn't remember, and yet feared the very thought knowing that in the Quarter lies were stacked upon lies until they crumbled at your stumbling feet.

 

"Goin' to Natchez. I got a sister there. Yeah. She gonna take us in till my Albin gets work. Maybe he get it down at the docks there. They pay good and pay up ever' day. When we got enough saved, we gonna get married. That's what we're talkin'."

 

"How you gonna get there?" Severine asked. "You said the old lady don't pay you but scraps off her table."

 

"Oh, she pay me," Jane said. "She just don't know she do or how much."


Jane chuckled and opened the burlap bag she was carrying for Severine to see. It looked like a small smoked ham, a block of cheese that she could smell, and some apples. Other things were wrapped in tissue. Jane handed one to Severine and winked. Severine unwrapped a tiny bar of fancy soap.

 

"Where you sell these things?"

 

Severine held the soap to her nose. French lavender.

 

"I show you," Jane replied. "On the way to the fish shack. Got me some ladies over that way who pay good for what they brung by Miss Marie's. And she don't never know what's missing and she don't care none when she do. No, she sure don't. I give every penny what come from selling my goods to Albin. He say he gonna keep it safe for after we get married and get a place of our own. Yep, come one day, I gonna have a home of my own. Me and my Albin."

 

"The old lady don't know what's missing?" Severine asked incredulously.

 

"She never had an empty belly in her life. She don't care none about food, do she?  No, she don't care 'cause she's white like you."

 

Jane laughed out loud. But there was nothing the same about Miss Marie's whiteness and Severine's. Well, maybe but then again. Still, these virgin thoughts were fleeting. Because what if the priest had heard? Like he said, he heard Jesus talk about our sins. No, Severine was not like no rich woman. Ask the priest.

 

Severine saw little of Jane in the days ahead. It seemed as though Jane headed out whenever she had her burlap bag weighed down from Miss Marie's cupboard. And then it seemed as if Jane no longer invited Severine to come with her. Maybe that meant no more fish at the docks. Severine didn't think nothing of it. After all, Jane had shared how good Albin was, how hardworking, and her schemes for their lives together once they were married. She guessed Jane needed to weave her dreams with her man alone. Still, she wondered if Albin really dreamed alongside of Jane as there seemed to be something broken between them. Like when the truth is broken between two, and he can't seem to look you in the eyes because of it. Severine sensed it. No, the man couldn't look Jane in her worshipful eyes. Still, he could look into Severine's.  There were moments when she wondered if he was gathering her dashed thoughts. No, she thought. Only the priests can do that.

 

But for Severine there was no man and little to look forward to beyond a plate of food scraped from Miss Marie's table of bounty. Certainly nothing that might make her as giddy as Jane. Not much of anything beyond keeping her head above the canal water. Well, perhaps from time to time, a fleeting dream of the day when she too would have a husband to dream alongside of. To feed that poetry, she went regularly to the church on the days when they put castoffs out for the poor. Here, and there, she'd find herself a nice blouse before the other tub women got their hands on it. Maybe the kind a man might find pretty with mother-of-pearl buttons and fancy topstitching, but always with a stain or two. She could dream they weren't there as though they'd fallen off as easily as the mother-of-pearl buttons. One at the collar. One on the fancy French cuff. Gone. But still… there was some beauty left. Along the canal, beauty was shorted for those who struggled.

 

Then before the sun rose and Severine was sound asleep, Jane came in and shook her.

 

"I got me a ticket for the coach to Natchez! The early one what gonna take the mail. Gonna leave in an hour," Jane said. "Albin went and bought it yesterday. He say he wants me to go ahead."

 

"What? Alone?"

 

"Albin, he gonna follow me when he gets his money. He say the boss man gonna pay him up real soon, Maybe next week if they get a good catch. You think?"

 

"Are you afraid of goin' without him?" Severine asked.

 

"No, I ain't. I go straight there and then get things ready for Albin at my sister's. It's best to do what your man says. Then you got peace between you."

 

"I go, too?" Severine asked.

 

"To Natchez?"

 

"No, I go from here? Maybe the old woman will chase me

off. Get the law down on me like a vagrant? Yes?"

 

"Yeah, maybe. But you stay till she do. It don't matter none. I seen her. Seen Miss Marie looking down at the wash house when we's talking. She even saw me take food out the back door, ain't she? I knows she has. You think?"

 

"You said she's near to being blind. So, she ain't seein' much of nothin'."

 

Jane laughed at that. Or tried to.

 

"No, she ain't blind. Not for real. She just don't see me. Anyway, why it matter? Who gonna dump her chamber pot when I'm good and gone?"

 

This time her laugh stymied at the back of her throat. Jane knew the path to nowhere, didn't she? She'd traveled it too long by then. Her sleeping on that rich woman's floor and all, and it stuck in her craw. Maybe like she'd swallowed a knife.

 

"You fed me. I'll pray for you!" Severine vowed.

 

"I got to make the coach; else Albin be mad I wasted his ticket."

 

Jane reached to hug Severine but pulled back. At that, Severine felt that to Jane she was no better than the old lady simply for being white.

 

5.

 

Without the food that Jane spirited out the back door, Severine had nothing. Well, nothing but a cot and a door. Still, she'd found another old basket and put it aside for a rainy day. Those days always come in the end, don't they?

 

The next morning, she grabbed her basket and headed to the market to see what she could see with the notion of stopping by the church to say a prayer for Jane and maybe ask the priest, if he didn't turn his back on her, when there'd be clothes left for the poor?

 

At the market, she walked about, and here and there, grabbed something for her basket. The bruised fruit and vegetables were always at the edge of the stalls, which made it easier. When the vendor looked away, she'd knock something to the ground and then quickly grab whatever landed at her feet. It was at the market that she ran into Albin. He came upon her with a big smile. Seemed like the man was always smiling.

 

"You know, Jane, she's got to be at her sister's place by now. Maybe tomorrow, hey?"

 

Severine had never been on a public coach. She'd never gone anywhere beyond New Orleans. Still, she nodded in agreement.

 

"You shopping for that rich lady?" he asked.

 

"No. They bring things by. I peeked in the window this morning. But maybe she don't come down to look it over."

 

Albin glanced into Severine's basket and saw two bruised red French pears and a small potato. They weren't for Miss Marie, were they?

 

"You 'member where the fish shack is?"

 

"What? I think," she replied.

 

"Down that way. Turn down the third street." He held up three fingers, so she'd know how many streets away.

"Turn that way and walk down to the docks. Follow the squalls of them seagulls. Down there, I fry you a piece of fish. Maybe some shrimp, if the boat come in."

 

"How far did you say?"

 

Albin chuckled.

 

"You come with me," he said. "I show you. Then you know when you want to eat my cooking."

 

Albin's smile had grown since she'd last seen the man. Along with the glint in his eyes.

 

"You know I done bought the fish shack," he remarked.

 

"What?" Severine wondered then when would Albin be joining his woman? Had she misunderstood Jane's musings all along?

 

"Yeah, I finally got my hands on enough money to put a down payment on it. Yes, I sure did."

 

Albin took her basket, and they started off.

 

"You follow behind. Hear?" he added. "So, them Creole women don't say nothin' about you coming alongside."

Severine fell back a few paces, and Alban went on whistling.

 

There, at the fish shack, Severine had a good meal with all the fried red potatoes she could eat. Alban tossed aside her bruised pears and filled her basket with this and that, pulled from under the counter. Severine left with a smile, a full basket, and a full stomach.

 

6.

 

At times, Severine lay awake at night, wondering how long it would be before Miss Marie sent her packing. Maybe she gonna get the law down on her like they did vagrants, she kept thinking. 

 

But that's not what happened.

 

It was late one night, a few days after Severine came upon Albin at the market. From the humidity, she couldn't sleep and stood at the washhouse door, looking up at the stars. It was then that she heard a garbled sound, a moan of sorts. Sounded like it was coming from Miss Marie's open window up there. She heard it again. What if the old woman was sick? Even worse, what if she was dying and Severine was still in the washhouse when her time came? Would she be guilty? But of what? Severine reckoned that the poor are always guilty, and the rich never are. They're the ones who built the jails. Yes?

 

She went across the garden to the kitchen door and found it  unlatched. She'd never been in the kitchen. As she looked about  she heard the faint moans and followed them up the service stairs and finally to a door. Severine put her ear to it. The moans grew louder. She opened it. There she saw Miss Marie sprawled on the carpet. Looked as though she'd fallen out of her bed. Severine carefully turned the old woman over onto her back.

 

"I'm Severine, Madame."

 

"But where's Jane?" Miss Marie stammered. "I told her to go fetch me a glass of water."

 

"Jane's gone. Over a week ago. Can you stand if I help you?"


Miss Marie struggled to get up. With Severine bracing her, she made it to her feet and back to her bed.

 

"I go fetch you a glass of water."

 

Severine sighed with relief as the old woman wasn't dead and went back down to the kitchen for the water. No, the law wasn't gonna be coming after no one. At least not tonight.

 

7.

 

The next day, Severine woke up with her nightmare still clinging to her thoughts. What would she do today? She wondered how long the food Albin gave her would last. And then where would she grab her basket and head to next? All over again, she could smell the canal where they dumped their chamber pots along with the empty souls; those poor women who'd lost hope of ever seeing a better tomorrow.

 

But the answer was there when she opened the washhouse door the following morning. There at her feet was a small pile of clothes to launder. And two apples laying on top. At first she had a mind that Jane had returned. But, no. Jane hated Miss Marie and had said she'd never be returning. Severine put her sorted piles into her tub to soak and then slipped the apples into her basket under her cot where it readied for the time she'd be driven back into the alley from whence she came.

 

The day was long, but the night would be eternally longer. When the last candle burned out, Severine put the iron aside and fell over her cot exhausted.  How long had she slept when she woke to see a man standing in the washhouse door? The moonlight flooding in from behind blurred his face. But she knew the voice well enough.

 

"Jane, she gone and she ain't never comin' back 'cause she ain't got no money for it."

 

Albin pulled off his shirt.

 

"And ain't never gonna get it."

 

Albin's grin jolted Severine. Leaving the door open to the hot night he went over to the cot and cupped her mouth with his big hand. He pushed her legs apart for it. It was more than a smile that he delivered this time.

 

There was nothing she could do even after the violation. Albin lay there snoring with Severine wedged tightly between Albin and the wall. See the knife, which had fallen out of his boot at the side of the cot, kept her from screaming. But anyway, scream for whom?

 

A few hours later, without a word, Albin got up when the morning's sun streamed in through the open door blinding him. He rubbed his eyes and pulled his clothes back on and headed out without a word to his victim.

But standing there scowling was Miss Marie. She knew, didn't she? He knew she did but still chuckled in her face.

 

"Get out of my way, old woman."

 

"I know you," Miss Marie said looking up as if he was near twelve feet tall. "You got a fish shack down there you just put money on. It don't matter 'cause you gonna wake up to see hell one night. Soon. You know what I mean, huh, stupid man? What's your wife gonna do with you? She ain't gonna take you back, is she? No, she don't need you now, do she? Well, she ain't never needed you. Folks talk, don't they? The woman already gots to open her legs to feed your kids. What kind of man is that? Your kind, ain't it so? And now look what you had done to Jane! Another stupid girl who can't see. No, that girl couldn't see even when she looked you straight in the eyes! See you don't gotta a soul, hey stupid man?"

 

Miss Marie looked past Albin to Severine with her hand over her mouth to hold back her shrieks of fear. Seemed like Miss Marie's words had also brought fear to Albin. His face dripped with cold sweat.

 

"Now you get off my property, stupid man, else I put the law on you and then they find you floatin' down the canal to where them hungry gators is waitin'. Yep, you know how them gators love a good hog carcass, don't they now?"

 

Miss Marie laughed loud in the man's face and she put it all in his face.

 

Albin wiped his brow and walked around Miss Marie. No, this tiny woman wasn't gonna step aside for him. So, what were Miss Marie's other secrets? Well, Albin would soon be finding out what Jesus had whispered to her.

 

"Severine, I 'member your name from when I had my fall. Now you go upstairs, child, there's a foot basin up there, soap and towels. Go on up and clean the smell of that fish man off you. Then put away the food what they brung by earlier."

 

"Oui, Madame."

 

Well, Jane was long gone, and Albin had disappeared back down the alley, but Severine was still there.  For now, her basket would remain stashed under the cot. Waiting.

 

8.

 

Severine did as Miss Marie bid and went upstairs. Next to the room Severine had found Miss Marie laying on the carpet, was one with a large foot bath. On the white marble-topped commode was a large pitcher of water and a Chinese porcelain bowl with soap. She stepped into the basin and slowly poured water over her shoulders. But did Miss Marie mean for her to use her soap? Severine held it to her nose.  It had lavender oil. The smell of Albin had been killed. Later, she figured, she would go pour the after-death out in the alley. Then she had nothing to do but wonder what might come next. But for now, Severine decided to head back down to the kitchen where she found Miss Marie looking over the baskets and parcels that had been delivered earlier.

 

"First, you eat, child. Then you start putting these things away."

 

"Put them where, Madame?" Severine looked about the kitchen with all it's half-open cupboards and shelves stacked with dry goods.

 

"Where?"

 

"Why does it matter?" Miss Marie asked. "I done sent a message to a man. He's coming 'round to talk to me about some work I got for him. You be lookin' for him. When he comes  'round, you send him up. Theory is name. He knows."

 

"Oui, Madame."

 

"There are six bedchambers upstairs. You pick one that suits you."

 

"You don't want me to go?" Severine asked.

 

"Why should you leave? Where would you go?"

 

At that, Miss Marie went back upstairs to wait for Theory. Severine pulled an apple out of the burlap bag, slipped it into her pocket, and started going through the morning's delivery.

 

It was late that morning when the man answered.

 

Miss Marie's summons. He came through the rear service door. Theory was maybe French, or at least spoke with an accent. Maybe Creole French?

 

"Oui, Monsieur?

 

"I am Theory. Miss Marie has work for me."

 

"She said to attend her upstairs."

 

Miss Marie's direction seemed strange to Severine as women in the Quarter did not meet men upstairs, day or night, other than their husbands. He went up where he seemingly knew which room. From down in the kitchen, Severine could hear his footsteps to Miss Marie's bedchamber which looked down into the garden and over to the laundry house.

 

Severine was still examining all the bounty the vendors had delivered when he came back down.

 

"I start tomorrow," Theory announced.

 

"Start?" Severine was puzzled.

 

"Tomorrow." He grabbed a French pear from a large wooden bowl Severine had just filled along with the bottle of wine that she'd pulled out of a wood crate packed with sawdust.

 

Theory glanced at the label on the bottle.

 

"From France," he said and smiled. He slid the bottle under his arm and headed to the door. There he paused and held up the bottle. "Miss Marie said."

 

Without having anything to do after putting things away, Severine wandered back upstairs to see if she could be of service to Miss Marie. But her door was closed. Perhaps she was resting. Hadn't Jane painted the picture that the old woman seemed to nap all the time? Maybe. But then maybe not. Time would tell.

 

Upstairs Severine went down the long hall opening doors to bedchambers, all kept as though guests were imminently expected. Perhaps Miss Marie had a large family. But then perhaps she simply had secrets. Jane had said nothing on it, but then she'd really said nothing about Miss Marie that stood. There always seemed to be more between Jane's utterances about her lady than what Severine saw herself. Perhaps it was the way Jane grimaced when she talked about Miss Marie. Severine wondered. If Jane slept on Miss Marie's floor, why did the old lady offer Severine her choice of bedchambers? In so many ways the numbers didn't add up. But then again, like so many tales that never stopped breathing in the Quarter, they never do.

 

Door after door, Severine made her way to the end of the hall. She opened a door to a small room that was not as well appointed as the others. Could it have once been the maid's? She figured she'd sleep there until Miss Marie had decided what to do with her.

 

Severine fell over onto the down-filled bed. The sheets were soft as beaten linen and smelled like lavender. From under the pillow, she discovered a small sachet. It was filled with crushed French lavender flowers and cloves.

The fragrance, so distant from those of the wash house, intoxicated her. She fell asleep where her dreams conveyed her to another place she'd never known or smelled before. Perhaps one of those distant places where daydreams are tucked away with scented sachets and lavender grows in rows along gravel paths as it does in the South of France. But still, her basket was safely stowed under her vacant cot.

 

9.

 

It was barely daybreak when Severine woke to hear men talking out on the street. She peeked through the curtains. Down there on the street was a big wagon drawn by four horses. The men were headed to the back carrying sledgehammers. One was Theory, so she didn't worry much until she heard the crashing sound of splintering wood.

 

Severine ran downstairs and out the rear service door. There she found Theory and his men knocking down the wash house. It frightened her. They went about hammering the thin walls to splintered pieces as though possessed by demons. Just as Severine was about to run back into the house for Miss Marie, she noticed her gazing down from her bedchamber. From her window she nodded. She then knew what Theory was doing. As the men carried the splintered wood out to the wagon, Severine again wondered about the secrets rich folks seemed to keep stashed away for the right moment.  She went back inside to boil an egg for Miss Marie and herself. Theory never seemed to notice Severine. She put extra butter on her egg. The deconstruction continued. In what seemed like only moments before her eyes the wash house was no more. And yet Albin still was.

 

10.

 

Preparing a soup for Miss Marie and herself gave Severine time to think. How did Miss Marie know that Albin was not welcome back at his place? How did she know of his wife even as Jane had not? Did someone come and tell her? And why would they have? No, he'd been out late too many times, Miss Marie had shared. Albin's wife stopped listening to his lies when he told her he was cleaning fish well into the night. The woman, Miss Marie declared, locked him out. That left Albin no other choice but to sleep on the floor of the fish shack. Down at the docs it was cold, and the ground hard and greasy but that never kept Albin from his sleep. He used a bag of cornmeal to rest his head on.

 

Late one night, Miss Marie tapped on Severine's door.

 

"Oui, Madame?"

 

"Get dressed, child. We go now to light a candle."

 

Miss Marie genuflected.

 

"A candle, Madame?"

 

But she walked away sans a reply. Severine heard Miss Marie's footsteps on the old creaking floor.
Severine's thoughts tossed about as she grabbed her clothes. Given the hour, perhaps Miss Marie was, as Jane had warned, a little doddering. Still, Severine got dressed. As she did, she glimpsed through the window. Down on the street a carriage awaited.

 

At the entrance, Severine met Miss Marie who held two candle jars. They were from the church; the kind the priest sold so when lit one's prayers would ascend to Jesus in the smoke. If you'd paid enough, that is. She handed one to Severine and they entered the carriage.

 

"I don't think the church doors are unlocked this hour, Madame."

 

"No? But child, I find God everywhere," she said. "Even now as we seek the one who will not be expecting us."

 

"Who be that, Madame?"

 

"The Devil. He will not be expecting us."

 

"Madame?"


 "You see, I plan everything most carefully. You must learn to do the same, child. Then you will survive. Our power must not be visible. No, as it derives from what they do not see and therefore could not possibly be expecting when it is leveled on them. That is your weapon. Don't you see?"

 

But Severine didn't and the words did little to calm her fears as to what was about to transpire.

 

The carriage headed down to the quay and was soon at the docs. Severine glanced out the window. Miss Marie did not. It was as though she knew what awaited. Severine hardly could have.  At a distance from the carriage stood Theory with his men alongside the big wagon still loaded with wash house debris.

 

What were they doing over there? Severine asked Miss Marie who held her head defiantly high and yet remained silent. Yes, with her hands folded on her lap, Miss Marie sat quietly like she was waiting for Mass to begin.

 

Severine watched closely. Her eyes darted back and forth from Miss Marie's somber expression to Theory waiting at the dock. Through the fog, it appeared the men were unloading the broken boards and were piling them around the fish shack. But why were they so quiet? Only the sound of the sea pounding the dock pilings could be heard. Along with a flock of angry seagulls early on the hunt for fish scraps.

 

When they were finished, Theory went to the back of the shack and quietly opened the door to find Albin snoring away. He went back around and bowed to Miss Marie waiting at the street. There she stood twisting her rosary through her fingers.  She nodded. The men returned the gesture and departed. Miss Marie reached into the carriage for the candles.

 

"Come child. We pay the Devil his due. Yes, we will send him back into hell for his violation."

 

Severine looked about and felt confused.

 

"Why are we here, Madame?"

 

"Child, as I told you, we are powerless once they do not fear us."

 

"Who? Who should fear us?"

 

"Come, child. Let me take you to the very edge of hell. There we will looking down its depths and still walk away with our souls."

 

Severine followed Miss Marie holding her lit candle.

 

"We will throw light at the Devil", she added. Her cape whipped in the wind.  "And never again will he return to bother us in the heavy dark. No, child. We will destroy the darkness he brings with our fire."

 

Miss Marie placed her lit candle in front of the pile of wood and genuflected.

 

"Place the candle as if this was a desecrated alter dedicated to the Devil," Miss Marie exclaimed.

 

"A what, Madame?"

 

"The Devil savor the flames, n'est pas?"

 

Deep in the glass jar the candle ignored the wind and burned brightly. Miss Marie gestured for Severine to follow suit with the other candle. Severine's eyes followed Miss Marie and she, too, crossed herself.

 

"Come, child. We have completed our mission. God will now bless us and set fire to the Devil's dreams. That will drive him back into hell."

 

Severine followed Miss Marie back but then heard the shattering of glass. She turned to see that the wind had blown over the jars with their glowing candles.  At first, there arose a heavy smoke but then fire spread quickly through the splintered wood. It raced up to the roof of the old fish shack. The acrid smoke choked the old lady. The seagulls quickly disappeared in silence, but the black crows came to celebrate over the scraps.

 

Severine stood with her hand over her mouth.

 

"Don't fret, child. The Devil knows fire. He is from hell."

 

She turned to smile at the flames. But Severine did not smile. She heard his screams. Miss Marie turned and walked back to the carriage with hands folded as though egressing a Mass.

 

Albin ran out of the shack moments before the flames soared and the shack fell to ashes. He'd escaped hell once more but still Miss Marie had served him fire as she'd vowed.

 

Miss Marie turned back one last time and smiled at the stupid man before entering her carriage.

 

Albin looked dazed and defenseless. But then he'd left his knife by the bag of cornmeal, and it was gone too. So, now, as  Miss Marie predicted; he could feel the heat of hell cursing at his backside. Maybe it would catch up with him in the end.

 

Life takes many revenges. Severine had witnessed but one. There were to be many more to come. She could not hope to survive them all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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