First there are shades of sorrow, then shades of hope. Will Gwen find shades of light?
by Cara Luecht
She’ll fight for her future…but can she escape her past?
Chicago, Winter, 1891
Rachel is in danger. She’s seen too much.
She creeps along the cement walls through the dank underbelly of the asylum. She’d never planned to leave her quiet farm life, never thought she’d find a place in the city, never imagined she’d be in the kind of danger that would have her cowering in Dunning’s cold, labyrinthine basement.
Jenny has finally found her place. After a childhood of abuse, she has friends, a real job, and her only wish is to give her adopted son the kind of life she never had.
A life of stability, without the risk and uncertainty of a father.
But when Jeremy, Rachel’s brother, stumbles into their warehouse, asking for help to find his missing sister, Jenny’s carefully constructed life begins to crumble.
Rachel eased along the seeping basement wall. Fresh linens, stacked high in her arms, almost blocked her view. The musty corridor reeked of hasty construction and paper-thin concrete. The polished marble floors in the halls above gave no indication of the dank underbelly where Rachel delivered clean laundry. Over her head, heaving mechanical guts twisted and disappeared into the ceiling, carrying cold water and flickering lights to the stomping nurses and their charges.
Condensation trickled from a shoulder-height steam pipe and collected in a slick, green puddle. Rachel stepped around it. At the far end of the hall, mildew overpowered the respectively benign odor of the underground. She filled her lungs with the stagnant air, because what came next was worse.
She tucked her nose into the rough, clean fabric and backed into the swinging metal doors. They were heavier than the kind that separated the kitchen from the laundry, where she spent most of her days. They whispered open on well-oiled hinges.
Certain maintenance requests never went unanswered—never her requests, of course, but a laundry list of things that had nothing to do with the laundry. At least, that’s what she’d heard. But she didn’t have to be there long to know at Dunning, hinges never squeaked, dumb waiters sank silently into oblivion, and orderlies secreted around corners on sighing shoes. If her beau knew where she worked, what she did during the day…
Lights in metal cages were bolted to the basement ceiling at ten foot intervals all the way down the hall leading to the patient rooms. Rachel scurried from one circle of light to the next, holding her breath for the screams she knew would be coming. The lowest, windowless levels of the asylum had never been intended to hold patients, but they’d run out of room on the floors above and converted one wing into patient rooms. Conveniently, the basement housed the most disturbing cases: those whose families were only too relieved to forget.
Rachel stopped at an echoing, muffled scream.
“I’ll take those,” a quiet voice slithered from behind her. Rachel jumped but quickly corrected the feeble imperfection. Straightening her posture, she forced her shoulders down and turned to face the sniveling excuse for a man she now realized had followed her.
“Sure.” She handed over the pile, avoiding the brush of his hands. He tried, he always tried, but she’d learned to avoid his pale, clammy fingers. He was a too-young Irish man with greasy red hair. And even though Rachel towered above him, there was a hungry determination in his stature that she didn’t possess.
Rachel did her best to look as big as possible, leveling her almost-black eyes down at him. His returning, wet smile warned her he would not be intimidated by a laundress. He hissed through his crooked teeth, maneuvering the pile to one hand. With the other, he reached to brush her cheek. Rachel backed away in time. She couldn’t make it through the swinging doors, though, before the swell of his discordant laugh filled the hall.
Paint dripped from Miriam’s brush onto the wood plank floor of her studio. Speckled and spotted with the waste of more inspired days, the floor had long ceased to shine. If only she could rework that squander.
Her art had taken a dark turn.
Ice shards clawed at the window. The night beat its way into the brightly lit room. When her father had had the townhome built for her mother, it had been lit only by gas lamps. Michael, after their marriage, insisted on electric lights in her studio. Miriam had agreed but rarely used them. Tonight, both the electric and gas lamps burned loud.
Miriam inhaled the waxy air. She used to like the dark. After her father’s death, she had found comfort in the anonymity. Her painting had been her reason for being. Now, she had other reasons. But the dark shapes on the canvas shifted, the black eyes of a woman she’d never met watched, pleaded.
Miriam cut white into the deep gray on her palette to fight the dark hues that pervaded. She lifted her brush to the canvas, dragged it along the top edge until the paint dwindled, and then repeated the process, relieved to see the brighter color.
She brought green into the lighter gray, scraped it together with her knife and applied it with heavy strokes until spring-like color dominated the edges of the tightly stretched fabric. Enough for one night. She swirled her brushes in a jar of turpentine and then tried to rub the smell off her hands.
The electric light knob had been installed near the door she never used, so she crossed to it and turned it to the off position. The harsh light faded, leaving only the warm glow of the gas bulbs. Her painting called again, and Miriam turned to examine it once more before disappearing into the secret passageway that connected most of the rooms in the house.
The light paint hadn’t changed anything. The soft green only boxed in and imprisoned the strange woman who stared back from the canvas with pleading, empty eyes. Miriam tore her gaze from the pain on the canvas and made her way into the dark passages. The night would be long.
“Ya sure took yer fair time.” The portly Irish laundry matron, Bonah, slapped her red palm down on the counter. Rachel obeyed the wordless directive and heaved the last bundle of sheets onto the chipped, wooden surface. It was almost time be done for the night.
“I had to…” Rachel let the excuse die off as the uninterested woman untied the bundle and pulled the sheets apart, separating those in need of extra soaking time.
“You could start on those over there, gal.” With a slight push of her head, she motioned to a mountain of linens that would never again be white.
“Yes, ma’am.” Rachel hurried to pick up one of the heavy clumps of fabric and lift it to the wide counter. She untied the knot, found the corner of a sheet, and coaxed it out of the twisted mess. Streaks of blood gave her pause.
“What ya found?”
The smell of feces and sweat pushed Rachel back a step. She lifted her wrist to cover her nose. Bonah rolled her eyes.
“These people don’t got it all right in there”—she thumped on her sweaty forehead with a red, cracked finger. “You’re gonna have to get used to surprises.”
Rachel nodded, still breathing in the smell of her own shirt.
“Goodness, gal,” Bonah dropped her dirty linens and bustled around to Rachel’s side of the table. She elbowed her away and jerked the sticky sheets apart. “You know, I thought you was a farm girl.” Bonah huffed disapprovingly while she yanked the bundle apart. “You should be able to handle working in a laundry. You just gonna have to… Oh, my.”
Bonah took a step back before quickly covering what she had discovered and securing the bundle again with a tight knot.
“What was that?” Rachel whispered to Bonah’s back.
“Don’t you tell no one ’bout this, ya hear?”
“But what was that?”
Bonah lifted the bundle and dropped it into a cart. “Don’t you touch this one. It’s gotta be burned.”
Rachel nodded, meeting Bonah’s serious gaze. Bonah glanced back to the cart, and then to the rest of the pile of laundry that needed sorting.
“Gal, let’s sit a spell, that laundry ain’t goin’ nowhere. And with it snowing like it is out there, we’ll likely be spending the night anyway.”
“Where will we sleep?” Rachel’s mind shifted to the cells in the basement of the main building. The ones with locked doors, writhing women, huddled and muttering old men, and sneering orderlies.
“We’ll bunk with the kitchen maids in the attic. Rooms are usually warm. Why, you got someplace to be?” Bonah leveled her squinted gaze at Rachel.
“Well, yes.” Rachel looked up at the windows and the blinding white of the storm. “I was supposed to go to the Foundling House.” She had an appointment to speak with the head nurse about a teaching position there. It was the kind of job she’d hoped to do at Dunning.
But that wasn’t the whole truth. She was also hoping to see Winston. He was supposed to introduce her to his family soon. Rachel glanced to the mountainous carts of laundry. When she’d left the farm, it had been with the hopes of securing a teaching position in the poor house here on the Dunning grounds. But she’d arrived to find another had already taken the position, and she ended up in laundry.
Bonah snorted. “You’ll make more money here. They don’t pay nothin’.” She reached her round arms behind her back and fought the damp knot of her apron. “But they ain’t crazy there, I suppose.”
Rachel listened to the blowing snow hit the windows set high on the walls. Somehow, she expected it to melt before piling against the panes. The laundry was perpetually hot. The boiling vats bubbled almost around the clock, and the sheets hung heavy and lifeless in the hot drying room. Any cool draft that might have found its way to drift across the floor was blocked by their long skirts and close quarters. Rachel glanced back to Bonah, still struggling with the knot at her back.
“Let me help you.” Rachel stepped closer to the older woman. “They need someone to teach after the Christmas holiday. Right now I could tend the infants.”
The knot released. Bonah turned and with a curt nod acknowledged the helpful gesture.
“What was in those sheets?” Rachel’s eyes drifted to the bundle in question.
“Gal, just because someone’s mind don’t work, it don’t mean their other parts don’t.” She shifted under Rachel’s unwavering stare before dropping her voice to an urgent whisper. “The womens sometimes find themselves in a condition.”
“Yes, gal.” Bonah hung her apron on a peg next to the swinging doors and rolled her eyes. “Yes, that’s what I mean.”
“But…” Rachel hurried to catch Bonah before she disappeared down the hall toward the lunch room. “…the women and the men are on their own floors. How…”
“I suspect it’s not the other patients that are the problem, or they was in the condition before they came.” Bonah stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned to meet Rachel’s wide eyes. “People don’t work here because they want to help. They work here because they need a paycheck. And bad people need a paycheck just like good people do. What was twisted up in those sheets was too little to live anyway. Don’t you worry ’bout that none. The ones born big never survive neither. Crazy mothers don’t breed healthy babies.”
Bonah started walking again, and Rachel fell into step.
“Never you mind anything else,” Bonah interrupted. “You just do your job and stay out of the places you don’t need to be.”
The windows in the hallway were lower. Their dusty panes provided a view of the expansive stone asylum. The gray block towered overhead, looking back through its own glowing, gas-lit square eyes. Patient shadows hung and wavered against the barred glass. Two rooms in the attic flickered to life. Snow whipped between the buildings, obscuring the small, infrequent windows of the misery-infested basement. They persisted in their black, shuttered stare.
Miriam slipped out of the passageway and into what had once been her father’s bedroom. Now it was Michael who slumbered in the huge four-poster bed, unaware of her night-veiled visit to her studio. The woman still called from the painting. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and the palest of complexions. Miriam wanted to think her pallor was natural, but she knew it wasn’t. It was the color of fear. And again, Miriam railed against her changing gifting. She used to see people on the street—sometimes they were strangers, sometimes she knew them, but they would be people whose faces she’d studied. She would paint them, and then paint who they would become. This change—now painting someone she’d never met, a completely unfamiliar face, someone she knew lived and breathed, and then painting them in distress—this was new. This was different. And if this was real, she was powerless to do anything.
Miriam sat at her husband’s dressing table and fingered the silver handle of his shaving brush. The clock in the downstairs hall chimed five times. The heavy drapes remained dark. The sky was too thick, the early snow too demanding. She was scheduled to visit the warehouse today. Beatrice planned on meeting her there after her tour of the Foundling House. There were new contracts in the making, but with the snow, it promised to be a quiet day. One she should spend painting. One she should dedicate to completing that tortured stranger’s portrait. Miriam tucked her cold fingers into her pockets and looked back to her dozing husband.
If she were a better wife, she would abandon the woman upstairs, the one who stared back from the painting. She would climb back into bed with her husband, she would mold her body against his and wake him up with softness and promise. But she was not. Miriam stood and crossed to the heavy brocade drapes. They had decided on the fabric together: a cascade of peacock-like colors with gold and cream thread woven into blossoming almond trees that grew from floor to ceiling. The pink- and cream-laced blooms only opened at the very tips of the fragile branches near the top, where the mahogany carved rods echoed the unpredictable movement of tree bark.
“Come back to bed.” Michael spoke softly. He was always so careful not to disturb her thoughts. Miriam knew he’d taken on a burden when he married her. Marrying a woman who painted the future, one who preferred to be alone, one who would rather sit quietly than be forced to make polite conversation with strangers, was not on the list of dreams for any man—especially one who needed a wife on his arm for a unending list of social and business obligations. What he would think of her shifting focus, she didn’t want to consider.
Miriam nodded and unbuttoned her robe. She draped it across the chaise and slid beneath the sheets to where his warmth gathered.
“You’ve been gone for a while.” Michael’s breath rustled Miriam’s hair as she turned and he pulled her close.
“I was just upstairs.” Miriam tucked the quilt beneath her chin, breathing in the scent that was uniquely theirs.
Michael hummed his understanding. It was a sound that communicated everything left unsaid. Miriam smiled and closed her eyes as Michael’s breathing shifted back to a soft snore.
When it was light, Miriam would go back to the woman who haunted her mind from the floors above and try to fix her again. Maybe, if she tried hard enough, she could paint satisfaction into the stranger’s existence. After all, if she’d never met her…
Miriam bit the inside of her bottom lip until it hurt. It would be what it would be.
“Hi, Ma.” Jed filled the doorway. Rachel watched the icy snow convulse around his lantern.
Jed stooped under the frame and shuffled into the laundry. His movements were too slow for someone who needed to hide from the dark, icy blast. He in no way resembled Bonah, which made sense, because she was not really his mother. But the way she babied the giant would lead anyone to believe that he had come from the small, stocky woman.
“Where ya been?” Bonah reached up to help him unwind his scarf. Jed bent at the waist while she pulled. Once it was removed Jed stood, and Bonah hooked her hand under his forearm, leading him to a bench in the corner of the room.
Jed set the lantern on the folding table and wrestled his gloves from his hands. He didn’t loosen the fingers first, instead he grabbed them at the wrist and yanked until his huge hands were free. He shoved the gloves into the pockets of his overcoat and turned the wick down, all the time watching the flame die. He looked up and smiled at Bonah. Her face softened, and she nodded back. He had done a good job. Exactly with what, Rachel had no idea. The nod could have communicated that he’d completed a task only Bonah had known about, or it could have meant that she was proud he had removed his gloves without assistance. In the short time Rachel had worked in the laundry, she had learned that questioning Bonah or Jed was a fool’s errand. It was enough to know that they took care of each other.
Rachel picked a sheet out of a bundle of clean linen and spread it on the table.
“Oh, don’t mess with that now.” Bonah waved her hand, indicating she was done for the evening. “We’ve already put in more hours than we should have waiting for that snow to lighten up.” Bonah glanced out of the high windows again. This time they were nearly completely covered. “I think we’d better make our way to the main building with this last load before it gets any darker or starts blowing any harder.”
Rachel nodded and tossed the sheet on top of the bundles in the wheeled laundry cart. Before she could push it up against the wall in line with the rest of the carts, Jed jumped up to stop her.
“I’ll do that.” He shrugged his huge shoulders and moved into her path. Rachel had no choice but to let him help.
“Thank you, Jed.” Rachel caught Bonah’s approving glance and nodded her understanding.
Jed had been at the asylum longer than anyone could remember. The most accepted rumor was that he had been dropped off as a child. No one ever came to visit him, but then the only regular visitors seemed to be the university students who studied the mind or the reporters who wanted to interview the most recent sensational case. And no one wanted their visits.
“There should be a bed made up for ya upstairs here in the laundry. I’ll have to find a bed in the upper floor of the main building.” Bonah frowned and wound the scarf around Jed’s neck again before attending to her own. She pulled on her mittens and tucked them into the sleeves of her coat. “Don’t ya have any mittens, gal?”
“I’ll be fine.” Rachel shoved her bare fingers deep into her coat pockets. Her coat was too thin for this weather, but the walk to the main building was short. It was the walk back alone that she didn’t look forward to. Although the maids stayed together above the laundry, and they typically ate together, that was as far as the friendships went. And as a laundress, Rachel was even further removed. The only thing worse than staying on the asylum grounds was staying there alone.
Bonah shook her head. Jed stared at the door handle.
“Go ahead,” Bonah gave Jed the permission he was waiting for as she re-lit the lantern and turned the knob for the last gas light that still flickered in the metal fixture overhead. The lantern illuminated the door, and Jed blocked the rest of the light. Rachel ducked into Jed’s shadow and sank into the cold snow. It filled her shoes, even though she followed Jed’s footprints.
It was morning in the city, but with none of the jostling and pushing he’d learned to ignore. The snow had come on fast, unexpected, the temperature dropping from brisk to dangerous without warning. For the most part, the citizens in the industrial district near the shipyards stayed tucked into their houses, occasionally scraping the perplexing frost from the windowpanes, validating their hibernation.
The trolleys were not running. A few of the colored women who worked in some of the bigger houses on the lake stood shivering at the stop. Eventually they would make the agonizing decision to return home. It was Friday, pay day for most of the housemaids. Jeremy pulled his hat farther down and crossed his arms. If he could, he would offer every one of them a ride. But it was not his hack, and he couldn’t risk a job he was lucky to have. Instead, he waited to take rich old women home from morning mass. He pulled his collar up and avoided eye contact with the women who waited for the trolley. It was unnecessary; the last thing the walking, working women wanted to do was appear like they were walking out of desperation: they never looked up at him on his perch.
He rubbed his gloved hands together and glanced to the warm light in the upper levels of the warehouse across the street. Even after the dawn hours, the lights flickered yellow against the blowing snow. Jenny, the mistress there, would be brewing a hot pot of coffee, and maybe feeding that boy of hers a steaming bowl of oatmeal. She probably sprinkled sugar on the top, like Jeremy’s mother used to do. But that was before he moved to the city.
Meat packing had brought him from his farm life: a buzzing, groaning behemoth of an industrial machine that swallowed miles and miles of land. He knew. He’d watched the landscape stagnate from his seat on the train: vast green plains changing over to tramped-down earth, then fenced patches of mud too overrun by the poison for even weeds to push through. Beyond the fences, shoddily constructed row houses leaned into the roads, hovering over their listless inhabitants. By the time he’d stepped off the train, the view had further shifted to crowded stockyards, abandoned by the sun, with only chemicals left to dry the putrefying metallic puddles that never completely disappeared. The ground could only hold so much.
One week. It had only taken one week of working in guts up to his knees and barked orders in a cacophony of languages for Jeremy to decide he needed out. It had been a stroke of luck that had brought him to the shipyards at the precise time Mr. Herschel had fired the driver that had sat on the seat he now occupied. No. Jeremy couldn’t risk offering free rides, even in this weather.
He glanced back up to the windows of Jenny’s warehouse. He’d first seen her coming from the cathedral, her boy in tow, waving to the priest. It seemed most of the people on the street knew who she was. Learning her name, and that she was not married, had been easily accomplished. Timing it so he’d get a moment to tip his hat to her, when she wasn’t distracted by the hordes of women, was another thing entirely.
Jenny listened at the steel door. It seemed no one had anticipated the early storm, less so the winds shifting off the lake and dumping mounds of snow. She glanced up out of the high warehouse windows to the night-dark skies.
“I hope they just decide to stay home today,” Ione said, coming up behind her with a broom. “It’s something else out there.”
Jenny shivered and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. “I don’t leave it past them to try to make it though. We should put some coffee on, just in case.”
“I’ve already got it started.”
“I should check.” Jenny leaned against the steel door, pushing it open by degrees against the building drifts. Wild snow swirled and piled in the doorframe.
“Do you really think anyone will be coming in?” Ione elbowed Jenny out of the way and pushed the snow back with the stiff bristles of her broom before squinting into the blowing ice, looking for any women who might insist on working.
“It is pay day. I know at least a few of the mothers need their money to put food on the table tonight.” Jenny furrowed her brow and pulled the door closed against the wind. She knew what it was to need food. She remembered cold, hungry nights, and she remembered what she’d done just to fill her own belly and have a warm bed.
“That was a long time ago,” Ione gently reminded her. “It was a long time ago for both of us.”
“I know.” Jenny reached for the knob on the gas lamp and turned it. It flickered to life, illuminating the nearby cutting tables. The sewing machines were farther back, shrouded in storm shadows.
“Michael told us to use the electric lights.” Ione crossed her arms over her chest and sent a sidelong glance to Jenny.
“It feels like such a waste on a day when we’re the only ones here.”
“But it’s supposed to be better for our eyes.”
Jenny considered the newly installed knob next to the door. Electric lights were becoming more common. Rumors said the fair would use nothing but electricity to light the white streets, but Jenny still didn’t trust them. She did have to admit, though, they made it easier to work. She leaned the broom against the wall and reached for and turned the knob.
The door latch rattled, and Jenny, hand still on the knob, jumped. Ione sent her a teasing, eyes-wide glance as the door opened to a rush of cold air and a bundled woman.
“Ruby!” Jenny and Ione said in tandem, hurrying to help the woman unwind her ice-encrusted scarf. “What were you thinking coming out in this?”
“I didn’t think it would be so bad.” She shrugged, unbuttoning her coat and shaking off the layers. Her only baby peeked out from underneath and reached for Ione. “I couldn’t leave her alone,” Ruby apologized. “Charlie didn’t make it home after work last night, and I didn’t know how long I would be gone. I hope that’s fine with you.”
“Of course.” Jenny carried Ruby’s coat to the rack and brushed off the snow. “But you didn’t have to come in to work on a day like today.”
Ruby looked at the ground and shrugged again. “Well, it’s Friday, and rent is due. Our landlord isn’t a patient man.”
The three women paused in awkward silence.
“What landlord is?” Ione eased the tension, reminding Ruby that they’d all been in that situation before. Ruby smiled, some color returning to her pale cheeks. With her red hair and fair skin, she wore her emotions for all to see.
Jenny took Ruby’s daughter from Ione and started up the stairs. “What’s her name again?” Jenny asked, playing with one of the girl’s red curls.
“Well, Liza,” Jenny said. “How about coming upstairs with your mama and sharing some breakfast with us? Theo is playing. Do you like blocks?”
“And seeing as how it looks like we might be doing some work today after all, breakfast will give us some time to build a fire in the warehouse stove and let it warm up a bit.”
Liza nodded at Jenny like she understood what had been said to her.
“I’ll start the fire and get things ready to go,” Ruby called after Jenny.
“I’ll help. Then we can both go up for breakfast,” Ione added.
How could one service last so long? Jeremy wanted to check his pocket watch but resisted the temptation. It was a gift, handed down from his grandfather. His aunts said Jeremy looked just like him—that his grandfather had been a big man, the town blacksmith—but there were no photographs of the old man, so Jeremy’s affinity for the watch he’d been given was the only real clue to their similarity. For the moment, his gloved fingers were almost warm, tucked into his coat pockets. Once again he was thankful he’d decided to bring his old coat from the farm.
The horses were getting restless with their stomping hooves now buried completely in the heavy lake snow. Jeremy felt for the envelope he’d tucked into his jacket pocket. He’d stopped at the post office before checking in at work and was met with a letter penned in his mother’s looping script. Her slanted, formal lines surprised him. It was usually his father who sent the cryptic messages from home, hinting how spring would be hard without Jeremy on the farm. This letter from his mother nagged, though. He glanced back to the cathedral doors in time to see them crack open and the first grandmother exit onto the stone steps.
Jeremy jumped down, his huge boots sinking ankle deep in the wet snow, and grabbed the small shovel that he stored under his seat.
“Wait there, ma’am,” he called out through the whipping wind to the white-haired woman in the long navy coat. “I’ll make a path for you.”
The young priest standing next to her waved his understanding and encouraged her to come back into the warmth of the church while Jeremy scraped the accumulation from the steps. It was heavy work; the damp persisted even with the freezing temperatures. Jeremy finished, glanced back to the oak doors of the cathedral, and nodded to the watching priest. The priest smiled a half-smile, the kind reserved for one man to another, the kind that said this is my territory, these women are my flock, and you are conditionally accepted. Jeremy climbed the steps, offered the old bundled woman his arm, and met the priest’s eyes over her scarfed head. From one man to another, Jeremy understood.
Jenny tapped her pencil against her front teeth as she added the rows of numbers in her head. The spreadsheets took up most of her small desk. She jotted the total at the bottom of the page. Despite losing most of Friday’s production to the snow, they had still remained profitable for the week.
She retrieved the cash box from under her desk and pulled the tiny key on a chain out from underneath her collar. The lock on the box shifted at the key’s insistence, and Jenny sat again to count out the money.
Most of the women hadn’t been able to make it in to work. Jenny and Ione decided they would count out their pay and place it in envelopes in the event that they were able to stop by over the next day or so.
Miss Vaughn—Beatrice, she insisted on being called—hadn’t been able to make it through the snow. Jenny smiled into her ledgers. The gorgeous woman was insistent. She’d been successful in securing the contracts for the nurse uniforms at the new Provident Hospital, and she hadn’t quit since. Today, she was supposed to bring news of children’s uniforms for the students at the Foundling House, as well as a discussion of the remote—yet entirely possible—contract for the gowns the Dunning patients wore. Jenny shook out the cramp that threatened to tighten her hand. No one wanted to talk about Dunning, except Miss Vaughn. She talked about everything, and she had the social standing to do it too. In Chicago, opportunity was king, and wealth was his god. Miss Vaughn had both; consequently, she scheduled a tour of the old asylum. She’d said that they should make their intentions known to the director. Jenny stood and tucked her pencil into the bun at the base of her neck. That was one meeting she’d rather miss.
“Is Ruby going to try to make it home tonight, or will she stay with us?” Ione stepped into the upstairs office overlooking the warehouse floor.
“She says she’s going to try to make it home.”
“Are the trolleys running yet?”
“They were for a while, but I think they’ve stopped again.”
Jenny scratched Ruby’s name on the envelope in her hand and tucked it into her deep apron pocket. “Have you seen any hacks running? I’d be much happier if we sent her home in a hack, rather than send her alone out into the blizzard with a baby in tow.”
Ione crossed to the second-story window on the other side of the office and squinted through the blowing snow to the towering cathedral across the street. Jenny watched her eyes shift to the alley where they had spent their nights relieving sailors of their needs and their money. The alley snaked along the side of the stone building. After the attack, Father John had blocked it off, but not by restricting access. Instead, he’d knocked down the old fence, cleared some of the brush, and busted through the wall of the cathedral. He’d added windows to that side, arguing with Father Ayers that veiling the space more would only encourage the activities that people wanted to hide. He’d been right. The changes were completed days before he took his priestly vows. A park bench now sat underneath the flickering street lamp. It always surprised Jenny to see people sitting there. Ione stepped back from the window and ran her hands down the fine fabric of her working dress.
“Well?” Jenny interrupted her thoughts.
Jenny rolled her eyes and pulled Ione away from the window. “Are there any hacks running?”
“Oh, I forgot to look.”
Sometimes it was still hard to believe they were here, and not cold, hungry, and shivering in the alley below.
Jenny turned and met Ione’s eyes. They’d both been attacked in that alley. They had both barely escaped with their lives.
“He’s gone forever,” Jenny offered.
“I know.” Ione looked down the street, searching for any sign of a horse and driver. “There, I think I see one.”
“I’ll run down and stop him. Do you want to let Ruby know? Tell her we’ll pay for it as a thank you for coming in today.”
“Sounds good.” Ione left the room, leaving Jenny at the window. On a clear day, sometimes she could see John standing at his window in the upper rooms of the cathedral. On a clear day, the stained glass glimmered and the reflected light filled their rooms. On a clear day, John watched out for them. But today, the snow blanketed their small factory in insecurity. Jenny took a deep breath and made her way down the stairs to go hail what was sure to be the last hack of the night.
Jeremy watched the steel door heave against the building drift. He’d been waiting for any passengers who might decide they needed to get out of the snow, so he was already on his way to help when the small woman stepped out and waved him down the street. It was Jenny.
She gripped a red scarf under her chin. The wind whipped the long tails against her shoulders, and then carried them into the storm to flail in the heavy gusts. Jenny ducked back into the safety of the building at Jeremy’s signaling wave.
Jeremy had yet to make out who ran the place. It was easy to see that mostly women worked there. And it was simple to see that Jenny was a supervisor of some sort. But as far as who was in charge, Jeremy couldn’t tell. Shipments of fabric came in, sometimes two or three a day from different suppliers. There were very few men, but the priest from across the street often visited.
Jeremy snapped the reins harder. The horse didn’t want to slug the hack through any more snow. This had to be his last customer. It was only getting deeper, and even though it didn’t seem possible, it was getting darker. Besides, he had to get home to read the letter that nagged from inside his jacket pocket.
The looping, gentle script worried him; it was his mother’s habit to write the letter, usually snippets about which calves didn’t make it through the summer and who had fallen on trouble and hadn’t paid their accounts after the last harvest. Her letters normally contained news about town girls who were still unmarried—a hint for him to return—or more blatant attempts at the same goal. But it was her habit to write the letters, and then hand them to Father to address and post them. Jeremy couldn’t remember a time when his mother had addressed a letter.
Jeremy jumped to the ground and landed in snow that had drifted the gutter almost knee high. He grabbed the shovel from under his seat and set to clear a thin path for his next customer. Part of him wished it would be Jenny, but he knew she wouldn’t risk leaving the warehouse in weather that threatened her ability to return to her son.
What had happened to Jenny’s husband, Jeremy had been unable to find out. The priest across the street probably knew.
The steel door heaved open again against the newly fallen snow.
“Thank you!” a woman shouted through the wind and layers of hats and scarves. “I really appreciate it!”
Jenny nodded and held the door open. With the other hand she grasped the scarf the wind tried to whip down the street. Jeremy could feel her eyes on him as he took the woman’s mittened hand and steadied her as she climbed in. A small child was wrapped to her chest.
Jeremy turned to acknowledge Jenny before jumping up to his seat, but she’d already secured the factory door again. He checked for non-existent traffic and pulled away from the sidewalk. A lamp flickered to life in the upper windows of the cathedral across the street, and a curtain fell closed. Jeremy squinted into the blowing snow and snapped the reins.