The air inside the bus had gone close and damp with the smell of other people’s sandwiches and breathing smells of bitter coffee and cigarettes. Someone had opened a window in the back but it only brought the damp in, with a faint scent of rain and oil and the dark bright smells of the woods.
The sun came out from behind the clouds as Edie Mae descended the slippery steps in her patent leather Mary Janes, carrying her suitcase carefully over the damp pavement. There was no breeze.
The old brick boarding house before her was neat and tidy, with many layers of paint on the iron railing outside and a list of names next to the push-button doorbell. She knocked, then rung. A woman’s footsteps could be heard on the upstairs landing, pausing and then continuing more slowly, and while she waited Edie noticed a black bow on the wreath at her eye level. One of the residents must be… in mourning?
An untidy woman with dark circles under her eyes opened the door and paused in the shadow, glancing beyond Edie to the sidewalk and the street in front of the house.
“Is your mother with you, child?”
“No, ma’am. I’m Mrs. Finnister’s great grand niece Edith Moore. I’ve come to visit for the summer.” She tried not to let her nervousness show; the woman was clearly not in a state to be receiving visitors at the door—she wore no makeup and had her hair pinned up behind a dusty kerchief. Edie wondered at her. It was no longer morning and Edie’s mother would never have answered the door in such a way.
“Swell. Just swell.” Her lips pursed. “You’d better come in.”
The hallway was strangely empty. There were rectangles of bright wallpaper where pictures had hung, and the telephone chair was covered in yellowing bits of paper and old bills. It was not as Edie remembered it at all. An unfamiliar smell caught her nose as they walked by a door she’d never seen open—it hung limply, like there was something wrong with the way it attached to the wall.
Edie followed the woman through the hallway and found her grandmother’s door. She paused and cleared her throat.
“Ma’am, this is where my grandmother lives.” She knocked quickly, hoping her Grandma Jo would open the door swiftly into her comfortable, interesting apartment and take her away from all the strangeness and stiffness of the past few weeks.
“She’s not gonna answer.” The woman continued slowly into the shadows at the back of the house, towards the tiny kitchen. A bright patch of light from the open back door cast her in even darker shadow. “You better come with me.”
Edie followed obediently, suitcase feeling heavier with every step. The kitchen windows were shaded by tin awnings that let a blue dimness into the room. It was cooler than the front of the house but damp and strangely uncluttered.
“How old are you, child?” The woman lowered herself onto a chair slowly. “Sit down.”
“I am thirteen years old.”
“I’m thirteen.” Edie’s stomach tightened into a knot and she began to feel queasy.
“Well, Edith. Jo asked me to take care of you for awhile as she’s got a bit of the flu and is in the hospital for a bit.”
“I…” Edie frowned and watched the woman’s mouth tremble. “No, she isn’t.”
“She isn’t in the hospital. I would know if she were in the hospital.” The woman narrowed her eyes as Edie took a breath and met her eyes. “Is she… gone?”
Suddenly the woman’s face fell and she began to weep. She nodded.
“But she did tell you to take care of me.”
She nodded again.
“And we can’t stay here?”
“We have to leave as soon as we can.”
Edie’s eyes roamed the tiny kitchen. There was a dead mouse in the gap between the oven and the sideboard. The calcium-whited faucet dripped into the sink. If her mother and father knew about Grandma Jo, they would never have sent her. Would they? The piecemeal news reports of enemy attacks made her wonder.
She could not return to the city. She could not go to the police. Her parents were out of contact. Edie thought hard about other options she might have—there was no money for another bus ticket. She might be able to reach her uncle Hank in California if she could just make it out there… but for that, she would have to have money. The woman with the hollow eyes regained her composure while Edie sat very still.
“What is your name?”
“Agatha. Tucker. I used to live upstairs and Jo would have me in for a cuppa coffee on a Saturday.” She looked at her watch. “We have to go.”
Edie sat still, trying to make up her mind. With a little makeup and a smile, Agatha Tucker would look like anyone on the street. Edie tried to imagine her and Grandma Jo drinking coffee. Surely nobody would take on the responsibility of a child lightly? And Edie knew she was only a bother and a hindrance to the real business of the adults in her life. If she could bide her time until money came her way to get to California, that would be the best chance of finding family again. In her moment of decision, she had an idea.
“Wait!” cried Edie, rushing back through to Grandma Jo’s apartment. She dove underneath the bed in the spare room and came out covered in dust with a small cardboard box. She set it on the bed, climbed on top of the headboard and balanced there to open the closet door, then scrambled to the top shelf and pulled down a colorful quilt, which toppled onto the bed in a heap. Edie draped the blanket across her shoulders—all mothballs and cedar and musty cotton—grabbed the dusty cardboard box, and ran for the back door.
Agatha gave her a curious look, then slid into the driver’s seat. Edie struggled to launch herself into the back seat, then shut the car door behind her.
“Swell.” She pulled into the alley and let the momentum take the car down the gravel path to a side-street. “You should probably lay down and try to take a nap.”
“Thank you, but I’m not sleepy.”
“Just—“ Agatha exhaled in a constrained way, “—lay down in the back and cover yourself with that blanket. And don’t come out till I say so.”