Many apologies for the long lapse in communications, but I've been diligently working on The Pretenders. I'd hoped to finish in time to enter it into the 2018 RITA contest, but since the contest opens next week and The Pretenders is about fifty or so pages short of being published, it looks like a no-go for the RITA contest this time around. That being said, my expectation to publish The Pretenders in late 2018 has now moved to January 2019. I hate to push it back a month, but I'd rather do that and put out my best writing instead of rush and risk releasing material that isn't up to par.
But wait! As a bit of a consolation prize to those readers out there patiently waiting on my newest release, I'm going to post the prologue as part of this blog entry. Hooray! So read on and I hope you enjoy! I'll also post the prologue over on the individual book page for The Pretenders.
Prologue: “Girl Meets Boy”
“Don’t be scared,” Ivy crooned. “I won’t hurt you.”
Her softly spoken assurance lured the ball of matted white fur another cautious inch closer. She could almost touch it now. Maintaining the patient crouch she’d held for the past six minutes, Ivy Porter cheerfully patted her knees again, this latest invitation finally inspiring the bashful puppy to scuttle within reach.
“That’s it. Oh, yes, that’s an awfully good pup.”
A victorious smile spread across the eight-year-old’s face the moment her fingers sank into the greasy fur. The scruffy animal hesitantly wagged its tail, inspiring Ivy’s soft touch to develop into hardier strokes and pats, with the occasional joyous nuzzle a foregone conclusion. The unpleasant odors of urine and rancid meat filled her nostrils every time she burrowed her face into its coat for a cuddle, but the little girl didn’t care. The spindly tail picked up speed, and it wasn’t long before the rump it was attached to was shaking back and forth with remarkable enthusiasm.
She now had something to love.
“Hey!” An outraged voice punctured the joyous moment. “That there’s my dog! Take your thieving hands off him!”
The startled puppy twisted and scampered away. Its clumsy gait ended at the far end of the alleyway where an equally grubby boy anxiously shifted from foot to foot. Had they recently rolled around together in the same pile of stinky trash? He scooped the animal possessively into his thin arms and sharply ordered, “Get your own dog and leave mine alone!” That said, he dashed away, a warning glare over one shoulder his parting shot.
Ivy watched the boy and his dog disappear through the broken window of a dilapidated factory. The tips of her fingers still tingled with the warm, coarse feel of the puppy’s fur. It did no good to pine for things that could never be, or so Grammy had always said; her hand quickly squeezed into a small fist to squash the glorious sensation.
“I’m sorry, but it’s just you and me again, Sarah,” she said somberly, reaching into the pocket of her grimy pinafore and withdrawing a stuffed cotton doll. Sarah’s crosswheel button eyes stared back vacantly, the stitched mouth remained fixed in its perpetual smile.
How Ivy envied Sarah and her perpetual smile.
“Tut-tut, don’t cry.” She stroked the yarn hair in comfort. A rat scurried past, causing her to gasp and shrink back. She’d awakened last night screaming, one of the city’s plentiful rodents gnawing on her leg just like she used to gnaw on Grammy’s fried chicken drumsticks. “Big girls don’t cry, and we’re both big girls now.” Glancing apprehensively up and down the deserted alleyway, she hugged Sarah to her thin chest. “We’re gonna be fine. You’ll see.”
Straightening, Ivy took a tentative step toward the street, but she couldn’t prevent a wistful glance over her shoulder. She’d liked that dog. It was a shame it had to belong to someone else.
Her shoulders slumped miserably as she neared the noisy, congested thoroughfare. She dreaded walking among all those people again. They bumped into her as if she didn’t exist, and some of them yelled at her whenever she stumbled and dared clutch at their clothes to keep from falling. They said she was dirty, that her nose ran, and they were always slapping and shoving to make her go away. Once, a man had offered to help her, but he’d lied and tried to put his hand up her dress. No one was nice to her, and she no longer recognized what neighborhood she was in. Wherever she was, most of the people who lived here smelled like the grog shops her daddy used to visit when she’d still had a daddy. They liked to shoot their guns a lot too, like they were having fun and thought they were firecrackers. Yesterday, she’d seen a man lying dead by a lamppost with a bullet hole in his chest, so maybe not everyone shooting was having fun.
Get your own dog and leave mine alone!
Ivy’s pace slowed, and somehow the bony shoulders beneath her tattered calico dress found the gumption to straighten themselves. She didn’t want to find her own dog. She wanted that dog.
She quickly retraced her steps back to the broken window. Shards of glass bordered the frame like the ripping fangs of a monster. The sill reached well above her head, and even after she’d dragged a flimsy crate over to stand on, Ivy wasn’t altogether certain she’d gained enough height to climb through the window.
The dog was reason enough to try. With Sarah’s skirt clamped securely between her teeth, Ivy stretched up on tiptoes until her hands touched the frame. She smiled triumphantly as the soles of her high-button shoes pedaled against the side of the building. Inch by inch, she pulled herself upward until she managed to wriggle through the small opening, only crying out a little when one of the sharp glass points snagged her stocking and the tender skin beneath.
A tiny grunt of surprise slipped from her as she lost her balance and tumbled inelegantly to the floor. Startled roaches retreated between the gaps in the floorboards then emerged again almost immediately to boldly reclaim their domain. Ivy heard one crunch beneath her shoe as she wandered toward the middle of the cavernous room, her face tipped curiously toward the ceiling far above. An explosion of pigeons burst from the rafters, their flapping wings echoing all around her. They escaped through a large hole in the roof, each plump body battling to squeeze through the opening at once, and to comic effect.
Ivy snickered. Grammy had always said pigeons were God’s stupidest creatures, and here was proof enough.
She moved toward the puddle of weak sunlight that shone on the floorboards below, mesmerized by the fleeting promise of warmth. A pigeon dropping fell from above, narrowly missing her. Yuck! Maybe the pigeons were getting revenge for her uncharitable thoughts: poop revenge! The floor was covered with similar droppings, some fresh and oily, some old and dried and with a thick layer of feathers mixed in like the world’s nastiest frosting. Nose wrinkling, Ivy halted in her approach and skirted the mess by taking a different path around the room.
“Oh! I’m that sorry, sir!”
She nearly tripped over the snoring man’s legs before the odor reached her. Gin wafted from his beard and clothes. Empty bottles surrounded the elderly man, further evidence of his inebriation. Ivy carefully stepped over the glass containers, mindful to prevent them from clinking together and waking him. Drunks got angry whenever you woke them.
“What were you doin’ letting that girl pet you? You don’t like her better than me, do you? ’Cause I feed you, so that ought to count for something.”
The muffled scolding came from a small room off to Ivy’s right. A joyful bark immediately answered the boy’s rebuke.
“Okay, then.” A laugh. “I forgive you.”
Three floors above, a stout woman clad in a corset and petticoat and little else leaned over the railing and glared at Ivy, the waning sunlight momentarily illuminating a garish face smeared with powder and paint. She muttered something inaudible and retreated from view, reminding Ivy of the roaches. The factory might be abandoned, but it was far from vacant.
She recognized the boy’s voice, though this time it quaked with fear instead of anger. Although her tread had been light-footed, too late she noticed the string that was looped across the threshold and the cans that rattled together as she triggered it. She staggered but didn’t fall, neatly catching herself against the jam.
“Who’s there, I said!”
She eased around the doorframe of the small room, Sarah clutched against her hammering heart for bravery. At the same time, the boy eased from his own place behind a curtained partition at the back of the room, his fingers curled around the glass neck of a broken bottle, his little dog trying its best to growl threateningly at her arrival.
“You again?” Fast as a blink, his anxious expression turned listless and disinterested, but Ivy noticed that his hand shook slightly with relief as he set down the broken bottle on the corner of a large desk.
Either that, or he was just hungry and had the food shakes like she sometimes did.
“Thought I told you to get lost.” The mound of old documents scattered across the desktop and dusty cabinetry crammed with more of the same suggested this had once been an office belonging to Somebody Important. How shrewd the boy must be to have claimed it for his own! “Ain’t no girls allowed in here, so go on.” He jerked his head for emphasis when she didn’t move. “Get!” he commanded.
Ignoring him, Ivy settled her intent gaze on the puppy, which had traded its silly little growls for excited barks. A bright smile stretched across her face as she looked at the puppy, then at the boy, then back at the puppy again.
“She’s a girl,” Ivy said, her voice brimming with happiness.
His flat expression held. “This dog ain’t no girl. Don’t you think I’d know whether my own dog was a boy or girl?” Despite that bold statement, he paused and glanced uneasily at the ball of fluff that ran around the desk in joyous circles.
She inched a bit closer. “You said no girls allowed, but your dog’s a girl.” She meaningfully wiggled her pinkie finger. “She ain’t got no pizzle.”
The boy lifted the dog by the scruff of its neck, clearly outraged by such slander. “Don’t go ’round saying my dog ain’t got no pizzle! He good and damn well has a—”
His words abruptly dried up as his gaze swiftly settled between the puppy’s flailing hindquarters. Scowling, he set the fidgety animal back on all four paws again and turned away.
“I’m right, ain’t I?”
“Go away,” he dully ordered, disappearing behind the curtained partition. There were holes here and there in the printed fabric. Ivy strained to decipher his mood from the lifeless expression she could just make out through the perforations. He seemed to have perfected that vacant look, and yet she sensed a riot of emotions roiling beneath that uniform exterior.
“Does that mean I can have her?”
“No, you can’t have her!” He leapt out from behind the partition again, protectively snatching up the animal and saying, scandalized, “I might’ve only found her yesterday, but you can’t have Slayer! She’s my dog, not yours!” Nostrils flaring, he once more retreated behind the curtain, a flopping sound indicating he’d defiantly flung himself onto bedding of some sort.
Ivy’s shoulders slumped. Even though the dog was a girl, the boy still wanted to keep her. She hadn’t expected that.
In a small voice, she suggested, “She looks more like a Snowball than a Slayer.”
A contemptuous snort floated over on the musty air. “I’m gonna train her for protection. A guard dog can’t be called Snowball, or no one will take her seriously. Don’t you know nothin’?”
Ivy took that as an invitation to inch her way farther into the room and even peer around the curtain. She gasped in delight. The boy had created a splendid fortification against what was undoubtedly a scary place full of creaks and shadows at night. A cozy nest of quilts and blankets covered the floor. A clever assortment of makeshift candle holders surrounded the sleeping space—empty birdcages, a set of shop scales, and what appeared to be a colander, if Ivy wasn’t mistaken—the squat tallows inside each vessel, though currently unlit, surely brightening the room in the evenings and even adding a bit of warmth. Her envious gaze skipped to a small pile of toys near the boy’s limp hand: a wooden cup and ball game, a sailor hat constructed from newspaper, and a cloth pouch bulging with clay marbles. There was no sign of food, but if the boy owned extravagances like toys, he must have a loaf of bread or a pickled egg secreted somewhere nearby.
In that moment, Ivy had a flash of insight. She wasn’t doing so well living on her own, but this boy seemed to be doing swimmingly. She needed to become his friend.
“My name is Ivy. What’s yours?”
He stared at her gloomily for a moment before replying, “Shane.” He lay on his back, the dog curled loyally against his side. A little shiver ran through the animal, accentuating its knobby spine, and the boy immediately pulled it closer.
Ivy heard the puppy’s contented sigh. It said good things about the boy that he noticed such things. She kept on with her plan to make him her friend.
“I’m eight,” she grandly volunteered. “How old are you?”
He plucked up the cup and ball game, the wooden ball seating itself on the second toss. “Ten.”
Ivy didn’t know much about boys, but he looked small for his age. Then again, so was she. His skin and clothes boasted several layers of dirt that disguised details like skin and hair color, rendering him an unvarying shade of brown.
He was lots dirtier than she was. She could yet make out some pink on her hands, and the ends of her braids were still clean, but that was probably just because she liked to chew on them.
Ivy risked another step forward. “Is that your daddy asleep out there with all them gin bottles?”
“No.” Frowning in concentration, he caught the ball again. “That’s Ezra. He’s nobody’s daddy. He won’t bother you none though. He mostly sleeps anymore anyways.”
Each moment spent in conversation boosted Ivy’s spirits. She furtively edged her way toward the mound of blankets, sinking lower and lower until she was almost sitting on her butt. “Then is that your mama upstairs?”
“No, that’s Fat Meg. She’s a whor—ladybird.”
“I know what a whore is.” Ivy wriggled her bottom onto the edge of an old horse blanket, trying hard not to grin over her victory. She was so sneaky! “It’s what Grammy called Mama all the time.”
The boy raised his thick eyebrows but said nothing.
“Can we light the candles?” she blurted hopefully, eyeing the birdcages. They would look pretty all lit up, and she could make-believe they’d captured a family of glittering pixies.
“No.” At her hurt look, his mouth compressed into a flat line. “I ain’t got no matches left,” he confessed, his voice gruff with regret, or at least something very much like it.
“If Ezra isn’t your Daddy and Fat Meg isn’t your Mama,” she persisted, both forgiving him his moodiness and discarding her pixy fantasy as quickly as she’d concocted it, “then who takes care of you?”
He seated the wooden ball again but looked bored, with both the game and her. “I take care of myself.”
“I take care of myself now, too,” Ivy blurted, sensing she was running out of time to win this boy’s favor. “Mama died after Mrs. Grayson cut out the baby growing inside her tummy. Mama was forever catching babies. Mrs. Grayson lived upstairs and always cut them out before they could get born, but something went wrong that time, and all Mama’s blood poured everywhere. I was only seven when that happened. It was just me and Grammy after that, but then she up and died, too. Not from catching a baby,” she wisely explained, “but because her chest hurt something fierce one morning and she did this.” Splaying her hand across her heart, Ivy grimaced and planted face-down on the bedding, complete with gurgling and twitching.
Grammy would’ve approved. Not only did the flailing add dramatic effect to her storytelling, but it helped move her closer toward the nest of warm bedding and not just the corner of the smelly old horse blanket.
Ivy cracked open one eye, her corpse reanimating. “Some men came and took her away, and they said they’d come back for me, but they never did. The rooms we lived in didn’t belong to us, and the lady that owned them made me leave. Did your Grammy die, too?” she asked, head popping up to regard her now captive audience.
“I never had me a Grammy.”
Ivy watched Shane devote his attention to the ball and cup game again. She knew he was bored with it, but he repetitively tossed the ball, not looking at her. And he kept missing, whereas he’d made the game look easy before.
“What about your mama? Did she catch a baby she didn’t want and die?”
He shrugged lethargically, a wretched, one-shouldered motion that sent the neck of his flannel shirt slipping down a skinny shoulder. He mechanically tugged it back up, a gesture no doubt repeated a thousand times a day.
“Don’t you know what happened to her?” she asked, sad for him.
He repeated the lethargic shrug, his gaze never wavering from the wooden spindle. She suddenly noticed he had dark circles under his eyes, the sort people got when they were sickly or didn’t sleep well. Those smudges made her want to reach out and fiercely hug him.
“What about your daddy? Did he drink too much grog and choke on his sick in his sleep like mine did?”
“I never met my pa,” he said slowly, a scowl emerging from beneath his crop of dirty hair. “Ma said he lived somewhere in a place called Colorado Territory.”
“Col-or-a-do,” Ivy breathed, saying it in the same reverential way she’d pronounced Par-a-dise after Grammy had told her about heaven. It sounded like such a glorious place, Col-or-a-do.
Her eyes flew wide with excited discovery.
“Shane! Maybe your mama went back there! To Col-or-a-do and she’s with your pa, and they’re waiting for you!”
The ball arced wildly on its attached string, directionless.
“I know where Ma is,” he said in the same slow, halting voice. “She’s here in the city with her new man.”
Astonished, Ivy exclaimed, “Then why do you live here and not with her?”
He gave another of those pitiful, one-shouldered motions. “Mr. Fallon didn’t want to care for another man’s brat. Ma’s never really liked me much anyways, and she tossed me out when Mr. Fallon threatened to leave her. But I didn’t mind going. Mr. Fallon hit harder than the last one did, and the one before that was a pederast. He was forever trying to catch me alone. Luckily, I’ve always been a fast runner.”
“Oh.” Ivy sighed, a tremulous little breath that raised and dropped her chest like the crashing waves of Lake Michigan. Poor Shane. At least Mama and Grammy had loved her. And neither would have tolerated a pederast interfering with her, mercifully.
Shane suddenly flung the cup and ball game aside.
The voice that came out sounded high and thin. “I don’t want to talk no more.” His face momentarily pinched together before settling into its preferred remote mask. He wriggled beneath the many layers of bedding and promptly flopped over on his side, his skinny back turned toward her in flagrant dismissal. “Go away. Me and Slayer are goin’ to sleep.”
Ivy nervously toyed with the frayed yoke collar of her dress. She moved the curtain aside and glanced at the cavernous factory floor. As she’d feared, the hole in the ceiling no longer had any sunlight shining through it.
It was nightfall. Ivy shuddered. The rats came out at nightfall.
“This is Sarah,” she proclaimed, speeding over the mound of bedding until her knees jabbed into his bony spine, earning an impatient, over-the-shoulder glare. Undeterred, she held out the doll for him to admire. “She’s scared of the dark.”
Shane narrowed his eyes at that bit of information.
“Can we stay here with you?”
It was immediate. Panic widened his eyes and split his voice. “No!”
Ivy had lost track of the days since the mean landlady had made her leave, but it was still miserably cold at night. She’d had the wonderful fortune to sleep atop a steam grate three nights ago, but some older girls had evicted her near dawn, and she hadn’t been nearly so fortunate since. It seemed only the shrewdest girls and boys got to sleep on the grates.
Ivy anxiously twisted her hands. “Please? I’m awfully little, so I don’t take up much space. Sarah neither.”
“No,” he rasped, residual panic lingering in his expression.
Try as she might, she couldn’t prevent her eyes from growing damp. She didn’t want to get bitten by rats again. “Can’t we stay for just one night? Please, Shane? Just the one?”
Shane had changeling eyes. And not just because of the green-brown color, which she knew was called hazel, but because he tried to view her tears with cool disinterest but couldn’t quite make it work. Distress shifted in his gaze before he buried the emotion behind his customary remote stare.
He abruptly sat up, startling her. His lips flattened. “One night,” he said firmly, lifting layers of horse blankets, steer hide carriage blankets, and coverlets of woven wool to make room for her beside him.
“Oh, thank you, Shane!” Ivy gratefully dove in, immediately curling into the tiniest ball imaginable lest he change his mind. “And see? I don’t use up any room at all, just like I said!”
“I’ll take you to Old Mary Brennan in the morning.” He carefully re-layered the bedding over them, the topmost cover a quilt made of orange and red tumbling blocks that made her eyes do a funny little dance because they looked so real. “She lives in Roger’s Barracks over on Wells Street and trains little girls to pick pockets and snatch purses. You’ll do fine with Old Mary.”
Ivy stopped tracing one of the turkey red blocks with her finger, only now hearing his words. She frowned. “I don’t want to pick pockets and snatch purses.”
“You need to earn your keep somehow, or Old Mary won’t take you in.”
They wriggled some more until they were wedged in shoulder to shoulder. Soon Ivy’s entire left side was toasty warm, but her right side remained chilled.
“But I don’t want a new mama.”
Shane laughed, but it was a humorless sound. “Old Mary isn’t agreeing to be your new mama. She’ll be your employer,” he stated matter-of-factly. “You’ll steal stuff for her, and then she’ll give you a penny to buy yourself a piece of candy.”
Ivy didn’t say anything at first. She was only eight, but even she realized that wasn’t a very good deal. “Do you work for Old Mary?” If Shane worked for her then so would Ivy.
“No. Old Mary only takes in little girls.”
Her mouth settled into a mulish line. “Then I won’t work for Old Mary. Grammy said stealing is a sin.”
“You need to find someone to look out for you, or the pimps will snatch you and sell you to one of the bordellos,” he said sternly. “Do you want that to happen?”
Ivy’s bottom lip trembled. “I don’t want to get snatched.”
A little shiver ran through her. Much as she’d seen him do with the dog earlier, Shane immediately pulled her close. He made a confused sound as soon as he did so, as if the impulse to comfort her had been a reflex and one he sorely regretted.
Ivy didn’t give him the chance to back out. She flung her arms around his waist, anchoring herself even as he tried pushing her away. Her pointy little chin found a resting place in the hollow of his sternum, making him wince. She wasn’t going anywhere; now her right side as well as the left was toasty warm.
“Your arms are like tentacles,” he accused, futilely trying to peel them away. “Let go. You’re strangling my inner parts.”
“I can’t.” In a hushed, secretive tone, she whispered, “Sarah wants to get warm. She’s used to snuggling up to Grammy, so she’s real cold. Poor, poor Sarah! What are tentacles?”
His straining limbs finally gave up and went lax in deathlike surrender.
Smiling jubilantly, Ivy burrowed closer. The sharpness of her chin pressing into his sternum made him grunt again, and so she shifted it to a location less vulnerable higher on his chest. One of the buttons of his shirt made an uncomfortable indentation against her cheek, but Ivy gladly accepted the trade. “I don’t want to get snatched, but I don’t want to work for Old Mary neither.” She perked up. “What gang do you belong to? Because maybe I could join that gang, too.”
“I don’t belong to a gang. I told you earlier that I take care of myself.”
Fascinated, she asked, “How do you do that?”
“Sometimes I gather rags for the junkmen or collect old iron along the railroad tracks.” His tone was subdued, but Ivy sensed that he was proud of his ingenuity. “You can usually find lots of coal there too that falls off.”
“I could do that. I could help you!”
“You’re too little,” he dismissed. “The railroad bulls would get you.”
“The railroad bulls?” Her eyes grew wide with trepidation.
“Men hired by the railroad to keep people from trespassing. Two of them chased me once for stealing a handful of railroad spikes and for over a mile. I nearly passed out, my lungs got so tired. You could never run that fast, and they’d catch you.”
Ivy frowned ponderously. “Maybe so, but I’m an awfully good biter.”
The lax body beneath her suddenly rippled, as if a tremor of silent laughter had passed in and out on a single breath, but Ivy didn’t dare loosen her grip to glance up and find out for certain. She was finally warm and growing sleepy and wouldn’t risk him shucking her like a corncob husk, although that didn’t seem very likely anymore.
“I sometimes have nightmares,” he whispered unsteadily into the dark, any hint of laughter long gone.
Her fists tightened sympathetically in the flannel of his shirt. “Me, too.” Ivy still saw her dead mama in her dreams, singing lullabies to the lifeless baby in her arms.
“I don’t think mine are like yours.” Shane swallowed loudly. “Don’t be scared if I scream in my sleep, is all. It’s just something I sometimes do.”
It’s just something I sometimes do.
Ivy’s arms tightened protectively, her heart hurting for him. “I’ll hold you all night and keep them away,” she promised with the easy conviction only belonging to young children.
To her amazement, she felt his arms experimentally creep around her shoulders, hesitantly returning her embrace with the apprehension of someone who’d only ever known rejection.
And just like that, Ivy realized the boy named Shane needed her every bit as much as she needed him, only for different reasons.
“It’s settled,” she murmured. “I don’t have anybody, and you don’t have anybody. We’ll take care of each other from now on.”
“You’re on your own come tomorrow,” he mumbled sleepily, but his arms tightened around her shoulders in contradiction. “I’m gonna make Slayer chase you out in the morning. I swear it on a stack of bibles.”
Ivy smiled and said nothing.
She fell asleep with that same smile on her face.
She now had someone to love.