Grabbing up her ration tin, Mae flipped open the lid and pulled out a dried biscuit to violently masticate. A soldier had apportioned a pail to each prisoner upon departure. Mae eyed the biscuit dubiously, already so stale that it was only edible if a body had the slashing incisors of a rodent.
“Owen?” She waggled it invitingly.
“Not after you chewed on it.” He crossed his arms with a persnickety air. “I only like mine with marmalade anyhow. Or molasses,” he whispered lovingly.
“I didn’t chew on it. I only thought about chewin’ on it.” Thirst and not hunger prevailed, and so she returned the uneaten biscuit. “Sit tight. I’m gonna find the water bucket.”
Navigating her way to the rear of the car, she advanced on the young soldier who had traveled with them since their departure from Marietta. His plump face was an elaborate mishmash of bushy side whiskers, droopy mustache, and shaggy beard. The untidy display was the color of tarnished brass and overran his features like a thicket gone awry; only nose and eyes poked free, the latter of which narrowed unwelcomingly at her approach.
Mae was aware of a painful tearing in her chest as she looked from Miss Sadie Levine’s anxiously pleading face to Creighton’s inscrutable one. Unconsciously, she reached out and grabbed Owen’s small hand for courage.
“Your hand is all sweaty, lady. I don’t like it.” Tugging free, he slid off the bench and gazed raptly at the beauteous Miss Levine. “You’re perty.” He sent Mae an overcritical scowl. “I think you’re lots pertier than she is.”
“Children shouldn’t interrupt adults.”
Owen’s wide smile retracted a bit. “But I said you’re perty.”
“That’s very flattering. Now sit back down by your nanny, little boy. I’m havin’ a private discussion with your uncle.”
Owen slunk back to Mae’s side, but in case she was of a mind to try and hold his hand again, he stuck his tongue out as a deterrent.
“Well?” Mae prompted when Creighton’s stare slid uneasily in her direction. “Is there somethin’ you want me to tell Miss Levine? Or ask her, perhaps?” She obnoxiously batted her eyelids, knowing he was in a bit of a fix. He couldn’t communicate with his beloved without her help, and yet the personal nature of the subject matter was meant for two people, not three.
As expected, Creighton and Sadie partook of the same seat. This meant Mae was doomed to once more suffer Owen’s company, who was stirring and blinking with the perplexity of a baby owl.
“Hello, goober. Make some room.”
The baby owl looked ready to eviscerate her. “I don’t wanna sit beside you.”
“Like it or lump it.” She jabbed a ticklish finger into his ribs.
“Uncle Creighton!” he squawked, spiraling across the bench with a riled flurry of wings. “The mean lady done pinched me on the leg!”
But Creighton only had eyes for the diaphanous miss who delicately wrung a lawn handkerchief between her quivering hands, though upon closer inspection, it wasn’t exactly euphoria on display, not on either of their parts. Sadie looked remorseful. A separate battle waged across Creighton’s face, hinting that his attraction to Sadie was greatly tempered by the distrust she’d incurred through some mysterious past behavior.
Arriving at a sudden resolution, Creighton decisively turned to Mae and said, “Give Sadie and me some privacy, would you? Take in a bit of scenery with Owen at one of the windows.”
“I’ll do you one better. Pretend like we’re not even here.” Mae reached inside the burlap sack stowed beneath the bench and withdrew the pièce de résistance: a slender children’s book emblazoned with the rather lackluster title Stories for Children, though the sight of it thoroughly accomplished her goal. With a hoot of excitement, Owen scrambled close as planned, anchoring himself to her side and making the notion of moving improbable. “We’ll occupy ourselves with this,” she assured Creighton, doing her utmost to look innocuous. “You’ll have privacy aplenty to have your little chat.”
Mae’s left arm was completely numb, which should have rendered her impervious to the slimy sensation of little-boy drool soaking through her sleeve, but alas, life is a curious thing.
Vibrating floor boards and several erratic belches of steam and coal dust alerted the train occupants that another precipitous stretch of track lay before them. Mae temporarily dismissed her anesthetized appendage and gripped the edge of the hard bench seat, seeking fortitude. Though some of the bolder passengers took pleasure in the view of crags and peaks afforded by the small number of windows, most failed to stir from their fitful dozes inside the stifling train carriage and barely shifted in their seats in response to the palsied uphill lurches.
The pitch slowly leveled out, and Mae’s bloodless grip loosened. Soon they would pass through Chetoogeta Mountain via a long tunnel over fourteen hundred feet long, or so she’d heard. Just over eighty miles into her first journey by train, and the experience was proving less than agreeable, though Owen had taken to it like water off a duck’s back. She adjusted her arm, resentful, her entire left side plastered in sweat and saliva. Owen was dead weight, comparable to a sack of potatoes someone had decided to thoughtlessly pitch on top of her.
Her sour mood traveled to the relaxed heap sprawled out on the facing bench. Creighton ought to be suffering this uncomfortable situation, not her, and yet he had an entire seat all to himself to doze in comparative splendor. With legs outstretched and battered hat pulled low, he was the picture of restfulness.
Or perhaps not.
The winners of the July e-book giveaway are Erin Townsend and Gloria Dodd! Congratulations, Erin and Gloria!
This month’s contest is for a free e-book copy of Clingstone (provided as an Amazon gift). Two winners will be selected, each to receive 1 e-book copy. The contest runs throughout the entire month of August and is open to all participants. Simply submit the contact form on this website. The winners will be announced in my blog post on September 1. Good luck!
*Names and emails are for contest purposes only. All contact information will be deleted after the contest ends. The winners' contact information will be deleted once Amazon confirms the e-books were claimed.
Additionally, I’m sharing one of my favorite chapters from Clingstone on my blog throughout the month of August. Each Monday I will post a portion of the chapter, beginning August 8th and yielding a total of four segments, to conclude on August 29th. The chapter is titled "The Extraordinary Miss Sadie Levine" and is a great example of the overall feel of Clingstone for would-be readers. I hope you enjoy it!