Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
We had gotten off the train because we were supposed to wait for another, which Daddy said would come soon.
“I promise,” he had said, which made me wince.
I remembered how much Mama hated promises. She told me that promises are only good for things people will or won’t do. It’s not necessary to promise it will rain or snow or the sun will come up in the morning. She said, “It’s not even necessary for your mother or father to say, ‘I promise if you keep doing that, you will get hurt.’ In your heart you know you will, so you stop. Why promise that something that has to happen will happen? A promise is a cousin to a lie. It’s just a way to get someone to stop asking for something or believe in something that very well might be untrue. Your father’s an expert when it comes to that. Don’t believe in his promises.”
When the Umbrella Lady appeared, I was already sitting on the bench with my new blue and white carry-on bag beside me. Daddy had bought it for me yesterday. I had been totally absorbed by the new coloring book he had bought me, but I had paused to take a rest. My wrist actually ached, I had completed so many pages.
I didn’t know Daddy had gotten me a new coloring book before we had left. Because we had departed so quickly and he had so much on his mind, I imagined he had forgotten. He had kept it in his black leather briefcase with his three initials in raised bold silver on the outside, DFA, Derick Francis Anders. Besides saving me, it was the only other important thing he was able to rescue, because, as usual, he had left it in the entryway when he had come home that day, and all he had to do when we rushed down the stairs was scoop it up while still balancing me in his arms, avoiding the flames, and charge through the front door.
After we had stepped off the train and he had led me to the bench, he had snapped open the briefcase and taken out the new coloring book and a box of new crayons.
When he had handed them to me, he had said, “Work on this until I come back from getting a few things.”
“What about all the other things we’ll need, Daddy?”
After all, I thought, we had to fill a new house.
“Don’t worry. I’m getting us everything essential soon after we get there.”
“We’ll be shopping and shopping,” I had said. “And without Mama to help us get the right things.”
It was more of a warning, because I knew he didn’t like shopping. He was always hurrying Mama and me along when we went to malls, even if he was with us at the grocery store. If Mama ever forgot anything, she’d blame it on his rushing us, and they’d argue about it. Sometimes, mumbling under his breath, he’d have to go back to get what we had forgotten. I wanted to feel sorry for him, but Mama wouldn’t let me. “Don’t pity him,” she would say. “It’s his own fault.”
He had pulled the collar of his dark-blue cashmere overcoat up around his neck and stared at me a moment before replying to my concern about our new home. Shadows were washing over him so that he looked like a man without a face, just like the man in my dream.
“What you’ll need, you’ll have. Stop worrying. You’re too young to worry.”
“I’m almost nine. How old do you have to be to worry?” I had asked.
Just like always when I asked a question he didn’t want to answer, he had looked away, shaken his head, taken a breath, and talked about something else.
“I’m off just to get some things we absolutely must have before we get on another train. I want a newspaper, and I’ll get you something fun to read, among other small things like toothpaste. I don’t want to go shopping as soon as we get there. It’ll be late, and you’ll be tired. I’ll be tired, too. Stay busy, and don’t move,” he had said, jabbing his right forefinger at me. Mama often called him a “tank commander” when he spoke like that. After he had left the house, she would imitate him and, with her finger jabbing, say, “You will do this; you will do that.”
I thought she was joking, even though she didn’t laugh.
I had watched him walk off the train platform.
He had started away slowly, pausing and almost turning back. Other departing passengers bumped into him because he had stopped so suddenly. I saw that some excused themselves, but most did not. Some looked angry at him. He didn’t turn to look back at me. He made sure his collar was up and continued, picking up his pace until he was close to running, weaving in and out around other people. He went around the platform corner and disappeared.
Daddy had looked so frantic and confused when we had left in the morning. He had still looked that way when we had stepped off the train. He had been gazing everywhere as if he was expecting to see someone and had forgotten to take my hand. I had hesitated on the last step, and he had turned around to help me off as if he had just remembered I was with him. The last step was high up, and I was small for my age.
During our train ride here, he had sat with his eyes squeezed closed, not like someone sleeping but more like someone who didn’t want to see where he was going or like someone expecting to feel a pain. I often did that with my eyelids when I didn’t want to see something, especially in our house. I hoped that when I opened them again, what I didn’t want to see would be gone. Sometimes it was, but more often than not, it wasn’t.
“Temporary blindness cures nothing,” Mama had said when she saw me doing it once. Mama could stop herself from seeing without closing her eyes. At least, Daddy said so.
After a while, I had fallen asleep on the train and hadn’t woken until I felt it coming to a stop at this station. Daddy still had his eyes closed. The fire in our house and Mama’s funeral seemed like a long, bad, never-ending dream, and dreams could make you very tired. Many times during the past days, I had closed my eyes and wished and wished it had all just been in my imagination, but what I saw and heard when I opened them reminded me it was real and it wouldn’t go away. No matter where we were, I couldn’t get the smell of smoke out of my nose. I thought Daddy’s plan for us to run as far as we could from all that was a good idea.
For a little while after he had left me at the bench, I simply sat there and stared at the corner of the train station to see if he would suddenly reappear and come rushing back to me. I had no idea how long he would be gone. He didn’t say. Thinking about time and how much had passed was like watching an icicle melting off a corner of our roof. Staring at it too long would make me nauseous, because after a while I could feel the drips falling into my stomach.
When he hadn’t reappeared quickly, I opened my new coloring book and then opened the box of crayons. I always liked to inhale the scent of them. Once, I mentioned that to my mother. I said, “They smell good enough to eat,” and she said, “Chew up a coloring book first.”
She didn’t smile. She simply said it and walked away. This was when she started to say things like “Falling is a wonderful feeling. For a few seconds, nothing holds you or traps you. The higher up you are when you fall, the longer the wonderful feeling lasts.”
Everything she had said recently would make me think and think until I had packed her words of cloudy thoughts into an imaginary trunk decorated with wooden forget-me-nots. Sometimes they slipped out and fluttered around me like confused butterflies.
I dove into my coloring with the same enthusiasm my mother had when she washed the kitchen floor, even though she had washed it only an hour earlier and no one had walked on it. But coloring was never a chore or just a way to pass time for me. It was part of my art class she conducted. Mama said I had artistic talent. It was always fascinating to bring something more to life. From the moment I could hold a crayon until now, I was very good at keeping within the lines and choosing interesting or just proper colors for the object I was coloring. I never painted black canaries or yellow crows or purple monkeys. My project before the tragedy was to create my own coloring book. Mama had actually suggested it.
At one point while I was sitting at the station, I looked up and realized that while I had been coloring, many people had walked past me in both directions, and although I had barely noticed, a few trains had gone by, some stopping and then going. I wasn’t worried about that. None of them could be the right one, because Daddy hadn’t returned yet, and he knew the train schedules. He had them in the top pocket of his coat.
However, I also became aware that it had grown colder, and the light-blue cotton jacket I was wearing was not very warm. Daddy should have bought me a heavier coat before we left. Mama would have insisted, but he was in too much of a rush, and it wasn’t as cold that day when we did what he called “survival shopping.” I really didn’t know what that meant. I mean, I knew what the word survival meant, but how did you shop for it?
Of course, he’d had to buy me something else to wear under my jacket. What I had been wearing reeked of smoke, and washing it at the motel didn’t matter. I helped him pick out the two-piece top and pants set I was wearing now, another blouse, and some socks and underwear. I had something similar to this top and pants in my dresser drawer, washed, neatly folded, and ready to wear, but Daddy had said that everything we had, everything we all owned, in closets and drawers and rooms, had gone up in smoke. It was as if the Magician of Fire had said, “Poof,” and it was all gone. He had told me that there was no point in ever going back to look for anything. When he had rushed into my room that night, he was already dressed and had scooped up some clothes for me to wear. I hadn’t heard him dashing about my room until he had shaken me awake.
“Hold this tightly, embrace it,” he had said, and put everything in my arms before he had lifted me into his. “There’s no time to dress. You’ll put it on over your pajamas to keep warm as soon as we’re outside.”
“Outside?” I knew it was the middle of the night. No wonder it seemed like a dream for so long afterward. “I can walk,” I had said.
“No time. There’s only one way out. We can’t afford a second or a mistake.”
He didn’t say anything more. It had been some time since he had carried me, even on his shoulders. With me in his arms, he hurried down the stairs. There was already so much smoke. I started coughing, and he told me to keep my mouth shut tight and stop breathing. The flames were coming out of the kitchen, but they looked like they were in the living room, too. He was probably right. There wasn’t much time, and I would surely have been confused about which way to go.
“Mama,” I had said, looking back up the stairs. Why wasn’t she right behind us?
“I couldn’t wake her,” he had said. “It was either carry her or carry you, and I had to get you before it was too late. The fire’s been going too long.”
I really hadn’t understood what that meant. Why couldn’t he wake her? Why would he have to carry her, anyway? Surely, she would know how to go or just follow us.
“Mama!” I had screamed, but the smoke was burning my eyes.
I couldn’t think or remember much more detail about the fire while we were fleeing. The flames had looked overwhelming, and there was so much smoke that I had to bury my face against my father’s chest. All that would come later, but as soon as we had shot through the front door, I wondered if Mama was already outside. Maybe she had told Daddy to get me and then left, confident he would.
When we had rushed from the house, he had brought me to the street before he set me and his briefcase down. I had looked everywhere but didn’t see her. People on our street were coming out of their houses, and a fire engine could be heard rushing toward us with police cars ahead of and behind it.
“Get your clothes on,” Daddy had said, and I had started to dress. I remembered being hypnotized by the flames leaping out of the windows and now the front door. I hadn’t even felt cold. I knew which windows were in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. I had heard the glass explode and seen the curtains turning into blazing shapes dancing gleefully.
“Mama,” I had said again. “Where’s Mama? Why didn’t she wake up?”
He had put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t think about anything but tomorrow.”
How could I think about tomorrow? What about Mama? I had wondered, and turned around looking for her. There wasn’t a tomorrow without Mama. Someone out here must have been helping her, I thought.
Daddy had stared at the fire, the flames lighting his face, making his eyes look like blue stars. Then he had started to button his shirt calmly as people rushed in around us. Everyone had stepped back away from us when the fire engine arrived. They seemed more frightened of us than they were of the fire. No one spoke to us or asked questions.
I had turned to press my face against my father. I didn’t want to look at our house on fire, my room in flames, and think about Mama still sleeping inside.
He had put his hand on my shoulder again.
I was sure I had heard him whisper, “Tomorrow,” but I think he was talking more to himself. Later, I had to go with him to a police station to answer questions about the fire and especially about Mama. I was so tired that I kept falling asleep, even when someone was talking to me. I didn’t want to think about Mama sleeping in the fire, much less talk about her, anyway. Everyone had been nice about it. No one had wanted to speak loudly in front of me, but I heard a policeman say something about the gas stove being left on. “These older houses have no sprinkler systems,” he had added. The house had been burned to the ground. There was nothing retrievable. Raking through the ashes had produced nothing, not even any of Mama’s or Daddy’s jewelry in any decent condition, since they weren’t kept in a safe. Nothing was worth the effort, I heard Daddy say. It was going to be easier to bulldoze it all away and put the land up for sale.
Later, while Daddy was talking in an office, I had sat with a young woman who had short black hair and dimples in both her cheeks. She looked like she was going to start crying but sandwiched my hand in hers and kept telling me I’d be all right. I hadn’t cried then and wasn’t crying now. Someone had told my father in a hallway that I was still in shock and would need more tender loving care.
“Don’t we all,” I had heard my father say and then promise he would take care of me. Right now, that seemed a long time ago; it was like looking back through a tunnel and hoping you don’t see what was at the start of your journey through the darkness.
After coloring an elephant dark gray, I looked up and down the train platform, but I still didn’t see him. I wondered if I should go look for him or stay where I was, because if he returned and I wasn’t here, he might go off looking for me, and we’d never find each other. How would I even know the right direction to take once I went around the corner, anyway? The sign on the station read “Hurley,” but I had no idea where we were. I could barely see past the lighted area, and to my right there were trees and no houses, and to my left it was the same.
These trees had lost most of their leaves, just like the trees back home. Trees without leaves always looked sad to me. “Leaves fall like crisp tears until the trees are cried naked,” Mama once said. “That’s why they call autumn the fall. They’re not friendly.”
We were talking about nature. It was part of my homeschooling.
I didn’t understand how trees without eyes could cry and not be friendly, but I knew that the younger trees had sharp branches that could catch on your clothes. I had been scratched a few times running through woods full of leafless trees in our backyard. Leaves were softer, especially when they were green, and made the branches behave. It didn’t surprise my mother when I asked her if trees were unfriendly because they were angry that they had lost their leaves.
“You’re so poetic for someone your age,” she said. “Actually, children are more poetic than adults. Their imaginations aren’t cluttered with reality.”
After thinking a moment more, she added, “Yes, yes, I believe trees can be angry, and rightly so.”
“People are unhappy when they lose their hair,” I said. I thought she might think that clever and tell me how brilliant I was. She used to when I said something she thought was characteristic of someone years older than I was, sometimes adding a kiss on my cheek. Her kisses were my gold stars for excellence.
But to me, what I thought and said was simple. I had seen bald men in television commercials looking grouchy until something was shown to them that would help them grow back their hair. That made me think of the trees and the leaves. Maybe whatever it was could be sprayed on the branches and speed up the return of leaves.
My father was losing his hair. He never stopped complaining about it, because he said it was premature and came from stress. I had no idea what all that meant, but I told him, “It’ll grow back in the spring. With the leaves.”
Mama laughed, but back then, I didn’t mean it to be funny. I thought it might happen.
He didn’t think it was funny, either. He looked at me without smiling and then turned to my mother and said, “She’s your daughter. You had most to do with making her this way. You handle it.”
I looked at my mother. What was there to handle? And what did he mean by “making her this way”? What way was I?
Memories like that flowed through my mind as I sat there waiting and coloring. Occasionally, I would look up in anticipation of him coming back around the corner, and although I was still quite tempted to go look for him, I didn’t. Later, the Umbrella Lady would tell me that not rushing off to find my father was very good logic for an eight-year-old girl.
“Your mother was a good teacher,” she would say. “Good teachers don’t simply fill their students with facts; they teach them how to think correctly.”
My mother insisted on homeschooling me even though my father had thought I belonged with other children my age. He said he was even willing to spend the money on a private school. But Mama, who had her teaching certificate and until the time I was born had worked as a substitute grade-school teacher often, believed she could prepare me better for what was to come. She also claimed that teaching me gave her something important to do.
“I’m not saying you can’t do it, Lindsey,” he told her. “I’m saying she needs to be with other children her age, although sometimes you act as if you are one of them.”
She ignored him, which made him angrier.
His face reddened. “You’re keeping her here to amuse you because you won’t return phone calls from our friends and do something with other wives. You think you’re punishing me, but you’re punishing us all.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but after a while, he stopped arguing with her about it. But because of what I had seen on television and what I heard other children my age say to each other, I knew they had made friends in school and went to birthday parties and went to friends’ houses to play or had friends come to theirs. I had no friends. I never had anyone to my birthday party. I wished Mama had agreed with Daddy about it.
Only a week or so before the fire, Mama had stopped to look at me while I was sitting on the floor watching a television show that had children my age doing things together. I could feel her gazing at me and turned to her, my eyes surely full of question marks. It wasn’t unusual to see her stop and stare at me and then move on when I looked back at her, wondering if I had made a mistake, like putting on two different socks, something I had often done because I was in a rush to get dressed. What was it now? What had I done wrong?
“You’ll have friends, too, when you go to school. It won’t be that much longer now. Don’t be sad.”
Was I sad? Why didn’t I realize I was sad? Didn’t sad people cry? I wondered. I couldn’t remember when I had cried last. Even Daddy had thought about that. He had looked at me at dinner one night and said, “This kid never whines.” He had said it as if that was a terrible thing. I had looked at my mother, who did seem to think hard about it for a moment and then nodded and said, “She’s precocious. She already realizes the futility.”
I didn’t know what any of that meant, but I could see it wasn’t an answer Daddy liked. He had put his head down and eaten faster, after which he abruptly rose and left us.
I had turned back to the television show. I didn’t agree or deny I was sad. I really wasn’t sure. She had left the room. I had listened to her going up the stairs with those very slow, ponderous footsteps, sounding as if she was climbing up forever. She might go into her bedroom, sit on the bed, and just stare at the wall as if it was a television screen. Soon after, her eyes, like melting icicles, would drip tears down her cheeks.
Daddy had been right. She had no friends, either. No one invited her to a birthday party. Maybe she should return to teaching in a public school, I had thought. The memory of all that floated through my mind like a passing bruised cloud dragging in a storm. Just like leafless trees, the sky could look angry, too. Maybe the clouds were mad at the wind for pushing them roughly about. Sometimes I thought we were surrounded by unhappiness, and if we left the door or window open, it would spill in.
A chill brought me back to today and this train station.
I had no idea how much time had passed while I was sitting on the bench and coloring. I didn’t have a watch, and there was no clock on the platform. The station looked small and old, more like one in some cowboy movie I had seen watching television with Daddy. The wood of its walls was a fading gray, and there weren’t any windows on the side where I sat, just some old posters, practically unreadable, some lopsided, and a rusty-looking wheelbarrow overturned. I could see spiderwebs in it.
Now that I was paying more attention to where I was, I realized that darkness had crept in everywhere and challenged the rim of illumination the station platform lights had created. It looked like shadows were constantly trying to invade the lit space but were bouncing off. I put my nearly finished coloring book inside my closed coat, pulled up and embraced my legs, and rocked because it seemed to keep me warmer. It was so quiet that I could hear the hum of the lights above the platform.
I was a little tired again, so I shut my eyes and tried to think of nice things and nice times, like when Daddy and I flew a kite in our backyard and when Mama could still pluck laughter out of the air like someone picking the blueberries that grew on bushes in the woods behind our house. I could feel my face soften into a smile from the memories and lowered my head to my knees.
That was when I heard someone say, “My, my, my. Look at what I’ve found here.”
When I opened my eyes, there she was, standing right in front of me, a lady holding a closed black umbrella with a silver handle. I didn’t know from where she had come. No train had pulled in. She was suddenly there, as if she had taken shape from a shadow.
“Are you waiting for a train, missy?” she asked.
There were little brown dots over the crests of the Umbrella Lady’s cheeks and on both sides of her chin. They weren’t freckles. They looked like someone with a sharply pointed brown Magic Marker had dabbed her face when she was asleep and she couldn’t wash it off. There was even a very small one at the tip of her nose.
Her eyes reminded me of large purple-blue marbles like the ones in a flowerpot Mama had kept on a shelf by the dining-room window. The marbles went around the inside rim. There hadn’t been a flower in it for a long time. Daddy had called it “a potted gravesite” and said, “It’s just dirt, not very attractive, even with those silly marbles you’ve placed in it so carefully. What’s the point of a pot of decorated dirt, Lindsey?”
Mama had seemed not to notice or care. Maybe she was always expecting a new flower would just appear, because she would often pause to look at it. She did that so often that I grew into the habit of looking at it first thing in the morning, too, hoping the flower would be there.
“Yes, I am waiting for a train,” I said now. “Thank you for asking. I’m waiting for my father to return first, and then we’ll board.”
I did that quite perfectly, I thought. I’m a little lady. Mama would flash one of her recently infrequent smiles if she had heard me. Part of homeschooling was something she called social graces. She would show me how to walk and sit and greet people. If I did it right, she’d clap and hug me. I knew I wouldn’t get that from a teacher in public or even private school.
Lately, however, whenever she had smiled, she looked like she had just risen and was surprised it was daytime, even if she had been up for hours and hours. And then her smile would float off and evaporate. She would return to what Daddy had called “her face drenched in sleepwalking.” She had cut back on my homeschooling, too. Sometimes it barely lasted an hour before she would get that far-off look in her eyes. I had to do a lot more to amuse myself.
The Umbrella Lady glanced behind her and then down toward the other end of the station platform before she looked longer and with more interest at me. She was tall, with shoulders that seemed as wide as Daddy’s. In the dim light, her face and neck were yellowish white.
“Where did he go? The station is closed.”
She sounded angry, and I wondered if she was some sort of train-station clerk. She wasn’t wearing any sort of uniform, nor did she have a badge. The hem of her gray dress stuck out from under her heavy wool black coat. Her black shoes had thick, wide heels, and she had black socks that went up under her skirt.
“I don’t know exactly,” I said. “He wanted to buy us things we need right now.”
I shrugged. I didn’t want to list anything. “Things. We don’t have very much with us. I know he wanted a newspaper, and he was getting me some books.”
She started to smile but abruptly stopped and looked quite upset.
“When is he supposed to come for you? There are no more trains tonight. And why wouldn’t he take you to buy things, if that’s what he’s doing?” She asked her questions with her head tilted a little, as if she was testing me to see how I would answer, if I knew the answer.
“I don’t know,” I said. I had begun to wonder that myself. Mama would never, ever leave me alone like this, and she would surely be very angry at him for doing so now. But I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her anything, ever again, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell the Umbrella Lady.
“Did he say anything else?” she asked. “Well?” She sounded like someone who had run out of patience and would soon be stamping her feet.
I looked again for him. I didn’t want to say anything that would get him in trouble. Maybe this lady really was some sort of policewoman in a disguise. I recalled Daddy accusing Mama of being one when she had confronted him with something on our credit-card bill, but I had no idea what it was or why she was so angry.
“My father said, ‘Work on this until I come back,’?” I said, and took out my coloring book to show her. Maybe that would stop her from asking all these questions, I thought.
She plucked it out of my fingers and looked at it, turning it around to look at the back and then the front again.
“Is this brand-new?” She brought it to her face and closed her eyes. “It smells brand-new and still has the sticker that tells its price on the cover.” She looked very suspicious.
Did she think Daddy had stolen it?
“Yes. He bought it for me today or yesterday, and a new box of crayons, but he didn’t give them to me until we were here and I was sitting on this bench.”
“Why didn’t he give them to you on the train?” she asked. She looked even more upset now. “You’d think he’d know enough to do that. For children, it’s boring just sitting on a train. Well?” she followed again when I didn’t answer instantly. She scowled and looked quite disapproving.
I shrugged. It wasn’t a mystery and certainly nothing to get as upset over as she was. “He forgot and fell asleep. Then I fell asleep, too. He wouldn’t wake me up just to give them to me.”
She paused, her scowl slowly disappearing. Then she took a deep breath that lifted her bosom up against her coat. She tilted her head back, as if she wanted to look down at me from a great height.
“Sleep is the best way to travel,” she said, nodding. “Most children will if they have to travel long.”
She started to smile again but stopped.
“But giving you things to do is just as good. He should know that. Even my father knew that, and he wasn’t fond of children. But fathers and mothers were children once, too. They should remember all that when they have children of their own. Some people turn their childhood memories off like a faucet because they can’t stand remembering, and some people should shut them off because they never stop babbling about how much better things were then. They can rupture your ears.”
She paused and looked harder at me.
“Which one are you? Someone who can’t stop remembering or someone who should?”
I shrugged. I didn’t want to tell her I had memories I wanted to stuff in a hole in the ground. It would surely make me cry, and she would have many more questions.
“I don’t know. I turn my faucet off and on, but I’m too young to remember much yet.”
“Very clever,” she said, nodding. “You know how to avoid an answer, and yet you are very honest. I like a little girl who is honest and clever at the same time.”
She flipped through the coloring book and continued nodding, with a look that was now full of approval and delighted surprise.
“The colors you chose are perfect for each and every thing you’ve colored in, and not a color out of the lines. It’s all very good,” she said. “If I were going to give it a grade, I’d give it an A plus, plus.”
She paused and squinted at me.
“It’s almost all done. You must have been working on it carefully for hours and hours. Has it been hours?” she asked suspiciously.
“I think so,” I said. “I don’t have a watch.”
“Oh, you don’t need a watch to know you’ve been here long. We all have a built-in tick-tock. You know just when it’s morning. You know just when you’re hungry, and you know just when you’re tired enough to go to sleep. What else would a little girl like you need to know?”
“I need to know when my father will return,” I said. I almost added, thank you very much, but didn’t because it would surely make her feel foolish.
She smiled. I guess I was making her happy, and she looked like someone who needed to be happier. Maybe that was why she stopped to talk to me. She couldn’t be pleased about her graying light-brown hair. I thought she had it cut too short. It was so thin that I could see the little bumps on her scalp because of how the station-platform lights shone on and behind her head.
“You’re such a smart little girl. Some parents can’t handle their children when they are so smart. They ask too many questions. For them, it’s like too much rain. You can’t ask for no rain, can you? That’s a drought, and nothing will grow, just like if children don’t ask questions, they won’t grow.”
I didn’t know what to say. She sounded right, but I had never thought of questions that way, and for a moment I worried that I hadn’t asked enough and I wouldn’t grow. I looked anxiously at her, expecting her to tell me more. She seemed very wise.
“Did your parents ever tell you to stop asking questions?”
“No,” I said quickly. I almost added, but often they would act like I hadn’t asked anything.
“I see,” she said.
“Are you waiting for a train, too?” I asked. Maybe she was hoping she could ride with Daddy and me.
“What?” She smiled softly. “Is that what you think? I told you there are no more trains tonight.”
I shrugged. “Maybe you’re waiting for someone who’s coming on a train. Are you?”
“There are no trains leaving, and there are no trains coming tonight. But you are inquisitive. See? You are full of questions. That’s good. You’re bound to grow up fast,” she said, and then paused. “Maybe too fast. That kind of little girl gets into big trouble if she is not guided correctly.”
I didn’t know what she meant. How do you grow up too fast? And how could she say there would be no more trains? Daddy told me we were getting off to get on another one. She just doesn’t know, I thought. Daddy had the train schedule in his pocket, didn’t he?
She handed my coloring book back to me and stood straighter, pulling her shoulders back but keeping both palms down on the handle of her umbrella. She looked left and right again. We were still alone on the train platform, and the only thing I heard was a car horn far off to my right, sounding mournful and sad, like a lost goose. We often heard them over the lake near our house.
“There’s probably nothing sadder in the world than a bird losing its sense of direction,” Mama once told me when we were both sitting outside and listening. “A panicked bird will fly in circles until it dies.”
We couldn’t see the birds, so I wondered how she knew any had lost their sense of direction. I sort of felt like that right now. I knew Mama had felt like that often.
There wasn’t anything nice about where I was right now. There was nothing pretty to look at or interesting to hear. The bench was feeling hard and uncomfortable, and I was tired of talking. I didn’t like what I smelled around me, either. It made my stomach growl. I thought the Umbrella Lady would realize all that and would leave if she wasn’t waiting for someone and there was no train for her to catch, but she leaned toward me, both her hands still on the handle of her umbrella, looking like someone I had seen on television who was about to do a dance with an umbrella.
With her face so close, I could see tiny pimples under both her eyes, which were really that purple-gray color like some of the flowerpot marbles. Her eyebrows had little gray strands in them, too. I sat back a little more, because she was close enough to kiss me. Also, it took her longer than it would take most people to speak again. She was staring hard at me and thinking too much, I thought. Maybe I was thinking too much. Daddy accused Mama of that all the time.
“The long silences in this house are unhealthy,” he had told her. He had looked at me and then added, “The kid hardly speaks. I wonder why?”
When Daddy spoke to Mama like that, the silences only got longer and deeper.
“What’s your name?” the Umbrella Lady asked finally, like someone who just remembered it was an important question to ask.
“Saffron,” I said.
She nodded and said, “Good,” as if that was the right name. Most people when they heard my name would smile and say, “How unusual, but fitting.” They were thinking about the color of my hair.
“Saffron Faith Anders,” I said.
“Well, you are the first Saffron I have ever met. Do you like your name?”
No one had ever asked me that. The Umbrella Lady asked as if she could change it if I wanted it changed.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, Saffron Faith Anders, I think you should come home with me. You probably haven’t eaten, and you are probably a little cold. Maybe more than a little, huh?” She pinched the collar of her coat closer together to emphasize how cold it was. “Brrr,” she said, shaking her head. “Yes, you’ll come with me, okay?”
“But if I go with you, Daddy won’t know where I am,” I said, a little annoyed that I had to tell her something any grown-up would know.
She thought a moment and then raised her right hand, her forefinger up. She shoved it into her dark-blue overcoat pocket and came out with a pencil that looked like it had been sharpened down to the size of a thumb. There was some fuzz around it that had come out on her fingers. She blew it off like someone blowing out birthday candles.
“We’ll need something to write on,” she said, taking back my coloring book. She opened it and found some blank space, which she carefully tore out.
“Don’t worry. I’m not ruining any of the pictures. I’m leaving your name, my address, and my phone number for him to find,” she said as she wrote on the paper. “I think it would be a good idea to put this under the corner of the coloring book so the coloring book keeps it from blowing off the bench when we leave, because there is quite a breeze, and a breeze can become wind. Okay?”
“I don’t know. He bought it for me so I would have something fun to do.”
“When he comes for you, he’ll bring the coloring book, won’t he? And then you can finish it when you continue on to wherever you’re going with him,” she said rapidly, like someone who had lost all her patience. Mama could get that way, and the words would burst out of her mouth in an explosion that would hurt my ears. Daddy had a way of shutting his off on the inside. At least, Mama said he did.
I thought about what the Umbrella Lady was saying. She obviously wanted me to think hard about it. It was like one of those logical things Mama told me she wished wasn’t true. I wished this wasn’t true, but it was cold, and I was hungry.
“I suppose so,” I said.
She smiled. Her face could change so quickly, including the shapes of her eyes and her chin, as quickly as someone taking off one mask and putting on another.
“You really are a smart little girl. I just knew the moment I set eyes on you that you would be,” she added, and picked up my bag so I would stand up. I started to, but it was as if Mama had her hand on my head pushing me down, so I stopped.
“Oh, you mustn’t be afraid of coming with me, Saffron. I’m as full of good things as a jar of mixed jelly beans.”
She smeared her friendly smile over her face again. If I had a grandmother like the ones I saw on television, she probably would look like the Umbrella Lady looked right now, I thought. I shouldn’t be afraid. Maybe she was someone’s grandmother. Maybe her granddaughter or grandson was waiting for her at home and she wanted me to meet her or him.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a rat scamper across the train platform and disappear off the far corner. Just as the Umbrella Lady had predicted, a stronger breeze lifted the strands of hair off her forehead, where the wrinkles deepened and spread to her temples, making it look like her face was cracking.
My stomach churned, not only from the ugly odors but probably because I hadn’t eaten for some time. Mama used to say, “Someone inside is complaining that she’s starving.” Then she would laugh, and we’d have lunch. The Umbrella Lady would probably say, “There. Your clock has told you.”
When I looked up, I realized that because of the station lights, I couldn’t see any stars. Stars were always comforting. With the darkness on both sides and across the tracks, it felt as if I had slid into a large black box. I shivered. Where was Daddy? I wondered. Why was he taking so long? Why didn’t he think I’d be cold and hungry? I didn’t want to stay here and wait any longer, and her idea was logical and seemed okay. Even though I wished I could, there was no way I could say no.
I rose again, and she put the note and the coloring book on the bench carefully, just the way she had said she would.
“There. He’s sure to find it. He’ll look and find it because this is where he left you, right?”
I nodded. She took my hand, and we started away. Her palm felt rough, and her fingers were thin and long like wires clamped tightly around my hand. When we stepped away from the station lights, I finally could see some stars in between gray-black clouds that puffed up proudly as they floated over them. She looked up, too.
“I always carry an umbrella,” she said. “Just in case. Weather commentators don’t get it right too often. Despite their science, I call them fortune-tellers. And besides, more things can fall out of the sky than just rain, snow, and hail. We just don’t see them, but they’re falling all over us. Believe me.”
I had no idea what that meant. I turned and looked back when we reached the corner of the platform. What if Daddy was angry at me for leaving? I remembered how his face could get so ugly and scary that I thought he could wear it on Halloween.
I stopped walking.
“Now, now,” she said. “You don’t want to change your mind, do you? You can’t sit in the cold much longer without getting sick, and how would your father like that? He’d blame himself, and everyone would be upset. That’s not a way to travel, now, is it, sniffling and coughing?”
I shook my head, but I looked back again.
The coloring book would be the last thing he had given me, and I wouldn’t have it.