One eye opened to a glare that warned me to keep the other eye shut. Sunlight assaulted me from a window with uncaring brightness. My head lifted from the floor slightly, making the world spin in all the wrong places. The skin on my face felt stiff from sleeping on the wooden floor. Dryness coated my tongue and stayed even after swallowing.
I pushed off the floor, wiped away dried drool, then took stock. Last night’s adventures had no black holes but plenty of reasons to keep my mouth shut. The taste of Lily’s skin haunted my taste buds—reminding me I’d played both a wise man and a fool.
The bedroom door stood open at my backside. Everything in the room that had been on shelves lay scattered. Clothes especially were everywhere. The bed had fared no better, with the mattress tipped on its side. At least my thinking stayed in order even if the rest of my bedroom had not.
Luckily, I learned to keep my money hidden, I thought. Momma took my pay as rent to help buy stuff for the house, which made sense. She earned little, and our only saving grace had been having enough land to grow a garden and keep the coop. Those had gotten us by for six months after Daddy’s death, but since I’d started working the mine, they fell into sad states. My weekends at home could only do so much.
Momma’s footsteps stomped on the floor near the kitchen. The boards creaked with every motion she made, and the cabinets grated even worse. I wondered how on earth I’d slept through such ruckus before it became obvious. Work, wine, and an experimental woman had been followed by a long, tiring walk home—and shame over my failure to keep an eye on Opal.
A Ranger would have been alert and never let their sleeping area get invaded, I told myself.
I stood, making more boards groan in protest. Momma picked up the movement immediately and charged across our small house. My body jerked once in a failed effort to crawl away before she got here.
“I don’t know what kind of boy I raised, sleeping until afternoon. It’s a wonder your daddy don’t come crawling out of the mountain to give you a lashing,” she complained as she came through the doorway. Momma grabbed clothes then threw them into a pile.
The dead don’t come back, I thought. Dead humans never came back. Animals went in and came out changed. Some were washed by the ink multiple times and became powerful creatures that Rangers had to work together to subdue—or so rumor told.
“Not that he could. Bless his soul. Now here you are, working in the same spot he died in. God above, when I woke this morning to see you lying there, drunk as a skunk, with that busted hand… well, my heart about stopped. Then those other marks? Don’t try to tell me you weren’t out all night at a party. Your momma ain’t dumb. Those are nail marks from a lady.”
Momma didn’t know the meaning of “inner thoughts.” Most days, her endless commentary rolled off my back. It meant nothing. She talked to hear noise while I stayed quiet to hear less. During her ramble, she’d started fixing all the belongings in my room that had been overturned. I managed to keep on my feet but turned to lean against a wall. The coolness of wood helped mute my throbbing headache.
“Your momma may be a widow, but she ain’t dead inside. When someone talks about a party, I listen. Which is how I heard the Chandler’s golden boy was throwing a going away bash with Mister Proctor’s wife.” She sighed and let the thin mattress slam into place. Springs on the bed creaked loudly enough to drive my headache to another level. “Wouldn’t surprise me to learn the two of them were cavorting in a room somewhere, but everyone knows that boy Greg is as gay as a sunny day and that Poss girl is surprisingly loyal. She’d have to be. Mister Proctor wasn’t raised to let a woman step out on him. Though those Feline servants sure do talk about how Sunday mornings are a sordid affair. No wonder Mister Proctor keeps such strict banker’s hours.”
Momma’s rattling never ceased. I swallowed and finally found enough presence of mind to push from the wall and stumble over to her. I gently grabbed her arm, stooped low, and butted her shoulder with my forehead.
“Momma, please stop talking,” I begged.
She didn’t. “See? I knew you were all right. That hand though, we’ll need to redress the wound. Your poor daddy used to return all the time with worse. And God knows I stick a needle better than those poor people at the medical tent. I did my turn once or twice there back when…” Momma paused and lost focus. “Well, back when every minute counted. That’s something Miss Proctor and I have in common. Loyalty and finding time for sordid affairs. Though when your daddy were around, we made sure every day had something special to keep him peppy.”
Thankfully, her rumor-mongering ramble dwindled as she walked out the door. I stood there recovering my scattered wits and set my mind about ignoring everything she’d just said. Greg’s proclivities were new to me, and like any other story my momma spread, I suspected her words held only a grain of truth.
I dressed then set out a few changes of clothes for my next shift at the mines. Socks and undergarments went in my bag by the droves, while only two pairs of shirts and pants would be needed for the next seven days. For a few dollars, I could have someone on site wash the garments, but they never wanted to clean the underwear. Apparently they found men’s underwear gross, which were fair since I did too after two days’ sweat.
The packed bag went next to the front door. I turned around to find momma putting a plate with scrambled eggs and greens onto the table.
“Now. Eat. Between bites you can tell me all about the young miss who left such a kind review of your efforts on your skin.” She waved an oven mitt at the food and reduced the air flow to the stove so it’d burn lower.
The stove itself was built on top of the fireplace and used the radiating heat for cooking. In winter, our family used to bundle up in front of the fire and listen to Daddy’s stories. I remembered waiting for him to come home on the weekends and tell me stories. That was a different time.
Momma sat down after making her own food, but she barely touched it. They were thin pancakes made from old flour. I traded some eggs away for a pancake. She needed more than a thin meal to stay healthy. A touch of honey helped sweeten the dull meal. Real fruit would have been better. Momma’s chest lifted in preparation to unleash a torrent of babble. I quickly willed myself deaf, but as always, the effort failed.
“Well, she must have been something. You let me know if I’m to expect anyone else for Sunday dinners. Might be nice to have some company ‘round here. God knows you’re a sullen one even on a beautiful day. Like this morning. Sleeping all day and still you can’t find it in you to say more than four words. Maybe you’re being chased by the ghosts of last night’s wine? It would serve you right.”
I nodded slowly then realized what she’d said. My body froze mid bite before I decided to not care. Momma would figure out whatever she wanted to. The bedroom had already been ransacked; no doubt she’d looked for money and clues about what happened. The scratches on my back from Lily’s lack of control painted a clear picture. Wine on my morning breath advertised the rest.
“Well, son? Am I to be expecting to meet this lady or not?”
My eyes met Momma’s. Her face pinched at the sides and body held still as she struggled to wait for a response before talking more. I looked back down then shook my head slowly. Lily Spark would not be coming to Sunday dinner, now or ever.
“Well, color me disappointed but unsurprised. You make sure to do right by your night visitors. Especially if they get with child. Ain’t fair to leave a mother alone without help.”
I winced at her words. No, it’s not fair at all. To either the mother or child.
“But since you’ve been sitting there all quiet like while eating the food I made, maybe you can give me a better answer to another question.”
I glanced up slowly.
“What is this?” my momma asked while holding up a small pile of bills with a twenty on top.
The food in my stomach flopped and threatened to come back up. I don’t know. My head shook slowly.
“Don’t lie to me, boy. I didn’t raise you to fib to your momma,” she said.
I had a flashback to Mister Jewel dragging his daughter out of Poss’s mansion—using the exact same words. Only young Opal and I had different understandings of the truth. I, for one, knew all of my money was still in place and hidden. Mister Jewel’s daughter had been plastered and in a bedroom with a pants-less man. Though what actually happened, I hadn’t stuck around to ascertain. The issue went onto a list of things to inquire about.
“Money?” I answered. The word cracked. My throat hurt and felt dry. Bits of burnt pancake were stuck and I looked for water to wash it down. I pushed back the chair and stumbled to get a drink.
“Then there’s this note, says ‘for services rendered.’ What services are those exactly?” As Momma grilled me, all I could think were I’d forgotten the strawberries. “Since when are you working for the Proctors? Though God as my witness, I’d die a happy woman if you worked anywhere but them mines. They took your daddy, and I don’t know what I’ll do if they claim you too.”
I sat back down then looked at the meal in front of me. Fruits of any kind would have gone great with the butter and bread. There hadn’t been fruit in this house for too long. Maybe I could spare some funds to buy a sapling early next year. Though every dollar wasted delayed me getting the tattoo, which I needed to become a Ranger and get Momma out of this place.
“Well, if I were a few years younger, I might have tried to catch myself Leon’s older brother, Jimmy. He’s still single, I hear. But I’m a widow. No one would want damaged goods like me.”
Momma’s love life woes weren’t a topic I cared to hear much about. My own were a mess, and last night’s bout of pleasure suddenly had a whole new twist that hadn’t registered before. The connection were simple—Poss had paid me to act the stud for Lily. Nothing else had happened last night which might warrant being paid any amount of money. I’d done the deed any way she wanted for free, and getting paid for the act felt wrong. I also worried about what Lily had asked me to do during our romp. Slapping a girl and calling her names felt outside the bounds of decency.
“Anyway, we got bills to pay. I’ll be deducting your fee ‘for services rendered’ to pay some of them. Maybe I can save a few dollars and convince the general store to part with some thread and mend our clothes. God knows you could use something new. Your pants must be made of holes by now.”
Fine, I thought with a nod. They were full of holes. I suspected if the dead were able to crawl out of The Mountain, then this would be the time to do so. There could be no way on God’s green Earth that Daddy would have sat right with Momma getting money paid to me for laying a pretty girl. Momma meant well, and as Lily had said, our coupling would stay secret. The money could have helped me pay for the last portion of my tattoo, but instead it barely compensated for the pay cut from a spilled barrel.
I walked to the front door and picked up a pair of boots. They had belonged to my father and were snug on my feet. My toes had little wiggle room at the end. Momma rambled while I got the hand-me-down jacket and hat left behind by my daddy.
“And where are you going? You’ve got to head to work tomorrow morning and there ain’t much daylight left. Unless you’re off to visit your lady and ask her to dinner next weekend. That’d be all right by me. It’s time you got set up with someone a bit more your speed. God knows I can’t be around forever to watch over you. Boys need to grow up.”
I forced a smile and moved my ears to make it seem genuine. The hat I put on felt lighter than my mining equipment and almost fell off my head. I’d need a haircut soon. A list of chores came to mind, but like everything else, they required money we couldn’t spare.
“We need grease,” I said while pointing at the kitchen door’s hinges. “I’ll pick some up before work.”
And I need to talk to Poss about these services rendered, I thought.
Momma studied the hinges and frowned. She could have looked in any direction of our small home and picked a reason to be upset, but at least we agreed on one point. “Well. Coach leaves in the morrow, and you’re almost a man. I guess I can’t be upset if you stay out late. Still. You do your chores and help out. There’s too much around the house for me to manage. God knows those chickens get all riled if I dare set my foot inside the coup.”
“I will,” I said with a nod. Talking to Momma were easier than most people. A few words to Lily had taken far more effort. “I do what I can.”
Momma poked a fork at her untouched food then sighed. I pretended not to notice the dirt stains on her knees or threadbare spots near the shoulders. We both needed new clothes. The house bills and taxes about killed us. The loans Momma had taken out after Daddy died were still being repaid. Animals cost money to feed, and we needed to eat.
Money at the mine only went so far. I could give up on the tattoo and take all that saved cash to pay off some bills, but that would set my goal back even further. I hoped to have enough to get myself inked before the next Ranger choosing. Being a Ranger paid triple what the mine did, plus lodging. Though how they made their money, no one talked about.
“I know. God knows I know. I’m just tired. Tired all the time like a doll that’s worn at the seams.” She looked at me, then her cheeks twitched in a quickly dying smile. “Don’t get old, you hear me? It’s hell. You fall in love, you have kids, and think ‘this is it.’ Then it ain’t. Life still needs living and it don’t get easier or simpler. It just goes on, forever and ever until you die. We—I—well, it weren’t the intent to die alone.”
As she rambled, I wool-gathered over how we’d gotten to this point. The year since Dad’s passing hadn’t been an easy one. I planned to sell this place after getting Momma out of town. Then those funds could go to support her while I adjusted to being a Ranger. My hopes were staked on this. But if that failed, the right tattoo would help me work more in the mine, so the fallback plan weren’t bad.
I got ready for a few more chores before heading back to work for the week. Momma simply blinked.
“You look like your father,” she said then shook her head. A hand shooed me. “I think I need to go lie down now. You go on. Don’t pay any mind to my chatter.”
I gave Momma a hug and wondered when I’d grown taller than her.
The trip to town went quicker by daylight. I thumbed down a neighbor and got a ride on their carriage. The man said nothing and got nothing in return. They knew I hadn’t been a talker for over a year. Facts like that made it around to everyone in Chandler Field. I’d bet on half of Bell Town and the rest of the county knowing too.
Chase weren’t right in the head since his daddy done died, they’d say.
I got off at the main square and did some personal shopping with money I’d managed to hide from Momma. The tab from Momma’s purchases during the week was paid off, leaving me with less than I’d expected. Every time a dollar went away, my mind ran through numbers to figure out how far back my freedom had been set.
The general store held on to my purchases while I went for one more stop. The Proctors’ mansion sat on a hill and stretched down to the small river below. It wasn’t as big as Bell Town’s waterway, but without the river, our town wouldn’t be able to sustain itself.
As for the mansion itself, the building had two huge wings and too many bedrooms to count. It looked more impressive during the night, with all the electricity running through. Two years ago, before Leon married the much younger Poss, he’d used much of his legal fees and family fortune to bring us a generator that ran using river water and steam. I didn’t understand the peculiars of it, but the short version were part of town had lights and didn’t have to use lanterns anymore.
I knocked on the door. The black-and-white Feline from last night led me in with a greeting.
“Mister Craig. You’ve returned.” She smiled, whiskers pulled back, and displayed a row of sharp teeth. The Feline wore a tight-fitting top displaying fur-covered breasts. I wasn’t sure whose benefit the display were for, and it paled in attractiveness compared to Lily’s.
My head bobbed while one cheek tightened. I felt guilty for not being able to return the favor of calling her by name. I wanted to remember what Lily used but couldn’t. Lily’s body had finished wearing me out and left little room in my head for pleasantries.
The Feline wouldn’t know my hand signals like the miners did. My throat still felt dry, but at least the foulness of my breath had been washed away by a meal and drink. I took a breath and asked, “Is Poss in?” before clamping my lips tight in case the wine still lingered.
“I’ll see if Mrs. Proctor is available for you.” The Feline nodded. “Sundays can be a difficult time to get her attention, even this late in the afternoon.”
My momma woulda smiled gleefully over hearing a rumor confirmation like that one. I didn’t care and smiled before dipping my head in thanks. The motion reminded me to remove Daddy’s hat and hold it like a civilized person. Though Poss had never been poor, I felt worse than ever standing in her entryway while waiting.
Poss arrived and descended a stairwell slowly. Her legs wobbled every few steps. I stood still and waited for any sign she might want or need my help. Poss didn’t, and she made it to the bottom while keeping a hand on the rail. She looked less composed this morning. Darkness hung from her eyes and a hint of red laced through them. Poss probably had only recently been to sleep and looked to have a worse hangover than any I’d ever seen before.
“Good afternoon, Chase,” Poss said quietly. The sound of her own voice made the woman swoon.
I frowned but stepped over to lend an arm. She stopped me and, using her hands along a wall, found a chair to sit in. Poss waved to the Feline servant who stood nearby.
The Feline scooted off quickly. Her view from the rear was far more attractive than the front, but the tail made me blink. It swished as the former human dodged around a corner to perform whatever errand Poss had sent her on.
The lady of the house sighed and took a deep breath. “How’s your back? I heard a tale it received quite a beating.”
I couldn’t gesture my way through our conversation. Poss and I weren’t friends, or enemies. She didn’t know me as well as Greg or Lily. Speaking were the only option.
“I can’t say,” I muttered.
Poss knew the answer, but Lily had picked me for my silence. I’d honor the implied request of keeping what had happened between us private. Instead, I held up the note I’d sneaked away from Momma during our hug and gestured to it with a raised eyebrow.
“Still keeping yourself locked tight. You’ll never change, will you, Chase? Acting like you imagine a gentleman to be. She could have chosen far worse.”
I stared at Poss and tried to understand what that implied. The statement fit with my own thinking regarding the payment, but I wanted to make sure. It annoyed me fiercely to think the suspicion might be true.
“Services rendered?” I asked.
“I believe Lily put that in your shirt pocket when you were getting dressed and defending the doorway like a topless knight.” Poss gazed past me while frowning. She motioned a hand. “She said she almost forgot, distracted as she was.”
The Feline maid rushed by with a glass of water and a scraping of powders. I studied the white substance and wondered what medication she might be taking to cure a hangover. Poss ignored me, poured the powder into her drink, and stirred. The water turned murky then went down Poss’s throat in a few quick gulps.
“I didn’t need to be paid.” The words came out haltingly.
“Doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t have paid you, and it certainly wasn’t my money. It was hers. Lily gave you everything she had before moving on.”
My hands rapidly turned up and head shook. “Where…” The question died and I tried again. “Where did she—”
Poss waved. “None of your business. Lily made me promise not to tell, and so I won’t. I’m a married woman now. You and I both know promises are everything. If I don’t do as I said I’d do, everything falls apart. You should understand, having little of value besides your word.”
Poss could be a mean bitch because her manner held no punches. Not to her friends, comrades, and if my momma’s rambling were to believed, Poss even kept her husband on the straight and narrow. Her words made me recall my own convictions. Honoring a promise did mean everything, even if that commitment had been made with a person who had passed on. In Daddy’s passing, the promise meant even more.
“You had your fun, but a boy like you couldn’t hold a woman like Lily for long. Your pockets aren’t deep enough to give her what she needs. Your arms aren’t strong enough to fight off the dogs chasing her legs. And look at you, still a boy struggling to be a man wearing his father’s leftovers. A poor knight.”
For a girl only two years older than me, you sure act high and mighty, I thought.
There were other men after Lily. There always had been. I knew—even as we’d completed the act last night—that we weren’t going to be together. That weren’t why I was upset. Nothing Poss said was a lie, and though I wanted to scream back, there’d be no point. Poss had money; I didn’t. I needed money to make life better and knew it.
“A woman needs stability and surety in her future. You provide neither. Be happy she chose you for a night and leave it be. Be happy she valued your time enough to invest in you.” Poss drove home the painful truth, and I stood there hating where life had put me.
An investment. That was what my moment with Lily had been. Then it hit me what that really meant and why she’d asked me to do all those strange acts. Mister Jewel had been right when he called it “a dalliance with one of these whores-to-be.”
A cold pit in my stomach crawled along my spine in a trail of tingles. Slender fingers of ice wrapped around my neck as heat drained from my face. The idea that Lily would be out there somewhere turning tricks made me sick. I gave a shallow nod in farewell then scooted quickly before bile could make its way up my throat. I managed to reach an outdoor flowerbed before I emptied my guts.