An Unfortunate Beginning
Ibit my lip, my eyes on my father. He hadn’t moved in nearly half an hour. I wasn’t going to get another chance.
Slowly, I reached down and eased the sheet of hotel stationery out of my boot. Father didn’t stir, so I brought the paper up and pressed it flat on the hard side of the traveling bag resting across my knees. Still chewing my lower lip, I pulled the hotel fountain pen out of my stocking, and began writing as quickly as I could without making noise:
We aren’t dead. We’re gone. There was an explosion at the warehouse. Everything is lost – the shipyard office, the dock, all of the outbuildings and equipment.
I stopped writing and stared at the words I had just scribbled. “Everything is lost” did nothing to describe the horror of waking up to the stench of burning carpet and the crash of Mr. Farspender breaking in through my bedroom window, but reliving nightmares would get me nowhere. I took a shaky breath and kept going.
Thankfully, the explosion woke everyone before the fire spread, though now four hundred people are without an income, and two blocks of tenant housing were razed. Even our own beloved 466 didn’t go unscathed. The fire jumped the square and kindled those overgrown bushes outside Father’s study, and that whole end of the house went up. All of my clothing, all of my paintings, all the equipment I bought, all of Mother’s things, all of it is gone.
The familiar red oval of the Tillerson’s Emporium sign flashed by outside the coach window, which meant we were already passing Blunt Street. I snapped another glance at my father. He was still oblivious, so I began writing again:
We are on our way to the Colonies. Father’s school friend has offered him a place in some business venture or other, and that has been the only option Father is willing to think about or discuss.
I believe he must be suffering from delusions brought on by smoke inhalation. There is plenty of employment to be found on the continent, but nothing I say or do can convince him, and we are currently in a public coach heading for Porte De Darre with barely the funds for two tickets to the Adropedes, and passage to Nimkoruguithu.
I wish you had been here. Perhaps Father would have listened to you.
We passed the oxidized-green copper columns of the Tanners Street fountain. I wouldn’t be able to finish everything I wanted to say.
Write to me at the Iron Dragon Inn, Lordstown-Over-the-Isle, Adropedes Islands. We should arrive there within a week.
All my love,
I closed the pen, pulled the envelope out of my sleeve, and folded the letter into it without blotting it. Then I slid it, blotches and all, into the pocket of my cloak and glanced at my father, my heart pounding just a little.
He was still sleeping.
Stomach knotting into a new lump of guilt, I sat back, my fingers moving automatically to my compass rose pendant, running it up and down its chain. He had told me not to tell anyone where we were going, and I was about to willfully disobey him. I didn’t want to, but did he really expect Aunt Sapphine not to care if we dropped off the face of the earth? Hadn’t it occurred to him that she would be frantic? She was our only family. How could we simply transplant to the other end of the known world without saying anything? I closed my eyes, fending off the niggling fear that something had come loose in my father’s brain.
With a frustrated sigh I let go of my necklace, bracing myself as the stage rattled over a rut, sending our luggage bumping about on the rack above our heads. We had reached the city. The merchant’s sector of Porte De Darre began rolling by outside the luxfenestre window, and I twisted the wiper knob to clear a skim of snow away from the panels of glass.
I had always loved Porte De Darre. There was a whimsical, sea-beaten charm about the place, with its salt-bleached boardwalks, and random, winding streets. My father’s business was usually done in summer, when the eastern and western trade routes were open and people of every sort, from every place, filled the streets with color and music and a hundred different beautiful languages. Father began bringing me with him when I was five, and I spent countless hours playing on the wharves, talking to sailors and dock hands while Father worked in our Porte De Darre shipping office. The world had been much simpler then, full of fantastic new words to learn and things to discover.
Now, twenty years later, I knew what red ink in a business ledger meant, just how many of those sailors and dockhands had been on our payroll, and how quickly everything could be lost.
As if to mirror the change in our fortunes, there was no color or music in Porte de Darre, now, either. In winter the population always dwindled to the local residents, and Barrow-Market Street lay still and cold in the early morning light, devoid of its ware-hawkers and produce barrows, with only a few heavily clad people hurrying down the boardwalks.
We had become ghosts, sliding away with no one to notice we were leaving.
Father woke as we reached Seawall Street and the road changed from old cobblestone to new pavement. He sat up and blinked around, then removed his spectacles, wiping them with the cuff of his sleeve before returning them to his nose.
He squinted through the window on his side as we passed beneath the unmistakable shadow of the Sea Gates. “Have I slept long?”
“Since New Sullyn,” I said quietly.
“Oh. I apologize, my dear. What a boring trip this must have been.”
I gave him a little grin, then changed the subject. “If we have time, I would like to go to Prattle’s. I forgot to purchase a mending kit.” Convenient excuse, that. Prattle’s Sundries was right next to the P.d.D. Post.
“I’m not sure that’s a good —”
“It will barely take a minute,” I went on quickly. “I can be there and back while you’re at the ticket office, and prices are much better here than in Lordstown.”
Father didn’t look pleased, frowning and muttering about ‘headstrong young women who forget things’ as the stage pulled to a stop outside the Travel Bureau. I watched him until he gave me a sideways glare, then at last shook his head. “Fine! Go,” he paused, then added a gruff, “But only straight there and back.”
“Don’t worry, I shan’t talk to shady characters or gad about in dark alleys.” Smiling, I opened my door and stepped down to the ground. My smile disappeared as I turned around. With a silent plea for patience, I straightened my skirts and made for the nearest foot ramp to the shopfront boardwalk.
“Straight there!” Father called after me as he got out of the stage on his side.
“And straight back,” I called over my shoulder, knowing from recent experience that he would be suspicious if I just hurried away. He probably didn’t even realize he was doing it, but he was going to drive me mad before we even got to the Galvania.
Then we would both be crazy. What joy.
Prattle’swas sure to be open at that hour, so I went there first, flying through the aisles without letting myself get sidetracked by the exotic knick-knacks and curiosities the place was famous for. It took too many precious minutes, but I found a mending kit and a few other things, then nearly overpaid the grumpy store-clerk before rushing next door.
The gaslight was on behind the ‘Open’ sign, and I heaved a sigh of relief as I took the broad stairs to the front entrance of the Post. Like any normal person would, I stepped up to the switch panel and pressed the enter toggle, then moved to the left to be in front of the doors when they accordioned apart.
At the same instant that I stepped left, someone manually yanked the doors open from the inside and came storming out, and in the blink of an eye I went from walking politely into the Post, to slamming into a large, solid person who was also slamming into me.
For one flurry of a second all I could see was dark blue wool and a metal greatcoat clasp. Then there was a masculine grunt of annoyance somewhere above my head, and the next instant I was lifted like a post and set neatly out of the way, while Mr. Large-and-Solid continued down the stairs two at a time and went striding off down the boardwalk.
My mouth was hanging agape.
I let out my breath on a “Hah!”
Then I realized I wasn’t holding the packet of things I had just bought and looked down.
The mending kit was at my feet, the tin of seaman’s balm to my left, my wax-and-charcoal sketching sticks scattered about. With a frustrated groan I began gathering everything up, scooping my mending kit out of the slush, shaking dirty snow off my sketch sticks and the tin of balm. Then, shooting a narrow-eyed glare in the direction Mr. Solid had taken, I hurried into the Post.
It wasn’t until I reached the Sender’s Due counter that I bothered to reach into my cloak pocket for the letter. My fingers didn’t find an envelope. “How in all…” I checked the other pocket, but there was no question. They were both empty. I took a breath. Then another. Tried to remember where I had last had it. Went through my items from Prattles. Checked my jacket pocket even though it was much too small.
The woman behind the counter was watching me expectantly. “Will you be sending anything today?”
At a loss, I glanced at the timekeep on the far wall. Thanks to Mr. Solid there wasn’t even time to dash off another quick note. The Galvania wasn’t going to wait for one little passenger, and Father couldn’t afford to stay at an inn until the next boat to Lordstown.
Throat burning, I shook my head, turned around and left, breaking into an unladylike run as soon as I reached the boardwalk.
My father was standing at the entrance to the gangway. When he saw me coming, he pointed at me, obviously begging the boarding conductor to keep the gate open. Running as fast as I could, I tossed aside all decorum to make it aboard that blasted ship. I let out a bitter laugh as I hurtled up the gangway and came to a puffing, panting, inglorious halt on the main deck.
Father was only a step behind, thanking the sailor at the end of the boarding ramp before following me to where I stood with my hands on my ribs, trying to catch my breath.
“What were you doing? Do you know —” He realized he was nearly shouting and grabbed my arm, dragging me over to the railing, as if that would somehow provide privacy from the dozens of other passengers gathered on the deck.
“Do you have any idea how worried I was?” He hissed, bending to put his face close to mine. “All of our belongings have already been loaded! What if you had been a minute more? We would have been stuck here with nothing but the clothes on our backs while everything we own sailed off for Lordstown! And that is nothing compared to not knowing where you were, or if something had happened to you —”
“I’m fine, Father,” I got out, still a bit winded. “I am here, you are here, and we and our belongings are all heading to the same… distant… place,” my voice broke and I had to look away, my emotions getting the better of me.
Father studied me. Then, abruptly, he asked, “Did someone stop you? Is that what took so long? Did you talk to anyone?”
“What? No!” A hot blush began creeping up my neck as I fumbled for something that would derail this particular line of questioning. “I just ran into someone outside the Post Office —”
“Man or woman?”
“A man, but he didn’t —”
Father’s words were quick. Hard. “Did this man say who he was, or ask where we were going?”
[…] A peculiar chill of apprehension slid down my spine. “No.” I glanced around, smiling at a curious elderly couple a few yards away. “He was just some poor fellow in a hurry to be somewhere else… Honestly, Father, can’t we talk about this in our cabin? Please? People are looking at us.”
Father’s gaze shifted to the other passengers, and for an instant his expression changed. The calm, dignified man was gone, replaced by some wary, hunted creature that had been backed into a corner. The next second the spell broke. Chuckling, he held out his hand. “My dear, what would I do without you?”
Go completely off your rockers?
I didn’t say anything, though, and took his hand, simply glad that he was leading me toward the main hatch and away from prying eyes.
Anna fell in love with the English language when she was young, and she went to school to be an English teacher. (Back when the rocks were but a twinkle in the mantle’s eye.)
She has also won awards for her artwork. (This doesn’t have much to do with writing but explains her obsession with world building.)
Anna currently resides in Wisconsin, USA, with one gigantic dog, five children, a forest of assorted houseplants, and her husband. (Not necessarily in that order.)
She enjoys: adventuring through the countryside; soundtracks, classical music and a random selection of rock; anything coffee related; tea; and doing the laundry. (Also, sarcasm.)