Chapter summary: So she came, she left.
I don't mean she ... 'came'-came. I meant she, ... oh, never mind!
Anyway, back to normal for me.
"Get up. Get up. Get up. Lisa, get up."
I woke. Bam. Just like that.
I blinked the crustiness out of my eyes and felt myself, checking myself to see if I were still in that terrible, terrible dream.
It had to be a dream, didn't it?
I felt around the bed.
No remnant of Her.
Maybe it was just a dream. I couldn't tell. I couldn't think much around the throbbing of my head. Headache. Terrible headache, and my throat was sore-parched!
There was somebody in the room, obviously, as well. I could smell her. I could hear her breathing.
"Hey, Sarah," I said, stalling, trying to orient myself.
"You sure you blind?" Sarah asked.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. "Last I checked, yeah," I said, yawning. "What time is it?"
I couldn't place the day. It was peaceful and quiet, which sat odd with me.
"It's ten o'clock," Sarah said.
"It's ..." I sat up in the bed, suddenly, jolted by the realization. "Wait. It's what?"
Sarah chuckled. "Uh, huh. You heard me. And guess who's in so much trouble right now?"
My head hit the pillow hard. I brought my hands up and covered my face. I uttered a quiet, "Fuck."
"Yep," Sarah added helpfully. "You guessed it. You're fucked."
"Sarah," I rasped angrily, "can you, like, tell me something good just – oh, I don't know – once in a blue moon, for God's sakes?"
"Huh," Sarah mulled. "Lessee. You're a whore. You're up three hours late, meaning you missed breakfast. You didn't do your morning chores, and Madame is looking for you. Good news like that?"
"Fuck," I groaned, "my head hurts like hell!"
I heard the wood shift as Sarah got up from the chair.
"Quite the party," she remarked casually by my end table. I heard her pick up that cursed bottle. "'Dram-...boo-ee'?" she said, "what's that?"
"Ugh," I grumbled, "Don' wanna talk about it."
I here the ptt of the cork being removed from the bottle, then I heard Sarah lift the bottle and a very loud sniffing from her.
"D'mn!" she uttered, "It smells like money!"
It wasn't that Sarah was being loud on purpose, it was that Sarah was just Sarah. Anybody next to that crazy doctor bitch would sound loud. It wasn't Sarah's fault, even though her voice was grating into me like nails on the chalkboard.
That, and I had a splitting headache.
"So, what was it like?" she asked, restopping the bottle.
"What was what like?" I muttered, annoyed.
What was Sarah doing in my room? Shouldn't she be down at the bar already? She was gonna catch hell from Ned, and that was for sure!
Sarah tsked. "Oh, please! You know! Sleeping with a woman! What was that like, caving in to that unnatural shit? What did you do? How is it done? I mean ... it's not like she had a dick and could fuck you or anything like that, so what did she make you do? Did you have to ..."
"Sarah," I hissed, cutting her off. "I wouldn't know, okay?"
"What? Huh?" Sarah asked, surprised, "but didn't you two fuck?"
"No," I responded tightly, annoyed at her. "We did what 'civilized' girls do."
"Which is what?" Sarah asked.
I sighed and covered my eyes with my arm. Not to keep the light out, mind, because my dead eyes saw nothing. They never did. I covered my face with my arm because somehow it kept the throbbing headache just slightly at bay.
"They 'get to know each other,' Sarah," I said. "And they talk."
"Oh," she said, seeming to get it. "And then they fuck, right?"
"Apparently not," I grated out, tiredly.
I don't know why I was exhausted: I got more sleep than I usually do, which is the one plus out of this whole terrible deal. On balance ... nah! My life still sucked, and it looked like, with Madame waiting on me to get my sad, little ass out of bed, it was only going to get worse!
"Bullshit!" Sarah said. "Ms. High-and-Mighty blew a whole night's wad just to ... talk ... and with you?"
I shrugged, done with this conversation.
"Fine!" Sarah said. "Look, if you wanted to be a bitch this morning, why not just come right out and say it?" She didn't even pause. "Oh, yeah, that's right, because you're always a little bitch every morning, ain't you! No, fuck it. Every morning? I meant to say every day. Bitch!"
Okay. I took the bait.
I sat up slowly, careful of my aching head, and swung my legs out of the covers and over the side of the bed.
"Sarah," I said. "Ain't you gotta be waitin' tables downstairs at the bar? Or, in other words, ain't you got nothin' better to do than get bitch-slapped by me ... again, 'cuz ..."
"Ha, ha," Sarah interrupted drily. "Cause the last time you thought you got the better'n me was – what? – in your fucking dreams? Anyway, Madame told me to go check up on you, make sure you're not dead and stuff."
"Well, yay!" I said. "Good girl. You done your job. As you can see: I'm not dead. You want a pat on the head?"
Sarah chuckled. "I don't know, Lisa. I'm not so sure about you not being dead. You look like hell."
I stretched. I felt like hell, too.
Hell if I were going to tell her that, though.
I reached to the end table, grabbing the glass of water and downed it slowly, thinking idly about chucking the heavy glass at Sarah's face. I knew I'd hit her. That wasn't the problem. The problem was how much more trouble I'd be in. Did I really have nothing to lose?
I replaced the emptied glass on the table.
God! I hate having to be the mature one here.
It's all in the breath, though. You want to say something, something you know will hurt right back, something that will start a fight.
But then I take a breath to scream, or to cuss, or to hurt...
... And I hold it in, and hold it in, and hold it in, until the hurt inside me dies.
Maybe a piece of me dies with the hurt, too. I don't know. Maybe there's nothing left in me alive anymore, me holding in all this hurt, instead of letting it all out and hurting right back, like I know I want to.
But I just don't.
I sighed. "You done?" I asked Sarah.
She laughed again. "Nope," she said. "Nor'n you. Get up. Get dressed."
"Yah, yah, yah," I grumbled, too tired to check her ordering me about like this. Who the hell did this kid think she was? I was here before her – way before her – and I'll be here long after she was dead'n gone, the way she was burning herself out.
This thought gave me no comfort. It was like ...
It was like I seen'm come, and I seen'm go, and only I remained. It was like I was cursed to stay here.
I groaned as I pushed myself up out of bed and staggered to the chifforobe. It wasn't only my head that hurt, but my muscles and joints were achy, too.
Fucking liquor. Fucking hated the stuff.
"I ... do have some good news for you ..." Sarah offered slyly.
"What is that?" I asked, wondering why the hell wasn't she gone already.
"After you get dressed, you get to talk with Margaret!" she crowed.
I put my head down on the chifforobe. Margaret, the cook, the only person, besides madame, who's been here longer than me. Madame put new girls 'too young' to turn tricks on scullery duty under her to break them. The work was hot, hard, unending, and the mistress of the kitchen even more so. I remember my days there. It was a fucking relief to have the next new girl come along after years in the kitchen under Margaret's thumb, fucking years, so I could come upstairs to spread my legs and have somebody else work me over for a God-damn change.
Leastways now when I was working, I was lying down on a bed.
What did it mean I had to talk to Margaret? Did poor little Aoife up and fucking die so that now I had to wash the endless pile of dishes again? And the god-damn knives, always cutting myself, and getting whipped for my clumsiness. Fucking blind, but like anybody fucking cared.
"Fuck," I cursed sourly.
Sarah's tinkling laughter did not help my mood.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
The kitchen was hot as hell, and the cleaver weighing as much as Aoife cut through the air and sliced and jointed meat like nobody's business.
The wielder of the cleaver, though ...
Margaret was big. And loud. And Scottish.
As mean a drunk as they came.
Her arms were as broad as me or Aoife, and she probably ate as much as we weighed in a day, sampling her own baking. I don't know. Girls went missing every year or two. And the stew pot was big.
So you did not want to piss her off, like, say: skip breakfast because you were too lazy to get out of bed. Not eat her food? Be skinny, like me? That was an insult worse than spitting in Margaret's face.
Sarah was with me. Half to make sure I did what I was told, but half, I'm sure, anticipating with glee the coming carnage. What? Wash sheets, fold laundry, or serve drinks when she could be here and watch the train wreck? Why do your chores when there was so much fun to be had?
"Hey, Margie!" Sarah sang. It was 'Margret,' but Sarah was everybody's favorite, saying 'Mar-geeh,' like they were as thick as thieves.
"What the hell you two doing down here?" Margaret shouted. "Thinking you can steal something from the larder? Don't you two got work to do? Or do your hides need a tanning?"
"No, no!" Whereas any other girl would have literally screamed and ran from the kitchen, Sarah was all easy in her reply. "We'll get right to it, but guess who skipped out on breakfast this morning, huh?"
Oh, fucking great!
My face went hot and I felt Margaret turn her attention to me. "I didn't sk-.."
"You what?" Margaret roared.
Margaret has two settings: loud, and, well, louder. Her shout nearly knocked me over, I swear.
"I didn't skip!" I muttered, surly.
"What? You too good for my food, is it now?" she shouted.
"No!" I said quickly. "It's just ..."
"What? You putting on airs now? 'Oh!'" her voice went squeaky in imitation of false-pride. "'I'm such a frail, delicate flower! Take this plain food back! I refuse to let it touch my lips!' Is that it?"
"No, Margaret!" I said. "I swear I ..."
"Well, I'll show you!" she bellowed.
The cleaver came down, thwack, onto the cutting board, and in a trice, I was over Margaret's knee.
"You wanna stick around for some, too?" Margaret shouted over me as she rained blow after blow on my backside as I screamed for mercy.
"Oops, gotta go!" Sarah said as she scampered off, but not before seeing me get what-for, that God-damn bitch!
God, how I hate her!
Margaret didn't miss a beat. She spanked me good and hard, and with her beefy arms and my skinny ass, each blow was a thunderclap announcing the end of the world. My screamed pleas for mercy were quickly reduced to wailing through tears, but did that stop Margaret? No. She was done when her anger cooled. She was done long after I was.
She finished with me, breathing hard, as I hung over her lap, lifeless, a large swath of agony throbbing over my fanny.
"You think," Margaret wheezed, "you gonna come down to my kitchen and flaunt your pride and arrogance in front of me, young lady, you got another thing comin' to you. I known you since you was a wee lass and you've no right to be putting on airs. Now, say you're sorry."
"I'm sorry!" I sobbed.
I was really, really sorry. Margaret didn't mess around.
She picked me up bodily from her lap, and, more impressively, picked her own massive bulk from the chair. Twisting me around, she sat me down on the chair. Hard.
"Ow!" I whined. The pain in my ass speared me, a terrible burning sensation as I sat.
Like Margaret noticed, ... or cared.
She grabbed my chin. "You listen to me and you listen to me good, young lady!" she snarled. "You eat what is put in front of you, and you be grateful for the food the Good Lord gives you, or by the Merciful Father, I will make you pine for this light reminder I just gave you, you hear me?"
I sniffled. "Yes, ma'am."
She let go of my chin. "Aoife!" she called.
Scurrying. "Yes'm?" little Aoife quavered.
"You eat breakfast this morning?" Margaret bellowed.
"Please, ma'am, I did! I swear!" Aoife squeaked.
"Haw!" Margaret guffawed. "Look at you, you little liar! You're scrawnier'n Lisa! And that's saying something! How are you going to get a man to notice you if you've got no woman-flesh on you? Huh? You think you're going to hide your sorry little bum by the sinks forever, do ye?"
"Quiet, you!" Margaret bellowed. "You seen what I done to little Lisa here. Do you want some, too? Do you?"
"Now, you!" Margaret said and shoved Aoife into the chair next to me. "You sit here and don't you think of moving, ye hear?"
"But the dish-...yeeeeeahhh!" Aoife squealed.
Margaret's bulk was right next to me, pressing into the little mouse that was Aoife. Margaret had, in all likelihood, grabbed Aoife by the ear. She liked doing that to me to get my attention when I was under her thumb.
"'But the dishes!'" Margaret's beefy voice was a cruel imitation of Aoife's whining. "Do you think I'm stupid, do ye?"
Aoife wisely remained silent at that, thank God!
"The dishes will wait, and so will you, little girl, ye hear me!"
Margaret shoved Aoife back into place and then waddled off, back toward the larder.
"What's she doing?" I whispered out of the side of my mouth.
"Like she tells me anything? Ever?" Aoife's hurt reply came right back.
Okay. I thought.
We sat in silence. It seemed like forever, but it gave me a chance to breathe again after that beating on my backside. It gave me a chance to close up into myself again and regain my composure.
If I can breathe, I can bear it. I can bear anything. I concentrating on breathing and nothing else.
I felt Aoife's eyes on me, and I felt sorry for the kid. She was going to be crushed by this life, I just know it. She's cursed with a pure heart, an innocence that can't be faked, and everybody sees it, plain as day, even me, for God's sakes! And I'm blind. So everybody took advantage of it. If she weren't always in the scullery under Margaret's watchful, brooding eye, and then at night, in Margaret's room, under Margaret's autocratic will, the poor kid would've been taken out in a stretcher a long time ago from just simply the teasing of the other girls. Sarah would have been all over her and cut her to the quick, day one.
Scullery duty was hell on earth, no joke: endless, exhausting work, all day, every single day. But once Aoife got out of the kitchen, because she was deemed old enough ...?
The first sir would break her heart with his callousness. The first week of them would break her spirit.
Some girls lasted years. Some girls months. Aoife? Weeks? Days?
I pitied the kid. This wasn't the place for her. Too young, too Irish, too innocent, too stupid to stand up for herself, or to hide herself in herself, like I did, sealing off my heart so that nothing touched me anymore. I could take Margaret's beating, and it hurt like hell, but what else could I do? When Margaret got like that, it was just best to let her fury wash over you, and then she was done, and it was in the past.
I don't dwell. I can't afford to. I just try to stay out of trouble.
That hasn't been working out so well today, unfortunately, as trouble has been comin' 'round, lookin' for me!
My train of thought was interrupted by Margaret lumbering up to us again. Everything Margaret did was loud, bearish, and it bore out in the telltale sounds she made, like now: she pulled a chair around, facing us, the legs of the chair scraping across the poured foundation of the basement that was her dwelling during the day, and then sat down heavily in the chair.
"Ten o' the clock!" Margaret announced. "I need this God-damn break!" she muttered.
I heard a match strike, then the smell of cigarette smoke invaded my nostrils as I heard Margaret puffing away at a fag.
She took a long, deep drag, then – plop! – I nearly jumped in my seat as a heavy plate Margaret grabbed from her work table hit my lap.
"You two," Margaret barked. "Eat that. I wanna see you eat every bite of it, too!" She paused, then snapped, "Go on, now! I dinna ha' all day!"
You can take a Scot out of Scotland, but you can't take Scotland out of the Scot, I reflected.
I felt the plate and on it was a slab of bread, big and thick and dense. Next to it were big, slimy chunks of ham, cold from the larder, and rubbery fingers of cheese.
My fingers touched a big dollop of mustard, too.
My tummy growled.
Aoife whispered a faint: "Thank ye, Margaret," and picked up a thick chunk of ham, taking a tiny bite out of it and chewed daintily. I did the same.
Margaret blew out a long sigh over me, her breath stank of smoke. "You kids!" she grumbled and lit another cigarette, standing, her chair creaking, scraping across the floor, relieved of her weight.
Furtively in my ear: "You eat most of this, please! I'm still full from breakfast!" Aoife's little breath of a whisper.
"Okay," I whispered back as I picked up a cheese stick and tore off some bread, filling the empty pit in my stomach.
Margaret's voice drifted from over by the stove. "The whole plate, you two!" she warned.
She came back to us, spoons clinking in mugs.
"A bit o' sweet to complement the savory!" she announced. "Aoife, be a dear. You hold the plate now."
Aoife's little hand tugged the plate from my lap and Margaret put the mug handle in my hand.
Tea. Of course, sweetened with honey.
I took a careful sip, slurping in the hot beverage so it wouldn't burn my mouth, the resumed eating, Margaret watching me like a hawk the whole time.
Just like old times.
Margaret finished her second cig and lit a third. Three fags in five minutes. She really did need this break.
She spoke. "Remember when you were seven?"
She was addressing me.
"Yeah, ..." I said. "Vaguely, I guess."
Margaret took another long pull from her cigarette. "Remember when you came down here one day. You had missed breakfast and were askin' if you could have a just little something, remember that?"
I thought as I chewed on a piece of ham. "Uh, ... no," I said. "I don't recollect."
"Yeah," Margaret said, remembering. "You were just a wee thing ... still are!" she added disapprovingly. "So pale and sickly-looking and giving me those big sad eyes."
"I wasn't giving you sad eyes, Margaret! God!" I cut in angrily.
Like I knew how my eyes looked. Really!
That offended me.
"Yeah," Margaret continued, not hearing me. "Well, I said, 'no!' of course. Rules are rules. You miss breakfast, that's your own God-damn fault. Back home knee-biters sometimes get one meal a day and are God-damn grateful to get eve' tha'! You God-damn 'Merkans have no spine, so missing one meal give you a little fortitude, a little discipline, a little God-damn punc-tu-al-i-ty! Toughen you up a bit, and make you appreciate what you got. So I said to you. It wouldn't kill you to suffer through a little bit o' hunger."
Margaret took another pull from her cig. "Remember that now?"
I shrugged. Nothing rang any bells.
"You don't remember," Margaret said wonderingly. She slurped noisily at her own drink and lit another cigarette.
Her fourth one.
"Yeah," she said. "Turns out it was the onset of the flu. And it was a bad one. It swept through the saloon, and the whole town. A bunch of people died, including three of the girls. You almost did, too. Day two nothing stayed down. Soup, water, nothing. It all came right back up. Day three you were delirious and just dry-heaving 'cause nothing was left of you. And I just ..."
Margaret broke off and took a pull from her cigarette. "I just held you to my bosom and changed out the cold compresses over and over as the fever burned in your head, and I watched you wither away, and then ..."
Margaret snorted loudly into her hand and then wiped-wiped against her apron.
"That first whimper from you, when the fever broke, that first tiny sip of soup you kept down, ..." Margaret sniffled.
Then suddenly she became brusque.
"Well," she said, sniffling loudly one more time. "I have to get lunch ready, and aren't you supposed to be helping Ned tend bar now?"
I heard her grab the plate and then the cup from my hand.
"Yes'm," I said softly.
"Well, get to it, gurl!" Margaret bellowed, her old self again.
She rose from the chair and returned to the work table. The cleaver went thwack! thwack! thwack!
I stood. "Thank you for the food, Margaret." I said softly.
"Get the hell out of my kitchen, you!" she snarled.
"You know, thanks a lot for free tanning, Sarah!" I hissed to her in passing, waiting on our early lunch crowd.
"You're so welcome!" was her sarcastic reply. "And you know what? I did you a favor."
"You what?" I demanded, furious.
"Did Margie-pargie force you to eat something after, huh? That is: did you get something to eat? Didja?" she countered.
I sputtered: "You could have just asked, you know!"
"Oh! and she would have said, 'Oh, yeah, sure! I'm not busy! Steal what you want from the larder! No charge!' Really?" Sarah retorted angrily.
"Maybe she would have!" I shouted.
"Hey! You two! C'mer!"
Fuck. Ned. He never got angry. But if he told Madame... God damn it!
We both headed over to Ned, putting on contrite faces. Sarah was probably didn't even have to work out how this little altercation was all my fault somehow, because she always had it together. God! Could this day get any worse?
Sarah whispered to me as we hustled toward Ned to get a talking-to: "You are so fucking delusional! You never used to be a problem, and now you're nothin' but trouble. I don't know what the hell happened last night, and, frankly, I don't care. But this isn't fucking La, La land, toots! Get your fucking head back in the game!"
And as vicious as Sarah was being, a tiny, little voice was telling me: she was right.