Part 1: The Orphans
One particularly warm summer night, the sky was very clear and filled with stars. Fifteen-year-old Jack Dawson wandered aimlessly home, using the familiar but quiet dirt path. He carried his old, slightly worn leather portfolio under one arm and in his hand a tiny linen pouch of charcoal pencils. Jack was a medium-sized lad, though a bit too skinny for his parents' liking. He had a head of straight, sun-bleached blonde hair and deep, crystal blue eyes.
Yawning, Jack turned a bend, startled by the fact that the air was becoming heavily pungent with the smell of burning wood. Coughing, he glanced up, seeing the clouds of smoke rising over the tops of the trees, and felt his heart skip a beat. The smoke was coming from the direction of his family's farm!
Jack nearly dropped his things as he took off, stumbling over his colt-like legs. He approached the fields, and could see bright red flames spewing out of the window of the old barn. Pieces of the roof were ripping apart, falling to the ground with earsplitting cracks. His eight-year-old sister, Olivia, stood on the porch of the house, screaming at the top of her lungs. She was in her plain linen nightgown, her reddish-gold hair loose and curled at her shoulders. Tears streamed down her pale cheeks, and she only stopped when Jack grasped her arms.
"Where are Mama and Papa?" he asked, feeling sick to his stomach. It couldn't be that they were in the barn. They just couldn't be. Maybe they had gone for help. But the terrified look in Olivia's eyes as she hiccoughed told him that, indeed, the horrifying thoughts in his mind were indeed true.
"M-Mama went in," Olivia practically whispered. "We heard Papa yelling for help…and saw the fire f-from the window. Mama thought he might have knocked over the lantern he'd brought with him and…I followed her but…but she made me stay here, and she went in and never c-came back out…" Olivia broke down again, throwing herself onto her brother, burying her face in his cotton shirt. Jack could not tear his eyes from the blaze, at a loss as to what to do or say. The Dawsons lived in a remote area, and they were the only house for at least three miles. Luckily, the fire was not close enough to touch the house.
"We'll have to let it burn itself out," he told her, lifting the child into his arms. "Water won't do a thing at this point."
Olivia chewed on her nails, her eyes now red-rimmed and bloodshot. They were alone; their parents were dead. "Let me go and see exactly what's happening up close. Stay here, Olivia." Jack ran up the hill towards the barn, having to pull his shirt over his mouth and nose. He could not hear any screams, and it would be too risky to attempt to break in and investigate now. "Mother! Father!" he yelled, moving as close as he could without being burned himself. You already know they won't answer, a voice spoke inside of his head. Jack's breath caught in his raw throat and he felt his own eyes well up with tears, as though things were starting to sink in.
Jack eventually stumbled back to the house, falling to all fours on the porch and sobbing. The smoke from the fire had been so thick that it was still in his lungs, causing him to continue coughing and choking on it. Olivia knelt down beside him, her small hand on his back, and bent so her head was level with his. "What are we going to do, Jack?" she asked.
He took a deep, trembling breath, looking up at her. "I don't know," he admitted. "We have to go for help. We can't just stay here."
Olivia stared at him. "But it's dark! And the next house isn't for miles!"
Jack smoothed his sister's hair, nodding in understanding. "I know. But you'll be safe with me. And I know you can run, Olivia."
"But…" she protested again, and Jack knelt down, taking her hands.
"Haven't you walked at least four miles to pick blueberries with Mama? And came back and wanted to ride your pony?"
Olivia finally lowered her head, defeated. "Okay."
He pulled her into a tight hug, and pointed towards the door. "I'll help you dress, and we'll go." He glanced over his shoulder at the burning barn, pausing in his steps to cough once more as they entered the dark, empty house. As they walked towards the narrow staircase, Jack had to pause and cough again.
"Are you all right?" Olivia whispered, once he recovered enough to continue.
"I'm fine." He pushed open the door to her room, watching as she scurried inside. After she fetched her play dress, she turned around, her eyes wide.
"Mama said you aren't allowed in my room when I'm not dressed!" Her mouth dropped, her gaze shifting towards the window where the fire was slowly starting to dissolve, though it was still uncomfortably harsh. Jack couldn't remember ever seeing smoke thicker than that in his life. He suppressed another cough, raising his eyebrows, almost amused at how serious his sister sounded with the statement.
"Well," he croaked, "would you like me to leave until you get your dress on? Then I'll button it up."
She nodded, chewing on her nails, and he walked out of the room, shutting the door and leaning back against it. This had to be a dream, all of this. He would wake up in the morning, and his mother and father would still be alive. His mother would be bustling about in the kitchen, preparing breakfast with Olivia at her side, and his father would already be out doing his daily chores on the farm. Jack wiped a trembling hand across his soot-blackened forehead, feeling slightly dizzy. Life without them was difficult to even think about, let alone face.
When Olivia was ready, she attempted to push open her door, realizing that it was stuck. "Jack!" she yelped, pounding it with her fists, causing him to jump and whirl around. He stared at the wooden door before realizing what the noise was, and pulled it open. Unfortunately, Olivia's hand clasped the doorknob at the same time, and the little girl went flying forward to the floor.
"Are you all right?" Jack gasped, while tears filled her eyes, though she did not break into tears.
"Yes," she whimpered, trying to be as stoic as possible as he pulled her to her feet. She turned her back to him so he could button the back of the dress and tie the sash. "What are we going to bring with us, Jack?" she asked, coughing a bit herself as the smell of the smoke drifted through her window.
"Let's bring only basic things…grab another dress and I'll bring another pair of pants, a shirt, and my art things. You can bring a doll if you want."
As soon as they had gathered their things, the children dashed down the stairs and through the front door again, each breaking into yet another fit of coughing. The smoke now spread across the farm, and Jack could barely breathe as they stumbled through it to get to the long, winding road at the edge of the property. "Run!" he ordered, using whatever strength he could muster to get his voice to work properly. Olivia took off as fast as she could, Jack tripping along behind her. For a good five minutes, they did not stop running, until they were far enough away from the house that the smoke was not so thick. Jack truly did not feel well now, for his chest and throat burned and his eyes stung. He could not give up, not until they came to some sign of civilization. He knew the Kramer family lived nearby, for they came every so often to supper by horse and carriage.
At last, when all of his strength seemed to slip away, he collapsed to his knees, gasping and gulping for air. Olivia heard his small cry and whirled around, finding him on all fours, sketchpad and pencil pouch lying beside him. "Jack…" she sobbed, kneeling down just as his eyes rolled back in his head. "Jack! No!" she caught him in her small arms, falling back as he sunk against her, and shook him anxiously. His head lolled limply, and the only sign that he was indeed still alive was the weak up and down movement of his chest.
Olivia slid out from under her brother's body, not knowing what to do. She was all alone, and she had absolutely no idea where the next house was. Jack was possibly very sick, and she could not carry him. She reached up to touch his sweat-soaked forehead as she'd seen her mother do during the natural course of childhood illnesses they'd fought, and found it to be burning hot. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she picked up her fallen doll, hugging it tightly, and gazed down the long, winding road.
She had barely walked a couple of inches when the darkness clouded her own mind, causing her to trip and fall flat on the ground.
Early the next morning, a carriage came bouncing down the road, stopping just in time to avoid running over the two fallen figures. The owner of it, a middle-aged woman with long brown hair tied back into a single braid and covered with a straw hat, pulled the horse to a stop. "Oh, my goodness!" Esther Williams descended to the road, her dark eyes full of concern.
Two children lay amidst the dust and grime, their faces deathly pale. She knelt down beside the boy, who lay furthest away, suddenly causing him to jolt awake. He cried out and began hyperventilating, shaking and trembling. "Shh…my dear, shh…" Esther soothed, realizing he had a terrible fever. "Hold onto me. That's my sweet boy. Very good." For a woman, Esther was very strong, and she managed to carry Jack into the carriage before going back for Olivia. She lived not far away, just a couple of miles from the Dawson farm, and was a widower. Her husband, James Williams, had died just a couple of months before in a sail boating accident. He'd been out on the river with a couple of comrades when a storm had hit, sinking the boat and killing all aboard. After his death, Esther had sold their family farm, due to the fact that she could not afford it, and purchased a comfortable two room flat in town.
Every Sunday, she traveled to the country to visit her husband's grave, and this was one such occasion. Once she lay Jack as comfortably as she could in the carriage, she went to lift the little girl, who murmured and opened her eyes as well. "Mama?" she whimpered through chapped lips, and Esther smiled down at her.
"I am afraid not, child. What on earth where you both doing out here, all alone?"
Olivia swallowed hard as Esther set her down, and glanced at Jack, who had gone under again. "Our barn caught fire," she whispered, the events of the previous night returning in full force. "Our parents died in it."
Esther gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. "Oh, goodness gracious! Oh, my goodness!" She put her hand over her heart, taking the little girl's hand and squeezing it. "My dear girl, I am so terribly sorry…so very sorry. You were coming to get help, I take it?"
Olivia nodded, the tears flowing fast again. "Yes," she sobbed. "My brother Jack and I were going to get help, but he fainted--and he's sick," she added, and Esther smoothed the child's wet cheeks.
"I will take good care of both of you. We will get a doctor for your brother at once…I live in town, and it's a good half hour drive from here. My name is Esther Williams," she added. "What is yours, dearie?"
"O-Olivia Dawson," Olivia replied, holding onto Jack's hand and stroking his damp hair. "This is Jack."
"What lovely names." Esther got back into the driver's seat, taking hold of the horses' reins. "Off we go now…" With a firm "Yah!" the horses began to take off again at a trot in the direction of town.