Age of Edward Contest- 2012
Pen name: spanglemaker9
Title: Beside the Golden Door
Turn-of-the-Century Immigrant Edward
Stephenie Meyer owns any Twilight characters that may appear in this story. The remainder is my original work. No copying or reproduction of this work is permitted without my express written authorization.
November, 1910- Liverpool
All the passengers had crammed onto the decks to wave goodbye to relatives left on shore. Most would probably never see each other again, I realized. The enormity finally hit me. We were leaving home and sailing to the other side of the world to start a whole new life. This was the first time I felt afraid. I looked at the tear-stained faces around me and knew everyone else was, too. No matter how much promise America held, we were leaving home, possibly forever.
It wasn't manly to cry, and now that I was eighteen, I was a man. So I swallowed down the lump in my throat and looked away from the weeping people back on shore.
That's when I saw her, standing by the railing with an older man. Unlike the women around her, she was dry-eyed and her chin was up. If she was sad about leaving home, she wasn't showing it. I admired her strength. Her dark brown hair was swept back off her face and uncovered. She had a pretty, pale face and wide, dark eyes. Her plain blue dress was clean, but worn. She had both hands wrapped around the arm of the man next to her. He had the same dark hair and eyes—her father, maybe an uncle. They held tight to each other, seemingly alone in the world. She didn't look English, or even Irish. With so many people from so many places on board the ship, she could be from anywhere. I had no way of knowing.
I lost track of her soon, in the push and crush of so many people fighting their way down to steerage to get settled. But two days later, I saw her up on deck again.
It was sunny and not too cold, and I was desperate to get out of the stinking, stifling steerage. Away from my father and his fretting and anxiety. Away from my mother and her never-ending tears. I knew they were both desperately worried about our future in America. My mother worried that we'd never have a real home again. My father worried that he'd never find work to support us. I felt it, too. The worry was practically crushing us all. I needed to escape. Up on the deck with the sun and the sea, I could let the stiff autumn breeze blow away all the fear.
The dark-haired girl wasn't alone today. And she wasn't stone-faced. She was smiling and laughing at something her companion was saying. Her hair was loose, whipping around her face in the harsh breeze. I thought she was lovely when I'd seen her hard expression the first day. Watching her tip her head back in the sun and laugh, she was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen.
I followed a fair bit behind them as they made their slow circuit of the third-class deck, stepping around napping young men and mothers with babies. The girls walked arm-in-arm around the deck and I strained to listen. Her friend was the smaller of the two, with hair as black as night. Her voice carried back to me on the breeze and I caught the lilt of her Irish accent. Well, at least that was something familiar to me. I'd encountered a fair number of Irish back in Manchester. She was by far the more talkative of the two, but all of her chatter and joking made the quiet girl smile frequently.
As they rounded a corner, one of the sleeping piles of clothing at their feet stirred, and a grubby hand shot out, clamping around the quiet girl's ankle. It provoked a violent and unexpected reaction in me. One moment I was just watching a pretty girl take a walk and the next, I was seething with anger. I was pushing my way forward before she even had time to gasp. The little Irish girl leapt forward too, fairly spitting fire and ready to do battle with the louse by the time I shoved my way in between them. I grabbed the filthy, ragged wretch by the front of his shirt and shoved hard.
"Take your hands off her!"
He fell back and held his hands up in defense, smiling and showing a mouthful of rotten teeth. "There now. No 'arm meant. I was just bein' friendly-like."
I pointed a finger at him and tried to look as fearsome as possible. "You watch yourself around young ladies, or you'll find yourself tossed over the rail."
His cheerful bravado faded, replaced by red-faced rage. "And just who might be flingin' me into the sea?"
"If he doesn't, I will!" the little Irish girl interjected, stepping up to my side.
I looked down at her; she was tiny, delicate, and utterly terrifying. The louse must have thought so, too, because he declined to argue any further, lurching to his feet and muttering about feisty women and finding someplace quieter to sleep.
I turned to face both girls and took a deep breath, smiling to cover up my nerves. "Well, that was certainly exciting."
"It was at that. You were quite the knight in shining armor," the Irish girl said with a laugh. The quiet girl was looking at me now, smiling slightly, her dark eyes flicking up to mine every few moments. I smiled back in a way that I hoped put her at her ease. Her bottomless eyes, beautiful face and mysterious silence were combining to addle my brains entirely.
"I'm sorry I barged in that way. You just seemed in need of assistance, Miss….?"
"Oh!" the Irish girl interrupted. "This is Isabella. I'm Mary Alice. And you are..?"
Finally remembering my manners, I snatched my cap off my head, crushing it to my chest. "I'm Edward Cullen, late of Manchester. Where do you hail from?"
"County Cork, in Ireland," Mary Alice replied.
"And you, Isabella?" She had yet to say a word to me and I desperately wanted her to.
"Valetano," she said. Her voice was low and her accent unfamiliar and lovely. "It's in Italy. Thank you for your help with that...how do you say it?" She broke off and waved a hand impatiently. "My English is only…." She held two fingers close together.
I smiled. "The word you're looking for is 'hooligan.' And your English is perfect. May I walk with you?"
Mary Alice gave me a sly smile. "Well, of course. Turns out we could use a gentleman to protect us, even out here in the middle of the sea."
I held out an arm to each of them, and to my delight, they both accepted, Mary Alice on my left and Isabella on my right. I tried to control my smile when I felt Isabella's hand on my arm, but I failed.
We made one slow circuit of the deck together, exchanging pleasantries about our fellow passengers and some nonsense about the weather. When we reached the door to the stairwell leading below deck, Mary Alice released my arm.
"I should go help Mother with the wee ones," she said, casting a quick glance at Isabella. "You two go on and enjoy this fine day, though. I'm sure you have lots to talk about."
Isabella gave her a wide-eyed, stricken look but Mary Alice waved her off. Like a gentleman, I averted my gaze and pretended I didn't see their brief, silent argument. Finally, Mary Alice tripped away down the stairs and it was just Isabella and me.
"Tell me about Italy," I pressed her, trying to think of any subject that would keep her talking to me.
Isabella sighed and looked out over the water. "Nothing like England. That city where we got on the boat?"
"That was Liverpool."
"Yes, Liverpool," she said with a shudder. "So dark and full of smoke. Valetano is green and warm. There are beautiful hills and a lake where we would swim in the summer."
"It sounds beautiful. Why did you leave?"
Her expression grew dark. "Last winter. My mother and brothers. They became ill with the…" she waved a hand again, at a loss.
"Influenza?" I guessed.
"Yes, this sickness… the influenza. They all died."
"Isabella, I'm so sorry."
Isabella lifted one shoulder and looked out across the water again. Her face might not have betrayed her sorrow, but I could sense it nonetheless. I admired her strength, so stoic in the face of such a terrible loss.
"They are gone now. It's only me and my father. We want... how do you say in English? A fresh start? So we're going to America." She took a deep breath, as if to clear the air, and turned back to me with a tiny smile. "Tell me about you. Are you going to America alone?"
I shook my head. "I'm with my parents. The factory where my father worked in Manchester closed. Neither one of us could find work at home. We hear it's better in America. There are jobs for hard-working men. So we're trying our luck there."
Isabella was silent for a minute. "Opportunity can be frightening."
"Yes, it can." She was the first person I'd admitted that to, but I didn't mind her knowing I was scared. It was something else we had in common.
"Do you have people…. family… in America?"
"Not a one," I replied, trying to sound braver than I felt. "You?"
"My father has a cousin. He has not seen her since he was small. He wrote to her. She told us to come. We will stay with her until we find work."
"You're going to work, too?" I asked.
She looked at me with an eyebrow raised. "We need the money. I'm a hard worker."
"I'm sure you are." It made me sad to think of her slaving away in some factory, although it was nothing unusual, really. Young girls were sent out to work all the time back home. Still, I wished her life could be different, easier.
"I hear in America they pay women good wages to sew in the factories. I can sew and I want us to do well," she said grimly. "My father… he deserves a happier life. Too much sadness. A man should not see his family die. He is not the same since he lost my mother and brothers."
"I can't imagine how hard it's been for you both."
She waved a hand at the deck of the ship, filled with people like us—poor, scared, worn-down—heading into the unknown hoping for a better life. "It's hard for everyone. Life is hard."
Maybe it was the bright sun making me feel so optimistic. Maybe it was her low, exotic voice casting a spell on me. It certainly wasn't our grim conversation. I decided that it must be just her, walking with me, talking to me. I laid a hand over hers where it was resting on my arm. Our fingers touched and she ducked her chin and smiled. I smiled, too, feeling like, for the moment, life was anything but hard.
"Maybe it won't always be that way."
She looked up at me then, giving me a slow, secret little grin.
For the next week, we fell into a pattern. Right after breakfast, I'd escape up to the third-class deck and find Mary Alice and Isabella walking together. They'd always pretend to be surprised to see me. I'd ask to join them and offer them each my arm. The three of us would walk together for a little while, chatting and sharing stories from home. Soon, Mary Alice would claim her mother needed help with her younger brothers and sisters. Isabella would protest, Mary Alice would insist. Then she'd disappear with a wink and a smile. Isabella and I would continue our walk around the deck alone.
Each day we talked more and lingered longer at the railing, sometimes for hours. She told me all about her brothers who died, describing their wild antics to me. She told me funny stories about her mother until her laughter turned into tears. I stood next to her and held her hand until her crying stopped and her usual strength returned. She preferred to show the world that strength and hide the tears, I knew, and it meant a lot that she let me see them.
I told her about growing up in Manchester, watching my father leave for the factory at dawn and return home well after dark, only to get up the next day and do it again, year in and year out. I told her about the family's plan to get me a job at the factory as soon as I was of age, and how grim I felt at the prospect, even though I knew I had no choice. Then came the hopelessness we all felt when the factory closed and even that dismal future was out of reach for me.
"I know it will be hard in America," I said. "Starting all over with no family, no people. But I have to believe it will be better. A man can improve his lot there. Back home in Manchester, no matter what I did, all I was ever going to do was work at a factory like my father. There was no point in hoping for more."
Isabella leaned closer to me against the railing. "If you had your wish…anything…what would it be?"
I looked down at her, her hair shining brightly in the sun, her red wool shawl wrapped around her shoulders to ward off the chill. Right now my fondest wish was to kiss her, but while we'd certainly grown close, I couldn't say that. "I don't know. I've seen nothing of the world. I don't even know enough to know what to wish for. Just the chance, I guess. To know that the path is open for me, if I work hard enough."
She smiled up at me, a rare, open glowing smile. "You can do anything, Edward. I know it. America is your country."
"You think so?"
"You will be the man you were meant to be there." I looked down at her, smiling up at me, full of faith in me, and something new and powerful bloomed in my chest. Not just being sweet on a pretty girl. This was more. So much more.
"You, too," I murmured
She cocked her head to the side and scowled. "Me? How?"
"You can have any life you want," I said, wishing I had the courage to spit it out, all these feelings for her that were muddling my brain.
She shook her head. "I want only to help my father. To make things easier for him."
"But after that… one day you'll want something for yourself, right?"
Her eyes dropped to the deck and her cheeks turned pink. "Perhaps," she murmured. "But that's a long way off."
She was truly the most selfless person I'd ever met. She never wanted for herself, only for the ones she loved. She deserved her own future, her own happy ending. I wanted to be the one to give it to her. I wanted to be her happy ending.
A sharp cry cut me off from what I wanted to say. The passengers on the deck crowded to the railings to look. There on the horizon was the unmistakable shape of land, a city… New York.
A man hurried up to his friend a few feet away. "The captain says we'll drop anchor tonight and dock tomorrow!"
"I should go tell Papa," Isabella said.
She paused and looked back at me.
"Please… will you meet me here in the morning? Before the ship docks?"
She stared at me for a minute and I was afraid I'd gone too far. I felt such a connection to her, but I wasn't sure yet if she felt it too. I thought she might. I hoped... Then she smiled, that soft, secret smile she sometimes gave me, and nodded.
I exhaled in relief. "Right here. Tomorrow."
She turned and disappeared into the hold.
I waited for twenty minutes the next morning. People were bustling back and forth frantically, preparing to disembark. I knew I needed to get back down in the hold and help Mother pack up, but I needed to see Isabella first.
Everything was so uncertain and our whole lives were about to change, but I needed to know. Did she feel what I felt? Did she want what I wanted? I knew it would take time. We both had to help our families get settled. But if she felt like I did, then I'd find a way to make it happen.
Nothing would happen though, if she never came. Nearly thirty minutes passed before I finally saw her pushing her way through the flood of people on the deck. Her red shawl was up over her hair, her hand gripping it tightly at her throat.
I reached a hand towards her and she reached out and took it without hesitation. It gave me hope. It made me bold.
"I'm sorry I was late. Papa… he is nervous… he needed me."
I nodded, wrapping both her hands in mine and holding them between us. Time was short. Once we landed, who knew what would happen? I needed to tell her how I felt, what I wanted, and I had to do it now.
"Isabella, I don't want to lose you in America. I…I've come to feel…very attached to you. I want to see you again. To be with you. Do you think… is there a chance you feel the same about me?"
Her eyes went wide with surprise, but she didn't pull away or look indignant. Her lips parted slightly as she exhaled and her expression softened. Good lord, she was so lovely.
"I don't know where I will be. How will you find me?"
My heart nearly exploded. "I'll talk to your father and find out where you're staying."
"My father…" she said faintly. There it was, laid bare. My intentions. I would speak to her father.
"Isabella, I…" I took a deep breath for courage. "I think I love you. I know it's fast, but I do."
"I can't leave Papa."
"I'm not asking you to. Not now. Just tell me I can hope. Tell me that one day, maybe…"
I looked hard into her eyes, willing her to see what I felt, what I wanted. She looked back just as intently. I could see she was thinking, making up her mind. Finally she spoke. "One day," she whispered. "Maybe…."
"Definitely. As long as it takes, Isabella. I'll wait for you. I'll work for our life. I promise you."
Suddenly her eyes filled with tears. "Edward…"
I pulled her hands into my chest, urging her closer. "Shhh. It'll be alright. You'll see. Once we're settled, I'll find you and we'll be together eventually. It'll just take some time."
She sniffed and nodded, her usual strength returning to her as quickly as it fled. I cupped her cheek in my hand, swiping away her tears with my thumb. I'd never touched her so intimately before, but she didn't shy away. Instead she leaned into my hand slightly and closed her eyes.
I stared down at her lovely, perfect face, her wet lashes brushing the tops of her cheekbones, her pale cheeks stained pink from the cold, her perfect lips. I wanted just one thing to take with me once she was gone. One small part of her to hang on to during this time while we were apart. I had no idea how long that might be.
"Isabella." My voice betrayed my emotions. Her eyes snapped open. I looked at her, asking the question with my eyes. May I? Will you let me? Please give me this. Give me yourself.
Her lashes fluttered, and I understood the assent. I didn't care if we were on the crowded, bustling deck of the ship. I didn't care who was there or who saw. I let go of her hand to reach for her waist, pulling her into me. I still cradled her face in my palm. I pressed with my fingers, tipping her head back, urging her chin up. I should have been nervous, but I wasn't. It felt like the only right thing in the world. Slowly, gently, I pressed my lips to hers.
She sighed and her body softened, sinking towards me. I pulled her closer. The weight of her pressed against me and it was heaven. Her sweet mouth, her soft skin, her body, just the right size and shape for my arms. I loved her and she was mine. Her hesitant hands came to rest on my shoulders, then her fingers twisted into my jacket, pulling herself up and closer.
I angled my mouth over hers, the heat licking up me, not wanting it to ever end. She was sweet, so sweet. When I opened my mouth and her lips opened in answer, I thought there was nothing better on earth. But when my tongue touched hers, I knew I was wrong. And that pleasure hinted at a whole world that I might know with her one day.
My fingers curled into her waist, tangled into the hair at the back of her neck. Her fingers clutched at my jacket. Our bodies pressed together from chest to toe. I kissed her and she kissed me back.
We might have lived and died that way, happy together, if a passenger hadn't roughly jostled us making his way to the front of the boat. We pulled apart just enough to look at each other.
"I love you," I told her, this time absolutely certain.
"Edward…" she whispered. "I love you, too."
"Come. Let's find your father. We're almost there."
I took her hand and led her against the crushing flow of bodies towards the stairs to steerage. Everyone was headed up and out, desperately glad to finally be here, and she and I were headed down, sad that our time together was almost up.
We found her father packing the last of their belongings into a rucksack on his bunk.
"Papa," Isabella began, and then she rattled off a sentence in rapid, lilting Italian. With horror, I realized that not only did I not speak a word of Italian, I didn't even know Isabella's last name, and therefore had no idea how to address her father.
"Sir…" I started helplessly and then cast a helpless look at Isabella. She realized my trouble.
"Cigno," she murmured.
She huffed and waved her hands the way she did when she got stuck on a word. "Our name is like… a bird. A white bird with a long neck." She drew a curve in the air with her finger.
"Oh… a swan?"
Yes. Swan. Cigno."
I smiled and turned back to her father, who'd been watching our small exchange with no small amount of disapproval. His dark, tired eyes gave away nothing, but I could see the burden of his loss and worry all over his face. "Mr. Cigno, I'm Edward Cullen."
His dark brows furrowed and he glanced to Isabella. He rattled off a sentence in Italian and she answered. I realized that he spoke no English. I pressed on and let Isabella translate.
"Sir, I've had the honor to meet Isabella during the trip and we've grown quite fond of each other. Well, sir, the truth of it is that I love her. And I wish to see her again once you're settled."
He blinked and looked from me to Isabella. She took a deep breath and translated to Italian. He answered. She spoke again. Then they seemed to argue. I could tell he was irate, worried. Then she snapped at him, her back straight, her eyes bright, her voice commanding. I had no idea what she said, but she reached for my hand as she said it. I took it, twining my fingers with hers. Mr. Cigno looked at our joined hands and his shoulders slumped in defeat. He cast me one last annoyed look and said something to his daughter. She smiled smugly.
In moments, she had procured a scrap of paper and carefully transcribed the address of her aunt for me. She pressed it into my hand and my fingers closed tight around it. I reached out to shake her father's hand. He scowled, but Isabella gave him a hard look and he relented, shaking my hand, squeezing hard enough to break bones.
"I don't know how long it will be until I can come find you," I told her. "We have to find a place to stay and I need to find work."
She shook her head. "You will come when you can. I will be working, too. I'll wait as long as it takes."
My heart soared and broke at the same time. I had her, but couldn't keep her, at least not yet.
"I'll come for you. I promise."
A sailor called out that we were to assemble on deck to start the process of disembarking and our time was up. I knew I should just take my leave, since her father was still standing there and seemed only partially resigned to the situation, but I didn't care. I leaned in for one last kiss, brief and fast, before I backed away. I told myself I'd see her again, up on deck, in the immigration offices, somewhere. This wasn't the end. It just felt like it.
I didn't see her again. The deck was teeming with bodies, barely constrained chaos, when I finally got up there. It took me the better part of an hour to find my parents and when I did, my mother was beside herself with anxiety. I couldn't look for Isabella.
I caught a glimpse of Mary Alice, a toddler on her hip and several small children in tow as she followed her mother towards one of the barges. I knew from what she'd told me that her father was dead. It was just she and her mother and four small siblings traveling to America to live with an uncle. She lifted a hand in greeting and smiled. Then she said something to her mother and passed off the baby before hurrying over to me.
"Good luck to you, Mary Alice," I said when she reached me.
"Will you see her again, then?" she asked bluntly. "Isabella. When we're on shore?"
"I will," I told her with a solemn nod. Her concern for Isabella was endearing. "Not right away. I need to find work and help my family—"
"But then? You'll seek her out?"
"Yes, I will. I want… well, I hope someday to marry her. When I can." I felt a bit bad about telling Mary Alice before I'd said any such thing to Isabella, but she had to have known how serious I was when I spoke to her father. I just wasn't at liberty to make it official until I had something to offer her, and the means to take care of her.
Mary Alice's smile was brilliant. "You're a good one, Edward. I told her so the day we first saw you."
"But I saw you first," I protested. "When that lout harassed her."
Mary Alice gave me a sly smile. "She spotted you before that. She just took a bit o' convincing. That ruffian grabbin' her just helped move things along."
My stunned face must have been comical because Mary Alice burst out laughing. After a moment, though, she sobered and laid a hand on my arm. "Take care of her, Edward. She's a good one, too."
"I know she is. Take care of yourself, Mary Alice."
"Don't you worry about me. I have a brilliant future waitin' for me in America. There'll be no breeding endless babes for me. I intend to be a modern girl! I'll get a job and earn my own wages. It'll be grand. I can see it, you know. I have a touch of The Sight." She tapped her forehead and winked at me and I laughed. "I see one for you, too. For both of you. I see a long, happy life together, full of love and adventure. God be with you, Edward."
And then she was gone, slipping back through the crowd to catch up to her family.
While I waited for my family to be called, I stared at the skyline of New York in the distance. It was the largest city I'd ever seen, different than Manchester, and so much more imposing. I'd have to find my way, not just for my parents' sake, but for Isabella's now, as well. She told me once that this was my country. I prayed to God that she was right.
As long and tedious as the crossing had been, it paled in comparison to what came next. We waited hours to be taken off the ship and loaded onto a ferry to the immigration center. Over a hundred of us were crowded onto the tiny ferry. It pushed off from the dock and then idled in the harbor for several hours more. The crew told us that we had to wait for space at the immigration center, the brick building in the distance called Ellis Island. There were no seats, so the men crowded together to make enough space for the women and children to sit on the deck. The wind picked up, turning bitter and damp, and there was no shelter on the exposed ferry deck.
I thought our trials were ending when the ferry finally docked at Ellis Island, but it was only the start of a fresh wave of misery. We were ushered like cattle into snaking lines in a vast hall. Hours of inching our way forward led us to a wall of hard-faced agents barking questions. It was easy for us, speaking English, but as I watched those around us struggling, I worried for Isabella and her father. She would be all right, but what about him? Would they let him in with no grasp of the language? Suddenly I sensed an endless sea of potential disasters that might separate us.
After hours of waiting, punctuated by harsh, invasive medical examinations and endless degrading questions about our circumstances and plans, we were finally admitted into the country and thrust on another ferry. Nearly a full day after we'd arrived in New York, we finally set foot in the city, exhausted and traumatized.
Thanks to a tip from a kindly street vendor who sold us our dinner, we were pointed towards a run-down rooming house. We stayed there for a week while my father and I searched for work. Being young and strong, I found a place first, at a factory that made clocks and watches. The work was precise and grueling; the hours were long, and the pay was terrible. By the time I made my way home each night, my back was aching and my fingers were raw. I'd hoped for better, but with hundreds more immigrant men arriving in New York every day, there wasn't room to complain. Your spot could be filled with another new arrival in the blink of an eye.
It took time, but eventually my father found work in a butcher's shop, and came home every night bloody and covered in offal. So far, my prospects were only marginally more promising than they had been in Manchester. Thinking of Isabella and our future was often all that kept me going.
With our pitiful income, we rented two rooms in the back of a tenement on Ludlow Street. They were cramped and dark, the halls were noisy and smelled of cooked cabbage. My mother did her best to make it a comfortable home and took in mending to help our income.
It was a start. That's what we kept telling ourselves. But as I got to know the immigrant community, I saw scores of families no better off than us. With such a cheap and plentiful supply of labor from Europe, employers had no incentive to do better by us with higher wages or decent working conditions. We were treated little better than pack animals.
It was a full three weeks after we'd arrived before I had a half-day off from work and no pressing family needs to deal with. The first thing I did was to seek out Isabella's aunt. I was still learning the city, and had to ask directions several times before I found the building on Mulberry Street. But when I knocked on the door of the apartment, I was faced with a Greek family who'd never heard of Isabella, her father, or her aunt. In a panic, I knocked on all the neighbors' doors. One after another denied knowing them. Finally, one woman told me in halting English that she knew the aunt, but that she had moved on some time before and the woman didn't know where.
Outside on the stoop, I sank down and let my head drop into my hands. Isabella was lost, out there somewhere in the vast city, and I had no way to find her. I knew her father's last name, but their situation was as tenuous as ours. There was no record of us or our address, and there wouldn't be a record of hers either.
I had made it through the last few harrowing weeks hanging onto the idea of Isabella. She was the star on my horizon. Now I felt lost on a sea at midnight. This cold, hard city felt like a death sentence. My future seemed every bit as hopeless as it had been back in Manchester. I didn't know how I would find the will to keep going.
Desperation is a strong motivator. Winter had arrived in earnest and we were always just a payday away from the streets. As miserable I was about losing Isabella, I couldn't stop. In every spare moment, I walked the streets of the immigrant neighborhoods asking after Isabella and her father, but there weren't many of those moments. Mostly, every waking hour of the day, I worked.
"Dammit!" I snatched my fingers back just before the metal stamp came down hard on the base plate. Another split second and I'd have drawn back bloody stumps. The timing was off and had been for weeks. It wasn't supposed to lower until I'd released the safety lever, but the release was broken and it often came down too soon while my hands were still underneath it, setting the tiny parts in place.
I'd told the foreman three times that it needed repair and he said someone would see to it. No one had. The last time I told him it was still malfunctioning, he told me that if I had so many complaints about the machinery, I could find a factory where the equipment suited me better. I dared not complain again.
I fought with the release until I could free the mechanism underneath. As I popped it loose, the bell rang, signaling clean up. My eyes closed in relief. My back was aching and my neck was in knots. My fingertips burned from handling the raw brass all day.
"Errrrhhhh, thank the Lord," Emmett growled across from me, straightening up and stretching his back.
"The day has never seemed so long," Jasper muttered, quickly moving through the steps to shut down his machine.
As miserable as the job was, I was grateful to be working next to the two of them. They were good chaps, just off the boat like me. The job might demand everything from my hands, eyes and back, but my mind was free to wander. It was good to have them nearby to talk to during the day. They lightened the burden just by being there. Jasper was from Scotland and Emmett was from Ireland. Back home that would have separated us entirely, but in this new world, it made us as close as brothers.
I was half-way through fastening down my own machine for the night when I saw the foreman, Mr. Newton, moving our way.
"Don't look now, but here comes trouble," Emmett whispered.
Jasper groaned. "This can't be good."
"Just the lads I was looking for," he said with a broad, false smile. We were always right here at these machines, so he didn't have to look very hard.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Newton?" Emmett asked, scratching his forehead under his cap.
"As a matter of fact, there is. You see, we need to complete this order and have it ready to ship out tomorrow and it's not quite ready to go. So I'm going to need you lads to stay at the machines for a bit longer until we get it finished up. I'm sure you understand."
His words were met with skeptical silence. It was Jasper who broke it. "Will there be overtime pay, then?"
Mr. Newton chuckled and shook his head.
"Come now, Whitlock, you know very well how tight things are. We can hardly afford to be paying overtime wages, now can we?"
"I've got another job running deliveries after this," Emmett said.
Mr. Newton turned and gave him a hard glare through his gold-framed glasses. "Well, McCarty, perhaps you don't need this position, then? After all, I'm sure I could find some willing lads down at the docks who'd be more than happy to take your position no matter the hours. Now, can I count on you boys to get the order finished tonight?"
He turned and walked back down the aisle, not waiting for our answer. After all, he knew it already. We weren't going to say no. We couldn't. None of us could say no. They had us right where they wanted us and they knew it.
As I started setting up the machine again, I thought about how very far we all were from our American dream.
Five months later
It was a bitter, raw March morning as I walked to work with Jasper and Emmett. The factory was on Nineteenth Street, but we chose to walk the long distance to save money, even in the worst weather. With them along for company, it wasn't as bad as it might have been. The fresh air and exercise were a welcome change from the cramped, stale factory that I'd be locked inside from dawn till dusk.
Jasper and Emmett were in high spirits, joking and wrestling as we walked and I allowed myself a moment to enjoy it. They teased each other and pointed out all the pretty girls we passed, making grandiose plans that would never materialize to court each one. I enjoyed listening, but I didn't join in. There would be no other girls for me, not while there was a chance that Isabella was still out there. I'd told them a bit about her, and they knew I still looked for her, so they didn't push me to join in their fun.
Emmett gave a low whistle of appreciation and muttered, "Hey ho, what have we here, lads?"
He elbowed Jasper and tipped his head towards the group of girls walking ahead of us. They were immigrant factory girls on their way to work. I knew the look well enough by now.
"What a bonny bunch of lasses," Jasper said with a smile.
"A pretty girl in the morning is a glorious thing," Emmett agreed.
"Which do ye have yer eye on?" Jasper asked. It wasn't as if it mattered. They wouldn't speak to the girls and neither could afford to court them. Still, the fantasy passed the time for them pleasantly enough.
"That tall fair one," Emmett said. "Norwegian, I'll wager."
I remembered meeting Isabella back on the boat. I'd been so sheltered from the world that I couldn't tell where she was from until she told me. Now I could tell an immigrant's country of origin at twenty paces. Emmett was right. The tall blonde was Norwegian without a doubt. I could tell by the way she braided her hair. The small girl on her left was probably also Norwegian. I could only see the other two from behind and one had a scarf over her head, but I still guessed Ireland and Italy from their dress.
As soon as the thought hit me, I felt my heart speed up. I squinted at their figures from behind. Five months had blurred so many details in my memory. Their relative heights, for example. Isabella was taller than Mary Alice. Was she as tall as the girl walking before me? I couldn't remember exactly.
"Edward?" Jasper spoke at my side, the teasing gone from his voice, "Are ye alright? Ye look as though someone's walked on yer grave."
"I don't…." I stared at the girls walking ahead of us, at the girl on the right with the scarf over her head. Was I seeing things? Was I just willing her face to appear in crowds when she wasn't there? Or had the impossible happened and I'd found her again in this endless mass of humanity?
I didn't care if I seemed crazy. I needed to know. I shouted, my voice carrying through the street around us. "Isabella!"
She stopped. And turned.
And my world started turning again.
She dropped her hand and the scarf fell away from her head, uncovering her dark hair, exposing her lovely face to me at last.
Then I was moving, rushing towards her. She dropped her bundle and ran towards me as well. She leapt and I caught her, pulling her against me, my precious girl that I'd thought I'd lost forever.
"It's you," she whispered, her arms tight around my neck. I buried my face in her hair and tightened my hold on her.
"I looked for you and you'd gone. I've been looking and looking. Isabella. Oh, God, Isabella."
"My aunt had moved by the time we got here and I couldn't find you to tell you. I didn't know how to find you." Her voice wavered as she cried. "I thought I'd never see you again."
"I told you I'd come for you eventually."
I loosened my hold on her just enough to find her face with my hands, to kiss her, to feel her hair under my fingers again. I brushed her damp cheeks with my fingertips and then kissed the tears. She laughed and cried at the same time, never loosening her grip on my shoulders. I was laughing, too, and kissing her in between breaths.
Some endless time later, we became aware of our friends, standing in stunned silence to either side of us.
"Well, it's about time," Mary Alice said, because it was she that had been walking between Isabella and the Norwegian girls. "I thought she'd pine away to nothing waiting for you." Mary Alice's words were a little sharp, but she was smiling and her eyes were shining with happy tears.
"I was always going to come for her," I said, still not taking my eyes off her in case she vanished again. I traced a line from her temple down to her chin with my fingertips. "I just had to find her first."
"So this is where you'd left your heart, Edward?" Emmett laughed.
"It is indeed," I answered, smiling down at her, marveling at her beautiful face all over again. Every feature was prettier than I'd remembered.
"Do ye mind introducing us to your girl and her friends, then?" Jasper said, swatting my arm with the back of his hand.
"Of course. I'm sorry. This is Mary Alice. I'm afraid I don't know your friends. Ladies, this is Jasper and Emmett."
Mary Alice flashed a bright smile at them…at Jasper. "This is Rosalie and her sister, Bree. They work at the factory with us." Rosalie, the tall Norwegian girl, flipped her heavy blonde braid back over her shoulder and tilted her chin up. She didn't say anything, but the gesture was bold and her gaze was direct. Her younger sister, darker and no older than fourteen or fifteen, hung back behind her shyly. "Speaking of work, Isabella..." Mary Alice said.
Isabella's face fell. "I'm sorry, Edward. I have to go. It's almost time for work and I can't be late. I was lucky to get the place and we need the money."
Her English was so much better than when I'd seen her last. "You found a job?"
She nodded. "Sewing ladies' blouses. It's awfully tiring, and the hours are so long. Papa doesn't like it, but I can help out with the rent. And I found Mary Alice working there!"
Mary Alice rolled her eyes "Slaving there is more like it, but we have to take what we can get."
"Aye, so do we all," Jasper said, clapping a hand on my shoulder. "We have a job to get to as well, Edward. Although it seems a shame to go when we've all just met this way."
He was smiling broadly at Mary Alice, and she was smiling back.
I turned away from their flirting and gripped Isabella's hands again. "Where do you work and when do you finish? I'll be there the instant you're done. I won't lose you again."
"It's just there, on Washington Place. Wait at the corner of Greene and I'll be out by five."
"I'll be there before five."
She shook her head. "You won't see me a minute before then. They lock us in until the shift is over."
I scowled, hating the thought of her locked up in a sweatshop all day, although they locked the doors to the floor at our factory, too. Mr. Newton said it was to keep us from taking unauthorized breaks.
"It doesn't matter," she said, with a wave of her hand. I remembered that gesture. "When I get out, you'll be there. Oh, Edward, I can't believe it's you."
"Yes, I'll be there. And I won't let you out of my sight again, Isabella. I swear it. Not until we're married."
Her eyes went wide and the other girls gasped.
"Did you just propose to me, Edward?" she asked, slightly breathless.
"I suppose I did. Not properly, but there's time for that later."
"Yes," she said, smiling up at me. "Time for that later. But I have to go."
"Until tonight, then."
She pushed up on tiptoe and kissed me. I pulled her in again, holding her close for just another moment before forcing myself to let her go.
"I suppose we'll see you ladies later, then," Emmett said, touching the brim of his cap before pulling me away by my sleeve.
"That you will," Mary Alice replied, tugging on Isabella's hand. "Goodbye, Edward. Emmett. Jasper. Come, Isabella. It's almost time. We can't be late."
I let Emmett lead me away, but I walked backwards all the way up the block, watching Isabella until Mary Alice and Rosalie pulled her around the corner. I walked on to work in a fog. Jasper and Emmett peppered me with questions the whole way, but I could hardly answer, I was so overwhelmed and happy.
The hours slowed to a crawl, stretching out endlessly until I could see her again. But I applied myself to my work like never before. After all, I was soon to have a wife to support. We couldn't afford to get married, but I didn't care. We'd do it anyway.
As I closed up my machine, Jasper appeared at my elbow. "If you're going back for your Isabella, do ye mind if I tag along? I'd like to see her little friend again."
"Aye, that's the one."
"You're not leaving me behind," Emmett said, shutting his machine down. "That Norwegian lass didn't say a word and I'm thinkin' I'll have to remedy that situation. Don't even know if the girl speaks English."
"Ye gonna teach her then, Em?" Jasper joked.
"I might, at that," he replied, giving Jasper a shove.
I shrugged. "Suit yourself, only hurry, both of you. I plan on being there before she gets out. I'm not losing her again."
I hurried through the streets that were crowded with people getting out of work, Jasper and Emmett fast on my heels.
"Look at him go," Emmett chuckled. "You'd think he was rushing to meet the girl of his dreams."
"You wouldn't joke if you were me," I told him, but I was smiling, because I could. For the first time in months, I didn't feel like life was gripping me by the throat. I could breathe, I could laugh. Anything seemed possible.
"Looks like a spot of trouble ahead," Jasper commented, and I looked to where he was pointing. Black smoke curled up high into the sky. As we walked further south, we could hear the clang of the fire truck bells and shouts.
"That's bad luck. I wonder where the fire is?" Emmett said.
With every step, we got closer to where Isabella told me to wait and also closer to the fire. I shook my head in denial. It couldn't be. Fate wouldn't be this cruel, to give her back to me and take her away again.
But when we rounded the corner onto Washington Place, shoving our way through the crush of onlookers, I couldn't deny the truth. The building—the very one she'd pointed out to me this morning—was on fire. Smoke poured from the upper floors. Through broken-out windows, I could see flames consuming the inside.
Hundreds of people filled the sidewalks and street, faces upturned, screaming, weeping, sometimes fainting. Three fire wagons were on the street shooting water from the tanks towards the windows, but they seemed to have little impact on the inferno inside. The firefighters were swarming everywhere, but the ladders they had propped against the building didn't reach the upper floors where the fire raged. The air was thick with smoke, the smell of burning wood and metal almost overpowering.
The scene of horror momentarily stunned me, until I heard Emmett murmur behind me. "Good Lord in heaven… no."
I looked up to the broken windows near the top of the building. A girl stood there, young and dark-haired, but not Isabella. She was familiar though. My stomach contracted with horror when I realized where I'd seen her before. This morning, with Isabella. It was Bree, the younger of the two Norwegian sisters.
Her face was streaked with tears. Her mouth moved as she screamed, but the roar of the fire and the crowd drowned her out. Smoke billowed out behind her as she clung to the edge of the window sill. Her boots kept slipping on the sill, and her hands were bloody where she gripped the jagged, broken panes. The fire behind her flared and roared. She screamed again. The fire licked up behind her. Her dress, her apron, her hair… she was burning. The crowd on the ground screamed. Several men ran forward, but the police line held them back, clear of the falling debris and flames.
Then she let go and stepped off the ledge.
She fell straight down—a bright, flaming shot—and hit the pavement with a sickening thud. She did not move again.
That was when I noticed the heaps of fabric littering the sidewalk along the front of the building. I'd thought they were bundles of cloth from inside the factory. They were bodies. The bodies of all the girls who'd already jumped.
The screams of the crowd were deafening but one cut through it all, guttural and primal, a horrific wail. I saw a figure of a woman shoving through the crowd towards Bree's lifeless body on the sidewalk. I recognized her thick blonde braid. Rosalie.
The police tried to hold her back as she kicked and screamed and struggled to get past them.
"God help her," Emmett muttered behind me before he broke away, hurrying towards her. She fought him for a moment, too, until he folded his arms around her and began whispering in her ear. The fight left her and her eyes rolled back as she went limp in his arms.
I couldn't look anymore. My heart was breaking for Rosalie, for everyone, but one thought consumed me. I needed to find Isabella and she might be in there, about to meet the same fate as Bree.
Another girl appeared at the window, hesitated, and jumped. Nausea roiled in my gut and I pushed forward, determined to fight my way inside and find her or die trying. But Jasper caught my arm, holding me back.
"Isabella is in there!" I shouted, fighting against him.
"'Tis madness, Edward," Jasper said quietly. "No one can get in. There's nothing to be done but hope she found her way out already."
I knew he was right. If there was any way to get inside that inferno, the firemen would be there instead of out here on the street. We were all helpless in the face of this disaster.
I struggled and finally ripped myself free of his grip, pushing through the crowd, determined to at least search through the survivors. I couldn't just stand and watch and wait. The crowd around me was a wailing mass of misery, but I blacked it out, keeping one face in my mind. She was my only concern, my only goal.
But this wasn't Jasper. The voice was raspy and thickly accented. I spun around, searching the sooty, tear-stained faces. Mr. Cigno was fighting his way through the crowd towards me. His face was a mirror of everything I was feeling. I reached through the crowd, grabbing his arm, pulling him to my side.
He stopped and looked into my face, and the sorrow there was beyond all comprehension. What would this do to him? To lose her after everything he'd already lost? I couldn't bear to think about it.
"I can't find her," he said helplessly. In some corner of my mind, I noticed that he'd learned a little English, but right now, a shared language seemed like a weak afterthought. We were already sharing the worst kind of grief and misery. Nothing could draw us closer than that.
I gripped his upper arms, willing him to stay strong with me. "We'll look together. She might have gotten out."
He nodded and followed me through the crowd. I knew Jasper was following me as well, though he said nothing. People were everywhere; onlookers, staring horror-struck at the scene, workers from the building clutching each other and weeping, firemen manning the trucks even as the fire seemed to be burning itself out, policemen talking to workers and taking notes. I looked at everyone, straining to see just one face.
We skirted the side of the building where they'd started laying out the bodies of the girls who'd jumped. The sight was grisly and horrifying, but I forced myself to look into each face we passed, looking for anything recognizable, praying I wouldn't find it.
Dirty, soot-stained girls who'd made it out of the factory alive were mixed with panicked relatives who'd heard the news and were frantically picking their way around the bodies, looking for loved ones. We were certainly not alone on our grim quest. One young, lifeless face after another, and none of them Isabella.
I almost tripped over a girl clutching her friend to her chest. She was bent double, folding in on herself with grief. I made to move past her and glanced down, finally seeing a face that I recognized, but once again, not the one I sought.
And holding her as if she'd never let her go was Isabella.
I fell to my knees beside her, reaching for her shoulders. "Isabella! Thank God!"
She lifted her head to look at me, her face red, dirty, streaked with tears. Her hair was a tangled mess around her shoulders. Her clothes were charred. The shoulder of her dress was burned clean away, exposing her bare skin underneath, also singed red by the flames. Her hands were red and raw. I couldn't imagine what she'd been through inside and I didn't want to.
"Oh, Edward," she wailed. "The doors were locked! We couldn't get out! We were locked in!" I pulled her into me and she collapsed into my chest, consumed with hysterical sobs. I felt the weight of Mary Alice's body between us and I reached out to take her, to relieve Isabella of her burden.
"I thought I'd lost you all over again," I whispered into her hair.
Her father fell to his knees just behind her, clutching at her, calling out his ragged thanks to God in Italian. I didn't need to speak a word of the language to know what he was saying. I was giving thanks as well. The last thing I ever wanted to do was let her go, but her father needed her too. She was all he had in the world. I pressed a kiss to her matted, singed hair and loosened my grip, letting her sag into his arms. He wept, smoothing her hair, and kissing her cheeks. She wept and curled up into him, letting him comfort her.
I looked down at Mary Alice, still in my arms. Aside from the soot streaking her cheeks and a smudge of blood on her temple, she might have been asleep. I brushed the stray strands of her jet black hair off her forehead and slipped my hand behind her head to lower her to the ground. I could feel how wrong the shape was. Her skull had been crushed when she jumped. Jasper crouched beside me, and reached out to lift her lifeless hand off the ground, placing it gently on her chest.
"A pitiful tragedy," he murmured. "God rest your soul, Mary Alice."
I remembered Mary Alice that last morning on the boat, telling me with her saucy smile that she'd seen brilliant futures in America for all of us. I knew she never could have imagined this nightmare.
April 5th was cold and rainy, much more winter than spring, despite what the calendar said. It didn't feel like time had moved on at all from that horrible day in March, and in many ways it hadn't.
I married Isabella a week after the fire in the chapel of Our Lady of Pompeii. Everything was in chaos, but I'd nearly lost her twice and I wasn't willing to wait for fate to try for a third. Mary Alice's mother came, along with her four younger brothers and sisters. Jasper and Emmett came as well, escorting a still-fragile Rosalie into the church.
It was quiet and quick and we were stuck living with my parents for the foreseeable future, but I didn't care. Isabella was alive and mine. The rest we would tackle in time.
The families of the dead were still reeling from the tragedy, and the survivors were still in shock. The city had reacted with the same horror I had when the full story came out. Almost all the doors to the factory floor had been locked and the one that wasn't opened inward, becoming blocked by the workers struggling to get out. The fire escape was damaged and almost immediately collapsed under the weight of women trying to climb down. The seamstresses inside had faced a sickening choice: burn to death or jump.
Late one night, shortly after our wedding, when Isabella had been unable to sleep, I'd held her close while she told me in a raw whisper what had happened to her inside.
She'd been packing up to leave, eager to get outside and see me again when the first "Fire!" was shouted. It happened fast after that. The stacks of flammable material and lint nearly exploded around them as the fire spread. The workers rushed from one potential escape route to another, finding each one in turn impassable, either already consumed with fire or locked tight. The air became too hot to breathe and workers began to collapse, to be trampled by their co-workers or burned to death. The elevator operator had done his best to get the girls out, but he could only take a few at a time. Isabella had been one of the last fortunate ones, shoved into the elevator by Mary Alice, who was behind her. When she'd looked back, Mary Alice had shrugged and said "Edward is waiting".
Behind Mary Alice was a wall of fire. Half the girls in the elevator were beating out flames on their clothes, including Isabella. The elevator was designed to hold ten people and twenty burning girls crammed in to escape.
As the elevator descended, Isabella heard the thud of bodies as girls threw themselves down the elevator shaft on to the car. Blood dripped down on them through the roof. The bodies combined with the heat made it impossible for the elevators to go back up. Anyone still on the work floor was trapped.
Once outside, Isabella had frantically searched the building entrances, looking for a safe way back up to the workers left behind. There hadn't been one. Fire blocked every way. She'd circled around to the side the building and that's where she found Mary Alice, crumpled up on top of two other girls.
After she told her story—the only time in her life she would speak of what she'd seen inside the factory that day—she sobbed and screamed out her grief while I held her. I wept silently and thanked God for every tiny twist of fate, and for Mary Alice's sacrifice that delivered Isabella back into my arms.
We were eager to move forward from that awful day, but first, there was the memorial march. Isabella had insisted on walking the entire route through Manhattan, so I walked with her. I could tell my boss at the factory had been annoyed that Jasper, Emmett and I demanded the day off, but he dared not say anything in the current climate. The public was outraged. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, along with other stories of immigrant workers slaving away behind locked doors in unsafe conditions, afraid to complain for fear of losing their position, had lit a fire under the American public. Change was coming.
So there we were, freezing and damp, but marching. I held Isabella's right hand; Rosalie held her left. Emmett was on Rosalie's other side. He'd been her nearly constant companion since the fire, helping both her and her family after her sister died.
"Are you alright?" I asked Isabella, squeezing her hand.
Her eyes stayed fixed on the crowd ahead of us, but she gave a tiny nod. "I'm alive. I'm more than alright."
"You know we don't have to do this today if it's too much. It won't help Mary Alice anymore."
She shook her head and looked ahead of us at the women carrying the banners from the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. The union had spoken with many of the survivors of the fire, Isabella included. Those talks gave her strength through those first bad weeks like nothing else had. Much to the surprise of Isabella's father and myself, she was fully intending to go back to work as a seamstress, but this time she would go as a union member.
"You're right. It won't help Mary Alice, but it will help everyone who comes after. That's why we'll march today."
I stared at her perfect profile for another moment, then I tugged on her hand again. "Isabella."
She turned to look at me.
"I love you."
Her hard, stormy expression cleared in an instant and she smiled, radiant and wide. "I love you, too."
"The last morning on the boat, Mary Alice told me she'd seen our future. Did I tell you that?"
Isabella cocked her head to the side and smiled. "No, you didn't. What did she say?"
I pulled her closer and she let go of Rosalie's hand to turn into me. I caught Rosalie's eye over her shoulder and she smirked at us in understanding. Running my fingertips along Isabella's jaw to turn her face up to mine, I told her. "She said she saw brilliant futures for both of us. A long happy life together filled with love and adventure."
Isabella blinked back tears, but she smiled. "Did she now? I guess we can't disappoint her."
"I don't intend to."
I kissed her, soft and slow, for just a moment, before the crowd around us began to move. Isabella moved back, but just enough to walk at my side, her arm linked with mine. Together, we stepped forward to remember the past and fight for the future.
A/N: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the disaster depicted in the latter half of the story, was a real event. 146 workers died in the fire and the event galvanized the organized labor movement in America. The events I described, both inside the factory and outside on the street, were all taken from eyewitness accounts of the period.
The amazing arfalcon did me a huge favor and beta'ed this for me. She really did make this so much better.