Against Cosmic Odds

Against Cosmic Odds R1.2.1.3 Flat ebook small
Dedication

This series is dedicated to all who think that, just because their parents or guardians messed up, they have no choices about their future. Don’t believe it; the future is in your hands. Look for help. But above all, don’t give up. Keep trying and always remember: You are not alone; we are all orphans; everyone has to make their own way in the world.

Chapter 1 - Assassin

Az-Rak sensed the power level on his weapon approach maximum and lock onto its target, a two-level cabin on the edge of the forest. His pulse quickened. He took a deep breath and savored his moment of triumph. Master would be pleased.

Just then, the front door of the cabin opened, and a boy who was not family, stood in the doorway. Surprised, Az-Rak straightened, hitting his head on the underside of the old weather beaten horse wagon.

He watched the boy hurry to the gate in the white picket fence surrounding the home. Instead of opening it, the boy climbed over, paused and turned around to face the house. Then he called to the occupants inside and ran along the lane to the main road.

The boy was too far away to make out what he said. Az-Rak aimed the weapon. But, surely, the boy could not have seen him, he convinced himself; he was too well hidden, he had chosen the perfect strike-point. And yet.

He chided himself for his moment’s indecision. But it was only for a moment. Confident that the boy had not warned the occupants, he powered down his weapon and settled down to wait, to stalk.

He could afford to wait a little longer; besides, it was better this way—the boy’s death would only sully this trophy for his master. The targets, the family, were still inside, that’s what really matters he consoled himself. And, waiting a little longer to ensure the boy did not return would allow enough time to check the aftermath. Enough time to erase all trace of his master’s enemies, enough time to sanitize the area and leave only dust and ashes. After eleven years of searching, what were a few minutes more?

He watched the boy reach the main road and disappear around a corner. For a moment, he stared, lost in thought, wondering about two words going round and round in his brain, ‘Nolferrum Edict’, wondering why they made him pause.

n.

Chapter 2 - Gone

Upstairs in the house, eleven-year-old Mike Stout had heard the front door open and his mother call out, “they’re grounded today Charlie. Come back tomorrow after they’ve learned to behave.”

Charlie’s “Okay Mrs. Stout,” was followed by the slam of the front door and the sound of his footsteps, hurrying along the garden path to the gate with its very hard to open bolt. “See you guys tomorrow,” he called.

Seething, Mike sat on the edge of his bed and glared across the room at Noel, his brother. “It’s all your fault,” he said, breaking the room’s icy silence. “You’ll be sorry”.

Noel smirked. “Your stuff’s still down by the pond.”

Mike stiffened and started to rise, his voice rising with him. “You left…my…” he said, half-standing, half-sitting, he stopped and sat down again. “Huh...” he sighed and folded his arms tightly.

“Someone could steal it,” Noel goaded.

Mike thought about his stuff, his fishing pole and slingshot. Noel was right. Someone, anyone, could take it. Typical Noel, he felt like punching him. But he resisted the temptation, “I know what you’re trying to do,” he said.

“Who me?” Noel asked, pointing at himself with an air of innocence.

“Yeah, you! You’re just trying to get me into more trouble with Mom.” Clenching his teeth, he lay down and turned his back to Noel.

The cold atmosphere returned as the clinking of dishes filtered up from the kitchen below. Then a thought came to him and his spirits lifted. Mom would be another while at the sink. Maybe even long enough to slip out, make it to the pond, grab my stuff and get back. Ten minutes tops, he convinced himself.

He rolled out of the bed, got to his feet, and made his way to the window. Pressing his forehead against the glass, he rolled his head from side to side, scanning left and right. The coast was clear.

He glanced back at Noel, who had a ‘gotcha’ smile on his face, and all hesitation evaporated. He turned back to the window and flicked the latch open. Slowly, he eased the window up, stuck his head outside and looked around the backyard.

Halfway between the back door and the safety of the high grass and undergrowth in the surrounding forest, sat a stack of firewood, shrouded in ivy. I should be able to make it to the wood, he thought, glancing from the firewood to the back door.

Mind made up, he turned to look at Noel and give him a defiant glare. “You’d better not have lost my stuff,” he said, putting a leg through the open window.

“Hey, you’re not thinking about doing anything stupid are you?” said Noel.

Mike let out an audible breath and looked over his shoulder. “You’ll see,” he said, hoisting himself up to straddle the window

“Mom’s going to ground you for a week. And don’t think I’m going to cover for you,” said Noel, a smug look plastered across his face.

Mike’s eyes narrowed. But this was not the time to argue. He put his other leg out and sat on the windowsill. He turned and lay on his belly, his legs dangling. “Fine, just don’t be a snitch,” he said.

“I’m not a snitch,” said Noel indignantly.

But Mike didn’t hear him, he was already lowering himself down the outside, dropping to the ground with a soft thump. Furtively he made his way to the stack of firewood and peering around it, looked in through the open kitchen door. Mom was leaning over the sink with her back to him. He turned, stooped low, and made his way to the high grass beyond the white fence, using the stack for cover.

Mike glanced up at the bedroom window and saw Noel pointing his finger mockingly just before turning away, his chin jutting out at a stubborn angle.

Frustrated, Mike clenched his fists. Then he made a wide circle stealthily around the house. He reached a bend in the path leading to the pond, and unclenching his fists, stopped and raised his head to look back beyond the broken-down wagon at the front of his home. No sign of Mom. All was quiet; no breeze stirred as the summer of 1920 drew to a close.

He ran along the familiar path until he reached a grassy clearing, deep in the forest. His shirt felt sticky with sweat. And gripping his hips with both hands, took quick gulps of air.

He wiped his forehead and looked across the clearing at a rock jutting over a stream-fed pond. He straightened as he stared at the spot, his stuff was missing. Annoyed, he walked over the soft ground, his anger growing with every step.

Then he spotted the fishing line draped from the rock and meandering in the slow-moving current. Hooking the line in his fingers he lifted it up, and letting it slip easily over his fingers as he walked, tracked it back, to some high grass, to where his fishing pole and slingshot were, carelessly thrown about.

Wait till I get home, he thought, and picking up the slingshot, he tucked it into his back pocket, where he kept small stones as ammunition.  He bent down and picked up his fishing pole, “that’s the last time I’ll let you borrow my stuff,” he muttered, and retracing his steps, he wound in the reel as he went.

When he reached the edge of the rock, he stood and continued to wind in the line, until he felt it snag on some weeds. Frustrated, he pulled hard. The pole bent and the line became taut. He tugged again. The line slackened and floated free—all of it, the hook was gone. “That does it. When I get home…” he paused as he thought of Noel waiting for him in their bedroom.

He knew Noel would never snitch, but just the same he’ll be wondering and sweating until I get back, he mused, and laid the fishing pole down on the rock. “Hah...I’ll show you, I’ll stay as long as I like,” he said to the air. And shucking off his shoes, stripping down to his shorts, he took a flying leap off the rock, into the water.

It felt icy and made him breathless. He surfaced quickly and gasped in short sharp breaths until his breathing slowed and he was able to relax. The thought of Noel stuck in the bedroom made him smile as he rolled onto his back, and floated lazily in the easy current, soothing his anger.

After a few minutes, he thought about Mom. “Better not to push it too far, better get home.”

He swam to the rock, clambered up and picking up his shirt, used it as a towel to dry off some. Then he twisted it to wring some of the water out and pulled it over his head.

Struggling to get his arms through the shirt’s damp sleeves, a strange feeling made him shiver. Yet it was not from the cold water, it was like nothing he ever felt before. It was a sense of dread, of foreboding, of being hunted, prey.

The sensation wormed its way up his spine, chilling him all over. He froze, his face framed by his shirt, his arms stuck in the air at awkward angles. His eyes slid from side to side without moving his head, but nothing seemed to be out of place. He turned, slowly, still scanning the clearing. Nothing stirred; even the forest held its breath.

He needed to get home—fast, and wriggled his arms through the sleeves. Pulling the shirt partway down, it bunched about his midriff, he reached for his overalls and pulled them on, hitching up one of the straps across his shoulder as he looked for his shoes and socks.

But there was no time to put them on. He darted across the soft grass to the stone littered path leading home, barely slowing as the stones tore at his feet, making them bleed.

He raced on, and the bend in the path came into view.

Almost there, faster, he urged himself.

Ten more strides…

Five...

Three...

BOOM!

The blast felt like a brick wall. It punched him hard in the chest, knocking the air out of his lungs and throwing him back along the trail.

He lay stunned, unable to breathe. As if he was going deeper into a tunnel, his angle of vision receded to a small circle of light.

Then his chest heaved and air gushed into his screaming lungs. “Huuuugh…” he gasped.

Confused, he watched trees swaying wildly all around, their branches snapping and falling down, some on top of him.

After a few minutes or seconds—he wasn’t sure which—his senses filtered through his dazed state. The numb feeling faded, replaced by a buzzing in his head and the weight of something heavy on his chest, pinning him to the ground. He moved his head, breaking through the shroud of foliage. Daylight flashed in his eyes, blinding him momentarily; he squinted against the glare and looked around. Overhead, the tops of the trees and most of their branches had been snapped off.

Slowly the truth dawned; he was buried under a mass of broken tree branches. He wriggled to break free and felt a sharp pain sear along his left arm. The pain was intense; he opened his mouth to scream. But a stronger impulse, an instinct, took over. He did not know why, but he mustn’t call out.

Clenching his teeth, he breathed heavily, his chest rising and falling in rapid succession, the sound of air hissing between his teeth.

Adrenalin coursed through his veins, he had to get control, to think clearly again.

 I need to get out of here. He swallowed hard and willed himself to relax; to lie still, to wait for the pain to ease; for the world to stop hurtling sideways.

Slowly, his breathing calmed, and looking around again, he spotted a tree root sticking out of the ground nearby and reached for it.

Pain shot along his arm, and his breathing became fast and shallow again, growing louder as its urgent sound coursed between his teeth once more.

He forced himself to lie still again, but sweat pooled in his eyes, stinging them, and he squeezed them tight.

He felt his tears and sweat fall across his temple as his sight dimmed.

And in that dim state, between consciousness and oblivion, with his vision blurred, he saw a specter like figure drawing nearer, pulling away some of the debris, reaching for him.

“Who. . .” he slurred.

His voice trailed off as his pain eased. He was in a tunnel once more, his vision and light receding; blackness closed in, and his world was gone.

Chapter 3 - Charlie’s

Light blazed. Mike blinked. Light disappeared, dimmed and returned; a strange shape drifted in and out of focus as a muffled sound became a voice. It grew stronger, more persistent.

“Mike…,” it insisted.

 “Mike,” it called again, but this time he recognized it.

“Mrs....Peyton?” he asked, looking up at Charlie’s mother. “Wha—” he began, and lifted his head to look around.

 “Ugh…” he said, and winced as a headache, like a jolt of lightning, blasted a hole through the top of his skull.

“Take it easy, son,” someone said, pressing a hand gently on his shoulder. He looked along the arm at George, Charlie’s pa.

“Don’t worry,” added Mrs. Peyton, tears welling in her eyes. “Everything’s going to be all right,” she continued, and turned away quickly, grabbing her apron to dab her eyes.

Mike fought his throbbing headache and propped himself onto his elbows. “What’s going on?” he pleaded, squeezing his eyes against a fresh eruption of pain. “Where….where’s Mom… Noel?” he asked, squinting about the room. He recognized it. He was in Mr. and Mrs. Peyton’s bedroom. “How…did I get here?”

Nobody answered. A wave of nausea reached the back of Mike’s throat and he fought to stop from throwing up.

The nausea passed. He thought about his cat. “Is Captain Jack okay?” he asked, and as he spoke, he heard a commotion outside the two-room house.

“More neighbors. . .” Mrs. Peyton said. She looked at Mike. “You just rest now. I’ll explain everything when I get back.” She looked at Charlie. “You stay here and make sure he doesn’t pull off that bandage,” she said, pointing at Mike’s shoulder.

“Okay, Ma.”

“C’mon, George,” she said to Mr. Peyton, leading him through the door.

Mike watched as they walked through the only other room in the house and out the front door, to the neighbors gathered outside. He looked at Charlie, “what’s going on?” he said. He pointed to the group, huddled around Mr. and Mrs. Peyton. “Why are they here?”

Charlie shifted awkwardly.

“How… did I get here?”

Charlie sidled along the bed and bent over him. “Ma will kill me,” he said in a low voice. He glanced quickly through the front door and bent closer to Mike, “I’m not supposed to say a word, but you’ve been out for nearly six hours,” he whispered.

“Six hours?” said Mike, jerking his head in surprise, making it ache even more.

“Ssshh…” urged Charlie, fanning the air with his hands.

“Six hours?” repeated Mike, his tone also hushed.

“What happened?” said Charlie.

“What?” Mike replied, searching Charlie’s eyes.

“I found you lying outside our front door, and no one knows how you got there.” said Charlie.

They stared at each other for a few moments. Then Charlie continued, “do you remember anything?”

“Not much. Noel left my stuff down by the pond, so after you left, I snuck down to get it. While I was there, I got this feeling like something bad was going to happen and bolted home as fast as I could.”

“And?” said Charlie.

“I never made it, because just as I got to the bend in the path, a blast came out of nowhere and knocked me flat. The next thing I knew, the trees were swaying back and forth, and branches were falling on top of me, pinning me down.”

“So how did you get here?”

“Dunno, I think it must have been—just before I passed out, I think I saw someone trying to help me.”

“Who?” said Charlie.

“I couldn’t see very clearly, my eyes were blurry—no one knows how I got here?”

Charlie shrugged.

“Weird,” said Mike.

“Yeah, and it gets even weirder,” said Charlie, pausing. “Who’s Varax-Ra?”

“Who?”

“Varax-Ra. You kept going on and on about him. You said he had to be stopped or he would destroy the world.” Charlie paused and screwed up his face. “You said...you had to stop him.”

“Huh?”

“Told you it gets weirder.”

“Does—” Mike felt another blast of pain pierce his skull, “—Mom, Noel know I’m here?” he asked, narrowing his eyes against the fresh eruption of pain.

Charlie winced, the blood draining from his face.

Despite the pain, Mike sat up suddenly. “They’re all right, aren’t they?”

Charlie turned and glanced outside.

“Charlie?”

But Charlie did not answer, instead, he started to leave. “I—I’ll get mom.”

Mike gripped the back of Charlie’s denim overalls. “Where are they?”

Charlie inclined his head and slowly turned around, a pained expression on his face. His mouth moved, but no words came out at first. He sighed and found his voice. “Mike...you’re...you’re my friend, and I reckon friends oughtn’t to keep secrets…but your Mom...Noel...they must have been in the house” he said, his chin quivering. “Now it’s gone and they’re not here anymore.”

Mike stiffened.

“I’m sorry Mike…they’re gone.”

“Gone?” said Mike. The word seemed so final, it tolled in his brain. And yet it seemed impossible, “they can’t be—they were okay when I left them, just before I ran ho…”

“I’m sorry, Mike; I shouldn’t have told you,” said Charlie and he turned and ran out of the room to the group outside.

Overwhelmed, Mike did not realize Charlie had left as he rolled to one side and brought his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. Not even the sound of Mrs. Peyton hurried footfalls registered as she came hurrying back. “Oh, Mike...Mike,” she said, gathering him in her arms.

Mike clung to her, and sobbed, deep into her shoulder. Gently, she stroked the back of his head and rocked him back and forth, “ssshh...I’m here. I’m here,” she said, her voice a whisper.

Chapter 4 - Alone

One week later, Mike watched Charlie scooping chicken seed into an old biscuit tin when Mrs. Peyton emerged from the back door. “How are you doing, Mike?” she said, ”still not sleeping much?”

Mike nodded.

“I know it’s hard, but I don’t think your mom would like to see you looking so down like this. Do you?”

Mike shook his head.

“Could you do something for me?”

Mike looked up.

“Would you get some bedding for Bud? I think it will do you good,” said Mrs. Peyton.

Slowly Mike made his way to the stable, slid back the retaining bar on the weathered wooden doors and parted them. A strip of evening sunlight split the barn’s gloomy interior, where a mule cart, the tips of its shafts resting on the brown dirt, stood. He pulled the doors hard and flung them wide, bathing the barn in golden sunlight.

Bud, the family mule, craned his neck over his stall door and looked at him with doleful eyes.

Mike went over to him and patted the mule’s neck. “Want some fresh bedding, Bud?” he said, and stepped over the shafts of the mule cart, to a pile of hay on the opposite side of the barn, scooped up an armful and returned.

“Back, Bud,” he said, opening the stall door. “Here you go,” he continued, scattering the hay about. When he’d finished, he stepped out of the stall and closed the door, holding pushing Bud back.

Bud craned his neck over the door again and Mike stroked his muzzle, “it might not be fancy, but at least you have your own bed,” he said as thoughts of the memorial service, police inquiries and being “placed out” to other parts of the country on adoption trains crowded his mind. I’m eleven; who’d adopt me?

He heard Charlie calling the chickens in the yard and walked outside to see him laying a seed trail up the chicken-coop ramp to lure the chickens’ home. “Neat trick,” said Mike.

“Best to keep them in one place, or I’ll be hunting for eggs all over the place in the morning,” replied Charlie, as chickens jostling about him, pecked at the seed and followed the trail, up the ramp and through the coop hatch.

When the last one strutted in, hurried along by Charlie, he raised the ramp –an old advertising sign, Mrs. Wilson’s Patented Heroin Cough Medicine, and pegged it closed against the hatch opening, to keep the chickens inside.

“Mom and Dad were down at the police station again,” “Yeah.”

“The sergeant said he had to contact the Society of Orphans,” said Charlie. Mike stiffened. “Pa asked if you could stay here, but the sergeant said it would raise too many questions.”

“How come?” said Mike.

Charlie paused, and looked at him. “Because I’m supposed to be at boarding school with all the other Tuscarora kids, but the government don’t know about me.”

“Oh, I never knew,” said Mike.

“I have to lie low, but you’d be put on the adoption trains for sure—unless someone here took you in. Ain’t you got any kinfolk? Didn’t your ma ever say?”

Memories of his old home flashed before Mike and his mouth felt dry, “nope.” he croaked.

As they walked towards the house. Mike nudged Charlie’s arm. “What if I got a job?”

They stopped and looked at each other.

“Where?” said Charlie.

“Maybe I could help your pa on his coal rounds.”

“Maybe,” said Charlie. “I’ll ask him after he goes to get his cough medicine.”

“I could go and get it for him,” said Mike.

“He doesn’t want anyone to know,” said Charlie, conspiratorially. “But Ma knows. Sometimes she wants me to follow him—just to make sure he’s okay.”

Charlie opened the back door of the house, and Mike’s stomach rumbled as the aroma of Mrs. Peyton’s cooking wafted out. “I sure am hungry,” said Mike.

Charlie glanced at him. “You’ll get used to it,” he said, leading Mike inside.

“Dinner won’t be long, boys,” said Mrs. Peyton. “George went to get some things. He’ll be back soon.”

Charlie looked knowingly at Mike. “Want me to follow him?” he said.

“It’s okay Charlie, I think he’ll be fine,” said Mrs. Peyton.

Half an hour later, they heard George fumbling with the lock on the front door. Then it swung wide, and Charlie’ Pa, leaned against the doorpost, his large frame filling the opening.

He looked gaunt. Mrs. Peyton rushed to his side and put a gentle arm around him. “You okay?” she asked, ushering him to the table, where he slumped onto a chair. “You’ll feel better after you get some food into you.”

Mrs. Peyton hurried to the stove, picked up two dinner plates arranged like a clamshell, and returned. Carefully she lifted off the top plate, sending a cloud of steam billowing to the ceiling.

The steam cleared. “Smells great, Josie,” said George, putting an arm around her waist.

She looked down at him and blushed. “The boys are watching,” she said, looking at Charlie and Mike, and patting her hair. And, planting a kiss on his forehead she eased his arm from around her waist.

Grinning, George winked at Mike and Charlie, and lifted a forkful of food to his mouth.

 “I saw that wink, George Peyton,” said Mrs. Peyton, pointing an accusatory finger playfully at him, as Mike and Charlie glanced at each other and smiled.

They tucked into their food and when they were finished eating, Mike tapped Charlie under the table and gestured toward George. Charlie looked at Mike questioningly for a moment, “oh”, he mouthed, and turned to his father, slumped in the chair. “Pa?” he said.

George jerked his head and looked around. “Huh?” he said, sitting upright as he smacked his lips. “What’s up?”

“I was kind of wondering...well, me and Mike were thinking.” he gestured in Mike’s direction, “do you think Mike could come work with us—you know, delivering coal?”

George looked from Charlie to Mike.

Mike felt Charlie nudge him under the table with his foot. Mike looked at Charlie, who was staring back pointedly at him, gesturing with his eyes for Mike to say something.

Mike perked up, “yes that’s right Mr. Peyton, I...I could look after Bud or maybe help load coal,” he said.

“Yeah, Pa, he could shovel coal into the basements, or you could get him a job at the coal depot. You said the manager is always looking for people to break up the big coal lumps.”

Mike nodded.

“Well, Pa?” said Charlie.

George looked at Mrs. Peyton. She was grimacing, “I’m not sure, Mike,” she said. “Your mother wanted you to finish school. We often talked about it. She said it was very important to her —she even schooled Charlie for us when she found we didn’t want him to go to boarding school.”

Mike looked quizzically at Charlie. “Just like I told you, me being Tuscarora and all,” said Charlie.

“Charlie!” his mother said.

“It’s okay, Ma. Mike knows I’m Tuscarora. Right, Mike?”

Mike nodded.

“See, Ma?”

Mr. Peyton covered his mouth, but Mike saw the smile in his eyes.

Mrs. Peyton glared at him. “And what are you smiling about?”

“Nothing,” Charlie’s Pa said, raising his hands in mock surrender. “I didn’t say a word. But now that you ask,” he said jokingly, “it will only be for a little while. It will give Mike some time to sort things out.”

“I don’t know. . .” she said.

“Just let him try it,” said George.

Then after what Mike thought was a long time, she nodded. “Well, all right so— maybe for just a little while...and I mean a short while, George Peyton. Just till school opens, mind.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Peyton. You too, Mr. Peyton. You won’t regret it. I’ll work hard, I promise,” said Mike.

Mrs. Peyton straightened an errant hair on Mike’s head, just like Mom used to do, I’m gonna work hard, Mom. I’ll make you proud of me, he thought. I’ll even finish school...somehow.

Chapter 5 – Coaldust

Next morning, Mike followed Charlie to the stable to begin his first day’s work.  “Okay Mike, just pick up the cart shafts and hold them level while I get Bud and harness him up,” said Charlie.

“Okay,” said Mike and he lifted the tips of the shafts up, levelling the cart.

Charlie removed the harness from its rail and draped it over Bud, its shaft loops hanging loosely on each side of the mule. Then leading Bud to the front of the cart, he lined him up between the cart-shafts. “Back, Bud,” he said, urging the mule backwards.

Bud stamped his hooves and backed up. Mike slipped the loop on his side over the shaft, while Charlie reached for the other loop with his free hand and slipped it over the other shaft, all the while urging Bud to back up.

“Whoa,” said Charlie when Bud was in position.

Mike reached under Bud to buckle Bud’s bellyband and cinched it tight.

Just then, George entered the stable and ran his hand along Bud’s back. “All harnessed I see?” he said, checking the harness. “Good job, boys,” he said, then clambered up onto the wagon. “Ready for your first day, Mike?”

“Yes, sir,” said Mike, anxious to get started.

Mike and Charlie went to opposite sides of the cart and climbed up to sit on either side of Charlie’s Pa.

“Get up there, Bud,” said George, sending a wave rippling along the leather reins.

They rolled onto the main road and turned toward Lewiston, the morning sun at their backs, Bud trotting happily ahead. Twenty minutes later, the packed clay of Ridge Road gave way to the red‑bricked pavement of Center Street and the muffled sound of Bud hooves hitting the ground became sharper.

Bud did not seem to mind. With his harness jangling, he trotted on, the rise and fall of his gait making the cart shaft and the three riders jolt up and down, in time with the clip-clop of his hooves. Mike held onto the side of his seat and watched familiar buildings go by. Somehow they all looked so different now. Now, that so much had changed, for him.

“The tram lines are on your side, Mike. Make sure we don’t get the wheels stuck in them,” said George.

“Okay, Mr. Peyton,” said Mike, and he looked over the side as they crossed over the shining steel lines and continued down the middle of the street.

Ahead, a cloud of smoke billowed up from a train passing through the tunnel under the street, by the coal depot, where coal trucks waited their turn on the roadside to be loaded.

“Come round,” said George, maneuvering Bud skillfully behind the last truck. “Whoa,” he said, bringing him to a halt.

As they waited, every few minutes, Mike heard a loud whooshing sound from deep inside the depot, and moments later, the line of trucks moved forward.

At last, the truck ahead rolled into the shed and stopped beneath the spout of a giant metal funnel. A store man pulled a lever on the side of it and a stream of coal whooshed from the funnel, to a chute, and onto the bed of the truck

As quickly as it started, the flow stopped, the clamor of coal gave way to a ringing in Mike’s ears and the loaded truck rolled forward, exiting through the opposite gate.

Then it was their turn. “Get up there, Bud,” said George, sending another ripple of reins smacking off Bud’s hide. Bud shuddered but did not move. George flapped the reins again and Bud craned his head and looked back at him.

“Smart mule,’ said George. “Here, Charlie,” he said, handing him the reins. He climbed down from the cart and walking forward, removed his scarf from around his neck as he went. He held Bud by the halter, and rubbed his forehead, “don’t like the dust, do you boy? Me neither,” he said, and wrapped the scarf over Bud’s blinkered eyes, blindfolding him. “Walk on, Bud,” he said, leading the mule by the head into the coal store.

As they went, Mike felt his eyes water from the dusty interior.

“Whoa, boy,” said George, positioning the cart under the coat chute.

Mike, his eyes barely open against the dust, squinted at the funnel. Hanging from it he spotted a small sledgehammer, “what’s that for?” he said to Charlie.

“It’s used for…”

Whoosh.

Charlie’s voice was drowned in the screech of coal as the store man pulled on the lever.

Quickly, Mike pressed his hands over his ears. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the noise stopped. Mike took his hands from his ears and peered around, to see the reason.

A large lump of coal poked from the mouth of the funnel, choking it. “Darn, another coal boulder,” said the store man, climbing onto the wagon and reaching for the sledgehammer. “I’ll soon sort this out,” he said, tapping the hammer twice on the lump to steady his aim, before drawing back and swinging the hammer.

Smack! The hammer smashed against the lump, shattering it and the flow of coal continued onto their cart, burying the store-man’s boots. With practiced ease he lifted them clear, and catching the side of the cart, vaulted over it to the ground.

Almost as quickly as it started, the noise subsided. Mike looked around to see the last pebble of coal bounce down the chute and onto the wagon.

“Walk on, Bud,” said George and they rolled through the dusty shed toward the exit and the bright sunshine beyond. “There you go, feller,” he said, removing the mule’s blindfold before climbing back to his seat. “On,” he said, flapping the reins again, causing a puff of coal dust to rise along Bud’s flanks that sparkled in the bright morning sunshine.

They moved on, and fifteen minutes later halted outside a neatly kept house. “Okay, first stop,” said George dropping onto the ground. He looked up at them, “time to start work boys, down you come.”

Mike and Charlie climbed down. They stood watching as George held Bud by the head and lined him up with the house’s driveway. “Back, Bud,” said George, guiding the back of the cart toward a coal hatch in the basement wall. “Whoa, Bud,” he said, when the back of the cart was positioned by the hatch. Moments later, the harness undone, George held the cart shafts level, clear of the loops, “okay, Charlie, walk Bud out, Mike you get the shovels” he said.

Charlie hitched Bud to a nearby bush. Standing between the shafts, George held them as if he was holding a giant-size wheelbarrow. “Stand back, boys,” he said, raising the shafts high above his head and tipping the cart and sending the coal sliding to the ground by the basement hatch, engulfing himself in a cloud of dust.

Almost immediately, George began hacking and coughing. Mike, holding the two shovels, looked at Charlie, who was wincing and holding his breath with puffed cheeks, waiting for his Pa to breathe normally again.

“See if they want the coal…shoveled into the basement…and don’t forget the fifty cents,” croaked George between fits of coughing.

“Pah…” uttered Charlie, releasing his pent up breath and un-puffing his cheeks. “Okay, Pa,” he said, heading to the front door of the house.

He knocked on the door and a woman answered. “Pa wants to know if you want the coal in the basement for fifty cents, Miss.”

“Yes, please,” the woman said, holding her hand out and placing some coins into Charlie’s outstretched hand. “Keep the change,” she said with a smile.

Charlie looked down at the money. “Sixty cents. Thanks, Miss,” he said, smiling back at her as she eased door closed. “She always tips,” he said, taking one of the shovels from Mike, “Okay, time for your first job.”

They set to work shoveling the coal through the basement hatch, Mike matching Charlie’s well-practiced rhythm with alternating strokes of shoveling and swinging coal. The pace became relentless. Whew, this is hard, he thought.

He straightened and looked at Charlie, whose pace did not slow. Charlie looked at him and straightened, “hey, no slacking,” he said, laughingly.

George joined in and wheezed out a laugh that quickly became another coughing fit.

“You okay, Pa?” said Charlie.

“I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”

By midday, after delivering more coal than he cared to think about, Mike was exhausted and hungry. So when George stopped for lunch by a horse trough on Center Street, Mike reached eagerly for his lunch pack and can of milk, while Bud stuck his head in the trough.

George took Bud’s nose bag from under the driver’s seat and poured some horse feed into it. “Here, Bud,” he said, shaking the bag with a rustling sound.

Bud stopped drinking and raising his head, eagerly thrust his nose into the bag, with water still dripping from his chin.

Mike and Charlie bit into their sandwiches. “Finish your lunch, boys, while I to go to the store,” said George, hitching the nose-bag handle over Bud’s ears.

Mike, his hands raised, was about to take a second bite of his sandwich, lowered his hands and looked up. “We’ll come with—”

Charlie elbowed him, “—it’s okay, Pa. We’ll wait here,” he said.

When George was out of earshot, Mike turned to Charlie. “How come you wanted me to be quiet?”

“He’s getting cough medicine. Ma will go mental if she finds out he gets more than one bottle a day.”

“Oh,” said Mike.

“Pa says I can’t go telling what I don’t know. But he don’t know that Ma already knows.”

Mike looked past Charlie and in the widening distance, saw George hurrying down the street to the drugstore.

“Sometimes he gets really bad.”

Mike stared at him.

“He doesn’t hit me or Ma or anything, but when he takes too much or the cravings get real bad, he ain’t good to be around,” said Charlie. “We just want to make sure he’s okay and doesn’t do anything crazy, is all.”

Mike saw the pain in Charlie’s eyes. “How come he don’t stop?”

“Says he tries. First he was taking it to ease his pain; then he got hooked on it.”

“What pain?” said Mike.

“He got gassed in the war and his insides got all burned up, and it makes it hard for him to breathe. I hate it when he gets bad, and—and no one can help him. I wish he’d stop delivering coal, because the dust always makes him worse.” said Charlie.

“Yeah, I noticed,’ said Mike.

“Ma don’t say much about his drinking the cough medicine anymore, because it always causes a row.” Charlie looked down Center Street, towards the drug store. “She even told him to quit delivering coal, but Pa says we need the money. ‘Got to eat,’ he says,” he said, sighing.

Mike looked at his sandwich for a long time without eating. “Best eat that,” said Charlie, gesturing at the sandwich, “there ain’t much else.”

“Yeah,” said Mike, smiling weakly. He felt like a freeloader, an intruder, helpless.

Together they sat side by side quietly eating their lunches until George returned, a little unsteady on his feet. “Ready for some more work?” said George, removing Bud’s nose bag.

Soon the day became routine. And when they were loading more coal as the depot and another bolder got stuck in the chute, nobody batted an eyelid. Not even when the store man climbed onto their cart and hit it with the sledgehammer, That is, until Mike was hit with a shard of coal. “Ouch!” he said, rubbing his cheek. “That smarts.”

“Sorry, kid, best keep your head down,” the store man said. He took another swing at the lump and it shattered, releasing the rest of their load and sending it crashing onto their cart.

“That was a big chunk of coal, mister,” said Mike, his face still stinging.

“Sure was, kid.” said the depot manager who had emerged from the small hut that served as an office.

George gestured to a heavy metal table with a grille for a top. “Say, you wouldn’t be looking for someone to break up the big lumps on the grader, would ya? Mike here’s looking for work.”

“Maybe...” The manager looked at Mike. “Looks a bit scrawny, so it won’t pay much.”

“How about me, Pa?” said Charlie.

The manager looked at Charlie, sizing him up. “Tell you what. Seeing as how the usual boy’s sick again and I’m a bit backed up, I’ll do you a favor. I’ll take them both on.”

“Well, we sure could use the money,” said George. He looked up at Charlie sitting alongside Mike on the wagon. “Just don’t tell your ma.”

Mike and Charlie climbed up and stood on the grader, a long metal grille with openings just large enough to let fist-size lumps through. “What do we do now, mister?” said Mike.

The manager pointed to sledgehammers lying on the grille. “Start smashing each boulder till they fit through.”

Mike and Charlie bent down and took a hammer each. It’s heavy, thought Mike.

Charlie rolled a boulder onto the table and raising his hammer above his head, brought it crushingly down onto the coal, shattering it and sending it through the grille to the floor below.

“See Mike, easy,” said Charlie.

Mike reached for a bolder and imitating Charlie, sent the coat to the floor below.

They set to work, and boulder by boulder, blow by blow, they sent a rain of coal cascading down through the grille and a cloud of dust bellowing upwards. After a while Mike felt a dryness in his throat. He straightened and looked around. Through the haze, he spotted the store-man nearby. “Hey, mister, got any water to drink here?” he said.

“Yeah, over there, kid,” the store-man replied, pointing to a water pail on a low table, a ladle handle poking from under its lid. “Just don’t go there too often or the manager will moan, and don’t forget to put the lid back,” he said.

“I need a drink too,” said Charlie, dropping to the floor. Mike lifted the lid and brought the ladle to his mouth. “Aahh…” he said, handing the ladle to Charlie.

Two ladles of water later, Mike noticed a grin spreading across Charlie’s dust-covered face. “What?” he said.

“Bet I can bust up more than you,” said Charlie.

“You’re on,” Mike replied.

They climbed onto the grader and stood at each end of the grille, facing each other like gladiators, with hammers in hand and large coal boulders at their feet. “Ready?” said Charlie.

“On three,” said Mike.

“One…”

“Two…”

“Three...”

They brought the hammers down, and soon a flurry of hammer blows rained down on the large lumps at their feet, sending dust and coal shards flying it every direction. Coughing and hacking, they pulverized the coal into submission and soon the depot was thicker than usual with coal dust.

Spurred on by the competition, they kept up their coal smashing frenzy, adding another one to their tally and counting out loud with each busted lump.

“Take it easy, boys! It’s like a dust storm in here,” shouted the store man, coughing.

Surprised, Mike and Charlie stopped and grinned at each other. “How many you busted?” said Charlie.

“One hundred and ten.”

“Me too,” said Charlie, and he swung his hammer at another chunk, sending its shattered remains onto the pile under the table. “One eleven, I win,” he said.

Later that evening, when they arrived home, Mrs. Peyton hardly recognized Mike from Charlie. “Merciful hour, Charlie, did you roll in the dust or what,” she said, pointing at Mike.

“I’m Mike, Mrs. Peyton.”

“Well, you two look a sight. It’s no wonder I got you confused. I’ll heat some water, and you two can wash up before dinner.”

While they waited for the water to warm up, Mike looked around Charlie’s home. They don’t really have much for themselves, he though, looking at the home’s make‑do interior and sparse furnishings. It was as if he was seeing it for the first time.

He thought about the food they gave him and Mr. Peyton delivering coal and his coughing, of Charlie going hungrier. This isn’t right. Mom wouldn’t want me to freeload like this. I have to pay my own way. I’ve got to get a better job, he thought.


Chapter 6 – Captain Jack

Weeks later, Mike and Charlie continued to pound coal. Mike felt a little happier, At least I’m bringing in some money, he thought.

So, when Mrs. Peyton asked for him and Charlie they to clean out Bud’s still one Sunday, Mike did not hesitate.

“Aw, Ma” said Charlie, rising to his feet and following Mike.

Later, after two hours of cutting and stacking firewood, and cleaning up around the back yard, Charlie turned to Mike, “We still got to do Bud’s stall as well.”

“There sure is a lot of work to be done around here,” said Mike, turning wearily to the stable, followed by Charlie.

When they cleaned out Bud’s stall, they gathered an armful of hay each, Charlie nudged Mike, “someone’s coming,” he said, gesturing through the open stable door.

Mike peered over his armful of hay, and saw a small truck slow on the road by the house and come to a halt. The driver’s door opened and a woman got out.

“Know her?” said Charlie.

“Nope, never saw her before. I was hoping you did,” replied Charlie.

Mike shook his hay into Bud’s feed trough, all the while craning his neck to see what was happening. “Do you suppose she’s from the adoption society?” said Mike as the woman walked to the front of the house and disappeared from view.

Charlie dropped his armful of hay and ran to the house, followed by Mike. “Ma—there’s a woman heading this way,” he said. “She’s not coming for Mike, is she?” he said.

Mrs. Peyton stopped sweeping the floor and straightened. Putting the broom aside, she wiped her hands on her apron and turned to look back at Mike.

Charlie tentatively opened the front door. Mike caught a glimpse of the woman with her arm raised, about to knock. Mrs. Peyton went and stood alongside Charlie, blocking Mike’s view.

“Can I help you?” said Mrs. Peyton.

Mike stood on his toes, trying to get a look at the newcomer and strained to listen over the sound of blood pulsing in his ears. He looked at Charlie’s pa, who had just woken up, his arms still folded, sitting at the table. The conversation at the doorway stopped and Mrs. Peyton turned to look back at him. “Someone’s here to see you,” she said, beckoning him and stepping aside.

Charlie swung the door open fully. “Hello, Mike,” said the woman.

Mike stared at her and the bundle she was holding.

“It’s okay, Mike,” said Charlie, nodding encouragingly.

Mike walked towards her, “hello…” he said.

The woman held out the bundle to him as he approached.

Mike reached to take it from her, and a head popped out.

It was a cat, with only one eye. Mike’s heart skipped a beat. “Captain Jack,” he yelled, taking his pet, and joyously wrapping his arms around it, “you’re alive!” he said, hugging it gently.

The cat purred and nuzzled his head against Mike’s cheek. Mike closed his eyes and let a wave of relief wash over him, he hadn’t felt so happy in such a long while. He opened his eyes and smiled at the woman, “thank you…” he said, his voice breaking. “Where…where did you find— how did you know he’s mine?” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.

“Your mother told me how much Captain Jack means to you,” the woman said.

Mrs. Peyton stood back and looked the woman up and down. “You knew Anne?” she said, moving between Mike and the lady.

“Yes indeed. We have stayed in touch for a number of years now. I also knew Denis,” the woman replied.

Mrs. Peyton, reached back and moved Mike out of view, “how do you know Mike’s mom and dad?” she said.

“I met them in Russia. Denis was working on the Trans-Siberian Railway at the time. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“How did you know Mike was here?” said Mrs. Peyton.

“I live in the village, and since the tragedy, everyone’s been talking.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Peyton, stepping aside and moving out of Mike’s line of sight.

The lady turned to Mike and held out her hand. “Hello, Mike, my name is Nolos-Gweh, and I’m delighted to meet you at last.”

Mike reached and shook her hand tentatively, “Hi…” he said.

“Where are my manners?” said Mrs. Peyton. “Would you like to come in? I’m afraid we only have a cup of coffee to offer.”

“Thank you. But a glass of water will do just fine,” said Nolos-Gweh, stepping through the door.

Mrs. Peyton went to the water pitcher, filled a glass and offered it to Nolos-Gweh. “Thank you,” she said, taking the glass and drinking. Mike watched, confused by the warmth he felt toward her.

Nolos-Gweh lowered her glass, smiled and cupped her hands around it. “Could I have a word in private with both of you?” she said to Mr. and Mrs. Peyton.

Mr. Peyton gestured toward the back door. Mike held Captain Jack a little closer as he watched them walk outside. Halfway between the house and the stable, Nolos‑Gweh stopped and said something to Mr. and Mrs. Peyton. They stopped and turned to face her.

Moments later, Mrs. Peyton clamped a hand to her mouth. She looked at George and turning to the back door, looked at Mike and Charlie, who had come to stand alongside him.

Stirring uneasily, Mike watched as Nolos-Gweh took another drink of water and returned the glass to Mrs. Peyton. Then, turning to the house, she walked back through the back door, between Mike and Charlie, followed by Charlie’s parents.

“What’s going on, Ma?” said Charlie.

“You’ll see,” said Mrs. Peyton. She was positively beaming. She turned to Mike. “Mike—” she said.

“Yes, Mrs. Peyton?”

“Well, Mike—well now—Miss Gweh here—” uttered Mrs. Peyton, seemingly lost for words.

Nolos-Gweh looked knowingly at Mrs. Peyton and smiled, pointing to herself. Mrs. Peyton gestured affirmatively and Nolos‑Gweh bent toward Mike. “Would you like to come and stay with me?”

A confusion of emotion gushed through Mike, he looked from Nolos-Gweh to Mrs. Peyton, who was nodding her head enthusiastically at him.

Mike, was hardly able to take it in and stood staring at Nolos-Gweh, speechless.

“You don’t have to answer right away. You can stay here until you decide,” said Mr. Peyton.

Mike nodded, “I think so…”

“It means you don’t have to leave,” interjected Charlie.

He looked from Charlie to Nolos-Gweh, “I mean yes, ma’am,” he said, coming to his senses. “I won’t be a burden, I’ll even get a job to pay my own way and—”

Nolos-Gweh held up her hand, “—there’s no need, Mike,” said Nolos-Gweh. “I can take care of both of us. Indeed I would be more than honored to do so,” she said.

“In Lewiston? You said you lived in the village?” he said.

“Yes, Mike. But there’s no rush, you don’t have to answer right away. Take your time and talk it over with Mr. and Mrs. Peyton first. Then when you’ve decided, you can let me know. Would that do?”

“Yes, ma’am. I mean I’d love to. Thank you, ma’am,” said Mike.

Nolos-Gweh smiled. “Good, I’ll leave you now, and when you’re ready, you can tell Mr. and Mrs. Peyton, they know how to contact me. Thank you,” she said. Then turning around, she retraced her steps to her truck.

Mike, Charlie, and his parents crowded around the doorway, waving and smiling. Nolos-Gweh stuck an arm out of the driver’s-side window and waved back as she drove off, her hand still waving as she disappeared around a bend.

Throughout the rest of the day and into the night, Mike wondered what he should do, his mood swinging from giddy to concern. What about Charlie’s pa and his coal round, I just can’t leave them, they need the money, he thought. And when he climbed the ladder to his mattress on the floor above Mrs. and Mr. Peyton’s bedroom, he found it impossible to sleep.

He lay on his back, listening to Charlie’s breathing getting heavier. Too excited to sleep, he had to talk with someone. He nudged Charlie, “what do you think of Nolos-Gweh?” he said.

Charlie stirred. “Huh?”

“Nolos-Gweh—do you think she’s for real?”

“Well...Ma and Pa thinks she’s okay, even though we only just met. But, then again, what other choice have you got?”

“Yeah, not much, I suppose,” said Mike. He stared into the inky blackness of the loft, “she seems okay…better than okay, she makes me feel good, it’s like I know her…know what I mean?”

Charlie did not reply. “Charlie?” said Mike, as the sound of Charlie’s breathing became heavier again.

Hours went by. I need a drink of water, he thought, and rolled off the mattress. He groped his way to the top of the ladder and swinging his leg over the edge, found the top rung and began to climb down.

As he descended, he heard the hushed sound of talking from the bedroom of Charlie’s ma and pa—and they were talking about him, their voices ranging from a whisper to a low volume.

He looked down and saw a faint glow coming from under their door as the conversation grew a little louder.

“...but the police will be asking a load of questions and we could lose Charlie,” said Mr. Peyton.

Mike felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

“Well, I told Mike he could stay, and I’m not going back on my word,” said Mrs. Peyton. “He’s been through enough already, his dad, Denis, gone barely two years and now this—I just can’t do it.”

“I know it’s hard, Josie,” said Mr. Peyton. “But, the sergeant said we just can’t keep Mike. And if there’s no one around here to take him, the sergeant won’t have any choice, he’ll have to hand him over to the adoption society. And goodness knows where he’ll end up then.”

“I know, but I want to be sure he’ll be taken good care of,” Mrs. Peyton replied.

“Look, it’s up to Mike. And since you’re going to be doing the housework for Nolos-Gweh, you can keep an eye on him.”

Mike scrunched up his face as Mrs. Peyton spoke

“I wonder if that’s why Nolos-Gweh gave me the job. You know...for me to keep an eye on Mike.”

“Maybe,” said Mr. Peyton.

“What do you mean? Maybe. It couldn’t have worked out better. Not to mention what she’s paying me. It’s enough for you to stop working. But she said to keep it quiet for now, until Mike makes up his mind.”

“She seems to have his best interest at heart,” said Mr. Peyton.

“It’s late. Let’s get some sleep,” said Mrs. Peyton.

The glow of light from under the door dimmed and went out. On the ladder, Mike hung suspended, his thirst forgotten.

Mike didn’t know how long he clung there, but when he tried to move, his legs felt numb. Then, as slowly and as quietly as he could, he climbed up and lay on the mattress once more.

Charlie was fast asleep, his heavy breathing filling the darkness. Mike closed his eyes and felt Captain Jack curl up at his feet. Tomorrow was another day, and for the first time, in a long time, it felt good to know, what he was going to do.

Chapter 7 - Santuary

The next day, when Mike told Charlie’s Ma and Pa his decision, Mr. Peyton went to tell Nolos-Gweh.

Forty-five minutes later, he returned in her truck. Charlie rushed to the window when he heard the truck stopping. “Pa’s back, Ma,” he said.

Mike clutched Captain Jack as Mrs. Peyton opened the door for Nolos-Gweh, followed by Mr. Peyton. “Hello, Mike,” said Nolos-Gweh. “Mr. Peyton told me you would like to come live with me.”

Mike nodded. “Yes, Ma’am” he said, shyly.

Nolos-Gweh looked at Charlie’s parents. They nodded and smiled. “Perhaps Mrs. Peyton and Charlie would like to come along to help you settle in?”

“Yes, we’d love to,” said Mrs. Peyton.

Twenty minutes later, Nolos-Gweh turned to Mike. “Ready to go home,” she said.

Mike nodded, and holding Captain Jack in his arms, climbed onto the back of the truck and sat alongside Charlie. “Thanks for everything, Mrs. Peyton,” he said. as she sat up front with Nolos-Gweh.

They drove along Ridge Road, and Mike watched orchards and vineyards drift by, his head lolling gently from side to side against the cab, feeling at peace.

Soon, they drove along Center Street in Lewiston and came to a stop. “This is it, Mike,” said Nolos-Gweh, her arm extended out of the truck window, pointing at a small white house, not quite two stories tall, with a porch.

“We’re here, Captain,” said Mike, and climbing down from the truck, he stepped onto the porch, in front of the house’s red door.

“The door’s unlocked,” said Nolos-Gweh. “I hope you like it,” she said.

“It’s great,” said Mike, and opening the door, he stepped over the threshold and stood at the bottom of a stairway, against the left wall of the house. Beside it he noticed a trapdoor. “Is that the way to the basement,” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Nolos-Gweh, and she moved past him to the large family room, occupying the front of the house. She stood in front of a large red-bricked fireplace, almost as wide as the house itself. “This is the family room,” she said, and the kitchen’s this way,” she said, pointing to one of the two doorways at either end of the fireplace. She went through the far one followed by Mike.

In the kitchen Nolos-Gweh pointed to a door leading outside, “porch and side garden,” she said, opening it. Mike walked outside and stood under the side porch. There was a row of firewood, stacked against the right wall of the house. “At least the wood won’t get wet,” he said, gesturing to the split wood. “Mom made us go out in all-weathers—” he felt his face redden and stopped, “I didn’t mean it like that, ma’am,” he said.

“I understand, Mike. You can call me Nolos if you like, I won’t mind.”

“That would be okay?” he said, a little surprised. “Mom told me to say ma’am or sir when talking to grown-ups.”

“I don’t think she’d mind, seeing as how you’ll be living here, and quite frankly, I would prefer it, less formal,” she said, smiling.

“Okay...Nolos,” he said. “I guess it will take some getting used to,” he continued, stepping back through the kitchen door and following her to the family room.

Charlie descended the stairs, follow by Mrs. Peyton. She looked over the bannister at Mike. “Everything’s ready, for you. I know you’ll be very happy here,” she said. “And not alone that, but Nolos-Gweh said she’ll be glad to home school Charlie, along with yourself.”

Mike looked at Charlie, “that will be great,” he said.

Charlie shrugged, resignedly.

Mrs. Peyton bristled. “You be thankful to Miss Gweh, or you’ll answer to me, Charlie Peyton,” she said.

Charlie stepped out of arms reach of his mother. “Yeah...great,” he said, unenthusiastically.

Mrs. Peyton glared at him. “It’s getting late,” she said, and reached for her coat, hanging on a coat hook by the front door, “and we’d better be getting home. Come on, Charlie,” she said, hustling him out the door.

When Mrs. Peyton pulled the door closed, Nolos-Gweh turned to Mike. “Your bedroom is upstairs. There’s a light switch just inside the bedroom door.”

“You’ve got electricity?” he said and looked at the ceiling with its single light bulb. “Mom always wanted electricity,” he said, stepping on the stairs.

At the top, he pushed open the left door of two, leading to the bedrooms, and made wide sweeps in the darkened room with his hand, to find the light switch. Clicking it on, he narrowed his eyes against its sudden glare. Sure’s a lot brighter than I expected.

Captain Jack walked past him and curled up on his bed, against one wall. Mike went over and sat down beside him, “this is your new home, Captain.” he said, stroking its sleek fur.

Captain Jack looked at him and blinked.

Looking around, he saw a washstand and basin on a stand under the only window in the room, in the right wall of the house. Mike stood and walked over to it. Parting the curtains, he made to look out, but only saw his own reflection against the darkness outside. He stared at it and thought about how things had changed,—of his old home—, and how he had somewhere to call home again.

A twinge of melancholy crept over him. He thought of Mom, and Mrs. Peyton’s words came back to him. She wouldn’t like to see me down so, he thought.

Taking a deep breath, he turned away, and walked to his bed. “Ready,” he said, and picking up Captain Jack, made his way downstairs to the kitchen.

 “Like your bedroom?” she said

“Yes, ma’am,” Mike looked sheepishly at her. “I mean, Nolos.”

They sat and ate supper, the sounds of Captain Jack lapping milk adding to the sense of peace Mike felt. “You’ve got loads of books. Is it okay to borrow them? My library card was at home when—”

“Of course, they’re yours as well, feel fr—”

“—mine?”

“Yes and don’t worry about your library card, we’ll can get a new one later, if you still want to.”

After supper, Mike ran a finger across the spine of each book, taking in the titles, “these are some of my favorites. You even have Jules Verne,” he said, removing a book, “this one’s about flying to the moon.”

“I thought you’d like it,” she said, and flicked on a nearby lamp. The intensity of the lamp blazed in his eyes.

“That’s really bright,” he said.

“All the better for reading by,” she said, and Mike laughed. “They last a lot longer too,” she continued.

Mike began to read the book and it wasn’t until she called him from the kitchen that he realized how late it was. “Would you like some milk and cookies before bed?” she asked.

“Yes please,” he said, and marking his spot in the book, returned it to the shelf. He picked up Captain Jack and rounded the fireplace to the kitchen.

“I guess Captain Jack would like some supper too,” Nolos-Gweh said, and she poured some milk into a saucer and placed it on the floor.

They sat down, facing each other. Cookies and milk in front of Mike, a newspaper and glass of water in front of Nolos-Gweh. When he finished, he looked at Nolos-Gweh, he wanted to thank her. “I’ll do the dishes,” he said, rising and making his way to the sink.

She rustled the paper and looked at him, “thank you.”

When he’d finished, he yawned. “Bed time?” she queried.

“I feel pretty tired,” he said, drying his hands, “good night, Nolos.”

“Good night, Mike, I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” he said and with feet feeling like lead, made his way upstairs.

Ever since he started delivering coal with Charlie and his Pa, sleep came as soon as he pulled the covers over himself; but that night, he didn’t even remember hitting the bed, or feel Captain Jack curling up at his feet.

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