Hey.. how are you?
Are you looking for a gripping, moving read?
Start an incredible journey with ‘Shona’ book 1 in the series.
Get the kettle on and enjoy your binge read travelling across 1950s Deep South.
“Get the goddamn hell outta here, you filthy varmint! Before I put my boot through your ass.”
It was sunset and the humid Mississippi heat was waning as Shona Jackson shrank down to her haunches behind a parked car, startled by the man’s shout. Peeking through the gap between the fender and the wheel arch, hardly daring to breathe, she watched as the screen door to the house flew open and a stocky, greasy-haired, forty-something man wearing oil-stained work pants and a grubby undershirt appeared at the top of the porch steps, his bloated face red with fury. He took a swig from his bottle of Budweiser and scratched at his unshaven chin, his eyes scanning the area below him for any signs of movement. Large magnolia trees lined the wide street as far as the eye could see, and each garden in the neighborhood was heavily fringed by shrubs just beginning to flower again in the late-March climate. Shona slowly crept out from the car and hid behind the rotting wooden slats of the fence at the side of the man’s property, taking advantage of the cover provided by the overgrown bushes.
As the opening theme tune of This is Your Life drifted from the house, tempting him back to his TV, the man’s eyes narrowed when he noticed that at the end of his garden path, his trash can lid was lying upside down. A shadow beside it became the sole focus of his interest. He picked up a piece of grit and threw it at the can, yelling again.
“What you pitchin’ a fit for, Bob?” a shrill voice rang out from inside the house.
“That damn stray again,” Bob replied, casting his gravelly voice backward over his shoulder towards his wife.
“Well, don’t let it get your feathers ruffled. Get back in here. Ralph’s about to bring out Reverend Tucker,” she hollered.
“Comin’,” Bob grunted, taking one last look around.
Shona ducked out of sight again. She pulled her burgundy pageboy cap down over her eyes and peeked through the slats and weeds, waiting for Bob to disappear back into his house. After making sure the coast was clear, she slung her satchel over her shoulder, crept over to next door’s trash can and lifted its lid.
“Whoa… You gotta be kidding me,” she whispered to herself.
In her twenty-two years of life, she’d rarely smelled anything more repugnant. She rested the lid on the ground as quietly as possible and began sifting through a heap of sweet potato peelings and fish heads. Next to them, she spotted a hunk of bread and some fresh-looking dinner scraps. After picking them out, she flicked off the bits of debris clinging to them. She slipped the food into her pocket, swept back her long blonde bangs and tucked them underneath the peak of her cap. Rolling up the sleeves of her dark brown jacket, Shona rifled deeper.
She spotted a glint of silver on the ground. She reached down to pick it up but, in her urgency to find out the coin’s value, her boot struck the lid and sent it crashing to the sidewalk. Startled, her blue eyes widened, seeing the neighbor’s porch light illuminate. Stooping low, she swiped up the coin and scuttled back behind the fence. After a few heart-pounding moments, the light clicked off and Shona relaxed her shoulders. Remembering the coin now pressed inside her clammy palm, she unclenched her fist. With her eyes shining as brightly as the Franklin half dollar did in the dim amber glow of the streetlight, she flipped it over, then ran her fingertips along the 1955 date stamp, the Liberty Bell raised proudly on its reverse side. Shona grinned. It was brand new, minted only a year ago.
“In God we trust indeed,” she whispered to herself, tucking the coin into the top pocket of her blue denim overshirt. Scanning the quiet street, Shona stood up and stretched out, brushing the powdery dirt off her taupe khaki pants. She was already filthy from her long journey, but habit was habit.
Following the signs towards town, hoping to find a grocery store still open, Shona began to notice in more detail the deprivation of the neighborhood she’d somehow wandered into. For the most part cars were parked neatly in driveways, but some, in various states of disrepair, had been left languishing in front yards, rusting and redundant. Clotheslines were hanging by bent metal poles and some front gates were hanging by only one hinge. It wasn’t the sort of place Shona wanted to hang around for long in and so she quickened her pace, her body beginning to shiver as the darkness of the evening started to surround her. She walked as quickly as her leaden legs could carry her, nibbling on the corners of the stale hunk of bread, with only the cold gravy pools it had previously sat in softening the crust. After a mile or so, Shona saw a large painted sign: WELCOME TO RIVERSIDE
A little further on was a crossroads where the town’s truck repair garage sprawled its vast area across one corner. The paint on the dark green weatherboarding was pristine, the concrete forecourt scrubbed spotless before the solid wooden doors had been closed for the night. Given its appearance, Shona couldn’t help but smile as she mouthed its strange, incongruous name. Wreckers? She raised an eyebrow at the irony before continuing her walk along the main road into Riverside.
The noise emanating from Chasers, a darkly lit saloon across the road about fifty yards away, caught her attention and, as she looked over, she located the grocery store adjacent to it.
Seeing the light go off inside, she forced her aching legs into a run, watching helplessly as the owner stepped outside to lock up for the night. Oblivious to the figure approaching quickly behind him, he placed his keys back in his pocket and began whistling as he strode away.
“Damn it,” Shona panted. Pressing one hand against the wall and the other on her growling stomach, she grimaced and clamped her eyes shut. Composing herself, she opened her eyes to assess her new surroundings. Between the grocery store and Chasers was an alleyway and, with no better idea of where to shelter for the night, Shona trudged down it.
There wasn’t much around to make a bed, but it certainly wasn’t the worst place she’d ever slept in. Spotting a pile of flattened cardboard boxes lying on the dirty ground about halfway down next to a green dumpster, Shona traipsed towards them. Kicking the bits of broken glass and rotting vegetables off the largest piece of cardboard, she slid her back down the wall and pulled one of the flatter pieces over her legs. She wanted to stay alert but began to lose her battle, her eyelids too heavy to hold open any longer. Every few seconds, with every slight sound, she jolted back awake. Sitting bolt upright, fighting to stay vigilant, Shona wrapped the cardboard around her for warmth as effectively as she could and sat quietly, resting her head against her satchel and watching the entrance to the alleyway like a hawk, wishing she could just melt into the bricks behind her.
It had been a long time since Shona had had a restful night.
Squinting into the bright Thursday morning sunshine, Shona groaned, feeling her gritty eyes sting as she forced them open. With her backside completely numb from sitting on the cold, hard ground all night, she shuffled her legs to get the blood flowing properly again. Her thin cardboard mattress had provided little comfort to her during her almost sleepless night.
As she coughed and rubbed her face, the events of last night came flooding back to her. Finding the last of her foraged bread in her jacket pocket, she took a hungry bite, wiping crumbs off her grubby chin. Leaning back against the bricks, she heard a purring sound and looked down to see a pair of green eyes fixed on her every chew. After being kept awake for most of the night with the unnerving feeling of being watched, Shona was relieved to see only a mangy old cat there with her in the alleyway. Suppressing a smile, she swallowed down her mouthful, her expression hardening as it edged closer.
“Don’t eyeball me like that,” she scolded, flicking her hand at the stray, but it crept closer and then nuzzled her. She stroked the cat for a moment and fed it her last few crumbs. Standing upright, she stretched out her aching back and felt for the rounded edges of the half dollar coin against the fabric of her overshirt, praying it hadn’t fallen out.
“Well, it’s been nice knowing you, kitty, but I got a hankering for some proper food,” she said, tipping her cap and slinging her satchel over her shoulder.
Walking to the end of the alleyway, Shona, to her relief, saw the grocery store was now open. Hoping her dirty, disheveled appearance wouldn’t attract too much attention, she took a quick look through the window to see how many people were in there. The inside of the grocery store was separated by two main aisles, with a bakery counter situated at the far end. To the left of the entrance was the cash register and to the right, by the soap powder stand, three women wearing gingham check print house dresses, white gloves and cardigan sweaters were standing chatting with each other, holding boxes of Omo. A businessman in a gray sack suit and fedora was reading the headlines of the newspaper he’d picked up off the rack by the door. Talking to the owner behind the cash register was an old lady wearing a green full skirt, white blouse and pale green cardigan sweater. After heaving in a large breath to steady her nerves, Shona pushed open the door.
The little bell above tinkled as Shona entered, causing the housewives to look over at her. They wrinkled their noses, sniffing as the scent of body odor and unwashed skin wafted over on the breeze. Trying to be as nonchalant as possible, Shona took off her cap, ruffled the back of her short, matted blonde hair and swept her hand through her long, greasy bangs. Replacing her cap, she wandered over to the far end of the store and began browsing the cakes that were sitting proudly behind the glass partition. The women tutted to each other, then carried on with their conversation. The owner kept one eye on Shona and the other on the old lady standing at his register. Half-listening to her story about the bits of gutter on her house that were falling down, he finished bagging up her items and totaled up her bill.
Shona licked her lips as she stared at the delicious-looking mud pie behind the glass, adding up in her head what the half dollar could buy her. With her common sense overriding her desire for the pie, she headed over to the bread section and, feeling many sets of eyes on her, began to pick up a few of the cheaper items she saw, including a loaf of Wonder Bread, a lump of cheddar, a couple of green apples and a Holloway’s Hi-Noon bar. As she walked over to the counter, she overheard the old lady still in full flow of her story and, after lowering her eyes, stood in line behind her.
The old lady finished her conversation and pushed her bags to the end of the counter while she put her wallet back in her purse. Shona approached and laid her goods down, sending an apple rolling across the counter until she shot out her arm to catch it. The owner stared for a moment as Shona flashed him an embarrassed smile, then he pulled out a brown paper bag from under the counter to start bagging up her items.
“Right, that’ll be forty-eight cents then,” the owner announced.
From her top pocket, Shona pulled out the coin she’d been treasuring all night and handed it over. Nodding her thanks, she picked up her bag and turned to leave, unnerved by the stares that were fixed on her every move. Reaching for the handle of the door, her attention was caught by a Highway Patrol car cruising past the store. Feeling an innate surge of panic grip her, Shona twisted her body, her back now flat against the wall next to the door, her bag hugged closely into her chest.
“Hey,” the shop owner called out. Shona looked over, terror etched on her face. Her eyes flicked a second time to the black and white Dodge Coronet outside that had now rolled to a halt. “You forgot your change,” he continued. He held out two copper coins as Shona looked back at him.
“Keep it,” she replied.
As her fingers reached down for the cold steel of the handle, another customer came through the door quickly, knocking Shona’s grocery bag flying out of her arms and scattering her items on the stone floor, the paper bag shredding in her shaking hands. Shona sank to her knees to retrieve her precious food. As she did so, her cap fell off. Bending down next to her, the man who’d caused the melee reached to grab what he could to help.
“Hey, man, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even see you there.” The young man stopped mid-sentence and stared at Shona’s messy blonde hair, her high cheekbones and ocean blue eyes. “Oh, my… I’m so sorry, ma’am. But your clothes… I thought you were a guy.” He laughed nervously as Shona pocketed an apple and the candy bar, and, in her haste, left the other, bulkier items on the floor.
“Don’t sweat it,” Shona replied, replacing her cap and tucking her hair underneath the peak. Jumping to her feet, she slipped out of the grocery store and back down the alleyway. Hearing the roar of the Dodge’s engine, she ducked down behind the dumpster and peeked around, watching as the Coronet drove straight past.
“Relax. They won’t find you,”she whispered to herself over and over again until her raging heartbeat finally calmed down.
* * *
Dorothy leaned on the counter, looking at the young man who’d caused Shona’s swift exit. His keen green eyes were staring through the glass door as he ran a hand through his light brown hair.
“You see where she went, Jonny?”
Jonny turned around, a downcast look on his boyishly handsome face. He sank his hands into the pockets of his dark blue mechanic’s overalls and sauntered over to her. “Oh, hey, Mrs. Clark. No, she disappeared.” He placed on the counter the rest of Shona’s groceries and the newspaper he’d come in to buy.
“Well now, I reckon a young girl who dresses, and smells, like that can’t be too hard to track down now, can she?” The old woman smiled as Jonny blushed. “Bag that girl’s stuff up, will ya, Jake, there’s a good fella,” she ordered, nodding her head to the items on the counter, minus the newspaper which Jonny held out a coin for to Jake.
“Sure thing, Mrs. Clark,” Jake replied, placing the coin in the register. He wiped his hands down on his white apron and took out another brown paper bag.
Jonny looked down at his watch. “Well, you know I surely would help you with your bags, but Harry wants me to help him open up, so I’d better skedaddle. He’ll tan my hide if I’m late again…”
“It’s fine, go,” Dorothy replied. “Just slow down. You ain’t gonna get a lick of work done for Harry if you keep running around like a headless chicken.”
Jonny waved, forgetting to open the door before attempting to walk through it.
“How that boy’s made it to twenty-five years old I’ll never know,” Jake muttered through his bushy moustache as he handed over the bag to Dorothy.
* * *
Dorothy walked over to the alleyway entrance. About halfway down, a pair of scuffed brown leather boots sticking out from behind a green dumpster caught her squinting eyes.
“Hey. I got the rest of your food here,” Dorothy called out.
Receiving no reply, she rested her walking cane against the wall, then shook the brown bag. The peak of Shona’s cap emerged, then whipped back almost immediately. The old lady sighed.
“Well… I reckon I’ll just have to leave this here. I ain’t running no delivery service.”
She leaned forward to put the bag down, her eyes still levelled at the dumpster. The peak appeared again.
“I don’t need no charity,” Shona snapped back, rubbing her shaking palm over the back of her neck.
“I ain’t offering you none,” Mrs. Clark replied flatly, standing back up straight. “You paid for these, remember? You can do what the hell you like with them. But I wouldn’t leave them too long down here, your furry little friend over here looks mighty interested. Hey fella, you want some cheese?”
She bent over to entice the green-eyed cat. It crept closer and sniffed around her ankles. The wrinkly corners of her mouth twitched at the flurry of movement behind the boxes as Shona jumped up and flew towards her.
Shona snatched the bag up off the ground before the cat could tear his claws into it, almost dropping it again in her haste.
“Why, you’re as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” Mrs. Clark exclaimed. “You running from the law or something?” Her smile vanished when she saw the look that flashed briefly across Shona’s pale face. Setting her thin lips in a straight line, the old lady returned to her matter-of-fact tone. “Well, one good turn deserves another—help me load my bags onto the truck, will ya?”
Grabbing her wooden cane, she walked back out of the alleyway to the street where her rusting blue Ford pick-up truck was parked. Shona obeyed, but as soon as she reached the sidewalk she paused, back on high alert. Mrs. Clark turned to glare at her, prompting Shona to quicken her step, fearing the wrath of the cantankerous old lady coming her way for the second time.
* * *
Across the street, two young men wearing navy blue turn-up jeans and plaid shirts laughed and jostled each other as they swaggered along the sidewalk.
“Frank, quit bein’ a son’bitch and gimme that back,” the taller, stockier of the two men complained as his gray newsboy cap was swiped off his sweaty, balding head. Tossing it up in the air, Frank’s stubbly face broke into a huge grin as he transferred it from hand to hand behind his own back. Eventually the cap was wrestled from him.
“Jeez, Chuck, what’s with the hissy fit? Can’t a guy have a little fun around here?” Frank protested, straightening his collar and running a comb through his jet-black hair.
“Yeah, but your idea of fun’s to be an asshole,” Chuck’s deep voice whined as he put his cap back on. Looking up, he caught sight of Frank’s glare. Dropping his shoulders, Chuck mumbled an apology, his thick lips quivering. He’d known Frank since they were five years old and was just as wary now of his unpredictable moods as he ever was, even though Chuck had grown to be over a foot taller.
As Frank opened his mouth to remind Chuck who was boss, two blonde-haired women in their early twenties carrying shopping bags and chatting quietly to each other walked up behind them. Stepping aside to let them pass, Frank’s leering gaze lingered on the front of one woman’s fitted pink blouse, then traveled downwards over her pencil skirt and shapely legs. The two women continued on their way, ignoring Frank’s lame attempt at conversation.
“If only you knew where your husbands were last night,” he muttered to himself, spitting on the ground to the side of him. Chuck slapped him on the arm with the back of his hand and pointed over to the light blue Ford truck parked on other side of the street.
“Boss, look what we got here. Check out over yonder, the broad standin’ with the dotty old bag from across town. Now, that’s a fine-lookin’ specimen, don’tcha think? I mean, she’s dressed a little funny but, well, damn.” Chuck grinned.
Frank let out a low whistle of agreement. His eyes drifted up over Shona’s slender body, which was now jacketless. He watched as she bent forward to pick up a bag, exposing the curve of her bosom beneath her undershirt.
“I ain’t seen her around here before. Reckon that’s her grandma?” Chuck asked.
“Maybe. You know what? I like to see new faces in town. You know why?” Frank raised an eyebrow at Chuck, who shrugged. “Because they don’t know my reputation around here.”
“Yet,” Chuck replied, curling his lip.
* * *
“Normally I’d get Jake in there to help me load up, but you look strong enough. Sling that wood there on the back of the truck, will ya.”
“Jeez, lady, don’t you ever say ‘please’?” Shona huffed as she threw her jacket and satchel down over the back of the truck.
“Well now. I do apologize. Please will you help me load my truck?” Mrs. Clark asked, stifling a smile.
Shona clenched her lips, trying to mask her own grin. “Alright, well… that’s a little better.” Reaching down to grab the bag of coal, she heaved it over the tailgate of the truck, then placed the string bag of kindling next to it.
“You staying with family while you’re in town?” Mrs. Clark asked.
Shona froze. “Um…” she mumbled, running a fingernail over the handle of the bag.
The old lady watched Shona’s reaction closely. “Well,” Dorothy continued with a twinkle in her eye, “while you’re trying to think up a name for which long-lost relative it is that you’ve come here to visit, you can load up the rest of the stuff. Then come and help me into the truck. I’m a little unsteady these days.”
Mrs. Clark climbed into the driving seat with the help of her cane and Shona’s arm. Struggling to swing her stocking-covered legs over the threshold, she maneuvered her feet into the footwell. When her legs were clear, Shona slammed the door, causing the windowpane to clatter. Within seconds of the ignition being fired up, the battered old diesel engine began kicking out plumes of white smoke behind it, the morning breeze blowing it back into Shona’s face. Coughing, she wiped her face with the back of her hand.
“When did you last get this heap of junk serviced?” Shona asked, slipping her jacket back on and her satchel over her shoulder.
“It runs, don’t it,” the old lady snapped back. “Well, what are you standing there bellyaching for? Get in!”
Shona opened her mouth to argue but thought better of it. Drawing attention to herself was the last thing she needed right now. “No, I gotta get moving. I got places to be,” she replied, pulling her cap down over her eyebrows.
“What? You don’t expect me to be able to unload all’a this when I get home, do ya?” Mrs. Clark asked. “What’s your name anyways?”
“Shona,” she mumbled, climbing into the truck.
“Shona? Strange name. Shona what?”
“Just Shona,” she replied, a little firmer than before as she scanned the horizon.
“Alright. Well, I’m Mrs. Clark. I live just on the edge of town. What do you do for a living, Shona?”
“Um… well…” Shona began, trying to think of the quickest way out of that question too. The truck hit a pothole, bouncing Shona up in her seat and smacking her head against the roof. The black tape precariously holding the passenger side wing mirror on ripped off, sending it bouncing along the tarmac of the highway.
“Jeez,” Shona exclaimed, rubbing the bump on her head. She leaned out of the window and watched as the wing mirror smashed into pieces. “Lady, your truck’s falling to bits. You really need to get this thing seen to.”
Mrs. Clark looked in her rear-view mirror at the debris in the road and nodded. “Yeah I know, but it’s expensive taking her into the garage.” She paused as her face clouded over. “It ain’t easy, me being on my own.”
Shona looked over at the old lady, who was turning the wheel more widely than she needed to, her arthritic fingers gripping the leather as tightly as she could manage. Her eyes were squinting as they concentrated on the road ahead. Shona remained quiet and leaned against the truck door as the world trundled past her. They weren’t moving very fast; the truck simply wouldn’t have managed it but, even at thirty-three miles per hour, the panels still felt close to disintegrating with every mile of highway the balding tires ate up.
After about a mile, the truck wheel-spinned into the front drive of a rickety old cottage and crunched on the gravel below as the tires rolled to a halt. The little cottage had whitewashed weatherboarding on the outside and green timber framed windows. Mrs. Clark pulled the gear lever up, cursing under her breath as she cranked it into place.
Shona stepped out of the truck and took a closer look at the cottage. It had a porch swing on the veranda and a chicken pen on the far right hand side. On the top right of the roof there was a chimney. The front yard was a grassy lawn, with a gray cobblestone path parting it right up to the three steps that led up to the front door. She smiled as she took in the view of this cute little house that was in desperate need of some TLC.
“Nice place you got here,” Shona remarked, a glimmer of light shining in her tired eyes.
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, it’s like the damn truck. Needs a heap of work done to it. But I can’t manage all that myself now, not since…” Mrs. Clark began, her voice becoming distant as she exited the truck and disappeared around the back to let the tail down.
Shona cursed to herself. Taking her cap off, she again ran her hand through her greasy, matted hair and followed behind her.
“Hey, I didn’t mean nothing by what I said. I meant it genuine. You got a nice place, Mrs. Clark. Yeah, it could do with a coat of paint here and there, but…” Shona rambled, scrunching her cap through her hands.
“Well, I try to keep on top of everything…” She paused, then waved a wrinkled old finger casually around the yard. “But I’m sixty-eight years old now and I can’t get up ladders no more to see to those gutters.”
“That’s a shame,” Shona replied, leaning on the truck and toeing the dirt. “Look, why don’t you take the lighter bags in while I take a peek under the truck’s hood. I can’t promise I’ll be able to do much but…”
Relief spread across the old lady’s face, lighting it up. “Really? Well now, I surely would appreciate that.” She climbed up the three steps, struggling to hold a bag under each arm.
“Don’t you be lifting that coal bag, I got that one,” Shona called after her, then turned back to the truck and sized up where to start.
* * *
It was almost lunchtime when Mrs. Clark looked through the tiny window by the side of the front door to see Shona tinkering under the hood of her truck, her shape distorted by the thin crack in the pane. She tottered down the porch steps and across to a patch of grass which now looked like an operating table. Bits of engine, springs, caps and covers were strewn around, with countless old rags showing how much diesel oil the poor battered engine had bled out. Shona emerged looking like a battlefield surgeon as the old lady approached, the contents of the glass mostly surviving the journey.
“How’s it going? Am I calling the priest to give it its last rites?”
Shona shrugged. “Well, Mrs. Clark…”
The old lady waved her free hand and shook her head. “Call me Dorothy”.
“OK.” Shona smiled as she accepted the glass of tea. “Well, I think your engine’s had it. When was the last time this thing had a service?”
Dorothy’s smile evaporated. “Oh, well… I try to get it down to Harry’s place in town to get the oil changed now and again. He tinkers with it until it runs smooth, but lately I’ve just let things around here slide a bit, I guess…” Her voice tailed off as she gazed at her house.
Shona sipped her tea and followed Dorothy’s line of sight up to the gutters.
“Say, maybe you could take it down to Wreckers for me tomorrow? You probably know more about what it needs and what to ask for. Harry’s a good man. He’ll be fair with you.”
“Tomorrow?” Shona repeated.
“Well, I just assumed that you’d care to stay here until then? You don’t seem in a hurry to get over to your… um… family’s place.” Dorothy’s eyes glinted in the sun.
“Um, yeah… I guess I should have said before when you asked. I ain’t got no family out here,” Shona began. She drained her glass and offered it back to Dorothy who shook her head.
“Oh no. If you’re staying, you can take that glass back in the house yourself. Leave it by the sink when you get washed up. Don’t want you leaving oily handprints all over my countertops now.” Dorothy headed back up to the front door.
* * *
Shona looked around the yard, then bent down to pick up her jacket and satchel. After packing up the tools she’d borrowed from Dorothy’s shed, she then headed along the cobblestone path and up the porch steps. Turning around at the top, Shona surveyed the land around her and smiled. It’ll do for the night at least. It’ll be a nice change from a cold alleyway and a piece of cardboard to sleep on, she thought.
In the hallway, Shona placed the toolbox on the floor, mindful not to scrape it too heavily on the wooden boards. They weren’t up to much but the last job that Shona wanted to be given was to have to scrub oil patches off them. Dorothy was quite a salty old goat, but one who had offered her a warm place to sleep, and Shona was respectful enough to acknowledge that. Kindness was a rare commodity, not one she had encountered that often on her journey. The hostility she’d escaped from was more than enough for one lifetime.
Nervous, Shona stepped along the hallway, looking through the doorways to her left and right. Up ahead was a small kitchen, with a stove, tiny sink and a few worn-looking cupboards. On the right side of the hallway there was a small front room; the window looked out over the driveway. Perfect to notice visitors, Shona thought. The rickety staircase to the left of the hallway looked perilously steep, considering it led to the bedroom Dorothy must sleep in every night.
“You hungry?” a croaky voice called out from the kitchen.
“A little bit,” Shona called back. “But, um, please don’t go to any trouble for me, ma’am,” she added.
Dorothy appeared in the doorway, her face blank. “I wasn’t going to. And until you get those paws squeaky clean, you ain’t getting a crumb.”
Shona looked at her oily hands and flashed Dorothy a lopsided grin. “Oh, sorry,” she replied, rubbing her elbow on the white doorframe to wipe off the smudge of oil she’d left.
Dorothy smiled back at Shona’s efforts. “I think that’s the least of my problems, don’t you?” She waved her hand around in the air, pointing out the bits of wood missing from the paneling and the odd bit of bannister that was missing from the staircase. “Once you’ve washed up, I’ll heat you up some stew. Made it this morning, my own special recipe. Got some biscuits too.”
Following the old lady into the kitchen, Shona located the basin and ran the faucet. Shuddering when she felt the ice-cold water splash against her grubby hands, she persisted in scrubbing them as clean as she could with the welcome help of the scourer on the drying rack. She turned and held them up to Dorothy, who barely even registered a flicker of being impressed but motioned for Shona to take a seat at the table and placed a bowl of steaming hot stew in front of her. Dorothy popped a couple of biscuits on the side and sawed off a hunk of bread.
“There you go, eat up. Get some meat on those bones o’yours. I’ll take you up to your room afterwards and you can get settled in.” Dorothy passed Shona the lump of bread and started washing the pots and pans by the sink.
“Aren’t you having anything?” Shona mumbled through a mouthful of bread.
“No. I’ll have something later,” the old lady replied, turning to face her.
Watching Shona polish off her dinner with huge hungry mouthfuls, Dorothy leaned against the counter heavily with her eyes closed for a moment. After a few moments, the old lady’s lips curled into a tight smile, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“You don’t say much, do ya?”
“Not much to say,” Shona replied, wiping her lips and mopping up the last of her gravy with her bread.
“Everybody’s got a story,” Dorothy said, her eyes glancing up towards a framed black and white photograph of a smiling young couple with their arms around each other. The young man was wearing an army issue uniform, complete with his World War One victory medal shining proudly on his lapel.
“Yeah. Well, maybe some don’t need to be told,” Shona replied, her tone clipped.
* * *
After finally being able to clean herself up with a warm bath, Shona now felt a lot more comfortable. She was wearing her less grubby pair of jeans and undershirt she had in her satchel and her hair was combed neatly, smelling fresher than it had for a long time.
“Here y’go, you should be snug as a bug in a rug tonight,” Dorothy said as she handed Shona a pile of bedding comprised of a sheet, pillowcase and a thick wool blanket.
“Thank you,” Shona replied, grateful that the bed Dorothy was showing her looked a lot more comfortable that the pile of folded boxes she’d slept on last night. Her still-aching back was a constant reminder to her how roughly she’d slept these last few weeks on her trek from Louisiana. If it wasn’t a park bench, a storm drain or a drafty old barn, it was an alleyway with a cardboard mattress.
But as long as they didn’t find her, it didn’t matter.
“Here, let me take those. I got a pile to do tomorrow anyway.” Dorothy reached out to take Shona’s dirty clothes. “You got any more in there?” she asked, pointing down to Shona’s filthy satchel.
“No, really, don’t worry, I can do them myself,” Shona replied, clutching the clothes against her chest.
Dorothy nodded and backed off. She watched as Shona’s eyes scanned the room, fixing especially on the tiny window at the far end. The bedroom was a little cramped and cold. It was obvious from the damp air that the old lady wasn’t one for having guests very often, but somehow, despite this, the room still felt inviting. The bed was tucked away in the corner, with a small chest of drawers to the left of it and a tattered old red and green rug running alongside.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. I’m across the way there so just knock if you need anything, although I tend to sleep like the dead so—”
“I’ll be fine.” Shona interrupted, then smiled.
“Well… goodnight then. You can take the truck down to Harry first thing in the morning, if you don’t mind?” Dorothy asked.
“Sure. Goodnight,” Shona replied.
Closing the door behind her, Dorothy headed across the landing to her bedroom and clunked her door shut.
Once Shona had made up her bed, she climbed underneath the thick blanket and pulled it up to her chin. Shona smiled to herself.
For the first time in a long time, she felt safe.
* * *
It was the middle of the night when Shona woke with a jump. Her eyes darted around the dark room for some clue as to where she was. Bare walls and a chest of drawers reflecting the shard of moonlight blaring through the thin drapes were her only indications of where she could possibly be. She looked over the side of the bed to see her boots untied. Across the room, her pants were folded neatly on the little wooden armchair next to the bedside table, exactly where she’d left them, along with her coat and shirt. Peeking underneath her blanket, she found herself still wearing her cotton undershirt. She reached her trembling hand lower to see if everything else was as she’d left it too. It was.
Not like the last time she’d woken up in a panic. And the time before that. But all was well in this house. She was safe for now, it seemed.
Shona rubbed her eyes and shivered as she swung her legs out of bed. She pulled on her pants and crept to the bedroom door, jumping as she found the only floorboard between the bed and the door that squeaked without mercy.
“Goddamn it,” she blurted out, mindful not to raise her voice too much. Turning the handle, she opened the door and poked her head into the corridor.
Seeing Dorothy’s bedroom door closed, Shona breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t disturbed her and tiptoed down the hallway to the bathroom. Clicking on the light, she squinted as her eyes adjusted. The bathroom was old and sparse, but it was clean. She walked up to the sink and turned on the faucet. Splashing her face with the ice-cold water, she brought herself completely into the here and now. Wiping her face with the towel that was draped over the rail, she looked at herself in the mirror.
“Jeez, girl, you really need some sleep. This ain’t no good, moving from place to place. You need to settle.”
She squeezed her eyes shut.
But they can’t find you if you keep running, she thought.