Once when she had been younger, she had been proud of the one and only gift her father had given her – the ability to read – as there had been few other girls, or even women, with such cunning. But that had been before her father had left them. Now she felt nothing but contempt and resentment for the inheritance he had granted her upon his passing. How could she not, when it essentially amounted to nothing more than a parlor trick? When her body fetched a higher price than her thoughts?
What little upbringing that she had been given, however, was soon to be forgotten as she faced the choice of selling her morals for basic survival. She despised moral bankruptcy, but the fate of begging on the streets was as equally distasteful; she’d heard of how easily you could be on the streets one second, wrapped in a threadbare shawl and dark, raggedy hair framing your thin face, and then being led down a dark alleyway another, after a smirking gentleman had been kind enough to offer you 60 pence for ten minutes of your time.
Not that she’d have attracted such a customer. Now that she had shorn her long, shimmering hair to sell for a loaf of bread and had nothing to wear but a patchwork dress, mud on her feet, and dirt on her pale cheeks, she would have been a girl priced 25 pence at best, and though she was desperate for money, it wasn’t enough to lower herself to that extent.
So she waited in the shadows, her filth camouflaging her, until she thought the fat, old woman wasn’t looking. Reaching out, she snatched up the rich, mouthwatering pie and turned to leave, when her talons swooped down and handcuffed her hand to her sin.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Scared out of her wits, she viciously pulled in an attempt to free herself, but the girl was so weak, it was little more than a tug. The autumn wind was stronger than her, she was so feeble.
“Oh, no, you don’t. You’re coming with me. Alexei!”
Somewhere there was a bright, chipper voice who answered promptly to the name.
“Watch the tarts! I’m going off to see Mr. Weinberg about this little bitch.”
She tried to dig her heels in, but the ground was soft and mushy from last night’s storm, the woman so burly, and she as light as a feather that soon enough, she was being marched up the stairs of the formidable, gray factory that had loomed over the borough. As she was forced up the stairs inside to the second floor, she could spy rows of women – of girls no older than she – standing before the rhythmic click-clack of 50 power looms. How magical it was, to see them with their complicated machines, weaving such beautiful cloth.
“Just wait ’til Mr. Weinberg hears of this,” she heard the woman mutter. “He’ll have your hide, he will. Stealing food from me, do you? Who do you think you are? Come on! Move it!” she barked. Stumbling, she tried to regain her footing quickly, but she was far too weak to move fast enough. Her kick was sharp and swift but it was felt nevertheless and drained her of her remaining energy. On the second level, the door to what she presumed to be Mr. Weinberg’s office suddenly opened, and from inside, she vaguely heard a voice.
“Yes, yes, I’ve made all of the appropriate arrangements. There’s no need for you to fret so. I hardly mean to rob you of your favorite pastime, but it hasn’t been long since your last bout. Keep in mind what the Doctor’s advised you.”
Whoever had received such kind admonish must have made a face because the speaker laughed.
“I only mean the best for you, my friend. Now off you go, lest your sister become bedridden with loneliness. I shall see you later this evening. Hopefully you’ll have grown bored with that horrible grimace by then.”
There were footsteps, but as she was facedown, the disgust she was sure to see from the individual escaped her.
“Mrs. Stadtfeld, surely you’re not torturing this young woman?”
“Oh, no, sir. I wouldn’t dare.”
There was an odd silence as the woman laughed uncomfortably. Digging her toe into her side as if to urge her to get back onto her feet and reply that no, she hadn’t just abused her, she weakly smiled at the imposing man who loomed over her.
The footsteps eventually continued with no other words exchanged. Breathing a sigh of relief, Mrs. Stadtfeld muttered something or other under her breath as she grabbed her by the elbow and ripped her up from the ground. All but dragging her, she lurched towards the open door of the office, whose owner rushed forward to help the young girl onto her feet.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“She tried to steal some of my pastries, the wench. I nearly went for the police, but I know how much you hate dealing with them, so I brought her to you to make an example out of.”
“Is she an employee here?”
She shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it does. If she’s not, she’s not under my jurisdiction. So here’s what we’ll do. Mrs. Stadtfeld, you are going to return to your business and send along some of your marvelous scones. Once we’ve revived her, we’ll go about arranging her fate, but not a moment sooner. It wouldn’t do, would it, to bring down the ax when she’s already half buried in her grave?”
And of course, Mrs. Stadtfeld had no choice but to concur.
“Excellent. Now off you go then.”
He shooed her away as if she were but a mere child. Curtsying, she left, but not before glaring at her victim who was in far too much pain to pay much mind. Closing the door after her, Mr. Weinberg circled around the bright, airy office before settling behind the solid wooden desk taking up much of the room.
“Here. Drink this; it ought to revive some sense into you.”
He held out a small glass of amber. Taking it with shaking hands, she tipped the glass back and drank, when she felt fire erupt in her throat and chest. Sputtering, she coughed. Patting her lightly on the back, the gentleman came around the desk.
“My apologies. Perhaps I should have warned you.”
Slumping in her chair, she only closed her eyes. Leaning on the desk, he crossed his arms, though a warm smile appeared on his decidedly handsome face.
“May I have your name?”
“What a peculiar name. Not that mine is any better.” He laughed quietly to himself until he noticed how unamused she was. Sobering rather quickly, he adopted a more serious attitude and unfolded his arms. Standing up onto his feet, he knelt before her.
“I realize this may be impertinent of me, but what is your age?”
She refused to tell him. What did he want with that information? Exploit her with it? Throw her into some institution? Or worse yet, force himself on her? The man didn’t seem like the type, but you could never be too sure, and she’d rather be safe than sorry.
“Do you have any family?”
She sat stiffly in her seat and watched him as he revolved around the room. He said nothing more as a thoughtful expression took residence on his face until the door opened again and a boy who couldn’t be much older than her appeared.
“Hello, Alexei. Has Mrs. Stadtfeld sent you?”
“Yes, sir, with half a dozen scones.”
“She certainly is stingy, isn’t she?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered quickly with a bright grin. Setting the basket down on the desk, he peered at her but asked no questions. He may be as cheeky as they came, but even he had his limits.
“Thank you, Alexei. You may go back to work.”
Mr. Weinberg waited until they were alone again before offering her some of the pastry. “They’re quite delicious in spite of the hands that they were birthed from.”
“I don’t have any way to repay you.”
“Oh, we’ll resolve that later. But for now, eat. I insist.”
She hesitated, but when he set the basket down in her lap and said he’d be back in a few minutes, she couldn’t resist the temptation and greedily dug in. Closing her eyes, she sighed as she wholeheartedly welcomed the nourishment. Oh, God, it was simply divine to be able to eat like this. How much time had passed since the last time? 3 years? 4? 5?
She wolfed down the entire basket, dusting her skirt and the floor with crumbs but not giving a care. Who could expect her to, given the circumstances?
Once satisfied, she nervously fidgeted in her seat. He had said they would discuss the details of her repayment later, but the word held so many suggestions that the longer she sat in her seat, the more and more certain she became that the repayment he had in mind wouldn’t be anything she’d like, until finally, she could no longer tolerate the growing fear and stood up, only to vomit into the basket just as the door to the office opened again to admit its owner.
“Oh, dear God. Kallen!” He helped her up, apparently oblivious to the projectile staining his suit. “Kallen! Quickly, quickly! She’s been ill.”
The rest was hazy. The most she could remember was being lifted up – perhaps by an angel – and the smile it brought upon her face. Finally, she would be allowed to rest. Finally, she could have reprieve from the hell that had been her life.
Finally she would be left alone without a care in the world. Finally, finally, finally.
Thank the Lord, finally.