Chapter One Shoe Girl
The tenements loomed toward the sky on either side of the alley like glowering giants, but they’d keep the wind off. There was plenty of trash in the narrow space between them. It stank to high heaven, but, then, so did he. He began to burrow into the heap like a rat. A number of rodents squawked and scrambled away. Hell’s bells! He hoped they wouldn’t bite him while he was asleep. Rat bites hurt like fury.
For a moment he stopped digging, but the freezing air drove him farther in.
He tried to warm himself by cursing his pa. The words inside his head were hot as flaming hades, but they didn’t fool his hands and feet, which ached from the cold.
He’d heard of people freezing to death in their sleep. It happened to drunks all the time. He sometimes even wished it would happen to his pa, although he knew it was wicked to wish your own pa dead. But how could Jake be expected to care whether the brute lived or died? The man did nothing but beat him. Dead, he wouldn’t beat me or steal all my pay for drink—and then beat me for not earning more. He was keeping himself agitated, if not warm, with hateful thoughts of the old man when he heard light footsteps close by. He willed himself motionless.
It was a small person from the sound, and coming right for his pile. You can’t have my pile. This one’s mine. I already claimed it. I chased the rats for it. I made my nest in it. .
. . He began to growl.
“Who’s there?” It was the frightened voice of a child—a girl, if he wasn’t mistaken.
“What do you want?” He stuck his head out of the pile.
The girl jumped back with a little shriek. Stupid little mouse.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice shaking.
“It’s my pile. Go away.” “I don’t want your pile. Really, I don’t.” She was shaking so hard, her whole body was quivering. “I—I just need to look in it—to find something.” “In here?” “I think so. I’m not sure.” He was interested in spite of himself.
“What did you lose?” “My—my shoes,” she said. “How could you lose your shoes?” “I guess I sort of hid them.” “You what?” “I know,” she said. He could tell she was about to bawl. “It was stupid. I really need new ones. But Mamma said Anna had to stand up all day on the line and she needed shoes worse than me. I thought if I lost mine . . . It was stupid, I know.” She began to cry in earnest. “Okay, okay, which pile?” He stood up, old bottles, cans, and papers cascading from his shoulders. She put her left foot on top of her right, to keep at least one stockinged foot from touching the frozen ground. “You smell awful,” she said.
“Shut up. You want help or not?” “Please,” she said. “I’m sorry.” They dug about in the dark. At length, Jake found the first shoe, and then the girl found the other. She nodded gratefully, slipped them on her feet, and bent over to tie what was left of the laces.
“You didn’t lose them so good.” “No. I guess I knew all along I’d have to find them.” She gave a little sigh. “But thank you.” She was very polite. He figured she went to school even in shoes that were more holes than leather.“ You can’t sleep in a garbage heap,” she said.
“And why not?” “You’ll freeze to death is why.” Somehow with her shoes found, she didn’t seem like a scared mouse after all.
“I done it before. Besides, where else am I gonna go?” “You might—you can sleep in our kitchen.” She blurted the words out, and then put her hand quickly to her mouth.
“Your folks might notice,” he said.
“Besides I stink. You said so.” “We all stink.” She grabbed his arm.
“Come on before I change my mind.” They went in the alley door of one of the buildings and climbed to the third floor. “Shh,” she said before she opened the door. “They’re all asleep.” She led him between the beds in the first room and then into the kitchen. There was no fire in the stove, but the room was warmer than a trash pile.
“You can lie down here,” she said. “We don’t have an extra bed— not even a quilt. I’m sorry.” “I’ll be okay,” he said. He could hardly make out her features in the dark room, but he could tell that she was smaller than he and very thin, with hair that hung to her shoulders.
“I’ll be up before your pa wakes,” he said.
“He’s dead. Nobody will throw you out.” Still, the first stirring in the back room woke him the next morning. A kid was crying out and a woman’s voice was trying to shush it, though Jake reckoned it to be a hunger cry that could not be hushed with words.
He got silently to his feet. There was a box on the table. He opened it too find a half loaf of bread.
He tore off a chunk, telling himself they’d never miss it. Then he stole back through the front room, where someone was snoring like thunder, and out the door and down the stairs and on down the hill to the mill and to work. No danger of freeziiiiing there. He never stopped moving. Why, even on these frigid winter mornings, he was sweating like a pig by ten o’clock.
Later he remembered that he hadn’t even asked the girl her name or told her his.
Copyright © 2006 by Minna Murra, Inc., Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.