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Orphan Train

            I believe in ghosts.They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind.Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.
            I am 91 years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.
            Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God.They fill silence with their weight, dense and warm, like bread dough rising under cloth.My Gram, with her kind eyes and talcum-dusted skin.My Da, sober, laughing.My Mam singing a tune.The bitterness and alcohol and depression are stripped away from these phantom incarnations, and they console and protect me in death as they never did in life.
            I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is – a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.
            Maybe I am lucky – that at the age of nine I was given the ghosts of my parents’ best selves, and at 23 the ghost of my true love’s best self.And my sister Maisie, ever-present, an angel on my shoulder.Eighteen months to my nine years, 13 years to my 20.Now she is 84 to my 91, and with me still.
            No substitute for the living, perhaps, but I wasn’t given a choice.I could take solace in their presence or I could fall down in a heap, lamenting what I’d lost.
            The ghosts whispered to me, telling me to go on.
Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011
            Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room, just beyond her door.“This is not what we signed up for,” Dina is saying.“If I’d known she had this many problems, I never would’ve agreed to it.”
            “I know, I know.” Ralph’s voice is weary.He’s the one, Molly knows, who wanted to be a foster parent.Long ago, in his youth, when he’d been a “troubled teen,” as he told her without elaboration, a social worker at his school had signed him up for the Big Brother program, and he’d always felt that his big brother – his mentor, he calls him – kept him on track.But Dina was suspicious of Molly from the start.It didn’t help that before Molly they’d had a boy who tried to set the elementary school on fire.
            “I have enough stress at work,” Dina says, her voice rising.“I don’t need to come home to this shit.”
            Dina works as a dispatcher at the Spruce Harbor police station, and as far as Molly can see there isn’t much to stress over – a few drunk drivers, the occasional black eye, petty thefts and accidents.If you’re going to be a dispatcher anywhere in the world, Spruce Harbor is probably the least stressful place imaginable.But Dina is high-strung by nature.The smallest things get to her.It’s as if she assumes everything will go right, and when it doesn’t – which, of course, is pretty often – she is surprised and affronted.
            Molly is the opposite.So many things have gone wrong for her in her seventeen years that she’s come to expect it.When something does go right she hardly knows what to think.
            Which was just what had happened with Jack.When Molly transferred to Mount Desert Island High School last year, in tenth grade, most of the kids seemed to go out of their way to avoid her.They had their friends, their cliques, and she didn’t fit into any of them.It was true that she hadn’t made it easy; she knows from experience that tough and weird is preferable to pathetic and vulnerable, and she wears her Goth persona like armor.Jack was the only one who’d tried to break through.
            It was mid-October, in social studies class.When it came time to team up for a project, Molly was, as usual, the odd one out.Jack asked her to join him and his partner Jody, who was clearly less than thrilled.For the entire fifty-minute class, Molly was a cat with its back up.Why was he being so nice?What did he want from her?Was he one of those guys who got a kick out of messing with the weird girl?Whatever his motive, she wasn’t about to give an inch.She stood back with her arms crossed, shoulders hunched, dark stiff hair in her eyes.She shrugged and grunted when Jack asked her questions, though she followed along well enough and did her share of the work.“That girl is freakin’ strange,” Molly heard Jody mutter as they were leaving class after the bell rang..“She creeps me out.”When Molly turned and caught Jack’s eye, he surprised her with a smile.“I think she’s kind of awesome,” he said, holding Molly’s gaze.For the first time since she’d come to this school, she couldn’t help herself; she smiled back.
            Over the next few months, Molly got bits and pieces of Jack’s story.His father was a Dominican migrant worker who met his mother picking blueberries in Cherryfield, got her pregnant, moved back to the D.R. to shack up with a local girl and never looked back.His mother, who never married, works for a rich old lady in a shorefront mansion.By all rights Jack should be on the social fringes too, but he isn’t.He has some major things going for him: flashy moves on the soccer field, a dazzling smile, great big cow eyes and ridiculous lashes.And even though he refuses to take himself seriously, Molly can tell he’s was smarter than he admits, probably even smarter than he knows.
            Molly couldn’t care less about Jack’s prowess on the soccer field, but smart she respects.(The cow eyes are a bonus.)Her own curiosity is the one thing that has kept her from going off the rails.Being Goth wipes away any expectation of adhering to convention, so Molly finds she’s free to be weird in lots of ways at once.She reads all the time – in the halls, in the cafeteria –, mostly novels with angsty protagonists:The Virgin Suicides, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar.She copies vocabulary words down in a notebook because she likes the way they sound:Harridan.Pusillanimous.Talisman.Dowager.Enervating.Sycophantic …
            As a newcomer Molly had liked the distance her persona created, the wariness and mistrust she saw in the eyes of her peers.But though she’s loath to admit it, lately that persona has begun to feel restrictive.It takes ages to get the look right every morning, and rituals once freighted with meaning – dyeing her hair jet black accented with purple or white streaks, rimming her eyes with kohl, applying foundation several shades lighter than her skin tone, adjusting and fastening various pieces of uncomfortable clothing – now make her impatient.She feels like a circus clown who wakes up one morning and no longer wants to glue on the red rubber nose.Most people don’t have to exert so much effort to stay in character.Why should she?She fantasizes that the next place she goes – because there’s always a next place, another foster home, a new school – she’ll start over with a new, easier-to-maintain look.Grunge?Sex kitten?
            The probability that this will be sooner rather than later grows more likely with every passing minute.Dina has wanted to get rid of Molly for a while, and now she’s got a valid excuse.Ralph staked his credibility on Molly’s behavior; he worked hard to persuade Dina that a sweet kid was hiding under that fierce hair and makeup.Well, Ralph’s credibility is out the window now.
            Molly gets down on her hands and knees and lifts the eyelet bedskirt.She pulls out two brightly colored duffel bags, the ones Ralph bought for her on clearance at the L.L. Bean outlet in Ellsworth (the red one monogrammed “Braden” and the orange Hawaiian-flowered one “Ashley” – rejected for color, style, or just the dorkiness of those names in white thread, Molly doesn’t know).As she’s opening the top drawer of her dresser, a percussive thumping under her comforter turns into a tinny version of Daddy Yankee’s “Impacto.”“So you’ll know it’s me and answer the damn phone,” Jack said when he bought her the ringtone.
            “Hola, mi amigo,” she says when she finally finds it.
            “Hey, what’s up, chica?”
            “Oh, you know.Dina’s not so happy right now.”
            “Yeah.It’s pretty bad.”
            “How bad?”
            “Well, I think I’m out of here.” She feels her breath catch in her throat.It surprises her, given how many times she’s been through a version of this.
            “Nah,” he says. “I don’t think so.”
            “Yeah,” she says, pulling out wad of socks and underwear and dumping them in the Braden bag.“I can hear them out there talking about it.”
            “But you need to do those community service hours.”
            “It’s not going to happen.”She picks up her charm necklace, tangled in a heap on the top of the dresser, and rubs the gold chain between her fingers, trying to loosen the knot.“Dina says nobody will take me.I’m untrustworthy.”The tangle loosens under her thumb and she pulls the strands apart.“It’s okay.I hear juvie isn’t so bad.It’s only a few months anyway.”
            “But – you didn’t steal that book.”
            Cradling the flat phone to her ear, she puts on the necklace, fumbling with the clasp, and looks in the mirror above her dresser.Black makeup is smeared under her eyes like a football player.
            “Right, Molly?”
            The thing is – she did steal it.Or tried.It’s her favorite novel, Jane Eyre, and she wanted to own it, to have it in her possession.Sherman’s Bookstore in Bar Harbor didn’t have it in stock, and she was too shy to ask the clerk to order it.Dina wouldn’t give her a credit card number to buy it online.She had never wanted anything so badly.(Well … not for a while.)So there she was, in the library on her knees in the narrow fiction stacks, with three copies of the novel, two paperbacks and one hardcover, on the shelf in front of her.She’d already taken the hardcover out of the library twice, gone up to the front desk and signed it out with her library card.She pulled all three books off the shelf, weighed them in her hand.She put the hardcover back, slid it in beside The Da Vinci Code.The newer paperback, too, she returned to the shelf.
            The copy she slipped under the waistband of her jeans was old and dog-eared, the pages yellowed, with passages underlined in pencil.The cheap binding, with its dry glue, was beginning to detach from the pages.If they’d put it in the annual library sale it would have gone for ten cents at most. Nobody, Molly figured, would miss it.Two other, newer copies were available.But the library had recently installed magnetic anti-theft strips, and several months earlier four volunteers, ladies of a certain age who devoted themselves passionately to all things Spruce Harbor Library, had spent several weeks installing them on the inside covers of all 11,000 books.So when Molly left the building that day through what she hadn’t even realized was a theft-detection gate, a loud, insistent beeping brought the head librarian, Susan LeBlanc, swooping over like a homing pigeon.
            Molly confessed immediately – or rather tried to say that she’d meant to sign it out.But Susan LeBlanc was having none of it.“For goodness’ sake, don’t insult me with a lie,” she said. “I’ve been watching you.I thought you were up to something.”And what a shame that her assumptions had proven correct!She’d have liked to be surprised in a good way, just this once.
            “Aw, shit.Really?”Jack sighs.
            Looking in the mirror, Molly runs her finger across the charms on the chain around her neck.She doesn’t wear it much anymore, but every time something happens and she knows she’ll be on the move again, she puts it on.She bought the chain at a discount store, Marden’s, in Ellsworth, and strung it with these three charms – a blue and green cloisonné fish, a pewter raven, and a tiny brown dog – that her father gave her on her eighth birthday.He was killed in a one-car rollover several weeks later, speeding down I-95 on an icy night, after which her mother, all of 23, started a downward spiral she never recovered from.By Molly’s next birthday she was living with a new family, and her mother was in jail.The charms are all she has left of what used to be her life.
            Jack is a nice guy.But she’s been waiting for this.Eventually, like everyone else – social workers, teachers, foster parents – he’ll get fed up, feel betrayed, realize Molly’s more trouble than she’s worth.Much as she wants to care for him, and as good as she is at letting him believe that she does, she has never really let herself.It isn’t that she’s faking it, exactly, but part of her is always holding back.She has learned that she can control her emotions by thinking of her chest cavity as an enormous box with a chain lock.She opens the box and stuffs in any stray unmanageable feelings, any wayward sadness or regret, and clamps it shut.
            Ralph, too, has tried to see the goodness in her.He is predisposed to it; he sees it when it isn’t even there.And though part of Molly is grateful for his faith in her, she doesn’t fully trust it.It’s almost better with Dina, who doesn’t try to hide her suspicions.It’s easier to assume that people have it out for you than to be disappointed when they don’t come through.      
            “Jane Eyre?” Jack says.
            “What does it matter?”
            “I would’ve bought it for you.”
            “Yeah, well.” Even after getting into trouble like this and probably getting sent away, she knows she’d never have asked Jack to buy the book. If there is one thing she hates most about being in the foster care system, it’s this dependence on people you barely know, your vulnerability to their whims.She has learned not to expect anything from anybody.Her birthdays are often forgotten; she is an afterthought at holidays.She has to make do with what she gets, and what she gets is rarely what she asked for.      
            “You’re so fucking stubborn!” Jack says, as if divining her thoughts.“Look at the trouble you get yourself into.”
            There’s a hard knock on Molly’s door.She holds the phone to her chest and watches the doorknob turn.That’s another thing – no lock, no privacy.
            Dina pokes her head into the room, her pink-lipsticked mouth a thin line.“We need to have a conversation.”
            “All right.Let me get off the phone.”
            “Who are you talking to?”
            Molly hesitates.Does she have to answer?Oh, what the hell.“Jack.”
            Dina scowls.“Hurry up.We don’t have all night.”
            “I’ll be right there.”Molly waits, staring blankly at Dina until her head disappears around the doorframe, and puts the phone back to her ear.“Time for the firing squad.”
            “No, no, listen,” Jack says.“I have an idea.It’s a little … crazy.”
            “What,” she says sullenly.“I have to go.”
            “I talked to my mother –”
            “Jack, are you serious?You told her?She already hates me.”
            “Whoa, hear me out. First of all, she doesn’t hate you.And second, she spoke to the lady she works for, and it looks like maybe you can do your hours there.”
            “But – how?”
            “Well, you know my mom is the world’s worst housekeeper.”
            Molly loves the way he says this – matter-of-factly, without judgment, as if he were reporting that his mother is left-handed.
            “So the lady wants to clean out her attic – old papers and boxes and all this shit, my mom’s worst nightmare.And I came up with the idea to have you do it.I bet you could kill the fifty hours there, easy.”
            “Wait a minute – you want me to clean an old lady’s attic?”
            “Yeah.Right up your alley, don’t you think?Come on, I know how anal you are.Don’t try to deny it.All your stuff lined up on the shelf.All your papers in files.And aren’t your books alphabetical?”
            “You noticed that?”
            “I know you better than you think.”
            Molly does have to admit, as peculiar as it is, she likes putting things in order.She’s actually kind of a neat freak.Moving around as much as she has, she learned to take care of her few possessions.But she’s not sure about this idea.Stuck alone in a musty attic day after day, going through some lady’s trash?
            Still – given the alternative …
            “She wants to meet you,” Jack says.
            “Vivian Daly.The old lady.She wants you to come for—”
            “An interview.I have to interview with her, you’re saying.”
            “It’s just part of the deal,” he says.“Are you up for that?”
            “Do I have a choice?”
            “Sure.You can go to jail.”
            “Molly!” Dina barks, rapping on the door.“Out here right now!”
            “All right!” she calls, and then, to Jack, “All right.”
            “All right what?”
            “I’ll do it.I’ll go and meet her.Interview with her.”
            “Great,” he says.“Oh, and – you might want to wear a skirt or something, just –
y’know. And maybe take out a few earrings.”
            “What about the nose ring?”
            “I love the nose ring,” he says.“But …”
            “I get it.”
            “Just for this first meeting.”
            “It’s all right.Listen – thanks.”
            “Don’t thank me for being selfish,” he says.“I just want you around a little longer.”
            When Molly opens the bedroom door to Dina’s and Ralph’s tense and apprehensive faces, she smiles.“You don’t have to worry.I’ve got a way to do my hours.” Dina shoots a look at Ralph, an expression Molly recognizes from reading years of host parents’ cues.“But I understand if you want me to leave.I’ll find something else.”
            “We don’t want you to leave,” Ralph says, at the same time that Dina says, “We need to talk about it.”They stare at each other.
            “Whatever,” Molly says.“If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay.”
            And in that moment, with bravado borrowed from Jack, it is okay.If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.Molly learned long ago that a lot of the heartbreak and betrayal that other people fear their entire lives, she has already faced.Father dead.Mother off the deep end.Shuttled around and rejected time and time again.And still she breathes and sleeps and grows taller.She wakes up every morning and puts on clothes.So when she says it’s okay, what she means is that she knows she can survive just about anything.And now, for the first time since she can remember, she has someone looking out for her.(What’s his problem, anyway?)
Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011
            Molly takes a deep breath.The house is bigger than she imagined – a white Victorian monolith with curlicues and black shutters.Peering out the windshield she can see that it’s in meticulous shape – no evidence of peeling or rot, which means it must have been painted recently.No doubt the old lady employs people who work on it constantly, a queen’s army of worker bees.
            It’s a warm April morning.The ground is spongy with melted snow and rain, but today is one of those rare, almost balmy days that hint at the glorious summer ahead.The sky is luminously blue, with large woolly clouds.Clumps of crocuses seem to have sprouted everywhere.
            “Okay,” Jack’s saying, “here’s the deal.She’s a nice lady, but kind of uptight.You know – not exactly a barrel of laughs.”He puts his car in park and squeezes Molly’s shoulder.“Just nod and smile and you’ll be fine.”
            “How old is she again?” Molly mumbles.She’s annoyed with herself for feeling nervous.Who cares?It’s just some ancient packrat who needs help getting rid of her shit.She hopes it isn’t disgusting and smelly, like the houses of those hoarders on TV.
            “I don’t know – old.By the way, you look nice,” Jack adds.
Molly scowls. She’s wearing a pink Lands’ End blouse that Dina loaned her for the occasion.“I barely recognize you,” Dina said drily when Molly emerged from her bedroom in it.“You look so . . . ladylike.”
            At Jack’s request she’s taken out the nose ring and left only two studs in each ear.She spent more time than usual on her makeup, too – blending the foundation to a shade more pale than ghostly, going lighter on the liquid eyeliner.She even bought a pink lipstick at the drugstore – Maybelline Wet Shine Lip Color in “Mauvelous,” a name that cracks her up.She stripped off her many thrift-store rings and is wearing the charm necklace from her dad instead of the usual chunky array of crucifixes and silver skulls.Her hair’s still black, with the white stripe on either side of her face, and her fingernails are black, too – but it’s clear she’s made an effort to look, as Dina remarked, “closer to a normal human being.”
            After Jack’s Hail Mary pass – or “Hail Molly,” as he called it – Dina had grudgingly agreed to give her another chance.“Cleaning an old lady’s attic?” she snorted.“Yeah, right.I give it a week.”
            Molly hardly expected a big vote of confidence from Dina, but she has some doubts herself.Is she really going to devote fifty hours of her life to a crotchety dowager in a drafty attic, going through boxes filled with moths and dust mites and who knows what else?In juvie she’d be spending the same time in group therapy (always interesting) and watching The View (interesting enough).There’d be other girls to hang with.As it is she’ll have Dina at home and this old lady here watching her every move.
            Molly looks at her watch.They’re five minutes early, thanks to Jack, who hustled her out the door.
            “Remember: eye contact,” he says.“And be sure to smile.”
            “You are such a mom.”
            “You know what your problem is?”
            “That my boyfriend is acting like a mom?”
            “No.Your problem is you don’t seem to realize your ass is on the line here.”
            “What line?Where?” She looks around, wiggling her butt in the seat.
            “Listen.”He rubs his chin.“My ma didn’t tell Vivian about juvie and all that.As far as she knows, you’re doing a community service project for school.”
            “So she doesn’t know about my criminal past?Sucker.”
            “Ay diablo,” he says, opening the door and getting out.
            “Are you coming in with me?”
            He slams the door, walks around the back of the car to the passenger side and opens the door.“No, I am escorting you to the front step.”
            “My, what a gentleman.”She slides out.“Or is it that you don’t trust me not to bolt?”
            “Truthfully, both,” he says.
            Standing before the large walnut door, with its oversized brass knocker, Molly hesitates.She turns to look at Jack, who is already back in his car, headphones in his ears, flipping through what she knows is a dog-eared collection of Junot Diaz stories he keeps in the glove compartment.She stands straight, shoulders back, tucks her hair behind her ears, fiddles with the collar of her blouse (when’s the last time she wore a collar?A dog collar, maybe), and raps the knocker.No answer.She raps again, a little louder.Then she notices a buzzer to the left of the door and pushes it.Chimes gong loudly in the house, and within seconds she can see Jack’s mom, Terry, barreling toward her with a worried expression.It’s always startling to see Jack’s big brown eyes in his mother’s wide, soft-featured face.
            Though Jack has assured Molly that his mother is on board – “That damn attic project has been hanging over her head for so long, you have no idea” – Molly knows the reality is more complicated.Terry adores her only son, and would do just about anything to make him happy.However much Jack wants to believe that Terry’s fine and dandy with this plan, Molly knows that he steamrolled her into it.
            When Terry opens the door, she gives Molly a once-over.“Well, you clean up nice.”
            “Thanks.I guess,” Molly mutters.She can’t tell if Terry’s outfit is a uniform or if it’s just so boring that it looks like one: black pants, clunky black shoes with rubber soles, a matronly peach-colored t-shirt.
            Molly follows her down a long hallway lined with oil paintings and etchings in gold frames, the Oriental runner beneath their feet muting their footsteps.At the end of the hall is a closed door.
            Terry leans with her ear against it for a moment and knocks softly. “Vivian?” She opens the door a crack.“The girl is here.Molly Ayer.Yep, okay.”
            She opens the door wide onto to a large, sunny living room with views of the bay, filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and antique furniture.An old lady is sitting beside the bay window in a faded red wingback chair, her veiny hands folded in her lap, a wool tartan blanket draped over her knees, wearing a black cashmere crewneck sweater.
            When they are standing in front of her, Terry says, “Molly, this is Mrs. Daly.”
            “Hello,” Molly says, holding out her hand as her father taught her to do.
            “Hello.” The old woman’s hand, when Molly grasps it, is dry and cool.She is a sprightly, spidery woman, with a narrow nose and piercing blue eyes as bright and sharp as a bird’s.Her skin is thin, almost translucent, and her wavy silver hair is gathered at the nape of her neck in a bun.Light freckles – or are they age spots? – are sprinkled across her face.A topographical map of veins runs up her hands and over her wrists, and she has dozens of tiny creases around her eyes.She reminds Molly of the nuns at the Catholic school she attended briefly in Augusta (a quick stopover with an ill-suited foster family), who seemed ancient in some ways and preternaturally young in others.Like the nuns, this woman has a slightly imperious air, as if she is used to getting her way.And why wouldn’t she?Molly thinks.She is used to getting her way.
            “All right, then.I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” Terry says, and disappears through another door.
            The old woman leans toward Molly, a slight frown on her face. “How on earth do you achieve that effect?The skunk stripe,” she says, reaching up and brushing her own temple.
            “Umm …” Molly is surprised; no one has ever asked her this before. “It’s a combination of bleach and dye.”
            “How did you learn to do it?”
            “I saw a video on YouTube.”
            “On the Internet.”
            “Ah.”She lifts her chin.“The computer.I’m too old to take up such fads.”
            “I don’t think you can call it a fad if it’s changed the way we live,” Molly says, then smiles contritely, aware that she’s already gotten herself into a disagreement with her potential boss.
            “Not the way I live,” the old woman says. “It must be quite time-consuming.”
            “Doing that to your hair.”
            “Oh. It’s not so bad.I’ve been doing it for awhile now.”
            “What’s your natural color, if you don’t mind my asking?”
            “I don’t mind,” Molly says.“It’s dark brown.”
            “Well, my natural color is red.”It takes Molly a moment to realize she’s making a little joke about being gray.
            “I like what you’ve done with it,” she parries.“It suits you.”
            The old woman nods and settles back in her chair.She seems to approve. Molly feels some of the tension leave her shoulders. “Excuse my rudeness, but at my age there’s no point in beating around the bush.Your appearance is quite stylized.Are you one of those – what are they called, gothics?”
            Molly can’t help smiling.“Sort of.”
            “You borrowed that blouse, I presume.”
            “Uh ….”
            “You needn’t have bothered.It doesn’t suit you.”She gestures for Molly to sit across from her.“You may call me Vivian.I never liked being called Mrs. Daly.My husband is no longer alive, you know.”
            “I’m sorry.”
            “No need to be sorry.He died eight years ago.Anyway, I am 91 years old.Not many people I once knew are still alive.”
            Molly isn’t sure how to respond – isn’t it polite to tell people they don’t look as old as they are?She wouldn’t have guessed that this woman is 91, but she doesn’t have much basis for comparison.Her father’s parents died when he was young; her mother’s parents never married, and she never met her grandfather.The one grandparent Molly remembers, her mother’s mother, died of cancer when she was three.
            “Terry tells me you’re in foster care,” Vivian says. “Are you an orphan?”
            “My mother’s alive, but – yes, I consider myself an orphan.”
            “Technically you’re not, though.”
            “I think if you don’t have parents who look after you, then you can call yourself whatever you want.”
            Vivian gives her a long look, as if she’s considering this idea. “Fair enough,” she says.“Tell me about yourself, then.”
            Molly has lived in Maine her entire life.She’s never even crossed the state line. She remembers bits and pieces of her childhood on Indian Island before she went into foster care:the gray-sided trailer she lived in with her parents, the community center with pickups parked all around, Sockalexis Bingo Palace and St. Anne’s Church.She remembers an Indian doll, carved out of wood, with black hair and a traditional native costume that she kept on a shelf in her room – though she preferred the Barbies donated by charities and doled out at the community center at Christmas.They were never the popular ones, of course -- never Cinderella or Beauty Queen Barbie, but instead one-off oddities that bargain hunters could find on clearance: Hot Rod Barbie, Jungle Barbie. It didn’t matter.However peculiar Barbie’s costume, her features were always reliably the same: the freakish stiletto-ready feet, the oversized rack and ribless midsection, the ski-slope nose and shiny plastic hair …
            But that’s not what Vivian wants to hear.Where to start?What to reveal?This is the problem.It’s not a happy story, and Molly has learned through experience that people either recoil or don’t believe her or, worse, pity her.So she’s learned to tell an abridged version.“Well,” she says, “I’m a Penobscot Indian on my father’s side.When I was young we lived on a reservation near Old Town.”
            “Ah.Hence the black hair and tribal makeup.”
            Molly is startled.She’s never thought to make that connection – is it true?   Sometime in the eighth grade, during a particularly rough year – angry, screaming foster parents, jealous foster siblings, a pack of mean girls at school – she got a box of L’Oreal 10-Minute hair color and Cover Girl ebony eyeliner and transformed herself in the family bathroom.A friend who worked at Claire’s at the mall did her piercings the following weekend – a string of holes in each ear, up through the cartilage, a stud in her nose and a ring in her eyebrow (though that one didn’t last; it soon got infected and had to be taken out, the remaining scar a spiderweb tracing).The piercings were the straw that got her thrown out of that foster home.Mission accomplished.
            Molly continues her condensed story – how her father died and her mother couldn’t take care of her, how she ended up with Ralph and Dina.
            “So Terry tells me you were assigned some kind of community service project.And she came up with the brilliant idea for you to help me clean my attic,” Vivian says.“Seems like a bad bargain for you, but who am I to say?”
            “I’m kind of a neat freak, believe it or not.I like organizing things.”
            “Then you are even more peculiar than you appear.”Vivian sits back and clasps her hands together.“I’ll tell you something.By your definition I was orphaned, too, at almost exactly the same age.So we have something in common.”
            Molly isn’t sure how to respond.Does Vivian want her to ask about this, pry into what Molly considers private, or is she just putting that out there?It’s hard to tell.“Your parents …” she ventures, “didn’t look after you?”
            “They tried.There was a fire …” Vivian shrugs.“”It was all so long ago, I barely remember.Now – when do you want to begin?”
New York City, 1929
            Maisie sensed it first.She wouldn’t stop crying.Since she was a month old, when our mother got sick, Maisie had slept with me on my narrow cot in the small windowless room we shared with our brothers.It was so dark that I wondered, as I had many times before, if this was what blindness felt like – this enveloping void.I could barely make out, or perhaps only sense, the forms of the boys, stirring fitfully but not yet awake: Dominick and James, six-year-old twins, huddled together for warmth on a pallet on the floor.
            Sitting on the cot with my back against the wall, I held Maisie the way Mam had shown me, cupped over my shoulder.I tried everything I could think of to comfort her, all the things that had worked before: stroking her back, running two fingers down the bridge of her nose, humming our father’s favorite song, “My Singing Bird,” softly in her ear:I have heard the blackbird pipe his note, the thrush and the linnet too / But there’s none of them can sing so sweet, my singing bird, as you.But she only shrieked louder, her body convulsing in spasms.
               Maisie was 18 months old, but her weight was like a bundle of rags.Only a few weeks after she was born, Mam came down with a fever and could no longer feed her, so we made do with warm sweetened water, slow-cooked crushed oats, milk when we could afford it.All of us were thin.Food was scarce; days went by when we had little more than rubbery potatoes in weak broth.Mam wasn’t much of a cook even in the best of health, and some days she didn’t bother to try.More than once, until I learned to cook myself, we ate potatoes raw from the bin.
               It had been two years since we left our home on the west coast of Ireland.Life was hard there, too; our Da held and lost a string of jobs, none of which were enough to support us.We lived in a tiny unheated house made of peat in a small village in Galway County called Kinvara.People all around us were fleeing to America: we heard tales of oranges the size of baking potatoes; fields of grain waving under sunny skies; clean, dry timber houses with indoor plumbing and electricity.Jobs as plentiful as the fruit on the trees.As one final act of kindness toward us – or perhaps to rid themselves of the nuisance of constant worry – Da’s parents and sisters scraped together the money for ocean passage for our family of five, and on a warm spring day we boarded the Agnes Pauline, bound for Ellis Island.The only link we had to our future was a name scrawled on a piece of paper my father tucked in his shirt pocket as we boarded the ship: a man who had emigrated ten years earlier and now, according to his Kinvara relatives, owned a respectable dining establishment in New York City.
               Despite having lived all our lives in a seaside village, none of us had ever been on a boat, much less a ship in the middle of the ocean.Except for my brother Dom, fortified with the constitution of a bull, we were ill for much of the voyage.It was worse for Mam, who discovered on the boat she was again with child and could hardly keep any food down.But even with all of this, as I stood on the lower deck outside our dark, cramped rooms in steerage, watching the oily water churn beneath the Agnes Pauline, I felt my spirits lift.Surely, I thought, we would find a place for ourselves in America.
               The morning we arrived in New York harbor was so foggy and overcast that though my brothers and I stood at the railing, squinting into the drizzle, we could barely make out the ghostly form of the Statue of Liberty a short distance from the docks.We were herded into long lines to be inspected, interrogated, stamped, and then set loose among hundreds of other immigrants, speaking languages that sounded to my ears like the braying of farm animals.
               There were no waving fields of grain that I could see, no oversized oranges.We took a ferry to the island of Manhattan and walked the streets, Mam and I staggering under the weight of our possessions, the twins clamoring to be held, Da with a suitcase under each arm, clutching a map in one hand and the tattered paper with Mark Flannery, The Irish Rose, Delancey Street, written in his mother’s crabbed cursive, in the other.After losing our way several times, Da gave up on the map and began asking people on the street for directions.More often than not they turned away without answering; one man spit on the ground, his face twisted with loathing.But finally we found the place – an Irish pub, as seedy as the roughest ones on the back streets of Galway.
               Mam and the boys and I waited on the sidewalk while Da went inside.The rain had stopped; steam rose from the wet street into the humid air.We stood in our damp clothing, stiffened from sweat and ground-in dirt, scratching our scabbed heads (from lice on the ship, as pervasive as seasickness), our feet blistering in the new shoes Gram had bought before we left but Mam didn’t let us wear until we walked on American soil – and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.Except for this sorry reproduction of an Irish pub before us, nothing in this new land bore the slightest resemblance to the world we knew.
               Mark Flannery had received a letter from his sister, and was expecting us.He hired our Da as a dishwasher and took us to a neighborhood like no place I’d ever seen – tall brick buildings packed together on narrow streets teeming with people.He knew of an apartment for rent, $10 a month, on the third floor of a five-story tenement on Elizabeth Street.After he left us at the door we followed the Polish landlord, Mr. Kaminski, down the tiled hallway and up the stairs, struggling in the heat and the dark with our bags while he lectured us on the virtues of cleanliness and civility and industriousness, all of which he clearly suspected we lacked.“I have no trouble with the Irish, as long as you stay out of trouble,” he told us in his booming voice.Glancing at my Da’s face I saw an expression I’d never seen before, but instantly understood: the shock of realization that here, in this foreign place, he’d be judged harshly as soon as he opened his mouth.
               The landlord called our new home a railroad apartment:each room leading to the next, like railway cars.My parents’ tiny bedroom, with a window facing the back of another building, was at one end; the room I shared with the boys and Maisie was next, then the kitchen, and then the front parlor, with two windows overlooking the busy street. Mr. Kaminski pulled a chain hanging from the pressed-metal kitchen ceiling, and light seeped from a bulb, casting a wan glow over a scarred wooden table, a small stained sink with a faucet that ran cold water, a gas stove.In the hall, outside the apartment door, was a lavatory we shared with our neighbors – a childless German couple called the Schatzmans, the landlord told us. “They keep quiet, and will expect you to do the same,” he said, frowning as my brothers, restless and fidgety, made a game of shoving each other.
               Despite the landlord’s disapproval, the sweltering heat, the gloomy rooms and cacophony of strange noises, so unfamiliar to my country ears, I felt another swell of hope. As I looked around our four rooms, it did seem that we were off to a fresh start, having left behind the many hardships of life in Kinvara – the damp that sank into our bones, the miserable, cramped hut, our father’s drinking – did I mention that? – that threw every small gain into peril.Here, our Da had the promise of a job.We could pull a chain for light; the twist of a knob brought running water.Just outside the door, in a dry hallway, a toilet and bathtub.However modest, this was a chance for a new beginning.
               I don’t know how much of my memory of this time is affected by my age now and how much is a result of the age I was then – seven when we left Kinvara, nine on that night when Maisie wouldn’t stop crying, that night that, even more than leaving Ireland, changed the course of my life forever.Eighty-two years later, the sound of her crying still haunts me.If only I had paid closer attention to why she was crying instead of simply trying to quiet her.If only I had paid closer attention.
               I was so afraid that our lives would fall apart again that I tried to ignore the things that frightened me most: our Da’s continued love affair with drink, which a change in country did not change; Mam’s black moods and rages; the incessant fighting between them.I wanted everything to be all right.I held Maisie to my chest and whispered in her ear – there’s none of them can sing so sweet, my singing bird, as you – trying to silence her.When she finally stopped I was only relieved, not understanding that Maisie was like a canary in a mine, warning us of danger until it was too late.  

Orphan Train
by by Christina Baker Kline

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0061950726
  • ISBN-13: 9780061950728