Authors: No Unspoken Promises
No Unspoken Promises
M. Donice Byrd
Copyright © 201
3 M. Donice Nelms
All rights reserved.
To my mother and friends who encouraged me.
To my husband of 28 years.
If he knew how to pray, the ten-year-old would have prayed for death to come quickly and painlessly. Blake Warner pressed his thin arms against his roiling stomach and curled into a ball. He didn’t think he had enough strength left to make it back to the privy if the need arose. As his abdomen cramped again and his forehead broke out into a cold sweat, a low moan escaped his cracked colorless lips. He pulled the ratty blanket tighter in an attempt to stop shivering and closed his eyes to block out the dark, dank surroundings of his shelter.
The meat from the hotel restaurant refuse pile tasted fine but made him sicker than he’d ever been in his short life. Soon death would creep up on him in the crawlspace below the hotel. He wondered if his corpse would be found quickly or if vermin would feast on him until spring when his frozen body thawed and someone would be sent to investigate the foul smell.
Reaching into his pocket, he curled his fingers around the one possession he owned from his former life. He took comfort in the folded razor in his pocket, sure that someone would make the connection between the gold initials inlaid into the ivory and the five articles with it in his pocket he’d sliced out of discarded newspapers. Each told of his father’s bid for the U.S. Senate.
Unbidden memories invaded his thoughts as tried to find refuge in sleep. He didn’t want to think about
coming home from school to find his mother dead in their two-story townhouse or what happened to him in the month since. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to remember her as the woman so beautiful Assemblyman Randolph Knight had fallen in love and betrayed his marital vows. He did not want to remember her the way he saw her last.
Blake knew he couldn’t tell anyone his father’s identity. But how could he find him when he did not know where he lived or even the location of Assemblyman Knight’s in-town office. When the policeman planned to take him to the Home for Orphans and Foundlings, he ran away because he understood his father would not want their relationship revealed.
It hurt Blake to accept his father came mostly to see her, his Springfield wife, Randolph liked to joke. He only spent a few minutes with his son before sending him off to bed and yet Blake always waited with excited anticipation when they expected his father. Once he realized Elizabeth had died, would he wonder what happened to his son? Did he care or was his father the same as the people who walked by him on the streets without noticing him, not caring why a ten-year-old wore no heavy winter coat or gloves when the blizzards hit, or wondering why he ate garbage?
Pain twisting and churning in his gut was the sensation that pulled Blake out of his restless sleep. “Alive,” he murmured into the emptiness but it sounded more like a question. He hadn’t expected to be cold – whether he went to heaven or hell, he hadn’t anticipated being cold when he awoke because he truly hadn’t thought he’d make it through the night.
Blake felt like crying. He didn’t want to wake up – any place was better – even hell.
As his stomach cramped again, Blake quickly stashed the blanket in the corner of the crawlspace. He feared if he kept it with him during the day, someone would recognize the stolen blanket and take it from him. With less than his usual care for emerging from his shelter, Blake squeezed out and ran to the closest outhouse. He couldn’t imagine where his body continued to find anything to expel. At one time, he would have been sitting there making jokes about freezing his ass off but Blake could find no humor in it now.
Usually, the first order the day, locating food, lost its normal importance that morning because he couldn’t keep it down so finding a warm place to thaw his frozen extremities became his top priority. The train depot kept a big potbelly stove in the building and if Blake could position himself just right, the ticket agents wouldn’t see him and chase him off.
Blake knew to enter using the platform door because it was partially hidden from the ticket clerks’ view. Normally, it would not do to enter alone. The workers would feel the wind blow in and even if he hid himself before they saw him, they might come to investigate. On this day, fortune smiled upon him. With all the people milling about, he realized a train would arrive soon and the clerks would be too busy to notice. Out of habit, he waited until the wind lulled before opening the door and slipping inside. Immediately, he darted into the three-foot gap between the dull black stove and the wall. As he began to warm, the skin of his wind-chapped legs, hands and face stung as if being prickled by a thousand nettles.
He slid down the wall and sat on the floor trying to make
himself as small as possible, hoping no one would notice him. The room gradually filled as passengers arrived with their luggage. A warmly dressed elderly man sat on the bench nearest to him and whenever Blake’s gaze drifted around the room, he could feel the man’s eyes on him. Normally, the hair on the back of his neck rose in warning if he sensed danger from someone and even if he had felt that on this morning, he would have been reluctant to move.
“Young man,” the gentleman called to Blake after a few minutes. His intonation was clear with a ring of authority much like his father’s or teacher’s tone.
“Yes, sir,” Blake said politely, his voice a bit dry from lack of use. He cleared his throat without conscious thought trying to remove the strange sounding rasp.
“When the train gets here, I’ll give you a nickel if you help me carry my trunk out.”
“Yes, sir,” he said again. He hoped it wasn’t a trick. He could buy a loaf of bread or some milk if he had a nickel. With the way his skin felt, he wished he could buy some lard or butter to rub into his hide. It would burn like the dickens at first but in the long run it would make his skin less chapped. But Blake could ill afford that luxury.
“Do you like peanuts?” the man asked opening a brown paper sleeve filled with peanuts in their shells.
The man held out the crinkly bag offering the peanuts to him.
Blake hesitated. He wanted the peanuts but his stomach churned at the thought of food. He cast a glance at the ticket window hoping not to be seen as he leaned toward the man. It took only a moment for Blake to reach out and remove three of the brown pods. He wanted to take a handful but it went against his middle-class upbringing to take too many.
Blake thanked the gentleman and held the nuts for a minute before slipping them into his pocket. He
hoped the man would not notice he did not eat them. He wanted to save them until his stomach felt better.
“No, sir. I had a big breakfast this morning.”
If the man wanted his peanuts back, he was going to have to ask because Blake refused to give them up voluntarily. The man nodded as he curled up the open end of the bag and tucked it into the pocket of his black wool cloak.
“What did you have?” the man asked, “… for breakfast, I mean.”
A lump rose in his throat. All he ever did was think about food and what he’d eat if he could.
“Eggs,” Blake began, swallowing hard to force the lump out of his throat. “And pancakes and pork chops.”
“Yes, sir.” Blake turned his head and tried to blink the tears away but one escaped forcing him to reach up to wipe it away. The wetness made his wind-burned cheeks sting even more.
“And what will you do with your nickel windfall?”
What did he think he would do with it, have his shoes shined? “I’ve been saving up for a diamond stick pin for my cravat.”
The man laughed at the unexpected answer. “And how much have you saved so far?”
“Including the nickel you’re going to give me, five cents.”
“Maybe you should buy a cravat first,” he said with a chuckle.
Blake sighed with relief that the man had not been mad about his sarcasm. He would have kicked himself if he ruined his chance to earn the nickel.
In the distance, Blake heard the faint sounds of the train whistling out its approach. The man pulled out his pocket watch, flicked it open with a push of the stem and examined the face before snapping it shut and returning it to his pocket.
“My train doesn’t leave for another twenty minutes. We have time to run to the restaurant next door if you’re hungry.” When Blake just cast a baleful stare at him, the man leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “There’s no shame in being hungry.”
Blake disagreed. He felt terribly ashamed he couldn’t keep himself fed. “I-I can’t eat right now. I ate something bad yesterday and I can’t keep anything down.”
“Ah,” the man said, nodding. “Now I understand why you didn’t eat the peanuts. You should be at home in bed.”
“Who would help you with your trunk?” Blake Warner asked.
The man chuckled softly. “Quite right.”
Blake felt the tears threatening again. It’d been a long time since anyone showed kindness to him. Most people just shooed him away. If he hadn’t needed the nickel so desperately, he would happily help the man carry the trunk without payment.
“Sir, may I look at your newspaper?”
The man’s eyebrows lifted with surprise, wrinkling his aged brow. “Come sit next to me and we can look at it together.”
Blake shot another glance toward the ticket counter to see if it was safe to move. The man scooted to the side to allow Blake to sit out of the view of the clerks. He picked up the newspaper and unfolded it.
“Is there a particular story you’re looking for?”
“I want to see if Assemblyman Knight won his election.”
“You’re interested in politics?” the gentleman asked, astonishment tinting the timbre of his voice. “It seems everyone is.”
Blake teetered on the verge of telling the man that Randolph Knight sired him but he didn’t want to disappoint his father by telling the secret he knew could ruin his career.
“I-I’ve met Mr. Knight.”
“Have you? He must’ve made a strong impression on you.”
As the man stretched the newspaper out in front of them, the boy suddenly gasped. There, on the front page, an etching of his father looked back at him. Blake’s red, scaly hand reached out without conscious thought but he snatched it back when he realized what he was doing.
“He won,” the man said. “Your friend is going to
Blake nodded with a soft sigh. “Does that mean he won’t be coming to
Springfield anymore?” He didn’t sound happy about it.
“Not for work, I suppose.”
“Is Washington further away than Chicago?”
The man frowned but didn’t look at the child. He wondered why the boy was concerned about how far away a man he once met would be spending much of his time.
“Yes, much further. It’s probably two hundred miles to Chicago but three or four times that to Washington. Is that why you’re here? Are you waiting for him to come back to Springfield?”
Blake shook his head. He knew
Chicago did not have a railroad. He’d heard his father complain about it. “I come here because it’s warm. I don’t think Mr. Knight remembers me.”
With a small chuckle and a sagacious nod, the man turned his head toward Blake. “You’re probably right. Politicians meet a great number of people. It’s probably hard to remember one boy.”
The little waif sat quietly for a few minutes as he tried to read the article. It was hard to do because his eyes wouldn’t stop filling with tears.
“Sir?” he said. “May I have this paper instead of the nickel? It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, just the front page.”
“If that’s what you want.”
A few minutes later, the train began to board. The man folded up the paper and handed it to Blake. The
boy folded it once more and tucked it into his waistband behind his back so it wouldn’t get in the way as they moved the trunk. They each took a handle and carried it out to the platform.
“Back here,” the man said. “I travel in the caboose.”
The small boy, weak with stomach maladies and hunger struggled under the weight of the heavy burden, his steps short and quick to keep up as the man led him to the back of the train. As the man climbed the frigid metal steps, the weight shifted to Blake’s end nearly making him drop the trunk. Between the man heaving and Blake shoving, they managed to carry the black leather-clad behemoth aboard.
Blake noted the wallpapered walls, plush furniture including a bed, the highly polished wood cabinets with their shiny brass knobs and the heavy gold velvet panels curtaining windows of the caboose. The
man must be very rich or important to travel in such luxury.
“Have you ever ridden on a train?”
“No, sir, but I hear they’re very fast.”
“Twenty-five miles an hour,” the man said proudly. “It would take a man all day to walk as far as a train can go in an hour.”
Something sparked in the boy’s eyes. It wasn’t about the train but the other information the man gave him. If a man could walk twenty-five miles in a day and Chicago was two hundred miles away, could he walk to Chicago in eight days?