It was like floating in water. Perhaps a river like the one by the farm. It was not much of a farm since Papa couldn’t sell the milk for fair prices anymore. More like a wasteland of dead grass and scrawny cows. The water moved in rhythm all around her. Except it was loud. Every wave made a clack, clack, clack sound that felt like razors in her head. That was not like the farm. May’s head felt so heavy as she began to lift it from the velvet material behind her. Nausea soon followed. May could feel harsh bright light from a window to her left and muffled voices coming from her right. She was going to vomit. She must have turned green, because as she lifted her body to turn to the voices, a bucket was placed below her chin just as she had begun to retch.
“Well, that’s done then,” said an older woman’s voice, as May’s face finally emerged from the pail. A male’s hand quickly took the bucket away, and it was then that May could take in her surroundings. The train. She was on the train.
“William, get the girl some water,” commanded the woman.
May’s eyes adjusted to the sunlight streaming into the carriage which allowed her to examine her hostess. The older woman had grey, white hair pinned back into a tight bun atop her head. Her body was thin and frail, apparent even under the heavy fur coat, silk gloves, and several necklaces adorning her pale thin neck. How anyone could afford those jewels when everyone May knew was so poor, was beyond her.
“Where am I?” began May barely above a whisper.
“You are in my carriage. I brought you here after one of the workers found you on the track back in North Carolina.”
May didn't remember that. Her confused gaze triggered the stranger to question her further.
“Girl, what’s the last thing you remember?” William, who May had realized was a servant from his black suit and white gloves, placed a cup of water in front of her. May grasped it with both hands as she drank deeply. The older woman waited patiently.
“How d’ya know I ain’t a boy?”
The older woman guffawed. “Any idiot could see you’re a girl. You’re in bloom child, and fortunate it was me who found you.” At this she slowly assessed the young girl before her. Her gaze went up and down her form. What a sight May must have been. Ripped dirty pants, a thin ill-fitting button up blouse and a dusty brown jacket with the buttons missing. May remembered wearing a cap to hide her long brown hair, but now her hair hung in its loose braid over her shoulder. May was too exhausted to feel embarrassed.
“By the look of you, my guess is you’re a train hopper. There are a lot of you out there. You are too thin, filthy, and that bruise under your eye did not come from falling on the track. Where were you planning on hiding? In the luggage cart? Or was it just a stop by to steal from me?” The older woman picked up the teacup and saucer placed before her and sipped from it in an exasperated manner. As if this conversation was also exhausting her.
“I don’ e’en know you lady. I don’ know where I be headed but I reckon I jus wan’ed out.” May looked away from her and faced the window. Even with her head pounding and her stomach still unsettled, this was as peaceful as she had ever been. Wherever this train was going, she was determined to stay on it for the long haul. There was nothing at home but hungry mouths and bloody fists anyway. May began to shiver, her thin ripped pants doing very little by way of warmth.
“Why a young girl would choose train hopping over being home, I’m sure I don’t want to know,” the old woman muttered. “There’s a blanket under your seat girl. No point in letting you die now; we are too far gone for that. You will call me Ma’am or Madam. What should I call you?”
“May.” She stated as she wrapped the wool blanket around herself, sniffling from the sick and cold.
Ma’am pulls out a gold cigarette case and summons William over to light one. Ma’am pulls the cigarette out of her mouth and puffs the smoke into the air never dropping her gaze from May. May did not know how long they sat in silence, the only sound coming from the churning of the moving train.
“I have a proposition for you,” Ma’am finally spoke between puffs of smoke. “It would be a great benefit to you, and a comfort to me, if you do as I say. You will never have to be poor again.”
May held the blanket closer. “I ain’t no criminal.”
“Good. I don’t like criminals. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Even though we still have hours to go before we get to New York, I doubt we will have time to get to know each other any more than this.” Ma’am stops to cough. The cough was harsh in that you could almost hear the bones in her chest rattle. It seemed to last a whole minute although it may have only been seconds. Just as violently as it had started, it ended. Ma’am took a slow calculated breath before she looked back up at May.
“William, it's time to fetch Dr. Owens and Mr. Briggs. Might as well finish this here.” William walked quickly, opening, and closing the carriage doors, and disappearing into the next carriage over, towards the front of the train.
“I am dying, May. You could probably tell by now. I haven’t long and I need you to do something for me. By the Lord’s providence, or ill humor, I have decided it must be you.”
May didn’t know what to say. She had no where to go. “What’s in it fer me?”
Ma’am and May stared at one another for a moment. Both contemplating the other. It was May who became troubled each moment that passed. Ma’am appeared to be waiting patiently for her reply.
“I don’t get yer meaning… Ma’am.”
“In New York, my three daughters and their husbands will be waiting for me.” Ma’am put down the last of her cigarette in the teacup she had been drinking out of. “They are to inherit my entire estate, which their husbands will of course control. I am one of the few in this country who was left unscathed by the market crash of 29’. I’m sure you were but a small thing when that happened. My wealth is intact, and I feel the vultures starting to circle.” Ma’am stops again for another coughing fit, while May tries to process everything she was saying.
The doors to the front end of the carriage opens and holds as William enters with two other men following closely behind. The clanging was unbearable. May held her head as she watched a bald man in a blue suit hurry to Ma’am’s side. The other man was not so rushed. This man appeared younger, and he wore small spectacles and a neat brown suit with a matching tie and hat. He carried a black leather briefcase in one hand.
“May, meet Mr. Briggs my lawyer and Dr. Owens. Owens stop fussing, you will be paid when I’m dead, now sit,” Mr. Briggs chuckled. Dr. Owens lifted his hands in a sign of surrender. He then nodded his head towards May while Mr. Briggs removed his hat and gave her a polite smile. Both men took seats and a table on the other side of the aisle next to May and Ma’am. Ma’am continued.
“I am the last of the Laurie family. My family helped build this country and my husband worked hard to solidify his wealth. We had one son, but he’s dead. My husband spoiled our daughters, and they grew up to be useless. Their husbands, a bunch of fraudsters, found my daughters, sank their hooks in them and subsequently lost everything. They couldn’t run a business if their lives depended on it. They squandered their wedding money, lost their investors money and finally lost everything else during the crash. I am their last cash cow.” This time Ma’am coughed a long while and sweat began to form on her brow. Dr. Owens handed her a handkerchief from the front pocket of his jacket before he returned to his seat. He checked the watch on his wrist, likely waiting for her to settle. He exchanged a knowing glance with Mr. Briggs. Ma’am was growing even more pale. May reckoned a good gust of wind would knock her down.
May’s stomached growled loudly, as wildly inappropriate in that moment as she looked in a first- class cart. Ma’am signaled William with a wave of her hand as she placed the other over her chest and quieted. William returned with a tray of assorted cheeses, meats, strawberries, and a glass of milk.
“Eat girl. William, a brandy, and one for Briggs and Owens.”
May devoured the platter as Ma’am and the two men quietly engaged in conversation. May didn’t bother to listen to what they were saying, but there was a lot of gesturing, mostly towards her. Dr. Owens held Ma’am’s wrist as he looked at his watch.
When May had finished the last of the strawberries, Ma’am addressed her again through deep drinks of her brandy. Dr. Owens returned to his seat.
“Gentlemen, where was I?”
“You were talking about a cash cow,” provided Dr. Owens.
“Ah yes. Bottom line, they’re crooks. They’ve been trying to get rid of me since they realized that they couldn’t get a dime from me alive. My daughters, like the idiots they are, followed their lead. You will meet them soon enough. They were always beautiful but dull as bricks. They never cared for me or their home. Only how much money they could get out of their father. Now that my dearly departed husband is gone, I was left to fend them off on my own.” Here she leaned in, a determined gleam in her eyes. “I am tired. I have no fight left in me. But you do.”
May leaned back against the red velvet seat behind her, like the seat could swallow her whole.
“I don know what impression I gave yer but what could I do against yer entire family. I have nothin, Ma’am. I come from nothin. I am nothin!”
“Not anymore. May, I am giving you everything. All my estates, money, and homes. I promised Mr. Briggs a sizable income for the rest of his life to take care of you and ensure you are equipped and educated. I am leaving him instructions and you are to follow it to the letter. You can trust him. At least until you can rely on yourself. You will be safe. Do whatever you want with the money. Spend it all or learn to use it, just make sure Mr. Briggs is paid.” She begins another coughing fit.
May sat their stunned. Her stomach had settled, and strength returned although the pounding in her head hadn’t ceased since she woke up. Her breathing started to pick up and her hands became clammy. This couldn’t really happen. She was panicking. Why her?
“Calm yourself girl.”
“I don’ wan’ yer relations after me. I jus’ needed an out from home. I don’ know what to do with yer money. Please Ma’am. Why?”
“It’s like I said May, providence. I don’t care who the money goes to as long as it’s not them. It could have been anyone on that track, but in the end, it was you.”
“If I may interject Ma’am,” begins Mr. Briggs. Ma’am barely acknowledges him but nods softly. “May, I know this is shocking, but we are asking you to take a leap of faith with us. You and I, we’re in the same boat. We don’t know where we‘re headed but at least it’s forward. Believe me when I tell you everything is handled. When we get to New York, I will present you in front of the family, a judge, police, and lawyers. The Papers will probably be there to take pictures. It’s a lot of money we’re talking here. You don’t have to say a word. After we drop the bomb, we get up and walk out. I will take you to a safe place till the dust settles. You can start your life however you want, even if that means lying in bed till noon eating bonbons. At least to start with,” at this he winks at Ma’am, and she turns away rolling her eyes. Her shoulders were beginning to slump, and May could see the exhaustion in her eyes.
“Ma’am, may I suggest we get you to bed,” Dr. Owens gently urges.
“Sign what Mr. Briggs gives you,” Ma’am ignores the Doctor. “If you don’t know how to read or write you will have to figure that out when you get to New York but make your mark.” Ma’am’s breaths were getting shallower as she spoke. “I don’t have much time May. If you are smart, you’ll take the deal. You have nothing to lose… but everything to gain.” A few moments pass.
“What will it be May?” Mr. Briggs gets up and passes May legal documents. May can read some, but hardly enough to understand such an onerous contract.
“Sign here,” Mr. Briggs notes the dotted line at the bottom of the front page and one on the second. All eyes were on May. William, Mr. Briggs, Dr. Owens, and Ma’am. Although Ma’am could no longer hold her gaze. May didn’t know how long she sat in stunned silence, but she lifted her hand to take the pen from Mr. Briggs. As if on que, everyone released a breath of relief. May signed her name quickly and dropped the pen as if it were on fire.
“Good girl,’ muttered Ma’am. “How long till we get to New York, William?”
“About 2 hours Ma’am”.
“Good…that’s good,” Ma’am lay her head back on her seat, eyes closed. Dr. Owens got up and knelt next to her. He took her gloved hand in his.
“Don’t worry Owens, you’ll get your money,” Ma’am mumbled. Owens smiled although his eyes expressed a more somber emotion. “I don’t doubt that Ma’am.”
Mr. Briggs packed the signed papers into an envelope, that he then placed in his black leather briefcase. May sat very still and upright, eyes focused on her soiled hands. Mr. Briggs lowered his briefcase.
“Thank you, Ma’am. For everything. You can count on me.”
Ma’am turned her head to look at Mr. Briggs and nodded her head. Then she slowly returned her gaze to May.
Ma’am took a deep, slow breath before she said. “Live. Live as you see fit, May. Right or wrong is no one’s business, just do it. But I have one more favor to ask you.”
“Yes Ma’am.” May finally looks up at Ma’am.
“Tell my family…to fuck themselves.” The men stifled their laughs.
“I…can’t…er…yes…Ma’am.” May released the breath she felt she had held since she opened her eyes. Mr. Briggs puts his hat to his chest as he chuckles. Ma’am’s head leans awkwardly to the side as her breathing becomes labored. Dr. Owens, still holding her hand checks his watch. William waits silently nearby. Her eyes close.
“That meeting will be interesting,” says Ma’am. “Good luck.”
About the Creator
I am an aspiring writer from Ontario, Canada. My field of experience and degrees are in Social Work and Political Science. I am currently working on a series of children's stories and I love to read mystery, romance, and fantasy.
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