Underground, page 1
Bookline & Thinker Ltd
Published by Hookline Books 2011
Bookline & Thinker Ltd
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London SW10 0BB
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or stored in an information retrieval system (other than for the purposes of review) without the express permission of the publisher in writing.
The right of Gayle O’Brien to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
© Copyright 2011 Gayle O’Brien
A CIP catalogue for this book is available from the British Library.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover design by Gee Mac
Printed and bound by Lightning Source UK
For Ziggy and Sam
Annie lay down on her bed and scrutinized her work. The ceiling didn’t look bad, considering. She would have preferred dark blue for the sky and gold for the stars, but black and yellow had been the only two colors on the darkened Wal-Mart loading dock. It was no use being picky.
If Annie was still in Virginia, she would have called Jenna and Marcy and told them to come over and see how she’d transformed her bedroom ceiling into a starry night sky. They would, she knew, tell her it was amazing, be jealous that she thought of it first and go home begging their parents to let them do the same.
The truth was she wouldn’t have been allowed to do this in Virginia. A year ago, she’d asked her mother if she could.
“Absolutely not,” she’d said.
“Because it’s a complete waste of time and money and, when you get sick of it, we’ll only have to paint over it.”
“I won’t get sick of it,” Annie argued. “It’ll be an educational exercise. I’ll make sure all the constellations are right.”
“You’re not painting your bedroom ceiling. This conversation is over.”
I’ll ask Dad when he gets home, she remembered thinking. He’ll let me.
But that was the night everything changed. She never got to ask him.
Annie got off her bed and looked out the window. Clumps of snow lay scattered over the brown grass in the front yard and small, icy puddles filled divots in the muddy driveway. The gray mountains were swallowing the setting sun. Across the street, a frozen river glistened.
“So this is Vermont,” she said, pressing her fingers on the glass and feeling the icy air force its way in. She shivered and reached for the fraying J.Crew sweater she’d found at Goodwill.
Never could she remember being this close to freezing. In Virginia, it rarely got this cold and, when it did, she’d crank up the central heating to 85 °F and pretend she was in Florida. Compared to all the places they’d lived over the past year, Battenkill, Vermont was the coldest and the most remote.
What made it worse was realizing that in Virginia it was spring. It was the middle of March, which meant daffodils would line the highways and bluebells would lurk in the woods next to the football field. Cheerleading would start again, and Jenna would be pressuring everyone to “burn off that winter weight.” It made Annie think of the high school cafeteria, where Jenna would spend the entire lunchtime dissecting the calorie content of everything at the table, then take a vote on who had the “fattiest food.”
Annie made sure it was never her, but it didn’t go unnoticed that her meal was a close second or third. What could she say? She loved food. Her father loved to make it, and she loved to eat it: enchiladas, fish tacos, chicken with dumplings and beef brisket in the winter; BBQ pork ribs, marinated steak, pasta salad and grilled corn on the cob in the summer.
“Healthy,” her dad would say when Annie asked him to describe her shape.
“Ooh, I got more than an inch!” Jenna would shriek, pinching Annie’s sides as they changed for cheerleading practice.
If only Jenna could see her now.
A rumbling noise came from Annie’s stomach and she tried to recall when she’d last eaten. Yesterday, she remembered, at the 7-Eleven in Troy where she’d half-filled the tank of the Dodge Dart and had a hot dog smothered in ketchup.
Since then she had driven the hour to Vermont in the dark, stolen several cans of paint, and helped her mother into their new house. Add painting her bedroom ceiling into the equation and she had more than earned her one meal of the day.
Annie’s stomach rumbled even louder. She grabbed her backpack and a pair of mittens and went downstairs.
Her dad always said, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Annie had never understood what he meant until they’d arrived at this house. The newspaper ad had read: House for rent. Cash only. No lease. Now she could see why.
It was an old farmhouse. There were houses like this in older parts of Virginia, but Annie had never seen one this close to falling down. At least it wasn’t as bad as the barn out the back, where Annie reluctantly put the Dart after the drive from Troy. She feared the wind would blow the wrong way, the barn would collapse and she’d be stuck having to steal yet another car. For now though, the Dart needed to stay hidden. Just in case.
Everything in the house was filthy. Whoever lived here last either had no interest in dusting or the place had been empty for a long time. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking at the dirt-encrusted skirting boards and murky windows, she knew she should have spent the day cleaning instead of painting.
She went into the kitchen. Dead flies littered the counter. She opened the oven and the smell was rancid. The house was dirty enough it could make her and her mother ill. Doctors and hospitals weren’t an option. Even though there was only so much effort she wanted to put into a house that she might have to leave at any time, Annie resolved to find a store and buy some bleach.
And food. She needed to do something about food.
She peered into the living room and saw her mother still curled up on the couch, asleep. Her hair hung limp and defeated over her face. Over the past year it had grown, her original brown color pushing out her old blonde highlights until only the ends were yellow, as if she’d dipped her hair in paint. She thought of the ceiling upstairs and wondered if her mother remembered forbidding it on the night everything changed. Had Annie painted the ceiling in their old house, there would have been screaming and yelling and threats and privileges taken away. Now Annie was lucky if her mother even opened her eyes.
She slid her feet into her red cowboy boots, basking in the familiarity of their soft leather. As she unbolted the front door she caught her reflection in a large foggy mirror on the wall. She looked older. The gray circles under her eyes and the paleness of her normally rosy skin made her appear older than her 17 years.
How much longer could they live like this?
She braced herself against the cold and threw open the door.
With the Dart sentenced to the barn, Annie set to walking. She thought she remembered seeing a store on the way back from stealing the paint and headed in that direction.
The narrow, windy road was flanked by clumps of trees and the occasional herd of cows. She passed a total of four houses and a brown historic marker. She reached a crossroads and there, overlooking the intersection, was a two-story building covered in gray clapboard. A large painted sign hung from the columned porch: Store at Five Corners.
Annie walked across the small parking lot and pushed the door open. A b
At the freezer section, she logged the price of each pizza, burrito and pot pie, standing there for so long she was soon cold again. The cheapest item was a vegetarian burrito – buy one, get one free. She put a dozen of them into her basket. For her mother, she got M&Ms and Diet Coke.
At the counter, a bell sat next to the cash register, asking to be rung for attendance. Next to it was a laptop, its screen glowing with the familiar white and blue of a Facebook news feed. Annie had to stop herself from reaching out to the keyboard. She last checked her Facebook page a week ago. Her status was as she’d left it on the night everything changed: … is watching a re-run of Gossip Girl. Not as good the second time around.
Then she thought of her other Facebook page. Private, with only one friend. She felt for the memory stick in her pocket. Still there.
Soon, she thought. I’ll take care of it soon.
A teenage boy shot up from behind the counter. “Sorry,” he smiled. “Re-lacing my shoes.”
Annie’s hand leapt to her heart.
“Sorry,” he said again, “didn’t mean to scare you.” He began punching her grocery prices into the cash register. “I’d say you’re just passing through, but we don’t get many tourists buying bleach.”
Annie cleared her throat. “Excuse me?”
“I was wondering if you’d just moved here.”
“Oh. Um. Yes. We live just down the road.”
“Ah, so you’re the ones who’ve moved into the old Jennings Farm.”
“I don’t know whose house it used to be.”
“Gray farmhouse? Stained-glass 1850 above the front door?”
Was there an 1850 above the door? She hadn’t noticed.
“No one’s lived there for a while,” he added.
That explains all the dust, she thought.
“Do you need a bag?”
She put her backpack on the counter and pushed everything in. “No, I’ll just use this.”
“An environmentalist,” he said. “I like you already.”
Annie blushed. The bleach fell off the counter and onto her foot.
The boy came out from behind the counter.
“Here, let me help,” he said, leaning over to pick up the bottle. “Hey, cool boots! Where’d you get ‘em?”
The day her father gave her the boots flashed behind her eyes.
“Happy Birthday, sweetheart,” he had said. “They’re authentic. Look, they’ve even got a knife loop on the inside of the right boot.”
She remembered she had laughed. “What the heck do I need a knife loop for?”
Her dad had laughed, too. “Hey, you never know when something like that might come in handy.”
Annie took the bleach and hurried to the door. The boy followed her.
“So,” he said, “will I be seeing you at school?”
“I don’t go to school.”
“You don’t? How old are you?”
She didn’t hold the door for him. He followed anyway, bursting out into the cold without a jacket. Why is he following me? she thought.
“Did you graduate early or something? Don’t tell me you’re some kind of child prodigy.”
“No, I just don’t go to school,” she said, fumbling with her mittens.
If he heard the impatience in her voice he didn’t respond to it. “Wow. I’d heard there were kids that didn’t have to go to school, but I’ve never actually met any of them. Are you part of some religious cult or something?”
“No. Just a decision I made.”
The boy laughed. “Oh, man. I can just see my old man’s face if I decided I wasn’t going to school anymore. You’ve gotta tell me how you convinced your parents.”
“Actually, it’s just me and my mom, and she’s fine with it.” Annie’s whole body shook against the cold as the boy followed her across the parking lot.
“Call me old-fashioned,” he called out, “but I think you forgot to pay.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” She pulled $20 from her pocket.
“Just give me a sec and I’ll get your change.”
Annie needed the change. But what she needed more was to end this conversation. “Keep the rest.”
“Oh, come on, let me at least give you what you’re owed.”
“No, really,” she said, backing towards the street.
“I’m Theo,” said the boy, holding out his hand.
“I’m sorry,” said Annie, reaching the road and setting her pace. “I have to go.”
Samantha Weston couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t pull so hard!”
“Miss Sammy, you knows I’s gots to pull hard. What’s the point of wearing this thing if you ain’t gonna wear it right?”
Nessie put her foot on Samantha’s behind and yanked hard on the corset strings.
“Be careful!” Samantha snapped. “You’ll make me fall over!”
“Arms up, Miss Sammy.”
Samantha lifted her arms. Nessie threw the hoop skirt over her head. The wire circle hit the floor. The skirt blossomed out from Samantha’s waist.
“I feel like the Liberty Bell,” she moaned.
Nessie mumbled something under her breath as she tied the skirt’s belt around Samantha’s waist.
“What did you say?” Samantha snapped.
“I said, ‘Buck up, Miss Sammy. This here is the price of becoming a young lady.’”
“You can go now, Annessa.” The cold voice of Samantha’s mother froze the room.
Nessie curtseyed and made a hunched exit. At the Weston plantation, it was common knowledge that if a house slave got too tall, she was sent directly to the cotton field. Even Samantha knew Nessie would be as tall as Samantha’s mother if she stood up straight.
“It hurts,” Samantha whispered.
“Good,” said her mother, inspecting the corset. “Then it’s tight enough.”
“How am I supposed to sit down?”
“You won’t have time for sitting. You’ll be lucky if you have time to breathe.”
“But Mother …”
Her mother raised her hand. “I don’t want to hear another word. You’re 17 years old. I started wearing a corset when I was 13.”
Samantha rolled her eyes. Her mother raised her hand to strike her, and Samantha winced. Since the planning for Samantha’s debutante ball began her mother’s fuse had burned down to its crackling base. It wasn’t that Samantha did not want her debutante ball – indeed, she wanted it very much. She wanted the music, the dancing, the swishing of ball gowns and the smell of men’s cologne. She wanted to be the center of attention, the envy of her female peers and the desire of every man in the room. Never mind that she already knew who she wanted to marry – in fact, had known since she was five-years old – but a debutante ball was a rite of Southern passage and she intended to enjoy every second of it.
If only her mother would remember that this was Samantha’s debutante ball, not hers. Or Georgia’s.
Her mother snapped her two fingers. Oma and Chimi, two house slaves, entered carrying Samantha’s debutante gown like it was rice paper. Samantha’s mother had brought it back from Paris. The pale silk bodice was fortified with whalebone, making it practically stand on its own. The skirt was made of a dozen layers of organza and chiffon, embroidered with hundreds of tiny, dark pink roses. It was, quite simply, the most beautiful dress Samantha had ever seen. She reached out to touch it, and her mother slapped her hand.
Oma and Chimi lifted the dress over Samantha’s head and guided it over the hoop skirt. She watched their dark hands manipulate the pale, delicate fabric. Oma stood behind with a button hook and began fastening the 120 satin buttons up the back of the bodice. Samant
Halfway up the bodice, Oma stopped. “I can’t do no more, ma’am,” she said.
“What?” said Samantha’s mother. “What do you mean?”
Oma gently turned Samantha so her mother could see the back of the dress.
A terrible pause filled the room.
“Why doesn’t it fit?”
No one dared answer.
Oma pulled the cloth measure from her apron and wrapped it around Samantha’s waist.
“21 inches, ma’am,” she whispered.
“Give me that.” Samantha’s mother snatched the measure and pulled it tight around Samantha’s middle. No one breathed.
Samantha braced herself. If her mother slapped her for anything, it would be this. Instead she shouted: “Get the dress off her. Now!”
Oma quickly undid the buttons. The dress was lifted over Samantha’s head.
“Leave us,” she said. The two slaves exited quickly and quietly.
Samantha stood while rage seeped through her mother’s low voice like smoke out of a cigar. “Do you want to explain to me how your waist got to be 21 inches?”
Samantha opened her mouth, but nothing came out. How could she explain the inexplicable? The truth was that most days her body behaved independently of her intentions. It was changing, almost daily, and with those changes came an ever-evolving list of desires. Her body wanted food, in all its scrumptious shapes and forms: corn bread, caramelized peaches, creamed collard greens, maple-cured pork, biscuits and gravy. It wanted water, milk, lemonade and tea so steeped and sweetened it resembled Virginia soil after a thunderstorm. Her mother had always made clear the correlation between food and a woman’s figure, but even on the days and weeks when Samantha resisted her cravings, her body still seemed determined to mature. The mirror did not always catch these modifications, but Samantha could feel them: the widening of her hips, the slight narrowing of her waist, and the ballooning of her chest. She knew the latter was the real reason her bodice was now too small, but how could she justify this to her mother, who was repulsed by the human body’s needs and functions?