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The Boxcar Children, Part II: The Road
In case you missed it: The Boxcar Children, Part I.
Not a soul passed them on the country road. All the houses they saw were dark and still. And when the first faint streaks of morning light showed in the sky, all four children were almost staggering with sleep.
“I’ve got to rest, Henry,” murmured Jessie at last. Little Benny was still asleep, and she had been carrying him since midnight.
“The next place we come to, then,” said Henry. “Just a little while longer.”
Jessie blinked very hard and shook her head. “All right,” she said.
“Jessie,” Violet said, “why don’t you hand Benny off to that horrible double of yours that appears every night and follows us wherever we go?”
The horrible double of Jessie’s that appeared every night and followed them wherever they went slowed down considerably at that remark, and stepped just off the path towards the treeline.
“Now look what you’ve done, Violet,” Jessie said, shifting Benny’s head from her right shoulder to her left. “You’ve made it self-conscious.” Both Jessie and Henry were too polite to ever acknowledge her horrible double that appeared every night and followed them wherever they went, but Violet was still learning how to mind her manners.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Violet. “Ought I to apologize to it, or –”
“No,” Jessie and Henry whispered in chorus.
“Quick, let’s talk about something else,” Jessie said. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her horrible double (which appeared every night and followed them wherever they went) wringing its hands in anguish and casting its head fiercely from side to side.
Henry pointed across a freshly-mown field that lay a quarter mile down the road. “Wouldn’t that haystack do?” he asked. “To sleep in, I mean?”
Jessie’s horrible double sniffed audibly, then froze.
“Why, yes, I think it would, Henry,” Jessie said, a trifle too loudly. “What a big, fine haystack it is, too! And far enough away from the house and barn that the farmer isn’t likely to see us.” (They hated farmers.)
While she was speaking, Jessie’s horrible double slowly crept back onto the road until it was standing just behind her again in the usual way – bowed forward just the slightest bit at the waist, head cocked upward, hands outstretched, eyes closed. Jessie exhaled carefully and shot a tight, grateful smile at Henry.
The sight of the haystack gave everyone fresh strength. Even Benny seemed to grow lighter in Jessie’s arms. They got across a brook somehow, despite Violet’s repeated protestations that she couldn’t cross running water (“That’s witches, Vi,” Henry said, and Violet had wailed, “But what if this is how we find out I’m witches?”) There was a long, low greystone wall that shook itself awake when Henry threw his leg over it. The wall gave a little shiver and started to wrap around his foot It made a horrid little dragging sound against the dirt.
“Oh, come back, come back,” Violet shouted. She clapped a hand over her mouth.
Benny stirred a little in Jessie’s arms. “For pity’s sake don’t notice it,” he mumbled into her shoulder. “There’s nothing more humiliating than being noticed.”
“Don’t notice it,” whispered Jessie’s horrid double, just behind them. It was rocking back and forth at the waist at a rapid pace.
Henry nodded. His face was very white. “Let’s none of us notice anything,” he said. The stone crept higher and higher up his leg, making a grind grind grind sound all the while.
“I don’t want to get noticed,” Violet said. She began to cry in soft gulping sobs. “I don’t want to get noticed.”
“Quiet, oh do be quiet, for pity’s sake, Vi,” Jessie said.
Henry stretched out an arm in either reassurance or a plea for silence. He smiled at Violet.
All at once Jessie’s horrid double (which appeared every night and followed them wherever they went) flew out from behind her and raced towards the wall, still wringing its hands. “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,” it cried, and leapt on top of the stone.
For an instant Jessie’s horrid double (which appeared every night and followed them wherever they went) stood triumphant atop the wall, framed in black against the early dawn. Then something happened – the children couldn’t say quite what – Violet would later say “The wall mumbled at it” – Henry would swear the wall swept away from him like a tide – and a moment later both the wall and Jessie’s horrid double, which appeared every night and followed them wherever they went, were gone. In their place was a neat little path that led directly to the haystack.
Henry fell to the ground. His leg was broken.
Jessie fell to the ground too. Her heart was broken. And, they would later discover, her kidneys had been severely compromised.
Benny lifted his head from Jessie’s shoulder and said, not uncrossly, “I told you not to notice anything. And now you’ve dropped me.”
Violet stopped crying. Now that something terrible had finally happened, she was able to regain her composure and was really quite useful. First she gathered Benny in her arms and carried him across the rest of the field to the haystack, where she burrowed a little hole for him to curl up in. “Go back to sleep, Benny,” she whispered. “I’ll be back in a moment with the others.”
“I’ll sleep,” Benny answered, “but not because you told me to.” He curled his arms around his knees and turned his face away from her. Violet ran back across the field and knelt beside Jessie.
“Can you walk, Jess?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’s going to come back,” Jessie said. “I think it’s gone, or – k-killed.”
“We won’t know until tonight,” Violet said. “It might not be killed. I don’t know if there’s anything that can kill it.”
“It was a lawful death,” Jessie said. “It happened on the road.”
“We weren’t all on the road,” Violet said. “It might have been fieldwise.”
Jessie smiled up at her. “You are a sport, Vi,” she said. “It might have been, at that.” Then she braced herself up on her elbows, slung an arm around Violet’s shoulders, and hauled herself upright. Together the two of them limped across the field, and when they reached the haystack Jessie scarcely took the time to hollow out a tunnel for herself before collapsing.
Henry was already sitting up and hardly trembling anymore when Violet reached him. “Does Jess know how sorry I am?” he said. “Does she – Tell Jess I’m awfully sorry. It was an idiot’s mistake. Firstborn should never be the first over, and I know it’s all my fault, so don’t try to make me feel any better by lying to me about it.”
“Tell her yourself,” Violet said mildly. She wrapped an arm around his waist and another just below his knees, then stopped and looked at him. “Does this hurt?”
“Yes,” said Henry. “Terribly.”
“Have any of us ever had a broken bone before?” she asked. “I didn’t think we could.” She stood up, groaning a little at the weight of him, and took a hesitant step forward.
“Of co–of course we can,” Henry said, closing his eyes tightly.
“Squeeze my hand if you have to, Henry.”
“All right.” He did.
“Keep talking, Henry. You were saying –”
“Benny broke a bone, once. Or Father broke it for him, I should say.”
“We’re almost there,” Violet whispered to him. “Why don’t I remember that? Father was never violent, exactly, even for a drunk.”
“Oh, he wasn’t drunk,” Henry said. “Or, no drunker than usual at the time. Father only broke it because he had to. He was terribly afraid of Benny.”
Violet knelt down at the side of the haystack and carefully shifted Henry out of her arms onto the ground. “Well,” she said, “here we are. I’m sorry I don’t –” here she gestured at his leg while making sure not to look at it. “I don’t know how to fix it.”
“I can fix it,” said Jessie, sticking her head out from her tunnel inside the haystack. “Crawl in, darlings.”
Henry turned and looked at Violet. “You’re a brick, you know,” he said simply. “An absolute brick. Father would be terrified of you, if he could see you right now.” Then he shuffled ahead on his elbows and knees and disappeared inside of the haystack.
Violet pulled wisps of hay over the opening to Jessie’s tunnel so that it was absolutely invisible, and then proceeded to dig out a similar burrow for herself. She curled up in her nest, which was hidden so completely that Henry had to call her name to see if she were there.
“Let’s make one big room of all our nests,” Henry said. It was no sooner said than done; the two of them worked quickly and quietly until they could see each other. They pressed the hay back firmly until they had made their way into Benny’s little room.
“How’s your leg, Henry?” Violet asked.
Jessie shook her head. “I can make it work,” she said, resting a hand gently on Henry’s ankle, which was now as smooth and as straight as it had ever been, “but I can’t get the hurt out, and I’m afraid I don’t have anything besides what we brought in the bag with us.”
“Father would –” Henry began.
“No,” Jessie said. “No, no, no, no, no, no.” She shook her head back and forth, back and forth. “I won’t discuss it. I won’t discuss it. I’ll forgive him, but I won’t discuss it.”
“I’m sorry, Jess,” Henry said, staring at his leg. “For that, and for – well, I’m sorry for it, and that’s all there is.”
“I won’t,” Jessie said, “discuss it. Not that either.”
“Jessie,” Violet said suddenly, “your left eye’s drooping, and it’s not the right color either, and your mouth –”
Jessie swiped a hand over her eyes and turned away. “It’s the left side of my heart that’s broken,” she admitted. “I don’t know how to – I don’t know how to hide any of it.”
“What a crew we make,” Henry said. “Mother would be delighted.”
“Mother had a bad sense of humor,” Jessie said. “Among other things.” She turned to Violet, hand still covering the left side of her face. “You haven’t cried at all,” she said in an accusing tone. “You always cry.”
“I haven’t, have I?” said Violet. Normally, being told she often cried was enough to get Violet going again, but she found, somewhat to her surprise, that she didn’t feel like crying at all. “Maybe it’s just so nice, having you all here and hurting, that I don’t need to cry anymore. Maybe that’s what all the crying was for.”
“You are Mother’s daughter,” Henry said. “Not that there was ever any doubt.”
Just then they heard a heavy rumble of a milk-wagon coming down a nearby lane. A deep voice said, “Get along, lass! Now, then!” and Violet realized gratefully that they had hidden themselves just before the first farmer in the neighborhood had set off toward Middlesex with his milk cans.
The children lay on their stomachs and looked at one another. More than anything, they hated farmers.
“I’m not hurt,” Violet whispered to Jessie. “I could sneak out and kill him and be back before anyone saw or heard a thing. You could give me your knife, and I could do it quick as anything.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Jessie whispered back. “And leave an honest corpse pointing in the direction of her that killed him, for as long as we keep to the read?”
“Think about it, Vi,” Henry said. “If we leave him alone, he will say truthfully that he didn’t meet us coming this direction, so they will hunt for us the other way. That gives us time, and territory.”
“I’m tired of being hunted,” Violet said.
“At least this way we’re being hunted in the wrong direction,” Henry said. “I know I’m likely reaching the ceiling for apologies in a single morning, but – I know it’s not much. And I am sorry. For what it’s worth.” Then he wept a little bit, for he was in terrible pain.
Violet rolled over, and they all listened as the wagon trundled past. “We can stay here just as long as we like, can’t we, Jess?” she said, tamping down the hay around her and closing her eyes.
“Not in the slightest,” replied Jess. “It’s terribly dangerous here. Go to sleep."