A story? You want me to tell you a story, just like that, right off the top of my head? What do you mean, “just make something up?” Why should I? Yes, of course I have a story. Doesn’t everyone? And it’s a whopper, as they used to say. What? They still say that? Well, bless me!
Did you know that between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 orphaned, homeless, and destitute children in the United States were placed out across the country, many to farming families in the mid-west? Some were adopted. Some were indentured. Some were separated from their brothers and sisters and never saw them again. Yes, that does sound harsh, but it was the beginning of the foster care system and while it wasn’t perfect, it was usually better than starving to death on the streets. Believe me, young man, starving to death is no picnic. But you know all about that, don’t you? Being hungry, being lonely, and abandoned. I thought as much. How can I tell? Your eyes, dear, I can see it in your eyes. You remind of someone I met a long time ago.
Yes, I agree. Never mind that. You asked for my story. You can tell me yours later. Are you writing all this down?
Where was I? Yes, yes. I remember. I’m not as feeble-minded as all that. You know about the orphans, but what you may not know is this: Not all of those children—or the trains they rode on- can be accounted for. I know the last one I rode on can’t be. I tried to tell the authorities years ago, but they didn’t believe a word of it. I don’t know if that’s because I was a girl, or a girl born in the wrong century, but mark my words, the Number Nine, bound for Michigan, rolled out of history and into mystery, for a minute, anyway. Yes, it was a long time ago, but my memory is as sharp today as it was then. Now, do you want to hear a story or not? All right then. Settle down and let me tell you what really happened...
A very Podunk town the train had pulled into for the last 3,000 miles since leaving Grand Central Station looked the same: mills, manure, and mud. We were on the return trip from the Indian Territories, having criss-crossed what seemed like the entire country; we were the ones no one seemed to want. I guess they were going to try one more town, then it was back East. By the time we reached the orphan asylum, I was convinced I’d be the only one left on the train. It would be all mud and tears there, too.
As we drew slowly into the station, I leaned my cheek against the cold glass window and blew softly until a fog formed. In it, I carefully wrote the name inscribed inside my locket – backwards, that it might be read from outside the train: E S O R. Truth told, I was tiring of the routine, but I had my instructions. At every station, at every switch, at every whistle stop, I was to trace those letters on the window. That’s what the pretty lady had told me back in New York. It will make sense later. Adults always say things like that. But I did as I was told. In those days, at least, I was an obedient child, usually.
Miss McCrimmon, who had travelled with us since we left St. Luke’s and made our way first to the city and then up the Hudson on a crowded ferry, was already in motion: waking the sleepy heads, wiping noses, chastising the mischief makers. Not that there were many of those left. No, we were just a rag tag band of nobodies singing the same sad song; tired of traveling; tired of life. Mr. Sneed, the weasel-faced agent we’d picked up prior to loading onto the first of too many trains, came snivelling into our coach looking more than a little uncomfortable as he patted his red, puckered face with a handkerchief. His neat brown suit was creased after so many miles of travel and his hat didn’t look near as crisp as it had at the start of our journey. Not a father, I had decided, or a grandfather either. If he had been, he would at least have spared a smile for the gaggle of tired children. To him, we were little more than cargo – and noisy cargo at that.
‘Ma’am,’ he tipped his hat at our sponsor. ‘I’m afraid we shall be parting company. Nurse Pettiford and I are to remain aboard and continue on to New York. You’re to take the next train to Michigan which, I understand, has been delayed due to inclement weather to the north. I trust the church has an agent here that can arrange accommodations for those charges remaining with you?’
‘Here?’ she squawked, drawing a crumpled time table from beneath her lap robe. ‘But, there’s no scheduled stop for another 40 miles!’
‘My dear woman, you would do well to control that Irish temper—‘
‘Scottish, Mr. Sneed,’ she growled at him, and not for the first time.
‘Never the less…’
‘Never “nothing”! Mr. Sneed, might I remind you of the contract you have with St. Luke’s? You are to see these children safely delivered to their new homes whether that is in Arkansas, Idaho, or Michigan.’ Miss McCrimmon flicked a wisp of escaped hair back into her bun. It was of no use. Her red hair was as dishevelled as the rest of her; as the rest of us.
The man smiled coolly. ‘I have no control over either the weather or the train lines and a telegram with the change in plans was waiting for us upon our arrival. Unexpected as that might be, it is the truth of the matter. I can only surmise that another group of children await our arrival.
‘We’ll be escorting them back west as we no doubt now have a good number of farming families waiting and you can rest assured not a one has asked for trouble makers, wee babes, the mentally infirm, or,’ here he cast a glance at me, ‘girls of questionable intelligence.’
I pulled my straw hat down over my eyes and tried to sink out of sight. As much as I longed for a family to call my own, I didn’t want to be anywhere I wasn’t needed – or wanted.
‘You’re to proceed to Michigan and anyone that’s left will be returned to St. Luke’s. I do wish you well, Miss McCrimmon. Good day to you.’
‘But, Mister Sneed,’ Miss McCrimmon cried, trailing after him, pleading our case. ‘We’ve already been to Michigan. Are you saying additional applications came in? Mr. Sneed? Mr. Sneed, do wait for me – ‘
It was true. We’d been to Michigan once already. I couldn’t remember how many days ago it was; twelve? ; A hundred and twelve? We numbered nearly 90 at the outset, enough to fill two passenger cars, but as the days passed most of the older boys and girls had congregated in the coach ahead of us. Nurse Pettiford followed soon after.
I glanced around our carriage, at Patrick and Colin wrestling in the aisle. The twins were always doing that. Not that they looked anything alike. Mr. Sneed didn’t even think they were twins. Twice they had refused to be separated, causing such a ruckus that they’d been sent back just as our train was due to leave the station.
Behind them, looking as sad as I had ever seen him, sat little Kip. I remembered the summer day he had been brought to the first orphanage I had lived in: St. Christopher’s Day. That’s how he had got his name because the Sisters said they had to call him something. Something terrible must have happened to him because he wouldn’t talk to anyone. The only time he’d ever spoken to me was when it was discovered neither of us were Catholic and we were unloaded on the Society. I can’t repeat what he said, but between you and me, it was awful funny.
Comely, towheaded Piotr sat quietly across the aisle, staring out a window, rolling a red leather ball back and forth between his hands. I asked him about it once, but it took longer to explain the game it was used for than I suspect the game itself took to play. Willie was behind him, scowling, his arms crossed over his chest as he sat hunched and brooding. Whenever Miss McCrimmon started reciting her Second Chances speech, he huffed and puffed like a grumpy old man and pulled his peaked wool hat down over his eyes. I couldn’t see Mac, but I could hear the merry tap of spoons, so I knew he was nearby. Mac had a deck of playing cards that he had kept tucked up under his straw hat since one of the older boys, now gone, had nabbed it from him.
Upon inspection we discovered cards were missing, but Mac said he could get by as long as he still had one Ace to keep up his sleeve.
Jean was nowhere to be seen, but I wasn’t surprised. He had made it his business to explore every inch of our train from the locomotive on back to the caboose. He knew what every switch and lever did and how to make it all operate in reverse order. Paul and Thomas – named after Saints because no one could pronounce the names they had arrived with – were deep in conversation in a language I couldn’t begin to describe. I liked Paul. I was rarely at a loss for words, even as a young girl, but when he was around it felt like butterflies were fluttering around my tummy and I said the stupidest things. Thomas, on the other hand, made me laugh. He was tall and strong and I couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t been placed out yet. I was sort of glad, though, because he had always watched out for me as well as little Daivi and baby Mathieu, who just needed a chance to charm someone. I couldn’t believe they were still on the train either, but secretly hoped wherever they went, I could go too.
I slumped a little more in my seat, smearing the spot where I had so carefully written on the fogged glass. It was time to face the music. No one was coming for me. No more second chances.
Not here. Not ever.
A tap at the window drew my attention and I looked down. There, on the platform, stood a serious looking man that I hadn’t noticed just moments before. I wasn’t sure which was stranger, the man’s leather coat that made him look like a boat captain without a hat—or a boat for that matter – or the enormous blue telegraph box that stood a short distance away. I could scarcely believe the size of it. Why, you might step inside it, it was so large! A proper little hut, better than the dirty coal shed I had slept in for a forgotten number of days back East, before a pair of kind souls had found me and I was taken to the local parish orphanage and from there to St. Luke’s.
He pointed at me or, I should say, at the window, pursing his lips slightly to mimic what at first I thought was a whistle. A moment later I understood and blew softly again over the place where I had traced the letters. It reappeared as if by magic and the man lifted his eyebrows in question. I struggled to lower the window and peered out at him. The boys, alerted by this new change in events, clustered around me, snubbed noses pressed against cool glass.‘Hallo!’ the man said. His tone was cheerful, but his blue eyes were sad. Sometimes you can just tell that about a person.
‘You write that?’ the man asked me.
‘I… Yes,’ I replied.
‘Well, hurry up. I haven’t got all day.’
At my insistence, Miss McCrimmon gave up pleading with the quarrelsome Walter P. Sneed and, as the train departed in a cloud of smoke and steam, we flocked around her like chicks around a mother hen. Soon enough, she turned her attention to the man standing beside the tall, blue telegraph box. She shook his hand vigorously.‘Thank God you made it! We understood that our train was a full day behind and that we were going to be delayed, which is just intolerable after such an emotional journey. As you can imagine, these children are exhausted and hungry and eager to be placed out with their new families and I’ve studied the time table numerous times, but this, this pitiful excuse for a town is not on the schedule, nor do we have any agents within 100 miles!” She barely paused for breath before adding.
‘Where are my manners? I’m Carolynn McCrimmon from St. Luke’s.’
‘Upstate,’ she said, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did, because the man didn’t ask for any further explanation. Which was probably just as well, because Miss McCrimmon was on again and there was just no stopping her.
The man glanced left and right as she was talking and I had a feeling that he wasn’t who she thought he was, but he was too polite to tell her so. That or her barrage of words was taking him by surprise, or a little of both. After a moment he seemed to get the gist of what she was telling him, though, and he pursed his lips, his brow drawing together.
‘You say this Mr. Sneed was just going to leave you here and expect you to make your way to Michigan on your own? I’d have a word with him – ‘
‘Oh, I’d be much obliged if you would Mister…? I’m sorry should I already…?’
‘No, I don’t imagine you should. And it isn’t Mister, it’s just, Doctor.’
‘I’d be much obliged, Doctor,’ Miss McCrimmon said, sounding so greatly relieved it made a heart glad.
‘Right... but I haven’t the time.’ He looked over the group of us and pointed at me. ‘You’re all welcome to come, but I’m only here for that one.’
‘That?’ Miss McCrimmon turned to look at me, standing just outside the group, Daivi gripping one hand, Mathieu riding on my hip.
‘Yup,’ the Doctor said. ‘That’s the one.’
‘You’ve put in an application?’ Miss McCrimmon asked him.
‘For what?’ the Doctor asked.
Half of the boys began to snigger. The other half pointed at the water-logged advertisement plastered to the station wall alongside a host of long-outdated schedules and a faded billboard for the carnival that had come into whatever once passed for a town some years before. It seemed to me we were a carnival all by ourselves. All we needed were some fine white horses, a dancing bear, and some clowns. On second thought, forget the clowns. The Doctor turned to look at the array of peeling signs, then turned back, obviously puzzled. The girl on the circus poster – the one with the beard, riding what looked like a two-headed camel – looked an awful lot like me, aside from the whiskers. I did my best to blend into the background, wishing the rain would start again and I could disappear into the stream presently creasing the dirt and snow between the station platform and the rails.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Not too bright, is he?’ Colin asked the other lads.
‘Blind in one eye...’
‘Can’t see out the other...’
‘What? I don’t see any... Ooh,’ the Doctor said after a moment. He read out loud: ‘Homes wanted for a company of homeless children, having been thrown friendless into the world... Well. I know how that is,’ he said, then read further. ‘Persons wanting these children must make application and be approved by the local committee.’
‘I assume the papers you and your Misses turned in are all in order?’
‘Oh, there’s no Misses,’ the Doctor sputtered. ‘Not anymore. There was someone, for a while. I thought... Anyway, you don’t need to listen to my tongue wag. No Misses, just me.’
He mustered a grin right there at the end, but we all saw the truth in his eyes. We all knew what it was like to lose our families, even if we couldn’t remember them. Miss McCrimmon blinked back tears. For all she jabbered like a parrot, she was a sentimental soul. All the boys sort of sighed at the news, too. She could have done her Second Chances speech just then and no one would have minded.
‘Forgive me, Doctor. I’m terribly sorry.’
The shrill blast of a far-off train whistle sliced the afternoon in twain.
The Doctor consulted his wrist watch. ‘That, if I’m not mistaken, is the train to Michigan. It won’t be the most comfortable trip if you come with me, but it’s bound to be more exciting than standing here in the rain.’
Paul tugged at the Doctor’s sleeve. ‘Are there homes for all of us in Michigan?’
‘Don’t know, maybe.’
‘Will it be dangerous?’ asked Mac, wagging a finger at our new escort.
‘Oh, dear!’ groaned Patrick as he dragged a hand over his face.
‘At last!’ clapped Jean. ‘I could do with an adventure.’
‘That’s the spirit! Well, then, I hope you have your luggage.’
‘Lost,’ Piotr explained, ‘somewhere in Utah, or Iowa, or Indiana.’ The others murmured in agreement.
‘You don’t have anything?’ asked the Doctor.
‘Just what we got in our pockets,’ Thomas said, pulling out a fistful of marbles, a handkerchief, three smooth knucklebones, and a large apple with a bite taken out of it. ‘Don’t need more than that.’
‘Is that so?’ smiled the Doctor. ‘Good for you. I like to travel light, too.’
‘Careful now, you’ll scratch the paint!’
I honestly couldn’t imagine it looking any more battered, but for the better part of 20 minutes we watched from the shelter of the station’s rickety porch as four men wrestled the big telegraph box onto the train in a downpour. The porters had been complaining almost the entire time because nothing of that size was listed in the cargo manifest for this trip, but the Doctor seemed to have his paperwork and credentials in order and, by gum, that box was going where we were.
As soon as the telegraph box was stowed, the boys made a break for it, piling into the freight car the Doctor had commandeered for us like a swarm of ants to a drop of honey. Not for the first time, the smartly dressed conductor breezed by, wringing his hands, insisting that he had no authorization to take on more than a handful of chance passengers, let alone a dozen orphaned children. The Doctor pulled his small leather purse from his pocket, waved it in front of the man’s nose, and that was that. How all of his documents fit into that little wallet, I didn’t know.
A pair of burly men in dirty blue overalls lifted Miss McCrimmon into the carriage, handed the baby up to her, then tossed her carpet bag in. It snapped open on impact and a puff of lacy whiteness popped out for a split second before she put it all in order and took a hesitant seat on a bale of hay. That left me and the Doctor standing motionless on the platform, as if each was waiting for the other one to make the first move. I was still mulling over what he had said. Me. He was here for me. I wasn’t sure what that meant. He was here to escort me? He was here to take me with him? Why was he here and why me and…?