She replied that the little drawing was of her father's face. She sounded natural. It was comfortable in the room by the big fire. It felt like a home now so far away.
Mr. Kummern laughed and took another swig of whatever it was he had poured into his own cup. Something cold and as dark as the night itself.
Andy Blacka. She carried a likeness of him in the star shaped locket that she wore around her neck. It was a gift from her Mama who had worn it with a picture of her first husband on the inside. And Constance wore the likeness of a man she had never so much as danced with. It wasn’t really anything to be ashamed of. But still she was. And with a man like Mr. Kummern, she could already tell it was better to lie when it came to her heart.
She only met him and knew him for a month. Andy Blacka. There was a small dance held that last summer by his parents. She left the party very early. Her best friend, Gretchen Low, had told her that was a bad thing to do,
“He’ll think that you don’t like him.”
Gretchen was a hopeless romantic. She believed that they all would end up married to the sort of men who they actually liked. Maybe if the family had stayed in Delaware that would have been possible. Gretchen was probably dancing with a handsome boy right this minute back in Delaware. Andy Blacka was probably dancing with one of the little blonde Harris girls. The ones who were as thin and wispy as wheat blowing in the wind. And Constance was here in the hills. It wasn’t even clear to her which state. They had been close to the border when they left her in Mr. Kummern's care. It could be Texas or Oklahoma.
Sometimes as the family passed through little towns she would see a tall man with a playful way about him. It was like seeing a spectre, she was seeing Andy Blacka. Then the man would turn around and usually he’d be older and have a face tanned brown by the sun.
When her sisters were playing piano she was drawing with whatever she could get her hands on. Laurence, her Mama’s husband, did not like to spend money on frivolous things. Hats and fabrics did not fall into the category of frivolous. But books and drawing material did.
How the mighty fell. It wasn’t even clear what exactly Laurence had done to get the family into their current predicament. But it was her coming along with Mr. Kummern was what would save them all. No one had told her so, but she could tell.
It was like a dream, finding herself in front of a big roaring fireplace set all in stone. The delicate blue wallpaper adorned with ivy crawling up to a high ceiling. Hot days that always felt like summer followed by freezing nights. The sun meant everything here. Whatever clear drink was in her fragile looking glass was sweet and awful.
Each time she thought about asking for water she forced herself to have another small sip. Her face must be awfully flushed.
It should have felt all doom, when he said she wouldn’t be staying with her family. The sweet liquor had done something to her, made her lose her senses. She was angry at her Mama and sisters. Laurence too, but his betrayal was easier to swallow. And his selling her away was not the worst evil he had ever considered committing against her, of this she was sure. His little rat eyes, always tracking her movements.
“Let me keep the picture at least.”
Truth was that she did not care at all about the locket. Without the little likeness, she might never be able to remember Andy Blacka’s face again. It was the last bit of a thing she had. The last dream to help her fall asleep at night. Gretchen had faded, her school, the summer days spent at White Clay Creek. She could still see Andy Blacka.
Mr. Kummern laughed at her and clapped his hands. He took delight in having found such an easy to please and willing subject. He popped the locket open and extracted the small picture. With his fat finger, it was a miracle he was capable. The little piece was stuck to the end of his thumb. He instructed her to open her hand and he pressed the thing into it. The face was not smudged. It was clear as day.
“You’re a great girl, Connie.”
She hated when people called her Connie. It was unnatural. She was no Connie, she was Constance. She told Mr. Kummern as much. It was something she never would have done were it not for the setting and circumstances.
He displayed his teeth again in a big smile and it was the first time she noticed his metal teeth. All the teeth behind his front ones were made of something not human, silver perhaps.
“Little girl, where you’re headed, holding on to a picture like that is likely to kill ya.”
Constance did not answer him. She guessed from eyeing the bottles on the table he had poured himself more than necessary. The little photo was tucked into her dress.
“Am I interrupting?”
A girl no more than sixteen stood at the top of the stairs. Constance tried to immediately straighten up. She jolted herself up a little too fast and swayed towards Mr. Kummern instead. He caught her by her elbow and righted her.
The girl didn’t pause at all. She descended a few of the steps and waved to Constance like they were schoolmates. A smile which felt familiar. It couldn't be. They had never met before.
The locket itself was slid into Mr. Kummern’s vest. It was like he did not want the girl to see what he had done.
He motioned for the girl, Bethany, to come sit next to the fire. With a few false starts, he lifted his potato sack of a body off his seat and bid them both goodnight. It would be an easy day, this next one. Much better than the last. He winked to neither of them in particular and exited through a door on the right side of the room. Constance had not noticed the door until now.
Bethany’s eyes were green and the size of saucers. She was happy to sit by the fire. She was happy to have a new face. Constance could tell by the way Bethany’s thin lips pressed together as she looked her over.
“Are you comfortable, Constance?”
Constance had to tell the truth. She patted her dress and answered that she was. The two of them sat by the fire watching the flames. The glass in the windows was old. It distorted the way the landscape looked. The sky too. The stars were all spread out. Soft around the edges. Her eyes danced between the two, the flames and the soft stars. She was off to dreaming again, and she was not afraid to see the sun rise.
The fire was like a blanket. Bethany reached for her and she did not retract. Together they leaned and looked out at the sky and then back to the fire.