Winner of the 2003 Diamond Ezzie Award for Best Other AU Fic - General - Short
Winner of the 2006 Mistresses Of Malarkey "Best Gen Series" Award and 'Perfect' Award
By NotTasha...taking a gamble by continuing this series.
Annie Greer awoke and listened to the dark room. Over
the past four weeks, she'd become accustomed to a new fact -- her house
was no longer empty. For a full month, there had been another soul beneath
her roof. The hapless child, who went by the name Ezra Severt, lived with
her. His mother had deposited him at her doorstep as her new adoptive son.
Not quite an orphan, the nine-year-old had lived since then as a houseguest, a
ward, a foster child. They'd told a story to any who would listen, stating
that Ezra was a relation of her departed husband -- Ezra claimed there were
Greers in his family tree, so it was possible. They'd said that the
boy was simply paying a visit for an undisclosed period of time. Nobody
seemed too concerned.
So he lived with her, and she watched out for him.
He was a strange, changeling child. He could be good-natured and boisterous, talking to her about just about anything, interested in everything she had to show him. He had a quick intelligence and appeared capable of responding to any situation. His bright, humorous eyes sparked everywhere. His sarcastic tongue managed to sound closer to 'precocious' than 'obnoxious’, and made her laugh at his ability to reach the truth in matters.
But, in an unguarded moment, Annie would catch him with a drawn face and somber expression. He would smile when he felt her gaze upon him, but so sadly, it almost broke her heart. If questioned, he was tight lipped and quick to redirect the conversation.
He was an able learner. When she found that he enjoyed watching her play the piano, she took steps to teach him. Soon, he was picking out simple melodies on her beloved pianoforte. But, it wasn't until she convinced him that he didn’t have to be perfect that he really started to excel at his playing. Where he'd originally had a mechanical quality to his movements, the music started to flow and he smiled as the melodies became looser and less structured. It was exciting to see him learn.
Ezra wasn’t always good – tending to do as he pleased. He always obeyed her if given direction – he just had a way of skirting direction whenever possible. He certainly had a mouth on him, and he wasn’t afraid of expressing his opinion, but Annie soon learned that his barbed retorts were never aimed at her. He didn't lie outright, though he had an ability to twist the truth to an alarming degree. He had a slyness to him, and a tendency to disappear at times -- but she'd learned where to find him.
Her life was changing in strange little ways. She'd been doing her shopping through Mr. Campbell for years. After all, he had been the one to come to her door after Mr. Greer's fatal accident. He'd been the one to offer comfort and a special delivery service to fulfill her shopping needs. With the coming of Ezra, the boy had done some investigating and concluded that Campbell was cheating her… shamelessly. "It's unconscionable that the man would cheat a widow, simply because he figures that no one would notice," Ezra had declared upon returning with his findings.
They now shopped with Mrs. Chan, who offered a remarkable variety of wares. Annie, of course, had objected at first, stating that Mrs. Chan was Chinese and there was no telling what sort of foreign nonsense was contained in her products. Ezra had pointed out that Emma Chan was born in Pittsburgh and was American as either of them, plus she offered significantly better prices and fresher produce. Therefore, they shopped now in an Asian market and sometimes ate that strange foreign nonsense. And wonder of wonders -- she enjoyed it.
He took daily jaunts and returned with remarkable tales -- making the simplest events turn into "can't be missed" excitement. She'd started going on walks with the boy… or promenades, as he called them, to see what he had seen. Ezra certainly was an insistent youth and she couldn't deny him when he asked for her company. She was surprised that it was so easy -- so simple to step from her gate and tread upon those old familiar paths. The street still followed into the town, lined with cherry trees and warm homes. The little city still stood – as it always had: Groceries, dry goods, cigar shop, a millinery, a haberdashery, the barbershop, the candy store, the drug store, the train station, the emporium, offices, businesses, hotels and saloons -- and on and on. Nothing had really changed.
What had she expected? What had held her in her yard for so long? Once she had stepped clear of her property, she couldn’t quite say. Perhaps she was just being foolish?
On that first walk, she had clutched his hand so tightly that the boy needed to remind her that his “extremities did require a certain amount of circulation.” Her grip became more relaxed in time, but heart had fluttered the first time they'd approached the place where her Harry had so fatally stepped. Ezra had easily guided her down a different lane and that disaster was averted.
She learned to live again – as she once had – before her world came crashing to a halt. She couldn't just huddle in her house any longer, not when she had Ezra with her.
Once, Annie sent Ezra to the store for black cloth so that she could make a new dress. She'd come to realize that her widow's dresses were ragged and worn -- it had been five years after all. If she were to walk the streets, she'd best look presentable. He came back with dark cloth that, upon closer inspection, proved to be deep blue. After claiming that the light in the store had been poor, Ezra produced the proper thread to match the cloth and stated that she'd might as well use it -- for blue was nearly black and no one would notice.
But blue wasn't black. It felt ‘different’ beneath her fingers as she ran her sewing machine for the first time in years. It gleamed when the light hit it just right. It made her skin glow when she wore it. Her drab-colored hair seemed lighter. She remembered standing in front of the mirror, turning back and forth as her new skirts rustled, and looking in astonishment at this woman. Mrs. Greer had forgotten that this 'Annie' existed.
She’d fidgeted and figured and fought with herself as she decided whether or not to wear the new dress in public. Then finally, she decided to throw caution to the wind, and step out in something other than black. The world didn’t stop spinning. No one turned an accusing finger at her. No one demanded that she think about her dear departed Harry.
Annie renewed old friendships as Ezra walked her past the homes of people she'd once known. The people still breathed -- still went on with their lives. Everyone was happy to see her, so full of compliments. Oh, they loved her new dress, thought her hair was lovely, and told her how healthy and vibrant she looked. "It's so good to see you, Annie," they had said. "So very good."
She started seeing more people, eventually venturing out alone to do so. She learned that Emma Chan, a widow as well, was a remarkable, intelligent and enjoyable woman. Mrs. Greer started to spend afternoons in her company. She enjoyed exotic tea and home-baked cookies in Emma’s quaint little home above her store, and they talked about a manner of living that they both understood. Mrs. Chan's grown daughter would join them, and they chatted away like old friends.
Mr. Costello, one of the town’s lawmen, started to pay attention to her. She felt ashamed at first, and tried to avoid him. Ezra, on the other hand, started to follow the lawman around, asking him questions, watching him work, shadowing him, until Annie had to retrieve the boy from the police station – and talk to Aaron Costello. The young southerner seemed infatuated with Costello’s profession, asking him all manner of questions regarding the law, and Officer Costello was happy to oblige him. Later, the man would confide to Annie that he felt Ezra was pumping him for details, interested in skirting the law instead of enforcing it.
She’d blush shamelessly after she’d retrieved the boy, and giggle like a schoolgirl when she was alone in her room. Officer Costello had beautiful dark eyes.
Then, just a week ago, without even realizing it, while on a promenade, Ezra and Annie had gone right past that place where Harry had fallen. They'd been so immersed in their conversation that Annie didn't even know what had happened until they were just passed the spot.
She'd come to a standstill, to look at that section of walkway. Her eyes were wide and searching, thinking that this place… THIS PLACE… must some how look different than all other positions on earth. She expected shattered floorboards, broken railings, blood! But the walkway looked just the same as every other length along the way. Ezra came beside her and held her hand as she stared.
Here she was, a widow in blue, who blushed when a policeman looked at her, who didn't cry when she passed the place where her husband had lost his life. Perhaps she should have hated herself for forgetting, but Ezra started talking and was so insistent on something, that she had to follow his chain of conversation, and they'd made it all the way home before she thought of the situation again. Life didn’t stop.
She’d thought that she’d be caught in the same cold place for the rest of her days. Everything had changed since young Ezra came to her. He gave her a reason to wake up in the morning -- to return to the world.
Ezra, the dear boy. Annie considered the child and sat up in her bed. She continued to listen to the quiet house. A sudden urge caught her, to get up and look in on the boy. She laughed at the whim, but resolved to follow though. She found the hurricane lamp on her bed stand and lit the candle. After putting on her glasses and wrapping herself in a robe, she tiptoed into the hallway and to the boy’s room.
Slowly, she pushed open the door and let the candle's light fill the room. Seconds passes as her eyes opened wide. She blinked and didn’t breathe, afraid that she was just being silly. She adjusted her glasses, hoping she must be half-asleep and not seeing things correctly. It took several moments for her to accept that the bed was empty and the window open. Curtains fluttered in the breeze as she held her breath.
Lord, no! Oh Lord!
Frantically, she searched through the room – under the bed, in the wardrobe – no boy! "Ezra!" she called. She leaned out the window and hissed out his name, aware of sleeping neighbors. No answer.
Darting through her house, she searched the upper story first, then down to the main level. She checked the little library and every room, every nook and cranny -- every hiding place he'd used in the past. Several times in the past few weeks, she'd found him crammed into a tiny space, reading or just sitting quietly – why? She couldn’t guess. As she moved through the parlor, she glanced at the mantle clock -- it was nearly midnight. So late? Where had he gone? He wasn't in the house. What had happened to him?
Kidnapped! Someone might have climbed to that upper story and glanced in on the sweet-faced boy, snatching him away. Lord! Why hadn’t she awakened? Why hadn’t she heard? What sort of mother – or rather ‘guardian’ -- was she?
Upstairs again, she returned to her room -- and quickly dressed. She hardly bothered to tighten her corset as she pulled on her dress, hurriedly fixed her hair and buttoned up her shoes.
Had he run away? Please, no. She’d done everything she could to make him happy. He had truly seemed to enjoy her company. But what about those sad glances she’d seen? She really wasn’t an ideal guardian, was she? No, too shy and silly. Had he been so miserable that he couldn’t stand another night under her roof?
She ran down the stairs and found the lantern near the door. As she lit it and glanced toward the entrance, she remembered the first day she’d seen the boy – standing by Maude at the front door.
Maude – had she come back for him? Ezra had often promised her that his mother would send for him, would take him – get him out of her way. “She’ll be back,” he’d told her more than once. “Or she'll tell me where to meet her. She always does. Nobody gets stuck with me for long.” The consoling words only caused her grief. No matter how many times she’s assured him that she wasn’t ‘stuck’ with him, he’d only nod and smile in response.
She stepped out onto the front porch and looked about in the darkness. "Ezra!" she called softly. Maybe he was just in the yard? It was possible. Maybe he was just looking at the stars. He could be on the roof, just outside of his dormer window. She'd caught him up there before and made him promise to get down and never linger there again. Lifting the lamp, she hoped the light would carry. “Ezra?” she called again, louder, not caring about the neighbors. She could see nothing.
Carefully, she circled the house twice, swinging the lantern to find her way. She found no trace of young southerner.
With a quivering lip, she approached the fence. It was one thing to walk down the street during daylight hours. It was another thing altogether to go out alone after dark! Her hand quaked as she laid it on the gate, and she recalled the time she'd been unable to rush after Maude Severt. Annie Greer wasn't going to be afraid anymore, she reminded herself. She was stronger than that. She'd do this -- for Ezra. Who knows where he was right now? He might be hurt, lost, frightened, calling for her. He needed her.
With a firm shove, she pushed the gate open and stepped onto the dark sidewalk. Down the street, she saw light from the town. There, she would find help. One of the officers must be on duty. They would help find him. There were too many places to search out alone. Had a train gone through tonight? She couldn't remember and paid no attention to the timetables. What if he'd gone with a passing train? Oh! She had to find out about the train schedule.
With a resolute step, she hurried down the walk, passing the houses of friends she’d only recently rediscovered. In the town, she paused at the jailhouse, hoping that Mr. Costello was there – telling Ezra tall tales, reading him letters from his adventurous brother, making Ezra laugh -- but the jail was dark and empty. She passed Mrs. Chan’s grocery and contemplated climbing the stairs to ask Emma for help – but Emma was a widow, too, and undoubtedly asleep. Annie would wake the whole town, if she had to. But she’d rather start with those that she KNEW were awake.
As she drew close to the only lit business, she noted that it was "The Meadows Saloon and Casino". Her steps became slower as she approached that den of sin and debauchery. It was a drinking palace, a gambling establishment -- and God forgive her for even thinking it -- a brothel.
The raucous sound of an out-of-tune piano greeted her ears, enriched with the shouting and coarse calls of men at play. Clasping her hands tightly, she approached the door. She could do this, she told herself. If the local law wasn’t at the jail, there was a good chance that the man on duty would be here. She’d find him. Call him. It didn’t matter that she’d be embarrassed – that she’d blush and look foolish. This wasn’t a time to worry about herself. She needed help to find the boy.
Slowly, she moved into the doorway and gazed through the opening. Inside it was bright, loud and full of commotion. How could so many people be active at this late hour? Her eyes darted around, recognizing some faces -- others were strangers to her. Women strutted about in almost nothing, making her feel faint with shame for them. On a little stage, just barely visible from her vantage-point, three women were dancing, kicking their legs far too high for anyone's modesty. She quickly averted her eyes, not wanting to soil her soul with such a vision.
And everywhere, people gambled - tables surrounded by men with their cards -- wheels and dice made a horrible clatter. Everyone was so preoccupied with their near-illegal activities that no one even noticed the pale face in the doorway. Her eyes roved, looking for anyone who would glance in her direction. Mr. Costello was nowhere in sight. She couldn't find any of the other familiar officers. She’d have to settle for someone else. She was just about to pull out her handkerchief and wave it frantically when she caught sight of figure at a poker table near the back of the room.
There, peering over the table, one person looked back at her. The player became as still as a statue, and his face took on a look even more frightened then her own. He bowed his head and spoke a few words to the men playing with him. After laying down his cards, he scooped up his winnings, picked up his hat and scuttled to the doorway. The men laughed as Annie stepped back so that the nine-year-old could exit.
"Ezra!" she hissed at him. "What were you…? Who do you think…? Why did you…?" Unable to form a question, she finally blurted out, "Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?"
The boy cowered, stepping out of reach. "I'm sorry, Aunt Anne," he apologized softly. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
Not knowing what else to say, she ordered. “Home! Now!” Annie turned sharply and started back toward her house, knowing Ezra would follow. Neither said a word as they walked. Annie's anger burned and the boy shuffled behind her, just outside of the lantern's glow. Lord, how could he do this to her? He had nearly scared the life out of her. Meanwhile, as she suffered, he had been playing cards in a casino filled with full-grown, DANGEROUS men and barely-clothed women!
When they reached the gate, Annie held it open. She waited as the boy hung back, his face outside of the light. Even in the dark, it was impossible to miss the slumped shoulders and the bowed head.
"Ezra," she called and reached for him. She stilled her movement when he jerked away from her, stumbling and nearly falling in his haste. "Ezra," she said again, softer than before. "Come in."
The boy paused, and seemed to conclude that he had no choice. He strode slowly past her, his gaze on the path. He cringed as he made his way through the gate, and then stopped to face her once he was within the yard.
Slowly shutting the gate, she sighed. The boy seemed ready for a thrashing, and wouldn't meet her eyes. Yet, he didn't flee from her. Rather, he waited patiently, resigned, for whatever she had in store. Her anger fled her as she noted his passive stance, his quiet acceptance. "I won't hit you, Ezra," she stated quietly. "I'd never hit you." The boy didn't move. He just nodded numbly. "Go inside. I need to talk to you."
Leading the way, he held the door open for her. She heard him whisper, "I'm so sorry," as she passed, his voice so quiet it was hardly noticeable. Once in the dining room, she lit the lamps and they sat, side-by-side, at the table - saying nothing. He smelled of tobacco and alcohol. She watched as he stared at his hands -- waiting.
"Were you drinking?" Annie finally asked.
"No, ma'am," Ezra responded. "It clouds the mind."
"You smell of it," she commented.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and set it on the table. "Soaked it," he commented. "To make them think I had imbibed." He sighed and fiddled with the cloth. "They buy me drinks. I sip at them, but that's all. I have to pretend that I appreciate it."
“Were you smoking?”
“No, ma’am. The gentlemen around me did.” He picked at his jacket. “It’s unfortunate. I’ll have to air it out.”
"What were you doing in there, Ezra?"
He shrugged, a small movement of his shoulders. "Playing poker, I should say."
"At midnight? At a casino? Ezra, you're just a boy!"
"Midnight is when the tables are at their best. A casino is where the gambling takes place. And I can't help being a boy. I just can't help it," his voice trailed off as he pulled at the cloth.
She laid one hand on his shoulder and felt him flinch - as he hadn't done since that first day. "I'm not going to hit you, Ezra,” she repeated. “I swear, I won't."
He nodded tightly, his expression firm and disbelieving. Oh Lord, what was she going to do? He seemed so ready to hear lies, what could she say except the truth?
"You scared me," she said softly. "I was so scared when I looked in your room and you weren't there. I didn't know what had happened. I thought maybe kidnappers had taken you. Maybe you were hurt. Maybe you were lost and trying to get back to me. Maybe you had run away." Her voice broke as she spoke, but she didn't cry.
He raised his head and finally met her gaze. "I wouldn't run away," he told her softly. "I promise I wouldn't do that."
“I thought, maybe, Maude had come for you. I thought you’d just left and I’d never be able to say ‘goodbye’.” Her eyes were moist at that thought – that some day she'd go looking for the boy but he would be gone – returned to the mother that had abandoned him.
Blinking at her, Ezra stated softly, “I would say goodbye. I would.”
"But why did you go to that casino? Why were you playing poker, of all things?"
"Because I'm good at it," Ezra said softly. "It's the only thing I'm good at." His voice trailed off and he made a sour face at his own comment.
"Heavens no, Ezra." Mrs. Greer shook her head. "You're learning the piano so quickly, and you're such wonderful reader. You're smart and clever and…"
"Poker makes good money," Ezra stated as he pulled at the handkerchief. "You can’t win a jackpot unless you play the game.” He smiled thinly and then stated, “It’s the only thing I can do that makes money."
"Why do you need to make money, Ezra?" Annie cried.
"I must," Ezra started and looked away. "I almost have enough."
"Enough for what? To go away?" Why else would the boy need money? Annie took care of his every need – but apparently it wasn’t enough. "Do you need money for a train ticket? Do you need it for when your mother sends word, so that you can go to her?"
The boy gave her an astonished look. "No…no." He reached into his pocket to pull out a wad of cash, holding it out to her as proof. “It’s all here!” There was more secreted in his shoe, and he added that, setting it on the table when Annie wouldn't take it from him. "That should be $310," he said, nodding toward the pile. "I almost got enough to pay you back. I've been working hard to do it." His brow puckered as he admitted, "I don't win every night, but I’m going to do it. I swear."
"Pay me back? For what?" She looked in disbelief at the cash.
"To make it even, because Mother cheated you." Ezra grimaced and turned away, disgusted with himself. “You shouldn’t be cheated. It wasn’t right.”
“I never wanted any money from you. Besides,” Annie shook her head, not understanding. “She only took $300.”
“I eat,” the boy responded. “I only increase the debt daily. I can’t stand for debts, my own or others.” Ezra’s voice became softer as he spoke.
"Oh, Ezra. Oh, dear child. I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it. Listen, Ezra. There's no reason for you to play poker.”
Ezra didn't know how to respond to her statement. Everyone wanted money, didn't they? He was quiet for a moment before he explained, “It’s best if I continue to play. I must stay sharp. I cannot allow my skills to fall into a state of atrophy. Mother won't stand for it." He pressed his lips together for a moment before he continued, "If I can’t make money, Mother won't want me back. No one would want me."
Reaching out, Annie encircled the little boy and pulled him from his chair and onto her lap. He moved without resistance, like a doll. Leaning his head against her shoulder, she said softly. "But I want you." He was so warm in her arms. It felt so good to hold him. She hadn’t been able to do this yet – to cuddle the boy, to cradle him.
The young southerner sat stiffly against her, not giving in. "I have certain skills, my God-given talents,” he drawled softly. “It’s a crime to let them waste away. It’s my destined livelihood. I’m to be a gambler and a confidence man. What will I do without my skills?”
“You don't need to earn any money, Ezra. I'll take care of you,” Annie continued. “You won't pay me back. I don’t want that. " She twisted her position so that she could see his somber, pale face. He no longer looked frightened, but he looked so resigned. "You scared me so much, Ezra. I was so afraid that you were hurt, that I would never see you again. You don't know how much it pained me to think that you were gone."
"I was just playin' poker," Ezra murmured.
"They'll be no more of that. I thought I’d die when I found you were gone," she whispered. When she felt him slouch discontentedly against her, she continued, "I don't hate the game, Ezra. Harry and I used to play cards. I just don't want you in that place with those men. You could get hurt. What would happen if they got mad at you for winning?" For certainly, the boy had won quite often. The pile of money was evidence to that.
"Sometimes they get mad," Ezra said softly. "But I can usually get away."
That word 'usually' ate at the softhearted widow. How many times had this child been hurt? Is that why he cringed? He’d obviously been punished in the past. Why had his mother allowed this to happen? Well, Maude had left a nine-year-old on her doorstep with hardly a how-de-do. Nothing should be surprising about that woman.
"No more, Ezra," she whispered.
"But it's all I can do," he returned, embraced in her arms. "It's the only thing I have."
“You have me now.” She rocked him slowly in that midnight room. "And you have so much more, dear child." She kissed him on the top of his head. "If you want to play cards, we'll find another means. I used to be very good at rummy and whist, if you want to play with a couple of old widows, I’m sure Mrs. Chan and maybe her daughter would like to join us. Mr. Costello and some of the other lawmen used to play poker with Harry. I bet they wouldn't mind if you joined them. They like you. Just for match-sticks though, no money." Her mind was racing now, trying to figure this out.
The boy was relaxing further against her. He sniffled.
“You are such a smart boy, so talented,” she continued as she held him tight. “Such a wonderful child. You could be anything you want.” He didn’t respond to this comment, but he listened. With a smile, Annie said, “You want to take a sure bet?”
“Certainly,” the child replied, closing his eyes as he nestled close to her. “Always.”
“I bet you grow up to be a amazing young man. I bet you end up surrounded by people who love you and appreciate you. Do you want to take a real gamble?” She felt him nod against her. “You don’t have to be what your mother planned. I bet you could be anything you could imagine. You’d just have to try for it. Take a gamble, and try.”
His voice was sleepy as he asked, “Anything?”
“I bet you could even be a lawman like Mr. Costello if you wanted.”
His tired but ironic chuckle brought a smile to Annie’s face. She held him, tighter than she'd ever held him before. He smiled and pressed his head against her, and in no time at all, he was asleep.
As she continued to rock him, wanting to hold him for just a few minutes longer, she worried. She wanted to keep him safe from harm, forever. As long as he lived under her roof, she’d protect him. Her only fear was what would happen when Maude returned to claim the little gambling boy.
THE END - By NotTasha
Do you want to see the next Annie Greer story? Ephemeral
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