Winner of the 2006 Mistresses Of Malarkey "Best Gen Series" Award and 'Perfect' Award
By NotTasha... it happens
Annie Greer moved about her house, putting things right. Funny how the house was often out of order now. She’d lived for years with everything faultlessly set – not a thing out of place. It had to be that way – perfect. Since Ezra had arrived, things had changed. It wasn’t as if he was an untidy child – but another soul under the roof increased the amount of work needing to be done – it was inevitable. Another soul complicated things.
There were extra plates on the drain board, more laundry to wash, new clothing to make, extra dust tromped in by an active child, little things were always getting out of order. It should have flustered her. It should have annoyed Mrs. Annie Greer to have her world upset.
With a smile, she pushed the piano bench into place, and straightened the little bouquet of flowers that filled her vase. Ezra had presented them that morning – probably stolen from one of the neighbor’s yard. He had come to her, smirking and damp with dew, clutching the flowers and wearing an expression that said, “don’t ask.” Oh, she should have scolded him – the stolen flowers, the dirty knees -- but he’d looked so happy. She had smiled and he’d looked all the happier. What could she do with him?
As she fussed with the flowers, she decided to buy some sheet music soon. Ezra was picking up the songs she taught him, but she only knew so many – mostly Christmas carols and other nonsense. It was time she taught him how to read music – then whole new avenues would be open to him. There was only so much that she could do for him on her own. After all, she was just a silly widow who’d led a sheltered and quiet life. She had little to offer.
One of Ezra’s schoolbooks rested on the floor beside the pianoforte, where he’d dropped it upon returning home from his lessons on Friday. He should have taken it with him to school that morning – should have brought the book with him. She picked up the tome and adjusted her glasses to read the title: “American History for School Children”. Well, no big surprise regarding why this particular book was left behind.
She tucked it under her arm and headed to the dining room table, where he was supposed to do his homework. Maybe he'd actually read it tonight.
When autumn arrived, she’d enrolled him in the local school, where he’d been tested to find his correct grade level. The little southerner had perplexed the teachers. They’d been impressed over his ability with reading, writing and arithmetic. He already understood some French, Spanish, German and Latin, but they found large gaps in his education when it came to science and history. He’d be ahead of his age group in many respects, but behind them in others.
Ezra had explained his spotty education by saying that he was often traveling. When he wasn’t with his mother, he was sent to stay somewhere for months at a time – with relatives and strangers. He’d told Annie little about those other guardians, but Annie received the strong impression that he’d found little joy with them, that he was often lonely and sometimes misused. There was an unbearable sadness about him when he recalled those times, and he’d quickly divert her to other topics.
Mostly, Annie figured, Ezra was self taught – reading everything decent that he could get his hands on. Languages, he’d picked them up along the way. Mathematics? “Maude has made it quite clear that I master numbers,” Ezra had told Annie one night. “I have a gift for math. It’s one of my God-given talents.”
So, here was Ezra’s history book, unread, left beside the piano because he preferred playing the instrument to learning about how this great country was founded. “Not much to it,” Ezra had bluntly told his ‘auntie’. “And it’s as dull as a box of rocks.” She’d argued, asking how the child could see the American Revolution as boring. In response, Ezra had handed her the book and told her to read some of it for herself.
Annie chuckled as she set the book on the table – no wonder Ezra didn’t care for history or science! The boy was used to Shakespeare and Thackery. The schoolbooks were atrociously written!
The boy, himself, was quite the storyteller. Ezra told Annie riotous tales of the adventures he’d had with his mother – the scams they’d pulled, the dangers they’d faced. His eyes would get round with excitement as he related the events. But often, once the tale was told, his mood would change to something somber and sad.
As she moved toward her hall mirror, Annie paused and smiled at her image. She wore dark blue – the fabric Ezra had chosen for her – and a bright yellow apron. She tilted her head, and twisted back and forth so that her skirt whisked across the floor. Funny how different she looked. Six months ago, when the child had been dropped at her doorstep – she was a poor old widow, drawn up and pitiable—waiting to die. Today, 25 years of age didn’t seem so old. There was a whole life ahead of her.
She smiled at that thought, imagining what that future might hold. She could foresee a little family: herself, Ezra and…
A knock at the door startled her. She nervously brushed at her skirt, stopping her silly posing and turned to the doorway. The mailman was visible through the glass pane, waiting on her front porch. Oh Lord, she thought, I hope he didn’t see me! She took another second to compose herself, then hurried to the door. “Good day, Mr. Ryder,” she greeted as she pulled open the door.
The man smiled, presenting her with a small pile of envelopes. “Here you go, Mrs. Greer.” Her mail had increased recently – with a new desire to be active, she’d rediscovered old friends – there were letters all the time. When she’d been alone in her house, Mr. Ryder had brought little to her door. The mailman winked and stated, “I think Ezra will be particularly happy about this delivery. Is he here?”
“No,” Annie replied, as she took the envelopes into her hands. “He’s off on another adventure.”
Mr. Ryder chuckled. “I hope he’s staying off the church steeple this time!”
“Heaven forbid!” Annie responded with a laugh. “I think that one nearly killed me!”
“He’s a scamp,” Ryder decided, with a twinkle in his eyes. “Keeps you busy, I’d expect.”
“He does… he definitely does,” Annie continued the conversation, honestly happy about the situation.
“Aw well,” Ryder continued. “I would’ve liked to see the boy’s face. He’s finally gotten that letter he was looking for. Well, good day, Mrs. Greer.” And he tipped his cap before he turned to go.
Annie didn’t wait for Ryder to leave her porch. She turned, letting the door clap shut as she shuffled through the letters, finding the mentioned envelope. The paper was of high quality, addressed to “Master Greer in care of Mrs. Greer” at her address. She let the other letters drop to the table as she held onto the long awaited note.
When he’d first arrived, Ezra had anxiously looked for the mail. At first, he didn’t seem too disappointed to find nothing for himself, but, as weeks passed, a sullenness reached him. His discontent in the contents of the mail was heartbreaking to see. He’d scheduled his life to be home when the mail arrived, would rush to meet Mr. Ryder, speaking genteelly to the mailman before grabbing the letters and looking through them greedily. He’d be disappointed, but would put on a cheerful face as he handed the letters to his Auntie.
Finally, the summer almost over, he’d stopped waiting for Mr. Ryder, stopped rushing to paw through the letters, stopped hoping apparently. When he did retrieve the mail, he’d page through the letters, his face still and inscrutable, and then quietly pass them to Annie as if he expected exactly what he’d found. He no longer asked her about the mail when he’d been out – but he’d gazed longingly at the hall table when he passed it.
But today – today – the letter had finally arrived. The writing was immediately familiar to her – she had gone over that adoption certificate many times since the boy had arrived and recognized the script without trouble. The letter was from Maude Severt. Finally… finally, the boy’s mother had written! What had taken her so long?
Carefully, Annie slid the envelope into her apron pocket and bit her lip. Ezra would want to see this! Should she go in search of the boy? School was out. He might be down by the lake, or helping Mrs. Chan in her store, or ruthlessly playing marbles with the boys down the street, or at the police station playing poker casually for match sticks with grown men. Or maybe Mr. Ryder had visited Mr. Costello as well, and the policeman was reading to the boy from his brother’s latest letter.
Aaron always called the boy in to hear the contents of Declan’s letter’s. Aaron’s younger brother had moved to Bolivia and was running a rather ill-starred ranch. Aaron was brought to tears of laughter as he regaled the boy with his brother’s exploits. “The whole country is goin’ to heck in a hand basket,” Aaron had commented once, “And Declan is the reason why!” And Ezra would come rushing back to Annie to tell her the stories, word for word, in the same tone and accent as the long-limbed peacekeeper. The rowdy recitation always made Annie smile.
Ah, Ezra. What shall I do? Fretfully, Annie moved toward the door, then turned back. No, no… it would be best to wait. Let him come home first. He wouldn’t want to read it in front of other people. But he’s been so anxious to get this letter! Shouldn’t I get it to him now? Unable to decide, she moved back to the table and sat down to think. The remainder of the letters lay on the table, splayed out where she’d dropped them. Again, familiar handwriting caught her eye. She pulled one letter out from the rest and stared at the envelope, addressed to “Mrs. Ann Greer” with the same script that had addressed the other envelope.
After pausing a moment, she tore into the envelope, drawing out a sheet. A waft of perfume hit her as Annie read, “Dear Mrs. Greer: I hope this day finds you happy and well, and that the child left with you is still in your custody. I may be presumptuous, but I assume that you have discovered a certain ruse perpetrated upon you. The child left in your care is my son. You have no legal ties to the boy and I am now requesting that he be returned to me. I’ll be expecting him on Tuesday.”
Tuesday? Tomorrow? The letter went on, discussing a place where she’d meet him, but Annie’s vision blurred and she pulled off her glasses to wipe her eyes. “Oh no, oh no,” she moaned softly. She knew it was inevitable. Maude eventually would take her child back – Ezra would have to leave Annie. She knew that the day would come – but it didn’t stop her from hurting.
She lifted her head, reading the final line, “I hope that he wasn’t too much of a burden to you as I know he can be troublesome. Certainly, you will be glad to return him to my custody. Until then, yours truly, Mrs. Maude Hancock”
Annie stared at the page, unable to read any more of it. Slowly, she folded it and pressed it to the table, as if she might make it go away. She didn’t even hear the front door opened and didn’t know Ezra was there until he felt his hand on her arm. “Auntie Annie?” he queried anxiously. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
Annie regarded the boy, seeing his concerned glace. Smiling softly, she put her glasses back on and laid one hand against the side of his head, cupping his face. “I’m fine, dear Ezra,” she responded softly.
Ezra looked unsure, tipping his head as he regarded her. “Are you sure?” he asked softly.
Annie offered a small smile. “This came for you,” she stated, and drew the letter from her apron.
Grasping the correspondence, Ezra looked excited and frightened at the same time. He stared at the envelope, then brought it to his face and sniffed the sweet perfume that emanated from it. Slowly, he lowered the missive and looked to Annie. “It’s from my mother,” he said softly.
“I know,” Annie replied. She lifted her hand to show Ezra the letter Maude had sent to her.
Ezra looked confused as he furrowed his brow, then returned his gaze to his own letter. He turned it over slowly and then said in a low voice, “I would like to read it.”
“You should,” Annie responded.
“I think, maybe, I’d like to read it alone.”
Annie wanted to tell him to stay with her. She wanted to be with him, to hold him if he needed it, but she said, “You can go to the parlor, or maybe up to your room if you’d like. I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
Ezra turned slowly and walked to the stairway. Annie listened as he climbed the stairs, his steps growing more rapid in succession until he was running down the upper hallway to his room. The door shut and she turned to the table to truly read the letter Maude had sent her.
A little more composed, she was able to make her way through it. The letter was full of excuses, telling how Maude Severt had married. She’d been busy with her new husband for the past few months. Now, she was well settled in her new home and had convinced her husband to accept her son. The letter gave no apologies, offered no explanations as to why Maude had left the boy with her, Annie Greer, of all people. It just gave information on where to send the boy – as if he were a package.
Annie waited, rereading the letter. She waited for Ezra to return, and waited some more. Finally, there was a sound above her head and Ezra slowly made his way down the stairs. His head was down as he approached her and he looked pale and a little shaky, but when he finally entered the kitchen, he smiled.
“Mother,” he said, “Mother has sent for me.” There was joy in his voice. “She wants me back!” He held the paper carefully, as if afraid to harm it. “I can go to her now.”
“Of course,” Annie said. “She’ll be so excited to see you.”
Ezra nodded, looking like a marionette. “I’ll need to get a ticket for tomorrow’s train,” he said. “And I have to pack.” He looked around the room, his eyes lighting on all the little knick-knacks that made up Annie’s world. “I won’t get in your way. I’ll be quick and I’ll be gone. You will hardly notice me.” Then, softly, he added, “If you want to come to the station to say goodbye, that would be okay… if you want to.”
Annie reached out a hand, placing it lovingly on the boy’s neck. “Oh Ezra, I’ll be riding the train with you,” she resolved without thinking.
Ezra told her, “But it’s a long ride, Auntie Annie. It’s a long way from here.”
“I won’t let you go alone.”
“But… you’ll have to come back by yourself.” Ezra shook his head. “It makes no sense. You’ll be alone.” He seemed utterly baffled by her offer.
“I’ll come with you, Ezra. I’ll ride all the way with you. I’ll be okay on my own when I return,” she pledged. The thought of riding the train by herself should have terrified her. Harry had once promised her that they’d go see the ocean. Even with Harry by her side, she had been certain she’d be a trembling mess on the massive train. Now, she was promising this child that she’d take a daylong ride with him, and then come back alone.
For some reason, she wasn’t afraid.
They’d spent that evening together. They took a long walk around the neighborhood, letting Ezra see it one last time. The Beverlys, who lived just up the street from Annie, were obviously saddened to hear the news. “Oh dear, oh dear,” John kept saying, shaking his head. “A shame, a horrible shame.”
“We’ll miss you terribly, Ezra,” Delores added. “The neighborhood just won’t be the same without you.” And then she stood back as her husband offered Ezra some wisdom. “Annie dear,” she spoke quietly to the woman beside her. “You’ll be all right?”
“Oh yes,” Annie said with a nod, not sounding entirely convincing.
Delores looked sympathetic when she stated, “But you knew this day was coming. It had to happen eventually.”
Annie sighed, and responded, “It doesn’t make it any easier.”
Ezra accepted their goodbyes with grace, but seemed anxious to move on – uncomfortable with their kindness.
They passed another neighbor’s house and a white cat with tabby spots stretched on the wall – watching the pair walk by.
He stopped by his haunts, the lake, the park, the church where he’d climbed the steeple, the barbershop where he used to linger to hear the stories. They paused outside The Meadows casino where he’d been forbidden to enter , and a couple of the inhabitants came out to ask why they hadn’t seen him in so long. Ezra smirked as he passed the Campbell’s store and the patriarch came out to shake his fist at the boy. Ezra just glanced to Annie… that same, “don’t ask” expression that hid a wealth of evil.
They stopped at the photographer, and allowed the extravagance of having their pictures taken. Mr. Hayden took three shots – two poses with Annie and Ezra together – and at Ezra’s request, one of Annie by herself. Ezra obviously adored the finished product. He paid for a traveling frame for his pair of photographs and had quickly secreted them into his pocket. Annie bought a frame for hers as well, an extravagant thing with curlicues and rosebuds, meant to show off a beloved image.
They stopped at the police station, hoping to find Officer Costello, or one of the other lawmen that Ezra played poker with on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the gentlemen were out – taking care of some disturbance outside of town. Ezra was upset that he wouldn’t be able to say his goodbyes to the men who’d been so kind to him – but he hid it under a casual demeanor.
They’d found Mrs. Emma Chan and her daughter Lisa at their store. At the news, the women had fussed over him, giving him sweets and presents, hugging and kissing the boy until he was frazzled with the adoration. “Oh, who will I find to stock my shelves now?” Emma asked. “Who will be here to help me?” And she gave him more candies and spoke to him in Chinese.
Ezra answered in kind, a few clipped words, and Emma hugged him again. Lisa pressed some pretty papers into the boy’s hands and told him to write to her. Then, she gave him a peck on the cheek.
Then they left Mrs. Chan’s store. Ezra held tightly to his prizes while Annie walked beside him. “What did Mrs. Chan say to you?” Annie asked.
Ezra shrugged and said softly, “I didn’t understand it”
When they returned to Annie’s house. Ezra packed. His wardrobe had changed since his arrival. Gone were the perfect little suits; they’d become too short almost overnight when a growth spurt hit the boy. Annie sewed new clothing, delighting in the chance to make something other than dresses. The handmade items weren’t as nice as the originals he had arrived with, but a growing boy needed new clothing. Besides, the sturdier wear was more appropriate for Ezra’s explorations about town.
Ezra went about his bedroom, picking up his clothes, folding carefully and packing them away. The candies and little toys from the Chans were solemnly stowed. He passed his nightstand several times, looking at the stuffed bear that was set there, a sturdy little beast, hunched on all fours. Ezra didn’t even reach out to touch the perfect little bruin. As Annie watched him go about packing, she realized that Ezra had decided to leave the bear behind – too childish a thing to travel with him.
Well, she thought, philosophically, I suppose I should have figured it. He’s hardly ever touched it since I gave it to him. It was to be expected. Ezra was just too old for such a silly thing from me. But, she hadn’t failed to note that the bear was angled just-so, as if it were situated to watch over him in his sleep.
Once Ezra had packed away everything that was his, they played the piano together, just picking out tunes and enjoying the time. Annie sang with the boy, pretending that this wasn’t going to be the last time they’d sit together like this – believing that some day they’d play a duet again. Her voice quavered often as they sent their music into the night. Ezra’s movements were stiff, like it had been when he first started to play – when he believed each of his movements needed to be perfect.
Finally, the sky dark and the piano quiet, they sat in Annie’s little library, picking up their favorite books. Together, they read beloved passages to one other. They sat close in the overstuffed chair well into the night, recounting glorious duels, exciting journeys, and heartbreaking reunions. The night drew on, and the boy leaned against his aunt, his voice growing softer as weariness overtook him. Ready for bed, Annie allowed Ezra to choose two books that he could take with him – there was room for nothing more in his bag – and they climbed the stairs. Annie kept her hand on Ezra’s back, wanting to be close to him, wanting him to know she was there. Then they reached the upper hallway.
“Goodnight, Auntie Annie,” Ezra said softly, clutching his books.
“Goodnight, Ezra, my dear,” Annie responded, bending to give him a kiss on the cheek. Ezra dipped his head, hiding his expression behind his books.
“Thank you,” he said softly, hefting the books a bit.
“It’s nothing,” she replied, letting one hand rest on his shoulder. “Sweet dreams.”
Ezra responded with a quiet nod, and they went to their rooms.
It took some time for sleep to find Annie. She stared up at the ceiling, and then turned toward the window where the curtains fluttered limply in the breeze. Why… why did Maude have to send that letter? Why did she have to call Ezra back to herself? Why couldn’t things have just stayed the way they were? Why couldn’t Ezra have just stayed with her?
She knew that it HAD to happen eventually, that Maude would want her boy back – but it didn’t stop Annie from wishing that such a thing would never have happened.
Annie awoke early. She fixed a good breakfast to start their journey and packed a lunch to eat along the way. Ezra surprised her by awaking early as well. He stood in the dining room, rubbing his eyes, watching her work. They drank coffee together at the table, saying little. It was hard to come up with idle chitchat that didn’t sound forced and out of place on this momentous day.
It was nearing time to go when Ezra reminded Annie that she’d need an overnight bag since she’d have to return the following day. Oh, Annie was upset with herself for forgetting! A woman that never traveled -- she had no luggage. Ezra found her a basket, and hurriedly, Annie packed some things. Fretting that she’d forgotten something, she bustled around her room and through the house. By the time she’d thrown her things together, and added their lunch, time had run out – they’d be unable to stop by the police station before their journey. If Ezra realized that fact, he gave no sign of it – and they shut up the house to make their walk to the train station.
They arrived just in time to purchase tickets and made their way to the platform. They pressed close together as the train rumbled towards them. Ezra reached up, and Annie took his hand as the locomotive chuffed to a stop. The engine gasped like some living thing and Annie’s heart raced – feeling its power. Ezra tugged at Annie’s hand and gave her a glance before leading her up the stairs and into the coach.
They settled themselves, finding an open seat that they could share, and stowing their bags beneath. The train jerked and started moving again, and they were off. Annie sat rigidly in her seat, nervous about the strange mode of transportation, but to Ezra, it was all too familiar.
Morning turned to afternoon. Annie pulled out their lunch at some point, and they nibbled at the sandwiches but neither ate much. As the day wore on, Ezra leaned against his guardian, laying his head on her shoulder and closing his eyes. Annie brought one arm around him, holding him close. It felt good, she realized, it felt good to be here, beside this boy, holding him. It felt right. How could she give this up? There had to be a way, Annie decided, had to be a way to work this out – so that she could keep Ezra with her.
I’ll talk to her, Annie decided. I’ll make Maude see the light – I’ll show her that it would best if Ezra stayed with me. Maude leaves the boy behind so often, I’ll let her know that my house is open to him. Annie smiled at that thought. Yes, Maude should see the good in that. And she gazed lovingly at the boy.
Ezra glanced up to her, his face still a mix of joy and regret, and one of his hands wandered to her lap. She took the narrow hand and held it as the train rolled on.
They reached their destination that evening, in time to make their appointment. As the train came to a stop, Ezra remained with his head against his aunt’s shoulder, clutching her hand. He looked to Annie and said softly, “Is it okay if I want to go with her?”
“Of course,” Annie responded quickly.
“But I want to stay with you, too,” he stated solemnly.
“I would like that,” Annie replied. “But your mother wants you now.”
And the boy smiled at her, a subdued, sad smile. “I want to be with her. I’ve always wanted to be with her. So many times, I’ve wondered why she doesn’t want me. I … I love her very much,” he admitted. Then he added in a low voice, “Do you think she loves me?”
Annie squeezed the boy’s hand. “Of course she does. She’s your mother. How could she not love you?”
Ezra’s lips twitched and he said softly, “Is it okay if I love you as well?”
Annie nodded, her little pug nose crinkling in a smile and she gave the boy a tight hug. “Yes,” she said softly into his ear. “Because I love you very much.”
The conductor came down the aisle, shouting out the name of the station and pausing at Annie’s row. “You’d best be goin’," he told them before moving onto the next car.
So Annie and Ezra picked up their baggage and shuffled to the exit and were met with a whirlwind of activity. The human traffic swirled around them as they stepped from the train – more people that Annie had ever seen in her life. Ezra seemed sure of himself, steering her in one direction and then another, getting them off the platform and into the station house.
Once within, Ezra nodded to the ticket office and said, “She’ll be over there. She likes to listen to people as they buy their tickets.” Then he added under his breath, “You can learn a lot about someone by how they handle their money, and by knowing where they’re headed.”
They plunged through the crowd, staying close to one another as they wove their way to the ticket office. Ezra’s gaze was constantly moving, searching for that familiar person. Annie, on the other hand, kept her eye on Ezra – as if she feared the milling throng might swallow him up.
Finally they burst through the worst of it and arrived at the benches near the office – where people lined up to get their tickets to travel. Ezra kept searching, his head bobbing as he tried to find his mother. Annie took a more surreptitious approach. Looking only a few feet around, happy with her near-sightedness, not wanting to find Maude.
Her hope faded as a figure turned toward them. “My boy,” the southern woman greeted gaily and held out her hands.
Ezra stepped forward, letting his bag drop to his side as he stepped up to his mother. She bent, placing a kiss on each of Ezra’s cheeks, and the boy whispered something in her ear, which might have been his own name.
“Ezra, darling,” Maude cooed. “Look at how you’ve grown!” She grasped the lapel of his little jacket and she sighed, “But look at the quality of your clothing, child. You should know better than to travel in such common material.”
“But Auntie Annie made it for me,” Ezra responded quietly, looking over his shoulder at the woman who’d been his guardian for so many months.
“Ah,” Maude responded. “Lovely work.” And she dropped her hold on the boy’s jacket and turned to greet the woman. “Mrs. Greer,” she said softly. “A pleasure to see you again.” Maude laughed coyly and said, “I hope you’ve forgiven me for that little… misunderstanding when we first met.”
“Misunderstanding?” Annie repeated.
“Oh! I was under the impression that you were upset about the child I left with you. Somehow, I believe, you thought you were getting a baby?”
“No, I… well,” Annie paused, looking down on the boy, “He’s been a joy to me.”
“But of course,” the lovely woman responded, tilting her head. “And I don’t want to bother you any longer. Come along, my darling boy, we have places to go.” She grabbed hold of Ezra’s hand as if she meant to whisk him away immediately.
“Wait!” Annie cried. Ezra said nothing, picking up his valise, but gazing toward Annie. “Please, Mrs. Severt…”
“Hancock,” Maude corrected. “I’m now Mrs. Hancock. Bertram Hancock is a darling and very rich man who’ll certainly take good care of me.”
“Mrs. Hancock, might I have a word with you?” Annie tried.
“But we must be going. I need to get tickets and we have to be off on the next train,” Maude explained.
“I just need to talk to you,” Annie went on. “A moment or two.”
Maude smiled and handed her traveling bag to the boy. He let out an ‘oof’ at the added weight, nearly dropping the bag. “Darling child,” she addressed Ezra. “Please wait at that bench. I’ll be but a moment.”
Ezra nodded and turned to Annie, his eyes beseeching. “Auntie Annie, are you leaving?” he asked.
“No, Ezra, no,” Annie told him. “I’m coming back. I wouldn’t go without saying goodbye. You can count on me.” She considered leaving her basket with the boy as a testament that she’d return, but he was already burdened with his own carpetbag and his mother’s heavy baggage, so she kept it with her. “I’ll be back,” she assured.
“Come, now,” Maude said brusquely, taking Annie by the arm. “Let’s go someplace a little quieter.” And she directed Annie through the main entrance of the station and down the block to a little coffee shop. The whole time Maude prattled on about the quality of service on the trains and the condition of life in the city.
Before Annie knew what was happening, Maude had them seated at a table and had ordered coffee and cakes. “Now, Mrs. Greer,” Maude said charmingly. “What would you like to talk to me about?”
“Ezra,” Annie said softly. “I want to talk to you about Ezra.”
Maude laughed lightly. “I don’t know why he keeps using that name. There are so many to choose from, yet that one seems to be a favorite of his. It’s pure foolishness on his part because I’ve given him a gift – the ability to change his name at will. Would you like to know where the name Ezra came from?”
“What?” Annie started, unready for that question. “Well, yes, I suppose…”
“When he was born, he was really quite undersized and I was rather done in by the whole experience, so I hired a wet nurse to tend him.” Maude explained. “Apparently, someone in that family decided that he wouldn’t survive the night so the woman sent for her brother, who was apparently the local Catholic Priest, and they had him baptized that night! Opened a Bible and picked the first name they came to.” Maude laughed as if she’d told a joke. “I’m just glad that they didn’t name him Judas or Pontius Pilate! Remember this, Mrs. Greer, never leave your children in the care of Catholics. They’ll bless anything they can get their hands on. Oh, thank you, darlin’,” Maude said, noting the arrival of their coffee and cakes. “Just set them right here. That will be fine.”
“When he was born, you sent him away?” Annie asked softly.
Maude smiled condescendingly. “If you had birthed any children, Mrs. Greer, you’d understand completely. The toll taken on a woman’s body by sending them out into the world is bad enough, but to add to that misery by… well… I suppose it shouldn’t be spoken of in gentle company… but needless to say, a wet nurse is a thing of beauty. I managed to utilize her far beyond her original capacity. She took care of him for almost four years. “
Maude smiled brightly as she poured coffee, then added sugar and cream to her cup. “The Tollivers were really a marvelous family for the child. They took care of the messy issues of childhood. Honestly, I don’t think I could look at the boy if I’d had to change his diapers or teach him how to feed himself.” She sipped at the cup and apparently found it acceptable. “But I did have him with me almost daily, long enough to teach him everything he needed to know. He did require proper training and he certainly is a marvelous child today.”
“Yes, yes he is,” Annie said, sitting forward. “I’d like. … I’d like to make you a proposition concerning Ezra.”
Maude paused, holding her cup. “What kind of proposition?” Her expression became dark as she stated, “You aren’t expecting to get that adoption fee back are you, Mrs. Greer?”
“No, no… I…” Annie fretted, picking up one of the linen napkins and tugging at it. “I would like you to consider something though. It seems… it seems…” she sighed and then got out in a rush, “It seems that he’s a burden to you sometimes and I’d like you to consider leaving him with me…permanently.”
Maude’s smile didn’t dip and she took another sip from her cup. “But, my dear, that would be preposterous. He’s my son.”
“Yes, but…” Annie continued to pull at the cloth. “You leave him sometimes.”
“As a single woman in this world, you must understand the importance of one’s freedom,” Maude went on. “There are times when his presence is taxing. Having a child at one’s side is sometimes like having a boat anchor around one’s neck. But otherwise, he’s a great help to me. He’s learned his craft well.”
“I’ll take him!” Annie assured. “When it’s troublesome. Please, let him stay with me when you need to leave him somewhere. I’ll come get him, wherever you are.”
Maude raised an eyebrow and took a dainty bite of a little pink cake. Annie waited as she chewed. “Ezra came to adore the Tollivers,” Maude stated once she was ready. “They were really a very common family. The head of the household was a longshoreman or something equally trivial. Incomprehensibly, when the boy was in my care and had become frustrated about some trifle, he’d start crying for them.” She frowned. “It was rather embarrassing really. Here I was, holding onto my precious, precious babe, and all the while he was crying out for ‘Missus’ or 'Mister'.”
“I don’t want to replace you,” Annie responded quickly. “I only want to make sure he has a safe place. I think some of the places you sent him weren’t the healthiest for him. He seemed rather…”
“Mrs. Greer,” Maude cut her off quickly. “I think I know what’s best for my boy.”
Annie paused, wanting to let the woman have it – for the sadness and loneliness she so often saw in Ezra’s eyes, for his reluctance to talk about those other people he’d been forced to live with, for his disappointment of six months without word from his mother. But Annie held her tongue, knowing she’d have to charm the con woman to get what she wanted.
“I just wanted to offer my home to him,” Annie tried, sweetly. “Any time you need to leave him, I’ll take him.”
Maude sighed as she set down her fork, looking into Annie’s earnest eyes. “It just wouldn’t be right,” Mrs. Hancock responded. “You have to realize that it would be detrimental to his development.”
“Detrimental?” Annie cried in disbelief. “How can offering him a safe and loving home be bad for him?”
Maude gave Annie a long hard look. “He needs to be sharp,” she said. “He needs to be tough. It’s a fierce world out there and I want him prepared for it. I believe that it’s in his best interest for him to be well-educated in the ways of the world. How else is he to understand the intricacies of human interactions if he’s only seen a pleasant little parlor?”
“He’s just a boy,” Annie responded. “He needs to be loved and taken care of. Why should it matter if he knows how the world works? He doesn’t need to see the evil in the world.”
Maude picked up her napkin and patted her lips. “He’s got talent,” she said bluntly. “I plan to train him to use it Softness and sweetness would only hurt him. You would only hurt him in the end.”
“He’s on his way to becoming something magnificent!
“He’s magnificent already,” Annie bit out. “He’s a wonderful boy and he’s going to be a marvelous man. You don’t need to hurt him to improve him.”
Suddenly, the southern woman stood. “I must go to the ticket office immediately,” she stated. “You’ll take care of our bill, won’t you, darlin'? I’ll meet you back at the station and you can make your final goodbye to my beloved boy.” She turned and was gone before Annie could stop her.
Annie’s mouth dropped open, thunderstruck. She glanced to the items on their table – one cup of coffee minus a sip or two, a cake with one bite taken from it -- nothing else had been touched. She pulled her handbag from her basket. It took a few minutes for their server to give her the amount owed, but as soon as she was able, Annie strode out into the street to catch Maude and to see Ezra one last time – to tell him all the things she needed him to hear. The boy needed something to take with him.
As quickly as she could, Annie walked up the street and back into the train station. She scanned the people lined up at the ticket window, but the lovely blonde was nowhere in sight. She turned to the bench where Ezra had been left.
“No,” Annie breathed out. She spun about, her eyes searching the milling crowd. “Ezra?” she called. “Ezra!” Nobody stopped. Everyone kept moving. She dove through them, lurching through the human traffic and out onto the platforms. She drew in a breath as she watched one train pulling away.
She pressed onward, knowing where the boy and his mother must be. She pushed, as no lady should, shoving her way through the lingering crowds, trying to reach the train before it was gone. But it was a massive thing, and once underway there was no stopping it.
She stood on the now empty platform, watching the train go. She brought one hand to her throat, and raised the other, waving. “Goodbye, Ezra,” she whispered. “Goodbye, lovely Ezra.” She blinked and kept her head high. “Remember me, my dear. Remember that I love you.” She waved until the train was gone, and stood a moment or two longer.
Bits of paper blew around, abandoned newsprint, garbage, wrappers.
Alone, she slowly moved toward the building again, but she felt as if she were dragging a horrible weight. The basket on her hand became too heavy to carry, so she set it beside an empty bench and sat down.
Taking off her glasses, she pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve, buried her head in her hands and wept – truly cried for the first time since Ezra came to live with her. Even as the tears flowed, she realized that this time she wasn’t crying for herself – no, not for poor pitiable Annie Greer. She cried for Ezra. The boy had been lost. How long would Ezra stay with his mother? How long would Maude stand for the burden of a child? Where would Ezra be left next time? She cried because she knew that Maude would never let the boy return to her – that Maude wouldn't let Annie see his smile again.
Oh Ezra… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t stay here.
She had no idea how long she sat there – only that the tears had slowed and the world around her was quiet. She heard footfalls on the otherwise empty platform, and knew that someone was coming to check up on her. Oh, her face would be red, her eyes would puff and she’d be a horrible mess. Why wouldn’t they just leave her alone!
The person came to a stop in front of her. There was no getting out of this. Ready to face the inevitable, she raised her head – to utter an embarrassed, “I’m fine,” to a stranger. But, instead of a stranger, she found the familiar dark eyes of Aaron Costello.
He stood before her, dressed in his uniform, his expression concerned, his hands held out to her. “Emma told me,” the policeman uttered when he saw her perplexed and stricken expression. “I came as quickly as I could,” he explained. “I had to jump the freight. Told them it was police business.” And he smiled, but only slightly as he squatted down in front of her. “I’m here, Annie.” And he placed his large, strong hands on her shoulders.
She let herself fall into his arms and wept all the more.
The boy said nothing, leaning his head against the window and watching the landscape rush past. Beside him, Maude chatted breezily, talking about her latest husband and all the wealth that could be mined from him -- a man named Higgins – not Hancock. Finally, not getting a response from the boy, she said abruptly, “Child, there’s no reason to sulk.”
The boy blinked and kept his gaze on the land outside the train. “I’ll miss her,” he said softly. “I was happy there.”
Maude drew her lips tight upon hearing that comment. Well, it was certain now. She’d done the right thing. Inevitably, if she’d left the boy under the influence of that widow, he would have turned into a softhearted little mess.
Maude loved her boy, wanted to see him succeed. If her son was to survive in this harsh world, he should learn how treacherous it was. Life in the widow’s house was too soft for the likes of her child. Her beloved offspring would be killed if he didn’t have a tough skin. She’d do what she could to protect him – and this was the best way she knew how. It was time he toughened up and heeded his calling.
“Darling,” Maude cooed softly. “It’s for the best. Do you know what she asked me when I met with her? She asked about the $300 that she paid me. She wanted it back.” Maude watched as her son unconsciously brought his hand to the inside pocket of his homemade jacket. She appraised the movement unhappily. Why didn’t the child learn to hide his money better? Had he tried to pay off the Widow Greer? Foolish child! Yes, it was best that she removed the boy from that house. She’d left him for too long with the sickly-sweet Mrs. Greer.
And the clothing would have to go! Maude would not have her son parading about in such simple things. The con woman realized that she’d have to go through all her son’s things, get rid of everything that would remind her boy of that place. He might try to hide them, but she'd find it all eventually. It was the best thing to do – make the separation complete.
Cocking her head, Maude continued, “And she was still upset that she hadn’t adopted a baby. It’s all she wanted. She asked me why it took so long to claim you because she was rather tired of having a little interloper in her house. Once you were gone, she could finally go about getting a baby, fulfilling her dream. Can you see what an imposition you were? You know how trying you can be. A baby would have been different. She would have been able to love a baby. Instead, she’d ended up with you.”
The child huddled in his jacket, staring out at the fleeing land. He moved his mouth as if to say something, but remained mum.
“She told me,” Maude continued, knowing that she had to do this – make the break complete. “She told me that she did her best to make you feel at home, but all the while she was wondering when you were going to leave. She sent several letters to me over the past few months, but I didn’t answer them. She was so pushy about sending you on your way, I felt no need to give her any response.”
“But I liked her,” he whispered. “She was … nice to me.”
Maude continued, “‘Nice people’ are the ones you really must watch out for, my dear. Didn’t I teach you that? They’ll smile in your face, all the while cursing your name. You remember the Tollivers, don’t you?”
The boy glanced up at her, but didn’t speak. His eyes shone.
“They had been nice to you, too, but they couldn’t get rid of you fast enough. You were always too naughty, always a bad boy. Soon as they had the chance to dump you, they did. And who took you back?” Maude smiled warmly. “Your loving mother, of course. Your mother will always take you back. Now, Mrs. Greer was probably too ‘civil’, and she fed you a pack of lies just to keep you calm and compliant. She was too weak a thing to tell you how she really felt. You were probably just as naughty for her as you were for the Tollivers, weren’t you?”
The young man turned to the window and Maude stared at her son’s back. He seemed so small in that ill-made jacket, so weak and ineffectual. Oh Maude, she told herself, you have a lot of work in front of you. This sort of behavior would never do – the boy needed to be tougher to survive in our line of business. I'll take care of him -- I'll make him better. “It’s for the best,” she repeated. “I’m glad I came to fetch you. Now we just need to set you straight again.”
The boy continued to stare out the window, not seeing anything but a vivid blur.
The house was quiet. Even with Emma at her side, Annie found the house lonely.
The day before, Officer Costello had found two rooms in a nice hotel, had stayed near her during that evening and horrid morning that followed. She didn’t know what she would’ve done without Aaron. Then, he’d purchased their tickets for the return trip and hadn’t minded at all when she didn’t want to talk during the long ride.
He’d brought her home, and promised he’d do whatever he could to discover the whereabouts of Maude Hancock and her son, Ezra. Annie figured, that he’d find little.
And moments after Aaron left to begin his research, Emma Chan arrived in a flurry, telling Annie that she needed some tea.
Annie moved through the rooms slowly as Mrs. Chan tended the fire in the stove and filled a kettle. On the dining room table, Ezra’s schoolbooks waited to be returned – the history book barely touched – another aborted school year for a boy who never seemed to get his fill of anything.
Annie moved onward and paused to gaze into her little library, seeing the books they had read, and the big overstuffed chair they’d sat in. The parlor held the pianoforte – silent now without the boy. Wilted flowers filled a vase. Annie stared at the dead petals littering her piano, knowing that she should tidy it… yet couldn’t bring herself to take away the flowers that Ezra had brought her only days before.
The photograph they’d taken before Ezra’s departure sat beside the older photograph of Harry. She smiled at the grouping, and reached out to gently touch the image of the boy, running one finger along his face. He was smiling, but the expression looked forced, and there was no joy in his eyes. She withdrew her hand slowly, and kept moving.
She walked slowly, as if drugged, looking at each little thing as if for the first time – as if for the last. She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling a chill, and kept moving.
Methodically, she climbed the stairs and entered the room that the boy had used. The closet was vacant, save for the little suit he’d worn when he first arrived. He’d outgrown it, and left it behind because there’d been no room left in his bag. She picked at one of the sleeves, holding it and then releasing it to let the garment swing on its hanger. She turned and moved around the room, thinking of everything that had been taken from Ezra.
As she moved to Ezra's bed, her eyes fell upon the bedside table – only a kerosene lamp remained. She drew in a breath when she realized that the little stuffed bear was gone. She’d never seen Ezra pack it, he must have done it in secret, but it warmed her heart to think that Ezra now traveled with the bear – something soft that he could hold, and maybe he would think of her.
Annie hardly noticed Emma Chan enter the room behind her. She held a cup of tea and pressed it into Annie’s hand. “Thank you,” Annie said softly, and then met Emma’s kind almond eyes. “Thank you for everything.”
Mrs. Chan nodded and said quietly, “I’ll miss him, too. He was a good boy. I said it in Chinese before he went so he’d remember it good. I said, ‘remember always, you are a good boy’.”
Annie sighed, feeling the tears come to her eyes again as she said, “He told me that he didn’t understand.” Oh Ezra, why couldn't I ever convince you of that? Annie sighed and pledged that she’d find him again – somehow, she’d find him. It was inevitable, after all.
And the two women stood in the quiet house, while somewhere a mother and child changed trains and continued on their way.
THE END - by NotTasha
The Next Annie Greer story - A Journey of Twenty Years