RATING: G - I
don't think there are any naughty words or violence in this one
Winner of the 2006 Mistresses Of Malarkey "Best Gen Series" Award and 'Perfect' Award
By NotTasha...I'm not a weeper (okay, sometimes)
Annie Greer fussed and fretted about her house, not knowing what to do anymore. For the first time in years, she felt excited. A flush came to her cheeks and her heart beat a little faster. Her house seemed brighter, as if the sun finally dared to shine through the windows. The shadows had been chased away. Her drab little world, closed off for so many years, would finally find some light. She couldn’t believe her luck.
The day was growing late as she bustled into the nursery for the umpteenth time that day, making sure everything was just perfect. For so many years, it had been only a sewing room. It was strange to see it back in this order, back to its original purpose.
She touched the crib, running her hand along the oak rail and remembering how she and her husband had chosen it all those years ago. They had been so proud, so excited. It had been like a dream. They’d come to this room often, to stand together in those early months – his strong arms wrapped around her. She’d always felt so safe with him – so absolutely safe.
She touched her neck as she remembered how his chin had rested there, how his voice had sounded in her ear as he spoke of all the things to come.
With an intake of breath, she recalled how he’d held her that day, when her world had come crashing down. Three months shy…she’d been too weak to bring the child to the world. He’d soothed her, cocooned her in warmth and comfort and love, allaying her fears, putting her self-accusations to rest. And he made more promises -- promises of things that never happened.
A stupid accident -- a missed a step as he walked home from work – a tremulous message delivered to her door – and it was over. Her life ended the day they told her that her husband had struck his head and never breathed again.
Blinking at the memories, Annie forced herself back to the present. Today, some of those promises would be realized. The crib had only been a square-ish shape, covered with a blanket for years. When she’d pulled the coverlet away yesterday morning, the cloud of dust had shocked her. How had so much dirt come to reside there? Certainly, she was a better housekeeper than that!
She'd dusted the room and scrubbed the floors in preparation. She'd moved out all of her notions and fabric, but the heavy table and the sewing machine would have to wait until the Bentley boy could come on Wednesday. The colors of the fabric had startled her. She had grown so used to black, she'd forgotten that she'd once purchased blue, and green and yellow. Had she actually worn those bright colors? It seemed like a lifetime ago.
She'd found the little things she'd sewn, the wee clothing she's knitted and then stored away -- boxed up and hidden so that she wouldn't have to be reminded. Here were the shirts, the petticoats, the pilches, the frocks and the little caps, nightgowns and plenty of diapers -- all waiting for a newcomer that never came -- until now. Her eyes delighted in the sight of these things, envisioning how she’d dress up the new baby like a doll and carry it in her arms. Breathing in deeply, she imagined the scent of the infant -- they always smelt so sweet and perfect -- fresh from heaven. She’d be a good mother – she would – she just knew it.
Nervous, her hand shook as she picked up a small gown that she'd sewn over five years ago. Had these little things been out of her sight for that long? She set it down again.
Slowly, she left the nursery and walked into her own room where the bassinet waited at the foot of her bed. She smiled, imagining herself waking in the night to the soft cooing cries of the infant. Idly, she pressed against one side of the little cradle and watched it rock, hardly able to contain herself as she thought about the impending inhabitant.
With a quick motion, she turned, leaving the room and the rocking cradle, to walk down the stairs and into the dining room, where the tin bathtub waited, with its softest clothes and a cake of white Windsor soap. The baby-chair sat beside the table; on the tray were the little cup and bowl, the small spoon. She touched the items tenderly, pushing them apart and then setting them again in perfect formation. He’d be too young for these, she knew, but it was good to see them out again. The chair and bassinet had been stored inside the crib for so long that she'd forgotten about their existence. It was like buying them ‘new’ all over again.
Her tea set waited -- ready for company. The new bottle rested on the counter and extra milk had been delivered this morning. She'd have to raise the baby by hand, but that was only a small barrier. Other than that, it would be exactly as if she'd had the child herself.
Unable to improve the dining room, she headed to the parlor. The pianoforte took up one corner of the room, and the rest was filled with the pretty furniture that she'd picked out with Harold. Harold -- she turned to the photograph that took a place of honor on the piano. She smiled as she gazed upon his sepia image. The man in the photo was box-jawed, with light hair and rugged face. He regarded the world with a look of intelligence, kindness and strength.
"Harry," she whispered as she approached the photograph. "I'm so excited…I…I did something," she bit her lip. "I did something peculiar and…" She glanced away, as if she couldn't meet his eyes. "Oh, you'd be so surprised, Harry. You'd be amazed. You wouldn't think I had it in me." With a small smile, and still not looking at the photo, she uttered, "We're having a baby, Harry -- just like we always wanted, just like before, except this time… this time it's for sure. I won’t do something wrong. It's coming today."
Her gaze traveling, she caught sight of herself in the hallway mirror. She was short and slim, with mousy brown hair done up in a bun. Her eyes, framed in spectacles, were too small and close, and her face was too plain to be pretty. What had Harold seen in her? She smoothed her faded black dress petulantly and then turned back to the image of her husband. "You'll think I'm so silly. You'll think I'm foolish, but I met this woman three days ago. She walked by as I was sweeping the front porch. We talked, Harry, and she was very sweet. She does wonderful things, working with little children. She takes them in when no one else wants them and finds new homes – good homes. She's almost a saint! And we talked about…things."
Annie played with the dark sash on her dress. “I don't know how we came to the subject, but she told me she could find a child for me. She just needed a small fee and she'd bring me one.” Still fiddling with the cloth, she uttered, “I got a message from her yesterday that she'd found a boy – for us.” She looked at the picture again, seeing the strong features, the pleasant smile, the eyes that had once been blue. "Just like we wanted, Harry, a boy. She's bringing him today. It'll be like he was our own. He must be just-born because he doesn't even have a name yet. I was thinking that I'd name him after you."
With a silly laugh she continued, "I don't know how I'll explain it to everyone. Maybe they'll believe it's a miracle! Me…with a baby. But, we'll make it work, won't we, Harry?" she implored the photograph that remained mute -- as it had for five years. "They won't think it's odd that I adopted, will they?"
“He’ll be so tiny, so sweet,” Annie continued. She formed a cradle with her arms. “It will feel so good to finally hold a baby of my very own.” Her arms had felt so empty all these years, her heart vacant. “I have so many things to teach him. I can’t wait to tell him stories, to feed him, to put on his little shoes, to watch him take his first steps. And his first word will be ‘mama’, but he’ll always know that you are his papa.” She smiled sadly, thinking of all the lost years, imagining what her own child might have looked like now.
There was a sharp rap on the door, drawing a surprised gasp from the widow. She turned toward the mirror to ensure that she looked as good as she could and then moved to the entryway. Through the glass, she could see the pretty, blonde woman. Maude Severt, the woman from the orphanage, smiled brightly under her gay hat. Plastering a smile onto her own face, Annie pulled open the door.
"Hello, Mrs. Greer, dear," Maude greeted brightly. "Today's your big day, isn't it?"
Annie's eyes greedily glanced about, looking for the little bundle that would hold her newborn child…looking for a pram… a carriage…a basket. Instead, there was just Maude and a boy. The boy, about nine-years-old, stood stiffly on her front porch, with a carpetbag at his feet. He gave her a glance and then looked toward Mrs. Severt as if seeking direction, but Maude didn't turn in his direction. He was probably a messenger, Annie decided, and would go fetch the baby once the transaction was completed. Certainly, they wouldn't be hauling her new child about when everything wasn't official yet!
"Please, Mrs. Severt, come inside. I'll make tea and…"
The smile continued to glow on Maude's cheery face. "Oh dearie, I'm sorry, but I have no time. There are so many stops to be made. Everyone is interested in adopting little ones today and I can’t leave them waiting, now can I?”
“No, of course not,” Annie responded, knowing how anxious her own wait had been.
“Please, if you have my fee, I can give you the paperwork and we'll be done."
"Oh," Annie responded. "Yes, of course." She turned to the hall table and picked up the envelope she'd prepared. "$300. It's exactly as you requested."
"Of course it is, dear," Maude responded, receiving the money and opening the envelope to look inside. "This seems in order." She pulled a folded paper from her handbag and handed it to Annie without looking at her -- her attention was still reserved for counting the money. "And here's your documentation."
Holding the paper close to her poor eyes, Annie studied the legal wording of the document. "Do I sign?" she asked, as Maude shoved the envelope into her handbag.
"Yes, yes," the blonde woman said. "And fill in his name when you've decided on it. I've already signed and it was witnessed at the orphanage. Everything is in order." She gave the boy a shove -- presumably to get him to fetch the baby, but the boy stepped forward into her doorway instead of turning to get his charge. He cast another glance at Mrs. Severt, as if he sought something, and then faced forward.
"He'll behave himself, I hope,” She continued. “I'll be back in a month or so to check up on how you're doing. Good-day." And with that, Maude Severt turned abruptly and started down the path toward the gate.
Annie glanced down at the boy, meeting his green eyes. He didn't seem to be budging. A shock of realization came to her and she rushed down the walkway after the woman. "Wait! Wait!"
Maude bustled even faster, reaching the gate and stepping through it. "A deal's a deal, Mrs. Greer," she said as she pulled the gate shut behind her.
"A baby! You promised me a baby!" Annie cried, and then sucked in her breath in fear that her neighbors would hear. "A baby, " she whispered as she gripped the gate.
"I made no such promise," Maude said with disdain. "You must have misinterpreted my meanin'."
Annie's mouth dropped open in disbelief. "But you told me…"
"I promised to deliver a boy child to your door, and I have. He will behave in a reasonable fashion, I assure you. If he is unruly, don’t blame me. I’ve taught him only the best manners. Now, good day," And she bustled off at a pace that was too quick to be called lady-like.
Annie trembled at the gate, her hands gripping the wood. The terror of leaving her home caught her, as it always did since her Harold passed, and she could only follow the woman's departure with her gaze. She wanted to shout and demand her return, but she was too timid, too quiet, too good. She lowered her head, feeling the tears come again. Lord, she wouldn't let the people on the street see her like this, she just couldn't!
She turned and treaded back to her house, slowing as she caught sight of the boy with the carpetbag still waiting there. He wasn’t looking at her. Rather, his gaze trailed Mrs. Severt.
What was she supposed to do with him? Good Gracious! She had a son! --not an infant, not a toddler that she could mold and teach – but a boy. Boys are noisy – dirty – naughty! If they’re not brought up right, they’ll be unmanageable hooligans!
Stiffly, the boy turned his attention to her and waited for her return.
"Well," Annie said, forcing a smile. She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and daubed at her eyes. What was she supposed to do now? They faced each other, strangers – mother and son. Oh my, this was her son! "I suppose I could show you to your room," she said, because she didn't know what else would be appropriate.
The child nodded and picked up his valise. "Yes, ma'am," he responded quietly.
Ma’am, should he be calling her that? "I'm your mother now," Annie said as she led the boy into the house. “You should call me ‘mama’.”
The boy cringed and uttered, “Perhaps not.”
“Oh,” Annie said, startled by this imprudent reply. Her hand rested on the stair rail as she turned toward the boy. His gaze was even and defiant. Already she was failing at this. Not call her mama? She felt like crawling into a hole. “Okay, well.” She fretted on the stairway, watching the boy’s somber and unwavering expression. “This way,” she said because she couldn’t think of anything else. She turned and headed up the stairs, her face drawn as she considered this new fact - that her new son didn’t want to call her ‘mama’. Gracious! He acted as if he was an adult already!
She led him to the little, upstairs room that had always been reserved for a child. Her heart sank as she gazed into the baby’s room. “I'm afraid the bed isn't quite right," she uttered, looking at the crib. "I thought…"
"She led you to believe you were getting a baby," the boy summed up.
"I must have misunderstood," Annie told him. "My fault. It must have been my fault. I'm so silly. I can't do anything on my own."
The boy set his valise down and nodded. "It's what she led you to believe." He sighed as he appraised the too-small bed.
"There's a bed in the other room. I'll have them switched." She seemed to brighten. "Yes, that'll work. Nobody uses it anyway. We meant to have people visiting all the time, but…” she stopped talking, not wanting to think of the past.
The boy nodded, not bothered by the cut-off sentence.
Glad for that small favor, she continued, “Tim Bently comes by and does chores for me. He'll do it on Wednesday." She smiled. Yes, that would solve the issue.
The boy just nodded, his eyes straying to the stenciled hearts and roses she'd painted shortly after her marriage.
Following his gaze, Annie continued, "Or I'll just have him move my sewing things back in here."
The boy nodded again, not seeming to care either way. And they were both silent again.
Annie, nervous in the silence, looked at the document that Maude had handed to her. She held the paper close, squinting through her glasses. The page was filled with official sounding words that seemed to say she was now 'mother' of a child yet to be named. The ink so fresh it smudged to her touch.
"The name is blank," Annie stated. "Why didn't they fill in your name?"
The boy shrugged. "I suppose it's Greer now," he stated.
Pursing her lips at that thought, she continued, "But your first name isn't there. What's your Christian name?"
His voice was soft as he said, "Whatever you want."
"You don't have a name?" Annie stated, her voice high with disbelief.
"Well," the child drawled, "I've been called any of a number of things. Those that are repeatable include, Daniel, Milton, Edward, Eric, Antoine, Robert, Evan, Ernesto or… Ezra. I suppose you can chose from any of them -- or come up with one of your own. One is as good as another." He spoke with a southern accent that didn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular.
Annie frowned and her voice became even higher as she declared, "You can't be serious?"
The boy sighed. "Call me whatever you want, it doesn't matter."
Annie stalked away, out of the nursery, down the stairs and toward the front door, wondering if she could catch up to Maude before she got too far. But, as her hand touched the doorknob, she knew that she couldn't. She trembled at the thought of charging down the street in her mourning clothes to find the brightly dressed woman. What would the neighbors think?
Years ago, she might have been able to do that. In her youth, she would have been capable. Her mother and papa took good care of her, sheltering her and ensuring that nothing ever hurt her. Then there was Harold. Oh, she’d always been shy, quiet – but there was a time when she was capable of walking down the street on her own. She trembled as she held the doorknob and hated her weakness.
She turned to find the nameless boy behind her. They stared at each other, the boy’s gaze was direct and calm, and she was certain she shook under his scrutiny.
He blinked and looked away, sighing softly as his eyes studied the hardwood flooring.
Well, Annie decided, this was her boy now. She could name him, couldn’t she? Maybe it was like naming a cat, a dog. She’d had a cat named Patches when she as a girl. But her mother had named the animal – and the cat used to bite.
Harry! She was going to name her child after her husband, but he looked nothing like Harry. Could this boy be a Harold Greer, Jr.? Would she be able to raise him in the image of her beloved husband? She could start. She could try. She’d make this work. But, it would help to know something about the boy.
After clearing her throat, Annie asked, “Were you in the orphanage long?”
He snorted, and then perhaps remembered his manners as he responded, “No, ma’am.”
“Oh, so your parents died recently?” she asked tenderly. “I’m so sorry.”
The boy raised his eyes and smiled sheepishly. “It’s a bit more complicated.”
“Oh.” Annie didn’t know how to respond to that. "Did Mrs. Severt tell you anything about me?"
The boy shrugged. "She told me you were willin' to pay." He looked embarrassed as he commented, "Look, you seem like a nice lady, and I hate to tell you this, but that paper she gave you means nothing. She doesn’t work at an orphanage. She doesn’t save poor waifs from a life in the street. She's a con woman and a gambler. You see, she's found a mark.” He paused and illustrated, “A man with plenty of money and no wife. She will make him her husband -- and a child is only an anchor when she's working a deal. She needs the freedom move quickly, to be properly courted. Once she’s taken him for all he’s worth, she’ll come back to claim me."
Annie dropped the document and drew in a breath. "No!' she cried. She covered her mouth with both hands.
"She'll be back in a few months and take me off your hands. You'll undoubtedly be tired of me by then." He shrugged again. "She's done this before."
Annie clasped at her neck, not believing what she'd just heard. “So, you’re not my son?”
The boy shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
Her mouth opened, but she didn't know what to say. Her world was tipping over – first, she thought she was the mother of an infant, then she was disappointed to find she was the mother of a young child. Now, to find she didn’t even have proof of that – she felt lightheaded. Trying to calm herself, she stated. "But certainly, you have a name! You're just being silly, aren't you?"
"A permanent name will only end up being a determent when one is trying to avoid justice. So, Mother changes it all the time."
"Mother?" She put two and two together. "That woman?" Annie looked out the window in the direction that Maude had gone. "She can't be your mother."
He winced, realizing that he'd revealed something he'd have preferred kept silent. "She is," the boy replied. "Indeed she is."
“Don't tell lies!" Annie spat out. He was just pulling a prank on her! Certainly this was a joke on his part. "A mother wouldn’t leave her son like this!”
He took a step back. “She does,” he replied. His voice became hollow as he stated, “She can’t have me around right now and she had nowhere else to leave me. I just get in the way.”
His quiet admission was too heartfelt to be a lie. Oh Lord, it was true. Her eyes began to tear again as she realized that she'd never be a mother -- not ever.
Seeing the defeated look on Annie's face, the boy said, "Really, she will be back. You can get rid of me then."
The widow, not knowing what else to do, wandered back toward the kitchen, wringing the handkerchief in her hands. "What am I going to do? I'm stupid. So stupid! I can't believe I fell for something like that. What am I going to do with this boy? Oh, Harry, if only you were here." She sat down heavily in one of the dining room chairs and cried into her hands. "Harry, oh, Harry. How can I be so foolish?" She wept, wishing she could take back that day and never talk to the southern woman who had passed her house. "I'm such a fool, Harry. Oh, why did you leave me all alone? I can’t do anything on my own!"
She cried, her face in her hands, cried about her stupidity and naiveté, cried because she thought she might have been happy again, thought she might finally have the family she'd longed for -- a baby of her own. Instead, she'd been 'taken' by an unscrupulous woman and ended up with a half-grown boy.
After a spell, she lifted her head and looked around. The house was perfectly still. "Boy?" she called, and felt stupid for calling him that. But what else was there? "Boy?"
There was no answer, so she went looking. He had returned to the nursery – his room -- and sat with his back against the wall and his carpetbag clutched in his lap. His face was blank as he held the bag close to him. His gaze slowly traveled to meet her face. He looked so lost.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, drying her eyes as she entered the room. “I didn’t mean to leave you.”
"It’s okay," the child responded. "It's not your fault. Mother…well, she makes things happen. I'm sorry you were caught up in it." The boy sighed. " I'm sorry that this had to happen to you. You're not the first one she's tricked, but usually she has to pay someone to take me … not the other way around."
Annie could only nod.
The boy kept talking, as if it was a comfort to him, "She's busy, you see. She has places to go and…" He clutched the carpetbag to his chest. "There was no room for me. I'd be in the way. I can be quite a burden. She'll be back, I swear. She always comes back."
"And she just left you here? Not knowing anything about me?" Annie asked.
"She's pretty good at reading people. She does her best to find good places for me." Seeing the bewildered look on the woman's face, he continued, "If you don't want me, I can go. I can find someplace…" he looked toward the door, but didn't move.
"No…no…you'll stay. We'll make this work." She smiled, trying to look warm and inviting. "It'll be nice."
The boy nodded, seeming amazingly at ease with the decidedly odd situation.
She sat down on the floor beside the boy and asked quietly, "Lets stop this foolishness. What would you like me to call you?"
He shrugged his narrow shoulders. "It's your choice."
The thought of calling the boy ‘Harry’ disappeared. No, this temporary child wouldn’t be named after her husband. That name would be reserved for a baby, when she was finally able to attain one. Would she ever have one?
Finally, finding her voice, Annie spoke, "I can't just make something up! What's your favorite name?” She couldn’t get her mind around the fact that the boy had no real name. “Do you have one that's special to you? You must have one that means more than the others."
The boy dipped his head, seeming to study the pattern on his carpetbag, and muttered, "'Ezra' might be okay."
"Alright then, I'll call you Ezra and you can call me …” She paused as she considered the alternatives. He didn’t want to call her ‘mama’ and it really didn’t seem appropriate now. She had ended up with a temporary boy, not a son. When people asked, could she honestly tell them that a woman had dropped the child at her doorstep with false adoption papers? What would they say? No, no she couldn’t do that!
"Aunt Anne," she finally decided. Her expression changed as she said, "No, that won’t work. People know I have no family left. Mama died when I was twelve, and Papa shortly after I married Mr. Greer."
"What about Mr. Greer's family?" Ezra asked. “You can say I’m related to him.”
At the mention of the man, Annie brought her handkerchief to her eyes again. "Oh no, that will never do. I couldn't do that to Harry. He was a good man."
The boy licked his lip as he thought. "You could say that I was 'remotely' related."
She considered it, and finally said, "I can't lie, Ezra."
Ezra contemplated and then said, "I think Maude has some relations somewhere named Greer. Maybe we are related somehow."
Astonished, Annie asked, “Truly? She’s related to Harold? She can’t be! Not a woman like that!”
“Might be. Everyone’s related in one way or another.” Seeing the skeptical look that Annie gave him, the boy continued, "If someone presses the subject, just tell them you'd rather not talk about it. That covers a wealth of evils."
"They'll think the worst if I say that!" Annie put in. "That makes it sound like someone might have had a child out of wedlock. They might think that you're a…" she stopped herself before she could say the foul word.
Ezra nodded and didn't seem too bothered by this fact.
"People will talk," Annie told him.
"Let them," Ezra replied. "They talk all the time. It would be best if you ignored them."
She pressed her hands to her cheeks, wondering if she blushed. "Oh, that's what Harry always said to me." She remembered hearing Harry say those very words. She could still picture his face, remember the sound of his voice, recall his scent, the way he walked, the way he smiled. He was so wise, so kind, so perfect – how could he be gone?
Those same words…in his deep, comforting voice… “Now, Annie, my love…”
She shuddered, able to picture him so perfectly. It was as if he was in the room with them. "Harry, oh Harry.” She wrung her handkerchief in her hands. “I can’t do anything without him. I can’t do one thing right. Look at what happens when I try,” she gestured brusquely at the boy, who sat back and tried not to look startled.
She sobbed out, “Why did he have to leave me? I can’t do this! I just can’t!"
Standing quickly, she left the nursery, memories of her beloved man overwhelmed her and she flung herself into her room, slamming the door behind her.
It was dark when she woke. She felt tired, and sore from crying. She lifted her head from the comforter and looked around. The room was cold and she was alone – again – always alone.
She sat up, realizing she was still wearing her dress – it was wrinkled now, a mess. What would Harry say if she saw her like this? What would he say if he knew she’d gone to her room like a little girl? Her eyes fastened on the empty bassinet. Patting her face, she sat up with a start. Oh Lord, that boy!
She lit a lamp and shuffled to her feet, pressing open her bedroom door and looking about. The house was dark as she crept out into it.
The door to her guestroom was open, but the lamp showed nothing on the bed besides the yards of cloth that she'd dumped there the day before. The nursery was vacant as well. She gazed at the wall where she'd last seen the child, but even his valise was gone. On the dressing table was the worthless document that Mrs. Severt had given to her.
She moved silently down the stairs and through the lower rooms, pausing at the parlor, the kitchen and the dining room without finding him. Dear Lord, she prayed, let him be safe. He couldn't have left, could he? That poor little boy. Oh Harry, what have I done? He's all alone! He's so alone.
Finally, in the little nook beneath the stairs -- her library, stuffed full with bookshelves, a small table, and one comfortable chair -- she found him. Ezra sat with a book on his lap and a burnt out candle on the table beside him, legs dangling, asleep.
She crouched down, and held one unsteady hand over his sleeping face, afraid to touch him. She truly looked at him for the first time. His boyish features were so lovely, he’d grow to be a handsome man, but there was a sadness to his face as well. She glanced over his clothing, noting the perfect tailoring and the expensive fabric. It looked as if they'd been just purchased. His calfskin shoes were of the highest quality and newly shined. He was like a little gentleman asleep in her favorite chair.
He looked so young in his sleep, so tiny, so thin. He’d sounded grown up when he spoke, but now he was just a child, a little boy, a lonely little boy.
Ezra made a soft sound, something between a sigh and a whimper, drawing a frown to Annie's face.
"Poor thing," she whispered. "Poor, dear thing." She set down her lamp and carefully took the book from the boy's hands. Absently, she noted that the book was one of her Thackerys, and he was already several chapters into it. She set it on the little table beside the couch.
The chair was big enough to swallow up his small frame. If she just shifted him a bit, it would make an adequate bed for the night. She’d just need to make him a little more comfortable. Quietly, she started to unbutton his clever, little shoes.
He came awake as she touched him, lifting one hand defensively, yanking his foot from her hands and tucking himself into a ball with a yelp.
"Ezra," she called, bringing one hand to his face, but he jerked away. His sleepy eyes held a note of terror. "It's me. It's Annie." Her heart thudded in her chest as she tried to still his thrashing hands.
Blinking and not entirely in this world, Ezra scudded away, trying to disappear, but there was nowhere to go. "No! No!" he uttered, his voice still thick with sleep. "I didn't do anything. I didn't. I swear." He didn't seem to understand where he was and his eyes were round with fear.
"Shhh," she soothed as her hands closed on his shoulders. "It's me, Ezra. It's Annie. Remember me? Annie Greer?" She shook at this unexpected reaction.
“Please,” he uttered, flinching. “I’m sorry.”
Her heart bled. She wanted to gather the child into her arms, to rock him and hold him, but Ezra continued to try to get away from her, to hide within the deep cushions of the comfortable chair.
“Hush, dear. Hush, it’s me. It’s only Annie,” she called. “You’re safe. You’re safe as houses. Look at me dear. Please!”
He blinked again, gazing back at her. He seemed to calm as he recognized her. He almost smiled, but his face fell as he blushed in embarrassment about the situation. “I’m…I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I was startled. I didn’t mean to alarm you. I was …” he glanced about. “Reading something and…it distressed me... I think.” He fussed at his jacket, not meeting her eyes. “That’s all.”
Annie frowned, creasing her brow, and wondered how Vanity Fair could bring about that reaction. No, she thought, there was something else going on. Someone had hurt this boy – had scared him to death. She wanted to smile encouragingly at Ezra, but failed. It just made her heart sick to think that this little child should awake to such fear. Why?
Why would a little child be so afraid in his sleep?
The silence between them was too much. She had to do something. “Let’s get you out of this.” Gently, she took hold of the gentleman’s jacket and helped Ezra to remove it. The boy complied easily, either too tired to contest, or too well-mannered to deny her. “It’s okay,” she said softly, draping the jacket over one corner of the bookshelf.
“I was caught unaware,” the boy continued sleepily.
“I know,” she replied as she maneuvered the boy into a comfortable position on the overstuffed chair. She recalled that it had been their first piece of furniture. She and Harry would squeeze in, side-by-side and read together in this tiny room. They’d sit so close that they were nearly like one person.
"Go back to sleep,” Annie told him. Remembering how he’d reacted before, she asked “Would it be okay if I took off your shoes? You’d be more comfortable, I think.” The boy nodded and then watched her with dubious eyes as she eased off his shoes and set them carefully on the floor beside his carpetbag. "I'll get you a blanket, okay? We'll get the guestroom fixed up for you tomorrow. Will this be okay for tonight?"
Ezra nodded again, blinking against the exhaustion. She fluffed up one of the little pillows and settled it under his head, smiling as she smoothed the hair off of his forehead, but her heart still quaked seeing his startled eyes, remembering how he had flinched from her -- little harmless Annie Greer. Good Gracious, why?
"I'll be right back," she promised him, and his green gaze followed her has she left the room. She hurried to the guestroom and pulled a fresh blanket from the chest. He was fast asleep by the time she returned. She settled it over him, tucking the soft coverlet around his narrow frame and she wondered how a young boy could be so skinny, so afraid. He had seemed so fearless earlier.
She listened to him sigh again, or perhaps whimper in his sleep.
On impulse, she gave him a kiss on the forehead and he seemed to settle down after that. She stood, picked up the lamp, and started back to her room. She turned before she left her little library, letting the gentle light of the kerosene lamp fall over the little southerner.
She sighed and whispered, "Oh Harry, what will I do?"
She watched as Ezra clutched the blanket close to him, holding it tightly as if he expected someone might try to take it from him. I've been so selfish, she thought, thinking only about myself. It's this poor child that's gotten the worst of the deal, left with a silly, stupid widow who doesn't know what to do with him.
She leaned her head against the doorframe and prayed for strength and guidance. Lord help me, she prayed, to help him.
We'll manage. We'll be fine. She turned, carrying the light to her own room. It'll be okay -- somehow.
As she trod up the staircase, she felt stronger. She felt a resolve building in her. It will be fine. I’ll take care of him until his mother returns. He won’t flinch from me again. I’ll give him no reason to fear.
She reached the top of the stairs and continued to her room. Tomorrow, she promised, things will be different. I may not be a mother, but I will do my best for him. I’ll do what I can. She ran the back of one hand over her eyes, as if to wipe away a tear – but she surprised herself by not crying.
A small smile graced her as she determined that she would be capable from now on. It wouldn’t do to cower in her home any longer. As she sat the lamp on her bed stand, she resolved to be strong – not for herself but for the boy – for Ezra.
Yes, she thought, standing straight and tall. For that boy, I'll be strong. Then, with a quaking breath, she sighed, “What have I gotten myself into?”
THE END - By NotTasha
Continue to the next Annie Greer story? - A Gambling Boy
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