The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (3 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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“Man, siddown,” another boy, a skinny, good-looking kid, says. “You crazy or something? Coach Davis is gonna kill you, if he hears about this.”

The rage drains from Lil’ Ray’s face like a fever breaking. His arms go slack. The fist loosens, and he rubs his forehead. “I’m hungry,” he says. “I don’t feel so good.” He wobbles for a second, and I’m afraid he’s going down.

“Take…take your seat.” My hand hovers in the air, as if I might catch him. “It’s seventeen…it’s seventeen minutes until lunch.” I try to collect my thoughts.
Do I let this pass? Make an example of Lil’ Ray? Write him up? Send him to the principal’s office? What’s the demerit system at this school?

Did anyone hear all the noise?
I glance toward the door.

The kids take that as an excuse to depart. They grab backpacks and make a beeline for the exit, tripping over desks and chairs, bouncing off one another. They push, shove, elbow. One student attempts to escape the chaos by using the desktops as stepping-stones.

If they get out, I’m dead. The singular rule most emphasized during the teachers’ meeting was
No kids in the hall during classes without adult supervision.
Period. Too much fighting, skipping, smoking, adding graffiti to the walls, and other acts of delinquency, which the weary-looking principal, Mr. Pevoto, left to our imaginations.

If they are in your classroom, you are responsible for keeping them there.

I join the stampede. Fortunately, I’m nimble and closer to the exit than most of my students. Only two get loose before I plant myself in the doorway, my arms stretched across the opening. It’s at that point I revisit
The Exorcist.
My head must be turning 360 degrees on my neck, because I see a pair of boys sprinting away down the hall, laughing and congratulating each other, while at the same time I observe stragglers bumping into the logjam I’ve created at the exit portal. Lil’ Ray is at the front and fairly immovable. At least he’s averse to mowing me down.

“I
said,
get back in your seats.
Now.
We still have…” I glance at the clock. “Fifteen minutes.” Fifteen? I’ll never make it that long with this bunch of miscreants. They are by far the worst of the day, and that’s saying a lot.

No amount of money is worth this, and certainly not the pittance of a salary the school district has agreed to pay me for being here. I’ll find some other means of repaying my student loans.

“I’m hungry,” Lil’ Ray complains again.

“Back to your seat.”

“But I’m
hungry.

“You should eat before you come to school.”

“Ain’t got nothing in the pintry.” A sheen of sweat covers his coppery skin, and his eyes are weirdly glassy. I’m struck by the sense that I have bigger problems than the stampede. Standing in front of me is a fifteen-year-old who’s desperate in some way, and he expects me to solve the problem.

“All the rest of you, get in your seats!” I bark out. “Put those desks back where they belong. Plant yourselves
in
them.”

The area behind Lil’ Ray slowly clears. Sneaker soles screech. Desks clatter. Chairs scrape the tile. Backpacks drop with muffled thuds.

I hear a commotion in the science room across the hall. There’s a new teacher over there, too. A girls’ basketball coach, fresh out of college and only about twenty-three, as I recall. I at least have a little more age on my side, having worked my way through undergrad and then piddled along to a master’s degree in literature.

“Anyone who’s not in a chair in the next sixty seconds owes me a paragraph. In ink. On paper.”
Owes me a paragraph
was the go-to form of intimidation of Mrs. Hardy, my mentor educator. It’s the English teacher’s version of
Drop and give me twenty.
Most kids will do almost anything to avoid picking up a pen and writing.

Lil’ Ray blinks at me, his cherub-cheeked face sagging. “Miz?” The word comes in a hoarse, uncertain whisper.

“Miss Silva.” I already hate the fact that the kids’ default word for me at this school is a generic
Miz,
as if I am some random stranger, maybe married, maybe not, and with no last name worth remembering. I
have
a name. It may be my father’s name and, given our relationship, I have my resentments about it, but still…

A man-sized hand reaches out, grasps air, stretches farther, closes over my arm. “Miss…I don’t feel so—”

The next thing I know, Lil’ Ray is slumped against the frame, and we’re going down. I do my best to break the fall as a million things run through my mind. Overexcitement, drugs, an illness, theatrics…

Lil’ Ray’s eyes moisten. He gives me the terrified look of a toddler lost in the grocery store, searching for his mom.

“Lil’ Ray, what’s going on?” No response. I turn and shout into the classroom. “Does he have a health problem?”

No one answers.

“Are you sick?” We’re nose to nose now.

“I get hun…gry.”

“Do you carry medicine? Does the nurse have medicine for you?”
Do we even have a school nurse?
“Have you been to a doctor?”

“I don’t…I…jus…get hungry.”

“When did you eat last?”

“Lunch yesterday.”

“Why didn’t you have breakfast this morning?”

“Nothin’ in the pintry.”

“Why didn’t you have supper last night?”

Deep creases line his sweat-soaked forehead. He blinks at me, blinks again. “Nothin’ in the pintry.”

My mind speeds full throttle into the brick wall of reality. I don’t even have time to put on the brakes and soften the impact. Pintry…pintry…

Pantry.

Nothing in the pantry.

I feel sick.

Meanwhile, behind me, the noise level is rising again. A pencil takes flight and hits the wall. I hear another one clatter off the metal filing cabinet by my desk.

From my pocket, I snatch the half-eaten bag of peanut M&M’s left from my morning snack, stuff it into Lil’ Ray’s hand, and say, “Eat this.”

I stand up just in time to see a red plastic ruler shoot through the half-open door.

“That is it!” I’ve said this at least two dozen times today. Apparently, I don’t mean it, because I’m still here, in this outer realm of Dante’s inferno. Just trying to survive Day One. Either it’s mere stubbornness or a desperate need to succeed at something, but I start retrieving copies of
Animal Farm
from the floor and slamming them onto desks.

“What’re we s’posed to do with these?” That complaint comes from the right side of the room.

“Open it. Look it over. Get out a piece of paper. Write a sentence telling me what you think the book is about.”

“We got eight minutes till the bell,” a punk-rocker girl with a blue-streaked Mohawk notes.

“Then hurry.”

“You crazy?”

“There ain’t time.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I ain’t writin’ no sentence.”

“I’m not readin’ no book. This’s got…one-hun’erd forty-four pages! I can’t read that in fiv…four minutes.”

“I didn’t
ask
you to read it. I asked you to
look
at it. Decide what you think it’s about and write a sentence. With that sentence, you will buy your passage through my classroom door and the privilege of proceeding on to lunch.” I move to the exit, where I’m just now noticing that Lil’ Ray has disappeared, leaving the empty M&M’s wrapper as a thank-you.

“Lil’ Ray didn’t write no sentence. He got to go to lunch.”

“That’s not your problem.” I stare them down and remind myself that these are ninth graders. Fourteen-and-fifteen-year-olds. They can’t hurt me.

Much.

Papers rattle. Pens smack desktops. Backpacks are zipped open.

“I don’t have no paper,” the skinny boy protests.

“Borrow some.”

He reaches over and snatches a blank sheet off a nerd’s desk. The victim sighs, reopens his backpack, and calmly gets out another piece. Thank God for nerds. I wish I had an entire classroom full. All day.

In the end, I win, sort of. I’m presented with rumpled papers and copious amounts of attitude when the bell rings and kids storm the door. It’s not until the last group is draining the funnel I’ve created by combining my body and an empty desk that I recognize long, thin braids tipped with red beads, acid-washed jeans, and a color-block shirt. The girl who walked the little lunch box kid away from the intersection this morning. In all the chaos, I never even picked up on the fact that she was in my room.

For an instant, I foster the notion that she hasn’t connected me with the near-miss crosswalk incident. Then I flip back through the last few papers on my stack, read sentences like:

I think it’s about a farm.

i bet this book stooped.

About a pig.

It’s about George Orwell’s satire of Russian society.

Somebody actually copied the summary from the back cover. There’s hope.

And then,
It’s about a crazy lady who gets in a accident in the morning and hits her head. She wanders off into a school, but she’s got no clue what she’s doing there.

Next day, she wakes up and don’t come back.

CHAPTER 3

HANNIE GOSSETT—LOUISIANA, 1875

I mash the big field hat down hard to hide my face while I slide from shadow to shadow in the morning dark. It’ll be trouble if I get seen here. Both me and Tati know that. Old Missus won’t let no croppers near the Grand House till Seddie lights the morning lamp in the window. I get caught here at night, she’ll say I come thieving.

It’ll give her cause to tear up our land paper. She don’t like the sharecrop contracts and hates ours more than most. Missus’s plan was to keep all us stray children and work us for free round the Grand House till we got too old to put up with it. Only reason she let Tati take us to her sharecrop land was because Old Mister said that Tati and us strays oughta have the chance at working our own plot, too. And because Missus never thought that one old freedwoman and seven half-growed kids could make it, farming on shares for ten years to earn our land, free and clear. It’s a lean, hungry life when three of every four eggs, bushels, barrels, and beans you draw from the field go right back to pay the debt for the land and goods at the plantation store, since croppers ain’t allowed to trade anyplace else. But that thirty acres is nearly ours, now. Thirty acres, a mule and outfit. Old Missus can’t stand the fact of it. Our land sits too close to the Grand House, for one thing. She wants to hold the land for Young Mister Lyle and Missy Lavinia, even though they got more interest in spending their daddy’s money than in farming fields.

But that don’t matter. No mystery what’ll happen if things get left up to Old Missus, and I hope we ain’t soon to find out that’s how it is. Tati wouldn’t have hurried me into the boys’ work clothes and sent me scurrying up here if there was any other way to discover what sort of ill wind has brought that girl in the hood cape sneaking up to Goswood Grove by the dark of midnight.

She might’ve meant for that cape to hide who she was, but Tati recognized it right off. Tati’s old fingers had worked late by the light of the bottle lamp, sewing up two capes just alike for last year’s Christmas—one to fit that high-yella woman Old Mister keeps in style down in New Orleans, and one for the fawn-pale daughter they made together, Juneau Jane. Old Mister likes to dress them the same, mother and daughter, and he knows Tati’s trustable to always keep her sewing work hid from Old Missus. All us know better than to even mention the names of that woman or that child round here. Be safer calling the name of the devil.

Juneau Jane coming to Goswood Grove ain’t a good sign. Old Mister hadn’t been seen at this plantation since day after Christmas, when the word come that Mister’s fine gentleman son had got hisself into another difficulty, this time in Texas. Been only two years since Mister sent the boy west to dodge a murder trial in Louisiana. The time spent on the Gossett lands in East Texas ain’t improved Young Mister Lyle’s behaviors, I guess.

Doubt anyplace could.

Four months ago that Old Mister left, and no word of him since. Either that little tawny-pale daughter of his knows what become of him or she’s here to find out.

Child’s a fool, coming to Goswood this way. The Ku Kluxers and White Camellias catch her on the road, they might not guess what she is just by looking, but no decent woman or girl goes about alone after dark. Too many carpetbaggers, road agents, and bushwhackers round in these years since the war. Too many young rowdies mad about the times, and the government, and the war, and the Louisiana constitution giving black folks the vote.

The kind of men that prowl these roads at night ain’t likely to care that the girl’s just fourteen.

Juneau Jane’s got courage, or else she’s desperate. Reason enough for me to sneak past the brick pillars that hold the Grand House’s first floor eight foot off the ground, and shinny through the coal trap into the basement. Years past, the boys used it to come snitch food, but I’m the only one of Tati’s strays still skinny enough to get in this way.

I don’t want one thing to do with this mess, or with Juneau Jane, but if she knows information, I got to find out. If Old Mister is gone from this world and this left-hand child of his is here seeking after his death papers, I’m bound to get my fingers on our cropper contract at the same time. Make myself into a thief, which I never been. Don’t have a choice about it, though. With no husband to stand in her way, Old Missus will burn them papers quick as she gets the news. Nothing the rich folk like better than to rid theirselves of a cropper right when the land contract’s coming due.

I take a few steps, light and careful, one at a time. At corn shuckings and circle plays, I got the dancing feet of a butterfly.
Graceful, for a gangly thing,
Tati says. I hope that holds out. Old Missus has Seddie sleeping in a little space off the china room, and that old woman’s got light ears, busy mouth. Seddie loves to tell tales to the Missus, cook up trouble, cast curses on folks, get somebody a swat with that riding bat Old Missus carries round. Seddie’ll slip a little poison on anybody that crosses her—put it in the water dipper or top of a corn pone cake—make them sick enough to die or wish they would. The woman’s a witch for sure. Even sees things when she’s sleeping, I think.

She won’t know me in this field hat, shirt, and britches. Not unless she gets a close look, and I’ll make definite sure that don’t happen. Seddie’s old and fat and slow. I’m quicker than a cane-cutter rabbit.
Burn down the stubble. Stand at the edge of your field, you won’t have me in your stew pot. I’m too fast.

I tell myself them things while I cross the basement by the light of the moon through the window. Can’t use the nursery stairs to go up. The bottom steps squeak, and they’re too near Seddie’s room.

The ladder to the butler’s pantry floor hatch is the means I choose, instead. Many’s the time my sister Epheme and me sneaked out and back in that way after Old Missus took us from Mama’s little saddleback cabin in the quarters and said we was to sleep on the floor under Baby Lavinia’s crib, and quieten her in the night if she fussed. I was just three and Epheme six, and both of us lonely for our folk and scared of Old Missus and Seddie. But a slave child ain’t given a choice in the matter. The new baby needed playthings, and that was us.

Missy Lavinia was a troublesome little bird from the start. Round and fat-cheeked and pale, with straw-brown hair so fine you could see right through it. She wasn’t the pretty child her mama wanted, or her daddy, either. That’s why he always liked his child with that colored Creole woman the best. That one
is
a pretty little thing. He’d even bring her to the Grand House when Old Missus and Missy Lavinia went away to visit Missus’s people down on cotton islands by the sea.

I always did wonder if him being so fond of Juneau Jane was the reason his children with Missus turned out so wrong.

I push up the hatch in the butler’s pantry, peek round the cabinet door, and listen out. The air’s so quiet I can hear Old Missus’s azalea bushes scratch at the window glass, like a hundred fingernails. A whip-poor-will calls in the dark. That’s a bad sign. Three times means death is bound to cross your path.

This one calls two.

Don’t know what two times means. Nothin’, I hope.

The window light in the dining room flickers with leaf shadow. I slip along to the ladies’ parlor, where before the war Old Missus entertained neighbor women over tea and needlework, and gave out lemon cakes and chocolates all the way from France. But that was when folks had money for such. My work, or my sister’s back then, was to stand with a big feather fan on a stick, swish it up and down to chase the heat off the ladies and the flies from the lemon cakes.

Sometimes we’d fan the sugar powder right onto the floor.
Don’t ever taste it when you clean that up,
the kitchen women told us children.
Seddie sprinkles them lemon cakes with a poison if she feels like it.
Some say that was what caused Missus to birth two blue babies after Young Mister Lyle and Missy Lavinia, and to finally end up weak enough to be confined to a invalid’s chair. Others say Old Missus’s trouble goes back to a curse on her family. A punishment to the Loaches for the mean ways they treated their slave people.

A shudder slips up my back, rattles every bone in my spine, when I come past the hall where Seddie sleeps in her little room. A gas lamp flickers and spits overhead, turned down low. The house sighs and settles, and Seddie grunts and snorts loud enough I hear it through the door.

I round the corner into the salon, then cross it quick, figuring Juneau Jane will try to get to the library, where Old Mister keeps his desk and papers and such. Outdoor sounds get louder the closer I come—trees rustling, bugs with their night noises, a bullfrog. That girl must’ve got a door or a window opened. How’d she manage that? Missus won’t allow windows raised on the first-floor gallery, no matter how miserable hot it gets. Too worried about thieving. Won’t let the windows open on the second floor, either. So fearish of the mosquitos, she makes the yard boys keep tar pots burning outside the house day and night in all the warm months. Whole place wears a coat of pitch smoke, and the house ain’t been aired in more years than I can remember.

Them windows been long painted shut, and Seddie minds all the door locks last thing at night, careful as a mama gator on a nest. Sleeps with the ring of keys tied on her neck. If Juneau Jane’s found a way in, somebody from the house helped her. Question is, who and when and for why? And how’d they get away with it?

When I peek round the opening, she’s sneaking in the window, so it must’ve took her a while to pry it up. One little slipper touches down on the wood folding chair Old Mister likes to take out to the gardens to sit and read to the plants and the statues.

I back myself into the shadows and watch-wait to see what this girl’s about. Climbing off the chair, she stops, looks over to my hiding spot, but I don’t move. I tell myself I’m a piece of the house. You ever been a slave at Goswood, you learn how to turn yourself into wood and wallpaper.

Easy to see this girl knows nothing of that. She moves through the room like the place is hers, barely reasonable quiet while helping herself to her daddy’s big desk. Latches click as she opens parts of that desk I didn’t even know there was. Must be her papa showed her how, or told her.

She ain’t happy with what she finds, and gives that desk a cussing in French before moving on to the tall hallway doors like she plans to push them closed. The hinges complain, low and soft. She stops. Listens. Looks into the hall.

I back my way tighter to the wall and closer to the outside door. If Seddie comes from her bed, I’ll hide behind the curtain, then climb out that window during the ruckus and get myself away from here.

The girl shuts the hall doors, all right, and I think to myself,
Oh Lord! Ain’t no way Seddie didn’t hear that.

Every hair on my body stands up, but no one comes, and little Juneau Jane moves on with her business. This girl is either smart or the biggest fool I ever came upon, because next she takes her papa’s little pocket lantern from the desk, opens the tin case, strikes up a Lucifer, and lights the candle.

I can see her face clear then, lit up in that circle of yellow light. She ain’t a child anymore, but she ain’t a woman, either, someplace in-between. A strange creature with long, dark curls that circle her like angel hair and hang far down her back. That hair moves with life of its own. She’s still got that light skin, straight brows like Old Mister’s, and wide eyes that slant up at the corners, same’s my mama’s, same’s mine. But this girl’s are silvery bright. Unnatural. Witchy.

She sets the lantern ’neath the desk, just enough to give some light, and she commences to fetching out ledger books from the drawer, turning pages by the light, her thin, pointed finger tracing a line here and there. She can read, reckon. Them sons and daughters born in
plaçage
live high, boys sent to France to get educated, and the girls to convent schools.

She checks over every ledger book and slip of paper she can find, shakes her head, hisses through her teeth, not happy one bit. She lifts up boxes of powdered ink, pens, pencils, tobacco, pipes, holds them to the light and looks underneath.

Be a sure miracle if this girl don’t get caught. Child’s getting noisier and braver by the minute.

Or else just more desperate.

Holding up the candle lamp, she goes to the shelves that rise floor to ceiling against the walls, higher than three men could reach if they stood on shoulders. For a minute, she’s got the flame so close, I think it’s in her mind to burn the books and the Grand House to the ground.

There’s hired women and girls asleep at the attic. I can’t let Juneau Jane set that flame, if she tries to. I shift from behind the curtain, creep three steps ’cross the room, almost to the moonlight squares on the cherry wood floors.

But she don’t do it. She’s trying to make out what the books are. Lifts onto her toes and holds the lantern high as she can. The candle tin tips, wax funneling over onto her wrist. She gasps and drops the lamp, and it falls on the carpet, the flame drowned in a wax pool. She don’t even bother to go after it, just stands there with her hands on her waist, looking up at the high shelves. There’s no ladder to get up there. The house girls probably took it to use for cleaning someplace.

Ain’t two seconds before the cape is off that girl’s shoulders, and she’s testing the bottom shelf with one foot, and then climbing. Lucky thing she’s still in child’s skirts, just only halfway betwixt her knee and her silk slippers. She skitters her way up like a squirrel, the long hair trailing down her back making a big, fluffy tail.

Her toe slips near the top.

Careful,
I want to say, but she rights herself and goes on, then grabs and sidesteps along the high shelves like the young boys traveling the rafters in the wagon shed.

The muscles in her arms and legs shake from the strain, and the shelf bows under her when she gets toward the middle. It’s a single book she’s after, one that’s thick and heavy and tall. She pulls it loose and scoots it along the wobbling wood and gets herself back to the edge where it’s stronger.

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