Read The Humming Room Online

Authors: Ellen Potter

The Humming Room

 

The Humming Room
was inspired by
The Secret Garden
,
a classic that Ellen Potter has reread every year of her adult life.

See how these two works complement each other
with a special e-book bonus –
the entire text of Frances Hodgson Burnett's original novel.

Just keep reading!

For Daniel, Meagan,
and Matthew Linzer

Chapter 1

There are no road signs to mark the tiny village of Limpette. It lies between two towns that you have never heard of. If you pass Ostrander's goat farm, you've gone too far.

We won't stay long in Limpette. There's not much of anything here for us, except the girl. And the girl was not much of anything either, not back then. Her name was Roo Fanshaw and she was too small for her age. She had a narrow, bony face and a tight, dissatisfied mouth. Her rusty brown hair was shoulder length, with bangs that hung over her eyes. They were green eyes. Green eyes are often very captivating, but Roo's eyes were the spent, dull green of smoke at the end of a fireworks show.

In order to see her, we need to get down on all fours and squeeze through an opening in the vinyl apron that surrounds the bottom of her family's mobile home. It's a small opening, and we'll have more trouble getting through than Roo did. She can slip through the narrowest gaps like a ferret. Like all good thieves, she understands space. Space can be a friend or an enemy, so you should always know how much of it your body needs. Roo, being tiny, needs very little, and she feels most comfortable in cramped areas, like this one.

Duck your head. There she is. Let's begin.

 

With her legs pulled up and her chin on her knee, Roo listened to the sound of men's footsteps above her head. They tramped back and forth, from the living room to the bedroom beside it. She supposed they were tramping through her own bedroom too, but there was nothing of interest for them there.

The thing of interest was directly above her head. The men kept returning to that spot. She could hear their voices too, but could not make out the words. One man threw up. She heard the sound of retching and then footsteps rushing off. To the bathroom maybe?

She knew they were going to find her eventually. She considered, in an offhand way, what would happen to her when they did. In the end, she decided she didn't really care. She had been shivering badly—whether from cold or from fear, she wasn't sure. Now her body was still again. Quiet. There was nothing to do but wait.

She turned her attention to the tiny green snake that was balanced on the knee of her tan corduroys. The light from the narrow break in the trailer's vinyl apron passed through the snake and turned it the sort of green Roo's eyes might have been, had her life been different—emerald and clear. The snake's undulating body looked so cool and smooth that Roo stuck out her tongue and licked it. Oddly, she could feel imperfections on the glass—small bumps and scuffs—that her eyes could not detect.

All around her on the icy, packed earth were dozens of tiny flowers, some made of blown glass, some trapped in Lucite domes—daisies, tiger lilies, a bouquet of pink roses, paper-thin red poppies. There was a pair of enamel earrings shaped like marigolds, large and gaudy, which she had stolen from the drugstore. She had mounded up earth and planted them by sticking their posts through the ground. Roo considered the little garden before nudging the poppies closer to the marigolds and putting the snake between them. Then she flung herself to the ground and listened to the earth. It was something she often did, checking the ground the way other girls might check the mirror. She could hear all its movements, small, fluttering sounds of life that fascinated her. Here, beneath the trailer, the sounds were stealthy, quiet stirrings of slow-moving bugs. The squeezing and shoving of ice crystals in the March thaw.

She heard a new sound, aboveground and close by. Opening her eyes, she saw the mouse a few feet away, staring at her. Very slowly, Roo stretched out her hand and wiggled her fingers toward him, happy to see him. He edged closer to her. Hoping for food, as usual. She wished she had some. In any case, he came close enough to let her stroke his back, the fur still thick from the winter and the color of buckwheat honey.

“Stay with me, stay with me,”
she pleaded to him in a whisper.

But it was no good. The sound of footsteps above startled him and he was gone in a flash.

She heard the familiar suck of air as the front door to her family's home was pulled open, then the metallic clattering of someone trying to open the storm door. The latch was sticky. You had to pull the screen door toward you first in order for the latch to snap into place. The man wouldn't have known that. Roo listened as he struggled with it, trying to get out of the house, rattling the door with a few angry curses before it gave way and opened.

She held her breath. The green snake abruptly grew dark as the light from the opening was blocked by someone's leg. Roo could see the state trooper's gray pants with the thick black stripe down the sides. He was so close, Roo could have reached through the break in the apron and untied his shoes. He stood there for a moment, as still as Roo. Suddenly he shifted, moved forward. Two other legs could be seen now. These were bare and brown skinned. Lavender slippers with matted-down plush.

Mrs. Quick, the lady next door.

Roo narrowed her eyes.

“You the one I'm supposed to talk to?” Roo heard Mrs. Quick ask.

“Yes, ma'am. My name is Officer Catlin.”

“I know who you are, Jason Catlin, who lives down on Myrtle Street, so don't
officer
me. Did you catch them who done this?”

“We have someone in custody, ma'am. How well did you know the family?” The state trooper sounded a little shaky. Maybe he was cold.

“Is all of them dead, then? The girl too?” Mrs. Quick's voice was whispery, like she was talking in a dark room.

“Ma'am, please. How well do you know them?” The trooper's voice was young. Roo noticed he changed to the present tense.

“I know the girl,” Mrs. Quick said.

“What about the parents?”

There was a pause. Roo could see Mrs. Quick's toes punching the top of her slippers.

“Trash.”

“Trash? In what way, ma'am?”

“In what
way?
” Mrs. Quick made an
nnnn
sound. Roo knew that sound. It was Mrs. Quick's sound of disgust. “They is trash in the same way trash is always trash. Their lives is a mess. Their children's lives is a mess. Then they go hanging out with other trash and this…this is what happens. You better tell me right now, young man.” Mrs. Quick planted her legs farther apart. Roo guessed she was crossing her arms over her large chest. “What happened to the girl?”

“We don't know where she is, ma'am,” the trooper admitted in a quiet voice. “When did you see her last?”

“Wasn't but a few hours ago.”

“Can you say exactly?”

“After she come home from school. So maybe three forty? I seen her sitting outside her trailer, dressed in a T-shirt. A T-shirt in this weather! I told her to come in for pie. I feed her when I can. The child is
stunted
. Twelve years old and no bigger than my eight-year-old granddaughter. Roo's mother…oh, what the heck's the woman's name…Joley,”—Mrs. Quick
nnnn
'ed—“she treats Roo like a stray cat, putting her out in the cold, never dressing her proper, never feeding her proper.”

Roo took the snake off her knee and placed it beside the marigold earring.

“Did she say anything about her family being in trouble? Or in danger?” the trooper asked.

“Roo? Ha! That child hardly never says nothing. She's halfway to being a savage. She just woofed down her pie, stole the snake when my back was turned, and out she went.”

“She stole something?”

Roo stared at the glass snake on the ground, listening.

“Now, don't get the wrong idea. She don't steal nothing valuable. Just doodads, little this-and-thats I find at the dollar store. I leave them out for her. She wouldn't take them if I gave them to her. Too proud. Though where she gets that kind of pride, with her parents being what they are, I have no idea. So I turn my back and let her steal them. Make her feel good. Make her feel like she got something nice in her life.”

A rush of blood heated Roo's face. She made a fist and held it over the snake, poised to smash it, but found that she couldn't. Instead she lunged forward toward the hole in the apron and spit. She had meant to spit on the ground, but at that moment Mrs. Quick stepped forward, and the spit landed on her bare leg. Roo watched the spit slide down Mrs. Quick's leg and slip beneath her lavender slippers, but still Mrs. Quick did not move.

“What will you do with Roo when you all find her?” Mrs. Quick asked the trooper.

“A family member has already been contacted,” he said.

Roo frowned.
Family?
She had no other family. No cousins. No aunts or uncles. She supposed there might be grandparents somewhere but she didn't know them or care about them. And since they'd never bothered to see her, she guessed they didn't care about her either.

“They decent folks, Jason? These relatives of Roo's?” Mrs. Quick asked.

“I couldn't say, ma'am,” the trooper admitted. There was a pause, before he added in a low voice, “I did hear they have money.”

“You mean they're rich?” Mrs. Quick's voice sounded astonished.

“That's what I heard,” the officer admitted.

“In that case, Officer Jason Catlin, you might want to peek under the trailer. Mind your fingers though. She bites.”

Chapter 2

As it turned out, Roo had an uncle. He didn't come for her right away though. He was traveling, she was told, and no one could get in touch with him. In the meantime, Roo was placed in a foster home with a Mr. and Mrs. Burrow. She was wedged into a room with three other foster girls whom she instantly hated. They hated her right back.

She tried to stay clear of them, finding hiding places throughout the house. They hunted her down for sport, but rarely found her. One afternoon, in a brambly corner of the garden, she found a dilapidated greenhouse where Mr. Burrow started his tomato plants. Roo sat on a bag of fertilizer, watching a spider spin its web. Its tiny legs fretted and fussed with the webbing. It reminded her of the way her father's fingers looked when they picked at his guitar listlessly while waiting for something to happen: a phone call, a knock on the door. Long, elegant fingers. Fingers that seemed to be on the wrong person's hand.

Suddenly the greenhouse door was yanked open and the two older foster girls appeared. Roo looked up at them briefly, then her eyes slid back to the spider.

“Your uncle isn't coming, you know,” one of the girls said. “They told him what a jerk you are, and he said, ‘No, thanks, you can keep her.'”

“I don't care if he comes or not,” Roo said.

They tried a different approach. “Your parents were drug dealers.”

“So?”

“So…” The girl fumbled. “So. You'll grow up bad too. It's in the blood.”

“I might,” Roo said.

The girls did not know what to do with Roo. She never responded the way she should. In the end they left her alone, but in a fit of pique they padlocked the greenhouse door. It didn't matter. She watched the spider finish her web and afterward easily crawled through a loose pane of glass in the roof.

Roo's uncle did come to fetch her, although he didn't come himself. Instead he sent his personal assistant. Ms. Valentine was slim and handsome, though not young. She had dark hair, fine pale skin, and an aquiline nose. Although she was primly dressed in tweed pants, a black wool coat, and a black cardigan, she wore a peculiar purple hat that was shaped like a thimble and wrapped with a brown velvet ribbon above the brim.

She eyed Roo's Hefty bag full of clothes with distaste, before she put it up on the train's luggage shelf, shoveling it into the compartment with her fingertips. As she did, Roo slipped by her and tucked herself into the window seat.

“Don't expect a view,” Ms. Valentine warned, staring down at Roo. “It's backyards and scrubby bits all the way.”

She waited for Roo's face to register disappointment, but the faded green eyes stared back at her coolly.

Strange girl
, Ms. Valentine thought.
She doesn't look as if she's ever shed a tear.

Ms. Valentine removed her coat before she sat down, folding it neatly on her lap, and on top of that she placed her extraordinary hat. Then, with no jolt at all, the train moved smoothly out of the station.

“How old are you?” Ms. Valentine asked stiffly, after a time.

“Twelve.”

She turned to look at Roo fully now, the first time she had done so since she'd picked her up at the Burrows' house. “That's what they told us, but you seem much too small for twelve,” she pronounced. “Is there something the matter with you?”

“Is there something the matter with
you?
” Roo shot back.

“Now, there's no room for touchiness at Cough Rock, young lady,” Ms. Valentine warned.

“What's that?” Roo asked. “Cough Rock.”

“Your uncle's place.” She glanced at Roo quickly and sighed. “You should be warned, I guess. It's an odd place. You aren't a nervous type, are you?”

Roo shook her head.

“Well, we'll find out soon enough,” she said doubtfully. “The house is large, but you are not to go poking around, do you understand? Your uncle would be very angry. He has laid down rules, and we all follow them. You will too.”

Ms. Valentine rubbed her thumb against her hat's ribbon. After a moment she added in a more gentle tone, “Of course, we
are
sorry about your loss. Your uncle adored your father, you know. He tells me they were very close, back when they were boys. I met your father once years ago. He was wild and foolish, but he was—” Ms. Valentine paused.

Roo looked up at her. For the first time that day she was interested in what Ms. Valentine had to say.

“I think he had a good heart. Underneath,” Ms. Valentine concluded.

It was what Roo had hoped to hear. It was what she felt about him herself, though no one else seemed to share that opinion. Her father was by turns considered a drug dealer, a shady character, a loser. Still Ms. Valentine's words made her feel worse somehow.

“I was very sad to hear of his death,” Ms. Valentine said. “Your mother's too, of course,” she added.

“It was their own fault,” Roo said simply. She turned away to stare out the dirt-flecked window.

Ms. Valentine's tidy brow furrowed at this.
Strange girl,
she thought for the second time. But now it was more of a verdict.

“And she wasn't my mother,” Roo added suddenly. “She was just his girlfriend.”

“Really?” Ms. Valentine turned to Roo, her voice rising with sudden interest. “You have a mother? Where is she?”

Roo shrugged.

The conductor approached and Ms. Valentine turned away from Roo to hand the man their tickets. He snapped holes in them and shoved them into the metal holder above the seats.

“What's your mother's name?” Ms. Valentine pursued after the conductor left.

Roo shrugged.

“What do you mean—?” Ms. Valentine imitated Roo's shrug and scowl. “You don't know your own mother's name?”

“She was just another girlfriend. She didn't want me. My father did. That's all I know.”

They rode in silence for a while. The train was quiet, not rattly as Roo had imagined it would be. It slid along the rails, bellying from side to side, so that these two stiff creatures bumped against each other occasionally, and pretended they hadn't.

After some time, Ms. Valentine spoke again.

“I suppose you've heard all sorts of nonsense about your uncle?”

“No,” Roo said.

She turned to Roo. “Well, what
have
you heard?”

“Nothing,” Roo said.

“Your father must have told you something about him.”

“I didn't know I had an uncle.”

“Really?” Ms. Valentine gave the hat a little joggle. “Well,” she said, her voice sounding more businesslike, “then here's what you
should
know about your uncle. You are not to upset him. You are not to pester him. You are not to ask him questions.”

“Questions about what?” she asked.

“About anything at all,” Ms. Valentine warned sharply. “He's agreed to take you in, and that's all you need to know. He feels very guilty about your father, although I don't see why he should. Your father left home at fifteen—wanted to do things his own way, so I'm told—and his father washed his hands of him, money and all. Your uncle tried to track your father many times, but he couldn't find him.”

“We moved around,” Roo muttered. In fact they moved every few months, whenever her father would get in trouble with the law. They had stayed in Limpette longer than any other place—nearly a year.

“Well, I hope he managed to keep you in school while he was moving you hither and thither.”

“Sometimes.”


Some
times?” Ms. Valentine exclaimed.

In fact, they had moved around so much that she often missed long stretches of school, much to her relief. She hated school. Not the books and learning part; her mind was quick enough. What she hated was being forced to be around other kids. At every new school she went to, the kids made fun of her dirty, worn-out clothes and her wild-looking hair. She defied them by letting herself grow more wild until she looked so frightening that no one would come near her. And that suited her just fine.

There was a small plastic table that was latched flat against the seat in front of her. Roo flicked the latch carelessly with her index finger, causing the table to slam down loudly. The man in front of her turned to frown at her, as did Ms. Valentine.

Roo swung her legs up and rested her sneakers on the table.

“Feet off,” Ms. Valentine hissed, staring with disgust at Roo's sneakers. “People eat on that table.”

It made Roo look at her feet more closely. The plastic soles of her sneakers were peeling up and the once-white tops were now gray. The bottoms of her pants were shredded from being too long and constantly stepped on. She felt Ms. Valentine's eyes on her feet too. That made her mad, so she kept her sneakers on the table.

“If you become too much trouble,” Ms. Valentine cautioned, “you'll be sent back straight to the Burrows, that's a promise. It's madness for your uncle to take you on. I told him so.”

She waited another moment for Roo to move her legs. When she didn't, Ms. Valentine snuffled loudly through her fine, narrow nose. Then she rummaged through her bag, making the thick charm bracelet on her wrist chime, until she retrieved a copy of
The New York Times
and a store-bought yogurt parfait with a plastic spoon. She settled back into her seat, snapped the paper open, and from then on she pretended Roo no longer existed.

That was fine with Roo. For the rest of the trip Roo watched the passing stretches of dreary brown hills and bare trees, their branches crosshatched against the cold gray sky. Occasionally they passed towns that looked much like Limpette, with their lopsided houses and scrappy backyards, until they vanished, giving way to long stretches of woods. It might have made most people feel both wistful and frightened. But for Roo, who understood things in terms of space, feeling wistful about the past and nervous about the future was too much like standing alone and exposed in acres of open field. It was unsafe. Instead she tucked her mind into a smaller thought:
What was it that her uncle did not want her to ask about?

Roo's father and his girlfriend, Joley, had secrets, but they kept them very poorly. They fought too loudly, and all their troubles spilled out in an ugly mess. But most adults, Roo suspected, would be more careful.

Was her uncle involved in something illegal, like her father? It seemed unlikely that a criminal would have a personal assistant. And it seemed even more unlikely that someone like Ms. Valentine would work for a criminal.

Or maybe there was something wrong with him. Maybe he had a violent temper, like Joley. At least if it was a big house, she could find places to hide.

The train turned sharply and the late afternoon sun flooded the car. Ms. Valentine shielded her face with her hat. Roo closed her eyes and slipped her hand in her jacket pocket to feel the cool smoothness of the little glass snake. It was so thin that she could have snapped it in half between her fingers.

Another possibility occurred to her then, one that struck her as by far the most interesting. Maybe her uncle was exactly like her. Maybe he simply wanted to be left alone. Roo had never understood the strange attraction people had for one another. It baffled her the way people always herded up, endlessly talking, talking. What on earth did they have to say to each other?

Roo's father liked to talk, but with him it was different. He didn't care if you spoke back. He just knew the sort of things that people liked to hear, and told it to them in his dreamy, slow way. Every so often, someone would call him charming.

“Let's see him charm the bars off his cell,” Joley had said as she stood at the top of the trailer's steps and watched the police car haul him off one night. She laughed, the little metal stud in her tongue glinting off the police car's headlights. But he was back home the following day, looking tired and with a bruise on his cheekbone but otherwise no worse for it.

No matter what sort of trouble he got into, he had always managed to slip out of it. Until a few weeks ago.

Thinking about her father made Roo's chest ache. She forced her mind to collapse down again, until it was as narrow as a squint—just wide enough to numbly watch the miles and miles of dull brown views out the window. And to wonder what sort of place Cough Rock would be.

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