Chapter One: The Badge of Infamy
Dirt everywhere. It got in my hair, it stained the faces of my sisters, it dug into my skin. Clung to my bare feet like a virus…
As I looked about my family's little one room cabin, all I could see was dirt, and it depressed me. Carmine, my brother, tugged at the sleeve of my dress. I sat in one of our two chairs, trying to think of a way out, but nothing came. Nothing ever came.
"What is it?" I growled, feeling sorry for myself. It was impossible to get any privacy in such a small house. And living with three younger siblings didn't help.
"I…when is mama coming back?"
"I told you, Carmine. She can't come back until she finishes the laundry. All of it. That's her job now."
"I miss her," he said, sniffling. The six year old raised a grubby hand it his face and wiped away at stillborn tears waiting to fall. My younger sister Cherry, barely old enough to walk, patted his elbow and grinned broadly. She was too young to know what we'd lost. I couldn't help smiling as she attempted to console my brother. A spark of optimism was what we all needed.
The moment was quickly cut off by nine year old Cerise. Sarcastic, embittered Cerise, too young to hold out hope for change, yet old enough to know of what could have been. "Someday it'll be my job. Someday it'll be Carmine's. We've not long till we'll be rid of Scarlett. She's thirteen. More than old enough to be put to work. But don't worry, dear brother. They're saving a lovely spot for you in the coal mines. Someday you'll get your lungs filthy with the blackness and die just the same as papa-"
"Hush, Cerise!" I yelled. "That's enough." I felt my nerves fraying. One more word from the troublesome girl and I was going to slap her good. I glanced out the window. Not yet sundown. It would be a few hours before mother came home. We wouldn't be able to eat until then. She had to buy supper with her wages and bring it home.
I couldn't help worrying as sun crept towards the horizon. The road home was fraught with danger. Times had changed in the last ten years. Now instead of knights and wandering minstrels, only bandits and mercenaries traveled the area. Peace had once been as abundant as our lush farmlands. My father had been a wealthy and affluent landowner, but a horrid drought ruined everything. We'd lost our land, our house, everything. Coal had become our stock in trade and my dear papa went from gently raising potatoes and carrots to shoveling out coal, hauling about coal, delivering here and there coal. I'd grown quickly to hate the lumpish black rock.
And now I sit here in the dirt, watching my siblings grow crooked and bitter.
It was coal that had fed the enterprises of war. For when the draught came, war followed. War on our peaceful neighbors to the north and east. The war brought strange, wonderful things like pineapple and coffee and chocolate but that was not all. It also brought slaves, which were more than necessary in the wake of the thousands that died in the mines, my father included.
As the stars scattered themselves across the night sky, I began to pace. Mother should be home very soon. Both my younger siblings had fallen asleep. Cerise had taken to reading one of the three books we still had left. On many nights of late my worry had driven me to leave our house and meet mama on the road, but tonight the wind was blowing from the west, and I dreaded to think what scents of death and decay might be carried towards me from the forest.
This proved unnecessary, because a loud knock sounded at the door and drove the fearful thoughts from my mind. My calloused feet scraping against the dirt floor were all that could be heard as I shuffled quietly to the door. I pressed my back against it and glanced out at my family. Carmine and Cherry were sitting up but silent, mouths wide in an open O.
"If you would please open the door, Miss Scarlet, It would please me greatly not to be obliged to knock it down," a soft voice called, managing to convey at once a mocking civility and a hint of threat in one easy breath.
"Why should I open the door? How do I know you won't hurt me anyways?" I called back, trying to sound brave but unable to keep a tremor out of my voice.
"How do you know being obliged to beating down this door won't anger me to where I might consider unpleasant notions?" the man responded.
I had no answer. I refused to allow any harm to come to my siblings, much as they irked me now. What would papa do? I asked myself.
He would be brave and open the door. Mind made up, I swung the door open swiftly, before doubt could weigh down my arms. I found on the other side an enormous man big enough to make six of me.
"Now there's a good girl," he said, running a hand through a thin mop of greasy black hair. He wore an equally disgusting shirt with only one of the buttons done up. It exposed his hairy, disgusting chest, and a great potbelly the disgusting likes of which I'd never seen.
In his hands he held the most unlikeliest things. A red riding hood and a picnic basket.