Wendy shuddered and pulled the blankets closer to her.
"Cold honey?" her mother asked her.
She nodded vaguely and her mother put both of her arms over her. Wendy snuggled deeper into them. Lips touched her forehead gently.
"Try to get some sleep," she said, "Factory bell's at ten."
Her mother shivered and Wendy looked over at the pot-bellied stove. The thought that she should do something floated across her mind, perhaps make the heat spread around the room a little. Biting her lip she attempted to shake it away. She wanted to stay under the covers for as long as possible.
It wasn't like there was much she could do even if she did get out of their cot. The apartment had been freezing in the winter for as long as they had lived there, which was as long as she could remember. Perhaps it had even been that was for as long as it had been blistering in the summer.
Her mother had always said that the tenement was poorly insulated. It was also near the river, something that her mother predicted would kill them all of the influenza while the landlord took their very flesh and blood. As usual, her mother had been right. Wendy closed her eyes against the memory of the small coffins being lowered into the earth.
Finally terrified out of bed by her fancies she got up.
"Wendy?" her mother asked, "What are you doing?"
"Just to see if I can stir up the coals a bit," she replied.
Without another word she walked over the rotting floorboards to the stove. Opening up the grate she peered blearily inside. Only a few coals were glowing a vague red. It was apparent that what little scraps of heat they were giving were lost in the workings of the stove.
"Might as well give it up," her mother said with a wry smile.
Briefly Wendy's eyes turned to the coal scuttle. She knew perfectly well that there was nothing in there. Still, it was an instinctive gesture that harkened back to the days when it had always been at least partially full. Wendy saw her mother looking in the same direction as her daughter with sadness. Shame-faced she turned away from it and grabbed the fire poker. She jabbed the coals in the fire without any real hope.
Tiring after a few minutes of her futile actions she sighed. Keeping the grate open she put the poker back up against the wall. Maybe they could have a little heat flow directly into the room that way. Once it was secure she started rubbing her blue tinged hands together to smuggle up some sort of warmth. It wasn't working. They were too numb from the cold.
She looked helplessly at them. They were slightly scared from when she had just started at the textile factory. At that point she hadn't quite figured out how to work the sewing machines. A piece of cloth had gotten caught in the inner workings and she'd torn her hand trying to get it out. Over all this was a smudgy layer of dirt, just like the rest of her. Baths weren't common and her chestnut hair was kept in its braided style by dint of the dirt and grease.
More shivers racked her body as she travelled back to the bed. As soon as she reached her destination she curled up into herself. Her mother held onto her in an attempt to help. The blankets were nearly worn through and she was far too thin to warm herself without some sort of aid. Wendy closed her hazel eyes and tried not to think about her frozen hands and feet.
A door slammed and she felt her mother stiffen. Perhaps father was back from work. If it was, then he was back home on a Friday night. Friday was pay day at the factory he worked at. Once upon a time she had waited for him to come home along with her mother. Her parents would promptly look over the money; decide what had to go to bills, to food, and so on. It hadn't been particularly fun to watch but it was the closest thing to security Wendy ever saw.
The numbers hadn't really meant much to her, just something that her mother and father counted out each week. They were neither good or bad, they just happened. When Wendy turned eight the money her father brought home started to shrink. That was when she knew that they had become bad numbers from the frown lines that formed on her mother's face.
Each week less and less came into the house on Friday. Her father started to come back later hours as well, stumbling through the door and smelling odd. Food became rarer and she started waiting with her mother at the soup kitchens. It had seemed odd to her, but it was only the prelude.
It was only a month later when her mother begged him to stop going to the pubs with his pay that all hell broke loose. He'd yelled at her that he'd do what he liked and she'd begged him to think of the children. That was the first time he had hit her, leaving a purple mark on her mother's otherwise white skin.
Everything had changed that night. Soon after it had been Wendy's turn to meet his fist. After that things stopped being good enough for him. Every time he came back the house never clean enough, the food not tasty enough, nothing was right. When Wendy and her mother had been forced into the factories for money, any money, they had never earned enough for him. It had been this way for nearly seven years now, and Wendy had long since given up hope that it was going to end soon.
Upon hearing his footsteps approach she quickly reached for the covers. Covering her head with the blanket she shut her eyes tightly. Perhaps if he thought she was asleep he might not consider her a possible target, or he might forget about them and maybe he would just leave them alone.
The door opened and Wendy instinctively pulled herself into a defensive ball. Her father's footsteps fell heavy and ponderous into the room. For a moment there was silence and she didn't allow herself to breathe. Then she felt a heavy hand fall on her shoulder. She was jerked out of her bed and forced to face him.
"Why's it so damn cold in here?" he snarled, his voice slurring slightly.
"I…I…I…" she stammered.
"I asked you a question dammit!"
She cringed reflexively. In response he snarled again and hit her hard across the face. His fingernails scraped against her eyelids and she stumbled backwards.
"Charles!" her mother protested, getting out of bed.
He turned to her angrily.
"Stay the fuck out of this Margaret!" he snapped.
"She's got work tomorrow," her mother tried, "If she comes in and hurts herself because she's tired than she'll get fired-"
"She might as well!" he snorted, "If this is how she 'works' at home than I can't even imagine what it's like at the factory. She can't even get a damned fire going! Just what are you teaching her?"
Her father turned away from her mother and back to her.
"Why can't you do anything right?" he demanded angrily, "Just like your goddamn mother. Useless, the pair of you."
He kicked her in the knee, a gesture which brought tears to her eyes and sent her to the floor. She covered her face with her hand in what she knew was a pitiful defense. More blows rained down on her. Wendy curled in to herself further and further until she could no longer see her father.
"That's enough Charles," her mother pleaded.
The blows stopped and she ventured a look. Her mother had put her hand on her father's shoulder. He was staring at the hand. Then he shook it off furiously. With one swift movement he had shoved her into the opposite wall. She hit it hard, biting her lip to muffle a cry. Wendy watched as she slid down it.
Her father started pacing now, not looking at either of them..
"…good for nothing goddamned whore," he muttered, "…two dead…all I got was that fucking jade of a daughter…not even a boy…should have a boy…deserve it..."
He turned to her now, looking at her speculatively. She shrank backwards until she was touching the wall next to the potbellied stove.
"And here she is," he continued, not talking to anyone that she could see, "Fucking lazy thing eating twice her share. Not even worth the damned space she takes up."
Wendy felt fear creep into her. This wasn't his usual Friday night tirade. It was more specific and something that felt infinitely more dangerous. She wanted to shrink back somewhere but she was already up against the wall. Suddenly he turned away from her, and towards her mother.
"And here's the one that made her. Her fault…yes…yes of course it's her fault…It would be for the good," he argued, again with an invisible specter, "…of course it would. It stands to sense. Decrease the surplus. Yes…yes…yes it would."
Wide-eyed she saw him pick up the fire poker, still hot from earlier, from its place against the wall. Her limbs froze in place as she watched him approach her mother.
"Now hold still."
Her mother gave a small shriek as the poker came down near her, missing her only by inches.
"What's going on in that fucking head of yours?" demanded her father, "Do you want to wake the whole damn tenement?"
"Please…" she begged, her eyes never leaving the fire poker, "Please-"
"Don't you argue with me!" he shouted, "Now stay still!"
Ducking she hastily scrambled to her feet.
"Charles, calm down," her mother said.
"Don't tell me what to do!" he roared.
He turned around and swiped at her in a large arc. It clipped the top of her head and she sank to her feet, blood trickling into her eye and a welt forming on her forehead.
"Stay still!" he ordered again.
Almost in slow motion Wendy saw him raise the poker over his head. Barely thinking Wendy used what little strength she had to push the stove forward so that the hot coals spilled out onto his legs. He howled in pain and turned on her. The poker came down sharply on her arm and she screamed from the sharp burning sensation.
She jerked away from him, clutching her arm. He took a step towards her, wincing from the pain in his legs.
"I'm gonna kill you you stupid bitch," he snarled, flames in his eyes.
"Wendy," her mother called frantically, "Get out of here! He'll kill you!"
Wendy's eyes darted towards her mother hopelessly. Where would she go? Before she could ask the poker came down again, this time on her shoulder, knocking her to the floor.
"Wendy!" her mother screamed.
"Shut up!" her father roared, grabbing her by her braid and hoisting her up.
Desperately Wendy lashed out and kicked him in his burnt leg. He hissed in pain and released her.
"Run!" her mother screamed again.
Scared Wendy yanked open the door and ran out into the hall between the tenements. When she reached the end of the hallway she opened the door that led out into the street. As soon as it was open the chill of the snow and ice bit into her. For a minute she stopped, uncertain of what to do. Where would she go? Should she just hide, or should she really leave the tenement?
Her father's footsteps made the decision for her. She ran out, her bare feet slipping up against the ice. Once she had gotten off of the ice the hard pavement dug into her feet, cutting them and bringing tears to her eyes. Still, she ran, uncertain as to where she was going, uncertain as to what she was even doing. The only thing that she was certain of was the fact that she had to get away from what was behind her.
"Get back here!" her father shouted.
A few lights went on in the tenements surrounding them but Wendy ignored him. She just had to keep running. Her mother had told her to keep running and that was what she intended to do. Even if she had to run her whole life it was what she was going to do.
Her hair came unbraided as she ran through the familiar streets, made sinister by the dark. Never before had she been afraid of the night, of the things it could hold. Now she was terrified as her feet pounded through the streets, her feet sticking occasionally to the ice and coming up torn.
Apparently her body had other ideas. Already she was gasping for breath and her legs were aching. Every single fiber of her being screamed for her collapse but her father was still behind her and she was so very scared and lost. She had never been strong and the lack of food combined with the present exertion was making her dizzy.
It made sense to stop, to fall down on the cold street with the ice and the snow. However, Wendy wasn't going to stop. Not for anything. If she did, then he would be sure to catch her. That was the last thing she wanted to happen. She'd seen the expression in his eyes after she shoved the stove towards them. Her mother was right when she'd shouted for her to get out. Him catching her was as good as a death warrant.
Her foot struck an out-of-line cobblestone and she fell forward. Tears of exhaustion and fear ran down her cheeks she looked up. In front of her she saw a bridge stretching out. Wendy remembered, it remembered that it led to a church on the other side. Yes, surely she could go there. The priests were up at all hours of the night. If nothing else she could at least claim sanctuary from her father. He couldn't possibly be so insane as to murder her in a church.
Struggling to get up she used the sides of the bridge as a support. Her legs wobbled under her as she made painful progress across. The back of her throat felt like it was bleeding and her breath came in gasps. From behind her she could still hear her father which only increased her panic.
Please God, she thought desperately, please don't let me die tonight. I'm not even fifteen, please please please…
A rough hand grasped her shoulder and whirled her around.
"Where the fuck do you think you're going?" he demanded.
He grabbed her shoulders now, glaring at her. Growling he leaned in.
"Well?" he demanded.
For a moment she got a close up of his eyes, the expression still there. She felt her fear triple and her heart pounded furiously against her chest. When she didn't answer he shook her, her head banging up against the side of the stone bridge. Wendy's vision was becoming blurred and she looked up at him.
Feebly but frantically she tried to get him to loosen his grip. He snarled at her before grabbing on tightly to her forearm and starting to drag her back to the house. She strained against his pull and he turned around again.
"You've already woken up half the damned neighborhood," he snapped, "What the hell else do you want!? Now get up!"
She kicked him in his injured legs and once more his grasp weakened. As soon as she got loose though, he shoved her backwards. She stumbled painfully from her loss of footing. Looking up she saw him grin in malicious delight. He shoved her again, harder now. However, this time she lost her balance completely and fell backwards over the railing of the bridge.
Wendy barely had time to realize what had happened before she broke through the semi-thick layer of ice and plunged into the frigid water. All thoughts were shoved out of her brain as the water closed over her head. She kicked and flailed wildly to get to the surface, but her exhausted limbs would not obey her commands.
Bubbles came from her lips and ascended to the surface even as she fell deeper. Water flooded into her nose and eyes, forcing its way between her lips. Still she kept her eyes wide open, watching as scraps of light came from above and danced slowly. Even as she watched the last of the air was forced out of her throat. An aching, burning pain started in her chest and for a moment all she felt was her own impending light.
I don't want to die! She sobbed wordlessly.
Unfeelingly the water continued to drag her deeper and deeper down. Soon the scraps of light were simply dots swimming above her, like fireflies on a summer evening. Wendy attempted to blink but the water pressure would no longer let her. Now the lights were specks, nearly obscured by strands of her hair that floated into the water.
Suddenly all of the small lights became two large, bright orbs. They glittered above her, illuminating faces all around her, framed by ribbons of hair every color of the rainbow.
"Welcome," they said kindly, smiling at her.
Wendy stared at them, uncomprehending. They reached out and gently took hold her arms and started to pull her upward. As they did so the water became warmer and the pain in her chest and throat went away. One of them turned around and smiled at her again, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of a silvery fish tail. After that, her world exploded into light.