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Rust & Stardust Excerpt

Camden, New Jersey

June 1948


The girls at school had a club, a secret club with secret rules. Beyond the playground under the trees’ dark leaves, they pressed their fathers’ stolen blades against their plump thumbs, watched the blood bead before pressing their flesh together and swearing loyalty. Sally Horner spied them from the swings where she dragged her shoes in the dirt, her fingers pinched by the chains. She studied them as they stood in a circle, sucking the metallic blood, tongues working over those important wounds. She strained to hear their whispered oath, this sisterhood spell. Mesmerized.

At lunch later, she peered at them from the table in the cafeteria where she normally sat alone, nibbling at her butter sandwich or peeling back the golden skin of her butterscotch pudding. But her need to understand what sort of coven had been formed underneath those red oaks was irresistible, though it took her nearly ten minutes to pick up her lunch tray, go to their table, and speak to them.

“Mind if I sit here?” she said softly to the one whose hair reminded her of the white fluff inside of a milkweed pod, Irene, who looked up at her and then turned back to her friend.

“I saw you at recess,” Sally tried again, smiling.

“You didn’t see nothin’,” the one with the red hair said. Bess was her name.

“I did. Over by the trees. It looked like—”

“What are you, some sort of spy?” Irene hissed. Her eyes were icy blue.

Sally shook her head, and cast her gaze down at her shoes. This was a mistake.

“It’s a club,” the third one chimed in. Sally looked up, and the girl was smiling at her. She had black hair and dark blue eyes, a widow’s peak. She reminded Sally of Elizabeth Taylor. “A secret sisterhood. We took an oath.”

Sally thought of her own sister, Susan, living all the way in Florence ever since she and Al got married. Sometimes at night Sally would wake up, expecting to see her in the other bed, only to remember that she didn’t live there anymore. It made her heart feel hollow, like an empty tin can.

“You can sit here,” the dark-haired girl offered, gesturing to an empty seat.

Nervous, Sally sat down, and Irene huffed, reluctantly scooting her chair over to make room, metal feet scraping against the linoleum.

“I’m Vivi,” the brunette said, and reached out to shake Sally’s hand. “You’re in our grade, right?”

“She’s been in our grade forever,” Bess said, rolling her eyes. “She’s the one whose daddy got drunk over at Daly’s and then—”

“Would you like to join our club?” Vivi interrupted.

“Really?” Sally said.

“Vivi,” Irene scolded, but Vivi scowled.

“I mean, that would be keen,” Sally said, trying not to seem too eager. “If you’re accepting new members.”

Irene sucked the last of her milk through her straw and stood up, hands on hips, elbows sharp as blades. “Well, she’d have to be initiated. Not just anybody can join.”

“What do I gotta do?” Sally asked.

“You need to steal somethin’,” Bess said.

“From the Woolworth’s.” Irene seemed to improvise. “After school.”

“Oh,” Sally said, suddenly thinking this wasn’t such a good idea. What if she got caught? Once, when she’d accidentally walked out of the market holding an apple she forgot to pay for, her mother marched her back in with a nickel and an order to confess her crime and made her do the dishes every night for a week to earn that nickel back.

Vivi looked at her apologetically.

Bess snapped, “You want to be in the club, this is whatcha gotta do. Otherwise, you can just forget about it, and stop followin’ us around.”

Sally felt her skin flush hot. She knew she wasn’t like these other girls, the ones with glossy hair and perfect smiles. Sally wore homemade dresses and hand-me-down shoes, while these girls got their clothes from the J.C. Penney. The shiny copper pennies they put in their loafers caught the sun. They were the keepers of light, Sally thought. Shining and bright.

These were the girls who lived inside the pretty houses near the school, with picket fences and lacy curtains. She could practically smell their pot roasts, their buttery potatoes, hear Doris Day’s sweet clear voice on the radio through the open windows. Sally imagined their aproned mothers and gentle, soft-spoken fathers inside. Sally, on the other hand, lived alone with her mother in a run-down row house on Linden Street, both her real daddy and her stepfather, Russell, long gone. She knew the stories people told about her stepfather, heard the whispered speculations. (They heard he did it with a rope, in the closet. With a shotgun, in the basement. Someone, somewhere said no, he just got drunk as always and wandered from Daly’s Café onto the train tracks one night—this one the tender, awful truth.)

She knew they whispered behind her back, mocked her. But Sally still ached to belong, and studied those girls with the same wonder and love with which she studied the laws of the universe. She thought them the sun, and herself simply a small and quiet planet in orbit around them. And she forgave them their meanness. It was no different than forgiving the sun its heat, the moon its tidal pull. This was simply the nature of girls. She knew they couldn’t help themselves, and oddly, it made her love them all the more.

School would be out for the summer in just a couple of days. Perhaps, if she was in their club, she wouldn’t have to spend her whole summer alone, the long hot days ahead something to look forward to rather than dread.

“Okay,” she said, nodding and then thrusting her chin up confidently, surprised by her sudden gumption. “I’ll do it. And then I can be in the club?”

“Sure,” Irene said, shrugging, but she wasn’t looking at her. “Meet us after school.”

* * *

Usually, the last bell of the school day was a reason for celebration. But now, as she descended the school’s front steps to the sidewalk, Sally felt dread in her stomach like a peach pit swallowed whole.

Those girls who never noticed her teemed about her now. There were six or seven of them suddenly, their faces bright with anticipation, with something like friendliness. As they smiled and chattered like happy birds gathering around a wriggling worm, she felt the pit begin to soften.

On any other day, she would have walked to the library or all the way home, alone, satchel swinging at her side, shoes pinching her toes, thighs rubbing together uncomfortably beneath her skirt. But today, she was not alone, not lonely. Instead, she was swept up in the cheery and excited swell of these girls, which carried her down North 7th Street toward Federal. They were like bees, she thought, buzzing and fairly harmless alone, but thrumming and dangerous as a group. She was caught up in the magic of this swarm as they made their way to the Woolworth’s.

At the corner of Broadway and Federal, the girls dispersed. Some went into the five-and-dime and sidled up to the counter to order cherry Cokes or root beer floats. Others lingered outside on the sidewalk, kicking at loose pieces of pavement before ducking around the corner to light cigarettes stolen from their mothers’ packs. Sally wished she could stay with them, waiting for some other girl to be initiated.

“Go on,” Irene, said, giving her shoulder a sharp little shove through the front door.

Inside, the fans chilled her. She swallowed hard and walked slowly beyond the lunch counter, empty save for Vivi and Bess and, at the end nearest the door, a hawklike man hunched over a bowl of split-pea soup. Irene joined them, and Vivi glanced up at Sally and winked. It made her skin burn hot again, but also gave her courage.

Past the lunch counter, she noticed the garden display and thought of her stepfather and the way he used to care for the postage stamp–sized garden in front of their row house. How he’d teased tulips from the soil, azaleas, and even once a single large zucchini. Her fingers skipped across the seed packets: radishes, sweet corn, sugar peas. One of those envelopes would be easy, wouldn’t it? Though maybe too easy to count? She felt as if she’d been invited to play a game, but that nobody was telling her the rules. Metal watering cans, rubber boots, and garden gloves. She walked down row after row of toys (BB guns and Matchbox cars and a Madame Alexander doll dressed up like Jo from Little Women). Her hand reached out and touched the doll, wishing for a moment it were her own. But she quickly withdrew her fingers, ashamed. What was she thinking about dolls for? She was eleven years old now.

She found baby clothes and baby bottles, cloth diapers and bibs. Her sister, Susan, was having a baby soon. Sally could hardly wait to meet her little niece or nephew. She wondered if she might find something here for the baby, some trinket or stuffed toy. But thinking of her sister made her think of her mother, and the peach pit returned. Her mother with her sorrow and her pain. Usually, Sally had made it her job to not cause her any grief. She tried not to think about how all of this would hurt her mama.

Shaking the thought out of her head, she walked quickly toward the stationery aisle and studied the pens and pencils. Again, probably too easy. But then, as she ran her hands over the fat pink erasers, she got an idea. At the five-cent display was a stack of black marble composition notebooks. Something she could use later. She liked to write stories, or maybe the club would need a secretary to take minutes at their meetings. She had beautiful handwriting. Everyone said so.

She quickly peered around. The man at the end of the lunch counter was pushing a dollar bill across with his check, tipping his hat to the waitress. The girls were still giggling and swinging their legs. Vivi smiled at Sally again and nodded.

Sally glanced back at the display of notebooks, picked one up, and touched the smooth surface with her thumb. She thought about blades, about the girls inviting her into their sisterhood. How they would let her press her thumb against theirs, their blood mingling, bonding them to each other. Blood sisters. She shivered at the thought of the slice that would splice them together forever.

Before she could give it another thought, she slipped the notebook inside her cardigan sweater and, crossing her arms, hurried toward the front of the store. There. She had done it. She felt giddy, light. She could hardly wait to get outside the store and show the girls. She headed toward the lunch counter where Vivi and the others were finishing their Cokes; they looked up at her as she neared. But just as she began to make her way to the front door, the man who had been eating the bowl of soup stood up and stepped in front of her.

“Slow down there, sweetheart,” he said. She kept her head lowered and nodded. But as she tried to pass, he reached out and grabbed her by the arm. When she looked up, he was staring at her, a serious expression on his face. His eyes were nearly colorless, the blue of the thin milk her mother made from a powdered mix. He was wearing a faded fedora, which partially obscured his long, thin face.

“I’m sorry, miss, but you’re going to need to come with me.”

“What?” she asked.

“I saw what you just did.”

“I’m sorry … I didn’t mean…,” she stuttered, pulling the composition book out from her sweater, pushing it toward him. “I was gonna pay, I didn’t plan … I just forgot…”

“Oh, I see,” he said, grabbing the notebook from her. “You didn’t plan on stealing it, eh? You also probably didn’t plan on running into somebody from the FBI, either. You know what that is, miss?”

Copyright © 2018 by T. Greenwood

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