Maelle Gallagher sat straight up, careful not to bump Mattie, who slept sideways in the bed, his head near her hip. An odd yellow glow lit the tenement's bar-covered window, making shadows dance on the far wall. Maelle frowned. Light came from sunshine, but Ma and Da in their bed across the room meant it must still be nighttime. She rubbed her eyes, then looked again at the glowing window.
She smelled something that reminded her of the fireplace back at their cottage in Ireland. The smell made her throat tighten and her stomach feel full. She tugged at the buttoned collar of her nightshirt, covering her mouth and nose. Her heart pounded in fear, although she wasn't sure why she was frightened.
She scratched her short-cropped hair—oh, how she missed the long curls Da used to tug when teasing her—and slipped from the bed. Tiptoeing, she crossed the room and peeked out the window. The light was brighter there, making her squint. Sounds she hadn't heard in the city before—like dry grass crunching under someone's feet and the far-off roar of a river—came through the open window, increasing her confusion. The fireplace smell was stronger by the window, and she coughed.
"Who is it?"
She sucked in her breath, realizing she'd roused her father. She whispered, "Me, Da."
"My ... elle." Her name split with his yawn. "Lass, what're ya doin' up in the middle o' the night?"
The gently scolding tone made Maelle shrug her shoulders and look down in shame. Suddenly he leapt from the bed and let loose a string of language of which Ma did not approve. Da only cursed when angry. Maelle shrank against the window frame.
"Lass, wake yer brother!"
Maelle stared stupidly at her father as he raced to the bureau, yanked open the top drawer, and withdrew a cloth bag. She watched him throw several items into the bag and then spin toward her. "D' ya hear me, Maelle?" He shoved the bag into her arms. "Wake yer brother 'n get out!"
Maelle's fuzzy brain could not comprehend the strange order. Get out? Why would Da pack her a bag and send her away? And why make Mattie leave? Mattie still slept like the good boy he was. He had done no wrong. She remained rooted in place with the bag in her arms, shivering although the night was unusually hot.
"I'm tellin' ya, lass. Get out!"
Da's hollering woke baby Molly, and she wailed from her basket on the floor. Ma sat up then, as did Mattie. Still Maelle stood by the window, watching, listening, her breath coming hard and fast as fear made a foul taste in her mouth. Screams pierced the night, adding to the crackling and roaring that seemed to grow louder by the minute.
Rubbing her eyes, Ma said, "Angus, what—?"
Da snatched up the wailing Molly. "A fire, Brigid!"
"Fire?" Ma leaned into the corner, pulling the sheet to her chin. Her eyes looked wild. She began to moan. "Oh, saints in heaven, save us!"
Da stood for a moment, staring at Ma. Then he shook his head and whirled toward the bed Mattie and Maelle shared. Holding Molly against his shoulder, he grabbed Mattie by the arm and jerked the boy from the bed. Mattie cried out as Da shoved him in Maelle's direction. Mattie fell against her, nearly knocking her down. Maelle caught him, holding him up, though her limbs quivered. Da had never been so rough.
"Out! Out!" Da yelled in Maelle's face, and finally Maelle found the ability to obey. Clutching the bag Da had given her, she took hold of Mattie's hand and stumbled behind Da to the hallway. Molly's high-pitched screams carried over all other sounds, the baby's red face furious as it bounced on Da's shoulder.
Smoke hung heavy in the hallway, stinging Maelle's eyes. People milled in a jumbled stream toward the stairway that led to the lower floors, their feet pounding, voices calling out to hurry, hurry. At the top of the stairs, Da shoved Molly into Maelle's arms and then stepped away from her. "Follow the others, lass, 'n get yerself 'n the wee ones outside. I'll get yer mither 'n some more o' our things, 'n then I'll follow. Take care o' the wee ones. Don' let them out o' yer sight. D' ya hear me, lass?"
"I hear ya, Da," Maelle gasped. Then Da touched her hair— her short hair—and gave a little pat. A gentle pat. The kind Maelle expected. His smile flashed, and he turned and disappeared into the smoke.
Gagging against the horrid smell that cut off her breath, Maelle struggled to keep hold of Molly. The baby bucked and cried in her arms as they made their way down the stairs. "Hold tight t' me, Mattie!" She felt his hand grasp a fistful of fabric at her back. Others, all set on escape, pushed past them, and Maelle feared they would be separated. But Mattie's hand held tight to her nightshirt, and finally they burst through the outside doors and sucked in great gulps of night air.
Clanging bells and horse hooves on cobblestone sounded above the voices of frightened tenants. Men in blue uniforms with sticks in their hands pushed in front of the building, forcing people away from the entrance. "Get back! Get back now! The fire wagons are comin'! Make way!"
Maelle led her brother across the street, where they could watch the doors for Da and Ma. She sat cross-legged, the sack at her feet and Molly in her lap. Mattie stood beside her, his hand clamped on her left shoulder. Mattie and Molly both cried, but Maelle didn't cry. Blinking to clear her vision, she squinted across the street. She didn't want to miss seeing her parents come through those doors.
She would show Da she'd done just as he'd asked—she'd looked out for the wee ones. Remembering his hand on her hair, she smiled. He'd be so proud of her.
* * *
"Maelle? Maelle ..."
Something shook her arm, and she grunted in displeasure, unwilling to surrender her sleep. She jerked away from the intrusion, pushing a bulky weight from her lap. A baby's cry brought her fully awake. Opening her eyes, she saw little Molly sprawled across the sidewalk and Mattie leaning over the baby.
"Maelle, ya should be shamed. Ya threw poor Molly onto the ground."
Her brother's tone reminded her of Da's. She scooped up Molly and patted her. "Sorry I am, wee one. I meant no harm to ya." She continued rocking Molly, who sucked her fist and complained. Looking around, she realized they were on the sidewalk across from their apartment building. Confusion dizzied her mind.
She pressed her memory—the last thing she remembered was watching streams of water from the fire wagon shoot over the building and hoping Ma and Da wouldn't get a soaking. Although she'd meant to stay awake until her parents came out, tiredness must have overtaken her. The noisy milling crowd from last night had cleared, although people still stood in small clusters outside of their building, and some stretched on the sidewalk near where she and Mattie sat.
"Do ya see Da or Ma, Mattie?"
Mattie shielded his eyes with a dirty hand, peering across the street. Then he shrugged and squatted beside her, putting his hand on Molly's tangled curls. "Maybe they went to work?"
Worry made her tummy tremble. If Da and Ma had already left for their jobs at the manufactory, they wouldn't be home until late. Maelle was accustomed to caring for Mattie and Molly in her parents' absence, but she was always instructed to stay in the flat. Da would not be pleased if they spent the day outside.
She struggled to her feet, her movements awkward due to Molly's uncooperative bulk. "Pick up the bag, Mattie, an' come with me."
"Where're we goin'?"
"To the flat. We canna be outside in our nightclothes." Maelle looked both ways, then dashed across the street, wincing when her bare feet encountered rocks. Mattie followed her as she made her way to the concrete steps leading to the doors of their apartment house. But before she had taken two steps upward, a stern voice froze her in place.
"You there, boys! Where do you think you're going?"
Maelle turned and spotted a scowling man in a blue uniform, pointing a stick at her. Confused by the term "boys," she raised her eyebrows high in query. "Is it us ya're speakin' ta, sir?"
"Yes, you." He clomped closer and propped his elbow on the iron baluster. "Where are you goin'?"
Maelle wanted to shrink into her grubby nightshirt. Mattie scuttled behind her, obviously frightened by the man. "To me flat, sir, as me da would expect."
The man shook his head. "You can't go into that building, young man."
Young man? Maelle scowled, then realized he must think her a boy with her short hair and Da's old shirt. Shame engulfed her again as she recalled being shorn at the Ellis Island station due to the nits that had taken hold of her head during their journey. Da had soothed her with the promise her hair would grow back in time. She wished it would hurry. To the man, she said, "Why can I na go in?"
"It ain't safe. There was a fire last night."
Maelle looked at the building. Although the smell from last night remained strong, she could no longer see the yellow glow. "Is the fire na gone, then?"
The man looked at her as if she'd gone daft. "Well, sure it's gone, but it burned out several floors. If you go in, you could be hurt." He plucked Mattie from the stairs, placing him on the sidewalk, then reached for Maelle. "You come down from there, now."
Maelle scrabbled down the two steps to stand beside the cowering Mattie. Her heart pounded, too, but fear of disappointing Da was greater than fear of this stranger. She peered up at him and argued, "But I have to go in. Me baby sister needs a nappy change."
"Well, you won't find no nappies in there. They'll be all burned up."
Maelle's gaze jerked to the building. An image of their cottage's fireplace appeared in her mind, the flames licking at the peat Da layered in. When the flames died out, nothing of the peat remained except char. The fire last night was bigger than a fire in a fireplace. Everything in their flat must be char now, too.
She shivered and sat on the step, cradling Molly in her lap. Mattie perched beside her, hugging the bag Da had packed. He leaned against her arm, and she took comfort from his presence. She thought the man would leave now that they weren't trying to get inside the building, but instead he squatted in front of her.
"Do you have folks?"
Maelle nodded. "Yes, sir. Me da is Angus, and me ma is Brigid. Angus an' Brigid Gallagher."
"Where do your folks work, son?" He'd sounded gruff before, but his tone was now kind.
Although still bothered by the "son," Maelle answered with pride. "Da an' Ma make lanterns at the manufact'ry."
"The Geist manufactory?"
Maelle nodded. "Da says it's not like havin' 'is own shoein' shop, like in County Meath, but it is good honest work."
"I'm sure your da is right." The man pushed to his feet. "But we can't leave you sittin' here on this stoop all day. Your baby sister there needs attention. Let's go to the manufactory and see if your ma or da can be with you."
Maelle considered the man's suggestion. Would it upset Da to be pulled away from work? He was lucky to have the job, he'd said, and he must never be late or he might lose it. "I'm not knowin' if we should ..."
"But you haven't had your breakfast, have you?" The man's question caused Maelle's stomach to clench as she recognized her hunger.
Breakfast—and seeing Ma and Da—sounded good, but still Maelle hesitated.
The man leaned forward, propping his hands on his knees. "Listen, son, I'm a police officer. My name is Officer Jorgens. My job is to help children, and you and your brother and sister need help right now."
Maelle couldn't argue with that.
"It'll be all right." Officer Jorgens straightened and held out his arms. "Here. Let me carry your sister, an' we'll go find your folks."
She'd been warned by Da to never let anyone take belongings from her. The city was full of thieves, he'd said, and one must always be careful. She would never allow a stranger to take Molly. She tightened her hold on her sister. To Mattie she said, "Carry our bag."
The walk to the manufactory was only four blocks, but on bare feet and with little sleep, it seemed much longer. They reached the metal doors, and Officer Jorgens stopped.
"I'll go in and ask about Angus Gallagher." His expression turned stern. "You wait right here for me."
Maelle nodded to indicate she would follow his order. She bounced Molly, who complained softly, while Mattie rocked from foot to foot. After a few minutes, the doors opened again, and Officer Jorgens came out followed by a man who wore dirty pants and a sweat-stained shirt. His face was all shiny from sweat—the way Da looked when he came home at night—but it wasn't Da.
The man looked from Maelle to Mattie, then shook his head at the police officer. Without a word, he headed back inside, closing the doors behind him. Officer Jorgens stared at the closed door for a few moments, and Maelle saw his shoulders rise and fall with a big breath. Finally he turned around, and the look in his eyes made her heartbeat quicken.
But then he smiled. "Well, let's go get you some breakfast."
The suggestion of food should have made her hunger increase. But it didn't. A funny weight filled her belly—the same feeling she'd had last night when she'd awakened and thought the sun was shining through the window.
This time she knew what the feeling meant. Something was wrong.
My Heart Remembers by Kim Vogel Sawyer
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764202629
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.