Inside, Fear bigged it up. Stomping around, pointing out the obvious. Things like, ‘you’re bleeding… a lot!’ and ‘look how weak you are! You can’t even feel your toes!’ oh and the biggest of them all ‘YOU CAN’T SWIM!’ Anger, Resentment, Injustice and even the unnamed one said nothing, they had nothing to offer. This time Finny was alone with her fear.
She stood above the brass drain cover, watching the hypnotic flow of foamy water hurtle past her feet. She could just stay here, make a bed for herself in the coat room with all the felt uniforms and sleep until morning. Sleeping felt good right now, really really good. Let Joe find her when he opened up, take whatever punishment was coming. It would be worth it just to snuggle down in amongst all that warm felt. Wouldn’t it?
A frown formed. but as well as whatever Joe would do to her there would be other bad things too. She would lose precious credibility, of course she would, she had got caught. ‘Finny the climbing girl’ would be forgotten. ‘Finny the… the…’ Her tired brain couldn’t come up with a suitable epitaph, but it would not be nice. She’d probably lose her job too, and Joe might even get her thrown out of the orphanage. Her eyes filled at that thought. She didn’t want to go back to what it was like before.
No then. Scared or not Finny was going down the drain, literally. All she had to do now was get the cover off.
She tried just squatting down and pulling on it, but she only just managed to lift it the tiniest fraction before her strength reached its limit and the grating thudded back down. Finny looked around for a lever.
She found something suitable without much difficulty. She even remembered to get a piece of wood to wedge under the drain cover once she levered it up so that she could move it.
Despite her failing strength, the shakes and the growing numbness Finny managed to lift the heavy grating and slide it away from the hole. Not taking her eyes off the rushing water and with Fear now totally losing it in her sub conscience, Finny slowly sat down on the edge of the rectangular hole facing the sewer she hoped she would be alive enough to emerge into. She uncrossed her legs and lowered her feet into the cold water.
So strong was the current that, as hard as she tried, she could not bend her knees enough for her feet to touch the bottom of the trough. It was going to be a fast ride… she hoped. Using what strength was left in her arms Finny lifted herself up and over the hole and then began to bend at the elbows, lowering more and more of herself into the water. Her butt barely touched the water before the fierce current grabbed her. She barely even had time to suck in a breath before it felt like a giant had grabbed her and yanked.
Finny’s forehead smacked into the concrete lip of the drain hole with enough force to snap her skull back and make her head spin. She didn’t even feel her elbows do the same, leaving a layer of skin on the sharp edge of the lip as her arms scraped down into the flow. Cold silence filled Finny’s ears and everything went black.
Mere seconds later the eight year old’s body was ejected feet first from the conduit with enough force that it almost hit the far wall of the four metre wide main sewer. Her head sank beneath the broiling water, the long red locks of hair trailing after.
Finny felt her feet touch bottom. She bent her legs until her bum hit her heels and then she pushed with all her might. Her lungs burning, Finny’s head broke surface. Around her the world roared. Finny couldn’t swim any better than the frantic doggy paddle she had once managed when a gang of teenage girls had relieved their boredom by throwing her into the pond. But it was all she had.
Just managing to keep her head above water for most of the time, Finny realised that everything depended on her getting out of the sewer before the strength she already felt failing left her altogether. She had to make the ladder up to the manhole outside the orphanage because she wasn’t going to be able to make it to the next one.
A vision of herself, dead amongst all the roadkill bodies and washed up by the storm in that creepy underground place outside of the city focused her mind greatly. Using the feeble glow of the orange street light that barely managed to illuminate her surroundings, but mainly her familiarity with the sewer system Finny realised that the churning, swirling vortex directly ahead must be the junction in the roads above. If she was swept onwards, past the junction, she would die. It was that simple.
Fear, was now her friend. Fear gave her reason not to die. Fear gave her the will to try to live. Most importantly, Fear gave her the adrenalin boost she needed to atually do it. The feeble doggy paddle of a half drowned little girl in a stinking sewer turned into the powerful strokes of a blightwolf forcing its way across a storm swollen river.
Finny slammed into the corner of the far wall of the street she needed to be on. Above her, a few metres away her friends were sleeping. But now the strong current was threatening to pull her away, pull her back around the corner to join the dead dogs and other rubbish of the streets. Finny screamed defiance and forced her numb fingers to haul herself along the wall towards the dimly seen ladder that led up to the street.
Inside, everyone joined in to help her. Standing on the shoulders of Fear, every emotion Finny had ever known willed her along the slimy, shit covered wall. Finally, her clawed hands touched the metal ladder and Finny wrapped her arms around it with more passion than she would likely ever show any future lover.
The woman on duty behind the desk woke up from her doze as the feeble knocking finally registered, intruding on the dream she would never remember. Her first thought was that it could be a drunk, it wouldn’t be the first time. But, the knocking was slow, and low down. It was also not the first time that an abused or injured child had made their way to the orphanage as a last resort. Nevertheless, she unlocked the drawer and took out the small pistol. With the thick chain still on to prevent the door being flung open in her face she opened the door. At first she couldn’t make out who or what was knocking on the door, and the smell! Then her eyes adjusted and the evidence before her solidified into…
Joe arrived at the factory as usual the following morning. The first thing he saw was the drain cover. Joe locked the door behind him, pulling the sawn off from under his duster he stepped cautiously into what had happened last night. When the workers started to turn up later on they found a notice on the door. ‘No work today. Come back tomorrow. J. Spivey.’
It was the following day before they would let Joe in to see Finny.
Finny saw him approaching down the empty dormitory and tried to sink under her blanket. Her side still hurt though, despite the latest clean bandage, the itchy stitches and the stinky ointment that was supposed to relieve the pain that the medical centre emergency room had provided. She grimaced. Joe came and stood at the foot of her bed, looking down at her silently. Finny couldn’t tell from his perpetual scowl just how mad he might be.
Eventually Joe sighed. He reached into his duster and brought out a paper bag. He tossed it onto her lap.
“Here, this is from Anneka.”
Finny propped herself up on her elbows. She took the bag and unrolled the top. Inside were a whole load of the same candies Silja had given her. Joe coughed and Finny looked up.
“It er,” he started. “It’s from Silja really, but, you know.”
“Tell her thanks.” Finny whispered, waiting for the shoe to fall. She knew it was coming. It had to be.
Joe just nodded.
“Oh and er, Kirsten said I have to pay you while you are sick. Stupid idea, but…” He shrugged.
Finny swallowed. Joe would not be happy about that. But, did that mean she still had a job? The orphanage had confiscated her lock picks but hadn’t made any decision about her future yet.
Finny and Joe stared at each other for long seconds. Then Joe reached into his duster again.
“Here.” Joe pulled out an enormous book and dropped it next to her. It was so big it made Finny bounce on the mattress. “It’s a dictionary. Kirsten never said anything about you not working.”
Finny groaned and made a face at the book. Was he gonna make her read a dictionary? She looked up with a scowl, about to protest. But Joe was reaching into his duster again.
It was another book, thankfully a lot smaller than the dictionary. It was bound in red leather, like a lot of the books in that room in Joe’s house had been. Joe tossed it like he had the dictionary but this one landed in her lap.
“You’ll need the dictionary for this. They tell me you are going to be in bed for at least a week. By the time you come back to the factory I want you to have read this book and to be able to tell me all about what happens.”
Finny’s scowl softened into a frown. At least it was smaller, she thought.
Joe turned to leave, but then turned back and moved round the bed to stand by her side. He reached into the endless pockets of the duster one more time.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Here.”
Finny thought Joe’s hand was empty at first but he held out his hand like he was holding something small. Finny opened her palm under his fingers. Joe’s thick fingers opened slightly and a thin chain began to coil down into Finny’s hand. Once delivered Joe turned again and walked back the way he had come, down the row of empty beds and out of the door.
Finny examined the chain. It was silver and had the same kind of aged patina as her locket. She lifted her locket from under her nightie and compared the two. It wasn’t just ‘kinda’ the same, it was exactly the same. Finny’s brows furrowed. Inside, the thing with no name smiled and grew just a little bit.
Still trying to resolve the puzzlement she was feeling Finny took up the book on her lap. She opened it and read the title on the frontispiece. It didn’t mean anything to her and made the book sound boring. With nothing better to do she sighed and started to read, her finger moving slowly along the lines of weirdly unfamiliar text.
“Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”
Finny curled her lip. This was too grown up for her. Joe must really be mad. But one word caught her eye. Finny reached for the dictionary:
plural noun: workhouses
1. Historical: a public institution in which the poor received board and lodging in return for work.
Finny read the first paragraph again. Then she looked at the chapter heading.
Intrigued despite herself, Finny turned onto her uninjured side and read a bit more. Over the next ten days, as her stitches healeed, Finny could not be sepeerated from the book. She laughed, she cried and she sat in nail-biting dread, scared to turn the page. At the end of it all Finny discovered that she had learned something new. Something a book had taught her... Hope.