hiram harris had been a dull boy. harriet had often despaired of making anything out of him.
if she could not make him adventurous, intelligent or energetic, she could at least make him dutiful and punctual. and she did.
or maybe he had just inherited these qualities from her, and all her efforts at training him had been superfluous.
in any case, by the time he had been entrusted with the nominal management of the factory, he had become even more a creature of habit and routine than his mother.
hiram departed the factory on foot at quarter to three every afternoon "leaving" it in the care of the foreman bud riley, and arriving at the family home for dinner at exactly three o'clock.
a curious time for dinner, but one that suited harriet unless she was entertaining guests, which she only did under the most severe and unavoidable exigencies.
it only spasmodically and fleetingly occurred to harriet that her lack of sociability might have a negative effect on her ambitions in the town.
the table was always cleared at five minutes to four, and hiram made his return journey, arriving back at the factory at quarter past four. he remained there until nine o'clock, an hour after the gates had been opened for the workers to depart for their homes or for the saloons.
when hiram got home at quarter past nine, he invariably went to bed, after drinking a glass of milk and eating a slice of pie and reading a page of the bible.
harriet and hermione would already be in bed at nine, sparing hiram the tedium of talking to them and saying good night to them.
poor hermione had restless dreams and often cried out in the night. no one ever responded to her cries.
harriet usually slept soundly, no matter how much annoyance she had suffered during the day.
hiram always slept soundly.
on the day in which our story commences, the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue as hiram wended his way home - the same sky whose benign influence had caused bob fisher and sam wilson to decide to abandon the office of the times-gazette and go fishing at shag creek.
the same blue sky being observed with satisfaction by doc wilson (no relation to sam) as he sat on his front porch in a rocking chair sipping a cool glass of lemonade. he had put harriet harris and her imminent demise completely out of his mind.
the same blue sky that millie porter, behind the counter at the general store, glanced at out of the corner of her eyes as she slapped together two enormous ham and cheese and tomato sandwiches for bob fisher and sam wilson to take with them to shag creek .
the same blue sky that was blotted out of bob fisher's vision as he reached deep into the ice chest at millie's for a couple of cold bottles of sheboygan ginger ale.
hiram was mildly surprised when he arrived home to find hermione seated beside harriet in the parlor. hermione usually took a nap just before dinner and had to be awakened when it was being served.
mildly surprised and mildly perturbed, as he always was by the slightest deviation in his routine.
harriet, in her usual fashion, got right to the point.
"be seated, hiram. i have an announcement to make. i have waited for your return to make it to both of you, as i do not wish to waste such time as i have left in repeating myself needlessly."
"such time as you have left? , hermione exclaimed.
harriet ignored her. "i was informed this morning by doctor wilson that i have approximately three weeks to live."
"you do not say so," hiram replied, as he settled into his chair.
hermione screamed and began to sob. "oh, that is not possible!"
"it is eminently possible. stop your caterwauling. you sound like a servant girl who has dropped a dish of mashed potatoes on the carpet."
hermione put her face in her face and stifled her sobs.
hiram cleared his throat. "i suppose doctor wilson knows his business."
"i am going to assume that he does. i am going to proceed on the assumption that he does."
hiram nodded. the thought flickered through his brain that harriet was enjoying herself - something she rarely did.
"now, both of you listen to me. i have never had much hope for either of you. it is more important than ever that you realize that you are a pair of helpless fools and that you must therefore do exactly what i tell you. do you understand?"
"i understand," hiram muttered.
"speak up! i am not sure i heard you."
"i understand," hiram repeated in a clearer voice.
"good. and what about you? "
"yes mother what?"
"i - i will do whatever you say."
"excuse me mum." the cook had appeared behind harriet.
"what is it?"
"i know you said i might have to wait, mum, but the dinner is getting cold -"
"you will serve it when i tell you to. if it is cold, heat it up. is that so difficult?"
"then get back to your post."
harriet watched as the cook retreated and waited until the kitchen door stopped swinging shut behind her.
zelda stopped hammering on the old manual typewriter. she pulled the paper out
of the roller and quickly scanned it.
florine was lying on the bed with her hands behind her head. "finished?"
"well, no, i am not finished. i've done enough for now."
"you know what i meant."
"want to look at it?"
"sure." florine sat up on the edge of the bed. zelda handed her the two pages she had just typed up.
like many of the girls, florine had dispensed with the services of a maid. and like most of the girls, she had become quite friendly with her regular guards - the persons she saw most of during the day and night.
there was no rule against the guards or maids helping the girls with their novels.
the rules specifically stated: "contestants are not prohibited from conversation with guards or maids. they may discuss the contest, and even request advice or input regarding the contest. note that staff were not retained on the basis of any presumed expertise on matters relating to the contest."
florine had found zelda willing and capable and even eager to not only "help" but practically write her novel for her.
zelda sat down beside florine as she read the pages. "like it?"
"yeah, it's good."
"it's great." florine kissed zelda on the cheek.
"you know what?" zelda asked.
"i've been watching you."
florine laughed. "hello! that's what you're here for, isn't it?"
zelda pushed florine down on the bed. florine did not resist.
"you know what i think?"
florine laughed again. "spit it out."
"i think you're a fake."
"you mean you don't think i really love you?"
"no, that's not what i mean at all."
florine blinked. "then what?"
"i don't think you're really a princess."
"i think you are here under false pretenses. you're some kind of impostor."
the mountain had turned upside down in the rain, like a branch floating in a swollen stream, and gertrude was walking through the clouds with her favorite sheep, the one which had been carried off by a wolf the previous winter.
the old woman was a rock and was waiting for her on the other side of the mountain.
the rain was not getting them wet, but they had to stay on the clouds to keep it from doing so.
suddenly the sheep turned into a gray cat and the clouds disappeared.
saint james and the archangel and a third person - a young woman in a long blue dress - appeared out of the rain. saint james pointed to gertrude and the other two laughed.
gertrude woke up. she immediately forgot the dream, as she always did. nor did she wonder "was it a dream?" she never did.
something was pressed up against her - not a sheep or a dog.
it was dark - pitch dark. she was in a hut, and could hear a very light rain beating on the roof of the hut.
she remembered she had accepted the offer of denise, the sheep-shearing girl, to spend the night in her hut. it was denise who was pressed up against her, with her left arm across gertrude's back. they were both lying on a straw pallet in the middle of the hut.
there were no windows in the hut, and only one door, which must have been shut tightly as no light was coming in from the edges of it.
gertrude gently pushed denise's arm off of herself, and sat up in the darkness.
she had never slept so close to another person, when the old woman was alive they would sometime sleep together in the hut on winter nights but with gertrude in a corner and the old woman in front of the door.
she remembered denise giving her some food on a plate and herself eating more than she had ever eaten at one time in her life before. and denise laughing at her because she ate so little.
and denise had given her a little cup of what she called wine. gertrude had heard of wine before, but had never tasted it.
she remembered denise talking. and talking and talking and talking.
and then something else had happened. she could not remember exactly what.
gertrude either remembered things or she did not.
denise had kissed her a couple of times, she remembered that much.
something strange had happened. life was strange - gertrude accepted that. but what had happened, whatever it was, was really strange.
stranger than the old woman dying. or her favorite sheep being carried off by the wolf. stranger than meeting st james, or the archangel.
suddenly the room was filled with bright light. gertrude was blinded, and threw her hands up in front of her face.
when she was able to adjust her eyes to the light and lower her hands she saw someone standing before her. for a second she thought it must be denise, but then she saw it was the young woman with the blue dress from the dream, who had laughed when st james had pointed to gertrude.
denise had not awakened. this frightened gertrude, much more than the appearance of the young woman in blue.
was she dead? gertrude reached back and touched denise's arm.
"why are you touching her?" the young woman asked her in a sharp voice - the sharpest and clearest voice gertrude had ever heard.
gertrude stared up at her. "i wanted to see if she was alive."
"she is alive. do not worry about her. pay attention to me."
"who are you?"
"you do not know who i am?"
the young woman laughed. "so what they told me was true. but you do know, do you not, that you are wicked?"
"no, i do not. i do not know what that means."
"it means that you are damned."
gertrude did not know what that meant either. she looked back at denise again. how could she not wake up?
"i told you to look at me, not her."
dorine put her pencil down. she was well ahead of schedule, so she felt no pressure to keep on. but she did not feel like continuing.
it was late. she knew she was not going to get to sleep.
she got up and went to the window and looked out into the darkness.
"anything out there?" marisa, lying on the bed, asked. dorine could never tell if marisa was trying to be humorous.
"no," dorine answered seriously. "i just wish i had asked to go out when i had the chance today."
marisa had become her regular night guard. she and dorine did not have a lot to say to each other. she was one of the youngest guards and claimed she had never been away from the village. and did not show any great interest in the world beyond it. but she was cheerful enough, and dorine usually let her make herself comfortable in the room instead of having to sit outside in the corridor.
"i don't see why we can't be let out for walks when it is dark," dorine said. "how is it that different from the daylight? where are we going to go?"
"i told you before, sugar plum, take it up with prue. i can't help you."
"i already did."
"she wasn't very receptive."
marisa laughed. "i can just picture one of you getting lost or running off and the whole staff running around in the dark trying to find you. prue would love that."
"i wonder if miss prue could even make the decision herself to change the rule."
"i don't know. i can't help you there either." marisa sat up on the bed. "you want to sleep?"
"no, not for a while."
"you want the bed?"
"no thanks. i'll let you know if i do." dorine continued to look out the window.
dorine liked marisa but was frustrated by her imperturbability. she wanted to draw her out, try to get a hint - just the barest, tiniest hint - that she might be receptive to helping her, not necessarily to escape, but to bend the rules in little ways that might lead to something that might lead to something…
almost three weeks had gone by. three weeks! dorine felt that she was getting nowhere, either with the staff or the other girls.