|Publisher:||Whitman, Albert & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
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The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan
By Patricia Bailey
Albert Whitman & CompanyCopyright © 2017 Patricia Bailey
All rights reserved.
I killed my mother. Twice, if I am to be completely honest — though she only died the one time. And since honesty was one of the things I promised her as she lay on her deathbed, I reckon honest I must be.
I made a lot of promises.
I promised I would study diligently so as not to grow "dull and stupid in this savage place." I promised that I would read — though the only books I have are her worn Bible and a copy of Mr. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And, since I am being truthful here, I must confess that the Twain book isn't even mine. I found it in Old Joe Smiley's stable when I was hiding from Leslie Granger and the passel of girls who follow her around complimenting her hair ribbons and treating her like some sort of queen. I also promised that I wouldn't hide in the stable anymore. That I would say please and thank you and ma'am and sir religiously, that I would brush my hair without complaint and take a bath every Saturday — whether I needed it or not.
I promised all of it. And I really did mean to abide by it. I would have promised her anything, even marriage to Old Joe Smiley himself, if I thought it would make a difference.
But my promises didn't matter one lick. Promises to the dying never do.
I only hope that redemption does.
Redemption brings me to the corner of Main Street and Ramsey Avenue on the day of my mother's funeral (April 3, 1905 — a date I am sure will be seared into my memory), wearing a sign that reads Mother Killer. On my left, a bewhiskered man tied to a post slumps drunkenly, a hastily scribbled paper bearing the words Wife Beeter pinned to his chest. On my right, an urchin of a boy dozes, swaying against the rope binding him to the post, his stomach growling loud enough to wake the dead. The moniker Theef is written in newsprint on the paper he holds. Neither bothers to acknowledge me with so much as a grunt of greeting when I show up just after dawn, despite my best attempts at establishing some sense of camaraderie among my fellow wicked-doers. Even my "Howdy," is met with a blank stare and, in the boy's case, a snore.
Perhaps the simple fact that I made my sign myself and spelled all the words correctly has something to do with their standoffishness. Or maybe guilty folks don't take kindly to people who sentence themselves to public punishment. Still, you'd think a murderer — and a matricidal one at that — would raise an eyebrow.
In Goldfield, Nevada, I just blend in with the crowd.
Still, I am determined. There must be a way to show the world the role I played in Mother's death. Something that will tell everyone that it wasn't just bad luck or God's plan that took Mother from the earth. An action that will expose the guilt that squeezes my heart and seizes my breath when the cabin is quiet and I am alone with my thoughts and my shame.
Public humiliation seems like a good place to start.
In less than an hour, the heft of the board I painted my sign on and the roughness of the rope I used to secure it to my person have rubbed a raw and bloody spot on my neck. By the second hour, the blood seeps into the ends of my braids, making them stick to my face whenever I shake my head to displace an overly exuberant fly or dislodge the pomegranate seeds being spit at me by Evan Granger and Stewie Hines, two impossible boys from school who possess neither good manners nor good looks — but have more than enough money between them to buy not one, not two, but three pomegranates, and more than enough time to spend the morning spitting the seeds at me. And, as I am still being honest, I use a goodly portion of that hour praying they get the trots from their indulgence. God forgive me.
I spend the third hour of my punishment imagining how Jesus must have felt on the cross. The staring eyes of passersby. The nettle-like sting of raw skin. And I feel nearly holy until I remember that I am not Jesus, all brown-eyed innocence and forgiveness. I am me — Kit Donovan — green-eyed Responsibility Shirker and Mother Killer. Oh, and Book Thief. I can't forget that, though it does pale in comparison to my other deeds.
Not that I killed Mother on purpose. Even I am not that wicked. But I did kill her. First, by bringing the influenza into the cabin. Then, by failing to bring the doctor.
The influenza wasn't entirely my fault. Some of the blame lies with Miss Sheldon, who insists on weekly spelling bees and encourages the likes of Jenny DeMillo to come to school even though she is riddled with lice and vermin and what all from living in the horrid tent hotel with her father and the scores of miners who pass through Goldfield determined to strike it rich. I suppose some of the blame rests with the miners themselves, though most belongs to the town — a place that promised "riches beyond imagining" and has delivered nothing but cold and want, and in Mother's case, a cruel and ugly death.
Of course, none of that would have mattered if I had not crawled out of bed with a stuffed-up nose, then whined and complained until Mother relented and let me stay home from school to drink hot ginger tea and loll around on my cot for an entire day. Oh, and as a bonus, miss the dreaded spelling bee. The next day, my nose was clear, and I was spelling bee–free for at least a week. So off to school I went.
But Mother fell ill while I was away — and not the "recline on your cot and play hooky" kind of ill. Real ill. Fever and chills and not recognizing the people you love ill. The day after that, she died, carried away on the wings of a sickness even the old Shoshone women had no remedy for, while I stood outside the Northern Saloon, too mesmerized by dancing girls' laughter and gunfighters' curses to find the doctor I was sent there to fetch.
I am four hours into my punishment when Papa finds me. As much as I wish he would yell or curse or even cry, he doesn't. He simply picks me up — board and all — and carries me the half mile to the cemetery where the preacher is nearly finished with his "mysterious ways" blather.
I focus all my attention on the undertaker, a sweaty old man with greasy hair, clearly itching to cover Mother in dirt so he can get back to the whiskey bottle he keeps patting in his pocket. He should hide his transgressions better, if you ask me. Anyone with eyes can see the cap of the bottle peeking out of his shabby suit. As if his bulbous red nose wasn't proof enough of his weakness.
Mother hated drunkenness.
She hated it almost as much as she hated bad singing. Which is what comes next — courtesy of the Ladies' Aid Society.
Sometime during the singing, Papa must realize that I am twelve years old — much too old and too heavy for even a strong man like him to tote around. He sets me down when the first shovelful of dirt flumps onto the coffin. As soon as my bare feet hit the ground, I run, but it's all for naught, really. I will never get that sound out of my head.
The thing Mother hated most of all was dirt.
I race toward the center of town, cutting through vacant lots and skirting chicken coops, horse droppings, and workers loafing on their lunch break. The men lean against the storefronts they are building, blocking the makeshift sidewalks with legs and arms and shirtless torsos. I jump over their booted legs and skip around discarded sandwich wrappers and beer bottles.
"Where's the fire, kid?" one of the men asks as my foot clips his upraised knee. I don't apologize, and I don't slow down.
I just run.
I run despite Mr. Henderson's rooster, Henry, chasing me down Miners Avenue, pecking at my shins and flapping his wings. I run even faster when men from the telegraph office come out to watch the scene. I keep running until Mrs. Henderson herself steps out of the doorway of the Presbyterian church, blocking my path.
She snatches Henry up by his feet. "Danged kids," she yells, grabbing me by the arm with one hand while she holds the flapping rooster in the other. "Quit teasing my rooster, or I'll wring your scrawny neck."
Henry squawks at the word neck, twisting and squirming against Mrs. Henderson's grip. "Don't you peck me," she warns, giving the rooster a shake.
While Mrs. Henderson deals with Henry, I struggle to free myself from her clutches. Mrs. Henderson's hand stays firm around my upper arm. Like Henry, I'm not going anywhere.
"Best be careful, there, Maude," a man says, nodding at the sign still strung around my neck.
"Mother Killer." I watch Mrs. Henderson's lips move as she forms the words. Her eyes go round. "My stars," she stutters.
I stare up at her, hoping to see a flash of anger or even disgust fill her eyes. But all I see is pity.
Stupid, useless, undeserved pity.
The grip on my arm slackens. Before long, she'll be patting my shoulder and saying things like "Poor girl" and "This too will pass." That's the last thing I need. With one big jerk, I wrench free.
"Bwak." Henry flaps and flops. He reaches his neck out and pecks Mrs. Henderson on the leg.
"My stars!" Mrs. Henderson cries. The muscles around her eyes tighten, and her face turns red. There's the anger I was looking for. Only she's not directing it at me, but at Henry, who she flings to the ground in one swift motion. She rubs her palm against her shin. "It's the cook pot for you, you no-good ..."
I squat down and pick up the stunned rooster. I smooth his wings and pet his head. "I won't have another death on my conscience," I whisper in what I think must be his ear. "Not today."
Then, with Henry tucked snugly under my arm, I run.
I run by all the places I walked to with Mother when she was alive. The town well. The Ladies' Aid Hall. Exploration Mercantile. Bon Ton's Millinery where she used to look at hats she knew she couldn't afford. I don't stop until I get to the electric streetlight on Crook Avenue.
Mother loved that light. She'd stand beneath it whenever she got the chance. "Progress," she always said. "This place may become a proper town yet."
It's the memory of her face lit by the magic of electricity — tired and wan but still a little bit hopeful — that finally makes me cry. I bury my face in Henry's ruffled neck and bawl all the tears that have been locked up inside me since the day I came home to find her flushed and feverish and too weak to even speak my name. When I'm all cried out, I get up and tuck Henry back under my arm. "There's no redemption in this," I tell him as I fluff his feathers. "No way to make it up or pay it off." The realization settles in my chest as I walk home in the fading light, and I know that this ache is never going to leave me — no matter how hard I try to make it right.
The sun is setting by the time I get to our cabin. I introduce Henry to the two laying hens out back, throw them some feed, and go inside. I am all run out, so I don't struggle when Papa takes the sign from around my neck and tosses it, rope and all, into the cookstove. I don't complain when he cuts my blood-soaked hair — even though he's making it short and crooked and too much like a boy's. I just sit there, still and tired, while he says over and over again, "It was not your fault."
Finally he kneels in front of me and takes my hands. "You have to promise never to run off like that again."
I drop my head so I don't have to look him in the eye. He is so sad and so determined, I have no choice. "Yes, sir," I lie.
What difference will one more broken promise make anyway?CHAPTER 2
We moved to Goldfield nearly six months ago this week so Papa could strike it rich in the mines. He has not struck it rich.
Papa said Goldfield was a "paradise of riches" and that gold was so plentiful a man just had to bend over and pick it up. He even showed me a newspaper clipping from the New York Times that called the strike "sensational." Another clipping promised "an abundance of wood and water" and "above-average accommodations."
Papa made his share of promises too. A big house in a proper city. Grand dresses and parties and friends with fine names and manners. He promised that it would be different here. That people would be kind and helpful, and that Mother and I would have friends again — like we did back in Baltimore before the fire destroyed our store and our house and nearly all of Mother's good humor.
So far, not one of those promises has come true — not even the one about water, which I can't help but remind Papa whenever I set out, bucket in hand, to trudge the mile and a half to one of the public wells in town. I only wish I still had that news clipping to wave in his face.
It's funny, but Mother was the only one of us who didn't make promises. Instead, she wrote letters to her people back East. In them, she described "the dull dryness of the land, the soulless sound of the wind as it tears through our tent cabin, and the godless people who scurry from mining camp to dance hall." Even the dogs here are mangy and rude, and Mother never failed to note it — as if this detail summed up all that was wrong with this place. She asked her family to pray for us, and on good days — on days when I believe Papa is right that her death wasn't my fault — I wonder if they did. If the fever wasn't just God's way of answering all those prayers.
On bad days, I know better. No one answers prayers out here.
Most days are bad days.
It doesn't take me more than a day to break my first promise to Mother. I take off for the stable during our lunch break at school. I just can't bear to stay in the middle of all that commotion one more minute. My brain longs for quiet, and in the contest between what my head wants and what my heart knows to be right, my head wins. Sorry, Mother.
I don't think anyone notices me leave the schoolyard. Heck, I don't think anyone notices me at all. They are all so enthralled by Leslie Granger and her story about some dress her mother ordered her from San Francisco for her sixteenth birthday that sneaking away is easy.
Truth be told, skipping out of school at noon is never not easy. Even when the weather is pleasant, Miss Sheldon stays inside, eating her restaurant-packed lunch at her desk, away from growling bellies and covetous eyes. Only the students are outside, and they huddle around the front of the school tent, watching Leslie and laughing or sighing on cue as she sits on the lone step in front of the school door and holds court.
An especially gifted sigher might be rewarded with a store-bought cookie or a smidge of licorice. So far, Stewie holds the title, but when I hear Jennie sigh like someone punctured a hot-air balloon, I know he's got some competition today. Still, I don't stick around, sliding away from the crowd just as Leslie crows, "Oh, the lace — let me tell you about ..." and Jennie releases yet another chest-heaving gush of awe and envy.
If a girl is quick, she can slink around the back of the tent, cut across Mr. Dumphey's side yard (watch out for the pig!), and end up on North Main. From there, she just has to walk with purpose to the stable. I am both quick and purposeful. And, with my newly shorn hair, I am ugly. Ugly helps one blend into the crowd, I've discovered — especially the crowd that fills the dusty streets of Goldfield. I am at the stable in no time at all.
It doesn't take me long to settle into my favorite horse stall. The smell of hay, oats, and fresh horse droppings never fails to set my head right. I take a deep breath and lean against the worn wooden railing. I dig through the straw for a moment, then breathe a sigh of relief. The book is right where I left it. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn quickly replaces the schoolyard jabber in my head. There, comforted by Mr. Mark Twain's words and the muffled snorts of boarded horses, I turn thirteen years old. At exactly 2:37 p.m. — if Mother's story of my birth was accurate.
Practically a full-grown woman.
I gnaw at the skin around my thumbnail and give myself some time to let that thought settle. At first, it seems promising. Longer skirts. Upswept hair. Boys who act like gentlemen, dances, and fancy hats and perfume. Then I remember Mother. She was the one who was always so excited about stylish hair and flowing white dresses and the possibility that some boy would show up with flowers or chocolates and take me to a dance or an ice-cream social. And she was the one who promised that when I turned thirteen, she'd teach me the waltz and the one-step and show me how to glide around a ballroom like a queen.
None of that's going to happen now. I shake my head at the unfairness of it all and look down at my bare feet.
Excerpted from The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey. Copyright © 2017 Patricia Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
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