Kelly felt her breath catch as she wondered who this man was, how they had met and what she had accidentally said to prolong his life.
“I’m so sorry.” She said.
“Why should you be sorry, miss?” he asked, puzzled by her unexpected apology.
“For whatever I said to make your life longer. I assure you, it wasn’t my intent.”
“Now, now, miss… Calm yourself. I have come to thank you for your gracious gift. I would not have lived at all, if not for you.”
Now she truly was puzzled. “Please do remind me of how we met.”
“Well, it was a real long time ago.” He chuckled. “I was just a boy then, around nine years old. I was stowed-away on a cargo ship when I came down with fever. All I knew about fever was I was supposed to drink a lot.”
“So I went sneaking about the ship, trying to find something to drink. I found some large barrels of rum and was about to help myself, when I heard a lady’s voice scolding me from a dark corner.”
“You told me I didn’t want to drink that and I suddenly lost my thirst; which scared me stiff, since I thought I’d surely die if I didn’t drink.” He chuckled again.
“The ship from Ireland…” Kelly whispered as she sat dazed.
“Ah…so you had just gotten on the ship.” He said. “I snuck aboard a couple of stops before you.”
Kelly shook off the old memories again and refocused her attention on the old man’s story.
“I think I do recall a small boy on that ship.” She said. “My… you have changed.”
They shared a laugh at that as their nervousness began to fade.
“I also remember you telling me that you didn’t have anyone to take care of you, before we were caught and thrown in the brig.” She said.
There was a brief silence as the two reflected on their time as prisoners.
She’d had to defend them both against the men on board; using her abilities to convince them it would be bad luck to cause her harm or upset. Their fear of her kept them away until they made port again, where she and the boy had been promptly escorted off of the ship.
He was the first to break the silence. “I can tell you my story now if you’re still interested.”
“I am.” She replied.
“I should probably start with my name.” he said smiling.
Kelly laughed. “That does seem like a good beginning.”
“My name is Duncan McCray. It’s nice to be meeting you under better circumstances.” He said.
“Oh, I agree, Mr. McCray.” She said.
“Just Duncan, if you please.”
Kelly nodded her agreement as he began his tale.
“I didn’t have anyone looking after me because I was an orphan. My father had abandoned my mother during the pregnancy and she died giving birth to me; least that’s the way it was told to me.”
“My father left my mother penniless and homeless; she ended up living in an alley behind a brothel. When the working women discovered her, they gave her a room in exchange for cooking and housekeeping. They helped her deliver her babe and took care of her body when she passed.”
“The women shared the responsibility of raising me until I was big enough to cause too much mischief. They always told me of my mother; which is how I came to know about her circumstances.”
“I was about five when they turned me over to a work house. They put me to work on all manner of chores; indoor and out. They said knowing how to do a bit of everything, especially the stuff no one else wanted to do, would ensure that I’d always be able to find work.”
“I stayed there until a few days after my eighth birthday. A man started coming around and watching me work while the woman who ran the place pointed at me. I didn’t like it, so I went snooping one night and overheard her talking about selling me to that guy for labor. I went back to my bunk, packed the three or four things that were mine, and left out the window.”
“I lived on the streets for a couple of days before remembering the brothel that had helped my mother and raised me for a while. I was right mad at them for giving me away, but I was also hungry and thought they might give me food and a bed.”
“I think I felt like they owed it to me; boy, did they set me straight. They let me in, cleaned me up and gave me a meal. As for a place to sleep, they cleared a small space on the attic floor and gave me a blanket. My alarm clock was someone hitting me with a broom, calling me lazy and good for nothing, and telling me I’d better get up and get to work or I’d get a beating and put out for good.”
“They put me to work cleaning and running errands. We fell into a sort of routine and everything was fine until I walked in to clean a room one night that was still in use. They beat me pretty good and sent me to the attic without supper. Once again, I packed and left in the night.”
“I wasn’t back on the streets long before a man came up asking if I belonged to anyone. I told him no and I wasn’t about to, neither. He smiled and said he didn’t blame me a bit and asked if I needed food and shelter. When I didn’t answer, he told me he took in kids like me from the streets from time to time. Not like a master or boss, more like a friend and partner.”
“He told me he had a little place where they all stayed together and safe; off the streets. They all worked and shared the profit and food and looked after one another.”
“I went to check it out. Turned out, he put all the kids that he took from the streets to work as crossing or chimney sweepers. At the end of the work day, we were all expected to hand over all our profits to him. He would decide when we ate, what we ate and who didn’t bring in enough money to earn their meal. He was mean and crazy.”
“Needless to say, I wasn’t there long before taking to the streets again. It was safer and more profitable. I had learned that, where most thought there was safety in a group, usually it was being a group in the first place that drew unwanted attention. Alone, I could sneak, hide and come and go as I pleased; and I found work on my own just fine, without having to share food or profit.”
“I ended up getting steady work at the shipyard and I was happier than I had ever been. The owner had given me a storage room and a cot to call my own and didn’t even charge me to stay there. His wife had come and dressed it up for me with blankets, pillows, a few dishes, some clothes and shoes, a bedside table and even a few trinkets; toys, I mean.”
“I’d never had toys before then. They had been treasures to me; the belongings and the people. The other workers, despite most being older than me, treated me as an equal. They invited me to break with them, included me in their conversations and even pranks against each other. It was a good and happy life. That is, until my past caught up with me.”
End of Phantom Island-Story 8-Part 2-“Mr. McCray”
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