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“Lizzie. Lizzie, I think they’re here.”
At the trilling of her mother’s voice, the young girl in question looked up from her ladybugs. She had been observing them in the glass jar which had previously housed the few peaches one could find in Truro, Nova Scotia, during that time of year. Gathering up her heavy winter skirts, she made her way to the window, where indeed the sounds of a cart wheeling up the path to the modest little house pierced through the windows. They were frosted over with ice, not yet melted from the fire keeping away the December chill from the parlour. Placing her hand on the glass, Lizzie watched as the white spider webs melted slowly, transferring the coolness from the crystal to her own hand, clearing the window and leaving a hole through which to see. However, before she could wipe her wet hand on the dark material of her dress, a booming, single knock sounded at the door.
Her father’s footsteps, almost as booming as the knock itself, made their way from the study, through the hallway, down the stairs, and to the front door. Lizzie listened to their regularity, almost military, and her ear followed the path they were making. The suffocating ladybugs were long forgotten.
As her father pulled the heavy door open, Lizzie crept closer to the entry, stooping to sit at the foot of her father’s favourite leather chair. A stranger’s voice echoed through the house, and the biting cold from outside chased its trajectory.
“Yes,” her father’s voice replied, “And you must be Mr. Connolly, come to deliver the Rodgers boy.”
“Mh. Yes, yes. May I come in? Mh.”
“Of course, of course.”
Lizzie inched closer to the stairs going down to the entry, where the conversation was being uttered. Two pairs of boots, one clattering loudly on the wooden floors, presumably stomping off the snow that had gathered on the footwear, and one stepping lightly, perhaps shyly, in the first’s wake, stepped over the threshold into the hall.
“Would you like anything to drink? Something warm, perhaps? Coffee, hot cocoa?”
“Oh, no thank you, mh. I really must get back to Halifax, mh. Just come to deliver the boy, you see.”
“Yes, I see. And what might be your name, young man?”
A name was mumbled unintelligibly. Nearing the corner leading to the door, Lizzie strained her ears to hear this new voice adding itself to the discussion.
“I’m sorry, son, but you must speak louder.” Her father’s speech was deafening compared to the last.
“Matthew Rodgers, sir.”
“How old are you, son?”
“Well, I’m sure you will get along with my daughter just fine. She’s twelve.”
At this, the youth was silent. Intrigued, Lizzie, now at the very edge of the stairs, peered around the corner, directly into the boy’s small, dark eyes.
He was of a peculiar build, a bit too large in the ears and a bit too small in the nose. One leg stood awkwardly on the side, almost as if it were avoiding any kind of contact with the ground, showing some kind of recent injury. Covered in red-hot burn marks, the hands shook slightly, almost as if they wanted to be clenched tightly, but couldn’t because of the burns. His attire was too heavy, if it is possible to be too heavily clad in the Canadian winter months; he seemed to be wearing more than one of each article of clothing, assumably to save space in the battered leather suitcase begriming the freshly scrubbed floor. Finally, the face was almost completely obscured by a cap crouching uneasily on the forehead. Almost, that is, except for the eyes, haunted and distant, yet trained directly on Lizzie’s.
Upon noticing his firm gaze, the girl’s father swiveled around and saw Lizzie, one blue eye hidden by the corner, on blue eye staring, surprised, into his own. His face lit up like the spark kindling the fire in most every room of the residence: immediate and resulting in warmth.
“Lizzie! Come meet your new roommate.”
“Roommate, Papa?” Standing, she started down the stairs at a snail’s pace, one step at a time.
“Matthew,” Mr. Pratt continued, either intentionally or unintentionally ignoring his kin, “this is my beloved daughter, Elizabeth.”
The boy remained silent as the winter afternoon outside. Lizzie was increasingly perplexed, and stayed uncharacteristically quiet, imitating Matthew.
“Mh. Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Pratt, mh, but as my business here is concluded, I really should be going. It’s cold and I have a long journey back to the wreckage in Halifax, mh.”
And without another glance at his charge, Mr. Connolly, his thin mustache twitching and claiming to be illogically cold in his thick fur coat (the thickest and furriest Lizzie had ever seen), was out the door and disappearing between the snowflakes on his cart pulled by two shivering horses.
The supper of that night was a quiet one. The table had been set for four, instead of the habitual three, to accommodate the new arrival. Mrs. Pratt’s best silverware reserved for special occasions and for guests had been laid out neatly on the white tablecloth, which Lizzie internally found unnecessary, since the boy was not a guest, he was to be (unfortunately) a permanent resident. Sneaking occasional glances at the newcomer, she resigned herself to picking at the beans and potatoes lying morosely on her plate. Easy and light hearted, family meals had always been filled with talking and laughter, as each member told stories about their day. That evening, however, was so quiet that Lizzie fancied she could hear the conversations at the supper table of the mice living under the foundations of the residence.
In the unusual reserve, Lizzie thought about Matthew. When he had arrived, Mr. Pratt had requested—ordered, actually—that she show the boy up to his room. It really was her room, though. Mr. Pratt was the owner of a small shoe factory in town, and although it brought in enough money to comfortably house and feed his family, it was not enough for an additional room for the boy. Submissively, they had trudged up the stairs together to the upper level where the bedrooms were located.
In the last chamber at the end of the hall, the walls were painted a mild yellow, light enough to send any mood soaring, but not too bright as to stop one from sleeping at night. A narrow, flowery bed covered in discarded clothing sat in a corner. The rest of the floor was taken up by a small, wooden table and chair painted in white and draped with dresses, a wash basin filled with even more clothes as to leave no room for water, and a cabinet that seemed, for the most part, empty.
Lizzie had gone straight to the window and leaned out, the frozen air pricking her bare skin with a thousand needles, a position she had never been inclined to take up previously, and glanced uneasily at the boy. Pointing to the floor, she finally spoke to break the silence filled with static:
“I suppose you will be sleeping there.”
Matthew had carefully placed his suitcase in the designated corner, and had removed his hat and coat. Underneath the cap was a mop of dark, uncombed hair. Grimacing internally, Lizzie had returned her gaze to the snowy wonderland of the backyard, but the wind having wafted through the window and dropped the temperature into the negatives as quickly as if by magic, the window had swiftly been shut.
The boy still looking around uncomfortably, she had decided that she was no longer needed.
“We’ll be having supper soon,” she observed. At the lack of an answer, she had moved toward the door, stopping to turn around briefly under the frame, “Oh, the blankets and pillows are in the linen closet.” And with that, she had left the room, leaving the poor youth to wonder where in the world the closet in question was located.
Now sitting at the dinner table, Lizzie felt no more remorse for her lack of interest in the boy than she had felt for the dead ladybugs she had found in their glass prison, suffocated. Even though the insects had crept innocently into the house in search of warmth and safety, the young girl felt no inclination to take them under her wing and decided to think of Matthew in the same respect: begrudgingly for disturbing her peace and without pity.
Lizzie suffered in the unusual silence, wishing for a sigh, a chuckle, anything that would add something different to the mute gathering. Looked up suddenly, she dropped her fork with a dull thump on the previously-white tablecloth.
“So, Matthew,” Lizzie began in a snide tone, “Tell us about what happened in Halifax. We read about it in the paper, of course, but I’m sure we’d love to hear it from a real survivor.”
Silverware crashed onto the plate, the clatter bouncing off the windows of the glass cabinets lining the dining room. “Lizzie! How could you? This is not—”
“No, it’s alright, Mr. Pratt.” It was the first time Lizzie had been face to face with Matthew when he spoke. His mouth barely opened, and she was astounded at how the words could come out with such little movement. “I really don’t mind. I know the facts.”
“Only if you’re comfortable with it, dearie,” crooned Mrs. Pratt, gently patting his hand.
For a moment, he seemed very uncomfortable, but then he droned out: “On December the 6th of this year, 1917, the SS Mont-Blanc, secretly carrying munitions, burst into flame, causing an explosion that devastated most of the city of Halifax.”
His gaze had returned to that haunted stare that he had worn when Lizzie had caught his eye that afternoon. He seemed to be speaking with no feeling, no sentiment, as if he had not been there when the crucial moment had arrived. The Pratt family dared not ask any more questions for the rest of the meal, fearing the stare of this poor, traumatized boy.
He had not told the tale at all from a witness’ point of view. He had recited word for word the article in the paper that had appeared on the 7th of December, the day following the Halifax Explosion.
That night, Mr. Pratt’s leather armchair squeaked and creaked under his weight while he read a book. Discouraged by the lonely supper and of the incessant squeaking and creaking, Lizzie slouched in her favourite spot at the foot of said chair. Staring into the fire, she thought of Matthew, who was at that moment in her bedroom unpacking his few belongings. She still couldn’t understand why she was suffering such a punishment, and she twisted around on the floor to face her father to tell him so.
“Papa, why does he have to be here?”
Mr. Pratt slowly removed his glasses and placed them atop his head, bare but for a small number of grey hairs dispersed here and there. He looked to be much older than he really was. Wrinkled and haggard, his face seemed to droop down caused by an excess of skin. Despite his tired appearance, he was an astonishingly joyful and generous man, although Lizzie had always believed him to be too generous, especially in offering to lodge any old friend’s son.
“Well, Lizzie, he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.” He had realized immediately of whom she had been speaking. “I don’t know the particulars, but both his parents died in the explosion.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“But why does he have to stay in my room?”
Lizzie’s tone dripped with loathing and protest, as if she were questioning an unfair natural law, such as gravity. She lay down on the carpeted floor of the parlour, a toddler about to have a fit when he didn’t get what he had wanted. Gazing up at the ceiling, she hoped her father would note her distress and annoyance and perhaps remove the unwanted boy from her personal sanctuary.
“Because it is the only room of the house that is available, at the moment.”
“But what about the parlour? He could sleep here.” Her voice persevered, if not increased, in complaint.
“Now, Lizzie.” He was scolding her playfully, yet an undertone of seriousness crept into his voice. His large fingers ran through her hair, separating each curl into its individual little ringlet. “He is to sleep in your room, and that’s that. Furthermore, you will stay out of school to help him habituate himself to his new life in Truro, and once you return to your studies you will bring him along and introduce him to your friends.”
Lizzie crossed her arms and pouted, reviving the image of the toddler, and grumbled under her breath.
“You must learn to be unselfish, and to accept him here. He is part of the family, now.” Groaning from the effort, he sat back up from his crouching position where he was patting his daughter’s hair.
“But I don’t want to be unselfish, and I don’t want to accept him. I want him to leave.”
Suddenly, a sound like the crashing of glass on the floor reached them from behind the corner where Lizzie had been eavesdropping that very afternoon. Mr. Pratt jumped up from his chair, his book flying across the room. In his surprise, he had thrown the volume in the direction of the noise, and from the cries of pain coming from around the corner, Lizzie concluded that it had hit its mark.
Her parents went running toward the boy-target, who indeed was a dazed Matthew, crumpled on the ground like laundry that had yet to be folded. The broken pieces of a glass vase lay sprinkled next to him, little pieces of candlelight illuminating his features from the bottom in an eerie fashion.
“Oh, Matthew, Matthew!” her mother called solicitously. “Are you alright?”
Her father called similarly with concern and apologizing for his quick reflexes, but the youth in question was neither answering them nor listening to them, for his gaze was once again locked with Lizzie’s. The adults finally managed to get him up from his wrinkled position and to the room he and the unwilling girl would be sharing, but his eyes remained in her mind even after he had left the room.
A few days after the new arrival at the Pratt house, Lizzie announced that she was going outside. The night had left a new layer of pure, white snow that had yet to be begrimed, and Lizzie was set on being the one to do it. Her warm coat hugging her skinny shoulders and a hat warming her ears, she opened the door, prepared to face the cold.
“Lizzie, wait. Bring Matthew along with you.” Mrs. Pratt had heard her daughter’s wish from the kitchen, and seemed intent on ruining the perfect day.
“Mama, do I have to?”
“Yes, you do. Show him around the grounds. He’s a part of the family, now, remember.”
Sighing in submission, she sat on the step, waiting for her companion to join her. In the past days, she and Matthew had barely spoken a word to each other. It seemed to be in the orphan’s nature to wish to be alone, and Lizzie could have cared less. She was perfectly happy to have no contact with the boy and to mind her own business, as long as he minded his. Now, she had no choice but to spend an afternoon in another uncomfortable silence, something that had begun to occur very frequently in the Pratt household.
After what felt like four different lifetimes lived in quick succession, Matthew appeared in his cap and the coat which he had worn on his first day at the top of the stairs. Upon seeing the exorbitance in length and the largeness of the coat, Mrs. Pratt fussed over him and continually repeated, “We really must buy you a heavier coat. This one is much too large; the wind will sweep up your sleeves and you will perfectly freeze.”
Huffing in what she refused to admit as jealously, Lizzie hurried outside, not waiting for her partner to catch up.
The grounds were a perfect dreamland. Snow draped over all the trees like sheets folded neatly into white piles. Their branches reached out to the sky, the ice reflecting the sunshine like long, sparkling mirrors. Cloudless and without an imperfection, the sky cast a great blanket over the world, distracting Lizzie from the cold. She trod on the path in complete peace, lifting her arms up unconsciously in rapture. Suddenly darkening, her mood was crushed again, following the example of the boots crushing the snow behind her.
Materializing beside her, Matthew matched his pace with hers as they trampled through the woods together. Appearing with the boy next to her, the cold caught up to her happiness and she shivered once, twice, three times. Her teeth began chattering like a skeleton’s and her head sunk into the collar of her coat to keep warm, like a ship sinking into the sea. Burying themselves in her pockets, her hands began turning a burning red. She wished she had brought gloves. Almost completely unaware now of any presence other than her own, she muttered under her breath, “I hate snow.”
“Oh, no. I like snow. At least it’s better than fire.”
Starting, Lizzie turned to peer at Matthew. He had spoken softly, almost in a whisper, and he had almost disappeared from her thoughts. There was something forgettable about that boy. Although she had heard his voice before, she had never heard it outdoors, and never with no one else around. There was something smooth about it, like hot cocoa when it is still untouched, in the mug.
Before she could help herself, her eyes dropped down to his hands. Despite the chill, they were drifting through the air at his sides, red, but unlike the colour of Lizzie’s. Not from the weather.
“Matthew…” It was the first time she had said his name aloud. It rolled off her tongue in a satisfactory manner, and she stopped in her own surprise at saying his name so easily. He mirrored her. She continued, “What happened to you hands?”
His eyes drifted down to the ground, just like the snow that had begun falling once more. He spoke again, just as softly, but Lizzie was listening harder that time. “I burnt them. On a door handle. The door was on fire.”
Examining his hands closer, she remarked, “You didn’t just touch it, though.” She looked into his eyes, which, for once, were avoiding hers. “Why didn’t you let go?”
“Because… Because…” He looked up and she saw the tears in his eyes. Ashamed, he wiped them away quickly. “Because my parents were behind it.”
Then, he turned around in silence and trudged back the way they had come, toward the house. Although Lizzie was calling after him, he never once turned his head, and she was left to ponder the boy’s unknown story.
One night, a few weeks into Matthew’s stay, Lizzie walked into her bedroom. It had much changed since his arrival: gone were the clothes crumpled into piles of untidiness, and gone, also, were Lizzie’s personal items, such as her decorative yet empty boxes and the other useless trinkets that used to clutter up the room. The chamber was reduced to a dull, unfeeling cell devoted to sleep.
Searching for her jar of ladybugs, Lizzie stumbled across Matthew’s bed, if a proper “bed” it could be called. It was merely a gathering of blankets clustered at the foot of a rather flat pillow, on which the young roommate presently tripped. Clutching at handfuls of air, she crashed to the floor, knocking her jaw painfully on the carpet. Grunting, she lifted herself up, feeling at the scraped piece of skin, thankfully still intact. Tasting blood, she realized that she had bitten her tongue and promptly dragged herself on her knees to the washbasin. Spitting into the bowl of porcelain, Lizzie turned her head away, avoiding the sight of bodily crimson, when she took notice of the pillow she had disrupted. It now clung to the diminutive hill of sheets, and peaking out from underneath was a spot of brown.
The metallic taste in her mouth forgotten, the occupant of the room crawled toward the object on which she had tripped, and, pulling away the pillow as an artist uncovers a new work of art, found hidden beneath, a box.
It was a plain, wooden box, unlike the ornamented ones Lizzie had kept in the past as decoration, for this one clearly served a purpose. There was a catch where one could place a lock, but the lock was absent. Warily, Lizzie creaked open the box.
It was filled with letters. Old and new, written on yellowed paper and clean, white paper that seemed to come directly from one of Lizzie’s own notebooks. The older ones were scrawled in a round hand, addressed to people such as “John,” “Dorothy,” and “Simone,” but the newer ones seemed different, somehow. Glancing at the neat handwriting, she noticed that the most recent one had been written just the other day.
“December 24th, 1917
It’s me, Matthew. How are you doing? I suppose you’re doing better than I am, at least.
I miss you a lot. You and Father. I feel so lonely. I wish you were still here. I know one day I’ll join you, but that day seems so far away. And meanwhile, I have to continue on through life alone.
I’m staying with the Pratts, now that you and Father are gone. I had never met them before, despite Father’s long friendship with them. Their house is very nice. It is not very big, but it is bigger than ours. They have many pretty things, though.
I’m sharing a room with their daughter. Her name is Elizabeth, and she is one year younger than I. She has the largest room of the house. She is pretty, as well. Her hair is the colour of honey and her eyes are blue, a very deep blue. I think she is very kind for letting me stay with her, but I don’t think she likes me very much. But she—”
Jumping up, the girl who was being addressed quickly hid the letter which she had been perusing behind her back. A figure stood at the door, looking extremely confused.
“Oh, Matthew, it’s just you. You scared me, there. I was just coming to get my ladybugs. I thought—”
Carefully, the youth wandered over to the girl. Seeing the suspiciously open box, he asked quietly, “What were you reading?”
In a panic, Lizzie swiftly stuffed the letter back into its place and slammed the cover.
“This?” she stuttered, “I guess I tripped over your box and found it open, so I thought I would just look inside and see what had made me fall—”
Here she was, trying to make excuses for herself, flustered, embarrassed, distraught, and he was apologizing. She couldn’t understand. Standing, brown eyes glancing down at her in an understanding way, he didn’t seem to be angry or hurt at all. All she could do was repeat “What?” pathetically.
“I’m sorry,” he began again, “that my box made you trip.”
“Oh. I forgive you, then.”
Gently taking the box from her hands, he placed it back underneath his pillow, where she had found it. Then, turning around, he started for the door.
“Wait,” Lizzie stopped him, “I’m sorry, too.”
He stared at her over his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she continued, “for being mean to you. And—and ignoring you. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
This time, he turned completely, to look at her properly. He still said nothing.
“Look. You can take my bed. I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. I don’t mind. Take it.”
She began to replace her pillows and blankets with his own, moving the box of letters with them. Feeling his hands on hers, she stopped, and met Matthew’s eyes.
“It’s alright,” he finally said, “You can keep your bed. And I forgive you, too.” Moving the blankets back to their crumpled pile, he left the room. Lizzie didn’t stop him.
Suddenly, the world felt so empty. Standing in the center of the chamber, Lizzie turned her head back and forth, running through her mind everything that had just occurred. Everything was the same: the jar of ladybugs on the windowsill, the fireplace with its crackling, the cheerful walls adding to the overall pleasantness. But somehow, Lizzie felt different. She felt that she had changed. Bringing herself to the window, she watched the imprisoned insects for a long while. Then, opening the jar, she collected the ladybugs one by one and placed them gently on a stool next to the fireplace, where they would be warm and could rest in peace. The sun set and rose again, went on as it always had, turning around and around the earth in a dizzying spin, but the ladybugs remained on their little stool in Lizzie’s room, quietly, peacefully, until the summer.