“Come on then, Tennie, just a kiss…”
I opened my mouth a little and let him kiss me. The way he had me pressed against the wall, there was not much I could do about it anyways. Trouble was, it never just ended in a kiss.
A moment later I felt his hand creeping down my thigh. It wasn’t that I minded so much, it felt sort of tingly and good. That’s why I was there. I knew I shouldn’t be, though. That’s what was troubling me.
“That’s enough, Lester,” I whispered, pulling away from his kiss and trying to push his hand back.
He grinned. He was handsome enough, in a sort of scruffy-looking, alley-rat way.
“Come on then, Tennie, just a little more…”
He leaned in and pressed his lips to mine again. His tongue pushed into my mouth, wet and hungry. I felt his fingers on the inside of my leg, pressing my thigh through the thin fabric of my dress. I held onto his hand, trying to keep him from moving further up but he was strong. Stronger than me.
I gasped as he overpowered me and I felt his palm cup in between my legs. I was hot and wet there and I hoped he couldn’t notice through my underwear, or that if he did he wouldn’t get the wrong impression from it. I liked kissing him as much as he did me, but I wasn’t there for any more.
“No, Lester, that’s enough.”
I tried to push him away, move his hand lower. He leaned back. His grin turned into a sneer.
“Don’t start screamin’ now, or I’ll have to shut you up!” I felt his palm land on my rear and pain bloomed from where he’d spanked me.
An anger roiled inside me. I didn’t take well to boys doing things like that.
I saw the breath leave him in a puff as my knee connected with his crotch. He doubled over in front of me, then fell to one side onto the ground.
For a moment I felt sorry, until I heard them shouting down the lane.
“Hey! Look what she’s gone and done! Get after her!”
Bugs must have heard the noise because he came tearing around the corner, a furry white ball of fluff, barking at the boys that were running toward me.
“Bugs, no! Let’s go! Run!” I shouted, jumping over red-faced Lester and racing down the cobbled lane. I turned around to see Bugs standing between me and the boys, tail straight, teeth bared. “Bugs! Come!”
Something about my voice must have made him realize the situation was a little too much for him to handle on his own. He spun around and started chasing after me.
We ran through the maze of back alleys, past washed linens on laundry lines. By the time we broke out onto Church Street, the boys sounded far behind.
I’d always been a good runner. Better than all the other girls at the orphanage by far.
“Come on, Bugs!” I shouted, waving at him. He barked, but turned and followed me down Church Street, toward the bazaar.
We ducked into the lane behind the church and I tried to keep myself low to the wall. When we got to the pile of crumbled bricks I used to step up, I gave Bugs a rub on his head and told him to be good and that hopefully I’d see him tomorrow and bring him a piece of bread.
It tore my heart up, leaving him out there every night, but sneaking him into the orphanage would never have worked. One bark and Mrs. Everton would know the truth. Then that would be the end of Bugs.
I tumbled over the wall, careful not to tear my dress and snuck across the garden toward the back door of the orphanage.
I was just starting to breathe proper again when the door swung open. I froze. Mrs. Everton’s stout frame blocked the way inside.
“Where have you been?” she growled. Her bottom jaw jutted forward, the way it always did when she was angry. So, more or less all the time. I glanced at the thick wooden spoon she held in her hand, knowing full well she hadn’t been making soup.
“About,” I replied.
I watched her face turn red at my impertinence. I had expected as much. There was a perverse pleasure in it, knowing that I got her goat so.
“Step over here, child, and raise your filthy skirt!” she snapped.
Even though my body stiffened in anticipation of feeling the wooden spoon smashing against my bottom, knowing I’d made her angry made it almost worth it. Almost.
I did as she asked. I walked toward the door, turned around, bent down and raised my skirt about my hips. I felt her yank my underthings down, exposing my backside.
“When will you learn, girl,” she asked through clenched teeth, “that an orphan like you has only one hope in this life?”
I winced as the first powerful smack slammed onto my left cheek. It was the same place Lester had spanked me and made the pain of his palm fresh again.
“You will submit to authority.”
Another smack, this time on my right cheek made me bite the inside of my cheek for the pain. I did not give her the pleasure of so much as a whimper, though. Nor that of my tears.
“You will mind your betters.”
Another smack, fiercer than the first two, again on my left flank. I stumbled forward but quickly resumed my position. I knew much worse awaited me if I protested or, worse yet, ran.
“Or you will never find your way in this life!”
Another wallop crashed onto my rear. My skin burned and I knew it was burning a bright red the shape of the wooden spoon.
“You will end up in a bordello or worse yet, under a bridge somewhere. Dead!”
She shrieked the word and punctuated it with another powerful pummeling, this time on my right side.
I gritted my teeth. I was at the limit of my endurance for such punishment and I hoped she had tired enough to relent. I heard her puffing and panting behind me. The blows had ceased.
“Stand up!” she barked in between wheezes.
I did as I was told, letting my skirts fall back down around my ankles after pulling up my underthings.
“Gallivanting about the alleys again, no doubt?”
It wasn’t a question meant to be answered.
“You’re too old now. You’ve reached your eighteenth year and we’ve no more room for you here. The good Lord knows I’ve done my best to raise you, but you’re a strong-willed stubborn child. Well, not a child anymore, I suppose.”
I had known this day was coming. I had known it was coming for as long as I can remember. Mrs. Everton had made sure of that, hadn’t she? Made sure that I knew I’d be good for nothing, too. Now that the day was here, I didn’t have any idea what I’d do.
I felt my throat tighten as I looked up into her eyes. The last thing I wanted was to start crying in front of her. I’d made it this long without showing her my tears; I could last a few more days.
Something in her expression changed. She loosened her grip on the wooden spoon and for a second I thought I saw compassion in her eyes.
Just as quickly, it was gone.
A deep breath helped clear the bubble that had formed in my throat and pushed my tears back so my eyes stopped stinging.
“Oh, child…” she breathed. But she seemed to be looking through me, not at me. Like she was looking at the hundreds of girls she’d had to let go into the world before me. The girls, like me, she’d never let herself feel anything for because the weight of that might kill her.
“Where will I go?” I whispered, my throat tightening once more.
“I haven’t the foggiest,” she replied in a softer voice than I’d ever heard from her before. Then, her expression hardened again and she was the Mrs. Everton I remembered. The one all the girls knew. “I haven’t the foggiest,” she repeated, snapping this time. “If you’d paid more attention to your schooling you might have been a governess, or at least a cook! With things being the way they are, I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up a whore.”
The word was like a kick in the gut from one of the boys. A big one. A whore. In all the years she’d scared me with the prospect I’d never let it get to me. Now that this day had come, that I was to be on my own, for the first time I let it past my guard that maybe she was right.
I steeled myself again for the next question. “Shall I leave today?”
A shadow of empathy drifted across her face again. “If you can behave yourself, you might stay till the end of the week. If I catch you hopping over this wall again, I’ll kick you out the door myself, right then and there. Understand?”
I’d never felt grateful to Mrs. Everton until that moment. She was a sour old bitch that ruled us girls with an iron fist. But in that moment I felt like hugging her. I would have done it, if I didn’t think that might have made her kick me out, too.
“Now get down and help with the laundry before I change my mind,” she grumbled, stepping to the side to let me pass.
I cowered by her, worried that she might land another whack with her spoon somewhere on my body, perhaps my head. She didn’t, though and I slunk down to the basement to find Darla already up to her elbows in a tub of hot water filled with linens. I didn’t notice Evelyn had followed me down the stairs.
“I hear you’re going to be a whore,” she said with a wry grin. “How lovely. I know you’ve lots of experience already. I’m sure all of your clientele will…”
I moved toward her like an angry bull and I would have swung at her had Darla not put a wet hand on my shoulder and held me back.
The salty bitch let out a chuckle. “Your friend’s doing you a favor. I hear you’re leaving us come week’s end anyways.”
“Forget about her,” Darla muttered. “Piss off, Evelyn! Just piss off!”
Evelyn scowled. “I can’t wait to see where the lot of you end up in life. Great heights you’ll reach, I’m sure.”
“Piss off, I said!” Darla yelped one last time, then dragged me to the laundry tubs, leaving Evelyn to stare at us. We paid her no attention until she turned around and left. Darla set me to work on a washboard, which soothed my nerves a bit.
“Is it true, what she said?” she asked after a while of working in silence.
“Is it true, you’re to leave at week’s end?”
I nodded. The frog in my throat had returned and even though I didn’t mind crying in front of Darla, I didn’t want to in case Evelyn came back.
“Well, never mind. At least you’ll spend your last few days without her crawlin’ up yer ass!”
“Why?” I asked, turning to look at her.
“Did you forget who’s coming tomorrow?”
Darla’s lips cracked into a sneer. “The good doctor!” She leaned in closer and the smile fell off her face. “Or dark devil, depending who you ask,” she whispered.
For a moment I let the swell of hope that welled from inside me live. I let it fill my body as I closed my eyes and reveled in what it felt like to not feel completely hopeless about my future. Only for a moment. Then I pushed it back down as far as I could and stepped on it, in case it tried to come out again.
No one knew much about Dr. Renshaw. What we did know was that each year he would come and take a girl from the orphanage. Always one that was of age. That’s most likely how the rumors started.
Mrs. Everton told us all that he turned scoundrels like us into real women and gave them a life and prospects like they never could have dreamed of, being from an orphanage.
But girls being girls, we came up with all sorts of other possibilities. The older girls would scare the younger ones with stories of Dr. Renshaw’s dungeon and all the girls that were still hidden there.
Some said that Mrs. Everton was paid a handsome sum to hand over the prettiest, most well-behaved of us ill-raised ladies to him. There were rumors that he took them and put them in his dungeon and used them, then discarded them somewhere no one could ever find them again.
Of course that was all most likely poppycock, as Mrs. Everton would say. But none of us could help thinking about it at night before we fell asleep as the day of his arrival drew closer.
Each year we knew who was going to be chosen next. Mrs. Everton made quite a fuss of finding the finest dresses and hiring a tutor for the girl she thought would be the best choice for Dr. Renshaw. This year, everyone knew, that girl would most certainly be Evelyn.
From the time she’d first smelled it, that she would be the one chosen, she became an unruly pest that wouldn’t stop rubbing it in everyone’s face. For a while we all hoped he would lock her in a dungeon, just so she’d shut up.
But as with every year, we all came to accept it for what it was, including Evelyn, and settled back into our business.
The hope I’d felt was something only I knew about. I’d never told anyone because I knew it to be preposterous. It was a hope I only let myself feel late at night, when everyone else was sleeping and I lay staring out the window into the deep blue night sky, colored by a yellow moon.
It was the hope that Sheldon Renshaw would come to the orphanage and instead of taking Evelyn away, he would take me.
It wasn’t because I wanted to be paraded around by Mrs. Everton or dressed in a fine dress the way Evelyn would be. It wasn’t even that I wanted a man for myself, particularly. It was that if he took me, he would be taking me away from this place, from this life I was in. No matter what he did to me or where I ended up, surely it would be better than what I had now?