I saw her hand first, veiny and pale, draped over the arm of an upholstered wingback. Her nails, glossy red like pomegranate seeds, could pop a balloon with a quick flick. Clusters of gold and diamonds adorned nearly every finger. Mother's breathing fluttered.
I approached the hand, staring at it, making my way around the back of the chair toward the window. Black heels poked out from beneath a stiff tailored skirt. I felt the bow in my hair slide down the side of my head.
The voice was thick and had mileage on it. Her platinum-blond hair was pulled tight in a clasp engraved with the initials W.W. The woman's eyes, lined in charcoal, had wrinkles fringing out from the corners. Her lips were scarlet, but not bloody. She was pretty once.
The woman stared at me, then finally spoke. "I said, 'Hello, Louise.'"
"Hello, Willie," said Mother. She dragged me in front of the chair. "Willie, this is Josie."
I smiled and bent my scabby legs into my best curtsy. The arm with the red nails quickly waved me away to the settee across from her. Her bracelet jangled a discordant tune.
"So ... you've returned." Willie lifted a cigarette from a mother-of-pearl case and tapped it softly against the lid.
"Well, it's been a long time, Willie. I'm sure you can understand."
Willie said nothing. A clock on the wall swung a ticktock rhythm. "You look good," Willie finally said, still tapping the cigarette against its case.
"I'm keeping myself," said Mother, leaning back against the settee.
"Keeping yourself ... yes. I heard you had a greenhorn from Tuscaloosa last night."
Mother's back stiffened. "You heard about Tuscaloosa?"
Willie stared, silent.
"Oh, he wasn't a trick, Willie," said Mother, looking into her lap. "He was just a nice fella."
"A nice fella who bought you those pearls, I guess," said Willie, tapping her cigarette harder and harder against the case.
Mother's hand reached up to her neck, fingering the pearls.
"I've got good business," said Willie. "Men think we're headed to war. If that's true, everyone will want their last jollies. We'd work well together, Louise, but ..." She nodded in my direction.
"Oh, she's a good girl, Willie, and she's crazy smart. Even taught herself to read."
"I don't like kids," she spat, her eyes boring a hole through me.
I shrugged. "I don't like 'em much either."
Mother pinched my arm, hard. I felt the skin snap. I bit my lip and tried not to wince. Mother became angry when I complained.
"Really?" Willie continued to stare. "So what do you do ... if you don't like kids?"
"Well, I go to school. I read. I cook, clean, and I make martinis for Mother." I smiled at Mother and rubbed my arm.
"You clean and make martinis?" Willie raised a pointy eyebrow. Her sneer suddenly faded. "Your bow is crooked, girl. Have you always been that skinny?"
"I wasn't feeling well for a few years," said Mother quickly. "Josie is very resourceful, and"
"I see that," said Willie flatly, still tapping her cigarette.
I moved closer to Mother. "I skipped first grade altogether and started in the second grade. Mother lost track I was supposed to be in school" Mother's toe dug into my ankle. "But it didn't matter much. She told the school we had transferred from another town, and I just started right in second grade."
"You skipped the first grade?" said Willie.
"Yes, ma'am, and I don't figure I missed anything at all."
"Don't ma'am me, girl. You'll call me Willie. Do you understand?" She shifted in her chair. I spied what looked like the butt of a gun stuffed down the side of the seat cushion.
"Yes, Mrs. Willie," I replied.
Excerpted from Out of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Copyright © 2013 by Ruta Sepetys. Excerpted by permission of Philomel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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