Starlight Night – Alexa Aston

LUCY’S STOMACH RUMBLED noisily as she sat on the cold, uneven wooden floor of the boardinghouse. Jem sat to her left. Boy sat on her right. The three children awaited instructions from Driskell. Or rather, Mrs. Driskell. Even at six years of age, it hadn’t taken Lucy long to understand that Mrs. Driskell was the true power in this household. She barked and everyone followed her orders, from her husband to the lowest member of their band of thieves. Mrs. Driskell wasn’t any kinder to the working girls in the house. Lucy still didn’t understand exactly what they did for work but she knew it involved taking their clothes off and making lots of noise. She could hear the girls hollering sometimes. The men, too, who went into the upstairs rooms with them. Walking down the hallway late at night, Lucy could hear the squeaking of bedsprings and wondered why men paid Mrs.

Driskell to let them jump on the beds with naked women. Jem, who was two years older than Lucy, said the men did more than jump on the bed but he wouldn’t tell her exactly what went on. She’d heard Driskell talking about jumping a woman’s bones once but she didn’t see how that might work. Asking Boy was no good. He was ten but never said a word. No one knew his name, which was why he was called Boy. He could understand what was said to him but he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—talk. Jem said Boy’s father had cut out Boy’s tongue but Lucy didn’t believe that because she’d seen Boy stick his tongue out at Mrs. Driskell when the woman’s back was turned once. She’d giggled, something she couldn’t remember doing in a long time.

Mrs. Driskell had wheeled and beaten Lucy senseless. She didn’t even think of giggling anymore. Driskell came shuffling in, his face red from either the cold or his drinking. Probably both. Lucy knew all about drinking because her papa had sipped strong spirits all day long and far into the night. He’d told her it was because he was sad that her mama and baby brother died. Papa must have loved them very much because he drank an awful lot. Driskell smelled like her father did. When both men drank too much, they went from being happy to sad to downright mean, the liquor spilled the drink down the front of their clothes.

Lucy hated the smell of alcohol and how it made men act. It made her wonder where her father was now. She supposed he had decided he hurt too much to love her and that’s why he’d sold her to Driskell and his wife. Sometimes, Lucy saw her father coming out of a tavern while she and Jem and Boy did their work on the streets. Once, she even thought he saw her but he quickly turned away and she decided she’d been mistaken. Then a few weeks ago, she’d seen him lying at the mouth of an alley. His eyes stared at the sky and he had blood all down his front. She’d hurried away, not telling Jem or Boy that the man was her father and he was now dead. She didn’t really miss him, though. She didn’t miss Mama, either, because she couldn’t remember her.

It didn’t matter. Driskell had told her he was her new papa now and Jem and Boy were her brothers. The work they did helped them stay a family. Even if Lucy knew it was wrong. Jem and Boy were already living at the boardinghouse when she arrived. Boy had given her a sad smile and a hug after Driskell introduced her. Jem hadn’t been as trusting but he’d come around and now was protective of her. It was Jem who had told her they used to work with another girl, Becky, but she worked upstairs now for Mrs. Driskell. Jem had promised Lucy that when the day came and the Driskells wanted Lucy to work upstairs instead of out on the streets, they would run away together.

He told her bad things happened to the girls upstairs and he didn’t want it to happen to Lucy. She asked if Boy could come with them. Jem had said he would think about it. Mr. and Mrs. Driskell kept whispering and then finally Mrs. Driskell said, “Fine. Just make sure they bring back more than they did last night.” Lucy’s stomach growled noisily and Mrs. Driskell glared at her.

She shrank into herself, trying to become as small as she could. She wanted to say she couldn’t help it. That she was hungry. She was always hungry. The three children never got enough to eat. They supplemented the meager fare they received at the house when they were out on the streets. Stealing an apple from a cart or stall. Digging through the trash for something edible that had been discarded before being totally finished. If they didn’t scrounge, they wouldn’t survive. “We’re working a new part of town today,” Driskell told them after his wife stormed from the room.

“You three are becoming known. It’s time to cover new territory.” Driskell then put them through their playacting. They had several stories they used, pretending different kinds of situations. All them ended one way—stealing from their mark. Jem had told her they followed the Rule of Three, where three pickpockets ganged up against a single mark. Lucy hadn’t known the name of what they did. She was never the one to do any of the stealing herself. Her role was to distract whatever mark Driskell chose for them. He would follow them along the streets and, by now, they knew every signal he gave, immediately understanding who should be approached and what story should unfold.

Sometimes, Lucy would pretend she was lost and begin crying. Or that she’d just been separated from her mother and she was trying to catch up to her. Sometimes, Boy would play her brother and pretend to be hurt as Lucy cried and asked passing strangers for help. Jem did all the real work. While Lucy and Boy distracted the mark, Jem moved in and took whatever the mark had in his outer coat pocket. Jem dipped his hand into a man’s pocket and kept the pocket open by spreading his fingers wide, then used his forefinger and thumb to retrieve what was of value. At times, he would remove the entire pocketbook itself. Or if a woman was their target, whatever she might carry in her reticule. Driskell told them it was merely a game and how they earned their keep but Lucy had known from the beginning that it was stealing. And that it was wrong.

Still, she was just a little girl and a dutiful one who did what she was told. If she didn’t, the Driskells might sell her again, as Papa had. She didn’t want to be separated from Jem or Boy—so she’d do whatever Driskell ordered her to do. “Go put on your clothes,” the older man barked. The trio pushed to their feet and went to where Mrs. Driskell kept their special clothes. These were nice outfits and made the children not only blend into the crowd better but made the marks more willing to approach them. If Lucy and her brothers had been dressed in their usual rags, she doubted any of the finely-dressed men and women would give them a second glance, much less stop and offer them help. She faced away from both boys and Mr. Driskell and lifted her threadbare dress from her body.

She could feel Driskell’s eyes bore into her back and she dressed as quickly as she could, pulling on the fine dress, stockings, and shoes and tying the pretty blue cloak strings around her neck. She wished she had gloves because winter had already hit London, bringing a biting cold to the early December air. They left the boardinghouse, Driskell having told them where they were going. He trailed them at a discreet distance from the other side of the street. As they walked, Jem took her hand and said, “I think we’re going to need to leave soon. Maybe even tonight.” “Why?” Lucy asked, wondering what made Jem reach such an important decision. He frowned. “It’s the way he stares at you, Luce. He didn’t used to do it when you first came last year.

” He paused. “It’s the same way he started looking at Becky. Before Mrs. Driskell took her upstairs to work.” She shuddered, not understanding the situation, only knowing it must be bad if Jem was talking of running away so soon. “Can Boy come?” she asked and turned to her other brother, who walked beside her, his eyes focused on the path ahead. Jem shrugged. “If he wants.” Lucy looked to Boy. “Will you come? Please?” Boy gave her a sweet smile and nodded.

She relaxed, knowing it would be the three of them together. “We’ll leave tonight,” Jem declared. “I’ve saved a few coins.” She gasped. “You didn’t! He’ll kill you, Jem.” “What he doesn’t know—” “He knows everything!” insisted Lucy. Even as they walked, she sensed fear paralyzing her. “I’m scared, Jem,” she admitted. “Just do your bit today,” Jem said. “Don’t let on that anything’s different, especially when we finish up.

” Lucy nodded, her faith in the small boy complete. Jem was brave where she wasn’t. She would look to Jem to take care of her in the future. Boy coming along would also help. Their small family could stay together. The narrow London streets teemed with people and vehicles. They made their way around street sellers whose carts blocked large portions of the sidewalks. Carriages and wagons competed with space as hackney cab drivers cut around them, often dangerously. Hundreds of pedestrians filled the pavement, darting in and out, dashing out into the road when vehicles came to a standstill. Lucy gripped Jem’s hand tightly since the previous evening’s snow had begun to melt, causing the sidewalks to become slippery.

At least no fog hung in the air this afternoon. She didn’t like fog. It scared her. As they walked, people shouted, “Mind! Look ahead!” as they tried to avoid the oncoming traffic. She stepped over everything from broken glass to piles of ashes that had been tossed out onto the sidewalks and streets. Driskell always stressed that they watch where they go, citing a hurt child was a worthless child if he couldn’t earn his keep. They reached their destination, a corner where heavy traffic piled up and pedestrians were left and right. Jem had already peeled away from them a block earlier, dropping back so as not to be seen with her or Boy. Lucy watched as a nattily-dressed man bumped into another, begging his pardon, all the while lifting the man’s pocketbook from him. She’d learned by watching and seen that the best pickpockets were often the best dressed.

People didn’t suspect someone dressed as finely as they were to rob them. Lucy made eye contact with the thief and he winked at her before continuing merrily upon his way. She looked around and saw the traffic backed up excessively, thanks to several wagons which had stopped to deliver goods at nearby shops. Knowing it was time to ply her trade, Lucy glanced across the street and received Driskell’s instructions through a few gestures he made. She released Boy’s hand and allowed sadness to wash over her. Her eyes began to sting with unshed tears and then she let them spill down her cheeks. She began crying as she turned in a circle. “Mama! Mama! Where are you?” She continued shouting for her nonexistent, missing parent and a well-dressed man carrying a beautiful ebony and ivory cane stopped in front of her. Kneeling, he asked, “What’s wrong, little girl? Have you lost your mother?” Lucy allowed her bottom lip to thrust out as Driskell had taught her and nodded. “She was here and then she was gone.

I had hold of her skirts and then we got separated.” As she spoke, she watched Jem pass by and double back, barely brushing against the man. Knowing his deft fingers had already accomplished the mission, she cried out, “Mama! There is she is!” and let joy fill her face. Lucy quickly darted away from the man and blended into the crowd, easily losing the mark because of her height. She sensed Boy following and turned the corner, where she and her brothers regrouped. As always, she was aware of Driskell close by, watching them from a distance. They wandered the streets for several hours, plying their trade, and then met up with Driskell, who held out a sack. Jem dumped in the afternoon’s haul but Lucy noticed a slight bulge and knew he kept a pocketbook back from Driskell. She glanced at her feet, not wishing to give away what she knew. It didn’t matter.

She heard the danger in Driskell’s tone as he asked, “Is that it?” “That’s all I got. Better than yesterday and we’ve only been at it a few hours,” Jem said with confidence. “With the opera tonight, we’ll make plenty today.” “You’re holding back, boy,” Driskell said, his words icy. Lucy saw him reach for Jem, who darted away. He began running as Driskell gave chase. The older man slipped on the ice and came crashing to the ground, curses pouring from his lips. Jem kept running. She couldn’t help but smile in victory, knowing Jem would get away. Then the unthinkable happened.

Lucy saw it unfold as if in slow motion. The hansom cab turning the corner too fast. The cart being pushed by its seller. Jem running, looking over his shoulder, not watching where he ran. Then he hit an icy patch and his feet flew out from under him. He collided with the cart, the wares toppling to the ground, scattering apples and pears everywhere. The cab plowing into it. And Jem screaming. She tried to race to Jem’s side but fingers tightened around her arm. She glanced and saw Boy holding her back, shaking his head sadly as the horse whinnied and reared, trampling her brother.

Lucy broke away from Boy and hurried to Jem, passing Driskell who stood slowly, brushing himself off. She reached the accident and heard an eerie keening. It came from Jem. Their gazes met, his eyes filled with agony, blood bubbling from his lips. “Run,” he croaked and then his eyes glazed over. Lucy screamed shrilly as she stood. She began running, not caring what direction she went. She saw Boy take off, running left as she went right. She continued moving, an ache swelling inside her. Jem was dead.

They would never escape. She would be a pickpocket and then do whatever Becky and the other girls did. No. She wouldn’t. She owed it to Jem to get away. Lucy stopped in her tracks, looking wildly around her. She no longer saw Boy and hoped he had gotten far away. She did, however, see Driskell running toward her, murder in his eyes. She refused to let him catch her. She would never go back to his house.

She would rather die begging on the streets than remain with him and his wife, becoming what they made her. With that, Lucy took off running again. She ran and ran and ran, darting between people. Under carts. Through alleys. She ran until her lungs burned and her legs ached and it felt as if her tears had frozen on her cheeks. And then Lucy ran some more.

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