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Authors: Eric Walters

Tags: #JUV013060, #JUV039220, #JUV013050

Innocent

BOOK: Innocent
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IN EARLY JUNE 1964,
the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls burns to the ground, and its vulnerable residents are thrust out into the world. The orphans, who know no other home, find their lives changed in an instant. Arrangements are made for the youngest residents, but the seven oldest girls are sent on their way with little more than a clue or two to their pasts and the hope of learning about the families they have never known. On their own for the first time in their lives, they are about to experience the world in ways they never imagined…

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Innocent
ERIC
WALTERS

O
R
C
A
B
O
O
K
P
U
B
L
I
S
H
E
R
S

For Anita

One

THE SUN WAS
beating down on me so brightly
that I had to keep my eyes tightly closed. It felt
so
good. I was like a cat
basking in the sun, drinking in the warmth, letting it soak in and fill me up. I
could lie here all day. Soft sand under me, the sound of the ocean in my ears… all I
needed was for the breeze to be a little bit stronger. The warmth was building and
becoming too hot. The smell of the ocean was changing. Had somebody started a
bonfire on the beach? Why would they do that on such a beautiful, sunny day? The
smell of the fire got stronger and stronger until it wasn’t just in my nose. I could
almost taste the smoke and—I sat bolt upright in bed. The beach was gone, but the
smell remained.

I looked around, trying to make sense of my surroundings. It was almost pitch black,
but in the dim light coming from the window, I could make out thin lines of smoke.
Smoke…that meant there was a fire!

I tried to jump out of bed, but my feet got tangled in the covers and I tumbled to
the floor, the wind knocked out of me. Frantically I kicked at the blankets,
terrified and desperate to get untangled. I struggled free and scrambled on all
fours, bumping into the night table, reaching up for the lamp. I grabbed it and
pushed the button, but nothing happened. I pushed the button again and again, but it
wasn’t working!

I pulled myself to my feet. The smoke was getting thicker. I stumbled over to Toni’s
bed.

“Toni, Toni! Wake up, get up!”

She didn’t budge. What was wrong? Without thinking, I reached down and slapped her
across the face. Her eyes shot open. Even in the dim light, I could see a look of
complete confusion and terror on her face.

“There’s a fire!” I screamed. “Something is on fire!”

She didn’t move. She looked completely stunned.

“There’s smoke, a fire,” I stammered. I had to make her understand.

Suddenly the look of confusion changed to panic. She was like a wild animal clutching
at me, flailing her arms. I stepped back, afraid she was going to hit me. Instead,
she grabbed my nightgown and held on.

“We have to get out,” she yelled.

She was still holding on to my nightgown as I pulled her to her feet, out the door
and into the hall. There was more smoke out there, much more.

Toni froze.

“We have to make sure
everybody
gets out! Go—pound on doors!” I said.

Her eyes were still panic-filled, but she nodded her head and let go of my nightgown.

“Fire! Fire! Fire!” Joe, the cook, was yelling from somewhere down below.

“Get Cady, get Malou…make sure they’re up!” I screamed.

Toni stood there, unmoving, as if she couldn’t even command her feet to walk.

“Go!” I pushed her hard, propelling her down the hall as I started in the other
direction.

There was banging behind me as she hammered on a door and called out the girls’
names. I reached the second door and was about to pound on it when it popped open
and Sara and Dot tumbled out, bumping me into the wall. We stared at each other,
speechless. I opened my mouth to say something when Joe called out again, “Fire,
fire, fire!”

“We have to get out,” Dot yelled.

“Yes, yes, we have to get everybody out. Go wake up Tess—she has to get out.”

“She’s up…she’s out. She didn’t come home last night,” Sara said.

My mind raced, glad that she was safe, wondering why she hadn’t come home, where she
was and—

Toni, Malou and Cady ran down the hall and pushed the three of us ahead of them. We
stumbled down the stairs, bare feet pounding against the wood. It was almost pitch
dark in the windowless stairwell, but we had walked up and down the stairs so many
times over the years that we didn’t need light to find our way. We hit the second
floor together. The smell of smoke was strong, but I still couldn’t see any fire.

The door to the little-girls’ dormitory was already open, and Joe and Miss Webster
appeared. In Joe’s arms were two of the littlest girls. Miss Webster held two more
by their hands. Trailing behind Joe were the others, moving two by two and holding
hands the way we’d practiced in fire drills. If only this were a drill. The girls
had fear in their eyes; some were whimpering, and some had started to cry.

“Quick now, ladies!” Joe called out. “Toni, Betty, all of you big girls go down—show
them the way! That’s right. Good girls!”

He made it sound like this really wasn’t anything more than a drill.

As a group, we went down the steps. The sound of our feet thumping down the worn
stairs was all we could hear.

We reached the bottom, spread out and lined the front-hall walls. Like magic, Tess
appeared, already holding the hand of one of the little girls. Unlike us, she was
already dressed. Dot threw her arms around Tess as the little girls, led by Joe as
if he were the Pied Piper, came down the stairs. We allowed them to pass. Through
the dining hall and to the door they marched. When Miss Webster appeared at the end
of the line, we followed her, our feet thundering as we crossed the verandah and ran
onto the lawn. Our bare feet sank into the wet grass, and a rush of cold, fresh air
entered my lungs.

Suddenly, Mrs. Hazelton, our matron, appeared. She was in her nightgown as well,
standing with Joe and Miss Webster and the Little Ones. She called out for everybody
to be calm, to move away from the building. As always, she was in charge, and we
followed her orders. Outside, the full moon and the stars bathed the lawn in light,
and I could see clearly. I kept moving away from the building, as if it were in
pursuit, and I could see that we had to get farther away. Finally, with the full
expanse of the lawn and the burning house behind us, we stopped.

The Little Ones now started to sob. More fully awake, they now knew enough to be
scared. A pair of the girls—Debbie and Carol—broke ranks and rushed to me.

“We’re all right now,” I said to the girls. I swept Debbie up, and she wrapped her
arms around my neck. Carol pressed against me. I knew the Little Ones needed to be
comforted, but having them against me gave comfort to me as well.

“It’s going to be all right,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was trying to reassure them
or me.

All of the other girls were spread out, scattered in groups of two or three, some
standing, and some slumped to the ground. All were staring back at the house. Toni
came to my side. She had two of the Little Ones clinging to her as well.

There was a chill in the air that made it seem more like early April than nearly
summer. None of this seemed real. It was as if I’d woken up from a dream to find
myself in a nightmare. I wanted to pinch myself and wake up from this one as well.
Then I saw the flames spilling out as the fire burst through the top corner of the
house. Smoke was billowing out, staining the darkened sky, making it look as if a
bottle of ink had been spilled into the heavens.

I edged toward the others as they moved toward me. We seemed involuntarily drawn to
huddle together. Nobody spoke as the fire roared. Now we couldn’t just see it and
smell it; we could hear it. The fire was consuming the house—our home, and the only
home I’d ever known. The fire grew, getting louder and louder as more flames, light
and smoke became visible. The whole upper floor was now engulfed, each window alive
with fire. I counted over, left to right, until I found our bedroom window.

“It’s there in our room,” I said to Toni.

We watched as the flames engulfed it—the place where we had slept, where we had
lived. Our beds, our clothing, everything we owned was being eaten by the fire.

“They’ll be here soon,” Toni said. “Can’t you hear the fire trucks?”

I shook my head.

“We’ll all be fine,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?” I asked.

Toni didn’t answer. She knew as well as I did that nothing was going to be fine. Even
if the fire trucks arrived soon, the house was already gone.

There was an explosion, and a ball of flames shot into the air as the edge of the
roof collapsed and the corner window blew out. I screamed and jumped back. Everybody
else seemed to scream at the same time. I turned to Toni, but she was gone, running
away across the grass, heading toward the trees and the river. I turned to go after
her. She needed me, but the two little girls were clinging to me even tighter now,
crying.

“Toni, come back!” I yelled, but she didn’t hear me, or if she did, she didn’t pay
attention. I tried to take a few steps, but the little girls clung even tighter,
locked in place. They needed me too. Toni would be fine. She was away from the fire.

“Is everybody here?” Mrs. Hazelton asked.

She went from person to person, looking at each one, dropping to her knees when
necessary, calling out their names, counting. I thought we’d gotten them all
out—unless somebody had hidden under a bed or—

“All the Little Ones are here,” she said.

I felt a rush of relief flow through me. We hadn’t missed anybody.

Mrs. Hazelton turned to Joe. “Could you please go down and make sure Toni is fine?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He turned and left.

“The rest of you, come closer, come here, gather around.” Her voice was calm,
reassuring.

We all moved closer until we were pressed together almost as if we were one solid
mass. It felt good. It chased away the night chill and the fear of the fire.

Mrs. Hazelton continued to speak. Her voice—that accent always made me think she was
as royal as the Queen of England—was calm and reassuring. She spoke so softly that I
couldn’t make out all she was saying, but it still made me feel safer knowing that
somehow she’d take care of the situation, take care of us, the way she always did.

The sirens had started quietly, but they were much louder now. I turned around, as
did others, looking into the distance, down the road, toward town. The fire trucks
were almost here.

I turned back toward our home. Flames were shooting from the roof, and thick black
smoke stained the night sky, the fire throwing out light and shadows. The trucks
would be here soon, but it was too late for the house. Too late for us.

Then Mrs. Hazelton’s voice came again, but she wasn’t talking, she was singing.


Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

Her voice got louder with each line.


I once was lost but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.

Others added their voices.

“’
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved.

More joined in—including me—and the chorus surged.


How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

There was a tremendous crash as the entire roof collapsed, sending smoke and ash into
the sky. Some of the girls screamed again.

Mrs. Hazelton’s voice emerged once again, and many of us sang with her as the fire
trucks rumbled up the driveway.


Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come;

’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

Home…where would my home be?

BOOK: Innocent
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