"Nonsense, Michael. You don't know what's best for you yet," his Aunt Breanna told him. "Have you packed all your things?"
"Yes, Aunt Breanna," he sighed.
"And you, Sally?"
"Yes, Momma," Michael's sixteen-year-old cousin said.
"Then what is that slingshot doing in your pocket?" she asked sternly.
"I wanna keep it with me!"
"You put that in the trunk, Michael."
"No! I wanna keep it with me!"
"Aunt Breanna, please?"
The woman looked down at the little boy. She sighed. "Fine, you may keep it with you. But if you lose it, don't come crying to me!"
"Or me," added Sally.
Michael stuck his tongue out in her direction.
"Momma, Michael st-"
"I did not!" protested Michael.
"You didn't even hear what I had to say!"
"I know what you were gonna say!"
"What?" taunted Sally, who still quarreled with her cousin like a child.
"You were gonna say that I stuck my tongue out at you, and I didn't!"
"Hush, the both of you! I don't want to hear the two of you bickering back and forth. It'll be a long train ride to New York."
Sally climbed into the waiting carriage. Michael scrambled up beside her, and Aunt Breanna followed. "Say goodbye to Pittsburgh, children."
"Oh, Momma, must we leave? We were so happy here! Besides, I've got to leave Elizabeth and Sarah and Emily and Margaret behind! And my school, and all my other friends, and Thomas-"
"Now, Sally, there will be plenty of friends to make in New York City! Many more. And better schools. I'll be able to have a better job, and…"
Michael tuned his aunt and cousin out and watched the Monogahela River roll by lazily. He had been born seven years ago, in 1883. Michael had lived in Ohio on a small farm for five years, with three pretty older sisters and both his parents. Maria was the oldest, then Stephanie, and then Dana. Dana was the nicest of them all. She was ten and was quite a tomboy. Michael and Dana had been very best friends until… the accident.
When Michael was five, Dana was nine, Stephanie was fifteen, and Maria was nineteen, the family moved to Pittsburgh. They lived in a small apartment that was very crowded and cramped. The entire family, with the exception of Michael, worked at the factory. Michael wasn't old enough yet.
"Michael! Michael, wake up! It's time for you to go down to Aunt Breanna's!" said Maria cheerfully.
Michael rolled over. "All right, all right, I'm awake, honest!" protested Michael. Then he remembered. "Dana! Dana, it's my birthday! Dana, I'm six! I'm catchin' up ta you, Dana! I'm six! Six whole years old, I'm six!" he cried.
His mother laughed. "Go on, get dressed! When the day's over and we're home, we'll have a surprise for you."
"Oh, Michael, you'll love it!" promised Dana.
"Hush, Dana! Don't tell him!" cried Stephanie, playfully swatting her little sister with a dishtowel. "Hurry, Michael! Breakfast is almost ready!"
"Don't I have time fer a bath?" he moaned. He loved soaking in the porcelain bathtub until his skin turned wrinkly and the water was cold.
"Of course! It's your birthday, isn't it?" asked Maria.
Michael grinned and ran for the bathtub. By the time he was done, breakfast was waiting.
"Happy birthday, Michael!" said everyone as he sat down.
Maria set down a plate of pancakes in front of him and kissed him.
"Aww, don't, Maria!" he protested, squirming away. Stephanie and his mother just laughed. Michael blushed. He didn't like people laughing at him. He started eating his breakfast.
"Here, Michael! I got you something!" said Dana.
"Fer me?" asked Michael. Even at six, he knew money was scarce, and there hadn't been birthday presents for a while.
Dana nodded and shyly presented him with a package wrapped in the previous day's newspaper.
Michael tore off the paper. "A slingshot! Oh, golly, thanks, Dana! This is the best present in the world!" He lunged at her and hugged her, knocking them both over.
"Ow!" cried Dana, rubbing her head but laughing. "Be careful there! When I get home from the factory, I'll teach you how to shoot it!"
"Not in here you won't," warned Dana's mother. "Come on, Michael. Run down to Aunt Breanna's. She'll be glad to see the birthday boy!"
"But Sally's awful mean!" protested Michael. "I'm just glad she's at her fancy girls' school all day!"
"Michael. She's your cousin! Now be nice, and be a good boy!" His mother kissed him. "I love you."
"I love you too, Ma! Bye Day! Bye Stephie! Bye Maria! Bye Pa!" Michael clattered down the stairs, prepared to spend the day having Aunt Breanna's friends fuss over how adorable he was.
The day was long for little Michael, and the only thing that kept him from going through Sally's cosmetics was the surprise Ma had promised. It was tough, since he loved playing practical jokes on Sally. Mixing her rouge and powder together had gotten a rather wonderful reaction from Sally. And hiding all her tiny hairpins all over her room was fun. But Michael managed to be good for the whole day.
"Aunt Breanna, shouldn't Ma and Pa and Stephie and Maria and Day be home by now?" asked Michael anxiously. "They promised a special surprise!"
"It *is* rather late," said Aunt Breanna thoughtfully.
"Thomas is picking me up at eight to go to the theater," said Sally. "I'm going to get ready. Momma, did you press my best dress?"
"Yes, Sally. It's in your room."
"You didn't touch it, did you Michael?" asked Sally anxiously. "If you did…"
"I didn't!" cried Michael. "Aunt Breanna, where are they?"
"I don't know, Michael. Here, have some of this vegetable stew."
Michael stayed up all night waiting for Dana to come bouncing into Aunt Breanna's apartment, but she never came. Sally went off to the theater and came home again. The night came and went, and Michael's family still didn't come.
"Where's Dana?" asked Michael, tears filling his eyes.
Aunt Breanna shook her head. "Come, Michael. We'll go to the factory and see if something's happened."
Michael and Aunt Breanna stepped onto the street. They began walking to the factory.
"Extra! Extra! Hundreds die in factory fire!"
"Aunt Breanna," Michael said, pulling on her skirt. "Buy a paper from him!"
"I don't need one, Michael. No one reads it."
"But he said-"
"There was a fire in a factory!" he cried, stopping still.
Aunt Breanna turned to Michael. She paused, then went over to the boy and bought a paper. She scanned it quickly, then slowly went over to Michael and stooped down to his level. "Michael… at the factory yesterday…"
"They're dead?" he asked quietly.
"IS MY FAMILY DEAD?" he screamed, unnoticed tears falling down his face.
Aunt Breanna drew backwards a bit. "Yes… yes, Michael. Michael, I'm-"
Michael pushed her over and took off running. He had no idea where he was going, but did it matter? They were dead. Dana, Stephanie, Maria, his mother, his father… he could only think of the past times. All the good times he and Dana had on their farm in Ohio, the times Stephanie had gotten him out of trouble, the time Maria let Michael help make dinner and didn't even mind when he spilled a cup of sugar.
"Michael! Michael, stop daydreaming! Come, get on the train. Hurry, it's going to leave any moment," said Aunt Breanna, shaking his shoulder. "Hold Sally's hand."
"I ain't holdin' no girl's hand!" he protested.
Aunt Breanna shook her head. "Fine. But don't get lost!"
"I won't! I'm seven! I won't get lost!" He followed Aunt Breanna onto the train and sat down in the seat beside the window. He didn't want to leave Pittsburgh. He was leaving everything that he'd ever known behind again.
Michael was very tired and leaned against the cool window to think. Just as he always did when he was deep in thought, he involuntarily grabbed the silver chain he wore around his neck and pulled it out of his shirt. The chain fell to his waist, and a small key dangled on the end. He could remember when he had received it…
"Now don't you go and lose this key, Michael," said Ma sternly. "If there's ever trouble down in Aunt Breanna's apartment, or if you need something when we're not there, you may use it, but never any other time. Never let anyone know that you've got it, all right?"
"Yes, Ma," said Michael, serious for a moment. Ma smiled and kissed him, and the serious moment was over as quickly as it had come. Michael went running off after Dana, only thinking how glad he was that he had a key of his very own!
The very next day, Michael forgot his cap in the apartment. Sally came home, and Aunt Breanna decided to take the two children for a walk by the river.
"But I forgot my cap!" wailed Michael.
"You don't need it. Why do boys wear such ugly caps, anyway?" asked Sally.
Michael glared at her. "Sally-"
"Now, now children. Michael, you can go without."
"Wait, Momma, I'm not nearly ready! Just let me fix my hair, and change my dress, and get my hat, and…"
While Sally was still going on about the things she needed to do, Michael glanced around, very quietly opened the door, slipped out, and closed it behind him. He tiptoed up the stairs to his apartment, checked the number on the door, and was beginning to pull the chain out of his shirt when-
"What are you doing up here, you little brat? Get back down to our apartment! Trying to break into your own apartment… you'll be a little thief yet, just wait and see! You'll be living on the streets by the time you're fifteen!" said Sally, grabbing a struggling Michael by his collar.
"Shut up, Sally!" growled Michael.
Sally's eyes widened and she let go of his collar, letting him tumble to the floor. "Momma! Momma! Michael told me…"
Michael groaned and rolled over. He didn't think there would be any bruises or cuts…
Michael snapped out of his daydream. He didn't feel like thinking about the past anymore. It hurt to think of Dana, Stephanie, Maria, Ma, and Pa. Yes, they'd been dead for over a year, but the pain hadn't faded. If anything, the memories had grown more painful in the year Michael had spent living with Aunt Breanna and Sally. He didn't go to school, for Aunt Breanna was spending all of her money dressing Sally in fancy clothes and sending her to a private girls' school. Michael spent his days at home, "helping" Aunt Breanna and thinking about his family.
"I'm hungry," Michael suddenly said, turning to Aunt Breanna.
"Is food the only thing you think about?" asked Sally harshly.
"Sh… be quiet, Sally," Michael corrected himself. "Can't I go back to the dining car? I know where it is!"
Aunt Breanna thought for a moment. "Yes, but only if Sally goes with you."
"Momma! I'm ashamed to be seen in public with such a ragged little boy!" whined Sally.
"Hush, Sally. He's too young to go alone."
"No I ain't!"
"Yes, you are," said Aunt Breanna sternly. "Go on, now."
Sally made faces as Michael climbed over Aunt Breanna and started to the dining car. They walked back through the cars, and were about halfway to the dining car when there was a loud cracking noise. Michael and Sally turned to see the first few cars of the train break apart from the rest. The cars picked up momentum and flew over a cliff. In only a moment, they would be sure to follow.
"Quick! We've got to jump!" shouted a man, pushing Sally and Michael onto the small step between the cars. "Jump!" he ordered.
Michael scrambled up on top of the railing surrounding the step and jumped off into the grass. Sally tumbled off beside him, followed by that man.
"Are you two all right?" he asked, sitting up.
"Thank you ever so much, Mr.…" said Sally, reached out to shake his hand.
"Conlon. Thomas Conlon. You are…?"
"Sally Elizabeth Winters. This is my cousin, Michael."
"You're very brave, Michael," said Mr. Conlon. "Where are you two from?"
"We're from Pittsburgh, and we're going to New York. Oh, what are we going to do? Momma's dead, and we've got nowhere to go!" sobbed Sally.
"Calm down, Miss Winters. I've got a boarding house that you're welcome to stay in. If you do a bit of work around the boarding house, you can stay there for free."
"Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Conlon! We surely appreciate it!" said Sally.
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