Blackberry Winter - By Sarah Jio

Chapter 1


Seattle, May 1, 1933

An icy wind seeped through the floorboards and I shivered, pulling my gray wool sweater tighter around myself. Just one button remained. At five cents apiece, it seemed frivolous to think of replacing the ones that had gone missing. Besides, spring had come. Or had it? I glanced outside the second-story window, and listened as the wind whistled and howled. An angry wind. The branches of the old cherry tree thrashed against the apartment building with such force, I jumped, worried another blow might break the glass. I couldn’t afford a repair bill, not this month. But just then, an unexpected sight spelled me from my worries, momentarily. Light pink blossoms swirled in the air. I sighed, smiling to myself. Just like snow.

“Mama?” Daniel squeaked from under the covers. I pulled back the ragged blue quilt, revealing his handsome round face and soft blond hair, which still curled at the ends. His baby hair. At three, with plump, rosy cheeks and big eyes a heart-stopping shade of blue, he was somewhere between baby and boy. But when he slept, he appeared exactly the way he had on the day he was born. Sometimes I’d tiptoe into his room in the early morning hours and watch him, clutching his little brown bear, adoringly matted with a torn ear and a threadbare blue velvet bow.

“What is it, love?” I asked, kneeling beside the small pine bed before casting a cautious gaze back toward the window, where the wind raged outside. What kind of mother am I to leave him here tonight, all alone? I sighed. Do I have another choice? Caroline worked the late shift. And I couldn’t bring him to the hotel again, especially after the incident last weekend when Estella found him sleeping in the ninth-floor penthouse suite. She had shooed him out from the warmth of the duvet as if he were a kitchen mouse caught dozing in the flour jar. It had frightened him terribly, and it had almost cost me my job. I took a deep breath. No, he’d be fine here, my precious boy, warm and safe in his bed. I’d lock the door. The walls of the tenement house were thin, but the door, yes, it was strong. Solid mahogany with a fine brass lock.

We both flinched at the sound of a knock at the door, urgent, pounding, insistent. Daniel grimaced. “Is it him again, Mama?” he said, before lowering his voice to a whisper. “The bad man?”

I kissed his forehead, attempting to hide the fear rising in my chest. “Don’t worry, love,” I said before standing. “It’s probably just Aunt Caroline. You stay here. I’ll go see.”

I walked down the stairs and stood in the living room for a moment, frozen, trying to decide what to do. The knocking persisted, louder now, angrier. I knew who it was, and I knew what he wanted. I glanced at my purse, knowing there wasn’t more than a dollar, maybe two, inside. Rent was due three weeks ago, and I’d been holding off Mr. Garrison with excuses, but now what? I’d spent my most recent paycheck on groceries and a new pair of shoes for Daniel, poor boy. I couldn’t expect him to fit into those baby slippers much longer.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

The pounding mirrored the beat of my heart. I felt frightened, trapped. The apartment took on the feeling of a cage. The walls around me might as well have been rusted wire. What am I going to do? Reflexively, I looked down at my wrist. Ever since Daniel’s father had presented me with the most exquisite object I’d ever laid eyes on, I’d cherished the gold chain inlaid with three delicate sapphires. That night at the Olympic Hotel I’d been a guest, not a maid wearing a black dress and white apron. As I opened the little blue box and he dangled the bracelet over my wrist, for the first time I felt like someone who was born to wear such finery. It almost seemed silly then, to think I could have, well…I closed my eyes tightly as the pounding at the door continued. I began to unhook the clasp, then shook my head. No, I would not hand it over to him. I would not give up that easily. Instead, I pulled the bracelet higher on my forearm, tucking it safely under the sleeve of my dress. I’d find another way.

I took a deep breath and walked slowly to the door,