The first car on the train was for the wealthier travelers, but sneaking into it was easy. I settled down into the last row of plush velvet seats and did what I could to look like I belonged there. I smiled blandly. I gazed casually out the window. I wedged my threadbare carpetbag well under my seat with the force of one stiff kick. I might be leaving Iowa as a farm kid who’d never had two nickels to rub together—but I’d arrive in Chicago in style.
The train pulled away from the station and quickly picked up speed. Each new mile that was revealed to me quickened my heartbeat, made me almost stupid with joy. It was really happening. I was leaving, at last.
Surely you won’t remember me. My uncle’s words played over and over in my head as hills of fragrant black Iowa earth rolled past my window. A group of boys ran along the side of the train, shouting and waving. I waved back at them. Surely you won’t remember me.
How could he think I’d forget?
For my first eight years, my Uncle Owen’s visits had been the highlight of my life. He came rarely and irregularly, usually with no notice at all. One day he would just be there, walking down the dirt road that stretched the length of our little rural county, a brown leather suitcase in one hand. I remembered barreling down the road toward him, ignoring a rebuke from whichever aunt happened to notice I had abandoned my chores. Remembered being lifted high, high above the dirt and difficulty and simple plainness of my farm-bound life. Remembered being held.
He would perch me on his shoulders, and together we would march to the front porch of our little white farmhouse, where one of my aunts inevitably stood, arms crossed, trying hard to fight a smile.
It was usually Aunt Agatha. Aunt A was the sternest and most humorless of my three aunts, but even she was not totally immune to her younger brother’s charm. She would look him up and down and say something along the lines of, “Well, Owen, I see you haven’t forgotten where we live after all.”
And instead of adopting a repentant look, as I certainly would have under that gaze, Uncle Owen would just smile. “I could never forget you, Aggie. After all, you’re the one who knows all my secrets.”
And with a grudging jerk of the head, he would be welcomed inside.
The next few days were like Christmas: bright and magical and filled with an unspoken urgency, a need to savor every minute. If it was summer, Uncle Owen would insist that we all go down to the swimming hole and spend an entire afternoon paddling about in the cool water. And if it was winter, we would all sit around the fire until far past my bedtime, eating roasted chestnuts while Aunt Bertha played her piano and Aunt Wilhelmina sang along. Under their brother’s teasing, my old spinster aunts became softer, happier, younger somehow. And I was in heaven.
The best was bedtime. After I had brushed my unruly red hair into some semblance of order and climbed into my small bed beneath the eaves, Uncle Owen would come upstairs and tell me a story. He didn’t bring a book with him, like Aunt B would have, and his stories weren’t morality tales, like Aunt A’s. They were made up, on the spot, just for me. And they always started the same way.
“One day Kate went outside and climbed into her Magic Cottage. And she said, ‘Magic Cottage, take me to—’ ”
I would let my mind travel, imagining all the wonderful places there were in the world and believing, at least for a moment, that I had a chance of seeing them. “Paris,” I might say, or “New York,” or “the North Pole.” My most vivid memory is of the time I asked for Chicago.
“Chicago?” Uncle Owen rubbed his beard, and his warm smile faltered. “Why there?”
“That’s where you live, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But, Kate, it’s a dirty, scary place. You wouldn’t want to go there.”
“But I do.”
Uncle Owen gave me a long, thoughtful look. “All right then. One day Kate went outside and climbed into her Magic Cottage. And she said, ‘Magic Cottage, take me to Chicago!’ And the Magic Cottage rose up into the air.” Uncle Owen’s hand circled above the bed. “And it came down, whir, whir, whir, whir, SPLAT!” He poked me gently in the tummy. “Right in the middle of Chicago.”
There followed an epic tale, one of terrible crime and high drama and the triumph of what was right. Just when it seemed all was lost, story-Kate ran back to the Magic Cottage, threw open the Cabinet of Necessary Things, and found within the one thing that would save her: a key to the city jail. With that key, she set the innocent free and vanquished the guilty. Then she climbed back into the Magic Cottage to go home.
“Magic Cottage, take me home!”
Uncle Owen’s hand circled above the bed again, then whir, whir, whir, whir, SPLAT! The Magic Cottage was home. I smiled, already knowing the lines that would complete the story. “And Kate went inside and told her Aunt Agatha all about her adventure in Chicago. And Aunt Agatha said ‘Sure you did, dear. Sure you did.’ ”
Uncle Owen and I grinned at each other. Those last lines were always my favorites. In them was the knowledge that my uncle and I shared something special. That we alone, of all our family, knew there was magic in the world. That we were willing to go and seek it.
His visits would always end the same way: I would walk home from school one afternoon and smell a pie cooling in the kitchen window. That was how I knew he was gone.
I would slink into the kitchen, drop my books on the floor, and put my head down on the table. Instead of scolding me for throwing my things around, Aunt A would smooth my hair back from my forehead, pour me a glass of milk, and cut me an extra big slice of pie. “He wanted to say good-bye,” she would say. “But the train left too early.”
Even as a child I found that story hard to buy. But I clung to it, wanting it to be true. Even when he stopped coming entirely, when whole years went by without a word, I kept hoping that it was circumstance that had drawn him away. That if he had his choice he would come back to me and make my life brighter, warmer, more alive.
Eventually I stopped thinking about him, but I never stopped hoping. And when his letter arrived, just a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I couldn’t tear it open fast enough.
Surely you won’t remember me after all these years. But I most definitely remember you. There are times when a man longs to reconnect with his family, and for me one of those times has arrived. I would like to invite you to Chicago to stay with me for a time. If you have ever wanted to see the big city, this is your chance.
My chance. A real chance, not just a dream of one, not just a story. As the miles rolled away, as haystack-studded farmland gave way to little towns and finally to towering, magnificent buildings, I read Uncle Owen’s letter over and over. This was my chance. I had to make it count.
A day and a half of travel took some of the gleam out of my eyes and left me feeling dingy and limp. But all that changed the moment I stepped off the train and onto the platform in Chicago’s Grand Central Station.
The scent of soot was in the air, and sweat, and aftershave, and popcorn, and perfume. There were people of every color, and I couldn’t help but marvel. My sleepy little rural county in Iowa was an Irish community, composed of a dozen farming families, all of whom hailed from the land of Eire. I could tell a Kelly from an O’Keefe just by glancing at their earlobes, but I’d never met a soul whose skin didn’t tend to freckle.
Here there were people of every hue and shade. But what was more amazing was the sheer number of them. People embracing, people pulling away. People laughing, totally unaware of what a marvelous place they were in, of how lucky they were to be here.
You shouldn’t be here, said Aunt A’s voice in my head. Just turn right back around and head home. Don’t even leave the train station. This place has nothing you need.
But I knew she was wrong. I knew where to look for comfort and security, if I wanted it—for familiarity and peace and a sober kind of joy. That was all behind me, back in Iowa, in the arms of the aunts and in the little farming community where I’d grown up.
Those things made me happy enough, but they left me hungry inside. The things I needed were ahead of me: adventure, excitement, unpredictability. A life different from the one all my aunts had planned out for me. A purpose of my own, a big one—though I wasn’t yet quite sure what that purpose would be.
One man in the terminal caught my eye. He was a tall, rail-thin man with skin the color of walnuts and a great big bush of a beard. He wore a black suit and a bright blue turban. His dark eyes swept over the crowd frantically; they stopped when they found my face.
I glanced behind me. No one else on the platform seemed to be paying the turbaned man any mind. I turned back toward him. Yes, it was definitely me he was looking at. He was trying to make his way to me, but the crowd of disembarking passengers was going in the other direction, and he was having a hard time pushing through.
I let out a sigh that was half disappointment and half relief. I had assumed Uncle Owen would meet me at the train station himself, but he must have sent this gentleman instead. Now I had another hour or two to anticipate my reunion with my uncle, and worry about whether it would be all I hoped.
I picked up my worn carpetbag and made my way toward the man in the turban. Before I reached him, I felt a sharp tug on my shoulder. I reached for the strap of my purse and found it missing. I glanced around frantically and saw a boy running away from me at top speed. In his hand he clutched my purse.
“Hey!” I yelled. I chased after the boy, who was already disappearing into the crowd. “Somebody stop him! He’s got my purse!”
That purse held every dime I had to my name: four dollars and seventy-five cents, to be exact. I shoved my way through the close-packed crowds, trying to keep the boy’s brown-checkered cap in sight. It was nearly impossible, because the kid clearly knew what he was doing. He dodged around gaggles of chatting tourists, vaulted over benches, and had nearly reached the door when a tall man in a gray fedora reached out and grabbed him, roughly, by the shoulder. The man shook him, and the boy surrendered my purse.
I caught up to them in time to hear the man say, “I think you owe this lady an apology.”
The boy turned wide and unrepentant blue eyes on me. “Sorry, lady.” He held out the purse. I snatched it and quickly rifled through the contents. Everything was there.
“It had better not happen again,” said the man. “Or I’ll turn you over to the police. Now get going.” He gave the kid a gentle shove in the direction of the doors.
“Kids.” The man shrugged his shoulders. “What can you do?”
I gave him my full attention for the first time, and my breath caught in my throat. It wasn’t that he was a handsome man, not exactly. He was good-looking enough I guess, with neat black hair, dark eyes, and smooth, olive skin. But that wasn’t what got my attention.
It was that he exuded power. The rakish tilt of his pearl gray fedora spoke of authority and assurance. The half smile on his thin lips challenged anyone to try and get in his way.
“The name’s Bruno Fiore,” he said. He paused, as though giving me a moment to react.
I cringed inside. I was supposed to know that name. Everything about his manner said that I should. A city girl would surely know exactly who he was. But not me. I hadn’t a clue.
I didn’t know enough to give him the response he obviously expected. But I wasn’t about to admit I was just some hick from the country, either. So I decided to play it fresh. I cocked my head to the side and said, in the sassiest tone I could manage, “Am I supposed to know who that is?”
His brows bunched up, coming down over his eyes in a way that gave me a shiver up my spine. But after a moment, his eyes gleamed.
He leaned in close to me. “You’ve got a lot of cheek,” he said.
I felt my heart pick up the pace. He’d bought my act. He’d even thought it was cute. But could I keep up this nervy persona I’d just adopted?
I shrugged. “Call it cheek if you want. I’ll call it guts.”
The smile on his face deepened. “I’ll accept your terminology,” he said. “And I would very much like to know your name.”
“My Aunt Agatha told me not to go around giving my name to strange men.” That was true. She had said those exact words at least three times before she let me get on the train.
And yet I was dying to introduce myself to Mr. Fiore. His power called to me, like the city itself.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to upset Aunt Agatha.” His eyes positively twinkled. “But I don’t suppose she told you not to eat. My brother has a restaurant, Nino’s, on Lincoln. Come by for a meal on the house.”
“On Lincoln,” I said, nodding as though I knew where that was. “Thank you.”
“Of course, I have to know your name. I can’t just tell them Aunt Agatha’s niece. Then everyone with an Aunt Agatha would get a free meal.” He leaned close, giving me a full dose of his affecting grin.
I couldn’t help but return it. “My name’s Kitty Callahan,” I said.
Darn tootin’ it was. Kitty Callahan was the end result of countless hours spent staring up at my bedroom ceiling, dreaming up ways for plain, unassuming Kate Doyle to change her luck.
“Don’t forget it,” I said. “The next time you see it, it’ll be up in lights.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you again, Mr. Fiore.” I turned my back on him and sauntered away, feeling bashful about my snug dress but determined not to show it.
I knew he was watching me. Knew he was imagining the next time we’d meet. I thought it was because he’d seen something in me that called to him, a strength to answer his.
But I now believe that all he saw was a country rube who had no idea where she really was. Someone he could dominate. Someone he could own.
When I walked out of the train station it took me a moment to catch my breath. I’d thought I’d been comfortable with big before; after all, what was my home but a massive swath of brown and green hills, stretching out beyond the imagination? But in the shadows of Chicago’s buildings, I realized: I’d never seen big before.
Concrete towered over me. Story upon story, buildings climbed into the sky. This must be where all the people live, I thought, as I tried, and failed, to count all the windows winking in the afternoon sun. But how can they stand being so high?
I gasped as an electric trolley, painted a bright, cheerful, red, raced past me. I watched it go in wonder. I desperately wanted to hop aboard. But I had no idea where it was going.
Actually, I had no idea where I was going. I looked around for the man in the turban. Whoever he was, he wasn’t here now. Nor was Uncle Owen.
Several black taxi cabs were idling at the curb. I walked over to the nearest one and leaned in the side window. “How much to take me to Hyde Park?”
The cabbie gave me a quick, assessing look. “Take you for a dollar,” he said.
A dollar. One whole dollar out of less than five.
I gave the cabbie an assessing look of my own. I didn’t like what I saw. There was a nervousness about him, as though he were anxious to see whether I’d actually accept his price. I walked to the next cab in line and leaned in the window. “Hyde Park. How much?”
“Fifty cents. Hop on in.”
I tossed my bag in the back seat and got in. And smiled to myself. I felt like I’d just passed the first test Chicago had thrown at me.
The cabbie let me out in front of a venerable old brownstone on a gorgeous tree-lined avenue. I walked up the steps and stood on the front porch, afraid to knock.
Uncle Owen hadn’t specified the length of my visit in his letter, but I knew how long I wanted to stay: forever. And to do that, I would need help—a place to stay, a way to replenish the dwindling dimes in my pocketbook. My uncle could give me that help. But would he want to? Could I make him see that this was where I belonged?
I didn’t exactly get my anxiety under control—but I did get tired of standing outside in the cold. I took a deep breath and knocked.
A gentleman opened the door, nodded at me, and walked away without even speaking. I peered inside. The house was teeming with people. I had arrived in the middle of a party.
I stepped inside slowly, gazing all around me. Never had I seen such an elegant home. A long wooden staircase curved up to the second story, each stair sunk deep in red plushy carpet. The walls were covered in paper—a pale shade of robin’s egg blue, something we never would have used at home. How could we, when the soot from the gas lamps would stain it within a year?
But here the lights were electric, bright and beaming, hanging from copper fixtures along the hall. There was no soot, no smell, nothing but wondrous light.
The parlor to the right of the entry hall was full of people dressed in elegant grays and blacks. Food was piled up on a beautiful mahogany sideboard, and the conversation was quiet and restrained. In a corner, a harpist drew her long, elegant fingers over her instrument, coaxing from it a mournful dirge.
In the middle of it all sat a woman. She was plump and iron-haired, and she sobbed into a hanky while sitting enthroned in the center of an overstuffed pink sofa.
She looked up and saw me. Then she launched herself across the room and crushed the life out of me. “Oh, Kate!” she cried. “You came!”
“Hello, Aunt Gladys,” I said.
Aunt Gladys was the youngest of my four aunts and the only one to leave the farm for the big city, just like their brother, Uncle Owen. Well, no, that wasn’t exactly true; the youngest was my mother, who had died in childbirth when I was born. My father followed less than a year later after a broken leg led to a terrible infection. I had no memory of either of them, and I treasured my aunts not only for the loving home they gave me, but for the link they provided to my parents. I was grateful for every last one of them.
Except perhaps Aunt Gladys. I had met her only once, when she had accompanied Uncle Owen to the farm for Christmas. It was the only time I’d been happy to see his visit end.
It wasn’t that Aunt Gladys was difficult. It was that she was impossible. Nothing was good enough for her: not the food, not my manners, not the gift she received on Christmas morning. Moreover, she seemed to believe that each imagined slight was a deliberate effort to wound her, a statement that she was completely unwelcome and unloved. I remembered her picking up with two fingers the warm cardigan Aunt B had knitted for her, taking an exaggerated sniff of the wool and saying, “Well, I suppose I can take the farm home with me. Or at least the aroma.”
She pulled back and touched her handkerchief to her eyes. “It’s so good of you to come.”
“But, Aunt Gladys, what on earth happened?” I had a terrible feeling I knew. Aunt Galdys’s tears, her black dress, and the somber mood of the guests did not add up to an encouraging picture. And yet I was hanging on to my uncertainty with a desperate optimism, hoping against hope that I’d soon hear Uncle Owen’s voice calling me.
“It was so sudden,” said Aunt Gladys. “His heart.”
So there it was. My uncle was dead.
She gestured to the table beside her, where an arrangement of lilies sat surrounded by photographs of my uncle: as a child in an old sepia print, as a young man in his army uniform, in a tuxedo at some grand event in Chicago. I picked up the last one. Uncle Owen was smiling in it, just like all the other beautiful, glittering socialites. But I thought there was something special about my uncle’s smile, as though it hid thoughts more complex than those of his friends.
My eyes scanned the photographs, seeking something that showed my uncle as an older man. But there weren’t any. In the last photo, Owen was about thirty-five, the same age he’d been when I last saw him. It pained me, the idea that he had gone on all those years without me and I didn’t even know what he looked like. “It’s a shame there weren’t any photographs that were more recent,” I said.
“Well.” Aunt Gladys exhaled sharply. “None that were suitable.” She sat down and reached for my hand. “Please sit with me, Kate.”
I sat. I could hardly believe how much life had changed in the last several minutes. My big, strong, dynamic uncle, the greatest friend of my youth, was gone.
And with him, perhaps, my dreams of staying in the city. I hated myself for thinking about my own fortunes, but I couldn’t stop. The fact was that I no longer had a relative to stay with in Chicago. Not unless Aunt Gladys would take me in. I cast a hopeful glance at her. Perhaps she’d become warmer in the last few years. If she hadn’t, the four dollars in my purse were going to need to stretch a great deal farther than I’d planned. Could I even afford a ticket back home? No, probably not. I’d come here expecting my uncle to take care of me. Now I had no choice but to hope his sister would do the same.
I looked around at the guests. The room was positively crowded with people, all well-dressed and looking affluent. They weren’t all Uncle Owen’s contemporaries, either; there were young couples and several elderly gentlemen. And one child, who sat in the front window, looking out. Her forehead leaned against the cold window, and her long black hair hung in a shining curtain that obscured her face. Every once in a while, her shoulders shook.
I looked around for her parents, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to her. Who would bring a child to a funeral only to leave her all alone?
“Aunt Gladys, who is that little girl?”
Aunt Gladys’s nostrils flared. “She’s no one,” she said.
“But, look, she’s crying. She must have come with someone.” I stood up and made for the windowsill.
Aunt Gladys’s hand fastened on my wrist in a vicious grip. I winced. “Don’t talk to her,” she said.
“What? Why?” I stared at her. I was conscious of the fact that I needed Aunt Gladys, that I was alone, unprepared, and nearly penniless. I couldn’t afford to alienate the only person who might help me. The smart move, the right move, was to simply sit down.
The little girl’s breathing caught in a small, near-inaudible choke. I gently detached Aunt Gladys’s arm from mine and walked over to the child.
I sat down in the windowsill beside her. She didn’t react, and so I sat there silently for a moment, taking things in. She wasn’t wearing black. Instead she wore a purple dress that was far too flimsy for late October, and seemed slightly tight around the sleeves. Last spring’s dress. She had tried to conform to proper etiquette by adding black stockings, and by clutching a gray shawl around her shoulders. It was her own effort, I was sure of that; no adult would have dressed her this way. Not anyone here at least; they were all too well-dressed to show up with a child who looked so bedraggled.
“This is my uncle’s house,” I told her. “I was supposed to see him today. We hadn’t seen each other in a long while.”
The little girl gave no sign that she was listening. I stumbled on.
“You knew him pretty well, though, didn’t you? You must have cared about him a great deal to come here without your parents.”
A squeak from my companion. I reached into my purse and gave her my hanky.
“My aunt doesn’t seem to want you here. I don’t know why. But if you want, we can sit here together. I won’t let Aunt Gladys bother you. She may be my family, but that doesn’t mean I have to do things her way.”
Renewed sobs shook the girl’s shoulders, and suddenly I put it all together. Her attire, expensive but hopelessly mismatched. The lack of recent pictures memorializing my uncle. Her absent parents. And Aunt Gladys’s hostility: “Don’t talk to her.”
I put my hand on the little girl’s knee. “Owen Doyle was your father, wasn’t he?”
The girl turned to face me, and I got yet another surprise. She had the Doyle chin, that was obvious, and there was a certain something to her ears that reminded me of Aunt W. But everything else about her face was pure Orient. Honeyed skin, a delicate mouth, and eyes so black I could barely distinguish the iris from the pupil. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful child I had ever seen.
“I’m your cousin, Kitty,” I told her. I held out a hand to her. She regarded me warily for a moment, then reluctantly slipped her own small hand into mine.
“Hi, Kitty. I’m Koko,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you,” I told her. I looked across the room at our aunt, who was glaring at the two of us as though we were a couple of gate crashers. It seemed my truce with Aunt Gladys was at an end.