by Nikki Stern
Andrew and Giselle were on the Empire Express out of Croton-on-Hudson by 5:58 a.m. They’d left nearly two hours earlier, slipping through shadows made deeper by the glare of halogen streetlamps. They’d made their way to Susan’s dark-green Camry, parked safely up the block. “Don’t slam the door,” Susan reminded Giselle as she eased off the brake and rolled slowly away from the curb. “All ready?” Susan asked cheerfully. Giselle said nothing, only watched as the outlines of her familiar world move past the window and dissolve beyond the car’s brake lights. Andrew burrowed his head under her arm; his were wrapped tightly around his tiny knapsack and, of course, Mr. Teddy. “Cold,” he murmured sleepily. “It’s okay, baby,” Giselle had replied, touching the top of his head and his silver, gold and copper strands of hair, fine as a baby’s yet shiny as a pocketful of precious coins. My treasure, she thought.
Susan had dropped them off (“I need to get back before Ned wakes up”) and now, with an on-time departure, they’d already passed through Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff and Hudson. When the breakfast car opened at 7, they ate lukewarm eggs on soggy rolls. Andrew nibbled a banana while Giselle sipped burnt coffee and looked at her copy of “Welcome to Canada/Bienvenu au Canada.” The brochure was filled with appealing pictures of quaint villages and sophisticated-looking cities, tranquil-looking forests and rivers and soaring mountains. At one point, Andrew, his mouth full of egg, looked over and nodded in the general direction of the open pages. “Will we live there?” he asked, to which Giselle, “Absolutely” as a small frisson of trepidation passed through her. “That’s exactly where we’ll live.”
During a brief stop in Utica, they stretched their legs and Giselle cashed her banker’s check. Andrew stared at a pretty little girl with brown pigtails who was playing with her puppy. “We could stay here, couldn’t we, Mommy?” he asked. Giselle, her thoughts elsewhere, replied abstractedly, “No dearest, not here.”
At 10:50, the train stopped in Syracuse. Andrew was thrilled to see his grandparents waiting on the platform; he didn’t notice their frayed smiles. “Poppy! Gammy!” he cried out. Above him, the grownups traded looks. “Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Giselle said tightly. “And before you ask” — she raised her gloved hand as if to ward off their questions — “no, we can’t stay.” “Honey, we love you,” replied her mother. “I just don’t know why you have to leave. There must be programs.” “Mom, we’ve discussed this,” Giselle cut in. Her father said nothing, only pushed an envelope into her hand. “Here,” he said gruffly, “and before you ask: no, you can’t refuse.” The three adults laughed, which seemed to lift the tension. Giselle opened the envelope and shot her father a look of profound gratitude.
Not ten minutes later, the conductor called “All aboard.” Everyone exchanged hugs; Giselle hustled a tearful Andrew back onto the train and told him to wave goodbye. “Why can’t we stay with here with Poppy and Gammy?” Andrew wailed. “I want to stay here!” “We’ll see them soon,” Giselle declared with as much conviction as she could muster. “They can come visit us.” Seeking some distraction, she pulled out a pad from her bag and said. “I have an idea. Let’s decide how we want to decorate our new home. Do you want to live in the mountains or by a lake?”
For the next several hours, as the train passed through Rochester, Buffalo and Niagara Falls and dusk softened the bleak winter day, they gave themselves over to planning and drawing. Giselle felt her stomach muscles tightening as they approached the border crossing but they went through customs without incident; the inspector scarcely glanced at their passports nor questioned the animated mother and child engaged in their wonderful private game. Giselle breathed deeply as they pulled into Toronto precisely at 5:45 p.m. and exhaled, as if releasing a balloon. Once off the train, she looked for their contact, who presented herself as a pale young woman named Nancy. She bent down to introduce herself formally to Andrew, who responded with great seriousness: “I’m very pleased to meet you.” Follow me,” she told them and led them to a small but serviceable late-model car. Andrew huddled next to Giselle in the backseat and asked in a stage-whisper, “Is she taking us to where we’re going to live?” Giselle stroked his hair and answered, “Yes, she is.”
This part of Toronto wasn’t one she recognized from her reading: a collection of “neighborhoods” consisting of generic high-rise buildings, walls and walls of anonymous-looking structures bisected by a highway. At last they came to a shabby structure at the end of an unlit and apparently unmarked street under the last exit before the harbor. Nancy knocked at the front door; Giselle caught a few words of the whispered exchange: “the young boy, too ... yes, American.” And they were suddenly in the charge of another young woman, this one named Mary; Nancy seemed to evaporate. Giselle and Andrew followed the young woman through the dimly lit foyer and down a graying corridor, then another, and another, until Mary stopped in front of a door and opened it onto a large room with cots neatly ordered, row upon row. Most were filled with women and young children who had been laughing and talking but suddenly fell silent at the arrival of strangers. Mary pointed to a double cot at the rear of the room, with a small footlocker and towels neatly folded at the foot, along with a blanket. “Why don’t you put your things over there tonight? Later we’ll go over your paperwork. But right now, we’ll get you something to eat. You must be starving.” She stepped in front of her charges and addressed the group. “Attention, everyone, this is Giselle and Andrew. Giselle, Andrew: this is ... well, everyone.”
Giselle stood behind Mary and scanned the sea of expectant faces. What had she done? She looked down at Andrew, who was clutching her hand tightly. “Who’s Andrew?” he asked her urgently. “Mommy, WHO’S ANDREW?” Giselle fought back an advancing wave of panic and tapped Mary on the shoulder, speaking quietly but more forcefully than she had intended. “There’s been a mistake. This isn’t what I ... we expected. It’s like some kind of compound or convent.” She struggled to find the words and finally said, just as her courage began to fail her completely: “We don’t belong here.”
Mary turned back to face the pair; she too spoke in a calm, no-nonsense voice, as if she were dealing with two children, not one. “I know you’re tired and you’ve had a long trip. This is a big change and it’s shocking and completely unfamiliar. Many things have changed; you understand that and so do we.” She smiled; a tired but warm smile. “That’s why we’re helping. For now, under these circumstances, this is the best possible home you could have. It won’t be for long; you’ll be moving again shortly. Always, though, you’ll be fed and sheltered and protected as best we can; always you’ll be in the company of people who can lend a hand and keep a secret. So yes, Giselle,” she emphasized the still unfamiliar name, “you do belong here.”
Andrew was still standing in the doorway, holding onto his tears and Mr. Teddy and watching his mother closely. She bent down and hugged him tightly. From within the folds of her jacket, he said, “Will we live here, Mommy?” Giselle held him at arm’s length, looked into his clear green eyes and smiled: “Absolutely, my dearest. This is exactly where we’ll live.”
Nikki Stern blogs regularly at www.1womansvu.com Her book “Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority,” was released in May 2010.