Today marks the publication of the first of our top five stories in the 8th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Tahlia Michel’s “The Foul Core.” The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before,” and Tahlia’s story chronicles the journey of Emmett, our narrator and protagonist, as he struggles to keep the promise he made to his mother, who has died from cholera, to keep his sister safe in the rough and tumble world of turn of the twentieth century New York City. We hope you enjoy it!
My mother used to tell me to never go out after dusk. She said that’s when the worst of the worst come out from the deepest and darkest nooks of Mulberry Bend. Now, I know – that doesn’t make a difference. She also made me promise that if anything ever happened to her, I would care for my little sister, Kate. Back then, I used to rest my head on her comforting shoulder, cramped in the little bedroom in the small building we shared with six other families. I would never have dreamed of what would soon transpire.
I was only fourteen when my family left Ireland to come to America. I could hardly contain myself on the trip. I couldn’t wait to start a new life where we would make all the money in the world and have a big two-story house, with a front yard to play in and a garden like my mother always wanted. My mother said that my little sister, Kate, was coming, too. Even though I wasn’t too ecstatic about that, it made my parents happy, so I was, too. My friend, Isaac, was jealous that I had the chance to travel across the Atlantic and start a new life, where we wouldn’t have to steal bread off the streets to fill our stomachs. Since then, everything’s changed – and not in the way I was expecting.
It’s been two years since we arrived in New York City, and things couldn’t be worse. We live in a two-level building, deep in the Bottle Alley of Mulberry Bend, surrounded by a hundred other Irish immigrants. Towering tenements surround our building that appears to be on the verge of collapse. Mulberry Bend seems sweet and homey. I’m sure the outsiders think it is, but on the inside, the vile and desperate roam the streets. The Whyos, a gang of immigrants from the old country, rule the whole Five Points District. Everyone is haunted by their name and mothers dread the day when their sons will be forced into their horde.
I don’t have a mother to worry for me anymore. It’s all up to me. A year ago, my mother, like many others, died from cholera. It ran rampant through our apartment building, but lucky, I guess, for Kate and me, we made it through. I remember watching the life being sucked out of her from the sickness. I felt so helpless. Sitting at her bedside, my final words to her were, “I promise. I will keep Kate safe, Ma.”
My father works in Nicholas Bayard’s Slaughterhouse down the street from home. When he gets back after his long shifts, his hands reek of pickle and warm blood. He barely makes enough to feed us working there, but it’s impossible to get a better paying job. To make things worse, since my mother’s death, he has taken to the drink. Some days he won’t come back until the sun has set, hours after work is done. I know he’s wasting all our money on whiskey, but I can’t stop him. He was heartbroken when my mother died and the pain from work is too much for him.
Today, I woke up with an ache in my belly. I hadn’t eaten for a day or two, because little 4-year-old Kate needs it more than I do. Dad didn’t come home last night, and I really don’t care to go looking for him. Lying next to Kate, I watch her peaceful face, hoping her dreams are better than mine. I don’t have any dreams. My sleep is filled with nightmares about the Whyos. At my age, Irish boys in the alley are taken and beaten into submission, forced into doing their bidding in order to survive. The Whyos need boys and men to complete their devilish deeds, and I’m nextdhjhyt65 on their list.
As the morning sun starts to glow on the peeling wall, I slowly step out of the bed that Kate and I share in the corner of our room. In the other rooms, I can hear the other families, who are also cramped and sleeping on straw mattresses on the floor or in bunks start to stir. As I look out the shattered window, to the crumbling steps of our building and the cluttered streets that Kate plays on, I follow a bluebird flying on the summer breeze. It dances and twirls with every gust, but I feel its gaze on me, and I fear I’m dreaming.
There’s an unusual quietness early this Saturday morning. In the silence, thoughts flood my brain. We can’t keep going on like this. We need food. I need to make some money, so I need to find some work. But I need to look out for Kate. I can’t leave her alone. What should I do? Stealing won’t sustain us. Oh God, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I miss you so much, ma.
I feel a tugging at my shirt, dirty and tattered. “Em? What’s out there?” She calls me “Em”. It’s short for Emmett.
“Oh nothing, Kate,” I say, taking my eyes off the bird and throwing her up on my broad shoulders. “Did I wake you?”
“Nope. What we doin’ today?”
“Whatever you want, Princess,” I respond as she tugs my copper-colored curls.
“Can we go outside today?”
“I dunno Kate. You know, it can be dangerous,” I answer, bringing her down from my shoulders and holding her close to me. Her eyes are blue and remind me of the sea we crossed in another life.
“But look! It’s so warm and sunny out there. Please, brother! We never go outside anymore!” she begs. I look out and even though I’m afraid of the Whyos I can’t keep hiding anymore. Kate and I need some fresh air and summer won’t last for long.
“Okay, fine. But only today.”
“Yay!” she shouts as she twirls around. Her long strawberry blond hair shines in the early morning sun.
Outside, leaning up against the wooden stairs to our building, the full yellow sun overhead warms my cold, pale skin. Kate plays hopscotch with some other girls. Another group of kids is playing kick-the-can. The alley reeks of garbage. I hate to see her having to play in this filth, but at least the horses don’t come down the alley, dropping their nasty crap this way and that. Her smile, which I rarely see anymore, is enough to make me content. While I watch her from the stairs, I’m still on the lookout. Even during the day, the Whyos walk the streets. You know when they’re up to no good when you hear “Why-oh!”, echo through the Mulberry Bend.
I can hardly take my hunger any longer. I’m starving. I need to find something to eat, or I might collapse, and what good would that do for Kate. “Hey, Princess?” I yell. “Are you ok with your friends, if I just go look for somethin’ for us to eat? I’ll be back in no time.”
“Yeah, I’m all good, Em.”
Even though I hate to leave her, the day couldn’t be better for stealing. A sunny day in the summer means the streets will be especially busy, and busy streets make good cover. The alley is all shadow at this time of day so I carefully walk down toward Worth Street, always checking over my shoulder. Worth Street is bustling with people. Businessmen in their suits and top hats standing in mud and poop waiting for a carriage. Meanwhile, women shop for goods from street vendors and shops. A little girl, around Kate’s age, is dressed in an elegant pink ruffled dress that shimmers in the sun. Next to her, a woman, probably her mother, holds her hand and with the other, a light blue parasol over her head. That’s how Kate should be living. She should be with their kind, and not like me, eating stolen bread for a meal. I wonder if their kind ever looks at us and feels any sympathy. Do they even see what’s happening right underneath their noses? And just like that, they’re out of sight.
I don’t have time to worry about that and I certainly don’t have time for fantasies. I must be quick and not get caught by the rich folk. I try to steal from a different vendor every time, so I lessen the risk of getting caught. I walk along the row of buildings and make sure to look pleasant and unsuspicious. I come across Lucky’s Market. A tent covers the bread, fruits, and vegetables that he has to sell. Then, I spot the most beautiful apple I’ve ever seen. I haven’t had any fruit for months, and neither has Kate. I have to get it.
After passing the market, I turn around making sure to hide behind other people walking. Just as the apple is within reach, I grab it quickly and keep on walking. Some lady drops a bread roll in front of me and doesn’t seem to notice, so I snag it as fast as I can without being noticed. Or so I thought.
A man behind me shouts, “Thief!”
This isn’t good. I’m usually a good thief, but today I was risky and now I’ll pay the price. I hear people shouting, but don’t look back. I run like my life depends on it, dodging people in my way. I hear running footsteps catching up to me, and know I have to get to the alley. They never follow me there. I run faster than I ever have before to keep my distance from my assailants, and I see the alley is in sight. I made it. I cut the corner and think, ah, freedom at last. Then someone knocks one right into my skull. I fall straight to the ground and the light fades away.
“Wake up!” I hear a gruff voice yell, sending shock waves through my ears. I sit up against the wall, and look up into the sun. A dozen shadowy men surround me.
“Looky here boys! I got the gossoon we’re after!” I hear from a face I can’t make out. My vision is blurry and my head throbs, but I already know who they are. The Whyos have finally caught me.
“So Em, why you runnin’?” says another one of the gang surrounding me.
“Don’t call me that. The name’s Emmett,” I manage to say aloud. A man in front of me pulls me up, sending a shooting pain in my head. The shadows split and I finally see a figure emerge from the alley.
“Oh really? Well then, why’s your little princess call you Em?” says the figure. He steps out, and I can see a scar across his face.
“What?” I ask, heart racing, knowing I can’t escape this one.
“You know, boy. Your sister. She was playing out with the other youngins’ this mornin’. We know who you are.”
“Wha-what do you wa-want from me. I haven’t done anything to you.” I can’t believe this. I knew I shouldn’t have gone out today.
“We’ve been watching you. We’ve seen your skills and your strength. You’re just what we’re looking for. We also know your situation. Your dad comes back late, drunk as a skunk. No mother, as far as we can tell. There’s no one to protect you. All you have is your little princess,” he says mockingly.
“Stop. Don’t call her that, “ I say, but a Whyos punches me in the side, and I crumble, hitting my knees hard on the ground.
“I don’t have to listen to you, boy. You on the other hand? You’re gonna have to work for us if you have any hope of ever saving your sister.” My heart sinks into the depths of my still empty belly. I knew they were bad, but my sister?
“What are you gonna do to her?” I yell up to the man.
“Shut up, maggot!” shouts one of the gang, and I’m kicked by the boys around me. Everything hurts now.
“I’ll say it again. If you don’t work for us, we’ll take your sister. Do you want that to happen? If you don’t listen to me, boy, I swear, we’ll take her, and you’ll never see her again.”
“Okay, okay. I know who you are. Just don’t touch her okay?”
“I thought so. We’ll even pay you, too. We like to support our members, ya know? Tomorrow, we’ve got a job, perfect just for you. A little stab and steal. We’ll give you 22 dollars if you do it. Not bad for a first job, I might add.”
“What? I can’t stab anyone. I wouldn’t!”
“I guess you’ll just have to say goodbye to your little Princess then.”
I can’t do anything to stop them. My father’s nowhere to be seen. I’m just a sixteen-year-old boy with broad shoulders, and a gift for stealing. There’s no justice in the Five Points. There’s no escape.
“Fine. I’ll do what you ask.”
“Good, my boy. Now, get up and go home. We’ll come around for you tomorrow. Don’t try to get any help. That would only get you into more trouble. And don’t worry about getting a knife. We’ll provide that free of charge, just for you.”
Before I can say another word, they all run off. Laying on the alley ground, looking up at the sky, it’s as if they were never here, despite my aching body. I don’t even know what time it is, but I have to get back to Kate.
It takes all my strength for me to stand up. I feel so tired, but I have to go. I have to make sure Kate’s okay. I have to keep my promise. I didn’t notice it before, but the sky is gray now. Clouds blanket the city. No more sun to keep me warm. No more summer breeze.
I stumble and almost fall trying to get back. I finally make it around the bend and see the “X” my father marked for playing ball together. I see the clothing line hung from the upper level. I see the can the kids played with this morning in the pile of trash at the bottom of the steps. My father stares out the window blankly, not saying a word. Looking in front of me, nothing stands out as home. Not until I see my princess, standing in the doorway. I’ll do whatever it takes, ma. I hear a flutter and look up. A bluebird hovers overhead and flits away, as dusk fades and the glow of silver light rises to glare at me, cold and bleak.