This is a story about a girl and a dog. It begins with the girl, but without the dog being an angel, the story would have had a much different ending.
The girl’s name was Darcy Cyr, and she and her mother, Janine, lived in an apartment that had two rooms—a living room and a kitchen, both small. Darcy and her mother slept on a couch that made into a bed.
“Just like Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Janine liked to say. She often spoke about the plucky, independent Mary Richards who had moved to a big city and gotten a job at a television station.
Darcy always nodded even though she had never watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Their furnished apartment did not come with a TV, and Janine didn’t have enough money to buy even a black and white set. Darcy remembered that when they had lived with her father, there had been a television, but she had been too young for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Instead she had watched Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street.
But when Darcy was six, she and her mother had moved out of her father’s home.
“Why?” Darcy had asked as she and Janine put their clothes and a few other belongings in a big red wagon and walked across town to their new apartment.
“We’re too noisy,” her mother answered sadly. One of her eyes was swollen shut. “Your father needs quiet.”
For a few years it had been all right living in the Mary Tyler Moore apartment across town not far from the big brick factory that stretched along the edge of a dark river. Darcy and her mother kept the apartment neat and clean. A check came every month from Darcy’s father, and there was a small store—Bouchard’s Market—just down the street. Darcy and Janine used the red wagon to bring their groceries home.
“What would we do without this wagon?” Janine would ask as they filled it with bags of groceries.
Darcy would shrug in response. The wagon was hers, bought when she was born by a mémère she had never met, who had died when Darcy was still a baby.
“Mom’s last gift,” her mother always added, her eyes bright with tears.
In their apartment, Darcy and her mother could sing and make cookies and go to the library whenever they wanted without having to worry if Daddy would be mad. While Darcy was in school, her mother cleaned houses, and while there wasn’t a lot of money for extras, like a television, the rent was always paid on time, and there was always food in the cupboards.
But then in January when Darcy turned nine, the checks stopped coming.
At first, her mother wasn’t worried at all. “Your father’s just a little late.”
Darcy had frowned anxiously. Even though she was only nine, Darcy had already figured out that there were two kinds of people—those who worried and those who didn’t. Darcy was a worrier; her mother was not.
A month with no check stretched to three months, and one day when Darcy came home from school, her mother’s lip was swollen.
“What happened?” Darcy asked.
Janine shrugged. “Oh, I just bumped my mouth.”
“What about the check?” Darcy asked, knowing the answer.
Janine shook her head, and Darcy could tell she was trying not to cry. “It’s not going to come. Your father’s moving out of state. We have to take care of ourselves now. Just like Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She gets by without help from a man.”
Swallowing, Darcy looked down at her scuffed brown shoes that were just a little too tight for her.
Janine took Darcy’s hand. “It’s going to be all right, Darce. I’ll find some more houses to clean. We’re good at pinching pennies. You know we are.”
Darcy did know that. Nobody could make money go further than her mother did.
Mabel, their upstairs neighbor, often said, “Janine can make the buffalo on a nickel poop.” Except she didn’t say poop. Instead, she said a word Darcy was not allowed to use.
Janine found more houses to clean, and for a while there was just enough money if they cut out candy and ice cream and cream horns. No more little toys and the occasional book from Zayre—or Zayre’s as everyone called it—a department store downtown by the library. In a crate by the sofa, Darcy had The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Little Women. She hoped she would get Eight Cousins for Christmas. However, in early November, when Darcy mentioned this to her mother, Janine was quiet. Darcy could tell that there wouldn’t be enough money for much of anything this Christmas, and she didn’t ask again.
One night when Darcy was in bed in the living room—reading when she was supposed to be sleeping—and her mother and Mabel were having coffee in the kitchen, Darcy heard her mother say, “I’m two months behind on my rent. Three of my customers moved to another town. Another one died.”
Darcy could hardly believe what she was hearing. Her mother never talked about money with other people, not even Mabel, one of her best friends. Shivering, Darcy figured the situation must be really bad.
“Wish I could lend you some money,” Mabel replied.
“Oh, I know you can’t. We’re all just scraping by here.”
“I’ll put the word out that you’re looking for more houses.”
Janine did get more houses, and for a while Darcy thought she might receive Eight Cousins for Christmas after all. But in late November, as Janine was hurrying up and down the stairs in one of the new homes, she fell and sprained her ankle. It was such a bad sprain that all Janine could manage to do was limp back to the apartment, and when Darcy came home from school, her mother was spread out on the couch.
Darcy ran into the living room. Janine’s ankle was swollen and purple, and Darcy could hardly bear to look at it. “Oh, Mom!”
Janine’s lips quivered. “I fell down the stairs in the Gordons’ home.”
Darcy knew that this time her mother was telling the truth about her injury. She also knew that with a sprained ankle, Janine couldn’t work. That night, sleeping on cushions on the floor so she wouldn’t disturb her mother, Darcy pressed the corner of her blanket in her mouth to keep herself from crying. What were they going to do?
The next week, when Darcy came home from school, her mother was hobbling around the apartment and packing their clothes into the same battered suitcase they had used when they had left Darcy’s father. Mabel had given Janine an old cane, and she stumped sadly from the closet to the suitcase.
Darcy set her school bag on the floor. “We’re moving?”
“Yeah,” Janine answered. “We’re behind on our rent, and Mr. Roberts asked us to pay or leave. I can’t pay him. I only have three dollars in my wallet. And I owe much more than that. Mr. Roberts said he was sorry, but he just couldn’t let us live here anymore.”
Darcy felt a blaze of heat come to her face. “Sorry? If he’s so sorry, why doesn’t he let us stay here until you can work again?” Darcy had never liked Mr. Roberts and the way he looked at her mother, who was dark and cute and petite.
Janine, never one for anger, answered gently, “Mr. Roberts has to eat, too, and pay his bills.”
Darcy brushed the tears from her cheeks. “Where are we going to stay? With Mabel?”
Janine shook her head. “Dick’s there. And he’ll be there for a while. His wife kicked him out again.”
Dick, Mabel’s boyfriend. Darcy didn’t like him either. His voice was too loud, and he smelled like cigarettes and whiskey. Plus, Dick had a wife, and he saw Mabel on the side. It hadn’t taken long for Darcy to decide that Dick was a sneak and a cheat, but she kept this opinion to herself because she knew her mother didn’t like saying bad things about other people.
“My friend Sheila?” Darcy asked. “You and her mom are pretty good friends.”
Janine said, “In their apartment there are four girls and two adults and only two bedrooms. Darcy, it’s too crowded for us to stay there.”
Unable to speak, Darcy swallowed and swallowed again. With her free hand, Janine patted Darcy’s face. “There’s a church on College Avenue that has beds for those who need them.” Janine frowned. “It’s not our church, and their ways are not our ways, but we really don’t have much of a choice.”
“College Avenue?” Darcy asked in a whisper. “That's near where Daddy used to live. How are we going to get there? It’s way across town.” Darcy wasn’t sure exactly how far it was from their apartment to College Avenue, but she remembered it had taken a long time to get there even when her mother’s ankle wasn’t sprained.
“We’ll load up the red wagon and walk.”
Darcy stared at her mother, who was leaning on the cane to take the weight off her sprained ankle. “Why don’t we ask Sheila’s father to give us a ride? You know he would. He’s always happy to help people.”
Her mother shook her head. “No. We’ll get there on our own.”
“Come on, Mom. Let’s ask him.”
“No,” Janine said firmly, and Darcy knew it was useless to argue. Her mother was kind and gentle, but she had a stubborn streak that unexpectedly emerged when Darcy least expected it. And this was one of those times.
Even though Darcy realized she wouldn’t be able to change her mother’s mind, she wanted an explanation. “Why?”
Her mother looked at the floor. “Because no one needs to know that we’re going to a church that isn’t even ours for shelter. Let them think we found somewhere else to stay.”
Darcy felt her mother’s humiliation, and it became her humiliation, too. She was ashamed that they didn’t have enough money to pay their rent, that they were being kicked out of their apartment by Mr. Roberts, who was old and fat and had no business leering at her mother.
“Okay,” she said softly. Then Darcy studied her mother’s face, which was flushed. “Are you sick, Mom?”
“Just a little bug. Nothing to worry about.”
Darcy bit her bottom lip. She knew she had every right to be worried, but she didn’t say anything.
By the time they had finished packing, the sun had set, and it was dark enough for the street lights to have come on.
“Good,” Janine murmured. “Maybe nobody will notice us when we leave.”
Darcy fetched the red wagon from a shed behind the apartment building, and brought it to the front, where her mother was waiting. In went the suitcase, a small bag of food taken from the cupboards and refrigerator, and Darcy’s school bag, stuffed with books.
Clutching her pocketbook, Janine took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
Ten minutes later, they had barely made it to the end of the street. Janine’s mouth was set in a grim line as she stumped along, cane first and then dragging behind her the leg with the bad ankle. There was not much snow. The night was cold, and the streets were empty. Everyone was home in their snug kitchens, and Darcy envied them. Through the windows she caught glimpses of families coming together around their kitchen tables. She could almost hear the laughter and smell the food.
I wish we had a home, Darcy thought, and in her stomach was an ache she had never felt before, not even after they had left her father.
Another ten minutes later, when they were still in the neighborhood, Janine stopped and stood with her head down. Gripping the cane, she swayed a little, and Darcy understood her mother couldn’t go any farther.
Studying the wagon, Darcy wondered if her mother would fit into it. True, her mother was an adult, but time after time, Mabel had often said that Janine was such a peanut that as Darcy grew, the two looked more like sisters than mother and daughter. And her mother was thin—too thin, Darcy knew.
“Mom,” Darcy said, “Get in the wagon.”
“No, no,” Janine protested faintly.
Darcy’s voice was firm. “Yes. You can’t walk anymore.”
“I just need to rest a little while.”
Darcy’s voice became even firmer. “No, what you need to do is get in that wagon.” She took out her school bag, the suitcase, and the bag of food. “Get in, Mom. I can pull you.” Darcy fervently hoped this was true.
To Darcy’s relief, her mother stopped arguing and got into the wagon. With her legs scrunched up a little, she did fit. Gripping the sides, Janine winced in pain, but she didn’t say anything. Darcy was quiet as she tucked her school bag beneath her mother’s legs, gently set the bag of groceries in her lap, and placed the cane to one side. On the other side went her mother’s pocketbook.
Taking a deep breath, Darcy gripped the suitcase with one hand and the wagon handle with the other. Darcy was about to ask her mother which way they should go to get to the church on College Avenue, when she saw the white dog sitting on the sidewalk not far from the wagon. The dog had what Darcy would later describe as a “knowing expression,” a description she had read in The Velveteen Rabbit, a book she and her mother borrowed from the library every Christmas. With its white feathery fur, the little creature seemed to glow softly, like the moon, and just looking at that dog made Darcy feel better. It was as though she had a friend to help her through this hard time.
The dog barked and walked a little ways down the sidewalk. When Darcy just stood there, the dog turned and barked again.
“Do you want me to follow you?” Darcy asked, surprised.
The dog barked yet again.
Darcy considered her mother, who was slumped forward and didn’t seem to be paying any attention to where they were going. Darcy turned to the dog, and it looked as though the dog actually nodded, the long black ears, also feathery, swinging from side to side.
“Okay, then,” Darcy said, knowing that her mother would not want her to follow a strange dog. But she also realized that her mother was too sick to care or argue, and it was up to Darcy to decide. Somehow, even though Darcy understood that following a stray dog was not a sensible course of action, it felt like the right thing to do.
Darcy tugged at the handle, but the wheels barely rolled. Prancing to the back of the wagon, the dog nudged it three times, and the wheels began to roll as Darcy pulled. Was Darcy imagining it, or did the wagon somehow feel lighter? Whatever the case, Darcy moved briskly along, making better progress in five minutes than she and her mother had made in the previous twenty minutes. Down the sidewalk they went, with the dog sometimes walking beside Darcy, sometimes running ahead to lead the way, and sometimes racing to the back to give the wagon more nudges. Darcy saw the dog was wearing a collar with a name tag that had Laila in lovely cursive writing.
“Laila?” Darcy asked.
The dog cocked her head. “Laila,” Darcy repeated, and the dog barked. “Good girl.”
Laila’s white tail curled like a plume over her back, and she trotted proudly.
Laila, Darcy thought happily, feeling the dog’s warm presence.
Darcy and Laila left their neighborhood and turned down Silver Street, where the houses were big and well kept. Janine cleaned several houses on this street, and Darcy wondered what it would be like to live in one of these homes, to have her very own room with an actual bookshelf that would hold many, many books, more, even, than what Zayre’s had on the small rack at the back of the store. Darcy figured that if she lived on Silver Street, she could order whatever she wanted from the book-club flyers her teachers passed out from time to time. Then, because she was hungry, Darcy’s thoughts turned to food. We would have cream horns every night for dessert, Darcy thought, staring at the houses they passed. No more macaroni and tomato soup. Darcy shook her head as she thought about the bland, watery soup her mother often made. We’d have chicken. And steak. And ham and cheese sandwiches. Oreo cookies for snacks. Every. Single. Day.
Laila was beside Darcy, and her expression was not only knowing but also sympathetic.
“We’re all right,” Darcy said quickly, remembering how her mother hated it when people felt sorry for them. “In the bag on my mom’s lap, we have some bread and peanut butter and fluff. When we get to wherever we’re going, we can all have sandwiches.”
Halfway down Silver Street, Laila stopped at a big stone house, completely dark, and started going down the driveway. Darcy didn’t follow her. Laila turned, but instead of barking she pawed at the ground.
“Are you sure?” Darcy asked, and once more Laila pawed at the ground. “Okay, then.”
Darcy followed Laila to the back of the house, where it was dark and quiet. Darcy could hardly see and uneasily wondered if she would hit a bump and tip her mother onto the ground. But then Laila began to glow even more than she had when Darcy first met her, and the dog’s glow showed the way to an entrance with a little roof over it.
“Here?” Darcy asked. “But the door must be locked.”
Laila gave Darcy a look that suggested she should have more faith in the dog’s judgment.
“But this is somebody’s home,” Darcy protested. “We’ll get in trouble.”
Again came the look.
Darcy glanced at her mother, still slumped over. From time to time Janine moaned a little, so soft a sound that Darcy almost didn’t hear it. Looking from Janine to Darcy, Laila whined.
Nodding, Darcy took a deep breath. Gripping the knob, Darcy pushed, and the door opened. Because the entrance was at ground level, Darcy could roll the wagon into the dark room. By Laila’s glow, Darcy saw they were in some sort of studio apartment that had a bed with a plaid bedspread, a couch—also plaid—a sink, stove, refrigerator, and a small table with two chairs. There was even a TV on a stand across from the couch. Darcy found a light switch on the wall next to her, and she flipped it on. An overhead light came on, revealing the room to be neat and clean, but with an empty feeling that indicated whoever lived here would be gone for a while.
Wheeling her mother over to the bed, Darcy tried not to think about what her mother would say when she stopped being sick and realized they had entered somebody’s apartment without permission. But Darcy felt as though she didn’t have much of a choice. She had no idea where the church was. On College Avenue, her mother had said. But College Avenue stretched from Waterville to Fairfield, the next town over, someplace Darcy had never been. Was the church in Fairfield? Could be, Darcy thought. For tonight, anyway, we’re staying here.
Darcy pulled down the bed’s covers and patted her mother on the back. “Where are we?” Janine whispered.
“Someplace safe,” Darcy said.
“There’s a bed for you here,” Darcy answered evasively, not wanting to lie to her mother.
“All right,” Janine murmured, letting Darcy take off her coat. With Laila nudging from one side and Darcy pulling from the other, they were able to get Janine into the bed.
“Is there a dog here?” Janine asked, her eyes fluttering shut and then open and then shut again.
“There is,” Darcy replied.
Janine smiled. “Must be a good place, then, even if it’s not our church.” After Darcy pulled up the covers, she kissed her mother’s cheek, but Janine didn’t notice. She was already asleep.
“Well,” Darcy said briskly. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
First, the heat. There were baseboard heaters by the floor, the same as there were in their old apartment. On the wall was a thermostat, and Darcy turned up the heat to seventy, two degrees warmer than what her mother usually set it at home. However, Darcy figured that because her mother was sick, the place should be a little warmer.
Then to the kitchen. Within fifteen minutes, Darcy had put the groceries on the counter, plugged in the refrigerator, which was empty, and closed the door. She found a bowl for water for Laila and set it on the floor. The small kitchen had everything—plates, cups, silverware, pots and pans. A toaster.
Darcy made two peanut butter and fluff sandwiches. One she tore up, put on a plate, and set next to the bowl of water. The other was for her, and never had a peanut butter and fluff sandwich tasted so good. Laila must have thought so, too. The dog gulped down her sandwich even faster than Darcy ate her own.
There was nothing but water to drink, but Darcy was fine with that—water was mostly what she drank anyway. Janine had packed a half bag of apples, and Darcy concluded it would be all right to have one even though she had had an apple with her lunch. One apple a day was usually the limit, but if ever there were a day for two apples, this was it. There were eggs and some margarine, instant coffee, but no milk. Spam, which Darcy didn’t like but ate anyway whenever her mother gave it to her. Darcy decided the Spam would only be eaten if there was nothing else left. There were also some saltine crackers and a can of peaches, but these would be saved for Janine, for when she felt better.
Off the living room was a small bathroom. After using it, Darcy checked on her mother, who was still sleeping. There was a small light on a side table by the couch. Darcy shut off the overhead light, took Little Women from her school bag, and settled on the couch. After wrapping herself in the afghan that was draped on one end, Darcy read herself to sleep. Laila lay beside the bed, and her soft glow settled on Janine, covering her from head to toe.
The next morning, when Darcy woke up, at first she didn’t know where she was. Blinking, she looked around the room. Nothing looked familiar. But then Darcy saw Laila lying beside her mother, and she remembered. They were in the apartment of somebody they didn’t even know.
Swallowing to keep down the panic she felt, Darcy slid from the couch, tiptoed over to the bed, and looked at her mother. Janine was sleeping soundly and had a more peaceful expression than Darcy had seen for a long time.
Standing by the door, Laila whined softly, and Darcy figured, why not? Clearly, the dog could take care of herself, and Darcy let the dog out. By the time Darcy had made two toasts with peanut butter—one for her and one for Laila—there was a scratch on the door, and Darcy let the dog back in.
After breakfast, as Darcy washed the dishes, she thought about what she was going to do next. It was Saturday, which meant she didn’t have to worry about going to school or to Mass.
Chicken noodle soup, Darcy thought. That’s what Mom needs. And ginger ale. This meant a trip to the market.
In the bathroom there were clean towels and washcloths. There was even toothpaste, and Darcy and her mother had packed their toothbrushes. After getting washed, brushed, and dressed, Darcy found her mother’s pocketbook, still in the wagon, and took the three dollars from her mother’s wallet. Darcy tried not to feel guilty as she did this. She had never taken money from her mother’s wallet. But just as yesterday had been a two apple day, Darcy knew this was a day to take money from her mother’s wallet and go to the market.
However, as Darcy put on her coat, mittens, and red hat with the white pom-pom, she hesitated. “Laila, do you think it’s all right to leave Mom?” Laila woofed ever so softly. “What if she wakes up while I’m gone? She won’t know where she is or where I am.”
Laila woofed again, and Darcy noticed that the glow surrounding her mother was still there, the merest of shimmers, barely visible in the daylight. Darcy understood that as long as the glow was there, her mother would not wake up, that she would sleep and heal.
Blinking, Darcy tried not to cry. She went over to Laila, patted the dog’s soft head, and kissed her. Laila, in turn, licked Darcy’s cheek, leaving behind the faintest of glows. “Thank you,” Darcy whispered, grateful to have this special dog as a companion.
Bouchard’s Market was busy. It was Saturday morning, and Christmas was coming. Although the market was small—four aisles in the middle, produce on one side, bread on the other, a meat counter in back—it was where most everyone in the neighborhood did their shopping.
The market always had a cheerful, bustling feel, but with Christmas just a few weeks away, it was even more crowded than usual, and Darcy knew many of the people who were shopping. As Darcy pulled in her red wagon, which she would use as a cart, the front of the store became quiet. Christine, the cashier, stopped ringing in groceries for Mrs. Boivert, and stared at Darcy. Mrs. Boivert, who lived in the building next door to Darcy and her mother, shook her head sadly as she regarded Darcy. And Mabel, who was waiting in line, called out, “Darcy! Are you all right? Where did you and your mother go?”
Darcy took a deep breath. She wasn’t going to lie, but she decided she wouldn’t tell the whole truth either. “We’re staying somewhere not far from here on Silver Street. In an apartment that’s not being used right now. Mom’s resting, and I’m here to pick up a few groceries for her.”
Mabel blinked in surprise. “On Silver Street? What’s the number?”
Here Darcy could be completely honest. “I don’t know. I’ll come over later and tell you.”
Mabel nodded. “Okay.”
The faint glow left behind by Laila’s dog kiss convinced everyone that Darcy was telling the truth, and nobody questioned her further. The glow had another effect that Darcy wouldn’t discover until she checked out.
As Darcy put two cans of chicken noodle soup, a bottle of ginger ale, and two cans of frozen orange juice on the counter, Christine said, “Mabel and Mrs. Boivert each left a couple of dollars for you for some groceries. Go pick out a few more things. I’ll set these to the side in a bag.”
In a daze, Darcy wandered around the store, wondering what she should get. Tuna fish and mayonnaise? Once, these had been staples for Darcy and her mother, but not for the past few months. Darcy put two cans of tuna fish and a jar of mayonnaise in her wagon, and as she wheeled by the meat counter, Lee Bouchard, the market’s owner, called out to her.
He held out two packets. “Here’s a ham end and a cheese end.”
Darcy shook her head. “I don’t think I can afford ham and cheese.”
“Take them,” Lee Bouchard said. “I can’t sell them. I usually just bring them home, where they get pushed to the back of the refrigerator, and we forget about them.”
Darcy took the small packages wrapped in white paper. “Thank you, Mr. Bouchard. Thank you very much.”
Lee Bouchard smiled. “You’re welcome, Darcy. Also, I was wondering if there was room in your wagon for a few more bags.”
“Yes, there is,” Darcy replied. “Why?”
“Could you make a few deliveries to a couple of houses not far from here? We’re really busy today, and it would be a big help.”
“Sure,” Darcy said, knowing her mother would be fine with Laila by her side.
Reaching into his pocket, Lee Bouchard pulled out his wallet and handed Darcy two dollars.
“For me?” Darcy asked in surprise.
“Sure,” came the answer. “If you’re going to make deliveries, you’re going to get paid.”
“Thank you, thank you.” And Darcy’s smile was so brilliant that Lee Bouchard took a step back.
Cream rolls, Darcy thought defiantly. We have enough for cream rolls. Into the wagon a package went.
As Darcy delivered the groceries to the nearby homes, she got more money, tips that added up to almost two dollars. The dark haired little girl with the red hat and red wagon was so appealing that Lee Bouchard’s customers gave twice as much as they usually did.
When Darcy headed home, there were only two bags left in her wagon—two bags, stuffed full, with groceries for her and her mother. One of her pockets jingled with change, and the other had five dollars—two that Lee Bouchard had given her plus the three from her mother’s wallet, which Darcy hadn’t had to spend because of the money Mabel and Mrs. Boivert had left for her.
On the way to the apartment on Silver Street, Darcy came upon Mrs. Gilbert, whom Darcy knew from church. Mrs. Gilbert, elderly and stout, was struggling to walk with two bags of groceries.
“Mrs. Gilbert,” Darcy called. “Do you want some help?”
Mrs. Gilbert stopped. “Yes, I would.” Gratefully, she set the groceries in Darcy’s wagon. “I was only going to pick up a few things. By the time I was done, I had two bags full. I don’t live very far from the market, and I thought it wouldn’t be that much trouble to get two bags of groceries home.” She smiled ruefully. “Turns out I was wrong. I was wondering if I was going to drop my groceries all over the ground.”
“My mémère bought me this wagon,” Darcy said. “And Mom always says that she doesn’t know what we’d do without it.”
“I can see that it’s a big help,” Mrs. Gilbert said. “You’re Janine Cyr’s daughter, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. My name is Darcy.”
“I knew your mémère. We went to school together.”
“I didn’t know that,” Darcy said slowly.
Mrs. Gilbert smiled. “We had the same friends, and we became friends, too. I always liked Eva Lemieux. One of the sweetest girls I ever knew. But, maudit, was she stubborn. A real tête de pioche. Eva was quick to help and just as quick to refuse it.” Mrs. Gilbert gave Darcy an appraising look, and Darcy had the uncomfortable feeling that the old woman’s sharp eyes took in a lot. Maybe too much.
Turning down a side street, they came to a small white Cape Cod house with a clean and tidy yard. In the picture window, a Christmas tree glittered.
“Here we are,” Mrs. Gilbert said.
“Pretty,” Darcy said softly, looking at the snug little home with its sparkling Christmas tree. “Do you want me to bring in your groceries?”
“Oui,” Mrs. Gilbert said, and there was another appraising look. “Everyone needs help from time to time.”
That’s for sure, Darcy thought as she brought the groceries into the small, gleaming kitchen.
Mrs. Gilbert gave her a tip, and even though Darcy shook her head, the old woman pressed fifty cents into her hand. “Take it,” she insisted. “There’s no need to be stubborn. I’m sure you can use it.”
Darcy left carrying more money than she had ever had in her life. She hurried back to the apartment, afraid that somehow she would lose the money or that someone would take it from her. But nobody did.
Covered by the glow, Janine was still sleeping soundly, and after Darcy let Laila out, she made ham and cheese sandwiches. Laila came back in, gulping down her sandwich, and Darcy settled on the couch with hers to watch cartoons. There was enough ham and cheese for several more sandwiches, and Darcy couldn’t resist making another one, which she shared with Laila, who snuggled beside her on the couch. For dessert, there was a cream horn, and Darcy ate it as slowly as she could, giving little bits to Laila.
Later in the afternoon, Laila lifted the glow, and Janine woke up. Darcy helped her mother to the bathroom, where she changed into her nightgown. Janine didn’t say much as she went from the bed to the bathroom and then back to bed. Darcy had the feeling that her mother didn’t really want to know where they were staying.
“Mom,” Darcy said. “I bought some ginger ale. How about some ginger ale and crackers?”
“Yes,” Janine answered faintly. “That would be good.”
As soon as Janine had finished the crackers and soda, she fell back asleep. Laila gave Darcy a questioning look, and Darcy nodded, deciding that for now, anyway, her mother needed the dog’s help to sleep and heal. The golden glow settled back around Janine.
The next day was Sunday, and Darcy went to Mass, knowing that Laila would watch over Janine. Mrs. Gilbert sat alone, and hesitating, Darcy stopped by the pew. Smiling, Mrs. Gilbert slid over, and Darcy sat beside her, comforted by the older woman’s solid presence. They went to communion together, and after Mass, Mrs. Gilbert asked, “Do you want to come over for cocoa and cookies?”
“Sure,” Darcy said. “I’d love to.”
Mrs. Gilbert made cocoa the old-fashioned way, with real milk, cocoa, and sugar.
“Marshmallow?” Mrs. Gilbert asked.
“Yes, please,” Darcy answered, and she sighed with pleasure as she sipped the rich drink and nibbled the molasses cookies Mrs. Gilbert had made the day before.
“Good, huh?” Mrs Gilbert sat down across from Darcy. “Better than that packaged stuff.”
“Sure is,” Darcy replied.
Mrs. Gilbert hesitated before asking, “How is your mother doing? I heard that she fell down the stairs and sprained her ankle.”
“She’s doing better,” Darcy replied truthfully. “Yesterday, I gave her crackers and ginger ale. This morning, she even had a toast. She went back to sleep before I went to Mass.”
Mrs. Gilbert was silent for a moment. “I also heard that old fart Mr. Roberts kicked you two out of your apartment. Maudit, what a man.”
Darcy looked down into her hot chocolate, at the white spread of marshmallow. “Yes,” she whispered softly.
“You’re staying in the Richardsons’ old stone house, aren’t you? In Alphonse Picard’s apartment?”
“He’s the caretaker. The Richardsons are gone until spring, and Alphonse is in Massachusetts visiting his daughter. He won’t be back until after the new year.”
“How did you know we were there?” Darcy asked, knowing it would be useless to lie to Mrs. Gilbert.
“Yesterday, I saw you come around from the back with your red wagon. I put two and two together.”
And got four, Darcy thought glumly, staring down at the cookies on her plate.
Mrs. Gilbert’s firm hand covered Darcy’s smaller one. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell anyone. Is it all right to come over later this afternoon to see how you’re doing?”
“All right,” Darcy whispered, hoping Mrs. Gilbert would get busy and forget.
But Mrs. Gilbert did not forget. At 4:00, after Darcy had helped her mother to the bathroom, given her some chicken noodle soup, and settled her back into bed, there was a knock on the door.
Laila’s head went up, but she didn’t bark.
“Who could that be?” Janine asked. There was no golden glow around her, and she was awake.
“I think it’s Mrs. Gilbert,” Darcy said softly.
“Mrs. Gilbert? Mom’s old friend?”
There was another knock, and Mrs. Gilbert called out, “Darcy? Janine? Can I come in?”
As if seeing things for the first time, Janine looked around the room, at her daughter, at Laila, at the food on the counter. Patting her hair into place, Janine sat up, and even though she was in her nightgown, she called, “Come in.”
Mrs. Gilbert came into the room, glanced at Darcy and Janine, and nodded. Laila went over to the old lady and nudged her hand. Smiling, Mrs. Gilbert patted the silky head. “Oho, so you’re here, too. I should have known.” Laila gave Mrs. Gilbert’s hand a lick.
Mrs. Gilbert took off her coat and draped it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. “May I sit down?”
“Of course,” Janine said. “Please, excuse us. We don’t normally do things like this, stay in someone else’s apartment.” She shook her head. “I don’t even really know where I am. I’ve been sick.”
Mrs. Gilbert smiled. “You are in Alphonse Picard’s apartment in the old stone house. He’s away for the month. Your daughter brought you here. Guided by that dear dog, I would guess. Am I right?”
Darcy nodded, and Laila barked.
“Mrs. Gilbert…” Janine began.
But the old woman held up her hand. “And a good thing they brought you here. Look at you. You are in no condition to go anywhere. Where were you headed, anyway?”
Eyes glittering, Janine turned her head, but Darcy said in a rush, “We were going to a church across town on College Avenue but Mom couldn’t walk anymore and I tried to pull her in the wagon and could barely move it and then Laila found us and brought us here.” Darcy began to cry. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Holding her arms out, Janine turned to her daughter. “Darcy, I’m so sorry.”
Darcy rushed to the bed, where her mother embraced her.
“Tiens,” said Mrs. Gilbert. “Now it’s out. Was that so bad?”
Janine stared levelly at Mrs. Gilbert. “Yes, it was.”
Mrs. Gilbert pursed her mouth. “I suppose you’re right. After all, nobody likes to get kicked out of an apartment and go to a church shelter.”
Janine’s voice was low. “It’s terrible.”
“Oui, oui, terrible,” Mrs. Gilbert agreed. “But that’s the situation you’re in. The question is, what next?”
Janine shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Mrs. Gilbert’s expression was stern. “Well, I do, and you’re not going to be a tête de pioche about it. You’re going to come stay with me for a while. How long, I do not know. But I live alone, and I have plenty of room. Vraiment, I would be glad for the company.”
“But Mrs. Gilbert,” Janine protested.
Mrs. Gilbert became even sterner. “What did I say about being a tête de pioche? You know that if the situation were reversed, and your mother could help one of my daughters, she’d do it in a minute.”
“Yes,” Janine said slowly, “Mom would have taken in one of your daughters if she needed help.”
“Well, then,” Mrs. Gilbert continued. “You two will be coming home with me. I live close by, on Summer Street, about a quarter of a mile. Can you walk that far?”
Janine tested her ankle and blinked in amazement. “You know, I think I can. My ankle feels much better.”
“Bon.” Mrs. Gilbert stood up. “I’ll help Darcy get things packed while you get yourself dressed.”
Janine didn’t argue. Instead she gathered her clothes and went to the bathroom, and although she limped a little, it was clear the sprain was healing.
Staring at Mrs. Gilbert, Darcy hardly knew what to say. They were going to stay in a house—not an apartment—that had a Christmas tree in the living room, where nobody had to sleep on the couch.
“You’ll have your own room,” Mrs. Gilbert said. “Susan, my youngest, is away at college, and she won’t be home until right before Christmas.” Mrs. Gilbert grinned. “I might have been exaggerating a little when I said I was all alone. But your mother doesn’t have to know that just yet.”
“My own room,” Darcy whispered, and even though she knew it was only temporary, thinking about it made her shiver.
Then Darcy felt something on her leg, one of Laila’s feathery paws. Leaning down, Darcy let the dog lick her face. When Laila was done, she looked at Mrs. Gilbert, but the old lady laughed. “Oh, no. A hand is one thing, a face is another. After all, I’m not a child anymore.”
Laila barked a few times, then with a nod of her silky head, she went to the door.
And Darcy knew, deep inside, that if she let Laila out, she wouldn’t see the dog again. The thought filled her with sadness, and with tears in her eyes, Darcy stood still, not wanting Laila to leave.
But Mrs. Gilbert went to the door. “Darcy, Laila’s job is done here. It’s time for her to move on.”
“I know,” Darcy whispered as Mrs. Gilbert opened the door.
With a rush and rustle, Laila was gone, but there was one last bark, triumphant and joyful, which made Darcy smile, even though she was crying.
Mrs. Gilbert wiped her eyes. “Okay, then. Let’s get packed.”
And Darcy began to gather her things for the short walk to Mrs. Gilbert’s home with its Christmas tree, homemade hot chocolate, and enough bedrooms for everyone.