"I've thought it over and made a decision." Rooney stood in the doorway, took a deep breath and held it like a fist. "I'm not going back to that awful school."
Delilah Boone glared at her granddaughter. "Twelve-year-old girls don't make decisions," she said. "Of course you're going back."
"Well, then, I've made another decision. If you make me go, I'll run away. I promise you, Gran, I won't stay. I'll run away first chance I get."
"You'll do no such thing. The only reason me and your grandpa brought you home for the Christmas holiday was because you kicked up such a god-awful fuss. If it'd been me, I'd left you there." She nodded toward the man sitting across the table, a smirk tightening her lips. "But your grandpa wanted to do the Christian thing--like it'd make a trifle one way or the other. He seems to think that you're all he's got left since Gordie was killed in the mines last summer."
"Hush, old man. Go back to reading your paper." She puckered her lips, sucking in little spurts of air, and locked eyes with Rooney. "So I don't want to hear no more of this silly talk. You're a headstrong child and we can't deal with you, but now it's time for you to get your little tail back where you're expected."
Rooney stepped from the doorway. "It's a truly hateful place."
"There you go running the school down again. I'm sure it's not as bad as you claim." Delilah shoved a straggle of hair into the bun riding low on the nape of her neck. "And I'm sorry you're so willful that it takes a firm hand to keep you in line."
"But I'm not."
"Well, I say you are, and that's just how it is." She glared again at the man. Her eyes did not seek his approval, but merely conveyed the matter settled.
Rooney moved toward her grandfather. "Grandpa, please don't make me go back."
The room was quiet except for the hissing from the enameled coffee pot on the back of the stove. The steam gave a burnt, over-cooked smell. Outside, the cold winter sun had disappeared behind the massive trees that climbed the mountain, and a fierce wind swirled up through the hollow, clattering the clapboard siding and rattling loose windows like old bones.
"They're still talking about the President getting killed," he said. "Been over a month now since some damn fool in Dallas used him for target practice." He drained his cup and set it on the table. His hands were wide, fingers like corncobs. "Guess they'll go on talking about it for years."
Rufus Boone pushed to his feet and hitched the galluses of his bibbed overalls farther back on his stooped shoulders. "Mind your granny, girl," he said, refusing to look at his only grandchild as he shuffled from the room.
"Come here," Delilah said, crooking a finger at Rooney. She turned a chair from the table and motioned. "Sit down. We might as well get this straight once and for all."
Rooney sat down and laced her fingers together and stared at the ragged nails chewed down to the quick. Someday she'd stop gnawing the poor, pitiful stubs, she promised herself silently. Someday she'd be a lady, and do ladylike things.
"What's that, young lady?"
"My name's Rooney."
"That's a stupid name."
"It was my mama's name and I know she was proud to give it to me." She heaved a breath. "Besides, why do you always have to call me 'girl' like I could be just anybody?"
"What if I call you brat? That's what you are, you know, an ungrateful brat. Ungrateful and selfish. It's nobody's fault but your own that you have to go to that special school."
"Reform school. That's what it is."
Delilah shrugged. "We didn't have to see to you, Rufe and me. When Gordie died we could've left you over there on Piney Ridge by yourself in that trailer, and just let the county deal with you."
Here it comes, Rooney thought, the famous Boone Sacrifice. She hummed to herself: 'Hey, good lookin.' Her daddy had always loved Hank Williams.
"...and it's not my fault if that tramp of a mother of yours ran away when you were a baby. Lord knows whatever happened to her--probably dead by now, her and that wild streak she had."
"She wasn't a tramp," Rooney said. "I don't know why she left, but I know she wasn't a tramp. And I know she loved me."
"Hah! A lot you know, girlie. If that no-account hussy cared so much for you she'd stayed and raised you like any decent mama. And don't let anybody tell you different."
"Tell me different? Why would anybody tell me different? Gran, do you know why she left?"
"Who's to know what a woman raised in an orphanage might do?"
"It wasn't her fault that she was an orphan."
"I'm just saying that Barbara Rooney was trash, and trash don't marry quality stock like Gordon Boone."
"And not even bothering to come to the funeral."
"I don't know the answer to any of those things," Rooney said, rubbing the tiny heart-shaped birthmark just below her right ear. It felt like velvet.
Delilah slapped her hand away. "And quit rubbing that stupid birthmark," she said. "That, and your rebellious spirit are the only things you got from that woman who birthed you. She didn't deserve my Gordie when he married her. Many's the time I said to him, I said: 'Gordie, honey, don't marry that white trash Barbara Rooney, she's not good enough for you.' But would he listen? Oh, no."
"But none of that's my fault, Gran, and no reason to lock me away like a criminal."
"Brookhaven Institute's a fine place for girls like you; girls who like to sass."
"It's an insane asylum, Gran. I've not even been there a year and I'm already becoming as loony as the other inmates."
"There you go making up whoppers again. They're not inmates, they're students."
"Students who get beat and locked away without food for the littlest of reasons." Rooney didn't mention the Black Room.
"Rooney! You know the state wouldn't allow something like that to go on." She pinched her nose. "Besides, you can't stay here because we're moving."
Rooney's eyes floated in tears. "Moving?"
"Rufe don't really want to go, but like I told him: he can go or he can stay. But for me, I've froze my last winter in these devilish Appalachian mountains." She peered across the table. "Besides, we couldn't afford to keep you if we wanted to."
"What about the insurance money from the mines where Daddy worked?"
"Who said something to you about insurance?"
"Ginny mentioned it. She's fifteen-years-old and knows everything."
"Oh, she does, does she? And who might this brilliant person be?"
"Virginia May Lewis, my roommate. I thought about asking you for permission to have her come with me, but I knew you wouldn't let her."
Lila hooted. "You're right about that."
"Besides, Ginny's sick. She's had an awful bad cough for days and days. Miss Holtzclaw was supposed to call the doctor, but he still hadn't come when I left. I bet old Gert never even called him."
"Miss Holtzclaw is not 'old Gert.' She's the superintendent of Brookhaven and highly thought of in the community."
Rooney bit her lip and rolled her eyes. "Anyway, when Ginny's Uncle Ted got killed, her aunt got thousands and thousands of dollars."
"Lucky them," Delilah said with a snort. "As for Gordie, what little insurance there was went to pay off the company store and clear up a few bills. And of course, we had to bury him. I begged him not to go to work for that bunch of crooks. A yeller dog coal mine is scraping the bottom of the barrel, paying the miners less than the law allows. But was it ever reported?" She pinched her nose again. "It most certainly was not. Job scared! That's what they are--job scared weasels, probably work for free if the company asked them to. Now I don't want to hear no more about insurance money, and don't go shooting your mouth off when you get back to school."
"It's not a real school--it's a looney bin. Ginny says the people who run it are bought off with something called kickbacks, for putting kids there whose families don't want them."
"Ginny's mouth needs a good lye-soaping, if you ask me. The state's doing a fine job providing such a place as Brookhaven for girls like you. You should be grateful and so should Virginia May Lewis." Delilah smoothed the tablecloth and dusted her hands. "No more arguments now, you'll go back and what's more you'll like it. And I don't want to hear no more talk about crazy houses or kickbacks. That's the kind of stuff that lands people in a heap of trouble. You'd better get to bed now. It's going to be a long drive tomorrow and we'll be starting early."
Rooney slid from the chair and walked to the living room. Her grandfather was sitting on the edge of the tattered recliner in front of the fireplace. He sat staring into the flames, his hands dangling from arms that rested across his denim-covered knees. He strained forward and picked up the poker and jabbed at the logs, making the room brighten from the flare. He clattered the poker onto the hearth. He seemed angry.
Rooney walked over beside his chair and put a hand on his shoulder. Half of his face lay hidden in shadows.
"Go to bed, girl."
Rooney crossed the room to her daybed tucked into a corner and crawled in between the icy covers. The threat of disobeying her grandma and running away left her more tired than she'd ever been. And scared her a little. Rooney was not tempted to disobedience or rebellion, but she surely didn't want to go back to that awful place. Would she run away? The thought lingered in her mind as her body relaxed and her eyes closed. Not knowing the answer, she drifted off.
Before she was ready, Rooney heard her grandmother's voice. Hard and demanding. Giving orders.
A hand touched her shoulder. "Get up, before she really gets riled," her grandpa urged. "We have to be getting on the road."
Suddenly the quilts were stripped from her body and she was yanked upright. "You heard your grandpa," Delilah yelled. "It's almost five o'clock--get up and eat your breakfast. I declare I don't know why we go to all this trouble for you. It's going to be way after dark before we get back home."
"Lila, don't be so--"
"Shut up, Rufus. I've heard what you've got to say." She grabbed Rooney's arm. "Come on, girl. Move."
Rooney rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
The water in the wash pan in the kitchen sink was near freezing. Rooney braced herself against the shock as she dipped her hands in and splashed her face. Breakfast consisted of lumpy oatmeal in a blue-enameled bowl and half a glass of blue john. But she knew it would be a long time before supper, so she cleaned the bowl and drained the glass.
Delilah stood in the doorway holding Rooney's coat and tam, and tapping her foot. Rooney followed her out the door.
The old Chevy coughed and wheezed and Rooney hoped it was too cold to start. Her hopes were dashed when the motor turned over. She sat alone in the back seat and tugged the ragged hem of her too-small coat down over her bare legs. Tucking into the corner, she scrunched herself into a tight ball and tried to stop shivering. Her insides felt empty--all ashes and smoke and futility. Rooney feared she would die before she ever found true happiness. Strangely enough, she wasn't surprised at the thought.