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with a prayer on my breath

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Jeremiah can make more than coins or buttons disappear; it’s a well-kept secret that he can make girls vanish, too.

The few who know at the Parkinson house will never tell; they’ll remain silent on the matter until the day they die, repeating the same thing over and over: a fever took her. Mary Whitney is dead. Even the half-truth they force-fed Grace Marks is only that—partly true. She bled to death after her baby was cut out of her. It leaves a bitter taste in the housekeeper’s mouth, knowing that Grace’s poor heart broke into pieces when she woke up that morning and thought she found Mary dead; what’s worse is that, when the girl leaves for new employment, she goes with the false knowledge that she is alone in the world again. The staff wish it weren’t so.

Jeremiah, as it turns out, knew a place where Mary could start over and take up housework for a respectable widow who owed him a favor, from a time which predated his life as a peddler. But she had to give up her name, and so the plan was hatched over the span of two days. It was very rushed—not as thought out as Jeremiah would have liked, or so he said, but he kept his word: on that morning, the Toronto knew Mary Whitney to be dead, and nothing more.

Under a cover in the back of a wagon, Mary is smuggled out of Toronto. She will never see the Parkinson house or its residents and employees ever again.

The man who drives the cart continues on the road unnoticed; her heart pounds in her ears and her teeth are clenched so tight together they rattle painfully against one another every time the wheels find a bump in the road. Among the sacks of grain, she is still like the grave. Every step the horse takes is one more away from where Grace is, and she hides her face in the crook of her elbow to muffle her crying.

It takes two days and two nights to reach the friend of Jeremiah’s. She pays the cart owner his share, bids him farewell, and walks up to the front door of the small little house set far back in the trees. She hasn’t eaten, and she’s sore all over from the journey here. Knocking on the door twice gives way to an older woman with a wrinkled, scarred face with a kind, weathered smile. Mary doesn’t mean to: she bursts into tears at the sight of this friendly face. The woman is gentle as she brings Mary inside and shows her to her quarters. The room is small—about half that of the space she and Grace shared in the Parkinson house—but she’s too tired to mind it. She only has enough will to kick of her shoes before falling into bed, dead asleep seconds after her head hits the pillow.

In the morning, she wakes up with a start. The smell, feel, and look of this room is all wrong; fear starts to bubble within her before she remembers what the last few days have entailed. She groans and pulls the sheet over her head; it is still dark out, and she misses Grace sorely. She waits until the sun turns the sky from blackest blue to that awkward, paling color it takes on before the sun can fully show itself to get up.

Her duties are simple: cook; clean; tend to the chickens; check on the mare; milk the jersey cow; ensure that the garden is in good spirits; read to Missus Johnson, whose eyes are beginning to fail her, for an hour before the widow retires to her room for an afternoon nap; in the evening, the cooking and cleaning resumes. Rinse and repeat, with some irregularities thrown in here and there.

Mary’s heart cracks like glass meeting stone when Jeremiah sends her a letter and writes only of how badly Grace took Mary’s ‘death.’ Missus Johnson hovers behind her, squinting to read over her shoulder, but Mary can’t find it in her to care: she’s seated at the table, her vegetable stew forgotten as she reads the words over and over again.

Grace, according to Jeremiah, who learnt it from the housekeeper, had a terrible shock: she fainted while doing the laundry, and did not wake for some time. While unconscious, she woke momentarily and had a fit, but passed out again shortly afterward, and, when she opened her eyes again, she remembered nothing of that incident.

And there’s the very end of the letter: Grace has left the Parkinson house for a new employer.

A cold spike of fear shoots through her: where has Grace gone? And how will Mary ever hope to see her again if she doesn’t know where she is? She presses her lips together in an effort to keep her eyes from stinging with unshed tears, but the widow puts a hand on her shoulder, and she sniffs, stubborn, eyes lit with an angry, burning, mournful sorrow. She stands up abruptly and begins to clear the table; she does not want to speak of it.

That night, she presses her mouth to her hand and bites down; the tears come anyway. She’s angry, now, and deeply saddened. This bed is narrow but entirely too empty for her liking. And this is his fault—

Shuddering breaths eventually quiet until she’s back to counting her even breaths. Inhale, exhale. She still wants to cry. She’s still angry. And she still, more than anything in the world, wishes she could tell Grace the truth, but she’s clamped down on any chance that she might start blubbering again—and it’s bad enough that Missus Johnson witnessed her being so distraught at dinner, but, she supposes, it’s just as well, because Missus Johnson knows why Mary is here, and took her in with a smile and a kind word despite it all.

Time doesn’t particularly move out here in the country; the season eventually changes, but Mary feels like she’s stuck doing the same thing day in and day out. Sometimes, she’ll walk Missus Johnson down the road to her neighbor’s house for tea, but those visits are few and far between, and the widow speaks of her knees growing worse with every winter she sees. Occasionally, she’ll take the mare, Annamarie, up the road, across the bridge, and to the tiny little town called St. George’s, marked by a finely painted but weathered sign hanging from the porch of the four-bedroom inn. It is there that letters are sent and received for the residents in the area, so it is there Mary feels closest to Grace, though she knows that Grace is far, far away from her.

The only notable thing that can mark the difference in time for her is finding a dog and deciding to take him home. “I’ll call you Rex,” she tells him, and he wags his tail, looking like he’s smiling at her, and there’s a brief flash of warmth that fills Mary’s chest, but it’s gone as soon as she tries to hold on to it.

It’s hard to tell how much time has passed when word reaches her: Jeremiah writes that Grace and a man have been arrested for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. The papers are alight with burning Grace and her reputation alive, though he tells her has a feeling it will somehow work out in the end. As a man now of science instead of peddling wares, he thinks that there is more to it than what any reporter could write, and he tells her of his plan to set out and set her free, though, he does not know. For months upon months, through the change of seasons, Mary and Jeremiah converse: eventually, he finds a new name for himself, Du Pont, and Mary suggests he use something already present in his inventory if he is to help Grace. She mulls over what they could use, but ultimately decides that, if they are to free Grace in a manner that will allow her to remain legitimately free of any charges or accusations, it must be from a reputable approach. And then the idea springs itself on him: hypnotism. And it has a chance of working because, apparently, there is a committee that is petitioning for Grace to be pardoned. They do not, for whatever reason, by either Grace’s or someone else’s doing, believe her to be guilty. And they seek evidence to appeal to the courts.

Technically, Mary should owe Jeremiah for saving her skin, and while he acknowledges this, he confesses that it has become his duty, among other things, to free Grace from the penitentiary, since, in some part, people believe that the ‘death’ of Mary Whitney was a catalyst for it all. All will be right, he writes as she reads by candlelight, I promise you and Grace this. And Jeremiah has never disappointed before.

By this time, Missus Johnson has grown frail and weak; she tells Mary, very bluntly, that she has no children, and does not wish for the land she lives off of to be turned over to the gentry or any other party. The will, as it turns out, details that it is to be left to Jeremiah, since that decision will not be questioned should anyone look into the legality of it, and Jeremiah has said that he has no wish to live in that house, on that land, in that part of Canada. So it becomes Mary’s after the widow passes after a particularly brutal winter. She buries Missus Johnson outside in the trees, just like she asked her to, and is reminded of just how painfully alone she is again. Several seasons pass her by, and Jeremiah finally writes that he has appealed to the committee seeking to pardon Grace, and thinks that he has won them over.

It’s the hardest wait Mary thinks she has ever endured, but, it is just as Jeremiah promised:

All is well. Mary has been pardoned. You are to meet her at the inn north of Missus Johnson’s house on October the fifth, as is the date she is expected to arrive.

And Mary is crying, but bursting with hope.

“Rex, I don’t believe it,” Mary says, her eyes brimming the tears. He perks up, lifting his head as she approaches him with her hands held out. “she did it—she’s finally coming home.”