Having the feeling of being watched, Charlie opened her eyes. Large brown centred orbs stared at her from a nose length away. “Mommy, Mommy,” the boy shouted, stepping back from the bed, “there’s a white girl in Riley’s bed.”
Jen popped her head around the corner. “Sorry ’bout that.” She cocked her index finger at the boy. “Ry, come here mister.”
“Who is she?”
“You never mind,” said his mother tugging him back down the hall.
In spite of her embarrassment, Charlie felt exhilarated to be waking up in Riley’s room. The butterflies swooned low into her belly with each thought of him. She spent a long time smoothing out the bed sheets and the comforter, procrastinating, trying to put off the walk past the matriarchs of his family. But eventually, she had to admit that there wasn’t a wrinkle left to fix.
Riley’s sister and aunt were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. “See Aunty. That’s the girl,” the boy shouted excitedly from the living room where he was now watching cartoons. A heat flooded over Charlie’s body.
“Ry,” Jen scolded him. “How ’bout a coffee?” she offered to Charlie.
Charlie wanted to stay. She wanted to sit at the table and hear candid stories about Riley like any girlfriend would. She looked between his sister and his aunt. Maybe they didn’t know what she was and that was why they were being so nice to her, because who would welcome that in their house? What if they asked the inevitable interview questions? And what do you do? She couldn’t lie. “What time is it?”
“Ten. You sure slept late, eh?”
“Yeah. I guess I better get going. Thanks, anyway.”
“You sure?” asked the aunt.
“Yeah. I really have to get home.”
“Riley and the boys are out with da horses, already.”
Charlie could see him through the living room window, sitting atop a dancing muscular blue roan. It took her a minute to realize that Riley was putting the horse through its paces without the use of reins. He shifted his weight and slid his feet as though he was leading a partner across the floor through some well-rehearsed choreography, instead of just showing off in front of his friends on the front lawn. The only people she’d ever seen ride like that were in videos, except for that one time she saw some young Hutterite do it in an auction ring. She couldn’t take her eyes off Riley.
“He’s pretty good with a horse, isn’t he?” his aunt said.
“Yeah,” agreed Charlie, suddenly conscious that both she and Jen were getting more entertainment in watching her watching Riley than out of watching him. “I really have to get going.”
From the landing, she could see George still asleep in the basement. She pulled on her boots.
The air was crisp. She pulled her jean jacket tight around her body and fumbled in the pockets of it for the truck keys. She had to get out of there.
Riley halted the blue roan. “I was just about to come wake you up.” The others turned their attention toward her, as well. “We’re heading out to the place where the eagles stay. Thought we’d get you a feather to add to the character of that hat of yours. I already saddled a horse for you.”
Charlie fished out the truck keys. She had no idea what to say to him and having an audience didn’t help. “I’m sorry. I have to get back.” She dodged his pleading eyes and cut straight for the truck. She got in, pushed the key into the ignition and lit a cigarette. Just as she was about to put the truck in reverse, a face appeared at her driver’s side window. It was Riley. She put the truck back in park and rolled down her window.
“You’re sure you have to go?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said still avoiding his eyes.
“Hey,” he said, leaning in through the window. She closed her eyes and accepted the kiss. It was soft and tasted of mint. She opened her eyes and for a brief second allowed herself the moment. But, this was not the sort of thing to get used to. She pulled back.
“Are you going out tonight?” he asked her.
“I might do a little Honkey Tonkin.” She winked.
“Maybe I’ll see you?”
Riley leaned in the window and kissed her again. “You know, you should give that up?” He pointed to the cigarette that had been burning in her hand. “Those things’ll kill you.”
She pulled out of his driveway and as she turned onto the road, she reached under the seat and searched for a beer. She found one and flipped the tab, releasing a small spray of bubbles. They’ll never get the chance to kill me, she thought.
“How about this one?” the apple head doll of a French Canadian nun asked the man in the fancy suit. “She’s a good worker.”
“No. Not that one, too fair,” the mysterious man with the deep black irises said. The nun gave him a look of confusion. He paid her no attention, as he walked down the row muttering observations about each of the girls like he was about to conduct a transaction over livestock. “Too fat, too dark, too light.”
“Maybe this one?” the nun said pointing to Stella.
The man stopped and eyed her heavily. She was only fifteen, but already well developed. She wasn’t sure what to make of him, but he looked like he had money and maybe it was a way to get the hell out. If you didn’t have anywhere to go back to there weren’t many options. You got married off or you joined the order. She sure as hell wasn’t joining the order. And if her hunches were right, a husband was the answer to everything that kept her awake in terror at night. She batted the eyelashes above her deep green doe eyes.
“Hmm,” he said, tugging at his angular chin. Then turned, as if to continue down the line.
Stella bit her lip and squirmed a little under her uniform. He turned back to her and stepped in close, his nose near her ear and took a handful of her short bobbed hair between his fingers. He inhaled slowly. A smile broke across his face. “I’ll take this one.” He handed the nun a small bundle of bills. “Go get your stuff,” he instructed Stella.
“Not that one,” said a tall priest, entering the room.
“Yes this one,” the nun said firmly. She waved her hands, dismissing the rest of the girls to do their chores. The priest hung his head and followed them out of the hall.
Stella gave a coy smile to the man who had just bought her for a bride and excused herself.
It only took a few seconds for her to bundle her belongings into a piece of cloth. She hadn’t been given much at the residential school, but misery and a uniform. She placed a hand on the mystery of her belly and stared out the window across the yard at the tall priest. Fuck you, she thought, you and all of your promises.
The black-eyed man was waiting for her outside, leaning on a baby blue Cadillac. It was beat to shit, but it was a Cadillac. Never in her life had she dreamed of riding in a Cadillac.
“My name’s Beauregard,” he said, opening the door for her.
“Stella,” she said, a lock of hair falling from behind her ear. He moved it off of her face. She guessed he was in his late twenties, maybe older. He was very attractive. She wondered if she’d love him.
“Let’s go,” he said.
She nodded her head and slid in the seat. She didn’t get the chance to say good-bye, but then again, there wasn’t anyone to say good-bye to. No family, no real friends. Through the side rear view mirror, she saw the priest staring down the road after her. She could imagine tears in his eyes, but there were none in hers. “Where are we going?” she asked.
Beauregard put the car in drive. He twisted off the lid of a sliver flask. “South, a long ways South.”
South sounded good. South as far away from the province of Manitoba as they could get.
They drove clean across the American border following some back road and on for a good many hours and into the night. Stella guessed they were somewhere in the Dakotas, but who really knew? There wasn’t much about the world or its geography she really knew about, save for Europe, but she was never going to go there, was she? A flashing neon sign in the distance advertised drinking and dance. When they reached it, Beauregard pulled the Cadillac into the parking lot.
“What are we doing?” she asked.
“Stopping for a spell.”
They got out and walked up to the tavern door. Stella stepped through it cautiously. She’d never been in a place that served alcohol before. The barroom was a dark, smoky dump and she found nothing appealing in it, apart from the music that blared from a jukebox in the corner.
“We don’t serve Indians here,” said the man at the door, putting an arm out across Beuregard’s chest.
Beauregard responded in a thick, heavy French accent. “Indian? Who you call Indian. I am Franch, from Maneetoeba. Mois great-great grandmere maybe. I do not know this, but I am no Indian.”
“You have a licence?”
Beauregard fished it from his pocket and handed it over.
The man at the door studied it.
“See there. See my name. Beuregard Plait. That sound like Indian name to you?”
The man had to agree and handed the licence back to him. “Metis?”
“What about her? She looks like an Injun.”
Beauregard leaned in close to the man. “You tell me this. You ever see squaw with the green eye?”
“Can’t she speak for herself?”
Stella shook her head. The priest had once told her she looked Mediterranean. “Italian,” she said, copying sister Isabelle’s accent, and then she jabbered something that neither of the men understood.
“All right, said the doorman. But I don’t want any trouble from either of you.”
They found a table in the back corner and Beauregard ordered them both drinks. “Here,” he said, “get a load of this.”
Stella tipped the glass to her lips. It tasted like shit, and burned too, but she didn’t like the way he was looking at her— like she was a little girl and not big enough for this place. She threw it back down her throat. The burn made her choke and cough, and then it faded to a nice warmth that spread through her body and gave her head a pleasant lightness.
“Well, hot damn, you took that like a champion, little lady,” Beauregard said slapping his knee. “And that gibberish back there, that was priceless. Italian.” He saluted her with his glass.
“It wasn’t gibberish,” she said. “It wasn’t Italian either. Latin.”
“Yes sir.” He took a sip of his whiskey. “A sweet little Catholic girl.”
“I’m not a Catholic.” She slammed back another drink.
“Well, whatever you are, you better slow down on those.”
The drinks gave her courage. “So, what did you take me out of the school for? Are we going to marry?”
He gave her a very sober look. “No. You little darling are a business investment. I won some bucking stock off of a guy in a poker game about six months ago. I put together a travelling Wild West show, but all I got is cowboys. It occurred to me that I only had half of the West. So, you young lady are going to be my real money maker. My Indian princess.”
“An Indian princess. Why me?”
“Cause you’ve got a few things working for you, beyond being able to play the part.”
“You’re not really French are you?”
Beauregard smiled. “Moi? Oui. I am,” he said picking up the accent again. “From Maneetoeba.” He stiffened and shot his cold black eyes straight through her, dropping the accent. “I come from wherever I say I come from, and I am who I say I am. Got that?