Later that week, Ms. Grace took all the kids of Tandilly Place into town for their weekly trip. The entire house was full of excitement and anticipation as the children gathered their boots and cloaks, pulled their hidden coins and dollars out from under their beds, and whispered secretly about where they had swiped the money and what treats they planned to buy with it. Tilly had found two quarters while playing in the yard earlier in the week – a rather large treasure – and tossed them into the pocket of her cloak where she could clink them between her fingers throughout the trip. She could almost smell the aroma of fresh meat from the town butcher, spinning in the spigot with the hot flames licking it tenderly from beneath. She only had enough for a small piece, but it was enough to delight her after weeks of rice and potato pudding. Grace’s voice suddenly shrieked above the madness followed by an ear-piercing whistle. The children frantically ran into place in between the beds, ordered by height. At the front stood Patsy and at the very back was little Toby, just 3 years old and the sweetest and most shy boy in the entire orphanage.
“You children have been making too much noise today,” Grace yelled as she paced alongside their perfect line, eyeing each child suspiciously. “I ought to cancel this trip altogether.” The children caught their breath in horror, struggling to contain the protests flying through their little heads.
“But,” Grace smiled, ” I will do something nice for you this time. We will still go as long as each of you shows proper consideration.” She stood expectantly in the middle of the line, hands on her chubby hips causing a slight ruffle in her frumpy dress. The children knew what this meant. One by one, each child walked up to Grace and gave her one compliment followed by a peck on the cheek.
“You are so beautiful, Miss Grace, if only I weren’t so ugly.”
“Miss Grace, your hair is longer than mine – no matter how hard I try, I will never keep up.”
“Your kindness is so appreciated, Miss Grace. I’m sorry I’m always so bad. I wish I were more like you.”
The line continued, each child offering the only words they knew she’d accept from them. Tilly knew all the children hated this, but she was quite certain she hated it the most. There was only one compliment Grace would accept from her and it made her tummy ache creep back in, sickening her.
“I wish I could go to heaven someday like you will, Grace,” she whispered, chin quivering, “I know I’ll never be good enough to go anywhere except hell.”
A sickening smile spread across Grace’s face and Tilly cringed as her lips were forced to caress the wrinkly sweaty cheek of this woman she despised above all else. She scurried back in line, hands wrapped around her belly, hoping she’d be able to hold her own through the trip.
The journey into town wasn’t long, but required the children to navigate a fairly treacherous walk down a steep and rocky hill. Grace kept a swift pace and wouldn’t hesitate to send back any child who faltered so the children fought hard to keep each other on track. Toby was particularly vulnerable and today he was starting to lag at the back.
“Help me! Please! Help!” The children were already well ahead and continued marching forward, unwilling to sacrifice their own trip to town for the sake of the little boy. He tripped and fell on a rock, cutting his knee. He began to wail.
“Back to the house, Toby!” Screeched Grace. “Don’t any of you dare help him unless you want to go back too.”
All the children continued on.
Except Tilly. She couldn’t do it. Not with the ragged knot in her stomach. It was pounding hard and wouldn’t relent – she knew what this meant, it had happened before. It wouldn’t go away until she helped poor wailing Toby. To the shock of the other children, she turned and ran back up the hill to rescue him. Her eyes zoned in on the blood immediately. She watched it seep slowly out from the shallow wound, painting an exquisite tapestry on the stones underneath.
She reached up to the hood of her tattered cloak and ripped off a long piece of fabric.
“Here you go, Toby,” she said, “it’ll be okay, this will help you feel better.”
Toby was still crying. “I wanna go town! No go back!” His words were muddled together making him hard to understand – and unfortunate repercussion of years of punishment from a woman who had no patience for toddlers.
Tilly sighed. She wrapped his knee tightly and held it in her hands as the bleeding slowed. She glanced down the hill – the children were almost to the bottom now. The ache in her belly was commanding her to rebel; to do the thing that would make Toby happy. She stood, determined.
“Forget the old bat.” She held her hand out to Toby. “We’re going to town too.”
Toby smiled somewhat reluctantly – he and Tilly had never been close and her reputation certainly wasn’t a positive one. But the lure of the lights and action in the town square was far to tempting and he stood with a joyful smile. “We go!”
With Toby’s arms wrapped tightly around her neck, Tilly ran, jumped, and skipped down the hill. Toby’s giggles were contagious and she soon found herself laughing and dancing, moving right and then left according to his orders.
They didn’t catch up with the other children – rather (to avoid being caught skirting their punishment) they followed at a safe distance, hiding behind trash cans and pillars whenever Ms. Grace turned around.
It was a lovely day. Since there was no one there to tell them what to do, what not to touch, and to keep quiet, they gallivanted around town at their leisure, stopping to say hi to the flower cart vendors, taste testing the samples in front of the cupcake shop (Ms. Grace NEVER let them do that – “you’ll all be running around crazy for the rest of the night!”), and sitting in the front row for the juggling street performer (“let the other kids in town sit in front – they deserve it more than you do!”). And of course, at last, they reached the butcher shop. Tilly was so excited she could hardly contain herself. Little Toby wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, but followed along just the same.
The street vendor stood outside smoking a large potatobeast on a skewer. Tilly glanced at the menu.
“One shard, 25 cents. Two shards, 55 cents,” she whispered to herself. She glanced at Toby. She was starving but she dying to take the opportunity to go look inside the butcher shop first before buying a treat.
The tiny bell hanging above the door tinkled softly as they shuffled in, careful not to make a scene. The entire shop was empty – well, empty of anything living, anyways. Toby went straight to the display case that held a variety of animals both local and foreign. He smushed his face up against the glass in wonder, clearly mesmerized by the body parts and colors. He didn’t seem phased at all.
“I’m in the back! If you need something, speak with Erol out front.”
The low rumbling voice startled Tilly. She reached up on her tippy-toes and peered into the back of the store – good fortune! The butcher was at his table – just barely visible from the front – with a fresh carcass on his chopping board. Tilly had only had this opportunity once before and it had been short-lived because of darn Ms. Grace. But this time she had all the time in the world. And she wanted to watch. She wanted to see how it all happened. Her fingers gripped the top of the high counter and she rested her chin on them. She was just barely tall enough to pull it off. Next to her, Toby was jumping up and down. “Wanna see! Wanna see!”
“Hush, Toby!” Tilly anxiously put her fingers to her lips. “I’ll go get Ms. Grace if you don’t keep it down.”
Toby pouted but obeyed, finding a spot against the front window to play an imaginary game with the bloody handkerchief he pulled from his dried wound. Tilly returned her attention to the back room.
She could see the butcher was working very hard. His back was to her but his chest was heaving and sweat trickled down his neck. He raised his left hand above his head. Tilly caught the glint of a machete in his hand. He tightened his grip and hammered down onto the creature unlucky enough to land on his table. She watched in fascination as blood splattered out from the body, spraying the walls, the door, and the butcher. He seemed rather unconcerned and raised the weapon again for his second attack. Tilly could feel her skin tingling, warming her, comforting her. She had to see more. She wanted to see the whole thing. The pain in her stomach hinted at a return and she knew she had to get closer.
She lowered her chin from the counter and glanced over at Toby. He was completely lost in a strange imaginary game, waving his arms across the pane of glass as if performing magic. She crept over to the end of the counter, lifting her foot to step around to the cashier side. She hesitated – this was a big no-no. She’d never been on this side of any counter in any store under any circumstances. It felt like sacred ground.
But she had to see.
She took a deep breath and stepped across the threshold, careful to avoid the various electrical cables scattered haphazardly across the floor. Her anxiety at its highest setting, she was a nervous wreck when she finally reached the door of the butcher’s private shop. She peeked gingerly around the corner, just inches from the tall and burly man’s shiny cutting knife. He had switched for the classic butcher knife this time and set to work slicing into the meat, his whole body leaning in to the endeavor. Tilly watched with awe, willing the man to step aside so she could catch a glance of his lifeless prey.
At last, she got her chance. He wiped his blade on his apron and turned to retrieve yet another tool. He stepped away from the body.
Tilly’s hand flew to her mouth in shock, suppressing the desire to gasp.
Off the edge of the table hung a hand; a five-fingered human hand.