No Ocean Too Wide
Katie McAlister’s heart pounded out a frantic beat as she gripped the rickety railing and rushed down the back stairs. She shoved open the heavy door at the bottom and jumped into the dark alley behind the dress shop. Cool, gray mist swirled around her, carrying the smell of rotting food and choking coal smoke.
She darted a quick glance to the left and then the right, and tremors raced down her arms. She never went out alone at this time of night. It wasn’t safe, not in this part of London. She couldn’t let her fears keep her from doing what she must.
If only her older sister, Laura, were here. She would know what to do, but she was miles away.
Katie took off down the alley, dodging wooden crates overflowing with broken bottles and stinking trash. A cat’s screech pierced the air. Katie gasped and jumped to the side. The cat dashed past, a black shadow in the faint light of the gas streetlamps.
She pulled in a ragged breath as she rounded the corner, her footsteps slapping on the cold, slick cobblestones. She should have gone for help sooner, but Mum had begged her not to leave.
She ran past the boot shop and bakery, then cut through an alley and dashed up to the Grahams’ door. With a shaky hand she knocked three times, then bit her lip and stood back. No one came so she pounded again, harder this time. “Mrs. Graham!”
The door finally swung open, and her mother’s friend squinted out at her. She wore a white ruffled cap over her hair and a gray woolen shawl draped around her shoulders. “Goodness, Katie, is that you?”
“Yes ma’am. Can you come? Mum has taken a turn for the worse. She’s burnin’ with fever, and her breathing is so raspy we don’t know what to do.”
A fearful look flashed across the woman’s face, and she gave a quick nod. “Of course, love. I’ll just gather some things.”
Katie closed her stinging eyes and blew out a heavy breath. Everything would be all right now. Mrs. Graham knew how to nurse the sick. Katie swallowed hard, praying Mrs. Graham’s help would be enough. But the painful memory of her dad’s accident eighteen months earlier came rushing back.
He had been injured in a terrible train wreck. Mum had nursed him around the clock for three days. The whole family had prayed he would recover, but he’d slipped away from them and shattered their world.
They’d been forced to leave their modest home and move into the three small rooms over the dress shop where Mum worked long hours doing hand sewing, finishing dresses for Mrs. Palmer. At least Mum had worked for Mrs. Palmer until eight days ago, when she had come down with a fever and taken to her bed.
Mrs. Graham stepped outside, carrying a basket over her arm. “Come along, child.”
Katie stiffened. She wasn’t a child. She was fourteen, and she worked alongside Mum most days, caring for her younger sister, Grace, and doing some of the cooking and laundry. But this was no time to argue the point. She hurried after Mrs. Graham, sending up a silent prayer as she followed her mum’s friend through the neighborhood and then turned into the alley behind the dress shop. She ran ahead and opened the door for Mrs. Graham.
“Blimey, it’s as dark as a cave in here.” Mrs. Graham grabbed up her skirt and climbed the creaking stairs.
Katie stopped at the bottom step and looked up. Gray light shone through the lone window, spreading ghostly shadows over the steps. Cold dread filled her stomach. If only she could turn and run away from the painful scene that awaited her. But her twin brother, Garth, was upstairs with Mum and seven-year-old Grace. They were counting on her, and she wouldn’t leave them to face this frightening night alone.
Pulling in a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and climbed the stairs. When she reached the top, she followed Mrs. Graham inside. Dank odors from the alley penetrated their small flat even though she and Mum did their best to keep everything clean. A single lantern burned by Mum’s bedside, spreading a faint light around the chilly room.
Mrs. Graham bustled toward the bed where Mum lay. Katie’s brother and sister sat on the other bed. Grace curled up beside Garth and hid her face in his shoulder. He looked across at Katie, his anxious gaze penetrating hers, reading her thoughts.
It had always been that way, ever since she could remember. Mum said when they were toddlers they had their own language—“twin-speak,” she used to call it. And though many years had passed since then, they still had a strong connection and could usually tell what the other was thinking. There were no secrets between them.
Katie moved toward the bed where Grace and Garth waited. She gently ran her hand over her sister’s damp blond curls. Poor dear. It was almost midnight. She should be asleep, dreaming of happier days.
Mrs. Graham spoke softly to Mum as she straightened the sheet and blanket across her chest, but Mum did not answer. Instead, she tossed her head, her cheeks flushed and damp.
Grace looked across at Mrs. Graham. “Is she going to be all right?”
Mrs. Graham hesitated. “Of course, love.” But her words were unconvincing. She shifted her gaze from Grace to Katie. “Why don’t you go in the kitchen and put on the teakettle? Garth, you and Grace go with her. A cuppa will help us all.”
“Yes ma’am.” Katie reached for Grace’s hand and helped her sister off the bed. Garth stood and followed them into the adjoining room.
Garth added a small scoop of coal to the stove, his expression distant and troubled. Katie filled the kettle and tried to ignore the ache in her chest. Grace climbed into one of the chairs at the round table, watching them both with wide blue eyes.
Katie took four cups from the shelf and set them on the table, then reached for the canister of tea. It was almost empty, and they had no sugar. The bread was gone. All they had left were a few shriveled potatoes and an onion. With a weary sigh, she added tea leaves to the pot and let them steep.
Grace leaned her elbow on the table and placed her chin in her hand. “Can I have hot chocolate?”
Garth sent Katie a quick glance, his meaning clear. Don’t upset Grace. He turned to their younger sister. “Not tonight, Gracie. Maybe tomorrow.”
Grace crossed her arms on the table and lay her head down with a tired sigh.
Garth opened the cupboard and scanned the empty shelves. He gave his head a slight shake, then turned to face Katie. “I’ll speak to Mr. Davies. Maybe he’ll give me my wages early.”
Katie nodded, hoping the butcher would agree. Garth worked for Mr. Davies after school and all day on Saturday as his delivery boy. The man was notoriously stingy and always made Garth wait until the end of the month for his pay. It wasn’t much, but Mum hadn’t earned any money since she’d been feeling poorly, and they needed Garth’s wages as soon as Mr. Davies would pay him.
Mrs. Graham stepped into the kitchen, her hands clasped tightly together. “Garth, I need you to run back to my house and tell Mr. Graham to fetch the wagon. We have to take your mum to the hospital.”
Katie’s heart lurched. “Mum doesn’t want to go to the hospital. Surely there’s something we can do for her here.”
Mrs. Graham’s expression softened as she looked from Katie to Garth. “Your mum needs a doctor and trained nurses looking after her, or I fear she…” Her voice drifted off, and she shot a pained look at Grace.
Katie laid her hand over the cross necklace beneath her dress and tried to swallow back her fear. She knew Mum’s illness was serious. But they couldn’t afford to summon a doctor. How would they ever be able to pay a hospital bill?
But what choice did they have? With Dad gone and Laura working so far away, someone had to make this choice for Mum.
Garth grabbed his cap and sweater from the hook on the wall and strode toward the door without a word. He would do as Mrs. Graham asked and fetch her husband.
Katie poured a cup of tea for Mrs. Graham and took it to her. Then she sat with Grace beside Mum’s bed. Fearsome questions filled her mind while they waited for Garth to return with Mr. Graham. Mum’s face grew even more flushed, and she tossed her head from side to side, murmuring words Katie couldn’t understand.
Finally, footsteps sounded on the stairs. Garth strode in, followed by Mr. Graham and the Grahams’ son, Jacob. They quickly placed a heavy blanket under Mum to use as a stretcher. Mr. Graham took two corners near Mum’s head, and Mrs. Graham and Jacob each took one of the other corners.
Katie reached for her sweater. “We’ll come with you.”