Rose woke with a gasp, heart pounding in her chest.
She looked up at the dark ceiling. Had she been dreaming? Her body was alight with that awful, swooping sensation of having fallen from a great height in a nightmare. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember what the dream had been about, simply that it had shaken her to her core, inside and out.
Exhaling unsteadily, she turned over onto her side and resolved to return to sleep.
But then the earth shook beneath her again.
Rose’s eyes shot open once more. No, that feeling had not been from a dream; the house itself seemed to be vibrating in warning.
She tossed back her covers and swung her feet over the edge of the bed. The wooden floor was cold and slightly dusty beneath her bare feet. Slowly, fearful of what she might see outside, Rose crossed to the window and squinted out onto the dark street.
Momentarily, she chided herself for what was surely her imagination; there were no monsters outside, no terrific lightning storm like she’d anticipated from the slight shaking of the house and the echo of the boom that had originally woken her.
She was just about to go back to bed once more, when a frantic man atop what looked to be a horse on its last legs galloped right past her window.
The man was shouting something, some panicked warning, but didn’t stop to elaborate. He hadn’t come to Rose’s house specifically, after all. He seemed to be making his way through the town as quickly as possible, as though mostly concerned about his own escape, alerting everyone else to what was happening a haphazard afterthought.
Rose’s ears were full of an odd pressure. The feeling reminded her of five years ago, when she and her parents had first moved to Colorado for her father’s job with the railroad, and the way the trek through the valley had made her head feel stuffy and full.
While she’d ultimately come to love Colorado, it was against her instincts to interpret this sort of pressure as anything short of a warning.
Was the rushing noise she was hearing in her head just from her ears? Or something else, outside of her?
“Rose,” snapped Mama’s voice from behind her. “What are you doing? You heard the man, we must make haste.”
Rose turned to see her mother’s shadowed form standing in the threshold. She was carrying an oil lamp, its dim light strobing against the walls. Her face was pale, frightened.
“What did he say?” Rose said, her limbs tingly. Fear had made it so that they felt as though they weren’t actually connected to her body. “I couldn’t make it out.”
But Mama wasn’t listening, or at best she was halfpaying attention. She’d set the oil lamp down and was now rummaging through Rose’s vanity. She snatched up the broach and pearls that had been gifted down the line of women in their family for four generations.
If Mama was taking these items and nothing else, it meant something truly awful was happening.
That was enough to get Rose moving. She lurched forward from her place beside the window and went to her wardrobe, meaning to put on something besides her night dress.
But Mama grabbed hold of her wrist before she could open its doors and tugged her from the room. “There’s no time.”
Rose’s heart, if possible, picked up speed. Blood rushed to her face. “I can’t go out like this, I’m not dressed—”
“There’s no time, Rose, we must go now.”
Rose clamped her jaw shut. Even before her father had been hired as a head engineer with the railroad, her mother had always taken care to dress her best whenever they went out of the house, and had insisted Rose do the same.
This had to be very, very bad.
She quit resisting. She allowed Mama to pull her through the little townhouse’s foyer, out onto the porch, then onto the street. More people had emerged from their houses, all of them similarly dressed in nightclothes.
This didn’t make Rose feel any better; she found herself stumbling over her bare feet on the rough dirt road, looking frantically around at their neighbors.
Some folks were still lingering on their own porches, frowning at the chaos, confused. Others were bridling horses and throwing items into wagons. Most were outright sprinting, all belongings forgotten, trying to get away as quickly as possible.
“What’s happening?” Rose demanded, realizing she was crying from the taste of tears on her lips. “Why is everyone running?”
Mama was out of breath herself, huffing and puffing as they fled. Before she could answer, another great groaning noise echoed through the valley, like an angry giant awakening after a long slumber.
This was followed by a loud, thunderous crack.
Mama skidded to a stop, tripping over an uneven patch of cobblestone. They’d made it as far as downtown, where the buildings were two stories tall and certain parts of the streets were paved. She turned around, her usually well-kept hair swinging in frazzled clumps about her face. “The dam,” she said, the words hardly louder than a gasp.
Rose whirled around to see what Mama was looking at…
…and her heart froze in her chest.
Mills Valley was named as it was because, in addition to being a primary stop and headquarters for the railroad, it was a mill town. The first settlers here had taken note of its proximity to the river, and elected to build a dam further up the mountain to take advantage of the extra water that melted off the snow-capped peaks in warmer seasons.
Rose knew from various comments her father had made over supper that the town council had begun outlining vague plans to expand the dam’s influence by working with communities further downriver that might benefit from an expanded irrigation system, but that was apparently a project for later.
It seemed like that was going to be a much later project, if it happened at all. The dam had obviously failed. A massive wave of water was rushing down the mountainside, glimmering like fresh-mined silver in the moonlight.
Rose felt as though her feet were glued to the spot. There was no way they were going to make it to higher ground in time. She imagined she could count down from thirty, and pinpoint the end of her life to the very second.
She heard herself ask, “Where’s Papa?”
Mama’s face paled further. She swore under her breath, something Rose had never heard her do. “He was staying late in his shop. He wouldn’t have heard the warning.”
Rose didn’t know how to respond. Everything was happening so fast. She felt frantic, helpless. The world spun around her, and she closed her eyes tight, desperate to block all of this out.
She felt Mama’s hand tighten on her wrist again, and then she was being pulled.
“Here,” Mama said, shoving Rose at the tall pine tree planted on the edge of town. “Rose, you must climb.”
Rose had climbed plenty of trees when she was younger, but now, at the age of thirteen, the thought of doing so under any other circumstances would have felt foolish. Still, there was no time to question anything; she latched onto the rough branches, sticky with sap, and began her ascent.
“I’ll be back,” Mama said from below her.
Rose whirled her head around. “What?” she shouted. Mama couldn’t leave, not even to go after Papa. All that was within their power to do at this point was hope for the best, and take care of themselves.She was about to say as much, but Mama was already running back in the direction they came, out of earshot.
Rose wanted to drop from the tree and go after her. She almost did, but it was at that moment that genuine screams began to reach her ears: the wave had reached the edge of town. Closing her eyes tight once more, Rose continued to climb, her clothes and skin getting scraped and sticky from the roughness of the tree.
When she could climb no further without the branches breaking under her weight, she heard a chorus of creaks and crashes. Buildings collapsing. Being swept away.
The tree trunk bowed beneath her, and for a long moment, Rose was certain that the force of the water would uproot it. When she dared to look down once the tree had buoyed itself back up, it was like she was on an island in the middle of forceful rapids. The whole town seemed to have been swept from its foundations beneath her, the remains of decimated buildings and overturned wagons churning about like a disastrous stew.
When Rose caught a glimpse of a man being carried about by the waves, limp and motionless, she squeezed her eyes shut again and clung even tighter to the tree.
She could only hope that Mama had somehow made it to Papa in time.
* * *
“Rose?” came a voice from below her. “Rose Kipling, is that you?”
Rose peeled open her eyes. They were crusted over from fear and tears; she’d been clinging to the tree for several hours now, even with the water stilling and becoming more placid beneath her.
It came as almost a shock that the sun had risen. It blinked its way over the ridgeline of the mountains, a soft slab of buttery light against the morning sky.
The nerve of it, looking so peaceful after everything that had happened.
“Yes,” Rose ground out when she managed to unclench her jaw. She tasted blood in her mouth. At some point, she must have bitten her lip, or her tongue, or something. “Yes, it’s me.”
“You can come down now,” came the voice. “We’ve brought a boat.”
Rose risked looking down at the man calling to her from below. She was terrified she would see nothing but wreckage and death, as though she’d just imagined the voice, and no one else was left alive in the whole town.
Thankfully, this fear was quickly proven false. It was Mayor Graves, face waxy and haunted, half-standing, half-sitting in the little rowboat two other men had finagled through the debris in what Rose supposed had to be a rescue effort.
“All right,” Rose said. “I’ll come down then.”
But to her dismay, she couldn’t get her hands to obey her brain. She wanted to climb down from the tree, to unlock her grip and join the others in the safety of the boat, but it was as though her joints had locked into place. She closed her eyes once more, and took a deep breath.
The morning smelled of dew and pine, the same as always. As though nothing had changed. As though everything she knew had not just come to a catastrophic end.
“Rose?” the mayor beckoned once more, sounding more than a little exhausted.
“Yes,” Rose said again. It was hard to keep the tears from her voice. “I’m trying, I swear, I just—”
“Rose?” A new voice, far away from the mayor and his crew. “Rose!”
That was Papa’s voice.
It was stunning enough that Rose’s fingers immediately opened, and she nearly fell from the tree, rather than climbing down. But in doing so, she also became aware of the string of pearls she’d been holding this whole time, pressed against the rough bark of the tree in her desperate, sweaty grip. Mama must have passed it to her before running after Papa.
“Papa!” Rose cried, looking around wildly once she’d regained her grip on the tree. She was scraped and bleeding in a number of places, but now she did not care about that one bit.
This time it took only a minute to scramble the rest of the way down the tree to where Mayor Graves and the other men were waiting in the boat. Now that her view wasn’t blocked by branches, Rose tore her eyes around what was left of the town once more, desperate to catch sight of her father.
She saw a man with soaked clothes and hair standing on the upper balcony of the town’s lone orphanage, alongside several children, waving his arms wildly overhead.
Of course, Rose thought, only now remembering the job Papa had been contracted to do by the orphanage. While his main work was with the railroad, planning routes and negotiating which hills needed to be blasted through and which could be built over, he took on occasional freelance construction projects as well.
The orphanage had been trying to fortify its staircase after a handful of children had been playing a little too rambunctiously and fallen through the old woodwork earlier that same month.
When Papa had said he was going to be working late last night, that must have been where he was, not out in his shop behind their house.
Rose was struck by immediate, nearly crippling relief. She sank down into the damp bottom of the rowboat and pressed her forehead into her knees. Papa was alive. Papa was safe. And from Mayor Graves’ instructions and the shift of the boat on the nowstill waters, they were rowing towards him now.
Yet… if Papa had been at the orphanage…
What had become of Mama?
Seven years later, Rose stepped out onto the covered porch of her home and breathed in the fresh, crisp scent of the season’s first snowfall. It was morning, just after daybreak, and a sparkling white sheet laid over Mills Valley’s fully reconstructed downtown.
No one else was out and about yet, meaning there wasn’t so much as a footprint to mar the smooth cover of white coating.
She loved moments like this. Everything was in its place, as it should be, picturesque. She liked to burn these images into her mind—images of wellbeing, contentment, order—to return to in the less bright moments, when the memories of that awful devastation welled up from the depths of her subconscious, a plague of dark memory.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Rose’s father, stepping out onto the porch beside her and shutting the door to the house. “I love the first snow. It’s a lot different out here than it is in Boston.”
Rose’s father had grown up in Massachusetts, to relatively wealthy parents who had been able to send him to an engineering institute in New York for his studies. They had expected him to stay and inherit the family estate, and had not taken too kindly to the idea when he revealed his intentions to seek employment out West, in open places full of unknowns and adventure.
Especially when he mentioned his intention to do so in the company of Mama, who came from much less wealthy stock.Rose had never met her grandparents, and this was all that she knew about them.
“I was going to go for a walk before the stores opened, but I hate to be the one who shatters the calm.” Rose scanned downtown wistfully, her eyes only sticking for a moment on the large, nowlopsided pine tree that had saved her life all those years ago. “There’s something beautiful in the untouched, after all.”
Rose’s father looked over at her, a pensive frown twisting his mustache. Almost grimly, he strode down the front steps of the porch onto the icy walkway that led out to the street.
Before Rose could ask what he was doing, he bent down and swooped up a snowball, then chucked it right at her.
Rose ducked aside at the last second so the snowball only glanced her shoulder. She sputtered out shrill laughter, giddy with surprise. Rose’s father was a focused, driven man—always getting absorbed by the passion he felt for his projects—but there was this side of him too.
While Rose still ached for her mother, and missed her dearly every day, she was grateful to have been blessed with someone like her father.
“What was that for?” she demanded, even as she was bending down to make her own snowball to throw back.
Rose’s father skipped backwards before she had the chance to snatch her revenge. “What’s the point of just looking at something? Let yourself enjoy things, Rose.”
The comment surprised Rose, but rather than spoiling the mood by reading too much into it, she smiled and tossed her snowball. Rose’s father danced out of its way, and laughed that full-bellied laugh that never failed to bring smiles to the faces of all those around him. “You’ll get me next time,” he said, faux-chiding. “For now, care to walk with me to the drop off point?”
Her father never had to ask this. Rose had walked with him to the drop off point at the edge of town—where the dam maintenance crew met up every morning to ride together into the mountains—for the last seven years.
It used to be Rose’s mother who did this, before her father had been contracted by the town council to oversee the dam’s reconstruction, and was still working for the railroad. But they didn’t talk about that.
Instead, Rose gladly skipped after her father, no longer afraid of marring the snowy landscape now that it had already been rucked up by their impromptu snowball fight. Instead of sad things, they discussed what her father would be doing to maintain the reconstructed dam through the winter, when ice posed certain problems to the infrastructure.
They discussed Rose’s shopping plans for the day, and the book she’d been reading recently, and her excitement over meeting her friend Ruth for hot cocoa at the local tavern later in the day.
Most of all, they discussed the upcoming Christmas season, and how delightful the events the town council was planning for everyone were sure to be.
“It makes me happy to see everyone being so festive together,” Rose said as they at last approached the drop off point where several clusters of dam workers were already gathering. “A few years ago, I never would have imagined the town getting back to this point.”
Rose’s father pressed his lips together, but his shrug was lighthearted. “People are resilient. If anything, as much as I wish it hadn’t happened, that dam breaking really did bond everyone together rather tightly. I’m proud to be a part of a community like this.”
An emotion Rose couldn’t quite put a name to blinked across her consciousness, then was gone in another instant. It was an ugly feeling, the emotional equivalent of a quick slip of the knife. She was proud of her father, and the difference he’d made in the town with the dam’s complete redesign. It was largely thanks to him that the town was able to be festive like this now, and that the survivors of the flood had come together as they had.
But her mother was still gone. No matter how much fun the townsfolk had at Christmas, or how many awards and honors had been bestowed upon her father at the new dam’s completion ceremony, that would never change. As far as Rose was concerned, nothing good had come from that flood, and to say otherwise was an affront to her mother’s memory.
“Of course,” said Rose, her voice only a little flat. She could never bring herself to say such ugly thoughts to her father out loud, after all. “I’m also proud of our town.” With a more genuine smile, she turned and gave her father a quick peck on the cheek. “I’m proud of you.”
“Ah, shucks, kid,” said Rose’s father, patting her head. “Don’t go getting into any trouble while I’m gone, you hear?”
It was a good-natured jest, one that regularly made up his parting words to her. Rose reached forward and straightened the lapel on her father’s coat, pulling it so that it was wrapped more fully around him. Her parting words were the same every time, as well.
“Stay safe,” Rose said, before stepping back and forcing herself to let her last remaining family member move forward in a day in his life with something as simple and normal as going to work.
After Papa had waved his last goodbye, and the wagons were in motion, slowly making their way up the snowy mountain, Rose turned to see that the town had begun to bustle with the full start of the day.
Children shuffling through the streets on their way to school, pink-cheeked with clouds of warm breath puffing out into the air. Women with wicker baskets slung over the crooks of their elbows, out to do shopping. Men on horseback and wagons, picking up supplies or dropping off their wares for trade.
Rose put on a smile to hide the constant thrum of anxiety that always lived under her skin, and set off to conduct her errands. She took specific care not to mind the way the snow on the street, now gray-tinted with soot and dirt, had clumped into piles against the curb.
* * *
“What do you think his story is?” Ruth whispered, pressing against Rose’s side as they sat together in the small booth at the tavern, hot cocoa cooling in front of them.
Rose had only taken two sips so far, each time burning her lips a little more, and she had a suspicion Ruth felt the same. This was their tradition, though, and nothing was going to stop it—they’d gotten cocoa together at the tavern on the day of the first snowfall every winter for seven years.
Tradition, Rose believed, was a helpful thing. Even when a person wasn’t feeling particularly happy or festive, things like a promised cup of cocoa among friends, or a holiday potluck with lots of good fixings, or even mundane ‘traditions,’ like visiting the doctor every year for a regular checkup, kept the world in order. It made it easier to play at happiness in the moments when such feelings were difficult to come by organically.
Maybe there was a sort of conditioning to it—a training, like how some of the cattle ranchers outside of the town proper used specific combinations with their bells to call the cows home for supper—but what did that matter so long as it worked?
“Rose?” Ruth repeated, scooting back some and narrowing her eyes. “Rose, are you listening to me?”
Rose jumped out of her reverie. The sensory experience of the tavern swooped back with a near overwhelming intensity—people seated all around in little clusters, talking and laughing, the smell of cinnamon in the air from the first round of fresh-baked seasonal pies and treats, a fiddle player parked in the corner of the room, expertly coaxing a sweet holiday melody from his instrument, saturating the air with nostalgia.
“Yes, sorry,” said Rose. “What was it you were saying, Ruth?”
Ruth nudged her chin in a vague motion towards the bar. “That gentleman there. What’s his story?”
Rose knit her brow and turned her attention to the task at hand. This was a little game they played with one another whenever they found themselves socializing in crowded places: making up stories about random passersby to pass the time.
The gentleman in question was a portly older man with a handlebar mustache, waxing poetic at the barmaid as she refilled his ale. Rose thought for a moment, then began, “He was engaged to a young lady, but his betrothed ran away with another. Then, all these years later, she’s written to him, desperate to have him back.”
Ruth propped up her chin with her palm and batted her eyelashes, faux-wistful. “And he’s come to find her at last?”
Rose almost answered yes, then thought of something better, and barked a laugh. “He’s come to tell her she had her chance, and that’s that!” Ruth grimaced, clearly about to protest this turn of events, but Rose continued on before she had the chance. “Of course, when he actually sees her, he’ll remember how desperately he loved her in the first place, and those ugly thoughts will leave him. He’ll get down on one knee and propose to her then and there.”
Ruth sat back, grinning now. “I like that turn of events much better.”
Of course, the actual man with the handlebar mustache—there in the real world, not in Rose and Ruth’s moment of shared fantasy—picked that moment to lean back on his stool and let out a loud belch.
Rose pinched her lips, still stinging from the cocoa, into a taut line. “Yes, but at this rate, once the woman catches a glimpse of such crass behavior, I don’t know that she’ll still want to say yes.”
Ruth hummed, but then shrugged, perking up. “I don’t know. I can’t help but imagine true love would look past something like that!”
“Perhaps,” Rose allowed. She then shook off any lingering thoughts of the man with the handlebar mustache’s fake backstory so that she could focus solely on attempting another sip of her cocoa.
This time, it was just the right temperature. She hummed in pleasure, prompting Ruth to follow her lead and try her cocoa again as well.
“I love that we do this every year,” Rose said sometime later, after they’d been sitting and drinking and making up a handful of additional stories for patrons of the tavern. “It always makes me feel calm, when the two of us get together like this.”
“We get together every week, Rose, there’s no need to get so sentimental over a cup of hot cocoa,” Ruth chided, but there was no edge to the comment.
Rose didn’t pass up the opportunity to latch onto the rapport. “This from the woman who literally gets teary-eyed every time she sees a baby or a dog in the street.”
Ruth gasped and placed a hand over her heart, though her eyes continued to twinkle. “It’s not my fault I don’t have a heart of stone like some people.”
“What? I don’t have a ‘heart of stone.’”
“Please. You’re always getting compliments from very eligible young bachelors when we go out, and you just turn a blind eye to them. You’re a heartbreaker, Rose, who spares little attention to anyone else’s feelings, much less has the wherewithal to coo at puppies on the street.”
Rose tripped over her response, slightly shocked at the buried note of seriousness in Ruth’s comment. They often ribbed each other like this, teasing and blowing their reactions to small things out of proportion as a joke, but there was something off here.
“You don’t really think that of me, do you?” Rose said.
Ruth’s face froze, then tightened up, which was all the answer Rose needed. Her chest tightened with sudden hurt. It wasn’t so much that she was concerned about how strangers reacted to her, nor was she particularly bothered by her own apparent obliviousness to men’s attempts at courtship.
It was that Ruth was Rose’s very best friend—she had been ever since the aftermath of the flood, when they’d first met and become close—and she saw Rose as cold. Frigid, even. Closed off to love.
Which simply wasn’t true. Though Rose had never been as outwardly gushy as Ruth, inside, of course she wanted love. Of course she wanted romance.
“What specifically is it in my behavior that makes you think that of me?” Rose pressed on, when Ruth didn’t answer.
Ruth averted her eyes and sipped at her cocoa again, though this time, Rose couldn’t help but believe she was doing it simply as a distraction. When she put the mug down, she answered, a little too casually, “Sometimes, Rose, the way you look at people… people other than me, or your father, I mean… it’s like you’ve got your guard up all the time. Like you think they’re going to take something away from you.” She shook her head, then forced a smile. “I don’t know, I’m reading too much into things, I think. It’s just because I love you that I worry.”
“Worry about me how?” Rose said, part offended, part simply confused.
Ruth’s voice was high and bell-like in its encouragement. “Well, if you spend your whole life carrying yourself like you’re afraid of someone coming in and getting your emotions all rumpled up and messy, no one is ever going to try! And then where will you be?”
Perfectly and completely safe, Rose’s brain supplied automatically. Then, accompanied by an image of the morning’s pristine snowfall,Pointless. Sad.
Rose huffed, and sat back in her chair. She laughed, but it sounded hollow in her ears. “Well, that’s good to know, but I haven’t the first idea what to do about it.”
Ruth’s brow knit slightly. “I didn’t mean to upset you…”
“I’m not upset,” Rose said with a lilt to her voice. She didn’t want to discuss this anymore. Instead, she glanced quickly about the room, and fixed her eyes on the first man she saw. He was old. Oldold. “What’s his story?”
Ruth’s eyes lingered on Rose’s face a moment longer before she too, decided to play along and follow Rose’s gaze. When she saw the man Rose was talking about, she laughed.
At once, the tension between the two of them dissipated. “Well, first of all,” Ruth began, “he’s literally come back from the dead to pursue his long-lost love…”
Crack! Scrape. Crack! Scrape. Crack!
“Jeremiah!” called Mr. Kipling from somewhere below the scaffolding. “How’s it coming along on your end?”
Jeremiah Polton glanced down at his boss. He was positioned on a large piece of scaffolding, elevated by several other team members holding the ropes on the walkway down below, so that he could be hoisted high enough to scrape the thin layer of ice off the dam’s outer wall. “It’s coming along well! The ice here isn’t as thick as we thought. Should be done within the hour.”
Mr. Kipling nodded, and though Jeremiah had already turned his attention back to scraping the ice, he thought he could hear a smile in Mr. Kipling’s voice when he answered. “Good work. Come see me in my office when you’re finished, would you?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Kipling!” Jeremiah called back, then swung his hammer onto his chisel once more. Crack! Scrape.
The process went on. There were more workers on the other end of this side of the great structure doing the same thing. They had to do this every winter, relentlessly, because if the ice built up too much, they wouldn’t be able to access the parts of the dam they needed to make sure the whole thing remained structurally sound.
It was a lot of hard work, but last time the old maintenance crew had apparently cut corners like this all the time. Not only had that led to the town being destroyed, with dozens of casualties racked up in the process, the crew had all been arrested for various combinations of negligence and manslaughter.
A handful of the higher ups were still serving out their sentences, particularly the old foreman, who had allegedly been spending a good deal of time at the saloon rather than on shift the week before the collapse.
In short, the grunt work of maintaining the dam was important, if tedious. Jeremiah was happy to do it. Especially because Mr. Kipling was involved.
“All right, Will,” Jeremiah called back over his shoulder, when he’d reached the end of his assigned section. His hands were stiff and shaking now with the cold, and his breath came out in ghost-like puffs. “Lower me down.”
“On it! Three. Two. One… heave!”
Jeremiah gripped on tight to the scaffolding’s railing as the other men lowered him back down onto the walkway at the base of the dam. He didn’t realize how much he’d been holding his breath until his feet were back on level ground, even with the side of the mountain still sloping steeply down towards the valley below.
This was the first time they’d had to scrape the ice this season, and Jeremiah had volunteered to go up first, since he was one of the senior workers on the team. Though he’d been doing this for years, it never failed to send his blood rushing with giddiness and terror.
Will came up and clapped him on the shoulder. “You alive?”
Jeremiah took in a shaky breath. With it came a welcome surge of lightheadedness; while terrifying at times, he was not only grateful to have steady work on the dam, he appreciated the rush of it as well. This was important work. Critical to Mills Valley’s survival, both literally and economically.
Not to mention the view–from up here, it was easy to believe he was standing on the roof of the world. High enough away from all the problems he’d grown up with, nothing bad could ever touch him again.
“Yeah,” Jeremiah said, with a shaky exhale. “I’m alive.”
The walk to Mr. Kipling’s office was long and winding. It took about fifteen minutes of weaving his way down switchbacks of stairs and ramps to get to the little hut at the base of the dam, where Mr. Kipling conducted most of his business.
As Jeremiah went on his way to check in as instructed, he couldn’t help but take note, as always, of the dam’s ingenious design. From the extra emergency spillway to the refurbished outlet, thanks to the redesign Mr. Kipling had drawn up and overseen after the disaster, the local millers had doubled their output. Not to mention the cattle ranchers further downriver had a much easier time with irrigation in the summers.
Jeremiah had grown up alone in an orphanage without a penny to his name. He had been fortunate enough to read about foreign wonders of the world—the Great Pyramids, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal—but he knew he would never behold them with his own eyes.
That hardly mattered, because to him, for the small, contained world of Mills Valley, Mr. Kipling’s dam was wonder enough.
“Mr. Kipling?” Jeremiah asked, after rapping quietly on the door. “Just checking in like you asked.”
“Come in, come in!” Mr. Kipling called from inside. His voice was gregarious, as always. As long as Jeremiah had known him, Mr. Kipling had conducted himself like the sort of man who was always excited about a new challenge.
Jeremiah opened the door and stepped into the office. It was much warmer in here, both physically and visually. There was a small woodstove in the corner, and the furnishings were not only well-made, but also well-used, like the sort Jeremiah imagined he would find in an actual family home. A small fire crackled, and the air smelled of coffee.
“Take a seat. Have a drink,” said Mr. Kipling, rising from his desk to get the small pot bubbling over the stove.
“Oh, I’m all right—”
“Nonsense, you’ve been up on that wall all morning, you’re going to need something strong to warm your bones!” Mr. Kipling took no time at all to fill two mugs for them both, and then summarily shove one into Jeremiah’s hands.
It was hot to the touch, almost scalding to the point that he nearly dropped it, but he managed to drop himself into one of the chairs opposite Mr. Kipling’s desk instead, and set the mug on the little side table made out of a lacquered tree stump.
Jeremiah rubbed his calloused palms on his trousers, which were still cold and damp from the snowfall. He was never quite sure how to express gratitude. He hadn’t gotten much to be all that grateful for growing up, and as such, hadn’t had much practice. “Thank you.”
Mr. Kipling laughed as he plopped himself back into his own seat. “You sound as if you swallowed something sour. It’s really no trouble at all.”
“Ah—sure,” said Jeremiah, shifting in his seat again. He found himself looking over Mr. Kipling’s shoulder at the amateur painting of a doe mounted on his wall. A lot of the rage in town since the rebuild was to hang up taxidermy, but rather than an actual stuffed head, Mr. Kipling stuck to canvas art. Jeremiah appreciated that; he didn’t like the sensation of a dead thing seemingly watching him from across the room. “What exactly was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Mr. Kipling looked at him blankly for a long second, but then his eyebrows shot up. “Oh! Yes, of course. How silly of me. We do have some business to attend to, besides simply warming up over coffee.” He righted himself, and dragged his chair closer to the lip of his desk, suddenly switching into a more professional demeanor. “You’ve been working for me for seven years now. Ever since the accident. That’s correct?”
“You know it is,” said Jeremiah, unsure why Mr. Kipling would even have to ask.
They had met the night of the disaster itself, when Mr. Kipling had been fixing the stairwell at the orphanage. When word of the dam breaking came through, and people began to scramble to leave, it had been Jeremiah who jumped in to help the younger children make it upstairs to the balcony.
The main infrastructure of the orphanage had been stone, after all, one of the few buildings in town not made entirely of wood. It had been Mr. Kipling’s engineering knowledge, coupled with Jeremiah’s youthful strength and quick action, that had saved the lives of all of the other children and the matron. Had they tried to run, they all surely would have been killed.
The moment when what remained of the town council had asked him to leave his job with the railroad and head up the reconstruction of the dam, Mr. Kipling offered Jeremiah a job, and they had worked alongside one another every day since.
“Right, of course, yes,” said Mr. Kipling, nodding and leaning forward on his elbows. “But during that time, it’s been as a regular team member, rather than as a foreman. Most of those positions went to older men, who already had a good deal of engineering experience and education. We couldn’t risk a repeat of what happened before, after all—inexperience is a death sentence when it comes to projects like this.”
“Of course,” Jeremiah agreed, still unsure where Mr. Kipling was going with this.
“Well, you’ve got experience now. Quite a bit of it. And if you’re willing, come spring, I’d like to take you on as my official apprentice.”
Jeremiah’s mouth fell open. He wasn’t at all sure what to say. “Oh.”
Mr. Kipling sat back in his chair, smiling like he could read Jeremiah’s thoughts. “You wouldn’t be doing anything too different from what you’re doing right now. But instead of going home right at the end of the regular work day, I figured you might want to work with me on some other side projects, to get a little instruction in the general trade beyond simply dam maintenance. You’re free to say no, of course, but I’m sincerely hoping you’ll agree.”
There was no question, of course. Jeremiah would be a fool to turn down such a good opportunity. A dangerous rush of images came through his head: mastering a trade, someday opening his own shop, even being able to support a family—
No. Jeremiah couldn’t get ahead of himself like that. Wanting things, even simple things that everyone else seemed to have in their lives as a matter of course, was far too reckless for someone who had grown up like him.
After squashing his flighty thoughts, Jeremiah opened his mouth, intending to say something along the lines of, Yes, of course, it would be my absolute honor.
What came out was, “Why?”
Mr. Kipling laughed in that big-bellied way of his, as if Jeremiah had just asked the most ridiculous question possible. When he caught on that Jeremiah was serious, however, his expression sobered.
He leaned forward once more. “Because you’re a good lad, with a strong head on your shoulders, and I already know you’re quick to act when trouble stirs.”
His eyes fixed on the frosted window behind Jeremiah’s shoulder, and his eyes took on a faraway look. “This dam… it means life and death for our community in so many ways. My life, your life. My daughter’s life. And when I think about who will take over this station when I’m gone, you’re the only person I can think of who I would entrust those lives to without question.”
Jeremiah’s mouth had gone dry. “Thank you,” he rasped, unable to look away from where he’d fixed his eyes on the floor. “For the opportunity.”
Mr. Kipling came back to the desk and sat across from Jeremiah once more. His smile softened. “There’s really no need to thank me. You made the opportunity for yourself.”
When the whistle blew, signaling the end of the work day for everyone except the nighttime emergency crew, Jeremiah spent the bumpy wagon ride back to Mills Valley in a daze.
The nights were coming on faster now, so the sky was velvet black overhead by the time they reached the edge of town, but he hardly noticed the sharp cold that came with the early loss of the sun. All he could think about, if anything, was what was going to go wrong.
That was the way things went for him, after all. If something good appeared in his life, almost immediately, something terrible would follow to offset it.
He didn’t deserve this opportunity.
He didn’t deserve Mr. Kipling.
What Jeremiah deserved, he reflected, as he hopped off the wagon and said a vague goodbye to Will and the rest of his coworkers, was exactly what he already had: a single, if threadbare room at the local boarding house, with enough food and warmth to get by. It was a significant step up from the shared dormitory of the orphanage. He was never hungry, and only a little cold in the winters.
Still, as he walked back through Mills Valley towards home, his eyes couldn’t help but catch on the large pine tree at the center of town.
Volunteers were hard at work stringing up silver bells and other Christmas decorations, though the holiday was still a month out. A handful of them were singing carols as they worked, and beyond them, in the little tavern Jeremiah frequented on the rare occasion he had the spare money, the scent of freshly baked holiday pies was hard to ignore.
When the train whistle blew near the station, signaling the arrival of the last train of the day, Jeremiah found himself stopping to stare as weary travelers fell into the arms of their waiting families. Some, just traveling for regular reasons. Some, traveling to reunite with loved ones for the holiday.
Jeremiah’s frown deepened when two little boys scampered up the stairs of the platform yelling, “Papa!” They were swooped up in the arms of the man Jeremiah assumed to be their father, all three laughing and crying.
It came as a relief when Jeremiah finally slinked through the front door of the boarding house, feeling as though the weight of the world had been heaped atop his shoulders simply from the short walk home. He chastised himself as he made his way up the squeaky stairs towards his room, paying no mind to any of the other patrons in the shared common space. People were allowed to enjoy their lives. To have families. To love one another.
He had no right to wish them ill, simply because he was jealous.
Or, no, not jealous—that was far too cumbersome an emotion to get muddled up into. I can still manage through the holidays, family or not,Jeremiah thought as he lay back on his sunken mattress, and stared up at the water-stained ceiling. I’ve gotten along just fine on my own up through now. Well enough Mr. Kipling even wants to make me his apprentice.
He pointedly ignored the flash of an image in his mind’s eye: the woman in the red coat, her fingers digging into a young Jeremiah’s shoulder, as she sobbed on the threshold of the orphanage. “We just can’t bear this burden any longer!”
“Rose, I’ve been thinking,” said her father that night over supper. He’d placed his cutlery on either side of his plate, momentarily abandoning eating, to make his point. “You should come with me sometime soon and see the dam.”
Rose’s eyebrows shot up, her spoon full of squash soup halfway to her mouth. She slowly lowered it, sending ripples through her dish. “Why is that?”
“Don’t you want to see what I’ve been working on these past seven years?” Her father laughed—if Rose wasn’t mistaken—nervously.
“Of course I do,” she said, leaning forward slightly to show that her father had her full attention. “But you’ve never wanted me to come before. In fact, when you first began construction, I seem to recall you wouldn’t hear of me accompanying you, even though I asked and asked.”
Her father’s nervous smile turned sheepish. “Ah. I suppose I’ve been caught.”
Rose expected to feel a little upset—when her father had first taken over the dam project, Rose hadn’t just asked to accompany him, she’d demanded it, insisting on seeing the monstrous construction that had killed her mother with her own eyes—but all she felt now was curiosity. “Do you mind if I ask again? Why now, Papa?”
Rose’s father studied her for a long moment, then his eyes softened. “You’ve grown up a great deal these past few years, Rose. You’re far from the child you were back then. Is it so out of the ordinary for a father to want to share his work with his adult daughter?”
“No,” Rose said, everpatient, “but I can sense from your demeanor that there’s something more to it as well.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Rose’s father admitted. With a sigh, he seemed to resolve himself, and sat up straighter. “Rose, I won’t lie to you. When I first began work on the dam, it was a dangerous job, even though at the time I said it wasn’t. What was left of the structure was highly unstable. Every day was a risk.” Pride leaked into his dark tone. “But now, the dam is stronger than ever. We’ve made improvement upon improvement, backup upon backup, so that even if something were to go wrong, the town would be saved.”
He softened his voice, likely at the sight of Rose’s stricken expression. “I know you still worry about me when I go to work. I see it in your face, hear it in your voice, every morning when we say farewell. And as your father, I think it’s critical I find a way to show you that you don’t need to go about living your whole life in fear.”
Rose intended to laugh off the comment, and she wasn’t expecting the roughness in her throat when she answered, “You say that as though it’s easy.”
“Who knows?” said Rose’s father with a shrug. He picked up his spoon and slurped a loud gulp of his soup. “Maybe it will be easier than you think.”
* * *
For the first time, when Rose accompanied her father to the drop off point the next morning, she was not dressed to go about errands in town. No, this time, she was dressed in her thickest woolen dress, as well as one of Mama’s old furs.
Rose’s father had said it was cold further up the mountains, where the dam cut across the river. Rose would need to dress appropriately for the conditions if she was to pay any attention at all to the dam itself, rather than the frigidity of the weather.
True winter seemed to have set in rather quickly this year.
“Good morning, Jeremiah, Will,” Rose’s father said in his booming voice, as he walked ahead of Rose to meet up with the other gentlemen waiting by the wagon caravan.
The shorter of the young men grunted a hello and raised his hand in a limp salutatory gesture. He clutched a metal canteen in his hand and sipped from it occasionally, the steam from the coffee rising up towards the bruiseblue sky of the early morning.
The taller of the young men, however, stood at immediate attention. Though his expression and demeanor were serious, there was a warmth to his eyes that Rose found oddly captivating. “Good morning, Mr. Kipling. And you are…?”
His eyes met Rose’s, very briefly. A sudden wind rushed in, and his cheeks flushed red with the cold, prompting him to pull his scarf further up over his face. He returned his gaze to Rose’s father, questioning.
“My daughter, Rose,” he said, stepping aside so that Rose could stand alongside him, partially blocked from the cold. “Rose, this is my apprentice, Jeremiah.”
Ah. Jeremiah. Rose had heard about him.
She smiled, despite the clattering of her teeth. “It’s nice to finally make your acquaintance, Jeremiah.”
“And yours as well,” said Jeremiah through his scarf.
Their eyes lingered on one another for another long moment. It was not lost on Rose that Jeremiah was rather nice to look at, even bundled up like he was. In fact, the layers of coats made him look even broader than he was naturally.
She was tempted to be the one to break eye contact first—having Jeremiah’s full attention on her like this was making her pulse stutter, though they’d only just been introduced—but she was more curious to see what he would do next. Though Jeremiah’s tone had been kind, there was a hesitancy there, a sort of inherent sadness that Rose found oddly familiar.
The other young man, Will, cleared his throat. “Not to shortchange introductions, but I’m freezing my bottom off just standing here. I think we should get moving before the snow starts up again.”
“An excellent idea,” said Rose’s father. He turned to Rose. “Rose, I’d like you to stay with Jeremiah while I get the rest of the men organized for the ascent.”
Rose’s pulse stuttered further. She was about to protest, but before she could, her father was already striding off towards the other clusters of young men waiting by the wagons to let them know it was time to get moving.
While Will went to situate the horses that were meant to pull their wagon, Jeremiah situated himself in Rose’s line of sight once more. “Well, Miss Kipling. What brings you to see the dam today?”
The light playfulness in his tone made Rose smile. “Papa wants me to quit worrying about him. I doubt seeing the dam with my own eyes will accomplish that goal, but I am looking forward to seeing where all his efforts have been spent these past seven years.” She raised a brow at Jeremiah. “From what he’s told me, you’ve played a significant part in bringing the dam to fruition.”
Jeremiah looked confused. “I don’t know about that. All that I do is the work that’s required.”
“Perhaps,” said Rose, with a shrug. “But there are strong workers and poor workers. Papa certainly has his opinions about it at the dinner table, and your name always comes up as someone competent.”
Jeremiah still looked as though he wanted to protest, but a shout from across the road snatched his attention; somebody had spooked one of the horses. Her father, Will, and several of the other men were trying to calm it, while the worker in question was complaining loudly about how it wasn’t his fault, the horse was just skittish.
“See?” Rose said, nodding towards the chaos. “My point exactly.”
“Accidents happen,” said Jeremiah, but even he sounded less than convinced.
Rose found herself admiring his willingness to defend his coworkers, even as the man who had spooked the horse stepped off to the side to sulk, continuing to mutter defensively under his breath. “They do,” she said. “But they don’t have to, not when people are paying attention as they should.”
At that, Jeremiah pulled himself up taller. His eyes bore into hers with a fiery sort of conviction. It felt strange, out of place, so early in the morning. Somehow, that just made the look all the more haunting. “That’s our job. To pay attention when we’re supposed to.”
Rose’s breath caught, and she felt her face flush inexplicably. It was too cold to be this warm. She turned her eyes away from Jeremiah, unable to bear the intensity. “Do you think we’ll be leaving soon? Will was right, we will all freeze if we stand around much longer.”
Jeremiah frowned, looking thoughtful, and glanced between Rose and the chaos with the spooked horse. After a moment of deliberation, he offered her his arm. “Come on. Just because they’re still getting things sorted over there, doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and get settled ourselves.”
Rose had wanted to get moving so that she and Jeremiah would no longer be so close to one another, more or less by themselves. Yes, there were other people around, but for some reason, Rose found herself unconsciously moving closer and closer into Jeremiah’s orbit.
Even so, she accepted the arm offered to her, because what other option did she have? There was no logical reason to turn him down. She was just being silly.
She felt even sillier at the way her heart beat faster at the firm feeling of Jeremiah’s forearm beneath all those layers of coats.
Yet as much as Rose wanted to be rid of Jeremiah before she could do something regrettable or embarrassing, when he helped her up into the wagon and sectioned out a portion of the bench that would put her back to the wind, she found herself missing the contact.
“Don’t go,” she heard herself say, reaching out towards Jeremiah when he got up to assist the others in readying the wagons. To cover her tracks, she hastily added, “Papa asked you to stay here with me.”
Jeremiah looked conflicted for just a moment, but then sat down beside Rose on the wagon. She resisted the urge to press closer against his shoulder; all else aside, he was a solid, warm presence against the cold.
When Rose’s father and the others finished situating the other wagon, Rose wasn’t upset at all to be seated close beside Jeremiah all the way up the mountain.
* * *
Of course, when the dam came into view towards the end of their ascent, Rose forgot all about her girlish thoughts.
Her mouth dropped open as she took in the massive stone wall before her. As a child, whenever she had thought of the dam, she always imagined something small, built of mud and sticks, like the beaver dams she came across in the summer whenever she and Ruth went to skip stones in the more placid sections of the river.
She’d long since known the actual dam was much larger and more complicated than her childhood imaginings, but to behold the massive, looming structure with her own eyes was something else entirely.
“It’s like something out of a storybook,” Rose said, as the wagon bumped along the snowy path.
Papa laughed. “I’m glad you think so. Even though it’s too far from town for anyone to see it in its full glory, the dam is a major contributor to our community’s livelihood. It’s the sort of thing I’m proud to have made aesthetically pleasing.”
Rose turned to Jeremiah. “The old dam was completely destroyed. How long did it take to rebuild just the face of it? I know the irrigation systems and everything like that took longer, but I can’t imagine the work that must’ve been required just to build the wall.”
Jeremiah looked over at Rose’s father, eyes narrowed in concentration. “I want to say… two years? Does that sound about right, Mr. Kipling?”
“I would say so.” Rose’s father laughed. “It would have taken less time, had there not been that week of thunderstorms that flooded out our progress halfway through.”
Rose’s heart froze in her chest. “What is that, now?”
Rose’s father’s smile went a bit rigid. “Oh, come now, nothing to be concerned about. It’s all in the past.”
“You mean to say there was another accident while you were building the dam?” Because she already knew her father would blow it off, Rose turned to Jeremiah. “What is he talking about?”
Jeremiah looked caught between a rock and a hard place. He kept glancing between Rose and her father, as though trying to gauge whether or not a full explanation was all right. Rose tried to set her own expression into something stern and unyielding, though she wasn’t sure how well she succeeded. “Jeremiah. Answer me.”
Rose’s father sighed, and gave a nod of his head. Jeremiah’s shoulders sank, but he shifted his body so that he was facing Rose more directly. “No one was hurt. No one was at risk of getting hurt, because Mr. Kipling was adamant that we take all possible extra precautions during the construction.” He hesitated. “But yes, there was an accident that set back our progress quite a bit.”
Rose’s father took over the explanation, keeping his voice even and calm. “The debris was washed down the original emergency spillway, so it didn’t affect the town. But we did have to start over in some ways. Mostly, that spillway became completely blocked, so we had to dig a new one, in a less ideal location. I promise you, the only thing that got hurt from that accident was our production timeline.”
Rose didn’t feel any better at all. “If that’s the truth, why didn’t you tell me about all of this as it was happening?”
Her father glanced at Jeremiah, and then also at Will, who seemed to be listening surreptitiously from his spot at the front of the wagon, directing the horses. He forced a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “It’s in the past now, Rose, so I suggest we don’t waste any more time discussing it.”
“After all, we’re here!” Rose’s father said, as the wagon rolled onto level ground and came to a stop in front of a small, cottage-like shed. “Plenty of time to discuss that other business later, if you still want to. For now, let’s take a closer look at the dam as it is now—finished, and completely, undoubtedly structurally sound.”
Rose wanted to protest further. She was so angry, it was like there were bees buzzing around in her chest, waiting to pour out of their hive and sting some poor devil to death.
But these were her father’s coworkers. Though he was the boss, Rose didn’t want to make any more of a scene, or embarrass him like that.
She forced a smile of her own. “Very well. In that case, I would like to request a formal tour.”
Her father’s look of relief left crinkles in the corners of his eyes, which made Rose feel bad for questioning him at all. Perhaps she truly was just being overly paranoid…
“Would you like a hand down?” Jeremiah asked, after hopping down from the wagon himself.
Rose accepted, ignoring the way her heart skipped a beat at the whoosh that came from jumping from the wagon. Jeremiah reached out to steady her, and she found herself clinging, ever so briefly, to his strong form, before embarrassment got the better of her and she let go. “Excuse me,” she said, quiet enough that she hoped only Jeremiah could hear her.
Jeremiah, for his part, mostly just sounded confused. “Ah—it’s no trouble.”
“Well, then,” said Rose’s father, coming up alongside them while Will led the horses to another, separate little shed, out of the wind. “Are we ready to proceed?”
What followed was a very thorough, dizzying tour of the Mills Valley dam. Rose’s father led her along the top, where she could see the whole valley down below, with smoke rising from all the little breakfast time fires in Mills Valley itself.
He also led her inside the dam, where various aqueducts and pulley systems had been arranged to make use of the water’s energy.
“Amazing,” Rose said under her breath, looking at the water churning its way through the dark, illuminated only by the lanterns her father and Jeremiah both carried.
Rose had read her share of classic literature—she had gone through an era of her education in which she’d been particularly enamored with the ancient poets—and found herself comparing the dam’s harnessing of the river to some epic hero’s harnessing of a god.
“It really is something, isn’t it?” Jeremiah said, looking around as well, as though he was just as amazed as she was.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Rose teased. “You helped build it, after all.”
Jeremiah barked a surprised laugh. The noise echoed off of the walls, drifting upwards in the darkness. “Perhaps that’s why it’s so surprising.”
Rose’s father looked as though he wanted to correct Jeremiah for speaking in such a self-deprecating manor—Rose had been on the receiving end of that look more than a few times in her youth—but just as he opened his mouth, another dam worker came hustling down the walkway.
“Mr. Kipling,” he said. “I’m sorry to interrupt you. But there’s a man waiting by your office. He’s come looking for work.”
Both Rose’s father and Jeremiah’s brows furrowed. “Waiting by the office?” her father asked. “He rode all the way out here himself? Why, he could’ve just caught me in town later.”
The other worker shrugged, as though equally confused, if a margin less invested.
“Ah, well, no matter,” said Rose’s father, tightening his scarf in preparation for re-entering the harsh weather outside. “If a man’s looking for honest work, and has gone to the effort to seek me out, who am I to turn him away?” He nodded to Rose, then to Jeremiah. “Jeremiah, would you be so kind as to finish out the tour in my stead?”
Jeremiah nodded. “Of course, Mr. Kipling.”
Rose’s heart rate picked up at the prospect of being left alone with Jeremiah, but she put on a smile nonetheless. “I’ll see you soon, Papa.”
Her father gave her a warm smile. “We’ll meet again for lunch. How does that sound?”
Rose nodded, and her father turned and left. She was hesitant to immediately turn around and face Jeremiah, nervous that once they made eye contact again, that odd pull she’d felt when they’d been waiting for the wagons would overtake her again. She wasn’t used to such a sensation—the desire to be physically closer to someone, coupled with the desire to know more about them so quickly after they met.
Or, in this case, while Rose did want to know more about Jeremiah, who had worked hard to contribute to the dam and keep her father safe all these years, it wasn’t just about that. She liked the sound of his voice. A low, rough timbre that sent the hairs on her arms standing on end, and a tingly feeling in the tips of her fingers.
“Well, it looks like we’re partners for the morning,” Jeremiah said after a minute, sounding about as awkward as Rose felt.
It was enough to finally give her the courage to turn around and look at him again, as opposed to coming across as rude, and giving him the cold shoulder the whole time. “That does appear to be the case.”
Jeremiah rubbed the back of his neck and scanned the room, looking in every direction but at Rose. She didn’t want to take heart in someone else’s discomfort, but it was nice to suspect that she wasn’t alone in these feelings of magnetic pull.
Finally, Jeremiah said, “You mentioned you were coming here today because you wanted to make sure Mr. Kipling was being safe. If it would help you to feel more at ease, I can show you some of the safety measures and fallbacks we have in place. What do you think?”
Despite her anxiety at being alone with Jeremiah, a strange sensation of overall security came over Rose. Her father trusted him a great deal, for one. On top of that, Jeremiah hadn’t hesitated to put Rose’s concerns first. That, in itself, meant a great deal.
When Jeremiah offered Rose his arm to continue the tour together, she accepted without hesitation.
For the first few days afterwards, Jeremiah couldn’t figure out why his life felt more colorful. It was like all of his senses had been tuned to experience the world in full saturation. The scent of pine and gingerbread was stronger. The snow felt crunchier beneath his boots. As a whole, he hadn’t realized he’d been living life in something of a muted state until he saw the difference.It took him even longer to admit that that difference was because of Rose.
She’d taken him by surprise, to say the least. He had long heard tales of Mr. Kipling’s beautiful daughter from a number of the other workers who bemoaned their own abilities to catch her attention in town, but somehow, despite Jeremiah’s close acquaintance to her father, he had never met her himself until then.
She was indeed beautiful—with her blonde hair and green eyes, looking at her was like a glimpse of spring in the midst of heavy winter—but it wasn’t just the way she looked that had captivated Jeremiah.
When they’d continued their tour of the dam, she’d asked tons of questions about the construction and the upkeep, curious and thirsty for knowledge. Beyond that, it was immensely endearing, the concern she had for her father’s wellbeing.
That alone was something Jeremiah and Rose had in common, for he, too, was well-aware of Mr. Kipling’s tendency to make light of things he perhaps shouldn’t.
However, though Jeremiah was admittedly hopeful that his new position as Mr. Kipling’s apprentice would allow him to see Rose more often, not everything had been sunshine and roses in his life since they had met.
A good example was the new worker, Sam Kirkham. He was a tall, stocky fellow with a heavy brow and blank expression, and when Mr. Kipling introduced him to the rest of the team later that afternoon, Jeremiah’s first impression had been that this fellow was going to make heavy lifting a lot easier around the dam.
It had not gone like that at all. After trading Rose for Sam, who was meant to shadow him until he got the hang of things, Jeremiah quickly found that despite his brawn, Sam was more or less useless. Jeremiah would give an instruction, and what would Sam do? The exact opposite. Or otherwise, nod his head in apparent acknowledgment, then wander off to chat idly with other workers in a different section. It was infuriating.
By the end of the afternoon, the pleasant morning Jeremiah had shared with Rose had been overshadowed by the frustrations and hold-ups of taking Sam with him on his end-of-the-day rounds.
“He’s not cut out for this work,” Jeremiah told Mr. Kipling the next morning, when they were standing in his office right before lunch.
Jeremiah had left his station a little early to hunt down Sam, who had begged off for a bathroom break, only to be discovered nearly forty-five minutes later strolling about the emergency spillway, ducking his head into all sorts of nooks and crannies, as though he’d lost something critically important in some dark crevice.
Mr. Kipling sat back in his chair and folded his hands on the desk. “It’s only his second day. He’ll get the hang of things.”
“Usually I would agree, but it’s like he’s not even trying to figure things out,” said Jeremiah. “I’ve trained other new workers before, or at least had them shadow me and ask questions. What has Sam done? Nothing.”
That wasn’t precisely true. Sam had asked some questions. Things like, “What happens if the outlet gets blocked?” or, “How many emergency spillways are there, anyway?” But whenever Jeremiah answered these, explaining the things the dam maintenance crew had to do for basic upkeep—never mind emergencies—Sam would fixate on needless details.
Like exactly how many trees had been cleared away when the outlet was blocked by the debris from a vicious thunderstorm a few years back, or whether anyone had ever slipped and drowned in one of the spillways. Morbid, useless details that had very little to do with how to actually do the job.
Mr. Kipling’s brow furrowed. “Forgive my frankness, Jeremiah, but it sounds as though you have something against the boy.”
Jeremiah started to protest, but then clamped his jaw tightly. “No, sir,” he said, keeping the darkest of his thoughts to himself. “But I am concerned.”
“It’s like you’ve said yourself, if the people working the dam aren’t paying attention, or are careless about the work, that puts everyone in danger.”
Mr. Kipling hummed, then nodded. “All right, then. Keep an eye on him. If you’re still not pleased by the end of the week, we can discuss this further.”
Now, however, at the end of the week, Sam’s performance still hadn’t improved. It had gotten worse, even, to the point that Jeremiah had actually caught him using the ice scraper to chip away at a patch that had been added to shore up a crack earlier that same year.
“What are you doing?” Jeremiah demanded, striding up to Sam and snatching the ice scraper from his hand.
Sam stared at him with those blank eyes of his. “This part of the wall is a different color from the other parts.”
Jeremiah gaped. How to even begin to address this? “Of course it’s a different color. It’s a patch. But that’s not even—” He huffed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why on earth would that be an excuse to try and scrape away the wall itself? We’ve already cleared the ice in this section today.”
That last bit was more than obvious. It was sunnier today than it had been in the earlier part of the week, and what ice they’d had to scrape when they first arrived hadn’t even put up a fight, chipping off with melted ease.
“Oh,” said Sam simply.
Jeremiah wanted to tear his hair out. Instead, he subdued his anger long enough to make it down to the little office and pound on Mr. Kipling’s door. “He’s not getting any better,” Jeremiah proclaimed upon being called inside, then launched right into his explanation of the situation.
Mr. Kipling nodded along, looking ever graver. When Jeremiah finally concluded, breathless and red in the face, a tinge of embarrassment niggled at him. Just because he and Mr. Kipling were close and worked well together, didn’t mean he should be venting his frustrations like this to his boss.
Mr. Kipling’s mouth was pressed together in a hard line. “Is that it, then? He’s still struggling to make sense of things?”
Jeremiah’s embarrassment deepened. Suddenly, he wanted out of the room, and was mentally berating himself for barging in on Mr. Kipling like this. Even so, what was done was done.
He tried to hold himself tall. “Sir, it’s like he doesn’t listen to a word I say. Sometimes, he does the very opposite. To be frank, I’m not sure whether he’s simply dim, or there’s something else going on. In either case… in either case, I really do not think he’s a good fit for this type of work.”
Mr. Kipling gave Jeremiah a long look, before sighing and looking down at his desk. “I really thought you might be able to help this work out, Jeremiah.”
It wasn’t the response Jeremiah was expecting at all. “Sir?”
“You’re my apprentice now, aren’t you?” Mr. Kipling said, lifting his eyes once more. “Part of that role is not just meeting with me in town every so often to go over the business side of what I do as an engineer, it’s also acting as a sort of mentor to any new workers, especially younger ones. Granted, you and Sam seem to be around the same age, and I will admit going into this that I knew taking Sam on would be… challenging. But I also thought to myself, if anyone can whip him into shape, it’s Jeremiah.”
Jeremiah stood there, shoulders folding forward, shame heating the back of his neck. “I hear you, sir. I do. But why is it so important that this man stay on the project? It wasn’t as though we were understaffed before he came on.”
If he was being honest, Jeremiah expected Mr. Kipling to come back with his regular lines about giving everyone a fair chance, and creating equal opportunities for the community to succeed, and all the bottomless goodwill Jeremiah admired, envied, and was certain he would never be able to fully understand, much less emulate.
Instead, Mr. Kipling’s eyes tightened ever so slightly around the edges. “I apologize, Jeremiah, but unfortunately that’s my business. And I do hear your concerns; please know that I am not trying to turn a blind eye to your perspective in the matter, especially as I hope I’ve shown how much I value your opinion. But Sam will stay on.”
There was a steel to Mr. Kipling’s words that Jeremiah had never heard before. His stomach sank with dread at the task that awaited him, but nevertheless, if this was Mr. Kipling’s verdict, Jeremiah would simply have to rise to the occasion. “I’ll figure out a way to mentor him, sir. I promise.”
The kind edge reappeared in Mr. Kipling’s expression, and Jeremiah exhaled a sigh of relief. He hadn’t realized how much tension he’d been holding in his shoulders until now, when their dynamic had returned to its regular positive stasis.
“See that you do. And remember, Jeremiah,” Mr. Kipling said, just as Jeremiah was turning to leave, “it isn’t my faith in Sam that’s prompting this decision, though I am confident he’s not as much of a lost cause as you think. It’s my faith in you.”
Jeremiah could only nod mutely as he turned and stepped out the door, back into the fresh flurries of snow.
That evening, on his walk home from the wagon drop off point, Jeremiah found himself lingering by the train station, consumed by his thoughts. He’d taken to doing this more and more lately, lingering near the platform and watching as happy families reunited for the holiday season.
The experience had the odd effect of pressing on an emotional bruise; there was something equally endearing and painful whenever a long-parted loved one practically jumped off the train into the waiting arms of a teary-eyed parent or sibling or lover.
The last time Jeremiah had been on a train, it had been many, many years ago. He didn’t know if the memories he had from the experience were actual memories, or things he’d just made up when he’d been lying awake late at night at the orphanage, routinely trying not to be heard crying into his pillow.
He remembered the conductor tipping his hat to him as he boarded. He remembered the locomotive curving around the mountains, and sticking his hand out the window to feel the cold rush of air against his palm. He remembered his mother’s hands, with their constant tremor despite her young age, pressing a single caramel from the candy trolley into his own.
He didn’t remember his mother’s face. Just her hands and her red coat. He couldn’t even begin to fathom what it would be like to step off a train and have a loving parent waiting for him.
It used to be that Jeremiah would not have even been able to look at scenes like that for very long, but since meeting Rose, things had changed. Now, while he still envied that level of connection and closeness, seeing it in front of him did not turn his stomach. Rather, it gave him something to hope for. A goal to go after. It allowed him to risk a silent, desperate promise to himself: even though he had not had a family in the first part of his life, he was still young, and there was still hope for his future.
Jeremiah felt himself smiling at the thought, the skin of his face tight with the cold. His smile waned, however, when he caught sight of the stooped old gentleman sitting alone in the cold on one of the platform’s lone benches. He had been there the last three nights, sitting and waiting for the final train of the day, only to have no one arrive to meet him.
Tonight, Jeremiah watched as the ticket clerk emerged from his office and handled the elderly gentleman a steaming cup of cocoa. The old man waved it away, and the ticket clerk lingered there for a long moment, apparently trying to insist. But the old man was adamant, and eventually, the ticket clerk gave up and went back to work.
A shiver went up Jeremiah’s spine, and it wasn’t just from the cold. For all his hopes of succeeding as Mr. Kipling’s apprentice, and meeting Rose again, and someday having a family of his very own, none of that was guaranteed. He could just as well be destined to be alone well into his own old age, sitting on the train platform and waiting for someone who would never come.
After all, Jeremiah thought, as he turned away and pulled his scarf over his face, braving the cold once more as he made his way home, just because you want someone doesn’t mean they’re going to want you back.
“I’m telling you, Ruth, I’d never felt anything like this before in my life,” said Rose, leaning slightly forward against the corner table of the tavern, voice low. “All I wanted was to be closer to him, the whole day. He gave me a very thorough tour of the dam—it was sweet, really, how hard he was trying to reassure me that my father wasn’t in any danger—but for so much of it, it was all I could do to nod along and pretend to listen. I could hardly even look him in the eye. It was amazing! But kind of awful too. By the end of it, I genuinely thought I was going to be sick, my nerves were so jangled up.”
Ruth sat back and regarded Rose with an uncharacteristically serious expression. She looked as though she were a physician about to grimly pronounce a death sentence to a patient. “I hate to tell you this, Rose. But it sounds to me like you’re in love.”
Rose had just brought the cup of tea to her lips, hoping the warm concoction would soothe the way her heart was fluttering even now, but Ruth’s comment had her burning her tongue and spluttering. “Oh, don’t be foolish. I’m not in love.”
“Well, you’re at the very least infatuated!” Ruth proclaimed, indignant at being argued with. “What else would you call what you’re feeling?”
“I don’t know,” said Rose, dabbing at the bit of her dress that had been dampened by the sudden splash of tea. “Madness?”
“Hogwash,” said Ruth, reaching across the table with her own napkin to dab at the collar of Rose’s dress. After a moment of tangled hands, Rose gave up and let her. Once Ruth got going on a task, there was no subduing her. “You wanted to be close to him? Couldn’t look him in the eye? Felt ill with nerves?” She sat back and clicked her tongue. “You’re infatuated, or else you have contracted a very strange new strain of the flu. Use your wits, here, Rose. Which do you think is more likely?”
Rose fiddled with the bit of lace on her collar that was now dry, if a bit tea-stained. She would have to go at it with some lye the next time she washed it. That, of course, was the least of her problems at the moment. She mumbled towards her lap, “How am I even supposed to know? As I said, I’ve never felt like this before.”
Ruth stilled, her own tea halfway to her mouth, then hummed in understanding. She set the little cup back down. “I suppose you have a point. We may talk about other folks’ love and romance all the time, but this truly is the first time I’ve heard you speak about experiencing it for yourself.”
“Quit saying things like that,” Rose griped.
“Love. Romance. It’s not as though I’m going to see this man regularly, after all, he spends all of his time at the dam. Not once have I seen him anywhere around town, though I know from Papa that he must live somewhere nearby.”
“So? What do you plan to do about it?”
Ruth huffed. “Surely, you’re not planning to just let these feelings fester. It’s not as if he’s some inaccessible drifter who’s made off across the country, never to be seen again. The man works for your father!”
“What difference does that make?”
“If he spends all his time at the dam, then go to the dam. It’s really that simple.” Ruth lifted her brow with faux-smugness and adopted a chiding tone. “Honestly, if you were one of the people in our stories, you would be making the everclassic sitting-around-and-pining mistake. I would have thought you knew better, Rose.”
“Pining’s not the worst mistake,” Rose said, remembering the whimsical looking man they’d once seen come through town with a pet baby tiger. The story they’d come up with for him was that he had left his love to join the circus, only to be consumed by a crushing loneliness that could only be dealt with through the heart-stuttering highs and lows of risking his life every day training exotic animals.
Ruth’s eyes immediately lit up. “So, you admit you’re pining.”
The indignant, competitive part of Rose wanted to protest. But enough was enough. She knew when she’d been beat, and lowered her head in frustrated acknowledgement. “Perhaps I am. Ugh.”
“Don’t say ‘ugh’!” Ruth said. “This is a good thing. It’s fun being infatuated!”
“Maybe for you. Whenever I think about… about Jeremiah,” she made herself say, lowering her voice further, as though the name itself were some sort of closely-guarded secret. “I still get to feeling dizzy and half-nauseous. I don’t see how any of this is fun.”
“Really? There’s nothing that’s enjoyable to you about it?”
Rose, again, almost protested. But upon giving it a moment of thought, she had to admit, it wasn’t all bad. Jeremiah’s face was pleasant to think of, as was his voice. She liked going about her errands, wondering what he picked up from certain stores about town, or what his favorite foods were, or whether or not he had read any of the same novels she had.
More than she was willing to admit, Rose had even found her thoughts drifting into fantasies of what might happen between them should their paths ever cross again. She wanted rather desperately to know more about him. Quietly, she hoped that maybe, just maybe, he was somewhere hoping to know more about her as well.
“All right,” Rose begrudgingly admitted. “Perhaps it is just a little fun.”
“Ha-ha!” Ruth laughed, loudly enough that a few people seated nearby turned their way. “I knew you were getting swept up into the romance of it all.”
“Not so loud,” Rose insisted, glancing anxiously over her shoulder.
Thankfully, the other tavern patrons seemed to have decided to pay them no mind after all, and had gone back to their own meals.
“Oh, poo, no one’s listening,” Ruth continued, rattling right along. “But getting back to my main point: pining is not the stage you want to be stuck in. You don’t want some other lady snatching up your love before you have the chance to make your move.”
Ruth lifted a finger in chiding caution before Rose could finish her protest. “And don’t go scolding me for saying ‘love’ again. I’m simply doing my job as your friend by helping you make peace with necessary truths.”
Rose’s words died in her throat, replaced against her will with an uncontrollable, if subtle, smile. While she did not always say so out loud, she really had no idea where she would be without Ruth. Her forthright, often excitable manner had been exactly the emotional balm Rose had needed in the days after the flood, when her brain had felt gray and muted in Mama’s absence. She’d been a bright constant in Rose’s life ever since. “Friend?” Rose said. “Or torturer?”
“Rose!” Ruth placed a hand over her heart, and a wicked smile stretched across her delicate face. “Is it so wrong for me to be both?”
* * *
Rose’s father came in from the dam more tired than usual that night. He still stood as tall as ever while he hung up his thick coat, and was happy to ask after Rose’s day from his place at the kitchen table while she went about preparing dinner, but there was a tinge of worry to his eyes that sent Rose into an immediate spiral of concern.
She’d been feeling rather buoyant after her afternoon out with Ruth, but it was hard to keep that feeling going with her father nodding vaguely along at her words, his smile tired and dim.
“All right,” said Rose, when she set their bowls on the table and slid into her own seat. “What’s the matter?”
Her father looked surprised. “Nothing’s the matter.” His eyes turned down to his bowl, and he picked up his spoon to immediately dig in. “This stew smells delicious, Rose.”
Rose pressed her lips into a hard line, her own stew sitting neglected in front of her as her father began to eat. “I know you better than that, Papa.”
Her father stopped eating. He regarded Rose for a long moment, then sighed, sitting back. “It’s really nothing, I promise. Simply a new worker who’s having difficulties adjusting to the job.” His smile returned, though it seemed like he was still forcing it a little. “Thankfully, with Jeremiah showing him the ropes, I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Rose’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of Jeremiah’s name. She turned her eyes to her own food, hoping the flush creeping up her neck wasn’t too telling. Infatuated, Ruth’s voice teased inside her head. “Does Jeremiah usually train the new workers?”
“Up to now, not officially,” said Rose’s father. “But whenever we have had new team members, I’ve noticed Jeremiah almost always falls into a mentor role, whether he means to or not. With Will. Fergus. Ronald.” He shook his head, and his shoulders rose and fell, heavy. “That’s why I just don’t understand this.”
“Don’t understand what?” Rose managed to say. She was proud of herself for remaining engaged in the conversation, rather than letting her mind slip down a rabbit hole. Of course, Jeremiah would naturally act as a mentor to new workers.
Rose’s father initially looked hesitant to say, but then his expression cleared. His smile seemed more genuine now. “It truly is no matter, Rose. The problems we’ve had won’t be problems much longer. Jeremiah gave me his word he would get the lad sorted.”
Rose couldn’t help her smile. “Jeremiah does seem the honest type,” she said, before thinking better of it.
Her father’s eyebrows shot straight up. “Ah, yes,” he said slowly, as Rose began to fidget with her dress beneath the table. “He was the one who gave you the dam tour while I conducted that interview. What was your opinion of him, may I ask?”
Rose stopped breathing. Calm down, she told herself, though it was difficult not to feel exposed. “Only if you tell me why it is you’re asking.”
Her father’s grin widened, and Rose resisted the urge not to slink further down in her chair. “Because I value your opinion, of course.”
Rose’s eyes narrowed. She knew her father was playing her for the fool. “Are you certain that’s the only reason you’re asking?”
“Surely, my own daughter wouldn’t accuse me of lying,” said her father, still grinning. When Rose didn’t answer right away, his smile softened. “I’ve noticed you seem less anxious since our visit to the dam. At first, I thought that was because now that you have had a chance to see all the safety precautions we have in place, you weren’t worried about me so much. Now, though, I can’t help but wonder if there’s another reason.”
Rose shrugged, face burning, hoping against hope that she looked as though she cared less than she actually did. This was ridiculous. These feelings, for someone she had only spent a single afternoon with, were ridiculous. “Jeremiah was enjoyable to talk to,” she said, looking down at her stew. It was going to get cold if she didn’t dig in soon, but her nerves from earlier had returned, and she found she had little to no appetite.
Rose’s father turned his own attention back to his food. “Is that all?” he joked. His tone was far too knowing for Rose’s liking.
A part of her worried that her father would keep pressing the subject, but he kept his focus on supper, and it seemed like the matter had been dropped.
Yet even if Rose was no longer actively discussing Jeremiah, that didn’t mean it was anywhere close to easy to stop thinking about him. He stayed on her mind long after dinner, well into the night. Much to Rose’s dismay, there didn’t seem to be a single thing she could do to stop it.
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