The dark brick home stood at the end of the long driveway. Elizabeth felt the home watching her when she debarked from her bus, but that was silly. It was just a home for lost children.
She picked up her bags and walked to the front door where a woman in a black silk dress stood waiting.
“You must be Elizabeth Chase. I’m Mrs. Worthington. I oversee the place. I’ll show you to your room. Then you can meet the children.”
Her room, located in one of the turrets, had large windows and comfortable padded window seats. The wallpaper was faded, but the pattern of blue birds on a cream background was lovely. Blue had always been her favorite color. She looked over the fields and woods, and Elizabeth saw a small stream bordered by weeping willows. Charming, she thought. Really, it was lovely here, a good place to start over after Robert. The accident. She remembered so little about the accident, but she knew she had to start her life again, to press on without him. Elizabeth took a deep breath. She would put herself back together in this place. Indeed it seemed almost a haven.
Mrs. Worthington said. “If you come along, classes will be ending, and you may meet the children.”
Elizabeth heard the lilt of children’s voices when she walked downstairs and saw children in their formal uniforms crowding the halls. It wasn’t quite what she expected. She supposed she had been warped by tales of orphans from Oliver Twist or the girls in Jane Eyre. These children looked well fed and clean, but she supposed the watchful Mrs. Worthington would allow for nothing less.
A small girl with round dark eyes saw Elizabeth. She stopped and gave her a solemn smile. “You’re the new night nurse.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I am Ms. Chase. And who are you?”
“Oh, we don’t have names here. I’m number 57.”
Elizabeth looked at her in horrified puzzlement. “Why on earth wouldn’t you have names?”
The girl took Elizabeth’s hand, her face sympathetic. “You don’t know, do you? You see, once you come, you leave all that behind.”
“But I don’t understand.”
The girl sighed as if she were a very slow classmate. “Once you come, you never leave.”
Elizabeth felt her hand go to her throat. “I was hired to replace the night nurse. She must have left.”
“Well, yes. They let her go beyond the willows.”
“What does that mean?”
“This is just a waiting station. Eventually we all go beyond the willows. I’m in 57th place. That’s why my name is 57. I think it has to do with when they find your body.”
“But I can’t . . .” Elizabeth closed her eyes, remembering the shriek of tearing metal and the roar of wind, the expanse of wide gray ocean below.
“My father buried me in our basement,” the girl said.
“No,” Elizabeth said. She could feel herself trembling. “They’ll never find me.”
“They will eventually. In any case, you’ll get used to it. I’ll even call you by your name, like we do Mrs. Worthington and all the other teachers. Adults have a harder time, accepting that is. The rest of us, well, most of us come from places we’d rather forget. It’s peaceful here. You’ll see. Mrs. Graystone, she was the old night nurse, was very sad to move on, but they say it’s even better beyond the willows.”
“But there must be some mistake. I came on the bus.”
“The purple bus. It only comes here. Mr. Worthington drives it. He’s the only one allowed off the property, and he has to stay in the bus. But I bet you don’t remember the train down.”
Elizabeth tried very hard to think of what came before the bus ride, but all she could remember was wind and ocean and the ripping of metal.
“Someone I loved was killed in that accident as well.”
“Well, he may have been sent to another wait station, or he may be waiting for you, Ms. Chase. Hang a light in your window at night, and maybe you’ll see one waiting for you beyond the willows.”