SHE WEARS THE MASK
BY SHELLY STRATTON
No one can ever really know what lies behind the mask . . .
Gripping and moving, She Wears the Mask is a novel about two women from two very different worlds, both burdened with secrets from their pasts, who form an unexpected bond…
1950s Chicago: Angelique Bixby could be one of many fresh-faced sales girls working along the Magnificent Mile, but she’s unique. She’s a white woman married to a black man in 1950s Chicago, making her stand out among the tenements on the South Side where she lives. Despite the challenges the couple faces, they find comfort and strength in their love for one another. Angelique is content, as long as she has her Daniel by her side and their baby in her arms, until she loses them both—one to death and the other to dire circumstances.
1990s Washington, D.C.: Angelique Crofton is a woman of privilege. A rich, aging beauty and mother of a rising political star, she has learned to forget her tragic past. But now that she is facing her own mortality, she is finally ready to find the daughter she left behind, remember the young woman she once was, and unearth the bittersweet memories she had long ago buried.
Jasmine Stanley is an ambitious lawyer—the only black woman at her firm. She is too busy climbing the corporate ladder to deal with her troublesome family or their unresolved issues. Tasked with Angelique’s case, Jasmine doesn’t know what to make of her new client—an old debutante with seemingly too much time and money on her hands. Jasmine eagerly accepts the challenge though, hoping if she finds Angelique’s long-lost daughter, it will impress the firm’s partners. But she doesn’t count on the search challenging her mentally and emotionally. Nor does she expect to form a friendship with Angelique, who is much more like her than she realizes—because Jasmine is harboring secrets, too.
November 9, 1950
She will never get used to the sound of the “L” train.
Angelique realizes this for the umpteenth time as the train thunders above her and she ducks her head and clutches the collar of her wool coat in a white-knuckled grip with one hand. While crossing the street under the train tracks, she doesn’t look up—too frightened to witness its passage. She focuses her runny eyes instead on the puddles of melting snow where the halogen lights from bars and the late-night delicatessen glow. Her eyes then drift to the bundle in the basket she holds.
Hearing the steady click-clack of the train wheels, the seismic rattle of metal beams, and the whoosh of air as it passes will never become background noise to her, no matter how long she lives in the “Windy City” to some or “Chi-Town” to others—but it did for Daniel. He laughed at her the first time she cringed when the train passed their bedroom window.
“Look at you,” he drawled that first night they slept in their apartment. “It’s just a train, sugar. It can’t hurt you none.”
But what did Daniel know? Even though he’d grown up on the alfalfa fields of North Carolina with dirt under his nails and the sweet stench of manure in his nostrils, he’d been a city boy at heart. The “L” was practically a Mama’s lullaby, lulling him to sleep at night, while it became her torturer, yanking her awake every time her eyelids would drift closed.
When she did sleep, the train would haunt her dreams—those hungry steel wheels gnashing at the tracks, sending up sparks into the dark night. Her mind’s eye would see the train barreling at high speeds over Logan Square, Hyde Park, and Chinatown, like it was searching for her, leaving quaking windows in its wake.
She dreamed of standing with other commuters waiting to head Uptown, only to have someone accidentally shove her. She’d go tumbling off the platform, onto the train track, and get hit by the “L,” yelling for help as she watched it approach. She dreamed of Daniel riding on his way to work at the stockyards, and one of the train cars would derail and go careening to the busy street twenty feet below. She would wake up screaming, and Daniel would wrap her in his strong arms, pull her close, and let her tremble in his embrace.
After a while, she started to sleep with a pillow over her head to finally get some rest, hoping to drown out the sound of the train at night. Unfortunately, it also drowned out their baby’s cries. Daniel had to shake her awake and tug the pillow from her head a few times.
“She’s hungry, sugar,” he would say, bringing their baby girl to her.
She would turn onto her back, prop the pillow behind her, tiredly undo the ribbons of her night gown, and lower the infant to her tender breast, yawning and staring out the window at the passing of the “L” as she nursed.
Ultimately, Daniel would be proven right. It wasn’t the train she should’ve feared, but the street car. That’s what took her man away in the end. The sound of the trolley bell would be the harbinger of death for him, not the screech of train wheels.
She gives a bleak, dark chuckle at the irony as the “L” finally . . . mercifully passes overhead, leaving behind the distant sound of rattling metal and fluttering newspapers. She can hear her baby girl, Emma Jean, crying now and see her squirming in the basket at her side, making it hard not to drop the basket and the baby from her sore fingers. She holds fast though, and continues to walk in the cold and through the melting snow. Her leather shoes—one of her few remaining pairs—are covered in rubber booties, but the booties have holes in them. The shoes are now damp and she suspects her feet are starting to freeze. Her toes are stinging like they’re being poked by tiny needles. She wonders if she will develop gangrene, but she doesn’t stop to check her feet. She’s already walked this far. May as well keep going.
“Hey, lady! What you doin’ out here with that baby?” a voice slurs, startling her and making her pause for the first time.
Angelique turns to her right to find a figure lurking in a doorway. An old Negro man with weathered skin stumbles out of the shadows like someone has given him a hard shove. He clutches a half pint of Old Forrester in his dirty hand. He’s wearing several layers of clothing, all of which are either shredded, riddled with holes, or covered with stains. The rank smell of alcohol, body odor, and urine drifts from him like an atomic cloud. He narrows his bloodshot eyes at her.
She stares back at him, tugging the basket close to her side, but she doesn’t respond. She turns back around and starts walking again.
“Cain’t you hear that baby cryin’?” he shouts drunkenly after her and she starts to walk faster. “Shouldn’t be out here in the cold with no baby no way! Take it inside!”
When she nears the end of the block, she is almost at a run, jostling the infant in the basket and making her cry louder.
“Crazy cracker wench!” his voice howls against the growing wind.
Angelique is finally a block away. She stops at an empty wooden bench to regain her breath. She sets the wicker basket on the bench, sits beside it, and takes out Emma Jean. She holds her against her chest, cooing to her and rocking her softly. Emma Jean is no more than a little round face engulfed in blankets under the street light. Big brown, watery eyes gaze up at her. After a few minutes, the wails quail to whimpers and the whimpers die down to hiccups. Emma Jean’s eyes close. Long dark lashes like her daddy’s sweep her cheeks. Eventually, Emma Jean quiets, asleep again.
This is when Angelique begins to lose her nerve, feeling the familiar warmth of her baby girl against her body, seeing Emma Jean slumber so blissfully in her arms.
Her vision begins to blur as the tears well. She sniffs and a nose that was already chapped red from the chill and the wind, becomes even redder.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do this,” she whimpers, shakily rising to her feet, leaving the basket on the bench. She lurches back toward the corner with Emma Jean, and sees the outline of the drunken bum leaning against a brick wall, watching her from a distance like a specter in the dark.
Seeing him again, she suddenly remembers the empty shelves in the kitchenette cabinets back at her apartment and the icebox filled with one block of cheese and a bottle of milk that is about to go bad. She remembers the “Rent Due” notice tacked to her front door. And she remembers that she can’t return to her plush sales girl job thanks to Mr. Mullan. She probably will never be able to show her face, let alone work anywhere at the posh stores on State Street again. Odd jobs at night clubs and seedy bars won’t keep her and Emma Jean from starving. She could very well find herself on the street like that bum. She must move on and start all over again, but her baby girl will not be able to move on with her. Emma Jean does not fit into her life anymore. Not after the mess she’s made of it. That is why she is here to procure her daughter a new life—a better one.
She lowers the infant back into the basket, nestling her in the soft blankets, careful not to wake her again. She adjusts the envelope beside the baby, the one containing a note, a picture of Daniel, looking dapper in his Army uniform, and a lock of her own hair.
Angelique blinks through her tears and starts walking again, continuing to her destination.
ABOUT SHELLY STRATTON
Shelly Stratton is the penname an award-nominated author who has published almost a dozen books under another pseudonym.
She is married and lives in Maryland with her husband and their daughter. Visit her at her web site http://www.shellystrattonbooks.com to learn more about her work.
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