With her right hand clutched to her chest, inside the worn wool of her winter coat, Emma had nearly made it to Lafayette Street. Nature was not on her side. Last night's snowfall had turned the dirty streets of New York's lower eastside into a mile of slush that seeped through the holes in the soles of her shoes with every step. The floor manager nearly had kittens when Emma had approached him. Not only was she going to lose her wages for the day, but the cost of the cloth she had been sewing when the accident happened. And with no one else who could help her younger sister back across town, Becca doggedly followed behind her another half-day's wages lost.
Becca's weeping had started at about West Broadway and not stopped since. Hungry, tired, and scared, the younger girl was full of questions. As they waited to cross the street, Becca stopped sobbing long enough to ask, "What are we going to tell mum? You heard Mr. Brimmel, he won't let you work as a Finisher any more. That's two contracts lost now."
Any anger Emma had over her dismissal had seeped away with the slow trickle of blood that stained the cloth firmly tied about her fist. Weakly she commented, "There are more than enough shops looking for workers. Mr. Pyes, upstairs, just opened his own shop and was trying to get the girls in our building to work for him."
The two girls knew they were in the home stretch as they passed the garishly painted front window of Sully's pub. The gold paint was flaking from the border of a Kelly green shamrock, the panes of glass opaque from years of smoke inside. It seemed like eons ago that the two girls had waited patiently outside of the pub for their father only to see him taken away by the police for starting a brawl. But, it was only last night that their father was arrested and Emma had no idea how their mother would take the latest news.
Only a few blocks from their building, the girls began to stop more frequently to let Emma rest and regain her balance. One such stop was near the local grocer. Digging with her free hand into her coat pocket, Emma pulled out forty cents and a dirty handkerchief tied in a bundle. Turning to Becca, she asked, "Do you remember what mum wanted us to get?"
Becca's nimble fingers took the change out of Emma's palm and added it to the two nickles in her own. "Some milk, some tomatoes, some potatoes, and if we have enough, some whiting. I think she wanted to make stew."
Between the blood loss, the cold, and the long walk home, Emma stood shivering outside the grocery. Her weary voice encouraged, "Why don't you run in and get what you can then?"
"Come in with me. It is warm inside and if Mr. Reilley isn't busy, he'll not mind us lingering as long as we buy something," Becca cajoled her older sister.
It was as much as Becca said it would be. Mr. Reilley, not busy with any other customers was more than happy to let the two girls stay out of the cold. For him, it was an excellent opportunity to catch up on gossip, Becca's specialty. Over potatoes, tomatoes, and some shriveled zucchinis, the pair chattered away about everyone along the Bowery.
Emma slipped into the restroom at the back of the store, a small room with a dirty mirror and dank air. Using her coat sleeve, she wiped away enough grime to see her reflection. Not even the poor lighting could hide her pallor. Extracting her hand from her coat for the first time, her uninjured fingers picked at the knot, the screened blue flowers stained brown from dried blood. As the last piece pulled away, she got a good look at the damage done by the press, her index finger now short two knuckles.
He had done it on purpose after all. What good was a right-handed seamstress without an index finger to keep the needle steady? She had refused his advances all week and at lunch he roughly dragged her over to the presses, raging that he would teach her a lesson she would never forget. Across her palm and fingertips were burn marks; the blisters swollen and already showing signs of infection. Becca was hysterical when Emma came to take her home and the younger sister was able to survey the damage. However, not even her sister ventured the idea of taking Emma to a hospital. There were too many questions: the poorly set wrist or, worse, the nagging cough Emma had developed that could only be tuberculosis. With her perfect hand, she pulled the handkerchief from her pocket once more and unraveled the other bit of cloth. The severed finger fell into the porcelain sink, purple and shriveled after only a couple of hours.
Becca and Mr. Reilly, exhausting their news on the folk of the Bowery, had moved on to discuss the latest political antics of the local councilman. Their light banter was cut short by Emma's sharp cry and a loud thud. When the pair arrived at Emma's side, she had passed out on the floor. While Becca attempted to revive Emma, Mr. Reilly was in front of his store capturing the attention of a police officer. A visit to the hospital would be inevitable.