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Three years old today…

‘Happy birthday, Norma Jeane…’

A hundred kids sang to me in the dining hall, the younger ones banging their spoons on the long table. Mrs Dewey pushed open the swing doors, wheeling a teacart.

On it was a large pink and white cake with just one candle. I got up, and blew it out.

Then Mrs Dewey cut a slice of cake and laid it on my plate. I scooped up the soft yellow sugar and marzipan. Before I’d finished, she cut more slices. But there wasn’t enough for everyone.

‘Who wants bonbons?’ she said. She had given me one last Sunday. Boys hollered, and she pushed the teacart forward.

At bedtime, I lay awake then sneaked up to the roof, led by Vera, a short girl who had freckles and ginger curls. The stairwells were dark but unguarded and it was an easy climb out of the loft.

‘I slept out here last summer,’ Vera whispered.

It got noisy in the dorms, with all the younger kids crying for their moms. The air up here was warm, and no stars shone. I looked out across the skyline. Vera pointed to her school, where I’d be starting in September.

The city looked tiny, from way above, as if I could pick up anyone of the factories or studios and crush it in my hand. A round, flashing sign loomed on top of a tall blue building.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘The water tower. That’s where we get our supply. My pa worked on the reservoir when we came to California.’

‘But the sign…’ I said, reading ‘RKO’ out from the neon letters. ‘That’s a movie studio, my aunt worked there once. It’s where Ginger Rogers makes pictures with Fred Astaire.’

‘You’ve been to a theater, Norma Jeane?’

‘Sure. My aunt’s taking me on Sunday.’ I shivered, and rubbed my arms. It had turned cold.

‘We’ve got to go back.’ Vera led me down to the dorms. I lay in bed thinking about Aunt Grace, wishing she worked at RKO now. Then I went to sleep, but not for long. A dream began, of a monster chasing me over the hills. People watched as I ran, but nobody moved or even spoke.

‘Hey, Norma Jeane, what’s wrong?’

I sat up. Other kids were staring from their beds.

‘Just dreaming, I guess,’ Vera whispered. ‘You were talking to someone. Go to sleep now.’

I pulled the covers up to my chin, but there would be no more sleep. I lifted the photograph of my father and held it to my heart, while Mother’s picture looked out from the night table.