“Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs” (Proverbs 10:12).
“I’ll try to make it back soon. You know what to do.”
Eight-year-old Lacey gave her mother a slight nod then slid from the back seat of their car onto its floor. Within seconds, the sounds of Mother’s quick steps against the brush disappeared, as did the remaining gleam from her flashlight. Lacey rapidly retrieved the pen from her jeans pocket and pushed the button then let out a little sigh of relief. That night when the light did not work, although two years earlier, was one her memory could not shake. Mother had since always supplied her with one pen for each pocket. She could have given her ten but she would never feel secure until she witnessed the positive result of her finger pressing against the button. Just to make sure, she checked the other then quickly shut it off before shoving it back in her pocket.
As much as she enjoyed the light, even if it was just a bit of it, there were some things Lacey wished she had never seen. Well, really only one but she always feared for its recurrence. That night three years earlier when she came out of her bedroom in their small one-bedroom apartment in search of a drink of water. She and Mother shared the same bed but she wasn’t next to her. Maybe she had been thirsty too. Or maybe she had to go to the bathroom. Lacey grabbed on her coat over her pajamas then scurried down the narrow, short hall to the living room, as she pressed her hands against her ears that were being assaulted with the shrieking of wind as if from savage animals. She couldn’t get to the kitchen without going through the living room but she never made it very far.
Her mother, her beautiful mother, hunched over on the floor in perfect stillness. A very, very tall man whose features Lacey could not discern crouched over her. Mother’s head was turned from him, as he seemed to whisper something in her ear. Then as if in slow-motion, she looked at him then pushed off the sofa and pressed to her feet on shaky legs. Lacey could hear Mother’s pleading voice but not what she was saying. His shadowy figure turned. She followed him with a sort of limp. Lacey shook uncontrollably when she saw it. There was blood on the back of Mother’s gown! Her ears caught the last bit of what she said in voice strained by anguish, “…don’t leave me like this! Please!” He did. He opened the door, shut it without even looking back at her, and then he was gone.
Lacey shuddered as she thought of that night. She had never seen Mother cry before then and hadn’t seen her cry since. Her little feet would not move from that spot no matter how much she willed them to do so. Mother finally saw her. She said it wasn’t blood. It was punch. Punch. That was much better but why was the man so mean to her? Who was he? She never saw him again.
It was best not to think of that night ever. Something in Mother’s eyes let her know that it was one to forget.
Lacey slid her book onto her thighs as she sat with knees bent close to her chest and feet pressed against the floor of the car. Maybe the little girl would finally make it home. She flipped to the page where she had left off a week before. This was the time for her reading. Oh, how she hoped the little girl would make it back home tonight.
The crescent moon had moved. Lacey wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep but Mother wasn’t back yet. The pen light flickered. She quickly shut it off then felt along the seat for her half a jam sandwich on white bread. Her stomach grumbled but this would have to do until they got home.
Several minutes later, she wiped her mouth with a napkin, placed the napkin in the brown bag, folded the bag, and placed the book on top of it. The little girl still had not made it home.
Lacey was so thirsty. Her eyes and her unsteady heart longed for light but she dared not use too much of it. She had to make sure she had enough for their next trip. More than that, what really pressed on her was a need to go to the bathroom. She had to think about something else. The more she tried, however, the greater the urge. She could not leave that car. That was one rule she never broke. She waited and strained her ear for any sign of Mother’s return. Nothing. She shifted to the other side of the car and lifted her head just high enough so her eyes could see. She had broken this rule more than once. There was a light. Not from Mother. Maybe from a house and it seemed to be in the direction she had heard her walk.
Moments later, her spindly legs were carrying her up a hill. “Oh Mother, please forgive me.” The August night was warm and pleasant. The warmth made her need to go more pressing. The darkness made her wish she had stayed put. But that was not an option.
After minutes, she reached a steeper hill in which were embedded steps that led to the hugest house she had ever seen. A dark house with only a light from the top floor barely illuminating it. The trees surrounding it seemed to have eyes that scrutinized her and arms that desired to snatch her. Lacey looked back and suddenly panicked. She did not know the path she had taken. Neither penlight would help her find it. There was no other choice. She had to keep going.
Although her legs shook from fatigue and she breathed harder, she finally made it. Lacey looked up at the doorbell and on wobbly limbs had to climb on a paint can left outside to reach it. In the silence, the gongs boomed and she scrambled off of the can, barely avoiding a fall. Footsteps descending inside stairs at a steady trotting rate. A light streaming through the door’s window. The door opening slowly.
Lacey’s eyes slowly traveled up, up, up. The man’s chest was bare save a thin gold chain. His head sailed above the top of the entrance. His face held a smile that made her heart instantly shake and her feet retreat in steps back from him.
“Well, look what we have here,” he asserted with a pleased grin, his gaze not shifting from her. “Two for the price of one.”
What was that she felt? His smile instantly transformed to rage and Lacey’s eyes shot to where his were aimed. Plank wood. His wooden planks were soaked with her urine.
“Why you little…” He swiped at her and she would have slipped on her own urine in her attempt to escape if it had not been for Mother. Mother! She did not know where she had come from but suddenly she was in front of her with her arm in a funny position.
“You take one more step toward her,” she promised with eerily cold voice, “and it will be the last one you take.”
The giant threw up his hands and with them, a cautious smile. “All right. All right doll. No need to get so excited.”
Mother demanded he go back in the house. He did and shut the door.
She led Lacey backwards and extra carefully down the stairs. Then she grabbed her hand and sprinted. Lacey’s legs seemed to have flown behind her.
It wasn’t until she was seated in the front seat with Mother, that Lacey saw the knife. She didn’t know what that man’s plans were but she sensed the danger. Danger that produced terror in her and from which her mother had just protected her. She looked at her in awe. She continued to stare at her mother who stared ahead as she drove them out of the neighborhood lined with what Lacey would someday discover were mansions. Her skin held the richest reddish hues. Her dark wavy-curly hair sat on her lap. Stopped at a stop sign, she whipped it up and pinned it so rapidly that Lacey found her some type of magician. Mother always looked sad. But this night, she looked the saddest. Lacey drew her eyes away from her and watched the outside, as they traveled down the thoroughfares, onto the highway, and eventually down the beaten Bronx streets near their apartment.
They were minutes away from home when Mother finally expressed in a throaty voice she had never heard from her, “This is the last night Lacey. You will never be stuck in the back of the car again.” She glanced at Lacey for only a moment, but the determination in her eyes could not be missed. “Never. I promise you.” Lacey’s smiles that remained inside began to fade. Mother had just turned onto their street where some men chatted quietly and others boisterously. This was home. Children ran through water that gushed from fire hydrants. The men and women who fussed were easier for Lacey to handle than those who shouted because the latter might fight. And the next morning a bottle could be found through Mother’s windshield that made its home on the front seat again.
Mother rushed Lacey out of the car and up the few steps to their apartment. As soon as they exited the vehicle, silence had fallen. It always did. Then came the whispers from the women and soft whistles from the men. Outside didn’t feel safe. Not to Lacey. Behind the locked door, she could breathe easy. That bad man who got mad because Mother spilled punch didn’t know this apartment. No one ever visited them and that was just fine. Here, in their little home, with Mother was just where Lacey wanted to be.
Three days later.
“Would you like some more Boua Loy dear?”
The sticky rice coconut dessert Mother’s boss had offered Lacey for breakfast was tasty but had the strangest texture. She looked down at her lap and shook her head then remembered that it was as impolite not to answer directly as it was to refuse a first serving of food. “No thank you, ma’am,” she whispered and lifted her eyes up to her quickly.
Ms. Meas sat behind her huge cherry oak desk and her pretty face held the most pleasant smile. She could not have been even a full foot taller than four-foot Lacey but there was power in that little woman. She moved a wisp of hair from in front of her eye and tucked it behind her ear. It would not stay in place. Her hair was cut too short to allow for that. “How about some hot chocolate?” She tilted her head slightly and maintained the same smile. Lacey controlled her fiddling hands.
“No thank you, ma’am.” Lacey returned her gaze to her lap. She heard the subtle throat clearing from Mother. She knew she was not supposed to say “no”, but since the incident at the giant’s house –a man she had discovered when reading a newspaper Mother had on the kitchen table was a senator, whatever that was— she was afraid of a sudden need to go to the bathroom. It was better not to take the chance. To interrupt Ms. Meas’ conversation with Mother due to that urge is nothing she would have been able to do.
“Very well. If you need anything at all, let me know.”
Lacey nodded and smiled but she couldn’t bring herself to look at her. Instead, she observed the décor of the office. There was barely any room for the three of them, the desk, and the chairs. Ms. Meas must have had an extraordinary love for exotic animals. Nearly every square inch of her floors and walls were covered with life-like tigers, monkeys, jaguars, elephants, and other creatures Lacey did not recognize. They were so pretty. But the office was so junky. She wondered how the woman could breathe in there. She knew it was a little difficult for her. There wasn’t even a window the lady could open where she could get some air, and her heavy wooden door always seemed to be closed.
Not that Lacey had seen much of Ms. Meas. She had only been to her very small room of an office in her very large house three times. Three times too many. When she’d asked where she was from, Mother had showed her Cambodia on the map. Not that Lacey had enough world experience to know the difference, but to her ear the lady seemed to speak French with a perfect French accent, English as if she had been born in the United States, and Chinese as if she had never left Asia. She had such a pretty smile and such a pretty face. But there was something behind both. Just like that witch in the book Lacey had read last month. Mother didn’t seem to notice, but she certainly did.
“I can’t stay here,” Mother protested but softly. “And you’re being awfully kind.”
Lacey continued to make her survey of the office but now her ears keyed into each word.
“Natalia, we’ve known each other a long time.” Mother concurred with a nod and offered that she was 16 years old when they met. Lacey did not know exactly how old Mother was now. “Yes. Eleven years.” Oh. She was…twenty-seven. “Back at the old restaurant with Boran and me.” Out of the corner of her eye, Lacey noticed Mother’s tight smile.
Ms. Meas went on about how she and her brother saw something different in Mother right away. “You were an excellent waitress. Excellent with the customers. But you wanted more.” Mother looked straight ahead. There was a momentary tremor in her right cheek. Or maybe Lacey had imagined it. It passed so quickly. Mother placed her hand softly on Lacey’s armrest. She resumed her survey of the indoor animal kingdom with full knowledge that Mother didn’t want her eyes on her. It would have been so nice if she had been allowed to bring a book in to this meeting. Maybe it would end one day.
There was a lot of other talk –mostly from Ms. Meas—but Lacey’s mind was not able to capture the meaning of most of it. The three times she had seen her, she noticed that the little lady always seemed to speak in some code. Yet she was sure her earlobes must have visibly perked when she said, “It will be yours when I go back to Cambodia next week.”
It? What would be hers? How long would she be gone?
All of these questions, Mother answered on the ride back home. For once, she actually answered something that wasn’t academic. Ms. Meas and her brother were retiring and moving back to Cambodia. Yay! She was turning the business over to Mother but there would still be people in the States to help with the transition.
“What is ‘transition’?” Mother explained that it was a change of who would be in charge.
Ms. Meas had insisted that they move into the house. “Certainly you don’t intend on staying where you are now. You have your beautiful little girl. The environment is not appropriate for her. The commute alone would be too lengthy.”
“I was thinking I could try to find someplace closer.”
“You won’t be able to afford it,” she stated plainly. “Not at first. But one day…,” she said with a wink but never completed her sentence. Lacey didn’t like when Ms. Meas held yet another secret. Mother seemed to hold enough of them but today was different, so she took her opportunity.
“Mother,” she queried on their way back home, “what is your job?” There it was again. Or was it? That tiny tremor. Lacey had never gotten more than a very vague response to this question.
“I’ve already told you.”
“But what do you do?”
She glanced at her and then studied the road ahead. The car’s clock had read 8:52 when she completed her question. By 8:54, Lacey had given up her hope that an answer would come. “I help people new to town get used to the area so they won’t be so lonely. I show them around town. To the restaurants. To the museums. Things like that.”
Combined with the shock that she had finally gotten a real response was the pride that boomed in her heart with the answer. “Oh Mother, that is so nice! Maybe I can do that when I grow up.”
The tremor was definitely there this time. Followed by a quick, absolute shake of the head. “You’ll be a doctor or something like that. That’s the type of help people really need.”
Lacey frowned, not so sure one was better than the other. Besides, how nice it was to make people feel comfortable in a new town. The only thing was that she’d have to grow to be able to welcome the opportunity to even greet people without feeling as if the ground would swallow her.
“I won’t even be doing that work any longer.” She would train other people to do it instead so she could have more time with Lacey.
The little girl’s eyes expanded and her heart quickened. “No more nights in the car?” she whispered.
Mother held her hand. “I told you that there would never be any more of those.” Lacey had not once complained outwardly but inside she had to push down her dread every single time of the loneliness, sometimes of the cold, others of the heat, of the boredom, or of the fear. And to be with Mother more! That was the best news of all.
K. Lumpkin began writing and illustrating books at the age of 4. Currently, she is a wife and mother of two adolescents who make the simplest things in life exciting . K. Lumpkin and her family have lived in Latin America and various states in the U.S. When not homeschooling and learning with as well as from her teens and when a breath can be caught, she enjoys the pleasures of her early years — writing, reading, dancing and painting. She is also the author of Fire, River, Beauty and Nothing in Time Separating.