LAURA! It's your stop, Sugar."
bus driver's voice jerks her out of the doze she has fallen into, as he pulls
over and opens the door. She hauls herself to her feet, and winces at the pain
in them. The bag over her shoulder
is heavy, full of coins from the tip jar. The diner has been busy tonight.
Gerard." She smiles. There are drivers on this route who'd just have
sailed on by, letting her sleep till she woke, not caring how far they took her
beyond her destination They wouldn't worry that she couldn't afford a cab,
and that they might be stranding her miles from home with no more buses
Gerard though. The elderly black man always makes sure that she gets off
where she should, even when it puts him behind time, taking her on past
the proper stop to the place where the bus passes nearest her home. When Gerard
is driving, she knows that she is safe letting the rocking of the bus and the
chugging engine lull her to sleep. She wants to tell him how much she
appreciates this, to explain what a luxury he gives her, but the words won't
come up thorough her weariness, so she smiles.
problem, Sugar. You take care now."
door swishes shut, and the bus pulls away. A fine drizzling rain is falling, so
she turns up the collar of her coat and buries her hands deep in her pockets,
one clutching her keys, the other curling instinctively around the can of mace
that she isn't really supposed to carry, but, nonetheless, she feels insecure
looks at the ground as she trudges home, determined not to see the
small group of youngsters jostling and cussing in the doorway of the store, not
to let the flash of the streetlight on a needle catch her eye. She knows that if
she looks at their faces she will recognise them, and she fears seeing another
child that she watched playing like an angel just a year or two ago now
numbered in the ranks of the
fallen. This neighborhood is not
the worst in town, not by a long way - the people are hard-working, honest,
struggling like her to keep lives, homes and families together -- but
hopelessness is spreading uptown like a shadow.
knows the mothers and fathers of these kids, has seen their heartbreak, and
every time another mother's son or daughter joins the group that shadow creeps
closer to her own doorstep, threatening to engulf her babies as they sleep in
their beds and she waits tables.
hates working nights, but she has to. The pay is half as much again as daytime
work, and the tips are better, and since Steve died she has needed every penny
she can get.
feels a frisson of pain as she thinks of her husband. The children have long
ceased to speak of him, and if it wasn't for photographs, she wouldn't be able
to visualise his face. This saddens
her, as does the realisation that he would have to look at her twice to
recognise her if he walked down the street now, her once-long hair cut and
liberally greying, the plump curves melted away by the miles she runs between
kitchen and customers every shift. But even if she can no longer see his
laughing eyes clearly, not a day passes when she doesn't miss him at some time -
when she's standing on a chair to change a light bulb, perhaps, or when she sees
glances at the watch he gave her for her 21st birthday (so very long ago now),
when someone puts Hotel California on the jukebox, or she lies in bed cold
and alone, aching for the warmth of his body and the touch of his hands.
he's gone, and so she must work nights, and walk home past those kids, and feel
the threat of the deeper shadow in the darkness.
turns the corner, and looks up at her apartment. There are no lights on.
She hopes that only means that Grace is asleep on the sofa, but when she
climbs the stairs she isn't surprised to find the note on the kitchen table.
kids is safe asleep. I couldn't hardly keep my eyes open, so I've slipped across
the hall to my place, because if I'd dropped off, I'd not of woke till morning,
and you know how my Dave feels about me being out all night. I'll see you at
shreds the note. Grace knows Paige has nightmares, and Laura doesn't
like her to be left. Grace also knows that there is nobody else prepared to sit
for the kids, and so, unless Laura wants to leave them alone all evening, she
has to settle for Grace slipping away at eleven, twelve, or whenever suits her
and still pay her the sixty dollars a week that means that Grace can buy new
clothes, while Laura buys hers from goodwill stores.
peeks into the kids rooms. Nine-year-old Ben is tangled in his
bedclothes, as if he's been fighting the Sith Lords in his dreams again, and
his little sister, fourteen months younger, looks peaceful. At least she
hasn't woken tonight and found herself alone.
tonight. Who knows what will happen tomorrow?
hand closes around the twenty dollar note in her pocket.
It is all that remains of her meagre savings. She must find work today,
because otherwise she will have to move out of the hostel, onto the street,
and she has no illusions about what her future will be then. If she can't keep a
roof over her head, she'll do no better here than she did at home.
thinks of the little weatherboard house she's come from and shudders. She
loved it when they moved there, but what happened later sours all the
remembers the night that Jimmy, her momma's man, first came to her room. Momma
was away because Grandma was sick. Jimmy locked the door when he came through
it, and put the key in his pocket.
struggled, but he was heavy, his biceps thick, hard and strong from hauling
crates. Chantale closed her eyes to shut out the sight of his face leering into
hers while his hands and prick tore at her, but she couldn't shut out the
stink of sweat and Wild Turkey, the obscene whispers, the laughter.
Afterwards, he sat on the edge of her bed, pulling on his jeans, telling her in
a cold voice that she should keep her mouth shut, and that if she was good, he'd
be good to her, but if she said anything to anyone, she would regret it. His
back was covered in dark coarse hair which sprouted"
from pale, pasty skin. He took the key with him when he unlocked the
door. She wanted to vomit.
came every night Momma was gone. He
went, every night, with a threat to keep silent or pay.
told Momma anyway, just as soon as she got back from Grandma's.
She expected Momma to protect her. She might as well not have bothered -
her revelation was met with flat eyes and dull disbelief.
you be telling no lies and trying come 'tween me and Jimmy now, Chantale,"
Momma said, shaking her head to send the bad words flying away from her ears.
"He's good to me, an' he takes care of us better'n yo' Daddy ever done. If
we din't have Jimmy you'd have to be out workin' now, not in school, so you just
think on that an' show a little gratitude, 'stead of makin' up slanders
protest had been silenced with a ringing slap to the face.
evening, while she sat over her homework, Jimmy came up behind her and leaned
heavily on the back of her chair.
says you had a talk with her earlier, Chantale," he murmured into her ear,
"She's disappointed in you, you know - she thought you'd show more
appreciation after all I've done for you. I told her you were probably just
jealous, and promised I'd have a word with you later tonight. I said I'd only
do what I had to, to teach you a lesson. She's agreed to leave everything to
through dinner, Chantale saw a smirk playing on Jimmy's heavy-set features as
he watched her and his eyes were fevered - he could barely eat for
anticipation. Chantale looked at Momma in appeal, but her face was pinched and
she wouldn't meet Chantale's eyes - she never would while she was angry.
After dinner, Jimmy stood and looked down at her.
Chantale," he said, and his voice was quiet and even sounded kind.
took her by the wrist, and there was nothing she could do but go with him to her
room. Behind the door, which he locked as always,
he kept his promise to teach her a lesson and what she
learned was twofold - firstly that nothing is so bad it can't get worse, and
secondly nobody would help her but herself.
was a quick study.
the morning, instead of going to school, she drew out all her meagre savings
and boarded the first Greyhound out of the terminus after she got there.
Where it went didn't matter, as long as it was away.
so, she came here. She found a clean, quiet hostel where the rooms were cheap,
but money doesn't last forever, so she started looking for work. She got an
offer the first day, but the man who made it stared at her with Jimmy's eyes,
hard and hungry-looking, so she turned it down. "How hard can it be to find
a job, if this one came so
easy?" she thought, but she has since found out - without a high-school
diploma it can be very hard indeed.
has gone from place to place all day today, asking even where there are no
'Help wanted' signs. It is seven o'clock,
and she hasn't eaten yet.
do anything," she tells the waitress standing alone behind the counter.
There is only one customer in the place, and Chantale knows, deep down, that she
will be no luckier here than she has been anywhere else but she has to try.
not too proud to wash dishes - or floors. Anything. Please, I really need a
job." She's begging, she can hear herself, but what else can she
waitress is shaking her head, and saying "I'm sorry honey, we're losing
staff, not hiring. I can only keep a job myself by working nights."
She looks tired and could be any age between thirty and forty-five. There
is real regret in her tone, the first sign of any genuine feeling Chantale has
encountered all week. Without warning, tears well at the corners of
the girl's eyes, and start to leak out and down her cheeks."
waitress steers her to a booth, and brings her a hot, sweet cup of coffee:
"On me," she says. That just makes the crying worse, because kindness from a stranger weighs heavy, especially when
you can see that stranger is not much better off than you are.
don't you go back to school and get your diploma, honey?" The woman asks,
slipping into the seat opposite her. "Give yourself a chance of a proper
has no intention of confiding in anyone, much less a stranger, but somehow the
whys and the wherefores start to tumble out between her lips, in involuntary
little spurts. When she stops for a moment, the waitress fetches her cherry
pie and another cup of coffee. Another customer comes in and the woman tells
her to eat and wait, and pats her hand before she goes off to serve them.
is horrified as she realises what she has said - to a complete stranger. She
looks round for a way out, but can't slip away without passing the waitress. She
feels herself blushing in shame, and is momentarily glad that she is black,
and the flush isn't too visible.
so, the waitress sees it, when she returns. "Don't worry, honey," she
says, seeming to understand. "I couldn't hurt you with anything I know,
even if I wanted to, now could I?"
finds herself smiling, although it's a hesitant, wobbling smile. "I guess
not," she replies.
you like kids?" The waitress asks suddenly. Chantale looks at her,
confused. She can't imagine why the
woman would ask a question like that.
I love them but..."
got an idea. It might help you. It'd sure help
apartment is shabby, and the furniture has seen better days - a lot of them.
It is windy tonight and the window behind Chantale's head rattles loudly. She
pulls her jacket tighter round her to ward off the draught.
puts down her pen, stretches and decides that she has done enough for tonight.
She puts her books in a neat pile and slides them into her bag.
glance at the clock tells her that it is almost two, so she puts on a pot of
coffee, before she takes the bag through to the tiny room box room decorated
sees the light in the kitchen as she turns the corner and shakes her head,
indulgently. She can smell the coffee as she opens the door.
honey," Laura says, when
Chantale pours milk into the hot
black liquid, and slides it to her across the table.
"you shouldn't have waited up."
Saturday tomorrow," Chantale replies, "I can sleep then. Anyway, I've
got something to show you."
slips away, and when she comes back she is wearing a long white gown. Tears
mist Laura's eyes.
remembers wearing it to stand beside Steve on her wedding day, how happy she
was, how beautiful she thought it. Once, she considered selling it, but she is
delighted that, altered, trimmed and made new again, Chantale can wear it to her
high-school prom. It is still beautiful.
finished it!" It's Paige's
voice warbling from the doorway. She's stumbled out from the room she
shares with her mother since Chantale moved in. She still wakes often, but these
days when she knows that there is always a pair of arms to hold her when she
does, it's just wakefulness, not nightmares. "You look SO cool!"
sweetie," Chantale says,
"Now come and help me out of it, and then go back to sleep, so that mommy
can finish her coffee in peace, okay?"
She lets the little girl hang the dress up reverently, then tucks her
back into bed and kisses her goodnight.
in the kitchen, Laura has divided the leftover pie she brought back from the
diner in half. It's not too stale, and the sweetness is good with the
coffee. As she passes a piece to Chantale, she squeezes the girl's hand.
look at each other, these two who have come together through pure luck to be
each other's charm and protection.