4th September 2001

"Laura. LAURA! It's your stop, Sugar."

The 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.

"Thanks 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 till morning.

Not 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.

"No problem, Sugar. You take care now."

"You too."

The 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 without.

She 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.

She 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.

She 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.

She 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.

But 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.

She 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.

"The 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 six, Grace"

Laura 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.

She 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.

Not tonight. Who knows what will happen tomorrow?

6th November 2001

Chantale's 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.

She 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 memories.

She 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.

She 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.

He came every night Momma was gone. He went, every night, with a threat to keep silent or pay.

Chantale 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.

"Don' 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 an' lies."

"But Momma..."

Her protest had been silenced with a ringing slap to the face.

That evening, while she sat over her homework, Jimmy came up behind her and leaned heavily on the back of her chair.

"Dorrie 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 me."

All 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.

"C'mon, Chantale," he said, and his voice was quiet and even sounded kind.

He 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.

Chantale was a quick study.

In 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.

And 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.

She 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.

"I'll 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.

"I'm 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 do?

The 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."

The 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.

"Why 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 life?"

Chantale 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.

Chantale 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.

Even 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?"

Chantale finds herself smiling, although it's a hesitant, wobbling smile. "I guess not," she replies.

"Do 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.

"Sure, I love them but..."

"I've got an idea. It might help you. It'd sure help me."

22nd June 2002

The 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.

She 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.

A 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 with fairies.

Laura 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.

"Oh, 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."

"It's Saturday tomorrow," Chantale replies, "I can sleep then. Anyway, I've got something to show you."

She slips away, and when she comes back she is wearing a long white gown. Tears mist Laura's eyes.

She 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.

"You 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!"

"Thanks 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.

Back 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.

They look at each other, these two who have come together through pure luck to be each other's charm and protection.

And they smile.

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