The metal around the orange Formica table gleamed brilliantly in the bright sunlight of a clear early morning. Lan sat patiently, legs swinging in the too big chair, lungs taking in the sweet aroma of cinnamon French toast and ears taking in the sweet sound of her mother's voice.
Lan's head snapped to attention saving her body from gravity's sudden pull. She looked around startled until she realized she had nodded off while leaning heavily on the traffic signal pole waiting for the light to change so she could cross the street. Christ, I'm tired
. Not only am I waiting at an intersection that hasn't seen a car in two minutes
, I almost collapse face-first into the road. I gotta remember I'm not so young and resilient anymore.
It was nearly 3 a.m. and she had been up for nearly 20 hours. Snapping out of her stupor, she expelled a weak chuckle and shuffled to the other side of the street to where her car was parked.
She took a deep breath of the still warm air, idly wondering when the summer heat would abate. She loved summer, but wished it would be cooler at night. She reached her ancient Land Cruiser and jammed the keys into the loose door lock. Turning it with just enough force and finesse, the lock turned and she opened the squeaking door.
She sat behind the wheel debating whether she was awake enough to drive the 15-minute trip home. Two enormous yawns later; she cranked the ignition, stuck an obnoxiously loud CD in the stereo and took the volume up to a level her speakers could barely handle. "That'll do." She mumbled to no one, pulling the car away from the lot and into the early morning darkness.
Amazed she was able to stay awake even with the bone jarring drumbeats coming out of her speakers, Lan turned in to her once-considered middle-class neighborhood. Fresno was a medium sized city in the Central Valley of California and its residents had begun to migrate to the west side of town where they were turning farmland into huge houses with no yards, shopping malls and multiplexes. As a result, it left all of the east side neighborhoods to the ones who were barely making it by. It was the only part of town they could afford. There were a few families that had resisted the migration west, either because of financial burdens or stubbornness, but the number of original owners was dwindling and the once nice, kept up neighborhood had turned into mostly low rent and poorly maintained houses.
Lan had bought her duplex condo as soon as she had saved enough money for a down payment. She knew it wasn't in the best neighborhood, but she'd had no problem taking care of herself in the past and it was what she could afford. It had been so long since she'd had some stability in her living situation, having a place to call her own was one of the first promises she'd made to herself when she'd found steady work. It had needed a lot of work, but she was up to the challenge and has been for the past two years, slowly transforming the duplex into a space she savored.
Pulling up into the drive, she cut off her lights so they wouldn't shine into her neighbors' kids' bedroom. She sat at the wheel in a trance for several seconds. Sensing she might fall asleep outside in her car if she didn't get a move on; she gathered her bag and keys and headed for her front door.
The sun greeted her with brilliant opaque oranges and pinks, bathing her room in the warm glow of a late August morning. She smiled sleepily as she felt her two canine companions, rescues from the shelter, stir near her feet. They were very much in tune with their master's schedule and knew she was up before her usual.
True, Lan had only gotten home from work a mere 3 hours ago, but she'd forgotten to close the blackout shade on her bedroom window. Work had been crazy-busy with no breaks and Lan had made it home with just enough energy to shed her jeans and bra before collapsing into bed.
Oddly, she felt rested enough to rise so she made the move to get up. The smaller female mutt named Bait wasn't buying it and plopped her head right back down with a decidedly human-like sigh. Hook, the larger male mutt was all for early rising and happily hopped to the edge of the bed and down to the floor, wagging his stubby tail.
Taking a moment to make sure she really wanted to get up, Lan sat at the edge of the bed with her arms bracing her. She smiled affectionately at Hook who looked like he might burst with joy at maybe having an early morning walk.
"I'm thinkin' about it, buddy. You gotta get your sister up though." Lan explained to the wiggly little dog. Deciding she would indeed brave the early hour, Lan stood and ambled to her small dresser and pulled some shorts and a t-shirt that were barely acceptable to be seen in public together. Laundry had been on her list of things to do for a few days now.
After going to the bathroom and washing her face, she collected her shoes, a hat and leashes and headed to the front door. The sound of the leashes was enough to rouse Bait and by the time Lan had her shoes and hat on, both dogs were ready and waiting, sitting obediently, despite their obvious excitement. She stared down at the two rescued mutts for several seconds, reflecting on how much joy they brought to her life. "You two just live and love to please, don't you?" She asked around a sweet smile. She could have sworn they smiled back.
"Two Vodka Collins and a Rum and Coke, light ice!" Joyce shouted to Lan over the din of the crowd. The patrons had come to see the latest local band, Forethought. By local band standards they were pretty good, with a sound somewhere between early punk and late grunge. Lan was actually enjoying their set while adroitly pouring one drink after another. She and Ross were working tonight and they moved in fluid synchronicity as drinks were called out to them from every direction.
"Here ya go, Joyce!" Called Lan as she set the drinks and bill near her tray so she could arrange them. As Lan went to turn around, a handsome dark haired man caught her wrist. She focused on him as she discreetly removed her wrist from his grip. "What can I get for you?" She asked, turning on an automatic smile.
"You are incredible, you move so fast!" He gushed, evidently slightly inebriated and completely enamored. She forced herself not to roll her eyes. It was moments like this she wished she'd suggested Chris and Bart opened a men's gay bar. Unfortunately, they just weren't in the right area, let alone city, for one.
Lan was the bar manager of In the Drink, one of the popular bars near the recently revamped downtown area. The bar had changed hands and names a few times over the years, but had finally found its niche as a casual place to have some drinks and hear the latest local bands. Locals as well as the rare visitor would come in and hang out, either crowd feeling just as welcomed as the other.
She'd begun working there as a barback when it was a trendy, businessman-type bar and had been asked to stay on as it changed owners and subsequently clientele. Each time it was bought, it seemed she, along with Joyce, came with the property. She didn't mind it at all. It afforded her the opportunity to move up to where she was today.
Eventually, Chris and Bart, a middle-aged gay couple from the Bay Area, bought the bar. By that time, she had become a bartender. The couple quickly realized she was smart, thought quickly on her feet, and had a diplomatic style any politician would be envious of. Alcohol induced impatience and bravado can make for some pretty entertaining stories once the bar closes, but those situations tended to be a pain in the ass with a bar full of patrons. Lan seemed to be able to talk anyone down off that ledge of drunken stupidity.
So when Chris and Bart began planning the changes they'd make to the bar, they asked for Lan's input. Her ideas pretty much resulted in what the bar is today and also in her becoming manager. That was close to two years ago and she hadn't given any thoughts to moving on. The couple had also been able to purchase an art gallery, their true passion, and run it themselves, pretty much leaving the bar in the capable hands of Lan.
"Thanks." She said, trying to act flattered that the man had noticed. "What can I get for you?" She asked again as she began filling the next order shouted to her by Joyce.
"What do you recommend?" He asked with rapt curiosity.
For you to order and leave me alone so I can fill these orders
, she thought. "I myself like a nice ale. We have a good one on tap." She said instead as she leaned into the bar to make way for Marty the bar back who was bringing back clean glasses. Lan's eyes darted from the customer's to around the bar, hearing another waitress's order.
"Ale it is." He beamed. "By the way, my name is Peter. Friends call me Pete." He added.
"Comin' up, Pete." She smiled and winked and moved on, glad to be out of earshot. It went against everything a bartender was to not at least be a little flirtatious. It kept the customers buying drinks.
It didn't hurt that people found Lan easy on the eyes as well. Her lithe, muscular build and friendly open face made flirting a little less of a challenge for her, which was good because she was sure she'd be quite terrible at it if she had to mean it.
Chris was always teasing her about her flirting prowess, or lack of it. She usually came back with some comment about leaving them wanting more, which always brought an incredulous laugh from the older man. They all knew it was a necessary evil in this line of work, and that is exactly how Lan viewed it.
At the end of the busy night, Lan was engaged in the automatic task of wiping down tables when she heard the heavy footsteps of Bart, Chris' partner coming down from the upstairs apartment. He was the taller and gruffer of the two, with thick black hair and beard. His deep-set dark eyes held a constant intensity that always held a person's attention. "Why are you cleaning up?" He asked as he made his way to the back of the bar, looking for something.
"Marty was dead on his feet. I don't think he was feeling well either, so I sent him home." She said, looking up to see what he was rummaging around for. He popped his head up from beneath the bar, a question forming on his lips. She smiled, pointing to the locked cabinet. He smiled and took out his keys. She knew he was looking for the good brandy. He and Chris usually had a glass when one or the other was too wired to sleep.
He produced two shot glasses and poured an equal amount into each. She shook her head with a small smile at his choice in glassware.
"I tell you, Lan, it is unnatural that you are a teetotaler, being a bartender and all." He laughed good-naturedly as he approached her.
"Yeah, just don't let that out to the customers. Tonight I recommended the ale, by the way." She smiled, thinking about the young man who had shyly asked for her number at the end of the night. She gave her standard reply, 'If only I didn't have a boyfriend?' but she never finished the sentence, just gave a chagrined smile, which left the asker to ponder what she just might do if she didn't have that boyfriend.
It would have been a mystery to Lan too. Including the part about having a boyfriend. Being more focused on surviving than dating during her teen years, she'd missed out on that rite of passage. When she began working in the bar, the kind of men that asked her out didn't interest her enough to even consider accepting. So, I can't miss what I don't know
, she'd told herself more than once.
"Well, teetotaler or not, you are one hell of a bartender, not to mention manager." He said sincerely.
"Thank you." She said simply around a small smile.
"You bet. Now, go home. It's past 3 a.m. Chris and I will finish cleaning tomorrow." He said around a small smile.
"All right. Night, Boss." She said as she took the rag and tossed it into one of the bar sinks.
Upon nearing her home, she felt a knot form in her stomach. She didn't have to ponder the source very long as she saw the beat up silver Cadillac Seville in the driveway next to hers.
"That asshole had better not be here." Lan mumbled, already knowing he was. As she pulled into her side of the driveway, she could already hear the sounds of shouting and dishes crashing against the walls. "Why can't they give it a fucking rest!" She shouted angrily at her steering wheel. She would get no sleep tonight.
If this had been the second or even the tenth time she'd witnessed her neighbors going at it like a bad Cops episode, she might have been shocked or scared. Not anymore.
It was three in the morning and she just wanted to go into her house, crawl in bed and go to sleep. She pondered the idea of actually calling the cops, but knew they'd take their sweet time in showing up, if at all. They had been here many times before, sometimes even hauling in the mother too and calling CPS to pick up their two kids.
It really disturbed Lan that these two people fought like this in front of their children, but she was loathed to step in. She'd tried the first time she heard them fighting and learned real quick that you don't get in the middle of two tweaked out spouses who seemed hell-bent on trying to kill each other. She just called the police instead.
When they'd moved in about a year ago, Lan figured them for a nice young family trying to make ends meet. Perhaps they really did start out that way, but about two months into it, Lan began hearing them fight.
In reality, she did miss most of the fighting as they usually took to each other at night, when Lan was at work. It was only occasionally that their fighting would spill into the wee hours of the morning and certainly by mid-morning they would both crash, sleeping away the end of their highs, Lan supposed.
On occasion, the two kids would seek refuge at Lan's. They were sweet but timid kids. Katy, the girl, was the oldest at 13. She looked out for her brother, John who was nine. Lan would get a knock on her door, and without a word she'd just let them in and usually fix them something to eat.
When they'd first shown up on her doorstep, she was surprised and didn't quite know what to do or say. After a few silent moments Katy asked if they could just come in and pet her dogs for a little bit. Without a word, she'd let them in and they'd stayed for about an hour, playing with the dogs, laughing and smiling with each other at the dogs' antics. She sat and watched them, noticing how the two siblings created their own little world, paying little attention to her. After a while, the kids would seem just as normal as any others. No visible effects of the fight. But she knew better. Kids can recover from a lot, but not without scars.
She often wondered why CPS continued to place these kids back into the home, but realized they might not be any better off in a place where they might be separated.
At least they had somewhere safe to go. After about half a dozen visits, she had told Katy where the hidden key was to her door and instructed her to use it if they ever needed to anytime she wasn't home. Lan didn't elaborate more than that, and Katy didn't ask. She just nodded slowly and offered an earnest and humble 'thank you.'
That was about four months ago, and from what Lan could tell, the kids had yet to use it. But things had actually been a little better recently. The father, or whatever he was, Chuck, had seemingly moved out about a month ago. For whatever reason, he was back tonight.
Lan got out of her car slowly, trying to peer into the upstairs room to see if she could see the kids' bedroom light on. She couldn't, so she surmised they were asleep in their beds. Who am I kidding? Who could sleep through this noise?
Another loud crack came from the house, startling Lan and driving her eyes to look into the downstairs room where the parents were. Then she heard the sound of flesh striking flesh and then a muffled grunt. Her eyes widened as the wife stumbled out of the house holding her head. Her hand came away with blood and she swooned. "Katy, John!" She screamed in fear as she stumbled down the stairs of the front porch.
Hearing the kids' names prompted Lan to act. Heart pounding mercilessly in her throat, Lan made her way from her open car door, quickening her pace towards her neighbors' front yard. As Lan began moving toward the woman, she saw a tremendous amount of blood on the side of her face. Lan fumbled in her jacket pocket for her phone and dialed 911, asking for the police as well as an ambulance.
After what seemed like a lifetime of screaming, pleading and attempted calm questioning and negotiations, Chuck was cuffed and in a squad car and Tina, the wife, was sitting in an ambulance. Apparently, he'd violated a restraining order his wife had gotten against him. Lan overheard the paramedic say the wife needed to come to the hospital overnight for observation.
Jesus, how can two people who were supposed to love each other do this to one another? And in front of their kids?
Lan was all to familiar with this scenario, though, and it made her sick. She had been standing around with one of the officers, telling them what she'd seen and heard. She ran her hand over her tired eyes, rubbing them to keep them from closing involuntarily. The adrenaline of the situation had run off and she was completely exhausted. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the two kids talking with the other officer. Both had blankets wrapped around them, their expressions a mixture of sleepy numbness and muted fear.
"Where will the children go?" Lan suddenly asked. The officer looked over at his partner.
"Well, we'll put a call into CPS?"
"Can I take them?" Lan heard herself say abruptly, cutting off the officer.
"You a relative too?" He asked as he looked down at his notes, confused.
"No? but when their parents fight, they come over. They like to play with my dogs." She finished awkwardly. She gathered her wits about her. Suddenly, nothing was more important to her than making sure these kids didn't have to spend the night with strangers. "Look, its?" she glanced at her watch, "3:30 in the morning. They know me. You can have someone come for them later, after they've had some sleep. Please."
The officer looked at Lan pointedly, obviously trying to decide what to do. He motioned for his partner to come over and they met halfway between Lan and the kids. She took this opportunity to walk over to them. She looked sympathetically at them both, ruffling John's already sleep tousled hair. They gave her weary smiles. She couldn't think of anything to say that might make them feel better and didn't want to get their hopes up if they couldn't stay with her, so she just stood by them, watching the officers talking. The children's eyes tracked one of the officers as they went and spoke to their mother. After a few seconds, she nodded at what the officer had asked her.
Finally, the one who had been talking with the kids came over and asked if they would like to stay with Lan until their mom is released from the hospital, most likely later that day. They both nodded enthusiastically, each looking at Lan with relieved smiles.
"All right." The officer said around a faint smile. "I'll just need to get your phone number Ms. Murphy. Mrs. Williams said to say thank you for taking her kids in."
Katy spoke up meekly. "Is..is my mom going to be okay? She was just trying to tell him to leave. He wouldn't." she finished, clearly upset at what she'd witnessed.
The officer briefly looked over at the ambulance doors that were being closed by the paramedics. "She'll be fine, kiddo. They just need to make sure her head is okay and that will take a few hours." He said gently.
Satisfied with his answer, the kids looked expectantly at Lan. She held out her hand to shake with the officer and thanked him. He nodded and made his way back to the squad car with his partner. Left alone, the three of them watched silently as both the squad car and ambulance pulled away.
The commotion of the last hour finally gave way to stillness, leaving both Lan and the kids listless and exhausted. Lan looked at the kids, letting the situation finally sink in. She had just taken full responsibility for these kids, if only for a few hours.
"You want to get anything from your house?" Lan asked lightly. They both shook their heads vehemently. Understandable
, thought Lan. "Okay then. Let's go get you settled." She smiled as she put a hand on each of their shoulders, guiding them gently to her side of the duplex.
When they entered the house, the two little mutts, Bait and Hook, took to welcoming the children with excited barks and furiously wagging tails. Lan finally calmed the dogs so they could all enter the house.
"Well, the guest room has a double bed. You guys mind sharing it?" They both shrugged nonchalantly.
"We share a room anyway." Katy commented as she bent to pet the dogs.
"Oh, okay. Bathroom's? well you know where it is. Can I get you guys anything?" Both shook their head no, but Katy's eyes lingered on Lan's. Lan could tell she had something to say. Lan stood patiently until Katy spoke.
"That man, Chuck, he is not our dad." She said with calm intensity. Lan was surprised by that fact but worked not to show it. She'd just assumed he was. It was obviously important to Katy that Lan knew the truth so Lan just nodded solemnly. They shared a look of quiet understanding. "Thanks, Lan?for letting us stay here." Katy said finally in a quiet earnestness that broke Lan's heart a little.
"You bet." She said, barely above a whisper.
Lan retired to her room, absently snapping her fingers as that was the signal for her dogs to follow her to bed. She closed the door quietly after them and sat down on her bed. She'd really surprised herself by asking to take the children. She barely knew them really. More surprising was their mother allowed it. She'd guessed she was a better option than Child Protective Services at least.
Lan couldn't remember the last time she'd actually had any guests stay over at her home. She'd really only visited with the children for short instances and they'd never gotten beyond what Lan would consider polite small talk for kids. They'd always stayed on safe topics like Lan's dogs or school.
Not once had Lan ever asked about how they were coping with what went on at home. Neither child had ever brought it up either. Lan felt a bit guilty about that and vowed to approach the subject with them. She was no stranger to what these kids were experiencing and could perhaps be of some help to them.
Being a light sleeper, the slam of the car door jolted Lan out of bed. She looked at the clock next to her bed. 12:13 p.m
. She peered out of the window, crinkling the aluminum blinds. I guess they released her already,
She watched Tina, the kids' mom, lean through the taxi driver's door and give him his fare. She stood several moments after he pulled from the curb, looking utterly lost. She felt sorry for the woman for a moment and then thought about what she'd allowed her children, the ones sleeping in the next room, to witness for years.
Lan knew she shouldn't judge others. She'd never been in a position like that, at least not as an adult. She'd had experience with similar situations though. Perhaps it was why she felt so strongly about Katy and John and wanted to protect them however she could.
Thinking over last night, she felt she could do some good here. She knew she couldn't make any decisions for these kids, but she'd offer what help she could to them.
Yawning mutely, she began putting on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She'd go next door and offer to keep the kids until she had to go to work at 6 p.m. that night. She was sure the woman wasn't feeling all that great and maybe wanted some time to sort stuff out. As Lan stepped up to the porch identical to hers, she realized she'd never spoken to the woman more than a 'hello' the two years she'd lived here. She steeled her nerves and took a deep breath before knocking quietly on the door.
After about 30 seconds, she heard footsteps and then the click of the lock. A badly bruised face peered back at her, a bandage covering the woman's temple and part of her forehead. "I was just coming up to get the kids?" The woman stuttered out. "I hope they weren't any trouble." She finished awkwardly.
"None at all. Listen, they are still sound asleep and I don't have to go to work until tonight. If you'd like, I could keep them for a bit. You could get some rest?or something." Lan finished a little more nervous sounding than she'd liked.
The woman appeared to be thinking it over as Lan stood looking peripherally at the small front yard. "I guess. If they are still sleeping. They didn't get much last night?" She let the phrase hang, ashamed. Her eyes quickly met Lan's. "I wanted to thank you. I couldn't bare them going into the children's facility again." She looked as if she was going to say more, but just sighed deeply and trained her eyes on the ground.
"No problem?Tina." Lan said. Using the woman's first name felt a little strange on her tongue. The woman must have had the same sentiment too as her eyes abruptly caught Lan's for a second before quickly focusing on the ground again.
Lan stepped off the porch, saying she'd have the kids back soon. Tina nodded, gave a small smile and closed the door slowly.
"Ugh?" Lan groaned as she heard the doorbell ring. "It's 10 a.m!" She growled, not caring that that was a perfectly acceptable time to visit in the normal world. But, Lan didn't really exist in the normal world too often. At work by 6 p.m., usually home in bed by 4 a.m. She saw little of the world or people with her work schedule. No, her life existed between the bar, the occasional errand and her dogs, who were now barking excitedly. She rolled out of bed with a small smile realizing who was most likely at her door. She had seen them only a few times in the two weeks that followed the incident that sent their father to jail and mother to the hospital.
"Hey, you guys!" Lan greeted the brother and sister with sincere joy. Upon opening the door, she heard them talking about something animatedly. She held the door open so they could cross into the living room.
"Hi, Lan." John said quietly, furtively. He has such a sweet little smile
, thought Lan.
She smiled down at him. "How are you?"
"I'm okay?I'm good." He replied shyly. He shuffled his feet as he looked down at the dogs.
"Ask her!" Katy whispered loudly, nudging her brother. Lan just watched the two, a smile on her face still.
"Um, we wanted to know if you'd like to come over for an early dinner?you know before you go to work." He said in a rush. He finished looking up at Lan with large brown, hopeful eyes. How could Lan resist?
"Sure. What time would you like me over?" She asked as she motioned for them to sit down, which they did side by side.
"Around four?" Probed Katy.
"Sure. I'll be over there. Can I bring anything?" She asked.
"No. My mom wanted to thank you for taking us that night. She just wants you to bring yourself." Katy smiled as Bait took that moment to jump into her lap.
"Okay. Thanks for the invite." Lan said as she stood to offer them something to drink. They abruptly stood and began making their way to the door.
"Well, we better get going. We need to finish our chores." Katy explained. They knelt to give the dogs a final pet.
"Oh. Okay. I'll see you in a few hours then." Lan said as she walked them to the door. They waved goodbye, leaving a slightly puzzled Lan at her own door. The invite was certainly a surprise. Obviously the step-dad was still locked up. She couldn't imagine being asked over if he was around. Nor could she imagine the kids looking as happy and at ease as she'd ever seen them.
Lan stepped back as the screen door swung open. It was John greeting her with a huge yet shy smile. She ruffled his hair as she walked through the door. She handed him the bag with the carton of ice cream. She couldn't show up empty-handed even though she was told not to bring anything.
Looking wide eyed at the bag in his hands and warring between being polite and curious, Lan put an end to the boy's struggle. "It's ice cream." She whispered conspiratorially. His face beamed as he streaked into the kitchen, announcing what she'd brought. That brought a chuckle out of her.
Not knowing exactly what to do, Lan stood in the living room. She took a quick look around. She knew the floor plan, as it was the mirror image of her own. The furnishings were comfortable, done in a tasteful country decoration. There was a conspicuous absence of framed pictures, she noticed.
"Thanks for coming over." Called Tina as she poked her head out of the kitchen. Gone was the bandage. Only a garish, colorful bruise and healing scar remained. The woman smiled as she waved Lan into the kitchen. "Join us, we're about ready to sit down."
"Okay." Lan responded as she walked into the kitchen. They had roughly the same arrangement in their dining room as Lan did with the kitchen table in the center of the dining room with a small hutch in the corner. This room too was done up in a country motif with pastel checked table cloth on top of a butcher block table with white legs and chairs. The kids framed the table, each pointing to the far head of the four-person table. Lan took her cue and sat down.
"You want any help with anything?" Lan asked as she settled herself. She felt like she was being wait on and it made her feel a little uneasy.
"No, we got it." Called Tina over her shoulder as she brought over a casserole dish that smelled heavenly. Lan rarely cooked much for herself, other than the usual heat and eat meal. She smiled as the kids hustled around getting drinks and side dishes from the kitchen.
Finally, all were sitting down. A few seconds of awkward silence settled on the foursome until John informed them all that they should all save room for the ice cream Lan brought. They all laughed at the boy's unexpected announcement, and the awkwardness of the evening faded away along with the early evening sun.
As Tina and Lan sat out on the back porch eating their ice cream they watched the kids play with Lan's two dogs they'd insisted she bring over after dinner. The two women hadn't really spoken much during dinner aside from small talk between the two kids' animated tales of school happenings. Lan marveled at the change in John since that night they stayed with Lan. He was like a different boy, filled with mirth and mischief, just like a boy his age should be. Even Katy seemed less serious.
"Katy told me you leave a key for them." Tina said pointedly. It caught Lan off-guard as she hadn't thought about how that would look to the kids' mother. She also didn't want to break the pleasant mood by bringing up the woman's estranged husband.
"Yeah, well, they like to see the dogs and I work a lot?" Lan trailed off awkwardly. She didn't want to say it was to get away from their parents, even though it was probably obvious to Tina. She spared Lan from any further explanation by resting a hand on Lan's forearm.
"Again thank you. You seem to think more about my kids' well-being than I do." She said with a grim, sad smile. Lan made a face as if to contradict what was just put out there, but Tina just shook her head.
"Don't say you disagree. We know you'd be saying it just to be polite." The woman held Lan's eyes in a benign challenge. When Lan's eyes signaled acquiescence, Tina continued, eyes unfocused and recalling the past.
"When we began seeing each other, he was so sweet. He treated Katy and John like his own. Then about 3 years ago he began to come home at all hours, drunk or high. I used to go toe to toe with him. We'd get in hellacious fights. He'd always ask forgiveness, I forgave. I don't know what I was thinking." She shook her head, disgusted at herself. "Then he began to get violent with me. I knew my kids would be next. So I tried to kick him out. You saw how that went." She said, her laughed tainted with bitterness.
Tina took a deep breath and then sighed, ready move to the present. "These last few days have opened my eyes to so much." Now, her smile was open and genuine and directed towards her kids. "I have a lot of work to do, but I swear, I will make it up to those two. They will never have to live scared again."
Both women sat back in their chairs in silence as they watched the children play.
While at work that night, Lan found herself thinking about the family that lived next door. She would smile unconsciously, picturing the kids playing with the dogs in their backyard. She really hoped that things would begin to look up for them. It had seemed they were starting to already. She admired Tina's strength in realizing what she had to do, even if it came later than she'd wanted. At least she's realizing it before its too late,
Lan sat quietly at her small kitchen table reading the paper and drinking her requisite one cup of coffee. A green-gold maple leaf fluttering to earth caught her attention, fall is just around the corner? where did summer go?
She liked the warm weather immensely but found herself not really enjoying it like she had in previous years. Perhaps it was age, she'd thought. She chuckled to herself, when had 32 become old?
Sometimes though, at the end of a double shift at the bar, she felt twice her age. With little else to occupy her time except her dogs really, Lan usually worked at the bar beyond what was required of her. Man, I need a hobby or I need to take a class,
she'd told herself. Perhaps a painting or photography class
. She enjoyed both and figured she'd have fun doing either.
She decided she'd see if the local community college offered any afternoon classes in either subject. She breathed in the cool morning air, idly circling the rim of her cup with her index finger. Yeah, I need something fun.
Motivated by her decision, she gathered up her paper and coffee cup, put them in their respective places and tugged on her shoes, grabbed her keys and bid her dogs goodbye with a treat for each. Within the hour, she was signed up for the early afternoon fall session of Introduction to Photography.
She decided to have a walk around campus, enjoying the atmosphere. There were plenty of students about, bustling to and fro, getting everything taken care for the fall session.
Lan hadn't made it to college and that fact had saddened her somewhat. She had been a good student, but any college ambitions were eclipsed when her mother began dating Stan when Lan was 13.
The story of her home life after Stan became her step-father was as predictable as a bad television movie. He was a lowlife, a marginally employed, abusive bastard. She spent two years witnessing her mother being beaten and then making excuses for him. He had been verbally abusive to Lan for those first two years, but Lan had packed her bags the night he had finally turned his fists on her. She remembered hesitating at the front door as her mother pleaded for her to stay. The next words her mother uttered however would not only send Lan out of the house that night, but out of her life for good. "He didn't mean it, Lan..."
With no money and nowhere to go, Lan had wandered through her mother's side of the family, sensing full well she was a burden, no matter if she took on a job to help cover her own expenses while finishing out the last two years of high school. She cursed her biological father for never caring enough to want to know her. He was dead or in prison for all she knew. Her mother never talked about him. All she knew was that they'd been together a few short years and then he was gone.
She'd hoped to get some sort of scholarship, but realized her grades would never hold up. They'd steadily dropped off in concert with her unstable family life and hours spent on part-time jobs. Two weeks after she'd graduated, her mother's sister, whom she'd been living with, had explained that Lan was an adult now and should be out living on her own and that is exactly where she found herself shortly before her eighteenth birthday.
So, she spent her years out of high school working and scraping by, harboring a sharp, all-encompassing bitterness that choked the life out of any future she'd previously envisioned for herself. Anger and resentment were always there, surfacing constantly to cause her to lose job after job while still fueling her need to survive.
But with no dreams or hopes for a real future, that anger eventually gave out and like a badly bruised, fatigue-weary prize-fighter, she slowly let her gloves drop, expecting and accepting every punch that landed thereafter.
It was on a cold, wet night with barely any money and no place to live that Lan walked into a little bar to get out of the weather. She tried to make herself inconspicuous, but being a pretty, albeit homeless girl, she was eventually hit on by one of the drunken regulars.
A small, wiry waitress had quickly read the scene and walked over to the young woman, expertly guiding the drunk back to his well-worn stool at the bar. She spared a glance back at the woman to tell her she'd be back to take her order, but seeing the shape she wondered if the young girl was alright.
"Hey Honey, you okay?" The tiny waitress asked through sharp snaps of her half piece of Dentyne. Her eyebrows were knit in a keen scowl of concern as her jaw worked rapidly.
Lan looked up slowly, expecting to be asked to leave in the waitress' next words. She just wanted to sit in a warm, dry place and try to remember what it was like to have a bit of dignity.
"I'm fine, I was just leaving." Lan hurried her words as her embarrassment grew. She had nothing to her name and didn't belong here with the paying customers who just stopped in on their way to their homes and families.
The waitress put a gentle hand on her shoulder as her eyes softened and her jaw slowed. The older woman had been around enough to know when someone was near the end of their rope. Without lifting her hand from Lan's shoulder, Joyce slid into the seat adjacent her.
"You don't look fine, Honey?"
The simple statement started Lan on a new path that night. With some mighty sweet talking by Joyce to the bar owners, she managed to get Lan a job as a bar back, washing glasses and restocking liquor Thursday through Sunday and the occasional Tuesday during Dollar Shot Night.
It wasn't a lot but it turned into a steady job and eventually paved the way to a manager's job, allowing her to make enough money to actually find some stability in her life. She hadn't had it since she was about 13.
Shaking her head of old memories, Lan came back to the present. She knew that most of the young people she'd watched walking around this college campus today would eventually receive more education than she did and better paying jobs too. A pang of jealousy surfaced followed by a bit of sorrow that she'd never be that age again with her whole future in front of her.
But I sure could be doing a lot worse.
Lan mused. All self-pity bled away as she watched an older woman sifting through a trash can, slouched with what Lan figured was as much hard living and hard luck as age. She was wearing an outdated burgundy terrycloth jumpsuit and lime green sneakers, worn to the point of being almost useless. She was pushing a shopping cart chock full of cardboard, newspapers and aluminum cans. Lan continued to watch her as she speared can after can with a sharp stick. She'd knock it against the cart until her quarry fell into it with a hollow clink.
Lan shuddered at the thought of what could have been if she hadn't wandered into that bar that night and met Joyce.
Lan flipped up her eye-patch to pour the shots of tequila into the large blender. "You look mighty un-piraty!" Bellowed Ross as he leaned in from behind her getting his blond wig dangerously close to the blender opening.
"It's either lift the patch or make a mess!" She shouted as she quickly popped the lid on the blender and flipped her eye-patch down. It was Halloween night and the place was absolutely packed. Both of them had been a torrent of motion since the bar opened four hours ago. Pouring drinks, flirting, putting on a show for the patrons. The more fun the two had, the more drinks seem to sell, so they worked the crowd expertly, breaking into lip-synching performances of Halloween favorites like Monster Mash and the Flying Purple People Eater song. They tossed and poured drinks with a flourish, telling silly stories and winking at patrons as if they were in on some clever inside jokes.
Joyce, dressed in a lime green velour bathrobe and mismatched stockings shuffled up in neon orange slippers. Her hair was in rollers and she had on the most ugly shade of blue eye shadow that still existed. Not to mention her lips that were haphazardly painted with what Ross described as streetwalker-meets-Valentine's-gift-gone-wrong red.
"What are you supposed to be again?" Asked Lan as she looked over the orders Joyce gave her. It was way too busy for Joyce to memorize orders tonight.
"I'm a trailer park managin' mama." She said around an unlit cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth. Lan howled with laughter, the same reaction she had the first two times Joyce told her. She just loved watching the diminutive waitress deadpan her answer around that cigarette. It was too much.
While Joyce was waiting for the drinks, she would play with the patrons at the bar, yelling at them for being late on their rent checks. Some, who knew what Joyce was supposed to be, laughed while a couple others just looked at Joyce like she might have imbibed a bit on her way to and from the tables.
"Ahoy, Matey!" Lan heard a man call from the bar as she put the first set of drinks on Joyce's tray. She turned her head to give an automatic grin to the patron and tell them she'd be right with them when she recognized the handsome man from a few weeks ago. He must have just gotten there as this was the first she'd seen him tonight.
She quickly finished up Joyce's orders and came back to the man. "What will it be tonight?" She asked as she took a moment to wipe down a section of the bar and clear a couple of glasses.
He grinned widely and leaned over the bar to be heard. "Two Jack and Cokes please."
"No ale tonight, Pete?" She quipped as she absently filled two glasses with ice and started pouring. He must have a date tonight
, she mused.
He jerked his head back slightly, surprised she remembered him let alone what he ordered those weeks ago. "Nope, not tonight." He said as he fished into his wallet to pay for the drinks. He slid a twenty towards her as she set the drinks down. She snatched it up quickly to give him his change, but he gently grasped her wrist and mouthed, "Keep it."
"Thanks." She said with a sincere smile. Their eyes held a little longer than what would be considered prudent. He nodded almost imperceptibly and turned away from the bar with the two drinks. That was interesting,
she thought as she again got swept away into the busy night.
She made the automatic turn onto her street, shaking her head in disgust at the pieces of pumpkin strewn into the street. Punks out smashing little kid's jack-o-lanterns, no doubt.
She pulled into her driveway, cutting the lights like always before making the swing into it and shut off the engine. She pushed the Land Cruiser door open with some effort, wincing at the load groan it made. Slipping out of the seat she made her way to her front door. Her brows drew up in curiosity as she saw a little orange bag on her doorstep. She warily approached it, not having any idea if it was a trick or a treat. She smiled as she saw a little card with her name written on it carefully propped up against the bag. She recognized John's writing. It read:
Here is some candy we saved for you. Mom says we couldn't eat it all anyway. We hope you had a good Halloween at your work and no body got too drunk or got in a fight.
John and Katy
Lan laughed at the last sentence. But then it instantly made her sad. The young boy knew what a bar was and what went on in there because he witnessed his stepfather come home drunk many times from a bar. Well, not anymore,
Lan thought with relief. Their stepfather would be in jail for a while for what he did to Tina.
Shrugging off the unpleasant thoughts, Lan bent to pick up the bag of candy. The simple gesture by the kids warmed her heart more than she cared to admit.
As Lan got Bait and Hook ready for their walk the next morning, the doorbell rang. She yelled at the kids to come in. The dogs went wild at the unexpected company and Lan wordlessly handed over the leashes to the grinning siblings. The three of them stumbled out of the front door careful to avoid stepping on one of the jumping dogs.
"Thanks for the candy, guys." Lan said as they finally cleared the front steps. She affectionately ruffled John's hair and winked at Katy who smiled shyly in return.
"Hey Lan. Katy's got a boyfriend." John suddenly announced as they made their way down the tree-lined sidewalk.
"I do not!" Protested Katy as she speared her brother with an adolescent death glare. "He is just a good friend. He needed help in English?" She stated defensively, chin comically jutting out. Lan couldn't help but smile.
John opened his mouth to add something, but Lan caught his eye and gave a slight shake of her head. Her face split into another large grin when he mouthed the words, "Well, she does."
Lan decided to change the subject. "How is your mom doing?" she asked.
"Good." They both answered in unison. Katy picked up the subject gladly. "She got a promotion at her job. She said soon we'll be able to move to a bigger place."
"Maybe even a house!" John exclaimed. He looked up at Lan with a huge smile. As soon as it appeared it faded. "We won't live next to you anymore though?" He said, realization hitting him.
Katy looked at her brother with a sad, sympathetic smile. "Hey, we won't be moving for a while yet. Maybe we'll find a place close by anyway." She reasoned.
He looked skeptically at her. "You think we could?"
"I don't see why not." Katy said, looking up at Lan to confirm or at least help ease her brother's mind.
"Sure. It takes a while to buy a house. And there are a plenty around here." She said casually. The thought of them moving did grip at Lan's heart a bit unexpectedly. But she did hope what Tina had told them was true. These kids deserved a new beginning.
The rest of the walk was filled with chatter about school and friends and what they were looking forward to doing during the quickly approaching Thanksgiving break.
Back on their street, Lan walked the kids up to their door intending on saying a quick hello to Tina. To Lan's surprised she was asked to stop by for Thanksgiving Dinner and even more to her surprise, she accepted.
Lan generally kept to herself on holidays as they held no special meaning for her and she often felt like an intruder when invited over by friends to celebrate with their families. But today, in the crisp air of a November midmorning, she felt that there was no place else she'd rather be on Thanksgiving.
"So, you think that good for nothing husband is gone for good?" Asked Joyce as she settled one butt cheek on a barstool. She kept her attention out towards the tables, but it was a slow night so she could afford to sit and chat with Lan every few minutes as was the custom when their were only a few of the locals at the bar during the early evening.
The women would go do what they needed to do and then join back up, picking up the conversation wherever it was left off. Presently, they were talking about Lan's neighbors.
"God, I hope so, Joyce. He's been gone nearly 3 months and Tina is really getting her shit together; the kids don't look like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders anymore too?" Lan stopped mid-sentence when she caught Joyce's coy smile. "What?" She asked in mild annoyance.
"You. You really like them don't you?" Joyce said around a knowing grin.
Lan looked at her friend, a little puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Lan in the years I've known you, you've never talked about another living soul except in passing or to make an observation. You've never mentioned family or friends outside of the bar?" Joyce trailed off, figuring that explained what was so significant about this current conversation.
Lan still failed to make the connection. Then she thought about it. Joyce was right. Those two kids and their mother were beginning, no had become very important to her. She hadn't realized it until just this moment. It had been such long time since she'd felt even remotely close to anyone.
So gradual were the feelings, she'd failed to see them for what they were. She loved those kids. She cared deeply for their mother too, who'd shown the type of courage her mother never did.
Joyce continued to watch Lan but said nothing else. Not wanting to discuss her newfound connection with her neighbors right now, Lan pulled away. Joyce read the look in her face for what it was as she'd seen it before in the young woman. She decided to change the subject.
"How is your photography class going?" She asked instead.
Lan smiled in unconscious gratitude. "Great. I'm learning about composition right now. It is quite fascinating. The teacher is great too. She's brought in quite a few of her photos and soon we will be learning how to develop our own pictures."
Lan had even bought a used Nikon and had been playing around, taking pictures of the kids and dogs. John, who was usually so quite and reserved, turned into the biggest ham when Lan began photographing them. It was great fun and she couldn't wait to develop them and see how they turned out.
Joyce just nodded, a large smile on her face. In the few years she'd known Lan, she'd never seen her quite so animated or talkative. She was glad for her though and said as much before slipping off of her stool to help some patrons that had just walked in.
Lan watched her friend for a few seconds before hearing the deep booming voice of Chris, the co-owner of the bar. She returned his greeting and smiled when she saw him dressed in his overlarge coveralls and paint stained t-shirt.
"How's the piece going?" Asked Lan.
"Aw, it is coming along. Acrylics are so different from oils, you know?"
Lan nodded absently, having no idea how different acrylics were from oils. He seemed to read her thoughts and laughed heartily.
"You should come up to the loft and I'll give you a lesson," he said as he made his way behind the bar. "I heard you were enjoying your photography class." He stated as he bent down, looking for something just under the counter.
"Oh, yes, it is a lot of fun. It's good to have a hobby besides playing with my mutts. Not that that isn't fulfilling, mind you?" She trailed off as her focus shifted to what he was doing.
He seemed not to notice that she was watching him with interest as he straightened and began looking on the shelf above the cash register, eyes squinted. He replied somewhat distractedly, "Yeah, hobbies are great. Keeps the mind sharp and the soul satisfied?"
"I don't know about the mind sharp part?" Bart announced as he slipped in behind Chris at the register and plucked the bifocal glasses off the top of his partner's head.
"Oh, hell?" Chris bellowed as he snatched the glasses out of Bart's hand, slapped them on his face and started back up the stairs.
Lan and Bart burst into laughter causing the retreating man to launch his middle finger skyward.
"You can just forget painting lessons, Lan!" Chris threw over his shoulder.
"He's such a baby." Bart said as he wiped his moist eyes. Lan just smiled.
Lan was really looking forward to her photography class. It was their last class meeting for a week because of Thanksgiving Break and the instructor had promised to introduce the process of developing one's own photographs.
As Lan had hoped, the instructor had time to talk about creating a dark room and developing one's own film. She now had the information on how to set up her own dark room and had begun gaining a working knowledge of how to develop her own pictures. On the way home her mind began to fill with places she'd visited throughout the city over the years and how she'd like to shoot them some day.
Maybe she'd even begin traveling. She could only remember leaving Fresno once or twice to visit her mother's distant relatives in a neighboring city when she was young. After leaving home, traveling beyond what she knew was daunting and scary. It also took money, which was something she didn't have.
Now that she was doing okay for herself, she could afford to take some time, take a vacation. Perhaps she'd look at taking a few days off and heading east across the mountains to Nevada or Arizona. She'd always had a desire to visit the desert. From pictures she marveled at the way the sand, sky, rocks and sun obliged each other to create unparalleled beauty. She wondered if the colors were that rich, vibrant and warm in real life.
That night at work passed by pretty uneventfully. She fell in and out of easy banter with the regulars as they came and went during the evening. She let the automatic tasks of the job carry her through her shift and soon she found herself locking up and heading to her car.
About halfway home she realized she had no milk for her morning cereal and was running pretty low on dog food. She decided to pull into the all night grocery store despite the late hour. The store appeared empty and she could hear the persistent buzz of the overhead lights and the low hum of the freezers. She only saw one other person in the store and from the looks of the cart; it had been a long time since the person shopped. She unconsciously hurried her steps trying to get the rest of what she needed and get to the lone checker before the basket-full did.
Halfway through the pet food aisle, she heard the echo of a badly balanced shopping cart near the front of the store. Already heading for checkout
. Running would look really stupid, so Lan gave into fate and sauntered slowly to check out. She picked up a few more incidentals, realizing she'd have a few minutes.
Finally, she made her way over with her little hand held basket, setting it on the floor as she flipped through a few of the tabloid magazines. People's obsession with the rich and famous was lost on Lan. She put the last magazine down after a cursory flip through and turned her attention to the grocery clerk.
She watched her impassive, pockmarked, sun-leathered face as she scanned item after item. When an item wouldn't scan properly was the only time her face came out of its emotionless mask. Her brow knitted and her mouth tensed as she keyed in the number of the uncooperative item. Lan had the absurd vision of this woman as a young girl, same expression on her face, scanning make-believe groceries. She idly wondered what this woman's dreams were or once were. Had life taken her completely off her desired course, despite her best efforts? Or had the woman just complacently fallen into her circumstances that led her to a job scanning groceries at 2:30 a.m.?
Lan realized she was judging this woman who she knew nothing about. She felt a bit ashamed and wondered if patrons at the bar looked at her with the same eye she was looking at this woman with. Do they feel pity for the woman behind the bar? Do they wonder what happened to her in life to lead her to pour drinks for strangers in the wee hours of the morning? Lan reasoned that it wasn't the same thing. She was the bar manager, there by choice and besides, she enjoyed her job. It was definitely different.
Lan sat her small basket on the edge of the counter as the woman mechanically took out each item and scanned it. The only words exchanged between the two were whether Lan preferred paper or plastic. Lan left the store with her two bags and an unsettling melancholy she hadn't felt in a long, long time.
"Mom said we won't be moving until after Christmas." Katy said pointedly as Lan joined her on the front porch steps. They were enjoying the lazy moments after a large Thanksgiving dinner watching some of the neighbor kids playing football in the street.
"Oh yeah?" Asked Lan with interest. "You guys have a place in mind yet?" Katy moved her foot from side to side on the step, displacing the tiny particles of dirt and sand with a rhythmic scraping sound.
"I know Mom has looked at a few places. She wants to save a few more dollars, she said." Katy let the sentence hang in the air. Lan waited patiently as she sensed the girl had more on her mind.
"Lan, when we move, will we still get to see each other?" She asked quietly.
Lan was touched by the question. She had no real reason not to answer in the affirmative, but in all honesty she just figured once they moved, that would be the last she saw of them. She turned her eyes to Katy, ready with a casual response when she saw the careful hope in her eyes. Lan then realized that it must have taken some courage for this 13-year-old girl to ask the question.
Lan knew Katy, and unlike her younger brother, she had long lost a child's innocent trust in adults. How she answered Katy would be very important. She also recognized in that moment how much she would miss seeing them on a daily basis.
"When you guys get all settled in, I want you to call me and we'll set up a time with your mom and I'll come visit."
Katy's smile crept slowly and steadily until it reached her eyes, "Okay." Lan surprised herself by putting an arm around the young girl and giving her a playful squeeze.
John took that moment to bang through the screen door to announce dessert would be served in a few minutes. With exaggerated full belly groans, they both lumbered off the porch step and headed back in to stuff themselves even more.
Lan had ended up staying later than she anticipated, being roped into two rounds of the board game Clue. She hadn't laughed that much in a long time. She recalled the vastly different styles in which each of the siblings played. Katy, the Methodical One, had all sorts of notes on her little scorecard. Her face gave away nothing as she scribbled down something after every guess was made. She studied the board with intense scrutiny.
John on the other hand didn't fully get the concept of the game, but that didn't stop him from blurting out his guesses each time it was his turn. Tina and Lan would just go along, taking turns explaining patiently to John how it could not have been Mrs. Peacock in the Observatory with a Candlestick because he in fact had two out of the three cards he mentioned. Katy would look on, eyes rolling at having to play with such an amateur sleuth.
"Don't worry, we'll visit them." Lan said as much to herself as to her two dogs as she leashed them up to take them out for their last bathroom run. She watched the bedroom light extinguish in the kids' room as she quietly walked by, smiling at the young memory of the best Thanksgiving she'd ever had. She tucked her unoccupied hand into her sweatshirt pocket and turned her head up the street.
Lan walked into her last session of her photography class early. The photos she'd brought to share were tucked under her arm in a folder. She was a little nervous to show her work, but figured since all of her fellow students were in the same boat, it shouldn't be so hard. Her subjects consisted mostly of her dogs, her co-workers at the bar and a few of Katy and John, taken with Tina's permission.
As more people began filing in, she set to the task of choosing three photos to share. Pouring over them, she decided on a candid one of Bart and Joyce, listening with rapt attention to a very animated Chris. She remembered snapping the photo just as he was telling about getting caught in a drag bar by a senior officer during his time in the Marines. She studied the focus of the photo, the expression on Bart's normally stoic face told of the love he and Chris shared while Joyce's weathered eyes hinted of amusement with a bit of disbelief. She was quite proud too of the composition of the shot and how it captured the moment perfectly.
The second photo she chose was a black and white photo of Bait and Hook both sitting at the front door at attention, side by side with their backs to the camera. She'd taken the photo just as she'd heard the kids coming up the stairs. Each time the dogs would hear the kids they'd run to the door and wait patiently for them to knock. In the photo the dogs were full of tightly coiled energy. The shutter speed was a bit slow, but it worked out for the best because the dogs' tiny tails were a blur, showing how furiously they were wagging in anticipation.
The third photo was of Katy and John. It was her favorite. She'd just been heading to the bar when she saw the kids hanging out on the front step. She'd asked what they were up to and John helpfully informed her that Katy had burned some microwave popcorn and their mom was airing out the house. Just as Katy was about to respond to her brother's comment, John noticed the camera.
"Will you take my picture?" He'd asked brightly. What resulted was a quirky snapshot of the two of them, John sitting on the porch, elbows resting on knees, his cherubic face in his hands with the widest grin the boy could have produced. Katy, on the other hand was standing arms folded leaning on the porch post, looking anything but happy. The irritated half-scowl was a perfect contrast to her brother's expression, making the photo truly worth a thousand words.
"All right class," said Judith, the portly, enthusiastic instructor announced to get everyone's attention. "Let's get your photos up and have a look." Lan handed hers in and stepped out to the restroom while the instructor hung the photos on two parallel clotheslines draped in front of the whiteboard that was currently covered with black felt.
When she returned Judith was hanging the last picture. Lan took her seat and looked at the photos of her classmates. She smiled, noting how she thought hers were pretty good, comparatively speaking.
At the end of the class, it seemed not only the instructor, but the whole class agreed with Lan's somewhat partial assessment. Humbled and inspired, she took away a renewed belief in herself, some tips on pursuing her new hobby and an endorsement by Judith to enter the Central Valley Winter Photo Competition, held at one of the local galleries.
Lan watched with amusement as Katy and John decorated their Christmas tree. She'd offered her help in the kitchen but was gently rebuffed by a very capable Tina. She poured her a cup of eggnog, gave her sweet smile and pointed her to the couch to referee the tree trimming.
It was Christmas Eve and the Williams had invited her over for dinner. Lan was deeply touched by the invite as this was probably their first happy one in many years. It was the first Christmas Eve Lan hadn't been alone in many years too.
"I can't believe this will be our last Christmas here." Stated Katy as she methodically distributed small glass ornaments on the modest sized Christmas tree. She scowled at her brother for the third time after he placed two of the same color next to each other. He took the hint and with a shrug gave up "helping".
"Can I bring Bait and Hook over?" John begged, apparently unfazed by the rebuke. He looked pleadingly at Lan who motioned over to his mom, who had taken up a spot in the kitchen doorway to watch.
"It's up to your mom." Lan replied dutifully. John's eyes flashed to his mom's, all big and brown. She wiped her hands on her apron, giving the appearance of weighing the question importantly. John began squirming and holding his hands prayer-like towards his mom. She gave up the act, laughing at her son's display. She couldn't refuse such a plea.
"Sure, just make sure they don't get into the Christmas decorations." In a stage whisper she said, "Your sister might have a heart attack if they did."
"I heard that, Mom!" Katy threw over her shoulder as she bent to pick up another ornament.
Tina leaned into Lan a bit and upon hearing the screen door slap against the doorframe, said in a light voice, "We all start out helping, you know? but Little Miss Perfect here? " She let her voice trail off as her only daughter spun around with a syrupy sweet smile.
"You must understand, Lan, they have no eye for composition or
balance." She paused dramatically. "If we want a good-looking tree that will look decent for 'The Christmas Portrait' (this said with air quotes), I must do it myself." Then she turned back to her tree with a dismissing wave.
Both women looked on stunned until Lan burst into laughter. Tina soon followed. "Oh, I can't wait to see her at 16." Lan deadpanned, spurring on more giggles and an eye-roll from the 13 year old.
As was the ritual after dinner, Katy and John played with Bait and Hook as the two women talked. John was chasing the dogs around taking pictures with his new camera as Katy tried to sketch them with her pencil and pad from her new art set.
"You were very sweet and generous Lan. Thanks for the gifts. They are, well, perfect." Tina smiled thoughtfully, looking at hers on the coffee table, a lovely wooden plaque with 'The Sheldon Family' engraved - her maiden name. She'd gone back to it soon after Chuck was taken away.
"Well, it was either that or the singing trout?" Lan laughed self-deprecatingly.
Tina chuckled along with Lan, sensing her need to ease the attention on her. She looked at the plaque for a few more seconds and sobered. She checked to see that the kids were out of earshot.
"Listen, Lan. You have been truly wonderful to my kids and I. You know, when I had decided to start looking for a house, the only reservation I had about moving was moving away from you. I know how much you mean to them?" Tina looked at her children for a few long seconds. "I just hope I'm doing the right thing."
"They mean a lot to me too, Tina and it's not like you are moving that far away. You guys will be so happy in a new home. It's a fresh start, a new place to make some great memories." In an out of character move, Lan placed her hand over Tina's and looked intently into her eyes. "You made it Tina. You cleaned up your life, don't think those two haven't noticed." Lan said fervently, gesturing to the kids with a nod of her head. "In the time I've known them, I've never seen them more happy."
"Yeah, you're right. I don't think I'll ever get over the guilt though. Christ, what I've put them through." Tina said, sad disbelief in her voice.
Lan patted the hand under hers and then put her own into her lap. "Don't let the guilt overwhelm you, but don't forget it either. Use it."
Tina began to comment but caught herself as she remembered what Lan told her of her past. She was coming from the point of view of her children. She would take Lan's advice to heart.
After a few moments of silence, Lan looked sidelong at the woman and could tell she had something else on her mind. Something else weighing on her. They never spoke about her soon-to-be ex-husband in front of the kids, but Lan thought they were still a safe enough distance away, so she broached the subject.
"How are things coming along?" Lan asked. It had become kind of code between the two, Tina never misunderstanding what Lan was referring to.
"He won't sign the divorce papers, of course. Can't wait to see the legal bills with that one." She said around a bitter laugh.
Lan ventured onto another touchy subject. They both knew he wouldn't be in jail forever. "Can you keep your new address out of the system?" Lan hated to ask, but she was concerned for their safety.
Tina shuddered at the thought. "I enrolled in this confidential address program? it's for victims of abuse." Tina shook her head slowly with incredulity. "You know, I had no idea something like that existed. Then, again, I had no idea my life would take a detour into Shitsville." She said with uncharacteristic bluntness that made Lan chuckle despite the context of the conversation.
Lan was nervous. She had never done anything like this and she was beginning to regret taking the advice of her photography instructor. How could she think that any of her photos could go up against some of the locally known photographers that were in the contest? They made a living out of taking pictures. She noticed one of the photos in the competition was from one of the newspaper photographers. She was contemplating taking her photo off the stark white wall and running when she heard a familiar voice.
"Hey, Lan! You must be so excited!" Chris enthused, his round face beaming. He brushed past her gently to study her entry closely. He stood silently, scrutinizing it with an artist's eye. She shifted foot to foot, surprised to note how much she cared what his opinion would be. Suddenly, she realized how dumb it was not to get his input on which one to enter. She'd just gone with her favorite, the one of John and Katy on the front porch.
Chris knew Lan had talent. He'd seen some of her photos she'd brought in from her class. He'd made comments on them almost absently, figuring she was getting instruction and guidance from the teacher. He turned to her and caught her expectant look. She glanced away furtively. He smiled knowingly at her. Lan had talent all right, she just didn't really believe it- perhaps until now.
Lan took compliments as reluctantly as someone does a parking ticket, but Chris could see a hope in her eyes that he had never seen before. He measured his words for he sensed they would be very important to his bar manager.
"Lan, this is a great photo. You know why?"
Lan shook her head, clueless, but keenly interested.
"I believe it was Ansel Adams who said, 'A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into.'" Chris saw he needed to explain. "Your photo causes the viewer to want to know more about it. What was going on to cause the expressions on their faces? Who are they to each other? What's their relationship to the photographer?" He said the last question with a knowing smile as Lan moved to stand next to him. "That picture doesn't tell a story, it invites you to seek it out."
She studied the photo, cocking her head slightly as if trying to view it in a new, different way.
"You captured something very special and human in that picture, Lan. That is a very hard thing to do." He said seriously.
"Hmmph." Lan grunted in a manner that led Chris to believe she somewhat agreed with him. He smiled again to himself, only bigger this time. He did enjoy Lan immensely. Her self-effacing nature was hardwired, he knew, and anytime he could break into it and get her to see what most of her friends saw in her, he delighted in it.
The evening turned out to be quite fun, if not a bit overwhelming. Seems everyone down at the bar had gotten wind of the contest and had come out to support her. Joyce and Ross had appointed themselves photo judges and deemed Lan's the winner by a landslide. Even Bart showed up, letting Lan know that he was very proud of her.
By the end of the night, Lan had won first place in her category and 3rd place in the overall contest. She couldn't recall ever having won anything in her life except for a second place ribbon in 4th grade when her relay team won at a school track meet.
On her way home, she found herself grinning stupidly. She couldn't wait to share the news with Tina and the kids when they returned from their trip up the coast. Even though it was in the middle of January, Tina had decided they could use a little vacation. It would be their last opportunity at a vacation "before becoming slave to a mortgage," Tina had said only half-jokingly.
Lan's thoughts turned to their impending move. The kids were so thrilled about their new house. Tina had put an offer in on a single story three-bedroom house on the other side of town. It was newer with a large yard and a quiet neighborhood. Lan had gone to see it with them as soon as Tina's offer was accepted. Both John and Katy talked excitedly the whole way there about plans for their rooms and the backyard. It would indeed be a new start for them and Lan couldn't be happier.
"Man, I'm going to miss them." She said aloud as she rounded the corner onto her street.