(Approx. 4,200 Words)
Oh Lord, the girl was back. Third time this month. From the ladder’s top rung, Norma had spotted the suspect’s long stringy hair, black toque, and oversized brown coat right away. The girl always appeared in the food aisles, next to Norma’s stationery department. Twice, janitorial staff had seen her washing up in the store’s public bathroom. Even without the clothes and stringy hair, Norma would recognize those desperate moves anywhere. This kid didn’t walk, she scurried and stopped and scanned, then scurried some more, like a squirrel who sensed danger, yet had to forage.
“Thanks for bringing this down,” the customer said, as he examined the plastic storage container. “It’s perfect.”
“You’re welcome.” Norma scanned the food aisles.
Last week, the girl slipped a pack of Kraft cheese slices into her coat pocket. Vanished before anyone could stop her. Only thing to do now was watch and wait. It wouldn’t take long. Norma knew a hungry street kid when she saw one.
Descending the ladder, Norma winced. Bloody arthritis. Next time she felt like a two-hour wait at the clinic, she’d ask for stronger drugs. At the bottom of the ladder, she reached for the staff phone clipped to her belt and dialed the loss prevention office.
“Jason, our cheese gal’s back. She’s in the pop aisle.”
“Watch her. I’ll be right there.”
Hand on hip, Norma hurried past the binders and envelopes toward foods. At least the store wasn’t crowded. Most moms had left to pick up their kids from school. She crossed the main aisle and into canned goods. On the other side of the shelves, a toddler whined, “I don’t wanna sit in the buggy.”
At the end of canned goods, Norma turned left and wandered past the now vacated pop aisle. The girl would want something instantly edible, like cookies and granola bars. They were in the next aisle. Norma held her breath and peeked around the corner. At the far end, she saw the girl slip a shiny green package into her pocket, then head for the exit. Norma rushed down the aisle and found an open box of granola bars. Two bars were missing.
She dialed Jason’s local. “She’s taken a couple of granola bars.”
“I’ve got people at the doors,” he replied. “She’s done.”
As Norma zigzagged between shoppers, she heard, “Let me go!”
“Just relax,” Jason said, his voice calm, and deceptively mature.
Norma watched shoppers gape at the commotion in front of the store’s mall exit. Jason had the girl by her left arm. A red-faced, burly stock boy gripped her right bicep. The store manager and two more staff walked behind the whimpering suspect.
Norma sighed. Her shift was supposed to end in a half hour. Now she’d have to write a statement.
Inside his tiny windowless office, Jason sat the girl on the bench built into the wall opposite his desk. Tears from her bloodshot eyes merged with her dripping nose. Her brown hair reminded Norma of Deirdre’s hair, the last time she saw her.
Norma handed the girl a packet of tissues while memories of Deirdre bobbed to the surface. . .the night Deirdre stuffed her school backpack with clothes and told Norma she hated her. That everything was her fault, that she should have realized what Rick had been doing to her while Norma was at work. Norma rubbed her hands on her smock and tried to banish the still blistering guilt.
The stock boy scuttled back to work.
“I’ll get you a chair,” the manager said to Norma, and she too disappeared.
Just great. Since a female employee had to be in the room whenever girls and women were brought in, she’d have to stick around until the cops showed up.
“What’s your name?” Jason perched on the edge of his desk. “You have any ID?”
The girl rocked back and forth and sobbed. Each time she moved forward tears fell onto the floor.
“I’d like you to remove everything from your pockets, then take off your coat,” Jason said. “Otherwise, we’ll have to do it.”
Hard to tell if she was listening or not. Norma understood the girl’s distress, but her own fatigue and throbbing hip left no room for patience. She eased onto the bench, but not too close. You never knew when a suspect would lash out.
“This isn’t going to go away, hon. Better get on with it.”
The girl wiped her eyes. “Name’s Ch-Christie Flinn.” She removed the bars from her pocket. “I was h-hungry.”
As Jason retrieved a form from his drawer, Christie jumped to her feet. Jars clanked in her pocket. “I can’t go to jail!”
“And we can’t help you,” Jason replied, “until you finish emptying your pockets.”
Red-rimmed eyes turned to Norma who nodded. Christie retrieved three small jars of baby food. Norma blew out a long breath. Well, crap.
“You eat that stuff?” Jason asked in disdain.
Norma snorted. Nice boy, but she’d known smarter hamsters. “Christie, where’s the baby?”
Christie collapsed onto the bench. “With a friend.” She tore at the tissues. Bits floated to the floor like snowflakes. “I take real good care of her. She needs solid food, I think.”
Jason tossed his pen on the desk and wheeled his chair back until it hit the wall. “The baby’s yours?”
“How old is she?” Norma asked.
“Where are you staying?” Jason asked.
Norma said, “Where around?”
Christie hiccupped and shrugged. “Behind the mall, in a tent.”
A block of undeveloped land sat behind the mall. Norma had heard rumors about people living among the trees and bushes.
“But it’s mid-November,” Jason said. “The rain’s been going on for days.”
Christie lifted two packs of ‘C’ batteries from an inside pocket and handed them to Norma. “Got four flashlights. The light makes it okay.”
“Here ya go, Norma.” The manager reappeared and propped the chair against the open door.
“Can I talk to you a minute?” Jason asked the manager.
After they stepped into the hall, Christie turned at Norma. “You can’t tell the cops where I’m living. They’ll take Skye!”
“I’m no fan of cops or social workers, hon, but staying in a tent all winter isn’t healthy for a baby.”
“I need to get to her.” More tears spilled. “Please. My friend’s shift starts soon.”
“Is your friend in the mall now?”
Christie nodded. “She got a job in the food court yesterday.”
Norma watched her. “You’re fairly new to the area, aren’t ya?”
“There’s a food bank not far from here. They’re open on Tuesdays from nine to three, or at least they used to be.” It had been a couple of years since she’d used it.
Jason returned and sat down. “How old are you, Christie?”
“Twenty next month.”
Maybe. Maybe not, Norma thought. She watched Jason study the girl.
“We won’t call the cops or press charges,” he said. “But that changes if you ever you step in this store again, understand?”
She nodded. “Can I go now?”
“Here’s a couple of numbers you should call. One’s a women’s shelter.” He scribbled down the information.
Christie stood. “Been there. Hated it.”
“There’s supposed to be a storm tonight.” Jason slid the phone toward her.
She hesitated. “I’ve got to get Skye right now. I’ll call later.”
“She’ll need money for a pay phone,” Norma murmured.
Jason handed Christie four quarters from his desk drawer.
“Thanks.” She slid the chair away from the door, then disappeared.
Norma let out a long puff of air. “Good call, Jason.”
He shrugged. “Manager said there was no point calling social services when we have no proof there is a baby. She could have made up the story, or the baby could belong to her friend.”
Instinct told Norma that Christie hadn’t lied. She’d sensed the desperation of a mother for her child.
“Or she might have been straight with us,” Norma said. “Which was why you let her go. Like I said, good call.”
Jason shook his head. “You’d think she’d have enough sense to keep a kid inside.”
“Not everyone has a choice.”
“There’s the shelters.”
“Not if she’s underage.”
Jason crossed burly freckled arms. “You like throwing up obstacles, don’t ya.”
“Life is obstacles, kid.” Norma winced as she stood. “One damn roadblock after another. Trick is surviving it.”
. . .
Norma didn’t want to think about Deirdre. It had taken twenty-six months to find her daughter on Vancouver’s seedy, downtown eastside. Deirdre had looked far older than her eighteen years. Still defiant, she’d refused to come home. After five more visits, Norma finally realized that Deirdre would never be back. How many sleepless nights had she spent wondering if her daughter was safe? If some kind soul had helped her, or if she’d just met losers.
Lightning flashed outside Norma’s windows. Thunder cracked and rain smacked the lane in front of her trailer. Norma sipped hot cocoa. So many runaways out there, shivering and afraid. How long could a tent withstand the frenzied wind?
Norma stubbed out her cigarette, marched to the cupboard, and grabbed a flashlight. Two minutes later, she clutched the steering wheel and squinted through the downpour. The wipers on her old beater were nearly shot. For a split second lightning bleached the road and the trees.
When she stopped at the wooded area her stiff fingers ached. Norma looked for signs of light through the trees. The ground would be mucky. She’d have to battle swaying branches and saturated bushes. What if Christie wasn’t there? What if she’d found refuge somewhere? What if she hadn’t?
As Norma hopped across a narrow ditch, pain shot through her hip. A chain link fence obscured by foliage blocked her entrance to the lot. Norma stumbled along the fence until she found an opening. Slippery steps, snagging branches, and icy raindrops on the back of her neck made her wonder if she was nuts to search for someone she’d known for five minutes. Every few seconds she stopped to look around and listen, but the storm was too loud.
Norma’s boot struck something and she fell on hands and knees. Cold, slimy leaves clung to her palms. Her flashlight exposed a tree root and the hint of a footpath. She followed the path deeper into the woods until she glimpsed muted light to her left. Lightning revealed a tent. Was a baby crying? Norma shoved her way past bushes and ferns, trees, and boulders.
The baby’s cry escalated into a wail. Norma stepped into the puddle of water in front of the tent flap, bent down, and peeked inside. Through the dim glow of flashlights, she saw Christie on her knees holding a baby bundled in a snowsuit. Christie looked up, her eyes bulging, mouth opening in terror.
“It’s okay. It’s just me, Norma, from the store. I came to see if you’re alright.”
The flap smacked Norma’s back. Water seeped inside. She spotted a pack of disposable diapers and a baby bottle peeking out of a backpack. Judging from the stink in the grocery bag next to Norma, used diapers were stored there.
“The storm’s scaring her.” Christie sounded panicky.
“Maybe she’s teething.” She hoped it wasn’t more than that. “Have you put anything on her gums?”
Oh Lord. Water seeped toward the sleeping bag Christie knelt on.
“Come stay with me tonight. I live alone in a trailer with two bedrooms. Both rooms have locks.”
“No.” Christie shook her head. “We’ll be fine.”
Terrific, a stubborn kid. Just like Deirdre.
“I could be wrong about the teething,” Norma said. “Maybe Skye should see a doctor.”
Again, the head shaking. Was the girl out of her mind? “Christie, water’s coming in. Your sleeping bag’ll be soaked in a minute.”
Water slurped closer. Lightning flashed and the thunder made Christie flinch.
Norma stretched out her arms. “I’ll take the baby while you pack up.”
“We’ll only stay one night.” Christie handed Skye to her.
“Fine.” She couldn’t afford to feed two more mouths for long anyway.
Within seconds, flashlights were packed and the sleeping bag secured to the bottom of the pack.
“I’ll take her,” Christie said.
“You sure? It’s slippery out there.”
“I’m used to it.” She took the baby from Norma. “And I know the best route.”
. . .
After food and a bath, Skye fell asleep in the spare room. Christie, also bathed and fed, sat with Norma in the living room. Norma sipped her cocoa and decided to start with the simple questions. “So, where’re you from?”
Two hundred miles from here. “A long way from home.”
“I don’t do drugs or alcohol,” Christie blurted, “in case you were wondering. I hate that shit.”
Norma could tell she was clean. Life with Daniel had taught her to recognize an addict pretty quick. More lightning banished trailer park shadows.
“You have family who’ll be looking for you? ’Cause I don’t want cops knocking on my door.”
She’d lost count of the times cops banged on her door because of something Daniel had done. At first, they’d thought she was using too. Damn social workers took Deirdre away like it was the easiest thing in the world. The confusion on Deirdre’s eighteen-month-old face still nauseated her.
“No one’s looking for me.” Christie stared at the glowing tip of her cigarette.
“My mom’s dead. Dad only cares about his next fix.”
Norma nodded. “My first husband, Daniel, was like that.” She paused. “When’s the last time you saw your dad?”
“Three years ago.”
“People change. Go into rehab.”
The girl didn’t look convinced. Why should she? Odds were against junkies. Daniel had gone through rehab. Died from an overdose anyway.
“Any brothers or sisters?” Norma asked.
Christie picked up her mug of tea. “No.” Her gaze drifted to the photos on a wall. “Is Daniel the short chubby guy?”
“No, that’s my third husband, Harry. He died seven years ago.” Leaving her with a boat load of debt. Still, he’d been a better husband than Daniel or Rick.
“Is the boy your son?”
“Yeah. He’s nineteen now. Lives in Australia.” She watched Christie. “There’s no other family you could contact?”
Christie mashed what was left of her cigarette into the ashtray. “There was my mom’s mom. After we moved to Kelowna, I never saw her again. She’s probably dead now.”
“Where’d you live before Kelowna?”
“Down here somewhere.” She placed the mug on the plastic coaster. “I was four when Mom died.” Christie stood. “Think I’ll go to bed.” She started to leave, then stopped. “Thanks, Norma.”
Norma picked up the sweater she’d been knitting. “You’re welcome.”
She didn’t want to take them back to that wretched tent. What if they caught pneumonia or were attacked? On the other hand, much as she liked having company, she’d never been great at the family thing. Even Harry and she had had problems, and Rory practically bolted for a new continent after high school graduation. Still, someone had to look out for that girl and her baby. Christie’s mother would have wanted it. Any mother would.
Deirdre would be forty now. Was she a mother? Was she still alive? Best not to think about it. But she knew she would. Christie’s presence would make sure of that.
. . .
Norma woke to the smell of fresh coffee. The sound of Skye’s happy gurgles made her smile. By the time she joined them in the kitchen, Christie had nearly finished feeding Skye porridge.
“She really likes it.” Furtive eyes looked at Norma. “I made toast and coffee. That okay?”
“Sure.” She could make the loaf stretch a little longer. Norma tentatively touched wisps of Skye’s strawberry blond hair.
“I didn’t take nothin’,” Christie said. “Just so you know.”
“I believe you.” On the table, Norma spotted a penciled drawing of a bouquet of roses. She picked it up. The intricate detail took her breath away. “This is wonderful.”
Christie smiled. “Thanks.”
Norma still had Deirdre’s childhood drawings in a box somewhere. She poured a coffee and glanced out the window at the drizzling rain, the dark blanket of cloud.
“Maybe you should stay another night until the rain stops and your tent dries out a bit.”
Christie shook her head. “Friends are lookin’ for a new place.” She wiped Skye’s chin. “I’ll be moving soon.”
“You had a home before?”
“Yeah. Burned down last month.”
Norma recalled a news story about squatters fleeing a burning house. Where were these friends now? “You liked living with other people?”
“It was okay.”
“What about your friend who works in the food court? Can you stay with her?”
“She’s crashing with her sister who doesn’t want her there. Now that she’s got a job, who knows?”
“How do your other friends feel about Skye?”
“They love her. Everyone looked after Skye while I was panhandling.”
For God’s sake, had she been supporting these people? “That couldn’t have made you much money.”
Christie rubbed her daughter’s back. “When the weather was nice, I brought Skye. Made over thirty bucks a day.”
Norma grimaced while she poured milk in her coffee. “Christie, a baby’s immune system isn’t strong. Do you have medical insurance?”
“There’s a clinic in the mall. No one’ll turn away a sick baby.”
Man, this kid was screwed three ways to Sunday.
“Family’s the most important thing in the world,” Norma said. “I doubt they’re all as bad as your father. Did your mom have sisters or brothers?”
“There’s a way to find out. Births and deaths are all documented.”
Christie rocked Skye, but said nothing.
“You can’t raise your daughter in a tent or a rundown building. When Skye’s older she’ll look around and wonder why she doesn’t have a real home.”
Christie kept her gaze on her daughter. “I’ll think about it.”
Norma bit back the urge to yell at her to smarten up or Skye would be in foster care before her first birthday. She’d seen the squalor Deirdre had suffered through when those friggin’ social workers stuck her in a foster home. She wasn’t supposed to, but she’d found out where Deirdre had been placed. Called the media and screamed bloody murder. That put Deirdre back in her arms real fast.
“Look, I have some old camping equipment and a tarp,” Norma said. “Throw it over the tent and it’ll keep you drier.”
With each passing minute, Norma dreaded taking them back to the cold and the damp, leaving her alone in dry silence. On their way to the wooded lot, she showed Christie where the library was. Assured her that librarians could help with the search for relatives. Christie didn’t seem interested.
After she and Christie arranged the tarp over the soggy tent, Norma shoved a plastic bag containing two apples, a banana, and three granola bars in Christie’s coat pocket.
“Here’s two quarters for phone calls, plus my address and phone number, if you need it.”
She said goodbye and trudged down the mucky footpath, feeling sick to her stomach.
. . .
Housework, her job, and knitting hadn’t kept Norma from brooding about lost children and estranged children. Runaways, the drug addicted. Millions of lonely, terrified, and sick children suffering out there. What choices did they have?
“Get a grip,” she muttered. “You can’t fix everything.”
What about one child and one baby? She hadn’t seen Christie in two weeks.
Norma stood at the kitchen window and watched rain pound the asphalt. Several times, she’d caught herself scanning the food aisles half expecting to find Christie, yet hoping she wouldn’t. Had Christie started looking for family? Had she moved into another squat?
While she washed the dishes, Norma wondered if she should try to contact her. She was still wondering when the doorbell rang. The only people who dropped by unannounced were religious nuts and sales jerks. Norma peeked through the curtain in the nearest window and froze. A cop. After all these years, her insides still twisted.
Norma opened the door a crack. “Yes?”
“Excuse me, but does a Christie Flinn live here?”
Ah hell. “Why do you ask?”
The cop stared at her a few moments. “We received complaints about her loitering in a mall.”
God, had they arrested her? Where was Skye? Norma opened the door wider. “Where is she?”
“Are you her guardian?” the cop asked.
“I’ll bring her in.”
With Skye in her arms, Christie stepped out of the cruiser. Norma sighed in relief. At least they were together.
At the door, the cop gave Christie a stern look. “Unless you’re going to buy something, stay out of the malls, okay?”
Christie nodded and scooted inside. Norma shut the door.
“Sorry,” Christie mumbled. “They wanted an address.”
“No problem, but they won’t give you another chance, Christie. Have you done anything about finding your relatives?”
“Don’t need to. My friends found a place. We’re moving in tomorrow.”
Stupid, thoughtless girl. Norma tried not to sound annoyed. “You’d rather live in a condemned building than in a warm house with family?”
“I don’t need more family crap in my life, Norma. People bullying me into doing what they want.”
“Are you in love with one of these guys? Is one of them Skye’s father?”
Christie shook her head. “He took off. I hang with his friends.”
Christie’s cheeks grew pink while she stroked Skye’s hair. “They get me.”
“You know how miserable it is out there. The misery doesn’t go away, hon.”
“Lots of people have survived on the streets for years.” Her voice cracked.
“Have you taken a close look at them? It’s not living. It’s slow dying. Is that what you want for your child?”
Christie sat down, her eyes glistening.
“This has to stop, Christie.”
A tear etched a line through a smudge of dirt on the girl’s face. Norma handed her a tissue, then plugged in the kettle. By the time she handed the girl a mug of tea, the tears had stopped.
“My mother’s maiden name was Andrews,” she mumbled. “She was born in Vancouver, I think. I was born on August twenty-third, nineteen eighty-seven, when she was twenty.” She looked up at Norma. “Will that be enough?”
. . .
Every beginning had an ending, but Norma knew that some endings only created questions. It was true for Deirdre. Now with Christie. Three months ago, Christie found her maternal grandmother alive and well and eager to meet her.
“She’s picking me up tomorrow,” Christie had said, her expression uncertain. “Should I go?”
“If you don’t, you’ll always wonder if you missed out on the best thing that could have happened to you and Skye.”
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
“At least you’ll know.”
That was the last time Norma saw her. Christie was to have let her know how the meeting went, but the call never came. Afraid to risk more disappointment, Norma hadn’t ventured into the wooded area.
In December, thoughts of Christie and Skye had been overshadowed with long frantic hours at the store, then Christmas Day at her sister’s house, New Year’s with a friend. Rory made the obligatory phone call home while guilt over Deirdre had festered once again.
By mid-January, Norma’s hours had been cut back, leaving more time to brood and to wonder. One long Sunday afternoon, when curiosity, worry, and guilt for not following up drove her bonkers, Norma found herself trudging between soggy bushes and dripping leaves. The tent was gone. Had Christie moved in with her grandmother, or her friends?
The last day of February brought another downpour, more arthritic pain, and a lousy night’s sleep. Norma slept through her alarm, making her late for work. After rushing around the trailer, she scrambled into her car. As Norma cruised toward the mailboxes at the trailer park’s entrance, she realized she hadn’t picked up her mail in three days. Her T4 was supposed to show up this week. Her new, pricy medication meant she’d have to file for her usual tax refund right away.
At the mailbox, Norma stuffed the envelopes into her purse, then clambered back into her car. She’d read her mail on her lunch break.
Lunch was nearly over when she remembered the mail. She found the T4 and a greeting-card sized white envelope. The return Vancouver address wasn’t familiar. Curious, she shoved the envelope into her smock pocket on her way out of the staff lounge.
During a lull between customers, she opened the envelope and found a hand drawn bouquet of roses. Norma’s cheeks grew warm. A photograph slipped out from the folded sheet. With shorter clean hair and a pink sweater, Christie was barely recognizable. Skye looked plump and healthy in her purple dress. Two quarters were taped below a note.
“Sorry for not calling, but things happened fast,” Christie wrote. “Grandma treats us great. I’m going to night school and Skye eats everything in sight. I have a phone that doesn’t need quarters. Thanks for everything. Christie.”
Relief swirled through Norma. And sadness. She’d never see them again.
“Excuse me,” a customer said. “I wonder if you could help me.”
“Sure.” Norma tucked the card into her pocket and smiled. “That’s what I do.”