1993 -New Orleans, Louisiana
There is no food.
Six-year-old Charleigh Cartier stares up to the top of the dingy white fridge where Mommy keeps the cereal box. Mommy hasn’t left the bed in days. She just cries and tells Charleigh to go away. She's been like this since the fight with Julien when he packed a bag and went away.
It is Saturday, and Charleigh wants to watch cartoons, but the TV doesn’t work. Nothing works—she knows because she's flipped the light switch several times and nothing happens. The fridge isn’t on either because everything is warm and tastes funny.
It is dark, hot, and smells in the tiny apartment. The air is thick, and it’s hard to breathe. Her bright pink T-shirt with Ariel from The Little Mermaid, clean days ago, is now stained and sticks to her. Her hair has long escaped the ponytail Mommy fastened for her and springs out in all directions from the sweat and humidity. She swipes the matted curls from her face and pushes a chair across the kitchen. The legs squeak, unwilling to slide easily on the sticky floor. She doesn’t worry about waking Mommy; she wishes something would.
Finally, she is close enough to the fridge, and Charleigh climbs up. But she still can’t reach the box—not even when she stands on tippy toes. Then, she remembers the noodles kept under the kitchen sink. Sharp needles of fear poke her. Is she that hungry?
Charleigh bites her lip and worries about opening the cabinet. The last time she did, a rat as ginormous as a cat ran out and scampered across the floor . . . well, not that large, but big enough. She watches a flat brown bug with huge antennae scuttle up the side of the fridge while she decides what to do. But the tight knot in her stomach twists painfully and reminds her how hungry she is. Maybe the furry creature has eaten his share and is gone. Charleigh hopes so.
Climbing down from the chair, she frowns. Why can’t Mommy wake up and tell her they can go for a burger at Cutezee’s Café? When Mommy’s in a good mood, she takes Charleigh by the hand, and they walk through the streets. Mommy is so beautiful, and the sun shines through her hair, making her seem like an angel. Charleigh enjoys walking. She likes to smell the wet pavement when the store keepers hose it down. All the colors and sounds of the street make her happy. Sometimes the big man on the corner, dressed in white, offers her a cookie from his shop. He smiles at her and tells her she is a pretty little girl. She knows she isn’t pretty like Mommy, but it still gives her a delicious tickle in her tummy that someone notices her. At times, she feels invisible.
Charleigh’s ears perk up. She hears the squeak of Mommy’s bed. She holds her breath and wishes with all her might for the sound of her footsteps. A slight moan, followed by a dry cough, and more heavy breathing causes Charleigh’s hopes to fall. Wake up, Mommy!
Her stomach rumbles again. Charleigh stands to the side of the door. She counts one, two, three before she opens the cabinet. She hesitates, in case the sharp pink nose is sitting there, whiskers twitching. Do rats eat little girls?
When nothing furry jumps out to scare her, she ventures a quick peek. It is shadowy, but she sees the box with the ramen noodles. Most of the shiny wrappers are ripped. Bits of dry pasta lay scattered about, along with dark, pellet-sized lumps. Rat poop! She slips her hand inside and snatches two packs. Her face wrinkles at the idea of rat drool. She slams the door, not taking any chances, and carries her prize to the wobbly table in the middle of the kitchen.
The noodles are hard and stiff, not warm and squishy the way she likes. She scratches her head and tries to remember what Mommy does to make them yummy. Water.
Once more, Charleigh scoots the chair from the fridge to the sink, plucks out a bowl, and does her best to swish an old smelly sponge around the sides. It is important to use soap, her mommy would say, so she squirts some of that green stuff in and swished the sponge again. Satisfied, she fills the container and returns to the table and dry packets of noodles. She is careful to break off the side with the nibbles. Next, she drops the hard, tight square into the water and bites open the silver packet with the brown stuff that makes them taste good. They are still tough, and the powder floats on top. With her finger, she dunks the floating square over and over. No luck.
Tears sting the back of her eyelids. She wants to throw the icky noodles on the floor, but Mommy will be upset if she wakes up and finds another mess. So, she climbs down from the chair once more and goes through the cabinets to see if she can find anything. Braver now that she has one cabinet opened, she doesn’t feel as scared to open the next one. No food, but there’s a mousetrap. She knows what it is because she sees them on Tom and Jerry. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad having a small friend like Jerry to keep her company. Then she notices the cheese on top. She reaches for it, her fingers hover close, but she decides she isn’t quite that hungry . . . yet. There are a few cans of this and that, mostly dirt, so she closes it and moves to the next door.
What she sees makes her squeal and scramble away. The skin on her arms rises with horror. There, lying with his leg caught, is the awful rat. He isn’t dead, and his sides are heaving with the exertion of trying to free himself. Her panic swells. But as she watches his struggle, pity fills her heart. He must be scared too. Not as frightened as she is, but his dark eyes bulge in fear. She swallows and edges closer. There is blood on his paw. He is hurt and needs help.
Something inside Charleigh rebels at what she is about to do, but she ignores it. Despite the chills running down her spine, she reaches toward the trap.
“What on earth are you doing?”
The words come out hard and fast. Charleigh snatches her hand back. She hardly recognizes Mommy’s voice. She stands over Charleigh, fists pressed against her hips. Her beautiful blonde hair is matted with sections sticking up here and there, and the soft face isn’t so pretty. It is twisted and pale. Charleigh blinks several times to convince herself Mommy is real and not a ghost. The sight frightens her so much she forgets to speak.
“Answer me! I know you weren’t getting ready to do what I think you were?”
Mommy looks around, seizes the old broom, and shoves Charleigh back none too gently. Before she can stop her, Mommy sweeps the rat out—trap and all. She smashes the poor thing over and over.
“Stop it! Stop it! You’re killing him!” Charleigh rushes forward, grabs the handle, and tries to pull it from her mother’s hands.
Mommy’s face shows color now. Two bright red spots in her cheeks glow as she narrows her eyes and glares at Charleigh like she doesn’t even know her. Quick as lightning, Mommy’s hand draws back and sails across her cheek. She sees blinding white light as she falls to her knees. Too stunned to cry out, she lies on the floor confused and wondering what she did wrong. The shock of Mommy hitting her hurts worse than her cheek. But she doesn’t wonder too long; arms wrap around her, and she is pulled into the softness of Mommy’s lap.
“Oh, Charleigh, Charleigh. I’m so sorry. What did I do?” Mommy is on the floor now, rocking her back and forth against her chest and crying for her. “Please forgive me.”
She is pressed so tightly against Mommy she can hardly breathe. She wants to wiggle free because Mommy smells sweaty and is scaring her. If she’s still, Mommy might stop crying.
“Please don’t be upset. I didn’t mean it.” Mommy puts her hands on either side of Charleigh’s face, waiting for her to respond.
Charleigh blinks. “I’m not mad, Mommy.”
“You know I wouldn’t hurt you, right?” Her tongue darts out to lick her cracked lips. “I’m a horrible person. I don’t deserve to live.” A sound like a wounded animal comes from deep within Mommy’s chest as she starts to cry again. Charleigh’s mouth goes dry, and her heart beats fast. The noise frightens her more than the rat.
“It’s okay, Mommy. I’m all right. See?” Charleigh pushes back hard and presses Mommy’s pretty face in her hands, although it wasn’t so nice at the moment and made her look at her. Really look at her. “See. I’m not hurt.” Her cheek throbs, but it doesn’t matter.
Mommy runs a hand through her messy hair. It reminds Charleigh of a bird’s nest, but she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to tell her so. Her lips press together, and she closes her eyes as if she is trying to remember something. She has never seen Mommy so strange.
“Please don’t cry anymore,” Charleigh pleads.
Mommy sniffs and tries to pull herself together. She gives her a watery smile. It’s her pretend face, the one she uses when Julien has upset her and she doesn’t want him to know.
Bam, bam, bam.
They jump at the loud banging on the door.
Charleigh hopes it isn’t Julien coming back. She doesn’t like him, and he’s mean. The hopeful expression on Mommy’s face says she thinks it’s Julien too. She shoos Charleigh off her legs and hurries to open the door.
But it isn’t Julien—it’s worse. Mr. Gerganous grins at them. His stained T-shirt just covers his belly. Charleigh swallows because she is afraid of him. His voice sounds like he has been eating rocks and they are stuck in his throat. His eyes grow big when he sees Mommy, as if they want to gobble her up.
Mommy must think so too because she steps behind the door and pulls at her gown.
“What can we do for you, Mr. Gerganous?”
“Hot enough for ya?” He takes his huge arm and wipes moisture off his forehead.
The sweat drips from his curly hair. Her stomach feels sick like when she accidentally touches the slimy gunk growing on the bottom of the shower curtain.
“You didn’t come by to talk about the weather. Did you need something?”
“No cause to be snippy. Just making conversation. I notice that man of yours ain’t been around this week. You two have a lovers’ spat?”
Mommy’s mouth opens to speak, but snaps shut. Her face pinches tight like she is trying not to cry. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“See here, you ain’t got no cause to be rude.” His voice grows loud. “It’s my business seeing’s how he’s the only one that works around here. You’re a month late with the rent. Here I come up all friendly like to check if you need anything.” He pauses, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and steps closer. “You want to get all high and mighty?”
Mommy does her best to make herself appear tall and strong and says, “Julien will be back. We need a little more time. I don’t have the money right now, but I—”
“Uh-uh. That ain’t the way of it.” He pushes past her and shuts the door. “I saw him when he went out carrying his stuff. I says to him, you going on a trip? He says no. He’s done taking care of you and your brat.” He doesn’t even look at Charleigh, just keeps inching toward Mommy who is backing away. “He says to me you’re crazy and he ain’t never coming back.”
Mommy shakes her head, flat against the wall now. She looks as if she is going to faint.
“He called you some horrible things, but I defended you. Me, being the gentleman I am, thought I’d give you a few days to get yourself together. I ain’t as picky as some. I like crazy.” Mr. Gerganous runs his fat knuckle along the side of Mommy’s face. “Yes, ma’am, crazy works for me just fine.” He grabs Mommy by the arm as she slides down the wall.
Panic fills Charleigh’s heart. “Mommy!”
But Mr. Gerganous catches her before Charleigh can reach her. “She’s fine,” he says, supporting Mommy with one hand and stops Charleigh with the other. “Ain’t no cause for you to worry none. Your Mommy and me, we got to work out a little deal so you two can go on living here.” He waves his pudgy palm in a grand gesture.
“No,” Mommy whimpers. “I won’t—”
“Hush, now. ’Course you will. You don’t want your sweet girl out on the street, do you? No telling what might happen to the two of you. Besides, where you gonna go? You let ol’ Garland take care of you. I’ll treat you real nice, you’ll see.” He brushes back her hair with his huge hand.
Mommy’s eyes are wild, reminding Charleigh of the rat in the trap. “You leave her alone.” Charleigh hurries toward him and tugs on his leg. But he is a giant and she can’t budge him.
Mr. Gerganous sneers at her. “You go on, now! I’ll take care of you later.” He raises a hand to stop her, and his body odor almost knocks her down.
“No!” She kicks him hard, but he only laughs. Desperate, she takes hold of his arm, bares her teeth, and sinks them into his leathery skin.
He bellows, draws back, and sends Charleigh flying across the room. She gulps, working her mouth like a fish as she tries to suck in sweet air. Her head slams against something solid. Her eyes cloud with thousands of black specks, all scurrying before her until they completely block her sight and the sound of Mommy screaming her name.
“For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7