They were in another non-descript shack, much like the previous one; only the neighborhood was different. In the tiny bed she shared with her brother and sister, she gingerly lay on her side, taking as little space as possible while her siblings curled up on each other floppily like puppies. Their breathing was even and low, deep in sleep that came from being exhausted. The ‘room’ was actually just a curtain dividing it from the rest of the shack. In the next ‘room’ was their mother’s bed. And it was in that bed that the argument was taking place. She sighed as she thought about where the next place would be. At 12, Kayna could see the routine, and felt the change coming.
Lisa had someone new – that’s how it was every time they had to leave a house - it was because there was a new man. They always took her in, not happy about the children but overlooking them for what she offered.
Poverty is all she had known. She had had three children from different men, each child making her more and more bitter with her lot in life. But somehow, she was unable to take the step to change. Instead, she found herself constantly moving in with a new man, dragging her children around to a new shack. The worst house she had taken them to was the one on stilts, sewer water flooding under the house and only London bridges to access the rickety stairs. That had lasted all of one weekend, when she had gone out of her way to find someone else who could offer something better, just until she could change her life around.
Ah yes, change her life around. Since Lisa had her first child - her daughter – at 15, she had been claiming she would change. Now, 12 years later, she was still a beautiful woman, but her hard life was fast setting in with the faint lines around her eyes. Her skin was no longer dewy and supple; instead, spots began appearing – requiring heavy makeup application. She rarely ate, preferring to avoid the pounds. She smoked heavily, sucking away at the sticks that took away a big part of their money. She no longer paid rent because she preferred to move into the house of whatever fool was willing to take her and the children in. If she could, she would leave them with their grandparents, but her mother died rather inconveniently shortly after she had her third baby.
The day her mother died, she had seen the true nature of her father. Hardly had her mother been in the ground than he began pawing at Lisa. She had been in recovery, having just given birth to her boy, but she had risked hurting herself by kicking and clawing him. The price of course was that she had to leave the house. Lisa had walked away and not looked back. That had derailed her grand plans for changing for the better.
Now, she spent her time with the kind of men she had once scorned; sometimes as much as a year would pass by before she ‘found’ someone else ‘better’. It was always the same, and she had given up the pretense a while ago. She knew the routine: drinks would be bought, gifts would be given, and a better life would be promised. She would reveal bits of herself, and she would watch for the reaction. She never spent more than a weekend paying for lodging. She didn’t like to admit it, but she essentially was bartering her body in exchange for a roof over her head (and her children’s). A part of her knew she must shelter them too.
That morning, the three children had gone out hunting for bottles. Carrying some old buckets, they walked all over the neighborhood, seeking out the bottles that could go for as much as twenty-five cents a piece. Sometimes they could fill their buckets early in the day, and could spend the rest of their afternoon washing them in the murky water a few streets down from where they lived. School was out so they did this every day during their holiday, racking up quite a few dollars. But that morning, bottles were hard to come by. Filling only one bucket, they still washed them and brought them to the house. It would suffice to buy them a meager meal while he went out and did his odd jobs. It was this that they argued about.
He was proposing to Lisa that she start working, something she hadn’t done, ever. Her excuse about the children being left alone was wearing thin. The reality was that she was lazy, wanted nothing more than to be taken care of, and was in fact, waiting for her children to grow up and continue to do so for her. When a night of hard drinking had hit her, she would bitterly fantasize about what her life would have been like without them hanging on to her. She dragged them around because something deep down told her she should, but lately, it was getting harder and harder to find enough money for them. They were growing, they needed more and more. But working, when she had no kind of experience, it was not something she could fathom.
That day, she had drank out his stash of liquor, fallen into bed in spectacular fashion early in the evening, leaving the task of supper to Kayna. When she came to, he was nagging her to find work. It was time to move again. He was making it clear to her what he wanted, and she wouldn’t face up. She would run again.
Kayna heard the resolve in her mother as they argued, and knew that they would soon be in a different house. Maybe there would be a real room for them, but she had little hopes. This man was nice enough, but he was like all of them, only temporary. Soon they would be running away.
She heard the slap as it landed, and the startled cry of her mother made her heart seize. Her breath caught, and she hesitated. Naturally, she wanted to jump in, but her mother could also be belligerent when drunk. A second blow landed, and this time, she heard quick shifting and his startled reaction meant that her mother had connected.
Lisa appeared at their bedside immediately, and in a fierce whisper, told Kayna to pick up one child while she took the other. She only had her bag, probably where there was some money hidden. Always ready for flight, Kayna reached under the rickety bed for the plastic bag containing a set of clothes for each of them. Picking up her half-awake sister, they scooted out of the tiny house. His groans meant he would stay in bed a while before making an attempt to follow.
Or maybe he wouldn’t.
They had to find a place to stay. What happened next would be up to her mother. Kayna was concerned that it would be more of the same. She wondered if it should be up to the woman who walked ahead of her, but said nothing as an idea planted itself in her mind. Under the weight of her sister, she simply kept following her mother.
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