***Spoiler Alert*** This story is a prequel to my story Images. If you want to read this story first, click here.
I toss Martha into the air and my morning sunshine catches on her dirty dress. I close my eyes and picture the flowers beyond the bars on our window and feel the fresh air.
“Did you see anything, Martha?”
Her button eyes smile at me and I hug her.
“I heard birds singing this morning. A birthday song just for me.” I pat her head. “Maybe Mommy will bring home some new yarn for your hair. That would make a good birthday present. I’m twelve now, Martha. Did you know that? Mommy says that makes me a big girl.”
My tummy rumbles and I put Martha back to bed and look for the bread Mommy always leaves. I pull out my crate and stand on tip toe, to reach the bread where it hangs on the far side of the room.
“Do you think I’ll be big enough to reach the bread without a crate, Martha?” I look over my shoulder and see Martha’s already asleep. She’s a lazy baby doll.
As I sit close to her and unwrap the bread, a shadow steals my sunshine.
“Good morning, Tinsley.” He says as he sits outside the window and looks down at me.
I hide the bread behind my back and tip my head the way Mommy taught me.
“What?” The man takes something from behind his back. “Nothing to say to your Daddy?”
I shake my head.
“Don’t you want to see what I’ve brought you for your birthday?”
My tummy yells at the smell of something sweet and he laughs.
“I knew you wouldn’t want the moldy junk you’re mother gives you.”
I pull myself up tall, and take a bite of the bread she left as he reaches down through the bars.
His long fingers curl, calling to me. “Come and let Daddy see you.”
“Is Mommy coming home early today?”
“You’re a big girl,” he says as I take the cake from him, “you don’t need her.”
I close my eyes and take a bite as Mommy’s bread falls to the ground.
“She told me chocolate and chili powder was your favorite. Was she right?”
I nod. “Are there a lot of things that taste like this out there?”
“No.” He pats my head.
“Daddy, what’s your house like?”
“Big, quiet, and clean.” He laughs.
“Do we live in your house?”
He shakes his head. “No. This is a rat’s paradise, a home for vermin and the lowest of creatures.”
My shoulders fall. “If that’s true, then why do you make Mommy and me live here?”
“Because,” he shrugs, “here you’re safe. Here I know the bad people out there,” he waves his arm, “can’t touch you or your mother, and I know where you are.”
“Can I come up to where you are?” I widen my eyes the way I’ve seen mommy do. “The grass looks so green. Is it soft?”
He shifts. “Grass is dirty. Can you see out this window now?”
“Only when I stand on things.” I smile. “It’s so pretty out there.” I break off a piece of cake and hold it up to him.
He pulls his hand back.
“You know what, Daddy?”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“Mommy brought home a mop head last week and I cleaned because I hoped you’d come for my birthday. Did I do a good job?”
“You’ve got your mother’s cleaning skills.”
“Is that how you met?”
“If I keep cleaning, will you come see me more, like on Christmas too?”
“The world is a dangerous place. Each time I visit you, I bring the world with me.”
“Now that I’m older,” I smile up at him, “could Mommy and I come live with you?”
“Mommy says we didn’t always live here, is that true?”
“Where did we live before?”
“At my brother’s house.”
“What’s a brother?” I cover the stinging spot at the top of my head as I fall from his strike.
“You,” he sucks a slow breath through his teeth, “ask too many questions. You’re where you belong. You’re where you’re safe. The world is evil, and it’s dangerous.”
I squeeze my eyes shut as he kicks his feet, sending dirt in the window as he walks away. Tiny pebbles bounce on the concrete around me.
I grab Martha and shake her as her face blurs. “You stupid little girl,” I say, sniffing, “you made him angry. Mommy told you never to ask him that. The world is dangerous and Daddy loves you. He’s keeping you safe and the grass is dirty. It’s safe in here.” I hold her tight. “We keep it clean. Mommy will be home soon.” I rock her, “We should save her some cake.”
My tummy cries as I wrap up what’s left and raise it where the rats can’t get it. “This will make Mommy smile.” I pick up the bread off the ground and finish it. Curling up with Martha on the bed, I watch the dust dancing in the light until I fall asleep.
I shiver and curl up tighter as the bed wiggles.
“Tinsley?” Mommy says, “Wake up birthday girl.”
I smile as she rubs my head and snuggle close to her. I hear her stomach talking and remember the cake.
“Where are you going?” She yawns. Her eyes widen as I hold out my hands. She looks from the cake to me and my tummy tightens as she starts to cry.
“I’m sorry Mommy. I should have saved you the whole thing.” I wipe her tears away.
“Don’t cry, Mommy.”
She shakes her head and smiles, hugging me to her.
I frown, pushing the hair out of her eyes as she tries to pull away, to hide the red ring of a lump on her head. “What happened?”
“Nothing, baby.” She wraps my hands around a little gift, “Happy birthday,” and kisses my head.
Later, as Mommy sleeps beside me, I bite my lip to keep from crying. Her wrapped present still sits beside me. As she had changed out of her maid’s uniform I had seen the bruises. My tummy twists as I remember the purple and red painting across her back.
Mommy had come home hurt before, but I’d never seen it that bad.
Above us I hear people walking. They come here looking for us, Daddy says, but they can’t find their way to where we are as long as I stay quiet.
Mommy shivers and I give her my blanket and sneak out of bed.
At the window I listen to the people above me and look at the stars. Is the world really as bad as Daddy says? Mommy always tells me there are good people out there, but where were they when the bad people were hurting Mommy?
I grab my crate and pull myself up to the window, gulping as I see a man and a woman.
They’re smiling and talking. As I watch them, I begin to smile too. The man hugs the woman and touches her round belly. These aren’t the bad people, they can’t be. Can they?
My head feels as light as the wind, and the stars begin to swirl. I wish I had eaten the other half of the cake, but it had made Mommy happy. Looking over my shoulder, I hear Mommy cough and I begin to cry again. “Help us,” I say. “Please, good people, help us.”
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this story. Have a question you’d like to ‘ask’ Tinsley? Leave it in a comment below and I’ll add it to next week’s character interview.