“I can’t hold it.” Melanie “Lainey” King squeezed her legs together. Crouched over in the dark, she shivered from inside the three-foot oblong closet space. Lainey peered through the folds of the closet door. Her eyes were wide with fear. Mama and Uncle were asleep on the big bed. Lainey slept with Mama unless Uncle came around. Then she had to sleep in the closet.
Lainey’s lower body shook. She had to go. Now. She pushed the closet door wide and crept outside teenaged mutant ninja turtle style. Lainey inched her way to her mother’s bed.
“Mama, I’ve got to go pee.” Lainey whispered as quiet as she could into her mother’s ear. She did not want to wake Uncle. His snore bounced off the walls of the room. Lainey twisted her tattered, once-white nightgown, spotted with dingy brown stains. Her lips quivered.
Oh no! A small line of urine trickled down her legs. She cupped her mouth to keep from crying aloud. If she peed on herself, Uncle was going to let her have it. She shook her mother again. “Mama! I’ve got to go to the bathroom!”
Mama did not budge. But Uncle did.
“What do you want?” He snarled at her into the darkness.
Even through the dark, Lainey could see his hateful eyes.
Uncle jumped and came around the bed to grab her shoulders. “What do you want?”
Lainey’s teeth rattled. She opened her mouth but no words came. With a groan, Lainey emptied her bladder. Tears rolled down her face.
“I didn’t mean to,” she said.
Uncle sniffed. “Did you pee on the carpet?”
Lainey shook her head. “It was an accident.”
Uncle bent towards her. His stinky breath hit her in the face. “You’re five years old and old enough to stop peeing on yourself! Your mother’s bragging how smart you are, says you’re reading and writing and all that so you know better. But you know what, you’re just plain nasty. Yes, that’s right. You’re scrawny and nasty, and I can’t stand the sight of you.”
“Ahhh,” Lainey wailed, wiggling her body and holding her head. “Mama,” she screamed, but Mama did not hear her.
Uncle dropped Lainey to the ground. He kicked her in the stomach. “I told you what would happen if you peed yourself again because you’re too lazy to go to the bathroom.”
“I tried to wake Mama,” Lainey said. “I can’t reach the bathroom light and I’m scared of the dark.” Her body shook.
Uncle reached down and snatched her under his arm. “But, no, you want to pee on the floor like you’re a dog.” He rubbed her face into the urine. “I’ll do you like I would a dog.”
The pungent smell of her urine hit her nose. Lainey closed her eyes, pinched her lips tight, and closed her mouth. She knew this was the only way to keep from inhaling or swallowing it. Her hair and gown were wet from pee.
Lainey bucked her body to fight her way out of Uncle’s strong arms. If he released her, she could run and hide. Her leg kicked him in the groin. With a plop, she landed on the floor.
“You kicked me,” Uncle raged.
Like a snake, she slithered under the bed. She saw Mama’s legs hit the floor. “Mama!” Lainey yelled.
The lights came on.
“What’s going on?” Mama seethed. “What’re you doing? Where’s Lainey?”
“Your kid peed the floor and I’m tired of it.”
Lainey saw his big, white feet at the edge of the bed and cowered into the center.
“Don’t you put a hand on her.” Lainey heard her mother’s yell and relaxed. Mama would save her.
Then, she felt a hand curl around her foot. She stiffened her body and dug her fingers into the ratty carpet. But Uncle’s strength outweighed hers. He dragged Lainey from under the bed and picked her up feet first, exposing her.
“Leave her alone,” Mama cried, beating at Uncle with her fists.
Uncle dropped Lainey and shoved Mama. Her mother hit the wall and slinked to the floor. Lainey remembered when they moved into this room and Mama had painted the walls bright yellow. Now the yellow was mixed with dirt from tossed food containers and beer cans. Mama’s head hung near the big hole from when Uncle punched the wall.
Lainey saw her mother’s eyes drift close. Her shoulders sagged. Mama would not be able to help her now. Then Uncle redirected his gaze towards her. Lainey gulped. She scrambled over beer cans. Her tiny hands narrowly missed a sharp needle. Mama said never to touch the cans, needles, or white stuff. Ever.
Uncle kicked the cans out of the way. He grabbed Lainey by the ears and pulled her to stand. His chest heaved. “I’ll show you what happens to girls who don’t know how to listen.” He bunched his fist and hit her right ear.
Lainey screamed and fell to the floor. Her yell made Uncle madder than before; he punched her other ear.
Lainey held her head. “Mama!” Uncle punched and punched her ears. Lainey kicked and scratched at him. “Mama!” Uncle punched again. Blood rolled across her face. “Mama … Mama … Help me.” Uncle kept punching away at her ears. Tears, snot, and blood made it hard for her to see but Lainey stretched a hand towards her mother. “Mama. Please … help.” Lainey went limp. Pain dulled her senses and eyes closed. For the first time in her life, Lainey was no longer afraid of the dark.
Shards of bright light hit her face. Lainey screamed. She woke up kicking and fighting. She remembered Uncle hitting her in the face. She had to stop him. Lainey tried to open her eyes all the way but they hurt. She closed her eyes and clutched her head. There was a bandage around her head.
“Mama!” With effort, Lainey forced her eyes open and looked around the room. Her heart started beating into her chest. Where am I? She was hooked up to monitors and she was cold. She shivered. Where’s Mama? Lainey screamed, afraid to be alone.
A short, brown lady—dark-skinned like her Mama—came over to her. Lainey saw the woman’s lips moving but she could not hear anything.
Lainey panicked. “I can’t hear you. My ears are closed. I can’t hear you.” She grabbed her ears. “Ahhh! I’m trying to scream but I can’t hear myself.”
The lady nodded and said something. Since she could not hear, Lainey focused on the woman’s kind face. The lady wrapped Lainey in her arms.
Lainey stilled. This lady won’t hurt me. Lainey welcomed her soft touch. The lady lowered Lainey back to the bed and bunched the covers around her. Lainey felt a soft kiss on the top of her head.
Then the doctor came in. Lainey knew him. He had fixed her broken arm and stitched her busted lip. She was so glad to see someone she recognized. “I know you! You’re Dr. James,” Lainey said. She knew she said the words right because she saw him nod his head.
“I can’t hear myself, Dr. James,” Lainey said. “Can you fix my ears?”
The lady covered her mouth with her hand.
“Why is she crying?” Lainey’s eyes filled with tears. She looked at Dr. James. “I want my mama.”
For some reason, her words made the lady cry even more. A tall, skinny brown man entered the room and the lady ran into his arms, burying her face in his chest.
Lainey looked at Dr. James. “Please stitch my ears so I can hear. And, can you tell Mama where I am? She might be looking for me.” She was surprised to see Dr. James wipe his eyes.
She saw the needle he held and tried to move. “Mama said no needles!” She wiggled to the edge of the bed away from Dr. James. But Dr. James held her down. The last thing Lainey felt was the pierce from the needle, and then her eyes closed.
“Dratted snooze button,” Melanie muttered, adjusting her Ray Ban’s. It was close to 7:30 a.m. but the sun made its presence known. “I just had to press snooze one more time.”
Boy did she regret her Thursday night Twilight binge. Melanie had stayed up until 2:00 a.m. re-watching the four movies in the Twilight saga. Edward, Jacob, and Bella had filled her thoughts. What she would give to be in Bella’s shoes. She wanted two hot men fighting over her. Heck, she would even settle for one not-so-hot guy calling her ever so often. In the small town of Port Charlotte, pickings were slim, especially for someone with a disability.
Melanie blew her curls out of her face and zipped her grey Infiniti across the lanes. It was mid-January, peak season for snowbirds. The normally scanty traffic lanes on US 41 were packed with Canadian license plates. Where were all these people going at this hour? Aren’t they supposed to be retired?
Melanie saw the amber light ahead and hit the accelerator. She could not miss the light or she would be late and Nancy would be in her face. Melanie whizzed through the light right before it switched to red. She made a fist. Yes! She put on her indicator to make the left turn on Cochran Blvd. Melanie escalated to catch the green turning arrow. She glanced at the clock. She had two minutes to spare. Then she looked into the rearview mirror.
Her eyes widened. Red and blue lights twinkled behind her. Moving at a snail’s pace, Melanie pulled into the mini mall. Because of the early hour, there weren’t many cars in the lot. Besides the Wells Fargo, there was a Books-A-Million, Staples, Big Lots, and a McDonald’s. She hoped the officer would keep going. But he followed her. She rolled her eyes and pulled into a parking space.
Great. Not only was she late, she was also going to be ticketed right outside her job. Melanie served as a bank loan officer and her manager stayed on her butt. Lord, please, now would be a good time for you to show up and show out.
Melanie looked into her left side mirror. She saw tall, muscular legs unfold out of the unmarked police car. He had to be at least 6'3" with light brown hair cropped low on his head. He whipped off his sunglasses. Melanie took hers off as well.
She stole another glance. Mr. Officer is fine. She watched his confident stride. This man should be strutting on a runway somewhere. It was a sin he had his body covered under that green uniform, although he wore it well. She peeked at her reflection in the mirror. Her curls were in disarray. Melanie ran her fingers through the strands before giving up.
The officer tapped on the glass. Melanie jumped even though she knew he was coming. She plastered a smile on her face and lowered her window. She could smell the McDonald’s biscuits and coffee. Her stomach rumbled. There was no way she would have time to hit the drive-thru.
Melanie made sure to keep her eyes on his lips. The officer’s mouth parted to reveal white teeth and a beautiful smile.
“License and insurance,” he said.
Her breath caught. His sharp green eyes made her think of running through the lush fields on a hot Florida day. She tore her eyes away and dug into her brown, oversized Coach bag for her wallet. Her hands shook. This was only her second time being pulled over.
Melanie handed the officer her information.
She observed him keenly, noting the exact moment he saw she was deaf. He shot her a quick, sympathetic glance. Melanie stiffened her shoulders and tossed her hair. “Are you going to give me a ticket?” she asked.
Her voice must have bellowed because he stepped back. “You can speak?”
Melanie covered her eyes with her hands. The sun was already out and viciously making its presence felt.
“I also read lips.” This time she spoke above a whisper, she hoped. She squinted her eyes to read his name badge—Officer Chase Lawson. His name suited him.
“Where are you rushing to this morning, Ms. Benson?” he asked, making sure she could see his mouth.
Hearing the surname Benson jolted Melanie’s memory. She had a flashback of laying in the hospital bed. When Mama awakened from her stupor the next morning, she had taken Lainey to the emergency room. Melanie remembered her mother’s screams and terrified eyes. That was the last memory she had of her mother. Melanie found our Janet had been arrested and she never saw her again.
And as for Uncle, he disappeared.
The lady and gentleman in her room that day were Gary and Rhoda Benson, her foster parents. They adopted her and gave her their name and a new life.
Melanie scrunched her nose. Why am I remembering this now?
The officer lightly touched Melanie’s shoulder to get her attention.
Melanie started. The officer had a hand on his hip, waiting for her answer. She pointed to the bank.
He smiled revealing a set of beautiful teeth. Officer Lawson patted her hand that was resting on the steering wheel. Electricity shot through her spine. Her eyes widened. Had he felt that? Melanie affixed her gaze on his hand.
His thumb caressed hers. He must have caught himself because he removed his hand. “I’m letting you go with a warning,” Officer Lawson said. He made sure she saw his lips.
Did he spare me because I’m deaf? Melanie bristled, “Just give me the ticket if I deserve it.”
He shook his head. “Are you going to argue with me because I’m giving you a break?”
She thought of the points on her license and her insurance bill. He was right. Why was she even arguing? “No, Officer,” Melanie said. “I’ll be sure to go to bed on time tonight.”
He gave a little smile and held out his hand to return her documents to her. “See that you do that.”
Their hands met. This time there was no denying the electric bolt shooting through her system. Her eyes met his. She knew he felt it too. His eyes narrowed. Officer Lawson looked around the still empty parking lot. Then he bent lower so she could see his mouth.
She lifted a brow and nodded.
“Listen, I know this is unconventional and in my seven years on the job, I’ve never done this.” His eyes met her brown ones. He laid that smile on her again. “I’m Chase Lawson.” He held out his hand. Melanie touched his hand briefly.
Her heart thumped but she made a point to look at her watch before looking back at him. Spit it out.
“Would you like to meet up for a cup of coffee sometime?” he asked. “I’m feeling a connection here and I’d like to explore it further—”
Melanie shook her head. “I can’t.”
Chase held a hand up. “Oh, sorry. I should have asked if you’re seeing someone.” She watched a red hue build on his face.
“I’m not,” Melanie said. She jutted her chin. “I don’t like cops. Thanks for the warning, Officer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for work.”
Melanie opened her door and slammed it with a decisive shut. Her caramel-toned skin reddened when she saw her floral skirt was caught in the door. Melanie opened the door to retrieve her skirt.
Chase tapped her on the back.
“Have a nice day,” he said. She saw Chase’s pearly whites and knew he was laughing at her.
Melanie ignored him and held her head high as she walked away. But she had an extra sway in her hips as she made her way toward the bank. Her best friend, Rachel Morrison, let her inside. Melanie turned around to see if Chase was looking, however, he was already in his car. She swallowed her disappointment.
“I see you were pulled over, Miss Speedy,” Rachel said.
Melanie and Rachel were high school friends. The two of them, plus Tricia Yang, her adopted sister, made up the Tres Amigas.
“I almost got a ticket,” Melanie breathed out, smoothing out her fuchsia blouse.
Dressed in a tailored navy blue business suit with matching sandals, Rachel flipped her shoulder-length blond hair. “He could write me up any time,” she said, doing a two-step.
Melanie giggled. “You’re such a flirt.”
“Yes, and I’m proud of it.” Her hazel eyes sparkled. “If that were me, I’d have his number.”
Melanie pictured Chase’s smile and those green eyes. “Actually, he asked me out, but I turned him down,” she said.
Rachel furrowed her brows. “That was one fine man. You could’ve given him a chance.”
“I don’t do cops.” She glared. “You know why.” Although, she agreed Chase was one hot cop.
Rachel nodded. “I do, but I don’t agree.”
“You don’t have to. I’m the one who has to live with my decision. Not you. Between work and my other commitments, I don’t have time for dating.” Melanie made her way to her office and turned on the light. Rachel must have followed her because Melanie felt a tap on her back.
She groaned and faced her friend.
“You don’t mind Emory,” Rachel said. “He’s a police officer.”
“He’s different, and he’s Tricia’s husband. Plus we knew Emory when he was pimpled with thick glasses and braces.”
“True, but he’s now a perfect 10. Who knew Emory would’ve morphed into such a hunk?”
Rachel’s smiled faded. She focused on something behind Melanie. Or rather, someone. Melanie swung around. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Their boss, Nancy Devries, headed their way. Rachel waved at Nancy before going into the adjacent office.
“Melanie, I need to speak with you,” Nancy said.
Melanie took in Nancy’s frumpy grey dress. Which dumpster did Nancy find that in? “I have a busy day ahead of me.”
“This can’t wait. You approved a couple of loans without my approval.”
Lord, I don’t have time for Nancy’s nitpicking. Melanie looked at her watch. The bank was about to open. “How about we meet at 12:30? I have a couple of investment consultations and two loan reviews this morning.”
Nancy bit her lip. “I’ll see you then.” Her eyes swept Melanie’s outfit. “You look colorful.”
“And you look …” Melanie scanned Nancy’s frizzy red hair and ugly brown flats. She could not think of something nice to say. So she said nothing.
Nancy’s mouth popped open before she stomped off.
Melanie felt a hand tap her shoulder.
“Couldn’t you be nice? You’re a child of God. You know better,” Rachel said.
“Yes, I’m a child of God but I’m not a doormat. Nancy only double-checks my work. She signs off on your stuff without a second glance. But she scrutinizes everything I do.” Melanie used sign language for her next comment. “She’s racist and you know it.”
Rachel shook her head. “She’s jealous. Nancy almost got fired when she messed up that money transfer. You would’ve been her replacement,” Rachel signed back.
A customer entered the bank and Rachel went to greet him. Melanie was glad for the interruption. She wandered back into her office to get started on her day. But, ever so often, Chase’s smiling face flashed before her. She touched her hand where his hand had rested. Then she pushed him out of her mind. Her life was too busy for romance—and romancing a cop was out of the question.
“Tell me you didn’t tell him that,” Tricia Yang signed. She flipped her butt length braids. Her half-inch length nails got tangled in her hair.
“She did. A gorgeous cop asked her out and she turns him down flat,” Rachel said.
The three women were at Tricia and Emory’s three bedroom home that Saturday night. They attended church together at Ransomed Hope Seventh Day Baptist on Saturday mornings and usually ended up at each other houses afterwards. Tricia’s husband, Emory, worked as a Sheriff for Lee County. Since Emory was working a night shift, Melanie and Rachel would stay over for a pamper session.
All three women knew sign language. They used a combination of sign language and voice to communicate. Of the three, Tricia signed the most, even though she had a cochlear implant. She liked to keep her skills fresh as she worked as a paraprofessional in a classroom for deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Peace River Elementary.
The women sat cross-legged on the brown industry-type carpet in the living room. They had cotton between their freshly painted toes. The 60-inch TV had a reality show of wanna-be-models on, but the women were not paying attention.
“You know Melanie would never date a cop,” Tricia said. “It was months before she accepted Emory in my life. At least three people on his job has asked her out and she has turned them down.”
However, Chase was the first one Melanie had regrets about. “Emory was all right until he decided to become a cop,” she said.
Rachel held up a hand. “The cops who hauled your mother off to jail were doing their j-o-b. It wasn’t their fault. It was Janet’s. She neglected you. You should’ve given Officer Chase a chance. That’s all I’m saying.”
Melanie rolled her eyes. “Why are you worried about my love life, or lack of one?” There was more to her dislike for cops than that, but Melanie kept that information to herself.
“Because we hate to see you alone. Ever since Dad got his heart attack, you’ve retreated into yourself. It’s like you’re afraid of living,” Tricia answered.
Melanie shook her head. “That’s not true.”
“You reneged on your lease to move back home,” Tricia said.
“Mom needed my help,” Melanie defended.
Rachel chimed in. She made sure Melanie could see her lips. “You gave up your chance for Juilliard. Melanie, you should be in Manhattan dancing on Broadway. You shouldn’t be withering away here in this small backwards town called Port Charlotte.”
“I’m not withering away. You guys are making it sound as if I’m this old spinster with a million cats around me. I’m an investment banker. I have my MBA. I’m doing very well.”
Rachel pulled away and laughed. “You’ll be that spinster scratching her bottom with rollers in her hair if you don’t find someone.”
“Look at you,” Melanie said. “You aren’t dating anyone.”
Rachel’s face reddened. “I’ve dated. I am dating, sort of.”
Melanie straightened. “You’re seeing someone?”
“Why haven’t we heard about this person?” Tricia asked.
The doorbell rang distracting them from their conversation.
“There’s our pizza,” Tricia said. She hobbled to the kitchen where her purse hung on the back of the wooden chair.
“You sure you don’t need some money?” Melanie asked.
Tricia signed, “No worries. I’ve got it. You bought the last time and the time before that.”
Melanie nodded. “I don’t mind.”
“Let me get the paper plates and cups,” Rachel said. She rushed into the kitchen.
Melanie was not fooled. Rachel was trying to avoid the question.
Tricia paid for their three pies and soda, and placed them on the glass coffee table she had purchased at a yard sale.
Melanie blew on her toes before reaching for hand sanitizer in her bag. She longed for a slice of pizza. She was a cheese lover and would eat pizza every day if she could.
She cleaned her hands and snagged a slice.
Rachel returned with the paper goods and napkins. Melanie noticed Tricia was on the phone. Talking to Emory, no doubt.
Melanie finished off her slice and reached for another. She gave Rachel a pointed stare. “So who is this boyfriend?”
Rachel turned her head away. Melanie knew it was on purpose. She tapped Rachel’s foot. “Tell me.”
“He’s no one. It’s complicated,” Rachel signed. For some reason, she could not look Melanie in the eyes. Rachel ate her pizza taking mouse-size bites.
Seeing her discomfort, Melanie dropped the issue. Rachel would tell her when she was ready.
“Pastor’s message was on point today,” Tricia said, after she ended the call.
Melanie welcomed the conversation change. “Yes, my fingers hurt from all the notes I took.”
Pastor Brooks used a sign-language interpreter since his sermons were televised. Melanie was grateful for this accommodation. Her parents had ruled out many other assemblies because they did not have an interpreter.
“I felt like when he talked about Ruth and Naomi, he was talking about me,” Tricia said. “I wonder what my life would have been like if the Benson’s hadn’t adopted me.”
“I’d be dead,” Melanie said.
“I’m so grateful God brought them into my life.” Tricia’s eyes brimmed with tears. “I don’t know why I’m so emotional.”
Melanie understood. When Tricia was twelve, she had the option of returning to her birth mother. Her mother had kicked the drugs and worked in a fast-food chain. The Bensons had sat both girls down to give them the news.
Tricia said, “Don’t make me leave. I like my life here with you guys. You’re my parents. You introduced me to God and a better life. I am home.”
Rhoda hugged Tricia with tears in her eyes. “As long as you want, you have a home here.”
“You can still have a relationship with your mother,” Gary offered.
Tricia nodded. “I would like to get to know her. I know when Peggy abandoned me it was the drugs. It wasn’t her.”
Melanie remembered being awed at Tricia’s big heart. Tricia and Peggy were still in touch. Tricia knew her other brothers and sisters and spent time with them.
Rhoda had urged Melanie to reach out to her mother but Melanie refused. Janet King was in prison and Melanie believed she should stay there.
Suddenly Tricia clutched her stomach. She bolted to her feet and raced to the bathroom. Both Melanie and Rachel abandoned their pizza. They scurried to stand outside the bathroom door.
“What’s happening?” Melanie signed.
“She’s throwing up,” Rachel signed back. She gagged and covered her mouth.
Melanie scrunched her nose. There were times she was glad she could not hear. “You think it’s a virus?” This time of year, many children became sick. Their runny noses and dirty hands made them virus-spreading machines. Tricia could have caught a bug from one of the students.
“I think it might be a nine-month virus,” Rachel said.
Melanie’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
They waited by the door until Tricia came out. Her face was flushed and her eyes teary. Melanie smelled peppermint. She was glad Tricia had brushed her teeth.
“I guess this is a good time for me to tell you I’m expecting,” Tricia said. “I’m about two months along.”
Rachel waved her hands excitedly. She did this instead of screaming for Melanie’s benefit. The women hugged and jumped up and down. Then they huddled together, rubbing Tricia’s stomach.
Seeing Tricia’s joy, Melanie felt a twinge. Tricia had worked through her past and now she was in a wonderful relationship.
Chase’s face came before her. Melanie wondered if he was her chance; her chance at happiness. That thought stayed with her all night.
When she returned home that Sunday, Melanie pulled into the Benson’s residence. Her parents lived in what was known as a mother-daughter home. Melanie exited her car and entered through her separate entrance to a living area. She stepped into her living area. She had thrown matted rugs on the wooden floors. She had found her lima bean colored leather sofa and chair at a garage sale. Her coffee table and end table were hand-me-downs from when her mother re-decorated. But the 55-inch TV was all hers.
Her apartment also featured a master bedroom, shower, and a kitchenette she rarely used. Melanie saw no reason to cook. Rhoda always had something scrumptious warming in the oven on her side of the house.
At the moment, Melanie’s eyes were glued on a letter at her feet. Her mother must have slipped it under her door. Melanie bent to pick up the letter, knowing it was from Janet.
With a sigh, she sauntered into her bedroom. She sat on the queen-sized bed, opened her nightstand drawer, and added the letter to the others. Unopened. Un-read.