Chapter 7: ConfrontationsFor “Sarge”, who has much faith in me, deep and profound insight, and the patience and heart to help guide an occasionally high strung woman through rocky shoals.
Aliquam mi omnia ad utilitatem et provocationem
The shit has hit the fan.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.
Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,
There's a bad moon on the rise.
Karen sighed deeply. She turned to look at Laci in the dim light of the dashboard instruments. “Laci, darling. What is it that’s so important that you have to go back there to get it?”
Laci shrugged. “Just something I need. Please Karen? Please? It’ll only take a minute, and it’s not like I’m going someplace strange. I only lived there with her for, like ever. It’s no worse than it was a few weeks ago when I was there every day.”
Karen sighed again. Her intuition was screaming at her that a bad moon was on the rise. However, Laci’s eyes were pleading, and she couldn’t resist that look. “Laci, I just have a bad feeling.”
Laci rolled her eyes in the way only teenage girls can. “It’ll only take a minute. Drop me off, and I’ll run up and run back. Don’t be such a worry wart.”
Karen let out one more sigh. “OK. If you promise not to screw around, get in, get out.” Karen shifted the car into drive and pulled out.
It was much easier to drive and park on the downtown streets now. The city cleared away the high banks with graders and tractors, and an enormous snow blower came along and chewed up the filthy snow, spitting into the back of dump trucks. Karen wheeled down the seedy street until she was in front of the decrepit 4-story tenement, on the opposite side of the street, where Laci once stayed.
“Now hurry up,” Karen said. “I’m going to go turn around and wait for you right in front, OK?”
“’Kay,” Laci said. She leaned over and kissed Karen before grabbing her new satchel bag and stepping out. “Be right back…promise!” And she darted across the street.
Laci scurried up the steps and into the first floor entryway. It was quiet and cold. She mentally went over what she needed to grab. Not much, really, mostly the Teddy bear. The thought of leaving the Teddy bear Karen gave her, Karen’s own childhood Teddy bear, in that cesspool was unthinkable. Karen probably wouldn’t understand, so it was best to be vague. Besides, why was Karen so afraid?
Laci hurried up the stairs to the second floor landing, tracing her fingers along the banister railing. She stopped in front of the door to the old apartment and listened. It was quiet. She put her hand on the knob, turned it and stepped inside.
Her stomach immediately dropped. The familiar cat-urine smell of meth filled the air. The only lights in the house came from the over-stove fluorescent and a small table lamp in the living room. Her mother and the boyfriend Gerry (or was it Gary?) were sharing a meth pipe in the dim light, beer cans littering the floor. “Well well well,” her mother cackled. “Look what just came through the fucking door.”
Laci froze like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights. High on meth and drunk. Not good.
“Miss High and Fucking Mighty. Where the fuck have you been the last goddamned week, you worthless fucking whore?”
“None of your business,” Laci hollered, unable to think of anything better.
“The fuck it ain’t.” Sandra jumped up and came at Laci, her body as tense as an over-wound watch. Even in the dim light, Laci could see her eyes were like two burnt holes in a blanket. “Where the fuck you been, slut!” Sandra yelled.
Laci’s mouth went dry, and she began to shake. Everything began to appear fuzzy and muddled. Her mother was spoiling for a real fight, and she had Boyfriend to back her up. “What do you care,” Laci said, trying to sound defiant but failing miserably. She quickly skittered to her old room and reached into her closet for the Teddy bear.
Her mother was in no mood to respect the door on this night. Laci stuffed the bear in her bag, and her mother yelled, “What the fuck are you stealing this time, you thieving little cunt whore?”
“Nothing,” Laci cried.
“Lemme see, you fucking thief! Lemme see!”
“No! Leave me alone!”
Laci instinctively tried barging passed her mother, but it didn’t work. Sandra, snarling, grabbed Laci by the hair and swung her open hand, connecting with Laci’s face with a sharp crack. Laci screamed, only dimly hearing her mother say, “I’ll teach you, you no good cocksucking thief! You think you can push me around and get away with it, missy bitch!”
Laci twisted frantically, and managed to slip away before her mother could hit her again. Nothing registered very clearly in her mind. Raw panic took over. She screamed and turned to run away, and ran smack into the boyfriend Gerry. “You little fucking punk!” He sneered, grabbing her by the jacket. “Think you can wiggle your ass and get away with it? Steal my money?” He pushed her back against the trash-laden table sending piles of assorted junk crashing to the floor.
The boyfriend grabbed her by the hair and backhanded her across the side of the head. Laci screamed as loud as she could, but she was sure she might as well be mute for all the good it did.
Her mother came charging at Laci, her fists pin-wheeling wildly as she tried to attack Laci while Gerry held the girl. “I’ll teach you to steal from me you no good ass-sucking little cunt!” Her fists connected several times. Gasping as though she’d run up the stairs, her eyes blazing, Sandra screamed, “I’ll show you, you nasty fucking cunt!”
Laci was sure she was about to be raped and murdered. High on meth, drunk, bitterly angry, bad combination. “I shoulda fucking killed you years ago! You think you’re such a tough bitch, ain’t so fucking tough now, are you?”
“You hold your fucking piss,” the boyfriend Gerry snarled at Sandra. “This little fucking slut whore is mine first, then you can do whatever the fuck you want!”
“Hurry the fuck up! I’m gonna teach this rotten cunt a lesson she shoulda had years ago!”
Laci struggled to free herself, but Gerry the boyfriend grabbed her arm and wrenched it back. In her terror, all she could manage were the piercing cries, “Karen! Karen! Karennnnn! Help me Karen! Oh God, Help Meeeeeeee!”
Karen drove the car around the block so she could park on the right side of the street. She was nervous without really knowing why. Laci was right – wasn’t she? She’d been in that apartment nearly every day until a week ago. Why should it be any different now?
Karen pulled the car up to the curb in front of the house. That’s when it hit her, like a bolt from above. What the fuck are you THINKING! What in God’s name is wrong with you? Letting that child go up there ALONE? Are you high? “Oh God!” she said aloud. Her stomach did a freefall, her heart exploded and ran like an out of control jackhammer. Hands suddenly fumbling, she turned off the car and instinctively pawed at the keys. She yanked them free and burst from the car. The one rational part of her mind still functioning chuckled and said, About to meet the infamous Laci’s mother. If all’s quiet up there, you’re gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do.
Karen ran up the steps of the stoop, ignoring the ice under her heeled boots. She threw the door to the dilapidated tenement open, and instantly understood her fear was well justified.
Laci’s piercing screeches rained down on Karen like arrows. Oddly, no one else in the tenement seemed to care about the commotion. “Karen! Karen! Help me Karen! Please help me!”
For an instant, Karen thought she might vomit. Everything took on a fuzzy quality, and when she ran to the stairs, it seemed she moved with leaden feet as she might in a dream. Was this a dream? It hardly felt real. She climbed the stairs, which seemed to stretch toward eternity. She held her keys clenched in one fist, the end protruding between her middle and index fingers. Losing the keys now would not be good.
The door to the apartment was slightly ajar. Karen ran at it and it burst open with a bang. She might as well have been stepping through the gates of hell. The filth and the smell were appalling. Even worse was the sickening sight of Laci being held by the boyfriend while the mother swung her fists at the child. Karen instinctively screeched in a piercing voice, “Let her go!”
Amazingly, it worked. Perhaps it was shock of her entrance and the force of her voice, but the boyfriend lost his grip and the mother looked at Karen momentarily dumbfounded. Laci skittered free, sobbing.
“Laci! Get out!” Karen hollered. When the child began to protest leaving without her, Karen cut her like a knife. “Get out of here! Now!” Laci obeyed.
“Who the fuck are you?” the boyfriend snarled, regaining his wits.
“I’m not a fucking thirteen year old girl, prick!” Karen roared. “You take me on motherfucker, you better kill me fast, ‘cause I’ll ram your balls down your throat!”
“Who the fuck are you?” Laci’s mother echoed. She grabbed a knife from the filthy sink, and it wasn’t a butter knife.
The boyfriend came toward Karen. She pushed out with her fists, and the end of the car key jabbed deep and hard into his chest, making him yelp with fury as he staggered back. She knew she had to get out. The tough woman act would only carry her so far against two pissed off, methed-up losers. She backed carefully into the hallway, and the boyfriend charged at her. She side-stepped, and just as he roared through the door frame, she stuck her booted foot out. His leg caught it, and in his rage and drugged state, there was nothing he could do.
It was an image that would play over in Karen’s mind again and again, always in slow-motion. The boyfriend pitched forward without putting his hands out to catch himself. Like a gnarled old pine tree under the lumberjack’s saw, he ever so slowly toppled with a kind of sick grace. At last, the side of his face connected with the square corner of the banister’s newel post. There was a huge, loud, deafening crack, as if the gnarled pine snapped its tether to the stump. Blood splattered out in a spray as his head snapped back, and he crashed to the floor. Two sounds: the boyfriend’s cry of outraged pain, and the mother’s hysterical, “Gerry!”
Karen turned quickly. She clomped down the stairs and stepped outside. Laci was leaning out of the car window screaming, “Karen! Karen! Get in the car! Get in the CAR!” the last an ear piercing shriek of pure hysteria.
Karen calmly slid behind the wheel. Her voice firm and irresistible, she demanded, “Laci! Sit down! Put your seat belt on! Now!”
Trembling and sobbing, the girl complied meekly.
From a story above, a window flew up. Sandra flung herself out, almost to the point of tumbling to the ground. “You no good rotten cunt! You hurt my boyfriend. Laci, you fucken slut whore cunt, you ever come back to this house, I will KILL! YOU!”
Karen spun the car around and drove off at the speed limit. Laci sobbed and curled up, unable to speak. On the way, Karen pulled over to let two police cars and an ambulance, sirens blaring, go racing by. Karen knew where they were going. And now, was the moment of reckoning at hand?
Laci remained curled up in the passenger’s seat, quietly sobbing, her cries stabbing Karen’s heart like a dagger. For now, all Karen could do was reach over and squeeze Laci’s thigh. Karen herself trembled all over, a nasty taste lingered in her mouth, and her body was covered in a sticky sheen of sweat.
When they got home, Laci’s tears had subsided to an occasional sob. Laci let out a low, agonized moan that burned into Karen’s soul. Helpless, she reached over and touched Laci’s neck. “Come baby, we’re home.”
Trembling, Laci rose up and slid weakly out of the car. Karen ran around to the other side and slipped her arm around the girl. “Are you okay? Can you walk if I help you?”
“I can walk,” Laci nodded. “I’m okay.”
Karen reached into the car and grabbed Laci’s bag. It amazed Karen that the girl somehow managed to hold on to it while being beaten. The bigger curiosity was why she hung on to it. Why was the bag so important? Karen mentally shrugged. At least the girl was safe. Karen led her into the house.
Karen dropped the bag and helped Laci shed her coat. In the light, Karen was able to get a good look at Laci’s face. She looked spent, totally drained. Her eyes were lusterless, a deeply troubling thing to see in Laci, who’s eyes normally sparkled with entrancing life. She had ugly red marks on the left side of her face, but it didn’t look like any of them would lead to a black eye. Karen bent and kissed her with great tenderness. A mother’s kisses made boo-boos better, Karen thought. How many of Amy’s boo-boos were made better by Karen’s kisses?
“Do you hurt anywhere else, baby girl?”
Laci shook her head. “No, just where they hit me.”
Karen gathered Laci into her arms and held her close. Laci let out a long, quivering breath, but she was otherwise quiet. She kept her cheek pressed against Karen’s breast. Karen stroked Laci’s long hair. Her hair, hair the monstrous, putrid excuse for a human being had grabbed and used to hold her in place. Yet even now, it was as soft as mink. It was one of the things that carried Laci from the merely beautiful to the sublime.
A fresh and horrifying thought arose unbidden in Karen’s still churning brain. An image of what would have happened if she hadn’t gotten there in time, if she’d decided to go put gas in the tank instead of parking in front of the apartment. Rape, a horrible, agonizing, monstrous violation that would have filled the child with a terror beyond comprehension. Then, death, an agonizing death, strangulation, stabbing, beating, while Laci…. Godammit Karen! Stop this insane bullshit! Karen mentally screamed at herself. It didn’t happen, so stop this shit right now!
The thought made her insides tighten up, and a wave of nausea so intense that it brought her close to vomiting swirled through her. When it passed, she kissed Laci’s forehead. “You okay to go upstairs, kitten?”
Laci lifted her head and nodded. “Yes. I feel better when I’m with you.”
She lifted Laci’s chin and kissed her lips with love. “Come on, precious.”
Laci took the stairs easily. Karen put the lights on and sat Laci on the bed. Karen dropped to her knees and pulled the girl’s boots off. When she stood, she helped Laci lay down. “Honey, will you be okay if I go downstairs for just a few minutes? I want to call my secretary to tell her I won’t be in tomorrow, and lock the doors and put the alarms on.”
Laci tried to prop herself on her elbow, and she was partially successful. “I’ll be okay if you’re not gone too long. And when you come back, can you bring me something to drink? I’m thirsty.”
“Absolutely, kitten. What would you like?”
“Anything, long’s it’s cold.”
“My kitten’s wish is my command,” Karen said with smile, and Laci attempted to smile back. Karen kissed her, and she let her lips linger before pulling back. “I’ll be right back,” she said, standing.
Laci felt numb inside. Her thoughts were distant and hazy. She was safe, that’s what mattered, safe with Karen. A good thought peaked through the haze. Karen loved her. There could be no doubt of that any more. Karen had come in and rescued her, and then stayed there so Laci had the time she needed to get away. And then Karen did something else, Laci didn’t know exactly what, just that Karen had done it, and whatever it was, it let Karen get away.
A very disturbing thought tried to enter Laci’s consciousness. Even worse than something bad happening to herself, what if Karen had been hurt, or…. killed? The thought, even vague and indistinct, made her shudder and threatened to release the tears again. Laci knew that if Karen had been killed, she would have had to kill herself. There was no question of alternatives. She grimaced hard to push the thought down.
Karen hated the thought of leaving Laci alone upstairs, but she looked emotionally stable enough to tolerate a few minutes by herself. Karen lit a cigarette – Laci hadn’t been smoking, said it was a part of her old life. Karen kept trying to quit. No way was quitting on the immediate horizon, not with the bullshit that was already roaring down the ‘pike straight at her.
She looked at her watch. She was startled to see it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. It felt like midnight. She quickly called her secretary Marcie’s home phone. Marcie sounded surprised to hear the caller was Karen. “Hi Marcie, sorry to call you at home, but I wanted to let you know I won’t be in tomorrow. Something’s come up.”
“Oh. OK. Is it serious?”
There was no nosiness in Marcie’s question, just concern. Still, Karen’s patience was frayed. “Serious enough that I can’t come in tomorrow,” Karen said much more sharply than she intended. “Sorry to be bitchy Marcie, but my nerves are frazzled. I’ll be in Wednesday.”
The call done, Karen looked in the refrigerator. There was a pitcher of fruit punch, something Laci liked a lot. Karen found a large insulated cup with a cover and straw. She filled it to the top and snapped the cover on. She finished her cigarette and went to the alarm panel, quickly arming the system. She was about to head back upstairs when she kicked Laci’s bag.
She suddenly wondered if whatever it was Laci went up there for in the first place was in the bag. Karen brought the bag to the dining room table, set the drink down, and opened it. At first, it appeared that only Laci’s normal stuff was in there. Then, crammed in a corner, she saw something white. She reached in and instantly froze.
Karen drew her hand out, and she stared at what Laci simply had to retrieve. A wave of dizziness sloshed over her, bringing her close to fainting. Her hand trembled and tears welled in her eyes.
A Teddy bear. Karen’s own childhood Teddy bear, the one that had comforted her on bad nights, the one Amy didn’t care about, the one she had given to Laci instead. A Teddy bear. A godforsaken Teddy bear. And clutched in the bear’s paws, a picture. A picture of Karen with her arm around Laci’s shoulder, Amy carefully excised from it so it was just the two of them. Karen stared at it for…who knows how long. Ten seconds? An hour? A Teddy bear. That’s what the child felt was so important she had to go into a living, breathing hell to retrieve.
Karen’s legs trembled violently. She dropped heavily onto one of the solid wooden chairs. Then the tears came. There was no stopping them this time. Karen dropped the bear on the table, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed violently but quietly, tears streaming down her face in a hot river. Her body hitched with each sob. How, she thought, how could anyone, especially a mother, hurt a child who still loved Teddy bears? Her Teddy bear? The one that made her own hurts better on dark nights; the one that now made Laci’s hurts better. Some monstrosities did not deserve to live. Some bundles of putrefying flesh and bone were not human beings.
They hurt my baby, my love, just because she wanted her Teddy bear. Oh God help us all, and it’s me who would go to jail for loving this child. Can we be any more fucked up?
With great effort, Karen got herself somewhat composed. She had to be strong – very strong – for Laci. Laci was the one who’d been hurt tonight. Karen went to kitchen and ripped off two squares from the paper towel dispenser. She wiped her tears, blew her nose, and took a deep breath.
Karen retrieved Laci’s drink and the bear. She hurried upstairs, pausing a moment to go to the bathroom and wash her face. She didn’t want Laci to know she had been crying. When she returned to the bedroom, Laci had her arm flung over her eyes. She lifted her arm and looked at Karen with a puzzled expression. “I was starting to worry,” Laci said softly.
Karen helped her up and gave her the cup. Laci sucked gulp after gulp of punch through the straw, watching Karen closely. Karen put the bear on the vanity, and when she turned around, Laci was looking at her with worried, sad eyes. Karen could feel her heart tremble again. “Karen, you’ve been crying. I didn’t mean for you to be upset or sad.”
Karen sat down next to Laci. “Oh kitten, you didn’t do anything to upset me, oh no honey girl.”
“Why were you crying?” Laci instinctively knew it had something to do with the Teddy bear, but she couldn’t understand exactly what it was.
“Oh honey. Just the stress. We’ve both had a pretty intense evening, you much more than me. It all kind of caught up with me downstairs. I’m better now. Really. Are you okay?”
Laci looked down. “I think so. Like I said, as long as you’re with me, I’m okay. Karen?”
Karen caressed Laci’s cheek. “Yes baby?”
“I love you. I just love you so much, and I don’t know how to say it any harder.”
Karen glanced at the bear. “Yes you do know how to say it harder, and you have kitten, trust me, you have. Come, let’s change into our jammies.”
Laci thought she understood what Karen meant; it had something to do with the bear, but Laci’s brain was too overwhelmed to makes sense of such things just yet.
Karen went to the bureau and got clean night clothes, a flannel nightie for herself, and the pink Hello Kitty footie pajamas they’d bought just last Saturday for Laci. She helped Laci undress – Laci’s role was limited to lifting her arms and standing when Karen told her to. This is what real mothers do, Laci thought. They help their children when they need it.
Karen carefully undressed her girl lover, pulling her sweater off, unbuttoning her new jeans, so tight she had to wriggle them down. Laci stepped out of them and remained standing so Karen could remove her bra. Karen looked Laci up and down, searching for bruises. The sight of Laci’s near perfect body stirred no sexual feelings in Karen this night. Feeling such a hunger tonight, never mind attempting to act on it, would be a sacrilege.
“Are footies OK?” she asked. “Not too warm?”
“No, I like footies.”
Karen finished dressing the child, then quickly undressed herself. “Laci honey, can you unhook my bra?”
When Laci unhooked Karen’s bra, she couldn’t resist laying her cheek on Karen’s back so she could feel her mother-lover’s soft, warm skin touching her own flesh. She turned her head so she could kiss Karen between her shoulder blades. She suddenly felt like crying again, and it was only with effort that she controlled herself.
Karen pulled her nightie on and turned to take Laci in her arms. Oh how she loved the girl, everything about her. She remembered the times after she first met Laci, how captivated she was by the child’s beauty, her sweetness, her appreciation for any kindness shown her. She resisted having Karen pick her up for visits, and when Karen did, it was always at the public library. “She doesn’t want you to see where she lives,” Amy had explained to Karen. Laci was appalled when Karen mentioned it might be a good idea to meet her mother. Laci’s horrified expression had so moved Karen that she dropped the subject. Was it that bad? Oh Karen, you were so damned naive.
Karen knew from the address that Laci came from one of the worst neighborhoods in town. She didn’t know how bad until she drove down the street one afternoon. It appalled her. Closely packed 4 and 5 story apartments with decrepit stoops; street and sidewalks teeming with filthy, partially dressed children of all ages; tough, tattooed, and pierced men swaggering cockily down the street, many being lead by menacing pit-bulls; drunks staggering up the sidewalks; drugs sold openly; girls of Laci’s age smoking and flirting with adult men; mothers, some enormously fat, some extremely skinny, many toothless, yelled and screamed at kids of varying ages, screamed and yelled at neighbors over imagined slights. This was Laci’s world. No. Appalled didn’t begin to describe Karen’s reaction.
How did such a world manage to produce a Laci? How did the child manage to maintain not only a decent attitude, but actually thrive when finally in a decent environment? From the moment of her drive through Laci’s world, Karen made sure the girl always had a place to escape the madness of her day to day life. The child was amazing.
And now. Now. That world came frighteningly close to destroying one of it’s few beautiful flowers. No, not that world, but products of that world.
Karen snapped her mp3 player into the dock and scrolled the playlists. “Midnight Blue”. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, but beautiful – and appropriate. Karen dimmed the lights. The sound of Beethoven, “Moonlight Sonata”, dark and morose, rippled from the stereo system, its haunting melody filling the room like an ocean fog. Fitting Karen thought, peering out the window. The moon was just passed full, but it was strong and bright. Cold hearted orb that rules the night.
Karen took a red hair scrunchy from the vanity and sat down on the bed next to Laci. She raked her fingers through Laci’s silky mane, caressing it. Laci looked up at Karen, her face at last reposed. Karen smiled gently and traced her fingers over the girl’s silky cheeks. “Good God Laci,” she murmured. “I never believed it was possible to love someone as much as I love you.”
Laci’s emerald green eyes were open and guileless, filled with unspoken trust. Karen’s chest hitched briefly and tears threatened. No, not now, she thought. Laci turned her cheek toward Karen’s caresses. Like drops of rain, the gentle notes of “Fur Elise” fell around them. “That song is pretty,” Laci whispered. “What is it?
“ It’s called Für Elise. Beethoven wrote it for a young girl he really loved.”
“That’s why you’re playing it?”
“Yes, baby girl. I love you so much, the music is the nearest I can come to telling you how much.”
“Oh God Karen….” A single tear welled out.
“Sshhhh, kitten. Let Beethoven talk for us.” Karen gathered up Laci’s hair and carefully twisted it into a loose knot atop the girl’s head. She stretched the scrunchy on the nest of silk. She traced her fingers down the back of Laci’s neck, and her kitten shivered. She dipped down to kiss Laci’s neck as softly as a butterfly might.
Now Beethoven gave way to the gently stroking, caressing strings of “Elvira Madigan”, making Karen’s heart ache. She stood up and took Laci by the hands. She tenderly pulled Laci close, draping one arm around her waist and taking the girl’s hand in her fingers. Laci moved close, resting her face against Karen’s breast, breathing in the lilac scent of her mother-lover’s cologne.
Karen stepped, turned, stepped, turned, swaying her hips gently, leading the girl. “Karen. I don’t know how to dance.”
“Yes you do baby. Follow me, and let the music tell your heart how to move.”
Laci let the sounds swirl around her like smoke. She heard Karen’s heart beating. Karen was right. The music told her how to move. Her heart found the tempo and she stepped, swayed, stepped, swayed. “It’s beautiful, Karen.”
“What is it?”
“Mozart. Elvira Madigan.”
“It makes me want to cry.”
Karen kissed the top of Laci’s head. “Me too, kitten. Me too.”
At last, Karen laid her cheek atop Laci’s head and surrendered to her tears.