By the time Michelle went home, it was almost midnight. She had to take the train followed by two buses in order to get to where she lived—one of the storage rooms of an apartment building. She and Riley used to live in the basement of that building where there was no window, no fridge, no stove so that they had to eat out everyday, even though that place seemed so much better than where Michelle lived currently. She sat down among the equipment and stacks of boxes on an old tarp she found after she moved in, and unpacked her stuffs: a calculator with some basic functions by which she did all the "accounting" so that she could decide what to have for lunch the next day in order to save up and buy those medicines for Riley; a pencil case with a pencil and an eraser in it; a colouring book she found in the dumpster outside a grocery store someday; a pack of colour pencil she borrowed from her school, and then a stuffed animal. Michelle called this Golden Retriever-shaped stuffed animal Holiday, and somehow it lost one of its ears, therefore sometimes at night Michelle can only whisper things into the only ear of Holiday that remained to make him fall asleep.
She was in a good mood that night, because the next day would be the last day of the month, and this meant that tomorrow will be the last day of her working in that apartment building. Her job was to clean the floors of each room inside the building, and she got paid okay. Even though the money was not good enough for her to rent a better place than where she currently lived, it was good enough for her to pay Riley's insurance, pay for the extra special medicine and treatment that Riley needed, and afford daily meals for herself and even save up some money for later. She always appreciated the fact that she didn't have to pay for transition though, given that she had to travel such a long distance from her place to school and from school to where she worked and finally back to her place, it was the best thing ever to get be a student and get a free bus pass sponsored by some funding for students like her.
She coloured the book for a while, humming a little bit and then lay down on her back on the tarp. Nobody disturbed her that night, so she slept soundly and woke up earlier than usual the next morning. She was the first to come to class the next day, even though she usually came in earlier than the most of the class. She was as silent as usual, and hardly anyone in class talked to her. She sat at the back of the classroom, never truly pay attention to her surroundings. She could not see clearly about what had been written on the board. Sometimes if she was really tired from the work of the previous day, she would probably just sleep the whole day through in the classroom so that she would have enough energy to get herself through the next six hours of work from evening till night. And then on some of the days when she could come back home early, she will work on her homework's. She barely passed most of her courses like French, Algebra and Science, except for Writing. Her Writing teacher, Mr. Wolff, seemed to like her work enough to give her an A.
After school she took the train to the upper part of the town where all the rich people lived. In a convenient store in the train station she ordered some chips and a side salad. Usually she would order chips only, with no gravy or cheese curds or vegetables, but today is different. She would get her pay check directly from her manager and then she would be able to buy the last dosage of Riley's medicine, and then according to Riley's doctor Riley would be able to go home, healthy and whole.
She happily finished off her meal, the strawberries in her salad where chopped in halves and arranged nicely in between the lettuce leaves. It was one of her favourite fruits among all. Because sometimes when you saw berries on the dining table it meant that summer was not far from there.
She kept working until eight in the evening, even though her belly did not feel very comfortable ever since her got off the train. She thought maybe it was because she had too much for lunch. Then at around nine when she was about to finish the last room of that day, the situation got worse. She finished off the wiping and then she sat down on the floor next to one of the luxurious looking sofa in the living room. She never dared to touch anything in any room that she had cleaned, as though she would accidentally press some buttons and something would jump and knocked her down. But that day she decided that maybe she could sit on that sofa a little to take a 5-minute break.
She touched the surface of that sofa with one finger tentatively, and it felt like heaven to her. She moved her body closer and then she took off her jacket. Just a little while, she told herself, you would not get a chance to even get close to this after you leave this room. She buried her face deep in the softness of that material, caressed it with her palms like she did to the 'fur' of Holiday's, and she sighed. She wished she would be able to get a sofa like this for Riley so that Riley would not complain about her bad back after a long day of work.
She never knew how she fell asleep on that couch, and even more, she never knew how she didn't woke up even when the owner of the apartment went in. She really hated the fact that, as her classmates put it, sometimes she could sleep like death.
When she was shoved to the floor and kicked on the thigh, she jerked awake immediately, half confused and half frightened. It was her manager who kicked her, and the owner of the house, a blond woman in her late thirties was staring at her with her gray eyes, unpleasantly and harshly.
She stood up and tried to find her jacket.
"Do you know how much it takes to clean the sofa?" The woman asked both the manager and Michelle, as if both of them should be blamed, "Given that now she had thrown herself on it?"
"I don't know what's wrong with her, but she certainly has no idea! I doubt she even cleans herself." The manager stammered. He was a man in his fifties, lanky and shadowy with his mustache, almost bold and he was always in his uniform, "Filthy little wretch!"
"That's not true!" Michelle claimed, "I shower everyday in the gym."
It was okay to have no money, Riley always said, but you had to be clean.
"I'll file the complaint to your company to get the compensation to clean the sofa." The woman said nonchalantly to the manager then turned to Michelle, "Now please get out of my place."
"And that money will come directly from your paycheck for this month," the manager said to Michelle, "plus you don't have to come to work tomorrow. You're fired."
This could not be true, Michelle thought, I must have been stuck in some sort of nightmares. Usually when she was having bad dreams like that Riley would wake her up with a gentle shake and said, "there, there, it's okay, it's nothing but a dream." And then she would have the courage to fell back to sleep.
"No," Michelle exclaimed, she could feel tears start to swell up in her eyes and she couldn't help it. Crying is a sign of weakness, Riley always said, but in fact Michelle had never ever felt so weak in her life, never so helpless, in fact she thought she was going to faint at any moment. All the soreness when she bent over to mop the floors and clean the carpets, all those pains in her arms and back when she tried to handle the heavy lifting, all those wounds and redness on her hands, all of a sudden they all came to her and she said, "Please, madam, please, you couldn't do that. My sister is in the hospital and she really needs the money. And even if she came out I need to get her a better place to stay! She really needs a bed to rest and recover! So, madam, please, please, don't do this, the paycheck is the only thing we have and please don't take that! Please madam, I would do anything…"
She thought her voice sounds stupid and she can hear her accent showing, but before she could finish she was interrupted by the woman, "why is your sister in the hospital?"
"The doctor said she has…" she tried hard to think of the word "pneumonia" but she didn't remember, so she said, "the doctor said she has some lung disease."
She heard the woman snort and said, "Of course your sister is sick. You shameless little liar."
Michelle opened her eyes wide. She just couldn't believe that she just heard this. She looked at the woman blankly. Her belly was still hurting in an ominous way. "I am not lying, please," she said venerably, "She was very sick a couple weeks ago, the doctor said she couldn't even survive…"
She continued to sob, and her audience went silent.
"Fine," the woman finally said, "I won't complain to your boss, but you have to be punished for what you have done."
She asked Michelle to kneel down by the large table in the kitchen. And then someone began to stroke Michele hard on her back with a belt. Michelle thought that it was the manager. At first because of the pain and shock it brought Michelle screamed a little bit, but then the woman said that she was going to receive more strokes if she dared to "utter another syllable".
Michelle didn't know how she did manage to survive without passing out before the woman finally said, "that's enough. I hope that this will be able to teach you a lesson."
"Nothing in this world is free, and you should always go look at yourself in the mirror." The manager said coldly.
Still sobbing and shaking, Michelle stood up and said to the manager, "May I have my paycheck now, sir?"
"Give her the check then." The woman said, "then leave my place. I don't ever want to see you again."
"Holy crap!" the manager cursed, "would you stop crying!" He impatiently took out his check book and then wrote a number.
Michelle quickly scanned the check, making sure that the manager has put everything in a correct format so that the check itself is valid, even though the amount on that check was somewhat less than she had expected. Then she quickly picked up her jacket from the floor and run out of the apartment without saying a word.
She walked down the streets, not sure which way to go. Never had she come here before, nor did she care. On one of the big screen she spotted the time. It was 11: 21 pm. They still had trains, but buses to the suburbs didn't have any schedule after 11 at nights so she cannot reach home. Still being shocked, she walked quickly are if some monsters were going after her.
This was the busiest part of the town by day, and by this time every store on the street is close. She stood by one of the chocolatiers and looked though the window. She had never seen so many chocolates in her life before, and she started to feel dizzy. It was a feeling of extreme hunger, and strangely with such hunger she kind of had the urge to throw up. Agonized, she turned away and walked towards the clothing store next to it, and she could see her own reflection on the shop window.
"you should always go look at yourself."
She stared, not even sure what she is looking at. Those dresses glows mysteriously in the lights at the edges of the window, and she could see the reflection of a scrawny thirteen-year-old girl, a little bit more than 5-inch tall, her pale face with freckles, her dark hair stuck out at the back and too long at the front, one of her eyes has a very poor eyesight so that she had to squint a little bit when looking at things. Her jacket was sewed and washed to many times so that it was not in shape anymore, and one of its pocket is torn. Her jeans were ripped in the inside so that it rubbed her skins and made it bruised a little. She sighed.
Still in life never had Michelle feel so worthless of herself. If people at school laughed at her accent, then she would just speak less, so less to an extend that sometimes she thought she couldn't remember how to speak anymore. If the teachers thought she was a little bit slow since she couldn't spell things correctly in French class, then she would just try to work on her homework after she went back from work and catch up so that she could at least pass the test. Riley would always try the best to make sure to bring Michelle some good food in the lunch box and do laundry every week so that both of them would look clean. And when she was working she always tried her best to make sure her work is in good quality, because Riley had always told her that one should always put the full effort in his or her work, or else he or she rather not even start doing it.
Still after all these efforts to make herself look better than the actual situation made her, she was still a "filthy little wretch", a little beggar who might risk transmitting some disease if she dared to take a nap on the sofa of a well-off, world famous film director's, even when she didn't feel well and had worn herself out.
"you're a fallen star, Chelle." Riley always said that before she tucked her into bed when she was little, "and I picked you up and took you home. How bright and beautiful you were and I am so lucky to have you."
"And I am so lucky to have you too." she would reply to her, sheepishly, "I am so glad that it was you who picked me up. And you are beautiful too. You're the most beautiful one."
She was sweating when she ran out of the director's apartment, now she started to felt cold. Her belly continued to hurt, but now it was nothing compare to the one on her back. She sat on the doorstep of a building, hoping that a little rest would make her feel better, but it hardly did any help.
The night continued to cool, and Michelle thought she need to find a place to lie down. Usually the train station has heat that would not go off for the rest of the night, but Michelle was completely lost of direction and could not find the way back to the train station.
Only then did she realize that the bag that she usually travelled with was not with her—she must have left it somewhere else, along with her water bottle, her writing assignment, the colour pencils borrowed from the school library, the colouring book and Holiday.
The thoughts of losing Holiday made her panicked, but she was too tired and painful to think of any details about where she had put the bag. She continued to walk on the streets, and after ten minutes or so, she couldn't even believe what she saw—there was a pharmacy that is still open, at the corner of the streets. She went close and looked at the inside. Maybe she could find something that can soothe her pain here, she thought, something that is not too expensive and can work well. Even some ointment will be good, she thought.
She pushed the door and then went in. She decided that she was not going to consult anyone. She remembered the first time she went to pick up some medicine for Riley, and she asked the girl whether it was covered by the insurance. The girl replied that it was not so that Michelle had to pay full prize for it. "Are you sure?" Michelle asked. "Yes, I am pretty sure." The girl replied, with contempt in her voice, sensing Michelle's reluctance.
Therefore, Michelle decided to hide her misery and kept on looking. Maybe because she was too desperate, without any instructions she hardly know anything that would help except for the band aid, so she grab one box and then go to the checkout.
She reached her pocket. What she found was a ten-dollar bill and that check, which has already been scrunched by her sweat. She put the band aid down and someone helped her checkout took it.
"Did you find everything okay?" the woman asked.
Michelle lifted her head to look at her, and she found out that the woman was actually smiling at her.
It was that smile that made Michelle gave up. Later when Michelle went back to her place and lay down she could still think of it.
"No, not really." Michelle said with a voice that is so quiet and broken that the woman can barely hear. Once again tonight she felt her tears swollen up, she tried to bite them back but it was in vain.
"Then why don't you come over and tell me what happened?" the woman said, beckoning towards the chair next to the chair by the consulting desk. "by the way, I am Jackie."
"I am Michelle."
"Nice to meet you, Michelle."
She handed Michelle her handkerchief, Michelle hesitated so she urged her, "Come on, swipe your nose like a good little girl."
She then handed her a lollipop. "This one is for you." She said.
Michelle took the lollipop. "Really? It's for me?" she looked at Jackie and Jackie nodded.
She thanked Jackie and knew that she looked pathetic, but she immediately unwrapped the plastic wrap and put the candy in her mouth. She tasted the sweetness for a while, and then self-consciously she looked at Jackie. Even though not that the woman cared. She told Michelle that she picked these from the candy shop in person for young patients, because the brand was her favourite when she was little and sometimes she still enjoyed it as a grown up. Michelle suddenly thought of the fact that Riley won't let her have too many candies since that will ruin her teeth. She looked at Jackie's, and they look as heathy as the ones she saw on a toothbrush commercial.
"so how can I help you?" Jackie asked, still sounded gentle in an endearing way.
"My belly was hurting for a whole day." Michelle said.
"come here," Jackie told her, "you could give me your health card number later."
"I don't actually have a health card." Michelle said, embarrassed. We couldn't afford insurance for another person in this household. It was not going to work anyway, thanks for the lollipop.
Jackie stood there for a second, "come on in anyway, let me take a look at your tummy."
Michelle followed her into one of the room inside the clinic at the back of the pharmacy.
"I am supposed to close the store by midnight." Jackie said, "you're my last patient of the day."
Michelle sat on the edge of the medical bed.
"Why don't you lie flat?" Jackie said, "I'll be right back."
Michelle bet that her back must had been full of cuts and bruises. She lay down anyway. Her hoody was making the situation worst. She wished she could take it off.
When Jackie was pressing her hands on different parts of Michelle's abdomen, Michelle bit her bottom lip so that she won't be screaming out loud because of the back. "does it hurt when I do this?" Jackie asked, pressing her fingers towards Michelle's abdomen where the liver was located. Michelle shook her head. It does hurt somewhere else though.
"Could you tell me which area it hurts then?"
With some hesitation, Michelle stuck out a finger and point at the lower part of the abdomen.
"I see." Jackie said, "Now could you please sit up?"
Michelle did as she told, bewildered.
"Did you see any blood when you go to washroom today?"
Michelle started to worry when she heard the word "blood". "No," she replied, full of confusion and apprehension in her voice.
"Have you ever heard about the word 'menstrual' before?"
Michelle shook her head.
"How old are you?"
"I will be thirteen next month." Michelle answered.
Then Jackie patiently explained the word to her. What the word meant. What would happen if she 'menstruate', and what she supposed to do if she started to bleed tomorrow. And she even provided her something that she could use if that day came.
Riley never talked about this before, Michelle thought.
It was time to leave. Michelle thanked Jackie for everything, and she wished she could stay longer. But nothing is free anyway, except this time.
Still after many thoughts Michelle finally asked, "Jackie, may I ask you one more question?"
"How would you…how would you help him recover if a dog was beaten severely?" she wasn't sure how she could put it so that Jackie would understand the question.
"It all depends then. I'll have to look at the dog first." Jackie was about to turn off the light of the room, when she saw something in Michelle's eyes and then, she walked to her.
She quickly turned Michelle around, with her back facing her. After a while Michelle heard her voice, and it sounded like Jackie herself was about to break down.
"You poor little thing," Jackie said, "Nobody deserves to be treated like that, no matter what he or she have done."
And even if she said something like that, Michelle still found her voice so enjoyable and surreal, even though she herself never liked sympathy much.