The bad dream had scared her, so Katie Scanlon decided to get it right out of her head.
After she shoved her toys off to one side, she spread out a long roll of shelf paper. She grabbed a box of crayons and Magic Markers and plunked herself down on the paper. Scowling, she began to draw her nightmare in big wide strokes.
First, she drew her father driving some old kind of car. It was dinged and rusty and had no top.
Next, she drew herself there on the seat beside him. They were going down a country road. The car was moving so fast that the wind made her hair fly straight back.
In her nightmare, she screamed, Daddy, stop! We're going to crash! She scribbled her mouth wide open, but not one bit of voice came out.
Her father stomped on the gas and looked angry and mean. He headed straight for a cliff. The car's red fenders snapped out into wings. The thing whirled around like it was caught in a tornado. Then it shot straight up toward a big orange sun.
Terrified, Katie fell out.
Her heart started pounding. I'm only six, she thought. If I fall to the ground, I'll die!
Things looked pretty bad, but she knew what to do. She grabbed her bright yellow marker and drew in her pet canary. He streaked off to save her. His wings moved so fast that they blurred.
The bird grabbed her shirt in his beak. He pulled really hard, but he dropped her. She fell and fell for a million miles and then landed on the branch of a big green tree.
Gasping, she sat staring up at her dad. He was spinning around in his old red car, and he kept growing smaller and smaller.
If he touches the sun, he will melt, Katie thought, and she frowned.
"Put away your art stuff, Pickle. It's time for us to go." Startled by her mother's voice, Katie jumped to her feet, and the nightmare dissolved.
She rolled up her scary drawing and hid it under her bed. It was not for Daddy to see! She turned toward the cage and blew a kiss to her canary. "Bye, Mr. Sunshine."
Tweet, said the bird. His beady black eyes followed her as she skipped through the door and was gone.
* * *
Today was Katie's idea of an absolutely perfect day. She and her mother would be off by themselves, and her dad would be nowhere in sight.
Mother and daughter were headed for the Lancaster Library to see a film presentation on Bali. The two of them sat transfixed in the auditorium, watching a troupe of Balinese dancers move fluidly across the screen. Some of the dancers were barely older than Katie. They were gorgeous little girls tightly wrapped in brilliantly colored costumes made of brocaded silk, their graceful hands arched dramatically backward, and the toes of their bare feet curled upward like Aladdin's shoes.
"Oh, Mommy, they are so pretty!" cried Katie, and her mother smiled. Katie liked it when her mother smiled. It seemed like it had been forever since that had happened.
A flashy movement drew Katie's eye back to the screen. "What's that?" Katie jumped out of her seat to point at the screen. Her mother gently tugged her back into the chair as a fierce, lion-headed creature stumbled out onto the stage.
"It's the Barong," whispered her mother. "A mythical Balinese character."
"A what?" asked Katie. Her mother's response was drowned out, for the roomful of children was roaring with laughter.
Katie stared at the beast. It was a pretty weird thing all right. Its body was black, and its face a rainbow of gold and reds and oranges. Its back end seemed to move differently from the front. Katie spotted one pair of legs in the front and another in the back, so she figured two people had to be in there.
Mr. Front Legs wore an awesome mask with eyes that stuck out, long, sharp teeth, and a big red tongue. His hair looked like the scratchy tumbleweeds she had once chased on a road trip to Arizona.
Mr. Back Legs waggled a long, glittery tail. He kept kicking out to the back like a donkey. Mr. Front Legs kept whirling around, trying to see what Mr. Back Legs was doing. Katie clapped in delight.
After performing a couple of fancy steps, Mr. Back Legs comically plunked himself down on the floor, bringing the dance to a complete halt. Maybe that was what her dad meant by lead in the butt. Her dad said that to her when she didn't move fast enough. At the thought of her dad, a frown crossed Katie's face. Soon, she forgot, however, and joined the others in shrieks of laughter.
When the presentation was over and the lights came up, Catherine Scanlon took Katie to the shelves to find a book. "I want to dance like those pretty girls, Mommy. I want to wear those sparkly dresses. May we go there someday, Mommy?"
"This is an amazing world. Anything's possible. Just keep on dreaming." Catherine stroked Katie's sun-streaked hair, filled with love for her precious child.
After careful discussion, they chose one book and checked it out. It was the one that Katie liked best, for it had photographs of little Balinese girls in training to be dancers. Outside the library, as they descended the stairs, Katie clutched the book to her chest and hugged it tightly. "I can hardly wait to read my book. I love the way those dancers looked. They were beautiful!"
"They're just your age, Katie. In Bali, girls learn to dance when they're very young."
"Like I did?"
"Just like you, Pickle." Catherine smiled. Her passion was ballet. She earned her living teaching clusters of bubbly little girls, showing them how to point their toes, turn out their knees, stand tall, and be graceful. Her treasured Katie had been one of her most ardent students since she was three. "I love dancing," her daughter would say. "I love dancing more than anything else in the world."
Together, mother and child walked hand in hand down the tree-lined street, the setting sun warm on their backs. Catherine was glad it was summer. She loved the sultry, fragrant air and the sight of hawks circling lazily overhead. She loved the chattering of squirrels and the laughter of children out of school. She even liked their simple house—a wooden bungalow built in the 1930s, its white paint starting to peel. The little house reminded her of her grandmother's place, and that was comforting at times.
As they turned the corner, they saw that no car was parked in the drive. Katie giggled and did a little jig. "Good. Daddy's gone."
Catherine frowned. Since the plant had shut down last winter, Luke spent afternoons playing pool at the bar, coming home surly and mean, and yelling at Katie for the smallest infraction of his unpredictable "rules." He was becoming famed for his alcoholic rages.
"Daddy's not home. You can read to me," announced Katie. She clambered up the stairs to the front porch, her shoes making little clip-clop sounds against the wood.
"Eat supper first ... and get ready for bed. Then we'll learn about the beautiful dancers of Bali."
Katie wrinkled up her nose. "Oh, do I have to? Can't we read first?"
Catherine shook her head. "Nope. Reading time will be here soon enough. Go get ready."
Catherine unlocked the door, and the fragrance of chicken stew wafted over them. She scrubbed her hands at the sink and then dished out the stew from the Crock-Pot, while Katie washed up and scrambled into her pink pajamas. Catherine laughed. "Nothing like a book to make you hurry."
"I love books, 'specially when you read them, Mommy." Katie climbed into her chair. "May I say grace?" she asked, hoping that would hurry things along.
"As soon as I'm seated," Catherine smiled. After she took out a small breadboard, she sliced a baguette and carried it to the table along with a dish of yellow butter. After she placed two steaming bowls of stew on the table, Catherine pulled out her chair and said, "All right. Ready, set, begin!"
Katie kept one eye closed and the other one on her mother. "Dear God, thank you for the food we are about to receive. And thank you for showing me the pretty dancers. Amen."
Katie first buttered her bread and then tasted her stew, chattering all the while. "Don't talk with your mouth full," admonished her mother.
When dinner was finished, Catherine carried plates to the sink to be scraped and washed after reading time was over. Katie set about doing her pet-keeping chores, which involved the care and feeding of Mr. Sunshine, her small canary.
Now Mr. Sunshine was no ordinary yellow bird. He had been given to Katie by Mr. Wu, who ran the Chinese laundry at the end of the street. Mr. Sunshine was a genuine Chinese fortune bird, one that had been trained to select rolled-up paper fortunes from a tiny wicker basket. If you gave a coin to Mr. Wu, he would put a pinch of birdseed on his palm and show it to Mr. Sunshine. The little bird would then hop over to the basket and select one of dozens of paper fortunes. After the bird grabbed it with his beak, he would carry it back to Mr. Wu and then drop the fortune into the man's palm before he devoured the birdseed.
It was pretty amazing, or so the children in Katie's ballet class thought. Of course, the words in the fortunes were written in Chinese, but that did not matter. Everyone simply made up their own translations. That way they were totally happy with the fortune they received.
When Mr. Wu moved back to China, Katie inherited the bird. She solemnly promised to take wonderful care of the Mr. Sunshine, and she did. She cleaned his cage every day and gave him fresh seed and water. The little canary became a treasured member of the family. When friends came over, Katie charged just one penny to show off her bird's amazing fortune-telling skills. As for those who had no penny, there was always a bowl of copper coins waiting by the cage.
Each evening, Kati played the fortune game with Mr. Sunshine. Busy as she was, tonight was no exception. She dropped a bit of seed into her palm and thrust it toward the tiny bird. Mr. Sunshine cocked his head to one side and stared at Katie with beady little eyes before he hopped away to pick the perfect fortune. He dug through the wicker basket, selected one, and bounced back, the rolled-up paper clutched tightly in his beak. Katie opened her hand to receive the fortune, and he politely picked up the seed. Katie smiled. She was convinced that this fortune would be a great one, and she tucked it in her pajama pocket to read later when she was in bed. She felt her tiny bird was always looking out for her. She and Mr. Sunshine were the very best of friends.
Catherine smiled and patted her hand on the old leather couch. "Come on, Katie. Let's get started." The little girl jumped up on the couch, and her mother opened the fabulous coffee-table tome filled with beautiful color portraits of Balinese dancers.
It was a book meant for grown-ups, not children. Catherine had to edit the text, which was much too academic for a six-year-old. But the photographs—oh, the photographs! They were pure magic: brilliant costumes in rich, vibrant colors, golden crowns and diadems, flowers, sarongs, sashes, phantasmagorical masks, and headdresses. It was the stuff of dreams. Threaded through the book were photographs of wondrous little girls, all six or eight or ten years old, dressed in dazzling silks, their expressive eyes lined with black and their lips painted crimson.
These were the Legong dancers. They were trained from infancy in the graceful art of temple dance, taught to curl their fingers and toes up toward the sky and to theatrically roll their eyes from side to side. Pictures of the Legong dancers proved especially fascinating for Katie, for the girls were about her age and divinely dressed.
Catherine's reverie was broken by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.
"Daddy," Katie scowled.
The car door slammed, and they could hear Luke swearing. "Goddamn it! Caught my thumb. Fuckin' car." There was a loud thud as Luke kicked the car door closed. Oh, God, he's drunk, thought Catherine.
"Hop into bed, Pickle. Here, take the book." Katie knew the routine and rapidly followed her mother's instructions. Catherine quickly ushered her daughter into her bedroom and closed the door behind her.
After she took a deep breath, Catherine went to the front door and opened it. "Luke, are you okay?"
Luke lurched up the steps, obviously inebriated. "No, I am not! I broke my goddamn thumb. I told you to get that door fixed. I told you!"
"The door shuts just fine," Catherine said evenly. "It just sticks a little when you unlock it."
"It slammed on my thumb!"
"Here, put ice on it." Catherine opened the freezer to get out some ice.
"Hell, that won't help my thumb. Ice is for putting in drinks. Where's the vodka?"
"Wherever you put it."
Luke started rummaging through the pantry. "What did you do? Hide it?"
"Maybe you drank it."
He swiveled to face her. "What's that supposed to mean?" When he saw the Crock-Pot, he lifted the lid. "What kinda slop are you feeding my kid?" He took a deep inhale and slammed down the lid. "Ugh. Chicken slop. I don't know how she eats that crap." Luke's eyes ricocheted around the room. "Where is Katie anyway? I wanna see my kid."
Catherine found herself feeling increasingly nervous. "Luke, she's in bed."
Luke moved toward the bedroom door. "Yeah? Well, she's my kid, and you are really pissing me off! I say it's too damned early for her to go to bad. Other kids stay up till midnight."
Catherine stepped protectively between Luke and their daughter's door to block him from entering.
"Leave Katie alone, Luke. She's tired."
"That's 'cause you work her like a horse down at that damned dance studio. I'm gonna see my baby, and you're not gonna stop me!" Luke swept Catherine aside and pushed open the door. The room was dark. Katie curled up on the bed, feigning sleep, her eyes scrunched tightly shut.
"Katie. Hey, Katie. Papa's home," Luke leaned down to kiss her. He smelled sour like he was made of smoke and sweat and something bitter. Katie did not like it when he smelled like that. Bad things happened when he smelled like that. Go away, Daddy, she thought, and squeezed her eyes even tighter. "Cute little girl," he said, stroking her tangled hair. "You're my cute little girl." Suddenly, he gave one of the strands a jerk. She flinched. For one brief instant, her eyes flew open and then snapped back shut. Her father grinned. "Hey, Katie, you're a good little sleeper just like your old man."
Catherine pulled Luke by the arm and coaxed him back toward the door. "I think I saw some vodka in the garage. A bit left in a bottle."
"Huh. Garage. What's it doin' out there?" Distracted, Luke stumbled back into the living room as Catherine shut Katie's door firmly behind them.
With her parents gone, Katie came back to life. She rubbed her head where her father had pulled her hair. Then she took the Balinese book out from under the bed, turned on a small flashlight, and studied the brilliantly colored pictures. As she turned the pages, she did her best to ignore her parents fighting in the background. Luke's voice drifted in beneath the door. "Damned kitchen's a filthy mess. Every roach in Ohio's gonna come for the party."