Where We Used To Live
By Janet Tay Hui Ching
Third Uncle lives above the coffee shop he runs downstairs, Mama tells me on the bus. Coffee shop means soft-boiled eggs, kaya toast and hot Milo Mei Mei and I drink from saucers because it cools down faster that way. Mei Mei and I have decided that the coffee shop near where we used to live has the best chicken rice in the world. When I tell Mama this, she laughs and says I'm in for a nice surprise at Third Uncle's coffee shop.
All the seats on the bus are filled. There are some people like us, a mother and two children, and others with a father, mother and three children. An old lady with five plastic bags of rambutans and green leafy vegetables snores as she sleeps three rows in front of us, and one boy at the back cries from time to time until his father gives him some sweets. I hope Mei Mei won't notice and pull the same trick on Mama, except it won't work because Mama doesn't have any sweets on her.
While Mei Mei sleeps on Mama's lap, Mama tells me I will like Singapore very much. Mama says when Mei Mei and I were very little, we used to live with Third Uncle, so it would be nice for him to see us again. Throughout the bus journey, Mei Mei sleeps like the little pig that she is, and when Mama isn't talking to me, she just closes her eyes while I look out the bus window, staring at the trees that we pass, a blur of green and brown. The smells of dirt and smoke from outside are mixed with stale sweat in the bus and I sometimes bury my face in Mama's sleeve so I can smell roses instead.
When we arrive in Singapore, I am excited to see the sea. I have only seen it once, when we went to the beach a long time ago, when Papa was still around and Mei Mei wasn't born yet. Even though I was very small then, I can still remember the salty seawater I tasted when Papa carried me to the sea and held me in his arms while the waves crashed against us. But I wasn't scared, because Papa was there to block the waves. And I remember Mama in her sky-blue swimsuit, laughing, calling Papa and asking him to be careful with me. I look out the bus window and the sea is just next to me, with little boats and ships that bob peacefully at the harbour.
The bus does not stop at the coffee shop but a station far from there, and we have to walk the rest of the way. It is sunny so Mama gives me an umbrella and shares one with Mei Mei. It doesn't take very long for Mei Mei to start complaining that she is tired, so Mama carries her. I prod Mei Mei and call her lazy and she sticks out her tongue at me. There are cars and bicycles that speed past us, and the smoke from the cars and the dust they leave behind makes us cough. A few men in singlets and shorts are resting against trees lining the road, just sitting around doing nothing. As we walk by, they whistle at Mama and call out to her but Mama ignores them and tells me to do the same.
When we arrive at the coffee shop, it is already mid-afternoon and quiet. People are supposed to be working at this time. Mama was never at home in the afternoon because she was at work. That's when Auntie Jenny would be around, because she worked only at night, so during the day she would come over to take care of us. Sometimes she fell asleep on the sofa with a magazine on her chest, the kind that had pictures of pretty women in nice dresses. Auntie Jenny left these magazines behind, but Mama seldom read them. I would pick them up instead, and admire the beautiful women, who looked nothing like the women I knew – the lady with the loud, raspy voice who sold Mama bread and rice; the grumpy old woman who sometimes gave Mama clothes to sew and complained Mama charged too much; and the pig-tailed girl who sold iced lollies on hot days just downstairs from our house. Only Auntie Jenny looked anything like these women in the magazines, with her shiny red nails and shimmering red lips, her glossy hair that fell in curls over her shoulders. The way she smiled at men – the uncle who sold newspaper and the man from whom she bought boiled barley-flavoured sweets for us – she smiled the same way the women in the magazines did. It was a satisfied, secretive smile. Like she knew something you didn't. Auntie Jenny never smiled like that at us.
There is only one customer in the coffee shop, sitting in a far corner at one of the marble-top wooden tables. He has a newspaper spread out on the table and occasionally takes a sip from his coffee cup. He glances at us, then goes back to his newspaper. The coffee shop is old, but I love the smell of milk, coffee and fragrant chicken that all come together in a comforting, familiar scent. There are posters of bare-shouldered women in low-cut, tight dresses with long slits up their thighs, posing next to glasses of Guinness Stout on the walls. They remind me of Auntie Jenny, which is nice, but I don't like Guinness Stout because there used to be so many bottles of it in our kitchen, when Papa was still around. Mama used to tell us that when there were empty bottles on the kitchen table, that meant Papa had too much to drink and we were supposed to stay in our room and go to sleep early.
The light green mosaic tiles on the coffee shop floor look dirty and I try not to step on an old cigarette butt as I grip Mama's hand even tighter. The fans, blackened with dust and age, turn lazily above us but it is still hot because there are large metal pots of chicken soup simmering. Mama pulls Mei Mei and me away from the hot pots and tells us to be careful.
A man, older than Papa, is stirring a pot of soup and reaches out for some chopped spring onion in a bowl on his right. Mama calls him Third Brother and he turns around, giving Mei Mei and me a little shock. He has an ugly scar on the side of his face, a brown, lumpy worm that stretches from his eye to his mouth. Mei Mei cries out, "Ghost!" Mama quickly covers Mei Mei's mouth with her palm and I pull Mei Mei away from Third Uncle, not because I think he's a ghost too but because I don't want Mei Mei to be any ruder than she already is. Sometimes I think we should just tape over Mei Mei's mouth so she won't cry or say things that make people stare.
"I'm sorry, Third Brother, small children, they don't know any better," Mama says apologetically to Third Uncle. Even though the scar looks scary, his kind eyes make me like him immediately. He gives me and Mei Mei a small smile.
"So you're here," he says to Mama. "Where's the bastard?" I gasp, surprised that Third Uncle had used a bad word. Mei Mei giggles.
"He's not… we're not… he's gone. It's just me now, and the children."
"This should've happened years ago," Third Uncle says to Mama while he chops a whole steamed chicken into small pieces. Mei Mei and I watch and I see Mei Mei licking her lips. I feel like covering her mouth. 'Are the children hungry?' he asks. I feel embarrassed – he must have seen Mei Mei shamelessly staring at the chicken like a stray dog.
"Thank you, we ate before the trip," Mama says politely but Mei Mei starts to cry. I have my palm ready to cover her mouth when Third Uncle puts a plate of cut chicken drumsticks on the table and gestures for us to sit there. "I'll give them some rice too."
"Say thank you to Third Uncle," Mama says. Mei Mei and I obey, and snatch pieces of the tender and juicy chicken that appear before us on the table. We eat as many pieces as we can, smacking our lips noisily. Mama doesn't eat, but sits with us, her eyes not daring to meet Third Uncle's, as he continues to chop more chicken silently.
"They're very well-behaved," Mama says to Third Uncle.
"They'll take the boys' room," he says to Mama. He's chopped two chickens by now. I marvel at how quick his hands are, worrying that he might accidentally chop off one of his fingers if he's not careful.
I have never met my cousins. I wonder if we will be living upstairs. Mama keeps telling me it's not that different from home. We used to live on the first floor of a shop and there was only one room where we slept. I know big houses have so many more rooms, like the ones Mama cleaned once or twice a week, where she would bring Mei Mei and me when the owners weren't home.
We had taken the bus from Kuala Lumpur, right after we buried Auntie Jenny in a cemetery. At first there were only the three of us there, then a man in a dark suit came but left very quickly after Mama started to scream "Murderer! Murderer!" at him. Mama had been calm before we arrived at the cemetery, even talking a little to the taxi man on the way there, but once she saw Auntie Jenny in the coffin, she started crying and couldn't stop so that the two handkerchiefs she had were completely drenched with tears. I cried too because Mama looked so sad, sadder than anytime I'd ever seen her in her life, even after Papa left. Auntie Jenny looked beautiful, as usual, in one of her favourite dresses, which was also my favourite dress – a dark blue silk cheongsam with a gold phoenix that started from her collar to her waist. She had a pretty blue rose in her hair too; Mama had one specially painted for Auntie Jenny. The man that came was tall and handsome, with a bit of grey in his black hair. He looked sad, but Mama shooed him away so quickly I didn't have time to see whether he was crying or not. He hurried away to a white Mercedes parked just outside the entrance to the cemetery while Mama ran after him, shouting angrily, until the car sped off.
After the coffin had been lowered into the ground, Mama took Mei Mei and me back to the taxi, where the taxi man was smoking while waiting for us. It didn't take long for us to arrive at the bus station, and we were just in time to catch the bus before it left.
Mama used to complain that it was too dark in the shophouse where we used to live, that the walls needed repainting and the wooden floor planks needed changing. She said she didn't want Mei Mei and me to get hurt from splinters that popped up between the planks. The adults sat on a faded brown sofa Mama bought from a friend, not new, she said, but comfortable. I saw tears at the legs of the chair, the fabric had some holes in it, but Mama said it didn't matter because adults don't bend down and peer as closely as we do, so they wouldn't see the tears. Sometimes Mei Mei and I fell asleep on the sofa after we got tired from playing. Even though it was a bit old and smelled like sweat, I preferred to sleep on the sofa. It was softer than our bed, which was a thin mattress on a wooden frame, where all three of us slept. I kept telling Mama, I'm too big and I need my own bed, but Mama insisted there wasn't room and besides, it was safer for all three of us to sleep together so she could make sure we didn't get nightmares or bad people didn't come in the middle of the night to take us away to sell. I laughed and told Mama that no one would want to buy Mei Mei or even take her for free. Mei Mei is five years old and she is loud and likes to break my toys. Mama always scolds Mei Mei and asks her not to play so roughly but she never listens and starts crying instead.
Mama was always busy. Auntie Jenny told me that Mama had two jobs, one during the day and one at night. Even on weekends, when I didn't have school, Mama would be working. Auntie Jenny told me this when she came over, when Mama was at work. I liked Auntie Jenny because she didn't give in to Mei Mei all the time, even when Mei Mei cried. She tried to scare Auntie Jenny by crying so hard I had to cover my ears with my hands or go to the toilet and shut the door behind me, but when I came out Auntie Jenny would be happily sewing something, ignoring Mei Mei, or watching television that was loud enough to drown out Mei Mei's crying. And after a while, Mei Mei stopped. I was amazed when that happened, so Auntie Jenny was a hero to me. Anyone who can put up with Mei Mei is a hero.
Even though Aunty Jenny was the same age as Mama, she wore brighter clothes, nice flowery dresses that came in many different colours. My favourite colour is blue and her dresses came in yellow, orange, red, pink, green, blue and white. Sometimes I wish Mama would dress like Auntie Jenny but I know we don't have enough money to buy Mama nice dresses. I asked Auntie Jenny how much a dress like hers cost and she told me they were very expensive.
"Your Mama would have to work three jobs to buy dresses like mine," she said.
"You must be so rich," I told Auntie Jenny, who laughed and shook her head.
"I get other people to buy me these dresses, girl," she told me and stroked my hair. I liked it when Auntie Jenny stroked my hair. Mama used to stroke my hair too but she's been so busy since Papa left us. I remember crying very hard when Mama told me Papa wasn't coming home anymore. My friend San San in school asked if Papa died, like her father did, but when I asked Mama she said it wasn't like that, he just left us to live with another woman. I didn't understand why Papa would want to leave Mama for another woman when Mama never did anything bad to him. I kept asking her why, but she only said over and over again that I would understand when I grew up.
Third Uncle closes the shop just after Mei Mei and I finish our Milo and Mama her black coffee. He wipes his hands on a stained tea cloth and motions for us to follow him upstairs.
The shophouse looks a lot like ours back home, but it doesn't smell musty and there is a round dining table with six wooden chairs that look new. The wooden floors don't have splinters and the cream walls are clean. I hope they stay that way, since no walls stay untouched with Mei Mei around. Even the curtains look bright and welcoming in their sunny yellow, and I don't feel so bad even though the room Third Uncle leads us to, the one where we're supposed to sleep, is messy and only has two thin mattresses on the floor. Dirty shirts, underwear, singlets and a few comic books are strewn over the remaining floor space. My heart sinks a little, knowing it's a boy's room, or several boys. I think about Ah Lek, but I know he's far away.
I tell myself to make sure Mei Mei and I are the best-behaved children around because I don't want to give Third Uncle a bad impression. Mama says he is our saviour. Without him, we would have to live on the streets, and Mama would have to do very bad things with bad men to earn enough money to buy food for us. I feel happy, thinking about Third Uncle's chicken rice shop downstairs, because there will always be food for us.
"The little one is how old?" Third Uncle asks Mama, as Mei Mei, naughty as usual, has already started to roll around on both mattresses even though no one has told her which one is hers.
"Five. Such a handful." Mama smiles at me and says, "Thank god I have Yun Fang to take care of her." I smile back at Mama and squeeze her hand. I think Mama is beautiful when she smiles, and when she puts on red lipstick and lines her eyes in black. But she only did this at night, before she went off to her other job. Usually Auntie Jenny would go with her so Ah Lek — the son of the man who owned our house — would come upstairs and stay with us until Mama came back. Sometimes we went to sleep even before he was there, especially Mei Mei who gets tired if she doesn't sleep in the afternoon like she's supposed to. Though even if we were still awake when he came over, I didn't talk to him. He preferred to watch television, but sometimes I caught him staring at me and I was afraid. Mei Mei was not afraid; from time to time, she would try to play with him. I would pull her away and scold her loudly, saying she shouldn't bother Ah Lek who was a big boy and wouldn't want to play with a little girl like her. Mei Mei, stubborn as usual, would break away from me and run to him, even though we barely knew him and Mama had already told us never to play with strangers or follow them, even if they gave us things like sweets or tell us that Mama told them to pick us up when Mama hadn't told us any such thing.
But Mei Mei is not as careful as I am. Mama told me it's because she's still small but I think it's because Mei Mei always thinks I'll be there to protect her. She likes to fight with me and break my things but sometimes when she's scared she would still hide behind me, or call me cheh cheh, cheh cheh very sweetly when she wants half of a boiled egg or an extra piece of chicken from my plate. Mama calls me cheh cheh too when she's talking to both Mei Mei and me, but I like it better when she calls me her baby. Mama says I'm too big to be called a baby but I don't mind being her baby. Sometimes when I'm scared, I want Mama to protect me too, and during those times I want to be a baby again. I think Mei Mei is so lucky because she gets to be a baby whenever she wants, even when Mama is not around because I'd be there, with her. But when Mei Mei is scared, I can't be a baby even though I'm scared too. I have to be the cheh cheh, the big sister who takes care of the house when Mama isn't around.
One night when Mama wasn't supposed to be working, Auntie Jenny came around and told Mama that she was needed, as one of the girls had fallen ill. Mama protested but Auntie Jenny told her if she didn't go, the boss might fire her.
"I can't just leave like that, Jenny. I don't have anyone to look after the children," Mama said to Auntie Jenny, who looked beautiful in a black, shiny dress that clung to her body. Her fingernails and toenails were all red and glossy and she wore jewellery that sparkled like fireflies. Her eyelashes looked longer than usual and her eyes were lined. Her hair was in big, glamorous curls that spiralled down her shoulders. She looked like a movie star and I wished I could look like that when I grew up.
"I told Big Boss but you think he wants to listen? It's your problem, Ting. You can't expect people like him to understand," Auntie Jenny said to Mama gently but firmly. Mama sighed and turned to look at me and Mei Mei.
"I'll have to get the landlord's boy to help again but I'm not very comfortable with him."
"It'll just be a few hours. You should be back before midnight, or one, at the latest," Auntie Jenny said. She cleared the plates off our table –Mama had cooked fried noodles for us that night — and put them in the kitchen sink. Mama looked miserable but went into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Mei Mei, as usual, didn't notice what was going on. I was relieved but hoped she wouldn't cry when she saw Mama walk out the door. It took Mama only minutes to emerge from the bedroom in a dark green dress. It wasn't as pretty as Auntie Jenny's but it was one of her good dresses, the ones she would only wear at night. Her hair was put up in a bun but she had stuck a gold flower pin in it so she looked just as elegant as Auntie Jenny. They both looked like they were going to a rich man's party.
"Cheh Cheh, you take care of Mei Mei, all right? I'll ask Ah Lek to come up here to look after the both of you. Be good." Mama stroked my hair and patted Mei Mei's head. Luckily, Mei Mei was engrossed in tearing up a piece of paper into tiny bits and colouring them so she didn't notice Mama leaving. It wasn't long before Ah Lek came upstairs. He looked even more pimply than I remembered. His hair was messy, as if he had just woken up from sleep and forgotten to comb it. Even though I didn't like to talk to him, I said, "Mama will be gone for a short while only. She'll be back soon." Ah Lek looked at me with a groggy expression, as if he hadn't heard what I said. He switched on the television and sat down in front of it. It wasn't long before he moved around restlessly, scanning the living room as if looking for something. There wasn't much to look at. Our walls were a dull beige, smudged already with traces of Mei Mei's dirty fingerprints and nothing hung on them. We had a small, low table in front of the television, where we and Mama ate, sitting on little plastic stools. Apart from the television, which was usually the focus of the room, we had an old wooden cabinet where Mama put odds and ends, old things of hers she called souvenirs, from when she and Papa used to travel when they first met. There were miniature vases and blank notepads and some playing cards. Ah Lek had opened the cabinet and was rifling through it.
"Mama says we're not supposed to touch the things in there," I told Ah Lek and glared at him. He continued to rummage in the cabinet as if he hadn't heard. Usually I was afraid of him, because he was so much bigger, but I was just so angry he ignored me that I walked straight to him and prodded him in his back.
"I'm going to tell Mama you stole our things," I said to him angrily. He swung around and gave me the fiercest look I'd ever seen.
"Shut up and sit quietly on the sofa," he said roughly, giving me a little shove. I looked at Mei Mei who was still colouring her papers and didn't notice our exchange.
"I'll call the police," I said to Ah Lek, more defiantly this time and tried to give him an equally fierce look. He sighed loudly and slammed the cabinet doors shut. Before I could do anything, he slapped me hard across the face and I fell backwards to the floor. My face felt hot and painful, but I was too surprised to cry. Instead, Mei Mei dropped her colour pencil and started wailing. I quickly ran to Mei Mei and dragged her to the bedroom. I closed the door and locked it, the way Mama taught me to do in case there was danger in the house. Mei Mei and I hid under the blanket, even though Mama told us not to cover our face with it in case we couldn't breathe, and hugged each other tightly.
"Cheh cheh, can I get my colour pencils?" Mei Mei asked after a while. We were sweating a little because the window hadn't been opened, which Mama usually did when we slept at night.
"No," I said.
"Cheh cheh, is Ah Lek ko ko bad?" Mei Mei whispered.
"I don't know. Probably."
"Then why did Mama let him come up here? She always says strangers are dangerous."
"Maybe she doesn't know Ah Lek ko ko is bad. He's been here a few times before." I was glad when Mei Mei stopped asking questions and fell asleep. I was tired too but I couldn't sleep, thinking about Ah Lek touching Mama and Papa's things outside.
I guess I eventually did fall asleep because I woke up to Auntie Jenny shouting outside and loud knocking at the bedroom door. I jumped out of bed and Mei Mei started crying again because she got a shock from the loudness of the knocking and my sudden movement from the bed. At first I shushed Mei Mei and kept very quiet. I could hear Auntie Jenny shouting and calling Ah Lek names — drug addict, thief – and asking him to get out before she called the police. I heard him shout back at her, saying horrible things like how she was nothing but a bad woman who sold her body and slept with married men, that she should just watch out because she would get what she deserved. Then he must have left because I heard someone running down the steps really fast.
"Yun Fang! Mei Mei!" Mama's voice sounded scared, as if she was about to cry. I rushed to open the door and she immediately carried me to the bed, and hugged both me and Mei Mei tightly. Then she started crying and I didn't know why, because nothing had happened. Auntie Jenny stood in the doorway and folded her arms.
"It's okay, Ting, everything's okay," Auntie Jenny said. "At least the children are fine. I'll help you tidy up outside. The television's broken, though. He must've tried to move it himself and dropped it. Stupid boy. Who would've thought he would steal. I've known him since he was a baby. It's terrible to see him like this, good-for-nothing layabout, and now a thief!"
"It was my fault," Mama sobbed, still hugging us.
"Don't say that, Ting. We have to work. It's just how things are. Don't blame yourself," Auntie Jenny patted Mama's back and ruffled my hair. "I'll be outside, you take your time."
That night, Mama put a chair against the front door of the bedroom. She didn't open the window either, and I complained I was hot, but Mama told me she would get an electric fan tomorrow for the room. I fell asleep, dreaming about Ah Lek knocking on the door, calling me and Mei Mei.
I remember the next morning I woke up to shouting downstairs. I heard Mama's voice, scolding a man who scolded back. I opened the window and looked out. I saw Mama talking angrily to an old man, telling him about our broken television and the old man pointed at her and called her some bad names but Mama didn't seem to care and continued to ask for a new television. I was still tired, my sleep had been filled with nightmares about Ah Lek so I closed the window and crawled back into bed with Mei Mei, who was still sleeping and always the last to wake up in the mornings.
After what happened, Mama didn't go out at night so much anymore, and things were peaceful for a while. Auntie Jenny still came over every night to chat with Mama, sometimes just before work.
"Robert is having problems with his wife, who's been suspicious for a while. I think he got careless, maybe he mentioned my name. Or one of those jealous bitches at the club did, I don't know. Anyway, she's keeping even closer tabs on him now. I haven't seen him in days. That man is terrible at lying. For years he's been telling me he will divorce her, thinking I'm some young girl who likes to listen to his storytelling. But I tell you, that woman is really crazy. She must never find out about Robert and me. I hear rumours that she got Robert's last girlfriend killed, just like that. Well it isn't hard for her, I suppose. She's the daughter of some big-time gangster boss. He shouldn't have been careless."
"Oh my god, you've got to be careful!" Mama said, covering her mouth and looking shocked. Auntie Jenny laughed and stroked Mama's hair.
"Don't worry, Ting. I'll be fine. I'm tough as a rock. I wouldn't have lasted this long in the business if I wasn't."
"Nothing good can come out of this, Jenny. Find a good man who'll take care of you, not some coward who can't even bring you out to see his friends during the day. I don't care if he's rich. You deserve to be loved, really loved."
"He does love me. When we're together, it really doesn't feel like there's anything, or anyone else out there. I know it's temporary, but sometimes I really want to believe things'll change. That his wife would melt into the darkness, or she'll disappear, like a whiff of smoke."
"You of all people. The last person I thought would daydream like this. You sound like me, when I married Seng. Even when Third Brother protested and begged me not to do it. Seng wasn't always the way he was – he only changed later. Perhaps Third Brother knew, could see things that I couldn't. I guess some people just have to learn the hard way. The only good things that came out of our marriage were the children. And they're the only important things in my life, Jenny. I can't lose my jobs here. I can't move back, and I can't lose you, Jenny." Mama covered her face with her hands and Auntie Jenny put her arm around Mama.
"Don't worry, Ting. You have family in Singapore, remember?"
"Third Brother hasn't spoken to me in years. He still hasn't forgiven me for what Seng did to him, even though it wasn't my fault," Mama said sadly.
"Can you blame him? Seng tried to chop him with his own cleaver! It was your brother's good luck that Seng didn't kill him. But, he is your brother after all. Family is family, no matter what," Auntie Jenny patted Mama's arm.
"What about you? If Robert doesn't divorce his wife, what will you do?"
"What can I do? I'm hoping, but not waiting. I can't afford to dream about the things I do all the time. Sometimes I just lose my head, that's all. Like a silly young girl," Auntie Jenny smiled.
"Do you ever wish that you never wasted your time with him? You've given him your youth, and what? He can't even give you security. You deserve better, Jenny."
"A woman like me can never look back, Ting. I know that. I'm not a naïve twenty-year-old girl, lost in the city, cheated by an older man who took advantage of her. Well, at least, not anymore," Auntie Jenny laughed. "I know what I got myself into, Ting. Anyway, let's not talk about unhappy things. I'm hungry, let's have dinner."
"I'll make something," Mama offered.
"No, it's all right, I'll buy something back. Some of that steamed chicken the kids love so much," Auntie Jenny looked at us with a cheeky smile. Mei Mei and I jumped and cheered. That was the last time we had dinner with Auntie Jenny.
Third Uncle doesn't say much but I can see him trying to make us comfortable when he moves the comics out of the way and takes my bag from me and puts it in a corner of the room.
"Thank you, Third Brother," Mama says to Third Uncle and lightly touches his arm.
"Just take care of yourself," Third Uncle says and Mama looks at him the same way she had looked at Auntie Jenny when she poured a bowl of chicken soup for Mama at our last meal together. Mama squats and hugs Mei Mei and me hard for a long time, like she isn't going to let go. But then she does, and as she wipes her eyes she says, "Take care of your Mei Mei, okay? You are the big sister now. You are in charge."
"Like Auntie Jenny took care of you, Mama?" I ask. Mama looks at me with her red, watery eyes and manages a smile.
"I'm going out now to buy some toys for you girls. Be good to Third Uncle," she glances at Third Uncle, who nods and takes my hand. Mama walks down the stairs while Mei Mei and I stare at her without saying anything. Mei Mei tries to follow Mama but I pull her back, knowing that things will never again be the way they were, where we used to live.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011