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“Mommy, Ms. McAdams says that we are exchanging valentines next week! Have you gotten mine yet?” questioned a chipper Lacy Stevenson. Mother groaned and slumped onto the worn couch, the bruises on her face evolving into a purplish-yellow. “No, honey, we don’t have the money right now. I’m sorry.”
Tears welled up in Lacy’s six-year-old eyes. “It’s okay Mommy,” she whispered, and then pulled a blanket out of the hall closet and tucked it neatly around her mother. She then stepped into the kitchen in search of something to cook for supper and settled on the last package of Ramen. After putting the water on to boil she began rummaging around to find something, anything to make valentines with. When she was unable to retrieve anything she returned to the stove, finished cooking, and took the bowl to her mother.
Lacy fell asleep at 7:30 after cleaning up supper and bathing. In the middle of the night she woke up to a loud crash and a drunken male curse and she rushed out to see her father, his bloodshot eyes wild as he shook Mother awake. Mother roused and stood up, noticing Lacy and putting herself in between the two. With a snarl Father flung Mother out of the way and stalked towards Lacy. “Daddy?” Lacy’s voice shook as she backed away, “Daddy, please?”
Father ignored her pleas and drug Lacy to the bedroom, where she let herself lose consciousness and pretend she was anywhere but there.
When she woke the next morning Father was gone again and Lacy tenderly touched the bruises on her neck, wrists, and upper thighs. Crying softly she put on a long sleeved brown turtleneck and pulled her mother back onto the couch, then left for school.
Walking the seven blocks to her school was difficult with her bruises, but she managed. She knew she would face another round of questioning from her teacher, Ms. McAdams, about her swollen lip and slight limp, but also knew she couldn’t tell the truth. Her rumbling stomach only hoped lunchtime would arrive soon.
Ms. McAdams was sitting on her desk when Lacy arrived. Her heart cried for the young girl, wishing Lacy would tell her the truth so she could help. She knew the Stevensons were struggling financially, the mother an alcoholic without work and the father popping in at any time, but she could not prove anything else. Lacy walked up to her desk with her hopeful green eyes, olive skin, and brown ringlets and smiled.
“Good morning Ms. McAdams!” she trilled brightly, with just a hint of a rasp from her sore throat. “Good morning Lacy. How are things at home?” Ms. McAdams asked gently.
As always Lacy considered telling the truth, how Father had been coming into her room since she was five and how he walked right through her ghost of a mother, but knew she wouldn’t. “Things are great!” she said and wandered to her desk. She pulled out her pencil and wrote the word of the day in her notebook.
Ms. McAdams sighed and began teaching. When Lacy raised her hand her tattered sweater would slide down and show the purple finger marks on her wrists. When it came time for lunch Lacy quickly ate everything on her plate but wouldn’t accept seconds. When passing out snacks the slight limp in her step was only noticed by Ms. McAdams.
Lacy trembled from the cold during afternoon recess. The wind had picked up and while all the other children played Lacy sat on a swing thinking. “Why can’t Ms. McAdams be my mommy?” she asked herself, a traitorous tear rolling down her cheek, “She’d protect me from Father.” Her classmate, Max, ran up to her and broke through her thoughts in a jeering voice:
“Lacy, Lacy, oh so crazy
Doesn’t your daddy love you?
Your ugly clothes, we plug our nose
And everyone shouts P.U.!”
Max ran away laughing at his own wit. Lacy sighed and walked into the classroom early, sitting with her head down on her desk and letting the rest of her tears fall. A soft hand lay on her shoulder and she looked up at her teacher, seeing her own pain reflected in Ms. McAdams’s eyes. “Lacy, will you please tell me what’s going on?”
Lacy nodded and followed Ms. McAdams into the teachers’ lounge, where her teacher appointed an aide to watch the classroom while she spoke to Lacy. Lacy was then guided into a small office where Ms. McAdams sat across from her.
“Lacy?” Ms. McAdams asked as softly as possible.
Lacy took a deep breath and all of her past flowed out of her barely parted lips, hardly louder than a whisper. Through it all Ms. McAdams hid her reaction, from anger to pure sadness, behind a mask of gently acceptance. When Lacy finished the young teacher stood up and held Lacy, letting some of her own strength flow into the small child who had been through so much pain.
Ms. McAdams had Lacy guide her to Lacy and Mother’s apartment building. Ms. McAdams then sent Lacy to pack up her belongings in a black garbage sack, and knelt next to Mother.
“Mrs. Stevenson? I’m Lacy’s teacher. I know what’s going on and I want to help, but I’m taking Lacy whether you come with us or not,” she said after she woke Mother. Mother looked at her with foggy eyes until realization kicked in, and looked cautiously at Ms. McAdams.
“What do you suppose can be done? He’ll find us and drag us back here; he always does. You think I haven’t tried running before?” Mother accused coarsely, her dark eyebrows furrowing, “Where would you take her?”
After a deep breath Ms. McAdams replied curtly, “My house. That girl needs a mother, and you’re doing a d***ed poor job of it.” Mother’s eyes widened, but then relaxed in submission. She sat up and began gathering her few belongings.
A week later Mother was admitted into a rehabilitation center, and Ms. McAdams began her fight for custody of Lacy. Valentine’s Day was the last thing on Lacy’s mind when she stepped out of Ms. McAdam’s car and entered the classroom in her brand new dress on February 14. When she saw the red hearts and treats lined up on the tables she remembered her forgotten valentines. She began stammering an apology, but was cut off.
Ms. McAdams smiled and beckoned her in, all the desks in the room covered with squares of words. Lacy sat at her desk and sorted through her valentines, all addressed to Lacy McAdams. “We love you Lacy!” one read, “You’re so nice!” declared another. Lacy turned and gave every student a hug, knowing that this would always be her family.