"I spotted Lilly first: silken hair, glowing skin, dancing eyes."

stories

Tahlia Jamison

Tahlia is an online student here at West. A model/dancer/actress, she loves combining working in fields she loves with getting a college education. In addition to enjoying all areas of the performing arts, Tahlia has fun spending time with her close-knit family, as well as reading, writing, going to the movies/theatre with friends, traveling, swimming, and playing with her dog.

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Lilly

Lee Mei Cheng, self-proclaimed spinster-acupuncturist, visited every week of my childhood. The tiny dynamo erased Mom’s migraines with seemingly-magical needles. I adored Lee for helping Mom and bringing me super-sweet Asian treats.

When I was nine, Lee announced, “I’m adopting a Chinese orphan. Lilly’s your age; you’ll be best friends.” I shivered, knowing Lee spoke the truth. My lifelong pal, Amy, had moved back East; I ached over being a loner.

Itchy with anticipation, I waited- and waited- for Lilly. “When is she coming?” I asked Mom and Lee constantly. “WHEN?” Both said, “Soon.”

Six endless months later, Lilly arrived. That June, while I still awaited Lilly, my dad left for a season on a Canadian television series. Mom and I started living in what we called our, “Girl-World”. It was fun in some ways: with school just out, we went for manicures and trips to the beach. The house felt hollow, though. Emails from Amy grew fewer; she described her New York adventures as if we’d known each other long ago. Without a friend my age, I was lonely.

Life changed when, exactly six months to the day Lee told us about her, Lilly arrived. I opened our door; she stood next to her mother. Like a doll from my International Girl collection, Lilly was exquisite. Her chin-length hair was shiny-smooth; her face a perfect, translucent moon. Lilly held onto Lee with one hand, and clutchedy a toy in the other.

“Come inside.” Mom cooed. Lee translated, ushering Lilly ahead. The doll-girl handed me a red teddy-bear. I murmured, “Thanks”, sniffing its luscious new-toy scent.

“Lilly’s beautiful.” said Mom, kneeling to kiss her. “Best friends!” Lee crowed. Pushing us together, she snapped a photo. I gestured towards my room. Lee nodded permission and I led my new best friend down the hall, into my pink domain.

Alone, we stared into each other’s eyes; Lilly’s were those of a grownup. I gave her a gift she unwrapped with care. Spotting the Barbie doll I’d chosen for her myself, Lilly squealed, then cuddled her prize. I picked up my favorite Barbie; holding hands, we walked to a kid-sized loveseat.

As we sat, Lilly’s skirt rode up. Brand-new welts and bruises covered her thighs. Some wounds, still open, were bloody. The room spun; sweat streamed down my neck.

Tugging her skirt down, Lilly fiercely whispered, “Shhhh!” I nodded, “Yes” to keeping her secret, with my fingers crossed.

Wordlessly, we played Barbies.

From the next morning on, Lilly and I spent the summer as one; Mom called us como chicle, “glued together”. Lee cared for sickly Grandpa Cheng at home, so my bedroom was our clubhouse. Weekday mornings, as we drove to get Lilly, I felt like a liar for not telling Mom of her brutal bruises.

“Ask for help!” I ordered myself; no words came. Why? If I spoke the truth, Lilly would disappear. Mom sensed something was wrong; she didn’t push, making me feel guiltier.

Outside Lee’s, I spotted Lilly first: silken hair, glowing skin, dancing eyes. We kissed Lee “Goodbye” and our games began. We sang jingles, made faces, counted red cars. Mom called us, “Twins” and my tummy flip-flopped: I had a sister! As we stopped for groceries, Lilly slid gum into her backpack; I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Don’t get caught”, I prayed. And Lilly didn’t.

At home, we dressed up like princesses, performed skits for Mom, and played Barbies. Lee picked Lilly up nightly; half-asleep, we parted. On Saturdays, Lee “needled” Mom’s headaches away, bringing Lilly and boxes of sweets along. Sometimes, Dr. Cheng came along on his walker, Mom and Lee made him comfy on a sofa chair, brought him tea and treats, and turned on his favorite tv show. He patted my head in approval, saying that Lilly was learning English, “by osmosis”.

The ladies disappeared into Mom’s room while we piled cookies and candy onto a plate, bringing it into our pastel retreat. Both of us were slender, but together managed to gobble down enough for six people; delectable. Lilly had to memorize Bible verses for church; a sugar rush from the goodies helped me learn them, too- in English and Chinese. Lilly howled with laughter at my accent.

We never mentioned the marks on Lilly’s thighs. Now and then, she whispered, ‘’Shhhh.’’; I affirmed with a nod. When Lilly first warned me not to tell, I’d crossed my fingers, but the gesture meant nothing; I couldn’t, wouldn’t lose Lilly.

During our first few days together, I saw no fresh wounds, but knew they were there; Lilly’s bruised and ancient eyes told me everything. When she refused to share a bath, Mom thought Lilly, “modest”. I knew better.

The truth festered inside me. Unspeakable.

Summer crept along, a luxurious expanse of school-free days. Weeks passed, filled with games of Scrabble, Barbies, and make-believe. The comforting cool of central air conditioning kept us from begging for outings.

Dad called often from the set of his Canadian show; he hadn’t met Lilly, but asked about his, “three ladies”. I loved hearing his deep voice and stories of Canada. I made Lilly speak to Dad. Giggling into the blue phone’s receiver, Lilly called him “Uncle”. Dad couldn’t wait to meet her, promising holiday gifts for us both.

Lilly and I had a self-contained world in my room, but Mom tempted us outdoors with trips to Knotts Berry Farm, Griffith Park, and The La Brea Tar Pits. I’d seen each before, but Lilly’s reactions moved me. She was equally awed by giant dinosaur bones and roller coasters; her glee was contagious.

As summer waned, ads for school supplies popped up everywhere. I cringed at reminders that Fall would come. Mom agreed to put off our annual August shopping spree.

I dreaded September, when Lilly and I would attend schools miles apart. She’d start Monterrey Christian; I’d return to Hollywood Charter. My head knew the facts; my heart couldn’t accept them. The moms whispered about our impending separation; Lilly and I pretended summer would never end.

My best friend and I kept playing, laughing, and sharing giant, drippy ice-cream cones. With Lilly safe beside me, I threw myself into games, songs, fun. We painted each other’s nails, raced to meet the postman, made up crazy stories.

Over the weeks, I’d managed stealthy glances at Lilly’s bruised thighs as we ran or played; fresh wounds, in slightly different spots, replaced the originals.

“Tell!” I ordered myself.

Riding with Mom to get Lilly on a late-summer scorching-hot morning, I opened my mouth to blurt out the secret. As if on its own, my jaw snapped shut. I couldn’t lose Lilly.

Whenever my best friend wasn’t around, I was haunted by three words, “Who’s hurting Lilly?”. Not Lee, adoring mom. Not Grandpa Cheng, weak and infirm.

If not them, who? Neighbor, gardener, cousin--who?

Once, during a game of jacks, I blurted, “Let’s talk, Lilly.” Fire leapt from her eyes; clamping hands over her ears, Lilly sprang to her feet, humming like an enraged bee, louder and louder.

‘What’re you up to?’ Mom asked from the door. Lilly stopped droning to say, ”Guessing game!”, plastering on a grin. Mom blew kisses, and left us a tray of cold drinks. Gulping lemonade, we sat on my bed, side by side. Silence.

Finally, Lilly murmured her usual, “Shhhhh.” I nodded. This was our ritual. We began to play, stuffing the secret back down, where it stayed, festering.

For weeks, Mom pondered over the, ‘Missing Laundry Quarter Mystery.’ Her coins, ever-safe in a drawer, had dwindled all summer. One day, they disappeared. Unsmiling, Mom showed us the bare drawer. Lilly shrugged, pulling me towards the bedroom; I followed.

Lilly slid into my girly-pink restroom to shower. Nervously, I walked to her backpack, shaking it hard. Quarters clanked. Head pounding, temples pulsing, I watched the room spin. My first migraine.

Eyes half-mast, I groped my way to the bed and lay prone, stone still. Lilly ran for Mom, who rushed in, checking my forehead for fever.

Pointing at her own head, Lilly said to my mother, “She’s like you!” Mom’s cool fingers pressed lightly on my throbbing temples. Mom asked Lilly to close the lights and curtains. My best friend obeyed; darkness helped.

Lilly called Lee, and spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. I could tell how much she loved me by her wobbly voice. “Mother will come soon.” she said. I heard Lilly’s clothes rustle, hoping she wouldn’t leave the room, or me.

From my prone position, I heard coins jangling. Peering out of just one eye, I watched as Lilly handed Mom a Ziploc bag filled with the missing quarters. Mom hugged her; Lilly cried for the first time since we’d met.

“Don’t tell Mother. Please don’t tell.” Lilly whimpered, climbing into Mom’s lap like a baby at the foot of my bed.

“I promise I won’t. I forgive you. Put them back in the drawer, okay?”

Lilly stood and started towards the kitchen, her back to us.

“Do it!” I ordered myself, praying for courage. I reached out and flicked up the rear hem of Lilly’s dress; Mom saw the wounds and gasped. The secret was out; my head stopped pounding.

Lilly turned around, eyes down. Mom asked if she’d rather talk privately or in front of me. Lilly whispered, “Here”. My heart sang; I wanted to be with her. We locked eyes. I “beamed” Lilly my support and knew that she “got” it.

Lilly held out the coins. Mom put them in a pocket, then coaxed her to climb into bed next to me. I sat up; we were side by side.

Mom said, “You’re safe here, Lilly. I’ll protect you.”

Lilly spoke, filling the air with truth and pain. Words stifled for months poured out; a horror story. Since her adoption, Lilly had been beaten with a thick belt anytime she misbehaved. The culprit? Grandpa Cheng. At hearing this, I shivered; Mom let out a moan. Lilly went on with her wretched saga.

Grandpa’s punishment ritual was always the same. After any “wickedness”, he called Lilly to his room. There, he scolded her harshly, and quoted the Bible, “Spare the rod, spoil the child”. Grandpa ordered her to bend over a chair. Clasping his walker with one hand, he used the other to wield his heavy belt, lashing her a dozen times. The leather bruised; the buckle tore flesh.

Lee always waited in the hall. She helped Lilly to her room, cleaned the wounds, and held her.

In childhood, Grandpa had beaten Lee, too. Lilly’s mother vowed she’d find a way soon to end the pain without Lilly being sent away.

Horror tale finished, Lilly looked spent, yet relieved. My face was sopping wet with tears I hadn’t known I’d shed. I put my arms around my best friend.

Mom said, in a voice filled with assurance, “You’re safe now, Lilly.”

My friend looked at me; both of us believed Mom.

The doorbell rang. Turning on the t.v. at the foot of my bed, Mom kissed Lilly’s head and mine, then left to greet Lee. I muted the television’s sound; cartoon figures cavorted in silence.

Through my thin wall, we heard Lee weep. She spoke quietly, at length, but we couldn’t decipher her words. Mom brought us sandwiches and went back to Lee. Lilly and I ignored the food, too busy trying to overhear our mothers.

Lilly and I eased into bed, curling up like spoons. Lilly, on the outside, whispered, “Thank you, sister.” Relief that I’d broken the silence oozed over me.

I held Lilly’s hand. “You’re safe. The moms will find help.’, I assured her. As I burrowed into my pillow, I heard the soft gurgle of her snore. I prayed that Lilly would stay with Lee, and me, forever. Sleep came; how I needed my first nap in years.

I awoke to see both moms approach the bed. Mom sat by me; Lee woke Lilly. We girls sat up again, staring at the grownups.

Lee said, “The violence is over. I have a solution; my father will go. No need to worry; I’ll explain tomorrow”. Mom nodded knowingly; Lee embraced Lilly and left. I asked Lilly, “You okay with this?” Nodding, she said, “Yes.” with conviction.

I took a bath, soothed by water’s warm embrace while Mom sat with Lilly. I heard them purr to each other; nothing seemed amiss. Toweling dry, I tossed on pajamas and joined Lilly in bed. Mom read us little-kid books as if we were babies. I drifted off, Lilly’s hand in mine.

At 9:00 a.m., Lilly and I awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking. My stomach and Lilly’s growled in unison. We raced to the kitchen; Mom had us sit. Lilly and I devoured cereal, juice, toast, pancakes. Lilly burped, then smiled. There was zero tension in the air.

We left to dress; I lent Lilly my clothes. Her crazy-long, stalk-like legs made Lilly’s ankles poke comically out from my jeans. I teased, “Have a party, Lilly. Invite your pants to come down.” She didn’t understand, but laughed anyway.

The bell buzzed; we raced to let Lee in. Leaving a suitcase of Lilly’s things by the door, she sat on the sofa with her daughter.

Mom called me for help in the kitchen. I joined her there, and she hugged me tightly.

“Dad and I talked; we’re very proud. You did just the right thing.” Mom said. Elated, I followed her to the sink. Up to our elbows in dishwashing suds, we worked together. Sing-song Chinese wafted in to us; both voices were calm.

We brought snacks out. Lilly and I, stuffed from breakfast, watched the moms eat. Lee cleared her throat and stood up, as for a formal speech.

She asked us to forgive her father, to see him not as a monster, but as a flawed elder. Sorry to have hurt his grandchild and caused concern, he’d asked Lee to beg our pardon on his behalf. Grandpa had no idea he’d broken the law by harming Lilly until that morning.

Lee had confided in her brother, Kim, who’d endured the blows of his father’s belt in childhood. Kim and his wife, their children grown, offered to move Grandpa Cheng to their home in a week. Lilly would stay with us until then. Even with the serious issue at hand, Lilly and I whooped.

The family would protect Lilly, but not call the authorities. I sensed that Mom already knew the plan. She sat beside Lilly and asked, in a serious tone, if it felt safe to her. Lilly nodded, saying, “Grandpa shouldn’t go to jail, but not live in same house.”

How grave and brave Lilly was; a nine-year-old woman.

Lee excused herself and left to start packing her father’s possessions.

Lilly apologized to Mom for stealing the quarters. All summer, she’d hoped to be discovered. Longing to confess, but terribly afraid, Lilly thought that causing a commotion might uncover the secret. Mom said, “Pain makes us act oddly. I wish I’d figured things out sooner.” The matter was laid to rest forever.

My best friend and I went ahead with the grownups’ plan, abandoning ourselves to a final week of unbridled summer fun. Mom took us back-to-school shopping; we chose identical supplies.

Lilly and I cooked up a plan for weekly sleepovers, which the moms approved. We’d never lose each other.

Lilly looked forward to returning to a safe home; she was curious about school in America. I glanced through my reading list, proud that my books this year were more advanced. We no longer panicked about parting.

On the Sunday before school started, it was time for Lilly to leave. After church with her mother, she’d return to a peaceful home.

Lilly pulled her suitcase into the living room. She was glowing; no trace of fear remained in her eyes. Lee rang and entered. Lilly and I held onto each other for a long time. Like world-weary soldiers after a war, we savored survival and joy.

Lilly grinned, said, “See you Friday!” and was gone.


Editor: LinckeN@WLAC.edu | West Los Angeles College | 9000 Overland Ave, Culver City CA 90230 | www.wlac.edu
Production Mngr: Michelle Long-Coffee | Web Design: Clarissa Castellanos