A small girl with tangled brown hair stumbled along the empty street. Her sky blue shirt dangled off her tiny frame unnaturally, as if it were three sizes too big, or it had once fit her, but weeks of poor eating had made her too small. She tried to call out for help, but only managed to choke out a hoarse whisper. Her eyes closed, and it seemed as if she might fall. She kept walking, going downhill along the right side of the street, past lawns and closed doors. Her fingers skated across cool class and she used it to hold herself up as she staggered to a door. She tried to open the door, but the doorknob refused to budge, so she slid down to the ground as her legs failed her. She sighed, exhausted, and passed out.
She awoke to a warm hand gently rocking her back and forth, and the sound of robins singing. Instantly, she h eyes flew open, a habit developed from a year on the streets. She jumped to her feet, panicked. A young woman held her hands up in a gesture of surrender, her black ponytail swinging in the wind. Nevertheless, the little girl held up her fists in front of her face, her eyes unfocused.
“Oh, c’mon, kid,” said the young woman. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. Look, I’m surrendering.” The young girl scowled, but she put her fists down. The woman continued. “You need some food in that tiny stomach o’ yours. An’ some water. Come inside with me.” The girl reached out for the woman’s arm and clung to it like velcro. Jude heard the door unlock and she climbed up the steps into the building. The woman helped her up stairs and almost carried Jude across a stretch of linoleum. “I’m Dalia,” the woman whispered. “You can sleep here.” By then, she had passed out in Dalia’s arms.
The girl woke up a couple hours later. She lay on her side, nestled in a warm, fleece blanket with a few patches. A pair of jeans and a black t-shirt rested on the end of the bed, neatly folded. She sat up but a warm hand pushed her back. She realized quickly that someone else was sitting on the mattress with her, making it slope down inconveniently towards the larger mass of the other person.
“Sweetie, shush, shush, shush.” Dalia’s soft hand brushed against her head. She squirmed unhappily, but Dalia pinned her, leaving no avenue to escape. Jude bit her hand.
“Dammit, girl, I’m tryin’ ta friggin’ help ya.” Dalia shook out her hand, muttering some words that shouldn’t have reached six-year old ears. “So. You got a name, or what? It’ll be a lot easier if I can call you something other than ‘girl.’”
“Jude. Jude, ah, Ellis.” Dalia made a skeptical ‘hmm.’ “I swear.”
“All right. I’m Dalia Marshal. Not sure if you caught it last night, but I told you my name right ’fore you passed out.” Dalia put her hand on Jude’s forehead to check for a fever. Feeling none, she took her hand off, relieved.
“Yeah, no. No, I didn’t hear it.” Jude rolled onto her stomach off the mattress and onto the floor, hopping up before Dalia could pin her back down. She swayed on her feet, as the blood rushed from her head and her empty stomach protested her sudden movement. “Show me the food.”
“Jude, slow down. You collapsed in my kitchen. You’re so thin you can barely stand, an’ your lips are dry, not to mention the fact that your eyes don’t respond to light. Somethin’ is very wrong with you, kid.”
A harsh, mirthless laugh erupted from Jude’s mouth. “I’m just blind and underfed. So please, feed me.” Dalia stared.
“Yeh know, for a girl as young as you, you seem awfully… I dunno. Grown up.” A short pause. “Wait a minute, you’re blind?”
Jude felt her way into the kitchen without responding. The floor changed from wood to linoleum under her bare feet and the smell of food was so strong it passed through the plastic and metal siding of the refrigerator. She opened the fridge eagerly and sat down on the floor for lack of energy or any idea of where to start and what to grab first. Luckily, Dalia picked for her, grabbing a yogurt cup and a spoon. She handed them over to Jude who had a dopey grin on her face now, and tore the cup open with more vigor than was really necessary. It was gone in moments, and her face was covered in the sweet dairy product. Her stomach cramped upon the yogurt’s entry, but Jude was too hungry to care.
“Ya know, I should prob’ly send ya to a orphanage or at least send ya to school.” Jude spluttered, and yogurt spattered all over the kitchen floor.
“No- Please, you can’t.” Jude looked like an electric shock passed through her, eyes widening and sitting ramrod straight. Dalia sighed and shook her head, shaking long, beaded necklaces with it. She harrumphed a couple times and looked away, exasperated. “Can I live here with you, instead?”
“Fine, but I’m gonna homeschool ya. I really think that ya need some schooling, just like every other kid your age. I won’t let ya grow up with anything less than a high school education.” Dalia’s tone indicated that this was not negotiable, and Jude sat back against the cupboards without protest.
“Hey, do you have any chocolate?”
This was the first day of five years that Jude would live there, quickly growing from a tiny child to a elementary schooler, nearly every day of which she spent practicing martial arts with Dalia in her dojo. By the time she turned nine, she had three years of martial arts under her belt, personally tweaked to account for her size and strengths. Dalia pressured her to study online, but all she really did was sit in front of the computer and listen to music.
Jude rarely left the building in which she and Dalia lived, except to occasionally walk up and down the street. She didn’t particularly trust herself to cross a street without Dalia, and Dalia had no intention of really letting her try. Sometimes they would walk to a restaurant and eat out, but Dalia was quite over-protective and insisted on keeping Jude in the safest situation possible, probably because of the scare Jude had given her that morning in 2008. However, she did permit Jude to practice in the dojo, sometimes even with other students. She showed a real aptitude for hand to hand combat and was very aware of her surroundings and how to beat the stuffing out of her opponents. Dalia had, on more than one occasion, asked her how she managed to do that, but Jude tended only to shrug and mumble something inaudible.
On a hot, mid-September morning, on her birthday, Jude woke up predictably early and began getting out ingredients for pancakes, which she made on the small kitchen stovetop. Everyone who had tasted her pancakes agreed that none were superior and were dumbstruck when informed that a blind nine-year old had cooked them. Today she added chocolate chips to the mix and got the whip cream out. She was still cooking an hour later when Dalia stumbled in, rubbing sleep from her eyes and yawning. Jude pointed to the rough location of a plate of pancakes and bacon, and Dalia took it into the dining room.
“Wow J,” Dalia marveled through the sleep in her eyes. “What’s the occasion? Didja win the lottery while I was sleepin’?” Jude had never told Dalia her birthday, and never spoke about how she had lived before arriving in Pennsylvania excluding a few passing comments about Dalia’s superior child care.
“Oh, nothing. I just felt like making breakfast. A really nice breakfast. And, you were sleeping in again, so I knew I had plenty of time. And lots of ingredients to use up, so I’ll probably be able to give some to Mrs. Freeman if she comes by. Will she? I thought you two were going out for something today. Like a foot washing thing.”
“No, no. She had ta cancel. Thomas’s got the chicken pox, poor kid. Emma’s gotta take ‘im to the Doctor, get him a shot. Won’t be much fun for either o’ ‘em, I’m afraid. Shots result in a lot of cryin’ and screechin’ on both ends.” Jude nodded.
“Hmmm.” She said nothing more, and focused on her pancakes cooking.
“Whatcha’ dream about?” Dalia asked predictably, as was her habit.
“I had a dream about someone getting killed, again. I heard them cry out, just like every night, and then I felt their blood on my hands as I tried to stop the bleeding. I listened as their breathing and heart as they stopped. I couldn’t do anything about it.” Jude couldn’t bear to face Dalia, so she flipped her current batch of pancakes in silence. The older woman just sighed.
“You’ve had this same dream for weeks now, what’s going on?”
“I dunno. It’s just a dumb dream. Who knows why I keep having it.” Jude stared intently (or tried to) at her pancakes and shrugged. Dalia seemed skeptical.
“Young lady, are you lying to me?” Dalia’s eyes were narrow and her lips were pressed so tightly together that they went white.
“Dalia, it’s a dream. Why would I know about the cause or what it means?” Jude rolled her eyes exaggeratedly and let out an exasperated sigh to convey just how ridiculous this seemed.
Dalia relaxed, her eyes returning to their normal size and her mouth opening in relief. Jude, however, felt tense and uncomfortable, as she always did when Dalia accused her of something. It didn’t matter if it was stealing a cookie or knocking over a coffee cup, fear overtook her when Dalia got mad. She ran hot, and a yelling fest was never a great opener to the morning, or a wonderful event at any other part of the day.
“I’m just gonna say this once: If you e’er try to solve crimes or stop ’em before you go to high school, ya’ll get grounded for a month, aright?” Dalia laughed lightheartedly and Jude chuckled nervously in response. She flipped the pancake onto a plate and brought it out to the table with about ten pieces of bacon. She sat down and ate quickly.
“So, what about you, Dalia? What did you dream about?” She shoveled pancakes into her mouth. Standing a stovetop for a couple hours making delicious smelling breakfast food but refraining from eating any made one very hungry, and now Jude was perfectly happy to indulge her hungry stomach. At this rate, she was probably going to be quite well fed for her teen life, if she continued eating like this, as she was quite pleased to do.
“Oh, you know me. Everything is sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows in here,” Dalia replied, tapping her temple.