Nine-and-a-half meant almost being ten years old. It was May 22nd, and Samira had only six months left until she was a full decade old. The ten year-olds at school were just so cool, and tall! She couldn’t wait to have more friends and get past her 4’8” slump.
It was a normal, if happy half-birthday for her. Annette packed her some soft ginger cookies with her lunch, and Amy left a kind note alongside them. And if Samira wanted to plead to spend her afternoon on the playground, she had an edge. She was the half-birthday girl! They let a defiant Julian skip therapy on his half-birthday.
But while Samira played a lonely game of hopscotch, someone else was playing a lonely game of nothing.
Julian curled up near the school building, his knees to his chest and his back against the grey brickwork. The last year and a little more did almost nothing to help her stepbrother. He was still angry. Fidgety. He did little work in class and filled his pages with nervous doodles. And few kids wanted to hang out with him. Lita Brandt still did, but she had a spring case of strep and was out for more than a week.
Samira sat on the asphalt near him. “I know you had a bad half-birthday, but you wanna hang out with me? We can go to the park, or the shops!”
Julian did not return her warm smile.
“No, ‘cause I have to see a tutor and a therapist, and then I have to clean up your messes at home. Your room’s a mess.”
“I can do laundry today,” Samira said. She had a big pile of dirty clothes in her room, but they didn’t bother her. Even Annette just shrugged at it. “You mean we can’t hang out after all that, though?”
Amy called to Julian from the gates to the schoolyard. “C’mon sweetie, Mr. Meltzer charges us more when we’re late,” she said. He grumbled as he followed her out to town.
It left Samira almost alone, and with a jungle gym all to herself.
She was still short enough for the jungle gym to make an immense difference with her view of Twinbrook. She could see the tops of more trees and even the fire department down the street. And she could spy on the Pine boys, who played on the swings.
They were both younger than her, by three years or so. Samira was not sure of the specifics. All she knew was that they were twins, and that their mum worked for her grandpa Max when he was still alive. Whatever that meant. But sometimes she wondered if they could be playmates.
“Aren’t you supposed to have a job?”
She looked down to see Alex Pine, yelling up to her.
“No, I’m nine-and-a-half. Mum says I can’t work for her ‘til I’m 13 or 14.”
“You’re almost ten, and ten is old!”
She just smiled back at him. “You know, you’re right! I should go help my uncle Seng.”
Ever since Seng moved into a new office the year before, his law career took off. And it was a lot of work for one man to handle. Sometimes he’d have Samira greet clients or fetch them coffee. She was great at re-loading the printer too. He promised to let her file away his papers once she got a little older.
While he didn’t call on her help that day, Samira decided he deserved it.
So what if it was her half-birthday? She’d still be doing something she liked.
The adults explained their new building to her a year before. The front door led to Franco and Seng’s joint venture: One Lounge on the River. All the adults told her that she needed to be 13 to go in there. But the back led to their other joint venture: The Racket & Thao Office Complex. It was less of a complex and more of a basement, but they planned out a basement full of offices. At that point, they were the only tenants. It was a real boon for anyone with both a criminal record and a misfitting jacket.
Seng’s office had a waiting room, and his office door was locked. The only things of interest were new magazines, and the big espresso machine in the corner. Samira remembered how Franco berated Seng over how “wasteful” that was, but clients loved macchiatos. She always got herself warm milk from the machine too.
A part of her always wanted to try an espresso, like her mum liked in the mornings. But Samira decided to hold that off for another day.
She had homework to do, and was in a quiet place to do it. Seng’s office had a lot of soundproofing. If it turned into a screaming match, at least Samira wouldn’t suffer!
Ah, her first algebraic formulas. If x minus 6 equaled negative five, then x was equal to 1. She had a whole sheet of those to complete. Algebra was tolerable, but Samira liked her other subjects better. She missed raising mealworms in science the year before. She named hers Willy and he grew into a gorgeous black beetle. He was set free in the backyard and headed under a bush. Julian’s died as a larva and he ended up throwing the big tank of worms to the ground in a fit.
Samira found that moment amusing at the time. She kind of wanted those little worms to be free and happy. But nothing got better for Julian. And if only she could relate. It wasn’t like Samira remembered her dad at all…
Someone saved her from the thought. The door slammed open, hitting against the wall. Good thing there was already a dent from the doorknob before that.
“Damn lawyer has to drink his way through this…all I did was flick the bean on my porch!” A young woman stormed out of the room. Samira had seen Katrina Katz there before, but never angry like that.
She decided to investigate on her own.
At first, she didn’t see Seng. He wasn’t sitting up, but lay slumped over his office chair. A few bottles of beer sat at his feet, all empty. And he was alive, of course. He tended to snort and mumble as he slept.
…no Dia…no smack today…
What a shame. Samira was looking forward to being a good little helper for him. And now she was all alone in his office.
But who was laughing? Seng never laughed in his sleep.
It spooked Samira when the box in the corner opened. Then she remembered: it was just a toy box! Seng must have had babysitting duties that day. Too bad he ended up sleeping through them. But on the bright side, Samira could play with sweet baby Mari. She grew up into a round-faced 15 month-old and must have finally managed to climb inside the box herself.
So much joy flooded Samira. She hadn’t seen Mari since her birthday! All she had heard was that she took her first steps in April. The rest was just baby pictures that Seng got. He was always so proud of his niece and her sweet little face.
“Hey there, you little mung bean,” said Samira. Seng’s nickname for her stuck. “Looks like your uncle’s asleep. I think we need to find an adult.”
Mari climbed out of the toy box, just for her. She didn’t even bring the yellow car she was playing with. But she reached up for Samira, with her soft young hands. She did her best picking Mari up, but she had grown a lot in fifteen months. 21 pounds was about a quarter of Samira’s own weight and she felt it.
But all Samira had to do was carry her across the hall.
Lucky for them, Franco wasn’t passed-out in his little studio. He didn’t have a coffee machine or anything for the two girls to play with. His desk was full of sharp needles and scissors and a sewing machine. Samira could handle it, but it was all far too dangerous for Mari. She was still deep in the stage of testing out the world through her mouth.
And Franco couldn’t play with them, because he had to do a final prom dress fitting.
Mari was content to sit on the floor with Samira. She was in that stage of limited object permanence, so she still had a confused look on her face when Samira hid behind her hands.
“Look, I’m back!” Samira cleared her hands away.
“Who taught you that?” she asked. Samira wasn’t in Mari’s life enough for that to be one of her first words. “Was it your uncle? Uncle Seng?”
“Da lo…dada.” Aww, and she was even making an honest attempt at referring to her uncle in her ancestors’ tongue.
“Well, uncle Seng is cool. Too bad he’s asleep. We could have a good time with him.”
Franco grunted. “Ugh, is that how he babysits now? What should I have even expected?”
“Maybe it can be my job!” Samira said. “I could fit her in my bike basket.”
“Listen, Sam, you don’t want a job,” he said. “…now Danica, you have to tell me how you feel the fit is.”
She held herself around the belly, and took a small handful of loose satin. “You really fudged up the waist measurements here…you think I’m fat or somethin’?! Like you’re one to talk!”
“No! I must have fudged a number myself.” He furiously flipped through his patterns and notes. “Look, my sevens and ones don’t look that different…I can’t believe that made it all the way to the final design.”
“Prom’s this weekend and that’s what we pay you for? I’m calling my mum. She’s a lawyer and a better one than your friend here.” Danica looked for her phone in her pile of civilian clothes.
Mari covered her face with her hands too.
“No mo…no mo Sam.”
Franco was charting out his alterations as Danica argued her own case. Even to Samira, it sounded like Attorney Greenwood wasn’t having it. Danica ended her call and mumbled out a “sorry Mr. Racket” before going into the changing room.
Samira watched her brother. He was fully engrossed in his work, as the commissions piled up around prom season. And then it would be summer wedding season, and the smaller one in autumn. Samira knew the schedule well. Franco loved to complain about it.
“I have another fitting in ten minutes,” he said to her. “I’m not saying you ruin my business, but maybe you need to have fun somewhere else.”
“But what about Mari?” she asked.
“You know, I couldn’t care less about Benji’s child.”
Mari giggled and smiled to Samira from the floor. And for once, Samira had to disagree with Franco. Maybe Benji was just a nasty adult! She disagreed, but it wasn’t a pressing matter to Samira. However, Mari was a tiny angel. She rarely cried or whined around Samira and was just the most snuggly baby in Terrebonne.
“Okay, I’ll take her,” she said.
Mari was wobbly and her feet and couldn’t make it up more than a few stairs on her own. But Samira could balance her on her hip and just be very, very careful. She made it to the top of the stairs, baby in tow, and no one was hurt.
She still wondered about One Lounge on the River. What were they hiding from her in there? Samira knew what alcohol was. Annette and Seng had to be honest about what they liked to drink. She even got a teaspoon of wine to sate her curiosity on New Year’s. Julian did too, and he spit it out. But they were firm with their rule: no kids inside the lounge. Wait until you’re 13.
“Well, no one can stop us now,” said Samira.
The place was…normal. Samira already knew their wallpaper and textile choices, as Franco and Seng spent ages bickering over them. They both had a heritage to honor. Seng was Hmong, and Hmong embroidery was some of the most unique in the world. Franco could choose anywhere in the Arab World to claim, from Morocco to Oman. There was a rich array of tiles and textures from across Africa and Asia, but he found himself drawn to something vaguely Moroccan.
They ended up splitting the difference, and getting cherrywood floors that would go in any classy American home.
Melinda was the main bartender of the lounge. She was an old, dark woman, with bright silver dreadlocks tied back into a ponytail. Samira knew her already. Annette took quite a liking to her and invited her to holiday parties. Melinda had no other family to turn to, after all.
Samira stood on her tip-toes, and Melinda still had to look down at her.
“Sam…you know, I wouldn’t put it past them to change their rules. Anything I can get you?”
“I’m fine, but this little one’s gonna get cranky soon,” said Samira. “I think Seng has some bottles in his office, and maybe you can give her some of those drinkin’ cherries!”
“And we have powdered milk in the cabinet…seems fair, dear.”
Mari enjoyed those sweet, candied cherries. Melinda filled a ramekin with them and canned longans, all cut up. The latter was for what Seng invented and called “Dragon Eye” cocktails. They looked so strange and Samira made the promise to make that her first ever drink. There were talks about the lounge opening up for food service too, but that was just an idea. Until then, all they had was canned fruit for cocktails, and brined martini olives.
While Mari ate her fruit chunks, Samira took a look around the lounge itself. Those weird machines in back of her must have been those hoo-kahs that the adults always talked about. According to them, it was like smoking but more recreational. And with the models they bought, it involved bubbles instead of smoke. For a bit, Samira wondered why they would do that and not chew cheap bubblegum. She loved bubblegum! But those hookahs were sure pretty. Porcelain and glass came together to form slender vases and bodies.
They also hired a pianist and a singer twice a week. Destiny Train was the duo’s name, and they were cash-strapped enough to be the cheapest jazz act in the county. Samira couldn’t see why. Gina was so pretty to her, and no one else complained about her throaty voice. And Aron must have been at least as good of a musician as Hannah was! Samira missed Hannah’s guitar. She got a job at a studio back in September, and practiced there after-hours instead.
And there was even someone she knew there! Her own mum slumbered through half the set. Annette didn’t work on Mondays, and her days off were always spent at One Lounge on the River. Samira just had no idea what she did those nights.
She could take Mari and curl up to Annette for a sleepover!
Hmm. Maybe Samira could sit at the hookah instead. As long as she didn’t blow, what was the harm?
Also, her stepmother was awake, and needed some company.
A/N: What was supposed to be one short, fluffy “interlude” chapter from Samira’s PoV turned into nearly 5,000 words. Hence you getting a two-parter. But it’s a two-parter of Samira and sweet toddler Mari, so revel in it! I sure am!
Longans are probably another one of those fruits that I have to prove exists. They’re a real fruit, closely related to lychees, and how easy or hard they are to find depends on your location. 😉 I think they’d use canned at the bar because they are a pain to peel. It’s like peeling garlic (small fruit inside a thin, papery skin), but crushing them would be counter-intuitive.
They’re not my favorite, but I enjoy them. My mum can’t get enough of them. They have a sweet, complex, and kind of musty flavor that I’d prepare to a very ripe and soft grape. And they leave a weird, sour smell on your hands. Seng probably grew up with them as a treat. Definitely a rare treat, because they’re $10 a pound or thereabouts.