I haven’t been allowed to leave the house in three weeks. But today Grandmother puts fifty cents in my hand and tells me to go buy the little green peppers that she puts in the noodles. I run out of the house before she can change her mind. I look at the shoes in the doorway then check that no one is watching before slipping on my aunt’s shoes. They are better than mine and she won’t know anyways because she’s asleep on the floor next to her husband.
I run down the street, feeling the late afternoon sun burn my neck as I go. At the end of the dirt road I cross the main street and walk two blocks more. At the store I see a package of candy. My mouth waters at the thought of the lemon flavor.
“Whachu want, ah?” The cranky old lady who owns the store looks at me with her beady eyes that peer through sagging curtain-like eyelids.
“Peppers,” I say, and hand her the coin. She grumbles something unintelligible; something that sounds like my great grandma who is losing her mind and talks to imaginary people on the street. I don’t care what she says, but I know it’s not nice because she is shaking her head; she’s already judged me. I look down at my shoes and wait until she hands me the bag of peppers. I turn to leave but she grabs my hand, jolting me back around so that I am staring at her wrinkly face.
“Don’t steal anything, ah? I’m watching you, ah?” Then she lets go and shakes her head again. “A girl like you should go to school.”
I dart out the door and into the sun. I’m not in a hurry to go home, so I walk slowly. If only I had a school club or study group like my cousin. She still goes to school. I kick a rock with my aunt’s shoe and make dirt fly.
If I had a boyfriend I wouldn’t have to go home right away. Also, a boyfriend would say nice things to me for once. And lastly, if I had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t steal anymore. And Grandmother would let me go back to school.
She is embarrassed that I keep getting in trouble with the police for stealing at school. Why is she scared of the police? I’m not. They don’t treat me any worse than anyone else.
To be honest, it felt good to be the topic of conversation the first time I was caught. I stole a classmate’s wallet. It was an ugly wallet anyway. I took the cash but not all of it. And that crazy girl never realized the money was missing. If she didn’t know it was missing, she didn’t need it in the first place. Anyway, the teacher got all mad and the principal called the police, and then Grandmother was called in. She was called in because I don’t have a dad and because mom got remarried and moved away with her husband and baby. So it was Grandmother. It all got worked out in the end. But by the third time, Grandmother said I couldn’t go to school anymore.
I round the corner to cross the main street when I see two ladies. I smile and wave. I haven’t smiled all day. It’s those ladies who visit Grandmother. I don’t know why they come, they were already in the habit of coming when I was sent here from my dad’s family, who didn’t want me anymore.
When the two ladies visit, they sit on the floor and listen to Grandmother complain about this and that. Sometimes they tell stories, but I don’t know much about that because I am usually taking care of one of my cousins, or cleaning the kitchen, or watching TV.
It’s a good night for them to listen to Grandmother because everyone is leaving. Everyone except Grandmother. Well, and me, since I’m not allowed to go anywhere.
I run across the street and greet the ladies. We walk to Grandmother’s house together. For just a few moments, it feels a little bit like I belong.
The ladies sit on the floor and talk to Grandmother while everyone else except me get ready to go on a family outing. My cousins and two aunts and three uncles all live here too, so it takes them a long time to get ready and all the while Grandmother is lamenting about her life to the ladies. I sit on the floor and lean against the wall, holding my disabled cousin. We watch a movie on my aunt’s phone together until she comes back and takes the baby and phone away from me.
When everyone leaves, Grandmother starts in on me. She tells the ladies all about my “terrible” habit of stealing. The ladies don’t seem upset and they don’t reprimand me. But just in case they change their minds, I hide in the kitchen.
After a few minutes, one of them calls me.
“Nadia! Come here. We want to pray for you, is that OK?”
What am I supposed to say to that? I haven’t had much attention since the police, so I’ll take it. We sit in a circle.
“Nadia, God has a plan for your life.”
God has a plan for my life? Why would He have a plan for me?
“And God loves you.”
He loves me? Like my parents who left me? Or the police who berate me? Or Grandmother who complains about me? Or my uncles who laugh at me for wanting a boyfriend?
They bow their heads, and so does Grandmother. I do the same. They ask God to change my heart and to show me His love. I don’t know what that means but it sounds like it would be good. I can at least pretend for a few minutes that I belong here. And just for a moment I am not abandoned, I am not a thief, I am not imprisoned in this house. Just for a split second I matter to these ladies…and maybe to God?