As the trill of the seldom-used ring tone filled the air, Lucy Fong jerked in her seat like someone had stabbed her rear with a needle, and the dumpling squirted out of her chopsticks, smacking into her date’s glasses. It slid down his shirt before disappearing under the table, leaving a trail of grease and disappointment in its wake. She closed her eyes, wishing for a wormhole to open up beneath her feet.
In the last sixteen years, her estranged mother had only called her once, and that was when Lucy’s stepfather had died. What bad news heralded the call this time? If it were good news, her half-sister would have posted it on social media by now. The conversation in the Chinese restaurant didn’t miss a beat, and the clatter of eating utensils scraped against plates continued unabashed. Lucy’s world had tilted on its axis, and no one had noticed.
Lucy opened her eyes, smiling like Miss America on steroids. “Sorry. At least it wasn’t red wine.” She was supposed to have dinner with just her grandma this evening but had accepted the extra dinner companions—a nice Chinese doctor and his mama—with grace. This wasn’t the first set-up, but it would be the last. Her cell phone vibrated to indicate Mom had left a voicemail.
“I’ve gotten a drink thrown in my face, but never a dumpling.” The doctor wiped his glasses, smearing the grease across the lens. “I’m always up for new experiences.”
Lucy’s smile wobbled. Ah, a man with a sense of humor. A rare commodity these days. Too bad this was like everything else in her life—the timing was off. She was still working with her therapist to fix the clock. “It must be rewarding to save people every day.”
“I don’t help people because it’s rewarding. I help people because it’s the right thing to do,” the doctor said, sounding like he believed every word.
Lucy groaned inwardly. A do-gooder. He was definitely too good for the likes of her. She wasn’t a “bad girl” by any stretch, but she certainly wasn’t an ideal wife for a Chinese doctor from a long line of Chinese doctors. She snorted. She pitied the poor woman who did meet those ideals.
The doctor’s mama scowled at Lucy. She probably wanted a nice Chinese girl for her precious boy and got a half-Chinese girl instead. The woman had insisted on speaking in Cantonese during the entire meal and giving Po Po pointed looks whenever Lucy stumbled over the words with her thick American accent. “I guess you’re not much use in the kitchen if you can’t even handle chopsticks.”
“Lucy is an internet whizbang. Maybe she could help advertise your son’s business?” Po Po said.
The doctor’s mama stiffened. “That wouldn’t be necessary.”
Lucy wanted to slap money on the table for the meal and walk out the door. She didn’t need this after a full week of work. But her grandma was all the family she had left...or all the family she wanted in her life. She glanced at Po Po, and the hopeful look on her grandma’s face fizzled out.
Po Po filled the awkward silence with chatter about a murder investigation. Her grandma had recently cut off her long silver braid to favor a short pixie cut with pink streaks much like Lucy’s. When Po Po got to the car chase in her story, Lucy tuned her out. Her grandma read too many mystery books as far as Lucy was concerned. The matriarch of the Wong family should have been Irish for all the gab she spun.
Lucy snorted, earning another dark look from the doctor’s mama. Speaking of mothers, she better see what Mom wanted.
“Sorry, I need to take this call. It’s from my mother,” Lucy said, pushing back her chair.
Po Po’s eyes widened with concern, and she bit her lower lip as if to stop herself from saying something. She knew all about Lucy’s tenuous relationship with her mother and half-sister.
“It’s fine. We’re done here,” the doctor’s mom said, dabbing at her lips with the cloth napkin.
Lucy thanked the doctor for a lovely dinner and shifted her gaze to Po Po. “I’ll wait for you outside.” She stumbled out of the restaurant, her heart pounding at the rejection from the doctor’s family and the bruise to her ego.
The fog snaked around the red lanterns hung on the streets for the Chinatown tourists. Lucy shivered, but not from the chilly November night. Her hands shook when she pulled her cell phone from her purse. She tapped on the screen to listen to the voicemail, but instead of Mom’s voice, the caller identified herself as Cousin Estelle.
Your mother is in the hospital. A neighbor found her shot in the stomach at her private investigation office. Lucy dear, you need to come home.
Her hands became numb, and the cell phone slipped onto the sidewalk. This couldn’t be happening...
From behind her, she heard Po Po say goodnight to their dinner companions. Lucy swallowed the urge to throw up. Hurling the dumplings on the sidewalk would kill her reputation. The doctor’s mama would make sure everyone knew Po Po’s granddaughter was either a drunk or drug addict. San Francisco might be a big city, but Chinatown was a small community.
“Are you okay? What did your mother want?” Po Po said, rubbing Lucy’s hunched back.
“It was her cousin. Mom is in the hospital,” Lucy whispered, swallowing at the catch in her voice.
Po Po’s lined face closed in like a flower petal. “Let’s get you home, so you can pack to leave in the morning.” She scooped up the cell phone and its battery off the sidewalk. “Broken. Why am I not surprised?” She tucked the phone into her purse. “Lucky you. I have a spare prepaid phone.”
They strolled toward the brick three-story building two blocks away. The first floor housed the Fong Chinese Herbal Shop that once belonged to Lucy’s deceased uncle. His apprentice ran the shop for her now. They got into the elevator, and Po Po hit the button for the third floor.
The keys rattled in Lucy’s hand, and it took her three tries before she could open the door to her small apartment. She had lost a bedroom in the elevator renovation for the building, but it had been worth it. Her uncle had stayed in his home in the apartment across the hall until the end six months ago.
Once inside her small apartment, Po Po bustled around making tea in the plain terra cotta set her uncle had given her. The little ritual seemed out of place, given the gravity of the news, but comforting at the same time. Her uncle had done the same ritual when Lucy had shown up on his doorstep as a teenager in the middle of the night.
She glanced at the lucky cat clock on the wall with its plastic swaying tail. Eight thirty. If she left now, she might make it to the hospital by one in the morning. She glanced out the window. The thick fog hid the building next door, except for one speck of glow that might have been a window. Maybe it would be closer to two in the morning by the time she rolled into Morro Cliff Village, a small coastal hamlet in the Central Coast.
It would make more sense to leave in the morning and be much safer for a woman traveling alone. But what if Mom didn’t make it through the night? Though they no longer had a close mother-daughter relationship, they once did. She blinked at the tears burning in the back of her eyes. She was going to be too late...
Po Po wrapped Lucy’s hands around a steaming cup of tea. “It’s only too late when you give up. We can swing by my house on the way out of the City. I can pack a bag in less than ten minutes.”
When Lucy’s late uncle had taken her in, this generous woman had claimed Lucy as one of her own, welcoming the angry teen into the Wong family all those years ago. She would do anything for this woman, but this wasn’t the kind of road trip for Po Po to tag along.
“I want to go alone. I need the time to think,” Lucy said.
“You can’t drive like this. You’re still in shock,” Po Po said.
Lucy shook her head. “I’m fine. It’s just...I thought there would be more time.”
The fluorescent lights flickered overhead, casting a sick gray pallor over the hospital room despite the cheerful yellow walls. The lights were dim, and the room was only big enough to hold the hospital bed and chair. On the wall opposite the entrance was a tall and narrow window like the kind found in a medieval castle and a door that led to the bathroom. The only sounds in the room were the beeping and whirring machines that kept Mom alive.
Lucy stood with her hands tucked under her armpits at the footboard of the hospital bed, mesmerized by her mother’s still form. She didn’t recognize the woman in front of her. The mother in Lucy’s memory was a tall and willowy woman with thick blonde hair. Lucy had inherited her Chinese father’s black hair and the Fong family’s love for pastries. She considered it a small miracle she still had the metabolism of her youth.
Mom had teased Lucy for being such a serious and reserved child. Whereas, Mom had been a vibrant woman, expressive and passionate, using her entire body when she moved or spoke. Or at least she did years ago. The elderly woman in front of Lucy had a permanent frown in her rail yard of a face. Her body was more shrunken than lush, and the blonde had become a mane of white. The years since her stepfather’s death had been hard on Mom, and it showed.
Lucy willed herself to feel something, but there was nothing. The long drive in the dark had shuffled the fear into a corner. There was no sadness, no pain. Sure, Mom had chosen her husband and half-sister over Lucy, but that was a long time ago. Water under the bridge according to her therapist. And the anger had disappeared when her stepfather had died.
She just felt tired...and numb. Before the clumsy blind date, it had been a long day in the office, and her manager had screamed at Lucy for a data entry typo from a co-worker who was still on probation. Granted, as an internet marketing consultant, a single digit on a spreadsheet could kill an ad campaign, but it wasn’t a gunshot wound.
Cousin Estelle slept awkwardly on the chair in the corner, her head leaning against the wall. She was actually her mom’s younger cousin and in her mid-fifties. She had been a slender woman with too big front teeth and large ears when Lucy had left town. She had also been the unlucky recipient to inherit Great-grandma’s first name. While she couldn’t do anything with her teeth, her long dyed blonde hair hid the ears. Unfortunately, she had also grown in girth to match them.
Estelle jerked in her sleep and caught herself in time to keep from falling off the chair. She rubbed her sleepy hazel eyes and blinked at Lucy. She paused as if movement might make Lucy disappear.
“Thanks for calling me,” Lucy whispered.
Estelle leapt off the chair and swept Lucy into a hug. Like the rest of the women in the Faye’s side of the family, Estelle towered over Lucy at close to six feet tall. “It’s so good to see you again.” She pulled away, studying Lucy from head to toe. “Wow, you’ve grown into a little cutie pie.”
Lucy raised an eyebrow. Little? In Chinatown, she had been as tall as most of the Chinese men at five foot six. She shook the random thoughts from her head. She wasn’t here for a homecoming. “What happened?”
“I told you everything I know. You might want to talk to Max DeWitt later this morning. He’s the town police chief now,” Estelle said.
Lucy blinked. The last name DeWitt sounded familiar, and obviously, Estelle believed Lucy should remember him. “Did you talk to the doctor?”
Estelle shook her head. “Max tracked me down after your mom came out of surgery. The doctor makes his rounds in the morning around nine or ten. The nurse said your mother’s condition is stable.”
Lucy exhaled in relief. Stable sounded good. Maybe Mom would be back on her feet in a day or two, and Lucy could go home. “I can stay here if you want to go home.”
Estelle held out a set of keys. “Why don’t you go home and get some sleep? You have a long day ahead of you. I can’t find your sister, and there wasn’t anyone else...” She took a deep breath. “Do you want me to call a cleaning service for the office?” The words tumbled out in a nervous rush.
Lucy stiffened, trying to stop the shiver down her spine at the mention of the private investigation office. How much blood... She slammed a lid on the thought. “I’ll deal with it later. Let me give you the number to my prepaid phone. It’s a temporary loaner.” She dug in her purse and came up with a receipt. She wrote down the number for her grandma’s spare cell phone.
Estelle tucked the slip of paper into her bag. “After you settle in, maybe we can have dinner or...”
Lucy grabbed the spare keys and stumbled toward the door. Settle in? She wasn’t staying. “Thank you for everything,” she said over her shoulder. She couldn’t stand another minute of the whirling machines.
In her haste, Lucy didn’t see the man on the other side of the threshold. She stepped on his toe, and her head rammed into his chest. She would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed onto her forearms.
When Lucy straightened, she suppressed a sigh. Could this day get any worse?
“Max,” Estelle said. Her voice brightened at his appearance. “This is Lucy Fong, Dahlia Faye’s...uh...daughter.”
Lucy ground her teeth. Estelle was about to say bastard daughter. She couldn’t believe people still remembered—or cared—that she was born out of wedlock. She shouldn’t have come back. There wasn’t anything she could do for her mother. She would only get insulted and shunned as she did in her childhood for being different. For having black hair among those with blonde or brown hair. For having slightly slanted eyes—
“Miss Fong, can I get you some coffee or tea?” Max DeWitt asked, his face concerned. “You seem to be in shock.”
Lucy shook off his hands. “I’m fine. I need to go.” Edging around Estelle and Max, she backed out of the room. Neither of them moved to stop Lucy, but she ran like the past might catch up with her.
The drive to Mom’s three-bedroom Cape Cod house was a blur. One moment, Lucy was backing out of the parking spot of the hospital, and the next she was on the gravel path in front of the house, breathing in the salt air. She couldn't remember if she blew through stop signs or sped through the small waterfront downtown area. It was a good thing the shops weren't open for business yet.
When Lucy opened the front door to let herself in, her hands shook and jiggled the keys. It had to be from hunger. She refused to believe a woman she hadn't seen for over a decade would have this kind of impact on her. After all, the phone call from Estelle had interrupted dinner. After she checked in the attic bedroom, she would fish out the granola bar in her purse.
As she made her way up the stairs, Lucy caught glimpses of the ocean through the windows. The pale moonlight sparkled over the dark water. Though the ocean was tranquil from this angle, she knew it crashed against the rocks below the cliff.
Her steps thudded loudly in the silent house. For a moment, as the door to her old attic bedroom swung open, Lucy held her breath as if waiting for her half-sister to pop out from the closet. Of course, there was no chubby-cheeked preschooler. It had been sixteen years.
The room was just as she had left it—a twin bed against one wall, a desk next to a dormer window, and a small trunk against the far wall. The baseball bat was probably still underneath the bed. The posters of her teen idols curled on the edges, and the tape yellowed with age. Mom hadn't even cared enough to come up here to dust.
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Continue to Chapter 2.