Note: Italics in dialogue within quotation marks indicates the character is speaking in Cantonese.
"Come and get me, Chenglei!" cried Dai-Tai, the seven year old Chinese American girl in the courtyard. Clutching her plastic water gun tightly, she dodged behind the black dumpster. A squirt of water missed its target and splashed onto the metallic bin washing the worn-out black paint. She trembled with excitement; the rush adrenaline sent her dark brown eyes flickering wildly. Dai-Tai panted to catch her breath and quickly jumped out to squirt her victim.
The water attacked Chenglei in the face. Dai-Tai had known him since last year in the first grade. They attended the same public school in Chinatown, New York, and eventually became good friends. He was the same age and nearly the same height as her. His face and his oversized orange t-shirt was now soaked wet. Dashing toward a cardboard box to recover, his dirty white sneakers squeaked loudly.
Their plastic water guns nearly dropped to the ground when they heard shouts inside the tenement hallway. Lowering her plastic water gun, Dai-Tai peered uneasily at Chenglei. It appeared one of the voices belonged to Xun, his older brother. The boy approached the backdoor quietly with Dai-Tai following behind. It was times like these that made the girl felt uncomfortable. Xun was a kind man who bought them sweets when he was in a good mood, but it was not unusual to catch him in his bad mood, especially when he got into arguments that led to bloody fights.
Their small shadows cast on the brick walls that were smothered with dull red paint. Even though the building was renovated a few years ago, it would always remain battered-looking. The pale yellow and muddy green walls of the hallway didn't even help; the paint easily peeled off with a scratch of a fingernail. Chenglei had agreed with Dai-Tai that their homes were rather ugly compared to the two story houses they had seen in estate magazines. Those were owned by 'rich' people however.
Peering through the narrow hallway, they stared at Xun, whose back was facing towards them, and an unfamiliar tall man. Xun was the same height as the man and was dressed in a black t-shirt and baggy jeans. A camouflage cap slightly hid the stranger's face; it matched the hoodie he was wearing. Unlike Xun who was younger, the man appeared around his middle thirties. A small goatee, which was dyed blond, grew on his chin.
"I will kindly remind you again," began the man in perfect English. "You will have to pay up this week. If you don't, you better find a way." Dai-Tai had to cock her ears twice to make sure he didn't speak with an accent. It was the first time she heard an adult beside her teachers at school speaking in perfect English.
Xun scowled. "I told you that I'll get the money soon! I'm just short out of cash."
"Well, you know what happens when you don't," the man replied coolly as he lit a cigarette. "This smoke is pretty bad for children isn't it?"
Dai-Tai and Chenglei nearly turned pale when Xun spun around to face them. They stared at the ugly purple bruise by his jaw. Surprised, he didn't know they were right behind him eavesdropping the conversation.
"You have until Saturday," the man replied. Grinning, he took one last look at the children, especially at Dai-Tai whom was biting her lower lip. His tan combat boots soon stepped outside.
"Who… who was that, big brother?" Chenglei asked almost demandingly.
Xun glanced anxiously at his younger brother. "Nothing for you to worry about. What else did you hear?"
"That the man wants you to give him money."
"Good," Xun replied in relief. Wincing, he rubbed the bruise by his jaw.
"Did he hit you?" Chenglei asked. Xun's hand stopped on the knob of the red door. Although Chenglei was just seven years old compared to his twenty year old brother, he knew something was wrong. He also constantly worried about his older brother, and sometimes he would stay awake during the midnight to wake for him to come home.
Xun didn't reply as he opened the door. All that was left was the slam of the door and the echo of footsteps heading upstairs.
An awkward silence passed between Dai-Tai and Chenglei as they stood still after the door slammed. They even forgot about the game they were playing. Dai-Tai didn't understand why Xun had to give money to the man. She felt herself shiver when she recalled the man grinning at her. Returning the plastic water gun back to Chenglei, Dai-Tai bided him farewell to go home. It was a good time to escape the unpleasant intensity, but as she stepped outside, she could still smell the lingering nicotine.
It was almost four o'clock pm. Dai-Tai decided to look inside the gift shop on the end of Doyers Street; it was a few blocks away from her building. It would help her forget about the encounter between Xun and the stranger. Her mother didn't get home until six o'clock, so she had enough time to look inside. She went there once with her mother, and her mother refused to buy her anything because she had once said that souvenirs were tricks to lure tourists to waste their money.
Since it was a hot summer day, the red-painted store's door was already opened for ventilation. A sharp scent of altar incense wafted through Dai-Tai's nose. She recognized the scent which appeared frequently in most Chinese stores, and the incense was especially used by her mother for their home's ancestral altar.
The same old man was sitting on the stool chair and was reading a newspaper. She felt his eyes locked onto her as she explored the items on display. Dai-Tai knew that adults didn't trust kids like her, especially when she was here without an adult. Nevertheless, she remained conscious of his spying as he pretended to read his newspaper.
The medium-sized store was filled with a variety of trinkets, souvenirs, and antiques. Exploring the store was like having an adventure. There were so many miscellaneous objects that attracted her curiosity. Bell chimes and red paper lanterns hung from the ceiling waiting to be bought. Large to miniature sculptures of Buddha and Kwan Yin guarded the shelves. On the tables, plastic baskets were filled with piles of rings, keychains, fake jewelry, and plastic toys. There were porcelain teacups, glassware, incense boxes, and miniature statues of pandas and dragons. But what caught Dai-Tai's attention the most was the separate basket at the end of the table.
Her thin fingers lifted up a miniature, calico maneki neko from the keyring. The tiny cat, which was the sized of her thumb, danced before her eyes. The cat's paw was raised high toward its red-painted inner ears. A red collar and a soundless golden bell hung around its neck. The calico cat smiled at the girl and beckoned her to take it home with her. Dai-Tai placed the keychain on her palm and felt it turn warm against her skin.
"One dollar," the voice said from behind. Startled, Dai-Tai saw the old man squinting at her across the room. His wrinkled hands were lay on top of the newspaper.
One dollar? Dai-Tai doubt she had enough as she searched through her shorts pocket. She found only a dime and a nickel. "Is this enough?" she asked showing the two coins.
The old man frowned and shook his head. "I will only take one dollar." He resumed reading his newspaper.
Dai-Tai felt she had been crushed. She squeezed the keychain in her palm and refused to let it go. It was the only calico cat out of the maneki neko keychain pile. There were black, red, green, and pink cats, but she wanted the calico one. It was the only one left.
Should I steal it? She wondered. It was the first time stealing in a store had crossed her mind. Dai-Tai turned her head around, and the old man seemed to be engrossed in his paper. Her hands started to sweat as clutched the keychain tighter in her palm. He wouldn't know if I took it.
Heart pounding rapidly, Dai-Tai quickly stashed the keychain in her pocket and nearly ran out of the store. She sighed in relief when she was out, but the old man came right behind her. Color drained out of the girl's cheeks, and she ran. She ran for her life.
"Thief! Thief!" was all Dai-Tai could her pounding against her ears. People glanced confusingly at the little girl whom was running on the sidewalk. As she turned right, she bumped between a couple whom were holding hands. Dai-Tai didn't bother to apologize or dare look back for she feared the old man was chasing her behind. It was the last time she was ever going back to that store.
Catching her breath, Dai-Tai finally reached her building which was right next to a bakery store. Even though she was safe now, her hands and body was still shaking as she fumbled the red door open. She felt she was still being pursued as her tired legs carried her upstairs.
Dai-Tai lived on the third floor. She barely made it to the second floor and stopped to lean against the pale green walls. Opening her mouth wide to inhale the air, she turned to glance at the window beside her. There was no one following her. There was no police coming out of a car throwing her into jail for stealing the keychain. She retrieved it from her pocket and cracked her lips into a smile as she gazed admirably at the calico cat. It was the first time she had ever stolen anything from a store. Dai-Tai had stolen books from her classroom library and plush keychain from her classmates' bookbags but never from a store. Today was her first time ever.
After she felt relaxed, she placed the keychain back in her pocket and headed to the third floor. Dai-Tai brushed back her short hair to remove the key necklace from her neck. As she unlatched the door, she kicked off her sneakers and headed towards the kitchen.
Unlike the outside of the room where the walls were all pale green, her small home was painted white. There was one bedroom and one bathroom. The bathroom was in the back of the kitchen. There were two beds for her and her mother, but since it was summer, they slept on the ground with bamboo mats. Dai-Tai's mother however usually slept on the couch rather than her bed whenever she got home from the long days at the sweatshop.
The girl skipped toward the kitchen. She realized how hungry she was and opened the metallic pot from the stove. She took a sniff at the cold, plain congee colored in soy sauce. Although it didn't taste as good when it was warm, Dai-Tai didn't complain as she spooned some into her bowl. It was better than eating nothing.