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Paint Chips

by Susie Finkbeiner

What lies beneath the layers of hurt?

Though haunted by her troubled past, Dot has found a safe haven. She has a fierce protector and a colorful collection of friends…but sometimes she wonders if her life will ever be normal again. Though college and romance await her, embracing them requires a new kind of strength—one she isn’t sure she has.

Emerging from years of confusion, Cora struggles to latch hold of the sanity she needs to return to the real world. She yearns to find a place of peace…but first she must deal with the ghosts of her past.

Can this mother and daughter overcome abuse, betrayal, abandonment, and the horrors of sexual trafficking, and make it back into each others arms?

Facing the past is never easy. But as they chip away the layers, they might just find something beautiful beneath the mess.

Cora 1

South of the city, past all the tall mirror windowed buildings and the long twisting highways. Past the billboards and stores. In an out-of-the-way, behind-the-trees sort of place. That’s where I lived out the punishment for my sins. Separate from the schools and churches and parks and neighborhoods. An off-to-the-side, overlooked place is best for hiding hell. That’s where I lived.

A winding and curling driveway unfurled itself through the dense woods. The deep gray path ended at a coarse fence, barbed wire pointing in. Within stood a large, tan building.

Up the flights of stairs, through secured doors, down an empty hallway, the third room on the left. My room. And in that space, dreams haunted. Each dream a variation of the same thing.

Five gunshots. His dark eyes. The blood. Her screams.

“Cora.” The voice of an orderly jolted me awake. “Breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry,” I replied. “Leave me alone.”

“All right.”

I sat up, the hard, plastic-lined mattress made a cracking sound, stiff under my movement. Standing, I flipped on the light. The bulb buzzed and let off a sickening green-blue hue. I pulled my bathrobe on and turned the knob, opening the door.

“Good morning, Cora,” the nurse at the desk said.

I ignored her and made my way to a seat in the dayroom. Ugly, burnt-orange chairs lined one of the walls. A brown couch sat under the large window. I slid my fingers across the smooth green Ping-Pong table, trying to remember the last time someone played. The net hung limp.

A box, placed on the table, distracted me. I put my hand on the cardboard lid, wondering what it contained. Had it been there the day before? Had I not noticed?

An orderly pushed Edith into the room. She sat, silent. Her wheelchair squeaking. The orderly stopped her, leaving her near the window. A ray of sunlight touched her face. She didn’t acknowledge it.

“What is this?” I asked the orderly as he walked past me.

“Just some books somebody brought over,” he answered. “Go ahead. Look through them. Maybe you could read to Edith.”

He removed the lid. Books, spine up, filled the box. Musty, dust-covered titles. I touched them. Each one. Until my finger rested on a blue book. Gold letters, without flourish, joined together, spelling a title that I recognized. I pulled it from the box, rubbing the cover on my sleeve.

“What did you find?” the orderly asked.

I jumped, holding the book against my chest. Hiding it.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 “I forgot you were here,” I whispered, my breath choppy. “I’m okay.”

Still, clinging to the book, I took slow steps to the chair furthest from the table and the box and the orderly. Sitting, I peeked at the book.

 “Sense and Sensibility,” I read the cover, my voice sounded wispy. “Why this book?”

I opened it, letting the book rest on my lap. Turned the yellow pages. So gently, slowly, afraid they might crumble. Closing my eyes, I tilted my head back. Trying to recall. Images swirled through my mind. So rapidly, I couldn’t catch one.

“Cora.” A voice broke through the spinning of my thoughts. “Cora.”

Opening my eyes, the lights above me too bright, I winced. Exhaled. One of the nurses leaned over my face.

“Time for your morning meds.” She put a tiny cup full of pills into my hand. “In they go.”

I swallowed numbness, forgetfulness, apathy. Chased them down with tepid water.

“That’s good,” the nurse said, walking away. “You’ll be feeling just fine soon.”

Feeling. All anyone ever seemed to care about around that place. How I felt. What my feelings told me. They couldn’t understand. Or I couldn’t articulate. I felt nothing.

Nothing but the poverty of silent emotions. A memory that hid from me. And guilt for destroying everyone.

Dot 2

The grit of the sidewalk made a grinding sound under my feet as I walked home from the store. The eggs and milk and bread in my bag grew heavy, hanging from my hand. I wanted to get into the kitchen, put the groceries away, and start on my homework. And to be inside before dark.

“Hey, Dorothea,” a neighbor called out to me from his porch. He drew on a cigarette and squinted as he exhaled. “You makin’ some of them cookies?”

“Hi, Lee. I guess I could bake a batch,” I said, turning toward him. “What kind?”

“Snickerdoodle. Extra cinnamon.” Lee smiled at me. “You know how I like ’em.”

“No problem. I’ll have Lola bring them over later.”

“You’re my favorite.”

“I know it.” I waved at him and continued walking.

He watched me as I went past him and up the street. But he wasn’t a threat to me. None of the men who lived on our street were. They might have been drug dealers or gangsters. But they watched out for me. For all the girls who lived in Lola’s house.

Passing by the old, broken-down buildings, I kept my eyes on the bright pink house at the end of the street. It stuck out among the dingy, condemned structures around it. The paint had been donated. The leftovers of some hardware shop’s mistake.

“You should have seen the look on the neighbors’ faces when we started painting,” I remembered Lola saying shortly after I moved in. “It was like we were Noah building a boat in the desert.”

When I reached the porch of my house, I turned and waved at Lee. Letting him know I was safe. He gave me a thumbs up before he went inside. I opened the door and slipped into the safety of Lola’s House.

I unloaded the groceries when I got into the kitchen. The setting sun glimmered through the windows, turning the room orange. I’d lived in that house for five years. Most every evening, I made sure to watch the sunset from the kitchen.

Five years of sunsets. Not all of them left an impression on me. The ones I remembered connected me to important days or changes I’d made.

“Sunset time?” Lola asked, joining me in the kitchen. “I always know where to find you at this hour of day.”

I nodded, not knowing how to say what weighed on my mind. How to thank her. I could only smile at the changing colors.

“You know what day it is, don’t you?” I asked after a quiet minute.

“Of course I do.” She put an arm around my shoulder.

Ten years ago, on that day, was the last time I saw my dad.

“The time has flown by since you came here.”

“I’ve changed a lot, right?”

“I should say so.” Lola opened a drawer. Pulled out a camera. “I think we need to take a new picture of you for our wall.”

She had me sit at the table, my favorite spot in the house. She snapped a picture.

“Let me see,” I said.

“That’s a very nice picture.” She smiled and handed the camera to me. “Your brown eyes really stand out.”

I squinted to see the small picture. My brown hair fell limp against my face. I frowned at the photo.

“You should have let me do my hair. It looks stringy.”

“The word is ‘smooth.’ Your hair looks smooth.” She took the camera from my hands. “I’m going to print this up.”

After she left the kitchen, I crossed the room to look at the picture wall. Portraits of the girls who had lived in Lola’s house over the past twenty years hung so close together, I could barely see the paint. I touched the frames as my eyes glanced at the pictures.

Each girl was different. From different places. With different stories. One thing they all had in common; they’d all been sold. Used by other people who just wanted to make fast money or find easy pleasure. And every girl had come to Lola’s house to get help. To change.

My fingers moved along until they rested on my picture. Lola took it a few weeks after I moved in. Thirteen years old and suffering so much. That’s what I saw in that old picture. I tried to push down my emotions.

Lola hummed as she came back into the room. I cleared my throat.

“How’d it turn out?” I asked.

“Absolutely beautiful,” she answered, joining me by the old photo. “Ah, yes. This picture certainly brings back the memories.”

“I’d rather not think about that.” I turned, headed for my chair.

“You know, dear, I realize that you don’t enjoy dwelling on the past. However, you may find that dealing with your memories will help you continue to grow.”

“I know.” I sat, pulling myself close under the table. “But that doesn’t mean I want to.”

“That is understandable.” She handed the newly printed picture to me. “Your story is important, Dorothea. That scared little girl is part of you. You wouldn’t be the same without her.”

“Why do you always have to be right?” I shook my head. “You never let me take the easy way, do you?”

“That I cannot.” Lola winked at me.

“You want to help me make some cookies?” I asked.

“Are you changing the subject?”

“Yes, I am.” I stood. “Lee asked me to make him some Snickerdoodles.”

“With extra cinnamon.”

“Just the way he likes them.”

“I would love to help you,” Lola said.

The two of us stood at the counter, mixing together cookie dough. Rolling it in the sugar and cinnamon. And the whole time, I thought about my past. And wished that I didn’t have one to remember.