Penny walked quickly past the tall hedge, being careful to step over the cracks in the sidewalk. Just then the sun peeped out of the clouds and shone on her, lifting her spirits. It was going to be a fun day. She was walking from her foster mother’s house to her best friend, who lived one block away.
It was fun going to Shaniquah’s house. She had a mommy and a daddy, a sister and a brother and she was the baby. In fact, they all called her Baby. She didn’t want to be Baby all her life though, so at ten years old, which happened the Saturday that had just passed, she decided that no one should call her Baby anymore. It was easy for Penny because at school everyone called her Shaniquah, but Shaniquah’s parents were having a hard time changing.
Penny loved her foster mom, but the poor woman was struggling and was really…well, poor. It was as if she was still living with her real mom, except there were no men in the house and no drug needles. Yuck! Her real mom, had men coming in and out of the house. The picture of those days flashed through her mind real quick and the man who brought her life with her mom to an end. It brought pain as usual and so she decided to stop thinking about it and think about her fun day with Shaniquah and the Jones family. The sun shone even brighter, the closer she got to 603 Q Street where the Joneses lived, and really got glaringly bright as she mounted the bright red brick steps to the bright blue front door.
The door was yanked open, “Hey Penny!” a round faced ten year old bounced out of the front door, her thick dreadlocks wobbling. The two girls hugged each other vigorously and arms around each other’s waists, hopped into the happy house together. Inside the Joneses wonderful living room, sat Shaniquah’s grandmother, Big Ma and all Shaniquah’s aunts sitting and standing around. She had five aunts. They had plates in their hands and looked up to see what caused their little Baby such joy.
“Oh it’s Penny. Golden Penny. How are you Golden Penny?” They all laughed together while chewing on the savory smelling soul food filling their plates. They called Penny golden, because they said a gold penny would be precious and she was precious and had golden brown hair.
“Hi” Penny said in her softest voice.
“Look at that golden hair” one of the aunts said as sunlight streamed in through the window and caught her untamed kinky pigtails. Her foster mother didn’t know how to do hair either, just like her real mom.
“How’s your mom doing?” another said, swallowing her mashed potatoes with green peas in it. Penny made a mental note to get some of those.
“She’s fine thank you” Penny said a little louder. It seemed only Shaniquah and her mom and dad and Big Ma knew Mrs. Cooper wasn’t her real mom.
“Say hi to her for us,” the aunt went on.
“O.K.” Penny assured her as Shaniquah pulled her into the kitchen. It was packed. Every cousin in the family must have been there of all sizes and shapes.
“Everybody with a plate of food start heading out back” Shaniquah’s mom ordered like a drill sergeant, “this kitchen is not big enough for everybody. Hi Golden Penny!”
“Hi Ma!” Penny called over the din. Shaniquah’s mom was the closest to the kind of mom she wanted than any woman she knew.
Later outside at a picnic bench with Shaniquah, Penny shoved the last of the mashed potatoes into her mouth. “So what are you and Mrs. Cooper going to do on next week, with no school”, Shaniquah asked with her mouth full of the last of the fried chicken on her plate.
“I don’t know. Probably nothing.”
“She never does anything does she?”
“You know I love her and all, but she stopped doing all the fun things we used to do when I first moved in. it’s like she got tired or something.”
“Yeah, maybe. She really loves you and I know she wouldn’t want to live without you.”
“I know that. But sometimes I wish she was happier. Maybe if she came over here more often…”
“Oh, I know, I’ll ask my mom to invite her over next week!”
“That may work!”
“Ma” Shaniquah wasted no time, as her mother came out the back door with a big bowl full of steaming corn on the cob, “can you invite Mrs. Cooper over to our barbeque next week?”
“I certainly will. I’ll stop by your house tomorrow Penny and let her know I want her over here” Ma said with a conspiratorial smile at the girls. “Corn everyone! And there’s enough butter and salt on it already” she warned.
As the family descended on the corn, Penny thought of her foster mom being over here and a part of the fun. She wondered if she would enjoy it. She seemed so used to being by herself. Time went by too fast for Penny and soon it was time for her to leave, so she could be home by six thirty, like Mrs. Cooper wanted.
“Bye Penny” Shaniquah waved from the top of the step.
“Bye” waved Penny.
Soon after Penny unlocked the door to her home with her foster mom, stepped into the foyer and heard Mrs. Cooper calling, “Penny!”
“Come on back to the dining room, I have a surprise for you.”
Happily Penny skipped to the back of the house, in through the archway to the dining room. Her smile froze on her face.
“Hi sweetie, this is my brother, Sal.
“Hi there little one”
“Hi” Penny muttered.
“I haven’t seen my brother for 20 years, I’m so excited” Mrs. Cooper said without noticing Penny’s reaction. As Mrs. Cooper chattered on with Sal, Penny slipped out and escaped to her room.
Oh my, how horrible she thought. That was the man who used to come in and sleep with her real mom. And he is the reason why she had been taken away. He had a key and when mommy was out, he would come in and sit around watching TV and Penny felt watching her, but she would spend her time in her room when he came over. One day he came into her room which didn’t have a lock on it and started rubbing her body. She tried to get away from him but he kept grabbing her. Finally mommy came home and he stopped. When she told her mom, she got mad with her and said she just didn’t like Sal. That he was the best thing that had happened to her. After that, Penny was scared to be home without her mom, and somehow the school’s vice principal, Ms. Blue, who was like a mother to her, got out of her why she preferred to stay after school, wherever there was detention going on (and there always was). If she couldn’t find detention, she would stay with Ms. Blue.
Penny didn’t know that Ms. Blue told the Division of Family Services but they had been watching the house. They saw that her mom was really doing prostitution and they took Penny out and put her in foster care. If not for this Sal, who was now downstairs in her new home, she would not have been afraid to be home alone and the authorities would never have been alerted. Now, this man didn’t recognize her, since it was 3 years ago and she was now ten. What should she do? This was worse. This wasn’t just a boyfriend in the house, this was Mrs. Cooper’s brother!
The next day Penny headed off down the same sidewalk as the day before towards Shaniquah’s house. This turn of events in her life wasn’t going to be exposed like last time. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake. She wasn’t going to tell anyone about Sal. He had left last night. Mrs. Cooper had tried to get her to come down and say good night, but she pretended to have fallen asleep. She had to avoid him seeing her too much if he stayed around, so he wouldn’t one day recognize her. She ran up the red brick steps and knocked at the bright blue door and almost knocked on Shaniquah’s nose, so quickly was the door opened.
“Hey, Penny. Come in quick, our show’s about to start.”
“O.K” Penny said, forgetting that she was here to see a rerun of CSI.
“What’s the matter?” Shaniquah asked
Penny couldn’t hide anything from her best friend. It was as if this little girl could see right through her. That may be why she was so close to her. She didn’t have to explain much to Shaniquah. Now, it was working against her. She didn’t want her friend to know about Sal or what had happened in the past.
“What’s wrong?” Shaniquah asked again. Penny hadn’t even noticed that she hadn’t answered.
“Don’t say ‘nothing’” Shaniquah interrupted her attempt to deny anything was wrong. She tried anyway,
“Nothing’s wrong. What episode of CSI are we watching?”
“Forget CSI. Something happened. Is Mrs. Cooper O.K.?”
“Yeah” Penny was getting impatient that she wouldn’t be able to keep her secret.
“Well, something happened” Shaniquah insisted. “Did your real mother come around?”
Shaniquah shouldn’t have asked that. Tears sprang to Penny’s eyes. Her gold colored eyes that matched her hair glistened in the sunshine that was streaming through the lace-framed living room windows. At this inopportune time, Shaniquah’s mom entered the living room. Uh oh.
“What’s going on golden Penny?”
“She doesn’t want to tell me Ma.”
Ma sat down with a worried look on her face as she watched Penny’s tears. “Well, if she doesn’t want to talk about it dear, we shouldn’t press her” she said in a tone that said she was going to press Penny. “But know that you can talk to us, Penny and we will respect whatever you want us to do with the information.” That told Penny that Ma knew more about her reason for being with Mrs. Cooper than she realized.
She suddenly felt relieved. Maybe she should tell them that Sal was around and that she was afraid. She knew now, that that was why she was crying, because the tears were flowing even more now. She was really scared. Would Sal recognize her, would he try something else, would Mrs. Cooper blame her?
With the caring, loving faces staring at her, she hesitated for a moment and then decided to take the scariest risk of her nine years on earth. She poured out all that had happened with her real mom and Sal and the vice principal of her school and being taken from her mom and how hurt her mom was and moving in with Mrs. Cooper. Tears poured and poured and no amount of tissue that ma kept handing her seemed enough.
Sometimes as she told the story she sounded to herself as if she was wailing. Like a wounded animal being treated, she howled and howled.
Finally, the ‘flood’ stopped and golden Penny wiped the last of the tears from her eyes. Shaniquah sat stunned and crying too. Then in a more calm voice Penny told them who arrived in her new home as Mrs. Cooper’s long lost brother and what she was afraid of.
“I don’t mind if you tell her” Penny said sounding now like she had a bad cold. “If she doesn’t want me anymore, I’ll just have to go to another home.”
“No” Shaniquah said seeming to have caught the same bad cold as Penny. “Then you might not be so close to us.”
“Don’t worry sweetie” Ma said, “We will always be able to find her. But I don’t think Mrs. Cooper will think that way. If she hasn’t talked to her brother in twenty years she probably isn’t that close to him. I know one thing, she loves you Penny, very much and wishes she had more money for you both to have more fun.”
“I don’t really mind if she doesn’t have a lot of money, as long as I feel safe in my home.”
Ma said “I’m going to try and be closer to her from now on and let her know she is always welcome here. How ‘bout I invite her to tea tomorrow when the family won’t be around and here and I can talk?”
“O.K.” Penny said quietly, “I guess I’d better be going home now.”
“Are you sure? There’s no hurry.”
“I know but I feel like being in my room.”
“Call us if you need anything, before tomorrow.”
As Penny walked into her home, Mrs. Cooper was calling from the kitchen.
“Hey dear. Did you have a good time? Mrs. Jones called and invited me for tea tomorrow. Come in here. I baked your favorite pound cake and I have baked apples to go on top.”
Penny walked into the kitchen and sat on the counter stool as she knew was expected. Mrs. Cooper rattled on. The pound cake slice served to her on a pretty china saucer, Mrs. Cooper proceeded to try and make her take a whiff of the baked apples before she served it.
“Say when Penny” as she spooned the apple mixture on the cake. “What’s wrong dear?” she stopped and stared into Penny’s face. “Have you been crying? Did something happen?”
Then Penny decided she would tell Mrs. Cooper, herself. It wouldn’t look good for her to sit here and enjoy this delicious food and then Mrs. Cooper have to hear from Ma about Sal. So the food forgotten and as tears started again Penny began to tell Mrs. Cooper everything. The evening ended with her in Mrs. Cooper’s arms sitting on the couch.
“You know you’re golden Penny. A penny may seem like not much, but God loves to work with not much. And that you’re golden Penny, shows you that even a penny can be worth gold. You’re precious child and not a mistake or not in the way at all. You’re worth my attention and love. Never forget that. My brother already called and said he was off to parts unknown and I realized he hasn’t changed and is as unreliable as ever. He won’t be welcomed here ever again, now that you’ve told me all this. I’m going to report this to police and do what they tell me, and he’ll be arrested if he comes around again. You’re safe here dear. I’ll do all in my power to make sure you’re safe.”
“Thanks Mom” Penny said, exhausted suddenly.
“Mom! You called me Mom.”
Sleepy smiling Penny said, “Yes, Mom. You’re a mom to me.”
Among kisses and hugs, golden Penny fell asleep, safe in her Mom’s embrace.