PRESENT TENSE
Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Two

July 29, 2009
Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

Rose hummed contentedly to herself as she cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. Jack and Lizzy were sitting in the living room, watching television. She laughed softly as she heard Jack laugh at something and Lizzy ask him what was so funny.

Life was going well for the family again. Jack would be returning to college in a few weeks, and not long after that, Lizzy would be starting school. They had already met Lizzy's teacher and introduced themselves and their daughter. Rose had been astounded to learn that she was the same teacher Jack had had for kindergarten. It seemed amazing to her that the same teacher would be there after twenty-three years.

Rose had settled into her job and was doing well at it. She had never thought of trying to make a living as a journalist, but she was good at it, and thinking back to the comments made about her writing when she was in school, she realized that her teachers had been right. She did have a talent for it. Maybe, she thought, she would eventually try writing something else.

As it was, though the Chippewa News was still a small paper, it was nevertheless a big job in a town the size of Chippewa Falls. She attended community events and political meetings, and even went out of town to interview people and get information. She was developing contacts in faraway places—though some she had already known from her earlier political activism. She was even learning to be her own photographer.

Her job also gave her the opportunity to investigate certain people, organizations, and events more thoroughly, but she sometimes walked a fine ethical line there. She couldn't use her knowledge either for or against people, not unless she had solid proof, and she wouldn't do or write anything that might put someone in danger, no matter what her suspicions or opinions. She was learning to be more cautious.

Still, her work hadn't dampened Rose's enthusiasm for activism, so long as there was an issue that she felt needed her attention, and it hadn't lessened her desire to continue her old career as a singer. She had her doubts that she would ever be wealthy and famous, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that she could sing and that she enjoyed it. She had found a bar in Chippewa Falls that hired local talent to entertain the patrons, and had been promised a recurring gig there on Monday nights as often as she was able. She had put in her first performance there two days before, singing a series of Depression-era songs she had learned from CDs Mari had made for her, and had found that people seemed to like what she had to say. With economic conditions being similar to those of seventy years earlier, the songs struck a chord in many people, and she had actually received a standing ovation, quite an accomplishment in an establishment where people's main objective in coming was to get drunk.

Jack had wanted to go to see her perform, but Lizzy was too young to go into a bar, and they didn't know anyone who could watch her. Even Jack's cousin, Emmaline, was busy on Monday nights teaching a community-level art class. Rose knew that Jack supported her efforts, though. He had congratulated her on her success, and when she had picked at her food at dinner before going to the bar, he had assured that she would be fine, and that she would be a hit.

Rose was drawn from her reverie by the sound of the doorbell. Curious, she put the last dish away and went to answer it, wondering who it could be. They didn't know many people in Chippewa Falls especially well yet, and no one had been invited over.

Opening the door, Rose was surprised to see a little girl standing there, a chubby baby half-sliding out of stroller she was pushing. Rose felt a sudden pang at the sight of the baby, reminding her of Paul, but this baby was much younger, judging by the toothless grin, and probably a girl, if the bright pink romper was any indication.

"Hi," the little girl spoke, her face splitting in a friendly grin. "I'm Lori. I'm five. Do you got any kids?"

Rose stared at her for a moment, taken aback. Where were these children's parents or baby-sitter? It was still light out—it was only seven o'clock, and the sun set late in the summer this far north—but she still didn't think it was safe for a small child to be wandering around alone. Cars moved too fast up and down the narrow streets of the trailer park, and nearly every yard had at least one dog—some of them wandering loose. Why weren't they safely under an adult's supervision instead of ringing the doorbells of strangers?

"Um…Lori…who's supposed to be watching you and your…sister?" she asked. She turned to see Jack and Lizzy behind her. They had also heard the doorbell, and had come to investigate.

Lori's eyes lit up at the sight of Lizzy. "Hi!" she greeted her. "I'm Lori. It's my birthday. Who are you?"

Lizzy hung back shyly for a moment, then crept forward, still clinging to Jack. "I'm Lizzy. Is that your baby sister?"

Lori nodded. "Uh-huh. Her name's Margie. I got a baby brother, too. His name's Zack, but he's just a dumb boy."

"I had a baby brother," Lizzy volunteered, "but he died."

"I wish my baby brother would die," Lori told her. "He stinks."

"Lori!" Rose was shocked. "What a thing to say!"

Lori looked at Rose in confusion, obviously not understanding what she'd done wrong. Having never witnessed death, except for that of a pet when she was very young, the girl didn't really comprehend what death meant. It was something that she saw on television, and it didn't mean much there. She stared at the Dawsons, not sure what she had done to upset them.

"Lori! Lori Jean Clark!" a smoke-hoarsened voice called from across the street. A moment later, a dark-haired woman with a cigarette clamped between her lips caught sight of the girl and her baby sister and came across the street. "Lori, I told you to stay home!"

Lori cowered a little, going to stand behind the stroller. "Mommy, you said I could go out and play if somebody went with me. Margie's somebody—"

"I meant somebody older than you, Lori. You know better than to take your little sister out." She looked at the child with both anger and exasperation, then looked at the Dawsons. "I'm sorry she bothered you. She's only five, don't know much yet…"

"Mommy, they got a little girl. Her name's Lizzy."

"Good. Now, don't bother these people no more."

"But Mommy, I wanna invite Lizzy to my party tomorrow."

"It's Saturday, Lori." She looked apologetically at the Dawsons again. "She don't know how to think yet, either."

Lori's face crumpled, her feelings obviously hurt by her mother's comment. "I do so, Mommy…"

"She's welcome to come over to play sometime, if it's okay with you," Rose told the woman. "I'm Rose Dawson, and this is my husband, Jack. Lori's already told you who Lizzy is."

The woman took a drag off her cigarette, considering. "I'm Norma Clark. If it's okay with you, she can visit, but I don't want her runnin' around by herself."

"I agree." Rose nodded. "I wouldn't want Lizzy running around by herself, either. She's only four."

"Lori's five today. She's probably already told you that, since she wants to invite Lizzy to her party, which is Saturday, not tomorrow. She don't got her days straight."

"Lizzy will be five in October." Rose nodded. "Yes, Lori can come over and play. Lizzy needs to make some friends here."

Norma took another drag on her cigarette. "Great." She dropped the cigarette on the gravel driveway and ground it out with her foot. Rose looked at it with distaste. "Lizzy's invited to Lori's birthday party. It's on Saturday at three. You don't gotta bring a present unless you want to."

"Can I go, Mommy? Please?" Lizzy begged, excited at the prospect of going to a birthday party.

"Well…I suppose so, Lizzy. It's right across the street, right?" she asked Norma.

"Yeah. I ain't got no money for nothin' fancy. They're just havin' cake and ice cream and some games. Nothin' special."

"It sounds fine," Rose told her. She looked down at Lizzy. "What do you say, Lizzy?"

"Yeah!"

"No…what's the polite thing to say, Lizzy?"

"Oh…thank you!"

"Uh…you're welcome." Norma was obviously not used to being thanked for anything. "Listen, I gotta go. I gotta drop the kids off at my sister's and go to work. Night shift, you know."

She took the stroller and secured Margie in it, then started across the street, grabbing Lori's arm and dragging her along when the girl lingered. "Come on! We ain't got all night!"

Rose watched them go, vaguely disturbed at the way the woman treated her daughter. It wasn't quite abusive, but it wasn't particularly nice, either.