Today's Reading

2

There is a storm brewing over the Côte d'Azur; it sits dark as damsons on the horizon, lying heavy on the crown of Lucy's head. She cups her skull with one hand, grabs her daughter's empty plate with the other, and lowers it to the ground so that the dog can lick off the gravy stains and crumbs of chicken.

"Marco," she says to her son, "finish your food."

"I'm not hungry," he replies.

Lucy feels rage pulse and throb at her temples. The storm is edging closer; she can feel the moisture cooling in the hot air. "This is it," she says, her voice clipped with the effort of not shouting. "This is all there is to eat today. This is the end of the money. No more. No telling me you're hungry at bedtime. It'll be too late then. Eat it. Please."

Marco shakes his head long-sufferingly and cuts into his chicken schnitzel. She stares at the top of his head, the thick chestnut hair swirling from a double crown. She tries to remember the last time they all washed their hair and she can't.

Stella says, "Mama, can I have a dessert?"

Lucy glances down at her. Stella is five years old and the best mistake Lucy ever made. She should say no; she's so hard on Marco, she should not be so soft on his sister. But Stella is so good, so yielding and easy. How can she deny her something sweet to eat?

"If Marco finishes his schnitzel," she says evenly, "we can get an ice cream to share."

This is clearly unfair on Stella, who finished her chicken ten minutes ago and shouldn't have to wait for her brother to finish his. But Stella's sense of injustice seems still to be unformed and she nods and says, "Eat quickly, Marco!"

Lucy takes Marco's plate from him when he is done and puts it on the pavement for the dog. The ice cream comes. It is three flavors in a glass bowl with hot chocolate sauce, crumbled praline, and a pink foil palm tree on a cocktail stick.

Lucy's head throbs again and she eyes the horizon. They need to find shelter and they need to do it soon. She asks for the bill, places her card on the saucer, and taps her number into the card reader, her breath held against the knowledge that now there is no money in that account, that there is no money anywhere.

She waits while Stella licks out the glass bowl, then she unties the dog's lead from the table leg and collects their bags, handing two to Marco, one to Stella.

"Where are we going?" asks Marco.

His brown eyes are serious; his gaze is heavy with anxiety.

She sighs. She looks up the street toward Nice's Old Town, down the street toward the ocean. She even looks at the dog, as though he might have a good suggestion to make. He looks at her eagerly, as though there might be another plate to lick. There's only one place to go and it's the last place she wants to be. But she finds a smile.

"I know," she says, "let's go and see Mémé!"

Marco groans. Stella looks uncertain. They both remember how it was last time they stayed with Stella's grandmother. Samia was once a film star in Algeria. Now she is seventy years old, blind in one eye, and living in a scruffy seventh-floor apartment in a tower block in l'Ariane with her disabled adult daughter. Her husband died when she was just fifty-five and her only son, Stella's father, disappeared three years ago and hasn't been in touch since. Samia is angry and raw and rightly so. But she has a roof and a floor; she has pillows and running water. She has everything right now that Lucy can't offer her children.

"Just for one night," she says. "Just tonight and then I'll sort something out for tomorrow. I promise."

They reach Samia's building just as the rain starts to fall, tiny water bombs exploding on the hot pavement. In the graffiti-daubed lift on the way to the seventh floor, Lucy can smell them: the humid aroma of unwashed clothes, of greasy hair, of trainers that have been worn too long. The dog, with his coat of dense wiry hair, smells particularly horrible.

"I can't," says Samia at her front door, blocking their entrance. "I just can't. Mazie is sick. The carer needs to sleep here tonight. There is no room. There is just no room."
...

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