“In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
‘… we’re expecting the unforeseen January heatwave to continue through the weekend with the Southland and Bay area topping 80F highs today…’
Somewhere in a bustling town on the Californian coast, not very far from Los Angeles, the city where dreams come true.
Everything seems to rely as much on chance as on hard work, when it really comes down to where you live.
Maybe it’s with the movie stars and filthy rich people in one of the mansions hidden out of reach behind huge walls and guarded entrances in the classy hills?
Or in a trendy downtown loft with the town’s movers and shakers, close to the multitude of fancy bars and lounges?
Maybe, like everyone else, you’ve just got a rented roof over your head in the overpopulated barrio? Probably.
And that’s where we find Shasta.
Getting away from the Detroit area, and Billy Boy, has had repercussions on Shasta’s life. Looking over her shoulder has become a habit, but she can’t envision a life in hiding. She wants to live la “vida loca” and become rich and famous and looked up to. So, she made her way West, following in the traces of many others dreaming of becoming a movie star, or any star for that matter. But she is not the only dark-haired girl in the barrio who only has her good looks to rely on and she quickly understands looks alone won’t get her far. To be recognized as a future star she needs to stand out from the crowd. That means acting classes and a makeover.
Having watched a lot of old movies in her childhood together with Mrs. Brown who is an unconditional admirer of Rita Hayworth, she dyes her hair a warm, natural shade of chestnut. Very 40s movie-star-ish. Ready to do anything for fame, she has also taken up smoking. It tastes bad and it makes her cough, but it gives her a sultry, throaty voice that goes perfectly with her new, sexy image.
To pay for her acting classes, she works two jobs – perfecting her talents as a masseuse at the seedy massage joint on the port and waiting tables in the nearby diner on weekends. But she is starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this whole actress scene is not for her.
She rents a little shack in Watts on the outskirts of Los Angeles. A quiet- no, relatively quiet – street in a neighborhood otherwise plagued by gangs and crime.
The one bedroom house came already furnished but horribly decorated for a sensible soul. Every time Shasta steps inside, she wonders where you could possibly get the idea to hang up such ghastly wall papers. The bedroom ones are particularly appalling. She’s afraid that if she stares long enough at the pink flowers on the yellowish background, they will provoke an epileptic fit. But the stupid homeowner’s association doesn’t permit her to redo the decoration.
Then again, she doesn’t have enough money to spend on futilities like wall papers anyway.
Taking care of her appearance is another matter. Living in a city where everybody is health and fitness obsessed and where having a personal trainer is as common as having a shrink in NY, made her look critically at herself. After giving birth, dieting alone just wouldn’t do the trick.
Getting some physical, free, exercise scheduled in between jobs isn’t easy as she is not the jogger kind of person. Working out in a fancy club like Silver’s is more her thing, and she has to admit she looks good in spandex. Her meagre salary can’t afford an expensive membership, though. She prefers not spending her money at a less upscale establishment, she has certain standards and refuses to sweat in public with the plebe even if it means she has to work out at home.
She still can’t rock a model size “xs” and she is beginning to think she might have set the goal too high. She is a grown up woman who has given birth. That changes a body, and the photo models aren’t a day over fourteen anyhow… Maybe she should just go with the size she is now… Maria is always telling her how gorgeous she is and she has no reason to think she is lying. So, why isn’t she famous already? Why can’t she even find a boyfriend? She has criteria, of course. He has to be – if not filthy rich – at least wealthy. Tall and handsome would be good, too. He doesn’t have to be young. A sugar daddy to wrap around her finger would suit her just fine…
Staying in her little rented house made her soon stir crazy and for her mental sanity she had to make some friends to hang with. Unfortunately none of them live up to her standards. Maria Sanchez is her next door neighbor. She is the one who got her the job at the massage parlor where she herself has worked for quite a while. She lives with her parents after splitting up with her boyfriend. Or rather, after her no-good boyfriend went to jail, leaving her pregnant and without a place to stay. She hadn’t waited long, though, before substituting him with another, no-good, useless clone.
Well, maybe not totally useless.
‘… so here’s the deal…’ Santiago rubs his hands and looks at them expectantly. At least Shasta thinks he does, as she cannot see his eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses.
‘Are you sure there’s no catch?’ Shasta blows smoke from the corner of her mouth. They are sharing some cold beers and a joint on the roof to Santi’s trailer, getting some sun in before having to get back to work.
‘Ándale, Shannon. Give him a break, will you. He isn’t even said nothing about the surprise yet.’ Maria takes the joint and draws deeply.
‘Sorry, Santi. Go ahead. What’s the surprise?’
‘Órale! I got y’all an invite to a fiesta.’
Shasta blows a raspberry. Another “get-as-drunk-as-you-can-without-falling-off-the-roof” get-together with his friends? ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
‘Wait, wait, wait. It’s a private party. Invite only. VIP.’ He grins at them.
‘VIP? Really?’ Shasta finds it hard to believe but Maria squeals with excitement.
‘I’m stoked! I need a new dress, something short and tight and sexy. And some heels. Really high heels. You feel me?’
Shasta gets the picture. She will have to fix a new dress, too. Preferably not half as slutty as what Maria has in mind.
‘So, where’s it going down? Angel Rock? The Fed? Boomtown?’ She watches how Santi shakes his head as she ticks off the luxury, high end places.
‘Project B. It’s the most balla’ place in town tonight.’
The girls look at each other in dismay. Project B is the dance club where Santiago moonlights as a bartender every so often.
‘I don’t know…’
‘Hey, it’s a private party. Told ya! And guess who’s hosting?’ He looks expectantly at them.
Shasta refrains from listing famous people. What kind of VIP would throw a private party at Project B?
‘Calabria,’ Santiago adds proudly, eager to please them.
Of course. Calabria. The West Coast God Father. The only celebrity Shasta definitely wants to stay away from.
‘It’s his son’s 18th.’
‘So it’s a teen party…’ Maria sounds disappointed.
‘I’m not sure I want to get involved with Calabria, nor his crew.’ Shasta scrutinizes her nails.
‘C’mon chicas. Calabria knows virtually everyone in L.A.! I’m sure there’ll be lots of them famous people.’
‘Maybe Jack will show up…’ Maria says dreamily, nudging Shasta.
Shasta looks deadpan back at her. Jack who?
‘Mandé? Why you say that?’ Santi looks accusingly at his girlfriend.
‘Just saying… He’s just some gringo who chat us up the other day at the beach.’ Maria avoids telling her boyfriend that it was the Jack Wild Jr, music icon, idol of the masses and terribly hot.
‘Chat you up, mami? Un gabacho? Mes amigos and me are gonna kick the frijoles out of him if he so much as looks at you again,’ Santi splutters.
‘Can’t have been that impressive. I don’t even remember him,’ Shasta says truthfully to play it down a little.
Maria chuckles. ‘You was sleeping with your headphones on! But you’re right, no importa un pimientoI He is nobody, I can’t even remember his face,’ she lies. ‘Just that he was not as ripped as you, papacito,’ she purrs, beaming at Santi who self-consciously flexes a biceps and beams back.
Shasta breathes out with relief. It can get really ugly when Santi and Maria gets in a fight.
‘Can you take us shopping, Santi? Pretty please.’ Maria pouts with her collagen plumped lips, and hoists up the strap of her crop top that just barely covers her double D breast implants.
‘Sure. You coming, Shannon?’
‘I have to work. Sorry.’ Shasta puts out the joint and stands up, feeling lightheaded. ‘Can you let me off at the bus stop?’
‘Nah. We’ll drive ya’ll to work, huh, Santi? It’s on the way to Balboa so it’s not much of a detour. Do you want me to pick out a dress for you while we’re at it? We’re about the same size, minus the boobs. You should do something about them, I know a surgeon who-’
‘No! I mean, that’s sweet of you, but I’ll need to try it on and stuff. Could we swing by my place first? Just a quick stop to change out of these shorts, you know Madam’s stupid rules about the uniform.’
‘A girl in a skirt is top dollar for a flirt’, Maria singsongs, exaggerating her Spanish accent.
They catch each other’s eye, grimace and burst out laughing at Madam’s stupid saying.
Santi’s car has a flat tire, which he assures them he’ll fix quick enough. Maria harasses him with a steady flow of Spanglish reproaches that Shasta doesn’t understand anyway. Better leave them to it.
She leans against the back of the rusty pick-up, going over her wardrobe options in her head. If only she had taken the time to get her suitcase before rushing away from Fort Warren. Now she’ll have to stop by “Out of the Closet”, the thrift store, to see if something remotely suitable has arrived. In her size.
She really should use her saved money to buy something useful, like a car. In New York you’re better off without one, but in California? There’s no subway and the buses aren’t on time every so often… Didn’t the old Williams guy across the street say he wanted to buy a new car the other day? He was going on about some hybrid something or other, and had asked her if she knew someone interested in his old whatever??? Well, now there is.
She pulls out her phone and after a quick search gets hold of old Williams’ home number.
A few minutes later she hangs up. Santi is still sweating over the flat tire and it doesn’t seem to be fixed anytime soon.
‘I think I’ll just take the bus, or I’ll be late for work.’
She waves goodbye, and hurries off. She doesn’t think Maria even noticed her leaving. Santi sure didn’t.
She changes into her working clothes, a short grey skirt and a yellow tight top with her nametag on it. She didn’t feel comfortable in the beginning, wearing such scanty clothing, but she quickly got the advantages of not wearing too cumbersome outfits in the steamy cubicles. She knows Maria and some of the other girls give massage even less dressed, but she has refused so far. Kneading all these old farts’ sweaty backs and hairy legs is disgusting enough. She has drawn in enough money so far for Madam to leave her alone, but she knows it won’t stay that way forever. It’s not like she would continue doing this for very long, anyway.
Mr. Williams is waiting for her. The little grey Dacia is glistening in the afternoon sun, not yet dry after having been washed by the old man and his wife. Mrs. Williams lingers, stocking away the cleaning gear on the little patio.
‘I have taken really good care of her, she’s as good as new.’
Mr. Williams pats the hood before opening it on the engine. Shasta has no idea of how a car motor works but Mr. Williams seems to expect something of her, so she pokes at some wires that don’t look too greasy and nods, humming noncommittally.
‘Did you know it is French?’ Mr. William asks.
Shasta has no idea, and frankly, she doesn’t give a damn. French, Romanian, American – as long as it takes her where she wants to go, it’s good to her.
Mr. Williams continues praising the old Logan and she worries he’ll retract on his promise to sell it. She clears her throat. ‘I’ll take it. How much did you say you wanted?’
They discuss the price, and settle on $1,200 – half now and the rest when she gets paid on Friday. They shake hands and Mrs. Williams gets the papers and the car key. Shasta notices how the old woman’s hands are shaking as she struggles to take it off the keychain. Parkinson? Well, as long as it isn’t contagious.
Mr. Williams smiles apologetically as he watches his wife hand her the key.
‘We’ll see you on Friday then?’
‘Maybe you’ll have the time to have a cup of tea with us? I’ll make a cherry crumble.’ Mrs. Williams smiles.
‘Sure. As soon as I get back from work I’ll pop in with the rest of the money, but I probably won’t have time for tea, so don’t tire yourself baking, Mrs. Williams.’
The lack of a driver’s license doesn’t stop her from driving to work. She revels in the luxury of listening to music in her very own car. It is not a Mercedes, and the AC doesn’t seem to work, but it is hers. She rolls the windows all the way down and lets her hair loose, singing along to the music on the radio, feeling genuinely happy for the first time since she arrived in the Golden State.
A few hours later she is back home again. There had been a black and white cruiser parked in front of the massage parlor when she got there, and following Madame’s rules she did not even stop. Instead she made a quick U-turn and headed to “Out of the Closet”. $120 dollars for an Armani copy and matching shoes might not have been a wise choice, considering her current finances, but she convinced herself it was an investment and would pay off. She had made a detour to the Beverly Center and spent the rest of the afternoon window-shopping.
She throws the keys on the little table next to the door, gets a diet coke from the fridge and slumps down in front of her laptop, turning on Netflix. A half-hour of “Maid in Manhattan” later, she leans back in her chair and watches the ceiling.
Why can’t this kind of thing happen to her? Someone rich and handsome just has to notice her one day. But the concurrence is ferocious in LA. There’s no way anyone would notice a kitchen scullion when there are beauty queens milling about. Rests the Massage Parlor. But its clients are mostly married old geeks… She has nothing against old geeks, as long as they are filthy rich, but the kind of man she is looking for doesn’t seem to move in the same circles she does.
It would surely take a burden off her shoulders. No more working her ass off and just hanging on some old, rich dude’s arm looking pretty. She should concentrate on finding a Pygmalion – not because she needs any grooming – but because “finding her Pygmalion” sounds way better than “gold-digger”.
But until then, she has to work two jobs to get her ends meet every month… Suddenly she sits up straight.
She scrambles up, pushing back her chair so hard it falls over. She realizes she has forgotten Taïga at the nanny’s.
She hurries down the street going over plausible excuses in her head, but knowing full well they sound hollow. She can see Taïga in the Morales’ back yard through the high chain-link fence. Mrs. Morales, Dolores, has tried to tame the little girl’s wild hair by fastening it in a ridiculous something on top of her head. Shasta grimaces. It won’t last anyway.
Her daughter is playing with the family Pitbull’s food and Shasta fills with rage. How can they let a little kid alone with a potentially dangerous dog?
The dog is eating, and so is apparently her daughter. The little girl picks out dry pellets of food, pulls out her pacifier and puts the dog food in her mouth before putting the pacifier back in again. Then she starts the procedure all over again.
Shasta is appalled. She rattles the fence and howls at her daughter to stop. The dog comes barking, throwing itself at the fence. Swearing Shasta backs off. Taïga lights up at the sight of her mother.
‘Mommy-mommy-mommy,’ she howls, grinning so much the pacifier almost falls out.
Frustrated, Shasta has to wait for someone to hold back the dog before she can open the gate. The wretched animal is jumping at the fence, barking and growling. And now her daughter is approaching on all four.
‘Shit!’ She can just imagine the little child being accidentally torn to pieces by the overexcited dog.
‘Somebody hold back the effing dog!’
Javier comes running with a rolled newspaper in his hand. The dog whimpers and retreats, its tail between the legs.
‘Finally.’ Shasta pushes through the gate and picks up her daughter. She smells bad of urine and the diaper hangs heavy between the little girl’s legs.
‘Ugh. Where’s Dolores? Why hasn’t she changed my daughter? And why is she all alone out here? I pay you goddamn folks for taking care of her, not for having her killed by a rabid dog.’
‘Spike’s no rabid,’ Javier says and gives Shasta a dirty glance.
‘He killed a cat last week.’
‘Well, gringa. You teach your kid not to interrupt a dog that’s eating anyway.’
‘Que pasa?’ Diego and Dolores are coming out from the coolness indoors.
‘You tell me,’ Shasta says and glares at Dolores. ‘You’re supposed to take care of Taïga.’
‘Si. I am. From 9 to 5. It’s the third time you forgot to pick her up this week, and you can’t always blame it on SigAlerts. It can’t go on like this.’
Diego agrees with his wife. ‘Yeah. We’re doing no charity here.’
‘Yeah. Take your fresa and go home,’ Javier adds. ‘Before there is an accident.’
‘And no bother coming back. She’s a sweet kid but I ain’t have her no more.’
Shasta just gapes. How dare they? ‘Give me a break. I’m a working mom and I need someone to take care of my child. I can’t very well bring her to work, can I?’
‘That’s not our problem. You deal with it.’
‘Yeah. Or you pay more.’
‘Like, the double.’
The Morales look at each other and nod in agreement. ‘Yeah. The double.’
‘Take it or leave it.’
‘And we want cash up front.’
Shasta hoists Taïga on her hip. ‘The double? Who do you think you are? Mary Poppins? Even a certified nanny straight out of fucking Norland wouldn’t ask as much.’
‘Just fucking Google it,’ Shasta says and stomps angrily away. She sure won’t come back here anymore. She’ll find someone else to take care of Taïga when she’s at work. No worries.
She has calmed down a little by the time she gets back home. Walking has obliged her to think and there isn’t many options. She can’t leave the kid at home alone anymore. It was different when she was a baby, you picked her up where you left her. But now she’s crawling all over the place, touching everything within reach. Annoying and dangerous. And she has started acting strange, too. She’s sure her daughter has something to do with the toys always ending up in her bed…
‘Gosh. You really stink,’ she mutters, pinching her nose.
She undresses Taïga in the tub, quickly showering the filth off her. Dust, urine, dogfood, dirt and God knows what else. She’s amazed she had succeeded in carrying the stinky little bundle all the way home without retching. She puts on a clean diaper, gives her a bottle of milk and then steps into the tub to shower too. When she gets out of the shower, the empty bottle is on the floor but Taïga is nowhere to be found.
She finally finds her daughter in the backyard, hiding in the dry brambles. She’s sitting on her heels, talking to someone or something. Shasta frowns. I happens every so often. Taïga is like a cat, she seems to see things that Shasta can’t see and it gives her the creeps. But it’s probably just an imaginary friend. Lots of kids have them.
‘Time to get some food into you. Real kiddie food, not doggie food.’
Taïga smiles up at her mother and reaches her arms towards her, begging to once again be carried. Shasta sighs but obliges. Judging from the state of the child’s knees, she has crawled out here and needs another shower. Why can’t she learn to walk like other kids her age?
A half hour later they have both eaten and Shasta is getting ready for her daily workout. Taïga is, as usual, sitting by the mirror, waiting for her mother to start the music and get her routine going. The little girl is her greatest fan. She can virtually do anything and the stupid kid just soaks it up and even seems happy. Shasta scrutinizes her offspring. The child is now- she counts in her head – fourteen months old but she doesn’t even walk yet. Can’t be normal. Especially as she doesn’t speak neither. Definitely not normal.
She signals for Taïga to push the button of MP3 player and starts working out.
Taïga claps her hands and smiles up at her mother, repeating some gibberish Shasta doesn’t understand. Shasta can’t look away. The eyes are the child’s most disconcerting feature. When she was born they were the traditional, opaque baby blues. Then they became, as expected, the trademark grey. But now, they have started to veer towards a muddy greenish tint that is most unusual and not very pretty. Just like the kid itself. Unruly dark hair that never stays nice and combed for long. The few teeth she has seem unnaturally large, like a rabbit’s, and the sprinkle of freckles across her tiny nose and round cheeks gives her a permanent dirty look. How come a beauty such as herself could have given birth to this little… troll? Poor child must have gotten her looks from her father, who the hell he might be. She shakes her head. That didn’t sound great, even in her own head. She’s not very attracted to sex, other than as a means to an end, but she can’t imagine having gone to bed with someone repellent – even under the influence.
She frowns. She sometimes wish that she had not left Fort Warren so quickly. She should have followed through on her arrangement with Claire, the corrupt social worker. Or just listened to her first impulse and left the baby on a church doorstep, or something, as soon as it was born. But she had been too feeble to go anywhere after having given birth almost a month and a half before she was due. Still, the baby had been perfectly formed and weighed a solid 8.59 lbs. The doctor had assured her she was 40 weeks gone, but the timeline didn’t add up. She had been to a party in May where she had had some coke and funny pills. She didn’t remember much after that, but that’s when it must have happened. Someone had taken advantage of her, hopefully the good-looking dude who had plied her with beer and party stuff. But if the doctor was right, March should be more accurate, and she can’t for her life remember anything about a love story leading up to her pregnancy then.
It is becoming more and more worrisome.
What if Taïga has not only inherited her ugliness, but also some strange sickness, from her unknown father? She’ll be stuck with huge medical bills for years…
She’ll tell Taïga a quick story, take another quick shower and then she’ll get the child to bed so she can concentrate on getting something done concerning her future. Attending Santi’s party is part of the plan.
‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll read in the living room.’
She finishes her squats and picks up Taïga’s favorite book from the floor. She only has one, which makes it fast and easy to read a bedtime story.
Taïga grabs her cherished Minnie Mouse ragdoll and crawls off followed by her mother patting her perspiring face with a towel. They settle on the floor, Shasta is too sweaty to sit on the couch. As usual, Taïga props up Minnie against the folded towel so the toy seems to listen to the story, too.
Taïga snuggles close to her mother, and even though Shasta’s first impulse is to push her away, she puts her arm around the little frail body, overwhelmed by guilt about having forgotten her daughter earlier. She’ll talk to Maria tonight about her mother taking care of Taïga for a couple of days. It’ll be temporary, of course. Just the time it will take to find someone else. Maybe old Mrs. Williams can step in a few days, she seems to like Taïga and they have cats, which she largely prefers to noisy, drooling dogs.
Shasta applies some highlight to her cheeks and fastens her new earrings. Maybe some highlight on her décolleté, too? Nah…
The dress is short and tight, showing off her perfect body. The colors aren’t what she would normally have chosen, but this was the only dress her size with a semblance of class. So pink and orange will have to do.
‘Mommy-mommy-mommy,’ Taïga singsongs, reaching her little arms towards her mother to be picked up.
‘Wait a minute. I’m almost done.’
But Shasta doesn’t want to ruin her new dress, so she resolutely takes Taïga’s hand and walks her out of the bathroom. It is strange how well the child walks when she holds her hand. Sometimes she wonders if she’s just faking it… She might add devious to the list of Taïga’s shortcomings.
She puts the pacifier in Taïga’s mouth, turns on the nightlight and starts to close the door. She is stopped by a thud and a howl.
Balling her fists, she closes her eyes and counts to ten. Another thud. And another. As expected, when she turns her head she can see all Taïga’s cuddly toys scattered around the bed. Taïga is standing up, gripping the railing and pointing her finger at her pacifier on the floor.
‘Oh, no. It is late, you will have to sleep now. Throwing your pacifier on the floor won’t change anything. You’ll have to make do without it.’
Taïga is tired after a long day. She should have been in bed for hours already but she can feel something is going on and she reacts the only way she knows how. Big tears start rolling down her cheeks.
Shasta turns off the light and closes the door behind her before the little girl’s cries get to her.
She doesn’t really feel bad about leaving. What’s the difference between watching a movie in the living room and going out? Her daughter won’t know the difference. She will soon get tired of screaming and crying, and will fall asleep from exhaustion. And she is too big for a pacifier anyway, better wean the kid off as soon as possible or she’ll have to pay a fortune to some orthodontist in a few years.
A car is honking outside, and she grabs her purse and hurries out. Time to get some adult quality time.
Taïga cries until she understands that her mother won’t open the door. She stares at her toys on the floor. A few moments later, they are back in her bed again. She finally falls asleep, having forgotten all about the pacifier that is still on the floor next to her beloved telephone on wheels.
Part II – End of Chapter 52
“A sprawling sun-soaked metropolis full of fame, fun and rush hour traffic. In a city with glitz and grit, people that talk and don’t walk, cheap cell phones and expensive gasoline, it’s up to you to decide who you are and what your story will be. Welcome to Los Aniegos.”
Thank you, Costerboi, for you fantastic rendition of a West Coast City! You’ll find Coasterboi’s Los Aniegos at The Sims Catalogue