YA author Stacey Lee, one of the founders of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, is releasing a followup to her first novel, Under a Painted Sky, in May 2016 — but EW has an exclusive cover reveal and excerpt right here. Outrun the Moon is set around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as 15-year-old Mercy Wong, living in Chinatown, seeks to escape her life of poverty through education. When the earthquake strikes on April 18, Mercy must wait with her snobbish, spoiled classmates for their families to arrive, but she can’t sit idly by while people are suffering, so she’s forced to take matters into her own hands.
Check out the cover and excerpt below, and pick up your copy of Outrun the Moon on May 24, 2016.
OUTRUN THE MOON by Stacey Lee
In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.
Tom’s hot-air balloon, the Floating Island, hovers above us, a cloud of tofu-colored silk trapped in netting. After scores of solo flights, Tom finally deemed it safe enough to bring me aboard. I run my hands over the inner wall of the bamboo basket, which strains at the stakes pinning it to the ground. Both the balloon and I are itching to take off.
Outside the basket, Tom holds out his tongue to test the wind. The bald spot on his head is growing back, to my relief. He hadn’t wanted the haircut, but I had insisted after he agreed to swipe me a costly chuen pooi bulb from his father’s next shipment.
“Wind’s blowier than I thought,” he mutters, looking askance at the deserted hills of the Presidio Military Reservation. We use English with each other out of habit. At school, they prohibit us from speaking our native Cantonese.
“It’s hardly more than a baby’s breath! You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“No.” His smooth “good fortune” forehead wrinkles. Tom has the kind of golden face that stays handsome even when he’s worried or annoyed. “I’m already onto third and fourth.”
I wince at the mention of “four.” Tom glances at me standing motionless. I’ve never told him that I don’t like fours, after a lifelong string of mishaps involving that digit. He knows I normally scoff at my ma’s fortune-telling superstitions. He would just tease me.
But today, I refuse to be outdone by a number. I force a grin. “I didn’t spend two hours pumping the balloon with air to keep my feet on the ground.”
The predawn April chill makes me shiver through my quilted jacket. I can’t deny the light breeze. But we’re only making a quick trip up and down—ten minutes of weightless suspension, tops.
A portable stove with a funnel top directs heat through a hose into the throat of the balloon. It puffs up like a proud mother owl. I fill my own lungs, and my excitement surges once again. Flying!
Crouching, Tom scoops more coal into the stove with his spench, the half-spade half-wrench tool he made himself. He uses the wrench side to lock the stove door. “Stop bouncing. You’ll break my basket.”
“Stop worrying. They use bamboo for tiger cages. I can’t be worse than a tiger.”
“You don’t know yourself very well.”
Hardy-har. “I’ll need to be a tiger if I want to have my own global business.”
“Just don’t bite anyone.” A smile slips out, and my heart jumps. After Ma read our signs last month and pronounced us harmonious, Tom had gone strange on me, rarely smiling.
I grin back, but his gaze slides away. He pulls his newsboy cap over his head and tugs on his gloves, licking the wind one more time. Liftoff is imminent.
He yanks out the first few stakes with the spench. “Be careful near the drag rope, and don’t touch anything. By that, I mean do not make contact between yourself and any part of the Island.”
“Even my feet?”
He groans. The basket jerks as he digs out a stake. Once the last one is removed, he’ll swing over the rim like an acrobat as the balloon floats upward. My skin warms as I imagine the two of us snuggled in this bamboo capsule.
The silk deflates ever so slightly on one side. Maybe the winds are more combatant than I thought. With my hands folded behind my back, I examine the key-shaped valve on the hose that controls airflow into the balloon.
His teakwood eyes peer evenly at me. “I forgot something. Be back in a second. Don’t touch anything. Remember the kite?”
“You don’t stop mentioning it long enough for me to forget.” Last August, he told me not to let the string run on the peony kite he made me, but I couldn’t resist, and it flew right into the Pacific Ocean.
He hikes back to his cart and is soon hidden by a grove of pine trees. What did he forget? We unloaded everything—tools, ropes, and candied ginger in case of nausea.
The silk caves even more. “Tom? The Island is collapsing!” The breeze eats my words.
I tug at my hair. My arms still ache from holding up the silk as it inflated earlier. If the balloon collapses, we’ll have to come back, and we may not get another opportunity for weeks. Ba expects me at the laundry at eight, and Tom’s father rarely gives him a day off from the herb shop.
No response. I promised I wouldn’t touch anything, but surely he’d understand.
I finger the key used to regulate hot air flow into the balloon. It’s warm. I slowly twist, and within seconds, the silk becomes plump again. Ha! Easy as catching rain.
The basket suddenly lifts. Too much heat! I try to return the key to its original position, but I’m thrown off-balance as one of only four remaining stakes pops out of the ground. Four.
“Oh!” I grab onto the side of the basket, watching in horror as another stake begins to uproot, then another. In desperation, I grab again at the key but somehow pull it straight out of the socket. Heart thundering, I jam it back in, twisting and twisting, but nothing catches. The last stake unplugs like a rotting tooth, and the Island breaks free.
I start to rise, up, up, and away.
I clutch the side of the basket, hanging on for dear life. For a moment, I consider jumping off, but the balloon rises too fast, and soon I’m high enough to see Tom and Winter, his father’s draft horse, over the trees. “Tom!”
Tom tears at his hair when he sees me. He hurries back, cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling something, but the wind blows his words away. He shakes his fist. Is he angry? There’s a panicked jerkiness to his movements that I’ve never seen before.
My stomach drops as the balloon tips to one side. I glance down at the shrinking scenery, a hundred feet below me now. Ropes hang from the ring that secures the netting, but I don’t dare tamper with them, as any mistakes this high up could be catastrophic.
Ancestors! I’m not ready to join you in the afterlife.
Good-bye, solid Earth. I hope you remember how I always tried to sweep up after myself, and how I did not dig a single unnecessary hole upon your surface. Good-bye, dear Tom. There are few girls in Chinatown, but with your quick mind and warm heart, you will have your choice of any of them—just please do not choose the dainty Ling-Ling, who has held a candle for you since the fifth grade.
A flock of seagulls squawks insults beside the basket, and a cold streak runs through me. They’ll puncture the silk. “Shoo, you flying rats!”
The Island rocks and bobs, and I can barely hang on to the contents of my stomach as the seagulls swoop around me.
I never thought too hard about my convictions and wonder if it’s too late now. Ba is Catholic, but Ma prefers the traditionals—Buddhism and Taoism, sprinkled with a good dose of Confucianism, which is more of a philosophy, anyway. With Eastern religion, no one cares if you pick and choose the ingredients for your particular moral soup, as long as you have some soup, preferably one with lots of ginger and—
I remember the candied ginger in my pocket. As I unwrap the waxy package, I drop most of the candies but manage to hang onto one, and I hurl it as best I can at the seagulls. In a flurry of wings and beaks, they fly off after it.
I nearly sob in relief. That’s one bridge crossed. Now what? My eyes catch on the grappling hook that Tom called the drag rope. Maybe it’s like an anchor? I drop it over the side.
The basket jerks as the hook reaches the end of the line.
Nothing happens at first, but after a good minute, the Island finally stops swinging about. I am not descending, but neither am I ascending. The basket has leveled out about a hundred and fifty feet above the ground and is slowly drifting west. I can make out the blond blocks of St. Clare’s School for Girls in the distance. The irony that I will finally glimpse its inner courtyard just when I’m about to expire leaves a bitter note on my tongue.
A new sun has rinsed the sky pink and yellow. Ma will be stirring the juk, rice porridge, right about now, believing me to be gathering mushrooms with Tom. My brother, Jack, will be wiping condensation from the windows before leaving for the Oriental Public School.
I must get out of this alive. That chuen pooi bulb was going to be our ticket to a good life.
“I could’ve bought us out of Chinatown! I had a plan!” I’ve gone stark raving mad. I am talking to a balloon, one hot air bag to another.
A rope hits me in the head, and I grab it to steady myself. When I pull, the silk deflates a little, then the basket falls a notch, and a moment of weightlessness sends a shock through me. Was that why Tom was shaking his fist at me? He was telling me to pull.
I peer into the throat of the balloon and cautiously give the rope another tug. The basket spins, then drops several feet. I fall down in a heap, as dizzy as a fly in a whisk.
The balloon jerks, but I don’t dare peek over the side, afraid of tumbling out. Once my head stops spinning, I stare up into the throat again. There are three ropes hanging. I give one of the others the barest tug, bracing myself, and the balloon begins to rotate in the other direction.
“Mercy, keep your weight on the floor. You’re doing great.” Tom’s voice sounds distant, coming from somewhere under the basket.
I want to sob in relief. “Tom?” I cry.
Not a minute later, he swings a leg over the side and starts expertly manning the ropes inside the basket with me. I stop myself from hugging his ankles.
“You did well. Dropped it enough for me to catch the grapple. See, this pulls the main vent and helps you go straight down.”
In no time, we’re back on the ground, the silk billowing like a cream-colored ocean. Tom helps me up, and I hug him close, trembling. His solid warmth defuses all my fear, replacing it with something giddy and hopeful. If I had known my flight of terror would have ended in Tom’s arms, I might have volunteered for it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should’ve listened.”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you.” For a moment, his eyes look haunted and I dare to hope his concern is more than brotherly.
Then his features harden. He gently pushes me away.
My cheeks brighten at the rebuke. Keeping the injury out of my voice, I ask, “What did you have to go back for?”
He digs into his pocket and holds up an ugly wrinkled bulb.
“It looks like a man’s energy pouch,” I say when I see the chuen pooi.
The tips of his ears grow pink, and my laugh rings out like a shovel striking gold.
Our ticket to a good life just blew in.
The three o’clock funeral peddler’s voice pierces the thin windows of our two-room flat. “Joss paper! Red packets! Lucky candy!” In Chinatown, someone is always hawking something.
I thank both the Christian God and my ancestors for the dozenth time today that my family was spared the need for such funeral trinkets.
Tom will keep my misadventure a secret. He always does, like the time I climbed up the flagpole and got stuck, or the time I made him go into the ocean with me and we almost drowned. He might have his opinions, but he’s loyal to a fault.
My brother, Jack, breathes noisily beside me as he practices hemming a towel. Despite Ma’s protests, Ba said it was time for him to learn the family business, and minor alterations were a part of the laundry trade. Jack ties a knot, then holds up his battlefield of stitches.
“Nice, but you sewed your towel to your pants.”
He slaps his head. “Not again!”
I close the book on my lap—The Book for Business-Minded Women—and nudge Jack off the old chest where he is sitting so I can put my book back where all our treasures are held. Last Christmas, after I lost my job sweeping graves, Mr. Mortimer the mortician gave me the book as a present. I was always borrowing it from the library at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Jack quiets when I remove another treasure from the chest—our map of San Francisco, the latest 1906 edition. I spread it onto the concrete floor. “We’re exploring early this month.”
He digs around in the chest. The tea tin rattles as he pulls out our Indian head penny. Every month, the pirates Mercy the Fearsome and her first mate Black Jack toss the penny onto the map for a new place to explore.
Jack shines the penny on his shirt.
“It’s my turn to throw,” I tell him, holding out my hand. Normally, I wouldn’t insist, but with careful aim, I lob it lightly so it lands on the city’s northern edge. “Well, look at that!”
“Wh-wh-what, Mercy?” He stammers when he’s excited or nervous.
I point, and Jack leans over. “Looks like we’re visiting Chocolatier Du Lac.”
In her Book for Business-Minded Women, Mrs. Lowry attributes the success of her cattle ranch—the largest in Texas—not just to hard work but to her education at Radcliffe College. Only one school in this town can give me a similar education, and my way in lies through the chocolate shop.
Jack’s eyes grow hungry. Even with my poor French accent, he knows chocolate when he hears it, ever since I bought him a Li’l Betties chocolate drop last month.
“Let’s go!” Jack shoots to the door without bothering to fold the map or snip the towel from his pants. I leave a note for Ma, who’s out visiting clients.
Moments later, Jack’s dragging me through the narrow alleyways of Chinatown, wanting to go faster than his lungs will let him. We pass under three-cornered yellow flags denoting restaurants and pick our way around the squashed blossoms of a narcissus stand. Sky lanterns sway from building eaves, the same lanterns that inspired Tom’s Floating Island.
Though Tom’s ba, who I call Ah-Suk for uncle, expected him to be an herbalist, Tom has always been fascinated by flying things—moths, paper gliders. It had been his dream to join the Army Balloon Corps, until he learned the Corps disbanded. When the Wright brothers launched a new bird into the sky, Tom wrote to Orville Wright, asking if he needed an apprentice, but Mr. Wright never wrote back.
Jack looks back at me. “Faai-di!” Hurry up!
“English only, Jack.” Today we shall be as American as President Theodore Roosevelt himself. Folks are more apt to do business with people who do not seem foreign. “And I am hurrying. It’s these boots that are taking their time.”
Perhaps borrowing Ma’s too-big boots wasn’t my brightest idea, but Mrs. Lowry stresses the importance of looking tall when negotiating. Taller people inspire confidence, and the boots put me in the neighborhood of five foot five. Blisters are already forming on my soles, and I long to hop onto the cable car that clangs past us down the Slot. But trolleys cost a nickel per rider, and I have only one to spare.
“The longer the wait, the sweeter the taste,” I tell Jack.
He knots his mouth into a tight rosebud, and his sticky hand stops yanking so hard. The sight of his bruised knuckles where his first grade teacher tried to hit the stammer out of him squeezes my heart. Jack’s lungs and speech development were never the same after the city forcibly inoculated us against the Black Death a few years ago.
It won’t always be this way, not if I can help it. One day, we shall have a map of the world and a chest full of pennies to throw at it.
The baker’s wife stands in the doorway of her Number Nine Bakery, using a fan to sweep the golden smells into the street. The number nine sounds like the word for everlasting in Chinese, and it is hoped that a business with that number will have permanence.
A frown burrows deep into her face as we pass. “Bossy cheeks,” she mutters after me. She has always disapproved of my free-spirited ways, so different than her daughter, Ling-Ling. The girl sits as still as a vase inside the shop, a basket of buns on her lap.
I force myself not to react, herding Jack toward Montgomery Street, the main route through North Beach. Cheeks are a measure of one’s authority, and my high cheekbones indicate an assertive, ambitious nature. They were a gift from my mother, and I am proud of them, even though men shy away from women with that attribute.
Is that why Tom has been acting so funny? We’d been as close as two walnut halves growing up, and it only seemed natural that we would end up together. At least to me.
If I were more demure, perhaps Tom would be less ambivalent about our fortuitous match. A respected herbalist needs a proper wife, someone who doesn’t parade down uneven streets. Someone who doesn’t bribe her way into elite schools.
I nearly collide with a water trough, scaring away thoughts of Tom.
Jack pumps his free arm as if to propel us there faster, risking a rip in the too-tight sleeves of his jacket. The towel flaps against his thigh with every step. I pull him slower again. Ah-Suk tonified Jack’s internal energy with his five-flavor tea, but we must avoid overexertion.
“You think they’re as good as Li’l Betties?” he asks.
“You can get Li’l Betties on any street corner. These chocolates are special.”
The mingled scent of garlic and ocean brine signals that North Beach lies ahead. Ba says when he was a kid, he could hawk coffin nails—what he called cigarettes—to twenty different people in the Latin Quarter and not hear the same language twice. Now the Russkies and Paddies have left for sunny Potrero Hill, the Germans have moved to Noe Valley, and les Froggies went wherever they pleased. Today, the area’s mostly Italian, with pockets of Mexicans and South Americans sewn in, each conveniently provided with their own Catholic church, just like the Chinese.
The avenue grows dense with Italians hurrying in and out of shops. Some avert their gaze as we pass, while others make no effort to conceal their distaste for our being there.
Jack squeezes my hand. “The paving stones are newer here. Maybe they’re afraid we’ll track dirt through, and that’s why they’re ngok.” He uses the Chinese word for “hot-tempered.”
“We have the same dirt under our shoes as they do.” We pass through this neighborhood every once in a while to fly kites on the shoreline, and the inhabitants are never happy to see us.
“Are we mad when they use our streets?” he asks.
“Sometimes.” He pans his thin face at me, waiting for an explanation. But how do I explain that to white ghosts, we are animals, which is why they’ve caged us in twelve rickety blocks. We are something to be ogled, lower even than black ghosts. I once read in a brochure that whites could purchase a “heathen experience” in our “labyrinthine passages,” including a trip to an idol-filled joss house, a peek into a real opium den (including a suck on a savage’s pipe for the more adventurous), and a nibble on pig’s feet (as if we ate those every day).
I sigh. “We’re more mad that they’re mad when we use their streets.”
People openly stare at us, even in our western clothes. Ba says that since we were born in Oakland, we are American, and he doesn’t want Jack to wear the queue since it is unpatriotic. Whites consider the tradition barbaric, but I don’t see how it’s any worse than stuffing horsehair pads into one’s hair to achieve the Edwardian poof.
I realize I’m now pulling Jack and force myself to slow our pace again.
Ahead, a woman with an enormous hat attends to her produce stand. Checking for traffic, I guide Jack across the street to avoid any accusation of stealing. We reach the other side, where a trio of Italian men hunch on crates beneath the red awning of Luciana’s, the swankiest restaurant on this street. A young man with teeth like yellow corn flicks the ash off his cigarette and leers.
I consider crossing back to the other side—Mercy the Fearsome is not stupid—but if I let the Italian cow me, I show him and anyone watching that we can be pushed around like the dogs they think us to be.
I attempt to sail by like I have not a care in the world.
But as we pass, the man unfolds himself and peanut shells waterfall off his dungarees. He towers over me by a head. “Pigtail Alley’s that way.” He stabs a tobacco-stained finger toward Chinatown.
“Excuse us. You’re blocking the footpath,” I say evenly.
With a laugh that smells like wine, he glances at the two other men peeling carrots behind him. “Whadyaknow, she speaks English.”
Wouldn’t I like to show him how much English I speak.
Jack tugs at my hand, and I squeeze his palm reassuringly. When life puts a stone in your path, it is best to walk around it.
I pull Jack into the street. We pass the hooligan, but as we regain the curb, I feel my straw bonnet being lifted off my head. The man places it on his greasy locks, presses his hands together, and bows. “No walkee on street without paying ching-chong toll.”
My cheeks flame, and I can feel the button about to pop off my collar. I attempt to snatch back my hat, but he holds it out of reach. “Pay the toll—a dollar for you and the bambino—and maybe I’ll give you your hat back.”
“I will not, even if I did have a dirty dollar to throw at swine like you.”
“Oh ho, she’s got some pepper in her sauce, eh, cugino?” He glances again at his friends, who are now grinning. Through the window, a young woman with mahogany curls moves about the restaurant placing snowball-shaped votives onto the tables.
“G-g-give,” says Jack. His fists clench, and his chest begins to move as quick as a bird’s. “G-g-give it—”
“It’s okay, Jack,” I tell him in Cantonese.
The man laughs. “Whatsa matter? Your mouth don’t work, bambino? Or maybe he’s some kind of idiota.” He taps his head.
It is all I can do to keep from clouting him in the mouth. His gaze washes over my figure like dirty bathwater, coming to rest on the pocket where I have the chuen pooi bulb stashed in a handkerchief. A corner of the white fabric peeks out in stark contrast to the black of my funeral dress.
I jerk away, but he snatches the bundle from my pocket. “I found my toll.” The man discards my hat onto a newspaper full of carrot peelings. Jack fetches it, his face pale.
The man unties the handkerchief, but doesn’t find the coins he’s looking for. He holds the shriveled bulb to his nose, then quickly pulls it away. Chuen pooi smells like ripe feet. “Che cavolo! What is it?”
One of his friends peers at the herb, then shrugs. “Looks like cogliones.”
The first man snorts loudly, but then his derision gives way to uncertainty. Aha.
“It is the energy pouch of a farmer who tried to pass off a guinea hen as a chicken.” The words are out of my mouth before I know what I’m saying. “Chinese people have many ways to make those who cross us pay.” I draw myself up as tall as I can and summon my haughtiest demeanor. “Lucky for him, he’d already had five sons and didn’t need it anymore.”
The man blanches from under a grove of black whiskers. At that moment, the mahogany-haired waitress pokes her head out the door. She glares at the men through her almond “dragon” eyes, a shape that indicates determination. “How long does a smoke take?”
I seize the moment and pluck my belongings from his grasp. Clamping my hat back onto my head, I sweep Jack away, hoping they don’t follow.
By the time we arrive at Chocolatier Du Lac, I’ve developed a crick in my neck from looking backward and am ready to throw my boots into the nearest trash receptacle. But to give up now would be a waste of several good blisters, so I resolve to ignore the pain a little while longer.
The shop occupies one corner of the manufacturing plant, a brick structure that spans the whole block. A bay window provides a view of perfect rounds of chocolate arrayed neatly on cake stands. Jack stares at the bounty without blinking. Each morsel looks to be dressed for Easter mass with sugar bows, flowers, and little polka dots. Bet they charge a sweet premium for those bitty flourishes.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” says Jack, practically drooling.
“Come on, then.”
The smell of burned sugar assaults us as I open the door. At our entry, Madame Du Lac looks up from behind the counter, and her small mouth seems to recede deeper into her face.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and yet her instant dislike puts straw down my back.
The fleshy customer she is with stops jabbering to frown at us, then continues her monologue at a reduced volume. Too bad the marble floors amplify sound.
“Used to cost two dollars to wash ’em. Now she wants three—I’ll take five nougats, and four more honeys—and to pile on the agony, she wants a carriage to pick her up. South of the Slot, too! Do I look like I’m swimming in gold?—no need for the ribbon; save yourself the trouble—how are we supposed to eat paying that?”
Jack tugs my dress, and I bend so that our faces are even. “Choose the one you want, but don’t touch anything.”
With a solemn nod, he stuffs his hands in his pockets as if he doesn’t trust them. He wanders around the room, peering into the glass cases and up at the shelves.
Madame Du Lac passes a look to a girl, who couldn’t be older than me, working so quietly behind the counter that I didn’t notice her at first. Perfect ears like pink seashells hold back blond plaits that cascade down her starched apron. Her violet eyes are as insolent as the cow I found chewing up the Garden of Purity at the cemetery. She goes to stand by Jack, probably to make sure he doesn’t pinch anything.
My toes curl. Even the shopgirls outrank us.
Finally, the fleshy customer leaves in a cloud of perfume. Madame Du Lac points her chin in my direction and says in an arctic voice, “We are closing.”
Jack crooks his finger at a chocolate that looks like a domino. The shopgirl languidly produces tongs from her apron.
“Just a minute, Elodie,” says Madame Du Lac. “That will be twenty cents,” she says to me.
Twenty cents? I could buy twenty Li’l Betties for that.
A smile creeps up the girl’s face when she sees my expression, and I’m tempted to smack it off her.
“Which ones cost five cents?” I ask stiffly.
Madame Du Lac points to a dish of chocolate-covered peanuts on the counter. “You may get two cacahouètes.”
Caca-what? Even the peanuts here are pretentious.
Jack, bless his sweet face, doesn’t let his disappointment show but creeps to the counter and tentatively holds out his hand. When the woman makes no move to dispense the treats, I realize she’s waiting for me to pay. I begin to cook from the inside out and remind myself that the Book for Business-Minded Women says one must remain unsinkable in the face of adversity, like a cork in a barrel of water.
I step to the counter and plunk down my nickel. Thanks to the shoes, I have a good three inches on the shop owner. She squints at the coin without picking it up. Maybe she thinks it’s stolen, or that it will give her the bubonic plague.
After another moment’s hesitation, she scoops it up to deposit into her brass register. I gloat. We are not so different after all, you stale old pastry. You might have more lace around your collar, but deep in our basements, we both speak the language of cold hard cash.
Holding an abalone spoon high, as if afraid Jack will contaminate it, Madame Du Lac deposits two minuscule nuts onto his palm. The nuggets nearly drop, but he snatches his fist closed. He offers one to me, but I shake my head, forcing a smile. I want to take those peanuts and stick them up her nose.
For a moment, the only sound is the crunching in Jack’s mouth.
I clear my throat, trying to remember the words I prepared and the reason I stuffed my feet into these blasted cages of torture. “Madame, my name is Mercy Wong. I wondered if I might speak to your husband about a matter of personal importance.”
Her eyes ice over. “What matter could someone like you have with my husband?”
“St. Clare’s School for Girls. I am most interested in becoming a student, and as your husband is president of the board”—which I learned after requesting a brochure under a false name—“I was hoping to—”
“You?” She looks me up and down.
I wonder which part she objects to most: the slant of my eyes, the look of the only dress I own, or the cast of my “bilious” skin, as some have called it.
“St. Clare’s does not take riffraff. They have standards.” Her eyes flick to my calloused hands resting on the counter, and I snatch them away. The shopgirl, Elodie, returns to her chair but keeps an eye on me.
I remind myself to be unsinkable. “I can do the work. I graduated from the Oriental Public School with the highest marks.”
“Impossible,” Madame Du Lac pronounces in French. “It is time for you to leave.”
Jack looks to me for guidance.
I strain to keep my emotions in check and produce the small bundle from my pocket. “It’s a pity”—I untie the handkerchief, letting the corners drop open just enough to give her a peek at the chuen pooi bulb inside—“after bringing this all the way here.”
The woman’s crinkled lids peel back, and she draws in a breath. “Is that—?”
“Yes, it is. A nice chunk like this is hard to come by.” I owe Tom at least a year’s worth of haircuts for this.
Her carriage loosens like parchment unrolling. She glances uneasily toward the shopgirl, who has given up the pretense of writing. “Elodie, leave us, s’il te plaît.”
Elodie peaks an eyebrow, then sets down her quill and exits through a back door.
Despite the gray streaking her mostly blond hair and the wrinkles around her mouth, Madame is still a daisy, with delicate cheekbones and the kind of slender neck that was made for a pearl choker. Most women who seek chuen pooi already possess more than their share of beauty, a gift that becomes a crutch to them in later years.
Used primarily for coughs, chuen pooi is also known to fade freckles and lighten the complexion. Madame Du Lac twice asked Tom’s father to sell her some, but he refused. It is against his principles to sell the expensive herb for vanity’s sake. According to Tom, Madame even faked a cough.
“How do I know that’s the real thing?” she says regally, her aquiline nose flaring.
“You don’t. Let’s go, Jack.” I pocket the chuen pooi and pull him to the door. It is an act, but one I take great pleasure in delivering. We have suffered too much insult not to milk this moment for all the cream.
Before I touch the door handle, Madame says, “Arrêtez.”
I exhale a pretend sigh and crook my ear in her direction without turning around.
“Perhaps there is room for a discussion.”
Not good enough by a mile. I clasp the brass knob. Her shoes clack toward us.
She favors one side when she walks, the way people do when they are nursing an injury. “Surely you can’t expect my husband to admit you just like that.”
“No. All I ask is for a meeting to introduce myself.”
As I peer down at her, she crosses her arms and bristles. “He will be at the school Monday at noon. I shall tell him to expect you.”
I begin to leave, but she clears her throat loudly. “The herb, please. You will understand if I do not trust you.”
Smiling, I pluck the bulb from my handkerchief and drop it into her waiting hand.
She colors when she sees the full glory of its suggestive shape. “But how do I make a preparation?”
“I will give instructions to your husband on Monday. You will understand if I do not trust you.”
Creases form around her mouth. She casts a dark look at Jack, as if he must be to blame. For that, I needle her further. “And my brother really wanted this one.” I cross to the plate with the domino bonbon and lift off the glass lid. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Madame Du Lac’s bony chest pigeons, probably filling her lungs for a good spouting off. But then she nods, lips pursed tight.
I’m about to pick out the nicest one with my bare fingers when Jack says, “N-n-no, thank you.” He tugs at his collar. “They’re not as good as Li’l Betties.”
Madame turns as red as a strawberry. I do not crack a smile, though the effort gives me a stitch in the side. Replacing the lid, I chirp, “Good day, Madame.”
Mrs. Lowry says a good businesswoman should always leave with a smile, even when her company looks fit to spit.