Mrs. Parks was putting breakfast on the table as Tony entered the kitchen. Tie Li sat at her normal place, watching her mother spoon steaming mounds of scrambled eggs into a serving dish.
“Everything all right out in your workshop?” the woman asked, glancing at her son.
“Sure, Mom,” Tony called over his shoulder as he headed for the refrigerator to get the milk. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I just saw some flashes of light out there and wondered if you were all right.”
Tie Li looked up at her brother. “Why, Tony? Why you go to the workshop without me?”
Tony sat down beside his sister. “For your information, I just wanted to do something by myself. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
Tie Li nodded. “OK, Tony,” she said. “But next time I go on the trip–I go with you to the workshop.”
Tony glanced at Tie Li, then at his mother. “Sure, little sister. I won’t forget.”
“And the flashes of light?” Mrs. Parks pulled a pan of blueberry muffins from the oven. “What were they?”
Tony cleared his throat. “Sometimes my experiments get rather, uh, dramatic. I’ll bet you thought aliens from another planet had landed. It was nothing as exciting as that.”
“Just be careful out there,” Mrs. Parks urged. “I don’t want you doing anything dangerous.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Tony soothed. “I won’t burn down the barn, if that’s what you mean.”
Mrs. Parks settled in her chair and smiled over at her son. “Mothers just worry. I think it’s in our job description.”
Tony chuckled. “I’ll be careful. I mean, hey, my computer is out there. You know I won’t let anything bad happen to it!”
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Parks nodded, “your precious computer. Sorry. I forgot.”
Kim and Mr. Parks sauntered into the room and pulled their chairs up to the table. Soon happy chatter warmed the country kitchen as hungry mouths enjoyed the early-morning feast Mrs. Parks had prepared.
Near the end of the meal a knock echoed from the front door. Tie Li slipped from her chair and trotted toward the hallway. “I’ll get it,” she called, her footsteps thumping on the wooden floorboards.
“I wonder who that could be?” Mrs. Parks said.
Tony took another bite of his muffin. “Probably some feed salesman. Do we need any?”
Mr. Parks shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Tie Li returned on the run, deep concern showing in her eyes. “Tony, someone want to see you. Hurry!” She raced back to the door.
“What’s the matter, Tie Li? Who is it?”
The little girl didn’t respond. Tony got up and ran to the front hallway. He stopped when he saw a familiar form waiting by the door. His smile froze to horror when the visitor looked up at him.
“Laura!” Tony drew in a sharp breath. “Laura, what happened to your face?”
The girl began to cry.
“Mom, Dad, come quick!” Tony’s voice was high, strained. “Something’s happened to Laura.”
Mr. Parks arrived just as the girl lost her ability to stand. He carried the cold, snow-covered bundle into the living room and placed her gently on the couch. Mrs. Parks stood in the doorway rapidly pressing numbers on the wall phone.
“Laura,” Tony pleaded, “what happened? Who hurt you? Who did this to you?” The boy felt himself begin to cry, but he didn’t care.
Laura’s face was terribly swollen, one eye closed tightly. Bloodstains darkened her nose and chin.
Tony gasped when he saw the girl’s hands. Deep cuts traced jagged patterns across her palms and fingers. Dark red stains soaked through the girl’s jeans at the knees.
Laura looked up at her friend. A crooked smile inched painfully across her face when she saw his concern. “Hi, Tony,” she whispered, her voice trembling with exhaustion. “I knew you’d help me. Just like you help Tie Li. I knew you would.”
The girl relaxed, her breathing softening to a steady rhythm. The long night was over. Now she had someone to care for her. Now she could sleep.
In the distance, a siren’s wail cut through the early-morning air.
In the weeks that followed, Laura’s recovery was slow but steady. After a few days in the hospital, she was released into the loving attention of the Parks family.
Tony, Tie Li, and Kim all worked overtime making sure their guest was comfortable. Each afternoon Tony would race from the school bus, down the long driveway, across the barnyard, into the big yellow house, and up the stairs to Tie Li’s room, shedding coat, gloves, boots, and scarf as he went.
Mrs. Parks would follow him up the stairs, her arms burdened with a growing pile of winter garments.
Laura’s eyes would brighten whenever Tony entered the room. She reveled in his care, sitting quietly, propped up on her pillows, as he described his latest invention, showed off his school papers, and gave detailed explanations about why electricity can’t shock you if you’re wearing rubber boots, or how a robin knows when to fly north, or what makes snow melt at 33 degrees and not before.
“Tony,” the girl would say after each presentation, “you’re pretty smart for a guy.” Then Tony would redden and shuffle his feet.
Tie Li, who was usually sitting nearby, would snicker. “If I tell Tony he’s smart he doesn’t get red, he just agree.”
“I do not,” Tony would deny, his face turning a darker shade of crimson.
Laura and Tie Li would laugh and reassure the boy that smart was fine with both sisters and friends.
Each evening before bedtime Kim would stop by to make sure the visitor had enough blankets for her bed. Being the tallest in the group, he could reach the pile of fluffy comforters hiding in the hall closet.
Week by week Laura grew stronger, aided by the constant attention and healing love of the people in the big yellow house.
There were changes taking place beyond the lace-lined windows of her room too. The sun seemed to linger a little longer each day. Occasionally a breeze would blow from the south, carrying with it the welcome promise of spring.
Icicles lost their grip on the eaves and crashed to the ground. Between the house and the barn, muddy green patches appeared on the lawn where only drifts of snow had been. It seemed as if the whole world had tired of winter and now waited eagerly for the last snowflake to fall so life could begin again in the fields and pastures surrounding the farm.
“It’s almost here!” Tony stood by the window one bright morning, watching lines of northbound Canada geese slide silently across the sky like soldiers returning from battle. “I’ve counted 14 robins, three bluebirds, and two house wrens already. In the pasture I saw a groundhog crawl out of his burrow, yawn, then sniff the air.”
Tie Li and Laura looked up from the floor where a checkers game was in progress. “What’s almost here?” Tie Li wanted to know.
“Spring! You know, flowers, leaves, birds building nests, all that neat stuff.”
“I like spring,” Tie Li said.
“How do you know?” Tony countered. “You’ve never seen one here in this country.”
“Well, it sound nice. Besides, I’m ready to go swimming. You like swimming, Laura?”
The girl nodded. “I like the beach. My mother–” She hesitated, then continued. “My mother used to take me in the summer.”
Tony sat down beside his sister and studied the checkerboard. “I’m really sorry about what happened,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do if my mom–”
“You don’t have to worry about that ever,” Laura interrupted. “Your mom is . . . is different. She likes herself. You guys are important to her.”
The girl sighed. “My mother worried about too many things . Stuff bothered her, really bothered her. I don’t hate her or anything like that. I guess I just don’t understand. Maybe I never will. I don’t know.”
Laura leaned back against the bed. “I wish I could talk to her, but they won’t let me. She wasn’t always like she is now. I like to remember her the way she was before. She’s my mother. I still love her.”
Tony was silent for a long moment. In the confusion and pain of what Laura had been through he hadn’t given much thought to Mrs. Bates. But sitting before him was someone who had felt the brunt of the woman’s rage, yet still cared for her.
The boy remembered the words of the Nazarene that cool morning in Jerusalem. He’d said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go. Sin no more.”
Turning to his friend, Tony spoke quietly. “That’s mercy, Laura. You have mercy for your mother.”
The girl shrugged. “I guess so. I don’t like what my mother did. She hurt me real bad, but I still love her.”
Tie Li looked up at Tony. “That make the carpenter happy, huh?”
Laura glanced at Tie Li. “Carpenter? What carpenter?”
“It’s a long story,” Tony said, grinning at his sister. “We’ll tell you about it someday.”
Mrs. Parks appeared at the door of Tie Li’s room. “Laura,” she called, a smile spreading across her face, “you have a visitor.”
“A visitor? Me?”
The children followed Mrs. Parks down the stairs and into the living room. Laura saw a figure standing by the window. “Did you want to see me?” she asked.
The visitor turned. “I’ve been waiting six years to see you, princess.”
Tears stung the girl’s eyes as she recognized the kind face from the picture. “Papa?” she cried, her voice filled with unbelief. “Papa, is that you?”
The man rushed across the room and engulfed the girl in his arms. His tears mingled with hers as he held her tightly, lost in the realization that their long separation had ended.
“Laura,” he said when he was able to speak, “I didn’t go away because I wanted to. Your mother made the courts believe things that weren’t true about me. But now the judge understands. Mother needs special help. They’re sending her to a place where she can learn to love herself again. She’ll need our support–and our forgiveness, too. Do you understand?”
Laura nodded. She looked into the eyes of her father. “Papa, you won’t go away again, will you?”
The man nestled the girl’s face in his hands. In a voice trembling with emotion he said, “I will never leave you, Laura. You can count on it.”
“Papa! Oh, Papa!” The words were choked, but the meaning was clear. In the life of Laura Bates, mercy had triumphed again.