“Tama, I think someone broke into the shop,” Trinh whispered, her voice buzzing and distorted through the knockoff Jeonhwa phone Tamati kept for emergencies. Sure enough, she heard a couple of bangs in the background before she heard Yu-Bin, Trinh’s partner, shakily whisper, “Tell her we’re going to be found out if she doesn’t do something quick.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you two. Just keep quiet. I’ll take care of it.” She hung up, and the light from the phone faded, plunging her apartment back into a late night darkness. It was past curfew, and all hall lights had been doused hours ago. Tamati stretched and felt her shoulders pop; she’d been feeling the age in her bones more than she’d care to admit, but that wouldn’t stop her from beating whoever dared underestimate her into a pulp. She pulled on a coat of swirling patches over her pajamas and her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. She spotted a metal rod in the corner by the door, she’d been planning on using it to hang up a curtain, and grabbed it on her way out.
She slowly shifted her weight between each step. Her slippers softened the squeaks of her footsteps on the rickety metal of the stairway that connected her apartment to the one below that housed her shop. From the window at the shop’s entrance, she could see a bluish light radiating from one of the shelves of fabric stock. Bastard, trying to steal her tools. Tamati held her breath and inched the door forward. The bell barely rang, and it was further masked by the mysterious person rustling through her wares. She’d gotten in unnoticed; whoever this robber was, he didn’t have a promising career. To more humor herself before she called a night officer over, she used the metal rod to shove a heavy order book off the sales counter by the door. It landed with a resonating thud, and the woman heard a high-pitched squeak before the blue-tinted light in the aisle vanished.
“I didn’t know there were any mice in the tower,” Tamati said loudly, her voice ringing in the new silence that hung in the shop. She moved towards the center of the shop, where a cord for one of the ceiling light hung. “Thought they’d all been gathered up years ago, for a mousey stew feast.” Her fingers curled around the thin string and faced the dark aisle where the light had been. She considered herself a fearless woman, but found herself holding her breath. She tugged down on the cord.
The pop of the light bulb echoed in the heavy quiet. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dim yellow light that now filled the shop. She at first saw no one, the aisle seemingly empty, and realized she’d planned to look too high. Sitting on the ground surrounded by scraps of fabric and pages of clumsy drawings, was a young girl with bright red hair. Her tiny freckled hand was clamped over her mouth to hush her breathing, and her other clutched an institution tablet she must've been using as a light. The two stared at each other a moment, Tamati suppressing a laugh and the small girl with eyes the size of dinner plates at the sudden appearance of a tall, imposing woman.
“Please don’t send me to the cremation chambers!” the girl said frantically.
“Now why on Earth would I do that?” Tamati asked as she put her makeshift weapon down on a workbench near her. Her fingers ached slightly after their tense grip around the cold metal.
“Gran said that if you do something bad then you’re a criminal, and then the militiamen catch you and you get turned into a brick!” Words spilled out from the nervous girl’s mouth.
“I’m pretty sure criminals are taken to prison.”
The girl’s face paled, an astonishing feat for her already light skin. “I’m not a criminal, I promise!” She started to scramble to her feet but Tamati held up a hand to stop her.
“You’re not in trouble, kiore. Just clean up some of the mess and I’ll be right back.” For a moment she watched the little girl nod and meticulously stack the fabric scraps she pulled off the shelves. Tamati first went to the shop windows and pulled down the blinds to keep any of the dim light from spilling into the corridor. She then approached the door nestled in the back of the shop and knocked softly three times. The door opened a crack, and Tamati could see one of Trinh’s scared eyes peek out.
“It’s all fine,” she told the young woman, “it’s just a little girl.” She watched fear leave her shop assistant’s face with a soft sigh, and Trinh opened the door more to reach out and clasp Tamati’s hand tightly.
“Thank you, Ma,” she said, her dark cloud of curls still quivering around her round face with residual nerves. Yu-Bin also made her way to the door and wrapped her arms around her partner. She rested her chin on Trinh’s shoulder and whispered a thanks. The tension that still strained in Tamati’s spine released as she smiled at the two women who’d become her daughters over the last couple years, and she urged them back to sleep.
She returned to the little girl who was now scribbling away in her notebook. The piles of fabric were still on the floor, but sorted into an eclectic order by material instead of color or pattern. The Maori woman knelt beside her to see her drawing. The girl looked up and silently handed her the notebook. It was a clumsy drawing characteristic of kids, but Tamati admired the imagination in the design and could imagine the patterns that would bring it to life in her mind. She traced over the little girl’s signature in the corner of the page.
“Ava, that’s a pretty name,” she said as she handed back the notebook. Ava beamed, and a little pink bloomed in her cheeks.
“I like your tattoos,” she said, holding three of her fingers to her chin to mimic the traditional facial tattoos that spread from Tamati’s mouth to the end of her chin. The woman reached forward and gently nudged the little girl’s chin with her thumb in return, making her giggle. The two returned to looking at her drawing, and Tamati pulled one of her pattern books from a shelf above them to show Ava how she could make patterns for the dress. Trinh and Yu-Bin emerged from their bedroom, thick sweaters bundled over their pajamas, and joined the pair. The three women sat around the child, each taking turns pulling down fabrics and making pattern suggestions until they were swathed in a nest of colors in the early morning hours. Ava nodded off against Tamati’s leg, and she gently brushed her red hair with her hand.