Lady Justice


Wrap two clouds in rain 

May 1999. These are humid but breezy days. My foster sister and I are playing hooky again, having been dropped off by Rose’s seventeen-year-old boyfriend at the base of the Lakeshore Park reservoir; we hike the rest of the way. Because Rose looks older and I’m a red-haired brunette, much lighter than any Asian we know, we are often mistaken for real sisters, and we are—we have lived through two homes together. If being bound by the same guardian does not make us kin, what makes us fostered?

We only run into a stray old man, who nods at us when we pass him. Once we are safely hidden by a grove of pines, Rose unearths the gun from her knapsack. She begins by polishing it with a terry cloth; she tells me to do a final walk-through to make sure we are alone. I go through the motions of walking back and forth around a circumference of the grove, but I do not pay attention. Nobody is ever here.

What Rose and I are doing is fighting, like we were born to do. Practice shooting until we’re ready for the real fight—for when we have to protect ourselves from the man in charge of us. We are twelve and eleven years old. We got the Glock pistol from her boyfriend, who got it from his father. The Glock is a mirror of the one our guardian owns—the better to mimic the real thing that might be used to kill us. Our game of motor coordination, quick reflexes, and protection amplified our sisterhood: this is what I remember when I think about our lives outside of our homes, when we were able to get away. Under the groves of pines on a hill far, far away from school, where we were supposed to be, we were humans bound by unfathomable, complicated love. This is what it means, I think, to have a family.


The woman who first bound us together was Lady Justice. A figment of our imagination. She taught us how to move like water: graceful, beautiful, quiet. Head held high no matter the trauma inflicted on us. Our guardian ordering one of us to pick the scars on his back. Mostly, Rose stepped forward before I had the chance to.

I was afraid Rose’s body, with its whorls of muscle and fat in just the right places, would hurt the bed. Like a hard wind come through her—set to shaking. To move like water: to pledge allegiance to our state wards, to our guardian who owned us. To our sovereign state, under God. For liberty, life, a wind rushing past the acts of child abuse. Our bodies lying next to one another like picked-over chicken bones, our Tuesday night dinners.

Our guardian often deep-fries the chicken, tasks us with breading procedures. Sometimes, he locks Rose in the bathroom when she refuses to comply. I bang on the door. He tells me to shut up if I want a home; commands that if I so much as lift a finger towards the lock, I will die by his hands.

His teeth are white in the waning dark.

No matter how much I love my sister, I pull myself back and concentrate on keeping the egg mixture clean from the flour. This is how I survive.


“Get out of my line of sight. You’re making me nervous.” Rose’s frame is tall and lean. Her muscle tank is a faded yellow, like her teeth. She hunches her shoulders, dips her head forward. “Move.”

“All the way clean,” she says, with the terry cloth in one hand. The slippery steel of the pistol makes me nervous. Rose places the empty beer bottles on a ledge of rocks, wiping the mouth with her thumb and forefinger.

“I think we should call it a day,” I say. I start twirling and sucking the ends of my hair. I know it makes me look like a child, but I can’t help it though I hate it. Rose promised she would dye my hair black tonight. Perhaps, once I look more Asian, the neighborhood girls won’t pick on me.

She shakes her head and marches off. Seconds later, I hear the first two shots. First, the sound of glass shards exploding. Next, silence: she missed the second bottle.

“Try it.”

I feel her presence next to me before I see her. She’s thrusting the gun into my hand.

I’m elbows and knees, bones and skin. I feel Rose’s half-smile, her eyes big at what I’m about to do. She points her finger at the sole remaining bottle: if I blink, it appears to be shifting precariously. I’ll pull the trigger as proof of loving her.

I close my eyes for a second, feel the late afternoon breeze ruffle the hairs on my neck. I open them and focus my energy on the lip of the Modelo Negra bottle. Imagine our guardian pursing his mouth, like a cloud, for its juice.

It was easier to let him shove me into the box freezer in the garage, and then take it when he pulled out me out. Afterward, I could wander off by myself, move as though I was nothing. Ignore his weight, the heft of his belly on mine. I didn’t want him to stroke my face and say, Why not? as if the choice belonged to me.

Drifting is my way of distracting myself from reality. Rose comes up next to me, stares into my face. “What is up with you, girl? How hard is it to shoot a man who loves you only as an object? If you trust him, you are complicit in your own assault.”

Rose seethes. A monster. My sister, beautiful and smart and good, collapses like rotting peaches. She drops my hand, pulls away. When I think about being eleven, I see a quiet girl who doesn’t know where to fold her limbs, who pines for Lady Justice.

How did Rose and I traverse the line between childhood and adulthood? To this day, I refuse to pen or say our guardian’s name. My silence feels complicit. Still, I want our guardian to try to touch me again. I’ll push my hands on his chest and shove him away—and he’ll go.




In the translucent blue alarm light of the 3 a.m., I feel Rose lift her weight off the bed and wrap the covers over me, patting them down as if she were never there. I imagine Lady Justice’s fingers tipping the scales: Rose to leave, and me to sleep.

We cannot trust our sleep. If I’m asleep, Rose stays up, waiting for him to tug her from our bed. If I’m awake, Rose sleeps but tentatively—she never really sleeps, always shoving herself upright, nodding at him to take her instead of me.

Although it’s just the three of us and our guardian is a sexual predator, this is one of the happiest times of my life because I’m with my sister and I love her.


“Can you shoot it already?” Her voice, electric, sends spasms through my ears. She berates me. She’s seen me run my hands practicing scales on the piano; I always know how to tighten and release a breath. I’m never stuck in one place. I place the gun down and put my hands over my ears and I shut up and shut up and shut up until I hear Rose screech, “Syl!”

“You see those trees there?” She puts two fingers to my eyes. “If you look at the ground, your eyes will stop shifting. There is nowhere to stray from when you’re at the bottom.”

I still can’t shoot. Rose’s face hangs in front of me until, out of nowhere, a dog leaps between us. Rose’s hands move forward to break her fall.

“Hey!” A man’s face, looming in front of me. My chest is thumping, and my trigger finger loosens. I feel the urge to pee weighing in my belly.

“Hey!” This time, he waves his left hand and his voice is softer. “Come on, you can’t do this.” He looks back at Rose, who has retreated and is eyeing both of us warily, and then reaches forward and lowers my arm. He catches the pistol as it falls from my hands. “I don’t want to know where you got this,” he says. “Or why you’re shooting targets in a reservoir.”

When Rose steps closer and offers one hand for the gun, he shakes his head. “Don’t even,” he says. “Go home, you two. Just go back to where it’s safe.”

As suddenly as he and his dog appeared, they slip through the clutch of pines; we never see them again. Rose is mad at me for two weeks for losing the gun, our protection against our guardian. We’re never able to get another.



The air thickening without the stars

Every time our guardian’s gunshots pop against my eardrum, it’s as if the bullet grazes my neck. He’s shooting targets in the backyard, our house secluded on the edge of the Hayward hills. My skin is taut with fear.

Our guardian’s favorite meal is shrimp and grits with biscuits. My sister kneads the dough. I don’t have the guts to tell him I’m allergic to shrimp, so I eat the bread and scrape around my bowl until our guardian gets up for seconds or to smoke on the porch, and then I slip my shrimp into Rose’s bowl.


After she returns from his room, Rose perches on our bed and lays my hair down on my neck; she brushes it with her fingers and French braids it like the Disney princesses on our blanket. We huddle under it even in the summers, though California is humid and we wake drenched in sweat. Our horror clings to us. We crave a justice which will permit us to speak for those who do not feel safe enough to come forward. When I drive alone at night, I can still feel the sensation of our guardian’s fingers on my neck.


Lady Justice peers from behind her rimmed glasses. Her face is immobile except during Rose’s tantrums. Rose pounds the kitchenette, fists heavy as she beats flour like a startled animal. I dodge the fistful of flour she throws in the air and then I see that our guardian has appeared, a knife in his hand. I’m not alarmed that he’s holding it like a club, ready to swing at her.

“Clean up the mess,” he says simply. The knife loses its threat; it’s to slice the biscuits, which he does calmly. When I look at him again, Lady Justice smiles. That’s her power—reckoning between the living and the dead. I understand I’m imagining her. Even Rose, at times, doesn’t see her, but I swear I can feel Lady Justice’s hand against my cheeks, wiping away my tears.




When I met Rose, we got in a fight. I remember watching her—a pretty blonde girl you’d expect to grow into life, love, and happiness—as she moved across the room to lay on the couch. She fell asleep. I was the new kid, two days in. I thought if I grabbed a blanket and put it over her, she would be warmer.

I didn’t expect her to grab my wrist and throw me against the wall. I didn’t think I would get up and fight back, something I never did, even when the other kids beat me to a pulp. Maybe I wanted to be different, to protect myself for once, to question my worthlessness. To test what I knew of love.

The pain was sharp when I knocked my head against her chest. I felt her ribcage—thin and wiry, against my skull. As if I could break her.

We were both written up and put in solitary for seventy-two hours. I spent three nights in a room where I could touch two walls if I stretched. It had no windows. I was let out for one hour each day for exercise, which meant a guard walked me around the perimeter of the yard. I didn’t see Rose in those three days, though later she told me she was just down the hall in another cell.

I didn’t hate her. In fact, once we got out, I no longer saw her as a threat. Almost as naturally as we’d fought, we were drawn to each other by our shared experience. In three weeks, when we were both transferred to the same home, it was as though we were meant to love each other.



The Lady Lets Us Live

The pain is steady. It shoots through my hips and I try to squeeze my legs together; our guardian jabs them apart. I feel like a soaked sponge. I’m not thinking about a forty-year-old man inside me, his grunting, or how my face is glazed with his sweat. Pinpricks of saltwater. When he finishes, my shoulders collapse, like a bird’s wings.

He kisses me sloppily on the forehead. “You don’t have to be so nervous,” he says.

Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to want to please a man. His hand moored in the small of my back, holding me steady. To suck on my partner’s earlobes, or neck, or nestle in the crook of his arms to fall asleep.

I hate our guardian, how he trickles my wetness—makes me pine for him. I wait for it to be over.

Thanks to Rose, my guardian doesn’t want me as much as her. She is older and beautiful; she makes sure he remembers this, comparing herself to my childlike body.

Despite sex, despite our guardian rearranging our girlhoods, I feel safer with him than I did before him. He keeps us safe: from other men, other guns, Child Protective Services.

I feel Lady Justice, and her fury—wrestling her fingers, tipping the scales. Poised and muttering at the gates, she reckons between the living and the dead. What is a foster child’s dominion?

We created our monster to bury our guardian. We called her Lady Justice. But she buried our trauma so deep, no one saw it. Even our therapists, who never asked, “Who is listening to you? Who do you feel safe with?”


It’s raining, the water beating down on our heads in sheets.

“You see her, right?” my sister said.

“Mmm hmm.”

Rose squeezes my shoulders, her gaze on her shoes she let me borrow. They’re beautiful on her, but my feet are three sizes too small. Tufts of grass poke through cracks in the driveway. We watch the sunset. Rose says the sky looks like honey, in its blurred pinks and yellows and oranges, subdued under the gathering summer rain. The only animal I see in front of me is Rose: her sturdy shoulders, her lean muscles, her eyes that speak in silence. I love you, sister. I love you.


Rumpus original art by Robert James Russell.

Sylvia Chan hails from the San Francisco East Bay, where she performed as a jazz pianist. She lives in Tucson, where she teaches at the University of Arizona and serves as court advocate for foster kids in Pima County and nonfiction editor at Entropy. Her debut poetry collection is We Remain Traditional (Center for Literary Publishing 2018), and her essays appear in Prairie Schooner, Passages North, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019. More from this author →