Rumpus Original Fiction: Seasonal Work

By

The photographer said he needed everyone to stand next to the minivan. I tried to get out of it. I’m fourteen now, although I look younger, and I didn’t want my picture in the paper. I was wearing a T-shirt that was tight on me. My bangs were uneven because I cut them out of sheer boredom the other day. And I had a zit between my brows that looked like a third eye.

Gary gave me a stern look. He’s big on manners, cooperating; it’s part of how he’s kept this family together. So I stood at the far end, hoping that if I closed my eyes or looked to the side, they might end up cutting me out. They don’t need me. I don’t fit. One of these things is not like the other. The littles are enough. They’re still cute and they still care. This is the only life they’ve known. I’m old enough to remember staying in one place—a house with a yard and the possibility of a dog. Never an actual dog, but the promise hung in the air—when you’re older, if you show responsibility. I was six when those promises were made. And, if you ask me, I’ve shown a lot of responsibility, but there’s just no way we’ll ever have a dog.

You see, my real dad died when I was six and then my mom married Gary and they had Lenny, Wade, and Barrett. Boom, boom, boom. Barrett’s a girl, by the way. She was supposed to be a boy and Mama had the name “Rhett” picked out. I guess Barrett’s okay for a girl’s name, especially given how pretty she is. Otherwise, it’s not fun having a name that’s like a boy’s name, let me tell you. She’s only five, but people can’t stop looking at her. “My little angel,” Gary says and I want to tell him to cut it out, but he’s right. She looks like something you’d see on a Christmas card, not that we get Christmas cards. It’s hard when you have to move every December.

Sure enough, when the photographer, a lady, rearranged us, Barrett was in the middle of the photograph, the boys on either side of her. The photographer had to remind Barrett three times not to smile. Barrett can’t help it. She just lights up. For cameras, for any a flicker of attention.

The reporter, a man, asked Gary: “Can you tell me again what was in the minivan?”

Gary looked at the littles. “Well, it was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Oh, but—” the reporter seemed really young, even to me. He was thin and kind of sullen, like he didn’t want to be here. Maybe he was one of those people who thought that bad luck was contagious. If it is, then I have to admit you’d want to stay as far away as possible from my family.

“Daddy,” Barrett said. “Is Santa still coming?”

No one knew what to say to that. Gary gave me a look and I said, “Dad, is it okay if we go in and watch cartoons?”

“That would be great, Kathy.” Gary smiled at me, grateful. This would give him a chance to tell the full story without the littles hearing every detail, which would include a full list of all the things they were never going to get. He got a disability check and decided to splurge on a big Christmas for us, despite being out of work. He would tell the reporter how he hit Best Buy and the mall, the one not too far from the motel where we’re staying, the one with an Apple store and a Claire’s and a Build-a-Bear. He paid to have everything gift-wrapped because how could he wrap ’em in secret, the five of us living in just the one room? Well, two if you count the kitchenette, but it’s in full view.

Anyway, Gary knew better than to leave the gifts in plain sight when he stopped at Target. Even here in the suburbs, you don’t take those kinds of chances. But he drives a minivan—what else would you drive with four kids?—and you can’t really hide stuff in the cargo section. We have a blanket to put over things, but maybe the paper peeked out or maybe if you put a blanket over the stuff in your trunk, people know it’s worth stealing. Maybe having Texas plates is enough? People in the north really seem to hate Texas. Anyway, as Gary was probably telling the reporter, someone jimmied the lock and Christmas was gone, just that fast.

While we were watching television, the kids got hungry—all those damn commercials, how could they not get hungry, how could they not want things all the time? Some people call TV the “idiot box,” Gary said, but he liked to call it the “Cravin’ Box.” He was very proud of that turn of phrase, although I didn’t quite get it. When Gary likes a phrase, he can’t let go of it. Anyway, I went outside to see if Gary had any change for the vending machines, although I knew he would not be happy to be interrupted.

I waited as patiently as I could while he and the reporter talked at the tables where the motel’s smokers congregate. Gary used to smoke, but he gave up cigarettes when he realized how much money he was spending. “I did it for you,” he said to me and the other kids, but mostly me. I’m really sensitive to smells and his breath was something horrible.

I stood over to the side, stamping my feet, exhaling as if I were having my own cig break. It wasn’t that cold, for December. I’ve known colder and I’ve known warmer. Last year this time, we were up in Cooperstown, but Gary decided that was too small. A year before that, it was Phoenix, but that was too big. He’s like Goldilocks, I guess. He said Baltimore looked to be just right. He said Baltimore would be our best place yet.

He says that every year, wherever we are.

Gary was saying: “I pick up odd jobs where I can. I was a long-haul trucker, but obviously I can’t do that anymore. It’s hard—I’m a man, I have pride—but I need to live somewhere we can get benefits. We started the school year in Texas, but there’s just no help there. Someone told me Maryland was a nice place, so we decided to try it out. It was supposed to be a new start for the new year. Well, it’s still a new start. We’re starting from rock bottom but that doesn’t mean we can’t climb to the top of the rock pile.”

The reporter was writing everything down, his eyes on his pad. I coughed to get Gary’s attention.

“I’m sorry, Dad, but it’s the kids,” I said. “They’re hungry and I thought if I could just get some stuff from the vending machine to tide us over until dinner—”

“Don’t you have a kitchenette here?” the reporter asked. “How do you feed these kids, anyway?”

“We do have a little kitchen,” Gary said. “But I’m not ashamed to say that we go to soup kitchens, food pantries, wherever we can get a little help.”

He began digging through his pockets, but I knew he wasn’t going to come up with anything. The reporter just kept scribbling in his pad and my face burned at the thought of the words he was writing there. He searched his pockets, but couldn’t even find enough spare change for a bag of chips.

The photographer lady handed me five one-dollar bills.

“You shouldn’t do that,” the reporter man said to her. “You’re becoming part of the story. That’s unethical.”

She ignored him. “What’s the thing you’d most like to see under the tree on Christmas Day?”

“Books,” I said. “I love to read. And maybe a locket.”

Her kindness was hard. The kindness was always the hardest part. I gulped and took her money.

“Where are your manners, Kathy?” As I said, Gary was particular about manners.

“Sorry, Dad.” I mumbled “thank you” to the lady, scared I would burst into tears if I tried to say much more.

We went to the food court at the mall, had Chik-Fil-A for dinner, looked at all the happy people with packages. Gary let us window shop for fifteen minutes each. The boys picked the toy store, Barrett wanted to pretend she was going to buy diamonds and I went to the bookstore, to the children’s section, although I’m too big for kids’ books. Back in Texas, I had the whole series of Oz books and the Betsy-Tacy books and the Harry Potter books and some old books of my mom’s, about kids who kept finding magic things—a coin, a lake, a book, a well. Once upon a time, as they say. A long time ago, in a place far, far away.

“Tomorrow will be better,” Gary said. What else could he say? He had to believe that, he had to say that. We went to bed. All four of us kids slept in one bed when we stayed in motels and I didn’t mind, actually. They huddled against me like puppies. It was one of the few times I felt happy, when my brothers and my sister were curled up next to me. I would fall asleep running my fingers through Barrett’s curls, her breath hot and wet on my shoulder. I didn’t pray, not exactly. But I looked up at the ceiling and promised God that I would always take care of them best that I could.

Tomorrow wasn’t better, not at first. We picked up a newspaper and there we were on page three. I was in the photograph and they said the thing I said, about wanting books and a locket. I looked awful, but not awful enough for them to cut me out. The littles were adorable, though, even with their sad faces. I keep thinking that someone’s going to see Barrett one day and say, “She should be a model.” Or an actress, or something. She’s cuter than any kid I’ve ever seen in a commercial.

But that sort of thing probably couldn’t happen in Baltimore. I guess we would have to be in California or New York and we’re never going to try those places. Too big, too expensive.

The paper didn’t say exactly where we were staying, just that it was a motel in Towson, which I guess is part of Baltimore. We passed the morning feeling glum. It was Christmas Eve and we were out of step with the world. Everyone else seemed excited and happy, full of anticipation. The temperature had dropped overnight and there was snow in the forecast. We’d never seen a white Christmas, not even in Cooperstown. But what does snow matter if you don’t have a sled? Heck, we didn’t even have mittens. Gary had said to leave those behind in Cooperstown. He said he would never make that mistake again, picking a place so cold. “Cold town, cold hearts,” he said.

Then, about 11 a.m., things finally began to go crazy. It turned out that the reporter didn’t start work until 10 a.m. and when he did, his voicemail was full of people wanting to help us. A television station came and talked to Gary live for the noon news. After that, people started calling the motel and stuff just began arriving like magic. Food and presents and gift cards, lots and lots of gift cards. Also some checks, but those were never as exciting, and even some cash, which was Gary’s favorite. People couldn’t give us enough. There were four tablets, one for each kid. Not iPads, but still pretty nice. An X-box, although we couldn’t figure out how to hook it up to the motel television, not that we got around to taking it out of the box. There was just so much to look at. A huge box of books from a store called WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST, which I thought was a funny name. We went back to the mall, got some new clothes, and the photographer returned, took a photo of us in our new clothes, sitting down to the Christmas Eve dinner Dad had managed to fix in the little kitchenette. The chicken and sides were from Boston Chicken, but he put them on plates and made sure we said grace. We always said grace on Christmas Eve.

“What do you think, kids? Our worst Christmas has turned into our best Christmas. As Anne Frank said, ‘People are fundamentally good at heart.'”

I wasn’t sure it was our best Christmas. I thought Baton Rouge was better. And I had memories of Christmas when it was just Mama and me and my real dad. But there was no point in arguing with Gary. Barrett raised her fork high, a piece of chicken stuck on its tines, looking all the world like Cindy Lou Who. That’s another book I had in Texas, the one about the Grinch.

As soon as the photographer left, Gary told us to go through the gifts. We knew the drill. We could each pick one thing to keep, but not the electronics because they were too valuable. It was hard to say goodbye to those tablets and the X-box, but he was right, they were worth too much money. Anyway, Barrett picked a doll that was almost as pretty as she was, while Wade and Lenny chose toy trucks. It was hard to pick between the books and the locket, but the locket was forever whereas a book gets used up after a while. I was worried Gary was going to say that the locket was too valuable to keep, but he inspected it, nodding, and said: “Filigree.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was something that wasn’t quite good enough. I could imagine him looking at me one day and saying just that. “Filigree.” I was filigree and Barrett was pure gold. I didn’t mind. She was his real daughter, after all. I wanted him to treat her good, to think of her as something far more precious than me.

Although the schools were closed for the holidays, someone from the local district called Gary the next day to make sure he would register us when they reopened on January 2. I was surprised how long he stayed on the phone, going over every little detail. There must have been something about the woman who called that made him want to talk. He said the things he liked to say, about the rocks and the rock pile, about how whoever stole from us needed it more than we did. He talked about Anne Frank, said he knew we were better off than her, but living in motels like we did gave him an appreciation for what it was like to be cooped up some place with your entire family. He told the person on the phone that he was my legal guardian, but he didn’t have the papers he needed to prove it. What should he do? He listened intently, even took notes. He explained at great length that my mother left us five years ago, “just up and left.” He said it had happened right before Christmas and that he always hated December because of it, but the good people of Baltimore made him dare to think our luck had changed.

I guess everything he said was more or less true. My mom was hit by a car five years ago. She died. That’s a kind of leaving.

We lived in Waco then, although I noticed that Gary didn’t say “Waco” anymore when he told the story. He said “Central Texas” or “Lacy-Lakeview,” a nearby town. Since that show about renovating homes in Waco became a big hit, people think Waco is kind of fancy and filled with nothing but love and fuzzy feelings and cupcakes. We didn’t live in that Waco. For a couple of weeks after Mom died, people were extra-nice to us and brought us casseroles and things and some ladies clearly were taking a shine to Gary, but he didn’t care. It was Christmas-time. He started telling people that Mom had a big bag of presents for us kids when she died and maybe she did, I don’t know. The car that hit her knocked her out of her shoes, I do know that, so if there were presents, they were probably scattered all over Waco Drive. It was dusk; she was wearing dark clothes. She crossed against the light to get a burrito. My mom loved burritos.

The thing was, Mom was the one with a job. Breadwinner, Gary called it, although that seemed like a funny thing to say about earning money. Bread. Winner. That’s not much of a prize, is it? Maybe she should have been called the burritowinner. (Believe me, Mom would laugh at that if she heard. She had a sense of humor about herself.) She had gone to work at Baptist Hospital before she married my dad and she liked it, she was good at what she did. She said she was the sheep dog and the doctors in the practice, smart as they might be, were her sheep. Gary liked staying at home, taking care of the kids. If he was ever a long-haul trucker, it was before we knew him. Mom met him at the HEB when he asked her something about brownie mix. He was actually a little younger than mom and so handsome. And it wasn’t like a lot of men tried to date my mom. She was plump, her clothes were plain, she had a kid. “I’m not exactly catnip,” she would say. But Gary said he liked the fact that we would be a ready-made family. They got married, had the three littles. Boom, boom, boom. We were normal. Then mom died and nothing was ever normal again.

Around the first anniversary of Mom’s death, Gary got restless. He called the newspaper and asked if anyone wanted to write an update about us, how we were doing. We were okay for money. All us kids got social security because my mom had been working for fifteen years. I think Gary even got a little, as her widower. It would sound like a lot if I told you, but four kids need more money than you might think.

And nobody cared. Gary decided that Waco was a hard town. He said our neighbors were hypocrites, people who talked about God’s love and charity, but didn’t practice it. He sold most of our stuff and moved us to Baton Rouge. Three days before Christmas he went shopping, came home looking all disheveled and excited. Someone had broken into the car and taken all the presents, he said. He didn’t call the police, but he told our pastor and the pastor called the newspaper and next thing we knew, we had more stuff than we could handle. I think Gary was telling the truth, that time. Maybe. I’m not sure.

But the next two times, Phoenix and Cooperstown—those were lies, definitely.

Here’s what he does: We move every January, start school somewhere in Texas. That way, we can keep the registration up on the minivan without too much trouble. And Texas is big, bigger than some countries. Then, right after Thanksgiving, Gary picks a new town in a different state. “You’ll only miss three weeks of school.” We check into some sad-sack place, like this motel we’re in now. We go to food pantries and soup kitchens, Gary chats people up, makes friends. We find a church to attend. On December 22 or 23, he goes “shopping.” He never calls the police because that would be breaking the law. If someone presses him to file a report, he says, “I just have to believe that the desperate soul who did this needs those things more than we do.” He never gives his name the same way twice and he changes our names just a little. This year, we were Kathy, Leonard, Wayne, and Barbara. Our surnames so far have been Carr, Carter, and Carson, all variations on our real name, Carpenter. Gary did adopt me when he married mom. And when she died, he took me aside and said he would be able to keep me as long as I behaved. So I behaved, did what he told me to do, kept my mouth shut because lies didn’t come easy to me.

The hardest part was when they came back, the reporter and the photographer. Because we’re expected to be so happy, so grateful. The littles are genuinely happy and Gary is in heaven. I think he loves the attention more than the money. He goes to the library, uses the computer to read the story online. Then he begins planning our next move.

As January first approached that week in Baltimore, we sat down as a family and talked about where we would go next, which Gary decreed had to be at least 300 miles from our last place in Amarillo. We decided to try a town somewhere on the highway between San Antonio and Houston. Everything was happening as it always happened, as it always will happen.

Then the lady from the school district came to visit.

She knocked on the door at 8 a.m. Friday. The boys were in their underwear, still. Gary didn’t have a shirt on. I was the only one who was presentable, so I answered, thinking it was the motel maid, maybe the owner. He had been a lot more attentive since we were on TV—wanted to make sure we were happy.

The lady in front of me was just a normal-looking lady. She wore black leggings tucked into boots, really nice suede ones. She wore a baggy, old-fashioned green coat , but she had a cool old pin on the lapel. Her green coat was baggy, kind of a weird shape, but she had a cool old pin on the lapel. And she wore earmuffs, which made me like her. You don’t see a lot of grown-up ladies wearing red earmuffs.

She kind of reminded me of my mom.

“They belong to my kid,” she said, smiling. “She’ll be mad when she finds out I took them. But I like ear muffs better than hats. They do the job just as well and there’s less static.”

She sailed into our room without asking permission. Maybe that should have been the first clue. Most people wouldn’t do that. Gary dove into the bathroom, while Wade and Lenny squealed and hid under the covers. Barrett, who was wearing a new nightgown, part of the Christmas haul, just stood in the center of the room smiling. Barrett knew how pretty she was, with her fluff of blonde hair and blue eyes. In the background, the television was yelling and I turned it off. The lady’s eyes were sweeping the room like she had X-ray vision. I was so worried that she was a social worker. Gary always said social workers were a bigger threat than the police, we had to keep them away no matter what. The place was a mess. Cereal bowls, empty soda bottles, pizza boxes. The only thing that was neat was the little desk, which Dad claimed for his own. There was a stack of checks there, an envelope that I knew was full of cash and gift cards.

“I’m Ms. Smith from Baltimore County school district,” she said. “I spoke to your father on the phone the other day?”

Gary came out of the bathroom, tucking his shirt in. He had taken time to brush his teeth, run a razor over his face.

“What’s this, a surprise inspection?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I just want to make sure you have everything you need to enroll the children. Is this going to be your permanent address? Or are you going to relocate within the county?”

She wasn’t a woman you’d call pretty, not exactly, but she had a way about her that just made you want to look at her, talk to her. I could see why Gary had spent so much time with her, even on the phone. If you had a problem, this woman could solve it—that was clear.

“What do I need again?” Gary asked.

“Birth certificates, of course. But also some proof of residency, that’s why it matters what address you plan to use. Have you found a new place?”

“Not yet.” Gary was slick, you have to give him that. I could see a dozen things that exposed our lies. His lies. Suitcases half-filled, only a handful of toys where a few days ago there had been mountains of boxes. The pile of checks, which he would trash because he couldn’t deposit a check made out to a man who didn’t exist. But the thing about Gary was that he could believe what he needed to believed when he needed to believe it. So, technically, he never lied.

“It’s not going to be easy,” the lady said. “You’ll need at least three bedrooms.”

“We can make do with two,” Gary said.

“I don’t see how—unless you give the kids the master bedroom, have them sleep in two doubles? There are some nice apartments nearby, but nothing’s going to be large enough for four kids. But there’s a place not far from here, the Versailles. Don’t worry, it’s not as grand as it sounds. You could do a three bedroom for about $2,000 a month.”

“Ma’am, I can’t afford that. Not for long.”

“Even with a Section 8 voucher, I don’t think you can do much better than $1,500 a month. What kind of job are you looking for? You’d be surprised at the connections I have. I’ve lived in Baltimore all my life and I know people everywhere. State and city government, some retail businesses—my aunt owns a bookstore, my father has a restaurant. I even know some cops and lawyers.”

She laughed, as if knowing cops and lawyers was hilarious.

“In fact, my aunt could use help right now. Can you run a cash register? Stock shelves?”

“I was a long-haul trucker, but I had to give it up when my wife left. I do odd jobs. But I can’t work when the kids aren’t in school.”

“She’s really family friendly. She’ll tailor it to your needs—maybe just ten hours a week to start, but it’s something, right?”

“I worry about my back—I injured it on a job a few weeks ago.”

“Then maybe I should hook you up with a law firm that does disability work? With a solid work history, you’d be eligible for disability insurance. And it occurs to me—their mother could be accountable for child support. I know a PI who does that kind of work. Let me take you to a friend’s office,” the lady wheedled. “Get some basic info, it won’t take long.”

“Basic info?”

“Your ex’s name, her social.”

“I appreciate your interest, ma’am, but I promised the kids we’d go to a movie today.” First we’d heard of it. “I don’t like to disappoint them. They’ve been through so much.”

“We could drop them at the movies, then come back for them. The oldest—what’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Kathy.” I stuttered a bit, but I got it right.

“Kathy could look after the children at the movies while we’re looking at apartments.”

“Do I look like a man who would let a girl as young as Kathy be in charge of these three? I’m pretty sure I’d be in trouble with the law if I did that.”

Very high and mighty for someone who did that all the time, but like I said, he believes every word when he’s saying it.

The lady’s smile never faded. She wrote her number on a piece of paper, urged Gary to call her when he was ready to start looking for a place, showed him on a map where the elementary and middle school were, then said goodbye. At the door, she turned around as if she had forgotten something, then looked at Barrett. But her eyes didn’t stay on Barrett’s as most people’s do. She looked at the boys, too, then caught my eyes. I felt as if she could see inside my soul.

I didn’t like it.

Gary decided to make his lie true, take us all to the movies, but I said I didn’t want to see a little kid movie, not another one with those dumb yellow people. He said I could stay and pack for the littles. He didn’t have to tell me that we would be leaving the next day. That lady had spooked him, for sure.

About twenty minutes after he left, there was a knock on the door. I figured it was the maid, she usually came when she saw our car missing from the parking lot. But it was that lady, Ms. Smith.

“Ga—Dad’s gone,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I’ve been watching the room. He took the younger ones out to the movies.”

“You followed him?”

“It’s what I do,” she said.

She handed me a card. Tess Monaghan, private investigator. Shit. Gary deserved to be caught, I know, but it made me angry. I had liked the nice lady, Ms. Smith, who wanted to do things for us. I wanted her to be real. I didn’t want to know this Tess Monaghan.

“Let’s take a little drive,” she said. I was terrified to get into her car with her, but I was more terrified to say no. If she took me to the cops, I’d figure out what to say. If I didn’t go with her, she might go straight to them anyway. Going with her would buy me some time.

“You said in the newspaper that you like books. I thought you might like to visit the store that sent your family that big box of kids’ books.”

That big box of books that Dad had tried to return for credit, but he couldn’t persuade the people at the Barnes & Noble to give him a Starbucks card in exchange for them. I think he sold them to some half-price store.

The bookstore was downtown, near where the city meets the water. It had big windows and an old soda fountain where you could get coffee and milkshakes and it was pretty much what I imagine heaven would look like.

“Why is this place called Women & Children First?” I asked the lady who wasn’t Ms. Smith. “Does it have something to do with the Titanic?”

“When it started, it was only books by women or for children. A few years ago, my aunt decided it had to be more general interest, so she added two sections—Dead White Men and Live Hot Boys. I always tell her that the crime section should be called Pretty Dead Girls and the Men Who Love Them.”

She seemed to think this was funny, but I didn’t get it. She brought me a muffin, but I didn’t need to eat. She brought me a book called Judy’s Journey.

“That’s too babyish for me,” I said.

“I know,” she agreed. “But it reminds me of your family. It’s about migrant workers who have to move from place to place. How many times has your dad pulled this scam, Kathy?” She said my name like it was a story she didn’t believe. It wasn’t my real name. I’m actually Kyle. But how could she know that?

“It’s not a scam,” I said. “We were robbed.”

“Yes, I read the story. What did he say? It was a very distinct turn of phrase—We’re starting from rock bottom but that doesn’t mean we can’t climb back to the top of the rock pile. You know what’s interesting? A man named Barry Carr said that to the paper in Phoenix two years ago. And in Cooperstown, New York, last Christmas, only he was named Harry Carson. Both of them mentioned Anne Frank, too, and said the person who stole the gifts probably needed them more than he did.”

She pulled some computer print-outs from her bag. I recognized the stories. I wondered why she hadn’t found Baton Rouge, but maybe he hadn’t figured out his clever little sayings by then, or maybe the reporter hadn’t used them.

“He never uses the same names. Not for him, and not for you kids. That was smart. If you Google the names, you don’t come up with anything. Run a criminal record check on any of these Harrys or Barrys and that comes back empty, too. Even if someone thought to run the license plates, all you’d get is a registration, which is currently attached to an apartment in Amarillo, Texas. But there were two constants—the make of the minivan and those quotes. Three car break-ins in three years. That is a lot of bad luck for one family.”

I wanted to say, Lady, you don’t know the half of it. But I just kept looking at the book she had given me. She wasn’t a cop. She couldn’t prove anything. She couldn’t do anything.

“Filing a false report is serious stuff—what’s your real name?” She waited, but I wasn’t dumb enough to step into silences. “Your dad is risking prison. And with that, he’s risking the family.”

“He never makes a police report,” I said. “He tells someone—some busybody. That person calls the police. The police come, Gary—Dad—says he doesn’t want to file a report, that gone is gone and he’s never going to get it back.” I didn’t mention how Gary is the one who calls the newspaper, claims to be a store clerk or a pastor, or maybe even the cop tried to convince him to take the report. “People give us stuff. We don’t make them do it. And they don’t do it for us, anyway.”

“What do you mean? Of course they do.”

“They do it for themselves. It’s a cheap way to feel good. They give some toys to the poor kids and figure they’ve done their bit. You were the first person who ever followed up, who tried to do more for us. And you were a liar, so it doesn’t count. Why do you even care? What’s it to you? Are you upset because your aunt sent us a bunch of books we didn’t even want?” Although I did want them. I wanted them so bad. When I read books, I felt safe.

The woman—Tess Monaghan, she had used a fake name, too, so who was she to judge us—looked upset. Good. “I have friends at the newspaper. An editor. He thought your story seemed suspicious, but he didn’t want to hurt the reporter’s reputation. He’s a kid, he made some dumb mistakes. But it turns out he’s not the first person to be taken in by your father.”

“So you’re worried about the newspaper.”

“I’m concerned about you and your siblings. You can’t keep going on like this.”

“How do we stop?” I prayed, really prayed, that she had an answer, that she could right us.

“I could talk to your father—”

And just like that, I knew she didn’t have a solution. Nobody does. That’s the problem. I’ve been thinking on this for four years and I don’t have an answer yet. How could some stranger figure it out in one day?

“No,” I said. “It won’t work. He’ll pretend to feel bad. He’ll be all apologetic. Maybe he’ll cry. Maybe he’ll even admit that my mom is dead, not ‘gone.’ He’ll cry and he’ll ask for your help and you’ll come back here the next day and we’ll be gone. We’re leaving tomorrow. You can’t stop us.”

“I can tell my friends at the newspaper what I’ve found. They’ll write a follow-up story.”

“Great. Then they’ll come in and bust up my family and we’ll go to foster care. You think anyone wants all four of us? Maybe, just maybe, they’ll keep the three littles together, because they have the same mom and dad. Nobody’s going to want me, ever.”

“That sounds like something you’ve been told, to keep you in line.”

By now, every muscle in my body was tight from the effort of not crying. She wasn’t wrong. He had told me that. He told me that all the time. Except in slightly different words. No one is ever going to love you. No one is ever going to want you. Except me, Kyle. Only me. I’m all you’ve got now.

“That doesn’t make it untrue,” I said. I risked looking straight at her. To my amazement, she was the one who was crying. For one crazy minute, I thought I should comfort her. And then I was angry. Who was she to come into my family and learn all our secrets and cry like that? If you want to pity me, you better give me something. That’s how the game is played. Give me money, give me a gift, then go home and bawl your eyes out. No gift, no tears.

“I’m obligated to go to Social Services. To do something.”

“You do what you have to do,” I said. There’s no way I could give her permission.

“How about if I give you a night to think about it? You can choose if I talk to your dad or call Social Services. You can call me tomorrow, okay? I won’t do anything until I hear from you.”

I looked at the number on her card. “It’s hard for me to make a call without being heard.”

“There’s actually a payphone near your motel, just around the corner on Joppa. Might be the last payphone in all of North Baltimore. You can call me collect. Do you think you can get away for even five minutes? I promise I won’t do anything until I hear from you.”

We used to have a Monopoly set, back in Waco. It was an old one, it had belonged to my mom when she was a kid. It had those cards, orange and yellow, some good and some bad. One deck, I never remember which one, was called Community Chest, it was like one of those charity funds that gave my family food and clothing. Holding onto that woman’s card, it was like that moment in the game before you turn the card over, the feeling of wondering if you were going to get a good card or a bad card. Get out of Jail Free. Go Directly to Go.

Or maybe it was just one of the silly ones, like $25 for second place in a beauty contest.

“I’ll call,” I promised her.

She bought me a book, The Diary of Anne Frank. “Your dad doesn’t have the quote quite right,” she said with a crooked smile, as she let me out at the motel. “Now you see the phone booth over there? That’s my cell number on the card, so you can call anytime. You can’t call too late or too early.”

“I’ll call,” said.

We were on the road by midnight. Gary was upset, but he thought I handled it well. I told him about the newspaper clippings, told him where he had screwed up. He was going to have give up Anne Frank and the rock pile line. I could tell that bugged him. He was proud of that saying, which was all his own. As for the minivan, he decided he could risk it for the trip back, but we’d trade it in back in Texas. We’ll have a lot of cash when he finishes selling the gift cards.

We’re a team. That’s what that lady didn’t get. We’re a family. We’re in this together. I couldn’t risk the littles not being with me.

Besides, in four more years, I’m going to be eighteen and I’ll be old enough to take care of the littles, who won’t be so little any more. I’ll be old enough to protect Barrett, who gets prettier every day, not that pretty has anything to do with it. I’m not that pretty.

Then maybe I’ll cut Gary’s throat in the middle of the night and we’ll all be free. I’ll say there was a break-in or something, I don’t know. By then, I’ll have had four more years of practice of lying to people. I’m already pretty good at it. “Someone broke and killed our dad.” People will feel sorry for us.

I bet they’ll even give us money.

***

Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.