Authors: Terri Blackstock
But she hadn’t expected this.
She followed her family in and watched as her mother lined the children up at the sink to wash their hands in a bowl of water. They looked like unwilling captives. The two older ones looked around as if taking inventory of things they could snatch when the family went to sleep tonight. These kids would surely clean them out by morning.
The two younger ones, with swollen eyes and streaked cheeks, looked more innocent. As her mother washed the dirt off, they didn’t look so evil anymore. Just scared. The little girl was still sniffing and holding her brother’s hand. He kept patting her, like it was going to be all right.
Deni’s heart softened a degree.
Logan and Beth came in from outside and gaped at the crowd in their kitchen. “What’s going on?” Logan asked. “Are those the crooks who stole our food?”
“Logan!” Kay set her hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “They’re our guests. They’re going to be staying with us tonight.”
Beth sucked in a breath. “Where are they sleeping?”
Her mother’s voice was soft, markedly cheerful. “You’ll stay in Deni’s room with her, and Sarah and Luke will sleep in your bed. Logan, you’ll sleep with Jeff, and Aaron and Joey will take your room.”
Logan grunted. “No way those creeps are sleeping in my bed! No way, Mom!”
Aaron’s lips compressed in a sneer. “Don’t worry. I’d rather sleep on the concrete than in your stinking bed.”
Logan took a step toward him. “Speaking of stinking — ”
Kay slapped her hand over Logan’s mouth, her eyes shooting daggers, then turned his face up to hers. “Logan, that’s enough.”
Doug grabbed Logan’s shoulder and turned him around. “Outside, son. You and I need to have a talk.”
Logan stormed out of the house, and Doug followed. Logan was in trouble now, Deni thought, because he was the only one with the guts to speak out.
Her mother looked as if she could spit nails. “Now,” Kay said, trying to put a happy face on their chilly reception, “let’s finish washing our hands so we can eat.”
Hands, feet, legs … Those kids had weeks’ worth of filth on them. Deni bit her lip and began to set the table.
Beth looked about to cry.
Kay stood the little girl up on a chair and dipped her hands in the bowl of water. “I’ll wash up in the back,” Jeff muttered.
Deni eyed the boys as she finished setting the table. The two older ones stood like hostile prisoners, their arms crossed in defiance. Maybe, if she were lucky, these kids would run away tonight and be done with it. The little boy, though, wasn’t showing such bravado. He held his eyes wide, as if he didn’t know whether to cry or smile. Quietly, he awaited his turn at the sink.
Deni watched as her mother talked softly to the little girl, gently washing the filth off her hands. It was going to take more water than they had ready. She’d only filtered and boiled enough for drinking water to replace what they’d taken, but it wouldn’t be enough to wash with.
“After supper, you’ll all need baths.” Kay finished washing little Sarah’s hands and dried them on a clean towel. “All right, sweetie. You can jump down.”
Sarah got down from the chair.
“Your turn, Luke!” Sarah had a cute little voice that lilted with energy, and when she turned her face to Deni, she saw that the voice matched the face. Holding her hands up proudly, she said, “See? Clean.”
Luke compliantly got up on the chair and dunked his hands into the water. Kay spoke softly to him as she scrubbed the dirt off. “How old did you say you are, Luke?”
“Do you go to school?”
“I’m gonna be in kindergarten. I was real smart in preschool, wasn’t I, Aaron?”
Aaron’s arms came unfolded. “Yeah, Luke. You were the smartest kid in the class.”
Deni’s hostility toward the oldest boy faded a little. He seemed to care for his younger siblings. Maybe he wasn’t a total loss.
Luke looked more human as he jumped down from the chair with a clean face and hands. Joey stepped up and moved the chair. “I don’t need to get up there. I’m tall enough. I can wash myself.”
Kay backed off and let him soap up, then waited until he’d rinsed. Then he got a handful of water and smeared it on his face, doing a haphazard job of wiping it clean. She handed him a towel. “That’s better. Don’t you feel better now?”
Aaron stepped up next. “It’s not that I don’t make them bathe,” he said like a father embarrassed about his poor parenting skills. “It’s just that we never have enough water.”
Kay looked into his face as she talked to him. “I don’t know how you did it, Aaron. Taking such good care of your brothers and sister without any of the things you needed.”
He glanced at her suspiciously, as if questioning her sincerity.
“I’m serious, Aaron. Your mother is going to be proud of you when we find her.”
“You won’t find her,” he muttered.
Kay frowned. “What makes you say that?”
“Because she doesn’t want to be found. She took off for a reason, you know.”
“And what reason is that?”
“She always thought there was something better somewhere else,” he said. “Maybe she went to find it.”
Deni’s heart plummeted.
Sarah pulled the thumb out of her mouth. “Mama’s favorite color was green.”
Joey turned on her. “You don’t know what her favorite color was.”
favorite color is green.”
Sarah smiled then. “Yep. I like green too.”
As much as Deni wanted to nurse her anger, she was having a hard time maintaining it. She finished setting the table. “Time to eat,” she said more softly. “Jeff and Beth, go get some chairs from the dining room.”
As her brother and sister headed out, Logan came back in with red eyes. Doug followed him in and nodded to him.
Logan slid his hands into his pockets and looked at the floor. “I apologize for being rude,” he said to the children.
A canned speech if Deni had ever heard one.
The four just stared at him, then took their places at the table as Jeff and Beth brought the extra chairs in.
ENI HAD TO HAND IT TO HER MOTHER.
Beth did kitchen detail while the rest of the family went to the lake to bring back as many barrels of water as they could. The cursory washing of the new kids’ hands and faces had gotten them through dinner, but now her mother was dead-set on getting the kids completely clean. She’d washed them out in the backyard, where she could scrub without making a mess.
Her dad had helped, turning it into a game of sorts, making the younger three kids feel like they were playing rather than bathing. Aaron, however, looked as if he couldn’t believe the indignities. He brooded like Huck Finn being scrubbed by the Widow Douglas.
What kind of mother would abandon her four children, especially at a time like this? Deni couldn’t even imagine, but tomorrow she planned to find out. She was going with her dad to Sandwood Place Apartments tomorrow morning to look through their things, hoping to find some clue as to where their mother could be.
But what would they do if they found her? Drag her back and force her to be a mother? No, the kids’ best hope was to find grandparents, or aunts and uncles, who could raise them. Their mother was unfit.
Deni’s mother was soaking wet by the time she came into the house after scrubbing the kids’ clothes clean. Since it was almost dark, she brought the wet garments in and hung them over the shower stall in the bathroom. Hopefully, they would be dry by morning.
While Deni worked on Sarah’s tangles, her father held a powwow upstairs with the boys, trying to get as much information as he could about who their mother was and what friends she might be staying with.
Sarah seemed more than content with all the attention being shown her. She sat on Deni’s lap, turning the pages of a children’s book that Beth had pulled from her bookshelf.
“Your house is pretty,” she said. “And your TV is big!”
Deni glanced at the forty-eight inch television sitting in the corner. “Yes, it is.”
Sarah looked up at her. “Can we watch it?”
Deni smiled. “It doesn’t work.”
The child’s face fell. “Neither does ours.”
“Nobody’s TV works right now.”
Beth got down on her knees in front of them. “Sarah, if the TV worked, what would you watch?”
“Wiggles,” Sarah said without blinking. “I have a tape with all their songs, but it don’t work, either.”
Deni knew the Wiggles were like a rock band for preschoolers — four silly men dressed in bright colors, singing songs that children loved. She wished she’d watched that show even once, instead of surfing past it. “Can you sing me one?”
Sarah slid off Deni’s lap, turned to face her, and launched into song, complete with hand motions. She was cuter than Dakota Fanning in
I Am Sam
If Deni ever found this little girl’s mom, she would personally ream her. A woman like that didn’t deserve the love and respect of an innocent child like Sarah.
“You know what?” Beth said. “I’ve been thinking about writing a play. All the little kids in Oak Hollow could be in it. We need some entertainment around here.”
“Luke was in a play one time,” Sarah lilted. “Aaron took us. His teacher made him a tree!”
Aaron took them. Why hadn’t their mother? That angry, belligerent street kid had cared for his siblings all this time. Deni was the oldest child in her family. What if she’d been responsible for her siblings at age nine?
Shame beat through her for thinking of these kids as trash. Aaron had kept them alive and together. Deni had known something about desperation herself, when she was on the road. Given the same set of circumstances, she might have become a thief too.
Surely there were relatives who could love kids like this.
OUG HAD HIS HANDS FULL WITH
and his brothers. He knew that when the family went to sleep, the boys were likely to rob them again and return home. For the past four months, since the killer in the neighborhood had been found, Doug had been able to sleep with relative peace. But tonight was going to be a long night. He had to convince the children it was in their best interests to stay.
But Aaron was having none of it.
“Look, Mister, I know you’re trying to help us and everything, but we don’t need your help. I can take care of my sister and brothers.”
“You can’t take care of them by stealing, Aaron. That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. You could get shot.”
“I’m not afraid,” Aaron said.
Jeff sat on the bed, staring at the angry kid. “Guys, wouldn’t it be better if you were in a clean house on decent beds without all that junk around? Without that smell? If you didn’t have to go scrounging for water and food? If you had somebody looking out for you so you didn’t have to leave those little kids by themselves while you go out stealing?”
“What about Sarah?” Doug added. “She likes being fussed over. Don’t you think she deserves that? And little Luke hasn’t seemed too repulsed by Miss Kay’s affections. He needs somebody, even if you don’t.”
Luke hung his head, as if he’d betrayed his brother. Doug could see the distrust in Aaron’s eyes.
“I know what you’re gonna do,” Aaron said, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Now that the sheriff knows about us, you’re gonna get him to get us into foster homes. You don’t want us. You’ll probably dump us on the first person who’ll take us. You only took us because your wife made you.”
The boy was more perceptive than he thought. “I brought you home because it was the right thing, Aaron.”
Aaron breathed a mirthless laugh. “I’m not stupid, you know. Nobody here wants us, and that’s just fine.”
Doug rubbed his face, hoping that he hadn’t just brought danger into his home. The kid was hostile, and desperate or not, he broke laws without batting an eye.
But what else could Doug do? He couldn’t very well send them home, and turning them over to the sheriff was out of the question. Kay would never forgive him. He’d just have to stay on guard tonight, to make sure they didn’t clean them out. “Look, I know we got off to a bad start, but it was only because you took our food. We just need to start over. We brought you home because we care, but I can’t put you in a cage. If you decide to leave, I want you to think hard about whether you’re going to something better than I’m offering you.”
Joey sat down on the carpet, crossing his legs in front of him. The boy had dark circles under his eyes. He looked weary with the burden of life. He looked up at Aaron with a pleading face. “We could stay here for a little while, Aaron,” he said. “It was good to have hot food tonight.”
Aaron just looked at the floor.
As tough as the kid was, he was scared. Whatever Doug had against him, Aaron did care for his siblings.
Sighing, Doug set his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “Aaron, I promise you, no foster homes, period. Trust me. The sheriff isn’t going to take you away from us until your relatives are found.”
“That could be a long time,” Aaron said. “You don’t even know what you’re getting into.”
Doug felt like he was talking to a peer, a grown man made stronger through suffering. It was hard to believe this was a little kid.
“Why do you say that, Aaron? I have four kids. Why do you think I don’t know?”
“Because I told you, you won’t find my mama. If she wanted to come home, she would. And we haven’t seen our grandma and pop since before Sarah was born. Mama kept moving us so they couldn’t find us.”
“Why?” Jeff asked. “Were they mean?”
“No, they were real nice,” Joey piped in.
Aaron shot his brother a withering look. “Mama said they were trying to get her arrested, and if they did, we’d be split up.”
So their mother had put that idea in their heads, making them fear it worse than being alone. “Why would they have wanted your mother in jail?”
Aaron kept his eyes fixed on his feet. “She mighta stole from them or something. I don’t really know.”