Authors: Terri Blackstock
“Do you know where they live?”
“They used to live here, but they moved before I was born. They used to come visit us, but they’d fight so bad with Mama that they quit coming. And she never took us to visit them after that.”
Doug hoped he could find an address in their apartment tomorrow. “I’ll bet they’ve missed you and wanted to see you.”
“Bet they haven’t,” Aaron said. “And if you don’t find them, you won’t be able to keep that promise you made.”
This kid might not be afraid to break into homes at the risk of getting shot, but he was terrified of losing his family. Doug respected that. “I know you’re worried about your family, and I admire you for that, Aaron. You’ve had a hard row to hoe these last few months. Despite your methods, you’ve done a good job of keeping your brothers and sister fed, but I’m going to ask you to do something that doesn’t come naturally for you. I’m going to ask you to trust me.”
The boy looked up at him, studying his eyes.
“Just hang around here for a few days, and if you don’t see that life is better for you, then you’re free to go.”
“Besides,” Jeff said. “The sheriff knows where you live now. If you go home, he’ll put you into foster care for sure.”
Aaron clearly hadn’t thought of that. His ears reddened. “You shouldn’t have brought him. We’d have given the food back, what was left of it.”
“Don’t you get it?” Jeff asked. “You just can’t go around breaking into people’s houses! And four little kids shouldn’t be living alone!”
Doug quieted Jeff with a raised hand. He was tired, so tired. But these children needed him, like it or not. “Look, I believe this was all a God thing. I think he was looking out for you when he led you to our house this morning.”
“God didn’t lead us nowhere,” Aaron said. “We came here ourselves because we knew it was a rich neighborhood and most of the people would be at the meeting.”
Doug smiled. “That’s what you think, but I believe God’s involved in everything in our lives, and this happened so we would find you and take you in. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Nothing’s easy these days. You’ll be expected to work in the garden and help us do our chores to keep things going. I’ll expect obedience from you like I do from my own children. But in return, I’ll give you food, water, and a nice safe place to live. You won’t have to worry about people taking things from you or hurting you. And where you were living was not a very safe place.”
“Tell me about it.”
“For the sake of your brothers and sister, just try to settle in. I can see that your family is the most important thing to you. Can I trust you to stay?”
Aaron just stared at him.
“Just for a few days,” Doug said. “Give me a chance to try to find your family. I’ll treat you like my own kids if you’ll treat me with the same respect they do. And you’ll always have the option of running away later if you decide to. Can I trust you to do that, Aaron?”
Joey and Luke looked up at the boy, their eyes full of hope. He looked from one to the other. Finally, grudgingly, he shrugged. “Don’t see a choice. We’ll give it a try, but I’m not making no promises.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Doug said.
ENI HELPED TUCK THE TWO SMALLER CHILDREN INTO BED IN
Beth’s bedroom that night, while her father helped the older two settle in. She felt the need to lock up everything she had that she didn’t want stolen, but something told her not to. Maybe these kids would respond to being treated more like treasures than trash. She would try it with the younger two, anyway.
The two seemed content as she tucked them into bed, and Sarah, who had pulled a nasty little teddy bear out of her backpack, clutched it against her as she sucked her thumb. She looked so sweet lying there with her hair combed and those tendrils falling into her eyes.
Deni led them in a prayer, something the children seemed unfamiliar with, then kissed them both goodnight and left them with smiles on their faces. Then she and Beth got into her own bed.
“She’s so cute,” Beth whispered. “I hope we get to keep her.”
Deni pushed Beth’s blonde hair out of her eyes. “What about the other three?”
“Luke is cute too, but I don’t know about Joey and Aaron. They’re kind of scary. I keep thinking of when I came in and found them today. They looked so evil.”
“You gotta hand it to them, though. They do seem to care about each other.”
“Think they’ll stay all night?”
“I hope so, for Luke and Sarah’s sake,” Deni said. “But who knows what Aaron and Joey will do?”
Beth got up on her elbow and looked at the doorway. “Let’s lock it, Deni.”
“No, we have to leave it open so I can hear if one of them cries.”
“Or if they sneak out?”
“Yeah. If they try, we need to stop them. Mom and Dad can’t hear from downstairs.” She blew out the lamp. “I doubt I’ll sleep much tonight.”
ENI IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, AND SHE SAT
upright. She heard a child crying. Beth lay beside her, undisturbed.
The crying grew louder, so Deni slid out of bed and felt her way through the doorway. She moved into the dark hallway. As her eyes adjusted, she saw little Sarah standing there, hand against the wall, lost in her new surroundings.
Deni stooped in front of her. “Sarah? What’s the matter?”
The child’s screaming went up an octave. “Aaron!”
“I’m here, Sarah.” Aaron emerged from the darkness of Logan’s room, and he picked her up. She was too big for a boy of his size to hold like that, but her weight didn’t seem to faze him.
“I’m scared!” Sarah cried.
“Don’t be scared.” His voice was a gentle whisper. “We’re at those people’s house, remember?”
Her crying quieted then, as if it had taken his reminder to put things into context. She looked up at Deni.
“What scared you?” Deni asked.
Sarah sniffled and whimpered.
“She has bad dreams,” Aaron said. “She’s used to sleeping with us, so when she wakes up nights I’m usually real close.”
Deni stroked the child’s curls. “Well, why don’t you come sleep with Beth and me? I have a nice big bed.”
Sarah rubbed her eyes.
“It’s okay,” Aaron said. “I can take care of her. She can come sleep with me.”
“No, I want to sleep with Deni!”
Deni smiled and took her from her brother’s arms. “We girls gotta stick together, don’t we, kiddo?”
Aaron clearly didn’t like it.
“It’s okay, Aaron. Let her sleep with Beth and me. It’ll be all right.”
“But what about Luke? He doesn’t want to sleep by hisself.”
“Then you can go sleep with him,” Deni said.
He sighed as if he’d been forced to give in, and finally Deni took the little girl back to her room and put her on the bed between herself and Beth. Beth turned over. “What’s going on?”
“Sarah had a nightmare,” Deni said. “She’s going to sleep with us.”
“Cool.” Beth moved over so Sarah could share her pillow, then she put her arm around the little girl. “I like having sleeping buddies.”
Sarah put her thumb in her mouth and grinned again. “I like having sleeping bunnies too,” she said around the thumb.
Deni and Beth grinned as the little girl closed her eyes and drifted back off to sleep.
HE CHILDREN WERE STILL THERE THE NEXT MORNING, ALL
three boys piled into their bed. In Deni’s bed, Sarah lay like a little ball between herself and Beth.
The four kids devoured breakfast as if it might be their last meal for a while. Then, as they all cleaned up, Deni rode with Aaron and her father to the Sandwood Place Apartments to look for clues about the kids’ mother’s whereabouts and find the grandparents’ address.
The apartments didn’t look quite as threatening in the morning light as her parents had described. It was too early for most of the loiterers to be out, though one woman cooked eggs on a griddle on the grill. The smell from the garbage piled behind the place overpowered the scent of the eggs.
“You won’t find nothing,” Aaron said. “I know everything that’s there.” But reluctantly, he gave Doug the key.
Doug unlocked the door, and they stepped into the rancid apartment. An overpowering smell of human waste almost knocked Deni over. She covered her face.
“You all right?” Doug asked.
She nodded, trying not to gag. “They
“Yeah. Pretty bad, huh? It looks like the commode is stopped up, but they kept using it anyway.”
“It’s not my fault.” Shame colored Aaron’s face as he went to close the bathroom door. “It wouldn’t flush.”
Deni coughed. “You could flush with water.”
“We never had enough. Plus, the neighbors’ toilets were backed up too. They said the sewage system wasn’t working.”
Deni turned her astonished eyes to her dad. “How come ours works?”
“Because we have a septic tank.”
Deni stepped over the piles of items the kids had stolen and discarded to look in the two bedrooms. There was a double bed in one room, and a mattress on the floor in the other. “Five people lived in this apartment. Where did everybody sleep?”
“We slept fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Aaron was taking her reactions personally, as if he were responsible for providing for the family. She felt sorry for him.
She went around the boxes and into the mother’s bedroom.
The kids had clearly taken over that room, and it too held plunder they’d looted from people’s homes. Their mother’s room had a set of beaten-up bookshelves with a few books on them; her closet was piled high with wadded clothes. She clearly didn’t own a hanger.
Deni picked up a pair of jeans and held them up to herself. “She must be about my size.”
Aaron took the jeans out of her hands and returned them to the closet. She glanced down at him. The corners of his mouth quivered, as if he was trying not to cry. Only then did she realize that this was difficult for the kid. They had barged in to rifle through his mom’s things — things that the boy probably held dear. She would have to be more sensitive.
Deni went to the bookcase and perused the titles. “Hey, look. That’s my yearbook.”
Her dad turned and regarded the book in her hand. “Crockett High? She must have been a student there.”
“She was,” Aaron said.
Deni sat down on the rumpled bed and opened the book. “This was my sophomore year. What’s her name again?”
“Jessie Gatlin.” There was a note of dread in Aaron’s voice.
That sounded familiar. Frowning, Deni turned the pages. “When did she graduate?”
“She didn’t,” he said. “She dropped out in the tenth grade.”
“Then she was in my class.” She found the G’s and saw Jessie’s picture. “Oh, wow. I remember her now.”
“You do?” Doug took the book and studied the picture.
Deni swept her hair behind her ear and looked up at Aaron. “She was pregnant that year, wasn’t she? That’s why she quit.”
“But that was only seven years ago,” Doug said. “Must have been with Joey.”
Aaron didn’t answer.
Deni’s eyes rounded. “Oh yeah, I remember.” There had been another pregnancy … when she was in eighth grade and Jessie was in ninth. It had caused quite a scandal.
That must have been Aaron.
She’d come back the next year to repeat the ninth grade and wound up in Deni’s class.
She took the book back from her father. “Aaron, can we take this home with us? I want to read the notes her friends wrote in here. Maybe some of them are still around and know where she is.”
“I don’t care.” He turned and left the room, his hands crammed into the pockets of his baggy jeans. She watched him cross the hall to the other room and begin sorting through his things.
Doug sat down next to her. “What else do you remember about her, Deni?”
Deni kept her voice low so Aaron wouldn’t hear. “She hung around with a rough crowd, Dad. They did a lot of drugs. Most of them never graduated.”
Doug studied Jessie’s picture again. “That’s a shame. She was a pretty girl.”
“Yeah, that’s why her kids are so cute. But ‘pretty’ wasn’t the image she was going for. I think she was into shock value. Black lipstick, thick black eyeliner, piercings, tattoos … It was hard to see through all that stuff.”
“Maybe she’s still friends with some of that group. Do you think you can find them?”
“Maybe,” she said. “I’ll ask Mark and Chris to help.”
They put the book down and began rummaging through her chest of drawers. Finding nothing helpful, Deni looked under the bed. “Oh no. Dad, look at this.”
When her dad turned, Deni held up a Ziploc bag of new syringes and several little white slips of paper.
“It’s heroin,” Deni said.
Her father shot her a look, as if asking how she knew.
“A girl in my freshman dorm was an addict,” Deni said. “She flunked out that semester. But they peel the heroin off these papers. They don’t throw them away because when they run out, they scrape whatever is left off the papers for one more fix.”
“So Jessie was an addict.”
“I’d say so.”
“Maybe that explains her disappearance. When the outage happened, it was hard enough to find food, much less drugs — especially with no money. A lot of addicts probably had to detox without wanting to. It could have been bad.”
Deni nodded. But could that have killed her? It seemed unlikely.
Her father waded toward the closet. “Here’s her purse,” he said, and lifted it from where it hung by its strap from the doorknob. He opened her wallet. “License … credit card … she sure didn’t take anything with her.”
He dug through the purse’s contents, then held up a marijuana joint and a bottle of prescription painkillers, plus something rolled up in tinfoil. Deni watched as he unwrapped it. Another syringe. This one had been used. “Right here where any of the kids could have found it,” he said. “Unbelievable.”
Deni glanced into the other room. Aaron was on his knees sorting through the contents of a box. “Dad, if she disappeared intentionally, don’t you think she would have taken her purse with her? Especially if she had dope in it?”