Thursday, July 31, 2014

Chapter 7


Tommy handed me a small garbage bag of what felt like clothes and asked, "You gonna be ok?"

"The bag isn't that heavy Tommy.  If I can carry the big pots in culinary class I can ..."

"Not the bag.  Sawyer.  You didn't seem to like him much."

Trying to figure out how to explain it I asked him, "What would you think if Cindy Meechum walked up to you out of the blue and said the two of you were getting married."

Tommy's eyes got real big as the thought trickled through and then made a funny face.  "Uh ... ok ... I get it.  But why'd you have to pick the cheer squad leader?  That girl is mean."

"She's not really mean, just full of herself and doesn't even realize it."

"Well Sawyer isn't like that."

"So far he isn't but Tommy ... I don't want to sound pathetic but c'mon, can you imagine what they would say in school if some guy that looks like Sawyer suddenly asked me out?"

Tommy suddenly exhibited a bit of wisdom that made me uncomfortable.  "Stop worrying about what the package is wrapped in and look at what's inside the box.  Sawyer's ok.  He don't make fun of me and Linda at all and you know some of 'em have.  It might take Sawyer some time to get over your outsides too but you already made him smile and he don't do that much at all lately.  Momma will be tickled to hear it 'cause she was worried about putting two serious people together."

"You're mom's nice Sawyer but ..."

"I know.  She's nosey.  She used to give Linda advice about bedroom stuff all the time and right in the middle of company too ... and that was before we got married and were doing it.  One time she did it in front of the preacher's wife.  One of the reasons we live at Gramps is because Momma was great about us getting married, not been so great about us being married.  She was advice-ing us to death."

I smiled and he crawled back into the trailer to get more stuff out.  For Sawyer to think he didn't have much, compared to what I'd come with he had more than plenty.  He almost didn't believe me when I told him the pack was all I had.

"That's it?" he'd asked.

"Yeah."

"You're joking."

"No.  Why would you think I was?"

"Well, girls always ... I mean ..."

"Foster kids don't.  We only get one suitcase or one back pack and we have to be able to leave in just a few minutes if they come to move us around.  The suit case someone gave me wore out years ago and all I have is my school back pack so I had to make sure everything would fit in there."

He just looked and shook his head.

And now we were unloading I don't know what all from the trailer and the back end of the truck and putting it on the porch and all I could do was shake my own head.

--------------

I was standing in the kitchen looking around when Sawyer walked in and said, "They're gone.  Tommy said to give you this."

I turned and he had my ankle brace in his hand.  I walked over and snatched it away and then felt stupid.  "Sorry."

"It's alright."

"No it isn't.  Look.  I've been thinking.  If ... if you really want to do this you better know all of it."

Warily he asked, "All of what?"

"This," I told him pointing up and down at my body.  "But can we sit down?  Going up and down those stairs ..."

"Would a ramp make it better?"

Startled I looked at him but relaxed when I realized he wasn't being mean.  "No.  It's my own fault.  I should have put my brace on.  I have a spare.  That's one of the things ...  Anyway, can we sit down?"

"Yeah," he said willingly enough and he even pulled a chair out for me before sitting in one himself.

I sighed hating what was coming.  I couldn't even look at him square in the face and just kinda focused on the window behind him.  "I told you the doctors have fixed everything that is fixable.  Well I should let you know what isn't fixable.  I can't change that one leg is shorter than the other.  My leg was broken before I was born during the explosion and it was broke on a growth plate so it didn't grow the right way as I got older.  They put screws and rods to straighten and stretch the leg but this is about as good as it will ever be.  I don't need a crutch but sometimes ... sometimes in the middle of winter my leg and hip aches really bad and ... and I might use a cane to take some of the pressure off."

"Tommy told me.  He said you used to use one all the time but don't anymore."

Surprised at how calm about it he was being I said, "Oh ... well anyway it isn't just that my leg is shorter than the other one.  I've got drop foot."

"What's that?"

"It means that my foot drags because it's weak and doesn't want to lift.  It isn't as bad as it used to be and if I keep up my exercises it should be ok.  I have to remember to lift my knee higher on that side so I don't drag my toes as I walk.  But that gets real tiring real fast which is where the brace comes in; it holds my foot so that it doesn't drag."

"Like you've had a stroke or something?"

"Some people have ... hey, how do you know that?"

"Uncle Forrester - Gramps' brother - had a stroke and when he walks he kinda looks like you only he's a lot worse.  His whole right side is weak like that."

"Ok but ... well mine isn't from a stroke but from nerve damage.  When I'm real tired it’s worse and I can fall real easy so I try and sit when I need to sit.  Like now.  I hate falling.  It makes me look and feel stupid."

"Wish Uncle Forrester would have the sense to sit down.  Last time he fell we were worried he'd broke his hip on top of everything else."

"I don't want to have to have a hip replacement so I try to be smart.  But they tell me that as I get older I might get crippled up unless I'm careful.  Then there's my legs.  It’s hard to explain and it grosses people out but ... but when the explosion happened ... anyway I basically got pushed out real fast and ... and ... I don't really talk about the details normally 'cause they're private but ..."

He told me, "I know.  You don't know me but Tommy and Linda ... now there's a pair you gotta see to believe ... but they asked me to take them to town a couple of days ago when all this come up and we watched you walking home from school."

"What?!"

"Take it easy.  They like you a lot and said they didn't want you to be made fun of or get hurt because you'd been nice to them in school and ... well ... they explained about the explosion when those eco-terrorists blew up the health center and your parents were there for a check-up and how ... anyway, they explained."

"I guess I need to remind Tommy I got boundaries but Linda should know."

"They both know and don't get upset with them.  They were doing it to protect you ... and me too I guess.  They got a lot more going on than most people give 'em credit for."

"You don't need to tell me that.  They'll find work arounds for things if people just give 'em time."

"That's a fact.  Now why don't you finish telling me what has you upset and we can get on to the next thing."

I didn't know quite how to take what he said so I did as he suggested.  "I got burnt right after being born and when I was about a year old they were having these pediatric trials for getting rid of really bad scars and they thought I'd be the perfect candidate.  The laser stuff they were using was experimental and only worked for less than half the kids in the trials so they don't do it anymore.  I was one of the kids that it did work on but the side effect was that it wrecked up my hair follicles.  It also makes my skin dry if I don't take care of myself.  So where most people are hairy ... I'm not."  He blushed and I yelped, "Not there!  I just mean like my legs and arms and stuff."

He blushed harder and said, "Oh.  Uh ..."

I shook my head and could barely look at him and said, "Just don't even think about it."

More than willing to drop his embarrassing thought that had slipped out he asked, "Is that why you've got that strip of white hair down the middle?"

"No.  It is my birth mark sorta.  When my hair grew in I had a strip of really light brown hair mixed in with the black hair.  The doctor called it a fawn and said most people's were hidden under their hair but I got lucky and it was all out front for everyone and their mother to gawk at.  Then in second grade I ... I got attacked by some dogs.  One thought it would be cool to try and crack my skull like a walnut.  By the time they were through fixing all the damage they had to shave my head and do a lot of stitching.  When my hair grew back it came in like you see.  I've tried dying it about a million times but the hair is funny and won't take color.  Or if it does take the color it winds up not being the color that it was supposed to be."

"Mmm.  Tommy told me you're scared of dogs ... and told me what Mooch did ..."

"Go ahead and laugh.  I probably would too if it had happened to anyone else on any other day."

He tried not to but the smile eventually broke through.  "You do got some kinda luck that's for sure."

"Tell me about it.  And I'm not scared of dogs.  I just respect what they can do and sometimes they make me a little nervous.  I try not to but sometimes they just do."

He nodded.  "Well that's why I left Harley and Davey with GW ... he's Uncle Forrester's son."

"GW Hartford ... is he the one that works the search and rescue things when hikers get lost?"

"Yep, that's him.  Anyway, I figured you might need some space and ..."

"They're your dogs.  I might as well get over myself sooner as later."

"Thanks.  They're good dogs but kinda extra friendly sometimes.  You'll have to be firm about them not jumping."

Feeling butterflies in the pit of my stomach I said, "Ok.  Do they bite?"

"They won't bite you.  They're partial to females.  Strange guy come to the house and they might chew on him some ... or a lot."

I heard the warning in there and decided not to get offended.  Some of the foster kids I'd been around were real territorial.  I could deal with it so long as he kept it under control.

He asked, "Is that it?"

"I've got scars.  They aren't too bad because my skin is the type that don't scar that easy plus I don't tan very much ... I guess it is that Italian thing with the black hair and light complexion ... but if you look you can still see them."

"I took a header from a four wheeler when I was twelve and I got some scars running up and down my side and leg too.  You don't get grossed out over mine and I won't get grossed out over yours."

I just shook my head.  "I still say you're crazy but ... but you're alright too.  If I say you remind me of Tommy you won't get mad will you?"

"Naw.  Tommy is a good guy.  But I ain't always good.  Maybe I should warn you about that.  Don't bother trying to talk to me before I get a cup or two of coffee in me in the morning.  And ... well ... back to them stipulations.  I don't wanna get burnt again and ... and ... well I might over react a little until ..."

"You're territorial.  That's ok.  So long as you keep to your promise not to hit."

He shook his head.  "I'd rather take a bullet that hit a female.  By the time Gramps would be finished with me it'd probably be less painful anyway.  But ... sometimes my mouth ..."

"Like I said, just no hitting.  I can ignore anything but that."

"Had trouble with that?"

"Huh?  Oh ... uh ... not me personally.  Just lived with too many messed up kids not to see it.  I mean I've been pushed around but that's just the way it goes.  I just don't want to have to live like that day in and day out."

"Reckon not.  Uh ..."

"What?"

"Can you ... I mean ... I ... hmmm."

"Spit it out.  It ain't like a question is gonna kill me."

"Ok.  But I sound like a jerk.  I was wondering if you can have kids."

The question stopped me cold.  "Kids?"

"Yeah."

"I guess I can.  Nobody ever said I couldn't. But ... er ... are you ... I mean is that a stipulation?"

"No.  Just ... if you can you figure you mind ... uh ... waiting?  Gramps believes things are going to ramp up and get rough for a little bit and until we get set up it might not be a good idea."

"Uh ..."  I stopped and sighed.

"Is that a problem?"

"No it's just ... I mean ... you're just crazy," I told him in exasperation.  "Yesterday when I was told I was going to come up to the Hartford place and do some housekeeping was the first time I tried to wrap my head around the idea of some guy and me doing it ... 'cause whether you want to hear it or not people in town have ideas on why so many of you have suddenly gotten hooked up.  Then your Uncle Mark informs me I'm getting married to one of the boys and my brain is spinning on that.  Then in you walk with all your Greek godliness and ..."

"Knock that off.  If you think looking like a pretty boy got me cut any slack you can think again.  Every guy and their brother decided to test me and see if they could mess up my looks.  I got tired of always losing so got good enough I win more than I lose.  I've tried everything ... growing a mustache, growing a full beard, in middle school I dyed my hair green to try and get them to lay off ... nothing works and it gets irritating as hell to have people riding me on it.  It's been a real handicap trying to find a job too."

"Tell me another clanker."

"I'm serious."

"Yeah sure.  I won't bug you about it but don't ask me to be blind.  I feel like I'm in the middle of the Twilight Zone or something like that."

"Well let me make it a little worse.  Gramps thinks we're in for some real rough times, maybe really rough."

"Things are already bad.  Or don't you count people rioting 'cause their dole checks ain't coming in on time bad?"

"Yeah, that's bad but Gramps thinks it's gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better."

"He's one of them survivalists like they were talking about on tv?"

"We're all survivalists - well most of us are - but not like them dumb dudes on tv that tell everyone and their mother what they got.  Which I guess is another stipulation.  You can't go blabbing your mouth over what you see and hear."

"Am I a prisoner?"

"No and don't get stupid, especially as you seem to got better sense than most if what little I've seen counts for anything.  You ain't a prisoner.  You just need to watch your mouth because people are gonna get serious mad when they find out just how bad things are gonna get and if they think you have more than they do they're gonna start thinking that it ain't fair and they just might decide to get together with some friends and come take what it is they want."

"Like they did during the riots."

"Yeah.  Only instead of just ransacking the stores and stuff like that, and it only being the ones from the projects, it'll be almost everybody and they'll start going house to house ... assuming the government don't start doing it first."

Mr. Brenser used to make fun of those survivalists on tv when he wasn't mad at them for things like hoarding or being scaremongers or whatever.  But Old Mrs. Brenser used to say her son needed a reality check and that she knew that the government was out to get us all and that they were spying on us all the time so they'd know what we had so they could come and take it and give it to someone else.  They were both a little crazy on the subject but I tended to believe Old Mrs. Brenser's flavor of crazy was a little closer to the truth which is why maybe she was a little crazy to begin with.

"You think I'm nuts don't you?" he asked in irritation.

"No.  Not really.  I've heard both sides for a long time now and for the last couple of months about the only thing anybody can talk about is the government isn't doing enough and with the next breath someone will say the government is doing too much and needs to mind their own business."

"Which do you believe?"

I shrugged.  "Haven't really had time to decide."

"Well time is running out and since you're gonna be a Hartford you need to throw in with us."

"Ok."

"Just like that?"

"Sure.  I guess.  I'm still trying to figure things out but so long as it means a roof over my head and food to eat I know how to keep my mouth shut."

"Good deal.  But you'll see.  Gramps ain't been wrong yet.  Only problem we've had is that more people know about stuff than they should because a couple in the family told people they shouldn't have.  And that's why you need to keep your mouth shut."

"You don't need to repeat yourself.  I get it."

"Fine.  We got a couple of hours to kill yet so let's take a look around."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chapter 6


"You're out of your mind."

"No I ain't.  You plan on holdin' out on me just 'cause you don't get your way?"

I didn't know whether to scream or howl in laughter.  "You just don't get it do you?  I can't imagine anyone wanting sex with me.  I mean someone might wanna do it to show me who's boss but not 'cause they really want to be ... involved or whatever with me.  And I sure can't imagine some guy that looks like you wanting to.  Maybe as a joke but that's about it.  I haven't ever even been kissed so how the heck ..."

"Wait.  You mean ..."  He sat back in his chair and scratched his chin with a very serious expression on his face.  "I suppose that changes things a bit.  We'll need to move slow."  He ran a hand through his hair and even though it got messy he somehow managed to look even hotter than he had before which just irritated me all the more.  "OK, how about this.  We don't worry about sex right now.  But I still want those stipulations in writing so you can't get me later on when things start working out."

"Fine," I told him with a snort.  "You're crazy but fine."  Then I had a thought.  "What about your girl?  What if she changes her mind and wants you back."

"Well to start with, Lisa isn't my girl no more.  I don't care if she changes her mind, I ain't changing mine.  She hurt me once.  I was a fool the second time around.  Ain't gonna be no third time.  And if that's it on that front we gotta get down to the brass tax that Gramps wants covered."

"Ok," I said accepting the change in conversation after noticing how uncomfortable he was.

"You might not like it."

"I guess we won't know for sure though if you don't hurry up and tell me."

"Guess not," he said but I was surprised to see he was trying to fight a grin.

"What?"

"You're not what I expected."

"Considering you're crazy I'm not sure I want to know what you expected."

This time he grinned.  "Tommy and Linda made it out like you wouldn't say boo to a goose.  That you're real quiet and don't have much to say for yourself most of the time.  I wasn't sure just how we would talk this stuff out or if you'd cry or something.  But the last thing you seem to be is a cry baby."

I shrugged.  "Tears are just wasted water and time.  They don't help nothing and they don't stop things hurting.  As for being quiet, I prefer it.  People are going to think what they want no matter what you do or say.  I've just never figured on getting married to a crazy guy that looks like a Greek god; and then have to do it while figuring all this other stuff out too.  At some point a girl needs to step up and look after herself because I don't see anyone else around doing it for me."

"Well, on that last you might be surprised.  Gramps laid down the law and said we wouldn't do this if it wasn't going to be done right.  And right includes making sure you understand you'll be part of the family and that we ain't gonna just grab the land and throw you out in the world to make your own way.  But it also means that you can't just change your mind down the road and try and take the land away 'cause you feel like feuding for some reason."

"Fine.  But what do you mean that I'm part of the family?"

"What do you mean what do I mean that you're ..."  He stopped and shook his head.  "Guess you might not know since you've never had a family."  He sighed.  "I'll be honest since we said that's what we want from each other.  Sometimes us Hartfords can be a little rough on folks.  A couple of the other new wives are having a ... a little trouble fitting in I guess you might say.  Ain't no girls in our generation in the family except for my sister Delly and she don't count.  She's fifteen years older than me and we weren't really raised together and she's always leaned more towards her husband's family.  None of her kids act like they got any Hartford in them either.  You likely won't have to put up with seeing them much as they live off towards town and don't bother coming around here unless there is a feed on or family business they want to stick their nose in."

"Ok.  But you don't expect me to be rude to them do you?  They're strangers and I don't generally do that, much less do it to people I don't know.  It's a waste of time and energy I don't have."

"Well, no.  We're polite to each other.  Gramps demands it.  Won't tolerate nothin' less.  Sometimes we polite the hell out of each other just for the sake of irritating the other person but as a general rule it don't go no further than that."

Deciding his explanation was as confusing as the rest of it I told him, "Guess I'll understand that when I see it.  What else?"

"Well, the rest is a bunch of legal stuff that Old Man Baffa put in.  Like what starts out at this house stays at this house ... like no taking furnishings from here, no trading the good stuff out and only putting crappy stuff in, tractor and implements belong to here but they can be used other places, no plowing under the food lots or wood lots, selling off bits and pieces of the land, that sort of thing."

"If you're looking at me to object or have anything else to add to it forget it.  This is the first time I've ever stepped foot around here and I barely remember the people that were supposed to be my family taking any interest in me."

"You ain't looked around?"

"Uh uh."

"Me neither.  I tell you what, let me empty the trailer so that Uncle James can go home and let folks know what is going on - and take the trailer 'cause it is Uncle Duke's - and we can look around together."

I shrugged again still not sure what on earth I was agreeing to be part of.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Chapter 5



I was still watching the nurse's tail lights as she followed the ambulance when Tommy said, "Uncle Mark wants you to come inside."

I made myself stay calm as I walked up the porch steps and through the house's front door.  The inside was dark and smelled musty like it needed a serious cleaning.  I followed Tommy as he walked back to what turned out to be the kitchen.  The door and a window in there had been opened to air things out.

"Sit down.  We need to get this finished up."

"What's there to finish up?  You have your house and land."

"Don't sass me," he warned.  "It is sticking in my craw to have to have one of our boys marry a Baffa and one like you makes it doubly hard to swalla."

I noticed his tone was changing now that he had what he wanted.  I had expected it would.  That's the way most people are.  But what surprised me was Tommy stepping to my side.  "Uncle Mark, you know what Gramps said."

Mark Hartford snapped, "Don't lesson me boy.  You might be married but you still got a long way to go before you're my equal in this family."

"I'm not saying I'm your equal.  Not even trying to be.  But Gramps said ..."

"Shut up Boy.  This here Baffa ..."

A voice from the dark snapped, "Mark!"

We all jumped then Tommy smiled big and said, "Dad!  I thought you had to work."

"They short shifted us and are turning the day shift away at the gates."

"Uh oh.  Gramps said that was one of his signals."

The man I recognized as James Hartford nodded but was still looking at his brother who'd hadn't said a word since he showed up.  "Sawyer will be here in less than five.  There ain't gonna be no trouble.  Davis made his choice.  You got a problem you go take it up with your son."

"Why should I?  Wouldn't want my boy married to this ugly gal.  Don't want no damn Baffa in the family at all, sure as hell don't want one for a daughter in law.  You and Dad want this done so bad then you can finish this up.  I got better things to do."

He got up and brushed past me pushing me into the wall hard enough that I would have lost my balance if Tommy hadn't grabbed my arm.  He asked, "You need your shoe?"

"It's wet.  I'll get my spare out in just a minute."  I turned to look at the Mr. Hartford that I remembered as the man that came to all of Tommy's school activities.  "Sir?  I ..."

James Hartford stepped over and pulled out a chair for me and Tommy whispered.  "That's what gentleman do for ladies."

I patted Tommy's arm and then let him help me to sit down.  His dad meanwhile leaned against the kitchen counter top.  "I know this is a rough start.  You like to be called Kay-Lee or just Kay?"

"Kay-Lee please."

"That was your parents' names."

I nodded and explained like I had a hundred times before.  "Someone at the hospital where they brought me was trying to separate me out from the other babies that were arriving by ambulance from the health center and put their names on the name plate of the bassinet I was in in the NICU.  It kinda just stuck after that 'cause somebody thought it was some kind of memorial to them I guess."

"Hmmm.  I knew your parents you know.  Even went to school with your dad's sister Pet.  Some of us went to school with your momma.  Never did get the full story of why you were put into foster care."

Again explaining it like I had so many times before I told him, "Because of the law suit.  Everybody kept thinking there was gonna be some big pay out.  I've heard a million different reasons but that's the big one.  The state took custody of me until everything was ironed out.  I was in the hospital or pediatric rehab center for a long time anyway."

"Seems a strange thing someone wouldn't take you if you were gonna be worth so much."

I shrugged.  "Maybe if it had gone to just one person there would have been a lot but by the time they got done paying all the lawyers, paying everyone's doctor bills, and then splitting the money between the survivors or their families it wasn't much at all.  And then by that time there wasn't anyone willing or able to take me on, not with all the reconstructive surgery and stuff I still had left to have.  For the first five years of my life I was mostly a ward of the hospital and when I wasn't there I was bouncing around between rehab centers.  Even after the surgeries were over and they'd done all they could to put me back together I bounced around a lot.  Nine months is the longest I've ever stayed in one place and that was just at the Brenser's ... the last foster home where you found me."

"Hmm," he said then looked out the side door.  "See Sawyer's truck.  Tommy go out there and meet him and help him get his trailer backed in and start bringing stuff up to the porch."  Tommy was eager to please and headed out with a nod and a smile.  Mr. Hartford turned to me and said, "My son likes you."

"I like him too.  He's easy to please."

"Yeah he is.  Suppose he told you he's married now."

"Yes sir."

"No comment on it?"

"None of my business."

"If you're in the family it is."

That stopped me for a moment then I shrugged.  "Tommy and Linda are slow, not stupid.  They can do things just fine, they just have to do them in their own way at their own pace."

He nodded even though he looked a little surprised at my answer.  "You know Linda too?"

"For a long time.  We had the same social workers growing up until she was adopted by the Thorndikes."

"Wondering about her family?"

"Yes sir.  Some.  Her parents are pretty strict."

"It was their idea.  The marriage I mean.  They're older and not in real good health lately.  They'd actually hoped that Tommy would go live with them but things being the way they are ..."

"Yes sir."

"They've moved across town to live with Linda's aunt's family.  Linda's father has started having memory problems and I guess their nephew is some kind of old person's doctor ... a gerontologist."

We both heard the truck pull up and the engine turn off.  He bit his lip then said, "This ain't gonna be easy but it can work if you and Sawyer ..."

I heard boots on the wrap around porch and then a voice that said, "Uncle James."

I turned and was suddenly really glad I was sitting.  Then something inside me got a little mad.  "What kind of game is this?  I was willing to go along but ... but look at you."

All three turned and looked at me.  "And don't give me that blank face.  I mean ... look at him.  No way a guy like that is just going to volunteer to marry me.  No way.  Something is going on."

Tommy stepped forward.  "It's ok Kay-Lee.  I know Sawyer can be a little scary and ..."

"Scary?!  He's not scary.  Look at him!  He's a Greek freaking god!"  I turned to look at the man that embodied all of the attributes in my fantasy man ... the one I'd knew I'd never have except in a fantasy ... and snarled, "What is your game?  Or did you not know what you were volunteering for?"

"I knew."

"You knew.  You knew?!"

"Yeah.  You don't need to spazz out about it."

I just stood there shaking my head.  Tommy put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Just give him a chance.  Sawyer ain't so bad."

Sawyer said with a snort, "You're not helping Tommy.  Uncle James, I got this.  Just ... just you and Tommy take a walk or something."

They did though they looked reluctant and said they wouldn't be far.

I growled, "OK, what is your game?"

"No game ... uh ... Kay-Lee.  All we gotta do is be ready by noon and the Justice of the Peace said he'll marry us.  Everything is going to be up front and legal.  No one is out to hurt you ... well ... they won't hurt you but you'll definitely take some getting used to.  The Baffa and Hartford families have been known to feud."

I shook my head but he mistook it for something else.  "You backing out?"

"Of what?  The farce?"

"The bargain.  Because there is no farce.  I'm being upfront.  Bet it was Uncle Mark that set your teeth on edge.  I told them letting him handle this part of it was a bad idea.  So what about it?  You backing out?"

"Uh ... well no ... but ... look, just clue me in.  What's going on?  And don't tell me nothing is going on because just look at you.  I'm not stupid you know."

"No.  Tommy said that the only reason you were in the program that he and Linda were in was because you missed so much school and they thought you were ... er ..."

"Yeah, whatever.  People only see what they want to.  My luck overall in life has pretty much sucked which seems to make people think my brains got scrambled along with my body.  And just when I thought I might catch a break you show up."

"You keep saying that.  What is it about me that you don't like?"

"You've got to be kidding me.  You've got a mirror and I'm sure you use it a lot to get your hair to do that ... that ... wavey thing it's doing.  Well I've got a mirror too and I know exactly what I look like."

"Tommy didn't say anything about you feeling sorry for yourself."

"I'm not feeling sorry for myself!" I told him outraged at the very idea.  "But I'm not blind."

"You've got nice eyes," he said with a smile.

"Yeah and all my teeth and a great personality.  A totally winning combination."  I stopped and shook my head.  "Just don't.  If ... I mean if ... we do this I want the truth.  Whatever it is I can deal with it just like I've always dealt with everything else."  My foot started to cramp so I flopped down in the chair I'd vacated when he'd walked in.

The guy sighed and sat down in one of the other chairs around the table.  "Ok.  Here's the truth.  I'm Sawyer McGee Hartford.  I'm 22 years old.  And if you don't agree to the bargain I'm up **** creek without a paddle or a canoe.  I ain't got jack crap to my name except for my truck, my dogs, and what I got in that trailer.  The trailer ain't mine by the way, its' borrowed.  I got laid off from the snack warehouse three months ago and haven't been able to find a job yet and it ain't because I haven't been looking.  Problem isn't ‘cause I ain't willing to work, it's because I spent time in county lock up when I was nineteen when my brother in law accused me of breaking into his office and stealing his money.  After I got arrested no one would bail me out because they all believed him, including the girl that I'd been going with since we were kids, so I rotted in there until the judge got around to having a hearing.  Go to trial and it finally comes out it wasn't me but was his own brother only by then I was too damn mad at the world in general and him and my sister in particular and once they released me I made a pretty big ass out of myself proving to everyone just how mad I was.  My grandfather finally helped me pull my head outta my backside and get back on track but the damage had already been done.  My scholarship to the community college was toast and the only job I could find was pushing a broom and handcart out at the potato chip warehouse.  I'm tooling along almost getting back to square one, and back with my ex, when some ***wipe runs off with the petty cash box out of the manager's office.  They don't blame me but decide it is too much work to find out exactly who did it so they clear the decks and lay a bunch of us off that could have been the thief.  Now I do get blamed by all the other layoffs looking for a scapegoat even though I swear to God I ain't the one that took it.  My girl dumps me ... again ... and a couple of days ago my sister just rolls over and plays the good wifey when my brother in law kicks me out of the garage apartment despite the fact I been using my savings to pay the rent.  Ain't got no place to go, got no options, and I'm sick and damn tired of living off of charity."

He stopped and tried to shake the anger off then he looks at me and says, "That's how much fun I've been having and why I volunteered.  This is likely the last chance I'm gonna have.  I fall any deeper in the hole and I ain't ever climbing out."

I looked at him and then came to a decision. "I said it before you got here and I say it to your face now that you are.  I've got two stipulations before I'll agree to this.  Tommy spoke for you but I want to hear it from you."

"Alright."

"No hitting.  No addictions."

He nodded.  "Not a problem.  I ain't never been a hitter and I might toss a few back every now and again but I don't like gettin' drunk or high 'cause it's too easy for people to take advantage of you when you don't have no control.  Frankly I've got enough problems without cutting my own throat."

"You promise?"

"Yeah.  We can put it in writing.  Which brings me to a couple of stipulations of my own."

"I guess that's fair."

"Don't care if it is or not, just ain't happening any other way."  The way he was talking might have made some people angry but it didn't bother me.  It actually made me feel like he was a lot closer to being a real person than what I thought of him before.

He cleared his throat and then said, "You can't run off.  And no meeting some guy and deciding you're tired of me and want something else."

"You gotta be kidding me."

"No.  And I want it in writing."

"You're crazy.  Or blind.  Or both."  I shook my head wondering just what was wrong with the guy in front of me.  "One, running isn't something I can do much of in case you haven't noticed.  When one leg is three inches shorter than the other one it kinda puts the kibosh on that sort of thing.  And two, you also haven't seemed to notice there ain't exactly anyone lining up behind you.  From what I gather most everyone else turned down the job even though your family wants this house and land pretty bad.  And for anyone else?  Get real.  Guys - and girls too - used to call me ugly names in school.  If you don't believe me then ask Tommy, he'll back me up.  They finally fixed my shoulder and straightened my spine, and I don't have to have all the hardware on that I used to, but no matter how much fixing the doctors have done, most folks will always see me the way I used to be.  You think you got problems now?  Wait until some of them hear that you married Igor Baffa."

"Igor?!  Now nobody really called you ..."  He stopped and then said, "I guess I ... well Cutter and Donnally did mention ..."

"So see?  Even your own family is going to mess with you over it."

"Like hell they will.  Gramps has already set some ground rules."

"Ground rules?"

"Mostly they boil down to no feuding inside the family."

"Feuding.  Seriously?"

He nodded.  "Feuding is serious business.  Shows a lack of respect for the other person.  And Gramps and most of the uncles don't put up with it in the family.  But back to the stipulations."

"You've got more?"

"Yeah," he said like he was pulling his pride around him but I wasn't supposed to notice.  "You ain't allowed to flirt or do crap like that."

I laughed but it wasn't funny. "If I tried to flirt with someone they'd probably run away and get sick in the bushes.  So whatever. What about you?  You gonna flirt and stuff like that?"

"No 'cause fair is fair.  I ain't gonna run off neither.  Next thing is you can't hold sex over my head just 'cause you want something."

I nearly fell out of the chair.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chapter 4



"Girl, you can rinse your shoes off at the spigot and then come up here to the porch so I can get a look at you."

"Yes sir."

Uncle Mark Hartford walked over to the porch steps and said, "We got a deal Jacob?"

"How do I know this is the right girl?"

He answered, "She's got the bum leg and the skunk stripe just like we were told she would."

"Could be a fake."

I turned the spigot off and said, "I've got papers."

The old man turned suspicious eyes on me and said, "You a dog girl that you need papers?"

Used to ignoring people and their snarky comments I said, "No sir.  Legal papers that prove who I am.  Kay-Lee Baffa.  Seventeen years old.  I've got the name of all my social workers and their ID numbers and stuff like that if you need them."

"Huh.  Give 'em to Nurse Hatchet here and let her see 'em."

The big woman must have been used to his behavior because she just looked at him and rolled his eyes.  Her name tag read Rubine Harris so I guess the old man was picking at her when he called her Hatchet.  I pulled the huge file out of the back pack and walked it over to her.  She looked at it and started flipping pages then turned to the old man and said, "If she's a fake, she's been faking for almost eighteen years."

"Humph.  Come here girl so I can see you."

I walked over and he looked me over with what felt like sandpaper.  "You ain't afraid of me?"

"No sir."

"Well, you're polite enough.  S'pose you had to be."

"No sir."

"No sir what?"

"No sir I don't have to be polite.  I chose to be."

"Humph.  Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"I'm leaving you this place."

I sighed.  "Mr. Baffa ..."

"You can call me Uncle Jacob.  Your daddy did."

It took me a minute to try and figure out what to say.  "I don't want to hurt your feelings but I'd be lying if I said that I ..."  I stopped again and wound up sighing.  "Sir, I just don't know you.  I mean I knew ... well kinda knew ... that I still had people I was kin to around some place but no one ever came for me or asked to see me.  Not since the laughing lady ..."

"The who?"

"Mr. Hartford said her name was Pet.  I just barely remember her and the big man that always came with her.  And then they didn't come anymore, no one did.  And now I'm supposed to just be ... something to someone and to be honest I'm just not sure what it means or how to feel about it.  You say you're my uncle and I don't have any reason not to believe you but I don't know how you expect me to feel about that."

"Fair enough," he said.  "I writ a bunch of stuff down and it is in my nightstand but you ain't to get it until after I die.  You can agree to that?"

The nurse tried to interrupt.  "Mr. Baffa ..."

He snapped, "Oh don't you start.  I ain't gonna go into a decline ... ain't got no decline left seeing as how I'm already at the bottom."  He turned to me and said bluntly.  "I'm dying girl.  And past time too.  And no, I don't expect you to shed no tears over it.  I'd throw a party if I was up to it if you want to know the truth.  Thing is, in my mind even if we don't know each other we're still blood.  I'm a Baffa.  You're a Baffa.  That means something.  And this land has been held by the Baffa family since we came over from Italy over a hundred and fifty years ago.  We were carpenters and we built this house and most of the furniture in it and that should mean something.  I was angry for a long time about how things have gone but I always had this place ... took care of it, gave me purpose, gave me a ... a haven I guess you'd say.  I owe this land something back ... and you're gonna be that something.  You're a Baffa and you are going to come take care of this place.  I ain't asking for your gratitude, don't expect it, don't want it, too late for it even if I did want it.  And you're just girl, a young one, and with the way the world's turning the only way you're gonna keep on being able to take care of this place is if you got a man to help you.  That's where them infernal Hartfords come in."

He turned to look at the man who had brought me.  "Which one you got picked out for her?  This one here?"

Tommy took two steps back but then looked at me sheepishly to see whether he'd hurt my feelings.  Mark Hartford said, "No.  Sawyer said he'd do it."

"Sawyer.  Hmmm.  Well, guess it'll do though it seems a strange match up.  Woulda though Cutter or Benedict would have been a better choice."

"Mebbe but Sawyer's the one that volunteered."

"Good enough."

The nurse broke in again.  "I'm still not sure I approve of this.  Young lady, do you agree to this?"

Here was my chance ... maybe my last chance.  Then I shrugged.  I only had two stipulations.  "No hitting and no addictions ... drugs or drinking."

Tommy broke in and said, "Aw Sawyer ain't that kind Kay-Lee.  He can get Hartford-mean when he gets angry but he don't hit girls."

"I don't remember you mentioning a brother named Sawyer."

"He's a cousin.  He's Uncle Ray's son."

"I don't remember an Uncle Ray either."

"You wouldn't.  He died a couple of years ago.  Had a heart attack.  Right after getting a clean bill of health too.  Sawyer's mom died a couple of years before that when she got stung by a bee.  She was bad allergic.  Sawyer's sister Delly got their house for her and her husband and Sawyer don't get along so well with her husband and his family."

"Which is why Sawyer volunteered to make the sacrifice."

"Huh?"

"Never mind Tommy."

The two other men just looked at me then the nurse said, "Honey, you don't have to do this."

"I know.  But really, where else am I going to go?  There's no room at the group home; they're putting kids in tents in the parking lot last I heard.  And being put out on the street ... I might as well sign my own death certificate.  There's no jobs; I've looked.  At least this way there might be a chance for me and if it blows up in my face it won't be because I didn't try."

The nurse just shook her head.  'Uh, uh, uh ... what this world is coming to I just don't know."

Mr. Hartford was losing patience.  "So do we have a deal or not?"

"If she agrees to it then I got the papers right here."

Mr. Hartford bored holes in me with his eyes but all I did was nod once.

Mr. Baffa said, "So be it.  And none too soon.  There comes the ambulance to haul me off.  Get me down off this porch and let's get this finished.  I'm done."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chapter 3



"Can I tell her Uncle Mark?"

"No.  Grow some patience Boy.  Let me get out of town and I'll tell her."  Tommy sighed but looked at me and I could tell he thought whatever was happening was a good thing.  I wanted to trust Tommy to be right but I couldn't be sure.  Tommy sometimes didn’t think like everyone else did.  
 

We turned off the county road right before it split off to go to highway, went about a hundred yards and then made a hard left that practically threw me out of my seat despite the seatbelt I was wearing.  The dog wound up in my lap and I almost forgot to breathe.

Tommy looked back and said, "Get down Mooch.  She ain't gonna hold you you big ol' baby.  I told you that it was gonna be bumpy and you wouldn't like it none."

Nope, the dog certainly wasn't enjoying the ride and tried to crawl under my t-shirt which would have been really creepy if he hadn't been whining and trying to hold on like some really little kid.

Tommy saw and said, "Can you hold him Kay-Lee?"

"I guess."

The dog was shaking worse than old Mrs. Brenser's chihuahua that had dog palsy.  Nasty, mean tempered little thing.  It was so ancient it didn't have any teeth but still tried to gum my ankles and fingers off every time I fed it just to prove to me who was top dog in his domain.

The bouncing and shifting was awful as we off-roaded up and down several sharp inclines eventually leveling out into a gravel road.  Tommy told me, "He'll be alright now.  You can put him down."

"I would if I could.  Uh ... Mooch ... has decided he likes it where he is at."

About that moment Mooch let us all know what he thought of the ride with a silent and deadly.

We were all gagging and rolling down windows.  Uncle Mark wiped his streaming eyes and said, "Dawg, you ain't ridin' in my truck no more and that's a fact."  Tommy was having a hard time controlling his laughter and all I could do was pray that gas was all the dog had 'cause he still wouldn't get off my lap.

Another mile and the truck was finally aired out enough we didn't need gas masks.  Uncle Mark slowed down some and pulled over and then turned around to look at me.  "Mooch, get off her lap.  Move dog."  When the dog had reluctantly returned to its assigned seat - and I could draw a full breath of fresh air for the first time in a while - the man said, "Look here.  How much you know about the Baffa family?"

Since the question came out of left field I carefully asked, "You mean my bio father's family?"

"Yeah.  You ever meet any of 'em?"

"A couple of times when I was real little.  I kinda remember a lady they told me was my aunt but not a whole lot.  I know she liked to laugh and would come get me and take me places with her before I started school.  There was a man that would come with her that I thought was a giant."

He nodded.  "That was Pet and Robert, your father's sister and brother in law.  I know they tried to get the courts to give you to them but Robert's brother had a couple of gun charges against him.  Anyone ever tell you why they stopped coming around?"

"The lady got sick with something she caught when she worked at the hospital.  Hepatitis I think."

He nodded and added, "She went fast when she had some kind of a reaction to the drug she had been taking for it.  Robert had a heart attack and took their two kids and moved out west.  He's still alive but neither him nor the kids are interested in anything going on around here.  You do know you got a great uncle still living on the ridge?"

"I know that's where I'm from but after the laughing lady ... my aunt I mean ... stopped coming around no one else did either so I don't know anything about them."

"Well ..." he said sounding sorry he'd asked.  "Well he knows you, or of you anyway and that's the whole crux of it."

Slowly I asked, "The whole crux of what?"

"We've been after that Baffa land for a while.  Bought everything around it expanding our holdings up here so we could keep the undesireables out of our business but Jacob Baffa just wouldn't sell.  Old fool kept expecting someone from the family to come back I reckon but the few left around here ain't really Baffa's anymore and they ain't interested in farming that little bit of ground and with the economy in the toilet ain't nobody interested in buying it ... and even if they were they ain't got the money for it.  But then old Jacob done got sick ... some kinda cancer from them chemicals he was around during the war ... and he gave us an ultimatum."

"U ... ultimatum?"

"Yep.  He said either one of the boys could marry you and he'd deed the land and buildings over to us or ..."  He stopped and I could tell he was angry.  "Or he'd deed it to the feds for a shootin' range which would mean that there'd always have to be access through our property to that land and we'd have all sorts of government fools running all over creatin' problems left and right."

My brain had stopped working at the word "marry."

"You understand now?"

I shook my head.  "Not really but I'll take your word for it."

He stopped and gave me a closer look.  "You might not turn out to be a big problem after all.  I'll ... I'll reserve judgment."  He looked me up and down and I could almost hear the silent but in there.  "... but you sure are ugly and none of our boys are going to want you."  He didn't say it but I could see him thinking it.

He sighed.  "Ain't got time for more. You'll just have to figure things out as you go along.  Gotta get over to the Baffa place before that nurse hauls Ol' Jacob off to the VA hospital.  He wants to see you before he goes."

My head was spinning.  And right at that moment Mooch decided his stomach had had all it was going to take and he dog puked on my feet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chapter 2



"Psst.  Kay-Lee.  I think they're here."

I cracked the bathroom door and look at Taleetha.  "They're early."

"Then maybe it ain't them but I heard the garage door going up.  That's what woke me."

"Ok.  Just go back to bed."

"Are you scared?"

I pretended not to hear her.

"Hey, are you scared?" she asked again being persistent.

I sighed and shrugged.  "It is what it is.  Go on back to bed and sleep while you can.  Your turn is coming this afternoon."

"Yeah but I'm going to live in a mansion."

"Just make sure you aren't Cinderella."

"Huh?"

"Never mind.  Just stay out of trouble."

"I don't ever get in trouble."

Seeing that is one of the biggest fibs she'd ever told I just rolled my eyes.  She snickered but finally went back to the bedroom and I knew she'd be asleep again in no time.  Taleetha wasn't the type to carry too much baggage around with her.  Lucky her.

I finished tying my ponytail up, covering my hair with a bandana, and had just sat on the commode to buckle the velcro closings on my ankle support when the door opened - without a knock making me jump.  As soon as I saw who it was I calmed down.  Maybe I'd have a few friends where I was going ... at least one anyway.  Tommy Hartford was a sweet guy.

"Hi Tommy."

"Hi Kay-Lee.  Uncle Mark says you better hurry."

"Just finished my shoe."  I grabbed my bag and followed him and we ran into Mr. Brenser and another man who was frowning really hard.  "Thomas," he growled.

"It's ok Uncle Mark.  I told you, I know Kay-Lee.  And she was just doing her shoe thing.  She's got her stuff."

The man was stern and just kept staring at Tommy.  Tommy Hartford.  He was a year older than me and twice my size, but Tommy was Tommy and a little different.  I stepped forward and held my hand out to the older man.  "You must be Mr. Hartford.  How do you do sir?"

My words got a startled blink from the man and he slowly put his hand out and shook mine.  Reluctantly he said, "Yeah.  About that.  Might as well call me Uncle Mark, all the other kids do.  Is that all your stuff?"

"Yes sir."

He nodded.  "We need to get before the sun rises.  I don't want to have to waste time at a check point."

He started walking away and Tommy grabbed my arm.  "I can walk Tommy."

"I know but gentleman are supposed to help ladies."

For the first time in a couple of days I smiled.  "Thank you Tommy.  That's nice.  But I don't want you to get in trouble."

"Oh that's ok.  Guess what?" he asked as Mr. Brenser closed and locked the door behind us without even saying good bye.

Trying to ignore whatever feelings were trying to bubble to the surface I asked, "What?"

"Linda and I got married."

I nearly tripped coming down the porch steps.  I could see his smile in the dark as he said, "See?  Good thing I was holding your arm like a gentleman."

"Yes, yes it was.  Thank you."

Tommy was nice but was short on IQ points.  So was Linda Thorndike.  Neither were stupid people they just were different.  Linda had been abused as a baby before being adopted when we were all in middle school;  what I heard was that she'd had shaken baby syndrome or something like that.  Tommy had nearly drowned and been in a coma for a couple of weeks the summer before he was supposed to start kindergarten.  I knew they'd been boyfriend and girlfriend at school but to hear they'd gotten married really surprised me.

"Congratulations."

"Thanks.  Linda said to tell you hello and that she'd come by to see you on Sunday."

"Oh ... okay."

"Hush up Thomas.  Ain't had time to explain things to her yet."

The man that had asked me to call him Uncle Mark stood uncertainly for a moment looking at his truck and then at me but it was Tommy who made it better.

"Let me be a gentleman and open the door like I'm supposed to then you can grab the hand-strap.  You can step on the runner board like Momma does.  Then sckootch in the back."

And that's what I did until I came face to face with a dog.  I cringed.  "Oh, I forgot," Tommy said.  "But that's just Mooch.  He'll wanna smell you and lick you ... and his farts are silent but deadly ... but he had kibble this morning instead of the wet stuff so it shouldn't be too bad."

"Thomas," the man said in a way that seemed he called Tommy's name on a fairly regular basis.

"Well Uncle Mark she's scared of dogs."

"Why the Sam Hill would anyone be scared of dogs?" the man asked in irritation as I finally made myself slide in, sit down, and tolerate the dog being a dog and checking me out. The man and Tommy climbed up into the truck and the man turned to look at me and asked, "You scared o' dogs?"

The dog Mooch was getting a little personal so I found the courage to push him back a little.  "Not ... not scared.  I mean they're just dogs."

"Sure looks like you're scared from here girl."

"I ... I respect what they're capable of sir."

Tommy broke in to explain.  "Some dogs tried to eat her when she was a little girl.  I remember.  She came to school with her head all shaved and a bunch of stitches."

The man looked from Tommy to me and just uttered one word.  "Explain."

"In second grade I lived a couple of weeks with a family that lived next door to a guy that bred guard dogs.  Only he wasn't very good at it because he thought making them mean made them tough.  And one day when I was doing my chores and taking the garbage to the road a couple of them got out."  I shrugged.  "I went to go live someplace else when I got out of the hospital."

"Hmph," was all he said before pulling out of the Brenser's drive way.

"Lotta dogs up at our place and a couple where you're going.  You might as well set your mind to getting use to them."

All I could say was, "Yes sir."  And wonder what he meant when he said "where you're going."

Chapter 32


"You sure you don't need anything else Kay-Lee?"

"I'm fine Linda.  I'm sorry I spoiled your day off by acting like a baby."

"You weren't acting like a baby and my day off was just fine.  I got to spend it helping a good friend which is what I had wanted to do anyway."

From outside Tommy called, "Linda, we gotta go.  This ice is melting and Mom wants this meat to get all the way to Aunt Pearl's."

Linda gave me a hug goodbye and then had to avoid Harley and Davey's brand of good bye before telling Sawyer bye and climbing into Tommy's truck and leaving.  I closed my eyes and did all those relaxation exercises they had taught me in physical therapy but it only partially worked.  I was so into my breathing exercises that I hadn't heard Sawyer come back in.

I jumped when I felt him picking me up.  "I thought you were asleep," he said.  "I was going to take you upstairs."

"You're going to hurt your back.  I can use my crutch."

"Tomorrow.  Tonight I want to do it."

"You don't need to."

"Maybe I do."

"Sawyer ..."

"Not because I don't think you can get up the stairs by yourself but because I don't want you to have to get up the stairs by yourself."

"Was that supposed to make sense because if it was I missed it?”

"It makes sense, you're just tired.  I wanted Linda to come over and help figure out why you've been upset the last couple of days but it didn't work out that way.  Now I'm going to have to just come out and ask you myself.  Did I do something wrong?"

"Huh?"

"Is ... I mean ... is it about Old Man Baffa dying?"

"Oh Sawyer ..."

"It is isn't it.  I guess we were kinda ... uh ..."

"No.  I mean yes in a way, but more because I don't feel worse that Mr. Baffa died.  But there's other things too and ... and I just don't know how to talk about it.  There's just a lot of new stuff going on in my life and I'm not sure ... I mean ..."

"Is it being married to me?"

"What?  Sawyer ... doggone it ..."

"Well, what am I supposed to think.  We were getting along good and then we started getting along great ... better than great.  Didn't you enjoy Sunday?  You said you did, then you changed the next day.  Was it too much?"

I put my head back on my arm on the table.  "The only problem is that I'm still waiting to wake up."

"You're still ... you mean what you said the other day about being worried that I'm going to get bored?"

"Yeah only it is more than that.  I don't ... I mean I really don't Sawyer so don't figure that I do ... expect you to act like other guys.  I don't know if I would know how to act if you did.  But ..."

"Kay-Lee, you're not making any sense at all."

"I know.  God I know.  But that's the way I feel.  What happens ... what happens if ..."

"What happens if what?"

"What happens if ... if I get more ... more attached than you do?  I know there are things that you like - and that's ok, I'm not saying it isn't because it is - but what if it makes you uncomfortable that I like you more than you like me?  What happens when I finally embarrass you enough that ..."

"No."

"I know.  That's what I thought," I said dejectedly.

"Kay-Lee I mean no ... as in you don't embarrass me.  I admit it sometimes might bother me - like at the flea market - that people say the things they do but it is not because you embarrass me but because they don't know what they are talking about.  There's nothing wrong with you."

"Sawyer, are you blind?!"

"No.  No I'm starting to see better every day.  And I'll do what I can to help you see better too."

I let him carry me upstairs.  I let him help me get ready for bed.  Then I let him hold me until he went to sleep.  But all I could do is lay there and think.

Chapter 1



"But Mr. Brenser ..."

"But me no buts Kay-Lee.  I cannot afford to keep you anymore.  The checks stopped coming from social services two months ago and the church said they could only help one time per household rather than per kid like I thought they were going to.  You'll go to the Hartford family and that's that."

I knew the tone and just gave up.  I'd heard it too many times before, every time a foster family said they couldn't keep me.  It isn't like I exactly expected any different, I simply hadn't expected to get traded for fuel instead of just cut loose like was happening to so many other foster kids my age.  I'm only six months out from turning eighteen.  I guess the biggest issue was that I wasn't comfortable with how relieved I was at not being turned out even though I was about to go from the frying pan into the fire.

Mr. Brenser broke into my thoughts.  "Honestly girl you'd think you'd have some sense by now.  And some gratitude.  We didn't send you back to the group home did we?"

Quietly I answered, "No sir."

"Did we put you on the street like so many other foster kids have had happen to them?"

"No sir."

"Well then?"

Mr. Benser wasn't a bad man.  Not really.  He just wasn't what you would call self-aware of his own shortcomings.  And he was in a difficult position, trying to get his family to his wife's brother's place ... where ever that was since apparently it was some kind of secret they weren't supposed to know about but did by way of his mother in law letting it slip.

"I asked you a question Kay-Lee."

"I know sir.  I'm just ... it sounds ... well ... it's just that Rubin is in the room and listening."

Mr. Brenser turned with a jerk and rounded on the ten year old boy.  "What have I told you about listening in on conversations that are none of your business?!"

The boy, another foster kid, ran out of the room before Mr. Brenser could grab him by the scruff of his neck and give him a shake.  "Boy better be lucky we decided we could afford to keep him.  Too many problems and he'll find out my compassion has a limit.  Not gonna put up with any nonsense.  And speaking of nonsense, finish what you were complaining about."

Trying to keep my rebellious tone under control I told the man that had headed the household where I had lived for the last nine months, "I wasn't complaining sir.  But you and I both know that a 'housekeeper' isn't exactly what the Hartfords want.  They're all living up there and trying to get a girl for each of their wild boys so they won't wander away and get in trouble looking for ... uh ... stuff."

"You've got some wild imagination right there Kay-Lee," he said with a laugh as fake as his compassion.  "Now stop that nonsense, stop listening to the town gossips, and go pack your stuff up.  You should know the drill by now."

I nodded and turned not saying another word.  Because he was right.  I did know the drill.  I'd never lived anywhere as long as I had with the Brenser family.  I was honestly surprised that I'd been allowed to stay as long as I had until I figured out that Mr. Brenser's mother had taken a liking to me and said she'd move in with her other son and take her retirement pension check with her if they didn't let me stay to be her "help."  The old woman was actually kind of nice in her own way - she was real needy and scared of being left alone most of the time - and taught me a lot of stuff I found interesting.  But she died about the same time that the social services checks stopped coming because her doctor was forced to change her medication to fall in line with her health insurance plan eligibility protocols.

I walked to the room where all the girls slept and went to my bunk.  Taleetha was there ahead of me doing her own packing.  She asked, "So where they sending you?"

"The Hartfords."

"Say what?!  Oh girl ..."

I shrugged.  Taleetha was one of those girls that my last social worker used to call "fourteen going on forty."

"Seriously Kay-Lee, you know what they want you for."

"I know."

With not a little curiosity she asked, "You gonna put up with it or run?"

"Run?  Where to?  You heard what happened to Darla."

"Yeah, but that ho was just plain stupid.  Girl was a day-glo cracka and she thought she could just go walkin' and find that nigga she hooked up with from the park.  I heard she thought the baby might be his."

Darla was another foster kid we knew that lived with a family not too far from the Brensers and she'd gone looking for one of her boyfriends expecting him and her to live happily ever after - at least for a while - when she found out she was being sent back to the group home for getting knocked up.  Stupid doesn't even begin to cover it.  The way things are these days you don't go walking around alone in your own neighborhood much less go walking around someplace you don't belong.

"Why you think them Hartfords want you?"  I gave her a look and rolled my eyes.  "I ain't that stupid," she said with a laugh.  "I mean why you?  Look at you.  You all twisted up and look like a skunk.  How hard up they gotta be to take you?"

She had a point.  "I don't know."

"That why you doin' it?"

"Huh?" I asked her only half listening.  Taleetha wasn't nasty on purpose - at least she wasn't being this time - she just didn't observe any boundaries, especially personal ones.

"You know, cause you can't get no man no other way.  You figure they so hard up that they'll keep you on even when they get around to being able to get another girl?"

I sighed.  "No."

"Then why you going?"

I shrugged.  "I don't know.  I guess it's just  better than dying in the group home or dying on the street."

"You mean you think you gonna live longer?  What you wanna do that foe?  Momma always said might be better to just die an' get it over with than suffer long term."

I'd met Taleetha's mother once during a court ordered visit they'd had.  I hadn't been impressed.  I told my bunk mate, "It isn't about dying.  It is about having time to find another option.  And it might not be much better than the group home or being on the street, but some is better than none.."

This time it was her turn to shrug.  "Better than being a street hoe like my auntie foe sho.  She's got more kids in the system than Momma does."  She shook her head to shake the thoughts away.  Taleetha played at being a realist but the truth is she lived in just as big a fairytale as most of the kids I know, foster or some other flavor.  Then she told me,  "Guess where I'm going."

"I already know where you're going and you better learn to follow the rules pretty fast and that includes watching your mouth.  I heard Brother Johnson don't put up with nothing."

"Hell, how'd you find out?  I just found out."

"Don't get bent, and practice watching that mouth.  I found out last night only it was supposed to be a surprise for you and they told me not to tell.  Mrs. Brenser likes you.  She's says you have potential, that you're a diamond in the rough.  When Mr. Brenser said you'd go back to the group home she put her foot down and said she'd call Brother Johnson's wife - I guess they know each other through those foster care training classes - and ask her if she knew anyone.  Anyway Brother Johnson said they'd take you themselves since they took over that big ol' house and church over on Cherry Lane.  I think they plan on having to take a lot of kids in but the first kids they want are ones that know the drill and are willing to help out and stick around even after they age out.  I hear they're going to run it like an old time orphanage and you guys are going to get vocational training and everything."

"I don't know about that stuff, just know that's where I'm going.  So there's going to be other kids there?"

"At least some."

"And the house is gonna be big enough?"

"Are you kidding?  It's that big ol' place up on the hill next to the borded up church.  We could see it from the bus every time we went downtown to go to the county building."

"That place?!  You kidding me?!  That's a ******* mansion!  I'm gonna live in a mansion?!"

She started doing some crazy dance then went to go give Mrs. Brenser a hug.  She's about the only one of the older kids that ever got up the nerve to do that sort of thing.  Like I said, Taleetha has no boundaries.  And Mrs. Brenser isn't the hugging kind but she'd taken a liking to Taleetha.  She makes sure none of the kids get the wrong idea about being there 'cause they were gonna get adopted or something.

I shook my head at all the noise that Taleetha was making as she thanked the Brensers and went back to my packing.  Wasn't much.  Just a couple of changes of clothes, some school supplies and notebooks and my "personal file" where I keep copies of all my paperwork because I got tired of them losing it every other time I got moved to a new house.  I supposedly had some family stuff in storage at a cousin's place up on the ridge - not too far from where I'd heard the Hartford place was actually now that I think about it - but seeing as how the cousin is in his 80's and I barely remember seeing him the last time it don't mean a whole lot to me.

It only took me a couple of minutes to stuff everything into my school backpack and I was ready to start over.  Again.