THE tires crunched slowly into the sand and came to a halt. The man behind the wheel of the red Ford truck peered out of the open window to gaze on a memory that sat quietly at the base of the rich green, grassy hill. The sun shone over a white farmhouse, comfortably nestled inside the ranch. To its left was a red barn, smaller than he remembered. A paddock enclosed with white post and board fencing sat in front. The dirt road on which he’d stopped meandered down the right side of the aged property, appearing and disappearing through the lush, green trees. Nothing had really changed, it seemed, although no one lived within its boundaries any longer, and both time and neglect had left their weary mark.
The man turned the engine off and leaned his head back against the seat. He continued to survey the property and its surroundings, looking for reminders of his past. The crooked old oak by the house looked even older, as if holding itself up was getting harder day by day. He searched within its leaves and branches, but couldn’t see what he was looking for from that distance. The fields were overgrown with wild grass and flowers. He scanned the property with stinging eyes. It all seemed to be there, but only as a scene lost in time, once loved and warmed from within by so many. It was all there, yet so much was missing. A part of him wanted to sit for a while and just take it all in. The other part was eager to drive down to the house and bask in the memories. He stopped himself from breaking into the scene too soon and closed his eyes. His mind took him back to a memory he would have rather forgotten, had it not eventually taken him to a better place.
“I’m sorry to have to call you in again, Miss Ratchet, but we just can’t go on like this. I’m afraid we’ll have to suspend him again.” The school principal sat behind her desk wearing a brown suit and a drained expression.
“Is that really necessary, Miss Martindale?” Denise Ratchet asked, even though she had known this was coming when she’d received the call that morning. She had to admit that caring for these children was not as easy as she’d originally anticipated. Her plan had been to have more.
“We cannot have the distraction. He fights with everyone.”
She leaned forward in her chair. “Well, what do you propose I do with him during the day?”
“I’m sorry.” Miss Martindale collected her papers and straightened them with a sigh. “Maybe it would be best to meet with his case worker, or contact the state department and see if they can help you. I have a school to run, and I cannot do that when your son—”
“Foster son . . . excuse me . . . continues to cause havoc like he does. You know, he’s going to have to repeat the fourth grade at this rate.”
“Well, that’s just great. Thanks for nothing.” She got up.
Out in the hall, a young boy sat with his head hung low, dark greasy hair falling over his face. He picked at a thread hanging from a hole in the right knee of his pants and yanked until it came off. Then he twisted the piece around his forefinger and watched the tip swell and redden. He knew he was in trouble, but his fear was weakened with lack of concern.
“Come on, you.” Miss Ratchet marched toward him and pulled him up by the shoulder of his dirty denim jacket, then shoved him ahead of her.
In the car, she lit a cigarette and sucked in a long drag. Benedict faced forward in silence while, in his peripheral view, he could see her throw him angry glances every few seconds.
“When are you going to stop embarrassing me?”
She waited, taking puffs from the remainder of her cigarette and shoving the butt into an overfilled ashtray. She grabbed her pack of cigarettes and lit another one.
“If you want to get moved on, that’s fine with me. I tell you something, I can get the same from any other kid.” She turned the wheel, shaking her head. “You all pay out the same.”
Benedict wondered if she was still talking to him or to herself again.
“But I wouldn’t have to deal with this aggravation.”
He said nothing.
“You want to be on the streets?” When he didn’t respond, she reached over and whacked him on the forehead, the cigarette clenched between her lips. “Hey, wake up, I’m talking to you.”
He looked at her, feeling the sting of her hand.
“Do you want to go live on the streets?”
“Well, then you better get your act together.”
A tear rolled down his cheek, and he wiped it away quickly, reprimanding himself for allowing that to happen in front of the woman he hated most in the world.
“Oh, please,” she scoffed. “Don’t give me that. You think you have it so bad, you have no idea. My mother used to keep a stick, and she wasn’t afraid to use it—or whatever else she could get her hands on—so don’t you cry about a little tap.” She sucked on the cigarette, and for the next few blocks, that was all he had to listen to.
At a stop sign, he watched a woman pushing her toddler in a stroller. The child was holding a lollypop and swinging his legs back and forth. The mother cooed down at him every now and then. What a crock, he thought to himself.
“Don’t forget who’s coming tonight.” Miss Ratchet blew the smoke out in his direction. He tried to cover his nose discreetly and opened his window.
“Do you mind? It’s freezing out there.” She closed his window and locked the access. “You kids better be on your best behavior tonight or you’ll be sorry.”
She turned into an apartment complex.
“When you get inside, I want you to get that bathroom cleaned up.”
In the hallway of her dark apartment, Miss Ratchet threw her keys on a table cluttered with unopened mail and old newspapers.
“Daniel!” She kicked off her shoes. “You get Mel like I told you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Daniel called from another room.
Melanie came running to them. She grabbed Benedict’s leg and giggled up at him. He looked down at her expressionless.
“You finish them dishes?” the woman shouted out again.
“Doing them now.”
“Benny home, Benny home,” the little girl sang her chant.
“You . . . go get that bathroom cleaned, and when you’re done with that, give these carpets a once-over.” She walked into the living room and threw herself into an oversized brown arm chair and lit another cigarette.
“Get off.” Benedict wiggled his leg gently and unclenched Melanie’s fingers from his pant leg. He headed into the kitchen where Daniel, an older boy, was drying dishes with a discolored yellow towel. Without speaking, Benedict grabbed a plastic cup and poured some water from the faucet. He noticed that the counters had been cleared off, as was protocol for the visit. Gone were the unwashed dishes, filled ashtrays, the mix of cleaned and dirty laundry, and Melanie’s soiled pull-ups.
“You know, when you make her mad, she takes it out on all of us.” Daniel spoke without looking at him. His greasy blond hair was tucked carelessly behind his ears, revealing the remnants of a four-day-old bruise that stained his left eye.
Benedict looked down at Melanie, who’d followed him into the kitchen. The thought of Miss Ratchet taking anything out on a toddler made his insides burn and his heart beat faster.
They were quiet for a moment as they listened to the woman coughing uncontrollably in the next room. Then she shouted, “Daniel, where’s the family picture?”
“I’ll get it,” he yelled back. He shook his head and threw the towel on the counter. “I can only take so much,” he muttered before disappearing out of the kitchen.
He returned with the image of the three children surrounding Miss Ratchet. Benedict watched as Daniel wiped the glass. It’s the perfect show picture. The boys were dressed in matching green sweaters and Melanie in a jade dress. Miss Ratchet wore an olive blouse. The two boys stared at the picture, and Benedict wondered how many times he’d have to look at it.
He left the kitchen with Melanie running after him. It took him half an hour to clean the bathroom. Miss Ratchet barked her demands from the comfort of her armchair.
“You clean up and around that toilet, you hear me in there? Make sure you scrub that floor.”
Her instructions were accompanied by eruptions of coughs. Melanie sat close by, dropping an orange plastic ball into Benedict’s empty water cup and tipping it out repeatedly.
“You boys better hurry. You need to clean up too.”
“Y’know, if they take you away, you’ll probably all end up in prison, because I’m the only one who’ll put up with you,” Miss Ratchet told them, once the housework was done and they’d washed up and changed.
They sat side by side on the couch in order of height, just as she liked it. The scent of a cheap vanilla candle wafted through the air and mixed in with the musty stink of old cigarettes.
“I want you all to realize just how lucky you are to have a roof over your heads.” She nodded over at them and Melanie squirmed next to Benedict. “It ain’t fun out there in the big world, so don’t think you can do better anywhere else. I’ve seen other homes. I know what a bad home’s like.”
She nodded again, her eyes wide as she glanced from one child to another. Melanie grabbed Benedict’s hand and he pulled it away. Miss Ratchet puffed on her cigarette.
“So you better be on your best behavior.”
When the doorbell rang, she gave them a warning look before standing up. She straightened Melanie’s dress, checked the boys’ attire, and tapped the foundation around Daniel’s eye.
Benedict wished he could wear clean jeans every day.
“Prison,” she whispered, adding, “smile,” in her fake cheery, I’m a great loving foster parent voice. She put her cigarette out and walked to the door.
This time, the visitor was a man none of the children knew. Even though he was tall and lanky and looked like he’d just graduated from college, Miss Ratchet fluttered her overly made-up eyes at him and played her part well. The children just sat and smiled, nodding when appropriate. The visit didn’t take long. It never did.
“Well, everything seems to be in order, Miss Ratchet.” The man gulped down the rest of his now cold coffee and smiled. “As you know, we appreciate folks like you.”
“I like to do my part.” Miss Ratchet cocked her head to one side and pressed her lips together. “It takes a village, right?”
“That’s what most people don’t get.” He looked thoughtful. “But you do, and that’s what we need more of, women like you who open up your homes and offer the most selfless of gifts—your love and attention. We thank you for that.”
Benedict wanted to cry out that it was all a scam, but he knew that the man wouldn’t believe him and that they’d all suffer the consequences when he left. So he sat quietly.
“Ok, so . . .” The man put on his jacket. “Same time next—”
Something on the bookshelf next to Miss Ratchet caught his attention. He walked slowly toward it while she watched, biting her lip. He picked up the green family picture and smiled.
“Look at that.” He shook his head. “I love it when a family comes together.”
He was about to place the picture back on the bookshelf when he was distracted by something tucked in between two books. He reached in and pulled out a plastic bag filled with a dried herb substance, a couple of handmade cigarettes, and another bag with white powder.
Benedict wasn’t sure why the man’s soft smile became tight-lipped in a second. He scowled at Miss Ratchet with eyes narrowed in accusation. Benedict heard Daniel scoff slightly. Miss Ratchet stood up quickly, her mouth and eyes opened wide, but no sound came from her.
The man pointed at her. “You will remain seated if you don’t mind.” He pulled out a cell phone from his jacket pocket and dialed. Benedict noticed his hands were shaking.
Miss Ratchet slumped back into her chair, biting her nails nervously. At that moment, things seemed to speed up.
Suddenly, she started to cry and shake her head. She kept repeating, “It’s not mine, it’s not mine.”
But the man wasn’t listening because he was giving their address to the person on the phone. He snapped the phone shut and stared at Miss Ratchet without saying a word. When she began to protest again, he shook his head and put his hand up, saying, “Save it for the authorities, ma’am.”
Nothing else was said at that point. Miss Ratchet sobbed, and the children glanced from her to each other and then to the man who now wore a frown, as if betrayed by the love of his life.
Almost half an hour of awkwardness passed before another man, with black rimmed glasses, and a young redheaded woman walked into the room. The three talked together, gesturing to the children, until the woman nodded and approached them.
“You guys need to get some overnight stuff together. Don’t be scared, okay?”
She reached out to touch Melanie’s cheek. The child leaned against Benedict.
Daniel didn’t look scared. In fact, Benedict could swear that he caught him smirking every now and then. He wasn’t scared either. He’d been through this over and over again. What was another house? Melanie was scared, though. He could tell by the way she clutched his hand. This time he let her.
The drive to the next home wasn’t long. “It’s just for the night,” the woman with the red hair had said before leaving them. “We’ll be back in the morning to reassign you.”
The mother at this house said very little to them once she supplied blankets and pillows. None of the children wanted anything to eat, so she nodded, smiled nervously, and put out the light.
“Great, just what we need.” Daniel lay on his back and looked up at the ceiling fan while they listened to Melanie’s quiet snoring. She’d fallen asleep curled up on the couch behind them. “I’m eighteen next year, you know.” He looked over at Benedict. “I don’t need to put up with this anymore.”
In the morning, Daniel was gone. The police were called, but Benedict and Melanie didn’t get to see him again or know what ever became of him. Instead, they were taken in a car to an office building in the city, where they sat side by side in a reception area.
Melanie held Benedict’s hand while they watched in a room with glass walls while the red-haired woman talked to another woman, introduced to them as Miss Davis. Miss Davis sat behind a desk covered with two messy heaps of files and scattered documents and, as the women talked, she smiled, nodded, and occasionally flipped through files. She was on the phone part of the time and occasionally glanced over at the two children, until finally she got up and headed toward them.
“Come with me, Melanie.” Miss Davis bent toward the little girl and held her hand out. But Melanie pushed in closer against Benedict and turned her head to hide her face.
Benedict just watched Miss Davis. He could feel the little girl press harder into his side.
“I have something to show you.” Miss Davis signaled to another woman who disappeared and then, moments later, returned with a worn out Raggedy Ann doll. “Look.” Miss Davis held it out to the girl.
Melanie turned her head so one eye peeked out. Seeing the doll, she reached out for it, loosening her grip on Benedict’s arm. Once the doll was in her hand, Miss Davis leaned in and picked her up.
As if suddenly realizing that she’d been duped, Melanie began screaming and kicking and flailing her arms. She dropped the doll and reached out to Benedict with both arms. He watched silently, trying not to let her anguish-filled face affect him. He swallowed hard and felt a lump stuck in his throat.
“Benny, no . . . no . . . no . . . me want Benny . . . Benny!”
The girl’s high-pitched scream turned the heads of everyone on the floor. They had probably all seen similar scenes in the past, but it still visibly pained them to watch.
Miss Davis couldn’t hold the child as she fought to escape, and when she put her down, Melanie ran to Benedict and clung to his leg.
“Benedict, you need to let her go,” Miss Davis told him sternly.
Benedict lifted both his hands, shrugged, and raised his eyebrows. “I’m not holding her.”
Melanie sobbed hysterically, choking and gagging on her own spit. “Me want Benny. Me want Benny.”
Miss Davis looked around and saw a gathering of associates standing and waiting for her to make her next move. She scratched her head.
“Okay, I have an idea.” She went back into the glass room.
Benedict reached down and grabbed Melanie’s hand, and the little girl climbed onto his lap. He didn’t object, but instead put his arms around her, because he felt she needed it and he needed it, too. It was a strange sensation, having someone cling to him so desperately, looking to him for protection.
They all watched and waited as Miss Davis made another phone call. Before long she returned.
“Okay, that’s settled,” she said, satisfied. “You two can stay together and we’ve found the perfect place.”
Yeah right, Benedict thought. Where have I heard that before?
END OF CHAPTER 1