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Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith was born and spent most of her childhood years in Georgia, before moving to Virginia with her family. She’s currently a second-year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire and is in the middle of writing her first YA novel. When she’s not writing or thinking about her stories, Brittany can usually be found in front of her TV playing the latest video game or exploring New Hampshire with her friends.
Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith was born and spent most of her childhood years in Georgia, before moving to Virginia with her family. She’s currently a second-year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire and is in the middle of writing her first YA novel. When she’s not writing or thinking about her stories, Brittany can usually be found in front of her TV playing the latest video game or exploring New Hampshire with her friends.

She was only going to stay for a few weeks. A month at the most. At least that’s what my parents told me that Sunday night. I sat with my legs stretched out on the bed. The mattress was still naked, waiting for the new cloth sheets Mom purchased from Target earlier in the day. I ran my hands over the ridges of the bed, while Dad explained that Josephine (that was her name), would be with us until her mom got “her act together.” That’s how he phrased it. Like motherhood was a play and she continuously missed her cue or needed her line read to her. Though, I think that was how the social worker explained it to my parents, so they just repeated the vague expression to me.

Dad folded his arms over his chest and leaned into the doorframe. “Your mother and I met Josephine and she’s a really nice girl. A little shy, but given what she’s been through, that’s expected.”

Mom popped open the plastic container of Crisp Linen Lysol wipes and cleaned the dust from the top dresser drawer.

“Clarice, this will be fun,” Dad said. He walked in the room and sat next to me. He put a hand on top of mine. Dad’s hands were velvety from his nightly lotion regime. He often joked that he needed a soft, but firm handshake for whenever he closed a financial deal at the Navy Federal Bank.

“She’s only a year younger than you, so I’m sure the two of you will have plenty to talk about and bond over.” He smiled and I smiled back. Mom wadded the now grey wipe into a small ball and tossed it in the black wicker trashcan. She dragged the large Target bag close to her and stuck her arm into the wide, plastic mouth, pulling out hand towels, washcloths, body towels, all the color of lilac, and bed sheets that matched budding lavender petals.

My parents went over the plan for Josephine’s arrival. The social worker would drop her off at the house tomorrow, but I would be at school, so I wouldn’t see her until later in the day. She was going to sleep in the spare bedroom, the one my parents originally decorated for the other child they wanted, but never got around to having. I asked them about it once. They both said they tried, but it just didn’t work out. I read between the lines and concluded they didn’t think it was worth the effort. Foster care was much easier, since there was the unspoken agreement that the child wouldn’t live with us for long stretches of time.

I was to blame for us becoming a foster care family. When I was younger, I insisted on there being another child in the home. It was back when I still played Red Light, Green Light in neighbor’s yards or hopscotch in the driveway of our home. At the end of the day, when the street lights came on and parents stood on the porch shouting that dinner was on the table, everyone went home with a little brother or sister trailing behind them.

Except me. I went home with only my shadow.

Those nights, I cocooned myself in the cotton sheets and star patterned quilt on my bed and let my small arm hang loosely around the neck of my favorite bunny. I squeezed the animal close to my cheek, letting its soft black fur tickle the tip of my nose, and imagined that it was a little brother or sister with cocoa butter softened skin and hair smelling like a basket of freshly picked peaches. When my parents came to tuck me in, I made them kiss both me and brother bunny good night.

I’m sure they saw the longing in my eyes whenever I walked hand in paw with the bunny or heard the yearning in my voice when I whispered to him at night. They tried to give me what I wanted, even after I grew older and my friends complained about younger siblings raiding their bedroom and pocketing the shiny things left on top of dressers or nightstands. My parents never stopped trying, even after the bunny was placed in a box and tucked away in a corner of the attic.

Mom and Dad spent the rest of the night cozying up the room for Josephine. I went to my room and finished the last few problems for my AP statistics class. Though I found small reason to check on their progress. I glanced in the white washed room every time I walked to the bathroom or went in the kitchen for a glass of water. Dad vacuumed the beige carpet, while Mom covered the bed with the new sheets and hung the towels over the bed’s footboard. At one point, they noticed me in the hallway and asked if I would get an old quilt from a closet and put it in the washer.

“It can get chilly in here some nights,” Mom said, though it was the middle of May and the temperatures were expected to stay in the high 80s for the week. But I did what they said and tossed a Breezy Summer Day Tide pod in there, to cover up the moth ball smell.

It was nine o’clock by the time they finished and I was packing my bag for school. Mom pushed my bedroom door opened and perched on the edge of my bed. My back was to her, but I knew she was looking around with misty eyes that parents get when they think about their growing child and the years that have gone by. She always did this the night before a new kid came into our house. It was her way of checking in on me. A way to remind me that no matter what, they still loved me.

“I have crew practice tomorrow, so I may be home late,” I said. My history book was taking up too much space and I still needed to squeeze in my statistics books.

“Well, we can wait to eat dinner until you get home. How is crew going?”

“Horrible! I have blisters on my heels. And Coach Pollard is weird. But Gina and Trent are there with me. Plus it’s nice being out on the boat, even if it’s in the dirty Potomac.”

“I doubt the Potomac is that bad,” she said with a soft chuckle.

I started to tell her my theory about the dead bodies in there, but thought better of it. She asked if I would need a ride home from practice, but I told her Gina would drop me off. Eventually, I managed to sandwich my stats book between my history book and copy of The Complete Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I would have to carry my lunch for most of the day. I left my bag next to my desk and rifled through my closet for something to wear in the morning.

“I can’t wait for you and Josephine to meet. She’s a sweet girl.”

“I’m sure she is.” I picked up a pair of jeans, but put them back after noticing a dried ketchup stain on it.

“You should know that your father and I love you unconditionally. We have room in our hearts for the two of you.”

But it wasn’t just Josephine and me. It was us, plus the numerous other kids that stayed in our home for different strokes of time. Some were hard to love, like Rebecca, the ten-year-old who had a wanderlust and liked to run away. And of course, there were the kids who I refused to love, like Jacob the thirteen-year-old who started fires. And there were others, kids whose names I’ve forgotten, though I sometimes felt their presence invading the spare bedroom or kitchen or other areas of the house.

My shoulder rose and fell from a sigh and Mom came up behind me to give me a hug. I forced myself to relax and fingered the frayed sleeve of my old tie dye t-shirt. She rocked us slowly and my eyelids felt heavy from a sudden weariness. After a few minutes, she kissed my cheek and told me to finish getting ready for tomorrow.

“Good night.” She let go of me and shuffled out my room.

“Good night Mom.” I waited until she shut the door and released a groan. It was faint, but I heard the creak of the floorboards just outside my room and worried that Mom heard me. But the door never opened, so I thought I was in the clear.

***

At lunch the next day, I spent the first ten minutes telling my friends about Josephine. Mom sent a text when I was in third period, saying that the social worker had dropped her off and she was getting settled in the spare bedroom. Mrs. Wisherman’s back was to us as she wrote the solution to stats problem #4 on the Smartboard, but I worried she would pirouette and spot the phone clutched in my hand. I quickly sent “That’s good” and stuffed my phone back in my pocket. I planned to send a longer text when I had the time, but my friends scooped me up in the hallway and ushered me outside for lunch before I could even pull my phone out. But, it didn’t matter since I would see Mom and Josephine at home.

We used the football bleachers as our cafeteria table. My back was to the sun, shielding my friends from its bright rays. Gina chewed on a celery stick as I finished recapping what happened last night.

“So what do you know about this girl?” Henry asked. I shrugged and said I didn’t know a lot.

“What if she’s a crack child?” Trent said.

“Or a pyro,” Henry added. They went back and forth, throwing out disorders and problems Josephine could bring into the house. Thief, sex addict, runaway, vandalizer, or just general wild child. I stopped them once they suggested she was a con woman, bouncing from house to house and convincing people to give her hundreds or thousands of dollars.

“I doubt she’ll be that way. We usually get nice kids.”

“But you’ve also had some bad ones, right? Like Troy, Jacob, Rebecca and that one girl that refused to bathe,” Gina said.

“April,” I said.

Gina rolled her eyes. “Right, April. She always smelled like raw fish. Anyway, you’ve had some good kids come through, but also a lot of bad ones.”

“And what did your parents mean when they said Josephine’s Mom had to ‘get her act together’?” Trent asked.

Again, I shrugged, not telling them that I spent most of last night staring into the darkness and thinking what that meant.

Henry finished his vanilla yogurt and chucked the plastic container under the bleachers. It bounced off the rocks with a hollow sound and settled among the other trash. “Do you know where she comes from?”

“Somewhere in DC, I think.”

“Hopefully not Southeast. You know how they are.”

I didn’t and neither did my friends. Though Henry liked to tell a story about his drive through that neighborhood when his family first moved to the Northern Virginia area. He remembered seeing greasy men in ribbed tank tops and saggy pants standing near the curb with cigarettes in their mouths and beer in their hands. His dad moved only a finger to the side of the door to lock the car and rolled up the windows.

I slurped the rest of my Sprite and chucked it under the bleachers. “The bell’s going to ring soon,” I said while standing and stretching. The others cleaned their mess and we trudged back inside. Trent and Henry broke off to go to Study Hall. Gina walked with me until we reached her Chemistry class.

“Hey, we were only joking out there,” she said. She wrapped her hands around the nylon straps of her bag. “But you should probably do a quick check of all your stuff when you get home.”

“My mom’s with her.”

“I doubt all the time.”

***

After crew practice, I just wanted to crawl into bed and fall into a deep sleep. But Mom insisted that I eat with the family.

“Josephine’s in her room. Why don’t you say hi before hopping into the shower?” She turned back to the onions and peppers on the chopping board. I grabbed a Deer Park bottle from the fridge before heading upstairs.

There’s always an air of uncertainty before meeting one of the foster kids. You wonder a lot of things. Some of the fears are just typical of meeting a new person. Will they like me? What will we talk about? Are they weird or will they think I’m weird? But some of the fears are unique to meeting people in the foster care system. Have they been damaged by some kind of abuse? Will they be an addict of some sort? Will they lash out for no reason or keep everything hidden? Will they be with us for a long time?

Coming up the stairs, I could see the door to the spare room, to Josephine’s room, was open and the light was on. Laughter and applause carried out of the room. Dad must have carried up a TV for her.

I reached the top and looked out the corner of my eye to see if she noticed me. I wanted her to approach me first, but I remembered the social worker saying that some of the kids are extraordinarily shy and will wait for a friendly smile and a warm hello before engaging in any conversation.

I turned and caught my first good look at Josephine. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed. There were no half-healed scars, bruises or burns, though there was the possibility they were hidden under her black shirt and jeans. Her hair was pulled up into a messy crown on the top of her head, though some wisps of brown hair curled around her ear and neck.

“Hey,” I said, startling her.

She looked at me with eyes the color of faded emeralds and blinked. “Hi.”

“I’m Clarice.”

“Josephine.” The bed squeaked as she bounced off the mattress and stood in the middle of the door frame. I waved. She offered her hand. I tried to accept her hand just as she raised it to wave back. We looked at each other, smiled and let our hands fall by our sides.

I looked over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of the room and any new changes she made. But the walls were as bare as last night. A multi-colored duffel bag sat at the foot of the bed with clothes spilling down the sides.

Josephine noticed my gaze and stepped to the side. “Do you want to come in?”

I shook my head and said I needed to shower before dinner. She sat in the middle of the bed again, while I walked to my room at the end of the hallway. My door was partially open. I switched the light on and did a quick scan, before realizing that I was following Gina’s advice. I stopped myself, thinking it was idiotic and unfair to label Josephine as a thief or some type of criminal without trying to get to know her.

Everyone was already seated at the table by the time I came into the kitchen. I fixed a plate quickly and sat across from Dad. He was in the middle of talking about his day at the bank. I nibbled on a spinach leaf, half-listening to his tale of branch hopping, stressful traffic and charming newly wealthy couples into opening high interest accounts or trust funds. Josephine poked her slice of roast beef, occasionally picking it up with her fork and chewing on a small area before setting it back on the plate.

My family learned quickly never to ask a foster kid if they were okay. At least not on the first night. The social worker warned us that the children were trying to adjust to their new environments and sometimes it could take days or weeks before they felt they were in a safe place. They may fidget and cast their eyes about but they’ll come around. Most of the time.

But in the middle of his story, Dad stopped, furrowed his brows and asked Josephine if she was okay. I held my breath, expecting a bomb to go off, destroying the house and leaving behind a wide, smoldering crater.

Josephine lifted her head slowly and said, “I’m fine. Just a little tired.”

“Oh well, of course. We did a lot today,” Mom said with a fake laugh. “Do you want to rest?”

Another thing the social worker advised was using gentle suggestions around the kids. Never demand they do something, especially when they’re new to the home. Some of these kids came from homes where they were voiceless. It was important for them to understand that they were a person and could speak up if they wanted.

“If that’s okay,” Josephine answered.

Mom reached over to touch her wrist. “Of course it is. I’ll wrap your plate in case you get hungry in the middle of the night.”

“Thank you. Dinner was delicious.” She left the kitchen and seconds later, we heard the soft thump, thump, thump as she skipped up the stairs. Dad tried to pick up the rest of his story, but I kept an ear out for Josephine’s movements. It was ghostly quiet.

Dad pulled out the leftover blueberry cobbler for dessert and Mom scooped some vanilla ice cream for each of us. They shared a look. I glanced back and forth between them. Finally, Mom coughed into her hand.

“You know,” she said and I could tell by how her voice dropped into a whisper that she was going to say something I wouldn’t like. “There’s the possibility Josephine’s mom won’t… well, she’s not doing as well as everyone thought and we may keep Josephine for a while longer.”

“But Dad said it was only for a month!”

“I know, sweetheart. But sometimes, things don’t work out nicely the way we want.”

Dad leaned over and squeezed my shoulder. “We just want to prepare you in case it comes to that.”

I decided to not say anything and just finish the rest of my cobbler. When they asked if I was okay, I smiled and nodded.

***

Josephine crept into my room in the middle of the night. The slow creak of my door opening woke me and I saw a dark mass stand partially in my room.

“Sorry,” she said in a harsh whisper. “I wasn’t sure if you were asleep or not.”

I looked at the 3:43 flashing red on the clock on my desk. “What is it?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I made out some of her features. Like her small, round nose and lips stretched paper thin in worry or fear. I couldn’t tell. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, the curls hanging in the air like a network of tiny, winding streams.

I sat up and pulled the covers to my shoulders, hiding my ruffled tank top and cotton boyshorts. “You can come in if you want.”

She shuffled in the room and sat on the carpeted floor. She tipped her head back, letting it rest on the side of the bedframe, and sighed.

“Why couldn’t you sleep?” I asked.

“I can’t sleep with the silence,” she said.

“I have a radio. You can play some music.”

She pulled her knees to her chest and said, “I don’t want to disturb you or your parents. It’s not my house.”

“Why can’t you sleep when it’s silent?”

“Where I’m from in DC, there’s always some noise,” Josephine whispered. “Even at night. It’s either passing cars or people laughing and joking around. Sometimes cats will hiss at each other. Or someone will drop something and cuss. At the group home before this, there were late night noises too. Usually someone crying or calling for their parents. But here…” She paused and looked around my room. I tried to follow her sweeping gaze, taking in the shadowy outlines of photo frames, hairspray canisters, perfume bottles and water bottles at various stages of empty. There were taped posters on the wall of bands like Issues and A Day To Remember. Her gaze stopped at my desk, with my laptop, pencils pens and other supplies on top.

I was going to ask what she was thinking about, but she glanced at me and said, “I should probably go back to bed.”

Her head still rested on the side of my bed and my hand lay close by. If I wanted, I could reach over and swept back the hair that stood up, the way older sisters did in TV shows when they comforted their younger siblings. But I set my hand in my lap and said, “I have headphones that go with the radio.”

She was up now and walking to the door. “It’s okay,” she said. She wished me a good night and left. I listened to make sure she made it back to her room. Her door never closed, but I heard the floorboards settle. I shut my eyes, though I’m not sure when I fell back asleep.

***

Rumors managed to reach me in the middle of the day. According to Gina, the ones I heard were tame. Which I thought was incredible since the latest snippet mentioned Josephine’s real mother leaving her on the side of the road in the middle of winter the day after she was born. I didn’t know a lot about Josephine, but winter was usually over by late March and I knew she was born in May. Mom tried to bring up the idea of a party at breakfast today, but Josephine shrugged and said to her eggs that she didn’t want one.

Gina rushed through another rumor as we made our way to the cafeteria. “Micheal B. has Algebra with her and when she introduced herself in class, she said that she was released from juvie two months ago.”

“I don’t think that’s true. She mentioned something about a group home though.”

“You don’t think it’s true, but you don’t know for certain, do you?”

It was far too hot to sit comfortably outside, so we gathered in one of the back corners of the cafeteria. We were so close to the windows that I could feel a nice warmth on my shoulder. I bit into my turkey sandwich while Henry and Trent strolled over.

Trent had a wide grin as he set his bag down. “You’re doing a poor job at being your sister’s keeper.”

I rolled my eyes, not wanting to hear another rumor. “Whatever.”

“Seriously! I saw Josephine sitting in the office. It looked like she had been crying.”

I froze midway through another bite. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Someone told me she stole something. Lipstick or eyeshadow or some type of makeup. I don’t really know.”

Gina slapped the back of her hand against my arm. “Did you check your stuff when you got home?”

“No. Like I said, Mom was with her all day. Plus, there’s nothing in there worth stealing.”

Trent opened his lunch box and pulled out a container of baked chicken. He went off in search of a microwave, leaving his stuff on the floor near us. Gina stabbed at her salad. I looked over and asked, “Do you really think she stole that makeup?”

“I don’t know. I’m not the one that lives with her.”

***

I was already awake when Josephine came into my room that night. I lay on my back, thinking about her and the stolen makeup. Some people said it was MAC lipstick. Someone said NYX eyeliner. One person said it was CVS brand eye shadow. But it didn’t matter what she took. She took it, according to the rumors. The only thing I knew for certain was that Mom came to school to take Josephine home. There was talk of a weeklong in-school suspension, but my parents wouldn’t say anything about it during dinner.

I pulled my knees to my chest, making room for her. This time, Josephine sat at the foot of the bed, mimicking my position.

“Why’d you steal the makeup?”

“I didn’t steal it!”

I rested my chin on my knee and sighed. “They said you stole it.”

Her glare seemed to scorch me. “Do you want to compare notes from the ‘they?’ Maybe if our rumors match, we’ll discover some new truth about me.” She brought a hand up and wiped her cheeks.

The blanket had fallen off, exposing my arms and legs to the cool air. Josephine sniffled. There was a box of tissue on my nightstand and I handed it to her. We were quiet for a while. Outside my window was the faint chirp of crickets.

“Did your friends already know about me before today?” she asked.

“Yeah, they know my family takes in foster kids sometimes.” She scoffed and I asked, “What?”

“We’re more than just ‘foster care kids.’ We’re…” she paused, looking at the space between us as though it held the answer. I had to lean forward to catch her words when she spoke again. “People don’t understand. We’re like mismatched puzzle pieces. We’re plucked from our families and squeezed into other people’s homes and lives. All we want is to fit somewhere. But we’re either too small or too big or even when we think we fit, the picture doesn’t look right. All we want is to find a home where we fit and everyone is happy with what they see.”

I was surprised to hear this. When we first started taking in kids, I assumed everyone knew that the little boy holding my hand wasn’t my real brother or that the girl clinging to Mom’s skirt wasn’t really her daughter. But as I grew up, I realized people weren’t staring, unless the kid was misbehaving. And even when they stared, I’m sure they saw just another child refusing to listen to their parent.

At home, for the first couple of days, everyone had to adjust to a new person in the house. But once a few days passed, we settled into a routine. I never stopped to think about how the kids were doing. If they were smiling and laughing at Dad’s jokes or helping Mom with dinner, then I assumed they were okay.

I stayed quiet, unsure of how to respond. We listened to each other’s breathing. After a while, I thought Josephine had fallen asleep, since her breaths evened out. But then she sat straight and said, “I don’t want to go back with my mom. I don’t know where I belong, but it’s not with her.”

“What did she do?”

“It doesn’t matter. The social workers took me away for a reason.” She rolled off the bed and moved towards the door.

“Do you want the radio?” I asked.

“No, thank you,” she said before leaving my room.

***

I thought people would stop spreading rumors, since Josephine wouldn’t be in any classes. But they continued to spread like a virus with no foreseeable cure. I tuned them out as best as I could. Gina, Trent and Henry tried to sneak snippets in my ear during lunch. But none of their words settled in my mind.

We were back outside today. The bleachers would bake our legs, so we sat under a cluster of trees near the sidewalk. Several students lined up in front of the “roach coach,” jingling the quarters and dimes in the pockets of their sagging shorts, while they decided which color of Gatorade they wanted to dye their tongues for the rest of the day. Two guys passed us and I thought I heard one of them mention Josephine’s name.

“She’s not even in class! How could people have anything to say about her?” I said.

Gina seemed to shrink into herself, but Trent didn’t let up.

“Donald Smith said he has Josephine’s number and they text all last night. He even showed some of the texts to people.”

“She doesn’t have a phone.” I wasn’t sure if it was true or not. I’m sure the social worker gave her a phone in case of emergencies. But I just wanted to shut them up for a while.

“Why would Donald make up something like that? I mean, he barely knows her.”

I latched onto one of Trent’s sentences. “He, just like you all, don’t know her at all!”

He sneered. “Well, the same can be said of you. She’s been in your house for two days. It’s not like you’re best friends.”

I grabbed the food spread around me and stuffed it back into the plastic shopping bag Mom used when packing my lunch. I stood and wiped the dirt and grass off the back of my jeans. Gina asked where I was going. I slung my bag over my shoulder and said that I had homework to finish before the next class. I marched inside the building, passing other groups of students. Some people turned to look at me as I walked by. But most of them carried on their conversations with an effortless air surrounding them.

I thought about Josephine and tried to picture her laughing and talking with the different groups. But I couldn’t quite see her enmeshed with these students, or even with my own group of friends. We all grew up together. We fit together so nicely, it was almost hard to see ourselves without each other. I couldn’t remember a life before Gina or Trent or Henry. And I wondered if Josephine had someone like that in her life.

I didn’t think so.

Down the hall, a group of students walked single file, with Eddie, one of the office administrators escorting them. The noise in the hallway dialed down as everyone realized it was the ISS kids heading to the cafeteria for their lunch break. I spotted the tan plastic Harris Teeter bag, like my own, which was weighed down with a turkey and swiss sandwich, vanilla pudding cup, and other snacks packed in the early hours by Mom. Josephine focused on the tip of her shoes. Some whispers started up as she walked by. My next class was directly down the hall and I would need to walk between the ISS kids and the whispering students. But instead, I made a turn down another hallway and ducked in the bathroom for five minutes.

***

I waited an hour after Mom and Dad went to bed before walking to Josephine’s room. She lay facing the door. It was hard to tell if she was sleeping or not, so I hovered there, waiting for some sign that I could enter.

“Are you tired of me coming into your room?”

“I thought we could shake things up tonight,” I said.

The sheets ruffled as she moved on the mattress to make room. I climbed into bed, lying on top of the covers.

“Still can’t sleep?” I asked. She shook her head and rolled over onto her back, staring at the slow spinning ceiling fan. I tucked my hands under my head and waited to see if she would start crying. There wasn’t a box of tissues in here, but I’d run to my room to grab some if she needed them.

“I saw you in the halls today. It was only for a minute,” she said.

“I think I saw you too. I had to run to the bathroom before class.”

She hummed to herself and asked how school was. I told her that people were still spreading rumors, but I chose not to believe any of them.

“I wish it didn’t bother me, but it does. I should be used to this. The weird looks and the hushed words. Kids in the system are always remembered by their negatives.”

I wanted to tell her that wasn’t true, but I knew it was a lie. I was guilty of telling some of the more horrific stories about the kids that stayed with us. It always happened when my friends talked about their own sibling problems. Trent complained about his brother, Joey, sneaking toy figurines or movie memorabilia out his room. Gina would tell us how she was grounded for china plates her sister, Becca, smashed and then hid under the rug in the living room. And I piped in with stories about Peter the bed wetter or Caitlin the screamer or Jacob the fire starter. Even Josephine could become just another story after she left. The girl who stole makeup.

But the kids weren’t all bad. Little Joey was endearingly sweet, always picking flowers for me and the other girls in the neighborhood. Gina’s sister aspired to work in the fashion industry and loved doling out advice based on current stylish trends. Jacob would often come to my rescue at the dinner table by eating any vegetables I didn’t want. When he left, I once again had to force myself to eat the steamed asparagus Mom was fond of. And with Josephine…well, it was nice to finally hear a response whenever I whispered a secret in the dark.

“I’ll be back,” I said and rolled off the bed. I tiptoed by my parent’s door to my room and grabbed the small radio on my desk. I shut the door, leaving only a small crack and set the radio on the night stand.

“What type of music do you like?”

“Anything.” Then she added, “99.5 is fine.”

It was already tuned to that station. I turned the volume down so we could listen to it without waking my parents. Josephine pulled back the cover for me and I slid in, laying on my back. A Maroon 5 song was just ending and the DJ said he was taking a short commercial break before coming back with more hits.

“Mom said you may be here longer than a month,” I whispered.

“Yeah, the social worker told me too.”

Rushing water played on the radio, as a commercial for Splashdown Waterpark came on. A man talked over the sound, listing individual and family pricing for the upcoming summer water park season.

“I wouldn’t mind you staying. Not that I have a choice either way,” I said. “But still. I wouldn’t mind.”

Josephine laughed. “I wouldn’t mind either, especially now that I have this radio. Thank you.”

Kids squealed, giggled and splashed water in the background, as the man listed the upcoming special summer events, like “Mayhem May Day,” which was the weekend of Josephine’s birthday.

“I hate that water park,” I said.

“I’ve never been.  But I love swimming.”

“May Day is pretty fun,” I admitted.

The commercial ended and soon the DJ was back, quickly promoting the early morning prank call talk show, before playing a special request song.

Three songs later, I noticed Josephine’s breathing had evened out. I glanced to the side. Her mouth was partially open and her eyes were shut. She gripped the top of the quilt. I reached over and loosened her hold, leaving her hand flat in the bit of space between us. I rolled over to my side and closed my eyes, listening to the song on the radio, the steady breath of Josephine behind me, and the talk of crickets outside the window.

***

Mom rolled the van to a stop in front of the school just as I finished off my egg, bacon and cheese sandwich. I glanced in the side mirror, just in time to see Josephine drip a bit of egg on her red blouse. She wiped it off with her napkin and balled it in her hand. She noticed me and smiled, which I immediately returned.

“Have a great day, girls,” Mom said. Hearing this, I wondered about the missed days where Mom would utter those words before my younger sister and I climbed out the van. How many more days would Josephine and I have like this?

We stood on the curb, waiting for Mom’s van to pull away.

“Have a good day,” Josephine said.

I looked at her. “Where are you going?”

“To school. But…” A group of girls, some dressed in the blue and white cheerleading uniform, walked close by us. They spared quick glances in our direction. I fought the urge to scowl at them.

“Where do you have to go for detention?” I asked.

“The office,” Josephine said slowly.

“That’s on the way to my morning class.”

I took four or five steps before Josephine came up behind me. I slowed until we were side by side and walked with my head up. Our sneakers squeaked on the reflective, freshly waxed floor. We passed the cafeteria and I listened to the assortment of conversations. I wondered if Gina and the others were in there, but I didn’t look.

Josephine and I stood on either side of the office doors. I was ready to wish her a good day, though I knew she wouldn’t have one.  She’d be stuck in the basement, kicking against dead roaches and trying her hardest not to rush through the simple algebra worksheet.  She had two more days of detention, paying for a crime that I was sure she didn’t commit.

“Well, I’ll try again,” she said with a slight smile. “Have a good day.”

“Yeah, you too.”

When I was younger, I watched the groups of siblings embracing each other before they were separated for the next couple of hours. But Josephine and I weren’t siblings and we were far from the level of comfort where we could hug one another.

I thought.

So, instead, I stuck out my hand. But she raised hers to wave. When I tried to return the wave, she held out her hand. We grinned and let our hands swing back to our sides.

“We’ll figure it out one day,” she said.

“I’m sure we will,” I said just as the morning bell rang.

END

Brittany Smith asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

 

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