Posted on: June 26, 2014

As of today, there will be seven of us. Mikey and I are in the basement, like we always are on CPS days. We hate that stupid lady, Ms. Fowler, because she pretends she’s looking out for us, but really she doesn’t do crap. She comes in with her fancy suit and her clipboard and wanders around while Barb “yes ma’am”’s and “no ma’am”’s and shoves the little kids’ mess into the closets. It always looks real clean when Ms. Fowler shows up.

Sometimes if we’re lucky, Barb will be too tired to put the house back like it usually is, and Mikey and I will get to sleep on the sofa bed for a night.

On every other night, the sofa bed is folded into a lumpy couch, and that’s where Barb sits and watches her shows, and where Rex passes out drunk when he gets home.

Mikey and I sleep in sleeping bags on the dining room floor. But today they’re rolled up and hidden away. In the basement, we try to do the same.

Mikey’s on tiptoe peering out the half-window through the curtains.

“Is her car still out there?”

“Yeah, you dumbass. I can still hear her upstairs.”

He’s right. Fowler’s heels are click-clacking on the newly clean floor above our heads.

“Where you think the new kid’s going to sleep?” I want to know.

“Depends. If it’s a girl, I guess with Tisha and Brianna.”

“They’re going to be mad.”

“What else is new?”

I hope the new kid’s not a girl, because then there’ll be more of them than there are of us. Rex is right about one thing: Too many women in a house ain’t nothing good.

But at the same time, I don’t know if I want it to be a boy, either. Even with Barb and all her bullcrap, we’ve kind of got a good thing going right now. Mikey and I have this agreement. He’s allowed to mess with me because I’m younger and not as cool, but he’s also got my back. Mikey, I think, is the same kind of way as me—we’ve both had teachers and social workers slap us with some kind of “behavior problem” junk every once in awhile, but we’re not like kids who are really angry.

Some kids I’ve lived with—they’re angry all the way down to their bones. Their anger actually jumps into their arms and legs and takes over. And that’s the kind of kid I don’t want to see delivered to the house today. Because with anger like that, especially in a boy, one minute you’re playing video games or flag football or sleeping or eating knock-off Lucky Charms at breakfast, and the next minute you’re on the floor, and anger’s got its grip around your throat.

“There she goes,” Mikey says, watching Ms. Fowler’s car pull out of the driveway.

“Bitch,” I say, testing the word in my mouth.

“What’d she do to you?” Mikey says, imitating Barb.

“Nothing. And that’s why she’s a bitch.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” Mikey says, thwacking me on the forehead. “Come on, before Barb starts screaming.”

Too late.

“Mikey! Troy! Come meet your new brother!”

That drives Mikey crazy—how Barb’s always calling us brothers and sisters.

“Tisha is not my sister,” he always says, but I think that’s because he secretly has a crush on Tisha, and if they were brother and sister, that would be some pervert crap.

We get to the top of the basement stairs. The little kids are near the door, all scrubbed and happy, chewing on pieces of an alphabet puzzle Barb set out on the floor. Stupid Ms. Fowler probably thinks Barb’s educating them early. What she doesn’t know is that puzzle’s missing about half the letters because Tisha stole them to decorate her poster for Science Fair last month. Barb said she wasn’t about to spend money on craft supplies, and Tisha said, “Isn’t that what the government pays you to do? Support me and my education?” and Barb said, “The government pays me enough to put food in your mouth and not a penny more,” and Tisha said, “You call this food?” and flipped her bowl of tuna salad.

Tisha got grounded for two weeks, but she also got first place in the Science Fair.

“I like a girl who knows what she wants,” Mikey said.

Barb scoops up the little kids, one on each hip, and waves us all into the kitchen. Mikey grabs a couple of Powerades from the fridge and throws me one. I catch it with one hand.

The new kid is standing in the doorway. He’s tall and skinny, about Mikey’s age. All his crap is still in what Tisha calls a “foster kid suitcase,” a black trash bag clenched in his fist.

Barb starts on her house rules speech.

“Here, we are all brothers and sisters. We respect each other, and we respect this space. This is a drug-free house. Do not push me on this…”

The new kid, aside from the trash bag, looks out of place in Barb and Rex’s cramped kitchen. He’s white, which isn’t unheard of, but his clothes are too nice. They look new, maybe even from a department store, and even weirder, they look ironed. Somebody put creases in his jeans.

Brianna is sitting on the counter by the microwave swinging her legs back and forth. She has on foam flip-flops that are an inch too short for her feet. She, like the rest of us, is looking at the new kid like he’s an intruder from Mars.

“You will be home for supper every night, because I’m not giving you any extra money for eating out, and if you have extra money, you’d better be explaining where you got it…”

The new kid smiles and nods, but his eyes are glassy. Is he sedated? Mikey cuts me a concerned glance. What are we dealing with here? Rich kid, bad divorce? Somebody here by mistake?

“Now, you look like a nice young man, so I don’t think we’ll have any trouble. You’ll be sleeping in the dining room with Mikey and Troy, since we’re kind of short on bedrooms at this moment. Now go on, boys, and take your new brother to the basement to get a sleeping bag.”

“This way,” Mikey grumbles, and we lead the new kid down the stairs.

He looks out the window as Mikey digs around for a sleeping bag. While the kid has his head turned, I give him a good once over. His blonde hair is slicked back with hair gel, and the light shining through the sheer curtains lights up his face, peppered with freckles.

“So,” I say, puffing up my chest. “Who are you?”

The new kid turns his pale face to look at me. He opens his mouth.

I know then something is wrong. Where his tongue should be is a black V—his tongue is slit, forked up the middle.

“Holy crap--”

Ssssssssssss,” hisses the new kid. I jump back, and he cackles. And in a garbled, lisping speech, he spits, “Like the lady said. I’m your brother.”

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Erin Notarthomas

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