December 31st, 2012
After a long ride to Minnesota, a scary walk through the city, and hiding in the woods again, I think I’m in a safe place now. I really hope so, anyway. I don’t want to have to go out there and freeze and starve again.
When the bus finally stopped in Minnesota, I was tired. So tired. Of being on the road, of eating cheap fast food, and of being on the same bus as an obviously homeless man who smelled like a dumpster. I guess I probably didn’t smell so great either. But he smelled worse. I wish this bus ride would have been more like the one that took me to Indianapolis, because it was so fast. This one stopped and detoured… It was horrible.
The bus dropped us off in St. Paul, and I was terrified. It felt nothing like Indianapolis, and I hated it. I wished I would’ve stayed in Indiana.
But I walked. I walked fast, to get out of that city. I walked along busy roads, which was probably illegal, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t ask a young kid like me what he’s doing alone on the streets. It’s actually quite disturbing. I wish people cared.
Then again, at that point, if someone would have stopped me, I might have told them that my life was none of their business.
I made it to suburbia, where I felt more comfortable. I grew up in suburbia, so it was good to be back after spending a good chunk of time in Indianapolis. I found some cheap food at a dollar store and then I found a nice park. I slept under the cover of the trees because I didn’t want to be seen. It was freezing. I can’t believe I lived. I mean, I had a coat and long pants and everything. I wore layers. But it was worse than Indianapolis. I burrowed in snow like huskies do to stay warm, but I just ended up getting wet, which was worse. Why does it work in the movies but not for me? Maybe I just have awful luck. The snow wasn’t the right type or something.
Anyway, I remember that I ran out of food and was pretty hungry for a couple days. Then I woke up to voices. Voices that sounded my age. I opened my eyes, and three boys were hovering over me. I was hungry and delirious I guess, so for a second, as backlit as they were under those street lamps, I wondered if they were angels and I had gone to heaven.
Dumb, I know.
“He’s alive,” one of them said. Or, at least, this is what I remember. He had a face like a rat. A rat with floppy brown hair.
“No dip, Kevin,” another boy with brown hair and blue eyes said. “Back up guys. Let him sit up.”
All of them took a step back, and I sat up. My head spun and my stomach growled.
“What are you doing here?” the one they called Kevin asked.
“I was sleeping,” I said.
Kevin rolled his eyes and looked away. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t remember who. My head hurt too bad.
“I’m Terin,” the other brown haired boy said.
“Jerico,” the blond boy said. I couldn’t help but notice how big his lips were.
“Do you have parents?”
I clenched my fists. “Yes.”
“Do you have a home?”
“Do you need one?”
As much as I wanted to say “Definitely!” I said, “Maybe.” I didn’t even know who those boys were or where they lived. I thought they were probably just going to drag me into an alley and mug me, which was stupid, because Kevin was smaller than me, and Terin didn’t look like he had much muscle in the first place.
“If you want somewhere to live, come with us.”
“If you don’t, you’re crazy.” Kevin said. Jerico snickered.
“Look at him, Terin! He’s drunk, I bet. He has a hangover. I don’t think you want a raging drunk. An ugly raging drunk. Maybe him and Cameron would be friends. Ugly meets ugly.”
“Kevin!” Terin said. Jerico wasn’t snickering anymore.
Kevin was everything I hated about the troublemakers.
“I think I’ll come.” I said.
God knows why I said it. And maybe I didn’t even say that. Maybe our first meeting wasn’t actually how I remember.
Like I said, I was delirious.
It turned out to be a good choice, going with them. I don’t remember the walk. I don’t remember meeting Cameron and Annelies, though I knew their names when I woke up. All I remember is that my hunger was gone because they had good food and a nice couch for me to sleep on, and that someone convinced me that this was a good place.
When I woke up to sunlight streaming through the windows, I sat up fast. Too fast. My neck hurt and wouldn’t loosen no matter how I stretched it.
Where were the kids I had met? What if they had been playing a prank on me and their parents were going to kick me out or report me to the police?
I needed to find them. I pulled myself up, tripping over a blanket that was on my lap. I had no memory of it being put there.
I went up a small flight of stairs and ended up in the kitchen. I wondered why the table was so small if so many people lived here.
No one jumped out and ambushed me, so I looked over at the digital clock on the microwave, which read 11:09. Maybe the parents were at work and the kids were at school.
Out of the corner of my eye, something on the refrigerator caught my attention. I turned to it, shocked by the color that jumped out from it. Watercolor paintings, photographs, drawings, letters. There wasn’t an inch of the fridge that wasn’t covered.
A fridge can tell you a lot about people. Our fridge was covered in Jessika’s sports schedules and report cards. No matter how good my grades were, mine never ended up there.
I stepped closer to this fridge and spotted a picture of a young Terin and Jerico. Then I found Kevin, Cameron, and little Annelies. There were other kids, too. I counted at least ten that I didn’t recognize. I dug through layers and layers of stuff under these magnets. It was like no one ever took anything off the fridge.
As I was starting to read a note addressed, “Dear Family,” someone opened a door. A beautiful voice singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” drifted into my ears. I wanted to evaporate and join this woman’s voice riding the air.
“Hello,” I said tentatively.
The singing stopped. “Cameron?”
“Uh, no.” I stepped around the refrigerator to see a beautiful woman putting her purse down by the front door. “I’m Jed.”
The woman smiled. “Have the children treated you nicely?”
I nodded again, feeling helpless. This woman was going to feed me without even knowing how I got to her house. That’s how reliant I was on these people. These kind people.
“We can chat while I make you a sandwich,” she said, making her way into the kitchen. The things on the fridge ruffled as she walked by.
“What did the kids tell you?” she asked, pumping soap onto her hands.
“That if I wanted a place to stay, this was a good one.” I said. It was all I remembered.
She laughed as she ran her hands under the water. She turned off the faucet and dried her hands on a towel hanging from the oven. “I hope that that is true for your time here. It’s better than living in an underfunded group home or with abusive parents, right? Or whatever your situation was. What do you want on your sandwich?”
I stared at the counter, stunned at the change in conversation. I felt like she had cut me open. Abusive parents? Yeah. Not like you see in the movies, but I don’t know what else to call it. “Turkey and mayo, please.”
Even in my stupor I manage a please. The troublemakers didn’t steal everything from me.
She told me that a lot of kids had lived here, that it was safe, and that they had rules, like not giving away too much personal information and everything because they were afraid of knowing too much if the police or child protective services or someone came looking. She also said that the kids stayed up all night and slept during the day, and she had me promise that we would be careful if we went outside at night. I promised her I’d be safe.
I ate the sandwich she gave me, but it was a brick in my mouth. I couldn’t swallow.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked.
I nodded. She took a glass out of the cabinet, filled it with water, and handed it to me. I took a drink, wondering how this lady I had just met read me better than my own mother.
“What can I call you?” I asked.
“Whatever you like. My name is Patty Parker, and my husband’s name is Lonnie.”
“Can I call you Mrs. Parker?” I asked. It felt wrong calling her Patty. I had never really called an adult by their first name.
Mrs. Parker and I finished eating together. I helped her clean up the kitchen while she told me a little bit about the other kids. She said that Terin and Cameron were best friends, and so were Kevin and Jerico. Annelies was lonely because the other girls, Leia and Kezia, had left in the past year. Kevin and Jerico’s friend Boston had just left a week ago.
The whole time, I wondered which faces on the fridge belonged to who. Why did they leave? Why did they come in the first place?
When we were done cleaning, Mrs. Parker had to leave to clean someone else’s house. She promised that Mr. Parker would be home around 5.
As soon as she was gone, I went back to the notes on the fridge. The one I had started reading turned out to be a suicide note from a boy called Kagan, but also Mason. I wondered if it was supposed to be on the fridge, even if it was layered under everything.
I had to sit down and drink some water after I read it. How many kids had died here? From the last name on the note, I was pretty sure that Kagan hadn’t been Mr. Mrs. Parker’s real son, but he had lived with them for a long time, it seemed.
The worst part was, I could relate to the first things Kagan said in his letter, about his parents and school and being left out. I wondered for a long time, was my fate going to be similar to his if I sat here at this house and left my problems at home unresolved?
Since then, I’ve decided that no, I won’t let myself down. I just need time to think. Or something.
I got back up and looked at other things, including a short letter from two guys named Roderick and Oliver. From the address, it seemed like they lived somewhat close by.
When I was done reading and staring at the pictures some more, I didn’t know what else to do, so I tiptoed around the house and snooped. In the living room there was a piano, boxes of LEGOs, and a bunch of movies. In the basement, there was a whiteboard on the wall and some roller skates and balls on the floor. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms. One door was closed, but the other two were open. I peeked into the first open door and a little girl, who must have been Annelies, was sleeping on an air mattress in the corner. The rest of the room was taken up by an easel, paints, and paintings that leaned against the walls. Some of them were really good, and I wished that I could see them closer.
The second open door had to be Mr. and Mrs. Parker’s room. There was a painting above their bed, and I wondered if it was painted by whoever had done the others.
I went downstairs to the couch and wondered if the other kids, who were now my roommates, would like me. I asked myself how long I was going to stay here over and over.
Spoiler alert: I still don’t know.
Around four-thirty, Annelies came downstairs and sat down on the other side of the couch. She eyed me warily. “I can’t remember your name.”
“I’m Jed,” I said. “You’re Annelies, right?”
She smiled. “Yes.”
“Did you sleep well?” I asked.
She nodded. “Do you have a sister?”
I blinked slowly, trying not to let my emotions overwhelm me. I wanted to be mad at her for asking, but she didn’t know any better. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you bring her with you?”
I couldn’t help it. I was annoyed. “Because she wouldn’t have wanted to come.”
Annelies looked down at her hands.
I asked how old she was, and she told me she was six, so I told her I was thirteen. She said that Terin was 13, so I could be friends with him. I almost laughed, because part of me was like “I’ve had enough of 13 year old boys,” but I just smiled instead. She started talking about a girl named Kezia who had been her friend. I remembered Mrs. Parker mentioning the girl and saying that Annelies was lonely, so I let her talk to me. I listened and responded in all the right ways until Cameron came downstairs.
“Hey guys,” he said, yawning and sitting down in the chair on Annelies’s side of the couch. “Terin’s in the shower, but Kevin and Jerico are still sleeping. Mr. and Mrs. Parker should be home soon.”
Right on cue, we heard the garage door swing open. Annelies jumped up and ran over to the man, who was tall, muscular, and balding just enough that it was noticeable. “Papa!” she cried, and he picked her up and kissed her on the cheek.
He greeted Cameron, smiling. Then he saw me. “Who’s this?”
“I’m Jed,” I said. Mr. Parker walked over to me, and I realized that he had big lips, just like Jerico’s. He stuck out his free hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Lonnie.”
I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you too.”
He moved away and set Annelies down. “I’ve got to go shower and change, but I look forward to getting to know you, Jed.”
I smiled and he went upstairs. Cameron assured me that he was a really nice guy, and I nodded. Seeing him hold Annelies so tightly, as if he loved her like she was his own child, had reopened some kind of wound in my heart. I wanted to cry, so I avoided Cameron’s eyes and stared at the TV.
“If you need to shower, I bet Terin’s done,” Cameron told me. “You could probably borrow some of his clothes.”
I shook my head, not trusting myself to talk.
“No offense,” Cameron said, laughing a little, “but you kinda smell like a dumpster or something.”
I took a deep breath and managed a smile. “I meant that I have clothes. I don’t need to borrow Terin’s. My clothes just need to be washed.”
Cameron’s face turned red. “Oh. Well, I can show you where the washer is.”
I told him that sounded good, so I grabbed my backpack and he led me upstairs. We went into the bathroom, which was foggy from Terin’s shower, and Cameron showed me that the washer and dryer were behind the door. “Maybe you could borrow something so you can wash the clothes you’re wearing, too.”
I agreed. He disappeared to the room that had been closed earlier in the day. I put all of my clothes that I wasn’t wearing into the washer and put soap in. When Cameron came back with clothes, he handed them to me and waited outside while I changed. The clothes actually fit me pretty well.
The washer was different than mine, so he had to show me how it worked, but once it was running, Cameron left again. I locked the door and turned on the shower. I stripped down and got in, turning up the water so that it was so warm that when it hit my stomach, my intestines shrunk back. The whole time I was in the shower, I thought about how nice these people were and how I could get used to living with them.
I really hope that I don’t have to think about home for a long, long time.