I could always tell when there was something wrong. The day I turned five was a day I would never forget. My mother, a young woman of twenty-three, was acting very strange. Instead of helping me get ready for what would be my birthday party, she moved around the little apartment, packing bags and suitcases. I wondered if it was because we were going somewhere. She would not tell me why she packed my favorite stuffed animals in a box. She would not tell me who was on the phone. I did not have a daddy, so I knew that was not who it was. Mommy seemed to be in a hurry. She kept giving me things to do so that I would stay out of her way. She didn’t want me to stop her from whatever she was doing.
“Go and get your blanket,” she said, pointing to my room. “They will be here soon.”
“Who, Mommy?” I asked, but she snapped her fingers and pushed me towards my room.
When I entered the little space, I noticed that all my things were gone. My bed was bare and my toy box was empty. There were boxes and plastic bags stacked by the door. My favorite blanket, the one with stars and rockets, was on the floor, sticking out from under the bed. I picked it up, holding it close, and returned to the front room. There was a lady standing there now. She was holding a clipboard while Mommy wrote something down.
“You must be Kari,” the lady said with a friendly smile. “I am here to take you for a ride. Would you like that?”
“The little she knows of what is happening, the better,” my mother said, shoving the pen into the lady’s hand. “Just take her and go.”
“Where am I going, Mommy?” I asked, terror rising in my chest. “Aren’t you coming?”
She didn’t look at me. She made a disgusted sound and turned away. The lady knelt, holding the board to her chest. She smiled and held out her hand.
“I have a TV in my car,” she said softly. “Do you have a favorite movie you like to watch?”
I hesitated, “Toy Story,” I replied, clutching to my blanket.
“That’s one of my favorites too. Would you like to watch it with me?”
The lady still held out her hand, waiting for me to take it. I looked at my mother, waiting for her to tell me what to do. When she did not say anything, I slowly took the hand extended to me. The lady stood and led me out the door. We took the stairs to the parking lot. There was a man standing next to the car where the lady was taking me. She motioned for him to stay and helped me into the back seat. She opened the little TV and turned it on.
“Is my mommy coming?” I asked, my eyes filling with tears. “Will she sit with me?”
“She has things she needs to do,” she replied softly. “We are going to have fun. You just watch the movie. I will get your things.”
I nodded slowly, letting the tears come out as I turned my attention to Woody and Buzz fighting in Andy’s car. I hid my face in my blanket, releasing soft sobs. A short while later, I heard the trunk close and the lady sat in the front seat with the man.
“She’s a sweet child,” I heard her say. “Her mother just wants her gone. She has the means to take care of her; the apartment would meet the standards if she were having problems with social services.”
“Not everyone is fit to be a parent,” the man said, grunting. “From the looks of that form, she had the child at a young age and is fed up. The child could be a troublemaker, for all we know.”
“She’s a child, not a crazy teenager.”
The car ride was silent the rest of the way. I tried to watch the movie, but found myself crying quietly into my blanket. It gave me some comfort, the familiar smells of my home. Where was I going? Why did my mommy not come with me? Who were these people? Why did they talk about me like that?
The car pulled to a stop, and the lady turned around and smiled softly.
“Would you like something to eat Kari?” she asked, pointing to the sign out the window. “We have a long drive and you will need to eat soon. What would you like? They have chicken nuggets and ketchup. They have fish sticks and fries.”
“What’s a fish stick?” I asked in a small voice.
“You’ve never had a fish stick before? Hmm, well then you are in for a treat. John, get a medium size portion of fish sticks. She’s small, but it will keep her busy until we get to our destination.”
The man, John, nodded and got out of the car.
“Your mother told me that today is your birthday,” the lady said, taking off her seat belt. “How old are you now?”
I held up five fingers, wiping my face with my blanket.
“Five years old, wow! And that is your favorite blanket? Do you like stars and rockets?”
I nodded slowly, holding the blanket tighter.
“You know, my name, Esther, means star.”
“Really?” I asked, sniffing hard.
“Yes,” Esther replied, nodding. “My dad would call me his shooting star, because I would run really fast.”
“I don’t have a daddy.”
Esther’s face fell. It was as if she already knew that I did not have a dad. John returned with two brown, paper bags and three cups. He gave the two bags to Esther, along with one of the cups. He turned and opened a cup holder that was in front of me. He placed the little cup in the holder, pushing a straw threw the hole in the cap. Esther handed me an open box. The smell of the sticks filled my nose, making my mouth water. There were two tiny cups of some kind of sauces. The red one was ketchup. The other one was yellow and smelled like honey with a mild smell of spice.
Esther watched me as I took a stick and dipped it into the yellow sauce. I took a slow bite; the stick was still warm. It was so good! This was a fish stick? And the yellow sauce was yummy too!
“Do you like it?” Esther asked, smiling.
I nodded and took another bite with ketchup. The car started to move again, and did not stop for a long time. John kept looking at me in the little mirror. Esther would turn around and ask me if I was okay, or if I needed anything. I drank the red juice slowly. It was very sweet and made my tongue red. The movie was still playing, but when it finished, Esther put on a different movie. Aladdin. I watched the movie until I slowly drifted to sleep.
When I woke up, the car was not moving and Esther was not in the front seat. I looked out the window, but I could not see very well. Esther was standing with another lady, talking and motioning to the car. The other lady nodded her head and came to the car. She opened the door and smiled at me.
“Hello Kari,” she said, touching my shoulder.
I flinched away from her.
“It’s okay,” Esther said, coming next to the lady. “She is going to help you. You are going to stay with her for a while.”
“What about my mommy?” I asked, clutching my blanket again.
“You will see her soon,” the lady said softly. “I am Anna; would you like to come and see your room? Esther told me that you like stars and rockets.”
I nodded slowly, letting her take off my seatbelt. She placed me on the ground and took my hand. John took a bag out of the trunk and gave it to Esther. She came with Anna and me into the house. There were other kids and a big, spotted dog in the living room. The big girls smiled and waved at me. The boys held the dog so that it did not run at me. One of the boys was no bigger than me, but he held onto the dog with a strong grip.
“Kids,” Anna said, letting go of my hand. “This is Kari; she is going to be staying with us for a while. I want you all to be nice and help her get comfortable. Jake, Ben; please, take Coco outside. He is scaring Kari.”
“Can I touch him?” I asked slowly, trying to show that I was not scared.
“Of course you can,” the smallest boy replied, nodding as he brought the dog to me. “Coco, sit!”
The dog sat in front of me, panting excitedly.
The boy took my hand and placed it on the dogs head. I giggled as the dog licked my fingers and then my face.
“He’s nice,” I said, holding my blanket away from him.
“Come Kari,” Anna said, taking my hand. “Let’s go see your room.”
Anna led me down a long hallway and into one of the last rooms. It was the same size as my room at home, but the walls were not white like mine. Instead, they were painted with lots of colors and the ceiling had many little green stars stuck to it. There was a mobile of planets hanging in the middle of the ceiling, just like outer space. The bed was a princess bed, but the blankets were covers in stars and rockets.
“Do you like it?” Anna asked, kneeling beside me. “I tried to make it feel like your old room.”
I nodded and clutched my blanket to my chest.
“Would you like to go play with the other kids?”
I nodded again and followed her back out of the room. Anna led me to the circle and had me sit next to the little boy and the dog. She went and began to talk with Esther.
“Do you know how to play Go-Fish?” one of the big girls asked, passing cards to everyone.
“I never played,” I replied in a small voice.
“We can teach you. I am Lola, and that is Susie-“ she pointed at the other girl. “You met Coco and Jake. And this is my brother Ben. Susie is leaving tomorrow, but she is really cool.”
I looked around, feeling out of place and alone. I looked at Jake; he smiled. I smiled back and looked at the cards in my hand. Coco rested his head on my leg. I carefully touched his thick fur. I tucked my blanket under my arm while I played, afraid to lose it.
I turned around and looked at Esther.
“I will be back tomorrow to see you,” she said, smiling. “Have fun, okay?”
I nodded slowly, but did not look away as she left. Anna sighed and closed door behind her. She came and joined us on the living room floor, sitting with her arms around Jake. She kissed his cheek and smiled at the game. I looked away and closed my eyes. My mommy never hugged or kissed me like that. Was Anna Jake’s mother? Did she love him?
“Kari, what’s wrong?” Lola asked, a hand touching my shoulder.
I shook my head and hid my face in my blanket. I inhaled the scent. The hand squeezed my shoulder gently.
“It’s going to be alright sweetie,” Anna said; but she was not talking to me.
The hand on my shoulder was gone. I looked up, tears in my eyes and saw that Jake was watching me. He stood and held out his hands. I looked at it for a moment. I stood, clutching my blanket in one hand as I took Jake’s hand in the other. He led me down the hall to one of the rooms. It was just like my new room, but the bed was a racecar. He went into the toy chest and pulled out a big stuffed star with a smiling face, and a rocket hanging off one of the tips.
“This helps me when I feel sad,” he said, handing it to me. “You can use it, if you want.”
I looked into his brown eyes as I took it gently. It was very soft and made me feel better immediately.
“It’s magic,” Jake said, nodding. “A very special magic.”
“Thank you,” I said, holding the star with my blanket.
Jake smiled and led the way back to the living room. We sat back in the circle, but I did not play the game. I clutched the star to my chest, feeling a little better as I watched the others play. Anna stood and went to get the phone. Now and then, Jake would show me his cards and grin. I smiled back, but did not say anything. Anna opened the door and a man came in. He was smiling as he greeted each of the kids. When he looked at me, he held out a red lollipop. I hesitated.
“It’s okay,” Jake said, smiling. “He’s my dad.”
I looked at the lollipop and took it slowly. He smiled and scratched Coco’s ear.
“It is nice to meet you, Kari,” he said, sitting in the circle. “I am glad you are here, because we are going to have a lot of fun. It is Susie’s last night with us and we are going to have a party. Someone told me that you are turning five today, right?”
I nodded slowly.
“Would you like to have a cake?” Susie asked, smiling. “I love making cakes. Anna showed me.”
I nodded again, but did not say anything. Jake jumped up and ran down the hall. I looked at his dad, slowly letting a smile grow on my face. He was friendly and kept touching my nose, which made me giggle.
“Jake is our only little boy,” he said with a sigh. “But we love all the kids that come to stay with us. I hope you like it here. I hope you get to stay for a long time.”
Jake returned with a coloring book and a box of crayons. He held them out to me, grinning.
“Do you like to color?” he asked.
I nodded and took them from him. I went on my stomach, stuffing the star and my blanket under me. The book was about stars and rockets, and other things from space. I smiled at Jake and began to color until Anna called us to eat.
Later that evening, after everyone was dressed and ready for bed, Anna and Jake’s dad, Dave, brought out a book to read. It did not look like any storybook I had ever seen before, but I wanted to listen to it. Jake and I sat on the couch, while the other kids sat on the floor. Lola was doing Susie’s hair and Ben was rubbing Coco’s belly. I held my blanket to my chest, wrapping it around my neck for warmth. Jake hugged the stuffed star, grinning eagerly.
“Let’s read what happened after God sent the ten plagues to Egypt,” Dave said, opening the book to the page. “Does anyone remember what the ten plagues are?”
Jake’s hand shot into the air and waved. After looking around the room for a moment, Dave chuckled and nodded.
“The first plague was when Moses changed the water to blood,” Jake explained, making a face. “No one could drink it, but God’s people had clean water. The next plague was the frogs, and then the gnats and the flies. Then God made all the animals sick, but not the animals of His people. Next, God made the people of Egypt get really sick, and they had big bloody cuts all over their bodies. Then there came hail, then the locusts, and then darkness covered Egypt. The tenth plague was the angel of death. All the first children died.”
“That is very good,” Dave said, clapping. “But you missed some very important details. Every time God sent a plague, the pharaoh would call Moses to come see him so that he could take the plague away. He said he would only let the people of God go if the plague was taken away. But when the plague went away, Pharaoh told the people of God to go back to work. The people of God did not go free until after the angel of death took all the first-born children of the Egyptians. None of the Egyptians wanted God’s people around them anymore, so they left straight away. Do you know what happened when the people came to the Red Sea? The pharaoh changed his mind and wanted God’s people to come work again. God wanted to test His people, to see if they would trust Him to help them.”
“God sent the cloud of fire to keep the Egyptians from attacking,” Jake said in a silly voice. “Then Moses put out his staff, and the waters opened a dry path. God’s people could walk to safety.”
“He takes after you,” Anna said, laughing. “That’s right, Jake. And when the people made it across the water, God allowed the cloud of fire to leave, and the Egyptians tried to cross the water too. It was another test for God’s people. But then God made the water cover the Egyptians, and His people were so happy to be free that they began to sing and dance.”
I listened in awe. I had never heard of this story and wondered why my mother never told it to me. I looked at Jake; he smiled and hugged his stuffed star. I smiled and looked back at Anna and Dave.
Story time ended and we were told it was time for bed. Dave and Anna gave everyone a hug and kiss. Dave smiled and took my hand as we walked to my room. He helped me into the bed and tucked me in.
“Sweet dreams little princess,” he said as he turned on the night light. I rolled over, clutching my blanket as I closed my eyes.
My sleep was interrupted by the sound of banging. I sat up, frightened as I looked that the closed door. It opened slowly and in popped Jake’s head. His eyes were wide with terror as he closed the door and came to the bed. Without saying anything, I scooted over and he climbed in with me.
“There’s a weird man here,” Jake whispered as we scrunched into the corner of the bed, furthest away from the door. “Mom and Dad did not see me, but the man looked angry.”
I said nothing, frozen with fear. A short while later, there were two loud banging noises, nothing like the loud bang of a slamming door. This sound was different and more terrifying. For a moment, there was silence and then a pair of loud screams. Jake and huddled together, covering our ears. The door swung open, Ben and Susie ran in and joined us on the bed. As strange as it was, we all clung to each other for dear life.
“Lola is calling for help,” Susie said, rubbing my back and hugging Jake close. “Ben, come here.”
Ben sat closer and placed his arms around all of us. Jake and I cried with fear. Ben was frozen and pale. I knew Susie was just as scared as the rest of us, but she did a good job hiding her terror. It was not until Lola opened the door that we moved. She had tears on her cheeks and she held the storybook Dave had been reading. Ben got up and went to hug her.
“Someone is coming to help us,” she said in a low voice. “Everyone stay in this room until they come.”
Susie nodded, hugging Jake close and me. We all sat in silence, waiting and listening. I wondered why Anna and Dave did not come to us. I wondered what the loud banging noise was and why Lola looked like a ghost. I wanted to say something, but I could not find my voice. As scared as I was, I squeezed Jake’s hand and felt better. He squeezed it back, giving me a pained smile.
A short while later, the door opened and Esther walked in. motioned for us to come. Jake and I still held hands as we all walked out of the room and up the hallway. The house was filled with people, mostly people in uniform. Esther ushered us through the front room very quickly. I only had a quick glimpse at the large bags that were in the living room. When we came outside, Esther put us all into a minivan and closed the door.
“I need my star,” Jake said in a small voice. “I forgot my star.”
“She will get it for you,” Lola said, hushing him. “She just wants to protect our eyes right now.”
I looked at my blanket and then at Jake. I handed him the blanket. He slowly took it and squeezed my hand. Esther returned and she was holding the star. It was as if she knew how much it mattered to Jake. Did she know his family?
“Everything is going to be alright,” Esther said, trying to keep her voice calm. “I am sorry all this is happening, but I need you to just help me and be good kids. I do not know what will happen to each of you, but I promise that you will all go to nice people.”
“You mean . . .” Jake’s voice trailed off and squeezed his stuffed star.
My bottom lip quivered. I did not need anyone to tell me what the noise had been. I did not need anyone to tell me what had happened to Anna and Dave. I leaned my head against Susie, clutching my blanket to my chest. I closed my eyes, trying to block out the bright flashing lights. I do not know how long I had my eyes closed, but when I opened them again, I was in a new bedroom. Susie was gone. Lola and Ben were gone. Jake was also gone.
I looked around and recognized a few of my stuffed animals from my home. The one thing that was missing was my blanket. I could not find it anywhere. When I looked at the floor, I saw Jake’s stuffed star. I climbed out of the bed and clutched it to my chest. What was going to happen to me?