Chapter Theme Song: 'Here With Me' by Dido.
"When is papa coming back, Amie?"
I glanced over at my seven-year-old brother, snot smeared beneath his nose as he peered up at me with vibrant brown eyes, ones a clear mirror of mine.
I pursed my lips and wounded my arm around his thin body, pulling him into my side. "Soon, Adam, soon."
I had no idea how to tell my little brother that our father was never coming home again. Not later, not soon, not ever. Because he was six feet under and had been for over a month. I was only ten and being left alone with Adam was too much of a burden to bear. But the fat lady who smelled of ripe strawberries promised we'd be alright soon. That's why we were sitting in this smelly building, with telephones ringing every two seconds and people in white collars gawking at us as though we were beggars. They brought me a new dress and Adam a new pair of shoes, telling us to sit well and behave ourselves. As if two broken and sad children would disrupt the environment. The lung cancer that ate away at our father left us alone and desolate, having to rely on the state to eat our meals.
The large mahogany doors to the building opened, noises from the busy metropolitan city filtering through the office. A man in a Panama hat, a tall black coat, and a brown cane stepped into the room, a lady who was a few inches taller than him following close behind. Her heels clicked against the ceramic floors as her icy eyes scoured the room. I pulled Adam closer when the woman's gaze landed on us, a brief look of displeasure appearing on her face.
The fat lady, who promised us happiness, stood quickly from the front desk with a bright smile molding her thin lips. Her broad hips swayed at each step she took toward the two prestigious people. "Mr. and Mrs. McKay, thank you for coming on time. Can I get you anything to drink?"
"No, thanks," the woman waved her hand, "where is she?"
"They." The man with the cane corrected. "It's a boy and a girl."
"There they are." The front desk lady motioned to us, and I squeezed my brother tighter, hating the way the tall lady was looking at us. As the man was about to leap forward, she dug her long red nails into his clothed arm.
"Kai? You didn't tell me there was a boy too."
"Yes." He looked back at her, nostrils flaring a bit. "Mr. May had two children."
"No, I am sorry. I already have three boys." The woman, Mrs. McKay said. "I won't take them."
Take them? Fear welled in my stomach at those words, and my brother looked up at me with innocent confusion. I smiled down at him, trying to tell him that everything was okay. But I wasn't so sure of that myself.
"Meredith. You promised not to make a fuss out of this." Mr. McKay spoke. "Mr. May was a loyal worker of mine, and I promised him I'd take care of his children when he passes away."
I instinctively placed my palms over my brother's ears.
"He's now dead, and I have to keep my promise; they have no one. You know Mr. May had no relatives."
Mrs. McKay sighed and shook her head. "Are we garbage bins? To just clean up everyone's junk?"
"Meredith." He hardened his glare.
"Fine. Do what you want, Kai. But just know that if this backfires, I won't help you clean up your mess."
"Thank you for accepting them."
"Them? No. What I said before still stands, Kai." The woman frowned. "I already have three boys; I cannot take another. The girl. I will only take the girl." She directed this to the lady in charge, and the woman looked over at us with uncertainty.
"They are too young to be separated. Is there no way you could take them both?"
Mr. McKay pulled his hat off and rubbed his shaved head, while his wife crossed her arms defiantly. "No. My house cannot hold five kids. What am I running, a daycare? It's either that or we won't take any at all."
My hands began to shake, worry pitching its tent in my chest. I didn't know what was really going on, but I knew it wasn't anything good. And maybe my brother could sense this too as he stared up at me with troubled eyes.
"Alright. I'll get the paperwork sorted out." The lady turned away to get her task done while Mr. McKay ambled over to where we were, smiling half-heartedly.
"Hi." He sat beside me, and I stared at him, my hands still pressed over my brother's ears.
His wife scoffed. "No manners already. Is this how she will behave when we take her home?"
"Meredith," he sighed pleadingly, and she huffed, turning away to inspect the posters on the grey walls. They were of different types of families and kids, painting the world as a beautiful place when all it was, was chaotic and unjust.
"You are going to be alright from here on out. You will be living with me now, and I will ensure that you're alright."
I pressed harder against my brother's ears, not wanting him to hear what I would ask next. "Adam...will he...be coming with me?"
The man's face softened, and though young, I knew what that meant. It was the look my father often gave when he didn't get us Christmas presents. Simply because he couldn't afford to.
"Your brother will be getting a new home too. Just not with you. But it's okay because at least you guys won't be lonely anymore. I have three boys, and I know you will love them. You won't even feel like your brother isn't around. It would be like he's still there."
Tears foamed within my eyes, and I sniffed, my lower lip quivering. "I don't want to go with you."
"Don't cry." He looked at his distracted wife then back at me. "Don't cry or Meredith won't let you come with me. And you would be left here again for another family to take. You will love it at my house. There is a pool there, plenty of toys, everything you would ever need."
"I want to stay with my brother."
He opened his mouth to reply, but the front desk lady appeared again. "Alright, she's all yours now. I will have to take the little baby into foster care."
My eyes rounded, and I craned my neck as he got up, pleading with my eyes for him not to take me.
"Alright, thanks." He accepted a brown envelop from the lady, and his wife walked over, her face still twisted in disdain.
"All this paperwork for what? It's not like you changed her last name to McKay." Then her eyebrows furrowed. "You didn't change her last name, did you?"
"No, I did not, Meredith."
"Good." She walked over and held my arm. "Let's go."
I yanked my body away, snuggling closer to my brother. "No..."
"Amelia." The child services lady approached me. "She's your new guardian now, sweetie. You will be leaving with them."
"No." Tears slipped down my face. "I am not going. I want to stay with my brother."
Adam was like this. Whenever I cried, he automatically cried too. And then I would cry more because he was crying. He hiccupped through his sobs and I hugged him tighter, shaking my head.
"Please leave us alone."
"Amelia." The lady, the liar, who promised us contentment gripped my arm and tried to tear me away from my brother. Was this the happiness she had promised merely hours ago? Because it wasn't looking like happiness to me.
"Come, let him go."
"No! Let go of me!"
She used all her strength to pull me away, lifting me into her pillowy arms while I kicked and squirmed, crying to be released. My brother was full-on bawling now, one of the white-collared people trying to calm him down. I felt my body being carried away as I stretched my hands out, my throat raw from my screams. My brother's figure faded more and more and so did his wails as the woman tore us apart like ripping band-aid from skin.
"Put me down, you pig!" I screamed, attacking her chest with my tiny fists, one of them almost catching her in the eye. She drew her head back as Mr. McKay opened the backseat so she could put me in. "Put me down now! I want my brother! PUT ME DOWN NOW!"
"Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. Look here already." Mrs. McKay shook her head, standing afar off.
"Amelia, behave." The lady lowered me into the car, and I instantly tried to get out from over her shoulders. She got a little rough and stuffed me in before quickly slamming the door, almost breaking my pinkie finger.
I hit at the tinted windows, crying to come out.
"Hey, hey, hey, if you break my window, I break your nose," Meredith said as she glared at me from the passenger's seat.
"Don't say that to her." Her husband spoke up as he climbed around the wheels. "Amelia, sit back and put your seatbelt on."
I drew my feet up on the seat and cried my heart out as the car peeled away. I twisted my neck around, and with tearful, red eyes watched as the Child Services building faded into the distance. My brother would spend most of his childhood not knowing why his papa didn't come back, and even worse, not knowing why his sister never came back either.
"Get out." Mrs. McKay stood by the door, ordering me to abandon the warmth of the box they had stuffed me into an hour ago. The cold London air almost froze me over as I climbed out onto the pavement, staring up at the massive house in front of me. If it weren't for that mansion that stood so tall on the hill, I would have put up more of a fight, but I was unwillingly sucked into its unfamiliarity.
It looked like a castle, stretching so way up I was certain it touched the sky. It was plain, and I had grown up believing that a huge plain home was better than a tiny one, no matter how dull and ugly it looked. The walls were cream and appeared like something from the 1980s. I began to wonder if living here would make me a princess, and the thought pained me that Adam was not here to witness it. The tears returned, but before I could resume my tantrum saga, I felt a rough cold hand clamped around my arm. Mrs. McKay's wedding band sunk into my skin as she pulled me with her toward the castle, my thin black hair billowing in the salty breeze. A sea was nearby the vicinity, I could smell it, and it made my heart tangle in grief. Adam would have loved the sea too.
"Open the door." She ordered at a man on the wide Foyer. Two tall posts stood adjacent to the large brown doors of the house, resembling something from those Jewish movies that papa used to watch. Mr. McKay was logging behind, taking his time with his cane. He was still as young as my father, and it confused me as to why he was using a stick for old people.
The man in full black did as the woman instructed, and she hauled me inside, half of my petite body yanking up due to the force she carried me with. "Ms. Madonna? Round up the boys."
An older lady in a white blouse and a black skirt bowed with reverence before walking briskly to the long staircase that led to the second floor. Inside was just as ancient as the outside. A tall statue of a horse stood in the corner of the living room, the chandeliers were old-fashioned and huge, and the walls were covered with long, gold curtains. It felt like something from Aladdin.
And I felt so small, not much like a princess, but more like a prisoner. I felt constricted.
As I looked around the spacious room with an anxious heart, my vision landed on someone on the top floor, standing behind the ironwood railings. A little boy, dressed in a white dress shirt and black slacks, his hair gelled back and his gaze unsmiling. His hands were hidden in his pockets as he stared at me emotionlessly from between the banisters.
"Come now." Ms. Madonna appeared from a room with two other boys that looked exactly like the first. The said one kept staring at me as he followed his doublegangers down the long stairs. They were all wearing white shirts and black slacks, their hair sheened with some form of gel.
"Boys, this is Amelia." Mrs. McKay said, and in my peripheral view, I saw her husband retrieving a glass of water from someone. "She will be living with us now."
"Like a sister?" The one in the middle raised an intrigued brow. A strand of his curly hair had escaped from his sleek back, giving me an easier way to differentiate between the three of them. But it was not so difficult with its absence either. The one on the far right was shorter than the two and slightly thinner, the one with the spoiled hair-do had a slight split in his chin, and the one who creepily stared at me from the stairwell had prettier blue eyes soaked in mischief. I immediately drew the idea that he was the troublemaker, judging by the way his button was opened at the top. His stance screamed it all too, the way he stood uninterestedly with his palms shoved into his slacks.
"Yes, like a sister. Always remember that. Introduce yourself." She jabbed me on the back, and my glassy eyes looked among the boys.
"I am Amelia May..." I muttered. "I am ten..."
Mischief boy shook his head and scrunched his face, spoiled hair-do nodded with a small smile, and the shorter brother only looked on as though he couldn't care less about what's happening.
"Good, now boys, introduce yourselves."
"I am Kanan," The one in the middle grinned. "I like watching serial killer movies. I am eleven. He's Keegan." He pointed to the shorter one. "He likes reading, and he hates people. And he is—"
"Don't tell her my name." Mischief boy frowned.
"Khalil." Mr. McKay roared.
"But dad, I don't want her to know my name!"
"Because..." He shifted a bit as though he couldn't find a solid reason. "Because she's ugly!" He pointed, and my eyes welled with tears. "Her head shapes like a potato. Potato-face!"
"Khalil, behave yourself." Mrs. McKay tried to cover her smile. "She will be your sister from now on."
"No! She will never be my sister. Never on this earth. I don't like her; she's too ugly to be my sister. Look at her dress. She looks like a beggar."
Warm tears streaked down my face and I wiped them away with a shaky hand.
"Cry all you want, cry-baby!" Khalil said, and his father grabbed him by the shoulder.
"Go upstairs and think about your actions!" He rebuked. "All three of you!"
Kanan opened his mouth. "But Dad, I didn't—"
The triplets turned away, but not before Khalil sent me his pink tongue. My lip trembled as he discreetly jerked me a middle finger from the top floor before he disappeared around the corner.
"Tired of those brats." Mr. McKay complained, and his wife turned to him.
"Don't be ridiculous. You didn't think they would easily accept her now, did you?"
I looked up, and he looked down at me before glaring at her. "Be careful of what you say."
She pressed her lips together and groped my hand, pulling me over to Ms. Madonna. "Get rid of her ugly dress and let her take a bath."
The dress was not at all ugly. It was cheap, but it was not ugly. The child services people had bought it for me, but I guess you couldn't take the poor out of the poor, no matter what they wore.
Ms. Madonna got rid of the dress as her madam had ordered, and I relaxed into the soapy waters while the woman combed my hair. She would grunt and mutter each time the comb got stuck in the knots, and as a result, dragged my hair so hard my scalp throbbed. She scrubbed my skin as though I hadn't bathed in years, and the sponge felt like sandpaper against my undernutritious body at each swab she made. When she was through, she pulled my now silky hair into a ponytail and gave me a plain cream dress with a flowered neckline to wear. I instantly felt cold and asked her if I could get a pair of pants instead.
"No. You are not allowed to wear pants. Ms. Meredith is very serious when it comes to dressing with dignity."
Dignity? How was wearing pants not having dignity? It was ridiculous, but I was too young, too in need to fight against that.
I left the bathroom, and Madonna promised to bring cut-up fruits to my room as dinner had already been served earlier that afternoon. As I passed by a room in the hall, I heard mumbling behind the large brown doors and stopped to listen.
"Mother, when will she leave? I don't like her."
"Very soon. I am still trying to convince your father, Khalil."
"Okay, my son." She chuckled. "Get some sleep now."
"No, it's too early to go to bed."
My eyebrows furrowed in dejectedness as I turned around, meeting up on Kanan who was standing with a slanted smile on his face. Now dressed in silky pajamas and his hair a flurry mess on his head, he hoisted a single eyebrow.
"Woah. You look pretty now." He grinned, and I pursed my lips.
The door to the room opened. Khalil broke in his tracks, his purple pajamas sparkling under the lamplight, and his mother not too far behind him. He looked from his brother to me. "Pft. She still looks ugly. Potato-face."
His mother laughed, quickly trying to cover it up with a humph. "Khalil. What did I say about being rude to her?"
"Nothing. You said nothing." He answered, all too honestly.
My heart plummeted as he walked past me, stopped, then looked over at his brother. "Mom is giving me milk and cookies. So come if you want some. Don't talk to her."
"Can she come too?" Kanan's face lit up.
"No." Meredith shook her head. "Cookies are too sweet, and I have no money for the dentist when she gets cavities."
"But Mom, Dad is rich."
"Shh, Kanan, your father's money is not mine. Madonna will bring fruits for her soon."
Kanan nodded, then looked back at me. "You're going to love the apples. Madonna always gets them extra fresh."
I smiled a little, and by now his mom had already descended the staircase.
"And maybe tomorrow, I can show you my dead frog collection."
"No, that is our thing; don't show her anything!" Khalil grabbed his brother's arm and dragged him with him down the stairs.
And with deep melancholy, I turned away and located the bedroom Madonna had shown to me earlier. It was big, with a giant bed, wardrobe and a small Tv. The pieces of furniture were ancient but likely expensive and I wondered if some of them were made from real gold. The thought was short-lived as lost moments and memories of Adam came swirling in my mind. I sat on the edge of the soft bed for several minutes, and after eating the fruits I was given, went to bed crying for my father and brother.