Daniel (Danny) Lance Wright, Author

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Defining Family" - Chapters 1 & 2 - Enjoy - It's free.

Published by
Whiskey Creek Press
PO Box 51052
Casper, WY 82605-1052
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Lance Wright
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copy-righted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
ISBN: 978-1-61160-245-6
Cover Artist: Gemini Judson
Editor: Marsha Briscoe
Printed in the United States of America 

Chapter 1
“Make it stop!” She sprang awake in a heartbeat. Sleep abruptly ended for Samantha Echols. The seventeen-year-old again endured a psychologically scarring episode. Sexually abused by her parents at the age of twelve imprinted her with a nightmare a night for five years and counting, coloring her world with broad strokes of anger-tinged sadness.
Long straight copper red hair stuck to dampness across her forehead. She gathered a double fistful of the sheet and pressed it to her face. “God, please make the dreams go away,” she muttered.
A defining life’s event hardened her heart, maybe irreversibly. Like all mornings, her skin crawled, feeling unclean. She pushed around and sat on the edge of the bed. As her feet touched the cool tiles, it comforted. She became grounded—something solid and in the present.
Again denied a restful night, Saturday was off to a bad start, but no worse than other mornings. She pushed sticky strands of hair from her forehead, wrapping them around her ears. Pulling the sweat-soaked oversized t-shirt away from breasts dappled with pale freckles, she let it spring back, hugging the contours. It chilled her. She shivered. Quickly, she pulled it over her head and tossed it across the room.
Pressing heels of her hands into closed puffy eyes, she clenched her jaws and growled, grinding her teeth, throwing her head side to side, as if the seared image might be shaken from her memory. She whimpered. If God can’t help me, who’s going to?
Her parents remained in prison for what they had done. She knew where and that knowledge tugged at her, keeping the sordid affair in a strange perspective. It circled at the fringe of anger. They were her only family, regardless how badly they’d treated her. She clung to hope that a happy Leave It To Beaver world was out there somewhere and someday it’d be hers. If—no, not if—when that happened, she wondered if her parents would be part of it.
A sharp rap on the bedroom door startled her.
“Hey, Sam,” came a young voice. “Breakfast is ready.”
She pushed her leaden body up and stood. She swayed, still sleepy, wanting to drop back into bed. “Whatever,” she replied to the young voice on the other side of the closed door.
She teetered, contemplating sneaking back under the blanket for a while longer. She swiped a trickle of perspiration from her chest as it snaked down off her neck then noticed dim light through the cracks of the window blinds.
She stepped to the window and poked a finger between metal slats of the blinds, pulling one down. She peeked out.
Rain! Give me a break, for Christ’s sake. She chewed the in-side of her cheek, straining eyeballs far left then right, then up, looking for the tiniest patch of blue. There was only socked-in gray.
That meant confinement indoors, maybe for the entire day. Not so bad under normal circumstances but The North Texas Home for Children was not ordinary. This cottage housed eight pre-teens that screamed loudest when they couldn’t play outside—not to mention three other teens that bickered incessantly.
She shuffled toward a pile of dirty clothes in a corner, rescuing a faded pair of blue jeans from the washing machine for one more day. Falling onto the bed, she pulled both legs on at once—buttoned them, zipped them and back on her feet before the bed stopped bouncing.
Lightning flashed, luring her back to the window. She gazed at the cottages across campus. Thunder rattled metal blinds. Hers was cottage thirteen of thirteen—an appropriate complement by her reckoning. Sheets of water ran off roofs of featureless brick boxes. No character, no charm—a state supported institution she called home.
Thinking back to yesterday, Friday, she’d stared out the window during English class, chin propped on palm, admiring the sunny day, eager for that day to end and the weekend to begin. The plan was simple, the pleasure tremendous—stay outside all day. That’s all she wanted, to be alone under a sunny sky on a mild October day. Despite cynicism, she allowed hope to snake its way in that that was how Saturday would go down.
As she looked to the dreary skies, searching for that elusive sliver of blue, it became obvious she needed to work harder at preventing optimism. It betrayed her time after time. Great day for frogs and funerals, but… She snickered, letting the blind slat snap back with a sharp metallic pop.
She pulled her long copper-red hair into a ponytail then bound it with a rubber band while hunting for a shirt. As she flipped from one hanger to the next in the closet, nothing looked appealing. So, it was back to the pile in the corner. She snatched up the first shirt she saw, sniffed it, screwed up her nose and pitched it back onto the heap. Digging deeper, she uncovered a favorite oversized button-up man’s flannel shirt. She fanned away accumulated mustiness and put it on, then rolled the sleeves up to the elbows.
She yawned. I should get laundry over with early. But why? It’s not like I have anything else to do.
As she finished buttoning the shirt, there came another rap on the door.
“It’s Saturday, for Pete’s sake!” she shouted. “Go away!”
“Sorry, Sam,” said the muffled young voice. “Mrs. Blanchard told me to get you. We’re all waiting for you in the dining hall.”
“What’s the big deal?” she yelled, then muttered, “It’s just breakfast.” She closed her eyes and summoned calm, realizing the attitude was nothing personal against Mrs. Blanchard or her husband, just the situation. They were cottage parents, the enforcer and the fixer. It’s sort of like assembly-line parenting. She smirked.
Her parents had been convicted by a court and confined for their crime against her but that same court might as well have ruled against her, too, because her situation was no bet-ter. Inevitability of the near future had been cast, the daily ritual continued—complaining, hoping, giving up, then moving on.
Concern for Mr. And Mrs. Blanchard was genuine. They had twelve children to look after—not an easy thing to do. It had been a willing life’s choice. It showed heart. Samantha admired them.
Moving to a mirror mounted in a substantial chromed steel frame securely bolted to the wall, she attempted smoothing wrinkles from her shirt. At five-foot-eight and the tallest resident of the cottage, aside from Mr. Blanchard, she had to stoop to see the top of her head in the mirror. She primped, but that didn’t provide even a moment’s escape from reality. She noticed things that shouldn’t have given her pause, the trickle of perspiration on her temple, the stark glossy gray wall, even the ugly utilitarian nature of large bolts holding the mirror to it. Her bedroom had no more warmth or charm than a service station restroom.
“Just one more year, Sam,” she said to her reflection. She palmed perspiration from her face and headed out to the dining hall for breakfast. Opening the bedroom door, she stepped into the hall, muttering, “Just one...more...year.”
Two younger residents ran by, giggling, cutting her off and compromising balance. She fell against the wall. “Hey, Munchkins, watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry, Sam,” one of the little girls said over her shoulder. “Mrs. Blanchard said she had important news and wanted everyone in the dining hall right now.”
She couldn’t care less, sauntering, yawning, and scratching her head with every finger of both hands.
When she turned into the dining room, she stopped abruptly. Something was different. It was quiet.
Squinting against the glare of multiple rows of fluorescent lights bouncing off glossy and featureless light gray walls, she shuffled on in. The stark ambiance punctuated the less-than-homey atmosphere. One long table split the room, surrounded by fourteen chairs. No one was sitting. Everyone stood. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Mrs. Blanchard said. “Since you’re the oldest I thought you should hear what I have to say. I don’t want to repeat it, even for you.” She smiled at Samantha, but it wilted away. The old lady turned solemn.
The serious expression suited the old lady and seemed natural, more so than smiling. Appearing happy had to be in her job description, but way down the list around number twenty-two, or thereabouts. She may have a heart of gold but the scowl was priceless, right down to the rows of vertical wrinkles in permanently pursed lips. To Samantha, the old lady appeared as if she might be constipated when that expression showed up.
The younger children looked up to Samantha as they would an older sister or even a mother figure. The little ones migrated to her as she stepped in nearer Mrs. Blanchard. “What is it, Mrs. B? What’s wrong?”
The children crowded around her legs. One little girl reached for and held Samantha’s hand. Having grown accustomed to such attachments, she never denied a younger cottage mate a touch or a hug. A small boy wrapped his arm around her leg on the opposite side. The young ones stood so close, she dare not take a step or risk smashing a tiny foot. Like Samantha, they sensed something was wrong. One of them stepped on her bare toe.
“Ouch! Come on, y’all, spread out and give me some room.”
The only ones not crowding her were the other teens, standing together on the opposite side of the long table, fif-teen-year-old Aaron Branagh, sixteen-year-old Rebecca Andrews, and sixteen-year-old Amanda Plunkett.
“Don’t get angry, Sam. They’re just little kids,” Amanda said. “They’re curious.”
“Whatever,” Samantha said, cutting a warning glance at the skinny girl with the short, straight mousy brown hair, in no mood to be challenged and not awake enough to debate. Embedded in a yawn, she said, “Mind your own business.”
Mrs. Blanchard abruptly clapped her hands twice. “Children, what I have to say is difficult but it’s better you hear it from me than through the gossip-mill.” The old lady’s face tensed.
As the pause lengthened, kids whispered.
Finally, she asked, “Did any of you have a chance to know Janet Kaminski?”  
No one spoke.
“You know, that new fifteen-year-old girl in Cottage Seven. She’d only been on campus about a week.” The old lady’s eyes swept the group.
Samantha didn’t know her, hadn’t even heard her name before now. She looked around the room and saw clueless glances exchanged.
Irritated, Mrs. Blanchard said, “Surely, one of you knew her…or at least who she was. Are we doing that bad of a job staying acquainted with our neighbors in other cottages?”
“I…said hi to her on the school bus,” Aaron said. “She wasn’t very friendly. Kind of sad I think. But she did tell me her name. Is she in trouble?”
Mrs. Blanchard hinted a smile. “So you at least knew the one I’m talking about?”
“Yes, ma’am. What kind of trouble is she in?”
Mrs. Blanchard lowered her eyes. “She wasn’t in trouble. She—”
“Why are you speaking of her in the past tense?” Rebecca blurted. “Did she kill herself?”
Snickers randomly went up.
The old lady stood straight and took a deep breath. “Yes...sometime last night. I’d hoped to find a gentler way to tell you but I suppose it’s better to just put it out there. She hung herself from a pulley in the bus maintenance garage. She used a belt from one of the boys’ closets.”
Giggling and jostling stopped. Talk ceased.
Rebecca piped in, “It’s no big deal. She just decided to take a deeper nap than...well, deeper than any of us would.”
“Shut up, Becca,” Samantha hissed, shooting the chubby girl dressed in black an accusing stare.
“That’s enough! Both of you be quiet, please,” Mrs. Blanchard said, her voice descending to uncharacteristic softness, reestablishing respect.
“And to you, too,” Rebecca whispered to Samantha with an icy stare.
Forcing her lips tight together, Samantha wanted to fire a verbal barrage at the tattooed twit but held her tongue in deference to Mrs. Blanchard. Again, Rebecca challenged Samantha’s leadership role within Cottage Thirteen. Samantha vowed long ago to never let anyone gain an advantage over her again—anyone, ever. For now she confined response to narrowed eyes and a warning finger at Rebecca.
“Come on, guys,” Amanda said, “stop arguing.”
Aaron glanced approvingly at Rebecca and stepped closer to her.
Rebecca held that challenging stare on Samantha.
Aaron admired Rebecca in profile, smiling at such tenacity.
Finally, she broke the stare-off with Samantha and turned to Aaron. She grinned and winked at him.
Samantha shifted the warning stare to Aaron.
He noticed and ceased the amorous gaze at Rebecca, averting his eyes, lowering them to the floor as fast as possible.
As Mrs. Blanchard explained the circumstances of the suicide and how to deal with trauma, Samantha’s anger at Rebecca simmered. You fat little freak; you can do anything you like next year, but not while I’m still around.
* * * *
Rebecca refused to let Samantha threaten Aaron. She pulled her brow into an angry frown until Samantha’s accusing eyes shifted from Aaron to her. She held that cold look until Samantha seemed to show signs of discomfort. And then, with calculated precision, she drew a broad grin, showing deep dimples. She winked at Samantha.
Samantha simply resumed staring down Aaron.
Rebecca loved antagonizing the redhead. Samantha con-trolled the kids in cottage thirteen by intimidation, sort of like an over-manipulative mother. Rebecca had no intention of allowing that kind of influence over her.
She noticed Samantha seemed reluctant to release Aaron from her angry spell. That witch! She’s trying to make him back away since she can’t intimidate me. She put her lips to the skinny boy’s ear. “Don’t pay her any attention. Sam just has top-dogitis. She’s harmless...really.”
He looked at his toes then to Samantha in quick flicks then whispered sideways, “Okay.”
Mrs. Blanchard continued the speech on suicide, death, mourning, and all things related. The drone of it caused Rebecca’s mind to drift. Is death really that bad? I wonder if it’s not better to be the master of our that Kaminski chick. Her head tilted as she considered it. Maybe she was just practical about it, like me.  
Rebecca didn’t think of herself as abnormal but did everything possible to set herself apart. Raven’s black curls hung like Halloween crepe paper across overly made eyes darkened with liner and mascara, drawing attention to red lips, extending back to pale, dimpled cherubic cheeks; and this after having been forced to tone it down by Mrs. Blanchard.
In the year she wandered Houston streets, alone and homeless, she’d accumulated body piercings—ears, nose, tongue, eyebrows, bellybutton, and one other she thought it best not to share with anyone, certain that that piercing choice would not be understood. She didn’t understand it either. At the time it just seemed rebelliously cool. She also sported numerous tattoos. The most obvious, a blue lightning bolt outlined in red on the right side of her neck, beginning below the jaw, extending down to the collarbone.
Mrs. Blanchard said nothing to her about the ink but re-fused to allow body jewelry on the children’s home campus or at school. Then the matriarch changed the only other thing she had control of—over-the-top makeup. Ever the rebel, Rebecca kept jewelry jangling in her black cargo pants ready to insert in the appropriate holes and slits.
Although hardened by time alone, she harbored a weakness, unable to control a soft heart—an aggravating distraction, a battle the world never knew she fought. She struggled against pesky tenderness. Regardless how tense a situation might be, she fell short of becoming rude or cruel time after time. When emotion lumped her throat, she’d back off and resort to snappy verbal gaffs and crude humor that implied toughness. Watching Aaron stare at his feet, she smiled. The little guy is cute in a cowardly way. She winked and playfully puckered her lips. I’ll take care of you.
He glimpsed the come-hither look. His eyes snapped back to his shuffling toes.
Rebecca didn’t share with anyone her fondness for Aaron. Instead, she jokingly referred to herself as his body-guard. “Somebody has to protect him,” she’d say.
She threw her hair back provocatively, flicked her eye-brows and licked her lips, trying to regain his attention. She found it amusing.
“Ahem,” Mrs. Blanchard said, her brow sinking in the middle, hands on hips. “Is there something about all this that’s funny to you, Miss Andrews?”
“Uh, no, ma’am.” Cheeks reddening, she rejoined the group in facing Mrs. Blanchard, the enforcer.
As the cottage matriarch spoke, the pitch of the woman’s voice rose. The elderly gatekeeper of decorum and good morals announced that a memorial service had been scheduled at the church for Sunday afternoon and a brief graveside ser-vice Monday morning, attendance mandatory.
Janet Kaminski. Rebecca rolled the name over in her mind. I don’t have a clue what she looked like. She came, she went…end of story.
When breakfast ended, the children dispersed, quiet and subdued, the antithesis of how the morning meal had begun. Rebecca noticed the robotic appearance of the kids. We’re good little orphans and keep thoughts neatly tucked away. She leaned over to Aaron. “Come on. I’m going to the water well shed out back; keep me company.”
Together, she and Aaron nonchalantly left the dining room, picked up the pace down the hall, then turned into the kitchen and trotted to the back door. They stood for a time on the back porch, watching it rain. “I don’t know why I should be so secretive,” she said. “Everyone knows why I go out there.”
“I wouldn’t advertise it, if I were you.”
“True. If ol’ lady Blanchard knows what I’m doin’ and keepin’ quiet about it, I don’t want to force her hand. It’s best that I just keep my mouth shut and let that ol’ dog sleep.” She looked to the soggy skies.
Rain streamed in a sheet from the roof extension over the porch in front of them. She wondered if it might let up long enough to run to the small freestanding building across the yard without getting drenched. Even the cotton field be-yond the fence behind the well-house blurred out in the driving rain.
“You really should quit smoking though.”
In no mood for a lecture, Rebecca grabbed Aaron’s hand and yanked him out into the torrential downpour. “Okay, but not today.” She sprinted with him in tow to a small structure that housed a well pump about fifty feet from the back door of Cottage Thirteen.
Soaked, she slung the door open and shoved Aaron in first, crowding in after him. She stood close, as much for warmth as lack of space. The October rain was cold. They stood pressed together between the wall and the pressure tank. Water dripped from Aaron’s nose, ears and chin. She thought it comical and chuckled.
Aaron grinned and then swept cobwebs off the tiny window at his side. He blew the haze of dust from it, kicking up a brown cloud.
Rebecca coughed. “Hey, stop that,” she said, waving the settling particles away. “All I want in my lungs is good clean smoke. I don’t care to add this God-awful Texas dust to it.”
“Sorry.” He rubbed a spot clean and looked through the dirty window, surveying the soggy campus toward the maintenance garage. “It’s really comin’ down,” he said, speaking up to be heard over rain pelting the low corrugated tin roof over their heads. Absently, staring out the window, he wiped water from forehead to chin and slung it to the floor.
Rebecca shook her head like a dog. Water sprayed across Aaron’s front. “Good grief.” He wiped the fresh spray from his face.
She grinned as she reached deep into the right leg side pocket of her cargo pants and retrieved a flattened pack of cigarettes, pulling from it a well-mauled but unbroken one. She carefully straightened it between her fingers. As Aaron pulled the string on the bare light bulb above, Rebecca lit it and took a deep drag.
Aaron went back to peering across campus to where the girl had taken her life, the corrugated metal maintenance building that stood dark and empty. “Do you think that Kaminski girl was sad or…what?”  
“Can’t say for sure...but not necessarily.” She took another puff, inhaled, and then let it out slowly over the top of his head.
“I don’t understand. Why would she kill herself? Crap! She was only fifteen.”
Rebecca filled lips and cheeks with air, tipping her head slightly. She then blew it out. “Let me ask you a question; if you were at a party and didn’t want to be there and the peo-ple you met seemed to be wishing you were somewhere else, too…” She drew deep on the cigarette, blowing a smoke ring into his face. “Would you stay?”
He waved the smoke away and hacked. “Shoot no.”
“There ya go. Janet Kaminski was tired of this party and it was her only way out. That’s all.”
“Aren’t you scared of dying?”
“Look, Aaron,” she said, crushing the cigarette butt to a sizzling death on the dampened concrete floor, “you can’t go through life scared of every little thing. You had no say in be-ing born; you’ll have no say in dying. But you were and you will…somewhere, someday, somehow. There’s no if to it. It’ll happen.” She playfully put her finger on his forehead. “If you insist on worrying about it, you might forget to live in the meantime.”
Annoyed, Aaron pulled his head away faster than she could push.
She reached for his shoulders and pulled him close, forc-ing him to connect with her. “Promise me you’ll remember to live before that happens.”  
“Not good enough. Put your hand on your heart and promise.”
“Okay, okay.” He put his hand over his heart, rolling his eyes. “I solemnly vow to live a little.”
“That’s better.”
The capacitor on the pump motor clicked.
Aaron flinched as it whirred to life, replenishing water that serviced their cottage in the adjacent pressure tank.
“You’re a skittish little rabbit, ya know that?” She laughed.
“I can’t help it.”
“I know.” She popped his arm with a soft fist. “Come on. Let’s get back in the house. It’s cold out here.”
* * * *
The rain had let up. Trotting behind Rebecca, Aaron studied her. She ran slower, allowing time for an admiring look. I don’t care if Becca Andrews is overweight or dresses funny. I like her. Watching her chubby behind roll as she jogged toward the cottage, he tingled. A juvenile sense of decency kicked in. What am I doing? She’s like a sister!
As they came through the back door into the kitchen, Samantha and Amanda stood across the room, whispering. Amanda nervously toyed with a spatula.
Samantha seemed to be lecturing her but abruptly stopped when he and Rebecca appeared. “Is that smoke I smell?” she asked with a catty smile.
“If your upper lip’s on fire then I suppose that’s possible.” Rebecca puckered and kissed the air in Samantha’s direction.
Feeling insulated from Samantha’s intimidation, Aaron chuckled.
“Come on, guys,” Amanda said, pointing the spatula at one then the other. “Why don’t you two try getting along for a change? We all have to live together you know.”
“Quit your whining and go plunk yourself,” Rebecca said.
“Shut up, Becca!” Samantha snapped.
Rebecca recoiled in mock horror. “Ooh, sorry, Sam.” She bowed to Amanda. “I offer my sincerest apologies, Miss Plunkett.”
Aaron never had a bad thought about Amanda. Her tenacity was of a different stripe, always with pure heart and intentions. She worked at keeping peace. He was sympathetic. Her easy-going manner drew jokes and ridicule. She seemed to ignore it, but it bothered him.
I wish I could be as comfortable about this place as Amy. I wonder if she even remembers her family.
“Come to think of it, Amy’s right,” Rebecca said. “We do live here together. No choice there for sure. Maybe we should do something…for togetherness-sake, something to get the adrenaline flowing just for the heck of it, maybe even a little dangerous. Whaddaya say?”
Dangerous? He didn’t like that word at all. He shook his head, muttering, “No, I—I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh hush, you gutless wonder,” Samantha said. “You can’t know if it’s a good idea or not. We haven’t heard it yet.” She then looked suspiciously for some time at Rebecca and then finally folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Okay, Becca, what do you have in mind?”
If Samantha were hesitant to agree, Amanda would not go for any shenanigans. But Rebecca’s use of the word “dangerous” baited Samantha whom, he knew, would never cower from a risky proposition. Rebecca clearly worked that angle. Samantha might even twist it around as her own idea. Al-though Rebecca challenged Samantha’s leadership role, she didn’t want the title, preferring to manipulate the tall red-head. Rebecca usually got what she wanted even if Samantha did most of the talking.
Rebecca put a finger to her lips and paced in front of Samantha and Amy. She stopped and faced them. “How about we sneak out of the cottage at midnight, walk to the truck stop across the highway, and get hamburgers?”
Aaron watched three sets of female eyes dart from one to the other. A dare had been offered—a gauntlet thrown down. Even Amy bore an adventuresome look.
“Let’s do it,” Samantha finally said with a clap.
Aaron looked to Amanda. Her jaw slackened, thin lips parting as if slowly going into shock. But then she did the strangest thing; she smiled.
Aaron hoped that that was at the absurdity of the idea.
Then the unimaginable happened. Amanda’s smile broadened into an impish grin. “Why not? It may be against the rules but it sounds like a better way of spending Saturday evening. We’d only be gone for...what...about an hour?”  
“Sure. We’ll be back snug in our beds in no time,” Samantha said.
“If I have to spend another Saturday night watching a feature-length animated cartoon with the little ones,” Amanda said, “I think I’ll go crazy.” She slapped her forehead. “Duh, I forgot...I do! I deserve this.”
So certain was he that Amanda would vote against it, Aaron stood shocked. He thought he’d simply have to cast the tie vote and the issue would die a peaceful death. Suddenly out-voted, he regretted not voicing his opinion first. Now he couldn’t say anything or risk being the weenie Samantha believed him to be anyway.
Rebecca gave him a patronizing pat on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay. If we’re caught, the worst that’ll happen is we’ll be grounded for a couple of weeks.” She snickered. “And, good grief, we don’t leave the cottage anyway except to go to church or school; that’s not gonna change.”
Aaron fingered his ear, tugged his earlobe, and scratched his nose as he looked to the floor.
All three stared at him.
“Okay, okay. I guess I’ll go, too.”
As though it were a typical Saturday morning, the girls walked away to begin chores, chattering and laughing. Even Rebecca and Samantha suddenly seemed to be best friends.
He stood dumbfounded. I can’t believe I just agreed to that.
He looked to a pot hanging from a hook over his head and asked it, “What have I gotten myself into?”
He trotted to catch up.  
Chapter 2
“Becca, say the blessing please,” Mrs. Blanchard said.
Six children on one side of the long table and six on the other joined hands; Mr. Blanchard on one end, Mrs. Blanchard on the other completed the circle.
“If you don’t mind, Missus B, let’s let Amy do the prayin’ chores. Me and the Big Guy have sort of been at odds lately.”
Annoyed and reluctant, Mrs. Blanchard turned to Amanda and nodded.
Good grief, Becca... The cavalier attitude toward God miffed Amanda. She glimpsed Rebecca’s half-smile and wink as she bowed her head. Her tight face relaxed. She closed her eyes and recited a quick blessing, ending with, “…and thank you Lord for the wonderful food we’re about to receive. Amen.”
Rebecca and Samantha snickered.
“What’s the matter?” Mrs. Blanchard asked. “Doesn’t dinner look good enough for you two?”
Samantha and Rebecca glanced at a bowl of steaming spinach with sliced boiled eggs covering the top, emitting a faint sulfur smell, a platter loaded with meat, pork chops maybe, drowning in some kind of tomato sauce, and next to that a bowl of plain boiled potatoes that had no smell at all and likely no taste.
Amanda frowned at them as she tried to get their attention. She repeatedly flicked her chin toward the old lady—a subtle warning of Mrs. Blanchard’s building anger. They responded by sneaking glimpses at one another, stifling snickers.
“Becca… Sam…that’s enough! Eat!”
Amanda shot burning stares at both of them. Acting like that will get us caught for sure. She questioned the wisdom of going along with the daring plan to sneak out for a while. Still staring at them, she snorted softly and stabbed the pile of spinach in her plate. She lifted the fork and watched it sag like pond scum. She suddenly had no appetite.
* * * *
Lying in bed, Amanda read a well-worn Nancy Drew mystery by lamp light. She glanced at the glowing red digits of the alarm clock. It showed eleven forty-eight p.m. Her eyes flowed over the words of the novel but retained little of what she read. Anticipation kept her mind occupied else-where.
A sudden rasping scratch on the window screen startled her. She flinched and drew a quick breath then looked up into the grinning face of Samantha looking down at her from the bushes outside her window.
Amanda leaped up onto her knees and pushed the window up. “Y’all are early.”
“So what? Come on. I’m starving.”
No need to respond to such sage wisdom. Amanda put on her jacket.
Pulling the tabs to release the screen, she crawled through the open window. The chilled October night held moisture from the day’s rain. It smelled clean and was exhilarating. She drew a deep satisfied breath and blew it out. “Let’s treat ourselves to somethin’ good to eat.”
The foursome walked abreast up the dimly lighted paved street splitting rows of identical cottages. It resembled a sub-urban neighborhood of tract homes. They chatted in hushed tones, giggling, feeling devilish.
Abruptly, Amanda stopped walking.
“What’s with you?” Rebecca asked.
“What if that waitress, Connie… Connie—”
“Connie Morris? Is that who you’re thinking about?” Aaron asked.
“Yeah...her; y’all realize, don’t you, that she works nights at the truck stop? She and Mrs. Blanchard are friends. You know that, too, right?”
Smiles faded. The potential impact of big trouble loom-ing struck them all at the same instant.
“Well crap! I want a hamburger,” Samantha said. “I didn’t eat much dinner just so I could enjoy it.”
“Me too,” Rebecca said.
Aaron sighed. “I was so lookin’ forward to it.”
Spinning around in a huff, marching a couple of steps back toward Cottage Thirteen, Samantha stopped. “Wait! I know what we can do? Let’s borrow old man Neville’s pickup truck. It doesn’t belong to him anyway. It belongs to the Children’s Home maintenance department.”
Amanda saw the truck parked near the maintenance building.
Samantha took off in that direction.
“Wait just a doggone minute. Are you sure about this?”
The old truck was a dedicated work vehicle that Neville, the groundskeeper, used every day, no rear bumper, filthy, lots of dents. It set parked beneath one of only three street-lights on campus, as if under a spotlight. Amanda jogged to catch up. She hissed, “That’s stealing, Sam.”
Rebecca caught up to Amanda. “Don’t get bent out o’ shape, Amy. It sounds like a plan to me. We’ll drive to town to the Arrowhead Drive-In, have a good ol’ greasy hamburger and be back before anyone notices.” She snapped her fingers. “Easy-peezy, we’ll be in bed in less than an hour.”
Samantha didn’t wait for a consensus. She ran to the old truck and opened its door. Squeaky hinges echoed off the corrugated metal of the maintenance garage.
“Do you think we’re far enough away from the cottages?” Aaron asked. “This thing is noisy. The muffler’s busted.”
“I bet the maintenance garage will shield the noise,” Samantha said. After a quick search, her eyes landed on some-thing dangling from the ashtray. “Aha, the keys...our luck is holding.”
“Lucky? I’m not so sure about that,” Aaron said.  
Rebecca threw an arm over his shoulder and pulsed a hug. “Don’t worry so much.”
Samantha jumped into the driver’s seat, inserted the key and turned. The engine struggled to turn over a single time. “Well, maybe we’re not all that lucky after all.” She tried again. The engine managed another slow motion spin then another. Finally, it fired and started with an angry rumble. She gunned it. It roared.
“Don’t do that,” Amanda said, as she stood by the open driver-side door.
Samantha rolled her eyes. “Shut up and get in.”
If caught, this kind of trouble would get them more than grounded for a couple of weeks, but Amanda rationalized it. Someone had to keep Rebecca and Samantha out of trouble after all. “Okay...but let the record show I’m against this.”
“If I ever find the record book I’ll write it down for ya,” said Samantha. “Now get in and let’s go.”
Rebecca hurried Aaron into the passenger side and shoved him tight against Samantha. She jumped in and pur-posely butt-bumped him. Amanda was last. They crowded the single bench seat. The skinny girl slammed the door. “Ouch,” she said then whined, “there’s a bare spring pressing against my butt.”
“And to think…I was so worried you were going to be lonely tonight,” said Rebecca.
“Shut up,” Amanda said but then grinned and giggled.
Samantha laughed as she ground the gears. The old truck lurched forward in jerks. Finally smoothing, she stabbed it into second gear. “Not bad, considering I’ve only driven this standard shift once before and that was only from one end of campus to the other.”
Amanda held her nose against the odor of stale cigars, motor oil and gas fumes mixed with a musty layer of Texas dust on the dashboard. “Whew. It stinks in here.”
Rebecca laced her fingers behind her head. “Smells like heaven to me.”
Samantha suddenly sat straight. “Crap!”
Rebecca dropped her hands into her lap.
Amanda looked behind them, thinking someone might be following. “What is it? What’s the matter?” The Home was receding behind the old pickup truck as they drove past a field of bare stalks from a recently harvested cotton crop.
“Dadgummit!” Samantha rapped a fist on top of the steer-ing wheel. “The gas gauge is on empty.”
“Ya think it works?” Rebecca asked.
“I don’t know, but we’d better not ignore it.”
After a couple more miles, Samantha wheeled into the driveway of a darkened and closed service station, rolled to a stop and then killed the engine.
“Okay, guru of great ideas, what now?” Rebecca asked. “We certainly can’t fill up here. The pumps are off.”
Samantha tapped her teeth with a fingernail. “If we pool our money we can drive across town to that all night convenience store and fill up there.” She sighed. “But then we wouldn’t have enough money left for burgers. We’d just have to chuck it and go back to the Home and call it a night. Or…”  
Her eyes brightened.
Amanda looked across Rebecca and Aaron to Samantha. In a slow drawl, she asked, “Or, what?”
Samantha looked up the highway to the lights of town illuminating the night sky then back toward the home. There were no headlights in either direction. The road was deserted. “Or, we take that hoe and rake out of the back, pry open that soda machine over there and see if we can hit the jackpot.”
Rebecca reached across Amanda and opened the passenger side door and pushed the skinny girl out. “Then let’s get it done before someone comes along.”
“Stop right now! I didn’t agree to this. Y’all are out of your ever-lovin’ minds!” Amanda pointed down the highway from where they’d come from. “Take me back to the Home.” She then crossed angry arms over her chest and stood belligerently stiff.
Samantha didn’t seem interested in addressing her demand.
“Right now, I said! I want to go back this very instant!”
“Sorry, not gonna happen. Why don’t you stand over there out of the way,” Samantha said, pointing to the edge of the parking lot next to the highway. “That way you can hon-estly deny you had anything to do with it. Just be your sweet self until we’re finished.” Samantha jumped out and retrieved the two garden tools from the bed of the truck.
Amanda backed to the edge of the property near the blacktop. She twisted strands of short hair in tight spirals, skittishly bouncing on her toes, muttering, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” Like a bobble-head doll, she looked up and down the highway.
Samantha held out the hoe to Rebecca. “Here. You look like the ho’ type.”
“Shut up.” She snatched it from Samantha’s grasp.
“Stick the blade between the case and the door above the lock so your handle is to the right,” Samantha said, “and I’ll shove the tines of this rake beneath the lock but my handle will be out to the left. I bet if we bring the handles together this door will pop open like an oyster.”
As the girls struggled, Rebecca’s hoe provided the most leverage. Samantha drove the tines of the rake deeper. “Aaron, get over here, gutless; help me push.”
Aaron added the weight of his slight frame to the rake handle and the door indeed popped open. “Well, would you look at that,” Rebecca chirped. “Finally, one of Sam’s ideas worked.”
“Put a sock in it.” Winded and huffing through her nose, Samantha studied the mechanism of the change box. She found the release lever and pulled the container out. The weight surprised her and she readjusted her hands quickly to not spill the coins.
Amanda couldn’t hear. The three others held their heads in a tight triad, looking down into the metal box. Curiosity overcame her. “What is it? Whaddaya see?”
“A jackpot,” said Samantha.
“And a reason to dance,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Aaron and yanked him to her.
“But there’s no music,” he said.
“Then you’d better start hummin’, buddy.” Rebecca laughed and slung the skinny boy in a circle, holding tight to both his hands. She then yanked him into full body contact and put her arms around his neck. “I don’t hear any hum-min’,” she whispered then stuck her tongue in his ear.
“Hey! Stop that.” He yanked his head away and slapped at his ear.
Rebecca twirled him around one last time and let him go. He stumbled away.
Even Amanda joined the laughter. She moved into the blue luminance of the mercury vapor streetlight and looked down into the change box from the soda machine, brim full of nickels, dimes and quarters.
“I’d say the plan to get hamburgers is back on,” Rebecca said. “Let’s go. Dancing makes me hungry.”
Samantha snickered. “Dancing? Or that stuff you were doing with Aaron?”
“Quit bein’ a wise-butt and load your pockets.”
Amy watched Rebecca and Samantha fill their pockets with coins then Samantha replaced the box. Rebecca pushed the front of the soda machine closed.
“I don’t care if you did leave most of the money, it’s still stealing,” said Amanda.
Instead of remorseful words, she received grins followed by laughter.
Amanda shivered and pushed hair behind her ears but it was too short to stay there. She overlapped her jacket in front and hugged herself. They’ve stepped in it now.
Her breath hitched.
Wait a minute! I’m the one up to my knees in it just by being here.

She looked up to the full harvest moon and thought about the stupidity of what they were doing, and the night wasn’t over.

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