When the caseworker dropped Derek and his two black Hefty bags at the new address in Morningside Heights that breezy second Saturday of May, the ten-year-old was not expecting much. He’d been blowing in the wind like dandelion fluff most of his life; this was his third placement just since January. But the green doormat read “A hundred thousand welcomes,” and he supposed it was possible this family actually meant it. Lacrosse sticks and boxing gear, probably for the couple’s real kids—sports equipment like that might as well be made of gold, that’s how out of reach they were for foster kids like him—was piled up just inside the front door. A one-armed teddy bear hung off the living room couch. The coffee table had a plastic chess set laid out; someone was in the middle of a game. And John Green and John Grisham library books lay open on the dining table. Derek wouldn’t be the only reader here.
“So this is it, Chateau O’Hanahan,” the mister told Derek. He spoke like the leprechaun in that animated movie Derek saw at a birthday party a couple of years ago.
“It’s old and small, but we like it,” said his wife. She too had a hint of Ireland in her voice. “We’ve been here for donkey’s years.” She wiped her smudgy glasses on her dirty apron. With her big red hair and bright purple collared dress, she looked a little like Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus books his first-grade teacher used to read the class when he lived with the Nowaks. But geez. Separate living and dining rooms—and she thought the apartment was small? It looked like two apartments in one.
A little girl with cornrows popped up from behind the couch, and Mrs. O’Hanahan laughed. “Peek-a-boo, Marisa,” she said. “Say hi to Derek.”
The girl walked up to Derek and took his hand. She must have been three or four. “Want to see my Peppa Pig?” she asked.
“Maybe later, sweetie; let’s give him a little space,” said Mrs. O’Hanahan. She showed Derek to a room with two twin beds. A kid who looked to be about seven was sitting on one of them, playing with a deck of cards. He had red hair, like the wife’s, along with freckles and stick-out ears. “Hi, I’m Sam,” he said. His voice was so squeaky high it hurt Derek’s ears.
Before Derek had a chance to say hi back, the husband walked into the room. “Here you go, young man,” he said. He put down Derek’s heavy-duty trash bags, each only half full, and shook his head. “Geez,” he said. “They couldn’t even spare a knapsack or two?”
Derek just shrugged. No, actually, they couldn’t. The Giordanos needed all their bags for their move back to Italy. It wasn’t their fault. Anyway, this was the luggage Derek was used to. Garbage bags for the garbage that was his life.
“Why don’t you unpack?” the man said. “You can use the far closet and the dresser over here. And there’s an empty shelf in the bookcase. The bathroom’s just across the hall. Unless you need help.” He looked at Derek quizzically.
“Nah,” Derek said. “I’ll be okay.” It would take him five minutes; he had this routine down pat. But he’d stretch it out as long as he needed.
“Come on, Sam. Let’s see about that homework,” Mr. O’Hanahan said. “Holler if you need anything, Derek. We’re here.” And they all left. Thank God. It was obvious they had no more idea what to say to him than he had to them.
Derek sat on his bed, cross-legged, and checked out the mismatched dressers and kids’ desks, the slightly peeling green paint, the babyish train-stencil border around the tops of the walls. The room was better than many. He loosened the plastic blue drawstrings on the bags and unpacked his clothes, stopping when he found the framed photo of his mom and him at Jones Beach. He was about the age then that the little girl in this house was now, but he still remembered the day. His mother was wearing a bright red bathing suit and bright red nail polish, and her cheeks were red too. The wind was blowing her hair into her mouth; she kept pushing it away with the back of her hand. Derek was scared of the big waves, so she carried him into the water. When he got too heavy for her, they came back, and she dried him off, and later she gave her phone to a stranger and asked him to take their picture.
Derek tucked the photo inside an old sweatshirt. He was just about to bring his toothbrush to the bathroom when he heard a doorbell ring; a bunch of low voices followed. Then the man came back with two teenage kids. “Derek, meet the rest of the clan,” he said. “Luis and Ishaan.”
Derek nodded. Ishaan must have been six feet tall, way taller than Mr. O’Hanahan. Luis was smaller but wiry, with big biceps and bristles on his chin. And Derek had guessed wrong: the boxer and lacrosse player whose fancy equipment Derek spotted on his way in? They must have been fosters; Luis was olive-skinned and Ishaan was brown.
The two big kids nodded at Derek without a word. Ishaan just grunted and Luis gave Derek what looked like a completely phony smile.
He’d have to watch out for those two.
When the rest of the gang went into the kitchen around five-thirty, Derek hung back and checked out the living room. The smells of hot tomato sauce and fried onions were making his stomach rumble. He studied the chessboard. Mr. Giordano had taught him the basic moves. If Derek could get someone here to play a few rounds with him, he could try to improve his game.
He heard Ishaan or Luis say something in the kitchen; then everyone laughed. The joke must have been about him. His face felt prickly, and he bunched up his fists. He looked around and behind him, then knocked the chess pieces over with his sleeve. If anyone noticed, maybe they’d think it was Marisa. Or Sam.
Or he could say it was an accident. He could say he was sorry he was so clumsy.
“Dinner is served!” Mrs. O’Hanahan said, coming out to get him. She didn’t even look at the chessboard. She just brought Derek to the dining room and pointed to a seat at the far end of the long wooden table. In the middle, where she stopped, sat two kinds of homemade lasagna, a green bean and mushroom dish, and a huge leafy salad with yellow and orange pepper bits, strawberry slices, and chopped nuts sprinkled on top.
Everyone passed plates to the missus and she filled them. “No mushrooms for you, Marisa; I know,” she said as she prepared the little one’s plate. “And the white lasagna for you again, Sam?”
There was plenty of food for everyone, maybe even enough for seconds.
“How much for you, Derek?” she asked. “Anything you don’t like? Allergies?”
“No. Just a little of each, whatever,” he said. “Thanks.”
The house was super loud; the six of them talked over each other, all at once. “So, Derek …” the man said more than once, trying to bring him into the conversation. But Ishaan and Luis didn’t even look Derek’s way, and Squeaky Sam and Marisa gabbed plenty for everyone. That was fine by Derek. If he talked, he’d only attract attention, usually the bad kind. He was bound to say something wrong.
The two lasagnas were really good. Even the veggies and salad. Derek ate it all up fast. Then he needed to get out of there. He tried to catch one of the grown-ups’ eyes, but the man was listening to Marisa talk about the Lego house she wanted to make, and the lady was saying something or other to Luis. Could he just get up and clear his place? That’s what the Langfords had expected. They were big on kids being silent and, if possible, invisible, out of their hair. But then he got to the Giordanos’ place and Mrs. G said it was rude to just leave the table, he needed permission.
He cleared his throat. “May I be excused, Mr. and Mrs. O’Hanahan?”
The conversations stopped. Everyone stared at Derek. His stomach lurched.
“Hmm?” said Mr. O’Hanahan, turning his head and looking behind him. “Oh: Bill and Pattie, you mean? Sure, just clear your place and be off.”
Darn. He should have offered, not waited to be asked.
Derek came to the table for breakfast the next morning to find everyone yakking away again, and apple fritters, chocolate-chip pancakes, and chubby ripe berries making the rounds. This house, these people, seemed so … well, normal. Happy almost, if you could believe that. Derek waited for the platters and bowls to get to his end of the table and, seeing no one looking, took three big spoons of blueberries and four of the chocolate-chip pancakes, then drenched the pancakes in syrup from a white ceramic cow.
Of all the foster homes Derek had been in so far, this was one of the most promising. The food was great. Mr. and Mrs. O’Hana—Bill and Pattie, that is, showed no signs of being perverts, maniacs, or drunks, at least so far. Marisa was kind of cute, and Sam was harmless enough. The teenagers were more of a question mark, but they hadn’t yet wrestled Derek or beaten him bloody with those lacrosse sticks.
Still, every placement was bound to go south sooner or later. How would this one end? Maybe the O’Hanahans would move back across the Atlantic to the country they came from, like the Giordanos, and leave him and the other fosters behind. Maybe, like the Nowaks, they’d get pregnant with their own kid after thinking they couldn’t and decide they no longer needed to fake-parent some stray off the street. (Though Derek got the feeling Bill and Pattie had done the biological-kid thing once already, with Sam; he had a bit of that goofy Ms. Frizzle look.) More likely, they’d decide that Derek was disgusting, a wild animal, who talked too much or too little or was eating them out of house and home or simply had no manners or common courtesy. After that one time a belch escaped Derek’s mouth at the end of a particularly disgusting meal at the Langfords, he heard the lady tell a friend that he acted like he was raised in a barn and she’d see that he was sent to one.
When this family dumped him, who knew where he’d end up? He was almost eleven already and reaching the end of the line.
He cleared his place and retreated to the bedroom, where he pulled volume three of Harry Potter off the shelf. The Giordanos had given him that and two other random volumes when they told him they were bailing on him. The books didn’t quite make up for him losing another home, but he had to admit: they were a better souvenir than the welts he carried away from his time with that bastard Schultz.
“Time for church!” Bill’s loud voice rang out from the dining room just as Derek was turning to Chapter Three. “Five-minute warning. Dress nice, kiddos!”
Derek folded down the corner of the page and grabbed his better clothes from his mostly empty closet. His dress pants were too tight; they pinched his knotted-up middle. He was having another stomach ache. They seemed to come more and more these days, especially when he was changing placements or starting a new school. Mrs. Giordano said maybe he had IBM, which was short for irritating bowel movements or something, and talked about taking him to a doctor. Then her dad had the stroke, and her mom got sick too, and she forgot about everything else except moving her husband and her back to Milan.
Derek checked himself out in the mirror on the back of the door. He was presentable, he guessed. His hair, which his mom had called chestnut but Mrs. Langford called dirty blond, was almost clean. But the toes of his shoes were scuffed. He hoped no one would look at his feet.
When the seven of them piled into the van, Derek got the middle seat in the back row, between Ishaan and Luis. He shielded his eyes from the sun and tried hard to keep his body straight as Bill lurched the van forward and took a left. The last thing Derek needed was to bump into the big kids and find out what they could do with their oversized muscles.
Bill drove north to Riverdale, not far from where Mr. and Mrs. Nowak used to take Derek along on their Sunday grocery shopping trips, and parked in front of a tall skinny house that looked haunted. This was not like any church Derek had ever seen before. The pastor who let them in was also a sight: he had a full, long beard that reminded Derek of the Amish men he saw on that bus trip he took with his mother the summer before he started kindergarten, but with a hatless head shaved clean and a pretty wife in short sleeves standing beside him.
Pattie practically pushed Derek inside the house after their brief hellos. Had he done something wrong? Already? Or were they just late?
“Sit next to me, Dewek!” shouted little Marisa, grabbing his hand and moving him into a huddle of kids on the floor.
As soon as the adults finished settling into their folding chairs behind the kids, the pastor welcomed the crowd. “We have a new soul joining us today,” he went on. “Derek, right? Would you care to stand up and say hello?”
Derek shook his head, but Marisa jabbed him in the gut with her pointer finger until he did. He wanted to kill her. Her and the pastor both.
“Hi,” he muttered.
The pastor motioned for him to turn around to face the adults behind him. He felt beads of sweat on his forehead and neck. He did a quick swivel and plopped back down.
Just plain murder would be too good for them.
“Welcome to our community,” the pastor said.
“Welcome!” everyone else called out.
The rest of the service was a blur. Derek didn’t know the hymns, if that’s what they were; the pastor was strumming his guitar while everyone sang folksy songs about Jesus and loving your brother. Anyway, Derek knew better than to sing aloud. The chorus teacher at his last school got one listen of his voice and told him to just mouth the words.
The sermon, about the meek inheriting the earth, was drowned out by the sound of Derek’s stomach gurgles.
Finally the group moved to the next room for lunch. And what did Derek see but a buffet. Great. He knew that somewhere there had to be rules for these set-ups—how much you could take, how often you could go back without looking like an overstuffed pig. It was probably taught in one of the classes Derek missed during his many moves.
“Derek, meet our good friends,” Pattie said, waylaying him before he could even get to the food. “Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson.”
Her so-called friends were old—real old. The woman’s wispy white hair barely covered her scalp, and the man was stooped like an upside-down L. They were wearing scarves and looked rich; they probably loved opera or something.
“How do you do,” Derek said. He tried to make eye contact, but it was not easy considering that Mr. Wilkinson’s eyes stood roughly at his wife’s waist. As soon as another couple came up to greet the old guys, he made a run for it.
Food at last. Derek ladled himself a bowl of white-bean soup from the hot pot and put it in the center of the heavy dinner plate, then arranged two halves of a chicken-cheese-pepper quesadilla and a few potato chips around the edges, trying to keep the pile from looking too big or too high. Carefully carrying his plate in one hand and a glass of Coke in the other, he walked across the room to the large round table where Sam was parked and grabbed the seat beside his roommate.
Before he knew it, the old woman and her husband were sitting on his other side.
Holy crap. How the hell was he supposed to enjoy his lunch from under their noses?
His belly was starting to ache again; it must have been the hunger. He took a small, polite spoonful of soup, then another, but focused as he was on his manners and the proper elders right next to him, the taste didn’t even register. He cut the quesadilla with a knife and ate small bites with his mouth closed. He couldn’t taste that either. He sipped the Coke, slowly. At least that was cold and bubbly.
“So, tell me about yourself,” Mrs. Wilkinson said. She focused her milky blue eyes on him and put a bony hand on his arm.
“Um, nothing much to tell,” he answered, wiggling his arm back. What should he say? That he never knew his father? That he’d come home from his first day of full-day school to find Calico, the cat, chasing an empty pill bottle around the floor and his mother passed out on the couch? That she’d pinned a note to her T-shirt—in all caps, so even her five-year-old could read it—saying she loved him beyond the moon and the sun and the stars and the whole Milky Way but he’d be better off without her? That he never found out why she did it and had lost track of how many foster homes he’d been in since?
If he played this right, maybe Mrs. Wilkinson would grow bored of him and turn to her old man on her other side instead. He wanted to eat his potato chips already. After that he’d see if he could go back for a wedge of that chocolate fudge cake.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s lots to tell,” she said. “What do you like to do? What are you good at?”
Eating, he thought, the cramp in his stomach getting sharper. That’s what I’m good at. Or I would be, if you would only stop interrupting. He took two more bites of quesadilla, hoping that would shut her up her and make his gut feel better at the same time.
No: things were getting worse. Ow. This wasn’t hunger; it was gas. He had gas pains something terrible. He needed to get to the bathroom and quick. But where was it? And how could he leave with her question hanging in front of him?
Bill looked over from across the table. “Derek?” he asked. “You okay?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Derek muttered.
And then it happened. It snuck past the gate and right out the door.
Oh my God. The f&#%@r was loud. And long. So long. He thought the one-note trumpet blast would never end.
Even worse: it reeked like Lady Langford’s franks and beans.
Mrs. Wilkinson turned away from Derek to her husband. She covered her mouth and coughed so hard Derek thought she would keel over. Her old man startled and, unlike her, (almost) sat up straight. The water pitcher on the table jumped. The cat snarled and bolted out through a pet flap in the front door. A clock started ticking loudly on the wall. The people at the other tables looked up from their food and craned their necks.
Ishaan smirked. Sam snickered. Little Marisa, who was heading back to their table after delivering hugs to the pastor and his wife on the other side of the room, giggled. “A toot!” she shouted. “Derek made a noisy toot!” But when she got to her seat, she started crying. “It smells really yucky here,” she wailed. She pinched her nose and ran off to the prayer room.
Three tables away, the pastor’s wife slammed her tea cup on the table and walked her full plate to the kitchen. Her husband grimaced and fingered his cross. “Holy Jesus,” Derek thought he heard him say.
Derek felt his face burn. He knew he was as red as the marinara sauce in last night’s lasagna. He tried to shrink himself so small that he’d disappear, or to turn into a bug so he could crawl off. He couldn’t even pretend it was someone else. He’d blown it now. His last chance at a normal home.
Bill circled the table, looking serious. He stopped by Derek and turned to face him.
Here it comes, Derek thought. He grabbed the edge of the table for support. His knuckles were white.
Bill put his hand on Derek’s shoulder. “Nah—no worries, laddie,” he said, mussing the boy’s hair. “You’re grand.”
Derek’s lips quivered. He bit them hard. He was not going to cry; he was not.
“Loud and proud, my son; that’s what I always say,” Bill said, smiling. “Loud and proud. But if you want …” He hugged him fast, then pointed toward the bathroom.
“Come,” Ishaan said in that low voice of his, standing up. “I’ll take you.” And just as Derek started to follow Ishaan to the back of the room, he saw Luis, from across the table, smiling and giving him a wink.
Maybe Derek had found his forever home after all.
A recovering clergyman’s daughter and media lawyer, Dvora Wolff Rabino has been previously published in The Ignatian Literary Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Lascaux Review, Santa Fe Writers Project, SLAB, and Steam Ticket. One of her essays won Inscape’s annual Editor’s Choice Award. Dvora is also an avid correspondent and crossword-puzzle enthusiast.
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