Authors: Wendelin Van Draanen
Now, Mary Margaret doesn’t like the way Josephine’s treating Phil. She gives her a stern little look, then goes up to Phil and says, “Don’t give up. It may take some time, but if you’re meant to be ordained, Father’ll see the light and help you.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “It’s never gonna happen. Last week he came right out and said I wasn’t priest material.”
Josephine’s ears perk up. Then she shakes her head and mutters, “That man has some nerve … even if it’s true.” Then she starts winding herself up, saying, “I don’t know where he—” but Sister Mary Margaret signals for her to
cool it. Josephine eyes me and says, “Well, let’s not just stand around. There’s work to do!”
Serving the food went a lot better than it had the day before. One guy came in with his dog, which really set Josephine off, but other than that it was almost boring. And just when I thought we were all done serving, the girl I’d seen in the church comes running in, her backpack clinking as she moves. I smile at her and say, “Hi!” but she just gives me a quick nod, gets her food, and hurries out the exit.
Then I see Marissa and Dot peeking in all bug-eyed, looking like a couple of mice in a haunted house. I laugh and call, “Hi, guys!”
They come hurrying over and Marissa whispers, “Cool!” like she can’t believe how lucky I am, having to serve a detention at the soup kitchen.
Dot says, “So this is it, huh?” Then she looks over her shoulder and whispers, “Who was that girl with the blue backpack? For a second there I thought it was you.”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to her, but she just takes her food and leaves.”
Marissa’s eyes bug way out. “You’re kidding! She’s homeless? I thought maybe she was helping out, like you.”
“I don’t know if she’s
—I’ve never seen her hanging around outside …” Then I get a bright idea. “Hey, you want to follow her?”
Dot and Marissa look at each other and then back to me. Dot says, “I told my mom I’d be home twenty minutes ago.”
I say, “C’mon! She may already be gone,” and then call out, “Bye, see you Monday!” to Phil and the nuns.
We run outside and I spot her backpack, bobbing back and forth about three blocks down Cook Street. “There she goes. C’mon!”
And I’m thinking we’ll follow her to her house and then we’ll know—she
have a home, she just doesn’t have much money. But we follow her down Cook Street, all the way to College Street, across College, all the way to Bradley Road, and when she takes a left on Bradley, Dot says, “I can’t go any farther. I’ve
to get home.”
Marissa says, “Yeah, we could follow her clear out to Donovan at this rate. Why don’t we just let her go?”
At this point I’m at least two miles from home and Grams is going to be getting pretty worried if I don’t show up soon, but I’ve come this far and I figure the Girl’s going to have to duck into a house pretty soon. So I say, “C’mon—just a few more blocks! She’s got to live around here somewhere.”
They look at each other, then give a quick nod. So off we go, ducking behind hedges and cars and whatever else we can find to hide behind, and pretty soon we’re way out at Main Street, watching her walk under the freeway overpass.
Dot spots a pay phone. “Wait a sec! I’m going to call my mom.”
While she’s calling home, I keep an eye on that bobbing blue backpack, watching it get smaller and smaller. And just as I’m thinking we’re going to lose her, Dot gets off the phone and says, “I’ve got to be home in forty minutes. Anyone else want to call? I’ve got change.”
Marissa says, “Nah. No one but Mikey’s going to be home anyway,” because her parents are always gone, wheeling and dealing stocks at the office. And I want to say, “Nah,” too, because I want to get
, but I grab the phone and say, “Follow her! I’ll be right there.”
Now, I don’t lie to Grams. Sometimes I leave out important pieces of information, but I don’t
. So when she asks me, “Why are you going to be so late?” I say, “Marissa, Dot, and I are on our way over to a new friend’s house. It won’t take long. I just didn’t want you to worry.” Then before she can think of any questions to ask me I say, “I’ve got to go, Grams—they’re waiting for me. See you soon. Bye!” and hang up the phone.
Dot and Marissa are already on the other side of the underpass so I run like crazy to catch up with them. “Where is she?”
They point across the street and Dot says, “See her? She’s going through that field,” and sure enough, there she is, stomping through the weeds.
Marissa says, “Where’s she
? There aren’t any houses out there, are there?”
I don’t have a good answer for that. I’ve never gone stomping through fields at this end of town before. So I say, “Let’s just follow her through the field and see where she goes. There’s got to be something out there.”
Marissa shakes her head. “There’s nothing out there but the riverbed.”
Dot says, “The riverbed? I didn’t know Santa Martina had a river.”
Marissa laughs. “It doesn’t—it just has the bed.”
Dot’s looking at Marissa like she’s got a few cracks in her carton of eggs, so Marissa says, “They built a dam a long time ago—up by Lake Chumash. Now there’s only water in the river a few times a year, usually when the lake gets too full.”
Dot says, “Ohhhh …”
We stand by a truck parked at the end of the street and wait, and when we’re pretty sure we’re going to lose her if we don’t get moving, we start hurrying across the field.
The trouble with chasing someone across a field is, if they decide to turn around, you’re caught. I mean, it’s hard to hide or be inconspicuous when all you’ve got to work with is weeds.
And we weren’t exactly being Indian scouts, either. Marissa kept swatting at gnats and picking prickers out of her socks. Dot kept snapping twigs, and I probably made the most noise of all, saying, “Shh! Shh!” at every little sound they made.
As we approached the riverbed, the plants got larger and bushier, which gave us something to duck behind. It also gave her something to disappear into.
At first I thought we’d lost her. All you could see in any direction were bushes. And when we stood stock-still, listening, all we could hear was the wind in the bushes. And that’s when I realized that it was getting dark. In a hurry.
Then I noticed sort of a path where the weeds were mashed down. I whispered, “C’mon,” and followed the trompled weeds.
We walked along like this for a few minutes, and then all of a sudden Dot grabs my shirt. I look at where she’s
pointing, and what I see down the riverbed is the Girl crawling into a box. A refrigerator box.
The box is on its side with tumbleweeds propped up around it, and except for a black Hefty bag peeking through the weeds on top, it looks pretty much like just another gnarly bush in a riverbed of tangled bushes.
We all stand there real close to each other, holding our breath. Marissa whispers, “She
I kind of nod. “Sure looks that way.”
Dot says, “But she’s
We stand there some more and finally I whisper, “So what do you want to do?”
Marissa whispers, “Sammy, no! I don’t want to knock and say hello. You don’t know anything about her. She might have a gun!”
Now, even though my first thought is to ask the Girl if she wants to come sneak by Mrs. Graybill and spend the night with me and Grams, I have to admit Marissa has a point. “Okay. So what do you want to do?”
Dot whispers, “It’s getting dark. I think we should go back,” and when Marissa nods and says, “So do I!” well, we tiptoe out of there as fast as we can.
And crossing back through the field you’d think we’d all be running off at the mouth about how this girl lives down by the riverbed in a refrigerator box, but we’re not. We’re as quiet as the stars, thinking. I’m sure Marissa was thinking about her room with the private bathroom and extra bed and all the glass furniture her mom makes her clean, and Dot was probably thinking about sharing a skinny little house with her parents and brothers and sisters,
and how she’s always wanted more privacy. I know I was thinking about having to live with Grams in the Senior Highrise and how I’m always complaining that it’s not really a home, it’s more like a refugee camp.
And walking back down Main Street in the dark with cars whizzing past, I shiver because it’s cold out. It’s very cold out. And it hits me that in all of Santa Martina there are probably only two girls who’d go to church in high-tops. Of those, one gets to sleep on her grandmother’s couch.
The other has to spend the night in a cardboard box.
I didn’t tell Grams about her. I just tried to act normal and went to bed early. But I know I had bad dreams, because when my cat, Dorito, jumped on the couch in the morning, I almost went through the roof, and it took me a minute to figure out just where I was.
And over breakfast Grams asked, “Are you all right?” because my oatmeal was setting up in front of me and I hadn’t even touched my orange juice.
I was planning to say, “Sure,” but what came out of my mouth was, “Grams, what would’ve happened to me if you hadn’t taken me in?”
“What do you mean, dear? Of course I took you in. It’s not like you’re a stray cat or something. You’re my granddaughter.”
I sighed and asked, “Well, what if you hadn’t been around? What do you think Mom would’ve done with me?”
Grams let out a nervous little laugh and said, “But I
around, Samantha. And I plan to be around for a long time, so you can put away those silly fears. You have nothing to worry about.”
That didn’t make me feel much better, but I didn’t tell Grams that. I ate cold oatmeal and tried to act like everything was fine, and when it was time for me to sneak down
to the Pup Parlor, I was glad to have something else to think about.
Marissa was already waiting, kind of rocking back and forth on her bike, and the first words out of her mouth were, “I couldn’t sleep last night—could you? I can’t believe she lives there.”
I shook my head. “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”
“Good. Neither did I.” And I’m about to ask her what she thinks we should do about it when I spot Dot.
Now, even though I’d never actually met Nibbles, in my mind I had a picture of what to expect. So when Dot comes flying down the sidewalk like a cat trying to water-ski, I almost can’t believe that it’s her dog towing her along. He’s woollier than a mammoth and just about as big, and with all that hair hanging in his face he can’t see where he’s going because he’s weaving back and forth when there is nothing to weave
Dot skids to a stop. “Sit, boy.
Nibbles understands this to mean Wrap me up like a Maypole, because ten seconds later Dot’s so tangled up she practically falls over.
Dot manages to choke out, “Hi!”
Marissa and I just stand there with our eyes bugged out and our chins down to our knees. “What
Dot laughs and says, “We think he’s a cross between a sheepdog and a Great Dane. He was a really cute puppy, believe it or not. Mom says he’s part kangaroo ’cause he jumps on everything, and part garbage disposal ’cause he eats everything.”
Marissa shakes her head. “He looks like he could eat you out of house and home!”
“He does! He eats
—and I don’t mean just food. If you give him something on a paper plate, he’ll eat the whole plate. He eats dolls and socks and pencils … anything.”
By now Nibbles has figured out that he can get a good whiff of my baseball cap by kangarooing right there in front of me, so I back up and say, “What do you mean, ‘eat’? He chews it up or he eats it?”
She yanks him back. “He
it. Dad used to rush him off to the vet every time we’d catch him with half a toy in his mouth, but he’s never really gotten sick or anything, so now when something’s missing, we just figure it’s in Nibbles’ stomach and try to forget about it.”
Marissa says, “I can’t believe your mom even allows him in the
Dot shrugs. “He’s not like this all the time. He’s just excited to be out. At home he’s not much worse than my brothers.” She yanks on the leash and says, “I’m going to take him inside now—want to come?”
I say, “Sure!” because I like the Pup Parlor. Sometimes I go there on my way home from school just to see what kind of foo-foo dogs Vera and Meg are busy wrestling with. I’m talking the kind that won’t eat unless you’re serving filet mignon in a crystal dish. It’s fun seeing one of
go down for a flea dip. Their condescending little eyes pop wide open and they start panicking like mice in a snake pit. And when it’s all over and they’re dry and caged up with little red bows in their hair, they’re not thinking
about how nice they look or how good they smell. No, they’re busy plotting out what piece of furniture they’re going to wet on when they get home.
I also like going to the Pup Parlor because Vera and Meg like to have me. They always say, “Good afternoon, Sammy!” and after they get done cooing about some new stray they’ve taken in, asking me things like, “You know anyone who wants to take in this darlin’ little fellow?” or “You sure your grandma doesn’t have room for this one? He don’t eat much—he just needs some lovin’,” they make me tell them all about the big bad world of William Rose Junior High School. They actually
to hear about it.