Children of the Haven
A shelter for rural and small town homeless families.
1. DO YOU REMEMBER MY NAME?
School buses drop kids off at the Haven, a homeless shelter in White River Junction, Vermont, around three o’clock. “Welcome, guys,” Janine Moretti, a children’s services associate, calls from the kitchen, cell phone wedged between chin and shoulder as she puts baby carrots into plastic cups. A few kids are gathered around her, complaining. “I want Doritos!” “This tastes likes like poop.” Others are sitting at the round table in the next room, sifting through a Tupperware bucket of crayons.
I recognize most faces, but several are unfamiliar. “Predictability is not in our vocabulary,” Janine has told me. “We could have eight new kids in a week or we could have no new ones for four months straight.”
A girl of about seven runs up to me as I’m hanging my coat in the entry. “Tham pinched me,” she tells me. She has a subtle lisp.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,"* I say, bending down to examine the nonexistent mark on her hand.
“How do you know my name?” she asks.
“You told me. We made peanut butter and jelly pizzas together, remember?” I’d been here three weeks before. Charlotte had cut her pita bread into hearts and stars.
Charlotte nods slowly. “Oh, yeah. That was fun. But I don’t remember your name.”
“Lindsay,” I say, pointing to my volunteer badge.
“Lind-say.” Charlotte forms her lips into the sounds, staring intently at the letters. “Tham pinched me,” she says again. She frowns, cradling her index finger.
“Here, this will make it feel better.” I bend down and plop a kiss on the finger.
She stares at me, then down at her sore spot. “It’s better,” she says softly. “How did you do that?”
“It’s magic. I learned it from my mom.”
Charlotte is quiet for a minute. “I don’t think my mom knows about that kind of magic. Maybe you can teach her?”
* * *
In a quieter room upstairs—called “the blue room” for its sky-blue walls—I help seventh-grader Lena with her math homework. “L-e-n-a,” she spells for me. I ask how long she’s had green highlights in her hair.
“A few weeks,” she tells me. “I want to try red next.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I say. “I’ve never dyed my hair. I don’t think I’m brave enough."
She examines my brunette ponytail. “That’s because you’re already pretty.”
“So are you!”
“Whatever. Gotta get these fractions done.” She opens her red folder. It’s so stuffed with papers that one of the pocket flaps has ripped partway.
Lena is different from some of the kids I usually work with, the ones always making excuses, trying to trick me into letting them finish early. She works from number one right through 12d, diligently scratching the answers onto grid paper. I want to tell her how smart I think she is. But I’m not her teacher. I’m certainly not her mother. Maybe I can be her friend, if I can find the right branches to bridge the gap. “You’re pretty good at this stuff,” I tell her.
“It’s not that hard,” she says, twirling her pencil between the chipping purple polish of her fingernails. “’Kay, all done.” She logs onto one of the Haven computers. “Time for some music.” She brings up YouTube.
“Do you like One Direction?” I ask.
She nods. “I’m kind of obsessed.”
“Me too,” I say. “Will you sing along with me?” She hesitates, so I start alone. She laughs.
“Something funny?” I ask, adding dance moves to my routine, moving my hands side to side like ocean waves.
“You’re not a very good singer. Or dancer.”
“I know,” I say.
She smiles and a minute later she joins in. Her voice is unexpectedly clear, a champagne flute amidst clunky coffee mugs.
“Wow, Lena,” I say. “You really can sing.”
“I know,” she says.
The song ends and she returns to the screen. “Look at this guy,” she says, pointing to a picture in the contacts section of her email. “His name is Dan. I have a huge crush on him.” The boy is wearing an oversized backward baseball hat and a tight white tank top. His facial expression is probably an attempt at Eminem’s scowl, but it reminds me of extreme constipation.
“He’s cute. Do you see him a lot?”
“Just in the hallways and stuff. He’s in the eighth grade. He’s really nice. Like so nice. We were at this dance last month and my friend made me cry and he came over and sat with me all night.”
“That’s important,” I say. “To find someone who treats you well. Not all guys are like that.”
“Like my dad,” Lena murmurs, never once peeling her eyes from the computer screen. “He isn’t nice to my mom sometimes.” We sit without talking, her fingers clicking across the keyboard. Then she asks me, “Are your parents married?”
I shake my head. “No. They got divorced.” The word should be easy to say by now, two years after the fact, but still the “d” gets caught on my tongue.
“Mine are,” Lena says. “Married, I mean. But sometimes I wish they weren’t.”
My right hand extends to pat circles on her back. “Everything will be okay,” I say, repeating the phrase I told my mom all those nights when she lay in my arms hiccuping.
Lena switches the computer tab back to YouTube and changes the song before it ends.
“I wish Dan liked me back,” she says.
* * *
Five o’clock comes, when the kids leave the Afterschool Program. Some kids go to Byrne House next door, where eight otherwise homeless families live at a time. Some get picked up by their parents and taken to the homes the Haven has helped their families move on to. In 2013, 72 kids cycled through the Haven’s children’s programs at Bev’s House, next door to Byrne House. The Vermont Coalition on Homelessness says there are nearly 3,000 Vermonters without adequate shelter, with families—many of them led by working parents who don’t earn enough to afford housing—making up almost half of homeless population. “We’re seeing the first signs of generational homelessness,” Kendy Skidmore, an advocate for the homeless told the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. “Young adults whose parents were homeless.”
Lena’s dad arrives. I can’t see him from the window, but she tells me he’s out there in a tan Ford truck. “Let’s listen to Carrie Underwood next time.” She slings her backpack over one shoulder.
“Sounds great,” I say.
I help Charlotte velcro her faded Barbie sneakers. “When will you be back?” she asks, reaching out for my flowery scarf.
“Next week,” I tell her. I like to think of myself as someone these kids can count on. But now I’m wondering if it’s not their stability I crave.
“Will you remember my name?”
She nods solemnly. “Linzeee,” she says, dragging out the ending.
I pull her into a hug and for a moment she hugs back, squeezing her little fingers tightly around my stomach. But then she’s squirming away and following her older brothers to the Byrne House next door, where they’ll rejoin their parents.
“Don’t pinch me, Tham!” are the last words I hear Charlotte say.
“Stop being such a—” The latch closes.
2. UP TO THE TOP YOU MUST GO
It’s spring break for the kids at the Haven but that doesn’t mean Bev’s House, is empty. Some of the kids still come to the Afterschool Program, and Janine has even organized a couple of field trips. On Tuesday they go roller-blading at the local rink. Today they’re coming to Dartmouth College for a scavenger hunt.
I’m waiting when two vans pull up, driven by Janine and Ellen, another Haven worker. Five kids hop out of each. Charlotte trots over, grinning up at me through the gap in her front teeth. She doesn’t remember my name.
Julia, a student volunteer, says she’s going to divide the kids into two teams to look for clues across campus. “Get down from there, Izzy,” Janine interrupts. Izzy is a third grader with shoulder length sandy brown hair. She’s climbing the metal railing as if she were trying to slide down a staircase banister but can’t because the railing is horizontal.
“She’s a monkey,” her twin sister, Taylor, says. They’re wearing identical puffy purple coats, but the girls themselves are not identical. Izzy has a fair face and narrow green eyes. Taylor has an olive complexion with wide brown eyes that make it difficult to look away. Her irises themselves aren’t large, but they appear that way in proportion to her petite face. “She was born to be a monkey,” Taylor says.
Julia tells them that the last clue will lead them to a special surprise.
“Not until the end,” Julia says. “Now, how should we split up the teams?”
“Girls against boys,” Izzy responds. She’s climbing the railing again.
Boys against girls it is. Julia reads the first clue aloud:
“In this place plants reside
And in winter they have not died
Up to the top you must go
To see the place where the flowers grow.”
“A greenhouse!” exclaims Charlotte.
We begin walking in the direction of Dartmouth’s Life Sciences Center. “How did you get the answer so quickly?” I ask.
“It was easy,” Charlotte says, “’cause I used to work in a greenhouse.
“You worked in a greenhouse?”
She nods. “At my old school. I took care of the plants and stuff. We all took turns watering them but I would get there early and turn on the hose before anyone else could so I got to spray them every day.” She skips, playing hopscotch between the cracks of the sidewalk.
I ask if she likes science.
“Yeah,” she says. She stops to look at a Volkswagen Beetle. “Yellow punch buggy no punch back,” she says, punching my arm. “How much farther?”
“Just up there.” I point to a brick building.
“I’m hungry,” she says. She starts to drag her black and pink winter boots along the pavement. She puts her hands in the pockets of her faux velour jacket. “I didn’t have lunch today.”
“My dad wouldn’t make it.”
We walk inside the building. The twins fight for who can press the button in the elevator. Charlotte stands in the corner, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed as the floor starts to rise.
* * *
“Oh, man,” Taylor says as we walk into the greenhouse. Sunlight streams through the glass ceiling and dust glitters on the jungle of green.
“Is this like the greenhouse you used to work in?” I ask Charlotte.
She’s sitting on a picnic table in the middle of the room, her head propped up on her palm. “No,” she says, staring around at the purple orchids popping out of hanging baskets, cacti stationed in clay pots, and lanky ivy tendrils climbing metal posts. “This one is a lot prettier.”
The oldest girl in the group, a sixth grader named Riley in an oversized sweatshirt, reads the next clue out loud:
“Around this place where runners sprint
You shall find your next hint
Here, skaters skate when winter arrives
And during summer the fish thrive.”
They’re stumped. “An ice skating rink,” Izzy finally calls out, her fingers reaching out for the spines of a golden barrel cactus.
Janine tells her not to touch that and that no, an ice skating rink doesn’t have fish.
“Is it a lake?” Charlotte asks.
“Smaller than a lake,” Julia says.
“A rink?” Charlotte’s little sister, Alicia, asks softly. Alicia looks a lot like Charlotte, but her eyes are more circular and her mouth is softer, slower to form a smile or a frown.
“Izzy already guessed that,” Taylor says.
“Think of something a little smaller than a lake,” Julia says. When she’s met with more blank stares, she tells them that the answer is Occom Pond. “It’s the pond on Dartmouth’s campus,” she explains.
“How far is it?” Charlotte asks. “I’m so hungry.”
I want to buy her a granola bar or a peanut butter sandwich, but Janine says, “Charlotte, you’ll be fine until the end of the scavenger hunt.”
Janine is not callous. She’s the first one to offer Charlotte grapes and crackers when she arrives at Afterschool, the loudest applauder when Charlotte shows her the star sticker her teacher has given her for good behavior. These kids, Janine tells me, have been through more in their lives than she will ever experience. She feels frustrated that she can’t “take over ever aspect of their life and education.” She wishes she could do more. But she does what she can. And that means keeping order. Yes, Charlotte is hungry, but she isn’t starving. So now Janine must be brisk.
Charlotte and I follow behind the group walking to the pond. “I’m hungry,” she says again.
“Maybe we should sit down until they get back.” She nods. I sit cross-legged in the field beside the quiet street. She takes a seat in my lap, her back leaning against my torso, both of our gazes on the glassy pond. I start braiding her frizzy hair.
“I used half a bottle of conditioner in my hair the other day,” she says. “I want it to be really soft.”
I tell her that it is. She scrunches up her face into a smile. Then her head drops, her smile collapses. She pouts. “I’m so hungry I think I’m gonna throw up.”
“Just wait till the surprise at the end of the scavenger hunt,” I say, repeating Janine’s words. “I think it’ll make you feel better.”
“Food?” she asks. “Is it chocolate?” Her grey-hazel eyes widen.
I tell her again that she’ll have to wait and see.
She leans back and closes her eyes. “I like surprises,” she says, “but I want to know what it is.”
“But then it wouldn’t be a surprise,” I say, and we wait in the grass that isn’t yet green.
* * *
The last clue leads to the football field. Congratulations, you’ve completed the scavenger hunt! Go to Morano to collect your prize.
The girls go ahead to Morano Gelato with Julia and Janine. I wait at the football field for the boys’ team. They arrive fifteen minutes later with Ellen, hooting and hollering down the sidewalk at ten times the volume of the girls.
I congratulate them. But the boys aren’t satisfied yet. They press their faces up to the fence around the football field and ask if they can go on the turf. The track team is practicing so they can’t, but we stand in the bleachers and watch for a few minutes. I find myself next to Sam, a sixth grade boy wearing a camouflage t-shirt and a wide-brimmed brown hat.
“I like your hat,” I tell him. “It looks like you’re ready for a safari.”
“It’s an army hat, actually,” he says, a defensive edge in his voice.
I apologize. One of my friends on the track team waves at us from below. “Hi, Joe,” I call out.
“Hi, Joe,” Sam mimics in a loud voice, as if he’s impersonating an army officer. “My name is Bob.”
“No it’s not,” I say. I pull the hat over his eyes. “It’s Sam.”
I catch him smiling. We round up the other boys and exit the bleachers for Morano. “What’s gelato?” Sam asks.
“It’s the European version of ice cream,” I tell him. “Like ice cream only better.”
“I doubt that,” Sam says. “America’s better.” He reaches up and touches the brim of his hat. “My dad bought me this hat because it was made in the USA.”
I put my arm around him and guide him across the crosswalk. He doesn’t try to squirm away.
“My shirt was made in China, though,” he adds.
* * *
Inside gelato shop, the girls are finishing up their treats. Charlotte has sprouted a brown frothy mustache.
“Chocolate?” I ask her.
She nods, licking across her upper lip. “It was yummy. I’m still hungry, though.”
The boys sit down in the swivel chairs at the counter with their orders. “Have you heard the song ‘Let it go’ from Frozen?” a fourth-grader named Liam asks as he slurps his pistachio cone.
I nod. “I like that song.”
His lips curl into something between a smile and a snicker. “Well, how about ‘Let it Blow?’” He makes a series of fart noises with his lips.
“Liam, you’re about to lose two Haven dollars,” Janine warns from two tables over, where she is wiping down one of the twins’ purple jackets, now splotched with chocolate.
Haven dollars are rewarded for good behavior and getting homework done. They can be redeemed inside the “Haven store” for toys, nail polish, coloring books, and board games.
“I don’t know where my sister is,” Charlotte says. A moment later she finds her, sitting on a bench outside the door. We join her. At six, Alicia is the youngest.
“Alicia needs to get a new tooth,” Charlotte says. “She has a big girl tooth but it’s crooked and wobbly. Show her, Alicia.” Alicia obediently opens her mouth and points to one of her front teeth. It looks like a regular adult tooth to me, but she shows how it wiggles.
“It’s about to fall out,” Alicia says. “I have to go to the doctor and get a fake one.”
“Oh no,” I say. Her eyebrows crinkle. “But the doctors are smart,” I add quickly. “They’ll make sure it’s as good as new.”
She nods and takes my hand. “I like your gloves,” she tells me.
“Thank you,” I say, giving her palm a squeeze. “I thought that I was done wearing winter clothes, but it seems the cold weather is here for a little longer, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Alicia says, wigging her tooth with her free hand. “It’s cold.”
3. BUT REALLY WE WERE PUNCHING
“My sister and me kicked each other in the womb. My mom thought we were playing but really we were punching.”
Taylor shovels peanut butter granola into her mouth. She’s sitting next to me at the long wooden table in Bev’s House. I’ve asked her what it’s like to be a twin. “Believe me,” she says, “it’s not that great.”
“Hey, Taylor, what’s that?” asks the boy next to her. His name is Tommy, and he’s Lena’s younger brother. Tommy has light brown hair that is buzzed except for a fauxhawk strip down the middle. He’s pointing to a wad of gum stuck to her white plastic water bottle.
“I keep my gum there when I’m eating,” she says.
“Gross,” Tommy says, scrunching up his nose.
Janine tells Tommy to take out his homework. “And Taylor, you know you’re not allowed to have gum at Afterschool.”
Taylor says she doesn’t have any. Janine points out she just said she stored her gum on her water bottle.
“Yeah, but I didn’t say I had any today. I just meant in general.”
I want Taylor to think I’m chill, as she says, but I can’t justify acting as an ally. “I can see the gum, Taylor.”
Taylor stomps over to the trashcan and makes a show of flicking the wad into the trashcan. She sits back down and takes another spoonful of granola. Janine says snack time is over. She tells Taylor to go upstairs and read.
“But I’m not done eating.”
“You’ve had enough time,” Janine says. “Now throw out your gum, please.”
“I already did!” Taylor bellows. “Jeez.” On the way upstairs she turns to me and widens her deep brown eyes, which I can tell she’s just learning how to use. “Why does no one ever believe me?”
* * *
We sit side by side in pinwheel-colored beanbag chairs as Taylor reads aloud in the blue room. She has picked a book from the “second grade” shelf even though she’s supposed to be reading from the “third grade” shelf, but she reads animatedly and without grumbling, so I let her continue. When the required thirty minutes have passed, I ask her if she wants to keep reading or do something else.
“Something else, obviously,” she says, and scrambles back down the stairs. She claims to have no other homework and starts dissecting the board game shelf. First she decides on Clue, but after five minutes says it’s too complicated and takes out Life. But Life takes too long to set up so we just play UNO instead. We’re sharing a small round table with two other boys, Sam and Connor, who are halfway through a game of Trouble.
Sam is Charlotte’s and Alica’s brother. They’re not here today. “What’s a donkey?” Sam asks. “An ass!” he replies without waiting for an answer. “What’s poop?” he asks. “Shit! It’s shit!”
Janine is in the room next door trying to get Tommy to work on his spelling sentences. “That language is not appropriate for Afterschool,” she calls.
“What’s puke? Crap! It’s crap.” Sam makes a sound between a laugh and cackle and bounces on his seat, legs twisted beneath him. “How about a hot dog?” he asks me. “What’s a hot dog?”
I tell him it is a type of food at a barbecue.
“No. It’s a penis!”
Janine comes in. She tells him that he can either settle down and play or go upstairs and read.
He decides to settle down and play. Settling down doesn’t last long. Soon he’s shaking the back of Taylor’s chair as she and I play UNO. He starts listing off all of the cards in her hand. “Blue four, yellow seven…”
“Stop it!” she says. He reaches for her hand and starts to tug a card away. “Stop it!” Taylor says.
Sam keeps pulling. There is a soft tearing sound. The card has ripped in two.
Janine comes over again. Sam says, “Hey, Janine, what’s a hot dog?”
Taylor and I go into the other room. Tommy is staring at the notebook in front of him and stabbing the paper.
Taylor gets another bowl of peanut butter granola. I ask her if Janine said she could have another bowl. She shrugs.
I turn back to Tommy, slouched in his chair. “What do you have for homework?” I ask.
“Ten sentences,” he says, meaning he has to write ten vocabulary words in full sentences.
I read the first set of words on the list. “Swarm of ants.”
“Have you ever heard of dumber words?” he says.
“Have you ever seen a swarm of ants anywhere?” I ask. “By the trashcan? On the grass?”
He pushes his chair back so it is balancing on two legs, sizing me up. He knows I’m a college girl, even if he’s not really sure what college is. “If you’re so smart, why don’t you just write them for me?”
* * *
“Hear that?” Taylor asks. We’re swinging side by side on the playground. I listen. Nothing. “That’s the sweet sound of not-Sam,” she says.
Then Sam’s older brother, Kyle, starts climbing the monkey bars, and I see Sam run out the front door and slam it behind him. He sprints toward the street. I worry he’s going to cross, but he crouches down at the side of the road and watches the cars go by.
“I think he’s gonna walk home,” Kyle says, dangling from the monkey bars. Sam and Kyle’s family are former Haven residents. They’ve made the tenuous step back into housing of their own.
I ask how far away home is.
“Not so far,” he says. “Usually that’s how I get home after this. It takes like thirty minutes.”
“Does Sam have permission to walk home?”
“Probably not,” Kyle says.
Janine comes out and approaches Sam. She keeps her distance and squats down so that she is shorter than him. She seems to be talking to him but I can’t hear what she’s saying. I imagine she’s doing what she usually does to reel the kids back in, offering to play cards with him, or telling him that get a couple extra Haven dollars if he helps clean up inside. Her tone won’t be flimsy, but it will be softer, more maternal.
After a few minutes, Sam joins us on the playground. Janine goes back inside. The twins, Izzy and Taylor, are swinging, and Sam starts to run back and forth in front of them, reaching out to touch their legs. “Give them some space, Sam,” I say. He doesn’t. Taylor starts to slow down on the swings. Sam pushes her. She almost falls off, and clutches her chest and starts to cry. Janine reappears and takes Taylor inside. Sam takes her spot on the swing to see how far he can jump. There is a rule against jumping off the swings at Afterschool.
Janine comes back and asks if I mind going back inside with Taylor. I sit with Taylor at the table while she eats more granola and dries her tears. She starts dealing cards for a game of War.
The front door slams open. Sam is back. “Can I play on the computer?” he calls, addressing no one in particular.
“Do you think you’ve earned that privilege with your behavior today?” Janine asks.
“No,” he mumbles, folding his arms. Janine says he needs to come back and work on his homework.
“Make me, pretty lady,” he says, the left corner of his lip curling.
“Don’t talk to me like that, Sam.”
“What’s wrong with calling someone pretty?” he asks. “I can call you stupid if you like that better. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
The website makes it sound so neat and tidy: The Afterschool Program seeks to increase confidence and academic achievement, and provide opportunities for creative exploration, stress-reduction, and relationship-building for children connected to the Haven.
But on days like these it’s sticky peanut butter fingers and ripped playing cards. It’s penis jokes and phone calls to parents about “non-compliant children.” It’s that pounding in your temple that makes you chide yourself for thinking that you — as a volunteer or as a writer — could ever bring order to entropy. It’s that gnawing in your gut because you know you should feel guilty about leaving at five o’clock, abandoning these kids who have no escape from the chaos. But it’s only having the energy to feel relieved.
Sam’s voice carries from the front door, something about it not being fair. Taylor leaps off the swing beside me and topples onto the wood chips. “I think I got a splinter,” she says.
I keep swinging and look at my watch. Twenty-three minutes to go.
4. THE COLUMN LABELED PARENT/GUARDIAN
I don’t even reach the end of the cobblestone walkway before the front door swings open.
“Lindsay! Lindsay!” Taylor calls, running over to hug me.
I lift her up and swing her around so her feet hover off the ground the same way my father used to spin me. Taylor leads us inside and sits down beside Izzy at the long wooden table.
“Can I have some more cucumbers to finish off my ranch?” Taylor asks Janine.
Janine is seated at the end of the table, organizing the kids’ black binders of school calendars and worksheets. “Sure,” she says.
Taylor disappears into the kitchen and returns with a pile of cucumbers stacked into a Leaning Tower of Pisa. She takes a seat down the table from her sister Izzy, leaving an empty chair between them. They’re adding up their Haven dollars in their binders. “How many do you have, Izzy?” Taylor asks.
“Thirty-four,” Izzy replies.
“I have forty-one!” Taylor says.
“It’s not a competition,” Janine says.
“Can I go to the store today?” Taylor asks. The “store” is Kim’s office in the Byrne House next door. Kim is the coordinator of Children’s Services at the Haven. The kids get to redeem Haven dollars for toys, board games, and books. Taylor tells me that she got eight different colors of nail polish from the store last week. “Almost one for every toe.”
“You can go after you finish your homework,” Janine says.
I ask Taylor what homework she has today. “Reading, like always,” she says. “And a math worksheet. But I already finished the front so I only have the back left. First I’m gonna read you this book.” She reaches out to touch the glossy cover of the 2014 World Almanac for Kids. “It’s brand new and I started it yesterday and it’s really cool.”
We go outside to read. She takes a seat on one of the swings. I stand in front of her on the mulch and tell her to come down so we can start reading.
“I got a bloody nose today,” she says, rocking forward on the swing. “In gym class. We were playing basketball and this guy on my team thought I was really bad—which he’s totally right, I’m horrible. But he threw the ball at me and he knew I wouldn’t catch it and it hit me straight in the face. I had to go to the nurse’s office.” Her tone is proud. “She gave me an ice pack.”
Taylor flips opens the almanac with one hand while she keeps holding onto the swing set with the other. After a minute she closes the book and slows to a stop. “I think we should move to the picnic table,” she says. “It’s kinda hard to swing and read at the same time.”
At the picnic table she opens the book again, flipping through the pages. “How about you pick a page and start reading?” I suggest.
“Hold on,” she says. “It’s kinda windy. I’m gonna run in and get my jacket.” She trots back inside and reappears a few minutes later wearing a blue cotton sweatshirt, the hood pulled over her brown hair. She closes her eyes, randomly opens to a page on the year’s top musicians, and starts reading. “Katy Perry was born in…”
Then she’s up again, running back inside. “Gotta go!” she says. She means to the bathroom. She returns five minutes later, makes a detour back to the picnic table by climbing up the plastic rock wall of the playground structure. At the top, she turns the red steering wheel. “Land ho, land ho!” she cries, using her hand as a visor and staring at an imaginary horizon. I tell her to come back. She zips down the plastic yellow slide, landing with a thump.
“So much static,” she says, brushing the mulch off her skinny jeans. She opens the almanac up to the Reality T.V. page and reads for about five minutes. “The X-factor is a talent comp…compet…”
“Competition,” I say.
She gives me a little smile. “Sometimes I know how to say a word, I just can’t get it out.”
I tell her that happens to me sometimes, too.
She pulls the hood down from her sweatshirt and keeps reading. “One Direction is a British boy band whose members are Harry Styles, Louis Tom—”
She looks to me for help. “Sound it out,” I tell her.
“Good,” I say, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear.
She closes the book, tracing the glossy cover with her fingers. “It’s too windy out here,” she says. “Let’s go back inside.”
Janine says that Taylor’s required twenty minutes of reading are up. She signs her initials in on Taylor’s homework recording sheet for school, under the column labeled parent/guardian.
Taylor takes out her math worksheet. She has to turn shapes into fractions.
“It looks like an open box!” she says, pointing to her depiction of 1/4, drawn with four diamonds that do seem to resemble a cube.
“And this one,” she says, pointing to her drawing of inverse parallelograms to depict 1/2, “kinda looks like a mirror.” She cocks her head to the side. “See it?” she asks me.
I see no mirror in the shapes. But I smile into her puddle brown eyes and nod.
* * *
“Keep the clay on the newspaper, please,” Janine says from the couch. She’s pulling donated t-shirt fragments through a hula-hoop loom to weave a circular rug. Tommy slouches beside her, refusing to help.
Izzy moves her square slab of red clay onto the newspaper. “Did you hear Mr. Tillman is retiring?” she asks Taylor.
“Yeah, I heard,” Taylor says, etching eyes into her clay dog with a scalpel-like tool. “But I wish it was Mrs. Rory retiring. She’s so mean.”
“Taylor, be nice,” Janine says. The corners of her mouth twitch.
“I’ll be nice if she’ll be nice,” Taylor says. She’s adding spherical poop turds to the dog’s backside because, “he’s gotta go.”
With my own slab of clay, I’m crafting a bird’s nest. Taylor informs me that my mother bird looks like a chicken.
“My clay is too hard, it’s not molding,” Izzy says, pounding the red slab with her palms to flatten it. “I wanna make playdough instead.”
“How do you make playdough?” Tommy asks.
“Flour and sugar and food dye,” says Izzy.
“And cream of tart-ar!” Taylor chimes in. “That’s how we made it at school.”
“What the heck is cream of tart-ar?” Tommy asks.
“No clue,” Taylor says. “What is it?” She’s asking me.
I tell them it’s a white powder that’s used in baking. “It’s an ingredient in snickerdoodles.”
“You make snickerdoodles?” Taylor asks, curving the tail of her clay dog. “Like homemade?”
“Sure,” I say. “I make them all the time with my mom. It’s a lot of fun.”
“I’ve never made snickerdoodles,” Izzy says. She’s pouring water from a white plastic cup onto the clay to soften it. Her ratio of water to clay is too great so she creates a flood instead.
Izzy wipes her wet fingers on the newspaper lining the table. “It’s not my fault this clay is hard as brick.”
Lena, who I haven’t seen in weeks, struts through the front door, fresh from softball practice. Her green hair has washed out and her brown roots are starting to show. The knees of her white softball pants are streaked with mud and grass stains. She takes a seat next to me, resting her grey socks on my chair. I ask if she wants to make something out of clay. She says no. “My finger is sore from writing at school,” she says, holding up the pointer finger of her left hand.
“Come on,” I tell her. “You’re a tough softball catcher, you can handle a tired finger.”
Lena stares down at her hand. “I’m not a starter,” she says. “But I think I might be by next game.”
I start making a tree branch for my bird’s nest. Lena picks up a piece of clay and makes an oval egg to add to the nest.
“I’m going to your game tonight, Tommy,” Lena says.
“Cool,” Tommy says with a smirk. “Like I care if my sister watches me.”
She turns to me and leans closer. “I’m not going ’cause I wanna watch him,” she tells me. “I’m going because there’s this guy who I think likes me, and his little brother is on Tommy’s team so he’ll be there probably.”
"Is it Dan?” I ask. The boy with the constipated scowl.
She looks confused. “No,” she says, fixing her ponytail. “His name is Trevor. He’s really nice.”
“Didn’t you say Dan is nice, too?”
“No,” Lena says. “Well, yeah, Dan is nice but he doesn’t have good manners. Trevor has really good manners. The other day when we were at school he walked with me to my science class which is homeroom and he looked at me and said ‘Have a good day.’”
I wait for more. She’s done. She uses a fine-point tool to draw cracks in the eggs for my nest. “To make them look more real,” she explains.
* * *
The day, as it often does, ends out on the playground. About ten kids are playing tag. I’m sitting on one of the two big kid swings. In tag, the swings are safety. No one can touch you when you’re on them.
Taylor is swinging next to me, telling me about a dream she had last night where her brother was eaten by a shark. “But his whole body wasn’t eaten, just his head.” She giggles and kicks her legs forward.
Charlotte runs over to me, her brown hair falling out of its ponytail. “Can I use your swing?” she asks, out of breath.
I start to nod and slow myself down. But something stops me. My legs keep swinging forward. My words shift shape somewhere between my brain and my breath. “Two minutes,” I hear myself say. “You can have it in two minutes.”
A boy, who’s “It,” runs toward Charlotte. “I’m gonna get you,” he cackles.
Charlotte reaches out and clutches the metal-linked chain of my swing, just below the spot my hand is gripping.
“Let me share the swing,” she says. “That way we’re both safe.”
5. UNSTICK THE WORDS
There are five beanbags in the blue room. Taylor piles them together to form one big cushion. She takes a running start and jumps into them.
“Now gotta fluff ’em back up,” she says, standing up and shaking the beanbags to counteract the deflation of her jump.
She’s midair into jump number two when Janine walks in.
“Taylor,” Janine says, “If you keep disrespecting the book nook, you’re going to lose your privilege of reading in here. And you only get to use one beanbag.”
Taylor sighs and dismantles her beanbag mattress. She chooses to sit in the fluffiest one and spreads out her arms and leg as if she’s making a snow angel.
I ask her what book she’s going to read today. “Not sure yet,” she says. “I wish I could make my own book.”
“Like write your own book?”
“Yeah.” She sits up and starts surveying the bookshelf. “But I can’t.”
“You could someday,” I tell her.
“I don’t know how,” she says. “I wanna read from the fourth grade shelf today even though I’m in third grade.” She picks out a book of poems called A Pizza the Size of the Sun. I settle into the beanbag next to her and set my phone timer for thirty minutes. Taylor crosses her left leg over her right knee as she wiggles. I notice fair hairs lining her shins. My forefinger traces my own smooth legs, pricking on the stubble.
Taylor begins to read, thumping her right hand on the blue wall to a measured cadence. She pauses when she reaches a poem where the words are written backward.
I thguoht d’I etirw ekil siht yadot
esuaceb ti demees ekil nuf.
I can almost see her rearranging the letters in her head before she says them aloud. “Great job,” I say when she does it. I tell her I’m going to take a picture of the poem to show my friends and see if they can do it as well as she does. She giggles.
Taylor looks back down at the book and flips the page. “Lindsay, take a picture of this poem, too!”
The letters and words are arranged from left to right. The title is “I am Your Mirror Image.”
egami rorrim ruoy ma I
od I gnihtyreve dna
noitcelfer tcaxe na si
uoy yb enob s’taht lla fo
“What’s a mirror image?” Taylor asks as she stares at the scrambled words, holding the book so close to her eyes that her nose almost brushes the page.
“It’s like how you see yourself when you look into a mirror,” I say.
She looks over at me and tilts her head, her espresso brown hair falling onto the shoulder of her teal t-shirt. “Like opposite, only not?”
“Exactly,” I say as Taylor starts to unstick the words.
* * *
“If I do the backside of my math worksheet, I might get a coupon,” Taylor tells me as she flips over the page of her math worksheet and bounces up and down on her toes.
“What’s the coupon for?” I ask.
“Well it’s not really for anything, but my teacher gives it to the kids who fill up their extra credit sheet. I’ve never got one before.”
Across the table, Izzy and Jack, a fourth grader with baggy jeans and a quick tongue, are playing with colored wooden blocks.
Jack reaches over and takes one of the pieces from Izzy’s pile.
“Give it back, please,” Izzy says. Jack slides it back across the table roughly.
“Does the alligator eat the big number or the small number?” Taylor asks me as she looks at her homework. She has to write an inequality to show whether 5/6 is greater than or less than 3/4.
“The bigger number.”
“That’s what I thought,” she says, and proceeds to draw spiky teeth on all of the inequality signs on the page. “To help me remember the alligator’s hungry.”
“Jack, do you have an ‘L’?” Izzy asks, searching the pile for an L-shaped block. “I wanna build a staircase.”
Tommy walks in the room. He’s done reading. Charlotte and Alicia are at the other end of the table playing a card game called “Garbage” with Gussie. “Do you want to play Garbage with us?” Gussie asks Tommy.
“I’m gonna suck at it, so why play?” he says. He watches Gussie shuffle the cards and mutters something under his breath.
“What did you say?” Gussie asks.
He leans forward and props his elbows on the table. “I said, deal me in.”
* * *
“I can’t do it,” Taylor mumbles. She’s talking about the Girls on the Run 5K race that she’s participating in on Saturday.
“Sure you can,” I say as we watch the boys play a loud game of Risk.
“It’s like the Revolutionary War,” Sam comments. “Except this time the British win.” Five players’ armies are spread across the seven continents of the game board.
“We’re all gonna have accents,” Jack says, bouncing on his seat.
Janine calls over from the other room, telling them it’s time to clean up.
“Just let me take over Europe first,” Sam says.
After one more battle, Jack’s army is defeated. Janine comes in and tells them time’s up.
The kids start packing up the game, putting the plastic cavalry and soldiers back into their box. A new boy, Vince, with shaggy blonde hair, flicks his army off the board with thumb and middle finger. Vince’s family has just moved in to the Byrne House.
“Treat the pieces nicely,” Janine says, bending down to pick up the plastic figures from the floor.
“I own the world,” Vince says, flicking another gray soldier to the carpet. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
6. YOU CAN KEEP THE FIFTIES
It’s my last visit before the summer. Tommy is dribbling a basketball in the driveway as I approach. “Hey, Tommy,” I say.
“Wazzup.” I get the feeling he still doesn’t know my name.
Taylor comes out and hugs me.
“How’d your race go?” I ask. “Did you finish?”
“Yeah,” she says with a big smile. “There were people handing out water in plastic cups as we ran and I took one and I threw my cup on the ground like litter and they didn’t even care. It was their job to pick it up.”
We sit down at the table. “And when we finished they gave us medals,” Taylor says through a mouth full of banana muffin. “But I didn’t put mine on right away. I waited until I saw my mom. I wanted her to put it on me.”
A few boys are playing Monopoly at the other end of the table. Taylor reaches into the money container and pulls out a wad of paper cash. She starts running around the table in circles. “I’m rich, I’m rich!”
“You can keep the fifties,” a boy named Chase tells her as he arranges his own stack of cash. “But I get the hundreds.”
* * *
“I threw my muffin over the fence,” Sam says. “Just like this.” He mimes a baseball pitch.
“Why did you do that?” a volunteer named Becky asks.
“’Cause I wanted to,” Sam says. “It went far.”
Tommy throws the red Nerf ball at Sam. “Gotcha!”
“No you didn’t!” Sam yells back. “You only got my hair. My hair isn’t part of my body, you idiot.”
“Yeah it is!”
“Nuh-uh!” Sam says. “Hey Tommy, did you move houses yet?”
“Yeah, I moved.”
“But you still have stuff in your window,” Sam says. “I saw it from the school bus.”
“Well, duh,” Tommy says, throwing the Nerf ball into the air as high as he can. “I can’t move all at once.”
* * *
The kids gather for a game of tag. Lena sits on the low plastic riser that encloses the playground.
“How’s softball going?” I ask.
“It’s good,” she says, picking up a woodchip and tossing it aside.
She shrugs. “I don’t really see him that much.”
Alicia comes and stands next to me. She’s wearing a purple and green sweater with a 3-D flower sewn onto it. She pets the wool petals and tells me that Charlotte is at home today because her tummy hurts.
“Is your tooth doing better?” I ask. I haven’t seen Alicia much since the scavenger hunt.
She nods. “It feels good. But I have to go to the doctor ’cause it’s crooked and wobbly. And now other one is crooked, too. See, look.” She opens her mouth and points to her two front teeth. Both adult teeth, both loose.
“You haven’t seen a doctor, yet?” I ask. “I thought you said you were going to?”
“Not yet.” She closes her jaw. “I wanna do the monkey bars,” she says, climbing up the blue metal ladder. She swings across the bars quickly, two at a time.
* * *
Janine tells us it’s time to say goodbye.
Alicia hugs my leg and stares up at me with her circle eyes. I hug back a little too tightly.
Lena walks slowly to the van. She gives me a smile, the kind that surprises me with its softness. She waves one hand in good-bye. “See ya, Linday,” she says, dropping the “s” from my name.
“You’re leaving?” Taylor asks. She’s standing in front of me, looking up.
I nod. “But I’ll be back later this summer.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be here this summer,” she says, and wraps her arms around me.
“We might be moving,” she says.
“Where?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Don’t know.”
My breath tangles.
“Taylor and Izzy and Sam and Alicia, get in the van, please,” Kim calls from out front.
Taylor jolts her head up from my shoulder. “I call backseat front row!” she says, running outside to Kim’s silver van. She opens up the backseat door and buckles herself into one of the individual seats with adjustable armrests and ample legroom. Best seat in the van. Then she sees me watching, and she waves from her spot in the “backseat front row,” the seat she has claimed as her own.
* The names of all children have been changed.