Read Banished Online

Authors: Sophie Littlefield

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #General, #Fantasy & Magic, #Mysteries & Detective Stories

Banished (4 page)

BOOK: Banished
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



that night, and it took longer than usual to get ready in the morning because someone had spilled a beer on the kitchen floor. I didn’t want Chub sitting in it, so I scrubbed the floor clean. Before I left, I fixed him toast and dressed him in a cute pair of overalls, then got him set up with his stacking blocks. I fed Rascal and put him out in the yard for the day.

Maybe it was because I was so tired, but I didn’t see the car across the street until the bus pulled up. It was cold for April, and I was squinting against the morning sun and blowing clouds of breath on the chilly air when I heard the bus coming and looked up. Ten yards down the road on the opposite side was a dark gray sedan with tinted windows. Our house was the only one on this stretch of road between Gypsum and Trashtown, and anyone who came to see us just drove into the yard. No one ever parked on the road like that.

I boarded the bus, then slid in next to Coby Poindexter, leaning across him so I could look out at the sedan. The driver’s-side window was cracked a few inches, but I couldn’t see inside. As the bus pulled back into the street, I twisted around and tried to see the license plate, but all I could make out was a Lexus emblem.

Could it be the cops? Undercover, watching our house because of Gram’s dealing? But cops wouldn’t drive a Lexus, would they?

“Hey,” Coby said, “how’s things in white-trash land?”

I ignored him. Today, for some reason, I felt something inside me slipping. It wasn’t that I was feeling any braver. Almost the opposite—like I was falling apart at the edges. The way Dun had treated me the night before, the mess in the kitchen this morning, the strange car across from our house: it was all too much. It didn’t leave me enough energy to keep up the mask of indifference I worked so hard at.

“Shut up, Coby,” I muttered.

It wasn’t much of a comeback, but he seemed surprised. I could sense him staring at me the rest of the way to school, but I didn’t pay any attention. When we pulled up in front of the school I bolted out the door before anyone else could talk to me, and went looking for Milla.

She wasn’t hard to find. She was standing near the second-floor water fountain with two other Morrie girls who could have been sisters, their blond hair in greasy clumps around hollow-cheeked faces with sharp, jutting chins. I thought one was named Jean—she’d been in a few of my classes over the years.

“Excuse me,” I said, louder than I intended. I was nervous. I wanted to talk to Milla about what happened, but the other girls closed ranks in front of her as though they’d practiced the move. She would have escaped down the hall except she tripped over her backpack and dropped the book she was holding. It fell to the floor, pages fluttering open.

I reached down to pick up the book just as she did and bumped my forehead against her shoulder. She yanked herself away from me with such force that I left the book on the floor.

Ever since my first week of school, when I sought them out at recess and lunch, I had found myself drawn to the Morries. Maybe it was just that we were equally pathetic, all of us badly dressed and ragged and friendless, but it felt like something more. I felt—and maybe this was no more than an orphaned child’s longing for family—like we were related somehow. Like I was one of them.

I’d asked Gram about it long ago and she’d burst out in one of her breath-rattling laughs, spittle forming at the corners of her mouth.

“You ain’t no Morrie,” she said. “You’re way better’n any Morrie girl. Don’t you forget it, now.”

I must have looked unconvinced, because she reached out her nicotine-stained thumb and forefinger and pinched the tender skin on the inside of my arm. She could pinch surprisingly hard, making hot tears jump to my eyes, but I didn’t make a sound.

“Those Morrie
, now, they’re a whole nother matter,” she added. “But that’s for later, and don’t you pay them no mind. I’ll let you know when, that’s what.”

There were no boys around now. I looked into Milla’s watery eyes and edged closer, almost enjoying the way she shrank from me.

“What happened yesterday?” I demanded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You were unconscious. I saw … I
it.” I didn’t say that her hands, her forehead beneath my fingers, felt worse than unconscious, they felt … wrong. Empty. Dangerous, broken, hurt.

“Didn’t you come to my house once?” I asked in a voice that was little more than a whisper. “Last year. With that guy. You know. The one with the tattoos.”

It wasn’t much of a clue, since many of Gram’s customers had tattoos, but the man I was thinking of had blue crosses circling his neck, disappearing into his stringy gray ponytail.

I could see in Milla’s eyes I’d hit a nerve. “Wasn’t me,” she mumbled, lips barely moving as she spoke.

“Yes it was. Yes it

“No. I’m, I was—”

“Why are you so scared of me?” I demanded, leaning close to her face. The bell rang loud over our heads, and I could see the kids, Cleans and Morries alike, scattering off to class, but I didn’t move.

Milla shook her head, eyes open so wide I could see the pale pink veins in the white parts. “I ain’t scared of you.”

She tried to slip away to the side, but I put out my arm and blocked her, my hand flat against the wall. Anger traced white-hot trails along my nerves. I itched to hit Milla. I could feel my palm tingle where I imagined smacking it against her bloodless cheek.

But when she dodged in the other direction, I let her go. She backed away with little shuffling steps, her book forgotten on the floor. “I ain’t scared,” she said again, and I knew she was about to turn and sprint down the hall, to sit in the back of some class with the other Morries.

“I ain’t scared,” she said one final time, giving me a look that was part triumph and part impossibly sad. “But maybe
oughta be.”

I couldn’t pay attention the rest of the day. I had done something to Milla that had fixed her. I wasn’t sure what or how, and my mind danced around the memory of yesterday, trying to make sense of it.

There had been a second, when my fingers pressed against her damp, stringy hair, when it felt as though something had shifted inside me. As though some hidden piece had broken free and now rode the currents of my bloodstream, electrified by my heartbeat and changing me from the inside out. I wasn’t at all sure I liked the feeling. Being me wasn’t exactly paradise, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to change, either.

I thought of Gram and the brief time when she’d turned almost human, when we first got Chub. She had changed—or at least I thought she had. For a while she was almost like a real parent, asking me about my day, about what I learned at school. She wasn’t great at it—she didn’t listen to my answers and I still had to do most of the chores, but when I watched her working with Chub, there was a light in her eyes, and that was more than I’d seen in her before or since.

And now she was worse than ever. Was that what was in store for me? Would I end up like her, bitter and mean? I’d tried to help Milla—I hadn’t planned it, and I didn’t understand it, but I had tried. And now I wanted to make a connection with her. No: the connection was already there—I just wanted her to acknowledge it. And instead, she’d made it even clearer that she wanted nothing to do with me.

I was still lost in my thoughts when I walked to the drugstore after school, and I left without the one thing I really needed, Chub’s baby shampoo. I turned around after a couple of blocks and headed back.

When I had almost reached the store, I saw something that made my heart lurch: the car that had been parked outside our house that morning was pulling into a parking space. Two men got out of the car. They were medium height with short hair, wearing sunglasses and dark jackets. They moved fast and looked strong and muscular under their clothes, and they didn’t smile or talk.

They could be anybody, I told myself—it was probably just a coincidence that I’d seen them twice. They could have pulled over in front of our house to check a map or to pee behind a tree or something, and as for going into the drugstore, everyone in town shopped there.

On the other hand, I had never seen them before. I knew pretty much everyone in Gypsum by sight, and these guys definitely didn’t look local.

If they
cops, they weren’t from Gypsum.

But if someone had caught on that Gram was dealing drugs, maybe the local cops had called in some other agency. Like—I racked my brain, trying to remember what we’d learned in civics. There was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives … but was dealing drugs a federal crime? And who would have turned Gram in? One of her customers? Maybe they’d given up information in exchange for a better deal, if they’d been arrested for possession or something. I knew the penalties for dealing were fierce, way more serious than just getting caught with stuff.

But if they already suspected Gram, why didn’t they just get a warrant and come to the house? Maybe that was what they were doing now—trying to get enough evidence to justify a warrant. Well, they wouldn’t get it from talking to Mr. Hsiao—all I’d bought today was a box of trash bags, eyedrops for Gram and a three-pack of soap.

I needed to find out more. I waited until the men entered the shop, then walked quickly to the car. Trying to look casual, I peered through the windshield: there was nothing inside but a Styrofoam coffee cup in the cup holder.

I went back into the shop, slipping into the aisle farthest from the cash register. I studied the shaving cream and razors and strained to hear what the two men were saying to Mr. Hsiao.

“…  come in regularly?” A deep voice with a slightly flat accent.

“No, like I told you, she’s as like to come in one day as the next. These kids, they don’t stick to a schedule, you know? You mind telling me what this is about?”

“An incident at her school,” a new voice said smoothly. “Can’t give the details at this point. We appreciate your cooperation. And you keeping it … under wraps.”

“And you said you were from …”
That’s right, Mr. Hsiao, find out who they are
, I telegraphed silently.

“State services,” the first voice said. “Here, my identification …”

There was silence for a moment; then Mr. Hsiao spoke, his voice only a little less skeptical. “Well, I’ve told you what I can. You could probably catch up with the girl, talk to her yourself, if you like.”

A moment later they were striding back out of the store. I spotted the tops of their heads going by and ducked. I counted to two hundred before leaving the store, careful not to let Mr. Hsiao see me.

I wasn’t convinced the men were from any state agency. They were too … anonymous, for one thing. Plus, Mr. Hsiao didn’t sound like he thought much of whatever ID they showed him.

Could they be some sort of competition? Drug dealers from the next town over, maybe all the way from Kansas City? Or had Gram got into something even worse? Did she owe money, had she stolen something valuable, cheated someone important?

The car was gone, but for all I knew it was on its way to our house. I needed to get home, but there were stretches of the road with no houses along them, no one to notice if something happened to me. But I had no idea what these men would want with

I didn’t care much what happened to Gram, but I couldn’t let anything happen to Chub. As I hesitated, torn between running home and trying to keep the men from seeing me, Sawyer Wesson came around a corner, walking with Milla. Sawyer was a Morrie, but he wasn’t like the others. He was quiet and careful and kept himself clean. We’d never spoken, but I’d noticed him watching me a few times during lunch or in school assemblies.

Milla saw me first, and her mouth tightened into a hard line. She put a hand on Sawyer’s arm, but he was in the middle of saying something to her as he tossed his cigarette to the ground and stepped on it.

“Sawyer,” I called. Panic made me bold. “Sawyer, could you please walk me home?”

Only after the words were out did I realize how they sounded. I was frightened, that was all, and I just wanted some company in case anything bad happened. Sawyer was tall and broad-shouldered, with narrow eyes and black hair that reached almost to his shoulders. If you didn’t know him, it would be easy to be intimidated by him.

He stopped and regarded me. He looked surprised, then wary, his eyes clouding with doubt.

“I mean—I didn’t—” I started to explain, but what could I say? That I thought I was being pursued by government agents or members of the mob or, or, I had no idea who?

“That’d be okay,” Sawyer said, and then I saw something I’d never seen before: his smile. It was surprising how it changed his face, making him look almost sweet.

“You were comin’ to the Burger King with me, or did you forget that,” Milla spat. She refused to look at me.

“I never said—”

“Whyn’t you just go on with
, then. Seein’ as you’re so forgetful’n all, you prob’ly forgot who she is.” If it was a bluff, it wasn’t much of one, since Sawyer walked over to me without a backward glance. I had no idea what Milla meant by “who she is.” Was she referring to what had happened in gym? To the fact that I was an outcast? Whatever she meant, Sawyer either didn’t know or didn’t care, and I felt smug satisfaction as Milla stalked off the way they’d come, defeated.

We walked half a block before I managed to think of something to say, and then at the very same moment Sawyer started to talk too.

“So how are—”

“What do you—”

And then we were both laughing and saying
you first, no you
. Sawyer kicked at a stone and it went flying across the road, hitting a tree trunk dead-on, and I thought about how it was for me in gym class.

“Did you ever want to play sports?” I asked.

Sawyer didn’t answer for a moment. “Sometimes. I thought … I’m pretty good, you know, at throwing. I thought maybe baseball. But …”

BOOK: Banished
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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