Authors: James Heneghan
Anyway, the judge decided baby Nell (me) could not stay with her parents. The danger to her health and happiness was too great, he said.
My mother cried all through the hearing. All she knew was that they were taking her baby away from her. I keep a copy of the article as a memento of sorts. It was on the front page of the
under the headline:
TRAGEDY WITHOUT EVILâRETARDED PAIR FORFEITS BABY
No one says retarded now. Things have changed in thirteen years. Now they say “intellectually challenged” (yech!) or “mentally handicapped,” which I like better.
I've read the newspaper story over and over. I know it by heart, every word. It was a long time before I could look at it without crying.
Mom was talking to me, something about her hair.
“Sorry, Mom. Was I pulling? I swear it's grown two inches since the last time I cut it.”
Mom giggled. “Has it really, Nell? Has it really?”
I was pretty good at doing her hair. I was taking off about half an inch using the kitchen scissors.
“So dark and thick,” I said. “It's easy to see where I get mine.”
Mom's head swiveled around. “And your lovely green eyes, Nell. You got your eyes from me too, don't forget. Don't forget your lovely green eyes.”
“Keep your head still, Mom. You wouldn't want me to cut off your lovely pink ear now, would you?”
Mom tensed, frightened.
“Kidding, Mom, only kidding.”
She relaxed and I massaged her head and brushed her hair.
“Mom, could I ask you about your pearl necklace?”
Mom thought for a few seconds. “The beautiful pearl necklace my mother left me?”
“Yes. Will it be mine some day?”
“Yours? Of course it will be yours, Sweetie. After I'm gone, everything will be yours. My music box with the little dancer. And my book of stickers from Expo 86. And my picture of your daddy on duty at the gas station in his smart uniform with the stripes. It was taken just a month before he died, you know. I remember I was out at the park that day.” She smiled her child smile at me. “Everything will be yours.”
“Could I see it, the necklace?”
Mom looked confused as she tried to remember where she kept it. “See it now, you mean?”
“Yes, Mom. See it now.”
“Is my hair finished?”
“Come and see in the mirror. It looks great.”
On the SkyTrain home, I hooked Mom's necklace out of my jeans pocket and let the beautiful pearls run through my fingers.
She wouldn't miss it. I hadn't taken the box.
Even if Mom opened the box and saw it empty, she wouldn't remember anything. She would start looking for the necklace under the furniture. Thing was, it was really mine, in a way. I mean, she planned to give it to me.
I got off at Metrotown Station.
Ten minutes later I was in the mall, leaning over the counter of Pearson's Jewelers as a baldy geezer took the necklace from me.
“How much is it worth?”
He reached for his eyeglass but stopped and smiled without even using it. “It's costume jewelry.”
“What do you mean?”
“They're not real pearls.”
I didn't say anything.
He examined the necklace. Then he took the eyeglass out again. “I'm sorry,” he said, “but this is worth very little.” He shrugged apologetically. “Thirty dollars maybe. Certainly no more than fifty.”
Fifty dollars! I slid the pearls back into my pocket.
“Thanks very much,” I said, and took off fast expecting to hear the old geezer laughing at me, the mentally retarded kid.
The next day, a windy afternoon in Patterson Hill Park, the three of us gathered around our usual picnic table. Beds of bright daffodils shook their yellow heads madly inâwhatâsprightly dance? Is that what the poet said? Except the daffs weren't dancing, they were shaking their heads at us as fast as they could go. “No. No. No.” That should have told me something.
“You have to do it, Billy,” I said. “You have to go in and hand the bank teller the note. You're the biggest. You could pass for eighteen, maybe nineteen.”
“That's what I figured.” He grinned.
Billy had convinced me that the only way we'd ever get our hands on such a huge amount of cash was to go along with his robbery scheme.
I said, “You could get the money, then get out of the bank real fast, and Tom could be waitingâ¦”
“Not me,” Tom shook his head. “No friggin' way. Forget it. Look, I've been thinking.”
“You got a better idea?” asked Billy.
“You could say that,” said Tom. “At least it won't land us in jail for the rest of our lives.”
I said, “What's your plan, Tom?”
“There's a trust fund set up for me. I'm not allowed to touch it forâ¦well anyway, I could try and getâ¦”
I felt like hugging him. “Oh, Tom, that'd be so wonderful.” I turned to Billy. “Wouldn't it, Billy?”
Billy looked disappointed. “Yeah. Sure it would.”
Billy waited a few days before asking Tom about the money. We were on our way home from school.
“Well? Did you get it?”
Tom looked at the cars speeding by in the street. He said nothing for a while. Then without looking at us, he said, “Couldn't get it. There's money for university but nothing else. Not till I'm twenty-one.”
I could tell Billy was trying his best not to look pleased.
The next Saturday, we spent an hour shooting hoops at Patterson Hill Park. It was windy and cold. We took a break and sat at the picnic table.
“So what's it to be, Tom?” asked Billy.
Tom stretched himself out on one of the wooden seats. “If you're talking about what I think you're talking about, the answer's still no.”
Billy turned to me, sitting on the other seat. “Looks like it's just you and me then, Nails.”
Billy came over and sat beside me, with his back to Tom.
“So it's back to my plan. I pull the holdup, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, “then I'll take the handoff. You think it will work, Billy? You really think we can get away with it?”
Billy smiled. “Trust me. I don't see how it can fail.”
Billy filled me with hope. I trusted him. He made anything seem possible. If he said we were going to jump over the moon, I'd believe him. We would get the money for the extra bathroom. None of us would have to leave the Hardy home after all.
I appealed to Tom. “We need you as part of the team, Tom. If there's three of us, we'll be like the Three Musketeers. All for one and one for all.”
Tom sat up and shook his head. “Friggin' brainless, I call it.”
Brainless. There it was again.
I turned to Billy. “Okay, Billy. It's just you and me. So I'm standing there with the bag of money. Now what do I do?”
But Billy wasn't giving up on Tom. He walked over to the other side of the table and laid a hand on Tom's shoulder. “I'm thinking it would be safer to have a second handoff, Tom. We really need you, bud.”
Tom stood, shaking his head. I could see he didn't like saying no to Billy. He looked up at him. It was hurting Tom to refuse.
“So I'm standing there with the bag of money. Now what do I do?” I asked Billy again.
Billy's usually sleepy face was flushed with excitement. He turned away from Tom and said to me, “You walk down the street, all calm like, to where Tom is waiting.”
I said, “But Tomâ¦”
“Don't worry. Tom will change his mind. He won't let us down. As I was saying, you slip Tom the bag. We all head for the SkyTrain separately, taking our time and being sure to take different SkyTrains. We don't want anyone catching us together. It'll work. It's got to.”
Billy's a pirate at heart, I'm sure of it. He's a buccaneer. No one but us, his best friends, would ever guess from his sleepy appearance that deep inside he longed so much for adventure, excitement and danger.
I swallowed. “If it means keeping all four of us together,” I said, “I'm game.” We knocked fists.
“I knew I could count on you, Nails.” Billy smiled his gleaming smile and my stomach did a flip.
Amiable just doesn't cut it. Billy's perfect, pure and simple.
We headed back to the house. Tom was quiet. Billy is big, at least six feet tall with broad shoulders. He sort of rolled as he walked. Way cool.
“You know what?” I told him. “From the back you even look like a bank robber. You're like the bank robber in that old black-and-white western we saw, I forget his nameâ¦”
He turned around and grinned. “Billy the Kid.”
“That's the one.”
Billy Galloway was a kid on life's skateboard, having himself a good time.
“Were you thinking of some kind of disguise?” I asked. His face with its freckled nose and ruddy cheeks looked too young for a bank robber. It wasn't just the freckles and cheeks, it was something else. Maybe the long curly hair that hardly ever saw a comb, or maybe the happy twinkle in his blue eyes.
Billy said, “Disguise? Fake mustache maybe?”
“What about some glasses with black frames? I got a pair from Value Village. I thought they'd make me look older, but they're too big for me.”
Billy nodded. “Fake mustache, glasses, maybe a cap to hide my hair. That should do it.”
Tom didn't say anything. Like the daffodils at the park the week before, he shook his head in worried disbelief.
We spent the rest of the weekend trying to persuade Tom to join the team. The thing was, except for usâme, Billy and Lisa, and the Hardys, of courseâ Tom was totally alone. Both his parents were dead, he had no other relatives. We were his only family, his only friends.
Tom came to the Hardy house last September, a year or so after Billy and me. It was his first foster. He's the same age as me but wasn't in any of my classes at Moscrop Secondary. He was in the gifted program and I wasn't. You had to look for me in the Learning Centre getting help with math.
On Sunday night Lisa was in bed with a sore throat, so I hung out in the boys' room. Billy and Tom were finishing their homework. I didn't do homework. I was relaxing in their window seat, enjoying the romantic problems of Catherine Morland in
Billy put down his book and stretched. “So I've got our first bank all picked out.”
“I friggin' told you,” said Tom, “I'm not robbing any bank.”
“You'd rather leave it to chance that you'll be shipped off to some insane foster?” I asked. “You don't know what they're like, Tom. Some of them are really gruesome.”
“Yeah,” said Billy, “It's crazy the kind of places they think it's okay to send you.”
“What do you know about crazy?” Tom asked.
“More than you, I bet,” said Billy.
“I friggin' doubt that,” said Tom. “I know all about crazy.”
Tom rarely talked about his life before the Hardys'. Janice told us Tom's parents were dead, but that's about it. We know his mom had died of cancer, and for the longest time all he would say about his dad was that he went funny. Billy and I didn't bug him for details. Lots of kids don't like talking about the reason they're in a foster home.
“I lived with crazy for a year,” said Tom.
“Your dad?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Tom. “His doctor said it might be the beginning of Alzheimer's. That's the disease where your brain starts to get holes in it like Swiss cheese, you know?”
“But I looked it up on the Internet. Dr. Anderson was wrong. My dad didn't have Alzheimer's. Alzheimer people forget every friggin' thing. They forget where they live, forget what year it is, forget their names, everything. Dad didn't forget important stuff.”
“I think he just missed Mom so friggin' much. He stopped going to the office and worked in his garden instead. He was building a shrine to Mom. You should've seen itâazaleas, maples, bonsai trees, a pond with koi and a waterfall, lanterns hanging outside a miniature ceremonial teahouse. An authentic Japanese garden.”
“Sounds nice.” I loved the words Tom used. No wonder he was in the gifted program.
“I liked being in there and thinking about my mom. It felt like she was close by, you know?”
“But then my dad stole a garden gnome from the neighbors. He put it in the centre of the garden, next to the waterfall. Now, have you ever seen a Japanese garden with a gnome in it? Have you?”
I could tell I was supposed to be horrified. “You've got to be kidding!” I said.
“Right! It's like dropping a greasy hot dog into the centre of a perfect platter of sashimi. I asked him why he was doing it. Now get this: He said, âBeauty is in the eye of the beholder, my son. I have created a harmonious marriage between North American popular culture and ancient Japanese art.' It made no sense.
“But that wasn't the end: my dad brought home more garden gnomes and even pink flamingoes and a jockey. Then he brought home all kinds of gardening toolsâshovels and forks, electric hedge clippers, hoses, an electric lawn mower and a full set of patio furniture until the backyard could hold no more. The beautiful Japanese garden disappeared under all the junk. Then the house began to fill up with odd things like realty and election signs, garbage cans, doormats, lawn chairs, children's bicycles, wagons, go-cartsâ on and on.
“Eventually, someone in the neighborhood called the police. They came and looked at everything, and they scratched their heads. They didn't know what to do. The neighbors said they didn't care about their stuff. The poor man had just lost his wife. He was sick and didn't know what he was doing.”
“You had nice neighbors,” I said.