y stomach was flopping around like crazy as we made our way through the neighborhoods of Darby. I couldn't hardly wait to see which house would be ours.
But when Mama turned onto a dirt and gravel road, I started to get a bad feeling. The car squeaked and bounced up the narrow, winding road, deeper and deeper into the woods. When we passed a faded, handwritten sign nailed to a tree, my bad feeling got worse.
KEEP OUT. PRIVATE PROPERTY.
“Are you sure this is right?” I said to Mama.
She clutched the steering wheel and sat up straight and tense. “Yes, Georgina,” she said. “I know what I'm doing, okay?”
Then, just as I thought my bad feeling couldn't get any worse, we rounded a curve and I saw a house just ahead of us. A ramshackle old house with boarded-up windows and the front door hanging all cockeyed on its rusty hinges.
Mama stopped the car and we all three stared in silence
at the wreck of a house. The tar paper roof was caved in and covered with rotting leaves and pine needles. Prickly-looking bushes grew thick and dense across the front, while kudzu vines snaked their way up the chimney and across the roof.
“Well,” Mama said, “It ain't Shangri-la, but it's better than nothing.”
I couldn't believe my ears.
the house we're gonna live in?” I said.
“It's just temporary.” Mama turned the engine off and started throwing stuff into a cardboard box on the seat beside her. “Beverly Jenkins over at the Handy Pantry knows the owner, and she said he won't care if we stay here for a while.”
Toby started crying. “I don't want to,” he whined.
“Hush up, Toby,” Mama said. She got out and tried to push through the bushes that grew across the front of the house. “Come on, y'all,” she said. “Let's check it out.”
I crossed my arms and slumped down in the seat. This just beat all. First I had to go and get a daddy who acted mean all the time and then just up and left us. Now I had a mama who had gone plumb crazy.
“Come on, Georgina,” Mama called. “It's not that bad.”
She had managed to get to the front door and had pushed it open to peer inside.
“Really, y'all,” she said. “We can clean it up and make it nice.”
Toby was sniffling, and I knew he was waiting on me to make the first move.
“I bet there's snakes in there,” I called out through the car window.
Mama had disappeared inside, but her voice came drifting out to us. “There's no snakes. There's even some furniture. Come on.”
I looked at Toby and he looked at me.
“You think there's really snakes in there?” he said.
“Snakes and worse,” I said. “Probably rats and spiders and dead stuff.”
Toby started wailing. Mama came out and made her way back to the car, pushing the bushes aside to make a path. “Come on,” she said, opening the door and gathering up the box and trash bags and stuff.
“No,” I said. “I'm staying here.”
“No,” Toby said. “I'm staying here.”
Mama slammed the box down and yanked the back door open.
“Listen here,” she hollered. “I'm doing the best I can. At least we'll have a roof over our heads and some room to spread out. It won't be for long.”
“How long?” I said.
She sighed. “Not long,” she said. “I almost have enough for rent, but most places want a deposit, too.
You two just don't get it.” Her voice started getting louder until she was hollering again. “You think all I got to do is snap my fingers and
She pounded on top of the car.
the rent and there's the deposit and
the gas for the car,” she yelled. “And
, there's electricity and water and phone. Not to mention food and clothes and doctors and STUFF” She kicked the car when she yelled the word “stuff.”
Toby and I jumped.
“Now get out of the dern car and come inside,” she said. Then she picked up the box and started back through the bushes toward the house.
I gathered up my pillow and our beach towel wall. “Come on, Toby,” I said. “Let's go.”
The house smelled damp and moldy. The floor was littered with leaves and acorns. In the front room, a lumpy couch stood underneath the plywood-covered window. Mice or rats or something had chewed through the fabric to the foam stuffing beneath. Stacks of yellowing newspapers were piled in one corner. Two empty cans of pork and beans sat on a rusty wood stove.
I followed Mama into the kitchen. The cracked linoleum floor was sticky and made squeaky noises as we walked across it. I wrinkled my nose and peered into the sink. Twigs and dirt that had fallen through a hole in the
ceiling floated in a puddle of dark brown water. I turned the faucet, but no water came out. Not even one little drop. In one corner of the kitchen, a wobbly table was covered with empty soda cans and beer bottles. Cigarette butts were scattered on the floor beneath it.
“Our nasty ole car is better than this place,” I said, but Mama acted like she didn't hear me. She set the box on the table and pushed her hair out of her face.
“Y'all bring the rest of our stuff in and let's start cleaning this place up,” she said.
That night, I lay on the floor on top of piled-up clothes, covered with my beach towel, and stared at the mildewed ceiling.
In one corner, rain had leaked in and left a dark spot.
I narrowed my eyes, and that dark spot looked just like Willy. His ears and his eyes and even his whiskers. That morning, I had pushed him right out of my mind and now here he was back again, all because of this awful old house.
I could hear Mama tossing and turning on the other side of the room. Toby was curled up next to me. Every now and then his leg jerked. I bet he was dreaming about spiders and snakes.
I wanted more than anything to go to sleep so I wouldn't have to think about stuff, but I couldn't. I just lay there thinking about how everything had gotten so messed up and all. Then I remembered an Aesop's fable
that Mr. White had read us in school. The one about the hares and the frogs. I could still hear him reading the moral at the end. “There is always someone worse off than yourself.”
I thought. Ole Mr. Aesop must have been stupid 'cause he was just flat-out wrong. There was nobody, nowhere, worse off than me.
studied myself in the mirror of the bathroom at McDonald's. My hair hung in greasy clumps on my forehead. Creases from the crumpled-up clothes I had slept on were still etched in the side of my face. I rubbed my hands together under the water and ran my wet fingers through my hair. Then I used paper towels to scrub my face and arms. The rough brown paper left my skin red and scratched.
We'd spent the weekend in that old house and I was beginning to think I'd rather sleep in the car again. Mama had got some stuff at a yard sale to try to make things better. A plastic raft for us to take turns sleeping on. A radio that ran on batteries. An alarm clock. Stuff like that. She even got a great big artificial plant with red and purple flowers. She had wiped the dust off the leaves with her shirttail and set it up on top of the wood stove. I guess she thought that plant would make me glad to be there, but it didn't. If things didn't change soon, I was going to have to go back to my dog-stealing plans. That's all there was to it.
The bathroom door opened and Mama stuck her head inside.
“We got to go, Georgina,” she said. “I can't be late for work again.”
I followed her out to the car. I couldn't help but notice how her blue jeans hung all baggy, dragging on the asphalt parking lot as she walked. I guess she was getting skinnier.
She had on her green Handy Pantry T-shirt. Her long fingers clutched a cup of coffee that sent trails of steam into the early morning air.
“I'll drop y'all off at the corner,” she said, climbing into the car. “Then go on up yonder to the bus stop, okay?”
“Okay.” I got into the backseat beside Toby and propped my feet on top of my bag of stuff. Mama had told us not to leave our things in that nasty ole house, “just in case.” When I'd asked “Just in case what?” she had flapped her hand at me and told me to stop asking so many questions.
“After school,” she said, “you and Toby wait in the car while I work at the cleaners, then we'll go on back to the house after that, okay?”
I stuffed my notebook into my backpack. Today was the day we were supposed to bring in our science projects. I didn't have mine, but I didn't even care. I'd tell Mr. White my project got lost or stolen or something.
“Okay, Georgina?” Mama said, craning her neck to look at me in the rearview mirror.
“I guess.” I stared out the window.
“What's the matter?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Come on and tell me, Georgina,” she said. “What's the matter?”
I felt a wave of mad sweep over me.
I hollered. “Okay?
I kept my head turned toward the window, but I could feel her eyes on me.
“Give me a break, okay?” she yelled into the mirror. “You're just making this harder on everybody, Miss Glum and Angry. What would you like me to do, rob a bank?”
Toby giggled and I shot him a look that wiped the grin right off his face.
“Maybe you could act like a
Mama slammed on the brakes and whipped around to glare at me.
“Just what is
supposed to mean?” she said.
“Mothers are supposed to take care of their kids,” I said. “Not let them sleep in creepy old houses and wash up in the bathroom at McDonald's.”
Mama pressed her lips together and I could tell she was thinking hard about what to say. But then she just sighed and turned back around.
We rode in silence the rest of the way. When we got to the corner near the bus stop, I got out and slammed the door. Hard.
“Look after Toby, okay, Georgina,” Mama called after me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Whatever.”
“Was he mad?” Luanne asked me as we headed toward the bus.
“What did he say?”
“Well, I mean, nothing much.” I didn't look at Luanne 'cause I knew she would know I was lying. Mr. White had said plenty. He'd said how he couldn't understand my bad attitude lately. And he was so disappointed in my lack of effort recently. And then he had to go and ask me if everything was all right at home.
I had kept my eyes on the Styrofoam planets dangling from a coat hanger behind him. Somebody's stupid science project.
“Yessir,” I said. “Everything's fine.”
Then he had given me another envelope with
Mr. and Mrs. Hayes
written on it. Would I be sure and have my parents call him, he had said.
And if he didn't hear from them, he was going to have to talk to the principal about the problem. Did I understand, he had said.
“Yessir,” I told him. What I didn't tell him was that my daddy was long gone and my mama couldn't even get us a place to live and my things got thrown out with the garbage. I didn't tell him that my best friend didn't even like me anymore and now she had a new friend. All I said to him was “Yessir.”
I stuffed the envelope way down inside my backpack and left quick as I could.
On the bus, Luanne and I took our regular seats, and then Liza Thomas got on and stopped beside us.
“Are you going to Girl Scouts today?” she asked Luanne. She had on a red T-shirt with sparkly gold glitter spelling out
“Yeah, are you?” Luanne said.
“Yeah.” Liza flicked her ponytail behind her shoulder. “I'll see you there, okay?”
I could feel my jealousy churning around inside. Girl Scouts. I could just see Luanne and Liza there, side by side, working on their outdoor cooking badge or maybe planning a visit to the nursing home. I had to drop out of Girl Scouts so I could take care of Toby after school. Besides, I couldn't pay the dues or go on the trip to Six Flags or anything.
When we got off the bus, Liza waved at us out the window. Luanne waved back, but I didn't. Toby trotted along behind us.
“Wanna come over to my house before Girl Scouts?” Luanne said.
I wanted to say yes more than anything. I wanted to go over to the Godfreys' and lie on Luanne's soft pink carpet, eating graham crackers and working on one of my Girl Scout badges.
“I can't,” I said. And that was all.
Me and Toby went on down the hill to where Mama was waiting for us in the car. I hated looking at that beat-up old car with bags of stuff all piled up on the seats. Black smoke puffed out of the tailpipe and the engine made a rattly sound.
“Hey, y'all,” Mama called through the open window. “Look what I got.” She waved a giant bag of M&M's at us.
“Hot dang!” Toby hollered, racing to the car.
I yanked the door open, tossed my backpack inside, and climbed in. Toby was already ripping the candy bag open.
“I don't want any,” I said. Then I took my social studies book out of my backpack and pretended to read Chapter 21 like I was supposed to.
Mama turned around in the front seat. “Georgina,” she said. “Please stop making this worse than it already is.”
“Yes you are.” She got up on her knees and leaned over the seat to put her face down close to mine. “It won't be much longer now, I promise,” she said.
“How much longer?”
Mama sighed. “A few more days maybe,” she said.
A few more days? She might as well have said “forever.”
I felt the tears running down my face and then Mama's warm hand on my cheek.
“I'm sorry, sweetheart,” she said. “I swear, every night I pray for a miracle but I reckon nobody's listening.”
“What kind of miracle?” I said. My voice sounded small and pitiful.
“I don't know,” she said. “Anything. Money, mostly.”
Okay, that does it
, I said to myself. I was going to have to steal that dog, after all. I had to. It was the only way we were ever going to get ourselves out of this mess and live like normal people again.
So when Mama parked the car and kissed us goodbye, I pulled out my purple notebook and read through all my dog-stealing notes. I put a little checkmark beside the things I had already done. When I got to the part about finding a place to hide the dog, I thumped my pencil against my knee and thought real hard. Where in the world could I hide a dog? In the woods somewhere,
maybe? Or over behind the Elks Lodge? Maybe in that old chicken coop out there by Hiram Foley's place?
I closed my notebook and stared out the window at the folks sitting in front of the Dairy Queen across the street.
Stealing a dog had seemed so easy when I'd first thought of it. Now it seemed like the hardest thing I'd ever done.
Toby's voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Are we still gonna steal that dog?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “We are.”
“Soon.” I pushed my notebook down under the clothes in my trash bag.
That night it was my turn to sleep on the plastic raft. Strips of moonlight poured through the cracks in the plywood that covered the windows, and danced across the dusty wooden floor. I tried to make myself stop thinking so I could go to sleep, but my mind just wouldn't turn off. I went through my plan over and over, imagining myself with that little dog, Willy. Picturing myself running with him in my arms. Seeing myself hiding him someplace. But where?
I threw the beach towel off of me and tiptoed over to
the corner of the room where my stuff was. I took out my notebook and sat down in a beam of moonlight so I could see. I turned to
Step 3 of How to Steal a Dog
. I wrote
Then, under the part that said:
3. Figure out where you are going to hide the dog,
a. The place where you hide the dog has to be close enough so you can go visit him.
b. The place has to be somewhere that nobody goes to or else they will see the dog and maybe turn him loose or call the dog pound or something.
c. Try to find a place that is a nice place for a dog to be.
d. Try to find a place that has a roof because what if it rains?
I tried to think of some more stuff, but I guess I was too tired. My mind was finally starting to slow down and stop thinking. So I wrote:
Now you are almost ready to steal a dog,
and put my notebook away.
I tiptoed back over to my raft bed. I pulled the beach towel up under my chin, closed my eyes, and slept a deep, dreamless sleep like I used to when I had a bed.
But I bet if I'd known what was going to happen the next day, I never would have slept that good.