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Her hair was red and long and clean. Her eyes were an emerald green. She was tired. “I’m Emma.”
The man had dark skin and short black hair. His face was kinder than hers, and he wore denim overalls. I had a pair like that once, when I was young. But I think mine had Tweety Bird embroidered on the chest. “I’m Peter.” He put one arm around Emma, a dark arm against her pale face, and they smiled. Emma’s smile was different than Peter’s.
The man standing behind me was a white man. His name was Louis, and he was a social worker. I wondered if Louis thought Peter was making me uncomfortable. He wasn’t.
Louis asked, “How are the kids?” and Peter said,
“They’re doing fine.”
They made small talk, then Louis brought my suitcase up from the van, gave me his phone number, and left. Then it was awkward, because Peter bent down to take my bag just as I snatched it up and I hit his arm. “Sorry.”
Emma’s smile flickered and she said, “Come on in the house and meet everybody.”
So I did. There were three tall, dark boys sitting on the sofa who glanced over at me. “Hey.” one of them said, turning his attention back to his video game.
Emma turned away from me and went into the kitchen area. It wasn’t far, maybe twenty feet. I could still see her. “We’re havin’ spaghetti, I hope that’s all right.” She wasn’t asking, but I answered anyway.
“I like spaghetti.”
Peter pointed to the boys. “This’s Alex, he’s sixteen, there’s Jeremy, he’s fifteen, and that’s Miller, he’s ten. We’ve got a girl around here, she’s Vera.” Peter gestured around the corner. “We can go ahead upstairs if you want.”
I grabbed my bag. The carpet was soft and blue, and my sneakers sank into it. “’K.”
Peter tried to let me walk beside him, but the stairway was narrow and my suitcase was heavy. At the top of the stairs, he turned right. “Down here.” he said, to make conversation.
The room was small but clean. Against one wall was a bed with green sheets, against the other, one with blue. The second bed was occupied by a red-haired girl, sitting cross-legged with a book in her lap. She didn’t look up, but I could tell she saw me because she blushed.
“Vera, say hello.” Peter said.
The girl barely mouthed the word. She was probably eleven or twelve.
“Go ahead and…put your things away, if you want. Emma will have supper in half an hour.” Peter paused, looking from Vera to me. Peter left.
There was a nightstand next to the bed with an electrical outlet. On the opposite wall was a tall, narrow dresser with deep drawers. The thin finish on the drawers was scratched and peeling. The top of the dresser had cup-rings. Keeping my head down, I put my clothes in the drawers. One of them was already full, with some of the boys’ clothes.
“Um, those were Alex’s, but Peter thought you could use them, too.”
I hadn’t known Vera was watching me. When I looked up, her eyes were on the letters on the page. “Thanks, yeah.” I put my suitcase in front of my nightstand and sat down on the bed. There was a wind-up alarm clock on the stand, and it said 5:42. I blew out my cheeks.
“So…are you a foster, too?”
“Yeah.” Vera said. “I’ve been here a year.” She still didn’t look up and I waited, hoping she would say something else. She didn’t.
“You…like it here?”
“Peter’s all right. And Alex is, too. Jeremy just likes his video games and his cell phone, and Miller’s annoying. Emma’s…um….some days I just stay up here.”
“Oh.” I waited. I looked at the carpet and the molding. Then Vera got up. “Supper’s probably ready.”
“Okay.” I followed her back down the stairs and we sat down. It bothered me a little to be eating off of someone else’s dishes, but I didn’t show it.
There wasn’t a lot of conversation, but I liked that we ate together. I didn’t like the spaghetti. It wasn’t the way my mom used to make it. I ate it anyway and felt it turn in my stomach. It wasn’t the food, just the memories.
When I had, at last, cleaned my plate, Emma smiled and served me more without asking if I wanted it.
In desperation, I glanced over at Vera. She shrugged.
I looked up at Emma. “Umm...”
She raised her eyebrows and there was something I didn’t like in her eyes.
I lowered my head to my plate and picked up my fork. “Thank you.”
Vera put her hand on my arm. She was so much younger, but she saw that I had just done something significant. From that day forward, Emma ruled my life.