She picks up her glittery rainbow backpack from our pile and takes another bite of her pizza slice. I signal Zack to slide out of the pizzeria booth even though he’s not finished.
“Mom got herself into some trouble and some people want to hurt her,” I say.
Casey rolls her eyes. “I know that. But what did Mom do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. You’re just not telling me.”
I take a huge bite of my slice. I need a minute to chew, swallow, and think of a good answer. “Mark, Zach…Raul’s going to stay with us for a while. We need the protection, and he’ll help us out with the bills,” Mom had said six months ago. He sleeps in the bedroom with her. Zach, Casey and I sleep on the sofa bed. It’s a bit crowded, but at least we had heat this winter. And we haven’t been evicted for a while. I lost Dad’s baseball mitt when we got kicked out of our last apartment. Damn locks. That glove was the last thing he gave me before he left us, before Miguel.
I miss Dad.
I hate him for leaving us.
I hate Mom for needing Raul’s protection.
“Raul helps mom with the bill. That’s all you need to know.”
“Just because you’re the oldest, that doesn't mean you get to say what Zach and I do and don’t need to know.”
“I don’t need to know,” Zach says as we turn the corner. “I don’t really care.”
“Trust me Casey…you don’t want to know why Mom’s in trouble.”
I take the last bite of my pizza and chew hard. I swear, if they so much as think about playing numbers, selling drugs, rolling with the mafia, or doing anything remotely illegal, I’ll beat the crap out of them.
“You’re not a grownup, you know. You’re just a kid in the seventh grade, just like Zach.”
Her neck shifts left and right and she rolls her large blue eyes again. Zach imitates her and tosses his imaginary long brown hair over his shoulder. Casey shoves Zach so hard that he loses his balance and a small piece of crust falls out of his hand.
Casey laughs with her mouth full of pizza. “That’s what you get Zach!”
Before he could count to five, Zach runs to pick up the piece from the ground, blows off the dirt, kisses it, points up to the sky, and pops it in his mouth. He smirks at Casey.
Casey rolls her eyes again. “Whatever.” She turns to me. “How long do you think he’s going to stay with us?” Casey asks as we begin walking across town on the boulevard.
“I don’t know.” I wish I could give Casey a precise answer.
She kicks a soda can on the floor with her pink sneakers. “I don’t like him.”
“Me neither. He’s just like Miguel, and Tony, and Federico. Don’t worry. He won’t be around too much longer.”
“I wish he would just leave.”
I stop cold as disgusting thoughts appear in my head. Casey squeals when I grab hold of her arms and glare straight into her eyes. “He hasn’t done anything to you, has he?” I can feel my heart beat faster.
“No! Let me go!” She whips both her arms out of my grip.
Zach stares at me with a weird look on his face.
“Sorry.” I shake my head…trying to erase the thoughts. “I just want to make sure. You know…if any of them ever…say anything…or…touch you”
“I know Mark! Jeez.” Casey rubs both her biceps. “If it ever happens you will be the first to know, you jerk.”
We continue our long trek home. The sun starts setting at the end of the boulevard behind us and casts long, tall shadows in our path. Casey, Zach and I watch my pterodactyl fly across the granite sky to take a bite off of Zach’s cone-shaped head. Casey’s dog transforms into a bird and then a duck that eventually pokes at Zach’s curly shag. Apparently, the head wounds are so deep that Zach overdramatically falls to the ground and dies an exaggerated death. My pterodactyl and Casey’s duck dive right onto the carcass and tickle Zach in his ribs.
After a minute, I wave to Zach to stand up. “Come on, we have to get home. We have tons of homework to do.”
Zach dusts himself off and starts walking. “That plate tectonic stuff is cake. I can do that homework in my sleep.”
“Yeah, but we have a test on Ancient Egypt on Friday. We should start studying tonight.”
“Why do we have to learn about Egyptian gods anyway? They have such weird names: Amun, Aten, Ma’at and Hathor. And what’s up with having the head of animals?” Zach gasps sharply, as if an idea just popped into his head. “I almost forgot; we have to buy milk.”
I dig into my pockets and find nothing but a worn out movie ticket from last weekend’s showing of How to Train Your Dragon at the two-dollar theater. “I don’t have any money. How much do you have?”
He pulls out a crumpled five dollar bill. “You think Riggo will hook us up again? Last week he gave us a gallon of milk and carton of eggs for five bucks.”
“Oh Mark,” Casey starts hopping on her toes, “can we get ice cream too?”
“No. We don’t have enough. We need milk for breakfast tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but we don’t never get ice cream,” Casey whines with her face all scrunched up into a frown.
“What did I tell you about double negatives?”
“Sorry. We ne-ver get ice cream.” She raises her eyebrows at me.
“Zach and I get paid on Saturday. Remind us then.”
“Maybe Riggo will give us a deal on a bucket of Vanilla ice cream.” Zach rubs his hands together. “If we hand out twice as many flyers this weekend, ride into Elmhurst or even as far as Flushing, then maybe we’ll have enough extra money for each of us to get a cookie dough sundae from Baskin Robins.”
“Oh, can I help?” Casey begs with her hands in a prayer fold. “I really want a cookie dough sundae. I can ride my bike with you guys.”
“No. You’re too small. You’re only seven.” I say.
Casey throws her fists down to her side and stomps her right foot.
“Besides, you didn’t finish reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone yet.”
“But it’s so long.”
“Do you want to be smart? You have to read if you want to be smart. Zach and I read it in a few days. We have to return the book to the library by next Wednesday, so you have another week.”
“If I finish it this week, then can I go with you and Zach on Saturday?”
“No. You’re too small I said.”
“You know…you’re not giving me much of an incension.”
I smile to the side. “Is that anything like an incentive?”
Casey stops and crosses her arms. “Yeah. I don’t have enough of an in-cen-tive to keep walking or to finish Harry Potter.”
I look at the setting sun, at the street lamps shining down upon us, and at the long stretch of boulevard that stands between us and home.
“Fine. If you finish it by the time we get back on Saturday, I’ll get you a sundae. Deal?”
I imagine a banana split sundae covered with layers of hot chocolate, chopped nuts, whipped cream and ripe red cherries. It was Dad’s favorite.
The hinges squeak like sirens when I open the front door. Raul groans as he stands from the arm chair in front of the television.
“Don’t you three look like you’re up to no good?”
His arrogant smirk makes my fists ball.
“Do you know what time it is? Your mother’s been worrying. Where’ve you been?”
“It’s only seven,” I say. “We were at the park.”
He huffs loudly. “What did I tell you about going to the park?”
“Don’t worry. I took my oozy with me.”
I push past him and head to the kitchen where I hear Mom talking.
“Fifteen, I said,” she yells into the phone. “One…five.”
Mom places the phone down to her thigh and signals us to give her a hug. She squeezes me and kisses me on my forehead. Casey joins our huddle. Zach places the milk in the fridge, leaves the change on the linoleum countertop, and heads to the living room to the television. Mom sighs after he walks past her without saying a word.
“Next time, please get home before sunset. Your sister is too young to be out this late. And I don’t want you going to that park.”
“Okay Mom,” I say quickly so she could hug us some more.
I can tell Mom showered today because her hair smells like strawberries and her shirt smells like the lavender fabric softener I put in the rinse cycle. There isn’t a trace of the usual smoke and sweat. I love how a shower changes Mom’s mood. She’s happier, more alive, and she smiles more. Maybe tonight Mom will play dominoes with us before going to sleep.
I wish she showered every day.
“We went to the park on the boulevard, not to Raul’s park,” I say with my head buried in her hug.
“Good. Stay away from Raul’s park. It’s not safe there.” She ruffles my hair and gives me that curved smile of hers. I love Mom’s curved smile. “Did you get something to eat?”
“We ate pizza.”
“Good. Did you do your homework?”
“Mark, there are only three things that I ask of you: take care of your brother and sister, stay out of trouble, and do well in school. Now, go do your homework,” she says, pointing towards the living room. Casey and I moan before letting Mom go and drag ourselves out of the kitchen.
Mom speaks into the phone again, “Okay, where were we?”
The next morning we arrived at school ten minutes after the buzzer. Freaking Raul…he knocked my alarm clock off the side table three weeks ago. He said he was going to get me a new one.
I rush into Mrs. Kinsley’s room. “Hi Mrs. Kinsley, sorry I’m late again.” I look around, confused. “Where is everyone?”
“Today’s picture day. They’re all in the auditorium.”
Just as I was about to turn around and run down the hallway, Mrs. Kinsley says, “Wait…Mark…I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Have a seat.”
“Did I do something wrong?” I ask as I sit at the first table right in front of her desk.
“What’s with the recent tardiness?”
“Oh. My alarm clock is broken.”
“Your alarm clock is broken?” She smiles halfway.
“Yeah. I’ll get a new one after I get paid this weekend. I promise.”
She nods upwards, as if suddenly remembering some important detail, and steps away from her table. After a few seconds, Mrs. Kinsley sits down at the desk next to me. Her messy bun and thick reading glasses make her look older than Mom, but I know they’re the same age since they went to high school together. Mom even has a photo of the two of them in a shoe box in her closet.
“Mark…sometimes…some of us are given a tough ride. I know you, your brother and your sister are hanging on tight, helping each other out, but...”
Several silent, awkward seconds pass. Her eyes seem to be searching for something on the chalk board.
“But what?” I finally ask. My right leg can’t stop bouncing.
“It’s okay to ask other grownups for help.”
“I don’t need any help. I can take care of myself and my brother and sister.”
She raises her hand slightly. “I’m not saying you can’t take care of yourself.” She walks back to her desk and pulls out a black note book. “You have been late to school a total of ten times in three weeks. Did you know you could lose class credit after seven tardies?”
My throat suddenly feels dry. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“Well you can, but…I only marked you late three of those times.”
My face burns. I glare at the floor. I don’t want her pity. I don’t want charity. My brother and sister and I are fine. We’ll figure it out. We don’t need anyone’s help.
“Look, Mark, you are an incredibly bright kid, both you and your brother. There is no doubt that you will both get into Bronx Science or Stuyvesant, if you choose. But, you’re going to have to learn to not let your pride get in the way of asking for help. Otherwise, these outside forces, these uncontrollable circumstances, will run your life.”
I look up at her, nod, and look back at the floor.
“Did you ever hear of the phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? Well, I’m part of that village.” She opens a drawer on the right side of her desk, digs deep inside for a few seconds, and then walks towards me with her arm stretched out. “Take this,” she says, with an MP3 player in her hand. “I used to use this thing every day on my way to work, but then I got a new one for Christmas. This one’s got an alarm clock setting. Make sure you charge it every day.”
I shake my head. “I can’t take that.”
“Mark, I would’ve found it on the last day of school and I would’ve thrown it in the trash then. Just take it.”
“Isn’t there some teacher-student policy that prohibits this?”
“For the love of God, Mark, will you just take the damn thing and be here on time tomorrow?”
The blue MP3 player feels delicate, vulnerable, and expensive in my hands. She hands me a white cord tied up into a figure eight with a twisty string.
“Good. Now go to the auditorium to take your photo.”
I rise from my chair slowly and walk towards the door.
“Mark, if you ever need another alarm clock, please let me know. I might have other MP3 players to throw away. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Thank you Mrs. Kinsley,” I say with a knot in my throat.
As I walk down the hallway towards the auditorium, I secretly swear to be extra early to school tomorrow and to save up to pay Mrs. Kinsley back for the MP3 player. She probably won’t take my money, so I’ll have to get her a gift. I have to thank her, somehow.
And I swear…Zach, Casey, Mom and I are definitely going to have ice cream sundaes this weekend.