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Where the Heart Is

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“McCarty! Heads up!”

I look up just in time to catch the baseball hurtling towards my face. “Hey, watch it!”

Harrison grins unrepentantly. “We’re going over to Clint’s place to play some video games…you in?”

I toss the ball back across the hallway, a little harder than necessary. I wish I could go with him and hang out with the guys, but… “Not today.”

Harrison shrugs and heads off, calling out to another friend along the way. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and go in the other direction, breaking into a jog as I leave the high school grounds. After a day spent inside a classroom it feels good to be out in the crisp fall afternoon.

I reach the elementary school just in time to hear the final bell and see a swarm of noisy kids rush out into the playground. I wait in the usual place by the monkey bars for my sister Alice, but I don’t see her until she’s right beside me. She’s tiny for a five year old, and easily lost in a crowd.

“Emmett!” She greets me the same way she always does, with a beaming smile, as if I’ve made her day just by being there. “Look what I found on the playground this morning! And Miss Caspar said I could keep it!”

Alice digs into the small zippered pocket on her bookbag and proudly shows me her treasure, a fifty cent piece. “It’s real money! And it’s enough for candy, right?” She looks at me anxiously. “We can go to the store before we go home? I’ll share, I promise.”

I grin down at her. “Sure, we can go to the store. But we have to go by the church first, okay?”

“Okay!” Alice keeps a tight fist around her money as we head towards the church spire we can see several blocks away, half trotting and half skipping to keep up with my much longer stride

I only half listen to her chatter. I’m worrying about whether we’ll get to the church hall before it closes, and if there will be some food that Alice likes in the box. The Friday food parcels are always a bit of a crapshoot- by the end of the week they’re often running low on the basics. It’s usually better to go earlier in the week. But Momma promised she’d go to the store and even put the list I wrote into her purse, so it wasn’t until I poured Alice the last of the cereal and added water because we were out of milk this morning that I had realised that we’d be paying another visit to the church food pantry.

The doors are closed when we finally reach the church hall. I stop at the edge of the parking lot and bite my knuckles, wondering if I’ll be able to dig up enough spare change at home to at least buy a box of cereal or some ramen. I had to skip breakfast this morning, and even though I’ve eaten a big lunch at school I’m still starving.

“It’s Mrs Esme!” Alice interrupts my thoughts with a shout and then takes off running through the parking lot, her oversize backpack bouncing.

“Alice, come back!”

It’s too late though. Mrs Cullen, the only person in the lot, has already heard her and is smiling a welcome, crouching down to Alice’s height to talk to her.

Crossing the tarmac I can’t help feeling awkward. Mrs Cullen is the nicest of the volunteers at the church pantry and has always been kind to us, but she’s obviously finished for the day and ready to go home. Alice and I are only holding her up.

“Hey Mrs Cullen, we were just on our way home,” I say.

“We came for food,” Alice says with five year old honesty, and I feel my ears get hot with embarrassment.

“They’re closed Alice,” I mumble. “Mrs Cullen’s going home now.”

I say it, but despite my embarrassment over the situation I’m relieved when she shakes her head and says, “I’m not in any hurry, and we have some leftovers today that I’d hate to see go to waste. Come inside and I’ll fix you up.”

I don’t hesitate. It‘s Friday, and without free school lunches over the next two days we need the food.

Alice talks away a mile a minute as we trail after Mrs Cullen into the church hall, and then through the swinging door into the kitchen. She babbles about anything and everything- her school reading book, the way her teacher always wears a charm bracelet, the party she didn’t get an invitation too, the latest episode of her favourite show. Mrs Cullen asks all the right questions and makes all the right comments, and Alice beams at the attention.

“I’m really glad the two of you stopped by today,” Mrs Cullen says to me, unlocking the storeroom. She disappears for a moment and then comes back with a bulging grocery sack that she presses into my arms. “Here you go. Now, as well as the food I was wondering if Alice would like some new clothes for the fall? I’m in charge of the church’s community closet you see, and we have so much in there that I’m having trouble organising it all! I’d love to see some of it go to a good home.”

I look at Alice, noticing for the first time that the t-shirt she’s wearing is a little short, and her leggings are faded and have a hole in one knee. Momma has always loved buying Alice clothes and she’s always had an overflowing closet, but things have changed over the past year and there haven’t been any more new clothes for a while. As little as Alice is she must have grown a bit since last winter, and with colder weather approaching she’s going to need something that fits. I shrug with embarrassment, and then a little reluctantly nod at Mrs Cullen.

“She’ll probably like that.”

“What about it Alice?” Mrs Cullen asks. “Can we take a look and see if there’s a coat you like? Maybe some jeans?”

“Yes!” Alice drops her backpack and skips alongside Mrs Cullen to the storeroom out the back. I follow them, finding myself in a room that’s lined with shelves and crowded with racks that are all bulging with clothes.

“We just had a clothing drive, and as you can see if was quite successful,” Mrs Cullen says cheerfully, flipping rapidly through a rack of girls’ pants. “I think these will be your size Alice…perhaps you could try them on?”

Alice strips off to her underwear without a second thought, and I have to laugh as she wriggles into a pair of jeans with sparkles on them and dances in front of the mirror. “They’re the most beautiful jeans in the whole world!” she crows.

Mrs Cullen smiles. “They’re perfect for you.” She takes some other pants off the rack and slips them into a plastic bag, adding a few other pieces from the shelves.

I take a quick inventory of what we’ve received in the food parcel. It’s a good day. I count two kinds of cereal, powdered milk, peanut butter, pasta, crackers, and canned vegetables and tuna. Apart from the vegetables and tuna, it’s all things Alice will eat.

“Some good things?”

I jump as Mrs Cullen speaks up beside me.

“Oh…yeah, thanks. It’s good.” I grin at her a little bashfully. Mrs Cullen is the nicest out of all the people who work at the church food pantry, and we’ve seen her a lot over the last year or so. She’s always friendly, and even though we’re here taking charity she never makes me feel like shit about it. She’s always especially nice to Alice too, listening to all her talk and remembering stories from one time to the next, and Alice loves her.

“I’ve told Alice she can choose a jacket,” Mrs Cullen says, nodding at where Alice is hopping on one foot and gazing indecisively at three different jackets laid out on a chair. “Don’t hurry her,” she adds quickly, “I’m not in any hurry.”

“Thanks for all that,” I say. “It’s really…it’s good.”

There’s a long pause before Mrs Cullen says gently, “Emmett, are things all right at home? I haven’t seen your mother for a while, and you and Alice have been here quite often. You’re welcome anytime, of course, but…I just wanted to check in.”

She smiles at me, and even though I think she’s being a little nosy her concern feels good. Because things aren’t really all that great at home, and sometimes I feel pretty damn alone with all the worry.

I can’t tell her though, so I only shrug and bite my knuckles. “It’s okay. Momma’s just been kind of busy, that’s all. I take care of Alice.”

“You do a good job at that,” Mrs Cullen says. “She’s a lovely little girl and she’s lucky to have you…but who takes care of you?”

I bite down harder. What is there to say? I take care of Alice, and I take care of myself, and that’s just the way it is. “We do all right,” I say at last.

Mrs Cullen nods. “I’m sure you do. But just in case you ever need some help, or even just someone to talk to, I want you to take my number. Okay?”

She hands me a scrap of paper with her name and number on it, and I scrunch it down in the pocket of my jeans with a mumbled thanks. For a moment I wish I could tell her everything that’s been going on and ask her what I should do, but that way lies nothing but trouble. So I just give her a weak smile and gathered up my things.

“Come on Alice,” I say with forced cheerfulness. “If you want to get some candy on the way home you’d better pick a coat now. It’s time to go.”

_____________________________________________________

We live in an old, rundown farmhouse on the edge of town, and as Alice and I walk down the long driveway my stomach tightens with anxiety. I’m never sure what I’m going to find. Even Alice’s endless chattering dies down as we climb the porch steps, and she moves close enough to me to hold onto a fold of my jeans.

We don’t have to worry today though. As soon as I open the front door the unmistakable scent of weed hits my nose, and I let out a breath that I haven’t even realised I’ve been holding, and grin down at Alice.

“It should be okay.”

Alice nods solemnly, and the two of us enter the house and pick our way through the junk in the hallway. The tv is playing loudly in the living room, but I still hear Momma’s husky voice calling out to us.

“Hey baby…aren’t you going to come and say hi?”

“Hi Momma.” I pause in the living room doorway. Momma’s on the sofa, and her boyfriend Mark is staring at the tv from the recliner. He does nothing more than throw a bored glance my way as I cross the room to Momma and give her a hug. She feels rail thin under her sweater, almost as light and fragile as Alice.

“Where have you been?” she asks sleepily.

“It’s Friday…I was at school,” I say.

“Oh yeah, school,” Momma says vaguely. “Did you have a good day?”

A failed quiz, a D in math, and a lunchtime detention for not having my science homework done… “Yeah it was fine.”

Alice sidles in, giving Mark a wide berth, and hovers uncertainly next to me. It isn’t until Momma smiles and holds out her arms that Alice drops her bags and scrambles onto the sofa.

“I found money and bought candy,” she tells Momma. “And me and Emmett went to the church and Mrs Esme gave me clothes, but not Emmett. Look, I’ll show you.” She jumps down and grabs the plastic bag of clothes, beginning to pull things out.

I leave them to it and carry the grocery sack to the kitchen. I set it down on the counter for Momma, but only after I transfer the powdered milk, one of the boxes of cereal, the peanut butter and some crackers to my school backpack. I never feel comfortable without a little stash of food in my room.

I spend the rest of the afternoon lying on my bed eating crackers and watching tv, but as night begins to fall and I hear the sounds of cars driving up and people coming into the house I get up and go looking for Alice. Momma and Mark have a lot of friends that like to party at our house, since it’s far enough out of town that there are no close neighbours to complain, and it’s definitely not the kind of partying that I think five year olds should be joining in with.

I find Alice sitting under the kitchen table, happily sharing a slice of pizza with someone’s dog. I let her finish while I wolf down a couple of slices myself, then I swipe some beer and usher her firmly down the hall to our room. She’s not keen to leave the dog, but when I tell her she can watch Frozen, that’s enough to get her into our room and looking through the pile of movie and game cases in front of the tv for her Frozen dvd.

Knowing how these parties usually go, I jam my baseball bat in between my bed and the door so that no one is going to open it from the outside. I’m not scared, but I’m also not that keen to repeat the experience of waking up to a naked stranger asleep on the floor with his head in a puddle of puke.

The familiar strains of the opening song from Frozen begin. Alice sings along as she swaps her worn out school clothes for a pink, furry onesie with cat ears and a tail- evidently some new pyjamas from Mrs Cullen. The pyjamas inspire her to crawl all around our room, meowing at me like a cat until I pet her, but eventually I manage to get her into her pink princess bed and watching the movie. When I flick off the overhead light she settles back down against her pillow, her thumb in her mouth and her fuzzy bunny hugged in her arms as she stares at the tv.

Alice used to sleep in her own room. It was right down the hall, next to Momma’s room, with old fashioned wallpaper and all her toys and dolls and pink princess crap spread over the floor. It’s still there. But then Mark moved in, and Alice was scared of him and her bed wetting got worse, and then Momma stopped being Momma a lot of the time, and it just seemed like a good idea for me to drag Alice’s plastic kid’s bed down into my room and let her sleep with me.

At least this way I know she’s safe.

I crack open a beer and drink it, staring blindly at the tv. I hate the way the noise of the party keeps encroaching on my peaceful buzz, and I turn up the sound of the Frozen soundtrack to block it out. I listen to Alice humming along and down a second beer, and I start feeling relaxed. My life might not be exactly tv worthy, but me and Alice…we’re doing okay.

I feel as though I’ve only just fallen asleep when I hear her voice, dragging me back to wakefulness.

“Emmett…Emmett…”

I roll over with a groan and force my eyelids open, finding Alice standing by my bed with a thumb in her mouth and her bunny clutched against her chest.

“Emmett…I had an accident,” she whispers. “My new pyjamas are all wet.”

“’S okay,” I mumble. “I’ll take care of it.”

Still half asleep, I haul myself out of bed and strip the damp sheets from her bed, bundling them together with the wet clothes that she hands me. In the flickering light from the tv I can see her lower lip trembling, which is unusual. Alice is a chronic bed wetter, and I have never made a big deal out of it.

“I didn’t want to mess up my new pyjamas,” she says softly. “Don’t tell Mrs Esme that I did that.”

“I won’t.” I touch the side of her face. “It’s really okay Alice. Just get dressed and I’ll grab you another sheet.”

The party is still going on, but it’s died down enough that most people are sticking to the kitchen and living room, and I don’t meet anyone as I stumble to the laundry. I throw Alice’s wet sheet and pyjamas into the machine, add soap and start it running, and then dig out a clean sheet from the dryer to take back to our room.

Alice is wearing a t-shirt of mine like a giant nightshirt and is already asleep again, face down on my bed with her knees tucked under her and her butt in the air. I tug the new sheet into place on her bed and then transfer Alice to it, as gently as I can in an effort not to wake her again. She stirs for a moment, but then her groping hand finds her bunny and her other hand makes its way to her mouth so she can suck her thumb, and she’s quiet. I drape a blanket over her and then go back to my bed, wishing that I found it as easy to fall asleep as Alice does.

She’s my only sister, she’s a sweet kid and I love her, but sometimes the weight of her feels like an awfully heavy burden on my heart.