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, which was not like her when taking a client to a new placement. Normally she would try to soothe the bewildered foster child with cheery words about the new family. However, beside her now sat a slightly built 15-year-old (almost) with a mop of tangled sandy hair who had let Miss Casey know that he was in no mood for social worker platitudes—his exact phrase. He had been in a dozen or more foster homes and knew the score. And Miss Casey knew he knew. Meet Billy Stone, state kid. Still, she had to say something because they were just about there. “Billy, we're in Higginsville.” “I guessed.” “You guessed?” “We hit bottom.” Lately, Billy's social workers, of whom Miss Casey was the latest in a long line, had not been telling him where the new foster home was and he had not been asking. What was the point? Every new foster home was guaranteed to be worse than the last. Billy knew it and so did Miss Casey. Sighing, Miss Casey pulled into the driveway of an old wooden frame two-story house with peeling blue paint showing splotches of the previous white coat. It was a tired house in the tired, declining section of Higginsville, a poor-cousin part of the city of Fairview. Collars were blue. Convenience-store parking lots were littered with losing lottery tickets. The dominant look and feel of the neighborhood was drab and precarious. It was a place where everybody could obviously use a little extra money. Miss Casey parked behind a battered green Chevy pickup. Various small auto parts were strewn, apparently permanently, around the front yard which was packed dirt, except for droopy, miraculously surviving tufts of grass here and there. The rumbling of a freight train vibrated through the open car windows. It was late Saturday afternoon on a bright, warm day in mid-June. “Okay,” Miss Casey said. “You want me to be straight with you? Foster parents aren't lining up to take you. If you don't work out here, the next stop is Granite City School. Billy, that's where they put criminals.”
“Juvenile prison,” Billy said. “Look, I changed my mind. Before we go in, I could use some rosy social worker talk. False hope is better than no hope. How about it?” “Oh, Billy.” “Sorry. I'm ready to go in.” They got out of the car and went up to the front door. As Miss Casey reached to push the doorbell, the door opened. “Bell's broken,” said Mrs. Stojak. Behind her the rest of the Stojak family was lined up, stiff, expressionless, perfectly still, like propped-up corpses. “This is Billy,” Miss Casey said. “Billy Stone.” Mrs. Stojak said, “Mr. Stojak, our son Frank Jr., and our daughter Joy.” Stojak eyes moved, inspecting Billy as they would an insect. “Well,” Miss Casey said. “I'll be going. Got to make more stops than I have time for, as usual.” She shook hands with Mr. and Mrs. Stojak. “Thank you folks. Be sure to call if you need anything.” She patted Billy on the shoulder. “You're going to have your own room.” Mr. and Mrs. Stojak exchanged looks. “Bye now,” Miss Casey said and she was out the door. Billy picked up his paper bag—which held all his possessions—and followed Mrs. Stojak up the stairs with Joy and Frank junior trailing. At the top of the stairs were three tiny bedrooms and Mrs. Stojak pointed to one of them. She said, “We was gonna put you in this here room, but then Frank's mother broke her hip. We have to put her up. We're bringin' her this week. Bathroom's here. So, jus' temporary, you'll be goin' to the third level.” She led Billy up a narrow stairway. She said,“It's not finished yet. My husband was gonna fix it up real nice, then he hurt his back. Had to go on disability. He's a union mason, lotta liftin' and stuff.“ At the top of the stairs, they were in the attic. It was very unfinished. Insulation was stuffed between the studs. A bunk bed sat under a single naked light bulb with a small bureau at its foot . The only part of the space with flooring was directly under the bed. A path of loose plywood led from the top of the stairs to the bed. The rest of the attic was piled high with boxes, old furniture, and assorted junk. The low ceiling practically scraped the top of Billy's head. “Thank you,” he said. “Jus' about right for him, I'd say,” Frank Jr. said. Joy stifled a giggle with her hand. Their mother hustled them down the stairs, calling back for Billy to rest up before supper. Billy sat on the bed. “Phew,” he said. “Stinks.” He looked around. It was low-end all right. Was Miss Casey kissing him off? Was Higginsville really the end of the road? 2/6
*** Downstairs, the Stojaks were gathered in the kitchen. “I don't know,” said Mrs. Stojak. “He's been in so many homes. People take him in...there's trouble...he gets sent back. Miss Casey was honest with us, you got to say that. I don't know if this is a good idea.” “I can handle him,” Mr. Stojak said. “He's jes' a kid who don't know nuthin'. He jes' needs to be told what goes and what don't go—and that we don't take no crap.” Joy, who was 14, said: “I think Mom is right. I mean, why ask for trouble? What if he's some psycho? Starting now, my door is locked.” “Mine, too,” said 15-year-old Frank Jr. “I don't want him stealing my stuff. If he needs money to buy drugs or something, what's he gonna do? He's gonna steal. And what's he gonna do for a bike? Ride mine? No way, Jose.” “Everybody shut up,” Mr. Stojak said.. “We already went over all this. Nobody got a memory here? It's a done deal and that's that. We need the money until I get back workin'. Also, we're doin' a good Christian thing, takin' in a kid like him.” The Stojaks were devout Catholics who went to church every Sunday as a family. Billy was also a Catholic. Before abandoning him, his mother had him baptized in the Church. His Catholicism had been the deciding factor in the decision to take him in. “Listen to me, everybody,” Mr. Stojak went on. If he causes trouble, we shoot'em him back just like this.” He simulated the flight of a rocketship. When the original decision had been made to take in a foster child, there had been no such discussion. Mr. Stojak announced it as a way to increase family income and do a Christian deed at the same time. But the idea of a foster child somehow didn't involve a flesh-and-blood creature who walked, talked, ate, slept, wore clothes, and had various needs. Not until Billy actually walked through the door did this reality confront the Stojaks. But there he was: nearly 15 years old, with hand-me-down clothes that didn't fit, and carrying his possessions in a pathetic paper bag. A total stranger invading their home and family! “Oh, God,” said Mrs. Stojak. “I'm so tired of worryin' about money.” Billy got his summons to join the family in the kitchen. After a quick tour of the house and the back yard, where the Stojak mongrel lunged at Billy, he sat at the kitchen table with the Stojak family. Mr. and Mrs. Stojak were at the ends and Frank Jr. and Joy sat across from him. It was a scene he knew well. Here come the rules. “We have simple rules here,” Mr. Stojak said. He was a big man with a balding head; he carefully combed long strands of gray hair over the top. He had a gray goatee and a thick black mustache. Bursting with authority and self-satisfaction, he launched into a speech about rules, why they are needed, and how good rules make for happy families. Frank Jr., who was a young 3/6
version of his father with hair and without goatee, started to say something. His father snapped “I'm not finished.” Frank Jr. sank in his seat. Mr. Stojak droned on. Billy's mind drifted to his growling stomach. It was now almost six and he had not eaten since lunch at the restaurant with Miss Casey. The only time Billy saw the inside of a restaurant was when he was being taken to a new home. She said he could order anything he wanted. Big mistake. He ordered a large orange juice, a double order of ham and eggs, an order of blueberry pancakes, four English muffins, and a large milk. He slammed down two milk refills. He devoured everything to the last scrap—except the English muffins. He wrapped them in napkins to eat later. With his food supply invariably irregular, Billy needed to provide for periods of famine. His belly was a black hole into which food had to be endlessly shoveled. As Mr. Stojak spoke, Billy relived lunch, bite by fabulous bite. He wondered what was for supper. A sharp voice cut into his thoughts. “Do you understand so far, young man?” Mr. Stojak said. “Yes, I think so,” said Billy. But mainly he noticed how Mr. Stojak slaughtered the Queen's English. In one of his homes, he had gone to a Catholic school taught by Sisters of Providence nuns. There Sister Francis Helen had pounded grammar into his head. A double negative, she would tell the class in the severest tones, was the mortal sin of grammar. But even lesser sins, such as failing to have the subject and verb agree, Sister Francis Helen condemned as abominations. After one year with Sister Francis Helen—the longest he had been in any school —he could diagram a sentence a hundred words long. He even knew what a subjunctive was. “Now,” said Mr. Stojak. “If I was you, I would listen very, very careful to what I'm going to tell you now.” Billy winced. The rule for the correct use of the subjective popped into his head along with the furious face of Sister Francis Helen. She glared even when he got the answer right, which was almost always. It was in Sister Francis Helen's class that Billy got his first report card that was not all incompletes. He never stayed long enough to get actual grades. In Sister Francis Helen's class, he got two report cards with straight A's. “I'm listening,” Billy said. “Rule number one: No eating between meals and no eating any place except in the kitchen and at the table. “Rule number two: Everybody cleans up after themselves. “Rule number three: No spending a long time in the bathroom. “Rule number four: Wipe the shower and sink dry after using. 4/6
“Rule number five: No kids watching TV after nine o'clock. “Rule number six: No using something that belongs to somebody else without asking. “Rule number seven: No lying or stealing or swearing or taking the Lord's name in vain.. “Rule number eight: Everybody does their own laundry. “Rule number nine: Everybody does what I tell 'em, when I tell 'em, and no backtalk. “Rule number ten: Anybody breaking any rule gets the belt. “Any questions?” “All very clear,” Billy said. “May I be excused to go to the bathroom?” “We eat in one hour. Anybody late don't eat,” Mr. Stojak said. Billy was hungry now. He went up to the attic, got the four English muffins, and ate them sitting on the toilet in the bathroom with the door locked. Within two minutes of hearing the rules, he had broken one of them, Rule Number One no less. “Illiterate moron,” Billy said. Supper was delicious. The first meal was always the best. After that, it would be all downhill. For Billy's first meal, Mrs. Stojak had prepared homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes with real potatoes, and peas. The only problem was: one helping and a tiny glass of milk. No seconds on milk, either. When he had finished, he was still hungry. Again, Mr. Stojak talked nonstop. He took the opportunity to expound at length about the philosophy behind the rules and the virtues of faith in God and hard work. He spoke with the certitude that is so often the mark of modest intellect. Several times he said that people get what they deserve out of life. Each time, he looked directly at the newest member of the household.. Billy's attention began drifting ... to Joy sitting directly across from him. He noticed her long silky honey-toned hair falling over her shoulders and her bulging sweater. His eyes lingered. “What are you looking at?” Mr. Stojak said. “ Stand up, young man! Stand up!” He reached over and pulled Billy to his feet and stared down. “Is there something going on down there? Huh? Huh?” “No, nothing. I don't know what you mean.” “Stand up straight! Stand up straight!” Billy did so. “What's that? What's that you little pervert!” 5/6
He grabbed Billy and threw him across the room. Mrs. Stojak screamed. Joy screamed. Frank Jr. yelled, “I'll get him!” and went after Billy. Billy scrambled to his feet, easily eluding the lunge of Frank Jr., who fell all over himself. Billy ran upstairs, threw stuff in his paper bag, and flew back down the stairs—only to find the Stojak family blocking his way. Fumbling with a revolver, Mr. Stojak yelled, “You little pervert! You little pervert!” Frank Jr. waved a hockey stick. Mrs. Stojak jabbed with a broom. Joy took up the rear with a kitchen knife in striking position. Billy ran back up the stairs. He went into the bathroom and locked the door. The Stojaks charged up the stairs, yelling and waving their weapons. Billy tried to open the window, but couldn't. With the Stojaks pounding on the bathroom door, he stood on the toilet and kicked in the window. Luck! The kitchen roof was just below. It would be a ten foot drop. He jumped onto the roof, rolled, and dropped to the ground. With a ferocious growl, the Stojak dog lunged at him again, jaws snapping in Billy's face so close he got a blast of the animal's foul breath. He jumped away and took off like a terrified colt. Mr. Stojak kicked in the bathroom door. He fired his revolver through the smashed window. “You filthy pig,” he screamed, firing one shot after another. Billy zigzagged, fell, got up, dove over a stone wall as a bullets ricocheted off, making loud pings—and landed inches from another set of bared canines. He rolled, avoiding the teeth, but took a claw to the right leg. He picked himself up and ran, through yards, over stone walls, changing directions, panting like a spent horse. He ran out of houses. The paved road turned to dirt. For a long time, he ran on a dirt road. And then the dirt road stopped. Arms flailing, leg burning, lungs near bursting, he crashed through heavy brush in almost complete darkness. When he could run no more, he collapsed in a gasping, trembling heap.
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