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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Greetings from Witness Protection!

Jake Burt

Feiwel & Friends

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CHAPTER ONE

Kind of Home


I’m working on making a world. I’ve got the mountains and valleys, an ocean, and continents. It’s a slow process, though, since I use only my hands. Well, my hands and a couple of tennis balls.

As I work, pieces of plaster rain on me, but I don’t care. I’m digging my trenches just a little deeper, carving my roads a little farther, and when I manage to break off a bigger chunk, I get new lakes and hills. Each time, I name them—Lake Nickisia. Mount Andew. The Trenchbull. There’s something calming about the thwackathwackathwacka of the balls off the ceiling, the dance my hands do as I throw faster and faster, until I can’t hardly see my fingers anymore. Fast hands. I’ve always had fast hands.

“God, Nicki … slow down! How am I supposed to do that? I can’t even keep the ball going. You’re doing two at once!”

I catch both and glance apologetically at Emmy.

“Takes time and practice,” I offer. “You’ll get there.”

“I’ll get fostered again before I get there, Nicki. And I just got my own top bunk, too!”

“Stay here as long as I have, and it’ll be no sweat.”

“I … I’m sorry, Nicki. I didn’t mean it like that.…”

Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed, I drop down to the concrete. My toes instantly seek my slippers, and I cram my feet in as quickly as possible. Mid-October and it’s already thirty degrees outside, every bit of that cold happily taking up residence in our floor. Tossing an afghan around my shoulders for good measure, I sidle up to Emmy’s bed.

“No worries. I was joking, Emmy.”

“I wasn’t. I stink at this.”

“Not as bad as I stink at sticking.”

Sticking—that’s what we call it. The lucky kids stick to their foster families. I seem to be covered in nail polish remover or something. I’ve been with five—count ’em, five—families in five years since Grammy died, and I’ve spent as much time in the Center as I have in homes. It’s not like I have any major horror stories to tell—nobody hit me, or starved me, or touched me. Sometimes things don’t work out, and things just didn’t work out for me. A couple of those did involve legal issues on my end, but the others? Finances, leases running out—heck, one of my families got deported two weeks after I moved in.

They were all nice enough. I just didn’t stick.

Emmy finally tosses the tennis ball away and curls around her Minnie Mouse pillow.

“You going to the art course with me this morning?” she mumbles into Minnie’s ear.

“If I can finish unpacking, yep. Wainwright’s been bugging me about it. Two weeks back and I haven’t emptied my suitcase yet. Wishful thinking, I guess.”

“I know! You haven’t even taken out Fancypaws!”

That’d be Ms. Fancypaws McKittenfluff, my sole remaining stuffed animal from a childhood menagerie. My grammy bought me many more—Doggy the Dog, Findango, Corduroy-If-You-Please, and Sullen Moomelstein, to name a few. I can still remember Wainwright explaining to nine-year-old me that they’d gone to foster care, too. I liked imagining them finding new families and kids to play with. Of course, that was before I knew about Goodwill.

“I guess she just got comfortable in there,” I muse. “Can’t say I blame her.”

“A suitcase is no kind of home for a lady!” Emmy exclaims, fanning herself like a southern belle. With her blond curls and tiny mouth, she actually looks the part.

“It might be if the lady is missing her left ear and has cotton leaking out of her armpits,” I reply. It’s true. Two and a half feet of well-loved and clumpy-haired stuffitude, Fancypaws is a few years removed from her debutante days. I shuffle over to the suitcase and gently extract her from the jumble of jeans, socks, books, and bracelets. My fingertips automatically find the velveteen patch of her belly and worry at it, carefully avoiding the holes and little rips. I remind myself to check out a book on sewing and fabric repair—Fancypaws is long overdue for a makeover, especially now that she’s retired from the thieving business.

Emmy asks me if I want to get breakfast, but I’m not even dressed yet, so I let her go ahead. I clear a bit of space in the middle of my blankets for Fancypaws and nestle her in there, then slipper-slide my way across the concrete to my little closet. The chill in the air says sweaters and jackets, though for some reason the tights, long black skirt with the sequined hem, and a white T-shirt are whispering to me. I throw on a hoodie with big pockets and my grammy’s Swarovski crystal earrings for good measure, then scoot out to breakfast.

All the rooms in the Center are off one long hallway. Wainwright has it set up so that the entire space reads like a timeline of kids’ lives. At our end, where the boys’ and girls’ rooms are, the walls are plastered with pictures of families. Most of them are from the 1980s, when the Center opened. Beneath each picture is a little brass plate that says the family’s name, the kid’s name, and when she or he was adopted. Down the hall, the pictures get newer and newer. The best part is looking at how stuff like clothes and haircuts has changed. You know those fringed lizards that pop out their neck skin like a gigantic umbrella to frighten predators? That’s like the girls’ hair in the ’80s. I’m not sure who they were trying to scare, but I’m betting it worked.

As the hallway goes on, the hair gets better. Toward the end, near the kitchen and the art room, are the newest pictures. Mine’s not up there, since I haven’t stuck. Wainwright never lets us see the moment she takes our pictures down when we come back, but I’ve heard her sniffling in the bathroom after she does it. I think it hurts her almost as much as it does us.

I pass by thirty years of bobs, bowl cuts, and bangs on my way to grab a bagel, and it’s just as I’m turning around, bagel in my mouth and a milk carton in either hand, that I spot the guy. Or rather, The Guy. I murmur a “Whoa” right past the pumpernickel between my teeth. The Guy is one of those who goes about six-foot-six, but seems ten feet. You could fit four kids, comfortably seated, across his shoulders and balance a cafeteria tray perfectly atop his crew cut. He spots me and reaches up to slide his sunglasses a centimeter down his big, oxygen-vacuum of a nose so he can size me up. It takes him all of a second.

He makes me nervous. He’s wearing a black short-sleeved polo shirt despite the cold, and it’s got a star, like a sheriff’s badge, sewn into it. Black belt, black pants, black shoes. Looks all uniformy. What’s more, hooked to his belt is a holster. Conspicuously jutting from the leather is a blocky plastic handle, as yellow-and-black as the business end of a hornet. It’s smaller than a gun, but still big enough that I can read the word “Taser” along the side. All people in uniforms make me twitchy, but especially armed ones, and my fingers get to tapping on my milk cartons, my toes curling in my slippers. Yeah, I know I haven’t done anything wrong recently, but I’m still feeling the urge well up in me. It’s a kind of tightness, crouched behind my heart, above my intestines, and in my sinuses, all at the same time. Once my left thumb starts to waggle, I know I’ve got to get out of there. So, speeding up, I round the corner and duck into the art room.

The art room is tiny, with just a table and four chairs. Still, there’s a lot of color there—it’s wallpapered in waxy, curling drawings made by kids over the years. Mr. Jordanson doesn’t throw away anything. Even if it’s a three-year-old’s scribble-scrabble, he’s taping it to the wall. We like Mr. Jordanson because he makes us feel like Rembrandts. Seeing him and Emmy calms me a little, but I still can’t stop thinking about The Guy out there. He wasn’t a prospective parent, for sure. I set my bagel and milk down and hide my hands behind me.

“Oh no…” Emmy whispers. She’s the only one who ever notices when I’m twitching.

“I’ll be all right,” I mutter.

“’Kay,” she says, offering me a sympathetic smile—and something else. She’s midway through a tree, and she’s probably going to need her lime-green crayon again in a second, but she’s positioned it at the edge of the table, just behind her elbow. She turns away from me for a minute, pretending to listen to what Mr. Jordanson is explaining to Halla, the Center’s newest arrival and resident baseball expert.

Emmy’s a good friend.… The crayon is gone before anyone notices, and I’m holding it in my big old pocket, left thumb rubbing at the tip, which is still warm from her vigorous shading. I’m not shaking anymore, and I can breathe again.

“Here, Emmy … you dropped your crayon,” I whisper, and she takes it back, thanking me. Have I mentioned how awesome Emmy is yet? Now that the urge has passed, it’s no sweat to grab the chair across from Halla and settle in.

“Need a sheet of paper, Nicki? We’re doing fantasy gardens,” Mr. Jordanson announces, and he points to Halla’s work. Halla has drawn trees coming from the ceiling, a baseball bat growing out of a pot, and some sort of viney monstrosity. “Art class” is a joke. We basically think of something to draw as a group, then tackle it. It’s silly, but it passes the time, and we get to chat for a while. Right now, that’s exactly what we need to do.

“So,” I offer casually, “anyone catch that big guy out in the hallway? He looks like a Green Beret or something.”

“I saw him!” Emmy blurts. “I bet he’s on steroids!”

“Alex Rodriguez did steroids!” Halla adds.

Yep, this is usually how our conversations go.

“Let’s change the subject, guys,” Mr. Jordanson suggests, and he tries to talk to Halla about stippling.

I scoot closer to Emmy and whisper, “So you did see him? What do you think?”

“Can’t be here to foster. Did you do something?”

“No, did you?”

“No…”

“What was he doing outside the transition room, then?”

“Not sure. Maybe he’s a health inspector?”

“Does he break your knees if you aren’t up to code?”

“Ahem!” Mr. Jordanson huffs, glaring at us. He goes right on glaring at us, even after the second look up. That’s how you know a teacher means business. When one tells you to be quiet, you wait thirty-five seconds, then look up. If the teacher isn’t watching anymore, you can start whispering again. If he’s still staring at you, you best zip it.

Humbled, I bite my lower lip and give Emmy one more glance, just in time to see her stick her tongue out at me. I try to suppress a giggle, but it comes out all snorty, and Emmy starts snickering. Halla joins in, and we’re a mess. Even Mr. Jordanson can’t stop us at that moment.

But Wainwright can.

She opens the door, then knocks on it in the way grown-ups do—the old “Hey, I’m barging in, you can’t get me to go away, but it’s okay, because see? I knocked!”

Emmy and I both stiffen. Wainwright doesn’t usually interrupt classes, and her face seems drawn tight, even her wrinkly forehead.

“Wonderful news,” she says softly. “Nicki, dear, there are people here to see you.”

She always begins this announcement with “wonderful news,” but the second part is different. Emmy nudges her crayon toward me, and I grab for it instinctively. She noticed, too. Normally, Wainwright says, “There’s a family that can’t wait to meet you!”

Normally, Wainwright smiles.

My chair screeches as I get up, and I wince. As I start to trudge out, Mr. Jordanson says, “Congratulations, Nicki.” He’s trying to be cheerful, but it comes out more like a question than an exclamation. Fingering my right earring nervously, I follow Wainwright out of the room. It doesn’t even occur to me to turn around and hug Emmy, to find Chrissy for one last game of Uno, to ask Halla about baseball, or to shake Mr. Jordanson’s hand. It should have, though.

After all, I might never see them again.


Copyright © 2017 by Jake Burt