“So she knows you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do; she’s right there watching us.”
“No, I mean I don’t know if she knows that I know.”
There’s a child in the room, about three to four years old, light brown hair, huge eyes staring at my wife and me, unblinking.
“You mean her?” I gesture at the child.
Jane looks frustrated and stares at me for a second. “No, not her. Her.” She points her head at the woman staring in our window completely indiscreetly. The woman jerks and flaps her arms. She ducks to disappear from view.
“Oh. I don’t know.”
Jane sighs. “Well tell me what you do know again.”
I almost sigh, but I stop myself. No need to upset her any more than she already is. “So that’s Jacine. She’s not all there. We went to school together, and I can remember her having an aid follow her around and help her in the few real classes she was allowed to take. She was in the special ed room the rest of the time. She’s not, like, retarded, or anything. I think she just had a rough childhood or something. Everybody knew, but no one really did anything about it. I think she lives in a shelter downtown most of the time, but occasionally she’s just homeless. Really it’s kind of sad.”
“Ok, so it’s sad. Why do we have her kid?”
“I guess it’s just our turn or something.”
“There! Right there! That’s the part I want to know. Go from there.”
I do sigh this time, and Jane gives me a dirty look. Jane wasn’t born here, and I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to explain how my home town works to her. I don’t get it either if I think about it, so trying to explain it can be frustrating.
“I don’t know. Don’t give me that look! So three or four years ago, somebody knocked up Jacine. No one knows who, but everybody has a guess. Some of the people I went to school with say it was this other retarded kid…”
“You said she wasn’t retarded.”
“She’s not. He’s probably not either. Henderson kid. Didn’t talk, but he could read and clean himself and stuff. You know what I mean. Not retarded, but retarded.”
Jane rolls her eyes.
“Anyway, some people say him, some people say it was another homeless guy, all that matters is we don’t know and she won’t tell.”
“Don’t play with that, honey.” Jane gets up to take something away from the little girl. Something she uses for weaving, I don’t know what it’s called. The little girl sits down and looks bored. Jane goes to the bedroom and comes back with a stuffed panda she had when she was a kid. “Here, play with this.”
The little girl smiles and takes it. I can see Jacine back in the window jumping up a down to try and see what Jane gave her.
Jane sits back down, crosses her hands, and says, “Continue.”
I repress a smile. “That’s close to the end of it. For a while Jacine kept her at the shelter. Then one day she disappeared, homeless streak I guess, and the kid turned up over and the Keelings’. She was only about three months old, and Mrs. Keeling took her in and started doing the paper work to adopt her. Treated her like her own kid. Then right before the paper work was final, the kid disappeared and was back with Jacine. There was a big stink about it, but there’s some kind of loop hole that favors the biological mother. There were no signs of abuse, so she went back to Jacine.”
“And now we have her?”
“No then the Johnsons had her. Then the Rodrigueses, then the Herberts. Those are just the ones I know. She bounces around every few months.”
“John this is horrible. Who do we give her to? Who do we call?”
“Well, everybody has tried something different. She’s been turned into orphanages and taken by the state. But since Jacine never really leaves,” I turn and wave to her in the window and she ducks with a yelp, “she’s technically never really abandoned.”
“What about the note?”
I look at the hand scrawled note lying on the table. ‘Orphan. Raise me.’ “Never stands up on court. She gets the kid to write it.”
“This is ridiculous. Everyone in town knows about this?”
“It’s a very small town.”
“And no one does anything about it?”
“You got an idea?”
“Yeah, I’m going to go talk to Jacine.”
Jane gets up determined. She slams the door on her way out.
“So, are you hungry?”
The little girl nods.
“You like spaghetti?”
Another exaggerated nod with a spreading grin.
I go to the fridge and get out some leftovers, put them in a bowl and put them in the microwave.
“You got a name?”
“Sophia.” Three exaggerated syllables. She smiles and sits at the table.
I can see Jane and Jacine through the window. Jane is trying to talk to Jacine calmly, but she’s getting frustrated. Jacine is running around the yard hiding behind trees, rolling over the hood of the car like an action hero, jumping through bushes, all to keep Jane from ‘seeing’ her. It would be a great old timey minstrel show if minstrel shows involved middle aged white women discussing the fate of a child.
I hand Sophia her spaghetti and Jane comes storming through the door. She sits down and has both her hands in her hair. I think she’s about to scream. “You’re feeding her? Don’t feed her, or she’ll never leave!”
“She’s not a puppy.”
“Might as well be. I’m taking her to a doctor. There’s no telling what she’s got with a mother like that in a town like this. You’re all nuts.”
Sophia stares at her while she takes a huge bite of spaghetti. She has sauce all over her face.
I’m sitting on the porch reading when she gets back. Sophia gets out of the car and hops her way over to me. She smiles and holds up a sucker. “Nice haul. You get to pick the flavor?”
She sits down on the porch and tears into the candy. Jane is out of the car looking down the road. Someone on a bicycle makes the corner and Jane nods and sits down beside me.
“This has to be the most medically documented child to never have a disease. Everybody at the pediatrician’s knew her. The doctor said she’s there every three months or so with someone else. She’s had all her shots and she’s at the fifty percentile in weight and height. Physically perfect.”
“So everybody has the same initial reaction.”
Jacine, on the bicycle, makes it to our house and crashes over the curb. She rolls across the lawn, scurries on her knees to the bushes and pops up behind them to watch us without ever stopping.
“And she can sing.”
“No. Sophia. She turned on the radio when we got in the car. It’s cute.” Sophia turns and smiles from the edge of the porch.
“So we can keep her?”
“John, this makes me really uncomfortable. It’s not normal. If this happened in a city, she would be in state custody and Jacine would be in a home or prison or something.”
“Well, this is how it happens here.”
I went to work the next day, but Jane was off for summer break from the classes she taught at a community college. I tried calling a few times during the day, but I never could get her. I got home at my normal time and hadn’t even gotten out of the car when Jane and Sophia pulled up. Sophia was asleep in the front seat.
“We need a car seat,” Jane said before kissing me hello. “I got pulled over on the way home and almost got a nice little ticket. She’s still under the weight limit.”
“How’d you get out of it? The cops around here can be Nazi-esque about those child safety laws.”
“Officer Moriety, the big guy with a dark mustache? He recognized Sophia. Said he had her for a few weeks about a year and a half ago while Jacine was getting off drugs. By the way, he says it was definitely a drifter that got her pregnant. The guy followed Jacine around while she followed Officer Moriety. Moriety arrested the guy and found lots of charges from different counties on him. He’s gone for a long time. Kid was gone about a week later.”
Jacine, as if on cue of someone talking about her, rounded the corner. She was pedaling hard, but not going nearly as fast as the other day. She looked exhausted. She stopped at the curb, dropped her bike, stumbled to the nearest bush, fell down and pulled a branch in front of her face and grasped for breath. She was clearly exhausted.
“Guess you got around today?”
“Yeah, we went a few places. “ She went to the front seat and picked Sophia up to carry her inside. “I didn’t know what to do with a strange child in my house, so we went into the city to the museum to look at the dinosaurs. She told me things about the dinosaurs that weren’t even on the plaques.”
“Yeah, I was blown away. Then this lady, Marsha, came up and started talking to Sophia. Apparently she’s a curator who commutes into town every day. She had Sophia a few turns back. Sophia got to go behind the scenes on a regular basis. So we went and looked at art until Jacine showed up and made a scene to get in. Amazing how that woman can get around.
“Then we went to the park and the library where we got a ton of books. Apparently Sophia loves them, and she’s even started to read. We’ll work on that. Kind of wanted to try out that research I’ve been doing on children’s lit anyway.”
“Sounds like fun.”
Things went on like that. I worked, Jane and Sophia played and read, Jacine did her best to keep up. I took Sophia bowling a few times and ran into Jim Klinfeltner. He ran the bowling alley and family fun center. Bald guy with a big laugh and a round belly. He came up to Sophia and poked her in the belly and made a fart sound. He had her for a few weeks. Just long enough to let her play on every piece of “family fun” equipment he owned.
That was a regular occurrence. We went somewhere to show Sophia something new and found out she already had more experience with it than we did. But she always seemed to enjoy herself. Most places let Jacine follow with no real trouble.
We even got used to that. She was like our shadow. If someone was smoking too close to Sophia, she would dart out of her hiding place and snatch the lit cigarette from them, burning herself, and dart back to hide again.
We started “forgetting” to close side door to the garage. We left out our camping pads and sleeping bags where they could be easily found and she seemed to appreciate it.
Four months after we found her on our porch, Sophia was gone. I came home and Jane was in tears.
“There was a note,” she said.
I looked on the table not really knowing what to think. All it said was, “Orphan not really all that much. Thank for raising.” It was different hand writing.
“How did she take her?” I asked.
“Sophia must have let her in through the garage while I was in the shower. She left all her things and just went.”
Jane was crying quietly, still. She was sitting beside a huge pile of children’s books. “This was her fourth stack,” she said. “She couldn’t have been more than four and a half years old, but she could read on a fourth grade level. She was learning so quickly.”
I nodded, not really sure what to say.
We saw her not long after that. I thought Jane would grab her and take her back with her, but she didn’t. Sophia was playing in the park with two little blonde girls that had to be sisters. Jane and I both got hugs and we saw Jacine standing off to the side, not really hiding.
The little girls belonged to Frank and Rhonda White. Frank was an engineer and Rhonda did lab work as a marine biologist. “Don’t you think it’s a little early for that?” Jane asked, but I don’t think either of them got the joke.
We compared notes. They had found Sophia at their door about a week ago and were still trying to get used to the idea. No, they hadn’t chased Jacine around the yard to try to talk sense to her, but they had tried to call the cops on Jacine when they saw her skulking around the first time. It was officer Moriety who showed up and he clued them in on how it worked. The two were from out of town and Moriety offered to take Sophia and have another turn with her, but they turned him down. She seemed to get along with their other little girls very well.
Besides, it’s just the way things work around here.