Naturally the Kauffmans asked about the session. He skipped over the details with vague generalities, taking advantage of the fact that, as suburban dwellers, their experience in the realm of child psychology was limited. Jaden told them he was safe to drive and take home, using the sarcasm they appeared to like. They smiled and let it go.
He watched passing cars through the window. Red ones, blue ones, silver ones. He made a game of counting the yellow cars because there didn’t seem to be too many of those. While focusing on his search for canary cars, Jaden heard snippets of the conversation in the front seats. Only after his name was mentioned did he abandon his count (seven) to listen.
Jenny discussed potato salad. Jaden shook his head. Reading in the morning while drinking coffee, wearing slippers, and now potato salad. It was like living in a parallel universe. She wondered aloud what mayonnaise to use, like it was a big deal. Jaden was unaware there were different kinds. The matters that concerned the Kauffmans were laughably trivial. Types of mayonnaise. Unreal.
Listening to this conversation was more entertaining and enlightening than counting cars. He regretted the time lost.
“What do you like better, honey, the red potatoes or the regular ones?” she asked her husband, who shrugged.
“Whatever we have at the house.”
“Well that’s the thing, we don’t have either.”
“Do the one you like best.”
“Which do you like best?” she asked him.
“I like both.”
“Well pick one. Be honest, which one is better?”
Jaden tried to keep from laughing.
“I don’t know. Why potato salad? Why not regular salad?”
“Sam is bringing her salad. I can’t compete with that. I make lousy noodle salad. It has to be potato.”
“Let’s pick some up at the store and put it on our own bowl,” Derek suggested.
“That’s cheating. You’re suggesting we cheat?”
“Is it a competition or a barbecue? Do wives gossip about salads?”
Jenny grunted. “Some.”
They stopped talking. A decision had been reached? Jaden couldn’t stand the suspense.
“You’re going to a barbecue?” he asked. They would leave him alone in the house? That’s trust.
“We’re going to a barbecue. Tonight. Sorry, didn’t we tell you?” Jenny asked, turning to see him.
Jaden swallowed. “Me? I’m going too?”
Derek glanced at him through the rear view mirror. His eyes crinkled into a smile. “Of course. Did you think we’d leave you alone?”
“There are going to be people there?” Jaden asked.
Derek laughed. “Yep, our friends.”
Jaden’s armpits were suddenly sweaty. It was only day seven and they were introducing him to other people? Wasn’t that too soon? What kind of people were these new people? The Kauffmans’ friends were going to examine Jaden with microscopes, talk about him behind his back, maybe influence the Kauffmans in negative ways. He needed more time…
“Are you okay?” Jenny asked him.
“Huh?” Jaden asked, rolling down his window for fresh, albeit it scorching air.
“A couple of other families are going. It’s not a big event. Very small.”
“Uh huh.” He wasn’t sure if it was the hot air or his nerves which made him sweat profusely. It was gross, like living in his own warm swimming pool.
Jenny gave attention to her husband, whose eyes were no longer crinkly. They didn’t speak the rest of the way to the house, and did not stop at the store for potato salad.
As soon as the garage door closed, Jaden got out of the car and went straight upstairs to his bedroom, avoiding eye contact with Jenny and Derek. It was time to strategize for the evening; he required total privacy. The temperature change from the stuffy garage to the artificial cool of the house made him shiver. There was no time for even the smallest distractions, and he launched up the steps two at a time without thinking about it, needing to get into his own space so he could breathe easier. He was about to attend a social event. With people.
It was terribly unfair of the Kauffmans to toss him into a mix of cheery neighbors. He didn’t understand their cultural practices of picking up dog crap in plastic bags, or getting up early in the mornings to read the news. They didn’t even get their news from papers, like normal people.
Totally absorbed in sweat-inducing thoughts, he reached the top landing and strode to his bedroom door without noticing. Automatically, he stretched his hand to grab the knob and open the door—
—but it opened on its own.
Jaden froze. For a moment nothing else happened. The door swung into the room, the knob tapping the wall. One thousand one. One thousand two.
Elephants stampeded in his ears. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure neither of the Kauffmans had seen, and when he realized they were both downstairs, he rushed into his room and went to close the door—
—and it slammed without him touching it.
He shut his eyes and counted to ten. First in English, then in Spanish. But the elephants were still thundering, the sweat still dripping.
Yanking off all his clothes, Jaden stood naked and waited a few minutes. All was quiet and nothing happened around him.
He swallowed and opened his eyes. Walking steadily to the chest of drawers, he slowed his breathing to normal and tried calming the pounding in his ears. He deliberately reached out for his shirt drawer to pull it open. His fingers clasped the brass handles. He sighed.
Jaden dressed in new dry clothes, pulling tags off a pair of jeans before slipping them on. The jeans were soft and smelled funny, but good. It was a different smell than the inside of the Kauffmans’ car, but of the same ilk. New smell. Fresh smell. It was nice.
Once dressed, he sat down on the end of his bed and searched the room for Bear.
Bear was in the corner where Jaden had tried not sleeping the night before. He grabbed Bear and sat in the same corner, thinking.
It had happened again. He knew it would eventually, but he had tried to prevent it. No matter what he did though, it always happened, whenever he wasn’t concentrating on it not happening. Jaden wasn’t sure what to do about it. Hell, he wasn’t sure what it was. It wasn’t something he’d discussed with anyone. It was never the topic of conversation.
The teddy bear in his hands held no explanation. Bear looked up at Jaden with two marble eyes and gave him no words of great wisdom. Only Bear had been a witness to the strangeness that orbited their lives together. Many times he wished the teddy would offer some kind of reason behind it, but Jaden held no illusions about the stuffed toy. He wasn’t real, just a bear. But holding Bear made him feel better, more relaxed. Jaden hugged Bear to his chest then went to his bed.
Exhaustion hit him like a truck hits a traveling bee. Jaden barely had enough time to lie down before he fell into a deep sleep.
It was bright out when Jaden finally woke. He wiped sweat off his forehead and moved out of a patch of light on his bed. There was a stale taste in his mouth. He brushed his teeth before starting downstairs.
He got halfway down when he heard whispering. He stopped so he could listen more closely to what they said. They spoke in such low tones Jaden couldn’t understand them. He supposed it didn’t matter what he heard, he knew the subject.
Jaden stomped down the rest of the stairs to announce his coming, hopefully to give them enough time to wrap up their last concerns. As he entered the kitchen he saw both reading a magazine. Yeah right. And he thought he was bad at camouflage.
“Hey,” Jaden said as he opened the refrigerator to get a soda. He couldn’t be more casual if he tried. “I crashed upstairs. I guess I was totally wiped out. Maybe it’s the heat. So now I have that gross taste in my mouth. Tastes like ass.”
Jenny laughed at this, but there was a strain to it.
“We we’re just talking about you,” Jenny said. Apparently honesty wasn’t a problem in this house. She walked around the kitchen’s island and stood before Jaden, arms crossed. “We thought you might be ready for it, but we don’t want to push you.”
Though he appreciated the sentiment, now it felt like Derek and Jenny thought of him like a delicate flower, not a boy. Sure, he had his issues, but he wanted to keep them to himself. If the Kauffmans were treating him like antique glass, he was playing his cards all wrong. He had to keep his emotions in check. They didn’t need to see his panic. That was his fault.
He immediately regretted his prior hastiness. It was what some would call “flying off the handle,” and whatever “the handle” was, he’d flown off it. If Jaden was going to graft himself into this parallel universe of different mayonnaises and furniture magazines, he couldn’t “wear his heart on his sleeve,” anymore. That expression he did understand.
Though chameleons didn’t change color to match their environment (a common misconception he corrected many times), they were the symbol of adaptability (due to that misconception). He could be a chameleon. He could change his colors to match theirs.
“I’m fine,” Jaden blurted in response to Jenny. “It sounds fun.”
“It’s okay if you need more time to adjust,” Jenny said, and Derek nodded.
“I’m adjusted.” Jaden scrunched his face. “Well, you know what I mean. I can handle a stupid barbecue,” he said. “I’ve been through worse,” he added nonchalantly looking back at them as he took a large gulp of soda and choked.
Derek smiled at his wife. “Told you he’d be fine.”
But when it came to show time, Jaden’s resolve wavered. He stood upstairs in his room, observing the people migrating into the backyard. He had the shutters positioned in such a way that he could see down, but they couldn’t see up. The Kauffmans said three other families were coming. It was a small gathering. All three couples had children Jaden’s age. As girls in pink and two loud boys tore in through the yard, Jaden suspected the Kauffmans real Master Plan: making friends. Great.
The prospect of going downstairs and being introduced as…what? made him nervous. It wasn’t that he worried about being accepted, it was something else. He was completely different from everyone, he wondered why he should even bother with formalities. He had been dropped into a world so contrasting to the one he’d been born into, he felt not like a fish out of water, but of a fish on a plate in a Japanese restaurant. These kids, these suburban babies born into a pampered existence of designer onesies and thousand dollar cribs, were nothing like him. How was he to connect and make new friends?
Would they wonder where he came from? Unlike them, he was not a product of Derek and Jenny’s champagne bubbly honeymoon, brought up under an expensive roof. He had popped up like a dandelion in the cement crack of a sidewalk, background unknown.
He reached out and found Bear and held him to his chest. His presence was comforting, though Bear had few words.
Jenny knocked on Jaden’s door and let herself in.
“Hi,” she said kindly, sitting herself on his bed.
“Hey,” he replied, staring into the backyard below.
“You want to meet everyone?” she asked.
Jaden’s stomach clenched at the thought. Meeting all of them was so permanent. It solidified his role as Substitute Son, and despite what he said to them and himself, Jaden wasn’t ready for the role. He wanted to be, but the idea was too fresh. Descending into the living room of conventional normalcy was like the curtain pulling back. All of these families, they’d go home and talk about him, a subject for dessert and coffee. Jaden Baker, the foster child. Those poor Kauffmans, barren, had to pick up someone’s reject.
“Are you okay?” Jenny asked.
No, not at all. He rest his cheek on the top of Bear’s head and felt a familiar pain in his gut, deep, deep down. But he remembered the rule he’d set himself. Be the fictional chameleon. Adapt to your environment. This was work, but worth it to live here.
“I’m fine,” Jaden said, turning to her. She had the kindest face.
“You want to take your teddy with you?”
Jaden snickered. “No. They’d laugh at me. He can stay here.” Jaden rubbed Bear’s ears, then set him on the bed. He did want to take him. It was embarrassing; Bear was his security blanket. He didn’t know anyone at the group home who had a stuffed animal at their side, so he kept Bear a secret.
“How long have you had him?” Jenny asked.
Jaden shrugged. “Always, I guess.” Since he could remember. With Bear on the bed, Jaden’s stomach churned and twisted as the idea of what he was about to do became real.
Without prompting, Jaden took a deep breath and headed for the door, Jenny following. He had to get it over with. Once it was over, it would be done. There was no point in avoiding the barbecue. It’s what people did in the summer. Get used to it.
Boisterous noise came from downstairs. People laughed and talked over each other. The sound was distressing and annoying, but Jaden continued. His mouth was completely dry, but he was determined to do this.
When he reached the last step, Derek spotted him and beckoned him with his whole hand. Jaden hesitated as his eyes traveled the room. Three couples and five other children. Holy shit. There were two boys his age who were, at the moment, having a tug-o-war match. Three girls chased each other. One was dressed in pink and had streamers in her hair.
Jenny placed her hand on Jaden’s shoulder and led him to Derek, as Jaden’s feet had failed him. Derek spoke with a friend, who was shorter and fatter than Derek. He had blonde hair and ruddy cheeks. His red polo shirt was tight across his stomach, which rolled over the waistband of his Dockers.
Jenny passed Jaden to Derek like a baton. Mimicking his wife, Derek placed his hands on Jaden’s shoulders and introduced him. “Ed, this is Jaden. Jaden, this is our friend Ed. He works at the firm with me.”
“Hey little man,” said Ed, sticking out his hand.
Jaden looked at it. If he didn’t shake the hand, he’d be rude. Modern American culture dictated the importance of touching the hand of someone you’ve just met, however counterintuitive it seemed. Why would he want to touch someone he didn’t know? But he was adaptable. He could do this. Just reach out and grab that beefy hand.
He put out his hand and Ed grabbed it in his, shook it strongly, then released. His smile was unwavering. People smiled a lot here.
“Derek was saying you’re a great basketball player,” Ed said.
“He slaughtered me,” Derek replied. “We played a few games of round robin, then some one-on-one matches. He’s going to be a great player in school.”
“My son, Finn, likes to play too.” Ed called for Finn. One of the tug-o-war boys came running, and the other boy followed. Finn resembled his father with his sandy blonde hair (in a horrible bowl shaped cut) and red cheeks, though he had not amassed the weight his father had.
“Finn, say hi to Jaden.”
“Hi,” said Finn.
“Hey,” Jaden replied, his voice a croak.
“I’m Ryan,” said the other boy, putting his hand out to Jaden and smiling. Ryan was the same height and build Jaden was, only his hair and eyes were brown, the color of dirt, and his skin tan. When he smiled he exposed crooked teeth, some missing.
Jaden shook his hand, but Ryan laughed.
“No, like this,” and Ryan demonstrated to Jaden a complicated handshake.
“That’s our secret handshake!” Finn whispered to Ryan, so loud everyone heard him.
“Stop being a baby,” Ryan said. “It’s okay, Jaden’s cool. You want to come outside and play?”
Jaden thought he did want to go outside and get away from the stuffiness and abundance of grins. He nodded at Ryan and the three of them ran outside, leaving the rest of the adults, and the dancing, squealing girls, inside.
Ryan had brought squirt guns from his house, and offered one to Jaden. It looked real except for an orange plastic piece on the tip of the barrel. It was black, modeled after a semi-automatic handgun. A 9mm. Be the chameleon. Jaden took it. Holding it made him feel queasy, but he didn’t want to show it. He accepted it and thanked Ryan, though his mouth was empty of saliva, making speech difficult.
“Let’s get the girls,” Ryan said.
“Yeah,” Finn replied with a sly look in his eye.
“Are they your sisters?” Jaden asked.
“The ones in pink are mine. They think they’re princesses,” Ryan said. “They’re pretty annoying.”
“Let’s shoot them,” Finn said.
“Will Mr. and Mrs. Kauffman get mad if we use the guns in the house?” Ryan asked Jaden.
“Who cares,” Finn replied. “Let’s just go in, guns blazing!”
“I dunno,” Jaden said. “I’ve never had a water pistol in the house. Let’s lure the girls outside.”
“How’re we going to do that?” Finn asked.
“Tell them there’s a cat out here. Girls like cats, don’t they?” Jaden asked.
“Yeeeah!” the boys yelled in unison. Finn went to the sliding door and called: “Hey Abby, Sarah, Hannah! Come see the kitty!”
Ryan giggled then ran to the wall and hid behind a rose bush, encouraging Jaden to do the same. “We’ll ambush them,” he whispered.
As predicted, all three girls came rushing out of the house for the non-existent kitty. Finn jumped from behind a cement fountain of an angel and blasted away. Ryan hurled himself from behind a bush, landed, and rolled on the grass in imitation of a soldier from a cheesy war movie. Jaden pushed from the wall and pulled the plastic trigger on the shortest girl with pig tails.
The girls screamed and covered their faces. Finn shut the slider to keep them from running inside, so the girls ran and screamed around the backyard as the boys, laughing so much their sides hurt, squirted them with tiny jets of water, chasing them all over the yard.
“Hey girls!” Jenny yelled from the house. The three girls ran to Jenny, screeching. The boys gave chase, but as they neared, Jenny pulled her hands from behind her back and gave the water hose to one of the older girls. “Soak ‘em!”
Pink streamer girl squeezed the nozzle trigger and a stream of cold water pelted the boys, drenching them. Thrilled with victory, the girls held the nozzle in turn and chased the boys around the backyard, jumping excitedly and giggling. The adults came to root for the girls.
“Surrender!” the girls cheered.
“NEVER!” said Ryan, and he ran into the stream trying to take the hose, sacrificing himself. Finn and Jaden joined him, but the girls mastered control of the nozzle, and blasted each of them in the face as they ran towards the house.
“Okay, okay!” Ed called, raising his hands. “The girls win.”
Beaming, Jenny turned off the water and hugged the girls, who bounced and squealed with delight of victory.
Jaden, who had taken a jet of water to the face, sat on the wet grass, sopping wet and grinning more broadly than ever. Ryan helped him up off the ground and gave Jaden a high five. “That was awesome, man!” he said.
“Yeah it was,” Jaden replied, grinning. “We’ll get them next time.”
“Oh yeah. I put a mouse in my sisters’ room last night. It was sooooo cool, you should have seen their faces!”
Jaden laughed, imagining it.
Derek put the food on the grill and the boys helped themselves to chips and dip, talking about different things they did to their sisters and plotting future assaults against them. Jaden had some pretty good ideas considering he didn’t have a sister. He suggested drizzling honey in their hair at night, or putting snakes in the bathtub. These cunning ideas earned him many high fives.
Jenny and Derek, Jaden noticed, watched him with silly smiles throughout the evening. Jaden had to admit the whole barbecue thing was fun, and his fear completely ridiculous. He ate two hamburgers and a hotdog, with a hefty side of out-of-the-carton potato salad, which Jenny put into her own bowl before guests arrived. For dessert, one of the moms made a fruity cake of some sort for the adults, and brownies with marshmallow frosting for the kids. Jaden had two.
The night was wrapping up, the sun setting, and the air cooling. Jaden, Ryan and Finn thought it would be funny to start a food fight, but Ryan’s dad called over from his table to put the mustard bottle down, just as Ryan lifted it from the table and popped open the cap.
“That would’ve been so sweet, too,” Finn said, eating a third brownie.
“Yeah. We can still do it. At school.”
School. Jaden hadn’t thought of school.
“What grade are you going into?” Finn asked Jaden.
“Fourth,” he said. “Are you guys in the same grade?”
“Yeah. Fourth grade is Mr. Fartfinger,” Ryan answered matter-of-factly.
“What?” Jaden asked.
“Fartfinger. I think his real name is Farnheiner or something, but everyone calls him Fartfinger. Are you going to our school too? That would be soooo cool. We have to wear uniforms, so that kind of sucks, but the teachers are nice.”
“I don’t know what school I’m going to,” Jaden said.
“Our school is a smart people school,” Finn commented. “At least that’s what mom says. You can only come if you’re smart.”
“I’m smart,” Jaden said. It was true, he always tested high. “I like to read.”
“Ewww, why?” Finn said.
Jaden shrugged. Maybe that was a bad answer.
“I hate reading,” Finn said.
“Yeah, me too,” said Ryan. “But it’s okay if you like it. You should tell your parents you want to go to our school, then we can all hang out together.”
“They’re not really his parents,” Finn whispered loudly.
Ryan ignored Finn and smiled at Jaden. “Do you like baseball? I’m on the t-ball team. I bet you’d be good at it. You should come to a few games and see if you’d like to play.”
“I’ll ask them,” Jaden said. He shot Finn a dirty look then got up to throw his plate in the trash. When he returned to sit with Finn and Ryan, he saw them arguing in low whispers. He sat anyway and they stopped. So, they were talking about him. Big surprise.
“Did you come from an orphanage?” Finn asked.
Ryan smacked his hand to his forehead and shook his head dramatically.
“No,” Jaden said. “I’m not an orphan.”
“Well, why are you here if your real parents are alive?” Finn asked.
Ryan gave him a scathing look and said out the side of his mouth, teeth clenched: “We’re not supposed to talk about that.”
Jaden scoffed. “It’s too complicated for your infantile brain to understand,” he said to Finn. He pulled grass from the ground to give his hands something to do, but wished he had a good excuse to leave. He didn’t like Finn.
“Oh,” Finn said. “So they didn’t want you?”
“Shut up!” Ryan said to Finn.
Jaden’s tried ignoring Finn’s jabs. Be adaptable. Don’t rise. He would have to change the subject.
“What’s t-ball anyway?” he asked.
“It’s like baseball, only they put the ball on a tee so you will always hit it. It’s kinda lame, but Dad says it’s good practice. I’m going to play peewee next year.”
“I’m glad my parents want to keep me,” Finn continued. “Ryan’s want to keep him. What did you do to make your mom and dad give you away?”
“Shut your face, Finn!” Ryan said.
Jaden swallowed hard. He felt a great pressure behind his eyes and found he couldn’t summon the energy to care about t-ball or schools anymore. He kept his head down in case he couldn’t hold it in, hoping the barbecue would be over soon and Finn would go home. Ryan liked him better, and Finn was jealous. He was just being cruel.
That doesn’t mean it’s not true. Jaden tried thinking of a good reason to leave so he could go to his room, but that would be obvious. All was merry laughter at the adult table. Jaden tried catching Jenny’s eye, but for once she wasn’t looking at him.
“What are they doing now that you’re here?” Finn continued.
Jaden scowled at Finn’s glowing face.
“Why do you care?” Jaden asked.
“Why don’t you? I’d want to know if it was me. Didn’t your mom tell you why she hates you?”
“She doesn’t hate me,” he muttered weakly, and he felt a tear brimming under his eye. He didn’t blink, fearing it would slide down his burning face. The food he’d enjoyed over dinner weighed heavily in his stomach.
Ryan had given up trying to stop Finn and watched nervously.
“Because you might do it again, and the Kauffmans will chuck you out.”
His insides churned, and his face was blazing hot. Finn was an idiot. He didn’t understand anything. He was a pampered baby going to a pampered school. He didn’t know what it was like on the other side.
“I mean maybe it’s—”
“Say one more word and I’ll strangle you,” Jaden said calmly, staring him down.
Finn’s mouth twisted into a smile. “It’s not something you did. She just doesn’t like you.”
Jaden lunged, knocking Finn backward. Jaden sat on top of him, pinned him to the ground, and punched him in the face twice, then put both his hands around Finn’s throat and squeezed. Finn gurgled and spluttered, his hands smacking Jaden’s face.
“Stop it!” Ryan yelled, and the adults scrambled from their table and ran toward them. Ed, Finn’s father, was the first to arrive. He picked Jaden up by the arm pits and shoved him away. Jaden landed hard on the grass. He scrambled up, and watched everyone’s faces.
Finn’s mother was cooing over her stupid son, and Ed was furious.
“How dare you!” he yelled, pointing his fat finger at Jaden. He advanced, but Derek grabbed him. Jenny’s face was hard to read, but disappointment was his best guess.
Before any of them could move, Jaden spun on his heel and ran through the fence gate and sprinted down the sidewalk.
“Jaden!” Derek yelled, running after him.
Jaden ignored him. He made a right at the intersection and increased speed. There was no way Derek could catch him. He shouted, but his voice grew fainter.
Spanish style houses passed in a blur. He clutched a stitch in his side but pressed on, panting, wishing he could stop. But he didn’t want Derek to get a hold of him. He took a left at the next intersection and kept running.
The neighborhoods changed as he ran through them. The Kauffmans’ was plastic, with the cobblestone walkways, grand entrances, and second story homes, but these were more real to him: yellowed lawns, smaller houses, more cars parked in the street.
He had been sprinting for ten minutes and could hardly breathe. His feet hurt. Jaden stopped and bent over, gasping for air. He checked behind him. Derek wasn’t there. There was no one.
Jaden kept walking until the dusky evening turned to night. He needed somewhere to hide and rest. He knew that the small gaps between two houses was a good place to hide, it was just a matter of finding a suitable one. After checking that no one stared out their front window, Jaden walked across a crunchy lawn. There was about four feet of space between one house and the next, and it wasn’t fenced off or stuffed with trash cans. He bent down and crawled into the gap, then wiped the sweat from his face. Sighing, Jaden hugged his knees to his chest, resting his head on them. It was mostly quiet. He wished he had gone back to the house for Bear.
Finn was an asshole, but his words still stung. They were half-truths. If she wanted him, she would’ve tried harder. Instead she’d given him away, like Finn had said.
Jaden crawled out a while later and walked along the sidewalk, thinking of where to go. At least it wasn’t cold. He was tired and wished he could find somewhere to sleep, but everyone had their garage doors shut. Tonight he’d sleep in the back of a car then push on tomorrow morning. He wanted to go back to get some of his stuff, including Bear, but it was too risky. After things had died down, say in a week or two, he could go back and sneak upstairs to get his bear and some clothes.
There was a roomy Crown Victoria ahead of him, perfect for tonight. Headlights lit his path, casting his long shadow, as he made his way toward the Crown Victoria. The car behind him slowed.
He turned into the light, shielding his eyes with his hand. The truck or van was too big to be Derek or Jenny’s car, and besides, they weren’t going to follow him. The headlights were too bright for him to see anything else.
The car slowed but didn’t stop.
Jaden sprinted again. He hopped a fence, then another, to put as much distance between himself and whoever followed. The yards in this neighborhood were smaller. People were awake in their houses, and he hoped no one noticed him streaking past. Ahead was a tall fence. Grabbing the chain links, Jaden lifted himself over the top, landed on the other side of the street, and ran into it.
A horn blared. He spun to see a car coming at him. He threw out his hands and hit the car’s hood, but he was pitched backwards. Stars burst in his eyes as he fell on his back, scraped his elbows and banged his head on the asphalt.
“Oh my God,” someone said, opening their car door and running to Jaden. “Are you okay?”
The wind had been knocked out of him, and his head was killing him, but he was alive. He rolled and pushed himself off the pavement, but was dizzy and unsteady on his feet.
The driver tried grabbing Jaden’s arm, but he pulled it away.
A radio went off, and the driver spoke into it.
“Yes, I think I found him.”
Jaden looked up. The driver wore a blue uniform and had a flashlight on his belt. A cop.
The cop gave dispatch his location.
“Your parents are worried about you, young man. How ‘bout we take you home?”
Jaden tried standing again, but his left leg hurt.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“You need to see a doctor?” the cop asked. “Are you injured?”
“You hit me with your car, moron,” Jaden grunted.
“Let me see,” the cop said, laughing under his breath. He picked Jaden up and set him on the hood of the car.
“Don’t touch me,” Jaden said, pushing the cop. “I’m fine.” He looked at his cut up hands. “My ass hurts, though.”
“You hit your head,” the cop said. “But most of the damage is to the car. You left a pretty big dent for such a small person.”
Jaden slid off the hood and limped away. Another car sped forward.It braked and drifted before coming to a complete stop. Jenny leapt out and ran to Jaden, who simply froze.
“Oh thank God!” she said, crying. “Oh my God,” she sobbed. She pulled Jaden into a tight hug and rest her head on the top of his. “Oh God,” she kept saying, shaking as she cried.
Jaden didn’t pull away until he saw Derek coming. He pushed against Jenny, but she wouldn’t let him go.
“Are you okay, Sport?” Derek asked him.
“Lemme go,” he said, pushing harder. Jenny relented but kept him in a one armed embrace. He stared uncertainly at Derek.
“It’s dangerous out here at night,” Derek said.
“Honey, his hands are bleeding,” Jenny said, taking them into her own.
“He ran out in front of the car,” the cop said, sauntering forward.
“My God, Jaden,” Jenny shrieked, and hugged him again.
“Ryan told us what Finn said.” Derek eyed him, he didn’t look angry. “That kid’s a prick. I probably would’ve hit him too, if I was you. It wasn’t okay, but I get it.”
Jenny led Jaden into the car, and he found he was too tired to resist. She sat in the back seat with him, holding him to her, running her hand through his hair. Derek made phone calls to his friends, announcing they’d found him. Jaden stared blankly ahead, his head sore, his hands stinging.
When they reached the house, Jenny took him into the bathroom and cleaned his hands. He sat on the bathroom counter and watched her work. She kept sniffling and wiping her tears. Derek leaned against the doorway.
“How’s your head?” he asked.
Jaden shrugged, not meeting his eyes.
“You’re quite the runner. Where were you going?”
He didn’t answer because there wasn’t one.
Jenny wrapped gauze around his hands then took him to his bedroom. He followed her numbly. Derek took the rear. Jaden sat on the edge of his bed and stared. The Kauffmans held each other and studied him.
“Can we get you anything?” Jenny asked.
Jaden shook his head.
“Are you sure, honey?”
“Okay. We’ll leave you alone,” she said. They started to leave.
“Are you going to send me back?” Jaden asked, his voice cracking.
They returned, kneeled, and looked up at him.
“Oh honey, of course not,” Jenny said. “We would never send you back. We want you here. We want you to stay.”
“What if you change your mind?” he asked.
“We won’t change our mind,” Derek said firmly. “That Finn is a jerk. You’re not going anywhere, kiddo, that’s a promise.”
Jaden nodded, but wasn’t sure he believed them. He’d tried strangling someone. Finn deserved it, but still… Yet the expressions on their faces were genuine. There was no way to explain how he knew: tonight he was safe. What tomorrow would bring, he didn’t know. For now, Jenny and Derek told the truth. He was allowed the night.
“Okay.” He crawled in bed and lay down, clutching Bear to his chest.
Derek and Jenny looked at each other, then she said: “Do you want me to stay with you?”
“What?” Jaden asked.
“You want me to stay with you tonight, so you’re not alone?” She sat next to him and rubbed his shoulder.
He turned on his side and stared at her. “Okay,” he said.
She crawled in and put her arms around him, holding him close. He rest his head on her shoulder and shut his eyes, feeling warm. He fell asleep.
Go to Chapter Three.