This story is by H. Stepancik and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I had lived at the children’s home my entire life, so it was easy for me to slip out of the girls’ dorm and tip-toe to Lawrence’s office unnoticed. When I let myself in with the key he had given me on my fifteenth birthday the week before, I found him on the phone with his back to me. Not wanting him to think I was eavesdropping, I cleared my throat.
He glanced over, and his face brightened. “I’ll call you back,” he said and hung up. “Hi, beautiful.” He plopped onto the couch where we had first made love and gathered me into his arms.
I kissed his neck and found that he smelled of cigars and gin – just like after his father died and left him with the thankless job of Director. “What’s wrong?”
“Millie, love,” he said with a kiss that took my breath away, “Nothing, now that you’re here.” His hand slid up the back of my bathrobe.
“Oooh no,” I giggled, drawing his hand away. “Tell me what’s going on first.”
“You’re friends with Eric Ruiz, yes?”
I made a face. “He’s Maria’s friend, but – ugh – he’s so annoying.” Maria was my assigned little foster sister, but Eric had arrived with her last year straight from the courthouse. They had been close ever since. “He’s like a mosquito, always following us around and taking pictures of me with that stupid Polaroid.”
“He has good taste that’s all. Plus, it means he’ll listen to you,” Lawrence chuckled. “Do you remember Mrs. Gordon?”
I nodded – she was an old widow who owned the large farm outside town and was our biggest donor at the annual Family Day Fundraiser.
“She wants to foster Eric, but he refuses to do a trial visit. Think you could talk to him?”
I sighed. “I dunno…Maria’ll be bummed if he left.”
“You’d be doing me a huge favor, bunny.”
As Lawrence predicted, it wasn’t hard to convince Eric, a light touch on the arm and a few smiles did the trick. Maria was a different story.
“A trial visit’s just for two weeks, Mar. I’ll be back,” Eric pleaded after we told Maria he was leaving.
“No, you won’t! No one ever comes back from a trial visit. You’ll love it, and she’ll love you, and she’ll adopt you!”
Maria’s hysterics didn’t subside until Eric promised to call her every day and send photos of the farm animals.
And so, he did. Nightly, Eric called to tell Maria about his adventures on the farm. I always accompanied her because the only phone was in the director’s office, which meant an extra moment with Lawrence.
On the last day of Eric’s trial visit, Maria shoved the receiver in my face and making kissy sounds. “Eric wants to say hiiii.”
Usually, I would mumble hello and hang up, but this time I heard Eric say, “Wait, Millie, please.”
“It’s just…watch the mail. I might send you something. It’s only for you though.” His strained voice didn’t register with me at the time.
“Yeah, okay.” I hung up.
After that, the calls trickled and stopped. Maria was so upset, that most nights I had to hold her close until she cried herself to sleep. But Lawrence assured us that it was a good sign Eric was bonding with his new family. “The Family Day Fundraiser’s not far off,” he’d say, “Maybe Mrs. Gordon will bring Eric.”
Then one night, after Maria had fallen asleep, Lawrence invited me to go for a drive. He had a scratch down his cheek, but because it was the first time we’d left the grounds alone together and I was thrilled, I didn’t ask about it.
At the end of a long dirt road we found Mrs. Gordon standing in front of a barn, her arm in a sling. “What happened to her?” I asked.
Lawrence patted my knee. “You know I love you, right?” I answered with a deep kiss and felt him smile against my lips. He continued, “Well, she needs our help. And we need hers. There was a fight and…Eric passed away.”
I was stunned. Eric had been kind, gentle. He hadn’t wanted to be here in the first place, and now he was dead? Maria would never forgive me. I started to hyperventilate.
“Shh, listen now, love,” he held my face in his hands. “If anyone finds out, the farm will be shut down. I could be in trouble, too, for placing him here. Even if I’m not, I don’t have the money to run the home without Mrs. Gordon.”
The thought of losing Lawrence was dreadful. He was my heart. “What do we need to do?”
It took all night to bury Eric in the woods. It was surreal and exhausting, but somehow, exhilarating. I was the Bonnie to Lawrence’s Clyde.
But for every high of being with him and sharing this tragic secret, torrents of guilt flooded over me anytime Maria asked if Eric had called. I hated that I couldn’t tell her. I hated that Lawrence kept her hopes up, telling her that Eric might come to Family Day. But what could I do?
Lacking an answer, I tried to keep Maria’s mind off her missing friend by convincing her to join Family Day decorating committee with me. With any luck, we’d raise enough money to be free of Mrs. Gordon.
Then, two days before Family Day, as I worked on the seating chart for the fundraiser dinner, Maria made me check the mail for her – again.
Among the business envelopes was an overstuffed letter addressed to me. “Nothing here!” I called to Maria. Her face fell, and when she turned away, I stepped behind a tree and opened the envelope.
Millie: Widow Gordon always gave me the creeps. Doubt anyone’ll believe me about this, but maybe folks’ll listen to you. I know how good you are at convincing people. Haha!
Behind the letter was a stack of Polaroids so disgusting the earth spun beneath me and I vomited.
It was sunny and cool on Family Day. Maria twirled in front of the mirror. “I’m so excited! Do I look okay? Adoptable?”
“Of course,” I said as I drew my curls into a ponytail. I was excited, too.
“What if you get adopted and I don’t?”
“I won’t let that happen, Mar.” I picked her up and spun her around, like Eric used to do, until her smile returned. Then we joined the festival.
The entire town was there, even Mayor Smith and Judge Zalinski. We found Lawrence shaking hands with the chief of police. He introduced us, saying, “These girls made everything look beautiful today. In fact, you can thank Millie for getting you the prime table by the band.”
“Be sure to check under your chair during dinner,” I said to the chief with a smile. “You might have a winning raffle envelope.”
The chief smiled and thanked me.
Later that evening, Maria and I headed to the dining area. Lawrence was on stage with the band, thanking the donors, when Widow Gordon walked in. She had swapped her sling for a silk scarf, and I delighted in seeing panic sweep across her face as she took her seat between Chief Hinner and Judge Zalinski.
“Did she bring Eric? Do you see him anywhere?” Maria squinted hard as she scanned the crowd.
Without answering, I found us seats at a table in the back and handed her a plate of roasted chicken. “Here let’s eat.”
The crowd suddenly applauded. Lawrence had finished his speech and was motioning toward three enormous gift baskets. “And now, ladies and gents, please look under your chairs. If your envelope contains a golden ticket, you win!”
As donors ducked beneath their chairs, I turned cold and clammy. “Maria, whatever happens, blood-related or not, you are my sister, and I love you.”
She had a mouth full of potatoes. “Erm, oh-fay.”
I watched as the chief, mayor, and judge pulled Polaroids from their envelopes instead of a white, paper ticket like everyone else.
Mayor Smith choked when he saw the half-naked boys, skin and bones, chained in stalls with the pigs. Judge Zalinski put her hand over her mouth when she saw the photo of Lawrence holding down a boy as Widow Gordon pressed a red-hot poker to the four-year-old’s hip. Meanwhile, Chief Hinner, whose envelope contained the most horrific scene, quietly stood and motioned to his officers at the next table.
I grabbed hold of Maria’s hand. Two officers stood behind Mrs. Gordon while the rest, with the chief, hopped on stage with Lawrence.
“Looks like we have a winner!” Lawrence said, gleefully holding out one of the baskets.
“Lawrence Stitchcomb and Ethel Gordon, you are under arrest.” The crowd fell deathly silent. I sighed with relief.
Then I looked into Maria’s eyes, “I have something I need to tell you.”