“He’s eight. I’m nine. He’s in fourth, I’m in second. His teacher, Mrs. Sheryl, says he’s smart enough to know when to be quiet” answered Willie, who answered for Frankie from habit.
“Are you?” asked Mike.
“Ha, nope,” laughed Max and Willie simultaneously.
“Supper’s ready,” called Molly from the door.
“Let’s eat. Fish gravy and French fries,” yelled Willie as he raced back into the small blue and white frame house.
Inside, the rest of the family waited to begin serving plates. Molly quickly placed a large, black-iron pot of catfish sauce piquante in the center of an oak table built of wide rough-hewn planks sanded smooth and waxed to a rich honey-color; she surrounded the pot with bowls of white rice and sliced cucumbers and a platter of fries. Chairs and two benches lined the sides of the table, giving the setting a homey, picnic-like feel. Photos of the children hung on the wall just above the table, which was pushed in toward the wall when not in use. Mixed in with the photos were drawings from some of the kids, crosses, and a plaque with the phrase, “The world so fierce cannot harm family.” Quickly the children found their places and sat down. As the noise settled, Molly invited Mike to sit on one end of the bench closer to the wall and asked Max to say a blessing. Then the chatter picked up again as introductions were made and each child told Mike a little about himself and shared something about his day with the rest of the family. Nikki spoke apprehensively, twisting her fingers on her lap as she spoke to the young man. For some reason—perhaps it was the dark eyes that seemed to stare through her—he frightened her.
Mike told them about himself, but Bud had already filled them in when the family discussed his coming. As he spoke, Mike thought of his real story, not the watered-down version that he had practiced for the last couple of days. His parents were just in the tenth grade when he was born and, at first, he was to live with Meme until they could graduate and get on their feet. They never managed either, quitting school as soon as they were old enough to do so. Drugs and alcohol were a constant in their lives. They could not hold down jobs, and the split came as no surprise to anyone but Mike. Though Josie had come to get him several times, those times did not last more than a few weeks or months. Her using and her boyfriends always seemed to be more important. Finally—and it ended this way every time—she gave up, chose her life and brought him back to Meme. Back and forth this way, never attending school when he was with Josie, never knowing when or what he would eat, never truly safe, he became a shell of a boy. Then, just as easily and without reason, Josie returned to Meme’s small house for a visit. Always she left a few days later without telling either Meme or Mike goodbye or where she was headed.
He and Meme had not heard from Josie in years, and he assumed she was never coming back. Meme had died two years ago. He was in LTI when she died and that was it. He ended the introduction by noting that now he had only a month to answer to the State. He’d be 18 and on his own. He planned to make his own life.
At this last bit of information Bud and Molly looked at each other. Keeping him in school until graduation would be difficult. The state would allow him to remain in their home beyond his birthday, provided he stayed in school and worked toward his diploma. Their goal was to do exactly that—keep him in school even though it meant he may have another year to go. They knew, however, that earning his diploma would mean a lifetime of difference in his ability to find work and earn a decent wage.
Bud prompted the kids sitting around the table, “The world so fierce…”
“Cannot harm family,” they responded in unison.
“It sounds kinda corny, but we say it for each other, Mike. It’s just a line from a poem. It means we make our own family,” Shane explained.
“Yeah. We pick our destin,” Max added.
“Destiny. But that’s only one word. We choose each other and we choose to find joy in each other. It’s kinda hard to put into words, but you’ll see. We’re brothers and sisters. Just like in other families, cause that’s what we choose,” Trish summed up.
“It’s our way of knowing that we have each other. When other people look at us like we’re weirdos…”
“Or call us “the Orphans,” Trish chimed in.
“Yeah, or whatever else they want to say. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, we’re all sitting here just like a normal family and we know we can count on each other.” Shane summed up.
“Yeah, and we don’t hurt each other, right, Bud-wiser?” Willie had taken to calling Bud numerous silly nicknames. It had become something of challenge to create new names, but this was his favorite so far.