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Where We Belong
Catherine Ryan Hyde

PART ONE

The Part When I Was Only Fourteen

1. Hem

By the time I was seven, I had twenty-two packs of playing cards. Twenty-two. And I never played card games with them. Not once. Card games are boring.

They were for building, not playing.

It started with the card house my dad showed me how to build when I was six, right before he stuck his hand in his shirt pocket and figured out he was out of cigarettes and then walked out of the house to get more at the corner store and got murdered. For his watch and his wallet and his wedding ring. The watch was just a cheap Timex, and the ring was only silver and thin. And he never carried a lot of cash, because he never had a lot to carry.

I graduated card houses and went on to card condos, card apartment complexes, card ranches, card palaces. It’s a lot of work for something that’s always going to fall down at the end. But then, all of life is like that. Right?

Take my dad. He was just showing me that perfect moment when the house is getting big, when you’re on the third or so level, and every card drop makes you hold your breath. You have to wait to see. You think it falls right away if it’s going to, but it doesn’t. There’s this weird little pause, like time skipping. That pause was everything that kept me dropping those damn cards. Everything.

“I’ll be honest, Angie,” my dad said. “It brings out the gambler in me.”

But nothing needed to bring out the gambler in him. He was a gambler. It was always out.

Right after he said that, he stuck his hand in his pocket.

Now I have no packs of cards. I got rid of them all after my sister, Sophie, came along. Not right after. Because… you know. She was in a crib and all. And even when she started crawling around, it seemed like everything was okay with her. And then it wasn’t. And it was hard to put our fingers on the moment when we knew it wasn’t. Probably a lot sooner than we said so out loud.

After that, I knew better than to keep anything delicate and easy to ruin around the house ever again.

Anyway, what difference does it make? Now that I’m fourteen, our whole life is a house of cards. Drop. Wait. Breathe. Or don’t.

I liked it better with real cards. I liked how you could just sweep them all up with your hand and start over again. Everything in the world is easier to clean up after than your own actual damn life.

It was our first full day at Aunt Violet’s, and I woke up wondering if it would also be our last. It can happen on any day. You think you know which ones are the most dicey, but it turns out you never do.

Besides, this one wasn’t looking good.

It was a Friday, and I should have been in school, except I had to go to a new school now, and my mom said signing me up on Monday would be good enough, which really meant she needed me to babysit Sophie while she went job hunting.

We were sitting at the breakfast table eating toaster waffles, Sophie and me and Aunt Vi—this old Formica table with these glittery spots on it, like manmade stars. Those spots were holding Sophie’s attention. She was eating her waffle with her left hand, and dropping the tip of her right index finger down on those little glittery spots, over and over and over. With a little grunt on each drop.

Her hair needed brushing. Probably my job, but I was ducking it. Pretend reason: because my mom didn’t make that clear. Real reason: because it’s kind of a rotten job.

Aunt Vi was watching Sophie in a way that made it hard for me to breathe.

Aunt Violet wasn’t really our aunt. First of all, she was our mom’s aunt, which made her our great aunt, and also, only by marriage. Did that make her our mom’s for-real aunt? I guess it did, since there’s no such thing as an aunt-in-law. I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. Here’s what I knew, and here’s what mattered: We weren’t blood family. Which would make it a whole lot easier to throw us away.

“What kind of job is your mom looking for?” Aunt Vi asked. She never took her eyes off Sophie, which made it look like she was asking Sophie. But, of course, that was impossible.

“She’s really wanting to find a job waitressing at a dinner restaurant,” I said. Sophie’s grunts were turning to little squeals that hurt my ears. I could see Aunt Vi wince on each one. The sparkle pointing was half morphing into arm flaps. I talked through it as best I could. “Because the tips are really good. And then I can watch Sophie while she’s—”

“Can she be gotten to stop that?” Aunt Vi squeaked. Suddenly, and with her voice too high-pitched. And kind of desperate. Like she’d been just about to break that whole time.

Which I’d known. Which I’d felt. But I’d been telling myself it wasn’t as bad as I thought, half believing myself and half not. Uncle Charlie had died just a couple of months before, and Aunt Violet was fragile.

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