Greetings from Witness Protection! – Jake Burt

I’m working on making a world. I’ve got the mountains and valleys, an ocean, and continents. It’s a slow process, though, since I use only my hands. Well, my hands and a couple of tennis balls. As I work, pieces of plaster rain on me, but I don’t care. I’m digging my trenches just a little deeper, carving my roads a little farther, and when I manage to break off a bigger chunk, I get new lakes and hills. Each time, I name them—Lake Nickisia. Mount Andew. The Trenchbull. There’s something calming about the thwackathwackathwacka of the balls off the ceiling, the dance my hands do as I throw faster and faster, until I can’t hardly see my fingers anymore. Fast hands. I’ve always had fast hands. “God, Nicki … slow down! How am I supposed to do that? I can’t even keep the ball going. You’re doing two at once!” I catch both and glance apologetically at Emmy. “Takes time and practice,” I offer.

“You’ll get there.” “I’ll get fostered again before I get there, Nicki. And I just got my own top bunk, too!” “Stay here as long as I have, and it’ll be no sweat.” “I … I’m sorry, Nicki. I didn’t mean it like that.…” Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed, I drop down to the concrete. My toes instantly seek my slippers, and I cram my feet in as quickly as possible. Mid-October and it’s already thirty degrees outside, every bit of that cold happily taking up residence in our floor. Tossing an afghan around my shoulders for good measure, I sidle up to Emmy’s bed. “No worries.

I was joking, Emmy.” “I wasn’t. I stink at this.” “Not as bad as I stink at sticking.” Sticking—that’s what we call it. The lucky kids stick to their foster families. I seem to be covered in nail polish remover or something. I’ve been with five—count ’em, five—families in five years since Grammy died, and I’ve spent as much time in the Center as I have in homes. It’s not like I have any major horror stories to tell—nobody hit me, or starved me, or touched me. Sometimes things don’t work out, and things just didn’t work out for me.

A couple of those did involve legal issues on my end, but the others? Finances, leases running out—heck, one of my families got deported two weeks after I moved in. They were all nice enough. I just didn’t stick. Emmy finally tosses the tennis ball away and curls around her Minnie Mouse pillow. “You going to the art course with me this morning?” she mumbles into Minnie’s ear. “If I can finish unpacking, yep. Wainwright’s been bugging me about it. Two weeks back and I haven’t emptied my suitcase yet. Wishful thinking, I guess.” “I know! You haven’t even taken out Fancypaws!” That’d be Ms.

Fancypaws McKittenfluff, my sole remaining stuffed animal from a childhood menagerie. My grammy bought me many more—Doggy the Dog, Findango, Corduroy-If-You-Please, and Sullen Moomelstein, to name a few. I can still remember Wainwright explaining to nine-year-old me that they’d gone to foster care, too. I liked imagining them finding new families and kids to play with. Of course, that was before I knew about Goodwill. “I guess she just got comfortable in there,” I muse. “Can’t say I blame her.” “A suitcase is no kind of home for a lady!” Emmy exclaims, fanning herself like a southern belle. With her blond curls and tiny mouth, she actually looks the part. “It might be if the lady is missing her left ear and has cotton leaking out of her armpits,” I reply.

It’s true. Two and a half feet of well-loved and clumpy-haired stuffitude, Fancypaws is a few years removed from her debutante days. I shuffle over to the suitcase and gently extract her from the jumble of jeans, socks, books, and bracelets. My fingertips automatically find the velveteen patch of her belly and worry at it, carefully avoiding the holes and little rips. I remind myself to check out a book on sewing and fabric repair—Fancypaws is long overdue for a makeover, especially now that she’s retired from the thieving business. Emmy asks me if I want to get breakfast, but I’m not even dressed yet, so I let her go ahead. I clear a bit of space in the middle of my blankets for Fancypaws and nestle her in there, then slipper-slide my way across the concrete to my little closet. The chill in the air says sweaters and jackets, though for some reason the tights, long black skirt with the sequined hem, and a white T-shirt are whispering to me. I throw on a hoodie with big pockets and my grammy’s Swarovski crystal earrings for good measure, then scoot out to breakfast. All the rooms in the Center are off one long hallway.

Wainwright has it set up so that the entire space reads like a timeline of kids’ lives. At our end, where the boys’ and girls’ rooms are, the walls are plastered with pictures of families. Most of them are from the 1980s, when the Center opened. Beneath each picture is a little brass plate that says the family’s name, the kid’s name, and when she or he was adopted. Down the hall, the pictures get newer and newer. The best part is looking at how stuff like clothes and haircuts has changed. You know those fringed lizards that pop out their neck skin like a gigantic umbrella to frighten predators? That’s like the girls’ hair in the ’80s. I’m not sure who they were trying to scare, but I’m betting it worked. As the hallway goes on, the hair gets better. Toward the end, near the kitchen and the art room, are the newest pictures.

Mine’s not up there, since I haven’t stuck. Wainwright never lets us see the moment she takes our pictures down when we come back, but I’ve heard her sniffling in the bathroom after she does it. I think it hurts her almost as much as it does us. I pass by thirty years of bobs, bowl cuts, and bangs on my way to grab a bagel, and it’s just as I’m turning around, bagel in my mouth and a milk carton in either hand, that I spot the guy. Or rather, The Guy. I murmur a “Whoa” right past the pumpernickel between my teeth. The Guy is one of those who goes about six-foot-six, but seems ten feet. You could fit four kids, comfortably seated, across his shoulders and balance a cafeteria tray perfectly atop his crew cut. He spots me and reaches up to slide his sunglasses a centimeter down his big, oxygen-vacuum of a nose so he can size me up. It takes him all of a second.

He makes me nervous. He’s wearing a black short-sleeved polo shirt despite the cold, and it’s got a star, like a sheriff’s badge, sewn into it. Black belt, black pants, black shoes. Looks all uniformy. What’s more, hooked to his belt is a holster. Conspicuously jutting from the leather is a blocky plastic handle, as yellow-and-black as the business end of a hornet. It’s smaller than a gun, but still big enough that I can read the word “Taser” along the side. All people in uniforms make me twitchy, but especially armed ones, and my fingers get to tapping on my milk cartons, my toes curling in my slippers. Yeah, I know I haven’t done anything wrong recently, but I’m still feeling the urge well up in me. It’s a kind of tightness, crouched behind my heart, above my intestines, and in my sinuses, all at the same time.

Once my left thumb starts to waggle, I know I’ve got to get out of there. So, speeding up, I round the corner and duck into the art room. The art room is tiny, with just a table and four chairs. Still, there’s a lot of color there—it’s wallpapered in waxy, curling drawings made by kids over the years. Mr. Jordanson doesn’t throw away anything. Even if it’s a three-year-old’s scribble-scrabble, he’s taping it to the wall. We like Mr. Jordanson because he makes us feel like Rembrandts. Seeing him and Emmy calms me a little, but I still can’t stop thinking about The Guy out there.

He wasn’t a prospective parent, for sure. I set my bagel and milk down and hide my hands behind me. “Oh no…” Emmy whispers. She’s the only one who ever notices when I’m twitching. “I’ll be all right,” I mutter. “’Kay,” she says, offering me a sympathetic smile—and something else. She’s midway through a tree, and she’s probably going to need her lime-green crayon again in a second, but she’s positioned it at the edge of the table, just behind her elbow. She turns away from me for a minute, pretending to listen to what Mr. Jordanson is explaining to Halla, the Center’s newest arrival and resident baseball expert. Emmy’s a good friend.

… The crayon is gone before anyone notices, and I’m holding it in my big old pocket, left thumb rubbing at the tip, which is still warm from her vigorous shading. I’m not shaking anymore, and I can breathe again. “Here, Emmy … you dropped your crayon,” I whisper, and she takes it back, thanking me. Have I mentioned how awesome Emmy is yet? Now that the urge has passed, it’s no sweat to grab the chair across from Halla and settle in. “Need a sheet of paper, Nicki? We’re doing fantasy gardens,” Mr. Jordanson announces, and he points to Halla’s work. Halla has drawn trees coming from the ceiling, a baseball bat growing out of a pot, and some sort of viney monstrosity. “Art class” is a joke. We basically think of something to draw as a group, then tackle it. It’s silly, but it passes the time, and we get to chat for a while.

Right now, that’s exactly what we need to do. “So,” I offer casually, “anyone catch that big guy out in the hallway? He looks like a Green Beret or something.” “I saw him!” Emmy blurts. “I bet he’s on steroids!” “Alex Rodriguez did steroids!” Halla adds. Yep, this is usually how our conversations go. “Let’s change the subject, guys,” Mr. Jordanson suggests, and he tries to talk to Halla about stippling. I scoot closer to Emmy and whisper, “So you did see him? What do you think?” “Can’t be here to foster. Did you do something?” “No, did you?” “No…” “What was he doing outside the transition room, then?” “Not sure. Maybe he’s a health inspector?” “Does he break your knees if you aren’t up to code?” “Ahem!” Mr.

Jordanson huffs, glaring at us. He goes right on glaring at us, even after the second look up. That’s how you know a teacher means business. When one tells you to be quiet, you wait thirty-five seconds, then look up. If the teacher isn’t watching anymore, you can start whispering again. If he’s still staring at you, you best zip it. Humbled, I bite my lower lip and give Emmy one more glance, just in time to see her stick her tongue out at me. I try to suppress a giggle, but it comes out all snorty, and Emmy starts snickering. Halla joins in, and we’re a mess. Even Mr.

Jordanson can’t stop us at that moment. But Wainwright can. She opens the door, then knocks on it in the way grown-ups do—the old “Hey, I’m barging in, you can’t get me to go away, but it’s okay, because see? I knocked!” Emmy and I both stiffen. Wainwright doesn’t usually interrupt classes, and her face seems drawn tight, even her wrinkly forehead. “Wonderful news,” she says softly. “Nicki, dear, there are people here to see you.” She always begins this announcement with “wonderful news,” but the second part is different. Emmy nudges her crayon toward me, and I grab for it instinctively. She noticed, too. Normally, Wainwright says, “There’s a family that can’t wait to meet you!” Normally, Wainwright smiles.

My chair screeches as I get up, and I wince. As I start to trudge out, Mr. Jordanson says, “Congratulations, Nicki.” He’s trying to be cheerful, but it comes out more like a question than an exclamation. Fingering my right earring nervously, I follow Wainwright out of the room. It doesn’t even occur to me to turn around and hug Emmy, to find Chrissy for one last game of Uno, to ask Halla about baseball, or to shake Mr. Jordanson’s hand. It should have, though. After all, I might never see them again. CHAPTER TWO Careful What You Wish For I follow Wainwright out into the hall, pretending not to notice that she stops every few feet to peer at me.

She’s trying to figure out if I’m okay. I’ve got my hands in my pockets, so she can’t see my left thumb twitching, and I’m keeping my eyes locked on The Guy, still standing at the doorway of the transition room. He’s smiling. I’m not. “Wainwright, am I in trouble or something?” I dare to ask, pausing halfway between my friends behind me and The Guy up ahead. “No, dear, nothing like that,” she says, taking off her bifocals and squinting down at them while she pinches at the lenses with her cardigan. “Then why did you just call me dear? Like before, in the art room. You don’t do that. Not ever.” No response.

She just takes my shoulder and eases me forward. A step at a time, I’m getting closer to The Guy, and proximity isn’t helping. He’s even more menacing up close. When I see that there’s a woman in the room behind him, also wearing a uniform, my nerves go into overdrive. It feels like no matter how deeply I breathe, I’m not getting any air. If something doesn’t give, I’m going to bolt, and that only ever makes more trouble. So I decide to do my thing. “Hello, sir! It’s nice to meet you!” I chirp as I extend my hand. I flash him my most dazzling smile. My other hand sweeps my hair over my left shoulder.

He seems surprised, which is what I expected. Good. “Yeah, Nicki. You too. Nice to meet you,” he says, reaching out a big paw to shake. I pull back my own hand before he can grab it, though, and leave him looking at his palm like he’s checking for a rash. Hmmm … he knows my name already. They’ve probably read my file. Still, I’m betting he won’t see this coming. The Guy is so big it’s nearly impossible to slip past him.

But I use that to my advantage. I let my shoulder glide gently against his chest. I twist my head just enough to allow my earrings to sparkle, and my hands go to work. Once I’m inside, I stow what I’ve scored in my pockets and manage a grin. The woman is sitting at the table and leafing through a big stack of papers. I say, “Hello, ma’am,” in a syrupy singsong, but she doesn’t even glance up. It’s all kinds of awkward, but that’s to be expected. This is the transition room, after all. Ironically, the place is decorated to be as soothing as possible—shelves full of brightly colored books, stuffed animals perched on every available surface, a huge alphabet carpet dominating the floor. There are three comfy chairs, a globe, and a massive toy chest.

The idea is that you come in here, and the family that’s adopting you “gets to know you.” This usually consists of sitting at the table and watching while you play with toys you’re too old for. Occasionally, they ask you a question —“What’s your favorite ice cream?” or “Do you like to read?” or “Isn’t that a pretty dolly? Do you like dolls, Nicolette?” No. Seriously. I was twelve, and they actually used the word dolly. As I turn to watch Wainwright close the door, my throat tightens. Just this once, I wish she’d stay instead of watching through the closed-circuit camera. I make my way over to the corner with the toys. This is Chrissy’s favorite spot in the whole Center; we actually have to stop her from sneaking in. Granted, she’s six and hasn’t been in here enough to associate it with disappointment, but I’d think there would be some lingering ghost of doubt and sweaty anticipation that might spook her.

I sure feel it. Grabbing the biggest teddy I can find, one about the size of Fancypaws, I turn back to watch the two uniforms. The Guy sits next to Ms. Filemonger, who slides him a folder. When he opens it, I see that it’s got Nicolette Demeer written across the tab in red Sharpie. My nose crinkles. They’ve switched the final two letters of my last name. I whisper this to the bear and use the uniforms’ distracted paper rooting as an opportunity to check out the items in my hoodie. Courteously, the bear shields my hands, so when The Guy and Filemonger do finally look up, all they see is a smiling thirteen-year-old with a scruffy grizzly. “She’s pretty enough, don’t you think?” The Guy says, and the creepy factor shoots up to about fifteen.

“Yes, very much like the mother.” Filemonger is holding a photograph. I can’t see the image, but they’re both squinting at it, then me, then it, nodding the entire time. I’m trying to stay still, but my foot is doing its best to grind a hole through the letter Q. Filemonger is pointing at a chair with her pen. I sit down and put the bear next to me on the table. He’s staring, unblinking, at The Guy, and I’m across from Filemonger. Teddy seems a lot cooler than me right now; my leg is bouncing so badly it’s rattling my teeth. “Nicolette Demere,” Filemonger begins. “Age?” It takes me a few seconds to realize she’s asking me a question.

I say, “Isn’t it in my file?” Wrong answer. “Age?” she repeats, louder and slower, like she’s trying to translate it into whatever language she thinks children speak. “Thirteen. My birthday was three weeks ago.” “Happy birthday!” The Guy says, and I offer him a little smile. “Height?” “Huh?” “Your height. How tall are you, Ms. Demere?” I stare at her for a second, trying to figure out if she’s serious. “I dunno. About five and a half feet? I’m kinda tall for my age, I guess.

” “You’re five-foot-five,” she corrects, reading it from a paper hidden behind the folder. “If you knew it, then why did you ask?” “Weight?” I look at The Guy for this one. He arches an eyebrow. I have no idea what that means. “A hundred pounds?” I venture. “Closer to ninety.” “My shoe size is seven and a half, if that helps.” “Race?” I peer up into the camera in the corner, less-than-cleverly disguised in a hanging flower basket. “Is this a TV show or something? Do I get a prize if I figure out that I’m being pranked?” The Guy leans forward. “It’s not a prank, Nicki.

We’re making sure you are who the file says you are.” “Yeah, but what for? You’re not taking me home to practice parenting a rebellious teenager.” The Guy snorts. “Smart mouth on you. Why so defensive?” “Let’s see, two scary people who didn’t identify themselves have me closed in a room. They’re asking questions about me even though they already know the answers. They’re carrying weapons. Yeah, I think I’m good with defensive.” “You never asked who we were, Nicki.” “You’re U.

S. marshals. Your name is Edward Harkness, but I’m betting you go by Eddie. You’re thirty-nine years old, you were born on the fifth of July—tough luck there, patriot—and you’ve got blue eyes underneath those sunglasses. You have a kid already, but not with her. She’s probably your partner. You drive a Buick, drank coffee this morning, and you used to smoke. How’s that?” “Wh-what? How did you…?” Filemonger has frozen mid-file-flip, and The Guy … I suppose I should call him Eddie now … is still fumbling his words. I look over at the bear and shake my head knowingly. My leg actually slows its bounce.

From my pocket I produce Eddie’s wallet, which I slide back to him. “I’m not Sherlock Holmes or anything. Your driver’s license gave me your name, eye color, and birthday. There’s a picture of your wife and kid in there, too. He’s cute in that little football helmet! Oh, and the insignia on your shirt says you’re a U.S. marshal.” “Where did you get this?” he demands, though by the way he’s holding up the wallet and blinking at it, he’s more wonderstruck than angry. “Your back pocket. Pretty close to where I got these.

” I toss his car keys across the table next. “And this, which I’m guessing is the change from a cup of the cheap coffee at the bodega across the street, since it’s ninety-three cents with tax.” I roll a nickel and two pennies his way. “I’ve got your badge, too, but I’m keeping that until I know what the heck is going on. The nicotine gum you can have back. I’m betting you’ll want a piece after this.” “You realize we just caught you stealing from a U.S. marshal, young lady?” Filemonger says through gritted teeth. I glance at her, but I can’t bring myself to look for too long; she makes me twitchy.

Her lips are pursed. Her eyes are narrowed. Her watch squeezes her wrist so tightly you’d think she was using it as a tourniquet. And whereas Eddie’s shirt is comfortably unbuttoned at the collar, Filemonger has hers worked up her neck like the sheath around a knife. Makes sense, I guess, what with the way she’s staring daggers at me. “It’s not stealing,” I explain. “It’s creative ownership reassignment. Besides, you didn’t catch me. Nobody has, and nobody will. Been found with the goods a few times, but never caught in the act.

Now, if you want your badge back, you’ll give me some answers.” I let that sink in for a couple of seconds and then smile innocently. “Pretty please?” Eddie starts laughing—little chuckly snorts at first, then a proper Brooklyn belly-bray. “Got a deal for you, Nicki. You tell me how you did all that, we’ll tell you what you want to know. Then you can decide whether to give my badge back.” “Harkness, that’s not why we’re—” Filemonger begins, but my main man Eddie waves her off. “Aren’t you curious, Janice? Let her talk.” Janice crosses her arms, but she gives me a go-ahead nod. “Fine.

Deal. I got your badge first,” I begin, handing it over to Eddie. “It was clipped to your belt, and I worked my left while you were trying to shake my right—you didn’t see because you were watching my hair. I got your wallet when my shoulder touched your chest on the way in, since your body can really only process one point of contact at a time. Then, when I twisted out of your way, I brushed my hand against my earring. It caught the light, you glanced over, and I nabbed the gum and keys from your right pocket. Took your change from the other pocket as you walked past—you didn’t hear the jingle because I said hello to Filemo … um, to Janice here. Oh, and I could’ve taken the Taser, too, but I didn’t want to risk panicking and shooting you in the leg with it. Anyways, cool Taser.” “Oh, Janice, I really like this one,” Eddie says, nudging her with his elbow.

“Your turn,” I declare, staring at Janice. She eyeballs me with no small amount of suspicion. I think she believes I’m going to rob her blind as soon as she looks away. That’s silly, of course. I wouldn’t do that. But I could. “We are United States marshals, members of the oldest and most versatile federal law enforcement agency. We protect the courts, track down fugitives, and shield witnesses from retribution. And you are Nicki Demere,” she says, reading from the file, “daughter of Christian Demere, convicted felon, sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment at FCI Otisville for class B robbery one and possession of a weapon two. Paroled in March of 2012.

” My heart is suddenly thumping so hard I can hear it. “Wait … wait, wait, wait,” I exclaim, my hands fluttering in the air before my face, like the info she just dumped on me is a host of sparrows all trying to dive-bomb my brain at once. “My dad is out? As in, he’s free?” “Yes, Nicki. For two years. Now let me continue. You wanted answers, you listen.” I grab the teddy bear again, squeezing him so tight something rips. The world is crumbling, and Janice just keeps on talking. “Mother unknown, abandoned family shortly after daughter’s birth. Father imprisoned when child was six.

Child raised by paternal grandmother, Florence Demere, until her death in 2009. Is all this correct?” Those sparrows have decided to stick around for a while, building their little nests in my throat— my mouth feels dry and powdery, and the lump in my windpipe won’t let me talk. I’m blinking away tears as I barely manage to squeak, “Go … go back to the part about my dad being out of prison?” Janice nods. “He is.” “And he’s been out for a long time?” “Yes,” she states flatly. Eddie jumps in. “I know it’s a lot to take in, Nicki, but you’ve got to bear with us. We’re not here about your dad, or your grandma—” “Grammy.” “Or your grammy, or any of that. That’s the past.

We’re here about you, now, because … well, because we need you. The U.S. marshals need you. A family needs you.” I’m spinning, or the room is, or something. Now I know why my dad never wrote back. Pretty hard to get the mail your daughter sends to prison if you’re not in prison. He’s had two years. To get me.

To take me home. Two years, and he never came. About five hundred dreams I’ve had of him showing up at the Center, of him telling me about prison over pie, of me sharing my adventures with him … they all come crashing down. And my adventures! Every crappy little thing that’s happened to me! Every family that’s ever dumped me, every friend I’ve had to say good-bye to, every last bit of trouble I’ve made for myself … they were adventures only because I was going to tell my dad about them, match him story for unbelievable story. Now they’re just … just what? Stuff, I guess. Bad things. They’re all skittering out of my brain, roaches from a bright light, black and shiny and every bit as ugly. I hadn’t even realized that Eddie had gotten up and put his hand on my shoulder. Janice keeps on reading: “Grandmother had a rap sheet: petty larceny, pickpocketing…” She pauses, staring at me for a moment. “Taught her granddaughter the ropes, apparently.

Grandmother dies, granddaughter is picked up by the foster care system. Diagnosed with an impulse-control disorder, specifically kleptomania, likely as a result of separation and abandonment issues. Weekly court-mandated therapy sessions.” Not adventures. Just bad things. “Nicki,” Eddie whispers. He’s squatting next to me now, looking up past the teddy bear’s ears. “We’re going over this because it’s vital that we know where you’ve been, who you are. I’m so, so sorry you have to hear this from us, but it’s for a good reason. All this, I’m thinking, has made you strong, and we’re looking for a strong girl, one with your kind of grit, smarts, and skills.

We’re looking for a girl who has dealt with all that stuff and come through still spitting fire and throwing jabs. Nicki, kid—we’re looking for you.” I sniffle, wipe my fingers across my eyes and nose, and level a red-eyed stare at him. Through clenched teeth, I growl, “For … what?” He smiles. “The adventure of a lifetime.”

.

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