Little Girl Gone – Chapter 6

Reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.


Copyright © 2011 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter 6

(Click here to read Chapter 1)

(Click here to read Chapter 2)

(Click here to read Chapter 3)

(Click here to read Chapter 4)

(Click here to read Chapter 5)

 

Little Girl Gone Cover

Django finally dragged himself up off the floor, dressed for school, and went downstairs to the kitchen, where Aunt Robin ate meals so she could use the dining room as her office.

“I didn’t know what you usually ate before school,” she said, sounding nervous. “Eggs? Or I could make pancakes.” She peered into a cupboard next to the refrigerator. “Oops, sorry, no pancake mix.”


Eggs. Pancakes. He didn’t care.


She broke three brown eggs into a bowl and beat them with a fork. “I’ll drive you this morning, but you’ll have to come home on the school bus. One of the home health care providers from Shady Hills is meeting me here to talk about taking care of Grannie after her back surgery.”


Django had never met his grandmother before yesterday. His mother had almost never mentioned her.


“How come we never see her?” He was seven or eight when he asked the question. His friends often talked about visiting grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and cousins. These proofs of an extended family had been bsent from Django’s life.


“We didn’t get along.”


“How come?”


She tapped her index finger on the tip of her nose and he knew she was deciding to tell him the truth or not.


“Doesn’t matter, Django, and it’s way too complicated to talk about on a hot day. Ask me again in the wintertime.”


But he forgot.


Aunt Robin served his eggs, and as he ate, he watched her wiping down the counter and putting the timer, the salt and pepper shakers, and a carafe of olive oil in a straight line along the top of the stove. She had a bookcase full of cookbooks. The only thing Django’s mother ever cooked was pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches. The rest of the time they ate in restaurants or either Mrs. Hancock or someone else—a caterer or a hired chef who made great food with low calories—fixed their meals. In the house where Django had grown up, the kitchen was large and brightly lit, shiny with stainless steel. Aunt Robin’s was dinky and dark and the appliances did not match. There was one window over the sink and old-fashioned track lights overhead. If Django had not known Robin Howard was his aunt, he never would have guessed it. She was like the kitchen. Something about her made him think of tight corners and not enough air. She wore her shoulder-length brown hair pulled back and tied with a black velvet bow, old-fashioned and boring. His mother had favored earrings that swung a little when she moved her head and sparkled in the light as her eyes did. He looked at his aunt’s earlobes and saw that they were not pierced. No rings on her fingers or bracelets.


“Don’t you ever wear jewelry?” he asked. “Your ears aren’t pierced.”


“Well, they used to be but they closed over.” She fingered her earlobe. “I’ve got a box full of earrings I never wear.”


“How come?” Django could not believe he was talking about earrings!


“Not my style, I guess.” She rinsed his plate and put it in the dishwasher.


“My mom had three hundred and ten pairs. I counted ’em once.”


His aunt nodded, some opinion apparently confirmed.


“Sometimes she’d get the Monopoly money and we’d play store with them.” He had been a little kid then, just six or seven.


“Hurry now. I’ve got a busy day.”


If he told her his mother had three heads and pointed ears, would she pay attention to him?


“How come I have to go to school? I won’t know anybody, and besides, it’s June already. No one learns anything this close to vacation.”


“I have things to do, Django. I can’t leave you here in the house alone.”


“Why not? I’m twelve years old.”


She smiled a little, and for a second he saw his mother in his aunt’s expression, and inside him something began to tear apart, a slow ripping pain in his chest.


“I don’t need a babysitter.” He managed to get the words out, although he was coming apart inside.


“I think I should be the judge of that, Django. Your mother was smoking in the toolshed behind the house when she was your age.”


“I don’t smoke.”


“She almost burned the place down. If you’re anything like her, you’re better off in school, where someone can keep an eye on you.”


Django stood up and pushed his chair into the table. The suggestion that he might be dumb enough to smoke had offended him; and even though he would have liked to know more about what happened to his mother on that occasion, he wanted to be anywhere but in the kitchen with his aunt. Even school in Arroyo would be better than this.


She touched his shoulder, stopping him. “I’m sorry, Django. That sounded mean, didn’t it? Really, I didn’t mean to be unkind.” She turned away, adding, “You’ll just have to be patient with me.”




Robin turned on the car radio to discourage conversation with her nephew. Though what she and Django would talk about, she had no idea. All they had in common was Caro, and barely that.


After graduating from San Diego State, Robin never had any doubt about what she wanted; and at that time, almost twenty years earlier, Arroyo was a perfect fit. It had been a small town on the move with a forward-looking city council and a town plan that assured her there would always be plenty of affluent residents in need of a good accountant. Like most things Robin did, the move was a measured decision based on research and facts. At the time, her mother still lived in Morro Bay, where she and Caro had grown up, and for a time she had thought she should go back there.


But in the end, climate made the decision for her. Arroyo was inland, thirty miles from San Diego, and its warm, dry climate agreed with her.


Caro had always wanted something that was out there, and right after high school she went looking for it while Robin put down roots in Arroyo and established her business. Caro and Jacky married on a beach somewhere in Australia and, of course, Robin was invited; but it was coming up on tax season and not a good time for her to be away. She sent her regrets and a small gift. She had no idea what to give a couple whose wedding was written up in People magazine.


Sometimes she wished she had rearranged her schedule and gone to Australia. Maybe then she and Caro would have kept their relationship alive. She might have met the man of her dreams in Australia. Maybe, but not likely. There had been men, some lovers, but no one she wanted to spend her life with. She had stopped looking years ago, stopped hoping too. She was resigned to her single life and contented in it. And why wouldn’t she be, when she had challenging and absorbing work, enough money, and a small circle of good friends? Her life was good. She didn’t let herself wonder why she and Caro had stopped being true sisters. It was something she would never understand. Caro had taken her secrets to the grave.


As she drove Django to school that morning, Robin did a mental scan of the busy day ahead. As an accountant she had several clients, including a firm of lawyers, Conway, Carroll, and Hyde, she would be visiting that morning. For some reason CC&H could not keep a bookkeeper more than a few months, and as a result their accounts were always a jumble. Her ability to make sense of them impressed the partners. They were opening a branch in Tampa and had asked her to go there for six months to organize the office. They didn’t seem to care that she was an accountant and what they needed was an office manager. Mr. Conway, the senior partner, insisted she was perfect for the job. She insisted right back that she was not, but he told her not to make a rash decision. “Think about it, think about it.” Well, she had thought about it for the last month and was no closer to saying she would go.


After a few hours with the lawyers’ accounts, she would run some personal errands and then spend the rest of the day in the office at Shady Hills Retirement Home, which was one of several retirement facilities in Southern California for which she kept the corporate books from her office at Shady Hills. She had to be home by three to interview the home health care provider, Willis Brock.


“What do you like to eat for dinner?” she asked Django. He murmured something that sounded like whatever, which was one of the obnoxious responses her friends with teenagers complained about. But Django wasn’t obnoxious. Robin had little experience with children, but she knew sweetness when she met it. And confusion and sorrow, such deep sorrow that if it were a lake it would be bottomless. “Shall I get pizza?”


“I’m not hungry.”


“Well, of course not. You just had breakfast. But you’ll want dinner, I know.”


He sighed and slumped deeper in the car seat.


She almost stopped the car right then—her impulse to comfort Django was that strong. But as quickly as it came to her, it passed with the assumption that he would not want her comfort. If she tried to hug him he would probably push her away and then they would both be embarrassed.


Pausing at a stoplight, she lifted her hands from the steering wheel and saw that they had left moist smudge marks on the dark plastic.


One good thing about Django’s appearance in her life was that the lawyers at CC&H would stop pestering her to go to Tampa. They were family men and would understand that she could not traipse across the country with a grieving twelve-year-old orphan in tow.


The three signal lights on Arroyo’s main street were out of synch. She had to stop at every one. At a few minutes before eight in the morning, the little town was just waking up. The Starbucks across from the Catholic church was already crowded, but in the next block most of the shops were still dark.


Django sat slumped, looking out the window. At the back his hair was a tangled mess. She had not realized that twelve-year-old boys had to be reminded to use a comb. He probably hadn’t brushed his teeth either.


“It’s going to seem pretty quiet in Arroyo. After living in Beverly Hills.” He grunted something. “I beg your pardon, Django? You’ll have to speak up so I can hear you.” She heard herself sounding prissy, like the maiden aunt she was. “Never mind. Maybe I need a hearing aid.” It was a joke but he did not laugh.


She thought about the Tampa job and wanted to be there or anywhere far from this sad, lost boy for whom she could not say or do anything right.


Tampa. She wished Mr. Conway would stop nagging her.


A month earlier Robin and her mother had been having lunch in La Jolla, at a new restaurant Robin had read about online. Over a shared creme brulee, she had mentioned the Tampa offer. Her mother jumped on the idea as if she’d won the lottery. Robin’s cool response prompted her to ask if she was afraid to leave Arroyo. Robin laughed at that, of course. There were many things she knew she would not like about Florida—humidity and reptiles were two that figured prominently—but it was the inconvenience that put her off going, the disruption of her comfortable and efficient routine. All very good reasons, but her mother said they weren’t reasons; they were excuses.


Django said, “You sigh a lot.”


“Really? I wasn’t aware of that.”


“Are you tired?”


“I always sleep soundly.”


“My mom took Ambien.”


“Did she?”


Robin caught herself in midsigh.


She supposed that before her time with this boy ended, whenever that was, she would learn a great deal about her sister. Earrings, sleeping pills: these were things she would have known if they had been close or even if they had seen each other just occasionally. But it had been many years since she had done more than speak to Caro briefly on the phone, and those conversations had always been awkward. It was as if Caro was afraid of what she would say if she didn’t hang up fast.


But Robin had never thought that Caro was angry with her. There was something unspoken between them that had nothing to do with Robin’s failure to attend the big wedding or even the marked differences in their personalities. After Caro and Jacky settled down in Beverly Hills, the time between phone calls had lengthened. In the last five years they’d spoken three or four times, no more.


And now she was gone and Robin was left with regret, a puzzle without a solution. And Django.




Aunt Robin dropped Django off in front of the school ten minutes before the first bell. Arroyo Elementary didn’t look any better or worse than he had expected. It was like all the public schools he had ever seen: flat roof, asphalt, cement, chain-link fencing, and stucco painted a color that wanted to be green.


“After school there’ll be someone, a bus monitor, I guess. She’ll tell you which bus goes by the house. Do you remember the address?”


His aunt was trying so hard to be nice. It would be easier if she just didn’t say or do anything.


“I’ll walk home after.” He wanted to explore Arroyo’s small downtown on the remote chance that he would find something interesting. Driving down the main street a few minutes ago, he’d seen a game store, and that might be worth investigating. He held up his phone. “I’ve got a GPS app. I won’t get lost.”


“Well, don’t dawdle around or I’ll worry.”


Django wondered if she really was concerned about him or if her face was made with a little knot between the eyebrows.


“I’ll be home after three. A man’s coming by for an interview, a home health care nurse. Grannie’s going to need some special help after her back surgery.”


He did not care the first time she told him and he still didn’t care.


“Django, don’t be too quick to criticize the children you meet at this school. You know what I mean? I know they won’t be like your friends from before, but maybe you’ll be surprised.”


She sounded hopeful and Django realized she had no clue what it was like to walk into a new classroom, come face-to-face with thirty strangers, every one defending some small bit of turf, every one looking for something wrong with him, something to laugh at, to judge. He might as well be a creature from Planet X. He had a sudden prick of sympathy for his aunt in her ignorance and felt an impulse to be kind.


“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll be cool.”


The sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Costello, a pretty, dark little woman, had been in the classroom for fourteen years and had met all kinds of children with every variety of name and attitude.


“Boys and girls,” she said, clapping her hands together, “we have a new student today. Will you stand up D-jango? Tell us something about yourself.”


D-jango.


He knew she was being nice, but he didn’t want to stand up. He slid down into the seat and fiddled with his pencil. Behind him, someone snorted. Mrs. Costello didn’t force the issue.


“Well, maybe you’d tell us about your interesting name. I’ve never had a student named D-jango.”


He thought about what his father would say.


Django Reinhardt was a great jazz guitarist. He was Hungarian,and Django’s a gypsy name. Django and Stéphane Grappelli played at the Hot Club of Paris.


Instead, he told the teacher, “You’re not saying it right. You don’t say the D. It’s just Jango.”


He heard a girl’s voice whisper, “Jinglejanglejingle bells.” Laughter.


Mrs. Costello said, “Well, I’ll be sure I get it right next time.” She picked up her roll book and began to call out the names of students.


A boy whispered behind Django—“Hey, Jinglebells”—and something hit him in the back of the head. An eraser.


Django knew Arroyo Elementary School was going to be just as bad as he’d feared.


At lunchtime Mrs. Costello appointed a short, stocky boy to be Django’s “buddy,” an honor the boy—Billy—didn’t seem to appreciate. His friends, Halby and Danny, thought it was hilarious when he and Django walked out of the classroom together. On the way to the lunchroom Billy pointed out the boys’ bathroom.


“If you’re smart, you’ll never go in there without protection. I know a kid went in to take a leak, lost all his teeth, and he’s still in the hospital.” He lowered his voice. “Coma.”


In the lunchroom Billy pointed Django toward the food line and then disappeared. Django chose a container of macaroni and cheese and one of chocolate pudding. He looked around the crowded and noisy room for somewhere to sit and saw Billy standing in a knot of boys. He recognized Halby and Danny but none of the others. Judging from their expressions and laughter, they knew him, however. Django could tell that they wanted him to walk over, giving them an opportunity to say or do something mean; but he wasn’t that stupid. He sat in a corner by himself, took one bite of the mac and cheese, and pushed it away. He wasn’t sure what it tasted like, but it sure wasn’t cheese. At least the pudding was sweet, but that was all it was.


At Country Day the cafeteria sold things like tuna subs and roast beef sandwiches and hamburgers and all-beef franks cooked on a grill right there where you could smell how good they were. And salads. Django figured he was probably the only boy at Arroyo Elementary who had ever eaten a salad for lunch.


Back in class he went to his desk and sat without first looking down and knew immediately that someone had put something on the seat. He acted like nothing had happened, though, not wanting to give Billy and his mutant friends the satisfaction of upsetting him. He smelled chocolate pudding.


Mrs. Costello announced a spelling bee and divided the class into ones and twos. The ones stood up by the blackboard and the twos were down at the other end of the room. Django was a two and had to walk past everyone. He knew what he must look like from the back with gluey, gummy brown pudding on the seat of his pants. He tried to act like it didn’t bother him, but everyone laughed when they saw the mess, and he heard one of the mutants say, “Jinglebells pooped his pants.”


At Country Day the teacher would have had the brains to figure out who put the pudding on Django’s chair and sent him to the headmaster; but all Mrs. Costello did was sigh and tell Django to go to the boys’ bathroom and clean himself up. He stood outside the room after she closed the door, remembering Billy’s warning words. Maybe Billy was lying to scare him, but after just a half day at Arroyo Elementary the story sounded plausible, except maybe the part about the coma. He thought about going into the teachers’ bathroom, but being found there would be an additional humiliation. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that Billy, Halby, and Danny wanted him to go into the bathroom; and in a moment at least one of them would show up. Django would end up getting dunked. Or worse.


There had been mean kids at Beverly Hills Country Day. Nasty kids, even boys and girls who cheated on tests and stole from the little kids just because they could get away with it. Django had stayed away from them and they had never shown any interest in him. The worst name anyone had ever called him was “brainiac,” and he didn’t really mind that because everyone knew he was the smartest kid in the class. He had never been afraid of getting beaten up and put in a coma.


His imagination told him just what would happen if he went into the boys’ bathroom. One of the mutants—probably his “buddy,” Billy—would follow him in, and then it would get nasty.  Although this scared Django, at the same time he realized something that surprised him. Part of him wanted to fight with Billy, wanted a chance to punch him, and then when he was down, kick him in the balls. Of course, the other half of Django knew he’d be the one getting punched and kicked.


Instead of going to the bathroom nearest his classroom, Django walked down to the end of the long open corridor—Mrs. Costello had called it the breezeway—with classrooms and sorry-ass, dried-out landscaping on either side, until he got to an area where he could tell by the decorations on the doors that the first- and second-grade classrooms were located. In the little boys’ bathroom the sinks were so low he could pee in them if he wanted to and it smelled really bad, like one of the public bathrooms in Griffith Park where the pervs hung out and his dad had told him never to go alone. He held his breath and grabbed wads of paper towels and rubbed the backside of his jeans until the pudding seemed to be gone. He went back to class.


Mrs. Costello looked at him accusingly when he stepped through the door. “Where were you, D-jango? You’ve been gone ten minutes.”


Django looked at the three snickering mutants, and he tried not to smile as he said, “Billy told me never to use the big boys’ bathroom.” It was sort of embarrassing to talk about bathroom stuff in front of everybody, but he didn’t care. He was enjoying himself for the first time all day. “He told me a boy got beat up in there and had to go to the hospital with a coma and he’s probably gonna die. Billy said I should go down to the little kids’ bathroom.”


“I never!” Billy cried.


Django widened his eyes and made a cross on his chest. “I didn’t want to get beat up, Mrs. Costello.”


“Sit down, D-jango. Django, I mean. And you, Billy, I’ll talk to you after school.”


As he walked to his place in the line of spelling-bee twos, Django flipped the mutants the bird. He didn’t look at them as he waited for his turn to spell, his heart beating like crazy. He’d have to be careful they didn’t catch him after school, but the risk was worth it. Besides, Django had decided, he was never coming back to Arroyo Elementary.


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Reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.


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