I gulped the water, and after I'd gotten enough into me that my breathing slowed down, I put down the bottle and pulled the ukelele from the shelf. I turned over the instrument and shook it until two folded photographs tumbled out onto the bed. I gently smoothed them out.
One was a picture of Mom. I heard she was in Tennessee right now. She was very pretty; she was little, like me, and had a soft river of red hair splashing down her back. Her skin was the same color as mine: really white. But her eyes were dark and sad and empty, like tiny caves. I hadn't seen her since she was arrested. But she hadn't been high all the time, and at least she wasn't mean like Daddy when he was drunk. But being a druggie's illegal, and being an alcoholic is not.
I looked at the other picture. It was of me and Daddy at the beach. I had sunglasses on which were too big for my head, and I was smiling, though Daddy was not. The photo had been taken three years ago, but I still hadn't grown much since then. My skin looked like bleached porcelain against my dark hair, greasy with a thick coat of sunscreen. My face was a minefield of freckles which the sun had brought into sharp relief. I was holding Daddy's hairy hand in mine, another child's stolen beach pail looped around my wrist.
That was the first time I had ever stolen something. I mean really stolen something. Gum at the store didn't count. I had wanted the gum. I hadn't really wanted the beach pail.
I folded up the photos and wormed them back through the ukelele strings. They echoed as they fell into the wooden cavity. I put it back on the shelf, then reached into my pocket and placed my newly-appropriated shoestring beside it.
Mr. Barnsly said I had a problem. The way I saw it, if you're dumb enough to get stolen from, that's your problem. I liked stealing. Sure, I felt bad about it sometimes, but usually it made me feel better. I didn't usually take things people wanted, I just had to take things. I felt anxious, useless if I didn't.
And I was good at it.
There was a tap on the window. I crossed over to it and peered out to see Vlad out on the lawn, bending down to pick up a crushed soda can for another throw. I motioned for him to stop, then popped open the window and climbed out onto the porch roof. A minute later, I had scrambled across it and slid down the gutter into the yard beside him.
Vlad was a monster of a kid. He was six-foot-five, skinny as a toothbrush, with fuzzy hair and the beginnings of a beard. I think he was Hispanic, but he looked kind of black. He had a big nose, big eyes, and big hands. Actually, he had big everything. Except for his head, which looked small compared to everything else.
I punched his stomach in greeting; I couldn't reach his shoulder.
"I could've used to have you around today," I said. "Jink Johnson tried to kill me."
"Why?" asked Vlad huskily. I always thought his voice was too soft and small for a person of his size.
"He thinks I stole his iPhone."
Vlad eyed me suspiciously and I punched him in the stomach again. This time it wasn't a greeting.
"Vlad, this isn't good," I groaned. "I hid from him today, but that's not gonna work forever. Plus, now my back hurts from being in a cabinet all afternoon." I frowned. "Why'd you have to get suspended? How am I gonna make it all week without Jink pulverizing me?"
Vlad had his thinking face on. His features were squinched up so his upper lip almost touched his nose.
"How about you get yourself suspended?" he suggested.
"Oh, so instead of Jink killing me, my dad will."
This was not really an exaggeration. I might not end up dead, but I would probably wish I were by the end of it.
Vlad took out his cigarette lighter and started flicking it. Vlad didn't smoke — at least, not much; he was too poor to afford cigarettes. But he always had a lighter on him. This one had run out of fluid, though, so only sparks came out when he used it.
"How about you steal him another phone?" Vlad said after a moment. He put the lighter back in his pocket, apparently disappointed by the lack of flame.
"Don't be stupid," I said.
Which meant, of course, that I would give it a shot.