“Who is this?” I asked.
The man chuckled. “Is your mother home?”
“Sorry, I think you have the wrong number,” I answered in a shaky voice.
“Cara? S'dat Momma?” Sydney asked sleepily. I jumped, not expecting her to be standing right next to me. She must have taken herself to the bathroom because her PJ pants were twisted around and not pulled up all the way in the back.
“Cara? Is this Cara? I've got the right number, then. You tell your mother I’m on my way.”
I snapped the phone closed and just about threw it back on the counter like it was burning my hands.
“Who’s that?” Sydney asked. She had pulled the head off of a Barbie doll and was trying to push it back on. She kept missing the hole with the neck.
“I don’t know,” I replied, distracted. I was shaking all over. That voice sounded like someone horrible, someone I must have met before. But I just couldn’t remember. But whoever it was, I believed him. He was coming for us.
Sydney stayed quiet until she finally got the doll's head back on. It was backward, but she didn't seem to care. “'S bad?"
I nodded. “I’m calling Momma.” I mostly said that for myself. I had to feel like there was something I could do. I couldn’t just sit there while some scary guy could be on his way over to our apartment. My hands were shaking as I picked up the phone again and dialed the number Momma taped onto the fridge right above the twenty-three butterflies I’d drawn that month.
I told Momma everything the man said, and she freaked out right away. Her voice got squeaky and she kept asking me to repeat myself a bunch of times. She told me to take Sydney straight over to Mrs. Johnson’s apartment and ask her to let us stay there until she came for us. Her voice got that low, way too calm sound like the teachers get when there’s a tornado warning and everyone has to go sit in the hallway with their hands over the backs of their heads.
I did just what Momma said, even though Sydney squalled because I didn’t let her go back and get her butterfly book or her teddy bear. I just grabbed her hand and dragged her down the hall to apartment 2B. I knocked, but the TV was too loud, as usual.
“Mrs. Johnson?” I called out. No answer. I kept knocking, only louder.
“Mrs. Johnson? Can you let us in? Momma sent us over. Something’s wrong.”
Still no answer. I banged on the door with the side of my fist and yelled, “Mrs. Johnson! We need help!”
My hands were still shaking a little. Some help the neighbor was. I gave Mrs. Johnson’s door a kick. My sneaker left a black smudge on the white paint. Good. She deserved it.
“Let’s go back,” I told Sydney. She raced down the hall to our place and kept running once she got inside. She didn’t stop until she was standing in our closet with the butterfly book and her bear. I pushed the furniture back to the way we had it when Justin was there, barricading the door.
“Where’s Momma?” Sydney asked.
“She’s coming. She’ll be here in a minute. We’ll just wait for her.”
“Oh,” she said. Then she promptly sat down on the floor and started flipping through her butterfly book. She turned to her favorite page, the yellow swallowtails, and said to me, “Read.”
This was not the time for reading. I wanted to take Sydney and run away as fast and far as possible. My legs hurt, they wanted so badly to run. In spite of this, I sat down obediently and read the pages about swallowtails. I didn’t understand a word I was reading, but I kept saying those words aloud, one after the other. It didn’t take very long for Momma to get home. The front door banged open, and Momma was shouting, “Girls? Where are you?”
I jumped up and pulled the bed away from the door. Momma ran in and scooped us up into her arms. Sydney wasn’t really interested in the hug. She wouldn’t let go of her book. As soon as Momma let go of her, she sat back on the floor and went back to flipping pages.
“Let me see the phone,” she said.
I handed it over, and she scanned the call log. She tried to call the number that had just called us, but she got an error message instead. She thought for a minute, and then her eyes got wide. “Just great,” she muttered. She said to us, “Why don’t you two hang out here for a few minutes, and I’ll try to figure out who called.”
It was the fake happy Momma voice she used with us when Justin was around. I knew that meant there was something she wasn’t telling us. I didn’t think she was friends with the weird man, but I did think she was pretending to be calm so we wouldn’t get scared. Sydney didn’t seem to notice a thing, so I nodded. What a time for my sister to space out.
Momma closed our door, and I heard her open and close her bedroom door right after that. She began talking very quietly. I knew she was trying to be quiet because we normally hear everything she says in that room, the walls are so thin. She probably knew exactly who that man was; she just didn’t want to tell us. I turned on Sydney’s little pink radio. The more quiet and calm Momma tried to act, the more I felt like the walls were going to close in on us and crush us all.
Momma’s voice got a little louder, so I turned up the radio. Sydney took this as a cue to have a one-girl dance party, so she wrapped a baby blanket around her waist and started shuffling around the room, wagging her head and her tongue in time to the music. I couldn’t help but smile a little, but only a little. The rest of me was still worrying about what was going on in the other room.
I started hearing things thumping around in Momma’s room. She showed up at our door with two suitcases. I stared at her, gaping mouth. Sydney shuffled aside to let her in the door.
“Can I talk to you in the hallway for a minute, Cara?” Momma said.
I followed her out into the hallway, already knowing where this was going. She was going to tell me we had to move. She just had that look in her eyes. I could tell it as clearly as if she had said it out loud.
“Honey, we have to go,” Momma said.
“You mean move.” I crossed my arms.
She nodded her head and shrugged a little.
“Where?” I asked.
“Not sure yet. But we have to go today.”
This was weird, even for our family. Usually we had at least a few weeks’ warning before we moved. “Why?” I asked.
“Bo’s out of jail.”