June was the best month the three of us had ever had, with four picnics, the town festival, popsicles on the front stoop at night, and two trips to the public pool. I kept track of all of these things in my journal. The journal was mostly empty because nothing happened to us, except for moving. It was nice to have something going on worth mentioning. But come the end of the month, there was a change of plans. Momma got a boyfriend, and The Summer of the Closet began.
Momma told us at dinner one night that she had met someone special that she liked very much. She wanted us to meet him. Sydney threw her hands over her mouth and giggled. I rolled my eyes. Since when did Momma need a boyfriend? We had always been just fine, just the three of us. But Momma was serious and told me not to be so rude.
The next day, a Saturday, we met Justin Nickson. He was tall and very skinny and had brown eyes and curly, short brown hair. He had a white scar on his top lip. He also had an earring. It was not cool for an grownup to have an earring. Not that I cared anything about cool. But the guys hanging around outside gas stations with their pants sagging all the way to their knees wore earrings. I figured those guys weren’t cool.
Sydney loved Justin; she loved everybody at first glance. She ran right up and gave him a hug around his waist before he had even finished saying hello. He didn't know what to do with my sister's explosion of affection, so he just awkwardly patted her back. Mom looked like she was about to burst with joy. Were her eyes filling up with tears? I, however, hated the guy. I couldn't nail down why just yet, but something was definitely wrong with him. He looked like an overgrown teenager with a bad attitude. He met my eyes for just a second as I was giving him the once-over. I didn't understand the look I saw there. It seemed hard, or like he was a lot older than he looked. That look didn't seem good, whatever it was.
For our first and only “family date,” as Momma called it, Justin took all of us to the Chuck E. Cheese in the next town over. Sydney ran around flapping her arms and playing Whack-a-Mole over and over, screeching and hooting and generally getting all the other kids to look at her funny. She also kept finding the little golden game tokens on the floor, so there was no shortage of fun for her. I had my guesses about where those coins were actually coming from, but I kept it quiet. I followed Sydney around so I didn’t have to stay at the table with Momma and Justin. They kept grinning at each other, and they were holding hands across the table. Not that I thought that sort of thing was gross. Kids at school did that stuff all the time. It was just weird seeing my mother acting like that.
Justin moved into our apartment on the fifth of July, about eight days after we met him. I knew that because there were exactly eight butterflies taped to the fridge. I had had to start taking down the butterflies at the end of each month and starting the collection over because the fridge was getting so covered with butterflies, Momma couldn’t find the handle to open it.
Momma said Justin used to live with some friends who got him into trouble, and he didn’t want to be there anymore. We couldn’t let the poor guy sleep out on the streets, could we? So Momma made up a bed for him on the couch, and she let him keep his clothes in her closet. It was weird listening to a strange man snoring in the living room. It was even weirder having him hanging around the apartment all day while Momma worked.
She had told me quietly as Justin was getting his stuff from the trunk of his car, “Look at it this way, Cara. Justin will be around to help you with Sydney. Maybe you can even go outside by yourself sometimes. You know, make new friends.”
I didn't need any new friends. Sure, Sydney wore me out sometimes, but what was I going to do? Hang out at the park by myself and wait for someone to include me in a conversation? Too awkward. Besides, even with no proof yet, I was sure Justin was about the meanest guy I'd ever met, aside from Bo, who was Sydney's dad. Bo was in jail. Before that summer, I thought Bo was the most awful person ever, even more awful than my dad, who left Momma at a county fair while she was pregnant with me and never came back.
With every day that passed, I realized my hunch was right. Justin got meaner and meaner. He yelled at us for anything he could think of. He didn’t want us sitting on his couch. He didn’t want us watching TV because we sat on his couch. He didn’t like the way Sydney chewed with her mouth open. He didn’t like the way Sydney cried when he took away her toys and yelled at her to vacuum the floor. He didn’t like the way I picked up the vacuum and did it for Sydney. He also didn’t like the way I stood between them whenever he yelled at her. And whenever Momma was home, he wanted us out of the house. It didn’t matter that I had told all this to Momma. She said maybe Justin was right, and maybe Sydney was old enough to start helping around the house a little. She also said maybe I was a little too sassy and shouldn’t talk back to grownups like that. I didn’t really think of Justin as a grownup. Grownups didn't sleep on other people's couches and not try to find a job.
Every night, Momma had to dress up and go out with him, no matter how tired she was and no matter how little she had seen us all week. I thought she should have said no, and maybe even told him to go find a job and stop living on our couch and getting his stinky sweat smell all over it. She didn't say any of that. Instead, I ended up cooking dinner for Sydney and me every evening. Justin had yelled at us once when we had asked him to help me cook when Momma was running late, so I had to start cooking it myself. Momma didn't know I was using the stove, but there were a lot of things Momma didn't know. Like how we were very happy to be out of the apartment whenever Justin was home. Like how we knocked on our neighbor, Mrs. Johnson's door and used her bathroom because Justin wouldn't unlock the door for us.
Justin went from being a stinky jerk face to being what he really was--a monster--about a week after he moved in. Before that, Justin and I had exchanged suspicious glances, and I mostly kept Sydney and myself out of his way. One day, Sydney woke up from a nap and ran out to the living room to watch SuperPets. Justin was nowhere to be found, and that didn't bother me a bit. I had been reading quietly in the bedroom while Sydney slept. Momma had gotten me a library card, and I walked Sydney the five blocks to the library about every other day so I could get something new to read. I made two cheese sandwiches and joined my sister on the couch. Halfway through the episode, Justin walked in. His baseball cap was cocked sideways, and his tank top was sweaty. I could smell his failed deodorant and gross cologne from all the way across the room. He didn't close the door all the way. Another thuggy looking guy stood at the doorway, looking around like he didn't know what to do. He had his hands in the pockets of his huge pants, probably to hold them up onto his waist. Justin ignored the guy and joined us on the couch, reaching for the remote.
“Noooo!” Sydney shrieked through a mouthful of squished up cheese and bread.
Justin rolled his eyes and turned on MTV. Some video was playing, with men and women wearing bandanas on their heads and rubbing each other. I threw my hand over my little sister’s eyes.
“Momma doesn’t let us watch that stuff,” I said. “And Sydney already had dibs on the TV.”
Justin sneered at me. The white scar on his lip raised up when he did. “Well, your Momma ain’t here.”
“It doesn't matter. We lived here first. This is our apartment,” I countered. The man at the door snorted and bit his lip. I thought he was going to laugh, and that made me so angry I wanted to throw my cheese sandwich right at his shaved head.
“Well, you're sitting on my bed, so get out of here!” he said, standing up. One of his fists was balled up. I stood up too, to block Sydney from his fists, just in case.
“What are you going to do, hit me?” I demanded.
“No!” Sydney cried, tugging on my hand.
I ignored her. I was on a roll now. “We are not going anywhere. You can't just move into my house and change everything while Momma is at work. You didn't even marry her! So you get out.”
Before I had time to cover my face, Justin’s hand shot out. He slapped me so hard I fell onto the coffee table, right onto the remains of my cheese sandwich.
Rage rose up like a bubbling red soda in my stomach. I thought anger might just blow my head right off, or pop me like a bubble. I wanted to punch him hard enough to knock him out like they did on TV, but with as hard as he hit me, I knew that wouldn’t happen. I stood up and screamed, “I hate you! Get out!!!” He slapped me again, harder, and down I went onto the coffee table again. My plate broke underneath me, and some of the glass scraped the back my leg up high, under the edge of my shorts. I covered the wound with my hand so blood wouldn’t drip all over the place and ruin my clothes. Sydney let out a long, strong wail.
“Shut up, retard, or you’re next,” he growled. She shut up. To me, he growled, “You had better have that mess cleaned up when I get back. And don’t you go whinin’ to your mom. She’s got enough problems without you makin’ it worse.”
Muttering horrible things about retards and women, he grabbed his car keys off the table and left again. The weird stranger followed him without even looking back at us. I heard them laughing on the way down the hall. I ran to the door and locked the deadbolt and put on the chain. Who cared if he couldn’t get in later? Momma might be mad, but no one was coming into this apartment tonight except for her.
Sydney started crying again, and I got a paper towel to dab up the blood before going back to put my arms around her. I switched off the TV to get rid of the disgusting, blaring noise. After a long while, Sidney sniffled up a load of snot said, “I scared.” I handed her the slightly bloody paper towel from my leg. “Me too,” I said.
About an hour later, I was at the table drawing the day’s butterfly for Sydney. I drew carefully, forcing my mind to think of nothing but the line I was drawing, the section I was coloring at that very moment. I had drawn the butterfly in purple and was coloring the current section green. Sydney was scribbling happily, as though she had completely forgotten about Justin smacking me around. I had not forgotten. But every time I got distracted by my own angry thoughts, Sydney touched a hand to my arm and smiled that tongue-out silly smile. Then, a real butterfly would flutter down from the ceiling and land on my arm. There were twelve butterflies on my left arm. Three monarchs, four yellow swallowtails, and five summer azures. I held still so they would stay, even though it tickled so much I wanted to rub my arm. I couldn’t help but smile at times like that. But even the butterflies couldn’t distract me for too long. I couldn’t wait ‘til Momma got home because I was going to tell her absolutely everything that had happened.
Suddenly a car door slammed, and I just knew it was Justin again. Heavy steps stomped down the hallway of our old, rickety building, making the walls and doors he passed creak. The steps stopped in front of our door, and a key shoved into the lock. Sydney dropped her crayon and latched onto my arm with enough force to nearly pull me off my chair. The deadbolt lock turned, too. The handle turned, and the door opened a tiny crack until-- shink! The chain snapped to its longest, stopping the door. Curses flooded the hallway and began seeping into the living room through that tiny crack. I was tempted to spray something mean through the crack, like the Lysol Momma kept on the back of the toilet. It worked on spiders; would it work on this creep? But I didn't do that. I didn't want him to break the door and hit me again, or worse, Sydney.
Justin banged the door against the chain over and over. What if it broke? What if he did more than just slap us? Where was the phone? Momma usually left a cell phone on the counter right next to the stove for us to use in case of emergency, but it was gone. She must have given it to her disgusting boyfriend.
“Cara?” Sydney said my name more clearly than I'd ever heard her say it before.
“The bedroom,” I whispered.
I darted for the bedroom, dragging my fear-frozen sister behind me. I slammed the door and shoved Sydney’s bed across the room and against the door. I could still hear Justin yelling, but it was a little quieter in here. I threw open the window, not really sure why I was doing it. We were on the second floor, sort of. It was a split level place with the first floor made up of garden apartments, which were not quite underground. It was a long jump down. We would break our legs if we tried it. I looked around the room frantically.
“Here,” Sydney said. She was standing in our closet.
“Yeah,” I said quickly. I followed her in there, shoved some shoes and toys out of the way and sat down. Sydney sank into my lap, and I held her. We sat that way until both of us stopped shaking. I was determined to wait until Momma came home, even though both of us needed to pee really badly. Justin's yelling had either stopped or we couldn't hear it from the closet. I couldn't tell which, and I wasn't going to take the chance of leaving our hiding place until I was sure he was gone. I wished someone good would find us in there and save us from the monster at our front door. Maybe someone like Detective Markets from The Zoe Files. For the first time, I wished Sydney could wish for something other than butterflies and crackers and Chuck E. Cheese tokens.
No matter what went on out in that hallway, I decided we were not coming out of our closet until we heard Momma's voice. The problem was, Momma didn't come home that night.