The man frowning at Madge through the screen door had stolen a letter from the mailbox earlier in the week, so he knew the surname.
"Yes," Madge replied.
"I'm Harold Bates from the... [+]
They sat alone in the back of the sweltering Chevy, their plump pink thighs stuck to the seat. Suzie glared at her brother's hand crossing the sacred middle line, slithering forward like a snake. "Get off my side."
"Make me," Daniel said.
Suzie brushed a clump of sticky bangs off her forehead and narrowed her eyes. She could make him. She could slam her book down on his pathetic, serpent fingers and make him scream. She could snatch his palm and bite into the pudgy flesh. She could spit at him. She could—but that would be stupid.
"Never mind," she said, and squinted out the window at their mother paying the bill in the air-conditioned Shell station. "You'll be gone soon enough."
Daniel poked at her leg with a stubby finger.
Suzie passed her tongue along her teeth.
"Gone where? " Daniel said, sniffing up a booger.
Suzie glanced at the poke mark on her thigh and waited. Waited like she hadn't heard.
"Where?" Daniel asked, small-boy-shrill.
Then she had to tell him. He'd insisted. He'd made her tell, hadn't he?
Suzie sighed. "Well, you know, Danny . . ." And she thought to pause here for effect, luxuriating in the dense dead air, cocking her head to the side, considering, contemplating, eventually telling him, "You're adopted."
"Well, not really," Suzie gazed out across the station at the Coke machine by the garage. "They haven't signed the papers yet. You're really only on trial."
Daniel's sunburned cheeks flashed a deeper red. "On trial?"
Outside, someone spilled gas on the pavement. The fumes tickled Suzie's nose, and she turned back to her brother. "Yeah, Mom and Dad had five years to decide. It's only fair. I mean, you can never tell how a baby's gonna turn out when they send it over."
Daniel yanked on his seatbelt.
He had such big blue eyes.
"I know, it's kind of weird," Suzie said. "But you'll get the answer tomorrow. It's always on the fifth birthday."
Daniel sat up. The little wheels of his little mind, click, click, clicking. "How do you know?"
She stared past him at the register, where her mother stood with a frosty Coke in her hand.
Swallowing down a slug of saliva, Suzie said, "Everyone knows, Danny. Everyone but you . . ." And now a sympathetic shake of the head for the little pup, the darling. "And I wouldn't get your hopes up."
Daniel clenched his puffy fists. "Why not?"
Suzie sucked in her lips—held them still for a moment. "You're not supposed to know this but . . . they didn't keep the last one."
She swept the area around the car with her eyes, then lowered her voice. "Before you, we had little Joey. He only stayed two years. They turned him in to try you out." She sat back in her seat.
"Why'd they turn him in?"
Laying the paperback in her lap, she took a long, slow breath. Should she tell him? Was honesty always the best policy?
Leaning closer, she whispered, "He picked his nose." Then closer still, "And ate it."
Daniel kicked at the bulge in the floor between them. "That's stupid!"
"It's true," Suzie said. "They can't stand nose pickers. I hope you've never done it—for your sake. And if you've ever eaten it, well . . ."
Daniel slumped against the door.
Suzie lifted her book to fan herself. She could see their mother paying now, and buying a lotto ticket. Maybe they'd win this time. Maybe they'd move out of the old apartment downtown and Suzie could buy a horse.
"I've seen you pick your nose," Daniel shot back.
Suzie rolled her eyes. "But I'm their real daughter," she said, peering out the window, watching their mother scratch at the numbers.
Someone behind them honked. They were taking up a spot.
Daniel stuck his tongue out, but not like he meant business.
"Oh, delightful," Suzie said. "So have you ever done it? Because if you have, they're definitely gonna know."
"Yeah, right." Daniel shoved his hands under his armpits. "How?"
Suzie shook her head at having to explain. "The mirrors, Danny." She waved her paperback fan in circles around her head. "They're everywhere. They set them up everywhere. Most of them you can't even see."
Suzie crossed her legs and snapped her book open. "Am I?" She traced a finger down the page to find her place.
"See for yourself. What do you think's in the middle of that windshield? And on both sides of the doors?"
Daniel peered around the car. "Mirrors?"
He snuffled and danced a knuckle against his left nostril.
Suzie pulled a tissue from her pocket, dabbing at her upper lip. She watched their mother emerge from the station and toss the Coke bottle in the garbage. All finished.
"Um, Danny?" she said, glancing at the rearview mirror and through the window to their mother marching toward them.
His eyes followed.
Suzie patted the tissue against her damp breastbone and audibly sighed. Then, "You want?" she offered, steady hand, proffering the christened Kleenex.
It hung in the air between them, at the tip of her fingers. A beacon.
He grabbed it.
And Suzie flashed a sunshine smile drawing the hair up off her neck.
"Don't worry," she said, catching the traces of a cool breeze coming in through the window. "I'll make sure they keep you."