A Roof Over Their Heads

By: M. K. Stelmack

CHAPTER ONE

SWEAT WAS A thin glue coated on Alexi Docker, sticking her T-shirt to the driver’s seat and her hot jeans to her legs, the slimy by-product of four hours on the road with no air-conditioning and a tire change in a highway ditch.

She crawled the van with the U-Haul trailer to a stop in front of the new home, and turned to her four kids in the back seats. “So, what do you think?”

Please, please like it. Or, at least, don’t hate it.

While three-year-old Callie, behind the front passenger seat, kept her brown eyes fixed on Alexi, the other three kids regarded the white split-level and attached garage with a kind of hopeful hesitancy, as if waiting for someone to throw open the front door and boom out a welcome.

When, not surprisingly, that didn’t happen, Matt said, “Cool.”

“Where’s the backyard?” asked eight-year-old Bryn from the bench seat he shared with six-year-old Amy. The big backyard was the prime selling feature for the kids.

“Duh. Behind the house. In the back,” Amy said.

Bryn unbuckled himself. “Okay, I’m going there.”

“How about I get a picture with—” Alexi began, but Bryn had already activated the side door and hopped out. Two more buckles unclicked, and Matt and Amy cleared the van with Bryn and were racing past the house, straight for the promised land of the backyard.

“Matt,” she called, as she rounded the hood. “Stay together, okay?”

Matt, her eldest at eleven, was the family border collie, patrolling boundaries and herding the strays. He nodded once and disappeared.

That had gone rather well. No outright mutiny, at any rate. Alexi stretched, a breeze wicking away her sweat and fanning her warm face. If a bit of fresh air could do this, imagine the powers of a dip in the lake.

“How about,” she said to Callie, unclicking her car seat straps, “we all walk down to the lake this evening? Play in the water. Watch the sunset. That would make a pretty picture, wouldn’t it? Whaddaya say?”

Callie stretched out her dark arms.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ Now, let’s check out our new home.”

With Callie tucked against her left hip, Alexi opened the passenger door and leaned across for her water bottle. She took a pull from it and drew in warm air. Empty. As it had been for the last sixty miles. As were all the kids’. She needed to refill their bottles fast because a run in the backyard was going to dry out the kids even more.

She pressed to her other hip the box of essentials—toilet paper, phone charger, soap—with the water bottles piled on top. Making for the door, she looked around as she matched reality with the emailed pictures from Connie, her landlady. She didn’t remember the lawn grass rising above her ankles and the front garden a solid green rectangle of weeds. Never mind, she could mow while the kids weeded. A family activity.

Inside an old work boot by the door she found the house key as planned and, juggling it, the box and Callie, Alexi opened the door.

Fresh paint fumes gagged her and Callie buried her face against Alexi’s neck. Alexi breathed shallowly as she lowered the box to the floor. If plywood counted as a floor. The stairs, the hallway and the living room were completely stripped. Alexi stepped across protruding nail heads and wet, coppery paint splotches to the kitchen. Or where it should’ve been. There weren’t any cupboards or appliances, not even a kitchen sink. Just a space with pipes, hoses, outlets hooked up to nothing.

Was she in the right house? The address and the pics of the outside matched. The key was in the right place. She hadn’t got the dates confused. She’d talked to Connie last week, and all was a go.

Was there even water?

She hurried to the hallway bathroom, which actually had a sink and a toilet, if not a tub. She turned on the faucet and heard sputtering and a great wheezing of air in the pipes. That was it.

Seriously?

“Right. Okay,” she explained to Callie, who still had her face rooted in Alexi’s neck. “All I have to do is go to the basement, find the main water valve and turn it on.”

But first—she looked out the kitchen window into the backyard. All three were there, though Bryn was fiddling with the latch on the fence gate. She started toward the back door but then heard Matt call from the fire pit, “Hey, Bryn. Look!”

It was a stick. Bryn loved sticks. Had invented a million uses for them, and sure enough he changed course for Matt, who’d always known not to run after someone ready to bolt.

Callie pointed to them.

“Do you want to go play?” Fixing the water would go a lot easier without Callie.

Callie squirmed to get down.

“Okay, hold on. Let me carry you across this yucky floor first.” The second Alexi opened the back door, Callie shot outside. The paint fumes must be near lethal for her to leave Alexi. A good thing for once that Callie wasn’t able to tell stories. Alexi didn’t want the kids, namely Bryn, alerted to the state of the house until she got the water running.

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