By: Donna Cooner

An hour north of Houston, Huntsville sits on the edge of the East Texas Piney Woods and has some odd extremes when it comes to attractions. Visitors can go to the Texas Prison Museum and see “Old Sparky,” the electric chair that killed 361 condemned criminals over forty years of service, or head south of town to view the world’s tallest statue of an American hero — Sam Houston. Rat’s dad is a ranger for Sam Houston Park. His mom, an elementary school teacher, was my mom’s best friend from the moment we moved in next door to them. I still see the grief in Mrs. Wilson’s eyes when she looks at me.

I glance over at Rat. “Your hands are blue,” I say. I’m not really surprised.

“One hand. The left,” he says, “and it’s indigo.”

“Why?” I ask.

“I was synthesizing one of eighteen azo dyes according to a parallel combinatorial synthesis scheme.”

“Uh-huh,” I say, really sorry I asked.

“After the exothermic reaction subsided, I collected the precipitated indigo by suction filtration.”

I know from experience this can go on forever. “And you spilled it on your hand,” I interrupt quickly.

“There were several more steps before that occurred.” Rat sighs in frustration at the idea of a good chemistry experiment story cut short, but he finally admits, “But, yes, that was the eventual outcome.”

We pass Tinsley’s Fried Chicken with the big sign outside that reads, Try Our Big, Juicy Breasts.

“They really should change that sign,” I say.

“Why?” Rat asks. He slows at the corner, his indigo hand spinning the wheel into the right turn, and changes the subject.

“Ugly Number Two has homework tonight,” Rat says. “A poem written from the perspective of one of the characters in Huckleberry Finn.”

“It will cost her,” I mumble. Briella, my other stepsister, is a sophomore like me and Rat, and she’s in his sixth-period English class.

“I’m thinking maybe Dreamgirls download?” Rat says. I nod. “Original cast or movie?”

“I already have the original cast. Movie.”

“She needs it by Wednesday.”

“She’ll get it tomorrow if she can pay.”

Briella gets a hefty allowance from her real father every week in child support. Most of it goes toward clothes and shoes, but a growing percentage comes my way these days. I work for iTunes downloads and guarantee at least a B. I also agree to never take the credit for her passable creative writing. It seems to work for both of us.

“Can’t you just drop me off at home before you go to the center?” I ask.

“We’re already late. Besides, a little community service never hurt anybody.”

I always ask. He always says no. I sigh, but the truth is I don’t really mind. The age-five-and-under kids at the Sam Houston Boys and Girls Club are probably the only people in the world who might actually miss me if I didn’t show up. Anyway, I like to think so.

We enter the building and part ways. Rat goes toward the office. He’s doing something with their computer database. I don’t ask many questions. I head toward the door in the back where the youngest kids hang out. Skinny takes a break. Weird thing about hanging out with five-year-olds: You don’t need anyone to tell you what they’re thinking. They just say it right out loud. Like the first time I came with Rat to the center. A little dark-eyed boy came and stood in front of me while I waited in the hallway.

“You’re really, really fat,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

He sat down in the chair next to me, sliding back into the seat until his feet dangled above the floor. Kicking his feet slowly back and forth, we sat in silence for a few minutes.

“My name is Mario. What’s yours?”


“Like happily ever after?”


Leaning into my shoulder, he looked up at my face intently.

“Do you know any stories?”


“Good.” Sliding out of the chair, he took my hand and tugged me back to the playroom. And that was that. I’ve been coming here and telling stories ever since.

Today there’s a big commotion when I enter the playroom. I’m noticed, and not in a bad way. Instantly, tiny hands pull at me, touch me, reach for me. I don’t flinch or jerk away.

“You’re finally here.” Valerie Ramirez, the tiny five-year-old drama queen, rolls her eyes. “Do you know how long we’ve been waiting?”

“A long time,” Mario says solemnly. He’s always so serious.

“How’s kindergarten?” I hope the change of subject will help me get out of the doghouse.