Lock and key

"And finally," Jamie said as he pushed the door open, we come to the main event. Your room."

I was braced for pink. Ruffles or quilting, or maybe even appliqué. Which was probably kind of unfair, but then again, I didn't know my sister anymore, much less her decorating style. With total strangers, it had always been my policy to expect the worst. Usually they -- and those that you knew best, for that matter -- did not disappoint.

Instead, the first thing I saw was green. A large, high window, on the other side of which were tall trees, separating the huge backyard from that of the house that backed up to it. Everything was big about where my sister and her husband, Jamie, lived -- from the homes to the cars to the stone fence you saw first thing when you pulled into the neighborhood itself, made up of boulders that looked too enormous to ever be moved. It was like Stonehenge, but suburban. So weird.

Before one o'clock that afternoon, when she showed up to claim me, I hadn't seen my sister in ten years. I didn't know where she lived, what she was doing, or even who she was. I didn't care, either. There had been a time when Cora was part of my life, but that time was over, simple as that. Or so I'd thought, until the Honeycutts showed up one random Tuesday and everything changed.

The Honeycutts owned the little yellow farmhouse where my mom and I had been living for about a year. Before that, we'd had an apartment at the Lakeview Chalets, the run-down complex just behind the mall. There, we'd shared a one-bedroom, our only window looking out over the back entrance to the J&K Cafeteria, where there was always at least one employee in a hairnet sitting outside smoking, perched on an overturned milk crate. Running alongside the complex was a stream that you didn't even notice until there was a big rain and it rose, overflowing its nonexistent banks and flooding everything, which happened at least two or three times a year. Since we were on the top floor, we were spared the water itself, but the smell of the mildew from the lower apartments permeated everything, and God only knew what kind of mold was in the walls. Suffice to say I had a cold for two years straight. That was the first thing I noticed about the yellow house: I could breathe there.

My mom wasn't much of a people person. In certain situations -- say, if you were buying, for instance -- she could be very friendly. And if you put her within five hundred feet of a man who wouldn't treat her like dirt, she'd find him and be making nice before you could stop her, and I knew, because I had tried. But interacting with the majority of the population (cashiers, school administrators, bosses, ex-boyfriends) was not something she engaged in unless absolutely necessary, and then, with great reluctance.

Which was why it was lucky that she had me. For as long as I could remember, I'd been the buffer system. The go-between, my mother's ambassador to the world. Whenever we pulled up at the store and she needed a Diet Coke but was too hungover to go in herself, or she spied a neighbor coming who wanted to complain about her late-night banging around again, or the Jehovah's Witnesses came to the door, it was always the same. "Ruby," she'd say, in her tired voice, pressing either her glass or her hand to her forehead. "Talk to the people, would you?"

And I would. I'd chat with the girl behind the counter as I waited for my change, nod as the neighbor again threatened to call the super, ignored the proffered literature as I firmly shut the door in the Jehovah's faces. I was the first line of defense, always ready with an explanation or a bit of spin. "She's at the bank right now," I'd tell the landlord, even as she snored on the couch on the other side of the half-closed door. "She's just outside, talking to a delivery," I'd assured her boss so he'd release her bags for the day to me, while she smoked a much-needed cigarette in the freight area and tried to calm her shaking hands. And finally, the biggest lie of all: "Of course she's still living here. She's just working a lot," which is what I'd told the sheriff that day when I'd been called out of fourth period and found him waiting for me. That time, though, all the spin in the world didn't work. I talked to the people, just like she'd always asked, but they weren't listening.

That first day, though, when my mom and I pulled in front of the yellow house, things were okay. Sure, we'd left our apartment with the usual drama -- owing back rent, the super lurking around, watching us so carefully that we had to pack the car over a series of days, adding a few things each time we went to the store or to work. I'd gotten used to this, though, the same way I'd adjusted to us rarely if ever having a phone, and if we did, having it listed under another name.

It was because the Honeycutts saw my mother so rarely that it took almost two months for them to realize she was gone. In fact, if the dryer hadn't busted, I believed they might have never found out, and I could have stayed in the yellow house all the way until the end. Sure, I was behind on the rent and the power was close to getting cut off but I would have handled all that one way or another, just like I had everything else. The fact was, I was doing just fine on my own, or at least as well as I'd ever done with my mom. Which wasn't saying much, I know. Still, in a weird way, I was proud of myself. Like I'd finally proven that I didn't need her, either.

As it was, though, the dryer did die, with a pop and a burning smell, late one October night while I was making macaroni and cheese in the microwave. I had no option but to stretch a clothesline across the kitchen in front of the space heater I'd been using since the propane ran out, hang everything up -- jeans, shirts, and socks -- and hope for the best. The next morning, my stuff was barely dry, so I pulled on the least damp of it and left the rest, figuring I'd deal with it that evening when I got home from work. But then Ronnie and Alice showed up to replace some supposedly broken front-porch slats. When they saw the clothesline, they came inside, and then they found everything else.

It wasn't until the day they took me to Poplar House that I actually saw the report that the person from social services had filed that day. When Shayna, the director, read it out loud, it was clear to me that whoever had written it had embellished, for some reason needing to make it sound worse than it actually was.

Minor child is apparently living without running water or heat in rental home abandoned by parent. Kitchen area was found to be filthy and overrun with vermin. Heat is non-functioning. Evidence of drug and alcohol use was discovered. Minor child appears to have been living alone for some time.

First of all, I had running water. Just not in the kitchen, where the pipes had busted. This was why the dishes tended to pile up, as it was hard to truck in water from the bathroom just to wash a few plates. As for the "vermin," we'd always had roaches; they'd just grown a bit more in number with the lack of sink water, although I'd been spraying them on a regular basis. And I did have a heater; it just wasn't on. The drug and alcohol stuff -- which I took to mean the bottles on the coffee table and the roach in one of the ashtrays -- I couldn't exactly deny, but it hardly seemed grounds for uprooting a person from their entire life with no notice.

The entire time Shayna was reading the report aloud, her voice flat and toneless, I still thought I could talk my way out of this. That if I explained myself correctly, with the proper detail and emphasis, they'd just let me go home. After all, I had only seven months before I turned eighteen, when all of this would be a moot point anyway. But the minute I opened my mouth to start in about topic one, the water thing, she stopped me.

"Ruby," she said, "where is your mother?"

It was only then that I began to realize what would later seem obvious. That it didn't matter what I said, how carefully I crafted my arguments, even if I used every tool of evasion and persuasion I'd mastered over the years. There was only one thing that really counted, now and always, and that was it.

"I don't know," I said. "She's just gone."