Hanging onto the windowsill, his grip slipping, the thought entered twelve-year-old Zander’s mind that perhaps he should have thought the adventure—or rather misadventure—through more carefully. I’m the oldest…I’m the leader…I can’t back out now.
His foot found a limb on the old, gnarled tree next to the house and he slowly let go of the windowsill with one hand, listening for sounds of cracking. Luckily, the only sounds that met his ears were the wind blowing through the bare branches and the gasps from the two boys peering down at him from the open window, their eyes wide with fright.
Sliding to the limb on his knees, he grasped its rough bark, wincing slightly as it abraded his palms. Looking upward, he spied two pale faces, eyes wide and mouths hanging open. “I got it now,” he claimed in a whisper, his words braver than he felt. “Hang on and I’ll get the ladder.”
Miss Ethel’s bedroom was on the first floor, right at the bottom of the stairs, and Zander surreptitiously looked in that direction. He was not sure, but he often thought she had supernatural powers because she seemed to know when they were up to something even before they did it.
Shimmying along the branch, its sturdiness increasing as he neared the trunk, his confidence grew. Reaching the thick truck, he climbed down the rest of the way, landing on the soft ground with a thump. The moon was hidden behind a cloud, but he knew his way. The yard was neat, Miss Ethel making sure he and the others picked up their toys each evening. Same with the inside rooms. An orderly house helps create an orderly mind. Miss Ethel’s words rang in his head and he stifled a grin.
A ladder was lying on the ground, left there by the man who had been hired to clean the gutters. As soon as he saw it, a plan formed in his mind. A way for them to escape without Miss Ethel finding out.
The ladder was heavier than he thought and, as it bumped against the side of the house twice, he winced at the clanging. Leaning it against the windowsill, he held it steady as the two other boys scrambled down. Rafe and Cael, both eleven, looked at him, ready to follow his lead. Watching as he plastered himself against the brick, not breathing, they then did the same, listening to see if Miss Ethel was stirring. All was quiet.
“Come on,” he said, waving for the others to follow, the sound of dogs barking in the distance causing them all to hurry.
Slipping through the gate at the back of the yard, they ran down the alley between the properties. The streetlight’s ineffective illumination concealed them as they skirted between trash cans and puddles in the broken concrete.
“Are we going to get in trouble?” Cael asked, his brow creased with worry as he hustled to keep up with the others.
“Shh,” Rafe hushed him, not wanting Zander to know he, too, was worried.
The three made their way to the small store a few blocks from their house. Zander had been inside the Five n’ Dime the prior week and that was when the idea had been born. He had tagged along as Miss Ethel shopped for a few items, carefully pricing them as she searched the store. With six boys in the house to feed and care for, he had watched her count out her change in the stores long enough to know that there was precious little money to take care of all their needs. As they passed a counter with dime store jewelry, he observed as her pace slowed and her eyes cut over to the necklaces. She appeared taken with a shiny gold one in the shape of a heart. With a sigh, she had passed on by, but Zander had stopped and stared at the pretty piece.
“Come on, Alexander,” she had called. “Don’t dawdle.”
He had rushed to catch up to her in line, waiting as she carefully counted out her money for their purchases.
Now, in the dark, the store loomed large in front of them, the poor lights ineffectively stabbing at the shadows the boys stayed in. Zander led them to the alley where they halted outside the back door. The smell of garbage hit him and he wrinkled his nose.
“How we gonna get inside?” Cael asked. “Ain’t it locked?”
“Nah. I heard Mr. Timms on the phone complaining to someone that they needed to come fix the lock. That’s why I figured we could get in before it gets fixed.”
Rafe and Cael stood still, watching as Zander lifted a shaking hand to the doorknob. Giving it a hard turn, he felt the doorknob shift in his hand. With his heart in his throat, he pulled and as the door opened, he felt his breath leave his body in a whoosh.
“Come on,” he ordered.
Slipping in first, he led the trio through the back hall to the store. The narrow aisles were lined with racks of clothing and pillows, the shelves filled with dishes and cups. Zander passed them all, his eyes on the prize, moving directly to the jewelry.
“Oh, my God,” Rafe exclaimed, staring at the candy bars. “Look at all this stuff. We could take anything we want and they’d never know.”
Cael, a grin spreading across his face, looked at the toy trains. “Zander…can we take something?”
“No,” came the harsh whisper. “We ain’t here to steal nothing.”
“What do you mean? Ain’t we gonna steal that?” Rafe accused, pointing to what was now in Zander’s hand.
“Yeah, but this is for a good cause,” Zander defended.
Rafe and Cael walked over and stared down at what he was holding. The shiny, gold, heart necklace lay in his palm, barely glistening in the slim light coming from the front window.
“We got what we came for,” he said, “now let’s go.” Sticking the necklace into his pocket, he headed toward the back door knowing the others would follow, slipping out as silently as they had entered.
* * *
“Surprise!” the boys all cried, rushing into the house after school, surrounding Miss Ethel as she sat in her rocking chair knitting. Immediately bursting into a round of “Happy Birthday to You”, the six boys currently living with her laughed at her shocked expression followed by her huge smile. Her grey hair was twisted into a bun at the back of her head, her glasses perched on her nose. Wearing a shirtdress, neatly belted at the waist, stockings, and comfortable black shoes, she always looked the same to Zander—comfortable, loving, safe.
He once overheard one of the social workers from school, who always came to check on him and the others, tell his teacher that Miss Ethel was the best foster parent they knew and any child she took in was lucky. Zander did not need to hear that because he already knew it. He had been around long enough to know there were some foster parents who should not have kids, no matter how bad things were where the kid came from. But Miss Ethel was…home.
The room was comfortably furnished with a dark green sofa, colorful throw pillows against the back. The wooden end tables were covered in white, crocheted lace. A thick rug covered the center of the wooden floor. Two, deep cushioned chairs sat facing the sofa, one always used by Miss Ethel, her knitting bag at her feet. The walls on either side of the fireplace held bookshelves filled with children’s books.
“Oh, my stars!” she exclaimed, drawing Zander’s attention back to their celebration. She tossed her knitting needles to the floor and, standing, hugged each boy. “How did you know?”
“Duh,” Rafe said. “You got it written in your Bible. You know, in the back with the other birthdays.”
“Well, aren’t you clever,” she pronounced.
Rafe, Cael, Jaxon, Jayden, and Asher settled on the rug, sitting cross-legged in a circle, while Zander stood behind them, watching as she accepted the presents they had for her.
Asher, nine years old, was the youngest. His snaggle-toothed grin lit his face as he held up a rock painted with her name surrounded by pink and red hearts. “It can hold open your cookbook when you’re making us cookies.”
Tears filled her eyes as she exclaimed it to be the best paperweight she ever saw.
The ten-year-old twins, Jaxon and Jayden, gave her a picture frame they made from painted popsicle sticks. “As soon as we get a picture of us, we’re gonna put it in there,” Jax announced, Jayden nodding enthusiastically.
“Well, boys, I declare, I’ve never had such a good birthday,” she smiled.
Rafe and Cael bounced up and down on their knees, enthusiasm spilling over. “We’ve got something too! Zander’s got it!”
Just as Zander stuck his hand in his pocket, a strange feeling hit his gut, as though one of the other boys had punched him. Pushing the emotion down, he pulled out the paper towel wrapped gift and handed it to her.
“Oh, my, what can this be?” she wondered aloud. Her fingers shook as she opened the present and she gasped at the heart necklace laying in her palm.
Her eyes darted quickly to him and he swore he saw a flash of doubt in them, but she only smiled and said, “It’s beautiful.”
Standing, she gathered her gifts and asked, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing I made a cake today while you were in school. Who wants some?”
“Me, me,” they shouted, trailing her like ducklings as she moved into the kitchen.
* * *
That night, Zander lay in bed reading aloud to the other boys while they played with their trucks on the floor. He loved reading and was thankful Miss Ethel had not given up on him when he came to live with her four years ago. Now reading beyond his age, he devoured every book he could get his hands on.
Miss Ethel came upstairs, first taking Jaxon, Jayden, and Asher into their room, tucking them in after their prayers. When she walked into their room, she sat down on Zander’s bed, a warm smile on her face.
“Boys, we need to talk about the necklace you gave me,” she began.
Cael and Rafe’s eyes widened, shooting their glances over to Zander. He sat very still, his gut hurting even while he forced a blank expression on his face. The same one he used to wear when the other students teased him about his dirty, worn clothes.
“I know you don’t have any money,” she began, her voice warm and soft.
“We helped Mr. Timms and he let us have it as payment,” he lied, each word stabbing his stomach even more. Cael and Rafe’s eyes now bugged, their mouths hanging open wide.
She lifted her brow at the same time as she lifted her hand, interrupting him. “Zander, do you remember what I told you boys about words? Words are so important…they can hurt or they can heal. A person needs to choose their words wisely. That’s what I need you to do right now. Talk to me, honey, but don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what I need to know.”
The lump in his throat made it hard to swallow, the sting of tears hitting his eyes causing him to blink rapidly. His voice barely above a whisper, he confessed, “I took it.”
She lifted her hand to his head, smoothing his hair back. “Can you tell me why?”
“I saw you looking at it and it was so pretty. You should have something pretty.” A tear slid down his cheek and he glanced at the others, seeing Cael and Rafe crying too.
“It wasn’t just him, Miss Ethel,” Rafe said. “We helped.”
“I don’t want to go to jail,” Cael cried.
“Shhh, now. No one is going to jail. But what do you think we need to do about this?” she asked, peering closely at each boy.
“I’ll take it back…tomorrow morning. I’ll tell Mr. Timms what I did,” Zander said, the words jerking from his quivering chest.
“We’ll go together,” she said. “Now y’all climb into bed.” Bending to kiss Cael and Rafe, she moved back to Zander’s bed. “Do you know what your name means, Alexander?”
Wrapping his arm around his middle, he shook his head.
“Alexander. That’s a Greek name. A very important name. It means defender of men.” She chuckled, adding, “Well, defender of women, as well.” She reached over, her hand gentle on his arm. “You’ve always been such a leader. I remember when you first came to live with me. The social worker was afraid you were so behind in school that you’d be lost. But I knew how smart you were. Smart and good. Such a good boy. And, you’ve helped me so much with the others.”
His mouth tightened into a straight line, but her soothing touch made his stomach hurt a little less.
“And now look at you, reading books that are so much above your age. So smart…and so good. I know why you took the necklace and it touches my heart that you cared to get me something. But Zander, all I ever want is for you boys to be safe, happy, and as good as you can be. That’s the only present I need.”
“You deserve to have something pretty,” he said, his heart heavy.
“Sweetie, my something pretty is seeing you boys smile every day. It’s seeing the sunset or a pretty flower.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Ethel,” he said, another tear sliding down his cheek. He hated the feeling of disappointing her. He remembered what life was like before he landed on her doorstep. His mom being gone for days strung out on drugs, looking for her next fix, leaving him with no food. He had been in two other foster homes for only a few months until Miss Ethel took him in. Now he had clean clothes that fit. Food in his belly. School every day. And books. She made sure he could go to the library any time he wanted.
“Oh, Zander,” she smiled, leaning over to kiss his forehead. “The measure of a man isn’t in the mistakes he makes. The true measure of a man is in how he handles those mistakes.”
The next day, he tried to hide the quivers as he stood in front of Mr. Timms and confessed the theft. Miss Ethel was stunned at the lengths the boys had gone to in order to get the present for her and made them vow to never climb out of the window again. Mr. Timms peered over his glasses at the three of them, his face severe.
“Well, I suggest that you three boys come over every day after school next week and work for me until suppertime,” he said, his deep voice reverberating through them. “That’ll work off the necklace, which I agree, Miss Ethel should have.”
Zander’s breath left him in a whoosh, a grin snaking across his face as the pain in his stomach eased. Casting his gaze up to Miss Ethel, she smiled back at him. Walking home, she put her hand on his shoulder and said, “I always knew it, Zander. You’ll make a good man.”