This is the second installment, even though you can read it on its own. Below is the first installment.

As a reminder, Florence is a boy, not a girl.

 

The crack-head and Florence walked side-by-side through the residential neighborhood.

The crack-head had his head on swivel, seemingly searching for something.

“Are you scared?” Florence said.

The crack-head took note of everything around him—the old, redone, quaint houses, the bright colored apartments on the corners. Kids came in and out of the homes, by themselves—jump ropes, hula hoops, scooters, skateboards, and assorted balls in hand. The area was crammed with children, apparently none of teen age. Not a single car on the streets, presumably because nobody drove. Where bus stops would have been in the real world, there were canopies to help with the shade, not that the streets lacked trees to produce it.

This place was meant for kids.

When they left the adoption center earlier, the crack-head noticed bikes lying everywhere out front, as if they had fallen from the sky. There weren’t fast-food joints, or strip malls to be found. Not a bunch of advertisements. No drug dealers on corners, no homeless begging. It seemed like a playground on steroids, partitioned by homes and a few small hills.

“Who’s watching ya’ll?” the crack-head said.

“Right now I’m living all by myself, on my own.”

“But who is here for you? I know they’re watching.”

“Well… Shareef and Candy drop off food, but they don’t take care of me. I live by myself.”

“Who is Shareef and Candy? What do they do?”

“They drop off food.”

“What else? They don’t live here?”

“Nope.” Florence shook his head. “They make sure everything is okay, and then they go back to their jobs.”

“I get it, then. I get it. I think I get it. Where are other adults like me?”

“I don’t think there are any other crack-heads around.”

“Listen, first off, you don’t have to call me a crack-head. Name is James.”

“Did I tell you I’m Florence?”

“You sure did.”

“You didn’t tell me yours when I told you mine. People don’t like to give their name in the first place.”

James followed Florence up the steps of a small, craftsman style home. “This is you?”

“I live here.”

“You have your own house?”

“Everybody does.”

Florence turned the knob and opened the door without unlocking it. Inside were hardwood floors, from wall to wall. The kid had vaulted ceilings. There were several beanbag seats in the room—one in the corner, another in the middle of the room.

“No friggin way,” James said, blinking. “No friggin way.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve had a kid, you know that, right? I have a kid.”

“I thought you couldn’t have a kid because you’re on crack. But you seem cool to me.”

“Jesus, this is so weird,” James whispered. “They took my kid from me, but I am a dad. I have a kid, and if he was in your situation, he would have written all over these walls and pissed in the corner.”

“Well, his dad’s a crack-head.”

“Oh, shit, true. True.”

James abandoned the conversation and started to show himself around.

There was no television in the living room. The kitchen had all the needed appliances—toaster, electric stove, and a small refrigerator. The blender in the sink had ice-cream residue. Strawberry, he surmised. James opened the dishwasher. Almost full with dirty dishes.

James said, “Nobody is watching you? You do all this?”

“Do what?” Florence said from the kitchen doorway. He rubbed his shaggy hair, violently kicked off one of his tennis shoes, and then stomped his foot. “What did I do?”

“Nothing wrong. Calm down. You’re running your house pretty good.”

“Oh.”

“Show me around.”

With only one shoe on, Florence turned and started for the rest of his house.

There were two bedrooms—Florence’s room which lacked a television but had a bunk bed. It, too, was clean, for the most part. Clothes were strewn about, and his dresser drawers were open, but the toys had been placed near the closet where they should have been.

The second room was for James. It too had a bunk bed. The room had a smaller closet, but bigger windows. Peeking through the windows, James got a good view of the quaint back yard.

“Damn,” James said, turning to face Florence. “I’m trippin. This is out of this world, nuts.”

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“They didn’t tell you about everything?”

“Before they sent me here, they said you guys were probably more self-sufficient than me, and now I’m looking around like, damn, they might be right.”

“Self-sufficient means we can do things on our own?”

“I think that’s it. Listen, how does this work? They didn’t give me all that many instructions. I don’t know what you do for dinner? Do you cook? Am I supposed to cook for you? To be real, I don’t know how to cook.”

Florence strolled to the fridge. “There’re snacks if you’re hungry, and then at 5:30 there’s dinner at the school cafeteria.”

“It’s five now. Do we go there? How does this work?”

Florence opened the fridge door. “Want a cookie?”

James grinned. “Would love a cookie. What kind?”

“Sugar. It’s the kind I like.”

***

In the cafeteria, most of those in attendance were already eating—boxed milk and cheese pizza. Salad and mini carrots. Fruit on the side, along with bottled water. Some ate some kind of shredded-meat sandwiches.

The intense chatter of kids trying to be louder than the child next to them sometimes came in bursts of shrieking, sometimes pounding and stomping.

Florence and James stood in line, waiting for their turn to grab Styrofoam trays. Up ahead, children and some adults were served in a school-style lunch line. Those in line in front of them disappeared behind a wall and into the serving area.

After a few moments, Florence and James finally made it near the food. Florence grabbed an apple and pizza. The adult male server piled lettuce onto his Styrofoam plate.

James followed and placed a meat sandwich on his respective plate. “Can I get two of these?” he said to the server, an older man wearing a hair net and gloves.

“You’re like everybody else,” the server said. “You get one, only one, and be about your business.”

“You don’t need to be lippy with me,” James said.

Florence said, “We need to sit down. Come on.”

James shook his head and continued after Florence.

They sat at a table in the cafeteria.

Florence got right down to eating.

James looked around the room, and took note of other adults. These were individuals like him.

“Where is this Shareef and Candy?” James said.

Without looking up, Florence said, “They probably already left or are around here somewhere. The food is here.”

“Okay, got it.” James imagined Shareef and Candy as some kind of supervisors. They made sure things ran properly. They must have brought the food, and presumably checked in on the kids every now and then. He scanned the ceiling in the cafeteria for cameras. Somebody had eyes on them. Somebody had to be holding the rest of these adults accountable. There were several in the cafeteria, chowin’ down for free.

James stood. “Let me go talk to a few of these heads. I’ll be right back.”

Staring at his plate, Florence froze, nodded, and then tentatively bit into his pizza.

Meat sandwich in his hand, James approached two men sitting between several little girls. The men munched on chicken nuggets. They looked nerdy but somehow masculine, with their shirts tucked in, and their hair cut above their ears. Other than those features they were completely different from one another. One was lanky, not tall, but lanky. The other on the stocky side, a bit of catsup on the side of his mouth, just below his mustache.

Standing above them James said, “So fellas, what’d they get you guys in here for? Um, how’s the house?” he chuckled.

He waited for a reply, but none came. “I’m James. Just got here. Kind of trying to figure this all out.”

The stocky guy said, with a cheek full of chicken nugget, “Well, I’m Mike. This is Paul.”

“’Sup,” was James’ reply.

Mike said, “Grab a seat.”

James immediately gazed back a few tables at Florence. Was he looking out for Florence or the other way around? Should he ask Florence for permission to sit with these guys? Now that he’s the parent, is he in charge? Nobody told him, distinctly. There wasn’t an orientation.

James told the girls to get up, so he could sit. The girls gave him a look like he smelled bad, before standing.

“We were leaving anyway,” one of them said. “Almost bed time.”

The girls left, and James sat. “Does everybody have an attitude?”

“How did you get here?” the lanky, Paul, asked James.

“Ah, fairly horrible story.”

“Is it?” Paul said, quickly.

James looked around. “Should we be talking about this with all these kids around?”

Paul responded, “Should you be rude enough to tell them to get up from their seats, as if you own anything? They weren’t done eating.”

“Man, I just figured, well, damn…”

“Go ahead,” Mike said. “You were going to tell us a fairly horrible story.”

James said, “You guys aren’t parents…are you?”

“Neither are you, loser,” Paul said. “Some liberal judge went out on a limb, thinking a crack-head like you could be worth a damn, especially to these kids.”

James took another long look at the dudes—the haircuts, the tucked in shirts. “You’re cops?”

Mike leaned forward. “We’re here to make sure you don’t harm these kids. Because the hidden cameras can’t cuff your criminal ass fast enough.”

“You guys smell that?” James started. “Smells like they’re cooking some, um, bacon. Oh wait.” He sniffed around like a blood hound searching for a scent. “That’s you guys smelling like pig. I get it. I see how it is.”

James made his way back over to Florence and had a seat. “I just don’t like cops, man.”

Florence frowned, thinking maybe the crack was somehow affecting James. “What made you bring up the police?”

This little boy must not know the police were among them.

“Who are those dudes over there?” James asked, pointing to the police officers.

“Oh. That’s Shareef and Candy,” Florence said, matter-of-factly.

That’s Shareef and Candy?”

“I think his full name is Candelario.”

Of course they use fake names. Either they weren’t Mike and Paul or they weren’t Shareef and Candy. So, in a way, that’s how they kept order. Cameras, which he knew about, and the addition of pigs to bully you around. It wasn’t a problem because he had no intention on messing up this opportunity. Before he arrived, they told him it was this or jail for a while. They told him he’d be watched. They told him he could get in trouble for things he normally wouldn’t get in trouble for. Kids ran stuff, but behind the scenes he was learning that it was the state doing everything. The leash to the situation might have been long, and basically invisible, but there was a leash, no doubt.

James finally took a bite of his sandwich, which was now a little cold. The bread a bit dry.

“Listen,” James began. “I’m going to need your help. I’ve had a kid, like I told you, and I messed that up, and I don’t want to mess this up. I’m going to need your help, really and truly, because, now that I think of it, there are people—in this very room—who don’t want me to succeed. And you’re the only person I know.”

“But you walked away from me.”

“Uh, yeah, but I only went over there. Like right there.”

“People just leave, sometimes, but the old woman wouldn’t have just left. I could have got the old woman from the adoption place.”

“I was talking to Candy and Shareef. You know them.”

“You don’t know them.” Florence turned away from him and mumbled, “Dad.”

So it was clear, James should be taking care of Florence. He was told the kids could take care of themselves, but that didn’t necessarily mean emotionally, obviously. They could make decisions but this kid chose, technically, a crack-head so his decision-making process needed help, maybe. But it didn’t make sense for him to convince this kid that he was the wrong choice. Where would that leave him? Jail, no doubt.

“I get, I get it,” James said, chewing. “Let’s get out of here. There’s a whole lot of shit to figure out.”

Florence stared at him, turned his head to the side.

“What?” James said.

Florence shook his head.

James drew back, with a frown. “The cursing?”

“Cursing isn’t good.”

“You keep calling me a crack-head. You don’t think crack-heads curse?”

“You can be something but don’t act like it.”

Not sure what type of lesson that was to learn, James said, “Alright. Mentally a crack-head, but I’ll talk like some real, actual, legit parent, I guess.”

“Like my dad.”

Something about how Florence said it made James skip a breath. “I can do that. The whole dad thing. I can do that.”

They dropped their empty trays off in the trash bin on the way out.

James put the rest of his sandwich in his mouth, wondering how in the world he could do this without slipping. There was a chance some of these kids were drug dealers. He’d have to look into it.

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