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“ 'I don't know, I don't know, I don't know,' ” Mrs. Teagel mocked. “You don't seem to know anything, girl. Aren't you paying attention in school? Don't you care about language, about words?”

Laura, of course, was fascinated with words. To her, words were things of beauty, each like a magical powder or potion that could be combined with other words to create powerful spells. But to Flora Teagel, words were game chips needed to fill blank puzzle squares, annoyingly elusive clusters of letters that frustrated her.

Flora's husband, Mike, was a squat, baby-faced truck driver. He spent evenings in an armchair, poring over the National Enquirer and its clones, absorbing useless facts from dubious stories about alien contact and devil-worshiping movie stars. His taste for what he called “exotic news” would have been harmless if he'd been as self-absorbed as his wife, but he often popped in on Laura when she was doing chores or in those rare moments when she was given time for homework, and he insisted on reading aloud the more bizarre articles.

She thought these stories were stupid, illogical, pointless, but she could not tell him so. She had learned that he would not be offended if she said his newspapers were rubbish. Instead he'd regard her pityingly; then with maddening patience, with an infuriating know-it-all manner found only in the overeducated and totally ignorant, he would proceed to explain how the world worked. At length. Repeatedly. “Laura, you've got a lot to learn. The big shots who run things in Washington, they know about the aliens and the secrets of Atlantis ...”

As different as Flora was from Mike, they shared one belief: that the purpose of sheltering a foster child was to obtain a free servant. Laura was expected to clean, do laundry, iron clothes, and cook.

Their own daughter-Hazel, an only child-was two years older than Laura and thoroughly spoiled. Hazel never cooked, washed dishes, did laundry, or cleaned house. Though she was just fourteen, she had perfectly manicured, painted fingernails and toenails. If you had deducted from her age the number of hours she had spent primping in front of a mirror, she would have been only five years old.

“On laundry day,” she explained on Laura's first day in the Teagel house, “you must press my clothes first. And always be sure that you hang them in my closet arranged according to color.”

I've read this book and seen this movie, Laura thought. Gad, I've got the lead in Cinderella.

“I'm going to be a major movie star or a model,” Hazel said. “So my face, hands, and body are my future. I've got to protect them.”

When Mrs. Ince-the wire-thin, whippet-faced child-welfare worker assigned to the case-paid a scheduled visit to the Teagel house on Saturday morning, September 16, Laura intended to demand to be returned to McIlroy Home. The threat posed by Willy Sheener had come to seem less of a problem than everyday life with the Teagels.

Mrs. Ince arrived on schedule to find Flora washing the first dishes she had washed in two weeks. Laura was sitting at the kitchen table, apparently working a crossword puzzle that in fact had been shoved into her hands only when the doorbell had rung.

In that portion of the visit devoted to a private interview with Laura in her bedroom, Mrs. Ince refused to believe what she was told about Laura's load of housework. “But dear, Mr. and Mrs. Teagel are exemplary foster parents. You don't look to me as if you've been worked to the bone. You've even gained a few pounds.”

“I didn't accuse them of starving me,” Laura said. “But I never nave time for schoolwork. I go to bed every night exhausted-”

“Besides,” Mrs. Ince interrupted, “foster parents are expected not merely to house children but to raise them, which means teaching manners and deportment, instilling good values and good work habits.”

Mrs. Ince was hopeless.

Laura resorted to the Ackersons' plan for shedding an unwanted foster family. She began to clean haphazardly. When she was done with the dishes, they were spotted and streaked. She ironed wrinkles into Hazel's clothes.

Because the destruction of most of her book collection had taught her a profound respect for property, Laura could not break dishes or anything else that belonged to the Teagels, but for that part of the Ackerson Plan she substituted scorn and disrespect. Working a puzzle, Flora asked for a six-letter word meaning “a species of ox,” and Laura said, “Teagel.” When Mike began to recount a flying-saucer story he had read in the Enquirer, she interrupted to spin a tale about mutated mole men living secretly in the local supermarket. To Hazel, Laura suggested that her big break in show business might best be achieved by applying to serve as Ernest Borgnine's stand-in: “You're a dead-ringer for him, Hazel. They've got to hire you!”

Her scorn led swiftly to a spanking. With his big, callused hands Mike had no need of a paddle. He thumped her across the bottom, but she bit her lip and refused to give him the satisfaction of her tears. Watching from the kitchen doorway, Flora said, “Mike, that's enough. Don't mark her.” He quit reluctantly only when his wife entered the room and stayed his hand.

That night Laura had difficulty sleeping. For the first time she had employed her love of words, the power of language, to achieve a desired effect, and the Teagels' reactions were proof that she could use words well. Even more exciting was the half-formed thought, still too new to be fully understood, that she might possess the ability not only to defend herself with words but to earn her way in the world with them, perhaps even as an author of the kind of books she so much enjoyed. With her father she'd talked of being a doctor, ballerina, veterinarian, but that had been just talk. None of those dreams had filled her with as much excitement as the prospect of being a writer.

The next morning, when she went down to the kitchen and found the three Teagels at breakfast, she said, “Hey, Mike, I've just discovered there's an intelligent squid from Mars living in the toilet tank.”

“What is this?” Mike demanded.

Laura smiled and said, “Exotic news.” '

Two days later Laura was returned to McIlroy Home.

Willy Sheener's living room and den were furnished as if an ordinary man lived there. Stefan was not sure what he had expected. Evidence of dementia, perhaps, but not this neat, orderly home.

One of the bedrooms was empty, and the other was decidedly odd. The only bed was a narrow mattress on the floor. The pillowcases and sheets were for a child's room, emblazoned with the colorful, antic figures of cartoon rabbits. The nightstand and dresser were scaled to a child's dimensions, pale blue, with stenciled animals on the sides and drawers: giraffes, rabbits, squirrels. Sheener owned a collection of Little Golden Books, as well, and other children's picture books, stuffed animals, and toys suitable for a six- or seven-year-old.

At first Stefan thought that room was designed for the seduction of neighborhood children, that Sheener was unstable enough to seek out prey even on his home ground, where the risk was greatest. But there was no other bed in the house, and the closet and dresser drawers were filled with a man's clothing. On the walls were a dozen framed photos of the same red-headed boy, some as an infant, some when he was seven or eight, and the face was identifiably that of a younger Sheener. Gradually Stefan realized the decor was for Willy Sheener's benefit alone. The creep slept here. At bedtime Sheener evidently retreated into a fantasy of childhood, no doubt finding a desperately needed peace in his eerie, nightly regression.

Standing in the middle of that strange room, Stefan felt both saddened and repelled. It seemed that Sheener molested children not solely or even primarily for the sexual thrill of it but to absorb their youth, to become young again like them; through perversion he seemed to be trying to descend not into moral squalor so much as into a lost innocence. He was equally pathetic and despicable, inadequate to the challenges of adult life but nonetheless dangerous for his inadequacies.

Stefan shivered.

Her bed in the Ackerson twins' room was now occupied by another kid. Laura was assigned to a small, two-bed room at the north end of the third floor near the stairs. Her bunkmate was nine-year-old Eloise Fischer, who had pigtails, freckles, and a demeanor too serious for a child. “I'm going to be an accountant when I grow up,” she told Laura. “I like numbers a lot. You can add up a column of numbers and get the same answer every time. There're no surprises with numbers; they're not at all like people.” Eloise's parents had been convicted of drug dealing and sent to prison, and she was in McIlroy while the court decided which relative would be given custody of her.

As soon as Laura had unpacked, she hurried to the Ackersons' room. Bursting in on them, she cried, “I is free, I is free!”

Tammy and the new girl looked at her blankly, but Ruth and Thelma ran to her and hugged her, and it was like coming home to real family.

“Your foster family didn't like you?” Ruth asked.

Thelma said, “Ah ha! You used the Ackerson Plan.”

“No, I killed them all while they slept.”

“That'll work,” Thelma agreed.

The new girl, Rebecca Bogner, was about eleven. She and the Ackersons obviously were not sympatico. Listening to Laura and the twins, Rebecca kept saying “you're weird” and “too weird” and “jeez, what weirdos,” with such an air of superiority and disdain that she poisoned the atmosphere as effectively as a nuclear detonation.

Laura and the twins went outside to a corner of the playground where they could share five weeks of news without Rebecca's snotty commentary. It was early October, and the days were still warm, though at a quarter till five the air was cooling. They wore jackets and sat on the lower branches of the jungle gym, which was abandoned now that the younger children were washing up for the early dinner.

They had not been in the yard five minutes before Willy Sheener arrived with an electric shrub trimmer. He set to work on a eugenia hedge about thirty feet from them, but his attention was on Laura.

At dinner the Eel. was at his serving station on the cafeteria line, passing out cartons of milk and pieces of cherry pie. He had saved the largest slice for Laura.

On Monday she entered a new school where the other kids already had four weeks to make friends. Ruth and Thelma were in a couple of her classes, which made it easier to adjust, but she was reminded that the primary condition of an orphan's life was instability.

Tuesday afternoon, when Laura returned from school, Mrs. Bowmaine stopped her in the hall. “Laura, may I see you in my office?”

Mrs. Bowmaine was wearing a purple floral-pattern dress that clashed with the rose and peach floral patterns of her office drapes and wallpaper. Laura sat in a rose-patterned chair. Mrs. Bowmaine stood at her desk, intending to deal with Laura quickly and move on to other tasks. Mrs. Bowmaine was a bustler, a busy-busy type.

“Eloise Fischer left our charge today,” Mrs. Bowmaine said.

“Who got custody?” Laura asked. "She liked her grandmother. ''

“It was her grandmother,” Mrs. Bowmaine confirmed.

Good for Eloise. Laura hoped the pigtailed, freckled, future accountant would find something to trust besides cold numbers.

“Now you've no roommate,” Mrs. Bowmaine said briskly, “and we've no vacant bed elsewhere, so you can't just move in with-”

“May I make a suggestion?”

Mrs. Bowmaine frowned with impatience and consulted her watch.

Laura said quickly, “Ruth and Thelma are my best friends, and their roomies are Tammy Hinsen and Rebecca Bogner. But I don't think Tammy and Rebecca get along well with Ruth and Thelma, so-”

“We want you children to learn how to live with people different from you. Bunking with girls you already like won't build character. Anyway, the point is, I can't make new arrangements until tomorrow; I'm busy today. So I want to know if I can trust you to spend the night alone in your current room.”

“Trust me?” Laura asked in confusion.

“Tell me the truth, young lady. Can I trust you alone tonight?”

Laura could not figure what trouble the social worker anticipated from a child left alone for one night. Perhaps she expected Laura to barricade herself in the room so effectively that police would have to blast the door, disable her with tear gas, and drag her out in chains.

Laura was as insulted as she was confused. “Sure, I'll be okay. I'm not a baby. I'll be fine.”

“Well ... all right. You'll sleep by yourself tonight, but we'll make other arrangements tomorrow.”

After leaving Mrs. Bowmaine's colorful office for the drab hallways, climbing the stairs to the third floor, Laura suddenly thought: the White Eel! Sheener would know she was going to be alone tonight. He knew everything that went on at McIlroy, and he had keys, so he could return in the night. Her room was next to the north stairs, so he could slip out of the stairwell into her room, overpower her in seconds. He'd club her or drug her, stuff her in a burlap sack, take her away, lock her in a cellar, and no one would know what had happened to her.

She turned at the second-floor landing, descended the stairs two at a time, and rushed back toward Mrs. Bowmaine's office, but when she turned the corner into the front hall, she nearly collided with the Eel. He had a mop and a wringer-equipped bucket on wheels, which was filled with water reeking of pine-scented cleanser.

He grinned at her. Maybe it was only her imagination, but she was certain that he already knew she would be alone that night.

She should have stepped by him, gone to Mrs. Bowmaine, and begged for a change in the night's sleeping arrangements. She could not make accusations about Sheener, or she would wind up like Denny Jenkins-disbelieved by the staff, tormented relentlessly by her nemesis-but she could have found an acceptable excuse for her change of mind.

She also considered rushing at him, shoving him into his bucket, knocking him on his butt, and telling him that she was tougher than him, that he had better not mess with her. But he was different from the Teagels. Mike, Flora, and Hazel were small-minded, obnoxious, ignorant, but comparatively sane. The Eel was insane, and there was no way of knowing how he would react to being knocked flat.

As she hesitated, his crooked, yellow grin widened.

A flush touched his pale cheeks, and Laura realized it might be a flush of desire, which made her nauseous.

She walked away, dared not run until she had climbed the stairs and was out of his sight. Then she sprinted for the Ackersons' room.

“You'll sleep here tonight,” Ruth said.

“Of course,” Thelma said, “you'll have to stay in your room until they finish the bed check, then sneak down here.”