Chapter 4: Breakfast

THE FOSTER KID

     Cory woke to a room awash in morning sunlight and the aroma of bacon and eggs. He propped an arm behind his head and stared at the ceiling, marveling at the novelty of it. When he entered the kitchen, he found a Norman Rockwell portrait of feminine domesticity: Mrs. Chandler at the stove, tongs in hand, watching bacon sizzle in a frying pan; his sister and Emily at the table, shoulder to shoulder, dipping wedges of pancakes into pools of syrup on their plates and taking turns writing on a piece of paper; and Amber alone on the other side, nibbling on a fried egg and cantaloupe slice. Assembled in the center of the table was a cornucopia of stacked pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, and a bowl of freshly sliced cantaloupe.

     “Good morning, Cory,” Mrs. Chandler said. “How did you sleep?”

     “I slept great,” Cory said. “Thank you.”

     How incredibly polite. What a difference from last night, Mrs. Chandler thought.

     Better than sleeping outside on the ground, right? Too bad he had to come back, Amber thought.

     Cory sat down beside Amber and arranged four pancakes on his plate. He topped each pancake with a slice of bacon, then a dollop of scrambled eggs. He drizzled syrup over his plate. He grabbed his fork and said, without looking at her, “If you keep staring at my food, you might gain ten pounds.”

     Amber glared and looked back at her own plate. “Whatever,” she said.

     “Eat up,” Mrs. Chandler said, scooping bacon from her pan onto the communal pile on the table. “I can make more if you’re still hungry.”

     “Thanks,” Cory said. “This is plenty.”

     Mrs. Chandler set the pan in the sink. She poured herself a cup of coffee and walked into the living room to watch the morning news. When Cory heard her think, Oh dear, not another fire, and then, Oh my goodness, that’s our neighborhood park, he left the kitchen to see what was going on.

     It was on the TV news, the same damn park he and Cozie were at last night. He recognized the rainbow-shaped monkey bars, the canary-yellow swings. Cory clutched the back of the sofa for support as he stared at the TV, feeling weak, horrified at the thought of the homeless man burning alive in his sleeping bag.

The fire had started in the middle of the night, the reporter explained. Multiple neighbors called 911, and firefighters arrived in time to put out the fire before it spread to nearby houses. No property damage. No one was hurt.

     But how would they know if no one found the body?

     Cory grabbed his skateboard and was out the door, ripping past houses, jumping curbs, crossing streets, until he was back at the park, back at what had been the man’s camp, now smoldering, leaves burned away, the haunting, skeletal remains of trees like shadows of the netherworld. It was as if the apocalyptic fires of the heavens had been cast upon this little spot of earth while the rest of the world was spared another day.

     Cory found the shopping cart, blackened, but still intact, and a little further away the sleeping bag he had set up for the man. No charred, dead body, to his relief. He kicked it, scattering ash. Inside the cart, amid melted plastic and unrecognizable bundles, he found the remnants of the books he had picked up last night, now half-charred. He took out a leather-bound book with gold printing that looked reasonably intact. A bible. He opened it. Burned pages crumbled in his fingers. He tossed it back into the cart.

     Cory wondered if the man started a campfire and left. He wasn’t exactly of sound mind. He looked around, but didn’t see anything that resembled a campfire. He bet those kids came back. It was his fault. It had to be. He thought he was doing everyone a favor by scaring them away. Hell, he thought he was doing Society a favor, for once, and that he should have gotten a goddamn community medal for his effort. He felt his head swell with pride as he skated home with his sister last night. Thanks to his arrogance, he made someone angry. Cory hoped the man made it out okay. He dropped to his knees, feeling as black as the scorched trees and the charred earth before him.