The girl furrowed her spotty brow at the two women fussing over the six-year-old boy at the table.
Estelle Gibbons tipped the platter of home-baked treats toward him. “Another chocolate cupcake?”
“It’s fine, Andrew. Go ahead,” Davonne Sparks, the social worker, said. “You don’t eat sweets these days, Tiffany?”
“I can’t, Mrs. Sparks. My whole face breaks out if I even look at them.”
The social worker made a tsk-tsk sound. “Same thing happened when I turned thirteen.”
The girl set her knife and fork crosswise on her plate with a distinct clink as the boy wolfed down his third cupcake.
The social worker pushed back her chair. “Wipe your mouth, little man. That’s the way. Thank you so much for lunch, Ms. Gibbons. Now I wonder if Tiffany could entertain Andrew for a while.”
Estelle Gibbons, her eyes on the boy, said, “You don’t mind, do you, Tiffany? Show him around? You can get to know each other.”
Behind the farmhouse, the girl led the boy to a disused barn. He poked his head between the gray slats of an empty enclosure.
“No animals,” the girl said. “Nobody here but me and Ms. Gibbons. She rents from some old folks who had to go to a nursing home.”
The girl walked on with a sure-footed stride, the boy behind her. They followed a narrow track between apple trees heavy with wizened fruit. The boy plucked an apple, then seeing its condition, threw it on the ground. He had to run to catch up with the girl.
They crossed the edge of a dry, weedy field, and beyond it a grove of massive oaks, their red-gold leaves sifting down. “Come on,” she said. “You need to see something.”
In the shadowy heart of the grove, wooden markers as wizened as the apples stuck out of the ground at intervals. The boy crossed his arms over his chest and shivered in the autumn air.
Stooping by a marker, the girl brushed away fallen leaves. “You old enough to read?”
“Sure. I’m in first grade.”
“What’s this say?”
He stepped close to her and sounded out the letters. “M-A-X. That spells Max.”
She took his hand, drew him to another marker. “What about this one?”
“What’s D-A-I-S-Y spell?”
He shook his head.
“Daisy, a girl’s name. There’s more. Cooper, Frieda, Ben. Want to know who they were?”
He stared at his sneakers, kicked at the leaves.
“Kids like us. Fosters.”
His eyes grew wide.
She peered down at him. “Dead before I came. Ms. Gibbons says her other fosters grew up and left. But she poisoned them. She doesn’t know I found this place, so don’t tell anybody. First chance I get, I’m gone.”
“Ouch, you’re hurting me!” The boy yanked his hand out of the girl’s grasp. She frowned. “You don’t look so good. I should’ve warned you about the cupcakes.”
Clutching his stomach, the boy ran out of the grove, across the field, through the apple orchard, past the barn. Seeing the two women staring at him from the farmhouse porch, he veered toward the social worker’s car.
The girl, a few paces back, trotted straight to her foster mother. “Andrew’s not feeling well, Ms. Gibbons. Maybe he ate too much.”
Davonne Sparks adjusted the strap of her shoulder bag. “Oh dear. I’d best get him back to the group home.”
The car disappeared in a whirl of dust.
“You were nice to that boy, weren’t you, Tiffany?”
“I showed him around like you asked. The old folks’ pet cemetery kind of spooked him.”
Estelle Gibbons shook her head. “Poor little guy. I did so hope he’d like it here.”