Liquid Smoke 09 / The Weird Babysitter

OK let’s back up a sec.

’Twas round about ninth grade when Lucía (our stepmom) burst into our room late one night, shrieking something about Uncle Lamar coming to town. I fell off the top bunk while Cherry dug up the family instruction manual from under the secret floorboard. I took out the little flashlight I kept in my underwear and held it steady while she flipped through page after page of encoded text.

“OK,” she said. “Uncle Ian, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Kevin…here we go. Lamar.”

I hadn’t yet bothered to learn our code so I hissed: “What’s it mean?” My body was coiled and ready for any number of actions.

Cherry deciphered it, sighed, slapped the book shut. She looked at me all sad and sweet, moved my shitty bangs out of my eyes. “Sorry, Smoke,” she said. “The fam’s been compromised. Masha’s knifemaidens incoming. We gotta torch the house and leave the country.”

As the youngest daughter of contract privateers, my training was good enough that I didn’t immediately have an ugly junior-high weep about all the friends I was about to lose and all the comforting routines that were about to be wrecked (again). Instead I just looked tough and said: “When?”

Cherry glanced at the digital clock glowing red. “Ten minutes.”

That’s when the ugly weeping kicked in. It was like guhhhhh. Cherry hoisted me up and ordered me to pack a bag with just the essentials, so I did:

  • Phone
  • Compass/signal mirror
  • Birdcall/pipe
  • Cassette of highlights from Dead Goon Theatre
  • Shuriken emblazoned with my own personal heraldic badge (merman impaling the sun w/trident — sick as hell)
  • Midol Maximum Strength Teen Formula Caplets, 24 count
  • The makings of a false nose
  • Stack of Sacagawea dollars in an old prescription bottle (Ziprasidone)
  • Six (6) poison bombs constructed from my own recipe of sugar, gunpowder and finely ground conium maculatum

Half hour later me and Cherry and Lucía and Pops were huddled in a getaway van disguised as a taco truck, bound for a steamship terminal. Behind the wheel was a girl we’d never seen before, a girl not much older than us, a girl who ended up being a weird sort of babysitter in the years ahead when the family was on the run, never staying in the same town for more than a couple weeks, a series of B.O.-scented motel rooms, a series of strange beds and sore throats and ticket-takers speaking Farsi and Swedish and Maasai.

The folks would take extended leaves of absence but this girl always stayed with us, teaching us the basics of the Life: artificial accents and gaits, breaking your fall from a significant height, following someone who’s behind you, grip-loosening maneuvers, ventriloquism, echolocation, non-sleeping, temporary heart-stopping. Then orienteering stuff like: Always put up a second roof when building a desert shelter. Balsam fir resin makes an excellent antiseptic for treating cuts and abrasions. Disguise your scent with the smoke from green pine needles on a campfire. Cattails are one of the most abundant and best-tasting plants out there. The pileated woodpecker digs his home facing east. Etc.

This was back when we loved her, back when we’d die/kill for her, back when us three would sleep in a tight circle every night to stave off the Fear.

This was Raw Sugar.