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Where People Like Us Live

Where People Like Us Live by Patricia Cumbie
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I want to shake Rita. She thinks all the screwed-up things in the world are happening somewhere else. But bad things are happening right here.

It's a routine Libby's used to by now: pack up, move, start over, repeat. This time it's to Rubberville—population: faces, names, a few factories, and Angie, a girl who nearly-but-not-quite gets Libby killed the first day they meet. Angie is everything Libby wishes she were: outspoken, fearless, and happy to risk it all to have a little fun. But one day Libby learns that behind Angie's attitude is a frightening secret. Libby faces an impossible choice: Does she protect her friendship or her friend?

HarperCollins; June 2009
224 pages; ISBN 9780061957543
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Where People Like Us Live
Author: Patricia Cumbie

Chapter One

She knocks on our door, but before anyone can answer it, she lets herself in. Our screen door opens, and a set of matching red toenails and fingernails appears as she moves her body through the door. She stands there expecting to be greeted like some kind of royalty.

Her eyes flash when she looks at me, as if I'd said something about her to someone and she had come over to knock me out.

I hope she isn't looking at anything in our living room. Our couch slumps in the middle, nothing matches, and the floors are a deep and dull brown from years of grime. Daddy made the end tables from wood he salvaged. Ma loves them and worries about their getting scratched every time we move.

I have on flip-flops and try not to act clumsy when I stand up even though the tips of my toes feel numb when I walk toward her. I don't know why, but right then and there I want her to like me.

Ma gives her a once-over before she says, "What's your name, young lady?" Young lady. That's Ma. Ma is normally nice, but if she doesn't take to you, you are dead, or nearly.

The girl looks at me as if to say, "Call off the dogs." She seems light-years older than I am, and I wonder if she's going to be a junior or senior and end up befriending Rita instead of me. "I'm Angie," she says. "Angie Bonar." Two beats later she adds, "Your house smells like lemons, ma'am."

Ma had been dusting with Lemon Pledge, a product made in this town.

"Well, pleased to meet you, Angie. I'm Mrs. Gilbert, and this is Libby. Libby Gilbert." Ma's tone is cold. I tell the girl we should go outside. I hold the screen door open for her.

When we get outside, Angie tells me we need to vamos. She is taking me to the tracks.

"You've been here a week already." So she's been watching me. There is a pinched look to her that makes her face seem triangular and sharp. Her hair, long and light brown, is held back with a barrette at the top. Close up, Angie smells like soap and something salty. I tell her I'm not allowed. As soon as I say it, I want to take it back. I'll be going to high school this fall. I should be breaking the rules.

She says, "Nobody's allowed—so what?"

I don't look behind me or say anything to Ma. I slap my flip-flops down the crumbling sidewalk toward who knows what. As we walk the four blocks to the railroad tracks, I shrug off my mother's attitude. Isn't this what Daddy says moving is about? Opportunities. A chance to meet different people.

I ask Angie about how things work around here. She says Rubberville isn't a real place on the map; it's what people refer to when they mean our part of town; it's the nickname of a factory that was once here. There are boundaries in Rubberville: the tracks, the factories, the corner grocer, and the block near the sewer pipe shortcut. Lake Michigan is close, but not close enough. Angie's been living here as long as she can remember.

"As far back as the Phoenicians," she says.

"Who are they?"

"None of your business." Angie leaves it at that.

We pass the corner store, and Angie says a perfect pervert runs it; I need to be on the lookout when I go in. I look down when she says the word "pervert."

There's always someone in every neighborhood with loads of faith that it should be better, someone who puts out the reindeer or lucky elf statues, potted plants, and shiny pinwheels on sticks. That person in Rubberville is Mr. Ramirez, our neighbor, the one with the Foxy Lady van.

The day we moved in, Ma and Daddy argued about asking him to move it. The van has a beautiful Spanish lady's face painted on it. Sparkly letters in a script that looks puffy, like they were written with shaving cream, say "Foxy Lady." When I looked at it that first day, I got a sensation in my throat. Something about that face.

At the tracks I see thorny wild roses, bushes, rocks. Angie says the gravel is for throwing. Good for perfecting your aim. I pick up a little rock and watch it drop. Angie shows me the exact spot under the tracks where there's a sewer pipe big enough to walk through. That's the shortcut to take to school in the fall. She points into the distance at a brick building that looks almost like a castle. That is the parts factory.

"What grade are you anyway?" Angie asks.

I don't want to tell Angie I'm only going into ninth, that I'm not quite fifteen, but I tell her the truth. When she says, "Oh, yeah? Me too," I suddenly feel so much better, even though it's really hard to believe we're the same age.

Angie tells me that when people go to the bathroom on the train, it falls right out onto the tracks, number two and everything. I tell Angie there ought to be some law against that. She agrees. But in the meantime watch where you step. Keep your shoes on and you won't get lockjaw.

As we head down the embankment toward the sewer, she explains about her family. She's got an older brother, Frankie, a mother, and a stepdad. Kevin. I saw Kevin a week ago, the day we moved in. That day Angie was standing out in her front yard across the street from us. As she watched my family move in, Kevin walked up next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. He wore a leather vest without a shirt on and a pair of faded jeans. He had a headful of brown curly hair. He was barefoot. He squinted across the street at me to see what she was looking at. She looked up at him, just for a second, like she wanted to punch him in the stomach, like his touch on her shoulder was adding another five degrees to her temperature. That look stopped me from going over to her to say hello. Stopped me cold.