— Excerpt —
Excerpted from Sneak Thief by Faith Harkey. Copyright © 2018 by Faith Harkey. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
My name is Belle Cantrell, but you can call me Hush.
I’m what you’d call a sneak thief.
You say you don’t know what that is? Look here. One morning, there was me, going into Sass Foods.
I walked right up to the counter and asked the cashier where I might find the AA batteries. While she was busy spinning out her reply, telling me up this aisle,
right at the end, look underneath the flashlight display, I reached out my hand and snuck a packet of playing cards off the shelf in front of me. Cool as you please,
I slid the cards into my pocket, thanked the lady kindly, and wished her a fine day. Then I left the store, strolling all casual-like.
Though it turns out I am more than just a filch and a delinquent. How, you want to know? All right, but the story’s kind of knotty.
We’ll start on that same day, just a short time later, when I took myself to the laundrymat. Nina, my ma, had sent me with a fistful of change, a pillowcase of stank clothes, and orders not to be home before six. She was having guests, she’d told me, and she wouldn’t have me mooning around, staring after her with my dumb cow eyes.
I didn’t think I had cow eyes, dumb or otherwise. But I obliged her, pleased for any excuse to get gone from broken-down old ’Bagoville, the trailer park where I lived. Nina didn’t much like it when I went to town. She didn’t want me anywhere near the nibs, her name for the goody-goodies in town. But she couldn’t have it both ways. Either I stayed or I went, and if I went, I went where I wanted. And what I wanted was out, past the chain-link limits of my life, away from the field where my people kept company with rusted-out cars, cast-off refrigerators, and the tractor on its side.
It was a real relief to get away, too, because even though there was some thieving a person could do from one’s kin, too much too often would get you caught — like the time I got busted for five-fingering my grown cousin Sheena’s pink lipstick. After that — plus the time they found another cousin’s Sashay perfume in my stash — the family watched too close for me to do any real borrowing.
I reckon what I’m shaping up to tell you is that, by age nine, I had discovered a certain truth about myself: I had to thieve. I called it my loco because it came over me like a crazy fit, and I couldn’t think straight until it was done. But it was also like a train, rolling along so fast, so heavy and wild, a Hercules couldn’t stop it if he tried. Once or twice, I did try to halt that train. There was me, standing on that track, all shakin’ and trying to stand my ground, feeling like I was gonna die, the train coming, the train coming — and in the end, it only mashed me down flat, and I ended up stealing the hairbrush or whatnot, anyway.
And so these trips into town were more dire than pink lipstick, more mesmerizing than Sashay perfume. After only my first hour, in the pockets of my first daddy’s jacket, I had my pack of cards, a set of measuring spoons, and a tube of butt-cheek ointment. I didn’t know what I’d do with those last two things — truth to tell, it didn’t much matter — but I thought I might use the cards to teach myself, what’s it called, sleight of hand. And with that, I might step up my sneak-thieving game.
The laundrymat was a yellow building next to a lady hairdresser’s. It had seven washers, six dryers, and a big sink for hand washing. Just now, there was a girl leaning over that sink, watching — as far as I could tell — the slow dripping of a leak from the faucet.
“If you take a picture, it’ll last longer,” I said to her.
The girl turned around. She had big blue eyes, glasses, and a pimple right in the middle of her forehead. Her crayon-yellow hair was tied in a tail held together by a strand of twine.
“What’s that mean?” she asked me.
I started to reply but realized, “I don’t know. Nina says it.”
“Oh.” She waited for a few seconds, as if she wanted me to say something else. When I didn’t, she left to go check on her laundry.
Me, I headed for my favorite washing machine. It was an old one — easier to scam — and sat in the back, harder for the attendant to see. I snuck a broken fork out of my pocket. All but one of the prongs was snapped off. Slipping it into the sweet spot which only I knew, I jiggled the fork until the machine clicked inside itself. The faceplate now read wash.
I opened the door and started shoving in my clothes.
“I think that’s stealing,” said a voice.
I turned around to find the yellow-haired girl blinking at me.
“I’m sure it is,” I told her. “But it ain’t hurting nothin’.”
Her eyebrows crinkled. “It’s hurting Miz Buchanan. She’s the owner.”
“Huh.” Thinking I’d better cover my tracks, I lied. “I didn’t know.”
“Yeah. Sometimes it’s hard to know.” The girl gave me an understanding smile.
I waited for her to go away so I could get back to my filching.
Instead, she told me, “I’m Desiree.”
“Okay,” I said.
“What’s your name?”
“Uh. Hush.” Would she ever get gone?
Desiree reached into her pocket and brought out a wrapped candy. She broke off half and handed it to me.
I took the candy. Only a fool would turn away free food.
As she chewed on her half, she mused, “I used to know somebody called Hush. How’d you come by a name like that?”
I shrugged as if I didn’t know. But I did. It was one of Nina’s jokes. She said I’d chattered so much as a young’un that “Hush!” was all she’d ever seemed to say to me. She told me I was lucky she didn’t decide to call me Slap Upside the Head. I never thought it was a very funny joke.
“How’d you come by a name like Desiree?” I flung back at the girl.
“It means wanted,” she replied. “My ma picked it.”
For some reason, that made my throat go tight.
After a second, she added, “I’ve seen you around. I think you might be my age. Are you? I’m twelve.”
“Uh-huh. Twelve,” I agreed.
“That was you, then!”
What was me? I wondered.
Desiree glanced at the tumbling laundry in a nearby machine. “Mine’s still got ten minutes. Want to take a walk?”
“Oh, come on.” She tugged at my arm.
“Stop pulling on me, girl!” I yanked my arm back. “I don’t want no walk. It’s hot out there.”
She slow-slid her foot forward and tapped the toe of my shoe. “I do remember you from school. I’m sure of it. You were in Miss Bonnet’s class for a while.”
It could be. I never troubled to remember the faces of the goody-goodies.
I moved my foot away from her fancy red shoe. “So?”
“They had to take the class picture three times because you kept ducking down.”
“I don’t like my picture taken.”
She slid her foot forward again. Tapped me again. After a second, she added, “You’re always alone.” Tap-tap. “Every time I see you.”
I only barely kept myself from kicking her. “SO?”
“Nobody likes to be alone.”
She looked at me so long and so hard it gave me the fidgets.
Finally, she said, “I think you need a friend.”
Friend. My breath caught at the peril and magic in the word. As far as I knew, there were two kinds of friends in the world. The kind that used you while they could and disappeared when they were done, and the sort from movies, where two people were nice and helped each other, which looked all great and good, but never happened in real life.
“And you aim to be my friend.” I said it singsong, like a taunt.
“I think I do,” Desiree replied. “And I think maybe you aim to be my friend, too. You did talk to me first.”
“Only because I meant to poke at you!”
She clearly didn’t believe it.
“Throw off the harness, Hush!” She gave a little jump. “Aren’t you curious what might happen if you did?”
I was all ready to say No, and even, Harness this, you crazy goody-good, when something settled over me. It came with a word, in a Voice that wasn’t my own.
Try, it said.
I’d heard the Voice before. More than once, its advice had kept me out of trouble. Meanwhile, the times I ignored it usually turned out poorly. I tried to think of a good reason to refuse it now.
Desiree took my silence for agreement. She’d dragged me halfway out the door before I thought to complain. “Hold up! I ain’t even started my laundry yet!”
I raced back, regretfully dropped in Nina’s quarters, and — surprising even myself — joined up with Desiree for that walk.
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