*Over the course of writing Justice in a Bottle, there were many edits and cuts and rewrites. From time to time I’ll post bonus chapters that never made the final cut (all mistakes are my own, these have never been through edits). We’ll call this one, Happy Times. 

I was getting off the school bus when I spotted the Happy Times Rentals box truck parked crookedly outside our building. It didn’t take a detective to know the truck was there for us. I don’t think Mr. Melvin had rented anything, and the upstairs apartments were vacant because they were fixing the leaky roof.

Speaking of that old man, he wasn’t at his perch on the porch. Not sure he could’ve helped me out anyway. Another quick glance. Hmm, I debated walking the other way, just keep going until the truck was gone. But I had nowhere to go and a whole lot to do, so I took a chance and hauled tail for my house.

I hit the stairs like a ninja, when I heard the squeak of the truck door. I glanced back as a big man wiggled out of the truck. “Excuse me.”

Nope. I continued on inside, pretending not to hear him. I picked up my pace without looking back, got our apartment door unlocked and entered. As soon as I got it shut and locked, I felt big lumbering steps pounding the porch. Shoot.

The front door to the foyer squeaked, followed by the thump thump thump
down the hall. I jumped as he banged on our door. “I need to come in and get that television.”

He wanted the TV. Obviously, this guy had never met my mother. We’d been getting by on DVD’s and if I had to watch season three of The Bernie Mac Show one more time I might just snap. But if Mom came home to find our TV gone, well, I hoped Happy Times offered health insurance.

“Is this the Simmons’ residence?”

His voice boomed through the doorjamb, entering the house, too close for comfort. I paced the kitchen, trying to figure out my next move when he banged again.

Slap. Slap. Slap.

I panicked. I flung opened the door and came face to gut with a greasy man clutching a clipboard with some tattered papers. He was sweating, with a scraggly beard and an extra chin, which was weird because you would think hauling furniture and all—whatever, this wasn’t the time for questioning his metabolism.

“Look, I need to get that TV,” he motioned past me, inside the apartment. “If you don’t comply and let me in it is considered theft, got it?”

It was clear he was one of those people who thought they were more important than they actually were. I mean seriously, a clipboard? I shot him my best smirk.

“How do I know you’re not a burglar?”

He rolled his eyes, pointed to the Happy Times patch on his shirt. Below it was a spot of ketchup followed by a collection of other mysterious splotches.

Something about that old man being next door gave me confidence. I cocked my head. “Couldn’t anyone just wear that shirt and come in and take people’s things?”

He sighed, putting a meaty forearm on the door frame. Look, you saw the truck out front. He fluttered through some papers. “There hasn’t been a payment made on that TV in three weeks. We’ve tried calling,” he sputtered. “I have to take it.”

I shot him a look, the Mom gave me when I asked for money. “Can I see some ID?”

He moaned, went through grueling motion of reaching for his a faded wallet. “Frank Mosely.” I read, all proper-like. “Okay Frank.”

I stepped out of the way and motioned to the living room. He squeezed past me, shooting me a look for being smart. Frank reeked of Cheetos and ham, and under different circumstances I might have recommended an exfoliating wash for the collection of blackheads around his nose, but he was getting kind of huffy.

He rambled over to the living room where he leaned down to search the back of the television. I turned away because he had some serious plumber’s crack going on. When I turned back he was jotting some notes—I can’t imagine what—then began yanking out cords and
unplugging stuff.

I cringed. Mom was going to lose it.

With a grunt, Frank lifted the TV from its base. Then he stood, strained to swing it around, and started for the door.

“Frank.”

“Huh?” he grumbled, his reddened face peeking over the television.

“You forgot your clipboard.”

Another gust of Cheetos breath. Sure, I could have fetched it for him but I wasn’t about to help him out after he’d just busted in and took our TV—legally or not. Big Frank bent down to set the television on the floor. I offered him my finest smile.

He swiped his clipboard off the table, came back to the television and then did some more grunting. As soon as he was out in the foyer, I wished him good luck then promptly slammed the door in his face.

It was all I could do not to bust out laughing, watching from the window as Frank finally got the TV to the truck. But once the truck was gone, it wasn’t so funny. I found myself staring at the empty void of dust in the living room where the TV had sat. We’d gotten it over the summer, and it had been so exciting to have a great big television at first—like a movie theater in our house. But after a while I got used to it. Now it would take some getting used to it being gone.

I read for a while, getting lost in The Phantom Tollbooth and the kingdom of wisdom until I heard the squeaks of the Toyota’s brakes outside. Then I leaped out of bed, peeking from my door and bracing for the discovery as Mom entered. She set the bags down and asked me to help put away the groceries. In my head, I counted down the seconds until she noticed. Three… two… one…

“What in the—”

“Mom.”

“Where’s the durned TV?” And no, she didn’t say durned.

“They came and took it.”

“Who? Who came and took it?” she asked, looking around like someone was in the room right at that moment. Who did she think I meant, Jehovah’s Witnesses?

It was no use. She was off, talking to herself like she did when she was raging. Her purse swung wildly from her forearm as she searched for the keys. “Come on,” she said. I didn’t have to ask where we were going.

Happy Times, huh?  Let me tell you, no one is happy at that place. Especially not Mom as we swung through the doors. Every employee knew her all too well, and I guessed they’d fled for the back offices just as soon as they’d seen us in the lot. So I didn’t hurry to keep in step with Mom, past all the colorful SALES EVENT signs and balloons that seemed to deflate a little in her wake.

Eventually a doe-eyed clerk emerged like a sacrificial lamb asking with a shaky smile if she could help. Mom went to work.

When the shouting started, I kind of drifted back and wandered around the store. They had a little bit of everything. Furniture, appliances, electronics, laptops, and even a popcorn machine. Mom hollered something about a partial payment. That was like our anthem these days, partial payments. We made part of a payment on the light bill, then we paid part of the phone bill, we partly paid the rent one time, which almost got us fully kicked out on the street.

The poor girl behind the counter worked frantically at her computer, searching for something on the screen while smoke billowed out of Mom’s nose and ears. A few potential customers headed for the exits. I fell into a plush couch and watched TV.

I wondered if my buddy Frank was back there. Then I thought about what they might have in their dumpsters. Earnest might be able to find a broken couch or lamp or maybe even a DVD player or something, I’d have to mention it. Then I worried some more about the Piedmont Program, because it pretty much stayed in my thoughts.

It was driving me crazy really, between feeling good that Mrs. Womack thought I could do it and feeling too scared to ever go through with it. And on top of all that I hadn’t even told my mom, who smacked the counter and was now storming out of the store.

I rose to my feet. “Come on, Nita, these people are no better than crooks,” she said, her purse swinging wildly. It felt like every eyeball in that place was on me as I followed her out of the
store.

Happy Times, huh? Not so much.

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