The Four Stages of Loving Dutch Owen - Debra Kayn

Chapter 1

A GROUP OF MEN TALKED loudly around the burning barrel behind the building. Marla tiptoed to the picnic table without anyone noticing. She lifted the beer can left behind and brought it to her mouth, guzzling until there was nothing left.

The musky taste almost as good as a burger from McDonald's.

Not the Happy Meal cheeseburger her mom bought her for her eighth birthday, but the bigger hamburger with the special sauce her mom would eat when she remembered there wasn't food in the house.

Sometimes, if she stayed extra quiet, her mom fell asleep while eating. Marla was always waiting nearby, ready to save the food before it dropped on the dirty floor. During those times, she'd eat because her mom always forgot about the food when she woke up.

Finders keepers.

Hurrying back to her hiding spot underneath the bushes at the corner of the building, she waited for the men to go back inside.

Her stomach growled, eating her insides. She wrapped her arms around her middle, afraid the noise would alert them to her presence.

She hadn't eaten in three days. It was the longest she'd gone without food since the police took her mom away.

Usually, when her mom left her, she would always find soda crackers and cheese in the kitchen. There was always cheese.

She hated cheese, especially the kind her mom bought that came in plastic-covered slices. But right now, she'd eat a grilled cheese sandwich. She was that hungry.

She peered out from behind a branch on the bush and squinted. If she couldn't find leftover food soon, she'd need to walk back to the shed and try again tomorrow.

It was getting dark, and the mean dog on the other side of the field always came out at night and would chase her.

She hugged her middle. The pain returned again at the thought of going back to the shed.

The landlord had locked the house two days after her mom left and put a paper on the door too high for her to read. But he forgot to close the padlock on the shed's door in the backyard.

The shed was her home now until her mom returned. Afraid the landlord would return and lock her inside if he found the door open, she hid whenever he came around.

He was always mean, coming to the house and yelling at her mom about paying rent. She was scared of him.

The men's voices quieted. She leaned forward on her knees. Excitement about getting a chance to eat what they'd left on the picnic table made her want to pee.

They were going inside.

Saliva dripped from the corner of her mouth. She wiped her hand across her face, almost tasting the food. The last time she chanced stealing their leftovers, they'd had big, thick meat she'd never seen before. While it was hard to chew, she'd eaten everything she fit in her pockets and took back to the shed.

The men disappeared inside. She wiggled out from under the bush and started counting.

"One. Two. Three," she whispered as she crouched on her feet. "Four. Five..."

She looked all around and stood.

"Six. Seven." She forced herself to go slower, knowing she was not waiting long enough to see if it was safe. "Eight. Nine."

She stepped forward. "Ten."

Running to the picnic table, she stepped up on the wooden bench and pulled all the paper plates scattered on the surface toward her. Her chest pounded, scooping up stray potato chips that were left behind, fallen pieces of lettuce, and crumbs of bread. She shoved them all in her mouth, unable to wait until she got back to the shed.

Her stomach talked, telling her to eat more. She picked up a plate and licked the ketchup off the paper. It was sweeter than candy.

Scrambling underneath the table, she looked for any scraps that had fallen. Her throat got smaller, and she opened her mouth to breathe.

"Hey, what are you doing?" bellowed a man.

She froze, curling against her knees, trying to make herself invisible. Without moving her head, she looked toward the door of the back of the building.

Big, black boots thunked against the ground and stopped at the corner of the table. Afraid to move in case she made noise, she ignored the pain in her palms from the pebbles on the asphalt digging into her hands.

The man walked to the side of the table. She leaned away from him, unable to see his upper body.

A hand appeared underneath the table. She jerked, but her legs wouldn't work.

His fingers grabbed her shirt.