Mrs. Marco is leaning down into my face to get my attention back.
“I will be back one week from today. All right? If you need me”—she pulls out a card and presses it into my palm, then gently folds my fingers over—”just give me a call. My cell phone is always on and this is a direct number.”
I stand there and look past everyone to the far room in the house. All the children are staring at me now.
“Francesca? Do you understand?”
I look up at her and nod. What else can I do? She is leaving me here with these strangers and I have no say in the matter. All the court appearances, all the fighting, and all the legal motions are over now. The judge made his decision. Fiona Sullivan will be eighteen in seven weeks, but until that day, I must stay with the Sullivans on the possibility that I am the missing daughter. Mr. Sullivan deserves a chance to know you, the judge had said. And seven weeks of my life will not kill me.
I look back at Mrs. Marco and she is still waiting. I shake my head. “No.”
I’ve pushed her last button because she ignores my defiance and starts up her legal speak with the Sullivans.
The older boy comes towards me and I try to shrink behind Mrs. Marco, but she pushes me aside and makes her getaway out the front door and back into the rain.
The parents follow her out onto the porch, still asking questions.
“Hey,” the oldest boy says.
I look around wildly.
“It’s OK, Francesca.”
I just shake my head at him.
My fight is all gone, but I repeat the words one more time. “Io non sono Fiona.”
He smiles at me. It’s warm and bright. And then he takes my hand and leads me into the family room where all the other kids are staring at us. “I know you’re not Fiona, silly. I think I would recognize my own sister. Just forget about it, OK? Just pretend you’re here as an exchange student or something. You’re just here to check things out and in seven weeks you can go home and forget all about us crazy Americans. OK?”
I nod because this actually makes me feel a little better. “OK.” I’m an exchange student, this isn’t my brother, this isn’t my house, this isn’t my family. I’m a guest. “OK,” I say again, like I’m talking myself into it. “Si, va bene. Faccio parte di un programma di scambio studentesco.”
“Right. Now you got it.” He smiles at me and then turns me around to face the kids.
“OK, everyone. This is Francesca, the newest guest here at Sullivan’s Home for Imaginary Friends.” They all laugh, even the older kids, like that’s some kind of inside joke. “We’re all gonna treat her like you wanted to be treated on your first day here. That means no snippy remarks,” he directs this to the oldest girl who has a scowl on her face, “no sneaking into her room,” this one is directed to the youngest girl who I pegged to be about eight, “and no getting her in trouble.” This one he directs to the two teen boys who look like twins.
They snicker under their breath, but Sean lets it go.
“OK, who’s hungry?” This causes an uproar with the kids and they all rush out of the room. “They are pretty easy to control, just promise them barbecue.”
My stomach grumbles at the thought of eating and Sean hears it.
“Come on, I’ll take you to the food. Usually we have a big family dinner and sit at the table, but whenever we get a new foster kid—even though I know you’re not a foster kid, just an exchange student from Italy”—he winks at me and I can’t help but smile—”we’re giving you opening day treatment as well.”