Excerpt Better Watch Out:
The fire blazed as the three remaining members of the Charles family stood by. They were helpless and now, without their big home. To make it worse, it was two days before Christmas.
The firemen tried to put out the fire, but the place was down to only ashes in just a short time. What used to be their home was now nothing—not even good kindling wood.
One of the older firefighters approached Gemma's mom. "I hope you have insurance on that place."
She nodded but said nothing.
"However, I suspect someone started it. If so, the insurance won't pay."
Her mom covered her mouth and let out a sob. "We have nothing," she said. "No money, nothing."
"Sorry for your loss." The guy walked off, joking with his coworkers. Before long, they'd packed up and driven away, leaving the family in the dark, staring at what used to be in that spot. Neighbors watched from a distance, but none offered any condolences or assistance. It was that kind of neighborhood. People turned a blind eye to everyone else's problems.
Gemma had just gotten home from babysitting down the street to see the fire trucks and the firemen working. The blaze was huge, but her eight-year-old brother, Ray, her mom, Betsy, and their big mutt Barney, stood in front of the home and watched. Barney seemed more interested in the firemen, barking at them for a good ten minutes after Gemma had arrived. He finally settled down and went to sleep on the snowy ground.
"We can't just stand here," Gemma said. "There's nothing left. Now that the firemen have gone, can anyone tell me what happened?"
"Ray started it," Betsy said.
"No, I didn't." The kid crossed his arms. "I was playing in the family room. I wasn't near anything to start that fire."
Gemma didn't know what to believe.
At fourteen, she ran that house since her dad had died a year earlier. Her mom usually worked during the day at a department store, but with cutbacks, she'd lost her job a month earlier. Betsy had tried to get a good job, but other than a day of work here and a day there, she was jobless. The bank was almost ready to take the house anyway, so overall, they were bound to be homeless before long. Gemma had hoped they'd make it past Christmas, but that wasn't going to happen.
Gemma pointed toward the driveway. "Is the car working?" She adjusted her backpack on her back. At least she still had her books from school. She had a lot to do before the end of the break, and now, it seemed as if she had a lot of time to do that with no home to work in.
"Yeah." Betsy wiped her eyes. "I never should've gone into the garage. I never should've left him alone. I never—" She sobbed and held her mouth. "We have nothing left. We only have the clothes on our backs. Nothing more. This is it."
Betsy had been depressed since Gemma's dad had died, but his death was more than mysterious. However, Betsy never discussed it with the kids. One day he was there and the next, he was gone. No more was said after Betsy had told them at dinner that he'd died out west somewhere and the state would take care of the funeral. That was it. Very odd, but Betsy refused to discuss it.
Ray bounded toward the car. "I say we go to Grandma's and Grandpa's house." Barney took off after him, his long ears flopping as he ran. He was a white mutt, probably part sheep dog and part, well, mutt. But he was a good-natured dog and at least he hadn't died in the fire.
Betsy inched closer to the car but stopped suddenly. "No," she said. "We can't go there."
Gemma knew why. Betsy's parents were both dead, so the only Grandma and Grandpa they had were their dad's parents. Gemma had heard her mom fighting with them over the phone late one night, because they wanted Gemma and Ray to live with them at their house. But Betsy refused and slammed down the phone. If they went to their grandparents' house now, it would be like her mom admitting she couldn't care for her own children.
"We can't stay here," Gemma said. "Let's get in the car, at least, and figure out where to go."
Betsy sighed after a long moment. "You're right." They all got into the car and Betsy turned the ignition.
"Where are we going then?" Ray asked, from the back seat. "I'm hungry. Let's get take out. It stinks like smoke here and I don't like it."
"Well, we can't go to the Patterson's house," Gemma said. "They refused to pay me anything for babysitting, because they were out of money and heading to their extended family for the holidays. So there's no way we can go there. I'm not happy with not getting paid. I'll never go there again."
"We have nothing left," Betsy said in a low tone. She backed out of the driveway and headed down the street. "We'll have to find a place to live now, that doesn't cost anything."
That's when it hit Gemma. They were officially homeless.
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