An excerpt from The Night Budda Got Deep in It. At the urging of Blood Mama, a voice only he hears, fifteen-year-old Budda Jessico has run away to Kentucky to find his former foster sister, Addie Starkwether. Budda thinks he’s tracked Addie to a Chinese restaurant where he’s heard “the Starwether girl” works.
Mrs. Wei returned from the restaurant’s kitchen with a small bowl of steamed rice and set it in front of him. Budda now felt even worse. He had seen how much a bowl of rice cost — more than he had — and he didn’t even like rice.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to eat,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said. “Rice is cheap. Better for you to eat than to throw away.”
She went to the other table to refill their drinks. The man at the table returned to the buffet to pile on another plate with four varieties of breaded or sautéed chicken. He was so skinny Budda wondered where he could put it all. As if to transform his plate into something healthful, the man sprinkled a few sautéed green beans on top of his Mount Leghorn.
Budda didn’t like to be adventurous when it came to eating. His idea of pushing culinary boundaries was trying strawberry instead of grape jelly on his PB&J. Yet, the aromas coming from the buffet table smelled delightful. They reminded him of the Asian dishes his dad made him try once in awhile, dishes Budda refused to taste. Tiny pangs of homesickness began to creep in, but he blamed his burgeoning hunger instead.
Budda considered the bowl of rice in front of him, concluding it would suffice under the circumstances. He was hungry, and the rice provided an antidote, bland though it was. He dowsed the contents with a generous slosh of soy sauce that turned it into rice soup. He was about to take his first spoonful when a girl with tired eyes came to his table. She plopped down in the chair across from him and began fidgeting with a cigarette and lighter she had placed in front of her.
At first, she didn’t speak or even look at Budda. Budda was mesmerized. For the second time that long day, a pretty girl had joined him at his table without asking. He was going to like Kentucky a lot.
She’s trouble, Blood Mama said.
You think everyone’s trouble.
I don’t think it. I know it. She could be the reason our girl’s in a fix.
The girl made it clear from her blasé mien that her eight-hour shift was plenty tiresome enough without having it further dulled by a negative number like Budda.
“You the one looking for me?” she asked, making it clear from her tone that she didn’t care one way or another.
“No,” said Budda, who was loath to say more in case she really was as much trouble as Blood Mama believed.
The girl rolled her eyes the same way Budda often had seen Addie do when his legal parents gave an answer she considered asinine.
“My boss said a kid was here to see me,” the girl said. “After taking an exhaustive survey of all three customers in here, I’ve come to the conclusion you are indeed the only kid in this haute cuisine establishment.”
“I was looking for my sister. Addie Starkwether,” Budda said. “I apologize for not making myself clearer.”
It was a misunderstanding he found quite acceptable. Even though her hardened indifference was a bit off-putting, he would be content to sit at the table with the girl the rest of the night. She was around the same age as Addie, though prettier. Maybe even prettier than Baresha. She smelled wonderfully clean, too. Budda guessed she must have been scrubbing something with a bleach cleaner. Someone should make a perfume with bleach, he thought. It seemed so obvious he wondered why no one had thought of it before. Maybe he would develop a bleach perfume when he got older.
“I’m Kevin, and I came here to find her,” he said. He wanted this girl to know how much trouble he had gone to so far, thinking that might impress her. “I rode a bus from Missouri all the way to Louisville. Went across Illinois and Indiana. And then I hitched a ride to Valkyrie. That part cost me 20 bucks. Then I asked around a couple of places, and I was told Addie might work here.”
“You were told wrong,” the girl said flatly. She rifled an evil look at her boss, who stood at the banquet table, eavesdropping while agitating a pan of stir-fried tomatoes with a serving spoon to keep them looking fresh. “You got a Starkwether, all right, but not the right one. I’m Ellie, Addie’s cousin. Louise over there has been here half her life and she still can’t understand English.”
“It’s not her fault,” Budda said, not wanting to get Louise in trouble with her kitchen help. “I didn’t know Addie had a cousin. I just asked for the Starkwether girl. I didn’t think about there being more than one.”
Budda wasn’t disappointed to learn that he still had some more to do to get to Addie. He knew Ellie would have to know exactly where she was, because Addie had talked about how close the Starkwethers were, and how they kept an eye on each other.
“Maybe you could call and tell her to come here? My phone battery’s dead.”
Ellie fidgeted even more with the items in front of her. Ever since the meddlesome yahoos on the Valkyrie city council forced through the smoking ban, she’d been headachy and ill-tempered at work. The Weis didn’t give her nearly enough smoking breaks. Screw it. She was going to take one anyway.
“I’ve got to suck me some nicotine,” she said as she stood up. “Come on outside, and I’ll explain the situation to you.”
Ellie had the cigarette lit before they made it out the front door. She began to relax immediately. It wasn’t so bad smoking outside where she could enjoy the fresh air in her lungs.
Exhaling a plume of smoke, she asked, “You say you’re looking for Addie, huh?”
Budda nodded. He was momentarily less interested in finding his sister than watching this girl put her lips around the cigarette. Even the smoke couldn’t overpower the smell of cleanliness about her. He would from then on see her in his mind when he smelled bleach. But he had to get that out of his mind, because that wasn’t what brought him to Valkyrie.
“I just need to find Addie.” he said.
“She’s inaccessible at the moment,” Ellie said, blowing a plume of smoke upward.
“Inaccessible in what way?”
“The kind where she can’t be accessed.”
Told you so.
Ellie sized up Budda, but she couldn’t make him fit as Addie’s brother, even a half one she didn’t know about. Addie had moved with her mom a long time back to Missouri where her mom had an aunt or some such. Ellie hadn’t heard anything about Addie until she showed up back in Valkyrie a few months earlier, broke as the day she was born. Addie didn’t talk much about all the years she’d been away, and it didn’t matter enough to Ellie to ask.
“I guess her mom got knocked up with you after she left here,” Ellie said, going with the most obvious possibility.
“Addie’s my foster sister,” Budda said absently. “How long before she can be accessed?” He began to think Blood Mama was right about Addie needing help.
Ellie took a long drag, and then exhaled the smoke in bits like a chugging train as she answered. “I wouldn’t hold my breath. Could be awhile. Sorry you came all this way for nothing.”
This here girl’s a lying liar. She knows where Addie is, all right, Blood Mama said.
Am I supposed to just accuse Ellie of lying? That’s not going to make her too happy, Budda said.
You’re thinking with the wrong part of your anatomy. You’re not here to make this girl happy. You’re here to save your sister.
P.S. Order the book here. Seriously, please do. Winter’s coming.