by Rachel Lingard-Smith
They had cardboard boxes, some of them, or else a pair of candy-colored plastic lawn chairs and a sheet of poster board advertising their wares in unsteady lettering. The lucky few had plywood-and-spare-nails booths, hammered together by indulgent fathers. They waited eagerly in driveways or the straw-colored grass of front lawns, the August sun warming their heads.
Jessie fidgeted, her bare toes tapping out an impatient, uneven rhythm on the packed dirt. Why had no one come yet? Was her sign big enough, bright enough? She and Andie had painted it this morning, spelling out “Little Sisters Inc., Cheap Sisters for Sale,” in large purple letters. Jessie was fortunate enough to have a sister to bring to the sale – not everyone was so lucky. Samantha Wendell had even dressed her little brother in one of her old skirts and brought him along anyway. No one wanted to miss out on what they had been assured would be the biggest sale ever, even better than last week’s car wash. They would make hundreds, they’d been told, maybe millions, and get rid of their pests in the process.
Andie shifted on her stool, anxiously kicking her feet, rubbing one against the other and scowling. It had been easy enough to get her sister into a dress and their mother’s best hat, the one with all the violets, but Jessie had been hard-pressed to convince Andie to wash her feet and wear her church sandals. “Ain’t no one gonna want you all muddy like that,” she’d insisted.
Plucking at the brim of her hat with tiny fingers, Andie frowned. “Why ain’t nobody here yet, Jessie?”
Jessie swatted at Andie’s hand. “You leave that alone.” She didn’t answer Andie’s question, instead staring at the row of looming houses across the street. Her eyes rested on Mr. Cassidy’s big house. The windows were all covered with blinds, except for one up on the top floor.
Most of the neighborhood folks had gone off to work, except for the five or six moms who stayed behind to keep an eye on the kids. Keeping an eye on the kids meant watching shows and keeping the house clean, Jessie had surmised, and also making sandwiches for lunch sometimes.
But creepy Mr. Cassidy hadn’t gone off to work with everyone else, and he definitely wasn’t making anyone sandwiches. He almost never left his house, not even on bright, beautiful days like this. Every once in a great while, he would sit out on his porch and smile and wave at the children who dared go near the old house, and sometimes he even talked. Once he told Amy from next door how pretty her new dress was, and Amy wore only jeans and her brother’s t-shirts for a week after.
The light went off in Mr. Cassidy’s window, and Jessie finally looked away, breathing a relieved sigh. She turned to Andie, about to say something about how she thought Mr. Cassidy had been watching the sale from his window, but Andie cut her off with a well-timed whine.
“Jessie, it’s hot,” she declared, folding her arms with a hefty harrumph. Her lower lip stuck out and her eyebrows were drawn low over her squinting eyes, the picture of discontent. “Nobody’s gonna come, and they ain’t gonna want me anyways.”
She began to kick her heels against the legs of her stool, punctuating her increasingly shrill complaints. “I don’t like these dumb shoes, and I don’t like Mama’s stupid hat, and I wanna go home, I wanna –” She broke off, her petulance suddenly melting away. “Jessie, look!”
Jessie followed Andie’s pointing finger. Some of the moms had taken pity on their children and come outside, making a fuss of examining the children up for sale and paying small change to the older siblings before carrying the little girls inside.
The other children clamored for a few minutes, hawking desperately, screaming that their little sisters were the prettiest, the cutest, the smartest, the quietest, the cheapest in the whole neighborhood – the whole town – the whole world. Andie bounced excitedly, shrieking, “Pick me! Pick me!” at no one in particular.
Soon enough, though, the sympathetic parents disappeared inside with their children, and the outcry faded to disappointed silence. Only one man remained outside. He stood with his back to Jessie and Andie, apparently engrossed in dark-haired Katie Michaels.
Jessie scowled. Katie Michaels wasn’t even that pretty. “Hey, mister!” she yelled. “Over here!” Why wasn’t anyone else vying for the man’s attention? “Come over here and look at my sister, she’s better!”
Then the man turned around. Jessie fell silent, gaping in horror at Mr. Cassidy’s icy smile. Beside her, Andie gasped. Mr. Cassidy strolled over, his thin lips stretching wider until his smile became almost menacing.
“And what are your names, sweethearts?” he asked softly, clasping his hands behind his back. Most people seemed tall to Jessie, but Mr. Cassidy seemed to loom over them, a thin specter of a man.
Jessie swallowed hard, staring up at his bulbous, bloodshot eyes. “I’m Jessica,” she stammered. “That’s Andrea. She’s my little sister.”
Mr. Cassidy smiled and turned to look at Andie, who shied nervously away from his gaze. “Andrea,” he repeated slowly, as if he were tasting the name, rolling the syllables around on his tongue like hard candy. “Are you for sale, sugar?”
Andie nodded, staring down at her lap and toying with the hem of her dress.
Mr. Cassidy nodded to himself, the corners of his mouth quirking higher for a moment, and looked back at Jessie. “So how much are you asking for pretty little Andrea, Miss Jessica?”
Jessie sucked in a harsh breath, glancing at her wide-eyed little sister. She couldn’t really sell Andie to Mr. Cassidy, could she?
But then, she’d been promised money. She’d be a legend among her friends if she was the only one to actually earn something; and if she changed her mind, almost every little sister in the neighborhood was on sale today. She could always get another.
Jessie forced herself to look Mr. Cassidy in the eye, swallowed again, and hoped her voice wouldn’t quaver. “How much you got?”
Mr. Cassidy dug in his pockets and laid some crumpled bills in Jessie’s outstretched hand. “Seventeen dollars.”
Jessie considered. That was more than twice what she had stuffed in her purple piggy bank at home. A king’s fortune.
She clenched her fist around the wad of bills and nodded to Mr. Cassidy, still giving him a hard look. “Okay,” she agreed.
Andie whimpered as Mr. Cassidy hoisted her off the stool and held her close to his chest, her thin legs dangling. She clutched the man’s neck so she wouldn’t fall, but her eyes were round with fear, peeking over Mr. Cassidy’s shoulder.
Mr. Cassidy walked away, carrying Andie up the street. Andie squeezed her eyes shut as the pair reached the front door of Mr. Cassidy’s house. Then the door swung shut, and Andie was gone.
Jessie looked down at the money still clutched in her fist. It had seemed like a lot more just a minute ago.
She wondered what her parents would say when she told them who she’d sold Andie to.