"Thus, a strain of gentle music, or the rippling of water in a silent place, or the odour of a flower, or the mention of a familiar word, will sometimes call up sudden dim remembrances of scenes that never were ..."
— Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
I should be used to this by now — the emptiness that fills me when I become homeless for the stretch of a car ride. I've done this more times than I can count, but the truth is that it sucks. Every. Time.
Occasionally, my case manager, Julia, glances at me in the rearview mirror. She knows better than to attempt conversation in a useless effort to comfort me.
Or maybe not.
"Bernadette looked so sad about saying good-bye to you, Olivia," Julia offers in a whine that's supposed to come off as sympathetic. "It's nice that they loved you so ..." She falters when I turn my withering glare on her reflection.
Nice? Yeah, Bernadette and Marc loved me so much that they wouldn't take me with them when they moved to Hawaii. I seriously thought the last home would be the last. I swallow hard — I refuse to cry — and turn my gaze back to the blur of trees as we breeze by on the highway. Julia makes another half-assed attempt at conversation, but I tune her out.
The drive to my new home from Bernadette's is only about twenty minutes once you cross the James River. Julia's GPS announces various rights and lefts, sending us through a maze of streets dotted with small, scrawny trees. The pastel-colored houses are pretty much clones of one another. Über middle class.
Julia parks in front of one of the clones — a white house with a bright-green lawn and orange and pink flowers lining the front picture window.
I've stayed in uglier places.
She pops the trunk to get my suitcase. I step out and lean against the car, not realizing that I'm audibly sighing until Julia throws me a poor baby look. Ignoring her, I sling my backpack over my shoulder, one step ahead as I walk up the stone path. She scrambles to follow me with the suitcase.
Julia presses the doorbell. One thing I've noticed in my years of being shuffled around? A home's doorbell seems to be a reflection of its personality — buzzing for the no-nonsense, cathedral chimes for the snobs, light singsongy bells for the artsy-fartsy. As she releases the button and the cock-a-doodle-dooing ends, my first impression of this home is that the owner might be insane.
Finally, the door opens and an unsmiling woman greets us with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. Her hair is about the same color brown as mine, except short and kind of frayed-looking.
"You must be Mrs. Carter." Julia thrusts her pudgy hand toward the lady. "I'm Julia Winters from the Richmond Department of Social Services."
Mrs. Carter looks at the hand for a moment, maybe trying to decide whether it's safe to shake, then slowly offers hers.
"This is Olivia, the young lady you've been expecting." Julia's open-palm gesture at me announces, Ta-da! Mrs. Carter just presses her lips together. I'm guessing she's in her forties or fifties, although she might look younger if she'd attempt a smile.
Julia's eyes bounce back and forth from her to me like she's watching an invisible tennis match. It's not like she hasn't seen this before: the disinterest, the annoyed "why are you bothering us" mood from the new foster parent. But she always looks so hopeful and happy. Clueless.
Julia clears her throat. "May we come in?"
Mrs. Carter opens the door wider and we step inside. A sickeningly sweet odor almost knocks me over. For some reason, I think of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy is drugged by inhaling the scent of poppies. My eyes burn from the shock of blue floral country decor. And yes, there are the roosters the doorbell promised. They fill every space — clocks, paintings, pillows. As Mrs. Carter leads us to the breakfast room table, my eyes are drawn to a ceramic rooster cookie jar sitting on the kitchen counter. It's paired with rooster salt and pepper shakers that frame the floral centerpiece on the table.
This isn't a home; it's a museum for old ladies.
Mrs. Carter is watching me now, offering no more than the occasional "okay" and "uh-huh" in response to Julia's blabber. I attempt a smile and fail.
"And she's been top in her class each year." Julia turns her honey-sweet smile on me. I disregard pretty much everything she says. She's paid to care. "Why, she won a contest just this year in computers, or something."
"Computer programming." I flick a tiny crumb from the table.
"Yes, that's right, computer programming." Julia reaches for my hand. I jerk it away, but she doesn't seem to notice. "The last school she went to was one of Virginia's best private institutions. For a sixteen-year-old, she's really mature. We're so proud of our Olivia. You'll love having her here."
Mrs. Carter doesn't say anything. She just looks at me. I look back at her without blinking — two can play the staring game. Finally, her attention redirects to Julia.
"I'm sure she'll be fine," Mrs. Carter says in a thin voice. "My husband felt it'd be a good idea to be foster parents. He's thoughtful that way."
It's almost like she spit out the word "thoughtful." Trouble at home? I feel like asking. After a few more minutes of small talk, Julia finally decides it's time to make a break for it. We stand up and she wraps her thick arms around my shoulders.
"Everything will be fine, just fine," she whispers. I stand there, my posture as stiff as I can make it. It always amazes me how she can utter the same words every time she drops me off at a foster home. It's like I'm just here to get my hair done or something. I wonder if she'd think everything was "fine" if our situations were reversed.
Julia and Mrs. Carter walk to the front door, Julia her usual chitter-chatter self. I sink back down in the chair and continue my visual tour. Yep, roosters pretty much everywhere. Seriously, what the hell? I toy with a leaf from the plastic fern on the table and wonder if their backyard is made up of AstroTurf.
Mrs. Carter walks back into the room. "Do you want something to drink?" she asks in a passable effort to be polite.
I smile. At least, I press my teeth together, which I hope looks like a smile. "No, thank you."
She sits across from me and studies her small hands. Her nails are almost nonexistent. Maybe she's a biter like me.
"So am I your first foster?" I ask.
"Do you have any kids?"
"No. I'm not able to have kids," she says quietly, still not looking at me.
We sit for a few more minutes, not talking. I pick at my cuticles, so much so that I'm surprised they haven't starting bleeding. I feel like screaming — or maybe throwing the little rooster shaker — just to break the silence.
I try to stay polite. "May I see my room?"
She looks almost startled. "Of course. This way."
Mrs. Carter leads me across the living room and into a small hallway with four doors. I look with interest at the pictures that line the wall, mostly of her and a blond guy I assume is her husband. She actually looks happy in the pictures, younger.
"This is your bathroom. We have our own. That's our room at the end of the hall." She closes the first door and moves to the next. I'm thinking this tour will take all of thirty seconds.
"This will be your room while you're here," she says, opening the door to a very plain, rooster-free-thank-God white room. A light-green spread covers the twin bed and a small desk stands next to a tall dresser. Flowered curtains over the window are the only homage to her obvious obsession with country living. She's watching me now, so I put my bag next to the bed and manage to mutter, "Thanks."
"Dinner will be ready in about an hour. You can have some time to yourself until then." She pulls the door shut behind her as she leaves.
The room is nice enough, I guess. A quick peek out the window reveals a spectacular view of the neighbor's white fence just a couple feet away.
My own suburban jail.
My eyes are drawn to the Bible on the nightstand. I stare at it for a moment. Bibles were always on nightstands in shelters we stayed at when I was little. Like our souls were desperate to be saved. I grab it and bury it among the extra sheets and blankets in the bottom drawer.
I unpack my clothes and set up my books on top of the dresser. The blue laundry bag that took up most of my suitcase swells with clothes I didn't wash before leaving Bernadette's. I toss the bag into the corner, then pull the laptop Bernadette gave me out of my backpack.
There are no free Wi-Fi networks available, so I select the one with the strongest signal and type "password" in the password field, then try the same with neighboring signals. Nothing. I sigh and lie back on the bed. I'll have to get the router password from the Carters later.
I don't realize I fell asleep until I hear a light tap, startling me awake. "Time for dinner." Mrs. Carter's soft voice barely penetrates the closed door. I get up to join her in the kitchen.
"Did you wash your hands?" she asks, removing a casserole dish from the oven.
"Yes," I lie. What am I, four? I take the plates off the countertop to set the table but Mrs. Carter grabs them from me.
"I'll get these," she says. "You can set the napkins."
Yes, wouldn't want the foster kid to break the precious plates. Napkins are much safer. I shiver, remembering the time I did break one. It was years ago, but the stinging slap from Mary Elizabeth's cruel hand when I broke one of her everyday plates is still fresh in my memory. I don't think I'd even be standing here today if it had been one of her good plates.
The door on the side of the kitchen opens and a man in a dark pin-striped suit walks in. "Well, hello there," he says, not looking surprised to see me standing in his kitchen. "You must be Olivia. I'm Derrick."
I recognize his face from the pictures. He's tall and seems to be about the same age as his wife, with thick, wavy blond hair and a dimple that forms in his cheek when he smiles. I guess he's nice-looking in a businessman sort of way.
He reaches over to hug his wife around her waist and kiss her cheek. She doesn't kiss him back.
We sit down for dinner and I have the food halfway to my mouth before realizing they're both staring at me with their hands outstretched. Oh. I put the fork down. Holding hands is way outside my comfort zone, but I grit my teeth and extend my palms. The Carters barely touch me — mostly fingers on fingers — but it's enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. As soon as Mrs. Carter says amen, I yank my hands away, wiping them on my jeans. I think I'll fold my hands in front of me from now on.
I start on the roast chicken. It tastes pretty good. Nothing like my last home, where Bernadette could barely boil water. We ate out most of the time, which suited me just fine.
"Well, Miss Olivia, why don't you tell us about yourself?" Mr. Carter says. He shifts his glance to his wife, whose eyes are focused on her plate. "Denise, remember what the agency rep said? She was top of her class. Great with computers. I love it!" He winks at me. "I'm a computer nerd myself, you know."
I'm surprised by his warmth, a stark contrast to his wife's personality. How could they have possibly ended up together?
"I like designing apps, mostly," I say, declining a second helping of mashed potatoes. "My last school had a pretty good programming class, so I learned a lot."
"Well, we have a computer in the living room, so feel free to use it any time you need," Mr. Carter says, halfway into a bite of peas.
"Oh, that's okay. Bernadette — the woman I lived with before — bought me a laptop and let me keep it. As long as there's wireless I'm good to go."
Mrs. Carter's head pops up. "I'm sorry, but I only permit one computer in this house. I'll need to put your laptop away."
"Excuse me?" I'm sure I misunderstood.
"I'm going to need your laptop," she says firmly. "I'll give it back when you graduate or if you leave before then. You'll have it for college."
Oh, hell no. "I need to keep my laptop. Most of the work they give us in school is online."
Mrs. Carter takes a deep breath, slowly closing and opening her eyes as if talking to a belligerent child. "Olivia, the Internet has too much questionable content. The one in the living room is suitably set up for appropriate use." Her eyes flicker for just an instant at Derrick.
"No buts. Well? Are you going to say something or not?" she asks in a borderline whiny voice without taking her eyes off Derrick. He grimaces and looks pleadingly at me.
I groan inwardly. What the hell is wrong with this woman? My natural instinct is to keep fighting her on this, but one wrong word and I'll be back in Julia's car. "All right, fine. I'll give it to you." Great. By the time I graduate it will be completely archaic. I'll have to think of a way to get it back later.
After dinner, I help clear the table and wash dishes, trying to pretend I can't hear the Carters arguing quietly between themselves. Finally, claiming a headache, Mrs. Carter heads to her room with some pills and a small cup of what would look like water if I hadn't seen her pour something from a square glass bottle. Mr. Carter grabs a dry towel with a rooster print and stands next to me, taking the dishes after I rinse them.
"Listen," he says, "I know Denise can be pretty rigid at times, but she means well. She's going to love having you here in no time at all. I already do. And please feel comfortable coming to me if you have any concerns, at home or at school. Okay?"
I smile and nod. No way in hell will I be bringing any problems to him. The one thing I've learned about being in foster homes — keep your mouth shut. If you have problems, deal with them on your own. Otherwise, you'll find yourself transferred, punished, or ignored.
He tries to put his arm around my shoulders, but I shudder and almost throw the wet plate at him to dry. He raises an eyebrow but doesn't say anything. I bite my lip, feeling bad but what do I say — I don't like to be touched? I've had enough touching in my lifetime, thank you very much. I dip into the soapy water for the last dish and hope that he got the hint.
Mr. Carter invites me to watch TV with him in the living room, but I politely decline and head to my room instead. Putting on the "I'm happy to be here" act is tiring, and I just want to be alone.
As I've done since I was ten, I pull out the childish, crumpled handwritten list from my bag and lie on the bed to review my checklist for The Perfect Family. Since I've never been permanently placed, I use it for the foster homes.
Kind and caring parents.
Well, Mr. Carter seems okay, I guess. I think ice could actually freeze to Mrs. Carter's ass.
No drinking. No drugs.
Whatever it was she poured into that glass wasn't water. And I also doubt this is a onetime thing for her, from my experience with alcoholic foster parents.
Too soon to know, but I'll be out of here fast if they so much as raise a hand against me. I've had enough of that in my life.
My own room.
Totally, check! No sharing space with bratty kids who put ants in my bed as a sick joke.
I stare at the word, wondering at what point in my life this one started mattering less. I no longer believe in love, no longer believe in the strength of a family that can get a person through the hard times.
I finger my mother's locket — the only treasure I have from her and the only thing I own that means something to me. Yes, my mother loved me all the way up until the day they scraped her dead body, riddled with drugs, off the street. My last foster parents told me they loved me right up until the day they moved to Hawaii. They said it was too difficult to go through the adoption process, so I got left behind.
That's what love is.
I scratch through the word with a pencil. No happy endings for me. I won't be conned again. I might accept friendship or guidance.
* * *
It doesn't matter how many times I've hacked these accounts, the excitement when I break them burns through me as if my blood is on fire. The toughest give the biggest rush — the ones with so-called "uncrackable" codes or behind strong firewalls. This one wasn't complicated, for sure — Micah had already cracked the administrative password on the security system — but the kick-ass feeling lingers as I log on to the account.
I lean back, lightly drumming my fingertips on the keyboard. In fact, this one was easy enough that it's obvious to me that Jen screwed it up on purpose.
The door to the office opens and Nancy walks in, closing the door behind her. "What's up?" I ask without looking up.
She sits down in the chair across from me. "I made you a plate. It's in the fridge."