Ten Years Old
“Are you ready, Molly?” Bridget, my new social worker, asked from the doorway of the bedroom I would no longer share with my two foster sisters after today.
I stared down at my feet, eyes fixated on the matching tiny holes in the toes of the faded pink-and-gray sneakers I wore. The shoes were a size too small, and like me, they had seen better days. I clutched the extended handle of the small suitcase with all I owned tucked inside.
“Molly?” Bridget prodded. “Do you have everything?”
Without answering, I crossed the worn beige carpet and took my place at her side.
She placed a hand on my shoulder. Not wanting to be touched, I shrugged her off.
Straightening her cheerful bubble gum–pink suit jacket, she forced a smile. “Well, we should get going.” She turned and walked up the hall toward the living room.
With a final glance over my shoulder to Rocket’s cage, I gave the hamster a wave and then followed behind Bridget.
Paula Mitchell, my foster mom, stood in the center of the front room, arms crossed over her chest. The Mitchells had been my third foster family. Paula and her husband, Dan, were nice enough. They already had a little boy of their own and two adopted daughters. When Paula had gotten pregnant, I had known my days living with them were numbered.
My departure was inevitable.
I-N-E-V-I-T-A-B-L-E. The consequences of my behavior were inevitable. If only my teacher, Mrs. Hughes, could hear me now.
My gaze met Paula’s.
She regarded me. Her irises moving from the top of my head to my feet and then side to side, almost in a circular motion. Like she was drawing a ring around me. As though I were an object from one of those activity books, the kind where you had to find the thing that didn’t belong.
Wordlessly, I dropped my stare back to my sneakers and made my way to the door.
She’s right. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.
When I stepped out onto the porch, I let the screen door slam shut behind me. Paula hated it. The sound always made her jump.
Well … take that, Paula.
I stood, swinging my right foot back and forth, causing the rubber sole of my shoe to squeak against the weathered wooden slats of the porch. I glanced across the yard, taking in my surroundings. The hot Georgia sun beat down on Bridget’s silver sedan parked in the driveway. Unlike Bridget’s clothes, her car wasn’t flashy, and it didn’t try too hard.
Bridget’s and Paula’s voices carried on the warm breeze. Sweat beaded on my brow as I waited, listening to their conversation.
“I’m sorry,” I heard Paula say. “We tried. She’s just too much trouble. I have the other kids to worry about, and now, with the baby …” Her voice trailed off.
I didn’t have to see her to know she was rubbing little circles on her barely there belly.
Paula had a point. I really was too much trouble.
My mama had said the same thing the day she dropped me off on Gran’s doorstep when I was four.
The truth was, Mama hadn’t wanted me.
Not Mama or the Mitchells. As far as I knew, I didn’t have a daddy, and that was just as well because he probably wouldn’t want me either.
Nobody had ever really wanted me, except for Gran, but the cancer had wanted her more. After she’d died, somebody had tracked my mama down.
She took me to live with her for a little while, and I tried real hard not to be any trouble at all. I behaved in school on the days I went, and I took care of myself. I even learned how to make macaroni and cheese—but not the fancy kind that came in the blue box, only the store brand for us.
When Mama had one of her episodes, I hid in the closet, quiet as a mouse with my Curious George Flies a Kite book. Gran had read it to me so many times that I knew it by heart, and I could see the pictures in my head. I missed Gran something awful, but I tried not to think about her too much because it always made me sad. If I cried, Mama got angry. Then, she gave me something to cry about. And because I was trying so hard to be good, I didn’t cry anymore.
I never told anyone how Mama would sometimes leave me alone at night. I didn’t tell a soul about the mirrors lined with white powder on the rickety metal kitchen table. Or about her special friends. The ones with creepy smiles and eyes that watched me a little too close.
I kept all her secrets.
Then, one day, one of Mama’s special friends yanked me onto his lap and stroked his fat, dirty fingers through my hair. When Mama walked in and saw, she was fighting mad. She screamed at me. Told me I was more trouble than I was worth and how I ought to be thankful that she hadn’t drowned me in the lake like that one woman had done to her two little boys.
The next day, she’d packed my clothes, taken me to some building, and signed over her rights.
Mama was gone, but I was still keeping her secrets.
The creaking of the door drew my attention, and I looked up to see Bridget.
Her plastered-on smile was meant to reassure me; instead, it had the opposite effect.
“The family you’re going to stay with is really nice,” she declared.
I wasn’t sure which one of us she was trying harder to convince.
“It’s a little crowded, but it’s only temporary until we can find you something more permanent.”
I didn’t say a word as I followed her down the steps and out to her car. When she opened the car door, I slung my suitcase inside and climbed into the backseat. After Bridget watched to make sure I fastened my seat belt, she closed the car door and then went around to get behind the wheel.
I stared out the window, watching the world around me whip by as she drove away.
Bridget’s words spun in my head like the squeaky hamster wheel inside Rocket’s cage.
“… until we can find you something more permanent.”
Permanent was the most ridiculous word I had ever heard.
Nothing lasted forever.
I knew that better than anyone.
Everyone left eventually.
The trick was, you had to leave them first.