CNF: I’m Toxic…No, I Won’t Change.

Prompt:

Write what you really needed to hear a specific person say to you… but they never did. Contribute it as a note to you, from them.

Dear Nearly Estranged Daughter,

I’m sorry that you feel that I’ve offended you somehow. You can tell, through my language, that I will never take responsibility for my own actions.

I’m sorry that I can’t be what you need me to be. I said you expect too much out of me as a mother but, really, I meant I will never take the steps needed to strengthen our relationship.

I’m sorry that I’ve left you waiting, and waiting, and waiting for my call. I know that I don’t care enough about you to value your time or your want for a mother.

I’m sorry that for years I’ve let you believe we could work this out. What I really should’ve done is shown you my truth: you are not what I wanted in an adopted daughter. You are not my blood. This will never get better unless I give up my stubborn ways.

Now that you know all this, please do the right thing. Stop waiting on me to stop being me.

I won’t. So, I set you free.

Sincerely,
Always Me

CNF: Cleanliness…

In fact, I think, from the twisted look on her face that she tries so desperately to hide that she is disgusted by me, in this moment, and by this.

 

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Or so they say. I loved taking showers, and I’m sure, had I been given the opportunity, I would’ve loved taking baths. My brother, however, did not.

It was as if dirt was his best friend, letting it stick to him like glue, hanging out on his clothes, clinging with every step. You might even say I grew more and more diligent about being clean solely because he wasn’t. 

Standing in the shower, letting the water run over my skin, cleaning me of doubt, fear, and shame. Cleaning me of the stink of expectations, of pressure, of stress. Cleaning me of abandonment, neglect, and what that child therapist said: anger. 

At first, there was nothing to stop me from staying in and taking all the time in the world. However, as you’ve seen, that’s now how my life works. Due to situations I’ll tell you about later, I still rush through showers, even now, as an adult.

***

I stood there, knees shaking no matter how tight I tried to hold them together. I didn’t want her to smell me. I did my job. I went under the water. I took my allotted time and made sure the liquid was so hot that it melted any bacteria away. It was like lava, burning my skin until I was sure I’d only be boiled bones.

She stood before me, waiting for me to drop my towel. I fidget, clutching the towel around my bony body. “I promise, I took a shower. I did,” I reassure her but she doesn’t believe me.

My adoptive mom has told her all these stories. Stories about dirty bodies, “fonk” so strong it stinks up the car, underarms caked in sweat. I want to say ‘it’s not me, it’s him,’ but I know I can’t tattle on my brother. Despite his continuous attempts to break my will, to remind me that I wasn’t ‘really’ his biological sister – that I was a dumpster baby no one wanted and no one could love – I stuck by him always. That’s what you do, when blood is thicker than adoption papers.

 I try to appear innocent although the mischievous look (that, now, I often see in my own baby daughter) is a permanent fixture on my face. I hope to buy a few more moments. I squeeze my eyes shut and pray someone will need her somewhere else in the house and she’ll have to go deal with it right away. It had never happened before but a young girl could dream.

“Let me smell,” with one long fingered hand she pulls up my right arm and inhales deeply. I imagine Yzma, with her bug eyes and stick-like lashes, scouring down at me. Repeating the same on the other side, she seems satisfied. This, I’m used to. This, I don’t mind. But then out comes two fingers that she uses to swipe between my little girl legs. 

Not in a sexual way, there’s nothing gratifying about this. With my lack of pubic hair, my ugly face – too out of proportion to be found beautiful, with my scarred knee and ankle from a rebellious bike ride, with my scarred head from cigarette burns; no, there’s nothing appealing about me. In fact, I think, from the twisted look on her face, that she tries so desperately to hide that she is disgusted by me, in this moment, and by this. Maybe even a little disgusted by herself. She brings her hand up to her nose and sniffs. “Good,” she says, dismissing me with a single wave.

All of this was pointless. Every single time she smelled me, swiping with stiff fingers, I’ve come up clean. No back alley, dirty water, soiled diaper smell coming from me. But I’m shaken, every time. I wonder ‘is this foreshadowing?’ Although, with my young-girl mind, I don’t know what foreshadowing is yet, or how important it is to the rest of my story; I mean, my life.

*** 

I teeter back to my room on nervous legs. My brother had been standing outside the room and we avoid each other’s eyes because I know what comes next. It’s his turn and I know he’ll fail. He’s the one who started this.

First, what with terrifying me so badly that I couldn’t wash my hair in the shower, and second my adverse reaction to unlocked doors. Back home, there were two doors going into the upstairs bathroom. Both doors locked but one always opened regardless. My brother thought it was the funniest thing ever, sneaking into the restroom, throwing back the curtain and screaming at the top of his lungs, poking and prodding at my body. He couldn’t hold back his laughter, giggling at my gangly legs. Legs that would never be long enough to make me a model.

I’d scream until I cried, then cry until I was numb. He didn’t understand but here I am, yet again, making excuses for him. I’m sure he wasn’t aware of all that had happened to me. All that had been done. I would never tell him. He already blamed me for all that had gone wrong, for us being in foster care in the first place – although I’d only been two or three when we were taken – and I’d never give him another reason to think me less than. So, what started as a playful game, became a terrifying world.

There I was teetering into my tiny room while he was behind closed doors, being checked for smells. I didn’t think there was more being done, if there was, he never acted as such and wouldn’t tell me even if I asked. But I feared for him and his fragile mind. (I was sure he was stronger than I thought but I couldn’t run the risk of telling him everything).

When I reached my weekend bed, I slid under the covers and I thought of flowers, big black flowers that could be painted on a yellow wall in rebellion. I thought of tiny boxes filled with secrets and heartfelt memories. I thought of times when my body was my own. When was that? I try hard to remember.

And not just in this, I lie in bed and wish my body was my own-  away from the Hims with friends that want to take me for ice cream (if that ever actually happened, or if it was a culmination of abuse that my young mind strung together like a movie), from foster sisters with things they want to stick in soft places, from eyes that wonder because I’m too young to really understand but old enough to know they’re looking, and from fingers looking for nonexistent smells.

So I’m sullied and clean. Washed and seared. My skin is pristine but crawls. I knew she meant well, at least that’s what I told myself, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she would do what she did if she knows what’d been done: to me.     

 

My Angel of Death


A soft ssssnick woke me from my slumber and my eyes opened. There was silence and then the scraping of metal against metal. Gears moved, shifting, and turning like pieces of a puzzle coming to rest in place.

Slowly, I moved from the comfort of my covering and watched the door with apprehension. With a whoosh of air, it opened and swung back against the cream wall. With a kick of her foot, my angel pushed the wood back and appeared in the doorway.

She was back-lit by the lamp post outside, my angel was. Her head glowed like an effervescent halo, or maybe it was the way the light shot through the fluffy curls that hung around her head in strings. As she moved they were twisting in on themselves like medusa’s pets, coils pulled up in a high bun, some dripping down onto her shoulders. 

My angel was wider than I remembered. I’d only watched her since I moved to this new apartment and I’ve never seen her quite so…lumpy? No matter, I’ll take her however she comes. I watch, awestruck, as she struggles across the threshold. I want to help her, to reach out and take her in all of my arms and tell her how much I missed her. I want to remind her of all the times I kept her company, watching as she moved about. Day to night, back and forth, going along her daily routine.

I wanted to kiss her on her forehead, and wipe away any trace of the fear she might have upon seeing me in her apartment uninvited. For I am uninvited. But, I think, after all I’ve done for her, for them (my mind sours at the thought of the other two, as it’s only my angel I care about but I digress) I have just as much right to darken this door as they do. 

No, not lumpy. She’s just as plump as before. However, once she cleared the door she shed her skin like a snake. One after the other, skin became bags that became visible in the dim light and dropped to her feet. Reaching up, stretching her soft body until it could go no further, she tugged on the tiny metal string hanging from the fan. It clicks and light floods the room. I don’t need to block my eyes, as I’m watching through filtered lenses, but I close them anyway. 

When I open them again she’s gone. He’s there. He sheds his skin bags as well, though they are more hefty and heavier than hers, and then puts the tiny one down. The tiny replica of them sleeps in her plastic cage that keeps her safe and I feel jealousy stir in me. My angel dotes on her, always carrying and rocking and singing her sweet songs. I’d think there’s no way my angel could love me the way she loves her replica.

As I watch them come back and forth dropping their many skins before me, I keep an eye on the tiny one. It is my duty to keep her safe, though my angel would never know my esteemed position. The replica mews and reminds me of my angel again. Her tiny eyes flutter beneath their lids and my green eye fades away. She, like my angel, is beautiful. I see remnants in her. The purse of her lips, the slant to her sleeping eyes, the puffiness of her cheeks. I will not harm this one, I think. Had I been closer I could touch that tiny replica, hug her close with downy arms. But I am not, and she is sleeping and so I wait, patiently, until my angel returns. 

And there she is again, sweat moistening her brow as she lifts more skin through the door. Again, I want to help in any way I can, but I know I must stay out of sight. I’ve no fear of him, papa bear – the clear glass named him, for I heard he’d never harm me. What, with his soft heart and inability to kill. It’’s my angel I truly fear because this connection between us is not yet strong enough. 

She’s talked to me on several occasions unbeknownst to my presence, muttering softly beneath her breath, staring off into space, daydreaming about a blessed life. I would give it to her, if I could, but I cannot. I am the thing of nightmares, the cause of fear and pain and destruction. I wear this like a badge of honor, only except when it comes to my angel. 

I listen and wait, watching through several lenses as the door is shut, with a finality, and all three seem to sigh with relief. The comfort of home, security of being in control, untouchable by the dangers of the world on the other side of the doors. 

She laughs, a melodic sound. As she walks about the apartment tears sprinkle like liquid diamonds falling from her eyes. She motions here and there and there and says something unintelligible to him, and he nods, smiling in return. Then she’s waving her hands through the air again, pointedly, like dance moves to inaudible music.

As she gets closer to my hiding spot I shrink in on myself, afraid her radiance might blind me, or that I might be seen. She’s waving her hands again and I realize it’s not a dance. She’s determined, her mouth set, her eyes darting back and forth,  and back and forth, looking and searching, perhaps for me. 

“You know what they say,” she says, her voice clear as she gets closer. “Wherever there are cobwebs, there is a…SPIDER!” she yells out the last word as my hiding place is discovered. I am betrayed by my angel. I burst free from my confines. Desperation fills me as she slaps, slaps, slaps, left and right and then left again with her dainty hands. Angel’s hands. 

I race away, my surplus of legs no match for her size and agility. She smacks down right on my head and I’m immobile. I feel a shuttering in me, a fluttering like the replica’s eyes. One of my legs has detached and lies twitching an inch away. The other seven remain but are of no use to me. As the hand comes down again I hear him say “did you get it?” and I can do nothing but surrender. 

I have lived a good life. Found solace in the blessed angel no one believed existed. I have watched her day in and day out. I’ve stood sentry from my corner. I have been privy to her thoughts and I am grateful. Ever am I grateful to give my life so that she may live fearless and in peace.

CNF: Blades

With a small pink razor, stolen from another foster kid, I shave at the sporadic hair on my legs. I hear her voice, my adoptive mother’s, in my head with each down sweep of the blades, “if you shave your legs the hair will grow back thicker. Then you’ll have to keep shaving and shaving. Forever.”
I don’t care. Even at eight years old I want to be like everyone else, baby smooth skin that’s soft to touch. The way it used to be. I want to wear dresses and shorts without feeling the prickly spikes of embarrassment move against flowy material. I curve my hand slightly but it’s just enough for the blade to nick my skin.
Sucking in a quick breath at the sharp sting, I watch as a bead of blood wells to the surface. It slips down and taints my skin. I watch it still and I get an idea. It blooms in me like a rose. Its petals vibrant. I push on the nick and pause to watch more blood follow the path of the razor, down toward my ankle where it pools in the divot near my heel. I know what to do. I’ve heard about it from one of the girls that slept in the basement rooms of our foster home. She talked about a friend who found a way out. Of pain. Of fear. Of abandonment. Because, even this age, I know exactly what that word means.
I know what the word feels like. The way it wraps around your throat, each letter like fingers tightening as they mold to the contours of your flesh. I know what it sounds like. Rain pattering against window panes as you’re left behind. Watching the cars drive by, wondering if you’ll be remembered or if they will go on with ‘family’ day without you. I know what it looks like. The way it swirls in the air, red in the color of betrayal. It’s a word you’ll feel long after you’ve healed from it. If you ever truly heal.
***
I’m back in the bathroom a few days later and I’m ready. I’ve set myself up by announcing that I haven’t yet showered. My adoptive mother tells me she knows, without looking up from whatever is more important. She says that she can smell the ‘fonk’ on me. “You’re the first one to notice your own stink,” she’s told me so many times. This time, I wonder if it’s just another lie she tells.
I look in the mirror, a reflection that I can see only by standing on the toilet, and I nod. Then I’m smiling like a loon. Here we go. Climbing down, I grab the razor from the lip of the sink and dig my tiny fingers between the plastic sides. With much force, it cracks, but the part with the blades held fixed.
“I can’t even get this right,” I say in a low whisper. The hot tears come fast, welling and falling before I can blink them away. I’m grabbing and pulling and the sharp edge is slicing at the pads of my fingers. I feel the pain but am determined. I might even like the pain. The way with each slice brings up a paper thin flap of flesh.
Sitting on the toilet lid, I pull up my knees and yank until finally the blades are free. They are wet with sticky blood and I almost yell triumphantly. Dropping the rest of the razor to the floor, I bite the fleshy inside of my cheek, sit two blades on the windowsill and take the third in between my fingers. It’s a precious jewel that I cradle fondly, for a few seconds.
Then I’m cutting. Down and down, until I break through the skin and the lean meat of my small wrist. It’s hot, the area of incision, and I wait for the blood. It slips over my skin and drips onto my knee. It’s fascinating and I sit transfixed under the spell.
Next to the first line I make another, pushing until the skin is broken and then I’m frowning. It doesn’t hurt as bad. The initial shock – gone. Switching to my non-dominant hand, I slice into my right wrist and there the adrenaline is again. It fills me and I close my eyes. I roll back my shoulders and stand a little straighter. I’m in control. This is my body. No one can tell me what to do with my own flesh. They can’t take my limbs from me and I will do whatever I want with them. I am defiant, as everyone always tells me, and I’ve taken it in stride.
With the second cut I go deeper, longer than the other three, and I feel a jolt in my hand. A tingle that spears through each finger, then circles up to my elbow and round my shoulder. The shock of it sparks fear and I drop the blade to my feet, where it narrowly misses the bathroom carpet. I sigh in relief as it settles against the tile with barely a sound. A whimper escapes as the pain grows and I’m watching the blood fall quicker from this fourth cut. I scramble to gather toilet paper to the wrist, and it spins off the roll, spilling in white sheets onto the floor. My left wrist has caught up. It’s dripping profusely and I jump up to stand over the sink.
I didn’t want to end it today, I think. I just wanted to practice. I just wanted to see if I could. If it was easy. My chest is tightening, breaths a quick staccato against the silence of the bathroom. ‘She had a panic attack and…’ I remember one of my teachers saying, after I nearly passed out a few months ago, and I stand up straight. I hold my breath, hoping to stop the rising sense of relinquishment. Then I’m counting; One, Two, Three, Four. The blood has slowed, I see. I flick on the faucet and run both stained wrists under the cool water. It stings and I’m sucking in another breath.
I hear someone calling my name. Dinner! I’d completely forgotten. I’m turning the water on full blast now, hoping to wash away my sins. The water irritates the cuts and blood flows again. A vicious cycle. I feel stupid. Useless. Like the waste of space that I am. We have dinner every night. How could I forget that?
Finally, I cut the water to the faucet and then gingerly sidestep to the shower and cut the water there, too, and then I’m wrapping my wrists in wads of toilet paper. I quickly grab the blades from the sill and the one from the floor and wrap them too. I stick them in the small pocket of my jeans and the towel that is in the color assigned to me. Wrapping my wrists, doubly now, I make a quick exit into the adjacent bedroom. My name is called again and I yell that I’m putting my clothes on.
In my room, I change and put on a cropped jean jacket. It’s long sleeved and the material snags on the wadded toilet paper on my wrists. I slide the buttons closed and look at myself in the mirror. My eyes are wide and I know I look feral. There’s a thin line of wayward blood across my check and I’m wiping. Wiping, and wiping and scrubbing it away. I’m scrubbing and then I’m hitting. I’m smacking a small hand against my check for being so stupid. Then I know I must end it. Just not today.

***
At the dinner table, I sit with my hands in my lap, mock respect. My adoptive mother is going on about how it’s ‘just so rude’ for me to make everyone else wait while I lollygag. I know she’s thinking about why does she always have to punish me. And how I can’t be ‘more important than everyone else’.
“That’s not how the world works,” she says and continues on her diatribe of things Jade doesn’t know about the world. I do this so often, always so late, all the time. I know that when she winds down another punishment is in order. I fidget in my seat while thinking of what it might be.
Would it be 12 licks with daddy’s thick leather belt? Mom saying “this hurts me more than it hurts you” followed by “as soon as you stop jumping around and stay still I can finish”? Would it be hours sitting in front of the fire place? A punishment tailor made for me because I had books in my room. And “Go to your room right now and think about what you’ve done” wasn’t a punishment but a reading vacation and one I savored every moment I could. Would it be one thousand admonishments where I’d admit how stubborn I am, write out my crimes and promise to do better? Hands cramping with every “I’ll never waste everyone’s time by thinking I am more important than them again. I apologize. I apologize. I apologize.” Would I be banned from the library for 2 months? The worst punishment of all because the house of books was my only safe space, the only place I truly felt happy, the only place where I can cleanse myself of all the anger and the fear and immerse myself into another life.
More punishments went through my mind as I made myself smaller and smaller in my chair. I get it, at least, I think I do. I’m not important and shouldn’t make myself out to be. “You can’t be something you’re not’ was another of her admonishments. I nod and she corrects me ‘use your words’. I look up and she’s staring right at me. Everyone is.
My brother’s sitting right next to me and yet we feel so far apart. He is the only biological sibling that I have that still seems to love me and I can feel him slipping away. Everyday he tells me how I was ‘found in a trashcan’ and if I slip up one more time he’ll take me back. Next to him is the new girl who’s name I often forget. She smirks at me because she’s a hell raiser, at least that’s what my adoptive mom calls her when she’s on the phone with her prayer group. On the other side of the table, next to Mother, is my adoptive father. He’s my favorite person in the world but I can tell by the look in his eyes that he won’t save me and he won’t stop her rant. He never does. He’ll let her go on and on until my nods are not enough to placate her. I lower my eyes to my lap, submissive, and see a bit of toilet paper peeking from my jacket sleeve.
Can they see what I’ve done? I shove my hands further into my lap and depress the urge to wince as the cuts in my wrists grind against the now sticky toilet paper.
“Hello?” she says to me, sarcastically drawing out the O, and I’m looking around. My brother is smirking at me from across the table and I jump. He’s holding a plate of warm garlic rolls in my direction. I can see butter melting in the slits topping each one. Gingerly, I lift my arm to take the plate, and a roll, before passing it on. She has a screwed look, the one where her lips go to one side and her eyes narrow. I can see it from the corner of my eye and I think any minute. Any minute now and she’ll ask what’s wrong and that’ll be the worst.
I’m a horrible liar, I know. I fidget in my seat and then dig into my food that she’s already plated due to my tardiness. It satisfies her and she instead of dishing out one of her infamous punishments she begins her rounds of the table, everyone having their turn in the spotlight. “How was your day? What did you do? Did you learn anything?”
I take a deep breath around a bite of thick mashed potatoes and relax. ‘One day but not today,’ I think. I sit and listen as everyone tries to find something interesting to say and pretend they did. When it comes around to me I think of my wrists. I think of something I might say.
“I slit my wrists today. I didn’t want to kill myself, only see if it would be easy – should I want to. It hurt. It hurt so bad that it felt good. I still want to kill myself, one day. But for now I just want to revel in the pain that sears through my body. It makes me think of everything that has ever been done to me, will ever be done to me, and how this is different. It’s me, saying what goes. Saying WHEN,” Instead, I shrug and continue eating, slowly chewing so I don’t look like a chow. I remember to use my words and my fork hovers.
“I finished reading my new book,” I say.
“I thought you just got that book yesterday,” she says between bites of fried chicken.
“I did. And I finished it. It was fantastic. It was about…”
“So that’s what you were doing in your room. Didn’t I tell you not to spend all day up there reading? Those people aren’t real. How will you ever learn anything about making a human connection, about god’s creatures, about the true meaning of life, if you just have your nose stuck in a book? All…” I stopped listening. This is what she did.
I was selfish, embarrassed, angry, reserved, I liked books over people. Hell, I liked bacon over people. But it wasn’t until that day, sitting there listening to her explain how books will never make me happy, that I realize books can make me happy. Books can make me positive, optimistic, and light. They can teach me about human connection, about god’s creatures, about the true meaning of life. They can show me a full way to live.
As she goes on, I day dream of meeting a man who will love me for me and about creating a family that I can take care of and show what it means to truly be supportive – like in the romance novels. I think of the thrillers that keep me on the edge of my seat, what’s going to happen next? Who killed who? Why did they kill? Why do humans kill? I think of the adventurous books. How archeology opens you up to the world of old and teaches you that life’s a puzzle to discover. I think of the horror novels when bad things happen to good people and even though they die in the end a lesson has been learned.
I nod and look attentive and she gains her second wind. As she starts up again, telling me how I’m not the daughter she hoped for, I think of stories filled with dragons and vampires that are living and find love despite their soulless nature. I day dream and I wish and I hope and pray and think and decipher and enthusiastically appeal to the witches of fate and then, instead of the blades I used just twenty minutes ago to mar my body, I think of a different outlet. A different way to escape.
I’ll become…a scholar.

10 Years Late to University: I don’t Belong Here But I Belong Here

 
My first semester at UCF I cried on my way to campus.

It was 7:30am, the road was clear – as it always is at dawn – and so the drive from West Orlando was quick. I was so excited, the night before, that I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate, barely hydrated, and spent most of the day with the jitters. I’d always loved school, loved learning, loved brainstorming with my fellow students, and this was my time.

But I was also terrified. It had been 10 years, then a brief stint at Valencia College – via the Direct Connect program – since I had been at University. Before, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to go back to school, to do what I loved. It was finally here. There was so much fear surrounding the ideal of being an older college student. At nearly 28, it might not seem like I am so removed from the fresh-out-of-high school teens that are enrolling now but I am. We are in two completely different generations.

I’m a Millennial. For some reason, older people forget just how old Millennials actually are. They forget that we played outside as children, most of us didn’t have the internet when we were kids, and we got dirty. They forget that we, too, had catalogues where we picked out our favorite toys hoping our parents would order them for us. They forget that we had CD players and Walkman. They forget that most of us didn’t have these fancy smartphones or our necks breaking to watch TV on iPads all day. We didn’t get those cheapie pay-as-you-go Nokia’s until we were sophomores in high school (barely). Even then you had to get a job because your mom wasn’t going to pay for the by-text fees and waiting until after 9pm, when everything was free, was too long to make plans with your friends. We weren’t using Instagram, or Facebook or spending all day on Twitter. I had Myspace and only when I snuck to get on when my mother wasn’t looking.

So, it’s different. I’m late. I’m behind the curve. I have aspirations but am quickly realizing that there are 20-year olds going for these internships I would be applying for at 30. I’m a part of a writing group with a recent UCF MFA alum, who is in her early 20s, who currently living my life – had I gone straight through like I was “supposed” to.

I want to be strong. I want to feel like I’m not too late but I’m a Millennial. I’m a part of the “graduate high school, straight to college, graduate in 4 years and into a good job by 21 then a family, and a house,” group. We are pressured to do everything so quickly. No traveling, no taking years off, no breathers, no doing “what you love”. If our lives don’t fit into that timeline we’re stuck.

That’s how I ended up here. I was pressured, by my family, into going for a degree I didn’t want because “writers don’t make any money” and “don’t you want to get a real job” or even “is that even a career”? That didn’t work out – does it ever? So here I am. 10 years later. On the cusp of 30 and crying in my car in my first week at UCF. Wiping my tears with Chik-Fil-A napkins from yesterday’s excited-to-be-on-track run. Picking myself back up. Building my confidence as a writer. Gleaning as much as I can before this opportunity is over, in case it doesn’t work out. Again.

I’m also crying because I’m a full-time student and at the same time I’m a new mother.

These first days at UCF will be the first time I am away from my four-month-old daughter, Naomi, for more than four hours. I’m terrified to be so far from her. If anything happens, I’m on the East side of town and must rush through highways, construction, and rush hour to get to her. Can I get there in time? Am I a good mother?

I’ve been told that I’m supposed to forget about myself. Lose myself. I am a Mother now. That’s how they say it. A Mother with a capital M and in bold. Mother. Does me being on campus – finally shedding the pressures of a toxic adoptive family, putting aside stereotypes about strong black women who endure it all and multitasking relationship, baby, writing, and keeping my house in order – mean that I’m not giving my daughter the attention that she deserves? Should I even be doing this? I grip the steering wheel tight and hesitate before I turn off the car. Maybe I should just go home right now. She probably needs me. Even though her father is absolutely amazing, supportive, loving, kind, and spent the last four months learning about parenting just as I have – I’m sure he’ll need help.

I turn off the car. No. I’m here for a reason. I have to do this. I made a commitment to myself and to my guy. He supports me while I am in school. Supports my dreams and my end goal. I made a commitment to the Universe. It deserves my writing. It deserves my voice. I made a commitment to the young, black foster kids who are abused and unloved. They deserve to know it’s possible to survive through it all and come out loving your life. I also made a commitment to my daughter. I want to show her that it’s never too late to do what you love. Because it’s not. Right?

No seriously, I’m asking.

I check my face in my rear-view mirror and dissolve into more tears. I look a mess. My makeup is all over the place. I never wear makeup but today I must. I’m a college student. University student with pious eyes. Everyone is young, pretty, with tight bodies – that didn’t just have babies – and long luscious hair – that isn’t falling out because of postpartum shedding. They move across campus on trim legs in droves, scattering like roaches the moment the clock marks the hour. I watch them from my swinging hammock strung up on Memory Mall, because I get to campus early, and stay very late, to avoid rush hour. Their laughter is a joyous noise unbroken by the ups and downs of life and the monotony of an unsatisfying day job. They cut through the foot traffic on their tiny skateboards (one of which I have but haven’t used because my unfit body can’t figure out how to turn corners). I sit and watch them as they shove their mouths with campus food because they’re not watching their weight as tight as they are watching their budget.

So I don’t belong here but I do. I pay my fees in late nights of homework. I hand make journals for handwritten notes in classes where I sit in the front row. After the baby is down for the night, I stay up late to write, like I am now at 2:30am, to make sure my priorities are in check. To make sure that I said I wanted to be a writer and therefore I am.

While pumping breast milk, I scratch out feedback for in-class workshops and shake my wrists to deal with the lasting effects of carpal tunnel from my pregnancy. While the food is cooking on the stove, I get in a few pages of the many required reading texts and yell “Hey! Don’t eat that” to Naomi who’s found a way to knock a rented textbook off the table and is using the spine to soothe her teething. I pick it up and put it on the counter and then later have to pay the difference because I accidentally burn a page or two.

I hold my daughter across my lap, the bottle of milk I just pumped clutched in her tiny hands, while I type out the answers to busy-work weekly discussion posts. I definitely paid after I was double-fisting open bottles of breast milk, had a squirming baby on my lap, and she kicked them and the spilled milk destroyed my MAC. I paid in the way my shins hurt going from bedrest while pregnant to walking miles everyday either on campus or on the treadmill to get my stamina back. I pay in the way I clean up my apartment every night, picking up toys and textbooks, sticky yogurt melts stuck to the carpet and highlighters, baby socks and post-it notes.

While on campus I utilize the “Nursing Room” in the Student Union in between classes so I can make sure my milk supply doesn’t dwindle. I spend the first month of school pouring the milk down the drain before the fog of mommy-brain lifts and I remember that I can bring a cooler bag with ice packs to keep the milk fresh.

I do a lap of the fitness center with my backpack, my pump bag, and my cooler before realizing that I don’t belong in this place of young energy and sickening innocence. I get a gym membership at a 24 Hour Fitness near my home because – while I belong on campus – I don’t belong in the campus gym. I feel that my insecurities won’t die there, in the presence of adults my age, only thrive.

So; I love that word – So. It leads from one thing to another. I say it so often. And, hilariously, there it is again.

So, I don’t belong here but I do. And I’m here to stay. Well, at least, until graduation. Then I’m done. My dreams are being achieved; I’m hitting my goals with every turned-in homework assignment that’s accompanied by baby puff snack stains. I’m not letting anyone tell me no, or make me go home. Even myself. I have made a commitment and although there have been many days weeping, arguing, and baby bouncing, I am happy to call myself a Knight.

 

CNF: The Making of a Home

When I was seven I had a hard time keeping my markers to myself.

Everything about this new foster home was different than the other places I’d been. When you step out of the car, you are met with the arch admired only by weddings and those who want to show their best clamoring vines. It stretches over the main path and allows only the skinniest to get by without a scratch. Up the cement walkway and knocking on a bright red door came next. It opens and a fork in the layout shows an immaculate living room to the left. 

It’s a blue room, a color for royals and steamed throw pillows, that elongates the house with a mediocre fireplace and small shining figurines lining a brick mantel. A small den sits in the corner of the room. To the right, a dining room holds a large wooden table, a minimum of five chairs and a large china cabinet. Yes, filled with china no foster kid wants to break. Be wary of this room, it gets even the most obedient children in trouble. It’s dressed in a swirling rug of red, browns, and yellows. Splitting the rooms, a steep skyward staircase leads to three rooms, a master bed and bath, and two smaller bedrooms with a connecting bathroom to the right. 

Back at the fork, going through the dining room will lead you to a small ranch style kitchen with it’s small window sink, fridge equipped with lock to keep out wandering hands, and a sun room (built five years in the future) that leads to the back yard. Going halfway through the kitchen, you could turn left and meet the rest of the house. A living room, where the foster kids can gingerly play video games and a out-of-tune piano, a small half bathroom, and a set of stairs leading down, down, down, to two more bedrooms, a living room for the older kids, a large pantry and laundry room, and home of the spikets. You know, those spiders that look like crickets that jump as high as your waist if you startle them. 

It was too perfect. Too together. Everything needed to be dusted and cleaned and vacuumed and I, not a clean or dusted or vacuumed tiny person, knew I wouldn’t fit there. So I did what every foster kid wants to do.

I made a place for myself.

I took my markers and I drew on the walls. I drew on the pillows. I drew on the pristine glass tables and the thick windows. I drew on the stairs and I drew on the railings. I drew on the ceiling, above my bunk bed, and I drew on the floor by the bottom bunk. I drew in the bathroom and I drew in the kitchen. I drew on the wall outside by that thorny rose bush. I drew on the stones that go round to the backyard. I drew on the wooden fence that falls apart every few years. I drew on the base of a bush near the corner of the yard and a big tree that took up the front. I drew on the leaves of the flowers near the window sills. I drew on the linoleum of the kitchen floor and the tile that lined the back-splash. I drew on the curtains and I drew on the carpet. I drew on a plate that I hid in the china cabinet for four years. I drew on the mail in the mail drawer and the metal where the mail dropped. I drew on it all.

And then I was settled. Nothing was perfect and neither was I. 

 

The Book That Saved

As a child I was very reserved and even the thought of conversation with strangers would send me into sweating fits. My skin would get clammy and I would struggle to get out a ‘hi’ or ‘how are you?’ People didn’t make sense to me. Adults were liars or people who looked through me instead of ‘at’ me. Other kids were too young and immature for me. I could relate to no one. I had the bare minimum of the required social skills and that was the way I liked it.  

In this, I snuggled deeper. A Life of solitude so that no one could hurt me or let me down. I didn’t have to worry about fake friends or fake family. Even though, admittedly, a part of me wanted to belong to someone. Anyone. Then I found books. They enveloped me in their arms and I fell head first. Around the age of seven I discovered romance. The chemistry that could form between a man and a woman. I discovered fantasy, and all the things our imaginations could create. I also discovered thriller and mystery, and the questions and answers to human nature and what could bring the darkness.

In this new world of Worlds, I discovered The Golden Compass. 

I was adopted by a Christian family headed by die-hard pastors with no grey area. Black and White. Right and Wrong. Only god. Only Jesus. Books that were about things called ‘Daemons’ (the name was just entirely too close), animals that talked, a girl who would be the savior or the answer to everything, the layers of universes and the questioning of creation were not allowed. Part of me wondered if this was the initial reason I fell in love with the book. It wasn’t just one thing. I didn’t have to be this ‘perfect little girl’. Lyra wasn’t.

I hid the book among the sheets and pillowcases of my bed so that no one would find it. I read it over, and over, and over again. I pretended that I had my own Daemon, it was an Owl. What I then would call my spirit animal – before I had even heard of Native Americans or their claims to that ideal. I would pretend that outside my window I could hear one calling to me. “Hoot, hoot..hoot, hoot…Jaden” (as I’d taken to calling myself). 

This wise creature would answer my questions and help guide me through life. It would let me know when things were too bad. When I should fold into myself, when the bad things were happening. And when, at 9, I wanted to take my life it fluttered it’s wings and put them around me. I lay on the top bunk in the yellow bedroom I lived in and closed my eyes to the moonlight. I pretended that my Daemon hopped about the branches, causing them to scrape against the window. It told me to wait, to see if things got better, to think of better days when, like Lyra, I would be free to bound about free from the confines of the foster home.

Then I made the mistake. It’s bigger than that. I made “The Mistake”.

As a child, my brother and I would go to our adopted Aunt’s house for respite. We would stay there when my parents wanted a vacation, or to just be free of us (of me and all my behavioral issues). I loved my Aunt. She wasn’t as strict as my adopted mother. She was free and light and did things like: make gross homemade pizza under the guise of health (I loved that disgusting pizza), stroke her hand down my frizzy hair like she loved me, tell me that Jesus loved me no matter where I came from or who (like an evil biological mother). I loved her so much that I let my guard slip. I didn’t realize that she was just as religious as my mother. If not more – but just in a different way? I brought my book with me. I slipped it into my weekend luggage and, once I made sure my adopted parents were gone, I stowed it in the room I slept in during our stay. 

As the weekend went on, I felt more and more comfortable and I felt it was time. Just after dinner, I clamored up the stairs to my temporary room. I clutched The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, with it’s embossed cover, to my chest and returned to the living room. I curled into a plush chair and opened the first page for what could’ve been the 20th time.

At first, she was curious. “What are you reading?” I responded excitedly, explaining how it was my favorite book. How I’d saved up my allowance ($1 for every day of the week, but some how my mother always found something wrong with everything I did, even when I tried my best. I never got a full $7 in the end) to buy this book. That I loved it with my whole heart. How it, and Lyra, was my whole heart.

She took my heart in her hands and read the back. She flipped through it, reading here and there. Her mouth set in a thin line and, with two hands that curled into claws, she gripped the book tight. Then she ripped. She tore. First a few pages, then more. The cover of the book hit the floor and scrapes of Lyra’s adventures followed. At first, I couldn’t cry. My mouth dropped open and, in a flutter of feathers, I could almost see my Owl pacing in anger. 

Then the tears fell. A deep guttural pain welled up and poured out through my mouth. I was ‘the wailing woman’ and I couldn’t stop it. She didn’t love me. She never did. She hated me and everything I stood for, I thought at the time. I didn’t listen as she spewed venom about how Christians didn’t read such filth. That it wasn’t god-like. In that moment I didn’t want to be god-like, or Jesus-like, or christian-like. I wanted to be Lyra. I wanted to be free and adventurous. In that moment, I knew it would never happen, just knew.

I was wrong. Thank god.

 


(I will add, I now how a beautiful copy of the His Dark Materials series as well as the short – Lyra’s Oxford)

 


Good Readdance,
Jade

CNF: To An Old Roommate, I’m So Sorry

I’m sorry I wasn’t the roommate I was supposed to be. I needed to be slutty and hot and sweet and sexy and wholesome and rich and innocent and snobby. I’m sorry I let you drag me along, open door policy, knocking on doors around the dorm to introduce myself to random people on our floor, tossing hair over shoulders.

I’m sorry I flinched away at that tossed hair. That I wanted a bob that barely passed my chin, that when I tucked it behind my ear guys said I looked adorable. I’m sorry that you got that angry look in your eyes when guys said that even though I was shy I was the friendlier of us two. I’m sorry that guys said they’d rather date me than date you. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the roommate I was supposed to be.

I’m sorry that you said ‘this is a secret, don’t tell anyone’ to so many people that it was no longer a secret. I never said anything to anyone. I’m sorry I kept your secret and let people think you were the sweet one and I was the evil one. I’m sorry that there had to be a difference between the two of us.

I’m sorry that you moved out because others, on the floor, wrote SLUT on the door in big black letters that seemed to dig into the board. I’m sorry that when I spoke up – I’m still a virgin – everyone knew that the SLUT was you. I’m sorry that when you left I shut my door, no more open policy, and I retreated into myself.

I’m sorry for lowering my head, and my eyes, whenever I saw you in the halls because when you left you moved down the hall and I had to see your smug face every day. I’m sorry that after our roommate split, our mutual friends had to choose between us and they eventually chose you because your lies depicted me in a false light. I’m sorry that I didn’t correct them. After a certain point, I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to do well in school even though I knew, that November, it was already too late.

I’m sorry that I trusted you to keep your word. That when you, and the other supposed friends, lied to me he was able to do what he did. I’m sorry that when I opened the door and saw him standing there – the one who had hit me before but claimed he’d been drunk- I let him in. I’m sorry that I was angry at you for not being truthful. For because you didn’t come – which you’d told him you weren’t – he held me down and slapped me around. I’m sorry that he laughed as he ground his pelvis into mine. Our clothes tugging and pulling between us, the buckle of his belt leaving a deep impression into the soft skin of my belly. 

I’m sorry that I couldn’t move, though I always thought I would, and I’m sorry I thought of you. My eyes were closed so tight and I also thought of my childhood. I thought of when I was a child and one of the teens pushed her hands between my legs and I couldn’t say no, didn’t know better than to say no. I thought of when I was even younger and was burned in my scalp with cigarette butts. I relive that pain everyday that I hide the scars in my head. As I lay there, letting him paw me, I thought of my brother slapping me, punching me, kicking me down. I thought of being told I was too ugly to be loved or cared for. I’m sorry that I remembered when I was seven suicide was on my mind but I promised myself that I’d stay alive long enough to go to college, so I could learn amazing things and oh, how it would be to be on my own and to finally be safe. Feel safe. I’m sorry that I couldn’t move because my life flashed before my eyes and not the highlights – as it’s said to happen when near death but the dark parts of my life. They went by like a bullet train.

I’m sorry that because you lied to me, he did this and I thought of all that when I was supposed to be past it. When I was supposed to be healed. When having gone to college and starting a new life for myself was supposed to be different. Despite some of your behavior, I didn’t think you would want this for me. I didn’t think you told him to come over and do this to me. Did you? Did you tell him to come teach me a lesson? I’m sorry but I never learned it.

I’m sorry that when I finally punched him, with a weak hand, I thought of you. I thought of how you lied to me and how because of that he was able to do what he did. I’m sorry for never speaking up about him despite being so afraid I rarely left my room and flunked two of my classes that semester. I’m sorry that every day I would see him in the elevator and he would look at me with one eyebrow raised as if to ask me if I’d told on him yet. I would take in a shaky breath and blow it out so slow and so silent that I wasn’t sure I was doing it at all.

I’m just so sorry. I hope you can forgive me for not being the roommate I was supposed to be.

Good Readdance,
Jade

CNF: Levels of Acceptance

I hear you out there. You’re enjoying your night, clinking glasses, knocking forks against plates, and murmuring pleasantries around the table. I wish I could join you. My belly rumbles as the pungent smell of cayenne pepper, lemon and garlic crusted, oven roasted chicken floats up the stairs, down the hall and through the small key hole of the door. I can just taste the thick heap of coagulated sugar sitting at the bottom of the Kool-aid container. 

From my perch on the opposite side of the door, I kneel before the hollow wood and close my eyes. I imagine the red ring the sweet liquid leaves as you raise your glasses to your lips and slurp. Tongue stained, teeth bared as ice crunches between them. 

I take a deep breath in. Is that apple pie I smell? Or has my imagination, overwrought with the need for belonging, begun to invent things? I inhale deeply.

Definitely apple pie, then.

I sigh as I sit back on my haunches, my damp hands pressing against my thighs. My stomach growls again and I turn my head. “And what do you think we will eat?” I ask. 

My brother sits on the floor not too far from me. We don’t use the furniture because that would mean we existed, should we mess things up. He is unbothered, or at least pretending to be, and twiddles his thumbs on his lap. 

“Something,” he murmurs so low I wonder if I imagined it. I imagine a lot. I’m not sure why. I make up stories in my head. I tell myself untruths so real that life doesn’t seem so bad. I turn back to the door and I tell myself a story: They’ll come to the door any second. They will unlock the door. 

The First Level of Acceptance

They won’t be holding paper plates in their hands to force us to feed on the floor like animals. No, they’ll have open palms and open hearts. Generosity will shine from their eyes and they will beckon us forward. Inviting us into their lives. 

The Second Level of Acceptance.

We will rise, eyes wide with gratitude, bellies growling, also in gratitude. We’ll follow them downstairs where two extra place settings have been polished and two extra plush chairs have been drawn. Everyone at the table will stand to their feet.

Are we equals or royalty? I don’t know, but I feel respected. 

The Third Level of acceptance. 

I will reach back and grab my brother’s hand. He’s older but I’m mentally stronger, I know,  and more determined. When we sit, they sit. They’re watching us, waiting as we pick up our utensils, and we smile apologetically, knowing, in our haste to feed our starving bellies, we’ve forgotten our prayers. They don’t mind and we bow our heads, though we are unable to take our eyes off the glistening food. After prayers, they once again wait for us to begin eating. 

The Fourth Level of Acceptance. 

We don’t sit in silence. Oh no, the room grows louder with mirth and converse of past indiscretions and future aspirations. We, my brother and I, tell tall tales and ensnare them with our dreams. Dreams that peg us as more than two black kids whose mother didn’t love them, stuck in the foster care system, locked away in closets, while the ‘real kids’ ate at the dinner table. They’ll look back at us in agreement. “Yes, you’ll make it out,” they’ll say. Their eyes showing they truly believe in us. 

The Fifth Level of Acceptance. 

The story ends there because I’m not sure how the night would go on, not even in my head. I’m never there to see what happens to the family after their meal is over and the forks are crossed. 

Are they crossed? Or are they thrown haphazardly atop the chicken’s carcass or the half eaten bowl of overcooked mashed potatoes? Do they disperse to their respective corners? Do the children help clean up the dishes? Is the mother calling out bedtimes and homework reminders? 

I don’t know this part because they retreat to a section of the house I cannot hear with my little girl ears, no matter how hard I strain. I lean closer to the door. The clink, clink, clink of utensils bounce off the soft walls of my growling belly. I stay there until my toes go numb from the kneeling position.  I want to get up but I’m afraid to miss something, anything. 

A deep timber rings out, the father is saying something in a stern voice. Voices grow closer. The stairs creak under lazy feet. Finally, we have been remembered, I think as footsteps pitter patter across the hall to the door. 

I scramble back, gangly legs too long for my body propel me across the carpet to the place next to my brother. My place they’ve put me in. The key scrapes in the door and I hold my breath, remembering my story, hopeful. The door swings open on old hinges. 

“You better not have been touching nothing,” the woman growls between clenched, red-stained teeth. She sweeps the room with her gaze as if to find something, anything, we’ve stolen, or broken, or to find us as if we’d somehow escaped. We shake our heads. Then the paper plate appears. Just one, for the two of us. 

Level of Acceptance: Zero.

CNF: I’m Not Afraid of Water

Note: I just wanted to preface this and say that I’ve capitalized certain pronouns for a reason. However, I didn’t want to explain to remove the effect until after it’s been read. 

Creative Non-Fiction:

I’m Not Afraid of Water

 

“I’m not afraid of water,” I whisper to myself and bend my knees. There aren’t any bugs or leaves in the water, that I can see, and yet I search and search. Procrastinating, as usual. I’m afraid, even though I know that The Sky’s the Limit summer camp is one of the safest places for me to be. I know that no one will hurt me here. They would have no reason to come here.

They, the caseworkers, always came too late anyway, I felt. They always showed up after I’d already been hit, or kicked, or burned. They always wanted a status update after someone had already pushed me or pulled a knife or held me in a grip so tight, I couldn’t breathe. You might feel like my anger was misplaced. They could save me. They could use their pen as a weapon and fire it in my defense. I’d be able to leave the wandering hands, the wandering eyes, and I would be safe. 

Yes, you might come to that conclusion, but I didn’t. It’d been so long since I was able to trust anyone, if I ever could, and I know I would rather they be as far away as possible than to have them near with their false promises. Even I, at twelve years old, knew what weight someone’s word carried. There, standing at the edge of the pool, I wondered why no one ever gave their word to me and kept it.

***

 As the boat pulled us through the water, I stare up at clouds shaped like animals and flowers. The sun winks at me from behind them and I smile in return. Even at six, I know the sun brought happiness, healing and warmth to the soul. I close my eyes and let the serotonin roll over my skin.

 The wind is heavy, here in the back of the boat, and I think if only a bigger gust would just take me away. I think maybe if I step up on the small boat seat, the plastic rocking beneath my tiny feet, the wind might hear my thoughts and whip me up into its arms, taking me away from Them. 

 “Hey,” His voice exclaims behind me, as if He read my thoughts. She yanks me away from the edge and my eyes fly open. The hardness in Her eyes, devoid of love, makes me flinch and shrivel into the small life jacket strapped too tightly around my tiny waist. 

 “Do you want to go back?” She spat the words out through tight lips. I stare up at her, imagining fangs emerging from behind them. Venom dripping from their tips as She would bare Her teeth at me. She gives me a hard shake, “Do you?” I move my chin slightly and She nods. “Good, now sit down and stay there until I tell you, you can get up.”

 I scramble across the boat on unsteady legs and climb into my plastic chair, it’s one of those seats that holds a storage area beneath it for valuables or things that need to stay dry. Wallets and the like. It’s supposed to lock in place, but He’d messed it up somehow and it never closes quite right. 

 I peek a glance at my brother and his face is turned from me, I could see from the set of his shoulders that he was angry at me. That I almost ruined our day. Either that or he was desperately trying not to look at me in case he gets roped into my disobedience and They make him ‘sit down and shut up’, too. Any thoughts of him wanting to protect his little sister, went out the window. I’m not ‘little sister’ today.

 I stay there, in the chair, using my peripherals to look at the lake around us. I know I can turn my head and look but I’m afraid. I’m a heathen, They say. An animal unable to resist my instincts, and I know it’s true. Sometimes I get so angry I slam my hands down on my thighs until they sting. Sometimes, I’m so mad, I scratch at them until they bleed.

 So, I know if I turn my head to look, I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll get up, wishing the water of the lake would take me up and drown me – not really but my imagination is vast, and I could see it the water filling my mouth and pulling me down, down, down into its dark arms. I know She’ll just stop me again, grabbing me tight until her nails dig deep, breaking the skin. Little beads of blood would appear at the punctured skin. It wouldn’t because She loves me. She would stop me because my death would be hard to explain away as “You know foster kids, they’re just so reckless.”

***

I’m standing in front of the pool again, having moved closer to the shallow end, taking a deep breath in and expelling it out through my open mouth. ‘I’m not afraid of water,” I whisper again. Duh, I’ve gone camping. “But that doesn’t mean I can swim, stupid.” I know it’s dumb, pretending I can talk to myself, but it comforts me. I am, after all, the only one that cares what I have to say. 

“Just get…in,” the last word is yelled as I’m picked up and I feel tight arms wrap around my waist, I see it drawing near, the deep end. Ten feet of deep blue water. I shake my head and thrash, elbows and knees bending and jerking spastically. I’m small, although I’m twelve, and my brother is so much bigger than I. Long lanky arms and long lanky legs to match, he’s pretty enough to be a model, everyone says so. I don’t care about that, I just want him to put me down, and he does. 

My head whips so fast as he catapults me into the air. As I’m falling down, down, down, I look up at the sky but it is not a friend to me. It’s clouds do not pillow my fall and I slip away from them. My legs pull in tight, not into a cannonball, into fear. I hit the surface of the water, but I don’t not see the pool. I see the lake.  

*** 

We’ve released the anchor and the boat is rocking in place. My brother has removed his shirt and his small bird chest peeks out from between the straps of his life jacket. He’s turned away, back to the scenery around us, or maybe just away from me. I want to get up from my seat, to lean over the edge and feel the water on my fingertips, but She hasn’t said so yet.  

Him, Her, and my brother are getting the fishing poles ready. A small white bucket of squirming worms sits at my feet. Hooking the bait is my job, my punishment, but what they don’t know is that I love fishing. I like to see that worm fly in the air and bring me back a nice little fishy. I like to see the pulse of the gills as it sucks in air instead of water. I just don’t realize how morbid it all is.  

One after another I’m handed the poles until I receive mine. I don’t put a worm on the hook, just tap, tap, tap at the sharp edge with a fingertip. 

“You can get up, just stand there for a bit, let us get going first,” He says, His voice quiet as to not disturb the fish. 

I hide my excitement and turn to the water. Lifting my pole, I pretend to fish, whipping it back and forth with my hands. It was made specifically for a small child. It’s tiny pink reel and lever fit perfectly in my hand. The pole’s long rod is pink with extended silver eyelets that held the line in place. I swing it back and forth with gusto. It snaps silently, thin line slicing against the air and this time it snags. I yank it forward a split second later without thinking.

A howl fills the air and I turn around so fast the pole almost smacks against the lip of the boat. My brother is doubled over, grasping at the fleshy space between his neck and shoulder. My eyes fill with tears when I see the blood between his fingers. The red against his soft brown skin is a stark contrast and I’m confused. I look quickly to the line hanging from the end of my pole. There, just at the tip of the large hook is a small piece of bloody flesh. 

Everything seemed to move at once. She went to my brother, snatching up at towel on Her way. Venom once again spewed from Her lips. The man came to me, hatred in His eyes. He speaks but I do not hear what He says. I can only feel the fear building in my chest, freezing me in place. With one hand, He snatches the pole, with its fleshing prize, from my hands. With the other He grabs me under one shoulder. His meaty fingers dig into my underarm, His thumb pressing against my clavicle and I’m off my feet. He tosses me, like a rag doll, into the air and my jaw snaps shut. 

 For a moment I wonder if the wind has finally granted my wish, if I’d float away on pillows of clouds. Then I’m falling down, down, down until the water breaks my descent. 

I go under, as you initially do, the life jacket unable to win the battle against gravity. My arms and legs flap as I’m helplessly trying to right myself. The emptiness beneath me threatens to pull me under. I wonder if my brother would mind, if I let it take me. My fight against water ceases and I go down and down. Then I feel something, a fallen branch maybe, scratch against my leg and I panic, kicking at it, at anything. The life jacket finally does its job and my head is propelled above water. I sputter, expelling murky lake water, my eyes burning from the strain to stay open and alert underneath it. I bow my back, anything to keep from tipping side to side. 

*** 

I open my eyes under the pool water, the chlorine stinging at the corners. I try to stay calm. I’ve been here before, but I thrash a bit, unable to control my limbs. Remembering what I’d seen the other campers do, I make like a frog. Kicking my legs out and bending at the knee. With my arms, I push the water down, down, down hoping the momentum will keep my head above water. It does.  

I take a deep breath and dive my head under. I move like I’d seen swimmers do in the movies, pushing my arms in front of me and then back to my hips, kicking my legs up and down. I felt the air on my heels as I kicked, though I was sure all of me was supposed to be under water. My chest burned as I tried to hold the air in. Finally, there it was, the side of the pool. I grasp it like a life line and pull myself up. 

My brother’s there, whooping and hollering, excited he taught me to swim, I’m sure. “You did it,” he yelled. I’m angry. How had he forgotten? How could he forget?I’d never forgotten, I think. I will never, ever, ever forget the lake

 *** 

I sat, bent at the waist, with my chest touching my knees. Taking in small breaths so as not to bend further, I pray to the sun, ‘Bring back the warmth’. My teeth chatter so hard I think I might grind them to dust. My feet are starting to go numb, if this is numbness, as the circulation is being drawn from my legs. Sharp knife like stabs run up and down my legs and I wish I could rub them away. My fingers twitch but I’m afraid They’ll see me. 

After reaching in and effortlessly yanking me from the water, the man had thrown open the plastic seat. He’d revealed the small storage space beneath it and gestured to me. “Sit. Now.” He growled the words out, barely contained wrath seething just beneath the surface. Small for my age, at six, I was able to fold myself down. My heels brushed the bottom of the boat, the seat of the plastic chair drug into the back of my head. The metal top of the storage box dug grooves into my lower back, causing bruises that will one day save me, us. He’d thrown something on top of the seat. I can’t see what it is but it’s heavy, with every rock of the boat, as we sped toward the dock, the seat digs deeper and deeper into my back.  

Later, no one fetches me from the boat. The ride back to Their home is spent alone, in the wild of the wind, at the mercy of the highway. I wonder if other cars can see me. If they would save me or if they would point with stubby fingers and laugh at the poor little black girl with no hair and a funny accent. If they would say ‘ha-ha, ha-ha, no-body wants-you’ in the singsong voice I often heard on the playground once kids found out I was a foster kid. If they would turn their head away and so as not to see me, just like my brother did. 

Even once we reached Their house, a small off-white building with red borders, no one came to get me. They get out of the truck and escape without me. I had possibly gone to sleep, or maybe I passed out, because it didn’t feel like I’d been in the boat that long. My legs did though. The sharp pricks had come and gone. From the knee down they hung like logs and I couldn’t feel my toes. I tried wiggling them but it was like trudging through mud. I couldn’t tell if they were actually doing anything.

 My brother comes to get me. I hear him clambering into the boat with his bony limbs. He lifts the seat from the clutches of my back, and I look up at him. He had put his shirt back on, it hung just two inches below his belly button and I wanted to laugh. I didn’t know much but I knew that his skin wasn’t supposed to show. He was a boy. Boys didn’t wear cropped tops, their shirts hung like sheets almost to their knees. I stifle the laughter, seeing the way his eyebrows were drawn up and together. His mouth was tight. I’ve seen that face before.

 “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I say, or whisper, and he nods. Then he sighs. Now, I can’t tell if it’s pity there, or anger, or frustration. I take in a full breath for the first time in what felt like days and flinch. It hurts to breathe, hurts to move, hurts to think. The marks on my legs hurt, I can’t see them, but I feel them burn as I unfold myself. As I put my feet down on the boat and then my little girl weight down on my feet I hiss. My toes won’t move and, as I shuffle across the boat’s floor, I roll my feet from out to in, careful not to add pressure. 

“I’m sorry,” I say as my eyes tear up due to the pain. We carefully climb down from the boat. He nods again but doesn’t turn back to look at me. He leads the way to the house, and I trail behind him on fawn’s legs. 

The door is there before us, the hinges rusted and crooked, the dilapidated wood covered in a chipped bright red paint. I think of the blood from my brother’s back, the blood I’d seen on his fingertips, the blood on my fishing pole’s fleshy prize. It’s an ode to pain, mine, his and Theirs. I wonder if I’ve received my full punishment or if the other side of the door holds more pain. I wonder if the bruises will ever heal or if I will have a permanent mark. I wonder if Rosa, our caseworker, will come to save us this time. If she would come in time. I look at the back of my brother’s head as he slows his gait but stays before me. I wonder if this is when he starts hating me, because I know he will, just like everyone else.