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.     

 

CNF: Dancing For the Lord

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I danced naked around the dining room table. I wanted to stop. I wanted to grab my clothes and run up the stairs. I wanted to be a ghost, floating up the wood case without making a sound, to be invisible. Invincible. 

 

My apparently lewd dancing during Youth Church that morning had gotten back to my foster mother. I knew I would be in trouble the moment I saw her. That hard look in her eyes, lips set in a thin line. She had shaken her head so hard I thought her wig would fall off. Hair piece, that’s what she told me to call it. A wig was a full thing with slick hair that had a net and an elastic band. A hair piece, hers at least, had two combs: one in the front and one in the back. Still, it shook so violently I could see the nest of natural curls at the nape of her neck.

In the parking lot catercorner to church grounds, I had come to a full stop and looked around. I didn’t want to be embarrassed here, in front of my church friends. I didn’t want them to see her snatch me up, nails digging in to the point where my skin breaks and slides up in small paper thin flaps exposing a fresh layer beneath. I didn’t want them to see how I’d fold in on myself, becoming as small as a mouse, still like an opossum.

I also didn’t want them to see me after. How I would keep my head staring straight, zoning out so I wouldn’t meet anyone’s gaze. I didn’t want to hear their snickers, as I’m sure they would laugh and pretend I was the only one bumping and grinding to the secular music. I didn’t want that one boy, that I let touch my vagina in the sanctuary, to see. He had crawled under the pews, reached under my skirt and touched my hairless flesh with curiosity and I didn’t stop him. I liked him, or I thought I did, but I didn’t want him to know the real me. The me that no one could love.

But all of that happened anyway. She marched me back to the car so fast I couldn’t keep up in my thin flats. They had no traction and whenever she dragged me about I slipped like a gazelle on a frozen lake. I tried to keep my gaze averted but I didn’t have to worry. The churchgoers were already moving away, not wanting, or caring, to see how The Foster Kids are treated. At least that’s what I presume. 

 

 

***

 

Once in the car no one spoke to me. Not mom – whose face was still angry. Not dad – who was clueless to what happened, per usual. And definitely not my other siblings – who hadn’t stopped me from making the mistake in the first place and had down right egged me on. They joked with each other and talked about which donut they wanted from Krispy Creme – our after Sunday service tradition.

I knew I wouldn’t be getting a donut or at least she’d get my favorite kind, glazed with sprinkles, and then let someone else eat it. We also stopped by Church’s Chicken, another Sunday tradition, and I impatiently sat cramped in my corner of the SUV, my stomach growled but I wondered if I would get to eat the juicy fried chicken with everyone else. If not, I’d be relegated to the kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a longer sentence of the silent treatment.

When we arrived home she still said nothing. Everyone went their separate ways: the foster kids to do their many chores, my dad to his favorite leather chair that he slept in with feet raised, mom to her couch in the sunroom that she stretched out on from sun up to sun down, and then me – to the kitchen to clean up before dinner. 

 After dinner had been eaten, the dishes cleared, the table reset, the chairs moved back in place (as there were too many of us and extra chairs were always needed), and the food was put away, I was in agony. She was still yet to tell me what my punishment would be but I knew something was coming.

Would it be 12 licks with daddy’s thick leather belt? Mom saying “this hurts me more than it hurt you” followed by “as soon as you stay still I can finish”?

Would it be hours sitting in front of the fireplace? A punishment tailor made for me because I had books in my room and “Go to your room” wasn’t a punishment but a vacation and one I relished.

Would it be one thousand sentences where I’d write out my crime and promise to do better? Hands cramping with every “I’ll never gyrate to secular music in church again. I apologize. I apologize. I apologize.”

Would I be banned from the library for 2 months? The worst one of all, because the house of books was my only safe space, the only place I truly felt happy. 

 More punishments went through my mind as I made myself scarce. I even thought “maybe I should run upstairs and read as many pages as I can in case I have to empty my bookshelves into bags and leave my books before her door to be taken for an undisclosed amount of time.”

 On my way to do just that I heard her call me. She didn’t seem angry and hope bloomed in my chest. When I arrived at the dining room the other foster kids were there, but only the girls. It didn’t seem important at the time.

“Strip,” she said with a little smirk on her face. The others started chanting “strip, strip, strip, strip”. I fought it and the smirk slipped from her face.

“Take. All. Your. Clothes. Off.” She barely got the words out through lights pulled tight across her teeth. “You want to be exposed and be fast?” Being ‘fast’ was something all girls (regardless of race) were who had ‘sexual tendencies’ at a young age, switching, making sex eyes, showing too much skin, going through puberty early to where their bodies developed faster than their age and more. 

 “Go ahead and be like David. You remember him? He danced so hard his clothes fell off. Dance for the Lord,” she said. I stared at her and, in that moment, I wanted to hit her. I wanted to hit her so hard she’d never smirk again. I wanted to drive my fist into her face and pound until all my frustration peeled off like wet clothes. But I knew I couldn’t. 

 So, I stripped. I stood there with my hands blocking the soft folds between my legs. Despite my early puberty I hadn’t grown hair there yet, even though I knew I one day would, and felt they could see into me. See inside me. 

 “Move your hands and dance. Just like you were doing at church this morning. I want to see.” I dropped my hands to my sides and moved my hips like I had seen girls do in music videos. My knees knocked together as I bent and straightened and swayed from side to side. I tried to blink quick enough to keep the tears in but I could feel a wetness in my eyes welling up. Could hear the cries welling up inside me though my mouth felt glued shut. 

 “No, around the table. And move your arms more. Just like you were this morning. Don’t play games with me” she said. 

 I stepped around the table bouncing and popping my butt back and forth, shaking my chest that was just budding with breasts. Through the third, and fourth, and fifth lap around the table I danced harder. I closed my eyes and put my hands above my head, giving myself over as I’d seen the girls in the movies do.

“She has good rhythm” I heard someone say merrily, as if it were all a joke, and I kept dancing.

***

My cheeks are wet now. I stopped trying to fight the tears a few laps back and continue to let them flow freely. I’m sorry god. I’m not a good girl. If i was, I wouldn’t have danced like that in your house today. I don’t deserve your love. I never did. I promise not to do it again. I think as I continue to dance. I can’t lift my hands because my arms are so tired. My feet drug across the smooth wood floors, catching on the area rug everytime I passed by the frayed corners, and I could barely lift them.

There was no more laughter, no whispering heard from the table. The foster girls watched in morbid silence. My punishment didn’t seem funny to them anymore. I could see their faces, trying to avert their eyes. Shame was shown to me and I wondered if it was mine or theirs.

“Enough,” someone said. It wasn’t mom, though, and so I kept dancing.

When I was finally released from my punishment I grabbed up my clothes and darted up the stairs, struggling to take them two at a time. My room door was open and once in I closed it as silently as I could in fear of further punishment. I didn’t stop to pull my clothes on but climbed the ladder to my top bunk.

Beneath the thin cover I was safe, hidden, but all modesty left me that day. My body wasn’t just mine anymore. It didn’t only belong to me. Everyone had feasted on it with their eyes and their hysterical laughter. They’d stripped it of it’s purity via their sanctity. They looked into my void and I couldn’t stop them. I can never stop them because I bared my soul and, like my body, I’ll never be able to hide it again.   

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. 

 

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.