Along the Pacific coast of British Columbia, there is a tiny peninsula so small that you can't even see it on the provincial map. At the tip of that peninsula is a picturesque log house – well, almost picturesque. It could be – would be, even – that is, if it weren't for the squeaky, primary-coloured swing set, the patches of bare ground commemorating generations of kickball bases and the scattered array of toys ranging from brand new to the Fisherprice stone age. The double glazed windows display plastic sun-catchers and paper snowflakes and the one behind the most recent second base is, more often that not, broken.
But just out of earshot from all this, is a hundred-and-twenty-six year old red cedar tree. Its lowest branch is exactly six feet above the ground and worn smooth near where it joins with the trunk. If you stand under that branch at five a.m. on an August morning and look through the window created by the underbrush, you'd feel as if you were watching the one movie Hollywood hasn't managed to run into the ground.
That peninsula is my home. That house is Rick and Lanny's orphanage. That tree was my refuge. And that movie is the sunrise I watched the day I found out who Lanny really is to me.
I have never been quite sure how I got into the habit of hanging upside down – I've done it for as long as I can remember. My first memory is of Lanny yelling at me that I wasn't a bat. The first time I broke a bone was when I tried to hang off the headboard of someone's upper bunk. Lanny blames Rick for holding me upside down so much when I was a baby. Rick says if I want to hang upside down, I can hang upside down – the sky looks cooler that way.
The night before my sixteenth birthday, Lanny and I had an argument. It seemed to me that Lanny picked more fights with me than anyone else. She, of course, would never have said she 'picked' fights with anyone. I couldn't understand why it was always me; compared to some of the other kids at the orphanage, I was a saint, an angel even. But it was always me who was doing something wrong in Lanny's eyes. Sometimes I felt like she just plain old hated me.
The argument we had that night was stupid – as our arguments usually were – but it was still big and noisy, and still drove everyone else to the far reaches of the house. I had just come in from a satisfying and muddy round of soccer to find that Lanny had taken it upon herself to strip my bed of all stuffed animals.
"You're too old for toys, Jamie," she told me as she stowed Mr. Nacho in the evil black garbage bag. "You're turning sixteen tomorrow. You have to grow up; start thinking about college."
"Boys get too old for stuffed animals. Girls don't!"
Lanny rolled her eyes as I grabbed the garbage bag out of her hands and hugged it to my chest.
"And what do you mean 'college?'" I continued. "I'm an orphan! I don't have parents to pay for something like that."
"You think Rick and I wouldn't pay for you? You're a smart girl, Jamie; you're worth the cost."
"So was Mack and you didn't pay for her," I retorted, bringing up the smartest kid who had ever grown up at the orphanage.
"That was different."
If I hadn't been so mad at her, I would have laughed at her use of the excuse she regularly complained of. Instead, I turned and ran out of the house, still clumsily clutching the bag full of stuffed animals. Doubtless, Lanny had wanted to send someone out to get me, or, even worse, do it herself. Somehow, Rick managed to keep her in the house, though, and I was left in peace.
I went to my usual place of solitude, the red cedar tree near the edge of the plateau that rose from the beach. As a seven-year-old tomboy, I had named the tree Aquene, which is native for 'peace.' Some of the kids had teased me about it – 'A tree isn't a queen,' they always said – but that only made me go there all the more.
When I reached Aquene, I dropped the garbage bag and hoisted myself onto my usual perch, then swung back down with my knees draped over the branch. I hung like that until the moon had risen and the stars were shining like the Christmas light that reigned the halls of the orphanage during the holidays.
There's something about being alone in a quiet, dark place that makes anger and sadness seem like pointless emotions. It makes you feel like you're trapped in the middle of infinity. Actually, trapped may be too strong a word. It's like you're caught in a spider's web, but you're not a fly. The web holds you there, but you're strong enough to break away from it if you want to. Yet, even though you're strong, you feel small and insignificant and your problems even more so. Slowly, the night absorbed my anger, forcing me to see how pathetic the quarrel really was.
Still, I had never been known for being humble. My pride kept me from going back to the house and I slept under Aquene's branches that night. It wasn't unusual for kids from the orphanage to sleep outside in the summer. Sometimes staying inside with everyone else became unbearable. Normally, we would have to tell Rick or Lanny, but everyone always knew where I was when I wasn't in the house or playing with the others.
I woke up to the sunrise and massaged my neck as I stood. Aurora was peaking out from her ocean bed, still the colour of a tomato. I stayed upside down until the sun was fully risen before returning to the house. As soon as I knew I was within in sight of it, I stopped rubbing my neck; I refused to give Lanny the satisfaction of knowing I had been uncomfortable sleeping outside.
She was making breakfast in the kitchen when I came in. There was a flicker in her eye when she ran her gaze over me and noted the pine needles and dirt and it took noticeable effort on her part not to comment.
"Hey, birthday girl, sleep well?" Rick asked from the dining table, smiling as usual.
I sent a glare at Lanny's back, raised my voice to make sure she could hear and said cheerily, "I slept great, Rick. How 'bout you?"
He grinned wider. "The usual. The usual." Meaning Lanny had been grumpy and irritable from the fight.
Good. I thought smugly. Let her suffer.
The day passed with usual birthday ado. There was a big cake that everyone six years and under claimed to have a part in making, crude songs from the guys and tomboys, precarious handmade gifts from the little kids and burnt CD's from the teeny boppers. Rick gave me a helmet like he did every year – "So you won't break your head if you fall out of that tree of yours," he always said, but there was nothing from Lanny on the table.
I tried to tell myself I didn't care; I tried to still be mad at her. It didn't work. Lanny's presents were always the best, both in a commercial and sentimental sense. After all, you can only have so many popsicle stick statues of 'you.'
However, I didn't say anything about it and neither did Lanny – until later. I had taken a shower, brushed my teeth, put the presents away neatly and had no idea why Lanny asked to see me just before bedtime. For a moment, I thought it might be about running out the night before, but I quickly disregarded the idea. Lanny made a point of not holding grudges. She thought it was a bad example for the kids.
She was waiting for me in the sitting room, otherwise known as the 'clean room' because it's the only one that hasn't been torn apart by ravaging minors at one point or another. Kids at the orphanage were always half in awe of it and half disgusted with it because it was where people either dropped off a kid or considered the idea of adopting one. Once you were past twelve, though, you basically stopped caring. Still, I felt odd standing in the threshold of the carpeted, wall-papered room, as if the room was a threat to everything I knew.
Lanny motioned for me to sit down on the settee beside her and I did so cautiously. She fiddled with her hair almost nervously, but Lanny was never nervous so I knew it must be my imagination.
"Jamie," she began, "have you ever thought about finding or contacting your parents?"
I was shocked. Nobody ever talked about the thing. It was an unspoken rule that the thing never be mentioned except in two situations. The first was when and if a kid got adopted. The second was when a kid turned eighteen and decided they wanted to know who their parents were before they left the orphanage.
Personally, I had never felt any inclination to know, see, meet or contact my parents. No, wait. Let me reword that.
I was about four when I was first able to comprehend exactly what an orphan was. Back then, of course, everyone always told me that my parents did what they did because it was 'the best thing' if I started to cry over it. When I was five, I decided I was happy enough with Rick and Lanny and what did it matter who my parents were? When I was seven, something or other triggered a need for vengeance and I imagined being adopted by a couple of rich blocks, tracking down my parents and rubbing it in their faces. When I was eleven and chances of adoption was coming to a close, I made up my mind that if they didn't want me, then I didn't want them either. When I was twelve, I blocked it out.
But why was Lanny bringing up the thing now? I wasn't eighteen yet and there certainly wasn't any chance of me getting adopted at sixteen.
"No," I told her. "Who my parents are doesn't matter. The only real part my parents ever have and ever will play in my life is that I was born and that they put me here."
Lanny flinched and looked down at her hands. I frowned. I had never seen her like this.
"What if your parents – or one of them – wanted to contact you?" she inquired.
"They've had sixteen years."
Why was this room so darn small? And so…artificial?
We should redesign the décor in this room, I thought idly. Make it more welcoming.
Lanny was talking again. "Jamie, you know that Rick and his mother ran the orphanage before I ever came here, right?"
I nodded. I didn't remember much of Rick's mother. She passed away when just after my epiphany about the thing. I remembered that she had white hair and a nice smile and she always talked very softly.
"And that I only met Rick around the time you came to the orphanage?"
I didn't really know this, but I nodded anyway. I was starting to get claustrophobic in that room. Why was Lanny talking about parents and Rick's mom? I was tired. I wanted to sleep. In sleep, I could dream. In my dreams, I didn't have to be just a poor little orphan.
"Jamie, I don't know how to tell you this…"
"Just spit it out. I'm tired. I want to go to bed."
"Jamie, I'm your mother."
The words were far away and unclear. Fuzzy. For awhile, I just ran them over and over again in my head, looking for the missing syllable or word that would turn what Lanny had said into something sensible. I knew I must have misheard.
"Jamie?" Lanny was brushing back my hair from my face and I realized that I had started crying. Big blobs of saltwater blurred the room into a nonsensical carnival scene.
"You're not my mother," I whispered, my words choked by tears.
"What's that, sweetie?"
"I said you're not my mother!" I yelled, bolting to my feet. "You're not! You're not! You're not!"
"Jamie, honey –"
"No! You're not my mother!"
I ran. I ran as fast as I could. First, I went to Aquene, but I realized that was too obvious, so I turned and fled towards the base of the peninsula. The edge of the orphanage's property was marked by a wooden trellis fence adorned with several types of climbing plants. I came to a stop at there. The fence wasn't that tall. I could easily have scaled it, but there are some times when the ties that bind you to your home expound their strength beyond your will to be free and this was one of those times.
Sobbing, I curled up amidst the upraised roots of a fir. I felt betrayed, confused and truly alone for the first time in my life. I knew if I had bothered to really look at things, I would have probably figured it out sooner. Perhaps I had always known. But hearing it from Lanny made it real and I didn't want it to be real. It made sense. Both Rick and Lanny and some of the older kids who had left years before, had sometimes made slip-ups about Lanny having a kid, but they had always been brushed off as humorous slips of the tongue. When I had been little, I had been favoured with more hugs and kisses than the others in my age group. She had always appeared to worry about me a little more than others. Even our fights indicated something. It had all been there the whole time, but I hadn't looked. I hadn't wanted to look.
I was afraid.
It was dark like the night before. My tears were meaningless in that abyss, my sadness nothing the single breath of the earth that my entire life would be. I rocked myself, then stopped. Tried to make myself cry just to prove to the night that I really was sad. I looked at the moon beseechingly, but it gave no sympathy.
I didn't sleep that night. At dawn, I forced myself up and numbly headed back for the house. On the way, I noticed a form hanging from Aquene's lowest branch and, as I got closer, I realized it was Lanny. She was looking through the window in the underbrush, at the sunrise.
"Can I join you?" I asked her, my voice hoarse from tears.
She gave me a small, hesitant smile. "It's your tree, isn't it?"
I clamoured onto the branch and swung down. We were silent as we watched the sun paint the world as a child does a rock. Upside down, it looked more like the sun was falling than rising.
Maybe that's why I didn't realize Lanny was my mother sooner, I thought. Maybe it's because I was too busy looking at everything upside-down.
I thought about what had happened the night before, of exactly what it meant that I had a mother now. Turning my head, I glanced at Lanny and abruptly looked away when she turned to me.
I heard her sigh and stole a look at her from the corners of my eyes. She was gazing serenely at the water, swaying herself gently.
"I think I know why you like hanging upside down so much," she said.
"You do?" I was too surprised to keep from looking at her this time.
She nodded – no easy feat when you're hanging upside down. "Mmm-hmm. It helps you calm down, doesn't it? When your whole body's numb and you can't feel anything…" She sighed as her voice trailed off.
"It just makes you feel a lot calmer."
I looked back at the water and we were silent again.
At last, I turned to her. "We're cool, right…Mom?"
She smiled weakly and there were tears in her voice when she said. "Yeah, Jamie. We're just fine."
A.N. I actually wrote this almost a year ago for school, but didn't post it for some reason. I just came across it and decided to put it up. Real random, but whatever.