Chapter One: Daddy?
"Look what your daddy got you," Ms. Polly says.
He shakes the teddy bear in front of me back and forth, it's tan fur shining in the light from the setting sun, and all I can do is stare at it and wonder how much its head would hurt if it were real. I turn to look at Ms. Polly, who's standing behind me, giving me an encouraging smile like I'm supposed to do something. "You like it?" she asks.
She wants me to speak. She wants me to say yes. But all that comes out is, "Daddy?" The word feels strange—like an object I've never seen before.
He bends down in front of me, leveling his eyes with mine, and grins. "Yeah?"
I know I'm not supposed to cry, but I do anyway. I can't help it. I've never had anyone say that to me before. It's too much to take in.
When he sees me cry, he thinks he's done something wrong and the smile leaves his face. "What's the matter with her?" he asks Ms. Polly. "Does she not like me?"
I try to stop, but I can't. I want to tell him that I do like him—that he's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen—but the words get caught in my throat and I'm unable to get them out.
"She's just not used to you yet," Ms. Polly says. "Don't worry, she's fine. She's just a little overwhelmed by all this. She's never had parents before."
He leans in closer to me—"Hey, hey, lookie here, look"—and holds out the teddy bear. I reach for it but stop myself short, afraid that the moment my skin touches its fur everything around me will disappear and I'll wake up back in the foster home and realize this was all a dream.
"Go on, take it," he tells me. "It's for you"
And I do. I take it and hug it to my chest and let my tears soak into its fur.
"When's your wife coming home?" Ms. Polly asks.
"In about an hour."
Ms. Polly looks down at me excitedly. "Did you hear that? Mommy's coming home!"
I stare back at her. Mommy? I'd seen a picture of her—the woman who was to be my mommy—but had never met her in person. She'd had a nice round face, with a big smile, and light brown hair that went down to her shoulders. When I saw her I cried because she was so beautiful. My stomach knots up. My heart thumps. She's coming home. It's too good to be true.
"Alright, well, I guess I should be heading back to the office." I turn to look back at Ms. Polly. She gives me one last smile and waves. I know it's a goodbye wave, and my throat closes. She turns to Daddy. "If you need anything or experience any problems, you have my number."
And then she leaves. She steps down off the front porch and goes to her car, which is parked behind Daddy's in the driveway.
I watch her drive away, my insides feeling hollow, a mixture of excitement and fear building up in me. Daddy takes me by the hand and leads me inside. When the door closes behind us, I start to cry again.
He sits me on a small bed with Strawberry Shortcake sheets and then smiles down at me. "It's alright. See? This is your new bedroom," he says.
I look around. The walls are the color of eggshells and they're bare; the floor is wooden and there's a huge black burn mark in the corner; I have one window, but it's too high for me to reach.
Daddy must have read my mind because he says, "I know it's not like your room at the foster home, but you'll get used to it." He walks over to a red crate situated up against the far wall and drags it across the floor towards me. "And look what your mommy and I got you—toys!" He pulls out a doll, shows it to me, then puts it back and pulls out a coloring book and a box of crayons. There are other toys in there too. The crate is almost filled to the brim, but he doesn't show me anything else. "You wanna play?"
I don't answer. I hold the teddy bear tightly against my chest. There's a long silence.
Finally Daddy says, "Tell you what, why don't I go make you something to eat? I bet you're starving. Chicken Noodle Soup sound okay?"
Slowly, I nod.
When he's gone, I take out the coloring book and the box of crayons and start to color. I color a picture of Snow White; I know she's supposed to have black hair but I don't like black hair, so I color her hair red instead, and I don't like yellow skirts so I color hers purple. I color her skin white, making her look like a ghost, and the apple she has to her lips green.
Mommy comes home while I eat. She's carrying paper bags filled with food but she sets them down to give me a hug. She smells like cigarettes and perfume. She's wearing a gray sweater and dark blue jeans, and her hair is tied into a messy bun. She has a crucifix necklace around her neck.
She colors with me after I eat, and then tells me to take a bath. The bathroom is small, stinky, and ugly. It has green walls that look like puke and the tub is stained yellow. "The light don't work," she says, pointing up to the blackened bulb in the ceiling. "We haven't got a chance to fix it yet so you'll have to take a bath when it's daytime or else you'll be in the dark, and I don't want you bathing in the dark."
She helps me get my clothes off, even though I'm able to get them off myself, and then tells me to step into the tub. It's cold. I start to shiver. She runs the hot water, then turns the "Cold" knob until it's a nice warm temperature. She grabs the stopper that's lying on the edge of the tub, sticks it in the drain, then tells me to sit down and I do.
It's not like my baths at the foster home where I had bubbles and waterproof toys to play with, it's simple—shampoo, conditioner, and soap. Mommy hums while she helps me scrub. I don't know what song it is, but it's pretty. I start to hum too and she laughs.
I keep humming as she goes to get me a towel.
We watch cartoons after my bath. We sit next to each other on the floor; she's in shorts and a t-shirt, and I'm in a pair of pink pajamas my foster mom bought for me. We're pointing and laughing at the characters. Daddy comes in from outside. He smells like cigarettes. "She should probably get to bed here in a little bit," he says. I know he's talking about me. "It's getting late."
"After this last show is over," Mommy says.
Daddy says nothing and leaves the room.
After the cartoon is over, Mommy takes me to bed and tucks me in.
I have a dream that night. I don't remember it, but when I wake up I'm screaming and scared.
My light gets turned on. The brightness hurts my eyes so I cover them with my hands.
"What's wrong?" asks Daddy. He comes to the edge of my bed, sits down. I jump up and wrap my arms around his neck and start sobbing. I don't even know why, but I can't help myself.
"Shhh, shhhh," he whispers, rubbing my back. "It's okay. You're okay. There's nothin' to be scared of. I'm right here."
Slowly, I quiet down.
"You think you can go to sleep now?" he asks as he gently pulls me away from him.
He gets up and goes toward the door. He's about to turn off the light before I speak: "Am I home?" It comes out before I even realize it.
"Yeah, you're home," he says.
He flicks the light switch and then closes the door.
I lay back down, pull the covers to my neck, and doze off. I don't wake up again until morning.
Breakfast is waiting for me when I get up. Bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast, with orange juice on the side. Mommy sits next to me and watches me eat. Daddy's pacing back and forth, talking to someone on the phone. He looks worried. "I'll send it in in the next couple of weeks," he says. "I'm sorry about this. It's just... I've got a kid now. My wife and I spent the last few months getting ready for her."
I turn around and look at him. He's talking about me.
"Eat your breakfast," Mommy says, tapping the table, and I turn back around and continue to shovel scrambled eggs into my mouth.
"I understand," I hear Daddy say behind me. "Thank you so much for the extension. Alright, bye."
I manage to steal a glance at him. He looks back at me and tries to smile.
After I finish eating I say I want to go outside. I've always loved being outside. At my foster home there was a swing set, and I would go out and swing whenever I could. Even when it rained I would swing. I'd lean back as my legs kicked into the air and feel the patter of raindrops on my face. Whenever I could get away with it I would swing for a very long time.
There's no swing set here, but I still want to go outside. Mommy and Daddy look at each other for a moment when I ask them, and then tell me to be careful and not go too far.
There's nowhere to go. The yard is small, leading up to a road, and on both sides of it are houses. There are fences and cars, and some trees, but mostly road. I sit in the grass and pick dandelions, tying their stems together. A lady walking her dog stares at me as she passes, but doesn't say anything. Cars drive by. There's a man mowing his lawn a few houses down. I start to hum.
"Who are you?"
The voice startles me. I jump and turn towards it. A boy about my age, maybe older, wearing dirty jeans and a stained t-shirt, stares at me. He has a bicycle in front of him; he's holding it by the handlebars.
"Charlie," I answer him.
He looks surprised. "Your name's Charlie? That's a boy's name!"
"My real name's Charlotte," I tell him, "but I like Charlie better." I knew an old lady named Charlotte at my foster home. She was a friend of my foster mom's, and from the moment I met her I decided I wanted to be called Charlie instead.
"Okay, Charlie," the boy says. "My name's Ethan."
I smile. He smiles back.
"So Charlie, you wanna ride my bike?" he asks.
"I've never ridden a bike before," I say.
"You've never ridden a bike before?"
I shake my head, embarrassed.
Ethan looks down at his bike and then back up at me. "Guess I could teach you."
I get up off the grass and walk over to him. He tells me to hold the handlebars and I do. Then he tells me to lift my leg over and sit on the seat. It's so high but I'm able to reach it, and my feet can touch the pedals. Barely. "How do you stop?" I ask.
"You pull the handlebars back. Like this." He shows me. Looks easy enough. "You ready?"
I nod, my stomach squeezing with fear.
He takes a step back and I start peddling. I peddle slowly but I'm going downhill and the bike speeds up. I panic, turn back the handlebars, and the bike topples over sideways, bringing me down with it. I land on the grass for the most part, but the side of my right knee is skinned a bit. Ethan is standing over me a few seconds later, pulling his bike off of me. "You okay?" he asks.
"Yeah," I say. I stand up, dust myself off, and look at my scrape. "I don't think I want to learn how to ride a bike yet."
He shrugs. "You wanna come over to my house?"
I think for a moment. I know Mommy and Daddy said not to go too far, but I agree to go anyway.
Ethan's house is bigger than mine, and there's a fence around his yard. He has a black dog named Zip that jumps up on me when I'm past the gate, but Ethan tells him to stay down. The front room is neatly organized. The couches match, the carpet is clean, the walls are perfectly white, the windows are clear and there aren't any cobwebs. All around hang photos. Some of them are of Ethan.
"Come on, I want to show you my room," Ethan says, taking me by the hand and pulling me down a hallway.
On our way we pass a door with a sign that says "KEEP OUT" and instantly I want to know what's inside. I stand by it, staring at the sign, my hand slowly reaching for the knob, before Ethan stops me by saying, "That's my brother's room. Trust me, you don't want to go in there." He waves me over to the next door, which goes to his room, and leads me inside.
There are clothes and toy soldiers and trucks littering the floor. He has Batman bed sheets. His walls are covered in comic book posters of Batman and awards like "Best Reader" and "Best Helper." I point at them and ask, "Where did you get those?" His answer—"School"—sends a cold dart up my back. I had enjoyed Kindergarten and 1st Grade, but I would be starting 2nd Grade at a whole new school after the summer. Ms. Polly had said so. Mommy and Daddy lived too far away for me to go to the same school so I had to switch.
"Do you go to school?" Ethan asks.
I nod. "Yeah, but I have to go to a different school now."
"I don't live near my old school anymore."
I don't know if he understands what I mean, but if he doesn't he decides not to ask. Instead he asks, "Where will you be going to school now?"
"Shelby Elementary," I say.
"Hey, that's the school I go to!"
I smile. Suddenly I feel better.
"What grade will you be in?" he asks.
"I'll be in third."
And the good feeling is gone. I don't think we'll see each other much. Maybe once in a while in the hallways, but no more than that. We'll have different classes, and I won't know anyone. Another cold dart shoots up my back.
There's a pause, and then Ethan breaks it by asking, "Wanna watch a movie?"
I say yes.
We turn on Toy Story. I've seen it once before but it's been a while.
In the middle of it Ethan's brother comes out of his room in a black t-shirt and black shorts. He wobbles into the front room slowly, his eyes half-closed, his hair messy. "Took you long enough to get your butt up," Ethan says. "When did you go to bed last night?"
"None of your business," his brother grumbles. On his way to the kitchen, he notices me. "Who's your girlfriend?"
"She's not my girlfriend," Ethan tells him, "and her name's Charlie."
"Where did you meet her?"
"At her house, down the road."
Ethan's brother goes into the kitchen, and then comes back out holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. "I haven't seen you around here," he says, looking at me.
"I'm new," I reply.
"Did you just move?"
"I got adopted."
He finds this interesting. "Really? By who?"
"Daniel and Heather Jarman."
He cocks one of his eyebrows as though he doesn't believe me. There's a long moment of silence. He takes a drink of his Coca-Cola and then turns to Ethan and says, "Ethan, I think Charlie should go home now."
"But the movie's not done yet," Ethan says, his head turning towards the TV screen.
"It's done enough. Go take Charlie home."
For a moment Ethan and I don't move. We stare at each other in silence, not knowing what to say or do. His brother decides for us, bending down and turning the TV off. "Ethan, I said take her home!"
"You can't tell me what to do," Ethan says defiantly.
"You want me to call Dad?"
Ethan doesn't respond.
"Take. Her. Home."
"Fine then!" Ethan yells. He grabs my hand and pulls me up. "Come on, Charlie."
Together, we head out the door.
Ethan and I are silently walking back to my house. His head is down and he looks sad. I try to smile at him every time he catches my eye, but it doesn't do anything.
"I'm sorry about Greg," he finally says.
"Who's Greg?" I ask.
"My brother. He can be real mean sometimes."
"Why did he want you to take me home?"
"He doesn't like your mom and dad." Ethan bites his bottom lip. Studies his shoes as they shuffle over the concrete sidewalk. "My parents don't like them either. I'm not even supposed to be near their house."
"Why don't they like my mommy and daddy?" I can't understand anyone not liking them. To me, they're the most beautiful people in the world.
Ethan shrugs. "Don't know." He pauses, then tilts his head towards me. "Do you like them? Are they nice to you?"
I remember the teddy bear Daddy gave me, Mommy's humming while I was in the bathtub, Daddy's hug and gentle words after my nightmare, the breakfast I had waiting for me that morning, and the words "They're beautiful" come out my mouth.
Ethan looks like he doesn't know what to say. He shrugs again. "I don't get it."
I don't get it either.
We reach my house then, and my stomach knots up. I might get yelled at for wandering away when I wasn't supposed to. Mommy and Daddy might think I'm a bad girl and give me back to my foster mom.
Ethan can tell I'm scared. "Good luck," he says, "with everything."
"Thanks," I say, although I don't exactly know why I need luck.
He waves and then leaves, and I am alone again. I walk up to the front door of my new house, turn the unlocked knob, push the door open, and step inside. I'm met with the loud noises of my mommy and daddy arguing.