Setting: April 1989-Hammond, Indiana-Late afternoon
He was gorgeous. There was no way I'd forget meeting a guy like that. His sapphire eyes searched mine. I found it hard to speak. I had a boyfriend, and yet I couldn't stop myself from wanting to flirt with this cute guy.
"Hey, you're Kathy Wolf, aren't you?" He said that name, the one I despised.
This is day one of a fresh start to my new life, and it was already ruined by this guy. How did he know me? But I digress. Let me start at the beginning and lead in to how I met this mysterious guy.
The police car stopped in front of a three-story, five-thousand square foot, and gloomy house. Dread and anger knotted inside me as fearful images built in my mind. A shiver of panic swept over me. This was my life now, labeled as a juvenile delinquent, sitting in the back of a patrol car. I've never been in trouble before. I tried to maintain a fragile control. I was determined not to appear afraid in front of the police officer. He opened the door for me. With a shrug of feigned indifference, it was time to get out of the car and step into my new home.
The officer nudged me in the direction of the front door. "You're very lucky, young lady. You've got a second chance. Don't screw it up, okay?"
He gave me a kind smile, so I restrained the impulse to roll my eyes at him. I was choking on fury. His condescending tone simply set me off. I suppressed my rage under the appearance of apathy. What would he know about my life? After all, it was a cop like this one who sent me back to live with Cassandra after I tried to report her abuse. How could I smile back?
It was as if the first sixteen years of my life weren't punishment enough. Cassandra saw to that at every available opportunity. No one could see me for the victim I was. Instead, the adults in my life treated me like a felon, even without cold, steel handcuffs on my wrists. Being treated like a criminal gave me a feeling of trading one jail sentence for another. I didn't really have any choice, but to do as I was told. The officer knocked on the front door. It was answered by a gray haired old woman.
The officer handed her my paperwork. "Good luck, Katherine. Behave," he told me as he walked away.
The elderly woman smiled and led me into her office. "Please sit down, Katherine, and relax. I want to talk with you a bit to tell you how things work around here."
Relaxing in the chair at that moment was challenging for me.
"My name is Mrs. Foster, and I am the director of Cambridge Home for Girls. We have fourteen girls who live here, including you."
My hands twisted nervously in my lap. My hands couldn't stop moving.
"There will be chores each day," Mrs. Foster continued. "We have scheduled meal times. Dinner will be in thirty minutes from now. We have a mandatory week where there are no phone calls, and you can't go outside."
I tuned out part of what she said because I just needed to hear his voice. Mark was the only person who truly loved me. I didn't know how I would make it a week in this strange place without hearing his voice at least one more time.
She must have known I wasn't paying attention. She pulled me from my daydream. "Katherine, this is a time when you will learn how things run around here and adjust to living here. I know you arrived here without extra clothes. I will make sure we get you some things temporarily. I just want you to know that this is a good place. We care about our girls. My door is always open. Do you have any questions?"
My fears proved premature. Looking across the desk at her, I could see there was warm, gentleness in her eyes. She reminded me of my grandma whom I missed so much in that moment. I wouldn't be in this place right now if she were still alive. I turned my attention back to Mrs. Foster. She really did seem happy to have me in her home.
Mrs. Foster continued in her kind voice, "I know that the first day here can be a bit overwhelming. After we talk a bit more, I'll take you upstairs and assign you to a room, Katherine." Her eyes studied me, as if she were trying to assess my character.
"Wait," I said knowing I held my emotions in check for as long as I could. "My name is Katie. I don't like to be called Katherine."
"Oh, okay, Katie. I'll let everyone know to call you Katie." She patted my hand. She seemed to sense my anxiety. Of course, she did. I practically burst into tears right in front of her.
"I need to let my boyfriend know I'm okay. Please let me call him. I don't care about not going outside or using the phone again as long as I can tell him that I'm okay," I pleaded.
"Okay, Katie. You can use the telephone here in my office. Then we'll go upstairs, and I'll introduce you to the other girls." There was something so reassuring to me in her genuine smile as she asked me for Mark's number, dialed it and then handed me the phone, which rang several times before the answering machine picked up.
Trying to sound cheerful, I said, "Hi, Mark. It's me. I'm okay. I'm at a place called Cambridge Home for Girls. The court isn't sending me back to live with my mother. This is the last chance for me to talk to you for a whole week. I'll call you again when I can. I love you and I miss you. I just wanted you to know that I'm really okay."
I hated the fact Mark wasn't home and I was forced to leave the message on his answering machine instead. A cold knot formed in my stomach. I wondered where he was. I'd hoped to be able to talk to him. It was going to be a long week. The tears threatened to spill from my eyes. "Can I still write letters this week?"
She replied, smiling, "Of course, dear. This isn't jail. You are being given a chance to live a normal life here."
I wasn't sure what a normal life even was. We left the office and Mrs. Foster ushered me up the front stairs. The landing led to four bedrooms, one bathroom, and another set of stairs going up to another floor. She led me into the second bedroom. In it were three beds. A girl with long brown braids and cocoa skin was folding laundry on her comforter.
Mrs. Foster introduced us before heading back downstairs. "Lisa, this is your new roommate, Katie. Make her feel at home and give her a tour of the house, please. It's Friday, so you don't have to worry about school today, Katie. We'll get you enrolled first thing on Monday morning. I'll see you girls at dinner."
"Hi. You can pick between those two beds. We don't have another roommate right now. Where are you from?" She smiled, but stayed focused on her task.
"I'm from Hobart. I went to Andrean High School."
"Don't tell the other girls, or you'll never live that one down. You don't want to be known as a princess around here. Where's your stuff?" Looking around for luggage or boxes, she must have thought it strange I arrived with nothing but literally the clothes on my back.
I pointed to my t-shirt and jeans. "This is all I have. My mother's got most of my stuff. There's no way that she'd let me have it because I left. That's just the way she is."
"That's okay. I bet we're the same size. You can borrow some of my clothes until you get some of your own. They're really good about letting us shop. We get money each month for clothes." She showed me some of the outfits in her closet.
"Wow, thanks. Nobody's ever been so nice to me before. I've never had money to shop with before, either." To be honest, it had been so long since a total stranger had been so sweet to me; I wasn't used to talking with other people much. I was a geek back at Hobart High School. At Andrean High School, I hung with other loners or kids who didn't hang with the popular crowd. Money for clothes was a luxury my mother didn't allow. I'd never picked out my own apparel before. My mother would buy what she liked and then force me to share them with her because we were the same size.
"You are going to love it here. There are some who try to run away and leave, but this place is great. You never have to worry about anything. They're so good to us. Come on, I'll take you on the tour and get you something to wear before dinner. I've still got to get ready. I'm going home this weekend," Lisa's voice was full of warmth as she talked to me about the place. It was clear it was home for her, just like my grandparents' house had been for me when I was younger.
The thought of going home to my mother's house on weekends, filled me with terror. In that other world, there was no safe place for me. My grandfather had abandoned me to my mother long ago. "We go home for weekends?" I asked and fought to keep the fear out of my voice. Suddenly, this place wasn't looking so good. I kept running away from my mother's house. I wasn't willing to spend another second under her roof under any circumstances.
"It's a choice. Some of us are doing okay enough to go home for weekends. Some of us even go stay weekends with friends, if Mrs. Foster agrees to it. I'm staying the weekend with my aunt. They never make you go home if you don't want to," Lisa explained, as she put away the rest of her clean laundry.
Lisa led me downstairs and on a tour of the house. She introduced me to the girls who were watching TV in the family room and sitting out back on the screened porch. I'd never seen a home like this. I'd always pictured a girls' home to be cold and institutional like at the juvenile detention center, but this was like a real home. Girls were laughing and telling jokes. I envied their closeness. I hadn't had any friends like this in a long time. Before I knew it, the basic tour was almost over.
"Down there, that's what I like to call the dungeon. Of course, there are some girls who enjoy it." Lisa looked as if she were disgusted at the thought.
I didn't know what to expect when she opened that door. My breath caught in my throat, and I prepared myself to enter the worst place imaginable.
We descended to the basement. There were some other girls smoking and doing their hair in front of six-foot salon style mirrors. The talking stopped as we entered the room. I felt all eyes upon me.
"Here's the other bathroom with another shower and the laundry room. We wash our own clothes. I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone would be smoking down here. Can you go somewhere else and do that? It's disgusting! I don't want the new girl thinking we're all nasty like that," Lisa said, shaking her head at them and holding her nose. She didn't care if her actions insulted them since their cigarette smoke obviously offended her. She walked around, and waved her hands as if to dispel the smoke.
One of the girls with chestnut hair and a big smile extended her hand to me. "Hi, I'm Melanie. This is Emily and Sarah. I'm sure you've seen girls smoking before, right?"
"Yeah, there was a smoking section at school at Hobart High where everyone would hang out at lunchtime." I tried to be as casual about it as possible. I'd never smoked a cigarette before in my life. Quite frankly, it did seem gross to me.
"See. She's fine. Stay and we'll talk awhile." Melanie offered me a chair to sit on and shooed Lisa away. "You can go back upstairs, Lisa. She's going to stay down here with us until dinner." Melanie sat back down in her chair and took another drag off her cigarette.
My new roommate shook her head in disapproval. "Whatever. I can see you've been corrupted by these girls already. I'll leave the extra clothes on your bed for you. Bye." She turned her back on us and stomped away.
I sat down in a white plastic chair off to the side of the mirrors next to the girl with pale blonde hair named Emily. In the midst of my nervousness, the chair made a cracking noise when I sat. It didn't help that I was already feeling gigantic compared to the petite girls surrounding me.
Melanie was next to the raven-haired girl named Sarah. "Emily will be here with you all weekend. She's grounded. Sarah and I are going to stay at her mom's house for the weekend. We're going to roller skate and meet some guys."
Emily stuck out her tongue at Melanie. "Don't worry. We all know what it's like to be the new girl. I'll stick by you all weekend," Emily reassured me. We heard a bell ring. The other girls put out their cigarettes.
"That's the bell for dinner. Emily and I have to set the table. Come up with us, and we'll keep talking until we have to sit down at dinner. We have to be quiet once dinner starts," Melanie explained.
After dinner, I had to write an essay. It was supposed to help guide my decision making, as if these first few days at Cambridge House were going to be critical in planning my future or something. I wasn't really sure. The assignment was to write about what I thought my life would be like in ten years. I already knew. My plan was to marry Mark and start a family. We both wanted a big family. My chosen career was in cosmetology. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom who worked out of the house. I wanted to have a beauty shop in my basement like Paulette's mom from my old neighborhood.
With my future already planned, anyone would think that writing the essay would be easy. Writing was usually my favorite hobby. I'd been writing books and stories since the fifth grade when my book won a spot in the Young Author's Conference. That was quite an honor at my school and in my town. I allowed myself to get easily distracted that evening because the house was full of activity with girls trying to get ready to go out for the evening or to go home for the weekend.
Emily walked over to where I was sitting. "Why don't you take a break from writing to go out to the back porch for a little while with me?"
"Isn't that considered going outside?"
"Nah, come on." She pulled on my arm. "Let's go. The back porch connects to the house. It's just another part of the house."
I had writer's block, and I was dying for some fresh air, so I found myself agreeing with her logic, praying I wouldn't get in trouble. Who needed that on your first day? The back porch was where everyone hung out. Emily lit up another cigarette. That's when a Jeep pulled up in the neighbor's driveway and a guy six-feet tall with tawny hair got out. Emily put out her cigarette and rose. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Emily was going to get me in some serious trouble!
My conscience was screaming at me. Come on, say something. You've barely been here a day. Is it a good idea to listen to a girl who's only here because she's grounded for the weekend? The last thing I wanted was for her to think I wasn't cool, so I ignored the thoughts that flooded my brain.
Emily practically pulled my arm out of the socket as she rushed us over to talk to him. "Hey, what's up?" It was so clear she had a crush on this guy.
"Not much. Who's this?" His eyes bore into me, an intense but secret expression on his face. As our eyes met, I felt a shock run through me. I was bombarded with a weird sense that he was vaguely disturbing.
"This is the new girl. She just got here today," Emily said, putting her hand on his shoulder. Could she be more obvious?
He stuck out his hand, and smiled. "Hi. I'm Alex Sanders."
I shook his hand. That's when his eyebrows raised. His eyes studied me with a curious intensity, a probing query. Was that a glimmer of recognition in his eyes? I couldn't imagine how he could possibly know me. I felt certain I'd remember if I actually had met him before. I hated the name Kathy. My mother always called me that. My grandparents' last name was Wolf. That was the name I went by for most of my life. Steele was my father's surname. I was born Katherine Steele. It was my legal name, so I planned to use it in my new life.
I shook my head in denial. "Huh? I don't know what you're talking about. My name is Katie Steele."
His eyebrows rose inquiringly. "Really? Well, you look an awful lot like a girl I used to know, the aforementioned Kathy Wolf. Anyhow, I bet they call you Kat. You look like that nickname would suit you perfectly," he said in a voice that was courteous, but patronizing. There was an unspoken challenge underlying his tone. A mischievous look danced in his eyes.
Why did he say that? This guy still thought he knew me from somewhere, and he certainly didn't believe I wasn't Kathy Wolf. I swallowed hard, lifted my chin, and boldly returned his gaze. I was both excited and aggravated by him, a thrilling current moving through me. "No, they just call me Katie." I threw the words at him like stones. "Em, I don't want to get into trouble, so I'm going back inside. I'll see you later." I turned away from the two, preferring to head for the safety of the house.
It wouldn't be long before he connected the dots and figured out I used to be Kathy Wolf from Merrillville, Indiana. I wanted to postpone that little fact for as long as I could. Why did he think he knew me? I wanted to find out how he knew my old name, but I knew that some mysteries were better off unanswered.
WELCOME TO CAMBRIDGE HOUSE
Copyright © 2012 by Laurie Mills
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the author, Laurie Mills.
This story is inspired by real events. In certain cases incidents, characters, places, and timelines have been changed for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites, or entirely fictitious.