I never slept on the first night, but that last house had me more restless than normal. This feeling meant that by the second week, when I stood dazedly in the train station with my ragged old plush kitten and a few pieces of paper, I was exhausted. My eyes would barely stay open and I couldn't stop yawning. I was too tired to even take in the beauty of the small green meadow covered in thick white dandelions on the other side of the track or the bright gold and red autumn forest behind it with shafts of early morning sunlight illuminating the nearly bare branches of the trees.
It was something I wouldn't have been able to see at any other train station I'd been to, since this one was just a large wooden platform positioned next to the train tracks with a little wooden booth for the ticket dispenser to stand in that was empty the whole time I was there. I think it was one of those "Old West" stations that are kept preserved exactly the way they used to be because they remind people how far we've advanced since then. As new of an experience as that was to me, I didn't even have enough energy to appreciate it. I wasn't just tired from my lack of sleep, either.
I was tired from the strained, awkward drive to the station that was so draining and similar to all of the others I'd taken over the years. I was tired from the way the old woman had nervously asked if it was really okay with my aunt that she just dropped me off without a second glance. I was tired from assuring her yet again, as I had the first day I arrived at her house and every few days since then, that leaving me that way was exactly what both my aunt and my mother wanted. She never seemed fully convinced and was always looking over her shoulder, but maybe paranoia was just in her nature and she actually didn't care whether it was right for me to live the way I did; or maybe she was just scared of displeasing my aunt, I was never sure. After all, I had tried to stop becoming attached to my various caretakers after the third one dropped me off and laughed in my face while saying that it was a relief to finally be rid of such a chatty little annoyance.
He hadn't been the only one to be happy about passing me off onto others, either. From the moment I was born, even my biological parents were looking for a way to get rid of me. I don't remember anything from before I was five years old, but I've heard stories from my aunt and most of her friends. I've never been sure how much of them to believe, since some test the limits of the laws of physics and they were all told with heavy bias towards or against my family; mostly against, since my aunt Flora hated her sister and there were few who actually idolized the way my mom spent her life and her wealth, though they did pop up every now and then. Regardless of how much was truth and how much was fiction, though, I've always told it to others as if it were true because it's the closest thing to an explanation that anyone was willing to give.
I was born on a cruise ship, interrupting my mom's plans to sail the world with her third husband. Once she had me, she was forced to return to land and think of somewhere to put me. My dad suggested that they just drop me off at some orphanage or other, not even having to let anyone know I was their daughter. My mom considered the idea, but figured that in her high-heeled shoes (which matched her sparkly pink dress just perfectly, of course) she wouldn't be able to run fast enough to avoid their seeing her face and putting two and two together. Instead, she went to her older sister Flora Rueth. She was a bitter old widow who was barren and couldn't have children of her own. Knowing this, my mother kindly gave me to the angry middle-aged woman and talked about how she could finally take care of a little girl like she'd always wanted.
Rather than being happy and grateful, my aunt slammed the door in Roseanne and Jake Hawkiin's faces and stalked away, only to hear my cries a few feet to the right of the doorway inside her house. Somehow, my mom had snuck me in and drove back to her cruise ship as quickly as possible. Flora had no choice but to grudgingly take care of me. If she had adopted me without knowing my parents she would have loved me, I think, but since she knew who and where I came from she couldn't help but glare and start complaining about a headache every time she set eyes on me. I represented everything she didn't have and she hated me for that. I represented the money my mom had that she considered me- her own flesh and blood- an inconvenience. I represented the husband Roseanne still had while Flora's was long gone, in a vase on a shelf in her basement. Most of all, I represented the daughter she couldn't give birth to. For all those things I reminded her of, she tried to ignore me as best as she could and didn't put much energy into my care. She made sure I didn't starve, gave me a little place to sleep, and paid a babysitter to do things like potty training and teaching me how to read. It was confusing as I got older that she wanted so little to do with me, but my babysitter was nice and I had plenty of toys to play with, so I really couldn't complain.
I became used to my life and was sad when the babysitter stopped coming a few weeks before Flora finally decided I was old enough to become someone else's problem. On my fifth birthday she came into my tiny closet/room that she had halfheartedly put together for me once I was too old for a crib and told me we were going for a car ride. I thought we were going to the pet store to get me a puppy like she had promised a few times out of what I later realized was pure exasperation. I grabbed my jacket, grabbed my little gray plush kitten (which was still new at the time), and raced out the door to stand eagerly by the car and wait for her. She rolled her eyes, told me to get in, and slid into the driver's seat with a slam of the door. I gladly obeyed and chattered about how beautiful the scenery was for the whole trip, even though I wasn't really paying attention to where we were going. I was just looking for the pet store the whole time, but I never saw it. I didn't recognize the area we were driving through and started to get a little confused.
An hour after we left the house Flora pulled over at a train station. She got out, told me to follow her, paid for one ticket to what I later found out was her friend's country home, and walked into the station. I stood there next to her, more confused than ever; though a lack of understanding was becoming an all too familiar feeling. Then she bent down and handed me some papers.
"These are your directions. Don't leave this station unless it's to get on the train. The number is on the ticket. I have connections, and it's about time I used them for something that will actually help me. My sister doesn't care as long as she knows you're alive, after all," she said quickly, quietly, and curtly. My level of confusion jumped even higher. Then she got up and turned around to walk back in the direction of the car. Near the ticket booth she stopped as if remembering something, turned her head back to look at me, and put her hand up in the air in a "whatever" gesture. "Oh," she added, "and have a nice life." I have never been sure how much sarcasm was in that statement, but even then it stung. The car drove away from the station and I was left clutching the papers as tightly as I could in a place full of strange grown-ups.
A few weeks after I got to the large country house and the busy young family took me in I found myself dropped off at another train station with another pile of papers shoved at me. They were in a hurry trying to take care of their own family and having one less mouth to feed was an incredible blessing to them. They didn't really want to give me up because they were sympathetic to my situation, but a cousin who lived several states away from them said she would take me because I could help work on their farm. The old woman worked me until I could barely stand because her arthritis prevented her from doing anything, but eventually her sight and hearing failed her and I was sent to live with her grandson a few days' travel from her farm.
And so it was; I was shunted from one place, one "home", to another in this way. I rarely stayed for more than a month at any one place and always got new papers with the same old instructions on them each time I was transferred. The only thing that really changed about the process was that I got less confused every month. By the time I was seven, I understood what was happening and just didn't care anymore. I tried to make the best out of it.
So I never slept the first night. Not only was it uncomfortable to sleep in an unfamiliar place the first night you got there, but it gave me a chance to explore my new temporary "home" without anyone getting mad at me for it. I was never starved or beaten, only ignored or insulted from time to time if the person was especially angry about me being there or especially burdened with other good deeds and such. I was overworked sometimes like at the second house, bored more often than anything else, and occasionally sick of the constant change; but I never told anyone about any of the things I felt or thought because they would just make sympathetic sounds and ask (many times sarcastically) if there was anything they could do for me. I was just as tired of their fake concern while trying to address three other kids' problems or trying to housebreak their dog or making a budget and realizing that they didn't have enough money to take care of their family and me. I was just a burden, another good deed in their karma bank or on their "things to brag about to others" bulletin boards, another thing taking up their precious time and resources. I had turned fourteen at the house with the nervous woman and she hadn't even noticed because I was nothing more than a symbol of charity. I really was tired of it all.
That day at the old train station with the meadow beside it, though, I was even more tired than when the old lady had needed to put a blanket over me because I had fallen asleep on the floor of the stable in the second "home". I looked down at the papers in my right hand and couldn't help but smile. The paranoid lady had been thorough: not only had she given me a description of who I was looking for and the place they were taking me so I would be able to find them when I got off of the train, but she had provided pictures as well. I tended to like the people who gave me pictures because it made things easier when the train dropped me off, but I guess this time was something of an exception. She had also written specific instructions based on what she knew about the person she was sending me to, a few of them for the person themselves, but the rest of the directions were normal.
There was the page on top telling me not to forget that I had to write a letter to my aunt Flora once a week so she and my mom would know that I was alive and well. It also included Flora's latest (with the sarcastic implication that she really cared, of course) "congratulations on your continued survival" response letter, her rant on why her life was horrible being just as boring as usual. I only obeyed this instruction because the one time I had forgotten to write I had received about seven letters from my birth mother whining about why I was such an important investment and how she was so worried when I didn't write. It had made me a little angry because if I was that important and she was that worried, she should have just come to get me and taken care of me herself. I realized that all I was to her was another thing to brag about, just like I was to everyone else. It became one of the things I liked to fantasize about: having a stable, loving family who really did care if I lived or died. I sighed and shuffled on to the next piece of paper.
The second page was the usual directions with the pictures. It had quickly become habit for me to put a paperclip in my pocket before the trip and stick my train ticket onto that second page; having all of my travel information in one place was easier on me and made it faster to get the ticket when they asked to see it. I quickly passed over it to the next paper.
The third page talked about how the person I was going to live with had eight children and three dogs. It said that I shouldn't mention a certain gardening competition because the family had tried repeatedly to win it and never even qualified. It told me what to do, what not to do, which room they were likely to give me. At the very bottom of the page, as always, was the little sign off telling me to keep on living and doing my best to do exactly as my elders said.
Everywhere in those instructional papers I was addressed as "Miss Joanne" like I was their business associate, though I felt a little more like property. I was passed around from one person to another and never had any say in where I went or what happened to me. I just followed, like a weak little sheep that went where the flock went because that was where I'd find the best grass. I had to wonder if the grass wasn't actually greener on whatever other side there was in this situation.
I heard a high, short bird call and looked up and to my left. The platform had no real roof, just an awning over the top, so the tree beside it was easy to see. It was a rather tall tree whose leaves hadn't completely lost their green yet. In some of the more heavily foliaged branches there was a nest with a single little brown bird in it.
She was looking desperately over the edge of her nest, calling to a small ball of light brown feathers at the base of the tree. It cheeped worriedly back. The bird took off and started circling over her baby, calling to it constantly. I wondered briefly if it was the right season for her to have a nest in a meadow like this, but then made a sincere sound of sympathy. She had landed next to the baby and was trying to show it how to fly back to the nest. When that didn't work, she tried to figure out how to pick it up and take it there herself. I felt bad for her. She had no control over the situation. She was just as trapped as her baby.
I turned away from the track to face the tree and took a single step forward. She called more and more frantically. I realized that if nothing happened, the baby bird would be the perfect target for predators. The raccoons who undoubtedly came to the station at night, the house cats that probably wandered there regardless of the time, the hawks I had seen during the drive; any of them could take his life and the mother would be unable to do anything. I looked down at my papers again and clenched my left hand into a fist around the paw of my plush kitten. "Miss Joanne, please don't forget to write to your dear aunt..." I read first. "Miss Joanne, your mother wants you to get rid of that fake cat you keep mentioning. It's going to give you a disease and we wouldn't want that... now, would we?" Flora had written in her sloppy, angry penmanship. "Miss Joanne, there isn't much space in this house, you will most likely end up sleeping in the little attic..." that last paranoid woman had nervously scratched onto the paper.
"Miss Joanne, Miss Joanne, Miss Joanne...!" I mumbled to myself, getting a little angrier every time I said it, "My name isn't Joanne. For the last time, my name isn't Joanne. It's Joan. Joan Tracy Hawkiin. Not so hard to remember, is it? My. Name. Is. Joan." My whispering became more intense the longer I spoke and the fatigue I had felt just before seemed to slowly melt away until I felt like I'd been doing nothing except sleeping for the past two weeks. I gently set my kitten down and took the papers in both hands. The sound of the little mother brown bird seemed to grow louder and louder as her desperation increased and my decision became more solid in my mind. With one quick motion I tore the papers in half and then violently shredded them as best as I could. I hadn't paid for the ticket and the person who had would never see me again, so who would care if I just ripped it up? I smiled a little and picked up Georgie from the floor of the platform.
Leaving the pile of paper shreds, I walked over to edge of the platform and jumped off, walking confidently over to the little birds. The mother flew up to get out my way, scared of my size. I bent down and scooped the baby bird into my hands. I set it on the platform, climbed up after it, and then reached up to put it back in its nest. I wasn't sure if the mother would accept it now that human hands had touched it, but I felt a little better knowing I had done something to keep it away from predators. I looked over at the wooden booth for the ticket dispenser, who had left because he said that it was a miracle to get even one person to buy a ticket so there was no reason for him to further postpone his lunch break, and saw that the train wasn't supposed to come for another half an hour. I smiled a bit wider and jumped again, this time from the platform to the tracks instead of beside the tree. I took off the necklace made of string with a single heart pendant on the end that I had been wearing and removed the pendant. I exchanged it for Georgie, who had a little string attached to her neck that allowed her to hang from things like key chains, and strung the necklace through a belt loop in my jeans instead of keeping it around my neck; because the toy kitten's weight would have been awkward to carry any other way.
Then, with the one thing that had been constant throughout my life, I walked off towards the forest. I was done being controlled by faceless people who claimed they loved me. I was through with just following what my elders said. I was done being moved from one place to another without warning or tact. I was finished being tired. I was going to walk away from the train station, from the lazy ticket dispenser, from the little bird who may or may not have lived thanks to me, from the paranoid lady, from Flora, from my parents. I was going to walk away from all of the things that had sapped my energy and made me think it was okay to just go along with what everyone else said. I was walking into the forest, into the unknown, with no supplies that would help me survive the great outdoors and no actual destination. I told myself that as long as the train would be there and I wouldn't, everything else would work itself out.
I told myself that I was doing this because even if I couldn't control that bird's fate, maybe I could finally control mine. Maybe I would finally have a say in things and actually get to see if the grass was greener on the other side. I crossed the meadow and passed into the chilly fall forest in a matter of minutes. I took a deep breath because, at least in my eyes, this was the first step of the rest of my life. I tried to think what this would gain me and how I would survive. Then I shook my head and looked back at the birds' tree one last time with a small smile still on my face. It felt like the right thing to do so I took another, less shaky deep breath and casually asked, "Why not?" before taking the first step into the woods. The first step of the rest of my life.