Chapter One

"But Mr. Brenser ..."

"But me no buts Kay-Lee. I cannot afford to keep you anymore. The checks stopped coming from social services two months ago and the church said they could only help one time per household rather than per kid like I thought they were going to. You'll go to the Hartford family and that's that."

I knew the tone and just gave up. I'd heard it too many times before, every time a foster family said they couldn't keep me. It isn't like I exactly expected any different, I simply hadn't expected to get traded for fuel instead of just cut loose like was happening to so many other foster kids my age. I'm only six months out from turning eighteen. I guess the biggest issue was that I wasn't comfortable with how relieved I was at not being turned out even though I was about to go from the frying pan into the fire.

Mr. Brenser broke into my thoughts. "Honestly girl you'd think you'd have some sense by now. And some gratitude. We didn't send you back to the group home did we?"

Quietly I answered, "No sir."

"Did we put you on the street like so many other foster kids have had happen to them?"

"No sir."

"Well then?"

Mr. Benser wasn't a bad man. Not really. He just wasn't what you would call self-aware of his own short-comings. And he was in a difficult position, trying to get his family to his wife's brother's place ... where ever that was since apparently it was some kind of secret they weren't supposed to know about but did by way of his mother in law letting it slip.

"I asked you a question Kay-Lee."

"I know sir. I'm just ... it sounds ... well ... it's just that Rubin is in the room and listening."

Mr. Brenser turned with a jerk and rounded on the ten-year-old boy. "What have I told you about listening in on conversations that are none of your business?!"

The boy, another foster kid, ran out of the room before Mr. Brenser could grab him by the scruff of his neck and give him a shake. "Boy better be lucky we decided we could afford to keep him. Too many problems and he'll find out my compassion has a limit. Not gonna put up with any nonsense. And speaking of nonsense, finish what you were complaining about."

Trying to keep my rebellious tone under control I told the man that had headed the household where I had lived for the last nine months, "I wasn't complaining sir. But you and I both know that a 'housekeeper' isn't exactly what the Hartfords want. They're all living up there and trying to get a girl for each of their wild boys so they won't wander away and get in trouble looking for ... uh ... stuff."

"You've got some wild imagination right there Kay-Lee," he said with a laugh as fake as his compassion. "Now stop that nonsense, stop listening to the town gossips, and go pack your stuff up. You should know the drill by now."

I nodded and turned not saying another word. Because he was right. I did know the drill. I'd never lived anywhere as long as I had with the Brenser family. I was honestly surprised that I'd been allowed to stay as long as I had until I figured out that Mr. Brenser's mother had taken a liking to me and said she'd move in with her other son and take her retirement pension check with her if they didn't let me stay to be her "help." The old woman was actually kind of nice in her own way - she was real needy and scared of being left alone most of the time - and taught me a lot of stuff I found interesting. But she died about the same time that the social services checks stopped coming because her doctor was forced to change her medication to fall in line with her health insurance plan eligibility protocols.

I walked to the room where all the girls slept and went to my bunk. Taleetha was there ahead of me doing her own packing. She asked, "So where they sending you?"

"The Hartfords."

"Say what?! Oh girl ..."

I shrugged. Taleetha was one of those girls that my last social worker used to call "fourteen going on forty."

"Seriously Kay-Lee, you know what they want you for."

"I know."

With not a little curiosity she asked, "You gonna put up with it or run?"

"Run? Where to? You heard what happened to Darla."

"Yeah, but that ho was just plain stupid. Girl was a day-glo cracka and she thought she could just go walkin' and find that nigga she hooked up with from the park. I heard she thought the baby might be his."

Darla was another foster kid we knew that lived with a family not too far from the Brensers and she'd gone looking for one of her boyfriends expecting him and her to live happily ever after - at least for a while - when she found out she was being sent back to the group home for getting knocked up. Stupid doesn't even begin to cover it. The way things are these days you don't go walking around alone in your own neighborhood much less go walking around someplace you don't belong.

"Why you think them Hartfords want you?" I gave her a look and rolled my eyes. "I ain't that stupid," she said with a laugh. "I mean why you? Look at you. You all twisted up and look like a skunk. How hard up they gotta be to take you?"

She had a point. "I don't know."

"That why you doin' it?"

"Huh?" I asked her only half listening. Taleetha wasn't nasty on purpose - at least she wasn't being this time - she just didn't observe any boundaries, especially personal ones.

"You know, cause you can't get no man no other way. You figure they so hard up that they'll keep you on even when they get around to being able to get another girl?"

I sighed. "No."

"Then why you going?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I guess it's just better than dying in the group home or dying on the street."

"You mean you think you gonna live longer? What you wanna do that foe? Momma always said might be better to just die an' get it over with than suffer long term."

I'd met Taleetha's mother once during a court ordered visit they'd had. I hadn't been impressed. I told my bunk mate, "It isn't about dying. It is about having time to find another option. And it might not be much better than the group home or being on the street, but some is better than none."

This time it was her turn to shrug. "Better than being a street hoe like my auntie foe sho. She's got more kids in the system than Momma does." She shook her head to shake the thoughts away. Taleetha played at being a realist but the truth is she lived in just as big a fairytale as most of the kids I know, foster or some other flavor. Then she told me, "Guess where I'm going."

"I already know where you're going and you better learn to follow the rules pretty fast and that includes watching your mouth. I heard Brother Johnson don't put up with nothing."

"Hell, how'd you find out? I just found out."

"Don't get bent, and practice watching that mouth. I found out last night only it was supposed to be a surprise for you and they told me not to tell. Mrs. Brenser likes you. She's says you have potential, that you're a diamond in the rough. When Mr. Brenser said you'd go back to the group home she put her foot down and said she'd call Brother Johnson's wife - I guess they know each other through those foster care training classes - and ask her if she knew anyone. Anyway Brother Johnson said they'd take you themselves since they took over that big ol' house and church over on Cherry Lane. I think they plan on having to take a lot of kids in but the first kids they want are ones that know the drill and are willing to help out and stick around even after they age out. I hear they're going to run it like an old time orphanage and you guys are going to get vocational training and everything."

"I don't know about that stuff, just know that's where I'm going. So there's going to be other kids there?"

"At least some."

"And the house is gonna be big enough?"

"Are you kidding? It's that big ol' place up on the hill next to the boarded up church. We could see it from the bus every time we went downtown to go to the county building."

"That place?! You kidding me?! That's a ******* mansion! I'm gonna live in a mansion?!"

She started doing some crazy dance then went to go give Mrs. Brenser a hug. She's about the only one of the older kids that ever got up the nerve to do that sort of thing. Like I said, Taleetha has no boundaries. And Mrs. Brenser isn't the hugging kind but she'd taken a liking to Taleetha. She makes sure none of the kids get the wrong idea about being there 'cause they were gonna get adopted or something.

I shook my head at all the noise that Taleetha was making as she thanked the Brensers and went back to my packing. Wasn't much. Just a couple of changes of clothes, some school supplies and notebooks and my "personal file" where I keep copies of all my paperwork because I got tired of them losing it every other time I got moved to a new house. I supposedly had some family stuff in storage at a cousin's place up on the ridge - not too far from where I'd heard the Hartford place was actually now that I think about it - but seeing as how the cousin is in his 80's and I barely remember seeing him the last time it don't mean a whole lot to me.

It only took me a couple of minutes to stuff everything into my school backpack and I was ready to start over. Again.