Sitting in the back of the social worker’s car, I try to remember how my mother has always said to never show your fear. She’d be disappointed to see me now. Shaking. Just going without a fight.
The social worker, Mrs. MacAvoy, pulls out of the hospital parking lot while I play with the electric lock button on her car door. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. The social worker, Mrs. MacAvoy, glares at me in the mirror and says, “Please…stop that. The door needs to stay locked.”
I love it when people use the word “please,” but they sound like they want to remove your face. I stop. But, I’m not doing it to bug her like she thinks. It’s just that I can’t keep still. And it beats jumping out of a moving car.
My fingers play with my hospital bracelet. I stare at my name. Carley Connors. Thirteen letters. How unlucky can one person be?
I think about my mother. Still there, lying in her hospital bed like an eggplant. I wonder if she’s conscious yet. I wonder why no one will tell me what’s happening with her. And I wonder why I can’t seem to ask anymore.
Gazing out the window, I count the trees. Connecticut is covered with them, but in March the branches are still bare. Like long, gray fingers, waving us along as we speed by.
“We’re almost there,” Mrs. MacAvoy says, taking a corner faster than I think any social worker is supposed to.
I think back to sitting in that hospital bed, bunching the blankets up in my fists, asking her if they were going to send me to an orphanage. “We don’t call them ‘orphanages’ anymore,” she’d said, shaking her head and laughing. Like that was the point?
Now, I’m trapped in her car going to a place she’s chosen. After what my stepfather has done, I’m terrified thinking about what kind of foster house I may land in. The things that could happen to me.
I think of the Little Mermaid mural near the nurse’s station. How the tooth fairy gave me that CD when I was seven and my mother let me get up to listen when I found it under my pillow at midnight. We danced around the kitchen together. She sang, “Kiss the Girl” as she chased me to get a kiss. I never ran away for real.
“You know,” Mrs. MacAvoy says, pulling me back to reality. “You’re very lucky, Carley.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
Her mouth bunches up. “Well.” She sounds like a ticking bomb. “It’s a nice home. A good placement. You are lucky.”
“Guess I should buy a lottery ticket then.”
“Someday, Carley, you’re going to have to realize that being angry at the whole world only hurts you.”
I wonder if that isn’t the point.
* * * * * *
We drive up to a house the color of dirt. Tall, thin trees surround it, like guards on watch. There is a “66” on the mailbox. A palindrome.
Mrs. MacAvoy opens the car door for me. “This is a very nice family, Carley.” She puts emphasis on my name as if to give me a warning. “And this is the first time they’ve taken a foster child…”
I know this is her way of telling me to be a “good girl.” The walk up the driveway feels like wading through glue. I’ve read books and seen movies. I know what foster parents are like. They smoke cigars and feed you saltines for breakfast.
One, two, three…seven, eight, nine. Standing on the porch, I count the leaves on the plastic wreath that hangs on the door. The bright redness of the flowers reminds me of the swirling lights of the ambulance. I have a vague memory of my mother screaming for me and my own voice trying to yell for her. And the taste of blood; I remember that.
I remember the blinding pain surging through my body and, then, feeling nothing at all. Wondering if a person like me would go to heaven.
I jump when the door swings open and a woman smiles. She is the kind of person you’d never look at twice. Her hair is shoulder length, straight, and different shades of brown. Her blue v-neck sweater matches her eyes and she wears a silver leaf necklace and plaid pants. I mean, plaid pants?
She holds out her hand. “Hello, Carley. How nice to meet you. I’m Julie Murphy.”
I can’t reach back. Even the name feels fake. Too perky. I wonder why she’s happy to meet me. I wonder how much she knows. And I hope that I do not like her.
Then, this whole thing gets even worse.
Mrs. Murphy steps to the side. Behind her stand three boys. The smallest one runs over, stretching his hands up toward his mother and she swoops him up.
I can’t stay here. I’m probably here to be a live-in babysitter or a modern-day Cinderella.
The oldest boy looks at me like he wants to wrap me in a carpet and leave me on the curb.
I haven’t cried since my mother told me she was going to marry Dennis. That was 384 days ago, but I want to cry now.
His mother tips her head to the side and holds my gaze until I just can’t look anymore. I hear her voice. Soft. “Why don’t you come in, Carley.”