I’m lying flat with my arms and legs strapped to the corners of a large, rectangular table. There are vials and tubes everywhere, and it’s dark, with dry ice mist covering the floor. I realize suddenly I’m in Frankenstein’s laboratory--like in the movies, you know? The door creaks open and my mom emerges. Her hair’s a rat’s nest, like it usually is, only it doesn’t look so bad with the rumpled white lab coat she’s wearing. I mean, it fits. She’s the doctor, you see. The mad doctor.
“My monster--” she stares down at me with a wide smile. “She’s alive.” She cackles and reaches to unstrap my left side.
“I try to struggle, but I can’t get away from her. Her fingernails dig into my wrist. I can feel them break the skin and blood trickles out in little droplets. She lifts the needle.
“Panicked, I buck. Miraculously, the strap on my right arm loosens a little bit. I strain with all my might, and it snaps.
“Mom still has me firmly with the other arm, though, and she’s bringing the needle down. “This will make you free,” she promises. She starts to look for a vein.
“I knock the needle down and push her away. She falls into one of the tables and vials tumble to the floor, with the sound of tinkling bells. I sit up and reach for a leg strap with each hand. By the time Mom has the needle again, I’m off the table and headed to the door.
““I love you, Natty,” Mom pleads with me. She leans against the table, and I see the tracks on her arm, little pin pricks up and down. They are ugly, but not as ugly as what the drugs have done to her on the inside.
“I open the door and look down the steps. If I can only get outside, I’ll be safe. There are people outside, good people. They’re waiting for me.
““Don’t leave me,” Mom sobs, as she reaches for me. “Please don’t leave me, Natty. I need you.”
“I hesitate for a moment, and then it’s too late. She grabs for my arm and the needle goes in.
“I wake up screaming face up into a bright light. Someone is holding my arm, just like in the dream. Only this time it’s Alice Parker, my foster mother.
“Another bad dream?” she asks quietly.
“You want to talk about it?”
“I shake my head. Talking won’t help. Maybe forgetting would. If I could forget.
“It’s all right now,” she tells me. “You’re safe here.”
“She’s right. I know that. I’m outside now, with the good people. So why do I suddenly start to cry? Tears drip out of my eyes like a leaky faucet, and Alice folds me into her soft chest. “Better?” she asks after a while.
“The tears have stopped, but I don’t know if I feel better or not. Mostly, I just feel dry.
“Alice stands up and I watch as her backside sways towards the door. She’s not fat, but she’s not rail-thin like Mom, either. Generous, maybe.
“There’s the click of a light switch. “Goodnight, Natalie,” she whispers. Then she closes the door and I hear her steps across the carpet in the hallway. She stops at Kate’s door and opens it slowly, so it only makes a squeak. It would be enough to wake me, but Kate sleeps like a rock.
“After a while, I hear the tiny sound of the latch and more footsteps. Alice goes down the hall to Liz’s room and goes through the same ritual. Then her slippers rustle the last few steps to her own room. I hear soft voices in the night, Alice and John talking to each other. I can’t tell what they are saying, but I guess it’s about me.
“They’re talking about how they can help me, what they can do to make me feel more a part of the family. They think it’s all their fault. They think they’re not doing something right. The truth is, they’ve done everything right for me. And that’s part of the reason I can’t connect with them. How can they understand the kind of nightmares I have every night? Kate and Liz have probably never thought of anything worse than vague purple monsters with lots of arms coming to get them.
“It’s funny, too, because Kate’s seventeen, and Liz’s sixteen. I’m only fifteen, but sometimes I feel like even Alice and John are younger than I am. They’ve lived in this little town, Heber, Utah, all their lives. They don’t know what it’s like other places and I don’t think I want them to find out.
“When Ms. Beck comes in, I’m lying on the blue carpet floor of the rec room, watching television. It’s a big enough room that I don’t have to notice there are a few other kids clustered with me. We know each other’s names, but we try not to tell each other more than that. We have our own problems. We don’t need to share.
“Morning,” Ms. Beck says, staring around at us with a big smile.
“No one answers her. In fact, a couple of the kids get up and leave, walking slowly towards the kitchen, not looking back.
“Ms. Beck is our social worker, which means she spends most of her time working on us. I think she should spend more time on herself. She’s not bad-looking, but she always keeps her hair tight in a bun on top of her head and wears old-lady clothes even though I think she’s not really that old.
““Natalie.” Ms. Beck’s eyes close in on me. “I have some important people to introduce you to.”
“I feel my stomach go cold and hard. I’d been hoping she wouldn’t do this. But Ms. Beck doesn’t seem to listen to us. She is too busy trying to see inside of us, to see what we need.
“She disappears for a moment, then comes back with a tall man and a plumpish woman. She’s not fat, exactly, but compared to Mom’s sharp angles, she’s pretty soft and generous.
“Natalie, this is your new foster father,” Ms. Beck says. “Mr. Parker, this is Natalie.”
“I glance at him, and feel very small. “Mr. Parker,” I say quietly. Then I turn my attention back to the television. It isn’t that I want to watch the show so much. It’s just that I don’t have anything to say. I didn’t ask for foster parents and I don’t need them. I don’t understand why I can’t just stay in the group home.
““This is Mrs. Parker, Natalie,” Ms. Beck goes on.
“I turn back for another second. I get a brief impression of softness before she leans over and hugs me. I pull away instantly, surprised. We don’t hug each other at the group home. It’s against the rules.
“Mrs. Parker,” I say, trying to look anywhere but at the big crease below her neck where her breasts begin.
“Mr. Parker clears his throat. “No need to be so formal. You can call us John and Alice,” he says.
“Ms. Beck doesn’t look too happy about that. She likes to keep things formal. I don’t even know what her first name is or if she has one.
“O.K.,” I say.
“John looks me up and down. Mostly down, at my shoes. I pull in my toes from the big holes at the top. Mom bought me these shoes last year at a second-hand shop. She said she didn’t have money for new ones, but when we got home, she went and got out the jar of cash and counted out two hundred dollars to take with her to her party that night.
“Well,” says Ms. Beck. “I suppose you should go get your things, Natalie.”
“I go quickly, relieved to get away from the Parkers, even if it’s only for a minute. My room is down the hall, the third door to the right. I share it with two other girls, and there’s a fourth bed, in case someone else needs it. Lisa is there now, but she doesn’t look up from her book as I walk in and start pushing shirts from the closet into my duffle bag. My pants go on top, the only pair other than the jeans I have on.
“You going?” Lisa asks from the bed, her voice muffled.
“Yeah,” I say. “Tell Sharon I said goodbye.”
“O.K.,” says Lisa. She isn’t looking straight at me. Sort of past me, like I’m already gone. “I will.”
“I lick my lips. “Well, goodbye.”
“Yeah. See you later,” says Lisa.
“I shoulder the duffle and find Ms. Beck still in the rec room with the Parkers.
“Ready?” Ms. Beck asks brightly.
“John reaches for the duffle, but I won’t let go, even when he tugs on it. It’s mine, and it’s all I’ve got. I’m not letting go that easily.
Return to home page