Surviving the System

Chapter One: Alone

“JEZEBEL!”

Crap, I’d been found.

I cringed and glanced around to see if anyone had figured out who was being screamed at.  My name was unmistakable. Especially when screeched by a tone deaf woman with enough volume that the windows around me should have shattered. I tried to sink further into the ledge I sat on, pulling my hoodie to my ears, praying silently I was invisible.

“JEZEBEL JENNINGS!”…my last name now. I rolled my eyes and turtled my head out of my hoodie.

Clearly I wasn’t invisible. Everyone within a mile had frozen and was now staring back and forth from the screamer to me. What’s worse is this was happening in my sanctuary. Was no where sacred?!

The screech came from Brenda, my newest worker, who, so far, was a complete enigma. I could feel the heat rise up my neck and into my face as she puffed her bulk up the stairs and bee-lined straight at me. Her spunk made is hard to guess how long she’d actually been at the social worker thing. She had managed to block me from doing anything, or knowing anything, I wasn’t supposed to with and ease that only came from experience: a direct contradiction to her energy level. Most workers burnt out by the time they figured it all out. Brenda knew it all and was still bouncing along like she was fresh out of school. She had to be on something. No one was that happy on their own.

“You realize I’m probably the only Jezebel in the universe,” I sighed as she got close enough to hear me.

“Where have you been all day. Scratch that. Here obviously,” she always answered her own questions-it was one of her goofier traits and one that suited me as it saved me from having to talk. She was the most un-social worker worker I’d ever had. She was also the perkiest person I’d ever met in my life. It was exhausting.

“What’s up?” I asked, as though I expected to see her when in truth I was shocked that she had tracked me down or that she had even put in the effort to try. I added that to her growing list of un-social-worker-like behaviour. She was a new breed for sure.

“Do your bosses know you’re here?” I sneered. Wasting precious resources looking for me wouldn’t make the higher-ups happy.

“What’s up?” she ignored my remark, “She asks me ‘What’s up’ of all things,” her voice got higher as sher talked to herself, or invisible people, or something. Her arms flailed like some sort of TV evangelist. She was definitely keyed up, maybe more than usual. It made me nervous. It was never a good thing to see her this excited about anything. Granted I had never really seen her any other way.

“I have found you a home,” she announced grandly.

“A house you mean,” I replied, “so when do we leave?” all the air wooshed out of me in one breath. I suddenly wanted to sleep.

“I will choose to disregard that comment,” as if that made it go away,” do you have all your stuff?” she asked, although she knew the answer already.

I patted the garbage bag at my feet.

“Good, we’re off then,” she reached for my bag.

“Ive got it,” I grabbed at my garbage bag.

“Okay then,” she smiled, rolling her eyes and holding her arms up in a surrender pose as she backed up a step.

“Lighten up Jez, it’s not all that bad” she flung her heavy arm over my shoulder nearly buckling my knees.

Clearly she had no idea what she was talking about.

“So where is this place,” I asked as I watched downtown give way to suburbs.

“It’s in Esquimalt, you’ll like it. Single mom, two daughters, nice house. Playground in the backyard”

Playground? What the hell?

“And they have room right?” room always seemed to be the most important qualification when finding me a foster home. My stomach picked that particular moment to growl loudly enough to be heard over the pop music blaring out of the radio. I hoped it would blend in with the rumble of the engine.

“Hungry?”

“I’m ok”

“I didn’t ask if you were ok. I asked if you were hungry”

I didn’t answer.

“It’s not far, we’ll be there soon. If I hadn’t spent so much time tracking you down we would have had time to grab a bite to eat but now we’re late so you’ll have to wait.”

I stared out the window. Great. We were in Legoland. The whole neighbourhood looked the same. Exactly the same house for miles in every direction, just painted a different colour. It wasn’t even interesting to look at. We pulled into the driveway of one house that had been assigned a particularily pukey brown. Like something that comes out of a sick dog. From both ends.

“The lawn is nice.”

I looked at Brenda as if she had two-heads. Who cared about the lawn? I hated these introductions and first weeks. The honeymoon period before it all went to hell.

“I give it a month, tops.”

“Don’t think like that,” Brenda responded, the disappointment clear in her voice.

“Reality sucks. Get used to it.” I climbed out of the car.

“Hello and welcome Jezebel” a tall, sickly looking woman opened the front door as I walked up the steps. Her hair was pulled so tight into a bun on the back of her head I wondered if she could blink, “Please come in.”

“Jez,” I corrected as I stepped by her, my arms wrapped around my garbage bag.

The house was immaculate. So clean it would have given a hospital a run for its money. It looked far fancier inside than the putrid outside had let on. Porcelain animals grinned creepily from shelves lining the walls. Elegant dolls, frozen in princess poses and elaborate ball gowns stared at me as I stepped into the room. Everything was velvet and wood. Pale blue couches offset by heavy pink curtains, hardwood floors dotted with foreign looking carpets. On a dark wood coffee table, in the center of the living room, sat a gold trimmed white tray loaded with cookies and bars. Next to it a tea tray fully equipped with cups, saucers and all the fixins. My stomach growled again, so loudly both Brenda and the woman looked at me.

My cheeks burned bright red.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, staring intently at the spotless floor in front of me.

“Are you hungry dear?” the woman asked the most obvious question I think I had ever heard.

“No, I’m fine, “ I glanced at Brenda, trying to be polite. Hoping she would back me up. The tray on the table was screaming at my stomach. Or vice-versa.

“Jez, this is Margaret, Margaret this is Jezebel. Introductions are probably in order.” Not the response I’d hope for from Brenda.

“Well then, let’s get you settled Jezebel,” Margaret said. She spoke as though she should have a snobby English accent but didn’t.

“Jez,” I corrected again.

“Pardon me?”

“Jez. Call me Jez. I hate Jezebel.”

“Never be ashamed of who you are dear,” she said firmly, “and you must learn to speak clearly.”

What did that have to do with anything?

I looked at Brenda and rolled my eyes. Two weeks. I gave it two weeks. Tops.

Brenda shooed me down the hall after Margaret’s long black skirt. Some help she was.

My bedroom was the first one we came to and it was blindingly white: a white bed with frilly white bedding against a white wass just inside the door. A white dresser with tiny white knobs stood on the opposite white wall. A fancy Victorian lamp, also white with small pink flowers stood on the dresser. The curtains even matched the bedding. A splash of colour in the form of a pink frame surrounding a drawing of white kittens with pink ribbons around their necks hung on the wall above the bed. It looked empty, sterile, and totally uninviting.  My garbage bag looked utterly out of place as I put it on the bed: a green troll in paradise, screwing up the stark cleanliness of it all.

I looked at the two women in the doorway, hoping I wasn’t expected to unpack now. The cookies on the table were calling me and the tea was getting cold.

“Well I better get going, I’m already late. I’ll leave you two to get aquainted, Jez, you call me in a few days okay?” Brenda looked at me. I shot her a panicked look, no one bailed on me this quickly in a new home. What happened to the cookies and tea and the boring conversations? The house tour? School discussion? The sorting out of the rules? What about the kids she said lived here? Where the heck were they?

Brenda put her hands on my shoulders and hunkered her bulk down til we were eye to eye, “You call me okay?” she repeated firmly, looking intently into my eyes.

I nodded. She was actually going to leave me here.

She smiled and turned away, walking down the hall, Margaret following. Leaving me in my desolate new bedroom alone.

I turned, carefully untying the knot in the slumped bag still sitting on the bed. I lifted it to dump it and was horrified to see a brown smudge of mud where it had just been, a clear imprint of the bottom of the bag stamped on the stark white. Typical luck. How was I going to fix this. Frantically I rubbed it with my hands, trying to brush it off, making the mark fade slightly and cramming chunks of dirt into the holes in the lace.

Crap.

I could hear the women talking quietly down the hall. I had time. I scanned the room quickly, looking for someway to cover the offending mark.

Flip it!! My brain screamed.

I threw the bag I still held on the floor and ripped off the comforter, flipping it and leaping onto the bed to cram the ruffle between the bed and wall.

I heard Margaret’s heels clicking on the wood and frantically dumped my bag out on the bed, trying to look like I’d been sorting out my small pile of stuff the whole time.

I pulled my only stuffed animal from the pile. He was a yorkie I think. Or at least that’s what I called him. A gift at my last failed adoption. I brushed his hair back off his face, smoothing it. I knew I was too old for stuffed animals but I couldn’t seem to part with this last souvenir of my final almost family. He’d lost and eye somewhere and his hair was matted beyond what any brush could fix, he looked far older and more worn that his two years.

Yorkie marked the moment when “the system” had finally given up on me and declared me a permanent ward: sentenced to live out life, alone, as a ward of the court, in foster care. He was both support and somehow a heartbreaking reminder that I was alone.  An orphan, not through circumstance, but because my own mother had the good sense to run when she could. Now I had the richest and most uncaring parents possible, covered in cracks and red tape. I answered to only the British Columbia government. I may as well have answered to no one. I gave Yorkie a quick hug and placed him gently on the pillow, glancing around quickly to make sure no one had seen me. My clothes were easier to deal with. The dresser was easily ten times the size it needed to be to hold my tiny wardrobe. I crammed it all in the first drawer. I hated folding and I probably wouldn’t be here long enough to get comfy.  I left my toothbrush and toothpaste in its Ziploc bag on the top of the dresser and shoved the garbage bag in the drawer. I’d learned long ago to keep one around for rush packing jobs.

The room still didn’t look lived in. I flopped on the bed to figure out my next move.

Foster care was like chess. I’d figured that much out. Plan for the long term or you get slaughtered.

I could hear the clink of Margaret’s shoes coming down the hall. The sound closely followed by her head peeking into the room. She eyed the bed and I knew that I was caught. I was passable so long as no one noticed the seam that connected the ruffle to the lace was sticking out. She had clearly noticed.

I was out in less than a day. That had to be some kind of record.

“Are you hungry?” her heavily made-up face against the white wall reminded me of the bust of  Nefertiti, pretty in a uppity kind of way.

“A little bit,” I replied guiltily, braced for a comment about the bed.

“Well come and have something to eat then.  It’s a bit late in the day for food and I don’t normally allow snacks but your worker mentioned that you were hungry so we had best get something into you before you fade away.” She turned, striding down the hallway.

I followed her, glancing at the coffee table expecting to see the tray of sweets and tea. It was all gone, as though it had never been there. We turned into the kitchen and I scanned quickly, still looking for the vanished treats.

“How about a sandwich?” she stood with her hand on the fridge door.

“Sure,” I answered, baffled. Where had all those cookies gone?

“Take a seat,it will just be a moment.”

I sat. The stiff wooden chairs much more comfortable than they first appeared. The kitchen was like the rest of the house, stark and not very homey, a bit too frilly, a bit too clean. Her stainless steel appliances shone dully, reflecting the glass cabinets containing neatly piled dishes or food in tidy rows.

No cookies here.  Maybe I had imagined the whole thing?

“Brenda said you had daughters? Where are they?” I asked, trying to break the silence.

“Brenda, that’s right.” She said softly. Did she really know so little about me that she hadn’t learned my workers name? “School,” she continued firmly, “It is a school day after all. They go to Queen Anne’s Academy and will be home shortly after three,” she glanced at her watch, “so very soon.”

She walked towards me with something on a plate. I assumed it was a sandwich. There was definitely bread involved. I think. She placed the plate with its mystery meal gently on the place-mat in front of me, before turning back to the fridge and returning with a glass of nearly blue milk.

Milk from Tatooine. I smiled to myself.

“It’s bean sprouts and tofurkey. We’re vegetarians, didn’t Brenda tell you?” she mentioned seeing my questioning look as I peeled back the corner of the nearly black bread and peered inside.

No, Brenda had definitely not mentioned it.

A week. Tops.

“I’ve never lived with vegetarians before,” I said, working up the courage to take a bite of the heavily seeded bread and its mystery contents. It turned out it wasn’t half bad. It certainly didn’t taste like turkey but it was bearable and I was too hungry to be picky anyway. I maybe would have even eaten pancakes at that point, anything to stop my stomach from clenching in protest.

Chapter Two: Susan

I had almost finished the sandwich when two people appeared out of nowhere. I jumped at the sight of them, how they had snuck into the room so silently was beyond me.

“Jezebel these are my daughters, Catherine and Susan,” Margaret pointed to the tall then the smaller one in turn. Tall and skinny like their mother is was easy to see the resemblance. Both girls were in plaid school uniforms. Susan looking cute and Catherine filling hers out in a way that would make most grown men drool. I felt stupid standing in front of them in my two day old wardrobe of jeans and a hoodie, both way too big for me. I was neither cute nor filled out enough to even be noticeable as a girl. At the moment I wasn’t even clean.

“Hi,” I said smiling at both of them.

“Hello Jezebel,” they answered back in unison.

Creepy. I had a flashback to the twins in “The Shining” and briefly smiled to myself. I turned to Margaret, unsure of the next move. Most people love the honeymoon period: all rainbows and puppies. I hated it, I never knew the boundaries and living on eggshells made me neurotic.

“Girls, you go and put on your play clothes please while Jezebel washes her hands,” Margaret directed all of us at once.

Play clothes? Were we expected to play?

If she busted out a box of ‘Barbies’ I might actually laugh. I looked at the girls for some clue as to the game plan but they were gone as silently as they had appeared.

Very creepy.

Margaret ushered me down the hall to the bathroom, directly across from my room, and stood watching as I washed my hands.

“You can wait in the yard for the girls. They will be out shortly,” she said as I mauled the frilly towel, “the door is this way,” she led me to a back door. This, it seemed, was where the two girls had come in, based on the neatly stacked shoes next to the door. To my surprise, my shoes were here as well: old, dirty sneakers looking alien next to the immaculately clean, nearly new, shoes. Like scruffy third world immigrants stranded in Beverly Hills.

“Wait in the yard and don’t go outside the fence,” Margaret commanded as she held open the door for me.

The backyard was as immaculate as the rest of the house. It was lined with neat flowerbeds and bushes in a myriad of colours running along a fence that easily looked easily six feet high. How she expected me to escape was beyond me. I certainly wasn’t going to scale my way out and couldn’t see a gate anywhere in the endless row of neat planks. Dead center stood a massive wooden playground. Like the kind you see at parks and schools, built into an enormous sandbox. Surely I wasn’t expected to actually play on this?  The yard lacked anywhere to sit except the perfectly manicured grass…or this playground. I stood dumbly outside the door. Well okay then, I sat on a swing and pushed the sparkling sand with my toe.

I heard the click of the door and saw that I was about to be joined by Catherine and Susan, still in matching outfits, corduroy pants and pink blouses. This would be the real test. If I couldn’t get along with these kids I would be as good as gone.

Catherine walked right towards me, taking a seat on the swing next to me. Susan climbed up the tower on the other side.

Please don’t be a divide and conquer move.

“Hi,” Catherine said much more loudly than I expected, “So what do you think?”

“About?” I could hear the scrape of Susan’s feet moving on the playground behind me and fought the urge to turn around.

“My mother, she’s a real piece of work isn’t she?” Catherine said, the challenge clear in her voice. She pushed off the ground, not waiting for my reply.

“I’m telling you said that” came a cry from the canvas roof above us.

“Go ahead, I dare you,” Catherine responded.

Now I was really confused and stared at my feet in silence. These girls weren’t even on the same team. That was good.

“It’s okay, you can tell me. I think she sucks too.” Catherine turned her attention back to me with the same aggression.

“She seems nice,” I responded quietly.

“Pfft! No she doesn’t!” Catherine spat,” She’s an uppity freak who needs to learn to relax. She lost her mind after Daddy died. I swear.”

I stared silently at the big circle I’d made in the sand at my feet. In truth Margaret was a bit odd but no weirder than anyone else I’d met.

“So, how old are you?”

“Fourteen,” I answered, “you?”

“I’m sixteen and the Trog is eleven,” Catherine indicated to her sister with a nod of her head. Susan hung upside down off a bar, her braid dragging in the sand. She looked like she was having much more fun than I was at that moment. “So do you have a boyfriend? I do, his name is Mark and he’s awesome but I only get to see him at school. Mom would freak if she found out,” she babbled.

I looked at Susan, alarmed that Catherine appeared to be bearing her soul in front of witnesses.

“Don’t worry, she won’t tell. She’s too afraid of death. Aren’t you Trog?” the threat obvious in Catherine’s voice, “So how did you get to be a foster kid anyway?”

“It’s a long story,” I sighed. I hoped the subject would be dropped although I knew it wouldn’t be. It never was. I had told my life story so many times I had the speech memorized.

“I have time.”

“Mom said we weren’t supposed to ask her stuff Catherine,” Susan said from her perch on top of a pile of tires.

Thank you Susan.

“Shut up Trog.”

Damn

“So, spill,” Catherine turned back to me. It seemed she reserved most of her venom for her sister.

“Why do you call her Trog?” I asked, desperate for a subject change.

“Because she’s a cross between a toad and a frog,” cane the matter-of-fact reply.

“Oh.” I failed to see the resemblance, “I thought maybe it was short for troglodyte”

“What?”

“A troglodyte, you know, a caveman”

“Whatever,” she waved her hand dismissively, “so you’re like a homeless person right? No one wants you that’s why we’re stuck with you?”

Susan’s mouth opened wide and clapped shut again with a hollow thunk like a guppy struggling for breath.

“Sort of,” girls like Catherine had been plaguing me my whole life.

“Do you go to school?”

“Sometimes, my school is pretty far away.” I redied myself for the coming battle of wits.

“Cant you bus or something?”

“Probably.”

“So you’re a drop-out then? What do you do all day? What are you going to do when you grow-up?” a barrage of questions assaulted me.

“Doesn’t your boyfriend pick you up from school?”

“How did you know that?” she squealed with a touch of panic.

“Queen Anne’s is a girl’s school. I’m assuming “Mark” is a boy.” I could hear Susan giggle, “So you can miss school and it’s okay but no one else can?”

“I go to private school. You have to be smart to even get in. Besides Im going to marry rich,” she sneered.

“You don’t have to be smart, you have to be rich. And what’s this boyfriend do that means he can be missing school to pick you up? Is he a drop out or just smart like you?” I tried to contain a laugh. This would be easy.

“He’s not a drop out!” she said with a hiss, “He’s a lawyer and he loves me and we’re going to be married!”

“What?” I did a double take. Lawyer? What the hell? “How old are you again?”

“Sixteen. Are you stupid, I already told you that.”

“Ya, but I want you to hear it,” I giggled, “He loves you huh? So when’s the wedding?” I barely got the last word out before I burst out laughing.

“Whatever!” she nearly screeched. She headed for the door to the house, leaving her empty swing pivoting slightly.

“Don’t mind her,” Susan said as she stepped up to fill the empty swing. I jumped at the sound, “She’s just mad because she can’t see her friends when she is home. Daddy used to let her get away with everything.”

“Oh” I didn’t want to be drawn into any kind of family feud, “What happened to your dad?”

“He died.”

“Oh.”

I stared at my feet in silence.

“So do you like your room?”

“Yes, It’s nice.”

“That’s good. Mom was really worried that you wouldn’t like it. We just got all that stuff on the weekend when we heard you were coming. It used to be her craft room. After Daddy she doesn’t do crafts anymore so she wanted to use the space up.”

“How did you know I was coming?” What the hell? I hadn’t even known I was coming. How did everyone else know so much more about my life than I did?

“I don’t know” she replied, “Mom just said ‘we have a girl coming to live with us  so we need to get the extra room pretty because people didn’t do stuff like that for kids like you’ So we did. Well, me and Mom did. Catherine just complained that she was sick the whole time. The cat picture is out of my room you know; I thought you would like it. I have one just like it except the kitten’s are playing with a ball and not just sitting there.”

“It’s cute,” I was still trying to absorb the effort they had gone to. Under any other circumstances the picture would have made me gag. Pink was probably my least favorite colour. But I was shocked at the extent this kid had gone to make me happy.  She didn’t even know me.

“So do you really not go to school? Don’t you miss it? I like school. Sometimes I think I like it better than home I think,” she pushed off the ground, flinging sand with her feet.

“No, not really. Sometimes I guess. You kind of get used to it when you don’t go for a while.”

“Mom has us on a strict schedule because she says it’s good for us. I think it helps her deal with Daddy not being here anymore. We do the same thing everyday; it gets kind of boring except when I get to go see Charlie or when we get to do things like shop for your room. Mom’s not happy very much anymore. She liked shopping for your room. Daddy bought me Charlie so Mom works hard to make sure I can keep him. It seems to make her happy that I still ride.  I dunno…”

“Ride?” I asked, just as the door opened and our conversation was interrupted by Margaret calling us in to dinner. As I followed Susan into the bathroom I shot a look at my room to check that everything was where I’d left it.

What the hell? The blanket was back on its right side with no indication of dirt anywhere. Yorkie still stood guard on the pillow as though he had not moved from his post. I detoured slightly to rub the still slightly damp section at the foot of the bed.

“What’s wrong?” Susan had stopped at my door and peered around, obviously expecting to see more to look at than a toothbrush, some empty bags and a stuffed dog.

“Nothing I guess. I just thought…weird.”

“You can throw those bags out you know.” She pointed at the folded garbage bag on the dresser.

“No, it’s okay, they’re alright there for now.” I followed her down the hall.

The table in the kitchen was set like a fancy restaurant, even the napkins were folded, and the middle sported a steaming casserole dish of something covered in cheese that smelled heavenly.  Margaret motioned me to take the same seat I had sat in earlier in the day, across from her own seat with the girls on either side.

“Salad?” Margaret asked holding the salad tongs.

“Yes please.” And she placed some neatly on my plate before returning the tongs to the salad bowl and picking up the spoon next to the casserole dish.

“Lasagna?” she asked.

“Yes please.” I glanced out of the corner of my eye at the other girls serving themselves.

“Milk?” she picked up the jug of milk from the table.

“Yes please.”

Catherine snorted.

“Catherine. That’s enough.” Margaret said sternly.  Susan and I exchanged glances.

“She isn’t a baby Mother” Catherine spat, disgust obvious in her voice.

I could feel my cheeks light up.

“No I suppose not. I was only trying to be helpful, I am sorry,” Margaret said to me, softy, before she took her own seat.

“After dinner it’s homework time girls,” Margaret announced after taking her seat.

“Ya, we know that mother,” Catherine replied.

“Not everyone knows that. And it’s ‘Yes’ not ‘Ya’. You know I prefer you speak properly.”

“Whatever.”

Susan and I exchanged glances again.

We finished dinner in silence.

After dinner Catherine and Susan disappeared down the hall.  I started to clear the dishes off the table, standing awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen with the lasagna tray, unsure where to put it. Of course I had to grab the only thing that required I actually had to put it away. Margaret, clearly smarter than I was, was already loading dishes into the dishwasher.  She gently took the tray and put it on the counter and went back in to clearing the table. The only sound the soft clink of dishes as they fit into the rack.

“Do you want any help with anything? Dishes or something,” I offered.  Usually there was some chore system in place and I knew from experience it was better to insert myself into it as early as possible.

“No, thank you. That is what the machine is for.” She said, winking at me. “You can follow the girls downstairs to the library to study. There are plenty of books down there to choose from if you don’t have any homework.”

At the same moment Susan poked her head around the corner into the kitchen, “Come on Jezebel.  Follow me, I’ll show you where it is.”

Downstairs was much less posh than upstairs and looked like most basements: mostly empty space filled with stacked Tupperware containers marked “Paints” and “sewing” and other crafty terms. Margaret had given all this up for me?

The library, it turned out, was just that. A room filled from floor to ceiling with books.  An enormous desk dominated the center of the room, it reminded me of a psychologist’s office, except for the books and the fact that Catherine sat in the chair behind the desk.  Susan shuffled past me and sat down at a table I hadn’t notice behind the door.

“Go ahead and pick any book you want,” Susan said to me as she sat down and opened a binder and the text book next to her.  Catherine huffed but didn’t even look up from her books spread out on the desk.

I was about halfway around the room an hour later when Margaret called from upstairs.  I still hadn’t been able to decide on a book. There were just too many to choose from by authors I had never heard of.  I grabbed a book by the only author I recognized, C.S. Lewis, and headed back upstairs.

“You can have a shower now and then it’s bed time” Margaret said as I neared the top of the stairs, “’Mere Christianity” is a very good book. A bit of a daunting read though. I hope you enjoy it.” She glanced at the book in my hand.

“You don’t mind if I…”

“Of course not, just look after it as though it were your own.” She smiled. I glanced down at the small, pale green book as though it were solid gold and then back down the stairs behind me. Apparently I was the only one who had heard her. There was no one behind me and it appeared as though no one was coming.

I needed a shower anyway.

Afterwards, my hair still wet, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and it all too common stucco spikes. A popcorn ceiling I think it was called, although it looked nothing like popcorn at all. Within days I would be able to map out a safe passage through the mountains and valleys, I knew, but tonight I was just getting used to the layout of the land.

Chapter Three: The Program

A soft knock rattled me into daylight. I tried to blink out the brightness, rolling out of bed with a groan.  Where…?

Oh right, now I remember.

Ding, Ding, round two.

The girls were already in their matching uniforms and at the table with their breakfast: toast and scrambled eggs.  So they weren’t total vegetarians.

Phew.

“Breakfast?” Margaret asked as she stirred eggs on the stove.

“ No thanks, just coffee?” I answered, drawing shocked looks from both Susan and Catherine.

“Do you drink coffee? “Margaret asked.

“You don’t drink coffee, it’s gross.” Catherine interjected with a sneer.

Actually, she was partially right but I had discovered that if you put enough sugar in it coffee wasn’t really half bad and people really thought you were grown up if you drank it. It was like being part of some elite club.

“Yes, I do. Don’t you?” I smiled at Catherine.  She pushed her plate away and stomped out of the room.

“Catherine…” her mother called after her, “Coffee is over there. You are going to a program today, Jezebel.” She turned back to me.

“Oh?”

“Yes, Brenda has enrolled you at Delta Park. Their bus will be here at 8:00 so you need to be ready please.  You really should try to eat some breakfast before you go.”

“She didn’t say anything to me about it.” Brenda wouldn’t do that to me. Would she?

“Regardless. The bus will still be here at eight. I hope scrambled eggs are okay as I am absolutely horrid at flipping them.”  I saw her smile as I poured sugar into my coffee cup.  The coffee smelled strong. It was probably some weird, foreign, organic blend that tasted like burnt mud. Extra sugar was definitely needed.  I made sure not to make a face since both girls had stopped chewing long enough to stare at me and my steaming cup.

“Would you like to take a cup with you?” Margaret asked, she almost looked as though she was trying not to laugh, “your bus will be here momentarily, you should probably watch for it.”  She offered me a heaping plate. Even if I’d been a breakfast eater it would have been way too much for me to eat at once.

“No thanks.  Really, I am not hungry. They probably won’t let me take coffee on the bus.  Program people usually don’t let kids do that sort of stuff” I answered as I dumped my barely touched coffee into the sink.  It was gross even by normal coffee standards, sugar couldn’t even save it. My attempt to sweeten it was now dropping from the mug like clumps of clear mud splattering into the sink.  I turned on the water to wash the thick river of sugar, hopin.

The bus, it turned out, was actually a van; an old, ugly white van full of kids that looked like carnival escapees, driven by a heavily tattooed, balding guy who looked like he may have just gotten out of prison.

“Hey,” greeted me as the door slid open.

“You must be Jezebel, I am Mike, hop on board.” The driver said

“Jez. Please call me Jez.”

“Alrighty then, Jez it is. Seatbelts!” he said as we pulled away from the end of the driveway.

The only seat available was next to a huge guy; The fat sideshow.. So large in fact that he took up most of the seat and left me with just the edge on which to perch.  He smiled as I tried to arrange myself on the seat without touching him.

“I am Harold, but everyone calls me Blueberry,” a pudgy hand reached around an enormous stomach.

“Hi Blueberry.” I shook the tips of his sweaty fingers.

“You are new here huh?”

“Ummm, ya think?” I said with a bit more sarcasm than I had intended. He was quiet.  I stared out the windshield slightly disgusted with my own rudeness and silently cursing Brenda for having put me in this position to begin with.

The ‘school’ was actually what looked like an old YMCA or something. A big blocky building, plain with a simple sign on the front “Delta Park Alternative School”

Lovely.

Inside it was just a collection of tables dotted with kids. Some with text books on the table in front of them, some staring into space. None of whom looked any more excited than me to be here.

“Over here Jez,” Mike called me over to a teacher’s desk and took a seat behind it.

“You teach too?” I asked incredulously.

“Yup, teach, drive, and make lunch. I even do windows. Just a multi-purpose kind of guy.”

I had pictured more of a murder, rob, beat-the-snot-out-of-people resume but whatever.

“So this is how it works: we have the same curriculum as regular school, you work at your own pace and progress based on test results. Easy Peasy.  What grade are you in?”

“Umm, I finished Grade 9 and parts of Grade 10 and parts of Grade 11. I was kind of doing it all at the same time.” I partially lied.

“What was your last school? We’ll need your transcripts.”

“Central” I was still trying to absorb the room and separate the kids according to who I thought I should avoid, which so far was everybody, and who I didn’t need to worry about.  Blueberry probably was the only one who qualified for this second list. If all else failed at least I could outrun him.

“Okay, well let’s start with Grade 9 and go from there.”

“But I passed Grade 9 already!” I protested.

“Then this should be easy.” He led me to a computer station.  “Here is your log in information, don’t share it with anyone.”

“Obviously.” I muttered under my breath. There was no way I was going to let any of these useless kids steal any of my marks.

“You log onto your page and it will tell you where you are and how far you have to go as well as let you know how you have been doing on assignments. You can also challenge the exams and avoid whole sections if you pass with more than 75%.”

“Cool, let’s do that.”  Really how hard could this stuff be if all these loser kids could do it?

“Okay, let’s start with science then.  Just fill in the blanks. Typical tests stuff. When you are done submit it.  You can go on to something else while you wait for your mark.”

I blasted through five different units in five subjects by lunch, which was served by Mike.

“Do you not have help here?” I asked him over my soup. It seemed odd to leave one man in charge of all these kids.

“Sometimes. I think I can handle you all though. Don’t you?” he replied with a wink and flexed the flaming snake on his arm.  In truth he probably could fold us all into pretzels even if we all jumped him at once.

After lunch I returned to my computer station. None of my marks had been returned yet.  Unsure of what to do I asked Mike who simply waved his hand and directed me to ‘hang out and relax.’

I don’t hang out well. Never have. Call it a short attention span or whatever but I hated to just stand around and do nothing.  I wandered over to the group of kids playing pool in the corner.  Somehow I doubted they had finished their work but I wasn’t about to ask them either.

I pulled up an empty stool and sat to watch the lively game between what appeared to be a crack-head and a guy who looked like Mike’s mini-me.

“So what’s your story?” a girl dressed in black with a spiked dog collar around her neck came up from behind me.

“Nothing. What’s yours?” I stared at the game.

“Nothing.”

That settled it. We were all here for no reason at all. I smiled to myself.

“You think that’s funny” she asked, stepping closer to me.  She was easily a foot taller and had probably 50 lbs on me.

“No, should it be?” I looked at her.

“Now ladies…at least take this outside so we can watch,” cooed Mike’s mini-me, pool cue still in his hand.  Someone in the group behind him said something about jello and the group laughed.

I shot a glance in his direction willing him to be quiet.  I didn’t want to fight and was pretty sure this girl could eat me for breakfast but I also knew that if I backed down I would branded for life as a wimp.

“Hey Jez, can you come here for a sec!” a voice shot out from the back of the room.

“Sure.”  I answered totally unsure of who I was even talking to but thankful that I had been saved from getting my ass kicked.

“Duty calls. See ya.” I said with a little wave to the freaky girl as I turned and searched for my savior.

“You don’t want to mess with Mimi. She will skin you alive. Or her friends will get you if you somehow manage to kick her ass.” My knight in shining armor, it turned out, was none other than Blueberry who waddled over to me halfway across the room. “Nasty bunch, those girls are.” He murmured over the clink of pool balls.

“I didn’t do anything though.” I protested.

“Don’t matter. Just walk away from her.  She’ll eat you for breakfast”

I smiled.

Chapter Four: Horses

It turned out that I got home before the other girls.

Margaret greeted me at the front door, ushering me in like I was a new guest.

“We need to get you to start using the back door like Catherine and Susan, okay?”

“Okay”

“The gate is at the side of the house past the garage.” she added as she walked into the kitchen.

I knew that already.

“Please put on some play clothes as we have to take Susan to the barn today. She has a lesson and we haven’t much time.”

I looked down at my wardrobe, well aware that my entire outfit wasn’t as nice as her kids’ play clothes.  I wasn’t even sure if I should bother to change, or what I should change into if I did bother.

“Should I…?” I glanced at my clothes.

“No, I suppose not.” She sighed, ’we shall have to get you some new clothes I think.  Susan, are you ready?”

I spun around. I hadn’t even heard Susan come in.

“Yes, Mom, all ready,” came the reply from the back door.

“Quickly now,” Margaret herded me down the hall.  I wasn’t sure what the rush was but shuffled along as I was directed.

“Where is Catherine?” I asked as we walked into the garage. “Holy Crap! Nice car!” my train of thought was momentarily broken as we entered the garage to a fully pimped out, sparkling black Escalade.

Margaret shot me a steely glance, “Thank you. It was my husbands.” she replied, “Catherine has debate this evening and will be home later.”

Susan glanced at me with a grin as she climbed in the front seat.  Catherine in debate? I doubted she had enough brain cells to rub together to form a sentence for a group like that.

We were going to see a horse. I real LIVE horse. I wanted to squeal and dance around.

“So your horses name is Charlie?” I asked Susan.

“Yes, well actually, that’s his barn name. His registered name is Chancellor, he is an imported Holstiener. Daddy bought him for me a couple years ago and we have steadily been working towards the medals. He was pretty green when I first got him.”

“Ok, none of that makes any sense to me,” I laughed sheepishly.

“Sorry,” Susan replied with a grin, “His breed is Holstiener, it’s a fancy jumping breed and he was shipped over from Germany where my coach went over and picked him out for me so that means he is imported.”

“Ok, I get that part.”

“We show hunters. When I got him he didn’t know very much which is called being ‘green’ so we had to teach him most of the stuff he knows now. Now that he knows pretty well everything he needs to know we are going to start to show in Children’s Medals which are fancy classes at horse shows,” she continued.

“Ahh, ok.”

“Here we are ladies,” Margaret interrupted as we pulled through huge iron gates and past a giant sign “Cobb Hill Equestrian Center.”  We continued down a cobbled driveway and stopped in front of a massive brick barn.

Susan climbed out and I followed.

“I’ll be back in a few hours to pick you ladies up,” Margaret called as the doors shut.

“I have to go. I am going to be late. You can just wander around or something.” Susan darted down the alleyway leaving me standing alone, feeling stupid and out of place, outside.

I ventured into the aisle-way after Susan.  It was busy. Scarily busy, with people rushing seemingly at random and shiny horses were everywhere held by girls in pastel polo shirts and tight pants with high black boots to their knees. Their hair neatly tucked into hairnets under velvet helmets and their hands in black gloves . They all looked like they’d never been dirty in their lives and all looked at me like I was some sort of disease.

“Excuse me,’ distaste oozed from the mouth of an incredibly tall and ridiculously skinny girl as she swept by me leading the biggest horse I had ever seen.

Although since I had never seen one up close I hadn’t a lot to compare it to.  I mashed myself up against the wall, trying to get out of her way barely managing to get my toes out of the way of the horse’s enormous feet.

I couldn’t see Susan. I couldn’t even hear her over the hum of activity and the noise of horse-shoes on swept pavement.  I backed out of the barn again looking for somewhere to get out of the way but still be close enough to see the horses and their immaculate riders and backed right into a cedar bush trying desperately to just disappear and be there at the same time.

“You know you shouldn’t stand there. You are going to spook the horses.” Another voice spat as the girl strode by with her horse in tow.

Spook?  Whatever that was it didn’t sound good.

“Oh, sorry.” I mumbled.

“Can I help you?  Are you here with someone?” an older lady asked.

“Uh, Susan…”

“Susan who?”

“I don’t know….Susan…She’s about this tall, dark hair..” I gestured with my hands.

“There is no Susan here who fits that description.  This is a private facility. You can’t be here of you don’t have a horse here. I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

I looked wildly around for Susan. “Yes, she has her horse Charlie here. She went that way.” I pointed into the barn.

“I have no idea who you are referring to now please leave the premises before I call the police.”

Great.

Now what.

“Go on” she shooed at me with her black gloved hands like I was some stray dog.

“Seriously?  C’mon lady, where am I supposed to go?  I am here with my foster sister Susan, her…”

“You’re a foster child?”  The woman spat,” You must leave. We don’t need your kind here. The rules are absolute. If you do not have a horse here you are not allowed on this property. Clearly you do not have a horse here, “she eyed me up and down with disgust, “so you must leave immediately.”

“Fine. Whatever” I sighed and turned down the driveway. I guess I would just sit on the edge of the road until Margaret came back.

The black iron gates behind me I looked down the road trying to see if there was something I could do to amuse myself and still stay within sight of the barn since I had no idea when Margaret was due to return.

Across the road from Susan’s barn was another farm.  ‘Sterling Ridge Rescue’ it said it pretty green letters on a white sign at the end of the driveway. Behind the sign a horse who looked older than dirt ate grass in a field surrounded by a clean white fence.

Well here at least was a horse.  I couldn’t see any movement from the small house down the gravel driveway or the barn behind it.

Why not risk it? What do I have to lose I thought. I clambered through the ditch next to the fence. I was still on public property.

Or at least I hoped I was.

“Here Horsey,” I called stupidly, holding out a handful of grass through the rails of the fence. The horse raised his head, looked at me, and then went back to eating the grass at his feet.

“C’mon horse, what happened to the grass is greener over here. Easy access for ya, “ I called again shaking my handful of grass and weeds.  He wandered over slowly, taking the grass from my hand gently.

“You’re a nice sort of a guy aren’t you” I patted his graying forehead.

“His name is Sam.”

I knew that voice.

“What the hell are you doing here Blueberry?”  I turned to the driveway to face him.

“I work here, well sort of. Better question is what are you doing here? Anymore run ins with Mimi?” he added with a smile.

“Well no, I am supposed to be over there,” I pointed at the farm across the street,” but some lady told me to get out.”

“Ahh,” he nodded,”kicked out of ‘Snob Hill’ been there, done that.  C’mon I’ll show you around.”

I threw my remaining grass through the fence at Sam and climbed back through the ditch to follow him down the driveway.  This was the last place I expected to see anyone I knew, much less Blueberry, but I was game to follow anyone who had the inside track to a real horse.

“So how long have you been coming here?” I asked hurrying to catch up. For a big guy he sure covered the ground fast.

“Just over a year” he called over his shoulder, “ Wanna meet my horse?”

“You have a horse?”  I couldn’t believe he could actually ride anything.

“Well sort of, I am the only person who looks after him but I don’t own him. I don’t ride him either.”  He replied with a sigh. “This is Marshall, he is a Clyde cross.” He gently stroked the white nose of a huge horse whose gigantic head was hanging over the stall door. He opened the door and clipped a rope to Marshall’s halter.”Look out, coming through” Blueberry warned as he led the big horse into the aisle of the little barn.

Marshall’s body was even bigger than his head had let on.  He was enormous with huge, hairy feet. Once in the aisle Blueberry snapped a rope to each side of Marshall’s halter and handed me a brush under the enormous neck.

“Go ahead then,” he said and turned to start brushing.

“But how…” I stood dumbly with the brush in my hand.

“It’s not rocket science, just brush him, he likes it.”

Marshall was a far cry from the sleek shining horses I had seen across the road. He had far too much hair. Hair coming out of parts I didn’t even know horses had hair on. Even his feet had hair on them.

“So how did you find this place?” I asked as I tried to brush the bits of sawdust out of the wooly coat.

“A friend used to come here and he brought me out with him and I’ve been coming ever since. Marshall used to be his.”

“What happened to your friend? How come he stopped coming.”

“He died.”

“Oh.”

I turned back to brushing the big hairy beast unsure what to say.

“No, no, no you need to go with the hair. Like this,” Blueberry grabbed my hand over the brush and showed me the proper way to brush.

“Not rocket science huh?” I giggled and rolled my eyes.

“I didn’t think so, apparently not everyone gets it.”  He answered with a smile, “Wanna take him out for some grass?”

“Huh?” Marshall was way too big, there was no way I could possibly control him.

“Ya, well I have to do his stall and it’s easier if he isn’t in it. He’d really like it, he is good, don’t worry.”

“Sure, easy for you to say.” As I watched him unclip the halter from the ties on either side. “How do I do it? What if he runs away? He is too big; I don’t think I can do this.”

“Oh, c’mon. Grow some balls. Does he look like he is going to make a run for it? Just hold the damn rope and make sure he doesn’t step on it. If you want him to move just pull, same for stopping, just pull.  It’s simple.”

“So was brushing but I managed to do that wrong!” I was almost panicking.

“True. Who’da thunk a brain like you wouldn’t realize hair only goes one way.” He rolled his eyes. ”Here,” he handed me the rope, ”take him out on the driveway and let him eat.”

Marshall looked at me expectantly as Blueberry walked away.

“Okay big guy, please don’t kill me.” I turned and took a couple of steps down the aisle towards the big doors Marshall followed. I stopped and he stopped immediately.

Maybe this wasn’t so hard after all.  I patted his huge neck and took a couple more steps and stopped. He stopped behind me and pushed my arm with his nose.

“Okay, okay. Seriously, please don’t kill me.” We walked out into the bright sunlight and nearly collided with an enormous woman.  Not so much over weight as just plain big all over.

And she looked mad.

“Sorry, Blueberry told me to take his horse to eat grass on the driveway,” I said quickly, fully expecting to be once again kicked out.

“You are a friend of Harold’s then? Nice to see he finally brought someone out. I am Mrs. T and this is my little slice of heaven,” her large arms swinging wide, “Your name is?”

“Jez.”  I answered as Marshall nearly ripped my arm from its socket tugging on the rope as he dove for the grass.

“Welcome to Sterling Ridge Jez, just pull on the rope with a really quick, hard tug and he won’t do that,” Mrs.T said with a wink,” off to work I go. Hope to see you around.” She turned and walked away.

“Phew,” I sighed,”that was weird, huh?” I said to Marshall and patted him nervously on the neck with a still shaking hand.

Marshall had succeeded in dragging me all the way down the driveway and was happily standing belly deep in the ditch eating like he was starving when Margaret drove by.

“Where in the world did you get that beast?” she asked out the tinted window of her Escalade, “and why aren’t you with Susan?”

“They kicked me out and I ran into a friend over here. This is his horse.” I answered with a grunt. Marshall simply refused to get out of the ditch despite the fact that I was now leaning my full weight on the end of the rope.

“Who kicked you out? Never mind, I will be back to get you in a minute, don’t move from this spot.”

“I should probably take Marshall back first.” I gasped through my teeth. Marshall had clearly decided he was not moving for anything.

“Okay, I will be back in a minute.” The black SUV glided away.

“Dammit Marshall COME ON!”  I was half tempted just give up and leave him there while I went for reinforcements.  My arms shook as I leaned for all I was worth on the rope.  “Crap. Now what do I do.” I muttered, disgusted that I was unable to budge the huge horse, “For pete’s sake Marshall I am pretty sure they are going to feed you when you get back! Now COME ON!” I heaved again on the rope.

In one swift movement Marshall heaved his bulk out of the ditch and stood next to me in the driveway.

“Bout freaking time.” I sighed; I could feel sweat dripping from my temples and wiped it off with my arm. “Let’s go, I have to hurry.”  I took him back to the barn.

“Perfect timing, I was just going to come and get him,” Blueberry met me at the entrance.

“I have to go, my ride is here, see you at school.” I calIed over my shoulder as I threw the rope at him and bolted for the road.

Chapter Five: Catherine

“Where did you go?” Susan asked as I climbed in the backseat.

“Some lady kicked me out but it’s ok I found a friend across the street.”

“At that rescue place?”

“Ya, he has a horse there and he let me help him brush him and stuff.”

“That’s nice; I wish you had come to see me ride though. Some people are really uptight about the rules of the farm. I don’t know why, it’s not like you were going to steal all their stuff.”

“Ya, I know” I sighed, remembering the woman who had looked at me like I was some sort of fatal disease.

“How about Chinese food for dinner girls?”  Margaret asked.

“Sure!” Susan and I replied in unison.

Wow, Chinese food! This day just got better and better I smiled.

Flashing lights greeted us as we turned the corner towards the house.

“What the devil!” Margaret hissed and pushed the gas pedal to the floor and slid to a stop on the road at the bottom of the driveway. “What’s going on?” she grabbed a cops arm and asked frantically.

“Sorry Ma’am, do you live here?” he answered calmly.

“Yes, I do, now tell me what the devil is going on?”

“We have a suicide attempt by a young girl. She has already been moved to the hospital. I don’t know more than that.  I am sorry I can’t be of further assistance.”

“What are you talking about? None of my children should be home. My eldest is at debate; my youngest is here with me. Who did you find in my house?!” her voice had a high pitched, panicky waver to it.

“I have that is was a young girl, around 16 yrs old. Overdose. No name and no other information.” He replied as he consulted a little notebook.

Susan nudged my elbow as we stood on the curb, “Catherine.” She said in a whisper, “Oh no.” she put her hand over her mouth.

“Catherine.” Her mother echoed and went pale.

Crap.

“Where did they take her?” Margaret gasped through her fingers.

“To Victoria General Ma’am.”

“Girls in the car. NOW!” Margaret pointed at the Escalade.

Susan and I scrambled to get into the car, my foot lifted just as the pavement slid out from under it. My leg barely missed being slammed in the door swung shut by the sudden speed of the SUV.

A tingling in my fingers forced me to loosen my grip on the armrest handle of the door. Margaret was driving like a crazy person and mumbling under her breath.

We screeched to a stop in front of the emergency entrance, blocking the parking lot turn around area. Margaret jumped out, leaving the Escalade running, and ran for the entrance.

“Mom! Susan called through the open driver’s door from the passenger seat.

“We can’t leave the car here.” I said quietly.

“I know!” Susan whirled to face me,”I can’t drive though; we will just have to wait ‘til she comes back. She’ll come back. She has to; she can’t just leave us sitting here.”

“I can drive.” I whispered.

“Fine, whatever, you move it then, I am going to find my sister.” She rushed into the hospital.

Crap.

I sat dumbly in the backseat trying to work up the courage to move the huge SUV.

“Don’t screw this up Jez,” I muttered to myself as climbed between the bench seats.  “Okay, gotta move the seat, at least I can see over the steering wheel. That’s good.” As the seat motor slid me forward and up. I reached out and pulled the door shut then wiped my palms on my jeans. “Drive, one, two, three clicks,” I pulled the gearshift down. The Escalade leapt to life and jerked forward.  Hammering on the brake with both feet I hissed, “Jesus Jez, you’re nuts, you know that. She is seriously going to kill you if you wreck this car. I should just let it get towed.” I rested my forehead on the fake wood on the steering wheel trying to work up the courage again.  A few laps of a parking lot in a Datsun had not prepared me for this at all.

“Here we go,” I said to no one. Slowly the SUV inched around the cul-de-sac. Where the hell was I going to park it? I looked around only to find there were no parking spots in sight.  Damn.  “Up the hill then, there has to be parking up there.” The Escalade was going so slow the speed wasn’t even showing on the dash but it felt like I was flying. I turned the corner up the hill towards the parking garage, my heart racing, now I was on an actual road!

Turning the corner, I pulled into the top of the parkade, ducking under the measuring bar thing. The security guard came out of his little building as the SUV coasted by.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I whispered to myself as I shot him a shaky smile. Why did they have security in the parking lot of a hospital?  I added that to my ‘stupidest things I had heard of’ list.

He didn’t smile back.

Crap.

“C’mon Jez, he doesn’t know this isn’t your car,” I told myself. Uh, ya, he likely knew perfectly well this wasn’t my car and that I wasn’t old enough to be driving it regardless of who owned it.  I wasn’t exactly one of those girls who could pass for older.  I’d be lucky if he even realized I was a girl.

Thank God the roof parking was empty. I pulled into a spot, well two actually, and got out and ran smack into the security guard who had apparently appeared out of nowhere.

“Can I help you?” he asked politely.

“Well no, I am just going to find my foster sister she is here somewhere,” I replied, trying to sound confident but suddenly noticing my shoe had a hole in the side of it so I could almost see my baby toe.

“Is this your car?”

“Uh, no,” I almost giggled. He couldn’t be serious?! “Does it look like my car? It’s my foster mothers actually. She is here somewhere too”

“Can I ask why you are driving it around?”

“I just parked it.” barely, “I wasn’t doing laps or anything.  Jesus I wasn’t even speeding.  Can I go now?”

“Where is your mother?”

“Foster parent.” I corrected.

“Fine. Foster mother. Where is she?” he asked his voice getting that impatient edge adults get when you correct them.

“In the hospital somewhere. Her kid tried to kill herself apparently.”

“What is her name?”  He pulled out his radio.

“Margaret…”

“Margaret what?”

“I don’t know.” I mumbled.  He clipped his radio back to his belt.

“You don’t know her name?” this guy wasn’t going to give up.

“No, I don’t” I sighed.  There wasn’t much point in trying to explain why.

“Do you have a license?”

Crap.

“No.” I examined my other shoe for a matching hole.  He had me now and I knew it.

He put his hand out and I gave him the keys to the Escalade.

“Come with me please.” He grabbed my elbow.

My shoulders dropped. Here we go.

“I can walk on my own,” I pulled my elbow out of his hand.

This sucked. Seriously.  Brenda was going to kill me if I got arrested again.  Could I even be arrested by a security guard?

He directed me into his little hut and pointed at a chair then picked up the phone,” Jack I have a juvenile here I need someone to pick up.” He looked at me, “Stole a car.” I opened my mouth to protest then sank back into the chair. What was the point? “Says it’s her foster parents but has no name. Ya, sure. We’ll be here.” He hung up.

“So tell me this story again?” He sat on the edge of the counter facing me.

“It’s not a story.” I mumbled.

“Just sit there until the Calvary arrives.” He stated then turned to his little TV screen on the counter.

“Does it look like I am going anywhere?” I replied quietly looking out the doorway at the faint twinkling of stars as the sky slowly faded into night.

The Calvary arrived in the form of a police car, its lights flashing blindingly in the dark.

Great.  Brenda was going to kill me after all.

The cop walked around the corner and pulled out her little notebook. “Your name please.”

“Jezebel Jennings. April 16, 1994. 14 yrs old. I don’t know my address or my phone number.  You’ll have to call a duty worker since the office is closed now.” I knew the drill.  She scribbled furiously.

“Middle initial?”

“Don’t have one.”

“Come with me please.” She sat me in the back of the car then went back to talk to the security guy.

I pressed my forehead to the cool window and waited.  They would no doubt decide I was awful and I would end up spending the night cuffed to a desk until a duty worker saw fit to come and get me. Then I would be lectured all the way home about how I needed to clean up my act and I was taking time away from kids who needed the workers time and blah blah blah…

“You want to tell me what happened?” the cop asked as she got back into the car and pulled out of the parkade. The guard waved as he watched out the window, looking smug and pleased with himself.

Nice crime fighting, loser.  I badly wanted to finger him, or stick my tongue out or mock him in some way but couldn’t think of anything that would get my point across.

“Does it matter?” I stared out the window glaring at the guard with enough venom that the glass should have melted.

“He seems to think you stole that car.”

“He would think that.” I sighed.

“You didn’t?”

“Of course not!” I snapped.

“Well then, what happened?”

I told her the story, knowing full well she wouldn’t believe me.  Heck, I wouldn’t believe me either.

“Okay then.” She said as she opened the door. It had taken the whole ride to the station to explain everything. “Let’s go find your worker then.”

“You aren’t going to book me?” after all that?

“Should I?”

“Well no…but…”

“Let’s go find your worker.” She repeated. I followed her into the station.

“Just wait here Jezebel.” She pointed to a chair in the waiting room.

“Okay.” I wasn’t about to argue.

The duty worker was a harried looking very small man. No taller than me actually and he reminded me of a Hobbit. A very old and very excitable Hobbit. Like an ancient version of Pippen…only he looked miserable.  He shot me a look that made me want to wither and die on the spot as he rushed by me to the desk at the front.

“I am here to pick up Jezebel Jennings.” he glanced at his watch.

“Just a moment. Constable Powell wanted a word with you.” The desk guy said and picked up his phone.

“Have her call in the morning. I really am in a hurry.” He looked at his watch again.

“Fine sir, can you fill this out and sign here please?” the officer handed the Hobbit a clipboard.

After scribbling furiously the Hobbit handed it back and waved his finger towards the door and kept walking past me.  I got up to follow him, nearly running to keep up and had to jump into the passenger seat, closing the door just as he started to pull away.

“Where are we going?” I asked when I realized we were not headed to Esquimalt but to town.

“Kiwanis. You will stay there tonight. Brenda will pick you up tomorrow and take you home.”

Oh goody. The shelter. It didn’t get much better than that. Not.

His cell phone rang and he ignored me the rest of the trip. Busily talking to whoever was on the other end of the phone.

We pulled up to Kiwanis and he hurried up the steps. I was far less enthusiastic and could barely drag myself out of the car.

“Come on!” he called from the top of the steps where he stood. I could see him push the button to the intercom but couldn’t hear what he said. A few seconds later the door opened and a worker greeted us.

“Hey Jez,” he said as I ducked past.

“Hi Jack.”

“Looks like you got here just in time.”

I turned around just as it looked like a hurricane had descended.  Rain, thunder and lightning lit up and echoed through the street outside.

“Lovely,” I sighed to Jack.

“Ahh, well, at least you are inside right?” He ruffled my hair,” Carrie has gone to grab some Mocha’s, shhh don’t tell anyone” he whispered conspiratorially, “your usual bed is ready for you. Quiet though, the rest of the girls should be asleep.  You can find your own way right?”

“Ya, I know where it is. Is there any food? I haven’t eaten since lunchtime?”

“You know that is against the rules Jez,” he sighed, “You’ll have to wait til breakfast now, sorry kiddo.”

“Great,” I sighed, “pancakes right?” I knew the answer already. Pancakes had to be my least favorite food in the entire world, now I could look forward to not eating until at least lunchtime tomorrow.  Assuming of course I could find my way back to Delta Park. I wandered down the hall to room C, my usual spot, oddly available tonight. Especially given the weather.

Chapter 6: Bed C

The ceiling had that spikey stucco look.  So old it was no longer white but had turned a pale yellow, too sickly to be pleasant and not strong enough to be noticeable.

Unless you were like me; lying on a bed staring at it.

I hated being so close to the door. The window on one side and the door on the other made sleeping on my side impossible. I couldn’t sleep any other way. So I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling; watching the reflection of raindrops from the window and picking shapes and images out of the spikes and valleys that punctuated the tired stretch of plaster above me.  How this bed had come to be my spot I had no idea.

I could hear the breathing of the other girls in the room.  The soft flutter of air sounded loud against the hum of rain outside.   Occasionally someone would groan or mumble something and toss and turn in her bed.

I had been in this house, and others like it, many times before.  Even then I would never choose to be in a shelter. This was lower than even a group home.  I hated places like this and the patronizing pity they offered.  I hated how a simple, ancient house proved I was less than nothing and how I would never be better than what I was right now.  I hated how I knew I would leave in the morning and be alone again.  I hated that the empty night left me too much time to think about it all.

But it was better than being out in the rain.

I only guess how the rest of the kids had made it here. I knew they wouldn’t tell and I knew I wouldn’t ask.  If we even saw each other come daylight. And no one did.

I couldn’t sleep.  I tossed and turned, trying to watch the door and the window at the same time and watching neither in the process.  A myriad of random thoughts cluttered my brain. What would be for breakfast tomorrow? What would I do all day? Where would I be sleeping tomorrow night? Each thought followed by a fatalistic answer. Pancakes,  nothing and probably here again.

The thump of feet hitting the floor startled me back to consciousness. It was morning but I had no memory of actually falling asleep. I rolled over with a sigh. Oh, I was here again. I sat up, blinking out the sun streaming into the room, burning my eyes, through the very window that had kept me up all night and noticed my room-mates were already awake

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and glanced around, the seams on my jeans corkscrewing around my legs and my t-shirt sporting that twisted, slept-in look.  Familiar roses stared at me from the worn wallpaper. A bunk bed against one wall and the single bed I sat in next to the door.  The furniture was straight out of the 70’s, or maybe even earlier, its brass hardware still glimmering against the peeling faux- wood paneling. The room was small and personal by shelter standards. Most shelters looked something similar to an orphanage with rows of beds and up to 10 kids in one room. All contained the hand-me-down, donated furniture, well past its glory days and all had that dingy, scruffy look of places that had been used hard and cleaned too much and were now in need of something more than a mop and bucket could offer.

“Hey.”  A simple greeting muttered by a girl who looked no more than ten.  She should be playing with Barbie’s rather than staying in a place like this.  Like a kitten found in a dumpster, looking cute and out of place amongst the trash.  She turned to the mirror on the ancient dresser, and started to put on her make-up.  I saw a jagged scar along her jaw line, barely concealed by her long blonde hair and tried not to stare at the stark whiteness of it.  It was a jagged and ugly mark against her pale and beautiful face. She could be modeling on the cover of Vogue but instead she was here.

“Hey,” I answered back.

The other looked much older than me but life has a funny way of making some of us kids grow up too fast and I could only guess how old she was.  She was the opposite of the blonde girl in every way.  Almost manly she was so stocky, everything about her was dark and hard. She looked drawn and haggard: like not enough paint on too much wall–stretched and taut.  She had obviously been in the system, or on her own, for a while. Really, I guess those were the same thing.  It was easy to see that and I recognized the hard, still rebellious, look in her eyes instantly.  I greeted it with nod.  Girls like her ruled the roost in these places and I was too tired to be beat up today.  They had made it their home and personal territory, packing up each morning and returning each night to reclaim their favourite bed.  They were hard, tough street kids unused to not getting what they wanted but who avoided street life whenever they could.  I would not take her on, I knew that, but I wouldn’t bow down either.  We both knew I wouldn’t be here long enough for her to bother with.

A fleeting look at the clock on the dresser; its red, digital letters blinked 7:23 told me that I only had half an hour before I had to be out.  Half an hour to shower, eat and head back into the world. Still tired, I got up, smoothed my t-shirt ineffectively with my hands, and headed down the hall to the bathroom.

“Women” etched in black, rectangular plastic clearly marked the bathroom door, adding to the cheap hotel feel of the house.

Occupied.

Dammit.

I could hear the low murmur of talking; the conversation got louder as I got closer and stopped dead when I peeked in the door of the kitchen. A pile of pancakes, which are probably my least favorite food, greeted me from a plate on the counter and I smiled, amused.   Why did they always serve pancakes in these shelters? Probably to save money- pancakes were cheap. And disgusting. The table was occupied by three guys, who must have come down from upstairs, and another couple girls who I assumed had come from one of the other rooms in the girls’ end of the house.  All of them had been deep in conversation with each other and Ben, the morning worker, standing near the sink until I had disrupted it with my appearance.  I nodded a greeting as I ducked back out of the room.  I wasn’t hungry enough to eat pancakes. Not yet anyway.

“Hi how are you my name is Matt, “ was said so fast it sounded like one word.  I turned and walked directly into an overly excited boy who looked, and talked, as though he had just fallen out of a particularly chipper episode of ‘The Brady Bunch‘.  His hand enthusiastically awaiting my return handshake and his smile as large as his chubby face could accommodate.  I rolled my eyes and looked past him at the cartoons playing on the old console TV behind him; the ‘pings’ and ‘boings’ of Wile E. Coyote lighting up the dark, dingy room with its flowery velvet wallpaper and ancient couch.  I giggled a snort and quickly covered my mouth.  Poor Wile E. had another piano dropped on his head.  I guess everyone has their problems.

You could always spot the new kid: untarnished and full of energy.  For the first few hours this place was Disneyland.  And then reality snuck in.  New kids with their cruel and evil parents who dared to ground them and take away their cell phones and video games.  It was fun to try and watch them keep their stuff.  I wondered who would have poor Matt’s Ipod or cell phone if I came back tonight.  Dollars to donuts it wouldn’t be him.  Brushing past him I continued down the hall, feeling a little guilty for not trying to make his stay better and at the same time disgusted that he was even here at all.

These places should really be pickier about who they let in but the few times I had mentioned it had resulted in a long lecture about the ‘needs’ of ‘all kids’ and how we all needed to be treated ‘equally’.  All nice and peachy keen and totally unrealistic. But who was I to have an opinion anyway.

I checked the schedule by the open door to the office, not open til 4pm.  This was the usual drill. Did they really think we went to school?

My eyes met those of the worker in the office. A new girl. I knew she had seen me too.  She greeted me with a smile full of perfect white teeth from the office chair in which she perched in her beige business suit, its plainness contrasting sharply with the black leather. I remembered that I had not brushed my teeth yet.  I stood there for a second, trying not to be rude and bolt.  Her foot dangled on the end of her crossed leg, its expensive beige shoe bobbing in time to low music playing in the background.   She looked like an executive who had been given an assignment in the mailroom: over-qualified and unprepared for the reality of it all.  She said something as I turned and walked quickly away, no doubt attempting to engage me in the very conversation I hoped to avoid.  She had nothing to offer me except the typical patronizing, parental advice.  I hurried to the front door before she could get out of her chair and I would be stuck talking to her.

The air smelled fresh.  I loved the world after it rained.  Everything seemed so new and clean and ready to start over. I couldn’t stop the smile that broke out at the thought of world washed clean.

A woman jogged by, looking like she was married to a plastic surgeon and employed his services heavily. She glanced down her Michael Jackson nose in my direction and quickly looked away as she fiddled with her iPod. I knew by her glance that she knew what kind of kids resided in this house. The disgust was as clear as if it had been in neon and installed on her forehead by her surgeon husband.  I was at once embarrassed to be seen on the steps of the shelter and defiant, staring back at her with the ugliest look I could muster.

And I was back to being dirty again.

The woman’s glance reminded me of all I had stewed over that night.  I was garbage. Human garbage not worth more than the bag that held all my stuff.

My hands ran over my rats nest of hair and rumpled clothes.  I could hide my origins if I could just get clean enough.  I needed to brush my teeth.  The public pool across the street was the perfect place: lots of people my age, easy access bathrooms and, above all, public.  No one could kick me out.   At least not for a little while.

The smell of chlorine made my eyes sting and water.  The pool was nearly empty.   I had forgotten it was early morning and I stood out like the devil in heaven no matter how much I tried to blend in with the floor tiles.   I could see the cashier, out of the corner of my eye, staring at me as I walked past her to the bathroom as though I was going to rob her, or pull a machine gun out thin air and kill everyone.

The swinging bathroom door sported a twin sign to the one that had been at the shelter, its black plastic shining in the fluorescent lighting. The bathroom was empty aside from one woman who was fixing her hair at the far end of the double row of sinks. I could tell she had been beautiful once, before time and use had taken their toll.  I chose a sink at the opposite of the room.

I washed my face with the foam soap from the dispenser, resolving to get my own bar to add to all the stuff left at Margaret’s. I hated the slippery feel the foam left on my face. I brushed my teeth with a piece of paper towel and re-did my hair in a pony tail–slightly perkier than the one it replaced.

The elderly woman watched me in the mirror as she fixed her make-up and smiled at me in the mirror.  She was still pretty, for an old lady, and no doubt came here to keep herself fit: one of those early bird swimmers who arrived in the dark and paddled for hours every morning.  I don’t know why she was in the bathroom and not the change room.  She patted me on the back gently as she left leaving me feeling warm and noticed and at the same time dirty and ashamed as the door closed behind her. She had witnessed my secret transformation. I hoped I would not run into her again.

I started walking.  I didn’t want to take a bus too close to the pool.  Everyone would know where I came from then. So I walked.

Eventually I settled down on a bus stop bench a few blocks away to decide how I could find my way back the Program and back to Blueberry and Marshall.