Of my mother I have a faint remembrance: I lost her when I was only seven years old, and this was my first misfortune. At her death, my father gave up housekeeping, boarded me in a convent, and quitted Paris. Thus was I, at this early period of my life, abandoned to strangers.
Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (1791)
When I was six, I was entered into the foster care system because there was no one to care for me.
I was small and plain without the puppyish cheerfulness that makes grown-ups love a child, so I was passed from one miserable foster home to the next. I scurried in the shadows, away from the predators in the violent neighborhoods where I lived. I existed without love, without safety, without hope.
One sweltering Saturday in August when I was sixteen, I said good-bye to my roommates at the group home where I had spent the last four years. I picked up a ratty vinyl sports bag that contained all my worldly possessions: thrift-shop clothes, two pairs of shoes, a paperback dictionary, my SAT workbooks, a worn leather-bound Bible that had belonged to Hosea, and a tin box of trinkets. I had my life savings, $7.48, in my pocket.
As I walked to the front door of the ramshackle house, Mrs. Prichard grabbed my arm, her maroon nails digging into me. Her spray-on orange tan scaled on her rough skin while her inner arm was as pasty as a reptile’s belly. She wore a purple t-shirt and new jeans with rhinestones and embroidered flourishes.
“Jane Williams, aren’t you gonna thank me for everything I done for you?” Her yellow frizz of hair bobbed each time she snaked her neck.
I jerked away from her grip. “Don’t you ever touch me again.” I kept my eyes on her dirty dishwater-brown ones. “You’ve never done anything for me that you didn’t have to do so you could keep getting money from the state. You would have thrown me in the street the second I aged out.”
She flushed under the fake tan, her cheeks turning copper red. “There was no use spoiling you when you’re gonna wind up like the rest of these stupid girls, another baby-mama on the public dime, hooked on the pipe.”
“I never asked you for a single thing except kindness, but that’s not in you. You don’t know me at all.”
“Don’t you put on airs with me! Your fancy book-learning and phony manners might fool others, but I know that you’re still what you always were—low-class garbage from no-account people. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
My anger was cold and dense. I leaned so close to Mrs. Prichard’s face that I could smell the stale coffee and strawberry gum on her breath. “And I know what you are. You’re a heartless, soulless waste of human life. When I’m older, I’ll make sure that your license is revoked. I hope you burn in hell after what you did to Hosea. You’re the reason he died, and I will never forget that. I will see that you pay.”
Mrs. Prichard’s lower lip quivered and she stepped back. I felt a spark of something unfamiliar: it was power and it warmed me as I imagined a mother’s caress might.
Outside, the sun blazed on the ugly street, revealing the paint peeling on houses, dried blood on the cracked sidewalk, and trash in the gutters. The hood was a volatile mix of the destitute, the dangerous, and the desperate. I knew that the men on the corner, who seemed so nonchalant, noticed me with my bag, because they noticed everything and everyone. I kept my head down as I neared them.
One of the other men said, “Squeak, squeak, squeak,” and they all laughed, but there was nothing I could do about it.
I walked past the liquor store, the check-cashing shop, and houses with chain-link fencing and pit bulls that lunged and snarled. I made sure to keep close to the curb when I went by a crack house, and then I reached a lot with junked appliances.
A tall, skinny Goth girl, incongruous in her short purple tube-dress and platform flip-flops, smoked a cigarette and leaned against a busted washing machine. Her straight waist-length hair was dyed black with shocking pink streaks. She wore chalky makeup, but her shoulders and legs had colorful tattoos.
When she spotted me, she shouted, “Janey!” and dropped the cigarette.
“Hey, Wilde!” I put down my bag and, as we hugged, I felt the thinness of her body and smelled her sugar-sweet perfume. My hand on her bare shoulder blade touched the raised surface of one of the small round scars that marked her body.
We finally let each other go and smiled. The thick blue eyeliner around her gray eyes and her sharp cheekbones made her appear old. She said, “So you’re finally making a prison break from Mrs. Bitchard’s?”
I grinned. “Hosea hated when we called her that. Remember how he’d frown that way he did and say, ‘She’s trying as best she knows.’”
“He was always schoolin’ us to act ladylike.” Wilde deepened her voice and said, “‘Sis, you’re too pretty to say such ugly words.’ Heck, I still feel bad when I cuss.”
“Me, too.” We both were quiet for a moment. “The school’s sending a car to get me.”
“High styling!” Wilde had a wide-open smile with a small gap in her front teeth that made it special. “Well, good on you.”
“I’m going to miss you, girlfriend.” I wondered when she’d last slept or eaten a real meal. “How are you doing? How are you really doing?”
“Oh, you know. You know how you been riding me to get my GED?”
“Because you’re as bright as a new penny.”
“That’s what Hosea used to say. Anyways, I’m gonna get my degree and go to beauty school.”
“Seriously? You’d be an amazing haircutter. You’re working those pink streaks.”
She flipped back her hair. “I did it myself. They’ve got videos online about cutting and styling and the other girls let me practice on them.”
“Wilde, maybe now’s a good time to clean up … because when you apply for those beautician licenses, I think they drug test you.”
Her eyes narrowed in warning. “Let it go, Jane. I already told you, I’ll clean up when I clean up.”
“Sure, I know you will,” I said, because Wilde got defensive every time I brought up this subject. “Hey, I’ll come back to visit when I can.”
“You do what you have to do and get settled in, baby girl. I’m gonna be fine even without you checking on me twice a week, and don’t deny it. My man, Junior, takes care of me.”
I gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t say what I thought about the midlevel thug.
When she gave me another hug, her hand snuck into my front pocket. “Some cash for your stash.”
“Wilde, you don’t have to…” I began, but she cut me off, saying, “Janey, you gave me running-away money when I needed it.”
I gazed around at the dismal surroundings. “It wasn’t enough to get you out of this place.”
“Well, you were always more ambitious than me. I got away from Mrs. Bitchard and that’s all that matters.” She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Quid pro quo.”
Laughing, I said, “Where did you learn that?”
“My clientele. See, I can talk Latin, too.”
A gray Volvo slowed on the street and the car’s window rolled down. The man inside leered at Wilde, who waved her hand at him and said to me, “Sorry, Mousie, I gotta get back to work. Now get outa here and show them rich girls that Hellsdale girls got brains, too!” Hellsdale was what we called our city, Helmsdale.
My friend sashayed to the car, swinging her hips widely as she called out, “Need some company, sugar?”
In another life, Wilde would have been a model instead of working the streets. I patted the bills she’d put in my pocket and walked slowly back toward Mrs. Prichard’s foster home. A shiny black Lexus was parked in front of the house. The men on the corner stared at me as I hurried to it, and I knew that they had already called in the license plate to their informant at the police station.
A driver in a blue suit got out of the Lexus just as I reached the front of the house.
“Hi, I’m Jane Williams. Sorry I’m late.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Williams. I’m Jimmy.” He tipped his cap. “I’m a little early. Mrs. Radcliffe didn’t want me to keep you waiting if there was any traffic. May I take your bag?”
As he was placing my ratty bag in the trunk, I saw that 2Slim, the local boss, had joined the corner crew and was now ambling toward me.
I told Jimmy, “I’ll be a minute. Do you mind waiting in the car?”
“No problem.” Jimmy glanced at 2Slim and got in the car.
I stood on the sidewalk and 2Slim seemed to take forever to walk to me. I admired the jaunty tip of his straw hat and the creamy suit that was loose enough to cover a shoulder holster. His skin was a rich caramel and his expression was friendly. “Hey there, Mousie. Going somewhere special?”
He’d never spoken to me before, and now I stood straight and spoke respectfully, because I wasn’t out of here yet. “Hello, sir. I’m going to Birch Grove Academy on a scholarship. It’s in Greenwood.”
“Birch Grove.” He hissed out a soft whistle through his even white teeth. “I heard of it. We had another Hellsdale girl go there before, a long time ago.”
The school’s headmistress hadn’t mentioned anything about another girl from Helmsdale. My confusion must have showed, because 2Slim said, “Nasty little thing left and never looked back. I don’t like people who forget where they from.”
“No, sir, I won’t forget.”
“Rich folk. You know the difference between them and us?”
I thought, Yes, education, money, manners, culture, decency, and waited for him to speak.
“It’s not only that they talk like they just sucked a lemon and dress uptight.” He pointed to a street memorial of plastic flowers and posters for the victim of a recent drive-by. “The difference is that we honest about who we are, what we do. They hide the bodies and think they so clean and nice.” His laugh had the staccato rhythm of automatic gunfire.
I smiled, because when 2Slim made a joke, it was best to smile.
He said, “I remember when you came here, all skittery and spitting mad, like you was rabid. Wasn’t sure if you’d want to get in the game like your girl Wilde, but I didn’t expect you to take the long view. You don’t have it all figured out yet, Mousie, so take care you don’t get your little neck snapped in a trap.”
He reached into his pocket and brought out a gold money clip holding a thick wad of bills. He counted out five twenties and held them toward me. “Here’s some cheese for little Mousie. No one from my turf’s gonna show up without a dime and shame Hellsdale. Can’t do nothing about your clothes now, but at least you neat and decent.”
I took the money, feeling the thick crispness of the paper. “Thank you, sir.”
“You remember me. You ever make good, you remember me. You know my name.”
“Too light to fight and too slim to win,” he said. “I was like you, Mousie, puny, so I had to use other resources.” He tapped one finger to his temple three times. “But for reals, the name’s Norton Barrows Blake. You remember that and I’m sure gonna remember you. Jane Williams, Little Mousie, the orphan girl with the spooky eyes.”
“Thank you, Mr. Blake.” I didn’t want to be remembered as Little Mousie, the puny orphan girl who got shoved around and hassled. I wanted to be someone else.
2Slim stared at me curiously. “You never been like the others, you know. I could tell that from the start. Well, I got business to tend.” Then he flicked his bony fingers toward the car. “Go on now.”
2Slim stood there as I got in the front seat of the Lexus, and Jimmy, the driver, said politely, “You can sit in the back if you like, Miss. There are magazines and refreshments.”
I should have known to sit in the back. “I get a little carsick. Is it okay for me to stay here?”
“Of course, Miss Williams.” He moved to get out, but I closed the door before he could do it for me. He started the car, and I gazed out the window as we drove past a playground with broken swings and a toppled slide. We went by dirty walls and street signs all tagged with WTH, Welcome to Hell.
I’d heard that Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow; we should have had a hundred different words for filth because everything in Helmsdale was covered with grit and grime.
Jimmy said, “You can listen to the radio if you want, Miss.”
“Thanks.” I clicked it on to fill the uncomfortable silence. It was preset to a news station, and we listened to the entire broadcast twice as Jimmy steered along a series of freeways that led away from the group house, through the city, and beyond. I was conscious of my shabby clothes against the leather seat, but the fold of bills in my pocket reassured me.
Road construction slowed the trip, and three hours later we finally arrived in the town of Greenwood. It was set in a small valley below wooded hills draped with gauzy shawls of fog.
Jimmy turned on his headlights. “This place is in a fog belt. It’s overcast all year-round.”
I didn’t answer because I was too busy staring at a tree-lined main street with a row of shops, each with gleaming windows and colorful flower boxes. Jimmy took an avenue up a hill where enormous older homes were set back behind hedges. The color green was everywhere: deep green trees, vivid green lawns, and lush green bushes. I suddenly felt queasy and closed my eyes, but I could still see green, green, green, and I clasped my hands together and squeezed my eyelids tight.
“Feeling carsick, Miss Williams?”
Jimmy’s voice snapped me out of the weird feeling, and I blinked. “I’m fine.”
“Here we are, Miss. Birch Grove Academy.”
Copyright © 2012 by Marta Acosta
Reader’s Guide copyright © 2012 by Tor Books