SHE TELLS ME HER NAME is Gardenia, and then she waits as if she’s expecting a question she’s been asked a million times before. I don’t move, immobilized by both my own fear and the sterility of this office. I hate bureaucracy. Or, corporations. The stuffiness of it all, the way people wear dress clothes as if it makes them more trustworthy when it really just reinforces the fact that I—in my worn-out tennis shoes, basic rose-colored summer dress, and box braids that desperately need to be redone—don’t belong here. And that’s fine because I don’t belong here and I’d give anything to leave, to just pick up my backpack with all my possessions and go back to Tanya’s for the week. But I can’t because Gardenia is waving a document in front of me now and I am terrified.
Just like when she introduced herself, she’s tempting me to ask a question the more she waves this paper in front of me. I keep quiet.
When I don’t bite, she sighs and sets down the paper on the desk. I let my eyes shift a little so I can see the letterhead. “York University.” We look at each other. “Sorry?” I croak out. My voice doesn’t belong here, either.
“Do you know what this is?” she asks.
I’m tempted now to really look at the paper. It’s some sort of letter from York, a school I applied to at the end of last semester for their criminology program. Ironic, now. I don’t trust the legal system and I don’t care about criminology, but I just needed it to look like I was thinking about life after high school, you know? I didn’t want to draw anyone’s attention, so I applied to a bunch of stuff. Criminology here, psychology there, all programs that a person who is really thinking about their life would apply to. The guidance counselors at school didn’t bat an eyelash when I told them about my plans, and I told them about all of them, even though half of them weren’t true. Parts of me were so open. I’m not sure if that version of myself exists anymore.
It doesn’t matter.
I was almost free.
Gardenia is still watching me, so I answer, “A letter from York?” as innocently as possible. I still don’t know what kind of trouble I’m in.
She tilts her head, purses her lips, and it looks like she’s judging me hardcore. I am used to this look. “Apparently, the school has been trying to get in contact with you about a deferred payment program, and when they couldn’t reach your household, a very lovely adviser went out of their way to contact your high school guidance counselor.”
“I graduated already,” I say, almost like a challenge. For what, though, I don’t know. “In June. I’m seventeen now.”
“Seventeen doesn’t make you an adult,” Gardenia says, equally as bold. She sighs in that way adults do when they’re about to say something they hope will get an emotional rise out of you. “I’m here to help you, you know. It may not seem like it, but I’ve been in your situation.”
I bristle. Bristle. This nasty, creeping, prickly feeling whips up my spine. Anger floods my senses, coaxing me to shout and snap and curse at her until I run out of breath. She’s staring at me with these kind eyes and it makes me even madder. So what, then? She’s been in my situation, so what? She isn’t me, and I’m not like those other screwed up kids she’s probably seen before. I was fine—I was almost free.
So I say, “I’ll be eighteen in, like, a month, so.”
She frowns, tilts her head again as if to say, Really? Then she sighs a second time. “Almost eighteen is not eighteen, and there are rules … Listen, Summer.” She clasps her hands together and leans toward me across the desk. I lean away on impulse. “Mr. Gordon, your old guidance counselor, rang your house many times and tried to get ahold of your, um, your g-guardians…” She stumbles on the word. Her eyes, flashing to the windows before settling back on me, betray her in a second.
She wanted to say “parents.”
“B-but,” she presses on, faking composure. “The number was no longer in service, so naturally, he was concerned.”
I glance away. “S-sure.”
“He had no choice but to go to the authorities, and by that, I mean reach out to us…”
“Us” being Child Protective Services. Because that’s what I am to these people: a child.
But I am almost eighteen and it may not mean anything to Gardenia, who I’m sure can no longer remember what it’s like to be young with a sense of style, but it means everything to me. I didn’t crumble under the pressure; I didn’t break when my life went to shit. After last year, after last summer, when …
Doesn’t she see? I can do this on my own.
What should be arrogance turns to fear, and my hands begin to tremble with uncertainty, with the realization that I was found by Child Protective Services and I may be in trouble. I’m sitting in a social worker’s office. Gardenia is a social worker. I am almost eighteen. These sorts of things don’t go well for girls like me.
I mumble, “So are you making me go to a shelter or something?”
“I—I want you to know that I’m not living on the street or whatever,” I offer. “My friends have been real good. I’ve been bouncing back and forth for a while now. Tanya, Sid—honestly, Sid’s like my best friend and I’ve been staying with him more than the others. He lives closer to my old school, so it was easy for me to get a ride with him and stuff.”
Copyright © 2023 by Louisa Atto