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The wind came from her mother.
Some moms pass along their freckles or their laugh or their flat feet. Red’s mother shared air currents and chaos. Clouds that twisted between earth and sky like a wet rag being wrung out.
But Red kept the wind under her skin.
She had to.
The more she swallowed down her own storms, however, the angrier the sky above her became.
Though the day had started clear and crisp, the sky was now dark with rain clouds that churned above the quiet Denver neighborhood. One minute, leaves were crunching under the feet of schoolchildren. Jack-o’-lanterns smiled from porch steps, their faces so freshly carved that their skin was not yet spongy or speckled with mold. The next minute, the air hissed and whistled, and every leaf was sucked up up up, twirling and spinning. Carved pumpkins rolled and bounced and shattered, their pulpy flesh smearing like paint against the sidewalks.
In a small living room that smelled of air freshener and dirty socks, Red stood, her thoughts as deep and dark and full of holes as the pockets of her coat.
She did not look at the swollen-faced woman who constantly referred to herself as “The Mom.”
The Mom said, “It’s not easy being The Mom to three boys, you know.”
To three boys. But not to Red.
The Mom looked at Red, then at her own hands. Her fingernails were a bright slash of yellow. Red’s hair tickled her cheeks like tears, but her eyes were dry. Outside, the storm swelled as Red held her breath. No no no.
The Mom glanced out the window toward the thrashing trees. Her eyes darted back to Red, then to Ms. Anders, Red’s social worker. “It just isn’t a good time to bring a foster child into the family.”
Red released her breath a little, then pressed her trembling lips together. The wind howled and The Mom flinched.
Ms. Anders put a hand on Red’s shoulder. “Of course,” she said. Her voice was as taut and charged as an electric wire. “All set, Red?”
Red nodded. All her belongings fit into an orange backpack that—thanks to The Mom’s three boys—smelled like peanut butter and dog vomit. Still, a smelly backpack was better than the plastic bag she used to carry.
“We are so sorry about this, like I said before.” The Mom’s eyes were a little too close together, making her whole face look pinched. “It’s The Mom’s responsibility to protect her children. Sometimes things just aren’t a good fit.”
A familiar ache started between Red’s ribs, but then anger, sharp and slick, snaked through her, burying the hurt. Across the room, the pages of an open magazine lifted, flapped, and fluttered. Red clenched her fists in her pockets.
No no no. She couldn’t let her wind out, no matter how much it boiled beneath her skin.
A crash of thunder split the air and The Mom yelped.
Ms. Anders pursed her black-cherry lips, her fingers tightening on Red’s shoulder ever so slightly. “Come on, Red.”
Red hiked up her backpack and stepped from the house without looking back. Her caseworker let the screen door slam as she exited. She didn’t acknowledge the gray-green clouds that had bruised the clear blue of the morning sky. Ms. Anders yanked open the rear door of her sedan. The fabric of her skirt was a snapping flag around her knees.
Red climbed into the familiar car. As always, there was a package of peach gummy candy on the seat for her. Affection for her caseworker flickered in her stomach.
The Mom opened the screen door, leaned out. “We really did try!”
Red hugged her knees to her chest, tucking the candy into her coat pocket. Fat, angry raindrops left dark spots on Ms. Anders’s gray blazer as she ran around to the driver’s side. She shook her short, tightly curled hair, and Red could smell powdery hair product under the sharp, cold scent of the wind.
Ms. Anders pulled out of the driveway and leaned forward to look up through the windshield. The wipers moved frantically against the glass. She clucked her tongue.
Red pushed away a clump of hair that was stuck to her damp forehead. Her storm still thrummed in her bones, whirled between her ribs and toes and ears, as familiar as her own breath. It wanted out, wanted to join the angry sky. She couldn’t let it.
“This weather,” Ms. Anders said. “Someone’s gonna get hurt.” She shook her head at the shame of it.
Red wanted to say, Someone’s already been hurt.
Instead, she said nothing. She just leaned her head against the window and watched the sky have its say.
“I have a new family for you.” Ms. Anders spoke above the clatter of rain. “They’re excited to meet you.” She squinted at the sky. “Hopefully this storm peters out before we get farther east. Storms are usually worse east of the city.”
Red drew slow, deep breaths and counted to ten, like her therapist, Dr. Teddy, had taught her to do. The wind buzzing in her veins slowly quieted as she watched the new-build neighborhoods unravel into business complexes and strip malls and parking garages. The longer they drove, the more the weather cleared. The angry clouds squeezed out their last tears and began to settle into fading swirls of violet and gold as the sun dipped toward the line of mountains along the western horizon behind them. Red ate her peach candies, which were so sweet they turned sour on her tongue.
“This will be good,” Ms. Anders said.
Red met her eyes in the rearview mirror, which Ms. Anders always kept cockeyed so she could see the back seat. From the mirror, a small crystal angel dangled on a pink ribbon, bobbing and swaying with the rhythm of the car.
“The Grooves are very kind people,” Ms. Anders said.
Red said nothing.
“You’ll like them.”
Red said nothing.
“They’ll be a good fit. You’ll see.”
A good fit. Impossible. Nobody could be a good fit. Nobody except her mother. Red felt the pulse of the wind in her heart. Three hundred ninety-seven days, she reminded herself. Three hundred ninety-seven days until her mom got out. Three hundred ninety-seven days until Red would be a good fit.
She could feel her caseworker’s stare, but ignored it. Once, when Red had to be removed from a family in the middle of the night, Ms. Anders had arrived so fast, it was as if she’d been waiting around the corner. Her hair was standing up in jagged peaks, and her shoes were mismatched. The buttons of her shirt weren’t aligned with the holes, making her blouse bunch and gap in the front like crooked teeth. But she was there. She’d held Red’s hand and carried her plastic bag of clothes. That was the first time there had been a package of peach gummies on the back seat of the car.
That night, Ms. Anders had said quietly but firmly: “You’ve got edges and corners and curves to your soul, Red. We all do. But yours are special. Hear me? It might take some time, but someday, you’re gonna find the folks who fit just right. You’ll see.”
That was almost three years ago. Red was only nine then, and didn’t yet understand that kids were like shoes. They could be kicked off, left behind, returned when they didn’t quite fit.
She’d be twelve in five months. She understood a lot more now.
Something flashed ahead. She blinked. A giant turtle stood by the side of the road. It was almost as tall as a stop sign, and had a grin packed with square white teeth. A black-and-white animal stood on top of its green shell. A … goat?
Ms. Anders slowed and turned onto a dirt road, giving Red a better view of the enormous reptile and its companion. At the top of the strange pyramid, above the goat’s back, words were painted in big purple letters.
“Turn here for the Groovy Petting Zoo,” Ms. Anders read aloud, then chuckled.
Red twisted around in her seat, eyes glued to the sign as they passed, the sound of her caseworker’s laughter stirring something in her she couldn’t quite identify.
Text copyright © 2019 by Lindsay Lackey