My “house parents” should have been here ten minutes ago. Mr. DK waits with me to make sure I don’t dart out the office lobby and give my friends at Child Protective Services more reports to file. He keeps glancing at the clock. I swing my feet onto the chair next to me.
“Do you think putting Nair in the shampoo bottles is frowned on at the Home?” I’m trying to get used to saying “the Home” instead of “the Oklahoma Baptist Home for Girls.” I guess I could call it “the Asylum,” since it must be a place for crazy people. I mean, they’re sending me there. “I hope not. Shared laughter is the best way of making friends, and the Nair prank’s the only one I know.”
“Get your feet down!” Mr. DK knocks them to the floor. “And no more ridiculous stories. We’ve humored you long enough.”
“‘We’? Who is ‘we’?” But I know he means the CPS. They’re an ungrateful audience. When I first got here, I expected my story to make all the adults in the room ugly-cry. My grandma, who raised me because my mom was stupid about hiding her drugs, had a second heart attack when she found Jayda’s body in the bathroom. A deliciously tragic story, right? Sadly, hearing something like that is just an average Tuesday afternoon for Dr. Aud and her staff.
No one appreciated the gruesome picture I painted of my cousin’s suicide and its aftermath. Not even the lady I met while I was washing my hands in the bathroom. So I started embellishing my stories little. I think Dr. Aud believed the one about my grandma calling Jayda and me fat and locking us in our rooms for nine days without food, but then I ruined it.
“And – and – and,” – I paused here for effect – “and since Jayda killed herself . . . I haven’t eaten a thing!” Then I coughed and blew my nose. It sounded like a sad trumpet.
But then Dr. Aud looked up from her papers. “You have broccoli in your teeth.”
“Oh.” I looked down at my used tissue and laughed. “Haven’t brushed since then, either.”
I’ll be more careful when I tell the story to my house parents.
When they arrive forty minutes late, I expect Mr. DK to chew them out. Instead, he rises from his chair, beckons me to follow, and says, “Mr. and Mrs. Jay, this is Nora Becket.”
The Jays give me the most tired smiles I’ve ever seen. I stare at them. House parents? More like house grandparents! The only hairs left on the man’s head are scraggly ones that seriously need to be put out of their misery, and just looking at his flyaway eyebrows makes my own eyebrows itch. His arms, though, are lanky as a teen’s, and his slumped-over posture hardly screams “authority figure.” The woman is short, and lumpy, and the skin around her jaw sags.
I thrust a hand at Mr. Jay, grasp his boney fingers, and give them one firm shake. “Um, no offense, but I hope we won’t know each other very long. Also, your eyebrows are trash.”
A pause. Then the Jays laugh, and Mrs. Jay pulls me into a stiff hug. “We hope you’ll be reunited with your family too, sweetheart, but as long as you need a place to stay, we’re happy to have you.” She pulls back, still holding my arms, and smiles at me like I’m her favorite daughter.
I smile back as sweetly as a doll. “Careful. That sounds awfully like a challenge.”
The moment I step into the house, I’m hit by the sharp scent of nail polish. A skinny girl slumped on one of the couches looks up from her drying fingers, sees me, and gingerly taps the remote to pause the TV. She has more freckles than anyone I’ve seen – except maybe Jayda.
“Tammy, this is Nora.” Mr. Jay pats my shoulder. “Your new roommate.”
I search her face as the Jays round up my other “house sisters.” Her nose is sharper than Jayda’s. I relax and sit facing her. “What happened to your previous roommate? She kill herself?”
Tammy looks at me funny. “Don’t be stupid. She went home to her family.”
“Wait, that actually happens?” I feign relief. “I thought that was just a lie they put in the brochures to ease parents’ guilt about dumping off—”
The Jays are back. I nod at the girls with them and finish, “—unwanted spawn.”
That’s when I notice that one of the girls is pregnant. And she’s clearly younger than me.
“April and Madison, this is Nora,” Mr. Jay says. Then he introduces me to a Farah, a Kesi, and a Denise, and one more whose name I already forgot. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not like these people are my new bestest friends or anything.
“Wow,” I say when it seems like my turn to speak. “You guys look surprisingly normal, and only one of you is pregnant. Frankly,” I stifle a yawn, “I’m disappointed.”
The pregnant girl, April or Madison, steps toward me. Mr. Jay claps a hand on her shoulder to keep her from charging. She ignores him. “Listen here, you dumb duck –”
“You dumb . . . duck?” I glance at the other girls. Did she really just say that?
“We lose phone privileges if we curse,” Tammy explains.
“— I don’t know what you’re getting at with your whole ‘you guys’ thing,”
April/Madison crosses her arms, “but in case you haven’t noticed, your parents sent you here, too.” She looks up at Mr. Jay as if daring him to chastise her. But he’s looking at me.
“That’s where you’re wrong, pregnant-brain.” My eyes flit to the Jays; their mouths are set in hard lines. “The government sent me here.”
“So?” April/Madison points at me. “You’re here, same as us. Lose the attitude.”
“Well, now that we’ve got the hostilities out of the way,” Mrs. Jay cuts in, “we can begin learning how to behave as members of a loving family. Because as long as you girls are in my care, that’s what we’ll be. A family.” She takes out the keys to the van. “We can begin by helping Nora move her belongings into her new room. April, if you’ll lead the way . . .”
None of the girls talk to me until I stagger into the house with my arms full of bedding.
Then Tammy’s voice startles me. “Aw, she dwopped her wittle bwanky!”
I dump my stuff on the bed. Tammy hands me the blanket I sewed at a free event called Crafty Teens! at our library. Its scalloped edges and cutesy pink roses hadn’t embarrassed me before, but now the blanket looks like one a neurotic child would take everywhere.
“Thanks.” I lift the blanket up to my cheek, cuddle it, then fold it gingerly. “This was the last thing my mother made for me. Before my dad clubbed her on the head with a bat.”
After I’m moved in, Mrs. Jay takes Tammy and me to the kitchen, and I have to listen to the “house rules” as we prepare dinner. Tammy washes lettuce. I press the button on top of this special bowl to spin the water off the lettuce. Each time the button is pressed, the bowl spins once, so I mash the button again and again and let Mrs. Jay’s words whirl away.
I’m silent when we hold hands around the table to say grace. I keep my eyes open, and I lock gazes with Tammy, the only other person not reciting the prayer. I feel an uncomfortable communion passing between us, so I grin and waggle my eyebrows to break the spell.
She doesn’t grin back.
When we’re finally allowed to eat, I stuff my mouth with salad, lasagna, and a whipped Jell-O concoction Mrs. Jay calls Lime Fluff. I wish the food wasn’t so good and so obviously homemade. I wish I didn’t have to look at Mr. Jay holding Mrs. Jay’s hand on the table in front of us. I wish I could get up, take my plate to the living room, and eat in front of the TV like I did at home. Or go literally anywhere else. I’m not used to sit-down meals with family, and it’s making me sick. No, really; my stomach’s starting to turn.
“Excuse me,” I say politely as I push my chair back and stand. And retch onto the floor.
I’m pretty much back to normal by the time Tammy and I have brushed our teeth and changed into our pajamas. I cross my legs on the bed opposite Tammy’s, drape my blanket over my shoulders, and say, “Be honest. What’s the worst part about living here?”
“Church every Sunday,” she replies without a moment’s pause.
“That’s no problem for me. I’m a Christian.” I want to kick myself. Lamest. Lie. Ever.
“Really?” Tammy wrinkles her nose at me. “Then why didn’t you say grace?”
“It’s . . . I believe prayers should be private.” I try to laugh. “Just you and the Lord.”
“Whatever you say,” Tammy says, and she clicks off the light.
After three hours of wrestling my blankets, mashing my head against my pillow, and begging the universe to accept my firstborn child in exchange for sleep, I can’t take another second of Tammy’s peaceful breathing. “Hey, Tammy. Tammy. Tammy!”
A loud rustle of blankets, followed by a groan. “What.”
I’m not staying in this house, with these people, a minute longer than I have to.
“What would get someone kicked out? I’m . . . worried.” I roll my eyes in the dark.
“You can get kicked out if you break the house rules. Now shut up and let me sleep.”
“But which ones? Any of them?” I wait for an answer. “Tammy? . . . Tammy?”
I get no sleep the rest of the night.
I’m pouring milk into my bowl of cornflakes and wondering if the Jays pray over breakfast too when Tammy says, “Hey, Nora. If you’re a Christian, where’s your Bible?”
Panicked, I accidentally slosh some milk onto the nearest girl – Farah, I think – and when she says, “Hey, watch it!” I decide my best defense is to burst into tears.
“Lost it . . . the CPS . . . they looked, but . . .” I bite my lip and shake my head.
For a few moments, the only sounds are my quiet sobs, some muffled crunching, and the occasional ringing of a spoon against a ceramic bowl. Then April says, “Ew, she’s an ugly crier,” and Mrs. Jay shoots her a look. She walks over to me and takes the milk gallon from my hands.
“Nora, come with me,” she says. “There’s a drawer full of donated Bibles you could use.”
“No, no, no, I don’t want somebody else’s Bible,” I say. “I want mine!”
Mrs. Jay pauses, then says, “All right, hurry up and eat so we can get in the car.”
“What?” Am I about to be dragged into a tedious search for something that doesn’t exist?
“Just trust me,” says Mrs. Jay.
I relax when we park in front of a store called Mardel: Christian & Education. Mrs. Jay tells me we’re going to place an order for a Bible with my name engraved on the cover. “Then it will really be yours, won’t it?” she says. I argue, of course, but the idea of someone buying me something nice is too good to pass up.
I think of at least a dozen fake middle names and nicknames by the time we get to the counter, but there’s this ginormous picture of Jesus staring at me from the wall, and I can’t do it. I write my real name, Nora Ann Becket, and swivel the paper to the lady at the desk. She says it might take up to three weeks for the Bible to come in, but I make sure I don’t leave the store emptyhanded. I get two journals, three inspirational bookmarks, seven sparkly pencils, and an eraser shaped like a whale – most of which was legally purchased by Mrs. Jay.
My second night at the Home is like my first. I throw up dinner and get barely any sleep. Three nights later, I’m convinced I’m trapped in some sort of Groundhog Day hell. Yesterday Mrs. Jay finally excused me from family dinner. I ate alone and kept all of it down.
Now it’s Sunday, and my Bible still isn’t here. But it’s probably a good thing that I’m taking a used one to church. Nearly every page of the book is written in, scribbled on, marked up, and highlighted over. I hope makes me look like less of a religious noob.
I hang back as we enter the main church room so I can see what others do before I’m expected to do it. But Tammy grabs my arm and pulls me to the front of the group. “Sit with me, roomie,” she says, and all the red flags in the world go up. I have to get away from her.
“You don’t want to sit near me,” I say. “My sins might rub off on you!” I pull free of her grip, but it’s too late. We’re at an empty pew.
Tammy suddenly drops to one knee. She makes a complicated gesture over herself before sliding into her seat. I follow as best I can, but when I glance back at April, I can tell I’m doing something wrong. She walks straight into the pew without kneeling or anything, and so do the rest of the girls. I make a mental note to slug Tammy once we’re off church property.
“Why did you genuflect?” April hisses as she scooches next to me. “Are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” I say. Catholic is Christian. Right? I turn to Tammy. “Are you Catholic, too?”
She rolls her eyes. “Sure, keep pretending to be Christian, Nora. It’s more fun for me that way.” She’s speaking just loud enough to make me want to glance around to see if people can hear, but I keep my head facing forwards. Will. Not. Turn. Will. Not. Look.
I feel Tammy lean in close and hiss, “Just know that you’re not fooling anybody. And pretending to be Christian is easy. I did it for years.”
As soon as church is over, Tammy starts asking me Bible trivia. We’re walking with our house sisters and a dozen or so other girls to the Student Center, but fortunately no one seems to be paying us any attention. Unfortunately, Tammy notices this and starts talking louder.
“Come on, this is easy! Just one of the four gospels. Just name one and I’ll shut up.”
I’m not falling for this. There must be three gospels, or five, or none.
“I did not receive much religious education,” I say, slowly, “at my church at home.”
“And which denomination was that church again?” Tammy asks as the group starts filing into a building that looks like a barn. She holds the door open for me. I smile and walk past her.
“We didn’t get much religious education because there was a lack of funding,” I explain.
She follows me in. The door shuts on the person who was behind me in line, but Tammy’s not finished with me. “Churches don’t get funding; they take donations.”
“Right. Hence, the lack of funding,” I counter as a smiling woman approaches us.
“Hello, I’m Haven,” she says, extending a hand to me, “the leader of tenth-grade girls.”
I shake her hand. “I’m Nora. I would be in tenth grade now, but I got expelled.”
“Oh.” Haven’s smile falters. “Well, you’re still in my group. Let me introduce you to–”
“I got expelled for cutting a student’s hair off while she was asleep.” I can feel the eyes in the room draw toward me, so I keep going. “I was only going to take a lock or two for my collection, but she had such red, red hair, and the scissors made such a clean snip-snip sound, and–” Wait, I’m supposed to be Christian here. “And I still can’t forgive myself.”
“Have you asked God to forgive you?” Haven asks.
“Um.” I glance around but can’t find Tammy. “Of course.” I think that’s the right answer.
“Good! God doesn’t hold your sins against you, so why should you?” Haven says, and a strange feeling comes over me. Like I just noticed all the tightness in my body.
Haven waves someone over. “Kristy, come say hello to Nora! She’s joining us today.”
It only takes me a few weeks to become a pro at small group. I learn that there is lemonade and donuts. I learn that Haven actually remembers what I tell her when she asks about my week and that talking to her is more fun when Tammy’s there, scratching the word LIAR into her Styrofoam cup. I learn that “worship” means “concert” – they even have strobe lights – and that throwing my hands in the air as I sing the words on the screen can make Tammy storm out.
But I must also be learning the stuff they’re trying to teach us, because today I answered a Bible question correctly for the first time. Tammy turned a beautiful shade of red.
When Haven takes prayer requests, I request prayers for my brother’s cancer and my cat’s kidneys and my possible STDs. Then I mumble, “I’ve also got . . . an unspoken.” That’s what you say when you need prayers about something so heinous or personal that you’re too embarrassed to say it aloud. I request unspokens because they always make the group go tense.
As I’m sliding the Bible with my name on it into its case, Haven claps her hand on my shoulder. “You’ve had an unspoken the last five Sundays,” she says. “Are you okay?”
The genuine concern in her eyes makes my heartbeat stutter.
“Yes, I’m okay,” I lie.
Then I realize it’s not a lie. I haven’t missed a night of sleep in weeks – except the night Tammy was weirdly nice to me, and we stayed up binge-watching anime. I’ve started coming to family dinners again, and I’m proud to say it’s been fifteen days since the last vomit incident. I’ve also become quite the cook. Last night, I made Mrs. Jay’s Pork & Apples all by myself (April made the asparagus).
I realize I’m smiling like an idiot. “Actually, I’m pretty good. Great, even.”
But then I’m not great. Not great at all. The following Sunday when I request an unspoken and Haven pencils Nora – unspoken into her little prayer book, I think, Please don’t let my mom get out of jail early. Or if she gets out, please don’t let her get custody. It takes hours for me to realize. I’m standing in the shower, I’m shaving my legs, and I wonder. Was that a prayer?
I hope not, because if it was, it proves prayers don’t come true.
The day before my mom comes to get me, Mrs. Jay has the girls bake me a “graduation cake.” April makes sure I know that she did the frosting, so I ask her to pose with the cake while I take a picture of it with my phone. I’ve taken a lot of pictures these past few days.
For their sakes, I make myself finish the slice they give me. But then I run to the toilet, and everything comes back up. I brush my teeth quickly, then barricade myself in my room before the tears hit. Since the bedroom door doesn’t have a lock, I push the small dresser in front of it. I expect Mrs. Jay’s voice and her gentle knock any minute, but there’s nothing. I huddle under my blanket and slowly cry myself calm.
Then – BANG! I jolt up and see the door slammed against the dresser and Tammy’s eye peering through the crack between them. I jump out of her line of sight.
“The Jays said to give you an hour. It’s been an hour and two minutes.”
“Two extra minutes? You’re so generous,” I say.
“I know.” The door rattles against the dresser. “Now let me in!”
“No.” I glance at my red, streaky face in the mirror. “I’m naked.”
“You’re wearing a pullover. My oversized pullover.” A grunt, and the gap between the door and the doorframe widens slightly. “You know. The one I told you not to touch?”
I wipe my nose on its sleeve. “But it’s fuzzy!”
Tammy wrangles her torso into the gap and braces against the doorframe. “Little help?”
“With what?” I cross my arms. “Moving the dresser so you can invade my room?”
“Our room,” she says, “and yes, that’s precisely what I meant.”
So I yank the dresser toward me. The door falls open, and Tammy tumbles onto the floor.
I cross my legs on the carpet and lean against the bed. “I’m not giving it back,” I say.
“The pullover. It’s mine now. I’m taking it with me.”
“Keep it,” says Tammy. “It’s covered in your snot.”
Then there’s silence. I become acutely aware of the headache in my temples.
“I came to tell you I hate you,” says Tammy. “Didn’t want you to leave not knowing.”
“That’s really sweet, but you didn’t have to tell me.” I hug my knees. “I knew.”
“Good,” says Tammy.
And then we’re quiet again.
“You must be excited about going to live with your mom,” says Tammy.
“Yeah, just thrilled.” I notice the tip of my blanket hanging off the bed, and I tug it down into my lap. I trace the line of stitches I had to redo like five times. “I’m so lucky to have a mom who makes things for me.”
“Hold up.” Tammy’s forehead wrinkles. “That first day. Didn’t you say she was dead?”
Did I? No, I remember – “What I said was, my dad clubbed her on the head with a bat.”
“Which . . . wasn’t true, either,” Tammy says slowly.
I snort. “Of course not!”
Tammy shakes her head. “You’re going to hell, Nora.”
I shake my head back and smile. “I’ve got Jesus now, Tammy.”
“I thought you told Mrs. Jay you wanted to get baptized because you knew she’d throw you a party. I didn’t think you were actually serious!” Tammy gets to her feet.
I hurriedly follow. “Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know why I do anything anymore.” I run a hand through my tangled hair and sigh. “I’m going to miss this place, though.”
“Like hell you are,” says Tammy.
“I mean, I won’t miss you.” I grin. “But I’ll miss what I could’ve learned here. Like, stroganoff. Mrs. Jay was going to teach me how to make stroganoff.”
“I’m sure there are stroganoff tutorials on YouTube,” says Tammy.
“And April’s due soon, so I won’t get to see how loud and obnoxious a tiny human is.”
“You could always get pregnant yourself,” is Tammy’s suggestion.
“I’ll give it a few years,” I say.
“Good call,” says Tammy. Then she turns to the door. “Text me a picture of your mom’s place, okay? I need to make sure you’re not living in a meth van or something.”
“Sure thing,” I say, and who knows? I might actually do it.
J.V. Sumpter recently earned her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is an assistant editor for Kelsay Books, Thera Books, and freelance clients. She received 2020 Virginia Grabill Awards in Poetry and Nonfiction, and her most recent publications are in Leading Edge Magazine, Not Deer Magazine, and New Welsh Review. Visit her on Twitter @JVSReads.
Photo credit: “Young girl with messy hair…” by Nenad Stojkovic, via Flickr.com.
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