Monday, March 16. 2009
Posted by Daboo in Playing a meta-game with the same theme
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Author's note: My story will be published in three installments. This is part 1 of 3.
His earliest memory was not being taken away from his parents, although he had been five years old at the time. He heard all about it later, from the casual conversations that the caseworkers had with his foster parents, but he had no memory of it himself. They described the ropes his mother had used to tie the door shut, the bucket she had left for him to urinate into. But he didn't care. He didn't remember any of that.
No, the first memory he had was when they took him away from Steve.
Steve was a round, soft, balding man who had once been blonde but was now mostly gray.
“James,” Steve had said, gently but firmly holding James' shoulders in his big meaty hands. “Your mom and I love you very much, and we care about you very much. But you are going to live with a new family now, okay?”
Steve's watery blue eyes had skipped upward toward the caseworker, standing somewhere behind James. James heard a baby cry, and knew that Marjorie was trying to feed both the twins at the same time. He remembered the day before, when he had used all the baby bottles to catch grasshoppers in the backyard. Marjorie had cried. “It just goes to show you,” she had sobbed into Steve's shoulder, “I can't watch all of them at once! I can't!”
He had been proud of his grasshopper menagerie, but nobody was proud of him. Both Marjorie and Steve hadn't spoken to him for the rest of the night. He had heard Steve's soft voice from behind their bedroom door. “Maybe it is for the best then,” he had sighed heavily, the sound of air escaping a balloon.
And now this. The caseworker was here, and Marjorie had used this morning while James was at school to pack all of his clothes into two black plastic garbage bags. His toys and stuffed animals and books she had left in his room. “We'll use them for the boys when they get older,” she had explained to Steve.
Those garbage bags full of clothes were now in the caseworker's car, and James was here, looking into Steve's blue eyes and struggling to understand. “I'm sorry about the grasshoppers,” he offered.
Steve smiled briefly, more a wince than anything else. “You're not in trouble, James. It's just time for you to go to a family that has time for you,” he said. Behind him, the caseworker sighed and shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“We love you and care about you,” said Steve. “And you need to always remember that you are a sweet little guy and you deserve a good life.”
“I'm a sweet little guy,” echoed James, making the caseworker chuckle under her breath.
“Yes you are,” said Steve, attempting joviality. “And you'll be fine.”
When they dropped him off at Claire's house, James' first thought was that she was a female version of Steve. She was round and soft, her hair steel gray, her eyes blue behind the thick pink glasses. She enveloped him in a soft, pillowy hug, and the smell of her lilac powder made him want to sneeze. He bravely fought the urge, not wanting to seem rude. Behind her, Kurt stood silent and still, his eyes the only sign of life about him. His enormous gut hung out over his pants like an awning, pale flesh and hair peeking from under his stained gray shirt.
James smiled up at Claire, showing off his dimple. “I'm James and I'm almost seven and I'm sweet and I know all the kinds of dinosaurs,” he said. “I had a book with all the kinds, but it's back at my old house.”
Claire gave him an extra tight squeeze, which threatened to make him wheeze but he succeeded in holding his breath until she let go. “Oh, honey,” she said in a low-pitched southern drawl, “Aren't you just the cutest little bug? We'll get you some more dinosaur books at the library this week, all right?”
She pushed him out to arm's length and studied him. “Cute as a bug!” she declared. “I'nt he, Kurt?”
Kurt's response was a grunt and “This all the stuff he got?” This was aimed at the caseworker, who was standing with one hand on the doorknob.
“That's all,” was the reply. “I'll check back in within the month. You shouldn't have any major problems this time, though. He's well-behaved for the most part. Nothing serious.”
Kurt grunted again and hefted the black garbage bags. Claire bustled James into the kitchen, where fish sticks and french fries had been prepared on a plate that looked like Nemo. “This okay, honey?” said Claire. “I thought you must be hungry after all you've been through!”
James studied the plate. It was a kid plate, covered with kid food. But he was sweet, and sweet kids didn't complain. “Thanks,” he smiled at her. “You're really nice.”
She chuckled and squeezed his shoulder. “Aren't you the most polite little gentleman!” she said. “Now go on and eat. I'm gonna go make sure Kurt isn't lost.” She laughed at her own joke, and then turned and left the kitchen.
Alone with his fried foods, James looked around. The kitchen was nice. It was yellow and red and green. He wondered when Steve was going to come to pick him up.
At school, the other kids stared at him and he tried not to look at any of them. His feather-haired young teacher stood at the front of the classroom with him, her arm around his shoulder, but only touching him with the lightest of hands. “Everyone, please say hello to James,” she chirped, and the class chorused, “Hello James.”
The teacher bent down and looked into his face, her breath in his nose. She was standing way too close. “Why don't you tell us a little about yourself, James?” she said.
James was seized with a paralyzing fear. He locked his knees tight so that they wouldn't see him shaking. He stared stonily at the multi-colored carpet, unable to meet any of the gazes that were now leveled at him.
“What's your favorite color?” prompted the feather-haired teacher, giving his shoulder the tiniest of squeezes.
He shook his head, eyes on the floor. Patches of red infused his cheeks.
“Okay, if you don't want to tell us your favorite color, how about your favorite food? I like pizza,” said the teacher. She looked at the class, cross-legged on the rug before her. They chorused back at her like tree frogs. “I like pizza!” “I like pizza too!” “I like ice cream!”
“Do you like pizza?” said the teacher in a gentle voice, still leaning way too close to James' face.
“Okay, James,” said the teacher patiently. “It's okay to be shy. If you tell us just one thing about yourself, then you can sit down and we can read our Literacy Booklets. Just one thing?”
James was feeling sick and faint. He thought about himself. He had black hair, black eyes. He knew that he didn't live with his “real” mom anymore, or with his other dad and mom, Steve and Marjorie, because the twins came and took all of their time away. He knew that he no longer owned any books or toys or stuffed animals—Claire had explained that they were gone forever. He knew that he didn't like the way Kurt smelled like hot dogs all the time and how he pinched Claire's backside and made her squeak. He knew that he was afraid of the dark and still wore diapers at night. He knew that Steve had told him he cared about him. That he had loved him.
He darted a glance around the room, saw all the expectant faces, saw his teacher's hardening mouth.
“I'm sweet,” he whispered.
The teacher laughed, and all the children laughed. “You're sweet! Isn't that the cutest thing!” said the teacher, mercifully releasing him to the safety of the colored rug. The class giggled and shuffled and called each other “sweet.” Finally, they all came to order and were absorbed in their Literacy Booklets, and James felt a warm, swelling feeling inside his chest. “I'm sweet,” he said to his Booklet.
Eight months later, Jill and Jimmy came to live with them.
“I just can't get enough love,” Claire laughed to her friends when they commented on her three young foster children, and they called her “a saint and an angel.”
Jill and Jimmy were younger than James, and they didn't go to school. From what he could see, they did nothing but hit each other with hard plastic toys and scream.
Kurt spent more and more time in his “office,” which was the bedroom that used to be James', before James had been forced to move into the bigger spare room with Jimmy. Jill slept in a crib in Claire's bedroom, which made James feel jealous but also happy because Jill cried most of the night, and James wanted her as far away from him as possible. Jimmy, three and a half years old, slept like a rock during the night but was up before dawn, jumping on James' head to wake him up and screaming if James shoved him back toward his own bed.
James walked to school alone now, because Claire was busy with the younger children and said he was plenty big enough to manage it on his own. He walked home alone too, and as the seasons changed he had to work very hard to break through the deep snow on the way to school, although he followed his own trail home afterward if it hadn't snowed too much in between. He spent a lot of time on these solitary walks talking to Steve, practicing for when he got to see him again.
As soon as he got home, James tried to help Claire, because that was what sweet little boys did. He learned how to scrub out the bathtub himself, and learned how to make his own sandwiches. He could put all the dishes away if the dishwasher was done running, and started setting the table by himself without being asked. He did everything he knew that Steve would have liked.
“I tell you, I would just be lost without that boy,” Claire said to Kurt after dinner. Kurt glanced over from the football game and eyed James. He grunted.
“He is just the best little helper. And sweet?” She continued, oblivious to her unenthusiastic audience. James drank it all in, his arms around his knees as he leaned against the couch.
“Talks too much,” said Kurt.
“He is just so cute, too!” Claire ruffled James' shaggy black hair. “Cute as a bug, aren't you?”
James nodded, smiling. “Cute and sweet,” he offered.
“And conceited,” added Kurt.
“Oh now you,” said Claire, smiling.
Later that night, after his bath, James was still glowing from the praise, and he danced naked in front of the bathroom mirror, his arms monkey arms and his mouth rounded. “Cute and sweet!” he hooted at himself.
Suddenly, he heard Kurt's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. “I'll do her tonight, Claire,” he bellowed, and Claire's low drawl came back, “Oh thank you, honey, that is just a relief to me!”
James fell silent. He felt awkward around Kurt, like a lamp or table that was supposed to be sitting there doing its job, but instead was walking around talking and breathing. An irritating and inconvenient miracle.
He fell back behind the bathroom door, suddenly acutely aware of his nakedness. His skin prickled as Kurt came into the bathroom and started to run the water. He was carrying Jill, who was big for her eighteen months and who started to whimper and cry as soon as the water turned on.
“Stop,” commanded Kurt, giving her a quick shake. Her face curdled into an anguished expression, but she toned down her whimpering.
James couldn't move as Kurt stripped Jill naked with businesslike efficiency. The warm water caused steam to gently waft into the air, making James feel even colder. He felt stupid, spying on Kurt from behind the door, but he would feel even stupider when Kurt realized he was here, naked and foolish, shivering and watching him. He thought about shouting “Boo!” but he didn't want Kurt to be angry with him. But as he stayed and looked at Jill's skin, he became afraid for a different reason. Beneath her pink jumper, Jill's naked arms were mottled purple and red. James could see that the bruises were fresh and new. With horror, he realized that they were the shape of Kurt's huge hands, wrapped around those tiny soft arms.
“Oh,” gasped James, and Kurt whirled around with a lionlike roar.
“WHAT THE HOLY HELL?” screamed Kurt, and James could only quake and cower against the wall before his wrath. Jill began to cry in earnest now, a screaming, ululating wail.
And that's how Claire found them—James cowering in fear, Jill bruised and screaming, and Kurt with his face so red it was almost as purple as Jill's little arms.
Two days later the caseworker came, and Claire was ready with four black garbage bags. She hugged James for a long, long time before releasing him and gazing long into his eyes. “I am so, so sorry,” she choked, and then the caseworker was pulling James' hand, and he was walking down the front walk for the last time, and getting in the black car, and being buckled in. He numbly watched the front window, hoping to see Claire's face one last time, but she never appeared.
This time, he didn't wonder when she would come for him. He knew that she was as good as dead.
When they dropped him off at the huge, rickety-looking farmhouse, he didn't even have his garbage bags. The caseworker had lost them, and all he had was a rustley plastic grocery bag full of emergency clothes from the shelter, which mostly consisted of sweatpants with holes in the knees. The caseworker never apologized. James never complained.
As they pulled into the circular driveway, they were mobbed by what seemed like hundreds of tangle-haired children who all had identical colored snot running down their faces from their noses to their mouths, a fluorescent shade of pearly green.
“Augh,” said James, recoiling from their dirty fingers on the glass.
“Hello, hello!” called a tall, raw-boned woman in a calico print dress, sauntering across the yard with a baby on her hip. “Wondered if you'd make it today!”
“Yeah,” said the caseworker, grimacing and putting on the emergency brake. He opened his door and gingerly got out.
“OFF!” barked the tall woman, and the children scattered as quickly as cockroaches.
“Well, what's the damage?” asked the woman, eyeing James through the glass.
“Neglect, possible sexual abuse, lots of disruption,” said the caseworker. “Get out of the car, James.”
James obediently popped the door open and stepped out. He tried to count the children, who were standing wide-eyed just out of reach. Seven . . . eight . . . nine counting the baby.
“Gonna be a problem with the little ones?” asked the woman, coming closer to James. “Looks well fed,” she added.
“No evidence of that, no,” said the caseworker absently. “Abuse was in the last home, and he's been in the shelter about nine months. He was around littler kids, but we didn't see any sign of anything.”
“Kay,” she replied, and put her hand on James' shoulder. “Good helper?”
“He's a great kid, just great,” said the caseworker, handing the woman a folder and turning back toward his car. “Let me know if there are any problems, and I'll check back within a month or so.”
As his car pulled away, the bigger children ran after it giggling and screaming. Most of them were barefoot. James hadn't seen the signal from the woman that released them, but she didn't yell after them and instead turned with the baby and a few toddlers clustered around her and headed toward the house.
“Come on,” she called back at him. “Let's get you settled.”
James followed meekly, his grocery bag clutched in both hands, damp from the sweat of his palms.
In this home he was one of the oldest children, and he found himself changing diapers and sweeping for what seemed like most of his time. There was one girl, ten years old, who was taller than he was and who seemed to be in charge. Her name was Amelia, and he was the only person she allowed to call her Amy. She had brown skin and eyes the color of golden autumn leaves, and she oozed confidence and pride.
Amy liked having a brother who could keep up with her as she sprinted down the rutted dirt road toward the bus stop. The two of them matched stride for stride, and left the other school-age children crying in the dust behind them. Their foster mother never seemed to mind that the children trailed after them in a cacophony of wailing despair; their tears never bothered her too much, unless she was having one of her headaches. On those days they were free until dark, and James would follow Amy as she danced down the deer trails in the lowering twilight, feeling like wild young animals intoxicated with themselves.
On headache nights there was never any dinner, just a cold and blackened house because the lights hurt Mama Katy's head even more. James and Amy would open cans of spaghetti-ohs and dish them out cold to the younger kids, and then try to bathe them, and all eleven children would end up in Amy's room telling scary stories and sucking on their fingers until they fell asleep.
As the seasons changed, James became one of Mama Katy's favorite children. She called him “son” sometimes, when she was thinking about something else. He was so polite, so helpful, and so ready with that dimpled smile, that she asked him to do far more than his share of chores. But he didn't mind, because Amy was always beside him with a joke and a quick wolfish smile, and together it felt like a game instead of work.
Amy hated school. She couldn't spell anything right, and could never remember which way to draw her 5's and 3's. When she came home frustrated, she was quiet and sullen on the bus, and James forced himself to look out the window as if he didn't notice that she was failing at something—she, the golden, perfect girl who could run like a young deer and who could always make James laugh. As she started at the junior high school the next fall, she fell even further behind, and James wanted to help her—to do something to repay her for the friendship she had so freely given him.
When he turned twelve, and joined Amy at the junior high school, James found that he understood her math just as well as he did his own.
“Divide by 12,” he told her one evening as they sat companionably at the scarred kitchen table.
“What? Why?” shot Amy, nonetheless quickly scrawling a line and a crooked 12 under the 12x on her worksheet.
“You've gotta do the other side too,” said James, pointing.
Amy abruptly drew a giant X over her math worksheet, and snarled, “You think you're so smart, but you're not.”
James stared at her, wide-eyed and hurt. “I'm not smart,” he said. “You're smarter than me. I'm . . . not smart.”
Amy growled a sigh and snatched his homework towards her. “You're freakin' DONE,” she snapped. “I've got like two more pages to do after this one. Yeah, you're not smart or anything. Moron.”
James blinked. “I don't know why you think I'm smart,” he said. “I'm . . . nothing special.”
She glared at him, her golden eyes narrowed. “Shut up,” she said shortly, “and freakin' tell me what x is supposed to equal.”
Embarrassed, he leaned over her worksheet. “Fifteen,” he offered.
Amy sighed, but he was relieved to see that the side of her mouth was quirking upward into a smile. “What's the next one?”
He laughed and shrugged. “Whatever 72 divided by 6 is.”
“And what is that?”
“Um . . . twelve?”
“Shut up. Seriously? I hate you,” said Amy, pulling her paper toward her and scribbling the answers quickly. “You are seriously so smart.”
“No, I'm not,” he said shyly, looking up at her through his eyelashes. “Am I?”
“You're really smart, James,” said Amy, leveling her serious gaze at him.
“Okay,” said James, his dimpled grin spreading despite himself.
It wasn't his caseworker, but Jocelyn's, who came on the blustery, wet evening several springs later to find Mama Katy locked in her room in the dark, and all of the children huddled under the eaves of the back porch.
“She locked the kitchen door. Accidentally,” said Amy, boldly moving to the front of the group of children and confronting the irritated, soggy caseworker. James watched from the back of the group, holding three-year old Jocelyn in his arms. His stomach was clenched and tight the way it always was when a caseworker came to the house, their cynical unsmiling eyes checking the corners for signs of a less-than-perfect home life.
“Well, why don't you knock?” asked the caseworker in an annoyed tone, as if they wouldn't have thought of that already. “Why are the lights all out?”
“She's got a headache,” said James. “She can't really stand noise or the light, and with the rain pounding on the roof she's really not . . . um . . . .”
“Shut up, James,” said Amy, but the caseworker was already eyeing them suspiciously, and James could see her making a tally of the children. Fourteen now, all together outside. The night was falling fast, turning the sky from dull dark gray to utter blackness. Most of the children were shoeless, and all of them stared back at her with round, frightened eyes.
James saw her eyes narrow as she tried to see in the absolutely black window, but the house was utterly dark. “She locked you all out here?” asked the caseworker, sounding extremely irritated. Her eyes fell on Jocelyn, her only responsibility among all these hungry faces. “It's past her bedtime,” said the caseworker, and then moved through the center of the children, their bodies repelling away from her like charged magnets.
James was last, and he watched miserably as the caseworker rattled the doorknob and shouted through the glass. “Katy? Katy, it's Jen,” with no response.
After several minutes, the caseworker turned and grimly assessed her silent audience. “How often does this happen?” she asked.
No one answered.
“It won't happen again,” promised the caseworker. “Let me make some phone calls.”
The last time he saw Amy, she was being ushered into the backseat of a black car in the shelter parking lot, and he was trapped behind glass like a ghost. He watched as she irritably shrugged off the hand of the old woman who touched her elbow possessively, and beat the old man to the car door so that he couldn't open it for her.
“Who did she end up with?” asked John, ten years old and James' virtual shadow since they had been brought to this terrible, sterile place.
“Grandparents,” said James numbly, his eyes glued to the car. “Said they'd been looking for her.”
John snorted cynically. “Nobody looking for me,” he said, his pseudo-toughness fooling no one.
“Nobody,” echoed James, and he stayed at the window during rec time and during dinner, until the Floor Rep turned out the lights and he could see nothing but the long, long driveway winding out of the shelter grounds. It was empty.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
I really don't want to wait for the next part.
Not at all the approach that I would have expected when Johnny and AoD told me about the premise. Knowing that I prefer happy endings, I am guessing that I am not going to enjoy the ending. If I were to guess, this is not going to end well at all for dear little James. Or is it? Just don't crush the poor little boy.
Good start so far.
Yeah, I don't think it's the approach Johnny and AoD had in mind either.
Your approach isn't the approach that I took, but the beauty of this project is that all of us went into it expecting everyone to have a different approach to the idea. I really didn't have any idea what to expect from you, but I was pretty sure that it would be different from my approach. You didn't disappoint
I'm with Johnny - given the parameter of getting to see how 3 very different authors approached the same story, the meta-game is a resounding success!
Very well done, Daboo. I'm anxious to read the rest of it.
This story reads well. Are you using me as a character in your story? "Steve was a round, soft, balding man who had once been blonde but was now mostly gray." I do have blue eyes, but I hope I'm not as round as people might think. And I don't think I have gray hair....yet. But I am a balding (ok I'm bald) man. Does everyone who contributes to this blog like to write? I enjoy reading what many of you write...
No, not everyone enjoys writing. When are you going to start writing?
I would disagree - I think you have to enjoy writing on some level, or you wouldn't be participating in the blog, don't you think?
No. I really don't enjoy writing. I do it because I want to be a part of this pseudo-community that we have created here. I have actually been toying around with an article about how writing is so tough for me for the last 4 *years*. I don't enjoy the process at all.
I haven't read it yet, I'll do that later, but I just wanted to counter Radar's comment and say It is extremely okay to crush the poor little boy.
Of Course I realize that Daboo is a great candidate for just such a job.
Thanks, Sideshow. You can be my lieutenant when I take over the world.
You promised ME that job about 4 years ago.
Very well. I will accept the results of the duel.
The only way Either one of you is going to be able to take over the world, is with the other one out of the way.
So not true! I just need to bend him to my will. It's a work in progress.
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