By Frances Koziar
She had thought the first one would be perfect.
It had seemed straightforward then: leave and everything would everything would be all right.
It hadn’t been like that.
She hadn’t considered she might miss her home – not her parents, but her house, her street. She hadn’t even realized she would have to switch schools and lose her friends. All she had known was that she had wanted to leave, and any other problem was insignificant.
“Dave is a single dad,” Sarah said again. She always repeated herself, as if she didn’t think Meg would understand the first time.
“His wife died a few years ago in a car accident. It’ll just be him and you and Ryan. Ryan’s turning seventeen, so only a few years older than you,” she offered encouragingly.
“Can Dave take care of me on his own?” she asked, ignoring Sarah’s last sentence. She pulled on her brown braid as she watched the trees whizz by. They were barely in the city at all.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, Sally–”
“–I’m sure it’ll be fine. He’s a very nice man. He wants to turn a new page by taking you; start fresh.”
“You’re not sure.”
She didn’t say it angrily; it was true. Of course she wasn’t sure. This was the sixth time they’d done this over two years.
“Here we are.”
They turned into a long driveway. She tried not to look curious. It didn’t matter anyway. She never stayed long.
He was already standing outside when they reached the house. She hated this part.
“It’s a small house for such a long driveway,” she remarked critically, trying not to look at the man.
“Try Sally, please?”
Sarah got out and shook the guy’s hand. Meg followed more slowly.
“This is Sally,” Sarah said.
“Meg,” she retorted, staring at Dave. He didn’t look very old, but his hair was already grey. “Sally’s a stupid name.”
“Meg then,” he said gently, surprising her by being the first to readily accept it. “Nice to meet you.”
“Well then,” Sarah announced when it was evident that Meg wasn’t going to reply, “let’s get you moved in, shall we?”
It was a rhetorical question, unfortunately.
“I hope you like it here,” Dave said to her as the three of them walked up to the house. They always said that in the first five minutes. “I’ve never actually done this before.”
That would be the problem, she decided. He’d never done it before. He couldn’t handle the responsibility of another kid or having a girl around. Meg relaxed a little: now she knew the end. It wouldn’t be a surprise. It would just be a matter of time.
Dave showed them around the house. It didn’t take long. Meg stood stiffly when Sarah hugged her goodbye.
“Try,” she whispered in her ear. “This one might work out.”
Meg didn’t reply, but stepped away when she was released.
She had tried, that first time. She’d been excited. She’d explored the house, talked to the neighbours, befriended the cat, asked questions. She’d been so happy, so ready for a new life. She’d always wished for a different family, a kinder one. That’s why she’d been ready to make that call. She hadn’t realized back then that that wasn’t normal, that most foster kids hadn’t wanted to go to a foster home.
The wife in that first family had lost her job, and they’d decided they couldn’t afford her anymore. And that was it. Meg had told them that she didn’t need the extras they paid for out of their own pockets: she didn’t need Christmas, could wear her clothes till they fell apart. The foster parent allowance was tight, but she didn’t care for things. But they’d just closed up, shut her out, moved on. She had been taken away, and had never heard from them again. That’s what she had gotten for trying.
In the next family, one of their two kids got cancer and they’d decided they didn’t want to worry about her anymore. She’d hated the third couple, and had run off. She’d changed her name with the last two, when she’d stopped caring, discarding her past and her hope with her old name. After a few months with each of the last two she had been ready to leave. There was no point in staying, anymore.
But it was okay, it didn’t matter. She might never find a family, but she was better off than she had been. Fearing when her dad came home. Hiding in the closet as he staggered down the hall, and dreading he’d call for her. Breathing silently, so he might forget that she was always in her room. Hearing her mom cry in the night. Picking up shards of plates in the kitchen. Even when clean, there were always pieces of things in the corners of the kitchen floor, as if something was always broken or breaking there.
No, it didn’t matter. The foster parents didn’t hit, and she wasn’t afraid to go home. That was enough. That was more than she had had, and she could take the rest.
Dave showed her her new room and left to make them lunch.
“Are you allergic to anything? Or don’t like anything?”
She just shrugged. He left, finally, and she closed the door.
There was a high double bed, neatly made, a pair of windows with the curtain drawn, a wooden dresser, and shelves sticking out from the wall over the bed, covered in stuffed animals and action figures as if she were a kid. She went to the window and peeked out through the vertical blinds. A tree nearly blocked one of windows, but behind the other she saw a grassy yard that sloped down into forest. She would go there, as soon as she could. She sat on the bed and took off her backpack, then lay on her back, looking up at the white stucco ceiling.
She had already decided on a forest, or trees at least, to conceal her house from view. It would be a small house, just big enough for her, and happy. A place where she could keep the rest of the world out, and not be forced to follow other people’s rules. A place where she couldn’t get in trouble. She’d plant flowers and have a cat, do what she wanted. There wouldn’t be any Daves to get in the way, no Dads, no Moms. Just her. She rolled onto her side and looked at the blinds.
A tentative knock came at the door. “Time for lunch,” Dave called. “I hope you like grilled cheese,” he added hopefully.
“Coming,” she mumbled, lying still for another moment before sitting up.
“Do you like your room?” Dave asked as they began to eat.
She didn’t answer.
“Some of Ryan’s old stuffed animals are in there; I don’t know if you like that sort of thing.”
“I’m not five.”
And then she felt bad. And then she felt mad at him for making her feel bad when it wasn’t her fault.
Dave didn’t seem to know what to say. “Is there anything you want to do today?” he asked kindly after a moment. “Ryan just left for an interview; he’ll be back before dinner.”
She thought of the forest, but if she asked him, he might say no.
“Maybe I could show you around? Or you could explore for a bit if you want?”
“I’ll just stay in my room. I have some books.”
“Oh, do you like to read? I have quite a few books in the basement. What do you like?”
She shrugged again. “Everything, if it’s good.”
She was only able to escape his questions when she’d finished eating. He let her go to her room then.
She only had three books actually, and had read them all a few times. If she was going to be here for a while, she’d find out where the library was. She wouldn’t borrow Dave’s books: he probably would get mad at her for some reason or other if she did. People didn’t like to share their stuff, she had learned, even if they said they did.
Her door had a lock, and she locked it before she sat against it with her knees to her chest. She listened to Dave clinking dishes and walking around.
Her room in her parent’s house hadn’t had a lock. She had wanted one, but she could never have asked for it. She would have had to come up with some lie to explain it. She felt safer in rooms with locks, though she never really trusted that the lock would hold. It was just a nice idea.
It was only when she heard Dave close the door of another room and didn’t hear any noises for a while that she ventured to unlock her door and open it slowly. She listened carefully before poking her head out. There was no need to worry; he hadn’t told her to stay in her room, but she had always stayed in her room when her mom and dad were home. It was safer that way.
She tiptoed out, closing the door carefully behind her, and walked in the opposite direction to where Dave had gone. She paused at the sight of a happy family photo that she hadn’t noticed yet in the hall, and then turned away with a sharp shake of her head. She slipped out the side door and raced around to the back, until she stood outside her own window. She listened again, eyeing the forest across the field. She ran.
She spun behind the first tree she reached and looked up at the house, but she couldn’t see Dave in any of the windows.
“Sally!” her dad roared. She was huddled outside on the roof beside her window, too afraid to go in and answer, and too afraid to run away. Her backpack was beside her on the roof, but as always it was just a stupid idea. Where would she go? How would she survive? How would she hide?
“I’m watching a game,” he had growled earlier that day, walking into the living room where she had been sitting watching a movie. He had come home early, which was why she wasn’t safely in her room.
He had switched off the movie mid-scene, and turned on the sports channel. “Get me a beer. Then get lost.”
She had gotten him one, approaching him cautiously sideways and then leaving quickly and quietly. She had cried in her room, bracing herself against the wall, before packing her things and climbing out onto the roof. But at some point, she had to go back in.
“Where were you?” he yelled when she tried to slip out of her room and to the bathroom.
“Cleaning my room.” She gestured to the hastily cleaned bedroom behind her. But he didn’t look at it.
“Why didn’t you hear me?” He grabbed her shirt and shook.
“I was listening to music,” she lied quickly, trying not to raise her arms up. He hit her anyway.
“Can you hear me now?” he roared as she scrambled to her feet. He crossed her room and snapped the headphones on her desk in half.
“Now fetch me a beer,” he growled, and left.
Dave hadn’t seen her run. She caught her breath and turned back to the woods, smiling.
She was barefoot, but she liked going barefoot. The third family hadn’t allowed it, even in the house. She found a stream and followed it a little ways to a series of cold still pools. She stepped in the frigid water before turning and following the stream back. She didn’t see anything more exciting than squirrels or birds. She hummed to herself, delighting in the freedom.
The more time passed the more she felt the pressing need to return, so she headed back. When she stood just inside the edge of the trees again she stopped. It didn’t seem so bad, this place. It would be fine for a few months. She might even last till Christmas.
She spun around, taking an involuntary step backwards. A latter-year high school guy with warm brown hair and friendly eyes stood there alone, his hands casually in his pockets, his gaze direct. He wore a dress shirt and loosened tie over his jeans.
“What do you want?” she asked sharply, knowing he probably didn’t mean her any harm, but her heart was still flying.
He shrugged his shoulders, opening his mouth to say something stupid.
“Then leave me alone.”
Her fingers brushed the comforting bulge in the pocket of her jeans.
The guy took his hands out of his pockets, spreading them face up.
“Hey, no big deal. Just wondering what a squirt like you’s doing in my backyard.” He said it with the same teasing smile he’d greeted her with, as if he meant his words affectionately rather than mockingly.
I’m not a squirt, she almost retorted in irritation, but then he took a step forward. It didn’t make sense, and he was only a few years older than her, but in that moment all she saw was her dad and all she knew was that they were alone. And she of all people know how deceitful a smile could be.
She pulled out her fold-up knife. Just pulled it out, opened it, and held it in front of her. She wasn’t irritated anymore. Now she was realizing that she should never have entered these trees alone.
“Whoa kid–girl–miss. Whoever you are.” He stepped back, his hands up, his eyes wide. When she didn’t move, he lowered his hands slowly. Now she was even more afraid. She should never have taken the knife out. Someone would take it from her.
“You don’t live around here, do you?” he asked cautiously. He stood four metres away with nothing but dirt and pine needles between them.
“Yes I do,” she retorted, returning the knife to her pocket because now she felt stupid.
“Are you a street kid?” he asked, his gaze on her pocket.
Maybe she could have been. “No.”
There was a silence. She heard a siren far off, and closer, a gust of wind through the trees.
“Well it’s nice to meet you. I’m Ryan.”
She forgot what she was going to say. Ryan was the name of Dave’s son. Well, she’d guessed wrongly this time. It hadn’t been Dave’s fault. This one was all hers.
“Meg,” she replied, her shoulders slumping. She hadn’t even lasted a day. This one would go down in the books though: the day she’d threatened her new foster brother with a knife.
Her name didn’t mean anything to him. But that was why she’d changed it, of course; it didn’t mean anything to anyone.
It took him a moment to understand. His mouth opened in a silent oh, and for a moment he looked concerned. She could have laughed. But then he did.
“Nice to meet you Sally, Meg. I see we’re going to get along well.” And he smiled again. Any inkling of sympathy in her vanished. He had no reason to be friendly.
“No we aren’t,” she retorted, then turned and headed back toward the house. She didn’t try to stay out of sight this time. Dave would soon know what had happened.
Ryan took a minute to follow her. Dave was in the washroom when she entered the house and she went straight to her room. When Ryan came into the house and Dave left the washroom, she listened with her ear pressed to the door.
“How’d it go?” Dave asked.
“I don’t know,” Ryan replied. “There were two other guys there for an interview at the same time, and one of them was dressed pretty smart.”
He paused and Meg imagined him shrugging.
“It’s next week, so I won’t have to wait long anyway.”
She wondered if Dave would say something encouraging, but then he lowered his voice. All she made out was her name: both names.
“Did she just get here?” Ryan asked, not lowering his voice as his father had. How would he begin? she wondered.
“She just got dropped off a couple hours ago,” replied Dave, just loud enough for her to hear this time. “She’s been in her room.”
Meg held her breath, ears tingling. Now he’d tell Dave about the knife.
“Could I meet her?”
She started. Would he say it to her face instead? In front of Dave? She leapt back across the room, pressing her back against the window and jostling the blinds, when Dave knocked on the door.
“Yes?” she asked, her voice too high.
“Hi, Meg. Hope I’m not interrupting anything. My son Ryan just got home.” He paused. “Would you like to meet him?” She could hear his hope through the door. She wouldn’t have minded staying here for a little while. Except for Ryan, that is. Dave knew how to leave someone alone—a rare skill among the foster parents—but Ryan didn’t. And she wanted to be left alone.
She walked over to the door and opened it slowly. Dave stepped back with a smile, gesturing to Ryan, who stood beside him.
She didn’t hear the introduction, but took Ryan’s hand reluctantly when he offered it. She shook his hand with only her fingers, and dropped it quickly.
“Nice to meet you,” she said dryly. And waited.
“Do you want me to show you around?” he offered after a moment.
Dave shifted his weight and she winced inwardly. She didn’t want to ruin things with him, but there was no point in being nice now. Sarah would sigh. Same day pickup; new record.
“You probably just want to settle in, don’t you Meg? Maybe you could show her around another time instead Ryan. We have some nice trees behind our property,” Dave said, turning to her.
Her eyes caught Ryan’s. The belittling amusement was in them again, though it was checked a little, as it had been since she’d pulled the knife.
“I’ve already been there,” she replied, glaring at Ryan. His smile vanished. “I went out for a moment.”
“Oh good,” Dave said, looking between the two of them. “Well, maybe I can leave you two to get to know each other, if that’s all right.” He took a step backward.
“Oh, I’m sure you need to settle in,” said Ryan, echoing his father. “We can talk later.”
“Why not talk now?”
Ryan raised an eyebrow. She could have raised one herself. She wanted to talk to him even less than he wanted to talk to her, she was sure, but something about him made her want to argue everything he said.
“Great,” said Dave, looking a little relieved. He smiled. “I’ll just be in my room.”
They both watched him walk away, casting one backward glance over his shoulder. When he was gone and his door shut behind him, Meg looked at Ryan.
“Why didn’t you tell him?” she asked in a low voice.
“Does it matter?”
“Why wouldn’t it matter?”
“Why would it?
“Because I could have killed you.” She never could have.
“I could have.”
He paused and stared at her thoughtfully, and for a moment his maddening cheer vanished. Why was she even talking to him?
“Sorry I scared you,” he said.
“Sorry I scared you,” she retorted without thinking, crossing her arms over her chest. “You should have been scared, anyway.” Her words sounded childish to herself. Empty.
“I was,” he murmured. “Still am a little. No, I mean, I’m sorry. I am sorry I scared you.”
She stared at him, and then, not knowing what else to do, slowly closed the door in his face. She held her hand against it, listening and feeling stupid again. She was reacting to nothing. But only when she heard him walk away did she let her hands fall to her sides. She held a hand over her eyes and leaned her head against the door. He was stupid to try and make friends with her.
She turned away.
He hadn’t told. So now what?
The next morning she woke with her head full of dreams. She buried her face in her pillow. She missed her mom. No, not really. Mom had never been there for her, had never comforted her. Mom had been the one to need comfort. No, it was just a new family, and the new families always made her miss the old ones, no matter how much she had hated her life with them.
When Dave knocked tentatively on her door around noon, Meg was staring out the window, her legs still under the covers, her back pressed up against her pillow and the wall. The second family had had a big lawn too. She had played with their two kids sometimes, before the one got sick.
“Meg, are you awake?”
“I’m going to make lunch soon, or breakfast. I was thinking we could walk down to the creek later, if you want.”
It was the same thing she’d say to her dad when he would gruffly mention a program on TV he was about to watch, when he was pretending to be nice. When he was lying. Or to her mother when she insisted on a broken family dinner. But back then she had no choice but to come.
Meg waited until she heard Dave retreat before reluctantly sliding off the bed. It was a nice bed. The nicest yet, actually.
Her hand was a centimetre from the knob when she heard a crash. She leapt back from the door as if she’d been scalded, and before she could think she was hiding behind the bed, peering up over it, waiting.
She heard the roar, the roar her dad made when he was angry, like he was only half human. Then the pounding, the crying, the crashing plates. Wanting to cover her ears, but having to listen for her own safety.
Her mom was sitting on the tile floor, tears streaking her face, a new bruise on her cheek. Meg listened for the angry footsteps to return with each step that she took toward her. The toaster was lying on the ground beside her mom, and beside it a shattered mug.
“Go Sally. Go honey,” was all her mom said. She left because she heard her Dad’s footsteps. She watched from around the corner as her dad picked her mom up by the arm and smashed a nearby plate into her head. She ran then.
Meg heard Dave curse in the kitchen. It was Dave, not her dad.
She flew silently from the room and stood at the edge of the kitchen, watching him pick up the pieces of the plate he’d dropped. Her mom would have been sitting on the floor amongst the pieces.
“Are you okay?” Meg asked him, knowing he was. But her heart was still pounding.
“Oh, I’m fine. Just dropped the—” He looked at her then. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She turned away. “Never mind.”
But she hesitated and looked back at him, maybe because she wanted him to ask again. But that was silly, and she didn’t want to handle the compassion in his eyes.
She didn’t hear what he said when she ran back to her room. She locked the door and slid under her covers again, lying down and facing the cracks in the blinds, trying to steady her breathing, and trying not to cry.
Dave knocked on her door, but she ignored him.
“I cleaned up the plate,” he said through her closed door. “We’ve got more,” he added when she didn’t reply. “Meg?”
She was looking out at the sky through her blinds. He left her alone.
A half hour later she emerged, and Dave was sitting at the kitchen table, eating pasta. She didn’t know what she expected to see, what she thought she’d face when she came out, but she didn’t think it would be him acting like nothing had happened.
“Would you like some?” he asked when she entered, standing and gesturing to his plate. “I made more for you.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, standing where the kitchen met the hallway. She just stood there.
“Do you want to sit down?”
She sat, and he sat too. He seemed to be watching her more closely now, speaking more gently, and she didn’t meet his eyes.
“Ryan and I were thinking of getting a pet. We thought we should wait and ask you first. Do you like pets?”
She shrugged, staring at the lines in the wood table. She shouldn’t have sat down; of course he would interrogate her again. And now she felt even less inclined to speak. It was easier, sometimes, when people weren’t nice.
“Have you ever had one?”
It had been a friendly stray from somewhere. She’d let it in off the street, and her dad had let her keep it for some reason. She’d loved that cat. They’d had it for months before the day when it had jumped on the kitchen table when her mom was getting dinner ready and her dad had struck it off forcefully. That was only time she had ever hit her dad. She had punched him, her throat freezing in horror before she was able to complete her yell of leave the cat alone. Meg still remembered how her dad had looked at her in shock, and made her feel as if she had been the one in the wrong somehow.
“Did you have it long?”
“My dad took it to the pound.”
The day after, while she’d been in school, her mother had told her. After that, none of them had mentioned pets.
She didn’t answer.
“Would you like another one?”
She shrugged. “It’s your pet.” She did though. Cats and dogs were never angry.
“Would you like to come pick it out?”
“Today?” She looked up.
Now he shrugged, smiling a little. “It’s summer. We both have the day off. Do you want to?”
She couldn’t lie that well, so half an hour later they were on their way to the pet store. She came home with a purring black and white kitten in her arms.
Ryan met them in the driveway as they pulled up.
“A cat!” he remarked, looking at the ball in her arms. “You can smile,” he said with exaggerated surprise as his eyes rose to her face, overriding his dad’s explanation, and even faced with Ryan she couldn’t stop. But her smile faltered for one moment.
“Why are you smiling?” her Dad had snarled, stepping toward her.
“We’ll have to name him,” Dave remarked as they walked into the house. “We could call him Spot.”
Meg looked at him, cringing. She exchanged a glance with Ryan, behind him, who had a comically horrified expression on his face.
Dave laughed. “Okay, okay. What do you two want?”
“Cow?” suggested Ryan.
Meg laughed in spite of herself, then bit her lip.
“Cow?” asked Dave skeptically.
“It’s black and white,” explained Ryan with a shrug. “And better than Spot.
“Or we could call it Squirt,” he suggested with a glance at Meg.
“No,” said Meg, sharply but not angrily. “How about Ninja?” she offered as they entered the house.
She felt silly the moment she said it, but then Ryan turned to her in pleased surprise.
“That’s an awesome name!” he exclaimed. “Done. Overruled Dad.”
Ryan set out the new cat food in the kitchen as Meg placed the kitten down and they all watched him eat. He could have fit inside the bowl.
“Mom wanted a cat,” said Ryan. He and his father exchanged a glance. “She’s dead, in case you were wondering,” he added to Meg.
“Ryan,” Dave said.
“She should know why she’s not here,” he protested.
“My mom’s dead too,” said Meg.
They both looked at her. She shrugged, looking at the cat, but not really paying attention. They were all clustered in the kitchen, Ryan leaning against the opposite counter from Meg.
“She was drunk driving. She drank a lot.”
Ryan straightened, watching her. “Is that why you’re a foster kid?”
“Sort of. It was more my dad. She drank for him.”
But it probably had been because of her mother’s accident that her dad had gotten angry that last time. It had been a relief, honestly, when he had knocked Meg to the floor. She had been waiting for it. Third time’s the charm, as they say. The first was a warning, the second a fine, the third a foster home. As soon as she’d gotten away she had called Children’s Aid, a phone number she’d memorized years ago, after the second time. Fear had already been turning to excitement, to hope.
“I’m going to go read,” she said, turning without waiting for a response. She felt like an alien. The title “foster kid” hung in the air. She’d once dreamed of it, had seen it as an escape, but now she hated it. At best, a foster kid would only ever be an adopted foster kid.
When she was in her room again she sat on the bed. She didn’t usually talk about real things. It just made it awkward. It was all a long time ago anyway.
A knock came at the door. It was Ryan this time.
“Do you want the cat? I think he misses you.”
She knew it was a lie, but she opened the door.
“He likes you,” Ryan said, trying to give her the kitten.
“No he doesn’t; he’s trying to run away.”
“Naw, he just needs a little convincing.” He was placing one hand in front of the other, to stop the kitten from running off his hand and onto his chest.
“That means he doesn’t like me.”
“Maybe he’s afraid of heights.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, smiling in spite of herself. He dumped the kitten in her arms.
And he actually did run, around the corner and into the kitchen where Dave was. She knew he was trying to make her laugh with his antics, but she didn’t even smile. She just closed the door and carried the kitten to her bed. She sat beside it, watching it bumble around the folds in the comforter. It wasn’t her cat; she couldn’t forget that. That first time, when the couple had gotten rid of her because the woman had lost her job, she had missed the cat more than them. They had betrayed her, but the cat couldn’t understand why she had had to leave.
Ryan left that afternoon for a friend’s house where he would stay for a couple nights, and Meg divided those days between sitting or reading or playing with the cat in her room, and walking to woods at the bottom of the sloping yard. Dave left her alone. He didn’t seem too bothered by what she was doing. The woman from the last couple had always been telling her what she should be doing, and why what she wanted to do wasn’t what she should be doing. The couple from the third house was worse: everything there had been against the rules. She couldn’t have kept track of them all if she’d wanted to. That woman had actually told her not to use the thin cardboard bookmark she was using, because it might bend the book a little.
When Ryan came home on her fourth night and they all ate dinner together, she ignored the comfortable atmosphere that seemed so easy when the three of them were there and remembered not to talk too much. She had admitted too much already, to be safe. She refused to make the mistakes she had the first time, to give too much of herself and pretend she could belong. She still hated thinking about that first couple. She had really believed, that time, that they would be her new parents. She had thought she had meant more to them than money.
Early the next morning Meg paused in the empty hallway, her eyes clinging to the old family photo that hung there, and to the smiling woman who sat with Dave and Ryan. She clenched her jaw as she stared, her eyes burning. Why had they wanted a foster kid? To fill in the gap left by Dave’s wife? As if she could fill in anything. But she couldn’t help feeling envious of her, even though she was dead. She had belonged to a happy family who still missed her.
Meg braided her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, the door closed behind her, the house still comfortably quiet. The door was closed, but out of habit her eyes frequently strayed to the door’s reflection rather than her own. That last time at her parents’ house, before the phone call, before all of this, she’d been getting ready in the bathroom. She didn’t even know what it had been that time, what she had done wrong. Maybe she had been in the bathroom too long. The bathroom had a lock, so it had been one of her favourite rooms. She wouldn’t have thought he would have had the mental capacity to pick it, cursing violently as he was, but it was designed to be easily unlocked: just stick a pin in the small hole on the other side and it opened. She had seen it open in the mirror, seen his face, his rage. Had known the blow was coming.
She took her brush with her when she left the washroom, and put it in the little pile beside her backpack in her new room. It was easier if she kept all of her stuff together. What little there was, anyway: a couple pairs of clothes, toothbrush, brush, books. She didn’t keep a diary. She had, but then the third couple had taken it from her and read it, because she wasn’t talking to them enough. That was the only house that she had just walked away from, so far.
She got a bowl out of the cupboard and sat down to eat some cereal with Dave, who was now bumbling around in his pajama pants.
“It’s my birthday,” she said, feeling she should say something. She wasn’t expecting more than a polite acknowledgement. She certainly didn’t expect Dave to stand with a big smile and hug her before she had time to run. She was still frozen when he let go.
“Oh! Happy birthday, Meg! I’m sorry, they told me; I should have remembered. I should have. You’re turning fourteen?”
She nodded absently, trying to remember what she had been doing. Breakfast, right. She sat down.
“July third,” he murmured. “I’ll remember.”
Don’t bother, she almost said. It’s not like she would be here next July. She didn’t say it though. Dave’s earnestness might actually be real.
“Ryan’s birthday’s in a month: he’s turning seventeen. He’ll be starting grade twelve, and you’ll be in grade nine, right? That’s great, Meg. Do you want to go out for dinner or something?”
She felt a familiar twinge. Too soon. She always felt it too soon.
She shrugged. “It’s just a birthday.”
The cheer on his face dimmed a little. He looked almost sad, for a moment. She supposed some people would think it was sad, but the idea of a day when her parents paid more attention to her had never appealed to her. In the second house, the one she’d moved in to shortly before her twelfth birthday, they had just been acting, pretending they were happy when they didn’t know her at all and didn’t care.
She passed Ryan as she left the kitchen. He was filled in before she made it to her room.
“Oy, squirt! It’s your birthday!”
As if she didn’t know. But she smiled.
“Let’s go to lunch!”
She didn’t seem allowed to refuse this; they were both set on it. She took comfort in waiting the next couple hours in her room, ignoring Ryan singing happy birthday outside of it at one point. She tried not to smile. He was still irritating, even if he just wanted to make her laugh.
The last birthday she had had at her parents’ house, her twelfth birthday, had only been a couple days before her had mom died and a few weeks before she had gone into foster care. Her mom had been drunk. Meg had had to remind her that it was her birthday. Rather than the usual mumbled good wishes and kiss on the forehead, she had opened another beer and started stumbling around the kitchen, preaching about getting old, and how life never turned out how you thought it would.
“You know, I loved your dad. I mean, of course I love him,” her mom said, waving the bottle. “But I adored him. He was so good to me, did you know that? He used to take me places. He bought me flowers. He was so good to me. Now look at us. Drunk.”
She caught her mom, lowering her onto a chair. When her mom was upset, she usually didn’t speak. It was the drink talking.
“Maybe you should stop drinking,” She said to her. Her dad was at work.
“Oh, honey, of course you’re right. You’re always right. I hope you end up better than me. You’re smarter than me. But you know, your dad was good to me at the start. He was the love of my life.”
“I know, Mom.”
“He was. And now look at you. You’ll be married soon. You’re getting old.”
She had tried to take the beer out of her hand, but had left it there, realizing it was already empty.
“Happy birthday, Sally. Oh, I forgot to get you a present. Your dad will pick one up. Call him at work.”
Yeah right. She hadn’t called him, and he hadn’t remembered her birthday. They were probably both happy about that.
Meg was thinking about that birthday when the three of them walked out to the car. That’s probably why it happened. She stumbled on the steps. Dave was right beside her. He said Meg low and fast, and for one moment the shadow reaching for her out of the corner of her vision, the shadow saying her name that was really Dave moving to catch her lest she fall, was her dad.
She gasped and stepped back, her arms up to protect herself. She lowered them as fast as she could, but it wasn’t fast enough. Dave and Ryan both stared at her. She turned and walked quickly to the car, blushing and hoping they wouldn’t say anything. Of course it wasn’t about Dave; she knew he wouldn’t hit her. Had she offended him? But she shouldn’t care.
After a moment, the two of them followed and they all got in. Meg stared out the window. Ryan was the one to start the conversation after they were well on their way, by telling a story about Ninja.
She didn’t want to speak, but somehow Ryan got her into an argument, and somehow, between that argument and arriving at the restaurant and ordering her food, she found that she was enjoying herself, forgetting even. Don’t enjoy it too much, she warned herself, but the voice was lost in the sounds of the restaurant. She felt hopeful, in spite of herself. Why hadn’t Ryan told Dave about the knife? Why hadn’t Dave asked her about the plate incident, asked why she’d acted so weird? Why hadn’t he been offended yet, by anything? She didn’t dwell too long on the answers, because she had begun to hope that they were all the same answer.
That evening, she paused before the picture in the hall again. The picture was of the three of them: Ryan, Dave and Dave’s wife. They were sitting on a blanket in the backyard with the trees behind them. The woman had short brown hair. Her eyes were bright, as if a laugh was bubbling up inside her, as if she had just been told the best news. Dave sat beside her, his arm just visible around her waist. He looked more relaxed, with an easy smile. Ryan had the same teasing smile on his face that he had had that first day she’d met him, kneeling on the blanket, but his face was younger and more mischievous looking. They must have loved each other, all of them. It was like looking into another world, looking into that photo. She wondered how Ryan and Dave had managed, losing her. She looked so beautiful, so alive. Tears pricked her eyes as she stared at the photo. She was no stranger to loss.
Had her parents ever looked like that, she wondered? But no. Her dad could never have been like Dave, no matter what her mom had said about him being good to her. He could never have been open hearted. Had her dad even missed her mom when she’d died, for all her devotion to him? He had killed her, the one good thing in her home, as surely as if he’d been driving the car. That he probably didn’t missed Meg either meant much less to her. She didn’t care, didn’t want to care. She had left all of that behind her, and she was never going back.
That night, she made a decision. She would try one more time. If her dream broke again, then so be it. Dave had tried again, hadn’t he? And anyway, she thought, her fingertips brushing the ever-present bulge of the knife in her pocket, she could take care of herself.
Get out of my way her dad barked, his voice seeming faded and far away now.
Maybe he’s just having a bad day, honey. Her mom. But that was over.
Meg unpacked her backpack, putting her clothes in the dresser and her books on the shelves. After she brushed her teeth, she left the toothbrush in the cup with Ryan’s and Dave’s.
I hope you like it here, said time after time.
She slid under the covers and turned her head to watch a bright sliver of moon through a gap in the blinds. Her stomach churned as usual, stirring with the remembered sounds of voices and shouting and fearful breaths. But there was something new there too, a frightening wisp of hope.
“Honey,” her mom had said to her once when she was young and had just crawled out from hiding under a table, “find a place where you can be happy some day.” There was such pain in her eyes, such intensity. Her mom had drunk less back then. “Find a place where you’re allowed to laugh. Where you don’t have to hide.” And then she had hugged her tightly.
Meg wrapped her arms tightly around herself, remembering that hug, as she stared through the gap in the blinds. Did places like that even exist? But she thought of the photograph in the hall. She had been invited into that family.
That night as Meg lay awake, she thought of something that took more courage than remembering the past. Instead, in the halo of a moonbeam, she imagined a future.
Frances Koziar is the author of the teen fantasy “The War of the Shard,” nominated for iUniverse’s Editor’s Choice Award, and is currently seeking an agent for her second novel and writing her third. This year her work has or will appear in the Poetry Institute of Canada’s annual fiction and poetry anthologies, Axil Art Magazine, and two academic journals. She is a graduate student in archaeology at McGill University.