Doree Weller tells stories because if it’s fiction, it’s not lying. She is morally opposed to matching socks. She can usually be found on her couch, drinking coffee and brainstorming creative ways to kill people… um… characters. Currently she lives in Texas where she listens for things going bump in the night and wonders what’s hiding under the bed.

She, along with information about her other published stories, can be found online at www.doreeweller.wordpress.com, on Facebook, and Twitter.

 

Welcome Home

by Doree Weller

 

When my mom talked to me about taking in foster kids, I loved the idea. I’d always wanted a sister. I envisioned us sharing my favorite books, giggling late at night, playing video games together.

Then Kendra came to stay.

She had her own side of the room, but I felt her invade every inch of my space. I hadn’t known how it would feel to see homework on the table that wasn’t mine, or shoes in the closet that I’d never wear.

Instead of giggling with me, Kendra looked through me. On the bus, I continued sitting with a girl I knew, while Kendra squeezed in wherever she could. We didn’t talk, and barely looked at one another.

*

At school, Laura met me at my locker. “Hey, Angie,” she said.

Jared slammed into the locker next to me and I jumped. “Hey, look who it is! Fido and Rover! How are you guys today?”

Tears sprang into my eyes, and I turned away, getting books out of my locker so he wouldn’t see.

“Hey, look who it is!” Laura said back. “Moron boy. We’re great. How are you doing?”

Jared snorted and walked away. Laura put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “I don’t know why you let him bother you. He doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together.”

It was nice of her to say, but it wasn’t true. Jared was cute and smart and funny. Laura was actually really pretty, and normal sized, not fat like me. So, of course it didn’t bother her.

As we walked down the hall toward class, I heard someone yell, “Hey Ken, where’s Barbie?” I looked up, even though I knew what I’d see. Kendra was walking down the hall, tall and weird, with short hair and clothes that made her look like a boy. She was ahead of us, and her shoulders stiffened a little, but she didn’t give any other sign that she’d heard. She never did, and it was like a game among the other kids to see who would get her to break first.

“She’s so weird,” Laura said.

“My mom keeps offering to buy her nicer clothes, but she says she likes what she has.”

At lunch, Laura and I sat with a few of our friends, while Kendra sat with the other freaks. There was Creepy Cal, always sweaty, hunched over comic books; Willow, a fat girl whose clothes were too tight, and who was always way too nice to everyone; and a few others. As they all chatted, I wondered what they could possibly have to say to one another.

Laura must have seen me staring because she nudged me. “Looking for a date for the dance?”

“Ew, no!” We laughed. A couple of people picked on me, but at least I wasn’t stuck at the freak table.

*

After school, Kendra and I sat on opposite sides of the kitchen table with our homework. Mom gave us cut up apples with peanut butter and glasses of herbal tea. “How was your day, girls?”

“Fine,” I said.

Kendra shrugged. “It’s school.”

Mom went back to work in her home office, and we ate our snack. The only sounds were papers flipping as Kendra read over her assignment, or the pen scratching as she took notes.

I snuck a look at her as she worked, wishing she were someone else. Someone happier, friendlier, not so weird. Unfortunately, we were stuck with her for a while. Mom said Kendra was a long-term stay, which meant that she went to court every six months, but that currently, there was no plan for her to go home.

Kendra looked up and caught me staring. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” I mumbled, and looked back at my math problems.

*

Kendra was polite to my mom, but never said more than a sentence to me at a time. She kept her stuff on her side of the room, and never touched mine, but she was everywhere in my house. She was in my room, she was watching a movie with us in the living room, she was on the counter in my bathroom. The house that had seemed so big when my mom first talked about taking in foster kids now seemed too small.

Kendra had been with us for almost six months when my mom got an emergency call from her social worker, Madeline. When she got off the phone, she stared into space for a minute, then said, “Madeline is bringing a little girl to stay tonight.” She looked at me. “She doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”

When Madeline arrived, she handed the squirming toddler to my mom. The baby screamed and twisted, her face red and angry. Madeline blew her bangs out of her eyes. “I’m sorry. This is Erica. She’s been like this since I picked her up from the hospital.”

“It’s fine,” Mom said. “We’ll figure it out. Maybe a bath will calm her down. Angie, can you run a bath for her?”

“Sure.” It’s not like I had anything better to do. At least the bathroom was quieter than the living room. I hoped the kid wouldn’t scream all night.

I ran the water warm, making sure it wasn’t too hot, and grabbed some bubbles from under the cabinet.

Mom brought Erica into the bathroom, and she had quieted a little, though tears still ran down her grumpy face. Mom pulled Erica’s T-shirt over her head and made a sound of distress. I turned to look.

Erica’s little body was covered in bruises. Some were purple, and some partly healed to yellow. “Oh,” I said quietly.

Mom’s hands had stilled, but she resumed taking the little girl’s clothes off and started chatting brightly. “And we have ducks that you can play with in the tub. You’ll like it. When we’re done, you can have a snack. Do you like apples?”

The little girl stared at her dully, and didn’t respond.

“I can’t believe someone would do that to a kid,” I said.

Kendra’s voice startled me from the doorway. “Why did you think kids came here? Because their moms didn’t make them cookies? You have no idea.”

I turned to look at her, my eyes wide.

Kendra leaned against the doorway with her upper body, cocky as always. Her face had the same pinched expression it always did. I watched her eyes flicker to Erica. They heated, and a fleeting look of pain crossed her face, but when she met my eyes again, they were hard and cold.

I looked closer. I had the feeling that the Academy Awards had never seen acting as good as hers.

“You have no idea,” she repeated. With one last look at the kid, she turned and flounced away. Three steps later, she ruined her exit and called back, “I’ll slice an apple and peel an orange. Maybe she doesn’t know what she likes.”

“Thank you, Kendra,” Mom said.

“Whatever.”

I watched, frozen, as my mother talked softly to the little girl. I wished I had been the one to offer to get fruit, that I’d known how to be the big sister she needed. Erica stayed silent as my mother pulled her out of the water and wrapped her in a fluffy towel. She stared at me over my mother’s shoulder, and her huge brown eyes seemed older than they should be.

My mother turned around and startled when she saw me watching from the doorway. “Oh, Angie, I didn’t know you were still there. Can you go through the bag Madeline brought? See if there’s any nightclothes or anything in there?”

I rooted through a plastic shopping bag crammed with clothing, and found a stained T-shirt and droopy underwear. When I handed them to her, my mother’s lips tightened, but she didn’t say anything. She continued talking to Erica in that determinedly cheerful voice.

I trailed downstairs after them. Kendra had cut the fruit into small pieces, even halving the orange slices. She’d also poured some apple juice into a small plastic cup. Normally, Kendra retreated to our room in the evenings. But now she was lurking just inside the living room, pretending to read a book.

Mom sat at the table and held Erica in her lap. The child gobbled up the fruit, and then started rubbing her eyes.

“I think she’s tired,” Kendra said. “Where’s she going to sleep?”

“I’ll just keep her with me in my room,” Mom said. “It’s probably only for a night. But maybe I should see if I can get a few baby things, in case this ever happens again.”

“I thought you didn’t want to take little kids,” I said.

Mom was silent for a while, like she was thinking. “I didn’t,” she said finally. “But we were the only ones who had space tonight. I don’t know where she would have gone if I said no.”

Mom put Erica to bed, and Kendra went to our room. I wished my mom weren’t busy so I could talk to someone. I started to text Laura about what I’d seen. I had a text mostly written out. “This little girl got dumped here tonight. Covered in bruises. I felt so sad.” But rereading the message made me feel funny, like I was gossiping, so I deleted it.

Not knowing what else to do, I went to bed.

I didn’t sleep well, and when Mom woke me, I grumbled. “Come on. You don’t want to be late.”

I didn’t care if I was late or not, but Mom would.. So I got up and got ready for school. I just made it to the bus stop.

Kendra stood a little way off from me, staring into space, the way she always did. I sat with a girl I knew. She wanted to talk, but I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. My eyes kept going to Kendra. She was staring out the window, and I wondered what she was seeing. Was it the trees going by? Was it her Civics homework? Or was it something from her past, something I couldn’t imagine?

Jared greeted me with his usual “Hey Fido!” at my locker, but I was barely paying attention. All day, I could hardly concentrate, thinking about those bruises, and how Kendra hadn’t been surprised. Weird Kendra had been exactly what the little girl had needed. And I’d just stood there, not knowing what to do.

At lunch, Laura greeted me with, “Did you see what Ken was wearing today? Oh my god… I couldn’t believe it.”

Something twisted in my stomach, and I didn’t know what to say.

“Her T-shirt looks like…”

“She’s nice,” I said, my voice sounding hoarse. It wasn’t quite true, but I didn’t know how else to stop Laura from saying whatever nasty thing she was going to say.

Laura looked like I slapped her. Her face flushed, and she looked down at her lunch.

Yesterday, I would have listened to what she said and laughed. But I couldn’t do it today, and I couldn’t explain why.

I boarded the bus on the way home, heading to my usual seat. Kendra was already on the bus, hunched alone in a seat, making herself as small as possible. Maybe so that no one would bother her. Or maybe just because she didn’t feel welcome. Because no one had made her feel welcome.

Without thinking about it, I plopped into the seat beside her. She looked up at me, surprise crossing her face. “Do you think Erica will still be there when we get home?” I asked.

She shrugged and then looked back out the window, as if she didn’t care. She wasn’t acting the way I thought she would. I thought she’d be glad to have me sit with her, eager to make conversation. But she acted like I was just as much of a stranger as all the other people who sat with her. Maybe I was.

“You were really good with her,” I said. “How did you know what to do?”

Kendra turned toward me, her face tight. I didn’t think she was going to answer, but then she said, “I have younger brothers and sisters.”

I blinked, speechless. “How many? Do you ever get to see them?”

Her face closed off, and she turned away again. I knew she went for visits on Thursdays, but I assumed she was visiting her parents. Now I realized that I didn’t know, hadn’t asked.

We rode the rest of the way home in silence. When Kendra had first arrived, I’d tried to get her involved in the things I liked, and when she wasn’t interested, I’d stopped talking to her. When she started school, and I saw how the other kids treated her, I started avoiding her. I’d never tried to make her feel welcome or get to know what she liked.

I ducked my head to hide my face, even though no one was looking at me.I didn’t know how to make things right with Kendra. Maybe it was too late.

Erica was gone when we got home. Over the next few days, my mom collected baby things from relatives and neighbors, and her small room got cluttered. “Just in case,” she said.

Over the next several months, my mom got a reputation for being having space for anyone, at any hour. We took in babies and teenagers on an emergency basis, and they stayed for a night or two. I did my best to make them all feel welcome.

I sat with Kendra on the bus every day, whether she spoke to me or not. I tried to make her like me. She talked to me more often, but never about anything important.

One day, Laura was out sick, but I headed toward our usual table anyway, intending to sit with my other friends. Kendra came up beside me. “Why don’t you sit with us?” she asked.

At the freak table? I wrinkled my nose automatically, and then tried to pretend I hadn’t. She obviously saw it because she scowled. “Never mind,” she said.

“Why don’t you sit with us, at my table?” I asked, my voice sounding too eager.

She shook her head and walked away. I hesitated, holding my lunch and standing in the middle of the aisle. Other kids stepped around me, but I felt frozen. If I took several steps forward, and sat at my regular table, nothing would change. I felt like I would lose something if I did that.

If I turned and went the other way, I could sit with Kendra and the freaks. One day at the freak table probably wouldn’t kill my social standing, but why risk it?

I had a flash of the bruises on Erica’s small body, and Kendra’s face. “You have no idea,” she’d said.

Suddenly, I wondered what the other freaks’ lives were like. Maybe they all had secrets I couldn’t imagine. There had to be a reason Willow dressed the way she did. She had to know the other girls called her a “fat slut” and “walrus.” It wasn’t really a secret. And Creepy Cal… didn’t he know that if he just wore an undershirt and didn’t bring his comic books to school, life might improve?

But I didn’t really believe that, which is why I was standing still. All of the freaks were stuck where they were, and nothing was going to magically turn them into other people.

A girl I knew waved from the table where I normally sat with Laura. I pretended I didn’t see her, and went to sit in the empty space beside Kendra. She looked at me, surprised, then flashed me the first genuine smile I’d ever seen on her face.

 

Copyright 2017 by Doree Weller