My eyes pop open. Mind muddled, I stare into the darkness, wondering what pulled me from slumber. I’m just about to close them and try to fall back to sleep when I hear the sound a second time. My eyes fly back open.
Ugh. The boy is crying again.
I tighten my grip on my pillow and resist an urge to beat him into submission with it. I’m not usually so on edge, but I feel as though I haven’t slept in three weeks. There’s always something going on in this place.
Somebody (Art) crying. Somebody (George) shouting. Somebody (me) breaking crap. I sigh.
“Art!” I hiss.
I unclench my fingers from around my pillow carefully and glare through the inky blackness in his general direction. His breathing halts, and thankfully, his sniffles too.
A couple seconds tick by, and thenI hear a mumbled, “What?”
From the sound of his voice, I can tell he is hoping for some kind of insight into the human condition or something. I stifle a snort. Not something he’s likely to get from me, that’s for sure.
“Knock it off, will you?”
I roll my eyes, then shift, trying to find the comfortable position I’d been sleeping peacefully in moments earlier. But my words get him going again.
“Ah, damn… Art.Shut up. Please.”
“I can’t help it,” He whispers, and I can hear him sobbing now into his pillow.
It’s an awful sound. His breath is jagged, and every now and then I hear him wail, though the noise is muffled. A good thing too, because he doesn’t want to be waking George at… I glance over at the blinking green clock… four in the morning! Oh, come on!
I throw off my covers and get up to go sit on the edge of Art’s bed. I sigh and put my hand on the sniffling mound of sheet and blanket in the darkness.
“Don’t let him get to you,” I say, referring to George, our new ‘father’. “If he knows what he’s doing is working, he’ll never stop. You know this.”
“I hate it here,” Art says, his voice broken.
I instinctively empathize with him. But when I recognize the emotion, I ruthlessly squash it. There is no place for weakness here. Of all of the foster homes I’vebeen in, this has got to be one of the worst.
“You gotta man up, Art. You’re too pretty to be this weak. And at thirteen you’re too old to be crying for your mommy. You won’t last five minutes in this world behaving like this. And make no mistake Art, this is your world, whether you like it or not.”
I hate how harsh I sound, but I don’t have any other choice. This environment breeds harshness. It’s the only way to survive, the only way to staysane.
“George… he always makes me feel—”
“He’s a bully,” I interject fiercely, cutting him off. “With people like George, you don’t back down. Ever. The more you give in, the more of you he’ll own.”
Art seems to be calming down. The mound under the blankets has stopped shaking at least. He turns over and I catch a flash of light from the glow of the clock reflecting in his glassy, tear-filled eyes. My heart tugs in my chest, but I ignore it.
“Why are you helping me?” he whispers.
“I’m not doing it for you, kid,” I retort dryly. “Believe me. Are you done now? Can I go back to sleep?”
If there was a time to extend some gesture of comfort—to stroke Art’s brow or pat his shoulder—it came and went. I stare into the shining emptiness of his eyes a brief second, before I get up and return to my own bed. Islide between the sheets, throw the cold covers up over my body, and bury my head. Everything I said is true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it.
“Ema?” Art whispers, cutting through the silence. “If your mom and dad walked in here, right now, and said they were taking you home, what would you say?”
“I’d say: ‘Come back in the morning, I’m trying to sleep.’”
“No, Ema, seriously.”
“Home?” I ask.“I’d say: ‘Where the heck is that? What home?”
A silence follows, and then, “What were your parents like?”
I close my eyes briefly, then open them again, resigning myself to the fact that I’m obviously not meant to get any sleep tonight.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember them at all?” Art asks.
“I think I remember my dad. I must have been a baby. Too small to know anything.”
“What was he like?”
I think about it before responding. “I remember the feeling of being in his hands. I remember feeling safe. But I never knew him. Like I said, I was only a baby.”
“What about your mom?”
“I seem to remember her taking me from him or something. That’s it. Yin and Yang. Now go to sleep, please.”
It’s a very distant memory, and I prefer it that way. My eyes feel hot and raw, and I wish fervently that Art wouldjust. stop. talking.
“Aren’t you going to ask me about my parents?” he mumbles. “Isn’t that how conversations are supposed to go?”
“My mom’s in prison,” Art states, undaunted.
“I know how she feels,” I reply mercilessly. Throwing my sheet back down under my arms, I put my pillow over my head, hoping it will be a better buffer to the sound of Art’s voice.
“I don’t know who my dadis,” he continues. He may as well be talking to an empty room though, because I refuse to listen.
“Great,” I mutter. “Goodnight, Art.”
Another blessed moment of silence follows, and then Art’s voice reaches my ears again.
“Do you think they ever think about us?”
I sigh, adjusting my pillow just enough to uncover my mouth and nose, so I could talk and breathe. Art’s inability to stop obsessing is starting to worry me almost as much as it irritates me, and the last thing I want to do is wake up and find him swinging from a belt around his neck.
“I think that if they were thinking about us, they’d be here. They’re not,” I say pointedly.
Five or ten minutes later, I finally hear the sound of Art’s gentle snoring buzzing from the other side of the room. Relief floods me, but at that very moment I realize any chance of going back to sleep for me tonight is now nonexistent. I’mexhausted both mentally and physically, but my mind won’t stop racing.
I can’t get the memory of my dad out of my head. His enormous, strong hands holding me by the waist. Carrying me, while I just sort of dangle there. I thought it was a game until he handed me over, and I started crying.
I remember screaming and screaming, angry and terrified, and my mother’s face literally swinging around me, swaying and looming, yet utterly dispassionate. Then the memoryrecedes into darkness, into my subconscious.
I turn over onto my side, hoping the change of position might help settle my thoughts. The only memory I have of what I assume to be my parents is always two-sided. I can’t enjoy the good part without remembering how it ended. And even the good part had only been good because I thought it was the beginning of a game. It had been the beginning of the end.
What would I say if my parents walked in here right now? I wouldn’t recognize them, I know that. It was so long ago. I’m almost seventeen now, at least I think. It’s my best guess. So I know they wouldn’t recognize me either.
Which means that it’s best if you forget them entirely, I tell myself sternly.
Nestled beneath my covers however, I can’t escape the thoughts Art has stirred up. I obsess over the few details I remember, and the many possibilities my imagination is able to come up with. It was adangerous path, one I tried to steer Art away from for a reason, and now I’ve taken his place. Like the poor guy who took the cursed oar from the ferryman on the River of Styx.
I toss and turn, doomed to a night of pointless and ceaseless contemplation. Do I look like my mom? In my memory, the woman I think is my mother has long hair.
Immediately, I decide my own hair has got to go. There are scissors in the kitchen, I can cut it tomorrow. I don’t want to beanything like her.
In my hazy recollections, her hair had been as black as tar. Like, it couldn’t have been any darker. It was as if its darkness, its emptiness, was the reference point for all other colors in the world. I feel the same way about my mother’s eyes. They’d had an emptiness in them that made everything else around them seem alive.
I roll over again, and alternately squeeze my eyes shut, then open them wide, but no matter what I do, the image of my mother remains. I believed every word I said to Art about letting go of the past, but can I really practice what I preach? I sigh.
I honestly don’t know why I’ve demonized my mother in this way. It’s not like I knew the woman. And my dad was obviously no angel either, or he wouldn’t have handed his daughter over without a fight.
If Art was awake and knew how much my brain was churning right now, I’m certain hewould suggest I go digging for answers. I can’t though. My fear is that the truth will be worse than my imaginations. It’s not that I think the disappointment of confirming my parents have forgotten me and never really loved me will be enough to break me. I’m stronger than that. But somehow, I suspect such a revelation would only be the beginning.
The sound of footsteps in the hallway reaches the door, and a fist bangs on the wood, startling me from my painful reverie.George’s voice booms, “I’ve got work in the morning, so stop crying in there! Otherwise I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I touch my face, surprised to find my hands come away wet. I promised myself I wouldn’t waste tears on my parents, whoever and wherever they are. Every now and again though, I break that promise. I sniff, staring into the darkness, waiting for sleep.