I secretly knew one day I’d go crazy. Here it is. Goodbye sanity. I peek one eye open trying to see if it—or he, or whatever—is still there. He is. A bright light pierces my eyes, making my brain hurt. Not like it didn’t already hurt enough after bawling on my bed for the past hour. Things are fuzzy, but I try to zero in on the man who seems to be looking down at me, hovering over me. Rapidly blinking to clear the blinding light and the fog clouding my head, tightening from the pit of my stomach, I steel myself up to face whatever is there.
You will not freak out. You will not freak out.
Just beyond the glare from the desk lamp next to me, looking down at me, from the middle of the bedroom is the most heavenly looking man. “How did you get in here?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer. The expression on his face is so, plain. Like not—anything. “Hello . . .” I wave my hand in front of my face to see if he’ll react, but he doesn’t. Great. Another one of those visions, like the Laughing Man I see from time to time.
Now that I am sure this has to be some hallucination, something my stupid, crazy brain has manufactured, I curl up into a tight ball and squeeze my eyes shut. Instead of focusing on seeing him more clearly, I try to force my mind to just go blank. After years of practice, I’m pretty good at it. Back when Mom would have one of her tantrums, I could just tune it out. She would scream and yell and throw whatever she could get her hands on, and I would just go numb and wait it out. Maybe I can wait this out too. Except, if it’s coming from inside my brain. . .
Ugh. I can’t hide forever. I kick my arms and legs out like a starfish and throw open my eyes, ready to just confront it.
Heavenly is the word that comes to mind again ’cause he is handsome for sure, with big, bright-white wings. I stare at him for what seems like a full minute. This cannot be for real. Not only because he’s floating—well, and the wings—but also the way he’s just, watching me.
I moan, turning to face the dingy train of pink and blue flowers that runs in columns down pale-yellow wallpaper beside the bed. Hiding my face in a pillow covered in the same faded, dingy flowers, I force this ball of frustration and worry into a little knot so I can swallow it down. Life is hard enough already. I don’t know where they send foster kids with legal trouble who are also crazy. I don’t want to find out. Opening my eyes again to see that he’s finally gone, I'm left with a strangely peaceful feeling. Why? Shouldn’t I be scared? Either I just saw an alien in my room, or I imagined it. No matter what, this is not good—and yet, I feel so much better.
I guess I fell asleep because the next thing I know, my alarm’s going off and it’s morning. Bleh. School. Normally I like school just fine. Better than being at the House of Horrors with the freak parade of foster kids, like me, who come and go as the State dictates. I earned the lofty title of “Ward of the State” at ten and have been looking for ways to hide it ever since. This title means that I will be shuffled around as the Powers That Be see fit. They represent the State and get to play dictator over my life. For now anyway.
School is full of normal kids—kids who live at home with their parents. Maybe it’s grandparents or aunties or tios or whatever, but with their own families who do “normal” stuff. Their “caring adults” work regular jobs and take care of them because they want to, not because someone is paying them to. Foster parents are mostly just in it for the paycheck.
Sometimes the fosters start off being the do-gooder type. I’ve seen them at the big Christmas party down at the CPS office lookin’ all smiley and full of themselves, but it doesn’t last long. By the next year they look as tired and gray as the rest of us. So, most days, school is a welcome escape from all this, a few hours to pretend to be normal. Even my name just begs to be normal. “Normal Norma Jeane”—if only.
I start to cheer up when I remember that I haven’t worn those expertly shredded jeans I scored from Goodwill yet. Still lying in bed, I scroll through my mental closet putting together an outfit. Part of fitting in is looking the part, but I have to be super thrifty. If I can find stuff on the cheap, foster parents are more willing to fork over a bit of my monthly money—in exchange for extra chores, of course.
I lace up my black on black skate shoes (last year’s birthday present from one of my court-appointed “caring adults”), slap on my lucky leather bracelet, and sweep black eyeliner around my eyes to bring out the blue. Thankfully, they aren’t still bloodshot from all the crying last night. Everyone says they’re my best feature.
By the time I hear Coco shout, “NJ, bus,” I am feeling much better about the day. I have just about forgotten that glowing being in my room yesterday and why I was crying for an hour straight when I grab my bag and run out the door to catch up with Coco and Kim.
We hop on the bus and head all the way to the back. My “sisters” and I assemble in our normal spots, with Coco at the window, Kim in the middle, and me on the end. They are the only thing that makes me feel better about the House of Horrors. One time a neighbor girl said she was jealous of us because she thought it must be like having a sleepover every night. She thought that sounded like fun, to live with friends and never go home.
She didn’t get it, but Kim and Coco do. They understand what it’s like for the Powers That Be to decide where we live, who we live with, and never be asked how we feel about it. They understand what it’s like to have to keep secrets. Including the secret shame of knowing the people you come from are all messed up. That the state says they aren’t good enough. Maybe that’s why I like to look nice, so people can’t tell right away that I’m different—that I’m a foster kid.
They get it, and that’s why we look out for each other. We may not be sisters by blood, but we stick together like family.
“You gonna be okay today?” Kim says, nudging me with her elbow. There’s a sparkle in her deep, brown eyes so I know she’s teasing me. I cringe just the same.
Kim tosses the sheet of thick black hair that effortlessly swings around her like a curtain, adjusting in her seat. She examines the white tipped ends of her hair, seemingly satisfied with the blunt line it makes. “I don’t know, yesterday you got all goofy at the end of sixth period. Your eyes glazed over, and you were all spaced out.”
I slink further into my seat as she recounts yesterday’s events. Ugh. I’d nearly forgotten. I’d hoped everyone else had too. Clearly she hasn’t because she doesn’t miss a detail.
“Teacher called on you ’cause you had your hand up, but then you didn’t say nothin’. That’s why everyone was laughing. But then you go and make things worse, acting all crazy and running out of class.” Kim turns to face me, her narrow eyes examining me like she’s trying to see me straight. Waiting for my answer, she purses her lips, considering my fate.
I curl into my seat a little more. With my knees up, I’m wedged in and braced against the back of the other seat, as if I can hide from her scrutiny. I mutter, “Yeah, whatever. I’m fine. Can we just drop it?”
“Oh. I see how it is then.” Kim turns to Coco like she’s done with me. Coco sucks her teeth and shakes her head but doesn’t say anything. Kim finishes her lecture by saying, “Well, I was just checking to see you were gonna be okay ’cause by the time I got home last night you were already ’sleep.”
A smile creeps over my face. “You got home late, huh? Where were you?”
Coco laughs too and goes all sing-songy like a little kid. “Kim and Robert, sittin’ in a tree . . .”
Kim blushes and elbows Coco. “Knock it off. Whatever. We were just talking.” She hugs her teal JanSport backpack tighter to her chest, but also smiles.
“Uh-huh,” Coco and I giggle to each other, and all is forgiven.
I let out a sigh, thankful the conversation has moved on from my psycho episode yesterday. I know I’ll have to answer to my English teacher about running out of her class, and maybe the principal too. They didn’t call our foster mom Nancy last night at least. She never said as much anyway. Not that I saw her. After I ran out of the classroom I couldn’t stop, so I just kept running. I was high steppin’ it past the basketball courts, out through the teacher’s parking lot, and hopped the fence. From there I ran until I couldn’t breathe anymore, and even then, I only slowed down. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. I wasn’t thinking about where I was going, just that I needed to keep moving. Eventually, I ended up back in the middle of a gated community where they have all these trees and a pond with a bridge over it. I used to come here when I was younger, after Mom took off, when I was placed with Miss Trina.
It seemed like a magical little refuge compared to the urban desert that covers the rest of the city. Hidden inside the drooping trees and lush greenery, I used to pretend I was a princess. Princess Norma Jeane Lewis. I would stand on the bridge in an imaginary tiara and pink ball gown to announce decrees to my kingdom. The people cheered and threw flowers. I imagined a knight in shining armor would bring me the head of a dragon that threatened my crown. He would drop it at my feet, still smoking from the breath of fire that rolled out of his mouth. The smoke would swirl around my feet, and the crowd would cheer that much more as we all enjoyed the victory over the monster.
“C’mon, girl. Damn, NJ, what is with you?” Kim’s nudging me out of the seat. Coco’s already standing up, curvy hip leaned against the window, impatiently waiting for me to get up too.
“What are you in such a hurry for? Gotta find, Ro-ober-rt?” I tease.
She makes a “tsk” sound and juts her chin up, as if to say, “move along.”
Of course, the minute we get off the bus Kim takes off to find Robert. Coco and I exchange a laughing eye roll but keep moving towards class. Thankfully the day comes and goes without another mention of my freak episode yesterday. The fact that I don’t really have any friends other than my sisters probably helps in this case.
Sometimes it feels like I can move through the school completely unnoticed. People don’t dislike me, but they don’t like me either. They’ll talk to me if I talk to them, but there’s this barrier between me and everyone else. It’s better that way. At some point I’ll get moved out of this foster home, too, and moved to another school again, so what does it matter? I like being able to blend in, not having people look too deeply at everything I say and do, or make judgments about who I am. It’s just all around better not get into it. I get to pretend I’m normal for a few hours every day, and no one else cares to burst my bubble.