Castle Of Crap
Jess cracked the front door open.
Her gaze went to the cardboard fort in the corner of the living room. ‘Psss, Caylee.’
Nothing. She huffed a sigh.
Her younger foster sister was a willing accomplice in her smuggling activities. Jess narrowed her eyes, listening for any noise from the kitchen. She eased her rucksack off her shoulders before slipping off her mud-caked sneakers and dragging the mangled camping chairs over the threshold. The beer bottles wrapped in the seats clinked. A stale waft of booze suffused the air.
The bottles reeked more than she’d banked on.
Tossing her bag on one of the bundles, she manhandled them upstairs, one under each arm. She trailed down the hall and pushed the bedroom door open with her foot … and froze.
Her older foster sister stared back at her from the vanity mirror. Emma’s perfect pout drooped. Emma wasn’t supposed to be here. She worked the evening shift at the local diner every Friday.
Jess jutted her chin out.
Emma’s glossy ponytail whipped around like a horse’s tail flicking away flies. “No way.” She jabbed the lipstick she’d been using at Jess.
“They said I could,” Jess lied, trailing over to her side of the room. There were too many paints, paintbrushes, and papers strewn across her desk, so she dropped the bundles by her bed.
“Colleen!” Emma yelled.
Why does she have to be such a bitch?
She and Emma shared a room and were both seniors in high school but that’s as far as their similarities went. The only thing Emma cared about was her looks, her worries consisting of nothing more substantial than over-plucked brows and broken nails.
Jess didn’t waste time on such things. There were more important things, like CRAP, the Community Recycling Art Project. She’d joined last summer when she’d been placed here. The initiative to turn litter within national parks into art had inspired her to develop paintings and sculptures of native animals then photograph them against the landscape, highlighting both pollution and endangered wildlife. It had been her ticket to Portland Art School in Maine. In a few months, she’d be there and out of this backwater town.
Jess sprang up from the carpet as Colleen, one of their foster moms, walked in.
Colleen’s unease deepened the crow’s feet at her eyes.
“Jess brought back more trash,” Emma griped.
“Just camping chairs. The canvas was too good to leave.”
Colleen swept her hand across her tired eyes. “Not in the house, Jess.”
“It’s raining,” Jess protested. “I can’t paint in the garden–”
“I’m not arguing,” Colleen answered. “Put it outside.”
Jess stewed. Now that she’d got into art school, Colleen didn’t seem to place as much importance in her art activities. Her tone seemed to reduce her work to a hobby, to something that she could toss aside. Yet the panorama she planned for the chairs already consumed her. She knew from experience it was best to ride the wave of inspiration when it struck. The scene she itched to create already seemed more vibrant than her current surroundings. It was as if the moose she wanted to transpose on the frayed material was already there. The broken chair arm could be its antler. She'd put its calf on the other canvas chair. She imagined them against the burnt scrubland where she’d found the litter, her broken animals as bruised as the Maine sky—a silent accusation to the viewer.
An idea entirely lost on Emma. The I-told-you-so face she pulled sent a jet of heat through Jess.
Jess clenched her fists.
“Too bad, Ghosty,” Emma taunted.
She glowered at Emma’s stupid face—and lunged. Emma’s glossy mane was swiftly in hand. Jess yanked it.
Colleen wrenched Jess off, wrestling her out of the room.
“Psycho!” Emma shouted after her.
Heat swelled through Jess, her pale face flushing and breath erratic. If it wasn’t for Colleen’s wide berth already shepherding her to the stairs, she’d be knocking that smirk off Emma’s face.
Ghosty. The name needled its way under her skin. Her foster sister had spread it around school, on account of her pale hair that was so blonde it was almost white. Her eyebrows were the same; you basically couldn’t see them. It was the one thing she tended to pencil in, except she used an art pencil instead of a make-up one. She’d been nicknamed Whitewalker at the last school, Albino at the one before that, along with a hundred others the creative geniuses of Maine dreamed up.
No, Jess wasn’t into her looks, but it wasn’t only that there were more important things; it was that the way she looked was yet another thing that made her stick out. She’d dyed her locks lilac and blue recently, claiming it was an alternative look picked up in Portland. During her recent trip to the art school there, she’d seen lots of people with dyed hair and other alt looks, with piercings and tats. Of course, then she’d come back here to Oblivion, and she’d had no end of gawking. But the bright, brash colors were a better alternative to her natural white locks and the memories of teasing they all too easily conjured.
Colleen steered her into the kitchen, blocking the doorway like a bouncer. The aroma of meat and spices filled the room. Barb, Jess’s other foster mom, was bopping at the stove, big headphones over her ears. She prodded beef around the pan. As she saw them, her eyebrows quirked.
“What’s up?” Barb took in Jess’s clenched fists and red face. She gave the wooden spoon to Colleen and switched places. Where Colleen had stood behind Jess, Barb was in front of her, more relaxed—or did a good impression of appearing so.
“Breathe, breathe.” Barb took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
Instead of focusing on her warm eyes, Jess stared at Barb’s hair, flattened by the headphones. Barb was always more understanding than her wife, Colleen. Yet her gentle tone made Jess feel like she was fragile. She tuned her out. She didn’t need coddling. She could take care of herself. All that was needed was to get through the final months here.
It was a while before the tight knot of anger loosened itself. It was always the same. It happened about once a week. When something set her off—usually Emma—Jess couldn’t control herself. She had to lash out.
Now that Jess’s breathing was calmer, Barb asked gently, “What happened?”
Colleen answered for her, “The two of ’em knockin’ heads as usual.”
“More like locking horns,” Barb quipped, a wry smile on her lips.
Jess had overheard enough of their conversations about her “issues” to know that Barb thought learning to laugh at herself would help. She believed that laughter was the best medicine in life, as if Jess hadn’t had enough therapists try to psychoanalyze her over the years. But Barb had faith that her own special brand would cure her.
“Have you been for a run this afternoon?” Colleen asked, her voice a little high.
Jess caught the strained note but forced herself to answer civilly. “No, but I will. Before it gets dark.”
Colleen nodded. “You always feel better after a run.”
“How about a movie later?” Barb suggested.
Jess wanted to get away from Barb’s big brown eyes and exerted herself. “As long as it’s a princess one.”
Barb guffawed. “Caylee will be back from Bree’s … so yeah … Disney it is.”
Jess offered her a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Caylee was about the only thing capable of drawing a genuine one. Her younger foster sister was ten years old and going through a princess phase. The Princess Diaries was currently her favorite movie. She was still young enough to believe that her deadbeat mom, Bree, would one day sort out her drug addiction, and they’d live happily ever after. If that happened, it wasn’t that much of a stretch that she’d get a kingdom on the side.
Colleen reminded Jess, “When you’re back, put that stuff out, okay?”
Jess nodded. Her foster moms had the whole good cop, bad cop routine down.
“And remember, no more butt bunnies.” Barb laughed.
Butt bunny. Emma’s least favorite of Jess’s animal creations. She’d collected cigarette butts for ages and used the filters discarded from them to sculpt a cottontail bunny.
Barb thought her art was a good outlet but disliked the highly-charged theme Jess had chosen to work on. She wished she’d stick to drawing still life, fruit and flowers, she supposed. Jess had overheard Barb’s complaint that her depictions of orphaned animals were hardly a healthy thing for her to fixate on; a little too close to Jess’s own baggage.
Jess had been an abandoned baby. Left in a forest in Maine. Found by hikers. She’d entered the care system only a few days old—the authorities reckoned anyway; they couldn’t be certain of her date of birth. Such a beginning should have guaranteed her a forever home. If she’d only been normal.
From the age of five she’d bounced around Maine, losing track of the number of homes and schools she’d been to. It meant that she’d been exposed to a lot of people. To the idealists like Barb and the realists like Colleen. Jess knew that money made the world go round. The reality of the foster system meant that once you were past the cute phase, there really wasn’t motivation besides money for caregivers to take you in. At seventeen years old, Jess was no spring chicken. The meager state pay-outs only kept people happy for so long. Each of her fights with Emma reduced the luster of whatever her foster moms received for housing a delinquent like her. Jess swallowed the bitterness that threatened at the bleakness of her situation. She was almost there. She only had to get through another two months then she’d be at art school.
With that steadying thought, Jess was determined to get out for her run. She usually took her phone for music when running, but it was upstairs in her rucksack; she knew from Colleen’s face she wouldn’t let her up there for anything. But dressed in leggings, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, she was otherwise ready.
Always ready to run.
Jess snuck out the back door, past Barb who was back to bopping, and Colleen’s nervous glance. The oak tree in the garden caught Jess’s eye. Ribbons fluttered from its lower branches: Fort Caylee. The main one. The one in the living room was merely an outpost. Jess used its trunk to stretch out her calves before breaking into a run.
As her feet left the grass for the dirt road, she picked up her pace. With each footfall, the rhythm soothed her, as if each step were a beat in a song. The movement took her away from her anger. Colleen was right. When she ran, she felt better. Movement was the best thing she’d found to quell her anger. While she ran, it felt as if it were possible to outstrip it, that the roar so dangerously close to the surface faded.
She turned out of the house’s track and onto the tarmac road. A lake ran alongside it, only a few trees punctuating its bank. The other side of the road was densely populated by cedar and pine. She usually did this stretch twice a day—sometimes three at the weekend. She needed to. Sweat prickled along her brow as she pushed herself, pummeling the road. Thankfully, it had been more than a year since she’d had one of her outbursts. Not the minor ones with Emma … the real ones. The ones that made Colleen look at her like she did. Every time Jess’s temper flared, Colleen pictured the horrific incidents from her case file. The ones that caused her to be shunted from home to home. Last year’s had happened at school, on the hockey field. One of the girl’s on her team had deliberately tripped her over. Jess remembered the burning rage stealing through her as she landed in the dirt, but that was it. The next thing she remembered was being restrained by her teacher, a bloody hockey stick in hand and her team mate unconscious on the floor.
The minutes that had passed in between those memories were a blank. Only from the reports of her classmates and teacher did she know that she’d beaten the girl unconscious. The same pattern that her other blackouts had taken over the years. Rage blackouts: the diagnosis the psychiatrists and psychologists had given her. She suffered from explosive bouts of anger that she couldn’t recall afterwards. Sometimes, they lasted a few seconds, the longest episodes whole half hours. And when Jess came out of them, she found herself invariably kicked out of a home or school; the consequence for actions she couldn’t remember. When she’d been younger she’d been freaked out by them, feeling as if a monster shadowed her, waiting to sabotage her life. Now she only felt pissed off at said monster. It was something to be stifled. Something she managed with her art, running, and by keeping away from others as much as possible.
The thing she most longed for about art school was that she’d be able to keep herself to herself even more. Yeah, there’d be classes to attend, but she’d have a hell of a lot more freedom and anonymity than high school offered. As well as having her own space, away from annoying foster siblings. A future in which she spent little time around others and had the freedom to spend as much time as she liked on her art sounded like bliss.
Colleen’s anxious expression swam in her mind. Jess quickened her stride, letting the aroma of pine fill her lungs. She wasn’t mad at Colleen. This had been her longest placement. Ever. A year. A whole year here on the outskirts of Fort Kent. If anything, she was grateful. Yet with each step as her feet pounded the ground, her worry grew. Colleen’s tired looks were becoming ever more fearful. Jess had been through this often enough to recognize the signs. Would she send her away? She only had a few months left here, then she’d be in Portland instead. Surely she wouldn’t send her away when there was so little time left? Bitterness swarmed through her. Of course she might. Nothing was guaranteed in life, Jess reminded herself.
She reached the stretch of trees that she usually turned around but continued running. The road wound north beyond which lay twenty more miles of Aroostook County. Jess had crossed county lines in the past: running from this horrible foreboding that she was about to be kicked out … and from the awful things she’d done. If they were going to get rid of her, maybe she should just keep going.
Aroostook bordered on Quebec. Twenty miles was nothing to her. Part of her managing her condition, were these savage workouts. Always ready to run. She could cover that distance in three hours. The far-flung freedom of the wilderness seemed to call to her. She gritted her teeth, picturing the way Barb’s kind eyes had tried to hold hers. Her feet pounded the road. A flash of Caylee sitting in front of the TV, waiting for her flickered through her thoughts. Jess slowed her pace. She’d suck it up, whatever happened. In two months, she’d be in Portland. She’d gone for a whole year without a rage blackout. That had to count for something with Colleen. A little longer and it would be as it was meant to be, just her. Besides, who was she kidding? Quebec? Her French sucked.
Jess swerved back, retracing her steps and feeling the tension in her limbs ebb. The light was fading. The branches and trunks of the trees were stark as night fell. As well as the motion of running, it was the etching of the trees that imbued Jess with peace. She’d always loved the forests of Maine. The tree-lined tracks felt like her true home. It felt right that they’d been her crib as a baby. She still felt their presence around her like a safe harbor. When she was running, sometimes she had the sense that they were guiding her, as if they could somehow lead her back to where she’d come from. Sometimes, she had the overwhelming sense they were calling to her. In a way, it was why the landscape and animal topic had been what she preferred to draw for years. She almost felt as if the ravaged land and wildlife was trying to communicate through her. In the trees’ presence, something thrummed through her, as if all that was within her was waiting to pour out.
She struck the road harder as the fancy engulfed her, as it so often did. Jess trampled the thought into the dust. No, the reason she loved the trees and wilderness was simple. Out here she was away from everyone. People came with too much baggage, just one big heap of trash to wade through. Everything she saw in life confirmed it. Caylee’s junkie mom, Emma’s locked-up dad … her own abandonment. Even the people in her life now were more trouble than they were worth. She thought of Emma’s smug face and Colleen’s fearful one. Life with people was just a castle of crap you had to climb. But she’d almost climbed it. Jess thought of all the trash she’d collected from the wilds around her, recycled and reworked to show the destructive nature of people. Wasn’t that why CRAP resonated with her?
Jess finally slackened her pace into a jog as she reached the lake. Her heart rate slowed, and her limbs felt deliciously relaxed. The prospect of a night in front of some soppy movie made her loiter. Then again, she’d steal whatever sweet cereal Caylee had on the go. That girl was seriously in danger of becoming a giant sugar cube.
As Jess fantasized about binging, a short figure came into view at the end of the dirt track to the house. The red jacket was just visible in the low light. Jess’s brow furrowed. Caylee. What was she doing this far down from the house? Had Bree not bothered to take her all the way up? Jess accelerated. As she did, she caught sight of a flurry of motion by the lake between her and Caylee. In the dusk, she thought the streak was a bird, but as she fastened onto the object, she made out its shape. Long limbs, a tail, pointed ears. A jolt travelled through her. It looked like a coyote, except it was way too big. Cold sluiced through her, but as Jess pelted down the road, each of her footfalls compacted her fear, compressing it like molding leaves.
Her eyes remained glued to the animal, running along the bank, running towards the dirt track …towards Caylee. Jess’s heart thundered with urgency. She threw her limbs out and sprinted. It felt as if the white animal matched her, its strides lengthening as if racing her. Jess’s gaze swung to Caylee. She stood at the end of the track, clearly unaware of the predator running towards her. Jess didn’t want to waste energy on anything other than getting to her.
But she forced herself to yell, her lungs burning. “Cay –lee!”
Caylee turned. She looked down the track towards Jess and the white animal, now ahead of Jess.
Caylee’s scream pierced the gloom but she froze.
Jess’s feet pounded the dirt like a drum, her arms pumped the air, and adrenaline flooded her. The branches to the left blurred. Necessity swarmed through her like never before. The hot prickle of rage stole across her skin. The dangerous roar never far beneath quickened. Ferocity flared. She’d get to her. She’d get to her before the wolf. As she careened down the road, her brain acknowledged that that’s what it was. Even if wolves were supposed to be extinct in Maine, its size and coloring made it unmistakable.
Jess watched the wolf lunge at Caylee. She pelted on. She’d wrestle the animal off with her bare hands. But a sharp pain erupted in her shoulder, and something knocked her sideways.
Jess cried out, going down hard in the dirt. Shock rippled through her. She couldn’t breathe. Something was on her. Through tear-filled eyes, all she saw was a flurry of white. It was as if she were caught in a snowstorm. Except this snow was warm and furry.
She gasped for air, pressure constricting her windpipe. In her blind panic to breathe, her thoughts somersaulted; the image of the moose with its broken antler in the dirt skittered across her mind then darkness swam.