This short story was a finalist in the 2014 CANSCAIP/Writer’s Union of Canada Writing for Children Competition:
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
The look on her face as we stand in front of a white door at the top of the stairs is exactly what you’d expect: eyes open wide, forehead creased like an accordion, lips stretched into a clown-sized smile revealing two perfect rows of impossibly white teeth. Her hands are clasped at her chest like there’s every reason to believe this is going to be the single greatest moment of all our lives.
“OK, Shirley,” she says in her overly excited, irritatingly chipper teacher voice. “Close your eyes!”
I roll my eyes before closing them and stuff my hands into the pocket of my hoodie with a sigh. I know exactly what’s going to happen next. It’s classic. They are going to show me my room with matching curtains and pillow covers and lampshades. There will be clothes hanging up in the closet and drawers filled with new socks and underwear. Something large and/or expensive will be wrapped up and tied with a bow – maybe an iPod or a guitar because they know I like music, since it was written on my intake form. She’ll do the grand tour, pointing out the obvious and highlighting key features like it’s the Showcase Showdown. He will wait by the door because none of this was his idea and he probably wishes I wasn’t here and, given what happened at my last foster home, that’s fine with me; he can ignore me all he wants. She won’t even notice because she’ll be too busy talking and staring at my face, trying to pull approval out of me like a snake charmer. Like I said: classic.
“Annnnnnnnnnnnnd, open!” she cries.
I take my time because I don’t want to give them the impression that I actually care and also because, as I do start to open my eyes, I’m hit with a bright light from inside the room. When I finally do see it, I’m confused. Shocked, actually. I take a step inside and slowly turn around in a big circle.
The room is completely empty.
The walls are white, the windows are bare and there is not a single piece of furniture to speak of. I open the closet door: nothing. I look around once more. No present. No bow. Just space.
“Shirley,” she begins, “we know you’ve been bounced around a lot this last while and it must be impossible for you to imagine making yet another house your home. To be honest, we started trying to decorate this bedroom before you arrived and realized that we don’t even really know you. It occurred to us that maybe you should be the one to do it. We want you to create a room you will enjoy spending time in; a place where you can feel safe and happy and… home.”
She puts a hand on my shoulder and I’m still too stunned to stop her.
“Think of this bare, white room as a clean slate,” she says. “A fresh start. A new beginning. It can be whatever you make of it.”
The entire situation has caught me totally off guard. I look at her and, all of a sudden, I see more than teeth and eyes and hands. I see her, Laura: a person, a woman, a mother – not my mother, but a mother just the same. I feel a glimmer of something. It starts in the pit of my stomach and quickly works its way up into my throat. I think I’m going to be sick.
Joe – that’s her husband’s name – is clearly as uncomfortable as I am with the level of emotion that has just filled the big, white room. He clears his throat and announces that he’s going to go light the barbecue for dinner. He asks if I like cheese on my burger, to which I nod, and then he’s gone. Laura gives me a gentle smile then turns to follow her husband. She pauses in the doorway, her hand on the knob.
“Would you like the door closed or shall I leave it open?” she asks.
I think about this for a minute and then nod once more.
“You can leave it open.”
I listen to her footsteps as she goes downstairs to the kitchen then move to the middle of the room and sit cross-legged on the hardwood floor. What just happened?! In twelve years and seven foster homes I have seen a lot of things – for better and for worse – but never anything like this. It makes me nervous. I don’t know what to do when people don’t behave the way I expect them to. I hate surprises.
I lie down on the floor and close my eyes, trying to remember what Hilary, my counsellor said to me in her office this morning. It was something typical about trying to open up and let people in.
“What have you got to lose?” she asked me.
I kind of snorted.
“Oh, I don’t know. How about everything?” I replied.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked. “What are you afraid of, Shirley?”
I rolled my eyes and threw my head back. “NOTHING.”
“So you have everything to lose but you’re afraid of nothing,” Hilary recapped. “That’s pretty hard to believe. I mean, if I felt I had everything to lose I think I would be terrified. Shirley, can you help me understand what you’re saying? I want to understand so we can talk about it.”
I could feel Hilary looking at me in the calm, manipulative way all counsellors seem to have completely mastered. They must teach it to you in therapy school. It’s probably the only thing on the final exam.
“I have to pee,” I said. I went into the bathroom, locked the door and sat on the faded red plastic chair in the corner until my session was almost over. When I went back to Hilary’s office, she wasn’t even there. I waited until a kid and his mother showed up for their appointment and then biked back to school.
I realize I’ve fallen asleep on the floor. There’s a line of drool across my cheek and my right hand, which was under my head like a pillow, is numb. I wipe my face with the sleeve of my hoodie and sit up. The sun has begun to set and the walls along one whole side of the bedroom are golden orange, flickering with shadows from the leaves outside. It reminds me of a campfire. I love campfires. Maybe I’ll paint my room orange.
When I walk into the kitchen, Laura is standing at the fridge holding three different bottles of salad dressing.
“Oh, good,” she says. “You can help me set the table.”
I nod and wait for instructions.
“Here you go,” she says, handing me the bottles of dressing. “And the cutlery is over here.” She opens a drawer by the sink just as Joe comes into the kitchen holding a plate stacked high with cheeseburgers.
“Ta-daaaa!” he says, and they both look at me, grinning. I know they’re waiting for me to clap my hands and say something ridiculous like OOOOOOH YUMMY!
Instead, I say, “I’m a vegetarian.”
I’m not a vegetarian. I don’t know why I say it. The burgers look so good and I’m afraid I might start drooling again but it’s too late. I’ve said it and that’s that. I can’t take it back.
“Oh,” Laura says. She looks confused. Or hurt. I can’t tell which. “Um, huh. Well, they didn’t tell us that. I mean, it wasn’t on your intake form. I, uh… huh.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “There’s salad. And maybe I’ll just have a bun with peanut butter on it. Have you got any peanut butter?” I’m not sure how I’m going to watch them eat those burgers while I eat a stupid peanut butter sandwich.
“Of course,” she answers. “Yes. Definitely. We definitely have peanut butter.” She gets a jar out of the cupboard and sets it in the middle of the table beside all the burger condiments.
Joe says, “I hope it’s alright that the buns were grilled alongside the burgers.”
“Would you rather have some bread?” Laura asks me. “We have multigrain bread.”
“It’s fine,” I say again. “The buns are fine.”
We eat in silence, for the most part. They ask a few questions about school and music and I answer them, but that’s about it. It’s awkward. When Laura asks me if I’ve had enough to eat I nod, but I can’t make eye contact.
“Well I hope you saved room for desert,” she says, getting up to clear the plates. “We thought we might bundle up and roast some marshmallows tonight. We’ve got a campfire pit out back by the shed.”
I smile. I can’t help it. I smile and she sees me and I can’t help it.
I love campfires.