Part I of Norm’s story. Follow his life as he adjusts to new surroundings and challenges.
The New Family
I ran and leapt toward the top of the old brick wall and scrambled over just as a shot burst through the gray concrete block, shattering it beneath my hand. Thrown off balance, I fell sprawling on the rough pavement below. Already, blood had been flowing into my eyes from the gash in my head, as I hit the pavement, I could feel the pain as it ripped through my cheek. I turned back as I heard Junior jump toward the top of the wall and struggle to get a grip. I thought jumping the wall might help me a little. Maybe create a delay. At eleven years old, Junior was not a tall kid and the height of the wall might have provided a couple of minutes. It looked like those minutes were reduced to seconds. Junior grabbed a handhold on the brick he just shattered at the top of the wall. The lamplight gleamed off the barrel of his gun as he hooked his elbow over the top of the wall and began to pull himself up. He got to his feet at the top of the wall and took aim.
What the hell? Hopping to my feet, I began to run like death was at my heels, because, really, it was. I still couldn’t believe this was happening. The family seemed so nice. I thought that, this time, I had found what I was looking for. After all the crappy families I had to deal with, I thought I had finally found the normal, storybook family that would take care of me.
“Norm, you son-of-a-bitch, I’m gonna kill you!” Junior shouted as another shot rang out. I have no idea what he was shooting at because I didn’t hear it strike anywhere near me. “This is your fault!”
As I dove behind a car, I thought: Maybe he didn’t see where I went. It was a wish and I knew it. I just wanted this to be over. I wanted to get out of here and find a road and leave this crazy kid and this messed up family behind. I was done with all this shuffling around and never knowing if I was going to end up beaten, used up or just dead. I’m fourteen! I shouldn’t have to deal with all the crap in my life. I didn’t ask for this! I have had too many–
The sharp metallic twang of lead hitting steel sent an electrifying jolt up my back. I looked at the bumper, not even a foot from my head, and saw the smoking dent left by the impact of the bullet. No more time for self-pity. Junior was flailing to keep his balance as the rebound of the shot unsteadied him. It was only by luck that he didn’t keep his footing. He fell backwards with a scream. Rage covered his face as he toppled to the other side of the wall; a rage very different from the look of awe and hope that I had seen on his face when I first arrived.
It was not even three months ago, I was sitting on a bench outside of Rebecca London’s office. For a Child Protective Services employee, she wasn’t half bad. She was older than my great-great-grandma’s bones. Her thin wispy hair a dark shade of pinkish-red because she tried to dye it, but her hair was too gray to keep the color. She was as small as a bird. Most people who didn’t know her took care when they walked close to her because they thought she was a frail old lady.
I liked her. She had worked with kids since probably my unknown mother was born. But she still cared. I could tell. All the kids could tell. If anything went wrong or anyone had a problem, Miss London was the person they wanted to talk to. I’m not saying that she was nice. She could definitely be tough. She followed the rules and made sure that all the kids followed them, too. She had a quick eye and a sharp mind that let the kids know that you didn’t try to put one over on her. She could smell a lie when it walked through the door and she knew trouble as soon as the thought of it sprang inside someone’s mind. The younger kids always said she was psychic. But, really, she was just that good with kids
I sat there wondering what I had done wrong. Maybe she really did read minds and knew I was planning on getting back at Rafael for shoving my last pair of pants in the freaking toilet last night after Tomas had used it and not flushed. Rafael was always trying to get to me. Pushing past me at lunch, “accidentally” throwing the football at my head, magically ending up with my pencils during class. It got to me, I didn’t let a lot get to me, but he was so disrespectful. I know. It’s laughable to think anyone here will be respectful. A look past all the uncaring stances and the tough-guy-I’m-gonna-kick-the-crap-out-of-you-if-you-look-at-me-wrong attitude would show that there is a certain level of respect. I learned, early on, to keep my stuff where I can see it (or find it later). Part of survival is finding what you need and taking it; so, I never left my stuff out, it was just too tempting. I, also, know not to piss off the older kids and not to let the younger ones get overconfident. There is an order to things. But there is a respect for how it all goes. Rafael doesn’t care about that. At fourteen he towers over all of the kids. He is about twice the width of most of the doorways and is as solid as a tank. Even though he’s a bit slow, if you end up in his grip you may not escape alive. I remember one time he had me by the ankle. I felt like a rag doll as he threw me around the dorm knocking over dressers and a couple of the younger kids who failed to get out of the way.
“Norm, please come in.” Miss London was always so polite. When I was younger I used to dream that she was my mom. She would ask me to come to the dinner table and I would come and sit and we would have a polite dinner together. There would be nice porcelain dishes and glasses of milk. I would even offer to clean up after dinner. I loved those dreams.
Inside her office there were three chairs. Miss London motioned me to sit down in the empty chair; a man and a lady took up the other two chairs. I almost groaned but stopped at a severe look from London. Maybe she is psychic. She gave a small smile and motioned again. I smiled despite myself as I sat down in the chair.
Sitting down, all the things Miss London had done in the last week came together in my head. Insisting I cut my shoulder-length shaggy black hair down to a clean cut and short with a trimmed-just-over-my-ears look. Making sure I showered today so my light skin shined just right. Sending me to get my eyes checked with the Doctor staring at my blue-gray eyes as if they might explode. Having me go change after I dropped a little bit of my lunch on my worn jeans. It all made sense. I knew what this was. A meeting.
Everyone here knows what these meetings are. The younger kids…they always look forward to these meetings. They still hope that there is a chance they will meet the perfect parents and they will go off and live a “normal” life with baseball games or dolls, a triple-scoop ice cream (with extra toppings). I don’t hold any of that against the kids. I still want those things, too. But I have been to homes. I have been called in to Miss London’s office with those “parents” who are so eager to choose a kid and raise them and show them how to grow up properly. They have all these dreams, just like the kids, that once they get a kid their life will be happy. They bring the kid home and get him a dog. They show the kid off to their neighbors and family and have barbeques to celebrate the occasion. And then the kid accidentally knocks over a picture. Well, parents need to teach kids the way to take care of things so they smack the kid across the face and make him pick up after himself. When that kid gets a C on his report card instead of an A, well, lock the kid in a closet for the weekend so he will study more. If the kid finds a parent’s stash of pills and powder, well maybe the parent should shove some down his throat so he never does drugs because they make him so ill he wishes he were dead. If a parent comes home completely drunk and horny–
“This is Nick and Sarah Ramsey, Norm.” Miss London said.
“Hey Norm. Nice to meetcha.” The man said, standing up and offering his hand.
I shook his hand and the lady’s hand. “Hello.” I said after getting another look from Miss London.
I realized that the parents were nervous. The man sitting and wringing his cowboy hat in his hands, the lady turning to look at me every few seconds like I was a puppy who might bolt out the door and get hit by a car at any moment. They had a hard time talking, it was so bad. They each stumbled on each other’s words trying to tell me how wonderful their life was and he was a cop and she was an artist, gardener, and whatever else. And then they said:
“We have two other boys. A little younger than you.”
“Why do you want me then?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. As if that weren’t bad enough, the words were so full of–I don’t know–just this anger. It was like a forest fire had sprung up in my chest and threatened to burst out and burn these two to a crisp. I clamped my mouth shut with a mumbled “sorry” as I looked at the shocked faces. But the guy smiled.
“I don’t know.” The man said. “I, well, I guess I just had a good life. I have Sarah and the boys and, well, I thought we could share that. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, some really bad stuff, as a cop and I thought maybe I could do something besides just busting the bad guys and putting them away. I would like to see some really good stuff happen.”
He was looking at me and the lady was looking at me with these tears in her eyes. If I were a samurai warrior or some bulletproof-vested army guy, I think this would have gone better. But I’m a kid. I heard him and he sounded so sincere. That vision clouded up my mind …eating at the dinner table…brothers…a mom and a dad.
“Could I go to the bathroom?” I asked. Miss London looked at me. Her eyes were searching me, seeing inside my head. I almost ran out when she gave a slight nod.
It was Rafael who gave me the answer I was looking for. I got to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror crying like a stupid three-year-old when the door opened and I heard the familiar grunting of Rafael trying to squeeze his mack-truck frame through the tiny bathroom doorway. I quietly bolted into one of the stalls, locked it, and nearly jumped on top of the toilet seat. I took long, slow, quiet breaths and wiped the tears from my cheeks. All I needed was to walk out of here with wet toilet paper shoved down my pants or stuck in my ears. I could hear him thumping through the bathroom and going into the big stall and shutting the door. I sat there waiting for him to sit down before I could escape when it hit me.
Here, at The Kennedy Center for Children, there were all these kids and adults that I had to contend with. I was always watching my step with every new kid who walked through the door. I was not the biggest kid around and I was almost always the first one the new kids decided to bully. It wasn’t because I couldn’t defend myself; I’m actually a pretty good fighter. It was because I look like an easy target. I’m so small that people just think they can take advantage of me.
And then there is Rafael. For some reason he has it out for me. He would be happy if he could tie me up and hang me as his personal punching bag. I was finished with this. I could not live scared anymore.
I unlocked the door with a new purpose. At least at this new house I would only have four people to contend with. If the parents sucked then I would just leave. I would find another way to make it in the world. I was just done with being a victim all the time. There was no noise coming from the big stall so I walked stealthily out the door and headed back to Miss London’s office.
The Ramseys were filling out paperwork so I guess they hadn’t given up on me. I walked back in and they were all smiles again. I smiled back this time, though I’m sure my eyes were puffy from all the stupid crying. The man and lady took turns signing papers and patting my back or ruffling my hair. I had been through this before. This time, though, it seemed more–real. Maybe this was the storybook ending the little kids always hoped for.
I squashed that thought like a bug. This was an escape plan. I wasn’t going to be taken off guard. I may not be a samurai, but I was putting on my armor and it was not coming off. After I had been with them for a while, if things were going well, I would re-assess the plan. For now, these parents were my ride out of this life.