Norm and Junior Battle–Part 4 (The Finale)

********************

Junior was climbing back over the concrete wall after falling on the other side. Frantically, I looked around for some way out of here. We had run all the way to Old John Bank’s garage. There were a few cars out here to hide behind but, unfortunately, the tools were all locked up. An 8-foot block wall surrounded the yard with the gates closed and locked up tight. I was trapped.

“You made me kill my dad.”

“Junior, I didn’t mean to do anything.” I shouted at him.

“You’re right! You didn’t do anything! You were supposed to make them happy. They kept fighting and kept fighting and then–then they said they were going to find another boy and we would all be happy. YOU. DIDN’T. MAKE. THEM. HAPPY! And now, now he’s dead!” rage and fear were painted on his face like a second skin, and, then, I got it. I understood.

I understood Junior more clearly than I had ever understood anything in my whole life

“I wasn’t replacing you.” I shouted out. Another shot rang closer to the car I was behind. “I could never replace you. And none of this is our fault. It’s not your fault!”

“I–You–They were going to be happy. Because of you.

“No! They can’t do that! You can’t do that. This isn’t my fault either! I didn’t do this. You didn’t do this and Phillip didn’t do this. It is not us. It is not our fault, Junior.” He was getting closer. I could feel it. But I could also feel him turning this around in his head; I just had to make him see.

I stood up.

This was a dumb move. Junior was not even ten feet away and he turned toward me and fired. The bullet punched through my shoulder, sending me flying to the ground. I screamed as pain rushed through my whole body and all I could do is writhe around on the ground cradling the wound with my other hand.

I thought I could talk him down, but he walked towards me and was pointing that barrel right at my head. I couldn’t move. There would be no running or ducking now. I had no place to go and I knew that I was going to die. I was going to die in this dirty garage with a bunch of junky cars and my death would be a perfect match for my life. A big nasty mess surrounded by mounds of broken and busted junk. But I found I couldn’t give it up. This life sucked but I couldn’t let it go. Lying there with my strength fading, the effort to stay conscious weighing down on me. I struggled to speak.

“It’s not us. We didn’t do this.” I said with my voice shaking.

“It is us. I couldn’t stop them and Phillip just made it worse with all his talking and they kept fighting and then, and then they said you would make them happy.” Tears were streaming out of his red eyes. his hands were shaking, the grip on the gun loosening. “They said that we would help you and there would be happiness in our home again. Not–not this. I didn’t mean to–” Junior broke down and the gun dropped to the ground.

“Junior,” I said as I felt a hazy darkness closing in on me, “We can’t help them. They are the adults. They make the problems and we can’t solve them. We can only try not to make those mistakes. They are still good. They still love each other and you and Phillip. Even if I were blind I could see that you all are a family. We can’t help them, they have to help us. They have to be there to show us what is right and wrong. And adults–Parents–they fail. But your parents try and try and try or they wouldn’t have gotten me. They are trying hard but it’s not our fault.” I knew I should be scared, or screaming, or trying to get away, but I just held out my hand toward him and he looked at me with tears streaming down his face.

“I shot my dad. That’s my fault.” His face fell into a look of despair

I grabbed onto his hand and squeezed. I suddenly understood what a parent, a brother, a family was supposed to be. Not perfect, but always there.

The darkness grew and sucked me in.

*********************

Things took awhile to get worked out after Junior lost it.

People had heard the shots and found Junior screaming for help and trying to stop the blood from my shoulder. I was taken to a hospital, where I stayed for a couple days until they moved me to a hospital close to the Kennedy Center. Miss London showed up almost every day around six-thirty. She would check to see if I was ok.

People from the state kept visiting me and asking questions.

“Did the Ramseys keep guns laying around the house?” The man’s eyes would look at me without blinking. He didn’t move much, just sat there stiffly waiting for my answers.

“No, I only saw the gun when Nick came home and went to work, I didn’t know where it was at any other time.”

“Did Junior exhibit erratic behavior?” There was no expression on his face at all. He didn’t care about Junior.

“No, Junior is not a psycho. He was usually nice.” I knew what they were going for. They were trying to find a way to put Junior in jail forever. He didn’t need that; he needed help.

“Did Mr. or Mrs. Ramsey act inappropriately toward you?” The guy said this with a meaningful quirk of his eyebrow.

“That’s gross! No!” What was wrong with these people? Geez!

“Did Phillip every try to harm you?”

“Phillip is awesome; leave him alone.” I didn’t like these guys.

Miss London would always be there to make sure these people interviewing me were letting me have enough rest and to “guide” them out when their line of questioning started making me mad. I told these guys the same story probably five hundred times before they left me alone and stopped coming around. After a week and a half they let me go back to the Kennedy Center with Miss London. Just in time, too, I was about to lose my mind sitting there all day with nothing to do. You can only walk the halls of the hospital so many times. There weren’t many kids around. Plus, it stinks there.

Nick was ok. Miss London got to me after the “incident” and the first thing she told me was that Nick was in the hospital and alive, the bullet shattered some ribs and grazed his lung but he had survived. I was so relieved I started laughing and crying at the same time. Don’t ever do this if you get shot, it hurts! A lot! After the pain died down a little I made her tell me everything.

Junior was in jail, Nick was in the hospital, and Sarah and Phillip were at home and in pretty rough shape. Over the next few weeks they were all being interviewed, too. It looked like, instead of bringing the Ramsey’s happiness, I was bringing them a whole lot of hurt.

I wanted to be there. I wanted to talk to Phillip and tell him everything was, well, not ok, but it was going to work out. I wanted to tell Junior that this wasn’t his fault. I wanted–I wanted Sarah and Nick to tell me this was going to be all right. I know it sounds little kiddish, but I wanted to feel their arms around me. I wanted to sleep in my bed and shuffle around on my Yankees carpet at one in the morning cause I couldn’t sleep. I wanted Sarah to call me down to the kitchen and ask me what would help me sleep better and make me a sandwich or just hang out and talk. I wanted Nick to ruffle my hair and call me “buddy” and take me back to bed so I could get “some shuteye”. I wanted my family back.

“Miss London?” I stood waiting at the door while Miss London continued to write on her paper and enter something in the computer, her thin fingers flying across the keyboard faster than a person should be able to move. I didn’t say anything more, Miss London made it clear that she could hear you when you called her and that she would get to you when she was good-and-ready to get to you.

“Yes, Norm? What can I help you with?” She was still reading the paper in front of her but her hand was pointing to the chair in front of her desk. I sat down.

“I was wondering. I mean, it might be a dumb question…”

“Norm, you know better than that. If you want information, ask a question. Now, what can I help you with?” She was peering at me over her reading glasses, her paper forgotten.

“I just wanted–I mean–When will I be going back to the Ramsey’s?” It was a dumb question. I knew it was. There was little hope that I would ever see the Ramseys again after what happened. And even if some miracle happened and the Center let me go back, I doubt that the Ramseys even wanted to see me. I fingered the bandage over my shoulder. It’s a habit I picked up since the hospital. I quickly put my hand down and looked at Miss London again. She had taken off her glasses and was looking at me intensely, her hands folded in front of her. As always she noticed everything. She knew I was nervous and she knew I was determined.

“Norm, do you want to go back?” She asked. This question surprised me. I was expecting, you know, just a no or something that would distract me so I would stop asking.

“I–I do want to go back, Miss London. I do.” She looked at me again. Her eyes searching, looking through me. She ruffled through a stack of papers on her desk and pulled out a file.

“The Ramseys have been in constant communication with me since the–since you were injured. They are petitioning for custody of you and have made inquiries into an adoption.” She looked through the papers and then looked at me. I wasn’t sure what she meant though.

“Are you saying they still want me?” I asked surprised. “They still want me to stay with them? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m sorry, Norm. I just didn’t want to ask you with everything you have been through. I didn’t want to see you hurt again.”

“Miss London, it was an accident. I’m not saying the Ramseys are angels. They have problems, but I–I want to be with them.” Did I? Did I want to take the chance? I found I did. Things were crazy. I got shot and Nick was shot. Junior totally lost it. But I didn’t care about that. For the first time I felt like I was actually part of something…a–a family. “They’re my family.”

Miss London almost had a hint of a smile. She opened the file and looked at me. “Well, we have some work to do, don’t we?”

It took awhile. There were more interviews. I am sure that the Ramseys were being investigated as if they were invading terrorists. But it happened. Miss London called me into her office and there they were. Nick still twisting his hat as if he was called into the principal’s office for getting in trouble. Sarah nearly in tears. I walked in and fell into a jumble of arms and hugs and tears.

After a few moments, Miss London, spoke. “This will not be easy.” She said. Nick and Sarah both nodded

“It doesn’t matter.” Nick said. “We will do whatever it takes.” He looked at me. “Norm, here is our boy, there isn’t anything that’s going to change that.” I couldn’t talk. No one has ever stood up for me…No one has ever wanted me.

“Let’s get started then.” Miss London said.

********************

“You be good for them.” Miss London said quietly, her arms held me tightly. “They need you.” She let go and ran her hand gently over my head. Her eyes touched the scars on my face and the sling holding my arm. “Be safe.” She added.

“Let’s get going, Norm, we’re supposed to be back before dinner.” Nick said and opened the back door for me with his good arm. He grabbed my bag and threw it in as I turned to look at Miss London.

The Ramseys stuck to it and kept coming to those meetings and talking to the Protective Services people. They wanted me back; they still hadn’t given up on me. Well, I hadn’t given up on them either. We would work this out because that’s what families do, right?

I waved at Miss London and even though she was crying (and I was crying) I didn’t feel like I was leaving my home behind. I knew I was just gaining a new family. I jumped up into the passenger seat, buckled myself and settled in for the ride.

Norm–Life Falls Apart–Part 3

*********************

Life was great, those first few weeks. There were the family gatherings and neighborhood barbeques. But they were not to show me off; they really felt like I was being welcomed into the family. I met grandparents and cousins and the neighborhood kids. Everyone was very happy. I was flying; it was like riding an awesome rollercoaster, the feeling infected my head and tried to tell me life was good. I could almost ignore most of the sad, pitying looks that some of the people gave me, like I was this injured animal that the Ramseys had rescued and were going to care for. I avoided those people and stayed close to Phillip and Junior.

I grew close to Phillip quickly. He talked non-stop, and he was so full of energy and exploration that I felt like I wanted to ride along just to see where he would go. His little 9-year-old body never stopped. A lot of the time I felt it would be good to be there just so he didn’t accidentally hurt himself. He never did. Somehow or another all of his antics left him unscathed.

Phillip seemed to like me as much as I liked hanging out with him. Though, I think that kid liked anyone who was near him. Nothing could stop that smile or his talking. It just made me laugh. I swear I heard him start talking before he actually woke up one day and he was still talking after he had fallen asleep that night.

Junior was harder to figure out. He was nice but much quieter than Phillip. He was always watching. He watched me with Phillip and me with Nick and me with Sarah. We would hang out and play games on his TV or we would watch movies but I always felt like he was watching me. Like he was waiting for something. I hope I wasn’t disappointing him. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do, but I felt like I wasn’t doing it.

After a month we settled into a routine and I felt more like this might be ok. It might be time to re-assess. It was a little early and everything was not perfect, but Nick and Sarah did not flip out at everything. Even when I broke this really expensive vase in the front room, they didn’t get mad at me. It was a couple hours of talking me down before I heard them say that it was ok. That it was an accident and everything was all right. Phillip was patting my back and crying with me even as he smiled and told me that he broke things all the time. Junior just watched.

Then Nick had to work late one evening. I didn’t think anything about it. He was a cop. I thought cops always worked late. But as the hours ticked by, Sarah became more and more tense. When it reached 11:00 PM she was near tears and was muttering something I could barely hear. I thought she might be scared, but she sounded angry. I knew this was bad, that something that I didn’t understand was happening. Junior had taken Phillip upstairs at 9:30 to put him to bed and then he just sat at the top of the stairs looking down at me.

What the hell was I supposed to be doing?

I looked at him and then at Sarah in the kitchen, crying now. I was out of my depth. I didn’t know what was going on and I could feel that alarm bell ringing throughout my body. Pacing around the living room and up and down the stairs, my insides were quivering. That sense of wrongness hung throughout the house, stifling any other action except waiting, waiting for the explosion. Fear and anger coursed through my veins. Something was going to happen and I could do nothing to stop it.

Nick’s truck door closed outside and everything inside went quiet. The door opened and Nick came in and smiled.

“Hey, buddy! Up late, aren’t you?” But his senses clued him in quickly. He was a cop, after all. His eyebrows scrunched down and he looked around quickly, assessing the situation, searching for clues. There I was, frozen, my eyes open wide with worry. Junior sitting at the top of the stairs, quietly watching, but tight, like a trap ready to spring. Sarah standing in the kitchen, weeping with her hands spread out on the table. He laid down his jacket and belt on the front couch and put both hands on my shoulders.

“It’s all ok. Just go on up to bed, okay. Me an’ Sarah just need to have a talk. It’s OK. Go on.” He gave me a slight push toward the stairs and I kept walking even when I heard Sarah say, “How was she?” and break down crying.

I passed Junior and touched his shoulder but he jerked away

“You were supposed to fix this.” He said through gritted teeth.

“What?” I had entered some weird dimension where no one was the same person…they were all replaced by some strange alter-ego robot replica of who they were supposed to be.

“They got you so you could fix this. You were supposed to make them happy again. You were supposed to fix this.” Junior was almost yelling, but the Ramseys couldn’t hear it because Sarah was screaming “Your little slut at work!” and Nick was yelling, “Why are we still going through this? Nothing is going on, Sarah!”

“Look, man, I–I had no idea.”

“You were supposed to FIX THIS!” Junior’s fist took me by surprise. He hit me in the gut and I stepped backwards missing the stair below me. I tried to turn to catch myself but fireworks exploded in my head as I slammed into the wooden shelf on the landing. It was hard to see. I tried to stand and the world tilted awkwardly. I sat down hard on the floor. I heard more yelling, louder now as footsteps ran through the house.

“Oh my God! Norm, honey, are you alright?” Sarah said, holding my head.

“What the hell happened?” Nick asked while trying to keep me calm. “Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll get you taken care of.”

I touched my forehead and felt a sticky wetness covering my fingers. My senses became alert and I started to understand what I was seeing.

“Junior.” I said in a whisper.

Junior stood at the foot of the stairs with his father’s gun. He was shaking, but that gun was still and firm and pointed right at my chest.

“Junior!” Nick said, sounding more shaken than I had ever heard him. “What are you doing?”

Sarah was crying and shaking her head.

“He was suppose to make you happy again. He was supposed to–he was supposed to stop all of this. He–HE was supposed to FIX THIS.” I saw his finger tighten on the trigger.

“NO!” Nick shouted and jumped in front of me. The gun went off and Nick went down.

Everyone was screaming. Junior was running up the stairs, Sarah was holding onto Nick rocking back and forth. Blood and tears were steaming down my face. I was fading; I could feel all of this growing dim and distant. I didn’t know what was going on and I couldn’t help–I couldn’t help this. This wasn’t my–wasn’t my fault.

“I’m going to KILL you!” Junior shouted. He started turning the gun toward me and I just moved. With a hard punch I caught him in the jaw sending him rolling down the stairs. Before he or anyone could recover, I was running out the back door.

*

Norm’s New Home–Part 2

***************

Miss London doesn’t mess around once the papers are filled out. She knows that old kids are hard to get rid of, so if a family wants one she sends the kid out to them ASAP. That’s why, two days later, Miss London was handing me a small duffle and giving me a quick hug.

“You be good for them.” She said. That wish to be going home with Miss London washed over me again. It didn’t matter how many kids she sent to new homes. She would always say “You be good for them.” and there would always be tears in her eyes. I felt like I was being sent away from the only mom I really had. I watched her all the way to the gates of The Center…there may have been tears in my eyes, too.

The ride took three hours. I started off just staring into the distance in the back of the metallic sky-blue minivan. Nick was driving and talking about their boys and their house. I could tell this guy was tough. He was solidly built, though not really big. His arm muscles flexed at every tweak of the wheel, but he was also very friendly. Always giving me a smile in the mirror and checking to see if I was all right.

Sarah was friendly, too. She was also a bit rowdier than Nick. When I asked to put on the radio (something we did not get to hear much of at The Center), she turned it on and switched it from country music to some screeching Rock music earning a quick frown from Nick. She frowned right back and then looked at me and winked. It made me laugh…partially because she wouldn’t back down from Nick, but it was also a nervous laugh because their frowns made me nervous.

After Sarah sang along with a few songs she turned the music down and gave me a sideways smile. That smile made me think of when I played tricks on my friends. It was a smile that said lets have some fun…but keep a look out for trouble. She showed me a few pictures of her art from her phone and showed me their house (which they had lived in since Nick Jr. was born). All through the ride Nick and Sarah talked about their life. They really wanted me to know about them. They probably thought this would help me relax, but I really began to feel like I didn’t belong.

As we finally pulled up to the house it was starting to get dark. I stared out at the house, my stomach quivering with dread. It wasn’t a bad looking house. The rough white stucco walls reached up two stories. That combined with the dark brown trim and the slanted dark tiled roof made the place look homey. There was a soft yellow light coming from the windows with shadows playfully moving from room to room. As I watched the shadows, I felt even more alone. This was not my family, I was an intruder coming into their home and trying to carve out a place for myself.

The Ramseys stood outside the van, Nick waving at me to follow them, his neatly combed dusty blonde hair framed an angular face that topped his tall, blade-thin frame. He stood straight with all the authority of a lieutenant police detective but I could tell his slight smile was meant to comfort me. I unbuckled the seatbelt and pulled the door open with a dull KTHUNK and stepped out onto the smooth concrete sidewalk. Grabbing my dark blue duffle bag that Miss London had given me, I hefted the weight of all that I owned onto my back: three pair of blue jeans, two t-shirts (one red and one navy blue), A nice white long-sleeved button-up shirt, three pair of socks and three pair of underwear (all provided by The Center). It did not make a very heavy load but I trudged up the stepping-stones toward the house as if I was carrying a mountain on my back.

It was like stepping into a dream. The twilight sounds of birds happily chirping mixed with the excited buzz of a variety of insects filled the air. A dog barking a few houses over as well a couple of girls riding their skateboards down the street, and the bicycles laying casually in Nick and Sarah’s driveway made the neighborhood seem welcoming. I walked up those stepping-stones amidst the neatly trimmed grass artistically decorated with red and yellow flowers and finely cut bushes waiting for the dream to end.

“Come on, let’s go in.” Sarah smiled at me with her quirky sideways smile that only lifted one side of her mouth and laid her hand on my back guiding me toward the large oak front door to the house. Her slight frame almost shook with excited energy as she opened the door and invited me in.

All movement in the house suddenly stopped. Then a loud thundering rush of fast footsteps and shouts rose from upstairs and made their way downstairs crashing together in a heaping tangle of young arms, legs and bodies of two boys at the bottom of the stairs. They quickly stood up, the older boy swatting the younger on the head in a “look where you’re going!” sort of smack. I had to laugh a little just watching it.

The boys were a perfect balance of Nick and Sarah. They had light brown hair, a nice mixture of Sarah’s long dark brown curly hair and Nick’s dusty blond. Their smooth thin, light-skinned faces both held Nick’s deep blue eyes, but Sarah’s dainty nose with that slight curve at the end. And, like Nick and Sarah, both boys had a thin, but solid build on them and a ready smile spread on their faces.

“Junior, Phillip, this is Norm. Norm, the older one here is Nicholas Jr and the younger one is Phillip.” Sarah said.

“I’m nine. Junior’s eleven. We don’t go to the same school anymore cause he’s goin’ to Junior High next year. So I’m gonna have the school to myself, –well and the other kids– but I don’t have to wait for him after school anymore, I can walk home by myself. I’ll be ten before we go back. How old are you?” Phillip began, but he was quickly interrupted by his older brother.

“Phillip! Geez! Give the guy a break, he just got here.” Junior said pushing his younger brother a little. He turned to me and said “Sorry, he can be annoying. Welcome to our house.”

“Thanks.” I said with a small smile. The smile slid away, though, as I confirmed my suspicions.

The house was not completely clean but it was not dirty either. It was…lived in. Games and toys were strewn about the dark laminate wood flooring of the front room. Two light tan well-used couches were pulled together toward a coffee table in the middle of the room. The set-up spoke of hours of games and family time spent together. The cushions were firmly indented by those hours and light stains created a pattern across the couches. Two cans of soda and two plates with remnants of dinner were still on the coffee table. The walls were covered with photos of Nick, Sarah, Junior and Phillip in various places. Nick and Sarah’s wedding, Baby pictures of both boys, birthday parties at the park, riding bikes, coaching the boys at baseball, Nick and Sarah at the lake and in the mountains. A family. They were a unit and I didn’t fit. I was an invader and sooner or later they would figure that out.

Then what? What would they do with me? Would they get rid of me like an unwanted dog? Would they try to trade me back? Or would they put up with me until I grew old enough to get out of their house?

We walked through the house, Sarah and Nick and the boys showing me different things, but I barely heard any of it. Tears threatened and I had to fight them because weakness is not something you show; you hide that and keep it locked away. If they kicked me out I would survive and move on. Maybe I would move on before they had the chance.

We made our way up the stairs with a quick look at Nick and Sarah’s room, and each of the boys’ rooms and came to the end of the hall.

“And this is your room.” Nick said

My room. I don’t even have a memory of having a space to myself. Ever. There have always been others to share with, large rooms with multiple beds, or small rooms where a few of us shared beds, but never my room. I looked around at a couple posters of baseball players and a fishing rod hanging on the wall. There was a large bed sitting against the light blue wall with a dark brown headboard and bookshelves on the sides. The brown laminate floors had a navy blue carpet with a large NY written in the middle. There was a large dark wooden dresser that matched the floors and the bed with a baseball sitting on top and a desk (the same color) over toward the window.

“We helped decorate!” Phillip almost shouted. “We love the Yankees so I picked the rug, and the baseball is Junior’s but we have lots of them if you want your own. And we just got the dresser and bed today.”

Nick picked up Phillip and patted his back and turned to me with a smile.

“We hope you’ll like it here.” He said

Maybe I will…Maybe I do fit here. All I could do was smile.

Norm and Junior Battle…Part I

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.

************************

Norm and Junior Battle

Here is the beginning of a scene from the book I am writing….Hope you like it!

I’m not sure how this happened. I run and leap toward the top of the old brick fence and scramble over just as a shot bursts through the gray concrete, shattering it beneath my hand. Thrown off balance, I fall sprawling on the rough pavement below. Already, blood has been flowing into my eyes from the gash in my head, now I think I just cut through my cheek with the pavement. I turn back toward the fence as I hear Junior jump toward the top and struggle to get a grip. I thought this ploy might help me a little. At eleven years old, Junior is not a tall kid and the height of the fence could provide a couple minutes. It looks like those minutes are reduced to seconds because I look back and he has a handhold on the brick he just shattered. As I see the gleam of the lamplight hit the barrel of his gun, he hooks his elbow over the top of the fence and starts to pull himself over. As soon as he is a little stable, he starts to take aim.

What the hell?  The thought pops into my mind as I hop to my feet and run like death is at my heels, because… really…it is. I still can’t believe this is happening. The family seemed so nice. I thought that, this time, I had found what I was looking for. After years in the system, these guys were supposed to be the storybook ending.

“Norm, you son-of-a-bitch, I’m gonna kill you!” Junior shouts as another shot rings out. I have no idea what he is shooting at because I don’t hear it strike anywhere near me. “This is your fault!”

Maybe he didn’t see where I went. It seems like a wish more than what really happened. I want this to be over. I want to get out of here and find a road and leave this crazy kid and this messed up family behind. I am done with all this shuffling around and never knowing if I’m 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 shoots an electrifying jolt up my back. No more time for self-pity. Junior is standing at the top of the fence and is now flailing to keep his balance as the rebound of the shot throws him backward. It is by luck that he doesn’t keep his balance and he lets loose a few very unchild-like words to show that he is not happy. Rage covers his face as he topples back to the other side of the fence; a rage very different from the look of awe and hope that I had seen on his face when I first arrived.

 

Copyright Nevin Culley 2013