The house was quiet as I cranked open the side door and stepped into the kitchen. I held my breath and pulled my blazer sleeves down over my hands. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been mottled with bug bites in months, that I hadn’t turned light headed by noxious fumes for longer – old habits died harder than I liked. The bitter taste of worry flooded my mouth, paralyzing for a moment before I began to reason myself back into the now. This house smelled of linens and vanilla, I could hear the tick of the radiators as the heat crept into the metal. A fresh stack of laundry sat neatly on the side, warmth still lingering in the folds. I took time to touch the citrus fresh surfaces and to bury my face into the laundry, careful not to mess it up but eager to leech off some warmth and homeliness
They are here, still here
I must have been too long in my reassurances for my school bag hadn’t even touched the floor before Sarah bustled in
“Jenny, there you are. I knew I heard the door open. Now in. In, in, in!” And then she was gone,calling to the others that I’d returned. I liked Sarah, I really did. She was always busy, always bright, reminding me of a flower bobbing up and down in a summer breeze. At a push, I’d admit I loved her almost as much as I loved the rest of the Walkers, every single one of my foster family being generous, affectionate souls to the last.
I quelled the last of my worry, reminded myself how obscenely lucky I was, and toed off my shoes. I noticed the first scuffs were beginning to appear at the tips, and promised them some TLC later before following Sarah into the house lest she return to chivvy me on. I threaded down the hall, through the living room, and into the dining room. A long pine table dominated the room, cool winter sunlight streaming down through the skylights. Sarah fluttered an impatient hand at me to slot myself between my foster parents, Jane and Michael. Their son, Paul, stood off to the left, smiling happily at me. They looked beatific and handsome, just as any kid would wish their family to be.
The air in the room felt hot and thick.
“Come here, love,” Jane murmured. Her soft voice, as always was a balm, soothing down the prickles that began to rise as I surveyed this family portrait setup they wanted me to finish. I froze in the threshold, thinking back to the last one I was in. My brother in uniform, ready to leave, Mum grinning as if she did not have sunken eyes and a tremor. And me in the corner, at the wrong end of every bell curve in the book. It was only a split second pause, and I prayed that they didn’t notice as I slid myself into the centre and noticed the A4 brown envelope arranged on the table, the camera that had appeared in Sarah’s hands.
I wasn’t stupid.
I didn’t live in a bubble.
I knew what was happening.
The coil of anxiousness that had lain torpid at the bottom of my stomach began to rise, writhing its way into my throat. I knew they heard the catch of my breath, saw the shake of my hands as I reached for the envelope, cold fingers peeling it open. A sharp flash blinded me as I tugged the document out, but I didn’t need to read it to know I was no longer Jenny Pritchard.
“You’re a Walker now,” Michael said, gently squeezing my shoulder. Another flash blinded me. Distantly I could hear Sarah blathering in the background. How smart I looked in my new uniform, how they should get this framed, maybe they should send a copy to my social worker and my old children’s home. What a happy ending. What a wonderful beginning.
Picture perfect in every way.
I’d always known, on the periphery, that it would come to this. Mum had huffed one too many times, my brother toured in places I would only ever see on the news. But I had really never believed. Had never stopped hoping that one day I’d open the door to him, that my brother with his eyes set on the horizon would follow it all the way round, back to me.
My heart broke and loving arms slid around me, holding me up as I crumbled into dust. I knew kids who would kill for this: a family who loved them, fluffy socks enough for every day of the month, good smells and better food. A chance, a goddamned chance. I had dreamed of it. And now that it was here, I found that it was stained with rage and guilt and grief.
Everything I ever wanted, and I hated it.