This is part of my novel, Jenna, about an eight-year-old girl from a dysfunctional home who is placed in foster care.
In past issues of Foster Focus, we published part of Jenna. Here is a quick synopsis:
Jenna is old before her time. From an early age she has had to fend for herself. She is the “adult” in her house. Her parents fluctuate between staying up for days and “crashing” for twenty-four hours or more at a time. One night Mom and Dad leave her alone and robbers break in the house. Jenna hides under the kitchen sink while they ransack the house. She attends school sporadically. Teachers and neighbors quiz her about her parents, but she has been coached and knows how to lie. When police arrive at the house, her parents make a scene. Her father blames Jenna. Jenna is placed in foster care with a loving but unconventional family. Her new teacher is concerned about her progress. Jenna misses her birth parents and wants to go back. Jenna gets help at school for her reading and goes for a supervised visit with her parents. She gets the wrong idea, thinking she will go home with Mom permanently and is disappointed when Dad doesn’t show up. Jenna becomes attached to her teacher but doesn’t want to interact with the other students.
Miss Laurie came to walk Jenna home. They had started walking Valeria home since Miss Laurie knew Valeria’s mom. At first Jenna thought that meant she could play with Valeria, but everybody had to do homework. Homework came first. Ughhh!
Jenna whizzed through the math worksheet. She smiled when she saw the orange sheet. Miss Teak only gave the extra orange homework sheet to a few kids who were doing really good work in math. She heard the orange homework was fourth grade work. Not only did you have to solve problems, you had to solve puzzles.
Then came the reading homework. Jenna got different homework than everyone else. Her homework was all about letters and letter sounds. “And memorizing sight words,” sighed Jenna, surprised she had said it out loud. She started scribbling down answers. Sometimes she had to call Miss Laurie away from one of her projects to finish her reading homework, but today was a “No big deal” day. “No big deal,” sang Jenna as she put her papers in her backpack.
She looked at the gnarled, dark brown desk. Mine, all mine, she thought. It was a kid-sized desk, and while her Mom had it when she was little, now it was for Jenna only. She felt the dark wood and smiled. Outside the setting sun was diving down into the west, disappearing and sending out flames of red. The sun is bleeding, thought Jenna with a smile. Grandma Sandy and I better fly up to the sky and help it get better.
I should get up and go help Miss Laurie, thought Jenna, but it felt so good just to sit here and enjoy her special spot. Her throat felt a little sore, but she had been warned not to complain about things like that. She took some paper out of her backpack and began drawing. She tried to draw Nick from Shadow Island with his arm dropping off. He found out he could scare away the monsters on the island when this happened. Even monsters were freaked out when somebody had a loose arm that they could wave around like a baseball bat.
She drew a second picture, this time of Nick with his arm back in place cooking dinner for his new friends. Nick wasn’t a very good cook, and until his “droppings’ was cured, his fingers or ears would fall off and plop into whatever he was mixing. His sister and his friends took over the cooking duties.
Without thinking much about it she scrawled: FOR MISS LAURIE at the bottom of one and FOR MR. DAN at the bottom of the other. Her smile turned into a frown, and she felt so bad about what she had done. She should have made these for Mom and Dad. She scribbled out MISS LAURIE and MR. DAN and wrote MOM and DAD instead. She hoped nobody could tell.
She thought back to her last conversation with her Father:
“If these people are mean to you, they might send you home.”
“But they are not mean,” she said out loud.
“Be a good girl, and make something up.”
Dad wouldn’t tell me to do something wrong, she thought.
This didn’t feel right. It made her kind of sick to her stomach. Her throat was already sore, but she was being a good girl and not saying anything about feeling sick.
Grandma Sandy drove up. Jenna saw her from the window and ran out to meet her. She held Sandy’s hand and led her inside, talking a mile a minute, “…and we saw a film about squirrels. Rattlesnake poison can’t kill the mama squirrel but she swells up. Twice as big as she was to begin with. It’s gross. She stays there and lets the snake bite her so she can block the rattler from eating her babies.”
Miss Laurie was staring at the air and holding a rolled up newspaper. She would wave the paper in the air. Oh no! thought Jenna. Miss Laurie is having a fit like Mom used to have.
Miss Laurie opened the front door, still staring wildly, still waving the newspaper around. Jenna shook her head, thinking, Everybody’s crazy.
Jenna smiled when she realized what was really happening. Miss Laurie was chasing a fly out the open door. She didn’t want to smash it and kill it.
Maybe everybody’s not crazy after all, thought Jenna. She looked back at Grandma Sandy and went back to telling her about the squirrel video.
Mom and Dad both showed up this time. Miss Laurie made her bring the silly toy horse. “I’m not a baby,” she told Laurie before the visit.
“I know,” said Miss Laurie, “But it will make them happy.”
“Why did they bring me a baby toy,” snapped Jenna.
“They didn’t know any better,” said Laurie. Laurie’s face turned red, and she added, “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s okay,” said Jenna.
When her parents walked into the “Waiting Room” or the Ammonia Room as Jenna now called it. Jenna jumped up and hugged them both at the same time. A three-way hug, Grandma Sandy called it. Jenna smiled. Mom and Dad sat down on the funny red plastic chairs. Jenna didn’t take the horse out of the bag. Instead she started showing Dad how to make things out of Lock-Blocks. Mom began whispering things to Miss Laurie. Jenna listened closely until she realized they were not talking about her, just questions about “court” and their “program” and “parenting classes.” Jenna started ignoring them.
She put together a cart with wheels. She smiled as she held it up for her Dad, when she noticed a bruise under her Dad’s eye.
“How did that happen?” asked Jenna.
Dad coughed several times, and he would not look her in the eye. “I don’t remember,” he muttered as he stood up on shaky legs.
Jenna was afraid he would leave.
“Sorry, Daddy. I won’t talk about it,” she said. Dad took a deep breath and sat back down.
Mom and Miss Laurie kept talking. Dad leaned forward and asked, “Have you thought about what I told you?”
Jenna had a hard time sleeping that night.
What is a good girl? she wondered.
She lay awake listening to the wind, the rain and her Dad’s voice:
“You could make something up.”
“Be a good girl, and make something up,”
Jenna knew what Dad meant.
Miss Laurie and Mr. Dan were nice, and Grandma Sandy was even nicer. How could she make up something about people like them? But Dad was telling her that being a good girl meant telling a lie and getting them in trouble.
She felt hot all over, and her legs kept twitching. When she fell asleep she dreamed she was floating on the river again, this time on a raft. There were no creatures pounding on her boat. Instead she saw Miss Laurie, Mr. Dan and Grandma Sandy on one side of the river with a tent and a campfire. They were drinking hot chocolate and waving at her. On the other side of the river were Mom and Dad. They were cold, wet and shivering. They needed her, thought Jenna.
She woke up, sweating. She was half awake and couldn’t think straight yet. She coughed and coughed and tried to stumble out of bed, but it was still dark outside. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. Should she sneak into the front room and try and clean up before Miss Laurie stumbled out and told her to go back to sleep. She fumbled toward the light and felt around for it, flipping it on. She bent over and coughed some more. Before she knew it Miss Laurie was leading her back to bed, letting her sit but not lie down. Laurie felt her forehead, and she nodded at Mr. Dan. Jenna felt so confused. She had never even seen him walk in the room and hadn’t realized he was there. Mr. Dan had a small plastic tube, and he stuck it in her ear. She started to scream, but he said softly, “Relax, sweetheart. It’s only a thermometer.” She felt so tired and hot that she didn’t care if he called her sweetheart. The plastic contraption in her ear started beeping. Dan looked at Laurie and said, “Whew! One hundred, four degrees!”