This is Part II of my novel, Jenna, about an eight-year-old girl from a dysfunctional home who is placed in foster care.
In Foster Focus Volume 7 Issue 3, we published the first nine pages of Jenna. Here is a quick synopsis of Part I:
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.
“Dirty blonde hair,” her Mom would say when she looked at Jenna. Jenna didn’t like being called dirty, but she was afraid to ask Mom to stop. Mom would yell and make fun of her. Jenna just knew it.
She had heard a couple of teachers talk about her in the hallway, something about her parents not washing her clothes. One of them said something about a stench. Jenna didn’t know what a stench was, but she could tell it couldn’t mean anything good.
A yellow smear about the size of her fist stained the front of her shirt. In the lunchroom a girl got mustard on her hands. She sneered at Jenna and wiped her hands on Jenna’s blouse. Jenna shoved the girl to the floor. At first her teacher said she was in trouble, but then Miss Connell looked at her like she was sad and about to cry. Her teacher changed her mind and told Jenna she could have her recess back and made the other girl pick up trash on the floor. The stain never washed completely out, and a yellow twisted blotch remained. Whenever she noticed it, the mustard smudge made Jenna a little sad and a little glad at the same time.
Jenna missed her grandma. There were pictures of her in an old photo book, and Jenna barely could remember what she looked like. She tried not to think about Grandma. Remembering Grandma (or trying to remember her) gave her a huge, painful lump in the throat.
A chortling sound woke Jenna from her daydream. Mom was giggling. It must be nice, thought Jenna, to be able to laugh when there was nothing to laugh about. Sometimes Mom could get the giggles or start crying all of a sudden. Why are you laughing, Mom? Why are you crying?” The answer was always the same. “I just do that, Jenna.” Mom tilted her head back and laughed like she just heard the funniest joke ever told.
Dad got in his car and took off when Mom started giggling. I wish Dad was here, thought Jenna. I wish he wouldn’t leave me here alone when Mom gets this way.
Mom jumped out of her chair and shouted, “I’m fixing that light bulb right now!”
“Mom, the power is out,” Jenna said. “There is nothing wrong with the bulb.”
Mom didn’t seem to hear. She rummaged through one of the kitchen drawers and found a light bulb. She held it up for a moment, staring at it like she thought something was wrong with it. She glanced around. “Where’s the ladder?”
“Dad sold it,” said Jenna, using her best grown up voice.
Her Mom found a chair and dragged it under the light. “We need some light in here,” said Mom. “It’s going to get dark soon.”
“Tonight we can use flashlights,” said Jenna. “I left one next to the…”
“I’m just being a good mom,” answered her Mother. She stepped up on the chair, wobbled and fell backward on her rear end. She giggled some more. At least she had something to laugh about now, thought Jenna.
Mom stepped up on the chair again, reaching up for the light bulb. Once there was a glass globe around it, but that broke. Mom reached up as best she could, but it was no good. She wasn’t tall enough.
No, thought Jenna. She isn’t going to try and…
Her mom tried stepping up on the back of the chair. Jenna’s eyes grew wide. The chair collapsed under her mother who fell back, hitting her head on the cabinet with a sickening crack.
Jenna didn’t scream or cry out. You can cry later.
“Mom!” scolded Jenna. “Mom, wake up!”
Mom’s eyelids twitched, and her teeth chattered, but she did not answer. Blood trickled out of the back of her head where she hit the cabinet.
Can’t get upset now.
Jenna knew what to do. Her Dad told her what to do if either one of them ever passed out and wouldn’t wake up. She reached for her Mom’s cell phone and dialed 911.
Mom lay on the hospital bed. Her face looked pale, almost a light shade of grey. Jenna had seen her Mom look worse. Her Mother was sleeping now.
“We can’t get in touch with your father,” said a female nurse with jet-black hair and wearing a yellow shirt with dozens of green, smiling alligators.
She added, “We called the number on your Mom’s cell phone for your Dad. “Nobody answered. Is there anybody else we can…”
“How’s Mom?” interrupted Jenna.
“She is going to be fine,” said the nurse slowly as she sat down near Jenna. “She just had a mild concussion. That was very smart of you to call 911. I heard you talking to the other nurses in the waiting room. You sounded like a little adult.”
Jenna’s mouth started to turn into a smile.
“Is there anybody else we can call?” asked the nurse.
Jenna shook her head NO, almost frantically In her mind she saw the faces of some of her parents’ friends. There was Big Jack who once pushed her Dad, and there was Marian, who was always telling Jenna she was ugly and Rob who liked to tell her parents, “If my daughter talked to me like that, I’d smack her with the back of my hand.”
Jenna pointed at the nurse and said, “You-don’t-want-to-do-that!”
The nurse nodded her head and took out a pen and a small pad of paper. She wrote a couple of things down before she asked, “Does your Mom get into a lot of… accidents?”
The nurse scribbled a little and asked, “Does she act strange sometimes? Does she stay awake for long periods?”
“Her and Dad both. I see them stay awake for two or three days at a time, and they don’t even sleep.”
The nurse looked up. “Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”
Jenna shrugged her shoulders and answered, “Doesn’t everybody do things like that?”
The nurse sighed and said, “No sweetheart. Most people don’t.”
Jenna felt uneasy. She didn’t know if she should trust this lady.
“Do they ever hit you?”
The nurse kept writing things down on that notepad of hers. Without stopping her writing she asked, “Do they leave you alone for long periods of time?”
Jenna took a deep breath. She had a feeling Mom wouldn’t want her to answer. “I don’t talk to people about that,” said Jenna.
“Come on, Jenna. We’re going.”
It was Mom’s voice.
Jenna jerked her head around and saw her Mother waking up and not looking happy. Did I say something wrong? she wondered.
Her Mom, eyes half open, sat up in bed, and to Jenna’s horror, pulled a needle out of her hand, a needle that was attached to some kind of a tube. Jenna’s face scrunched up like she would scream or howl, but she bit her tongue and made no sound.
The nurse jumped up and put her hands on Mom’s shoulders. “You can’t be serious. You are not ready to leave.”
Mom stumbled past the nurse and found her cell phone on a table near the bed. She dialed and slurred the words, “Marian, you need to come and pick us up.”
The electricity came back on at Jenna’s house, but in a few days it was off again. While it was working her parents had one of their fits and were up for three days, laughing and playing their music loud. Jenna had to wrap her pillow around her head to fall asleep. At about the time the power was cut off again, her parents ran out of energy too and “crashed,” falling asleep so hard Jenna wondered if she could wake them if she tried, but she didn’t want to try. They needed their sleep.
They were snoring when the lady knocked at the door. Jenna wished she could make them stop snoring or at least make the lady stop knocking and leave them alone. Jenna peeked through the curtains. A woman in a suit with pretty curls and thick, cool looking black glasses kept banging on the door. Mom’s snoring was loud enough, but Dad sounded like a broken lawn mower. The woman peeked in through the windows, and Jenna jumped aside. She thought the woman spotted her. Nobody who dressed like that ever came to the house.
The woman walked to the back of the house and looked around the yard. Jenna glanced out the back window, making sure the woman did not see her. Just like that pesky nurse, she was making notes on some kind of pad. Who was she? She had no business looking in their windows or nosing around their backyard. A “noser,” mom would have said.
The nosy woman went back to the front porch and knocked really loud this time. Dad stirred in his sleep. His snoring turned into a hacking cough. Just be quiet. Don’t wake up. She was afraid if Dad woke up he would say or do something crazy. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
The woman took a card out of her purse and stuck it through the mail slot before she walked back to her car and drove away. Jenna picked up the card and wondered why she did. She couldn’t read anyway.
That night Jenna heard her parents shouting. Dad held up the card the lady left and yelled at Mom. Something about a Sosh worker. Sosh-ell worker. Something like that. Jenna didn’t know what it meant, but she could tell Mom didn’t like it any more than Dad did. Her parents, she decided, weren’t really arguing with each other. They were both upset about the same thing. Jenna breathed a sigh of relief.
Dad turned to Jenna and pointed a finger. Jenna wondered for a moment if she was in trouble.
“You did good, Jenna,” he said.
She didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t answer the door.”
Jenna nodded. Her job was to keep that lady out of the house. She took her job seriously.
“We’ll be right back, Jenna,” Mom said yesterday. The power was off again. Jenna cleaned and scrubbed things when it was light. It gave her something to do, and she liked it when the house felt clean. Now it was dark, and she kept thinking about the break-in, and the woman who banged on the door and peeked in the windows and snuck in the backyard.
Jenna imagined Dad telling her, “You just think you’re cold when you’re scared,” Dad always told her that when he was reminding her how things were worse when he was her age.
She wandered back to her room, feeling her way by touching the walls. When she reached her bed she kept on Mom’s coat and covered herself in the blankets. As soon as she closed her eyes she was asleep.
Jenna floated in a small wooden boat that rushed down a raging river. Dozens of wild people were swimming by the boat and pounding on the sides. She worried they would knock the boat over and drown her. The banging kept growing louder and louder, like a hurricane or an earthquake, then…
Someone was pounding at the door. She made out a few words: Open up. Police! …if you do not, we will force our way in…
She froze for a second. A smashing, crunching sound vibrated through the door. Peeking through the curtains, fighting that sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she saw them.
That woman--the noser! And a cop!
The police officer shoved the door open, one loud push at a time.
With one last thud and a final shove, he rammed his way inside.
Jenna scrambled out of the room.
Just in time.
She imagined her dad scolding, You can cry later, and I had worse happen to me when I was your age.
She scurried into the kitchen and opened the cabinet door under the sink. Uh oh! Extra garbage! I was too crowded already. She grabbed a plastic trash bag and shoved it out, then squirmed her way inside. Her heart pounded so loudly everyone might hear it.
That cop! He must be patrolling the house with that horrible torch of a flashlight. Even though the cabinet was shut, the glow of the flashlight streamed through the cracks of the door.
That terrible woman was so loud, almost shouting. “This is the fifth complaint we’ve had about this family. They leave their kid for days and get into all kinds of trouble. Their daughter only goes to school half the time!”
“I can’t find anybody,” muttered the policeman. “We have to fill out a report.”
“I’ll fill out a report after we find the kid,” said the woman.
Jenna heard them go nosing in the back of the house, in her room. She had a sudden thought: maybe the burglars could invade the house again, and the cop could arrest the robbers and leave her alone.
“They must be in here!” said the woman.
Jenna shivered. The intruders were sliding doors and opening closets.
She thought of jumping out of the cabinet and running out the back door. There was no need. She was almost free. They had rummaged through most of the house by now. The nosers would be gone soon!
“No, we won’t,” shouted the woman.
Won’t do what?
The woman yelled, “We are not leaving yet. They leave the kid by herself. Keep searching!”
The light glared through the cracks in the cabinet door again. Jenna almost sneezed, but she stopped herself in time.
She heard the clinking of the bottles. Did the cop trip over the garbage?
“What do we have here?” the man asked slowly. “Why would they put their garbage in the kitchen hallway instead of the trash?”
They know! thought Jenna.
The woman said, “Nothing would surprise me in a dump like this…”
Jenna cringed and gritted her teeth. Her mind was a whirlwind of anger and fear.
The cabinet door opened. The policeman shone the flashlight right in her face. It blinded her for a second--it was so bright.
A gruff voice said, “It’s all right, sweetheart. We won’t hurt you.”
Jenna froze, torn between getting out quietly and grabbing on to the pipes and clinging “for dear life,” as grandma used to say when she was alive.
The “sosh-ell” worker spoke, a little more quietly this time, “Jenna… Is that you?”
“How do you know my name?” Jenna asked.
Their faces were covered in light and shadow. It reminded Jenna of a scary movie. The woman smiled, one of those fake smiles adults wore when they were trying to trick you or calm you down. “Jenna,” she said. “I know you must be scared, but we aren’t here to hurt you. I promise.”
Jenna blinked. The bright light was making her eyes water. The lady sounded nice now. That won’t fool me.
“Sweetheart, we have some questions to ask you,” said the “sosh-ell” worker.
“Do you have to?” Jenna said.
“Yes dear, I’m afraid we do.”
The cop started to reach for her with his big, rough hands, but the woman touched his arm and he stopped. Jenna took a deep breath and thought for a moment. She clambered out of the cabinet, shaking. The police officer muttered, “How does she stand that smell?” The woman “shushed” him quiet.
They sat down at the kitchen table. The policeman placed the flashlight on the counter so they could have some light. Jenna asked, “Can I make you some oatmeal?”
At least the gas worked.
The policeman and the woman looked at each other. The policeman grinned, and the woman said, “No thank you,” in a quiet voice.
“My name is Miss Ortiz,” said the woman. She put a hand on Jenna’s arm. Jenna pulled back.
“How long do your parents stay away when they leave you alone?” she asked.
Jenna’s eyes darted back and forth between their faces. “I don’t think I can answer that,” she said, not able to raise her voice above a whisper.
Miss Ortiz nodded and said, “Do you think they will show up tonight?”
Jenna thought for a moment. She could probably talk about that. “They don’t usually come back this soon.”
So they might be here tomorrow morning?” asked the “sosh-ell” worker.
“Yes,” whispered Jenna
“Or the day after that?” said the woman
Jenna scrunched her face, trying to figure this one out. “That might be right,” she said finally.
The lady nodded her head slowly and turned to the policeman. “We need to take this little girl away from this…”
Jenna heard a squeal of tires. Oh no! Not now!
There was a rumble and a bang. Jenna knew what it was. She had heard it before. Dad must have driven the car up over the curb and onto the grass. Jenna’s face turned red.
Dad and Mom stumbled in the front door. They could barely walk. Mom stared around like she didn’t know where she was. Dad looked ready to fight.
He was breaking a rule.
Never look a police officer in the eye.
It attracts attention.
He stared at the policeman like he was about to attack him.
No Dad, don’t do anything. Please!
Dad growled, “Get outta my house!”
The police officer just raised an eyebrow.
“Sir,” the officer said. “I ought to arrest you for felony child endangerment.”
What was this horrible man talking about?
En… danger… ment!?” Dad said slowly. “Danger! We have never put her in danger! That’s a lie!”
Miss Ortiz stared at Mom, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Mom said nothing. It didn’t seem to Jenna that she had even heard.
“We are taking your daughter…” Miss Ortiz started to say.
“No!” shouted Jenna.
“Calm down,” growled the policeman. Something about his strong, deep voice made Jenna listen.
“You don’t got nothing to arrest us for,” said Dad. “She ain’t a baby. We can leave her alone…”
Jenna had a sudden panicked thought, and she gasped.
Everyone glanced her way.
She wasn’t sure why she did it, but Jenna found herself staring at the hiding place, the metal grating near the heater vent. Mom looked over and her lower lip trembled. She looked scared for the first time, like she was finally waking up to what was happening.
Miss Ortiz noticed how Jenna and her Mom stared at the grating. She scratched a few notes on that terrible pad of hers.
The cop gave Dad a shrewd look like he was trying to figure something out.
Dad muttered, “What’s your problem? There’s nothing over there,” but would not look the officer in the eye.
Jenna noticed her Dad’s hand shaking. The policeman snatched up his flashlight, strolled over to the hiding place and lifted the grating up. Jenna had never looked there before and could not see down the hole now. She only knew it was a place of secrets. Nobody but her parents should ever go there.
The policeman shone the light down the hole and said, “Well, what do we have here?” He muttered something about, “Code 11377,” turned around, pointed a finger at her parents and said, “You two are going to jail.”
The officer put handcuffs on her Father’s wrists. Dad stared at Jenna, eyes blazing with anger. “This is all your fault!” he snarled.