“Ryan…unless it was the hospital, don’t worry about it.” Eve hugged her pillow. She slept in a pair of what should have been pajama shorts, but were more like pajama booty shorts. Her ass cheeks hung out of them, looking like heaps of crumpled caramel toffee. She reached for a non-existent blanket, the stifling midday heat removing any need for one.
I had shaken her for a solid thirty seconds before she had even budged. It was like trying to wake a hibernating bear, with some of the same sounds. That wasn’t exactly true, but I saw all of Eve’s faults when I was pissed with her, and considering how angry I was, I was practically looking at her with a magnifying glass.
“Are you sure it’s not, Kaylee, now? What the fuck is going on, Eve?!” I followed these words with a shrill scream that reeked of frustration, fear and bitter anger. I had again been kept out of the conversation. The grown-up conversation. The scream held no English words, a simple panicked uncontrolled utterance. I wanted to flail my limbs, throw my body in a way that matched how I felt- lost, betrayed. Oh, and I wanted to hit Eve’s phone with a hammer.
My anger dissipated slightly when my voice echoed in my mind. It was the kid at the Palace who threw a tantrum so bad, her parents didn’t even pay their bill. The dad actually came back the next day and apologized. He fucking paid too. Greg and I had a good laugh at it, but mostly me.
The scream woke Eve, but it did more than that. She shot up like she had been shocked with a defibrillator, her eyes wide and her face a mask of terror. She probably thought the apartment was on fire, but it was much, much worse. I threw her phone to her, although I had been attempting to throw it at her. It was obvious I would have to spend time actually practicing my throwing as Ashley had explained.
“You got a fucking message.”
She looked down at the phone, and then her eyes met mine. Her face, which had all the same markings of a slasher victim realizing their end is near, quickly went from terrified to saddened. “We were going to tell you. We were just trying to figure out how to do it.”
“This is a big fuck you to me, Eve. You say all this shit about trying to help me, making sure I’m still treated the same, but we know that’s a fucking lie. Paperwork? Fucking, paperwork?! So what does this mean, that some other fuckers can adopt me? Is that what the judge has to decide? Fuck, Eve, how could you do this to me? After everything I told you. I really thought things were going to be different between us, and you are still keeping fucking secrets from me!!!” My voice wavered and cracked, edging up into an impossibly high register as I lost more and more control over my emotions. I shook fiercely as my heart played the role of a prison escapee, seemingly attempting to tunnel its way out with a less than subtle jackhammer.
Eve looked at me calmly, but I could see the beginning of tears in her eyes. She rarely cried. Tears were in my eyes, and I didn’t even realize it. “R-Ryan, look we’re doing everything we can. Yes, that’s what it means, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to fight for you.”
I looked Eve straight in the eyes, relishing the tears dribbling down her cheeks. My anger and ultimate betrayal had broken her resolve. She was usually the statue and Greg was the fountain. “What the fuck happened, Eve? And no more lies.”
“When we were called into McDavid’s office a few days ago, well we found out they did an investigation. They matched you with Kaylee Smith. So we told her the truth. We said you came to us, told us about the studio and what they had done, that the police had arrested Tracy, who was the only one you trusted, so we hid you here until we could figure out what to do with you. So Ms. McDavid, she actually bought it and seemed understanding, even offering to help us adopt you. But then we got more news.
Because the original adoption was a sham you automatically returned to being a ward of the state. And unfortunately, that means that you can be adopted publicly through any agency. You have to believe me though, Ryan. We are doing everything we can to make sure you stay with us.”
Eve and I were mere inches apart, and while moments ago I had seen her as some sort of grotesque lying pig, the proximity no longer disgusted me. In fact, I longed to bury myself in her soft arms, feeling her warmth, hoping desperately it would remove the urges I had to throw a temper tantrum to rival any kid in a Wal-Mart not getting their way in the toy aisle.
Mostly, I just wanted her comfort. Eve and I gravitated toward each other, but something kept us apart. I could see that Eve desperately wanted to play mother bird. We were seconds from adopting a mother daughter role, or even simply child. I knew, however, grown men weren’t comforted in the arms of their buddy’s girlfriend, especially as tears tumbled down their face. Eve seemed to grasp this as well.
Eve took a deep breath, “Like I said, we just weren’t sure how to tell you. You have to admit that you’ve been kind of deli- you haven’t been yourself. We just thought it might push you further down that path. We’re going to include you in everything from now on though.” Eve felt she would reassure me with rapid nodding of her head.
I sniffled and wiped my eyes, “I’ve fucking heard that before.”
Eve frowned, “True. But you haven’t exactly been truthful with us.”
I narrowed my eyes, preparing my defense, while Eve continued. “Your episode with the game the other day when Jessica brought Brianna over. Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
I sneered at Eve, “Because it was ridiculously fucking embarrassing? Because a girl I really want to fuck saw me cry like a pussy in front of her? I’m so sorry I didn’t share that with you. I’ll share it in a vlog with you and upload it to YouTube next time.
Eve smiled gently, mirth showing in her eyes causing the normally muddy browns to sparkle. “Make sure you upload it at the minimum 24 hours before it happens. OK. Fair enough, you didn’t want to tell me, but because I didn’t know, well we kind of assumed you were losing it, Ryan. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry we didn’t tell you what was going on.”
I nodded, “Is that why Greg was trying to get me playing Halo? To get my confidence back?”
Eve replied, “That was one reason. The other was to keep you from checking the news online or watching TV.”
I laughed, “Who the fuck watches TV anymore? I torrent everything or watch Netflix.”
Eve nodded, “We didn’t want you to see the news reports or anything, until we were sure you were ready. Until we knew you were OK. Long story short is basically with an open adoption and the sad story of the orphan used by evil TV execs, well there are apparently people lining up to adopt you. It’s why it’s gone to a judge. Some celebrities have even tweeted an interest.”
I grinned, “Fuck yeah. So some celebrity adopts me and I become an LA rich kid? Sweet deal. When does the judge make his decision? Can it be tomorrow? Maybe Megan Fox will adopt me, and we can have mother-daughter showers.”
Eve replied, “Ryan, it’s OK to be scared by this. I get that this is your go-to reaction. We can talk about this if you want.”
I sighed dramatically, “You just want to hear that I really, really want to stay with you guys. Is that it? Fuck sakes Eve, yeah I want to stay with you and your mostly clueless boyfriend. I’m-I mean you guys are my friends. Like real friends. Something I haven’t had in a really long time, maybe never.”
Eve smiled, “You’re making it really hard not to hug you right now.”
I squinted my eyes and stuck out my tongue, “You’re making it hard not to throw up in my mouth right now.”
Eve grinned, her eyes flashing maniacally, “We can have family game nights. Fun trips in the car to see grandma and grandpa. Greg told me that you love making macaroni pictures. You could do one of your new family. The coolest family in the world.”
I shook my head in mock fear, “Okay, seriously- I’m fucking tweeting Megan Fox to come save me.”
Eve put her hand on my shoulder, “Ryan, we’re going to do everything we can- and I mean everything we can to keep you. We aren’t going to let anyone else have you.”
I nodded, “I know, Eve.”
“Okay, we’ll put the bed over here. Greg, you put up the curtains. The toy box should go here.”
Greg said, “I’m all for adopting Ryan and everything but how did we lose our room exactly?”
Jessica gave Greg a look similar to one she gave me when she thought I was actually a little girl. She wasn’t falling into kid mode however. No, in this case, she was simply half mocking Greg. I loved it. “Well there’s going to be an inspection. Ms. McDavid is going to come and see the apartment and make sure it is ready for Ryan. It’s just temporary anyway. Didn’t Eve tell you about the townhouse?”
Eve said matter-of-factly, “I did. Whether he was listening or not is another story.”
Greg was quickly cowed. He slunk into the corner and began hanging the bright purple curtains. Kaylee’s room was coming together rapidly. Jessica was a taskmaster. It was likely the reason her YouTube show had become so popular. She put out daily videos, which meant that her subscribers always had something to watch, and ultimately, this led to a shit ton of money. Well compared to what I made at the Palace anyway.
Jessica was wholly driven, so she was the perfect person to push both Eve and Greg. Eve, even as focused and organized (read anal) as she was, still had her lazy days. She wasn’t ordering me around, so I didn’t really care. I wasn’t tall enough to hang curtains or strong enough to move the bed. The toys that had to be placed strategically around the room were still potentially too dangerous, even with the new focus trick I learned.
Eve frowned, “Greg, are you even lifting it? It’s really heavy on my end.”
Greg mumbled, “Yeah. It’s just- the sides, they’re cutting my hands.”
Normally, I would have been the one lifting the bed while Greg guided it awkwardly around the door frame. I wasn’t asked to do anything, but I jumped to reassemble the bed, using the ratchet set that Greg had never used. It still had a fucking red bow. While it was still hard to grip tools meant for adult hands, if I went slowly, I was usually successful. Of course, my success was dependant on my patience, but with Jessica there, I was able to focus. And OK, maybe I was showing off a little too. Or trying to. I certainly looked more like a man than Greg by the end of the day. I even put together my new bed.
By the end of the day, Kaylee’s room was finished. It wasn’t terrible by any means, certainly better than the room in the studio- the one with the talking record player, ballerina lamp and so much pink. There was so much, in fact, that l felt like sometimes I was in a nightmarish fever dream, trapped within a Hubba Bubba bubble, while the sides closed in, slowly suffocating me. Like seriously, why was Barbie’s car (a pretty sweet corvette), her camper, and her fucking house pink?
So, the room was decent, compared to what I had before. The furniture was sparse, and the room itself looked massive with the queen-sized bed replaced by a much smaller single. It wasn’t girly as fuck, but it didn’t exactly scream bachelor in his twenties either. There was a little dresser with a mirror and all the hair clips and elastics that Eve used to tie my hair on a daily basis. The little clothing that Kaylee owned, including the dresses brought from the studio were hung in the closet. Basically, it was functional- all things a six-year old girl would need.
We were sitting at the table, devouring a large pepperoni pizza. While I still liked most of the same food, I found myself eating it in smaller quantities. Anything with copious amounts of sugar tasted incredible, the flavours of something as mundane as a lifesaver or a stick of gum practically popping my taste buds. Unlike the others, however, I was eating cheese pizza, having picked off all the pepperoni. It was hard to describe it, but the meat just tasted bitter, and it even kind of burned my tongue.
Jessica asked, “So are you going to tell your parents about Ryan? You know everything?”
Eve replied, “We’ll probably have to. We need money for the adoption. I’m not looking forward to my mom coming over here and telling me what a terrible mom I am though. I love her, but she’s driving my sister crazy.”
Jessica nodded, “Well, you could tell her the whole truth. You know about Ryan’s unique condition and everything."
Eve shrugged, “I don’t know. I mean we haven’t really discussed it. Plus, Ryan doesn’t really want anyone else to know.” Eve and I shared a knowing look and then a quick smile.
I was surprised by my silence. Normally, I would have been boisterous, the loudest part of any conversation, but I was content to quietly eat my pizza. Maybe it was because everything that was being discussed was agreeable, but I couldn’t help feeling some anxiety over my change in behaviour.
Greg added, “I’ll tell mine, but it will follow the story in the news. We do really need the money.”
Jessica looked at me, “What about your mom, Ryan? Do you think you’ll tell her?”
I was caught off guard, forced to choke down the pizza in my mouth. It trudged down my throat like a soldier slogging through mud-filled trench. “I-I…no fucking way. It’s just- I wouldn’t even know what to say to her. We haven’t even talked for two years. And I doubt she would even believe it.”
Jessica forced the issue, much to my annoyance. “But she’s your mom. Don’t you think she deserves to know what happened to her son? And couldn’t she help with the money too?”
I spoke, spitting bits of cheese and pizza crust toward Jessica in the process, “She probably spends my dad’s money on bingo and lottery tickets.”
Jessica frowned, “Isn’t that your dad’s military pension? I’m pretty sure she has a right to that money as his-“
Eve interrupted, “Jess, you don’t want to go there. We’ll find a way to get the money together. I still don’t really understand why we have to pay for an adoption if Ryan is a ward of the state.”
Greg nodded, “Yeah, it is weird. I’ve been looking into it, and we are usually just supposed to pay a fee for fingerprinting and stuff. I think the difference is that because it is a high profile adoption, there are a lot more checks. Maybe something to do with Ryan’s condition.”
I glared at Greg as the tension in the room became palpable. The young man’s pale, pulpy face sagged, “Uh. Supposed condition. Ms. McDavid mentioned doctors being involved. Specialists. Probably expensive.”
I barked, “Fuck that. So they think I have some kind of disorder so they jack up the price. It’s bullshit.”
Eve said, “I know, Ryan. But I guess we don’t have much choice. I’m sure the doctors will find nothing wrong with you. It’d be weird if that serum, which was supposed to make you like this perfect child, health included, would give you some kind of anxiety disorder.”
Greg chewed the inside of his lip, glancing uneasily at Eve.
The next two weeks were a blur. It was like a drinking binge, nights of partying and sex but without any of the fun. First, it was the child psychologist, who asked me a million questions about the studio, my life in the orphanage. Then, there was the painstaking process of the application. Jessica and Mrs. Feinstein were chosen as the references, along with Vince from the Palace and Eve’s main supervisor at the hospital. All of them agreed. There was only the inspection/visit with Ms. McDavid remaining. I wasn’t allowed to be there, so Jessica took me shopping. Normally, I would have hated being dragged along on a shopping trip that didn’t involve video games or some type of electronics, but it was for the townhouse, so I was OK with it.
I was really excited about the townhouse, a place I would share with my friends and where I would get my own permanent room. Plus, it kind of felt grown up. It wasn’t a dingy apartment, with a scratched up table and peeling yellowed paint. Oh, and it would have central air. Glorious fucking central air. It also wouldn’t be the place where I had suffered the most humiliation in my life.
It was a fresh start.
“You’re in a good mood today.”
I nodded, “It’s my first day outside in what like two months? And I don’t even care that the sun is so fucking bright I think my eyeballs might pop.”
We were finished shopping, and Jessica had suggested we take a walk near a nearby dog park. She smiled, “Here. Take my sunglasses.” The young woman placed them on my nose, but they slowly slid down, until I looked like a diminutive librarian. Jessica laughed as her eyes softened. Fuck, she was looking at me the same way she had looked at the Yorkie that had been yipping at the Great Dane, actually causing it to turn tail and run. She needed to see Ryan in me, not Kaylee. I readjusted the glasses, deciding to simply hold them on my face to avoid the sun’s painful glare.
“Sorry, Ryan. I can’t help it sometimes. So how did it go with the doctor you saw?”
I shrugged, “It’s OK. And, it went fine. The guy was nice enough. He just asked me a bunch of questions. I mean I guess I got a little nervous when he started talking about the studio and the orphanage because I had to make a whole bunch of stuff up. I figure even if they think I have something- some disorder or whatever, Eve’s a nurse. She’s trained to deal with shit like that.”
Jessica nodded, “And with me living in the townhouse with you guys and doing my show, I doubt there’ll be problems with Ms. McDavid.”
I said, “I guess I’ll miss Mrs. Feinstein though. Even though she can be a bit of a hard ass.”
Jessica smiled, “I have to say I’m a bit surprised you could get along with someone like her.”
I replied, “She only sees me as Kaylee or Riley I guess, but it doesn’t matter. She treats me with respect. I mean if I swear in front of her she says she’ll wash my mouth out, but she doesn’t treat me like a kid.”
Jessica smirked, “Really? You actually sound a bit scared of her. She’s just an old retired teacher isn’t she?”
I watched a pair of golden retrievers chase after a lone tennis ball. It made me really miss Duke. The retrievers didn’t remind me of him though, no- it was the lazy as fuck bulldog who was basking in the sun, its tongue lolling from its mouth. Duke was definitely active as a puppy, but as he got older, he just mostly liked to lie around and go on the occasional walk. I swallowed hard, trying to control my swirling emotions.
“Yeah. Well you haven’t met her. She makes Greg and Eve jump too.”
Jessica laughed. “Greg I could see. Eve not so much.”
I grinned, “It’s true. She bitched Eve out like a little kid the first time she found out I was being left alone.”
Jessica asked, “How is it between you and Eve? You two didn’t exactly get along before.”
Jessica shook her head, “This isn’t a Facebook status, Ryan. I’m not trying to get the gossip from you or anything, but you do realize that Eve’s going to be your legal mom, right?”
I shrugged, finding my attention easily diverted by two dogs fighting over a shrivelled hot dog wiener. Jessica put a hand on my shoulder, “I’m really happy that you and Eve are getting along better. But don’t you think the adoption might change your relationship? Keep in mind, I think that adoption is the only option. It’s the best thing to do until some kind of cure can be found. But I see how Eve looks at you. Greg has noticed it too.”
Jessica reminded me of the two dogs battling over something that wouldn’t even classify as jerky. She just wouldn’t let things go. I wasn’t sure if I would have been able to stand it if we had dated for an extended period of time, unless she was an incredible fuck.
The hand on my shoulder didn’t bring warmth or closeness, instead, in conjunction with the words, uncertainty sprang into my mind. Jessica said softly, “I can talk to her about it if you want. I don’t think she realizes- and maybe you don’t either- that things have changed between you. That you are starting to act like-“
I wanted to run away. It is what I always did. Jessica continued to speak, but I didn’t hear anything. The barking dogs, the sweet incessant nattering of Jessica, her voice akin to taking a bite of candy and finding a railroad spike inside- all of it disappeared the instant I slipped out of Jessica’s grip and ran.
I ran as fast as I could, each section of chain link fence passing in a flash. Seconds later, I felt a firm hand dig into my shoulder, stopping my momentum dead.
Jessica said softly, “I don’t know if it’s the serum doing this to you, or if a part of you actually wants it, but if you don’t want me to say anything to Eve I won’t. You need to know though that there’s probably going to be a point of no return. And it’s going to be soon.”
I stared down at the plate of scrambled eggs. The light dusting of pepper tickled my nose. These were Eve’s special eggs, sprinkled with cinnamon and something else. Something that made them taste delicious, but also familiar, almost like a welcoming embrace. Today, however, I wanted nothing to do with them.
“Did the eggs go bad? Or are you nervous about later? I’m sure the judge will let you say something in support of you staying here.”
Was Jessica right? Would our defined roles, those we would be placed in legally, become more than simply words on a page? I had been thinking about it since she spoke the words, and since I had tried to run away. I couldn’t say fuck you to LA, not like I had to my mom and our shitty house.
There was no running. No disappearing act to find new friends, a new life. According to Jessica, there was only the inevitable. From the moment Eve saw me in this body, she treated me differently. It wasn’t simply her nursing training that caused her to treat me this way. And it wasn’t just my loneliness and fear that had me seeking her out, longing for her embrace and her soft words.
The sunscreen at the beach, and her application, there was something in her touch. It reminded me of the special power that parents have, especially moms, to soothe. There was love in her touch. It was undeniable. The adoption too. It was clear that she wanted me, and I couldn’t help but feel- wanted. It was a far cry from my mom, who was probably happy I was gone.
Even her eggs, just yellow mush to most, tasted like home. Despite all my mom’s faults, she was a decent cook, and the little things she did, like cut off the crusts of my sandwiches, or how she perfectly mixed the grape jelly and peanut butter, so the latter wouldn’t stick to the roof of my mouth. It was the little things, but it was those same little things that threatened my existence.
She had managed to pry open my mouth on so many occasions. It was something not even Hannah could do. My condition, my change, obviously played a role in it, but Eve had the power to make me spill my fucking guts.
“I don’t want your fucking eggs. They taste like shit.” I wanted to throw them on the floor, but I fought the impulse.
Eve’s lower lip quivered gently, but she otherwise managed to maintain her composure. “What’s this about, Ryan?”
“Why does it always have to be about something?”
Eve bit into her own eggs, “Because you’ve eaten the eggs fine before. I even heard you make cute little yum-yum sounds.”
“Fuck you, Eve.”
Eve smiled and shrugged her shoulders apologetically, “Sorry. Greg makes the same sounds. Or similar at least. Look, I get it, it’s a big day. Just treat it like an audition.”
“What the fuck is this, Eve? I’m starting to think Jessica is right about you- about us. Do you…-do you feel weird around me?”
Eve sighed gently, putting down her fork. Normally, she would have continued the conversation while periodically stuffing her face. “Yeah, Ryan. I don’t know if it’s the serum or something else, but I do. I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve wanted to be a mom since I was a little girl. I remember my sister and me playing dolls. Pushing them around in strollers, feeding and playing with them. It’s probably why I got into nursing.”
I shook my head, “Girls are so fucking lame.”
Eve smirked, “Maybe. But then I always thought the war games the boys played were stupid. But then if you talk to Jessica, she was such a tomboy. She always wanted to play with the boys. It’s just people are different. Anyway, like I was saying, I want to be a mom, but I don’t want to be yours, Ryan.”
She said softly, “It’s obviously something we’re going to have to watch out for. And I give you full permission to tell me to fuck off if I try to braid your hair or something.” This elicited a smirk from me.
Eve continued, “That’s not to say that during supervised visits with Ms. McDavid I won’t play your mom. Greg will have to do the same thing. But it’s not going to change things. I’m still hopeful there’s a cure for you, Ryan. The hospital research team is working on the Travers code data every day.”
I frowned, “What about school though? Ms. McDavid is probably going to force me to go. Even if I jab my dad’s pin in my hand multiple times a day, it’s still- well- fuck, I’d be in first grade, right? I’m not fucking going to school.”
Eve nodded, “Well it’s something I’ve been thinking about. What about if we asked Mrs. Feinstein to home school you? She already knows you are really smart. And maybe she would enjoy teaching again. You wouldn’t have to be around any kids, except her nieces now and then. I can talk to her about it if you want.”
I shrugged, unsure what homeschooling would mean exactly. I already had my high school, so I knew everything I would need to know. Plus, I knew how to fix cars and some basic carpentry. I had always followed my dad around the house whenever he fixed something, so I picked everything up by osmosis. Meanwhile, my mom just waited for my dad to get home so he could change a fucking light bulb.
Eve added, “I think it’s the best option we have right now.”
A great yet uneasy calm descended on me. I looked at Eve closely, trying to locate her flaws- both outward and inward. She chewed with her mouth open, sometimes spitting bits of food at me when she spoke. The clothes she wore often didn’t fit properly, with either her ass, plump upper arms or love handles showing, but I was beginning to see beyond that.
The woman didn’t have a halo around her or anything, but I realized that I trusted her. And no matter what we were or were to become, she was just trying to help me.
She asked, “So what made you want to speak to the judge?”
I replied, “Well I want more of a say in this. I feel like this whole thing is just- well it’s fucking reminding me of how people see me. Yeah, I was involved in the process, interviewed by Ms. McDavid after the home visit, and asked a million questions by doctors who keep trying to find something wrong with my head. Well I say fuck it. It’s my life, and I should have a say where I want to live. Plus, it’s like best interests of the child, right?”
Eve beamed, but it was in a way that made me think she was going to say, “Oh what a smart little girl!” Like I had just figured out how to tie my shoes or I had brought home a straight ‘A’ report card. This brought a grimace to my features and a hardening of my eyes.
The smile fell off of Eve’s face, “Sorry.”
And with that soft, calming voice- I believed her.
“Quit moving. It’s only for today, Ryan.”
“You keep pulling my fucking hair. And it hurts.”
Jessica sighed lightly, “That’s because you keep moving. You can’t show up in front of the judge looking like you just got out of bed.”
I seethed, “Can’t you just put it in a ponytail? It’s what I always do. And Eve said it was fine.”
Jessica replied, “Right. But I’ve actually been to court, and I didn’t show up in yoga pants with my hair in a messy bun. The judge is going to be taking in every little detail about you- not only what you say but how you look and present yourself. I saw it when I was on a jury. One of the witnesses showed up in this Harley Davidson t-shirt and pair of ratty jeans. He started lying, and the judge tore him apart. If you look nice, it’s also going to reflect well on Eve and Greg. It means they aren’t raising some wild, wolf child who won’t do as she’s told.”
I grumbled, but Jessica continued with her evil designs, twisting strands of hair for what felt like hours. I fidgeted in my seat, but Jessica’s firm hand always stopped my movement. As she worked, I could hear Greg and Eve arguing in their room. It made my heart drop, like a tiny stone tumbling down into the darkened unknown of a well.
Jessica said softly, “I think they’re having a bit of trouble getting dressed.”
I smirked, instantly feeling better, “Maybe. Greg came to work enough times with mismatched socks. Fucker’s colour blind I think.”
Finally, Jessica finished, but surprisingly, she didn’t hand me a mirror. I figured she would want me to see, but she quickly got myself, Greg and Eve out the door and into the car, ready to face the stop and go traffic that was Los Angeles at mid-morning. L.A was the type of city where even at 3 in the morning, there was traffic. It was a sprawling city with too many drivers and too little road space.
There was little talk in the car. My feet dangled over the edge of the back seat, clad in a pair of shiny black sandals. My dress, which Jessica insisted I wear, was annoyingly poofy, causing my seatbelt to dig into my waist uncomfortably. It had been difficult enough to even find the fucking buckle underneath the thing that was pooling around me like some sort of mini-wedding dress.
My bladder being far tinier than it had been, forced me to sprint toward the washroom once we arrived at the court house. Of course, it didn’t help that I had guzzled an orange juice before we left, making the whole trip rather dicey for me, especially as the belt squeezed my bladder. It was there that I finally saw what Jessica had done. My eyes widened as I viewed intermingling tresses. Jessica had taken four thick stands of hair and twisted them, aligning them neatly on either side of my hair. I could feel something bouncing back there as I darted toward the washroom, but as much as I spun around in the mirror, I just couldn’t see it.
“Cute. I guess it starts early. Here you go, sweetie.” Something bright and shiny entered my field of vision, and with its appearance, I could see that Jessica had placed my hair in a ponytail, but the twin tresses on each side stretched round my head, meeting in the middle made it far…prettier.
The word wouldn’t leave my head. The poofy dress made me want to spin, twirl- dance. All in the mirror. The young woman who had used her compact to see the back of my head was now busying herself in the mirror. She looked like she had money. A gold bracelet hung from her wrist, tiny silver charms dangled and bobbled as she carefully touched up her face. She was the classy professional type that could usually see through me even after they had a few drinks in them.
The familiar sound of metal on wood broke me from my reverie, and I quickly scampered out of the washroom. I burst out the door, wanting to be as far away from the woman’s bathroom as possible. However, in the process, I nearly ran into Mrs. Feinstein.
“Child, I’m happy to see you as well, but you can’t be charging out of doors like a lunatic. You’ll give someone a terrible fright.”
Had this been any other old lady, or any other person for that matter, I probably would have told them off, but Mrs. Feinstein had a special power over me. I mumbled, “Sorry, Mrs. Feinstein.”
The old woman, dressed in what I assumed was funeral wear, a black ankle-length skirt and blouse that actually covered most of her neck, smiled down at me. “It’s fine, child. Your manners have improved immeasurably since I met that shrill, foul-mouthed little girl what seems like ages ago. Tell me, have you been keeping up with your reading?”
I had lied to just about every person I knew at least once, and sometimes several times, but I couldn’t lie to Mrs. Feinstein. My eyes darted toward my shoes, peering down at my colourless toenails. They would probably look a lot prettier coloured, especially if I asked Jessica to do them, mirroring her pretty glittery purple polish. No matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to see Jessica as a sexual partner, and the more time I spent with her- the more I wanted to be like her.
The word ‘pretty’ continued to crawl through my brain, worming its way into my permanent vocabulary. Beautiful was also etching out a place within, replacing such terms and phrases like ‘hot’, ‘fucking hot’ and ‘I’d hit that’. Crude, but honestly, in locker rooms, this is how guys talked. Guys I knew at least. There were always those like Greg who were afraid to say their girlfriend was hot or describe anything about what they were doing sex wise but there were just as many who reveled in relaying their escapades.
I shrugged my shoulders, and this was all Mrs. Feinstein required. “Young lady, you’re as smart as a whip, and you may find things easy now, but this is why it is important to challenge yourself. This is why I really hope you’ll consider attending Prescott in the fall. Or at least another private school, where your gifts can be nurtured- and you can find,” a tiny grin appeared on her withered face, “a proper outlet for your talents. I expect you act out because you find everything too easy. So this fuels your mischief.”
I shook my head, “But you could teach me. I like learning with you. And you’re a really good teacher.” I spoke the absolute truth. Once my ‘homework’ was complete (the worksheets Eve had printed for me), Mrs. Feinstein expanded on the lessons, and as I was essentially a genius six-year old, she was able to delve far deeper into issues. She actually made learning about the government interesting, way more than a bunch of worksheets or some teacher droning on about the Electoral College. And she never, ever talked down to me- unless I deserved it.
Mrs. Feinstein brightened, her eyes shimmering behind her thick glasses. “My time has passed, child. There are wonderful teachers at Prescott. Many of whom I taught myself and have subsequently mentored. You remind me so much of myself. A little too smart for my own good, thinking I knew the way of the world before I was ten. A precocious little dickens. Also, don’t you want to be around children, make friends? You seemed to enjoy yourself with my granddaughters. Sophia’s been asking about you too. You don’t want to spend your days with a fusspot of an old woman.”
“Oh! Hi, Mrs. Feinstein, it’s good to see you. Kaylee, you shouldn’t have run off like that.”
I glared at Eve, whose thick legs were firmly encased in nylons. I thought they looked like sausage casings considering their shiny and shaven status. “I was in the bathroom. Did you really need to know that? Do you want to know the exact details of the shit I took too?”
Mrs. Feinstein furrowed her brow, but Eve was the first to speak, seemingly channeling the young woman. “Kaylee, you don’t speak like that. You’ve been warned about this enough times. Hand me your phone. You’ve lost your privilege for that today.”
I regarded Eve curiously, although with a measure of coiled rage. She was playing the dutiful mother, the one who disciplined her kid when she was out of line, but it still pissed me off. Mrs. Feinstein watched Eve- a silent but ever-present teacher. Despite my anger, I understood that Mrs. Feinstein was acting as a reference, a person who would speak to Eve and Greg’s parenting or lack thereof.
I rolled my eyes, “And where exactly would I keep a phone in this dress you made me wear?”
My eyes steered toward Mrs. Feinstein, expecting the woman’s gaze, with thick frames dangling precariously on the end of her nose, to be trained on me. Instead, however, she watched Eve with growing interest.
Eve responded calmly but firmly, “Enough, if I hear one more word from you, you’ll lose your Netflix privilege for tonight. Now, today is very important. You said you want to speak with the judge to prove how mature you are? Well she’s ready for you.”
Mrs. Feinstein’s lip curved into a knowing smile, but it fell from her face the moment she saw me peeking. A second later, Eve had firmly gripped my hand, pulling me away and toward the court room.
It would be packed. There would be media, a full public gallery, along with Eve, Greg and Jessica. They would provide moral support, but I knew that I wouldn’t need it. I would walk into the room and take it over, my story rending heart strings as easily as a machete through plump flesh. I would face questions, perhaps confrontation over the specifics and how I came to Eve and Greg’s door, but I would persevere until I had hacked my way clean through the bone.
Eve stopped in front of an unassuming wooden door. A placard to the left of the door frame said: Chambers- Virginia Boon.
Eve spoke in a hushed yet harsh whisper, “You want to tell me what the hell that little tantrum was? That didn’t look good in front of Mrs. Feinstein.”
I smirked, “You’ve been hanging around Greg too much. All I saw was a future mom giving shit to her kid for being a rude smart ass. Mrs. Feinstein looked- well she looked impressed.”
Eve’s face broke into a smile. It was so wide, I could see all of her back teeth. A few moments later, she took a deep breath and raised a hand to the wooden door. “Ready?”
I nodded, “Of course. Come on, you look more nervous than me. I’m going to make you guys sound like the least incompetent parents ever.”
Eve replied dryly but with a measure of amusement in her eyes, “What a vote of confidence.”
Eve knocked softly, barely rapping on the door with her knuckle. A chair rolled across an old hardwood floor causing it to creak gently. Footsteps approached and the door swung open, revealing a matronly woman in a black robe. The woman had a face like a kindly grandmother- wrinkled but not withered. On Mrs. Feinstein, the skin hung off of her, merely covering her skull so as to avoid terrifying school children. The judge, while somewhat overweight, wore it well, her double chin and round jowls giving her a pleasant face. Adding to this was the beaming smile she offered as her very presence acted as a welcome beacon.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, Kaylee. Please come in. Ms. Mendes, could I speak with you for a moment?”
I was disappointed when my grand moment- my entrance- wasn’t into a packed court room, but a simple room. A room with wooden chairs, a large wooden desk, a computer with a blocky monitor like I had used in elementary school and a collection of diplomas and family pictures. Set on top of the desk was a pile of multi-coloured file folders. I settled into a wooden chair that Mrs. Feinstein may have sat on when she was Kaylee’s age, while the two adults spoke in hushed voices outside.
It was hard to be upset, considering Judge Boon didn’t know who I actually was, but the simple reminder of my standing set frightened butterflies loose in my stomach. Now, however, was not the time to have stage fright. I opened my hand to reveal my dad’s pin, just as the judge returned. “Sorry about that, Kaylee. Are you OK if I ask you some questions with just the two of us here?”
I was prepared for an entire court room, and while Judge Boon seemed very nice, I couldn’t hide the sudden anxiety that crept like shadows so deep they overcame their creators, extinguishing light, leaving nothing but an inky darkness and a terrifying uncertainty. What if I fucked up? I could end up adopted by some weirdos, boring fucking nerds, crazy helicopter parents who would hover over me while I went shit or just…someone other than Greg and Eve.
Judge Boon looked for an answer, but her face never wavered, wearing a careful, kindly smile, attempting to induce calm. I knew that I would have to perform, just as I had done with Tracy in my audition for the Hermie show. If I could pull this off, then it would be proof that I could control what was happening to me even during the most stressful moments.
It would show that I could still be Ryan, the silver-tongued salesman- the consummate actor.
“It’s OK to be nervous or scared, Kaylee. I’m quite impressed that you wanted to speak to me. You’re very mature for your age. Now, I am going to ask you a number of questions. Some of them will be about things that happened in the past. I want you to do your best to remember what happened. If you can’t remember, then just tell me. Don’t make anything up.”
I nodded dutifully, “Yes, I understand. I won’t lie.”
Judge Boon smiled, “Good, girl. I’m also going to ask you some questions about the people in your life.” The judge’s warm smile hardened, her softness replaced with a firmness that reminded me of Mrs. Feinstein.
“There aren’t any wrong answers. Only the truth, Kaylee.”
Her expression softened immediately, the hard lines of her face softening, giving it an almost grandmotherly glow. I could almost smell baking apple pies, cooling on the window sill. “No matter what my decision, I want you to know that I will keep your best interests in mind. Are you ready to begin?”
I steeled myself and nodded, preparing for the onslaught that would decide my fate.
Question after question came and I answered each one as if blocking a powerful body blow and replying with my own directly to the chin. Each response widened the smile on the judge’s face. I put on a masterful performance, spinning the sad story of the orphanage, the promise of parents and then absolute heartbreak when poor Kaylee was forced to shoot a television show fourteen hours a day and then left in a room with another little girl, only a small ragged doll to share between them and a decrepit, soiled bunk bed.
I wasn’t telling lies. No, I was following the story in the media, changing a few small details here and there but maintaining that Kaylee’s story was one of great misfortune- a poor little girl who simply wanted a mommy and daddy to love her.
Someone to want her.
It was common enough to feel for the character you portrayed as it was part of acting process, but the ache within my heart was real and impossible to ignore. We were taught never to allow a role to overcome us, to wash away our personalities, replacing them with wrought-iron baggage, chains that would drag us down until we were forever changed. The teacher was fucking dramatic about the whole thing, but he was right.
I had dreamed of Eve and the perfect life I would have as her baby girl, but it wasn’t the first time I had considered it. No, it happened the first or second night in the apartment. I was washing my hair, or at least trying to and mostly getting soap in my eyes. Eve helped wash out the soap and as she placed a towel around me, an incredible feeling rocketed from my toes to my brain, buzzing about and practically filling every pore, bone, muscle with incredible happiness.
Eve wanted me. She was fighting for me.
She wanted me for more than a quick fuck, a game of Halo, or anything really. So, it was easy to tell the judge how I felt about her. No lies were needed.
Judge Boon asked, “Kaylee, if Eve and Greg became your mommy and daddy, do you think you would be happy with them?”
My body felt strange, like molten lava was entering my chest as my anxiety picked up, but at the same time a wave of calm seemed to act as a soothing balm. I knew the answer to the question, even though I would never tell Eve and Greg, but again, I didn’t lie as I spoke.
I nodded, “Really happy.”
Eve and Greg could be embarrassing, what with Eve’s dorky, snorting laugh and Greg’s pathetic attempts at trash talking and the fact he couldn’t hold his liquor or carry anything over fifty pounds without complaining, but I hadn’t experienced such genuine feelings since my time with Hannah. They were the real fucking deal, and yes, they pissed me off by going behind my back on stuff, but they were my best chance at regaining my body and staying sane during the process.
And if- if I was trapped this way, they probably wouldn’t be bad parents. Although, if Eve called me baby girl in public, I would remove one of her limbs with a meat cleaver. Still, I actually loved Eve’s cooking, a mix of classic Mexican and sort of American home style. It was hard to beat her tortillas, which were made from scratch and better than any restaurant, even El Casa. She could be kind of a bitch sometimes, especially to Greg, but she was remarkably warm to someone who she had previously hated- or at least tolerated.
As for Greg, I would have my best friend as my legal dad. While he wasn’t much when compared to my real dad, at least I would always have someone to shoot the shit with, play video games and watch movies.
Most of all though, he would be there.
I swallowed hard, feeling the inklings of tears- a slight burning in my eyes and a pressure in my throat. It was what I did when I wanted to avoid crying in front of my dad.
“Kaylee? Are you OK?”
I nodded slowly, realizing that I must have looked seriously spaced out.
Judge Boon said, “I have to leave for a few moments. Are you going to be OK? Would you like to wait outside with Eve?”
I replied, “I’m OK.”
Judge Boon smiled, “Good, girl. I won’t be long.”
Of course, I wasn’t the type to sit quietly, nor was I going to ignore any potential advantages. I expected that the file folders on the judge’s desk were part of the hearing process. She had already met with Eve and Greg, so any concerns about their parenting skills would be clearly laid out. I could fill in any gaps when the judge returned while at the same time seeing whether Megan Fox had shown an interest in adopting poor Kaylee.
Apparently, no celebrities had made it to the final selection process, so the mother-daughter showers with Megan were out. I didn’t feel bad as I looked through the applications, poring over birthdays, social security numbers, credit scores and criminal record checks. It was nothing new. In fifth grade, I accidentally saw the answers to a geography test the teacher planned on giving the next day. I kept the information and the answers to myself- acing a test that required no studying. I didn’t look at it as cheating but more like taking advantage of opportunities. It was the same way with Tracy during my audition.
The applicants were as to be expected- married couples who felt terribly bad for Kaylee and wanted to give her a good home with loving parents. Some of them told a sob story about their lack of children, while others simply wanted to add a little girl to a loving family with multiple children. Eve and Greg’s application stood out the most. They were the youngest applicants, made the least amount of money, but they also stood out because Judge Boon had written:
“While young, both potential parents have a deep interest in Kaylee’s general wellbeing. Based on my conversation with Ms. McDavid, Kaylee’s social worker, the two have also formed a powerful bond with Kaylee. This can explain why they were hesitant to contact police when Kaylee arrived at their doorstep and in the months afterward. While this action cannot be condoned, it has seemingly established a lasting trust between the applicants and this particular ward of the state. I will confer again with Ms. McDavid, but I would place the two as front runners as Kaylee would not experience a potentially awkward adjustment period, and she would have two loving and dedicated parents. However, considering the age of the applicants, it is important to determine whether there are family support networks available.”
I reached the last file folder, hesitating for a moment to actually open it. Judge Boon would probably be back any second, but a deep curiosity burned within.
The label read: “Kathryn and Thomas Patterson”
I listened for the turn of the door handle, but hearing nothing, I dove into the file, rapidly scanning it. It read like the others, with the exception of Eve and Greg’s application. They were rich compared to Greg and Eve, and they lived in some town in Minnesota I had never heard of.
At this point, I was lazily reading the document, especially since the information was so similar, but my eyes zeroed in on the on the reference section like the page had a pair of DDs in a too-tight bikini top.
Feinstein. Mrs. Agatha Feinstein.
A mixture of pain, anger and sadness descended on my small form. I shook and the documents spilled to the floor, sliding underneath the judge’s massive wooden desk. My thoughts didn’t turn to the urgency of the task before me- removing the evidence that I had peeked in the files. No, instead I remained fixated on Mrs. Feinstein’s betrayal.
The door knob turned, and the wooden door creaked open. Footsteps creaked across the wooden floor followed by shuffling papers, but it acted as irrelevant background noise. A tantrum of epic proportions, one that would rival the combination of a toy aisle refusal, no dessert, no TV or videogames for myself in the past, threatened. I wanted to explode, cry until my eyes were dry, but I simply sat there shaking. My heart thundered as I buried my face in my hands. At the same time, I felt intense, burning rage. I wanted to break every single one of Mrs. Feinstein’s Royal Family tea cups and rip up the Hound of the Baskervilles- all right in front of her eyes.
A hand firmly squeezed my shoulder. “I forgot you could read as well as that, Kaylee. I’m sorry. You should know not to snoop though, young lady. I’m disappointed in you.”
But my heart never sank with the knowledge that I had been caught, no- it was too busy trying to burst from my chest. My breathing grew more and more rapid to the point where I began feeling light headed. I fell forward but was immediately caught, but even after that, my head continued to dip.
Grey specks danced before my eyes and then I saw nothing but a soothing, impenetrable darkness.
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