THE FOSTER KID
The boy tapped his fork against his plate as he chewed, an irritating, absent minded clinking of tine against ceramic. He was a human metronome tapping out the tempo of his own agitated tune. When she found her gaze reciprocated with his own glare, she forced herself to not avert her eyes. Which one of us will look away first? Not me. Because I live here. You don’t belong here. Go away. His eyes were cold and unrelenting. Beneath the hardened, malevolent mask of his features must be something terrible he had repressed and locked away, she could feel it, something trying to claw its way out of the darkness, and all the muscles of his face and shoulders were tense, keeping it locked inside and under control. Yet she wouldn’t let herself look away, because now she was afraid. She didn’t want him to see her fear, her weakness of will. His only movement in his glowering showdown was the nervous tic of his arm and wrist as he tapped his fork faster and harder against his plate.
“Cory,” her mother said, nearly shouting his name. The boy stopped. She strained a smile. Her mother couldn’t smile naturally without another friendly face to mirror. Snapshots of her mother were parodies of her mother’s real smile. “Your room is very empty right now,” she said. “You’re welcome to personalize it. In fact, why don’t we go to the store tomorrow to pick out a paint color? We can all paint your room together.”
“I don’t give a shit about the room,” he said, and stabbed green beans onto his fork.
Her mother’s smile collapsed.
The rental house her dad had bought as an investment property became their new home after his death. The first box her mother unpacked was the bone china, a wedding gift she reserved for holidays and special occasions, with a pattern of intertwining leaves and flower petals that graced the rim. With her nicest dinnerware, her mother set a place for her father at the kitchen table that first night in their new home, mindful of the proper position of each utensil. Then the next night she set the same plate, the silverware. And the next. Her mother continued setting her father’s place at the table for years, as if his death was a simply a mix-up, a serious error of identification, and her dad was alive and expected to step through the door any day. It comforted Amber to see the table set for him every night. It was a physical reminder that he was still part of the family, and sometimes, after they said grace, she believed he was sitting with them. After being accustomed to seeing his plate and silverware at their ordained places for so long, Amber was shocked one evening to find them missing. That’s what she had told her mother. “Amber, it’s time we stop living in the past and move on,” her mother had said, but it happened to be the same day her mother attended the first of many foster parent meetings.
To Amber, the weird boy and girl sharing the table, eating her mother’s green beans and pork chops in the relative quiet of clinking forks and knives, was proof that, yes, her mother was trying to replace her father, which was why, despite her mother’s request, Amber made no effort at conversation.
Her mother turned to the girl, practically singing the words, “I can tell you like green beans. I’m so happy to see you eating your vegetables first.”
The girl plucked the last green bean off her plate and stuffed it into her mouth. Then she spooned a dollop of mashed potatoes with her fingers and pasted it onto her tongue.
“Oh, sweetie, don’t use your fingers,” Mrs. Chandler said as the girl grabbed a pork chop with her hands. “The fork’s right there. See? Please use your fork, honey. We’re not little monkeys now, are we?”
The girl grasped the fork, stood, and with the fork high in the air, tines down, thrust it into her pork chop, impaling it like a sacrifice she was trying to kill on the first try. She sat down and began gnawing on it as she would any weirdly shaped corn dog.
“She’s using her fork, Mom. Happy?” Amber said.
The boy held out his fist. The girl bumped it with her own.
“Well,” Mrs. Chandler said. Her eyes were wide and fixed on the girl. She didn’t say the word so much as exhale it, a breath of exasperation. “Let’s talk about something else. How about today? What was your favorite part about today? Your very first day in your new home?”
Cozette looked at her as she chewed.
“Cozette doesn’t talk,” Emily said.
“She doesn’t talk?”
“She didn’t say anything all day.”
“Nothing. All day. I don’t think she has a tongue. Also, she went outside in the backyard to pee. I think she’s weird.”
“Oh Emily. Don’t be rude. Apologize to her right now.”
Emily looked at her green beans. “Sorry,” she said.
“She lost her parents. Try to be more understanding, Emily. You were just a baby when your father died. But Amber still remembers. Don’t you honey?”
Amber poked at her food. She did not want to be part of this conversation.
“Maybe in a few days Cozette will feel more comfortable being here. Cozette, do you like it here?”
Cozette nodded. She picked up her glass of juice and drank deeply. When she emptied it, she set it down, leaving handprints of gravy and mashed potatoes smeared on the glass. More awkward silence. If they didn’t want to talk, that was fine with Amber. It would be almost like they weren’t there, like an infestation of benign ghosts minding their own business.
“I like your friendship bracelets,” Emily said to the boy. “Did you make them? Can you make one for me?”
“They’re not friendship bracelets.” His voice was cold.
Emily shrank and stared at her plate.
Mrs. Chandler gave Emily a stern look, as if saying with her eyes, see what rudeness gets you?
“The social worker hardly gave me any information about you and your sister at all,” Mrs. Chandler said. “But then I understand…” She paused, mindful of her words, “I understand you two have been living on your own for a good number of years.”
Inside her own head, Amber finished the sentence she knew her mother meant to say: I understand you and your sister were found living in the park. I understand your parents died and your life turned to shit.
The boy tossed Amber an expressionless glance she couldn’t read. Then for no particular reason other than the simple fact that it was empty, he took his sister’s glass and went to the refrigerator to refill it. He returned and set the filled glass of apple juice beside the girl’s plate. The girl grasped the glass with both hands and sipped. Neither spoke, or even looked at each other in acknowledgement. Amber thought that her sister was only half right: they were both weird.
“Those are very interesting tattoos,” Mrs. Chandler said. “Where did you get them?”
The boy glanced at his arms. “Why? Are you looking for a good tattoo artist?”
“My goodness, no. I was wondering, because, well, it’s illegal to give tattoos to minors.”
Amber winced. Sometimes her mother could be so embarrassing.
“A place downtown,” he said. “They’re not there anymore.”
“Good. I’m glad they’re gone. If you’re interested in having them removed, I’d be happy to pay for it.”
“You don’t like them?”
“They’re fine, but, well, someday you’ll have a hard time getting a decent job with those tattoos.”
The boy stared at her mother. Amber wished her mom would shut up.
“What do they mean?” Emily said.
The boy set his fork down. He held out his arms, palms up, like Jesus in benediction. “This is our story,” he said, rotating his wrists in semicircles.
What Amber had thought was a meaningless pattern was pictographic script encircling the length of both arms. He pointed to two curves on the inside of his forearm, intertwined, one more feminine and intricate than the other, woven through the script.
“This symbolizes my mother and my father.” He traced a finger over the curves.
“That’s beautiful, Cory,” Mrs. Chandler said.
“Over here,” he said, pointing to the tattoo on the inside of his other forearm, “is a dagger that dates back more than a thousand years to the Dark Ages. This dagger was used to murder our parents.”
“It was tattooed on my arm so I never forget what it looks like.”
“I’m sorry, Cory.”
“If they ever come back for us, I’m going to kill them with it.”
Mrs. Chandler pursed her lips and looked at her wedding ring.
“You’re wondering how they were murdered.”
“You’re dying to know. You all are. Even little Emily is wondering what happened. Isn’t that right Emily?”
“Let’s talk about this later. Please? Not in front of the girls.”
“My mom woke me in the middle of the night. They were in the house. My dad tried to call the police, but the line was dead. When he went downstairs, they…” He coughed and looked away.
“Cory, you don’t have to explain.”
He cleared his throat. “Cozie and I were still in pajamas when we jumped out the window. My mother sprained her ankle when she landed in the snow. We ran, but they caught her and dragged her back inside. They threatened to cut off a finger for every question she refused to answer, and began by asking where we were.”
“That’s enough, Cory.”
“Twelve questions. She answered two.”
Mrs. Chandler looked down at her plate.
“They dragged her to the landing and hung her upside down. They threatened to behead her if she didn’t tell them where we were.”
“She was screaming when they cut her throat—”
Emily began to cry, then ran out of the room. Mrs. Chandler dropped her napkin and ran after her. The boy continued, “But our dad though, they pretty much just fucking disemboweled him.” He clinked the tines of his fork against his plate and looked at his sister. “These pork chops are pretty good.”
The girl nodded as she gnawed on her pork bone.
“Seriously?” Amber said.
The boy and girl looked at her.
“A dagger that dates back to the Dark Ages? Really? And how would you know all those details if you weren’t even there? Your story sounds like complete bullsh—” Amber caught herself, remembering the girl. “It’s ridiculous.”
Cory set down his fork, his movement slow and guarded, as if trying to keep his rage under control. He looked at her. Then in a burst of motion that made Amber flinch, he jumped out of his chair, pushing it back with a violence that knocked it over onto the hard tile. He took his empty plate with him to the sink.
After her father died, she did exactly the same thing, telling everyone elaborate stories about how he was clearing a house in Fallujah and his fire team ran into a hive of mujahideen fighters. Or she would tell her friends that he was the last man standing in a firefight, and to save himself, he turned himself into a tree, or a rock, but he couldn’t say the incantation to turn himself back. This boy’s story sounded like a gruesome version of the ones she told of her own father’s death. So she challenged him. She wanted to irritate him, because he made her sister cry. She did it because he was an asshole.
Cory poured dishwashing liquid onto a sponge and ground the sponge into the plate. Amber couldn’t help but wonder if he was pretending the plate was her face. When his sister finished her dinner and joined him with her own empty plate, he calmed down. He washed their plates, his sister dried them, and he put them back in the correct cabinet. He did the same with the forks and knives, placing them in the correct drawer on the first try, as if he knew exactly where everything belonged.
When he finished, he said something to his sister in a tone too low for Amber to hear, then they both began to leave the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” Amber asked, glancing out the dark window.
“I want to check out the neighborhood.”
“You’re not bringing her with you, are you? It’s late.”
Cory disappeared into his room. He reemerged with a black bundle, two flashlights, and his skateboard. From the entryway closet he removed a small gray sweatshirt and his sister’s skateboard and placed them on the floor beside her. He unfurled his own bundle while the girl tied her shoes.
“Oh my god. A trench coat? Seriously?” Amber said.
He held the coat before him like he was in a cheap, second rate department store, about to try it on. “What’s wrong with a trench coat?”
“Nothing,” and she no longer gave a damn about being polite, “Except the only people who go around wearing sloppy, oversized trench coats are men in movies, and loser kids who think they look cool wearing them.”
“You want to know where I found it? Take a guess. A big, fat guess.”
“A trash can. At Dog Beach,” and he thrust it at her as she recoiled from the sudden, imagined, fecal stench of the thing. He attacked his coat as he put it on, punching his fists through the sleeves. He held the door open for his sister before storming out after her and slamming the door.