Growing up: it’s one of those things that everyone has to do. It’s a rite of passage, a milestone that will help shape who you are and set you up to achieve all of your goals when you’re eventually thrust into adulthood.
It’s blah, blah, puppies, blah, blah, rainbows, blah, blah, unicorns crapping rainbows, or so everyone says…
Well, what the hell does ‘everyone’ really know?
Sometimes, growing up is none of those grand illusions. Sometimes, it’s just an expanse of time that’s dreaded and slogged through without inspiration or desire because the only other alternative is to die.
Sometimes, it’s just simply survived.
And I’m not talking about losing your baby teeth or your first visit from Aunt Flo, or even that first fumbling kiss in the dark that left you wondering what all the fuss was about. Because that’s what everyone’s really referring to with all of those ridiculous platitudes.
I’m talking about the reality of life for some, the marginal few that are lost in society’s cracks, that one percent of individuals born into a world that doesn’t want them.
I was a part of that one percent.
I started my life in the armpit of Southeastern Ohio, with nothing but woods for a playground and rocks for friends. We had a population of around two-hundred and our nearest neighbor a mile away.
Say it with me folks…
That’s right. I’m not proud of it, but that’s where I come from.
I bet you didn’t know that white trash was in the northern parts of America, but it is.
I grew up in the sticks, where there were no schools or hospitals, not even a Piggly Wiggly. This place had a gas station, a mom and pop grocery, and a liquor store.
And that’s where I grew up way too fast, even as it emotionally stunted me.
How, you ask?
Well, I knew the meaning of taking care of myself long before I’d mastered tying my shoelaces, because in my young life, no one else was going to do it for me. And at five years old, death isn’t something that crosses your mind.
So that was out.
Why was it like that?
Well, I never knew my dad, unless you count the stories mom used to lament in her drunken stupors. I can still hear her whiskey-slurred, cigarette-tarnished voice grating out, “It’s your fault he left,” and, “Too bad abortions weren’t legal in my day…”
And that’s only the times that she actually addressed me. Usually, I was background noise. She was a very busy lush after all. Between the alcohol, wacky tobacky, and random men, there just wasn’t enough time in the day to be bothered with me.
She made this very clear to me, especially when she had a “gentleman-caller.”
“Leave or keep your mouth shut,” she’d say simply.
And I did what I was told. I knew what it was like to make her angry, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be around her anyway, especially with her boyfriends.
I hated the caterwauling.
Seriously, it sounded like he was beating her with a wet sack.
The first time it scared me, and I braved peeking into the room to check on her. What I saw scarred me for life, and I barely dodged the ashtray that she threw at my face.
That’s actually how she named me.
Ashley – ashtray.
Who’d have thought that, of all of the things that could have happened to make me become real to her, catching her mating with some hairy redneck would be the one? Apparently, she found it hilarious after the fact… so funny that I finally got a name. I hadn’t had a name until then; it was always just ‘girl.’
So I stuck to myself no matter what I heard from that moment on, living in the shadows and in my mind, and fanaticizing that my dad was going to come riding in on a white horse and rescue me.
He had to, right?
Isn’t that what dads did?
I had no idea, but I fantasized anyway.
I fantasized and waited for something while just surviving, though I didn’t even have the vocabulary to call it that. And then mom went and got pregnant… again.
She didn’t want Kyla any more than she wanted me. In fact, it might have even been less, if that were possible. I’m not sure if it was because of her new pusher boyfriend, the meth habit that he shared with her, or if she’d just hated Kyla’s dad more than she’d hated mine. And although abortions were legal, she found out way too late.
Whatever the reason, she didn’t want my baby sister, and it showed. I had always wondered how I’d survived infancy. I still have no idea how that happened.
Maybe it was fairies… or gnomes?
I truly hope that it was.
Kyla was born and mom wouldn’t even go near her, so I did the best that I could. Kyla named herself, if you were wondering, but I’ll explain that later.
Anyway, by the time that I was eight, I had somehow successfully managed to keep her alive. She was, mostly, a healthy three-year-old.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved my baby sister, but I was eight.
Can we say too much?
Good, because it was.
One afternoon I’d finally gotten Kyla to sleep; she’d been teething and cranky, and I could hear mom and her boyfriend’s muted grunts through the paper-thin walls of our single-wide.
Of course, Kyla wasn’t fazed by it. It happened so often that she could sleep through anything. You could bang a metal spoon on a metal pot right by her ear, and she’d just snore at you, maybe even drool a little.
I’d know; I tried it.
Anyway, I’d just gotten her to sleep, and out of nowhere, I started to feel… angry, and maybe even resentful.
She was just a baby, but she had me.
Who did I have?
I was utterly alone.
That was the first time that I considered running away. Of course, I didn’t understand the implications of something like that. I just felt an innate need to be anywhere but where I was.
So I left the house and started running, no idea where I was going. I ran, and ran, and ran… not stopping until my legs and lungs were about to give out. Unwittingly, I’d ventured much further than was normal, than was allowed, and found myself in a little town about three miles away.
It wasn’t much, but it was new and they had things that I’d never seen before: a diner and a library, a park, a school, and even other kids.
It was so fascinating.
Even the people there actually noticed me. One woman ectually asked where my mom was and I panicked, taking off at a sprint. I quickly learned that I had to be more careful after that. If someone caught me and told mom…
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, that didn’t keep me away. I just stayed out of sight until I realized that I could reinvent myself. There, in that little rural town, I could be anything, anyone. I could do anything, and for the first time, the world had some possibilities, all because I’d run.
They even had this place called Al’s Guitar Emporeum, and inside were instruments.
Shocking, I know…
It was love at first sight. I couldn’t resist the guitars. There was this invisible force that was sucking me in, and I went willingly. I’ll never forget the first time that I stroked my finger down the taut strings of a Taylor acoustic, the bright, vibrant tones singing out in stark contrast to how my world felt. And the smell of a guitar… well, there’s none like in the world.
I spent most of my time listening to the customers play, their fingers working those strings into beautiful crescendos. I had no idea how they did it. I would have given anything to learn, but that was just beyond me. I’d never know how. Not me. But I could watch and listen and allow myself to just feel good.
The owner only asked me once where my parents were, but I was ready this time. I’d watched the kids at the park, even spoken to a couple of them. They weren’t very nice to me; I assume now that it was because of my appearance and my smell, but they gave me something new to add to my fantasies.
Remember how I said that I could reinvent myself? Well, I added any of those other girls with their glossy hair and new, clean clothes to my fantasies. I could be Rebecca or Samantha, or any one of them, and so I was when the fancy struck me. And when Al asked me where my mom was, I smiled easily and lied through my teeth, giving him a name, any name, any identity but my own, and told him that I lived in the trailer park.
Apparently, I dreamed small.
But trailer parks were everywhere in those parts, and that seemed to placate him because he never asked again. Al’s became my home, my real home, and I went as often as I could, which was usually once or twice a week. This small town, three miles from my miserable life, had given me something to look forward to that was just my own.
But it also turned me into a hardened criminal.
Of course I had no money and never would. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know how to count it. It was torture, being surrounded by all of these things, some that I desperately needed and others that I just so desperately wanted, but I could never have either.
A brilliant idea began to form in my mind, and as if by second-nature, I began to take a five-finger discount.
As I said before, the things that shouldn’t come so naturally to me just do…
Quickly, my sister and I started having things like shoes and clothes that actually fit, shampoo and soap, and even toothbrushes. That’s how I took care of us: necessities stuffed carefully into oversized clothing and walked right out of the door. Hell, I’d walk out in new shoes.
It felt amazing; it was thrilling, even though I knew that it was wrong, maybe even because I knew that it was wrong. Mom had slapped me so hard once that I had thought that my grandchildren might feel the sting for trying to pilfer a candy bar from her stash. If a candy bar could get me knocked on my ass, what would they do to me over clothes and soap and toys?
Yeah, I knew it was wrong…
But I did it anyway.
I mean, mom wasn’t there. She didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to let her find out. In this town… I was unstoppable; I was invincible, and there was nothing that anyone could do to take me down, not even mom.
By the time that I was ten, my sister and I had a decent collection of clothes. I even managed to steal her some crayons, coloring books, and barrettes. And we didn’t look too terrible either. I kept us both clean and groomed on the generosity of those unwitting establishments. Of course, I had to be creative at home. First of all, mom couldn’t see any of it. So we hid things meticulously, regardless of the fact that she never paid that much attention anyway. As to the clothes, well, I didn’t take anything too nice. Mostly, it was second-hand stuff, so mom didn’t notice.
We didn’t have a washing machine or anything like that, but we had water, and with a little creativity, I managed for Kyla and myself. The only thing that I could never really get rid of was that smell. It was cigarettes and something… else, harsh, chemical.
But even still, I actually began to feel like I had a tiny bit of control in my world.
For those two years, I had sunk into a routine that worked for me and Kyla, and apparently it worked for mom too, because I wasn’t getting smacked around. I only took small things or just what was needed, and maybe that’s why. Even if it was noticed, no one ever pursued my capture. But the guitar… I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to get away with the heist of the century.
It most definitely wasn’t going to fit down my pants, but I was ten years old, desperate, and determined. Its glossy black and red sunburst finish had entranced me, and nothing was going to stop me from having it, no matter what.
I watched Al for weeks, studying his routines and learning his schedule. The man was like clockwork, and that made it easy, or at least I had thought. I figured that I could get in and out with the guitar while he was eating his lunch in his office at the back of the store.
I was small. Getting in without jingling the bell above the door wouldn’t be that hard, but I’d overestimated my abilities, because just as I was sneaking out with the Taylor, Al came out to get some receipts from the register and caught me.
I ran, of course, but he was taller and stronger and ultimately faster, despite his paunch.
And that’s how I learned what a police station was.
I didn’t cry or say a word to them at first, even when they tried to scare me. But then it began to get dark, and I realized that my baby sister was awake and alone and needed me, so I finally told them who I was and where I lived.
I had no idea that mom and her boyfriend were cooking meth in the shack out back. Or that it was responsible for the smell that I could never really escape. I also had no idea that meth was illegal, or that there were things like child protective services. But before I knew it, my mom and her boyfriend were in cuffs, and my sister and I were being loaded in two separate vehicles that would be heading in two different directions.
I tried to fight and I bloodied that lady cop’s nose, but this scenario is one of those things that the collective ‘they’ don’t prepare you for with those optimistic platitudes: in the real world, you’re outnumbered and helpless.
And as I watched that other car drive away, I hated myself because I didn’t need that guitar, but I did need my sister.
I was too stupid to ever learn something like that anyway.
I didn’t know what I’d been thinking.
I’d been selfish, and now who knew what was going to happen?
And right about now, I bet you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this. I mean, it’s been fifteen years, it’s not sexy time with Spencer, and ultimately, it’s depressing.
But, it’s the start that I was talking about, and you can’t finish until you start. This is where I learned to run from things and shut down emotionally. So, I’m going to get through it as quick as I can to get to the stuff that I know you’re itching to hear. But you’re going to have to get through this with me first, just like Spencer.
Speaking of Spencer…
You see, from that car ride, I wound up in Wickliffe, Ohio.
You getting excited yet?
I thought so…
Wickliffe was the first city that I had ever set eyes on, and I learned immediately that I was a city girl through and through. People were everywhere, the buildings were massive, and while I suppose that it should have scared me, instead, it comforted me. I could easily get lost in a place like this, and that’s what I was going to do. I’d get lost and make my way to Columbus. That’s where the social worker had said that they were taking Kyla, and it was only two hours away.
He also said that it would be possible for us to keep in touch once we’d both found permanent families.
But for all that I didn’t know, I wasn’t stupid enough to believe him.
I mean, he was kind. I could tell. It was in his eyes, they radiated a warmth that I’d never experienced before.
And mostly, it unsettled me.
I didn’t trust him.
How could I?
People weren’t kind, not any that I’d met, and especially not men. Plus, he’d just blatantly lied to me. Kyla had a chance at adoption. She was only five, and, don’t tell her that I said this, but absolutely adorable. She was so chubby…
That part you can tell her.
But me… I was a ten-year-old delinquent who couldn’t even read. I wasn’t adorable and I sure as hell wasn’t chubby. I was just vacant, off-standish, and cynical.
Who would want me?
The only thing that I had going for me is that I knew how to survive.
I could do that.
Which was a good thing, because I was going to need that skill to get to my sister, and then we’d run together. That was my goal from the first moment that I’d set foot in Whitcliffe’s juvey, but I was thwarted at every turn. You see, they have these fucked-up, little things called ankle bracelets. And since I was a master thief extraordinaire, I officially got my first piece of jewelry.
I couldn’t go to the bathroom without them knowing it.
And to make it worse, Mr. Carlin, the social worker with deceptively kind eyes, he’d force me to be in his office three times a week to talk about my feelings. This was worse than home. At least there no one pretended to care and I had my sister. At least there I could escape if I needed to.
But he’d trapped me there to talk to me, and I didn’t want to talk, or at least I’d convinced myself that I didn’t.
So… I didn’t.
This went on for about three months, and during that time I’d attempted to run away twelve times, shoved our house-mother so hard that she’d sprained her ankle, and during a good old fashioned prison brawl, I’d received a black eye.
You should have seen the other girl though…
I refused to do any schoolwork or lessons, choosing instead to brood and seethe. And as my offenses mounted up, Mr. Carlin warned me that if I didn’t stop, I’d be moved to an even worse facility. So what did I do? I lashed out harder and shut up tighter.
Mr. Carlin was trying to reach me, to help me, but I didn’t want it because I didn’t trust it and I certainly didn’t trust him. But like all supervillains, he knew my weakness, my kryptonite. One day, he brought me a black and red sunburst Taylor acoustic guitar…
It wasn’t like the other one; it was better. It was maple and dreadnaught, the frets inlaid with mother of pearl. It was brand new, virgin, never been touched, and I really, really wanted to touch it.
But I couldn’t, and it took everything in me not to break down in tears.
He bought it with his own money, and when he presented it to me I was determined not to accept it. That was the worst part. I could finally have what I’d really wanted, what I’d traded my sister for, but I couldn’t allow myself because then I’d owe him.
And I couldn’t abide that.
But then he used his mental super powers on me. “Ashley, this doesn’t come with strings attached.”
He chuckled at his lame joke and I bit the inside of my cheek. I mean, it was funny. I just couldn’t admit that to him.
“I wanted to get this for you,” he continued. “Because if you can’t open up to me, maybe this will give you the outlet that you need to open up at all.”
Remember how I said that Mr. Carlin had kind eyes? Well, I still didn’t trust him out of principle, but he really was a kind man.
And so that’s why I finally spoke to him. “I won’t owe you anything?”
His smile was just as warm. “No, you won’t owe me anything. But…”
Of course, here it comes…
He took out his wallet and pulled out a card, setting it on my knee. “This is my cell number. If you ever need anything, any time day or night, just call me, okay?”
I looked at the guitar in all of its glorious perfection and considered his request. And that’s when it hit me: it was a request, not a requirement. He didn’t expect it, which was smart because it would never happen.
For this guitar…?
But then it had nothing to do with this guitar.
I decided to test that theory. “What if I say no?”
His brows furrowed before he finally caught on. “Oh, no, no. I meant what I said, no strings. If you refuse the card, the guitar’s still yours.”
I looked away, crossed my arms, and after a moment of pretentious deliberation, because, duh, I was totally taking the guitar, I nodded my head once. He laughed, patted me on the knee, and I ran from his office with my new best friend in tow.
I hated it at the time, but he was right. That guitar opened me right up. I filled every moment of my confinement with trying to puzzle out how it worked, but theory and know-how are just fluff. When you feel that kind of attachment, that inexplicable draw to music, it will find its way out of even the most ignorant soul. That didn’t stop me from wanting to know all of the fluff, which then presented a bigger problem: I couldn’t read, let alone read music or music theory. That was all of the incentive that I’d needed to focus on my studies.
I still didn’t open up to Mr. Carlin in our sessions, but I felt less hostile towards him. I felt less hostile altogether. And as it turned out, when I applied myself, I was very capable. I began to learn quickly, thirsting for those epic shredding abilities. By the end of six months, I had a fourth grade reading comprehension and I was learning to make chords on the guitar by googling fingering patterns on the old dial-up computer in the house. And that’s when another of my loves presented itself to me: computers.
I hate to admit it, and while I never once forgot about Kyla, I began to resent the fact that she needed me. I wanted to forget the first decade of my life, and while I didn’t want to lose her, I was happy and I was doing well.
But my needs never mattered.
That’s what it meant to be a big sister.
And then Mr. Carlin gave me the rope that I needed to hang myself.
He was such a sap…
But I liked that about him. Even when I didn’t like that I liked that about him, if you can follow.
Anyway, it turns out that when you start acting like a human, others start treating you like a human. All of that work to learn to read so that I could play guitar had earned me the right not to wear the ankle bracelet. I hated myself for abusing that trust, but I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t leave Kyla to whatever fate. So, the same night that they liberated me, I packed some clothes in my guitar case, my lyrics and notebooks as well, slung the guitar by the strap across my back, and snuck out.
I had been right about the city: I could easily get lost in it. But I hadn’t been prepared for this kind of survival, and I had absolutely no idea where I was going. I spent a week sleeping under benches, eating out of garbage bins, and avoiding any and every person within shouting distance as I wandered around looking for any sign that would lead me to Columbus, but nothing was forthcoming.
That was the lowest that I’d ever been in my life.
I was unwilling to ask anyone how to get to Columbus for fear of capture. I had no money and of course I’d chosen the exact wrong time to try and get away. Winter was sweeping in with a vengeance, and the last two days had been increasingly colder.
My fingers were painfully numb, my nose was running, and my throat itched. I was filthy, starving, and freezing, and I knew that me and my guitar were going to die if we didn’t get some help.
I did what I did to save the guitar, I swear.
I mean, Al deserved better than to die like that…
Don’t judge me.
So, I pulled Mr. Carlin’s card from my back pocket, walked into something called a Starbucks, and presented it to the barrista with a flourish and disarming smile. “I’m a runaway teen. Can you please call the number on this card and ask for Mr. Carlin?”
The poor girl seemed stunned, but after a moment she took the card rather cautiously from my hand and made the call.
I sat in a bright green, cushy armchair and waited in the much needed warmth. The girl brought me a hot chocolate in an oversized mug and a huge blueberry muffin with crunchy, munchy things on top, setting them on the low table in front of me.
“He’s on his way,” she said.
I stared at the mug and muffin longingly, my stomach slightly sick at the prospect of real food.
“I… don’t have any money.”
She smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “It’s covered, sweetie.”
I watched her walk away in a daze for a minute before tearing into the food with gusto. I’d never tasted anything like it, and I’d found yet another of my loves: Starbucks.
Full, warm, and safe in a soft char, I was about to doze off when Mr. Carlin showed up. And once I saw his frantic face, once I realized what I’d just done, I started to panic. Surely, I was going to get shipped to military school or a convent or something equally hideous.
He squatted in front of me, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
The words rushed out of his mouth and I couldn’t help but notice his tone. He seemed… worried.
What was that about?
I mean, was my fate really that bad?
I wasn’t really sure how to respond, so I just shrugged noncommittally.
He patted my shoulder and stood. “Okay, let’s get you home.”
What did that even mean?
I got sluggishly to my feet and followed him to his car after he’d settled the tab, and I realized that I now owed him. I shouldn’t have called him, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. Either way, it was too late now.
His car was still warm and I waited in the front seat while he settled Al in the trunk. It had started to sleet and I stared out the window while waiting for the anger to come, but it never did.
Wasn’t he going to yell at me, berate me, anything?
Apparently not, because outside of the squeak of the windshield wipers and continuous blow of the heater, it was dead quiet. That was almost worse. At least if he was yelling I’d know what he was thinking or have an idea of what was going to happen. His silence left me flapping in the wind.
I’m not sure why I felt the need to justify myself to him. Maybe it was because I owed him now, but either way, I did.
“I was trying to get to my sister.”
He sighed, still quiet.
I waited some more, but still, nothing…
This pissed me off. “Whatever. It was dumb of me to think you’d understand.”
I was trying to provoke him and I knew it, but it didn’t work. He was implacable, infuriating. He obviously just didn’t care. I shook my head in disgust. He’d played me, but whatever. I’d runaway and freeze to death before I made that mistake again.
He sighed again. “Ashley, I’m going to tell you something. And I’m not telling you this to hurt you or make you feel bad, but because I need for you to understand that what you do has consequences.”
He glanced over at me with those sincere eyes and I felt my brow furrow for a moment before realization dawned. This was it. They were going to ship me off and he didn’t want to feel bad about it, so he was going to explain how it was all my fault. I’d finally pulled my last stunt. I could’ve kicked myself right then. Outside of tucking and rolling from the car, I was completely stuck, and I’d made the call. They’d put another of the bracelets on me and it’d be over. I’d never see Kyla again.
Hell, he’d probably burn Al for firewood.
“The day after you ran away, I had someone coming to your session. I wanted you two to meet. She was considering adopting you and Kyla, together.”
I gaped at him stupidly. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about that. Did I want out of juvey?
Did I want to go home with a stranger, trust my life to that stranger, trust Kyla’s…?
Hells to the nizz-o.
In fact, that would never happen. I could live with Mother Theresa for the rest of my life; she could give me endless supplies of Oreo cookies and guitars; she could crap rainbows on command; God could shine a light down through the clouds to spotlight her and vouch for her Himself, and I still wouldn’t trust her.
I’d never trust anyone again, especially not an adult. They weren’t rational creatures…
But still, this might have been a chance for Kyla, and I might have just blown it for her.
I felt the sting of tears behind my eyes and swallowed thickly. “Will she at least still take Kyla?”
He shook his head slightly and I felt my heart drop into my stomach. I’d really ruined it for her…
He glanced over at me, something akin to compassion and maybe… respect, on his face. I wasn’t sure.
I already owed him and I was already doomed, but maybe I could go for broke. “Could you… would you… talk to her…? He was quiet again so I hastened to reassure him. “For Kyla, I mean. She doesn’t have to take me. You can ship me off to wherever, but please, help my sister.”
He went quiet again and I prayed, to what, I’m not sure. But something somewhere needed to convince him to help Kyla.
He pulled us over to the side of the street and, leaving the car on, turned to face me. “I’ll do anything that I can to help you and your sister, Ashley, but I need your help.”
I nodded. I’d do anything.
He reached over and gently lifted my chin to look in my eyes. “I need you to keep your nose clean. You were doing so well before I took the bracelet off, and I understand why you left, but Christine’s worried. She’s been through a lot too, and just like you, she doesn’t want to get hurt. She wants a family, Ashley, and she’ll give you that, but you have meet her halfway. Can you do that?”
So there I was, in the car of a too-kind man that I didn’t want to trust, on a cold day in late November facing another of those emotional opportunities. And all I had to do was say yes and then move forward.
But all I could do was say, “I can try…,” even when I knew deep down that I probably couldn’t, and probably wouldn’t.
He released me, exhaled, smiled sadly, and nodded once. And for some odd reason, I felt an inexplicable desire to comfort him. It was almost as if he knew that I was lying, but decided to believe me anyway.
“Okay, then,” he said.
Why would he trust me anyway?
He shut the car off, and I looked out of the window expecting to see the juvey facility, but instead I saw a modest, traditional brick home, not too big and not too little. It gave me the same feeling that Mr. Carlin himself inspired: comfort, and maybe even safety. And I rejected those feelings, because I didn’t want to want them. I sure as hell didn’t want to need them. And that was because I knew that it wouldn’t last.
It would be gone eventually.
But what could it hurt to have just one night?
“Is this your house,” I asked.
He opened his door, letting in a whoosh of freezing air and flurried ice as he paused to say, “And for the night, it’s your house too. Come on…”
With that he got out of the car and headed to the trunk. I opened my door with trepidation. I didn’t linger outside though; it was too cold, and before I knew it, I was warm again. The sounds of laughter and gentle scolding floated from somewhere in the back of the house, and the smell of something delicious assaulted my senses.
Mr. Carlin took my sweater and hung it by the door with his own, setting my guitar there as he bellowed, “Did you adjust the water temperature like I told you?! If you don’t, you can-“
“Burn the noodles,” those same voices chorused in unison.
He chuckeld and looked over at me. “Come on.”
I followed him apprehensively down the short hallway, tugging at my dirty clothes self-consciously. I caught sight of my fingernails, each one outlined in black, and quickly lifted the corner of my shirt to smell it. I couldn’t tell if it was bad, but that was probably because I’d grown used to it. I knew that they were going to judge me, because I already was.
We rounded a corner and stepped into an open kitchen where a thin, platinum-blonde woman was stirring something in a pot. A tall, skinny, blond boy swiveled on his stool between the kitchen and dining room and smiled brightly, almost goofily, at me.
His voice was mocking. “Dad, you’re not supposed to bring the strays home…”
I was almost offended, but then the doofish expression on his pleased face caused me to consider that he was just mentally handicapped.
“Glen,” The blonde woman’s tone was short and scolding, but it was the look that she gave him that made me cringe.
Her eyes were sharp and piercing, and even as they softened when they landed on me and looked me up and down, I still felt like Courtney Love at a Promise Keeper’s convention.
“Don’t be a jerk, man…,” the dark boy said after placing the last fork on the table.
I couldn’t help myself. I stared. I mean, there were very pale, very blonde people everywhere, and he was very neither. Maybe the retarded one was just being honest, Mr. Carlin kept bringing home the strays. I might not have felt so awkward or out of place with him there, but then he was still very clean, his clothes new and obviously expensive. He fit in just fine here despite all of his differences.
As I mentioned, there were blondes everywhere, but I’d missed one. She hadn’t made a sound. Mr. Carlin nabbed her from table setting duty and pushed her up to me with his hands on her shoulders.
She was about the same age as me, but I was taller. Her hair was darker than her mother’s but she was almost a carbon copy, except for her eyes. While they were same indescribable shade of blue, they were friendlier, more open, more inviting, and I didn’t feel like she was judging me.
“Ashley, this is my baby girl, Spencer.”
“Dad,” Spencer bemoaned pathetically.
Spencer? That’s a strange name for a boy, let alone a girl. But given how I was named, I couldn’t really say much. Mr. Carlin laughed and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Alright, I know; I’m sorry. Spencer, this is Ashley. Why don’t you take her up to your room, show her the bathroom, and loan her something to sleep in?”
She smiled cutely and I felt myself return it despite my misgivings. This girl looked like the quintessential girl-next-door, all American Cheerleader and Mary Poppins all rolled up into one. She was the embodiment of sugar, spice, and everything nice. But, the cynical side of me was wary. She was what the others at the shelter would call a preppy, and preppys were mean.
She didn’t seem mean, especially when she stuck her hand out and said, “Nice to meet you.”
I stared at it for a moment, deliberating tainting her perfect skin with my filth, but rejecting the gesture would be considered rude? In the end, I decided to shake her hand and make it quick. She smirked when I pulled away as if I’d been scalded, only to grab my hand again and tug me along with her.
“Come on,” she intoned sweetly, her voice almost gravelly but somehow still as soft as velvet.
She almost skipped ahead of me, bubbling with life and light, and I couldn’t help but follow her with a certain sense of excitement. I’d never met anyone that just made me happy to be around them, but that’s how I instantly felt.
Her room was like something out of one of those horror movies that I’d watched at the house: all teddy bears and lace and pink. It was like Barney threw up or maybe a unicorn had pranced through here spewing glitter from its horn. It was light and cheery and everything that I wasn’t. I wanted to immerse myself immediately. I’d have given anything to be like that.
She strode straight over to door at the back of the room, her slightly wavy locks bouncing against her slender shoulders, and I imagined that her hair would be silky soft. I reached up and tugged at lock of my own hair, very aware of how stringy it felt.
My head snapped up to see her peering at me from inside the bathroom with a curious smile on her lips.
“You coming,” she asked.
I dropped my hand immediately. “Yeah, sorry…”
Her smile turned into a grin and she disappeared inside. I blew out a breath and followed her. The bathroom was even more girly than the bedroom because it smelled like fresh linen and something floral, but not like old lady floral. I decided immediately that I liked it, and I liked her.
I also decided that I’d need to squash that, but it was just one night, right?
She pulled out a couple of towels and a strange poofy, net ball thingy, and set them on the counter.
Then she gestured to the shower. “Mi casa es su casa.”
I had no idea what had just happened, and I’m fairly certain that it showed on my face, because she giggled.
“My home is your home.” she explained. “Just help yourself to what you need. I’ll leave something for you to wear on the bed. You can come down to dinner when you’re done, okay?”
I nodded, grateful at the prospect of being clean again, and she left me, shutting the door behind her. I slumped against the counter and looked around. I didn’t know where I’d be in the next day or week or month, and I wasn’t sure that I’d ever really get to see Kyla again. I picked up the poofy ball and stared at it. I sure as hell didn’t know what I was supposed to do with this thing, but I wanted to know it all, and I wanted Spencer Carlin, specifically, to show me.
It was irrational; I knew it, and I’d have to forget it, but like with Al, I was beginning to believe that the heart wants what the heart wants.