Happy Limo

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BY JULIE EILL

At morning meeting, April is telling us about her grandfather again. It started when she was three, she thinks, little games, rolling matchbox cars over her body. Sonia, the director, interrupts, saying, Let’s not talk about that now, can you say something about how you’ve been sneaking out to meet boys? We’re sitting in a circle, on fake leather chairs pulled from the multipurpose room.

April’s only fourteen. She usually has a sweet smile on her lips, the dimple showing in her cheek, but not now. You bitch, she says to Sonia. You’re just jealous, your parts are all dried up.

Sonia doesn’t even flinch. It’s not me you’re mad at, April. Not really, she says.

I wonder though, if Sonia goes home and cries for us or for the things we say to her.

Next it’s my turn. All those borderline eyes on me, shifting in and out, I’m good, I’m bad, I’m theirs, I’m not. I’m adjusting just fine, I say, even though I’m not. Time is ticking. Even though I just got here, I age-out in June when I turn eighteen. My Orlando plan for leaving here, for leaving my mom, isn’t going so well. Sonia’s one of those freckled redheads, and she’s still staring at me, trying to stare me into sharing. So I say, Except for that new teacher they sent us, she’s worse than Professor Umbridge. She actually accused me of plagiarizing because my physics paper on the Big Bang theory had good grammar.

Rachel’s fat and her T-Rex arms kind of dangle at her sides as she talks. She says, Who the fuck cares about your grammar or your Harry Potter escape plan? You know those books are for eight-year-olds, right? Professor Umbridge isn’t even a real person. And, so you don’t get your hopes up too much for Harry Potter World or whatever the fuck it’s called, he’s not going to be there either, not him or his long skinny wand. There’s your Big Bang!

All the girls laugh, even the new one, a cutter with kinky hair and freckles.

Sonia says, What did I just get through saying about anger, Rachel? Then she goes, How’s that feeling in your throat, Candace? Sonia’s voice is normal. It’s low and calm, way different from my mom’s.

It’s gone away, I say, almost smiling. But I’m lying, I can feel the ridges of it right now, making it hard for me to swallow. It feels like a guitar pick is wedged in my larynx, even though the doctor says it’s just in my head.

At her turn, Rachel shares that her caseworker’s tracked down the guy she thinks might be her father. Father of the week, April whispers to me. This one works at the tire center of a Cosco in Tennessee and for some reason he’s agreed to take a paternity test.

My therapist at the county mental health center had been kind, had tried to get me away from my mother for years. She kept calling CPS to tell them about my mother’s personality disorder, about the times she just screamed and screamed at me. I never heard those calls, but I imagine her warning them, She’s a great kid you know, strong, goal-oriented. Reads constantly. But much more of this, and she’ll be ruined.

Sorry, they’d tell her, but there aren’t bruises and she’s already in therapy. We can’t do a thing.

Once, when I was in seventh grade, my mom and I had a big fight in a Pizza Hut because she refused to believe that The Blair Witch Project was fake. My mother with that voice of hers, high and unusual, insisted over and over that she knew what they’d captured in that film was real. She insisted that those kids had really died making that movie. I was so frustrated I wanted to rip something into tiny pieces. I needed her to understand how wrong she was, but she wouldn’t listen. Couldn’t. She said, Candace, you’re just afraid of the unknown. That’s when I poured my whole iced tea on her head, the lemon wedge landing in her lap. She slapped me hard, twice, and the manager asked us to leave. He was young, with tattoos on his arms, full sleeves, I think. On our way out, he gave me a five and even more important, he whispered I needed an escape plan.

That night I started. On 3×5 cards I had left over from school, somehow, those little blue lines made it easier to think. In five years, as soon as I graduated, I’d take a bus from Nassau County to Orlando and work at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’d seen the commercials on TV and it was magical even back then, and this was way before they’d built Diagon Alley.

Someone in county government wants our group home to have a name so we’re voting on that “issue” in morning check-in. There’s another new girl Zoe, today, so now I’m third newest. The rumor is that Zoe comes from a so-called normal family. That when her mother was in high school, she was in terrible car accident and all her friends died. When she visited Zoe yesterday, she brought a half-baked zucchini bread. It looked good on the outside, brown with green flecks, but when you cut into it, it was goo. I ate my piece anyway because Zoe’s mom was standing right there. You could tell she must have been pretty once, but one side of her face is still and a long scar travels all the way up her neck.

April suggests we just name the group home ‘Home’. That way, she says, when someone asks where we live, we can just say home like other kids do. No one laughs. Zoe suggests ‘Rock n Roll Hotel’. People seem to like that, but then a staff member who helps us make cookies sometimes suggests ‘Blackwell House’, after Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to get a medical degree in the U.S. and it happened here in New York. That gets the most votes. It gets mine.

When I lived with my mom, every morning in the yellow-tiled shower I’d tell myself, I need more money, I don’t have enough money, don’t give up but get more. Even if I rented a room in somebody’s house in Orlando, I’d need a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, money for food and clothes. Back when I was with my mom, I Googled everything, taking notes on those 3×5’s. I started a babysitting business in our building, letting the word spread that I’d watch kids for three dollars an hour, four if there were more than two. And when it was nice out, on Saturday mornings I’d hold a yard sale, junk I’d gotten to resell for a profit: everything spread out on an old blanket, a pitcher of Country Time.

My “removal” happened the first Saturday in September, right after my senior year of school had begun. I’d sold some pinecone-shaped candlesticks to a woman who was jogging by. She gave me a sweaty ten for the pair, which made me so happy because they’d been fifty cents each at the GoodWill. After she jogged off, a middle-aged guy stopped. He was skinny, wearing an old t-shirt and board shorts that hung off him and I wondered about drugs — he was that skinny. He asked for a cup of lemonade and gave me a twenty, staring at me hard with his ice blue eyes, even though my sign clearly said lemonade was a dollar. That’s fine, I told him, I’m saving all my cash to move to Orlando at the end of the year, after I finish high school.

Orlando, he said, I bet you’d look good in a bikini. What’s your name? I didn’t answer, so he said, Let me guess. Roxanne. Roxy. I’m Dustin.

You guessed it, I said, scanning the area for someone I knew from the apartments. I used to get a lot of advanced copy books at the GoodWill, new hardcover ones that people liked to read. They sold really well, scented candles, not so much.

Dustin was bent over a box of those books. When he stood up, he had his dick in his hand, smiling at me like he was proud, saying stuff like, Don’t you want to touch it, Roxy? My hands were cold, and my heart was beating real fast, and that’s when I felt the guitar pick for the first time. It was stuck there, and I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t talk, it was scratching the hell out of my throat. I saw this mom, Mrs. Rodriguez, I babysat for and I started waving my hands at her like a crazy person. She came over, saw what he was doing and started yelling. Dustin ran, but Mrs. Rodriguez insisted on calling the police anyway.

I’ve watched YouTube videos about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and they make it so real. When I get there, I hope the people who do the hiring quiz me, ask me any Harry Potter trivia they want. Like, what was Albus Dumbledore’s middle name? Or, list the Defense against the Dark Arts teachers in chronological order. My dream job is at Ollivander’s Wand Shop. In my uniform, I’ll be my own person, not my mother’s daughter. And when I lead a group through the shop, I’ll pick out one kid each time, outfit them with the perfect wand. Match kids to their destiny.

What I need now though, is some actual retail experience. The garage sales I used to run don’t cut it. I ask Sonia if she can help. I’ve never shoplifted, I tell her. I don’t have any kind of police record. Furthermore, I say, I make good eye contact and can give correct change.

She acts busy, but she says, OK, Candace, I’ll see what I can do.

That day when the police came, there were two of them. I told them all about Dustin. My voice a wisp because of the guitar pick, thin and raspy no matter how much lemonade I drank. They asked to speak to my mother, which made me cry. The tall one carried the box of books, the shorter one wrapped everything else up in my blanket and followed me back to my apartment. My mother was on the couch, her birds flying around.

Close the door quick, she said. The tall one explained what had happened and color came to my mother’s cheeks, her eyes brightening. Even if she had nowhere to go, which was most of the time, she was always made up, caked on like a drag queen with bad skin, a mockery of femininity.

I could see the cops looking at one another in a certain not-good way. They told her what had happened with Dustin and it turned her on. My mom told them it did.

I started screaming at her that she was a fucking idiot, yelling what the hell had happened to her to make her so crazy?

She yelled back, Candace, it’s just natural. It’s like porn, it’s supposed to make you horny, that’s all. She asked the tall officer, the cuter one, if he was married.

Ma’am he said, Get yourself together. Then she asked me, not if I was alright, or if he’d actually done anything to me, but if Dustin lived close by. I started shrieking, but then the shorter officer grabbed me.

Sonia makes us check in. The new girl talks about how she was straight, then a lesbian, now she doesn’t know who she is.

When it’s my turn, I tell them about my mother’s old boyfriend. I was little, and he had a son, Thomas. That kid must have been twelve when I was five. I tell them how he practiced French kissing on me. I look around. April has a frown on her face, like she’s mad. Rachel is braiding her hair, looking unconcerned. Sonia’s eyes get a little shiny, but her voice doesn’t wobble.

Mrs. Weaseley is the only good mother in Harry Potter. She’s kind of scattered, but she cooks and loves on those kids and, best of all, she’s a fighter. Out loud I say, Isn’t it funny how Mrs. Weasley couldn’t tell her twins, Fred and George apart?

Rachel lets out a big, fake sigh. Sonia says, Why is that funny Candace? They were identical twins right?

I’m not sure why it’s so funny and it’s embarrassing to feel confused. Everybody is waiting for me. Finally I say, She wanted us to be exactly the same. She’d get mad if I wanted to be different. She tried to keep me home from school all the time so I could be with her.

April snuck out again last night. When she came back, she was crying real loud, waking everybody, she wouldn’t stop crying, and her clothes were wet. She’d met some guys at the 7-11 nearby and they’d done stuff to her behind the shopping center, which was nothing new, but then one peed on her. We helped get her in the shower and woke up the night staff. They called the police, but she refused to tell them anything. She’s so reasonable to your face, but then she just lets this stuff happen to her.

I have a one-on-one with Sonia before check-in. She thanks me for helping with April. I tell her the job at Chipotle is going well. Someone from Blackwell House has to drop me off, then someone else comes and picks me up. I try not to mind, but I do. At first Dan, the manager talked to me slowly, then I told him I was saving for my own apartment, and he doesn’t talk to me slowly anymore. I tell Sonia, I have six hundred dollars saved, plus five hundred from before. When one of the minders took me to the bank to set up direct deposit I’d asked, If it’s only in my name, can anyone else get into my account?

No, they said.

Even my mother, I’d asked. They assured me not even she could.

I ask Sonia about me taking the bus to Walnut Hills, the local high school, so I can graduate with a degree from a real school not the group home school led by Professor Umbridge.

She says lots and lots of people who have been through things like me fall apart, they can’t see themselves, see their way out. She says my ability to observe things and to push myself has helped. I’m not interested in hearing all that, I just want my answer. I sit there waiting until she tells me I can go to Walnut Hills, she’ll set it up.

April isn’t at morning meeting but we talk about how it was for each us. I say no one wants us, not really. Or, they want us, but only in the wrong ways. Maybe we ought to be harvested for our organs I say, like in this book I read. Maybe our mothers should, I think.

Just you. You can be harvested, Rachel says. I put my hand to my own throat.

Sonia says, You’re being hostilely aggressive.

Rachel says she’s pissed because Roger Preston at the Tire Center isn’t her dad. She starts crying but when she’s mopped herself up I say it anyway. You know that tremor you have, in your hands? I looked it up. I throw in the word neurologist because it sounds better. Neurologists believe tremors like that come from incest. Inbreeding. I spread out the syllables enjoying how they elongate as they come out.

Rachel heaves herself at me. She’s big and she leaves bruises but I don’t care. I do care that I lose my privilege to start school until next week. Sonia tells me I also have to write Rachel a letter of explanation.

Friday at school with Umbridge, I can’t help smiling because I know this is my last day. I’m going to start Walnut Hills in Honor’s English and History on Monday. And April is back. Umbridge looks at her arms and comments on how she shouldn’t destroy what God gave her. She tells April to put BandAids on or a sweatshirt, she doesn’t want to see it. She says this, even though everyone knows you shouldn’t say anything about it. Then Umbridge tells me to stop smiling.

My first day, as I walk from class to class, mapping out my new schedule without a map or a wand or anything else to protect me, I think about all these kids, how I’d love to have their bank accounts, their Sunday morning cinnamon rolls and family chores. My old high school is in the south part of the county, and everyone here is better dressed. At Universal Studios, they sell interactive wands that use infrared reflection, allowing people to cast “spells” in the store windows along Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, making shrunken heads sing, or revealing secret ink on a piece of parchment. Universal even hires people to dress up in wizard robes and help families figure out how to stand on the gold medallions that mark the areas where the spells can be cast. If I can just get through the rest of high school, I can make things like that happen.

It’s the cafeteria for me at lunchtime because I don’t know anyone and I don’t have a car to drive somewhere. In line, some dude in skinny jeans with gelled hair looks at me, then looks at the hotdogs the lunch ladies are giving out and says, I double-dog dare you to eat one of those. They’re overcooked and wrinkled, and I laugh. Later, he sees me in the hall and waves. I start to smile, but then I think about how poor I am, how much money I need, and I don’t.

Over winter break, an ambulance comes and takes the new girl who was straight, then gay, then nothing, away. She’d gotten into the office where they keep pills. I try to catch up on the reading they did in my English class earlier this year – The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Epic of Gilgamesh. We have to write an essay too, on a literary hero. I pick Luna Lovegood. She’s brave, she does things her own way, and she’s a great friend to Harry because she doesn’t avoid strong emotions.

My mother comes for a visit on Christmas. She brings me a pretty jewelry box with sequins and stuff sewn onto the fabric cover. It looks like she made it herself. My mother had wanted to go to art school. She always told me how her high school art teacher said she was good with color. Then she’d point to the old raku pots she’d made along the windowsill, under the birdcages. That one, she’d say, pointing to the red one, Got first place in our school show. I’m hoping there’s something inside the jewelry box and even though I know not to, I open the lid. Nothing.

Some of the girls are with their families for the day, so it’s quiet. We eat a Christmas dinner the staff and those who’ve stayed here, like me, put together. April’s here, and she tells my mother, It’s so nice to meet you. I picture her on the ground with those guys and I feel helpless. I wish I could make her creepy and scary, anything to keep them away.

As she’s leaving, my mother reminds me that I can’t come home until we’ve had family therapy. I tell her there’s a huge wait for family therapy, but really, I’d told Sonia that I wouldn’t do it, what was the point. Sonia had just nodded her head a little, so I knew she agreed. Hopefully soon, I tell my mother.

Around Valentine’s Day, Rachel shoots me the meanest look at meeting, but then she says she’d asked her caseworker to have her grandfather tested.

For like, a paternity thing? Zoe asks her.

Rachel says, Yeah. My mom always said she was his favorite. I asked my aunt at Christmas. She has a job and a husband in the City. She couldn’t stop saying she was so sorry, she said she should’ve taken me from my mom when I was a baby. She’s going to call my caseworker to see about me going to live with them.

Zoe says, Don’t get your last hope up.

Next to Zoe, the newest girl, seventeen like me, snorts. Yeah, been there, done that.

I say, Maybe it’ll be good this time.

Rachel turns toward me. She says, Aunt Pat and Uncle Greg take time off and go to Florida every winter. I don’t know where they go exactly, but maybe I can come and see you.

It’s early spring and everyone at my normal high school is talking about where they’re going for college. When we go around the class in Honor’s English, I just say Florida. I’ve saved two thousand dollars, but I don’t think it’s enough. Neither does Sonia. My caseworker says that she can help me pay for community college, help me get set up in a group apartment with other kids who have aged-out of the system. It’s more practical, she tells me, You’re so bright. My mother’s also been calling her cell phone multiple times a day, asking about when I’m coming home, when we can get this family therapy done. I can hear her voice, more ragged and high-pitched with every call, going off on tangents, escalating, then making false trails that lead nowhere good. I have to do it. I have to get out of here.

When I talk to April about how much money I need, that I don’t have enough, she laughs and suggests I get my ass on the corner. Booty for sale, she giggles.

Zoe suggests I just go to Orlando, see who I can meet, that something will happen. When Zoe and April are sleeping, I sit in the corner of our room and weep, trying to hold the tears in the cup of my hand. I need a better plan.

When I bring it up at check-in, Addison says, First world problems. Her parents are actually still married to one another. They met while they were both in foster care themselves. She’s second generation.

I guess I could try my dad, I say.

Rachel leans forward and says, Wait, you actually know who your father is?

Sonia calls. It takes a lot of arranging for him to come see me. I don’t really know him. My mother said he abandoned us.

His name is Robert and he lives on his own still, but his girlfriend comes along to help wheel him around, he’s that fat. Her hair is thin and her T-shirt is old and boxy, but she says Hello, Candace, I’m Susan, the way conversations are supposed to start. I bet he met her outside a church where they hold meetings for people like them, addicted to something, licking their dry lips, making them even drier.

Candace, he says, I can’t believe you’re my daughter, you’re so pretty. Your mother sent me a picture once, but you were small, on Santa’s lap.

I can’t believe I’ve grown up so normal, I tell him, then add quickly, I mean, being raised by her. I don’t ask about his leaving, or about his health issues. Dad, I say, reaching for my 3×5 cards, I need your help.

He writes me a check. After it clears, I feel a whole lot better. It’s three thousand, enough to realize my escape plan. He promises to be in touch, to send me more, but I have a feeling this might be it, the sum total of his child support. I know I need to be careful with the money. My caseworker advises I should use it for a state school in Florida. She gives me some papers she’s downloaded on community college in the Orlando area. Maybe someday.

When I tell Sonia how careful I’ll be, she says You’re very good at being vigilant, about plans and notes and orderliness. Hopefully you’ll be able to deal with everything else later on. You can’t really leave your mother behind, she says, not entirely.

Walnut Hills is having their graduation and I tell everybody in morning meeting that I don’t really want to go, that having my degree is enough. Sonia wonders if it’s hard for me to have a good ending.

The answer is I don’t know. I tell the girls, my girls, I don’t want to sit in the sun for two hours and then, when they finally get to my name, no one will be filming on their phone, no one will applaud, no one.

April says they could all come and cheer for me. I shake my head no.

But that’s nice, I tell her.

I apply online for a job at Universal. Then I follow-up by phone until they give me an interview. I use the computer, with Sonia’s help, to get a room in a group house, which I learn is a very different thing from a group home like Blackwell. Then, the hardest for me, I spend my own money on a one-way ticket. Sonia insists on a plane, not a bus. I try to concentrate on what it’ll be like to feel the dragon on top of Gringott’s breathing real fire, to savor a ButterBeer at The Leaky Cauldron. They even serve a frozen version. Still, I’m nervous, raising my voice more than usual, then over-apologizing to everyone.
In my last morning meeting, everyone goes around and says something nice about me, and then I do the same for each of them. It’s a Blackwell House ritual. Rachel says at first she hated me, but now she thinks I’m the only one who has my shit together.

April thanks me for taking care of her this year. Then she flaps a piece of paper at me, waving it like a farewell. You missed something, she says, her dimple showing. When you get off the plane, you’ll need a ride. We paid for a Happy Limo, they even give you free bottled water. She explains, They hold up a sign and greet you.

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Julie Eill attended the University of Iowa as an undergraduate where she benefited from many fine writing classes. Her work has appeared in Carve Magazine, Room, and is forthcoming in Gargoyle. Julie is at work on a first novel and lives in Northern Virginia.

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