Tyler swept his arm across the table. “Get away from me!”
The recyclable plate folded in half as it flew through the air, and Jenny’s dinner ended its usefulness in a splatter of tan glop on the wall. Jenny started crying. Again. And, once again —
I knew it was coming, but I flinched. I couldn’t help it. Mrs. Lewis was nice enough, but every time she said my name there was some task attached. Shannon, put the plates in the recycler. Shannon, could you do the laundry? Shannon, will you check on so and so? My life held few surprises.
“Shannon,” Mrs. Lewis said, “will you attend to Jenny?”
I fought the urge to hurl my spork after the plate and won. I set it gently next to my plate, lined it up just so, and got up to check on the little girl. Jenny hadn’t been hugged enough as a toddler or something and was now the neediest five-year-old in the world. This time she’d provoked Tyler, a scruffy adolescent with Level Nine Autism. She’d probably touched him, or maybe just sat too close, and he’d reacted in the only way he could.
I found her under the table, fighting for air in gulping sobs and letting attention-getting tears stream down her rosy cheeks. “He-he-h-he scared m-m-me, Shan-Shan!”
“You know he doesn’t like it when people get too close to him, munchkin.” I felt around on the tabletop until I found the napkin dispenser. I pulled one free and gave it to Jenny. I tried a smile. “You’re OK, buddy. Wipe your eyes and blow your nose. Then come up and finish dinner.”
Jenny took the napkin. I stood up and looked around for Mrs. Lewis. She was the only one above seventeen in the crowded room. “She just got a little scared,” I said.
“Does she need her inhaler?”
“If she does, I’ll just give her a hit off mine.” Like most of us Jenny had bad asthma, but she was too young to carry her own puffer. I hadn’t hit mine since yesterday and knew it was about half full.
Mrs. Lewis nodded. “Thank you. Would you mind cleaning up the plate?”
I sighed and reached for more napkins. I was a prize among the rejects of Hanover Place Foster Care, merely-unwanted among the profoundly damaged. That meant I got more chores.
I tossed the plate into the recycler and began wiping Tasty Paste off the wall. Fortunately, Jenny hadn’t had time to add ketchup to her dinner. Tasty Paste provided all the calories, protein, and vitamins a growing foster kid needed to survive. It tasted like wet cardboard and was basically made from the same stuff as the plate. Some of the kids, Jenny included, actually liked it.
The dirty napkins and waste Paste went into the recycler, too. In a few days the government truck would come to empty the recycler and deliver another pallet of plates, sporks, napkins, and Paste.
By the time I’d finished cleaning, Mrs. Lewis and a few of the higher-flyers were clearing the table. I thought about trying to rescue my barely touched dinner, but, if I found myself missing the taste of Paste, there was always tomorrow’s breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. Paste was cheap and the one thing absolutely no one was allergic to. It was engineered that way.
I looked at the clock. It was 6:27, a little more than thirty-three minutes before Megan, Mrs. Lewis’ second-shift support, would walk through the door, ready to cope with another night of nightmares and bed wetting. Lucky girl. Megan was a first-year college student, a future doctor. She said her work at Hanover Place was a way of giving back to the society that was putting her through school. “Plus, I like it,” she told me once. She grinned and winked. “Sometimes.”
Lights-out came two hours after second-shift started. It wasn’t a suggestion. When Mrs. Lewis cut power in the dorm you were either in your bunk, or you were stumbling around in the dark trying to find it. I was helpful and “normal,” which meant I got to stay up for an extra hour to help Megan with chores. Laundry was on tonight’s agenda, folding clothes and sorting them into the cubbies. Megan and I always worked well together, our hands busy while she talked about the world outside. I remembered a little of that world from my own life, which had been perfectly normal until my parents died. I’d gone to a regular school; I’d even had my own room.
I looked away from the clock: thirty-two more minutes. “Yes, ma´am?”
“There’s a message for you,” Mrs. Lewis said. “You can read it on the terminal in my office.”
I felt everyone in the room stare at me. I’d never gotten a message before; I didn’t remember the last time any of us had. “What’s it about?”
“I don’t know, dear. It’s from a lawyer and marked ‘personal.’”
Mrs. Lewis’ office was really just a desk and chair stuck in the corner of the entrance hallway. It was where she paid bills and filed reports. The desk was worn but neat, and Mrs. Lewis had a digiframe that showed pictures of her family. Her husband was fat and bald, but she looked happy in all the pictures. They had two kids, but I couldn’t remember their names.
The screen was flashing a message-waiting prompt. I poked it, and a video window stuttered into view. A man in a suit started talking. “Miss Cochrane, I am messaging to inform you that your grandmother, Trudi LeRiche, passed away yesterday.”
Grandma Trudi. I was supposed to live with her after my parents’ funeral, but two days after my eighth birthday she decided she wanted nothing to do with me. When I turned sixteen, I got a look at my cumulative file and learned Grandma had shut me out after she saw test results that showed I had “homosexual tendencies.”
The guy in the suit was still talking, saying something about me being Grandma’s only living relative and all her property, including a house and a car, being held in trust for me until I was eighteen. I barely paid attention. I hadn’t seen Grandma Trudi in years, but I remembered going to her house when I was a little girl and riding to church in her station wagon. “It’s a Volvo,” she told me. “Best car in the world. It’s going to last me the rest of my life.”
Maybe it had. I remembered the car was dark green, like the juniper bushes along Grandma’s driveway.
Mrs. Lewis touched me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey. Are you going to be alright?”
“I haven’t seen her in nearly ten years.”
“She’s still your grandmother.”
“Then she shouldn’t have dumped me in a home.” I moved away from the desk. “Is Megan here yet?”
Mrs. Lewis shook her head.
“I’ll get a head start on the laundry, then.”
Mrs. Lewis was between me and the door, but she didn’t move out of the way. She took about a half step toward me and her arms twitched. If I had been one of her own kids, she probably would’ve hugged me, but the Hanover Place board frowned on that kind of thing between rejects and staff. So she just stood there for a few long seconds, then moved away from the door.
The laundry was still warm when I pulled it out of the dryer; it felt good on my hands. I started folding, making a pile for each reject based on the names stenciled on the clothing. We got new duds every January; the last ten months was starting to show in yellowed underwear, ripped knees, frayed hems, and stretched-out T-shirts.
“You trying to get me fired?” Megan’s grin took the sting out of the words. She was leaning against the door, shiny brown hair hanging down over one shoulder.
Just looking at her made me feel warm. Sometimes, at night, I held my pillow against my chest and pretended I was curled up against her backbone. In my dreams she loved me; occasionally, more often lately, she even wanted me. She pulled a handful of laundry out of the wheeled-basket and started folding. “Are we balling the socks?”
“We’ll let the kids do it. Call it occupational therapy.”
Her laugh sounded like happy bells. “I’m going to miss you when you turn eighteen, Shanna-bear. You’re something else.”
I folded a pair of Tyler’s briefs and reached across the table to put them on his pile. Megan’s hand bumped my wrist as she reached for a something on my side. We smiled at each other and went back to folding.
“My grandmother died.”
Megan stopped working. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. When did you see her last?”
“When I came here. She dropped me off.”
She reached into the laundry basket and pulled more work. “I quit school.”
It was my turn to freeze. “Are you crazy?”
“My grant dried up. I can’t afford to take out loans.” She balled a pair of socks and pulled them apart again. “I was thinking about becoming a Roady for a while. I have my med-tech certificate. Medical care is pretty scarce out there.”
The lack of care wasn’t much of a surprise. The Roady movement started just after Florida got hit with the second tsunami. A lot of old people lost their homes, and many of them decided to stay mobile. They put together convoys of trailers and campers and started driving from one side of the country to the other, using the abandoned shopping malls as temporary campsites. Soon other members of the so-called “U.S. surplus” — artists, writers, the homeless, the underemployed youth, and the disabled-but-functional — hit the road, too. A lot of the groups were short-lived, with nothing in common but a destination, but some of the larger convoys had taken to calling themselves towns.
There weren’t many doctors willing to give up their homes to take care of a bunch of vagrants. I tossed another pair of Tyler´s briefs onto his pile. “It´s not safe. I´ve seen the shows.”
“I could really help people. I can’t do that here without more school.”
Megan’s face was gorgeous when she was passionate. I wanted to reach over the table and show her how gorgeous. I took a deep breath instead. “Can you drive? My grandmother left me a car.”
“I can’t take your car.”
I´d spent a lot of time folding laundry and scrubbing counters with Megan; accepting help wasn´t her best thing. I pulled a bra out of the cooling tangle of clothes and checked the label; it was mine. “I´m taking the car. You can drive me.”
Megan laughed. “Now who’s crazy?”
I folded the bra and put it on top of my stack of worn clothes. One of the straps flopped out, and I tucked it back in. I stared at the neat stack. “It’s either now or seven months from now when they kick me out of here. It’s not like the state is going to do anything but give me an apartment and a check, and tell me to stay out of their way.” I studied her hands. “You’re the only good thing about this place. If you’re going, I’m going.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Being a Roady isn’t going to be easy.”
“I grew up in a foster home. I can handle it if you can.” We’d folded all the laundry, and I was out of excuses to stay up. I looked her in the eye. “I’m serious.”
She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a quick hug. “I know you are.”
Later, I held my pillow against my chest and tried to sleep. A new life with Megan was the only dream I’d ever had while awake. It seemed so right, and, now, the timing was perfect.
We talked about it again the next night. And the next. Two days after that I was on a bus to western Massachusetts. I’d told Mrs. Lewis and the lawyer that I wanted to see my grandmother’s house to get some closure: Only-relative-blah-blah-abandonment-issues. They bought it and gave me a two-day pass, on the condition that a member of the staff traveled with me. Megan just happened to be free.
Two days was the longest I’d been out of Hanover Place since I went in. We were scheduled to meet the lawyer as soon as we arrived and get the keys. Our official itinerary included an overnight stay in the house and a bus ride back the next day.
Grandma Trudi lived in North Adams, a town at the foot of a mountain. I remembered seeing it before, driving up Route Two with my Mom and Dad. The town looked like a bunch of blocks a giant´s kid had rolled down a hill.
I had to hit my inhaler twice during the walk from the bus stop. I didn´t remember much about Grandma´s house, but I guess it looked familiar. A steep driveway curled up from the road, ending at a green garage door. The house was one-story and brick. It was mine now, but I doubted Grandma had ever wanted me to have it. She hadn´t even wanted me.
Megan used her phone to contact the lawyer when we arrived, and we sat on a low brick wall until he showed. He had one of the new BMWs, the kind that could drive itself on the highways. It looked like a shiny, black slug.
“Which one of you is Shannon Cochrane?”
I raised my hand.
He offered Megan an envelope. “You can leave this inside the house, on the counter, when you leave tomorrow. I´ll pick it up later. Please make sure Miss Cochrane understands this property will be cleaned and sealed on Monday, and won´t be unsealed until she returns after her eighteenth birthday.”
I took the envelope out of the lawyer’s hand. “I got it.”
The lawyer looked at me for the first time, blinking. He’d probably never seen a reject talk before. “Your grandmother´s life insurance took care of any outstanding debts. As her only living relative, the property is yours, free and clear.”
I nodded. “Thanks. We’ll put the key on the counter.”
We watched as he climbed back into his black slug. It slid down the driveway with a vacuum cleaner-like whine. I fumbled the cardkey out of the envelope and showed it to Megan. “Ready?”
She gestured toward the door. “It’s your house.”
The lock buzzed for a second when I slipped the card in the slot, and the door popped open. I pushed past it and into Grandma Trudi’s house.
Memories came into my head like they were being poured through a coffee filter. The walls of the entryway, divided in two by a chair rail, were bare. “There used to be pictures.” I touched the bare wall, hoping physical contact would jog my memory. “There was a cross here, a religious thing. And, like, family pictures. Grandma and I used to come out here, and she’d tell me who everybody was.”
The lawyer said the house would be cleaned before his firm sealed it, but it already seemed sterile. We moved from room to room like we were touring a museum. The refrigerator was empty. So were the closets.
“Let’s see if the car is still in the garage,” I said.
A door in the kitchen led to a short flight of stairs. The car was at the bottom, covered with a plastic tarp. I snapped on the lights and, with Megan’s help, got the cover off.
“She kept the Volvo.” The old car seemed to fill all the space in the garage, but at least it didn’t look like a slug.
“Do you think it runs?”
“It’s the best car in the world,” I said, barely hearing her. I tried the driver’s-side door, which was a slightly different green than the rest of the car. It opened, and I dropped into the seat.
“Isn’t the light supposed to come on?” Megan said.
I gripped the steering wheel with two hands like I remembered Grandma doing. “She’s been sitting for a while. The battery is probably dead.”
Megan opened the opposite door and sat beside me. “It stinks.”
I leaned forward and sniffed the worn leather on the steering wheel. “Smells like freedom to me.” I craned my head around to see into the back. “We can fold the backseat down and put a bed in there.”
“What kind of fuel does it take? We won’t get too far at $24 a gallon.”
“See if there’s an instruction manual somewhere.”
I got out of the car and left Megan to rummage in the little cupboard built into the dash. I found the car’s battery on a counter running along the back of the garage. It was hooked up to a charger. There was a toolbox there, too, and a folder full of paper maps.
“It’s a diesel,” Megan said. “We’re in luck.” According to the research we did during the bus ride, most Roadies opted for diesel engines. They were reliable and you could make your own fuel from old cooking oils or sewer grease. We’d found instructions on the Internet. It didn’t seem that hard. “Look what else I found.” Megan handed me a piece of paper. “It was tucked inside the owner’s manual.”
It was a printout from the North Adams Transcript, dated a little more than six months ago. It was a short article, maybe 200 words about a senior-citizen convoy that was coming to town and looking for recruits. A picture showed a blue bus with the words “Calvary Baptist Church” stenciled on the side.
“Missionaries,” Megan said.
“That sounds like Grandma.” I looked around the garage. “She just put the place in mothballs and left.”
“I wonder how she died.”
I put the printout on the counter. “Like you said, being a Roady isn’t easy. Let’s try to get the car started.”
Megan opened her lapdesk on the counter and powered it up. It took some searching, but we found some guides and instructions on a classic-car website. Megan read off the instructions as I opened the hood and got the battery in place.
“Do you have the key?” she said.
I poked my head inside the car. “It’s in the what-do-you-call-it. The ignition.”
“Try it. Turn it away from you.”
I sat back down on the cracked leather of the seat and put my hand on the key. I twisted it about a quarter of an inch; something started chiming softly and some lights came on. “Now what?”
“Turn it some more.”
I turned it some more and heard a sound like throat-clearing. I let go.
“Try again. Don’t let go so fast.”
The throat cleared again, and turned into a cough.
“Give it some gas,” Megan said. “The pedal furthest to the right.”
The pedal was stiff under my foot. “O.K.”
“Try the key again.”
I held my breath. This time throat-clearing turned into a growl, then a rumble that shook the whole car. It settled into a deep purr. I patted the steering wheel. “Hello, Juniper. That’s your name.” I spelled it out in dust on the dash. “You’re mine now.”
We opened the garage door and let her run for about ten minutes, like the guide suggested. The fuel gauge was on ‘F” so Megan figured we had some to spare. I didn’t want to shut her down, but we weren’t planning to leave until after dark.
“We should look around some more,” I said. “See if there is anything we can use.”
We found the missing pictures in a box in the attic. I looked at all of them but couldn’t remember who most of the people were. I put all but one back in the box. Grandma’s clothes were in the attic, too, and we grabbed a few sweaters, some mittens and a hat and scarf each. The real treasure was in the cellar: a bin full of camping gear. We moved the whole thing into the garage.
“We can charge these off the car,” Megan said, examining the label on a self-heating sleeping bag. “Good score.” She stuffed them in the car, right behind the front seats. “Funny. I don’t picture your grandmother as a camper, but she has all this stuff. I’m surprised she didn’t take it with her.”
I looked into the bin. “She probably didn’t know she had them. This stuff belonged to my parents.” I reached into the bin and pulled out a child-sized sleeping bag. “This was mine.”
“Should we take it?”
I tossed it into the car. “We might run into somebody who needs it.”
We took a break and ate some crackers we found in the kitchen
“This is your house,” Megan said. “You don´t have to go with me. You could go back and move here after your birthday.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn´t be able to keep it up. I´d have to sell it anyway.” I looked at her, trying to read her face. “I want to go with you.”
She took my hand. “I just want you to be sure.”
We took the cushions off the couch upstairs and laid them flat in the back of the station wagon. Megan crawled in to try them out.
“Excellent,” she said, after shifting positions a few times. “Squeeze in here.”
My breath felt like it tripped over my lip, and I nearly dropped the camp stove I’d just pulled out of the bin. “What do you mean?”
“There’s room enough for two.”
I set the stove down carefully, slipped off my shoes and crawled into the back. I flopped on my back as close to the door as I could, leaving about two feet between me and Megan. “Not bad. This is about as much space as I had at Hanover Place.”
Megan squirmed onto her stomach and propped her head on her hand to look at me. Her hair fell over her hand and swung easily below the neck of her shirt. We’d been together all day but this was different. If she were a few inches closer I could —
“You know I like you, right?” she said.
“Like me? Sure, I like you, too.”
“No, I mean I like you.” She drew out the word “like” as if it were caramel. I could almost see her pulling it from her mouth, a thread of stretched gooey-sweetness.
I felt itchy and hot. “You mean you like me, like that?”
She leaned in closer, and I felt the ends of her hair touch my cheeks. She looked into my eyes, maybe looking for permission, and then closed hers. I felt her first kiss on the corner of my mouth. I met her second kiss with my own, clumsily, I thought. I rolled and our bodies came together in the center of the old station wagon.
She drew back and smiled. “Is that OK?”
“I don’t think it will be a problem.”
She kissed me again.
Four hours later, I sat up fast, thunking my head on the ceiling. My mouth tasted like Paste, and I wasn’t wearing any clothes. Megan’s arm slid out of the mound of unrolled sleeping bags beside me and fumbled with her phone. The alarm shut off.
Megan stretched, and the sleeping bags slipped off revealing a body that was strange to me but deliciously familiar. She sat up and drew her knees to her chest. She tossed her head to move her hair out of her face. She caught me staring and grinned. “Good morning.”
“Is it time to leave?”
She shook her head. “We have about two more hours for packing; then we’ll hit the road.”
It was a busy two hours. We filled bottles with water, combed the house for anything we could use or trade, rolled the sleeping bags back up and took showers. Megan asked me to pack the toolbox and the folder of maps. The toolbox made sense, but the maps seemed like a waste of space.
“Can’t we just use your phone for directions?”
“We could,” Megan said. “But considering I’m about to go Roady with a minor, it might be better to run silent for a while.” She showed me the phone, which she’d powered off, and tossed it into the glove compartment. “Low-tech time.” She hefted her lapdesk. “I disabled the web on this, too.”
“What if we need to look up something?”
“I downloaded a lot of useful information first. We can reconnect it once they stop looking for us.”
I didn´t think that would take too long. I´d be eighteen soon, and the police had better things to do than look for a runaway reject.
“We ready?” I said.
Megan peered around the garage and wiped her hands on her pants. “Looks like it. Did you leave a note for the lawyer?”
I nodded. I´d thanked him for his time and said I´d likely be selling the place, with half the money going to me and half going into a trust for Hanover Place. It hadn’t been heaven, but I had to give Mrs. Lewis credit for trying. “Let´s hit the road.”
The battery in the garage-door remote was dead, so I thumbed the switch on the wall and stepped out of the way as Megan gingerly moved the big car onto the driveway.
“Last chance,” I yelled. She nodded, and I hit the switch again and ducked under the descending door. I swung into the Volvo´s passenger seat. “You OK driving this thing?”
Megan looked tense, but she nodded. “There´s a lot more to worry about than the last car I drove, but I got it. Put your seatbelt on.”
I pulled the strap over my chest and fiddled with the buckle. It clicked, and I tested it with a quick yank. “Got it. Where to?”
“West. I figured we´d find a convoy and make our way out to my mother´s place. I´ve seen her, maybe, once a year since she and my dad split up. We can say hello, maybe get some food.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
She grinned. “Not a clue, but I´ve got a good navigator. Start digging through those maps. Look for back roads.” Megan squeezed my hand and put the car in gear. “Watch what I do. We’ll find a place to park tonight, and I’ll give you a driving lesson.”
I leaned back in the cracked leather seat. I was smiling so hard my face ached. I took a deep breath and inhaled a mix of old car, musty coach cushions, and the old-lady soap we’d found in Grandma’s shower. It still smelled like freedom. I glanced at Megan. And it looked a lot like love.