A continuation of the story started in Here, There be Monsters
I heard Jenna call as the girls began to troop to their lessons, the hallways ringing with excitement and grumbling in equal measure. Her shout was the only warning I had before she launched herself into my arms, her head colliding with my chest. I stroked her hair back from her face and bent so that I could look into her eyes.
“No tears, Jenna. You’re going to live with the Thorsens and they will be your family—a mum and dad, real ones,” the smile on my face felt as stiff as the Head Matron’s.
“I wish you could come, too,” she said her bottom lip shaking as she tried not to cry.
I laughed to myself at the thought of tiny blonde Mrs. Thorsen and her husband—both immaculately dressed in pastels every time I saw them—taking home a gangly seventeen year old with hair so dark it was almost black and eyebrows to match it.
“I know, Jen, but you’re going to be so happy—the three of you. It will be wonderful.”
“Maybe I can come back and visit?” her eyes looked even bigger, the tears sparkling on her lashes.
I simply hugged her. If she ever came back—which I doubted to the depth of my being—I would be long gone.
“Lara, lessons,” Puckett appeared, interrupting our goodbye. “Jenna, the Thorsens will be here any minute. Your things are packed up and waiting in the office,” she held out a dry, white hand.
I squeezed Jenna tightly for the last time and released her to Puckett, ignoring the way my throat tightened as the little blonde pony tail swayed out the door.
I was surprised when I received a letter just over a week later—it was from Jenna. She loved her new home and her new parents, they had a cat—a fat gray tabby—and a swimming pool they could heat even in winter. She sounded blissfully happy. I folded up the letter and stuffed it into my knapsack, along with everything else that belonged to me. I wore one of my two pairs of jeans and my only sweater–the marshmallow. My three other shirts, underwear, socks, two books, and my limited toiletries were already packed into the beat up canvas bag. My one good pair of shoes—some old leather combat boots, were already laced. It was convenient that my birthday fell right when lessons broke for Christmas. According to Puckett, anyway. The other girls were downstairs—enjoying their end of term hot chocolate and cookie snack, a very rare treat. I needed the few moments alone. I could count the number of times I had been completely alone over the last eighteen years. I sat with my eyes closed, enjoying the solitude, carefully keeping my mind empty of where I would go from here. The floorboards creaked and I knew, without turning, that it was Puckett.
“Well,” she said.
Her voice always reminded me of the sound dead leaves made when you stomped on them.
I stood and pulled the straps of my knapsack on over my shoulders.
“Lara, you’ve been with us a long time. You’ve been a good girl and a good worker. I have your wages from the library that become yours when you leave,” she held out a fat envelope to me.
I took it, not bothering to check the cash inside. I carefully tabulated my hours at the library, so I had a pretty good idea of how much there was. Not nearly enough.
As she handed me a second envelope, I saw uncertainty in her face for the first time.
“You know what time the bus comes?”
“Well. Good. We will…miss you, Lara.”
I knew it was a lie, but I gave her a perfect fake smile that sent her out the door and back to her office. She too would be enjoying hot chocolate, no doubt diluted liberally with peppermint schnapps. The children would think she smelled festive. The scent lingered even as I heard her heavy tread fade. There was a note scrawled across the front of the yellow envelope. “To be given at eighteen.” It was Puckett’s handwriting and I knew it sat in my file since the first day I came here. I took a deep breath and tried to keep my fingers from shaking as I tore down the side of the envelope and slid the folded paper out.
I know they will have given you another name, since I told them you had none. But to me, you are my Nadia, my hope. I know this place is not a home, even though I can read it on the sign outside. I know it will be cold and hard and you will have no mother to comfort you. I also know it is better this way. You may not believe me, dearest Nadia, but it is true. It is one of two truths I can offer you. The first—and most important—is that I love you, my darling, my hope. The second is as I told you, you will never know me and that is the greatest gift I can offer to you. Take them both and live, my darling daughter.
I realized I had been holding my breath, the letter was damp in my hands and I loosened my grip, afraid to tear the age-thinned paper. Nadia. I tried to think of myself as Nadia and shook my head; too late for that, now. The words at the bottom caught my eye. Do svidaniya . I tried it out loud. Russian, I thought. It made sense, with the name “Nadia” as well. I looked back down. The slanting handwriting was delicate, feminine—nothing like my heavy-handed script. I pictured a beautiful woman, with dark hair like mine and a full figure–not like mine—penning these words as I lay sleeping, perhaps only a few hours old. This, this is what she left me? My mother who claimed to love me? A name I did not own, two words in Russian, and a promise that I would never know her.
The paper crinkled under my fingers as I tried to keep the hot tears running down my nose in check. I stopped myself just short of tearing it to shreds and stuck in back in the envelope, tucking it into an outside pocket of my bad next to Jenna’s letter. I shoved the envelope of money into the front of my jeans, despite the way the paper poked me, and pulled my sweater back over it. I checked the cheap watch on my wrist. The bus would be at the stop down the road in ten minutes. And I would be on it.