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I can already tell this is one of those moments I'll later wish I could forget. But like everything else, it will be burned into my memory forever.
"Elena Martinez, correct?" The pasty-white manager looks over my application with a frown. I stare at a piece of lint on his hunter-green polo shirt and shift in the hard wooden seat.
"Yes." Remember to smile, I think and force my mouth to curl up. A dusty, round clock ticks overhead. 3:56 p.m. Two minutes faster than the watch on my wrist.
A waitress in a red skirt the size of a belt heads to the table next to us. If they hire me, I'll be wearing that uniform too. Ugh. But I'll take whatever job I can get at this point.
As the waitress takes the couple's order, the woman's high-pitched voice slices through the restaurant noise. "Can I get the bacon cheeseburger, without mayo but with mustard ..." She goes on for another thirty seconds, replacing and adding so many items that she might as well make up her own menu item.
"How old are you?" the manager asks me, even though my age is right there on the form.
"Seventeen." His eyebrows shoot up, and I quickly add, "But I turn eighteen in two months."
He drums his fingers on the table and glances over my application again. My stomach growls at the smell of fried food wafting from another table. I haven't eaten anything since the free lunch at school.
The air-conditioning kicks on overhead with a loud rumble, blasting cold air down on me. I rub my arms, wishing I'd worn a shirt with long sleeves. I would have if Los Angeles wasn't in the middle of a freaking heat wave in the beginning of March, and if I had time to go home and change after school. No way was I spending the entire day in long sleeves, sweating all over myself. Besides, this is the nicest shirt I own.
The manager notices my movement and stares at my arms, his eyes narrowing at the sight of my tattoos. Definitely should have worn a different shirt. Why didn't I bring an extra one to change into? Or a sweater?
"Have you ever stolen anything?" he asks.
"No," I lie. Memories flicker through my head. At thirteen I stole five dollars from a foster mother's purse to pay for food. At ten I took a chocolate bar from a different foster mother's secret stash. At eight I swiped my father's bottle of whiskey and threw it in the trash. But this manager doesn't need to know any of that.
"Have you ever done drugs?"
"No." This isn't a lie. I don't mess with that stuff.
He stares me down, like he doesn't believe me. "Do you have any restaurant experience?"
"No." Yet another pointless question. It's all on my application — a big, fat zero. This is not going well. I can't afford to screw this interview up. I force another smile. "But I can learn."
He frowns but doesn't answer. I start to fold my hands on the checkered tablecloth but stop when I see how greasy it is. At the next table, the couple laughs. The sound gets under my skin, like they're laughing at me, even though I know that's ridiculous.
The manager finally stands up and offers his hand. "Thank you for coming, Ms. Martinez. We'll let you know."
Yeah right. I stand up and shake his warm, wet hand. He has a limp handshake. My father would call him a pendejo. But Papá is in prison for life, so what does he know?
The manager pulls his hand away and that's it. Another job interview over. I grab my backpack and start to walk toward the exit. I pass the other table and they laugh again. Maybe they are laughing at me.
What am I going to do now? I've been all over the city and have spent every free minute after school applying for jobs. No one wants to hire an underage, inexperienced, tatted-up Mexican girl. Even McDonald's turned me down. If I don't find something soon, I'm screwed.
In two months I'll be kicked out of foster care, forced out of my current home, and most likely will have to drop out of school. My time's running out fast, but I refuse to end up like some of the other foster kids I've known who aged out of the system. Living on the streets. Knocked up. Hooked on drugs. Sent to prison. Dead.
Screw that. I'm going to make it on my own. I'm going to college. I'm going to be free.
But I need a job, fast.
I swallow the tiny amount of pride I still have left and turn back to the manager. "Look, I really need this job. Please. I'll wait tables. I'll wash dishes. I'll do anything you want. Just give me a chance."
"I'm sorry," he says, crossing his arms. "We're not hiring right now."
Oh sure. Except for the NOW HIRING sign on the window outside. Rage flares inside me and I clench my fists. No one will give me a chance. Is it my age? My tattoos? My brown skin? What the hell is wrong with me?
The manager takes a step back, and I see a flash of fear cross his face. He's scared of me, of the anger in my eyes, of the ink on my arms, of the way my fists ready for a fight. I know I can take him, easy.
And the worst part is, I want to.
I'm jerked out of the moment when the woman at the other table raises her voice. "This is not what I ordered."
The waitress looks at the plate and then back at the woman, as though the words don't translate. "Bacon cheeseburger with coleslaw, right?"
"Yes, but this burger is completely wrong. Where are my onion rings? And my salad?"
"I'm sorry, what did you order?"
The woman huffs. "I ordered a —"
The words pour out of me before I can stop them: "A bacon cheeseburger without mayo, with mustard, no tomatoes, Swiss cheese instead of cheddar, extra avocado and bacon, onion rings instead of fries, and an extra side of coleslaw. Plus an order of the mixed green salad with no tomatoes, and a Diet Coke with no ice." I stop to take a breath, and then I add, "And he ordered the blue cheese burger with a Sprite."
Everyone's staring at me now — the manager, the waitress, and the couple at the table. Even a few people across the restaurant. Eyes wide, mouths open, suspicion and shock creasing their brows. I know these looks. I've seen them before.
My face burns, and I wish I could take back everything I said, redo the entire moment. I spin around and head for the exit before they can say anything.
A blast of heat and sunshine hits me as I step outside. I wanted to show them I could do this job just as well — if not better — than they could. But like a pendeja I let my anger get the best of me and proved to everyone in there what a freak I am. And the worst part is, I'll never forget this moment either.
Because I never forget anything.
The doorbell rings at 8:34 p.m. I stare at the green numbers on the clock, while Katie reads out loud from her homework. The doorbell doesn't mean anything. It could be a salesman or a neighbor. But I know better. Sudden arrivals in a foster home are never a good thing.
"Elena, you're not listening," Katie says as she looks up from her Spanish textbook.
"I am." I tear my gaze away from the clock and force a smile. "You're going to the 'discoteca.' Keep reading."
We're huddled next to a flimsy desk light because the bulb overhead is out and no one's bothered to change it yet. Not that there's much to see — two twin beds crammed into a room not much bigger than a closet with one dresser between them. It's obvious our foster mom once put some effort into decorating it with lavender walls and fluffy, pastel pillows, but a steady stream of rotating kids has worn the place down. At least with the light out it's harder to see the stains in the carpet, the fraying edges of the sheets, or the peeling paint around the windowsill. Still, I've lived in worse places. And I only have to survive this one for another two months.
Katie though, she's only fourteen. She has a long way to go before she gets out. I don't know who will take care of her when I'm gone. Not the Robertsons, that's for damn sure. They try, but they're stretched thin enough as it is. Not the other girls living here, who pick on Katie for being tiny and having hair so pale it's almost silver. Or they used to, anyway. I took her under my wing when she came here a month ago, after her mom OD'd on drugs. No one messed with her much after that.
Katie's kind and smart, and the system hasn't worn her down yet. I pray it never does, but who am I kidding? It gets to us all in time.
But once I get out, maybe I can help her. Or if not her, then other foster kids like us. Sometimes that thought is the only thing that keeps me going.
She starts reading again, and we work on conjugating the verb "to go" for her homework. I ignore the heavy feeling in my gut until my foster mom calls my name from downstairs.
Katie chews on her pen and looks up at me. "You should go see what she wants."
"I know." I sigh and drag myself off the bed. "Start working on the next section."
It has to be a social worker. No one else would come to the house looking for me. But I only have two months until I turn eighteen. They wouldn't make me move now, would they? I don't want to leave Katie, and even though this house is cramped and rundown, the Robertsons treat us pretty well and always have food in the kitchen. That's more than I can say for some of the homes I've lived in. But where I live has never been up to me. If they say I have to go, then that's that.
"There's a woman in the dining room who wants to speak with you," my foster mom says when I get downstairs. Her eyes are rimmed with dark circles and she's wearing one of her ridiculous aprons. This one is pink and says, Life is precious, handle with prayer. The TV in the living room isn't blasting sports at full volume, so my foster dad must be working late again. He's been doing overtime more and more these days.
From what I've gathered, the Robertsons couldn't have children of their own and thought they would do some good by taking in foster kids. A worthy goal, but they got in over their heads and now they're barely keeping it together. They're overworked and under-paid and have no idea how to deal with six kids who've all been through hell and back.
Once we turn eighteen, they're done. The instant the checks stop coming, we'll be out on the street. Everyone here knows it, and there's nothing we can do. The Robertsons are doing the best they can, just like the rest of us. It's the system that's messed up.
One of the other girls living here races through the hallway and up the stairs, followed by another one who yells, "Give that back. It's mine!"
Mrs. Robertson pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs. "Go on. I'll make sure no one bothers you."
I hold my breath as I head to the dining room, steeling myself for what's coming. It has to be a social worker, even though our weekly meetings are always scheduled in the afternoon. But who else would come to see me?
A woman in a sleek, black pantsuit waits inside, examining my foster mom's collection of tiny elephants. Her silky, brown hair has blond highlights, and she carries a slim, leather briefcase. After years in the system I'm an expert on social workers, and this woman isn't one of them. Her clothes are too nice, and she doesn't have that world-weary look in her eyes.
"Elena Martinez, I presume?" The woman extends her hand, with perfectly white-tipped nails. She has a firm handshake. "My name is Lynne Marshall. I'm from Aether Corporation."
I raise my eyebrows. Aether Corporation is one of the biggest tech companies in the world. My hand-me-down cell phone is made by them, along with the ancient computer in the office we all have to share. I can't think of a single reason why would someone from Aether Corp would want to speak with me.
Lynne sits in one of the rickety, wooden chairs and sets her briefcase on the scratched-up table. I hesitate in the doorway, still trying to figure out what this woman could want, before finally sitting across from her.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I'm here, so I'll get right to it," she says, as she opens her briefcase and pulls out some papers. "As I said, I work for Aether Corporation. My company has set up a special program with the state of California to help children in foster care transition to adulthood, whether that means going to college or getting a job and finding a place to live."
"What kind of program?" I've been turned down for every transition program I've applied to so far, thanks to my record. I don't want to get my hopes up, but I need a break so bad, even if this already sounds way too good to be true. I wait to hear what the catch is.
She lays the papers on the table and folds her hands over them. "We've had our eye on you for some time. Your grades are good, especially considering how often you've changed schools. Many teachers have remarked on your near-perfect test scores."
Near perfect. Only because I realized when I was younger that I got too much attention when my answers were perfect. Teachers got suspicious when I did too well on tests. Other kids teased me for being a know-it-all. And foster parents freaked out when I recited facts and details back to them.
"In fact, we had your school run a few basic tests on your entire class so we could confirm our suspicions. Your results stood out." A slow smile spreads across her lips. "We know you have an exceptional memory."
My throat tightens. They've been watching me? Testing me? How much do they know?
"It's truly amazing what you can do. Perfect recall is a rare gift." She leans close, like we're two friends sharing a secret. "Don't worry, we haven't told anyone else about your unique talent, including your foster parents."
I'm tempted to bolt out of the room like I did at the job interview today. I've worked so hard to hide my freaky memory over the years, but they know. Yet Lynne doesn't look at me like I'm a freak. Instead, she eyes me like I'm a piñata and she's waiting to see what kind of candy falls out of me. I'm not sure I like that any better.
She waits for me to say something, but when I don't respond she sits back and continues. "I'm told you tutor some of the younger girls here. Why is that?"
Her question catches me off guard, but I'm glad for the change in topic. "No one else will."
"I see." She looks down at the paper in front of her. "Your record shows you've been in quite a few fights during your time in foster care, including a bad one two years ago. Want to tell me what happened?"
My stomach clenches at the memory. It's still fresh in my mind, as vivid as when it happened. Those girls deserved it, but I hate thinking about that day. It's one of those moments that make me wish I didn't have a perfect memory. "No."
She gives me a smile, which I can tell is fake. I've seen that kind of smile before on social workers, teachers, and foster parents. The smile they put on when they're trying to be patient with a kid who doesn't want to cooperate. "Do you like to fight?"
"No," I say again. "But I will if I have to."
"Good, good." She seems pleased with my answer, which sets off little warning bells in my head. But before I can question that, she continues. "We'd like to make you an offer to join our program."
I sit up straighter and hope floods my veins like a drug, but I try not to show anything on my face. I don't want her to know how desperate I am. "What do I have to do?"
"We're recruiting a small group of extraordinary teens to participate in a short research project, which will take place tomorrow at one of our facilities near here. We'll pick you up in the morning and bring you home in the evening, so you'll only miss one day of school. The project is confidential, so I'm afraid I can't disclose any other details at this time." Her smile widens, her teeth perfect and white. "What I can tell you is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you will be greatly rewarded for participating."
Her offer is tempting, so very tempting. But I don't like going into anything blind. I study Lynne's expensive clothes and her fancy nails, trying to imagine what kind of "research project" Aether Corp could be doing with foster kids. From her questions, I'm guessing it's some sort of focus group. Watching movies, answering surveys, that sort of thing. Or maybe they're doing a study about "gifted" teens and want to ask us questions, have us solve puzzles, stuff like that. But then, why was she so pleased to hear I could fight? And why are the details confidential?
"We've already obtained permission from your legal guardians." She slides forward a stack of papers, the top one signed by my foster mom and some government authorities. Below it, there's a blank line with my name under it. Waiting for my signature. "Please read over the contract and let me know if you have any questions."
I'm tempted to just sign the thing, but I'm not that stupid. I scan the first page — and freeze when I see the amount of money they're offering. My God. No freaking way. That has to be a typo or something. There are way too many zeroes there. "Is this number correct?"
Excerpted from "Future Shock"
Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Briggs.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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