A rich and memorable story from a Coretta Scott King honor award-winning author about a teenage foster girl looking for a place to call home.
Dess knows that nothing good lasts. Disappointment is never far away, and that’s a truth that Dess has learned to live with.
Dess’s mother’s most recent arrest is just the latest in a long line of disappointments, but this one lands her with her baby brother’s foster family. Dess doesn’t exactly fit in with the Carters. They’re so happy, so comfortable, so normal, and Hope, their teenage daughter, is so hopelessly naïve. Dess and Hope couldn’t be more unlike each other, but Austin loves them both like sisters. Over time their differences, insurmountable at first, fall away to reveal two girls who want the same thing: to belong.
Tanita S. Davis, a Coretta Scott King Honor winner, weaves a tale of two modern teenagers defying stereotypes and deciding for themselves what it means to be a family.
About the Author
Tanita S. Davis was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Mare's War, which was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Her most recent novel, Happy Families, was praised by Kirkus Reviews as "warmly drawn; a valuable conversation-starter."
Tanita was a foster sister from the age of nine until she graduated from college, when her parents adopted the last two babies, and retired. A native San Franciscan, Tanita currently lives in Northern California with David Macknet and a houseful of books.
Read an Excerpt
Odessa Matthews, Age Eleven
By the door, on the other side of the sheet that divides the room, Baby cries in his car seat. It sounds like the rusted-out springs on Trish’s bed, a hoarse over-and-over squeal. The wall above my head vibrates as next door bangs on it, hollering at Baby to shut up.
Baby cries kinda hopeless, like he knows nobody’s gonna pick him up.
I read on the Internet at the library about some babies that nobody ever picks up, in orphanages and stuff. It’s not good for them. In orphanages, if nobody picks them up, they stop crying . . . for good.
Trish should have taken him out of that seat. She knows he doesn’t like it if he wakes up all strapped down. She should have laid him down and given him a bottle and a kiss before he came. She should have left us in the car, instead of Baby in his seat and me on the floor in a corner behind a sheet tacked against the wall.
Trish isn’t even trying to treat Baby right. Not like Trish ever treats anybody who isn’t waving a Benjamin or a dime bag like anything but a crack in the sidewalk, something to step over to get what she wants. Her time for anyone who needs help or a favor, or a bottle and a dry diaper, is pretty limited. On the floor in the corner, I clutch my pillow against me and ball up tighter in my sleeping bag, which smells like old French fries.
Baby’s still crying. And crying. And crying.
And I can’t get him, not now. Not with Eddie here, with the spiderweb tatted between his thumb and his first finger, and all the letters in blue-black ink winding up his wrist and the back of his hand. I can’t walk past and pick Baby up. I can’t even crawl next to the wall, across the room, all the way to the door. I can’t get in reach of those hands.
The pillow goes over my head, clamped down. I don’t want to hear. I don’t want to hear the springs of the bed. I don’t want to hear Baby. I don’t want to hear Eddie getting mad, yelling about Why can’t you make that kid shut up. I can’t hear any of that, because if I did, I’d have to get up, and You’d better not get out of that bedthat’s what Trish said. She always says that even though I’m already eleven, and anyway, Granny Doris says a sleeping bag isn’t a real bed, and
Baby’s breath stutters, and I hold mine. Please stop, please stop. Please. Please. For a moment I think he will, but he gets louder.
Inside, I feel a twist. It feels like my stomach is trying to jump up my throat. He sounds bad, so bad . . . like he can’t even stop himself screaming. But I can’t go.
Once, Eddie caught Trish going through his pockets, and that’s when I saw that web stretched tight, when his fingers locked around her throat and he held her, eyes watering, heels drumming against the floor. She arched up, and the whites of her eyes went bloodshot and spit foamed up in the corners of her mouth while he held her down, while he told her that was what happened to girls who stole. Only he said “bitches.”
She’d grabbed his wrist, tried to talk, to beg, and I know she was promising him anything, anything, just to breathe. I know she was, because I was, too. He looked at us, begging and crying and clawing at him, and laughed. But it was me he was looking at when he let Trish up.
And every time he comes, I worry about that “anything” we promised.
Sorry, Baby. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Baby’s just whimpering now, probably all worn out. Maybe he’ll fall back asleep soon. It won’t kill him to miss one bottle. I guess it’s the “one bottle” lots of times that adds up, though.
God. If Trish just did what she’s supposed to, I wouldn’t have to call the social lady. They’re going to come and beat on the door like last time, and they’re going to cuff her wrists and take her. He’ll be gone by then. Those tats on his hands have eyes; they’ll never catch him. But herthey’ll find her, like they always do when she’s wasted. She’s going to be a messsorry and crying and promising anything, just like before. They’ll take us to stay with Granny Doris, who used to pinch if I wiggled at Mass and hollered when I peed the bed or cut paper with her sewing scissors. She doesn’t like little kids, and she doesn’t like messes. I know she won’t like Baby’s diapers, and she’ll holler at Trish, too, and Trish will be so mad. But I’ve got to call. I’ve got to.
Somebody needs to look after Baby.
Just before the bell rang for third period on the first day of her sophomore year, Hope Carter realized what the looks were about. There’d been an intermittent buzz for the past half hour, with sidelong glances, while Ms. Mallory, the geometry teacher, was going on about congruent angles. Hope, who actually liked geometry so far, was squinting through her caffeine-withdrawal headache and taking notes like mad. She’d even gone to the board a couple of times. Ms. Mallory was one of the nice teachers, and Hope didn’t actually mind all that much that she got called on.
But when she got back to her seat the second time, a square of folded notebook paper sailed through the air from behind and landed in the middle of her binder.
You’ve got a spot on your skirt.
Hope clutched the piece of paper and twisted in her seat. Natalie Chenowith, her usual lab partner in biology, was two seats behind her and was nodding hard, her green eyes wide behind her glasses. Hope frowned and pulled on the edge of her skirt. She’d wondered if she’d sat in something. It felt as if there was a little cold spot.
She was just considering raising her hand for a pass when the bell rang.
“Homework is due at the beginning of class tomorrow,” Ms. Mallory said, raising her voice over the chaos of twenty-four sophomores pushing out of desks and hurrying toward the door.
Hope bent over and picked up her pencil before standing. She found Natalie next to her, her hand pressing down on her shoulder.
“Wait,” Natalie hissed through clenched teeth. “Your skirt!”
“What?” Hope asked, craning to look at her own backside.
“Big spot,” Natalie replied, barely moving her lips. “Major. Sorry I don’t have a sweater. I didn’t bring a PE uniform today, either. You might have to call your mom.”
“It’s that bad?” asked Hope, suddenly panicked. It couldn’t be that, could it? She was two weeks away, according to the calendar, and she’d always been regular . . . usually.
She stood and awkwardly edged away from her seat. Carefully she picked up her backpack, then held it behind herself and hustled out of the classroom, head down, heart pounding. She headed for the nearest bathroom, where she yanked her skirt, twisted around, and . . . stared.
“Oh, crap . . .”
In the nurses’ station, Ms. Jerston took one look at Hope’s face and clicked her tongue sympathetically. “Is your stomach hurting? Looks like you need to lie down.”
“No, thank you,” Hope said. “Can I get a pass to sit here . . . until my mom comes?”
Ms. Jerston’s brows climbed to her hairline. “You want to go home? Why don’t you rest awhilesee if the pain will pass.”
Wordlessly, Hope spun around and pointed to the back of her skirt.
“Oh, honey!” Ms. Jerston said, and patted her on her back.
Her mother’s sympathetic sigh came down the line. “Oh, honey.”
“Can you just come get me?” Hope begged, already tired of hearing “Oh, honey” in that particular tone.
“Sweet, I can’t,” Mom said, her voice tense. In the background, Austin, who was four, was singing to himself. “Jamaira’s at the nursery, and I’m on my way to North Highlands, to the county offices. The Department of Children’s Services just phoned with our placement. We’re getting Austin’s sisternow.”
“What? Nooo!” Hope’s voice was just short of a wail. Why did her mother have to have foster-parent stuff today of all days? North Highlands was nearly three hours away from Walnut Hills. Was she just supposed to sit here and ooze? “Mom, there’s blood on my skirt, and it’s a yellow skirt. What am I supposed to do?”
“Oh, Hope,” Mom groaned. Through the phone Hope heard a crinkling sound and Austin’s insistent “Mama. Look. Mama!” In a muffled voice Mom said, “Just a minute, Austin,” then added in a louder tone, “I’m so sorry, Hope. Have you got supplies? Did you try to wash it out?”
“Of course I have supplies. I tried to wash it out, but”
“Ma! Where’s my car?” Austin’s voice was louder.
“Mom, it’s a yellow skirt!” Hope bellowed.
Her mother spoke over Austin’s voice and hers. “Well, see if the secretary has a stain stickor ask Ms. Jerston. If that doesn’t work, call Henry.”
Hope recoiled. “Mom! I can’t call Aunt Henry”
Of course, he was really her uncle Henry, but it had made him laugh when Hope was tiny and she’d insisted on calling him “Aunt” Henry. Hope didn’t have any aunts. Dad was a “lonely only,” and Mom was an only girl, with four brothers. Mom’s little brother, Henry, had agreed with Hope that everybody needed an aunt and had offered to be her honorary aunt forever.
“Oh, honey, I know Henry’s not your first choice, but Austin, leave the seat belt alone. Hon, the firehouse is right on Broadway. Your other choice is to ask if they’ve got something for you to wear from the lost-and-found.”
Wear something out of the lost-and-found? Hope’s skin crawled. “On the first day of school? Mom, I doubt there’s anything in”
“Maaaa-ma!” Austin’s voice was getting louder. “I just want to get my car!”
Hope heaved a sigh and spoke louder. “Mom? Can’t I take the bus and go home?”
“On the first day? Sweetheart, no. Absolutely not. Austin Matthews, put your bottom on the seat right now. Do not touch that seat belt. Hope”
Hope ground her teeth. As usual, her mother’s attention was divided between Hope and everything else, and as usual, everything else won and Hope lost. It felt as if she always lost. The foster kids were important, she knew. Austin had come to them as a tiny baby whose grandma was too old to take him and whose mother was in jail. Jamaira’s mother had abandoned her in a gas station recycling bin when she was just a few hours old. Hope knew her family was doing a good thing for the community, giving back and making a positive contribution to society.
Giving back was important. Hope just wished sometimes that her mother would maybe give back to her.
“Fine, Mom. Whatever. I’ll call Aunt Henry. Bye.” She hung up, not even sure her mother was listening anymore.
Dess, Age Fifteen
North Highlands County Services
This place reeks like coffee. Like coffee and old people, and I don’t know which is worse. I packed my stuff this morningone bag. Rena at the group home tried to get me to take some books and things, but I don’t want things. If I don’t own it, nobody can steal it. I can’t lose what I don’t have. So no things for me. I like my life to fit all in one bag. Only the clothes I chose and my sewing kitand nothing more than that.
I’ve been waiting for almost forty minutes, but I don’t care. There are no books, but I’ve got my music, and that’s all I need. If I were at Stanton High with the rest of the sophomores, it would be study hall, last period before lunch, and I’d be more bored than I am now. Boredom’s nothing. If you’re bored, at least nobody’s in your face, yelling at you, crowding you, or making you do what you don’t want.
There’s a desk with three chairs in front of it and a big office chair behind it. On a bookshelf in the corner there are magazines, and there’s a little table with one of those wire maze things, with wooden blocks threaded on it. I wouldn’t touch that for money; I read on the Internet at the library last summer that there are fecal coliform germs on computer keyboards and doorknobs and clothes people try on at the mall. Not even the pump bottle of hand sanitizer on the wall makes me want to touch anything. I hate the posters in here. What little kid smiles like that about an apple? Nobody gets that excited over apples.
The door opens, and it’s not the guard checking on me this time, just some big old black lady with long cornrows and dangly earrings. Rena at the group home always says that each person we meet gives us “limitless new possibilities,” but I don’t pay any attention when the lady smiles. I know some black lady has not got “limitless new possibilities” for me.
Then I see the little kid with her.
She’s talking, but it’s just noise, my heart’s beating so hard. With sweet, smooth skin like creamy peanut butter, in a striped shirt and jeans, he’s a bigger version of the baby in the picture Rena got me when I first came to the group home. He leans against the lady’s leg, staring at me like I’m staring at him.
It’s . . . he’s . . .
He’s darker than he used to be, darker than he was when he was a tiny baby and only the skin around his fingernails was even a little bit tan. I don’t even know how to feel, seeing his little Charlie Brown head, bigger now. Once it held just a fringe of baby naps, just a line of raggedy curls, but now it’s covered in sandy fuzz. His big old head on that little scrawny neck is the same, though. Why do babies have such big heads?
I pull out my earbuds. The black Amazon lady’s still talking.
“. . . and, Austin, this is your sister. Her name is Odessa.”
“Dess,” I correct, stepping hard and loud on the end of her sentence, even while my heart pounds. Trish picked the dumbest name of the dumbest city she could find to have me in, and I’m not having some foster lady tag me with that forever. Trish is crap with names; she had another baby, Dallas, but he died. Dallas, Odessa, Austin. Three for Trish from Texas. Just as well that poor baby died. The state would have taken him, too.