This is how it will go when the man and the girl show up on your porch:
It will be morning, most likely a Saturday or Sunday, fairly early but not too early – say 8 a.m. –on some nondescript, gray, dew-saturated spring day. There will be steam coming off the man’s coffee, funneled through the plastic lid, a thin rope interrupted by his sips. He will seem distracted, slightly off-put by having to do such a depressing thing on the weekend when he should be sleeping and enjoying the company of his wife or children or whoever else is at home, and he will barely acknowledge the girl as he speaks to you.
And when he does speak it will be in raspy, hushed tones, as if the neighbors are listening (which they aren’t, of course, because it’s 8 a.m. on a weekend, and it’s their only day to sleep in). It will be the same voice he used on the phone days before, when he called to arrange the whole thing, when he said something like: “We really need you for this one,” or, “it’s only for a couple weeks,” or “three other families have said no already,” or, “please, please.”
You’ll be able to tell that he more or less just wants to get this over because it’s awkward all around, with everyone exchanging glances and thinking carefully about what to say, unsure. For this reason he won’t stay long, along with the fact that, once again, it’s early on a Saturday (or Sunday) morning and he has things to do at home – even if those things include mowing the lawn and falling asleep in front of the Cubs game.
Then you’ll be left with her.
No one will know what to say; this is normal. There will be the sound of the man’s car when he leaves, the faint smell of exhaust, and the engine noises giving way to the birds and breeze. This is normal. There will be a brief period of silence, of probing eyes, of hands clasped nervously in front. Don’t worry. This, too, is normal.
Next to the girl will be a black trash bag, stretched at the neck and torn in several places, where the contents – all of her worldly possessions – poke through, showing bits of a shirt here, pants there, perhaps a toy elsewhere, but probably not, not unless she’s really lucky. Or, she will have a duffle bag, one that dons colors and designs done by employees at some local corporate office who wanted to do community service for the day and thought that decorating bags might be fun (not to mention a great team-building exercise). Or, she will be wearing everything she owns because the man who brought her here forgot to grab a trash bag from his cabinet before picking her up, and her duffle bag was stolen after the older girls in the home beat her up and took it; so now, wearing three shirts and two pairs of pants, she looks slightly puffy. It will remind you of a time when you and your cousins tried to put on every T-shirt you owned, just because. Your cousin topped out at thirty-three and looked like a walking, multi-colored marshmallow before your mom told you to stop, told you that you were stretching out your good shirts. Of course, you will then need to remind yourself that you and your cousins had a lot more shirts than this girl, and you weren’t wearing them all because you had to.
When she steps inside, you’ll get a better look at her, you’ll really be able to study her face. There will be black smudges on her cheeks and forehead and chin, and you won’t be able to figure out if they’re dirt or bruises; consequently, you’ll start to feel the sobering reality of it all. As she stands in the foyer, looking around with wide eyes (specifically at the small figures you made in your ceramics class last summer), you’ll decide that the smudges are dirt, both because the rest of her is dirty too and because it’s easier to stomach.
She will be silent. This is normal. It’ll be up to you to speak first, to create some sort of conversation. And it’ll be hard because, what do you say to someone who you’ve never met and who came from God-knows-where to live here for some unspecified amount of time? It will be hard, and this is normal.
Probably, though, your mom will rescue you by ushering her off to see her new bedroom, complete with a bed, dresser, your old toys, and pink and pink and pink (the fact that she likes pink will be the only fact you know about her prior to her arrival, prompting your mom to gather every pink item in the house for her). Encased in her pink room, a color of youth and innocence, amidst all these things she’s never had, she will lay her head against the wall and cry. Do not be alarmed; this is normal.
It’s likely that she will refuse to sleep on the bed for the first few nights, that she will lay on the floor instead, that she will awake in the night screaming, shouting about things that might be dreamt or might be memories.
“Get the bugs out! Get the..”
Or, “Daddy don’t… The… Daddy please… Uhhhhhh… No, don’t… Gaaaahhhh!”
Or, “Holy shit rats! Kill ‘em! Kill the fucking rats!”
Or, “Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit”
The sound of tiny fists and something larger (her head, maybe?) pounding the carpeted floor will echo into your room. No matter how hard you try to block out her shrieks – with your fingers or pillow or cotton balls – you won’t be able to, and afterwards you’ll hear them like they’ve been etched into your brain. Do not expect to sleep well the first few nights.
Sooner or later (sooner, preferably) she will begin to acclimate, to calm down, and to sleep in the bed. At this point, it’ll be easy to relax and think that life will return to normal. It’ll be easy to believe she’s adjusted to this new life and this new place. It’ll be easy to let your guard down.
She hasn’t really accepted her new life as much as she has adapted to it for her own survival. She will go about her day much like any other five-year-old would: playing, eating, talking, etc. But know that she is fragile, like an egg wobbling across a countertop. Her curly hair and large blue eyes; her smudgeless, bruiseless face; her toothy smile all belie her pain.
But it’s not her fault.
Keep this in the back of your mind. Nestle it away and pull it to the front when you need it most, whenever she’s rampaging around the house after being asked to brush her teeth, or eat her vegetables, or after being touched on the arm in the wrong place. Believe me, it happens.
Other things to be prepared for include (but are not limited to):
– Marks on the walls, from tiny hands and feet, from crayons and markers, from tomato sauce and fruit juice, from snot and blood. These marks will be sudden and unexpected, but you’ll always know when they appear; you’ll hear a slap, a scratch, or a general tantrum. If your parents recently had the walls painted, be prepared to paint them again. If they haven’t had the walls painted recently, don’t bother.
– Disappearing food. When you – groggy and sluggish – open the refrigerator on certain mornings, do not be surprised if you find that food has gone missing. Do not be surprised if you find bites taken out of apples and bread or finger marks in the butter, as if it was scooped out and eaten. You may find this missing food squirreled away in her room, under the bed or behind the dresser.
– Urine. It will most likely be in her bed, soaked through the comforter, sheets, and mattress, and you might even find it the same morning you discover the missing food. It may also appear in various spots around the house, dried into the carpet. Furthermore, you may – God forbid – notice a sick-sweet smell emanating from all the vents one humid summer afternoon. Do not be alarmed. You were prepared for this.
– Confusion. Learn to entertain yourself, keep yourself busy. Whether reading, drawing, playing outside (if the weather allows), or video games (if the weather doesn’t). This is important. Most times she will be a viable playmate. She will make blanket forts; she will run through the yards and cul-de-sac with you and your friends; she will play make-believe.
(A short note on make-believe: if during an innocent game of house or school or anything else she begins to act violent or sexual, stop playing immediately. This applies to pretty much anything else you do with her).
As long as she is a viable playmate – happy, childish, and carefree – feel free to include her in any fun and games. But there will be times when she is not a viable playmate (see above situations). During these times, it is essential that you know how to entertain yourself, not just for your amusement, but also to keep your mind off the commotion.
Don’t bother your parents. They will be busy trying to calm her, hug her, and love her. They will be busy praying silently (or, sometimes, vocally) in their bedroom. They will be busy speaking with the man on the phone, the same man who dropped her off, holding up the receiver so he can hear her tantrums, her violence, asking him “what can we do? Tell us what to do. Help us.” So do not bother them. Instead, take to your room, or a semi-quiet corner of the house (under the basement stairs, perhaps) and engage yourself in something else.
Learn to sit in your room and look out the window, out at the field of dandelions – some gold, others gray – and the industrial mower moving in large, sweeping rows, cutting them down. Let it keep your attention; do not be easily distracted. Learn to watch intently, shadows of clouds as they pass overhead and the green-gold remains of the fresh-cut flowers, thoughtlessly tossed aside.
Be able to multitask, to focus. You’ll need to do this consistently. Train your selective listening, honing in on the TV or videogames or birds outside your window and not on her hoarse shrieks and pounding fists, going on hour three for no apparent reason. You might even hear her throw herself down the stairs and the ensuing cries from your mom. If you cannot multitask, if you cannot filter it out, you’ll do nothing but listen, think about her past, and engage in the sad reality of it all.
Be able to continue this self-entertainment for as long as necessary, sometimes the entire day.
A final word of advice: don’t expect to understand her. There is nothing you can do to understand her situation short of living it for yourself, which, I assure you, you absolutely do not want. Instead, love her. Do your best to show her what she’s never experienced before. Include her. Let her be part of your games, your friendships, and your family. Accept her. At times you won’t want to. You’ll want to kick her out, pass her along, but no one told you this would be easy. Despite it all, accept her. This she will not forget.
This is how it will go when they take her:
It will be in the evening, just after dinnertime. In fact, you’ll still have plates and silverware on the table, complete with crumbs and other remnants. Her bags will be hastily packed by the door, and you will have helped pack them, having only found out that morning that she’s leaving. Her two new suitcases will be stuffed with clothes; you’ll have watched your dad struggle to close and zip them, pushing his knee down on top while tucking pink and purple sleeves in here and there. There will also be two duffle bags full of dolls, games, and stuffed animals. There will be a bike, with training wheels and colorful tassels drooping from the handlebars. This will all be sitting near the front door, some of it on the porch.
You’ll be finishing your meal when he arrives, mostly just pushing your cauliflower around on your plate and staring at your milk. She will be expressionless.
He’ll decline to come inside and instead stand on the porch, just off the front porch actually, looking around at all of her things. Out in the front yard there will be a dusting of snow; just enough to blanket the ground, but not so much that spots of dead grass don’t poke through in places. The man will just nod to himself, or to no one in particular, as she shuffles her way towards the door. A breeze will find its way through the barely open door and cause everyone present – excluding the man – to shiver and cross his or her arms.
Little flurries will descend through the amber streetlight, dissolving almost as soon as they hit the pavement. No one will say anything. This is normal. Your parents may or may not be crying, but she’ll be expressionless, just staring, not at anything in particular, just kind of off into space, past everyone, like she’s looking at something in the background that’s not really there. The man will just shift his weight from one leg to the other several feet away.
What you do or say in this moment is not of much importance. Whether it’s an embrace (most likely), or a kind goodbye (also likely), or grabbing her bags in anticipation (maybe), or nothing at all (possibly). She’ll react the same way to anything, which is to not react at all. She will seem to have lost touch with everything around her. This time in the front hall will probably last several minutes, until the man near the porch clears his throat or makes some comment like “we don’t want to get there too late. Your aunt hits the hay early.”
And then everyone will collectively grab her bags, her toys, her bike, and she will be empty-handed, walking out to the car. You’ll have to figure out how the bike might fit into the man’s backseat, trying several different ways. The man will suggest they just leave it and that he can come pick it up another time, but to you that’ll seem silly.
So you’ll continue jostling the handlebars, the wheels, the gears, trying to find the perfect fit so that you can close the door behind it. She will be standing behind you, like a ghost, watching, saying nothing. And at a certain point you’ll be frustrated. Your parents will have gone inside to grab one or two more things from the house, so it will just be you with the bike, her staring, and the man in the driver’s seat fiddling with the radio.
It’ll be stuck, the bike, with a wheel against the front seat and the handlebars in your grip, but that won’t do. You’ll need it to fit, to go with her. So you’ll push hard, leaning your weight into the bike and jerking it forward and back. The man might turn to see just what the hell is going on and he’ll probably grunt a complaint, but you’ll continue to shove the thing.
At a certain point, she will move around the side of you and into the passenger seat, then she’ll turn to watch. The bike’s parts will rattle against the inside of the car. Your teeth will start to hurt from gritting against one another, and your hands from gripping the bike. Just as the man turns around again to offer an “okay that’s quite enough,” or, “stop that now,” or, “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” a training wheel, wedged against the side of the car, will pop off and land on the driveway. And the bike will fit.
Things will more or less be a blur from then on. The car will pull out of the driveway and down the street, and your parents will be on the porch waving, and the flurries will continue to fall and melt into slush, and sooner or later you’ll have to go inside.
But no one will remember the training wheel, so it’ll sit there, out on the driveway gathering snow, alone.
Randy Magnuson is an MFA student and writing instructor at Oregon State University, but spent most of his life in the Midwest. He lives with his wife and dog in Corvallis, Oregon.