Julia Lu CC
A World Away
“How’re you feeling about this first visit with your mom?” Hannah asked. “How long’s it been?”
Jessa shrugged her shoulders. “Five months.” She had zero interest in talking to her caseworker—a stranger—about her feelings, which changed from one minute to the next anyway. She spent the half-hour drive staring at her phone. Pressure from her foster mother, Danielle, was the only reason she agreed to this. She wished her stomach would stop flip-flopping.
In July, her mother got herself locked up in Ohio’s Reformatory for Women. Fifteen-year-old Jessa was used to her being gone, with Desiree in and out of jail when she was using. This was different though.
They arrived, parked in a huge lot, and slogged their way to the entrance. A razor wire-topped chain-link fence surrounded the ugly old building, constructed with pale-yellow bricks and few windows. It sprawled amidst huge brown fields on this mid-November weekend, as they waited in a long line of visitors to reach the entrance.
Twenty minutes into the wait, a woman in line turned to them. “I notice you’ve got a purse and a backpack. You’re only allowed to bring in your IDs. I’ll hold your place in line while you get rid of them.”
Totally annoying. They thanked her and ran all the way back to the car to dump them.
A half-hour later they made it inside the enormous building, both of them frozen from waiting outside in the windy autumn drizzle. Neither had worn a hat or gloves or brought an umbrella. At the metal detectors, khaki-uniformed guards instructed them to remove their shoes and anything metal, to place them all in a dirty plastic bin while they walked through security arches.
After Jessa passed through, a female guard with a hard-looking face barked, “Spread your legs apart and hold your arms out.” She waved a wand all around Jessa and rubbed her hands—actually touched her!—up and down her body.
As another guard escorted them to the visitors’ room, where they would wait for a different guard to bring Desiree to the room, Jessa asked Hannah why they had to do that.
Dressed casually in black slacks and a sweater, Hannah ran her hands through her blond
bob. A row of six earrings studded her left ear. “To check for possible contraband. Should have warned you before we got here. Sorry.”
“Dangerous or prohibited stuff visitors might try to smuggle in, like weapons or drugs.”
“Yeah, they check everyone. Even babies.”
“It was so humiliating.” Jessa shuddered. A tall, slim girl, she wore faded jeans and a black Ohio State sweatshirt.
They entered a windowless room as large as a school gym filled with rows of tables where people sat and chatted in gray molded plastic chairs. Vending machines lined one end of the room. At the opposite end, three prison guards at a raised station surveyed the room. In one corner, a carpeted play area filled with colorful toys, games, and small tables and chairs gave mothers something to do with their little ones.
Women in orange-and-white striped uniforms, as well as children and older women in street clothes—virtually no men—filled half the tables. Jessa found an empty table and grabbed a seat while they waited for her mother. “I can’t believe they make them wear those stupid uniforms. They look like clowns.”
Fifteen minutes later, a guard escorted Desiree in, wearing her own clown uniform. Her face looked pinched and drawn, and her hair, already laced with gray, hung in a scraggly ponytail down her back. She rushed over when she recognized her daughter, who stood up on shaky legs when she spied Desiree. Her mother leaned in to hug her, but Jessa recoiled and sat down across from her.
Desiree’s shoulders slumped. “Sweetheart, I’ve missed you so much.”
Jessa rolled her eyes.
“I love those blond highlights in your hair.” Desiree reached across the table to touch Jessa’s long hair, but Jessa pulled away. For her birthday, Danielle let her highlight her wavy russet locks, something she could never have afforded before.
“And I see you’re wearing makeup now. Looks good.”
Thick, mascara-coated lashes surrounded Jessa’s light brown eyes, accentuating her almost translucent face, cheeks still rosy from the cold. Her mouth set in a hard line. Her mother looked like crap, at least ten years older than her thirty-nine years. Jessa shook her head in disgust at her meth-blackened teeth.
The caseworker put out her hand. “Hi, I’m Hannah, Jessa’s caseworker.”
“Thanks a million for bringing her today.” Desiree’s eyes glistened. “I’ve missed you so much,” she said again.
“Cut the crap. If you missed me, you wouldn’t have . . .”
Desiree opened her mouth to speak but stopped. She swallowed hard.
“Maybe you could tell your mom about your foster home,” Hannah said. “How well you’re doing.”
Finally, something Jessa wanted to talk about. “Dani and Ross are great foster parents. Their own kids are grown up. I’m the oldest foster, the only girl. The two younger boys are quite a handful though.” She looked wistful. “They remind me of Gabe. I guess it’s fine, if you have to be dragged away from your home and friends and school.”
Desiree flinched. “And how’s your new school—do you like it?”
“I can’t believe you’re pretending you care how school is. At home you barely knew what my classes were. Never came to a single one of my games last year. Do you even know what grade I’m in?”
Desiree wore a grim expression and picked at her nails.
Hannah supplied the answer before any more tension could bubble up. “She’s in ninth, freshman year. And she’s making all A’s, despite the move.”
Desiree fidgeted in her chair. “You were always so smart—”
“No thanks to you,” Jessa scoffed. “Like you cared.” School had always been Jessa’s sanctuary, the only predictable and supportive place in her life. She played sports and joined every club she could to stay at school as long as possible, taking the late bus home to look after her little brother, Gabe. This year she started on the girls’ soccer team, and her foster parents cheered her on at every game.
Desiree looked dejected and hung her head. “I did care. I always cared, but when I was using—”
“When you were using, what?” Jessa’s face reddened. “You’re always full of excuses.”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s an . . . explanation, I guess. Maybe it seemed like I didn’t care when I was using, but I’m not now. And I do care. I’m very proud of you.”
“I’m kind of hungry,” Hannah said. “Shall we see what the vending machines have to offer? Jessa, are you hungry? Want something to drink?”
They rose, weaving around tables filled with visitors, and wandered toward the vending machines which offered soda, candy, chips, and sandwiches. Babies and toddlers fussed, and based on the stinky smell, needed diaper changes.
They returned with three Cokes and sandwiches—stale white bread, rubbery turkey and cheese, no mayo. They needed the drinks to wash down the dry, tasteless sandwiches.
After they finished eating, Jessa’s face softened. “What’s it like in here?”
“Mostly pretty boring, although sometimes it can get scary.”
Jessa looked puzzled.
“Some of the women are in gangs, so I try to keep to myself. I don’t want to get written up and get stuck in here longer. My cubicle is s’posed to be for one person, but it’s so overcrowded there’s two of us.” She paused. “I have a job in the laundry—”
“You work?” Jessa asked, eyebrows raised. She couldn’t remember when her mother last held a job.
“Yep, five days a week. It’s broiling in there. And I’ve finished my GED,” she said proudly.
Jessa stared back at her, face unmoved. “What do you want, some kind of medal?” She shook her head. “Just because you’re finally getting around to what you should’ve been doing back when you were getting high instead?”
Desiree squirmed in her seat.
“Have you seen Gabe?” Jessa asked.
“Nah. Have no idea how he’s doing. You can only call collect outta here, and his grandmother—Billy’s mom—won’t accept my calls. When I got approved for visits, I wrote asking her to bring Gabriel, but so far, she hasn’t responded. Have you talked to him?”
“I’ve called him a few times. I guess he’s doing all right, but he always cries.”
Desiree’s eyes blazed. “Knowing that doesn’t help, you know. Every night I toss and turn on that skinny, disgusting mattress they give you”—she shivered—“worried about my baby boy in a whole new place. He barely knows that nasty old lady!”
“How come Billy never let his mother—what’s her name?”
“’Cause she’s mean and was so pissed off at him for becoming an addict. So, he said, ‘Fine, fuck you. Then you’re not gonna see your only grandbaby.’ Never mind that poor little Gabriel never got to have a grandma. Till now.”
Jessa chewed on her lip. “Isn’t it a long drive for her?”
“Yeah. She’d probably have to get a motel. That’d cost money.” She choked back a sob. “When am I going to see my baby? I’m afraid he’s gonna forget who I am.”
“Stop being such a drama queen,” Jessa said. “He’s eight, for God’s sake. He’s not going to forget you.” She felt like smacking her mother across the face, for being so stupid, for her destructive impulses, for doing the bad stuff that got her sent to this stupid place. Every time she thought about poor Gabriel her jaw clenched.
An awkward silence settled in.
Hannah looked at her watch. “We should probably get going.”
All three stood up to leave. Desiree shifted back and forth from foot to foot. “I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon . . .”
Suddenly, Jessa came around the table, threw her arms around Desiree, and burst into tears. “I miss you so much. Why’d you have to go and make such a mess of your life?”
The tears Desiree was holding back finally flooded out.
They hugged and cried until Hannah said, “I’m so sorry, but we need to get on the road.”
Jessa pulled away and wiped her eyes on her sweatshirt sleeve.
She never once called her “Mom.”
They walked out to the car, shivering through a drizzly mist that turned to snowflakes by the time they reached Hannah’s Toyota. On the ride home through the twilight, Jessa scrunched up in the passenger seat, knees pulled into her chest, huddled against her pain.
Hannah glanced at her. “Do you want to talk about the visit?”
Jessa turned to her, shook her head, and returned her gaze to the hilly gray landscape.
She did need to talk, but not with this woman she hardly knew, no matter how well intentioned she seemed. How could this stranger understand what it felt like to find a needle when she rummaged through her mom’s purse for their food stamp debit card so Desiree wouldn’t trade it for drugs? After she said she was clean. Or how it felt to be torn away from the younger brother she’d practically raised, the only bright spot in her messed-up family? Who Child Protective forced to move in with a grandmother he’d barely met?
Losing Gabe drove a jagged stake through her heart.
“How long have you been a caseworker?”
“Not long. I just graduated from college. This is my first job.”
So, she was only seven years older than Jessa. “Why’d you want to work at Child Protective Service?”
“Um, I guess I thought I could help kids—”
“Right. By ripping them away from the parents.” Jessa wrinkled her nose.
Darkness had fallen by the time Hannah dropped Jessa off in the driveway of her foster home in Hilliard. The northwest suburb of Columbus was two and a half hours and a world away from rural Jonesville on the Ohio-Kentucky border where Jessa had lived in a battered old trailer with her mother, stepfather Billy, and Gabe. Until they buried Billy after he OD’ed and her mom got carted off to prison. With no father and no relatives willing to take her in—Desiree’s parents cut her off after years of putting them through the wringer—Jessa got yanked out of Jonesville. With the opiate epidemic, foster homes in southern Ohio were in short supply, so suburban Columbus was the closest place they could find a family.
Jessa dragged herself out of the car and said a cursory thank you to Hannah, who called out, “See you soon.”
Not if I can help it, thought Jessa.
Jessa opened the front door and slammed it shut. She knew she should yell “Hi, I’m back,” but she wasn’t in the mood. Her shoulders slumped as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
She could hear Danielle’s footsteps clumping behind her up the stairs. Now she’d grill her about what happened. She hated talking about her feelings, but after four months, if she was about to explode, she might. If Dani probed gently and persistently enough. She threw her backpack on her bed and crossed the hall to the boys’ room. Tyler, six, jumped up to hug her while four-year-old Ethan fought to get in on the lovefest. A competition broke out for her attention. Both boys whined and raised their arms for her to pick them up.
“Guys,” Jessa said. “You’re too old for that. No fighting, remember? There’s enough of me to go around.”
The boys stopped tussling, and Jessa sat on the bottom bunk with an arm around each kid.
“How was the visit?” Dani asked.
There it was. Jessa looked back and forth at the skinny, tow-headed boys. “Can we talk about it later, after they’re in bed?”
“Okay, boys,” Jessa said, “you’re gonna have to find something else to do, because I need to do some homework.” They protested until finally she said, “I promise I’ll read you a story before bed, okay? And how about ice-skating tomorrow? That’d be cool, right?”
Both boys yelled “Yay,” and jumped up and down.
“You are so great with these guys,” Dani said. “Gabe must really miss you.”
You have no idea, Jessa thought. “When’s dinner?”
“Need any help”?
“I’ll give a holler if I do.”
“See you at dinner, you little ragamuffins,” Jessa said, and she tickled them until they squealed with delight.
Jessa went into her bedroom and locked the door behind her, just in case the boys decided to invade, despite her warning. She had a frantic need to be alone. This was the first bedroom she’d ever had to herself, the first time she could close the door and lock the world out. At Shady Grove Mobile Home Park, she’d shared a bunk bed with Gabe while Desiree and Billy slept on a pullout couch that never got put away. Now she had another sanctuary, her own luxurious space. She loved how the morning sun streamed through huge, lacy-curtained windows, waking her each morning. Dani and Ross had let her paint the room a calming, sage green. Across the hall, although she had to share it with the little rascals, was a bathroom with a tub, another first for her. Maybe after the boys were down, she’d settle in for a long, relaxing soak.
Her room had twin beds with colorful new bedspreads she’d picked out, in case she invited a friend over. Like that would ever happen. She lay down on her back, arms crossed behind her head. Would she ever make friends here? She had friends back in Jonesville, but the girls here led a different life. They lived in big two-story brick houses, and some of them drove their own cars. Their parents had careers, attended school football games, and talked to the guidance counselors about college, even in freshman year.
To make a friend she’d have to spill her guts. She wasn’t ready for that. The only person here who knew any part of her story was Dani, and she didn’t know the whole thing. Back home, plenty of kids knew her story, because they lived it. They, too, had parents from Jonesville High, the whole fucking bunch of them addicted to meth or opiates just like her mother. First meth, then heroin. She thought about the afternoon and pondered whether she could continue to visit for another two years. With Christmas six weeks away, she dreaded the pressure from Hannah, her mom, and Danielle to see her mom again. Ugh. She groaned.
On the other hand, she’d give anything to see Gabe. Every time she played with Tyler and Ethan she thought about the little guy and hoped Hannah could arrange a visit.
Her whole fucked-up life overwhelmed her. She thought she’d be so happy to get out of that shithole trailer park and move up here to the suburbs with rich people. It didn’t take long to realize she didn’t belong here. She couldn’t be her real self—not that she knew who she was—because these kids lived in a different world.
At her locker yesterday she overheard two girls talking about a third girl, Taylor, who was cutting. At first, she didn’t know what that meant and searched the internet on the laptop Danielle and Ross gave her. Another first—almost nobody in Jonesville had their own laptops.
Self-mutilation it was called. No one she knew back home was cutting themselves, despite their pain-filled their lives. What would that feel like? What would it be like to watch the blood pool around the tiny wafer-thin slices? How would that hurt compare with all the other hurt in her life? Would anyone even notice?
She pushed up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and gently rubbed her fingers over the blue vein beneath the soft white skin on her wrist. Would slicing her wrist with a razor blade relieve some of her pain, or would it be one more thing to feel shitty about?
She shook her head to banish those thoughts. If she was going to continue to get all A’s she’d better hit the books. She had social studies and biology tests before Thanksgiving. She sat up, pulled her hair back in a scrunchy, and moved to her laptop at her desk. She was tempted to read more about cutting, but instead she opened her biology textbook and started taking notes.
Dinnertime in the Redfield household was a chaotic affair with two noisy, hyperactive little boys with no manners. Unlike Danielle and Ross’s own two sons, who had been polite but picky eaters, these guys ate everything in sight, ravenous all the time, anxious there wouldn’t be enough. Emotionally stuck back in the days of getting only one real meal a day at school.
Dani yelled, “Dinner!” and Jessa and the boys pounded down the stairs into the kitchen to the intoxicating aroma of meatloaf and garlic roasted potatoes. Everyone took their seats. As Ross said grace, the boys fidgeted and poked each other while Dani gave them stern looks.
After Dani filled the boys’ plates, Ross said, “Dani tells me you’ve gotten all A’s at school this first quarter.” He gazed intently at Jessa. “Quite an accomplishment.”
Unused to compliments, Jessa blushed. “I did, same as last year.”
“But you’re in a tougher high school now,” Dani said. “You’ll be eligible for National Honor Society next year.”
“And,” Ross said with much fanfare, “if you keep this up, you’ll have no trouble being admitted to Ohio State.”
Jessa hadn’t thought much about college. Her teachers were the only people she knew who’d attended. “Could we talk about it later?” she mumbled, head bowed.
For once, she was grateful when the boys started a commotion, grabbing each other’s food. Dani jumped up to break up the ruckus.
After dinner Jessa helped Dani clean up while Ross took the boys into the family room for the roughhousing they loved. Usually someone got hurt, so she waited for the yelling and tears.
“Were the boys in the NICU?” Jessa asked, standing at the sink drying a pot.
Dani nodded. “Both. How do you know about the NICU?”
“’Cause they’re so small, and hyper all the time.” She played with the ends of her ponytail. “Gabe spent a week there, going through withdrawal.”
She was eight when he came home from the hospital, with that sickly cry, so hard to comfort. It made her furious Desiree did that to her own kid.
“So, how’d the visit go?” Dani asked.
“Seeing my mom today in that place made me realize I’m never going to rise above that sludge I crawled out of.” Her voice shook, and tears welled up.
“That’s not true,” Dani protested. “Let’s go into the living room and talk.”
Jessa sat on the sofa across from Dani, her legs curled up under her. “What made you decide to take me? You already had your hands full with the boys.”
“After my own sons were launched, when Ross got a big promotion at Ohio State, I retired from teaching. I wanted to make more of a difference with kids than I could in the classroom. When Hannah asked us to take in a teenager, Ross and I discussed it. We were worried a teen would be too old, maybe too damaged to help. But Hannah begged us to reconsider.” She smiled. “Plus, I always regretted not having a daughter.”
Was she too messed up to help? Too damaged? “I remember that first visit. I was scared to death.” So much was riding on it . . .
“I could tell, but you won us over, especially when we saw you with Tyler and Ethan. The way you crawled down on the floor with them and played trucks. It was love at first sight. You were wonderful with them.”
“I can see their progress,” Jessa said. “Even in the few months I’ve been here.”
“They don’t have nightmares anymore or hoard food. But they’re still so insecure and needy. Sometimes the constant squabbling gets to me, always fighting for more of everything—food, hugs, toys, attention.”
“And when they get back from a visit with their mom—”
“Thank God that doesn’t happen too often since she has to test clean from drugs—”
“Their old behaviors return.”
The boys returned angry, with the frenetic energy of trapped birds. Danielle and Ross got frustrated with them, but Jessa understood it only too well.
“I dread the day their mom finally cleans up and wants them back.” Changing the subject, Dani said, “Back to college—”
“How can I go to college in four years? Mom will be out by then—unless she screws up—and Gabe and I will be back with her. Who knows if prison will get her off drugs once and for all? The longest she’s ever been clean is a few months.” She dropped her head and sniffled. “Gabe will be just starting middle school.” She inhaled and sighed deeply, holding back tears. “I can’t leave him alone with her. I’m his safety net!”
Ross finished putting the boys to bed and came downstairs to the living room where Dani and Jessa still talked. “Jessa doesn't think she can go to college,” Dani said, “because she’ll be back with her mom by then and can’t leave her little brother.”
“You’re an outstanding student,” Ross said. “The honors program At Ohio State will want you. Even if you’re not here, we’re going to help you figure this out.”
The honors program?
“How about a university tour over Thanksgiving break?” Ross asked.
Could she afford to hope? Or was hope too dangerous? She risked a small smile. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a look, right?”
Bonnie E. Carlson writes amidst the saguaros and chollas in the Sonoran Desert. She has published stories in magazines such as The Broadkill Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Across the Margin, Fewer Than 500, and The Normal School. Her novel Radical Acceptance has just been released and a short story collection, No Strangers to Pain is forthcoming in late 2020.
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