Leaving the psychiatric unit was a mixture of both relief and angst. I just wanted to get back to Beth. After two weeks of being away from her, I’d started to come apart. Not cool when you’re trying to present as a sane person. Every moment away from her made my heart ache. I listened for the sound of the lock clicking its release, then pushed against the heavy door. Even the air in the waiting area was better than I’d been subjected to on the hospital unit. Hospital smells were the worst to assault a person’s nose. The constant cleaning did little to make any of it disappear. I tried to imagine which smell might win a contest for most offensive, but it would be hard to pick a winner from this environment. Was it the alcohol swab, fresh out of its small wrapper, its sting hitting the air before the nurse swabbed for an injection? Was it from the patients who sat in the smoking lounge—the stink from their cigarettes grasping onto them like a thousand demons slashing at anyone who came within two feet? What about the chronic drug users with their crater-sized, infected abscesses? One of the nurses told me it was the result of shooting up with puddle water. The stench that drifted down the hallway from that was unforgettable. I know; it’s burned into my cellular memory. Today, I would get to leave it behind. Going back to Tandy’s place didn’t exactly thrill me. If it wasn’t for Beth, I’d have walked right out of there and lived on the street.
I went through the large double doors of the psychiatric unit, finding the waiting area quiet. Clearly, housekeeping hadn’t managed to make it in here. The cheap side tables sat littered with takeaway coffee cups and crumpled chip bags. But the space was free of hospital stink, and for that I was grateful. I felt a presence come up from behind, Bhotu. The orderly paused, his discomfort obvious in the stillness and silence of the space. Why he was reacting this way, I had no clue. It wasn’t as though any visitors had shown up during the two weeks.
“To be honest, I’m surprised. I thought she’d come to pick you up. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with just leaving you here.” Bhotu took his hand away from the door, allowing the one side to close. The resounding click of the door locking into place punctuated his statement. The doors automatically locked to prevent patients from leaving the unit and visitors from entering. Although referred to as a secured unit, I found the term prison much more fitting. At least calling it a prison seemed more honest. During my latest stay at the Hotel Crazy, I’d learned much about Bhotu and his surprising life. He’d come from a background of poverty and had made it to America. Bhotu had wanted more from life and had made up his mind to change his stars. Not once had Bhotu judged me. That was rare.
“I had my birthday the day I arrived here. I’m seventeen, and Tandy has reminded me that I only have a year left before I age out of the system.” I didn’t tell Bhotu about the other part of the conversation—about Tandy being so horrible and making good on her threat to have me evaluated again because she didn’t like my kind. This wasn’t new to me. Living in the group home under Tandy’s ever-changing rules and mood swings had left me exhausted. Trying to survive Tandy was like being on an endless hamster wheel of stupid. After years of struggling, I felt like a piece of material with frayed ends and threads hanging. Was I finally unraveling?
My throat tightened with the thought of having to deal with Tandy again. Tandy, the one preaching religion to the bunch of us even though it was against all policy. Tandy, who lectured about morals when she didn’t display any herself. Tandy, who doled out dessert according to which one of us she liked on any particular day. Some people just didn’t have the patience to work with youth. I’d never told her that, but I’d gotten at her with my gift. Beth was the only reason I stayed at the group home. If it wasn’t for Beth, I wouldn’t give a damn about leaving Tandy and her crap behind.
“In good conscience, how can I let you go?” Bhotu’s face mirrored the annoyance and hurt that had edged his words. Suddenly, there was a movement in my peripheral vision. A spirit. The veils came down, making the spirit’s form more visible. Since I was a child, I’d been able to communicate with the spirit world. Try telling that to a psychiatrist and not be locked away for the rest of your life. The message was about Bhotu and how shocked and angry he was about Tandy putting me in the hospital. This spirit wanted me to understand that Bhotu was on my side. I stared at the big orderly, feeling a real connection to him. I’m large for seventeen, but Bhotu towers over most people. It’s an asset to be big and strong on a psychiatric unit. There are times when you have to control people physically. It’s not easy and some fight hard. A person freaking out can do lots of damage. I witnessed one girl having a psychotic episode. She’d thought there were spiders crawling on her body and had fought like a wildcat. It had taken three people to hold her for the injection. I don’t think the girl could have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but man could she fight! I glanced up to find Bhotu patiently studying me.
“How about if I walk back? I promise I’ll go back to Tandy’s place. You can call and check to find out. Hey, man, don’t worry. It’s okay. Maybe she got hung up with something.” I adjusted the backpack on my shoulder. Now late spring, the weather was warm, and the walk would do me good. Besides, I needed to think and plan. My room at the Tandy Inn might have already been designated to someone else. Was I going to get pushed along and into yet another bad situation?
“I am disgusted she did not meet you, considering she was the one who sent you here.” Bhotu shook his head. I understood that he wasn’t comfortable just letting me walk out of the hospital alone. The spirit held up a long rope of braided gold that went between Bhotu and I. It was a message about how anguished Bhotu was over my circumstances.
“Will you be okay? Here, take this.” Without warning, he pushed several bills at me. I don’t think I can remember the last time someone gave me some money. I took it, tucking the bills into the pocket of my jeans.
“Thanks, man. You are one of the few people I’ve met in the medical world that didn’t want to shoot me full of antipsychotics.” I was relieved when he smiled. I just wanted to get out of there and into the sunshine.
“Keep care. Despite what some say, I do not believe you are ill. I believe you came to earth with something extra. Something good. Don’t let those that would tell you otherwise taint your heart.” Bhotu inclined his head, his palms pressed together in front of him. I returned the gesture. Over my stay on the psych unit, I’d learned much from Bhotu. He may have been an orderly, but he did more for the patients than most of the doctors on staff. He listened, and he didn’t judge. One time I’d heard some of the staff making fun of his heavy accent when they’d thought he was out of earshot. I’d got the distinct feeling that Bhotu had heard, but hadn’t said anything back. The guy was calm and cool. I’d miss him. If anyone ought to be running a place for homeless and troubled teens, it should be Bhotu.
“Stay cool, man,” I said, heading for the doors to get outside.
* * * *
Already afternoon, the day was warm and inviting. April had only arrived, yet the weather felt more like early summer. I walked along the sidewalk, wanting to leave the Braken hospital district and its endless small cafes and coffee bars far behind. I didn’t want to chance running into any of the staff from the hospital. This had been my third time on the unit because of Tandy. Thanks to Bhotu, this time it hadn’t been a total nightmare. I’d got wiser about how to behave while being observed. The trick was not to act out. Displaying any kind of resistance or hostility had led me to be medicated in the past, and I hated needles.
Awful. I shuddered at the memory of the drug burning its way into my system. How the medication slowed thoughts and rendered the world around dull and lifeless. I turned left onto Mackie Way and into a neighborhood that didn’t make my skin crawl. Like it or not, I carried the stigma of being labeled mentally ill, and there’d be no erasing that.
That it was Tandy’s fault I’d ended up here made my blood boil. Beth. I’d think about Beth. Just the sound of her name was enough to send my senses reeling. Beth—soft and gentle in a place of harsh and darkness. Each time I felt the walls closing in on me, I conjured her face, the graceful lines of her bone structure, the way her skin glowed in the morning sunlight.
“Beth,” I whispered, not caring if those passing by heard me. Her name floated like a leaf on the wind. Suddenly, a memory surfaced of a town I’d been to with my parents. I had no idea why this had come up, but I went with it. It was beautiful, an ocean of prairie with long golden wheat blowing in the afternoon wind. I’d like to show Beth, take her there. What we needed was somewhere new to start over. There had to be a place where people didn’t rush around and act like complete jerks just because it was tolerated. I longed for a slower pace, where there were moments of actual silence in a day. It had to exist. There had to be a place where Beth and I could make a home and want to stay. Somewhere far from here, where it was safe, and laughter could fill a day instead of tension and uncertainty. The only place that came to mind was that little town I’d been through so many years ago…
“Want to score some?” Without warning, a guy dressed like a Rastafarian jumped right into my path. I had to brake fast, or I’d have mowed the guy down. At over six feet in height, my size discourages many from approaching me on the street.
“No thanks. Not looking to buy.” I maneuvered around the guy, continuing on.
Suddenly, I felt my pack being grabbed from behind.
“Hey, what is your problem?” The Rasta wasn’t about to give up.
“What do you want?” I wheeled around, smacking the guy’s hand until he released his grip on my pack. The Rasta stood all postured up, arms crossed over his chest, trying to appear tough. He wasn’t. The guy just didn’t have it. His dreadlocks poked out from the colorful rastacap he wore, making him look like some puffed-out bird getting ready for mating season. The oversized shirt hanging below his waist accentuated his slight build. I tuned out to allow the veils to drop and find out from the spirit world what this guy wanted. As the filmy veils descended, the spirit of a man appeared. He walked in circles around the Rasta, yelling, but the Rasta couldn’t hear him. The spirit’s agitated vibe struck out repeatedly at me, and I had to step back to keep my perspective. Clearly, the spirit wanted to convey something about this individual.
“Do you have any spare change?” The Rasta glanced around nervously. He looked uncomfortable. A few people had slowed to stare at us. The last thing I wanted was some sort of ugly confrontation.
“Do you want a coffee? I’ll do that.” I didn’t wait for the guy to answer but walked toward the small coffee bar on the corner. The sound of footsteps close behind let me know the guy had chosen to follow. This would cut into my schedule, but I’d come to understand that things didn’t happen unless there was a reason. Spirits could be very persistent to the point of outright harassing when they wished to convey a message.
I paid for the order with the money Bhotu had given me. I indicated to one of the tables outside. The day was just too nice to waste sitting indoors.
“What’s your name and what’s your story?” I asked, sprinkling a heavy dose of cinnamon into my coffee. The Rasta sat across, tucking a dreadlock under the edge of his tam. The guy’s headgear was almost as colorful as the baskets of fuchsias hanging overhead. The containers of flowers hung heavy from the pergola, their blossoms cascading down in an array of purples and pinks. If only it was Beth and me sitting here, talking about building a future together.
“You take it like that?” The Rasta had chosen a large mint tea, and a bagel. “Reggae. My name is Reggae—like the music,” he said, glancing up at me. I felt as if he was waiting to see how I’d react.
“I’m Webster, and yes, I take it like this. Don’t judge my cinnamon habit.” I stopped talking as the veils came down and I was approached by the spirit of a man. He said he was Reggae’s Uncle Mark and had died just two months ago. Up until then, he’d been Reggae’s guardian, but now the Rasta was on his own. The apartment had been closed up three weeks ago, and Reggae had been tossed out by the landlord. They’d let him stay there while the legalities were being sorted. Reggae’s luck had run out when they’d discovered the uncle had no legal will and there were no other relatives to take him in. At seventeen, soon to be eighteen, they’d considered him old enough to be on his own. The Child Services Department had given him the address of a homeless shelter, but it had been full. Without parents or any money, Reggae had resorted to the street. The spirit asked if I could help his nephew.
“What is your story?” I wanted to hear it from Reggae’s lips. The spirits rarely told a falsehood, but sometimes they embellished, either to make a point or to sway an opinion. I had to weigh everything before making any moves.
Reggae stared down and into his tea, as though expecting some answer to jump out of it. I waited, watching as he scratched indentations of pattern into the side of the cup. “I’m in a bad space. Some stuff happened, and I’ve lost my place.”
“Stuff? Like…” I dug into the muffin. It was still warm from the microwave and the pad of butter melted as soon as it made contact.
“Look, long story short—I had an uncle, he died, and now I don’t have no one or nothing. The powers that be said I don’t got no right to anything cause nothin’ was down on paper. They told me to make myself scarce.” Reggae bit into the bagel. In seconds it was gone. The Rasta was hungry. He probably hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. I didn’t say anything. I’d been there. With all my heart I wished I had the cash to buy him more food.
“Do you want to try at the group home where I’m living? I don’t know if Tandy will take you in, but it’s worth a shot. Fair warning, Tandy has some sharp edges to her. Even if you don’t qualify to stay, she might be able to find somewhere for you to go. If nothing else, maybe she’ll let you crash for a couple of days.” The muffin was gone in just three mouthfuls. It went down nicely. Hospital food sucked badly, and I wasn’t often one of Tandy’s chosen few that got dessert at the house. The muffin was a treat, and I inhaled it. Bhotu had been very kind to front me some cash, and I’d remember that gesture for a long time to come.
“Okay.” Reggae didn’t argue, and from the look on Uncle Mark’s face, that must have been a first. The spirit’s energy faded and my head cleared.
“Hey man, isn’t a group home for criminals or recovering addicts?” Reggae asked.
Close enough. Tandy would probably be nicer to recovering criminals and addicts. Why Tandy called her place a group home was odd, but there it was.
“You’re thinking of a halfway house. Tandy calls it a group home for teens in need. There’s a lot of things that don’t make sense, I just don’t try to figure them out anymore.” I didn’t have the energy to describe what I’d seen and experienced at Tandy’s place. “Let’s go. I need to get back.” I grabbed my pack, and we headed down the sidewalk. No doubt the real reason Tandy ran her place as a group home was to get around numerous rules, and still be able to suck money from the system.
“Webster, that’s a different name. Like the dictionary? Right?” Reggae cracked a smile.
“I get that fairly often.” It was then that I noticed it; the blue band on my wrist. The hospital wristband! I might as well be wearing a neon sign flashing the word, crazy.
Reggae saw it before I could hide it. “Hey man, you were in the hospital?” The Rasta grabbed my arm, reading the blue lettering. “Psych? Why were you on a psych unit? You’re not crazy, are you?”
The poor guy looked alarmed. “According to some people, I’m Webster, the unhinged edition.” I laughed, and he joined in after a couple of seconds. “No, I’m not crazy. Tandy, the woman who runs the group home, sent me for an evaluation. She was angry at me and decided to make my life difficult for a couple of weeks.” I wrenched at the thick plastic band on my wrist, but it didn’t budge. When a knife suddenly appeared alongside my arm, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“What the hell!”
“Easy man, I’m just going to cut it off for you. We’re cool.” With one quick movement, Reggae sliced through the band.
“Thanks. Just so you understand, I’m not some lunatic. I have a gift, and it’s got me into some serious trouble. People don’t understand it, and I’ve been labeled.” I glanced up to find Reggae watching me with those dark eyes of his. Haunted. His eyes looked haunted.
“I’ve seen some weird stuff over my years.” Reggae stroked his scraggly beard. “Not much would rock my boat. Not anymore.”
“I see spirits. I can communicate with them.” I threw it out, waiting to see what his reaction would be. The Rasta would either stay to find out more or bolt. Most people ran, and they didn’t look back.
“That’s pretty messed up, but it’s also cool. Can they give you lottery numbers or bank accounts?” Reggae nodded at me, with a hopeful expression.
“No. They show up when they want me to intervene and help, or just talk to someone. Sometimes they’ll give me an important message.” I stared at the Rasta without breaking eye contact. Would he get it?
Reggae’s eyes opened a bit wider as he got my meaning. He moved back a couple of steps. “Oh, I see. Yeah. Okay. That’s why you stopped to talk to me. Cool. So, that cow at the group home wanted to mess you up by sending you to the hospital. Did it?”
“No.” I stuffed the hospital wristband into the pocket of my jeans. Another lovely memento to store away and show the grandchildren in years to come. “I know the game now. The first time, that sucked, but that’s a long story. Some other reincarnation.”
“Yeah, you never know what the future holds. I don’t know who you are, but you don’t seem too messed up. You must not be if you’re willing to help me out.” Reggae fussed with his tam.
“Where are your parents? And if it isn’t too offensive, what is your background?” I asked, studying his face. His features and darker skin tone suggested a blended background.
“Dead. My mom was from the East Coast, but my dad was Jamaican. I’ve got mixed features from the two backgrounds.” Reggae didn’t look too pleased with the question. When his gaze narrowed, I wondered if he’d been asked this far too often.
“I’m sorry about your parents and your uncle.” Asking how or when those events had happened didn’t seem like a good idea. I got the distinct impression that Reggae wasn’t the type to volunteer information.
“So where are your parents?” Reggae threw my question back at me.
“They’re both dead. My dad died of a stroke, and Mom was killed in a car accident about seven months after. That was over four years ago. I didn’t have any siblings or relatives to take me in, so I was shoved around in the system until landing at Tandy’s place. I thought it would be cool, but looks can be deceiving. She’s in it for the money.” We’d reached the corner, and I stopped, waiting for the walk signal. All around me, people hurried along, going about their daily business. I wondered if my life could ever be normal like that. Were these people just out to shop for dinner or picking up some supplies? Did they ever worry about their next meal or if they’d be sleeping under a bridge? Was their biggest concern about clearing the dinner table before their favorite television show came on?
“Most people are in things for the money. Way too much.” Reggae gave me a sideways glance, and I shivered. The guy’s eyes were definitely haunted. Something had reached into Reggae and touched his soul, but not in a good way. I got the feeling that Reggae had lost any trust he might have had a long time ago. I wouldn’t pry. Stories always came out when it was time to tell them and not a moment before. I knew that. I also had the feeling that Reggae would be around for a while. I thought about telling Reggae about Beth, but it was too soon. I’d wait and see how things unfolded.
The Rasta jogged ahead, then stopped in my path, blocking me. “So, man, what is your background, if that isn’t too offensive?” Reggae smiled, and a glint of pure mischief went over his eyes. The guy was pushing me, but it was all in fun.
“Irish on my dad’s side. Way back. I’m almost a carbon copy of my dad. Our eyes are the same steel-blue, and I got his dirty blond hair.”
“Come on man, with your height and hair all messed up like some beach boy, you must be some chick magnet. I’ll bet they throw themselves at your feet.” Reggae was just giving me a hard time, but I still caught an underlying meaning to his words.
“Someone already has my heart.” I loved Beth, but not many people would take a seventeen-year-old seriously on that subject. Reggae only raised his eyebrows briefly.
“She must be someone special. Myself, I like to play the field, share myself around so that all the women can get a sample of this fine.” Very slowly, Reggae moved his hands down his body as if displaying a product.
I laughed. The guy was good. One question nagged at me, and I slowed my pace. “How have you stayed this clean being on the street?” I noted the beaten-up running shoes the Rasta wore. One shoe had part of the top torn away, leaving his foot exposed. I understood just how bad a person’s circumstances could get. Walking around with cold feet was a crappy deal.
Reggae’s wide smile had a hint of mischief to it. “I stole a couple of towels from the laundromat and sneaked into the recreation center. I waited until a bunch of people close to my age had gone through, then I made out that I’d been left behind. I told the woman at the counter that they had my ticket. The woman just waved me through. That’s where I cleaned up.”
“Good move. Are you dressed like a Rasta because you follow the beliefs, or is it just for show?”
Reggae’s smile got even bigger. “I like the look. The whole Jamaican lifestyle appeals to me. No time constraints, no worries. You know, hakuna matata.”
Hard to argue with that. “Sure. We could all use less on the worry front. No doubt. Come on.” I moved the pack onto my other shoulder.
We walked the rest of the way back to the group home in silence. I didn’t mind having Reggae’s company. The guy may have gone through dark times, but he had an energy about him that came through like the sun cutting through the rain clouds.
* * * *
We walked through the small wire gate and into the yard. In the two weeks I’d been away, Tandy had let the grass grow up and out of control. The buttery yellow dandelion heads ran wild, fully interwoven into the grass. I shook my head in disgust. Every week, I mowed the lawn, but it appeared to have been left during my absence. It wasn’t like the property was some acreage. It was a city lot! Why Tandy couldn’t have made more of an effort amazed me. I took a deep breath, preparing for what might be waiting ahead. Would Tandy even let me back into the house?
“This is a group home? Aren’t there supposed to be some sort of regulations and stuff for this kind of thing?” Reggae’s voice held notes of disbelief mixed with outright skepticism. Considering the state of disrepair the house sat in, he was only questioning the obvious. The siding held only smatterings of paint. The corners of the house had large chunks missing. The remaining wood was rotting away, and the roof needed an overhaul. During my time here I’d come to the conclusion that the roof not leaking was more miracle than structural.
“You don’t get much bang for your buck here. She isn’t the type to reinvest into the business.” I looked around, mindful of being back on the property. If Tandy was around and just happened to overhear…“Watch your step and what you say, she’s a dragon.”
“Noted and filed.” Reggae pointed over to the stairs. “Who’s the fox?”
Beth sat on the steps to the front porch. A jolt went through my heart when I took in her sad expression. She seemed lifeless, despondent. She leaned against the rail, her whole body almost blending into the wood. If it hadn’t been for the sun catching parts of her hair, lighting up its caramel color, I might have walked by her.
“Beth. She’s mine.” I swore under my breath as soon as I’d said it. I knew I didn’t have the right to say that about Beth. She didn’t belong to me. She wasn’t property. She wasn’t anyone’s. Beth belonged to herself. “Actually, no. Not true. I would like her to be mine. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that I’ve missed her so much. She’s got a heart like no one I’ve ever come across on this messed-up planet. It’s like a part of her has never been touched by the world.”
“Hey, man. That was too cool. You write?” Reggae stared at me with the most perplexed face. “I wish I could say the same, that I still have a part of me inside that the world hasn’t managed to sour, but I don’t think so. Not anymore.”
“I’ve been in love with her for a long time. Behave.” I went ahead of Reggae, wanting to reach Beth first. Who was I telling to behave? I wanted to grab Beth and swing her around, but that couldn’t happen. There were rules here, and if they were broken, I might not be able to see or have contact with Beth.
“Okay, man, I’ll keep my distance. Just settle down. I can turn down the volume on my fine, beach boy, don’t sweat it.”
I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.
“Hey, Beth. How are you?” I stayed on the bottom step, not wanting to rush up and crowd her. Her expression was so sad, and I would have given anything to hold her.
Slowly, she looked up, realizing it was me standing there. “Webster, you came back! I was so worried. No one knew why you were sent to the hospital.” She glanced behind her shoulder before continuing, “Tandy won’t say anything.” When Beth smiled, it was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud.
“Everything is all right. Nothing to worry about. How’s it been here?” I wanted to keep it light, not make a big deal out of what actually had been a big deal for me.
She wrinkled her nose, and that little gesture sent my heart rate jumping. Beth had a hold on me something fierce. Sometimes it felt like I was dangling like a puppet, and she was the one in control of my strings.
“I wish there was another place to be, anywhere but here.” A corpse couldn’t have missed the longing in Beth’s voice. I wished I could snap my fingers and make it happen.
“There is. There will be. Don’t ever stop believing that things can’t get better.” I reached, just barely making contact with her cheek. Her skin felt silky, and my body lit up with wanting until a discreet cough coming from behind broke the spell.
“Hey.” Reggae’s voice came forward, bringing me back to earth.
“Beth, this is Reggae. I met him coming back from the hospital. He’s looking for a place.” Embarrassed, I stepped aside so that Beth could see him.
“Nice to meet you, Beth.” Reggae touched the edge of his tam.
“It’s nice to meet you, Reggae. I love your tam.” Beth pointed up to his colorful hat.
“We’d better go in. Tandy will be out any second. You know the rules about talking too long with another house member.” I laughed, but it sounded hollow, fake.
“I’d better go in first, or you’ll never hear the end of it.” Beth stood, nodded at Reggae, then went up the stairs.
After a couple of minutes, we went inside. I led Reggae through the kitchen and down the hallway to Tandy’s office. Tandy’s living quarters and her office were away from the main part of the house. The office door was open, and Tandy was lounging on the sofa. A game show blared from the television. Not much had changed.
“I’m back.” I stood in the open doorway, hoping her mood wasn’t too vile today.
“Too bad. I’d hoped they would have kept you locked up in there. You are…” But her words trailed off when she realized that there was someone standing just behind me, Reggae.
“This is Reggae. He needs a place. I don’t know if there is some way for you to help him.” I ignored what Tandy had just been saying, despite her words cutting into me like shards of glass. Did the woman have any compassion at all? Her verbal filter just didn’t exist, not concerning me, anyway. I stared at the forty-something woman with her thinning hair. She’d been coloring it a putrid shade of orange-red. Tandy was no beauty. The skin on her face had scars from what would have been severe acne. She sat on that couch most of the day, and if you got within a couple of feet of her, it became unpleasantly clear that she didn’t shower enough. What got me the most were the sweat stains underneath her armpits. Didn’t she wash her clothes? Wear deodorant? With the money she made out of this place, she could afford to go to a salon for an overhaul. Tandy just didn’t seem to care how she presented to the world.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize there was a person there.”
I got the insult and let it drop. Tandy didn’t get up, but she did turn down the volume on her game show a couple of bars. “Come forward. So, how old are you? What are your circumstances?”
Reggae moved forward into the room. “My name is Reggae Morgan. I need a place to stay. I don’t know if you can help me.”
Tandy made a production out of having to get up off the couch to go to the desk. She groaned and sighed, making it clear that we were inconveniencing her. After searching for a pen, she began recording all Reggae’s information down. I watched, curious as Reggae sidled up next to her, observing as she wrote.
“Nice printing. I wish mine was that good,” he said. Strange, I wondered what the Rasta was up to.
Reggae continued to fill Tandy in about his details, still watching her put everything down. Each time she glanced up, he’d give her a big smile.
I found out that even though Reggae didn’t have long to go before he was eighteen, Tandy could put in for emergency funding for him to have a bed covered. The homeless shelters sat full most of the year, so she could put in for temporary bed coverage. It amazed me how Tandy knew exactly how to work the system. Reggae had been tossed out of his home after his uncle died, and now someone could get paid for taking him in. For homeless teens, so much depended on who you were dealing with and what they wanted to give. Disgust flooded my system. What it depended on was whether they thought you could be turned into a cash cow.
“I’ll make a couple of calls. You can stay here until you are eighteen, but after that, I’ll have to assess your situation. The funding is trickier when someone is eighteen, but I might find a loophole to be able to help you. Just sign this form for me, and we are done. Do you have any identification?” Tandy indicated for Reggae to sign. The form appeared to be blank. Right after the Angie incident, Tandy had made everyone sign forms. She’d hauled Beth and me into the office, getting us to put down our signatures and explaining it away as needing a sample of our handwriting. I knew better. Tandy never did anything without a reason. Reggae didn’t flinch, just signed, then handed Tandy back her pen.
“No, I don’t have identification. My bag was stolen, and I lost everything.” Reggae sounded defeated.
Was Reggae putting it on to get the dragon to feel sorry for him? I kept my own expression neutral. The dragon seemed to buy it. A tight smile came over Tandy’s thin lips, then she turned her attention to me.
“Webster, we can discuss your situation later today. Why don’t you take Reggae and settle him into the room across the hall from you.” It wasn’t a question, but a directive. Tandy was good at those. She liked directing any and every one, especially if she didn’t have to pry herself off the couch.
I jerked my head to get Reggae to follow me. The meeting was over, for now. I led Reggae down the small flight of steps to the basement. Males in the basement, females on the upper floor. The separation was for safety and comfort. It was one of the few rules here that actually made sense. I understood that the last thing some of the girls wanted was to have to contend with a teenage male. Even with Beth, I’d kept a careful distance. She knew how I felt, but I never pushed. You didn’t do that to someone. Most of the teens that came through here had endured far too much in their years. If they’d been bounced around different foster homes, there was a good chance they’d been through a bad time. Some had been abused, even sexually. Having to contend with Tandy was more than enough for anyone.
Reggae remained silent until I stopped at our rooms.
“What’s going to happen to you?” He looked worried. “I feel like a jerk coming along, and here she’ll help me, but it don’t sound too good for you.”
“I’ll convince her. I have ways of getting around people like Tandy.” I opened the door for Reggae. “Hey, where is all your stuff?”
“I don’t have anything. I had a small pack when I left the apartment, but a week ago it was jacked. They stole the last money I had. I got a good beating from them as well. You just can’t please some people.” Reggae’s weak smile was meant to bring humor to what had happened to him, but I didn’t see it that way. The Rasta moved his sleeve, revealing a nasty bruise.
“You sure didn’t need that. I’ve got a T-shirt and some sweatpants I can loan you. I wish there was more.” I paused, gazing down to the end of the hall. “Wait, there might be more down there in that closet. That’s where Tandy stores clothes left behind from the teens that used to live here. We can have a look later on.” I knew Tandy would want to put in to collect extra money for any articles of clothing Reggae might need. It got under my skin that she’d try to profit off clothes and belongings left by teens that had lived in the house. Every so often she’d take a bag of stuff out, and I had a sneaking suspicion she sold them at flea markets and thrift shops. Although she hadn’t paid a cent, she was making money off it. Technically, she was supposed to provide food, shelter, and basics, but that didn’t happen. The money she got for a teen living in her home went straight to her and the teen never saw a cent of it. It was Tandy’s way of maintaining control in the house. Reggae wouldn’t see a stitch of clothing from Tandy, even though there was a closet full. I’d wait until nightfall, then break into the closet. I’d honed some skills over the years, although I think lock picking was certainly one of the more useful ones. To date, I’d resisted breaking in there, but because of Reggae, there was a good reason to. Time for a midnight shopping expedition.
“I take it this will be under the Tandy-radar?” Reggae grinned. His mood seemed to have lifted since hearing my offer of help.
“You know it. Let’s just say I know of an all-night shopping venue. Fair warning, there is only one thin quilt on the bed, but with the warmer weather, you should be okay. Come on. Let’s go upstairs and have something to drink. Just so you know, she doesn’t let us eat unless it’s a meal time and that means one plate, no refills. There’s no smoking in the house and no drugs. Man, the more I tell you about this place, the more I realize just how crappy it is. Sorry. I should have just dropped you off at the prison. You’d eat better there, and they get cable television.” I hoped there would be something to drink upstairs besides water. Reggae needed something more. I could hear his stomach growling. If only I’d had more cash. What I needed to do was get a job and save money to get out of this situation, but Tandy prohibited working while at her place. She didn’t want to lose revenue by having a teen leave before they aged out and by keeping them without resources, she did just that. Pretty hard to go to a job every day if you didn’t have a place to live and some food to eat.
“I don’t smoke, and any food I get will be more than I’ve been getting.”
Reggae didn’t strike me as the type to complain. I got the impression he was the type that made the most of whatever he got.
Without warning, the veils came down again. This time there were several spirits all speaking at once. It was like a room full of people talking with all the sound melting together until individual words blended into a sea of noise.
“One at a time!” How could I find out what they wanted if I couldn’t understand any of it?
“What?” Reggae flinched, slowly backing away.
“This is the gift. It’s happening right now. I can see spirits. The problem is, they’re all talking at the same time, and I can’t make out what anyone is actually saying.” If I sounded annoyed, it’s because I was. Reggae looked shocked. “I need to go to my room for a minute. Just chill. I’ll be back when it’s over.” I closed the door behind me. Reggae might be open-minded, but it would take time for him to come to terms with something so strange.
As soon as I’d shut the door, three spirits gathered around. They stared, all of them shaking their heads as if to say no. A chill went along my spine. Their behavior spooked me. Each had a hue of silver surrounding its body and weren’t like the spirits I normally saw.
“Tell me. What is it? What do you wish to say?” I had to let the world go out of focus in order to bring them in more clearly.
“Beth. Beth is fading. You must not let her fade. Now there is no one.” Although it sounded like just one voice speaking, all three of their mouths moved in sync. Freaky.
“Is Beth in trouble?” My body was like a sponge, absorbing all the angst from the spirits, leaving my guts clenched tight. Something was very wrong.
“No. No, Beth. Don’t go there. He’ll hurt you.” They bowed their heads, gliding backward from me until they faded from my sight.
My heart was pounding, hard. I shivered, using my sleeve to wipe the sweat from my brow. The warning centered on Beth, but what did it mean? Was she going to be put into another home? Sometimes this happened. Very rarely a family would take in a teen from a group home to see if it would work out long term. It was referred to as a trial. Most times it didn’t work out, but Tandy could keep collecting her share to hold the bed. The family was also compensated while the teen was with them. Everyone in the equation did well, except for the teen. Why the system was set up this way, I didn’t know or understand. It sucked. Until you could get out and support yourself, you were just a paycheck to someone cashing in on misfortune. The government benefits were meager at best. You either suffered in the system or went on the street. Once on the street, not many made it off again. Not many were alive after a couple years. It was brutal. The system was overflowing with abandoned, unwanted, and discarded youth.
I found myself consumed with the message. Beth was everything to me. I had to figure it out. The residue from this particular spirit encounter felt like a thousand little cobwebs clinging to my skin. I rubbed my arms, wishing the feeling would let go. Reggae would be waiting for me. I doubted he’d just go upstairs on his own. Tandy had shown Reggae her true colors right from the start. He might already regret agreeing to come here. He might have split already and been down the block.
When I opened the door, the Rasta was leaning against the wall on the other side of the hallway.
“You okay?” Reggae pushed off from the wall.
“Fine. It was a warning about Beth. I’ve got to find out what’s going on. Will you help?” I asked, suddenly feeling very drained. The past two weeks had mowed me down. If it hadn’t been for Bhotu, I might not have come through being on the psych unit. Bhotu had kept me level, sane. Still, the aseptic hospital environment with its facade of caring and reality of harsh had worn down my armor. The sound of Reggae’s voice brought me forward.
“You don’t know squat about me, and yet you’ve gone out of your way to help. I’ll do whatever you need me to. Did the spirits say that Beth was in trouble?” From the way Reggae spoke, I knew he believed in my gift. The eyes never lied.
“Thanks, man. Something is going on, and I need to find out. With the way Tandy operates, Beth might not even know about it until the last minute. I hope Tandy hasn’t got her going to a family.” I’d said the last part more to myself than to Reggae.
“Why? Don’t you want her to have some sort of chance? For Beth to have the opportunity to get out of this?” Reggae’s anger burst forth, his face twisted up in disbelief. How could I explain things to him?
“Easy.” The last thing I wanted was Reggae going off the deep end on me. “From my experience, the worst fate you can get is to go to a family. At this stage, most only want you there as another source of income or free help. They don’t just adopt you. It’s all on a trial basis to see if the teen fits into the family and it’s very rare that they ever do. After a couple months, the family usually says that things didn’t work out. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances were, and the teen ends up back at the group home. If you age out during that process, you just end up on the street. The family collects money for having you, and the group home gets a cut for holding the bed. The only one that doesn’t get anything except a free work detail is you. I’ve met four people that had the experience, and it didn’t work out. One girl had a real bad time. The father decided he liked her and she was harmed—sexually.”
“What the hell! Are you kidding? Did they arrest him?” Reggae’s rich complexion paled a few shades.
I hesitated. I hated rehashing Angie’s story.
“No. No one believed her. Tandy closed her bed, and she ended up on the street. After that, she was broken. You can only hurt someone so much for so long before they shatter. Everyone has a breaking point. Now she’s dead.” I sighed deeply, recalling the ugly memory. Angie had been sixteen when she’d been placed with a family. From the little they’d heard back, she’d been worked hard, and that had only been the beginning of her trials. The husband had decided to help himself to Angie. When it all came out, the father denied her allegations, saying she was trying to frame him. He said she’d come on to him. The couple had lied, saying Angie had brought home guys and had been caught, so she’d tried to pin them with the blame. Families are in short supply, and the Child Services Department had been quick to suggest that Angie had made things up and that she was disturbed. A wave of disgust washed over my being. Yeah, she was disturbed and now dead. Angie had been three weeks short of her seventeenth birthday. She hadn’t harmed anyone or done anything wrong, aside from not having a family or anyone to take her in. All she’d done was try to cope with the crappy end of life. The day she’d died, I’d been hounded by the spirits. When Angie had appeared in spirit form, I’d understood. She’d come to me to let me know she had passed. That had been a turning point for me. That day, I’d closed off a part of my heart to the world. Despite my gift, there was no way anyone could tell me that life was fair. It wasn’t. For some, it was anything but.
“Webster? Man, are you there?” Reggae waved his hand in my face, snapping me back to the moment.
“Yeah. Sorry. Just some memories. I’ll fill you in more about the system and how it works a bit later. Let’s go upstairs.” We went along the hallway, the familiar musty smell of the house wafting up at every step. It was worse here on the lower level. Had Reggae noticed? The house was old. From what I’d been told, Tandy had inherited the house from her parents and had decided to operate it as a group home for teens. Her setup allowed her to make a good income, but not actually foster or commit to the teens she took in. Living here was literally one step up from a homeless shelter.
“How old is this joint?” Reggae coughed as we reached the landing. The air down here was stale.
“Ancient. It wouldn’t be so bad if she did some work on it, but that would involve expenditure, and that ain’t gonna happen, my friend. The money flows one way, and that is to the dragon.” I led him into the kitchen. Beth was sitting at the table, staring vacantly in the direction of the open back door.
“Beth? Hey, are you okay?” I nodded toward the fridge and Reggae went over.
“I’m supposed to go live with a family for a trial. Tandy said they’re considering actually fostering a teen. She told me just a few minutes ago.” Beth spoke so low, I had to lean closer to hear her. Being so close like that, it was impossible not to fall into her eyes. Right now, all I could see in them was alarm and fear.
“Do you want to go?” I asked gently.
“No, I don’t. She says I have to. Arrangements were made, and it’s a done deal. So now I’m going to move in with total strangers and have to fit in. Tandy already told me they’ll expect me to earn my keep.” Beth’s hands shook. “I’m afraid, Webster. I can’t explain why, but I have a bad feeling about this.”
“When is it going to happen?” I slid into the chair beside her.
“It will happen when I deem it!” Tandy stood in the kitchen doorway, hands on hips, looking one hundred percent the dragon she was. She scowled, pointing at Reggae. “Glad to see you’ve made yourself at home!”
“I only poured a glass of juice. Sorry.” Reggae abandoned the glass on the counter, coming to sit across from Beth and me.
“Beth, you should be grateful this family wants to take you in. It’s only a trial, so don’t get all bent out of shape. Got it? You’re sixteen, soon to be seventeen. Time to grow up, princess!” With that, Tandy stomped out the back door, purse and keys in hand.
I knew better than to ask where she was going or when she’d return. Tandy came and went as she pleased. At least we’d have some peace until she got back. I heard the sound of the car starting, followed by the crunching sound as it went along the driveway.
“Is there anyone else here?” I asked. There was one body missing. “Where is Jason?”
“Jason left. He walked after he found out that Tandy had sent you to the hospital again. I’d never seen him so mad. She screamed at him that she’d call the cops, but he said to go ahead. He said he’d tell them about her. Remember, Jason’s birthday was a day after yours. He was so angry that she did that to you and on your birthday. Tandy threatened him. She said she’d report him to the Child Services Department and he said he’d report her to the jerk tribunal.” Beth moved her chair back. “He was contacted by an old neighbor, so I think he might have had a way out.”
“So it’s just the three of us?” I couldn’t help but smile over what Jason had said. Jason wouldn’t be anywhere near here by now. He’d have skipped town as fast as possible. Jason had been doing odd jobs and had somehow acquired a bit of money. The actual origins of that money were suspect, but really, who cared? If Jason had done something illegal to get out of this hellhole, all the power to him. I just hoped he would be okay, that he’d make it. If Jason had been contacted by someone from his past wanting to help, then all the better. Now with Tandy out of the house, the three of us could get to some planning.
Before I could continue, Reggae interrupted by gesturing with his hands to go out the back door. We followed him onto the small porch.
“Should we talk openly in there? I mean, don’t you think it was odd how Tandy just showed up suddenly when Beth was about to talk about going to a family? Does she have equipment to listen in?”
The thought shook me to the core. Did Tandy have the place bugged? Was Reggae on to something? It wasn’t something I’d put past the dragon. Better to be safe than sorry. We returned to the kitchen.
Now that Reggae had asked about it, I didn’t even want to speak near the house. “Let’s take a walk.”
The Rasta held his hand up, indicating for us to wait. He went over to the counter and his glass of juice. Reggae drank it down, gulping it like a man just out of a desert.
“That was refreshing.” The Rasta cracked a grin, placing the glass into the sink.
* * * *
I waded through the overgrown grass, trampling it down to make a path as I walked. This was one yard I’d never mow again. What did remain of the fence along the back of the lot was all but falling down. An entire section was missing, providing a place to go through to the back lane. I indicated for Beth to go through first, then Reggae. The moment I stepped off Tandy’s property, some of the weighted feeling I carried lifted off me.
Dust kicked up as we walked along the gravel road to the end of the lane and the vacant lot. Each one of us slipped through the broken boards of what had once been a fence, and into the tall grass and weeds. The lot was like a jungle, with trees and plants growing wild, filling the space with green and providing a private refuge. The lot housed birds of every kind. No one disturbed them here, aside from the odd cat hunting. I had found this spot shortly after landing at Tandy’s place. Many times I’d come down here to chill out and just listen to the birds and watch nature.
“This is great. Do you come here often?” Reggae asked.
“It’s where I come to get away from Tandy.” I led them along and underneath one of the larger trees, where there were rocks to sit on. Weeds poked up through the cracks in the crumbling foundation. Once upon a time, there’d been a house here. Like most of the neighborhood, it had slowly gone downhill. I thought the people might have abandoned it. Perhaps they’d run into financial difficulty and couldn’t make their payments. Strange how the city of Braken hadn’t resold the property, but not much ever happened. In about five more years, I could see the entire area slipping from shoddy into slummy. This part of the city had little to offer and many businesses had closed over the past couple of years.
“So, what did Tandy say about the family?” I didn’t want to waste time. We needed to make a plan.
“Just a husband and wife. No other children. They came here while you were away, but I didn’t know who they were or why they were here. Now I do. Tandy toured them around the house. I was in the living room, reading. The man creeped me out. He kept staring at me. I don’t want to go, but Tandy said she put in the paperwork. She said that if I don’t go, she might just have to close my bed.” Beth’s voice sounded strangled. Not cool.
I fought against the wave of nausea threatening me. The spirits had come with a warning about Beth. There was no way I’d allow Beth to meet the same fate as Angie. No way. I looked up to find Reggae studying me. The Rasta looked deep in thought, as though he were weighing something out.
“I know I’m new here, but I want to be a part of whatever you two decide, that is if you’ll let me.” He sank down onto one of the rocks. “This is comfy compared to the sidewalk.”
I laughed at his attempt to lighten our moods. The guy had some serious good in him. “What we need is to get away from all this. The longer we stay here with Tandy, the more likely we’ll just end up on the street when we age out of the system. Screw the system. I want to go somewhere out of the city, and away to a place where we can try to make a go of it on our own. Why not? If child services doesn’t care about us now, why would they care about us if we leave?” The last thing I wanted to do was upset Beth, but I had to put it out there.
“We need money,” Reggae said.
“What if those people come for me tonight? Tomorrow? Tandy won’t tell me when I’m supposed to go. If I run from the new place, they can get the police involved. I feel like I’m the pawn in some sick game everyone is playing. I know how that creep was looking at me. I know what he was thinking. I’d have to be totally stupid not to see his reaction to me.” Beth’s posture had gone rigid, the anger in her words loud and clear.
I didn’t say anything for a few seconds. It was so rare to hear Beth swear, to see her react so forcefully and it frightened me. She had such a gentle nature, and seeing her so alarmed made me equally so. She was right, no doubt the couple had come to take a look at her beforehand. The guy would have seen just how pretty she was. Pretty, young, and in a position where she had limited choices and almost no power. Perfect if you were looking to have some fun and get paid for it. I felt the rage inside me push up yet again.
“When is your birthday?” Reggae directed his question at Beth.
“On Sunday. I’ll be seventeen.” She pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“I’m nearly aged out of the system, and you two are in the last leg of it, right?” A wide smile broke out over the Rasta.
“Yeah. So…” Where was Reggae going with his questions?
“We can all go away together. We’d have a much better chance of making it with three, than each of us on our own.” Reggae faced me square on. “You can’t tell me you haven’t been entertaining the idea of leaving. I’ll bet it’s all you ever think about.”
Right then, a ray of sunshine came through the tree’s branches. I felt its warmth on my face. A sign? Reggae was right, we’d do much better if there were three of us working as a team. How we could ever pull this off, I didn’t know, but it was worth the risk.
“That’s real thinking. I’m in, how about you, Beth?” I studied her, wanting so much to reach over and touch her.
“You bet I’m in, but how will we get away from Tandy? How will I avoid going to that family?” Despair flooded her face, making me want to find Tandy and kick her around the block. Selfish, self-serving and such a dark soul. I’d deal with her later this evening after she returned to the house. My gift had never failed me before, and I’d use it to keep Beth safe. It was the only way I could think of to prevent Tandy from sending Beth to that couple.
“Beth, I’m going to have a talk with Tandy tonight. It’s about whether or not I’ll be able to keep staying here at the house. I don’t think she wanted me to come back from the hospital. I’m going to try and convince her not to send you away. Meanwhile, we all need to think up a way to get some cash so we can get out of here. I don’t mean a few bucks either. We need serious cash if all three of us are going to take off and land somewhere new. We’ll need enough for travel, rent, food, and that’s only the beginning.” I glanced up at the sky. The position of the sun had changed. We’d better get back soon. Tandy would have a fit if she got home and no one was there.
Beth grabbed my arm. “Wait, where would we go?”
I took her hand, holding it to my lips. Right now I didn’t care if Reggae was watching, I just wanted to make everything okay for her. Seeing her eyes so full of fear cut deep into my soul.
All three of us stood in silence, thinking. Just then a bird called out, triggering the memory I’d had earlier when I’d left the hospital.
“I know where we can go. Years ago, I went through a town with my parents. I remember it well. I’ve always wanted to go back.” I didn’t know how, but I knew that we’d get there, all three of us. Reggae may have just landed, but I had the oddest feeling he would be around for a long time.
“So, where is this place?” Reggae asked.
“Millstone. Just don’t repeat any of this and don’t speak about anything when we’re inside the house. I know it’s just the three of us, but Reggae, you may be onto something. Tandy might be listening in.” Several times over the past couple of years, Tandy had known about certain information, even though she hadn’t been in the room. Now I had an understanding of why.
We walked back to Tandy’s place, a new energy infusing our steps.