Saturday night, 24 October 1998, PM
GM: Sometimes, at night, she hears them.
Her real ones. Not her foster ones. Her latest foster ones treat her like she is invisible. They talk about her like she is not there. The whole family seems like they are plastic with their perma-grins—the mother, the father, and their real kid. Sylvia is not sure what to expect or how long she is going to be there. The family walks around her like she is an alien. Sometimes they say they are leaving and will be back later. She has no idea where they go or when they will come back home.
There’s food in the fridge, at least. She has a room to herself, though not anymore since the other two girls arrived today. She’s nine. She’s not how sure old they are. No one tells her. They’re smaller than she is, for what that’s worth. They don’t talk to her. They don’t talk to anyone. Maybe they’re wondering when this will be over and what will happen to them. Sylvia has wondered the latter, but never the former. Foster care is all she has known. She’s heard about families that fight to get their kids back. Families who leave their kids with phone numbers. Maybe the girls would talk if they had those.
Sometimes Sylvia thinks back to the parents who gave her up. Who were they? A child’s mind wonders, and in the dark, she sees them.
“I’m a magic princess, Sylvie,” says a beautiful woman in a shimmering gown. “That makes you a princess, too!”
“I’m a magic prince, Sylvie,” says a handsome man in a knight’s shining armor. “I’d kill a dragon to keep you safe!”
“I’m a doctor, Sylvie,” says a kindly-eyed woman in a white coat. “I’m gonna make you better.”
“I’m a firefighter, Sylvie,” says a rugged man with a yellow helmet.
A veterinarian. An astronaut. A cowboy. A president. Her parents are all sorts of things, and they always love Sylvie.
That happens less often than it used to. Fantasies like those are for little kids.
No, as she’s gotten older, her parents have told her they are other things instead. Words some of her other caregivers have used.
“I’m a deadbeat, Sylvie.”
“I’m a bum, Sylvie.”
“I’m a whore, Sylvie.”
“I’m a junkie, Sylvie.”
She doesn’t understand what all of the words mean. But she understands enough.
Sometimes, though, they don’t say anything at all.
Sometimes she just sees their faces, rising up like shadows from under the bed and engulfing her. She tries to scream, but nothing comes out past the weight suffocating down on her chest.
She can’t breathe. She can’t see. She feels everything. Sweat stains her sheets as her heart pounds. It feels like someone is looking at her in the room, but when she opens her eyes, there’s never anyone there.
A social worker talked to Sylvie once, about how she slept. She referred Sylvie to someone else, who said she suffered from night terrors and gave pills for her to take. Pills with a long name that started with ‘k.’ They made her feel dizzy and weak, and sometimes gave her headaches.
But she stopped seeing her parents.
That was worth it.
Sylvie knows what it’s like, to have the night terrors.
It’s how she recognizes the expression on her new foster sister’s face.
It’s hard to make out faces in the dark. But she recognizes the silent crying, .
She recognizes the contours of the mouth, pulled into an unmistakable whimper.
And, above all:
She recognizes the dark figure looming over the frozen girl, hands descending over her small body.
Victoria: Always, at night, she hears them.
“Mama’s got her sweets, just like you, baby. You want a cookie?”
She always wanted a cookie. She still does.
“If you’re good while mama has her treat, you’ll get as many cookies as you want.”
She doesn’t trust offers of cookies anymore. Not unless she can see them. Promises just bring disappointment. They bring disappointment.
Every mama and papa brings disappointment. Her last mama said that the girls that get the most mamas become the smartest. It makes sense. She gets new a new mama every few months ‘cause she’s got nothin’ left to learn from ’em.
So Sylvia was a good girl, just like mama asked. She thought about those cookies. Would they be chocolate chip? Mocha almond fudge? Vanilla glazed?
She wondered why mama had bruises on her arm. Maybe that’s why she had a shot next to her. Shots fix everything, including bruises! Sylvia doesn’t like shots. She doesn’t like doctors either. She doesn’t remember seeing a doctor around the house. She was probably too busy thinking about her cookies.
Mama never gave her those cookies. The men with flashing lights on their cars never gave her cookies. The wrinkly woman in the doctor place never gave her cookies.
She doesn’t trust offers of cookies anymore.
Her parents visited her that night.
“You got no cookies? Then you weren’t a good girl. Good girls get cookies. Are you going to be a good girl, Sylvia?”
Sylvie is always a good girl. She slides out of bed, her small feet touching the dingy, carpet floor soundlessly. Her sister won’t be giving her any cookies, but she knows that look; those whimpers, and that blank, fearful stare.
Brandi’s mom is visiting her.
Sylvia doesn’t like when her mom visits. Brandi must not either. Brandi hasn’t spoken to her, but Sylvie wants her new sister to like her. People like when you help them, right?
She sees the figure standing over her sister, beady eyes glinting in the darkness like her third mama’s jewels. The jewels didn’t scare her. The beating when she took them did. The man reminds her of her mama’s anger.
Her eyes well up. She didn’t do anything wrong! Brandi didn’t either!
“You leave her be!” she hisses, eyes darting to the bedroom door. Her feet hit the frayed carpet soundlessly as she creeps toward her sister.
“She ain’t want to talk to you!”
GM: The figure turns to Sylvia.
Tall and dark, it fairly towers above her, a monolith in the gloom.
Up close, she can see one of its hands sticking down the pants of Brandi’s PJs.
It stares at her for a long moment. She feels so small beneath its gaze.
Silently, the thing lifts a finger towards where a face should be.
The universal sign for:
Just go back to sleep, Sylvie.
Victoria: She shivers as if the figure poured ice water down the back of her nightgown.
It’s just a bad dream. Just a bad dream. Just a bad dream. Just a bad dream.
She stomps her foot in impish anger and throws her pillow at it.
GM: The pillow hits the looming figure square in the face.
It stumbles backwards as it raises its hands.
Its back his the light switch.
Light floods the gloom.
Sylvie’s looking up at her foster father’s face, absent only its plastic perma-grin.
Brandi, her PJ bottoms still pulled down, stares dully up.
Victoria: The cub’s resolve wavers, confusion plain on her face.
She isn’t sure whether to hide, to cower, or to stand up to him.
GM: For several moments, her foster father doesn’t look sure what to do either.
Krista stirs in bed next to Brandi.
“Go back to sleep,” says their foster dad.
Then he turns off the light, walks out, and closes the door behind him.
Brandi starts quietly crying.
Victoria: Sylvie purses her lips, counting the creaks in the floor until she’s certain he’s gone, then crosses to Brandi’s bed.
She pauses, wrapping her arms around Brandi’s twiggy body and murmurs, “It’s okay. You get used to it.”
Sylvie never has. She probably never will. She doesn’t want any foster sister to have to, but she lies because the alternative is worse: to be tossed back into the machine. She’ll probably be back there tomorrow.
Or tomorrow night will be her turn.
Sunday morning, 25 October 1998
GM: Sylvie’s first guess is the correct one.
Tomorrow morning, her foster mother drops her off at the now-familiar DCFS building. She tells the social workers that Sylvie was “too problematic” and “completely out of control.”
Just like that, she’s tossed back into the machine.
Victoria: Sylvie looks around. This is life. This is all there is. No good deed rewarded. No cookie. They even kept her stuffie.
She wonders what life will be like for Brandi. How long until they tire of her? Will she even fight back?
GM: Sylvie will probably never know.
She overhears from one of the social workers, talking to her co-worker, that foster parents aren’t actually supposed to do this. They’re supposed to call their assigned social worker and try to work things out within a week, or within the day in an emergency situation where the child is causing or threatening violence or sexual assault. You’re not supposed to just drop the kid back off.
No one does anything. The social workers are all overworked, and foster families are all-too few. Sylvie knows how this whole process works by now. She sits somewhere out of the way. A harried-looking social worker spend the next few hours running through the master bed list, of all the available families who can take in a child on emergency notice. Usually they are temporary, and Sylvie gets bounced to another home, or two, or even three, before another family takes her in. Maybe they will be good. Maybe they will be bad. Eventually, they’ll get rid of Sylvie too.
Then she’ll be right back here in the DCFS building, with a social worker on the phone.
No one wants Sylvie.
Victoria: And Sylvie wants no one.
She hops off the plastic, orange chair, wandering across the room. She stops in front of a vending machine, aglow inside. So many treats, just out of reach. They didn’t even feed her before they got rid of her. That’s common.
GM: Maybe if she had parents who loved her and wanted her, she’d get to eat as much as she wanted from vending machines.
Several hours later, Sylvie’s case worker drives her to a new home. The woman there has three of her own children and another foster child, a boy. She blatantly puts her real kids first. Sylvie and the boy eat boiled hot dogs and potato chips on paper plates almost nightly. The woman’s real kids come home with O’Tolley’s that Sylvie and the boy aren’t allowed to have. Sylvie and the boy do all sorts of chores like pulling weeds and vacuuming. The woman’s real kids don’t have to do anything. Sylvie and the boy aren’t allowed to watch TV. The woman’s real kids steal Sylvie’s clothes and the few belongings she’s brought from her previous home.
Victoria: Sylvie punches the boy in the mouth when she catches him stealing.
GM: And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.
Wednesday morning, 28 October 1998
GM: The foster parents let their sobbing boy keep everything of Sylvie’s that he wants. She’s left with nothing but the clothes on her back. Sylvie’s case worker drives her to a home outside of the city that has a basement, a rarity in New Orleans proper. The foster mother is a super couponer. The shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling with cereals and cleaning supplies. Sylvie sleeps on the cold, hard basement floor with some blankets and pillows with two other girls. When she wakes up in the morning, she’s covered in red and angry-looking bug bites.
Victoria: Sylvie shrieks.
Her foster mother learns that Sylvie has quite a sailor’s dictionary. She’s usually smart enough not to use it, but the panic of her bite-ridden skin throws all caution to the wind.
GM: Sylvie’s foster mother tells her to stop telling lies, and to stop swearing or she’s going back.
Victoria: “I’m NOT lying!”
She holds out her arms.
“They’re EVERYWHERE! Those little niggers bit me!”
She doesn’t know what it means, but that man sounded real angry when she heard him say it the other day. Whatever they are, they’re not a good thing.
GM: And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.
Thursday morning, 29 October 1998
GM: Sylvie’s next home is in a nice-looking suburb. The foster parents are nice. They’re kind and gentle and generous. There’s no other kids. Sylvie has a room of her own, with a real bed, and the mom makes spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Sylvie can eat as much as she wants.
“Things are going to be better for you here, okay?” the foster mom smiles as she applies disinfectant over Sylvie’s bug bites. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t believe them. It’s never going to be better. Never has. Never will.
She eats her dinner, but only half the plate.
At her foster mom’s words, she nods, but it doesn’t touch her eyes. She doesn’t believe her.
GM: Her foster mom smiles sadly and pats her off. The rest of the day passes pleasantly. Sylvie gets to watch a lot of TV. She goes to school on Friday. She’s used to being the new girl, and being the outsider looking in. But it feels like everyone points and laughs at her partly-healed bug bites. They ask her if she’s poor.
Victoria: She punches the one who asks if she’s poor, too. Punching is the easy answer to bullies.
GM: The bully runs off, crying. They never seem to want to stand and fight.
When Sylvie gets off the school bus, on a typically rainy afternoon, a gang of kids chase after her. They hold her face-down against the wet earth and beat her senseless. They kick her sides until she wants to curl up and die. They steal her backpack and leave her clothes caked in mud.
They don’t say why. They don’t say anything.
They just hurt her and leave.
Victoria: Maybe that’s why they beat her while she walks home. She screams, and whimpers, and whines, and covers her face. She doesn’t fight back. She doesn’t have a chance. They don’t give her one.
She walks in the door to her foster home, sobbing.
GM: Her foster parents freak when they see her. The mom leaves the room. The dad recovers after a moment. He’s nice. He hugs Sylvie, despite the mud she gets on his clothes. He listens to her choked story, says how sorry he is, and asks for the kids’ names so he can call the school about them. He takes Sylvie up to the bathroom, where she can have a long, hot bath or shower, and applies band-aids like his wife applied disinfectant. He applies some of that again, anyway, and says they should probably have a doctor look at Sylvie. When was the last time she had a checkup? He lets her watch TV and eat ice cream.
Victoria: The shower is bliss, but the heat of the water stings her bruises, cuts and bug bites. Still, she feels better after than before.
The disinfectant burns.
She doesn’t like doctors. Except the one who gave her a lollipop.
GM: That night, while she’s sleeping in her bed, Sylvie hears voices arguing.
The next day, the foster mom tells her that she’s leaving.
The dad looks sad. He tells her that he’s sorry.
And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.
Saturday morning, 31 October 1998
Victoria: And just like that, she’s back at DCFS.
She sits in front of the vending machine, looking up at it.
Still locked. Still beyond her. Still above her.
Nobody wants Sylvie. Nobody ever wants Sylvie. Not her mom. Not her dad. Not any of her foster parents. Not her foster siblings. Not her schools. Not her teachers. Not her classmates. Not her social workers. No one.
Sylvie is used goods; a callous on the foot of the foster system, abused, toughened, and ugly.
She wonders here and there if it’s her fault. Maybe she’s a little too aggressive sometimes, but only when others push her to it. She’s not the smartest. She’s not the prettiest.
This one felt a little different for the first few days. Her foster mom was kind. She got along well with her foster dad. He even tended to her when she was attacked by those kids from school.
They yelled. Not at her, but it’s still her fault.
It would be easier if they yelled at her. Maybe she’d still be there.
GM: All she wants is someone to love her.
For a little, it seems like she even did.
It would be easier if they just yelled.
That’s a phrase that will stick in Sylvie’s head.
Sylvie’s next home is another one out in the suburbs. The parents have one real kid, a younger boy, and another foster kid, an older girl. She’s nice and lets Sylvie play her Gameboy. She’s very sympathetic, if Sylvia shares her story about her last home, and says how sorry she is. She says she’s been in the foster system for a while and “gets it.” She says she’s been with this family since she was 12. She’s 17 and turns 18 tomorrow, she says. She says that Sylvie can have a home here.
Victoria: Sylvie has never held a Gameboy before! She’s absolutely terrible at it, but the time she spends with her foster sister is valuable.
Kindness goes a long way with used goods.
GM: On the girl’s birthday the next day, the parents bake her a cake. Double-layered chocolate. Sylvie sings happy birthday along with their real kid, and gets a big slice with a vanilla ice cream scoop.
Later in the night, the parents tell the girl she needs to move out because she’s 18. She doesn’t say a word in response. Later, Sylvie hears her sobbing herself to sleep.
Sylvie’s had temporary foster siblings before. She thinks this one sets a new record. Just one night.
Victoria: Upon hearing the sobbing, Sylvie crawls into bed with the girl, hugging her. She doesn’t say anything to her.
GM: The girl is inconsolable. She squeezes Sylvie like a teddy bear and sobs into her hair. She doesn’t say anything either. She just sobs and shakes for what feels like hours, like a leaf in the wind. Sylvie’s hair is still wet from her foster sister’s tears when she wakes up.
She hopes it does the girl some good, to know that someone else cares.
She’s gone the next morning. The parents complain about how she didn’t give them “a very loving goodbye” and just left her key.
Then they serve Sylvie a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and waffles with maple syrup.
Victoria: She eats her breakfast tentatively and asks what happened to her foster sister.
GM: “She’ll be fine,” her foster dad smiles, and then never talks about her again.
Sylvie gets to keep the Gameboy.
Victoria: Something in her foster dad’s tone ensures that Sylvia never asks about her either. She never forgets her name, though. It’s written on her Gameboy, and on all the files in all the games inside.
She hopes the girl is okay. Where do you go once you turn 18? Are you given a real family?
GM: Sylvie’s heard about that before. How once you turn 18, you “age out.” They say that a lot. “Age out.” No one says exactly what happens, though.
Her new foster family doesn’t either.
Victoria: Nine years to go. Sylvie can’t remember anything before her fifth birthday, and she’s 9 now, so she’s got more than half her life to go, by her logic.
Not for her to worry about today.
Of course, she worries. Will she be told to leave, too?
GM: Her new family never answers that question.
Life with them is all right. Sylvie is fed and cared for, and goes to a suburban public school where most of the kids are white, there’s no graffiti on the walls, and the teachers are nice. None of the kids seem like they want to be her friends. No one sits with her at lunch, but they don’t beat her up after school either.
Victoria: For the first time in years, Sylvia not only managers to keep her hands to herself, but doesn’t even have the desire to harm any of her classmates. She even tries talking to them; tries to make friends.
They don’t want it, but they don’t rebuke her either.
That’s better than the usual.
GM: At home, Sylvie eats with the family and their real son for dinner, and there’s always plenty of food. She’s told to go to her room when they have guests over. Her foster parents bring up a plate to eat by herself. They never say why she can’t join them.
That Christmas, Sylvie and her foster brother open up lots of presents under the tree, and get chocolates and small toys in their stockings. Her foster parents take pictures they ask Sylvie to stay out of. They take lots of pictures of themselves and their son, and declare how beautiful the pictures are.
It was like that with the pictures on Santa’s lap at the mall, too. Her foster parents had her stay out of those.
Victoria: When holidays come, Sylvia wonders why she isn’t included in family photographs. She puts on a brave face. She says she understands.
Deep down, she isn’t brave, and she doesn’t understand. Don’t they want her, too? She’s not part of the family—but isn’t she part of the family?
She feels like the family dog. They aren’t included in photos with Santa, either. Can people be pets, too?
GM: Sylvie’s foster parents do include the dog, a golden retriever, in one of the photos. Their real son drapes wrapping paper over the dog and laughs. Sylvie gets to do that too. The dog is a pretty good sport about it all. Her dad smiles and tussles her hair, then asks her to “move out” when he takes the picture of his son playing with the dog.
Another year and another Christmas passes. Sylvia gets presents again. She still isn’t included in the photos.
Then one day, shortly after winter break ends, Sylvie’s case worker picks her up from school. She’s got Sylvie’s things in her car, including the Gameboy. She says she’s “really sorry,” but that Sylvie has to go to a new home.
Her foster parents never say goodbye.
And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.
Monday morning, 10 January 2000
Victoria: This one hurts. She cries the entire way to DCFS, and doesn’t stop crying until her tears run dry. It doesn’t stop her hiccuping.
“I—I… but… they lo—”
Love you? If they love you, you’d still be there.
She’ll miss the dog most of all. There were no conditions on his love.
“Wh-why?” she asks the social worker. “Wh-wh-wh-what d-d-did I do wr-wrong?”
GM: Her case worker’s heart looks like it’s breaking for Sylvie as she drives.
“They… they couldn’t keep you. I’m so sorry, Sylvie. I’m so, so sorry.”
That’s all she says, when Sylvie asks. That they “couldn’t keep you.” She repeats how sorry she is.
She never says why.
But Sylvie knows why. It’s just a simple truth.
No one wants Sylvie.
Victoria: At least she has her Gameboy. She wonders where the sister who gave it to her is now. She treasures that stupid thing, not because of the fun it provides, but because it reminds her: she made it to ‘aging out’, and so can Sylvie.
She continues crying.
GM: Her case worker tries to comfort her.
But it only lasts until they get back to DCFS, and she needs to find a new home for the unwanted foster child.
Sylvie’s next home is a “group home” in Bywater. It’s a big house and looks expensive and well-kept. The man who runs it is tall, thin, and blonde. He gives his name as Jacob. He’s very excitable and tells Sylvie a riveting story about Hansel and Gretel and the evil witch with the gingerbread house. He tells her and the other kids stories about monsters and magic and fairies and Indians, some in the deep dark German woods, some in the hot Texas sun. He tells the most incredible stories Sylvie’s ever heard. The other dozen-odd kids are all spellbound listening to him.
Victoria: She only stops crying because no one wants a crying girl. They don’t want a strong girl, either. Whatever Sylvia is, they don’t want.
She’s glum when she’s given her next home, only smiling when she’s addressed. After all, she can’t seem completely destroyed, or she’ll end up right back where she was before.
It still hurts. She’s infected, and the virus is ripping apart her insides.
She misses the dog.
She barely hears the story.
GM: Sylvie doesn’t seem to be the only one who doesn’t. For all that the story entrances, some of the other kids look half-ready to fall asleep. The kid next to Sylvie, a South Asian girl who’s missing a leg and walks with a crutch, actually zonks off against her shoulder.
The blond man tells Sylvie welcome to her new home, then it’s time for bed. There are dormitories. Everyone gets their own bunk, but there’s lots of bunks to a room. Once Jacob is gone, the other kids show their colors. An older boy with a mean smile demands that Sylvie hand over the Gameboy or else, “I’ll beat the SHIT out of you!”
Victoria: She gives him one warning. Just one.
GM: The older boy laughs and grabs at the Gameboy.
“You asked for it!”
Victoria: She feeds it to him, teeth in the way be damned.
GM: The Gameboy leaves him with a satisfying split lip.
Unfortunately, he pays it back, with interest. He punches her in the face, kicks her to the ground, and then kicks her in the gut until she can’t move from pain. Then he takes the Gameboy and spits on her.
Victoria: It hurts, just like it hurt the day she was attacked walking home from school. Sylvie can take a punch better than most, but he still renders her broken on the floor.
Still worth it. It’s always worth it standing up to bullies.
GM: Jacob isn’t around much. It’s several days later because the only other adult in the house, a 30something African-American woman, gives Sylvie the Gameboy back and apologizes. It’s got a tooth-like dent near the screen, but still works.
Victoria: She takes it, thanking the woman awkwardly.
“How did you find out?” she asks, thumbing the dent. She isn’t sure whether it’s from her hitting him with it, or him trying to eat it. Fatass.
GM: “Saw him playing on it,” answers the harried-looking staffer. “Figured it was from you. Don’t know how else he’d have gotten one.”
Victoria: “Thank you. It’s important to me. What happened to him?”
How polite. She really means it.
GM: “Sorry?” the woman asks, confused.
“Oh. You mean was he punished?”
Victoria: She nods.
GM: The woman pauses for a second, then says,
“He won’t get to listen to story hour for two days, since that’s how long he had it. Fair?”
It sounds like she made that up on the spot.
The woman has deep bags under her eyes. She’s pale and messy-haired. She looks completely exhausted.
Victoria: She likes that. She’s punishing him just because Sylvia wants him to be.
That feels nice.
GM: Was it meant as a deal? But the woman just nods and heads off.
It’s a deal in practice, if not in intent.
That interaction proves emblematic. Care in the group home is lackadaisical at best. Jacob is barely around. The woman has her hands full just cooking for all the kids, cleaning their messes, getting them dressed, and getting them to the school bus; everything else is optional. Including actually going to school. Sylvie watches many of the kids just run off after they leave the house, not even waiting for the school bus. It’s their secret, open to everyone except the adults.
Victoria: Sylvie protects her Gameboy like a dictator protects his people: with poor care, and an iron fist. After the first interaction, anyone who so much as glances at it is confronted. Some taste grass.
Sylvie doesn’t care about school. Once she learns that she doesn’t have to get on the school bus, it all but disappears from her thoughts. School is where the bullies are. At least if she hangs out with the bullies here, they bother her less. She’s one of them. They may not like her the best, but it’s better than being the nerd who leaves them to learn about men in triangle hats and why a triangle isn’t a circle.
GM: Some of the kids offer to let Sylvie come along to get ice cream with them. They steal the money from Jacob, they say. He’s absentminded and doesn’t seem to notice, when he’s around to notice. He’s happy to play the family man at dinner with his stories. His only real rules are not to go into his rooms and not to damage the willow tree he keeps outside. He tells Sylvie and the other kids, dead serious, that it’s a fairy tree. It’s alternately made from goblins and dragons and nymphs. Very dangerous.
Sylvie quickly picks up that the kids all put on nice and obedient faces for the story hours Jacob hosts during every dinner, the only time he regularly sees them, and then it’s every kid for themselves. The other staffer barely keeps the tide of anarchy at bay. Kids cry all the time, get in scrapes, cause messes, act out, swear, sob, or get sick and lie in bed all day. Lots of them seem to get sick. Lots of them seem to have behavioral issues. Lots of them pick fights and steal from each other. At various points, kids just go missing. Sylvie never finds out what happens to them. The other kids think they run away.
Victoria: She’s less easy about stealing from Jacob, but her desire to be wanted outweighs her morals. She never helps steal it, but not does she stop them. It’s a tenuous compromise.
Some nights, she cries about it. Jacob is a nice dad. He doesn’t deserve to be stolen from.
GM: The kids buy things with the money they steal. Candy. Comic books. Even cigarettes. Sometimes they share with Sylvie.
Jacob never says anything about the missing money.
Victoria: Sylvie tries a cigarette, if they let her. She chokes on it. She prefers the candy.
She wonders about the willow tree. Some days, she sits in front of it, waiting for goblins and faeries and dragons to appear. Sometimes, if she stares long enough, she can swear she sees them peek from knots and branches.
They never fully come out. They don’t want Sylvie either.
GM: The willow tree’s only goblins and faeries and dragons appear to lie in the patterns of its leaves. Sylvie can make out all sorts of things in those, if she stares hard enough for long enough. It’s easier to see faces than mythical creatures, though. The tree looks a lot like a lady’s face at the right angle. She can even pretend the wind whistling through its leaves is a voice, sometimes.
But it never says anything she can make out.
No one wants Sylvie.
Victoria: Eventually, she asks the woman if the faeries ever talk to her.
GM: The woman says that yes, the faeries sometimes do. You can’t make them, though. They’ll talk when they feel like talking.
Victoria: “Do they ever talk to you?”
Sylvie watches the leaves and trees and knots and branches, but she never quite sees any mythical creatures.
GM: The woman says she just answered that.
One day, Jacob says he’s going to be out of town on a business trip. They’ll be in good hands. That turns out to be untrue when the woman disappears several days later. The house goes into complete free fall. Kids destroy furniture. They leave giant messes. They paint graffiti on the walls. They gorge themselves on sugar and sweets, and steal things. Jacob’s, each other’s, everyone’s. They get into bloody fights. Kids get beaten senseless. No one takes care of them. No one cooks. No one does laundry. No one’s there to do anything. Chaos reigns.
Victoria: It’s a lawless land. The government falls on the first day. Society follows on the second. Sylvie wonders if she’ll need to learn to survive once food runs out. She doesn’t know how to hunt, or where the grocery store is, or how to get more money. They already stole all of what they could from Jacob.
She protects her Gameboy, though. Even with the batteries dead and none in sight, she protects it. It’s the most cherished thing she owns.
She spends most of her time in her room. What’s the point in leaving?
GM: There’s food, when she gets hungry, though the house’s food rapidly disappears. There’s bathing and showering, until the toilets get clogged when some kid has the brilliant idea to flush rocks down them. Shit literally piles up, after that. The bathrooms become toxic waste dumps. The kids start shitting outside, or going to places with public restrooms. Several of them never come back.
Yet perhaps worst of all for Sylvie, her medication runs out, or perhaps disappears. She’s not sure which.
Either way, the night terrors come back.
They’re worse than ever. She dreams of her parents getting crucified on in the willow tree and burned alive. They laugh, their voices sizzling and popping like their cooking flesh, that no one wants an orphan like Sylvie. She dreams of schoolmates who never talked to her beating her bloody after school, holding her face-down in the mud until she suffocates. She dreams of being a dog in her last family’s house, kept in a cage and forgotten. She starves to death while they eat syrup-drizzled waffles. She dreams of getting raped in the dark by shadowy figures while her foster sisters endlessly sob. Voices wail at her, plead with her, scream obscene things at her.
She wakes to sheets drenched in sweat and urine, heart pounding in her chest like a drum, stomach growling in hunger.
No one comes for her. No one does anything. No takes care of her.
Victoria: Some kid leaves the vegetables outside. They begin to rot on the porch. By the third day, what isn’t picked away by scavengers turns into a fetid mash; a mockery of ratatouille.
She can smell it through her bedroom window.
She doesn’t sleep much. When she does sleep—somewhere between the sugar-laden rush ending in a crash, often literally, and the morning heat raising shit-stink—it’s restless, sweat-stained, and unwanted time with unwanting parents. Feral schoolmates. Burning loved ones. A dead dog. The pancakes are the worst. Stale marshmallows and bland cereal is nothing next to pancakes.
She doesn’t like the tree anymore. Faeries and dragons never come to help her parents, not that she’s sure she wants them helped.
The next morning, she isn’t soaked through with sweat due to her dreams alone. The air conditioner is broken.
She begins to cry. She misses her dog.
GM: Flies descend on the vegetable mush. Tiny fruit flies and big fat buzzing flies. They breed. Insects get inside the house. She sees larvae in the shit caking up in the toilets.
Between the lack of sleep, food, and AC, Sylvie feels sick all the time now, and delirious. She gets a fever. The other kids fight less. Mostly they just lie around, now. They look half-dead.
Someone eventually reports the situation to social services. Sylvie doesn’t think she’s ever been relieved to see social workers, police, and ambulances on scene before.
Cops make disgusted remarks about “kids living like animals.”
Victoria: Sylvie feels like an animal. Unwashed. Unfed. Uncared for.
Only some of that is new.
GM: And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.
Thursday morning, 16 March 2000
GM: “Your next home is going to be very different from this,” her case worker tells her after she’s showered, eaten, and been checked by a nurse. Her case worker is a woman she’s never seen before. Her old case worker quit. Or got transferred. She never finds out why the woman gets replaced.
Victoria: She isn’t sure she wants different. Different is a beast she’s unfamiliar with. At least she knows how she’ll suffer, even if they find new ways to do it.
“I don’t like different.”
GM: “Different will be good for you,” smiles the social worker.
Different is what she gets.
Sylvia is sent to a group home with several dozen residents. The contrast with the last one is night and day.
First, there are literally alarms all over the house. Everything is locked. Sylvie can’t even open the windows at night or it rings alarms, not that there’s any point with bars over them. If she can’t sleep and she wakes up, she cannot do anything but sit in her room and read or try to force herself to go back to sleep. She’s not allowed to have any electronics at night (including her Gameboy) and she’s not allowed to wander the house at night. The doors to her room are locked. The doors to the kitchen and living room are locked. Staff don’t sleep at night, and conduct bed checks with a flashlight every two hours.
She shares her room with at least two other, random, ever-changing girls. She wonders where they go, and why they leave so fast. Some of them lie crying in bed all the time. Some pick fights and attack her. Staff haul them away and she never sees them again after that happens.
She doesn’t own much, but her belongings often disappear. The staff search her room top to bottom whenever they feel like it, and often do.
Staff tell her she is on a points system. She enters with zero points, and has no privileges (TV, phone, going outside of the home for anything except school or a doctor appointment) until she earns three points. A point takes of week of incident-free behavior to earn. Points are deducted for breaking rules. If she ever earns negative points, she is told, she will go to jail. Juvenile hall. Youth detention center. “This is your absolute last chance,” staff tell her. If she makes any real trouble, such as fistfighting, verbally threatening a staff member, touching a staff member (including hugs), or stealing, she will be automatically sent to jail for an unknown period of time, with no way of knowing if she will later return to the same home, or be sent someplace else.
“This is your absolute last chance,” staff repeat.
Victoria: Her heart tries to escape long before she has any thoughts of escaping, herself. It begins as soon as she walks in the door.
Fight or flight holds congress as soon as the doors shut behind her, sealing her into her into the prison. Flight wins with a narrow margin of 52 to 48 (her brain holds an extra vote in reserve for ties), but before she can take the first step, two black boys tumble out of a nearby doorjamb, fists wailing like a summer storm.
“HE SAID I AIN’T GOT NO HAIR ‘CAUSE MY REAL MAMA AIN’T GOT A CROW-MA-SOME!”
“NO! I CALLED YOU A CHROME DOME!”
Both boys are taken away by men in white shirts and pants, and neither are seen again.
She reconsiders running. Different still isn’t better, but this different is better than the last different.
GM: Her day starts with going to the bathroom. The doors have no locks. Other kids can barge in at any time.
Then she takes a shower. Doing so requires permission from a staff member, or she loses a point.
Everyone eats cereal at 8 AM, sandwiches at 1 PM, and dinner at 6 PM. No snacks, ever. Outside of her three allowed meals, she can have tap water or nothing. All food is kept locked up. She must be present for all meals unless she is in school or working.
There are daily rotating chores five days a week. Washing bedding, doing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, mopping and sweeping floors. Falling behind loses points. Sylvie is kept constantly working when she’s not eating or in school. There’s almost no time before curfew. The bathrooms are cleaned the most often, and yet somehow always filthy.
Residents ages 13 and below have an 8 PM curfew. Residents 14 and up have a 9 PM curfew. At 9 PM, the doors are locked. If Sylvie isn’t inside the building, and doesn’t call, she will be reported to the local police as a runaway.
It is usually extremely loud until 10 PM, which is lights out and silence. Even reading in bed, after lights out, is not allowed and deducts points.
That is her day. Day in and day out. Sylvie almost never leaves the group home, other than to go to school. It’s like being in jail.
She gets $12.00 a month spending money, for clothes, preferred toothpastes, tampons—because only maxi-pads are provided—or for anything else “personal” that she needs. She must provide receipts to prove she has not purchased drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. No receipt, no money the following month.
Sylvie will get a slice of cake on her birthday if she has no infractions. She will get a $20 store gift voucher on her birthday, and on Christmas, if she has no infractions. She can pick from four stores: A music store, a book store, a clothing store, or a beauty supply store.
All kitchen knives and sharp objects, including disposable razors, and all medications, are kept inside of locked cabinets. Even Tylenol. If she gets caught with a bottle of Tylenol, she will lose points, and may be sent to juvenile hall.
If she gets caught with any alcohol or drugs, she will go into a lock-up drug rehab for 30 days, it will be reported to the police, and she will be prosecuted.
She can spend half an hour on the phone each day, if she has her privileges intact. Local calls only.
There are lots of rules about when she’s allowed to watch TV. There’s lots of fighting over TV.
Once a month, she and all the other kids are piled into white vans and taken to a PG-rated movie. She is left locked in her room if she has recent infractions.
There is medical care. An OBGYN visit upon menstruation. Yearly physicals. Yearly dental visits. Sylvie also sees a psychiatrist who gives her more meds. She is told that if she gets pregnant, and wants to keep it, she will be moved to “another placement” for pregnant foster youth.
Staff come and go. Residents come and go. All of the time, never to be seen again, and never with any notice.
It’s structured. Sylvia has to give it that. But it’s never safe. If another resident is angry enough with her, they might literally stab her, with a pen. One time she ends up with hair remover in her shampoo bottle. Another time, someone pisses in her bed. Some residents seem one bad day away from a psychotic break. Sylvia never knows what will happen.
She gets used to a lot of chaos. Yelling, screaming, arguing, fighting, breaking shit, throwing things, people being restrained, police, crying, ambulances, slamming doors, threats, insults. She even learns new profanity.
Staff never touch her, except to give her a high five or physically restrain her. Rules prohibit all other physical contact.
They also tell her she’ll have a future, after she “ages out.” She’s going to enlist in the military.
They’ll get started early on the whole process and its attendant paperwork. They have an agreement with the local recruiting station. She’ll be on a plane to basic the day she turns 18 or graduates high school. Whichever comes first.
Victoria: At 11 years old, Sylvie isn’t entirely sure what ‘basic’ is, but she knows what the military is. They’re the strong guys with tanks and bombs and planes and green clothing.
Sylvie doesn’t want to kill people. She gets mad, sometimes, and the three girls who—one of—chemically genocided her hair deserve to be punched in the mouth, but she doesn’t want to kill people she doesn’t know.
Why would she?
Why would anyone?
The thought of her life already decided by people who know her name as if it’s just as number destroys her.
She vows to get out of this house.
But until then, Sylvie is a good girl. Sylvie is a model daughter in a home without parents. Sylvie listens. Sylvie earns her points. Sylvie gets her treats. Sylvie is every fairy her willow tree never showed.
Until she pulls away the entirety of her hair one fateful shower. She doesn’t know who it was, but the choices are slim. Is it Mary-Mabel, who refused to accept that no, Sylvie would not be giving her her breakfast? Is it Bethany, whose feet Sylvie tripped over the night before? Or is it Donna, who was told that it was Sylvie who pushed her down the stairs the week before?
It wasn’t Sylvie.
Anger overtakes her. She cries in the shower, sinking to her knees as long as they allow her to stay. It isn’t long. She wants to hurt them; to stab them; to take a knife to their eyes and mush up their brains like strawberry pudding. She wants to see them hit by a car, and made part of the pavement. Maybe if they’re hit by a bus, they’ll sail clear over the bridge down the street.
She stuffs that anger down, down, down, deep inside. She doesn’t want to go to jail. She doesn’t want to lose her Gameboy.
Sylvie is a good girl.
A bald, good girl.
GM: Most of the kids are black, like the two quarreling boys. Sylvie’s not sure if she gets punished harsher or less harsh.
Running will not succeed, from what everyone tells her. She’s locked in the building almost all of the time. If she bolts after school, and doesn’t return for bed, the police will hunt her.
But that’s okay. She can be a good girl, until she loses her hair.
Most of her hair.
The staff declare what’s left “distracting” to the other residents and get rid of it. The razor they use cuts her skin. Harshly wielded scissors painfully nick her scalp. She bleeds. She will probably develop scabs.
The staff angrily tell her she’s lost a point, for what she’s done to her hair, and demand to know where she got the hair remover. Or else she will be “really in for it.”
Victoria: She never stops crying while they rend the dregs of her hair from her head. She saw an interrogation in a movie, once.
This is worse.
“I d-didn’t!! It wa-was one of them!”
She points at the door. All three suspects are somewhere out there.
“I l-loved my hair!”
GM: “You’re a liar,” says the staff member.
He roughly grabs Sylvie, hauls her to a sink, and forces her head in. He turns on the hot water full blast against her face. He then takes a fat handful of awful, pink, grainy powder K-Mart soap and shoves it into Sylvie’s mouth. He yells for her to chew as hot water pours over her face. He sticks his hand in her mouth and scrubs back and forth, washing her from teeth to gums to tongue. Sylvie gags and spits and burns. Soapy water froths out of her nostrils. She feels like she’s drowning.
“Stop lying, you awful girl. Where did you get the hair remover?” he asks after turning the water off.
Victoria: Sylvie tries her hardest not to vomit. The soap is acidic. It burns her tongue. It burns her gums. It gets in her eyes. It gets in her nose. It gets in her scrapes and cuts. Still, she sticks to it.
“I-I-I didn’t!! I loved my hair!! HONEST!!”
GM: The staff member hits her.
Just like that, he punches her in the gut. She crashes to her knees. She feels like she’s been shot. The urge to throw up is even stronger.
He yanks her back up and turns on the hot water again. Sylvia can see steam rising from it now.
“Where did you get the hair remover?”
Victoria: Is this what life is now? Is this what an interrogation really is?
She understands the movie a little better.
“I… I bought it.”
Life is giving people what they want.
“Mary-Mabel made me.”
GM: The staff member roughly grabs Sylvie by the hand and takes her to one of the “solitary” rooms for kids. There’s a bed on a thin mattress and nothing else in the windowless room.
He closes the door in her face. A lock clicks.
Victoria: She sobs.
And she sobs.
And she sobs.
And she sobs.
And she sobs.
GM: Used goods, says the voice in her head.
Look at her now.
No one wants Sylvia.
No one wants an orphan.
No one wants a bald, crying, lying, soap-mouthed orphan.
Not even the people here.
She doesn’t have a family.
She will never have a family.
She’s going to be a pariah when she gets out. The other kids will torment her, ceaselessly, when they see she’s bald.
She’s probably lost all of her points. They’re never going to let her leave this place. She’s going to be locked up here until she turns 18, when she’ll join the army and kill people.
If they don’t just send her to jail. Juvenile hall. Youth detention. Will they do that?
That’s all she is.
She might hurt herself, if she has anything to do it with. She has nothing. She is nothing. She’s never been anything. She will never be anything.
She’s the food her dog left behind, unfit to lick the bowl.
She’s the fetid vegetables left behind by maggots.
She’s the shit piled so high that you could no longer sit on the bowl.
She’s the piss in the bed she’s no longer sleeping in.
She’s every blank space in every picture she was never allowed in.
She’s the crumbs in the cookie jar, tossed into the trash.
She is emptiness, incarnate: blank space unfit even to be recognized.
I’m a junkie, Sylvia.
I’m a whore, Sylvia.
I’m a bum, Sylvia.
I’m a deadbeat, Sylvia.
I’m wasted, Sylvia.
I’m trash, Sylvia.