Let's say you're a kid who's small for her age and some other kids who are way overgrown decide it would be the most hilarious thing in the world to shove the new kid in the house into the clothes dryer and slam it closed. I can tell you how to get out of that dryer by kicking and screaming bloody murder so that the foster mom with the bald spot on the top of her head rescues you in front of the entire snickering ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha house full of kids.
I can also give you the complete rundown on the most common varieties of foster parents you're likely to run into. Like the look-on-the-bright-side ones who go on and on until your head is ready to explode like a potato in a microwave about how lucky you are that you weren't born a foster kid in 1846. Or the one Inicknamed Miss Satan because she was so evil, and I bet she's still alive because everyone knows you can't kill pure evil. Or the one who won't like you screaming bloody murder even when the family dog sticks its nose in your crotch and who says things like, "A little, bitty dog never hurt anyone."
Oh yeah, well, what about the Demon Dog from Hell?
Man-oh-man, I can tell you other things too. Important things you need for survival, not baby stuff.
Like how to jump down from and then shimmy back up to a second-story window.
And how to kick heart disease in the butt. Scary thought, right? But I have the scar right down the center of my chest to prove it.
I can tell you how to slip some quote-unquote souvenirs from a foster home into your pocket without anyone noticing a thing missing.
But there are a few things I don't know much about. I admit it. Trees are one. In the World of Whitney, that's just something I never needed to know, so why waste a bunch of words on it? In some places, the people have a hundred different words for something that's important to them. Like, in Alaska, the people have one word for wet snow--say, oogabloga--and a totally separate word for the big flaked kind of snow--like moogablogo.
For me, one word for tree has always been good enough, and that word is tree. There are small trees and big trees, trees that stay green all year and trees where the leaves fall off. Those are called decidingus trees because they all decided to let their leaves fall off for the winter. And there was the tree that I used for sneaking out of my sixth foster home because they duct-taped my bedroom door shut to keep me from being a night howl. That means I like wandering around and making lots of noise after dark.
That's about the whole sum total of it for trees and me.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be heading to Foster Home #12, where there was bound to be some real tree nuttiness going on. How did I know this? I saw a map of California, and way at the top there was no big (big city) or even a medium-sized (medium-sized city). Where I was headed, the map was a blob of green with hardly any \\\\\\\ (roads). That meant trees, lots of them.
On a Sunday morning, the social worker from way up north came all the way south to the Land of Concrete to pick me up from my old foster home and take me to the new one. I was in the back seat of her official Department of Children's Services car. My pet pill bug, Ike Eisenhower the Sixth, was curled up in some leavesin a mayonnaise jar on my lap. I was working through a supersize bag of sunflower seeds--crack--spitting the shells out the window and sizing up my future.
Here's the way I saw it. There are two true, never-going-to-change facts of life for me. I'm going to die someday. And I am not going to last long in this new foster home. There's no getting around either one of them. Crack. Especially the second. Crack. No matter how things seem at first ... crack. No matter how much the people tell me they want me around ... crack ... I'm going to get under their skin like a bad heat rash. Like a rubber band growing tighter and tighter around their throats. Crack, crack, crack!
"Can you stop it with those seeds?" the social worker blurted out.
"Nope," I said.
"It's been six hours and three hundred miles with that cracking."
"I need to be doing something with my hands. You don't want to see me without anything to do with my hands."
By this time, we were out of San Jose, past Oakland, past Sacramento, all the way to where there were no more buildings, where the sky was no longer blue like anormal California sky. It looked like chocolate chip ice cream melted and schmooshed together. I rolled down the window and felt something like a damp rag slap across my face. That was the air. I stuck out my head even farther, all the way to the neck.
"In, please," the social worker said.
"Can't hear you," I lied.
I spotted a huge truck hauling logs that was coming at us from the opposite direction. I waved at the driver, then pulled down on a pretend cord, which everyone knows is the way to get a truck driver to sound the horn, unless the driver happens to be an old sourpuss, which this one was because all I could hear was wind banging on my eardrums. The truck got closer. I could see the driver's face now, and it wasn't smiling. It was screwed up, like I was a ghost.
"Get your head in!" the social worker was screaming. The driver blasted the horn, really blasted it. I cheered and waved. My ears were ringing. My eyes were tearing. Gravel was flying. Whoooo!
"Are you out of your mind?" the social worker screeched.
Man-oh-man, what was her problem? My nose didn't get knocked off or anything. She pulled to the side of the road, shut off the engine, and refused to drive any farther until I brought my head in and rolled up thewindow. "And lock the door," she ordered in a shaky voice.
That was the only major excitement for a while. After that, it was just trees to the right, left, ahead, and behind. It was a jungle out there, only not an interesting jungle jungle with monkeys and tigers and vines to swing from. This was just a lot of trees. There was a sign that said SCENIC HIGHWAY, and I wondered, What kind of idiot do they think I am? Of course it's scenic when everything looks like a postcard. Only it wasn't my kind of postcard. I like the ones where they paste an antelope and a jackrabbit together so you think there's really such an animal as a jackalope. Which I did for a while. I mean, why wouldn't I?
The social worker didn't take her eyes off the road, except to glance at me every ten seconds through the rearview mirror. "Girl with your kind of energy?" she said. "Good fresh air can work a miracle. This is where you belong, just the kind of home you need."
Who was she kidding? In social worker language, what she really meant was "Whitney, you've already been thrown out of or run away from every foster home in the world of civilization. That's why I have to drive you here to the middle of nowhere."
Home? I thought. One more place where other people belong, one more big, fat lie.