Alex was as spindly as a weed, all knees and elbows. He was small for a nine-year-old and looked as though he hadn’t slept properly in months. There were rings under his eyes like someone had pushed their thumbs there, hard, bruising the thin skin. But his hair was neatly combed and when he put out his hand to shake, he spoke with a clear and confident voice.
“Pleased to meet you.”
Catherine and Philip showed him the bedroom they had prepared for him and he made sure he didn’t roll his eyes at the dinosaur-printed comforter or the bookshelf with pictures books. It was clear they expected a much younger child and he knew this meant a very temporary home. Alex could see they were soft, new to this game, and Catherine looked at Alex like her world was on his shoulders. Philip was more reserved and he took time to relax. After a while, he began to tell jokes that were so bad Alex couldn’t help but laugh. He also sneaked treats to Alex while they watched football or ice hockey on television.
But Alex didn’t unpack his meagre bag, even months later, preferring to rummage in the bottom of it for underwear or a clean shirt. When his things reappeared, freshly laundered, he simply put them back in the bag.
School was harder. Alex hated walking back to the house after school. All the other kids pushed and jostled each other as they, one by one, peeled off the main road towards their homes. Alex preferred the days when the others were distracted, and he could duck down a small gap between houses to the old, unused railway line which ran parallel to the road.
The train tracks were still straight as an arrow, but the grass had encroached in every available space. The trees on either side had grown thick and tall, and they bowed their tops towards each other, creating a tunnel of trees for the tracks to run through. Alex would climb his favourite tree to where the branches nestled him against the trunk. Sometimes, when the wind was blowing, he imagined he was on the high seas. Most often, though, he pretended he was an outlaw about to jump onto a passing train.
It was risky playing on the train tracks. He couldn’t have the bullies follow him to somewhere so secluded. Sometimes, like today, he had to walk the whole way home along the roads.
“Hey foster kid.” The boys from his class were walking in heavy steps a way behind him.
“Hey! I was talking to you.” A stone hit Alex on his shoulder and then another, bigger this time, hit the bare skin of the back of his arm. “Foster kid! Foster kid!” The rhythm of their footsteps gaining on him matched his heart rate. The boys surrounded him, shoving him back and forth. One pulled his backpack off and threw it into the road. One boy spat on his shoe. Another kicked the back of his leg and Alex fell, skinning his knees and hands on the concrete. The bullies disappeared as fast as they had appeared.
Alex collected his bag and, limping, decided to go to the train tracks even though Catherine would be waiting for him at the house. The stinging in his knees slowed him as he walked between the tracks, stepping from tie to tie. He usually liked to run these to see how fast he could go without missing one, pretending he was a superstar athlete. Sometimes he leaped them, two at a time, imagining he was a deer.
Today, he was just himself, blood oozing down his bony shins, someone else’s spit drying on his shoe. His nose ran furiously as he refused himself permission to cry. He wiped the slime off his lip with the edge of his t-shirt. His imagination emptied and all he was left with was the dream of having a proper family. He had stopped allowing this fantasy because it made his insides feel hollowed out. The bullies voices echoed in that cavernous space.
Foster kid means no one wants you.
Alex came through the front door, just as Catherine was about to phone the school to find out if he was still there. The blood on his legs was brown and dry and his palms raw. He didn’t flinch as Catherine cleaned the grazes, and he met her questions with silence. Only when he had swallowed a glass of water and had eaten an apple did he dare say anything.
He forced his voice to be cold and flat, his eyes empty. “How long do I gotta stay here?”
“You can choose to stay for as long as you want. We would like to find your mother to sign papers so we can adopt you. But it is up to you.”
He stood, lifting his chair so it wouldn’t scrape, put his apple core in the trash, his glass in the dishwasher, and went to the bedroom. He didn’t look up from The Very Hungry Caterpillar book when Catherine brought his laundry in. She pulled his bag out from behind the door ready to put his clothes into it.
“Can I try having things in the closet? You know, just for now.”
This story was written for the second round of the Yeah Write SuperChallenge #4. The picture above was one of the prompts as was “Adopting a child”