I’d never owned a suitcase. Seemed like there was some kind of unwritten rule against it in the foster care circuit, because from the age of five when both my adoptive parents died in a car accident, to the age of twelve when the Brooks took me in, every time I was being moved to a different home, they’d simply dump my things into a huge, black, trash bag, and tie it in a knot as if that made it look more expensive. Sadly it became the norm after a few moves, and I even got upgraded to a flashy bag with a red drawstring at the last home; the home that taught me the last of my worst lessons before I finally landed with the Brooks.
“Freddie, get your got damn ass out here! These people are coming to inspect, and I don’t need them giving me no shit before bible study.”
Nobody in the world proclaimed to love the Lord more than my foster mother, Miss Pearl did. And it was a damn shame the way she cursed at me and the four other unlucky souls that wound up in her care, blaspheming the Lord’s name with liquor oozing down her throat. She wasn’t the first foster home I’d ever lived in, but she was definitely the worst. Hate wasn’t a word I used often, but if I did, it usually had her name right behind it.
“She’s coming, Miss Pearl!” My roommate, Jessica yelled down the long hallway from our bedroom to the banister where Miss Pearl stood with a cigarette hanging from her plump brown lips, a long thread of ashes hanging on, probably too afraid of her to fall. “She’s wrestling with that hair again.”
“I got a right mind to chop that shit off.” I heard Miss Pearl yelling. The woman was jealous of everything and everybody. It wasn’t our fault she was built like an apple tree but couldn’t bear fruit.
“And if she ain’t out in two minutes, that’s exactly what the fuck I’mma do.” She said, before walking her heavy-footed ass back down the stairs, making the old wooden floor boards squeak beneath each step.
I gave up on doing whatever it was I thought I was gonna do with my hair after hearing that threat, knowing full well she’d take a pair of rusty scissors to my head without giving it a second thought. I’d seen her do worse to Chelsea, the youngest of the five of us, when she wet the bed and hid a pair of soiled panties under her mattress, causing a stench to spread across the entire second floor of the house. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say Chelsea didn’t do much sitting that week.
With my thick, tangled hair pulled up into a semi-neat bun, I rushed from the bathroom, remembering to flip the light off and check twice to make sure I did. Jessica stood at the banister looking down the steps then over her shoulder at me, eyes wide with worry before relaxing, relieved to see that I’d finally finished up.
“You must not believe her when she says she’ll kill you. Are you crazy or just stupid?” She fumed, long arms flying up in the air as she motioned for me to hurry toward the steps.
“Death would be a welcome escape from this hell hole.” I peeped into the bathroom a third time to make sure I’d shut off the light. Miss Pearl was as anal about her electric bill as she was about everything else.
“You don’t mean that.” Jessica sighed, so timid it was a shame.
And she had reason to be, having been in the system for fourteen of the sixteen years she’d been alive. Compared to some of the homes she told me she’d lived in, Miss Pearl’s harsh treatment was a cakewalk.
“Not all the way, but mostly.” I returned, straightening the collar on the denim jacket I’d pulled from the box of donated, mothball smelling clothing Miss Pearl designated to me and Jessica.
“I don’t need to tell you why you should be thankful for a warm bed that doesn’t include visits from an old white man every night again, do I?” She slanted her wild brown eyes at me, hand propped on her hip like a woman twice her age.
“No, you don’t.” I returned a slanted eye. “And again, I’m sorry that happened to you.” I said with as much sincerity as an almost twelve-year-old could possess.
“It’s all good.” She shrugged, looking down the steps in response to the sound of Miss Pearls heavy feet making their way out of the kitchen to see who was pulling up in the driveway. “Come on. I think that’s the social worker. Time to act like we got some sense.” She joked, reciting one of Miss Pearl’s favorite sayings.
We hurried down before being summoned, since being summoned always resorted in an ass whooping later. The three younger girls had already taken their respective seats on the sofa in the living room, where we were never allowed to sit until the social worker stopped by.
Miss Pearl’s evil eyes met us at the bottom of the steps. She spoke through her dingy teeth. “Not a got damn peep about what goes on behind these doors, or so help me God, I’ll skin your asses alive.”
Then she spun away in response to the doorbell, pulling the door open with the fakest smile known to man, greeting a lady that looked nothing like the social worker we’d seen on the last visits.
“Umm, hello.” Miss Pearl’s plump hand went to her chest. She’d developed a rapport with the old social worker, and I got the feeling that this new face wasn’t sitting well with her. “Is Mrs. Jacobs ok?”
“She’s fine.” The new social worker replied. “I’m Ms. Shannon. I’ll be taking over your case from here. You mind if I come in?”
“Oh, sure. Pardon my manners. Would you like something to drink?” She asked in a voice that didn’t belong to her. I’d seen her change it up a little bit, but this woman sounded like a 911 operator.
“No thanks. I won’t be long.” She answered, taking inventory of myself and Jessica, before taking her curious eyes to the three brown baby dolls looking over the back of the sofa at her from the living room.
“You ladies okay?” She almost whispered as Miss Pearl left the room to grab the usual cookie tray from the kitchen table. “And you can tell me the truth. I’m here for you, not Ms. Burdette.”
Jessica twiddled her fingers and tried to look away. I nudged her with my eyes still fixed on Ms. Shannon, urging her to speak up since she’d endured Miss Pearl’s abuse far longer than I had.
“We’re fine.” Jessica spoke up as Miss Pearl reentered the room with a tray of cookies she’d snagged from the food pantry on her way home from the gambling shack. “Miss Pearl’s the sweetest foster mom we’ve ever had.” She added, forcing a smile.
I remained silent, certain that there wasn’t much Ms. Shannon could do even if I told the truth. But the sad look on my face, and the unified disappointment of the tiny trio looking over the back of the sofa, must’ve triggered something in Ms. Shannon that told her something was wrong.
“The pleasure is all mine.” Miss Pearl spoke up, placing the cookie platter on the coffee table before taking a seat in the old, worn, recliner that sat to the right of the only sofa in the room. “These young ladies make it all worth-while.” Those full brown lips spread into a smile that probably pained her to display.
“Is that right?” Ms. Shannon asked, reading straight through the bullshit, expressing disbelief on her narrow, light brown face.
“Indeed it is.” Miss Pearl returned. “You can ask em for yourself. I’m always praising these girls. I don’t know where they were before they came to me, but they’ve been perfect angels since they stepped foot through my door.”
“Well, that’s nice to hear, Ms. Burdette. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with the young ladies alone.”
Ms. Shannon dropped the brown, leather briefcase she’d had tucked under her arm, and gripped her fingers through a slender handle at the top of it. You could’ve bought Miss Pearl with a nickel in that moment. Our old case worker, Mrs. Jacobs, had never asked to speak to us alone.
“I, umm… I didn’t know that that was allowed.” Miss Pearl said, sliding forward in her recliner. “I assure you they have nothing to hide.” She insisted.
“Oh, it’s allowed.” Ms. Shannon returned. “And in some instances, required. Now if you don’t mind, is there a space where I can speak with the girls in private?” Ms. Shannon tightened her grip on the briefcase, her tall, slender frame so regal and upstanding that I’d decided in my head, she was hiding a cape under her powder-blue, silk blouse and black pencil skirt.
“Sure.” Miss Pearl answered nervously without standing from her seat. “Kitchen’s that way.” She pointed over her shoulder.
Ms. Shannon couldn’t see it as she headed toward the kitchen to set up, but Miss Pearl gave us the evil eye as we all fell in line behind Super Woman as instructed.
The tidy dining room was all our doing, and I couldn’t wait to tell Ms. Shannon just that. But in order to muster the courage, I’d need to be seated away from Jessica. She literally drained my courage with her downtrodden persona, and I couldn’t let that happen today. The three little ones looked so nervous it was sickening. Miss Pearl had them brainwashed, and I doubted they’d speak on the abuse without someone else speaking up first. At the ages of six, seven, and eight, they probably didn’t have much experience with forming their own thoughts. But they knew right from wrong. We’d conversed about it before.
“Alright, ladies. So, I’m gonna ask you a few questions okay?” Ms. Shannon started after pulling out five manila folders with each of our names on a tab. “Answer me as honestly as you can and don’t be afraid. It’s important that you tell me the truth. Do we all understand what the truth is?” She took her eyes on a trip around the table and watched us all nod yes.
“Okay, which one of you is Chelsea?” She asked, pulling the attention of the youngest of the bunch, who raised her hand and smiled.
“Hi, Chelsea.” Ms. Shannon smiled back. “Do you know what the truth means?” She asked in a sing song voice.
“Yes ma’am.” Chelsea nodded, sending a red ribbon swinging from her little head that was bigger than the ponytail it was attached to. “It means don’t lie.”
“That’s right.” Ms. Shannon nodded. “Can you give me an example of telling the truth? Like if I said the ribbon in your hair was green, would that be the truth?”
Chelsea tugged at the ribbon, accidentally untying it. “That’s not true. It’s red.” She said with shivering lips.
“You’re right sweetie. But why are you crying?” Ms. Shannon stood from the table and took a seat closer to Chelsea, handing her a napkin from inside her briefcase.
Chelsea didn’t respond. Just wiped her eyes and tried her best to fix the ribbon.
“Chelsea, did you hear me? I asked why you were crying. Do you not like the ribbon?” Ms. Shannon asked. “Is it too tight?” She continued.
“She’s crying because she messed the ribbon up.” The seven year old, Beau, spoke up. “Miss Pearl doesn’t like it when we mess up our bows, and neither does Pastor Solomon.”
“Shut up, Beau. We’re not supposed to talk about that!” The oldest of the three sisters, Ayesha, cut in. And something about the way she cut her eyes at her sister let me know that there was more to this story than I was aware of.
“Ayesha, is there something you’re being asked to hide?” Ms. Shannon gently pressed, keeping her seat beside Chelsea while landing her eyes on her older sister. “This is a safe space. And if something’s going on you need to tell me. I can’t help you unless you’re honest.”
“You can’t help me either way.” Ayesha said, dropping her elbows on the table and propping her head in the palms of her hands. “All y’all wanna do is split us up. And we don’t wanna be split up. They already took our brothers somewhere and I can barely remember what they look like.”
I don’t know how Ms. Shannon was holding her composure, but I wasn’t gonna be able to sit through this much longer without crying. I’d always been told that I was old for my age, and didn’t quite understand what that meant until I was in the presence of children my age. I felt things, understood things, and empathized with things so naturally. And this little girl was pulling at my heartstrings harder than my emotions could keep up with.
“What about if she promises to keep y’all together?” I offered my unsolicited assistance. “Would that help, Ayesha?” I asked, not patting her shoulder like I’d wanted to because she’d shown resistance to touch when I tried to hug her when we were first introduced.
“She can’t promise them anything.” Jessica spoke up before Ayesha had the chance to. “All these social workers do is lie. I keep tryna tell you that, but you don’t listen. How do you think we all wound up here? If they were so good at keeping their word, I’d’ve been with a real family by now. Not bouncing around from house to house, being thrown out like week-old trash.” Jessica’s eyes jotted from me to Ms. Shannon, probably trying to decide which one of us she hated the most.
“Jessica, I’m sorry that happened to you.” Ms. Shannon said, petting Chelsea’s back as she sniffed through the last of her tears. “But I’m here now. And I promise I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t have to go through those things anymore. But you have to help me; all of you. If there is anything going on here that’s not right, I need to know.”
“Is everything ok?” Miss Pearl came busting through the kitchen door just as a glimmer of hope could be seen collectively in our eyes. “Those cookies aren’t gonna eat themselves.” She fake-chuckled.
“They’re stale anyway.” Ayesha blurted, dropping her hands on the table and sitting up straight. “Can you keep me and my sisters together, Ms. Shannon?” She asked, rolling her eyes from Miss Pearl and landing them on Ms. Shannon, aka the Good Witch.
“I will do the best I can.” Ms. Shannon replied with sincerity written all over her face.
“Mind your manners, young lady.” Miss Pearl stepped all the way into the kitchen.
“Or what?” Ayesha sassed. “You gonna beat us in front of Ms. Shannon or you gonna wait til she leaves?”
You could hear Miss Pearl swallowing the urge to rush across the small kitchen and slap the taste out of Ayesha’s mouth. I was flabbergasted and relieved, but still a little bit terrified that Ms. Shannon might still leave us in this woman’s custody overnight.
But she didn’t, thank God. She had all five of us removed from Miss Pearl’s custody, and placed under the same roof that night after the three littles, Ayesha, Beau, and Chelsea spilled the beans about not only the physical abuse they’d suffered at the hands of Miss Pearl, but the sexual abuse they’d suffered at the hands of Pastor Solomon, the youth minister at a church we attended three days a week with Miss Pearl.
Unlike the little ones, Jessica wasn’t so happy about the new living arrangements. And she never admitted to anything, but I was certain she’d been molested by Pastor Solomon too. I’d dodged that bullet for whatever reason, and was thankful beyond words. It didn’t make it any easier to know that the other girls suffered, but of all the things I’d lost, at least my innocence was still intact.
It took about three months to find a forever home that would take the little ones as a package deal. Jessica and I stayed in the same foster home for about three months after that, before God sent the Brooks my way. I didn’t have much when I left that last foster home, but all the contents of my plastic bag were gifted to Jessica who had even less. The only thing I kept in my possession was a letter from my birth mother, with no return address and only her mother’s name, a name that I would spend my whole life searching for no matter how long it took. Mrs. Bobbi Nelle Thompson, Apt. F58 in the Rose Palms.