His whiskers were real and very scratchy, and his nose red and bulbous like an overripe fruit. A boy-elf with bad breath helped me onto his lap.
—And what is your name, little girl? he asked, high and syrupy.
I told him of course, because never talk to strangers has some understood exceptions. I told him, because five-year-olds don’t know that names have power.
—Oh, that’s a pretty name, a pretty name. And what do you want for Christmas?
I unfolded the square of paper I’d been clutching all day and struggled to read my own writing, the clumsy block letters in red magic marker, now blurred from spilled apple juice and damp mittens. A pink bicycle with streamers. A stuffed polar bear. Crayolas.
—No no no, he whispered, covering the paper with a fleshy white hand. What do you really want?
Confused, I sought my mother with my eyes, but she was well behind the velvet ropes, hissing at my older brother who stood arms folded and defiantly bored. My stepfather had his back to all of us, ignoring the wailing from my sister’s stroller as he chatted up the freckled girl-elf who worked the camera. Then there was a blinding flash and my mother was dragging me out, brother stepfather and sister in tow.
One year later the four of them were dead, all in one go. Slick snowy roads at night; a deer bolting; the squeal of tires; a massive pine tree. I was home with the babysitter. She had freckles too, and bright red hair, and her teeth were in a wire cage like they would leap out of her mouth if something didn’t stop them.
No relations to send me to, distant or otherwise. Ten years in group homes, all a blur, though I expect this next one will be different. Not much to pack. All that remains of my other life is a shoebox of photos. I rifle through and find the one I don’t like: red velvet chair, tumble of grey whiskers, great fat arm around a little girl caught in a moment of reflection, perhaps discovering within herself the unspeakable answer to a question just asked. I look hard into her eyes.
If a camera steals your soul, where exactly does it go? Who does it belong to?
And can you steal it back?
Outside a horn bleats like a wounded animal. I grab my satchel and push the box far under the bed that (like so many things) is no longer mine. Downstairs I steal someone’s lunch from the fridge, peanut butter and jelly oozing out the sides. My fingers are stained crimson-sticky so I plunge them in the snow until they’re clean and numb, climb in and pull the car door shut.
—Where are we going? I ask the bony girl behind the wheel, whose father I will soon call my own. Ours and not ours.
She bites her lower lip, baring metal cages, and makes something like a smile.
—North, she says.
I settle back in the seat, wondering how hard the beds will be, and if my hands will roughen from the work. Everything bought must be paid for. Everyone has a beginning.