The Nowhere Kid
ALL I ever wanted was to be safe.
Mama couldn’t keep me safe. On the days when she had to work, she gave me a coloring book, crayons, a plastic cup, and a box of cereal and locked me in the bathroom. I don’t remember how old I was then, maybe four or five. I do remember the bathroom was very hot at times, with ants crawling along the edge of the bathtub. Other times the bathroom was very cold, and I spent most of the day in the tub, shivering under a blanket and wishing for Mama to come back soon. I remember being scared all the time Mama was away, afraid of monsters and other bad things coming in to get me while she was gone. There were times when there was no food in the house or the lights wouldn’t come on and the water stopped running out of the faucets for days at a time, and that scared me too.
There was this man that Mama called her special friend, Mr. Morrie, who would come over to visit now and then. He’d bring bottles of wine and beer, which he said I couldn’t have because they were “grown people’s drink.” He and Mama would drink the stuff and then shut themselves up in her room. Other times Mama would drink and drink until she got very sleepy, and she’d tell Mr. Morrie to go home and then shut herself in her room alone. Instead of leaving, Mr. Morrie would tell me to turn on the television or bring him another bottle of beer or something. When I started doing what he asked, he’d shout that I wasn’t doing it right and I was making him mad, and he’d hit me. Mr. Morrie was very scary when he was shouting and mad and hitting.
He explained that if I didn’t want him to be mad, I’d have to make him happy. He showed me how to do things with my lips and tongue to make him happy. He’d take me to my room, and in the dark I worked very hard to make him happy so he would leave. He said what happened between us was our little secret, because if Mama found out how mad I made him, she’d skin me alive. I hated when Mr. Morrie came to visit Mama.
I started school. My teacher, Miss Gordon, was nice and funny, and I liked her. One day I accidentally knocked over a vase on her desk, spilling water and flowers everywhere. She got upset. I got scared, and I said over and over how sorry I was. To make everything better, I went over to where she sat and started licking her ear the way Mr. Morrie liked. Instead of being happy, Miss Gordon jerked away and looked very scared herself. She called in a hall monitor to watch her class, and then she took me out of the room and asked who taught me to use my tongue like that. After I told her, she took me to the principal’s office, and I was scared all over again because I figured Mr. Morrie and Mama would be really mad at me now.
Things turned out to be far worse than I expected. A social worker named Mrs. Kestenbaum came into my life. That was when I got taken away from Mama and put into foster care.
FOSTER CARE was a totally higher level of scary for me. My first foster parent was a middle-aged, never married woman named Emma Waverly. She had other foster kids in her home when Mrs. Kestenbaum brought me there, a trio of brothers named Ned, who was fifteen, Simon, who was fourteen, and Harry, who was nine. I was six years old. Emma—she insisted that we call her by her first name—took good care of us. Ned and Simon mostly hung out with their friends and ignored me. Harry didn’t seem to have as many friends as his brothers, and when he wasn’t in school, he hung around the house. I didn’t have any friends at all for the first couple of months I lived with Emma, so I hung around the house a lot too.
Harry was angry. I don’t know why he was always so angry—maybe he wanted more time with his brothers than they gave him, or maybe he was upset that he’d lost his real mom and dad—but he took out his bad emotions on me. He shoved me, bit me, punched me, and kicked me. He was sly enough to do these things when there were no witnesses, and he said if I told on him, he’d beat me until my eyeballs popped out.
I believed him. When Emma asked about various bruises, cuts, and scrapes she saw on my arms and legs, I told her I fell or bumped into something. But then Harry started doing even worse things to me. He threw sharp rocks at me. He stabbed me with forks and jagged sticks. He pushed me down stairs. I got worried he was going to do something that would hurt me in a really bad way, so about six months after my arrival, I finally told Emma. Emma got very upset and told Harry in no uncertain terms what he was doing to me was bad, and it had to stop immediately.
The attacks stopped, but I could see Harry was even angrier than before. I stuck very close to Emma when I was home, always keeping myself within sight or earshot of her. On the bus ride to school, I stuck close to the driver, and at school I stayed near one of the teachers and avoided the bathrooms. Harry seldom spoke to me and kept his distance. Weeks passed, the end of the school year came, and although I liked my teacher, I was happy to be freed from first grade.
I missed my mother a lot during my time at Emma’s house. Mrs. Kestenbaum came by now and then to see how I was doing. Every visit I asked her when I’d be allowed to go home to Mama. She told me I couldn’t go back to live with Mama, but Mama was welcome to come visit me. Six times I asked Mrs. Kestenbaum to tell Mama to please come see me, and six times Mrs. Kestenbaum assured me she had passed my message along to Mama. Mama never showed up, and while I never stopped wanting to go back to her, I stopped asking for her.
In July Emma had to go to her doctor for some kind of checkup, and she left Harry’s brother Ned to watch over Harry and me while she was gone. Ned’s girlfriend showed up not long after Emma drove off. He chased Harry and me into the backyard and told us to stay there until he called us in.
I was nervous being alone with Harry, but he had done nothing to hurt me since Emma chewed him out, and I figured even with her away, he wouldn’t risk her anger again by doing anything to me. He went out to the swing set, hoisted himself up on the bar between the two A-frames, and hung upside down, his knees hooked over the bar. With his eyes closed, he swung his torso and dangling arms gently back and forth, humming quietly to himself. I went to the far corner of the yard where there was a sandbox so old grass had grown up through the dull, damp grit. I had no interest in playing in the sand, but there was nothing else to do, and I wanted to stay as far away from Harry as possible.
I got lost building dome-shaped figures in the sand—so lost that I didn’t hear Harry walk up behind me. He announced his presence by driving a fist into my ear. Before I could yell or turn or do anything else, he was on me, crushing me down, beating at me. He smashed my face into the sand. I couldn’t breathe. He held me down so long I was afraid I would suffocate.
He let go suddenly, and I jerked myself up, gasping for breath and sobbing hysterically at the same time. Behind me there were loud smacking sounds and grunts, and I could hear Ned cursing. “What the hell’s wrong with you, Harry?”
I turned around, still crying, sand stuck all over my face and in my eyes. Through squints I saw Ned, who was skinny but seemed to be as tall as a man, whacking Harry in the back of the head again and again. “You trying to kill that kid? Huh? Is that it? You trying to kill him?” he shouted at Harry. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Even with the smacks to his head, Harry stood there, unflinching, taking what Ned dished out to him. He had stopped grunting, and he stared straight ahead, his eyes full of hatred, anger, and a lot of other stuff I couldn’t name.
After that Harry started back with his routine attacks on me. Emma tried everything to stop him. She told him she understood he was upset and angry with his life, but he had to work with his counselor to find better ways of dealing with his pain. She grounded him. She took away his bike and skates and video games. She cut him off from watching television and going to the movies. Harry still kept up the terrorizing, slapping me around as if I had no feelings at all. Then, at the end of July, he pushed my head into a window. The glass broke and sliced a cut behind my left ear that took three stitches to close. That was it, as far as Mrs. Kestenbaum was concerned. She had Emma pack up my clothes and moved me to another foster home.
THAT BECAME the pattern of my life. Over the past eight and a half years, I’ve had seven different homes. Seven different families. Seven different chances. Bounced from one place to the next like some kind of pinball.
After Emma Waverly, I lived with Mr. and Mrs. Brubaker. They had thirteen kids in their house, three of their own, five they’d adopted, and five more they were fostering. I went there on some sort of emergency basis. Mr. and Mrs. Brubaker were willing to take me in until Mrs. Kestenbaum could arrange something better. I liked the Brubakers a lot. They were a big cuddly couple, loud talking, loud laughing, and always flashing huge smiles. Even with their jobs and all the kids running around, they both found time somehow to hug me or ask how I was doing or tell me what a good boy I was. Four of the kids living in the house were close to my age, and I liked them a lot too. We had fun together. It was the first foster home where I wanted to stay forever. But five months after I got there, Mr. and Mrs. Brubaker packed up my stuff, gave me one final hug, and Mrs. Kestenbaum took me away. I cried for two whole days. The Brubakers couldn’t adopt me because they simply weren’t able to permanently take on another kid, but I didn’t understand that at the time. I just knew they didn’t want me.
I wanted to be wanted. I needed that to put down roots in one place, with one family, and stay. I needed that to feel safe. At my next foster home, I figured I had to do whatever was necessary to make the family keep me. William Kilzer was a middle-aged man whose wife had died. He had a seventeen-year-old daughter, Lisa, who was tall and willowy. I heard him tell Mrs. Kestenbaum that he wanted to be a foster parent because Lisa would be going off to college in a year, and he thought that left him with plenty of love to give to kids who needed it. I was the first kid he fostered, and he really was a loving person. He bought me a bike and taught me how to ride it. He played catch with me in the backyard. There was “family day” every Saturday when he, Lisa, and I would go out for a movie and a pizza, or we’d play miniature golf or go to museums. And there were kids my age in the neighborhood, which allowed me to make some friends. Life was good for me at the Kilzer house.
So when Lisa would get me alone and ask me to kiss her, I did it. When she asked me to touch her breasts, I did it. At night, in the wee hours, when she woke me and sneaked me out of my room and into her bed, when she told me to take off my pajamas and climb under the covers with her, I did it. Because of what happened with Mr. Morrie, Mrs. Kestenbaum told me over and over again that if anyone ever did anything to me that made me uncomfortable, I should be sure to tell her. I hated what Lisa wanted from me as much as I hated what Mr. Morrie wanted, but I was afraid that if I made her unhappy, she would tell her dad to send me away. So I did everything she wanted and said nothing about it to Mrs. Kestenbaum or anyone else.
I was in the Kilzer house for ten months. Willie—which is what Mr. Kilzer wanted me to call him—said he liked having me around so much, he wanted to take on another foster kid. Lisa had graduated from high school and was getting ready to go away to college. Once she was out of the house and my new foster brother or sister was in, I figured everything would finally be perfect. Willie left me with a neighbor when he made the four-hour drive to take Lisa to her college dorm. On the trip back, a drunk driver swerved over to his side of the road and hit his car head-on. Willie lost a leg in the accident and was left paralyzed from the neck down.
Even as I cried for him, Mrs. Kestenbaum took me away to another foster home.
THE ROBERTS. The Cunninghams. The Vickers. The Petersons. For one reason or another, none of those families worked out for me. I stopped letting myself get close to anyone. The only constant in my life was Mrs. Kestenbaum. She was sort of a guardian angel. I could talk to her about anything. But it seemed she couldn’t arrange the one thing I wanted, the one thing I needed desperately.
So now, at fourteen, I wound up with the Nelsons. They were a white couple, the fourth such I’d lived with. There was no expectation on my part that I’d find anything permanent with them either. Their house was just a place to crash until I got bounced off to the next family.
My name: Linus Lightman. Temporary son. Nowhere kid.