It had been almost two days since I had last eaten a whole meal. I had already trained my body to get used to it though; the hunger pains would stop after the first nine hours and then stop for good. I could still hear my foster mom’s granddaughter smacking her food in her mouth from the kitchen. My foster sister, Dana was as talkative as she usually wasn’t, responding with one or three-word responses with her big, goofy smile and awkward lip bite ad if to bite off a sentence that tagged along her remarks.
My foster sister shuffled into the room. She plopped down on her bed, squirmed around on it like a fish out of water, and hustled back out to do her chores. I jolted off the floor to run and do mine, turning my mind off and lowering my head as I was told while Dana hummed to herself as she vacuumed. Seeing the food crumbs on the floor almost depressed me; I focused on making a steady, obsessive rhythm with the broom on the hardwood floors. I wanted to make the rhythm to Dana’s humming, but I didn’t want to get in trouble and lose my food money again. It was done, but I told myself to let go of the seventy or so cents I earned for the day, just in case I had to buy school supplies instead of dinner.
I plopped down where I was before and stared at the white, graffiti-covered dresser. The three drawers weren’t much bigger than show boxes, but it held all of my clothes with enough extra space to hold one more pair of socks.
The concept of planks of wood cut, polished and painted to hold clothing was strange and excessive to me. Then again, so was owning as much as five shirts and three pairs of pants or having a busted metal frame for a mattress instead of sleeping on the floor. I was grateful my habit of sitting on floors instead of chairs was allowed, especially if I’d be in trouble if I had been on my bed when it wasn’t bedtime.
Dana shuffled back into the bedroom. She wiggled her shoes beneath her matching white socks. The light blue jeans caught underneath the heels of her feet. Her gray hoodie dangled past her hands to her tiny waist. Strands of her naturally light blonde hair fell loose from her tight ponytail. She looked down at me with the same glint of childish wonder in her big, blue eyes and a goofy smile with crooked teeth that stuck out past her glossy lips.
“Hey,” she said, swinging her arms side to side to flail her sleeves, “wanna go to bed early?”
I looked at her, puzzled. “Why?”
“’Cause I have a s‘prise for you.”
My gut stiffened. She hadn’t been nice to me to trick me like other foster girls had, but I wasn’t sure if she’d get us in trouble by mistake anyway.
I sighed and brushed it off. I picked up another Anne Rice book to read while she skipped off to the living room to watch the news with my foster parents.
* * *
She waddled into the bedroom in her pajamas when it was finally eight o’ clock. She tried bringing up the surprise she had for me again, but I had to distract her from talking about it until it was time to set the alarm on our door. I was glad we weren’t locked in, but I didn’t like having a burglar alarm go off every time I opened the door to request permission to use the bathroom. I was also grateful I didn’t have the runs any more, otherwise, I’d get in trouble for needing to use the bathroom, but it would still be a few days before I was allowed to eat again.
The door was shut and the alarm was set. Dana and I waited until we saw the shadow of our foster mom disappear into the bedroom next to us and the scratching of her oxygen tube to stop scratching on the floor. We heard them whisper about how much they didn’t like having us here before I let Dana talk.
“Okay okay,” Dana said in a chipper whisper, “you’re gonna like this one.”
She carefully crawled on top of her bed and squirmed on it again. She was quiet, to my surprise, for how much she moved. I worried we would get in trouble if they heard us, but she had gotten better about making sound.
“’Jiddian,” she said, using the pet name she secretly had for me, “catch!”
She tossed me a mandarin orange.
She shoved a few more out from the pillow case, from under the sheets, and from under the mattress and behind the bed. She sat up and wiggled her butt into a comfortable position, like a cat. She looked at me and smiled with her crooked teeth pushing back her lips.
The blood drained from my skin. I was terrified to think of what would happen to either of us if out foster mom not only knew she stole from the biological family’s personal share of cuties, but was trying to feed me or was touching my bed in any way, shape, or form.
“Are you nuts—?” I hissed.
She nodded happily, mostly to toss her pony tail around.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble we could get in for this?”
She shrugged. “’What she gonna do, send me back to The Foote? Well, probably and charge e with theft and destruction of property, but hey, I’d get fed there and a lot better treated. You’re probably not gonna hear it any differently that The Foote is better than a foster home.”
“You really shouldn’t be okay with that.”
She shrugged again and started peeling one of the oranges. “I love these things. My mama, or, well, mommy, my mommy fed them to me a lot. Of course, I didn’t get ’em when I went into The Foote, but she never stopped giving ’em to me. We fight sometimes, but she always made sure I had good enough food when I was with her. I can’t wait to go back when things clear up. I’d take ya with me if I could, ‘have my own little pet Jiddian.”
She began meowing happily. It was an odd, newer habit of hers, but it was quiet and she didn’t do it in front of the foster parents or their adopted daughter and grandchildren.
“Is it Monday yet?” she asked. “I want it to be Monday so I can eat more food too. You know, more real food than what we got here. We keep getting’ the runs from her feedin’ us whatever’s gone bad in the fridge or not cooked all the way. I think she does it so she can punish us for getting sick by not feeding us.”
“We aren’t her kids.”
“Neither is Cherry.” She referred to their adopted daughter, Cherish as Cherry. I was still worried it was a nickname close enough for our foster parents to hear, but we didn’t notice any signs that they had come to check on us.
“Yeah,” I said, “but they chose her, not us.”
She peeled her orange cleanly and put the skin and whatever veins she pulled off into her backpack to throw away at school; it wasn’t as messy as normal oranges, but was still afraid. I studied the orange in my hand. I never had a mandarin orange before, but I didn’t want it then. I didn’t want to leave evidence of her crime behind and I didn’t want to feed her sin.
“Did you know she makes about six hundred for each of us in the least and that our parents have to give the government some of the money to help with that?” she asked. “Fatass makes money offa us, even if they don’t like us. ‘Betcha they don’t spend any of it on us if we get fuzzy oinking or clucking crap. I mean, our breakfasts and lunches are for free at school, so that takes away two whole meals from feeding us at school, like, ten a week. Is that ten a week?… Yeah, it’s ten a week.” She meowed and nodded at herself hard enough to bounce on the bed. “I think they don’t like us because they’re supposed to feed us or something. But, they don’t hafta be foster parents if they don’t wanna be, but they get free money for it, so they shouldn’t complain and give us the same food cherry and the brats get. ‘Never thought I’d say it, but cafeteria food at school’s better.”
Her comparison of cafeteria food and food from home reminded me of another foster sister. She cried as she made the comparison. She then thought of crimes to commit to get kicked out and sent back to juvi to get better food and better treatment. I could see the glimmer of joy in her eye when she was told she was given permission to visit her grandpa and the way she said goodbye, after sharing her plan of running on the day her case worker would come to pick her up. Dana had an even brighter glimmer, knowing her mom would be able to take her back soon.
I looked back down at my orange. It was small enough to fit into my hand and it was about a whole meal we’d be fed.
“But what will I do with the—?”
She pulled her backpack between us and smiled. She twisted herself playfully. “I always throw them away the minute I get off the bus. I don’t mind if your peels touch mine.” She looked at me and grinned. I wasn’t sure if she was flirting or just trying to be funny or what, but I didn’t think on it.
I carefully peeled the skin off. The sound of it ripping and tearing made me nervous. I doubted it was loud enough to go through the doors, but I didn’t know if the fruit had a smell that could. The smells of decay and medicine, the ones that radiated off my dying grandmother like a ghostly aura were all I could still smell, even weeks after she had passed.
Holding the freshly-peeled orange frightened me. If I ate, I would start up the hunger pains, which was likely to cause noise. I wanted to wait until the next day, but I didn’t want to risk my foster mom finding it and throwing it away from our foul hands tainting perfectly good food and punishing us for damaging their property.
“It’s really good.” Dana said. “I got a whole bunch so you and I can eat and talk and be like real sisters.”
“You see me as a sister?”
“Of course, Jiddian. That’s why I call you Jiddian. Then again, Jiddian is a fun name to say. And I know you’re hungry. You mighta gotten all the stuff other kids threw away today, but I gotta take care of my big sister when she needs it too. I’m still eating that cinnamon bun you gave me yesterday.”
She nodded. “I’m savin’ it for when I get really hungry. I traded an cutie pie whenever I ate a piece. I could tell I wasn’t gonna get the shits this time, but who knows ‘bout tomorrow’s ‘dinner’. If we eat good, then we can be healthy enough to digest their crap. Plus, it made me really sad when you said you never had a cutie pie before and they weren’t gonna fix that, so I decided I’d do it.”
My heart began to ache. The fragile skin that held the segments together made me nervous. I did my best not to tear it, but I did on every piece for the first half. I did my best to savor them and dispose of the evidence at the same time.
They were sweet. Each piece seemed was juicier than the last. In the corner of my eye, I saw Dana butt dancing, excited for my response. The juices squirted out of the thin membrane; I liked it.
“Wanna ’nother one?” Dana said, biting her lip as if to bite off another sentence that tagged along.
Maybe she’s why I love crooked smiles.