Pale light flooded the room when Andrew, all drenched in sweat, startled awake, lashing out at the mattress. It took him a moment to recollect, to remember that Drake couldn’t be here because he wasn’t with the Spears anymore, and here, at Dobson’s house, Drake’s hands couldn’t appropriate his body.
Six weeks. Betsy Dobson had been putting up with Andrew for six weeks, now, and he was asking himself how long before she would pass him on like all the others before, especially after he had lashed out at her two days ago because she had tried to wake him up from a nightmare.
His room — his room — had a spacious window facing the generous garden with its wildflowers and a beehive. Betsy was attached to all the tiny bugs and spiders and especially the bees she took care of so ardently. That she had offered to be called Bee instead of Betsy seemed apt, now that Andrew had watched her gently removing the combs and extract the honey she used for honey parfait or Andrew’s sandwiches.
He couldn’t though. What if she was just another station? Another disappointment in his fourteen-year existence? Another Cass ? He couldn’t call her Bee. He still called her Ms. Dobson. Ms. Dobson, who had been referred to Andrew in juvie (which was still better than an adoptive brother sneaking into one’s bed at night). Who had been all patience and gentleness even on days when their therapy session consisted of nothing but silence.
And then, one day, Andrew had been led to the visiting room where the older woman sat in front of a stack of papers. Foster papers.
Of course, she wasn’t one to just do things without consent, so she had asked Andrew. At first, he had refused, and the therapist hadn’t brought it up again; but a few weeks later, when they were talking about living with the Spears and losing family, she had offered to take him in, again.
Living in juvie had been tough. It was never good to force a set of teenagers to live in the tightest of spaces, pent up rage and sexual tension forming a poisonous concoction that resulted in violence or even sexual assaults, and to be honest, Andrew had had enough of the last before juvie. It hadn’t taken much to accept her offer.
So here he was, in a big, blue house with a white, wrap around porch, a cozy living room, and a kitchen always stocked with flavored hot chocolates and marshmallows — in sum, everything Andrew had wished for as a kid.
Andrew rolled out of bed and sat on the edge, fiddling with the hem of his armbands he hadn’t taken off since he’d moved in, except for his daily shower. He wasn’t ashamed of the scars beneath them — in the end, they had helped him survive — but showing them meant providing his new foster mother with a target, and he didn’t trust her enough not to use it, yet.
The wooden floor creaked as Andrew snuck out of his refuge, quickly tiptoeing down the stairs into the kitchen. He was used to not making a sound, used to living a life of silence. Silent enduring, silent rage, silent crying.
The fridge light dazzled his eyes used to the darkness, dots dancing across his vision. The lady had told Andrew he could move around at his leisure, could eat whenever he wanted to, but old habits die hard, right? Nevertheless, Andrew grabbed a jar of jam and two slices of toast, as well as the milk container, and set to work.
A few minutes later, he found himself sitting at the kitchen table with toasts slathered with a generous amount of peanut butter and jam, and a mug of hot chocolate with a set of floating colorful marshmallows on top. No matter how much he wanted to hate it here, constantly on the search for flaws, there was nothing he could find. Betsy and everything she stood for seemed flawless.
Munching away on his toast, Andrew studied the glass figurines on the shelves, until a stripe of light filtered into the kitchen from the foyer. He braced himself for the storm about to come, but when the footsteps reached the kitchen and Andrew looked up, he saw Betsy in her robe, eyes drooping, but lips pulled into a half-smile.
“My, my! Another night eater, I see,” she said, and opened the fridge to pull out a tub of homemade raspberry ice cream. “May I have some of your hot chocolate?” she asked, lifting the milk pot in question.
It didn’t happen a lot, if ever, but Andrew just didn’t know what to answer. His brain seemed to be short circuiting. Why did she ask him ? It was her house, her kitchen, her hot chocolate he had used without asking in the dead of night. Maybe she was testing him.
He settled on “It’s your house,” and shrugged, taking another generous bite of his peanut butter-jam monstrosity, jam running down his chin. She tested him? He could test her, too.
Doe, in the end it’s always your fault you end up back in the system , his child service worker had told him once when another family had kicked him out after cutting school for the nth time. No one had seen the father’s assaults, the mother’s coldheartedness, the way they took the money and didn’t give a damn about their five foster kids. Maybe she was right. Maybe that was his destiny, an unavoidable path predetermined for him.
His eyes tracked Betsy’s every movement, the way she poured herself a big mug of hot chocolate and added the same amount of marshmallows as Andrew. From the drawer, she brought two spoons over to the table and pulled back a chair opposite from Andrew.
“Would it bother you if I’d sit down here with you?” Betsy asked in her understanding, way-too-warm voice. Again.
Andrew shrugged again, concentrating back on the melted marshmallow mess on top of his now lukewarm chocolate. The therapist pushed one spoon over to Andrew and started eating from the ice cream tub she’d put down in the middle.
“Isn’t it nice to watch the world at night?” she went on, eyes wandering over to the kitchen window. “Whenever I can’t go back to sleep, I either settle here in the kitchen or on the porch. Most people say it’s unhealthy, abnormal, to wake up at night and not fall back asleep, but do you want to know what I think? I think that we sometimes wake up to experience the silence and beauty of nature we don’t get to see at day. That our brain needs some recollecting after a nightmare. That we want to reconnect with what’s our moving force.”
She took a sip from her cup and took another spoon of ice cream before she pushed the tub over to Andrew. Her smile was incredibly warm, the wrinkles around her eyes reassuring. Sometimes, Andrew wanted to believe she was good.
“Will the nightmares ever stop?” Andrew gave in to his urge to ask, to know if this agony had any chance to come to an end one day. He was sure it was the first question he was asking her since he’d moved in.
Something in Ms. Dobson’s expression changed, something indiscernible. Andrew guessed it was a mixture of sadness and pity. Her response took an eternity, but then she said, “Andrew, I promised to never lie to you. You’ve grown up in so many households, more than any kid should ever pass through, and they all weren’t honest with you in one way or the other. So, to give you an honest answer: No.”
Her reply felt like a slap to his face. Maybe it was even worse than some hits he’d received by drunk fathers or raging siblings. His chest contracted and expanded faster, hands trembling at the prospect of a future full of ever-recurring horrors.
“Andrew,” Betsy’s voice cut through his thoughts, her hand coming to rest in the middle of the table.
It was an offer Andrew wanted to accept, but he couldn’t. Maybe that would be the reason she’d pass him on sooner or later, but he couldn’t.
“They’ll probably never end. I still don’t know what exactly you experienced, but that kind of abuse is hard to forget, especially with that brain of yours.”
That brain of yours . A brain that never forgot anything. His cross to bear. Andrew had trained his body into blankness, into quietness when he wanted to scream, into stillness when he wanted to move. The tears burning behind his eyes were hard to fight back, but he needed to, so he let his eyelids cover the mirror to his quivering soul.
Betsy’s hand was still there, open and yet asking, not demanding. Her effort was astounding, yet worthless.
Andrew did what he could best: he nodded and bit the inside of his cheek. Resignation.
“I know that sounds hard right now, but Andrew, even though we can’t forget what we went through, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to cope with it and slowly add more good memories to all the bad ones, until the scales are balanced. And maybe one day, there’ll be more good memories in your account than bad ones, and that’s where we’ll find out that happiness is possible, and that going on was worth it.”
Andrew opened his eyes again and took a sip of his hot-turned-cold chocolate, the marshmallows melted into a rainbow puddle. It was hardly imaginable that one day, the black mess that lingered in his head would be pierced through and replaced by an unknown brightness.
Tentatively, Andrew grabbed the ice tub and scooped up a generous amount, letting the rich flavor, the sweetness, clear his mind.
Tiredness was weighing down on him and he felt how some of the tension in his body subsided.
“Thank you,” he eventually said after a couple of minutes, head bowed to avoid having to look into Ms. Dobson’s eyes. “For your honesty,” he quickly added before he carried his plate over to the sink and walked back into his room.
For the first time in years, Andrew fell asleep feeling slightly safe.
A few weeks after their midnight talk, Andrew and Betsy seemed to have reached a point where the silence between them didn’t feel as uncomfortable as it used to.
The more Andrew waited for the woman to show her true colors, the less flaws he could find.
Two weeks ago, Andrew had come home from school — he’d stopped cutting it for now — to find a new lock on his door. Betsy (that’s what he called her now) wasn’t home from her daily errands yet, but she had left a sticky note at the door.
I hope you had a good day in class. I thought you might feel better with that new lock on your door. I think your back might appreciate it, too, since the dresser can stay on the wall now.
I’ll be a bit later today, but I left you pasta in the fridge and a big tub of chocolate ice cream in the freezer.
See you later,
P.S. Could you water the plants?
It had taken an hour to come down from his panic attack — the sticky note a reminder of Cass and the lock a reminder of Drake — but in the end it had brought Betsy and him a step closer. It had been the first time he had chosen talking over cutting, and Betsy had listened without a single bit of judgement even though she must have known that it had only been a tiny piece of truth when he told her about people sneaking into his rooms at night more than once.
Right now, they were sitting on the porch facing the garden, relishing the breeze tickling their sun-kissed skin.
They had stripped the fruit trees for new ice cream and pie, and reaped the salad and a handful of vegetables for dinner. It was awful because it was perfect, and perfection was still something Andrew approached with skepticism.
“So,” Betsy started and Andrew was preparing for the worst.
Yesterday, Betsy had come home earlier than usual. She had called his name and he hadn’t answered, so it wasn’t her fault she walked into the bathroom without knocking.
She knew now, had seen the scars usually buried beneath his armbands. Her bringing it up was inevitable.
“They are old,” Andrew started, rather getting this over with than beating around the bush.
Betsy only nodded, gazing into space. “Thank you, Andrew. For your honesty.”
Andrew felt how his face turned hot, as if his head was about to combust. He had talked to Betsy about shame the other day, and he knew that he didn’t have to feel hideous because of what someone else had done to him, but he couldn’t stop his physical reaction.
“I just wanted to ask how school is going, but I appreciate your openness. I know how hard it is to open up,” Betsy cut through the silence.
On one of the apple trees a bird chirped, the only sound in the otherwise quiet garden. Andrew didn’t know if Betsy was angry at him, but if she was, it didn’t show.
“School is school,” Andrew answered, pushing back one cuticle after the other, suppressing the itch under his wristbands.
Betsy smiled one of her warm, open smiles, wrinkles forming around her lips and eyes in a familiarity that resulted from constant repetition.
“They have an Exy team. You played Exy in juvie. Do you want to play?”
Andrew considered telling her the truth, that he didn’t want anything because he’d never been in a place to want, but her fond look made him say, “It’s not the worst.”
“If you want to, let me know, so we can get you gear.”
Andrew nodded and let his head fall back against the porch swing.
Want . Safety .
It was strange how sometimes one needed to get used to concepts so self-evident to others.
Six months. Betsy Dobson had been putting up with Andrew for six months now, and he was no longer asking himself how long before she would pass him on like all the others before.
She was nothing like the others, nothing like Cass.
Nothing about their relationship was perfect. Sometimes, Andrew was too overwhelmed by her caring nature, by her kindness and understanding. They had arguments. Not always, but they happened because Andrew couldn’t hold in all the pent up anger.
At times, Andrew sat in his room and thought about what he was doing. Why was he pushing someone away who treated him with nothing but kindness and what others would probably consider a normal way of raising a teenager?
He couldn’t help it, but it seemed like Bee (that still sounded new, even though he never called her Bee openly) just ignored his temper tantrums in favor of letting Andrew come to his senses to talk their issues through.
A few weeks ago, Andrew had panicked. He’d skipped school and didn’t come home for two days, crashing in an abandoned house at the other end of town.
It had been too much.
He was getting attached to his room Betsy had painted with him in his favorite color. To the way she always bought a tub of his favorite ice cream even though she didn’t like chocolate-mint. To her warm voice when she talked about the garden, and the hot chocolates she left on a tray by the door with a knock when he woke up screaming from a terrible nightmare.
Andrew was getting attached to a concept of home and unconditional lo— acceptance. And he’d already lost that once. He was sure he couldn’t stand losing this a second time.
He’d dreaded coming back, and when he was picked up he was sure that was his ticket back into juvie, but all he’d found was a worried woman whose eyes lit up the moment she saw Andrew being led into the police office.
The last time Andrew had gotten a hug… it was so long ago he barely remembered it. But Betsy had stood there with open arms and he’d allowed himself to crash into her with a force fueled by years of rage and rejection and an unfamiliar yearning for comfort — it was a wonder he didn’t topple her.
Of course, they had talked about it when they had gotten home. It hadn’t been pleasant. Betsy didn’t scold him. She made two cups of hot chocolate and let Andrew open up.
He would have preferred the scolding over the understanding. He’d been confused for a week. And then, it clicked. He finally saw the difference between Bee and Cass. He understood why he’d run away.
Cass had loved her version of Andrew. An Andrew she wanted to see. Bee’s fondness was unconditional. There wasn’t anything he needed to change for her to accept him. It was the closest he’d ever come to understand what having a loving mother was like. And he had never expected to find someone like her.
This morning, Andrew had come downstairs into the kitchen to find a stack of pancakes next to an envelope with his name on it.
Betsy never used his full name. She had once ranted about the obnoxity of a generalized last name that turned abandoned kids into nobodies, unknowns.
Doe . He’d never been anything else. Sometimes he even forgot that Doe was another reminder of his mother’s aversion towards him.
He stuffed himself with pancakes and a big glass of orange juice before he picked up the envelope and opened it.
SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES
Andrew dropped the papers, his hands trembling too much to hold anything, even something as light as a piece of paper.
Cass had talked about adopting Andrew, but she’d never started the process, and when Andrew had started breaking and entering, it had been off the table anyways.
He let his eyes wander over the document, scanning all information.
APPLICANT: Betsy Dobson
ADOPTEE: Andrew Doe FROM THEN ON Andrew Dobson
At the bottom line, Andrew found Bee’s signature next to an empty line where his was to be put.
Offer. Offer. Offer.
Dobson. Andrew Dobson.
One signature could turn him into someone.
Betsy Dobson had been putting up with Andrew for six months and nine days, and as he stepped into the goal of his school’s Exy court with a jersey flashing Dobson in capital letters above the number ten, his mother stood in the stands cheering him on.