Sometimes she cut herself. Felt the razor skating over the surface of her skin, then slipping under, through, into, and it was almost sexual. Not pain, it never registered as pain. It was like masturbation. A filthy release she couldn’t tell anyone about, couldn’t let them see. The tiny welted scars criss-crossed the insides of her thighs like white-washed lattice-work. No one could see. No one could know, not ever.
He didn’t listen when she spoke. He’d always talked at her, like she was a dog or a mule not doing its job. Eventually, she stopped speaking, just like the others. None of them spoke. They just did as they were told, no questions, no arguments. She wondered how they coped when they were alone, or if she was the only one rebellious enough to need something more.
When Charlie came along, he talked back. It got him sat in a chair and lectured, lectured about being seen and not heard, about the importance of listening, about respecting authority. He learned quick enough not to roll his eyes. He learned that leaving the chair without permission just got you brought back and verbally pummeled. There were always more words.
Pretty soon, Charlie didn’t speak, either.
She caught him one day, with a cigarette behind the shed.
“That’ll earn you a whole pack smoked at once,” she told him. “Not as fun as it sounds.”
He handed it to her, but she waved it away. “I’m guessing you’ve had the pleasure,” he said. “Don’t matter, I won’t be here long.”
“Yeah. Me neither,” but her words fell flat. No one believed them. They didn’t believe themselves, those words.
“Want to fuck?” he asked.
She shrugged. She’d never done that before, with another person. Other people complicated simple things.
“Ever done it before?” He was grinning. He had curly red hair and eyes the color of the aquamarine crayon in the Crayola Big Box.
“How’s that your business?”
“It ain’t. Just wondered.”
She ran her finger along the cutting edge of the razor blade in her pocket. She thought she could bear down just a little and draw blood. But she didn’t.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“You seem older. You got nice tits.” Little boys trying to sound like men. What did Charlie know about tits? Not nearly as much as he wanted her to think he did.
She shook her head and turned to go.
He grabbed her arm. “Hey, “ he said, “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“I’m seventeen,” he said. “A few more months, I won’t need foster care no more. Why are you still here?”
“Not fostered,” she said.
“Shit.” He lit another smoke. “Still,” he said after he drew. “You’re old enough to leave. And fuck.” The silver smoke curled out of his mouth with his words. She imagined it was what speaking looked like, if sounds had form.
She stared into the belly of the woods behind them. “Not that simple.”
He pulled her by the hand and kissed her, sort of on the lips. It was clumsy, not nice, but she didn’t resist. Instead, she adjusted their contact and kissed him back. Kissed him properly. After all, she had kissed before.
She left him there to think on that.
Charlie was her first, and she wasn’t sure what the fuss was about. It was over fast, in and out, he grunted and rolled away and got up and left, and she found her razor and her release in the dark. Alone.
He was true to his word. On his eighteenth birthday he was gone before dawn. She didn’t like the emptiness, the return to ordinary caused by his absence. The loose end of his suddenly being gone. She went back on auto pilot, cooking, cleaning, scolding and dressing the little ones- working side-by-side with Mama like she always had. Like she always would.
Maybe it was okay for Charlie. But for her, nothing was that simple.