f forced to choose, would you pick your family . . . or your man?”
The question caused Jessica Bolton to look up from her cell phone to the reality show turned on mainly for background noise.
The show’s star and most vocal character was the first to respond. “Are you kidding? My family comes before anybody, including my baby’s daddy!”
“Not me,” countered the one viewers loved to hate. “I didn’t choose my family. I chose my man and he means everything to me.”
“More than your mama?” the quiet Southern belle asked.
,” Star sarcastically replied.
“And I meant it,” Hated retorted, totally unapologetic. “Everybody didn’t have a mother as wonderful as the one who raised you.” The little smirk that accompanied this statement was enough to suggest it hadn’t quite been a compliment.
Star jumped up. The requisite reality fight scene had been cued. “What the hell does that mean?”
Unfortunately, Jessica was all too familiar with the feelings about which Hated spoke, a passionate comment that took her back to when she discovered that the woman who raised her was not her mother and life was not always so wonderful.
“Where’s Mommy?” Six-year-old Jessica wandered into the room where several children played. She used a stubby finger to poke the leg of the boy sitting at the end of the couch. “Where’s Mommy?”
He watched cartoons for several more seconds, then leaned toward her, his face in a scowl. “She is
“Uh-uh. You’re a foster child. Your parents are dead!”
Jessica flashed back to the year before and the incident that gave that word meaning, the bird she and her sister had found on the sidewalk, the one that couldn’t fly. The one that was almost as stiff as plastic, and had eyes that did not move. As foggy as was the memory of her mama and dada, surely they weren’t like that.
“No they’re not!” she screamed, punctuating the declaration by connecting the foot of her naked Tammy Lifelike doll with the eight-year-old liar’s cheek. “They went to heaven!”
Enraged, the boy grabbed the inside of her leg and pinched hard. “Stupid foster kids,” he muttered amid her yelping.
“Stop it!” Mommy’s obviously unhappy command reverberated through the wall before her face—red and disfigured by poverty, bitterness, and lack of sleep—appeared in the doorway. “Jessie, go to your room,
“But Mommy, he pinched me.”
“She hit me with that stupid doll!” the boy countered. As the foster mother’s only biological child, Dennis’s word was truer than the Bible.
“Give me that,” she hissed, snatching the doll from Jessie’s hand.
“But that’s my Sissy!” Jessie cried.
“Maybe next time you’ll learn to not use Sissy as a weapon. Now get upstairs.”
“What have I told you about that? It’s either food or fighting. You chose the latter. Now go!”
Mommy’s raised hand put a period on the thought and encouraged little Jessica to head toward the stairs.
Later that night her new sister, Francine, handed her two biscuits and a slice of ham before crawling into bed. “William never cleans his plate,” she whispered, once they were safely beneath the heavy quilt where their voices didn’t carry. “I snuck it when Mommy said to scrape it into the trash.”
Though only two years older than Jessica, Francine had been in the system since birth, in this house since the age of two, and knew all the ropes. Francine reminded Jessie of Sissy, the older sister who’d gone away and the inspiration behind the name of Jessica’s doll. That sometimes made her sad, but not ungrateful.
“Thank you, Franny.” Jessie turned back the quilt, sat up, and carefully spread out the napkin. She tore the ham slice into two even pieces and placed the meat between the sliced biscuits. Her stomach growled, but she ate slowly, deliberately, savoring each bite. She thought to save the second biscuit should she get in trouble tomorrow, but almost before she’d wrapped the idea in a napkin and placed it under the pillow her mind changed, and she relished the taste of strawberry jam on her tongue.
“Franny, you awake?” Jessica lightly shook her bedmate once the second biscuit and the last bit of jam had melted in her mouth, and the quilt covered them both once more.
“Yep.” Franny turned to face her.
“What’s a frosted mom?”
, not frosted. That’s a woman who acts like our mommy but is not our real mommy . . . like Mrs. Lewis.”
“Why can’t she be our real mommy?”
“Because we didn’t bake in her tummy.”
“Why did my real mommy go to heaven?”
“Go to sleep, Jessie,” Francine said with a sigh as she turned over. “And be glad she’s not in hell where my mommy ended up.”
By the time Jessica was ten years old her natural beauty was striking: long curly hair, almond eyes, pouty lips and flawless tan skin. Fourteen-year-old Dennis’s torment went from pinching to probing, from fighting to fondling, threatening to kill the family pet if she said a word. He needn’t have bothered. One year before, Francine had confided in Jessica that she and Dennis were “boyfriend and girlfriend.” So anyone finding out about what he’d forced Jessica to do was the last thing she wanted. But someone had found out, stumbled across them in the laundry room when all were supposed to be outside helping Mommy gather pinecones for holiday decorations. And not just anyone but the worse possible person—Francine. This revelation had cost her the dearest friend she’d known since Sissy, and one month later, it forced Mommy to send Jessica away from the relatively comfy foster home and back into the system. What happened was all her fault after all.
Francine was the last female Jessica trusted, her one and only best friend forever. Forever was an illusion in foster care. At sixteen Jessica was reminded of this lesson and learned that no matter the sex, friendship was fleeting. The first boy she willingly slept with, the one who loved her and only her (“No, really, I mean it, you’re it for me, girl”) also
loved fellow classmates Oneida, Felicia, Tess, Jill, and Shannon . . . that she knew of. This eye-opening “he’s not your man” conversation—
is too, is not, is too, is not
—couldn’t be assuaged with a ham-filled biscuit topped with strawberry jam, and taught Jessica that both mommies and men could be a pain in the chest.
When Jessica came out of memory lane, the drama-filled reality show was ending. She muted the volume and refocused on the vague request in the out-of-the-blue e-mail that had rocked her world. If she refused outright, would there be any chance of a relationship? She doubted it. But if she answered yes, her purposely designed, solitary world could once again be filled with family and love . . . the illusion that came with painful consequences, and vague, hazy memories of a time when she was happy, when someone else cared.
Ironic that the raucous dialogue from a lowbrow reality show had aided her decision. Jessica fired up her iPad and began to type.
Hey Sissy: Sounds interesting. I want to hear more. Whatever it is, of course I will help you. Still can’t believe you wrote me! So much has happened. So happy you did and you’re right—there’s nothing like family. I love you. Your
sister . . . Jessie.