“Train kids come here to die,” she told me. I sat down on the sidewalk next to the girl with the monkey tattoo and tongue piercing. She couldn’t be much younger than me. “Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, “New Orleans is a hell of a place. Always something going on. You can lose your mind and set free your soul.”
She laughed, somewhat wickedly/somewhat naively, “Drugs are plentiful, people messed up as the rest of us...it’s easy to get what you need...feel me?” She looked right in my eyes, her own eyes slightly glazed over and her dirty face revealing the pain and struggles of her life. I could relate. “Yeah,” was all I said.
I wasn’t a druggie. I barely drank. I didn’t find pleasure in hookups. I’d say I was a decent person who made morally-sound choices. I tried to do the best I could. Once I thought that would be good enough...good enough to get me adopted. But here I was, 18 years later, on my birthday, in a strange place.
Foster care had its ups and downs. I wasn’t bad. I wasn’t ugly. Maybe I wasn’t cute enough though, I don’t know. Maybe I was just too old. I went in at 6 when my birth mother decided she couldn’t handle having a kid anymore...or maybe it was Social Services that decided that for her. Maybe I’ll never know.
Nonetheless, I was shy. People want kids with big personalities. They want kids who look like they model for Baby Gap. That wasn’t me. I just kind of blended in. I wasn’t extraordinary enough. At some point, I actually believed I was invisible.
It would’ve made more sense why they didn’t adopt me. If they couldn’t see me...if they didn’t know I was there, then how could I blame anyone? I didn’t know who to blame anyway. I tried really hard to be good. Some of the homes I was placed in were cruel. I don’t want to think about that right now…
She lit up a cigarette, reaching over with the pack in her hand, “Want one?”
“No, I don’t smoke. Thank you.”
She nodded her head. “What do you do then?”
“Ummm”...I hesitated. I had no good answer. I didn’t even know what I did.
“Let me try again...where you from? Why you here?”
I wasn’t from anywhere. I had no real family...and today, today, I aged out of the system.
“I’m here because...because I’m too old for foster care anymore. Today is my birthday. I’m 18.”
“Oh shit...Happy Birthday!” She exclaimed. “I’ll take a reason to celebrate! Come on, we gonna get you a proper party!”
I slowly stood up, not sure what to think. I was half-elated that this stranger I just met would be so kind and welcoming. I’ll admit I wasn’t used to that...ever. But I was also a little worried. Her scars were noticeable and she seemed to welcomely embrace substances, without hesitation. I didn’t know about all that.
I nervously followed her down the noisy streets of New Orleans. The sun would set in just a few hours and who knew what the night would hold. I was in a new town, about 4 hours east of the little, dirt town in Louisiana that I came from. I’d been surrounded by a whole lot of nothing growing up in the country.
Now, now I was in the city that I was supposedly born in but couldn’t remember. A city wild with possibility, and also that seemed ready to eat me alive at the same time.
“Hey kid?!” She turned around to look at me.
“Yeah?” I laughed, knowing she was the kid.
“You ready to have the best night of your life?!”
We’ll see about that, I thought.
She led me to a strange, abandoned warehouse after a half-hour of walking, on the outskirts of the concrete jungle. The place was huge and dirty. I imagined it’d probably survived the likes of a few hurricanes and was headquarters to a bunch of squatters now.
It was a place, that even as an orphan, I never would’ve gone into. I was the quiet kid after all, who just sat in the corner, in the shadows, away from everyone else, with my books. This felt very frightening, yet still somewhat strangely invigorating.
For once, I felt like maybe, maybe I would get my story. I felt like maybe this time I could be the main character...not just some invisible orphan nobody wanted. As we approached the doors, surrounded by tall, thick grass on either side, I got the chills.
Walking in, there were no lights, just some shattered windows letting in what was left of the sunlight. Also strangely, there appeared to be no humans present either...the place was eerily quiet. The girl whistled some fantastic pattern and yelled, “Yo Vinnie! Shanny’s here! I brought a guppie. Needs some freshwater.”
I could have had no idea what would happen next, but a strange man seemed to magically appear out of the shadows. “Shanny, my dear. How delightful to see you, as always.” He remarked.
The man was tall, very tall...and skinny. He appeared to be in his 50’s, a mixture of old age and wisdom, yet a youthfulness about him that seemed charming. I felt suddenly enchanted.
His beaming smile seemed to light up the whole room as he got closer. The girl ran and gave him a big hug. She suddenly seemed to change from a tough girl who didn’t take anything from anyone to a sweet and loving child, like the man was her father.
She faced me. “This here is Vinnie. He’s an angel in a world full of devils. Saves train kids like me, who ain’t got no family, not a real one at least, because blood ain’t nothin.” She smiled real big at me, like she expected me to get it. I did.
“Pleased to meet you,” the mysterious man reached out his hand. Now normally, I would be rolling my eyes at the fakeness of such words but I couldn’t help that feel like maybe, he was being sincere. “And to whom do I owe the delight of meeting?”
“Uhh”...I stumbled, always nervous to meet strangers, since most people in my life had been and they hadn’t always been kind. “My name’s Natalie but you can call me Nat.”
“Well, Nat, it is an honor to meet you. Please follow me.” He suddenly turned around to disappear in the shadows which should have made me nervous but somehow, for some reason, excited me. I was even more thrilled when we walked through the large entryway into what opened up into a ginormous grand room filled with strange sights.
I looked up in the torn platforms and shattered pillars to see kids, they had to be, peering down at me from the darkness. The room was filled with run-down furniture, old-torn sofas looking like they belonged to the circus and battered chairs I wouldn’t dare sit in. I even saw a few, stained mattresses lying around.
There were lamps turned over and random gadgets and trinkets scattered on the floor. My first thought was that they need a maid. My foster parents had kept a perfectly tidy and neat home, insistent that I do the same or there would be “consequences.”
But no, this place was messy. And it was about to be messy chaos, to say the least. “Children!” The man exclaimed. “Come on out, we have a visitor!” Suddenly, it was like someone opened the lions’ cage and commotion broke out. Out of the shadows, they weren’t kids, not really, with the exception of a couple of actual children, they all looked to be teenagers mostly. They also looked like they wore rags, like homeless people but with more flair.
Many of them sported bandanas and tattoos, some with cigarettes hanging out their mouths. A few even had some dogs with them. I even noticed one black cat walking across the upper banister. They all gave me suspicious looks and seemed to pause and wait for their “leader’s” next cue. “Now, don’t be rude children, let’s give our visitor a proper welcome. I hear today is her 18th birthday!”
Once more, as if on perfect cue, they all began to shout and dance around, some swinging recklessly on the shaky fixtures. They high-fived each other and someone turned up some music. I saw several downing bottles of I’m sure what was alcoholic beverages. “Cadence, come down here,” Vinnie shouted up to an older boy.
“You got it boss,” the boy remarked, with a deep, sarcastic voice. He basically leaped from one platform to another to come down, with no fear and total confidence. “What can I do for you Vinn?” The guy sounded like he was from somewhere up north, maybe Boston.
“Cadence, I want you to meet Natalie. She has only just arrived in N’Orleans today, graduating out of the foster-care program.”
“Ohhh, you’re one of those aye?” Cadence looked me up and down.
I couldn’t help but think he was a little cute and older. I liked older.
“Well, welcome to the fam little guppie. It’s your lucky day!”
I smiled nervously. I don’t know if it was because of the boy or because of what the circumstances were or maybe his words...
“Hey kids!” Vinnie yelled up at the teens on the upper floors. “Let’s show our newest family member what we’re all about here, won’t we?!” Then, he disappeared into the background as Cadence took my hand. “Come on, you’re gonna love this!” Cadence grinned.
All of a sudden, as if I had stepped right into the middle of some badass circus, the “kids” started singing a ridiculous song that I’d never heard before and was clearly made up, “Oh, we are the kids of the train, hooray, you are here on this day, hooray, to party, party and play, hey, cuz it’s your super, super lucky day, hey!”
I felt like I was now in the middle of a musical, as a girl came over and grabbed my hand and pulled me with her, without hesitation. “My name is Lucy and I’m a lead here, (“more beer!” the boys shouted)and I’m gonna make all the bad disappear (“more beer!”)cuz we in New Orleans bitch (“no fear, no fear”) hear me when I say I am so glad you are here (“You’re here, you’re here!”)...”
After lots of singing, dancing, and drinking, being pulled in all directions by beat-up street kids, I was worn out. I all but fell into a red, tufted sofa that had by far, seen better days. The teenagers drifted off into their own directions, wherever that was, and I closed my eyes for just a second.
“Hey,” a familiar voice rained down over me. I squinted my eyes open to see the boy, Cadence, standing over me. “You okay?”
I burst out laughing, feeling completely delusional.
“I don’t know what that was, but whatever it was, I liked it!” I exclaimed giddily feeling the alcohol set in.
He laughed as he sat down next to me.
“Ol Vinnie is a character, man. Legend has it he used to be a ringleader of some circus of misfits. Ask me, I don’t say it’s a legend...I say it’s the present reality.” He laughed again.
“He’s a good man, though. A real good man. He did a lot for me. I can say that much. And now, now I see him doing a lot for these runaways too. Lot of them like you, orphans with no home, no home but here. But it’s home you know. They feel accepted, as screwed up as they are. Vinnie don’t judge no one, though I think he worries...worries more than he shows. Don’t think he ever had his own kids...feels like these hooligans are his. Kinda are, I guess.”
I stared at Cadence. He sure was cute.
“Anyway, sorry to ramble on,” he smiled, “but what’s your story anyway? Is it really your birthday? And how did you meet Shanny?”
“I don’t have much of a story (kind of a lie)...I grew up in the system, traveled from home to home in the countryside of Louisiana and now I’m here...too old to be in the system anymore.”
“Well,” he smiled again, “I can’t wait to get to learn all about you, but for now, we have a party to get you ready for!”
I looked up to see Lucy standing there. “Hey kid!” She said, as if everyone thinks I’m a kid still. “Are you ready?!”
“Ready for what?”
“Your party of course! Come on girl, let’s get you looking fabulous.” I anxiously followed Lucy back into a corner room.
When she flipped the lights on, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There were pale pink, pin-cushion chairs with the seams coming out, resembling something from the ’50s or maybe from a stripper’s changing room, and a few mismatched, tall, beauty mirrors, also looking hella ancient. “Girl, we are gonna make you a star.”
I giggled, still in disbelief of this majestical, hidden place they call home. I looked around and saw bins with top hats and fedoras falling out of them, feather boas stuffed on shelves and all kinds of costume-clothing that made me think that maybe I was in fact, now part of a circus of misfits. “Where did you get all this?”
“Girl, when you live like we do, especially in the city of New Orleans, you can get whatever you want,” she cackled. The beads are free (she pointed to a huge collection of multi-colored designs of beads hanging), well, kind of…” she laughed again. “We do what we got to do, you know what I mean?” I nodded but I kinda didn’t.
“Now, no more questions, let’s get you in the beauty closet.”
A half-hour later, I was staring at someone I didn’t recognize in the mirror. Dolled up in I what I swear was circus make-up, and given my very own pink bandana, which I wrapped around my wrist, I laughed at my appearance. She had covered my neck in six, shiny, pink bead necklaces and given me a matching, light pink feather boa. I looked like a confused soul, a hybrid of a clown and an old lady who wanted to be rich. “It is what it is,” I laughed and thanked her.
“Wow, beauty queen…” Shanny walked into the room and plopped down in the chair beside me. “Good job, Luce, she’s looking like a real rockstar,” Shanny laughed.
“Definitely ready for New Orleans,” Lucy confidently nodded.
“Hey, when do I get my makeover?” Shanny asked.
Lucy stared at Shanny like an annoyed older sister. “Shanny, we both know, in fact, everyone here knows, that you are the last person to wear make-up or pink or beads or boas or anything else feminine.”
“Well, okay, true dat.” Shanny agreed.
“So, Nat,” Shanny turned to me, “you ready to blow this place and hit the city?!”
“Uhhh…” I hesitated.
“Okay, great, see you later Luce, I’ll take real good care of her,” Shanny announced.
“I’ll hold you to that, lil sis,” Lucy replied seriously.
Shanny and I walked out of the building and began our quest down the sidewalk towards the bright city lights, as the sun had now set. We’d only been walking for probably 10 minutes, when a familiar voice rang out behind us. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?!”
“Do you really think you can leave me behind?!” It was Cadence.
My heart skipped a little. “No, but I could certainly try.”
Shanny turned around and threw a pebble at the boy. “Can’t take my big brother with me everywhere, you know.”
“Well, good thing I’m not here for you sis.” Cadence looked right at me. “New kid needs someone to protect her.”
“You know I can fight big bro.” Shanny shot back.
“True, but, two are better than one right?”
“Whatever, come on dude...we got a night to begin…”
Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in a dark, musty underground bar that gave me the creeps. And not but a few minutes after that, did I learn that my whole life was about to change, or that the people I was hanging out with weren’t exactly ordinary.
The gun went off and I couldn’t believe it. Then, another one. People screamed and fell to the floor. I hid under a table. This was not happening. “Stay right there.” Shanny decisively ordered me.
She jumped up and ran straight toward a shooter and began attacking him. What was she thinking?! After what only seemed like seconds, she had attacked two shooters, leaving them in a state of confusion on the ground, bloody and bruised. Not to mention, my boy…
I watched in disbelief, as he seemed to miraculously leap into the air and onto the other bad guys. They were done with. I panicked, as I don’t do well in high-stress situations, and closed my eyes. This had to be a dream. I opened my eyes and saw Lucy at the door.
“Nat! Nat! Natttt!!!” She called out my name and I jumped up.
“I’m right here!” I waved my hands in the air but she looked right through me. I ran over to her. “Hey Lucy!” But she kept calling my name. “Lucy, I’m right here.” She couldn’t see me.
And that was the beginning. That was the beginning of a long, mysterious journey that would turn me into who I am today. That was the day that I found my home, among other misfits who had powers like me. That was the day I learned that I could actually turn invisible.