Communication is key, I remember my caseworker telling me. The scene plays out in my head vividly. She sat in the driver's seat of her little black sedan clutching the steering wheel as though I may try to take it from her at any second. It was almost amusing watching her eyes dart here and there as she navigated the interstate. I pretended to ignore her as I played on my phone in the passenger seat.
"You know that, right Lilly," she asked turning a quisitive look towards me. "Communication can be the difference between finding a home and finding yourself in a residential facility."
"I know," I responded with an eye roll. I don't know though, maybe I secretly wanted to just go to a residential and be done with it. It's not like anyone would want me anyways. I scrolled through my Facebook and saw all of my friends posting all of these pictures of parties and vacations that I would never get to go on. Their happy faces lit a fire somewhere inside of me, as I wished I had what they had. But I'll never actually say that to anyone.
"Now, this new place, I have a really good feeling about," she continued. "The mother is an artist, just like you, only she paints. I'm sure she would love to see your sketches though! The father, he's..." she trails off for a second, "oh right, he's an advertising exec. He helps different companies come up with different advertising ideas, I'm sure you'll love it!"
I turn my head and give her a small fake smile as she looks at me. This will be my third placement in five years, none of the other ones worked out, so why would this one? I look back down at my phone and contemplate texting them again. Pulling up the conversation, if you want to call it that, with my birth mother and contemplating sending yet another text message asking to come home. I never mean to get in trouble, I swear it's almost as though trouble finds me.
Can you just talk to me please, I type out. This time I don't hit send. I know there's really no point because she probably has me blocked by now. So I turn back to Facebook and fuel the fire inside of me. Then I see the photos from the other night, the spray paint and everything being showcased. Yet another night where I tried my best to stay out of trouble, but one bad decision has led me here. Yet again, moving from place to place.
The scene playing in my head ends abruptly as a woman walks up to me from a partially closed door, her heels making the loudest clicking sound with each step. That placement I was headed to didn't pan out, only about a month before they decided fostering a troubled kid wasn't for them. Surprise, surprise.
"Lilly Mandal?" The woman asks holding her hand out. I refuse it.
"That's me," I say standing up with my caseworker next to me.
The woman seems unphased and turns to my caseworker shaking her hand. "I am Elizabeth Stoll, you will call me Mrs. Stoll," she says looking at me. "Welcome to Havshom Haven," she smiled. That fire burning inside of me seemed to grow. I pulled out my phone as it vibrated.
Just give us the go, we'll be there, The message read. Sara, my friend, and her boyfriend were more than ready to come break me free. Just as I was about to press send...
"Hey," I yelled, jumping from the echo it caused in the massive common area. "That's mine," I yell again trying to grab it from the woman's, Mrs. Stoll's, hand."
I watched with my jaw ajar as she dropped my phone into a plastic bag with my name on it. "And you will get it back when you leave, don't worry it'll be safe." That fire inside of me seemed to reach a peak as I jumped toward the bag. The only connection I had to anyone or anything was on that device, no one was going to take it from me.
In a flash I was surrounded by workers all wearing the same uniform, a flood of black and khaki everywhere. "We do not condone violence, Ms. Mandal," one of the workers said. "Your phone will be safe, we'll help you get numbers for call night when the time comes, but for now it is going with Mrs. Stoll."
My chest tightened, eyes began to water, "I don't want to be here," I cried. "Ms. Blanche, please there must be another home. Maybe the Travers will take me back?" I pleaded, rivers of fire flowing down my face.
"I'm sorry hun," she said in a rather high pitched voice. "That ship has sailed, I'm sure if you give it a chance here you'll grow to love it." We stood there for a while as I tried to go around some of the workers.
"Just, one last text, that's all I want." I tried to bargain. "Please, I need to let my friends know I'm okay...just one more message..." I couldn't seem to contain myself as I watched Mrs. Stoll turn my phone off and place it in a lockbox with others.
"As I said," she smiled grimly, "it will be safe." We stood there for a few minutes as I tried to collect myself. I could hear some of the workers trying to console me and even Mrs. Stoll telling me all of the wonderful aspects of the program. But I refused to actually listen. I closed my eyes and tried to think about my friends.
After some time later we had finished intake, I was now dawning the new uniform of every girl in the facility and carrying my two other outfits for my stay and a few hygiene necessities. We walked out of the main building and towards a grouping of small cabin-like structures. The entire area covered in trees and grass and surrounded by hills. No living being in sight besides a group of deer hiding behind one of the buildings.
Maybe I could just run for it, I thought to myself. We weren't driving for more than a couple hours, three at the most. I could get back in a few days. Then, just as though someone was reading my mind.
"If you're thinking about running," another worker began, "We have some fast staff, and beyond that point," they said pointing towards the parking lot, "is nothing more than woods for a few miles. It gets cold and wet fast." I grimaced and nodded. Maybe not, I thought again.
"I am Mr. Gartrell," he said with a smile, still walking. "I will be with you Monday through Friday during the day. I'll be with you for school and meals," he said pointing towards one of the cabins. "You'll be with us in Everest Cabin," he continued, "we do breakfast at six, school from eight am to noon, lunch at twelve thirty, treatment groups at one fifteen, and then school again from two thirty to four."
"Treatment groups?" I ask, "I don't need treatment."
He laughed a little, "It will make more sense later on."
I didn't like his response, it didn't sit well with me. Later on ,I thought to myself again, if there was any 'later on.'
After getting settled in the tiny room with an even tinier matress I couldn't help myself, I cried. The tears burned as they ran over my cheeks. I refused to go to dinner, I refused to leave my room for any reason. I cried myself to sleep.
For the next few days I refused to participate in anything, demanding I get my phone call (you get one in prison right?) and when it came to school, forget about it. I already knew what they were talking about, x+5=y-2. Who thought of putting letters in math anyways? I find myself getting in trouble frequently as I find ways to sneak on my friend's Facebooks, but unable to log in myself, to look at their pictures. A small sense of connection to the "real world."
Fights were not infrequent either, most nights were never dull as it seemed someone was always running somewhere to help another cottage break up a fight or catch a runaway. I just lay in bed and pretended to play games on my imaginary phone, reading stories on my Facebook, or just looking at pictures in my head.
Visit days were always the hardest, as only family could come it was hard when my name was never called. Phone nights were similar, with the only person I was allowed to call was my caseworker I spent most of the time refusing and going to bed earlier than usual. No point in bothering someone who only deals with you because they have to.
One Saturday we were woken up by a familiar voice, "Good morning ladies," Mr. Gartrell said as he walked up and down the hallways. "It's time to get ready for breakfast!" I stick my head out groggily to look at the clock at the end of the hallway.
"What are you doing here," I ask yawning, "aren't you supposed to be at home with your family?" I think this was the first time I had really talked to him as he looked at me with a very obvious look of shock.
"Well," he started, "my work family needed my help. I'll always be here when needed." He smiled. "Good morning Ms. Mandal," he said tipping an imaginary hat to me. I just huff and turn back into my room. After getting ready we go through the usual morning check ins before making our way to the dining hall. A couple would-have-been fights start but are quickly brought to an end as Mr. Gartrell stepped in between.
A new girl sits next to me, obviously shaking and not sure how to process what she has found herself in. "What in the..." she says to me. I just look at her, I've found that less happens when you don't talk to people. "Is it always like this," she asks.
The girl assigned to sit on my other side responds while rolling her eyes, "unfortunately." The two continue talking through breakfast, many attempts were made to get me to join in the conversation, but I just play pretend to be on my phone again. After breakfast we were taken back to our cabins where we spent time working on school work and treatment assignments, mine included work on "Being my own person."
"Ladies," Mr. Gartrell yells. "Let's go enjoy the sunshine for a little while!" My whole hallway whoops in response. The new girl pokes her head out of her room, it was very clearly obvious she had been crying again. The fire in the pit of my stomach gurggled and fizzled out.
Communication is key, the words swirled around in my head again.
"Go ahead and bring your notebooks," Mr. Gartrell tells us as we put our shoes on.
"Really," one of the older girls asks looking fairly excited.
"Really," he responds with a smile. All of the girls run back and grab notebooks I had not seen before. "Oh, right," Mr. Gartrell says looking at me and the newer girl. "Hold on one second." With that he disappears into the office leaving the new staff alone. She pretends she doesn't notice, but we can tell she's nervous as her writing hand seems to shake as she writes some type of note in her daily notepad.
A few minutes later he makes his way out of the office. "Here you go," he says, handing both myself and the newer girl a sketchpad and pencils. "You'll need these."
"Are we ready," the other staff asks seemingly nervously.
"Yes," the cottage echoes loudly.
As we make our way outside Mr. Gartrell leads us out to one of the paths behind the cottage. It only took a few feet before we were surrounded by nothing but foliage on this overgrown walking path. Tall trees surrounded us on each side, this didn't seem to bother anyone except the new staff and myself.
"W-where are we going," the new staff asked. "I thought we were only going to the main office and back."
"Mrs. Stroll and I thought it would be a good idea to get these girls out to the clearing for a bit," Mr. Gartrell yelled back as he lead the group in line. "They've had a good couple of weeks, we felt a little reward was in order." He turned around and smiled at everyone as the girls in the front whooped and high-fived.
We walked a little while longer, down the hill and around a couple bends, finally stopping at a clearing covered in overgrown grass and beautiful purple and yellow flowers. The sound of rushing water came from beyond the treeline on the other side of the clearing accompanied by the singing of birds, and the crisp smell of fall air.
"Pick a spot," Mr. Gartrell says pointing to us all. Some of the older girls quickly find spots in the clearing and laid down. The newer girl and I stood still trying to make sense of what was going on. Just as the last of the older girls claimed their space Mr. Gartrell made his way up to us. "You look a bit confused," he said. "Ms. Mandal, tell me, why do you find yourself on Facebook so often?"
"Ummm..." I say as I look around at the other girls again. "Because I miss my friends." That wasn't a lie.
"Facebook is a good way to connect with others," Mr. Gartrell said, "but how do you connect with yourself?" He looks between me and the other girl. "Ms. Simpson?"
"Uhhh..." she looks nervous. "Dancing?" She responds with a question.
"Well, I suppose that is one way," Mr. Gartrell responds. "Bring your sketchbooks over here," he starts again as he leads us over to a spot in the middle of the clearing. "You sit there," he says pointint to me and a spot a short distance away from him, "and Ms. Simpson you stay right there." With that he takes a seat and lays back on the grass like the other girls. We follow suit.
"Tell me," he begins again, "what do you see?"
"Tree tops," the other girl responds.
"Clouds," I answer.
Mr. Gartrell laughs, "Fair, do you want to know what I see?"
We look at each other and then back at him, "what?"
"A story," he points up at one cloud closer to the treeline we came from. "There, I see a lioness on the hunt. And there," he uses his other hand to point to another cloud on the other side, "I see a gazelle running to find it's herd. And there," he points again to another cloud, "I see a hyena watching the scene unfold."
Looking at the clouds I start to make out the shapes. "Oh," the other girl exclaims, "I think I see something." I point to a group of clouds on the other side of the clearing. "There!"
"Great," Mr. Gartrell says with enthusiasm. "What do you see?"
"I..." she trails off. "I lost it." She looked a little embarassed.
"That's alright," Mr. Gartrell said as he sat back up to look at her. "Do you remember what you saw?"
"Kind of," she says.
"Use your sketchbook, you don't have to tell anyone if you don't want to but part of connecting to yourself is connecting with nature." His voice carried such sincerity.
"Okay," she said. "I'll try."
"Ms. Madal, will you give it a try?"
"I guess," I said with a little skepticism.
"That's all I ask," he says as he hops up and finds another seat in the clearing.
Looking up at the clouds I watch them move. After what felt like hours of staring up at shapeless clouds, I felt like giving up. Give it a try, an old and familiar voice sang out as I closed my eyed. Sometimes to really connect, you have to disconnect, the voice continued. As I looked back up the clouds began to dance, one in the shape of a mermaid doing a summersault, and a seal next to her balancing a ball. It felt so nice to draw again, setting that burning fire inside me aside and focusing solely on the story the world was showing me. Disconnecting, to reconnect.