A ruckus in the hallway startled Cate Carter awake from a fitful sleep full of bloodshed and heartbreak. The ten-year-old’s compact frame stiffened as she strained to hear the strange voices squabbling from outside the guest bedroom door. Two distinct voices clashed and attacked each other, but Cate failed to decipher what the dispute was over.
When a third voice joined in the chaotic commotion, her heart clung to her ribcage, holding on for dear life. It was only once Cate identified the three voices as female that her anxiety mollified and her heart pried its icy fingers from her bones.
Trepidation lingered as Cate waited for the man of the house to break up the argument with a bark or a bite worse than any dog unleashed. But the mystery man never materialized.
The third voice amplified.
“Stop screaming. You’re going to wake up our new guest, if you haven’t already.”
“A new girl?” one of the other voices shrieked. “When did she get here?”
A social worker and two police officers escorted Cate to the emergency foster home and introduced her to a drowsy Jennette Nelson.
Discombobulated, Cate ignored the adults while they talked in hushed tones and stared straight ahead at nothing instead. Within minutes, the social worker and police left, promising to be back the next day to ask Cate questions, and to answer any of theirs.
A groggy Jennette handed Cate pajamas, showing her where the bathroom and the guest bedroom were. Exhausted, Cate fell into a sleep full of memories, which were worse than any nightmare she’d ever had.
Pushing yesterday’s disaster on a mental back burner, Cate escaped from a black and white comforter, climbed down from the double bed, and tiptoed to the door. Plush white carpet tickled the soles of her feet. She pressed her ear to the door and heard whispering before footsteps wondered off in different directions.
With her back pressed against the door, Cate slid to the floor, noticing her surroundings. Besides the bed, a black bureau and desk crowded the rest of the room. Two oil paintings of beach landscapes dangled from the light blue walls. The room was sparse, but welcoming.
Cate shifted her weight, realized she needed to use the facilities, sighed, and straightened herself. Her hand trembled as she fidgeted with the doorknob, careful not to make a sound. Without a choice, she cautiously opened the door and crept into the hallway. She reached the bathroom in record speed so that she didn’t bump into anyone. She championed at sneaking to the bathroom each night so she wouldn’t wake her last foster father and catch a beating.
Once relieved, she stared at herself in the mirror. Her protruding blue eyes were swollen and bruised into small slits. The cut on her bottom lip scabbed overnight. However, it was her nose she worried about most. The doctors said it wasn’t broken, but she wasn’t so sure because it was the size of a basketball and the pain hadn’t subsided yet.
Self-conscious, she attempted to spruce herself up by brushing her long chestnut hair, but it didn’t diminish how terrible she looked. She sighed before heading back to the guest room.
To her absolute horror, she couldn’t return to the room without detection. As she retreated, an older girl with black hair, black eyes and tanned skin poked her head out of her room.
“Oh, good. You’re awake,” the girl said, giving Cate the once-over. A concerned glimmer peaked from her eyes when she descried Cate’s appearance. Ignoring her wounds, the girl stepped into the hallway with her hands on her hips and a grin bigger than Jupiter. There was something familiar about her, but Cate couldn’t identify what.
“Hi. My name’s Kora. And you are?”
Cate opened her mouth to speak, but the words never emerged.
Kora didn’t miss a beat.
“You don’t feel like talking, huh? That’s okay. Come and we’ll see if Mom has something to eat?”
Cate hesitated before following Kora downstairs where the master bedroom, second bathroom, living room and kitchen resided. She noticed how clean and homey everything was.
A glimmer of wishful thinking peaked its beautiful head.
Maybe they’ll keep me.
Cora squashed the idea with a swift mental slap. She knew life wasn’t that kind.
Kora’s dad is probably a monster like the rest of them, anyway.
She sat in the chair assigned to her and waited for instructions. She knew the drill. Each time Cate arrived at a new place, the foster parents announced the house rules and regulations, manifesting signs of self-righteousness and disgust. Or that was Cate’s experience.
Her past three homes involved emergency foster parents who relished in insulting their charges, a neglectful foster home with people who pocketed the cash that was supposed to be designated for the kids, and her last one was almost as bad as her natural parents’ home. Last night being the last straw when her foster father nearly beat her to death for breaking his bottle of scotch. His wife had to call the police to stop him.
“I hope you like blueberry pancakes,” Jennette said as she busied herself at the stove. The room smelled divine. Cate’s stomach rumbled. She missed supper the day before. “Are you hungry?”
“She’s not talking, yet.” Kora gulped her orange juice in one swig before sneaking some more. “If she’s not hungry, I’ll eat them. I’ve got a dance class today. Do you dance?”
Cate yearned to answer Kora, but she stayed mute.
“Stop bugging Catelin. Where’s your sister and Mom?”
Cate’s eyebrows shot up. Didn’t Kora say Jennette was her mother?
Confused, she glanced at Kora.
“We’ve got two moms. No dad. Do you have a problem with that?” Kora challenged her. No men meant no fathers—foster or biological. They’re so lucky! Cate shook her head until she thought it would spin off her neck. “Good. See. I knew I could get you to communicate.”
Two sets of footsteps stomped or dragged down the stairs. Tension seeped from Cate’s muscles when another girl and an older woman burst through the doorway.
“I told ya not to, but ya did it, anyway. That’s why.” The woman snuck a peak at Cate as she produced eggs and bacon from the fridge. Cate’s appetite increased exponentially. She loved bacon, but she couldn’t remember the last time she had any. The woman withdrew a pan from the cupboard, spun towards the girl, and glared. Cate’s eyes popped open. Don’t hit her with that. Cate trembled. The woman sucked her teeth before putting the pan on the front burner. “You’re grounded for the weekend, Mia. Period.”
“Listen to your mother,” Jennette said, furrowing her eyebrows at both of them with one hand holding a spatula and the other resting on her hip. “Bailey, I’m making pancakes.”
“I feel like bacon and eggs, but thank ya. Mia, ya want bacon, right?”
The grounded girl glanced from Bailey to Jennette and back.
“But Mom, I had to go. Breanna’s trying to steal Tyrone from Suching. She needed me there.”
“She didn’t need you to stay out all hours. You’re only twelve, not eighteen. Now hush up and introduce yourself to this beautiful young lady.”
Cate squirmed in her seat. I look horrible. A sliver of anxiety wormed up her spine. Cringing, she waited for the joke to smack her.
Bailey and Jennette conversed without uttering a word. Doleful concern painted their faces. Mia gasped, covering her mouth with her hand, when she noticed Cate’s appearance. She shook off the argument and sat beside her, opposite Kora.
“Hi. I’m Mia. What’s your name?”
Shocked they weren’t prying into why she looked the way she did, Cate dreamed of living with them permanently. Bailey scared her. But the woman didn’t hit Mia, even though she broke the rules. This realization eased Cate’s distress from her tattered soul.
“She’s not talking, Mia.”
“Can we talk?” Mia asked with a smile and raised eyebrows.
“Good. Kora here can talk your ear off plenty.”
Kora glowered at Mia.
They acted like a family, but the resemblance was lacking. Cate was so confused.
“Well, you know our names,” Mia said, pointing her chin towards the others. “Wanna know more about us?”
Cate hesitated before she nodded. Is this when they lay down the law? She pulled at a strand of hair—a nervous habit she picked up several years ago.
“I’m fourteen and little Mia here is twelve. Jennette and Bailey adopted me seven years ago and Mia five years ago. We go to Westmount High. Mia loves to paint and write poetry, while I sing and dance. Do you have any hobbies?”
Cate muffled a snicker. The only hobby she could afford was writing because it involved merely a pen and paper. Still, she loved writing long, fantastic stories.
She pushed her hair behind her ear with a finger.
“Kora hasn’t seen her parents since she was five—they weren’t pleasant—and my parents died when I was seven,” Mia said, taking over the conversation. She kissed two of her fingers before continuing. “Kora jumped from foster home to foster home when our moms adopted her. I came straight here. Have you been in a lot of homes?”
Cate’s hand shook as she stuck her three middle fingers up.
“That sucks,” Mia said, plowing into the stack of pancakes Jennette placed in front of her. “This is so good, Mom. Thanks.”
Cate looked over at Bailey’s eggs and bacon. Jennette noticed.
“Would you prefer eggs and bacon?” she asked.
A smile snuck onto Cate’s face, betraying her.
“If that doesn’t tell me everything, I don’t know what will. Bailey you’ve got an order over here.”
“Oh, really?” Bailey eyeballed Cate with a smirk. “Ya think I’m a short-order cook, don’t ya? Oh, don’t worry. I’m just teasing, sweetie. Do ya like eggs? Ah, it’s the bacon, eh? I love it, too. Best tasting meat there is on this crazy planet.”
Within minutes, Bailey sat down after she served Cate a plate with two eggs and three long strips of bacon in the shape of a face. Delighted, she picked up a slice, careful with her bottom lip, and bit into it. Heaven. A grin spread across her lips.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The rest of them beamed as she took another bite.
“Want some more?”
They ate in silence for several minutes. Forks scrapped against the plates. It was the only sound they could hear, and it made Cate’s ears curl up into little balls. They didn’t rush from the table once they finished eating. Instead, they continued talking. Cate was still waiting for the list of rules and chores she’d be responsible for.
“So, Catelin, where do you go to school?” Jennette asked with the kindest voice Cate ever heard. “You must be in grade five, right?”
“My name’s Cate,” she said, one decibel above a whisper. “I’m in grade four at Riverview. I failed last year.”
“You can talk!” Mia exclaimed, clapping her hands.
“Mia.” Bailey warned.
Mia’s face turned pink.
“Sorry, Cate. I like that name. What’s your full name. I have Jennette and Bailey’s last name Nelson-Blanc.”
“Catelin Ann Carter, but I like Cate. My mom called me Cate.”
Everyone paused at the mention of her mother.
Bailey sighed as she stared at Cate’s hands.
“Where’s your mom now?” Bailey asked carefully.
“That sucks, Cate,” Mia said, as she tugged at her lip. “What about your father?”
Cate’s eyes filled with tears. She coughed, clearing her throat.
“What’s he in prison for?” Mia interjected.
“Mia!” Kora scolded. “You don’t ask someone that.”
“It’s okay,” Cate said, taking a deep breath. “He’s in jail for killing my mother when I was four. I barely remember her. I can only see her face. She called me Cate.”
“How did he—”
“Don’t.” Jennette cut Mia off before she asked how he did it.
They searched for something else to talk about, but everyone wanted to know more about Cate.
“Tell us about your mom. Was she pretty?” Kora asked after some contemplation. “What was her name?”
Cate’s entire demeanor changed as she thought about her mother. The pain from her injuries subsided as she pictured her mom’s face.
“She was beautiful. She had black hair and black eyes. She had darker skin than yours, Kora, but it wasn’t brown.”
“Your mom wasn’t white? You definitely look white.”
“My father’s white. My mom was Mohawk.”
“Huh, so am I. That’s cool. Maybe we could bring you to a pow wow one day. Eh, Mom?”
Jennette and Bailey looked at each other.
“Kora, we don’t know how long Cate’s staying for. They’re going to find her another home at some point.”
Cate’s heart sank. It was too good to be true. When the social worker returned, Cate would have to leave and chance living with horrible people. She thought all foster homes were hell, but she loved it there.
“So, what’s your mom’s name? What do you know about her? I don’t remember my parents at all. They gave me up without a fight. All I have to say is Tanya Wolf and Mark Driver can go fu—”
“Don’t you dare, miss fourteen-year-old. You know better.”
“Sorry, Mom. So, Cate—what’s wrong?”
Cate sat frozen in place. Could it really be? No, it's impossible. She blinked rapidly as if looking at Kora for the first time. She knew Kora looked familiar.
“Cate? Is something the matter, dear?” Jennette asked, bewildered.
“That’s my mom’s name.”
“Tanya Wolfe. That’s my mom.”
Everyone stared at Cate in wonder.
“But how could that be?” Bailey asked. "Nobody told us that."
“I don’t know, but I know I had an older sister that I never met.” She turned to Kora. “Is it you?”
Kora stared at the wall.
“Kora?” Cate’s shoulders slumped. What if Kora doesn’t want me to be her sister? She probably doesn’t. Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes. “Maybe it’s someone else.”
Kora jumped from her seat and squeezed Cate in as close to a bear hug as she could manage.
“Is it true? Mom? Is Cate Kora’s sister? Her blood sister?”
Bailey and Jennette stared at each other.
“It may be," Jennette said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. "I didn't have a chance to speak long with the social worker since it was so late. She's coming today for a meeting. We’ll have to confirm it with her to know for sure.”
“Can you call now?” Kora asked, releasing Cate. Her eyes were full of hope. “Mom, I need to know.”
“I have an emergency number. I’ll call now.” Jennette said, rushing to retrieve her phone. “No more life-changing moments until I return.”
Bailey glanced at Cate and Kora before she followed Jennette to their bedroom. Words burst from the three girls simultaneously.
“This is so cool.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Can I stay with you if we are sisters?”
Kora beamed at Cate.
“I’ll make sure of it. You’re not going anywhere.”
Hope bloomed in Cate’s chest.
“I hope so.”
Mia and Kora jumped to their feet, knocking over their chairs.
“Wait right here,” Kora said as she and Mia left the room. “Mom!”
Cate’s head filled with possibilities. What if Kora really is my sister? What if I can stay here? The idea of a normal family thrilled her. But doubt couldn’t help but reveal itself. Why would they want me? Nobody else did, except for her mother, as far as she remembered.
Cate cleared off the table as she waited. She turned on the faucet, ready to wash the dishes, when the four others returned with matching grins.
“Cate, it’s true! We have the same mom. We’re sisters!”
Kora hugged her again, but with more confidence.
"It's true?" Cate asked, astonished. Her face lit up despite the pain it caused with the effort. "I can't believe it."
"It's true," Jennette said, standing to the side. "The social worker overlooked Kora natural mother when she read Cate's file because everything happened so fast."
Cate paused, glanced at the others eyes, searching for any signs of disappointment or disgust. She couldn't find a trace.
"Can I stay here?" she whispered, staring at the floor.
“Jennette and Bailey are going to adopt you.” she kissed Cate’s cheek. Tears filled her eyes. “My baby sister. I’m never letting you go.”
“This is so awesome,” Mia said as she jumped in on the hug. “We’re going to be sisters. I always wanted a little sister.”
Jennette and Bailey’s smiles wavered.
“Now, hold on everyone,” Jennette said. “The social worker’s fairly certain there should be no trouble, but we don’t know for sure until Bailey and I sign the dotted line.”
The three girls stopped hugging. Fresh tears spilled down Cate’s face, but this time they weren’t tears of joy.
“But I’ve got to stay here. I can’t leave. Please, don’t make them take me away.”
Bailey took Cate in her arms.
“Don’t worry, little dove. Since we adopted Kora, and we want you here, they’ll most likely let us adopt you.”
“Is that true, Jennette?”
“Yes. I don’t see any problems arising.” Jennette joined the circle surrounding Cate. She took Cate’s cheeks in her hands, barely touching her, though, because she didn’t want to press on her bruises. “I promise you this: we will make sure you’re taken care of, if you can’t stay. You are family. You are one of us. No matter what the government says. Do you understand me?”
They want me. They actually want me.
These strangers, these people she dreaded meeting, saved her.
Whether or not they adopted her, she had a family.
Nothing was ever the same.