Jos rested her back against the cold wall and looked outside at the grey concrete surrounding her new home. Spirals of wire sat atop the outer walls like evil candy canes, reminding her where she was. She realized she felt too comfortable here after only two days. When she arrived, she was told that it took most women weeks or even months to adjust, and some never did, but she had not had any problems adjusting. Maybe it was because she had been born here nineteen and a half years ago. Maybe it was because she felt freer inside than she ever had on the outside. There were rules here, and a schedule, and no one else’s baby to look after. There were rules at home too, sure, but they were always changing and she could never keep track of what was right and what was wrong so she would do something really wrong because at least then she knew where she stood.
The knot in her shoulder was smaller and the pain in her jaw from years of grinding and clenching was less than she was accustomed. She stood against the window in her dull sandpaper pajamas and rolled her shoulders back over and over again while dropping her ear to her shoulder back and forth like she was warming up for a boxing match. She resisted the temptation to jump up and down. The tension was gone. She let her mouth hang open as she stretched her jaw without pain. And then she remembered.
“No!” Jos’s mother yelled. She was yelling at her so hard Jos knew her mother would have a migraine later that she’d treat with whatever alcohol was available. All Jos had done was ask to go to a movie with her friend Anne that lived down the street and had two parents and a little brother and a little white dog that always ran up to her and cuddled at her feet.
“He’s not my baby! I never asked for him!” Jos yelled back, slamming the door to her room so hard her bulletin board flew down to the floor and her favourite photo of Chris the awesome Evans got creased. “Arrrrrrgh!” she yelled, and buried her face in her futon. It’s not her problem that it’s the pest’s birthday. Her nose and cheeks felt hot and angry as tears dripped down into the foam. She lifted her head and snorted back her tears. “I hate you!” she yelled towards the door, then climbed out her bedroom window, onto the fire escape, and jumped down the last few feet to the concrete below.
Breakfast at 0750 was the same for everyone every day. If you missed it, you didn’t eat and then you’d be in trouble for not eating and you’d have to go see the counselor and convince them that you’re not suicidal or going on a hunger strike to protest something pointless like the lack of vegetarian options. Jos stood in line on the morning of day three behind an older petite woman. “Hi,” she muttered, not wanting to start a conversation but not wanting to appear rude. The woman ignored her. Jos put the sickly yellow plastic tray down and pulled her long red hair back into a ponytail, wrapping an elastic around it. All she could get here were regular elastics; the kind office people liked to buy in fancy colours stretched into a ball that sat on their fancy wooden desk. The kind that hurt when pulled out of thick, curly hair. “Fine by me,” she whispered to herself. She knew enough people already.
On Halloween Jos had to take her five year old brother trick-or-treating and miss the school dance that Brian had asked her to go to with him. He had stood at the door of her math class and pulled her aside when she walked out.
“Hey, Jos, so, I was wondering, if, maybe, um, you would go to the dance with me?”
“Sure, why not?”
She shrugged as if it meant nothing but Jos had felt her cheeks get warm and rosy and her stomach got bumpy and she knew she was excited. She straightened out her sweater, pulling it down over her zebra print leggings in an effort to look smaller. She would have to find something to wear to the dance that didn’t make her look homeless.
“Great,” he smiled at her, “so, I’ll see you at lunch?”
“Yah, okay, see ya.”
When her Mom got home that night she told her about the dance the following Friday.
“No, Friday’s Halloween. You have to take Ben trick-or-treating. You already told him you would.”
“No, I’m going to the dance.”
“No, you’re taking your brother trick-or-treating.”
“Half-brother, and no, I’m not.”
“I’m not having this discussion with you.”
“Fine, you take him.”
“I have plans.”
“Change them. I’m going to the dance.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m not taking my stupid brother out for candy. You can buy him some yourself. He’s such a baby anyway.”
Ben had been watching the whole conversation from the doorway where he stood in his Olaf snowman costume holding sunglasses in his little hand. He ran away crying up to his room. Jos walked out the door, down the hall, and out the door that locked behind her. She sat on the cold concrete steps and felt her leggings get wet beneath her from the earlier rain. The next day at school she had to tell Brian that she couldn’t go. Black lines of mascara ran down her face as she told him. She knew how ugly she was.
“Oh that’s fine,” he said, oblivious to her crying, “I’d rather go with Andie anyway.”
He walked off and Jos saw him walk down to Andie’s locker, speak with her, and then embrace her as if they were already dating. Andie and her stupid locker covered in pictures of Adam Levine half-naked. As if perfect Andie would ever get a tattoo. She wiped off her cheeks and rubbed her hands on the sides of her skirt, pulling it down with the hope that it would somehow make her look less chubby.
Jos stabbed the half grapefruit on her plastic tray with the plastic knife she’d been given to eat it with. It bent and broke as it tried to push through the hard yellow rind. Half of the knife stuck in the grapefruit while the other half stayed in her hand, sharp and jagged. Another girl about her age, with short brown hair and glasses, sat down across the table. Jos looked up at her face. She reminded Jos of the smart girls at school that wear preppy clothes and had rich parents and got to drive their little Smurf cars but would whine about how they weren’t good enough to get into some crap school Jos had never heard of. She flipped her tray over onto the other girl’s breakfast and walked out.
The Christmas tree stood in the corner of Jos’s bedroom. She knew that normal people had theirs in a pretty stand, with a pretty blanket wrapped around the bottom. They would have ornaments and tinsel and presents too. But this tree was hers, pulled through the alley in four inches of snow three days after Christmas. It looked too alive to be left to die in the alley so Jos made it her own, dragging it up the steps and through the hallway, through the apartment and into her room. She propped it against the corner then heard knocking at the door. She opened it, leaving the chain on.
“What in the hell d’you think you’re doing missy?”
Jos looked back at the lady from down the hall.
“Get yurself out here and clean up the mess you made or I be telling your mudder.”
Jos stifled a laugh. Mrs. Greenback was not from the west and the way she talked always made Jos laugh. She and Anne made fun of her all the time, sitting on Anne’s deck with their legs dangling over the side.
“Whaz so funny?”
“Nothing, Mrs. Greenback, I’ll come out right away.”
Jos spent over an hour sweeping the needles out of the thin blue carpet in the hallway. Not that it helped. The carpet was so old and worn and covered in stains of dirt, food, puke, and God knows what else. She had just started sweeping the linoleum in the apartment when her mother came home. The opening of the door startled Jos and she turned quickly, swinging the broom handle and knocking over three of her mother’s Precious Moments figurines. She didn’t even look up at her mother, she just swept them up into the dustpan and went to her room.
“Doubt, Smithers, Anderson! Report to the kitchen at once!”
Jos got up, wondering who would have the name “Smithers,” and went to the kitchen. At least it was better than “Doubt.” Time for work duty. She stood at the metal sink. It was large enough to bathe an adult in and it reminded her of having to bathe stupid Ben every night. The water was hot enough to scald, Jos knew that, but here she was, forced to wash every dish with her bare hands. The burning was soothing in the pain it caused and she pretended to be outside lying on the beach, getting a sun burn.
It was Anne’s idea although no one believed it, especially Anne’s parents and Jos’s mother. Why would they? Anne lived in a nice house and had never done anything bad whereas Jos had already done two batches of community service for vandalism and shoplifting. She should have said no, she could have said no, but Anne really was her only friend and was leaving for college in the fall and it was their last chance to make memories. And it was New Year’s Eve. They plotted and planned for days, staying up late at Anne’s house pretending to be talking about college boys. Anne’s mother made them late-night snacks and when Jos stayed over, she got a full plate of breakfast cooked and cleaned up by someone else.
On the night of the deed, Jos wore her favourite black leggings and took a pair of her mother’s black boots from the closet. Anne was ready when she got there, sitting on her front porch like an old woman watching the neighbours.
“Yes. Let’s do it. I have the jitters or something. Jos could see her hands fretting inside her mittens.”
“Are you sure you want to do it? If we get caught you won’t be going to college.”
“My Dad will get me out of anything. I just need to do something really bad to feel what it’s like. I need to feel what you feel.”
“The getting caught part is not fun.”
“We won’t get caught.”
The pair made their way down the street to the golf course parking lot where dozens of fancy, shiny cars lay waiting for them.
“Which one do you want?” Jos asked. Anne was only going to do this once so Jos figured she could chose. Plus, Anne was shaking standing there and the silver in her leggings was flicking light all over the parking lot. They needed to be quick.
“Uhhh, that one,” she replied, pointing with her red mitten at a two-seater rich car that matched her outfit.
The car was shiny silver and it twinkled like a rich person’s Christmas tree. She pulled the handle and was surprised that it opened.
“Rich people just assume no one will steal from them,” she said with disgust, although she was glad to not have to break in.
She rummaged around the car and the glove compartment and found a spare key in the owner’s manual. Another stupid mistake.
“It’s like they want us to take it,” she said and started the car. “Put your seatbelt on!” The plan was to have Anne drive just for the excitement but she was too nervous. Not that she had asked Jos to stop or anything.
They peeled out of the parking lot, Jos pretending that she was Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and Anne pretending she was too cool to be excited. Jos sped down the street, changing gears like a race car driver with total confidence. She was the most excited she had ever been. They turned into the mall parking lot and did trick maneuvers spinning around and flipping from forward to reverse and back again. After several minutes, Jos drove Anne home. She watched Anne open the door and go inside but didn’t see her little dog run out the door and into the street. As Jos sped away she felt a bump under the wheel and reluctantly stopped the car. Anne ran out of her house screaming. “Snow! Snow!” And as she looked out into the street her bright rich face turned pale, the little dog barely visible against the snow covered street. Jos drove away. She had destroyed the only living thing to ever truly love her.
The prompt for this story came from Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind, the most awesome writing course online.