There is nothing to the world but the here and now, that there is nothing more to humanity than consciousness and fumbling molecules and the sheer will to live. That we have seventy, maybe eighty, years of ourselves, and then the atoms rearrange and we leave behind an eternity of dust. We flare, each one of us, brief and bright and alone in our minds, and in our instant of a life, we grasp at connection. We are human; we thrive on connections. We survive on it.
It’s futile, really; true connection, the complete comprehension of the mind of another, is impossible. In all of my life, I will never truly see or know another being, and I will never truly be seen or known. Pure thought and pure emotion are bursts of lightning, and language is the wire that harnesses them. It can carry only a semblance of the real thing, only a slowed-down, tempered flow. It can’t transfer experience; but it can transfer the record of it. If you’ll excuse the clichéd metaphor, each of us is an island, and books are messages tucked into sea-tossed bottles.
I read because language is beautiful, because Fitzgerald’s words seem to glimmer against the heat and because Hemingway’s are bone-dry and clean as windblown dust. I read because I can’t help but read. Because it’s beautiful, but beyond that, because it’s real. Because though language is only a wire, wires can build circuits.
The social worker is here for me.
I barely notice as she takes me further and further down the street, further and further from the Coleman house. That was my eleventh foster home.
My name is Arisa. Arisa what? I don’t know. I’ve never known.
Am I Arisa Coleman? That’s who I am now, by the law. Or am I just Arisa? I don’t know. The Colemans, like so many others, didn’t want me. No, they did worse. They hated me.
Just a few moments ago I was trying to make another escape.
“And where do you think you’re going?” A strong hand gripped my arm from behind, and my throat tightened. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned around, slowly.
“I-just-” My voice was cracked and dry.
“Just what?” A few flecks of saliva splattered against my eyelids and nose. I moved to wipe them away, but before I could, Coleman grabbed my other arm.
“Well?” More flecks of saliva landed on my face. His breath smelled of onions.
I wrinkled my nose and swallowed.
“Just outside,” I say weakly. He snorts.
“Ha. To run away, I presume?” I didn’t answer, and he smirked. “Of course to run away. This is the fourteenth attempt, isn’t it? The fourteenth I’ve thwarted.” I got the sense that he was talking more to himself than to me now. I tried to wrench my arm out of his hold, but his grip was iron, his jagged nails dug into my flesh.
“But no more,” he said, and a wicked leer crept its way onto his face. “No more. Never again.” He bent down, and now his face was so close to mine that I can see his yellowing teeth, each strand of his receding, platinum blond hairline. I don’t know why, but suddenly I was scared. Panic settled in my chest, and again I tried to free myself from his grip. He just laughed. Frantically, I jerked back my leg and kicked him, but he didn’t so much as flinch. If anything, his grip tightened. He leaned down, and now his face was mere millimeters from mine. The scent of onions was overpowering, and I held my breath. “Never,” he hissed in my ear. “No more. Never.” I didn’t understand what he meant. Not until I heard the three sharp knocks on the door, barely audible through the reckless pounding of my heart.
The social worker was here to take me away.
I could have been Arisa Grahm? The Grahms were the first, and they had blue eyes. Honey blond hair and deep, unfathomable blue eyes. Looking into them was like staring down through the sea, past the glossy, sun-touched surface of the water, and down to the real depths. Around them, around Laura, who insisted I call her Mum, around Jason, who hardly ever spoke to me, and even around their little daughter, Missy, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I guess I was right. Three months in, they sent me back.
I would have liked to be Arisa Reed. The Reeds were the kindest. They took me in. Mark, with his warm, dark eyes, the softness of his laugh-lined face, the scars on his rough, worn palms, reminders of his years serving in the military. Marissa, who never asked I call her anything but that, with her frizzy, auburn hair that spilled into her hazel eyes and her easy, quirked smile. Mari and Ari, she’d said to me once, one arm wrapped around my shoulders. Almost like we were meant to know each other, right? There was Rachel, with her mother’s quirked grin and her father’s dark eyes, and ash blond hair that didn’t seem to match that of any other in her family. There was Michael too, sweet little Michael who’d learned to speak only weeks before I’d arrived. I watched him grow up, watched him laugh and cry and giggle. I push the memory away, but it brings new ones.
Marissa called us down to the kitchen that night, just past Michael’s bedtime. Mark was still in the store. He was working late. It had been a good day more or less, a Saturday. I had played a few card games with Rachel, chased Michael around the house until he got tired, and read in my room for the rest of the day.
Rachel was complaining loudly about her lack of a birthday party, and I was tuning her out and nodding in agreement.
“Ari! Rachel! Listen to me.”
There was a look on her face that told me before she even said it. I knew that look. I had seen it at every home so far, right before...But no. They couldn’t, they wouldn’t. Still, my heart pounded, my throat constricted. Maybe Rachel sensed that something was off, because she gripped the edge of her seat, her knuckles white.
“What?” she asked. “What is it?”
Marissa reached across the table and touched my hand. I tried hard not do not to pull it away. “Ari. We’re sorry.”
“No.” I swallowed. “No!”
Rachel looked back and forth between us frantically. “I don’t get it! Mum, what’s going on?”
I turned to her, my eyes wide. “They’re sending me back! They don’t want me anymore.” Surely, she could do something. She was their daughter, their birth daughter, she had to have some influence at least. Dead silence filled the room. Rachel was as pale as a ghost. She could have been one, too, with her ash blond hair fluttering in the wind, her deep, dark eyes wide and empty, like pits that reach down to the center of her heart. She turned to her mother.
“Please. Please tell me this is some kind of sick joke.”
Marissa sighed and slowly shook her head.
“Don’t.” She looked hurt, and for a moment I felt guilty, which I shouldn’t have. After all, they’re the ones who were sending me away.
“Ari. We just can’t do this anymore, we can’t support the three of you. There isn’t enough money. We didn’t even have enough money for Rachel’s birthday party. I’m sorry, but-”
“I don’t need a party!” I looked up and met Rachel’s eyes. “I don’t need cake, or even presents. I need my sister.”
“Rach, she’s not your sister.”
Rachel grabbed my hand. I felt her fingers close around my own, warm and tight. Marissa kept speaking, kept going on about money and legality, but I was trying too hard not to sob to pay attention.
“Yes, she is.”
“Yes, she is my sister.”
Marissa sighed. “Rachel, I know this is hard, but-”
“Would you give me away?” Rachel’s eyes seemed to glow with a fierce, dark light.
“What? Rachel, that’s irrelevant, you know we can’t legally-”
“Forget legally!” Rachel’s grip tightened on my arm. “Would you?”
“No, of course not-”
“Well then you can’t give her away either!”
Rachel’s nails dug into my flesh. I swallowed.
“No, it’s fine.” Tears stung my eyes. Rachel stared at me. “I guess I’ll go pack, then. When’s the social worker coming?”
Marissa pursed her lips. “Tomorrow morning. I’m sorry, Ari, we-”
“Really. It’s ok.” I was lying, and everyone knew it, but no one said anything more as I got up and dragged myself up the stairs to our room
The social workers red car waits down the street of the Coleman home.
I open the door to the car, and the dark interior greets me. The seat feels cold against my skin.
The social worker throws a disdainful glance my way. A few strands of her graying hair have escaped from her tight bun, and float loosely around her face.
“Again?” she sighs. “What on earth did you do wrong this time? Honestly, child…” She shakes her head in disapproval.
I stay silent, and she mutters something under her breath. It’s not until we turn the corner that I start to cry. I am C.O.S. (Child of the State) G-2364.
I'm a high school senior from Millburn, NJ.