Chapter One

Happy Birthday

Some kids have parents who are doctors or farmers. Other kids’ parents are mill workers or teachers. Shay James’ parents were drug dealers. As Shay learned very early in life, parents who use and sell illegal drugs don’t have a lot of time or energy for taking care of their children. In fact, they don’t have much time for anything but themselves. Still, Shay often reminded herself, they weren’t total wipe outs as parents; they had taught her some useful things. For example, they taught Shay how to wait. As a little kid, Shay learned to wait for her parents to feed her, or put her to bed, or to return to the dingy motel rooms they hid out in each time they ran from overdue bills or drug deals gone bad. When she was older, and the social workers took her away from her mom and dad and put her into foster care, Shay learned to wait for her parents on their scheduled visits and to wait for their occasional telephone call or email. Yesterday, though, she finally gave up waiting when they still hadn’t called to wish her “Happy Fourteenth Birthday” by the time she had to go to bed.

Shay shook her head hard, as if the motion could fling out the sadness that lived like a creepy little spider in the darkest corner of her mind. She reached her arm out from under the thick layers of warm blankets and squashed the alarm button before it woke her younger roommate, Larissa, who was still sound asleep on the upper bunk. Shay watched above her while Larissa’s mattress sagged and bounced with each turn and roll of the girl, the movements of the old, thin mattress making it look as if it had a life of its own. Shay could see Larissa’s outline as the girl once again rolled over, mumbled a few words in her sleep, and then snorted loudly. Larissa’s endless wiggling and her noises on the top bunk made Shay think of a giant freckle-faced, red-haired mouse, endlessly burrowing deeper and deeper into its nest.

The thought brought out a giggle in Shay that she quickly suppressed. She didn’t want Larissa to wake up just yet because this morning she yearned for just a few minutes to lie quietly and be alone with her thoughts without having to endure Larissa’s constant chatter. Shay liked the privacy of the early morning when her foster father left for the early shift at the shingle mill, and her foster mom made clanging noises in the kitchen downstairs as she bustled around cooking a big breakfast for the two foster girls. Shay felt comforted knowing that in this house there was always enough food and warmth.

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