I set the receiver back into its cradle, all the while
knowing that Olene is watching me carefully with her quick,
birdlike eyes. Once I get settled and find a job, one of
the first things Iâ€™m going to buy is a cell phone so I can
have a little privacy when I talk. Iâ€™m sure my parents
would buy me a phone, but I donâ€™t want my first interaction
with them to be about money. Besides, I want to show them
going to be okay, that I can take care of myself. I
wonder if they are thinking about me right now. Secretly, I
had hoped they would have been parked in front of Gertrude
House to welcome me when I arrived.
Olene must be psychic, because she says, "Many of the
residents have cell phones, but we have guidelines here
that phones need to be turned off while doing chores or
when we are having group sessions. We want to respect
othersâ€™ need for quiet." Olene picks up where she left off
with the tour. She leads me through the kitchen, where we
will take turns making dinner, and to an octagonal room
with a ceiling that extends bove the second floor. This is
where the residents watch television. A gray-haired woman
wearing a waitress uniform is dozing on a sofa and a young,
petite, dark-skinned woman is holding a toddler on her lap
and singing softly to him in Spanish. The television is
tuned to a soap opera, the volume muted.
"This is Flora and her son, Manalo," Olene says in a
"And thatâ€™s Martha." Olene waves a hand toward the
slumbering woman. Floraâ€™s eyes narrow into suspicious slits
and she gathers Manalo more closely to her. The little boy
waves a chubby hand at us and grins.
"Nice to meet you," I say.
Flora speaks rapidly to Olene in Spanish, her tone tight
and hostile, and Olene responds back in Spanish, as well. I
have the feeling that Olene is going to have to do a lot of
talking to calm the other residents of Gertrude House when
it comes to me.
"Letâ€™s go on upstairs and Iâ€™ll show you your room,"
Olene says, taking me by the elbow and steering me from the
television room to the spiral staircase that leads to the
bedrooms. I can feel Floraâ€™s eyes on my back as I follow
Olene up the steps. Iâ€™ve been here for all of twenty
minutes and everyone already seems to know who I am and
what Iâ€™ve done. I know I shouldnâ€™t let it bother me so
much, I had to deal with the same things in jail, but this
seems different somehow.
"The expectation is that everyone takes an active role
in the upkeep of the house," Olene says, and I can see this
is true. There isnâ€™t a speck of dust anywhere and the
floors gleam. Olene gently knocks on a closed door before
opening it to reveal a small room with bunk beds and two
small dressers. The beds are made up with blue and white
floral comforters and thick, soft pillows. Another rush of
exhaustion overtakes me and I want to go lie down. The
walls are painted sky-blue and there are crisp, white
curtains covering the windows. Itâ€™s a very peaceful room.
"Your roommate, Bea, is at work right now. Sheâ€™ll be
home in a few hours. Why donâ€™t you unpack your things, get
settled and Iâ€™ll come back in a little while and we can
finish the orientation."
I look at the bunk beds and hesitate, wondering which
one is mine.
"You get the bottom bed," Olene says. "Bea likes to
sleep on the top bunkâ€”she says
that the bottom bed makes her feel claustrophobic."
Olene pats me on the arm as she moves to leave the room.
"Olene," I say. She turns back to me, and Iâ€™m stricken
by how kind her worn face is. "Thank you."
"Youâ€™re welcome." She smiles. "Get a little rest and
holler if you need anything."
My few belongings fit into one drawer of my bureau with
room to spare. In a way, Gertrude House reminds me of the
summer camp I attended when I was eleven. I share a room
with bunk beds and, from what Olene has said, we follow a
very specific schedule that is posted in the main gathering
area. From the moment we wake up at five-thirty to lights
out at ten-thirty, our day is filled with chores, and group
sessions on everything from managing finances to anger
management to mastering interview skills.
I sit on the lower bunk and bounce a bit. The springs
are firm but giving. This feels like a real bed, not like
Cravenvilleâ€™s hard, institutional slab, with rough,
scratchy sheets that smelled of bleach. I lift a fluffy
pillow and bury my nose in it. It smells of lavender and I
feel tears prick at my eyes. Maybe it wonâ€™t be so bad here.
It couldnâ€™t be any worse than jail. Maybe the other girls
will learn to like me. Maybe my parents will forget about
what the neighbors think and welcome me as their daughter
again. And maybe, just maybe, Brynn will forgive me.
I inhale deeply one more time and lower the pillow from
my face and thatâ€™s when I see it. Its blank eyes stare up
at me and its smudged plastic face is frozen in a half
smile. I pick up the baby doll. Itâ€™s old and battered and
looks like it came out of a Dumpster. Across the dollâ€™s
bare chest is one word, slashed in black permanent marker,
a word that I now know will follow me everywhere, no matter
where I go. Killer.