Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: START (02/25/16)
TITLE: Distant Stars
By Jan Ackerson
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When the caseworker finished her business, we showed Joelle the pink and purple bedroom she’d share with Kelsey, and I took her to the bathroom. She used the toilet while I waited in the hall, the door cracked just a bit. A few minutes passed; Joelle just sat there, looking at nothing. She might have stayed there for hours if I hadn’t gone in, helped her with the snap on her jeans, and led her back to the living room.
This set the tone for our next several days: Joelle was utterly passive, only occasionally seeking out Muffin to stroke her head. Our sweet Kelsey tried everything she could think of to engage her foster sister, but neither the trunk of princess clothes nor the tea party for stuffed animals—including the hapless monkey—drew Joelle’s attention.
We were perhaps as wary of this solemn little girl as she was of us; she was our first foster child and we wanted desperately to start out as good foster parents. Chuck and I had read her file, making sure to keep it away from Kelsey’s eyes. Joelle’s father was a phantom, and her mother, not yet twenty years old, had chosen a stint in rehab over jail as her key to starting over.
On Friday evening—Family Game Night—Kelsey chose a simple chase-around-the-board game, one with a plastic bubble in the middle that players popped to roll the die. “Do you think Joelle will like this one, Mom?”
Probably not. “Maybe, Kels. Let’s see.”
Joelle stayed in her own universe for the first few turns; Kelsey popped the bubble for her and moved her little yellow pegs, keeping up an optimistic narrative. “See, Joelle? You just gotta get around the board, and then you go up this thing, and then you’re home, see? And when you get all four of ‘em home, you win! You try it, it’s fun!” Something about Kelsey’s enthusiastic description must finally have registered, and after several rounds, Joelle reached out and popped the plastic bubble herself, moving her peg the correct number of spaces.
Chuck and I exchanged glances, hoping this was a breakthrough, not sure what to do next. I had a sudden urge to go read the foster parents’ manual again. Chapter 7: How Not to Totally Blow It When You Finally Make Some Progress. We didn’t want to startle her with our excitement, so Chuck just said, “All right, then.”
A few turns later, I popped a three. “Uh-oh, Joelle,” I said. My throat was tight from the strain of desperate wishing, but I tried to make my voice light and fun. “I’m going to land on you. You have to go back to start.”
She put her head down on the table. “No,” she said.
Kelsey started to protest. “Mom, she can’t…” but Chuck said Kels, shhhh and she swallowed her complaint.
“It’s okay, sweetie.” I touched Joelle’s shoulder. “You’ll roll a one soon and your little guy can get back out. And look, this one is almost home! We’re having fun, right?”
She looked up, her face blanched. “No. Not back to start. No!” She swept an arm across the game board, sending pieces skittering on the floor. I watched as she retreated back into that place of no sensations, her own dark space where Chuck and Kelsey and I were distant stars.
That night, I was awakened by a small sound from the living room. I eased myself from under Chuck’s arm; he muttered goulash and rolled over. I slipped down the hall and watched Joelle from ten feet away. She had taken the game from its shelf and she was marching the pegs of every color around the board. She was whispering, but I heard her as she moved each peg into its final location. Going home. Going home. Going home.
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