From a new Work in Progress tentatively titled Starlight:
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
The unsettled feeling tugging on his innards was more insistent than it had been for a while. Caleb rolled his shoulders trying to reset himself as Mr. Johns talked about the filtration system of their hydroponic plants, but it was difficult to concentrate. This was usually the one class which helped that insecure, needy feeling subside, but lately it had become more persistent, as if he wasn’t in the right place. It was the opposite of deja vous, more like his muscles - caught between his skin and bones - tried to move quicker than the rest of him would allow, so the muscles rioted in his body with the need to go. Caleb had always felt that way, as though he didn’t belong where he was. It wasn’t surprising considering where he came from. He had, after all, been abandoned as a baby behind the ‘Ole Rickety Eatery. Truth was this: his real parents hadn’t wanted him.
“So, that is why it is important for us to flush the system,” Mr. Johns continued, but Caleb couldn’t focus on his favorite teacher or his favorite class.
Instead, his mind was stuck looping around the fact he’d been abandoned and the anger which accompanied it. When he’d been eight, Caleb created an elaborate story based on a dream he’d had and insisted he’d been stolen from his real parents. His foster family at the time - the Smythes - prodded him for more information. Side note: The Smythes had probably been his favorite foster placement in his whole life. They were a good family, so what followed still hurts: Eight-year-old Caleb told an elaborate tale about a kidnapper who dropped him as a baby behind the Rickety because he’d been on the run from the police. He’d been so sure of this dream he’d insisted on searching for his real parents. Of course, because Mr. Smythe was a responsible parent, he called Social Services to request another placement for Caleb. That foster father’s reason: he was afraid Caleb’s delusions were putting his own children in danger.
Caleb’s social worker at the time - Mr. Dweck - put an end to Caleb’s story. “Dreams are good, Caleb,” he’d said, “But our sleeping dreams aren’t truth. Sometimes they are wishes. You know, like Santa Claus.” First, this statement killed any remaining slivers of belief eight-year-old Caleb might have had about Santa. Then, when Mr. Dweck added, “your parents, who are probably drug addicts, tried to find you a better home.”
Caleb stopped believing in dreams (and Santa) that year. What hadn’t stopped, however, was the feeling his body was supposed to be somewhere else.
“You okay, Caleb?” Mr. Johns asked. He’d stopped at Caleb’s table as he moved through the room, or rather a space housed in a greenhouse where their hydroponic system was located. A quick glance around the room and Caleb realized the rest of the students had moved to check their plants and system lines, while he’d been lost in his own thoughts.
This attention deficit - a supposed product of a possibly drug addicted mother no one knew, according to school counselors - was his norm. In elementary school he’d been dubbed the space cadet. In middle school classmates had laughed behind their hands when he couldn’t answer the question because he’d zoned out. Later, they’d just taken to ignoring him, but at least he’d had a friend or two as weird as he was. He never failed to frustrate whichever foster parents he happened to be living with because he couldn’t remember stuff. Unfortunately, new foster placements meant new schools and a revolving door of sorta friends. High school was the worst. Being teased was preferable to being invisible; at least you were seen. Now, he was in his senior year. He figured he could make it to the finish line, age out of foster care and hit the road to find that place his body wanted to take him.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
Mr. Johns and his class were the only reasons Caleb hadn’t dropped out of school yet. He glanced at his teacher. He had a kind face, not too old, but not too young either. He had nice light, brown hair with a smattering of gray here and there, and his light eyes were kind and compassionate. In contrast to his current foster mother, Margie Doyle, who’s light eyes were soulless and cold.
“You look worried,” his teacher said. “Want to talk?” Mr. Johns leaned against the table.
“You ever get that feeling like you’re supposed to be somewhere else?”
“Where does this feeling think you’re supposed to be?”
Caleb shrugged and sighed. “That’s the point right. Where would I go?”
Mr. Johns stood up and put his hands in the front pockets of his brown canvas overalls. He leaned back slightly, his thinking stance. Caleb loved those overalls so much, he’d decided that someday, after he got to his first stop and his first job at one of the Jasper County farms on the other side of the Brody Woods, those overalls would be his first purchase. “Can’t say I’ve had that feeling. Like today, I feel like I’m supposed to be exactly where I was designed to be. But-” Mr. Johns reached over and brushed one of the leaves on the plant behind Caleb. He pulled a brown one from the healthy stem and returned his attention to Caleb. “I have felt though, sometimes, I’m ready to reach the finish line of my goal before I’ve made it through the race. That what you mean?”
It wasn’t, but Caleb nodded anyway. It was easier than trying to explain. How did you explain to a teacher that his whole life he’d felt like the skin he was wearing didn’t cover his insides properly. Like if he just pinched the skin by his face, it would pull away revealing his skeleton underneath. He had to remind himself at regular intervals when he felt like he might burst from the energy flowing through him, he’d been abandoned and passed from foster home to foster home. Which, he supposed, it wasn’t a wonder he didn’t feel like he matched his life or like he belonged, even if he wanted to with his whole being. Nowhere, nothing, no one ever fit. There were so many question marks about who he was, who were his people, but no answers. Yeah. How did you tell a teacher that?
Mr. Johns filled Caleb’s silence. “Maybe it just means you’re on the right path even if you haven’t made it to that finish line.”
“Yeah. Maybe,” Caleb answered.
“Need help flushing the lines?” Mr. Johns asked nodding toward the plants.
Caleb watched Mr. Johns walk away and stop at the table of Sadie Green who hated the class with loud exuberant vehemence, but hadn’t been able to drop it for another. Her gray eyes locked with Caleb’s and her mouth slid into a sneer. This happened in a span of a second as he turned away to avoid her disdain. Sadie Green’s condescension and usual bitchiness were enough to keep most - except for her popular crew - away.
Caleb swore under his breath at his failure to avoid Sadie’s gaze as he moved through the motions with his plants, even though the plants usually brought him contentment. He couldn’t help feeling like something had to change, or maybe the feeling was prophetic that something was about to change. The thought of spending his eternity in the perpetual state of unrest was tiring. Besides, anything about to happen to him had never been good.
After class, Caleb walked across the asphalt lot toward the entrance of the building. The hallway was teeming with a rush of bodies moving between passing period. He caught sight of Tim with his friends. Though he and Tim were foster brothers, at school they didn’t interact much, but Tim did raise his chin in acknowledgement. Tim was a sophomore, and Dalton, one of his other foster brothers, was a junior. They had their own friends. Caleb had none.
“Yo. Space Caleb.” A voice said halting Caleb’s movement through the hall.
He looked up to see Wyatt Gunnar, his arm draped over Sadie Green’s shoulders standing in the middle of the corridor staring at him. Wyatt shifted his head to flip his longish blond hair out of his face then smirked. Caleb stopped in the middle of the hallway and was jostled by bodies still moving past him. “Yeah?”
Wyatt removed his arm from Sadie leaving her behind as he stepped forward. “How’s it, bro?”
Confused, Caleb backed up a step and looked around. A group of people now formed a circle around them. He looked at Wyatt again, the alpha-male moving his head side to side as though cracking his neck. “Fine,” Caleb answered pretty confident, Wyatt wouldn’t fight on school property. Caleb stood his ground, though the other guy - a star wrestler - wasn’t the most predictable of people. They’d gone to school together since seventh grade but had never been friends.
“So, I heard you were staring at my girl.” Wyatt cracked his knuckles.
Caleb looked past him at Sadie standing with all of her weight on one hip. Her smirk matched her boy-toy’s. He focused his gaze on Wyatt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The thing about being a foster kid and not giving a fuck - or pretending not to at least - is the incredible survival mechanism built in the psyche. He’d spend his life moving, adapting, being whatever he needed to be to make it. He understood most people even if he didn’t always understand himself. Right now, Wyatt needed to put on a show for the girl he wanted to bang and probably hadn’t yet. Caleb knew Wyatt was bigger than him in width, but he had the edge in height and reach. He knew Wyatt was probably a better fighter, at least he was a solid wrestler, but that didn’t mean he could throw down. Dressed as he was in his designer clothes and stark white pretty-boy shoes, flipping his hair out of his face every two seconds, it might be a safe conclusion Wyatt didn’t want to mess up his look. While Caleb didn’t consider himself a fighter, it didn’t mean he hadn’t fought.
“You don’t? Because Sadie says you were staring at her. Giving her a look, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t and I didn’t,” and even as he said it, he knew which way it was going to go. There was no winning this verbal interaction. Wyatt was setting him up.
“You calling Sadie a liar?”
There is was. The trap.
Caleb shrugged and walked into it. “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
Wyatt’s face turned red.
The crowd around them pushed in against them with an “Ooooo.”
Caleb tried to walk around Wyatt who shoved against him with one of his shoulders. Caleb lost balance and caught himself in the crowd. They helped him back up. “What’s up, Gunnar?” Caleb asked his anger mounting. There was a lot Caleb dealt with, a lot that he put up with, but assholes and injustice weren’t two of them. He could seem easy going and usually was, but once his fuse was lit, putting it out was nearly impossible.
“I want you to stop gawking at my girl and find your own.”
“Why would I gawk at her? She’s a bitch.”
And there, in the middle of the hall still on school property, Wyatt Gunnar threw a punch. Caleb side-stepped it, popped him in the temple and watched him fall. It took less than three seconds, and Caleb was walking away back down the hall, pissed off and pretty sure he’d just gotten himself kicked out of school.