Shifting

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I woke to the sun setting behind mountains and peeled my forehead from the car window.

“Where are we?” I asked the man sitting beside me.

“Almost to Silver City,” Mr. Petersen said. He combed his fingers through his graying hair and buttoned the top button of his shirt.

“How long have I been asleep?”

He lifted the cuff of his blue pinstripe shirt and glanced at his watch. “Nearly three hours. Silver City’s in the southern part of the—”

“Yeah. I know where Silver City is.”

He studied me. “You look upset, Maggie Mae.”

I gritted my teeth and glared at him, wishing he’d sat up front with the social worker. “I am. When you said you were trying something new, I had no idea you meant I’d be moved to the opposite end of New Mexico.” I pressed my forehead back on the window and stared at the skyline—mountains, not skyscrapers.

“I’m placing you in the country …,” Mr. Petersen said.

“Yeah. I’m not blind.”

“Where trouble will be harder to find.”

If he knew the real me, he’d know how impossible that was. I closed my eyes.

“How many times have the police picked her up?” the man in the front seat asked. I didn’t know him—he was one of the few social workers I hadn’t met during my twelve and a half years in the foster program.

“More than I can count, Ollie,” Mr. Petersen replied.

“But what’s she doing out on the streets? You don’t think she’s a prost—”

“You think you can handle her case?” Mr. Petersen snapped.

“Just because I’m not from the city doesn’t mean I’m incompetent.”

“We’ll see about that,” Mr. Petersen muttered.

I sat straight up and looked at Mr. Petersen. “Wait a sec. Since I’m so far from Albuquerque, do I still have to meet with you once a week?” I asked.

Mr. Petersen stared at me a long moment. “Mr. Williams will be your new social worker,” he said, nodding to the front seat. Mr. Williams looked at me in the rearview mirror.

“I mean as doctor and patient,” I whispered.

“I will turn your case over to a local therapist if I see the need.”

A smile lit my face, cracking through the frown that had been stuck there all day. Mr. Petersen wasn’t a bad man, just freaking annoying, always wanting me to tell him my secrets. There are things a girl like me can’t tell anyone without sounding insane.

We passed a billboard that said WELCOME TO SILVER CITY. Framing the words were a Navajo symbol—a red sun with a gold center—and a howling coyote. I pressed my nose to the window for a look at my new town.

In the fading evening light, the ground looked parched and red in between scattered sagebrush and crooked ponderosa pines. Wind bent the gnarled bows and whipped a funnel of dust into the orange sunset. I could see no houses, no stores, only the occasional dilapidated barbed-wire fence.

“Where’s the city?” I asked.

Mr. Petersen chuckled. “You’re looking at it. The outskirts, at least.”

We turned off the highway before we reached civilization and drove down a deserted, pothole-filled road framed by weeds and scraggly junipers. Ollie made a sudden sharp left, sending me slamming into the door of the car and Mr. Petersen into my lap.

“Jeez Louise, Ollie!” Mr. Petersen climbed off me and straightened his tan Dockers. “You almost hit a coyote?”

“Sorry. Almost missed the turn,” Ollie explained. “It’s getting dark.”

“Haven’t you heard of a U-turn?” Mr. Petersen asked, annoyed. I knew his annoyed voice. It was the one I was used to hearing.

We bounced over an uneven gravel drive, toward lights glimmering ahead. My new home.

People say never judge a book by its cover. The same goes for families. Never judge a family by its house. I lived in a mansion once, the Simms residence. They were the worst foster parents ever. The last home I lived in, Jenny Sue’s, had been small and run-down, with weeds instead of grass and plywood floors where they’d torn out the ancient carpet. I was happier there than any other place.

Ollie stopped the car in front of a big red house that looked exactly like a barn. Even the front door had big, X-crossed planks. A little farther back I could just make out another building, which looked like an actual barn.

A porch light flashed on, bringing my attention back to the house. The front door opened and a face peered out. I held my breath and studied the woman stepping onto the porch. I opened my door for a better look and cold air swirled into the car.

Her hair was white, her skin was white and laced with wrinkles, and her shirt was white. She wore a pale blue denim skirt and shiny white cowboy boots. A chunky turquoise and silver necklace hung around her neck, and matching earrings dangled from her ears. She looked like the sweet grandma from an old western movie. But then I noticed her hands on her hips, her tapping toe, the frown deepening the creases around her mouth.

“Well, it’s about time you arrived, John!” she said as Mr. Petersen opened his door. “I have Sunday dinner waiting! Did you forget how to use a cell phone? Because you can’t tell me you weren’t raised right.”

I smiled. This fragile old woman was scolding my psychiatrist. I stepped out of the car and around to the open trunk, grabbing my worn, army-green duffle bag.

“Well, where’s the rest of your stuff?” the woman called, looking at me.

“Oh. This is it,” I explained, glad for the darkness. My face was burning.

“I’m Mrs. Carpenter. I could be your worst nightmare if you’re not careful,” the old woman said as I ascended the front steps. I looked at her thin arms and doubted it. Larry Simms had been my worst nightmare, and I knew without a doubt she couldn’t hit half as hard as him. I forced a smile to my dry lips.

“Dinner is getting colder. Come in,” Mrs. Carpenter said, holding her front door wide. I stepped past a porch swing and a potted cactus plant and went inside.

Native American pottery, framed pictures of John Wayne and ancient Indian chiefs, and Navajo weavings covered every wall, every table, every shelf, door, and counter. Giant red-and-gold rugs covered pale wooden floors. There was no television in sight and the phone sitting at a small desk was the old-fashioned kind where you spin each number in a circle to dial out. Next to a massive, ancient-looking clock was a gun case holding two rifles, two handguns, and an unstrung bow. I took a closer look at my new foster mother and thought maybe she would turn out to be my worst nightmare.

“I made something special—corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, jalapeño corn bread, and grilled ribs. Sit, sit!” Mrs. Carpenter urged. I sat at an antique table set for four and watched as she uncovered a feast. My stomach grumbled as I loaded my plate.

“Now, you told me on the phone, John, that she’s been acting out for attention? What exactly does that mean?” Mrs. Carpenter sat across from me and watched as I shoveled a mound of buttery potatoes into my mouth. Her eyes narrowed and the potatoes lost their flavor. “Not every meal is going to be like this,” she warned. “I fixed John’s favorite since he was coming by.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled, lifting my napkin to my mouth.

“Do you want to tell her, Maggie Mae? Or shall I?” Mr. Petersen asked.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Well,” Mr. Petersen began. “Magdalene Mae, or Maggie Mae, has had close to twenty brushes with the law in the past two years.” Mrs. Carpenter gasped. “She looks like an angel, I know,” Mr. Petersen continued. “But for some reason this little angel can’t seem to keep her clothes on. She keeps getting picked up for indecent exposure.” He looked at Mrs. Carpenter, his bushy eyebrows raised.

“She got picked up by the cops for fighting with a prostitute over a jacket,” Ollie blurted. “That’s why her last family stopped fostering her.”

“Where did you hear that, Oliver?” Mr. Petersen snapped.

“That’s the rumor going around the office. It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“What it is is none of your business,” Mr. Petersen said.

My stomach clenched. I set my fork down and studied my hands. Ollie’s words wouldn’t hurt so badly if they weren’t true.

“Is her hair really that color or does she dye it? Her eyebrows look blond,” Mrs. Carpenter said, as if she hadn’t heard Ollie’s outburst.

“Her hair? That was actually my idea—a safety measure,” Mr. Petersen explained. “She stood out at her last school, so I thought that if her hair was black, she’d blend in a little better.”

“Did it work, Maggie Mae?” Mrs. Carpenter asked.

I looked up from my hands. “No, ma’am,” I said quietly, running fingers through my long dyed hair, the ends swishing against the middle of my back. “I still got picked on.”

“So what did you do?”

“I learned to run fast and hit hard.”

She studied me. I waited for shocked outrage. Instead she said, “If you’d like, we can dye it another color. Something that suits your skin better. Red. Or blond, maybe.”

I shrugged, a noncommittal gesture, as Mr. Petersen would have said. All my life I’d had pale blond hair with a hint of red—until now. I liked my hair raven black. It made my amber eyes stand out, like a cat’s eyes.

“So, how many homes have you been in and for how long?” Mrs. Carpenter asked.

“Twelve.”

“You’ll be lucky thirteen,” Mr. Petersen said.

“Thirteen homes? Why so many?” Mrs. Carpenter asked, studying me again, searching for something dark hidden beneath my, as Mr. Petersen put it, angelic face.

“She’s been bounced around since she was five. And while some of those homes were good environments, others weren’t. The state had to move her out of three for physical abuse. Two of the homes began families of their own after they’d had her for a couple of years and decided they didn’t have time for her anymore. She’s been moved seven times in the last two years because of the indecent exposure. For six months she was moved on a monthly basis, until we found a home that was willing to put up with her bad behavior. But after ten months and nine charges of indecent exposure, they’d had enough, too. A couple of weeks ago they called me and asked that she be transferred.

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