Smoking is gross. Why must people do it? The icky smell of cigarettes is so strong inside this car, I could choke on it. Even with the window cracked the stinky fog fills my lungs. There’s ashes on the back seat and on the floor mats. McDonald’s wrappers keep the grossness company. Bleck. What did I do to deserve this? Why didn’t the Michel’s want me? My caseworker is worse than the family I lived with the last six months. I hate when she comes to visit. I hate it even more when she takes me away. She always stinks, and her clothes are ugly. I don’t think she likes me much, either. Nobody does. Piled on the dirty bench seat beside me is a black trash bag that holds all of my stuff. I wrap my arm around it, to protect whatever’s left inside. It’s not much. It never is. That’s what you get when you’re a bad girl like me. Nothing. Your mama don’t want you. Your daddy don’t know you exist. And the state doesn’t know what to do with you, so they ship you to different houses all over the county. One of these times, somebody's gonna love me enough to keep me for good. They’ll cook me hot meals and smile at me. They’ll buy me new toys for my birthday. I’ll even get a cake. And if I’m lucky, I might get my own bedroom. How exciting would that be? A room of my very own! One I don’t have to share with other girls, and once with a boy. But that’s okay if I don’t. I don’t need much. A bed with clean sheets and I’ll be so happy. Two houses ago, I didn’t have any sheets. Only a stained comforter that the dogs used to sleep on. I didn’t like that house much. There were too many kids. We ate hot dogs five nights a week. The other two was peanut butter sandwiches. I hate peanut butter without jelly. Foster care is nothing like those happy movies you see on TV. They make me sad, so I stopped watching them. I’ve never petted a golden retriever doggy before. Not like on those shows. Any dogs at my foster homes had fleas. One had heartworms. Whatever that is, I dunno. Worms sleeping in a dog’s heart sounds horrible. I touched that dog once. It gave me nightmares for a week ‘cause I was afraid I’d get the worms, too. That they’d wanna live in my heart since I smell better than the dog. I don’t want worms in my heart. Itchy lice in my hair is bad enough. Picking at the glue stain on my too-small jeans, I quietly hum along to the song on the radio. It’s a rock-n-roll one. I like it. “Almost there, Juliette. You’re going to love The Fink’s,” my caseworker says from the front seat, smoking her eighth cigarette since we got in the car. I counted. I like math. It’s fun and makes sense. Starting a new school midway through the year isn’t fun, not like math. But, maybe they’ll have a hot shower at The Fink’s, so I can be clean. The Michel’s only let us shower twice a week. Today would’ve been my day, if my caseworker hadn’t taken me away. Maybe if I had deodorant to put on, I wouldn’t smell so bad. I told Mrs. Michel that and she still wouldn’t buy me any. It’s not my fault I sweat a lot. If this school is nice, maybe I can ask my new nurse for some. I’ll hide it in my desk so nobody at my foster home can steal it. I could put it on in the bathroom before school. If I don’t stink, maybe I’ll make friends here. Maybe even a best friend! Oh, gosh. That sounds amazing. I’ve never had one of those before. “Juliette?” “Y-yes, ma’am?” I mutter, looking up. Our eyes meet in the rearview mirror. “Let’s try to keep you in this house more than six months this time, alright?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Keep up your grades.” I always do. “I will,” I reply. “Don’t back talk.” I never do that. “I won’t.” My case worker hacks a nasty cough, then clears her throat. “Good girl.” In what feels like ten years later, we pull up in front of a white, single-story house in a pretty neighborhood. My stomach flips at the sight. I grip my trash bag, pulling it onto my lap. They have flowers out front! They own a car, not a van! No van means less kids, I hope. “Welcome to your new home,” comes from the front seat. Maybe they’ll like me enough this time to keep me. I promise I’ll be on my best behavior. I don’t want to move again.
CHAPTER TWO AGE NINE
Standing outside the glass-doored dojo, I wave to Mrs. Fink, my foster mom, as she pulls out of the parking lot. I’ve lived with her, Mr. Fink, their dog, son, and a revolving door of other foster kids like myself, for almost a year now. It’s better than any place I’ve lived before. I have clean sheets, and Mrs. Fink cooks okay meals that come from a box. Mr. Fink spends his time yelling at sports on the TV and drinking beer. Their son Carl is a teenager. They fight a lot. I try to stay out of their way, so I spend a lot of time in my room. We got a new girl this week, I have to share a bunk bed with her. She’s fifteen and has more attitude than Carl does. That’s saying something. After she kicked me out of my bed, to steal top bunk, I asked Mrs. Fink if I could take karate. I want to learn to fight. The black eye Ashley gave me embarrasses me when I go to school. The kids point and laugh. I don’t like that. Carrying my pink hand-me-down backpack into the building, I pause inside the door to watch eight kids work with their teacher. Mrs. Fink said the owner’s name is Sensei Lieng. He’s short, skinny, and Asian, if he’s the same man at the front of the class, guiding the students through different poses. Sensei Lieng flows through various movements before he notices me dawdling inside the door. Did Mrs. Fink get the right time? She said they had a free class twice a week for underprivileged kids. I’m one of those, that’s why she signed me up. I’m glad Ashley and Carl didn’t want to join in, too. That would be terrible. Noticing that everyone's barefoot, I kick off my scuffed sneakers and pull my stained socks off. I stuff them in the top of my shoes, so nobody can see how gross they look. “You must be Juliette,” Sensei Lieng calls out, drawing everyone’s attention to me. I shrink back, shoulders deflating, hating the stares from all the boys. There’s not a girl in the bunch. Sensei waves me forth with a genuine smile. His bottom two teeth are crooked. “Come and join us.” Nervously flexing my toes, I glance down at my outfit. I’m not dressed for this. Everyone’s wearing white karate uniforms. I’m in sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt. I can’t learn in this, I’ll stick out. I don’t want to stick out. I want to blend in. Girls aren’t supposed to like karate anyhow. But I don’t want Ashley to give me another black eye. This was a bad idea. Before I can mad dash to the door, Sensei instructs the boys to carry on and joins me. He lays his hand on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Do not be afraid.” I stare at the floor, twiddling my thumbs together, trying to be brave. My backpack falls down my arm. I catch a strap before it hits the ground and makes a loud sound. “I’m the only girl,” I whisper, too scared to look up. “Girls can be fierce warriors. You can be one too, with my help. Join us. Soon, we will find you a gi that fits.” “W-what’s a gi?” “That is what warriors wear. What you will wear, every time you come to my class. Now come, little rosebud.” Pushing all doubts aside, I shuffle behind Sensei to the mats. What do I have to lose? I don’t want another black eye. Ashley won’t mess with me now. I’m gonna be a warrior.
CHAPTER Three Age Twelve
“Rose, can you please show our new student around?” Sensei asks, pointing to the cute boy standing beside him who has brown hair, matching eyes and a mischievous smile. He’s older than me. A teenager. I bow out of habit. “Yes, Sensei.” “Very good,” he replies, leaving me and this boy alone as I wipe the sweat from my forearms with a white hand towel. The boy stuffs his hands in his front jean pockets and rocks back on his heels. He glances around the place, noticing he doesn’t fit in. None of us do when we first join. I sure didn’t. That was many moons ago, before my obsession with martial arts began. Before I fell in love with Bruce Lee. What a hunk! “Is your name really Rose?” the boy asks like he’s making fun of me. The jerk. I tip my head to the side trying to read him. I’ve gotten good at that—reading people. They have many tells. “Why?” His nose crinkles. “It’s old.” I shrug, not seeing his point. “So?” “My mom’s aunt’s name is Rose.” “You have a mom and an aunt?” Lucky. His cute face scrunches from jaw to forehead. “Wait. What? You don’t?” “No, and my name isn’t Rose, either. Sensei nicknamed me Rosebud my first day here.” I drape my towel over my shoulder to use later, when I have time to work with the wooden man again. “When was that?” he pries. “When was what?” “Your first day here.” “Many moons ago.” A.k.a. none of your beeswax. “That’s cryptic. Has anyone told you you’re strange?” All the time. Duh. I brush a strand of blonde hair out of my face. “Yes. Has anyone told you not to make fun of a girl who can beat you up?” I counter. “Who said you can beat me up?” He arches a cocky brow. I know that look. I see it a lot. New kids always try it on me, the smaller girl, when they move into my foster home.They think being a bully is the only way to get what they want. Those numbskulls don’t know a thing. “Ask me why Sensei no longer calls me Rosebud.” Can you tell I’ve rehearsed this? I have. This happens more than you think. “Um. Okay, weird girl. Why doesn’t he call you that anymore?” It’s like taking candy from a baby. “Because I graduated to Rose when I bloomed.” Another distasteful look is offered. “Well, that’s not strange or anything.” “Wanna know how I bloomed?” He probably thinks I’m nine. Everybody does. The puberty fairy skipped me. For being twelve, almost thirteen, my boobs are bee stings compared to the girls I go to school with. I’m short, too. My doctor said I’m small framed. That I shouldn’t expect much. As if I don’t already feel like a freak, add flat chested and vertically challenged to the list. The boy shrugs. “Sure, why not.” “When I earned my black belt in karate six months ago. Now be nice to me, or I’ll embarrass you in front of the other new guys,” I threaten. If it weren’t offensive, I’d laugh in his smug face. He snorts as if what I said is hilarious. “You’re not a black belt.” “Do you want to find out?” Jerkhead holds up his hands in surrender, face paling. “What? No.” “Good. I’m Juliette, by the way, and you are?” “Johnathan, my friends call me John or Johnny.” “Johnathan it is then. Come with me.” I wave for him to follow as I turn around, headed for the boy’s locker room. Since I’m the only girl, I use the women’s bathroom. Sensei put a single locker in there just for me. I store all kinds of stuff there. It’s safer than at the Fink’s, where people steal. Plus, I’m at the dojo every day after school until eight p.m., when Sensei drives me back to the Fink’s. On the weekends, he picks me up at seven a.m., and I’m here ‘til he leaves. I like it this way. The dojo is my home, Sensei’s the only father figure I’ve ever had. I love it here. There’s a TV in his office where I can watch Bruce anytime I want. “W-where are you taking me?” Johnathan calls to my retreating back. Dumb boys. “On a tour, silly. Don’t worry, I won’t beat you up unless I have to.”