Before Group Home there was a city house, all asphalt shingles and brick siding, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence that froze harsh and unforgiving in the winter but burnt slashes through the pavement in the summer. Thatches of thorns and ivy tangled across the lower stonework of the building and burst from crevices in the rock, curling around the rails and columns of the porch as sharply and tightly as razor wire. If you looked down through the window from the apartment above, past the green vines crawling snakelike up the walls, past the rank leaves lying half-rotted in the sills, the points of the fence stood like the spiked helmets of soldiers.
That was how they liked to tell it, anyway. The social workers. Like they took her from some sort of prison.
But Jude never thought so.
Now she lived on a quiet street, a couple of blocks away from the high school with the rest of the ruined kids. The new neighborhood had a lot of houses that all looked the same. Group Home was gray and boxy, with little square windows and a yellow playground set in the backyard. The white fence bordering the property looked like an expensive row of teeth.
One of the boys Jude lived with—Jamal—told her a lot of white people places were supposed to look like that. She had gotten lost a few times, wandering around the small neighborhood, attempting to enter several cookie-cutter houses that resembled Group Home almost exactly.
That’s what her father called them, anyway, cookie-cutter houses, although Jude supposed he mostly said it to give himself a false sense of security when driving past the more expensive neighborhoods in order to ease his way downtown—where the poor people lived. He’d frequently scoff at advertisements and magazine snippets, slapping the paper with his beefy hand, tossing it in the trash, on the floor, out the window.
“Who the hell wants a house that looks like it’s fresh off the conveyor belt?” he’d rant, pausing to glower at nothing, not even Jude, like a madman, magazine pages scattered at his feet. Maybe she would be sitting at the kitchen table, trying to do homework, or tracing designs on the counter with the coffee grounds that had been spilled there the morning prior.
Jude’s father would look at her, suddenly, and blink. “Probably your mother. That’s who.”
Jude wouldn’t really listen.
She didn’t know if what her father had to say had any basis in truth. She did miss her city house, though, where all the buildings were lined up by number, and she could run her fingers along their sides and count them as she walked home from school. 24…26…28…the ridges of the bricks passing beneath her fingers like library books, simple, organized, predictable; surprising, often, if you looked inside.
Here, she had been chased by a pomeranian. Another time an old lady had called the police when Jude had walked into her living room.
“It’s kind of like white law, you know?” Jamal had said to her some time ago, when a few of the kids had been outside disassembling the Christmas lights for Group Activity and the others had been galloping around the backyard, hurling hunks of snow at each other. Jude knew some of the snowballs contained rocks, so she sat on the porch, attempting to explain to Jamal why she always got so lost and, additionally, so in trouble when she ventured outside the backyard.
Jamal was only half-listening to her as she spoke, opening his mouth before she even finished her sentence. “It’s on a contract, you know, like when you move to a new house you have to sign all that paperwork and shit.” He had been puffing, attempting to untangle a spectacularly complicated knot of lights. His glasses were all fogged up from the cold and the effort, his hands dry and shaking. “And on the white people’s paperwork there’s … there’s this part saying you have to mow your lawn, and you have to have a white picket fence, and—” he looked her up and down, once, quickly, and nodded. “—you know. All that white people stuff.”
Jude was white. She came from a neighboring city where the crime rate was more relevant than the population, fell asleep to the smell of marijuana and the sound of thunderous rap music shaking her windows. Jamal—who turned out to have lived only a couple of blocks away from where she had, who had been at Group Home for three weeks prior to when she had arrived, whose mother was a crazy lady who had to be institutionalized, who lapped up his soup like a dog at the dinner table, who blurted out everything that everyone else was thinking but never said out loud—disoriented her.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” she said.
Jamal shrugged and turned his attention back to the knotted Christmas lights, fogging up his glasses further, swearing underneath his breath.
Jude couldn’t quite remember how long she’d been there, at Group Home. She didn’t care if she was being honest with herself. It was long enough for her hacked-off hair to grow from her ears to her chin just so she could cut it off again—shorter and uglier than before—in front of the bathroom mirror in that week before Christmas, leaving the dark tendrils squiggled across the porcelain like worms, clogging the sink. It was long enough for her to stop growing hysterical whenever she was told she’d be at Group Home for another week, or another month, as the other kids would come and go like clockwork in tow of distant relatives and cousins and foster parents. It was long enough for her to gain weight in awkward places and for her clothes to bunch up around her stomach and chest and thighs, long enough for the mark on her face to scab and fall off and scar. She watched the days move by and waited to be moved somewhere else by the system, because foster families typically opened up after the holidays, and Jude was well-behaved and quiet and generally low-maintenance. She assumed—to the shadow-eyed couples that Jude had grown accustomed to seeing—that the process would be somewhat like adopting an old and depleted-looking cat.
Then again, Jude had lived with three foster families before she came to Group Home, all of which came and went in the span of six weeks. Jude knew that they seemed to care a great deal about her in the moment—in the sense that they gave her food and water and a bed and air-conditioning—so she didn’t complain about the fact that her visits were so short-lived. She often felt like a guest there, anyway. A temporary thing. She remembered each family in snapshots.
The first were the Harrisons—Rebecca and Sam—whose house was four blocks safely away from Jude’s city house; a little yellow duplex with solar panels and a magnolia-painted mailbox, a cylindrical bird feeder hanging from the droopy tree in their front yard. Rebecca Harrison had a lifeless smile and scraggly hair, and she wrung her hands a lot. Her husband, Sam, was a fitness coach. Jude would steal his protein oatmeal cookies from the top shelf of the pantry and hide them in her pants’ pockets, eating them later upstairs when he went on his morning jog.
They had a spare room with blue walls that Jude slept in. A vacant crib was pushed to one corner. Jude had asked about it, once, and she remembered that Rebecca had looked like an earthquake tremor had just gone through her. She had then excused herself to her car, where she cried violently for half an hour.
Sam had taken Jude out to lunch. She overheard him call the social worker in the bathroom of Wendy’s.
The second family that Jude had stayed with lived in a stone bungalow with cream-colored columns and a welcome mat that quoted the Bible. The couple was in their seventies and took ten minutes to open the door, and upon her first fifteen minutes there, Jude overheard them tell the social worker that they had made a mistake. They had previously met a seven-year-old named June—and had misheard the name over the phone when they agreed that Jude could stay with them for a couple of weeks.
Jude was there for three hours, looking into the tight, strained faces of the wrinkled couple with gold crosses around their necks, before she excused herself to go to the bathroom. She locked herself inside for twenty-six minutes until they called 911, convinced she had drowned herself in the bathtub.
Jude didn’t even remember their names.
The third family was her longest. They lived in a little apartment building that looked a lot like her city house, except birds nested in the eaves and the gutters weren’t clogged with old leaves and rainwater. Mabel and Christine ordered Chinese takeout every night and let Jude watch whatever she wanted on the television. Mabel had very frizzy hair and Christine wore a lot of scarves. They smiled a lot and called Jude beautiful, sometimes.
Jude didn’t mind this. Their apartment smelled like apricots, and they played Parcheesi every evening after dinner. They high-fived her goodnight.
One of them—Jude couldn’t remember which—had told Jude that she could call her Mom, once, but Jude had winced and gone to bed, where she’d lay awake for several hours, her mind racing.
Coincidentally, Mabel and Christine had gotten into a fight that same night. Jude still wasn’t sure if it was about her. She had covered her ears with her bedsheets and screwed her eyes shut until fireworks burst beneath her eyelids. The next morning, Christine wasn’t there. Mabel was racoon-eyed with old makeup.
Jude was taken to Group Home shortly afterwards. Where she stayed.
Outside, the trees changed colors and lost their leaves. Jack-o’-lanterns flickered on porches, dimmed, rotted, and were tossed away—replaced by strings of glittering bulbs that shone like city lights. Empty winter clouds stood punctured on utility poles. It refused to snow, but the January air tore at her throat.
Kate, one of the social workers, expected Jude to start school after winter break ended.
“You’ll walk over,” she had explained gently earlier in the week in her office, and Jude had stared, hard, at the ceiling. “With Jamal and Caleb? You three will be going to the middle school. And Sophie and Imani will be going to the high school. They’ll walk with you to make sure you get there, okay? Linus and Quinn will take the bus.”
Jude sat on the blue sofa and toed the carpet. There were oily stains on the fabric of the couch cushions.
“Jude? We’ve allowed you to put off school since the summer. You can’t just keep seeing a tutor.”
Linus, one of the younger kids, always cried during therapy. He didn’t use the tissues and wiped his snotty face on the upholstery and left greasy dark smudges behind, like a slug. Jude heard that Linus’s parents had died somehow, in an unexpected and tragic accident, but she couldn’t be certain. Linus cried more than he spoke.
“Are you nervous about starting at a new school?”
She didn’t answer.
Then: “What are you thinking, Jude?”
Jude’s hands itched. She moved them from her lap to her pockets.
“Do you miss your dad?”
Nothing. Maybe she’d shrug.
Sometimes Kate would let her go.
Jude didn’t want to start school. School meant sitting alone with her lunch in the bathroom, using toilet paper as a napkin and freezing when the other girls came and went through the doors so her potato chip bag wouldn’t crinkle and give her position away. School meant struggling with her locker and duct-taping the toes of her shoes when they couldn’t withhold the stairs, smoothing her hair flat in the morning and hoping the boys in the hallway wouldn’t call her a dyke and laugh at her too-small clothes. School meant reading her ratty library books under her desk in algebra and getting in trouble for it, school meant getting pummeled in gym class by basketballs she couldn’t quite manage to catch. Jude hated it, and she had done it all before, but the thing was—she probably could do it all again. School meant normal, awful, fucking, misery, but she was used to it.
But school also meant staying. And if Jude stayed, she knew Group Home would be a lot more than temporary. Would she have to finish the year, all the way through until summer? Or just a couple of classes?
Jude knew she wasn’t supposed to miss her old home, her old school. Her dad. It was a bad place. He did drugs. He hit her. The night she had been taken away, he had thrown a knife across the room, and it had sliced her, straight across the cheek. She had called the police, she had been put into the foster system, her real family was small and scattered and sketchy, her mother absent. So, she went to Group Home until they could get her situation sorted out, because—as one lady in a business suit and very high heels described it—it was dicey.
Jude had desensitized herself to these facts because she had to recount them so often—to social workers, to therapists, to the other kids at Group Home. What happened to you? they’d ask, JamalandSophieandCalebandImani, a single, wretched entity, their gaunt faces shining open and curious above the glow of a flashlight after Lights Out, greedy for something to relate to. They would each eagerly chime in with a series of morbid bedtime tales that left Jude wide-eyed and sickeningly fascinated after she had recounted hers, an ongoing series of tragedies and broken homes and regrets smashed into something that resembled a story.
—my mom is insane she tried to put her cellphone in the blender and then almost sliced her arm open with an electric can opener—
—oh yeah, well my uncle broke three of my cousin’s ribs, and he screamed so loud the lady from three houses down heard it and—
—what about Linus, I heard his parents were in a car accident and his grandparents didn’t want him ‘cause he’s got so many problems—
—what the fuck happened to that one thirteen-year-old who was living with her boyfriend like twelve years older than her that was so messed up I swear—
And around and around they’d go, bouncing off each other’s traumas like dented ping-pong balls, Jude remaining quiet and captivated throughout all of it.
Deep down, she knew she didn’t belong in this world of loss and childhood sorrow. She hadn’t seen anyone die, like Linus, hadn’t been repeatedly raped like one of the older girls, Imani, hadn’t witnessed the mental deterioration of a parent, like Jamal. Her dad got drunk, occasionally. He jammed needles into his arms and snuffed white powder off the surface of pool tables while he was hanging out with his friends, stank up the kitchen with hazy greenish smoke and left pills in empty coffee canisters like spare change. He got angry when he ran out of whatever he was using or sometimes when Jude bothered him while he was with his friends, but he also got funny, too, like the time when he had downed seven beers in a row and had entertained Jude by prancing around, shirtless, in her plastic princess crown, squeezing himself into one of her pink tutus with an elastic waistband and pretending to be her fairy godmother. Or when he smoked in the house—and it had smelled bad, yes—but that also meant that sometimes he would order a whole 24-cut pepperoni pizza and attempt to eat the whole thing, and Jude would almost always get the leftovers. He would call her Jude the Dude and make them both all giggly, and they would fall asleep on the couch in front of a movie, and Jude wouldn’t go to bed hungry, and she’d feel lightheaded and probably the closest thing she had ever felt to happy while breathing in her father’s skunky pizza breath on her cheek, cradled in the crook of his arm like a baby.
It wasn’t all that bad. That night had been an accident.
The other kids didn’t know this, though. She was perpetually the girl who got knifed by her father, the one who had called the cops, the one who got him thrown in jail. Hero Girl—the one who stuck up for herself instead of waiting for the neighbors to call CPS, the one who took action against the Bad Grown-Up instead of cowering in her bedroom on top of the shelf in her closet (Caleb) or running away to her best friend’s house (Sophie). Jude was brave. She enjoyed this status, in a way, liked the attention—she even suspected Jamal had a crush on her for it, sometimes—but she knew she didn’t really deserve it.
The truth was her father had been drunk that night. Shit-faced, as his friends would say. He smelled bad and talked obnoxiously and wobbled on his feet like an overgrown toddler. She’d wanted to go to her friend’s house, she remembered, and had asked—but her father had said no, and she had gotten mad and called him an asshole, the word completely foreign in her mouth, the teenage tang of it coating her tongue. She watched the surprise register on her father’s face and switch just as quickly to anger as one of those cheap face-changing figurines she used to play with when she was younger, as if there was a button on top of his head that she had slammed down, and it had gotten jammed. He had roared, literally, roared, opened his mouth and let out a deep, animalistic bellow, and had started grabbing items from off the kitchen counter—a plastic spoon, a package of Pop-Tarts, a box of Jell-O—and hurling them across the room at her with the force of a wooden catapult.
It must’ve looked stupid.
In order to distance herself from situations like this, Jude would sometimes imagine herself as a separate person, floating above the drama, peering inside the windows of her house. She thought the sight of her skinny little body and angry red face probably looked almost funny as she dove away from expired loaves of bread and empty soda cans, her father growing ever more enraged with each successful dodge like Donkey Kong trying to bowl over Mario. The thought of her father’s round, explosive head sitting atop an ape’s body—herself as a little mustached Italian man—was enough to make her snort.
And then her father reached for the knife. And any half-hearted comedy that she was able to pull from the scene grew cold.
Jude was sucked back into her body, and her face was warm and wet and sticky, and her t-shirt wasn’t white anymore, and she had blindly reached for the phone with her red hands and her father was saying ohmygodJudyI’msososorryherecomehere, and she had screamed and pulled away and the lady on the phone had said 911, what’s your emergency? and Jude had screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed, and her father had held her and he cried.
And then there were a lot of flashing lights and a lot of questions. And she was surrounded by a lot of adults, but none of them familiar.
And Jude missed her dad.
She didn’t fully realize this until the day at Group Home before school was supposed to start. Jude had been walking around all day with this weighty feeling of impending doom in her chest, picking fights and getting sent to her room every two hours over petty crimes. Earlier that day, she had snapped at Jamal and shoved him down the stairs when he had jokingly called her Jack Skellington, made Linus cry by refusing to get his toy from the shelf when he didn’t use his words, told Sophie her hair looked like a decaying rooster’s when she attempted to dye it red with Kool-Aid powder in the kitchen sink. Kate had called her to her office after her third offense, and seething, Jude had stomped down the stairs and went.
And Kate had been sitting in her chair with the tips of her fingers touched together, staring at the floor when Jude walked in.
Kate looked at her. Jude looked at the floor.
“Jude, your mother reached out.” she said. Dully, though. “Just now.”
Jude didn’t respond. But she felt the spaces between each of her breaths stabbing her ribs. She knew when Kate was delivering Good Group News, and this was not it, she could tell by the way she would not look at her, the way her voice was stiff.
“Do you want to go live with your mother?”
Nothing. Jude didn’t answer.
All Jude remembered about her mother was that she smelled like cat pee and dysfunction and called her Judith after her dead grandmother that Jude hated anyway. And she had left when Jude was five, and Jude’s father had dissolved into himself—a chemical reaction smelling of burnt-sugar and alcohol.
Jude scuffed the carpet. She looked at Linus’s snot-stains on the couch. Her head was aching, she tugged at her clothes, she looked at Kate. Why was her mother calling now?
Jude opened her mouth.
“I miss my dad,” she said.
And burst into tears.