His name was Dean. He had blue hair.
I will never forget how he looked the first time I saw him. He wore a blue track jacket with a white zipper up the front and it was clear that his shaggy hair once matched that exact shade of blue before it faded. His jeans and shoes were worn and discolored, giving him a general unkempt look. He was flanked by two police officers and his hands were cuffed behind him, but he didn't seem at all worried about his situation. On the contrary, he looked mildly amused as he walked into the front hall. They steered him left into the office for the ritual check-in-strip-down. I couldn't see him in there but I knew what they were doing. You couldn't come into Hope House without being patted down and searched. They'd make him take off his shoes and sweatshirt and they would feel down his pockets and sleeves with their rough hands. If he had had long hair, like me, they would have sifted their fingers through that too. The cops didn't want any illegal substances or sharp objects brought into the group home under their watch.
I remained curled-up with a book on the ratty old couch in the quiet commons, the dirty fish tank bubbling softly behind me. The large, ugly fish had seen this all before and floated, unconcerned amongst the plastic seaweed. But I sensed a rather odd connection with the new boy although I couldn't explain why. Maybe it was his skinny limbs and sunken, sun-browned face that communicated more than I realized at the time. Clearly the administration thought he was trouble, not everyone gets a police escort to the group home, but I knew instantly that he was more troubled than trouble. I looked down and went back to reading, the florescent light flickering slightly above my head. I preferred the world of books to playing video games or watching television with the other teenage societal rejects. I didn't know how to interact with other people my age very well. I can't remember what tattered, donated novel I was amusing myself with that day, but it was probably something Oprah approved. They seemed friendly somehow, as if they promised to save your life if you just knew how to take home their messages and own them correctly. The problem was, Hope House was our home and we weren't allowed to take or own much of anything.
Eventually the police let the blue-haired boy out of the office, his hands freed. There were only two other rooms on the first floor, both common areas. The adults walked him past the couch I was sitting on and led him into the adjoining commons, the noisy one. Everyone hung out in the noisy common room. Everyone except for me, that is. It was immediately clear that the new boy had never been to Hope House before. Many of the "new people" who arrived were, in truth, repeat offenders. They'd come back after being convicted of some new crime and were unable to be trusted at large. Others returned after being rejected from some foster home where no one wanted them around. I liked to think of these repeats as the "regulars". They were friendly with the staff, who they knew affectionately as "staffers", and had mischievous grins.
"Back again?" a volunteer staffer would ask from their perch guarding the doorway between the two common rooms, newspaper or romance novel in hand.
"I missed you too much" or "What can I say? I'm a menace", the regular would reply on cue.
I watched, half hidden by the back of the couch, as they led the blue boy into the other room and sat him down on another threadbare sofa in front of one of the three televisions. I could spy on him from where I was sitting, having a clear view into the noisy commons through the doorway. I did a silent, mental countdown and waited for the other teenage menaces to notice the new inmate.
10. He sits and discreetly checks out the room.
9. He scratches his blue scalp nervously.
8. A girl notices him from the far end of the commons and proceeds to smack her friend in the arm to get her attention.
7. All the girls are on high alert.
6. They point him out and giggle amongst themselves.
5. They begin to climb over each other, playfully pushing their comrades as they get up and over the pile of out-dated gossip magazines.
4. The guys, including my two brothers, don't look up from their video games, oblivious to the activity in the room.
3. Several pairs of legs in tight pants dash across the commons, shirts are pulled down low and breasts pushed up high.
2. They gather around the sofa like a pack of hungry tigresses.
1. He appears suddenly alarmed, yet clearly amused by the female attention.
0. The girls all begin talking at once. "What's your name?", "I'm Samantha", "I love your hair", "What did you do to get in here?", "Did you manage to sneak anything in?", etc...
They flittered about like little, droll bugs wishing they were butterflies, vying for his attention and appreciation. I settled back into my spot, certain the new plaything would keep the ladies entertained for the next few minutes until one of the staffers came downstairs looking for volunteers to help make dinner. Good. That meant no one would object if I helped in the kitchen again. I longed for the tranquil kitchen away from all the noisy, attention-hungry, entertainment-starved teens in my cohort. I knew I was an antisocial snob. I didn't care.
Upstairs in the stainless steel kitchen it was pizza for dinner again. I hated pizza day. I missed real pizza. "Real" as in the delicious, greasy, cheesy slice of heaven from the world outside not the uniform, cardboard slabs with hardly-there sprinkles of cheese-product that we ate at Hope House. It only took half a day to learn that ranch dressing was my best friend in group-home life. Really, I only liked chicken nugget day and the rare but ever-delightful lasagna day.
Clumsily, I carried the industrial sized can of preserved peaches to the prep table. The giant can dwarfed me in a way I knew looked ridiculous since I was hardly over five feet tall. It thunked when I set it down. I had already set out everyone's trays and put a scoop of soggy green beans into one of the divots on each. I grabbed a ladle and began to spoon the peach halves and syrup into another divot.
One, two. One, two. Every tray received two. Plop, plop. Plop, plop.
The peaches slid out of the ladle and onto the trays in a weird, slimy yet solid way. I scrunched my nose. I actually liked canned peaches, but they didn't look like they came from nature. Their uniform shape suggested they were made by humans with peach-inspired molds. Who knew what fruit-inspired magic scientists could conduct these days? I shrugged to myself. I may complain, but I'd eat almost anything. That was the attitude you acquired when you'd been homeless.
For the better part of a year my two brothers and I had lived on nothing more than ramen noodles and however many fish and crabs that we could catch out of the Chesapeake Bay. At the time we had been living out of our mini-van and a tent with my mother and her friend Tita who was, for all intents and purposes, our second mother. Tita told us that our real mother had granted her the right to raise us as she saw fit. In my mind that made her a second parent or, at least, a second authority figure that we had to obey.
We would walk down to the fishing piers several times a week and throw hooks or collapsible wire baskets out into the waves. We'd tie chicken bones with bits of fat and skin still attached as bait with a silent wish to catch something more than a beach swimmer's water shoe. I liked crabbing. There was something satisfying about pulling your basket out of the ocean and seeing it brimming with blue crabs. They made quiet bubbling noises in their confusion and discontent as they waved their limbs around. I loved to pick them up, pinching their backsides to paralyze them before poking their helpless little claws. I'd never been pinched, not by one, though a runaway crab did steal my flip-flop and jump off the pier one day. My mother was furious that I had been so irresponsible, but I didn't understand the point of wearing shoes during the summer. The real problem was that we didn't have money to buy another pair.
After emptying the peach can, I rinsed out the container and put it in the recycling bin with a bang. I then turned to the kitchen aid to ask what else she wanted me to do.
"How do you feel about salad?" she asked. I shrugged.
"It's in the fridge, you know what to do." She turned back to the large, sizzling pan of cardboard pizza and I opened the giant refrigerator. It was huge, like a metal casket for an abnormally tall, fat man. It had to be with the number of teenagers it needed to feed. There were only supposed to be twelve inmates at Hope House at any given time, but we had been under-funded and overbooked for as long as I'd been there. I think there were twenty of us at the time, but I usually didn't keep count. I tried to when I first got there, but people came and left so often that there really wasn't any point.
I ripped open the family-sized, plastic bag of pre-made salad, spilling some carrot and purple cabbage strips onto the floor. Scissors would have made it easier to open but we weren't allowed to have those, or knives for that matter. I placed a handful of the withered lettuce and skinny strips of veg onto each tray as the kitchen aid slid a soggy pizza slice onto each one behind me. I could hear the stampede of feet coming up the stairs towards the cafeteria. Dinner time.