Part One: Sixteen Years Previously
Most nine year old boys enjoyed sleeping in on a Saturday morning. Tousled hair, drool dripping out a slack mouth, and an arm draped over a messy bed. Not even the bright sun in their faces would wake them. But Jaden Baker wasn’t a typical nine year old boy. Freak might have been going too far, but odd was accurate. And odd was exactly what he was going for.
Derek and Jenny Kauffman expected him to be just shy of normal, so there was no point in trying to act otherwise. He believed it was best to give the crowd what they wanted, at least until the curtain closed and a signature was on the dotted line.
Today was the fifth day of his New Life, his fresh start, the new beginning everyone deserved. So far everything was fine. Derek and Jenny showed no signs of buyer’s remorse.
It was 7:15 on a Saturday morning, the summer sun streamed through the window. Jaden was not sleeping, and hadn’t been for hours. Instead, he watched the neighbors going about their morning, as he waited for an appropriate time to go downstairs. The people of suburbia were amusing. They mowed their lawns, stepped outside wearing slippers to fetch newspapers (coffee in hands), waved at each other. It was like watching television. Corny.
At 7:22, Jaden decided it was safe to venture out, but only after inspecting his face. His bathroom mirror reflected a boy with gray eyes and shiny black hair, full cheeks, and a somewhat pointy chin. Jaden was average in height, but thinner than most boys his age, despite eating three times the food. He pulled back his lips to check his semi-straight, all permanent, teeth.
He reached for the toothbrush, then stopped himself. Did most boys his age brush their teeth and hair in the morning? Doubtful. Diligent grooming might be interpreted as eccentric. He was already strange, no need to add quirks.
Downstairs he went.
Neither Jenny nor Derek were awake. Except for the humming of the refrigerator and the trickling of the timed coffee machine, the kitchen was quiet. The Kauffmans’ house was a nice one. There were no bars on the windows, which at first unsettled him. No bars to keep him in, no bars to keep them out. Nope, the Kauffmans had white shutters; some were remote controlled.
When Jaden first saw his new house, he wondered if it was a trick. Clean and quaint, with its trimmed lawn and cobblestone walkway leading to oak double doors, everything about it was surreal in a June Cleaver sort of way. Entering it, the feeling didn’t fade. There was plenty of food in the pantry and refrigerator; everything was in order. Peculiar.
Day five of the suburban adventure yielded no results, no proof his suspicion was founded on anything but suspicion. Though the constant presence of order and quiet was unsettling, he couldn’t generate a reason to voice his concern. Somehow, “it’s too clean” was not a valid complaint.
His investigation stretched farther than examining the kitchen cupboards and marveling at folded laundry. The real question was why he was there, amidst the non-chaos. The main question of Who He Was had already been answered—the best result he could’ve hoped for.
Jaden was the Substitute. Being the Substitute was better than the Replacement, and better still than Charity. As the Substitute, he could be himself (within reason) without worrying about reminding Derek or Jenny about the one he replaced. Because he wasn’t Charity, he didn’t have to fret about charitable feelings running dry. With photos of the couple plastered over every wall, it was an easy case to crack. No children.
However, one small mystery remained, and he was not sure how to find the answer. Barren couples didn’t want pre-teens, or in his case a pre-pre-teen. They wanted babies. Fresh little humans who had no memory of the craptastic life they’d had before. Little pink balls of rolls and fat, spitting up bubbles and crying in the night, goo for brains. Crisp, impressionable, and oh so cute. Yet the Kauffmans had picked Jaden, a nine year old with a non-mushy brain, who remembered the life before. The Kauffmans had a four bedroom house with three point five baths (he did not know what the point five meant), in a Northern California neighborhood. Both Jenny and Derek drove expensive cars, and held stable, boring jobs and degrees from big deal colleges.
They should’ve been on the top of all adoption lists.
Jaden listened at the bottom of the steps. He heard no sounds from above, so they were probably sleeping.
He was flattered they trusted him not to steal.
Jaden tiptoed to Jenny’s office and powered on the computer. After a minute, and a heart wrenching moment when the computer announced its powering-on with a loud triumphant musical note, he opened a web browser.
Jenny was some kind of technology consultant and spent many hours on the computer. But he wasn’t interested in her job. It was boring. To not be able to adopt a brand new human and instead settle for a hand-me-down, there had to be something wrong with them. A criminal history, most likely.
Derek was some kind of lawyer, proving Jaden’s theory that something was amiss. If he had legal clout, why not get a baby? Something in his or Jenny’s past had upset the adoption gods.
He could sort of see Jenny being a former drug addict. Perhaps she loved THC and added it to her food, or sold it out of her house. Maybe she had a juvenile record of grand theft auto. A vision of the young Jenny, steering a Dodge Viper, a joint in one hand, came to mind.
He typed “Jenny Kauffman, Napa California” and hit Search.
The first clickable link was a social networking profile. She kept most information between herself and friends, but listed her maiden name: Clanker.
“Clanker?” he mumbled to himself, smiling. If she committed larceny or arson, she’d probably done so as Clanker.
Nothing interesting rose to the surface. Disappointed, he decided Derek had to be the real criminal mastermind. A pimp in his former life?
When he searched for Derek’s name, a few legal websites popped up. Most of the sites contained information about cases he had argued. One website gave Derek’s curriculum vitae. Boring, boring, boring.
Maybe they were normal and crime free, a thought which should have eased his mind, but did not.
Upstairs, people walked. Jaden shut off Jenny’s computer and scrambled into the living room. What was a newly acquired kid supposed to do at 7:45 in the morning? Make himself comfortable? Raid the fridge? Sit on the couch and await their arrival? No, that’s creepy.
He settled for sitting at the counter and looking through a magazine.
Jenny arrived first. She smiled, yawned and went right for the coffee.
“Morning,” she said. “You’re up early.”
Oh. Yes. Saturday morning is for sleeping in. That’s what he should’ve been doing.
“Yeah,” he replied and flipped a page in the magazine.
“You like Pottery Barn?” she asked.
Images of couches and lamps materialized on the pages, and he realized his attempt at camouflage failed.
“Um,” he said, and looked into her smiling face. “I guess. It’s something to do.”
Jenny had unnaturally, probably-purchased-monthly white blonde hair, pink chubby cheeks, and a small nose. Though she had a gym membership (which he discovered after rifling through her purse the previous morning), she was plump in the stomach. Her smile was her best feature, radiating kindness. The beaming grin had a calming affect. When she walked, her slippered feet shuffled on the floor.
“Still not comfortable?” she asked.
He sighed and shrugged. “Not yet.”
“Is the bed too hard?” she asked, squinting.
“No, it’s fine.” Jaden wished he had more to say, as small talk was not his thing. Big talk wasn’t either, and he wasn’t going to comment on the damn weather. The situation hadn’t gotten that bad. He only answered questions, and they didn’t ask too many of those.
Derek came stomping into the kitchen (The Kauffmans were noisy walkers), and yawned. He was a tall, thick man, with large upper arms which stretched his shirts. He rubbed his chest, then his balding head, and accepted a cup of coffee from Jenny. Derek sipped, winced, then set the cup on the counter. “Hot,” he said.
“Astute,” Jaden said, flipping through the magazine.
Jenny’s eyes widened and her eyebrows arched. Derek’s friendly smile bordered on laughter.
“What?” Jaden asked, and they grinned.
“You joke. We didn’t know you were sarcastic,” Derek said. He laughed to himself, then pounded into the living room with coffee in hand.
Jaden spun on his stool. Derek had some sort of fancy electronic device, more than a phone but not yet a computer. He sat on the couch and read something from the e-reader. People read stuff in the mornings with coffee, too. Weird.
“I’m not good at small talk,” Jaden said. Jenny sat across from her husband with a matching e-reader.
Derek set his device on the coffee table, and crossed one ankle over his knee. “Me neither. What do you want to talk about?”
Jenny looked between them and sipped her coffee.
Jaden squirmed in his seat. He wasn’t sure if it was appropriate, but then again, as a foster child, he wasn’t expected to be appropriate. They probably expected him to flip out and carve wiccan symbols in the furniture.
“Have either of you been arrested?” Jaden asked.
Derek made a face. “No,” he said.
“Oh.” Jaden thought for a while. There goes that theory.
“Why do you ask?” said Jenny.
“People don’t ask those kinds of questions for no reason. What’s up, Jaden?” she asked. “You can ask us anything.”
Though she said his name with gentleness, he hesitated to ask. He wasn’t sure if he came with a thirty day warranty, and didn’t want to be returned to his group home. The Kauffmans were nice people—he was pretty sure.
“Some people get arrested. I just wanted to know if you had.” Which was true.
Derek rubbed his mustache between his thumb and fingers.
“How about we play a game?” Derek said.
Jaden fidgeted. “What kind of game?”
“Twenty questions. We ask ten about you, you ask ten about us. We have to answer all the questions you ask, but you can pass.” Jenny smiled at her husband’s idea, and set down her reader.
Not the worst idea in the world, even if it was juvenile. He hopped off the stool and sat on the edge of the couch, with Derek on the other end. Jaden nodded at him.
“Okay,” Derek said contemplating the ceiling, trying to think of a first question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked.
Typical adult question, Jaden thought. Safe. One he rarely pondered. Most of his nine years concerned the present and escaping undesirable situations. Little time was spent thinking about the future, much less what he’d do with it. He liked a few things, like playing basketball, watching television, and reading as many books he could get his hands on. He could not think of a fitting career.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I like basketball,” he offered instead.
Derek smiled. “Me too.” He grinned over at his wife. “Next question goes to you.”
He’d drop the big question later, if he needed. Best to stick with the general questions early on. “Okay,” he started, “why did you become a lawyer?”
Derek smirked. “That’s what you want to know?”
“Yes,” Jaden said. “People hate lawyers.”
“Well, my father was a lawyer, and I like to argue and win. I wanted to help people get what they deserved.”
“Money’s nice?” Jaden said, eying the big screen TV.
Derek nodded. “I won’t complain. That’s two questions.”
Jaden tried to hide his smile. “You are a lawyer.”
“He’s good,” Jenny said.
“Our turn. Jenny, you ask something.”
“If you could be any animal, what would you be?” she asked.
Very psychobabbly, Jaden thought. This question was designed to get into his head. If he said a bird, it meant he wanted to fly away from his problems. If he said a bear, it meant he felt weak and powerless. Every animal was symbolic, there was no getting around it, even if said he wanted to be a jellyfish.
“A fox,” he replied.
As expected: “Oh, they’re very sly and clever. Your turn.”
Jaden stared at his hands, his stomach churning. All he could think of was asking the question. He had to know he wasn’t going back. Despite their silly, little game, Jaden knew they read his history, knew almost everything about him. Knew when, where, and whom he was born to, where he grew up, what landed him into the foster system. It was lopsided.
“Which one of you can’t have a baby?” he asked.
To his surprise, neither of them was surprised. They didn’t even look at each other to communicate telepathically. Jenny stared straight into Jaden’s eyes and answered truthfully.
“I can’t. We can get into details later, after we’ve known each other longer, if you still want to know. Derek and I tried adopting a baby,” she continued, like maybe she did have telepathic powers, “but we got tired of waiting. We wanted our own family and we found you.”
Jaden studied his hands again. His mouth was dry and there was a burning behind his eyes.
“That’s what you really wanted to know?” Derek asked.
“We wanted you, Jaden,” Jenny said. “We want you to be our little boy.”
The words were kind ones; he felt something strange in his stomach. Not butterflies, more like stinging wasps. She meant what she said, but it didn’t feel real, not to him. The situation felt awkward.
Perhaps the conflict was evident on his face, for Derek and Jenny showed concern, as if what they said hadn’t been kind and considerate, but poisonous.
“We don’t want to replace your real parents,” Derek said. “No one can, we know that. We want you to be a part of our family, too.”
“That’s right,” Jenny chimed in. “Part of our family.”
Their answer sounded too sappy to be believed. A canned response. Trying to avert what they thought might be a crisis or unholy temper-tantrum, Derek and Jenny bullshit an answer together. Here he was, relieved he wasn’t replacing a dead child, when they faked apprehension about replacing his parents. They didn’t care. They wanted to replace his mother. Would it be so hard? She wasn’t winning trophies.
Their anxiety about his reaction was more flattering than anything heretofore, even more than their trust that he wouldn’t steal anything and get the hell out of here. They cared enough to lie.
He decided not to argue. Derek and Jenny knew who his mother was; she was easy to best. Despite her glowing accomplishments, the Kauffmans knew Jaden foolishly had a soft spot for her.
Eventual adoption was a big move, which logically meant they did want him, and wasn’t that what mattered? From the looks of things, even if he had a warranty, they weren’t going to use it. Unless he completely screwed up.
Jaden cleared his throat. “It’s your turn to ask a question.”
Right on cue, both of the Kauffmans sighed, tensed muscles relaxed.
“Okay then,” Derek said. “Favorite basketball team?”
“The Kings. Duh.”
Jenny made a face at her husband. “Duh, Derek.”
“Well duh. What am I, an idiot?” Derek said back at her.
“Not very astute,” she replied, winking at Jaden.
“What’s your favorite team?” Jaden asked.
“I actually like the Lakers. I went to school in LA, so…”
“So you root for losers?”
They both laughed.
The game of twenty questions went forgotten. After a hasty breakfast, Derek, Jenny, and Jaden piled in the car (an Infiniti sedan), and drove to the high school for a game of round robin. Ignoring the dry heat was a difficult task. A few hours later, drenched with sweat, and after a great deal of posturing, Derek lost several games. Jaden never missed a shot.
On Monday, day seven of the New Life with the Kauffmans, it was time for Jaden’s mental check up, more commonly known as therapy. Jaden likened therapy to popping the hood of a car, to see what kind of damage, if any, had been done to his delicate and sensitive little brain and psyche.
Jaden didn’t like therapy and insisted he didn’t need to go. But the Kauffmans decided, per his social worker’s advice, that he would continue going anyway. They insisted it was “for his own good.” Supposed benefit excuses many things.
After persistent and intense arguing, Jaden found himself in the back seat of the air conditioned car, headed into town for therapization. He had lost this battle, but that wouldn’t stop him from arguing in the future.
The drive was long. Because Jaden was a small talk amateur, the drive was also silent. To fill the quiet space, the Kauffmans played a CD, and Jaden was sure it was the same crappy music played in snooty buildings. Non-committal piano interspersed with clarinet and saxophone. Yawn.
Jenny smiled assuredly at him when they arrived. Maybe she thought her smile would make the therapy easier. It wouldn’t, but Jaden gave her some credit for trying.
“Maybe it won’t be forever,” she said. “We’re only following Lyle’s advice.”
“Lyle’s a jackass,” Jaden said, staring out the window. He slapped his hand on the unlock button and slowly slid from the car. Derek and Jenny followed him into the overly cool building.
They sat in the waiting room, and the Kauffmans pulled out their e-readers. Jaden slouched in his chair, his nose almost level with his knees, and stared across the room. His eyes glazed over as he allowed the printed wallpaper to blur into a jumble of colors. Oh how he hated it here.
After seven minutes of waiting, the office door opened, and Anita emerged with a decaffeinated smile on her faded red lips. Her hair was curled today; dark brown ringlets with streaks of natural gray brushed the tops of her shoulders. Jaden assumed she was in her early fifties or late forties. Anita reminded Jaden of a peacock, maybe because her face was thin and small. Jaden slid off his chair and stomped into her office.
Anita’s office had yellow walls, shelves stuffed with toys, a red and yellow striped rug on a wood floor, and two chairs in the center of the office. Bean bags were stashed in a corner for the little kids to sit on. He assumed all child therapists must arrange their offices similarly; Originality was not something they prescribed.
Jaden took the arm chair Anita pointed out, and she sat opposite, crossing her legs and smiling again.
“Well,” she said, in a throaty voice, “it’s been one week.”
“So says the calendar,” said Jaden.
“How has it been with the Kauffmans?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Would you like to elaborate? What have you three done?”
Jaden shrugged. “I don’t know. The first few days we didn’t say much, just kinda stared at each other. They’ve never had a foster kid before. They’re new. Then we played basketball on Saturday.”
Anita folded her hands over her lap and nodded again. She was a nodder. “That sounds nice.”
“I asked them why they couldn’t have a baby,” he offered.
“Did they tell you?”
“Sort of. I didn’t want to hurt Jenny by asking too much.”
Jaden’s main goal in therapy was to keep the conversation away from his past. He didn’t mind telling Anita things he had said or done recently, but he avoided talking about the “traumas of his childhood.” Jaden assumed this must have frustrated Anita, as the issues he didn’t want to discuss were the reasons he was forced to attend therapy.
“That was nice of you.”
“I guess. She said she wanted me to be part of her family, or whatever.”
“They’re nice people.” She said it almost like a question.
“I think so.”
“But you’re not sure?” Anita asked, leaning forward.
Jaden leaned farther back into his chair and brought his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. “It’s only been a week,” he said.
She nodded. “Have you been sleeping all night?”
Jaden swallowed, but did not answer.
Anita nodded again. “Why aren’t you sleeping well?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He found a spot on the chair to pick at.
“You’re staying awake at night on purpose?” she said, and when he looked up at her, she continued. “You have shadows under your eyes. The Kauffmans bought you a new bed and you have your own room, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s weird being in a room alone.”
“That’s not why you’re keeping yourself awake.”
She circled him like a shark, coming closer to deeper issues. He’d already thrown too much chum. “Derek likes basketball, too. He’s a Lakers fan, but I think we can make it work.”
“You two have something in common? That’s good. What do you like best about Jenny?”
“She makes great French toast. She puts cinnamon and vanilla in the eggs. That’s what we had this morning for breakfast. They took this week off work, too, like last week.”
“To get to know you better.”
He shrugged, but knew it was the correct answer.
“Why are you afraid of that?” she asked.
His bottom lip seemed to be swelling. “I’m not,” he said.
She cocked an eyebrow. “Jaden, I’m not going to tell them what you say. You can tell me what’s worrying you. It’s between us.”
“I’m a minor, I don’t have the rights of an adult.”
“I’m not going to tell your new parents what you tell me. I promise.”
It stung again. She had stung him on purpose for a reaction, to watch him squirm. He chose not to react to the new parent comment.
“I’m not worried about them.”
“Why are you keeping yourself up at night?”
More like a ninja than a therapist. Anita knew how to corner him and make him talk. After seeing her for three years, he wondered why he hadn’t figured out a way around her tactics. She had him in a tough spot: wounded by the parent comment and scared of her question’s answer. Responding to either would make him surrender private information and eventually lead back There.
“I don’t want to have nightmares,” he said.
“You think they’ll return? Even though you’re in a new and safe place?” “I don’t know.”
Now she leaned back in her chair. “There is one way to make real progress.You have to get it out. We’ve been avoiding the issue for years. Don’t you want to talk about it?”
He clenched his hands around the arms of the chair and bit his lower lip, shaking his head.
“It might help.”
He glowered at her. How was talking supposed to help? Everyone said so, but how could they know? Wasn’t everyone’s life different? How would a discussion about feelings erase memories?
“You’re angry,” she said.
He remained silent.
“The Kauffmans want a child. They don’t need money from the state. I can tell you, after what happened the last time, we made sure this family checked out. It won’t happen again. You’re safe.”
She couldn’t analyze what he didn’t say. He tried thinking of things he and the Kauffmans would do once they got back to the house. It was too hot outside for sports, so he would have to find an indoors activity. The Kauffmans didn’t have books to read, they had all their books on their high-tech electronic things.
Anita kept staring. Her eyes, which bored into him, reminded him of things he didn’t want to discuss, like she was shooting images into his brain, making him remember, forcing him to talk. Chatting about his “issues” wasn’t going to make them go away. They’d happened, he’d lived, he was passed it. The problem was ensuring they didn’t happen again. Anita, with her judging eyebrows and nods, couldn’t do anything to help prevent anything.
“You’re playing the quiet game. We have a while to go yet.”
Jaden crossed his arms. “I don’t think I need therapy.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes it’s so,” Jaden said.
“Why do you believe that?” she asked.
Jaden smirked. “Why do you think I need it?”
“I didn’t say I did.”
Oh. No, she hadn’t said that. Crap, she was a ninja.
“Then I can stop coming, if neither one of us thinks I need therapy?” he said.
“I didn’t say that either,” she said.
“Well say something!”
Anita pursed her lips. “There’s no need to get snappy.”
“I’m fine, and I don’t want to come anymore. There’s nothing wrong with me.” Even as the words were spoken, Jaden’s face flushed. It wasn’t the entire truth. “Wrong” was a word he didn’t like. He was odd. A little different, but not wrong.
“Jaden,” Anita said, a warmness in her usually cold voice, “it’s unusual for boys to keep themselves awake at night so they don’t have nightmares. Which means one of two things: the nightmares are horrifying, or you’re afraid of what happens when they come. Either way, it’s something we need to work on so you can move past it.
“You’re mature, so I’m going to talk to you like an adult. The reason you continue coming here has everything to do with too many changes in your life, and nothing to do with you being insane. No one has ever said you’re insane, and no one will. You’ve been through a lot of stress, and I want to help you get through it. Doesn’t that sound reasonable?”
It did sound reasonable, but he didn’t want to admit it to her.
She continued through his silence. “You’re terrified of losing control. I know that’s important to you.”
In the three years he’d been forced to see her, she had never been so honest. Part of him was curious about the sudden change in her approach, the other part was thankful. He was tired of being treated like a child, sitting here in a room filled with toys. That’s what the State of California thought he was: just another boy in the system. The truth was different. In age, yes, he was a child, but he knew most people would never know as much as he did.
“So…” Jaden started. He thought for a moment. Anita looked expectantly at him. “So what if I told you it was both.”
“Both of what?”
“The nightmares. It’s both.”
If Anita felt triumphant she didn’t show it.
“I’m scared of the nightmares and what I’ll do,” Jaden said slowly, looking up at her from under his brow. Taking a deep breath he said, “Because that’s what happened the last time.”
A small flicker of excitement flashed briefly in her eyes. At long last, he was opening up.
“What are they about?” she asked.
Before the words could form on his lips, Jaden felt sick. Images flashed across his mind, and his stomach clenched. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, trying to think instead of playing basketball with Derek. Remembering how much fun it was to win a game against an adult, of how Jenny clapped when he made a shot from the three point line.
Talking about it wasn’t going to help. He tried. The pain in his gut lessened and he released the breath he was holding. A knocking sound forced his eyes open, and he saw Anita clutching her pen tightly in her hand, her own eyes wide.
She relaxed the moment he noticed her.
“That’s okay,” she said. She smiled at him. “That’s okay. Let’s move on.”
Go to Chapter Two.