Have you ever walked in a busy mall and suddenly a kid is walking beside you chitchatting or holding your hand? Some kids do it on purpose. They’re hoping you’ll take them home.
Meg started looking for a new mother when it all became clear that her boringness as a teenager was her boring family’s fault. She started comparing her family to other families when three months ago, her best friend’s mom broke up with her girlfriend, blew a gasket and moved away without her daughter, Taylor. Taylor moved in with their French teacher Mr. Lalonde. Since then Taylor stopped walking with her textbooks pinned to her chest. Then the family who lived next door to Meg moved to India because they wanted to expand their horizons. Meg bought a bunch of their vinyl, a yoga book and a pair of paint splattered overalls at the garage sale. Later that night Meg wore the overalls to her first party. Halfway through the night Richard explained she shouldn’t wear overalls to make-out parties, which brought on the exact moment when Meg realized she wasn’t cool and quickly needed to build some barriers, create a screwed-up family story or a handicap or a series of mysterious scars or anything to give her a competitive edge. She decided she would stick out her hand and try to hitch a ride. But then she realized she couldn’t accept rides from strangers. That’s when the idea hit her she’d get a new mom. A stable family was really the key to healthy development. Meg didn’t want to fall behind as she became cool and interesting.
When Meg’s request to enter the foster home and group home systems were declined she decided to try a simple trick. Have you ever walked in a public and suddenly a kid thinking you’re their parent is walking beside you chitchatting and holding your hand? Meg did it a lot when she was little so she decided to give it another try.
Meg found her new mother at the zoo. She was sitting on a bench watching the falcon in the lower St. Laurence ecosystem. It was the lamest part of the zoo. There were no exotic animals or dangerous snakes and consequently there were no cool teenagers. Meg felt safe. Joan’s oversized purse was bunched under her shawl. She looked like a nervous mother on a nest of eggs. Joan bobbed her head as she wrote in her diary. Wow a writer, thought Meg.
When Joan got up, Meg followed her out of the zoo and towards the subway. While waiting for the subway Meg slid her mittened hand into Joan’s.
“So Mom I thought that when we got home we could do the crosswords and then I could tell you about the trip I took to the New York City zoo. This zoo doesn’t even compare. It’s like a minor zoo. A Bcity zoo.”
Joan looked down at her but didn’t remove her hand.
“Oh I know we can watch plan 9 from Outer Space and spot all the continuity errors.” Meg tightened her grip. “You know I read an article that said girls aren’t interested in Science Fiction. I guess I’m from outer space. Beam me up Scotty.”
“You shouldn’t mix your metaphors.”
“What?” Meg’s stomach felt heavy like a milkshake. The heavy queasy feeling in her stomach and the light energized feeling running across her skin made her want to explode. If the moment hadn’t been so delicate Meg would have run around the zoo hooting and hollering. But this was a very delicate moment.
Pay attention Meg. They were actually in the subway and Joan had just started talking to her and they were still holding hands. Maybe Joan was looking for a new daughter and that’s why she wasn’t letting go, thought Meg. She decided to say something quick: “I thought it was actually a dangling modifier.” Meg tried to smile. She was so over her head. For a second she thought the sweat on her brow was actually the surface of a large body of water and that she was drowning. Meg took a couple of quick gasps and massaged a cramp in her side with her free hand.
Joan stood motionless then she started to mumble something but Meg couldn’t understand it. Meg tried to feel Joan’s hand through their mitts. It seemed like her pinky finger on the right hand didn’t quite go straight and that all her fingernails were cut on a slant. She seemed to have a very deep and long Head Line.
“I bet you’re a really smart lady.”
Joan looked at her but didn’t take away her hand. When the subway came the two boarded the train. Meg tried to walk with the feeling of walking beside her mother at the mall but that made her slow down. She tried to remember a time when she had been happy out in public with her mother. Her attention wandered.
“Why are you holding my hand?” Joan’s left eyelid twitched back and forth.
“You always tell me to hold your hand when we’re on the subway. Personally I think I’m too old for this kind of stuff,” Meg paused. She hated always having a comment for everything but she couldn’t hold back: “But you always say ‘Mothers know best.'”
“Look kid I don’t have any money.”
“That’s not what I want.”
Joan pulled her hand away, put both her hands in her pockets. Meg stood beside her and wondered what to do next. She followed Joan out of the subway at the next stop.
“Why are you following me?”
“Look I appreciate you didn’t make a big scene when I called you Mom back there. I just hoped you could lead me home. Don’t I look like a lost puppy?”
“Do you think this is funny?”
“I’m a run away. Is that funny to you?”
“But you seem like a normal enough kid.” Joan took a step away from Meg.
“Have you ever seen the Soul Asylum video for the song Runaway train? All those kids seemed normal until they ran away.”
This was Meg’s fifth attempt at running away. She’d never cried in a movie but films could convince her to do weird things. After seeing Honey I Shrunk the Kids! Meg walked around the neighborhood dropping Lego blocks and cookies just in case she ever got shrunk and needed a place to sleep or something to eat.
“I’m sure your parents love you.”
“Did you hear about the fire on Tupper street? The three houses that burned down? Well me and my mom and sister lived there, in one of the apartments. I haven’t seen them since the fire. I just need somewhere to sleep tonight. Please.” Meg smiled and waited. Joan turned and shaking her head started to walk in the other direction.
“It’s not like I think they’re dead or anything. My family’s made of survivors. My mom had cancer and survived. My sister had appendicitis and survived and I just survived my first year of high school.”
Joan lips moved like she would laugh a little if she wasn’t busy being an adult thinking adult thoughts. Meg thought this was her chance and continued her story: “It’s just my dad, you see, we’ll he’s not a survivor exactly. He was in a biker gang. Don’t worry I’m not a criminal or anything. It was just his job. But he went to jail anyways. He was the scapegoat. So as you can see, because I’m sure you have excellent judgment, I can’t go to the police just yet. I only need to stay with you until I can figure out a game plan or call someone to put in a favor.”
* * *
Joan let Meg into her apartment. Meg was surprised about how small it was but she didn’t let it show on her face. She was trying to be on her best behavior, inside voices, P&Qs and etcetera and so on.
“Your place is so very charming.” Meg saw a stack of dishes on the kitchen counter. She snapped on the gloves and squirted some soap into the sink.
“What’re you doing?”
“I’m making myself useful.” Meg smiled. She had never smiled while doing the dishes before. She could almost taste the soap.
“Do you like tea?”
“I don’t know my mom doesn’t let me have caffeine.”
Meg and Joan sat at the table and drank their tea. Meg kept pulling on her bangs dropping the yanked out hairs under the table. They both pretended not to notice. Joan kept getting up for more tea, biscuits, to check this or that.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I don’t really date much.” Joan got up, went to the fridge and took a picture of a smiley blond haired guy down. “We’re just friends. And why am I telling a fourteen year old runaway about it? ”
“Geez relax. I’m just trying to make small talk.” Meg watched with a small smile on her face.
“Small talk tonight and tomorrow morning you go home. Deal?” Joan waited for the nod. “So, Meg, tell me about yourself.”
“Is that Jane Austen and Neil Gaiman on the same bookshelf? You really have a knack for feng shui-ing your bookcase.”
“My books are in chronological order. What I read in university and what I read now.”
“Oh right.” Meg tried to say it in a cool voice. She pulled on her bangs. There was a little ball of blonde hair near her foot.
“I’ll tell you about my childhood as a token of my appreciation for your hospitality and all. You see my parents were both circus performers so we didn’t have a lot of money while I was growing up. I used to sleep in a dresser drawer.”
Joan tried not to laugh but Meg saw the little ripples in the teacup she held to her mouth. It was the first time she ever felt special enough for people to pay attention to her.
* * *
Three days later Meg’s parents started going on local news and talk shows. They appeared on three news channels and a radio show before Joan sat down for her morning tea. They explained to a sympathetic reporter about how they decided to get back together in this horrible time of waiting and wondering in order to show a strong common front for Meg.
“I guess they let my dad out of jail.”
“Look.” Joan stuffed the milk carton in Meg’s face. Meg’s face was on the back of the carton.
“I thought they didn’t do the mug shot on the milk carton thing anymore.”
“Pack your bags.”
“Please Please Please don’t make me go back,” Meg said in a teenager mock whine. “My parents are just pretending to care an iota about me. They’ve always wanted to be famous. They’re profiting off my disappearance.”
“I’m calling the hotline.” Joan reached for her phone.
“They’ll trace the call. Let’s just stop watching TV and listening to the radio. This will all blow over in the next new cycle.” Meg checked to see if Joan was smiling. Nope.
“You have to go home right now. Your life based one of you favourite films or music videos!”
“I hate Soul Asylum!”
Meg ran off and locked herself in the bathroom. Joan spent the most of the morning looking out the front window. She watched as volunteers in yellow reflective vests marched up and down the streets and poked in the bushes and uncollected trash bags. Every twenty minutes she tried to break into her bathroom to get Meg out. Meg ran the water or flushed to pretend she didn’t hear. Then when Joan gave up Meg yelled “Be out in a minute. Sorry I’m hogging the bathroom!” Joan tried to write in her journal in the afternoon.
When Joan went out to find another carton of milk without Meg’s photo on the back; a search and rescue dog snarled at her. The handler gave Joan a pamphlet with a number to call if she saw Meg.
“I’ve had it. Your parents are worried and the dogs are onto us. It’s time for you to go home.” Joan put her ear up to the bathroom door and heard the distinctive pop pop pop of a bubble bath.
“Just give me five more minutes!” Meg turned on the taps.
Joan called the anonymous hotline from her neighbour’s apartment.
* * *
When Meg got home no one was waiting. She sat in the big chair by the window and thought about what to do. She counted the rusting cars on their lawn. Her mom’s hairspray, nail clippers and waxing kit were lying beside the chair. Meg took the hairspray, shook it, then hit herself in the eye with the metal can. She banged the can against her face. She alternated sides. She hit herself again. She felt her face. Nothing was happening. Her forehead was sore but there were no bumps or bruises.
Meg decided to concentrate and hit harder. She punched herself in the cheek. It was hard to punch without wincing or wanting to duck. She pinned her head against the wall like she was on a roller coaster ride and punched again. The stucco wall cracked. Meg wondered if someone could ever punch themselves hard enough to bruise. Maybe she was a wussy.
“I am so uncool.” Meg curled up her fist and tried again. She let out a gasp this time. Meg wondered what she would say if someone walked in right now. She tried to find an answer between punches.
“Ow! Ouchie! Ow!” Meg looked to the door to see if anyone was coming in. Nobody. So she hit herself again.
“I just have to get through this. Stop being such a wimp. The quicker I do it the faster I can leave.”
Meg took the nail clippers and trimmed her lips. She made sure the little cuts looked authentic. Meg bit her cheek then adjusted the placing of the cuts on her lips until they were a red sticky mess. She leaned forward, kissed the mirror, and then took a step back. There was a small bump over her left eyebrow that ran down the side of her nose. She poked her skin to check for colour changes. Some bruises were starting to form.
“I should’ve taken before and after pictures.” Meg sat on the toilet and hit herself with the soap holder. The hollow sound of ceramic on bone made her jump.
* * *
“Oh my god! What happened to you?” Joan rushed toward Meg.
“My mom told me never to come back. She said the first time I left I was good as dead for her.” Meg tried to dodge the hug but her chin was caught by Joan’s elbow.
“This is all my fault.” A couple of tears brimmed the edge of Joan’s eyes as she led Meg into her apartment.
They sat on the couch. Meg wanted to say things, to get up explain and laugh but instead she lay in Joan’s lap. Joan cried and played in Meg’s hair. Meg didn’t cry at all. She hadn’t even cried when she left a cupboard door open and ran into it on purpose. So why would she cry now? Instead she sat there and counted all the cow figurines in the window. When Meg felt like Joan was done crying, Meg got up and made them tea.
* * *
The next day at school Julia came up to Meg: “Shit! What happened Meg?”
Meg, embarrassed, couldn’t think of what exactly to say. The real explanation didn’t sound right: Yesterday while you were at the mall I spent three hours in my former living room hitting myself. Oh but don’t worry BFF it’s all just a ploy to find a new mom.
“I was punched.”
All day grade nine followed Meg. They stared at her bumps and bruises while she gave her French oral and echoed her name after she walked by them in the hall. In fifth period gym class she was picked for a soccer team quicker than usual. It was a pity pick. The same thing happened when Louis’ dad was killed in Africa. While waiting for all the nerds and Goths to get picked for teams, Meg realized it’s really boring to wait for others to be picked. Usually she was one of the last to be picked so her anxiety occupied her throughout the process. Today she had to stand, wait and try not to notice everyone staring at her. To break the monotony Meg went to ask for a hall pass.
“Did she have any bruises on her body?” The principal was standing by the window arms crossed.
“Louisa who changed beside her said no,” said the gym teacher as he pumped up the basket balls.
“It’s strange. Usually the bruises are on places that can be covered up.”
“Ms. Creighton always seemed like such a nice woman. A little absent minded but nice.”
“It’s always the nice looking ones. Mr. Humphries this stays between you and me. But I called the mother and Meg wasn’t at home last night. The mother said they spent all night looking for her. Meg left a note saying she ran away.”
“So why’d she come to school today?”
Meg almost hit her head against the wall. Why did she come to school today? She went into the changing room, changed her clothes and left. Being special and getting attention was not as fun as Meg imagined it would be.
Jessica Grosman lives in Montréal where she edits youth publications, programmes feminist community radio and collects oral histories.