Tattooed Teardrops

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chapter 1

drop cap tAMARA FRENCH HAS BEEN a model inmate throughout her incarceration.

Great reference. You could go far on that one. Tamara sat on an uncomfortable bench in the brightly-lit lobby waiting for her ride. It was strange being on the other side of the guard booth. She stared at the too-white sneakers that stuck out below her dark pant cuffs, wondering what kind of life she had to look forward to with that ringing endorsement. She jiggled her legs up and down, trying to resist picking her nails. Eventually, a tall, middle-aged woman with a bun came in and stood before her. Tamara stared at her boxy black shoes for a moment before reluctantly looking up at her.

“Tamara?” the woman said.

“Yeah.”

“Ready to get out of here?”

“I guess.”

“I expected a bit more enthusiasm,” the social worker said with a hint of a smile in the corners of her lipsticked mouth.

“I’m sorta nervous,” Tamara said.

“I guess that’s understandable. Come on, let’s go.”

Tamara sat there for another moment, then finally stood and followed the woman out of the juvenile facility. She got in the car and buckled up, holding her bag tightly on her lap.

The social worker introduced herself, but Tamara paid no attention, completely forgetting her name the next minute. The woman attempted small talk a few times, but Tamara turned on the radio and stared out the window, freezing the social worker out. Eventually, the woman got the message and stopped trying to engage her.

They pulled up in front of a brick house that was at least a hundred years old and needed some work. There had been an attempt made at landscaping, with some flowers and bushes bunched around the concrete steps leading up to the porch and the front door. There was peeling paint on the fence and mailbox post.

“Here we are,” the social worker announced. “Let’s go in.”

Tamara unbuckled and got out slowly. The social worker took her in, knocking on the front door and entering without waiting for an answer.

“Hello, Marion, come on in,” a woman’s voice called from up above. “I’ll be right down.” 

Tamara stood beside the social worker, waiting. She held her paper bag awkwardly at her side, wishing that she didn’t have anything to hold onto. She made a show of examining the front hall and living room of the house, but in all honesty, she didn’t care what it looked like. It wasn’t prison. Her concern was not with the house, but what the foster parents were going to be like. The front room was fairly neat and presentable. No children’s toys scattered about. A load of laundry neatly folded in the basket sitting on the couch. The TV shut behind the doors of an entertainment center so it would not be the central focus of the room. The furnishings were nice, not thrift store or destroyed. There were footsteps on the stairs, and Tamara looked up for her first glimpse of her foster mother.

Mrs. Henson had a pleasant, round face. Blond hair that had been lightly-styled in an attempt to hide that it was starting to thin. She didn’t look more than forty. She was overweight, but not grossly. She just looked soft and comfortable. She was wearing a sweater and pants, and inconsequential gold jewelry. She didn’t look anything like Mrs. Baker, but that was no guarantee.

“Hello!” her voice rang out cheerfully.

“Gerry, this is Tamara,” Marion introduced as Mrs. Henson reached the bottom of the stairs. “Tamara, Mrs. Henson.”

“Hey,” Tamara muttered, without meeting her eyes. “Where do you want me?”

“Your bedroom is at the top of the stairs. First door on the right,” Mrs. Henson offered. Tamara made the trek up the stairs. There was a dark wooden banister, ornately carved. Not too scarred for being in a foster home. Tamara turned at the top of the stairs and opened the door to her right.

There was a bed and a crib, and Tamara stood there, her heart speeding up, wondering if she’d been sent to the wrong room. Surely they wouldn’t have given her a room with a crib in it? She could almost see Julie’s still form lying on the high mattress… Mrs. Henson was there a moment later, having said a quick goodbye to Marion. She breathed a little heavily after her trip back up the stairs.

“Go on in,” Mrs. Henson encouraged. “We sometimes take teen moms, to help teach them how to take care of their babies. We don’t have any right now, so you get this room. That way you don’t have to share.”

Tamara walked into the room. The walls were a light green, freshly painted, with a white board wainscoting all the way around it. There was a pull-down blind with gauzy green curtains around the window. Tamara tossed her bag onto the bed, where it sat looking pitiful and inadequate.

“The others will be getting home soon,” Mrs. Henson offered. “I’ll introduce you then.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m happy to have you join us, Tamara. I was very impressed with your file.”

Sure. It was certain to be the last place she went that anyone was impressed with her prison record. She’d wowed them all at her parole hearing. There had been tears, and not all of them hers. So many of the inmates protested their innocence and refused to take responsibility or express remorse at their parole hearings. Tamara had been working on her performance for three years, and it was good. The board’s vote was unanimous. Now she was free. But to what kind of life?

Mrs. Henson stirred, making Tamara jump, startled. They both looked at each other, not knowing what to say. Mrs. Henson smiled and nodded.

“Make yourself at home,” she encouraged, motioning around the room.

Tamara nodded. Mrs. Henson backed off and left her alone. Tamara stretched out on the freshly-made bed to wait. If there was one thing she was used to doing, it was waiting.

There were no bells that rang to mark the passage of time and the transition from one activity to another. Instead, disconcertingly, it flowed along with small shifts and gradual transitions. Tamara heard the front door open and close several times, with voices reaching her ears even through the closed bedroom door. Mrs. Henson did most of the talking and others answered her questions or made comments during the pauses. Tamara couldn’t tell what any of them were saying, just the tone of voice. They all seemed to be casual and relaxed.

There was a knock on Tamara’s bedroom door, and before she could get up to answer it, Mrs. Henson poked her head in.

“We’re going to get dinner going,” she said. “Why don’t you come down and help? Then you can meet everyone.”

Tamara studied her for a moment, assessing her options. Was it a choice? Was there a consequence for not complying? She was so unused to making her own decisions that she wasn’t sure what to do when faced with one.

“Come on,” Mrs. Henson encouraged, motioning for Tamara to come.

Tamara got up slowly and followed her foster mother down the stairs and to the kitchen. She was suddenly confronted with a whole pack of new people to meet. All bigger and older than her. Tamara made an effort to unclench her fists and not look confrontational. This wasn’t juvie. She didn’t have to prove herself physically here.

It hadn’t occurred to Tamara when she had met Mrs. Henson that the foster children would not all be white like her. But of course, she already knew the statistics. There were more non-white children in foster care and very few non-white parents. So they couldn’t pair black children with black parents. Tamara was intimidated by all of the dark faces looking back at her. She wasn’t prejudiced, but juvie had taught her to be acutely aware of race relations, and how her white-faced, blond-haired presence could be aggravating to others. They would immediately judge her as stuck-up, privileged, and ignorant.

Tamara was fifteen, and not tall. There were only four other children, Tamara realized, not the mob that she had originally perceived them as. They were all bigger than her. Most of them taller than Mrs. Henson. Studying their faces, Tamara figured that they were seventeen or eighteen. One boy seemed even too old to be eighteen.

“Everyone,” Mrs. Henson said, “this is Tamara, our new foster child. I know you’ll all make her feel comfortable and help her get settled in.”

They all nodded, smiled, and waved. Tamara nodded back.

“Hey.”

Her voice was hoarse, the greeting barely audible. Tamara wasn’t sure any of them had heard her. She nodded again and didn’t repeat the greeting.

“Okay, are you ready?” Mrs. Henson asked with a wide smile. “This is Nita,” a Hispanic girl with long hair and perfectly plucked eyebrows, “Deshawn,” the darkest face, a girl with cornrows and a brilliant white smile, “Jason,” black skin, close-cropped black hair, probably eighteen, “and Harry.” Harry seemed a particularly non-ethnic name for a boy who appeared to be some mixture of black, Hispanic, and native. He smiled nicely for her, but his resting face was serious, contemplative. He was the one that Tamara was sure must be older than eighteen. He should have already aged out of the system.

Tamara nodded again and swallowed. Now, what? Was she supposed to repeat them back? Greet each one separately? Shake hands? Tamara just stood there, lost, then looked at Mrs. Henson for direction.

“Okay, let’s get started on dinner,” Mrs. Henson suggested. “Nita, why don’t you show Tamara where the dishes are, and she can help you set the table…” She went on, but Tamara didn’t hear the rest of the instructions she gave to the remaining kids. She had her instructions. Go with Nita and set the table. She made her way across the room to Nita, and Nita smiled at her.

“Welcome,” she said in a low voice that was almost a whisper. “I hope you like it here.”

Tamara nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Well, come on. The dishes are in this cupboard here, and the glasses, and the cutlery.” Nita indicated each location.

“How many…?” Tamara asked. She cleared her throat. “Is there a Mr. Henson? Or anyone else?”

“Yeah, Jesse will be home for dinner. That’s Mr. Henson. So seven altogether.”

Tamara counted out the plates and trucked them over to the table, where she put them down carefully. Her hands shook slightly as she set them down, and it was an effort not to let them clatter. There was a baby’s high chair, pushed against the wall. Tamara looked away from it and continued with her work, breathing shallowly. Setting the table only took a couple of minutes, and then Mrs. Henson gave them various other small tasks until everything started coming together for the dinner. She looked at her watch.

“Thanks, guys. Take a break for about twenty minutes. Then everything should be done cooking, Jesse will be home, and we’ll eat.”

The kids dispersed. Tamara headed back up to her bedroom. Deshawn stopped ahead of Tamara, blocking her way into her bedroom.

“Do you need anything?” she asked Tamara.

Tamara shook her head.

“Sometimes… people don’t come here with very much,” Deshawn said. “Missus buys up extra toothbrushes and all, and we all share clothes…” She glanced over Tamara’s figure. “My pants won’t do you much good, but if you want a shirt, some accessories…”

Tamara stood there and contemplated the idea. For three years, she had worn nothing but an orange prison jumpsuit. Social Services had provided her with two very basic changes of clothing for her release. T-shirt, pants, socks, underthings. One pair of white tennis shoes. It was more fashion than Tamara had access to in all her time in juvie, but she was aware that it was sorely inadequate for a teenager on the outside.

Deshawn made an encouraging motion.

“Come on. Let’s see if there’s anything you want to borrow,” she said.

Tamara followed her to one of the other bedrooms.

“Nita and I share the room,” Deshawn commented. Nita was not there; maybe she had gone to watch TV or something. The room was painted sky blue. There was a utilitarian set of bunk beds, a couple of dressers cluttered with scarves, jewelry, and books, and a closet that was jammed full. The knobs on either side of the open closet door had been pressed into use to hold more hangers full of clothes. “It’s mostly thrift store,” Deshawn said, “but you can find some pretty good stuff if you look hard enough. Sorry, it’s sort of a mess. Come on. See what you like.”

Tamara went to the closet and looked over the hangers full of brightly-colored clothing. It didn’t appear that either Deshawn or Nita went for anything understated.

“If you want t-shirts, they’re in the dresser,” Deshawn pointed, “and just grab whatever you see that you like. Just bring it back or throw it in the laundry when you’re done with it.”

Tamara saw herself in the mirror mounted on the back of the closet door. There hadn’t been any full-length mirrors at juvie. And the only mirrors that had been there were polished metal or plastic, and you could never really see your reflection very well. Tamara had grown up a lot in juvie. She wasn’t the soft, shy little farm girl she had been when she went to the Bakers. They had changed her. And juvie had changed her. The years had not been particularly kind ones. But she had developed a figure now, and was going to have to learn how to dress it up, instead of simply shrouding it in a jumpsuit. She had tattoos and piercings that she hadn’t had before her incarceration. Her hair was dull and lank, like everybody else’s in juvie. Tamara wound one lock around her finger, staring at the stranger reflected in the mirror.

“Why don’t we do something with your hair?” Deshawn suggested. “There’s not much time, but if we blow-dry, we could be done before supper.”

Tamara raked her fingers through her limp blonde hair, disgusted with it.

“Yeah. Could we?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Deshawn agreed with emphasis. “We’ll shampoo it in the bathroom, and use leave-in conditioner…” she led the way out into the hallway, still chattering away to herself what they would do. Tamara just followed.

Tamara knelt by the tub while Deshawn used the hand-held shower attachment to quickly wet her hair down. The warm water felt so good on Tamara’s scalp, she wished she could get in for a full shower, and just luxuriate in it for hours. Three years of quick, cold showers. But Deshawn turned off the water way too soon and applied a fruity shampoo with strong, capable fingers; working it in and then rinsing it back out. She handed Tamara a towel, and while Tamara rubbed her hair, Deshawn rifled through the myriad toiletries lining the back of the counter, the medicine cabinet, and a couple of deep wicker baskets under the sink.

“Girls! Dinner!” the impatient call came again from downstairs.

Deshawn poked her head out the door.

“Just one more minute,” she called back. “We’ll be right down!”

She returned her attention to Tamara.

“Okay, just sit still for one more minute, girl,” she instructed.

Tamara sat frozen, while Deshawn wound sections of her hair around the fat curling iron, holding it and then releasing. There was no way that she was going to be done the whole thing in another minute. But Deshawn worked quickly, sure of herself.

“That will do it for now,” she announced.

She laid the curling iron down on the counter and unplugged it from the wall. Standing Tamara up, Deshawn shuffled her over and turned her to face the mirror.

“Ta-da!”

Tamara looked with astonishment at the face in the mirror. She was amazed at what a big difference a hairstyle could make. She still didn’t have on any make-up, hadn’t changed her clothes or accessories, all she had done was let Deshawn clean and style her hair. Her image in the mirror was no longer so harsh and plain.

“You’re gorgeous,” Deshawn gushed. “You’ve got really good color and proportions. We can have a lot of fun glamming you up. For now, this will do.”

Standing behind Tamara, Deshawn used her fingers to wind and readjust a couple of curls. She lowered her head so that it was on the same level as Tamara’s, and gave her a smile.

“What do you think?”

“It’s… it’s really pretty. Thanks,” Tamara said. She cleared her throat, realizing that she was whispering. She had learned in juvie to use a strong, confident voice, not to be soft or timid. The Henson’s home was so different in atmosphere; she felt like she was in a library or something. That she needed to be quiet to avoid upsetting the peace of the place.

“Come on; we’ve got to get down to dinner, or Missus will not be happy!”

Tamara followed Deshawn back downstairs and to the dining room table that she and Nita had set. It was now covered with serving dishes, and everyone was seated, waiting for them. All eyes turned to Tamara as she looked at the three empty chairs, trying to decide which one she should take.

“Tamara, doesn’t that look lovely,” Mrs. Henson complimented. “Here, sit down. These boys will eat everything before we even get a bite, if they have to wait much longer.”

She gestured toward the empty chair nearest to her, and Tamara went over and sat down. Deshawn took what appeared to be her usual seat, beside Nita, which left one empty chair at the table of eight. Tamara looked for the first time at Mr. Henson. Slim, on the tall side. Handsome boyish face. Short-cropped curly red hair. He smiled at Tamara. 

“Welcome, Tamara. I’m Jesse.”

Tamara nodded, looking down at her empty plate. Her stomach tightened, and it was suddenly hard to breathe. The only men that she had been around for three years had been guards, doctors, and administrators. The last man she had lived with before that… her foster father, Mr. Baker… that had been a bad scene. A very bad scene. Tamara swallowed. She tried to slow her breathing, but it just made her breath louder in her own ears. She was sure everyone would hear how loudly and quickly she was breathing.

“Dig in,” Mrs. Henson said, and Harry and Jason acted like two Rottweilers just told to attack, diving into the serving dishes immediately. Conversation started up around the table, and rather than trying to follow any of it, Tamara just let it wash over her like white noise. She served up small portions of each of the dishes that passed her, and dutifully passed them on.

“So tell us about your last home, Tamara,” Nita said. “Where did you come here from?”

Tamara looked at Mrs. Henson. The woman just smiled and gave her a small nod, and didn’t jump in to help her out. If Tamara didn’t want to answer questions, she was going to have to be assertive and speak up. The conversations around the table quieted as the others paused to listen for her answer. Tamara swallowed a very dry mouthful of potatoes. They stuck right in the middle of her chest.

“I wasn’t at a home,” she said finally, careful to keep her voice up, not to duck her head down. She was not vulnerable and had nothing to be ashamed of. She was strong and knew how to take care of herself. She had just as much right to be here as any of them. “I was in juvie.”

There was an initial silence, and then conversations started back up again without further comment on Tamara’s answer.

“Sorry,” Nita said. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay,” Tamara said, shaking her head. “It’s not a secret. That’s where I was.”

Nita nodded.

“Most of us have been in trouble at one time or another.”

Tamara glanced around at their faces. None of them looked particularly troubled. They seemed happy and relaxed. At peace with themselves. Maybe they had been in trouble before, and maybe they hadn’t. You couldn’t always tell by looking at someone.

“Harry’s probably spent the most time in juvie,” Deshawn contributed, nodding to her brother. “How much time, Harry?”

“All together?” Harry questioned, laughing. “I don’t know. Longest stint was two years. But I had plenty of shorter stays before that.”

Tamara studied him more closely. He met her eyes and nodded.

“Harry’s twenty,” Mrs. Henson said without being asked. “So he’s not officially a foster child anymore. But we told him he could stay on here while he does some more schooling and gets on his feet.”

Tamara nodded, looking back down at her plate.

“That’s really nice of you.”

“It’s to our benefit too. Harry contributes a lot to the family, and since he’s working part-time, he’s also paying a bit of rent to help keep us afloat. So it works both ways.”

Tamara bit into some sort of casserole.

“I guess you’ll learn about everyone’s backgrounds gradually,” Mrs. Henson said. “We try to be open with each other. Everybody’s been through some pretty tough stuff. We don’t judge. We just try to help.”

“That’s cool,” Tamara said, pushing her dinner around on her plate. She wasn’t hungry.

She watched everyone else chow down, and conversations flowed back away from her again. Tamara watched for the appropriate time to leave the table. There was no end-of-dinner bell anymore. She had to relearn all the social graces. How to judge the end of a conversation. When one could politely leave the dinner table. How long she could look at someone before they decided she was being too aggressive. It was like living in a foreign country. A dangerous foreign country.

“Not very hungry?” Mrs. Henson observed, as dinner conversation started to peter out.

Tamara looked down at her plate, still nearly full.

“No. I’m sorry… it’s good… I just feel kind of… my stomach hurts.”

“It’s all right. It takes time to adjust. You can scrape it into the garbage. Nita can show you where. Everyone rinses their own plates and puts them in the dishwasher.”

“Sure,” Tamara agreed. She stood up, grabbing her plate, and Nita got up and led the way back into the kitchen, where they took care of their dishes. Tamara looked back at the dining table. “Do you want help with clean-up?” she asked Mrs. Henson. “Or would I be in the way?”

“Of course you can help. Usually, I’d probably tell you to go do your homework while I cleared, but you don’t have any today, so why don’t you and I clean up together?”

Tamara nodded, and she and Mrs. Henson bussed the serving dishes back to the kitchen, found lids for things, and put them into the fridge. Mrs. Henson turned the dishwasher on and wiped down the dining room table.

“You can watch some TV or take some ‘down’ time. In bed at nine, and lights out at ten.”

“Okay,” Tamara agreed.

She wandered around the house a bit, but wasn’t comfortable sitting down with anybody else, and so she made her way back to her bedroom. As she approached, the door to the other girls’ bedroom opened. Nita peeked out.

“Hey,” she said. “You need anything? Do you have pajamas?”

Tamara shook her head.

“No,” she admitted. “If I could borrow a t-shirt or something…”

“You bet. Come in.”

Nita opened the door the rest of the way for her, and Tamara went in. Tamara looked down at Nita’s feet, nails freshly painted and toes spread apart while they dried. Nita giggled and hobbled on her heels over to the dresser.

“You want to do yours?” she asked. She pulled out a handful of shirts and tossed them at Tamara.

“No. Thanks,” Tamara said, fumbling with the shirts to see what her options were. “I’m going to hit the sack.”

She found herself strangely unable to choose one of the shirts. There were three of them. They were all cute. Any one of them would work. All she had to do was decide which of the three she liked best. Nita was watching her; head cocked slightly.

“The blue one is a really good color for you,” she suggested.

Not the blue one. Tamara looked at the other two. She didn’t know which she wanted, but she had to decide before Nita made another suggestion. She had to make her own choice. Tamara tossed the blue one back to Nita, and with a knot in her stomach, tossed Nita the pink one too. Tamara looked down at the purple and blue patterned shirt in her hands.

“This one is good,” she said.

She felt a little sick. Worried that she had made the wrong choice. How silly was that, to be worried that she had picked the wrong t-shirt to wear in the privacy of her own bedroom? But she was. She had an overwhelming feeling of dread.

“Have a good sleep,” Nita said with a smile.

“Thanks.”

Tamara went back to her room. She changed into the t‑shirt, long enough to reach her mid-thighs. She lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. There would be no bell ringing to tell her when to go to sleep. Would her body know when it was time, without the bell? Would she be able to adjust to a new schedule? Not feeling the least bit tired, Tamara lay staring at the ceiling, twitching her foot and waiting for sleep.

chapter 2

drop cap tamara awoke. She was confused at first, disoriented by the sight of a bedroom around her instead of her familiar cell. Turning her head to look at the clock beside the bed, Tamara saw that it was five forty-five on the dot. The usual time for the reveille bell. Groaning, she rolled over and slid out of bed.

She didn’t know what time the others usually arose, but she imagined there would probably be a bottleneck waiting for the shower. Moving as quietly as possible, Tamara tiptoed across the room and opened her door. She listened for any sounds of movement. There was a light on down the stairs, but it wasn’t bright. It could just be a streetlight through a window, or a nightlight. The shower was not running, so Tamara darted into the bathroom, shut the door, and turned on the light. She started the shower running and stripped down. For the first time in three years, she stepped into a warm shower. The tantalizing sample of the night before when Deshawn had helped her wash her hair didn’t even come close to the luxury of a hot, whole-body shower. Tamara took a deep breath. She could get used to this.

More out of habit than anything, Tamara very quickly soaped up and rinsed off. She forced herself to shut off the water again immediately. Even though she would have loved to have stayed in the shower for an hour, until the hot water ran out and people started banging on the door to tell her to get out, she knew she had to be considerate and leave some hot water for the others. With a family of seven, you couldn’t be selfish and use it all yourself. Shivering, Tamara grabbed the closest towel and dried herself off. She realized with dismay that she hadn’t brought in any clothes to change into. She only had the makeshift nightshirt she had just taken off. Tamara swallowed and steeled herself. She wrapped the worn towel around her body. It didn’t cover much and wasn’t long enough to tuck it back into itself. So holding the towel with one hand, Tamara tucked her shirt under her elbow and used the other hand to open the door.

Her room was conveniently right across the hall from the bathroom, so she only had to take three steps, and she was safe in her own room again. She heard the click of another door down the hall, and a minute later, the bathroom door closed, and the water turned back on. Had whoever was in the shower now seen her in her dash from the bathroom? She hadn’t dared to look for anyone. Tamara pulled on her sad little Social-Services-provided outfit and looked for a comb. She found one in the top drawer of the dresser, along with a few other necessities. As she carelessly pulled the comb through her hair to get it in order before it finished drying, Tamara’s eyes sought out her reflection in the mirror over the dresser. Did she want a prison hairdo for the first day of school, or something nice, like Deshawn had done for her last night? But the curling iron was in the currently-occupied bathroom.

Trying to breathe calmly through her anxiety, Tamara crossed the hall to the bathroom door. The shower was still running. She knocked on the door and opened it up a couple of inches.

“Can I just get the curling iron?” she asked.

She didn’t look toward the shower or the foggy mirror. She just kept her eyes down, waiting for a response.

“Sure, go ahead,” a male voice answered. The voice was deep, probably Harry, but Tamara wasn’t sure.

She opened the door far enough to rifle through the contents of the vanity and the baskets underneath and found the curling iron, a brush, and some hairspray. Tamara retreated from the warm, misty bathroom and hurried back to her own room.

Breakfast at juvie was served promptly at six and was over at six thirty, so by the time Tamara was finished styling her hair, she was starving. She went down to the kitchen to see what she could find to eat. Mr. Henson—Jesse—was eating a bowl of cereal on the kitchen island, reading through a newspaper. Tamara stopped short. He must have heard her footsteps on the stairs, though, because he looked up at her and smiled.

“Come on in, don’t be shy,” he invited.

Tamara approached cautiously, not getting too close. She knew foster dads. She’d dealt with a foster dad. But she’d learned how to protect herself in juvie. How to be careful and not leave herself open.

“You’re an early riser,” Jesse observed, dropping his eyes back down to his newspaper and taking another bite of cereal.

Tamara watched him for any change in attitude, any extra watchfulness. He glanced up again, then back down at his paper.

“There’s juice in the fridge. Cereal and bread in the cupboard,” he pointed. “Coffee’s fresh.”

“Thanks,” Tamara said.

She kept an eye on him while she opened a couple of cupboards to locate the mugs, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Tamara inhaled the soothing aroma while she waited for it to cool down a bit. Perhaps Jesse could feel her gaze, because he looked up at her expectantly, eyebrows up. Tamara looked away.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m a bit dopey. Still getting the engine started.”

He chuckled.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Well… okay, I guess. The bed is really comfy and everything. It’s just…”

“Somewhere new,” Jesse finished for her, nodding. “That’s perfectly understandable. It will take a while before it feels natural. Like home.”

“Yeah.”

Tamara wondered if she would ever feel like this was home. She had been warned that parole wouldn’t be easy. She knew inmates who had been back within a week of being released. Some had intended to follow the rules and slipped. Some had never intended to follow any rules. She remembered when Mitchell had come back. Tamara had thought that she would make it. Mitchell was tough, one of the few who had managed to survive juvie without getting in with one of the gangs. She was strong-willed and made it known that once she got out, she wasn’t going to be back. She would do whatever it took to stay on the right side of the law and make a life for herself. A straight, honest life.

On her return, Mitchell’s dark eyes were underscored by shadows. She looked almost haunted.

“I just couldn’t do it,” she told Tamara, as they both stood at the sinks in the restroom. “I felt so… exposed. I didn’t belong out there.”

She had held up a convenience store at knifepoint. With no mask. In full view of the security cameras. Not because she needed money, but because she wanted to go back. Back where she belonged.

Tamara sipped her coffee. She considered what else she might want for breakfast. Her stomach was still growling. She wasn’t going to be able to make it to lunch on a cup of coffee. She was used to a full breakfast at juvie.

With another careful look at Jesse, she went over to the cupboard that he had pointed out, and got herself Cheerios and a slice of bread, which she threw into the bright red toaster on the counter. She prepared the cereal and started to eat, leaning against the counter and waiting for the toast to pop.

“You can eat at the table,” Jesse said. “You don’t have to eat standing up just because I am.”

Tamara didn’t move. He didn’t pursue it. She and Jesse continued to eat in silence. Mrs. Henson joined them as Tamara moved on to her toast, searching the fridge for some jam.

“You’re up early,” Mrs. Henson observed. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Tamara nodded. She moved to the dining table as Mrs. Henson entered the kitchen, feeling crowded, anxious at both foster parents being in such close proximity. Mrs. Henson gave her a smile and got herself a cup of coffee. Tamara took a few quick bites of her toast and then laid the remainder down.

“Sorry, I took too much,” she said. She dumped the toast in the garbage and slotted the plate away in the dishwasher. Then she retreated to her room.

As Tamara got upstairs, Deshawn was knocking on the bathroom door.

“Come on, Jason! Time’s up! There’s a line-up out here.”

She smiled widely at Tamara as she waited for a response.

“Hey, girl,” she greeted. “Go on in.” She gestured toward her own bedroom. “Help yourself to whatever you need. Nita’s awake, she’s just playing possum.”

Tamara hesitated.

“Go ahead,” Deshawn pressed. “You going to go to school without putting your face on?”

Tamara had no experience with makeup, but she knew most of the other girls at school would probably be wearing it, and she didn’t want to look any more different than she had to. So she nodded and went into the bedroom, tapping lightly on the door before she went in.

Nita didn’t play possum, but propped herself up on her elbow, yawning.

“Mornin’ sunshine.”

“Hey. Deshawn said…”

“Yeah, of course. Help yourself to whatever you see. Except that orange scarf over there,” Nita nodded at it. “That one’s calling to me this morning.”

“I’m kind of sick of wearing orange,” Tamara said.

Nita snorted. “You don’t say,” she said with a giggle.

Tamara looked over the clutter of accessories on top of the dresser. She tried on a couple of necklaces before settling on one with a large, brassy sun-and-moon medal on it. She put in chunky earrings. She looked at the makeup and didn’t know what to do with any of it.

“You want some help?” Nita offered.

Tamara hesitated, not wanting to owe Nita anything. She felt vulnerable letting anyone help her. Nita sat up and swung her feet over the side of the bed. She stretched and stood up.

“Why don’t you sit?” she suggested, motioning to the chair in front of the small mirror and pile of makeup.

Tamara sat down. Nita started pawing through the makeup, sorting out what she wanted to use. Without further discussion, she started by applying some moisturizing cream. Then she brushed on some blush.

“Is everyone always so nice and perfect around here?” Tamara asked, watching Nita’s actions in the mirror.

Nita laughed.

“We’re far from perfect. We still have our fights and rough spots. But…” She paused while she moved onto selecting a shade of eye shadow. “We’ve all been there. Moving into a new home. Starting over again. Trying to figure out your place. First day of school. It works better if you’re nice to newcomers rather than getting all territorial. A lot less grief.”

“Oh.”

As if to underscore her words about not being perfect, Deshawn pounded on the bathroom door, yelling at Jason again to quit being inconsiderate and get his bony butt out of the bathroom. Tamara and Nita laughed.

“And luckily, Deshawn and I both love having sisters to share with. Neither of us grew up with much family.”

Tamara was going to nod, but thought better of moving while Nita worked on her.

“Me neither,” she agreed.

“Yeah? Well, there you go. Now you’ve got two sisters who are going to love dressing you up and showing you how to do your makeup.”

Tamara studied Nita’s face in the mirror. Nita was beautiful. The lines of her face were almost perfect. Her smile was bright and even and could have been an advertisement for a dentist. There was the tiniest shift to the lines of her nose that made Tamara wonder if it had been broken at some point. Without thinking, Tamara touched the bump in her own nose. Nita stopped for a moment and pushed Tamara’s hand away.

“Don’t you worry about that,” she said. “It’s not obvious unless you’re looking for it.”

Tamara put her hand back down again. Nita handed her a tube of lipstick.

“I think you can do this part,” she said.

Tamara screwed the lipstick out and applied it to her lips. She looked at her face, at the overall effect of the makeup. It still looked like her. There was nothing too obvious or stark about the makeup. But her face was softened, more feminine. Framed by the silky blond waves, she could almost be pretty.

Nita was over at the closet, pushing clothes around. She was wearing a long Minnie Mouse nightshirt that reached her calves. She pulled out a couple of button-up shirts.

“Now how about one of these layered over your t-shirt?” she suggested. “I think that would be really cute.”

Tamara took one of the shirts from her and pulled it on, then shook her head and took it back off.

“Not really my style,” she said.

Nita shrugged.

“You want anything else? Don’t be shy, just try on whatever you like.”

Tamara joined Nita at the closet and looked through the offerings. She pulled out a black jacket with silver hardware and tried it on. Nita looked her over and nodded.

“You like it?” she asked.

“I think so.”

“It’s yours.”

Tamara smoothed it with both hands and nodded, smiling shyly. “Thanks.”

Neither of the other two girls went to the school that Tamara would be attending, so she was on her own. Mrs. Henson offered to make the proper introductions at the school, but Tamara shook her head.

“Just drop me off,” she said. “I can find the office, and they’ll give me what I need.”

She didn’t need to look like a little girl who couldn’t manage to go to school on her own. She was strong. Mrs. Henson agreed. She drove slowly, pointing out landmarks that would help Tamara to find her way around the neighborhood in the future. Tamara stared out the window, not commenting, her stomach in a tight, sick knot. She was not looking forward to school. Of course, she’d gone to all of her classes in juvie—not like she had been given a choice—but public school was not something she was looking forward to.

She checked in at the office, was given a locker, schedule, map, textbooks, and a number of covert looks. She was told who her guidance counselor was and invited to set up an appointment with him anytime.

Tamara went to her morning classes, and at lunch went looking for the students’ illicit smoking hangout. She had a few cigarettes left over from juvie, but getting her hands on more might be difficult. It didn’t take long to find a small knot of students wreathed in smoke. Tamara nodded briefly and cupped her hand around a cigarette to light it. She drew the smoke into her lungs, the tension in her stomach subsiding slightly.

“Sucks being new,” one girl offered.

Tamara nodded.

“Especially halfway through the year,” she agreed.

“I’m Sybil.” She had dyed black hair, a post through her lip and a piercing in her nose. Her makeup was stark, but not goth.

Some of the others offered their names.

“Hi. Tamara.”

“You’re staying with the Hensons?”

“Yeah.” Tamara shifted her feet. “You know ’em?”

“They go through a lot of kids there. Some of them go to school. Some don’t.”

“Uh-huh.”

Since Tamara was not yet sixteen, she didn’t have a choice about school attendance yet. It was mandatory. Especially if she wanted to stay out of juvie. One of the boys, slim and pale and wearing a black leather jacket, looked her over curiously.

“So being with the Hensons, does that mean you’ve been in trouble?” he inquired.

Sybil rolled her eyes.

“Smooth, Jason,” she objected. But that didn’t stop her from listening with obvious interest for the answer.

Tamara blew out smoke in a thin, white stream. It was a question bound to be on everyone’s mind.

“Yeah, I’ve been in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I just got out of juvie. Three years. Made parole.” Word would get out one way or another. It might as well come from her and at least be accurate to start with. The more she tried to hide her past, the more the rumors would fly.

Jason whistled through his teeth.

“Wow. What for?”

“Murder,” Tamara said flatly. No emotion in her voice or expression. Nothing that would show weakness or vulnerability.

“You’re pulling my leg. Seriously?” he demanded.

Tamara shrugged. He could interpret the gesture as he liked.

“Who’d you kill?”

“None of your business.”

“Some guy who asked too many questions,” Sybil teased, and cracked up.

Tamara grinned at Sybil. Jason opened his mouth to ask another question.

“Shut up, Jason,” Sybil snapped.

He closed his mouth and rolled his eyes. They continued to smoke. After a few minutes, Jason stepped on his cigarette butt and left. Sybil looked at Tamara.

“You want to walk?”

“Sure.”

They walked in silence for a while. Tamara tried to make her cigarette last, not knowing how hard it would be for her to get another pack. In juvie, it was surprisingly easy. Here, she was going to have to get someone who was old enough to buy them for her, once she could get her hands on some money.

“News travels fast,” Tamara observed.

“The grapevine is humming away,” Sybil agreed. “Some of Henson’s kids have made things… interesting around here, so when word gets out that they got someone new—well, the news travels.”

“Great.”

“Sorry. It’ll die down again. Unless you’re planning on making a splash.”

“I’m not looking for attention.”

Sybil nodded. They continued to walk and make small talk.

“So what was it like?” Sybil asked, and at Tamara’s questioning look, elaborated. “In juvie.”

“Not somewhere you’d like to be.”

Sybil waited for more information, but Tamara shook her head and didn’t enlighten her.

The teacher walked up to Tamara while she was doing her classwork, and put a slip of yellow paper on her desk. Tamara looked down at it and looked up at the teacher questioningly.

“You’re wanted down at the office. That’s your hall pass.”

Tamara looked at it for a minute, and then closed her books and stacked them up. She picked up the yellow paper and headed out of the room and down the stairs. She got turned around a couple of times, but eventually found her way to the administrative office where she had started her day. She presented her yellow slip to the gray-haired woman at the reception desk.

“Yes. Tamara,” the woman said, looking at the paper as if there was something wrong with it. “You are in conference room B.”

Tamara looked around, and the receptionist pointed to a closed door behind her.

“Right there. Go on in.”

Tamara wasn’t sure what was going on. Was she in trouble for something already? Maybe someone had reported her for smoking. Or maybe it was something they always did at the end of the day when a student transferred mid-term. Checking up to make sure that everything had gone all right. That they had found all of their classes, hadn’t had any trouble…

She put her hand on the doorknob. The receptionist had said to go right in, but she didn’t feel right about it. Tamara knocked lightly on the door, and opened it, poking her head in. It was a small meeting room, four chairs around a small table. A tall black man sat in one with his long legs stretched out in front of him. He was dressed in a suit. His head was bald, maybe shaved. He smiled but didn’t show any teeth. The smile didn’t reach his eyes. His face immediately fell back into a tired, grim look.

“Tamara,” he greeted. “Come on in. Shut the door and have a seat.”

Tamara obeyed, trying to analyze him. Not the principal. Maybe a counselor, if he’d been a cop in a previous life. He had the air of one of the guards in juvie. Not one of the day-to-day guards, but one of the supervisors or something. Higher up the food chain. More reserved, not as quick to pull out his baton or taser. Tamara sat down in the chair across from the man and waited.

“My name is Chad Collins,” he introduced himself. “I’ll be your parole officer.”

“Oh.” Tamara blew out her breath. Now it made sense. She wasn’t in trouble. Not yet. This was her new shadow. The man who would be watching for her to fail. “Hi.”

“I’ve read your file, and I think that you can make this transition successfully, if you put your mind to it.”

Tamara nodded.

“It will be hard,” he went on, “but you can choose to be a different person than you were before you went to juvie. Or while you were at juvie. It’s a pivotal time for you. This is your chance to turn things around.”

He rubbed his chin, looking down at the slim file in front of him.

“Okay,” Tamara said.

“You don’t want to be sent back for something stupid. It’s important that you understand the terms of your parole.”

Tamara nodded again.

“So what…” she started. She cleared her voice and tried to strengthen her wavering voice. “What are the rules?”

He pulled a single sheet out of the file and placed it in front of Tamara.

“Okay, let’s go over it.” Pointing to the top line, he started out. “I will tell you when and where our meetings are, and you’ll be there. On time. Every time. You’re living with the Hensons, and you’re not allowed to move anywhere else without my say so. You have a nine o’clock curfew. No matter what, you’re home by nine o’clock every night. Right?”

“Yes, sir,” Tamara agreed.

“No weapons, no alcohol, no drugs. Not on your person, not in your room, not anywhere near you. You don’t associate with anyone carrying weapons, alcohol, or drugs. You’ll submit to random drug testing. Whenever I say. On the spot. You are not allowed to be around anyone who has been convicted of a felony.”

“What if…”

“No one. No ‘what ifs’. It doesn’t matter if you knew them in juvie, before juvie, or met them since. No criminal associations.”

“Okay.” Tamara nodded.

“You’re not allowed to be around young children. No one under six. And you’ll attend mandatory counseling at least weekly.”

“Yes, sir,” Tamara said. “What kind of counseling?”

“Something to help to ease the transition, give you the skills that you need to stay clean outside of juvie. Anger and stress management. Addictions counseling, if you need it. Anything that I or your therapist decide that you need.”

Tamara nodded and swallowed.

“Okay.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“No, sir.”

“What are you going to do if you think of questions? If you’re not sure about something?”

She continued to stare at the paper in front of her.

“I guess I call you,” she said.

“That’s right.” He pointed to his contact details at the bottom of the page. “Do you have a cell phone yet?”

“No.”

“When you get one, you put me on your number one speed dial. I’m the person you call if you have any questions.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What if you slip up and break a rule, what do you do?” he demanded.

Tamara picked at the skin around her nails, hiding them under the table.

“Fix it,” she suggested. “Don’t do it again.”

“The first thing you do is call me. You report yourself. ‘Mr. Collins, someone offered me a beer, and I was stupid enough to drink it.’ ‘Mr. Collins, I was ten minutes late for curfew.’ ‘Mr. Collins, a friend from juvie called me up, but I hung up on her.’ Any violation, no matter how big or small. You call me. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Things will be much worse if I hear it from someone else, or it shows up in a drug test or something. Tell me, and you might not get sent back to juvie.”

“Okay.”

Tamara had an overwhelming desire to bite her nails, and it was only with a huge exercise of will that she was able to keep her hands in her lap, hidden, away from her face, still picking at the cuticles.

“What if you have some other kind of problem?” he questioned.

Tamara looked up at his face, the slight flare of his nostrils and curl of his lip.

“Call you?” she suggested.

He nodded.

“Now you’re getting it,” he agreed.

Tamara mirrored his nod. Neither one of them said anything for a while, and Tamara eventually looked back up at Collins again, wondering what else she was in for.

“How was your first day?” he asked.

Tamara relaxed a little in her seat, letting out a pent-up breath.

“Okay. Not bad. The Hensons all seem really nice.”

“They’re a good family,” Collins agreed. “They’ve dealt with a lot of tough cases. Everything is pretty calm there now, and I’m hoping that you won’t make things too difficult for them. Give them a bit of a rest.”

“I don’t plan on getting in any trouble.”

“Good. But it can be harder than you would think. These things are rarely planned. But temptations show up, catch you at a weak moment. You feel loyal to a friend or family member and think nobody will know, nobody will get hurt.”

“I don’t do drugs,” Tamara said. “Or drink. I never even had a cigarette before juvie.”

He studied her, eyes narrowed slightly. Tamara felt the need to defend herself further. She might not care what the kids at school or the Hensons thought, but she thought her parole officer ought to know what kind of a person she was.

“I’m not a troublemaker,” she said. “You look at my juvie file. Or my school records before… before it happened. I never got in any kind of trouble. Ever.”

Collins rubbed his chin, his dark eyes boring into her.

“You have admitted to the murders more than once. In court and to the parole board.”

“Yes.”

“What does that say about you?”

Tamara stared back down at the paper again. She picked at her cuticles under the table. 

“It was a bad situation,” she said. “I was trapped, and hurt, and the hormones… made me so foggy and emotional. I didn’t know what to do. I know it doesn’t make sense when you say it like that, but I was so… confused.”

There was silence from Collins at first.

“This time,” he said finally, “you have someone to talk to. You’re not alone.”

Tamara looked at him again. His voice was low, almost gentle.

“Call me,” he said, tapping the piece of paper with the eraser end of his pencil. “For any reason.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Tamara nodded. She felt very teary and emotional all of a sudden, and she didn’t like it. She couldn’t let her guard down. Couldn’t make herself vulnerable. Collins’ lips pressed together in a thin line for a moment, then the look vanished. Collins unfolded himself from the chair, towering over her. Tamara scrambled to get to her feet. He offered his hand, and Tamara shook it, feeling a bit awkward.

“Call me tomorrow before curfew,” he instructed.

Tamara nodded.

He was still holding her hand, and looked down at it. Tamara saw that her fingers were bleeding around the nails, and pulled her hand out of his grasp, hiding it behind her back.

“I’m not the enemy, Tamara,” Collins said. He sighed. “I’ll get you in to see the therapist as soon as possible. Transition and stress management. You’ll go.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Talk to you tomorrow, then.”

Tamara nodded, and he left the room. The door swung shut behind him, clicking softly into place. Tamara put her hands over her face and tried to calm and compose herself. She was tough. She could manage it. She’d show Chad Collins that she wasn’t like any of his other parolees. He didn’t know her. She could make it.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Tattooed Teardrops

By P.D. Workman

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