People have been calling me 'Ghost' for so long, I'm not even sure what my real name is any more. I have a baby picture that is old and wrinkly. It is of a very pale baby with nearly invisible hair and pink eyes... a sad mockery of what a normal baby should look like. It was enough to make my own parents abandon me. On the back of the photo is a name: Genève Helena St. Thomas...GHST or Ghost. It started as a nickname, I guess. I've heard that nicknames are supposed to be kind or loving, but not mine. Every time someone uses it, it reminds me that I'm different. Are you feeling sorry for me yet?
This is about the tenth foster home I've been in during my sixteen years on the planet. Every time I start to relax my guard, the social worker shows up and off I go to a new family. After about the fifth one, I stopped caring enough to let it hurt, I stopped bothering with niceties, like remembering their names. How about now? Feeling sorry yet?
So I got dumped off at this new place. It's not bad, but not really great either. I'd say about middle class. It used to be a really nice big house, but now it's sort of shabby around the edges, just like the commandant and his wife. They both gasped when I pulled my coat off and unwrapped my scarf. I knew they had been warned - they are always warned about me - but they are never quite prepared.
I do have my own bedroom here and that's nice. I tend to spend a lot of time just watching from windows, mostly because exposure to the sun will make me sick and leave me blistered. One foster mother thought it would be safe to stick me out in the yard on an overcast afternoon and leave me. It took me nearly a month and several skin grafts to recover from that adventure. Tears starting to well yet? Excellent!
Okay, so I'm sitting and watching through a thin sheer into the next door neighbor's backyard. It's a mess of toys and huge bare patches of ground where the grass has been worn away. The neighbors have four kids, three blonds and a dark haired little girl, and I envy them. There's always an adult with them, playing or just talking... no, not just talking, but listening to them. I leave my window cracked open and sometimes I can hear them laughing and calling out to each other. The girl is Irene, I think... and the oldest is a boy called Alex.
I grew to know them all over the next year. The babies I watched grow from squalling, yowling infants to toddlers. The mother, Lisle, stayed home and the father, Leon, left every morning with the two old guys. It took me awhile to figure out that they must be the grandfathers, although I didn't know why they stayed there. After being kicked around to as many homes as I have, it's hard for me to understand any type of affection, except to know I've never had it and probably never will. I watch these two old guys play with the kids and it's me who wants to cry. I will never know that sort of love. Or at least that's what I thought at the time.
It was a full moon, a harvest moon, just short of my seventeenth birthday, just another day for everyone else, and the night was mild and the air was soft. I went out to sit on the porch and feel the breeze against my face. I like to shut my eyes and imagine that I'm standing on the shore of a great long beach, with the sun soft and warm on my face like a caress. I'm the only one there and then someone starts talking to me, apologizing for everything she's put me through and how she wants me to come and be with her forever. Then a car goes by, or a cricket starts chirping and I know... no beach, no loving mother, no love, period. And my heart hardens just a little bit more.
So, I'm sitting there and I hear a noise, sort of low and muffled. There's a hedge separating the two houses and I walk over to it and listen. It's someone talking, a little girl, and I guessed it was Irene.
"What's wrong?" I kept my voice low.
"Who's there?" Her voice sounded cautious, but curious, as only a little kid can sound.
"I live next door."
"Are you a bad person?"
"No, not really." Some of my social workers wouldn't agree with me, but to hell with them. "So what's wrong?"
"You wouldn't understand. No one listens to me. Poppy tries, but he's so busy... and Grampy too. They'd rather play with Alex than me." A sigh, long and soulful. "And the babies... they're too busy being babies..."
"What about your Mom?"
"She's too busy getting ready for the new baby.. She spends a lot of time in the bathroom, throwing up. I don't think I want babies... not if they make you sick like that."
"I think it's only for a little while... wait, your mom is pregnant? Again?"
"Uh huh, with someone special, Daddy says, someone we all have to take care of. What if there's no love left for me?"
I felt so sorry for her, so young and so worried about not being loved anymore. I knew what it was like to be just a face in a crowd. "Tell you what, Irene, how about we make a pact?"
"A pact, it's like a promise. No matter what, if you need to, you come out here and talk to me. I'll always listen."
"I promise." That was stupid really, I could be shipped off tomorrow, but for the first time, I wasn't in a hurry to leave. For the first time in my life, I'd found someone who depended upon me for me and not just as another check at the end of the month.
"I'd like that..."
"Irina, sweetheart, you have until the count of five or I give Peter your dessert!" her father called from the porch. Even yelling, there was so much love in that voice.
"You better go..." I said, wishing with all my heart that someone would call me in, just once, or even care that I sat out here by myself night after night.
"Okay, Daddy, I'm coming... what's your name?"
I hesitated, knowing that I might scare her. "Ghost, it's my nickname."
"It's beautiful, mine's Reenie . I love you, bye- bye."
I heard her run away, back towards the house, but I didn't move. I couldn't. It was the first time I'd ever had someone say that to me. It didn't matter that she didn't mean it. It didn't matter that she didn't know me. I sat there and sniffled, too happy to move.
At first I was afraid to go back, afraid that Irene had thought better of it, but the next night she was there. We talked for a little bit about babies and she asked me questions - a lot of questions - about everything. She was so curious about everything. And every night, she would tell me she loved me and run back into her house.
As usual, I took my seat on the ground and waited. It was getting cold and pretty soon we wouldn't be able to meet anymore. I knew that if she ever saw me, she'd run screaming like most kids her age did. It broke my heart to think we would soon be parting company because of something as stupid as the weather, but as Mr. Delany, he's my current foster father, says, "It's no use fussing at the weather, it just makes you tired and the weather don't care none anyway."
I wrapped a blanket around me and shivered. I don't have any winter clothes that fit any more, but I'd been making do for a long time and I knew better than to ask.
"Irene," I whispered softly. "Are you there?"
The voice that answered me made me jump. "Irina is ill tonight and asked me to come in her stead." The voice was like chocolate on ice cream, all smooth and sweet. "It's all right; she has told us all about you." Then suddenly the voice was right beside me and I covered my mouth to keep from screaming. I mean he wasn't bad looking, for an old guy that is. I knew from Irene's description that this was Grampy, her father's father. "Miss Ghost, I presume?"
"It's nice to meet you finally. We weren't exactly sure you were real for a long time. Irina has an active imagination. I'm Napoleon Solo, Irina's grandfather."
"She's told me all about you..."
"Has she now?" This old guy, he was nice and all, but he was scary, like he could take you out and not even break a sweat doing it. I'd lived with a guy who looked like him once and it wasn't a happy time. I learned to keep my head down and stay very quiet when he was around. Without meaning to, I took a step back towards the house and even glanced in that direction, hoping beyond hope, that someone was watching me. They weren't. "Don't be afraid, I won't hurt you. Irina is very fond of you."
"Napoleon, did you... oh, you did."
This time I did yell... well, I sort of squeaked. I never heard the other guy even come up behind me. It isn't fair that old men can move that quietly. He was blond and had Irene's eyes... or I guess vice versa since he was older. This was Poppy - he didn't look like any frigging flower I'd ever seen... He was even more scary looking than the other guy.
"Illya, meet Miss Ghost."
"An albino, it makes sense now." He looked at me and I nearly wet my pants. "What is your real name?"
Even though I didn't want to, I heard myself stammer, "Genève Helena St. Thomas."
"That's a lovely name," Grampy... Napoleon... whoever, said. "Why would you call yourself anything else?"
"I'm guessing it's a nickname and not one of your own making." The blond guy...Illya..? looked up at the sky and blew a mouthful of air out. A thick white cloud formed almost instantly. "I think this would be a discussion best moved indoors. If you'd like to accompany Napoleon, I will explain to your foster parents."
"You don't need to, they won't care."
"Nevertheless, it's what responsible people do." He smiled just a little bit at me and I felt all warm inside.
"May I have the honor of escorting you, Miss St. Thomas?" Then Grampy offered me his elbow and I took it, really happy that it was dark so he couldn't see me blushing.
"Kids are scared of me... please... I don't want to..."
"I assure you, our grandchildren won't be afraid of you, although you might want to flee for your life before the night is over."
Still worried, I let him take me inside the house I'd watched the outside of for so long. Watched and wondered what went on in there that made everyone so happy.
Lisle and Leon, um, Mr. and Mrs. Solo, were really nice and he shook my hand, but Lisle hugged me. Now I could see where Irene got her enthusiasm for life.
The twins, Peter and Inessa, they both ran up to me and grabbed a hand, dragging me towards a toy chest that overflowed with treasures.
"Play Boom!" Inessa ordered, pointing to some blocks.
"She takes after her maternal grandfather," Grampy explained. "She likes to blow things up. As she's only two, we don't allow her to have explosives yet."
"Knocking things down has to make do for awhile." Grampy knelt and began to stack the blocks and then I took over. Inessa watched me the way a cat watches a bird.
"Now?" she asked, inching closer. "Now?"
I got one last block in place and nodded. "Now."
She knocked them over and squealed with delight. "Kapow!"
I couldn't help but laugh with her and then I felt a hand on my arm, patting it insistently.
"Peter, you have already had dinner and two snacks..." Lisle protested, scooping him up. "No more food."
"No, you're not...
Alex walked in just then, took one look at me and stomped up to me. "You know fractions?"
"How come one half is the same as two fours?'
"Alex, Genève is here to see Irina."
"Shoot, nobody wants to help me with math."
Poppy walked over to him and knelt down, moving a little funny as he did, like it hurt him or something. "That's because it's your homework and no one else's. You know how to figure out the answer, you just don't want to make the effort."
"Stupid math..." I hid my grin as he walked, grumbling, from the room.
"He doesn't like math, I take it?"
"He doesn't like anything that isn't train related," Leon said, chuckling.
Grampy led the way up the stairs to the second floor. We stopped just outside a door and I heard a cough from inside.
"Irina, sweetheart, I have a visitor for you?"
"Who?" she croaked and I wanted to cry as Grampy pushed opened the door and we walked in.
"Ghost!" She was out of bed and in my arms in a heartbeat, hugging me hard. "You look just like Galadriel! You're even more beautiful than I imagined."
"The Elf Queen from Lord of the Rings." She started stroking my hair. "Poppy's reading it to me. He's good at voices. You're so pretty."
"I... I am?"
"Uh huh, just like a fairy princess." Then she giggled and coughed as Grampy lifted her up.
"Okay, Princess, you get back into bed."
"Can Ghost stay with me?"
"For a little while, but not too late. You need to get some rest."
I look back on that evening with a lot of emotions because it was a real turning point in my life. After that, I spent more time at the Solo's than I did at my own place, in time feeling it to be more home than the house next door. Mr. and Mrs. Delany didn't mind; they still got my monthly check and they didn't have to bother with me.
Mrs. Solo, Lis, she's so nice and was so happy to have any help at all. I learned early on how to pull my own weight; you don't make it very far in foster care before you are introduced to a broom and a mop. I did stuff that was getting too hard for her. The guys were good and all, but they didn't understand what clean was. Not really... Lis showed me how to cook a little, but it was Grampy and Poppy who were the real demons in the kitchen. When they got started, we all retreated to the living room and held our breaths. I didn't think I could be any happier...
"Genève?" Lis was getting as big as a house. She only moved now when she really had to and I thought she was really brave. I couldn't imagine getting pregnant once, much less four times. I was sitting on the floor, playing Tiddlywinks with Peter. Mostly, I was trying to keep him from eating them - this little guy would eat anything! "I need to talk to you about something really important."
There was sort of a strange, but all too familiar sound in her voice and suddenly I wanted to start crying or throw up; I wasn't quite sure which. Whenever I had heard it before, it meant 'pack your bag, you're going.'
"Well, you know the baby is coming soon and it's going to be really crowded around here."
"I'll go now." I bit my tongue really hard to keep from crying and stood up really fast. Peter looked up.
"No mo?" He sounded so sad.
"Is it that late? I'm sorry I've kept you out past your bedtime, Genève. I will make this quick then. I was talking with your foster parents and I was wondering if you would be willing to stay here. You're nearly eighteen and will be out of foster care. You are going to need a place to stay and, quite honestly, I am going to need help with everything until I get up and running again. You'd have to bunk with Irina until we get everything shifted around, but you'd have your own room and bathroom eventually. I know how much that means to a young lady."
"We couldn't offer you very much outside of room and board, of course. Money's stretched a bit tight these days, even with Dad's and Napoleon's help. We're not really sure what sort of medical needs the baby will be facing."
"She's going to have challenges, mostly because of my exposure to chicken pox. We won't know exactly until she's born and I'm a little scared." She smiled then and sighed. "You don't have to answer now, of course -"
"Can I start right now?"
"You don't want to even think about it?"
"And have you change your mind? No way! I can be packed in minutes. I don't have very much and I won't take up very much space, I promise. You don't have to move the twins. I'll stay with Irene - I love her..." I was babbling and crying. Peter looked at me and his bottom lip started to tremble.
"No cry, Jenny, no cry, I'm here." He offered me a Tiddlywink.
"All right." Lis smiled, looking really relieved and very tired. "But you'll have to sleep with Irina tonight until the guys can bring the bed down from the apartment."
"Okay, I'll be right back!" I started to run out of the room, but then went back and hugged her and then I knelt down to ruffle Peter's hair. "I'll be right back, Petey."
"K." I gave him a kiss and grinned. How was I to know it was just the first of so many more?
It wasn't easy, of course, but that didn't matter. I moved in that night and vowed then and there that I'd never leave. I had a place that felt more comfortable than ever before, in spite of the fact that the whole bedroom was pink and only pink. There was so much love in that house it didn't matter that we ate canned tuna or hamburger three times a week. Or that there were more bare patches of ground than grass in the back yard. It didn't matter that there was more chaos here than any other place I'd ever been in my life. Here I learned what it meant to be a person, not just some thing that was shuffled from place to place.
And when Leon settled his newborn daughter in my arms and whispered, "We decided to name her Genève, if that's all right with you." Her eyes were so big and so dark, just like her hair - the image of her father and grandfather. It didn't matter that one of her little arms was all twisted up. I knew she'd be loved unconditionally for the rest of her life.
After all, they didn't care that I was bone white with pale hair and pink eyes. For the first time in my life, someone saw me and loved me for what I was. I now knew love and happiness and understood why poets wrote great works dedicated to it. For so long, all I'd known was disdain and indifference and I thought I was okay with it. Now I know better; love makes all the difference in the world.