I slunk into the front seat next to Meredith and closed the door, waiting for her to pull away from the curb. Her acrylic fingernails tapped against the steering wheel. I buckled my seat belt. Still, the car did not move. I turned to face Meredith. I had not changed out of my pajamas, and I pulled my flannel-covered knees up to my chest and wrapped my jacket around my legs. My eyes scanned the roof of Meredith’s car as I waited for her to speak.

“Well, are you ready?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“This is it, you know,” she said. “Your life starts here. No one to blame but yourself from here on out.”

Meredith Combs, the social worker responsible for selecting the stream of adoptive families that gave me back, wanted to talk to me about blame.


I pressed my forehead against the window and watched the dusty summer hills roll past. Meredith’s car smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was mold on the strap of the seat belt from something some other child had been allowed to eat. I was nine years old. I sat in the backseat of the car in my nightgown, my cropped hair a tangled mess. It was not the way Meredith had wanted it. She’d purchased a dress for the occasion, a flowing, pale blue shift with embroidery and lace. But I had refused to wear it.

Meredith stared at the road ahead. She didn’t see me unbuckle my seat belt, roll down the window, and stick my head out until my collarbone pressed against the top of the door. Tilting my chin up into the wind, I waited for her to tell me to sit down. She glanced back at me but didn’t say anything. Her mouth remained a tight line, and I couldn’t see her expression underneath her sunglasses.

I stayed this way until Meredith touched a button on her door that made the window rise an inch without warning. The thick glass pressed into my outstretched neck. I flew back, bouncing off the seat and sinking down onto the floor. Meredith continued to raise the window until the wind rushing through the car was replaced by silence. She did not look back. Curling up on the dirty carpet, I pulled a rancid baby bottle from deep beneath the passenger seat and threw it at Meredith. It hit her shoulder and flew back at me, leaking a sour puddle onto my knees. Meredith didn’t flinch.

“Do you want peaches?” she asked.

Food was something I could never refuse, and Meredith knew it.


“Then get in your seat, buckle your seat belt, and I’ll buy you whatever you want at the next fruit stand we pass.”

I climbed onto the seat and pulled the seat belt across my waist.

Fifteen minutes passed before Meredith pulled off the freeway. She bought me two peaches and a half-pound of cherries, which I counted as I ate.

“I’m not supposed to tell you this,” Meredith began as we turned back onto the road. Her words were slow, the sentence drawn out for effect. She paused and glanced back at me. I held my gaze out the window and rested my cheek against the glass, unresponsive. “But I think you deserve to know. This is your last chance. Your very last chance, Victoria—did you hear me?” I didn’t acknowledge her question. “When you turn ten, the county will label you unadoptable, and even I won’t keep trying to convince families to take you. It’ll be group home after group home until you emancipate if this doesn’t work out—just promise me you’ll think about that.”

I rolled down the window and spit cherry seeds into the wind. Meredith had picked me up from my first stay at a group home just an hour before. It struck me that my placement in the home might have been purposeful—in preparation for this exact moment. I hadn’t done anything to get kicked out of my last foster home, and I was in the group home only a week before Meredith came to take me to Elizabeth.

It would be just like Meredith, I thought, to make me suffer to prove her point. The staff at the group home had been cruel. Every morning the cook made a fat, dark- skinned girl eat with her shirt pulled up around her neck, her bulging belly exposed, so she would remember not to eat too much. Afterward, the housemother, Miss Gayle, chose one of us to stand at the head of the long table and explain why our family didn’t want us. Miss Gayle picked me only once, and since I was abandoned at birth, I got away with saying “My mother didn’t want a baby.” Other girls told stories of the awful things they’d done to siblings, or why they were responsible for their parents’ drug addictions, and almost always they cried.

But if Meredith had placed me in the group home to scare me into behaving, it hadn’t worked. Despite the staff, I liked it there. Meals were served at regular hours, I slept under two blankets, and no one pretended to love me.

I ate the last cherry and spit the seed at the back of Meredith’s head.

“Just think about it,” she said again. As if to bribe me into contemplation, she pulled over and purchased a steaming basket of fish and chips and a chocolate milkshake from a drive-through. I ate quickly, sloppily, watching the dry landscape of the East Bay turn into the crowded chaos of San Francisco and then open up into a great expanse of water. By the time we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my nightgown was covered in peaches, cherries, ketchup, and ice cream.

We passed dry fields, a flower farm, and an empty parking lot, and finally came to a vineyard, the vines neat stripes on the rolling hillside. Meredith braked hard and turned left onto a long dirt driveway, increasing her speed on the bumpy road as if she couldn’t wait another moment to get me out of her car. We went flying past picnic tables and rows of carefully tended, thick-trunked grapevines growing on low wires. Meredith slowed slightly at a turn before picking up speed again and driving toward a gathering of tall trees in the center of the property, dust billowing around her county car.

When she stopped and the dust cleared, I saw a white farmhouse. It stood two stories tall with a peaked roof, a glass-enclosed porch, and lace curtains covering the windows. To the right was a low metal trailer and more than one slumping shed, toys, tools, and bikes scattered between them. Having lived in a trailer before, I immediately wondered if Elizabeth would have a foldout couch or if I would have to share her bedroom. I didn’t like listening to people breathe.

Meredith didn’t wait to see if I would get out of the car voluntarily. She unbuckled my seat belt, grabbed me under my arms, and pulled me kicking to the front of the large house. I expected Elizabeth to come out of the trailer, so I had my back to the front porch and didn’t see her before feeling her bony fingers on my shoulder. Shrieking, I bolted forward, sprinting on bare feet to the far side of the car and then crouching down behind it.

“She doesn’t like to be touched,” I heard Meredith say to Elizabeth with obvious annoyance. “I told you that. You have to wait until she comes to you.” It angered me that she knew this. I rubbed the skin where Elizabeth had grabbed me, erasing her fingerprints, and stayed out of sight behind the car.

“I’ll wait,” Elizabeth said. “I told you I would wait, and I don’t intend to go back on my word.”

Meredith began to recite the usual list of reasons she couldn’t stay to help us get to know each other: an ailing grandparent, an anxious husband, and her fear of driving at night. Elizabeth’s foot tapped impatiently near the rear tire as she listened. In a moment Meredith would be gone, leaving me exposed in the gravel. I crawled backward, low to the ground. Darting behind a walnut tree, I stood up and ran.

At the end of the trees I ducked into the first row of grapes, hiding within a dense plant. I pulled down the loose vines and wrapped them around my thin body. From my hiding spot I could hear Elizabeth coming toward me, and by adjusting the vines I could see her walking along one of the aisles. I let my hand drop from my mouth with relief as she passed my row.

Reaching up, I picked a grape from the nearest bunch and bit through the thick skin. It was sour. I spit it out and smashed the rest of the bunch one at a time under my foot, the juice squishing between my toes.

I didn’t see or hear Elizabeth come back in my direction. But just as I began to smash a second bunch of grapes, she reached down into the vines, grabbed me by the arms, and pulled me out of my hiding spot. She held me out in front of her. My feet dangled an inch above the ground while she looked me over.

“I grew up here,” she said. “I know all the good hiding spots.”

I tried to break loose, but Elizabeth held firmly to both my arms. She set my feet down on the dirt but did not

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