loosen her grasp. I kicked dust onto her shins, and when she didn’t release my arms, I kicked her ankles. She did not step back.

I let out a growl and snapped my teeth toward her outstretched arm, but she saw me coming and grabbed my face. She squeezed my cheeks until my jaw loosened and my lips puckered. I sucked in my breath in pain.

“No biting,” she said, and then leaned forward as if she would kiss my pink puckered lips but stopped inches from my face, her dark eyes drilling into mine. “I like to be touched,” she said. “You’ll have to get used to it.”

She flashed me an amused grin and let go of my face.

“I won’t,” I promised. “I won’t ever get used to it.”

But I stopped fighting and let her pull me up the front porch and inside the cool, dark house.


Meredith turned off Sunset Boulevard and drove too slowly down Noriega, reading each street sign. An impatient car honked behind us.

She’d been talking continuously since Fell Street, and the list of reasons my survival seemed unlikely stretched halfway across San Francisco: no high school diploma, no motivation, no support network, a complete lack of social skills. She was asking for my plan, demanding I think about my own self-sufficiency.

I ignored her.

It hadn’t always been this way between us. As a young child I’d soaked up her chatty optimism, sitting on the edge of a bed while she brushed and braided my thin brown hair, tying it up with a ribbon before presenting me like a gift to a new mother, a new father. But as the years passed, and family after family gave me back, Meredith’s hopefulness chilled. The once-gentle hairbrush pulled, stopping and starting with the rhythm of her lecturing. The description of how I should act lengthened with each placement change, and became more and more different from the child I knew myself to be. Meredith kept a running list of my deficiencies in her appointment book and read them to the judge like criminal convictions. Detached. Quick-tempered. Tight-lipped. Unrepentant. I remembered every word she said.

But despite her frustrations, Meredith had kept my case. She refused to transfer it out of the adoptions unit even when a tired judge suggested, the summer I turned eight, that perhaps she’d done all she could. Meredith negated this claim without pause. For a buoyant, bewildered moment I thought her reaction had come from a place of hidden fondness for me, but when I turned my gaze I saw her pale skin pink in embarrassment. She had been my social worker since birth; if I was to be declared a failure, I was, by extension, her failure.

We pulled up in front of The Gathering House, a peach, flat-roofed stucco house in a row of peach, flat- roofed stucco houses.

“Three months,” Meredith said. “I want to hear you say it. I want to know you understand. Three months’ free rent, and after that you pay up or move out.”

I said nothing. Meredith stepped out and slammed the car door behind her.

My box in the backseat had shifted during the drive, my clothes spilling out onto the seat. I piled them back on top of the books and followed Meredith up the front steps. She rang the bell.

It was more than a minute before the door opened, and when it did a cluster of girls stood in the entryway. I clutched my box tighter to my chest.

A short, heavy-legged girl with long blond hair pushed open the metal screen and stuck out her hand. “I’m Eve,” she said.

Meredith stepped on my foot, but I didn’t reach for her outstretched hand. “This is Victoria Jones,” she said, pushing me forward. “She’s eighteen today.”

There was a mumbling of happy birthdays, and two girls exchanged eyebrow-arched glances.

“Alexis was evicted last week,” Eve said. “You get her room.” She turned as if to take me there, and I followed her down a dark, carpeted hall to an open doorway. Slipping inside, I closed the door and turned the lock behind me.

The room was bright white. It smelled like fresh paint, and the walls, when I touched them, were tacky. The painter had been sloppy. The carpet, once white like the walls but now mottled from use, was streaked with paint near the baseboard. I wished the painter had kept going, painted the entire carpet, the single mattress, and the dark wood nightstand. The white was clean and new, and I liked that it had belonged to no one before me.

From the hall, Meredith called me. She knocked, and knocked again. I set my heavy box down in the middle of the room. Pulling out my clothes, I piled them onto the closet floor and stacked my books on the nightstand. When the box was empty, I ripped it into strips to cover the bare mattress and lay down on top. Light streamed through a small window and reflected off the walls, warming the exposed skin on my face, neck, and hands. The window was south-facing, I noticed, good for orchids and bulbs.

“Victoria?” Meredith called again. “I need to know your plan. Just tell me your plan and I’ll leave you alone.”

I closed my eyes, ignoring the sound of her knuckles against the wood. Finally, she stopped knocking.

When I opened my eyes, an envelope lay on the carpet near the door. Inside, there was a twenty-dollar bill and a note that read: Buy food and find a job.

Meredith’s twenty-dollar bill bought five gallons of whole milk. Every morning for a week I made my purchase at the corner store, drinking the creamy liquid slowly throughout the day as I wandered from city parks to schoolyards, identifying the local plants. Having never lived so near the ocean, I expected the landscape to be unfamiliar. I expected the dense morning fog, hovering only inches from the soil, would cultivate an array of vegetation I had never before seen. But except for wide mounds of aloe near the water’s edge, tall red flowers reaching for the sky, I found a surprising lack of newness. The same foreign plants I’d seen in gardens and nurseries all over the Bay Area—lantana, bougainvillea, potato vine, and nasturtium—dominated the neighborhood. Only the scale was different. Wrapped in the opaque moisture of the coast, plants grew bigger, brighter, and wilder, eclipsing low fences and garden sheds.

When I finished a gallon of milk I would return home, cut the jug in half with a kitchen knife, and wait for night. The soil in the next-door neighbor’s flower bed was dark and rich, and I transferred it into my improvised flowerpots with a soupspoon. Poking holes in the bottoms of the jugs, I set them in the center of my bedroom floor, where they would get direct sun for only a few hours in the late mornings.

I would look for a job; I knew I needed to. But for the first time in my life I had my own bedroom with a locking door, and no one telling me where to be or what to do. Before I started searching for work, I’d decided, I would grow a garden.

By the end of my first week I had created fourteen flowerpots and surveyed a sixteen-block radius for my options. Focusing on fall-blooming flowers, I uprooted whole plants from front yards, community gardens, and playgrounds. Usually I walked home, my hands cradling muddy root balls, but on more than one occasion I ended up lost, or too far from The Gathering House. On these days I would sneak onto a crowded bus through the back door, push my way onto a seat, and ride until the neighborhood became familiar. Back in my room, I spread out the shocked roots gently, covered them with the nutrient-rich soil, and watered deeply. The milk jugs drained right onto the carpet, and as the days passed, weeds began to sprout from the worn fiber. I hovered, watchful, plucking the invasive species almost before they could push their way out of the darkness.

Meredith checked in on me weekly. The judge had declared her my permanent connection, because emancipation legislation required a connection and they couldn’t dig anyone else out of my file. I did my best to avoid her. When I returned from my walks, I surveyed The Gathering House from the corner, walking up the front steps only when her white car wasn’t parked in the driveway. Eventually she divined my tactic, and in early September I unlocked the front door to find her sitting at the dining room table.

“Where’s your car?” I demanded.

“Parked around the block,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in over a month, so I figured you must be avoiding me. Is there a reason?”

“No reason.” I walked to the table and pushed someone’s dirty dishes out of the way. Sitting down, I placed fistfuls of lavender—which I had uprooted from a front yard in Pacific Heights—on the scratched wood between us.

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