Light streamed down through the row of windows near the ceiling, creating long grey stripes on the opposite wall. A girl shrouded in a blanket sat on a cot across from Millie, who was waking from what she hoped was a bad dream.
“The good looking ones go first,” the girl whispered as soon as she saw Millie’s eyes were open. “Make ‘em think you can do something besides eat and shit and you might have a fightin’ chance. Everybody wants babies. There’s no competing with babies. So, don’t get your hopes up. How are your teeth?”
“My teeth?” Millie choked out a confused reply to the strange ghost whispering to her. She must still be dreaming, she thought. Then she heard the girl say, “Yeah, got a mouth full of rotten teeth, you can forget it. Nobody wants a scrawny kid who can’t even brush her own teeth. Listen to me. I know what I’m talking about. See.” The girl opened her mouth as wide as she could. Silver glinted in the dim light.
“I’ve been here longer than any of the girls in this room. Even a cross-eyed bed wetter got picked over me. On accounta m’damn rotten teeth.”
“I’m sorry.” Millie whispered back to the apparition, still trying to shake herself awake.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m getting out of here soon. I’ll be seventeen in a couple of months. Wad you do anyways? Get kicked outta school too many times? Make your mama’s boy friend like you too much? That’s what happened to Ruth over there.” The girl pointed to a round figure slumped in the corner. “She can’t help she got boobs, but her mama threw ‘er out anyway. She’s only thirteen. How was she gonna support herself? They picked her up at a truck stop out on highway 27. She sleeps in that corner with her back to the wall.”
Millie had no idea what the girl meant. She had no idea about a lot of things. The girl had been in and out of foster homes enough to know what it was all about. She continued the lesson. Millie sat mesmerized, wondering where exactly she was.
“Some are in it for the check. They might have three or four of us piled in like sardines with their own kids. Some just take one kid at a time. They have other reasons,” she told Millie, adding, “Don’t be scared, but don’t be surprised either. There’s only two kinds of people in the world. The caught and the uncaught.”
“I was caught stealing eggs,” Millie confessed.
Just then the door opened and a woman in a brown dress motioned toward Millie. “What’s that you’ve got there?” The woman pointed to the hope chest next to Millie on the cot.
“It’s my mama’s hope chest. It belongs to me now.”
“No personal items are allowed in the dormitory.” The woman reached for the box.
“It’s mine,” Millie screeched as the woman jerked the box from her hands.
The woman ran her fingers over the carved angels and slowly raised the lid. “You can keep the Bible and these handkerchiefs, but the box has to be locked up for safe keeping.” The woman threw the tattered King James Version down on the cot and turned toward the door. Millie felt a lump swelling in her throat and her eyes began to sting. “Mary, you need a shower and a change of clothes. Follow me.” the woman snapped.
“Mary, Millie, what’s the difference?”
“The difference is that I’m Millie.”
“Are you smart mouthin’ me little girl?”
“Good. Make sure you don’t.”
The girl in the room hadn’t covered that lesson. Millie would learn Mercy’s Hope Girl’s Home was no place to sass the help. Burned out social workers and washed up school teachers didn’t take kindly to back talk. Millie hadn’t meant any disrespect. Why shouldn’t she correct the woman’s mistake? It wasn’t long before the older girls showed Millie the err of her ways. They had bruises and belt marks in places that shouldn’t see the light of day. After that Millie decided to double her efforts to be a good girl. Each night she prayed as hard as she could until she fell asleep. Every Sunday on the bus ride from church back to Mercy’s Hope she kept to herself, being careful to not make eye contact with the chaperones in case one of them was in a bad mood. Millie tried her best to look presentable when potential foster parents came to visit. She smiled and recited over and over in her head the Bible verse, “Even a child is known by his actions, whether his ways are good and right.” She didn’t know for sure, since the King James Version said “his” ways and “his” actions, but Millie hoped it meant “hers” too.