When I was just a baby, a ghost saved my life. This is according to my Granny Lane, who I lived with at the time in a trailer on Roan Mountain.
Hurry, now, hurry, that baby is smothering, the shivery voice whispered into Granny Lane's ear. She popped open her eyes to find an old man dressed in overalls and smelling of black-licorice gum standing next to her bed.
Granny Lane was up and running so fast she didn't have time to be scared. She raced to my crib in the corner of the living room, and sure enough, I was all tangled in a knot of blankets and couldn't breathe. After Granny Lane got me loose, she crept back to the bedroom, holding me tight to her chest, and flipped on the overhead light.
There was nobody there.
Granny Lane's landlady, Mrs. Treadway, said Granny Lane wasn't the first person in that trailer to be haunted.
"Folks used to see that ghost every few months or so, it seemed like," Mrs. Treadway told Granny Lane the next time she went to pay her rent. "They say it's John Edgerton, who used to farm this land. His wife and children burned up in a fire one day when he was gone off the mountain.
"It's been some time since old John Edgerton showed up in these parts," Mrs. Treadway went on, taking Granny Lane's check, folding it twice, and slipping it into her sweater pocket. "He must think highly of that baby of yours."
I like telling this story to people. It makes them think I just might be somebody special, even if I don't look it.
I told it to Murphy fifteen minutes after I first laid eyes on her. I wanted to give her my best story right up front because when a new kid comes into the Home, you've got to stake your claim quick if you want dibs on being friends. And I thought Murphy was somebody I might want to be friends with.
"Murphy's not my real name," were the first words out of her mouth after our housemother, Corinne, introduced her in the dorm. She leaned back against the hallway wall, her arms folded across her chest, not looking at any of us. "I don't tell anyone my real name."
"What's that junk all about?" Donita asked, already halfway out the door to dinner. "This girl don't tell no one her real name. You think anyone cares what your real name is, Murphy Oil Soap?"
Now that business about Murphy changing her name flat out interested me. I changed my middle name every few months or so to suit my mood. When I first met Murphy, my middle name was Jasmine. I thought Madeline Jasmine Byers had a nice ring to it. Before Jasmine, I'd tried out Amber, California, and, once, when I was six, Lollipop. My mama didn't bother to give me a real middle name of my own, which is why I was always on the look-out for a good one.
Murphy was the only one listening when I told my ghost story at dinner. Everybody else at the eleven-year-old girls' table had heard it already, more than once, and besides they were all too busy to pay any attention. Donita was cutting her dried-up chicken into tiny pieces so maybe it would look like she'd eaten some, and Kandy was lecturing Brittany on how many calories were in that lumpy mound of mashed potatoes on her plate. I had Murphy all to myself, which was just how I wanted it.
"So why don't you live with your grandmother anymore?" she asked when I'd finished telling my story, poking her fork at the pile of overboiled broccoli on her plate. "I mean, is there some specific reason she doesn't want you to live with her?"
I took a sip of milk. I was used to getting a more wondrous reaction to my story than the one I was getting from Murphy. "Well, Granny Lane got the diabetes when I was eight and her eyes started going bad, so I went to live with my aunt, and then she couldn't keep me anymore, and by that time Granny Lane had broke her hip and couldn't take me back, so I got fostered out. It's not like Granny Lane didn't want me living with her or anything."
"Oh," said Murphy. She sounded like she didn't care all that much. "Well, when I was a baby, my parents took me to Africa. My father carried me around in a sling everywhere they went, and people gave me presents. Once a boy no bigger than a weed handed me a dead grass-hopper, and I ate it. It tasted like tuna fish, that tin can sort of taste."
"How do you remember all of that if you were just a baby?" I asked. "Most people don't have memories back that far."
Murphy shrugged. "I'm the sort of person who remembers everything. I don't know why." She speared a limp broccoli stalk with her fork and held it up. "What did they have against this poor thing anyway?"
"The cooks here hate all food," I told her, taking a bite of a stale roll. "It's not like they discriminate against the broccoli."
Murphy looked at me over her fork, like she was thinking about smiling and then decided against it. She pushed her plate away and asked, "So how long have you been here?"
"Five months," I answered. I was happy she was interested. "Since April. I came in about a month after Donita and Kandy. Brittany's been here since she was eight. I don't believe anyone's coming to claim her, and she'll never get adopted."
Those were the two things we were all biding our time for at the East Tennessee Children's Home: either getting sent back to our folks or getting a new family altogether. I knew I wasn't going back home, and there wasn't much chance anyone was going to adopt an eleven-year-old girl as plain-Jane as me. I was just waiting out the years until I could pack my bags and move into a house of my own.
Leaning closer to me and cutting her eyes over at Brittany, Murphy whispered, "She smells terrible."
"Corinne is working with her on that," I whispered back. "I don't think Brittany gets the idea of personal hygiene."
Murphy shivered and frowned. You could tell by looking at her that personal hygiene was high on her list. Her curly brown hair was tucked neatly behind her ears, and she had a real clean smell about her, like apples and baby powder. Her clothes were nice. Maybe not directly out of a magazine, but better than your average foster care-child wardrobe. I know from personal experience that you're lucky to get clothes that fit when you're a foster-care child. Being fashionable is almost always out of the question.
Back in the bedroom all of us eleven-year-old girls shared, Murphy began unpacking her cardboard boxes. She had four of them, which may not seem like much to you, but believe me, a lot of kids show up here with a paper bag full of nothing. I sat on my bed, which was right next to hers, and watched as she poked through first one box and then another.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" she asked, her head deep inside a box. "Play in traffic? Start a forest fire?"
"Nope," I said. I was just dying to see Murphy's stuff. I love stuff. One day I'd like to live in a big old house crammed floor to ceiling with stuff. "I'm fine right here."
"That's too bad," Murphy said, pulling out a lumpy pillowcase. She took a smaller cloth bag from the pillowcase, tucked it in her pocket, and heaved two of the unpacked boxes onto her bed. In a flash, she was up and teetering on top of them.
"Throw me that pillowcase, will you?" she asked, holding out her arms to get her balance. "I mean, as long as you're going to stare, you might as well be helpful."
"Aren't you afraid you're going to fall?" I asked. "Those boxes look a little unsteady."
"I never fall. I don't believe in falling."
"What does believing have to do with it?"
Murphy shook her head, like she'd never met anyone so dumb. "Believing has everything to do with everything."
She grabbed the pillowcase from me and stuffed it under her arm. Then she pulled the little cloth bag from her pocket and carefully spilled its contents into her hand. "Thumbtacks," she told me. "In case you were wondering."
"I was wondering," I said.
"Why don't you go watch TV with everybody else?" Murphy asked, two thumbtacks clamped between her teeth, her words coming out cramped.
"I hate TV."
Murphy stretched up as far as she could and poked a thumbtack into the ceiling. "Me too," she said. "TV's for idiots."
She pushed some more thumbtacks into the ceiling over her bed and began pulling things from the pillowcase: orange and black silk butterflies dangling from shimmery threads, a web of glow-in-the-dark stars, a silvery moon. One by one, she hung each item from a thumbtack, until she'd made a shining galaxy above her bed.
I was starting to feel more ordinary than usual, standing there watching Murphy. The only thing above my bed was a fluorescent light. I pondered the contents of my desk, wishing I had something breathtaking to pull out of my top drawer, like a singing canary or a pair of ruby red slippers, just something to make an impression. There were my drawing supplies, but I couldn't imagine anyone making a big whoop-dee-doo about a bunch of pencils. My scrapbooks were interesting, at least to me, but I didn't like to show those around. I sighed, wishing I hadn't already told my ghost story.
"Do you need help with that?" I asked. She was straining to poke a loop of wire over a tack. The other end of the wire hung about a foot down and was coiled around a polished, blue stone. It was like she was trying to hang the smallest planet in the universe.
"Even if I did, I'd be out of luck," she said, grunting a little. "This is an incredibly special and rare artifact, and no one can touch it but me."
I stood on my tiptoes, trying to get a better look. "Did you steal it from the Smithsonian?" I asked. "Or just borrow it?"
Murphy ignored my joke. She hooked the wire on the thumbtack and jumped down from the boxes onto the floor. Closing the lids to the boxes, she slid all but one under her bed. Then she took a seat at her desk, the same plain old brown particleboard desk that we all had, reached into the remaining box, and pulled out a paperweight, the snowy kind. "That stone was a gift from my parents, who were famous researchers. They collected artifacts from all over the world."
I sat down on my bed, feeling even less interesting than I had before. I didn't have a single artifact to my name. "Where are they now?" I asked.
Murphy plunked the paperweight on her desk. "Dead. They were killed in a car accident. I don't like to talk about it."
I looked at my feet. I didn't know what to say about dead people. "So is that why you're here?"
Murphy stood and slowly walked over to the sink. Her face looked yellow in the mirror, but then everyone's did. It was a terrible mirror to look into if you were trying to feel good about yourself. When she turned away from her reflection, her hands were planted on her hips. "I'm not supposed to be here," she said, her eyes narrowed. "I'm supposed to be living with my aunt. But she's somewhere in Europe and no one can get in touch with her."
Murphy looked up at the ceiling and blew out a few short breaths through her lips, so that the wisps of hair on her forehead fluttered out. It was the sort of thing a person might do to keep from crying. "I can't believe I ended up here, stuck in with a bunch of orphans."
"I don't think very many people here are orphans," I said. "Most people have at least one parent somewhere."
"Well, I don't." Murphy crossed her arms and stared up at the ceiling.
If Murphy were the sort of person who cried, she would have burst into tears at that very minute. But I learned that first night, Murphy wasn't the crying type.
Turns out, she was more the type to tell a bold-faced lie. Only I didn't know it then. I believed everything she told me.
Well, almost everything.
Copyright © 2003 by Frances O'Roark Dowell