The Foster Child

She’s six years old and has three failed adoptions and suffered a number of smaller atrocities, but now she’s sprinting up the beach against the wind, clutching the pink leash of a borrowed Labrador, the wind swallowing the frantic shouts of her foster mother and the dog’s owner.

She strains cold air through her teeth, not quite a grin, and the blown sand that crusts her lashes and snakes over her receding footprints scours this hard child’s shell. Inside she’s all mush and hurt, but that shell, man, it’s something. You could break bottles on it.

She’s never before seen the sunset or the ocean, and this sudden confluence has her on a high. She trusts the dog and the reckless, headlong strides and the taste of the salt air, gulps of crab rot, kelp and bird shit.

She doesn’t understand her crimes, even less so the sentence, but the pounding of her feet, the tiny splash of each stride on the wet sand…this feels very real and solid to her.

Her brown hair is a ribbon, a salt-sticky pennant streaming behind her. The dog’s tongue lolls and flaps, and there are three princesses and sequins stitched into her garage sale sweatshirt.

She doesn’t know that regular children aren’t in the habit of screaming themselves to sleep at night, and they will assert their rights with tooth and claw only at their peril. Punishment doesn’t really work on her. “Is that all you got,” she grins back over her shoulder.

She also doesn’t know that the Labrador, who gallops ahead of her, tugging on the leash, aware only of a gull in the distance and this strange little creature in tow who is indulging her penchant for headlong flight, has only this morning chewed the armrest off of the sofa and that she shits regularly on an heirloom throw rug, the oblivious creature persisting only through the owner’s sense of duty.

She glances back only briefly to see her latest mother and the dog’s owner both waving and cupping their hands to their mouths to shout into a wind that sucks the voice out of their words before they even cross their lips. Then the Labrador snaps the leash and puts her head down to gallop with redoubled stride, as if to say, “come on, kid, now’s our chance.”

She squeezes her eyes shut and trusts the leash and the yellow plug of fur and muscle at the other end, not heeding the voices she can no longer hear, not even sensing that the big people far behind her are, without even admitting it to themselves, both hoping that these two girls just keep on running.

David Baker by teslathemes