She hadn’t expected it to be like this. The institutional walls weren’t white, but a pale mint green with a delicate pink swirl just under the ceiling. Like peppermint. Contessa liked peppermint.
A noise made her turn to see a man standing in the doorway. She stiffened slightly, but stopped herself from scowling. Not all men were like Kevin. She knew that in her head. It helped that this man looked so different. He was short and pleasantly round, and his eyes were kind.
“Hello, I’m Benjamin, one of the teachers.” His eyes traveled to her books that already lined the little shelf above the bed. “I see you’re getting settled. Do you like the room?”
Contessa started to answer, but as she opened her mouth the twinge of pain brought a sudden flash of memory of the last time she’d spoken. She’d screamed, actually, yelling at the woman who was her mother.
Gloria had responded with a smack, so strong her lip had split open with a numbing pain. “You shut your mouth, girl! You better learn to think before you speak. Your hollering’s gonna get us both in trouble.”
And it had. Gloria was in jail now and so was her boyfriend Kevin. And Contessa was at this place. It said “McDougal Respite” over the door, but Contessa knew it was really a sort of asylum for kids. She wasn’t so sure she belonged here. Was she insane? Her mind seemed to work okay. She could think. She’d done a lot of that ever since the police had come after the neighbors had heard her screaming.
But she hadn’t said a word since. She supposed that was what had landed her in this place. That and all the old bruises and cuts the doctor had found on her, along with the arm that was still a little crooked from when Kevin had broken it.
This time Contessa would be careful. She wouldn’t ruin everything by talking before she thought. No, she’d do a lot of thinking, and she wouldn’t say a thing until she was sure she could do it right.
Suddenly remembering the man waiting for her to do just that—talk—she turned sharply, only to find the doorway empty. Apparently he’d given up on waiting. She saw him again that evening at dinner time, sitting at one of the three round tables piled with fried chicken. He’d smiled at her, a real smile, not the creepy one Kevin would give as he eyed her, looking at all the wrong places.
She ducked her head shyly at Benjamin and slipped into an empty chair at another table. A boy next to her held out a hand to shake. “Hiya, welcome.” She was reaching toward him when he jerked away and started yelling, “Vavava!” and banging his fist against his hip. Then he looked at her again. “I’m Peter. Nice to meet you.”
Contessa could tell by the bright look in his eyes that his brain worked fine, even if his body and voice might do their own thing sometimes. That was even more obvious later in the week, as he answered questions in the little school room all the kids shared. He had good enough things to say that it was worth waiting until he could talk calmly. Maybe his tic gave him time to think before he spoke. Maybe that’s why he was so smart.
The class was talking about what made a person great. They’d watched video clips of Martin Luther King, Jr. and now they were watching President Obama. He was using a teleprompter, saying what someone else had written for him.
She leaned back and wrote one sentence on her notepad. One is not made great by mere words, but rather by noble thoughts.
She hadn’t noticed Benjamin meandering down the aisle until he had paused beside her, reading over her shoulder. His words were soft, spoken just for her. “Very true, Contessa. Yet what are the good of noble thoughts, if one does not share them aloud to make the world a better place?”
He let her mull over that as he returned to the front of the room. When he asked the class the next question, giving them a long time to think over an answer before he began calling on names, Contessa decided maybe he was right.
She raised her hand, took a deep breath, and began to speak.
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