Foster Care

by A. Michael Schwarz
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Mara Beth was in charge then and her power came from Aunt Abilene. Abilene was everyone’s “aunt”, but it didn’t mean there were blood ties. She ran the place, a sort of half ways attempt on her part. By making Mara Beth her proxy, she could fade into the backdrop. Abilene was less than a person to us then, and more of an idea. She was the background noise, the un-named and always present monitor. Unseen she could become something else in our minds and grow the way fairy tales and nightmares do.

It took awhile before Mara Beth earned her reputation and even then we weren’t aware that she was appeasing Aunt Abilene. I guess, in the beginning, we thought it was a disease peculiar to Mara Beth and that Abilene was unaware of the abuses.

Mara Beth felt cruelty; I know that. She felt it deep down and liked it. Her hands were fat then like Abilene’s and I suppose it was the beginning of her transmutation.

At first, she pulled my hair: her way to gain compliance. And at first it failed, but it doesn’t take long before corporeal commands break mental disagreement and then she owned me.

At first, owned meant I worked for her. It meant I owed her and that I couldn’t have a defense. It meant I did what she wanted and carried out the chores that were assigned to her. Sharp pulls of hair, an elbow in the back were the penalties and my freedom after I complied was a more important commodity than pain. So, I agreed to be owned by Mara Beth.

Little Syd wasn’t so easily bought though and I think it was another reason why I later blamed her. I think Little Syd wasn’t a child then, I think she was a grown woman of forty in a child’s body because for some reason I depended on Little Syd to save us. Even in my memory, it seems Syd should have done something then.

For her it was a different price, but slavery came and soon Syd had to reckon with Mara Beth. At first it was control of Syd’s cigarettes, but that wasn’t the real key to make Syd comply. For Syd it was making her powerless to help the rest of us and making sure she knew it. The slap to Dougie’s face behind the crack in the door, the purple welt on my arm, just under the shirtsleeve to make her know that she was powerless to prevent it.

Dougie couldn’t resist being owned by Mara Beth. He was too weak. But he wasn’t bought so casually either. Mara Beth went for obvious targets and his mother and father had already wounded him, outlining the mark. It was her intent to use this and it worked, only not as planned. It worked in reverse. Dougie would react in a way opposite how she intended. If she wished that he jumped, he would sit. If she wished that he talked, he would be silent. But it was a power she didn’t know she had and if anything it was Dougie who through blind reaction controlled her.

Syd came to me in tears one night and, I think it was then that it came home to me that something had to be done. But Syd came across, I think, how we, with our slapped faces and pulled hair appeared to her: helpless. I felt the first stab of blame for her.

She lit a cigarette and I remember her tiny hands and face seeming so grown up then, “Somethin’s gotta give,” she said, “Someone’s gotta put a stop to it.”

“What do you care?” was the only sentiment I could muster to a teary eyed Syd, who with smoke in her nostrils, just puckered her chin and cried more. “Sorry Syd, I didn’t mean it.” I really didn’t and I loved Syd even then when I made it seem like her fault inside my head.

“Mara Beth does whatever she wants. She owns us. I wanna make it stop.”

“Me too, Syd. Me too.”

Mara Beth had a fascination with cruelty as I have said and she had no qualms about practicing it on Dougie. He was a small boy, for his age. I think he may have been a premie baby. Anyways, one night, Dougie had suffered from a long bout of Mara Beth’s chastising, during which she had slapped him no less than five times. It was a horrible thing to watch, peering to the commons area, from the recesses of our dark bedrooms. I know that Abilene must have heard it through the ventilation ducts, but I believe she approved of it because it kept her from having to deal with us.

At any rate, Dougie had been slapped and scolded to the point where he was crying and hiccupping in large and painful gulps serving only to increase Mara Beth’s thirst for punishment. I swear Dougie did it on purpose: the only way he could fight back. Mara Beth began holding him in a way to restrain him and cursed him for carrying on so.

When it happened I heard more than I saw for it was hard to peer unseen and watch with total clarity, but Dougie vomited in a great and guttural croak on himself and Mara Beth. Retching and foul, it was the thing that sent Mara Beth into a state where she could no longer tolerate him and was forced to recline to her own quarters and desist her punishments for the night. Anything of less intensity may have caused severe retaliation, but from this Mara Beth could not recover. Dougie was left to us to clean and put to bed, but it was something we were glad to do, because he had defeated Mara Beth even if unwittingly.

Later that night, through the walls, I overheard Abilene cursing Mara Beth, who then cried with dreadful sobs into the early morning hours. It was our first clue that Mara Beth had a master too.

The last time I saw Aunt Abilene must have been June. I remember it got hot early in the morning then, and stayed light out later in the evening. Her obese physique had grown since last I’d seen her and she could not readily walk. She required the assistance of Mara Beth, who, with a face of shame and embarrassment, gave it.

Abilene’s cellulitis had also degenerated and both her ankles were so bloated it seemed one could stick them with a pin and pop them like two rotted, veiny balloons. And I remember psoriasis patches on her arms and hands that cracked open like sun-baked mud and a deep feeling of sorrow and disgust in my throat that I tried with some determination to quell.

Sid was present that morning too and when she offered to prepare a second plate for Abilene, I made Dougie help her and like three submissive servants, harboring faces to mimic Mara Beth’s, we catered to her. It was sickening, but we did it without thought. Perhaps Mara Beth wondered silently to herself at our newly bestowed servitude, but if she did, she quickly dismissed it, because she never said a word. She usually waited on Abilene hand and foot, so perhaps she was relieved to have a break that morning.

In the days following it became easier for each of us to help Mara Beth with Abilene’s care, Mara Beth being largely disinterested in our involvement.

Abilene was like a heavy shadow that settled over us all, including Mara Beth, and in so many ways, helped make us who we are today and that’s not easy to admit.

When Abilene died no one knew about it until long after rigor mortis had set it. It had been Mara Beth who had discovered her. Paramedics had not arrived until well after nightfall and we were kept outside that night swatting mosquitoes and puffing on Lil Sid’s cigarettes.

We were kept away from Mara Beth that night, which to us was answered prayers, but Sid said it best when, between puffs, she remarked, “Mara Beth hasn’t got enough will to hate us tonight, but that don’t mean tomorrow won’t give us anuther helpin’ all over agin.”

Actually it took three days before Mara Beth returned to us in full force. She had changed even further by then and entered into what I have previously termed her transmutation. It was a time, a few short and savage weeks, when Mara Beth most closely approximated, in manner and personality, Abilene. It was when any last vestige of the personality known as Mara Beth had ceased and that of Abilene took over in full.

Her taste for cruelty extended to herself at this point. I know because in addition to her bulimic practices, audible through the walls, there appeared dark bruises on both her hands that didn’t heal. These wounds could have only been created by their repeated self-infliction.

Additionally, during this time Mara Beth contracted open leg ulcers. As well, after Abilene’s death, Mara Beth took to residing in her room, using her belongings and wearing her clothes.

Nightly, Mara Beth emerged from Abilene’s room dressed in Abilene’s dingy nightgown like some fat wicked wraith to exact pain on Dougie. It was a nightly torment for him and I believe that if Sid had not sacrificed herself in his place, Mara Beth may have inflicted irreparable damage during this period. But as Mara Beth turned her rancor to Sid, she, with little puffs of her cigarettes, bared it.

Mara Beth would not have ceased and I believe that even if Abilene had not passed, Mara Beth’s transmutation would have evolved. These are of course things that cannot be proven, but I am writing here what I believe. Perhaps Abilene’s death served as a catalyst for it and for that I can take my share of responsibility.

The coroner’s report was unexpected, but only because we didn’t know what coroners were or that they wrote reports. The report cited a blood analysis that clearly pointed up other directions for the district attorney, who wasted no time setting up his file. I can’t say for certain but I believe the first appearance of an investigator arrived on scene within four days after the report. But these things came and went and, at the time, we were mainly concerned with protecting Dougie and offering Sid in exchange. Sid was tough, but not unbreakable.

Shortly after, Mara Beth was indicted on murder charges. Her room and personal belongings had measurable traces of cyanide, which matched the coroner’s Cause of Death conclusion. Mara Beth had been Abilene’s caregiver and was responsible, amongst other things, for feeding her. The newspapers were far crueler than we had thought reasonable, maybe even more so than Mara Beth really deserved. We didn’t talk about it much and I don’t even remember Sid having anything profound to say.

Once Mara Beth was taken into custody, we were all dispensed to other foster homes within about a week. I think it was the hardest part because the look in Sid and Dougie’s eyes, when we said goodbye, broke my heart. It was the thing, in all of this, that hurt the most.

Twelve years passed before we all made efforts sufficient to meet again. Sid was drawn colorfully with tattoos and she had managed to sustain interesting piercings in random places. But her eyes did not betray her spirit and I knew it was Sid, though her taste in fashion had grown far from mine. She still smoked which I expected.

Dougie had become a safer thing. His calloused fingers and haggard look confirmed a path similar to his father’s, not glamorous but safe.

As for me, I had, I am sure, conveyed the perfect expression of just another face in the crowd, having become neither wild nor dormant.

It was Dougie, or rather Doug, who conjured Mara Beth and Abilene back into all of our minds again. It was his tone, that caught my attention, but it was Sid’s perfectly prepared prose that answered.

With clear eyes, in true Sid style, she said, “We did what we had to and survived it and that is all that matters.”

Cyanide is without odor or taste and builds up rapidly in a body system. It can be administered in food or drink and not detected and in those days was a primary ingredient of rat poison, something that existed in large quantities in the basement of that old farmhouse.

Mara Beth had never noticed because she never thought past her own cruel intentions and possibly never considered that we were capable of our own brand of retribution. We were. In so many ways, like us, Mara Beth was just another victim.

I found Sid’s, now grown up hand and squeezed it. She felt warm and alive and squeezed back as if to reiterate her belief that we had had no other choice. Then Doug agreed and, together, we decided that we could finally forgive ourselves for murdering Aunt Abilene.

3 Responses to “Foster Care”

  1. Jill says:

    I like the twist at the end. Definitely worth the read.

  2. Mike says:

    Great read. Eerily real. Pulls you in and the twist at the end is great.

  3. mfowler says:

    Great build-up; the tension kept my interest

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