It was time for my shiny face. That's what Mrs. Elgin called it. And not just mine, but everyone's. We were salesmen, the bunch of us, boys and girls. Some of us were as young as five and some as old as fifteen, and even one boy who was sixteen. He was the old man in our midst. Most of us were between 8 and 13, but we were older than that really.
Being an orphan is like that. It makes you old really fast, cynical and realistic. Even the little kids knew that every day that passed in the orphanage was a bad thing. Babies get adopted quick, everybody knows that. Then the toddlers and pre-schoolers, they had okay chances. Even a 6 or 7 year old had a shot at life, a real life with parents and everything. Once you hit puberty though, it was all over but the crying, and by age 12 we were much too old for that. And God didn't make that many tears anyway.
I was 13 and over the hill by adoption standards. But I put on my shiny face anyway, because that's all we had. It was all I had. Hope dies hard; even when you think it's gone, hope can surprise you. I felt it like a needle in my heart, just a pain, an ache like a sharp cramp. But I couldn't tell anyone, not least because I knew we all felt it and nobody wanted to admit it.
"Shiny faces ... Shiny faces..." Mrs. Elgin said, ever optimistic and smiling, clapping her hands, telling us exactly how many minutes we had. She'd been working the adoption road for a long time and her heart had broken a million times, I bet. But she'd had her victories too and that's what kept her going. For the kids who never went anywhere, Mrs. Elgin was the only mom they'd ever have.
We sold ourselves, and sometimes each other. If a couple came in looking for something in particular, a little girl maybe, or a little boy, we older kids had our favorites. My own was Kimmie and she'd just turned five years old. Sarah, my best friend, liked her too and if the people coming today wanted a little girl, we'd do whatever we could to sell them Kimmie. She wasn't just like our little sister; she was a part of us, the part that still had a chance, and if Kimmie went home it would be like some of Sarah and me was going too.
And that's true of anyone really. Anytime one of the kids got adopted, it gave all of us new life. But Kimmie was my favorite and if anyone got adopted, I wanted it to be her. Or me, but I was afraid to think like that, and I didn't have much of a chance anyway. People didn't want thirteen-year-old girls. They'd have already missed too many birthdays, too many Christmas mornings and school pageants and Halloweens. All that a thirteen-year-old is good for is trouble, or so we thought people thought. And we knew people pretty good.
My shiny face looked pretty. Not beautiful or striking or stunning. Those kids didn't get orphaned, just the pretty ones. My face was clean, scrubbed pink and smiling. I practiced smiling sometimes, like we all did. I had happy smiles and shy smiles, and even sad smiles, because no matter what happened you had to smile. None of us were truly happy though, or ever shy really. You couldn't be shy and sell yourself, that's impossible, and the older kids taught the little kids not to be shy.
Being shy is a life sentence, but you still have to act shy. We were all good actors too.
So I put on my nice dress, the one Mrs. Elgin had given me just for days like this, all bright with yellow flowers and baby blue trimmings to match my eyes. A yellow ribbon for my auburn hair, which wasn't that long, but a little ponytail made me look younger, so I pulled it back and Sarah tied it for me. I'd started getting breasts, but I couldn't do anything about those. They stuck out like sore thumbs, little mounds to spoil my dress. Some white shoes, a little scuffed, but clean. No makeup or jewelry or fancy things. That was all of me, 4'10" tall and 85 pounds of thirteen-year-old girl for sale.
There were six couples, husbands and wives. Mostly they were young, people in their late twenties, some in their thirties, and one couple in their forties. They'd reached some point in their lives where they could afford a child. Not just with money, but with time and love and patience and all that stuff that we knew so little about. Some of them we understood instinctively; they had holes in their lives. Maybe a child would fill some of them, save their marriage maybe, or give their lives some new aspect they imagined was lacking. But that was cynicism, as I understood the word, and we had to ignore it.
Mrs. Elgin gave a little presentation while the couples sat in their chairs and listened, but mostly looked at us. We were quiet and still, showing off our good manners and smiling shyly. These people had all been screened and investigated and interviewed, and whatever else was required to make sure they were both fit and serious enough to adopt a child. This was their trip to the pet shop and they could pick what they wanted to bring home. They'd look and leave and think about it. Talk to their wives and husbands and then maybe they'd come back for a second look. Or maybe they'd come back and say 'We want that one... ' and that would be a little victory for Mrs. Elgin and the rest of us. But most of those couples we'd never see again.
There's a lot of pet shops in the world.
It was easy to figure out what they were looking for. People look at what they desire, all we had to do was watch the eyes. None of them were looking at me, although they were too polite not to, but they'd see me and smile and move on. It was rejection and it hurt, because that's what rejection does. You don't ever get used to it, no matter what you want to believe. That's why I needed Kimmie; she was the part of me that wasn't rejected.
"Good afternoon." It was one of the younger couples, a good looking man and his wife, and I'd walked up to them as soon as Mrs. Elgin was done, holding Kimmie's hand. "I'm Mark and this is my wife, Jill."
It was always kind of awkward for them, because they were shopping and they didn't want to hurt anyone. But I'd seen them looking at Kimmie and so they couldn't hurt me at all. We had little name tags, but it's always best to say your name. People remember what they see if they hear it too, and vice versa.
"I'm Stacy," I said, smiling my confident smile. "And this is Kimberly. We call her Kimmie." I looked down at the girl to make sure she was giving them her shy smile. "Say hi," I whispered, just for their benefit.
"Hi," she said, sucking her lips and looking so brave.
"Hi Kimmie." The man knelt down a little. "How old are you?"
And so it went. I'd stay there for a little while, doing whatever I could to sell Kimmie, but she practically sold herself. I just made sure there were no awkward silences, no opportunities for the couple to look around at anyone else. I told little stories about Kimmie and how she was smart and funny, and the best little girl in the whole world. But I didn't have to say too much anyway; they liked her a lot.
But there were other kids too and Mrs. Elgin knew the game. She'd give us our ten or fifteen minutes and then it would be someone else's turn. The wife gave Kimmie a hug though, and offered me a smile, one of the hopeful kind that had to be genuine because she'd never had to practice smiling in her life. It was a good sign, I thought, a real good sign. I told Kimmie how good she'd done as we walked away, heading towards another prospective buyer, another maybe Mommy and Daddy for my little girl.
"Hi there ... ah, Stacy," a man said, half of the older couple, a man and his wife in their forties.
I stood close to Kimmie, watching her talk to more of our visitors, but they seemed to be looking for a little boy, more than a little girl. But we were trying. Kimmie was working hard and I kept smiling. I hadn't really expected the older couple to talk to me. I knew they were there, approaching us, I knew exactly where every couple was every second, but I didn't think they'd talk to me and I almost forgot to smile.
"Hi." I looked at them. It had been a long time since I'd tried to sell myself and for just a second there I didn't know what to say.
"This is Rita. I'm Bill," he said with a nod, agreeing with himself.
"Hi." I smiled at the woman. "It's nice to meet you." I offered my hand, even though I knew some people liked to browse without touching anything.
"Nice to meet you too, Stacy. My, that's a pretty dress." She looked about 45, I decided, and her hand was strong and calloused with short fingernails. She had a pleasant face, and a healthy body, tanned skin and sensible short black hair with a little grey in it.
"Thank you," I replied, looking down at it. "Mrs. Elgin bought it for my birthday."
"And how old are you, Stacy?" the man, Bill, asked me.
He seemed larger than he really was, like John Wayne maybe, except John Wayne was bigger than anyone. Bill was just reminded me of him, barrel chested and sort of leathery, with wrinkled eyes and a strong jaw. He looked uncomfortable in the slacks and sports coat he wore. His hands were big and I could see little scars and fresh cuts, just the little kind you'd expect on a farmer. I thought I had them pegged, but I'd been doing this a long time and these people looked like what they were.
"I'm thirteen. My birthday was a couple months ago, last April." I looked betwen them, meeting their eyes with my small, modest smile.
These people already knew how old I was, maybe, if they were really interested in me. Sometimes people came to the orphanage and just changed their minds right away for some reason. Perhaps they got scared or something, so they'd usually find one of the older kids to talk to, just to pass enough time so they could leave without making it look like they were running away. Thinking about adopting was a lot different than doing it, I supposed. It frightened some people, just because they'd never gone through it, like being an orphan had to be the worst thing in the world maybe. But it isn't the worst thing; it's just life.
If they were interested in me, this Bill and Rita, then they might have already picked me out. We all had our little files, like sales brochures, with photographs and a little history, nothing too personal I don't think, but enough to say who we were. People could look through the files and see if there was a girl or boy they might like and then meet them on a day like this one. But we couldn't know about that and it was better that we didn't. It would have meant these people had expectations and we had to assume they didn't, even though it was a lie in any case.
Bill and Rita owned a horse ranch, out in the country and it wasn't hard for me to smile about that. I'd ridden a horse before, just once on one of the occasional outings we had. It was easy talking to them and I didn't think they were just killing time and it made me a little nervous. I'd had talks like this before when I'd been younger, but it had been awhile since anyone had cared enough to spend twenty minutes with me. It felt good and I was so afraid of that feeling I started getting a tummy ache.
They left finally, moving on to talk to Sarah, whom Mrs. Elgin had walked over. I'd had my fair share of time and I didn't mind too much. Sarah was like my sister and if they didn't like me, maybe they'd like her. But I really wanted them to like me and that thought, that bit of hope was so strong I had to go to the bathroom and be sick. I threw up and started crying, just a little, but only because I'd been trying so hard not to want it. When you wanted something and didn't get it, that just hurt too much, so it's better not to.
I stayed in the bathroom alone for long time, until Sarah came in.
"Are you okay?" she asked me.
"Yeah." I washed my mouth out in the sink, catching water in my cupped hands.
"Did you like those people?" Sarah went into one of the stalls.
"I don't know. I guess so." I shrugged at myself in the mirror. "Did you?"
"Yeah." Sarah answered from nowhere, like disembodied voice echoing around me. "You think they'll adopt you?"
That's exactly what I didn't want to think about and Sarah knew better. I wondered if she was trying to hurt me. I mean, they must have been comparing us, me and Sarah, maybe just with each other, maybe with some other girls we didn't know. I didn't answer; I just listened to Sarah pee and looked at myself in the mirror.
"Kimmie's gonna get adopted," Sarah said, flushing the toilet and opening the stall door. "I bet you a dollar."
"You better not say that to her!" I said with a frown and then I caught myself when I saw the look on Sarah's face. "You don't have a dollar anyway."
"I know, but someday..." She shrugged.
"Yeah someday." I smiled at her and all was forgiven. We'd probably never see Bill and Rita ever again, but we'd see each other everyday, so it wasn't going to do anything being mad or jealous or whatever.
"I gotta do homework," she told me. "You wanna come to my room?"
"Yeah, I got homework too." I nodded.
Even though we were orphans we still had to go to school. The girl's went to St. Agnes, which was just up the street. It was a private school, but they took us for free, I think. Sometimes it seemed pretty okay, but mostly we stayed by ourselves. We weren't really like the other kids, the ones who went home everyday and complained about their parents and brothers and sisters. I had some friends, some of the girls with families, but not very many. It was like we talked different languages sometimes, but other times it was alright.
Sarah was my best friend, like I said, and just barely thirteen, being a couple months younger than me. She looked pretty and acted nice, except she said dumb things sometimes. But that's just because she hadn't been an orphan very long. Only since she'd been seven, and so she'd really had to grow up fast. I'd been an orphan since I was four and I remembered having a mom, sort of, but I didn't remember my dad at all. Maybe I didn't ever have one, I wasn't sure and Mrs. Elgin wouldn't tell me. But I didn't ask very often either.
I did my math homework, algebra, and I kind of liked it. I'd always been good at math because it had a lot of rules. Once you knew the rules you could do anything, figure out any problem. Math is about as far away from life as anything could get, I figured, because the only rule I knew for life was that there weren't any. You just lived it and it happened and mostly you couldn't know the reasons. Math was a lot easier.
Sarah had to do her English, using the dictionary to look up words and define them. Sometimes she'd cheat and ask me, but I wasn't very good at English like that. My vocabulary has always been a small one.
"What's stoic mean?" Sarah asked, she'd pronounced it 'stoyk' and I shrugged.
"I don't know. Umm ... a person who can't fall down?" I grinned because I liked making up weird definitions that made no sense at all.
"That's what you said turgid was." Sarah giggled. "And that meant fancy or fat."
"So um, a turgid stoyk is a fancy person who's so fat he can't fall over." I laughed.
"Like a weebles!" Sarah laughed too.
"Yeah it's a weebles! Put that down."
"I'm tired of writing all these stupid words. I never heard anybody use these words. We should learn the other ones." Sarah dropped her pencil.
"Like what? We know all the words we hear around here." I grinned at her and she stuck her tongue out at me.
"I mean like the other words," she lowered her voice. "Like fuck. What's that mean?"
"It's a swear word, it doesn't mean anything." I spoke softer too. Mrs. Elgin didn't care for swear words a whole lot.
"Then why's it bad?" Sarah asked me, like I knew about anything.
"Cause it's bad." I shrugged. "I don't know, look it up."
"It's not in here, I looked." She gave me a crooked smile.
"Then it's probably not even a real word," I said, going back to my math.
"Fuck fuck fuck..." Sarah leaned back on her bed as I sat on the floor. "It's gotta be a real word, I heard it a lot."
"Yeah, me too," I said, sort of not thinking about it.
"I bet it means like sex, cause Karen said she saw her parents fuck once."
"Maybe..." I had too many x's in my parenthesis.