by Wendy Lohr
Sketching is one thing, drawing is something totally different. That is if you are Ellie Marshall. Ellie loves to sketch, to escape to a place of peace in her mind. Away from her modern, mundane, bible-belt foster homes. But when her mind decides to draw, it takes over everything. It demands immediate attention – as in Draw. Right. Now. And what her mind draws is of future events, of things yet to happen. Then one day her mind drew a creepy medieval castle…
Lard & Liberation
“Hey there, Gina! What can I get for you?” I asked, taking in the Wal-Mart vest my friend was wearing. For about six months during our
freshman year of high school we’d lived in the same foster home and had been casual friends since then. We’d both graduated high school a week ago and apparently were spending our summer
months working at less than stellar work places.
“Not sure yet. How’s the world of lard treating you?” she quipped, making me snicker in amusement.
“Not too bad. At least I’m not frying the chicken,” I pointed out with a grin. I worked at a family-owned fast food chicken place from ten to four and hated going home smelling like greasy, lard-laden chicken every afternoon. “How’s Wally World?”
“Cray-cray, girlfriend. It must have been halter top day. Every other woman was in one and most of them shouldn’t have been,” she shared in a low voice. “Dealing with people sucks!”
I laughed and agreed, “Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve lost track of how many orders I’ve screwed up since I started here. Most of the people are okay, but some have been real jerks.”
“Ugh, I feel you,” she remarked with a sympathetic shake of her head.
“Oh well, I’ve got to make money somehow. I’m saving up as much as I can for when I go to college in the fall,” I shared with a shrug.
“Same here. I’m going to the University of Louisville. You?”
“University of Kentucky,” I responded and she nodded in approval before telling me her food order. After chatting for a few while we waited for her order to be ready, Gina wished me luck and left the restaurant. And I finally got to take my much needed break.
Settling into one of the booths after I’d gotten Terry to fix me some chicken fingers, I thought about my interaction with Gina. We both were orphans, each of our parents having died when we were really young, and we were both in the Kentucky Foster Care/Adoption system. But that’s pretty much where the similarities ended. Gina actually got adopted by the foster family we’d shared for a while and I’d been shuffled off to a new foster family. And no, I didn’t begrudge her getting adopted; I was actually happy for her.
Even though I wasn’t fond of it, I was used to being shuffled around. I’d lived in various foster homes, mostly in central Kentucky, and had once even almost been adopted. But I don’t like to think about the places I’ve lived or the ‘parents’ I’ve had. Very few of them were good memories and the ones that were bad… well, I’m not with those families anymore, so why dwell on it?
Anyway, I kept telling myself that I had to make it just a few more months and then I would be on my own. Kind of scary actually since I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with myself. Thanks to the foster care system, I was getting my college tuition paid for but I still had to work in order to have money to pay for the rest of the books and fees and whatever other living expenses I would have that the tuition didn’t cover. Not that I minded working; I just hoped it wouldn’t be in the fast food industry when I finally made the move to the dorms in Lexington. Until then, I had to get through the summer working here and living with the current foster family before I could start the fall semester.
So, yeah, getting my college paid for was great and after checking out several places around the state, I had finally chosen the University of Kentucky. They weren’t exactly known for their art programs there, but I’d liked the wide variety of degree options and Lexington itself was a pretty artsy community. Plus, it got me out of this small, going nowhere town and into a modern thriving city.
Of course, in my frequent daydreams, I envisioned myself getting out of Kentucky completely. Sort of put my past behind me and start afresh… brand new life and all that jazz. But I was also a realist, so public college was my first step in making those daydreams come true.
Shaking off those random thoughts, I finished off the snack I was having. Since my break wasn’t over with yet, I decided to do some drawing to pass the time. I was always sketching something or other… one of those methods for liberating myself from reality for a while that I utilized quite often. As I pulled the sketchbook out of my backpack, I noticed that the hard black cover was fading and the corners were ragged from being carried around everywhere I went. I never left home without my sketchbook; it was like my security blanket in an ever changing, less than friendly world.
Opening to a clean sheet of thick white acid-free paper, I absently noted that I was going to have to break down and buy a new sketchbook soon as this one was rapidly becoming full. After mentally calculating how much money I had left from a recent baby-sitting job and sighing when I realized it wouldn’t be enough to get a good sketchbook yet, I barely had time to find my favorite pencil before I was slammed with a vision. More irritated than scared, I knew there was nothing to do but draw until it went away.
Even though my mind was seeing the vision clearly, I could only feel the paper beneath my hand as my pencil slid purposefully across it. Everything else was a blur to me, a vivid scene for my mind’s eye only taking center stage. By the time I was done drawing and my sight had returned to normal, the fingers of my right hand were cramping and a headache was beginning to make itself known.
Looking down at the paper that I had not been able to see a few moments earlier, I stared intently at the image I’d drawn. It was of an extremely creepy castle, complete with gothic turrets and scary gargoyles. It had a back drop of plush forest and there was some kind of symbol engraved into the massive wooden doors. But no matter how hard I stared, I couldn’t make out the symbol.
Realizing I was just making my headache worse, I gave up trying to figure it out and fished a granola bar out of my backpack since I didn’t have any food left from my break snack. Whenever these visions occurred it drained me and left me weak, starving, and fatigued. So, I always kept a ready supply of granola bars on hand.
Slowly chewing the chocolate chip bar, I pondered why I’d drawn a castle that looked straight out of medieval Transylvania. I almost half-expected to see Count Dracula standing at the door beckoning me inside. But that was utterly ridiculous; vampires weren’t real.
The castle still bothered me though. Something about this particular vision seemed foreboding, as if my life was going to change soon and I wasn’t entirely sure it would be for the best. Almost every time before I would have a major event in my life, such as being moved to another foster family or being hurt, I would have a vision. And each vision I’d ever drawn had become a reality within a few days. So, wherever this castle was, and I was pretty certain it wasn’t in Kentucky, I guess I’d be seeing it up close and personal real soon.
Someone yelling my name startled me and I realized my break was over. Not all that enthusiastic about getting back to work, my headache still present but easing, I reluctantly put the sketchbook and pencil back into my bag. Gathering up my trash and throwing it away, I stored my backpack under the counter with everyone else’s personal belongings and returned to the unsatisfying job of dealing with customers as I took their orders.
Since beginning this job, I’d lost track of how many orders I didn’t get right and had to do over. Like I’d shared with Gina, most people were pleasant about it and would patiently wait while I got them the right food. But there were always those special few that seemed to take sadistic pleasure in humiliating me as loudly as they could manage. Probably because their lives were so miserable that it was a distraction for them to have an excuse to yell at someone. I was already dreaming of quitting after only a few days, but was too stubborn to admit defeat just yet. Plus I really needed the money and there weren’t many options in this small town for jobs. So instead, I sucked it up and tried harder to get the orders right, all while plastering a fake smile on my face for the general masses.
Actually, the fake smile was for my boss’s benefit; she seemed to think that if we smiled at the irate customers, they might actually take pity on us and be less confrontational. I’m pretty certain the grease-laden air has caused my boss to become delusional. I know it was affecting my thinking.
After finally finishing out my shift a couple of hours later, I sighed in relief at only having screwed up one or two orders in that amount of time and hurriedly slung my backpack over my shoulder, making a beeline for the exit. I had about a twenty minute walk ahead of me since I didn’t own a car and couldn’t afford one. I did have a license though… go me… and eagerly looked forward to the day when I could finally walk onto a car lot and purchase a shiny new vehicle. Well, actually, it would probably be used and the car lot would probably be one of those skeevy buy here, pay here places. But the point was that I would finally be able to afford a car and it would be new to me and that was an event I was looking forward to experiencing.
Anyway, I didn’t mind the walk home because it allowed me time to shift from work mode to foster family mode. The early summer heat and humidity immediately made me start sweating, causing my smelly uniform shirt to stick to me uncomfortably as I plodded down the sidewalk towards my current home.
For the time being, I live in Shelbyville, Kentucky, a relatively small farming town that was full of rednecks and bible thumpers. Because of my foster status, I’d pretty much lived in every corner of the small community and knew it like the back of my hand. It was one of those places where everyone knew each other and happily gossiped about who got wasted on Saturday nights and who missed church on Sunday mornings.
The family I had most recently been placed with had two older sons (biological) who were home for the summer, having been away at college. One of their sons, Josh, was kind of cute but had a girlfriend. That was okay, though. I got along with both of them fairly well and had no doubt that marriage proposals and wedding vows were in their future.
The other son, Tim, gave me the creeps. He was always leering at me and had already tried several times since he’d been home to corner me in secluded parts of the house. I figured it was just a matter of time before I kneed him for trying to grope me and then got kicked out. Unfortunately, that’s happened a couple of times over the last few years and it always pissed me off that they would somehow blame me and I would get moved to a different home. But whatever. At least it got me away from the groper.
As I walked up the driveway, I noticed a dark sedan parked on the street in front of the house. I didn’t recognize it but figured it belonged to a social worker checking up on things or one of the nosy members from the Presbyterian Church my foster family insisted that I attend each week. It wasn’t that I was against religion or the people that practiced it. I just didn’t like it being force on me as if I was a horrible person if I didn’t sit in a pew and give ten dollars to the collection plate each Sunday. I felt that religion should be an individual’s choice and everyone else should keep it between themselves and whatever God they prayed to.
Pausing outside the door, I took a moment to draw the muggy air deep into my lungs and mentally prepared myself for the typical foster family atmosphere that I loathed. Most of the families I’d been with were pretty fake, pretending to care for the social worker’s benefit and then turning a negligent eye, their only real concern being the steady check that came in each month. There were rare occasions that I’d been placed with a family that genuinely cared about the kids they took in. I never got to stay with them long, my stupid visions throwing me into weird drawing trances that they couldn’t understand and would decide they weren’t equipped to handle. One family even told the social worker that I was possessed by the devil and should have an exorcism performed.
As for this latest family… they fell into a middle category, being nice but distant, probably thinking God was going to give them some great reward some day for taking me in. Maybe that was a little harsh, but I’d become quite cynical over the many moves from one family to the next, each one reminding me how much I wasn’t wanted.
Okay, Ellie, get over your pity party and go inside before you melt into a disgusting lardy-smelling puddle, I scolded myself. I usually tried hard not to fall into the ‘oh woe is me’ doldrums, but I wasn’t perfect. Feeling ready to face the music, I stepped inside and closed the door softly behind me, grateful for the blast of cold that greeted me in the air-conditioned house. I was hoping to escape up to my room so I wouldn’t have to pretend to be a good little foster daughter at least until dinner. That and I really wanted out of this smelly uniform. I was convinced that my clothes and even my skin had become as saturated with lard as the fried chicken I’d been doling out to the customers and wondered if I could get high cholesterol just by breathing in all that grease.
“Ellie, dear, is that you?” Virginia Smith, my current foster mom, called out in a falsely cheerful voice.
Sighing at my crappy luck, I called back, “Yes, ma’am,” and walked into the living room. My ‘parents’ were seated on the love seat and a woman I’d never seen before was sitting in one of the chairs. They all looked up at me as I entered the room and Robert Smith (Bob to everyone) suggested kindly, “Why don’t you have a seat, Ellie? We’d like to introduce this lady to you.”
She had the look of a social worker and I wondered if I was being placed again. Which didn’t make sense because I had just turned eighteen a couple of weeks ago and was considered an adult now. Virginia and Bob actually weren’t required to continue housing me now that I’d graduated high school, but I guess they felt it was their Christian duty to give me a roof over my head until I went off to college this fall. That and the foster care check.
Deciding it would probably be in my best interest to be congenial, I took a seat in the center of the couch and Bob continued, “Ellie, this is Ms. Alison Glass. She’s the personal assistant to the headmaster of a very prestigious university in Maine.”
“Oh, um, it’s nice to meet you, Ms. Glass,” I responded politely, not having a clue as to what was going on. I hadn’t applied to any colleges outside of Kentucky for the simple fact that I wouldn’t be able to afford any of them. My grades were okay, but definitely not good enough for academic scholarships and I didn’t play any sports… too klutzy and accident-prone.
She smiled briefly, looking very stiff and out of place, and returned in an accent-free voice, “The pleasure is all mine, Miss Marshall. Your foster parents have been telling me what an excellent student you are.”
I remained silent, not entirely sure what to say at this point, especially when her speech was so much more formal than I was used to. Besides, excellent student was stretching it a bit considering I had barely maintained a 3.0 GPA during high school.
Bob, being the nervous sort who couldn’t stand silence for more than two seconds, quickly shared, “Ellie, we’ve got some very surprising, yet wonderful news for you. Ms. Glass is here to offer you a full-paid scholarship to Dark Hollow University. She believes that with your grades and your artistic talent that you will make a great addition to the student population there.”
“Wait. Did you say Dark Hollow University?” I questioned in confusion.
“Yes. I am sure you have heard of it,” Ms. Glass stated, briefly showing a hint of pride on her otherwise expressionless face.
“Who hasn’t? It’s only one of the top private universities in the country,” I retorted and heard Virginia clear her throat in agitation. I ignored her and continued, “I don’t understand, though. I don’t remember submitting an application to Dark Hollow. And my grade-point average wasn’t that great. So how would you even know about me? And why would you be offering me a full-paid scholarship?”
The woman shot me a somewhat frigid glance before responding a little coolly, “It was actually your artistic ability that caught our notice. As for your grades, we have summer courses available to bring you up to speed. I have taken the liberty to contact your high school teachers and guidance counselors, all of whom agreed that you had the capability of achieving higher grades and would make an excellent addition to our prestigious university.” Opening a small business satchel, she withdrew a paper and held it out to me with a stiff smile, “Here is the offer in writing signed by Headmaster Anton Borelli for you to consider.”
Her aloof demeanor really unnerved me and I did notice that she hadn’t completely answered my questions. But I tried to overlook it as I accepted the paper from her and perused it silently. Sure enough, an offer for a full ride for four years was staring back at me and I sat there dumbfounded, not knowing what to think.
As my bewildered gaze took in the sigil for the school that was placed in the exact center of the page as a watermark, the shield with the letters DHU in a gothic-style script looking vaguely familiar, I heard Ms. Glass add, “I would like to point out that this is not an offer that just anyone receives. Dark Hollow University has a reputation to uphold and we are very particular in our selection process.”
“Well, Ellie, this is quite a miracle, wouldn’t you agree? I believe it’s a true sign from God, His way of revealing your new path in life,” Virginia preached, but I tuned her out. I had no idea what was going on here, but if this offer was real, I wasn’t about to completely dismiss it until I at least got some questions answered.
“What all is required of me to enroll, Ms. Glass?” I asked cautiously, pulling my eyes away from the paper to focus on her once more.
“Well, there’s some paperwork you’d need to fill out with Admissions which you can do once you arrive on campus. And we will set you up with an advisor to place you in the appropriate summer courses. Our summer semester will not begin for a few more days, so you will have a chance to get settled into your room, meet your roommate, and check out the campus as well as complete the enrollment process,” she informed me in a matter-of-fact tone.
Still wary of this out of the blue offer, I asked hesitantly, “I see. So if I accept this scholarship I have a couple of days to relocate to your campus in Maine?”
“Actually, if you wish to accept, you can fly back with me to Maine tomorrow. The university will pay for your flight whether you choose to accompany me or fly up in a day or two.”
Whoa, okay, this was getting really intense. As much as I’d dreamed of getting out of Kentucky someday, I truly hadn’t expected it to ever happen. Well, at least not until after college, maybe. It was like every orphan’s dream of being adopted by a loving and caring family coming true. Only my dream now was of escaping Kentucky and my liberation was literally sitting in my lap in the form of this offer from a prestigious school that only the most elite could even hope to gain admittance to. I still didn’t quite understand how my name had come across their admissions desk and they had somehow decided I was qualified to be selected, but I was beginning to think I should seriously consider this as being real.
I was still uncertain, though. I’d heard of Dark Hollow University but had never looked into it because I knew it was too far out of my league. As much as I wanted to shout ‘yes take me with you,’ I forced myself to truly ponder the offer before blurting out anything in haste. After all, once I made my decision, there was no going back. I’d truly be on my own and if it didn’t work out at the university, I’d have to consider what to do with myself next since I obviously couldn’t re-enter the foster care system nor would I wish to. Plus, if I accepted this offer from Dark Hollow, I would probably lose the assistance from the Foster Care/Adoption program with regards to their state colleges.
“I know that this is all rather sudden, Miss Marshall,” Ms. Glass spoke up, interrupting my internal debate. “But I will need to know your answer before I leave here this evening. My flight to Maine leaves early tomorrow morning and I’ll need to make arrangements for you if you’re planning on joining me.”
Nodding, I mused thoughtfully, “Well, this is a pretty incredible offer. I suppose there are places near the campus where I could apply for a part-time job so that I can pay for my books and expenses and such.”
“Actually, this particular offer covers all of your expenses including a dorm room, books, lab fees, living and eating costs, etcetera,” Ms. Glass clarified and I sat there in stunned silence.
If what she was telling me was true, that meant I wouldn’t have to work if I didn’t want to. No smelly fast food job or thankless cashier work at the local Wal-Mart. I could actually focus completely on my studies. Not even the foster care system could offer me that much and they actually had a pretty good deal going for orphans like me.
Just as I was about to speak, Virginia declared, “Ellie, dear, this is just too good of an opportunity for you to pass up. We’ll miss having you here, but I believe this is what God wants for you.”
“I agree. This is an excellent, once-in-a-lifetime chance, Ellie. You really should seriously consider accepting it,” Bob added enthusiastically.
Yep, they seemed ready for me to leave and I’d only been here since January. Not too surprising, though, given my track record with foster families. It wasn’t that I was a trouble child or anything. I actually tried hard to be good and kind and do the chores that no one else wanted to do and keep my grades up. But no matter how hard I tried, the end result was the same. I didn’t feel wanted and I really hated that feeling.
But now, according to the single sheet of paper in my hands, I had a place that did want me. A place that I could get an amazing education and start to experience the world outside of the Bible Belt. A place where maybe I could even advance my art abilities by exploring new mediums that I haven’t been able to before because they weren’t offered in the rinky-dink schools I attended.
After scanning the letter carefully one last time, I stared thoughtfully at the headmaster’s signature. It was masculine yet elegant and appeared to have been done by a quill pen which was oddly old-fashioned. The only reason I could tell was I had checked out a book from the library one time that gave instructions on how to make quill pens and I’d tried it out just out of curiosity. It had turned out to be a lot harder than I’d realized, but had been kind of fun to learn. After lots of practice, I’d managed to write something legible with the quill pen, but nowhere near the graceful finesse of the headmaster’s signature that was staring at me from the paper in my hands.
Focusing back on the contents of the letter, I had to admit this offer was way better than anything I could ever hope for in this state considering Dark Hollow was echelons above the public institutions here in Kentucky. Hell, it actually out-ranked most of the Ivy League schools, which was saying something. And the thought of getting out of this house and this state as early as tomorrow had me almost grinning in anticipation. Sure it would be challenging and a little scary, being a completely new setting and new people. But it wouldn’t be any different than the many times I had moved from one home to another over the years. Besides, I was never one to back down from a challenge, especially when it could change my life for the better.
There was one thing really bothering me, though. Why would a college send a representative several states over to make an offer to someone like me? That’s the kind of thing that is done for a star athlete, not for a budding artist. But if this was my ticket out of Kentucky, I wasn’t going to let it get derailed by making a fuss about it. But it did seem a bit odd to me.
Intrigued and beginning to let the excitement of a new adventure stir within me, I finally raised my eyes, held Ms. Glass’ cool gaze steadily, and shared firmly, “I’d like to accept the scholarship, Ms. Glass. And, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to accompany you when you leave tomorrow.”
“Very well. I will make the arrangements. Be sure to limit your packing to bags, Miss Marshall. I’ll be here at exactly six o’clock tomorrow morning to pick you up,” Ms. Glass instructed as she stood and gathered her briefcase. As she walked towards the door, the rest of us followed her.
Turning to us, she briefly shook hands with Virginia and Bob. When it was my turn, I clasped her cool hand in mine and told her sincerely, “Thank you, Ms. Glass, for this opportunity. I’m really looking forward to learning all I can at Dark Hollow University.”
“I am sure you will do well there, Miss Marshall. Get some rest as tomorrow will be a rather long travel day. I’ll see you in the morning.” Turning to my foster parents she continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it was a pleasure.” Her tone had the same amount of emotion she’d shown throughout the entire conversation, which wasn’t much, and then she was heading out to the waiting sedan.
After she was gone, I was ushered up to my room by a very eager Virginia Smith. Apparently she and her husband were real anxious to be rid of me (and would likely not continue in the foster care program any longer, having felt they had contributed to doing their Christian duty). Virginia provided me with a couple of suitcases that she didn’t use anymore in which to pack my meager belongings. I was even able to fit the few personal items I’d had with me since I was a child (a few pictures with some foster kids I’d met over the years, a ratty old stuffed monkey that was supposedly mine when I was a baby, and some jewelry that had supposedly belonged to my birth mother) into the cases with my clothes.
Once that was done, I finally got to get out of my Ode de Chicken grease clothes and take a shower. When dinner time rolled around, the news was shared with Bob and Virginia’s two sons who’d just gotten home from their summer jobs. Josh was sincere in his congratulatory comments and even requested I send him an email once I got settled in to let him know how I was liking the college experience. Tim just mumbled congrats and continued to shovel food into his yap like an uncivilized caveman.
Once dinner was over, I helped clear the table like always and requested permission to use the computer for a few minutes. I wanted to email some friends of mine letting them know where I’d be going. I wasn’t real close with anyone, but I knew a few people that I would occasionally go shopping with or to the movies with that would at least like to know where I was if they ever wanted to get in touch with me.
After sending those messages off, I used the phone real quick to call my employer to officially quit my job. When I told them why, they were more excited for me than I expected and told me they’d mail me a check. I knew it wouldn’t be much as I hadn’t work there but a few days, but hey, every penny counts when you don’t have a lot to begin with. Then I said good-night to Mr. and Mrs. Smith and thanked them for taking me in for the last six months. They had been alright; not terrible, but not great. Didn’t matter though; I’d be gone tomorrow and would probably never see them again. That thought made me grin as I headed up the stairs.
Stepping into my room, I closed and locked the door. I had learned to do that after Tim had tried to come into my room one night after everyone had gone to sleep. I heard a knock on the door now but ignored it, figuring it was him.
“Come on, Ellie, open the door. I want to say good-bye to you properly,” Tim called out softly. I rolled my eyes and thought, yeah I’m sure you do, jerk. After several moments, I heard him mutter, “Bitch. Probably weren’t any good anyway,” and his footsteps faded away down the hall. And that right there made me grateful that this would be my last night here.