Andrew grits his teeth and climbs on his bike. He really wants to punch something, almost did, in fact, but the last time he did that the school counselor threatened to expel him for good. He didn’t know what that meant exactly, so he looked it up in a dusty old dictionary he found at the bottom of the bookshelf, sneezing when a plume of dust tickled his nose.
“Expel,” he read, very quietly, because everyone was asleep. “ to force to leave a place.”
There’s more, but his heart starts pounding so hard that he can’t concentrate enough to continue. If there’s one thing he knows well, it’s leaving. In the eight years Andrew has spent in the California foster system, he’s left more times than he knows how to count. He remembers all of them - he remembers a lot of things other people give him weird looks for - and he definitely remembers that heavy, fluttery feeling he gets in his belly whenever it’s time to go to a new place. He doesn’t like that feeling. He even gets it when it’s time to leave the bad places, because at least he knows what to expect . Every new house is like a guessing game, and Andrew has lost more times than he’s won.
So that day at school, when a kid with crooked teeth and breath that stinks like onions gets in his face, Andrew doesn’t punch him. He really, really wants to, but he wants to not leave even more. He walks away, trembling with idle rage while the crooked teeth kid laughs and calls out the most colorful insults a third-grader can think of. Andrew isn’t shocked by the words because he’s heard worse. He hasn’t tried them yet himself, but he thinks he might soon, just to see what effect they’d have.
Coming up on the curve that swings into the side-street where he lives, Andrew starts peddling faster, breath huffing as he pumps his short legs. It starts to burn a little bit, but he kind of likes it. He approaches the curve, lets himself start to coast, but he’s going too fast and he miscalculates. He overshoots and crashes to his side in a heap of limbs and metal. Stunned, he lays there for several seconds. Very slowly, he pushes up on his hands and knees, hissing sharply when his left leg burns. After dragging himself to his feet, he looks down to see blood and grit covering his knee and trickling down to his ankle, soaking the top of his sock. The world tilts sideways for a moment, because suddenly he’s seeing his legs at another time in his life. There’d been blood dripping down his legs then too.
Trembling, but now for an entirely different reason, Andrew aims a viscous kick at his wrecked bike. A shock of additional pain travels up his injured leg and for some reason his eyes are blurry when he does it twice, then three times.
He limps home, not bothering to bring the bike. It’s stupid, anyway. Maybe his foster family will get upset with him for crashing it. Maybe they’ll even expel him. At least now he’ll know.
The mom and dad aren’t in the kitchen when Andrew slams open the front door and trudges inside. He’s almost disappointed until he spots Bethany, their teenage daughter, walking down the stairs. A stab of familiar panic shoots through him when she spots his knee and gasps loudly, rushing to his side. Andrew backs up instinctually and clenches his fists.
“Oh, Andrew, what happened?” Bethany scrunches up her face like she’s in pain. “Did you fall off your bike? Are you okay?”
He hesitates briefly, then nods.
“Okay, that’s okay,” she says. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” She reaches out a hand and pats him on the shoulder, and Andrew can’t suppress his flinch. He really hates the sad look on her face and the urge to punch something is back stronger than before.
Bethany herds him into the bathroom and has him sit on the closed toilet seat while she gets a brown bottle and cotton swabs out of the medicine cabinet. He winces and turns his head away when she starts dabbing at his bloody knee. It stings a lot. It’s not that bad though, not until she murmurs something about needing to get a better look and pushes up his shorts.
With an inhuman noise, Andrew shoves her away with every ounce of strength he has in his tiny body. Caught by surprise, Bethany falls back on her butt, the medicine bottle spilling and sloshing its contents all over the linoleum floor. Andrew scrambles off the toilet and nearly slips in the mess, barely managing to keep his feet under him as he bolts out of the bathroom, and a moment later, out the front door. He runs. He’s not wearing socks or shoes, but it doesn’t matter. His mind is spinning and he can’t seem to stop shaking, not even when his legs fold beneath him and he sinks into the grass.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting there when he hears a car and then headlights are shining him down in the waning afternoon light. He looks up through bleary eyes and sees Bethany and her mom, Ellen, getting out of the car. They approach him slowly, like Andrew has seen people approach feral dogs on the side of the road. Maybe that’s all he is to them. That’s all he feels like.
“Andrew, sweetie, are you okay?” Ellen says softly. She crouches down to his level. She winces when she glimpses his bloody mess of a knee. “Ouch, that looks like it hurts. Beth didn’t mean to make it worse, honey. It’s just sometimes with cuts they hurt a little more before they get better.”
Andrew knows that. He’s not stupid. He almost wants to tell her that his thoughts hurt way worse than his leg, but in the end, he just swallows and nods.
They take him home. Andrew doesn’t freak out this time when Ellen cleans and bandages his knee and he just blinks when Bethany tells him how sorry she is.
When it’s time for bed, Ellen asks if she can give him a hug.
Andrew shakes his head no and closes the bedroom door.