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Chapter 1

(October 2011)

I died once when I was very young. Some might say that I should have stayed dead. I sure wish I did. I am told to be less morbid; apparently people get uncomfortable around girls like me. But how can a girl who has flirted for years with suicide be anything but morbid?

I guess my story starts the day my brother killed my parents. He killed me as well before turning the gun on himself, but for whatever reasons, I didn't stay dead. I spent weeks in the intensive care unit recovering from my injuries. My eight year old body had taken a beating and the doctors never thought I would recover. They never expected me to talk, let alone walk out of that hospital unaided.

I don't remember anything of these events. I have pieced together stories I have read to make my own version of what happened that sunny day in August. Newspaper articles paint a picture of a troubled boy who one day snapped. The experts called it how they saw it and said that the boy's parents refused to medicate him, despite the advice of a counsellor. They said it was a tragedy that could have been prevented with the right help.

They blamed it on mental illness. I don’t know what to blame it on.

To me, this boy was my brother. Through the naive eyes of an eight year old, I remember him as the boy who helped me learn to ride my bike and who helped me with my math. I never went back to my childhood home after being released from hospital, but I was given pictures to remember them by. My mum with her brown hair cropped close to her head and my dad with his messy blonde hair and scar cutting across his chin. My mum was taller, but dad had an authority about him that used to scare me more than my mother’s height. My brother Jason was plumpy and I remember with fondness jumping on him.

As I grew older, the experts decided these pictures of my past were no longer healthy for me. It is the memory of these pictures so precisely ingrained in my memory that remind me that I was once in a happy family, that I was once loved unconditionally. That I was once a normal little girl in a family that gave me everything my little heart desired. These pictures once kept me afloat, but I have not had them for many years.

I was told that time would heal my wounds, but how can time heal the jagged white scar on my neck where my own brother tried to end my life? It glares at me, mocking my mortality. Humans like pretty things, but my scar is not pretty. It is the first thing that people notice about me, and I have kept it that way. At the age of thirteen, I chopped my long blonde hair off to spite a foster mother who told me that no one wanted to see my scar. I have chopped it off every month since. I do not miss my hair even though it makes me a bigger freak among my peers.

With long hair, a girl can hide behind it, she can flaunt it and with luck, she can be the envy of other girls. Instead of flicking my hair over a shoulder and smirking at cute boys like I have seen the girls at TreeTop Hills High do, I expose my scar ruined throat and flip boys off while taking a drag of my cigarette. I don’t think I’m the envy of any girl. Unless she is harbouring a secret desire to walk around looking like a patient of an asylum.

Or the victim of a mad man.

No foster family I have lived with has ever understood me. I began to smoke at the same time that I learnt to steal. I was smoking pot long before my first taste of vodka. I am too smart to get caught. The justice system has never laid a finger on me.

I do not deny that I am one of those clichéd messed up foster kids. No one wants me, but human nature demands they at least try. I have to respect the families that try. Despite the need for more foster families, they get barely a dime to house us brats. Kids like me aren't easy; I enjoy making moments awkward, escalating tensions and causing fights. I even dobbed in the son of one family after he slipped into my bed and held me down one night.

He told me not to scream. That he would make it good for me.

I screamed bloody murder and received a cracked nose for my efforts. I left the very next day after only living there for less than a week. I already have too many labels on me. I will not be labelled a victim of rape.

I admit that the years from thirteen to sixteen have been my darkest. I am still swamped in the darkness; it sticks to me and seeps into my skin threatening to drown me. I was not born a criminal; I was made one by the very society that was meant to care for me. I was ostracized by my peers, misunderstood by adults and thrown from house to house by a system that barely functions. I am without a doubt the product of my environment.

It is nearing the ninth anniversary of my attempted murder and my current foster family is unsure of how to handle it. They treat me like a bomb that will explode and no one wants to light the fuse. My foster mother Rebecca walked in on me passed out three days ago and I hadn’t even received a scolding. I know Rebecca regrets taking me in; she fears I will corrupt her own teenage daughter. Silly really since Brianna is blind, homeschooled and about as sheltered as the Crown Jewels.

Despite the significance of this month, I have been attending school like normal, doing my homework and paying attention in class. I am not stupid; I know that I need good grades to get out of this town. And even if my grades fail me, as soon as I hit 18, I will have access to the trust fund set up by my father when I was born. My father made an associate of his the trustee. I never like Mr Dawly growing up, and even though the trust fund is discretionary, the man has been a stingy bastard, only giving me money every now and then, usually when I satisfy some condition of his like attending school or getting good grades. The moment I’m 18, the trust will be placed back into my hands. I have always had a win-win situation for my future, I've just had to ensure that I fly under the radar and actually survive until I'm 18.

Even if that seems like an impossible feat in my worst moments.

Despite my looming anniversary, today is shaping up to be a good day. I refused to attend any other school except TreeTop Hills High and this is where I am heading to today. I am currently on the forty-eight-minute-in-good-traffic bus ride to the one constant in my life. My brother attended this school, and despite attempts by the child safety authorities to get me to go to a different school – one closer to my current home – I managed to succeed in putting my foot down and saying no. It only took them a few months to get the hint, and it was only when the danger of a young girl walking by herself across town became too dangerous did they relent and let me enrol at TreeTop Hills. It's amazing how things can change when a girl claims that a man pulled over and offered her a ride to school. I'm sure there is still a file somewhere documenting my encounter with the white sedan with the green sticker on the back window.

I'm not only smart, I'm sly as well. I have no one but myself to look out for. I stayed with my father’s family when I was released from hospital but it soon became apparent that it would not work out. I closed in on myself and refused to leave the bedroom for days. I was admitted back into hospital for dehydration and malnutrition and the authorities thought that I would recover better away from any reminders of my deceased family. Over time my aunt stopped contacting me.

I am sitting in the back corner of the bus as usual watching the people around me with mistrust. I am the only kid from the high school who takes this bus and the regulars on their way to the shops greet me with a nod of their white and grey heads. They all know me and my story. Some feel sorry for me, but I am used to the looks of pity. Others fear me, afraid that I will one day snap like my brother.

I admit, there are plenty of people I would like to kill if I did happen to ‘snap’.

Traffic is slow today; everyone drives slower when it rains, and I know that this will be a longer ride than normal. I turn my iPod up louder, hunch down in my seat and stare out of the window as Pierre Bouvier croons about how he wishes he could save me.

I'm a lost cause buddy.

When the bus pulls over at my stop, I immediately open my umbrella. It is a five minute walk to the school and I have no desire to come down sick on top of all the other things going on in my life. I pull out my smokes and light one, taking a much needed drag. I am not allowed to smoke at Rebecca's, so these moments are pure bliss for me.

I walk on the far side of the pavement today to avoid being sprayed by the dirty puddles that have collected in the pothole covered road. This isn’t the nicest end of town and the state of the road barely scrapes the surface of what is wrong with this town.

Old. Falling apart.

Dead end.

I navigate my black sneakers around the rivulets of water coming down the hill I am walking up. Whoever decided to build this school on top of a hill had a twisted sense of humour. This town thrives on fast food and beer, but I relish the quickening of my heart as I move up the path. On principle I refuse to join team sports – I don’t have spirit, let alone team spirit – but Physical Education is my best subject. I am a fit girl, and I enjoy the freedom that sport brings. When I run, I can leave everything behind even for just a little while.

I read somewhere that the endorphins released from exercise can make a person happy, and the jumping jacks, push-ups and sit ups that I do in my room sometimes help. But sometimes they don't. My parents refused to medicate my brother, so I know that if they were alive, they would not medicate me. Then again, if they were alive, I most likely wouldn't need my regular trips to a counsellor or youth worker.

I navigate the crowd of teenagers easily as I enter the school grounds. My presence seems to open up a pathway naturally, and I wonder how the Queen Bee of the school feels when she gets a similar response. My pathway is opened up because of fear. Hers might be too, except they probably aren’t afraid that she might kill them. Well, I guess she could kill their reputation with one malice fuelled sentence, but she isn’t the ‘Cutter Freak’.

Don’t kids come up with such original names?

When I get to my form room, I have a message waiting for me. Usually messages waiting for me only mean one thing, and when I collect the note from Mr. Black, I groan quietly. Like every month, the school Chaplin has organised for me to see her at lunch.

Mr. Black smiles encouragingly at me, but I look at him with disdain. No meeting is ever a good meeting. There is a bunch of other people to do her job for a fee, but the school insists on Chaplin Kate talking to me. I guess they need to look like they are trying to help me; I am the only depressed orphan who self harms after all. I usually sit there and stare at the wall while Kate tries to get me to talk about my feelings.

Like she'd ever understand.

My classmates do not make eye contact with me as I pass the rows to my desk at the back. I am not a troublemaker but that does not stop them from averting their gazes and whispering to each other about the fresh cuts on my left arm.

What a freak I must be to them.

Classes that morning go slow. My Biology teacher Mr. Briggs praises my recent assignment on evolution while my Math teacher calls me out for not paying attention in class. No matter how hard I try, math will always be torture.

At the end of class, I sluggishly make my way to the Chaplin's office. Kate’s door is closed so I sit on one of the blue plastic chairs in the office foyer. One of the admin staff is looking at me with a curious expression, but I am used to these looks now and I ignore her. She is new here because I have not seen her before and I am a frequent visitor to this office. I tap my fingernails against the plastic of the chair while I wait. I have read all the magazines in this office, and I know for a fact that Brad Pitt did leave Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie. Just like this town, even the school struggles to keep with the times.

The rain has finally stopped and I stare out of the window blinking against the blinding light of the sun reflecting off water. Movement attracts my attention and I notice the Principal walking towards the office. Mr. Stewart rarely leaves his office because he is almost ancient and he walks with a slight limp. He has been at this school for over twenty years and I'm sure he has another five left in him before he accepts defeat and retires. Next to him walks a tall man with a boy about my age dawdling behind them.

I watch the men as they walk down the path leading to the office. I do not divert my gaze as they walk in. Mr. Stewart knows me well and he greets me with a curt nod. The other man doesn’t spare me a glance, while the boy gives me a look all boys give girls that look like me before looking away. I follow them with my eyes as they walk towards Mr. Stewart's office and then I am left staring at a closed brown wooden door. I sigh. I could be doing so many things right now. Like smoking behind the sports shed. Or walking up to some grade 8's and scaring them with my freakishness. My personal favourite was the time I sat down near a group of them in the first week and proceeded to cry and scream hysterically.

I do need to keep appearances up after all.

Maybe Chaplin Kate has a new lost cause on her hands and I won't have to see her today. Just as I rise to let the admin officer know that I am leaving, the door to Kate's office opens. Kate sees me and gives me a wide smile, like I'm the best thing she has seen all day. She turns her head briefly and murmurs some words into her office, before stepping out of the door and standing to the side. I am expecting one of Kate's usuals – bullying is a pretty serious issue at this school – but to my surprise a guy a few years older than me stepped out of the office.

As expected, the first thing he zeros in on is the scar on my neck. To my discomfort, instead of looking away in disgust, he keeps staring at the jagged edges that mar my white skin. Only Kate clearing her throat causes him to avert his eyes and I shift on the spot suddenly feeling self-conscious. I can handle people looking at my scar, but when they pay too much attention to it, it brings feelings of insecurity to the surface. And despite the lack of security in my life, I don't in general feel afraid of anything. And when I do, well, I have my coping mechanism stashed in the top drawer of my desk.

Kate is making arrangements to see him another day and I stand there waiting for her to finish. I am picking at my cuticles when the door to Mr. Stewart’s office opens and he walks out with his guests in tow. Mr. Stewart is all smiles when he sees me standing awkwardly to the side. With a clap of his hands and a joyful tone he says, “Wonderful! I am glad you are still here Adelaide. I want to introduce you to someone.” Mr Stewart gestures behind him and the boy behind him steps forward. “This is Liam, Adelaide. Liam is a new student here and in your grade. I trust you will make him feel welcome."

Mr. Stewart misses the look of disgust on my face as he turns to face Kate. The Cutter Freak make someone feel welcome? Mr. Stewart needs to come out of his fantasy world, stat!

I gaze at Liam, trying to make him feel uncomfortable as Mr. Stewart and Kate converse. The man who had been with Mr. Stewart has his hand on the kid’s shoulder, so I can only assume that this is his father. I watch as the man leans down and murmurs into his ear. Liam gives a stiff nod and I look away not wanting to intrude on their conversation.

To my relief, Mr Stewart bids us farewell and ushers Liam and his father out of the office. The man Kate had been talking to also follows.

Kate smiles at me and urges me to get comfortable in her office while she returns a call. I retreat into the room and as per my usual practice I drag the plush chair designated for people like me into the corner. Corners make me feel safe. I have two walls surrounding the part of my body that I cannot actively protect. I don’t know when I started thinking of corners as safe but I have never questioned my instincts. Kate picked this up early in our sessions but she had made no comment so far.

I sit in silence for all of three minutes before Kate enters the room and softly closes the door behind her. She walks to her desk and sits down, tapping away at her computer for a moment. Her chair creaks as she leans back and she takes on the pose I am all too familiar with. Her fingers are steeped and she is tapping her middle fingers together as she regards me across the room.

"How are you today Adelaide?"

I stare at her blankly.

"You look well if I may say so."

Again, I refuse to deign her with a response. In my opinion, she needs to colour her hair again. Her roots are showing.

She is eyeing my exposed arm and I know what is coming next. “Would you like to talk about things?"

I roll my eyes and hunch down further in my seat. These meetings got old fast. She never openly acknowledged my cuts, but she always tried to get me to talk about them.

Kate's sigh of frustration reaches my ears. It is so very rare to see Kate showing her frustration, and I used to have fun trying to make her calm exterior crack. I wasn't even trying today. "Look, I know you don't want to talk to me. You never have and I highly doubt you ever will. I am here to help you, but I can't help you unless you are willing to help yourself."

More silence. I am picking at my fingernails now. By this stage I don’t think I will ever have pretty nails to paint.

"Tomorrow is my last day."

I am considering what colour to paint my nails next when Kate speaks again. "I am moving on to a different school. A new Chaplin will be taking over from me.”

I don't know why she is bothering to tell me. It's not like I'll be shedding a tear for her. Despite my lack of response, Kate continues. "He was a student at this school ten years ago."

My head shoots up on its own accord. Well now, this was interesting news. Kate lets a small smile slip. She must know what is going through my head.

If this new Chaplin was a student here ten years ago, then maybe he knew my brother.

Kate leans forward and rests her elbows on her desk suddenly business like again. "I did try Adelaide. Every time I see a new cut on your skin, it breaks my heart. Stop fighting us, we're only trying to help you."

And just like that, my excitement fizzles out like a flame doused in water.

I leave Kate’s office in a foul mood after she tried to extract a promise from me that I would try open up to the new Chaplin. For a woman who believes in God, she has little understanding of how some people deal with their crap lives. I don’t want to talk about me; I want to talk about my brother with someone who knew him.

I have five minutes of break remaining and I go down to the Shed for a smoke. I don’t talk to the other smokers and they don’t talk to me but we have an understanding that if one needs a light or a smoke, we share. There is only one bench back here. It is covered in graffiti and old gum. It is the stuff of legend how it came to be out here behind the sports shed. Some say it was aliens. Others say it was a gift from the Gods. I think it was seniors who got sick of sitting on the hard lumpy ground.

The ground is still wet, so I have no choice but to lean against the corrugated wall careful of the jagged holes that have been kicked in by past students. I still have a nasty scar on my arm that was caused by a sharp rusted edge of this crappy structure. It blends in with every other scar crisscrossed against my arm.

I pull out a smoke and light it up with practiced ease. I take a long drag and let my breath go slowly, watching the smoke get taken by the breeze. I stand like that until the warning bell blares. I squash the remainder of my smoke with my shoe and I set off to my next class.

English is the usual dull affair, with Mr. Jenks assigning us a new assessment piece. We are required to chose a movie, and analyse the way a director has created a scene. This subject has always been stupid to me; how will criticizing and analysing a movie ever help me in the grand scheme of life? The only good part of the lesson is when he puts on Psycho and tells us to watch how Alfred Hitchcock weaves a story of suspense in the film using camera angles, lighting and music.

I head straight to the Shed after class, and to my pleasure, I get to the seat first. I am already half way through my lunch when the regulars show up. I offer my light to one kid and hold back the scolding I want to give them. These kids must be fourteen; much too young to be smoking. But it’s their choice and I was just like them so I keep my mouth shut.

I see the girls give me a wary look as I absentmindedly scratch my arm before their heads bunch together and they gossip about what a messed up freak I am. Just because we share our cancer sticks doesn’t mean we owe any sort of loyalty to each other. I pull out my math homework and scowl at the numbers of the page. Math is one of those things that I don’t understand and I regret signing up for the advanced mathematics class. But I am too stubborn to admit that I struggle. Plus I might need the advanced class one day if I decide to go to University.

My last class for the day is physical education. To my disgust, I am partnered with the Queen Bee: Zena Atkins. She refuses to play and so stands to the back yelling ‘yes!’ every time I score a point. She throws me a dirty look when class finishes, as though to tell me that it is my fault I lost by one point.

The bus arrives three minutes late this afternoon, but traffic is good, so it is only a fifty minute ride. As I walk up the street to Rebecca’s house, Pierre Bouvier is screaming into my ear about his generation.

Even after eleven months living with Rebecca, I still don’t see her house as my house.

I notice with interest that the two storey house near the bottom of the street has new tenants. Number 4 has been vacant for as long as I have lived on Bark Street and it was beginning to fall into disrepair. A set of weathered stairs lead up to a front door which needs a new coat of paint. The lawn is overgrown and the garden is full of weeds. A white truck is parked in the driveway and a woman is pulling a box out. I have no interest in welcoming her to the street so I move on.

Rebecca is waiting for me when I walk in the door and she hands me a plate with a sandwich on it. I guess the good thing about this time of the year is that everyone wants to help make my life easier, so I rarely need to lift a finger. Rebecca would probably drive the forty minutes to my school if I asked her to take me.

“How was your day?” She asks me as I sit at the table and take a bite of the ham and lettuce sandwich.

I shrug. School was school. What else was there?

“We have new neighbours.” I nod my head. She continues to stare at me some more before rising and leaving me alone. After finishing my sandwich, I walk past Brianna’s room. She is on her bed, running her fingers over a page. I mutter a ‘hey’ and I see her pause her fingers. She looks up and smiles at the wall.

Sometimes I feel sorry for Brianna; even in my messed up state, I can recognize the beauty of autumn and I can see the flowers in full bloom in spring. She once reassured me that despite not being able to see, she can still recognize beauty using her other senses like touching and listening. It was in this same conversation that she told me that I have a beautiful soul. Personally, I don't even think it exists.

I ask her about movies and she promises to collate a list of titles for me to use. Sometimes I feel guilty for treating her so horribly; Brianna is the only girl my age that I talk to, and I appreciate her kindness.

My room is right next to hers and she tells me she will come find me. I have coped with today surprisingly well, but I know it won't last long. I have a meeting with my social worker tomorrow afternoon, and I know I will most likely unearth the hidden bottle of vodka tomorrow night. After 11 months, Rebecca knows my triggers and even though I refuse to let her help me clean up, she always leaves a roll of bandage on the bathroom counter with the hopes that I will accept her help.

Brianna comes to me twenty minutes later. I am in the middle of my math when she shuffles in. I resist the urge to extend my hand to help her; she looks so vulnerable with her skinny body and milky eyes. "So I've thought about it and I’ve come up with some ideas. I didn't know what you would want, so I suggested some of everything."

“Thank you.” I don’t usually talk to people let alone thank them, but I respect Brianna.

She hangs around while I translate her Braille. "I heard mum talking about your appointment with Charlotte tomorrow."

I don’t reply and she doesn't say anything else after that. Charlotte is a sensitive topic for me, and she knows it. Eventually she seems to grow tired of standing around and turns to leave. I watch her walk slowly across the room, but she pauses when her hand touches the door. She turns her head to the side and I see her gnawing on her lip like she is thinking hard about something. Finally she shakes her head and continues walking.

I try to ignore the disappointment that creeps up from my stomach when the door clicks shut. I know she is still afraid to speak her mind around me, scared to set me off if she says the wrong thing. She can’t read my body language so she never knows if she is overstepping boundaries.

I have so many boundaries that I am my own country and no one wants to invade me.

For now I am safe, protected. Tomorrow I could be nuked.
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