Chapter One – An Accidental Life





Summertime is hot and dull in the Central Valley of California and four teenage girls from very different families are determined to spice it up. With a single-mindedness that foretells disaster, they push aside all the rules and explore the underbelly of valley life. Drugs, sex, alcohol, adventure, anything to challenge the norm, yet all experienced without the benefit of maturity. As the girls become increasingly uncontrollable, their mothers-from dramatically diverse social castes-are forced to work together to save their daughters. Like a tornado moving across the landscape, lives are wrenched from their foundations.

Here is Chapter One of An Accidental Life.




Once upon a time, Karin Larson had believed in endless possibilities.  In her childhood, all the adults had asked her the same question: What do you want to be when you grow up?   Picturing a giant list from which she could choose, Karin had played with the task, picking out one thing or another, while watching the reaction of the grownups to help her know if her choices were right or wrong.

Much later, Karin had come to realize that selecting one thing meant giving up something else.  A possibility lost…perhaps forever.  Sometimes, not making any choice at all was just a different way of choosing.

Karin often wondered about those alternate paths.  As a single mother and a social worker for the past fourteen years, she was a responsible and professional person.  She had achieved some expertise in her field.  On the surface, an observer might see her as a calm, reasonably attractive woman in her mid-to-late thirties.
So why did she wake up every morning of her life wishing she were somewhere else and anyone else?

Today was no different from any other.  Karin heard the alarm and cringed.  Then, to stave off the inevitable, she pretended to be on vacation in some tropical island.  She could almost feel the breeze off the ocean, and the scent of suntan lotion wafted toward her.  She could feel her body relaxing into the chaise lounge, while a handsome man approached with a tall, cold drink with one of those little umbrellas on top.  “Mom!” Bridget’s voice interrupted her reverie with its irritatingly teenage quality, that tone that demanded immediate attention.  As she pushed open the bedroom door, she continued.  “I can’t find that book I’m supposed to take back today!  Have you put it somewhere?”  Her tone, almost accusing, brought Karin rudely back to reality.

“No, Bridget,” she replied, forcing an appropriately calm and maternal tone into her own voice, refusing to resort to exchanging irritable words with her daughter.  “Why don’t you check the desk?  I think I saw it there last night.  And, good morning to you, too!”  She aimed a curving smile in her daughter’s direction.

Completely back in reality, Karin reluctantly sat up.  As she looked around to gather her bearings, her gaze swept over the room, with its four-poster mahogany bed and matching dresser, crammed into the small space along with an armoire at the foot of the bed and a wicker chair next to it.  Sighing, she acknowledged that her room had not metamorphosed into a luxurious bedroom/sitting room while she slept.  And as she pushed open the swinging doors separating the bedroom from her bath, she noticed that the tiny cramped space with the shower/tub combination had not mysteriously turned into a luxurious spa while her eyes were closed.  Laughing at her own fantasies, she turned on the hot water.  Under the showerhead, the steady stream forced her body awake.

Toweling off afterwards, she moved quickly and within minutes had dressed in lilac colored lightweight pants and a matching sleeveless camisole, over which she planned to throw a purple and green floral printed tunic top.   She glanced in the mirror before leaving the bedroom, pulling her ash blond hair back into a knot at the nape of her neck.  She applied some eye shadow above her hazel eyes and blush to her high cheekbones.  She lightly dusted powder on her pert, slightly upturned nose and with her finger, smoothed some lip-gloss on her full lips.  Satisfied that she would pass inspection, she hurried from the room.

In the kitchen, Bridget had made coffee and now set a mug in front of her at the breakfast bar.  Thankful for small favors, Karin smiled gratefully at her daughter as she slowly sipped.  Carefully scrutinizing her mother, Bridget poured juice for the two of them and sat down on the opposite side of the bar.  Her green eyes set in that fragile, porcelain-like face conveyed her apology.  At fifteen, Bridget’s moods were all over the place, but just now she had proved that underneath all the whining and irritating behavior, a sweet girl still lurked.

“Thanks, Bridget,” Karin reached out and lightly clasped her daughter’s hand.  “Did you find the book?”

Nodding, Bridget grinned.  “It was right where you said it would be.  I don’t know what gets into me, sometimes.  But, anyway, I have to go pretty soon.  What time will you be home tonight?”

“Oh,” Karin reflected, frowning as she mentally pictured her day.  “I think I should be here by six tonight.  Would you like me to pick up take-out on the way home?”

“Sure, Mom,” Bridget replied, while stashing her books and papers into her backpack.  “That sounds great.  Surprise me,” she added, anticipating her mother’s next query as to whether or not she preferred Chinese food or pizza.  Then kissing her mother lightly on the cheek, she headed out the door.

Left alone in the now yawning quiet of the apartment, Karin carried her mug into the living room, where she sat on the edge of the green and white checked slip covered sofa and placed it on the glass-topped coffee table.  From this vantage point, she could see the kitchen and adjacent dining room and down the hall to the two bedrooms.

A small round pine table painted green, with mismatched chairs, stood in the little nook.  Karin had laid out woven place mats on the bare tabletop; reddish orange napkins secured with pewter napkin rings offset the neutrals of the mats…compliments of the local Pier I store.  Her gaze swept down the hall toward Bridget’s room, and she mentally conjured up the black wrought iron daybed her daughter had had since she was ten years old, now covered with bright pillows in red, green, purple, and yellow.  Her red dresser and chest, along with a wicker side chair, had been picked up in thrift stores years before and painted anew to fit Bridget’s current fads.  Bridget’s walls were covered with posters and her shelves were crammed with books, teddy bears and dolls, reminiscent of her younger years.  Karin could also visualize the floor with its mass of clothing, both clean and dirty; Bridget had a tendency to throw things down after wearing them or even after just trying them on.

She and Bridget had lived in this tiny apartment since Bridget’s father had left in 1985, when Bridget was only nine.  She shuddered and forced herself back into the present.  Small though this apartment was, it had certain homey touches she had brought to it over the years with the addition of interesting pieces purchased at flea markets.  Against the inner wall, just before the room veered off into the hallway, she had placed her latest purchase, a reproduction rolltop desk.  Its pigeonholes were crammed with every imaginable item, but its top held photos placed in lovingly selected frames.  A picture of Bridget as a baby, with her reddish gold hair secured by a ribbon, sat beside a photo of herself and Bridget, taken when the little girl was four years old; and next to them stood a framed version of her daughter, taken just last year, her dimpled smile beaming at the camera, while her strawberry blond hair fell around her face in waves and her green eyes crinkled under the sweep of dark eyelashes.

On the wall above the desk, more framed photos were arranged asymmetrically, and included several of Karin as a child; one photo showed her grandmother, Olga Peterson, with her twinkling dark eyes and that gray hair on top of her head in its neat little bun.  Her eyeglasses hung from a chain around her neck.   Karin felt a slight pang as she thought about Olga, who, at seventy-seven, was becoming more fragile and seemed to shrink visibly between their infrequent visits.

Finishing her coffee, Karin forced herself to face the day.

Cramming papers into her briefcase, she glanced around to make sure she had turned off the coffeepot and adequately straightened the kitchen.  Sighing, she closed and locked the door behind her.
*     *     *
On the city bus, Bridget sat with her backpack at her feet.  Seeing the unfamiliar faces, that ever-present anxiety hovered in the form of a lump in her throat.  A quiet girl, Bridget had a small group of acquaintances, and only one really close friend.  That friend, Fawn Holleran, also fifteen, was now spending the whole summer with her father who lived in LA.   When Fawn had announced her summer plans, Bridget had felt the beginnings of the now-familiar anxiety.  Even though she was attending summer school everyday, that only used up the mornings; every afternoon, she would be all on her own for the first summer for as far back as she could remember.

She and Fawn, who lived in an adjacent apartment within the same complex, had always hung out at the mall, trying on clothes and sipping slurpees or sodas.  Their days had been crammed with lazy activities and they had usually ended up in one or the other’s apartment, watching TV or listening to the latest tunes.  So now what was Bridget to do?  She couldn’t think of any of her acquaintances to share such moments with, and couldn’t imagine that same closeness with any of them.  Of course, she could go to the mall alone and see what happened.  Maybe she could pretend she was waiting for someone and then none of the other kids would realize that she had nobody.  She tried to take some kind of inspiration from her mother, who was used to being alone.  Karin often went off to the movies or the mall, completely solo, and seemed so blasé about it.  Maybe she was only pretending too!

As she tentatively planned out her afternoon, Bridget closed her eyes.  She felt her body thrown slightly forward as the bus lurched over the potholes in the road, and when she breathed, she smelled the noxious fumes mixed with the body sweat of the passengers.  The temperature was already at 90 degrees, very hot for so early in the morning.

Trying to imagine she was at the beach, Bridget could almost feel the ocean’s breezes and smiled to herself.  It would be so great to have a beach house.  She sometimes watched those entertainment channels on cable, the ones portraying the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  She pictured herself walking down the beach in front of her own elegant home, calling out to neighbors whose lives were equally glamorous.  Maybe someday.  She was jolted back to reality by the grinding brakes of the bus.  When she opened her eyes, she realized that they had reached the campus.  Struggling to a standing position, she collected her backpack and moved to the front of the bus.
*     *     *

Bree Taylor thought that her life had finally turned a corner.   Awake before eight o’clock on that hot and balmy day in June, she hugged herself with excitement.  Here it was only two months after her sixteenth birthday, and she had already met the man of her dreams.  Stretching her arms above her head, she planned out the day and the rest of the summer.  No school to worry about.  No parental interference!  Her mother, Sara, had her own set of problems, and even though Bree felt a little guilty that Sara’s misfortune made her own life easier, she just couldn’t deal with her mother right now.  Not when she could have the best summer ever!

Bree threw her covers on the floor in a pile and pulled on her faded jeans.  She slipped a tank top over her blond head, and after she had splashed cold water on her face, she stared in the cracked mirror, checking out her skin for pimples.  Finding none, she grinned at the face reflected there, grateful that her perfectly ordinary features added up to pretty with a little help from makeup.  She brushed her hair slowly, watching the slightly wavy hair fall around her slender face and imagining how she would look dressed up in a beautiful, flowing gown…like the ones she saw on TV in her favorite soap opera.  She could picture the way the gown would sweep across the floor when she danced while her partner, who would be gorgeous, held her close in his strong arms.

Someday, she vowed, she would have magic in her life.  Now that she had met him, her magical moments might happen any day!

At twenty, Jason McKenna sure knew how to strut his stuff.  Bree had first glimpsed him last night at the lake.  With his dark hair falling across his forehead and that wild and reckless grin flashing for everyone to see, there was something so sexy about him.  Especially when he unwrapped his legs from around the Harley.   And as he sauntered toward her in his snug T-shirt and denim cut-offs, Bree had noticed the muscles in his tanned arms and legs, and when he paused before her, grinning, she had thought her heart would thump right out of her chest.

She had somehow managed to find her voice and they had talked.  She couldn’t remember much about the words, except that he had told her he was working on a construction crew and liked to relax at the lake.   Mostly, she remembered that when he looked at her, his intensely blue gaze and the flash of that smile had stunned her.  They had shared a couple of beers and a few passionate kisses, and he had asked for her phone number just before he roared off on his bike.  Bree hoped she would hear from him!  You could never be sure with guys.

Satisfied that she was ready to face the day, Bree tiptoed down the short hall to the tiny kitchen of the apartment she shared with her mother.  No sign of Sara.  Opening the refrigerator, she peered inside hoping to find something substantial enough to get her through the day.  She only had a few dollars…baby-sitting money.  She really had to do something to earn some cash.  Finding a box of cereal on the counter, she poured the remaining morsels into a chipped bowl and trickled the last bit of milk over it.  She filled a glass with water from the tap and sat down to eat her breakfast.

As she ate, she looked around, picturing the place through Jason’s eyes.  In the living room, which was really just a continuation of the kitchen with a short counter separating the space, a dumpy brown sofa from the thrift store sat against the back wall.  In front of it, a glass-topped coffee table was strewn with newspapers and magazines, while a nightstand from the bedroom held a black and white TV.  In the corner huddled a rump-sprung armchair in a tweedy orange fabric.  Sara’s finishing touch was a cheap print on the wall above the sofa.

Deciding to ignore her surroundings and focus on Jason, Bree spun her fantasy of the two of them riding on the back of his motorcycle, hurtling around the lake, and finally ending up in a secluded spot.  That’s where they would make love.  Then she would ride with him back to his place, a real bachelor pad.  He would hand her a beer and they would eat a pizza while they watched TV.  They would make love again on a giant bed, cuddling for awhile afterwards, with Jason whispering softly in her ear.  When he took her home, he would kiss her under the stars.  He would promise to call her again real soon.

Bree carefully rinsed the bowl and placed it in the dishwasher.  Making sure she had straightened everything up, she grabbed her bag and headed out the door.  She skipped down the stairs, and as she reached the bottom, she looked around to see if her friend Wendy was anywhere about.  Not up yet, she guessed.

Most of her friends would be sleeping in on this first day of summer vacation.  She knew that Wendy had watched her two younger brothers last night while her mother worked.  She felt sorry for Wendy, who had less freedom and more responsibilities than most of their friends.  Joshua and Jeremy, at six and five, were really cute.  But Bree knew that Wendy longed for the day when she would no longer have to worry about them.  She had been baby-sitting them for a couple of years now, ever since Wendy’s mom, Donna Fremont, started working nights at a bar in downtown Clovis.   Their father, Chuck, a long distance truck driver, had sprinted out the door right after Jeremy was born.

Speaking of fathers, Bree often wondered about hers.  She knew very little about him, since he had “taken a powder”…Sara’s description…right after he found out that Sara was pregnant.  Bree knew that his name was Michael Ferguson and that he and Sara had been together just a short time.  They had met on the road in the seventies, right after Sara had run away from home.   Sara didn’t like to talk about that time in her life.  Whenever Bree brought it up, Sara got a pained expression on her face and abruptly changed the subject.

Bree took off through the iron gate surrounding the apartment complex, and walked toward the bus stop.  She had decided to make the rounds of the fast food restaurants, filling out applications.  Anything would be better than baby-sitting and she really needed some cash.  Afterwards, she would head to the mall.  Wendy had agreed to meet her there around noon.  If she got there first, she could keep herself busy checking out all the new clothes.

*     *    *

Sara Taylor felt the sun on her face and turned over grumpily.  She didn’t see much point in getting up, but now that she was awake, she could feel the familiar craving; she reached for the almost empty pack of cigarettes on the nightstand.  Leaning over, she pulled one out, searching around for her lighter. It was tucked under her pillow.  When she lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply; she slid into a half-sitting position and glanced around the room for clues, trying to piece together the previous night’s scene.  She could see an empty wine bottle on the floor under the chair, and she noticed her pants and shirt lying in a heap on the floor near the edge of the bed.

She felt a momentary flash of memory involving a guy she had met in the bar.  Shuddering, she clutched the sheet around her nude body and headed to the doorway.  Glancing toward her daughter’s room, she could tell that she was already long gone.  Grateful not to have to face her in her present state, she leaned over the bathroom sink and quickly scrubbed yesterday’s makeup from her face.  She stared at herself in the mirror in horror.

She would be thirty-four on her birthday near the end of the month, but today, she looked much older.  Her thin face had the beginning of crow’s feet around the eyes and her sallow complexion reminded her of long days and nights with too much to drink and not enough sleep.  When she tried, she could still look presentable, with enough makeup and some sexy clothes.  She relied on her slender body to help her attract men and earn tips from her customers.  When she had a job!

Remembering that her downward spiral had started right after she lost the last job, she almost slid back under the covers.  But she had to do something.  She had applied for welfare and food stamps again right after the job ended and had put in her application for unemployment.  She thought she might start getting benefits soon.  In the meantime, she needed to do something fast!  Without looking, she knew that her refrigerator and cabinets were almost bare.

In the kitchen, she saw that Bree had finished the last of the cereal and milk.  She found a few slices of bread and popped one into the toaster.  She had a few grounds of coffee, enough to make a couple of cups, which she really needed in order to jumpstart her day.  She measured the grounds into the filter and while the coffee dripped, she smoked her second cigarette.

She stared straight ahead, remembering the past few years, which had started out so great, back when she first left her parents’ home…Even when Michael had taken off on his Harley right after he’d found out she was pregnant, she’d refused to let her spirits drop.  She had started receiving welfare back then and had shared an apartment with another girl.  Between the two of them, they had managed.  Later, after Bree had been born, there had been a time of depression.  Then everything had started to get better…for awhile.  Bree had been a sweet baby and an agreeable child.  And there had been new men and lots of parties.

But a teenage Bree was a different story.  She sighed as she remembered something her own mother had said to her many years before:  “You’re going to reap what you sow,” she had warned with a stern look on her face.  Sara’s parents, Vivian and Joseph Taylor, had been strict and very religious.  They hadn’t known what to do with her, and whenever Sara thought about them, she saw those disappointed faces and heard those harsh predictions.  “You’ll be punished at Judgment Day,” they had shouted at her.

So now Sara thought she might be getting payback for her own teenage years.  In defeat, Sara poured her cup of coffee and tried to think of a way she could somehow turn her life around.
*     *     *

Waiting impatiently for her friend Bree, Wendy Fremont twisted one of the short dark curls framing her face.  Glancing nervously at her wristwatch, she saw that it was nearly twelve-thirty and Bree was late.  Trying not to feel annoyed, she stood up from the little bistro table in the mall and paced.  She had already studied all the latest cassettes in the Sam Goody shop nearby, and had even tried on a few outfits in the little boutique down the way.  But nothing was as much fun when you were alone.

Deciding that she wasn’t helping the situation by stalking back and forth, she sat down again.  She remembered watching her mother this morning, before Donna had been aware of her presence.  Wendy hadn’t been sneaking around, but she guessed she must have approached pretty quietly…because her mom hadn’t seen her.  And there she was, her face in her hands, sobbing soundlessly.   Stepping back quickly, Wendy had then resumed her approach to the kitchen, mumbling loudly in order to announce her presence; when she had entered the room again, Donna smiled and greeted her warmly.

“Hey, Wendy,” she had spoken in that fake cheery voice adults sometimes had, her lips curving upward and her eyes crinkling.  “What are you up to today?”  While she had waited for her daughter’s response, Donna had ducked her head and appeared to be wiping something off her shirt.

Knowing that questioning her mother would do no good, Wendy had pretended not to notice anything wrong.  Quickly pouring her juice and getting the cereal box down from the top of the fridge, she replied:  “Meeting Bree at the mall.” She sat down at the small round table in one of the old wicker chairs and started eating quickly.  “What about you?”

Donna had shrugged and smiled.  “I have tonight off,” she had reminded her daughter, knowing that this piece of news would normally be of interest.  Wendy would be free, with no baby-sitting required, and on a Friday night.   Her daughter should be ecstatic.

But Wendy had pretended nonchalance, pushing her hair back from her face.  She had fallen into a sullen silence, staring fixedly at the back of the cereal box while she finished her breakfast.  Within minutes, she had gathered up her things and left.

Now Wendy again wondered about her mother’s mood.  She knew that her mother often fought off depression, having struggled for years to support her three children.  Her job at the bar couldn’t be a picnic, Wendy decided, but she had been working there for awhile now.  Had something happened last night?  Or was there some big bill on the horizon?  Feeling the familiar resentment surge, creating knots in her stomach, Wendy cursed her father and his irresponsibility.  In all the years since he had left, right after Jeremy was born, he hadn’t once picked up the phone to see how they were doing.  Wendy knew that every once in awhile a child support check arrived, but those occasions were few and far between.

And Wendy resented her mother, too.  She hated herself for feeling this way, but she was only sixteen; she shouldn’t have to be worrying about Donna!  And she certainly shouldn’t have to be spending so much time taking care of her little brothers.  But she smiled to herself, remembering that at least she had tonight off.  And as soon as Bree got here, they could plan some adventure.  Maybe they could drive out to the lake.  Neither of them had a car, but Bree was pretty good at finding rides and she would definitely want to go back out there.  Wendy had talked to her on the phone late last night, and could tell from Bree’s voice how much she liked that guy Jason.

Suddenly she spotted Bree racing toward her, her eyes bright and her blond hair flying around her face.  With every movement, her body signaled that she was ready to have some fun.  Wendy stood up, grinning back, and walked quickly in Bree’s direction, waving her hand.
*     *     *

After the long drive to the downtown Fresno offices of the child welfare agency, Karin longed for a few quiet moments to reflect about her day, which was why she almost always allowed herself extra time in the mornings.   She checked her wristwatch, and calculating that she could afford at least fifteen minutes in the employees’ lounge, she headed in that direction.  Before she even reached the room she could smell the coffee brewing.  Thankfully, some other early bird had had the same agenda and had already made the coffee.  Removing her mug from her tote bag, Karin poured a cup.  Sitting down at one of the round tables, she closed her eyes, enjoying the silence.

On the drive, her thoughts had inexplicably been drawn toward her childhood.  Maybe because summers always reminded her of those lazy days in her grandmother’s old farmhouse.  Olga had long since sold off the farmland, not having the inclination any longer to work the land or hire others to do it.  But Karin still loved looking out the windows of the old house toward the stretch of land around it, even though that land now belonged to others.  Olga and her husband Gustav had bought this land back in the early thirties, eager to own their slice of the American dream.  Immigrants from Sweden, they had toiled in factories and saved until they could purchase the property.  Even later, after Gustav had been stomped to death by one of their horses, Olga had resolutely struggled on, hiring others to help out.  But eventually she had acknowledged that she needed to bow out, and placed the land for sale.

Now Karin realized that her grandmother had probably sold the land in order to finance her education.

But on school vacations, Karin had been blissful and unknowing.  Glad to be on break, Karin would sleep a little later and her grandmother indulged her.  Thinking she would sleep until at least nine or ten in the morning, Karin would curl up under the covers.  But then she would smell the bacon and eggs and the pungent aroma of coffee would seep into the room.  She would picture Olga bustling about, a few straggling gray hairs in wispy strands around her pink cheeks, and she would feel drawn toward the homey kitchen and the security of her grandmother’s presence.   So she would toss the covers aside, get dressed, and hurry out to join her, greeting her with a big hug.  Olga would hold her tightly in a warm embrace and she would feel so loved.  Soon afterwards, though, she would again feel that familiar pang of loss.

Her grandmother’s presence was a constant reminder that her parents were gone.  Even though she had never actually known them…They had been killed in a car accident before she was even a year old…Karin still felt their absence every day of her life.  When she saw the parents of her friends.  When she saw TV shows depicting families.  Feeling this way seemed like a betrayal to Olga, who had been more than a grandmother.  She had been mother, father, and grandmother all rolled up into one.  Nobody could have done more for her than Olga.  So why did she feel so bereft?

Karin decided that this particular journey into the psyche would best be postponed until another time.  She had work to do and a day to plan.  She finished the coffee and rinsed out her mug, stowing it away in her handy tote.  Slipping the tote over her shoulder and picking up her briefcase, she headed toward the stairway which led to her second floor office.   Others were arriving even as she negotiated the stairs and she smiled and greeted coworkers, engaging in pleasantries.  Everyone seemed exuberant and Karin realized that, since it was Friday, the anticipation of the weekend hung in the air.

Quickly moving across the room and winding through the maze-like cubicles, Karin appeared purposeful.  When she reached her own workstation, she glanced around the room, taking in the scene for a moment before sitting down.   Joyce Mason, a senior social worker who had been particularly helpful over the years, sat in the next cubicle.  A couple of years older than Karin, she had been working for the agency for almost seventeen years; in fact, she had signed on right after she had graduated college.  Turning toward Karin, she gifted her with a welcoming smile which completely spread across her round face, while her dark eyes twinkled mischievously.  She reached up and attempted to tame her frizzy dark hair going gray around the edges, but it sprang right back into its semi-Afro, a style reminiscent of the seventies.  “It’s already hot today, isn’t it?” she moaned slightly.  “And, of course, the air conditioning is on the fritz again!”

Karin smiled and they both commiserated about the ancient building with its less than adequate accouterments.  In the past fourteen years, Karin had seen all kinds of buildings forced into service.  She still fondly remembered her first office which had been in an old dormitory style building adjacent to the county hospital.  Antiquated though it had been, each office had boasted a window and Karin’s had looked out upon green grass; sometimes while reflecting on a case, she had observed all kinds of interesting drama played out before her eyes.

This building, on the other hand, had become too cramped almost immediately.  At first the old gray metal desks had stood bullpen style in the yawning room.  Later, cubicles had brought some order to the space and even some measure of privacy.   Not much, of course, Karin thought, as she listened to the social worker whose station abutted hers.  Speaking on the phone, her voice boomed loudly, seemingly bouncing up and over the barrier.  Either her client was somewhat deaf, or she was attempting to emphasize some point.  These kinds of interactions dominated the days, but with practice, Karin had learned to tune out most of the distracting elements.  She searched through her pink message slips, deciding who needed immediate attention, and began making her own calls.

Next on the agenda:  planning for the juvenile court hearing for the Manning family, scheduled for next month.  Vicki and Greg Manning had come to the attention of the agency and the court when the police had arrested them for possession of drugs for sale.  Exposing their three children to the drugs and paraphernalia had resulted in their removal from the home by the authorities.  Now, six months later, a review hearing would decide when the children might be reunited with the parents.

Karin reviewed the file carefully, noting that all the therapist’s reports were available.  She also reread her own notes on her contacts with the family, and even though this particular hearing would be the first review, the level of compliance was not what she had hoped.  Normally a family had twelve months in which to complete all court-ordered tasks, but significant progress at the six-month review signaled a better prognosis.  She sighed as she considered the therapist’s recommendation.  A consultation seemed to be in order and as she completed reviewing the file, she punched in the therapist’s number.  Within minutes, she had scheduled what the agency called a “staffing”, during which family members and service providers would discuss the family’s progress and arrive at a consensus as to the recommendations for the court.

Moving on to the next task, Karin soon forgot everything else as she concentrated.
*     *     *

Bridget stepped off the bus and headed toward the entrance to the mall.   Completely absorbed in her class that morning, she had temporarily forgotten that she was on her own this afternoon.  Now she was brought back to reality by the sight of all the others hanging out, paired and grouped off.  But reminding herself of her plan, she forced a purposeful expression on her face and marched quickly toward the bookstore, always a good place to start because she could lose herself checking out all the latest books.  And magazines.  Tuning everything else out, she had almost forgotten her predicament when she heard a voice.  “Bridget!  Hey, aren’t you Bridget Carlton?”

Turning, she saw two girls approaching, one with short dark hair and the other with long blond waves.  She recognized them from school, but they had never actually spoken to her…And they were both going into their junior year, while she was only a sophomore.  Puzzled, she smiled and moved slowly in their direction.  “Yeah, I’m Bridget.  Wendy?  Bree?”  She frowned as she struggled to remember their names, still curious as to why they would even be talking to her.  She had nothing they would want.  She had always been a loner, with her one true friend Fawn.

Wendy spoke first.  “You’re in the band, aren’t you?  I saw you at the last game.  You play the drums.”

Amazed, Bridget nodded.  “Yeah… just started last year.  But I thought nobody noticed…”

Bree managed to hide her own doubts about including this girl as she watched Bridget’s expression change from suspicion to curiosity and finally to relief.  Just like a loser, Bree thought.  But Bridget’s musical talent might be useful, she and Wendy had decided when they first spotted her going into that bookstore.  What a nerd she probably was, but with drums…Well, who knew what could happen?  They could drag her and her drums along to whatever party they set up over the next couple of months.  Of course, it would’ve been even more useful if she had been old enough to drive and had a car…Well, that job would have to fall to somebody else.

“Want to hang with us for awhile?”  Wendy offered, standing there in her faded jeans and T-shirt.  Bridget studied her, noticing the way her hair was brushed back, exposing her ears; she had three studs on her left ear and one dangling earring in the right one.  Her clothes were not designer labels, but she had a way of putting things together so that she seemed cool.  Bridget glanced down at her own plain pants and shirt, and wished for a little style sense.  Maybe she could learn something from these two.

Bridget then glanced over at Bree, whose tank top fit snugly and clearly defined her curves.  Her tight jeans clung to her body and openly advertised her best points.  Yeah, Bridget thought, I could use a little help in this department.  So she nodded and flashed her dimples.

Heading toward a clothing store across the way, Bridget felt the knot in her stomach begin to disappear.
*     *     *

Donna Fremont had been jolted awake that morning by a gripping nightmare in which hot lava poured through her body, and then when it reached her gut, it turned into a wriggling snake slithering upward until it grabbed her throat, clutching tightly.  Gasping for air, she sat up in her bed, forcing herself toward the open window.  She had inhaled several times, but the air outside was hot even at six a.m.

Groaning, she had sunk back into the bed, her heavily perspiring body sticking to the tangled sheets.  She had just gotten to bed at four this morning, after finishing work at three.  Normally, she was able to sleep until nine, with Wendy’s help with the boys.  Thank God for summer school!  Jeremy and Josh spent mornings in school, allowing her to sleep…usually.

Well, she thought as she lit a cigarette. I’ll never be able to get back to sleep now.  Since she was awake, she might as well get up.  Early waking hours were usually when her thoughts careened backwards to her childhood and a time when she’d dreamed of the kind of life she wanted.  She was nowhere near that life yet.  She had thought she was there when she had met and married Chuck.

After all those years in foster homes, she had fantasized about a normal family life.  Of course, her pictured version had changed constantly, depending on the family she was living with.  After awhile, though, she decided that none of those families were anything like the one she wanted someday.  While none had crossed the line into actual child abuse, they were not anything like the loving parents she hoped to give her own children someday.

She had often stared at the TV screen, following the family dramas pictured there…She really had liked that show in the seventies, called Family.  The mother was kind and understanding and the father, a lawyer, arrived home every night after a busy day, ready to turn his attention to each of the children.  Kristy MacNichol and Meredith Baxter played the girls.  She couldn’t remember who played the boy.  The parents had long talks with the kids.  And when the children acted out, either the father or the mother, or sometimes both of them together, would all sit down and sort everything out together.

Donna’s own mother, Norma Sanders, was not someone she really remembered and she had never known her father.  Before Donna was even five years old, her mother had started her series of hospitalizations.  In and out of mental institutions over the years, Norma had barely noticed Donna’s routine visits, accompanied by one social worker or another; frustrated, Donna finally refused to go anymore.  She could still visualize her mom, her eyes glazed over as she shuffled down a hospital corridor or sometimes, curled up in a ball on the bed, her eyes vacant.  Someone had tried to explain it all to Donna once…That her mother was in a state of complete withdrawal from reality…”catatonic”, they said.  Nobody seemed to know why this had happened to her.  She noticed that the nurses seemed relieved that her mother, heavily medicated, was pretty manageable.

Donna had come to accept her nightmares over the years, knowing that in some way they were probably connected to her childhood.  She didn’t really want to look at any of it too closely…it interfered with the fantasy picture of the life she wanted.   For awhile, she had believed in that image; she and Chuck had stayed together for almost twelve years.  Chuck had worked hard, brought home the paycheck, and while he wasn’t really into the family communication she had pictured, nothing is perfect.  Then one day right after Jeremy’s birth, he had taken off.   She hadn’t seen it coming.  Dazed and in a fog, she had dragged herself around for months afterward.  Sometimes she still felt dizzy and disoriented in the early morning hours, almost like she had whiplash…

Never one to give up on her dreams, Donna had plowed ahead, finally finding work.  She liked working in the bar because she was around people and excitement…sometimes  too much excitement…but if there was a lull in the activity, she could spin her daydreams while she worked.  She studied the people who came into the bar and imagined what their lives were like.  She had long since given up on that TV family image.  She now laughed at herself and the naiveté she must have had to believe in all that.  But she still knew she could make something better of her life.  She had to believe that or she would just curl up in a ball and die…Like Norma  Sanders had.

She had been sitting in the kitchen, drinking cup after cup of coffee and smoking her cigarettes, when she had heard Wendy coming down the hall that morning.  So she had forced a cheerful expression on her face.  She believed it was important to keep up a positive front.

Now as the afternoon wound down, Donna thought about her friend and neighbor, Sara Taylor, who lived in an apartment upstairs.  They had first met when Sara had moved in about three years ago.  Donna and her kids had lived here for almost five years, since right after Chuck left.  These apartments were pretty cheap, but they were also ugly, with paper-thin walls scarcely concealing the noise or even the smells between apartments.  Donna often laughed as she told everyone she knew that there was really no point in trying to stop smoking, because she would still get her nicotine high through the neighbors’ walls.

Last night, pulling into her parking space, she had noticed the pickup in Sara’s spot.  She had hoped that the truck hadn’t belonged to who she thought it did.  Worried, she now bravely walked up the stairs and knocked on Sara’s door.  If Sara was getting involved with Zeke, she was getting in over her head.

To Donna, Sara seemed very fragile, with her extremely thin build and her pale complexion.  Her blond hair was her best feature, but it often framed a pinched face with dark circles under her eyes.  Today was no exception, Donna observed, as Sara threw open the door.  She stood there, unsmiling, every muscle tensed as if for flight.  Her eyes seemed to recede into their sockets while her skin stretched tightly over her bones.

Maybe I should have left well enough alone, Donna thought, taken aback by the expression on her friend’s face.  But Sara motioned for her to enter and led the way into the living room.  Glancing around, Donna could see that Sara was alone.  She relaxed.  If Zeke had been there, he was long gone.  Donna certainly was in no position to judge anyone else, but she had also learned a few things the hard way.  Working in a bar was like a rude awakening sometimes.

Donna knew that Sara was depressed about losing her restaurant job.  “How’s it going?”  Donna sat facing Sara, leaning toward her slightly.  Then, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her bag, she offered one to her friend, lighting Sara’s and then her own.  Inhaling gratefully, Sara relaxed slightly.

“About what you’d expect,” Sara replied grudgingly.  “I’ve been putting in applications everywhere, not to mention unemployment and welfare.   I did get some temporary food stamps today, so I can do something about that empty fridge over there,” she gestured toward the kitchen.  “I was feeling pretty desperate this morning.  We were down to the bare minimum and I was thinking of doing something crazy.”   She laughed mirthlessly.   She stood up and paced while she smoked.  Glancing toward Donna, she continued:  “Do you think you could get something for me at the bar?  I could cocktail waitress.”

Donna frowned, shaking her head.  “I could ask the boss, but I know he doesn’t have anything right now.  Maybe something will open up later.”  Scrutinizing Sara closely, she added:  “I guess Zeke came over here last night?  I thought I saw his truck.”

Sara’s face flushed in embarrassment.  “Yeah, but it was a one-time thing.  I went out last night, drank too much, and the next thing I knew, we were here.  And we drank some more.  That’s about it.”

Donna knew Zeke’s reputation and she worried about Sara’s involvement.  He was a known drug dealer, mainly crank.  If  Sara spent time with him, she could easily be drawn into his scene.  Especially if she was depressed.  But Donna also knew how stubborn Sara could be and that once she set her mind to something, there was no turning her around.  Zeke was bad news, but nothing Donna could say would convince her.

They talked for awhile, about how hard it was raising their kids, especially now that the girls were in their teens.  They slammed their old men until they got some of the resentment out of their system.  They smoked.  After awhile, Donna invited Sara to join her for dinner and a beer.  Smiling gratefully, Sara agreed to come on over later.

After Donna left, Sara sat quietly, flipping through the channels and feeling nervous about Donna’s mention of Zeke.  He had tried to get her to snort crank last night. She knew that’s what Donna was worried about.  When Sara had first awakened this morning, her mind had drawn a blank about the evening.  Later, some of it had come back in bits and pieces.  She hadn’t snorted with him, but if he’d tried just a little harder, she probably would’ve gone along with it.  What was happening to her?

Sara knew the answer to that question.  Her whole life had been one crazy thing after another, starting with running away from home all those years ago, hitch-hiking along the freeway, until Michael Ferguson had sped by on his cycle.  When he’d seen her there, he’d come to a stop, and through a haze of dust stirred up by his bike, he’d sauntered over with that cocky grin…And she’d been swept away.   She had turned over control of her life to him.  It had been great for awhile, but when he found out she was pregnant with Bree, it was hasta la vista, baby!  She’d never heard another word from him.

When Bree was a baby, she had gotten welfare for awhile, sharing apartments with other welfare mothers.  At one time, she had heard that Michael was in LA.  But so far, nobody had been able to catch up with him and she had never seen a dime of child support.  What did she expect?  She had fallen for him because of his free and easy ways.  Guys like Michael hated responsibility and ties.  Like her mother had said,  you reap what you sow.  Sara hated to think her mother was right about anything, but she was sure she would have sized Michael up in an instant.

After all these years, Sara had never gone home again.  She knew her parents were still living up in Modesto because she heard from her brother Sam once in awhile.  Three years older, he kept in touch with their parents and also with Sara.  Last time he had called her, he had tried to get her to come home for a visit.  But she hadn’t been up to it.  Home was not a place filled with good memories.

Noticing the time, Sara wondered where Bree had gone.  Probably the mall.  She knew she should keep better track of her daughter and vowed that she would make more of an effort.  As soon as she saw her next.  Brushing the hair out of her eyes, Sara padded across the floor in her bare feet and studied herself in the mirror.  She scrounged around in the drawer until she found a little foundation makeup and sparingly applied some, hoping to erase some of the lines and dark shadows.  Not entirely satisfied with the results, she next fished around until she found the blush, which she swept on with the big brush.  She used the eyelash curler on her lashes and finally, brushed out her hair until it fell into natural waves.  She was grateful for small favors and her hair had always been one of her best features.

She finished getting ready to go to Donna’s and scrawled a note for Bree.  She placed it on the breakfast table.  She wouldn’t be able to miss it.
*     *     *

Bree, Wendy and Bridget sat around a bonfire at Lost Lake, ogling some of the cute guys who had just pulled up on their bikes.  When they had first arrived a few hours ago, they had hung out with whoever seemed to have cigarettes and beer.  Bridget had held back at first, wary of the whole scene.

After the mall, Wendy and Bree had egged her on until she had gone home to leave her mom a note.  She had never done anything this big without permission, and she had reservations about the whole thing.  But she had also felt a thrill which carried her along even while her doubts were hovering in the back of her mind.  Then she had decided that even if she got grounded for a whole month, it would be worth it to have something fun and exciting happen to her!

They had hitched a ride with Jake and Connor, who were both seniors, and who also had happened to be hanging out at the mall.  Not sure about how to handle all this, Bridget worried that the others would think she was a geek if she didn’t go along with them.

Now, as Jake handed her another beer, Bridget glanced around and on the edge of the circle, she spotted another girl she recognized from school…Savannah.  She, too, was a sophomore, and seemed to hang out with the tough kids.  Savannah lived in some apartments near the railroad tracks, which meant that her mom was probably single and struggling.

Bridget often wondered what made people hang out together.  How did the kids who wanted to do dope know when they had met someone who might be ripe for the experience?  Did she and the others have signs on their foreheads, announcing to everyone else that they were suckers for fun and thrills?  That must have been what had really drawn Wendy and Bree to her in the mall:  all three of them were thrill-seekers.  She couldn’t think of anything else that would have made them give her a second glance.   Or maybe they wanted to try and corrupt someone they thought was totally pathetic.

Suddenly Savannah caught her glance, grinned, and sauntered over.  She was tall and slender, with red hair and freckles; her tight jeans and tank top advertised her body.  She was smoking a joint, which she offered to Bridget.  Hesitating for only a minute, she tried to inhale.  She coughed and the others laughed, knowing they had a “virgin” on their hands. Then she took another hit.  Within seconds, she sat down hard, giggling.

Bree and Wendy started laughing and clapping, but then Bree stopped abruptly.  A guy had just roared in on his Harley; dismounting slowly, his glance circled the group until he found his target.  Even as Bree was whispering  “It’s Jason,” he was on his way toward her.   He grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off the ground, planting a big kiss on her lips.

Just watching the two of them, the others knew that before the evening was over, their summer would be off to a fabulous start.

*     *     *

Karin lay in her bed with her ear half-cocked for the sound of Bridget’s key in the lock.  When she had first arrived home with the take-out Chinese food, she had fumed at the note lying in full sight on the dining room table.  Bridget’s words had been vague:

Sorry, Mom.  Ran into some friends from school and I’m hanging out at their place.  We might go to the lake.  I’ll call you later.  Bridget

Fawn was the only friend Bridget had ever stayed with, and Karin knew that Fawn was in LA.  So whoever these mysterious friends were, they were not anyone she knew.   Frantic, she had scrounged around in Bridget’s room, looking for a name or phone number, but came up empty.  What had happened to her normally compliant daughter?

She tried to reassure herself that because Bridget  was usually very responsible, she probably wasn’t doing anything even remotely like the scenes playing out in Karin’s head right now.  She pictured her drinking, doing drugs, and experimenting in wild sex.  Because she had imagined the worst case scenario, she told herself, the reality must be much less fearful.  Nice, normal girls, even though they were going through occasional mood swings, didn’t suddenly disappear on an ordinary summer day to experiment with everything wild and crazy.  It just didn’t happen!

Karin tried to busy herself with chores around the house.  She ate half of the Chinese food, saving the rest for Bridget, who would no doubt be walking through that door any minute, expressing remorse, and pleading forgiveness for her thoughtless behavior.

Even though Karin herself had occasionally experienced rebellious feelings as a teenager, she hadn’t really done anything drastic.  She hadn’t needed to, since Olga had pretty much granted her free rein.  Olga’s rules had been very simple.  Karin just needed to tell her when she’d be back home and where she’d be going.  Simple.  Olga had expected Karin to behave with responsibility and had treated her accordingly.  Thinking back, Karin could never recall Olga as anything but loving and supportive.  As a result, Karin had desperately wanted to please her.

Sometimes, though, Karin thought that she probably had toed the line because, having been abandoned by her parents, albeit inadvertently when they had died in that accident, she didn’t want to risk losing the last person she had.

Even when Karin had married Brett Carlton right after college graduation and become pregnant almost immediately, Olga had remained unfazed.  She could have expressed disappointment that her hard work paying for Karin’s education might be wasted…but she had expressed joy instead.  Of course, as it turned out, Karin had had to fall back on that education rather quickly after the marriage.  Brett, even with his college degree, had very little inclination to work at any job for any length of time.  Several years after college, and after Bridget’s birth, he was still trying to “find himself”.  Karin had been glad she had a means of support.

Caught up in the memories, Karin curled up on the sofa.  She often wondered how her life might have turned out if she hadn’t met Brett.  She hadn’t been that social during college, hanging out in the library and studiously avoiding distractions.  She could still picture herself scurrying across campus with armloads of books, her brow furrowed while she planned out every moment of her day.

She had loved her classes and thought she might major in journalism, but the counselors discouraged her.  They depicted that field as hard and competitive, not for nice young women.  So she had dabbled in other classes, finally settling on psychology.

She had been fascinated by the subject matter, and while she wasn’t sure of her career goals, she had plunged ahead.  Then, almost by accident, she had happened on some students who were working toward teaching credentials, which at the time, could be obtained with any academic major… She had been drawn to that idea, and had formalized her plan to become a teacher.  That was practical.  And she would be able to parlay the psychology major into that career goal.

Meeting Brett had changed everything.  A junior when they had first met in one of her English classes, she had been swept away by his dark good looks and those intense eyes.  His aggressive approach impressed the shy and retiring Karin.  And when he had turned that gaze upon her, she had thought she would die from wanting him.  Inexperienced and naïve, she had believed everything he said and did.  It didn’t take much for her to fall hopelessly in love with him.

Grudgingly, Karin had to admit now that even though things had not turned out the way she wanted, she still wouldn’t change any of it.  Maybe her life had taken some unexpected twists and turns, including her marriage to Brett.  And even though Bridget drove her crazy half the time lately, not having her daughter was unimaginable.

On the other hand, she sometimes wondered about that particularly strange twist of fate that had brought her to a career in social work.   Right after Bridget’s first birthday, she had briefly explored finishing up her credential; unfortunately, she had found instead that all the requirements had changed while her back was turned.

Stuck, she had cast about for something else to do that would bring in some extra money, since Brett was still not working.  She had skimmed the job announcements listed on the board at County Personnel, and that’s when she had seen the notice announcing a test for social worker.  Reading the job description and the educational requirements, she had taken the leap.  And now the rest was history.

She had serendipitously fallen into this career, desperate for a professional job that would bring in enough money to support the family.  She had thought she would try it out for a little while…and fourteen years later, she was still at it.  When she had been working at the job for a couple of years, and while Brett was still there to baby-sit, she had gone back to school at night to work on her master’s degree.  She had finished it four years later, but before she had had a chance to celebrate her success, her marriage fizzled out for good.

By the time Brett had left to pursue his own dreams, Karin had become accustomed to handling most of the load alone anyway.   She had been there for it all:  the bouts with asthma; the first days of school, with all the teacher’s conferences; the plays, and later, the band concerts as Bridget tried one musical instrument after the other.  And now she was here alone, worried sick and waiting for her daughter to come home.

Finally concluding that stewing over Bridget’s whereabouts was doing no good, Karin cleaned up the kitchen, turned out the lights in the living room, and climbed into bed.  She would read that suspense thriller she had picked up on her lunch break today and try not to borrow trouble.  And she would deal with Bridget later.