I was born in the wrong town.
Lots of people think that, I know. They look around at the people they grew up with, the schools they went to, the streets they’ve driven down a thousand times before to the same places they’ve always gone, and they promise themselves they’re not going to stay. Most of the time they’re wrong, but I’m not. I’m getting out, someday.
I squint against the wind and steer my bike into the plow’s fading tracks. The top of this hill doesn’t seem to be getting any closer; the harder I fight, the more I’m pulled back.
There’s nothing along this stretch of road apart from endless trees and a crumbling stone wall. In warmer weather, you can smell the ocean if the breeze is blowing one way, the dump if the wind isn’t in your face. Right now, though, the ice-cold wind is taking layers of skin off my face and I can’t smell a damn thing. The gale dies down for a moment, but before I can register any relief it picks up again, harder than before. I stand and lean into the pedals.
The headlights appear before I hear the engine. They strike the back of my glove, and I look over my shoulder to see a red SUV coming out of the snow and gloom, wipers on, too fast. I shift to my right and don’t stop as it slows beside me and the passenger window slides down.
I turn and look into Brittany O’Neal’s sweet, incredulous face, then spit into the snow and pedal harder.
The truck keeps pace on the incline. I see, out of the corner of my eye, that one of Brittany’s friends is driving and that there are at least two more in the back.
“Hannah, what on earth are you doing?”
I grit my teeth. “Just out for a ride,” I shout into the storm.
“Are you training?” someone in the backseat calls.
Brittany shakes her head. “She quit track,” she says, loud enough for me to hear.
The truck shimmies, and I involuntarily jerk the handlebars, sending the bike into a fishtail and almost losing it in a snowbank.
“Sorry, sorry!” Brittany calls. She says something to the driver, who laughs.
“Happy New Year, Hannah!” the driver shouts.
The truck speeds up, effortlessly cresting the hill, and disappears. I shift over and ride in the fresh tracks for as long as I can, almost all the way to the Portland line.
The sign for Sol’s Diner is swaying dangerously in the wind. I throw my bike into a snowbank and go inside, soaking wet, every extremity numb.
Wiping melting snow from my face, I interrupt Sol Jr. in the middle of what is probably an entirely fabricated story about catching a monster bluefin last summer. “Is my father here?”
Sol leans against the counter, his bulbous stomach resting on the Formica. His father, the original Sol, was okay; he made a decent omelet. Junior is the shitty knock-off version. He takes his time doing what he always does, undressing me with his eyes, which takes a little extra effort given the number of layers I have on. Then he looks up and down the rows of booths. “Nope.”
I clench my fists and try not to shiver visibly. Of course Dad isn’t here. I could have seen that for myself. What I meant was: Where the hell is my father? Not that Sol Jr. would know.
“Come here, honey.” A gentle hand on my back guides me away from the counter. “You’re freezing and wet. I’ll get you hot tea.”
The waitress, Sonya, brings me to a corner booth and then heads to the kitchen, pausing to change the channel from the news to a game show. She winks at me and smiles.
One of the more irritating changes Sol Jr. made was the installation of a TV over the counter. I generally despise television, but if there’s any sort of trivia show on I’m slightly less annoyed.
“John Jay,” I mutter, settling into the booth and staring at the televised image of a contestant who apparently believes that Benjamin Franklin was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Snot is starting to pour down my face, and I dab at it with a paper napkin. I can’t stop shivering.
Even on a night like this, lots of people come to Sol’s. Pickup trucks are rolling into the parking lot, and half the seats at the counter are taken. The rest will go when the last few lobster boats come in.
“Here you go.” Sonya sets a steaming mug in front of me.
A guy at the end of the counter turns to us. “Hey, Sonya, I need—”
“Not now,” she says to him. She sets a tray down and takes a pair of reasonably clean dishtowels from it. “I stuck these in the microwave.” She wraps one around my neck and drapes the other over my head. They’re hot.
“Sonya!” It’s Sol Jr. calling this time.
Sonya smiles at me apologetically. She’s the only waitress on, and more people are coming in—men mostly, but also a few couples. “Drink,” she says.
I do. The tea is scalding hot, with lemon. The warmth—on my neck and head, in my throat and belly—is almost more than I can take. I look down into the mug, gently rocking back and forth in my wet clothes.
“Oh! Oh, my goodness!”
I can’t quite place the woman coming toward me, a smile plastered to her face, her eyes wide.
“Hannah, that is you, isn’t it?”
“It’s me,” I say.
“April,” she says, pulling up beside my booth. “April Harper. Jessie’s mom.”
Oh, good God. “Hi, Mrs. Harper.”
“What you doing, sitting here by yourself?”
I take the dishcloth off my head. “I’m meeting my father.”
“Oh, Larry!” Her face shifts into the mask of pity, compassion, and totally creepy lust that married women always seem to wear when they think of a widower with a pair of daughters. “How is dear Larry?”
“Dad’s fine.” I wait a beat and then make myself do it. “How is Jessie?”
“Wonderful! She just scored a 1450 on her SATs!”
“I’m not bragging, of course. It’s all due to that new tutor on Oakland Road. I can never quite say his name. Ab…Abhir…”
I stare up at her. You couldn’t pay me to throw her a rope, even if I did know who she was talking about.
“Well, he has a Ph.D. and he’s brilliant. I just mention it in case you were looking for a test-prep tutor.”
I shrug and look over her head at the caption on the TV. “Tungsten.”
“Sorry. It has the highest melting point of any metal. You were saying?”
“You know, I haven’t seen you for so long, Hannah. Jessie said you quit the track team.”
“I’ve been working at the DPW. With my father.”
Mrs. Harper stares at me for a long moment. Above the counter, the same man who was stumped by John Jay is wrestling with the location of Costa Rica.
“You’re working…at the Department of Public Works?”
“That’s what people do there. It’s right in the name.”
“Doing…what? Digging ditches?”
“Ditches. Drainage. Roads. Whatever. I work all over town. It’s interesting; you get a certain perspective on a place when you dig enough holes in it.”
“But, Hannah, this is your junior year! Your most important year. You need to…study, and do some test prep, and build your resume. Jessie’s interning at a law office in Portland.”
I raise my eyebrows and take a long sip of tea.
Mrs. Harper stops short. “I’ve offended you.”
“No, you haven’t offended me, Mrs. Harper.”
She leans against the booth, really studying me for the first time. Then her face relaxes, so that it seems as if there might be a real human being underneath. “You look like your mother, Hannah.”
I make a concerted effort not to cringe. My efforts to look like Mom are deliberate but not meant to be commented on.
“I don’t know if you realize that she and I were close,” Mrs. Harper continues. “We met in a pre-natal class over at Maine Med. Jessie was my first, and when I found out your mother already had a thirteen-year-old, I asked her why she was in a childbirth class. Do you know what she said?”
That she wanted to get it right the second time?
I shake my head.
“She said it was time she got to spend with just you. Thinking about you, talking about you, planning for you…”
I nod, poking the lemon wedge with my spoon—holding it down, letting it float back up.
“My sense was that there wasn’t much time for that,” Mrs. Harper goes on.
“My mom was always there for me.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, she was. She and I kept in touch after that class, after you were born. After her diagnosis. There was nothing more important to that woman than you.”
Christ, I wish she would leave. Or that Dad would show up so she could shift her focus to him—Dad is great at soaking up attention. I glance out the window. The docks are almost empty, the lights shining down on the last boats tying up for the night.
I finally look at Mrs. Harper and, to my horror, see her wiping away a tear.
She laughs softly. “I know I must seem ridiculous to you, Hannah. You barely remember me. It’s been years since you and Jessie have been friends. And here I am, talking to you about SAT scores. But I do want you to know that I loved Alessandra. Your mother was a very special woman, and if there’s ever…well, if there’s ever anything I can do for you, I hope you’ll consider calling.”
I offer some combination of a nod, a shrug, and a grunt.
“Be well, Hannah.”
Mrs. Harper turns and walks out of the diner, and, finally, I exhale and lean back. Where…the…fuck…is…Dad? Why isn’t he answering his phone? He said something had come up with Pauline, which is hardly news. Things have a way of coming up with my big sister, in the sense that she does nothing to keep them down. Dad said we needed to talk over some decisions, which is almost definitely his way of segueing into a discussion about how much money to send her. He used to do it secretly, before he caught on that I monitor the bank account and intercept all the canceled checks. Now it’s “a discussion.” My position is that she can have no more than two hundred dollars a month to piss away, maybe two-fifty if it’s for one of her kids. Pauline is a bucket with a hole in the bottom; pour in a pint or pour in a gallon, it doesn’t matter—in the end, the bucket’s going to be empty and you’ll have a mess on the floor.
The door bursts open, and a gust of freezing air whips down the aisle. The men at the counter all turn to look. “Close that door!” Sol Jr. shouts.
“I’ll close it when I’m goddamned ready.”
The voice comes from outside. Most of the men at the counter know it as well as I do and turn back to their dinners, knowing full well that hurrying Dad works about as well as hurrying the weather, but with less predictable side effects.
He arrives a moment later, filling the doorway. His worn jacket is buttoned at the chest but open below his sternum, to allow full expansion to his bellows of a stomach. An ancient hunter’s cap is pulled down over his head, the ear coverings sticking straight out, fur long since worn off. He twists as he enters; there’s something bulky under one massive arm, and as he turns to face me and kick the door closed behind him I see what it is: a lobster trap.
“Sonya!” The shout rolls down like a wave to where I’m sitting; I swear I can see ripples in my tea.
“Larry!” She hurries toward him, arms outspread.
He stoops and kisses her cheek. “Will you do these up for us?”
She takes the trap and peers inside. “Where did you get these?”
“That’s Pat Armstrong’s boat.”
“He owed me.”
She laughs. “I’ll see what we can do.”
Dad grunts and starts down the aisle between the counter and the booths, his boots leaving a thick trail of dirty slush. A few men glance back and acknowledge him. He’d tower at least ten inches above any one of these short, thick lobstermen if they stood up.
“Larry, what’d you want me to do with that trap?” Sol Jr. calls.
“It’s all yours,” Dad shouts back as he slides into the booth across from me. “I brought us dinner, Hannie. Real fresh.”
“I see that.”
He leans across the table, bestows a kiss on my forehead, then settles back.
“How are you, baby?”
“Let me just catch my breath.” He rolls his neck on his shoulders, the vertebrae audibly cracking. “Hmmm.” He looks at me again and frowns. “You’re all wet.”
“I biked here.”
“Biked? Where’s your car?”
“Car wouldn’t start. I called you.”
“My phone died. It’s been a helluva day. I’ve been on the phone for most of it.”
“What’s going on?”
“Let me just gather my thoughts.” He rolls his head again and, satisfied, sets about cracking his knuckles while I look back up at the TV.
“The Battle of Shiloh.”
Dad twists around. “Really?”
The answer appears on the screen, and he bellows a laugh and claps his hands. “Amazing! Hey, Sol, Hannah knew that one.”
Sol looks up from the register and nods.
“I just know a lot of random stuff.”
He shakes his head, still smiling. Dad never gets tired of my trivia knowledge. He tells the guys at the DPW that I’m going to go to Stanford, even though all he knows about it is that it’s a good school. The only time he’s ever been to California was on a road trip to play the A’s, during his very brief tenure as second-baseman for the Red Sox.
“I hate this place,” I say.
“Sol’s? Who hates Sol’s?”
He snorts. “My old man used to bring me here. There’s nowhere else like Sol’s.”
“Probably a good thing. It’ll be washed away in twenty years anyway, along with everything else on this strip.”
Dad grunts. He’s heard what I have to say about the coming renegotiation of boundaries between the City of Portland and the Gulf of Maine. “Let me tell you—”
He’s interrupted by a coughing fit that quickly escalates, his face turning an alarming shade of red, his chest rumbling. He shakes his head and slaps the table so hard that the guy in the next booth twists around to stare.
“He’s fine,” I say. “You’ve never seen anyone cough before?”
The guy turns away. Sonya returns, bringing a tall glass of water. Dad drains it in one gulp and sits back, panting. I wait for him to settle.
“Let me tell you a story,” he says. “Art Miller, first thing this morning—Art Miller almost killed himself.”
“That sounds like something Art would do.”
Art Miller has been a part-timer at the DPW for years. Like Dad, he grew up in Evans Beach. Like Dad, he came from one of the less well-off families in town. Unlike Dad, he didn’t play ball well enough to become a local hero.
Dad chuckles, risking another coughing fit. “That fool. Marty was bringing the plow out, and Art walked right in front—”
“The little one, or one of the big ones?”
“Oh my God, you can’t see someone walk in front when you’re driving Big Blue!”
“You sure can’t, and Art went right out into the bay working on two jelly donuts—no idea what anyone else was doing.”
“I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him up onto the center island. You should’ve seen Marty’s face when he realized what a close call it was. White as a sheet.”
“What did Art say?”
“Art was mad ’cause I made him drop his donuts!”
“Jesus, what an idiot. You shouldn’t have bothered to save him.”
Dad laughs and stretches an arm along the back of his seat. The guy behind him half turns again, thinks better of it, and goes back to eating.
“You have a good day?” Dad asks.
“Yeah, it was pretty good. Until I went biking in a snowstorm.”
“We’ll get you a ride home. One of these characters will be heading back to Evans Beach.”
“You’re not coming home?”
“That’s what I have to talk to you about.”
I wrap my hands around the mug. It’s almost empty, and I wish Sonya would bring me a refill. “What has she done now?”
Dad closes his eyes and lets out a long breath. “Pauline.” He nods slowly, eyes still closed. “They found Pauline last night.”
Everything goes still. The voices around me seem farther away, and the question on the TV blurs out of focus. For years I’ve been expecting my sister to die. Often wishing her to. Sometimes wanting to do it myself.
“She’s in jail,” Dad says.
“Another twenty minutes and she’d have been dead of exposure. They warmed her up, went to the apartment, and found the boys by themselves.”
I push away the disappointment threatening to seep into my consciousness. Jesus, what kind of a shit wishes her sister was dead? “What’s she in jail for?”
“They say she was neglecting her kids.”
“They put you in jail for that?”
“She hit the cop who pointed it out to her. She…uh…well, she’s off the wagon.”
“Obviously. So that’s what you’ve been busy with today?”
Dad suddenly looks nervous, which is not a look I’m used to seeing on him. It’s disturbing. He chews on a bit of thumbnail, pries it loose, and spits in onto the bench beside him. “You know how you always wanted to be a big sister?” he finally asks.
I stare back at him. “I have never, ever wanted to be a big sister.”
He widens his eyes theatrically. “I could’ve sworn…”
“I don’t even want to be a little sister.”
“Well, there’s no helping that.”
“Here we are.” Sonya places steaming bowls of chowder in front of each of us. “Lobster’s cooking.”
“Oh my goodness,” Dad says, leaning forward to inhale the aroma. He reaches out and draws Sonya down, planting a kiss on her cheek. “If you weren’t married, Sonya…”
“I haven’t been married in four years, Larry.”
“Is that right?”
“But I’m far too good for you. Now eat.” She takes her empty tray and walks back to the counter.
Dad stirs the chowder and takes a monstrous slurp. For the third time tonight, the guy sitting behind him turns for a look.
“Dad, please tell me you’re getting us a dog.”
“You want me to be a big sister to a new dog, right?”
“You’re not going to eat?”
“Just tell me what’s going on.”
He puts his spoon down and reaches across the table to take my hands in his. They’re warm and calloused, and my fists are lost in them. He squeezes gently, his energy countering the stress building inside me.
“The state has the boys. The case worker’s supervisor was on the junior division all-star team with me in ’88. Third base. Switch hitter. He called.”
“All right, fine. They need a place to crash for a night?” I hate the idea, but knowing Pauline, there’s nowhere else for them to go until she’s released. Her crowd isn’t the reliable childcare type.
“Baby, this is it. They intend to go to the judge tomorrow and begin the process. They’re taking the kids from her, and they’re not giving them back—not anytime soon, anyway. If we don’t do something about it, they’ll get split up, go into the foster system, be separated.”
“Is she really that bad a mother?” I ask, dodging the real point of what he’s saying.
“She can’t keep the kids safe. And it doesn’t matter what we think anyway, it matters what DCF thinks.”
“So they’ll go into foster homes.”
“Yes. That’s what Frank tells me. Unless…” Dad lets the word hang in the air.
No no no no no. I look over his hunched shoulder. “Sulfuric acid,” I say softly, in the direction of the TV. I’d have won almost a thousand dollars if I were a real contestant.
Three hundred, four hundred dollars. We barely have that much in the account, but still, she can have it. Not this, though. Not this. “Unless we take them,” I say reluctantly.
“For how long, Daddy? Weeks? Months?”
“I don’t know. Until Pauline can get her act together, satisfy whatever requirements her case worker has.”
That doesn’t sound like months to me. That sounds like forever.
Foster Road tells the story of seventeen-year-old Hannah Lynn, a high-school junior born on the wrong side of the tracks in the otherwise upscale town of Evans Beach, Maine. Hannah lives with her father, Larry, a fixture at the Department of Public Works and a local legend who once played in the minor leagues for the Boston Red Sox (and was brought up to the majors for a dozen glorious games). Hannah’s mother died of cancer years ago, and her older sister, Pauline, struggles with addiction and is estranged from the family.
Hannah has one goal: to get out of Evans Beach. She yearns to leave the materialism and achievement-striving of her peers and find a place where no one remembers her sick mother or her out-of-control sister, where she doesn’t need to pay her father’s electric bills, and where guidance counselors aren’t obsessing about the top twenty-five liberal-arts colleges. Her life changes, however, when her sister’s two sons are taken by the state after Pauline assaults a police officer. Larry is unwilling to see his grandsons go into the state foster system, but his plan to take them in threatens the delicate balance Hannah has achieved in her life and, ultimately, her own liberation.
Foster Road is a contemporary, realistic novel that asks timely questions about the nature of family, the obligations of parents toward their children and children toward their parents, the loss of youth, and the meaning of adulthood. It follows Hannah through her last year of high school, as she finds her way into caring for her nephews and ultimately comes face to face with a decisive moment in which she must choose between her dreams and the needs of two boys who are as alone in the world as she is.
Joseph Moldover is a novelist and short-story writer living and working outside of Boston. His debut novel, Every Moment After, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. His short fiction has appeared in Stone Coast Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, MonkeyBicycle, One Teen Story, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021