Here are the first couple of pages from "Grandma's Redemption", a short story I wrote looking into the background of a supporting character from the book I'm writing. It's becoming easy to see how some writers can spend so much time in one universe; each and every character in it comes from somewhere, and they all have stories they could tell.
“Get away from me!”
A disposable plate flapped through the air, ending in a splatter of tan glop on the wall. Jenny started crying. Again.
I couldn’t help it: I stiffened. Mrs. Lewis was nice enough but every time she said my name there was some task attached. Shannon, put the plates in the recycler. Shannon, could you do the laundry? Shannon, will you check on so and so?
My life had few surprises. “Shannon, will you attend to Jenny?”
I fought the urge to hurl my spork after the plate, and won. Barely. I set it gently next to my plate, lined it up just so, and got up to check on the little girl. Jenny hadn’t been hugged enough as a toddler or something and was now the neediest 7-year-old in the world. This time she’d run afoul of Tyler, a scruffy adolescent with Type 4 Autism. She’d probably touched him, or maybe just sat too close, and he‘d reacted in the only way he could.
I looked under the table and found her, fighting for air in great, gulping sobs and letting attention-getting tears stream down her cheeks. “He-he-h-he scared m-m-me, Shan-Shan!”
I shook my head. “You know he doesn’t like it when people get too close to him, munchkin.” I felt around on the tabletop until I found the napkin dispenser. I pulled one free and gave it to Jenny. Then I tried a smile. “You’re OK, buddy. Wipe your eyes and blow your nose. Then come up and finish dinner.”
Jenny took the napkin and nodded. I stood up and looked around for Mrs. Lewis. She was the only one above 18 in the room.
“She just got a little scared,” I said.
“Does she need her inhaler?”
I shook my head. “If she does, I’ll just give her a hit off mine.”
Like most of us Jenny had bad asthma, but she wasn’t allowed to carry her own puffer around. I hadn’t hit mine since yesterday and knew it was about half full.
Mrs. Lewis looked flustered and, as the administrator of a 30-bed foster home for society’s unwanted, she had every reason to be. Barely a day went by when there wasn’t an assault, some kind of “inappropriate” conduct or an emotional breakdown. She nodded. “Thank you. Would you mind cleaning up the plate?”
I sighed, then reached for more napkins. I was a prize among the rejects, merely-unwanted among the profoundly damaged. That meant I got more chores. I tossed the plate into the recycler and began wiping Tasty Paste off the wall. Fortunately, Jenny hadn’t had time to add ketchup to the government-supplied foodstuff. Made from essentially the same stuff as the plate, Tasty Paste provided all the calories, protein and vitamins a growing reject needed to survive. It tasted like wet cardboard but some of the kids, Jenny included, actually liked it. The dirty napkins and Tasty Paste went into the recycler, too. In a few days a truck would come to empty it, and deliver another pallet of plates, sporks, napkins and Paste.
By the time I’d finished, Mrs. Lewis and a few of the higher-flyers were clearing the table. I thought about trying to rescue my barely touched dinner, but decided it wasn’t worth it. If I found myself missing the taste of Paste, there was always tomorrow’s breakfast. And lunch. And dinner.
I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 6:27; a little more than 33 minutes until the highlight of my day. Mrs. Lewis’ second-shift support, Megan, would be walking through the door, ready for a night of homesickness, nightmares and bedwetting. Lucky girl.
Megan was a student, a future doctor. She said her work with the rejects was a way of giving back to the society that was putting her through school. “Plus, I like it,” she said, grinning. “Sometimes.”
Lights out was a hard and fast 9 p.m. for everyone. When Mrs. Lewis cut the power you were either in your bunk or stumbling around in the dark trying to find it. There were few exceptions.
I was one of them. I was helpful and “normal,” which meant I got to stay up for an extra hour to help out the second-shift. Which meant more chores but also gave me some quality time with Megan.