HALF A WORLD AWAY
Jaden sat on the floor, holding on to a half loaf of unsliced bread. He switched his lamp on and off, the bedroom lighting up and darkening over and over. Electricity had always relaxed him. For sure it was the most amazing thing about America. He bit off the biggest chunk of bread that could fit in his mouth. It was sourdough, which he liked because it was so chewy.
On, off, on, off, on off on off onoffonoffon.
Thomas Edison had called electricity “a system of vibrations.” Jaden loved Thomas Edison. Edison had more than a thousand US patents. He had invented things left and right. Jaden wouldn’t hate life like he often did, if only he could invent that much.
He mostly wanted to invent anything related to electricity. Electrons, the source of electricity, were in constant motion, even when you were asleep. When you died, your personal electricity turned off. And yet everything on the earth held constantly moving electrons. So even if your personal electricity died, your body still had a system of vibrations. Jaden hadn’t figured it all out yet, but he would someday—he’d promised himself that.
He closed his eyes and stayed very still, concentrating on his electricity. He could feel a slight tingling in his hands. He hadn’t even known what electricity was when he was first adopted from Romania four years earlier. In Romania he’d lived in four different group homes, and none of them had electricity.
Anyway, here he was at twelve, and now his adoptive so-called parents were adopting another child, a baby boy from Kazakhstan. He figured he knew why they were adopting again: They weren’t satisfied with him. Whenever he thought that, he felt tears welling up. He didn’t know if he was upset for himself, because they weren’t satisfied with him, or for the baby, because if the baby was up for adoption, it meant the mother had abandoned him, and Jaden knew what that was like.
The baby’s name was Bahytzhan. In his picture he appeared Central Asian, and he had scabs on his forehead—from bugs? That’s how Jaden had gotten scabs on his face when he lived in Romania. Steve, his “dad,” had made three copies of the Bahytzhan picture: one for himself, one for Penni, and one for Jaden. Jaden kept his copy in a drawer in his night table.
He sat in the dark. He could hear Penni calling him. He called her “Mom” to her face and “Penni” in his mind. He only had one mother, and she’d given him away when he was four. He could still remember her vaguely. But what he really remembered was the home where she’d placed him—twelve people, one room, one bed. He’d slept on the floor. And he remembered being afraid. When his mother left him, he’d been so out of his mind that he hadn’t even screamed and cried; he’d howled. He could still remember the feeling when he’d howled, the feeling like someone was cutting through his skull and pulling out his brain, all while he was awake. Even today, sometimes he was in so much pain about it that he thought it would kill him. He did admit that this home in America was different and, yes, better than anywhere he’d lived in Romania. And yet he always came back to how Romania was his true home and how Penni and Steve had had no right to take him from there.
One of his psychologists had told him he should be grateful to Penni and Steve. The shrink didn’t understand that they didn’t adopt him for him, but for themselves. But what the guy really didn’t understand was that it was impossible for Jaden to feel grateful, for anything ever. It wasn’t personal to Penni and Steve. Jaden had a distaste for parents in general. And he knew he wasn’t alone. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids in America just like him—adopted when they were older, hating their new parents. He knew this because one of his psychologists or psychiatrists had said so. He couldn’t remember at the moment which doctor it was. A couple of the doctors had told him he was a troubled child who was adopted when he was older. So he pretty much was nothing special.
“Knock, knock,” Penni said from behind him.
He turned around, saw her shadow in the door.way. “I’m ready, Mom.” They were going out to eat with Penni’s older sister, Catherine, and her family. Things could have been worse for Jaden—he could have been adopted by Catherine: yuck. He let the bread slip from his fingers so Penni wouldn’t see that he’d been eating before dinner.
He got up and followed her through the house. It was a nice enough house, but not his house. He didn’t have a house. Never had—he’d only thought he had one. His mother, the only person he figured he’d ever loved, had given him up. He refused to feel love again, ever. Every day all he wanted to do was cry. He hated school, sitting there like a soldier in the army. He hated home, with Penni always trying to get through to him. He wished she would ignore him more.
Steve had just gotten home from work, so he was wearing a suit and tie. His suits were all slightly too small because he’d gained weight recently. “I hear you didn’t go to school. Whatcha been up to all day?” Steve asked Jaden.
“Packing,” Jaden lied.
Steve took off his wire glasses, cleaned them, and gazed at Jaden like he wanted to see him better. “It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? In forty-eight hours or so from now we’ll be in Kazakhstan, meeting your baby brother.” Steve smiled. Jaden looked at Steve’s face. The smile looked real, not phony the way Steve’s smiles sometimes looked. Steve used to be a smiling, lovable geek. But he’d changed. That is, Jaden had changed him.
“Yeah, cool,” Jaden said.
It was raining, so the three of them sprinted out the door to the car.
Jaden always sat in the middle of the backseat, so that if someone came from one side and tried to pull him out to take him to a foster home—or wherever—he would have a better chance of getting away, out the other side. That was only a theory, of course, but he believed it. He saw Penni and Steve meet eyes, and then Steve started the car and said, “When we get Bahytzhan, we’ll need to put the baby seat in the middle. That’s where experts say it’s safest.”
Jaden didn’t even answer. He couldn’t sit on a side. Period. “I won’t ride in the car anymore,” he said.
“I’ll ride my bicycle everywhere.” He felt bitterness well up inside himself, moving up from his stomach to his mouth, and he gagged slightly. He knew he was overreacting, but he couldn’t help it.
Steve and Penni met eyes again. Penni turned all the way around. “Jaden, it’s just that Steve read an article saying the baby seat should be in the middle. Okay?”
So this was all Steve’s idea. Jaden didn’t answer. He shook off the bitterness and stared out the side window at the rain falling hard on front lawns, at porch lamps lighting up the houses. It was hard to believe that this lit-up neighborhood existed on the same planet that he’d lived on before. If—if—he decided to go to college, he would study electricity, which he’d done a science project on at school. He’d hooked up a cocoon so that a tiny light would go on every time the future moth moved inside the cocoon. Then, when it was born, a bell would ring. He’d gotten his only A ever on that project. He didn’t get an A for the class, though. He got a C. That was because the only thing that interested him was electricity.
Jaden knew it didn’t make sense, but he felt like if his real mother could have had electricity, if she could have only plugged in a light and turned it on, she wouldn’t have had to give him away. He’d told this to one of his former psychiatrists—a man whose name he couldn’t remember—and the psychiatrist had asked, “Why do you think that, Jaden?”
“Because electricity is magic,” he’d answered. That same psychiatrist was the first of many to say that Jaden couldn’t attach properly to Steve and Penni because of being betrayed by the one caretaker he’d ever had—his mother. From age four to eight, he’d had to fend for himself in group homes.
“I kind of wish I hadn’t let Catherine talk me into this dinner date,” Penni was saying. “We’ve got so much to do before we leave.”
“I too wish you hadn’t let her talk you into it,” Steve replied.
“I too” was exactly the kind of thing Steve said. “Perhaps” for “maybe,” “distressed” for “upset,” and so on. He was a word nerd.
Catherine was kind of strange because she was so different from Penni. Jaden had to admit that Penni was a nice person—he just didn’t love her—but Catherine was less than nice. Much less. But Penni refused to see this because of “the importance of family.” The importance of family was one of Penni’s themes. Penni told him that the more family who loved him, the better. Jaden didn’t even know for sure what anyone meant when they used the word “love.” Was it like an electrical charge that developed between two people? He didn’t know.