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THESE THINGS HIDDEN
by Heather Gudenkauf

Genre: General Mainstream Fiction, Mainstream

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I set the receiver back into its cradle, all the while knowing that Olene is watching me carefully with her quick, birdlike eyes. Once I get settled and find a job, one of the first things I’m going to buy is a cell phone so I can have a little privacy when I talk. I’m sure my parents would buy me a phone, but I don’t want my first interaction with them to be about money. Besides, I want to show them that I’m going to be okay, that I can take care of myself. I wonder if they are thinking about me right now. Secretly, I had hoped  they would have been parked in front of Gertrude House to welcome me when I arrived.

Olene must be psychic, because she says, “Many of the residents have cell phones, but we have guidelines here that phones need to be turned off while doing chores or when we are having group sessions. We want to respect others’ need for quiet.” Olene picks up where she left off with the tour. She leads me through the kitchen, where we will take turns making dinner, and to an octagonal room with a ceiling that extends bove the second floor. This is where the residents watch television. A gray-haired woman wearing a waitress uniform is dozing on a sofa and a young, petite, dark-skinned woman is holding a toddler on her lap and singing softly to him in Spanish. The television is tuned to a soap opera, the volume muted.

“This is Flora and her son, Manalo,” Olene says in a whisper.

“And that’s Martha.” Olene waves a hand toward the slumbering woman. Flora’s eyes narrow into suspicious slits and she gathers Manalo more closely to her. The little boy waves a chubby hand at us and grins.

“Nice to meet you,” I say.

Flora speaks rapidly to Olene in Spanish, her tone tight and hostile, and Olene responds back in Spanish, as well. I have the feeling that Olene is going to have to do a lot of talking to calm the other residents of Gertrude House when it comes to me.

“Let’s go on upstairs and I’ll show you your room,” Olene says, taking me by the elbow and steering me from the television room to the spiral staircase that leads to the bedrooms. I can feel Flora’s eyes on my back as I follow Olene up the steps. I’ve been here for all of twenty minutes and everyone already seems to know who I am and what I’ve done. I know I shouldn’t let it bother me so much, I had to deal with the same things in jail, but this seems different somehow.

“The expectation is that everyone takes an active role in the upkeep of the house,” Olene says, and I can see this is true. There isn’t a speck of dust anywhere and the floors gleam. Olene gently knocks on a closed door before opening it to reveal a small room with bunk beds and two small dressers. The beds are made up with blue and white floral comforters and thick, soft pillows. Another rush of exhaustion overtakes me and I want to go lie down. The walls are painted sky-blue and there are crisp, white curtains covering the windows. It’s a very peaceful room.

“Your roommate, Bea, is at work right now. She’ll be home in a few hours. Why don’t you unpack your things, get settled and I’ll come back in a little while and we can finish the orientation.” 

I look at the bunk beds and hesitate, wondering which one is mine. 

“You get the bottom bed,” Olene says. “Bea likes to sleep on the top bunk—she says that the bottom bed makes her feel claustrophobic.”

Olene pats me on the arm as she moves to leave the room.

“Olene,” I say. She turns back to me, and I’m stricken by how kind her worn face is. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She smiles. “Get a little rest and holler if you need anything.”

My few belongings fit into one drawer of my bureau with room to spare. In a way, Gertrude House reminds me of the summer camp I attended when I was eleven. I share a room with bunk beds and, from what Olene has said, we follow a very specific schedule that is posted in the main gathering area. From the moment we wake up at five-thirty to lights out at ten-thirty, our day is filled with chores, and group sessions on everything from managing finances to anger management to mastering interview skills.

I sit on the lower bunk and bounce a bit. The springs are firm but giving. This feels like a real bed, not like Cravenville’s hard, institutional slab, with rough, scratchy sheets that smelled of bleach. I lift a fluffy pillow and bury my nose in it. It smells of lavender and I feel tears prick at my eyes. Maybe it won’t be so bad here. It couldn’t be any worse than jail. Maybe the other girls will learn to like me. Maybe my parents will forget about what the neighbors think and welcome me as their daughter again. And maybe, just maybe, Brynn will forgive me.

I inhale deeply one more time and lower the pillow from my face and that’s when I see it. Its blank eyes stare up at me and its smudged plastic face is frozen in a half smile. I pick up the baby doll. It’s old and battered and looks like it came out of a Dumpster. Across the doll’s bare chest is one word, slashed in black permanent marker, a word that I now know will follow me everywhere, no matter where I go. Killer.