Start reading Gutter Child by Jael Richardson and enter to win!
A fierce and illuminating debut novel from FOLD founder Jael Richardson about Elimina, a modern heroine in an altered but all too recognizable reality, who must find the strength within herself to forge her future and defy a system that tries to shape her destiny.
The driver looks in my direction, full of worry. Her lips red, glossy and pouted, a crease in her forehead, like she’s the one with problems, not me. But I don’t look at her. I just stare out the window wishing I could go back and put my old life back together, which is impossible, I know. So here I am instead. Hours from the only home I’ve ever known, driving up a long gravel road through a tunnel of trees where branches reach down like fingers, hungry for touch.
‘This is Livingstone Academy,’ Miss Femia says, as we pull up to a grand white house with black shutters and a door that’s green like a swamp.
When the car slows to a stop under a droopy willow, I step out and slam the door, looking up at what feels like a whole different world. I take one deep breath and close my eyes, and when I open them again, Miss Femia is standing in front of me with her tight bun and waxy mouth.
She takes my hands in hers, rubbing my scar with her thumb -- the hideous X on the back of my right hand that’s ugly and raw. She sighs, and I wonder if it’s sadness in her eyes because it’s hard to tell with Mainlanders. Pity looks very much the same.
‘I know this wasn’t the plan,’ she says. ‘But let’s make the most of it, hey?’
Her voice is high and hopeful, and I hate the way it sounds, like forgetting the life I had is my best option. Like that’s even possible.
‘I really think you might like it here. I think your mother would have really liked this place,’ she says.
I want to tell her that what Mother would probably like is to be living instead of dead, to be back home with me instead of wherever it is she is now. But Miss Femia doesn't have children, and people without children always share silly bits of wisdom, like it will all go to waste if they don’t.
‘Yes, let’s make the most of it,’ I say, turning up the corners of my mouth as high as I can manage. Which isn’t much.
‘You can do this, Elimina,’ she says, wrapping her fingers around the doorknob, holding the swamp-colored door with her back. ‘You can find happiness here.’
But happiness isn’t something a kid like me can afford to hold out for.
The main entrance of Livingstone Academy is large and impressive with tall columns and a wide carpeted stairwell that curves like a bow. Framed pictures of open landscapes and wide fields hang on brightly lit walls.
At least it’s not the Gutter, I try to tell myself as I turn and take it all in. At least there’s that.
‘Miss Femia,’ a man says, emerging from a hallway in a sharp tan suit followed by a girl in a grey dress with a crisp white shirt underneath.
The man is tall with slick brown hair, and he takes large steps across the room to greet us, kissing Miss Femia on the cheek, smiling down at me after. I stare back with wide eyes because other than Mother no one has ever looked at me this way. Like they’re actually pleased that I’ve arrived.
‘Elimina, it’s a tremendous honor to have you here at Livingstone Academy. I’m Headmaster Samuel J. Gregors. But Mr. Gregors will do just fine.’
He smiles and pauses for a moment, raising his chin in a way that makes me wonder if I should curtsy or applaud or shake hands.
‘While the circumstances that brought you here are less than ideal, I believe that Livingstone is exactly where you need to be,’ he says. ‘Elimina, I sincerely believe that here in our tidy little academy, you’ll find a home that propels you into an excellent future.’
He looks down at the girl in the grey dress whose hair is pulled into two round ponytails, hands behind her back. Her skin is like mine, the color of oak trees and coconuts, Mother used to say as she rubbed lotion on me that smelled like flowers.
‘This is Josephine. She’s one of our best students,’ he says, nodding in Josephine’s direction as she takes a step forward, so we’re close enough to touch.
Josephine tilts her head, taking in my bare head and my single scar, raising one eyebrow.
Mother started shaving my head when I was five years old because I had curls that refused to submit to her – hair that grew out instead of down. ‘It’s impossible to deal with. There’s just nothing else I can do,’ she said, lifting me onto a tall stool where a pair of scissors lay resting on the countertop. She cut one messy ponytail, and when I gasped, she cut the other before grabbing a razor to take the rest. When she was done, when tiny black curls were scattered around her like feathers, she held my face between her hands, tilting me this way and that, marveling at the richness of my skin, held in her moon-colored palms. She smiled, like she was proud of the result – the smoothness, the even shape, how clean I looked. ‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘You look perfect, Elimina. A beautiful, ebony goddess.’
Her eyes were wet, but no tears fell. And I believed every word she said. You are perfect. Beautiful. A goddess. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw someone I didn’t recognize. I saw a head that was naked and shorn like a bird born too soon, one that would never grow up and fly. And I knew that she had lied.
‘You made me ugly,’ I yelled, and when I yelled those words at her again, shrill and loud, she called me vain and selfish.
‘Elimina?’ Miss Femia says, placing one hand on my shoulder. ‘Mr. Gregors just asked you a question, dear.’
I look up, my heart racing wildly, like I’ve just been caught doing wrong. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I--’
‘Never you mind. It’s been a long drive,’ he says, waving one hand in my direction like it doesn’t matter at all. ‘Josephine will take care of you today, and I’ll meet with you tomorrow after breakfast. After you’ve had some rest.’
‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.’
‘Don’t be sorry. And don’t be late,’ he says, pointing in my direction. ‘It’s a basic tenet of the work we do here to always be on time. I consider tardiness a sign of disrespect. Let’s not get off to a bad start.’
‘Josephine, show her around, and do it proper,’ he says. ‘No shortcuts. Leave nothing out. Get her a uniform and be sure to take her to Nurse Gretchen. I want her ready to go when I meet her tomorrow. I’ll have Violet inform Miss Darling that you’ll be away for duration of the day.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,’ Josephine says, with a nod of her head.
Miss Femia moves closer, placing her hands on my shoulders and opening her red mouth, like she’s going to say something, but when she looks back at Mr. Gregors and Josephine watching, she presses her lips back together like now is not the right time.
‘Miss Femia?’ I say, hoping she’ll reconsider, hoping she’ll say what’s on her mind.
‘It’s not important,’ she says. ‘You’ve got enough to worry about right now, Elimina. Go on with Josephine. Get settled in. I’ll swing by another time.’
She wraps her arms around me, and I don’t squeeze back tight or cry, but when Miss Femia whispers in my ear, ‘You’ll be fine,’ I feel a stick in my throat that hurts so bad it makes it hard to swallow, like a knife cutting from the inside. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she says.
But somehow, I know this is a lie.
Josephine leads me down a long hall with high, curved ceilings, our footsteps clicking against the floors. When she reaches the tall set of doors at the end of the hallway, she places her palms on the brass panels and turns towards me, the X’s on her hands standing tall. And for a moment, I’m not sure I’m breathing at all.
‘You ready?’ she says.
But I don’t answer. I just stare and follow her slowly through the doors, knowing somewhere in my gut that this is all wrong. I should turn and run.
The dining hall is filled with long tables and wood chairs. It reeks of fried meat and steamed vegetables, and when we enter the room, students in matching grey uniforms turn and stare. But I just look down at all of those scars. The ones that look just like Josephine’s, just like the one on my right hand.
I stop, my feet fixed in place, and when Josephine turns to me, I whisper the only words I can manage, my throat still thick and tight: ‘I don’t belong here. You’re all...I’m not…I’m not a Gutter Child,’ I say.
But Josephine hands me a tray, shaking her head, like I’ve got a lot to learn.