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Today's Story by Debra Purdy Kong

The first time they met, Carla said, "You look like a hooker I know."

Birthday Girl

Abby nearly retches from the stink of old cheese and overcooked broccoli. She unlocks the entrance to isolation. The metal door clangs shut behind her. She knew who’d been sent to isolation before Mac even mentioned Carla’s name. Who else would it be? Abby peers through the thick, wire-mesh glass in the cell door.

Carla sits on the lumpy mattress with her back propped against the painted, yellow brick wall as she reads a magazine. Her shirt sleeve is pushed up to the elbows, exposing old self-inflicted cuts and cigarette burn scars. Carla looks up. Her face is devoid of makeup and facial jewelry. Abby knows it’s
part of the punishment Carla detests most.

Abby takes a deep breath, unlocks the cell door, and enters the humid room. “Good morning, Mac says you can rejoin the unit. They’ve just started breakfast.”

“Like that’s a big thrill.” Carla grabs her nightgown and toiletries. “Heard you’ve been on holiday, where’d you go?”

For an ultrasound. She’ll have to tell the girls about the baby soon.

“Nowhere, I’ve been puttering around the house and reading.”

“Sounds boring.” Carla heads down the corridor. “It’s my birthday, you know.”

“Yes.” She read it in Carla’s file this morning. “Happy birthday.”

“I told Mom to make a chocolate cake with marshmallow frosting and gummy worms.”

In the three months Carla’s been awaiting trial, her mother hasn’t shown up once. Abby’s heard stories about the welfare parents and their eight wild kids. Two older brothers are in adult prison for armed robbery and an older sister apparently had a lengthy stay here two years ago. The justice system has a special revolving door for the Baxter clan.

At unit two’s entrance, Carla turns to Abby. “Just so ya know, yesterday wasn’t my fault. Janine called me a skanky whore and I ain’t never taken money for sex. Mom would kill me.”

So, even the Baxters have standards. Still, why discuss the incident? Carla never accepts blame for anything, plays the tearful victim role whenever her psychiatrist, lawyer, or social worker show up, then later jokes about their stupidity.

Carla struts into the girls’ common room and conversation stops.

Apprehensive glances dart amongst the seven girls eating breakfast. At the far end of the table, Janine scowls. Carla plunks into a seat at the opposite end, grabs a strip of bacon with her fingers, and bites it in half.

“I’m fifteen today.” She chomps on the food. “Oldest one here, so you guys have to listen to me.”

Abby stifles a groan.

“You’re not the oldest,” Janine replies. “I was fifteen two months ago.”

“You’re outta here soon, so you don’t count.”

“Either change topics or eat in silence, please,” Abby says.

They choose silence, but eight girls in detention won’t stay silent for long. Abby sighs. A less stressful career would be smart with the baby coming, but the salary and benefits are crucial until Jason’s business picks up. Was taking a job here in the first place a huge mistake? Strive to effect positive change in the residents through direct, consistent, and positive contact the job description said. How is that possible when she’s merely a jailer to distrustful teens filled with anger, pain, and confusion?

Janine whispers to the girls nearest her. They look at Carla and giggle.

“When my mom gets here,” Carla says, “she’ll kick your asses across the room.”

“That’s enough.” Abby pushes the cart up to the table. “Stack your plates and return all utensils, ladies. If I find any missing this time, smoke breaks will be cancelled today.”

Carla waves her unused knife, fork, and spoon at Abby, then tosses them in the bucket and heads down the hall.

“Hey! What the hell?” The new girl, Tiffany, picks a bit of scrambled egg from her hair.

“It was an accident,” Chantelle replies, trying not to smirk. “My fork slipped.”

Tiffany scowls. “Why, because you couldn’t shovel it in your fat face fast enough?”

Abby watches the reddening Chantelle. Hasn’t anyone told the new residents that criticizing someone’s weight is forbidden?

“Tiffany, rinse out the egg and run a comb through your hair,” Abby says.

“You’ll be fine and then I’d like a quick word. The rest of you get ready for school, please.”

Tiffany stomps to the bathroom. Abby makes sure the girls finish clearing the table before she enters the bathroom to find Carla combing the girl’s damp hair.

“I don’t smell a thing,” Carla says. “All you gotta do is blow dry it and everything’s cool.”

Abby gapes at her, surprised by this act of kindness.

Carla spots her and frowns. “What?”

“Just seeing if you’re getting ready for school.”

“Why should I have to go on my birthday? Mom might show up.”

“If she does she’ll be advised that visiting hours are from seven to nine p.m.”

“Mom doesn’t give a shit about time,” Carla replies. “Promise you’ll come get me if she’s here.” Carla starts to leave, then stops. “Forget it. Everyone breaks promises.”

Abby can’t argue the point. These girls’ lives are already filled with broken promises. Once they’re in the classroom down the hall, Abby catches up on three week’s worth of incident reports and daily logs. Most of the reports involve Carla: squabbles over TV programs, improper phone usage, “borrowed” makeup, and alleged stolen packs of gum.

Abby clicks on Carla’s file. Her psychiatrist visited last week, her lawyer yesterday. The lawyer always rattles Carla. He’s her unwelcome reminder that she beat a boy half to death with a baseball bat. A conviction would mean much more time in here unless she’s moved to another center. Every employee hopes she will be moved, none more so than Abby.

The first time they met, Carla said, “You look like a hooker I know.”

Abby still feels the jab to her heart as she’d wondered if Carla had actually seen Leanne. She still cringes over a relative’s occasional comment about her resemblance to her little sister, or the unsettling stories about Leanne’s endless partying. She wishes she could forget the day Leanne ran away at just sixteen, how Mom and Dad spent days searching for her. That they’d found Leanne living on the street hadn’t made things easier. The grief on her parents’ faces when they told Abby that Leanne had refused to come home was as vivid now as it was five years ago.

Three weeks ago, Carla grabbed Abby’s wallet from her hand, saw Leanne’s photo and said, “I do know this chick. She lives with a pimp near Campbell and Hastings.” She’d looked at Abby. “Your sister, right?” Caught off guard, Abby had nodded. “Wow, you may look alike, but you don’t act alike, unless
you’re also a crack head who sells dope to kids.”

Shame warms Abby’s face as she remembers screaming at Carla to get out of her office, then Mac’s assurance that staff meltdowns weren’t uncommon and some time off would help. Her shift replacement, Catharine, had the gall to say that Abby probably wasn’t suited for this line of work. Maybe she’s right, though. Has she already become another jaded employee who writes kids
off too fast?

After school’s over and the girls have had their smoke break, Carla says, “Three hours till visiting time. Can I phone home? I wanna know when Mom’s coming.”

Abby dials the number, then hands the phone to Carla. Seconds later, a subdued Carla hands the phone back. “She’s probably out getting a present.”

The new girl, Tiffany, approaches Abby. “Can I talk to you?”


Abby ushers her inside and shuts the door. One-on-one chats were her favorite time of day until the stories became too gut-wrenching. Every week she hears about drug addicted mothers with sexually abusive boyfriends, violent fathers, low self-esteem, mental illness, or eating disorders. Some girls are so poor that incarceration is a step up. Most girls seem to feel better after chats, yet Abby often feels incompetent and useless.

For the next hour, more girls parade through Abby’s office with worries about upcoming trials and unfaithful boyfriends. While Abby listens, she glances through the windows into the common room and hallway leading to sleeping quarters. Carla polishes her nails at a table facing the door. Every time Abby sees her, Carla’s either looking at the clock on the wall or at the entrance as if willing her mother into the room.

Forty-five minutes after visiting hours began, Carla paces and scratches the scars on her arm. Still no word from the Baxters. At supper, Carla had bragged about the presents and cakes from previous birthdays. The longer she’d talked, the larger the gifts and the more elaborate the cakes, and the more exasperated the girls. After a quick trip to the store at lunch, Abby had surprised everyone with a platter of cupcakes smothered in pink icing and gummy worms. She’d even stuck a candle in Carla’s and offered to sing, but Carla had refused to eat that “store-bought crap.”

Carla’s lips are pinched and there’s sadness in her eyes. Visiting hours end in thirty minutes. Abby gives the girl some space, yet stays close enough if needed, and Lord knows this girl needs someone. It’s the dejection on her face and in her body language that makes Abby want to reach out and find a
way to help.

Carla catches her watching. “What?”

“Nothing, it’s just that I thought I saw a stain on your shirt.”

She looks down. “I should put on something better anyway.”

Abby calls Mac. “It doesn’t look like the parents will show.”

“Then we’d better get ready for the storm. Catharine called to say she’ll be a little late.”

“Okay.” This time, she’ll handle whatever Carla says without losing control, or at least she’ll try.

Abby’s midway through the day’s report writing when Carla reappears wearing a shimmery black tank top and a fresh coat of blue lipstick.

Minutes tick by. Carla paces the floor and looks at the clock, then the door, then back to the clock. Each time she passes Abby’s window, her eyes grow narrower, meaner. The tension emanating from her charges the air like a broken power line. Since all of the girls have cleared the common room, they must feel it too.

Carla marches up to Abby. “I want to phone home again.”

Abby dials the number, then hands her the phone. Carla wanders out of the room. Moments later, she’s talking to someone. Abby watches and waits. On her radio, Mac tells her that Catharine’s arrived.

“Yeah well, you can fuck right off!” Carla throws the phone against the wall and runs toward the bedrooms, screaming curses.

Abby calls Mac for assistance. Her steps are unhurried as she waits for him and tries to come up with something to say to Carla, although words won’t be nearly enough. Downward spirals have a momentum all their own. The other girls watch from the threshold of their rooms. Their grim faces show that they know how it feels when hope is stripped down, whipped, and thrown out
on its ass.

When she reaches Carla’s room, Abby stares in horror as Carla sets fire to the magazines on her bed. Abby had planned to light the candle on Carla’s cupcake with that red lighter. How the hell had she gotten it?

“Carla, no!”

Carla flicks the lighter and holds the flame close to her hair. “Get out of here!”

Mac and Catharine shove past Abby. Carla jumps back and hits the wall, dropping the lighter. Abby smothers the burning magazines with a blanket on the bed while Carla is taken down. She wriggles, flinches, and kicks to avoid Catharine’s handcuffs, but in the end Catharine wins. She and Mac pull
Carla to her feet.

“You can’t do this on my birthday!” Tears roll down Carla’s face as she’s led out the door. She looks over her shoulder at Abby. “Come see me?”

“Abby’s shift is over,” Catharine replies. “You can see her tomorrow.”

“I’ll see her now,” Abby says, returning Catharine’s stare.

Once Carla is back in solitary, Mac says, “You shouldn’t go in alone, and you know we don’t have the budget for overtime.”

“I’m not asking for it.”

He hesitates. “I’ll wait outside the door.”

Abby unlocks the entrance to isolation, steps across the hall, and peeks through the window.

“Mac, she’s banging her forehead against the brick wall. Call 911!” Lord, she should have seen this coming.

Abby unlocks the door as Carla keels onto her side and doesn’t move. Abby checks her pulse and makes sure she’s breathing. Carla’s forehead is already swelling. Abby dashes to the kitchenette next to the cell, unlocks a cabinet, and grabs the first-aid bag.

As she places an ice pack on Carla’s forehead, Carla blinks and shuts her eyes. “She said I should never have been born.”

Oh, God. “She’s wrong.”


“It’s not. How can anyone who shows new girls around and helps them get food out of their hair be all bad?”

“That’s just stupid stuff.”

“It isn’t. Look, you can’t control what people say or do, Carla. You can only control how you respond to it.”

Carla’s eyes flicker open. The ice pack slides off her forehead as she turns to Abby. “Then why did you practically bawl your eyes out when I saw that photo of your sister?”

Abby takes a deep breath. “No one can control their emotions all the time.”

“I can’t control them ever. I was born rotten, nothin’ll change that.” She places the pack on her forehead. “How long will I be stuck here this time?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll be back tomorrow morning. Want me to save you that cupcake?”

“I told you, I don’t eat store-bought crap.”

“Sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got, Carla, and hope for better.”

“Is that what you do?”

“I’m trying.” Abby takes her hand. “Will you?”

Tears trickle out of Carla’s closed eyes.


Debra Purdy Kong has has one hundred short stories, essays, and articles published in magazines in North America and Europe. She’s also published three mystery novels. The latest, The Opposite of Dark, was released by TouchWood Editions in March 2011.


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