By Bridget Farr
Read by Ariana Cordero
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Twelve-year-old Pavi Sharma is an expert at the Front Door Face: the perfect mix of puppy dog eyes and a lemonade smile, the exact combination to put foster parents at ease as they open their front door to welcome you in. After being bounced around between foster families and shelter stays, Pavi is a foster care expert, and she runs a “business” teaching other foster kids all she has learned. With a wonderful foster family in mom Marjorie and brother Hamilton, things are looking up for Pavi.
Then Pavi meets Meridee: a new five-year-old foster kid, who is getting placed at Pavi’s first horrendous foster home. Pavi knows no one will trust a kid about what happened on Lovely Lane, even one as mature as she is, so it’s up to her to save Meridee.
With help from Hamilton, brooding eighth grader Santos, and Hamilton’s somewhat obnoxious BFF Piper, they set off on an important mission with life-changing stakes. Pavi will stop at nothing to keep Meridee safe.
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FRONT DOOR FACE
Front Door Face. It’s the perfect mix of puppy dog eyes and a lemonade stand smile, the exact combination to make the foster parents holding open their front door welcome you home. Or at least let you come inside so you don’t have to stand there awkwardly while your caseworker reminds them they already signed the paperwork. They have to take you, at least for the night.
You don’t want to cry—makes you seem needy. Makes them worry you’ll sob all the time and maybe wet the bed they’ve tucked you into. Or the sleeping bag. Depends on the family.
No sneering, no glares, because then they’re just picturing you tearing through the house, jumping on the couch and throwing pillows across the room. They’re expecting rage from the moment they see your wrinkled lip and scrunched-up nose. I know why you’re mad. And they would, too, if they knew your life. But they don’t. That’s why they’re taking you. So don’t make them regret it from the moment they see you through the screen.
But don’t go overboard on the smile, either. Then you look psychotic, as if all the heartbreak in your life is just boiling under the surface, waiting to spill over and stain their new carpet. Mix it up. A little sad, but not broken down. Not happy, but with a bit of “chin up” spirit. Adults are going to tell you that all the time, so you might as well learn to do it. The sooner you get your Front Door Face down, the better.
Trust me. After four foster families and a sixty-day shelter stay, I know it works. But nobody was there to teach me the first time. It was two in the morning when they took me to my first home. I was wearing stinky pajamas and my hair was a mess, since I’d been home sick for days, my only meals Hot Cheetos and Sprite. A caseworker with tomato-red hair practically dragged me up the steps of this craggily old house, and we waited until a man with brown shoes and shaggy gray hair finally opened the door. The caseworker called me “Pave-y” Sharma, not “Puh-vi,” but I was too tired to correct her, and before she could even tell him any more of my details, I threw up a bloodred mess all over his brown shoes. It wasn’t my fault—I had the flu—but I looked like demon spawn with red spewing out of me and dripping down my chin. Definitely not a good first impression. My foster dad didn’t really want to let me in after that. He did, but things could have been a lot better if I had showed up with my best Front Door Face.
For now, have yours ready. And make sure you eat something normal before you head over. Just in case. Your caseworker should have some crackers or something in her desk. They always do.
Santos, the eighth grader sitting across from me, shakes his head and his dark hair flops over his even darker eyes. He’s not my first eighth-grade client, but he’s a little intimidating to talk to because he’s so much bigger than me, and he’s been scowling the whole time. But I keep going since I’m the professional here.
“Really, no questions?” I adjust my seat, since the brick ledge is starting to cut into the small part of my leg between my shorts and my knees. “I know it’s a lot of information, but it’s not your first family, right?”
He shakes his head, not making eye contact. One white earbud dangles around his neck, the other hidden beneath his red hood.
“If you think of anything, write it down. Jamone, who gave you my information, can answer some questions, too. He just got his new family last month, so he remembers all of this.”
I look over the rest of my list. Front Door Face. Check. Food. Check. Things to pack in your backpack. Check. School stuff. I’ll wait until our next meeting for that. I move to the next letter in the outline. FFR: Foster Family Research.
“Do you know the name of your new family?”
“I don’t recognize the name, but give me a few days to ask around and see what I can find out. I’ll google her tonight, too. When are they gonna place you?”
He shrugs. “Lenny says next week.”
“I know Lenny! He’s a good guy. Do you know about giving him Snickers bars when you want something?”
“Heard about it.”
“It totally works. He loves Snickers. Eats them for breakfast. I once saw him dunk it in his coffee like a doughnut. Who’s your caseworker?”
He shrugs. “Mary something.”
“Mary Beth? The lady who laughs all the time?”
“I don’t know.”
I’ll have to figure that out, too. I know the shelter staff better, but caseworkers make all the big calls. I won’t see my caseworker, Ms. Veronica, for three more weeks, or I would see if she knows anything about Santos’s caseworker.
I close my notebook and pull out the calendar I made in yearbook class. I used the library’s color printer without permission, but color looks more professional than black-and-white.
“Since you move sometime next week, how about I see you next Wednesday? Right after school?”
“Yeah, all right.”
He hops off the ledge and begins scanning the street in front of us like he’s getting ready to bolt. He shoves his hands in his pockets before turning back to me.
“How much I owe you?”
“You don’t need to pay me yet. The first meeting is always free, but have my payment ready when we meet Wednesday. I’ll get a message to you if I don’t find anything on your foster mom, and you won’t owe me the full price. Unless you want me to do more research.”
“Oh, and practice your Front Door Face. Use a mirror if you can.”
He nods and then looks both ways before running across the street, his hands clasping the bottom straps of his backpack so it doesn’t bounce on his back. I wonder where he’s running to.
I carefully tuck my calendar into my work notebook, sliding both in the hot-pink backpack I’ve covered with Sharpie doodles of stars and moons to hide its Barbie-like hideousness. As I’m zipping it, I hear my name from behind me. It’s my foster mom’s son, Hamilton Jennings, ready to walk me home.
Hamilton’s baritone taps against the sidewalk every few beats, marking the tempo like his very own metronome. I don’t know why he picked such a big instrument when he’s one of the smallest kids in seventh grade—he practically fits underneath my armpit. He says the baritone reminds him of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that he and his mom, Marjorie, went to when he was five. Since then, he’s always wanted to play the tuba, but no seventh graders are allowed to. Thus, the little-brother baritone.
“Mom asked Mr. Ortman to remind us that she has parent-teacher conferences tonight,” he says, his breathing heavy. “We are in charge of turning on the Crock-Pot when we get home. She says it’s curry.”
When Marjorie met me and found out I was Indian American, she took a cooking class to learn to make Indian food: a few types of curries, daal, treats like samosas and biryani. Now she makes Indian food once a week, even though I don’t really remember the exact meals Ma cooked for me when I lived with her. I was pretty young then, so only certain smells are familiar. And mostly we ate a lot of sandwiches or macaroni and cheese or leftovers from the Chinese restaurant she worked at for a while. Hamilton doesn’t like all the spices in Indian food, so he just eats the naan with peanut butter and jelly.
“I can’t walk home with you today,” I tell him as I adjust my backpack.
“Why? Are you meeting that boy again?” Hamilton sets the baritone down with a thud. “How do you even know him? Isn’t he an eighth grader?”
“He is, and I just know him.”
“He looks like trouble.”
“He is. Sort of.” For a kid in the magnet program, Santos skips a lot of his classes. I don’t know how he made it to eighth grade, since he hangs out on the second-floor stairwell practically every day.
“You know we are not allowed to date until we’re sixteen, right?”
I give him a look. “One, Marjorie is not my mom and therefore can’t make decisions like that about my life, and two, I’m not dating him. He’s just someone I know from Before.”
The phrase works just like I expected. Hamilton always clams up when I talk about “Before.” I don’t know what he actually knows about my life before his mom took me in; probably little to nothing, which he turned into a melodramatic something. He doesn’t realize that while being a foster kid can be hard, families are families and houses are houses and school is school. Before is different, and sometimes scary, but mostly it’s just the past.
“Can you at least tell me where you’re going?” Hamilton asks as he pushes up his red glasses. “So I can let Mom know?”
“I’m going to Crossroads to see some kids I knew when I lived there. I won’t be long.” If I can get the basic information I need from Lenny about Santos’s foster mom then I should be able to get home quickly and do my typical Google searches. I’d like to find out what her house looks like and whether she speaks Spanish, since I know he does. Hopefully I can have his Future Family portfolio ready to go by tomorrow. At least with preliminary information. “We can do math together when I get home.”
“Okay,” Hamilton says. “But be careful with that eighth grader. He looks kinda mean.”
“He’s not mean. He’s just a foster kid, too.”
“Foster kid” works the same way as “Before.”
In the twenty minutes it takes me to walk to Crossroads, I eat half a bag of Hot Cheetos and now have a burning stomach and red-stained fingers. I know all about the dangers of junk food and artificial flavors, but I can’t stop eating them. They’re tied to one of my worst memories, but also one of my best: me watching late-night television talk shows with Ma, a bowl of Hot Cheetos on the couch between us. Ma hated most junk food, but this was our special treat. I try to suck the tips of my fingers clean, since brushing them on my clothes will definitely alert Marjorie to my sneakiness. She hates junk food, just like Ma did. During my walk, I pass several bus stops full of people clasping grocery bags. I’ll probably take one of these buses back, since Marjorie doesn’t like me to walk in the dark.
Eventually, I come to the open field around the gray brick buildings that are Crossroads. The same overused swing set stands between the main group building and the boys’ house to the left. You can’t see the girls’ dormitory from the street. It’s surprisingly quiet, but I guess most kids are still at after-school clubs.
I open the fence, pushing hard, since the gate always gets stuck on the uneven sidewalk. I bound up the few steps to the front door and push it open. Immediately, I’m hit by the scent of Fabuloso, the lavender-scented floor cleaner the custodians always use. It was so different from the smell of my house, which always smelled like bleach. Ma loved to clean, especially on her bad days, her hands red and raw from scrubbing for hours. The sweet lavender at Crossroads was one of the only comforting changes in a world where everything was different.
“Janie? Keisha? Lenny?” I call out, noticing the empty front desk. “Where is everybody?” No one responds, but I notice a small girl sitting on one of the waiting room chairs, her legs swinging back and forth. She looks kindergarten age, maybe younger, and her deep-brown face is smudged with the chocolate from a candy bar or even an ice-cream cone, but who am I to judge with my red fingers. Her hair is pulled into a variety of small braids, brightly colored barrettes attached to each end. Tiny limbs poke out of the pink T-shirt she has on, it’s so big I can’t tell if she is wearing shorts underneath.
“Hey,” I say.
She looks up at me with suspicion. “Hi.”
“Do you know where anybody is?”
She splays her hands. “She told me to wait.”
“Who told you? Janie? Keisha?” I step forward to see if I can spot anyone down the hallway.
“The lady.” That was not helpful. I almost ask her if Lenny is here before remembering she doesn’t know names yet. It usually takes the little ones a while to learn anyone’s name.
We wait in silence for a few minutes before Janie bursts through the side office door, a stack of folders and a bucket of sidewalk chalk in her hands.
“Hey, Pav!” She reaches over the counter so she can give me a high five. Janie loves high fives. She should be a kids’ soccer coach or something. “I haven’t seen you in a while. Look at you now!”
What does she see? Have I changed that much from the scrawny nine-year-old with tangled black hair and pants so short you could almost see my knees? Do I look like a kid who eats three meals a day and sleeps eight hours every night and participates in clubs that have a fee? I know I’m different, but sometimes I don’t feel like it. Sometimes I feel exactly the same as the day I showed up here. Tiny, smaller than the space between protons and neutrons. Almost invisible, like a dandelion seed about to be blown away. But helping kids has made me bigger.
I readjust my backpack. “Is Lenny here?”
“Yeah,” she says, taking a seat again. “He was checking the boys’ hall, but I’ll radio him. You can wait for him in his office.”
“No problem.” I take one more look at the little girl waiting, wondering if I looked that small when I first got here.
In the hallway, I turn into the first office, which Lenny shares with Keisha. A pennant for the University of Texas at Austin hangs above his desk, right next to his newly framed diploma. Keisha isn’t here, either, so I take a seat on the metal folding chair across from Lenny’s desk. Looking at the stack of files, I’m tempted to stash one in my backpack, but I’ve never had to steal my information. Give Lenny enough Snickers bars, and he usually tells me what I need, even if technically he’s not supposed to. I think he doesn’t worry about it because he thinks, She’s a kid. What’s she gonna do with the information? He appreciates that I chat up the new kids. He thinks I’m mentoring them, which technically I am. He just doesn’t know about the research or the payment in snacks and school supplies.
I’m only there a few minutes before I hear Lenny’s booming voice. “Pavi Sharma. Superstar.” He gives me a fist bump. “Honor roll, perfect attendance, over a year with the family. So, what’s up? I haven’t seen you in a couple weeks.” Lenny grabs a pen from his desk and begins to twirl it, dropping it every three or four spins. Some kids leave Crossroads and never want to come back, but I need Lenny for information, and the center for clients, so I stop by at least once a month.
“School’s been busy. It’s progress report time, so all the teachers have us finishing projects.”
“Making volcanoes! Cool.”
“No volcanoes. This is a magnet program, not kindergarten. I had to take a math test, write an essay, and get three letters of recommendation to get into my school.”
“I know. I wrote one. So, what is it today, Ms. Sharma?”
I scoot forward in my chair so I can lean my elbows on his desk.
“I need some background information.…”
He frowns. “You know I can’t give you personal information about kids at the shelter.”
“Not a kid. Foster parent.”
“I can’t give you that information, either. You know that.”
I slap a Snickers bar onto his desk.
“Are you trying to bribe me, Ms. Sharma?”
“Alma Graves. Just took in a new foster. Know her?”
“Creepy last name,” he says, his twirling pen clinking into the potted cactus on his desk. “Does sound familiar, though.”
“Can you look her up?”
Boom, another Snickers bar lands on his desk.
He laughs. “I can’t tell you much, nothing too private, but let me look.”
I wait as he types on his ancient computer.
“Okay, so…” Lenny taps the screen. “Looks like she recently got placed with one of our current Crossroads kids, though that’s all I’ll say about that.…” He gives me a pointed look, but I focus on my notes, since I already know that information. He continues to type. “She was on the host committee for the Foster Angels Appreciation Luncheon last year. I found her on a group e-mail.”
“Foster Angels? What are we, then? The Foster Fuzzies? Angel Babies?”
“I would never call you a Fuzzy.”
He watches me as I take a few more notes. I wonder if she’s had any previous foster kids. I’ll have to check with Amber at school tomorrow. She’s at Happy Hearts, one of the other shelters in Austin, and she might be able to get me some information from the kids there.
“Anything else you need? Social security number? High school transcript? Blood type?” He leans back in his office chair.
“No, this is good for now.” I shove my notebook in my backpack. “Actually, can I use your computer to print something?” Marjorie’s printer is out of paper, and I need more forms for my introduction meetings. I used my last one with Santos.
“No problem. Just give me a second to close some things.”
I look around the office while he types. “Who’s the girl in the lobby? Is she new?”
Lenny tears open one of the Snickers bars. “Meridee? She’s been here, what? Twelve days or so? Won’t be here long because I think they got her a placement already.”
“Wow, that’s good for her.” There aren’t enough foster families, so it’s hard for anyone to get a placement that fast, but it’s especially hard to find forever families for black and brown kids like Meridee, Santos, and me. “Is this her first time in the shelter?”
“I think so. At least her first time at Crossroads.”
For a moment, I think about all the reasons she could have ended up here, but I know I’ll never ask. In my job, I can’t fix people’s families. I can only focus on the future.
Normally I don’t take clients so young, and I definitely won’t make her pay, but she is even younger than I was when I went into foster care, and something about her ginormous T-shirt and dirty face makes me want to help. I don’t want her to feel alone like I did the first time.
Lenny flips through a stack of folders on his desk before pushing back his rolling chair.
“Thanks. It should only take five minutes.”
Once he’s out the door, I quickly log in to my online school account. I consider printing multiple copies of my forms to update my folders, but then notice that Lenny’s printer is almost empty, too. As I’m closing out of my e-mail, I bump the tab for a page Lenny accidentally left open. It must be the database they use for the foster kids, because it lists the little girl’s name (Meridee Grant) and her birthdate, intake date, etc. Man, my job would be so much easier if I had access to this.
Then I see it.
George and Janet Nickerson.
I almost vomit red Cheetos all over the floor. Again.
It was his brown shoes I threw up on that first night with the redheaded social worker and me with the flu and no home anymore. True, I had a house still, but it hadn’t been a home in a long time. So here I was at this gloomy house with this tall man and his mop of gray hair that drooped into his eyes so I couldn’t really see him. The caseworker shrieked when she saw the vomit, but Mr. Nickerson didn’t flinch. Since I couldn’t see his eyes, I couldn’t tell if he was looking down at the mess or at my face. I was too tired to be horrified at what I had done. I felt relieved, actually, feeling a little bit better. I guess I needed that.
“I am so sorry, Mr. Nickerson!” the redhead exclaimed. “Let me see if I have something for you.”
She began digging in her huge black bag, pushing around papers and pens while she searched for a tissue or a used napkin that had been wrapped around her breakfast. Mr. Nickerson shook his foot so the red slime slid onto the porch.
“I got something inside.”
She looked from him to me. “This wasn’t how I was hoping to make this introduction, but Mr. Nickerson, this is Pavi Sharma.”
“She sick or something?” He rubbed the stubble on his pale chin.
“I don’t know.” She looked at me. “Are you sick, sweetie?”
I couldn’t speak. The days of lying on the couch watching talk shows with an empty garbage can and bottles of Sprite by my side seemed like years ago. Was I sick? I didn’t know. If she asked my name, I wouldn’t have been able to answer.
The redhead put her hand on my back. “She’s probably just a bit nervous. Is Mrs. Nickerson here?”
“She’s sleeping. It’s two o’clock in the morning.”
Bugs swarmed near the porch light, none flying toward the open door and Mr. Nickerson’s face. Even they didn’t want to go inside.
“We sure are grateful you’ll be taking Pavi. She’s a sweet girl. She’ll be here for a few days as part of her emergency stay, but I know you two have been considering long-term placement.”
I don’t remember the rest of what she said, but I know there was talk of phone calls and dates, and then she was hugging me—I wished it was Ma hugging me—and then she pushed me toward Mr. Nickerson and the gloom behind the metal screen door.
“Pavi? Pavi? Are you okay?” Lenny’s voice guides me like a lighthouse from my memories. He’s standing across from me, one hand on the desk like a sprinter at the starting line, the other reached out toward me. I wonder if he thought I might fall out of the chair. I stay frozen in place, needing a moment before I stand up. I want to get away from this place and those names. I want to be home where I can let the sound of Hamilton’s baritone shoo away thoughts of the two worst people I’ve ever met.
“I’m fine.… I just got…” I stop, because I don’t know what to say. I got shocked with memories? Punched by the past?
“You look like you saw a ghost. Here.” He hands me one of the unopened Snickers bars. “Maybe your blood sugar is low?”
I shove the candy in my back pocket, feeling like a zombie just woken from the dead. Then it hits me.
“Lenny, you can’t send her there.”
“Send who where?”
“That little girl. Meridee. You can’t send her to her new placement.”
He frowns, looking confused. “Why?”
“I accidentally saw the name of the family she’s going to on your computer.…”
Lenny sighs. “I thought I closed that all out.”
“I wasn’t snooping, but I know them, Lenny! Her new family, and she can’t go there.” I stumble over my words as I race to get them out. “It’s not good, Lenny. She won’t—”
“Slow down. I can barely understand you. What happened?”
I’m afraid to say it. From the back of my memory comes the barking, the sounds of chains clanging.
“They have all these dogs, and sometimes… they fight.”
Lenny rubs a hand across his chin, his eyebrows raised. “They had dogfights?”
“How old were you when you stayed with them?”
“Nine.” I can see the doubt on his face. “But I remember!”
Lenny perches on the edge of his desk, his palms pressed together in his lap. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you were pretty young, so those dogs probably seemed scary. Like they were fighting. The family has been evaluated. They’ve been verified.”
I shake my head. “I’m not exaggerating. I know what happened. Can’t you just keep her at Crossroads until her caseworker can check them out again?”
- "Debut author Bridget Farr keeps the story moving swiftly, skillfully weaving in moments of tension that allow her diverse cast of flawed yet sympathetic characters to shine."—Publishers Weekly
- "Well imagined [and] undeniable appeal."—Booklist
- "A fresh, feel-good story that will make readers cheer and appreciate the home and family they may take for granted."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 17, 2019
- Hachette Audio