BY: SHANNON KENNEDY
She’s disposable…and she knows it.
A survivor of too many foster homes, B.J. Larson is content living at the youth center where your status is determined by how long your arrest record is. And hers is lengthy. Then she’s placed in a home in the small town of Stewart Falls, Washington—with foster parents who will “love” her, not just the money the state pays for her care.
BJ’s not stone stupid. She knows a scam when she sees one. Kids like her never get “real homes,” much less “real families.” She learned a long time ago that adults can’t be trusted. Besides, B.J.’s too smart to take chances. And isn’t love the biggest risk of all?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: Throw Away Teen by Shannon Kennedy is a well written book. The story revolves around B.J. Larson, a tough, rebellious teenager who has spent most of her life in the foster care system. Naturally, she doesn’t trust anyone, not her case worker, not the administrator of the youth home where she’s been residing, and certainly not her new foster parents, who claim to love her and want to adopt her.
I like the characters and the story. The only problem that I had was the believability of the story. I found it hard to believe that B.J. would suddenly find foster parents willing to take on a tough, untrusting teen. I have known several people who have been through the foster care system in several different states, and that was not their experience. Although, I suppose it could happen if B.J. had gotten really, really lucky. That said, I found B.J.’s description of her past as part of the system to be right on. And I really enjoyed the book.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: While I, too, found it somewhat surprising that a teenager in the foster care system could suddenly find a home with loving parents who want to adopt her, I found the rest of Throw Away Teen to be quite believable. I particularly liked the character of B.J. Larson. I found her to be a scared, confused kid, who longed for the one thing she was absolutely certain she would never find: love. Having spent a brief, but terrifying, time in foster care myself, I could certainly relate to B.J.’s feelings of self-doubt to be very realistic.
I liked the way Kennedy portrayed the relationships between the characters, and I especially liked how well-developed her characters were—almost like real people. In fact, I think I went to school with some of them! The book was so well-written that I found it easy enough to suspend disbelief on the part of B.J.’s loving foster parents.
Who cares if it’s a beautiful April day? The glare of the sun on the windshield was killing my eyes. I wish Carol would hurry up and get her butt out of the youth center already. When I kept hassling her about this weekend, she sent me out here to wait in her Ford Escort that’s older than I am. Whenever I bitch about the decrepit rust-bucket, Carol just shrugs and says the would-be wreck is paid for.
It didn’t even have a CD player, just a cassette radio. She kept her collection of cassettes in the shoebox at my feet. I checked those out already. Gross. Carol’s taste in music seriously stinks. It’s nothing but country and something called blue-grass.
Gawd, I really want a cigarette. But I quit smoking at the last foster home. It wasn’t my idea. The baldheaded Nazi who ran the place like a boot camp washed my mouth out with soap and made me smoke a pack of Marlboros at the same time. It was supposed to make me sick and it did. I puked for three days straight.
The jerk told me if he caught me with cigarettes again, he’d break two of my fingers and still shove soap in my mouth. He didn’t get the chance. I booked it out of there as soon as everyone crashed for the night. That was eleven months ago and I still gagged whenever I smelled tobacco or Ivory.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time I’d had my mouth washed out with soap. That honor went to the old bat I stayed with ten years ago. She decided a five-year-old shouldn’t swear. I learned real quick to consider the location and audience before cussing, but I hurled insults with the best of them.
I made up my mind when I arrived at Evergreen Youth Center. No more living with weirdoes. Sooner or later, one of them would probably try to kill me. I just hoped Carol came to see things my way, instead of yapping that this is a “transitional facility,” and that I’ve more than overstayed my welcome. What else is new?
I’d been in twelve homes since I was two and that’s only counting the ones where I stayed more than a week. No point counting the one or two day places. I wasn’t there long enough to even remember their names. And since they spent most of their time hollering “Bertha Juniper” at me, I ignored them. I went by B.J. and if somebody tried to tell me the initials stood for “blow job,” it only happened once.
Which is another reason why I’ve been in so many homes—foster parents get excited when a girl starts kicking butts and busting heads every time someone makes fun of her name. It didn’t happen as often anymore because I didn’t share my “real” name with anyone if I could help it. Of course, me being a fighter was one reason I got along so well in the center. My room-mate, Irene and I were tight. We’d lived together this time for the past eleven months and we always helped each other out. Of course, we’d known each other since we were little and ended up in some of the same foster homes over the years.
I stared at the hole in the toe of my Nike. Irene suggested spike heels, but those were impossible to run in, so I kept my regular shoes. I was wearing my worst outfit today, a skimpy bright red crop top. And it was so tight, it showed every inch of my boobs and the fact I wasn’t wearing a bra. My black shorts were tight, barely covering my butt. Irene and I talked about a belly ring, but I wasn’t stupid enough to let her do the needle and ice trick she’d used on my ears. So, I went for three earrings in each ear and one in my eyebrow.
I also went real heavy on the makeup, slathering it around my green eyes and darkening my long lashes with extra thick black mascara. I put on tons of blush and lots of bright red lipstick. I have on enough make-up that I could work a corner alongside my real mother, the whore from First Avenue in downtown Seattle. Not that I ever would, of course. I only dressed like a skank to get what I wanted. And that was freedom. The sluttier I acted and the more fights I got into, the faster I’d be sent back to the youth center.
My red hair was a tangled mess since I hadn’t brushed it for three days. Between the hair, the cosmetics, and the skimpy clothes, my new foster mom should take one look and send me straight back to Seattle. Yippee!
My legs were sticking to the car seat. I lifted one and it peeled away from the vinyl. What is taking Carol so damn long? She was probably feeling the need to brag to the other do-gooders about this home visit. I didn’t even want to go. I was only sitting here baking in her car ’cause she beat me at our weekly game of poker. We opened on guts and played for truth.
When I won, I didn’t have to answer Carol’s sappy, dumb questions or do what she told me to do. Her favorite question had to be one she stole from a counselor—the old “And how does that make you feel?” It was nearly as bad as the one from Doctor Phil, “And how’s that working for you?”
Our last bet was over spending a weekend with two senior citizens who claimed they wanted to adopt me. Am I supposed to believe that crap? I never reneged on my bets, so now I was on my way to Stewart Falls. I was pretty sure Carol cheated this time though. She’d hardly ever beaten me before and I had a full house.
It was hot today, unusual for spring in Seattle. I eased my bare arms away from the back of the seat. I’m melting out here. The only good part about this visit is no school today. I won’t even have to go on Monday. Carol had promised me a long weekend in the country. Not my ideal weekend getaway, but what can you do?
I looked back at the red-brick building again and finally spotted her sauntering toward me. Even though, I knew the truth about caseworkers, every once in a while I liked her. I knew better than to share that. Carol was my fourth social-worker and she might act like a rebel, but it was a scam or she wouldn’t have lasted at Evergreen this long. She wore loose jeans and sloppy T-shirts, despite what her bosses said. Her long brown hair always swings free, the same way she does.
Most important, she talked to us kids like we were real people who actually knew stuff. Definitely a scam. My last social worker spent all her time talking loud and calling me “dearie,” as if I was half deaf and stone stupid. She was majorly irritating, but not as bad as the one I had, when I was little, who constantly lied to me.
Carol even spoke to Gabe Abbot like he was human. All the kids knew about Gabe. He was super good with a knife and ran with a gang downtown. When summer arrived, he’d head back to the streets. He always said the group home was just a nice, warm place for the winter and staying there kept him out of Juvie.
Granted, Gabe didn’t care much for Carol. He’d warned me she had her own agenda. Getting rid of me, my room-mate Irene, and him were at the top of Carol’s list. And yeah, I knew he was right. Then again, I didn’t have “stupid” tattooed on my forehead. I didn’t have to get into a big pissing contest with Carol so she showed me that she was the boss and wrecked my life even more. Caseworkers always pushed us around like pawns on a chessboard, but Gabe had to fight the system and authority figures. It was why he’d been arrested so many times.
“Ready for your new home, B.J.?” Carol smiled as she climbed into the car. She wore cut-off jeans today and let out a yelp as her bare legs hit the seat. “Ow! How can you stand this?”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Yeah, it is.” Carol stuck the key in the ignition and ground the motor. “As soon as I can, I’m turning on the air conditioning.”
“Does the AC even still work in this heap?” I shrugged. “Whatever. Either way’s fine. I can handle it.”
“You’ve been telling me that for the past six months.” Carol kept grinding the motor. “I’m never sure whether to believe you or not.”
“You’re still making hamburger. Want me to drive?”
“How about you wait until you have your license next year?” Carol tried again and this time the car started.
“I already know how to drive though.”
She frowned and drove out of the parking lot in the direction of the freeway. “When are you planning to tell me about that stolen car incident, B.J.?”
“Never.” I shut up. The car thing got me out of my last foster home with the control freak, aka Soap Nazi. I hadn’t stolen the car. I just took a ride with the kids who did. I knew better than to rat on them. Snitching got a girl hurt. I was fifteen and I’d bounced from foster home to foster home forever. It hadn’t taken me long to learn to keep my mouth shut about what my “sisters and brothers” did. I didn’t have any actual siblings, just the ones who rotated through homes as often as I did.
The old bat I’d stayed with when I was five made sure to remind me that my real mom was a whore whenever possible. And my mom didn’t just sleep around. She sold herself to whoever had the bucks, which she spent on drugs.
My second caseworker told me my biological father was just one of her customers. Now he was in prison for murder. It happened when he tried to rob some guy and the guy fought back. It wasn’t my old man’s first robbery, but this was the one that went south. Murder meant “game over” and he was going to be in jail forever. As far as I knew, my mother was still a prostitute, unless she’d died of an overdose or STD. Nobody talked about her and I didn’t ask. Both of my parents lost any rights they had to me when I was a short shot, about two years old.
I was still short, five-feet-two. Like Gabe always said, “Dynamite comes in small packages.” He was the one who taught me to kick butt.
The cops took me away from my mother when they busted her for drug use. If she’d cleaned up her act and told a good sob story, she could’ve got me back, but it was apparently too much hassle. I was dumped on the system. Thrown away. It used to be easy to get a home when I was a cute, little kid. Not anymore.
It didn’t take me long to learn kids were taken for the money. The foster parents would rather keep the state’s money and not me. Whenever it seemed as if I liked a place, I got moved extra quick. And every time my first caseworker would say, “It’s better if you don’t get attached, sweetie.” The kids who survived were the ones who didn’t feel anything. After my first six homes I got to where I no longer cared, and I’d tell anyone who asked that in a heartbeat.
The best place I ever lived was the youth center. We had three meals a day with snacks. Nobody beat us. Hardly anyone bothered to yell at us, except for the director, Herphy Murphy. But we all ignored him.
I did great at the center, until Carol was assigned to my case. I had the worst record for any of the girls. And it gave me status. I’d been arrested for lots of different things, occasionally for stuff I’d actually done. I wasn’t leaving the center without a fight.
We were still headed north on the interstate toward Stewart Falls, so it wasn’t too late. If Carol took the next exit, we could return to the center and civilization in no time.
“This won’t work, Carol. You know they won’t keep me.”
“Settle down, B.J. You met Liz and Ted last month. They’ve visited every week since. They’re great people. They even took you out one night.”
“Right,” I said. “Who wouldn’t want to go for burgers and a movie? That doesn’t mean I want to spend the weekend in the country with a couple of old geezers.”
Carol sighed and kept driving. “You’ll get used to it.”
The Driscolls were a paradox. Liz was short and fat while her husband, Ted, was tall and lean. He had white hair. She had long black hair with silver streaks. They both laughed a lot and you could actually see the laughter in their eyes. They were older than any of the other foster parents I’d ever had, almost like what I thought grandparents would be like. Only the Driscolls were nice.
I already knew it would hurt when they told Carol they wouldn’t keep me. Who needed the rejection? Not me. Not again.
I had plans for a good life and a real future. As soon as Irene and I turned eighteen, we’d head south to Vegas. We’d deal cards in a casino and make major bucks. We’d share a place and live great, with a fully stocked fridge, new furniture from a top-of-the-line store and designer clothes.
For now, I had to do whatever it took to get back to Irene, Terry, and Gabe. When Gabe had found out about my home visit, he loaned me his black leather jacket. And if the makeup and clothes didn’t do the trick, he planned to call tomorrow night. Nothing like an offensive phone call to scare off some old geezers.
Oh yeah, I was so winning this round.
But there wasn’t any point in dragging it out that long. I tried again to make Carol see reason. “You know I’m right. This isn’t going to work. Besides, Doc Murphy told me I’ve got ‘Alphabet Soup’. Attention Deficit Disorder, Attachment Disorder, Anger Management issues and that’s only the A’s. I’m a complete mess. There’s no way I’ll ever fit in with a normal family and you know it. If they want a pet, get them a freakin’ puppy.”
Carol shook her head as the traffic slowed to a crawl, then a stop. Her mouth tightened and she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “You don’t have Attention Deficit Disorder any more than I do. You’re able to sit still.” She gestured toward me, as though illustrating her point. “You focus on things when you want to and yes, your share of your room is a mess, but you organized it the other day when you wanted to go for burgers and a movie.”
“Hello? I traded off with Terry to get the damn room clean because it was such a big deal to you and she’s such a neat-freak. That’s the only good thing about having a third person in our room. And, by the way, I’m not hyper. It’s ADD, Carol, not ADHD. It doesn’t mean I can focus on stupid crap. Why don’t you read your own textbooks? You might learn something.”
Carol sighed again and changed the subject. “I know you’ve been treated badly in the past, B.J., but not everyone is like that.” She was going for the voice of sweet reason and completely ignoring my sound argument. “All I’m asking is that you try. Give them a chance. No running away. Liz told me you could use the phone anytime. If things do go bad, call me, okay? But if you run off, I’ll send the cops after you again.”
“Like they’ll bother looking for some foster kid,” I sneered. Maybe, if I got more obnoxious, she’d get pissed and turn the car around. “Grow a brain, Carol. They can’t tell us ‘throw-aways’ apart. And I’m not scared of them either. It’s not like they do Amber Alerts for the likes of me or my friends.”
“They’ll look if I raise a big enough stink.” The cars around us began to move slowly again and Carol turned her attention back to driving. “You’re not afraid of anything, are you, B.J.?”
“No,” I lied. If only she knew the truth. But I wasn’t going to let her start probing now. “I’ll bet Ted and Liz don’t know about my criminal record. They’ll probably freak when they find out.” I chuckled. “I’m so going to tell them. It’ll be awesome.”
“You don’t need to because I already did.”
“What?” I gaped at her. “And? It didn’t matter to them?”
“No.” Carol signaled and inched her way over to the exit lane. “The Driscolls are different, B.J. I’ve told them everything I know about you. Sugar-coating the facts doesn’t work when I want to find a good home for you so I haven’t held back anything.”
Great. This was all I needed. Carol always claimed to be on my side. And now she was ratting me out to foster parents. Why didn’t she just slap a Post-It on my forehead that read Loser?
“You don’t know that much. You suck at poker, Carol, remember?” I leaned back against the seat and gazed out the window at the stream of cars around us. “But they still want me to visit? Even after knowing my record? What are they? Crazy?”
“No, just decent people who believe in giving back to the community.” Carol kept driving.
I kept my eyes fixed out the window and stared at the row upon row of stacked buildings that made up the city of Everett. It was a good sized town that buzzed with a major party vibe. I’d been stuck in a foster home here once when I was twelve and the kids I hung out with were all street trash like me. We partied every night and even on weekends. It took less than a month for me to get moved and another week to sober up afterwards. There’d been plenty of whisky at those parties and man, did I love that stuff. It warmed me all the way to my toes like nothing else could.
Gabe had a raging fit when he got wind of that little incident. He made me promise not to drink more than I could handle, so I wouldn’t be the guest of honor at a “gang bang.” I couldn’t say how many times he’d told me, ‘Bad things happen to girls who pass out at parties.’ They weren’t able to look out for themselves and I rarely had anyone to watch my back as it was. So, I promised him I’d leave the booze alone unless he or Irene were around.
As much as I disliked being forced into a weekend at a nursing home, it wouldn’t last long. They’d call Carol and beg her to come get me before noon tomorrow. I’d be back in Seattle by Saturday night, just in time to hang out with my friends. This would be a piece of cake. I was B.J. Larson after all. I could totally handle a couple of old people.
Carol took the next exit and headed further into the sticks. More trees lined the road. The only signs of life were the rows of “McMansions” perched on top of the hills.
I shuddered. “You said they lived in the city, Carol. This is not the city.”
“You’ll get used to it. Did Liz tell you about her 4-H club, B.J.?”
“No. What kind of club is it? Like bingo or something for senior citizens?”
Carol laughed and made a right turn onto the road for Stewart Falls. “I’ll let her tell you all about it.”
I saw sunlight glimmer off a lake through even more trees as we kept going for what seemed like forever. Finally, Carol pulled into a driveway and we followed it up to a house that looked even bigger and older than most of the other places we’d passed along the way.
The house was ominous. It stood three stories tall with two sprawling porches, bay windows that resembled bulging bug eyes, and spiky towers on the corners. “Jeez, this looks like something from a horror flick, Carol. You know the kind where the killer hides in the attic and the walls run with blood.”
“Save it, B.J. You can’t shock me. But tell that one to Liz. I bet she’ll get a kick out of it. I won’t even mention the fact that you get sick to your stomach at the sight of blood, much less the fake stuff they use in Hollywood.”
How did she know? I was sure that question hadn’t come up the last time I lost at poker.
Carol pulled up beside a black B.M.W. and parked. “Nice scenery.” She pointed through the windshield at a guy mowing the front yard. Long blond hair curled down to brush bare sun-tanned shoulders. He wore dark blue shorts and grass-stained running shoes, his blue shirt had been dumped on a rose bush near the front porch. The sight of him made me wish I hadn’t gone for the “skank” approach.
Well, maybe he liked sluts. And I could always play the part.
When he spotted the car, he turned off the mower and came toward us. At first glance he seemed too tall and broad-shouldered to be a high-schooler, but on closer inspection he was probably around sixteen or seventeen. I could see the man he’d become in the planes and angles of his face, and I suddenly wanted to paint him.
Having a love for art and drawing didn’t fit my image so I usually kept it a secret, from the other kids at the center, from wanna-be parents, from everyone. Gabe had sent one kid to the hospital for teasing me about my drawings. I kept them well hidden after that. It helped that Irene had a fierce rep around Evergreen, too. Nobody came in our room because she’d kick their butts and then lie about it afterwards.
But Carol knew my secret, yet she never teased me. I still didn’t know how she’d found out since I hadn’t told her and I knew my friends wouldn’t either. But last Christmas, she gave me a set of oil paints and a special pad of canvas paper.
Still, I wasn’t going to give in. Did she think having a hot guy mowing the front lawn would make me change my mind? I’ll admit it was a nice touch though, so I let out a low whistle.
Carol laughed again. “Come on, girl.” She opened her door and climbed out. “Hi there.” She flashed him her caseworker smile and I rolled my eyes. “Are Liz and Ted around?”
“Liz is inside and Ted’s at work.” The hunk brushed his hand off on his shorts then offered it to Carol. “I’m Ringo.”
Ringo? Not that I was one to talk, but what kind of name was that?
“Carol Peters and this is B.J.” She gestured toward the car.
That was my cue. I got out of the car, lifting my chin.
Ringo’s eyes were bluish, but it was a shade I hadn’t seen before. Silver, green, purple, and navy all rolled into one. Could I get the right color with my paints? Good thing I’d stuffed them in my pack before we left. Even with having Irene as a roommate, some of the kids at the center still didn’t understand the concept of private property. No telling what would happen to my art stuff or who would learn my secret if I left them there.
He kept staring down at me, not saying anything, and I had an odd feeling he saw straight through my fake veneer. His scrutiny was making me nervous but I kept my mouth shut. I grabbed my backpack off the floor of the car and slammed the door.
Carol winced, but I refused to feel guilty. She’d only been my caseworker since I got to Evergreen but I already knew a lot about her. Like how she’d worked two jobs through college and the Escort was her first car, her baby. And how really lousy she was at poker.
Ringo came closer and tried to take my pack. I held onto it as tightly as I could, but he lifted it away easily. “I’ll take this inside for you.” His voice was deep. It matched his eyes.
“You don’t need to. I’m not staying long, anyway.”
Carol cleared her throat, shaking her head at me, but I ignored her. He eyed me again and I felt even smaller than my barely five foot height.
He grinned. “Well, aren’t you tough?”
“Yeah, and I’m serious, so give it back.”
He shook his head and laughed. “Sure thing, shorty.” Then he turned and walked toward the house, still carrying my back-pack.
Le’ Book Squirrel:
Friday, December 21, 2012: Peggy of Le’ Book Squirrel gives Throw Away Teen 5 Stars and calls it an amazingly great book.
She says: “First off, Wow. What an emotional story. What an amazing Debut by Shannon Kennedy. If all of her future releases are this amazing…well she is going places. The best part of the story is I felt B.J’s emotions…her turmoil. When an author is able to make you feel so strongly about something, I say that’s a sign of a great author…If all of her future releases are this amazing…well she is going places…I highly, highly recommend Throw Away Teen. It’s emotional, it makes you angry…it sucks you in. You do not want to miss out on this. Shannon Kennedy, you have written an amazingly great book. I look forward to your next work and you have me as a fan.” READ FULL REVIEW