About the Author

Kristine Scarrow

Kristine Scarrow has worked with the Saskatchewan Foster Families Association and now teaches writing and journaling as a healing art. She is the author of Throwaway Girl, which the Winnipeg Free Press called a “darkly realistic” story of the failings of the foster child system. Kristine lives in Saskatoon.

Books by this Author
If This Is Home

Chapter 1

“Jayce, can you feed your sister for me before you go?” my mom calls from her bed. She’s lying down again instead of going to work. She’s been missing a lot of work lately. I sigh and drop my backpack to the floor. I was just about to leave for school, and if I don’t get out of here soon, I’ll end up being late. Again.
“Can I have some Corn Pops?” my little sister, Joelle, asks. She’s giving me her sad puppy-dog face.
“No. We don’t have any,” I tell her.
“Toast with jam?”
“No, we’re out of bread.”
“Eggs?” she replies hopefully.
I glance into the fridge and survey its contents. Ketchup, mustard, butter, cheese slices, a jug of Kool-Aid, a bruised apple, and a half a head of lettuce that has turned colour and is sitting in a pool of brown liquid. There is also a litre of milk that I take out and shake to feel how full it is, but there are only a few sips left.
I open the cupboard door, hoping to find food that I know wasn’t there yesterday, but all I see are the same items. Soda crackers, a few cans of chicken noodle soup, and spaghetti noodles. The thought of having spaghetti again is almost too much for me. It’s pretty much all we’ve been eating for weeks now. With butter and salt and pepper, or with melted cheese slices on top, or mixed with ketchup. I am sick to death of spaghetti noodles. As much as I know Joelle dislikes them, I spot a bag of rolled oats. A perfect breakfast.
“Yuck. I hate that stuff,” Joelle says when she sees the bag of oats.
“Oatmeal is good for you,” I tell her. “Besides, it keeps you fuller longer. That’s a good thing.”
Having something to keep our bellies fuller longer is a good thing right now, because lately Mom’s paycheques haven’t been enough to keep us afloat. Her jobs at the supermarket and the diner never paid much, but Mom’s take-home pay is even less now that she has been missing so many shifts.
“You gotta put sugar and milk in it,” Joelle pouts.
“Yes, Ellie,” I reply, calling her by her nickname. “I will.”
I pour some water into the bowl of oats and pop it into the microwave for a minute and a half. When I pull the bowl out, it is hot. The mixture is thick and steamy, and I sprinkle some sugar on it from the can on the kitchen counter.
“Just a little bit of milk, okay, Ellie? We have to make it last.”
“It looks like puke,” Joelle says, staring down at the lump of oatmeal in front of her.
“It looks perfectly fine,” I say sternly.
“I can’t eat this,” she says, finally, pushing the bowl away.
“Joelle Marie, you will eat it!”
“I want something else. Please, can I have something else?” Joelle pouts, tears forming in her eyes. I’m so frustrated that she won’t eat. What does she think this place is? A restaurant? And why can’t she just eat what’s put in front of her? Doesn’t she know that there is nothing else?
Of course, she doesn’t. Mom has always been able to provide for us; it’s only in the last few months that we’ve struggled to get food on the table. At first Mom tried to shield us from the reality of our situation, pretending that everything was fine. She’d bring home leftovers from the diner and play it off like we were getting a real treat — which they would have been, if they were hot and fresh. Soggy french fries, dried-out garlic toast, and limp salads only felt like a treat the first time around.
Ellie doesn’t need to know the truth. So I am doing the same thing as Mom, pretending that everything is okay, that we’re like any other family.
“How about some crackers?” I offer.
“Okay,” Ellie agrees.
I pull out a handful of crackers from the plastic sleeve and hand them to her. I pour the remainder of the milk into a cup, but there’s only about an inch of milk left. I hate the fact that I have nothing else to give her. Now I know how Mom feels.
Ellie hums to herself happily and bites into the crackers. I spoon the oatmeal into my mouth, not wanting to waste anything. It’s thick and pasty, but the sugar gives it enough flavour.
It’s only the third week of May. That means there is still a week left before Mom’s next payday. This won’t be enough food until then. We have a few days’ worth, tops.
“Ellie has had breakfast,” I say to my mom. I peek my head through her bedroom door. Mom’s long, thin figure is barely visible through the blankets, except for the fan of blond hair splayed across the pillow. She’s always had long, gorgeous hair that hangs in natural loose curls. I wasn’t as lucky. I was blessed with straight, mousy-brown hair that has no style at all.
“Thanks, J.J.,” Mom whispers. She doesn’t even move or look up at me.
“Whatever,” I mutter. “Don’t forget about lunch for her.” I’ve been feeling a lot like the parent these days.
I’ve always been the one to take care of Joelle at night while Mom works. She’s often had more than one job to keep us afloat, and so she’s had to work long hours. She usually works five days a week at the supermarket from eight o’clock until five o’clock, and then four nights a week at the neighbourhood diner from six o’clock until eleven o’clock. Even when mom is working every shift, though, we seem to barely have enough to keep a roof over our heads. By the time rent is covered, food is bought, and utilities are paid, we usually live like kings for the first half of the month, but run out of food and then coast on whatever is left for the last couple of weeks until Mom gets paid again.
Joelle is only four, so she stays with our elderly neighbour, Mrs. Johnson, until I get home from school. Mom doesn’t have to pay her very much, which is a good thing, because we don’t have the money for a regu­lar daycare. Mrs. Johnson doesn’t do much with Joelle — she spends most of the day watching soap operas. But Joelle is pretty quiet and good at playing by herself. She invents little games and imaginary friends. She really is no trouble.
In fact, Joelle wins over everyone’s heart. She’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. She has hair like my mother — long, blond, and naturally curly — coupled with bright blue eyes and long, thick eyelashes. She could be a pageant princess or something, the way everyone always gushes about what a pretty child she is. Even though we are sisters, there is little resemblance between us, aside from us both being thin. She is the spitting image of my mother, while I look more like our dad.
Since Mom is staying home again today, Joelle will be staying home, too. She likes being home with Mom, even though chances are Mom will be spending most of the day in bed.
“Bye, Ellie,” I say, kissing her on the top of her head. “Be good. Let Mom rest.”
“Bye, J.J.,” Joelle says back. She’s bitten her crackers into the shapes of what must be animals, and she’s playing out a scene with two of the shapes while chewing on the cracker bits in her mouth.
I look at the clock. I’ve got to get to school. I’ve been late far too often lately. My first period teacher, Mr. Letts, has been less than impressed with how many lates I’ve gotten this term. I grab my backpack and head out the back door, knowing that if I run down the back alley, I can shave off a bit of time getting to school. It’s a brisk morning, and I’m thankful I decided to throw on a jacket today. The side streets are pretty quiet, but then, they always are. We live in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. There are a lot of elderly people who live here, and a mix of different cultures. The houses all tend to be on the smaller side and many of them sit in various states of disrepair.
I gather speed as I approach the first of two busy streets I need to cross before getting to my high school. There’s a break in traffic, and if I run for it, I can make it across the street without having to wait for the light to change. A car seems to speed up as I dash across the road, honking as it zooms past. I feel the rush of the wind from the car as it lifts my hair. Reaching the other end of the road, I step onto the sidewalk and catch my breath. My heart is pounding, and I can feel beads of sweat on my forehead. Suddenly I’m far too warm for this jacket. I peel it off, stuff it in my backpack, and start running again.
“Jayce, you’re late again!” my best friend, Amanda, whispers to me as she passes me in the hallway. She’s walking with a teacher, and they are both carrying stacks of textbooks.
“I know, I know …” I whisper back, hoping that the teacher doesn’t hear me.
“Don’t forget, we’re going out for lunch today,” she reminds me.
Amanda just got a car, so we’ve been leaving the school grounds every chance we get. The only thing within walking distance of our school is a convenience store, so being able to drive to get lunch somewhere is a big thing. Amanda’s parents gave her a car when she turned sixteen. It’s not new or anything, but it’s still pretty awesome.
I’m still in driver training, not that it really matters. The only car we own is a 1980 Ford station wagon that’s been parked like an oversized lawn ornament in our backyard for as long as I can remember. My mom doesn’t drive. We take the bus for everything.   I grab my binder from my locker and slam the door shut. I’m hoping I can somehow still sneak into class before Mr. Letts notices, but the last bell must’ve rung quite a while ago, because the hallways are deserted. I’ll probably get detention today, which means that I won’t be able to head out with Amanda and our other friends. Then I realize that detention would probably be a blessing, anyhow. I don’t have any money on me, and the thought of sitting in McDonald’s or Wendy’s watching everyone else eat would pretty much be mental torture.
“Miss Loewen,” Mr. Letts acknowledges me as I enter the room. Isn’t this guy ever late? Why are teachers always so on time? Sure enough, everyone is sitting in their desks and the lesson has already started. I duck my head down and rush to my seat, my cheeks burning with embarrassment.
“You’ll be spending some time in detention again, I see,” he says. He stares at me for what feels like forever, just to prolong my embarrassment.
“Yes, sir,” I respond, flipping open my binder. There are some giggles from around the room, but I ignore them. Mr. Letts takes the cap off a dry-erase marker and starts writing on the board.
“As we discussed before, we have an important day coming up,” he says. He turns toward the class so that we can read what he has written:

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The 11th Hour

The clock’s large red numbers glow 6:02 a.m. I must’ve missed the alarm. It was set for five thirty; sometimes I sleep through it and it beeps for ten minutes straight before giving up on me and going silent again. Any other day this would be fine, but this morning the rest of my family must still be asleep, oblivious to the plans for my day.
I listen for any signs of life in the house but hear nothing. My terrier, Roxy, is nestled in bed with me as usual. I ruffle the top of her head and her ears. She rests her head against my rib cage and my throat gets thick at the thought of leaving her behind. I can’t take her with me though. The plan is for Dylan to pick me up after I let Roxy outside, that way she won’t bark and try to follow me out of the house. When I let her out in the morning, she quickly pees and then stretches out on the patio, enjoying the morning sun. We usually leave her out there until she barks to come in, which is at least a half-hour later, and by then I should be long gone.
I went to bed at ten last night. Way earlier than normal for a Friday night — especially since it’s family movie night and we usually don’t get started until late in the evening, but the plans for the day had me restless and I couldn’t seem to focus on anything but what we were going to do.
“You feeling okay, sweetie?” my mom had asked. “You’re still coughing.” I’d had this cough and cold for a couple of weeks now. Although I wasn’t feeling great, I was thankful for the diversion. I could just say I was sick and head to my room to finish all the last-minute preparations.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I assured her. “Just tired. I think I’m going to head to bed early.”
Dad entered the room with a large bowl of popcorn and a stack of napkins. My twelve-year-old brother Mark was waiting for us to join him, his hand on the remote control. The opening credits of a movie were on the TV screen and everyone was about to settle in to watch it together.
“Annika, you’re not going to watch the movie with us?” Disappointment washed over him. I rolled my eyes a bit. I was seventeen years old and Dad still wanted me to be his little girl, joining in excitedly on any family activity. He’d be happy if I was still coming over for movie night at forty. Mom came toward me and kissed me on the forehead.
“You feel a bit warm, honey,” she said.
“Nah, I’m good,” I assured her. “I just need some sleep.”
Mom stared at me for a moment. “Maybe we should check your temperature?”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” I said, brushing her off.
“Okay, well, get some sleep and if you need anything …”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Mom.”
“See you in the morning.” I’d already left the room, and her parting words cut through me. I wouldn’t see her in the morning. Little did she know that if everything went as planned, I’d be long gone before the rest of my family woke for the day. The truth was I didn’t know when I’d see them again. Although I was excited for the adventure before Dylan and me, leaving my family behind made me ache.
The last few months had gotten really rocky between us though, and I knew they wouldn’t understand. They wanted to keep me from the very thing I wanted the most — a future with Dylan.
When I got to my room, I quickly shut the door behind me and got down on my hands and knees to pull the backpack out from under my bed. It was bulging, the zipper barely able to close. How do you know what to pack when you’re about to walk out of your life as you know it? What do you take when you’re making a new life with someone you love, but when doing so means leaving everything you’ve ever known behind?
My phone vibrated. It was Dylan, texting me.
can’t wait for tomorrow. love u babe. 9:52 p.m.
I reply:
Love you too. 9:53 p.m.
My heart surged at his words. I could feel his excitement through the phone. Dylan is such a passionate guy, always wearing his heart on his sleeve and coming up with grand ideas for our life together. He gives so much to everything he wants to do that his enthusiasm is contagious.
I know we’ll have a good life together — that he loves me more than anything.
I pressed my hand to my forehead — I supposed I did feel a bit warm. Maybe trying to get a good night’s sleep would be the best thing for me, so I could wake feeling energetic and ready for the day. I shoved my backpack back under my bed and did a last-minute swoop of my room for anything I might want to bring. I shivered as I studied my room and drank in all of its contents. I rubbed my arms, my heart heavy. This nine-by-ten-foot room that had been my haven for all of my seventeen years, with its pale yellow walls and flowery bedspread. The lace curtain panels on either side of my window, which I had requested from my grandmother’s house after she passed. Bits of scotch tape remained on my walls from when I had posters hung up. I still had posters of Adam Levine (my celebrity crush) and Bruno Mars (my favourite singer) but I’d long removed the others, thinking I was getting too old to have posters tacked on my walls, covering them like wallpaper. My bulletin board had ticket stubs from the concerts I’d been to, a photo of me holding car keys in the air (the day I got my licence), and the honour roll certificates I’d received for grades nine, ten, and eleven. The shelves above my desk held my soccer trophies going back to when I was little, and my two favourite stuffies — LuLu, a honey-coloured bear with only one eye and half of the stuffing missing that I’d had since I was two, and a plush neon-pink smiley face with dangly arms and legs that Dylan had won for me at the fair.
I’d miss this room. Maybe we’d get settled somewhere and Mom and Dad would warm to the idea of Dylan again, see that we really loved each other and that we’d be staying together for good. Then we could visit and I’d get to see my other things again.
I settled into my bed, cuddled into my comforter, and wiped a tear from my cheek. Although I couldn’t wait to start a life with Dylan, I couldn’t help but feel sad at what I was leaving behind. If only my parents had a different opinion of Dylan. If only they supported us being together, then we wouldn’t have felt like we had to run away.
My phone vibrates at 6:05 a.m. Another text from Dylan. This time it’s a photo of the two of us that Dylan took on the Ferris wheel at the fair. My long dark hair is blowing softly in the breeze, the lights of the amusement park and the city glowing behind us. Dylan has his other arm around me, pulling me close, and he’s kissing my cheek. I’m smiling from ear to ear, feeling every ounce of his love in that moment. This is why I’m leaving. Because Dylan makes me feel like no one else. Because Dylan loves me. Because Dylan is my future.

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The Gamer's Guide to Getting the Girl

Tip #1
Be brave in difficult circumstances

Geeky, pubescent boys aren’t the only patrons at Gamer’s Haven on this Saturday, and that is a rarity. The only females we usually see in the place are middle-aged moms looking for gifts for their sons at Christmastime or their birthdays. Otherwise, the clientele is all about the same. There isn’t a dress code for the store, at least not one that we are aware of, but the standard gamer’s outfit is usually the same: a comic-inspired T-shirt, loose-fitting jeans that have to be continually hiked up because gamers don’t believe in belts apparently, and some Converse sneakers — well-worn and dirty. Most of us have shaggy hair that may or may not have been washed or combed, and we all look like we’re chronically tired; if one were to take a poll to see how many customers had purchased Monster Hunter: World on its release day, the tired eyes would be explained.

It’s Cooper who tips me off to the girl in the store. Because Gamer’s Haven isn’t known as the place to find girls, no one usually pays much attention to who comes in. I’m in the zone playing Sea of Thieves when Cooper starts elbowing me.

“Mess off, Coop. You’ll get your turn.” I shake him off with my hand in between plays.

“Your loss, Zach.” Cooper turns on his heel and strides away. I whip my head around quickly to see what he’s so excited about, and then I see her.

She’s wearing a denim skirt, purple suede knee-high boots, a bright orange T-shirt, and a rainbow-coloured scarf around her neck. Her auburn hair is pulled into a high ponytail, and the bottom of it almost reaches the base of her spine. Her arms are bare and pale. I can’t help but stare at her profile. I abandon the game and rush after Cooper, hoping to catch a better glimpse of the girl.

She’s standing in front of the Zelda display. I could pretend that I’m buying it and make small talk with her. But what would I say? “Come here often?” “You like this game?” “Ever play this before?” All of it sounds lame. But I decide I have to rush in before Cooper does. I pick up my pace, but Cooper detours to the Okami HD display instead. He isn’t trying to show me the girl? His eyes were on something else instead? Was he crazy?

I’m happy that he’s distracted by something else, but now I have to try to play it cool and get closer without her thinking I’m a total stalker. I move one display over and turn my head as casually as I can. She’s reading the back of a Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild case. Stray locks of her hair curl around her face. She’s wearing soft makeup, and when she looks back up toward the display, I can see her bright green eyes. She’s even more beautiful than I thought.

I have a stunning burst of courage and decide to act on it before I never see her again.

“Need any help?” I ask. She doesn’t even look up at me.

“You work here?”

“Uh, no. But I happen to know a lot about video games. Like the one you’re holding — it’s been popular in the gaming world for a couple of years now.” Maybe I can help with her decision-making.

“But is it as good as Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess?”

I don’t mean for my jaw to hang open, but it does.

“Because it seems to me that this interface is a lot less sophisticated than the one in Twilight Princess.”

She finally looks up at me, just in time for me to close my mouth again.

“You’re a gamer?” I ask.

“If that’s what you want to call me,” she responds. “Is that allowed? Or are you going to tell me it’s a guy thing and I should move on to something a little more girly?” Her voice is bitter.

“No, not at all!” I say, putting my hands up in front of my chest like I’m being arrested. “I think that’s awesome!”

She steps closer, her long ponytail swishing toward me, and I can smell her shampoo, a combination of honey and coconut. I want to drink it all in, her smell, her eyes, the fact that the goddess gamer of my dreams is standing in front of me.

“I’m not sure it’s worth the money. Honestly, I think I’ll wait for the next sequel.”

She sets the plastic case down and turns to leave. I want to follow her, ask her more questions, and find out her name, but she turns so fast I just sputter nonsense to myself.

“Hi, I’m Zachary. It’s so nice to meet you,” I whisper, holding out my hand for the now-invisible girl to shake. “You know, if I were you, I’d wait for the sequel. Better interface.” That could have gone so much better.

“Dude, you missed it,” Cooper says over my shoulder. “Chris was unpacking the new shipment. Dissidia Final Fantasy is back in stock!”

“Yeah, and you just missed the girl of my dreams walking out of this store.”

I can no longer see her bobbing ponytail. She’s obviously exited the store and turned to the main mall corridor.

“Okay,” Cooper says, rolling his eyes.

“Mall closes in five minutes, boys,” the manager, Chris, calls out. I check my watch and, sure enough, it’s closing time. We are the only two customers left in the store. “You guys buying anything or can I cash out?”

Neither of us has enough money; we like to come and play the demos when we’re bored and broke. Chris never seems to mind since we tend to buy our games from him when we do have money. When today turned into a stormy day, there wasn’t much else to do.

“Go for it,” Cooper replies. He and I stand side-by-side, our hands stuffed in our pockets.

“Sounds like the storm is picking up speed,” Chris tells us. “Was supposed to hit south of us but instead it’s veered north. They’ve issued a tornado warning.”

“Really?” I say nonchalantly. Summer in Saskatchewan often means high temperatures, and with them there are often severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings. Most of the time the storms are nothing to worry about. The wind typically picks up, we get thunder and lightning, maybe some hail rolls through, and then things settle down. Someone may spot a funnel cloud or two, which may or may not touch down. Often the tornadoes touch down on open prairie and no one gets hurt. At least that’s how I think of the tornadoes we get.

“Sounds pretty bad,” Chris continues. “I guess the high winds are causing a lot of damage already. A tornado touched down a couple of hours west. My wife called to say there’s been some flooding in different areas of the city. Apparently, my basement is taking on water.”

We both groan. That happened at my house once, and it wasn’t fun. Dad and I waded around in our rubber boots in ankle-deep water trying to salvage what we could. You wouldn’t think a couple of inches of water could do much, but it wrecked almost everything.

“Wanna go?” I ask. Cooper nods and we shuffle out of the store. The mall is practically deserted already. Cooper fishes for his car keys in the pocket of his hoodie.

And then the lights go out.

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