oh, wow. it's really the end :(

i've had so much fun writing this – writing is super cathartic, you should try it some time – but you guys made it a thousand times more worth my while. seriously, reading your praise and criticism and feedback always makes my heart sing, and you are just the best readers a girl could ask for. thank you, thank you, for your sweet words, and all the follows and favorites and page views.

special shoutout to Black Lithning, CallieJacobs, Ladybug07, la lisboa, Lavender Angel, MeryGFos, and obsessedatopia, among others, who are always around to talk or bounce ideas off of and are generally just stellar ladies. love ya, peeps.

peace out, homies; catch you on the flip! hope y'all enjoy :)

xox, ~*starophie*~

In unending storms, we search for space to breathe/How our hearts are worn, we've come so far
In this desert, how we blossom and we cease/Tell your story now, we have so much to know
Shine with all the untold/Hold the light given unto you
Find the love to unfold/In this broken world we choose

~ Vienna Teng, "Shine"

God, I have never written longhand for this...well, this long in my life. I kept meaning to finish my lines, just so I could get them out of the way, but I was kept pretty busy for someone who was supposedly grounded – sorry, on restriction.

I am thankful that Stef and Lena made sure all the kids were out of the house when I got home, because it was nice to just have the moms to myself. Not that I'd ever admit it, but it definitely wouldn't hurt to be an only child every so often. Of course, when everyone came back, there were many family fun nights (and days) to be had.

Lena had to literally pry Jude from my side – when he got back from Connor's, he launched himself at me and glued his arms to my waist. I love my brother, but I really needed to go to the bathroom, and...yeah, it was not pretty. Mariana and I had to have a little talk about stalker-like behaviors, after she sat up all night watching me.

I smile as I think about that, leaning back into the pillows on my bed. My fingers idly trace the washi tape around some of my favorite Instagram shots, and I grin at the latest addition to my wall. The one right by the head of my bed is a candid picture I got of my…family, when we went bowling (Stef and Lena claimed that since the shoes were rented, it didn't count towards my restriction. Some hardcore disciplinarians they turned out to be). We did girls vs. boys, which the boys claimed was unfair since there were less of them and also the girls got both moms, but then Jesus piped up that they could still win. Of course, Stef is one of the most competitive people on the planet, and I'll admit to having a bit of a feisty streak myself. Not to mention that Mariana and Lena are no slouches in the bowling department.

Needless to say, we kicked their collective asses, and as Lena went over to shake hands and be a good sport, Stef grabbed Jesus and started to give him a noogie. Mariana latched onto Jude and started tickling him, and so the picture is of Brandon and Lena shaking their heads and laughing as Stef's got Jesus in a headlock and Jude is trying to get away from Mariana's attack.

I turn back to the notebook in my lap. The pages are rumpled and ridged, in the way that only solid handwriting can produce. It's almost satisfying to run my fingers over the raised characters and know that my frustration and sorrow and penitence is poured into every single one of them. And as to the lines themselves, in a weird way, I was really touched that all of the Fosters had something they wanted me to know. The point of the lines was to remind me that I've got a support system in place, now, and I don't have to run from my problems anymore. It really worked, which I can freely admit. Each of them wrote me a line, so when I was copying them, I heard each of their voices in my head giving me what-for.

Callie – keep this list around, and when you need a reminder that we're all here for you, take it out and read it. Otherwise, come down the hall and we'll tell you ourselves. Hopefully, sometime soon you'll be able to say you know when we tell you we love you.

We love you. Stef & Lena

1. I will choose 'fight' instead of 'flight'. (Stef)
2. I won't blame myself for things other people did. (Jude)
3. I won't give up on a good thing. (Brandon)
4. I won't ditch my siblings again. (Jesus)
5. I won't keep stuff bottled up inside. (Mariana)
6. I will remember that I am so loved. (Lena)

I finish the last line and tear the paper out of my notebook. It feels good to be done, and a small part of me wants to rip up Lena's carefully written list, but a bigger part of me wants to keep it with me all the time, like a security blanket. I settle on a compromise, and refold the yellow lined sheet and put it under my pillow. Maybe the words will seep into my brain at night, via osmosis, and it'll be easier for me to remember. At least, I'll know where it is if I need it.

Today is the last day of my restriction, and as a "celebration," Stef and Lena and I have our first session with the therapist. I've seen a few shrinks in my time, each less helpful and comfortable than the last, so I'm really expecting the worst from this woman. Her name is Dr. Moore, according to Stef, and they went to see her last week without me. I guess it's her policy to meet the parents before meeting the kid, which is a bit strange, but I trust Stef and Lena enough to believe that we would not be going to see her today if she didn't pass muster with them. I'm also relieved that they'll be with me the whole time, because all other therapy sessions I've been to before have been with a bunch of kids or just me and the doc, and I hope that having them present will keep this lady in line.

I pull on a pair of socks and call for Stef.

"Can I have my Chucks back?" I whine, teasingly, but I'm almost serious. It's been forever since I've been allowed to wear anything but these cheap flip-flop wannabes that Lena and Mariana swiped from the nail salon. It's almost embarrassing to admit that I've worn them in public, but Lena needed me and Jude to go to the grocery store with her for some reason, and there have been a couple places I've been needed to step into before taking off shoes or putting new ones on.

"Here, here," Stef grumbles, tossing the ratty old sneaks into my lap. I pull one foot onto the chair in the living room to pull on my shoe, and then do the same with the other before bending over to tie them.

"Ahh," I sigh, quirking a sassy smirk at Stef. She swats me, but she's laughing.

"I hope that teaches you a lesson, missy," she quips.

"Oh! Speaking of, I almost forgot," I say, handing her the roughly folded loose-leaf sheets from my back pocket. "I just finished. I hope they didn't have to be neat, 'cause like...my hand got tired." I smile brightly at her, and duck out of the way of another swat.

"Brat," Stef mutters, and I shift from giggling to sober as she starts looking through the papers. Her fingers trace lightly over a few lines that are a little puckered, and I swallow an awkward apology.

"You okay?" she asks me.

I nod, not trusting myself to speak. She squeezes my forearm, a little too hard, and tears sting my eyes.

"We love you, sweets," she whispers, and I can tell she's trying not to cry.

I nod again, and she sighs.

"Lena! You ready to go, babe?"

"Coming! Is Callie-oh, Callie!" Lena smiles at me from the stairs. "I didn't know if you were already down here. Stef, are you driving?"

Stef answers in the affirmative, and grabs the keys off the hall table as Lena adjusts her purse. I stuff my hands into my pants pockets and let the moms lead the way out the door.

The car ride is mostly silent, peppered with the occasional note about a radio song or comment on the scenery. I am dreading each moment as it passes, because it means being one second closer to meeting the therapist. I breathe deeply to try and calm down, and it helps marginally. I decide that marginally is better than nothing, and lean against the seat until Stef pulls into the garage and we're getting out and going inside. Lena's finger finds Mary Moore, Suite 308, on the felt signboard, and we head into the elevator to get to the third floor.

The elevator dings, and Lena is first out the door. I smile a bit to myself as I notice that Stef steps aside to let her pass. I don't think I've ever seen chivalry from foster parents – not even my parents – and it tickles me that the first civil couple (let alone in love) I've met is gay. Stef raises her eyebrow at me, and I realize she's waiting for me to get out as well. I bite my lip and scurry past her, meeting Lena at the end of the hall.

"You ready, pretty girl?" Lena asks me, and I nod even though I'm still unsure. She opens the suite door, and we're in a small, but nicely-appointed, waiting room. I pick out a chair, Lena grabs a magazine, and Stef sits in between Lena and me, holding both our hands.

"See you next week, Mary," a woman's voice says, and I hear a pleasant goodbye as a petite, dark-haired woman closes the office door behind her. She smiles briefly at me and exits out the suite door. Too soon, the office door reopens, and a gray-haired woman with a kind face is standing before me.

"You must be Callie," she says, holding a hand out to me. I nod, stand, and accept her palm in a shake. "I'm Mary."

"Hi," I say, feeling shy. I almost laugh, because it's so strange to me to be meeting all these adults who insist that I address them by their first names – but the humor fades quickly, because Mary is ushering us into her office and I am plopping down on a soft cushion. Her office is like no therapist's I've ever seen – I've only ever been in big, clinical rooms with vinyl-covered seats and garish posters and reinforced windows. This feels like a home, and I fiddle with a pillow tassel while Mary introduces herself.

"Do you know what a psychologist does?" she asks. I'm a little offended, and I nod slowly.

"I mean, you're a shrink, right?" I ask. "You want me to talk to you."

She laughs, but not meanly. "Yes, that would be preferable to sitting in silence. But I mean a psychologist, specifically, as opposed to a psychiatrist."

"Oh," I frown. "Um, then no, I guess not."

"Well, I have a Ph.D," she says. "I don't have an MD, which would make me a medical doctor. Technically, can be referred to as Dr. Such-and-Such, but to me it feels phony."

"To me, too," Lena butts in.

"Right," Mary nods. "And Lena and I both have in psychology, though hers is in children's psych and mine is in adolescent and adult."

"So wait, if you're not an MD, you can't, like, drug me?" I feel kinda stupid asking, but I know some foster kids who've been almost zombified by their foster parents – totally tripped out on stuff like Ritalin and Xanax and practically comatose all the time. They tried to put me on some of that stuff in Juvie, but the shrink they sent me to told them that I didn't need anything.

"No, definitely not," she says, and I relax. "I could potentially refer you to a psychiatrist I'm friendly with, who deals with a lot of my patients, but–" I feel my eyes widen in fear. "But she really doesn't like to medicate," Mary says quickly. "Maybe half of the kids she sees end up on medication? She does a thorough diagnostic assessment first, and sometimes does a trial for a few weeks to see if something works or not. But she would never over-medicate you, and she would never recommend a drug if she didn't think it might be useful."

I nod, taking that all in.

"I'm a family therapist, which means that I mostly deal with young adults and their parents," she continues. "I also deal with disordered eating, self-harm, anxiety, and depression. All of those things can mix in conjunction with one another, or they can be separate issues. Before we begin, can you tell me a bit about your history? If you'd like, I can have Stef and Lena step out," she offers.

That's nice, I think. "No," I shake my head. "They can stay." I take a breath. "Well, I've been in foster care for six years. I have a little brother, Jude, and I've been taking care of him for longer than we've been in the system. He's really important to me." Mary is nodding, and I sit back a little on the sofa. "Um…I guess we're here because I ran away a couple weeks ago?"

Stef opens her mouth to jump in, but Mary cuts her off. "No, Callie," she says softly. "This isn't a punishment – at least, it's not supposed to be." She laughs a little at her own joke. "No, we're here because your foster moms would like to get to know you a little better. They feel that conversations that are a tad more painful would be easier with a facilitator. Also, as you're still technically on probation, therapy is required, and Lena mentioned to me that your previous group was a touch...out of hand."

I look at Lena, and she smiles somewhat bashfully. "I'm sorry," she says, "that we didn't get you out of there sooner. Bill promised me he'd try and speed the process along, but it was taking forever, and then Dr. Kodema wanted to meet about why we wanted you out of her group, and…" She runs a hand through her hair, and I smirk a little at the frustrated grimace on her face. "I shouldn't have let you make it sound as good as it was," she scolds, but I can tell she's teasing. She shivers, and I laugh.

"She wasn't the best I've had, but she's not the worst either," I shrug.

"You've been in therapy before?" Mary prompts.

"Mm-hmm," I nod. "Yeah, a couple foster groups, and a couple individual sessions. Most individual stuff didn't last long, though."

"Why not?"

I blush and shift uncomfortably. "Usually 'cause I moved out of the house pretty soon after," I admit. "I think the therapists ratted on me, or talked to CPS or something. That was mostly when I was younger, and I had a bad habit of oversharing," I say self-deprecatingly.

"What does that mean?" Mary asks.

Here it comes. "Um…well, sometimes I'd tell the shrink about the foster parents," I say, edging around the truth.

"Like what?"

"Like…that they were mean to Jude and me," I say stiltedly. "Like, you know, that they'd yell at us and hit me and stuff."

The words are out of my mouth before I realize what I'm saying, and I wish desperately for a vacuum so I can suck them up and shove them back down my throat. I shut my eyes tightly and curl up automatically.

"Callie," Lena's soft voice comes through. "Callie, honey, can you come back out?" She's rubbing soft circles on my back, and I slowly de-armadillo and return to a sitting position.

"Callie, are you saying that you've been in abusive foster homes before?" Mary asks gently.

Feeling sick, I nod.

"How many, would you say? One? Two?"

"Almost all of them, except the Fosters," I mumble. I wince when I hear Lena's gasp, and then I hear Stef murmuring softly to her. I'm glad I talked to Stef in Indiana, because at least one foster parent is not totally caught off-guard.

"I knew it would be a lot," Lena whispers, "but I didn't think it would be all of them."

"How many foster homes have you been in, Callie?" Mary questions.

"Six years, seven schools, eight placements," I list, chanting the sick nursery rhyme of my life. "Jude and I have been bounced around from house to house like Superballs, just waiting to hit the brick so we can start over."

"Not anymore," Stef interrupts.

I shake my head at her. "No, I guess not anymore," I agree. I still feel weird thinking that the Fosters are permanent, after all I've done…I thought for sure that running away would have been the last straw. And then I thought for sure that admitting the horrors of my past would've been it, but I guess not that, either.

I wish I had my list with me.

Mary asks me to talk a little bit more about the abuse, and before I know it, everyone but me is in tears. I feel so numb, and I don't know if I like it or not. This is not…for the longest time, I didn't know that this kind of thing didn't happen to other people. This was my life for almost sixteen years, and now that I'm with the Fosters, I'm finally starting to realize that beating and starvation doesn't happen to everybody. I haven't asked Mariana and Jesus about their experience, but they were only in the system for a few years, when they were pretty little.

And then the session is over. "We'll continue this next week," Mary is saying, handing Stef and Lena the tissue box. "Callie, can I talk to you for a minute? We won't be long," she tells the moms. They grab their Kleenex and stand, Stef giving me a friendly squeeze as she passes.

My stomach is knotted, and I'm afraid I've done something wrong.

"You're not in trouble, Callie," Mary smiles, correctly interpreting my expression. "I just wanted to ask you something."

"Shoot," I reply, still a bit nervous.

"Do you write? Like, in a journal?"

"Um, I mean, sometimes? Mostly for my English class, but…yeah, I guess."

"Do you like to write?"

I nod. "Sure. I mean, sometimes it's hard to figure out what to say, but…my teacher, Timothy, says that writing is a hostile act. Well, Joan Didion said that, but Timothy is the one who told me about her," I blush. "And sometimes it…well, it feels good to be hostile."

Mary grins. "I agree. Well, that's good that you like it, because I was hoping that maybe you could write something to share for next week."

"Okay?" I'm confused, and Mary nods.

"I noticed today that you seem to be unsure of yourself when you speak. I think that maybe if you write something down, you'll find it easier to speak your mind."

That makes sense, but I am still nervous. "What do you want me to write about?"

"Anything you've wanted to share with Stef and Lena, but haven't been able to," Mary says. "Maybe you can talk a little about why you decided to run away," she says, and before I can mention Brandon, she gives me a knowing look that dries the words on my tongue.

"I'll see you next week, Callie," she says as she ushers me to the door.

"Bye," I say quietly. I swallow hard, and smile at the moms. "You ready?"

"Let's go home, my babies," Stef says, kissing Lena softly and pushing us both from the suite.

My leg bounces up and down like a see-saw, my feet tapping out a rhythm only I can hear. I have folded and unfolded and refolded the sheet of notebook paper in my hands so many times that the creases are starting to tear.

I feel both Stef and Lena's eyes on me, but I'm too nervous to care much. I did what Mary asked me to do, but I'm not sure that it helped me much at all. I'm still terrified of revealing myself.

"Hello, ladies," Mary's voice startles me, and I jump out of my seat.

"Hi, Dr. Moore," Stef greets her.

"Please, Stef, it's Mary," Mary corrects gently. Lena and I say hello as well, and follow her and Stef into the office.

I take the corner chaise, while Stef and Lena sit on the small couch. Mary's armchair faces me, and Stef and Lena look at us in profile. I pull my legs up beneath me and grasp my paper tightly in my fists.

"Before we continue our discussion from last week," Mary starts, eyeing me expectantly, "I believe Callie has something to share. Is that correct?"

I nod. "Mm-hmm," I mumble.

"Whenever you're ready, Callie."

Stef and Lena's eyes are on me, again, and I unclench my balled-up hands and unfurl my paper.

"Dear Moms," I read, my voice already trembling. "It's hard for me to write that name, because I haven't called you that yet and I wish I could. I feel so guilty for not...I, I want to be able to call you that," I say, "but I can't. I mean, I had a mom, once - it was years ago now, but I still remember her. And I can't help but feel like saying that – using that name again – it's like it invalidates everything she was for me. Everything she is."

I continue, wiping my nose on my sleeve. "But maybe that's stupid. Because on the one hand, she was my mom. She took care of me and protected me. But on the other, she didn't protect me at all. She brought me into this cold, hellish world, and from my very first breath I was marked. I told you once I was just an easy target, but I've always been that way. It should've been me that got shot, Stef, not you – because I'm the one they're aiming for."

I take a slow, shuddering breath, determined to carry on even through my tears. "You guys don't know what it's like to have nothing," I whisper. "Jude and I do. And I always put myself in front of him; I dodge the bullets, I miss the arrows, and I catch the darts. Sometimes I get hit, but I'm never grievously injured. So when I saw that everything seemed to be coming apart, I figured I might as well get out of the way, because maybe then they'd come after me instead of you. I always screw everything up, and I didn't want you to hurt anymore."

I didn't want to hurt you anymore, is what I leave unsaid. Mary passes me a tissue, and with an embarrassed smile, I take it and scrub my eyes. "I didn't know what to do, so I ran," I say weakly. "I couldn't bear for you to make me leave, so I did it on my own terms. And I get now that it was stupid, and selfish, and ultimately futile, but at the time I thought…I guess I thought it would be easier, for everyone, if I left. Maybe especially for me. Your family is the first one, ever, that has made me feel like I mean something. And meaning something is hard, because then you have to care. I didn't want to care about you guys," I say, "but I do, and running didn't change that."

I'm afraid to look up, because I hear Lena crying softly and I know Stef's eyes must be setting me on fire. I'm at the last paragraph, so I push through the pain and finish what I started. "I have loved every minute of living in your house. Honestly, I have, even when I didn't show it. I don't think I've ever been more sure of my safety – and more importantly, Jude's – in my whole entire life. And on top of that, I felt happy. Like there was a place to come back to that truly wanted me to come back. I know I've screwed up, probably irrevocably, but even so, I had to say that I've never wanted anything more than I want you guys to be proud of me."

My hands are shaking, and my eyes are blurred with emotion, but I know this last line by heart. I crossed it out and rewrote it so many times that my hand started to cramp up, but I finally put it in there because I figured there was nothing else to lose.

"Love always, Callie."

I stare at the paper in my hands, the flimsy white sheet growing more puckered and damp as my tears plop down on it. No one is speaking, but then there are two new depressions on the couch – one on either side of me. And suddenly, I am engulfed in what can only be called a mamasandwich.

"We love you too, Callie," Lena whispers thickly.

"God, Callie, we love you so much." Stef presses kisses along my hairline, and Lena reverse-snuggles me into her shoulder.

"So, we're okay?" I'm almost afraid of the answer, but I figure if they're hugging me like this, they can't be mad…right?

"Of course we are," Stef says, tone verging on offense.

"You're ours, pretty girl," Lena promises. "And we're yours. Forever."

Forever sounds pretty nice.