Crack and Whisk
content note: residential care, isolation rooms, coercion, but no restraints or ABA techniques
Kaya fixed her gaze on the torn spot on the padded wall. Was it shaped more like a mouth, or like a moon? What was the difference between a mouth and a moon, shapewise? Did it matter? She hugged her knees to her chest.
“Kaya.” The voice was compressed, a whole wrath of frustration shoved into a box of patient, high tones. “When you’re following directions you can come out. Your direction is to sit crosslegged. You’re in the corner. That’s great. When you can show me crossed legs, we can talk.”
“Fuck you,” Kaya said, to buy herself some more time. The voice on the other side of the door sighed.
“Okay, Kaya. I’ll check back in two minutes. If you’re ready to talk about getting out, you’ll be sitting criss-cross-applesauce.”
Kaya ticked her head back and forth in time with the words. The staff usually remembered not to use baby words like that with her. It was written into her Service Plan. Staff will remember to speak respectfully with Kaya, and to use age-appropriate language. It often forced the staff to slow down and think before speaking, instead of falling into their usual commands and chastisements.
It made them talk to her like a person, instead of a misbehaving puppy or a caged lion.
The staff outside the door had only done a few Isolations, and had only been employed at Chrysalis Home for Children for maybe a month. She was new enough to stick to the script, instead of negotiating with her like some of the other staff. Kaya wondered how she would break, in what pattern her scruples and training would fall. Would she become jaded and slippery, like the staff who didn’t seem to care what the kids did or how they felt? Would she quit after the first time someone spit in her face? Would she cry, like that one staff who poured fake tears to guilt the kids into behaving?
The Isolation Room was quieter than the rest of the house sometimes. Between the insulated walls and the fan that ran constantly to provide white noise and keep the air circulating (a must-have, given the number of kids who ended up soiling themselves in Isolation), it was sometimes the only place Kaya could think.
That was a break in form. Technically, they shouldn’t talk to her until she was being “safe.” Staff’s definition of “safe” was a degree of compliance that could turn a kid into a Simon Says master. Kaya often declined to play.
“I was just wondering…”
Kaya ignored the bait. Staff did that all the time. Is your favorite color blue, or yellow? I can’t remember. What was the name of the princess in the movie last night? I never caught it. How many Pokemon cards do you have, again? They thought they could get a kid talking, move them from “red zone” to “green zone” and get the kid to “comply with staff directives,” in exchange for a few precious minutes of conversation. It was a lousy trade for the kid, but she saw dozens of them fall for it. Desperate.
Kaya was not desperate.
“...how you’d feel about making dessert with me tonight. I’m thinking...chocolate cake.”
That’s right. The new staff was a cooking type, or a baking type. It was part of the little profile they stuck on the wall for every staff: first name, college attended (for purposes of inspiration or mockery, Kaya was never sure) and some little fact about them. This one had a cupcake next to her picture. Chrissy. Or Jana. Or something.
Kaya frowned. Someone should’ve told Chrissy-or-Jana-or-Something that she didn’t like cooking. The idea of touching food that other people would eat reminded her that someone touched the food SHE had to eat, and the thought was repulsive enough to make her scream. She scooted from the corner and kicked the door before scooting back and hugging her knees.
“Okay, then.” Chrissy-or-Jana-or-Something said. “Two kicks if you’d rather make something other than dessert. One if you’d rather I shove off.”
Kaya couldn’t resist. She scooted forward and kicked the door again, though her heel throbbed a bit after. Shoes weren’t allowed in Isolation.
“Got it. Shoving off, it is. Do you...want to come out and join me while I shove off? I’m thinking you could sit and watch me make dessert instead of helping. Or you could read me the instructions. I’ve heard you’re a legendary reader. Two kicks if that sounds good?”
Kaya scowled at the flattery - another common trick - but she could hear that rest hour had started, and the house was quiet for now. Instead of kicking the door, she crawled over and knocked twice.
The door opened.
The first thing Kaya saw was her name tag - Jessa. She was fat in a comforting way, like she’d be a good person to hug, if hugs were allowed at Chrysalis. Kaya followed wordlessly as Jessa led her to the kitchen, invited her to sit, and slid the box of cake mix across the table. Kaya peered at it without touching it. Jessa puttered around and unlocked two of the kitchen cabinets and the fridge. Kaya considered warning her that opening everything at once was both against the rules and asking for trouble, but decided against it.
“Okay,” Jessa finally said. “What am I starting with? Eggs? Flour?”
“Cake mix,” Kaya answered contemptuously. “I know there are boxes in the cabinet. And we don’t have any flour.”
“That’s a shame,” Jessa replied. “I used to bake for my kids all the time at my last program.”
Kaya’s head jerked up. Maybe Jessa wasn’t as green as she looked.
Jessa wasn’t even looking at her, instead studying the cabinets and pulling out the boxes of cake mix Kaya had known were there. “Well,” she said, looking around. “I could swirl some peanut butter into it.”
Kaya felt something hot and tight take over her chest. “It’s chocolate cake,” she informed Jessa. “It’s not supposed to have peanut butter in it.”
“Who says?” Jessa said carelessly.
“The BOX says,” Kaya replied. “Stop trying to make things special.”
Jessa paused. Kaya knew this was the part where she’d pull out a long speech about how she wasn’t like the other staff, that she really cared, that she wanted the kids to have nice things. Kaya had heard it all before. All new staff thought they were Mary Poppins, until they broke.
“Ah. You don’t like it when people break the rules.” Jessa’s voice was calm and quiet. “So tell me. What other rules have I broken while you sat there?’
Kaya had the vague sense that this too, was a trap, but couldn’t stop herself from answering this time. “You’re only supposed to unlock the cabinets one at a time, you’re supposed to make me go to rest hour, you’re supposed to wait until I’m crosslegged before you let me out of Isolation, and you’re not supposed to say criss-cross-applesauce,” she blurted out in one breath. By the end of the sentence, she was halfway to yelling. She heard the office door open and one of the regular staff, Scott, ask if everything was okay.
“It is now,” she heard Jessa reply. “Kaya’s helping me learn the rules.”
“She should be at rest hour,” Scott said.
“I’ll send her in a minute,” Jessa promised. Scott waited for another beat, then closed the door. The silence between Kaya and Jessa eased as Jessa methodically locked each cabinet and started opening boxes of cake mix.
“You can go to rest hour when you’re ready,” she told Kaya. “But I’m glad I got to spend some time with you.”
Kaya considered whether the feeling was remotely mutual and decided it was not. She got to her feet and pushed her chair in, but didn’t leave. Jessa was cracking eggs against the counter and breaking them into a separate bowl. Kaya liked the sound of the eggshell against the steel. It sent pleasant silvery waves through her wrists. The sound of the whisk against the bowl was far less pleasant. Kaya clapped her hands over her ears and started humming.
She only stopped when the crash and scrape of the whisk faded from the edge of her hearing, surprised that no one had come to walk her away or make her stop.
“Perfect E-flat,” Jessa said, as if Kaya had done something clever. “Could set a pitch pipe to you.”
The words slid off Kaya’s mind as if Jessa were speaking another language. She turned to go, but paused when she heard the cardboard rustle of the egg carton.
“Whoops,” she heard Jessa say, almost to herself, “I think I need one more. No, maybe two.”
The sound of the eggshells against the counter loosened something inside Kaya. She put her hands down and walked toward her room, letting the satisfying crack echo in her head. She tensed, waiting for the sound of the whisk, but it never came.