Unlovable. That's what they called her. To the Sisters of Good Salvation, girls like Tayna—the ones with minds of their own and the will to stand up—were too unruly to ever be loved. So they were taken out of circulation and put to work, leaving only the more cooperative girls to meet the wanna-dads and mommy-bes who could offer them a loving home. And a way out.
But that all changes one winter's night when a strange little man shows up asking uncomfortable questions, and Tayna quickly discovers that her entire life has been built on a lie. She's not even an orphan, and her parents—still very much alive, thank you very much—are trapped in a world of magic. So now it's up to _her_ to rescue _them_. How ironic is that? All she has to do is escape her nunnish prison, find her way into that secret world, and lead a rescue mission.
Still, compared to being an orphaned kitchen slave? This oughta be a piece of cake.
Continuing in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, I wrote the Finding Tayna series for my daughters, to give them images of a modern heroine going boldly forth, taming a strange world that thought it was taming her, and doing so with style and humor. – Jefferson Smith
After reading a character interview and finding out a smidgeon about the young protagonist Tayna, I just knew I had to read this book. A likable, reliable and compassionate young heroine, Tayna also has gumption and an unconquerable spirit.– Laurie Jenkins at Laurie's Thoughts and Reviews
It's hard to describe, there's something about it that seemed special and strange, the 'sisters' actually creep me out and the whole idea of 'Unlovables' is actually quite sympathetic and pitiful... This is a heart warming story about friendship and the discovery of magic. Thumbs up!– Amazon Review
This book was a winner for me on many levels. Strange Places has many varied and complex characters that I love, great world building, and an interesting plot. The story kept my interest until the very last page and I was sorry to see it end.– Goodreads Review
"They're coming!" Eliza ran into the dingy little room with wild excitement in her eyes and very little breath in her lungs. All around her, children's eyes snapped up from their sewing and cleaning activities.
"Wannabes! Real swanky. She's wearing a fur coat—I think it's real—and they came in a limo. They're coming up the stairs right now."
"So what, Lies? Hasn't anybody ever told you? Nobody ever comes to the fifth floor, except Sister Regalia, and she only ever comes up here to give us more work."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you guys," Eliza said. "They didn't stop on four. They're cominghere!"
The girls stared at her in disbelief, and then, suddenly, the room was electric, punctuated with shrieks of panic. Nobody was dressed for an interview! What would they say? How should they behave? These were the so-called Unlovables—the girls who had done so poorly in the few interviews they'd ever been granted that the Goodies had moved them to the fifth floor, so that they wouldn't mess things up for the other, more likable girls. You know, when the wanna-dads and mommy-bes came by to inspect the latest stock and select their coordinating family accessories?
But they never came here. The fifth floor was where all the scratch-and-dent merchandise was stored, the difficult girls, who were expected to work for their keep until they reached the age of sixteen. That's when the government would stop paying for their care and the Good Sisters could legally turn them out onto the streets, to make room for other, more profitable orphans. Of the twelve girls in the ward, several had been interviewed repeatedly before finally being declared Unlovable. But it was not to any of these grizzled veterans that the now panic-stricken group looked for advice. Instead, all heads turned to a single, raven-haired girl in the corner. She was the queen of rejection, the most unlovable of all the Unlovables, the girl so obviously lacking in adoptable qualities that she had never been given even a single interview and had been moved to the fifth floor on her very first day.
When she was just three years old.
In the ten years since then, Tayna still hadn't received so much as a request for an interview, not one, but she had seen it all. She knew every play in the book. If there was a trick that Tayna didn't know about getting girls adopted, it was a trick that didn't work. No matter that they never seemed to work forher—they had always worked well for other girls. So now, every eye in the room was on her.
The pressure of eleven desperate, pleading faces dragged her out of the book she had been rebinding, and she looked intently from one terrified face to the next. With a sigh, she closed her book and stood up. "All right. Let's do it." She looked a question at Eliza, who was standing vigil by the door.
"They've stopped to tour the junior bunks. You've only got a couple of minutes."
"Right! Let's go!" Tayna clapped her hands enthusiastically, jolting the entire room out of their fear-trances in the process. "Let's partner up. Everybody raise your right hand."
The girls threw their hands immediately into the air. Beside her, four-year-old Rachel was holding up her left. Tayna pushed the errant hand back down, and pulled up on the other, which was determinedly clutching a small, plastic toy camera. "This one's your right, Rake," she said quietly, as she took the camera and hung it by its cord around the girl's neck.
"Okay, now everybody grab somebody else's hand. Whoever you grab, that's your partner. No swapsies."
After a few frantic moments, the girls had all arranged themselves into pairs, with hands clenched in the air between them. "Your job now," Tayna said "Is to look your partner over and find everything major that needs to be done. Neat hair, clean face, tidy clothes. Everything tucked in. Socks up. Sleeves down. Tallest girl in each pair inspects the shorter girl first. Go!"
The girls were accustomed to Tayna's quick, decisive instructions— especially when something important had to be done quickly. She was a quick thinker and fearless about taking action once the decision was made—a quality that her ward-mates had learned to trust. As soon as she said "Go," the shorter girl in each pair began to turn slowly, allowing her partner to scrutinize every inch of her appearance and rhyme off a list of the most serious issues.
Tayna pointed out a few things for little Rachel to fix, then she glanced toward Eliza, who turned away from her own partner to check the hall again. Eliza shrugged uncertainly, so Tayna returned to the task at hand.
"Okay, now everybody switch," she said. "Short girls inspect the tall ones. After you're done, both of you can take a minute to fix up whatever your partner suggested."
Now the other half of the group began to rotate. Rachel tugged at Tayna's sleeve, trying to get her to turn, but the older girl just smiled. "Don't worry about me, Rake. Any mommy-be that I could stand to live with will like me just the way I am. If she gets hung up on little stuff like this, I could never fit into her life anyway."
As the girls attended to their personal grooming, Tayna looked toward the door again. "How much time, Lies?" Eliza opened the door a hair and checked the hallway again.
"Still clear. They're getting the full tour, but they won't be long. Better hurry."
Tayna nodded. "Right. We don't have time for anything fancy. We'll just go with your basic Smile Parade." She stepped forward into the center of the room, facing the door and held her arms out to the sides. "Give me the two smallest girls on my left and right. Uh, Rake and Amanda." She paused for a moment while a couple of girls shuffled away and made room for those two girls to move in. "Now the next tallest beside them, and then the next tallest, and so on." There were only a few minor collisions as the girls got themselves sorted out. While they were doing that, Tayna excused herself from the line and went to the door to look for herself. The shadows spilling out into the hall were now coming from the open door of the senior bunk-room. The tour was almost done.
"Okay, when I say go, everybody goes back to the job they were doing before Lies came in. This always works better when they think they've surprised us. As soon as Sister Regalia opens the door, you all run back to the position you're in now, got it? When you get lined up again, each of you turn to look at your neighbor and pretend to adjust something on her shirt or hair. Then turn and give the hubby your biggest smile, and I mean big. Ham it up. Try to split your face in half. The wanna-dads always think it's great how committed you are and the mommy-bes love anything that gets him to show an interest."
"Tayna?" Little Amanda had her hand in the air.
"What is it 'Anda?"
"I don't know if I can remember all that."
Tayna smiled and hunkered down a little. "It's okay kiddo. Just look at who's beside you now. Rachel and Becky. All you have to do is make sure you get back in line between them when the door opens, okay?" The little girl nodded. "And once you're in line, give 'em your biggest smile. But don't worry if you make a mistake. They'll just think it looks cute."
Suddenly, Eliza went stiff at the door. "Incoming!"
Tayna spun around. "Okay! Everybody back to your jobs until the door opens." Then she crossed back to her work table, sat down and picked up the old book with the broken spine. The other girls raced back to their own tables in record time. A few pretended to work, but in reality, every girl in the room was focused intently on the door knob, like sprinters waiting for the starter's pistol. And behind those eyes, each and every girl was deep into the what-if game. What if this time it'smewho gets an interview? What if they decide theylikeme? Would they ask me to come live with them, like a real family, with my own room and a cat and a gramma who likes to bake? The only sound was the clicking and clanking of the old radiator in the corner and Becky's shoes rubbing nervously together.
Then the light vanished from beneath the door and it began to swing in. "…and we can store the rest of them in here." Sister Regalia strode into the room, talking briskly to somebody behind her. Tayna realized instantly that something was wrong, but before she could stop them, the girls were already scrambling into position. The parade line formed perfectly in front of the door, with each girl turning to check her neighbor for last-minute lint and stray hairs. Then they hit the high-beams, turning on their maximum, high-voltage smiles, any one of which was bright enough to melt the hearts of a Porscheful of divorce lawyers. But it still wasn't enough to thaw even an eyelash off Sister Regalia's scowl. When the senior Sister turned back to face the room and saw the crisp line-up of beaming faces, she stopped short.
And then she laughed.
She laughed so hard, she nearly doubled over. The eyes of every girl in the room widened in surprise when the old nun actually slapped her thigh in delight and then had to place both hands on her knees to keep from collapsing to the floor. "Who, who, a who taught you to do that?" she asked, struggling for breath. Then she caught Tayna glaring at her from the end of the line. Regalia smiled cruelly and drew herself upright, the laughter draining quickly from her face. "Oh! Tayna, was it? Well that's just priceless!" She turned to the other two people in the hallway—crazy-eyed Sister Anthrax, and a short, ill-kempt and rather hairy looking man. Tayna couldn't recall seeing him before.
"Get a load of this bunch!" Regalia said. "They actually thought you were parents, coming up here to visit them!" The man chuckled non-committally, as though he wasn't sure exactly what the joke was, but Sister Anthrax erupted in a fit of hateful laughter as Regalia turned back to the girls. The faces that had so recently been beaming with excitement, were now beginning to lose their focus, as the girls realized that this Smile Parade might not be proceeding according to plan. Rachel was the only one who didn't seem to understand and she was busily snapping pictures of anybody and everybody with her toy camera while the scene played out around her.
"Hasn't anybody told you?" Regalia asked the group. "You're the Unlovables. Don't you know what that means?" She looked up and down the line. "It means that it isn't possible for any worthwhile person to actually love you. Why on Earth would I waste my time bringing people up here to meet children as hopeless as you? I've got much better things to do with my time, you can be sure." Her keen eyes flicked past the girls to the tables, still laden with unfinished tasks, and then she noticed little Rachel. With a smirk, she took two steps and snatched the camera from the girl's hand. Then she tossed it into the garbage pail next to the door.
"Now stop this ridiculousness and get back to work."
Regalia turned to her companions. "Never mind. We don't need to look in here after all," she said. "Once you've seen one storage room full of rejects and throw-aways, you've seen them all." With that, she turned and marched out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her with a bang.
The Smile Parade was still half formed. None of the girls was sure what to do next. Some turned uncertainly to the left or right, looking at their neighbors as if they might have some kind of plan. One or two of the younger girls sobbed, but nobody said a word. Rachel quietly walked over to the door and retrieved her camera from the garbage. When it became clear that no one was going to jump out and yell "Just kidding!" the girls finally drifted back toward their chores, but they did not all take their disappointment in good stride.
"Nice going, Eliza," Dana said. "Now we know why everybody calls you 'Lies.'"
"Yeah, I think they must have been movie stars," Jenny said.
"No. It was definitely the King and Queen," said a third.
"Yeah, the royal couple from downtown Ugliville."
Eliza ignored the catcalls. After Tayna, she had been there the longest, so it would have been understandable if she, of all the girls, was the most crestfallen to discover that they were not going to be interviewed today. But if there was one thing an Unlovable learned early, it was that life under the Good Sisters of Salvation seldom paid off in smiles. By now, they'd all had plenty of practice bouncing back from disappointments, especially Eliza, who still allowed her imagination to torment her with visions of a sunnier future—an instinct that all the other girls had long since learned to suppress. If this latest kick in the shins had left any mark on her, it was completely invisible as she went quietly back to her job, sewing crests onto the clean, new uniforms they had made for the lower-floors girls.
As Eliza dove back into her needle work, Tayna watched her out of the corner of her eye. This place could get under your skin real fast if you let it, and lesson number one in avoiding Sister Regalia's patented Sucking Vortex of Despair™ was that you had to think about life in her "care" as open warfare—a war in which ridicule was the enemy's chief weapon.
Being the most spirited of the Unlovables, Tayna and Eliza had always been the primary targets of Regalia's campaigns, because nothing attracted barrages of Goody-Goody ridicule like a rebellious imagination or a strong will. It was this constant fire that had made the two girls inseparable—comrades-in-arms against nunnish tyranny.
Unlike physical injuries though, despair wounds could only hurt if you let them, and with the help of a good friend, they could actually be shaken off. Mostly. So Tayna always took pains to watch her friend for early warning signs. Secretly, she was convinced that Eliza always got the worst of the nuns' abusive attention, but as far as she could tell today, Lies was doing fine, and she seemed scarcely even aware of the verbal daggers being thrown her way by the other frustrated girls. After all, compared to the arsenal generally employed by the Goodies, a bit of girl-snark was nothing.
Now, you might think that with a name like "the Good Sisters of Salvation," the women running the Home would be your typical, cheerful, hard-working group of Jesus-freaks in Batman capes, but you'd be wrong. Most people called them the Goody-Goody Sisters, or even just "the Goodies," but it was used only as a short form. They weren't actually implying that the Sisters were good people. In point of fact, the old crones were about as horrible as you could imagine, and it was a galaxy-sized joke that the universe allowed those harpies to even come within a hundred miles of any children, let alone permit them to run an orphanage—even one as flea-bitten and decrepit as Our Lady of Divine Suffering's Home for Orphans and Evictees. In all her years of incarceration there, Tayna had never met a single evictee. In fact, to the best of her knowledge, only two of the words in the place's entire name even came close to being accurate: "orphans" and "suffering." But it was better than living in a burned out car under a highway overpass. Wasn't it?
Tayna sighed and bent back down over her work. There were only two hours to go before she had to make her collection rounds, and she'd still have to be back in time to supervise dinner. Friday was always a very busy day for the senior Unlovable.