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“Of course.” Judy turned to look at him, but Pete continued staring through the window overlooking the playground, where a dozen or so children ran about in the sunshine. A game of tag was in progress, and he smiled, watching them play.
“Well, don’t be. We’ll do fine.”
She pushed his shoulder playfully. “Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not nervous.”
He continued to smile, ignoring the butterflies holding a rugby scrum in his stomach. “We’ll do fine.”
“Yes, you will.”
They turned toward this new voice, Judy’s hand slipping into Pete’s, gripping it with nervous strength. Elizabeth Davis closed the thick manila case folder on her desk, pushed it aside, and folded her hands on the blotter, dark eyes serious beneath salt-and-pepper bangs.
“You’ve completed all the training and paperwork. I’ve got copies of your CPR certifications, individual evaluations, and results of the home inspection. Everything in here”—she tapped the folder—“looks just fine. I must officially commend you on your preparation for becoming foster parents, and personally thank you for immediately joining the emergency foster home list. There are children out there who need more people like you.”
The little woman’s serious demeanor broke, her teeth flashing a grin. “Let’s stop beating about the bush and introduce you to your new foster child, shall we?”
Judy’s grip relaxed as she sagged with relief. Somewhere inside Pete a whistle blew, and the scrumming butterflies halted the play and took a timeout, milling about the field.
“I’ve been trying to pick her out from the photos,” he said, indicating the playground, “but I can’t seem to find her.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. McCormack.” Mrs. Davis strode to the door. “You won’t find Abby out there.” She held the door, directing them into the hallway. “Come this way, please.”
She led them down the hall to the elevator, where, rather than pushing the 1 for the ground floor, Pete saw she pressed the button marked B. Judy got the question out just a fraction faster than Pete.
“She’s in the basement?”
“It’s where she feels safest. It’s that bee allergy mentioned in her file—remember? That’s why we asked so many questions about your area.”
The elevator bumped to a halt, the door sliding open to reveal a cinderblock corridor painted an industrial gray. Mrs. Davis took a half-step forward, keeping the door open with an outstretched hand as she faced them, her expression troubled.
“I’m sorry, I know you’ve answered this—and a hundred other questions—but you don’t have any bees where you live, do you?”
Pete and Judy exchanged a look. “No, ma’am,” he said. “Like we said, we live on the coast, on a road that dead-ends at a salt marsh. Not a lot of flowers, I’m afraid, but there never were many bees. What with scientists claiming that bees are disappearing, I don’t think I’ve seen any lately.”
He looked at Judy, who shook her head, then back to Mrs. Davis.
“Nope. Still no bees.”
Mrs. Davis looked at her shoes, out into the corridor, and then back up to not quite meet Pete’s eyes: the very picture of uncomfortable and defensive.
“I know you read about Abby’s allergy, and I’ve mentioned it, and I did note your certificate in the use of an EpiPen. But I still feel compelled to mention it again—can’t stress it enough, in fact. It is severe. Severe. Bees are a serious threat to her life, even with the EpiPens. Am I being clear?”
They nodded, and Mrs. Davis led them off the elevator, down the corridor. “The safest thing, we’ve found, is to simply keep her away from any place bees might come. That’s what we’d officially advise. Indoor activities. She goes along with this much better than you’d think. She’s aware of her condition, and takes it very seriously for a six-year-old. She’s terrified of bees, and—well, like I said, down here is where she feels the most comfortable.”
She ushered them through a door into a large chamber filled with all the accouterments of a child’s playroom: shelves of toys, a long chalkboard, even a plastic indoor play set complete with two tiny swings, a see-saw, and a slide.
Sitting on a checkerboard carpet amid a splash of wooden alphabet blocks sat a small girl, all pale skin, blond hair, and huge blue eyes. As they walked in, the tiny thing put down the block she’d been holding and stood uncertainly. Pete surveyed the room, disbelief and anger washing through him.
I don’t care how nicely it’s set up, he thought, or how bad her allergy is. What the hell is a six-year old girl doing left in a basement room all alone?
He turned to Mrs. Davis, that very question on his lips, when Judy strode past so fast it startled him, dropping to her knees just a step or two away from where Abby shifted from foot to foot.
“Hi, Abby. I’m Judy, and that”—she pointed—“is Pete. We would really like it if you’d come stay with us for a while.” She gestured about the playroom. “We don’t have any rooms like this in the house, but I can promise you won’t be left all alone again. Not unless you want to, that is.” She held out a hand. “What do you say? Will you give us a chance?”
The girl had gone still as Judy spoke, staring at her. Now she looked at the outstretched palm as if not sure what to do, then reached out a small hand to grasp Judy’s fingers. Abby took a single step forward, and the smile that spread across her face was enough to bring tears to Pete’s eyes as she nodded, throwing her arms about a surprised Judy’s neck.
“I know I go on about the allergy,” Mrs. Davis murmured behind Pete, “because her safety is my primary concern, but it’s her lack of speech that makes her an emergency placement. She can speak—at least, she says her name—but doesn’t. Dr. Skasi, our staff psychologist, believes it’s stress related, and a stable, less clinical environment, one with more one-on-one attention than she can get in a facility like this, will help her regain her speech naturally. We’ll be looking for a permanent placement for her, but if she would talk to us we might even be able to locate her biological parents.”
Pete turned to the door, again with the intent of asking a question—this time about permanent placement—but it slipped from his head when he saw Mrs. Davis: she stood in the doorway watching the tableaux in the middle of the room, file folder hugged to her chest, wearing a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes; they still looked as they had when she’d been unable to meet his gaze on the elevator: uncertain and maybe even . . . afraid?
What the hell?
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