Never again would I be able to look at a bow tie, a motorcycle, or someone with tattoos without struggling for air.
It was only because of Sammy that I didn’t wish I was dead too. He was the only reason I was able to swing my legs over in the morning and plant my feet on the floor.
I loved the tattoo on my back more than ever because King had given it to me and it was something I would carry with me forever, a permanent piece of him.
An idea hit me, and once it took hold there was no letting go, and there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to make it happen. Because for the first time since finding out that King was dead, a little sliver of hope cracked through the cloud of despair.
* * *
It took me forever to remember where the house was where King had taken me when he’d parked and waited, hoping for just a glimpse of his little girl.
I’d only seen the back of the house then, and with only a vague recollection of where it was; it had taken me the better part of the morning to finally find it.
I reminded myself that foster kids moved around from place to place all the time. The possibility was high that she wouldn’t even still be there.
I had to try anyway.
I waiting across the street in a vacant lot, for what seemed like hours in the blistering heat. When front door opened and out came a shorthaired woman holding the hands of two little kids about the same age.
Between the picture on King’s dresser and the small glimpse of her I’d gotten the only night I’d ever seen her, I recognized her right away.
The woman maneuvered the children into a waiting mini-van. I followed them to a building where other men and women were shuffling their kids in through the door. A wooden sign, barely legible, having been faded by the brutal Florida sun, announced that the place was called Maria’s Learning Academy and Day Care Center. The woman who brought Max inside emerged from the childfree. I waited until she drove off to make my move.
I tried my best to dewrinkle my knee-length pleated skirt with the palms of my hands, but there was only so much I could do after hours straddling the moped. I ran my fingers through my hair and took a deep breath.
Bells chimed when I walked through the door. Sounds of laughing and crying children sailed through the air. It smelled like disinfectant and sugar. “Can I help you?” asked a bright-eyed pudgy woman sitting behind a partition.
I plastered on the biggest and brightest smile I could muster.
You can do this.
“You sure can, ma’am. I’ll be taking classes at the university in the fall and I’m looking for a great day-care for my son. I was hoping to tour your facility,” I said sweetly.
The woman examined my face like she was waiting for me to tell her the punch line to a joke. “You’re just a baby yourself.” she quipped. “You aint old enough to have babies of your own.” Her eyes were soft and kind.
“Don’t I know it,” I agreed. “So how about you show me around a bit?” I pressed.
She shook her head and shuffled around some papers on her desk. “Oh, I’m sorry darlin’. Maria, the director, isn’t here and she’s the only one authorized to give tours. It’s a safety thing and we’re all about the safety here.” Another worker wearing the same turquois shirt as the receptionist entered the waiting area. She gave a little wave and Audrey pushed a button on the wall next to her. A buzzing sound came from above the door that connected the tiny waiting area with the rest of the building. The woman opened the door and passed through and when it closed again it made a loud clicking sound. “See?” She pointed toward the door. “Safety first.”
“Oh,” My face fell and my shoulders slumped.
She explained further, “She is usually here around this time, so you can come back tomorrow if you want. But if she doesn’t attend the public funding meetings, then we don’t get the foster kids, and if we don’t get the foster kids, then we have to rely on the families who can afford day-care.” She sighed. “Which means I’d be out of a job cause there ain’t many of those these days.”
My confidence suddenly renewed, I leaned into her window and smiled sweetly. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Names Audrey, Miss,” She answered with her own sweet smile.
“Well, Audrey, if funding is your problem, I happen to know a senator that might be able to help you out…”
Five minutes later I was following around Audrey as she gave me a personal tour of the day-care center. I wasn’t lying about the funding. I would talk to the senator and see if I could help them.