Gracie wasn’t anything like the kids I usually deal with. Most kids that get dropped in my lap are seeking foster homes for terrible reasons. Abusive parents, drug addict parents, dead parents. The kids come in shell shocked and broken. Some are screaming obscenities and ready for a fight over anything. Some can’t string two words together they’re so worked up. The worst just sit quietly and accept wherever I send them, as though nothing’s going to ever be good again so it couldn’t possibly matter. Those are the kids that really worry me.
Gracie was different. For one thing, she wasn’t taken from or abandoned by her parents. She just appeared in our waiting room one day, in a neat pink dress with a nice brown coat and matching suitcase.
Candace, our secretary, said that she’d walked right in all by her lonesome and sat herself down.
“Are you looking for someone, Sweetie?” Candace asked.
“No, Ma’am,” Gracie said.
“Where are your parents?” By this time, a few of us caseworkers had come out of our offices to see what was going on.
Gracie just looked at all of us, with those big hazel eyes of hers, and said, “They had to go away for awhile.”
Well, what other place did a child have to go when her parents went away but the foster care office?
There was a lot of calling back and forth to the police in all the surrounding areas, checking to see if anybody was missing a young female with brown hair and hazel eyes. All she could tell us was that her name was Gracie. She didn’t know her address, her parent’s names, what school she might go to, or if she had any relations who might be looking for her.
While we were all trying to find information on her, Gracie sat on her chair as though content to wait. We all prayed she wasn’t allergic to anything when we fed her some lunch.
Finally, after it had been established that no one in the tri state area was missing her, I called an emergency foster family, the Clarks.
Mr and Mrs showed up right away. Mrs. Clark was a big woman, and she gave Gracie a big hug right off the bat, and said, “You’ve had some day, haven’t you?”
“You can come stay with us until your mom and dad come back, okay?” Mr. Clark asked. He was an older gentleman, graying on top like his wife. They were old hands at the whole foster parent thing.
Gracie left with them, holding her suitcase in one hand and Mrs. Clark with the other. I, as the caseworker assigned to this mess, thought that all I had to do at that point was locate her parents.
After two days of fruitless searching, though, Mrs. Clark was back with Gracie walking calmly behind her. Mrs. Clark was not so calm.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot keep this child in my house for another minute!” she cried.
“What happened?” I asked, sending Gracie into the waiting room and getting Mrs. Clark into a chair.
“There’s something wrong with her!” she cried. “Yesterday, Todd took her out on his boat and he fell out! Nearly drowned.”
“Wait, so he almost drowned right in front of her?” I asked.
“Yes!” Mrs. Clark said. “And she just sat in the boat, the whole time. Didn’t say a word, during or after.”
“The poor thing was probably in shock,” I said.
“I think she’s a little demon. I haven’t had a full night sleep since she moved in,” Mrs. Clark said.
“What’s she doing that’s keeping you from sleeping?” I asked.
Mrs. Clark stopped, and was silent a moment. “She whispers things,” she said.
“She what?” I asked.
“Never mind. I won’t have her back in my house,” Mrs. Clark snapped, and stormed out of my office before I could say another word. I jotted myself a note to move the Clark’s off of my good foster family list, and went to talk to Gracie.
She’d sat herself down in the same chair as before looking around the room as if nothing was wrong. I sat next to her, and said, “How you feeling, Gracie?”
“Okay,” she said. She opened her suitcase and took out a cloth covered sketchbook.
“You want to talk about what happened with Mr. Clark? It must have been scary.”
“Not really,” Gracie said. “I had a life vest on.”
Being a caseworker and not a therapist, I had no idea what to say to that.
I called Mrs. Flemming. She and her husband were new foster parents, and I hadn’t seen much of them yet. But she came into the office all energy and color with a bright red coat and curly blond hair that was all over the place.
“Oh, aren’t you just a doll!” Mrs. Flemming cried upon seeing Gracie. “Do you want to come stay at my place for a few days?”
“Yes, thank you,” Gracie said. She seemed quite calm, taking Mrs. Flemming’s hand and leaving with her. They looked picture perfect leaving the office.
With Gracie out of the office, I returned to my search for her parents.
Someone had the news on in the background. While I called police offices, hospitals and mortuaries, Candace and some of the others were crowding around. I looked up while on hold. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“There was a shooting in Ohio,” Candace said, her eyes wide.
“Just like that one in Colorado a few days ago,” said Jim, one of the other caseworkers.
“People thing it might be the same group.”
Had there been a shooting? I hadn’t noticed, being so wrapped up in the mystery of Gracie. “When was that?” I asked.
“On the ninth,” Candace said, looking back at the tv.
I thought back. The ninth was the same day Gracie had wandered into the office.
I decided it was time to widen my search.
Two days later, I’d managed to do nothing more than mildly annoy a few police offices in Colorado who where quite busy enough without trying to track down missing parents. As I searched for a rock I hadn’t looked under yet, Candace knocked on my office door.
“Mr. Flemming is here, and he’s got Gracie with him,” she said.
No one ever comes into the office with their foster kid to tell us what a delight they’ve been. So it was with dark expectations that I admitted Mr. Flemming into my office.
The man was young, and as bright as his wife. Or, at least he seemed like he must be on a good day. This was not a good day for him. He was unshaven, his shirt had a coffee stain on the front and he looked like he hadn’t slept the night before.
“I’m really sorry to barge in on you like this,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it,” I replied. “What’s on your mind?”
“Monica’s had, well, an accident,” he said. “She was in the attic, getting down this big doll house. We’ve got a ladder going up there, and on the way down she fell. The dollhouse landed on her.”
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“She’s still in the hospital,” Mr. Flemming said. He sat on the chair in front of me, wringing his hands. “It’s just, it’s so weird, you know? She was telling me before that she was having these nightmares about falling, or hurting herself. Actually, I have too. Ever since, well ever since Gracie came to stay with us.”
Before I could say anything he tossed his hands in the air and said, “I know! I know, it’s not like she’s doing anything. She’s been so polite, so well behaved. It’s just that, Monica was really the one who wanted to do this. Now, she’s in the hospital, and I can’t take care of a little girl and her at the same time.”
“Alright, I understand,” I sighed.
Mr. Flemming almost ran out of the office, leaving Gracie in the waiting room again.
I took a deep breath before going out to sit with her. She was drawing in her book when I joined her. It must have been cold outside, because even sitting next to her made me feel cold.
“You okay, Gracie?” I asked.
“Sure,” she replied. “Mrs. Flemming fell, not me.”
“That’s true but it’s no fun seeing someone get hurt.”
She shrugged. “Do I have to go somewhere else now?” she asked.
“Just until your mom or dad show up,” I said. She was taking all of this too well. I was sure she was going to explode sooner or later.
The next available family was the Marshalls. I figured they’d be a solid bet. They’d adopted a little boy last year who’s mom had overdosed. Mrs and Mr showed up with little Ralph in arm.
Ralph was one of my favorite happy ending babies. He was a little over two years, and recovering well from the addictions he’d been born with. The Marshalls were doing a great job with him.
Gracie gave Ralph an apprehensive look as Mr. Marshall knelt down in front of her. “I hear you’ve had a string of bad luck, girl,” he said.
“I guess so,” Gracie replied, holding her suitcase with both hands.
“Well, don’t worry,” he said, holding his hand out for her to shake. “We’re gonna look after you now, and I have very good luck. Would you like me to carry your suitcase to the car?”
“No, thank you,” Gracie said, but she followed them out of the office without complaint.
It had been days, and I was running out of places to look for Gracie’s lost parents. Worse, my in box was getting full. Gracie was sad, but there were a lot of sad kids. I added her name to all of the missing children lists I could find, and got back to work.
In the first hour, I dealt with one infant being surrendered, a boy who’d gotten into some legal trouble that was too much for his parents to deal with, and another who’s mom was drinking too much.
The next few weeks went by in a flurry of catch up work. I was only vaguely aware of the rest of the world. I’d even forgotten all about Gracie, in fact, until Mr. Mitchell showed up in my office first thing in the morning with Gracie in tow. “How can I help you?” I asked.
“You ought to tell people, if you’re going to place a child with behavioral issues with them,” Mr. Mitchell said. He looked furious. “You put my family in danger, I deserved to know!”
“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” I asked. “Because Gracie hasn’t exhibited any dangerous behavior. We would have told you.”
“She burned Ralph’s hand on the stove!” he cried. “The kids were playing in the living room, and Sammy took a load of cloths down to the basement. While she was down there she heard Ralphie screaming. She came upstairs and he was sitting on the kitchen floor, with the burner on and his hand all burned!”
“Where was Gracie?” I asked, crossing my hands on my desk.
“She was still in the living room, drawing in her book like nothing was going on!”
“So at what point is this story going to explain to me how Gracie burned Ralph’s hand?” I asked.
“She made him do it. He’d never gone anywhere near that stove before. She whispered in his ear, just like she’s been doing since she got there!”
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.
“I just, never mind,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We’re not keeping her. I’ve got to meet Sammy and Ralph at the hospital, excuse me.”
He stormed out, not even looking at Gracie as he passed.
I cursed under my breath as I started into the waiting room. Before I reached Gracie, though, Candace said, “Turn up the tv,” in a hushed voice.
I looked toward the television mounted on the wall. There was a hospital, I wasn’t sure which one. But people in black were running through it with guns.
“Turn that off,” I said, “there’s a kid in here.” No one seemed to want to listen to me, though. Not knowing what else to do, I took Gracie into my office, and shut the door. As I led her into the room, I was struck again by how cold she felt.
“Well, it’s kind of a crazy day, isn’t it?” I asked her.
“I guess so,” she said.
I tried to call a couple of foster families on my list, but no one was picking up. Gracie sat in the chair in my office, drawing. She hummed a bit, but I didn’t recognize the song.
Finally, I left her in my office for a moment to go see what was going on.
Candace was crying at her desk. She looked up when she heard me. “There were shootings all over the world,” she whispered. “Pittsburgh, DC, London, Tokyo. They got hospitals and schools. They’re saying on the tv that it’s all the same group.”
Another caseworker standing next to her desk said, “They could be anywhere.”
Well, that explained why I couldn’t get anyone on the phone.
I made Candace turn the tv off. We rounded up the caseworkers and kids in the building, and got everyone in the waiting room. We pulled out board games and used the coffee pot to brew hot chocolate. With the kids distracted, we discussed what we were supposed to do with them. It wasn’t ideal, but with no foster families available, we decided it was best to put them up at our homes for the night. Gracie would come with me.
She walked with me to my car, carrying her suitcase. “Is that heavy?” I asked her, “I can take it for you, if you want.”
“No thank you, I can manage,” she said. We climbed into the car, and I turned on the heat. I wasn’t sure whether it was the cool air or the news that made me so cold.
Gracie was the perfect house guest. Her manners at the hastily unburdened dinner table were lovely and she was content to watch cartoon movies. I didn’t dare turn on cable, for fear of stumbling across news footage of the shootings.
After she was all washed up and put to bed on the pull out, I went off to my room in the hope of getting some more work done before bed. I left the door cracked so that I could keep an eye on her.
The night was quiet. I guess my neighbors were too upset by the day to be making much noise. The only sound I heard was the scratching of my pen on paper.
The whispering started low, I was aware of it before I really heard it. Not for a second did I think it was coming from my neighbors. I stood up, trying to think it what could be making that dark, scraping noise. Then I heard my living room window open.
I ran into the room in time to see a thick, dark shadow slither through the crack. It darted towards the pullout where Gracie was sleeping.
I got there first, and scooped her up into my arms. Just then another shadow slipped into the room. Images were whirling in my mind. I was sure that the best thing to do would be to leap out of the window, or turn on the burner in the kitchen. Or, maybe just take a butcher knife and go visiting.
Gracie woke up in my arms. She was freezing, and it was little wonder. The room was so cold that ice was forming on the window, cracking the glass. I held her close, trying to think of a way to save her, trying not to hurt myself, just trying to breath.
“Mommy, Daddy!” she cried. She squirmed from my arms, stronger than any human child, and ran to the shadows. As she ran, they changed. Suddenly they looked not like shadows, but like a man and a woman, both well dressed and tall. Even like this, I couldn’t imagine they’d ever pass for human.
“Gracie!” they cried, bending down to pick her up. Their voices were like razor blades in my skin, I could feel blood dripping from my ears.
“Are you all done now?” she asked.
“For now,” the female one said.
The male looked down at me, and said, “Thank you for looking after her. She’s out little good luck charm.”
I wanted to weep at the sight of his eyes. I wanted to scream, pull my skin off, stab myself in the eye.
Just like that, though, they were gone. The last thing I heard was Gracie, her voice taking on the grating, scraping tone of her kind, calling, “Goodbye!”