"Leila! There you are!" Charity rushed to her side, not even bothering to close the door to the supply closet that Leila was hiding in.
"Get away from me," Leila begged, her voice muffled as her face was buried in the fabric of her jeans. Her shoulders shook from sobbing, but Charity could not see her face since it was buried in her knees. She cringed away when Charity laid a hand on her small shoulder. That hurt more than any physical strike.
Leila had boxed herself in the corner, the tall shelves in the closet filled with various cleaning supplies and other miscellaneous items made for good barriers.
Other children were playing some sort of game in the next room; their happy, screaming voices were quite a contrast to the mood in the closet. The sounds of rejoice and enjoyment were not as overpowering as the sound of the small girl's pathetic, quiet sobs that seemed to echo off of every surface just to resound ten fold in Charity's ears. It was torture.
Charity did not even try to squeeze herself into the small corner that Leila had managed to get into. She didn't want to upset her even more than she already was; instead she planted herself against one of the shelves holding boxes of towels. She leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and let out a deep gust of breath. Without opening her eyes, she spoke to the young girl.
"Leila," she whispered. When there was no other reply besides more sobs, she decided to continue. "You have to believe that there are other people out in the world who want to care for you." More sobs, no words. "You don't have to be alone."
Leila didn't want to admit it, but she was beginning to listen. The sobs did not lessen in intensity, but her ears were clear.
Charity went on. "I love you so much. You should know that. So, you have to understand that I wouldn't give you up unless there was someone else out there who I thought deserves to get to know you. They deserve to see just how wonderful you are."
The sobs were quieter now, less back-breaking. Charity smiled to herself and finally allowed herself a look at the girl.
Leila still had tears running down her face, but they were silent as she lifted her head to look at her life-long caretaker. Charity. Her name fit her well. She was always there to talk to, to cry on, and to smile with. Whatever the circumstance, Charity had been with Leila for as long as she could remember. They spent stormy nights coming up with stories about her parents, trying to come up with scenarios that would forgive them for leaving their daughter on the steps of the orphanage. Leila had never been angry at her parents for it, but she had always been anxious to meet them. The photo she had of them had no names on it, no date, just their beautiful young faces smiling out at her. She thought they must have a legitimate reason for leaving her. And Charity kept her safe, kept her sane. She would forever be trying to repay her for all the love she'd given, asking for nothing in return. Now seemed like a good time to try and do that repaying.
Sniffing her nose once, Leila launched herself out of the corner and into Charity's waiting arms. Her eyes overflowed again as she felt Charity's reassuring embrace wrap around her. She gripped Charity's neck tighter, twined her fingers into her beautiful and familiar auburn hair. It always managed to smell of strawberries and flowers. Leila breathed in that scent, cherished it, lived it. She would never forget that smell for as long as she lived.
"I'm so sorry Charity. I never should've run like that. Will you forgive me?"
Charity smiled and let out a huff of breath. "Of course silly, why wouldn't I forgive you? You were frightened of being put in a new family, a new place. I should've told you why you were in there before I brought in the Bennetts. You had the right to run and to flip out. I should've known you would."
The two pulled back to look at each other, smiling and tear stained. Charity pulled a strand of loose hair away from Leila's face. "You're so beautiful Leila. You look like your mother." That caused Leila to look down to her shoes, but none the less she pulled out the picture of her parents.
It wasn't clear where they were, but they were standing somewhere with a view of mountains and a waterfall. Her mother's face was sweaty and red, but she managed to look like the most beautiful goddess that Leila could have ever imagined. The man standing next to her was no less beautiful. His dark brown hair was tousled and messy, but it seemed like it was forever that way. His eyes sparkled with the same intensity that shone in Leila's eyes; it was the exact same eye color, that much Leila could be certain of. The two faces were right together, and it was obvious that they were her parents. She looked exactly like her mother except for her father's eyes. A mixture of the nose she thought, but maybe more like her father's. She smiled down at the photo. The action was not missed by Charity; the girl seemed so hopeful when she looked at that one picture of the people she had never known.
"Do you think I'll ever get to meet them?" Leila's whispered question seemed to hold more emotion than the loudest and angriest scream. But of course, this emotion was much more satisfying: love.
Charity gave Leila a squeeze before answering. "I think so. But first, don't you think you deserve a pair of parents while you wait for them? I know Hillary seems a bit intimidating when you first meet her, and Conner a bit detached, but trust me, they were very excited and enthusiastic to meet you. They were practically glowing when I told them about you. They're just preoccupied. Conner's nervous about being a father and Hillary is too about being a mother. They're very young but they have a very large capacity and ability to love. They'll treat you right Leila, I promise you that."
Leila began to nod, still staring at the photo. She might not get to meet them, but why not meet a new pair of parents?
"All right. Let's go say hello."
Leila was nervous as she walked back into that room that frightened her so much. Hillary and Conner had taken their seats in the chairs. The chairs were left in the same place from when Leila had left the room. She was surprised the Bennetts had stayed, actually. She felt shame wash through her like a vicious tide; an unrelenting force of nature that could not be stopped, wiping out everything else in its path and leaving only destruction. She felt like she should apologize but she didn't want to have to see Hillary's over-worked smile of forgiveness again. She might have only been worked up, but Hillary's smile was a little scary.
Leila felt like she had the devil and the angel on her shoulders, the kind that you always see in the movies when a character has a choice to make. The devil kept whispering for her to just sit down and talk to them like they had arrived there first and she hadn't done anything; the angel kept telling her to apologize because, deep down, she knew it was the "right thing to do."
The angel won out, especially when Charity gave her a nudge that told Leila exactly what she was thinking; she owed the Bennetts an apology.
Taking a deep breath, Leila looked down to her overused sneakers that she had gotten a few years ago and apologized.
"I'm sorry I ran away and screamed like that. It was wrong and you didn't do anything except try to give me a new home." Her sneakers did not reply, for which she was grateful, however she heard Hillary's heals click on the floor as she made her way over to the shameful, black-haired girl.
"Oh sweetheart," Leila heard her say. "You don't need to apologize. There're absolutely no hard feelings."
With that, Leila was taken into Hillary's arms in a slightly uncomfortable embrace. As Leila brought her hands up to gently pat Hillary's shoulders, she smelled perfume and the scent of a Laundromat. She smelled like a manufactured robot, not like she belonged in any normal family life. It made Leila slightly uneasy, but just because she smelled a certain way didn't mean she was bad. The only way that Leila would refuse to be adopted by them by standards of smell was if one of them smoked. Leila couldn't stand smokers; she literally blew up at them with a tirade of knowledge as to why they shouldn't. Did they ever listen? No, but that didn't mean she wouldn't tell them anyway.
After a few more seconds, Hillary let her go and stood back a few more steps. Just when Leila thought Conner would say something about Leila's behavior (because he had finally put away his Blackberry), Hillary forced that smile again, and it made Leila shiver involuntarily. Charity suggested that they begin with the questionnaire, so Leila, Hillary and Conner were seated at the table while Charity stood near the door.
"Well," began Leila with a sigh. "What do you want to know?"
Hillary seemed to smother a bit of a laugh, which flared Leila's anger a bit but not enough for her to show on her face. She kept a calm mask of innocence present, not letting her temper get the better of her.
"First, how do you feel about this whole situation, sweetie?" Hillary's question seemed valid enough, if you were asking anyone else in the orphanage; Leila was a different matter. At the edge of her vision, Leila saw Charity's face tense in expectancy for a blow-out. Leila seemed to surprise her when she said, "I'm not really sure what to feel, actually." It was not a positive nor a negative response, so it did not raise any odd looks except from Charity who was expecting some other reaction.
Hillary smiled. Conner leaned forward, resting his hands folded on the gray table top. He stared intensely at Leila for a few moments, trying to gauge her reaction before hand she supposed, and asked, "What do you love?"
The question was surprising to Leila, because there were few materialistic items that she cherished. She looked to Hillary, who was simply ecstatic but trying hard to calm herself down; Charity was just tense to say the least. She was probably worrying about Leila's temper and how this couple would react. To tell the truth, this wasn't the first time that someone had wanted to interview Leila for adoption. There had been many eager couples, but they had seemed a bit fake, like they thought it was shameful to adopt when they couldn't have their own child but did it for the sake of saying they had one. For some reason, Leila didn't get that immediate vibe from this couple. They were eager, yes, Hillary made that abundantly clear for her and Conner alike, but they didn't seem eager to just have a child for the sake of simply having a child. They wanted a real family, and it didn't matter that it wasn't theirs. They wanted someone else to love unconditionally. What better way than to adopt? That was why Leila had agreed (however grudgingly) to talk with them. Because she figured someone deserved their happily ever after, even if it wasn't her exact wish.
So, Leila took a deep breath and answered Conner's question. "I love Charity. I love my books and my friends here at the orphanage. I love the smell of clean laundry and the feel of a clean, cool, cotton sheet on a hot summer day. I love fresh air on my face and the taste of fresh strawberries. I love poppies and Casablanca lilies. I love the feel of a new leather bound book. I also love a nice day to sit in a hammock. I love the feel of clean teeth when I leave the dentist and how I always feel like smiling. I love listening to my favorite music. I love a bright sunny day. I love having a mind to think, a mouth to speak, ears to listen, hands to feel and a heart to love. I love being able to breathe. I love the feel of tanning skin and newly painted toe-nails. I love being surrounded by people and I love the parents I've never known. I love life and everything in it." She paused, looking in all three pairs of eyes until a significant amount of time had passed. "That is what I love."
No one spoke for a while, and the silence was only slightly deafening. Mostly, it gave Leila a little space to think. She didn't exactly know why she had gone on that whole list, but it seemed right. She didn't need anything material or selfish; she needed what made life worth living: the little things that amounted to so much but never seemed enough to anyone else. Another moment or so passed before Conner was the first to move. He smiled – teeth showing – and said, "Perfect."
Charity somehow had a silent message transmitted to her and walked over to Leila. She placed one hand gently on her back and told her it was time to say good-bye to the Bennetts. Leila stood gracefully – though she only came to stand to the tops of the adults' heads while they were seated – smiled and left the room.
"She's perfect," was all that Leila heard before she shut the door.