A/N: FINALLY. Here it is, guys. The long-awaited sequel to In His Arms She Fell. I'm so, SO sorry it took so long for me to start it. Life's been crazy, I've been working on my other story, In Loving Color, and most of all, it took me a while to decide what exactly I wanted for this story's plot. I've been back and forth A LOT about it, but at last I think I finally have enough for a solid beginning, hence this (and the next following) chapter! Many, many thanks to everyone who's reviewed IHASF since its completion or asked about the sequel. It means a lot to know so many of were still interested in continuing Keith and Lila's story, and I hope you enjoy this one as much as it's predecessor.
Now that being said, I'm asking all of you to keep an open mind about plot twists, characters, etc. as you read. Like I said before, I've been back and forth and back and forth about how I wanted to do this and while certain things may come as a surprise, the most important thing to keep in mind is that ultimately I am keeping my promise: Keith and Lila will be together- I just feel like there still has to be more growth and development on both of their parts before that can happen. When we left them at the end of IHASF, things were a mess, and I (and real life, for that matter) don't believe in quick fixes. Don't expect this one to be quite as long as IHASF, but it will definitely be another journey. Just try to remember that, and trust me, okay? I'm rooting for them just as much as all of you are, and ultimately we're all going to get what we want :)
If you want a sneak peak at some of the characters you can expect to see in YRM, visit the story's photo gallery at my website, and as always, please read and review to let me know what you think of the opening chapters!
The woman standing in front of the apartment building looked down at the watch on her wrist for the third time since the start of that hour;
The viewing appointment she'd scheduled with the client had originally been set for 5:00. It wasn't unusual for the new ones to be late, but it did typically end up being a hard habit for a lot of them to break. Being on time hadn't been a priority in most of their lives before entering the program- unless being on time to meet a dealer for their next hit counted, anyway. While some of them had entered the rehabilitation program because their seemingly normal lives had spiraled into disaster from substance abuse, most of them were just cut from that cloth from birth. Whether they'd been born crack-addicted or given their first drink at (or even in some cases, under) the age of ten, being drug addicts was all most of the women had ever known. It was a way of life for them; it dictated how they thought, spoke and how they spent every minute of the day. Getting them in the habit of being on time for appointments or meetings was always an achingly uphill battle, but one she'd fought many times. By the look of things, this one would just be another tough nut to crack...
Almost thirty minutes later, the woman finally decided to just give up. She had a mountain of paperwork on her desk she could be making a dent in instead of just shuffling around waiting for another girl in the long line of the ones before her who obviously weren't willing to take this program seriously. She'd just reached her old 1999 Toyota parked several feet away along the curb when her gaze was caught while briefly looking in the direction of a subway staircase at the end of the sidewalk.
A young woman had just emerged from the stairs, but it was hard to make out what she looked like because of the fading sunlight and because of the heavily bundled up toddler she carried in her arms. Her stride was quick and as she started walking down the sidewalk she looked closely at the buildings she passed, as if trying to find one in particular.
Letting out a heavy sigh, the woman made her way back towards the girl, calling out, "Lila Barnes?"
The girl turned instantly, "Yes, yes that's me-"
"I know, I know, and I'm so, so sorry-"
"You're late and Head Start doesn't do late." She cut her off shortly again. "You're one recipient out of hundred we provide aid to every day in Harlem alone, so the first thing you better learn about this program is that it doesn't have time to cater to just your needs. You get one strike with us- just one, and today was it. If you're late again to any other appointment or meeting, if you don't follow every rule to the letter, you're out, is that understood?"
Obviously subdued by the woman's short manner, Lila nodded, "Y-yes ma'am..."
"Good. I'm Rhonda Xavier, your program support representative. Because you're running late I don't have very much time to show you this apartment before I have to get back to the office, so let's get up there, shall we? It's this one over here," She gestured to a door in front of them that was between two store fronts. "321 Saint Nicholas Avenue. The apartment's on the fourth floor." As they went through the door then began the ascent up the stairs, Rhonda went on, "Now, from your file I saw that you're requesting housing assistance because you're only able to find minimum-wage work right now and your daycare costs have recently gone up and exceed most of your income, correct?"
"Yes, that's right." Lila nodded as she switched the baby to her other shoulder, breathless from the exertion of climbing several flights of stairs while carrying the little girl in her arms.
"Well Head Start does offer housing aid to single parents on a low-income, but in your case, matters have the potential to become a little more complex."
"In what way?"
"Let's just look at the apartment and see how you feel about it first before getting down to brass tacks, all right?" When they came to the apartment, Rhonda withdrew a ring with one key on it from her jacket pocket then inserted it into the keyhole and unlocked the door. As they walked in, she turned on a switch by the door, illuminating the small room in light. "One bedroom, one bathroom. As you can see, there's a little kitchenette in the corner over there, and we're standing in the living room now." Lila was silent for a long while as she looked around the small room, so Rhonda finally added, "I know it doesn't look like much, but it's the best Head Start can offer for your income bracket while making sure the place is up to living standards and codes."
"No, no it's fine, I just..." Lila was quiet again for a moment, then shook her head. "It's fine. Thank you, I'll take it."
"Right then. Well as I was saying in the stairwell, the terms of your living arrangements are slightly different from our usual process."
"Ordinarily Head Start allows the apartment lease to be issued in the name of the client so that even though we make the principal down payment as well as make up any difference you're unable to pay in monthly rent, the property still officially belongs to you."
"So why does my case have to be different from the usual process?"
"Well because our program has to use slightly altered policy for recipients with a history of substance abuse."
Lila stiffened, but shook her head, "But...I don't have a history of substance abuse. I-I'm not a drug addict; I've never done drugs before in my life, how can that be-"
"Zoloft and Lunesta are drugs, Ms. Barnes. They're prescription drugs, but still drugs just the same- and according to your file you overdosed on both last Fall."
"I didn't overdose," Lila was quick to retort indignantly, despite feeling the color rushing to her cheeks. "I just...I just had an adverse reaction to them for some reason-"
But she was cut off by Rhonda again who while she'd been talking had pulled a manila folder out of the bag she was carrying. Opening it, she read from a piece of paper inside, "'Patient was discovered in near comatose state. Once revived, symptoms included nausea, vomiting and seizure that caused brief cardiac arrest. Diagnosis: OD of setraline and eszopiclone'...also known as Zoloft and Lunesta." As she closed the folder, Rhonda stated, "Whether it was Zoloft or heroine, we are required to treat any client with a history of any drug overdose as a substance abuse problem, Ms. Barnes- that's just how it goes. Now in the housing assistance process this means that when the lease for this apartment is issued, it will be in Head Start''s name. We'll still make the down payment as well as pay the difference of whatever you're unable to pay for the rent each month, however this assistance comes with very specific guidelines for cases like yours."
"And the guidelines are?" She asked with a wary sigh.
"In addition to the representative from Child Protective Services' weekly visits for former addicts, we also have weekly screenings for both the child's welfare and to maintain that you aren't still using drugs. Unlike CPS', these screenings are spontaneous, meaning they could be at any time throughout the day, so you're not gonna know when to expect them but you're always expected to be ready and prepared for them."
"What about when I'm at work?"
"They're scheduled within the time frame of your work schedule. However, if your schedule's sporadic, that makes it all the more important for you to be ready for a screening at any time."
"How am I considered ready for a screening?"
"We expect this place to be spotless; in the case of this apartment, it might not have been that way when you got it, but it's your responsibility to make and keep it that way after you sign your name on the contractual agreement. That means no dirty dishes in the sink, no overflowing trash bins, no unmade bed- none of that. We also perform a search of the apartment to ensure there are no drugs being hidden anywhere. Your court order states that you're prohibited from possessing any prescription or over-the-counter depression and sleep aid medication, so finding so much as a pill of either of those here would obviously be grounds for automatic termination of your contract and eviction, as well a report to the authorities. Also prohibited are any other potential risks to your child's health such as loose caps or tops on cleaning products, sharp objects that are out in the open, and dirt, mold or any other toxic substance that eating or being exposed to would prove injurious."
Lila sighed again, patting the toddler's back as she started to fuss and fidget restlessly, "Anything else?"
"Yes, you're also required to meet with your Head Start service rep - that's me - every week at our office downtown."
"You mean the one in Harlem?"
"No, the one in Midtown; on 55th street."
"Midtown? But that's almost an hour-long train ride," She protested over her daughter's cries which were growing louder. "Isn't there some way the appointments can be held in the Harlem office instead?"
But Rhonda shook her head, "My office is located in the Midtown branch, so that's where they have to be."
Lila sighed again, this time in growing desperation, both from the conversation and the baby's shrill cries, "But please, ma'am, you don't understand; I have to work, most of the time way past normal business hours, and the night childcare I use for my daughter already doesn't like that I'm always late in picking her up-"
"Like the screenings, we work within your schedule to find the most suitable time."
"But my schedule's sporadic, I don't know what's it going to be from week to week. I can't leave my baby at the night care center to take a train to Midtown for a meeting, then come all the way back to Harlem to pick her up and take the train ride home, I just can't afford it-"
"Speak with your supervisor at work, explain your situation and he or she will probably allow you to-"
"No, no he won't," Lila shook her head, her voice beginning to shake as she futilely tried to bounce the toddler up and down to calm her tears. "I work at a very busy restaurant on the Upper West Side that's packed almost every night- my supervisor doesn't allow anyone to leave early. I think if I even ask him, I could lose my job-"
"Then you'll just have to bring your daughter with you to the meetings, Ms. Barnes, that's the best I can suggest for you."
"I'm sorry that your circumstances aren't ideal, but that's just the way it is. In regular home assistance cases, we're allowed to make exceptions and concessions, but for clients with a history of drug abuse-"
"Stop it, will you just stop saying that!" Lila finally burst out angrily, her voice so loud it carried above the cries of the toddler. "I'm not a drug abuser, I'm not a drug addict, okay? I'm not!"
"Ms. Barnes, all I'm going on is what's in your file-"
"I don't care what that file says about me, I'm not a drug addict! I was...I was just tired; I was so, so tired, and I felt completely alone. You don't understand what it was like, how hard it was to take care of a baby when I was-"
"And I'm sure it was hard, but the reality is that your story's just one out of a hundred on my desk right now- some of them with a lot harder histories than yours. You ask me, you were one of the lucky ones."
"Lucky? They took my baby away from me for three months! I couldn't even seen her for the entire first one!"
"But you got her back, didn't you? Most mothers who've OD'ed and get their kids taken away for good for negligence."
"But I wasn't negligent, and I didn't overdose! I told you, I just-"
Rhonda let out a weary, impatient sigh, holding up a hand as she interjected, "You know honey, you can keep on denying what made you end up passed out on your bathroom floor for as long as you want if it makes you feel better. But if you need a refresher on what happened after that, let me remind you; you were unconscious for five hours before someone in your apartment building called the police- only they didn't call the police because they knew you were passed out."
"Don't..." Lila shook her head and tightened her arms around the toddler in her arms, as if to shelter her from what Rhonda was saying,
"They called when they heard your fifteen month old baby crying at the top of her lungs because she was stranded in her crib, hadn't eaten or drank anything in eight hours and was wearing a diaper that hadn't been changed in so many hours it was starting to stick to her skin."
"But it was an accident," She murmured against her daughter's hair, even as her eyes filled up with tears. "It was just an accident..."
"Of course, you had no way of knowing any of that, because you were unconscious, had a seizure in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, then had to get your stomach pumped when you got there to get rid of all the drugs in your system. So, naturally Child Protective Services had to remove-"
"They stole my baby, they took her away before I could even-"
"They removed her from your custody because the environment you'd put her in was ruled unfit- and justifiably so. As I said earlier, you should consider it a miracle that a judge eventually reinstated your rights; I don't know of any other mother who would've been so fortunate."
"Fortunate enough to have my baby taken away without even getting the chance to say goodbye? To have not been able to see her for a month? To be told I'm an unfit mother?"
"Yes, I'd consider that very fortunate Ms. Barnes. Want to know why? Because despite all that, you're still standing here holding your daughter in one hand and a second chance in another. So I suggest that unless you want that fortune to change, you try not to blow it." Reaching into her bag again, Rhonda pulled out a stapled group of papers and a pen. Flipping to the last page, she explained, "Now here's your contract; sign it right now, this apartment's yours and you're automatically a Head Start client. Decide not to, then our work here is done and all I can do is wish you all the luck in the world."
Lila looked down at the paper for a long moment, her expression visibly stricken and unsure. Finally, she took the pen in her free hand and signed her name across the line at the bottom of the contract.
"All right then," Rhonda nodded as she took back the pen and contract. "You can move in to your apartment any time tomorrow morning after 8:00 a.m. If you need furniture we can offer you a few essentials such as chairs, a table and bed and a truck to transport it here. Don't forget, your first meeting with me is at the end of this week, so don't be late again. Here are your keys," She handed the ring of keys to Lila then placed the papers back into the bag on her shoulder "Welcome to Head Start and welcome home." With that, she turned and went towards the door to leave. The last thing she saw as she shut the door to the apartment behind her was the girl bury her face in the hair of the still-crying toddler in her arms.
Yeah... Rhonda thought to herself with a grim sigh as she started down the stairs. This'll be a pretty tough nut to crack, all right...