The sun poured through the windows of the sleek Nissan Altima cruising down the highway. In the front seat sat a red-haired woman with a tight smile. Her blue eyes intermittently glanced from the road to the rearview mirror. She was checking on the small girl sitting in the back seat. Bandages covered her slender arms, and more hid under her comfortable jeans and light jacket. In her wounded arms, she held on tightly to a small teddy bear. Her light green eyes were trained on the outside world, watching the road roll pass them. "You okay," the woman asked for what she believed to be the millionth time.
"Yes," the small girl replied without looking away from the window. She perked up as the rolling roads turned into large skyscraper buildings. She watched the roaming people on the streets and admired the colorful storefronts. Her eyes filled with curiosity as the buildings turned from silver to stone, and the colorful stores began to litter every inch of some of the streets. People wandered down the streets, usually with headphones in their ears or bags in their hands. After a short while, the streets began to show tall brick townhouses connected together. Large white doors and stone steps signified where one ended and another one started. Cars lined up against the street near the houses, packed closely together on the narrow road. The girl's arms tightened around her teddy bear as the woman parked the car across the street from a row of the brick townhouses. She waited for the woman to walk around the car to unbuckle her seatbelt and open the door. She set foot on the warm concrete. The smell of cigarettes, hot food, and the spring grass filled her nose. She assisted the woman in getting her few suitcases from the trunk of the car. The two held hands as they crossed the street and towards one of the townhouses.
The older woman knocked softly on the door. She glanced down at the small girl with a smile. Both of them looked up as the door gently swung open. In the doorway appeared a tall man with butterscotch colored skin, warm caramel eyes, dark hair, and wide smile. "Hello," he spoke, his voice laced with a strong Spanish accent. "Come in, come in." He moved aside.
The small girl hesitated, but the woman shuffled her inside. The smell of the street transformed into a sweet cinnamon scent. The soft chill of the spring air was replaced with warmth radiating from the burning candles in the living room. The small girl's eyes roamed around the brown sectional couch, small coffee table, sofa chair, and large flat screen television. A soft tan rug covered the surface area of the living room and into the hallway on the right where the staircase lay. She could make out three doors down the small hallway. To her left was a doorway to a kitchen with a rust red tiled floor and small kitchen table. A large square opening allowed the girl to see into the kitchen and straight into the window on the wall above the sink. "You wanna take off your jacket," the woman's voice echoed through the girl's ears. She glanced up at the woman as she nodded. She unzipped her jacket and let it fall over her shoulders. She bundled it around her teddy bear, holding it closer against her body.
The woman ushered the girl into the living room where she hadn't noticed another man sat. This man was a little different than the first. His skin was a dark chocolate rather than butterscotch, and his hair was in tighter curls rather than the loose ones on the first man. However, she recognized the warm eyes and wide smile. He rose from his seat as the girl entered the room. The first man walked to stand by his side. "This is Mr. and Mr. Nieves-Taylor," the woman introduced the men to the girl. She set her hands on the girl's small shoulders. "You'll be staying with them for a while."
The second man kneeled down on one knee to be at her height. He held his large hand out to her. "You can call me Benny," he said. His voice was booming, but gentle with a heavy Southern accent. The girl's small hand got lost in his grasp. "Pleasure to meet ya."
"And you can call me Marc," the second man said as he followed suit. His hand wasn't as large as Benny's, but her hand still disappeared in his. "We're very excited to meet you."
"You wanna tell them your name," the woman asked as she also bent down to the girl's height.
"Audrey," the girl chirped. "Audrey Eleanor Davis."
"That's a pretty name," Marc mused.
"Thank you," she replied as she hugged her teddy bear closer to her.
"That's a nice bear," Benny said. He reached his hand out. Audrey twisted her body to the left, shielding the bear away. "Sorry, sorry," he held his hands up.
"How about we take you to your room. How about that?" Marc asked.
Audrey nodded. The adults got back to their feet. Benny grabbed the suitcases around the girl's feet. The two men then led the ladies up the carpeted staircase to another hallway with four doors. They walked down to the second-to-last door. Benny opened the door to reveal a small room. It was painted a soft lavender with pink roses scattered around. A full sized bed sat near the far wall next to a small nightstand with a small peony shaped lamp atop it. A wooden desk complete with a bookshelf, drawers, and a cushioned chair sat on the opposite side of the room next to the closet. A tall lamp with a shade shaped like a pink rose stood near it. Atop the large dresser sitting in the corner next to them was a small television. Hanging against the wall next to the bed was a full sized mirror. On the far left wall was a large window with pink curtains hanging down from it. Audrey's sneakers rubbed against the soft purple carpet as she wandered to the window. She pushed the curtains aside to see a black metal surface making up a small balcony with a railing and a stairwell leading up to another balcony and window on the house next door.
"Do you like it," Benny asked from the doorway. "Marc painted the whole room himself. It's what he does. He's a commissioned artist, but he still works with me down at the restaurant. We own our own little soul food slash Mexican joint over on Twentieth Street. We probably won't get there today, but you'll be seeing a lot of it very soon."
"It's nice," Audrey said with a nod. She moved to the bed that was decorated with a plain pink comforter, pillows, and stuffed animals. She kicked off her shoes and plopped down on the bed. A smile appeared on her face at the soft surface. She began to giggle as she gently bounced up and down on the bed. She left her coat on the bed, but kept the teddy bears in her arms as she ran up to the adults. She wrapped herself around Marc's leg. "Thank you," she said as she looked up at him with a wide smile.
He chuckled as he gently rubbed the brown-blonde curls on her head. "You're welcome."
"Why don't you start unpacking," the woman said as she bent down to Audrey's height. "You can start getting settled in, okay? I have to talk to Marc and Benny for a few minutes, and then they can help you with your things. I will see you in a couple weeks to check in. How does that sound?"
Audrey nodded. "Okay." She gave the woman a soft hug. "Bye Mrs. Walsh."
"Bye Audrey," the woman replied. The two let each other go, and Audrey bounced over to the suitcases Benny had set against the wall. The three watched her rummage through her clothes for a moment before they quietly exited the room. Marc left the door open as they did so. They wandered back downstairs to the kitchen. They sat around the small square shaped table. Mrs. Walsh dug through her purse to pull out a few packets of papers. "Here are some copies of her files," she said as she set them down on the table. "I highly suggest you go through them tonight or within the next few days. It's a lot of information, but it's very vital – especially with her situation."
"What situation is that," Marc asked. "When you met with us before, you were very vague about her previous home. I'm assuming it has something to do with the bandages on her arms."
Mrs. Walsh sighed. "Her last home environment wasn't particularly healthy for her. The two of you should be aware you are her first set of foster parents – her first foster home, particularly. I have faith the two of you will take good care of her. I remember, during the interviews, how adamant the two of you were about supporting and raising a child. I assigned her directly to your care because I had no doubts you'd provide a good environment for her. There are just some things about her that you should know." She slid another paper across the table. "She has been in the hospital for a couple of months now. She's been recovering physically and mentally. It seems that she has repressed all memories from her last home situation – or she's at least pushed them to the very back of her mind. While she is still very intelligent and functioning, she doesn't remember anything of her biological family. I'd advise you don't share any of that information with her until she's ready. The memories may resurface or exhibit themselves in other ways, so you should keep an eye on any strange behaviors or actions. I'm not sure how she'll react once her mind allows her to truly comprehend what's happened to her. At the moment, there's no need for psychiatric therapy, but we'll keep the option open as she gets older. Just keep a close eye on her without being too intrusive. From what we've observed thus far, she's still very much just a seven year old girl; she needs to experience a normal childhood."
"We can supply that for her," Benny said with a nod.
"Good. One more thing: be sure to clean her wounds and change her bandages at least once every two days or once a day. As far as she knows, she's been in accident and it left her pretty roughed up. That's all we'd like her to know right now. And be patient with her; she's been through a lot."
"Will do. Thank you."
"I'll be back in a couple weeks to check in with all of you." Mrs. Walsh shook hands with both of the men before making her leave. Marc walked her to the door. He turned to his head to Benny who was still sitting at the kitchen table. His dark eyes were fixated on the papers Mrs. Walsh had left. He approached his husband and wrapped his arms around his shoulders.
"Let's not worry about this right now," Marc said. "Let's just worry about making her life better."
Benny nodded. "Okay," he sighed. He gathered up the papers as he stood up. He followed Marc upstairs. He made a detour to their room to tuck the papers away while Marc continued to Audrey's room. He smiled at the sight of the girl playing with the stuffed animals on the bed. Her suitcases were sitting near her closet under some of her hanging dresses. He assumed she'd also put some away in her drawers. He wasn't sure how she'd done it so quickly, but he surely didn't mind.
"Come on downstairs, Chiquita; I'm gonna start cooking dinner soon. You can bring your toys," he told her.
Audrey hopped down from her bed with her stuffed animals tucked underneath her arms. She latched onto his hand.
"Do you like chicken and rice," Marc asked as he led her down the hall.
"Good because he makes a lot of it. By the end of the week, you'll be sick of it. I know I was after three days of living with him," Benny said as he exited their room.
Audrey smiled at the glare Marc offered Benny.
"Shut up, cabrón," Marc shot back.
Audrey giggled. She squealed as Benny easily picked her up in his arms. He held her bridal style as they walked down the stairs. "You're tall," she said as she looked at the distance from the floor. "Like a castle."
Benny smiled. "If I'm the castle, then you must be the princess. Do you like princesses?"
"Yes," she exclaimed.
Benny chuckled. "Then how about we watch some Disney princess movies for a bit, hm?"
The first night was peaceful for the three of them. Benny and Audrey curled up together on the couch and watched movies while Marc cooked dinner. They sat around the table as they ate. Benny and Marc didn't need to push conversation; Audrey opened up to them without any hesitation. She babbled on about princesses, dragons, and knights throughout the entire dinner. After they were finished, the two men switched spots. Audrey curled up in Marc's lap to watch television while Benny washed the dishes. When he joined them, Audrey sprawled out across both of their laps with a blanket wrapped tightly around her. Quietly, she fell into a deep sleep.
Benny carried her back upstairs. He changed her into a pair of her pajamas before tucking her into her bed. Marc watched from the doorway with a soft smile. His smile widened as his spouse kissed the girl on the forehead. As he moved away from her, her eyes cracked open and a whine escaped her lips. Her small hands reached out towards him. "No," she murmured. "Don't go."
"We're not going anywhere, sweet pea."
Audrey poked out her bottom lip as her eyes began to water.
Benny caressed her di-colored curls. "Don't you worry, now. We'll just be across the hall if you need anything. Nothing's gonna hurt you here."
"Promise," she whispered almost inaudibly.
Benny smiled. "I promise. Marc and I won't let anyone hurt you." He kissed her forehead. "Go on to sleep; you've got a busy day tomorrow."
Benny moved to the doorway where Marc stood. They were about to make their exit, but Audrey called out to them. They turned to see a small smile on her lips. "Thank you," she said simply.
The two men smiled. They gently shut the door in response.
In the morning, Marc helped Audrey get ready for the day. He cleaned her wounds and changed her bandages as she bathed. He also washed her brown-blonde curls. He sat at the corner outside of the bathtub fussing with her for almost an hour as the girl babbled on about mermaids. Once he was finally finished with her, he helped her dry off and let her change into the simple tee and jeans she'd set out. He ran a comb through her hair to tame her curls before pulling it into a high ponytail. He wrapped a purple bow in her hair to complete her look. "Alright, Chiquita, I think you're finally finished," he said as he fussed with the ponytail.
"Thank you," Audrey exclaimed. She climbed up in the chair he'd sat her in and wrapped her arms around his neck. He hooked his arms around her and carried her downstairs. The aroma of bacon and eggs filled the lower level of the house. Marc followed the scent to the kitchen where Benny was standing over the stove. The other man put a hand to his chest at the sight of Audrey.
"Well, look at you," he exclaimed. "Looking like a tiny princess."
Audrey giggled. "Only my hair. Marc says I can wear my dresses on another day. Today is a play clothes day, right?"
"Right," Marc agreed. He pecked a kiss at Benny's lips before wandering to the fridge. He poured a few glasses of orange juice and set one down in front of Audrey. She thanked him with a wide smile, and he kissed her head in response. The three ate breakfast with Audrey once again babbling about mermaids. Benny entertained her ideas while Marc just laughed and shook his head. After they were finished, Audrey helped Marc with the dishes. He washed while she dried. She had to stand on a chair to do so, but Marc didn't mind. Just as the two had completed their task, they heard a soft knock at the door. "Who's that?" Marc asked as he held Audrey down from the chair.
"I don't know." She followed him to the kitchen doorway. She stayed behind his legs as four strangers walked into the living room. The first was a tall, slender woman with waterfalls of black curls that swirled down her back and a complexion similar to Marc's. Following behind her were three children. The eldest was a boy almost as tall as the woman with the same ringlets of black hair, dark eyes, and tanned complexion. The second boy was a lot shorter than the first, but looked almost identical to him. The third was a girl who was a spitting image of the woman.
"Hola, Marc," the woman exclaimed, her voice laced with a heavier accent than his.
"Hey Elena," he replied with a smile. "How are you?"
"Good. Good." She looked down at Audrey who was peeking her head out from around Marc's leg. "Why hello there!"
Audrey looked up at Marc. "It's alright," he told her. "Go say hi."
She nodded as she slowly moved from behind him. She approached the woman who bent down to her height. "Hi," she said.
"Hello. I'm Elena." She motioned her hand for her children to come closer. "These are my kids: Cristian, Maximiliano, and Catalina. We all live right next door."
"They're good friends of ours," Benny said from behind them. "And they're now good friends of yours too."
"I like your hair," the girl, Catalina, said as she walked closer. She tilted her head. "How come it's two different colors? It looks so cool!"
Audrey smiled. "Thanks, Catalina. I don't know about the colors. I think it's always been like this."
"Cool." She grabbed a hold of her hand. "Oh, and you can call me Cat. All my friends do. Wanna go play outside?"
Audrey looked to Benny this time for confirmation. The man nodded his head. "Sure," she said with a smile.
"Take your brothers with you," Elena said before Cat could drag Audrey away.
Cat groaned. "Fine. Come on." She dragged Audrey to the backdoor in the kitchen. They opened the door that led out to a small field shared between the two houses and contained by a metal fence. "Wanna play tag?"
"Max is it!"
"No I'm not," the younger boy responded. "You're it!"
"No I'm not! You have to be because you were it when we stopped last time."
Max groaned. "Fine. You'd better start running because I'm gonna catch you."
"Yea right!" With that, Cat took off towards the other side of the field. Audrey mimicked her actions, but she ran the other way. A giggle escaped her lips as she realized the boy was chasing after her. She accelerated to try to gain some distance between them. Max kept up with her. He continued to alternate between chasing after her and his sister before he finally tagged one of them. He'd been running too fast when he was chasing Audrey, and with more force than he'd intended, tapped her so harshly that he caused her to lose balance. She twirled on her feet and fell onto the soft grass. He stopped to laugh at her as she'd rolled in the midst of her fall.
"Hey," Audrey yelled. She glared at the laughing boy as she got to her feet. "That's not funny!"
"Yes it is. You totally just ate dirt – and now you're it."
Audrey's blood boiled as he took off. She ran after him with at an aggressive speed. Instead of gently tapping him, she ended up catching him around the waist and tackling him to the ground. "Ha," Audrey taunted as she got off of him. "Now you're it!" She wasn't on her feet for long before he tripped her. She let out a squeal as her legs went out from under her. She landed on her bottom with a harsh thud. Max's laughter rippled through her ears.
"Max, stop being mean," Cat said as she approached the two. She helped Audrey back on her feet. "Sorry about my brother. He's a jerk."
"At least I'm not ugly," Max snapped back.
"You sure about that, dirt face," Audrey said.
The boy was confused for a moment. He touched his face and was appalled to see dirt on his fingers. A soft growl left his lips. "Now you're both really gonna get it!"
The two girls let out a playful scream before running away hand in hand with Max on their heels. Cristian leaned against the wall in the shade as he watched his siblings and their new neighbor run around the small field. The sun poured down on the three kids as their laughter and taunts echoed through the wind. It carried itself through the open kitchen window near where the three adults sat talking; Elena with tears in her eyes as she lamented, and the men with soft frowns from her news. The sound brought smiles to their sad faces, and they thought perhaps this part of life wasn't going to be so bad after all.