Foster kids took a whole different kind of guardianship, and I’d been assigned to this home for almost seventeen years. Ten years spent observing, learning, and another seven spent watching over every kid who came through the front door. Orphaned, diseased, homeless, drugged out, there was nothing I hadn’t seen or done my best to help them through. Not all of them were a success, and the failures lived heavy in my heart, but the ones that made it – they were what made it worthwhile. Used to make it worthwhile. I was burned out, exhausted, didn’t care if the next kid went off to a happy home or disappeared to get hooked on the next big social drug. Nope, by the time Roxie walked through the front door, I’d had enough.
And God knows she didn’t make it easy for me. That Roxie was a hellion and a half for all her eight years, the soft brown pigtails and bright smile full of sweet innocence – all lies. I knew she would be my responsibility the first time she threw a spoonful of mashed potatoes across the table and tried to blame it on the cat. I always got stuck watching out for those kinds of kids. The real troubled ones. The ones that needed my help more.
And she attached herself to me. Travis, the big brother who didn’t care if she brushed her teeth or made her bed. She made my life Hell on Earth and I didn’t have the energy to make behave. She was a stubborn little brat, always ready to stamp her foot and put on the crocodile tears. I found it easier to let her do what she wanted. Her and this ratty teddy bear she always carried around. Its name was Teddy.
“Teddy’s kind of a common name, isn’t it?” I asked her one day. We were sitting out on the front yard in the shade of a big tree. She wanted to go to the park, but I wasn’t in the mood to take her. “Shouldn’t you think of something a little more creative?”
She swung Teddy at my head. “I didn’t choose it. Teddy’s his name.”
“Whatever,” I replied.
“Let’s go to the park,” she insisted, pulling on my arm.
“You can go,” I said, pulling my arm back.
“I don’t want to go by myself. I need you to push me on the swing.” She pulled again.
“You have legs. Push yourself.”
“Please?” she begged, and hugged Teddy close to her chest, staring up at me with large brown eyes that seemed to express all of the pain a wounded child could muster. It was a look I’d seen more than enough times, yet somehow it still worked.
“Fine,” I gave in and got to my feet. “Twenty minutes and then we’re back here, you understand?”
She gave an emphatic nod and ran ahead. I wasn’t worried. She was easy to keep in sight and the park was only a few blocks away. When she got close to the corner I called for her to stop and wait. She didn’t listen, caught up in her skipping steps.
“Roxie, get back here!” I shouted. She heard me, I know she did because she turned back to look at me with that grin on her face before she continued on.
The light turned green and I picked up the pace, wanting to yank her out of the road and threaten to take her back home unless she followed instructions. She was in the middle of the street now and my heartbeat quickened. With irritation, I told myself. She knew she was supposed to come back.
As I watched she tripped and her bear fell to the ground. She stopped to pick him up and I saw the SUV come around the corner. The light was still green and the car wasn’t slowing down.
“Roxie, get off the road! Come here!” I yelled as I started to run. She didn’t react quickly enough to my warning, slowly straightening up and looking over her shoulder. She screamed and I barrelled into her, throwing Roxie, Teddy and myself clear of the road as the SUV sped by, horn blaring. I held the girl and the bear tightly in my arms as I gave my blood a chance to settle. Tears pooled in my eyes and I used my shoulder to wipe them away.
Roxie stood up and stared down at me, but I hung on to her, hands gripping her arms. “That’s why you’re supposed to listen to me. You scared me half to death. What were you trying to do, Roxie?”
And suddenly looking at me through Roxie’s eyes was someone entirely different. Someone so much older, so much other. “What I came here to do, Travis. To remind you how much you care.” She leaned in to kiss my cheek.