"Just so you know, I'm not here to do the white glove treatment. Just a quick home assessment, and I'll be out of your hair."
Brian loosened his necktie. "The message I got last night said you'd be here between ten and two. It's three now. The day's more than half-shot."
"Mm," she replied. Drifting through the living room, she pointed at the ashtray on the coffee table with her tablet's stylus. "If...when you get placed with a child, you'll have to do your smoking outside. And it'll have to be more than five yards from the dwelling."
He blinked a few times and had to catch up as her heels clocked their way upstairs. "When I get placed? Hold on. You said on the phone this wasn't a sure thing. A formality, you said."
"Mm hm," she said, walking into the master bedroom. "Yes." She squinted at the weight bench at the foot of the bed, peeked into the bathroom, sniffed, and made a note on her tablet.
"Yes? What do you mean, yes?"
"Our records indicate that there's one other bedroom on this floor."
Nodding at the closed door at the end of the hall, he said, "Yeah. It's my home office now." As she brushed by him, he said, "Can we get back to the--"
"Do you have any firearms in the house?" she asked.
"Safety concerns." She opened the door to the office, made another note, and tucked the tablet under her arm. "Our records say you're married to Nicole Whisenant. Is that still accurate? Can I meet her?"
He found himself folding his arms and hated himself for needing to. "We've been separated for a year, just about. We just haven't gone through the rigmarole of a divorce yet. But it will happen."
"Mm hm," she said. "I'll let myself out. We'll contact you."
"I thought our, I don't know, application expired three years ago. You know, all the paperwork."
Even though he expected this, it irritated him. Nicole could never just accept: she always had to nibble at the edges, trying to find an out. To anything. "It did expire. I still have all the papers in the upstairs file cabinet." The one you didn't bother looking through before packing and leaving. "But it doesn't matter to them. They reactivated our paperwork. Updated it. We're still on file as eligible for foster children. The social worker was just here a couple days ago."
"And you didn't bother telling me? Jesus Christ, Brian, I had to hear it from HR when someone called to verify my employment." The exasperated breath she blew into the phone sounded like a burst of static.
I'm telling you now, God damn it! he shouted silently, took a breath, and closed his eyes. "I should've told you earlier, yes."
"Why us? I mean, why now?"
He glanced at his laptop's clock icon. Just a few more minutes until the client meeting. "You watch the news. They're not just encouraging them to cross the border. They're flying them in on jets."
"Yes, but why?"
It came out before he could stop himself. "Why're you asking me why other people're doing things?"
"Whatever." She didn't speak for several seconds, and he imagined her shaking her head. "I assume you told them no, that we're not together any longer."
"They know. It's not like we have a choice. It's like...we got called up. Drafted. We're not the only ones, Nicole." He fought to keep his voice level, but he was sure it sounded strained. "It's happening everywhere. With the new influx of kids from South America, the system's stretched--"
"Yeah yeah, I got the same spiel from the social worker this morning when I had to call them to ask what the hell's going on."
Rather than tell her he wasn't about to apologize for not calling her earlier, he let the silence draw out.
"Jesus Christ," she finally muttered. "All because we wanted to adopt an Asian baby like everybody else."
"I got a client meeting," he told her.
"Okay, bye." She hung up.
The coffee from the dented urn on the corner table tasted like bitter dishwater, but he hoped it would clear up his headache before their names got called. It would have to happen soon; they'd been here for almost three hours and plenty of couples who had come in after them had already been led out.
Not that we're really a couple. He stirred Equal into the cup, tossed the tiny plastic straw into the wastebasket, and went back to sit next to Nicole. She'd put her purse along her leg as a wall between them, and they'd said less than ten words to each other since the ride over. Directly across from them sat a couple in late middle age. They held hands, talked in lowered voices, and smiled often.
Brian looked away and said to Nicole, "So what do you think it's gonna be like? A big long line of Nicaraguan kids in the gym? Red rover, red rover, let Pablo come over?"
She shrugged without looking at him. A year ago she would've laughed.
He knew something was wrong when a lady poked her head in from the opposite door, the one nobody had previously come in from or out of, and said, "Whisenant? Mr. and Mrs?"
They followed her down the corridor past the Mighty Ospreys trophy case and Yuletide decorations to a cafeteria. The tables had been pushed to the walls to make room for rows of brightly colored Pack 'N' Plays filled with crying babies.
"Hold on," Brian said, stopping short. "You said we'd be issued--er, matched with an older kid. School age."
As the lady consulted her tablet, he tried to make eye contact with Nicole, who was just staring at the sea of infants and shaking her head.
"Nope," the lady said, not unkindly. "Our records indicate that you're eligible for newborn up to late teens."
An unsmiling woman in pale green scrubs approached Nicole with a screaming, fist-waving baby in her arms. "You'll have to support the head," she said. "At three weeks, they need help with that."
The head, he thought, watching Nicole awkwardly take hold of the infant. He'd never seen her with a child of any age before, let alone a newborn. Not his head, or her head. The head. "Uh, is this a boy or girl?"
"Girl." The nurse hustled off.
"Sign this with your finger," the lady with the tablet said, shoving the screen in his face. "We'll set up an in-home assessment for three weeks from today."
Still watching Nicole hold the baby, he made an illegible scrawl in the indicated box. As red-pink and distressed as the infant was, he couldn't tell if she was cute, ugly, or even if she had any hair under the hospital-issued skullcap.
When it came time for Nicole to sign, he tried to remember how he'd held his sister's baby, couldn't, and settled for the same uncomfortable-but-gentle carry Nicole had managed. It would've been nice if she had quieted at his touch, but the baby's screaming continued unabated. Does she need a bottle? Diaper cha--
"Where's your infant car seat? Did you leave it in the car?" the lady asked.
Nicole shook her head. "We thought we'd get an older child, so, we don't have one. Just a booster seat."
"We can't let you leave without a properly installed infant car seat. Safety regulations."
Frowning, Nicole blew out a sigh. "We passed a Target on the way here. I'll pick one up." She turned on her heel and stalked out.
"You can wait at the tables," the lady told him, gesturing. "The courtesy bags have a six-pack of Enfamil, diapers, and an extra blanket. We'll email you with the paperwork, including health information about the child, in three to five business days. If you have any questions, visit florida.healthcare.gov and follow the prompts."
He couldn't hear her over the baby's crying. "Uh. Okay."
"Hold on," he said. "We talked about this. I have a conference call at three with the angel investors, and--"
Nicole stopped at the door and said without turning around, "Yes, I know. I just have to stop in to pick up some files. I'll be back before three."
It'd be nice if I had some goddamn time to practice the presentation a little, he thought at her back as she closed the door. Thanks for adding to the stress. Still shaking his head, he sat back down on the floor and watched Adriana strain and squawk her way through the five minutes of tummy time per day the website had suggested.
Brian didn't care for the name Adriana, but during a rare moment of amity, he and Nicole had gone to babynames.com to find the most popular Nicaraguan names, and selected Adriana as a compromise between Odili and Lucia. They couldn't just keep calling her "the baby," and after two weeks, the name kind of fit.
She didn't sleep through the night. In fact, she didn't sleep more than a couple of hours at a stretch. Even though he had "off" from her Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, he still couldn't catch up on lost sleep, and felt exhausted all the time. He was just counting the days until they could enroll her in a full-time daycare. She would still need nighttime feedings, but he could at least get back to work during the day again. Two weeks of this and his brain was turning to mush.
They'd decided that once Adriana was in daycare, Nicole would move back to her apartment and they'd work out a new parenting schedule until the social worker located Adriana's real family through the Guest Worker ID Program. Adriana would go to her family and he and Nicole could return to their separate lives. Finalizing the divorce would be a priority.
When Adriana's squawking became out-and-out crying, he picked her up, wiped the drool from her chin with his T-shirt, and carried her around the living room until she settled.
Seven more days.
"Does she have a middle name?"
Brian shook his head. "We couldn't agree on one." The rough planks of the pier thrummed dully under the stroller's plastic wheels. "Who am I kidding? We didn't talk about it. We don't talk about anything. Don't have to. The daycare's pretty good about posting pictures and updates to Facebook. I drop Adriana off and pick her up on my days, and Nicole does it on her days."
She waited for them to reach the platform at the end of the pier before saying, "You know that's not good for her, right? Tag-team parenting. Not good for you, either." She knelt, undid the straps, and pulled Adriana out of the stroller, smiling. The baby grinned back.
Biting back a defensive retort, he watched her put Adriana into the crook of her arm. "She seems happy, doesn't she? And we won't have her for much longer. A couple more weeks, they said."
"So they found her... her real family?"
"Yeah, they think so. They were fuzzy on the details, but--" He stopped speaking when he saw her mouth crumple. "Come on, Ma. Don't...don't do this."
"How long?" she asked, looking at Adriana rather than him.
"Two weeks." Like I said. "Probably longer, because they're pretty incompetent. Isn't it good for her to be with her natural family? All her cousins and stuff?"
"I suppose. It's just a shame, that's all." She cleared her throat and fumbled a tissue to her face. "I kind of got used to having a second grandchild."
"Yeah." He stuck his hands in his pockets. "She looks cold. Let's go back to the car."
When he saw Nicole's name on the buzzing phone, he found his throat closing. There was no good reason for her to call him in the middle of the day like this. No good reason for her to call at all.
He swallowed, hit the answer button, and said, "Hello?"
"Brian. I...ah...got a call from the social worker."
"Okay." He found himself unable to say anything else.
"They found Adriana's uncle in Seminole." Her voice shook in a way he'd never heard before.
A very long pause. Just as he looked at the phone to see if she'd hung up, she said, "They're picking her up from daycare right now."
"Hold on. No. They can't do that. What about her stuff?"
"I don't know."
His face felt hot. Everything felt hot. "No. Just...just no. I didn't say good-bye to her. Today was your day. I didn't say good-bye."
"I know. I'm sorry, Brian."
"No. You didn't...did you..." His mouth worked, but nothing more came out.
He didn't remember the drive home. One minute he was sitting at his desk with a phone in his hand, and the next he was standing at his front door. He'd lost an hour of time, maybe more. It didn't matter.
His phone buzzed. Perhaps it was Nicole, wanting to talk about things. That would be nice. Adriana hadn't brought them back together, but maybe her departure would open a new door in their relationship. Or, better yet, it could be the daycare people, asking why nobody came to pick Adriana up. This whole thing could be a mistake.
"My name is Darlene Weeks, and I work for the Florida Department of Children and Families. Our records indicate that your household is currently eligible for foster care..."
More in Dystopia...
by Carol Kean
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