Pale afternoon sunlight filtered in through the only window in my small office. It picked up specks of dust that glittered in the air between me and the tweenager glaring at me from across the desk.
“What would you like to talk about on this fine Monday, Claire?” I asked as I sat back on my threadbare, standard-issued chair.
Her stringy, dirty-blonde hair shifted when she lifted one of her shoulders to shrug. “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t even know you.”
“We met last week,” I said, the corners of my mouth lifting to give her a smile. “I’m Elsie, remember? The new temporary guidance counselor while Mrs. Carr is on maternity leave.”
Claire rolled her hazel eyes at me. “I know who you are. I just don’t know you.”
“Okay, what would you like to know?” Placing my arms on the plastic armrests on either side of me, I kept my gaze on her. “You can ask me anything. I want you to feel comfortable with me, and to do that, you and I need to build up some trust.”
For a beat, she just stared at me. Since her eyes weren’t narrow anymore, I took it as something of a win. I’d known when I’d taken on this job that I was going to be met with some resistance from the grade-schoolers who regularly saw Elena Carr.
“You don’t look very old,” Claire said eventually, studying me with her red-rimmed eyes.
It was obvious she’d been crying. Her lids were puffy and her eyes still had that glassy sheen to them.
She was putting up a good front, though. At first glance, I’d pegged her as being a little ball of anger, but by now, I’d picked up on the small tells that betrayed her.
Claire wasn’t angry. She was sad. It was right there in the downturn of her mouth, the slump of her narrow shoulders, and the lack of any kind of spark in her eyes.
I’d met with her for the first time about a week ago, and it was remarkable to see how much more defeated she seemed after only a few days. I had to get through to her today, even if it was only a small breakthrough.
“I don’t look very old because I’m not,” I said. “I’m twenty-eight but that’s not much younger than Mrs. Carr.”
Claire didn’t react for a long second as her eyes searched mine. When she finally replied, her voice was soft. “Do you know how she is? Mrs. Carr?”
A smile spread on my lips. “She’s doing so well. The baby was born a couple days ago and they’re adjusting at home.”
She returned my smile—reluctantly—but it was still something. “That’s good. I’m happy for her.”
“So am I.” Shifting in my seat, I folded my hands in my lap and decided to wait her out.
It was becoming clear that somewhere deep inside, Claire was a sweet girl. She obviously cared about Elena and the baby, and I got the feeling that she did want to speak to me. She just needed to figure out how.
Her eyes dropped to the pockmarked wooden desk between us before flitting to the bright yellow flowers growing in the pot in the corner. The office might not be mine for good, but I figured I’d add some personal touches in the time I was here.
Aside from the flowers, I also had a couple of framed pictures on my desk, a small oil painting on the wall, and a mess of my own stationery surrounding me. Brightly colored pens and sticky notes, a spiral notebook, and a handful of highlighters lay within easy reach. My happy place.
Claire took it all in before bringing her eyes back to mine. “Twenty-eight is old enough to have finished school, right?”
“Yes.” I smiled as I motioned to the framed certificates on the floor beneath the stand that held the plant. “I haven’t put those up yet, but I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Psychology. I’m working on my Doctorate at the moment.”
Claire’s eyes widened before she lifted herself out of her chair and walked to where the certificates lay. She bent over to swipe them up off the floor and carried them back to the desk while she examined them.
When she set them down, it was gently and with a certain kind of reverence I hadn’t seen in many twelve-year-olds. “I want to study psychology one day.”
“Yeah? That’s great. You should do it.” A tingle of anticipation ran through me. I was getting through to her. I felt it. Waiting her out was working. I just needed to be patient.
Claire fell silent again as she fidgeted with her hands in her lap, her eyes glued to my certificates. After a minute, I was just starting to wonder if she needed a small nudge when she finally started speaking.
“I don’t have a Dad,” she said suddenly. Her chin dropped and a tremble moved her shoulders. “My mother is raising me by herself. She’s all I have, but she hasn’t been around much lately. I guess I’m just… lonely and worried about her.”
My head tilted, but I kept my expression neutral. “Where has she been?”
“At work.” Claire’s lips parted on a deep sigh, and when she looked up, I saw tears welling up in her eyes. “She had to pick up extra shifts, and now it’s like she’s gone all the time.”
“That’s why you’re having trouble at school?” I asked, my voice soft.
Empathy and understanding radiated through me, warming me up on the inside and bringing with it the urge to hug this poor girl.
She nodded and bit her lip. “Yeah. Mom used to help me with my homework and stuff, but now she doesn’t have time. All the other girls…” Her voice got strangled and she trailed off, taking a few deep gulps of air before she regained her composure. “Everyone else is starting to wear makeup. Their hair looks nice.”
She chewed on her lip and she closed her eyes when a tear escaped. “There’s all this girly stuff happening and I don’t know what to do.”
My heart burned for her. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I stood up and walked around my desk to take the chair beside hers. Offering her my hands, I squeezed her much smaller ones and waited for her to meet my eyes.
“Being a girl is never easy, but it’s really hard being twelve. There are so many changes happening with your body and they can be really scary and confusing.”
She nodded but withdrew her hands and clasped them in her lap. “I just don’t understand why my Mom can’t be around anymore. I need her.”
“I know,” I said. “But if she’s working more, it’s because she’s trying to make a better life for you. Being a single mother is tough. Sometimes, they have to sacrifice time they’d rather spend with their kids so they can make ends meet.”
“You don’t understand,” she burst out, her little hands balling into fists and her spine shooting straight. “No one does. I’m all alone now.”
Breathing in through my nose, I watched as she sucked air into her lungs and glared daggers at me. Once she’d calmed down a little and didn’t look like she was about to spit a ball of fire at me anymore, I shook my head.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Claire. I do understand. Perhaps a lot better than you might think.” I reached for one of the photos on my desk and turned it around, running my finger fondly along the face of the woman on it before showing it to Claire. “This is my mother. She raised me by herself, so I do know what you’re going through.”
“Really?” she whispered as she took the photograph from me, eyes dancing across the frame. “She’s pretty.”
“She is.” I smiled as I brought my gaze to my mother’s heart-shaped face. “To this day, she’s my best friend. I don’t know what I would have done without her growing up and I still don’t know what I would do without her.”
“Did she work a lot?” Claire asked as she handed the picture back.
I set it down again but kept it facing us. Even through the picture, her kind, smiling eyes encouraged me. “She did. She’s a lecturer in psychology at a college not too far away from here. In between her classes, she has consultation hours, grading papers, counseling sessions, and she volunteers at a few places.”
“Were you lonely growing up?” she asked before sucking her lower lip between her teeth again.
I nodded. “Sometimes, but once I figured out that she was doing what she needed to do to keep us going, to support me as much as possible, and to stay true to herself all at the same time, it got better.”
“Is that why you also studied psychology?” She glanced at the photo again. “To follow in her footsteps?”
“Yeah, it is. She’s my best friend and I’ve learned so much from her.” I rolled my lips into my mouth as I tried to decide how much of my past to share with Claire. I could see she needed me to be honest, though. “I went through some rough times when I was about your age. I was bullied quite badly, and if it wasn’t for my mom, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it. I did get through it, though. With her help. Once I had, I just knew that I wanted to help other people like she had helped me.”
Claire blinked at me, a bushy eyebrow lifting. “You were bullied?”
I nodded and got to my feet, opening my desk drawer once I sat down behind it again. While I answered her, I pulled out a few sheets of paper. “Like I said, I know that being a girl can be hard at your age. I have personal experience with just how hard it can be.”
Claire frowned at the papers as I pushed them across my desk and placed a pen down on top of them. “What’s that?”
“It’s enrollment forms for an after-school program for girls nearby. My mother used to volunteer at the center, and I do sometimes too. When I have time. If you’re willing to give it shot, I think you could be happy there.”
Cocking her head, she pulled the forms closer and studied them. “What do they do there?”
I shrugged. “A little of this and a little of that. Basically, it’s a safe place for you to go after school. It’s free and the women who work there are kindred spirits, as well as the other girls. They’re pretty awesome. You won’t be alone there and there are plenty of people who will support you with what you’re going through.”
She paused before lifting her gaze to mine, worry clouding her eyes. “Do you think they’ll like me?”
“I know they will.” I offered Claire a smile and talked her through some of the activities offered by the center. Then I walked her out of my office.
“I think I’ll go check it out,” she said just as the bell rang. She joined the throngs of kids out in the corridor and was swallowed up by the crowd in no time.
Exhilaration traveled through me as I breathed a sigh of relief. The program was going to be good for Claire.
My thoughts were interrupted by a buzzing sound coming from underneath my notebook. A frown flickered across my forehead before I remembered I’d taken my phone out of my purse just before Claire’s session had started.
An unfamiliar number lit up my screen and my stomach grew strangely cold as I slid my finger across the green bar. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Elsie Landrum?” a clipped voice asked.
The cold feeling spread. “Speaking.”
“Ms. Landrum, this is Dr. Jennings over at Dallas General Hospital. You’re listed as the emergency contact for a Catherine Landrum. She’s your mother, correct?”
“Yeah—yes,” I stammered, my heartbeat kicking into a much higher gear as it raced like it was trying to break out of my chest. “Is she okay?”
“I’m afraid your mother has had a heart attack. We need you to come down here right away.”
The icy fingers of dread crept through me, wrapping around all my vital organs as my knees went weak. “Of course. I’ll be right there.”
Without bothering to pack up my things, I grabbed only my purse and ran at a full sprint to my car. My mind felt hazy, but my body moved on autopilot. All the way to the hospital, I sent up prayers to every deity who might listen that my mommy would be okay.
It hadn’t escaped my notice that the doctor hadn’t answered me when I’d asked him that question. Hot tears burned my eyes and spilled down my cheeks as my heart kept pounding in my chest.
After arriving at the hospital, I nearly slammed into another car as I made a sharp left into a parking spot. I ran inside without a backward glance. I didn’t even know if I’d locked the vehicle or not, but it hardly seemed to matter.
All that mattered was getting to my mother. People swarmed everywhere around me, but it was like I had tunnel vision. Announcements came over a system, but I couldn’t make out what was being said.
I managed to get myself together enough to ask a harried-looking woman at the front desk where to go. Then I raced off in the direction she pointed me in. A tall man with graying hair stood at the nurses’ station when I made it to the right floor, and as if he’d sensed me coming, he turned just as I threw open the door into the ward.
“Ms. Landrum?” he asked, stepping forward. “I’m Dr. Jennings. We spoke a little while ago.”
“Yes,” I said, my eyes wide as they darted from the doctor to the rows of doors in the hallway behind him. “Where is she? Where is my mother?”
His mouth formed a straight line and his eyes were kind as he gave his head a slight shake, saying the words that sent my world crashing down all around me.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Landrum. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.”