“You can do this.” Eve thought sternly to herself. “You’ve tracked down WMDs and terrorists, you can handle an hour of small talk at a foster parent support meeting.”
She walked into the room, automatically noting the folding chairs neatly lined up in rows, the wobbling card table holding up a coffee station, and the different groups of people gathered together with snippets of their conversation drifting towards her.
“... wouldn’t believe the way he spoke to me the other day…”
“... and then they gave her second place! It’s completely ridiculous, but what else can you expect from a…”
“...poor dear is doing the best she can, but everyone knows that fostering really isn’t for single people. I keep trying to introduce her to my coworker’s son, but…”
“Nope! Can’t do this.” Eve said aloud, then turned around to pick up Cassandra from the next room and march away as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, she whirled around with so much force that she smacked into the man coming in behind her and nearly knocked him to the ground.
“Oh my god, I am so sorry, are you okay?” She asked, trying to check for injuries as the man bent over, trying to regain his breath.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” He coughed. “Wasn’t looking where I was going. Bad habit, but you know, every time I try to break it, I think about all the different methods used by cultures to enforce particular habits and why it’s so important to our culture that we pay attention to our surroundings, which clearly descended from militaristic necessity, as well as being aware of wild animals that might have strayed into the village, so really you could generally attribute it to the survival instinct that while ubiquitous, is not necessarily universal- oo! Ubiquitous and universal. Haven't used those alliterative adjectives together in a long time, not since-”
“Mr. Carsen!” Charlene’s disapproving voice called from the front of the room as Eve attempted to process half of what the strange man had said, all without pausing. “The meeting is starting, so if you would please stop talking Colonel Baird’s ear off and sit down.”
The man started slightly, then gave Eve a bashful smile. “Sorry. Another bad habit.” He gestured to one of the folding chairs. “After you.”
Sighing, Eve realized she had missed her window of opportunity to escape, and now was committed to the next hour of… whatever they did in support groups for those fostering ‘difficult cases’.
Deciding she could at least be polite, she introduced herself as the man haphazardly flopped into the seat next to her. “Eve Baird.”
“Flynn Carsen.” He whispered back, then a pointed glare from Charlene silenced him as she opened the meeting with the importance of keeping receipts in order to be correctly reimbursed.
An older man sitting next to Charlene laid a gentle hand on her arm, then added, “This is to be a safe place for people to come together and share our collective knowledge with each other. Raising any child is a difficult, yet rewarding journey, and raising foster children compounds that difficulty, and that achievement. Here we share, we learn, and we help each other. In this way, we can all make a difference in the world, however small.” He smiled softly at his audience, then nodded to Charlene.
As the older woman laid out the rules of order, Eve wondered aloud, “Who is that?”
“That’s Judson.” Flynn answered, and Eve noticed the admiration in his voice. Clearly they had a close relationship, most likely-
“Wait. Judson? As in the Judson Foundation for Foster Children Judson?”
“Yup. I don’t tend to come to these sorts of things, but when Judson asks, you really can’t say-”
An angry cough came from the podium. “We will now open the floor for whoever would like to speak.”
As different people spoke at the front, Eve felt Flynn studying her from the corner of her eye. Whenever she looked at him though, he snapped his head forward, trying to look like he was paying attention.
“Thank you to all our volunteers. Now, we will break into smaller-”
“NATO!” Flynn shouted and snapped his fingers, then realized everyone was staring. “Sorry.” He apologized in a stage whisper.
Charlene rolled her eyes and finished, “We will now break into smaller groups to discuss your young charges and the challenges they bring. Begin.”
“You’re NATO!” He repeated, turning to Eve with a wide, child-like grin. “I knew you were military, but that is one of the more unique branches. Counter-terrorism unit?”
Eve’s jaw dropped. “How the hell do you know that?”
“It’s fairly easy actually. I mean, your stance is clearly military, besides the fact that Charlene called you Colonel, plus you keep scanning the room to assess any threats, paying careful attention to watches, bags, even the coffee maker, which indicates you’re used to IEDs, and-”
“Mr. Carsen. Colonel Baird. I assume you’re talking about your foster children, since that’s what this time was intended for. Is young Mr. Jones experimenting with explosives now?” Charlene asked sardonically as Flynn ducked his head like an errant student caught by the teacher.
“No. I mean, not that I know of. Although an alarm clock did go missing, and a local Home Depot reported some missing fertilizer, now that I think of it, but I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” He beamed at Charlene as she shook her head and moved on.
Eve squinted slightly at Flynn. “Your kid isn’t actually going to blow something up, is he?”
“What? Oh, no. Probably not. Ezekiel’s more a trickster than a destroyer, although there are some very interesting Native American myths that cast tricksters as both creator and destroyer, truth-tellers and yet liars. It’s a fascinating paradox, actually-”
“What makes him a ‘special case’?” Eve interrupted, figuring that he would probably give her a whole lecture if she didn’t stop him.
“He’s a thief. Brilliant in his own way, especially at thirteen, but he mainly likes challenges that are behind locked doors. His last set of foster parents were ready to ship him off to juvie, but Judson intervened and asked me to take him in. I think Jake’s progress may have given Judson a false impression of my expertise, but it’s mainly because Jake can take care of himself.”
“Is Jake your other foster kid?”
“Yeah. He’s sixteen and he and Ezekiel have been… butting heads since Jones came to stay. Jake’s moral compass is straight as an arrow, but Jones tends to live solely in the grey areas. What about you?”
“Oh, Cassandra’s a great kid. She’s fourteen, really smart, driven, competitive. Just all-around a good kid.”
Flynn’s brows narrowed in thought. “Then why are you here?”
“You said yourself, this is the night for the ‘special cases’. Why are you here?”
Eve hesitated. “She’s… got some medical issues. It’s been pretty tough for her, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. I wouldn’t have even come to this, but Jenkins has been hinting at it for weeks, so-”
“You know Jenkins?” Flynn asked in delighted surprise.
“Yeah. He’s our social worker.”
“Mine too! He’s a bit grumpy, isn’t he?”
“I usually go with brusque, but yeah.” She smiled at him until movement at the door caught her eye.
Her heart sank as the volunteer who watched the kids waved at her urgently. “Ms. Baird, it’s-”
Eve was already out of her chair and down the hall before the woman could finish, vaguely aware that Flynn was right on her heels.
The small circle of kids parted as Eve barrelled into the room. “Cassandra!”
“It’s okay, Eve.” The redhead answered distractedly from the floor. “It’ll stop in a minute. I was just helping some of the other kids with their homework and they were talking about rainbows and the refraction of light in the visible spectrum… electromagnetic spectrum of ultraviolet light… ultraviolet radiation. Radiation... radiation is the collision of matter and antimatter...”
“Cassandra,” Eve said, trying to keep the strain of worry out of her voice as Flynn crouched down next to her. She half-heard a young man with a southern accent growl at the other kids to give them some room.
“Almost… Paul Dirac mathematically predicted the existence of positrons with a mass of 9.110(-31) kilograms... protons with a mass of 1.67262178 times -27 kilograms... neutrons with a mass of… oh. I smell peanuts this time.” She blinked and smiled uncertainly. “That’s not so bad.”
Eve let out a long breath. “Okay. Can you move? We need to get you to-”
“I’m not going to the hospital, Eve.” Cassandra told her, stubbornness suddenly lining the teen’s face.
“And I am not having this argument again. What if it’s getting worse?”
“It’s not. This is part of my normal now, and you need to deal with that.”
“Which is why we need a plan of attack.”
“I am not a soldier!” Cassandra nearly shouted, causing the other adults to pretend they weren’t listening and for most of the other kids to step back. Only a skinny asian boy and another teen with a dark brown fauxhawk stayed where they were, glancing between the redhead and Flynn, who was muttering to himself.
“You’re a synesthete!” He declared in realization, and both Eve and Cassandra turned to stare at him in shock. “Auditory and sensory hallucinations linked to memory retrieval.”
“Wow. Yes. Hi.” Cassandra said, smiling shyly at Flynn, tension from her argument with Eve fading away.
“Hi! So, let me guess, you have a photographic memory.” He turned and confided to Eve. “Like mine.”
Eve saw the other teen roll his eyes while the asian boy had disappeared somewhere.
“Only your brain is cross-wired. All five senses are linked to memory. Unbelievable.” He grinned at Cassandra in amazement. “How does it manifest itself?”
Eve tensed slightly. Cassandra normally didn't discuss her synesthesia, or its cause, with other people. She barely talked about it with Eve.
But clearly, Flynn wasn't normal. “Well, numbers are colors. Science is musical notes. When I do math, I smell things. Mostly breakfast.”
“That's incredible. Flynn Carsen.” He stuck out his hand.
“Cassandra Cillian. Nice to meet you.”
Eve sighed and tried again. “Look, I still think-”
“I am not going to the hospital.” Cassandra told her, smile disappearing.
“We need to see if you’re okay.”
Bitter anger crept into Cassandra’s tone. “I will never be-”
The teen behind Eve suddenly spoke up. “Maybe the Doc can check her out.”
They both turned to see him pointing at Flynn, who was now circling Cassandra and talking to himself.
“Doc.” Flynn looked up in confusion as Eve stared thoughtfully at the authority in the young man’s voice. “D’you think you could make sure she’s alright?”
“Hm? What? I mean, yes, I suppose-”
“You’re a doctor?” Eve asked dubiously.
“Of course I am.”
She frowned at him. “Of what?”
“That is a fascinating story. I actually hold the record in PHDs. More of a student of learning than any kind of discipline or doctrine, but I like to think of myself as more of-”
“Flynn.” Eve barked, and now she felt the boy watching her. “Can you help or not?”
Flynn blinked, then bent down to look at Cassandra. “Does anyone have a penlight?”
The young asian boy appeared suspiciously fast with a penlight Eve was sure used to hang on the keychain of one of the other parents.
“Ah. Thank you.”
As he shined the light into Cassandra’s eyes, Eve crossed her arms and resisted the urge to pace.
“It’ll be alright.” The teen told her. “He’s a good guy, he just gets distracted easy.”
“No kidding.” Eve said, but uncrossed her arms and tried to relax. “I’m Eve Baird, by the way.”
“She’s a Colonel from NATO!” Flynn chirruped, then a glare from Eve sent him back to studying Cassandra.
“Oh! You’re Jake. Flynn was telling me about you.”
“Yeah? What’d he say?”
“He said you were a great kid and-” She spun around quickly and yanked the hoodie of the kid trying to lift her wallet. “And you must be Ezekiel Jones.”
“Colonel Baird!” The boy said with an Australian accent and a charming smile. “Has anyone told you that you have a terrifyingly powerful grip?”
“The better to catch you with.” She responded, then held her hand out for her wallet. Sighing, he reluctantly handed it over. After a significant cough, he pulled out two more wallets and a phone.
“Hey! Those are mine!” Jake grabbed his wallet and phone.
“I assume this other one is Flynn’s?”
“I was going to put it back.” Ezekiel protested as Jake snorted in disbelief. “It’s more for practice than anything. Lifting from him is no fun.”
“Stealing shouldn’t be fun!” Jake snarled.
“Because Flynn doesn’t notice?” Eve asked, ignoring Jake’s grumbles.
“Yeah. He leaves the house without it half the time.”
Eve raised an eyebrow at the young thief. “Like today, perhaps? Then how did it end up in his pocket?”
Ezekiel froze for half a second before smiling and shrugging. “You could always ask him.”
Letting go of his collar, she hummed thoughtfully, then nodded at the penlight. “Once he’s done, make sure that goes back to its rightful owner.”
“There you go. All set.” Flynn stood and smiled at Eve, dropping the penlight absent-mindedly into his pocket. Ezekiel caught it halfway down and scurried off, with Flynn none the wiser.
“I told you I was fine.” Cassandra said with a pointed look.
“Yes you did. Alright, we should be getting home. It was very…” Eve searched for an accurate word, “...interesting to meet you, Flynn. Thanks for looking at Cassandra.”
Flynn beamed as though she had given him a resounding compliment. “It was lovely to meet you as well, Colonel Baird.”
Eve and Cassandra waved as the group of boys behind them, then walked to the car in thought.
“So. Flynn seems nice.” Cassandra broached gently, peeking at Eve from the corner of her eye.
“He seems weird.” Eve said as she started the car. “But yeah. I guess nice, too. If you like distracted, overenthusiastic bookish types.”
Cassandra gave her a look, then continued. “Jake and Ezekiel are nice too. Jake let all the little kids climb on him, and Ezekiel did coin tricks during the meeting. Do you think you’ll go again next week?”
“Not sure yet. We’ll see.”
The girl glanced down at her hands. “I’m sorry for earlier.”
Eve sighed. “I’m sorry too. Hospitals aren’t fun for anyone, and especially not for you. I just worry about you, that’s all.”
“I know. You’re just trying your best.” Eve looked over to see Cassandra giving her a small, encouraging smile.
Ruffling her hair fondly, Eve said, “So are you, Red. That’s all we can do, most days. Our best.”