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First Day

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The car ride to Astra’s new school was filled with Disney’s ‘Frozen’ Soundtrack and anxious silence. Astra fiddles with the sweater sleeves of her uniform and tugs on a loose thread. John was almost as nervous as her. He knew how cruel kids could be, but he also knew how important friends were. She would become just like him if she didn’t at least attempt to go to school and he wanted to avoid that at all costs. He pulls into a parking space near the school gates and turns the car off. He reaches out and places a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“John, what if they laugh at me?”

He resists the urge to tell her to kick them in the bullocks. “We’ve been practicing your reading and writing at home, right? You’re a smart girl, you’ll catch up with the others in no time.”

She stares blankly at the dashboard.

“Are you ready to do this?”

Astra balls her little hands into fists and gives a determined nod.

John smiles and goes around to the trunk. He slings her schoolbag filled with books, lunch, and a pencil case over his shoulder. His hands are clammy, but Astra doesn’t seem to mind as she tangles their fingers together.

“They’ll be someone waiting in the office to show you to your classroom. Do you want me to come in with you?”

Astra nods and her grip on his hand tightens as they enter the schoolyard. It was a nice little private school that excelled in personalized education plans for children of special circumstances. It put a considerable hole in John’s already less-than-impressive income, but Astra was worth it. She was always worth it. The office smells of perfume and so does the woman who greets them. She was the head of their ‘pastoral care’ section. John gives her his best charming smile.

“Hiya,” she says softly. John had made Astra’s personal circumstances very clear when enrolling her. Although, a year ago the Newcastle incident had made the news, so there wasn’t any well-informed adult who didn’t know the story.

“John,” he says, reaching out to shake her hand.

“Caroline,” she replies, clasping his hand warmly.

Astra ducks behind John, unsure of the new adult. John gives her hand a squeeze, “It’s okay, luv.”

“Hello, Astra. I’m Mrs. Gentner. I’ll be taking care of you while you’re at school. Would you like to see where your classroom is?”

Astra nods shyly, peeking out from the furls of John’s trenchcoat. He had washed it specifically for this occasion. Growing up in a lower-class neighbourhood, he knew how classist snotty nosed rich kids could be, but for what he could afford, there shouldn’t be too many of the extremely rich around. The school grounds were kept neat and had plenty of trees and cement pathways joining classrooms together. Astra’s face lights up when she sees the size of their playground and her classroom is painted a soft green. It’s filled with student artwork and bright, colourful posters. The school had a program for new children where they would arrive to school in the morning fifteen minutes early so they could get themselves settled before the onslaught of other children arrived.

“You can put your bag in one of the slots here,” Mrs Gentner says, gesturing to a large array of shelves along the back wall of the classroom.

Astra scans them with her eyes before pointing to one that was painted a deep pink. John shrugs her bag off of his shoulder and hands it to her so she can put it away. Astra silently wanders the classroom, observing everything in a way that gave away her intellect.

Caroline notices John’s nerves and smiles at him, “Is this your first time?”

He chuckles, “Uh, yeah. I wanna do right by her. Give her the chance I never had as a kid. A year ago, I would have never imagined fostering her. Now I can’t imagine life without her.”

“I’m glad she found someone like you,” Caroline says.

John shrugs off the compliment with the awkwardness and determination that childhood trauma and mental illness which made him believe himself to be unworthy of such words of praise permitted him to do. It was a practiced skill.

John can hear the screams of other children as they begin to play outside, waiting for the school bell to ring.

“Astra,” he says, calling her over.

Astra’s bottom lip starts to quiver in anticipation of the next words out of John’s mouth. She was so scared. Everything was new and John was going to leave her. The two were inseparable and she hated being alone in new situations. Something bad was going to happen, she was sure.

He squats down to her level and pulls her into a big hug, “You can do this, My Stars. You’re so much braver than you think.”

Astra's name was Latin, meaning 'stars', hence the affectionate nickname.

“Can’t you stay longer?” she whimpers. To hear her beg for him like that makes John want to tear up, too.

“I’ll be back to pick you up this afternoon. Mrs Gentner will take care of you. Promise, luv,” he assures her, wiping her tears from her cheeks with his thumb.

She sniffles, but puts on a brave face, “Diana would want me to do it.”

John laughs breathily, “That’s right, she would.”

“Okay,” she says with a sigh, “Bye, John.”

“Ta, luv,” he embraces her again and pecks the top of her head before turning away.

"Diana?" Caroline asks.

"Wonder Woman. She loves her," John replies as he walks away. He neglects to mention that she's met her, too.

He didn’t expect leaving Astra in the hands of a relative stranger to be so hard, but despite all of his best efforts, tears sting his eyes. He frowns and wipes at them, stubborn and quick and refusing to acknowledge any of the kids who stare up at him with curiosity.

He throws himself into the front seat of his car and reminds his dumb, anxiety filled brain that she'll be okay. No one was going to hurt her.

He lights a cigarette with his trembling hands and decides to go home and take one of his anti-anxiety drugs. Being a first-time foster dad was hard, but Astra was worth it.