As soon as the couple walked into the office, the teen drew up his legs in the plastic chair and wrapped his arms around them. He tucked his face against his knees and tried to make as little noise as possible as he breathed.
The man was tall, erect, with a military carriage, and a shaved head. The woman was his opposite, plump and diminutive with a little bow mouth. She carried a purse on her forearm just below the three-quarter sleeve of her turquoise blouse. Again, her opposite, he wore a white dress shirt with a plain tie. His broad face was set in a serious mask, a contrast to his wife’s smile and lively eyes.
George Washington glanced at the boy and found his gaze linger in wonder at how small he made himself.
“This way,” instructed Anne Lee, the Permanency Specialist, as she led the couple into her office. They took a seat and she began with an apology. “I know you weren’t necessarily looking to take another boy so soon but Alexander needs an emergency placement.”
“What exactly happened?” Washington asked. He sat with his back straight against the chair.
“We’re not sure,” she admitted. “His foster family called and said he attacked the father and he had to hit the boy in order to protect himself. Alexander says he fell down the stairs. He’s refused to see a doctor but we don’t believe anything is broken.” Anne’s lips stretched in a thin line. “This type of behavior has happened with him in the past. He’s been in many foster homes since his initial placement in the system at thirteen.”
Washington crossed his arms. “Is it all he-said-she-said?” he asked.
“Well… These are the reports.” Anne tried to hand him a stack of papers but Washington refused.
“Unless you have concrete evidence that the boy—Alexander—is a danger, I don’t want to see or hear it.” His voice was deep, firm. “He’ll let us know who he is. He deserves a clean slate.”
“Yes, sir,” she murmured and glanced at the wife Martha who kept the pleasant expression on her face while her husband spoke. “He’s never been arrested or charged with a crime.”
Washington gave a brisk nod and looked at his gold watch on a leather band. “Any questions, dear?”
“Is his preference to be called Alexander?” Martha asked.
“Yes.” Anne gave a brief smile. “He tends to correct anyone who calls him Alex.”
Washington stood and took his wife’s elbow. “We have a room ready for him. Don’t consider this an emergency or temporary placement. He’ll be fine.”
“Yes, sir.” Anne opened the door and let the couple go out first. “Alexander?” she called to the teen. “This is George and Martha Washington. You’ll go with them.”
The teen stood and Washington realized his smallness in the chair wasn’t that difficult of a feat. He stood, maybe, 5’7, all bones with a thin face and a nose he hadn’t grown into. Messy red hair fell in his eyes and he didn’t bother to brush it aside.
Hamilton followed his new foster parents without a word and grabbed the trash bag by the door that held his things before they went outside. He only glanced up once when they approached a Cadillac, certain that couldn’t be the couple’s car. But he heard the locks click and Washington opened the passenger door for his wife.
Taking a deep breath, Hamilton opened the back door, scooted inside and stuffed his trash bag on the floor near his feet. He buckled his seatbelt and folded his hands in his lap to stop the trembling.
As they drove away from downtown, Hamilton kept expecting Washington to turn and stay in the area where most of his previous foster families had lived but they kept going west and he found himself lost in the wealthy suburbs, a world away from where he’d grown up in the poorer areas near downtown.
No one spoke during the drive. Washington turned off the parkway and stopped at the entrance to a gated community.
This was a joke, right? Hamilton studied the houses as they continued through the gate. Washington was just showing him what kind of houses decent kids lived in. No way was this where he would actually live.
Two minutes later, Washington turned into a long driveway and pressed the button on the garage opener clipped to the visor above his head.
The house wasn’t as large as he expected, Hamilton was slightly disappointed to see, but it had a Victorian charm and a large front porch. Plus it had an attached garage and he could only remember one other foster home even having a garage. A van was parked adjacent to where Washington pulled in. Shelves and cabinets lined the walls with multiple boxes labeled for holiday decorations. The other side of the garage held an assortment of tool chests and bikes. A collection of garbage cans and a few boxes divided the middle.
“Well, this is home,” said Washington. He cut the engine and closed the garage. He and his wife got out of the car.
Hamilton moved slower and dragged out his trash bag. He stood by the car as he heard the couple discussing something about their dogs. Better to get this over with, he decided, and set his bag down and undressed. Every other foster family insisted he strip before he entered the house to ensure he didn’t bring bugs in on his clothes. He had to shower first thing upon entering and be checked over for lice—even if he’d only been at the previous home for a few days. The routine repeated each time. He knew the drill and it would be easier to do it himself rather than have military man Washington yell at him.
He was down to his boxers before the Washington’s realized what he was doing.
“You don’t need to undress, son,” Washington said.
Hamilton’s lip curled. “Don’t you want to douse me for fleas and lice?”
Washington exchanged a look with his wife. “No, Alexander. We can check if you think you have lice. We did get you some new clothes and you can change in your room.”
“Huh.” Hamilton reached down to pick up his clothes.
“You can get dressed and meet the dogs,” Washington said. “We have three.”
“I’ll put them outside,” Martha told her husband and opened the door into the house. High barks erupted when the dogs saw her and faded as the door closed.
Hamilton didn’t move and hugged his shirt and jeans to his chest.
“I realize you don’t know anything about us,” Washington said. Even when his face relaxed a little his voice remained low and gruff. He never let the stiffness in his back and shoulders decrease either. “I’m sorry this all happened so fast.”
“Always does,” muttered Hamilton.
“We have a son who is the same age as you,” Washington continued. “You’ll have your own room. We don’t have any other foster children right now. The dogs—”
“I don’t care,” Hamilton snapped. He pulled back on his t-shirt and jeans.
Washington spotted multiple bruises before the pale skin was covered. He gave a nod and opened the door, motioning for Hamilton to go first.
The boy stomped inside and stared into the family room. Three small dogs watched him from the sliding door.
“Do you want me to show you around?” Washington asked.
“No,” Hamilton said curtly.
“Meet the dogs at least so they know who you are.” He stepped around Hamilton and headed for the back door.
Hamilton followed in his socks and stared at the wood floors.
The back door slid open with a faint squeak and the three dogs rushed in. They didn’t jump on him or bark, though, and sniffed at his legs.
“Marquis is the white one,” Martha said. “Mugsley is the pug. They’re both quite old. Potomac is the brown terrier. He’s our newest rescue.”
Hamilton knelt down and let the dogs sniff his hands. Potomac licked him. “Do you always rescue?” he asked.
“Yes,” Martha said. “We’re partial to adopting senior dogs. In Potomac’s case, he was special needs and had been hit by a car before he was brought to the animal shelter. The vet wasn’t sure how much neurological damage he suffered but with love and care he bounced back.”
“Huh.” He got to his feet at the sound of footsteps coming from beyond the kitchen.
“Hamilton, this is our son Lafayette,” Washington said with a nod at the tall teen.
“Hi,” Hamilton mumbled and tried to get a quick read on his foster brother. If he didn’t figure out his place fast, there was bound to be trouble. This Lafayette wasn’t the couple’s biological child, though—at least he didn’t think so since he looked like neither parent—he was somewhat relieved to see.
“Hello.” Lafayette held out his hand. He had brown eyes, dark skin, and curly black hair. He gripped Hamilton’s hand in a tight grasp.
Washington rested a hand on his son’s shoulders. “Let’s show Alexander to his room.”
The two were the same height—over six foot—and made Hamilton feel tinier as he walked between them.
Through the kitchen, the house opened up into an open foyer with a front sitting room and the staircase near the front door. Upstairs, a long hallway led to the bedrooms. The master bedroom was at the end of the hallway.
“You’ll have the bedroom across from Mom and Dad’s,” Lafayette said. He indicated to the one nearest the stairs. “This one is mine.”
Hamilton went down the hall and into his new bedroom. It was a decent size with a queen-size bed, dresser, and desk.
“There are some clothes in the closet,” Washington said. “Come downstairs when you’re ready.” He and Lafayette walked away talking, Washington’s boots hitting each wood stair with a tap.
Hamilton closed the door to his bedroom and leaned against it. That was by far the weirdest foster family introduction he’d ever had. He stepped across the room and looked out the single window. A large tree blocked most of his view.
Oh, well, he decided. He wouldn’t be here long anyway.
A few pairs of jeans and t-shirts hung in the closet. He grabbed one of each and headed across the hallway to shower. He locked the door and tested the doorknob to make sure it wouldn’t turn.
After a quick shower to rinse off the unpleasant memories of his last foster family, Hamilton dressed and crept downstairs.
The family was gathered in the kitchen getting dinner ready. Lafayette set the table while Washington took a chicken out of the oven. Martha stood by the sink mashing potatoes. Hamilton watched from the doorway and wondered if the excessive food and tidy table were for his benefit. He’d never had a foster family that ate together very often, let alone a meal that required more than two dishes to cook it all in. Besides chicken and mashed potatoes, Washington set out a bowl of carrots and another of sliced fruit. Lafayette grabbed rolls and jam from the pantry.
Washington pulled out one of the kitchen chairs. “Take a seat, Alexander.”
The teen remained where he was. He looked around for the dogs and spotted them through the doorway into the family room sleeping on the couch.
“Do you like milk?” Washington asked.
“Um, yes,” Hamilton mumbled and kept his eyes down. “Sir.”
Washington filled glasses with milk and took the seat at the head of the table. His wife and son soon joined him on either side.
“Come on, dear.” Martha beckoned him over. “You can sit next to me or Lafayette.”
Hamilton shuffled over and took the seat next to Martha that Washington had pulled out earlier.
Food was passed around the table. Hamilton filled his plate with small portions not wanting to appear greedy. Lafayette was their real child and deserved to have his fill first. Several foster families had impressed upon him and reinforced the idea of seniority and food consumption.
“That can’t be enough to fill your belly,” Martha chided and added another piece of chicken to his plate. “There is plenty, dear.”
“Thank you,” Hamilton murmured. He glanced at Lafayette, waiting for him to complain but the teen went on eating and telling his dad about some summer program he was enrolled in.
After he cleared his plate, Hamilton glanced at the bowl of mashed potatoes. He reached to take it but stopped before his hand was more than a few inches off the table as Lafayette grabbed it first and dropped a scoop on his plate. “Do you want more, too?”
“Please.” Hamilton stared at his plate.
“Well, take the bowl,” Lafayette said.
“Oh.” Hamilton reached for it having expected Washington or Lafayette to deny his request for seconds. He took only a small spoonful.
After dinner, father and son took the dogs outside while Martha cleared the table.
“I can help,” Hamilton said. He clutched the back of his chair. Foster kids were supposed to do chores, he knew. They were free labor for which foster parents got paid.
“Maybe tomorrow night,” she said with a smile. “Why don’t you get settled in? George and I enjoy quiet evenings watching TV. You’re welcome to join us or take some time to yourself.”
Hamilton left the kitchen and grabbed his trash bag from the hallway. He didn’t have much to put away in his room. Some socks and underwear, more holes than fabric, one other pair of jeans and a few threadbare shirts. He dumped everything in one drawer of the dresser.
At the bottom of the bag was his worn backpack. Everything precious to him he kept in there to ensure it was always with him and not subject to the whims of uncaring foster parents or children. It was easy enough to do, as few of his belongings had survived the hurricane prior to his mother’s death and the countless moves after. He pulled out the old stuffed animal, a few random plastic toys, and a favorite book. Could he trust these items here, he wondered? He put them back in the front pocket and re-zipped the bag.
He jumped at the knock on his door.
“May I come in, dear?” Martha asked.
“Y-yes,” Hamilton stumbled, used to anyone barging in without a care.
Martha came in with a laundry basket on her hip. “Hopefully, these will fit.” She set the basket of socks and underwear on the bed. “We didn’t have much time to prepare and you’re so skinny. I’ll take you to get more clothes soon.”
Hamilton chewed on his thumbnail. He doubted any other seventeen-year-old boy had ever been so excited to see new socks and underwear and didn’t know what to do. “I appreciate it,” he said softly.
“You just let us know anything you need,” Martha said and patted his shoulder. “I know that will be hard for you, but, please, don’t hesitate.”
Hamilton nodded and caught a whiff of her vanilla perfume. He could remember his mom’s scent—mango. She had died when he was twelve, not long after a hurricane destroyed their home. His father had abandoned them long before that.
After Martha left, it wasn’t long before thundering footsteps sounded up the staircase. Lafayette appeared in the doorway a moment later. He wore a huge grin and held something behind his back.
Hamilton hunched his shoulders and made himself smaller.
“At ease, little lion,” Lafayette teased. “Here.” He held out a small box.
The foster boy took it and continued to believe this whole scenario was a joke. The house was too perfect, there was food, he had his own room, and now this? Why would the Washington’s get him a smartphone on his very first day—or ever—in their home?
He eased the lid off the box slowly, certain a bug or something would fly out. Nope, an actual smartphone. “I-I don’t understand.” Hamilton stared at the smooth, black screen.
“It’s a cell phone,” Lafayette said.
“Yeah, I know that.” Hamilton’s cheeks burned at the implication that he was stupid. “Why?”
“That’s what Mom and Dad do,” Lafayette said with a shrug. “You’ll be treated well here. The phone is all set up for you. I put our numbers in there and added a few apps.”
Hamilton stared at the phone. He doubted he’d ever held something so expensive before.
“Well, turn it on, bro.” Lafayette punched his arm.
He didn’t want to. This had to be a prank and the illusion would be shattered if he turned on that phone.
Lafayette scratched at his head. “It should be the two side buttons to turn it on,” he explained. “Here, I can if you want. I was going to add some music, too, but didn’t know what you—why are you shaking?” He rested a hand against Hamilton’s shoulder. “Sit down, Alex. Are you okay?”
Hamilton sat on the edge of the bed. “I-I just—I can’t believe any of this. How—I’m waiting for this to be a joke. This is all insane.”
“What you’ve been through is insane,” Lafayette said. “This—” he indicated to the room and beyond “—is normal. You’re safe. None of this is a joke, I promise. I thought the same myself when I first came here but it’s only remained awesome. Mom and Dad truly care.” He wrapped an arm around Hamilton.
His height and handsome mature face made him seem older to Hamilton. He seemed so confident and sure that nothing bad could happen to him.
Hamilton hoped the feeling was contagious.