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They hired her the day after the interview by an old white woman also from the country, her accent still strong too, whose own children had grown up in the orphanage. Her husband dead, there was no one to watch them otherwise while she worked there. Jessica listened to this story the old woman must have told to anyone who had worked there, since long before Jessica was born.
“It will be a bit more challenging than the regular orphanage. You’ll be in emergency intake, where they bring kids when they’re overloaded in the ER’s.”
Jessica smiled and nodded.
“You can imagine the situations, I suspect.”
She smiled and nodded again.
She never slept the first night. First came a black girl not six years old, dropped off by two cops as they said four more cops took her parents to the Lew Sterrett center and booked them away for who knew how long. Probably a year before the state would take the girl for good, Latonya said, and then she could go to the regular orphanage. Foster home if she was lucky. The girl had sat staring at the book they gave her but not wanting to be read to, not reading it but staring, catatonic, but emergency intake were not supposed to try for more than stability.
Just as they had gotten all the girls down for bed along the hall the buzzer went off again and this time a howling animal with tangled brown hair broke from two lady cops and went screaming around the common room. The girl made as wide a circle as she could in the room, like a large low-flying moth knocking along walls and furniture, screaming long and short screams like Morse code for some horror movie. One cop stood in the center of this circle with Jessie and Latonya, leaning in to speak to them just loud enough to be heard by them but not the stricken girl.
“We show up on a shots fired and find this one in the bathroom, screaming then, was how we knew she was alive. She had to be standing about three feet away when her father puts the gun in her mother’s face and shoots her, then himself. All in the bathroom. The bodies were up against the locked door.”
“We had to bust it in through the top,” said the cop standing in the entryway, the other side of an arched passage, “Good thing it was a hollow core.” The cop in their circle glared at her partner outside it, already trying to turn the doorknob to leave. Then Latonya went and unlocked the door for them, and the two cops were gone. Latonya came back under the arch with the form and showed Jessica where you had to sign. Then she waited for the girl to run past as if waiting for a break in traffic to cross a highway, and took the form to the kitchen.
The screaming sounded like bad acting. Jessica stood there as if trapped inside the circle made by the running girl, shouting to be heard by Latonya. “Shouldn’t she be all shut down and quiet?” she said. “Why bring her here instead of the E.R.? How crowded—”
Latonya looked at her and then at the girl, still circling. “When they get backed up, we are the E.R., just like they told you, right? Let her scream. She needs it.”
They already had all the sharps locked away but the girl dropped onto a sofa and found a pen of Jessica’s sticking out of a book she brought for lights out and so it came to Jessie to face her down, jump out of the way of the stabbing pen and grab those arms and spin and trip the girl. A lot easier than taking down Latonya that morning in training. She sat rolling back and took the girl down wrapped in her arms, the wrists electric in her hands even as she pulled them across the girl’s chest, the girl quiet now as if shifting all her energy into the fight. She felt the pen catch the skin of her forearm and so she twisted that wrist until she heard the pen drop. They spun on the floor with the girl kicking and then the pen shot across the floor. She wrapped the girl’s legs in hers and squeezed and remembered to turn her head back just as the girl’s brown tangles came a wrecking ball back at her and caught the hinge of her jaw ringing her ear. The ear ringing again like shooting a shotgun and it was good the girl’s hair wet with tears and snot now covered Jessie’s face as Jessie’s eyes now watered, she thought from the pain. Latonya standing over them, watching, not saying anything. Training day at midnight.
Then, “That’s good. You done good, girl. You got her.” And then to the girl, “Now hush, Little One.”
Jessica had stopped her own tears. But the girl had gotten a leg free and that heel caught Jessie’s shin. She stopped a grunt in her throat.
Latonya now knelt and was leaning over them. “May I touch your hair?” she asked the struggling animal wrapped in Jessica’s arms and legs.
No sound at all now coming from the girl, who went limp so quickly that when Jessica relaxed, the girl’s spasm to break free caught her in the lower lip with that tangled head and she tasted blood along her gums swelling up the side of her tongue.
Latonya’s stern tone for her, “Did I tell you to let up? No. You don’t let up. Not until we can get a count. And we ain’t going for that yet.” She softened her voice, “Are we, Little One.”
And with Jessica’s arms and legs again squeezing this writhing thing, the girl again went limp and was making a sound now unlike that of a fighting feral cat. Something between a moaning chant and sobbing, and as Latonya bent closer and stroked the girl’s hair the sound faded, continued, but faded in volume. She hadn’t even seen the other children up, but now she heard the soft pads of small bare feet going back to beds down the hall. She and the girl were breathing together now, Jessica and this wounded girl. This— Just hold her. Just make her hold herself. Just hold.
Latonya stood smiling. Almost whispering, soothing, “There. You all be doing good now. Y’all just stays like that a bit.” Her eyes moved to Jessica’s, as if the two creatures entangled on the floor were not the same. “Jessie, you wantin a pillow? I suspect y’all need to just be like that for a while.”
“Seriously?” She heard her voice too loud for the now quiet little room so spare, anything that could be thrown or stabbed with locked away or bolted down.
Latonya nearly laughed. “Well. No time like the first time. Worked for me. Wasn’t the first night I worked but soon enough I was holding a passive restraint about five hours. Unintentional overtime.”
Jessica let herself exhale, breathe more slowly. But still holding tight, as the slightest loosening on one wrist brought an electric movement there again in the girl’s arm.
“I’ll give you a massage when you’re through it. If I’m still on duty.” And she came around with the pillow and lifted Jessica’s head and squeezed one end of it between her head and the hard tile floor.
“Sorry, Little One. Can’t give a pillow to you, on account of them raccoon’s teeth you got. But you just relax. Go to sleep even. And when you can count out loud to twenty sounding nice, we can get you into a nice soft bed. You gonna love that after this, I promise.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna be anytime soon,” said Jessica. The girl shuddering now against her chest.
Latonya was walking away, but she could hear her clearly. A voice she had not heard from her. Thin but clear, acid slipping down over bleak rocks. “I hate this fuckin world.”
The room went dark but for the light falling soft into the room and softer down the hallway from the bare bulb of the entry, the arch hiding the bulb itself from her, even as she lay entwined on the floor with this girl. But its light glared against the strip of night in the glass beside the door.
About Jay Ellis
Jay Lee Ellis has published in journals from Chelsea to Every Day Fiction, most recently winning the Open Fiction contest with Razor Lit Mag. Nonfiction includes books on Cormac McCarthy, Southern Gothic Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. After playing drums professionally from age eleven, then at Berklee College of Music, he earned graduate degrees in writing and literature from UT Dallas and NYU. He teaches writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. For more, visit jayleeellis.com.