Hello, readers. I've missed you.
Disclaimer: not mine, no profit.
Thanks: Amilyn, girleffect
Credits: Donald Hall for his Caldecott-winning text.
And to the person who leaves hateful reviews regarding what he or she THINKS is my or my character's outlook on disabilities: you obviously, OBVIOUSLY, do not know me nor my work. Please inform yourself and read closely. You will find that you are, in short, wrong. Thank you.
. . . .
His pocket's heavy with coins
for this year's salt and taxes.
-The Ox-Cart Man
Sara climbed in Tony's car sat. Daddy leaned in to do the buckles. His face was close to hers. She could smell his coffee. "Be good," he said, and snapped everything tight. "Anything you break, you fix. Got me?"
This was Serious Business. Sara nodded to show she knew that. "Got you."
He checked the Velcro on her new hard braces and her new hard shoes. "Feeling ok still?"
No, they felt horrible, but she wanted to come home when she was done at Ziva's house. "Yes."
He rubbed her head and kissed it. "That's my girl. Tell someone if they start to rub. And have fun. I'll miss you."
That was a lie. Sara couldn't look at him. "Bye."
He closed the door. Tony drove them to Ziva's house and unloaded all her stuff and then they went together in the elevator without talking.
Ziva opened the door for them and smiled and kissed Sara's face and said, "Hello, Shaifeleh. How was your big appointment today?"
Sara wanted to hide her legs. "Fine."
Tony put everything in the extra bedroom and undid his tie. Did he live there, too? "That's a big step toward walking on your own, Bug." He gave her a pat and laughed at his own joke. "Get it?"
That wasn't a nice joke. "Yeah."
He got serious. "Hey, I didn't mean anything by that. I'm happy you're making progress."
Making progress. That's what the new therapy lady wanted. She was the one who made the doctor make braces. She was the one who made Daddy buy hard shoes. She was the one who made people stare even more and she was the one who made Sara was angry all the time. She made Daddy sick of Sara. What if Tony and Ziva got sick of her? Where would she go? She thought of mean Mr. Godwin and got so mad that she didn't even see Tony getting out the memory-matching game.
"No!" It was mean to say that, but she didn't care. "I'm bad at that game."
"No, you are not," Ziva said. She had a little plate just for Sara that she put on the table. "But it will have to wait until after dinner. Come wash your hands and sit down."
Tony put her on the counter so she could wash and made the water not too hot. She rubbed soap all over and watched it run down to the drain in white rivers. Why was she being so bad?
Ziva put her mouth by Sara's ear and whispered: "This is not punishment, Shaifeleh."
Her face was hot. "Daddy is sick of me."
"No, he is not. This weekend is supposed to be your time, too."
Her time. What did that mean? "He said I had to be good."
Ziva sighed and dried Sara's hands with a towel. "No one is sending you anywhere, Saraleh. Shall we talk about the judge again?"
"The judge signed the paper that says forever. Daddy showed me."
"Yes, he did. So why are you so afraid?"
Tony put her in a booster seat. She wanted to pick up her fork, but her hand did not listen when she told it what to do. "Because..."she started, but didn't even know how to finish. She looked at her purple-purple wheelchair in the living room and felt weird and hot and embarrassed. "Because I want to be different."
Ziva sat and sipped her water. Her belly was bigger. "I do not want you to be different. I like you how you are right now."
She was lying just like Daddy. Sara stirred her salad around and a tomato fell onto the tablecloth. It would make a stain. "I heard you," she said, and it was like tattling. "I heard you say that if you had a kid like me you would throw it away."
It got very, very quiet. Tony stood behind his chair like a statue. Ziva stared with her mouth open. Sara could see her straight, white, bottom teeth. Everything was ruined now. "Sorry," she said.
And then it was like someone pressed play. Tony fell down in his chair and they both started talking at once.
"That is not...what we meant," Ziva said. She sounded so mad that Sara heard that. "And no, we would not get rid of a child like you!"
"You came down the stairs and you were smiling," Tony said, and his voice was weird and high. "I didn't think you knew what we were talking about. I thought...I don't know what I thought but..." He huffed. "I'm really sorry. Is that why you've been so mad lately?"
Sara looked at the noodles on her plate. "Sorta."
Ziva came around the table and gave her a tight side-hug. "I am so sorry. Can I tell you something? Something...personal?"
Was personal like tattling? "Yes."
She took a deep breath and blew it out. "I know that you often have pain, and sometimes that pain is very bad. Am I right?"
Sara rubbed her neck. "Yeah."
"Well, I have a hard time with that. I have a hard time when you hurt and I cannot do anything about it. What you heard was Tony and I discussing how I was worried that our child would have something like OI and I would be powerless to help her or protect her."
Sara felt hollow, like the tree where Wise Old Owl lived. "Mr. Godwin hurt me and now my bones are all bad."
Ziva's eyes moved from her hair to her feet. She tilted her head. "Sara, your bones break because you have a genetic condition. Genetic means that it was passed down from your mother to you. You were born with it."
She stabbed a cucumber. "Mr. Godwin hurt me."
"Look at me."
Sara looked up.
"Your condition is called Osteogenesis Imperfecta. That is why your bones are fragile. Do you understand?"
Why was she asking that so many times? "But I was fine until Mr. Godwin."
Ziva looked at Tony. "Fine how?"
"I walked to the community center by myself. I went to the store, too. I got crackers. I bought them with a dollar, but Mr. Godwin thought I stole."
"I'm sorry," Ziva said.
Sara shrugged. "He didn't like me. He said I was stupid."
Tony put his glass of water down so hard it sloshed on his hand. "You're not stupid."
"That lady comes over and bosses me around. She thinks I'm too dumb to know. She bosses Daddy, too. I hate her. I wish she would go away and never come back."
Ziva's face got red. "She comes to help you so that you will be successful in school next year. She may seem bossy, but she cares about you."
Sara wanted to throw that fork right across the room, but Ziva would tell Daddy and that would be Big Trouble. "She made Daddy buy me hard shoes and she made the doctor give me stupid braces! She is mean!"
Ziva pushed Sara's hair back. It always got wild when she was mad. "You do not want to walk?"
"That lady wants everyone to hate me like she does."
"She does not hate you."
Sara threw the fork. It sailed through the air and knocked a clock off the wall. It fell down with a crash and glass flew all over. Then she felt terrible, but I'm sorry would not come out.
"I'll get it," Tony said. He got the broom out of the closet.
"She does not hate you," Ziva said again. "She sees your potential and that is why she is tough."
Sara wanted to put her head down on the table. "What's potential?"
"What we are capable of. You have a lot of potential, but I worry that you are not using it. You sabotage yourself. Do you know what that means?"
So Ziva thought Sara was dumb, too. "No."
"You destroy your own chances on purpose."
She pushed away. "I broke your clock. Daddy said I have to fix what I break."
"You will. Remember when I stayed with you at the hospital and that little boy invited you to play with him?"
That boy also probably thought Sara was stupid. "Yes."
"You could have had a nice time with him, but you were not kind and did not give him a chance. You did not give yourself a chance. That is sabotage, motek."
Everyone was quiet again. Tony put the broken clock and all the glass in a paper bag and wrapped tape all around it. Then he threw it in the trashcan. "I'll take that out later."
Ziva hummed. "Thank you."
He sat down and picked up his fork. "Not gonna eat, Bug?"
Her fork was gone. "No, thank you. Sophie was my friend, but I don't see her anymore."
"Your friend from school?"
Sara rubbed her eyes. "Yeah."
"Why don't you ask Daddy to call her up and come for a playdate?"
"She forgot about me. And she never wanted to play animals—only water table. We don't have one of those."
"Sabotaging again, Shaifeleh. What are you afraid of?"
She saw a lot of angry faces when she closed her eyes. "Nothing."
Ziva snuggled her tight. Sara let her. "Are you going to eat?"
"I threw my fork."
Tony put another one on her plate. "Here."
She ate four big bites of spaghetti and four big bites of salad. "I'm full."
Tony took her plate away. Ziva put Sara down on the floor. "I think we should put on a film and play a few games until bedtime. Do you agree?"
She scooted to the coffee table. "Can we play the matching game, please?"
Ziva looked so happy with her manners. "Yes. Please arrange the cards. Tony, what film?"
"Brave," he said.
Sara didn't know about Brave, but the little girl's red hair was wild. "Is she mad?"
Tony looked at the TV. "No, she's just..."
"A vildeh chayeh," Ziva finished, and they shared a secret smile that wasn't a secret.
"You said her," Sara said. She got two umbrellas and two cats. Where was Yaffa?
Tony didn't get a match. "What, Bug?"
"When Ziva was talking about the baby. She said her."
Ziva was embarrassed and it felt like ants walking on Sara's hair. "Yes," she said. Her voice was slow and soft. "The baby is a girl. She will be born in May or June."
Tony got down on his belly and tickled Sara's leg. She moved away. "Maybe you two can share a birthday." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Double presents."
Sara didn't have a birthday. She picked at the Velcro on one brace. "Can I take these off?" Tony went to help her, but she shook her head. "I can do it."
He waved his hands. Had she hurt his feelings? "All you, kid."
Her shoes had zippers instead of ties. Her foot came right out, even with those stupid plastic boots on underneath.
Tony touched one. "These comfortable?"
She peeled off one long, soft sock. He touched one of those, too. "Oooh, silky. Do they help?"
Sara felt shy and annoyed. "I don't know. Don't touch me."
His face had a hurt look on it. "Buglet, you're the best kid I've ever known."
She stayed still for a long time, trying to think of a way to not scream at him, but something horrible was growing deep inside her and it came out before she could tell it shut up. "I am not!" she shouted. Shouting was terrible. She was definitely going to have Big Trouble. "I am the worst kid. I messed up Dr. Goldman's office and I yelled at the therapy lady and I threw all my books on the floor!"
Tony did that calm-voice thing. "Those were bad decisions, but I know you be—"
Sara banged her brace on the floor. She was hot like a fire she saw eat up a whole house once. "Shut up!" she yelled. "Shut up! I hate you!"
Tony picked her up and stood with his hands under her armpits. He was going to throw her down. He was going to stomp on her and put her out with the trash and all the broken glass. "Stop that right now."
She arched her back. "Put me down!" He carried her into the bedroom. It was dark in there. Sara arched her back and he put her down on the bed with all the pillows and Ziva's baby-soft blanket. "No! Let me go!"
Tony held up one of those pillows in both hands. "Sock it to me, kiddo."
Sara stopped yelling. It got really quiet. "What?"
"You're mad and you need to get it out. Sock it to me."
Sara had done a lot of bad things but hitting was way off-limits. "I don't want to."
He wiggled the pillow. "It's just you, me, and Mr. Fluffy. Now knock his socks off."
She put her hands together tight. "No."
Was it really ok? Sara put one arm out and her knuckles whumped the pillow. It left a mark.
Tony smiled and wagged it at her. "You can do better."
Daddy would call that egging her on. She punched again. "I don't like hitting."
"This isn't hitting. You're boxing. It's an art form. You like art."
Sara punched again and it felt weird but good to see that mark get bigger. She punched again and it got deeper. She punched another spot and the first got smaller. She punched another spot and then there were one-two-three marks. She made four and then five and then more and more and more. So many that she couldn't count. And then she was punching not a pillow, but the therapy lady and the social worker and the doctors and that stupid big cast and the metal parts. And then she was punching Mr. Godwin and Mr. Shawn and Mr. Wolcott and Mrs. Wolcott and the dancing girl from the green shelter and the lady who said she couldn't have a blanket. She was punching all the meanness out of them and out of Daddy for sending her away. But mostly she was punching all that meanness out of herself.
And then Tony said, "Wow, Rocky-ette. Wanna take a break from the speed bag?"
Sara stopped punching. He gave her a washcloth for her face. It was nice and cold. She sucked on it and cooled her throat.
"Yeah," she said. The cloth was still in her mouth. "I'm sorry."
"Why are you so pissed, Sar?"
She looked down. That embarrassed feeling came back when she saw that she still had on one brace and shoe. "I don't know."
"You're such a great kid, but when you act like that I feel like I'm looking at a stranger."
"Let's make a plan to keep it from happening."
Her stomach was burning. "I hate this."
Tony was quiet for a long time. Sara could feel him looking all over. "Hate what?"
She wanted to punch that pillow again. "Being weird."
A shadow moved across the room and then Ziva said, "It is not about what you are, Shaifeleh. It is what you make of it." She opened her suitcase and pulled out pink elephant PJs. "Ask Tony politely to bring you to the bath."
There was no room in there for her purple-purple chair. She held her arms up. "Please?"
The bathroom smelled like flowers. Ziva helped with her clothes and then Sara climbed in the tub the safe way, with one hand always holding on.
Hair-washing always came first. Ziva poured shampoo into her hand and rubbed it on Sara's hair. "This is your weekend," she said. "What would you like to do with Tony and me?"
Do? More angry faces flashed before Sara's eyes, but Ziva's hands were gentle. "I don't know."
She poured water to rinse out the soap. It was like a warm sheet down Sara's back. "I would like you to make a decision. Do you need some suggestions?"
Sara washed her face by herself. "Can we see the poppins?"
Ziva made a little laugh. "Sure. Is that all you would like to do?"
She wanted to ask for a treat. "That's all."
"Out," Ziva said. Sara climbed out and there was a towel around her before she got cold. She was dried and rubbed all over with flowery lotion, which felt very nice. Ziva stopped with one hand on her neck. "I just felt your whole body calm down, Saraleh."
That was true. "Yeah."
Ziva put oil on Sara's hair and made twisty-curls so it didn't get frizzy. "Does a massage feel safe?"
Sara didn't move away. "Yeah."
She hummed and rubbed Sara's legs where the braces went. "Good. Pajamas, and then it is time for bed. I know you are tired after such a long tantrum."
Pink elephants over her head. "Sorry."
The bed was wide and warm. Tony had put all the pillows on the floor except for two. Sara pulled the blanket over her head and breathed out for a long time. "I'm sorry," she said again.
The light clicked off. Someone rubbed her head. "I forgive you," Tony said. "I'm excited for our weekend adventure. Sleep tight."
The bed dipped. Ziva hummed Doda Ayla's lullaby. Did she miss her? "It is painful to be so angry. Isn't it?"
Her eyes burned. "Yeah."
Ziva hummed some more. Laila, laila, Sara knew, but not much else. "I feel strongly that this is a phase, Shaifeleh. You are more than your rage." She pulled the blanket down a tiny bit and kissed the tip of Sara's nose. "Laila tov. I love you."
. . . .
Gibbs had to wait, breathing clouds in the cold garage, for the fluorescent bulbs to flicker to life. He hadn't gotten around to replacing the tubes. Hadn't gotten around to much of anything, really. Like unpacking his tools. The boxes sagged next to the workbench, breaking down under the weight of their contents.
The first was odd hand tools. Sets of screwdrivers and hex wrenches. Planers. Vice grips. Channel locks. He arranged and organized: some on the pegboard, some in drawers. They were grimy enough to feel real. He kicked up a cloud of sawdust when he folded the empty box for recycling.
The second was just as heavy. A phone book, some old magazines, and a binder at the bottom that was labeled simply Sara. Gibbs grunted; all her paperwork was in the dining room sideboard for easy access. He still needed it for tax purposes, the odd doctor's appointment, their upcoming trip to Pittsburgh. Her new birth certificate was in his safe deposit box at the bank.
Statements of Disclosure read the first page. He flipped through, bemused, unable to recall ever seeing this stuff before. Some were court documents written in legal jargon. Others were financial statements, invoices, figures from service providers. Sara's medical records were there, along with a list of social workers assigned to her case—five in all.
A psychologist's report was dated three weeks after she'd been taken into care. Sara is grieving, it said. She is confused, asked the whereabouts of her mother several times. Would not make eye contact. Paced. Would not sit down.
And addendum had been added a week later: Child's foster family is currently under investigation for abuse.
An intake specialist at a shelter noted: Broken wrist, bruising to face and chest. Possible rib fractures. Child is fearful. Speech is garbled, tenses confused. Hypervigilant. Cannot climb stairs without help.
Six months in—pediatrician: Underweight. Not meeting developmental milestones. No eye contact. Nonverbal.
There were ER forms—another broken wrist, broken ribs, head injury. Child is inanimate. Does not respond to painful stimuli. Autistic? DD/MR?
A home visit, eight months: The Seversons have decided that Sara's needs are beyond their capacity. Change of placement in process. Expected date of move: TBD.
Back to the shelter. Intake: Developmental delays, possible mental retardation, nonverbal. Request for therapeutic home denied. She'd stayed two weeks.
Nine months. Someone had her back at the shrink: No indication of receptive or expressive language. No eye contact. Does not play with toys appropriately. Estimated IQ: 65-70. Not eligible for Early Intervention. Addendum: Child's foster family is currently under investigation for neglect and abuse.
The next page was the ER report after Godwin had worked her over. He skimmed the list of injuries, unable to stomach them yet again, and landed on the social worker's notes. Placement pending: Gibbs, Leroy J. Single father. Federal agent. Former military. Gruff, but kind. Protective. Grown children? Release from hospital 3-5 days.
First home visit: House is clean, comfortable. Appropriate sleeping space. Focus of home is living area. Grown daughter home at time of visit. Fridge well-stocked. Sara quiet, but alert and not in obvious pain. Foster father vigilant, concerned.
Final home visit: Sara unwilling to engage, obviously fears moving again. Demonstrates appropriate attachment to caregiver. Clear speech, some eye contact. Adult daughter at home, "working," as per Gibbs. Petition to adopt filed. Court date: No later than 8/27.
Psychiatrist's report to the court: Sara demonstrates an eighteen-month global developmental delay. No diagnosis as of this hearing, but there are indicators of PTSD, expressive language disorder, learning disabilities. I am confident the adoptive father will obtain services to address these issues.
Further down: Placement Concerns: None at this time. Sara is thriving under the care of Mr. Gibbs and his family. They are consistent and flexible. They accommodate her frequent requests for physical affection, help her to engage in appropriate play, and stimulate her cognitive and linguistic development with books. Furthermore, Gibbs expresses his understanding that adoption is a lifetime commitment to this child and willingness to proceed. To use his words, he "loves his kid."
"Hey, Boss." Gibbs jerked his head up. Tim stood in the doorway, snowy-shouldered. He hefted a six pack and a pizza. "Mind a little company?"
"Not if you got food." He took the proffered beer. The first swallows went down like a ball bearing through grease. The pizza was meaty and greasy and good. "Think Sar's retarded?"
McGee shook his head, mouth full. "Not at all."
Gibbs pushed the binder in front of him. "They did."
He skimmed the page, flipped, and skimmed another. "She shut down."
"Are kids with OI usually slow?"
"Just the opposite—the research says they have higher-than-normal cognitive abilities."
Tim looked irritated. He flipped through a few more pages before closing the binder. "You're probably wrong, Boss. Anyone mention sensory issues?"
Gibbs ate a second slice in four big bites. "What are sensory issues?"
"Inability to manage or process sensory input. Kind of like a neurological traffic jam. Is Sara sensitive to things like tags in her clothes, loud noises, bright lights?"
It didn't take much to remember her meltdown in the shoe store. "Hate shoes. Hates anyone touching her feet. PT ordered some AFOs for her and she has been pissed ever since."
McGee nodded and finished his beer. There was a crease between his eyebrows. "Does she play with anything but those animals?"
"Might be because she just can't handle the input. But sensory issues are usually a secondary diagnosis to things like autism, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome..."
"Definitely. You got documentation."
"Yeah. Starting something called Floor Time on Monday."
"That will address sensory issues. Talk to the therapist anyway. See if you can get a dx on paper. I know Ziva has been documenting and organizing for you. Maybe the three of you should have a conversation."
Gibbs refused the second beer. "Yeah."
He closed the lid on the pizza. "Sara's needs mean a lot of people in your house. Must be tough for someone as...private as you."
He took that second beer after all. "Sar's been miserable."
"Makes it even harder."
He took two long swallows. When was the last time he'd had a drink? "I want a happy kid."
Tim looked out the window to the backyard. Theirs were the only footprints in the snow. "You've both been working really hard lately. Maybe you should take a vacation."
Gibbs snorted. "Right."
"Get away. Take Sara, go someplace warm, and forget about therapy for a while. Get to know each other again."
"Going to Pittsburgh next week."
"So go after. You probably need to book tickets and hotels that far out, anyway."
Florida was the closest tropical climate he could think of. A two-hour plane ride, maybe a room on the beach. White sand. Boat drinks. "Where can we fly direct?"
He scoffed. "God's waiting room."
McGee pushed the empties into a straight line. "You can fly into Fort Myers and drive out to Sanibel. It's beachy, good for kids. Good fishing, good shelling."
Fishing. He and Sara on the beach, rods in the sand, bobbers in the surf. "Anything accessible for her?"
"I'm sure there is. Want me to look into it?"
Gibbs thought, but shook his head. "I'll do it. Thanks, McGee."
. . . .
"Namasté, Daddy. Zeeba took me to yoga two times."
He shook her out of her coat and hung it on the peg. "Yeah? You have fun?"
"Yoga is peaceful. You should try it."
Ziva handed over Sara's overnight bag. She looked exhausted. "There's a parent/child yoga class on my block. I don't mind taking her."
"Want to and don't mind aren't the same thing, David."
She smiled. "I enjoyed it. And her stress level came down significantly afterwards." There was a tiny flash of fear in her eyes. "I'm not saying an hour of yoga a week will fix her anxiety, but it certainly seemed to help."
Anything that helped with the tantrums was fine by him. "Know anything about sensory issues?"
She looked almost delighted to be asked. "I have done some reading, but not much. It is something I can explore. Floor Time on Monday morning?"
He nodded. Sara was paging through a book he'd deliberately left on the coffee table. "Oh-nine-thirty."
Ziva nodded. "I will be here."
He gave her a quick squeeze. "Thanks. And thank DiNozzo."
She snorted. "I am certain he had as much fun at the aquarium as she did. Goodnight, Gibbs."
He closed and locked the door behind her. Sara held up the book. "Flamingos eat shrimp. That's why they're pink." He sat on the edge of the sofa cushion. She climbed into his lap and held the book out in front of both of them. "And no touching the...that thing."
She pointed. "Manatee," he supplied.
"Man-a-tee," she echoed.
"Want to go to Florida, sweet pea?"
She didn't look up. "Can we see flamingos?"
"Probably. Think a few days at the beach would be nice?"
She turned the page. "Yeah. Wow, manatees eat a hundred pounds of food per day. Can I get a new bathing suit?"
"Is yours too small?"
"No, but I want a new one. Hey, look, Florida panthers!" Her brow furrowed. "Oh, they're endangered. That's sad, Daddy."
He snagged his readers off the end table, where Yitzi was basking in lamplight. There was one small photo of a panther in the corner of the page. He squinted. "Sara, are you reading?"
She turned and looked at him. "Yeah."
"When did you learn how to do that?"
She blinked, face impassive. "I read to Zeeba when she was sick."
"Thought you had Ox-Cart Man memorized."
She turned another page. The Everglades. Turtles, alligators, a roseate spoonbill. "I do, but I can read it, too. I can read almost all my books."
Developmental delays. Mental retardation. He almost laughed aloud. "Why didn't you tell me, sweet pea?"
She shrugged. "I'm glad you let me come home, Daddy."
The Seversons have decided Sara's needs are beyond their capacity. Gibbs poked her small, round chin. "Look at me." She did, grey-green eyes wide and curious. "I'm your dad. This is your home. I want you to remember that. You get lost, you get scared, you come right back here. Got me?"
Sara didn't blink. "Got you. When do we go to the beach?"
She made a face. "More doctors. Yuck."
He pulled off her shoes and braces. Her toes pointed and turned inward. He massaged her tight calves. "I know it's hard. Let's pick out a few fun things to do, too, ok?"
"Like see poppins. More poppins."
They'd see penguins come hell or high water. "Done. It's late. Did you eat with Tony and Ziva?"
"Yeah. I ate vegetables."
"Attagirl. Ready for bed?"
She yawned and closed the book. "Yeah. Will you read to me?"
He carried her upstairs, changed her into pajamas, put oil on her hair so it didn't frizz. "What book?"
She got under her fluffy duvet, tucked her rabbit in beside her, and sighed. "Farmer book. It's the first one you ever read to me."
Gibbs didn't want to be reminded of that first meeting—how grimy she'd been, how lost, how empty. "Yeah," he agreed quietly. He opened to the first page.
In October he backed his ox into his cart
and he and his family fill it up
with everything they grew or made all year long
. . . .