Dingy halls and dimly lit walkways greeted us as we maneuvered our way past several small office spaces located along the narrow corridor of an old, government-owned building. “It has to be one of these suites.” Mom bent forward and squinted through the darkness to read the small font on the glass window to the left of the door in front of her. “But it’s not this one,” she sighed.
Meandering a couple suites further down the corridor, Julia started fingering H-R-S on the glass door. “What about this one?” she inquired.
“Health & Rehabilitative Services. That’s where we’re supposed to be,” Mom confirmed, stepping up beside her. Pushing the door open in front of her, Mom swept the air with her right hand, ushering us inside. A rush of stale air escaped the room as we entered—a rank and musty odor accosting our senses. I sputtered over a sudden cough. Firmly pressing my fingers to my nose, I thwarted the sensation of an oncoming sneeze.
Julia didn’t miss a beat. “Eww. This place smells,” she groaned. “It’s worse than Grandma’s nursing home. Did someone forget to flush the toilet?” Her words echoed off our surroundings, announcing our arrival.
Mom swiped my hand away from my nose and glared at Julia. “Shhh. Someone might hear you.” Her eyes darted around the small space, anticipation heightening her self-consciousness.
“Who? Nobody’s here,” I countered, surveying the nearly empty room. Bare gray walls, mismatched linoleum floors, and flickering fluorescent lights met my initial inspection. At second glance, I noticed two badly dented, brown metal folding chairs sitting against the far right wall. A flimsy particleboard table stood on spindly legs next to them, and a light bulb shorted in the antiquated token lamp on top of the half-beaten end table. Electric zapping sounds added to the ambiance, individual seconds ticking rhythmically off a white plastic clock above the laminate-based countertop at the front of the room. I shuddered involuntarily, glancing over at Julia. “This is like a scene from some horror movie,” I whispered, pointing to a spider web glistening in the corner above the lamp.
“How would you know? You don’t watch those kinds of movies,” Julia chided under her breath.
“But I’ve seen commercials,” I bragged in a low voice.
Julia rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I just want to go home. This place gives me the creeps!”
“Me, too,” I agreed. Running my finger through a thick layer of dust on the edge of the front counter, I cringed. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
Mom shrugged, pulling a scrap piece of paper from her purse. “When I talked with Ms. Quinones earlier today, this is the address she gave me.” Tucking a handwritten note into the palm of my hand, she motioned behind us. “You saw their name on the door. We have to be at the right place.” Mom strained on her tiptoes to see past the visual barrier of cabinets just beyond the front desk, which extended the depth and width of the room, then slowly receded back into her pumps.
“Still. It doesn’t look like anybody works here,” I observed aloud. A fly began buzzing around my left ear, and I swatted at it aimlessly. “There’s a lot to be said about the professionalism of this place,” I added, contorting my face.
“What? That there isn’t any?” Mom replied. The sounds of rustling papers and an ink jet printer spewing out copies echoed off the concrete perimeters. “Hello? Is anyone here?” Mom tried projecting her voice, but no response.
“What do we do now?” I asked, seeking Mom’s input.
She lifted her shoulders then let them sag in defeat. “I don’t know. Maybe they just can’t hear me. Hello?” she tried again. “Can somebody please help us? We’re looking for Nadia Quinones. Does anyone know where we might find her?”
Still, no answer.
Julia tugged on Mom’s shirtsleeve, bouncing up and down with renewed optimism. “What about over there? Look! It’s a door to some kind of hallway.” The allure of the unknown enticed her curiosity.
Mom turned and surveyed the partially opened door we had somehow overlooked. “I’m sure it leads to somewhere,” she acknowledged, “but we are not going to go snooping around. The last thing we need is to end up somewhere we’re not supposed to be—especially in a government building.” Pivoting on her heels, Mom headed to the door we had just entered, resigning her quest. “Come on. Let’s go.” Julia and I followed close behind, frustrated and discouraged.
“You’re no fun,” Julia pouted, folding her arms across her chest.
“Maybe not,” Mom agreed, “but you won’t find me in jail, either.”
I snickered under my breath.
“So much for getting to be the next Nancy Drew,” Julia jibed. “I never get to have any fun.” Mom ignored her self-pity.
As we began to exit, a husky, Hispanic female voice beckoned at our backs. “Is someone here to see me?” We all turned in unison to view a stocky, middle-aged woman with long, black frizzy hair standing in the forbidden doorway. A tight-fitting gray mini skirt, low-cut red silk cami, and matching long-sleeve blazer enhanced the woman’s call girl appearance. I tried not gawking at her bright red, five-inch stilettos, but they caused her to stand at an awkward angle. As we re-entered the room, she teetered toward us.
“Are you Ms. Quinones?” Mom covered the niceties, producing a warm smile. I fixated on the woman’s bright red Elvira-length nails, in awe of their lurid appearance.
“That would be me,” the woman established, “but, please, call me Nadia. Might you be Mrs. Blythe?”
Mom released a nervous chuckle. “Yes. That’s me, but please, call me Renee. Mrs. Blythe is my mother-in-law.” Mom adjusted her purse strap over her shoulder and walked to the middle of the room, politely extending her hand.
“Hi, Mrs….er…Renee,” Nadia obliged. “Like I said, ‘I’m Nadia Quinones.’ I’m the case manager assigned to your case. We talked on the phone earlier today.” She shook Mom’s hand, visually questioning the presence of children.
“Nice to meet you in person,” Mom acknowledged. She hooked her thumb around her purse strap and maintained a pleasant smile. “I’m afraid we couldn’t seem to find your receptionist. I’m glad you caught me before I left.” Mom glanced around the room once more, making sure she hadn’t missed anything.
Nadia laughed, seemingly amused. “I apologize for that. We don’t have a receptionist. Our policy is to meet with families in their homes. Our visit today is a bit of an unusual one.”
I eyed the woman from head to toe, suppressing the urge to speak. You can say that again.
“Honestly, when I left my card on your front door, I believed I would be hearing back from Mrs. Davis,” Nadia divulged. “Appears I was at the wrong house.”
“Oh?” Mom’s curiosity piqued.
“Yeah. Mrs. Davis was supposed to be my first contact. I somehow got your addresses mixed up; but, since you’re here, we might as well go on down to my office and get some details straightened out.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Mom agreed.
“Then, please, follow me.” Nadia’s loud, clickety-clack footfalls guided us down a narrow hallway, past several closed doors, and into a tiny room she called an office. A chintzy college-size desk and two inexpensive bookcases consumed most of the room. Piles of bulging tan folders and miscellaneous papers flooded the desktop.
No wonder you lost Colleen’s address, I mentally mocked the disorganization.
Nadia observed our stunned faces and fought back an embarrassed laugh. “Sorry for the mess,” she apologized. “Like I said, I don’t usually have visitors.” She pulled a metal folding chair across the faded linoleum in front of her desk and motioned for Mom to sit. Gazing around the room, she released a nervous chuckle. “It appears I don’t have enough chairs.”
Mom created a small space next to her for Julia to share, and I remained near the door, feeling a bit misplaced. “It won’t hurt for Hope to stand for a few minutes. I’m sure this won’t take long.” Mom shot me a glance, warding off any verbal protests. Instead, I crossed my arms and leaned against the doorjamb, producing a jilted scowl.
Nadia tottered around the desk and lowered herself onto a well-worn executive chair that creaked and moaned beneath her weight. We watched as she sifted through several stacks of paper, flustered at her own inability to locate our folder.
No disrespect, but a monkey could do this job better than you, I mused inwardly.
Leaning forward, Nadia laced her long, gaudy nails through her fingers and placed her hands in front of her on her desk, pretending to be professional. “I know it’s an inconvenience for you to be here today, Mrs. Blythe,” she began, “so I will try not to take up too much of your time.” She shifted in her seat.
Mom smiled. “I appreciate that.”
Fumbling a black pen out of the coffee can at the corner of her desk, Nadia flipped open a thick black notebook and prepared to write. “Let’s start from the top. Tell me. Why do you believe HRS is involved in your lives?”
Mom cleared her throat and wet her lips. “Well, it appears Colleen Davis—the woman you mentioned earlier—has mislead authorities into believing my daughter, Hope, here, has abused her child.” She motioned to my presence by the door. “However, there is absolutely no truth to Colleen’s story. Hope has never harmed her daughter.”
“And your daughter’s name is?” Nadia’s hand paused over the paper in front of her as she waited for Mom’s answer.
I felt my eyes widen in disbelief. She just gave you my name. Were you even listening? I inhaled deeply, forcing down sudden irritation. And I’m supposed to trust my future to you?
Mom craned her neck toward Nadia’s desk, attempting to see the notes in front of her. “Isn’t that in your report?”
Nadia blushed. “I’ve somehow misplaced the file for this case,” she admitted, “but I know it’s here somewhere.” She motioned to the clutter around her. “I’ll find it later. Right now, I’m just writing down some initial findings—information and details needed before the next stage of our investigation. It can be added to your file later.”
I squirmed inside. Investigation? Case? The words made me sound like a criminal.
“I see.” Mom scooted back in her chair.
“Let’s try this a different way,” Nadia suggested. She laid down her pen. “Instead of me attempting to figure out what I don’t know, let me tell you what I do know. Then maybe you can help fill in the gaps. Sound doable?” Mom nodded.
“This is my understanding,” Nadia continued. “HRS opened an investigation when the police department received an official report from a local doctor’s office. Being what’s called a mandated reporter, the doctor is responsible for reporting any concerns or signs of abuse. By what you’ve told me today, I’m assuming this Colleen lady must have been the one to give the doctor your daughter’s name, since your daughter is the one being accused of sexual child abuse.”
“So far, that sounds right,” Mom confirmed.
“As disconcerting as this is,” Nadia acknowledged, “please understand that an accusation of this magnitude does not equal evidence. Once the police are alerted to a situation, such as this, it becomes HRS’ responsibility to research the details and find out facts.” She noted the stress on Mom’s face. “Don’t worry. We deal with stuff like this all the time,” she assured us. “We’re aware there are some people out there who point fingers and work off of false assumptions. That’s why we’re called in to collect all the facts before coming to our own conclusions.” Nadia turned and looked at me directly, adding, “You’re not automatically assumed guilty, Miss Blythe.”
But that doesn’t mean you won’t believe Colleen’s lies, I rationalized in my mind. Then what kind of trouble will I be looking at? I’ve heard of innocent people going to jail. Will I be one of them? The thought disturbed me.
“And then what happens?” Mom asked.
“The courts will receive our findings and decide whether to take action or close the case. It’s that simple.” Nadia’s words sounded matter-of-fact.
Mom grappled with the thought. “And could action be taken against Hope on mere circumstantial evidence?” She braved asking the unthinkable.
“Mrs. Blythe, I understand your question, but let me remind you, this is just the beginning of the process. I still have to speak with the other girl’s mom, find out what the doctor thinks he uncovered in his examination of the little girl, and so on. Whatever information you can provide me today will simply help speed up the process and assist me in getting my job done. The sooner I collect the information I need, the sooner you can get on with your lives.”
Mom folded her hands on her lap and focused on Nadia’s notebook. “I understand. How can we help?”
Nadia retrieved her pen and prepared to write. “Let me start by getting an outline from you on what you believe has happened the past few days.”
Mom shifted in her seat and straightened her shoulders. “Well, for starters, everything got out of control when Mrs. Davis came barging into our house a few days ago, falsely accusing Hope of sexual child abuse. The woman was irate!” Over the next twenty minutes, Mom relived every encounter Donald and Colleen had subjected us to—laying out each event with immaculate detail.
“Before a few days ago, we hadn’t seen Colleen or her family in over two months,” Mom pointed out. “Before showing up unannounced in our kitchen, Colleen had spent almost a month in an in-patient rehab program dealing with her obesity issues. I believe she received some pretty intensive psychological therapy during that time, as well. During her sessions, something inside her seems to have snapped. I truly don’t know how Hope got drawn into her psychotic break, but here we are.” Mom let out a deep sigh.
“Well, those are some interesting insights,” Nadia acknowledged.
Mom nodded. “We feel bad if something is happening to Alicia. She’s like family to us; but, I guarantee you, if the doctor found something, it isn’t because of anything Hope’s done.”
Nadia wrote down the last of her notes. “I think I have enough here to get started,” she stated. “Is there anything else you would like to add?” She looked to Mom for closure.
Mom shook her head. “No. That’s it.”
“Then I will contact you if I have any more questions,” Nadia confirmed. “Please don’t hesitate to call if you think of something else in the meantime.”
“I’ll make sure to do that,” Mom agreed.
Pulling out a business card from the plastic cardholder on her desk, Nadia handed it to Mom. Mom smoothed out a few imaginary wrinkles from her slacks then graciously accepted the card. “Thank you for coming in today,” Nadia concluded. “I will be in touch.”
“Thank you for taking the time to see us,” Mom smiled. “You know where to find us.” Standing, she gathered her belongings then motioned us through Nadia’s office door. Walking back down the dark and narrow hallway, an unrequited question lingered, When is this going to be over?