Her tiny fingers tightly clutched the backpack . A small, pink suitcase lay by her feet. She and Alice sat next to each other on the dark beige, traditional sofa. Her legs dangled a few inches off the floor but she sat straight, despite wanting to sink in the soft hand embroidered cushions. White Orchids and Red Roses poured from the intricately designed black vase which sat patiently on a large coffee table. Silk curtains swayed with a gentle fall evening breeze from the large bay windows. The large cathedral ceiling made the living room look even roomier. Alice twitched momentarily as she scrolled through her phone, put it back in her purse and removed it again. Maya shook her legs banging them lightly against the sofa. Glancing at the ceiling, a large chandelier with small sparkling beads stared back at her. Fascinated, she saw hundreds of Alice’s and Maya’s reflected in the lights.

Maya had not expected that her fourth foster home in less than two years would be this mansion with just one inhabitant. Neglect, addiction, abuse and abandonment had followed her relentlessly in the other three. She had learnt quickly the meanness of adult humans. A cool draft whistled through the windows and grazed her pale skin. Maya zipped her thin jacket. She huddled closer towards Alice, her case worker –  the steady, predictable presence in a turbulent life.

 She felt Alice’s warm hands in hers. ’You will be fine. I promise.’

Maya nodded, looking at the dark green Persian carpet. ‘Will you come visit?’

‘Of course. And we can FaceTime with each other as well.’

A smile crept at the corners of Maya’s mouth, not wanting to lose the only person she now had a close relationship with. The loss of both parents and little brother to a deadly accident had left unhealing scars.

She still woke up every night, clenching the sheets and swallowing a scream that rose from the pit of her stomach. Dizzy with fear, she’d felt her parents’ blood as they lay mangled in the middle of the road when a drunk driver hit them in a head-on collision. Maya was the sole survivor. The tiny, frail body of her little brother Jonas had lain limp on the other side of the road. She had  screamed ‘Daddy! Stop!’ when the headlights of the out-of-control car came crashing towards them. Her shrieks and wails pierced through the thick of the night till she lay exhausted and unconscious in the ambulance.

Each night, she dreamt of the harsh hospital lights as they wheeled her to look at her dead parents’ bodies. Her mother’s beautiful face was half covered with gauze and dressing where a deep wound had cracked open her skull. Her handsome dad with a contorted look on his face. He had sustained internal injuries when the steering punctured his stomach. She’d begged to see Jonas but they would not allow her as she would never be able to wipe out the image. Every night she prayed before sleeping that she would not wake up. Every morning she woke up, guilty and ashamed.

‘Hello Maya, Alice. It’s so nice to meet you both.’ Maya turned startled to look at Mrs Jackson who had entered the room. She realized suddenly that she was staring at her new foster mom.

‘Hello Mrs Jackson. Nice to meet you too’ Alice stood up immediately to shake her hand. Mrs Jackson bent to shake Maya’s hand .

‘Lovely to meet you, at last.’ She said, looking at Maya.

‘Please do sit down’.

Her eyes were kind. She was tall and lanky with broad, athletic shoulders. A sharp nose and long chin however gave her the appearance of a strict principal. Her husband of forty years had recently passed away and her grown up kids lived far from New York. The entire estate with its mansion, cars and money was bequeathed to his beloved wife. She was established in her own right, a known playwright recognized on and off Broadway.

‘Can I get you’ll some juice or coffee?

They both declined.

‘Maybe some water then?’

‘That would be great, Thank You’ Alice said.

She removed all the paperwork that needed Mrs Jackson’s signatures. After she had the cool water , Maya studied her new foster parent from the corner of her eye. She looked rather stern but had a certain softness to her. Alice had mentioned that Mrs Jackson wanted to give a meaningful, wholesome life to a child as her reasons to foster. She wore casual khakis and a floral, sleeveless blouse. Her lean arms looked toned and she looked younger than her age at 60.

Shuttling between foster homes Maya had a unique perspective on human adults, one that she trusted and used for self protection. The walls that she had painstakingly built were not going to fail her. Each brick in that wall was soaked in her emotions and baked in the heat of longing for her family. It made her strong, impenetrable, somewhat aloof.

‘This is the last one to sign’ Alice looked at Mrs Jackson. A large pile of papers had gathered by now.

‘That’s fine, no problem’ She said peering from the top of her reading glasses.

She heaved a sigh after signing and leaned on one of the cushions.

‘Thank You , Mrs Jackson. I know it’s a lot’ Alice had a apologetic tone.

‘You are welcome. Let’s all go get dinner’

‘I would have loved to but need to run. I have another appointment in an hour’ Alice said, gathering her belongings.

She picked her purse and the small bag with all the files and papers. Maya’s heart lurched and a small lump formed in her throat. Alice had been the only stability thus far. She wanted to stretch the moment so that she would not leave. Looking away from Alice , she hid the tears that had welled up in her eyes. The large house looked menacing, about to engulf her making her want to run away from it and its lonely, old owner.

‘You will be fine, Maya.’ Alice said stuffing the papers in her bag. She had also grown quite fond of her over the years.

‘Call me if you need anything’ she said. Her voice was soft and muffled.

Maya nodded, looking away. She walked with Alice to the door, slowing down her steps.

‘Bye now. I will miss you ’. Alice bent down to give Maya a long hug and left before they could both burst into tears.

‘Come Maya. Let’s eat dinner’ Mrs Jackson was waiting for her as she approached the living room.

Passing through the hallway she showed her the formal dining room and the  study with a large office table and a leather swivel chair. The long passage to the kitchen dine-in  had recess lighting and the walls were decorated with family pictures.

‘This is Michelle, my eldest daughter who lives in Seattle now. She is 25.’ Mrs Jackson pointed at a family picture where they all were sitting by the pool on a summer afternoon in the backyard. The ladies wore stylish cool dresses with matching hats.

‘James, the youngest is 23 and is on the west coast’.

‘And this is my husband, Mike. This was taken in Belize a few years back. We used to travel frequently till Mike’s passing last year.’ Mrs Jackson’s face creased in a smile as she looked at the picture.

Maya would have been proud of her family too. Jonas, her little brother would have been 8 years now. Their dog, Cooper was probably 5 years and hopefully with a  loving family like theirs. He had to be taken to a shelter after the accident. A large family picture on a beach with the waves at their feet had adorned the mantle on the fireplace in their small home.Their tanned, sun kissed faces with hair flying in the wind was etched in her memory. Her mom looked carefree and content. Her dad’s hand wrapped around her shoulder and his other held Maya’s hand. The picture was lost when their house was foreclosed and all that she had now was a small passport size picture of mom and dad. This she carried with her in the wallet of her small bag.

The long dining table with eight chairs was huge and unnecessary. There was only one resident in this mansion in any case, Maya thought. The food however laid out on the table looked delicious and inviting. Mrs Jackson taken time to research into what she liked. The piping hot Mac and Cheese was garnished with small bits of bacon. A tray was neatly stacked with garlic bread drizzled with some extra cheese. Bowls of fresh made salad topped with grape tomatoes and strawberries looked refreshing. Each serving had a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Maya’s stomach rumbled as she inhaled the delicious smells. She waited politely to be invited for dinner.

Mrs Jackson pulled a chair for Maya.

‘Please help yourself’ she said, while seating herself opposite her.

‘Thank you. It looks delicious’

She filled her plate with food shyly without trying to look greedy and waited till Mrs Jackson filled her’s before eating. The hot, cheesy pasta hit the walls of her stomach and began to soften its hungry edges. The cool, crunchy salad with the lemon dressing added a zest to her meal.

‘The food is really good’ She took a spoonful of the warm pasta.

‘Thanks, Maya’

‘Your school bus stop is just around the corner. I see a lot of kids your age in the community’

‘That’s great’ she poked her fork around to catch hold of a lettuce , cucumber and tomato at the same time. She was shy and awkward and had a hard time making new friends. Her two best friends at school were her only friends. Nor did she desire to have more.

‘And Halloween is coming up so we can go shopping for a costume’ Mrs Jackson looked expectantly.

‘Yes, sure’ Maya stared down at her food with concentration.

After she had finished her meal she hoped there would be no more conversation. It had been a long tiring day. The maid came in to clear the dining table. Mrs Jackson usually had her coffee served in the family room. They got up and moved towards the warmly lit room filled with house plants. As they reached there, a white poodle came bounding up to Maya shaking his tail excitedly. He licked her hands and kissed her face. She picked him up and held him in her arms. Sitting him down on the floor , he ran in circles around her. Mrs Jackson got up from the sofa and sat down with them. A gentle breeze blew in through the bay windows. A slow fire crackled in the fireplace. Maya had a glimpse of a future with this unlikely family in a huge house that now seemed a little warm and gently welcoming.

Meghana is a new and aspiring writer and this is her second story that she is sending out for publication. She is originally from India and has made New Jersey her new home for the last 20 odd years. She loves writing short stories as well as flash pieces. Her home is surrounded by her loving family of husband, two teenage daughters and a adorable cute Lab puppy.