I was alone in Mrs. McGuire's office, waiting to meet the couple who had asked to see me. Sitting "properly" on the straight-back chair next to Mrs. McGuire's desk was making my back ache but I knew from past experience that I had better be on my best behavior. Mrs. McGuire was the chief administrator of our orphanage and pounced on us if we slouched or did anything else "improper" in front of visitors.
"Posture, posture," she would cry out when she passed us in the cafeteria, and we all would snap to attention. Those who didn't obey her had to walk around with a book on their heads for hours, and if the book fell off, they would have to do it over again the next day.
"You children are orphans," she lectured to us, "looking for some nice people to come snatch you up and make you members of their families. You
must be better than other children, children with parents and homes. You must be healthier, smarter, more polite, and most certainly more respectful. In short," she said in a voice that often turned shrill during her endless speeches, "you must become desirable. Why," she asked, sweeping her eyes over each and every one of us critically, her thin lips pursed, "would anyone want you to be their daughter or son?"
She was right. Who would ever want me? I thought. I was born prematurely. Some of the boys and girls here said I was stunted. Just yesterday, Donald Lawson called me the Dwarf.
"Even when you're in high school, you'll wear little-girl clothes," he taunted.
He strutted away with his head high, and I could tell it made him feel better to make me feel bad. My tears were like trophies for him, and the sight of them didn't make him feel sorry. Instead, they encouraged him.
"Even your tears are tiny," he sang as he walked down the hall. "Maybe we should call you Tiny Tears instead of the Dwarf."
The kids at the orphanage weren't the only ones who thought there was something wrong with me, though. Margaret Lester, who was the tallest girl in the orphanage, fourteen with legs that seemed to reach up to her shoulders, overheard the last couple I'd met talking about me and couldn't wait to tell me all the horrible things they had to say.
"The man said he thought you were adorable, but when they found out how old you were, they wondered why you were so small. She thought you might be sickly and then they decided to look at someone else," Margaret told me with a twisted smirk on her face.
No potential parents ever looked at her, so she was happy when one of us was rejected.
"I'm not sickly," I whispered in my own defense. "I haven't even had a cold all year."
I always spoke in a soft, low voice and then, when I was made to repeat something, I struggled to make my voice louder. Mrs. McGuire said I had to appear more self-assured.
"It's fine to be a little shy, Janet," she told me. "Goodness knows, most children today are too loud and obnoxious, but if you're too modest, people will pass you over. They'll think you're withdrawn, like a turtle more comfortable in his shell. You don't want that, do you?"
I shook my head but she continued her lecture.
"Then stand straight when you speak to people and look at them and not at the floor. And don't twist your fingers around each other like that. Get your shoulders back. You need all the height you can achieve."
When I had come to her office today, she had me sit in this chair and then paced in front of me, her high heels clicking like little hammers on the tile floor as she advised and directed me on how to behave once the Delorices arrived. That was their names, Sanford and Celine Delorice. Of course, I hadn't set eyes on them before. Mrs. McGuire told me, however, that they had seen me a number of times. That came as a surprise. A number of times? I wondered when, and if that was true, why had I never seen them?
"They know a great deal about you, Janet, and still they are interested. This is your best opportunity yet. Do you understand?" she asked, pausing to look at me. "Straighten up," she snapped.
I did so quickly.
"Yes, Mrs. McGuire," I said.
"What?" She put her hand behind her ear and leaned toward me. "Did you say something, Janet?"
"Yes, Mrs. McGuire."
"Yes what?" she demanded, standing back, her hands on her hips.
"Yes, I understand this is my best opportunity, Mrs. McGuire."
"Good, good. Keep your voice strong and clear. Speak only when you're spoken to, and smile as much as you can. Don't spread your legs too far apart. That's it. Let me see your hands," she demanded, reaching out to seize them in her own long, bony fingers.
She turned my hands over so roughly my wrists stung.
"Good," she said. "You do take good care of yourself, Janet. I think that's a big plus for you. Some of our children, as you know, think they are allergic to bathing."
She glanced at the clock.
"They should be arriving soon. I'm going out front to greet them. Wait here and when we come through the door, stand up to greet us. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mrs. McGuire." Her hand went behind her ear again. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Yes, Mrs. McGuire."
She shook her head and looked very sad, her eyes full of doubt.
"This is your big chance, your best chance, Janet. Maybe, your last chance," she muttered and left the office.
Now I sat gazing at the bookcase, the pictures on her desk, the letters in frames congratulating her on her performance as an administrator in our upstate New York child welfare agency. Bored with the things decorating Mrs. McGuire's office, I turned around in my chair to stare out the windows. It was a sunny spring day. I sighed as I looked out at the trees, their shiny green leaves and budding blossoms calling to me. Everything was growing like weeds because of the heavy spring rain, and I could tell Philip, the groundskeeper, wasn't very happy to be mowing the endless lawns so early in the season. His face was screwed up in a scowl and I could just imagine him grumbling about the grass coming up so fast this year, you could watch it grow. For a moment I drifted away in the monotonous sound of Philip's lawnmower and the dazzling sunlight streaming in through the windows. I forgot I was in Mrs. McGuire's office, forgot I was slouching with my eyes closed.
I tried to remember my real mother, but my earliest memories are of being in an orphanage. I was in one other beside this one, then I got transferred here when I was nearly seven. I'm almost thirteen now, but even I would admit that I look no more than nine, maybe ten. Because I couldn't remember my real mother, Tommy Turner said I was probably one of those babies that doctors make in a laboratory.
"I bet you were born in a test tube and that's why you're so small. Something went wrong with the experiment," he'd said as we left the dining hall last night. The other kids all thought he was very clever and laughed at his joke. Laughed at me.
"Janet's mother and father were test tubes," they taunted.
"No," Tommy said. "Her father was a syringe and her mother was a test tube."
"Who named her Janet then?" Margaret asked doubtfully.
Tommy had to think.
"That was the name of her lab technician, Janet Taylor, so they gave her that name," he answered, and from the look on their faces, I could tell the other kids believed him.
Last night, like every night, I had wished with all my heart that I knew something about my past, some fact, a name, anything that I could say to Tommy and the others to prove that once upon a time I did have a real Mommy and Daddy. I wasn't a dwarf or a test tube baby, I was...well, I was like a butterfly -- destined to be beautiful and soar high above the earth, high above troubles and doubts, high above nasty little kids who made fun of other people just because they were smaller and weaker.
It's just that I hadn't burst from my cocoon yet. I was still a shy little girl, curled up in my quiet, cozy world. I knew that someday I would have to break free, to be braver, speak louder, grow taller, but right now that seemed all too scary. The only way I knew how to keep the taunts and teasing of the other kids from bothering me was to stay in my own little cocoon -- where it was warm and safe and no one could hurt me. But someday, someday I would soar. Like a beautiful butterfly, I would climb higher and higher, flying high above them all. I'd show them.
"Janet!" I heard Mrs. McGuire hiss, and my eyes snapped open. Her face was filled with fury, her mouth twisted, her gray eyes wide and lit up like firecrackers. "Sit up," she whispered through her clenched teeth, and then she forced a smile and turned to the couple standing behind her. "Right this way, Mr. and Mrs. Delorice," she said in a much nicer tone of voice.
I took a deep breath and held it, my fluttering heart suddenly sounding like a kettle drum in my chest. Mrs. McGuire stepped behind me so that the Delorices could get a good look at me. Mr. Delorice was tall and thin with dark hair and sleepy eyes. Mrs. Delorice sat in a wheelchair and was pretty, with hair the color of a red sunset. She had diminutive facial features like my own, but even more perfectly proportioned. Her hair floated around her shoulders in soft undulating waves. There was nothing sickly or frail looking about her, despite her wheelchair. Her complexion was rich like peaches and cream, her lips the shade of fresh strawberries.
She wore a bright yellow dress, my favorite color, and a string of tiny pearls around her neck. She looked like every other potential mommy I had seen except for the wheelchair and the tiny little shoes she wore. Although I'd never seen ballet shoes before, I thought that was what they were. If she was in a wheelchair, why was she wearing ballet shoes? I wondered.
Mr. Delorice pushed her right up to me. I was too fascinated to move, much less speak. Why would a woman in a wheelchair want to adopt a child my age?
"Mr. and Mrs. Delorice, this is Janet Taylor. Janet, Mr. and Mrs. Delorice."
"Hello," I said, obviously not loud enough to please Mrs. McGuire. She gestured for me to stand and I scrambled out of the chair.
"Please, dear, call us Sanford and Celine," the pretty woman said. She held out her hand and I took it gingerly, surprised at how firmly she held her fingers around mine. For a moment we only looked at each other. Then I glanced up at Sanford Delorice.
He was looking down at me, his eyes opening a bit wider to reveal their mixture of brown and green. He had his hair cut very short, which made his skinny face look even longer and narrower. He was wearing a dark gray sports jacket with no tie and a pair of dark blue slacks. The upper two buttons on his white shirt were open. I thought it was to give his very prominent Adam's apple breathing space.
"She's perfect, Sanford, just perfect, isn't she?" Celine said, gazing at me.
"Yes, she is, dear," Sanford replied. He had his long fingers still wrapped tightly around the handles of the wheelchair as if he was attached or afraid to let go.
"Did she ever have any training in the arts?" Celine asked Mrs. McGuire. She didn't look at Mrs. McGuire when she asked. She didn't look away from me. Her eyes were fixed on my face, and although her staring was beginning to make me feel creepy, I was unable to look away.
"Singing, dancing...ballet, perhaps?" she asked.
"Oh no, Mrs. Delorice. The children here are not that fortunate," Mrs. McGuire replied.
Celine turned back to me. Her eyes grew smaller, even more intensely fixed on me.
"Well, Janet will be. She'll be that fortunate," she predicted with certainty. She smiled softly. "How would you like to come live with Sanford and myself, Janet? You'll have your own room, and a very large and comfortable one, too. You'll attend a private school. We'll buy you an entirely new wardrobe, including new shoes. You'll have a separate area in your room for your schoolwork and you'll have your own bathroom. I'm sure you'll like our house. We live just outside of Albany with a yard as large, if not larger than you have here."
"That sounds wonderful," Mrs. McGuire said as if she were the one being offered the new home, but Mrs. Delorice didn't seem at all interested in what she said. Instead she stared at me and waited for my response.
"Janet?" Mrs. McGuire questioned when a long moment of silence had passed.
How could I ever refuse this, and yet when I looked up at Sanford and back at Celine, I couldn't help feeling little footsteps of trepidation tiptoeing across my heart. I pushed the shadowy faces out of my mind, glanced at Mrs. McGuire, and then nodded.
"I'd like that," I said, wishing I was as good as Mrs. McGuire at faking a smile.
"Good," Celine declared. She spun her chair around to face Mrs. McGuire. "How soon can she leave?"
"Well, we have some paperwork to do. However, knowing all that we already know about you and your husband, your impressive references, the social worker's report, et cetera, I suppose..."
"Can we take her with us today?" Celine demanded impatiently.
My heart skipped a beat. Today? That fast?
For once Mrs. McGuire was at a loss for words.
"I imagine that could be done," she finally replied.
"Good," she said. "Sanford, why don't you stay with Mrs. McGuire and fill out whatever paperwork has to be filled out. Janet and I can go outside and get more acquainted in the meantime," she said. It was supposed to be a suggestion, I guess, but it sounded like an order to me. I looked at Mr. Delorice and could see the muscles in his jaw were clenched, along with his fingers on the wheelchair handles.
"But there are documents that require both signatures," Mrs. McGuire insisted.
"Sanford has power of attorney when it comes to my signature," Celine countered. "Janet, can you push my chair? I don't weigh all that much," she added smiling.
I looked at Mrs. McGuire. She nodded and Sanford stepped back so that I could take hold of the handles.
"Where shall we go, Janet?" she asked me.
"I guess we can go out to the garden," I said uncertainly. Mrs. McGuire nodded again.
"That sounds wonderful. Don't be any longer than you have to, Sanford," she called back as I started to push her to the door. I went ahead and opened it and then I pushed her through.
I started down the hallway, overwhelmed and amazed with myself and what was happening. Not only was I going to have parents, but I had found a mother who wanted me to take care of her, almost as much as I wanted her to take care of me. What a strange and wonderful new beginning, I thought as I wheeled my new mother toward the sunny day that awaited us.
* * *
"Has it been difficult for you living here, Janet?" Celine asked after I had wheeled her outside. We followed the path to the garden.
"No, ma'am," I said, trying not to be distracted by the kids who were looking our way.
"Oh, don't call me ma'am, Janet. Please," she said, turning to place her hand over mine. It felt so warm. "Why don't you call me Mother. Let's not wait to get to know each other. Just do that immediately," she pleaded.
"Okay," I said. I could tell already that Mrs. Delorice didn't like to be argued with.
"You speak so softly, darling. I suppose you've felt so insignificant, but you won't feel that way anymore. You're going to be famous, Janet. You're going to be spectacular," she declared with such passion in her voice it made the breath catch in my throat.
"Yes, you, Janet. Come around and sit on this bench," she said when we had reached the first one along the pathway. She folded her hands in her lap and waited until I sat. Then she smiled. "You float, Janet. Do you realize that? You glide almost as if you're walking on a cloud of air. That's instinctive. Grace is something you're either born with or not, Janet. You can't learn it. No one can teach that to you.
"Once," she said as her green eyes darkened, "I had grace. I glided, too. But," she said quickly changing her expression and tone back to a happier, lighter one, "let's talk about you first. I've been watching you."
"When?" I said, recalling what Mrs. McGuire had told me.
"Oh, on and off for a little more than two weeks. Sanford and I came here at different times of the day. Usually we sat in our car and watched you and your unfortunate brothers and sisters at play. I even saw you at your school," she admitted.
My mouth widened with surprise. They had followed me to school? She laughed.
"When I first set eyes on you, I knew I had to have you. I knew you were the one, Janet. You remind me so much of myself when I was your age."
"Yes, and when Sanford and I went home, I would think about you and dream about you, and actually see you gliding down our staircase and through our home. I could even hear the music," she said, with a faraway look in her eyes.
"What music?" I asked, starting to think that Mrs. Delorice might be a little more than just bossy.
"Music you'll dance to, Janet. Oh," she said, leaning forward to reach for my hand, "there is so much to tell you and so much to do. I can't wait to start. That's why I wanted Sanford to cut right through all that silly bureaucratic paperwork and take us both home. Home," she repeated, her smile softening even more. "I suppose that's a foreign word to you, isn't it? You've never had a home. I know all about you," she added.
"What do you know?" I asked. Maybe she knew something about my real mommy and daddy.
"I know you were an orphan shortly after your birth and ever since. I know some very stupid people came to find children to adopt and passed you by. That's their loss and my gain," she followed with a thin, high-pitched laugh.
"What did you mean when you said music I would dance to?" I asked.
She released my hand and sat back. For a moment I didn't think she was going to answer. She stared off toward the woods. A sparrow landed near us and studied us with curiosity.
"After I picked you out, I observed you, auditioning you in my own mind," she explained. "I studied your walk, your gestures, and your posture to see if you were capable of being trained to become the dancer I was to be, the dancer I can no longer even dream to be. Beyond a doubt I am convinced you can. Would you like that? Would you like to be a famous dancer, Janet?"
"A famous dancer? I've never thought about it," I said honestly. "I do like to dance. I like music too," I added.
"Of course you do," she responded. "Someone with your natural grace and rhythm has to love music, and you'll love to dance, too. You'll love the power. You'll feel..." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes I saw that they were filled with an eerie light. "You'll feel you can soar like a bird. When you're good, and you will be good, you will lose yourself in the music, Janet. It will carry you off, just as it did for me so many, many times before I became crippled."
"What happened to you?" I dared to ask. It was obvious that talking about dancing made her emotional, but the eerie look in her eyes made me nervous and I wanted her to do something besides stare at me so intently.
Mrs. Delorice lost her soft, dreamy smile and gazed back at the building before turning to me and replying.
"I was in a very bad car accident. Sanford lost control of our vehicle one night when we were returning from a party. He had a little too much to drink, although he'll never ever admit to that. He claimed he was blinded by the lights of a tractor-trailer truck. We went off the road and hit a tree. He was wearing his seat belt but I had forgotten to put mine on. The door opened and I was thrown from the car. My spine was very badly damaged. I almost died."
"I'm sorry," I said quickly.
Her face hardened, the lines deepening as shadows darkened her complexion.
"I'm past being sorry. I was sorry for years, but being sorry for yourself doesn't help one bit, Janet. Never indulge in self-pity. You become incapable of helping yourself. Oh," she said excited again, the light in her eyes returning, "I have so much to tell you, to teach you. It's going to be wonderful for both of us. Are you excited, too?"
"Yes," I said. I was, but everything was moving so fast and I couldn't help feeling nervous and a little bit scared.
She turned toward the building.
"Where is he? I never saw a man waste so much time. Oh, but you'll get to admire him for his compassion and sensitivity," she said. "There isn't anything he wouldn't do for me now, and now," she said with a wider smile, "there isn't anything he won't do for you.
"Think of it, Janet, think of it," she urged, "for the first time in your life, you will have two loving people who will care more about you than they will for themselves. Oh yes, it's true, dear, precious Janet. Look at me. Why should I worry about myself anymore? I'm a prisoner in this damaged body forever, and Sanford, Sanford lives to make me happy. So you see," she said with that tiny, thin laugh again, "if my happiness depends on your happiness, Sanford will cherish you as much as I will.
"You will be happy, Janet," she said with such firmness it frightened me. It was almost as if she was commanding me to be happy. "That," she said, "I promise you."
Sanford stepped out of the building.
"It's about time," she muttered. "Come, Janet, dear. Let us begin your new life. Let's think of this as your true birth. Okay? We'll even use this day as your birthday from now on. Why not? Yes? I like that idea. Don't you?" she declared with another thin laugh. "Today is your birthday!"
"Sanford," she called before I could reply. Actually, I didn't know what to say. My birthday had never been very special to me. He started toward us. "This day is more extraordinary than we imagined. It's Janet's birthday."
"It is?" he asked, looking confused. "But, I thought..."
"It is." She stamped her words in the air between them and he nodded.
She reached her hand out to me.
"Come along now," she said. "We're going home to celebrate."
When I saw the grim look on Sanford's face and remembered the crazy light that had come into Mrs. Delorice's eyes, I wondered just what had I gotten myself into.
Copyright © 1998 by The Vanda General Partnership