short story: Stairs

Eyes wide, she pulled the car in front of the red brick wall and curbed it. She let it idle, kept her foot on the brake as she looked at the time on the cell phone screen. Four p.m. The girl was supposed to be picked up at three.

Worse than being late, she had no idea where the school was located. One school was across town, but she didn’t think it was the right one. She could not remember seeing children playing in the area. She pulled away from the curb speeding toward the only school she knew wishing she had taken more information down.
<P>
Emily, the social worker had said it was a Lindsey School. Not that that meant anything to her. She would not know a Lindsey School from any other school.
<P>
She pulled the car around the front of the brown block building and parked. People milled about, coming and going, but they were adults. She hoped it was because the kids had been let out. Maybe the girl was inside waiting for her.
<P>
Inside, turquoise walls bordered in white were adorned with large, elegant splashes of color on canvas. Though it had been several years since she had been inside an elementary school, this did not look like any she had ever seen.
<P>
A short, but rotund woman behind the counter and glass window, greeted her smiling. “Hi there. What can I get you for?” The woman rose from her seat with some effort and moved to the window, sliding it open.
She returned the smile, but already her hand-wringing had started. What could she say? Her stomach threatened to heave its remaining contents and she saw the woman glance at her hands. Another smile. “I’m looking for my daughter,” she started.
<P>
The woman moved to a door separating them and stepped out, one hand on her left hip. She looked Veronica up and down, grinned sideways as if she found something amusing about her appearance. “Follow me,” she said, moving down a narrow hallway.
<P>
The floor was shiny red, walls covered with what appeared to be weaved fabric. Again, she thought this did not look like any elementary school she had ever seen.
<P>
At the end of the hall, they moved through a door into an open area, an exact duplicate of the office they had just left. A middle-aged woman with dirty blonde hair stood directing a couple of teen boys to move things around. She glanced toward the two women as they entered and nodded at her co-worker, grinned at Veronica.
<P>
Veronica glanced at the woman beside her, but she was already moving back through the door. “She’ll help you,” she said indicating her co-worker and disappeared behind the door.
<P>
Suddenly a package was thrust into her hands. She held a large bag of hamburger buns. The blonde woman held another bag and grinned again, motioning her to follow. Another parking lot sat out front and they moved off the sidewalk, across the asphalt, toward a moving truck with two men standing in the bed. “I just need to find my daughter,” she said following the woman. “I’m late. Was supposed to get her at three.”
The woman stopped and turned to her smirking, “Give that to one of the guys, then follow me.”
<P>
She handed the buns over to one of the men and followed the woman back to the office, falling in step beside her. “Can you help me find my daughter?”
<P>
The woman barely glanced at her, pulling the door open. She pointed to an area where several old air coolers sat rusting on the ground. “Can you lift? We need some help moving those…”
<P>
Veronica grabbed a hold of the door handle, pulled it open, tearing it from the woman’s hand. “Can you help me find my daughter or not?” Frustration sounded and she willed herself not to start crying.
<P>
The woman stood back placed one hand on her hip and rolled her eyes.She wanted to strike the smug face. Could imagine herself grabbing the woman by the hair, slamming it into the concrete floor. She turned from the woman not allowing herself another thought on the subject and walked out the door.
<P>
Swearing under her breath as she looked at the time on the phone again, she hurried. She had wasted thirty minutes here and cursed herself for not calling Emily to begin with. She had not wanted to appear in need of help. If she called, maybe the social worker would think she was too stupid to raise a child.
<P>
The responsibility felt like too much at once. The girl was like a weight around her neck, dragging her under. She looked across the parking lot trying to spot the car, realizing she was on the wrong side of the building.
<P>
Moving down the sidewalk, she came to concrete stairs. Ascending them, she was suddenly overcome with fatigue and sat down, broke into long sobs of frustration. The thought of the girl waiting for her moved her once again, but she felt herself sinking. She would drown in this mess.
<P>
The stairs seemed too tall, had grown too steep. She was too weak.
<P>
Still seated, she turned and attempted to crawl up to the next step still sobbing. A young man approached and stopped not far from her. He fumbled with his car keys, smiled at her uncomfortably.
<P>
He was small and thin with a shock of dark hair that tumbled from his head. A binder stuck from under one arm as he wrung his hands, played with the keys.
<P>
Then he moved again into the parking lot to a small turquoise car. He opened the driver’s side door, hesitated still eyeing her. “You’ll make it,” he said, “just keep moving.” Then the door slammed and he was pulling from the space.
<P>
She continued to stare at the empty space. What if? What if she was someone else for awhile, she wondered. What if she had grown up in the perfect family and had none of the problems that had plagued her life? What if she could do everything other people who grew up like that did?
<P>
She stood, looking around confused for a moment. Why was she wasting time like this? She was not weak or stupid. She looked at the phone again, opened it and hit the code for Emily’s phone.
<P>
“Hello?” from the other end. A small woman’s voice. “Emily, I’m in trouble. I’ve made a huge mistake and need your help.”
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