“Intake, room four.”
Joy looks up, palming the bottle of sleeping pills. “Another one?” she asks.
“Yep. Five-year-old, found wandering along Drummer Street.”
“Thanks, Audrey,” Joy says. She thinks, for possibly the thousandth time this week, there’s a special hell for the parents of these kids.
She sighs, glances at the stack of files on her desk, pondering the paperwork for the new intake. It’ll be someone else’s problem tomorrow, she thinks, ignoring the twinge of guilt. She slips the sleeping pills into her purse and grabs a folder from the drawer. As she sits up, she glimpses a photo amongst the detritus of her desktop. It was taken one month ago, a day before Craig’s car stalled at the intersection where Mrs. Four-Beers-For-Breakfast mistook her gas pedal for the brake. Craig and Joy wear matching grins and Hawaiian shirts in the photo. A perfect day frozen in time.
She brushes tears away and goes in search of the new intake.
A girl sits on the rug in the middle of room four. Joy knocks on the open door and smiles as the girl looks up. Audrey was wrong, the girl is closer to eight than five.
“I’m Joy.” She lowers herself onto the rug.
“I’m Sarah.” The girl smiles back, revealing two missing teeth.
“Nice to meet you, Sarah. Where do you live?”
“Here,” says Sarah, frowning.
The girl’s eyes are the same unusual color Craig’s were—dark brown with striations of hazel, as if light is trying to seep through. Joy catches her breath, she’s never seen anyone else with that particular eye color before.
“Where do you live?” she asks.
“Is this another game?”
Now it’s Joy’s turn to frown. “What do you mean?”
“You’re being silly. Are you playing?”
The light in the room changes; Joy gasps as she recognizes her own living room—the blue couch, the sunlight draping the walls in yellow, a single red rose languishing in her crystal vase. She scrambles up from the rug and spins in place, panic sending tingles through her fingers.
“What’s going on?”
“Boop,” says Sarah and reaches up to poke Joy’s stomach. “Baby bump. Baby Sarah.” She giggles and Joy puts her hands to her stomach.
“Am I really a gift?” asks Sarah.
The light changes again, dims and throws shadows across the walls from the fluorescents in the institutional ceiling. Joy looks down at the rug, now empty.
“Joy? What are you doing in here?” Audrey sticks her head through the doorway.
“You said…” Joy shakes her head. “The new intake?”
“Room five,” says Audrey, she rolls her eyes. “Sorry, my bad. Little boy, his name’s James.”
“There was a girl,” says Joy, looking back at the rug. “Sarah.”
“Nope. No Sarah today.” Audrey squints at Joy. “Hey, you okay?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. Room five. Thanks.” Joy waits for Audrey to walk away, then rubs her stomach again.
Before she goes to room five, she grabs her purse from her office and heads to the bathroom. She empties the sleeping pills into the toilet, watches as they disappear.
Sarah, she thinks and smiles. That’s a good name.
Josephine grew up in England and now resides in the northeast corner of the US. She writes flash fiction and short stories while consuming vast amounts of tea. She is querying a novel-length middle-grade fantasy, which she hopes to get published in her lifetime. You can read her work in Devil’s Party Press Halloween Party 2019, Exhumed, Mother Ghost’s Grimm Volume 2, Siren’s Call, and 72 Hours of Insanity.