“And this is... well... sort of a big play area for the kids. A lot of our volunteers are just big kids themselves – they love to play games with the children.” Alex opened the patio door so the two men with her could see the children playing outside.
“Alex!” A small boy stood up and ran toward her.
“Levi, no!” Lise, one of the teenage volunteers, was hot on his heels.
Levi ran up to Alex and quickly circled around her, keeping her between him and Lise. “Uh-oh, she’s mad now.”
Lise stopped in front of the trio and gave them an apologetic smile.
“I’m so sorry. Levi!”
Alex turned and knelt in front of the boy. “Why is she mad, Levi?”
“’Cause she told us not to bug you.”
“And why did she tell you that?”
“’Cause she said you was with some... very important people.”
Alex and the two men laughed. “Yes, I suppose you could say that, Levi. And it’s ‘were’ with, by the way.”
“So... did you actually have something to tell me, or are you just trying to make Lise mad?”
He thought for a minute. “No... We wanted to play basketball, and we need somebody else tall for the other team. Will you play with us?”
Alex frowned. “I’m sorry, Levi, I can’t right now. But I’d be more than happy to play with you later.”
Levi looked crestfallen.
His face brightened. “Pinky swear?”
She nodded and linked pinkies with him. “But for now, would you like me to see if someone else can play?”
Levi nodded enthusiastically and set off toward the group again.
Lise sighed and followed.
“Sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize, Miss Cahill,” one of the men replied. “That was quite... touching.”
The other man snorted. “Don’t get too sappy on me, Ron. I just didn’t know we counted as VIPs.”
“You are to this place.” Alex headed through the kitchen, but stopped when she saw another teenager wiping off the counter. She looked up and smiled warmly as the three entered, then turned back to her work.
“Hi,” Ron said. She didn’t answer.
The other man smiled. “Did you tell them all not to speak to us?”
“No... Val couldn’t hear him. She’s deaf.”
Alex tapped Val on the shoulder, then began signing as she spoke.
“Mr. Verdent said hi.”
A surprised look crossed her face, then she waved energetically at the two men.
“Are you busy?”
Val looked back at the counter she’d been cleaning.
“Well, when you finish that, would you go outside and play basketball with Lise and the kids? They asked for someone tall.”
She laughed and nodded.
Alex smiled at her and led the men out another door in the kitchen.
“Couldn’t that cause problems? A girl working here who can’t hear or speak?”
“Val is wonderful with the children, Mr. Reams. Several are becoming quite fluent in sign language – and learning to understand someone different than them is a new experience for a lot of these kids. This is one of our classrooms.” She softly pushed open a door.
“Okay, good answer. So who else signed the Declaration? Um... Josh.”
A boy in the middle of the class looked up, startled. “Uh... John Hancock?”
“Great! And do you know what was special about his signature?”
“All I know is my teachers keep telling me I need to start puttin’ my John Hancock on my papers at school.”
The teacher grinned. “I see. And do you forget your name a lot?”
He didn’t catch the play on words. “I guess more’n they’d like. But now when they see somethin’ with ‘John Hancock’ on it, they know it’s mine.”
Alex shut the door with a smile.
“You have a remarkable place here, Miss Cahill,” Mr. Verdent said.
“Why, thank you.”
They started down the hallway, but stopped when Josie came storming in the door at the end of the hall, saw them, made a quick about-face, and went back out.
“Never a dull moment,” Alex sighed softly. “Would you gentlemen excuse me for a moment?”
Alex stuck her head into another small room. “Kurt.”
“Yeah?” And older teen came out.
“Would you please show these gentlemen around upstairs?”
“Sure. This way, gentlemen.” Kurt led them up the stairs toward more classrooms.
Alex followed Josie out the door and finally caught up with her at a swing set in the side yard.
“I’m sorry. I’m sure that looked great to our would-have-been supporters.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t put that in past tense just yet. They like the place.” Alex took a seat in a swing next to Josie. “What’s wrong?”
Her friend sighed. “Have you ever felt like... like some kids were just out of reach?”
“I feel that way a lot. Any particular kid?”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“You haven’t seen?”
“Her arm’s broken.”
Alex shot her an alarmed look.
“And last week she had a big bandage on her leg – well hidden, except when she had to change into shorts after the kids got her all wet. Before that it was bruises – just barely visible under her shirt.”
Thinking back to times she’d spent with the teenage volunteer, Alex realized she, too, had seen the injuries – just small ones that she hadn’t really taken note of. “You think it’s abuse.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“You know you have to report it.”
“I have!” she cried. “You don’t know how many times I’ve tried to!
But no matter who I call, they connect me to DCF.”
“Yeah... that’s why it’s called ‘Children and Families’.”
“But they won’t look into it!”
“They keep telling me that they’ve gotten reports before, but there was no evidence when they checked it out. As far as they’re concerned, it’s not worth the time or the effort unless Kristina practically admits someone’s abusing her.”
“They said that?”
“Well, not in as many words.”
“What am I supposed to do? I can’t think of anything else, but there’s gotta be a way. There’s just got to...”
Alex put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “We’ll figure out something.”
After profuse thanks from Alex and a promise of ‘you’ll be hearing from us,’ the two men left. Most of the children had already gone. Not discouraged, Alex began looking for Kristina.
“Hi, Alex,” the young Latino said, peeking up from behind a row of bushes. “How’d the meeting go?”
“Quite well, actually.” Alex calculated her next words carefully.
“Everyone else is gone. Don’t you want to go home?”
Kristina shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I’d just as soon stay here, if you don’t mind. So many bushes and such small clippers.”
The teenager went back to her work. Alex watched her a few moments before speaking again. “Kristina, can I talk to you?”
“Sure.” Surprised, the girl set down the clippers and stepped out from behind the bush, carefully pulling her glove off her hurt arm.
“That must be tough with a broken arm.”
“Nah, not if you’re coordinated. Signing to Val this morning, now that was tough.”
“How’d you break it?”
“I fell off a ladder.”
“Is that where the bruises came from, too?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You fall a lot.”
Kristina met her eyes evenly. “I’m just clumsy, I guess. I drop things a lot, too.”
Her gaze was cook, not at all challenging, but still disconcerting.
Alex averted her eyes. “You know you can talk to me or Josie.”
“About whatever’s on your mind.”
“Thanks, I’ll remember that. Can I go back to the bushes now?”
“You don’t have to do that.”
She shrugged again, picked up the clippers, and left. Alex sighed, then headed back into the kitchen.
“Did she say anything?”
“No. And not just that – she dodged it so easily. Too easily. You’re right, there’s something going on, but she’s never going to admit it.”
Josie slammed her fist on the counter. “So that’s it? We just...give up?”
“I didn’t say that. And I have no intention of giving up until I find out exactly what’s going on. But for today... yes, we give up. Go home, think on it, and we’ll talk tomorrow. Okay?”
“Alright. I want to work in here a little longer, though. I’ll lock up.”
“Okay. But Josie?”
“Don’t push her. If you do, you’ll push her away.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Alex hurried to her car and started home.
“You’re home late.”
“I’m sorry.” Alex gave her husband a kiss and let him hold her for a while.
“You’re tense.” He started gently rubbing her back. “A kid at the Center?”
“A volunteer, actually.”
He pulled back. “Who? Someone giving you trouble?”
“Kristina Gibbons. And no, she’s not giving me trouble... but I think she’s in a little of it herself.”
“What do you mean?” He led her to the couch.
“Josie brought it up today – she has a broken arm.”
“So, it’s not just the broken arm. Josie says there’ve been bruises... stuff like that. I’ve seen it myself once or twice, but never thought anything of it.”
“Have you reported it?”
“Josie has. Several times. But they say they’re too busy, and they’ve already looked into it. I think I’m going to do a little checking of my own.”
“Have you talked to the girl?”
“I tried. She dodges it like a pro.”
“Promise me you’ll be careful with your ‘checking’.”
“Hi, it’s Alex. Can I talk to Josie?” Alex waited as the volunteer found her and gave her the phone.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Is Kristina there?”
“Is she still trimming the bushes?”
“No. Pulling weeds.”
“Okay. Well... keep her there. Don’t let her leave for an hour or so, okay?”
“Okay... what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to talk to her mother.”
“Be careful, Alex.”
“I will, I promise. You sound like Walker.”
“I know. I’ll see you later, then.”
The petite Mexican woman shot her an unsure look.
Alex decided to try again. “Kristina’s mother?”
“May I ask who wants to know?”
“I’m Alex Cahill. I work at the HOPE center with Kristina.”
“Ah, Miss Cahill. Kristina speaks very highly of you.” She shook her hand warmly and led her into the house. “I apologize for the... cold...welcome. We’ve had some problems in the neighborhood.”
“I understand. That’s perfectly all right. Mrs. Gibbons-“
“Actually, my name is Menendez now. I remarried.”
“I see... Does Kristina see her father?”
“No. He left long ago. Please have a seat. Oh, would you like something to drink?”
“That would be great, thanks.” *I want to know what this guy keeps in the fridge...*
Mrs. Menendez started toward the kitchen, Alex at her heels.
“There’s water, cola, iced tea...”
Alex’s eyes widened as she saw the many cases of beer in the refrigerator. “That’s... a lot of beer...”
“That’s my husband’s,” she said quickly, as if trying to keep Alex from asking for it.
“I’m sorry... just tea, please.”
She let out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief and grabbed the tea pitcher. “If I may ask, why the sudden interest in Kristina?”
“Honestly, I’m a bit concerned about her.”
“You mean her arm?”
“Well, it’s a whole combination of things. Every once in a while she’ll show up with some other injury.”
“She’s a very clumsy girl.”
“That’s what she said.”
“So what’s to be concerned about?” As Mrs. Menendez reached for ice to put in the glass, her t-shirt pulled up slightly to reveal a large bruise on her side.
Alex took a deep breath. “Does he hit you?”
The ice and glass hit the floor. “What?”
“Your husband abuses you, doesn’t he? And Kristina, too.”
She turned on Alex with daggers in her eyes. “He would never touch my daughter.”
“You don’t need to be afraid of him. There are people that can help-“
“Please leave. Now.”
Alex left without another word.
“Edmundo? Edmundo Cortiguera?”
A tall boy left the group of high schoolers and head toward her.
“Alright, Eddie. Can I have a word with you?”
“You’ve had several.”
She sighed. “Could I speak with you for... five minutes?”
“Well... who are you? Then I’ll decide.”
She stuck out a hand. “I’m Alex Cahill. I run the-“
“HOPE center. I know.” He took her hand and shook it warmly.
“Kristina talks about you constantly.”
“Well, actually, that’s who I’d like to speak with you about.”
He smiled. “Would you smack me if I told you that should have been ‘that is the person about whom I would like to speak’?”
“Do you always get this technical?”
“Only when I’m in a good mood. Is something up with Kristina?”
“Actually, I was hoping you could tell me.”
“What do you mean?” He put his hands in his pockets and started slowly across the park.
“Did you know her arm is broken?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Do you know how she broke it?”
“I don’t ask anymore.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He cast her a wary glance. “She gets hurt sometimes, that’s all.”
“Pretty often, isn’t it?”
He didn’t answer.
“You can be honest with me. I want to help her.”
“Yeah, she gets hurt a lot.”
“She says so.”
“What do you think?”
“I can only guess.”
He sighed. “She’s really protective of her mom, but she doesn’t like her step dad. Have you talked to them?”
“I talked to her mom... she’s hurt, too.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured. Kris hates it at home... but she won’t leave until her step dad has. My guess is that he hits them both, or he goes after Kris’s mom and Kris tries to protect her. I’ve tried to get her out of there, but she won’t leave her mom.”
“Have you tried to do anything?”
“What can I do? I can’t report him if she won’t say anything, and I can’t convince her to leave, and she can’t convince her mom to leave, and if I press the issue she’s gonna leave me, and then I’ll have gotten absolutely nowhere.”
“I know. I’m not accusing, just trying to get the facts.”
He turned away for a moment, then stopped a turned back. “I love her, Miss Cahill... but I don’t know what to do! If I talk to her, I’ll lose her... and if I try going to her father...”
“If he’s that violent, you could end up dead, Eddie.”
“that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m afraid he’ll take it out on them... and it’ll just be worse than it already is.”
She sighed. “I’m working on that.”
Walker reached across the dinner table and took his wife’s hand.
“You’ve been pushing your dinner around your plate for half an hour.
“I’m sorry.” She pushed her plate away. “It’s Kristina.”
“Is she hurt worse?” Walker asked, alarmed.
“I haven’t seen her, but I think I know what’s going on. I talked to her mother and her boyfriend today.”
“Alex... what if something would have happened to you? Either of them could easily be the abuser here.”
“But they’re not.”
He sighed. “So what happened?”
“Her mother kicked me out after I noticed her bruises. Eddie, her boyfriend... Well, he thinks the same thing I do.”
“The father is the abuser.”
“Stepfather, actually. And Eddie brought up a good point – it may have started as spousal abuse, and Kristina tried to protect her mother.”
“Which made her a target.”
Walker pushed her plate back toward her. “Eat. So what are you going to do?”
She picked up the plate and stacked it on top of his. “You eat it.
And I don’t know yet.”
“Call DCF in the morning?”
“Yeah... maybe with the new information they’ll pursue it.”
“Hey, Kim! Kim Murphy!” Alex chased her old friend through the doors of DCF. “Kim!”
The brunette set her pile of file folders down on the nearest desk and turned around. “Hi, Alex. Can I help you with something?”
“Yeah, actually. I have a case that might interest you.”
“Okay...” Kim took a seat at her desk and turned to her computer.
“What’s the name?”
“Gibbons. Kristina Gibbons.”
“that’s an old one, isn’t it?” She dutifully typed in the name and glanced through the records. “that’s Tony Creedwell’s case. He’s-“
“-Not doing a very good job with it,” Alex finished.
“why do you say that?”
“Because her stepfather abuses both Kristina and her mother badly enough to terrify her mother into silence and break Kristina’s arm.”
“And I assume you have proof of all this.”
“Of course not. But repeated calls to Mr. Creedwell got no response whatsoever, so I did a little checking of my own.
“I know, I’m not supposed to. But I spoke with her mother, Amora, who is severely bruised, and I saw cases upon cases of beer in that fridge.”
“That’s not a crime.”
“Amora swore nothing was going on. Eddie Cortiguera has seen both their bruises. There are many more witnesses to their injuries, and I’m sure there’s much more evidence to be found. Kim, surely, if I can get as much as I did in two hours, an experienced caseworker like Mr. Creedwell could make some semblance of a case.
“Has the girl admitted it?”
“Does she have to? My God, Kim, it’s every citizen’s public duty to report possible child abuse, right? Well, we have! And if I could go over your department and have my Rangers investigate, I would, but I can’t do that. You people are supposed to help children because they cannot help themselves. If you don’t do anything until she admits it, that could be too late to do anything. Or are you just going to wait until she dies and it’s not longer your concern?”
“Of all the cases you people have, this one should be a piece of cake, Kim. So why is it just sitting there? This entire department is failing her. And if something happens to her, I will have no qualms about broadcasting that to every single corner of this state.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Not you. This department, and its policies, and the way it’s being run. The first recent call on this case was a month ago, Kim.”
“So nothing has happened since that call. I have seen firsthand what parents can do to their children in much less than a month’s time. I have a filing cabinet full of files and pictures. Would you like me to bring some down?”
She shook her head.
“Thank you. Then please give Mr. Creedwell my best and tell him to get his ass out of that chair before the seat starts heating up, if you get my meaning.”
Kim nodded, and Alex stormed out without another word.
Alex and Josie were working at the Center a few days later when Kristina approached them. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” she demanded.
“they arrested my stepfather this afternoon.”
“What?” Alex exclaimed.
“Oh, like you didn’t know...”
“Well, for your future reference – my mother is crushed. You broke her heart. Are you happy now?”
Josie stepped forward. “Kristina, we-“
“Why can’t you stay out of my life? Why can’t you just leave us alone?”
“Kristina, I know this is-”
“You don’t know! You can’t! You have no idea what’s going to happen now. I hope you’re both happy.” She turned and stormed out.
“I... was just trying to help,” Josie whispered. “I never meant to upset her like this.”
Alex shook her head. “It’s not that. She’s scared. Really scared.”
“Of what he’ll do when he gets out. I gotta go.” Alex stood and ran out.
“Phil, you can’t let him out yet.”
“Because I’ve seen him! He’s angry right now, and he’s gonna lash out at whoever crosses his path.”
“We have nothing to hold him on. They should never have arrested him.”
“No, they shouldn’t have! And now if he goes home, he’ll give his wife and stepdaughter the beatings of their lives!”
Phil sighed. “I can’t help that. I can’t hold him here any longer.”
“So what are they supposed to do?”
“I don’t know... leave? Alex, you have your women’s group. If either of us could do something, it would be you.”
“I’ve tried! Can’t you at least keep him until he cools off a little?”
“Alex, it’s out of my hands.”
“Because I had already said I wouldn’t file charges. He’s probably on his way home now. I’m sorry.”
“No...” Pushing aside the sick feeling in her stomach, Alex ran out of the office.
Alex seemed to be the last to reach Kristina’s house – behind two ambulances and multiple police cars. “God, no,” she whispered, running through the front door and towards the commotion. Two Rangers led a man Alex took to be the stepfather out the door in handcuffs. She really wanted to hit him, but restrained herself and kept going.
“Not my baby... No...” Mrs. Menendez was kneeling near the paramedics at the bottom of the staircase.
As Alex drew close, she could see Kristina lying limp in her mother’s arms. “Oh, God...”
One of the officers looked up to see her standing there. “Ma’am? You alright?” He was surprised to see the DA on the scene, then touched her shoulder gently when he realized it must have been a personal issue.
“Would you like to sit down somewhere? How ‘bout a glass of water?”
She shook her head as Eddie flew past them, falling near Kristina.
“Kris... Oh, please...” He took one of her hands and kissed it, then held it to his cheek. “Don’t you leave me... Kris...”
A paramedic shook his head. “I’m sorry, son.”
“No...” Spotting Alex, the grief on his face turned to rage. “You!
You said you would take care of it! You promised you’d help her!” He started for her, but one of the cops held him back.
“Easy, son. Let’s go.”
“No... he should stay,” she whispered.
“Let him stay. He should be here,” she said a little louder, then turned and slowly made her way back to the door.
“Go away,” she sobbed. She was lying on the bed with her face buried in her pillow, which was already soaked with tears.
“I heard about Kristina. I’m so sorry.”
“I am.” He climbed onto the bed next to her, and wrapped his arms around her. She turned to his shoulder and sobbed into it. “Is there anything I can do?” he whispered, rubbing her back soothingly.
“Go kill Arturo Menendez.”
“Other than that.”
“That I can do.” He pulled her closer, trying to calm her.
“I feel awful,” she whispered, when the sobbing had subsided somewhat.
“It’s not your fault.”
“Not just mine. But how many other people could have helped her and let her down instead? DCF, the cops that arrested him, Phil... We could have done something. Surely we could have stopped this.”
“You did all you could.”
“And it wasn’t good enough.”
“You can’t help that.”
“Maybe not... but so help me, I’m gonna nail him in trial. And DCF... This will not happen again.”
“I know.” Walker held her until well into the night when she finally fell asleep. He knew she couldn’t see it yet, but thing always had a way of working out in the end – Arturo Menendez was being punished, and Alex and Kristina were finally finding some well-deserved peace.