The Mists of Time

The Mists of Time

Jails were always either too hot or too cold. This one was too cold. Jenna Armstrong pulled her sweater around her. The barred door clanked open, sending echoes through the gray hallway and Kracken pushed out. The shrink looked disgusted.

"She's all yours," he muttered, holding a handkerchief to his forearm. Long bloody scratches disappeared under the handkerchief.

"Diagnosis?" Jenna called after him.

"Homicidal maniac," he threw back over his shoulder.

"That's not a diagnosis." How a child psychologist could be so bad with kids she'd never know. She gave an apologetic smile to the matron who waved her in. As a social worker from Child Protective Services, she was a frequent visitor to the juvie lock-up.

"Good luck with this one, honey," the uniformed woman said, shaking her head. Her iron hair matched the surroundings.

Jenna flipped open the arresting officer's report again and once more tried to make heads or tails of it as she walked, her steps and those of the matron echoing down the corridor of cells. Shouts and cries and mutterings from the occupants of the other cells reverberated, making it almost impossible to think. Witnesses said the girl "fell off a roof onto the street" in front of a convenience store. There was no ladder and no one knew how she got on to the roof. She kept everyone who tried to help her away by waving a big knife. The convenience store owner called the police. Three officers got the knife away from her only when she passed out. Both officers and patient made a detour through the ER over at Cook County. They tranq'ed the girl to examine her. No broken bones. Hadn't been sexually assaulted. She was released with mild concussion and stitches. But there was nowhere to take her. She didn't respond to any questions about who she was or where she lived. The officer said the little girl spoke a language he called "gargley." But no one had yet identified it. Unless she was tranq'ed, she was so violent the only place they could take her was back to the juvenile lock-up until they could get an order to get her into a mental hospital. She was sure Kracken was on his way to do just that.

Great. One of those. Glancing up, Jenna found herself in front of the "homicidal maniac."

She'd never seen anyone so frightened in her life.

The report said the girl was thirteen or so. Maybe. She was skinny with big blue-gray eyes and translucent, pale skin and light brown hair in a long braid. Escaping wisps gave her a halo of sorts. She was dressed in a long-sleeved straight dress to her ankles of some rough fabric with a kind of a long, straight jumper pulled over it. She wore soft leather boots that looked homemade. Maybe she was from one of those crazy families that lived in the wild, expecting Armageddon. She sat on the bunk, pushed up against the wall, her hands behind her.

"Thanks, Mabel," Jenna said as the matron unlocked the cell door. "Why don't you leave it open? We'll probably be heading over to the children's interview room."

The matron raised skeptical brows, but she shrugged and left. Jenna headed into the cell. "Wait! Mabel?" The matron stuck her head back into view. "She hand-cuffed?"

"You're darned right," Mabel said fervently. "Did you see Kracken's arm?"

"Leave me the key to her cuffs." Jenna held out a hand. At Mabel's doubtful look, she said, "My responsibility."

"Your funeral more likely." But Mabel handed over the keys. The girl pushed herself even farther into the corner. Jenna crouched in front of her.

"Hey," Jenna said. "I'm the social worker." That didn't make an impression, though it wouldn't if she really didn't speak English. Maybe she was not connected to reality at all, and the language she spoke was entirely made up. It happened. It had been almost twenty-four hours since she'd been arrested. Dark circles hung under her eyes. She was exhausted, and ready to shatter into a thousand pieces from stress.

Jenna didn't touch her. That might set her off. She held out the hand with the key in it and raised her brows. A thousand thoughts raced through the girl's eyes as she considered the offer. Her breathing started to come fast and shallow. "It's okay," Jenna soothed. "It's okay."

At last the girl nodded once in decision and scooted out a little so Jenna could unlock the cuffs. Her wrists were chafed. These weren't the first cuffs she'd had on. "Poor thing," Jenna muttered. She tossed the cuffs aside and sat back on her haunches. She smiled and touched her chest. "Jenna." Then she nodded encouragement and gestured to the girl.

After a long pause, the girl whispered, "Diana." Then the walls she'd built around herself shattered. She cried hard, racking sobs. Jenna took her in her arms and rocked her.

Diana sat in the white visitor's room. It had been nearly a month since Jenna had first seen her in that cell. She was dressed in conventional clothes now, her braid fresh and neat. She'd been living in the temporary holding facility for runaways. Jenna couldn't bear to send her into the foster care system, fragile as she was, when she must have parents out there somewhere. Jenna had combed the missing persons reports, going back six months and a year to find families who might have lost her. Her first name seemed to be the only thing the girl could remember, or the only thing she'd say aloud. Her fierce rebellion had slowly disappeared. Violence had been replaced by withdrawal. She was afraid of even common things like toilets and television. It seemed to take all her courage just to face new situations. Jenna had come to care for her, more even than she usually cared for the runaways or children taken from their parents for neglect or abuse who came through the system. Maybe it was because she kept mustering the courage.

"Some people are coming to see you."

Diana understood the language. It had taken a week or two for Jenna to be sure of it, because the girl didn't speak. Not ever. She sure understood about families coming to look at her. Now she held herself still, as usual. But Jenna could see the tiny flame of hope there in her eyes. Jenna knew what she was thinking. Maybe the people would know her this time. Maybe they had lost her and she would be found. Maybe she had a home, familiar and safe, somewhere.

Jenna motioned the couple in. The woman who came through the door had been crying. The husband loomed behind the woman. Jenna found herself hoping nearly as much as Diana must hope that recognition would light their faces. It was the husband's expression that shut down first. It took the woman longer. But finally, the woman collapsed in tears of disappointment. Her husband held her in his arms.

Jenna ushered them out. "It's okay. I'm sure you'll find your little girl."

Jenna turned back into the sterile visiting room and saw Diana's hope flicker out. Jenna took a breath and managed a smile. Time to stop putting this little girl through this. It had been going on too long already. Jenna sat beside her. "I thought sure the piece in the newspaper would help us find your family." She sighed. "But I know there's someone out there who doesn't have a little girl just waiting to love you." Jenna put an arm around Diana and squeezed.

Diana was now officially an orphan. And she was about to go out of Jenna's life forever.