Ethan entered the office feeling like a zombie. He was drowsier than usual because Renee had been difficult all night long. While she typically slept peacefully, the previous evening proved otherwise. She repeatedly woke up screaming, wanting to be fed and rocked. Even taking equal turns with Maria putting Renee back to sleep, he still was not allowed to sleep much longer than an hour at a time.
With his primary objective being the ingestion of multiple cups of coffee, his attention was focused on the break room. On his way there, he received his first greeting of the morning from Owen. “You look like shit, bro.”
Ethan was in no mood to entertain his good friend. Instead, he reached out for the coffee pot that was still half full. His eyes burned from having to force them open ever since rolling—quite literally—out of bed. His vision was blurry, but as soon as the dark-roasted coffee touched his lips, it began to rectify.
Owen followed Ethan into the break room. “Kids are great, aren’t they?”
“They have their moments,” Ethan said, falling into the trap of indulging him.
To make matters worse, Lin walked in with disappointing news. “Hey, Ethan. Paula called in sick, so I’m going to need you to shadow Nancy today.”
Ethan rolled his irritated eyes up into his skull. “Today is not a great day. Is there really no one else that can mentor?”
“Well, I could put Owen with her, but you and I both know that’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
“You’re always picking on me, boss,” Owen said, looking as if he was partially serious.
“Feel free to go talk with Janelle, Owen. But in all seriousness, I actually need you to check on the Gomez case. You need to do a surprise house call, so call Craig and set that up this morning. For the child’s sake, it’s not good to wait longer than a few days for a follow-up visit. Hopefully you catch that bastard with drugs in the house this time. You and I both know he’s not going to change without professional help.”
“I’m on it, Lin.” Owen gave Ethan a thumb up. “You have fun today, my friend.”
Finishing the last sip by holding the cup vertically above his mouth, assuring that every last drop was consumed, Ethan refilled his mug and headed back toward his desk. Nancy was already waiting for him, standing next to his cubicle.
Nancy was a fit, young woman in her early twenties that could pull off the modern haircut that she had. The left side of her head was a medium bob with blonde highlights, while the right side displayed her dark-brown hair down to a half an inch.
When introduced to everyone in the office as a trainee, Nancy was quite friendly and exuded confidence in the way she handled herself around even the most inauspicious of employees—which there were several in the office that Ethan had learned to avoid associating with.
After having overheard her dealing with an angry mother, Ethan recognized Nancy’s commanding presence. The mother had raged through the office, shouting about how she had her child taken away. Despite the woman being aggressive in her confrontation, Nancy did not back down. Face to face, Nancy stared the woman down and explained how she was responsible for losing her child. If she wanted her daughter back, then she would have to be rehabilitated. Then, Nancy offered to help her through the whole process, just as a social worker should.
Nancy was excited to start her day, acting far more jubilant than himself. “Good morning, Ethan. What are we doing first?”
Ethan gave her the most enthusiastic smile he could muster, which happened to be convincing enough. “Me too, Nancy. I like your attitude. Have you been out in the field a lot with Paula? She’s one of the veterans in the office and a great mentor to learn from.”
“Actually, we’ve only been out six or seven times so far. It’s heartbreaking to see what some of these children go through. I never prepared myself to deal with all the emotions that come from witnessing so many atrocities.”
“I agree. That’s the first thing you want to learn. Constructively using all those emotions to your benefit can be difficult. I use it to push myself out there,” Ethan said, pointing toward the door. “On each and every case, no matter how vague the reports may be, I dedicate all the energy I have.”
Nancy nodded her head several times while he spoke as if she had heard what he had to say before. “I totally understand. Paula told me something similar. It’s just tough to get some of those images out of my head.”
“Yes, it is difficult.”
Both Ethan and Nancy noticed Lin walking toward them with haste in her step. “Just received a phone call from PD. You guys need to get down to 115 Date Street immediately. While investigating a domestic disturbance, police found a grisly scene. A mother shot and killed her husband and one son, then turned the gun on herself. A second son survived and was found hiding in a closet.”
“Oh my God,” Nancy said, holding her hand over her mouth.
Ethan looked down at the ground and shook his head. “Poor little guy.”
They contacted us because the home is only seven miles away. Get your asses down there quick.”
Ethan chugged half of the coffee he was holding, then set the mug down on his desk. “Let’s get over there, Nancy. Now’s your chance to show me all those impressive techniques that Paula taught you.”
They both jogged outside and climbed into the agency van. Ethan stepped on the gas as the tires squealed driving out of the parking lot. He hoped that the crime scene had been cleaned up by the time they arrived, but figured that wouldn’t be the case. He wondered how well Nancy would handle seeing such a disturbing sight, especially since she had just spoken about her troubles dealing with that aspect of the job?
There were ten stop lights along the route to their destination, nine of which were red. Ethan could not fathom how stop lights always knew when he was in a hurry, trying their hardest to slow him down.
Three police cars, two news vans, an ambulance, and a coroner’s van were parked out in front of the home. Yellow caution tape surrounded the perimeter, keeping back neighbors that were watching the chaos. An EMT was inspecting the lone child sitting on the rear of the ambulance.
Ethan parked behind one of the police cars, then he and Nancy got out of the van. They approached the African-American child that sat quietly, wrapped in a blanket and staring off into space. Nancy gasped as she saw the coroner carrying a child’s body bag away from the bloody, front porch. Unfortunately, the bag was not empty.
“What’s your name, little buddy?” Ethan said.
As they both waited for a response, the boy completely ignored their presence. The child barely blinked.
“His name is Michael,” the EMT said, speaking for the boy. “He’s experiencing a mild case of shock right now. He hasn’t spoken or looked anyone in the eye. Just be slow and gentle with him. I’ve seen children react many different ways when suffering from psychological trauma.”
“Michael, do you need anything? We can get you whatever you need,” Nancy gently said.
Still no response. Ethan couldn’t blame the poor guy since he had just witnessed his family being murdered by his own mother, one that was unimaginable just a day prior. He most likely couldn’t explain why it had happened. The reasoning could rarely be comprehended by a child. From their perspective, everything is normal one day, and completely illogical the next.
“Sir, do you have a writing utensil handy?” an officer said. He had on latex gloves and was holding a cell phone. “The phone is evidence, but I can give you the phone number for the child’s grandmother. I know it would help you guys to contact Michael’s relatives. I’ve dealt with children and social services many times.”
Nancy pulled out a pen and notepad from her purse. She stood next to the officer and wrote down the phone number. “Thank you, officer Schrader. That’s very helpful.”
Ethan pulled both Schrader and Nancy aside, out of earshot of Michael. “So, what happened here this morning, officer Schrader?”
“Allegedly, a neighbor claims to have overheard the mother screaming at the father over an infidelity, at which point a gunshot was heard and the father screamed in pain. The woman was then heard shouting that he would have to watch his sons die. It looks like the eldest son tried to run out of the house, but was fatally wounded on the porch. The father desperately pleaded with the woman until a minute or two later when multiple gunshots were heard.”
“How on earth did Michael survive?” Nancy said.
“The first officers on the scene found the seven-year-old hiding in his closet. He probably ran to hide after the initial gunshot, but we don’t know for sure because he hasn’t spoken yet.”
“Thank you, officer,” Ethan said. “I’m sorry this happened. I wish things like this never had to happen.”
“You and me both,” Schrader said. “Paramedic said he was good to go if you’re ready to get him out of here.”
“Will do. Thank you,” Ethan said, putting his arm around Michael’s shoulder. He tried to escort the boy toward the van, but the child refused to budge.
Nancy attempted to pull the boy off the back of the ambulance. “You need to come with us.”
Michael burst out of his catatonic state violently, punching her in the face with a closed fist and kicking her in the thigh. He broke down into tears and began screaming, “I want my daddy! Let me see him!”
Ethan quickly intervened, restricting Michael’s movement by wrapping his arms around the boy’s torso. Holding him tight and pulling him close, Ethan whispered in his ear. “Calm down, son. We want to help you. I’m sorry that your family is gone, but you need to be strong.”
Michael struggled to get free of Ethan’s grasp, but eventually gave up as he became exhausted. Ethan slipped a hand behind Michael’s legs and picked him up as if he was trying to rock Renee to sleep. “Are you alright, Nancy?”
She held her lip that had begun to bleed. “Yes, I’m fine. He got me good right on my mouth.”
“Could you open the van door? I’ll set him down inside.”
They both rushed over to the van and Nancy opened the sliding door. Ethan set Michael down on a booster seat and belted him in. The boy continued to sob, turning his face toward the seat to hide his eyes.
Climbing into the passenger seat, Nancy used the phone number Schrader gave her to call Michael’s grandmother. She politely delivered the terrible news and asked if they would take in Michael. Taking down the woman’s name and address, Nancy confirmed to Ethan that the grandparents would house the boy. “You can be at Child and Family Services in five hours? That’s great. Thank you, Vanessa. We look forward to meeting you.”
Ethan turned around to speak to Michael. “You hear that, Michael. Your grandparents are going to take you home. But first, we’ll need to do some paperwork. Don’t worry, it sounds boring, but we have toys you can play with while you wait.”
Michael didn’t respond, he was too busy continuing to quietly sob with his face buried in the seat cushion.
“We’re here,” Nancy said as they pulled into the parking lot.
Ethan climbed out of the van and opened the sliding door. “Would you mind walking with me this time? You’re heavier than I thought.”
Michael finally turned to face him, eyes red and watery, wiping saliva away from his mouth with his shirt sleeve. “Yes, I’ll walk.”
Surprised to hear him actually speak, Ethan reached out a hand to help Michael climb out. “You’re going to be alright, Michael. Your grandparents want you to live with them.”
“I want to live with Auntie,” Michael said.
“Don’t worry, buddy. I promise we’ll speak with all your relatives, but for now you get to spend some time with your grandparents.”
After entering the office, Nancy checked to make sure no one was currently using the visitation room. Ethan led Michael there and introduced him to all the different toys and art supplies they had available for children to use.
Once back in the hallway, Ethan turned to Nancy. “You did a good job out there. Just keep in mind that you want to be very slow and careful with children that may be in shock.”
“Thanks, Ethan. I just hate having to see the shit that these kids are forced to go through. I had a great childhood, so I can’t even relate. I’ve only been here for a few weeks and I already can’t get the suffering out of my head.”
“I don’t think anyone doing this job should ever become desensitized to the pain and suffering of all the children we deal with. Once you do that, then you stop caring. That’s when it’s time to find a new career. At least that’s how I feel about it.”
“What happens if you care, but you just can’t take the psychological trauma?”
“I guess that’s a good time to quit, too. I don’t think that makes anyone a bad person. This job is definitely not for everyone.”
Lin walked out of Janelle’s office and noticed Ethan and Stacey talking in the hallway. Janelle followed behind Lin, both women with concerned expressions once they noticed Nancy’s swollen, bloody lip. “What happened to you, Nancy?” Lin said.
“Michael, the child we just picked up, went ballistic when I tried to bring him to the van. Ethan had to restrain him for me,” Nancy said.
“Has he been in shock? Quiet and distant? Verbally unresponsive?” Janelle said.
“Yes, that’s exactly how he’s been acting.”
“He didn’t mean to attack you. Shock can sometimes elicit a sporadic or violent reaction. Mental shock combined with strangers taking him away from his home are the causes for his lashing out.”
“I know. I’m not mad at the kid. It just bothers me to see a child so traumatically distraught. It’s not right.”
“I’m going to go talk with him,” Janelle said, entering the visitation room.
“I guess you guys should get started on the paperwork.” Lin was a pro at being passive aggressive.
“Lin, could I speak with you for a moment?” Nancy said.
“Sure, come into my office. Ethan can get started with the administrative duties. He’s done this plenty of times.”
Ethan walked back to his desk as the two women entered Lin’s office. Owen approached him once noticing he was alone.
“Welcome back, buddy. How did it go?”
“Not so good. A poor kid lost his family to a homicidal mother. He was comatose when we arrived, but flipped when Nancy was trying to put him in the van, busting her lip.”
“Did she do something wrong?”
“No, she did really good, actually.” Ethan leaned in close to Owen’s ear. “Have you chatted with her a lot? I figured her for a tough chick, but she keeps talking about not being able to handle the stress.”
“Not really. I tend to ignore girls that shave their heads. Not that I don’t like her as a person, but it’s just a total turn off.”
Ethan laughed at how ridiculous Owen’s justification was. “So, you only talk to women that you think are hot?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s my general rule. Call me shallow if you want, but I’ve never been able to be friends with a woman unless they were nice to look at. And there can’t be anything about them that irritates me, either.”
Ethan shook his head. “I just can’t believe you aren’t in a serious relationship.”
Owen rolled his eyes. “That cuts deep.”
“Get out of here. I have paperwork to do.”
Nancy returned as Owen walked away. “I’m back. I’ll take some of that paperwork off your hands.”
“Thank God. I despise paperwork.” Ethan handed her a packet of papers. “You can fill out the child’s information packet and I’ll start the incident report. I don’t care who does what, so you can choose if you would like.”
“This is fine.”
As Ethan started to write the report, he kept an eye on Nancy, looking for any emotion or attitude change. She didn’t say a word about why she wanted to talk with Lin. “I don’t want to interrupt, but are you alright?”
She looked up at him with a blank expression, then cracked a smile. “Yeah, of course. I’m good. Got to move on, right?”
“Right,” Ethan said nodding his head. He figured she must be fine. Every social worker he had known found their own way to deal with emotions differently, and Nancy acted like she was coping well.
Two weeks later, Nancy moved on from Child and Family Services. Ethan didn’t blame her.