Holly Rankin could feel her patience starting to slip. For perhaps the thousandth time in the past week she questioned the path that had led her to a degree in social work and thirty years as an adult protective services worker for the Monroe County Department of Social Services.
Hang on, Holly. Eleven more months and you can kiss this career goodbye.
"Come on, Nancy, I've found a place for you to stay tonight. You'll freeze to death in this alley. That cardboard box won't keep you warm."
A wizened creature with watchful yellow-tinged brown eyes and facial creases like furrows in a plowed field slithered deeper into the box. Holly knew the woman was in her sixties, but street life always exacted a toll on its victims. Nancy looked closer to ninety.
"Fine. Have it your way."
Holly shoved the blanket she had purchased at Walmart into the cramped space and tossed a box of granola bars in after it. Not the outcome she had hoped for, but better than nothing.
Her supervisor was the only person left in the building when Holly stopped by to drop off a file. Karen Lake was an uber-intense thirty-something with a burning desire to change the world one double-spaced report at a time. Holly hated her.
"I need your year end assessment on Janet Felts by Monday."
Holly gritted her teeth and nodded. The woman had no interest in the actual people they served, just the paperwork, always the paperwork, with every t crossed and i dotted. Over the years she had thought about applying for the supervisory positions that periodically became available. She was more than qualified with her experience and MSW degree. In the end she had always backed away, afraid of being responsible for the work of others, afraid of being permanently chained to a desk, afraid of turning into Karen Lake.
Glowing animatronic reindeer and an oxygen starved plastic Santa greeted Holly as she turned into her condominium development. Her neighbors thought she was odd, to the extent they thought about her at all. Holly Rankin, the woman with no husband, no boyfriend, no girlfriend, no children, no family, not even a dog or house cat. Holly Rankin, the sexless spinster in 204-C.
She tossed her purse on the sofa, grabbed a bottle of water and an unopened box of cherry Pop-Tarts and plopped down in front of the television. Dinner for one.
Christmas was always hard. Holly had learned over the years to just work through it. She didn't bake, put up a tree, or decorate. That would only make it worse. She always volunteered for the on-call duty over Christmas so her colleagues, the ones with spouses, families, and actual lives, could enjoy the holidays. It was actually a respite of sorts, a time when she could check on her street people and catch up on paperwork in a quiet, empty building.
Holly swallowed the dry pastry and closed the box. When had Pop-Tarts started tasting like flavored sawdust? She drank some water and gazed at the blank television screen. All in all she couldn't complain, especially given the hand she had been dealt. A couple of years earlier she had hired an investigative agency to find her biological mother. They had tracked her winding journey down through Georgia and Florida, over to Alabama, and back to Monroe County before the trail went cold. The theory was that she was either dead or had changed her name. If her mother was still alive she was probably living in or near Monroe County. The agency told Holly that someone, probably her mother, had left her in front of the entrance to the local hospital in the middle of the night when she was a week old. Holly assumed she had been born at home. Home, of course, could be a car, an abandoned building, or an alley. She saw that often enough on the job.
A series of group homes and foster families had followed, some better than others, none as bad as the horror stories she had heard and seen. A few people had considered adopting her, but in the end had chosen another child, usually someone younger, cuter, prettier, smarter, perhaps more lovable. Maybe it was for the best. It had always felt like she was auditioning for some grand prize that she wasn't sure she wanted.
Holly had never learned the reason why she had been abandoned. The investigators couldn't tell her that. Some days it bothered her, some days she didn't care. Christmas was when it bothered her the most.
Tomorrow was Christmas Eve. Another forty-eight hours and it would all be over for another year. Holly turned out the lights and went to bed.
* * *
"Nancy? It's me, Holly."
The cardboard box was empty. The overnight temperature had dropped into the upper twenties and it wasn't much warmer at eight o'clock in the morning. A sudden tingling in her fingers and icy sweat on the back of her neck signaled an imminent panic attack.
Get a grip, Holly. Keep moving. Find her!
The alley yielded no clues, and the nearby dumpster was empty. It was too early to check with the neighborhood merchants and street people.
The police didn't have her and, according to the desk sergeant Holly spoke with, they weren't in the business of helping social workers chase down street people, especially on Christmas Eve when they were short-staffed.
She found her at the hospital. A good Samaritan had seen her stagger from the alley and collapse. He had dialed 911 and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
The ER doctor looked like a high school senior, but spoke with authority. "Yes, the ambulance brought your client in around five o'clock this morning. She was unresponsive at that time. We were able to revive her with CPR. She's receiving IV fluids and nasal oxygen and was moved to intensive care about an hour ago."
Holly was afraid to ask the next question. She didn't have to.
"Her prognosis is poor. I'll be surprised if she makes it through the day. I'm sorry."
The patient bays in intensive care were narrow cubicles separated by curtains. Nancy was in the last bay, the one furthest from the nurses station. If it had been a restaurant, she would have been next to the kitchen.
Holly took a moment to study the wires and beeping telemetry which told her that, appearances notwithstanding, Nancy was still alive, if barely. She removed her coat and sat down. Her paperwork could wait. Nobody should die alone.
She glanced around and noticed a small plastic bag containing Nancy's clothes and meager personal effects. Her pulse accelerated as she noticed an envelope on top of the pile with the name Holly Rankin written in precise cursive.
If your mother is still alive, we think it's likely she's living here in Monroe County. No! No way! No!
Sweat beaded her forehead and her hand trembled as she opened the envelope. A handwritten letter. Holly looked up at the still figure in the bed. Tears moistened her eyes and clogged her throat.
The wet, rattling respiration coming from Nancy's lungs was the only sound in the tiny room.
Holly examined the old-fashioned stationery, something she hadn't seen in years. How old was this letter?
"Excuse me, what are you doing?"
A nurse was frowning at her.
"Visiting my friend and reading my letter."
The nurse shook her head.
"That letter belongs to the patient."
Holly held up the envelope with her name on it.
"That's me, Holly Rankin."
The nurse, Debbie, according to her ID tag, continued to shake her head.
Holly stood up and stared at the nurse.
"How about this, Debbie, why don't you contact security and explain to them how you need to evict a woman from the ICU who you caught reading a letter addressed to her while visiting her friend that will almost surely be dead by the end of the day. Don't forget to mention that I'm her adult protective services case worker."
The nurse blinked. "You should have said something."
"And you, Debbie, should have said nothing."
She waited for the nurse to leave before opening the letter.
A Letter To My Daughter:
I've tried and failed so many times to write this letter. I recently marked my sixtieth birthday and realized I needed to do this while I still had time. If you decide to shred this letter I want you to know two things:
1) Having you was the best thing I've ever done. 2) You're forever in my heart. I think of you every day.
Still reading? I hope so. Anyway, you were born a week before my sixteenth birthday. My parents had arranged for me to go away to have you in a home for unwed mothers. Sounds quaint, doesn't it? I can tell you I was scared to death until I heard you screaming to beat the band. I think that was the best week of my life.
Let me back up. Your dad was my first boyfriend. We were both young and dumb, full of hormones, and things went a little faster than either of us expected. When I told him I was pregnant, he freaked out, told me I was on my own and that we were done. I'm sorry to tell you that he was killed in Vietnam a few years later.
Anyway, my parents were ashamed of me. They gave me some money and a bus ticket and told me to leave. My grandparents felt the same way. I had no support, Holly, no way to raise you, so I left you at the hospital with a note and half the money my parents had given me tucked into your blanket.
I'm proud to say that, much like you, I made my own way, got an education and am financially comfortable. I live not far away and read the Monroe County Chronicle. You'll be interested to know that your client, Nancy, was my best friend in high school. She made the bad decision to drop out of school and accompany me on the road. We both did what we had to in order to survive, but Nancy gave in to the lure of drugs and alcohol. Once the downward spiral started, I couldn't pull her out of it. I've asked her to give you this letter. If you want to meet just tell Nancy and we'll set it up. If you don't, I understand.
Oh, before I go, there are no genetic ticking time bombs that you need to worry about, at least not from me. My cholesterol is a little high, but that's it. Your grandparents, my parents, are both dead now, but not because of poor health. They were killed in a car crash. I read about it in the paper. We never reconciled. I hope that won't happen to us.
All my love always,
Spasms wracked her body as silent tears flowed down her face. Something from the letter flashed in her mind. A sixtieth birthday?
There it was at the bottom of the page, like an afterthought: June 6, 2009.
"Oh God, oh God, no. Nancy, Nancy."
A man parted the curtain and walked to the bed. Holly watched as he studied the telemetry and then spent several minutes examining Nancy with his stethoscope.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, she's gone."
Holly shook her head.
"No wait, I just need ... not yet."
The man nodded. "I know. Can I get you anything or call someone for you?"
Holly tried to think. Her head was fuzzy and loud, like it was stuffed with insulation or a thousand bumble bees.
"May I stay a little longer?"
She waited for her mind to clear. Ten years. My God, ten years.
You can't blame Nancy. She was sick, not in her right mind. It's a miracle she still had the letter.
Holly thought about that. A Christmas Eve miracle. Was it possible? She gathered her coat and headed for the door. Tomorrow was Christmas. Maybe she would bake some cookies to enjoy while she composed a personals notice for the Monroe County Chronicle. There would be movies to watch and the letter from her mom to read again. And again.
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