1


        “Syracuse, I would like a word with you,” Chaz Tadplock, her supervisor said as he poked his bald head over her cubicle.

            Syracuse York looked at him with her dark brown eyes blinking from under her thick lashes and paused briefly, noticing the florescent lights from above shining down on him. “Sure, Mr. Tadplock,” she replied casually.

He nodded his head in acknowledgement and began walking toward his office. She closed out the window of the application she was working on, and then stood up. Her palms ran down her mocha toned legs, smoothing out and straightening her grey pencil skirt and then she followed him the rest of the way into his office.

            Mr. Tadplock sat down behind his metal desk and the bright sunshine shone in from the windows behind him. She couldn’t help but note that the hump in his back appeared larger that day, and she tried not to focus on it as he motioned for her to have a seat. She obediently sat down and then she waited, flipping her long black braid over her shoulder and looking at the older man expectantly.

            “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it; Joaquin Mendoza died last night.” Syracuse stared at the man and she tried to register what he’d said. As she processed his words, her face changed from expectant to that of horror.

He continued. “It was that mother’s boyfriend, Arturo Rodriguez, apparently. They say he threw the boy against the wall so hard that the child was knocked out and never regained consciousness. Blunt force trauma. He was on life support for a few hours, but…” he trailed off, his words were a blur to Syracuse, who was numb. She blinked a few times when Mr. Tadplock added, “The mother’s in custody, along with her boyfriend. She was high at the time.”

Now he was quiet and staring at her directly, waiting for her to say something, anything. But what was really adequate in a situation like that? Joaquin had been a child on her caseload. She’d been sent to the home several times following allegations of child abuse. The evidence had always been there. The boy had been hospitalized on numerous occasions for intense bruises and broken or fractured bones. At one point, she’d actually removed him from the home to live with his maternal grandmother, but had allowed him to return after the mother had insisted that the boyfriend was no longer in the picture. She’d believed it! But after he’d returned to the home, so had the boyfriend.

According to the manuals and procedures, she’d taken the right steps, done the necessary things. The courts had been satisfied and so had the Department of Children’s Services. But now the child was dead.

Syracuse knew all too well that these situations were not uncommon, but few resulted in death. Why would the mother invite that monster in? Perhaps it was the lure of the welfare check, but Arturo Rodriguez, a lifelong thug with gang affiliations, had entered into their lives again. He had nothing to offer—a man in his mid-thirties that had never held a job and had spent more of his adulthood in jail than free, living off women that he easily called girlfriends when it suited his purposes.

            Mr. Tadplock continued to speak, but Syracuse couldn’t hear him. His lips were moving and his hands were gesturing, but all that she noticed at that point was the ringing in her ears. Her head was spinning and she was utterly horrified. She knew she should never have returned that child to his mother. The woman was negligent, used drugs in front of her child and exercised absolutely no common sense. Two of her other children’s fathers had already taken their sons from her, but little Joaquin’s father was MIA. The grandmother had warned her about the mother, but Syracuse hadn’t listened. She’d assumed that the guidelines would lead to her doing the right thing. Therefore, she’d foolishly agreed with her boss that the child’s best chance was with his mother. How stupid she had been! Now the four year old was lying cold in the morgue. A tag on his toe distinguishing him as the little boy she remembered with the sad black eyes. She stood abruptly, her hand on her forehead.

            “I don’t believe this,” she exclaimed, staring out into the world that was anything but rose colored. Her eyes were blurry and they were stinging from the tears she tried to hold back. She finally blurted out, “I… I just paid a visit to the home yesterday. He was fine.” Highly inadequate words that couldn’t mask her disbelief.

            “Evidently the Rodriguez man was hiding in a neighbor’s apartment until you left. He came back after and began to use crystal meth. The boy got in the way, or something. You know the story. I’m sorry, Syracuse. Don’t blame yourself,” he said with an arrogant wave of his hand.

            She looked at the seventy something year old man with the pasty skin incredulously. “Blame myself? Yes, I blame myself,” she said. Then she turned on him and hissed out the words that came from the anger that lurked inside of her. “But dammit, I blame you, too.” She pointed accusingly at him. “Against my better judgment, I let you talk me into pushing for a family reunion that never should have happened!”

Mr. Tadplock stood up as well, making his square framed glasses slide down his nose. He adjusted them and spoke. “Now wait one minute! You are out of line and bordering on insubordination. Now, I know that you’re upset and in shock about what happened, but pointing fingers at each other is counterproductive. The press is going to do enough of that as soon as they get wind of this story. We have to be united and work on damage control here. So, sit down, Syracuse. And calm down.” He pointed his finger toward the seat and she stared at it, strangely fascinated with the liver spots on it at that moment. Eager for a distraction, she guessed.

She defied the order and remained standing. “You told me to recommend giving the boy back. You insisted!” she said, her voice growing shakier and louder with each word. “I knew better. I knew it. That woman hadn’t changed in eight months. She’s a dope fiend. You made me give him back, and I did. Oh my gawd! That poor child never stood a chance.”

Syracuse’s realization of her last words hit her like a ton of bricks and she put her hand to her mouth and turned around to see that she was like a fish in a fish bowl, her co-workers the humans staring at her as the scene unfolded. The supervisors’ offices in the Department of Children’s Services were open; there were no doors, no privacy.

She dashed out of the office and grabbed her purse from her cubicle. “Syracuse!” She could hear Mr. Tadplock calling out to her, but she kept on going. She had to get out of there.

***

One Week Later

 

It was 4 PM and Syracuse was still in her pajamas. Watching her two blond Chihuahuas, Rose and Ginger, chase each other through the small house, she sighed and took a spoonful of Rocky Road ice cream, jamming it into her mouth. As she ate it, she barely tasted it, but it had become her necessity—a coping mechanism. The past week had been hell. When she wasn’t being called into meetings by top county brass regarding the little Mendoza boy, she was sitting on her couch watching reality shows and eating ice cream. She had never been much of an ice cream aficionado before, but now it was the only way to soothe herself. She had gained three pounds in the days since the child had died, thanks to her “ice cream only” diet.

As she watched one of the housewives throw a drink in the face of another, her cellphone rang. She recognized the ringtone. It was her mother. She right swiped. “Hey, Momma,” she said before shoveling another hefty scoop of self-prescribed therapy into her mouth.

“Hi honey. How ya doin’?” her mother asked.

“I’m here,” Syracuse responded with a sigh. She could keep it real with her momma and not put up any pretenses that everything was “fine”.

“What’s goin’ on with the case?” Her mother always got right to the point.

“They’re still investigating, Momma. The news media is all over this, and rightfully so. They are holding the Department responsible just as much as that drug addict of a mother and her murdering dope-head boyfriend. I’ve been home the past two days. I don’t want to go back there. When this is all over I’m looking for another job. This has really shaken me…”

“I know it has, sugar pie. But listen. You were doing your job, you didn’t kill that baby. And even though his mother didn’t either, she’s just as responsible as the man that did, you understand?” her mother insisted.

“I do, but I still can’t get over it. I handed that child back to that woman. She fooled me, but something in the back of my mind kept nudging at me. I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but it’s my fault. When he needed someone to fight for him, he should have been able to count on me. And what did I do? I just handed him back. I didn’t fight for him…”

“You did what you were told—”

“That’s not what that old rat faced Mr. Tadplock is saying. According to him, I acted on my own. He’s trying to save his own ass.”

“Don’t you worry about him, Syrie, you need to pray on it. The truth will come out, you’ll see.”

Syracuse sighed. “Little Joaquin’s funeral is next week. Do you think I should go?”

“Only you can make that call, sweetie. I don’t see how it could hurt, because you did your best for that child.”

“No I didn’t, Momma. I didn’t.”

There was a knock at her door and she shook her head, wondering, what now? “Look, somebody’s at the door, I have to go. I wish I was there, and this mess had never happened.”

“I know. Maybe you can get some time off and come home soon. You might even wanna stay?”

“I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ll call you later, Momma. Love you, bye.”

“Love you too, Syrie. Bye- bye.” Syracuse hurried to the door and looked through the peephole. Pressing her forehead to the door softly, she straightened up and opened it.

“Hello, ma’am, please sign here,” the mailman said, and smiled at her.

Syracuse nodded and smiled weakly at the pudgy blond man in grey shorts. She wouldn’t have answered at all if she didn’t wonder who could be sending her something certified.

“You doing okay today?” he asked, trying for some reason to get her to make eye contact.

“I’m fine, thank you. Hot out today, huh?” she asked, glancing at the perspiration that glistened on his face and his dampened hairline.

“Yeah, looks like another scorcher,” he said as he handed her the letter and the receipt. “Have a nice day.”

“Thanks, you too,” she said. He turned to leave and she watched him walk down the sidewalk of the small house and wondered, why the hell were people in LA always talking about “having a nice day?” What the hell was so nice about it? She closed the door hard.

Syracuse ripped open the certified letter. “Great,” she said sarcastically as she saw that it was a letter from the department notifying her that she had been placed on desk duty pending an investigation into the death of the child. Since Mr. Tadplock had tried to cop out by refusing to take responsibility for his part in the tragedy, Syracuse was taking the brunt of the blame. And the media had already convicted her, saying she knew what was going on and returned the child to the home anyway. The part that stung her was that she felt the same way, but hearing it broadcast to the greater LA area was harsh. She’d become known as “the unidentified social worker” who turned her back on a child in need.

“This is bullshit,” Syracuse said under her breath. Being thrown under the bus so Mr. Tadplock could cover his own ass was too damn much. Through a co-worker, she heard that he’d been meeting with the brass, as well as consulting with his own attorney. He knew that the entire thing would ultimately fall on him, but he was glad to drag everyone else down with him and buy himself as much time as he could. The prick!

At twenty-eight years of age, Syracuse Nue York’s life had definitely taken an unexpected turn. “I should have stayed in Michigan,” she muttered. Growing up in Detroit, Syracuse had always wanted to live in Los Angeles, the land of sunshine and movie stars, as she used to call it. Even as a teenager applying for college she knew that she wouldn’t succeed in the job market if she stayed in Detroit. So the decision to relocate to Los Angeles was an easy one. Leaving her family behind was tough, but her mother and sister supported her decision to want to try something new. Now Syracuse kind of wished that they hadn’t. The entire emotional and career mess she was in may have been avoided if she hadn’t.

Well, it’s Friday, girl, tune it out until Monday when you have to go back there, she thought. But that Tadplock was a fat tub of lard, and such a jerk! Just thinking of him made her blood pressure rise. And as far as her union went, who was she kidding? They weren’t Teamsters. But the reality was that she did not want to go back. None of it—the career or life in LA—was what she’d thought it would be. Foolish dreams from a young girl turned into a harsh reality.

The final words of that day haunted her. It was when she was talked into going against her gut, and it had cost her greatly, but not as much as it had cost Joaquin Mendoza, that poor sweet child. “So you really think a family reunion would be good for them then?” Syracuse asked, still not convinced, but willing to follow her supervisor’s lead. “Yes, Syracuse. It’s for the best. Let’s get this wrapped up and close out this case,” he concluded. And that’s what she had done.

She’d looked at him hard and for the first time since she had starting her work for the county as a social worker, she’d realized that the children whose lives she knew would be impacted by the decisions she made, were nothing more than faceless cases to Chaz Tadplock. But she’d gone along with his order and now look at the outcome. The mother was still using, the boyfriend was still in the picture, and little Joaquin was dead.

She sighed and shook her head, not wanting to be haunted by those words. She thought about how everybody probably knew all the details of this now at work, and someone would buckle and leak something to the press despite the gag order they were given to not speak with them. It was inevitable. And she deserved it, that’s what she was really beating herself up about.

She was interrupted from her thoughts when her cellphone rang again. Swiping right, she blew out a hard gust of air and answered.

“Hey Syrie!” her sister Monica chirped.

“Hey Mo,” Syracuse said dryly.

“About time you answered. You can’t hide out forever, you know.”

Oh boy, here we go, Syracuse thought.

“Not hiding. I’ve been around,” Syracuse replied.

“So you’re ignoring me then?” Monica asked. “I’ve left at least ten messages. You could have called back, Syracuse. You been talking to Momma, how come not me? What’s going on out there in La La-land? Everything getting straightened out?”

“I’ve been assigned to desk duty, my files have all been confiscated; it’s a mess, and depressing as hell.” She sighed. “Can we talk about something else? Anything else,” Syracuse said, rolling her eyes. “How are Mason and the twins? How’s Jerry?”

She walked over to the dishwasher and tossed her spoon in there while Monica talked.

“The twins are doing their terrible-twos thing. Climbing and running all over the place, keeping me tired and busy. Mason’s getting all geared up for a camping trip he’s taking with his best friend’s family this weekend, and Jerry’s his usual wonderful self. He’s grilling steaks out right now and I’m enjoying a glass of my favorite chardonnay and helping with the side dishes.”

Syracuse could hear her sister take a sip of the wine. “Wine sounds good right about now,” Syracuse said and looked into the refrigerator for her bottle of pink Moscato. She liked the sweet wines, not the bitter stuff like Monica was so fond of. She pulled a long stemmed glass out of the cupboard and opened the half full bottle.

“So, little sis, anything interesting happening in the LA dating scene?”

“I wouldn’t know. And don’t start,” she replied before Monica could jump in.

“Just saying, sweetie, you need to get out of the house. You’re not going to meet a man sitting on the couch.”

“Not true, lots of delivery guys come by, seemingly daily,” Syracuse replied, thinking of her latest certified letter delivery.

“They hot?” Monica asked.

Syracuse had to chuckle. “Not exactly.”

“Okay then, let’s get serious,” Monica said.

“Stop, please. Not looking to meet anyone, Monica. There’s too much going on in my life. I need to concentrate on keeping my job,” she said.

“Look, while I hope and pray everything works out on the job, all work and no play, hurts poor little Syrie. Get out, girl! You sound depressed. Have you been out of the house today?”

“Yes. I picked the paper up from the yard.”

“That doesn’t count. Promise me you will get off your butt and do something, Syrie. Anything.”

“I promise,” Syracuse said as she plopped back down on the couch. She raised the glass to her mouth.

“Yeah, okay,” Monica chuckled. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said.

“I know you will, Mo. Kiss my niece and nephews for me,” Syracuse said.

She looked around the neatly decorated room of her small rental. “Get out, huh?” she said aloud. Dragging herself to the back door, she opened it and immediately squinted her eyes in the bright sunlight. The dogs ran up behind her, wanting to go out as well. She stood in the summer heat and glanced at the lemon tree near the fence. She was about to grab a few for lemonade later, but spied her next door neighbor, a middle-aged woman, wearing a large straw hat and working in her garden. The older woman looked over and Syracuse watched her expression go to dismay. Syracuse was still in her PJs and it was 4:30 PM. She waved and blew it off, then walked back inside, leaving the dogs to frolic. “There. I went out. Now it’s time for some more wine.”