Authors: Staci Stallings
Tags: #Christian Books & Bibles, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Religious & Inspirational Fiction, #Religion & Spirituality, #Christian Fiction, #Inspirational
Gabi pulled into the center’s parking lot well before the sun was up. Somehow overnight she had found renewed determination to make this thing work. She wasn’t going to give up — no matter how hopeless it looked.
“Hey, Jerr,” she said, walking into his office and dumping the four finished applications on his desk without fanfare.
“Four? You finished four?” he asked in utter amazement.
She turned for the door. “Yeah, and I hope to have one more finished by the time I leave tonight.”
“Good grief, Gabi, I thought I was the only hard-liner around here.”
At the door, she turned, her eyes flashing. “They might take this place out, but it’s not going without a fight from me,” she said with fire in the words. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another application to finish.”
When she was gone, Jerry smiled in spite of the doom hanging over him. He’d liked her the first time she’d walked into his office six years before — full of energy and determination to make a real difference, and she hadn’t changed an ounce since then. The kids were lucky to have her — for now anyway. With that depressing thought and a sigh, he turned back to his paperwork.
This is it
. Half-confident, half-shaking in his Oxfords, Andrew approached Bill’s office for the second time in an hour. He knew in his gut that the next few minutes would change the rest of his life.
“So?” he asked, sticking his head inside the office as if he was just wondering what time lunch would be.
Bill looked up, serious drilled into every wrinkle on his face. A second, and he let out a long breath. “Why don’t you come on in?”
Andrew obeyed, trying to contain his racing heart.
“Can you get corroboration on this?” Bill asked, indicating the papers before him.
“So, you’re telling me the DA’s been accepting money under the table to let thugs off, and this is the first anyone’s heard of it?”
This breath was easier. “Well, I really think some people in his office have known for some time now, but they’re all too scared to talk.”
“I can imagine. Justice and criminals after you? Doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to be.” Bill sat silently, reviewing the papers as if they might explode at any moment if he didn’t get them memorized.
“So, what do you think?” Andrew finally asked, unable to contain the excitement.
“I think Mr. Woodruff is about to find himself sitting at the opposite table.”
Andrew smiled but tamped it down. “So, you’re going with the story?”
“Yes, I’m going with the story — front page tomorrow’s edition.”
Containing the amazing joy was nearly impossible. This was actually happening. He was performing his duty in the much exalted fourth estate, and it felt great.
Bill tamped the pages together. “I’m assuming this is in the computer already?”
“Yes it is.”
His boss nodded. “Okay. Well, while I have you here.” Bill reached through the stack on the desk. “I have another story I want you to tackle.”
“Name it,” Andrew said, smelling blood. He was beginning to like that smell.
“I got a call this morning from an old friend, Jerry Richardson, out at the Youth Center in Collins.”
“Collins?” That swept a bit of the excitement away from him.
“Yeah, he’s run the place for years, but… well, they’ve hit a real brick wall with their financing — lost a couple of major grants, that sort of thing. Anyway, he asked me if maybe I’d run a piece about the place, kind of to remind people they’re still there.”
“Sounds like a human interest piece to me,” Andrew said, wanting at all costs to stay out of Collins. Guys like him didn’t go to places like Collins. “Why don’t you give it to Jane?”
“No, I want my top reporter on this,” Bill said seriously.
It wasn’t hard to hide his excitement at the comment under the urgent need to get out of doing this story. “You know, Bill, I’m going to be really busy once this DA thing hits, I don’t know if I’ll have time.”
“That piece doesn’t go out until tomorrow. I want you to go to the Center today. Jerry says they don’t have even one day to waste. Besides, one little piece today, and after that you can concentrate on Woodruff.”
Andrew tried to think of a plausible excuse out of this situation. His beat had always been the courthouses and city hall — not Collins. “I do have other stories I can work on...”
“I’m sure you do, but they can wait. This one can’t.”
While the children napped on their blankets, Gabi finished the fifth application. It was for $10,000. More money than she had ever seen at one time in her life, but even if they got it, it wouldn’t fix the situation. Still, she prayed over it just the same.
Driving slowly through the streets that were littered with trash and bottles, Andrew’s eyes darted in every direction — to the two kids loitering on the sidewalk, to the broken out windows in the shop across the street, to the graffiti covering the surrounding buildings.
He was six foot, two, and had played linebacker in high school, but he didn’t feel safe here. One thing was clear Bill was going to owe him one for this — big time.
“All right, does everyone have their buddy?” Gabi asked with cheer she felt only because she was looking at the happy little, upturned faces.
“Yes, Miss T,” 19 children chorused as one.
“Good, now everyone put on their quiet faces. We don’t want to disturb anyone, right?”
“Right, Miss T.”
“Okay, here we go,” she said, opening the door and out the group went.
This was her favorite time of the day — music time in the main lobby. It was the only time in the afternoon the kids got to go outside their own room. In two hours the halls would be jammed with the kids coming from school, and at that point, the place became a madhouse.
“Everyone sit down with your buddies around the piano,” she instructed when they made it into the lobby.
The children obeyed knowing that not obeying would banish them back to their room with no music. Not a fun idea.
“Now what shall we sing today?” she asked as she sat down at the piano and raised the lid, careful so it didn’t fall apart. “Any requests?”
“How many kids do you have here on a typical day?” Andrew asked, running through the questions in his notebook as quickly as possible. He was worried about his car sitting out in that parking lot. Stolen radio. Stolen tires. Stolen everything. It was not only a possibility, he was pretty sure
“Rough estimate 300 — give or take 50 or so,” Jerry replied. He was older. Late fifties, early sixties. Balding. In ratty clothing that didn’t really match. It probably came from a thrift shop, but Andrew didn’t dwell on that more than to make the judgment and move on.
“And what activities do you provide?” he asked, writing down the previous answer.
“Basketball every day and a dance class once a week for the older students after school. Also, we try to help with homework and such if the need arises, but we really don’t have adequate volunteers to cover everything we’d like to do.”
“I can imagine,” Andrew said shortly, wondering what kind of person would volunteer in a place like this — all he wanted to do was leave, and that didn’t even have anything to do with the worry over his car’s wellbeing.
“Tell you what, Andrew,” Jerry said, clearly sensing that this was not going very well. “Why don’t we walk around the center and talk? That way you can get a better idea of what we do here.”
Andrew wanted to walk all right, but around the center was not where he had planned. However, Jerry got up and led him out before he had time to protest. A few more minutes, and he would come up with some excuse to get himself out of here. That was a promise that could be taken to the bank.
“I requwest Miss T play a song,” Leslie, a little girl with bright white teeth and tight pigtails, said, holding up her hand.
Gabi laughed. “I have been playing songs.”
“No. I want a Miss T song,” Leslie said.
“One I wrote?” Gabi asked in surprise, modest even in front of four-year-olds.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Leslie said in the tiny voice that sounded so much like bells.
“Please,” the other children chorused.
“Well, okay.” Gabi smiled at them as she put her fingers on the keys. Then she looked down and grinned. “Why don’t you come up here and sit with me, Leslie?”
In one motion, the little girl scrambled to her feet, and in the next heartbeat she was by Gabi’s side.
Gabi smiled down at her. “This one’s for Leslie.”
Music floated down the dingy hallway, and for a moment, Andrew thought the angels would start singing with it. “What’s that?” Andrew whispered, suddenly forgetting the interview.
Jerry checked his watch. “Probably Gabi.”
“The four-year-olds’ teacher. She’s been here about six years. I wish I had a hundred just like her,” Jerry said as they walked toward the music. It was amazing, angelic, heavenly. “I think closing this place just might kill her before it does me.”
“Four-year-olds, huh?” Andrew asked, puzzled. “But I don’t hear them.”
“Wait ‘til painting time,” Jerry laughed as they left the hallway and entered the main room of the lobby. Andrew took one look at the woman at the piano and froze.
The music flowed through her very soul, and for that moment nothing else existed. Life itself was put on hold. Gabi had often thought that making beauty in the world was her reason for being here, and she never squandered that belief by doing anything creative halfway. Painting, drawing, writing, music — they were all beautiful, and they were exactly what these children needed. Beauty in a barren, bleak world.
When the last note sounded, the world around Andrew stood in silent awe for one, brief moment. Then the children began clapping, and somehow he got his own hands to join in.
Gabi smiled modestly and hugged Leslie to her.
“That was great, Miss T,” Leslie said, snagged securely in awe of her teacher.
“More!” the children chorused.
“Maybe tomorrow.” Gabi carefully lifted Leslie off the bench. “Right now, it’s snack time.”
“Snack time!” the children chorused, quickly standing.
“Buddies,” Gabi reminded them, and instantly all the children were paired up with one left over to hold her hand as happened more often than not.
And once again she flitted from Andrew’s grasp.
“Anyway, Andrew, I know you’re a busy man,” Jerry said as Gabi and the four-year-olds exited down the hallway. He looked at Andrew, sensing something had drastically altered the situation in the last few minutes, but not knowing exactly what that something was. “I hope I’ve answered all your questions.”
Suddenly Andrew was in no great hurry to leave. “You know Jerry, I think I might have just a few more if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, well. Okay. Sure. Ask away.”
Gabi herded her charges back into the room just as the halls filled with students coming in from the schools down the block. Without the center, many of these kids will have no place to go after school, she thought, renewing her determination to get more of the grants finished tonight.
“Story! Story!” the kids chanted in unison.
“All right,” Gabi said, her mind already on other projects, “why don’t you all sit down or lay down, and I’ll read you the story of the Frog Prince?”
Andrew couldn’t figure out for a moment where all the noise had suddenly come from, but when he stepped back out into the hall from Jerry’s office, he was engulfed by bodies — thousands of them it seemed.
He looked around at them, and panic clutched his stomach and lungs. Many of them looked identical to the street gangs he’d heard so much about but had never had cause to meet — until now, and suddenly they were everywhere at once.
Just act cool,
he told himself as a few of the students glanced his way.
Just act cool, walk slowly and get out of here.
Slowly, carefully, he made his way to the door. If one of the kids had said boo, he would’ve run for dear life, but most of them just stared at him — if they noticed him at all, and in no time he was back in his car, headed out of Collins as fast as he could go.
However, somehow the stereotype of Collins that ran through his mind constantly had forever been altered when he’d heard that music. That wonderful, magnificent, unbelievable music.
“So, what’s up?” Gabi asked when Jerry walked into her classroom after the kids had all gone home. She was in the middle of wiping the paint off of the tiny table in front of her, but the sight of him standing there at her door made her stop short with concern.