I awoke when the amber light of dawn began to break the darkness of the barn. I groaned, rolled over, and then bolted to a sitting position, suddenly anxious. Shafts of sunlight were filtering to the floor, pouring through holes in the metal roof, revealing dust motes that swirled in the air.
The events of the previous day flooded into my consciousness and I jumped to my feet, dusting off straw and hay that was stuck to my clothes.
What time was it? I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. After patting my jean pockets to make sure the letters and the photo were safely tucked inside, I waded through the hay bales, reaching the sunshine.
When my sneakers crunched the gravel road, I started jogging. Wind rustled the cornfields on my right and caused the trees to shiver on my left. I pressed on as hard as I could until I rounded a bend in the road and the Jenkins mailbox came into view. Just ten feet in front of me was a limo; its engine rumbling, spewing wisps of exhaust into the brilliant blue sky. I skidded to a halt and stared.
The driver’s side door cracked open and a burly man stepped from the interior and tipped his hat. “Hello, Shayne. You are Shayne, right? You look like the picture I’ve got here, so I’m sure you must be.”
My mouth wouldn’t form words. This limo was sent for me?
The driver gave a short laugh and his brown eyes sparkled. “Well come on, then. Don’t be shy. Climb in and let’s get going. El Dorado is a quite a drive from here. Ruby’ll be waiting for you to arrive. You don’t want to keep Ruby waiting. I’ve learned this the hard way.” He chortled and walked down the length of the limo to open the passenger door.
I swallowed and forced my feet to move. The limo got bigger and bigger with each step I took. It was huge! I ducked below the driver’s kind gaze and slid into the back seat. I couldn’t decide whether I was crazy nervous to meet Ruby Masters, or simply bursting with pure glee because I was sitting inside a limo.
In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d get to ride in a limo.
Suddenly, I realized that everything was changing—as if the Earth was shifting around me and would soon realign in a new position—a position full of unknowns, and maybe even hope.
I felt faintly nauseous.
The driver was grinning at me. “I brought you some donuts. There’s snacks and drinks for you over there,” he said, pointing to a small mini bar built into the limo’s sidewall. “You can control the radio from here.” He tapped a panel of knobs to my left. “And if you need me for anything, hit this button and it will lower the window that separates my space from yours. Of course, if you want to chat, I’m a good chatter. But I assume you’ve got lots of stuff on your mind, so my feelings won’t get hurt if you’d rather keep your privacy.”
“Okay.” I stammered, focusing on breathing through my mouth, desperately trying to avoid the smell of donuts. I started to wonder if I might vomit on the driver’s shiny black shoes.
“Right then. Let’s get going.” The driver shut the door and I started freaking out.
Who was Ruby Masters? What did she know? Who was I? What the heck was I going to do with all this money? Was I really not human after all? Was I really an Angel? Was I in danger?
What was I thinking? I was riding in a limo with a complete stranger! Would anyone notice if this driver decided to kill me and dump my body on the side of the road?
No. Nobody ever went searching for runaway foster kids. This cold thought sent terror through my soul.
The limo began to pull away and pick up speed, kicking a cloud of red dirt around the rear of the car. I turned to look out the back window, but I couldn’t see a thing. Slowly, I settled into my seat and reached for the glass tumblers clinking in the cup holders of the mini bar. My stomach rolled again and I tried to swallow. I stared at the empty glasses clutched tightly in my hands. If push came to shove, they’d have to do.
Don’t throw up, I pleaded with myself. Please, don’t throw up.
The office of Ruby Masters was really fancy. The receptionist glanced my way, one hand pressed to an earpiece, the other scribbling words on a note pad. She was pretty with silky, straight dark hair that flowed over her shoulders. She was dressed in a sleek, black pant suit and she wore a ruffled, green shirt underneath the fitted coat. It was as if she’d walked straight out of the pages of a fashion magazine.
I felt the heaviness of self-consciousness consume me as I surveyed my own ratty jeans, ripped at the knees and frayed at the hems. I glanced at my over-sized, faded t-shirt that was adorned with an automotive logo that was printed and chipped across the front. My tattered Converse sneakers were held onto my feet with duct tape and bits of hay were everywhere. I was dressed like a hobo. How embarrassing.
Eager to be invisible, I found a seat on an expensive cushy, leather chair and stared out the window. Across the street was the county courthouse—a big ivory building that was trimmed with stately columns. Eldorado was a very small town—smaller than El Paso—but the courthouse added a certain charm to the landscape.
“You must be Shayne?” A soothing voice interrupted my thoughts.
The receptionist was eyeing me skeptically. She was probably noticing my clothes, my dirty hair. I nodded, unable to meet her gaze full on.
A moment later the oversized oak door on the back wall swung open. A voluptuous woman tumbled out, a huge encompassing grin spread from cheek to cheek. Her skin was milk chocolate, her lips painted the color of fuchsia. She wore a long red dress topped with a short-sleeved black knit sweater. Nervously, I forced myself to meet her eyes.
“I have been mighty curious to meet you, young one. Come on back into my office, dear,” she said as she motioned for me to follow. I stood and walked slowly behind her.
Ruby’s private office was lined with custom, dark wood shelving and cabinetry that was filled with different statues and ornamental objects. There was a zebra skin across the floor with two cherry leather arm chairs positioned in front of an enormous mirrored desk. I slumped into one of the chairs as my stomach knotted and twisted inside of me.
“I’m Ruby Masters and you’re Shayne.” She seemed to speak to herself as she stared at me across the desk, still grinning broadly.
When she didn’t say anything else, after an uncomfortable stretch, I cleared my throat.
“Well, first things first then. I have been overseeing the management of your trust for the past eighteen years. Your money is with a financial investment firm called Merrill Lynch. I’m sure you’ve seen their commercials. The interest your money has made over the years has just about paid your inheritance tax—and believe me—it was a very hefty tax indeed.” She finished her sentence with a chuckle.
Ruby Masters picked up a dark mug from the table and took a sip of steaming brown liquid.
“You drink coffee?” she asked. “I’m sure I could have Jennifer whip up a batch for you. I drink the refried stuff myself. Takes me all day to get through a pot. Why make more when you can just heat it up in the microwave, you know? Anyway, not many people take me up on the offer for some coffee after they learn how I take it.”
She burst into a loud, rumbling laugh that seemed to shake her cheeks. I liked her laugh even though I instinctively jumped at its commanding bark. This seemed to make her laugh even harder and I couldn’t help but crack a smile.
She slapped a palm on the table with a great thwack. “No, I don’t think coffee will do for you. Stunts your growth, you see. Of course, it didn’t do nothing good for my own growth.” She snickered as she picked up the phone on her desk. “Jennifer dear, will you order up some take-out from the Chinese restaurant for me and the lovely Miss Shayne? Go ahead and get a bit of everything and be sure they bring a few different sodas too.”
Ruby turned to look at me again as she put down the telephone. She crossed her arms over her broad mountain of a chest and leaned back in her chair, which creaked and groaned beneath her weight. I shifted in my own seat as her eyes tightened into something more subdued.
“It’s funny, you see. I would have thought you’d be chomping at the bit with all kinds of questions, nearly popping out of your skin over all this money that has no doubt been a great shock to you,” she spoke in a kind voice, rather gently.
“Um…” I started, my mouth dry and my own voice faltering. “I do, but—”
“Ahh…your parents, then? I knew we would get to that part, but I was thinking that might come later,” she interrupted ominously.
Abruptly, she turned to stare out the tall window situated between two bookcases. She fidgeted with the buttons on her sweater before speaking again. “I’m afraid I don’t know much, honey. When I met your parents they were in a rare state, the two of them. They came in the office one morning. It was raining that day. Your mother held you the entire time and she didn’t speak one word. It was your father that did all the talking. First off, they paid me an enormous amount of money just so I wouldn’t ask questions, and only do as they asked. I didn’t understand any of it, you see. I had just opened my practice a year before, so you can only imagine how far my jaw dropped when your father wrote me such a large check and then entrusted me with more money than God.”
I looked around the office again, unconsciously searching for my mother. I wondered where she had sat that day as she held me. I wondered what my dad’s voice sounded like as he spoke. I tried to picture him pacing the room, perhaps seated in the same chair where I now sat.
“Not this office, baby,” she said softly as she eyed me in a knowing way, “I moved into this office ten years ago. My office back then was a lot less…formal. To say the least.”
Ruby studied me with pity and took another sip of coffee. I sat in a cloud of numbness as I realized Ruby didn’t hold the answers I had hoped for. She just held the money.
“Shayne, I must be honest. I did find everything your parents did extremely odd and off-kilter. I thought they might be crazy, that the whole thing was some kind of hoax. It wasn’t until the check cleared the bank and the money checked out that I realized your parents weren’t delusional people. The whole affair has left me with many questions myself.” She paused as deep regret washed over her face. She tapped a finger on her desk before continuing.
“Your parents rattled off lots of instructions about what they wanted me to do with the money. They wanted it kept confidential at all costs. They were adamant that you stay in foster care for reasons I never quite understood. And they had a few things to say about what to do with it and how to handle it when you turned eighteen and became a legal adult. They signed some papers appointing me your attorney ad litem. And because of that, I was able to track you through the state’s foster care system. Remember the Whittle family?”
My eyes popped open and I sat up straight. How did she know about them? I barely remembered them myself.
“Well, when I got wind that the Whittle family had two kids land in the hospital with suspicious injuries, I went straight to court and had you removed right away. And when that teenage girl came forward with some serious allegations against the state home you stayed at when you was ten…well, I came off my rocker and got you out of there and into the Jenkins home—lickety-split. It only took me two days. And for the state, that’s a darn fast turnaround, believe me,” she said with a splash of exasperation in her voice. She shook her head but her bob of jet black hair hardly moved.
I sat stunned.
“I just don’t know much about your parents. They did as they said they would and left you at the El Dorado fire department, on the front porch. Your father didn’t want you sitting out there for long; so as he instructed, I just so happened to drive by and alert the firemen on duty to your presence. About three weeks later, I ran a search on your parents to try and locate them because I had some questions concerning your trust fund. I found their obituary in the Austin American Statesmen—that’s a newspaper out of Austin, TX. Anyway, it only mentioned their final passing. No funeral arrangements, no information,” she finished with a short puff of air.
“You don’t know how they died?” I asked anxiously as I perched on the edge of my seat.
“No sweetie. Never could find out. Never heard nothing more on your parents either, but I had a Christian duty to you, young lady. And I performed it all this time to the best of my ability. I think I did a darn good job myself. I guess when I meet the afterlife your parents will be the judge of that one.” Ruby laughed heartily, brushing her hands together as if dusting off some dirt.
“That’s…that’s all?” I probed weakly, my voice cracking as I struggled to contain the stinging tears that threatened to spill from my eyes.
“Well, no darling,” Her rich boisterous voice was riddled with shock. “We got to talk about the massive fortune you’ve just inherited. There’s much more on that. We’ll need to go get you a driver’s license if you don’t have one and buy you a car. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you. A new life is just waiting to begin.”
Jennifer, the receptionist, slipped through the oak door carrying an armload of brown paper sacks. She walked briskly to a small round table in the corner and began unloading paper cartons of Chinese food and emptying a cardboard tray of sodas.
“Ooh, boy! You smell that food? Hungry?” Ruby asked, rubbing her palms together, her eyes already devouring the feast.
I did smell it and my stomach made the answer clear for me as it took that moment in time to rip and growl louder than Mrs. Jenkins’ pit bull when it spotted a squirrel. I felt my cheeks flush hot red and was sure both the women in the office thought I had passed gas or something, but neither paid any notice, so I approached the table quickly and chowed down, heaping spoonfuls of chicken rice into my watery mouth, reveling in the way it seemed to warm and fill my empty stomach.
When I glanced up, Ruby was frozen with a spoon of food inches from her lips. Her face was expressionless. I locked my eyes with hers, and she slowly lifted the corner of her fuchsia lips into a smile and winked.