Judd and Grace sat together at the airport terminal, looking at the arrivals board as it ticked over, announcing the arrival of the flight from New York. Grace sipped a chai latte from a takeaway cup, while Judd nervously wrung his hands together, legs jiggling.
“You okay?” asked Grace quietly.
“Just nervous, y’know?” Grace placed a gentle hand on Judd’s knee, squeezing him carefully.
“It’s alright. I can understand. It’s been a while since we’ve taken on any kids, and she’s TK’s. She’s not a normal foster kid,” reassured Grace. She glanced up as a young woman walked towards them with two unfamiliar people in tow, recognizing her as Ellie, their regular social worker. Grace stood up, Judd behind her, gripping her shoulders as they spotted the young girl behind them. Her dark hair was messily braided out of the way, her olive skin a rainbow of hues, bruising across her face, her lip split, eyes darting around and taking in the terminal, looking like she was ready to flee. A red cast encased her wrist, and she looked like she was limping a little. Judd’s hands tightened on Grace’s shoulders as the pair took her in, Grace’s breath hitching in her throat as she wondered what had happened to this poor girl between the photo she’d peeked at while at Carlos and TK’s and now.
“Lord,” breathed Judd.
“Grace, Judd, thank you so much for this. I understand it’s not been an easy situation,” said Ellie warmly.
“Not at all, we were more than happy to step in. TK works with Judd at the firehouse, and he thinks he might like to be involved later on, but rather than make a rash decision, he wanted to make one in the best interests for Peyton,” replied Grace, smiling.
“So Peyton travelled with Gabrielle here from New York, as we didn’t want her travelling as an unaccompanied minor. Gabrielle is her case worker as well,” explained Ellie.
“Can we grab a coffee, and I can fill you in a little more on Peyton?” asked Gabrielle. Grace and Judd nodded, and the little group headed for a café in the terminal. A waitress joined them, taking their order, and returned a few moments later with their coffees, and a chocolate milkshake for Peyton. She sat quietly, not looking at any of the adults, sipping the chocolate drink through a straw. Gabrielle pulled a stack of folders from her bag, handing them to Grace and Judd.
“So these are Peyton’s files, for you to look through while we’re here,” said Ellie.
Gabrielle nodded to Grace. “Peyton has been in and out of the system since she was three, so there’s a lot of information in there.” Grace opened the most recent file, putting a hand to her mouth as her eyes started to tear up. She glanced across at Peyton, her heart breaking.
“Oh sweetheart, I am so sorry,” choked Grace. She handed the file to Judd, who only made it through a few lines before he snapped it shut, pushing it back across the table with a sharp inhale.
“You two come highly recommended by Ellie, and we were more than happy to make this happen. We agree that you’re the best option for Peyton’s wellbeing, and the best support for her and her possible future with TK. At this stage, you and Judd will remain her foster parents until TK decides what he wants to do, and then we’ll take the steps from there. I’ve got some paperwork for you both to sign, if you don’t have any questions?” asked Gabrielle.
“Are we able to get the medical files from last night’s incident sent to our local doctor?” asked Grace.
“Of course. If you give me the details Grace, I’ll make sure they’re sent over before close of business today,” reassured Ellie.
“Peyton, do you have any questions for Judd and Grace?” asked Gabrielle gently. She shook her head, refusing to look up at the pair.
“Sweetie, you can ask us whatever you want, I promise we won’t be mad or anything,” explained Grace quietly. Peyton finally looked up at them, tears in her blue-green eyes.
“Do… can I have my own room?” she asked shakily.
“Honey, you will have your own room at our house, your own toys, your own clothes,” reassured Judd, his own eyes shining.
“Are—are there other kids at your house?”
“Peyton was emergency fostered with six boys and two girls last night, which ended with a trip to the emergency room. That’s been reflected in the medical file as well,” explained Gabrielle under her breath.
“Oh. No sweetie, you’re the only one who will be at our house at the moment. We have friends who have daughters around your age, Isabelle and Evie, and they’ll be at the same school as you. They’re lovely girls, I promise you,” reassured Grace. Peyton yawned, flinching, before resting her head on her hand, watching Grace and Judd carefully.
“I think we might need to get this little lady home,” said Judd, smiling at Peyton. Gabrielle passed over some paperwork to Judd and Grace, and they both signed the forms, before passing them back. They stood up, and Grace extended her hand out to Peyton.
“Do you just have a backpack? Or do we need to collect something from baggage?” Grace asked.
“Everything Peyton owns is in her backpack. Not much else was able to be sent on, or was worth sending on,” said Gabrielle darkly.
“That’s alright honey, we’ll stop off on the way home to pick up some things for you, alright?” Peyton nodded, and took Grace’s hand, standing up unsteadily.
“Thank you so much Ellie and Gabrielle. We really appreciate your help,” said Judd, shaking their hands.
“Good luck Peyton. I think you’ll be really happy with Judd and Grace,” called Ellie. She stayed at the table with Gabrielle as Judd, Grace and Peyton walked away, Judd wrapping an arm around Grace, glancing across at Peyton. She was quiet as they walked, still limping slightly, and as they crossed the airport, she started to lag behind a few minutes later, slowing down in her steps.
“You okay sweetheart?” asked Judd. Peyton shook her head, looking at the floor, shoulders hunched. Grace put a gentle hand on Peyton’s shoulder as Judd crouched down in front of her, lifting her chin up to meet his eyes. “You can tell me, I promise I won’t be mad.”
“My legs are tired,” she whispered, swiping away tears.
“Okay, we can fix that. Gracie, can you take Peyton’s backpack please?” Grace lifted the backpack off Peyton’s shoulders, hooking one of the straps over her arm. “Alright, I’m gonna lift you up now.” Judd slotted his hands under Peyton’s armpits, and then hoisted her up, holding her close. She rested her head on his shoulder and started to cry, the past few weeks finally catching up with her, Judd gently patting her back as she sobbed, clutching him tightly. Judd walked forward resolutely, allowing her to cry, Grace walking alongside him, concern in her dark eyes. They made it back to Judd’s truck, Peyton’s body relaxing against Judd’s broad chest as he carefully opened the rear passenger door and slid her inside, buckling her in carefully, before taking her backpack from Grace and popping it at her feet. Grace smiled sadly at Peyton as she drifted back to sleep, Judd closing the door carefully.
“She’s beautiful,” whispered Grace. Judd wrapped his arms around her tightly, drawing her close and kissing the top of her head.
“And she’s ours. Come on, let’s get our girl home, get her settled. We’ll have plenty of time with her.”
After two hours of driving, Judd, Grace and Peyton were almost back in Austin when Peyton started to stir in the back seat.
“Where are we?” she asked sleepily.
“Hey sweetie. We’re almost back home in Austin, is there something you need?” asked Grace, twisting in her seat to see Peyton.
“No,” answered Peyton, almost too quickly. Grace raised an eyebrow as she heard Peyton’s stomach growl, before glancing at Judd.
“I don’t know about you kiddo, but I’m hungry. There’s a Chick-fil-A just up the road, we might pull in and grab somethin’, okay?” Peyton nodded, looking relieved, and Grace knew they had to address the issue later on. They pulled into the carpark, and Peyton was already fidgeting in her seat.
“I hafta go,” she insisted to Grace and Judd.
“Alright, you and I can go to the bathroom, and Judd here will order us some food. Nuggets sound good honey?” Peyton nodded, and the trio climbed out of Judd’s pick up, heading inside to the fast-food restaurant. Typically, he wouldn’t order fast food, but he was hungry, and he knew Peyton had to be as well. He stepped up to the counter, ordering a Cobb salad for Grace, a deluxe sandwich for himself, and nuggets for Peyton. He already knew she was underweight for her age, able to feel her ribs in sharp definition under his hands when he’d picked her up earlier. He hadn’t been able to stomach the contents of Peyton’s file after a few lines of reading, the abuse written down in black and white. He felt a small hand inside his much larger one, and looked down to see Peyton, waiting for their food with him. Grace appeared on the other side, leaning against Judd’s arm. Their number was called a few moments later, and Peyton was already looking like she was flagging, so Judd collected their meals, deciding to break the cardinal rule of no eating in his truck.
“Are we going home?” asked Peyton quietly. Judd gave her a hand to get into the back of the truck, buckling her in carefully and smoothing back her messy hair.
“Sure are kiddo. Got a little more driving to go, but then we’ll be home, and we can talk, okay? Eat up, and we’ll be there before you know it.” Peyton nodded, and Judd closed the door, moving around to the driver’s side and climbing in. He pulled out of the carpark, heading back towards Austin. A few minutes after finishing her salad, Grace nodded off too, and Judd focused on the road, turning on the radio low to fill the silence, his two girls sleeping. They had a lot to cover when they got home, discussions with Peyton, to help her fit in, to understand her place in the family, the same way they’d done with all their previous fosters. Though Grace was right, Peyton was different; she was so much more likely to become theirs if TK didn’t want to take over his role as father, and while Judd was so proud that he could see that he may not be ready, part of him felt sorry that TK didn’t feel he was in a safe enough place to be the father his daughter needed. Judd was already convinced he’d go to the ends of the earth for both Peyton and Grace, already important people in his life. He glanced in the rearview mirror to see Peyton’s head loll to the side, clearly exhausted, and he smiled at the innocent face behind him. His heart was already at exploding point, and he knew Peyton would definitely be a Daddy’s girl.
An hour later, he pulled up in front of their house, putting the truck in park and killing the engine. Grace had woken up fifteen minutes earlier, and climbed down from the truck once it was parked, unlocking the house and opening up while Judd moved around the truck, opening up the passenger door. He lifted Peyton out of her seat, grabbing her backpack with his other free hand. He bumped the door closed with his hip, before heading inside the house, setting Peyton down on the couch, popping her backpack down near her feet. Grace sat nearby, and Judd took a seat on the floor, not wanting to look imposing or towering over the tiny girl. She had definitely not inherited TK’s height.
“Am I in trouble?” asked Peyton nervously.
“No sweetie, you’re not in trouble. We just want to have a chat, get to know you, let you ask questions if you have any,” said Judd reassuringly.
“So you don’t need to call us Mom and Dad if you don’t want to. I know you had a Mom before, so it might feel weird, so you’re welcome to call us Judd and Grace, okay? Whatever you feel comfortable with,” explained Grace gently. Peyton nodded to Grace, toying with a loose thread on her jacket. “Your bedtime will be around eight at night, but you can read for a while if you like. We’ll settle on some chores later on, but for the next few days, you are chore free.”
“If you need to talk, or you’re angry or upset, we need you to come to us. We promise to listen and to help you, but if you don’t talk to us we ain’t mind readers. We want you to be happy, and we know sometimes we ain’t get it right, but we’ll always try, okay?” Peyton nodded, relaxing a little.
“You do need to tidy up after yourself, and keep your room clean. If you don’t keep your room clean, there will be consequences. They’ll be small at first, like you may not get dessert, or you might not be able to watch TV, but if you keep doing it, there will be further consequences. We’ll wash your clothes, make sure you have food on the table, and that there’s a roof over your head. So all you need to do is just make sure you tidy up any mess you make, and keep your room clean,” added Grace.
“I… I think I can do that,” said Peyton softly. Judd pushed himself up from the floor, groaning comically as he got up, and Peyton giggled.
“So I’m gonna show you around the house, and Gracie is gonna cook us up some dinner so we don’t starve to death,” joked Judd, and he pulled Peyton to her feet. She grabbed her backpack, and followed Judd. “So you’ve seen the dining room, the kitchen and the loungeroom. Down this hall is our room, where Gracie and I sleep. You can come and wake either of us up anytime if you need us, or you can call out to us, we’ll hear you, and we won’t be mad. Next to our room is the bathroom, and then on the other side of that is your room,” said Judd, heading to the bedroom at the end of the hall and pushing open the door. He let Peyton walk inside first, taking in the space. Grace had decorated in warm neutrals, the bed covered in an abstract grey and white duvet, a thick knitted blanket on the foot of the bed. A dark grey plush rug covered the floor, and a little lamp was set up on the bedside table to illuminate the room at night.
“It’s so big,” said Peyton nervously.
“It’s okay. I’m sure you’ll fill it up in no time at all. There’s a closet here for your clothes, and some drawers over here for some other clothes. Gracie put in a desk for you as well, so you can sit and draw if you like. This is all yours, and if you want to decorate it differently, we can do that too,” said Judd calmly.
“I… I don’t have very many clothes,” admitted Peyton. She tipped her backpack out on the bed, and a pair of threadbare pajamas and an old toothbrush fell out. She looked forlornly at the clothes on the bed, and started to cry, her shoulders heaving. Judd scooped her up, holding her close as she sobbed into his chest. He couldn’t make out many of the words, but from what he could gather, she’d had to leave behind everything when she’d been moved to emergency foster care, and most of what she did take had been stolen by other children in care. Judd rubbed a soothing hand up and down her back as she held him close, and Grace popped her head in to check on the pair.
“All she has is a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush that looks like it’s seen better days,” said Judd, his own heart breaking.
“It’s okay love. Tomorrow, when we’re all not so tired, we’re going to go do some shopping, so you can pick out some clothes and some shoes for yourself, and anything else you might like or need. I’ve still got some clothes here from when we had Lexi stay with us, so you can wear those for tonight and tomorrow,” replied Grace, sitting next to Judd, and laying a gentle hand on Peyton’s arm. Peyton turned to face Grace, her cheeks streaked with tears, eyes rimmed red.
“’m scared,” confessed Peyton.
“That’s okay sweetie. Do you know what you’re scared of?” asked Judd.
“That… that y-you might not want me to stay, l-l-like the other family didn’t want me to stay.” Judd held her close, arms wrapping around her tightly, and Peyton cried out in pain as the pressure increased. He released her straightaway and she gasped, sucking in air as she tried to breathe and cry.
“Can I have a look sweetheart?” Peyton nodded to Grace, still sitting on Judd’s lap, and allowed Grace to lift her shirt. The deep bruising was littered across her chest, and look immensely painful for the small child. Judd inhaled sharply at the sight of the bruises before glancing away. Grace looked up at Peyton, smoothing away her tears with her thumbs. “I’m sorry baby. Let’s get you into a bath and get you cleaned up, and then we’ll have some dinner. Have you seen Finding Nemo?” asked Grace.
“No,” answered Peyton.
“Then we’ll watch Finding Nemo after some dinner, you’ll love it. Come on, Judd will look after dinner, make sure it doesn’t burn the house down,” said Grace conspiratorially. She helped Peyton down off the bed, taking her hand and leading her down the hall to the bathroom. Judd sat on the bed by himself for a moment, taking a deep breath before exhaling carefully, trying to pull himself together. After a few moments, he stood up and headed to the kitchen, determined to not let Grace’s meal burn while she helped Peyton wash up. Judd was seething with anger, that a small child would be subject to such harm in an emergency foster home, that no-one would be sticking up for her. She was a gorgeously quiet child, looked like she wouldn’t hurt a fly, but clearly, her previous home had hurt her. He’d heard stories of the odd homes out there that took kids just for the money, not for their best interests or wellbeing, and that made his blood boil. She’d not done any harm, except losing her parents, and that had made her an easy target in the home that was supposed to be protecting her. He raised a prayer to the heavens above as he checked on Grace’s thick beef stew, perfect for the cooler weather, and for putting some fat on the skinny frame of their new foster child. Grace had baked some bread the night before, so Judd popped it in the oven to warm it up, and to fill the house with the delicious smell. He turned around as he heard tiny footsteps behind him, smiling as he saw the clean child in front of him, dressed in flannel pajamas that were a little too big, hair neatly braided back.
“You look like a brand new kiddo! Are you feeling better?” asked Judd, crouching down. Peyton threw her arms around his neck, hugging him carefully.
“’m sorry for being sad Judd. I should have told you that you were hurting me,” confessed Peyton. Judd place a gentle hand on the back of her head, the other around her middle.
“Hey, that’s okay. I’m sorry for hurtin’ you. Are you ready for dinner?” Peyton nodded. Grace smiled at the pair as she entered the kitchen, tying up her own hair to get it out of the way.
“Alright you two, get out of my kitchen so I can get you both fed.”
The next morning, Judd, Grace and Peyton stood outside Target, Peyton holding Judd’s hand tightly, looking nervous.
“We don’t have to be here for long, but I thought it might be nice to pick out some of your own things, so you can feel more like this is home,” explained Grace quietly. Peyton nodded, and looked like she was bracing herself for the trip inside. A familiar voice calling from behind them startled all three, and Grace and Judd whipped around.
“Hey you two, I didn’t expect—Grace? Judd? Who’s this?” asked Tommy, Charles walking beside her with Isabelle and Evie. Judd felt Peyton squeeze his hand, and she looked nervous at the intrusion. Judd scooped her up, setting her on his hip, and she leaned into his side. Grace could see why Judd was so important to Peyton – he was tall enough and strong enough to keep her safe when she was feeling unsure, and Grace noted that down in her head for next time they had to go somewhere new or unfamiliar.
“It’s a bit of a long story. Do you want to walk with us?” invited Grace politely.
“Girls, do you want to go look at the toys? Dad will go with you, and I’ll hang out with Aunt Grace, talk boring grown up things,” suggested Tommy. The girls glanced at each other, excited as they sprinted into the store, Charles not far behind them as he blew his wife a kiss.
“Come on little lady, you and I are going to look at some clothes, and then Grace will come back and help us out, okay? She’s gonna tell you I’ve got terrible taste, and it’s all true.” Peyton giggled, and waved goodbye to Grace as they entered Target.
“Gracie? What’s going on?”
“She’s our new foster daughter. No time frame, no word as to how long we’re going to keep her. But it’s a complex situation, and I’m not sure if I should tell you,” admitted Grace, rubbing her temples.
“You can tell me anything Grace, you know that. I’d do anything for you both, same as you’d do for Charles and me.”
“She’s TK’s. Something happened when he was younger, something awful, but she’s the result of that. Up until a few nights ago, she was in New York after her mother and grandparents were killed in an accident, and then TK was given the option of taking her or putting her into the system. Judd and I offered to take her, so he didn’t have to make such a decision when he wasn’t in the right headspace. She’s gorgeous T, but she’s so tiny, and after two weeks in emergency foster care, she’s managed to earn herself a broken wrist, severe bruising, a fear of doing everything wrong. Hell T, she was sent to us with a single pair of pajamas and a toothbrush that was barely worthy to be called a toothbrush.”
“Oh. Lord. Grace, I’m so sorry. God, how does someone let something like that happen to a kid in foster care?” asked Tommy.
“I don’t know, but she’s got nothing, so we decided on a shopping trip, to get her some clothes of her own, to make her feel like she’s wanted, because right now, she’s a kid that no one really wanted in New York,” answered Gracie sadly.
“Okay, so then let’s do that. We can introduce her slowly to Isabelle and Evie, seeing as how they’ll be in school together, get her accustomed to some of the people in town, some of the family we have here, to show her she’s loved and cared for and that there are plenty of people on her side. I know you’ve had foster kids before Grace, but this has to be tough for you and Judd as well. I promise Charles and I are here for you, to help you two out, no matter what.” Grace felt herself start to tear up, and allowed Tommy to wrap her arms around her in a quick hug.
“Thanks T, I really appreciate it. Come on, we should go see what Judd and Peyton have picked out. Knowing my husband, he’s probably picked out cowboy boots and a hat for our daughter.”