"I'm Mrs. Borowski from the LaSalle Foster Care facility," the middle-aged woman announced as she marched across the Oriental carpet toward the receptionist, a shopping bag from Woolworth's over her arm. Gesturing toward the petite eleven-year-old who trailed along behind her, she added coldly, "And this is Julie Smith. She's here to see Dr. Theresa Wilmer. I'll come back for her after I finish my shopping."
The receptionist smiled at the youngster. "Dr. Wilmer will be with you in a little while, Julie. In the meantime, you can sit over there and fill out as much of this card as you can. I forgot to give it to you when you were here before."
Self-consciously aware of her shabby jeans and grubby jacket, Julie glanced uneasily at the elegant waiting room where fragile porcelain figurines reposed on an antique coffee table and valuable bronze sculptures were displayed on marble stands. Giving the table with its fragile knick-knacks a wide berth, she headed for a chair beside a huge aquarium where exotic goldfish with flowing fins swam leisurely among lacy greenery. Behind her, Mrs. Borowski poked her head back into the room and warned the receptionist, "Julie will steal anything that isn't nailed down. She's sneaky and quick, so you better watch her like a hawk."
Drowning in humiliated anger, Julie slumped down in the chair, then she stretched her legs straight out in front of her in a deliberate attempt to appear utterly bored and unaffected by Mrs. Borowski's horrible remarks, but her effect was spoiled by the bright red flags of embarrassed color that stained her cheeks and the fact that her legs couldn't reach the floor.
After a moment she wriggled up from the uncomfortable position and looked with dread at the card the receptionist had given her to complete. Knowing she'd not be able to figure out the words, she gave it a try anyway. Her tongue clenched between her teeth, she concentrated fiercely on the printing on the card. The first word began with an N like the word NO on the NO PARKING signs that lined the streets -- she knew what those signs said because one of her friends had told her. The next letter on the card was an a, like the one in cat, but the word wasn't cat. Her hand tightened on the yellow pencil as she fought back the familiar feelings of frustration and angry despair that swamped her whenever she was expected to read something. She'd learned the word cat in first grade, but nobody ever wrote that word anywhere! Glowering at the incomprehensible words on the card, she wondered furiously why teachers taught kids to read dumb words like cat when nobody ever wrote cat anywhere except in stupid books for first graders.
But the books weren't stupid, Julie reminded herself, and neither were the teachers. Other kids her age could probably have read this dumb card in a blink! She was the one who couldn't read a word on it, she was the one who was stupid.
On the other hand, Julie told herself, she knew a whole lot about things that other kids knew nothing about, because she made a point of noticing things. And one of the things she'd noticed was that when people handed you something to fill out, they almost always expected you to write your name on it...
With painstaking neatness, she printed J-u-l-i-e-S-m-i-t-h across the top half of the card, then she stopped, unable to fill out any more of the spaces. She felt herself getting angry again and rather than feeling bad about this silly piece of paper, she decided to think of something nice, like the feeling of wind on her face in springtime. She was conjuring a vision of herself stretched out beneath a big leafy tree, watching squirrels scampering in the branches overhead, when the receptionist's pleasant voice made her head snap up in guilty alarm.
"Is something wrong with your pencil, Julie?"
Julie dug the lead point against her jeans and snapped it off. "The lead's broken."
"Here's another -- "
"My hand is sore today," she lied, lurching to her feet. "I don't feel like writing. And I have to go to the bathroom. Where is it?"
"Right beside the elevators. Dr. Wilmer will be ready to see you pretty soon. Don't be gone too long."
"I won't," Julie dutifully replied. After closing the office door behind her, she turned to look up at the name on it and carefully studied the first few letters so she'd be able to recognize this particular door when she came back. "P," she whispered aloud so she wouldn't forget, "S. Y." Satisfied, she headed down the long, carpeted hall, turned left at the end of it, and made a right by the water fountain, but when she finally came to the elevators, she discovered there were two doors there with words on them. She was almost positive these were the bathrooms because, among the bits of knowledge she'd carefully stored away was the fact that bathroom doors in big buildings usually had a different kind of handle than ordinary office doors. The problem was that neither of these doors said BOYS or GIRLS -- two words she could recognize, nor did they have those nice stick figures of a man and woman that told people like her which bathroom to use. Very cautiously, Julie put her hand on one of the doors, eased it open a crack, and peeked inside. She backed up in a hurry when she spotted those funny-looking toilets on the wall because there were two other things she knew that she doubted other girls knew: Men used weird-looking toilets. And they went a little crazy if a girl opened the door while they were doing it. Julie opened the other door and trooped into the right bathroom.
Conscious of time passing, she left the bathroom and hurriedly retraced her steps until she neared the part of the corridor where Dr. Wilmer's office should have been, then she began laboriously studying the names on the doors. Dr. Wilmer's name began with a P-S-Y. She spied a P-E-T on the next door, decided she'd remembered the letters wrong, and quickly shoved it open. An unfamiliar, gray-haired woman looked up from her typewriter. "Yes?"
"Sorry, wrong room," Julie mumbled, flushing. "Do you know where Dr. Wilmer's office is?"
"Yes, you know -- Wilmer -- it starts with a P-S-Y!"
"P-S-Y...Oh, you must mean Psychological Associates! That's suite twenty-five-sixteen, down the hall."
Normally, Julie would have pretended to understand and continued going into offices until she found the right one, but she was too worried about being late now to pretend. "Would you spell that out for me?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The numbers!" she said desperately. "Spell them out like this: three -- six -- nine -- four -- two. Say it that way."
The woman looked at her like she was an idiot, which Julie knew she was, but she hated it when other people noticed. After an irritated sigh, the woman said, "Dr. Wilmer is in suite two -- five -- one -- six."
"Two -- five -- one -- six," Julie repeated.
"That's the fourth door on the left," she added.
"Well!" Julie cried in frustration. "Why didn't you just say that in the first place!"
Dr. Wilmer's receptionist looked up when Julie walked in. "Did you get lost, Julie?"
"Me? No way!" Julie lied with an emphatic shake of her curly head as she returned to her chair. Unaware that she was being observed through what looked like an ordinary mirror, she turned her attention to the aquarium beside her chair. The first thing she noticed was that one of the beautiful fish had died and that two others were swimming around it as if contemplating eating it. Automatically, she tapped her finger on the glass to scare them away, but a moment later they returned. "There's a dead fish in there," she told the receptionist, trying to sound only slightly concerned. "I could take it out for you."
"The cleaning people will remove it tonight, but thank you for offering."
Julie swallowed an irate protest at what she felt was needless cruelty to the dead fish. It wasn't right for anything so wonderfully beautiful and so helpless to be left in there like that. Picking up a magazine from the coffee table, she pretended to look at it, but from the corner of her eye she kept up her surveillance of the two predatory fish. Each time they returned to prod and poke their deceased comrade, she stole a glance at the receptionist to make sure she wasn't watching, then Julie reached out as casually as possible and tapped the glass to scare them off.
A few feet away, in her office on the other side of the two-way mirror, Dr. Theresa Wilmer watched the entire little scenario, her eyes alight with a knowing smile as she watched Julie's gallant attempt to protect a dead fish while maintaining a facade of indifference for the sake of the receptionist. Glancing at the man beside her, another psychiatrist who'd recently begun donating some of his time to her special project, Dr. Wilmer said wryly, "There she is, 'Julie the terrible,' the adolescent terror who some foster care officials have judged to be not only 'learning-disabled,' but unmanageable, a bad influence on her peers, and also 'a troublemaker bound for juvenile delinquency.' Did you know," she continued, her voice taking on a shade of amused admiration, "that she actually organized a hunger strike at LaSalle? She talked forty-five children, most of whom were older than she, into going along with her to demand better food."
Dr. John Frazier peered through the two-way mirror at the little girl. "I suppose she did that because she had an underlying need to challenge authority?"
"No," Dr. Wilmer replied dryly, "she did it because she had an underlying need for better food. The food at LaSalle is nutritious but tasteless. I sampled some."
Frazier flashed a startled look at his associate. "What about her thefts? You can't ignore that problem so easily."
Leaning her shoulder against the wall, Terry tipped her head to the child in the waiting room and said with a smile, "Have you ever heard of Robin Hood?"
"Of course. Why?"
"Because you're looking at a modern-day adolescent version of Robin Hood out there. Julie can filch the gold right out of your teeth without your knowing it, she's that quick."
"I hardly think that's a recommendation for sending her to live with your unsuspecting Texas cousins, which is what I understand you intend to do."
Dr. Wilmer shrugged. "Julie steals food or clothing or playthings, but she doesn't keep anything. She gives her booty to the younger kids at LaSalle."
"Positive. I've checked it out."
A reluctant smile tugged at John Frazier's lips as he studied the little girl. "She looks more like a Peter Pan than a Robin Hood. She's not at all what I expected, based on her file."
"She surprised me, too," Dr. Wilmer admitted. According to Julie's file, the director of the LaSalle Foster Care Facility, where she now resided, had deemed her to be "a discipline problem with a predilection for truancy, trouble making, theft, and hanging around with unsavory mate companions." After a the unfavorable comments in Julie's file, Dr. Wilmer had fully expected Julie Smith to be a belligerent, hardened girl whose constant association with young males probably indicated early physical development and even sexual activity. For that reason, she'd nearly gaped at Julie when the child sauntered into her office two months ago, looking like a grubby little pixie in jeans and a tattered sweatshirt, with short-cropped dark, curly hair. Instead of the budding femme fatale Dr. Wilmer had expected, Julie Smith had a beguiling gamin face that was dominated by an enormous pair of thick-lashed eyes the startling color of dark blue pansies. In contrast to that piquant little face and innocently beguiling eyes, there was a boyish bravado in the way she'd stood in front of Dr. Wilmer's desk that first day with her small chin thrust out and her hands jammed into the back pockets of her jeans.
Theresa had been captivated at that first meeting, but her fascination with Julie had begun even before that -- almost from the moment she'd opened her file at home one night and began reading her responses to the battery of tests that was part of the evaluating process that Theresa herself had recently developed. By the time she was finished, Theresa had a firm grasp of the workings of the child's facile mind as well as the depth of her pain and the details of her current plight: Abandoned by her birth parents and rejected by two sets of adoptive parents, Julie had been reduced to spending her childhood on the fringes of the Chicago slums in a succession of overcrowded foster homes. As a result, throughout her life, her only source of real human warmth and support came from her companions -- grubby, unkempt kids like herself whom she philosophically regarded as "her own kind," kids who taught her to filch goods from stores and, later, to cut school with them. Her quick mind and quicker fingers had made Julie so good at both that no matter how often she was shuffled off to a new foster home, she almost immediately achieved a certain popularity and respect among her peers, so much so that a few months ago, a group of boys had condescended to demonstrate to her the various techniques they used for breaking into cars and hot-wiring them -- a demonstration that resulted in the entire group of them being busted by an alert Chicago cop, including Julie, who was merely an observer.
That day had marked Julie's first arrest, and although Julie didn't know it, it also marked Julie's first real "break" because it ultimately brought her to Dr. Wilmer's attention. After being -- somewhat unjustly -- arrested for attempted auto theft, Julie was put into Dr. Wilmer's new, experimental program that included an intensive battery of psychological tests, intelligence tests, and personal interviews and evaluations conducted by Dr. Wilmer's group of volunteer psychiatrists and psychologists. The program was intended to divert juveniles in the care of the state from a life of delinquency and worse.
In Julie's case, Dr. Wilmer was adamantly committed to doing exactly that, and as everyone who knew her was aware, when Dr. Wilmer set her mind on a goal, she accomplished it. At thirty-five, Terry Wilmer had a pleasant, refined bearing, a kind smile, and a will of iron. In addition to her impressive assortment of medical degrees and a family tree that read like The Social Register, she had three other special attributes in great abundance. intuition, compassion, and total dedication. With the tireless fervor of a true evangelist dedicated to saving wayward souls, Theresa Wilmer had abandoned her thriving private practice and was now dedicated to saving those helpless adolescent victims of an overcrowded, underfunded state foster care system. To achieve her goals, Dr Wilmer was shamelessly willing to exploit every tool at her disposal, including recruiting support from among her colleagues like John Frazier. In Julie's case, she'd even enlisted the aid of distant cousins, who were far from wealthy but who had room in their home, and hopefully in their soft hearts, for one very special little girl.
"I wanted you to have a peek at her," Terry said. She reached out to draw the draperies over the glass, just as Julie suddenly stood up, looked desperately at the fish tank, and plunged both her hands into the water.
"What the hell -- " John Frazier began, then he watched in stunned silence as the girl marched toward the preoccupied receptionist with the dead fish cradled in her dripping hands.
Julie knew she shouldn't get water on the carpet, but she couldn't stand to see anything as beautiful as this fish with its long, flowing fins being mangled by the others. Not certain whether the receptionist was unaware of her or simply ignoring her, she walked up close behind her chair. "Excuse me," she blurted in an overloud voice, holding out her hands.
The receptionist, who was thoroughly engrossed in her typing, gave a nervous start, swung around in her chair, and emitted a choked scream at the sight of a shining, dripping fish directly in front of her nose.
Julie took a cautious step backward but persevered. "It's dead," she said boldly, fighting to keep her voice empty of the sentimental pity she felt. "The other fish are going to eat it, and I don't want to watch. It's gross. If you'll give me a piece of paper, I'll wrap it up and you can put it in your trash can."
Recovering from her shock, the receptionist carefully suppressed a smile, opened her desk drawer, and removed several tissues, which she handed to the child. "Would you like to take it with you and bury it at home?"
Julie would have liked to do exactly that, but she thought she heard amusement in the woman's voice, and so she hastily wrapped the fish in its tissue-paper shroud and thrust it at her instead. "I'm not that stupid, you know. This is just a fish, not a rabbit or something special like that."
On the other side of the window, Frazier chuckled softly and shook his head. "She's dying to give that fish a formal burial, but her pride won't let her admit it." Sobering, he added, "What about her learning disabilities? As I recall, she's only at a second-grade level."
Dr. Wilmer gave an indelicate snort at that and reached for a manila folder on her desk containing the results of the battery of tests Julie had recently been given. Holding the open file toward him she said with a smile, "Take a look at her scores when the intelligence tests are administered orally and she's not required to read."
John Frazier complied and gave a low laugh. "The kid's got a higher IQ than I do."
"Julie is a special child in a lot of ways, John. I saw glimpses of it when I reviewed her file, but when I met her face-to-face, I knew it was true. She's feisty, brave, sensitive, and very smart. Under all that bravado of hers, there's a rare kind of gentleness, an unquenchable hope, and quixotic optimism that she clings to even though it's being demolished by ugly reality. She can't improve her own lot in life, and so she's unconsciously dedicated herself to protecting the kids in whatever foster care facility she's put into. She steals for them and lies for them and organizes them into hunger strikes, and they follow wherever she leads as if she were the Pied Piper. At eleven years old, she's a born leader, but if she isn't diverted very quickly, some of her methods are going to land her in a juvenile detention center and eventually prison. And that's not even the worst of her problems right now."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that despite all her wonderful attributes, that little girl's self-esteem is so low, it's almost nonexistent. Because she's been passed over for adoption, she's convinced she's worthless and unlovable. Because she can't read as well as her peers, she's convinced she's completely stupid and can't learn. And the most terrifying part of it is that she's on the verge of giving up. She's a dreamer, but she's clinging to her dreams by a thread." With unintentional force, Terry finished, "I will not let all Julie's potential, her hope, her optimism, go to waste."
Dr. Frazier's brows shot up at her tone. "Forgive me for bringing this up, Terry, but aren't you the one who used to preach about not getting too personally involved with a patient?"
With a rueful smile, Dr. Wilmer leaned against her desk, but she didn't deny it. "It was easier to follow that rule when all my patients were kids from wealthy families who think they're 'underprivileged' if they don't get a $50,000 sports car on their sixteenth birthday. Wait until you've done more work with kids like Julie -- kids who are dependent on the 'system' that we set up to provide for them and have somehow fallen through the cracks in that same system. You'll lose sleep over them, even if you've never done it before."
"I suppose you're right," he said with a sigh, as he handed back the manila folder. "Out of curiosity, why hasn't she been adopted by someone?"
Teresa shrugged. "Mostly, it's been a combination of bad luck and bad timing. According to her file at the Department of Children and Family Services, she was abandoned in an alley when she was only a few hours old. Hospital records indicate she was born ten weeks prematurely and because of that and because of the poor condition she was in when she was brought to the hospital, there was a long series of health complications until she was seven years old, during which time she was repeatedly hospitalized and very frail.
"The Family Services people found adoptive parents for her when she was two years old, but in the middle of the adoption proceedings, the couple decided to get a divorce, and they dumped her back into the arms of Family Services. A few weeks later, she was placed again with another couple who'd been screened as carefully as humanly possible, but Julie came down with pneumonia, and the new couple -- who'd lost their own child at Julie's age -- went completely to pieces emotionally and pulled out of the adoption. Afterward, she was placed with a foster family for what was only to be a temporary time, but a few weeks later, Julie's case worker was seriously injured in an accident and never returned to work. From then on it was the proverbial 'comedy of errors.' Julie's file got misplaced -- "
"Her what!?" he uttered in disbelief.
"Don't judge the Family Services people too harshly, which I can see you're doing. For the most part, they're extremely dedicated and conscientious, but they're only human. Given how overworked and underfinanced they are, it's amazing they do as well as they do. In any event, to make a long story short, the foster parents had a houseful of kids to look after, and they assumed Family Services couldn't find adoptive parents for Julie because she wasn't very healthy. By the time Family Services realized she'd gotten lost in their shuffle, Julie was five, and she'd passed the age of greatest appeal to adoptive parents. She also had a history of poor health, and when she was removed from the foster home and placed in another, she promptly came down with a series of asthma attacks. She missed large chunks of first and second grade, but she was "such a good little girl" the teachers promoted her from one grade to the next anyway. Her new foster parents already had three physically handicapped children in their care, and they were so busy looking after those children that they didn't notice Julie wasn't keeping up in school, particularly because she was getting passing grades. By fourth grade, though, Julie herself realized she couldn't do the work, and she started pretending to be ill so that she could stay home. When her foster parents caught on, they insisted she go to school, so Julie took the next obvious route to avoid it -- she started cutting school and hanging around with kids on the street as often as she could. As I said earlier, she's feisty, daring, and quick -- they taught her how to snitch merchandise from stores and avoid being picked up as a truant.
"You know most of the rest: Eventually she did get picked up for truancy and shoplifting and was sent to the LaSalle facility, which is where kids who aren't doing well in the foster care system are sent. A few months ago, she got busted -- unfairly, I think -- along with a group of older boys who were demonstrating to her their particular prowess with hot-wiring cars." With a muffled laugh, Terry finished, "Julie was merely a fascinated observer, but she knows how to do it. She offered to demonstrate for me. Can you imagine -- that tiny girl with those enormous, innocent eyes can actually start your car without a key! She wouldn't try to steal it though. As I said, she only takes things the kids at LaSalle can use."
With a meaningful grin, Frazier tipped his head toward the glass. "I assume they can 'use' one red pencil, a ballpoint, and a fistful of candy."
"In the time you've been talking to me, your prize patient has filched all that from the reception room."
"Good God!" said Dr. Wilmer but without any real concern as she stared through the glass.
"She's quick enough to do sleight-of-hand tricks," Frazier added with reluctant admiration. "I'd get her in here before she figures out a way to get that aquarium out the door. I'll bet the kids at LaSalle would love some exotic tropical fish."
Glancing at her watch, Dr. Wilmer said, "The Mathisons are supposed to call me right about now from Texas to tell me exactly when they'll be ready to take her. I want to be able to tell Julie everything when she comes in here." As she spoke, the intercom on her desk buzzed and the receptionist's voice said, "Mrs. Mathison is on the phone, Dr. Wilmer."
"That's the call," Terry told him happily.
John Frazier glanced at his own watch. "I'm having my first session with Cara Peterson in a few minutes." He started toward the connecting door that opened into his office, paused with his hand on the knob, and said with a grin, "It's just occurred to me that the distribution of workload in your program is grossly unjust. I mean," he joked, "you get to work with a girl who filches candy and pencils to give to the poor, while you give me Cara Anderson who tried to kill her foster father. You get Robin Hood and I get Lizzie Borden."
"You love a challenge," Theresa Wilmer replied, laughing, but as she reached for the phone, she added, "I'm going to ask the Family Services people to transfer Mrs. Borowski out of LaSalle and into an area where she'll only be involved with infants and small children. I've worked with her before, and she's excellent with them because they're cuddly and they don't break rules. She shouldn't be dealing with adolescents. She can't distinguish between minor adolescent rebellion and juvenile delinquency."
"You aren't by any chance getting revenge on her because she told your receptionist that Julie will steal anything she can get her hands on?"
"No," Dr. Wilmer said as she picked up the phone. "But that was a good example of what I meant."
When she finished her call, Dr. Wilmer got up and walked to her office door, looking forward to the surprise she was about to deliver to Miss Julie Smith.
Copyright © 1993 by Eagle Syndications, Inc.
Excerpted from Perfect by Judith McNaught Copyright © 1994 by Judith McNaught. Excerpted by permission.
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