"Have a good day," Mason said. He kissed my cheek. I turned eight shades of red. "Call me if you have any trouble."
I nodded like a bobble head. He flashed me a smile.
I turned and looked up into the light violet eyes of one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She was tall and reminded me of a gazelle. Her blonde hair was twisted up off the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless.
"Ally?" she repeated. I nodded. "I'm Ally."
I felt the familiar tension creep into my shoulders. I hated meeting new people. It was always the same: first they would try to act like they didn't hear my speech impediment. Then there eyes would roam my face until they spotted the tiniest glint of my hearing devices. Then they would give me a pity smile and talk ten times slower and louder.
This woman didn't do any of those things. Instead, she held out a dainty hand.
"I'm Kimberly Brown," she said. "Welcome aboard. Follow me."
Kimberly was like a firecracker. I barely touched her hand when she turned and bounced down the hall. She pushed open a door and clapped her hands.
"HEY GUYS! Our new assistant, Ally, is here! Say hi!"
A chorus of enthustiatic hi's filled the air. I smiled and lifted a hand.
The crew consisted of six other women. I prided myself on being able to match a face to a name - Dolly, Betty, Vicky, Jacque, and Jan.
"You'll be working with me for your training," Kimberly (who insisted I call her Kim), said.
Everyone had their own station. Each woman was packing a large box with styling supplies and make-up. Kim pointed to her own, blazened in bright pink.
"This are our 'on-the-go survival kits,'" she said with a smile. "It has everything we need."
"How do you know what you need?" I asked. I saw one of the women look at me curiously. Her eyes went to my ears.
"We pack the basics," Kim said. "You'd be surprised how much joy a little foundation, shadow, and curlers can make."
"Where are you going today?"
"We're going to a youth rehabilitation center," Kim said.
"Rehab?" I said. I couldn't help but be confused. "You mean, like drugs?"
Kim shook her head. "No. It's, well, it's kind of like a nursing home for children and teens."
"They have those?" I asked.
The smile I received was full of sadness. "Unfortunately, yes. Some parents just can't take care of their children. Disease or disability is a life-changing event."
It was a sobering thought. I was disabled. I knew first hand that you didn't have a choice in the matter. Kim put her hand on her shoulder.
"I know it's depressing right now," she said. "But you'll see. You'll see the importance of this job when we're done today."
I smiled softly. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
Kim laughed. "Thatta girl."
If someone drove by the youth rehabilitation center, on first glance you would think it was a nursing home. Only when you walked up to the building did you notice small differences. For one, the rap music floating out of one of the opened windows signaled a teen resided within. Other windows were decorated with posters of pop stars. I saw a couple pictures of Brooke before we made it to the door.
I had only been in a nursing home once. Our school had gone as part of an elderly buddy program. I don't think I'll ever forget the smell. The walls reeked of urine, death, and despair. The inside of the youth center didn't smell of death, but there was a heavy odor of despair and bleach.
A tall black lady dressed in scrubs came out from behind a desk. Kim embraced the lady tightly.
"Blanche, this is my new assistant Ally. Ally, this is Blanche, one of the head nurses here."
I held out my hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised that the woman's eyes didn't automatically go in search of my ears. She had a strong, sure handshake.
"Welcome aboard," she said sincerely. She turned back to Kim. "The last five kids you did last month are still talking about what you did. There was a huge competition when we raffled these next five spots.
Kim and Blanche started walking. Kim was rolling her huge tote behind her. I walked briskly to catch up.
"I'll keep coming as long as the kids want me," Kim said. Blanche wrapped her arm around Kim and squeezed. They both laughed.
We walked down several cooridors. The last turn led us to what appeared to be a common room.
There were eight people in the room - five teen girls, two boys that looked a year or two younger than Brayden and Tristan, and a teen boy. Some where in wheelchairs, one was laying on a hospital bed. The teen boy was sitting in a high back chair by the window.
Everyone except the teen boy looked at us as we entered the room. One of the teen girls broke into a big smile. I noticed right away the deep scar that zig-zagged across her cheek. I couldn't help but want to know the backstory.
"Kim's here!" she exclaimed. Kim bowed.
"At your service," she said. She pressed her hand on my elbow and I stepped forward. "I brought reinforcements today, too. This is Ally."
"Hi," I whispered. Shyness had kicked in a thousandfold.
"She's pretty," another one of the girls said. She was a broad-shouldered blonde. She was also missing an arm.
I didn't think my face could turn redder. Purple, perhaps, but not red.
"Hey boys, we painting your nails?" Kim called out. The two younger boys turned and looked at her. One's face was badly burned, his hair horribly dishelved. The other boy moved his head; nothing more. They both laughed.
"NO!" they said in unison.
"What about you Cole?"
The boy by the window didn't look our way. He shrugged.
"I'm just enjoying the sunshine," he said tonelessly.
"The three boys just wanted to get out of their rooms," Blanche whispered. "It's the girls that won the raffle."
Kim smiled. "I think we might surprise the boys too if we have time." She glanced at me. "Right, Ally?"
I was still watching Cole. He leaned forward, his shoulders slumped. His hair was so long that I couldn't even see his eyes. He reminded me of a black sheepdog. The teen girls were still watching us hopefully. I felt the enormity of our task crashing in around me. I took a deep breath.