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Their journey brought them to the Isaac Arcology at 18 Arthur Street, at the southern periphery of the narrow city. Standing before Davis and Flora was a high-rise residential tower, angled towards the south edge of The Bridge. Solar panels zigged and zagged down the entire surface of the south-facing wall, perfectly angled to collect the optimal amount of daily sunlight. Beneath the panels, balconies with a sea view were warmed with the ambient heat, providing an ideal place for drying laundry or a spot of outdoor dining in the warm evenings. The remaining walls were lined with a rising succession of evergreen perennials, tall vines, and epiphytes, growing within a matrix woven of recycled tyres.
The ground floor foyer within was a hive of activity, with residents of all ages joining in on crafting, tabletop games, and storytelling. The wide room was lit by the remaining golden-red rays of sunlight, filtering in through south-facing windows and fibre-optic skylights, and basking a trove of pot plants in amber highlights. Long tables of recycled wood were topped with weaving provisions, art supplies, carving instruments, and a variety of cards, dice and figurines.
A small child, who was running around midway through some game, almost bowled straight into Davis as he entered the building. The boy's fathers took a break from pushing a broom and gently strumming a guitar to quickly apologise. Davis took it in his stride and waved back to his neighbours with a smile. He turned back to Flora, still lingering in the doorway. "Welcome to the neighbourhood, Flora. Come on, I'll show you around".
Flora cautiously entered the space. A few of the residents glanced at her briefly, then got back to the activities they were occupied with. "Ground floor we have a commons for everyone to enjoy. Mostly locals, but friends and families are more than welcome." Davis explained as he moved through, circling the humming room with his guest, and pointing out some items of interest. "Some of the guys here are artisans, happy to share their skills and recruit some apprentices." He recalled Flora was a budding artist, so he made sure to point out some of the creative opportunities on offer. "Painters, carvers, sculpters - both traditional and CAD, jewelers and tailors, weavers, I think we have a bit of everything here."
Flora observed shyly, watching, but not saying anything. He wasn't expecting her to jump in right away, but wanted that seed to be planted so that she would have some options to think about. A hobby would hopefully germinate when she was ready. "They have studios in the city where they do most of their work. But since we're fortunate enough to share a residence with these artisans, we can also share in their talents when they're feeling generous".
Davis turned to a dark-skinned, middle-aged man, sitting on a chair grown of espaliered bamboo. "Bonsoir, Kalem. Fais-tu des progrès?" he asked in what seemed to be passable french. Kalem didn't look up from his carving, painstakingly shaving minute fragments from a gnarled piece of driftwood. He wore a loose shirt of autumnal tones, with short sleeves decorated with wing motifs. His dusty pair of utility shorts had pockets overflowing with tools.
"Oui, Je suis. Mon compagnon... Ne sait rien faire avec ses dix doigts" Came Kalem's reply.
Davis laughed. Flora looked between the men, blankly watching their foreign conversation.
"C'est dommage. À toute à l'heure!" Davis told the man as they moved on.
"Au revoir, Davi'" Kalem replied, switching one of his tools for another.
Davis was soon accosted by another fellow resident. "Davis!" Cried the man, a burly labourer with a curly moustache, and a bald head approaching a sunburn. His faded black singlet had several holes worn in the sides.
"Earnesto. ¿Está bien el panel solar?" Davis asked, wondering what was wrong this time.
"Si. Brillante como mi cabeza calva. ¿Eh?" he seemed pleased, giving Davis a suggestive elbow.
"Bueno. Trata de no romperlo. ¿Si?" Davis replied. That was a relief.
Noticing Flora peeking out from behind Davis, the man had an observation to offer. "No sabía que eras un Cuidador infantil"
"Yo tampoco" Davis returned. 
"Hola, señorita" Earnesto called out.
Davis looked behind and saw her shrink back. "Tímida. Quizás la próxima vez" he apologised to his neighbour. Earnesto spoke with gusto, perhaps with a bit too much sometimes. Flora shadowed Davis as they passed the man, and continued the slalom of neighbourhood associates.
Davis quickly noticed another person he recognised, and swooped over to greet them. An elderly man of eastern descent sat cross-legged before a low table of redwood. He was slowly trimming the tiny leaves of what looked like a scale model of a sequoia tree. Davis waited for the man to finish his task, not wanting to break his zen state, nor interrupt his tending to an all-but-extinct species.
"What's that?" Flora interjected, before the man could finish of his own volition. Davis moved to shush Flora, but the gent calmly put down his secateurs and waved back, the loose sleeves of his white and clay-coloured robe billowing as he slowly motioned to the pair.
"Gommenasai, Akira-san." Davis apologised, with a slight bow. "Korewa watashi no..." Davis scratched his head. He couldn't find the word in Japanese. Actually, he wasn't sure what the English word would be either. "ano... musume de wa arimasen. Tomodachi. Flora-chan."
"Konbanwa. Watashitachi no tatemono e yokoso, Flora-chan." Akira wished them well.
"Anata no mago wa dodesu ka?" Davis asked, hoping for some news that might benefit Flora. The man thought for a moment.
"Kenji wa kyujitsudesu. Hanako wa konshu otozureru kamo shiremasen." Akira answered.
"Kanojo ni aisatsu suru yo ni tanomu. Onegaishimasu". Davis requested. Akira nodded, his sparse white hair barely moving. Davis bowed, Akira bowed back, and returned to his bonsai gardening.
Flora followed along as Davis wandered out of the main common area to a bank of elevators. "You make that look easy" she said.
"Make what look easy?" he wondered, pressing the up button.
"Languages. I didn't understand any of that."
"Oh, right. Well, I'm sure I made an error or five back there" Davis answered. "Kalem says his apprentice isn't very skilled. Ernesto's solar panel is working. Akira says you're welcome here, and his granddaughter might be coming by. I said you might get to meet her. She's about your age. And she speaks English".
Flora chewed on her lip. She seemed to be thinking about something. The elevator was taking forever. Davis punctured the silence. "Is something bothering you?"
The elevator dinged. The doors swooshed open.
"Can you translate for me next time? I... want to know what people are saying around me... And about me." Flora said glumly as she boarded. Another faux pas for him to learn from, it seemed. Or maybe calling it a misstep would be more appropriate? 
"Yeah, of course." he replied, stepping into the elevator beside her. "But I'll have to give you a bit of insight - as someone who speaks several languages."
"What's that?"
Davis selected a floor, pushing a button, which immediately lit up.
"A lot of things matter besides what people say. Body language, tone, reciprocity, context. And actions are most important of all. You don't need to speak someone's language to see what kind of person they are. But it does help."
"Can you help me learn what they're saying anyway?" she asked, hopeful.
"Of course. But keep in mind it's a lifelong journey. Even at my age I don't know every word, not even in English, and never will. What matters is you keep learning, and practice when you can."
The selected floor was announced with a pair of sequences of sound - three-ten and eight in morse code. The universality of the code was a useful addition for the visually impaired and linguistically diverse. The doors opened with a swoosh, revealing a tidy, narrow hallway. The lights activated, shining upon carpets of recycled fibres as the sun slowly lost its battle with the horizon for another night. Walls panelled with slats of repurposed wood were decorated with paintings by local artists and students, showing scenes of clouds, space, The Bridge, and The Ocean.
Davis approached a red door labelled 38c. Flora watched him announce his arrival by pressing the doorbell, then take out his keycard and wave it over the receiver. The door unlocked audibly with a clunk, and he slid the door across to open it. "It's me!" he called in to the apartment, before looking back to Flora and motioning for her to join him. "Come on, Nan's looking forward to meeting you".
The apartment was a limited size, but was well-kept and utilised space efficiently. A bookcase in one corner of the lounge was stacked floor-to-ceiling, containing a lifetime of reading materials of every imaginable genre. A cosy nook separated the lounge from a small kitchen, which was stocked with cupboards of ingredients and tools. The Kitchen opened onto a deck lined with a few simple plants and herbs that could tolerate the limited space and soil. A small hallway led to a bathroom and three small bedrooms, which also had balcony access. A few lingering clouds could be seen outside, illuminated as the sun left a parting gift of pinks and reds for the fading sky.
A table in the living room was topped with weaving supplies, and flanked by two softly upholstered chairs and a small couch of vintage leather. Sitting upon the softest of the chairs, and expertly weaving together strands of three separate plants, was Nanaia Teitikai.  Her thick glasses magnified eyes bordered with smile lines. Her wavy grey hair was held in place with an heirloom whalebone comb. Her skin was a moderate brown, speckled with age spots and drooped over a short, shrinking frame. Despite the mild evening, she wore multiple layers of wool, cotton, and bamboo fibre clothing. She was an elderly woman, well into retirement, but nonetheless she brimmed with the inexhaustible warmth of a lifetime of kindness.
Nan put her weaving aside, adjusted her glasses, and squinted towards where Davis was standing, and Flora was peeking in from behind him. Nan smiled, her face crinkling with age and joy. "Welcome home, Davis. And you must be the girl I've heard so much about. It's so nice to see you at last, dear." She rocked forward a few times until she gathered the momentum to climb to her feet. Nan grabbed a hold of the ornate driftwood walking cane that had been propped against her chair, as the new arrivals watched her ready herself. "Well, don't just stand there. Come and say hi" She demanded, opening her arms for a hug.
Davis looked to Flora. She took some time to warm to people, so probably wouldn't be keen on hugging someone she'd met seconds before. Indeed, Flora stood in place, uncertain. Davis shrugged and went in for the hug with Nan instead. "Nice to be home, Nan." he said, awkwardly reaching his relatively lanky proportions down to Nan's level to wrap his arms around her. They waited for a moment. Davis looked back to Flora. She looked back at him. "There's room for one more if you feel up to it" Davis offered to her, his arm outstretched to invite her in.
Flora stood in place for a bit longer. Davis didn't want to push her, and it seemed she wasn't ready. He returned to Nan, quietly mentioning to her "Don't be offended, just give her some more time". She agreed with a small grunt, and they let go of each other. Davis took a seat on the chair next to Nan's, and invited the other two to sit down with him. "Oh, I only just got up" Nan complained as she sat back down, gripping her cane in both hands. Flora sat on the black couch, next to the chair Davis was sitting in. She ran her fingertips over the unfamiliar material of the antique furniture. Wide sections of leather like this were hard to find, now that cows were extinct.
"Ok, well, here we are." Davis cut the silence. "Flora, welcome to our home. Like I said, we have a few rules to follow, but otherwise it's your home too, for the next few days."
Flora nodded, and looked to Nan.
"Don't worry, dear. You're more than welcome here." Nan offered. Flora simply nodded again.
"You know," Davis began, "Nan was one of the Founders. She knows all about the history of this place."
"Oh Davis, you're making me feel old" Nan protested. "But you're right. It was long before either of you were born. We were looking for a place to stay and, somehow, we ended up making all of this. The others did most of the work, I mainly looked after the children." She was, as always, modest about her own contributions, and humble about what had been achieved.
"Hey, that is hard work too, you know?" Davis piped in. He looked to Flora. She crossed her arms and looked at him from the corner of her eyes "uh... not that having you around is a chore, Flora." Davis appended, a bit too late.
"Right." Nan agreed. "I'm sure we will find some fun things to get up to. Did Davis show you the commons?"
Flora nodded. "Yeah, there were a heap of artists making stuff, but I don't speak their languages"
"Oh, that's a shame. I'm sure we can find one whose English is good enough for a lesson, though. Who knows, I might have a few tricks to teach you myself." Nan promised. Flora examined the work in progress on the table. "That's going to be a sunhat, dear. The equinox is just around the corner, and then summer will be soon. I'm looking forward to that. Actually, that hat might fit you, try it on. Go on, dear." Flora timidly touched the unfinished hat, which was still lacking a brim to hold it together. She lifted it up a bit, and it flopped under its own weight. She seemed unsure whether it was a good idea to continue.
Davis reached over and grabbed part that was only loosely woven at this stage, stabilising the structure of it in his hands as he helped lift it onto flora's head. There, it sat softly, perched atop flora's thick black hair, stray strands of still-green plant fibre dangling around her face in every direction. She gazed upwards as the weave precariously threatened to unfurl, or simply fall straight off her head. "Still needs a bit of work... but if anyone can make it fit, it's you Nan." Davis appraised the hat in progress. He lifted it back off, noticing the condition of Flora's hair, then placed the hat back onto the table.
"That reminds me, you need a bath, young lady." Davis announced.
"Yeah, I know." Flora replied, not thrilled but too tired to fight.
"I'll go run it for you. And I'll get you a towel, and something to change into so we can wash those clothes you've been wearing." Davis got up, making his way to the bathroom. He filled the bath with what he hoped was an appropriate level and temperature of water, and collected a towel. On his way back, he went to his room, grabbing a slim-fit cyan t-shirt that was about long enough to work as a dress for Flora. It'd have to do for now.
Davis returned, hearing laughter from the old woman and young girl. Hopefully not at my expense, Davis pondered as he sidled up to Flora. "Here you go, Flora. It's one of mine, but I think it'd fit you". He presented the t-shirt to her, measuring it against her underfed outline. Flora looked down at the design. A wind turbine stood proudly spinning in the wind, while a lively sunflower coiled up the structure and bloomed into life opposite from the twirling blades. It'd be a bit loose around the shoulders and midsection, but otherwise it would fit. Flora looked back up at Davis. "Um, are you sure I can have this?" she wondered, insecurity wavering in her voice once again.
"Yeah, of course. It suits you. You can even keep it if you like" Davis offered.
Flora clutched at the t-shirt, a wide smile on her face barely concealed as she avoided looking back at Davis.
"As for the bath..." Davis continued. "I'm not entirely sure if it's deep enough, or too deep, or hot enough, or too cold. I guess you'll find out in a minute. You can adjust it if it's not right. There's more towels and cloths in there if you need any. Non-slip mats are already set up. Got the ventilation going. Um..." Davis scratched his head and wondered if there was anything else to mention. "Oh right, soaps and shampoos, use whichever ones you like. But try to use at least one of each."
Flora giggled. "Davis, I know what a bath is. I'll be fine."
Davis nodded. "Ok. And if you need anything, we'll be just out here."
"All right" Flora strode to the bathroom door, before stopping for a moment. She turned back to Davis.
"um, Davis?" she tightly gripped the t-shirt he had given her, and twisted her shoe on a tiptoe, a smile just visible on her face.
"what is it?" he replied gently. She gazed at his shoes, not quite able to make eye contact.
"Thank you." she said, the words shyly emerging from her mouth, barely a murmur. But it didn't sound insincere.
"No worries. It's just a shirt" Davis replied, a little confused.
"no, not just the shirt..." she clarified "You know... Everything you did today. Thank you."
As the door closed behind her, Davis realised something - she hadn't said those words to him before. It had taken all day - from their meeting in the early morning, through to the closing moments after sunset - for her to say it. Thank you. Those two simple words. They were effortless in most circumstances, but it seemed to be something she had struggled with. Even now she barely managed to get them out before retreating into the bathroom. But it seemed that a wall was finally breaking down in her, where she could allow someone to help her, and then be able to thank them in return. In spite of his many minor errors today, Davis thought he was making progress.
Or maybe he was overthinking it. He was far from the most experienced cuidador infantil in the house. He looked back to Nan, watching from her chair with what he hoped was an expression of approval. Davis joined her in the nearby seat. Splashing could be heard emanating from the bathroom. "Well... what do you think?" Davis hoped for an affirmative answer, and worried it wouldn't be that simple. This day certainly had a enough hours left in it to throw another complication in the mix. Nan's wizened face wrinkled as she brought forth a smile. 
"She's adorable, of course. All children are. But she's quite the pearl." She paused for a moment as they listened to Flora in the other room, humming along to some tune they didn't recognise. "You must imagine, I got quite the shock when you suggested bringing her back here, though."
Davis nodded. "Yeah, it was... I don't know what I was thinking"
"Don't apologise, Davis. I know you have your reasons."
He nodded. Paused for a moment. Took stock of what was running through his mind. And tried to justify his intervention. "I... couldn't just let her get shunted around like that, while she waits goddess knows how long for something better. All that insecurity and instability, it's no way to treat a child. Sure as hell isn't the right way to treat one who's in her situation. I'd only just met her, but... she was right there in front of me, and... I don't think I could have forgiven myself if I didn't try to help her, you know?"
Nan nodded. "It was kind of you, Davis. Offering her a place to stay. A little... unexpected. But kind. You did a good thing today Davis, don't doubt that for a minute." Davis sat and listened to the compliments and advice.
"Thank you" he said, considering just how important those two words could be. "You weren't very convinced before, though."
Nan nodded, with a sad tone of agreement. "You know how frail I am. Ran out of steam earlier just moving some things off the bed in the guest room, so she'd have a place to sleep." They shared a moment of mutual dread as she reflected. "But I've missed having children in the house. The joy and laughter. The surprises. Even the tears I've missed... How long has it been?" Nan's memory evaded her momentarily.
"Twenty-six years?" Davis answered, like clockwork.
"That sounds about right." Nan looked to the photos on the wall, the memories flooding back as she reminisced. Photos of her, photos of Davis, photos of a much younger Nan with some of the children she had known over the years, and some of the children she had taught. "One more won't hurt." She decided.
"So it's settled then?" Davis wondered. Nan groaned as she adjusted her position in her favourite chair.
"Davis, I know you realise this is a big thing you've agreed to, but... There's something else that worries me. On top of this" she motioned down her own aging body with a shaky arthritic hand. She sighed and Davis anxiously waited for her next concern.
"Davis... try not to get too attached. This isn't a permanent arrangement. A week or two, I think you said?". He nodded.
"Right. Well... I know you, Davis. You open your heart quickly, and just as quickly, you can end up devastated." She looked to the balcony, where a pair of starlings were settling in for the night, in the nest they had built tucked away beneath a solar panel. "Remember that time long ago when you found an injured bird on the balcony?"
Davis nodded. "I think it was a Eurasian jay. I called it Flappy because it flapped about with a sprained wing and couldn't fly."
"Yes, that's the one. You cared for that injured bird for a week, bought some seeds with your own pocket money to feed it, and even made sure it had a safe spot to rest." Nan recalled. "You were inconsolable when it flew away a week or so later, once it had healed".
Davis remembered that with a bit of embarrassment. "I'm not eight years old any more".
"I know, Davis, but... I don't want you to get hurt if this goes sour. And things don't always go to plan, in childcare, and especially in foster childcare." She spoke with a sorrowful voice of experienced reason. Davis didn't dispute that he could get emotional. It was emotion that had led him into this scenario, after all. But he wondered what she meant about foster caring. She had always spoken about it being mostly a positive experience.
"You know, one of the children I fostered, quite some time ago... She was a girl about Flora's age. Beautiful wee thing she was. Her parents were going through a rough patch. Her dad was hooked on the bio-stim's and lost his role. Her brother was in a correctional home for a bit. Her mother was having a different affair every month or two. Not a good place for a child to be stuck in the middle of, so I was asked to be a respite carer for her while her parents got their issues sorted out. Lovely wee girl, she didn't deserve what was happening around her. I poured my heart into her - gave her everything she needed to make it through that tough time for her and her family. But after a short while, her parents said they were better and they'd figured everything out, and were ready to look after her again. They went off to start a new life way off in a distant station, a long way from here. Figured it'd be a new start for all of them." Nan sighed and shook her head.
The regret was heavy in her voice. The story seemed to be an especially difficult one for her to recount. "I was sad to see her go, but what really tore me down was... I never got to see her again. I still wonder about her. Did I do enough for her? I hope she was ok, that her parents got their act together and gave her the home she deserved. But I also worry. That even after all we had been through, she might not have recovered from all the troubles her family exposed her to."
Davis hadn't heard this story before. He listened, affixed, with full intent. Nan usually didn't gossip about the various children she had looked after in the past, but this example was one that continued to have an especially powerful impact on her. "Davis, caring for children like this... Emotionally, it's a double-edged sword. Especially when it's temporary. I almost decided to throw it out on the tide right then - to give up on looking after kids when that was what they'd often be going back to." She shared candidly, openly, in a display of brutal honesty that was rare for the aging woman.
"I'm... I'm glad you didn't" Davis informed her, deep in contemplation of the information she had just provided.
"Me too" she reassured him. "Look, I know you mean well, but I worry that you haven't prepared yourself for just how difficult it will be for you. You know, for all your talk of the practicalities of looking after Flora, you haven't mentioned how you plan on managing the emotional load you'll need to carry too. It's not just about being a pair of hands, Davis - you need your mind and your heart in top shape too if you're going to be giving a child a home. Even a temporary home. Especially a temporary one".
Davis was dumbstruck. He had a plan and a blueprint for everything, except what he would do to keep his feelings from derailing this entire endeavour. He could only sit there and wonder if he had made a huge mistake in bringing Flora into his life in such an all-encompassing way. He chided himself for lacking Nan's experience on such matters, and wondered what she would have done if their positions had been reversed. And he worried. Maybe he couldn't fix everything for the girl. Maybe he wasn't the right person to be looking after Flora.
"I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this," Nan continued, "but you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve, to jump into things head-first, ready to help, but never thinking of yourself. You're a kind person Davis, but you also tend to think you can fix whatever you see, for everyone around you. And you rarely consider just how much of an impact that such actions might have on your own well-being." Nan looked towards the bathroom door. Flora continued to hum to herself, apparently not overhearing the discussion a room away.
"I hope everything goes well, and they can find a suitable home for her, and that the two of you can remain friends. That would be ideal for everyone. But, I want you to know that things don't always go that way. And I want you to be prepared for the likelihood that she might not be around here for much longer. You need to be ready to let go, when the time comes, if that's in her best interests. I'm sorry, Davis, but sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to give someone a new home that isn't yours."
Davis slumped in his chair. He stewed in his worries. Nan was right. He needed to be ready to say good bye - just as much as Flora had needed to be able to say thank you. He wondered if he would be ready when the time came. Or whether it'd be a repeat of that little bird he had cared for, only to watch it fly away. And he worried that, like Nan's girl, Flora might end up somewhere worse, and they'd never see each other again.
"The shampoo smells nice!" Flora called through the bathroom door, oblivious to how the others were feeling.
"Save some for me, dear!" Nan called back. She looked at Davis, saw his sour expression, and she shook her head. "Davis, don't be so glum. In spite of what I've just said, you still have a wonderful opportunity ahead of you. And you seem to be doing alright so far. Take some time, enjoy it while it lasts. I'm sure you'll be a fine caregiver, and she'll never forget the person who helped her when she needed it the most."
Davis smiled at that, at last. "I certainly didn't".

Submitted: November 14, 2020

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