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By Jennie Baird

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

My brother and I were waiting outside for our mother.

That morning she’d dropped us off at this suburban hotel, a nondescript, low-slung building among many similar buildings, set back in a parking lot off a local highway not too far from our home. All of the buildings and parking lots along this stretch of road were the same to me – the fabric store, the paint store, each of them had big plate glass windows and painted signs. Our mother often took us from this place to that place running errands. Into the car, out of the car, stand here, wait there. Occasionally, she let us wait in the car. But today was different. We weren’t running errands and we weren’t staying with her.

“This day is very important,” our mother told us. “Pay attention to everything. Do whatever they tell you. And behave.”

The three of us walked through the lobby. I clung to our mother’s side as she stood at a long table talking to a man and writing something down on an index card. Then she said goodbye and told us that she’d meet us on the curb outside when it was over. Josh was in charge and I was to stay with him at all times. I would never think to do otherwise.

A young woman who was wearing a white robe and had long wavy golden hair ushered us into a large room. She must have spoken, but her voice was quiet, almost as if she could speak without making a sound.

There were lots of grown-ups inside the large room, most of them also wearing white robes. Some of them accompanied children, while others talked amongst themselves. The room was full of children, ordinary children just like us. At five, I may have been the youngest. There must have been chairs and a podium at the front, too. We stopped just inside the doors and found a place on the floor. Nearby, two girls played Miss Mary Mack and Oh Little Playmate. They clapped palms and backs of hands. They held hands and pulled each other to and fro, whispering the lyrics of the songs. I loved the words: “Oh little playmate, come out and play with me, climb up my apple tree, slide down my rainbow, into my cellar door and we’ll be friends friends friends friends forever more more more more.” I didn’t know what a cellar door was, but I wanted one, just so I could slide down a rainbow into it.

Josh took up with a group of older children sitting on the other side of him. They were talking about I don’t know what and of course he joined right in. That was part of being older. I wasn’t included, but I stayed close, making sure I always had my brother in my line of sight. I would be older one day, too.

Soon, there was an announcement over a loudspeaker asking for quiet and then other voices came on as well, but Josh and his new friends kept on chattering, though more quietly than before. They weren’t the only ones, either. The low buzz of children whispering and shifting and wriggling continued. I can’t remember if I wasn’t interested in the voices on the loudspeaker. Maybe I just couldn’t make sense of what they were saying. I kept my eyes on my brother. It was a crowded room. If I lost track of him, I would be lost. And without him, I would never find my way back to our mother.

After a while, we were told to go with a particular group of children to a smaller room. The woman with the golden waves led us there. The sun shone into the lobby and cast a spray of light around her hair and I thought to myself, “This is what angels must look like, only with wings.”