It had started out as a normal day. Peter Morrell had dropped his daughter, off at school. He and his wife, Sadie, were just going out to breakfast before Peter had to go to work and Sadie went home.
They took the scenic route.
Peter was in the driver's seat. Sadie was doing her makeup with the fold-up mirror.
"Oh, Sadie, you don't need to do that," Peter chided her. "You're beautiful enough without makeup!" he smiled at her. “Gimme a kiss, hun.”
She snapped the compact mirror shut and leaned over to kiss him. He smiled and leaned closer to her. He closed his eyes, just for a second...
He never should've taken his eyes off the road.
For if he hadn't, he would've seen the gasoline truck.
He would've seen the truck, and swerved to miss it. Then the adrenaline would've worn off, they would've gone to breakfast, then Peter would head off to work and Sadie walk home.
But he did close his eyes. He didn't see the truck.
All he saw was his wife, the mother of his beloved daughter, and the world erupted in flame.
"And that's how you can tell a butterfly from a moth," the teacher, Michael Carter concluded. "Can anyone tell me the first stage in a butterfly's life cycle?” he looked at the expectant faces of his second-grade class.
The knock on the door came suddenly. Michael looked at it curiously. "Um, I'll be right back. Be good, okay, class?"
He stepped outside the classroom and saw who it was that had knocked. He examined the man. He was short and stout, with an unlit, half-smoked cigarette in his mouth and greasy sweatsuit with the word "Mobile" written on the front. He slapped a greasy gray ball cap over oily salt-and-pepper comb-over and grunted.
"Can I... help you?" he asked.
"Yeah, I have some really sad news for ya," he said, his gruff voice matching his outfit.
"What is it?"
"One of your students, is orphaned.”
"Orphaned! What do you mean? How? Who is it?"
"It's a little brunette gal, with short brown pigtails and big brown eyes. I saw the explosion of her parent's car right outside our gas station. It was horrible."
"Sir, might I ask how you knew to come here?"
"Shore. Peter's one of me biggest customers. He adores his little daughter, that's how I knew to ask yah, and it was his car, I'd recognize that ole thing anywhere, done enough work on it meself. The cops dunno a thing about who it is, but I thought I'd let you tell 'em, 'cause I got a bit of a bone to pick wit' a couple a'dem. So I'd really better go, but I thought I'd tell yeh."
And with that, he turned and walked right out of the school building.
Michael was stunned. Little Ruby, she had to be who he was talking about- an orphan? He swallowed hard and blinked, gathering himself together.
He stepped back into the classroom. His students were all giggling, staring at him and each other.
"Thank you, class-" his voice cracked, and he had to clear his throat to continue- "for being so calm."
The class erupted in giggles again, the little second-graders squirming in their seats.
"What's so funny?"
They all looked around, their giggles louder.
Michael folded his arms. "Come on, now. Spill."
The kids slowly trained their eyes on one of their classmates.
"Rye? Can you tell me about this?" Michael said to the boy.
The small, red-headed boy grinned up at his teacher. "No, Mr. Carter," he said angelically.
"Are you sure?"
Suddenly, little Ruby piped up. "He was being mean and saying mean things to me!" she cried.
"Calling me a teacher's pet and saying he hated me because you liked me best. But it's not true! Right, Mr. Carter?"
Michael bit his lip to hide his laughter. So that's what was going on! "That's right, it's not true. I love all my students equally," he said, ruffling Rye's hair.
"Yeah, "equally" meaning you like her better than me!" he whined.
"No, "equally" meaning everyone is the same."
"See?" Ruby said to him, sticking out her tongue.
"Now, now, Ruby. Behave or I might have to give you kids more homework," he said teasingly.
The students all quieted.
"But why was everyone giggling?" Michael asked.
Ruby pouted. "Because!" she said. Then she looked at Rye. "Don't tell."
A small girl in the back of the room raised her hand slowly.
She pointed first at Rye, then at Ruby, then slowly, moved her fingers to her lips. "He kissed her," she whispered softly.
Michael blinked. "He... kissed her?"
An explosion of giggles and sounds of disgust erupted form the class.
"You kids are in second grade, you do not need to be kissing each other. Save that for when you're grown-ups."
"I didn't ask him to kiss me," Ruby said. "He just did!"
"Rye, that's not okay."
"Yes, Mr. Carter."
"Now, back to our lesson. Can anyone tell me what the first stage in a butterfly's life cycle is?”
As the rest of the second-grade class was packing up their little backpacks and pulling their little lunchboxes out of their cubbies, Michael walked solemnly over to little Ruby's desk and rested his hand in front of her. She looked curiously up at him, blinking her wide, brown eyes up at him.
"Ruby," he said softly. "I'm going to have to ask you to stay after for a few minutes."
"Am... am I in trouble?" she squeaked nervously.
"No, no. It's nothing. I just have some... terribly sad news."
Ruby swallowed hard. "Oh... kay, if you want me to, Mr. C," she said slowly.
When the class had sallied out of the room and gone to dismissal, Ruby, hugging Rye goodbye, stood up and walked towards him.
"Mr. Carter... what do you need me for? 'Cause my mama will be waiting for me."
"Well, Ruby... that's the thing... she actually won't be there today," he said softly.
"Where is she? Is she busy today?"
Michael sighed and knelt down in front of her. "Ruby, this is going to be very hard on you, but... there was an accident this morning. And... it really hurt your parents. And, uhm, they're not... alive. Anymore. They... uh...."
Ruby's eyes widened. "Cana told me about this... did they go on a big trip upstairs? 'Cause Cana's baby son did, and she says he's not coming back!"
"That's... pretty close, Ruby. I guess you could say that."
Ruby's eyes filled with tears. "But... I want my mama and daddy! Why did they have to go?" she wailed.
"Shh... Ruby." Michael didn't know what else to do, so he wrapped his arms around the small child. She cried into his suit top, but he didn't care. He just held her and let her sob.
When she calmed down, he placed his hands on her damp cheeks. "Ruby, some nice people will be here to pick you up soon. They'll take good care of you while your mama and daddy are away."
"Will... will they come back?"
He shook his head. "No... no, they won't. But it'll be okay."
"Will I have to leave you?" she asked softly.
He was quiet, and replied in a whisper. "I think so."
She didn't answer, but the tears returned, streaming down her childishly chubby cheeks and running down her chin and dripping onto her red dress. He held her until she was calm enough to sit at his big desk chair and he could make the call.
"Hello? Yes, my name is... well, I'm a teacher, for the elementary school... yes, the one down the street... oh, right. Yes, well, that car crash a few hours ago... this morning, that's right. Well, the child's parents were killed in that accident... oh, okay. I'll explain it when you send an agent. Michael sighed as he hung up the phone. “Ruby,” he said.
“I am… an orphan?” her lips trembled.
He sighed again. “Yes.”
“NO!” she cried, the tears flying off her face. “NO, I am NOT! My mommy and daddy will be here soon! You’ll see!”
She wouldn't accept any other answer.
Ruby eventually did accept it. Maybe it was the tall, dark-suited man that stepped into the classroom and looked directly at her, saying, "Is this the child?" that did it.
"Child?" she asked, turning her wide eyes on him.
"The orphan," the man said, narrowing his eyes. "Is this her?"
"I'm not an orphan!" cried Ruby. "I'm not!"
The man's eyebrows lifted. He took off his sunglasses. "Sir," he said, addressing the reticent Michael. "Is this the orphan?"
He swallowed hard. His mind whirred. Could he just hand her over to the officials? Well, what choice did he have? She had nowhere else to go. She had to go. But then he'd never see her again. She would probably get stuck in a home somewhere and never get the life she deserved.
But what could he do about that? Nothing!
"Sir? Is this the orphaned child? Or is she your kid?"
"She's..." he trailed off. His heart went out to the little girl, standing, trembling, next to him. He couldn't let that happen to her. He promised her that everything would be okay. He had to make sure of that.
He made the split-second decision.
"She's mine." he said finally.
"Then where's this orphan?" the man was getting irritated.
"Orphan? No orphan here," he said. "Why?"
"Um, we got a call, saying the child of the people in the accident downtown was here, orphaned."
"No! Did he say that?" Michael laughed weakly. "Our office manager is having issues with... um... her son making prank calls. No worries," he said.
To add effect, he did what he felt a father would've done to his child naturally. He bent down and affectionately hugged her.
Ruby didn't move; she seemed frozen to her place.
The man didn't respond.
"So... sorry about that. You can go."
He smiled at the agent, trying to act apologetic.
The man sighed and put his sunglasses back on. "This isn't a joke. Social workers have a hard enough job without pranks. Do not let it happen again," he said. He stepped out of the room and slammed the door.
"Mr. C? Why did you say I was yours?" Ruby asked when he had left. "And why did you hug me like that?"
He looked at the innocent little girl in front of him. "Ruby... the people came for you, didn't you see? That was the people that were supposed to take you away and take care of you."
"So why did you hug me?"
"To keep them away. I couldn't just let you go. The place... it's not a good place, Ruby. So I'm going to take care of you now. I promise. You're going to pretend like you're my daughter, okay? And I'll be your daddy. You can stay with me. I'm going to take care of you."
She looked at her Mr. C with tears in her eyes. "But I have a daddy," she protested.
"Ruby... your parents aren't here anymore. Remember?"
"So would you like to be my little girl, and me to be your daddy? Just for a little bit." he said. "If you don't want to, I can call him again. He'll take you to another family. Some stranger, you don't know. But if you don't want to live with me, I can understand."
"Yes, I would like that. I would much rather be with you than with someone else," she said softly. "I want my mommy and daddy, but if they're gone... I want you to be my daddy."
He smiled and hugged her gently. "I can be your daddy, Ruby. I will take care of you.”