Fred Cutter grew up in the scorching desert of Arizona and served two deployments in the desert of the Middle East. He makes his home with his wife and daughter in the Sandhills area of North Carolina, where he is a contributing member of Methodist Creative Writers. The Acceptance is his first published short story. His works highlight the struggles of anchoring a life of faith against the challenges and allures of the modern world.
Something I long to do, but can’t, not the least of the reasons being I am trapped in the backseat of my foster father’s car. So I passed the time by counting the intersections we’ve crossed—eighteen so far—while wondering what the falling snow will look like on Yale’s lawns.
“We’re almost there,” Warren said, needlessly.
We’ll arrive in ten minutes at the current rate of travel and the average delay of downtown traffic at this hour of the morning. The street isn’t visible beyond the windshield, with the onslaught of rain pounding on the glass. Neither Warren nor Janice looks at me in the rearview mirror.
As we approach the red light of the nineteenth intersection, Warren should be slowing with the trepidation of a mouse afraid to take cheese after losing its tail in a trap. I can almost forgive Warren being a reckless driver, though the accident that crippled me from the waist down six months ago wasn’t his fault. I avoid criticizing him for stopping at the intersection six feet over the crosswalk lines. Warren drives like a strung-out old lady in a tank. His Cadillac is built like a tank, and it’s his taste in cars that saved both our lives six months ago, though Janice argued it was the grace of their Lord Jesus Christ that saved us. I preferred a more rational explanation, and, of course, Janice argued that I needed to her accept reality and accept Jesus as my savior. I told her I’d think about it.
I’m still thinking about it.
We arrived at the psychologist’s office two minutes late. Warren helped me into my wheelchair while Janice held an umbrella to shield us both from the rain. A fruitless effort, and we were all drenched by the time I got settled in the chair.
We checked in at the reception desk, and I was taken straight back into Dr. Flynn’s office. I positioned my seat in a corner as Warren and Janice sat on the sofa. At least her office has the space to accommodate my chair, unlike the office of my caseworker, Mrs. Sanders. Her desk fan is conveniently three feet to my right, helping to cool and dry.
“Any word from the acceptance committee?”
I shook my head. “Did Mrs. Sanders call this meeting? My next appointment with you isn’t for another twelve days.”
Dr. Flynn settled into her chair and pulled her notepad onto her lap. “Yes, she did, because we have much to discuss.”
Janice exchanged a glance with Warren and said, “We . . . we haven’t told him yet.”
“Told me what?” Did they already have my college acceptance letter? I leaned forward and trembled with anticipation. In every session with Dr. Flynn, we had discussed how an Ivy League education would cement my control over my life and future.
Warren said, “Given some of the conflict we’ve experienced, and that I’m responsible for your disability . . . among . . . other things, Janice and I are looking at having you placed with another family in the foster system.”
I couldn’t breathe. A hundred and ten seconds ticked on the clock over Dr. Flynn’s desk.
Finally, Dr. Flynn broke the silence. “The state is more concerned about what you need than what you want, and it’s not up to me, ultimately. I just make the recommendations. But we’re going to talk about this.”
She was speaking as much to Warren and Janice as to me.
“How could— there’s no chance I’ll place with another family! I’ll be stuck in the system for at least another year!” How could they want this for me? How could they do this? Warren and Janice were mediocre parents at best, but at least I’ve had some stability with them. They almost never talked to me anymore, and at this point I’m okay with that because they were difficult to like.
Janice said, “You don’t really need us. You’ve never really needed us.”
“Unbelievable. Even after all this time, you haven’t figured out what I need?”
Dr. Flynn said, “And what is that? Tell them, because I don’t think you ever have.”
“I was promised a good family when I came into the system, and you guys are the first I’ve seen in almost ten years.”
Did I just admit that they’re a good family? I couldn’t believe my words, but at this point, I’ll do anything to keep this from happening.
Warren said, “No, that’s not what you think you need. You want control. You want to be in absolute control of everything. And for the most part, we’ve given you that since the accident, because we didn’t know how else to . . . to make up for that. But you’ve gotten worse in that need of yours. You can’t accept that some things are outside your control, and it’s causing harm to both you and us. That’s why we feel you might do better elsewhere.”
My rage simmered.
Warren slid his left hand into his jacket and withdrew an envelope. I saw the seal of Yale on its corner. Warren tapped it in his palm.
“You know, when I was your age I tried getting into Yale. I was valedictorian of my high school and could’ve graduated at the top of my class there, but they didn’t accept me.” He looked at the envelope, and I figured he had opened it and felt jealous for my acceptance.
I held out my hand and leaned forward. He passed it to Janice, who passed it to me. The envelope was still sealed.
“Son, you’re everything I would have wanted in a child if we could have had our own. I’m . . . I regret that we couldn’t be the parents you need.”
They all stared at me, at the envelope. Even Dr. Flynn looked surprised. She must not have known it arrived. She passed me a letter opener.
I unfolded the single page and read: “Congratulations on your admission to Yale College. It gives me great pleasure to send you this letter . . .”
Janice said, “You can and will have just about anything you could want in life. You’re smart enough to make it happen.” She looked at Warren then at me. “But you don’t need us to make that happen.”
I read the letter eight times, though I had committed it to memory by the third. I hadn’t decided yet what I would major, though I considered applied physics, mathematics, biostatistics, linguistics, and even history. Doors opened, thousands of doors of every kind in every field. My future was written on any kind of parchment that I wanted.
If I survived the next sixteen months, which if they were anything like the previous hundred and seventeen months, I had a seven in nine chance of misery.
Warren, Janice, and Dr. Flynn stared at me.
“So, what’s on your mind?” Dr. Flynn asked.
I shrugged. They were fishing for information, but I didn’t know what to say. Weird. Another seventy seconds passed before I found words.
I held up the letter. “This is the sum of everything I’ve ever wanted.”
“I know it is. But I want you to think about something.” Dr. Flynn pointed at the letter. “Where you’re going, you’ll struggle to be average.”
“What do you mean?”
“You believe you’re the best and brightest, right?”
I nodded, with teeth clenched.
Dr. Flynn gave a dismissive wave. “Well, so is everyone else at those schools. You won’t be anything special where you’re going.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Think about it. You’ll figure it out.”
I couldn’t figure it out.
Janice chimed in. “With us, you’re the most special person in the whole world.”
If this was supposed to be some kind of advanced therapy session preplanned by the foster parents and Dr. Flynn, then it was failing miserably. Warren and Janice had never said anything like that to me before. Why now?
“So are you going to make the recommendation they want?” I asked, nodding to Warren and Janice.
“This meeting isn’t about Warren and Janice. This is about you and your need to control. I’ve counseled countless children in the foster system. You think you’re special because you’re smart. But you haven’t accepted the reality of your life. You’re living ten steps ahead up here.” She tapped her temple. “Any of the other kids I have would do anything to be where you are. Now you know what’ll happen if we pull you out of that house. You turn seventeen in four months, and you’re right. You will probably not place with another family. So I’m going to ask: Do you want me to recommend pulling you from that home?”
I shook my head.
Dr. Flynn said, “You said that letter is, and I quote, ‘the sum of everything I’ve ever wanted.’ You really want mediocrity?”
My confusion must have shown.
“With a family, you’re where you’re the most special of all the world. But for some reason, even in the face of being rejected by yet another family, you want to go someplace where you’ll be average among equals.”
My legs couldn’t feel the tapping of my fist.
Dr. Flynn said, “Well?”
“Well, what? You know what’s on my mind, right? We’ve talked about it a dozen times.”
“Yes, I know what that is, but do they?” S nodded toward Warren and Janice.
Warren said, “What is it that you want?”
“I’ll tell you what I need. I need to accept that I’ll never run track, that I won’t walk down the aisle with my future wife, that I won’t chase my kids around the backyard, that I won’t—”
Warren held up a hand like a traffic cop. “I got it. What happened to you was my fault.”
“No, it wasn’t your fault, though you drive like a maniac.”
“What is it you want from us?”
I was about to say what was on my mind when I realized Dr. Flynn’s pen was ready to notate every word, which wouldn’t make a great argument for my appeal to stay with Warren and Janice.
The clock ticked another ninety-two seconds. I read the acceptance letter twice more. Dr. Flynn wrote her notes. What could she be writing?
She finished writing and looked at me. “I’ll tell Mrs. Sanders whatever you want me to say on your behalf.”
“What were you writing?”
“What do you want me to say on your behalf?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say as I held the letter in my lap.
Dr. Flynn said, “Well, I will probably recommend that Warren and Janice make a case to Mrs. Sanders to have the request granted. Though I’m sure you’ll disagree, I do believe it’s probably in your best interest to return to the system, and unless you have an argument to make against it, my recommendation will reflect that.” She nodded to Warren and Janice. “I can see I have much to discuss with your foster parents, so I’m going to ask that you excuse us for a few minutes for the last part of this session.”
I couldn’t speak. Warren stepped behind my chair and navigated me to the waiting area. He left me there, alone. The magazine rack was just outside my reach, but I didn’t see any titles. The psychologist didn’t listen to my request. Why didn’t she accept my request?
I didn’t argue enough. For once in my life, I didn’t make an argument. The letter was still in my lap. She was pulling me out of the house.
I had no idea how much time I’d have. I’ll see Mrs. Sanders soon. If she didn’t listen, perhaps her boss would. I could find out who that is easily enough.
After ten minutes and eighteen seconds, Warren and Janice came into the waiting area. Warren silently pushed my chair out the door. The rain had stopped. The skies cleared. Arizona’s skies were famous for sobbing one minute and shining the next.
If I go back into the system . . . I had no future in the system.
There must be someone who could save me from that fate.