For complete disclaimers see part 1.

If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com

Control

by

Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Part 10

The numbness was spreading like a wildfire. It started in my head, moving slowly down my neck and on into the rest of my body, limb from limb. I sat huddled in the corner of the couch, Parker having climbed off my lap long ago. She sat quietly on the floor, playing with one of the new toys she’d gotten for her birthday. Gone was her sweet voice, but at least I knew it was there. I could hear it reverberating in my head, helping to calm me.

Also, I could hear not just Keller’s voice in the house, but Jerome’s. They were talking, though I had no idea when he’d arrived, or how long he’d been there. I only heard bits and pieces. Arrangements. Cemetery. Pre-paid plot. Lawyer. How’s Monk?

Monk was dying inside. She was alone, and felt the acuteness of that fact. Felt it to the morrow of my bones. I rested my forehead to my drawn knees, the tears once again streaming down my cheeks to bleed into the denim of my jeans. I hurt.

"Honey," a soft voice said from beside me. When had Jerome gotten there? I lifted my head to look into the dark, concerned, and deeply sad eyes of my family’s oldest friend. "How are you, honey?" He rested a large hand on my shoulder, thumb gently rubbing back and forth. I shrugged, not sure what to say. "Garrison, I need to ask you some really tough questions. Okay?"

"Yeah," I whispered, dropping my head again.

"Okay. Uh, now do you think Frank would want to be buried or cremated?" I had never heard Jerome’s voice so soft before. Almost like a lullaby. But as the words he was asking sunk into my brain, my head snapped up again.

"You’re not burning my dad!" I yelled, startling the poor man. I felt like a child, scared and unsure. Fresh tears began to flow at the thought and mental image of dad being burned alive. But then again, he wasn’t alive. "Oh, god," I sobbed, burying my face into Jerome’s chest. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in further, making shhhing sounds and whispering words of understanding in our shared grief.

"Okay, okay," he cooed. "We’ll take care of it, honey." He kissed the top of my head. The next thing I knew, there was a warm presence on the other side of me, sitting on the arm of the couch. I looked up and saw Keller sitting there, hands in her lap, chewing on her bottom lip.

"Jerome, the lady from the funeral home wants to talk to you."

"Okay." The darker man squeezed me, then gently pushed me away, looking into my eyes. "Honey, I have to go take a call right quick, but Keller will stay here with you, alright?" I nodded, amazed at just how bloodshot Jerome’s eyes were. "Good girl."

I felt myself being gently nudged to my right, and another set of arms met me. I could smell the scent of our detergent on Keller’s shirt, and feel the softness of it against my tear-stained face. I burrowed in, able to hear the strong heartbeat within. Parker quickly climbed up onto the couch. I was now flanked by the Mitchum sisters. Keller didn’t seem to know quite what to do, her hands resting on my shoulders. I buried my face even deeper, the silent tears salty on my tongue.

Eventually I felt myself falling asleep, eyelids getting so very heavy. I took a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh, eyes firmly shut.

###

I don’t know how much time had passed, as day had quickly and quietly slipped into night. I felt soft warmth all around me and wondered where I was. My eyes slowly drifted open, and I realized I was in my bedroom, tucked in like a child. Tut and Roy laid on either side, providing their warmth and comfort.

I turned over onto my back, staring up at the ceiling of the darkened room. There was a heaviness inside me that wouldn’t go away. A profound sadness that would not die, nor would it ease. Closing my eyes, I allowed the tears to slip out, making lazy, tickling trails down the sides of my face, and pooling in my ears to make me shiver. I hated to cry. I pulled the covers up closer around my chin, wondering how I’d gotten up here.

It didn’t take long for that to be answered. The door to the bedroom slowly creaked open, and Jerome peeked his head in. His eyes scanned the room, trying to make something out in the darkness, the dim light from the hall’s night light barely illuminating anything. Finally he saw I was awake and looking at him.

"Hey, hon," he said, his voice a mere whisper.

"Hi," I said, my own voice raw and thick from so much emotion.

"How are you? Are you hungry?" He stepped inside, sitting at the foot of the bed and placing his hand over one of my covered feet. I shook my head.

"How long have I been up here?"

"About four hours. Did you sleep?"

"Just woke up."

"Good. Listen, I need to get going, but I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?" He paused, trying to find the right words. "Honey, what do you want to do with the hangar for now? I need to call Reggie and Penny."

"It’s closed."

"Okay. How long? I can make a sign, make some calls."

"Indefinitely." I stared out the window, seeing the street lights of the night beyond.

"Monk–"

"I said indefinitely, Jerome." I glared at him, challenging him to dispute this. Dad and I had built that hangar together, and the thought of doing it without him emptied me of any inspiration. My old friend sighed and nodded.

"You’re the boss. But know this, Garrison." He studied me for a long time, waiting until I met his eyes. Finally I did. "Frank wouldn’t want that." With that, he was gone.

I puffed out my bangs with a breath and reached down to absently pet my dogs. They were my link to the familiar and safe. They had been with me for years, and had known my pain and happiness. They understood me and loved me unconditionally.

My mind whirled in so many different directions. I saw images from memories I’d shared with dad. The times we went up for midnight runs, watching as the world lit up beneath us. I remembered every single good time we had. I remembered the way he used to smile at me, and how many private jokes we had. I remembered how proud of me he was.

This, of course, made my mind drift to Parker’s birthday party. He was so fun and carefree. I couldn’t remember another time in recent memory where he’d been such a big kid. He had seemed so full of life. I couldn’t keep the smile at bay, even through my tears. I actually chuckled out loud as I thought of that ridiculous face paint he’d allowed some kid to scrawl all over his face. God, he would have made such a wonderful grandfather.

The tears really came, now.

"I’m sorry, dad," I whispered to the dark room. "So sorry I couldn’t do it in time for you." I curled my body within itself, shaking the bed with the force of my sobs, I let my wounded heart pour out onto my pillow, nearly choking on the ferocity.

I cried myself to sleep.

###

I was pulled from the darkness by a sound. Starting, I peeked an eye open, only to close it again. Bright light slammed into it, making me squint even with my eyes tightly shut. The sound again. Knocking.

"What?" I called out, my voice horse from disuse. I rolled over, my back to the partially open curtains, tugging the covers over my head. I heard the door open, then quiet sneaker steps.

"Garrison?" It was Keller.

"What?" I asked again, snuggling into my cocoon.

She didn’t say anything, but I heard her enter, setting something down on the nightstand. "Sit up," she finally said, her voice soft.

"No."

"Sit up," she said again. Though still soft, her voice held a bit of authority. I peeked at her, seeing her bending over the tray she’d set on the nightstand. I smelled pancakes, and my stomach began to growl in anticipation. Traitor. I felt the covers being pulled from my body and allowed it. "Come on." Keller gently took me under the arms, and pulled me to a sitting position. Strong little shit.

"You don’t have to do this." I glanced up at her, then away. I’d been in bed since yesterday afternoon, and with a quick glance at the clock, knew it was nearly two in the afternoon.

"Do you want syrup?" she asked, ignoring my comment. She tapped the warmed pitcher, and I nodded. Pouring a liberal amount, knowing my penchant for very sweet hotcakes, she next squirted on the Reddi Whip. Sitting herself on the edge of the bed, Keller cut a bite and held the fork to my lips. I saw the no-nonsense look in her bright blue eyes, and suddenly felt how Parker must feel.

Wrapping my lips around the bite of food, I let the pancakes melt in my mouth, tasting the symphony of flavors as they touched my tongue.

"Thank you," I said around the bite, having to bring my fingers up to keep it all in. Trying to take the fork from her, I was surprised to have my hand slapped.

"Open," she said, bringing up another bite as I swallowed. I obliged.

"Where’s Parker?" I asked just before I took it, knowing that the kid was her little shadow.

"School. Here." She held up a glass of chocolate milk. I took it from her, drinking deeply. The rest of breakfast was eaten in silence until every last morsel was gone. That finished, Keller gathered up all the dishes and stuck them back on the tray.

"Thank you, Keller," I said, looking up at her. She stared down at me, looking into my eyes. I wondered what she saw there, because her own eyes softened and she looked away.

"You’re welcome." She picked the tray up and looked back at me. "Is there anything else you need?" I shook my head. "Okay. Um, well, see you." She left, and I smiled, burrowing into the covers once more. It was strange how comforting that was, to just forget the world outside existed, and bury your sorrows in the heavy blankets of the bed. I turned to my side, staring out the window, seeing the tops of the trees in the backyard. It was snowing again. How appropriate. The white flakes came down to litter the ground a dusty white, soon building until there was a layer of Oreo cream out there. That’s what I used to think snow was when I was really little. I thought I could go out there and scoop it up and eat it.

Still did, sometimes. If it was deep enough, the footprints would form, and the snow layer would keep around it. I remembered making snowmen out in it with mom and dad. Mom would complain about how cold it was within a half hour and scurry back inside, muttering about getting the hot chocolate ready for cold little girls. Dad would stay out with me for hours. Once we even built an airplane, all out of snow. We made a little cockpit, and he climbed in with me, head and shoulders hunched over in the tight space.

"Ready, co-pilot?" he said, glancing over at me, his gloved hand on the snow stick. I nodded my head vigorously, grin on my face.

"I’m ready, co-pilot."

"Here we go," he said, his voice loud as he made the engines roar to life with some clever sound effects. I tried to help, blowing raspberries to try and emulate his noises, instead blowing spit everywhere. That was the best I could do at eight.

We flew everywhere together that day. He took me over France, pointing out the Eiffel Tower that stood where the mulberry bush used to. He chimed Big Ben for me as we passed by, telling me what the huge hands said the time was. We even had to abandon ship when the plane began to falter, putting on our imaginary parachutes and sliding our imaginary goggles into place.

"Ready partner?" dad yelled over the howling wind that was coming in through the open door of the plane.

"Ready!" I called back, staring down into the white abyss, our jump zone.

"Go!" Dad jumped out of the plane, and landed in the deep snow with an ‘oomph’ as an excited little blonde landed on him. He wrapped me up in strong arms, made me feel safe. We had landed; I was safe and sound in the arms of my dad.

I smiled, shivering as a tear tickled the side of my nose.

"Oh, dad."

###

Saturday morning came with a knock on my bedroom door. I peeked my eye open.

"Yeah?" I croaked out, not wanting to move from my warm spot. The door opened, and I heard whispering. Looking over, Keller and Parker stood in the doorway, Keller leaning down to whisper into Parker’s ear.

"Go on," she said as she stood, giving the kid a gentle push toward the bed. Parker, blue bear in hand, chewed on her finger nervously as she walked toward me. I smiled instantly at seeing the little blonde.

"Hey, Parker," I said, sitting up a little, just enough to see her well over the mound of covers. She climbed onto the bed, handing me blue bear so she’d have both hands free. I took the toy and moved over, making room. She looked at me once before taking the bear and rolling over onto her side, facing me. She curled up into me, face tucked into my chest. I nearly cried all over again from the beauty of the act. "Sweet girl," I whispered, kissing her temple and wrapping my arms around her small body. When I looked up again, Keller was gone.

Parker wiggled her little body a bit, trying to get even warmer and more comfortable.

"Hey, little one. I’ve missed you," I said, combing my fingers through her curly locks. "You doing okay?" Her little face poked up, and she nodded. I playfully pinched her nose. "You talked." Again she nodded, though she looked confused as to why this was such a special event.

"Garrison," she said, her little voice clear and sweet.

"That’s right. Big name for a little girl to say." I smiled at her, she grinned back. "What have you done today?" She held up blue bear as if that should explain everything. "Did you play?" She grinned again, nodding her head. "Are you having fun?" She thought for a moment, then shook her head. "No?" I was filled concern.

"I want you to play," she said, lower lip bulging out in a pout.

"Me, huh?" I felt myself fill with warmth and love for this child in my arms. "You got it." I kissed her forehead. "Come on."

Though I absolutely did not want to, I made myself get out of bed. Parker was happy as a clam, and that made it worth it. I stank, but didn’t care. Lying around in the same clothes for two days will do that. I walked downstairs into a spotless wonderland. The wood shone and smelled of lemons, and there wasn’t a speck of dust on the floor or furniture.

Keller sat on the floor of the living room, working on one of the jigsaw puzzles she’d gotten for Christmas. When she heard us, she looked up. Parker ran over to her and gave her a huge hug. The kid seemed so happy to have us both in the same room with her. She grinned back at me, and reached for my hand, Keller’s still in the other. Holding both of our hands, she grinned from one to the other of us, and we both smiled back, my eyes meeting Keller’s briefly. I was grateful for everything she’d done.

###

"This is my kid! She’s a goddamn pilot now!" Dad looked at me with utter pride in his eyes. He had his arm wrapped around my shoulders, my brand new license, hot off the presses, firmly tucked into his hand. He was strutting around with me like I’d just discovered the cure for cancer. All his fighter pilot pals were there, slapping me on the back, welcoming me into the fold.

Never in all my sixteen years had I ever felt so proud and loved. Mom held a huge feast; all my favorite foods were represented. There was music from dad and his friends playing the in backyard, and my friends from school, including Gabe and Tommy, were there.

"Hey, kiddo." Dad found me later in the afternoon, and his arm, once again, came around my shoulders. "Let’s talk."

"Kay." I followed him inside the house, into the study. He closed the door, telling me to sit in one of the chairs in front of the desk, while he sat behind. I looked at him, buzzing from the excitement of the day, hardly able to stay still.

"Okay. Now you’re official. We both know you’ve been flying for years, but the law sees you as an honest-to-goodness pilot." His face split open again in a grin of pride and triumph. Mine matched it.

"Yeah."

"So, I was thinking about something." He paused, grabbing a cigarette from the pack he always kept in his shirt pocket. Lighting a Marlboro, he studied me through the smoke. "My load down at the hangar has been picking up quite a bit. Wanna help?"

I looked at him, my heart flipping in my chest. "What?"

"Wanna help? Wanna come work for me?"

"Do you mean it?" I was ready to bound out of my chair and jump across the desk if he was serious, or if he wasn’t, for that matter. He’d either get the hug of his life, or strangled for teasing me.

"Hell yes, I mean it."

Bounding done, dad found himself with an armful of grateful, excited teenager. He laughed at my display, trying to avoid the kisses being rained on his face.

"Okay, okay!" he exclaimed, hugging me tight. "Welcome, kiddo."

 

My heart was filled to near bursting as I opened my eyes, a smile on my face. I had never felt so much pride! I was going to work with dad! I would be able to hang out with him every day after school, and fly with him, and learn even more from him . . .

I looked around the dark room, the chill of the night moving in to freeze my heart. The room was empty, save for a ticking watch on the nightstand. Where was I? Where was dad?

The tears began a steady buildup as it all came back to me. They spilled over in record time, and a sob was torn from my throat. I curled myself around my damaged heart and let the floodgates overflow.

Somewhere in my crushed mind I felt the bed move as someone sat on it, and I was pulled into strong arms. Automatically, my fingers grabbed onto the softness of a shirt and clung as I cried. Tentative hands, soft fingertips, traipsed over my arm and shoulder, like a fluttering bee, not sure where to land. Finally those fingers landed on my shoulder, stroking the shirt-covered skin there.

My body heaved against my benefactor, who made no noise, only held me. I felt the soft, tickling trail of cool hair wash over my very heated face, making the muscles in my face twitch.

Finally my tears began to slow and finally stopped altogether, leaving me drained and with burning eyes.

"Would you rather I sent Parker in here?" Keller’s soft voice asked. I shook my head, resting it against her upper chest. She had pulled me into her lap, basically, cuddling me to her like she would her baby sister. She was also rocking me gently, bringing peace and calm to me.

I was quiet for a while, just reveling in the closeness of human contact. A balm to my soul.

"Keller?"

"Hmm?"

"How did you deal with the death of your mother?"

Keller sighed quietly as she thought of an answer. "It helped that she was already gone to me."

"What do you mean?" I snuggled in further, taking hold of Keller’s arm. She stiffened for a moment. "Want me to move?" Ready to bolt, I felt her shake her head.

"No. It’s okay." She cleared her throat, as if to back up those words with some self-made confidence, then continued. "The first four years of my life were good. Al worked for the railroad, he worked on the tracks, so was gone a lot. You know, they’d send him to different states and stuff." I nodded my understanding. "Me and mom would have a lot of time together. She used to laugh a lot. Make silly voices and stuff."

I smiled at the thought. Keller was quiet for a moment, and I thought that she wouldn’t continue with her story.

"Then he lost his job. He bad been an asshole before, mean and stuff, but nothing like that. When he lost his job, we had to move to that shithole. He became depressed. The more depressed he became, the more he drank. The more he drank, the more violent he got. If I really wanted to psychoanalyze the bastard, I’d say he started what he did because he felt he had no control over his life anymore."

I felt her swallow several times, and I was about to open my mouth to tell her she didn’t have to talk about it, when her soft, soothing voice began again.

"He started with saying nasty things to her. Telling her she was stupid, worthless, that kind of thing. He’d get so mad, I used to hide under the kitchen table. Amazing I was actually able to fit once upon a time." Another heavy sigh. "Then one night I knew I’d lost her."

"What happened?" I was breathless to know. I’d never heard so many words out of Keller’s mouth at one time. I would do anything to get her to continue.

"She lied for him." I began to softly rub the skin of her arm with my thumb. Again she stiffened, but soon I felt her actually forcibly make herself relax. I nearly stopped, but I wanted her to know I was there, too. "They had been fighting a lot. See, that was when she actually still fought back. Later, like the night she died, she used to just sit there and take it. Anyway, so they were screaming and yelling, and he was throwing things around, breaking them. The neighbors called the cops and they came. Mom answered the door, shiner covering her left eye, a bit of blood seeping from her mouth. I was hiding on the landing, watching, maybe about eight years old. He was hiding in the kitchen. Fucking coward." Her voice took a bitter turn. "The cop asked if everything was okay, and she told them she had fallen. He smiled in the kitchen. The fucker had won."

"Oh, Keller–"

"She gave up, and four years later, Parker came along. It gave me something to concentrate on, and live for."

"Wow," I breathed. How the hell had she lived through that? How did she have a shred of compassion left in her? "I’m really sorry, Keller."

"Don’t be. You didn’t do it."

"No. But you didn’t deserve any of that." Keller was quiet for long moments, then once again, her soft voice filled the room.

"What is it like? To be loved? By your parents, at least." Her voice trailed off at the end, and I figured she was slightly embarrassed at asking such a question.

"Do you really want to know?" I sat up, scooting back to lean against the headboard. I missed the soft warmth immediately, but my arm had started to fall asleep from leaning on it, against Keller’s body.

"Yes."

I sighed, trying to think of where to start. "It’s wonderful, to be honest. I was the center of their world, much like Parker is the center of yours. The loved each other, too, but I always felt loved. Always." I smiled at the thoughts and memories. It rattled me slightly to think just how radically different Keller’s and my memories actually were. "See, they got married back when dad was about to go off to the Korean War. They got married, and two days later, he shipped out. When he got back, they settled all over the place, because he was still in the military. They tried to have kids, but it never worked out. So, they finally got desperate enough to adopt. That’s where I come in."

"You’re adopted?" I could hear the shock in her voice and barely see it in her eyes in the dark, moon-streaked room.

"Yeah."

"I thought maybe Frank was your grandfather."

I smiled, but shook my head. "No. Dad was forty-four when they got me. I was a year old."

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Keller brought her knees up, wrapping her arms around her shins, and rested her chin on her knees. I shook my head.

"Nope. It was just always the three of us."

"Any cousins?" Again I shook my head.

"My dad’s sister, Aunt Evelyn, died young. She was only like forty or something, and she never had any kids. Mom was a lonely only, like me."

"Oh."

"It’s just me now, Keller."

"You have Jerome," she said. I sighed.

"Yeah, I suppose I do." Running a hand through my hair, I glanced out into the night. "I’m sorry I woke you up."

"Don’t worry about it. I hear Parker cry, too. It’s not a big deal. At first I thought it was her."

"Does she still cry?"

"Not as much as she used to." Keller shrugged, looking down at her bare feet.

"Good. I’m glad. Do you guys have any family? Other than Al, that is."

"No." Keller looked at me. "Do you want us to go, Garrison?" Her voice was quiet, afraid. I smiled and shook my head.

"Absolutely not. I was just curious."

Keller was quiet, chewing on her lip for a moment, staring down at her feet once more. "Listen, um, since you don’t have any other siblings and stuff, I just wanted you to know that you have one, now."

"What?" Confused, my brows fell. She chanced a quick look at me, then looked away again. She shrugged.

"Well, Parker seems to really like you, and she trusts you." She looked me in the eye. "You never did anything to her, right?"

"No, Keller. I’ve never touched her."

"She said that, too. So, if it’s true, then you can have her as your sister, too." She glanced at me sheepishly. I stared at her, feeling the sting of tears once again.

"Can I, may I, ah fuck it." I lunged at her and gave her a huge hug. Keller held on tight, but I knew it had nothing to do with hugging me back. She was just trying to not fall off the bed, and her utter shock alone at my action made her cling to me. The hug was quick, but tight, and filled with understanding. I wanted Keller to know I knew of the value of this gift she was giving me. I also noticed that she had not been included in that equation, but chose to leave it alone.

Finally pulling away, I apologized about my enthusiasm, and she nodded, looking down at her hands.

"Um, so are you okay now?" she asked, her voice quiet and unsure. I nodded.

"Yeah. Thank you. Uh, Keller," I swallowed deeply, not able to look at her, but I had to know. "Why did you get so upset with me? You know, the whole Celeste thing?" I glanced at her and saw the muscles in her jaw tighten.

"Al liked women. All of his friends liked women. So do you." She looked at me, her eyes hard. I was about to open my mouth to say something, but she continued. "I freaked. I didn’t know if what Al did was just what he did, or if it was because he liked women. His friends weren’t any better." She shuddered, and I wanted so badly to grab her in a comforting hug, but thought better of it. "I had felt safe with you because you were a woman, and as far as I knew, women only liked males. There was no threat."

I ran a hand through my hair, trying to find the words to make her feel better. "Honey, I do like women, I’m attracted to them. But that doesn’t mean that I want every woman I see. I have on interest in Parker that way, Keller. I love that little girl, but it’s not because she is a girl, Keller. It’s because she’s a great kid. And as for you, you’re safe, too. You’re a pretty girl, but," I wrinkled my nose, "you’re too difficult for my taste." I smiled widely to let her know I was teasing. She looked stunned for a moment, then realized the joke, and the ghost of a smile appeared. "Friends?" I held out my hand. Keller had been wonderful over the past couple of days and nights, but I knew it was because of . . . well, because of what had happened. She nodded and shook my hand. "Good."

We were both silent for a moment, then Keller suddenly stood, stretching. She’d been sitting in the same position for the last hour, and I figured she must be sore.

"So you’re okay?" she asked, looking down at me. I nodded.

"I’ll live another night." I managed a small smile, though I didn’t mean it. She nodded and started to walk away. I reached out, catching her arm. "Keller–" She stopped, looked at me. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome." With that, she was gone. I lay there for awhile, thinking about the last hour I’d spent with the girl. She had been so kind and sweet by coming in to comfort me. Again, I had to wonder and marvel at the fact she had any sort of compassion left at all. Some day, once Keller was able to get past what the first part of her life was, she would make a fine individual. I hoped I’d be there to see it.

###

The sky was a bright blue, the clouds puffy and white. Huge cotton balls dotted the horizon. Despite appearances, it was bitter cold. A harsh breeze picked up now and then, blowing snow across the streets and sidewalks of Warwick.

Not a big town, Warwick, made up of around twenty thousands souls, but most of them were there that day. The Warwick Community Church was packed with the sad and grieving. After spending nearly forty years in the burg, dad was well known and loved.

I was flanked by Keller and Jerome, Parker in school. The three of us were silent, my head held high, though it was all a ruse. I felt so small in a big, bad world. This was my first excursion into it since dad died. The sting of emotion was always there, just ready to be let out.

When mom had died it had been so hard and so very painful. But I’d had dad there, and he’d had me. I had to be strong for him, helping to hold him up. I had to be his rock. Now it was just me. My father was gone. My hero. I had spent my entire life trying to be like him, trying to fill those size tens. I only grew to a size seven, so I still had a lot of space.

The large building loomed before us, and folks smiled at me or patted me on the shoulder as we passed. I said nothing, only nodding acknowledgement. Jerome said a few words to those we passed, but Keller said nothing. Instead, she stayed by my side, offering her silent, warm strength.

Keller and Jerome decided it would be better to have a closed casket funeral, which I would forever be grateful for. There was no way I could stomach seeing him lying there motionless, something he’s never done a day in his life, unnatural color making him look like something he wasn’t. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I thought of the fit he would have thrown had the idea of makeup been brought up.

"I’m no damn girl!" he would have howled.

The front pew was set aside for the closest of family, which meant our little trio, along with Gabe, Tommy, Reggie and Penny. Even that bitch, Angel, smiled at me. Maybe the sky would fall or something.

I didn’t hear a single word that was spoken by the minister. He didn’t know dad, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could say that would matter. My eyes drifted around the large sanctuary. Dad’s casket had been covered by an American flag, as he was a three-time veteran. I looked at those stars and stripes, and felt a sense of pride at all that he’d accomplished.

There were two framed photographs that I assumed Jerome had supplied on either side of the casket. One showed dad when he was probably in his early twenties. He looked so handsome in his uniform, hat sitting slightly lop-sided atop his grease-slicked hair. He was grinning, the mischief that I knew he was capable of twinkling in those blue eyes. The other photo was taken three years ago. It was a picture of dad and mom hugging and standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. He used to fly her to New York all the time.

I smiled at both of them, old and new. I could only concentrate on him, his infectious smile, as the services prattled on and on. It was all formality, as dad didn’t give a lick about this kind of thing. I know that, so I talked to him in my mind instead. I told him over and over again how grateful I was that he had been my father, and how sorry I was that Parker would never get to know him fully. I was happy to have had him as my mentor and teacher, and that I loved him.

"Come on, honey," Jerome said quietly, taking my hand. It was time to leave the church, and go bury my father next to mom. I guess a death date would be inscribed on his side of the stone after all.

###

I looked up into the blue sky as I was guided down that solemn path that would ultimately lead to dad’s final resting place. I had to laugh at that. There would never be any final resting for him. He was already trying to boss heaven around by now.

"Are you okay?" Keller asked quietly. I looked at her, seeing the concerned confusion in her eyes. I guess I must have laughed out loud. I nodded and lowered my head.

There was a green, canvas-sided tent over the freshly dug hole, with chairs set up under it. The cemetery was filled, so many people having turned out to say their goodbyes. They formed a circle around the site, many sniffing or silently crying. Many of dad’s fellow fly boys were either in uniform, or had some part of it on, if even just their medals.

The minister started up again, and I tuned him out. I wanted to stay with the thoughts and memories in my head. I wanted to not feel the pain. I wanted to see my father in my mind’s eye and remember who he was, who I knew him to be, not the watered-down version the minister was serving up.

There was a hush suddenly, and I looked around to see what was happening. I looked to my right when I felt a warm hand on my arm. Jerome, dark eyes moist and shiny, held on tightly to me.

"Twenty-one gun salute," he said quietly, and I felt my heart lurch. The national guard raised their rifles, aimed toward the sky.

"Fire!" someone called out, and a deafening round echoed through the cemetery, scaring birds from their perches in nearby trees. "Fire!" A second round followed, then a final third.

To my surprise, I felt wetness on my cheeks. Had I been shot? Then the sob broke from my chest, bursting through with painful force, and I collapsed into a heap of grieving mass.

I curled myself around myself and dissolved into a pile of loss. I felt myself being gathered and pulled to lean against a sturdy chest, then quietly whispered words reached my ears.

I clung to Jerome, fingers digging into the stiff material of his suit jacket, his old, large knotted tie absorbing my tears, turning the dark green material even darker.

"I know, honey. I know," he soothed, rubbing my back. I could have sworn I even heard a hitched breath from him, too.

"Ma’am."

I looked up to see a handsome young man standing before me in full uniform. He was holding the folded flag in his gloved hands.

"The United States Government offers this flag to you as a symbol of your father’s service to his country."

I took the neat triangle of red, white and blue and held it to me. "Thank you," I whispered. With a nod, he clicked his heels and walked away.

###

I watched the squirrels fighting with each other on the branches. The screeched at each other, then with mechanical movement, scurried down and out of sight. I reached a hand up, brushing a stringy piece of hair out of my eyes. The grease made my eyes sting.

Turning back to the book that lay in my curled up lap, I tried to find my place on the page for the third time. Concentration was just not happening. I was distracted yet again by a soft knock on the door.

"What?" I called out, eyes wandering over the lines, words unseen. The door opened, and Tut came running in. His tail nearly wagged off his little butt as he looked up at me with big, hopeful brown eyes. "Go away," I muttered to the mutt.

I heard footfalls across the hardwood floor of my bedroom, then felt a hand grab mine. Looking up, I saw one determined Keller tugging me from the chair.

"Let go of me," I snapped, trying to pull my wrist free from her grasp. She still said nothing, but tightened her grip. Once on my feet, I again tried to pull away, but to no avail.

"You’ve been sitting in here for a week. You haven’t showered, you’ve barely eaten. The dogs miss you, and so does Parker." She marched me over to the bathroom in my bedroom and opened the glass shower doors. Turning the water on, she tested it for warmth, then turned to me. "Get undressed." She crossed her arms over her chest, glaring down at me.

"No." I raised my chin slightly in defiance. If I wanted to sit around and do nothing, then goddamn if that wasn’t what I’d do.

"You stink. Take those disgusting sweats off."

"If I stink, then leave me the fuck alone and I’ll stink all by myself." I started to head toward my bedroom again, but was stopped. Strong fingers had my arm, and Keller whirled me around.

"Listen, Garrison. Ever since your dad’s funeral, you’ve been like this. It’s been a week. I know it hurts. I know it’s hard, but you have a life. You’re not the one who died." Her eyes were flashing like blue lightening, and my first instinct was to slap her, but I didn’t. I studied her, tracing the set lines of her face and body, and suddenly realized something – she cared.

This revelation startled me deeply, and suddenly without thought, I began to comply. Her comment had hurt, but somewhere in that mind of mine, I knew she was right. As I undressed, she made herself busy getting me towels and my robe ready for when I got out.

Head hanging, dirty blonde hair in my eyes, I made my way through the steam-filled bathroom to the shower stall and climbed in. Keller closed the door securely behind me and left me to my privacy.

Eyes closed, I raised my face to the spray, letting the hot water wash over me, cleaning me of my pain. Tears silently followed suit, mingling with the water stream, but I swallowed it back, tired of it. I was tired of grieving.

The house was quiet, the tick tock of the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs marking the passage of time. I stopped two steps down, hair freshly cleaned and combed back away from my face. I hated to admit it, but I will, it felt damn good to be clean. The clean flannel pants I wore smelled of laundry detergent, as did my t-shirt.

I saw Parker at the foot of the stairs, sitting with Roy and playing with one of her Leap Frog books, the quiet, mechanical voice encouraging the six year old to try and read. The little blonde glanced up and gave me a huge grin when she saw me coming down the stairs.

"Hey, sweetie." I bent down and gave her a kiss and quick hug, then turned toward the living room. I heard the soft murmuring of the television, then froze. On the screen was dad, sitting in his button-up shirt, his idea of dressing up. He was talking to the guy from the History Channel, talking about his days in the air as a fighter pilot. Various pictures and old footage marked his words.

Keller sat on the couch, watching the show as she leaned forward, elbows on her knees. She seemed intensely interested in what she saw.

I was surprised to hear her voice. "Tell me about him?" She didn’t even look at me, but kept her eyes peeled to dad.

"Okay." Walking around the couch, I sat beside her, watching the footage Jerome had taped for us the night Keller had been taken to the hospital. Keller reached for the remote and hit the pause button, giving me her full attention. Dad’s smiling face was left on the screen.

I began a tale of love and devotion that very few ever experience in real life. I told her of the day dad met his future wife, Mary Constantino.

"Dad had flirted with the poor woman unmercifully." I laughed, remembering mom’s rendition of the story. "He wanted her to say yes, and she kept saying no, as she was dating the colonel’s son at the time." Keller grinned. "But his persistence paid off, and she finally said yes. Two weeks later they married, and then a few days after that, dad was off to Korea."

"That must have been hard." The television turned off, Keller sat curled up in the corner of the couch, temple resting against her fist. I nodded.

"Yeah. Mom said she used to cry every day, and slept with a picture of dad under her pillow."

"Sweet."

"Yeah. So, the war ended, and dad was back in the states. It was time to try and start a family. It just didn’t work. Back then, they didn’t have the nifty medical stuff they do today for that kind of thing. Desperate, mom and dad hit the orphanages. That’s where I come in."

"You were in an orphanage?" Keller asked, brows drawn in concern. I nodded.

"That’s what they tell me. I don’t remember it, and I don’t think I was there very long. By that time, mom and dad were old enough to be my grandparents, but they took me home with them. I guess mom wouldn’t let anyone touch me, let alone hold me, for the first year." I grinned at the way dad had rolled his eyes when I’d heard this story. "Not even dad." Keller also chuckled.

"So why Garrison?"

"When they knew they had me, dad was stationed at Garrison Air Force base in Houston."

"That’s really great, Garrison," she said, her voice soft. Somewhere in our talk, Parker had climbed up onto the couch, and now laid in her big sister’s lap. "Al’s preliminary hearing is Wednesday," she said, surprising me with not only the change in subject, but that she told me at all.

"Do you want to go?" I asked, reaching out to take Parker’s feet into my lap and rub them. She wiggled in Keller’s lap, getting more comfortable, a small smile on her face as she sucked her thumb, unconsciously chewing on it. Keller shook her head, brushing some blonde curls away from Parker’s forehead.

"All it’s for is to determine whether there’s enough evidence to convict the b-a-s-t-a-r-d." She smirked up at me, and I smiled back. "I hope he fries."

"Me, too, Keller. Me, too."

###

The hangar was dark as I pulled up, as I knew it would be. I hadn’t taken a step into this place in nearly a month. I knew Keller had been in to keep things clean and make sure everything was okay.

I thought of the girl as I sat in my truck, staring at the building that had always been a second home to me. Keller amazed me anew everyday. Her depth of understanding, compassion and pure kindness brought me to new levels of awe. All my previous frustrations with her forgotten. Truly one of the strongest people I’d ever known, and an inspiration for me to get through this. I had to get through this. There were people counting on me.

Parker needed me, now.

A smile naturally formed on my lips when I thought of her last night. The kid had been sitting on the carpet, playing with her new set of My Little Ponies. She had been chattering very quietly to the soft plastic horses, combing long, colorful tails and manes, when she’d looked up. I had been standing in the doorway, watching her, admiring her youthful energy and delight in the simplest of things. She’d grinned up at me, a mouth full of little white teeth, her eyes all scrunched shut in her excitement.

"Garrison!" she’d exclaimed.

"You got it, kiddo." Walking into the room, I’d plunked down next to her on the carpet. "Can I play, too?" She’d nodded vigorously, blonde curls bouncing all around her head.

We’d played on that floor for hours. After awhile, we had an entire family of the ponies, all interacting and getting into trouble. I’d kept the game fun, leading Parker away from her usual games, which I now realized were all re-enactments of events in her young life. She didn’t need the constant reminder, at least, I didn’t think so. I wanted to show her what playing was all about, so maybe she wouldn’t have problems with other kids.

There was magic in children that I never knew about. In my opinion, there was nothing sweeter than a hug and a kiss from a small child. They were so small and young and trusting. Their affection was so pure and honest. There was no holding back, which in turn made me want to be just as honest back. How could I have ever said I didn’t want children?

I knew that some day it would come to pass that Keller would pack up Parker and they’d start their own life. I tried not to think about this, but knew it was inevitable. I could only hope that Keller would allow Parker to stay in my life. I couldn’t imagine she’d deny the kid someone who the janitor knew loved the kid, and who Parker loved and trusted in return.

With a sigh, I opened the door to the truck and headed toward the huge, metal building. My heart was pounding in my chest, and I wanted to throw up. I knew this had to be done, but I didn’t want it.

Jerome informed me that he and Keller had gone through dad’s house, not wanting me to have to deal with it. They’d boxed up everything and put it into storage until I was ready. For her efforts, Jerome had helped Keller buy me a gift. I remembered it so clearly.

 

We’d come home from dad’s funeral, and naturally I was a bit out of sorts. Keller kept Parker downstairs playing so the kid wouldn’t be scared by my upset. The brunette led me to my bedroom and sat me on the edge of the bed.

"Here," she said, thrusting a wrapped box at me. She looked nervous, chewing on her lip, hands tucked in her pants pockets.

My eyes heavy and stinging from my outburst at the gravesite, I opened the paper with trembling fingers, finding a simple white box beneath. It took a few tries, but I finally got the tap off the ends, and the flaps came open. My heart swelled at what I saw inside: a triangular wooden frame with a glass front, just perfect for a folded flag. A bronze plaque was mounted to the front-

Franklin "Frank" J. Davies, 1936-2004.

He served his country in the United States Air Force, 1953-1995

I turned to the girl with tear-filled eyes, taking her in a hug, resting my cheek against her shoulder.

"Thank you," I whispered, digging my fingers into the material of her sweater. She nodded, hands tentatively placed on my back. She stepped back as soon as I released her, and I smiled at her through my tears. "This is a wonderful gift, Keller. Very thoughtful of you. Thank you."

"Uh, sure," she said, her voice quiet and unsure.

###

The key fit perfectly in the lock, and the door opened with a bit of a shove. Mail had been tossed through the mail slot in the door, and was piled up in front of it. Gathering it all up, I flipped on the light in the main office, Penny’s desk eerily quiet. I missed my flirting sessions with her. She was good for a girl’s ego. Moving further into the building, I flipped the lights on as I went, unable to stand the dark right then. I was so afraid that ghosts from the past would lurk in the shadows.

I looked in on the planes, lights reflection on their glass on polished surfaces. I saw my baby and smiled. I had missed her.

"Hey there," I said, my voice a mere whisper, as I ran my hand over her smooth, white body. "I’ve missed ya." I walked all around her, making sure she was okay, then looked to the massive Hercules, which sat quietly on the other side of the hangar. "Really need to get you guys up and running again."

I sighed again, running my hands through my hair, and made the dreaded trek to the office. It was dark, smelling of cleaning supplies with stale coffee underlying the Lysol. The computer screen’s glass reflected the sudden light, tinting it a gray/green color. The old office chair was tucked up against the desk, the way I’d left it the day Keller and I had left to drop off the flight schedule to dad.

Swallowing hard, I walked over to the desk, pulling the chair out and slowly lowering myself into it. It almost felt like I was sitting there for the first time, like it was the favored chair of a father, and I was a little kid playing dress up, trying to take daddy’s place.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed.

Dad and I had been making decisions about the hangar together for the past few years, but it generally always came down to what dad said, though we usually agreed in the end. Now I did not have him for advice or just to rant to. This was all mine to figure out and try to keep afloat. It was in my hands and on my head, and I was getting a headache.

Opening the side drawer, I saw the half-empty box of toothpicks. It was my undoing. Taking them out, I rattled the little box a bit, feeling the beginning of the tears sliding down my face. I needed to do this, and I knew it. I needed to say my goodbyes in the place where dad was most at home. I needed to say goodbye to my mentor and teacher in everything. Time to say goodbye to my business partner, my co-captain, my father and my best friend.

Lowering my head, the tears fell to my lap, dotting the material of my jeans with dark splotches, shoulders heaving with the near silent sobs, which gained in volume and quantity.

Goodbye, dad.

Continued...

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