For complete disclaimers see part 1.

Note: Thanks to the readers who have given me military info. I really appreciate it. J

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

Part 16

"No, I don't need you to come down here." I smiled into the small cell phone.

"You sure? I'm not about to let that little pint upset you, Monk." Ruby insisted. I smiled at her protectiveness.

"It's okay, Ruby. I know this hasn't been easy for her."

"True, but-"

The door to the inner office opened.

"I have to go. I'll call you later." I snapped the phone shut and stood, tossing the People magazine I'd been reading aside. Parker walked out of the office, blue bear in hand. She didn't look at me, and my own gaze strayed to Dr. Reynolds'.

"Garrison, can I talk to you for a moment?" The doctor asked. I nodded and turned to the kid.

"Will you be okay out here for a second, honey?" I asked. She nodded, and plopped down in one of the chairs. She looked so small and vulnerable. I was at a loss. I followed Dr. Reynolds into a small office, filled with windows, and a colorful corner dedicated to children, filled with toys and activity books. She indicated that I should sit on the couch, and she sat in the matching arm chair across from it. She crossed her legs and fixed her skirt, then looked at my expectant face. "How are things?"

I sighed, sitting back and stretching my arm out across the back of the couch. I glanced out the window, the sun coming in to lighten the room. "It's been hard. I won't lie to you." Looking back at Parker's counselor, I saw the lines of concern gathering between her eyes.

"Keller has been gone for two weeks."

"Yes."

"Any contact?"

"Keller called Sunday." I explained, playing with my hands in my lap. Reynolds' gaze took in my gestures.

"Was it a good conversation?" She asked, her voice soft.

"It was alright, I suppose. Parker refused to talk to her, so I know that hurt Keller quite a bit. She's doing well, though I think she's homesick, even if she won't admit it." I grinned, and so did Reynolds.

"She's gone there to be a pilot?"

"No. She'd have to become an officer to do that, or some such thing. They're going to teach her how to work on planes, helicopters, that kind of thing. She can get all the instruction for flying planes she wants here."

"And how are you holding up? Quite a bit you've taken upon yourself, Garrison. You're to be commended." Reynolds smiled at me, her dark eyes crinkling around the corners. I looked down, embarrassed.

"Thanks, but I love those two."

"I know you do. You're to be commended anyway." She smiled, and stood. "Well, I told Parker that I'd like to see her Friday. I feel right now that her therapy needs to be a bit more focused and intense."

"Alright." I, too stood. "Thanks, doc." Extending my hand, the soft, darker one filled my own.

"Any time."

"Come on, Parker." I grabbed my coat from the chair next to the kid, slipping my arms through it as she stood, holding blue bear to her. She turned and grabbed the doorknob to lead us into the hall.

Once in my truck, I glanced over at her. She sat, silent and somber, her seatbelt seeming to dwarf her introverted body.

"How did it go?" My voice was quiet as I reached for the keys in the ignition and turned. The engine rumbled to life, and the kid shrugged.

"I don't know." She mumbled.

"You don't know?" She shook her head. I got us out of the parking lot and headed out into the street. "How was school today?"

"I don't know."

Up ahead I saw the Golden Arches, and an idea popped into mind.

"Well, I think I know something that you will know." Pulling into the parking lot, the huge glassed-in play room looming before us, Parker sat up a little in her seat, though stubbornly refused to show any serious excitement. Sometimes I wondered if this kid weren't mine, after all.

Moving up to the counter, the pimply-faced ten year old asked what we wanted. I ordered for me, then looked down at my companion.

"Tell him what you want, Parker."

"I don't know." She said, though I saw those blue eyes scanning over the plastic case containing the figures from The Incredibles, that filled the Happy Meals.

"No? Are you sure? Look over there- you could get Violet in your box." I pointed at the figure of the daughter of the dynamic duo. Her eyes widened, and I knew I was beginning to crack her shell. "You could take her home and play with her with your Barbie dolls. Watch her kick their butts," Parker giggled so I took the plunge. "Tell the nice kid what you want."

"Cheeseburger Happy meal, please." She said, blue eyes shining at the prospects.

"Coming right up." The boy hurried to gather our order, and I looked out to the glassed in playground, seeing one table left. Parker ran out to save it for us, and I gathered lunch.

I remember my mom saying that you never know the sacrifices you make for your kids until you have them. Well, now that I essentially have one, I understand that sentiment as I stared at my half-eaten quarter pounder with cheese. Yuck.

Pushing the sandwich aside, I watched as Parker, who had quickly gobbled up her lunch, played in the pool of plastic balls, just the top of her golden curls able to be seen.

"Excuse me,"

I looked up, French fry hanging out of my mouth. The brown eyes looking down at me crinkled with the smile. Quickly sucking the salty potato in, I swallowed, trying not to choke on it. "Sorry about that. Um, it's really crowded in here, and there really aren't any places left to sit, I noticed it's just you,"

"Oh!" Catching on, I moved Parker's Happy Meal box to the side. "Please, sit down."

"Thanks." With obvious relief, the woman set her tray down across from me on the round table for four, then shrugged her purse strap from her shoulder, placing the bag at her fee. "I'm Julia."

"Garrison." I smiled at her, and she smiled back, tossing her hair back, red and reaching just past her shoulders.

"Garrison. That's a different name. I've heard that before." Her brows furrowed as she unwrapped her sandwich, and squirted the ketchup packets onto the spread out paper.

"Mommy, can I play first?"

We were interrupted by a little girl with long hair, the same color as her mothers, that dark red, with hazel eyes.

"Honey, we talked about this. You need to eat." Julia tapped the seat next to her own. The girl sighed and rolled her eyes, then plopped down, not giving me the time of day. Her mother gave me an apologetic look. The girl took a few bites of her lunch, then eyed me. It only took a few moments for her to lean up and whisper something in her mother's ear, eyes on me the entire time. Julia turned to her daughter and said quietly, "Her name is Garrison. She was nice enough to let us share her table."

The girl looked at me for a brief moment, then took a few more bites of her chicken nuggets. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Parker standing off to the side, near the cubbies where shoes and coats could be stored, fidgeting as she stared at us, her eyes darting to Julia's daughter.

"Come on over, Parker." I said, smiling at her. She licked her lips, eyes bouncing from mother to daughter before landing on me again. She looked back to the girl, my guess feeling better that she was a kid like her. Finally she reached us, and I put my arm around her shoulders. "Parker, this is Julia, and, I'm sorry, I didn't get your name," I looked at the girl who was dipping a nugget into her container of honey.

"ZoŽ."

"ZoŽ." Parker hid behind me, peeking out from over my shoulder. ZoŽ smiled at her.

"Hi." She said, dimples winking at the kid. I heard a muffled "Hi," from behind me. "Want to play?" Hazel eyes widened in hope. I glanced back at Parker, and saw her nod, big blue eyes still fixed firmly on ZoŽ and her mom. "Can we, mom?" ZoŽ asked, showing that she'd eaten three of her four chicken nuggets.

"Okay. But you have to finish these before we leave, okay?" Julia said, looking her daughter in the eye, making sure the kid understood. With a nod of long, reddish brown hair, ZoŽ ran off toward the slide. I felt a small hand let go of my arm, then saw Parker follow.

Julia and I turned back to our lunches, grins on our faces. Our eyes met, and we burst out laughing.

"To have that kind of energy again," Julia said, chewing on a fry.

"No kidding. I watch her sometimes, and am just blown away. But I'll tell you," I pointed at her with my own fry. "When she crashes, she crashes hard."

"Oh, I know. Trust me, I've found ZoŽ in some strange places around the houses gone to the world." I nodded in understanding. "So are you guys new around here? I bring ZoŽ here every Monday after ballet lessons."

"No. I was born and raised around here. I brought Parker here as a special treat."

"You know, it's bugging me. Where have I seen you before?" She sipped her drink, eyes never leaving me. I wasn't sure what she was getting at, so shrugged. "That's it!" The straw popped out of her mouth, spraying a bit of her drink on her chin. She chuckled, wiping it off, then looked at me. "You're the pilot." A bit creeped out now,

"Yes, I am a pilot,"

"And that must be Parker." She pointed to the kid, giggling as she slid down the slide behind ZoŽ. "And there's an older one, too." Seeing my confusion, Julia explained. "Aren't you the pilot who took those kids in? Garrison, oh shoot, I can't remember your last name."

"Davies."

"That's it!" Excited now, "I read everything on that case that I could. What you did for those girls," she shook her head in wonder. "It was truly amazing, Garrison. Things like that just don't happen anymore."

"Oh," catching on, my discomfort was replaced with a blush. "Anyone would have done it in the same position."

"I don't think so. If that were the case, those two kids wouldn't have been with that bastard as long as they were."

I met her eyes, earnest and true. "I'm just glad they were able to stay with me." I said, my voice soft, unable to convey just what a gift Keller and Parker were for me. Julia smiled, her head slightly cocked to the side.

"How long have they been with you now? And what's the older ones name?"

"Keller. They've been with me over two years." My smile was proud and happy. Then realizing that I probably looked like a dork, I cleared my throat and ran a hand through my hair.

"Well, I'm very pleased to meet you."

"Thank you." I was turning shy, now.

"So a pilot, huh?"

"Yes." I was terribly grateful to get the conversation off me and the girls, and immediately perked up.

"What kind of flying do you do?" She dipped two fries into ketchup, then nibbled at them.

"Cargo, mainly. We fly incoming and outgoing cargo around the Massachusetts area, as well as New York, Pennsylvania, that kind of thing." I wadded up the paper from my sandwich and tossed it onto the tray, pulling my large cup of Coke closer to me.

"How interesting. I bet it can be exciting."

"Eh, depends." I shrugged. Some of the folks at the airports is what can be interesting." I grinned and she smiled back. "What do you do?"

"I'm a music teacher at Collins Community College, as well as I teach private lessons."

"Really? What do you teach?"

"Well, basically if you can blow it or stroke it, I teach it."

Mind out of gutter, Garrison, mind out of gutter.

"Really? That's impressive." I was interrupted when Parker and ZoŽ ran up to the table.

"Mommy, look what we found." The older kid showed her mom a plastic green ring with a big frog face on it.

"Oh, that's pretty honey." Julia said, taking the trinket from her daughter and examining it. She slid it onto her pinky, which it only fit up to the second knuckle. "Thanks, ZoŽ." She turned back to me as if she were going to start talking again, only to have her daughter cry out.

"Mom!"

Julia grinned and slid the ring off. The girl giggled, and took it, turning to Parker and handing it to her. The kid grinned up at her new friend, who looked to be around ten, and they ran off to play. Julia watched them go, then turned back to me.

"Anyway, so yeah, pretty much any instrument I'll do lessons for. Then you have my husband who doesn't know a thing about music." She chuckled, shaking her head. "He teaches social studies at the high school."

"Wow. He must be a patient man." I thought back to Keller in her early days with me. "I think I'd take each and every kid out and hang them by their toenails."

Julia laughed at that. "Sometimes he does. Want to, that is," she clarified when she noticed my utterly astonished look. She again smiled. She had the friendliest smile I'd ever seen. Very open. She looked at her watch, then turned to where our girls were playing. "ZoŽ, honey, we have to go. Daddy will be waiting. Come on, get your coat." She began to gather up their trash and the remnants of her daughter's half-uneaten lunch.

"Ah, man." ZoŽ muttered, but obediently climbed out of the pit of plastic balls, a crestfallen Parker following her with her eyes. "Mommy, can Parker come over and play sometime?" the older kid asked, plopping down onto the rubber-covered play area as she slipped her shoes on.

"We'll see. Hurry." Julia turned to me. "Sorry we have to rush. I lost track of time."

"No problem." I smiled, and offered to throw her tray away for her; she seemed to be in such a rush.

"It was really nice talking with you." She smiled, her brown eyes shining genuine fondness. I smiled back.

"You, too. Always nice to catch an adult at these places." With a wink from me, the teacher turned away and helped her daughter get her coat on, then they were gone.

Parker walked over to the table, plopping down with her chin in her hands.

"Why so sad, kiddo?" I reached over and fixed a group of curls that were being decidedly unruly. "You and ZoŽ seemed to get along."

"Can she come over and play sometime?" Big hopeful blue eyes looked up at me.

"I don't see why not. But we'll have to see, okay?" Parker nodded. "Come on, you. Let's go."

###

Garrison-

Well, I've been here almost a month, and it has flown. If ever I thought you were a drill sergeant at the hangar, was I ever wrong. I've never done so much hard work in all my life, but it's been good, and I don't regret doing it for a minute.

How is everything? How is Parker? Does she still hate me? How did she do on her spelling test? Did you go over the words with her like we always do? How is Jerry doing? Is he still pissed that he's left alone with Reggie? *grin* How are you? I'll never for get, you know, you taking care of Parker for me. Bet you guys are having all kinds of fun, huh?

Well, I have to go. Inspection is in four minutes. Please give Parker the other letter. Talk to you soon. Maybe Parker will talk to me this time. Fingers crossed.

Keller

I re-read the short letter, heaving a deep sigh. Three and a half weeks, and I missed her immensely. I looked at the folded paper with Parker's name on it, and set my own letter down on the desk. Heading upstairs, Tut followed, tail wagging in time with his quick little heartbeat.

"Honey?" I tapped on the kid's bedroom door, which was open slightly.

"Yeah?" Was the distracted reply. Figured it was okay, I stepped inside. Parker lay on her stomach on the colorful comforter, which she'd taken off her bed and splayed out across the floor. Roy lifted his head from his paws as his brother and I entered. Tail thumping dully against the wood floor, he groaned and rolled over onto his back, all four legs in the air, tongue lulling out. Parker giggled, and I smiled, kneeling down to rub his chest.

"Hey, boy." I glanced over to see what the kid was working on. Before her was a modest stack of loose notebook paper. She held a pen in her hand, stopped mid-word. Page after page was filled with her large, childish writing. "What's that?"

"My story." Parker pushed herself up to her knees, gathering the pages and trying to straighten them out, and setting them on the other side of her, avoiding my eyes.

"Well, this came for you." I decided to not push the envelope and make the kid nervous about her writing. I knew how creative she was and didn't want to discourage it in any way. I held out Keller's letter. The kid looked at it, saw her name written in small, bold even letters. She threw it aside, then plopped back onto her stomach, tugging the clipboard back in front of her, pen very tightly held in her hand. I could see her knuckles turning white. "Parker?" I said, my voice quiet. She looked at my crossed legs.

"What?"

"Why are you so angry with Keller?"

Parker's brow knitted, and suddenly she became the spitting image of her sister when she got petulant. "She left." I saw the lip slip out just before it began to quiver.

"Come here, sweetie." I pulled the kid into my lap, and closed my eyes as I felt small arms circle around my neck, golden curls tickling my skin. Parker began to cry, her little body heaving in sobs. I could feel her body heat rising, radiating through the thin material of her t-shirt. "It's okay," I whispered, rubbing small circles across her upper back, feeling just how small and frail she was.

When she began to settle down, she curled up in my lap, and I rested my chin against the top of her head.

"She's coming back, Parker." I said, smiling as Roy laid down next to his best friend. Parker absently petted the top of his head.

"No. She doesn't love me anymore."

I could tell by the kid's tone that she didn't truly believe that; she was being difficult on purpose. "You don't mean that, Parker. You know that Keller would do anything for you. Sometimes people need to do things that don't always make sense to everyone else." I paused for a moment to think. I knew there was no way the kid was going to understand Keller needing to find herself and figure out who she was. I had to put it in terms Parker could relate to. "Do you remember when you went to Stacey's birthday party?" I felt the blonde head nod. "And remember Keller wanted to take you, but you said no, that you wanted Stacey's mom to pick you up so you can Stacey could spend more time together?"

"Yeah,"

"Well, now Keller wants to do this by herself., without you and me to take her to Stacey's house. Keller wants to spend time with other people for a while so she can learn new things, like when you go to school."

"But why does she have to stay there?" Parker pushed away from me a little bit, just enough so she could look up at me. I wiped away a tear that was caught in her lashes.

"Because where her school is, it's too far for her to come home every night."

"Like when Stacey's sister went to camp and had to stay away for a long time?"

"Exactly!" Impressed with the girls logic, I hugged her. She smiled.

"Will she back soon?" Parker wiped away the rest of her tears and sniffled.

"Well, uh," I looked away for a moment, then turned to see two worried eyes. "Here's the thing, Parker. Keller is in what's called boot camp right now. She's learning what it's like to be in the military. Do you know what that is?" Parker nodded.

"They fight in wars. Is she going to be in a war?" Blonde brows raised with her anxiety level.

"Well, no, I hope not. Not right now, that's for sure. Do you remember when you started school? You were in kindergarten?" Nod. "Well, right now Keller is in school, and she's in the first part, which is kind of like kindergarten. Now you're a big girl in second grade. You got older and bigger and so your grade got higher, right?" Nod. "Well, Keller has to go through her own grades. So she'll be in this school for a little while, and she'll have to be away from home a lot. But she'll come back and visit as often as she can. And," I smiled, "when she's done, she'll come back home." I hope.

I could see the tears starting to well up in Parker's eyes again, but she was being brave and holding them back.

"We'll be okay, kid." I gave her my biggest, most encouraging smile, and she grinned, nodding, curls bouncing. A loud kiss on her cheek, and I left her to continue writing.

###

"Parker!" Goddamn, fucking kid, gonna kill her. I shoved my chair back, knocking it to the floor, and ran after her. She was a quick little bugger, but my legs were longer. Barely. The kid was growing like a damn weed. "Parker, get back here!" I yelled as she rounded the corner of the house, heading down the alley between our house and Susan Struthers' place.

Out of breath, but anger leading me on, I heard the kid cry out and a huge crash, and it pushed me on even further, faster. Sure enough, sure enough, there was Parker, flat on the ground, can of soda rolling away, and two metal trash cans spewing their entrails all over the kid.

Gasping for air, I knelt down as Parker tried to roll over onto her bottom from where she'd been sprawled on her stomach. Big fat tears rolled down her face, and I saw the trails of blood rolling down her forearm, as well as the bit seeping through the torn knees of her jeans.

"Damnit, Parker," I breathed through clenched teeth. "Are you okay?" She nodded, and I helped her to stand up.

"What the hell happened out here?"

I looked up to see Mean Mathiason leaning over his back fence into the alley. His wrinkled, pinched face held contempt at being disturbed on a clear, quiet Sunday afternoon.

"Nothing, Mr. Mathiason. Just an accident." I assured him, helping the kid to her feet, and brushing off the dirt and garbage from her ruined clothing.

"Yeah, well you'd best be picking up that trash. I ain't gonna have them trash people not taking my garbage cause some damn kid made a mess."

"It will be cleaned up." I looked at him, venom in my voice, and fire in my eyes. I never could stand that old badger, even as a kid. He stormed back into his house, grumbling about how awful kids today were, and how I'd not changed a lick from the time I was a kid.

"Come on, Parker. Let's clean this up." I was shaking with rage as we stuffed old newspapers, hundreds of empty cans of vegetables and the contents of Mathiason's many cat's litter boxes. Once that was done, I reached down, grabbed the dented can of Coke, and Parker's hand, and marched back to the house. The kid had to almost run to keep up with my angry strides.

Once back in the house, I slammed the can of soda on the counter, and turned to the kid with arms crossed over my chest. "What the hell was that, Parker?" I pointed at the can, my jaw muscles clenched so I wouldn't scare the shit out of the kid with the level of my absolute pissed offness. She just stared up at me with stubborn eyes. "When I say no, I mean no, damnit." I was getting even more irritated by the fact that she refused to say a damn thing. Disgusted and hurt, I turned away. "Go to your room, Parker."

My eyes closed as I head the kitchen door swing shut. Grabbing the edge of the counter top with a death-grip, I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to keep the emotion down. I wasn't a mother. What the hell was Keller thinking when she asked me to do this? Parker would probably end up even more fucked up after this than the kid already was from the first five and a half years of her life.

Angrily swiping at a tear that had managed to sneak out, I glanced at the table over my shoulder, still set for dinner, including Parker's untouched glass of chocolate milk.

"Can I have a soda, Garrison?"

"No, honey, I want you to have some milk, okay?"

"But I want soda."

"I'll make you a deal- you can have chocolate milk, okay?"

I remembered standing at the very spot I was at, stirring the Hershey's syrup into the glass of cold milk, and turned to set it on the table when I saw noticed the Coke was missing from my spot. Setting the glass of chocolate milk down, I saw Parker wit the can in her hand, about to pop the top.

"What are you doing?" I was stunned.

"I want soda." She had answered, more than defiant, her small fingers making their way underneath the pop top ring.

"Don't you do that, Parker. I said no."

When I had taken a step toward the kid, she had ran, taking the can of Coke with her.

"Oh, dad, help me." I plopped down in the chair, wondering if I'd done the right thing. Should I have just let it go? Give the kid her way? No. That wasn't right, either. Shit. Running a hand through my hair, I felt so alone. My appetite very much gone, I began to dump dinner in plastic containers for leftovers, then put all the dishes into the dishwasher, then climbed up the stairs slowly, defeated and sad. I stunk and craved a shower. Mean Mathiason's garbage was disgusting, and I was not keen on smelling like cat turds.

Once at the top of the stairs, I saw the light on in the bathroom, and glanced in through the open door. Parker was looking through the cabinets, the blood on her pants drying. With a sigh, I went in to help.

"Here, hang on," I said, my voice quiet as I grabbed the First Aid kit from the built-in cabinet behind the door. "Take your jeans off then sit on the toilet." Parker did as asked, still sniffling a bit, and I got a good look at her injuries. She'd live, but I knew the scrapes and cuts from the gravel in the alley were painful. Carefully picking out various pebbles and garbage shrapnel from her skin, I cleaned it then bandaged it. "You'll be fine." I stood, twisting the cap back onto the Neosporin and re-boxing the gauze and tape. I felt more than heard, Parker whisk by me, then the quiet sound of her bedroom door closing.

###

Sleep was not easy in coming for me that night. I had to fight for every ounce, but finally win I did, and victory was sweet as total oblivion took me over. Finally finding a place where my body could relax and let go of the tensions of the previous day, and even weeks, my headache down to a dull roar as opposed to the thumper it had been when I'd first attempted the sleep bit.

Even still, one eye peeked open when I heard the slight squeak as my bedroom door was opened. Soft, unsure footfalls made their way to the bed, and Tut lifted his head in curiosity. When I heard the dull thump of his tail against the comforter, I relaxed. The covers were pulled aside, and a small, warm body got in, making the slightest bit of movement in the mattress beneath us.

"Garrison?" was whispered, "I'm sorry."

I rolled over, grabbing the smaller, eight-year old body, and cuddling around her. Parker relaxed, and nuzzled her face into my neck.

"Go to sleep, honey," I whispered back. "Tomorrow is another day." I felt her nod, then we both fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

###

I tried to get comfortable, I really did, but it just wasn't happening. Even all the books I'd bought at the Wood Closet couldn't keep my attention. The seats were tiny, the space confined, and I had to give up control of my life, and that of Parker, all to some guy I didn't know, and had never met, save for his tinny voice over the intercom. What kind of way was that to fly?

Sitting between Jerome and Parker on a 747 was not my idea of fun. And it was a long flight to Texas, let me assure you. I had never flown on a commercial plane before as dad, one of his friends, or I had always gotten me wherever I needed to go when air travel was necessary. How on earth did people do this? It was boring, stuffy, and what was with the annoying ladies walking back and forth in the aisle bugging people?

Sighing heavily, I knew it was for a good reason, so I agreed to it. Keller was graduating from basic, and the military was flying her back, and she wanted to be able to fly back with us. This was sacrifice on my part; big time.

Looking around the cramped quarters, I played with the overhead lights, intrigued at how they did indeed send a tiny spotlight on one person at a time, allowing the other passengers to sleep or whatever. Pretty cool. I glanced across Parker, who was sound asleep, staring out of the oval-shaped window, watching all the clouds going under us. Oh, how I missed my baby. I'd be flying through those clouds, not this above them business.

Stopping my internal complaint reel, I tried to concentrate on just why I was in the cramped tuna can. Keller. She was graduating, she had done it. The smile came unbidden to my lips, and I didn't try to disguise it. We hadn't seen her, or barely spoke to her, in six weeks. I wondered how she looked, how she felt. Was she glad she'd gone? Did she regret it? Where would the Air Force send her now?

Looking over at Parker, I smiled. The kid had tried to act nonchalant about going to Texas to see Keller's graduation, but the truth was, she was ecstatic. She had refused to speak with Keller on the phone the two times the janitor was able to call, and I had no idea if Keller's letters to the kid had been read or not. But this morning as we were getting everything loaded into Penny's SUV, so she could take us to Logan, Parker was beside herself. She talked nonstop, which I knew was kid-speak for "I'm really excited, lets get this show on the road." And so we did.

Jerome rented us a car at the airport, and we drove to the hotel where we'd be staying for the next two nights- Parker and I sharing a room, and Jerome in his own across the hall.

"The airplane was cool." Parker said as she tossed her backpack onto the bed closest to the bathroom.

"Yeah? You liked that?" I asked, falling back onto my own bed, exhausted. Why was I never this tired when I flew my own plane? The kid nodded enthusiastically. I grumbled my discontent at the whole process.

"Garrison?"

"Yeah?" I looked over at the little blonde, wondering at her suddenly very quiet, almost shy, voice.

"We going to see Keller tomorrow?" The kid looked at me from too-long bangs. I nodded with a smile.

"We sure will."

Parker laid back on her back, staring up at the ceiling. I waited, knowing there would be more to come. I wasn't disappointed. The kid flopped dramatically onto her side, facing me across the expanse between our double beds.

"Do you think she's still mad at me?" She asked. I looked at her for a long moment, brows drawn.

"Honey, why do you think she's mad at you?" I also turned onto my side, head held up on my hand.

"Cause I wouldn't talk to her." The kid picked at the gaudy comforter beneath her, accidentally pulling a thread loose. She gave me a sheepish grin.

"She never was, Parker. That," I stood, stretching, and headed toward the bathroom, "I can promise you." I stopped, hand on the doorframe. "Trust me, kiddo, she'll be thrilled to see you."

"I hope so." I heard this as I softly closed the door behind me.

###

I buttoned my shirt, tucking in the tails, and adjusting my bead choker so it showed just right through the open collar. The mirror told me I looked good, even my butt, which I was forever convinced was too big for my smaller frame. Not today; it fit nice and snug in the khakis I'd brought along for this most important event. Hair perfectly in place, even my bangs behaving, I felt good.

"Parker? You ready?" I began to stow away my pajamas in the bag-on-wheels that my stuff was in.

"Yeah." The bathroom door opened, and I looked at the kid as she entered shyly into the bedroom area of the room. She had brought a dress along, specially picked out and bought for Keller's graduation. It was white and blue, all ruffles and childish charm, and Parker looked absolutely adorable. Her golden curls were pulled back away from her face with a blue band that matched the blue in her dress. The kid had picked it all out herself, and I had to admit her taste was pretty good. But then I had none, so how would I know?

"Aww, sweetie, you look so pretty." I gave her a huge smile, and she grinned back, feeling better with those encouraging words. She didn't often wear dresses because she was so active, though she loved them. Definitely not my kid.

"Thank you." She said, looking down at her polished Mary Jane's.

"Come on, you. Let's get Jerome and head out."

Jerome was waiting for us in the lobby, looking handsome in a brown suit with matching tie. The suit was obviously at least twenty years old, but he looked good in it anyway, and I told him as much. I didn't know sixty-odd year old men could blush. We all piled into the car, headed to Lackland Air Force Base.

We were let through onto the base and given directions to the Reception Center, where we had to sign in. At least this way maybe we could spend some time with Keller if they knew she had family here, and she wouldn't be put on barrack duty or something.

Looking around, there were people everywhere, and I felt a rush of pride. All these folks were there to see some kid graduating from six weeks of intense training, too. I almost felt some sort of bond with them. It was the night before the actual graduation parade, and I wanted to see the retreat ceremony that Keller always talked about in her letters.

Parker was all eyes, looking everywhere, taking it all in. Secretly I think she was looking for even just a glimpse of Keller. We followed the crowds to the parking lot behind the reception center where music was being piped through the public address system. A huge flag pole stood off to the side. I shielded my eyes as I looked up into the sky to the top of the pole where the American flag waved proudly in the breezy, hot Texas air. My attention was quickly grabbed by the marching recruits, in perfect lines, each like a robot, all looking alike, stone-faced, movements precise.

Frantically, I tried to see those stunning baby blues, but it was difficult. Granted, the women were shorter then most of their male counterparts, but still, when they're all dressed in BDU's, it's pretty hard to point out a tall woman, and not think she was a man. Also, from the distance we were in the stands, it was near impossible to make out any specific details. So instead, I tried to pay attention to where her unit number was called out.

I started as orders were yelled out and the recruits stopped marching. Looking on in wonder, the flag was slowly lowered as "To The Colors" was played on a bugle. Watching the colors of my country being lowered, honored and loved by so many, it brought tears to my eyes, and a lump to my throat. It brought on an incredibly feeling of unity and patriotism that I had never experienced before. I used to get a wee bit of that feeling when I recited the "Pledge Of Allegiance" in school, but that had been years ago. Now it meant something far more.

Knowing that Keller was out there somewhere ....

After the ceremony was finished, the flag folded and securely stowed, it was announced that we could "find our recruit."

"Does that mean we get to go now?" Parker asked, blue eyes sparkling with excitement, earlier worries forgotten.

"Yep." I stood, making sure Jerome was with us, and grabbed the kid's hand. "Do not let go of me, Parker."

"Kay."

The throngs of people were amazing- plain clothes, uniforms. Crazy business, and it's hell being short. I was tempted to start jumping so I could see over the heads of people. Even Jerome, at almost six foot, was having a hard time finding our girl. I could tell the other girl was getting very anxious- buried in a pit of people, the kid had no air and could see no daylight. They all looked alike!

"You lost?"

I jumped, hearing a deep, velvety voice in my ear. Jerking my head around, I saw the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen.

"Keller!" I threw my arms around her neck, and felt hers around my waist. Knowing there was someone who was just as anxious to get in on the action, I stepped back, and watched as the sister's saw each other for the first time after a not-so-nice parting. Keller looked down at Parker, unsure. It didn't last long as Parker nearly bowled the tall woman over with her exuberant hug. Keller hugged the kid to her, wrapping her arms around her, eyes closed tight with relief.

Jerome and I exchanged a glance, and he ran the back of his hand across his forehead in an exaggerated gesture of relief. I nodded my agreement, then turned my attention back to Keller. Had she grown even taller in six weeks? Her shoulders were squared, as was her jaw, the tanned skin stretched over the bone structure of her face making her even more beautiful than she had been before. Her eyes opened and met mine. She smiled at me, and somehow I knew it was a thank you. I smiled back and nodded.

Finally, reluctantly, Parker let go, but clung to Keller's hand. "Hey, Jerry. How goes it?" Keller held her hand out to him, and he took it, wincing at the tight, confident handshake that pumped his hand up and down once. "Thanks for coming."

"Anytime, kiddo," the older mechanic said, his teeth white and polished. "So, you guys want a tour of the place? I've got until about 19:30."

"Nineteen who?"

"Seven-thirty," Jerome muttered.

"Oh." Feeling like a dork, I grinned. "Yeah!"

"Great. Follow me." Keller, still holding Parker's hand, turned and began to lead us through the crowd that was still thick as thieves. I watched the janitor as she went, nodding at various people, saying hi to just about everyone in uniform we passed, and saluting several, also. I was astonished. Who was this girl, and where was my Keller?

Continued...

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