For complete disclaimers see part 1.

WARNING: VIOLENCE AND ABUSE

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 3

We drove through the gates, the tall, stone archway high overhead. I loved this cemetery; the history, the beauty. I know it seems morbid, but I often came here with my camera. Pardon the pun, but I’d kill two birds with one stone – see mom and take pictures.

Gabe sat beside me, quiet, hands tucked into his lap around the bouquet we’d brought, grown in my own greenhouse. He stared out the passenger side window, taking in all the stones and crypts. Monuments to the dead surrounded us.

Dad had a hard time coming back here. The only time I’ve truly seen him all out sob was the last time he was here. The day we buried mom. He stood in his suit, which hung off his drooping shoulders like it, too, wanted to be in the ground with mom. His normally large, brute self seemed so small and inconsequential when having to face the death of the love of his life.

They had both been each other’s first everything, and I was worried he wouldn’t be able to live without her. So far he’d done a fine job, save for his midnight visits. I know it gets to him the worst at night. She’s not there to wrap his arms around and hold close. She’s not there to wake him from his nightmares of war and destruction. She’s not there.

I had been so young to lose my mother, only twenty-one years old. But I was grateful for every moment I had.

"You okay?" I asked, shutting off the engine of my truck. Gabe nodded, but I could see his bottom lip quivering. He was by far the most sensitive man I had ever known. Perhaps that’s what had drawn my young gay self to him so long ago.

We walked quietly among the dead, the sky appropriately gray overhead, fat clouds threatening rain or perhaps even snow. Just up ahead, I saw the huge monolith that represented the Macon family. I knew that mom was just beyond that. The autumn grass crunched beneath our feet, the only sound in the very still day.

"I should have been here," Gabe said finally, breaking the silence further. I took his cold hand in mine, but said nothing. He would beat himself up enough in his own mind. And, there was nothing for me to say – it had been his own stupidity that kept him away in the first place. He knew that, I knew that. There was no reason to regurgitate.

Mom’s stone was a double. Dad’s name and birth date was already carved into the marble. Now all it needed was a body and his death date. I refused to look at his side. He would live forever. He had to.

Beautifully carved,

Ruth Elizabeth Davies, beloved wife and mother. June 13, 1939 — October 10, 2002

I knelt down, gathering up the dried petals of the last bunch of flowers I’d brought. Reaching behind me, I felt the fresh ones being put into my hand, and arranged them in the stone holder.

"Here you go, mom," I whispered. "Grew ’em for you." I heard the cracking of Gabe’s knees as he knelt beside me. He stared unbelievingly at the stone before us, almost as if he were trying to change the name with the power and sheer will of his mind. Taking his hand again, I felt the stiff fingers wrap around my own.

"Seems unreal, doesn’t it?" Little white puffs escaped with each word. The chill in the air was a near constant now. Summer was officially over.

"God, yeah," he said, eyes burning into mom’s name. "I feel like such a loser. I should have been here for you." He looked at me, tears gathering in those dark eyes. I smiled softly.

"Gabe, things happen the way they’re supposed to. I just really hope you’ve learned your lesson. Please tell me you have. I can’t stand to think what you must have gone through in prison. But then again, I can’t stand to think about why you were there, either." I looked at the flowers, so colorful against the gray of the day, and the stone holder that embraced them.

"Yeah, I did." He plopped back onto his butt, resting his hands on his raised knees. "Was she in any pain?"

I shook my head. "Not at the end. The doctor had her so full of pain medication." I sighed heavily. "Hell, I’m not sure just how much she knew at the end, you know? That shit had her so gone."

"I’m surprised she took anything."

"She didn’t have a whole lot of choice. Dad saw what pain she was in, and insisted. In some ways I think it was for the best, and in others, not so much." I sat also, huddled in a sitting ball. I could feel the dew from the grass seeping into the denim of my pants, making me shiver slightly.

"So, what do you think of the place we found for you?" I asked, picking up an autumn yellowed blade of grass and taking it apart. Gabe sighed, glancing at me.

"I like it."

"It’s really cute."

"Yeah." He smiled, dimples winking at me. "Small."

"Hey, at least you have more than one room and your steel toilet isn’t bolted to the wall."

He glared.

"Yeah, yeah. But how am I going to impress all the ladies?"

I threw my head back and laughed. A strange sound in such a sad place. I looked at him, grinning ear to ear.

"You’re so cute." Laying my head on his shoulder, my thoughts were brought back to mom. "You know, she used to ask me almost daily if I had heard from you for the first year."

"Oh, rub it in, girl. Make me feel even more like a schmuck, thank you."

"Eh, you are a schmuck." I didn’t bother to look at the glare I knew I was getting, just nuzzled in further.

###

The drive back to the hangar was a long one as there was the infernal road work going on. The usual way to just about anything was diverted to some bumfuck back road. I was not happy about this.

Finally getting to the hangar after dropping Gabe off at my place, I was ready to fly. I had a short flight schedule today, not going very far – just dropping loads of medical supplies off to the Vineyard.

I hadn’t brought my boys with me today, knowing that I was taking Gabe to the cemetery. I missed them already. I hated flying without them. So, I’d just have to really crank the music. I was already thinking about the selection when I saw Keller near the Cessna.

She was sweeping, but it was strange, almost like she was stoned or something. Her progress was very slow. Her head was down, those ever-present sunglasses placed firmly on her face. Damn kids these days. I wondered if she was hung over. As she pushed the push broom over the smooth surface of the cement, she was missing things left and right. It was very unusual for the normally meticulous janitor.

With no time to worry about it or question her, I got into my plane.

###

The plane came to a satisfying stop, and I took my headset off, seeing Jerome coming over to me to take over.

"Hey girl." He smiled, pearly whites glinting at me.

"Hiya, Jerome. How’s she look?" I hopped down, unzipping my flight suit.

"She looks great. Landing a little rough, huh?" he looked up into the sky at the gathering of clouds. "Pretty strong winds."

"Tell me about it. I’d say something’s on its way." I patted him on the arm. I began to head into the hangar when I stopped. "Hey, you going to watch our big movie star on the History Channel tonight?" Again those white teeth.

"Are you kidding? Miss it? Crazy girl." He waved me off and climbed into the plane.

I was so proud of my father. He had been contacted about a year ago to talk on a documentary about fighter pilots. The crew had come here to Warwick to film him talking about his days as a Top Gun.

Whistling a little tune, I waved at Reggie and headed into the office. I was leaving early today. I was going home and getting ready for the little party I was holding in honor of dad. All the boys and Penny were coming over, as well as a few of dad’s old war buddies. Chips, dip, beer, rowdy old guys and good TV.

Nearly skipping into the office to finish up the paperwork on my delivery today, I signed off on all the contracts and paperwork with a flourish. I stripped out of the flight suit and hung it up in the closet, then headed out.

Traffic was heavy for a little while as everyone was herded into the detour with the road construction. After awhile though, with the way I had to go, it was smooth sailing.

Turning the radio on ‘shatter the windows’ level, I cracked both windows, so I wouldn’t do just that, and headed out into the cold, gray day. I sang along, badly, as I cruised down that bumfuck road aforementioned.

As I pressed on the accelerator, bad me, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Or, more aptly, I noticed someone. Squinting into the harsh gray light, I realized it was Keller the janitor. She was walking along the side of the road.

I drove by, not wanting to think much of it, but then my conscience began to eat at me. With a low growl, I slowed the truck, checking the rear-view to make sure there was no traffic behind me. When I checked that, I noticed that Keller was leaning over, and she was retching.

"What the hell?" I muttered, slowing the truck even more. She stood, seeming oblivious to my truck moving back toward her. I watched her carefully over my shoulder as I got closer to her. She tripped over a very small rock, nearly losing her balance. She stumbled to one knee, head hanging.

The truck came to an abrupt stop, and I jumped out. Running around the front, beams of the headlights bouncing off my mid-section, I reached her.

"Hey," I knelt next to her, my hands on her shoulders. She looked up at me, and what I saw nearly knocked the wind out of me. Keller’s face was a mess. A mass of bruises licked the left side of her face, and it looked as though her left eye was swollen shut, but she had those damn sunglasses on.

I stood, doing my best to help this girl to hers. She was so unsteady, losing her footing constantly, and nearly collapsing to the ground more than once. Panic was settling in inside me as I had no clue what to do other than get her to the hospital.

"Come on, Keller. It’s okay," I breathed as I finally got her to stand. I grabbed the handle of the truck door, and holding her against me to keep her up, I yanked the door open, nearly knocking us both over with it. "Okay, Keller. Step up, hon," I whispered into her ear. Her entire body was trembling, and I wasn’t sure why. I was terrified for her. Hell, I was terrified for myself. I knew nothing of the extent of her injuries, but from the way she was reacting, they must have been bad. What the hell had happened to you?

Slumping in the passenger seat, it was difficult to get the seatbelt fastened around the girl. Finally, thankfully, the thing snapped into place, and I hurried around the truck, smacking the hood as I did, then got in, cursing as my hip reminded me of my carelessness.

Putting the truck in gear, then grinding it, as in my hurry and fear, I tried to put it in gear again, we were off. Glancing over at her, I noticed that when she threw up, some of it had ended up on her shirt front.

Jesus!

It was full of blood.

Putting the pedal to the metal, my tires squealing as I hot the main road that would lead us to St. Luke’s Hospital.

Every chance I got I looked over at my passenger. She seemed to be falling in and out of consciousness, and I got more worried each time she blacked out. At a stop light, I turned to her.

"Keller, look at me." She complied, though dopily. I pushed the sunglasses up to look into her eyes. Just as I had suspected- pupils dilated at different rates. This girl had a roaring concussion. "You need to try and stay awake, hon." I told her, trying to cut through the haze she seemed to be lost in.

The short ride to the hospital seemed to take forever, a never ending journey to a place of help for this poor girl. Glancing over at her again, I saw that her head was against the cool glass of the side window. I stared at the bruises that looked back, and I swore I saw the shape of a hand in that mottled mess.

The electronic doors whooshed open in honor of our entrance into the ER. I looked around, frantically trying to find a nurse. On the drive over, Keller had vomited again, blood erupting down the front of her shirt. I had had no time to react or pull over.

I could still feel the sting behind my eyes at the helplessness I felt. A nurse called for an orderly hurried through the swinging doors, rolling a wheelchair. Keller is quickly placed in it, her head lolling back as he pushed her back through the doors. I followed, oblivious to the lady at the desk calling "Miss! Miss, you can’t go back there!"

A team of nurses and a doctor get Keller onto the bed in the little cubicle, starting to check for the injuries she has sustained. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and kind, but firm pressure on my body to propel me out of the ER, and back to the waiting room.

My breath caught as the nurse began to remove Keller’s shirt. The entire right side of her torso was covered with similar bruises to those on her face. Her ribs were acutely visible, horrendous black patches of bruising and dried blood covering the lower half.

With that last view, the door was swung shut in my face, and I was left standing in the lobby, tears trickling down my cheeks.

Feeling that helplessness again, I turned, looking at me. There was only the harsh lights above, and an uninterested receptionist behind her computer, typing away. In the distance I heard a phone ringing, then stopping as someone answered it, I assumed. The footfalls of a phantom walker down some hall in the maze that was St. Luke’s. I heard the hum of the Pepsi machine not far from me, and the choking sound of the coffee machine as it spewed forth the desired cup someone wanted.

Feeling the hard tiled floor beneath my booths, I decided to sit.

"Excuse me, miss?"

Looking over my shoulder, I saw that disinterested receptionist suddenly interested in me.

"Yes?" I stood again, walking over to her work station. Brown eyes looked up at me.

"Do you have any information on that patient?" she pointed toward the closed doors to the ER.

"Um, a little. But not much."

"Name?" she looked at me, fingers poised above the keyboard to her computer. How impersonal.

"Um, Keller. I don’t know her last name." I ran a shaky hand through my hair.

"Date of birth?"

"I have no idea. Uh, I know she’s seventeen. Listen, if you’ll let me call my father, she works for us, and he can bring her file."

"Alright." The lady looked irritated as she typed something else in, that annoying tick, tick, tick, tick of the keys as her fingers whizzed across them.

Walking back to the chair I had planned to claim, I pulled my cell out of the holster attached to my belt, and dialed the hangar’s number.

"Davies Hangar and Cargo," Penny said, her voice chipper yet distracted.

"Penny, it’s Garrison. Is my dad there?" I closed my eyes, covering half my face with my hand. I could feel my heart beating in my ears, and my blood racing through my body as the fear and adrenaline of the past half hour were replaced by quiet waiting.

"Yeah. What’s up, sexy?" I could hear the purr in her voice, and became instantly irritated.

"Listen Penny, it’s really important. Please just put me through."

"Okay." She sounded hurt, but right now I didn’t care. I’ll explain later.

"What’s up, Monk?" dad says, his voice harried. "This better be good. I was just about to leave to get the beer for tonight."

"You need to get to St. Luke’s with Keller’s file as fast as you can." I told him.

"What? Why? What’s this all about? Penny said you nearly bit her head off."

"Dad, Keller’s been hurt. I don’t know how or what happened, but get your ass down here!" Rarely, if ever, did I talk to my father that way, but I had had enough of this. That girl needed us, and I was determined to help her. Dad seemed to sense this. His voice softened immediately.

"Okay. Be there in a few." The line went dead, and I stared up at the ceiling tiles, my hand tapping a rhythmless tune on the arm of the chair I sat in. My foot began to tap along, too. It feels like another eternity for dad to get there. This whole damn day has taken a week.

"What the hell is going on?"

I turn, nearly jumping in my seat at the sudden voice. Bounding out of my seat, my father catches me in his arms, Gabe standing behind him. Stepping back from my father, I take the employee file he has in his hands, and return to the brown-eyed receptionist.

"Have the information now?" she asked, covering the mouthpiece of the phone she was using. I nodded. She got off the phone and turned to me, again fingers poised above the keyboard. "Anytime you’re ready, ma’am."

I glared at her for her impatience and impersonal nature, and opened the manila folder.

"Full name, Keller J. Mitchum. Um, date of birth, September 30, 1986, huh. She has a birthday coming up." I cleared my throat at the woman’s glare. "What else do you need to know?"

"Does she have anyone we need to get hold of? And what is your relation to the patient?"

"There is no family listed here, and she works for my dad and I." I closed the folder, and placed it on the counter.

"Does she have insurance?" When there was no answer forthcoming, the woman looked up at me. I had no idea.

"Yes, she does."

My head jerked to the side when I saw dad standing beside me. Maybe he knew something I didn’t.

"Through her services for you?" the woman asked, fingers actually taking a break from hovering over the keys.

"Yes."

Now my head really jerked at him.

"What?" He gave me a shush look, and I shushed, though still totally confused. Even Jerome didn’t have insurance with us. We couldn’t afford it.

"I’ll need your information here, sir."

Dad scooted me to the side so he could fill out some paperwork, so I decided to go sit with Gabe.

"What’s going on?" he asked, putting down the magazine he’d been reading. I shrugged.

"Not sure. I think dad is going to foot the bill for this." My brows were drawn in worry. "I don’t know what he’s thinking."

"Maybe he’s thinking of doing something nice for this kid." He grinned at me with raised brows, and I elbowed him.

"Don’t be an asshole. He wants to do something nice, take Keller out for lunch. But paying a hospital bill?" I looked at him, hoping he’d see my point. Gabe shrugged.

"I’m sure he has his reasons."

Grabbing a magazine of my own, I began to flip through the smooth, worn pages. I needed to find something to get my mind off of this mess. After about ten minutes, I felt the chair next to mine become occupied. I smelled dad’s familiar scent immediately, and turned to him.

"What are we going to do?" I asked him. "Shouldn’t Keller’s parents be taking care of this?" he sighed deeply, then opened the manila folder he’d taken with him from the counter. Pointing to an address, he looked at me.

"I need you to go there and get Parker." The look in his eyes surprised me. It told me not to argue, and that he was deadly serious.

"Who?" I took the folder from him, looking at the address. It was in a horrible part of town, filled with trash and crime.

"Keller’s baby sister. I think Keller will want her here now." He sighed again as he took the magazine from my lap, beginning to find an interesting story to read.

"Hey!" I tried to snatch it back, but got hard blue eyes instead.

"Go get her, Monk." We stared into each others eyes for a moment, and for just a second I saw fear flash though his eyes. It was a daunting second, and I nodded.

"Okay." Standing, I glanced at the address once more, then began to head off. I heard the heavy footfalls of Gabe as he ran after me. I looked at him as he walked in step with me. "Yes?"

"I’m going with."

"Suit yourself."

###

I slowed the truck as we entered Winter Haven, an area rife with danger, crime and drugs. The houses and buildings we passed were falling apart at the seams. Trash and debris was littered throughout the yards and across the streets. Gutters were near bursting with it and homeless humanity.

"God." Gabe whispered. "What the hell is this place?"

"Where Keller lives." I turned onto High Street, looking for a house with 1128 posted on the front somewhere. The houses that line this street are much like the others, with one slight diamond in the rough. That is to say, the lawn actually exists on purpose, and not just a lucky smattering of weeds and car parts. The house is directly across the street from the one I’m looking for.

Spying 1128, I whistle through my teeth. It’s a small two story, the paint once white, now peeling and flaking on the dead bushes out front. It almost looks as though the house has a dry scalp problem, and the bushes are its shoulders in dark colors. I parked the truck at the curb, noting the silence of the house. There were two windows upstairs at the front that reminded me of eyes, watching, waiting to see what I’d do. I was slightly creeped out.

There was a sagging front porch built up on two and a half foot stilts, broken lattice acting as walls to hide the underneath.

"Wish me luck." I muttered, looking at Gabe, letting him know I wanted him to stay put. I had a bad feeling about this place. Bad vibe, whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t right.

Walking across the dirt that acted as front yard, I made my way to the front door. It was a wooden and mesh screen door, half the screen gone or torn. A peeling blue storm door lay beyond. I cringed at the squeak of the screen door as I opened it to knock, rapping my knuckles lightly against the blue door.

"Go the fuck away!" was yelled from inside, making me start. Right-o. I knocked again, a little harder this time. I had no clue who lay beyond that door, or even what to call him. But, I had a mission and was going to accomplish it. After seeing the state of the place, I wanted to accomplish it even more.

"Did you not hear me?! I said go the fuck away!"

"Hello? Uh, Mr. Mitchum?" I hoped I was right. Heavy footfalls accompanied by vulgar grumbling led to the blue door being swung open. I actually took a step back from surprise, letting the screen door slam shut. Blood-shot blue eyes glared at me. I took in the man who was looking me over like I was tonight’s dinner. His hair was wild and unkempt, bare in places where the balding process had already started to take place. He wore one of those V-neck undershirts that were just thin enough to be able to see protruding nipples and a smattering of chest hair.

A blast of stale smoke, beer, urine and sweat burst through the screen door. Looking past this disgusting man, with the gut hanging over dirty jeans, I saw the house was a mess. The TV was on, and all the blinds, that weren’t ripped, were closed. A broken table lay near it, splintered pieces of wood laying in a pile. There was a single Lay-Z-Boy type chair in the middle of the room, facing the TV, surrounded by crushed beer cans and glass bottles. My guess they had once been filled with various types of alcohol from the smell of things.

"Who the fuck are you?" he asked, nose wrinkled up as though I were the disgusting pig.

"Are you Keller Mitchum’s father?" His eyes narrowed.

"Look, girly, unless you’re here to give me a nice blow job, get the hell off my property." He was about to slam the door when I jumped into action. Pulling the screen door open, I shoved my booted foot between the door and the frame. He looked at me with surprise, which quickly turned to contempt.

"I’m here to get Parker." I growled, getting pissed now. His eyes narrowed to mere slits.

"Over my dead body. That little bitch isn’t going anywhere. Who the fuck are you? What business is my kids to you?"

"Keller was in..." I trailed off, something telling me to keep this to myself. "She’s asked me to bring her little sister to her."

"Get the fuck off my property, bitch!" He began to try and squish my foot with the door. I grunted in pain, but held my ground. I was getting near frantic to get this Parker kid out of there.

"Parker!" I yelled out into the house, hoping she’d hear me.

"She aint here. Get the fuck out." I shoved hard, and I heard a crack.

"You don’t want to do that, mister." I heard Gabe’s near growl from behind me, and felt ever grateful. Mr. Mitchum looked over my shoulder at my imposing friend. He said nothing, but stopped shoving the door. I removed my foot, feeling it reflate, I think. I did my best to hide the pain I was in.

"Take your bitch and get out of here." Urine breath said, glaring at Gabe, then leering at me. "Unless she wants to stay."

I rolled my eyes, feeling queasy at the thought.

"Where’s the kid?" Gabe asked. "Tell me or I come in and find her myself."

"She’s not here, fuck face. You deaf, too?" I felt a bit of spittle hit my chin, and wanted to hurl. Then the door was slammed in our faces.

"Fuck!" I turned, ready to leave, when I stopped, wincing. My foot was on fire, and I feared that the bastard had broken it.

"Jesus. Are you okay?" Gabe began to kneel to look at it, but I stopped him.

"We’ve got to get in there somehow." I hobbled my way to the middle of the yard, and looked up. There was no way to get in, and no windows were open. I was studying the two front windows, hoping that the commotion would have gotten Parker’s attention. Even just to see a little face staring down at us-

"What was that?"

I looked at Gabe, then around. I listened, but heard nothing.

"What, could it be the cocking of a shotgun?" he glared at me.

"Not funny. No. It sounded like a hurt animal or something. Like a mewl or something." I studied the houses around us, and looked up into the few trees to see if there was a stuck kitten or something. Then I heard it.

My eyes immediately went to the house. It had come from that direction. Limping closer to the place, I listened closely, trying to hear it again. There it was!

"Hello?" I knelt down, trying to look under the porch. I nearly fell back on my butt in surprise when I saw a pair of blue eyes looking back at me, hidden in shadow.

"Parker?"

Little fingers wrapped themselves around the lattice, like prison bars. I still couldn’t see much of her features, but knew she was there.

"You want to come with me, honey?" I crawled closer, eyeing the front door once in a while, so worried that my joke would actually become a reality. A dark, shadowy head shook violently. "You don’t want to come with me?" again, violent shake. "You don’t want to see Keller?" The head stopped in mid shake, blue eyes boring into me. "She needs you, Parker. I was sent to bring you to her."

Time stood still as we stared at each other, then without a sound, a little curly blonde headed nymph bolted out from under the porch, and ran to me. She stopped just shy of reaching me, almost as if in one last chance to size me up.

The girl was filthy, dressed in what were once blue overalls, a blue and green long-sleeved shirt underneath. An ancient stuffed animal, color unknown, dangled from her left hand. The toy looked like the toy of the mad scientist, Frankenstein. Tiny rows of even stitches raced across t he thing, where it had been fixed and fixed again.

"Want to see your sister?" I asked one more time, making sure we were on the same page. She nodded just as violently as she had shaken her head. Her eyes were almost the same color as Keller’s, that mysterious, beautiful blue, though slightly darker. "Come on."

She walked beside me, though a couple feet away, as we headed toward my truck.

"Hey, cutie." Gabe smiled, starting to kneel so he’d be at her eye level. The girl looked absolutely terrified and stricken. She ran behind me, hiding behind my legs, eyes huge as she studied my friend. "What the hell?" he asked, looking stung.

"I don’t know." I turned and knelt down, looking into that adorable little face. Blue eyes refused to leave Gabe, opened wide and watchful. "Parker, what’s the matter?" her eyes darted to me for just a moment, then immediately went back to Gabe. "Do you know him?" my brows were drawn in concern and confusion. She shook her head no, but still looked horrified. I tried to put it together, but was at a loss.

"I’ll ride in back, Gar," Gabe offered. I looked at him.

"Gabe, there’s not enough room for you back there." I nodded with my head at the small extend to the cab.

"Hey, if Roy can fit, so can I." He grinned, though I could see he was still bothered by the little girl’s rejection. He walked over to it and folded himself inside.

"You ready to go, Parker?" I asked, trying to make my voice sound as light as I could. She nodded, though with less vigor than before. She was a beautiful little girl. I wanted so badly to offer her a bathtub, though. I wondered how long she’d been hiding under that porch.

I opened the passenger side door and helped Parker inside the large truck. She looked stricken again when I began to try and get the seatbelt across her small chest, so I stopped. She fumbled with it, but eventually got it clicked in place herself.

I was literally shaking as I made my way around the truck to the driver’s side. It almost felt like I was in a dream. Everything was so surreal and movie-like. Who knew there were actually people out there like Keller and Parker’s dad? What the hell? And what the hell had happened to Keller? Had he had a hand in any of it?

Recalling the bruises on her face and those that littered her young body, I felt my breath catch. That bruise on her cheek that I had thought resembled a hand print. Was it? Had the hand of her own father made that mark?

Suddenly I felt very small, very young and very naïve. I had seen a lot in my life and had been through a lot, but overall, despite everything, I had been loved and protected. And what of this small child sitting beside me? She was small, but seemed even smaller now. I’d guess her age to be around four or five, but she seemed so much younger in body and older in eyes. Her eyes held not the twinkling joy of a child, but the fear-filled worry of an adult, plagued by trouble and hardship.

I glanced over at Parker often, making sure she was okay. She had yet to speak and I thought that was strange. She had no questions for me, not asking where we were going or why. She seemed to take it as her lot and trusted me to get her to Keller. It seemed that had been the magic word. Tiny hands placed neatly in her overall-covered lap, eyes forward and looking at the road ahead.

The ER entrance came into view and Parker tried to sit up straighter to see what was going on around her. She looked terrified when she heard the loud siren of an ambulance dying down after its arrival.

"It’s okay, Parker." She looked at me, then back out at the world. Gabe got himself out of the truck, then hurried inside to get any news, and so he wouldn’t scare the kid. Parker let me help her out of the truck, but then walked a couple feet away from me as we entered.

"Hey, Parker." Dad smiled when he saw the little girl, and that confused me. I looked at her and saw a brief spark of recognition, but she did not smile.

"You’ve met Parker?" I looked at him. What the hell was going on?

"Sure. Keller has brought her to the hangar before, hasn’t she, Parker?" The little blonde curls bounced as she nodded. "She’s a good girl. Sits in the corner and colors." He gave the little girl a grandfatherly smile and Parker ducked her head. I smiled at that.

"How’s Keller?" I asked, making that little blonde head jerk up.

"The injuries are pretty extensive they said. Got her in surgery now."

"What?!" I walked over to him, little girl forgotten for a moment.

"Internal bleeding. Somebody did a job on that girl." I could see the concern and anger building in the lines of his face.

"Bet I know who, too." I growled, causing him to look at me. "Bastard."

"Monk, not in front of the kid." He nodded toward Parker, who stood stock still, looking around the waiting room.

"What do I do with her? And she’s not a fan of Gabe. Not sure why."

"Don’t know." Dad went back to reading his magazine.

I looked back to the girl, chewing on my lip. "Are you hungry, Parker?" I finally asked. I wasn’t around children much, and didn’t know what the hell to do with one. She looked up at me and nodded. "Okay. What to feed a five year old . . ." I tapped my chin in thought.

"Don’t know. But you might want to catch the little one," he said, not even looking up from his reading.

Looking around, I saw just the small flash of blue overalls pass through the door leading into the ER.

"Shit!" I tried to catch her, but the door closed first, automatically locking. I rattled the knob to no avail. Having no other choice, I knocked. The door opened within minutes, and a nurse, carrying a very upset Parker, opened it.

"Is this what you’re looking for?" She shoved her into my arms, the door closing in my face. It dawned on me that I was being kicked in the legs, and I finally reacted. Putting the girl down, I looked at her, stunned.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" She glared up at me, her little face scrunched up. She was not a happy camper. It was then that I noticed the scar on her left cheek, just under her eye. Sighing, I knelt down so I was on her eye level. "Parker, do you want to get something to eat?" She continued to glare, but nodded anyway.

"Okay."

I stood, and we headed down toward the cafeteria. She looked into every single door we passed, and I figured she was looking for Keller. She shied away from just about everyone, especially the male orderlies and doctors. I watched this behavior, and suddenly it dawned on me – Parker was afraid of men.

Gently guiding her toward the line in the cafeteria, I couldn’t help but wonder what the little one had seen. She was so watchful, constantly taking in everything that went on around her, not missing a thing. Not sure what to get her, I let her choose. Big mistake.

I felt horribly guilty as I led us to a table, tray laden with cupcakes, a brownie and orange juice in my hands. My stomach roiled at the thought. Parker was silent as she ate, her eyes always moving, flinching at the slightest bit of noise. Those baby blues would rest on me, then she’d hear a noise to the left, and immediately they’d jump to it. It was also apparent that she was looking for Keller, searching her older sister out in the room.

I stayed quiet too, not knowing what to say to a five year old. I had no idea where this kid would stay, and I certainly didn’t want to take her home. God, just the thought of that place and Keller and Parker’s father made me want to throw up. What the hell kind of person was he? How could he treat his kids so badly? What had Keller done to deserve such a severe beating?

Parker grabbed a cupcake, looking at it, smelled it, then took a huge bite of it, paper and all.

"Oh, honey. Hang on a sec." I reached over to try and help her peel the paper off along the bottom of the treat and the girl looked as though she was about to be smacked. She flinched away from me, bringing her arms up to ward off the blow. A woman glared at me as she walked by, keeping a close eye on the poor, defenseless girl. I felt stunned and stung. Never in a million years would I hurt this little girl.

Swallowing to get my bearings, I put my hands back on the table.

"Parker, you need to peel that paper off. It will make you sick if you eat it." I kept my voice low, never wanting to see her afraid of me again. She looked at the food in her hand and tugged at the paper, seeing that I spoke the truth. Slowly she peeled it off, watching in amazement as the cake of the cupcake stayed in the same ribbed pattern as the paper. She looked fascinated, and I couldn’t help the smile that crept across my lips.

###

Parker had finally allowed exhaustion to take over. For the past two hours of waiting, she got more and more antsy. I think she was scared that I had yet to bring her sister to her. Like I was lying to her and abducted her or something. She would pace around the waiting area, staying just out of reach of anyone, especially Gabe. She kept a close eye on him. The only man I saw her seem remotely comfortable with was dad. He said that Parker had been to the hangar on a number of occasions. He gave her the sweetest smiles whenever he happened to catch her eye. She just looked at him, but did not run to hide behind the set of chairs near the door.

I had tried to explain to the child that her sister was sleeping and needed her rest, and that we’d be able to see her later. She would stare at me as though I were lying to her, keeping her away from Keller. It was such a strange feeling to be so mistrusted by a five year old that I had met about four hours ago. She looked as though it was her against the world, always looking at everyone like she was waiting for them to make a move on her. It made my heart hurt.

The little blonde had finally collapsed in a chair three down from me, her little body curled up on itself. She laid her head against the wooden arm of the chair. I think her eyes were rallying against her. They would slide closed, but immediately she’d pop them back open, wider than normal as if to make up for the earlier closing. Then her body would wage war upon her again, and she’d nod off. That is until someone made any kind of noise. I had never seen such a light sleeper.

The door to the ER burst open and a man in scrubs came out.

"Keller Mitchum?" He looked around the room, seeing who responded. Like a shot, Parker was awake. I looked at him.

"Over here."

The young doctor walked over to the four of us.

"Keller made it through surgery and has been sleeping for several hours. She’s doing well. I think we got all of the bleeding to stop."

"What’s wrong with the kid?" dad asked.

"She suffered severe trauma to her large intestines, as though she were kicked or hit with a blunt object. Three of her ribs are broken, and she has lacerations covering much of her mid section. Stitches were necessary, as was packing to help with the swelling. Her concussion is much better, though the next twelve hours will be crucial for her. She will get around the clock care." He smiled at us and we all sighed a breath of relief.

"Can we see her?" I asked, then nodded toward Parker. "That’s Keller’s little sister. She’s been antsy all night to make sure she’s okay."

"Only for a short time. Keller is asleep, however, and I don’t want her disturbed." He gave me a look of warning and I nodded, understanding.

"Come on, Parker. Let’s go see Keller." The big blue eyes were suddenly very awake. She hopped off the chair, little legs moving as fast as they could. We were escorted into the bowels of the ER toward a cluster of curtained-off cubicles.

"She’s in recovery, but will be moved to a private room." With a last smile, the doctor walked away. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the curtain aside, allowing an anxious five year old to go in before me. I wasn’t sure what we’d see once inside, but I also wanted to make sure my employee was okay.

The room was quiet, save for the soft beeping and slurping of different machines attached to Keller’s body via IVs and wires. She laid in the center of the bed, sheet pulled up to her gowned waist. Her eyes were closed, the lids very dark. The swelling around the one eye was still prevalent, and I imagined she wouldn’t even be able to open that eye even if she wanted to.

It was amazingly hard to see that young girl like that – the bruises I had gotten a glimpse of earlier now stood out in stark contrast to the white gown they had her dressed in. Angry purple and black bruises covered the left side of her face, disappearing into her hairline. Her lips were swollen and chapped. Several little patches of stitches lined her arm and the side of her chin. There was a bandage attached to the back of her head, covering more stitches, I imagined. Her middle looked thick from the layer of bandages they had around her ribs, and to protect her recent surgery.

My eyes turned to Parker as absolute relief and glee filled her face. She hurried over to the bed, peeking at Keller through the bars at either side. She reached a small hand up through them, wrapping her fingers around Keller’s unmoving hand. The little girl stared at her sister, not seeming to see the bruises and cuts. She looked at Keller with awe and love.

It broke my heart.

I stood back, feeling almost as though I were interrupting a very sacred moment between the sisters, one looking with so much hope, the other unconscious. Parker patted Keller’s hand, watching as her small hand touched the larger, veined surface. Her eyes kept darting up to Keller’s closed face, almost as though she were hoping that with each look, those blue eyes would be looking at her. Just maybe this time.

It never happened.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out through her nose, Parker leaned her face against the coolness of the steel bars, her eyes never leaving Keller’s still form. Somehow seeing her standing there, the picture of Keller, what little I knew of it, seemed complete. Parker, though looking horribly tired, seemed happy and content.

I know we wouldn’t be able to stay long, and I had to get this little one to bed. Somewhere.

"Parker?" My quiet voice was almost shocking in the stillness of the moment. She looked at me, almost surprised to see me there. "Honey, it’s getting late. You need to rest."

She turned away from me, once again giving her attention to her big sister. I tried again.

"Parker? Do you want to go home?" This got a reaction. Her head jerked my way again, total fear filling those eyes. She said nothing, did not respond – only stared. "Are you tired?" She studied me, but slowly she nodded. "Do you want to go home with me? To my house?" Again, she studied me, as if weighing her options. Go home where it smells like urine and is manned by a fat bastard, or go home with this strange chick that I don’t know from Adam. She swallowed, hard, chewing on her bottom lip. Finally a small finger pointed. At me. "You want to come home with me?" She nodded. "Okay."

I pushed away from the wall where I’d taken up residence for the past ten minutes.

"Come on, honey. Keller needs to get her rest. And so do you." What I didn’t tell her was that I was exhausted, too. Parker let out a strange, almost mew, when I touched her shoulder to get her to leave. She held onto Keller’s hand and laid her forehead against the bars. Startled, I let go of her immediately. She looked up at me, and in those ancient eyes I saw so much pain and fear. She looked so haggard and helpless. Not for the first time that night, I wanted to cry for her.

The girl turned back to her sister, then headed toward the door. She kept craning her neck, trying to get one last look at her big sister before finally turning the corner out into the main ER.

Dad and Gabe were waiting anxiously in the waiting room for us.

"She’s sleeping. Battered as all hell." I ran a hand through my hair. Walking over to Gabe, I led him a little ways away from dad and Parker. "I need to ask you a favor." I looked up into dark eyes, hoping he’d see the plea in my eyes.

"Okay . . ."

"Please stay with dad for tonight? Parker’s coming home with me, and she’s terrified of men. That’s why she acted that way with you." We both turned to see Parker staring at the floor, scuffed toe of her shoe tracing the line of the tile. "You can stay on his couch." My old friend sighed, but nodded.

"Alright. Poor kid."

"I know. I have no idea what’s happened to her and Keller. I’m not even sure I want to know. Either way, the kid has got to have somewhere to stay tonight. There’s not a chance in hell I’m taking her back to that shithole."

"Good. Well, guess I’ll see you tomorrow."

"Okay. We still on to get you moved this weekend?" I took a few backwards steps from him, so ready to go home. He nodded. "Kay. See you then." With a salute, I turned and led Parker outside.

###

The kid had absolutely nothing. Just the clothes on her back, and her jigsaw puzzle of a bear. We made a stop at a discount store to pick some stuff up for her. The store was large, but mainly empty at nearly ten p.m. Parker’s eyes grew to the size of saucers as she took in everything. She looked part terrified, part curious as hell, and part kid in toy land.

I led her to the children’s clothing. Those overalls she had on were so dirty and had been patched so many times. She smelled like whatever the hell had been under that porch. Whatever it was, I think it died.

"Okay, Parker. What do you like?" I looked through a rack of pajamas with the feet in them. "Do you like these?" I pulled out a pair of purple ones. She looked at them, then up at me, wrinkling her nose. Grinning, I put them back and grabbed blue. She was wearing blue, so she must like it. She looked at them, then they were snagged out of my hands, held firmly to her body. I grabbed another pair just to be safe, then headed us over to pants and shirts.

From the look of rapture on Parker’s face, I kept picking things out for her. She greedily grabbed them from my fingers, holding them up to herself or wrinkling her nose. The girl knew what she liked.

Armed with two pairs of pants and five shirts, we headed toward the food part of the store. I had nothing that I could feed her in the morning. This time I picked all the food out, ending up with a cart full of cereal, eggs, breakfast meats, bread and Jell-O.

I could have shopped all night with this girl. In the short time I’d known her, she always looked older than me. But when her eyes lit up with everything I was going to buy her, I felt warm and fuzzy inside.

I swallowed heavily at the total I put on my credit card, but knew this girl was worth it. I had no idea what would happen as of tomorrow, but for tonight, she’d be safe.

###

Parker sat with her head leaning against the glass of the passenger side window, much as her sister had earlier in the day. She looked so worn out, and I don’t just mean because she was tired.

Slowly I turned my truck into the driveway, the headlights illuminating the two-story, brick house. The chains of the porch chain winked in the light, then were gone again as I turned the engine off.

Groggy, Parker looked at her surroundings, then at me.

"This is where I live." I smiled, opening the door to the truck, then went around to help the little girl out of the large vehicle. I held her hand, as it was dark and I didn’t want her to trip. I could hear my boys barking as we mounted the three stairs that led to the large porch that disappeared around the house.

I felt Parker tense, and looked down as I got the key ready to insert into the door. "Those are my dogs, Parker," I said, trying to calm her. No such luck. She tensed even more and began to hide her body behind my legs. Shit! Dogs, too?

Trying to decide how to handle this, I pushed her behind me totally and opened up the door. Immediately I was trounced by the excited dogs. I yelled for them to stop, trying my damndest to keep them off Parker. Finally I picked her up, feeling her tiny fingers digging into my shoulder. I set her on the third stair and told her to stay where she was. She did, backing against the wall, huge, terrified eyes looking at the dogs who were trying to sniff her though the railing.

"Come on, boys." I grabbed them both by their collars, leading them outside. I put their bowls of food out there and hurried back inside. Parker was huddled in the corner of the stair, arms wrapped around herself. "Come on, sweetie." I hefted her slight weight up and carried her upstairs. "You ready for bed, Parker?" I smiled at her tired face and droopy eyes. She nodded, bringing her thumb up to her mouth and hooking her index finger over her nose.

Upstairs consisted of three bedrooms, the stairs that led to the attic, and a bathroom. I decided on the room closest to mine for my pint-sized guest. Carrying her in there, I set her down, dropping the shopping bags that had been hooked over my arm as well.

"Okay, you. Lets get you changed." Suddenly sleepy eyes were huge. She hopped up from the bed, backing away from me. "What?" She looked at the door, at me, at the door, then back at me, panicked and about to bolt. My heart was pounding. I had no idea what to do, never knowing that I could scare the shit out of a five year old so badly. I didn’t even know what I had done. I wished that she’d just talk to me, damn it!

Taking a step back and a deep breath, I cleared my head.

"Okay. Do you want to do it yourself?" I asked, trying to lighten the mood with my cheerful voice. She looked up at me, then nodded. Getting somewhere now.

"Okay." I smiled, trying my best to let her know I wasn’t angry with her or anything. She seemed to calm, but only slightly. "I’ll be right out there, okay?" I pointed toward the hall. Parker nodded, a hand reaching out to nervously play with the material of her overalls.

As quickly as propriety would allow, I got out that room. Once the door was closed behind me, I leaned against it. Eyes closed, I took several deep breaths. In the space of a single day, my world had been turned upside down. I had seen things I never hoped to see on a seventeen year old. I had a child in my house who was afraid of everything, and I felt as though I were on egg shells with every step. I didn’t mind the fact that Parker was here, I just had no idea what to do with her, or how to handle her. Do I leave her alone? Become more attentive? I wish I knew what those five year old eyes had seen. Then maybe I could understand.

I heard footsteps on the other side of the door and stepped away from it. It opened just a crack, weary blue eyes peeking out. I smiled at her. "You need to go potty, honey?" She nodded vigorously. Deciding not to take any chances, I led her to the bathroom, again leaving her to do her business.

Hurrying downstairs, I found the old baby gate I used to put at the bottom of the stairs to keep the dogs from running down or up the stairs. Firmly in place, the boys were let in, glaring at me for keeping them out so long.

"Yeah, yeah. Life is hard," I muttered, sitting on the floor with them and giving them so much needed attention. I don’t know who needed it more – me or them. They represented stability and familiarity for a backward day. The toilet flushed above me and I saw that as my cue. "You boys be good." One final kiss to each, I headed upstairs.

Making sure Parker was tucked into bed snugly, wrapped up in a pair of her new, blue footy PJs, I headed toward my own room. Even though the girl still smelled horribly from being under the porch, it was very late, and I’d give her a bath in the morning. She needed her rest. I left the bathroom light on as a nightlight, leaving the door open just a smidge to leave a light trail, were Parker to need the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Continued...

Return to the Academy