For complete disclaimers see part 1.

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Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Part 4

An orange bird flew at full speed. I looked out the side window in my plane, seeing the bird. It almost looked as though it was trying to race with me. Seeing the absurdity of the situation, I turned full throttle, determined to beat the little feathered bugger.

The plane began to make the strangest noises. I looked around, testing the different instruments - nothing was wrong. There it was again, like a strange little moan . . .

My eyes popped open and I listened. Nothing. About to go back to sleep, I heard it again. Realization dawned on me. "Parker . . ."

Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I hurried down the hall to her room. The door was open, the dark room within empty. Worried, I turned, about to head downstairs, when I head the sound again. It was like a strangled moan, but very, very quiet.

What the hell?

Heading toward the bathroom, I saw the briefest glimpse of blue. Gently pushing the semi-closed door open, I saw the child huddled on the floor, arms wrapped around her shins. Her cheek rested against her knees, her face hidden by her hair.

"Parker?" I said softly, bending down in front of her. Her head jerked up, and I was stunned to see that her eyes were very red and moist. It looked as though she'd been crying for hours. The child, though only five, looked so much younger right then. I wanted so badly to take her onto my lap and cradle her, tell her that everything would be okay. I wished I believed it. I was so afraid for her and Keller.

Alas, I figured she'd freak out again. I did not want to be anymore a part of the poor child's fear than I already had been.

"Did you get scared, honey?" She nodded, another tear slipping out of an eye, snot gathering around her nose. I grabbed a tissue and wiped her face, letting her blow her nose. "Want to go back to bed?" I tossed the tissue out, saturated with Parker's upset. She nodded. I stood, holding my hand out for her to take. She looked up at me, unfolding herself. I smiled down at her. When I felt her hand in mine, I turned toward her room but stopped when she hesitated. Looking back, I saw blue eyes looking up at me, new tears beginning to rise.

My heart broke. Kneeling down, I looked at her.

"Parker, what is it? Are you afraid in there?" I pointed toward her room. She looked at the open door, a dark maw to eat her up. She nodded, chewing on her bottom lip. I brought my thumb up to wipe at the fresh tear. "Want to come with me?" Blonde curls bounced as she took in the other option of my room. She brought her thumb up and began to suck on it, then looked at me. She nodded and I melted. "Come on, big girl." I grabbed her hand again and we settled in the big bed. Parker hugged the edge, her back to me, teddy bear wrapped protectively in her arms. I wanted to curl myself around her to protect her from the world, but dared not. She'd let me know if she wanted my comfort.


Excited that I actually had a learning curve, I left Parker in the bathroom alone to bathe herself. I had put about three inches of water into the huge Roman tub, and headed into her bedroom. I changed her sheets and straightened what little mess was in "her" room, then I got myself dressed. I'd shower at the hangar later.

As I was tying my shoes, Parker stepped into the doorway of my room. I was charmed beyond belief. Her blonde curls, clean and unruly, ran past her shoulders. She wore the new clothes I'd bought her the night before, little jeans with a red and white sweater. She was too cute. She was mostly clean. I noticed where she had missed a spot of soap on the side of her neck, and quickly wiped it off for her.

"Hungry?" I smiled at her, running a hand through my own unruly hair. I'd need a brush later. She nodded and we headed downstairs.

Parker sat at the kitchen table, watching me make us breakfast. I decided that eggs were safe enough and she should be able to handle them just fine.

"Do you like milk, Parker?" I looked at the girl over my shoulder, as I stood in the cold from the open fridge. She nodded. "Have you ever had chocolate milk?" She looked at me as though I had two heads. Grabbing the jug of two percent, I poured a glass for the kid and one for myself. "See, this is what's called Hershey's syrup." I held up the brown container with the silver and brown label. "Good stuff, Maynard."

Giving myself a very liberal amount of chocolate, I put a tad in Parker's. Just enough to give it a chocolaty flavor. Setting the two glasses on the table, the kid looked at hers, brow wrinkled with uncertainty.

"I know it looks like dirty milk, but it's not, I promise you." I sipped my own, grinning like the big kid I was. "Yum!" Parker looked at me, the tiniest bit of a smile twitching the corner of her mouth. She grabbed her glass, looking down into it once more before taking a tentative sip, her eyes on me the entire time. She hesitated only a moment, tasting the drink on her tongue, then she grabbed the glass with both hands, needing the extra support as she guzzled it down. I mean, this girl had the stuff dribbling down the sides of her mouth onto her new shirt.

I grimaced, knowing that I'd be throwing that shirt into the wash, along with everything else the girl had with her. Including that disgusting bear.

Parker set the empty glass aside, gasping for the breath she didn't take as she drank. She looked down at herself, saw the mess on her shirt and her eyes flew wide open. Grinning, I reached across the table with a napkin. She only flinched for a brief moment, then realized I was simply washing her dirty upper lip. I smiled at her, then jumped back, startled, as she flew from her chair.

"Damn it, Roy!" I got up, grabbed the dog by his collar, and led him to join his brother in the living room. They had been banned from the kitchen this morning, but he had managed to sneak back in and sniff Parker's hand. She was terrified, halfway on the table when I got back. "It's okay, honey." I walked over to her. "The dog is gone. He won't hurt you, Parker."

She looked at me, then around me toward the door. She saw that indeed, the doggies were gone, barricaded once more. Slowly she slipped down from the table top and headed back to her seat where she studied the eggs that awaited her. She looked at me once, then went into what I've come to call suck mode. The girl was like a little Hoover!


The hospital was busy, the waiting area in admittance bustling with people walking and being pushed in wheelchairs. The lady at the desk informed me that Keller had been taken to the third floor last night, so Parker and I headed toward the elevators.

My little charge looked around, taking in this new part of the hospital. The stainless steel doors whooshed open and I stepped in, feeling the slight tug on my hand. I looked down to see Parker looking into the car, then up at me. She looked confused.

"This is an elevator, Parker. It will take us to the floor where Keller is." That's all I had to say. Without another moment of hesitation, she followed me inside. Parker was holding her bear to her chest as the elevator slowly rose, ticking off the floors on the digital display over the door. As the car came to a stop, gently jolting our bellies, Parker looked up at me with wide eyes. A slight smile was threatening to quirk up the side, but she kept it in check. The doors dinged open and we headed toward room 317.

A nurse bustled past us, a chart held in her hands. She gave us a brief smile before hurrying on. We entered the room filled with soft beeping. Keller lay on the bed, staring out her open window. Her bruises looked even worse today, having a chance to start healing and showing their true colors. It was really good to see her eyes open.

Parker must have felt the same way, cause she went bounding over to Keller's bed, trying to climb up the metal railing. Swollen, haunted blue eyes turned our way, and the first ever smile I'd ever seen grace Keller's face, did.

"Parker!" she near whispered, relief and reverence filling the breath. She helped the little blonde up to the bed, grimacing slightly as Parker inadvertently hit her incision on her belly. "Careful," she said, her voice quiet. Parker laid next to her big sister, laying her head on Keller's shoulder and wrapping a small arm around her neck. Keller held her close, eyes closing at the contact. She sighed, deep and content.

Those blue eyes opened suddenly, looking right at me. I had shrunk back to the wall, feeling, yet again, as though I were intruding. The ghost of a smile hit those bruised, cracked lips, then faded.

Keller finally got the little imp settled, then looked at me again.

"Thank you," she said, though her voice was very hoarse. I assumed she meant for bringing Parker, so I nodded.

"How do you feel?" I asked, taking a slight step closer to the bed. Keller shrugged, eyes always on me.

"I'll survive. Where did these clothes come from?" she asked, tugging at Parker's shirt.

"I bought them for her. All she had were those overalls."

"You didn't have to do that. I can take care of my sister by myself." For just a moment, a glint of anger passed through those steely blue eyes.

"I know you can, Keller, but you were in here. She needed them, so I got them for her." I rested my hand on the footboard of her bed.

"I'll pay you back." She cuddled Parker closer, protective.

"No you won't. It was nothing." I dared her to challenge me with my eyes. From what I'd seen over the past couple days, I knew there was not a chance in hell that she could do any such thing. Keller said nothing, but I could still see that fire of pride burning hot. It was a clash of wills, and no matter what this girl thought, I was going to help them.

"We'll see," Keller said, her voice low and dangerous.

Our battle was interrupted by a nurse coming in. We all turned to look at her, save for Parker. She was safe in Keller's arms, and nothing else mattered.

"Good. The child's here." She kicked the stopper aside with a white shoe, the door to the room whooshing closed. Keller gently nudged her sister away from her enough to look into her eyes.

"Parker, the nice lady needs to look at you, okay?" Her words were quiet and soft, voice soothing. Parker looked over her shoulder at the dark-skinned nurse, who smiled at her with compassion. Parker looked at her sister again, confusion burning in blue eyes.

I was also confused. I looked to the lady. "What's going on?" The nurse looked to Keller, who nodded, then she looked at me.

"From the report that Ms. Mitchum gave the police last night, we need to check the child for injuries."

"Oh." Stepping back into my earlier corner, I leaned against the wall, arms crossed over my chest, watching. Keller said something else to Parker, so low that neither the nurse or I could hear.

"Okay? For me?" The little blonde nodded at her sister's words and carefully crawled off the bed.

"Come here, honey." The kindly nurse gently took Parker by the shoulders, guiding her to where she needed her to be. There was another knock at the door and a woman peeked her head in.

"Are you ready, Alice?"

"Come in, officer."

The door opened fully, a female police officer stepping in wearing full uniform. She smiled at me, then looked to Parker. She brought up a Polaroid camera, ready for the nurse to begin.

"Ladies, this is Officer Bently with the WPD. She'll be recording this for evidence," the nurse explained.

"Evidence?" I was baffled.

"Yes. Ms. Mitchum has decided to press charges, and we'll need this for the investigation." She placed a hand gently on Parker's shoulder. I noticed the girl flinch slightly, but otherwise make no movements. Settling in for the interim, I watched as nurse Kravitz knelt down to her knees with a slight groan, joints popping in fifty year old knees. "Ready, honey?" she asked Parker kindly. The little girl just looked at her with wide eyes. "Officer?" She glanced at Bently, who nodded.

I held my breath, for some reason feeling as though there was to be a great revelation. I was nervous, and my body felt like it was waiting on pins and needles. Nurse Kravitz gently grabbed the hem of Parker's red and white sweater, advising the child to put her arms up. At Keller's request, she did. The sweater came off, revealing a turquoise shirt beneath. I smiled at the mismatch of colors in the girl's wardrobe.

My eyes went to the bed, where I saw Keller look away, her eyes closing tightly, then I heard someone suck in a breath. My gaze went back to Parker and the nurse, who was raising the thin cotton shirt. With every inch, more and more old, and some new, bruises were being revealed. There were scabs from what looked to be scratches that littered her chest. The skin of her side was marred with old burns, essentially circular and about the size of a small button. It took a few seconds before I realized they were probably from cigarettes.

Parts of Parker's side and just under her clavicle were pasty yellow from old bruises trying to heal, a few new ones inflicted over them. The bruises seemed to take an abrupt halt just under her shoulders, as if the wielder knew he was less likely to get caught the lower they stayed.

"Turn around, honey." Nurse Kravitz's voice was very soft. I could tell she was having a hard time keeping it together. The police officer clicked a few pictures, kneeling down to get closer, the flash blinding for a moment with each shot. Parker turned around, her back to me now, and my hand went to my mouth, tears instantly welling in my eyes.

On the girl's back, near the waistband of her underwear, was an old scar. It was a scar in the shape of letters: AM.

Unable to handle it anymore, I excused myself, hurrying past the police officer, and out the door. I was frantic to find a restroom, needing to relieve my roiling stomach. Finally, I saw the universal sign for the women's restroom and slammed through the door, scaring an old woman half to death as she left. I didn't care.

Finding the first empty stall, I hurried in and fell to the floor, my breakfast leaving my body with an unceremonial plop into the toilet. After retching several times, I sat on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, head against the stall wall, eyes closed. I kept seeing those letters carved into that baby's back over and over again. And as old as the scar looked, and misshapen from Parker's growing body, I figured it had to have been done a long time ago.

What the hell kind of monster did they live with? AM. Al Mitchum.



Parker wanted to stay with Keller, so I headed out of the hospital, in need of some serious fresh air. By the time I'd returned to Keller's room, the officer and nurse had finished and were gone. Parker was dressed again, snuggled in next to her sister.

Now I stood just outside the main entrance, pacing back and forth, letting the cool, late September air fill my lungs. A couple doctors came out and lit up. I had no interest in company, so I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked around the large brick building. People hurried to and from the parking lot, some nodding at me as they passed, others unaware of my presence. I ran a hand through my short hair, trying to fight the images in my mind.

I couldn't help but see that baby held down by her father, knife in his hand. Parker crying from fear, then from pain as he proceeded to carve his fucking initials in the tender skin of her lower back.

The faint sting of tears began behind my eyes again as I stepped into the wind, turning my back to it. I leaned my shoulder against the cold brick, my head dropping as those tears finally formed and fell. Shoulders shaking with every heave, I finally felt the weight of the situation hit home. I also understood why Parker was as squeamish as she was and terrified of everything. I understood what I had to do; I was going to protect those girls with whatever I had, and I knew dad would back me up.

The horrors those girls had lived through in such a short time in their lives. The things they'd seen and felt. I had seen the smattering of bruises and injuries on Keller's skin. Her injuries were extensive enough that they'd required surgery, for Christ's sake! What kind of person could do that? What kind of father could do that to his kids?! I had no idea if it was in fact Al Mitchum, but I'd bet my bottom dollar it was. The way he had treated me and Gabe that day, total, complete, utter strangers. What would he do to two kids that piss him off? Get in his way?

The tears were coming faster and faster, no matter how I tried to stop them. Finally I gave it up and let them come. Sliding down the brick, I squatted, my face in my hands as I sobbed. I could never imagine seeing something like what I had just seen in real life. On TV, maybe, but not like this. This had walked into my hangar, and into my life.

With a resolve of steel, I calmed myself down, wiping my face of any evidence of my breakdown. I didn't want to cause Keller and Parker any more embarrassment than they already had. I pulled my jacket closer around my body and headed back inside.


The perfect hush of the room was only broken when I realized that Keller and Parker weren't sleeping at all. The little girl with the bouncy curls had her back to the door, a protective arm holding her slight body. Keller was nose to nose with the girl, speaking in hushed tones.

I found a chair and sat down. It was at that moment that I saw Keller peek her head up. She was pinning me to the spot with a not-so-happy gaze. Apparently I was interrupting. She turned back to Parker, who was making strange little hand movements. It almost looked like a mixture of sign language and something of her own creation. I concentrated on that, trying to figure out what she was saying. Keller seemed to understand her perfectly. She grinned and nodded, either whispering something back or signing.

I cleared my throat, and again, Keller looked at me.

"Is there anything you need, Keller? Can I get Parker anything? Is she hungry?" Blue eyes turned back to her sister and another private conversation ensued. Parker signed something, then waited as Keller whispered something to her. Without another word, spoken or signed, Parker got herself up, mindful of Keller's injured body, and climbed down from the bed. She walked over to me, looking at me with expectant blue eyes. Talk to me, kid! Tell me what you want.

"What does she want?" I asked Keller, though my eyes remained on Parker.

"Ask her," said the groggy voice from the bed. My eye glanced briefly at Keller, then back on the kid.

"What do you want, Parker? Are you hungry?" Golden curls bounced as she nodded. I stood, taking her hand in mine. We walked out of the room, Parker glancing over her shoulder every couple steps, again trying to get as long a look at her sister as possible.

Finally getting to the elevators, Parker still looked slightly unsure of things, but began to look around, curiosity taking over her uncertainty. She ran her hand down the smooth, stainless steel wall, looking up into the grid light, then at the panel of buttons. Her eyes then drifted up to the digital floor display above the door before turning to look at me. I smiled at her and she just hugged her bear closer, looking at the tile at our feet.

We stopped at the second floor, a group of doctors getting in. One smiled down at Parker and ruffled her hair, then turned back to his companions. Parker looked terrified! She was closed in this tiny space with a bunch of men. I could feel tiny fingers digging into my leg as she hid between me and the wall. I reached down until my hand made contact with that same hair and rested there. She seemed to calm a bit, but I couldn't wait until we hit the first floor. Those little fingers were strong and the nails sharp!

Finally, thankfully, the doors dinged open, and the doctors made their way out, leaving the two of us to exit last. I took a deep sigh of relief and headed us toward the cafeteria.

"Okay, what do you like, little one?" I asked the little blonde squirt, who could barely see into the clear display cases. "Do you like turkey?" She looked up at me, a small pink tongue slipping out to be caught between two lips. I took that as a yes. Grabbing one for her, I snagged a tuna sandwich for myself. I scooted our tray down the railed tray run, stopping to grab a bowl of fruit for both of us, and a bag of chips to share.

We scooted our way down to the drink station. A bored looking girl with a plastic cap to cover her hair looked at us from behind the counter. She was waiting to fill empty glasses with soda, coffee or iced tea. In the case, in ice, were containers of milk, juice, lemonade and Kool-Aid.

"What do you want to drink, little one?" I looked down at the girl who had her bottom lip captured between white, even teeth. "Here." I picked her up, propping the kid up on my hip, and pointed out the different drinks. She chewed on a finger as she looked at all the choices. Reaching out, her hand lingered on a blue and white milk carton, but she looked so unsure. Blue eyes darted between that and Kool-Aid. I think the brightly-colored drink had caught her eye.

Biting my own lip, I felt a bit of indulgence grab me. Turning the kid's eye toward the brown and white cartons that sat in ice next to the regular milk, I leaned down to speak next to her ear.

"Hey, Parker, see that? That's chocolate milk." I poked one of the cold, brown and white cartons. Her eyes widened, and that tongue peeked out again. Grinning, I grabbed three of the cartons.

I watched with immense interest as Parker took her entire sandwich apart. She looked at the different layers on it - lettuce, tomato and cheese. She would try one, biting on it like a little rabbit with a carrot, then shove the entire thing in her mouth. I was amused and charmed beyond belief.

Parker had finished mutilating her sandwich, and ate most of it, though in pieces. She'd eat some bread, then pop some sliced turkey into her waiting mouth, followed by a juicy tomato slice. I was baffled by her antics, but the kid was eating. That was all that mattered.

The chocolate milk seemed to be saved for last. I helped her open the stubborn carton, then Parker took a huge swig from it. This time, though, it did not run down the sides of her mouth. She seemed to be aware enough to not waste it. I was glad for this. I didn't want to have to wash her clothing every few hours.

Parker put the carton down, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked up at me, eyes bright, but face stern. She looked a lot like Keller in that moment. All strong, stubborn and stoic.

The kid gently closed the flaps of her chocolate milk carton, though I knew it was still nearly half full. I didn't ask, but gathered all our trash. Balling up the cellophane that had been wrapped around our sandwiches, I spied the trash can not ten feet away. Looking at Parker, who was watching me, I got an idea.

Grabbing her around the waist, I handed her the cellophane.

"Throw it in, kiddo." Hefting her up, she shot and made it. "Yay! Two points for Parker!" Putting her down, I saw another ghost of a smile. It made my heart melt.


The elevator ride was interesting. I noticed that at each stop, Parker had figured out that if she jumped right as the car lurched, she'd get that crazy little butterfly flapping its wings in her tummy.

I totally bypassed the third floor and hit nine instead. Parker looked at me curiously, but then that itty bitty smile returned as we hit another gravity-defying moment. She jumped, and so did I. Her eyes got big and round, and she jumped again. The next floor we hit, I picked her up so she could get even more of that weightless feeling. Once back on the tiled floor, she looked up at me, and I saw the barest hint of white teeth.

Again, my heart melted. We strolled toward Keller's room, which was dark and quiet. The curtains had been pulled, and Keller seemed to be asleep. I could feel Parker straining at the bit next to me, wanting to fly over to her sister. I knelt down, bringing my finger to my mouth, then put my hands together near my cheek to show Keller was sleeping. Parker nodded, ever so wise in those five-year old eyes. I picked the girl up and placed her on the bed next to her sister. Parker immediately curled up next to her, head resting on Keller's shoulder.

Blue eyes opened and Keller looked at me. I gave her a smile that was not returned.

"I'll give you two some time. I'll go for a walk or something." She nodded. "Be back later."


Knowing that the nurse had my cell phone number, I felt safe in leaving Parker in the very capable hands of her big sister. I drove the truck to the hangar, needing badly to talk to dad. It was kind of strange being in the truck alone. The last three trips in this rig had either been with Keller or Parker.

The large, metal building came into view, and I watched as planes from the nearby airport took off overhead, their engines nearly deafening as they passed. I couldn't keep the smile off my face if I tried. This was my life. My normal, familiar, I-know-everything-about-it life.

I was finally able to sigh in contentment after feeling so inadequate and awkward for the past forty-eight hours.

Strolling into the front office, I got my cup and filled it with old, strong brew.

"Do you never make new coffee?" I asked Penny, grimacing at the tar taste. She flipped me the finger as she talked on the phone and I grinned. Ah, to be back.

Pouring tons of cream to make the taste manageable, I headed toward the office.

"Hey, Monk," Jerome said, smiling as he passed me.

"Howdy, big guy. Where's the grump?"

"Which one?"

We both laughed, and I saw dad sitting behind the desk through the office window. "Hey, pop." I plopped down in the chair across the desk from him. He barely looked up to acknowledge me, toothpick dancing between his lips.

"How's the kid?" he chicken-pecked the keyboard, looking through our flight schedule for the next month.

"Keller or Parker?" I asked, reaching over the desk to snag a power bar out of the top drawer. He shooed me away, and I sat down with an evil grin.

"Yes," he muttered.

"Well, I just saw them both, in fact I left Parker with Keller. She looks like shit. Those bruises are so dark, but they're starting to get that strange, pee-colored tint to them, you know?" He nodded, still not looking at me. "I think she's going to be okay, though. The doctor said her incision was looking good and the healing process was going well. He also said that he wanted to keep her there for the rest of the week."

This got dad's attention. "A week, huh?" I nodded.

"Dad, what were you thinking offering to pay her hospital bills?" I leaned forward in my seat, power bar forgotten as I tossed it to the desktop. Dad sat back in his chair, sighing as he brought his calloused fingers up, pinching the mauled toothpick between them. He studied me for a moment, blue eyes squinting slightly. I didn't back down, only returned his gaze just as frankly.

"That kid doesn't have a thing, Monk. She's got that kid sister of hers, and that's it. No money, no support, hell, barely clothes or food." He sat forward, hands resting on the desk. "They need us, and I'm going to do what it takes to help them." He was almost looking at me pleadingly. He'd do what he wanted to do, but Davies' Hangar was mine, too, so it had to be a joint decision.

I sighed, running a hand through my hair. "This is going to be thousands of dollars. Probably hundreds of thousands."

"I know."

"How the hell do you expect us to afford that, dad?" I was worried, but decided to not panic just yet. I knew dad was right, but still, bank accounts don't lie. We were doing well with the business, but not that well.

"Those cops were here earlier, too." Dad eyed me, though I could tell he was slightly nervous.

"Okay," I drawled, that crazy butterfly leaving Parker's tummy for my own.

"I've taken custody of Parker until Keller turns eighteen in a few weeks."

I was struck by the generosity of my father. I knew he was an amazing man, but this was unreal. A slow smile spread across my face.

"God, that's so awesome of you." My grin was full now. "But dad, you don't have the room for her." My brows drew.

"Well, that's why she'll be staying with you."

The smile slid off my face.


"What the hell!?" I followed him through the hangar, anger and worry brewing inside of me. "Why did you do that, dad? I don't know a damn thing about five year olds!"

"Why not? You were one once," he tossed over his shoulder. He was headed toward the copter.

"Dad, I cannot take care of this kid. She needs someone who's been there, done that. Someone who can care for her and not scare the shit out of her!" I almost ran square into my father as he stopped abruptly, turning toward me. He looked angry.

"That's why I chose you, Garrison. You got a good heart in that stubborn chest of yours. That kid already feels comfortable around you. Can you imagine her alone with me?" He thumbed himself in the chest. "She'd be terrified!"

"But you said she knows you-"

"She does. But it ain't the same as a woman. You didn't take her out of that shit hole she was in so she could be even more afraid with me." The veins in his leathery neck were standing on end. All activity in the hangar had stopped, everyone watching us fight on the tarmac. Not that that was terribly unusual.

"Dad, I've never had kids before. I don't have any nieces or nephews to try this shit on. I don't know what to do!"

"That's the role every parent takes, Monk. You think an instruction book falls out of the sky with all the answers to your parenting needs?" He held his arms up in exasperation. "You learn as you go."

"I'm not her parent, dad." I lowered my voice, my anger giving way to my fear.

"I know that, kid." He put his hand on my shoulder. "But you're all that she's got until Keller gets better." With that, he turned and climbed into the helicopter, leaving me to stand there, feeling like the floor had just fallen out from under me.

"Shit." Then a thought occurred to me as he began to lift off. "What about work?" I yelled up.

"Congratulations! You just got a vacation!" he yelled back, then was gone. All I could do was scream out my frustration. Reggie and Jerome hid. Smart boys.


The hospital seemed unusually busy as I walked its corridors, headed to Keller's room. I hated hospitals. When mom was sick, I had to take her to her appointments in these very walls. Lois Greene had been mom's doctor. Nice woman, though unable to do a damn thing for her.

I sighed, shoving my hands into my pockets. What the hell was I going to do with a five year old for a whole week? And not just any five year old, but one that's afraid of everything and everyone, including me! I knew what dad said had made sense, but still.

As I entered the room that was quickly becoming familiar, I saw an adorable picture. Keller was of course on her back, but Parker was curled up on her side, head resting on her big sister's shoulder. Keller's head rested against the golden curls and both were sleeping. Breathing deep and even, I almost left again. Instead, knowing that visiting hours would be over very soon, I sat in the chair by the wall that I had claimed as my own.

I saw the protective arm Keller had around her sister, and the total differences between their states of relaxation. Parker's body was completely limp, relaxed and comfortable. Keller looked tense and taut, even in sleep. Kind of like a tightly coiled spring that would jump out at anytime. Like even in sleep she was watching and aware.

To prove my point, blue eyes were suddenly looking at me. I gave her a smile, which was not returned. I stifled a grin when I saw the tell tale chocolate milk mustache that colored the corner of Keller's mouth.

"Hi. I didn't mean to wake you," I said, my voice hushed so as not to wake Parker. Keller said nothing. "Visiting hours will be over soon. I figured Parker is probably pretty wiped out, and I know you can't keep her here with you."

Keller just stared at me for a moment, taking me all in, sizing me up. I felt like I was being slowly devoured and then spit back out. Very unsettling. She turned to Parker, gently nudging her and whispering something to her. The groggy five year old woke, sleepy eyes blinking rapidly while looking around.

"Listen, Keller, my father and I have talked, and-"

"Parker is staying with you until I get out of here," my janitor interrupted me. I nodded, watching her face carefully. This girl was like a snake - one false move, and she'd nail you with those amazingly intense blue eyes. Disconcerting. "She's my sister," Keller said needlessly, her voice, though low, was sharp and possessive.

"I know that, Keller. She will always be your sister, and your responsibility." I felt bad for this helpless girl. It was obvious we had some jealousy going on here. She was probably the only one who ever took care of Parker, and now felt her territory was being trampled.

The little blonde climbed down from the bed and walked over to me. She looked dead on her feet. Taking her by her small hand, I bid Keller a good night, and headed home.


Parker was snugly asleep in my bed, and it was late. I waited until she passed out, then got up. The boys danced excitedly around me as I headed toward the bags of stuff I'd picked up on the way home. Knowing they were not getting the attention they needed, I let them crawl all over me on the floor, petting and cooing to them.

"Did you boys miss me, huh?" I ran my fingers over Tut's soft ears, velvety to the touch. He looked up at me, big, brown eyes round and alert. "I missed you, too, little man." I cupped his head and placed a loud smacker on top of it, then one on Roy's.

Getting up, I brushed doggy fur off my flannel shorts and t-shirt, then again reached for the plastic bags. My dogs naturally think they're the center of the universe and waited not-so-patiently for what they figured I bought them. I hated being so predictable.

"Go get it, boys!" I tossed out two rawhide bones, which they scrambled to get into their greedy little mouths. It kept them busy while I set about doing what needed to be done. Small piles began to form on the kitchen table - those plastic things that plugged into electrical outlets, a new baby gate, those clippies that make it near impossible for adults, let alone children, to get into cabinets.

I hurried to put the two gallons of milk in the fridge, followed by the huge jug of Hershey's syrup that was put in the cabinet. The few other groceries were put away, then I decided to tackle the plastic outlet plugs.

I heard the key in the lock moments before the door opened and dad walked in. I glared at him.


He muttered something in response, then hung his jacket and hat up on the coat tree near the door. I turned my attention back to kneeling in front of the plug-in by the stairs and wrestled the tight plastic into the slits. Dad was standing behind me.

"What are you doing?" He grabbed another such plug from the table, bringing it up to his eyes, then turning them on to me. I looked at him over my shoulder.

"Baby proofing," I answered, as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

"You're what?" My father's laughter rubbed me the wrong way. I stood, glaring at him from under too long bangs.

"What is so damn funny, Frank?" Hands on hips, I waited for an answer.

"Monk, Parker is five years old, not months." He showed me the plug in his hand. "The kid doesn't need these." He tossed it back to the table.

"I don't know what a kid needs, dad." I plopped down on the first stair, sighing in defeat. I felt stupid. He groaned as he sat next to me, the stair creaking slightly from both our weights.

"You'll do fine, Monk. She needs you to care and protect her. And feed her plenty of licorice. The red kind." He winked and I laughed.

"Healthy diet."

"Yeah, but she loves it. Is she in bed?" He looked around, Tut and Roy already asleep at his feet.

"Of course! It's past midnight. Where else would she be?" I looked totally indignant.

"See that? Mighty fine start already." He grinned and I laid my head on his shoulder.

"Fucked up situation, dad."

"That it is, kiddo." He sighed, and I could feel the sadness rolling off him in waves. Looking at his profile, my brows drew.

"What is it?" He ran a large hand through the graying hair, flattened by the hat he always wore, except in the house. That was rude, you know.

"I should have known better," he said, almost as though he were talking to himself. I could see the muscles in his jaw working, numerous wrinkles appearing on his forehead as his eyes narrowed in thought. I was confused, but knew he'd talk when he was ready.

It took awhile, and it was killing me not to prod. He ran his hand through his hair over and over again, a comforting gesture.

"I knew something was up. I remember the day Keller first came in to apply for that job." He finally looked at me, his eyes troubled. "Those eyes. Just something about them. Empty. Like they've never seen the light of day or something. I can't put my finger on it exactly . . ."


Dad looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Haunted. I should have done something then, Garrison. I knew something just wasn't right. When I saw her bruises, hell, I don't know what I thought. But I had a feeling in my gut, and I didn't listen to it."

"Dad, there is absolutely no reason for any of us to beat ourselves up over this. Hell, I hadn't even seen the poor girl until a month ago!" I threw my hands up to emphasize my point. "There are so many what ifs in a situation like this. You can't win them all, and Keller is fine."

"But at what cost?" He looked into my eyes, and I saw the sadness and regret there. "In that hospital lies a seventeen year old kid." He pointed toward the door. "Alone. She doesn't have a damn soul to go see her, to care about her. That son of a bitch was booked, the cops told me."

"Al Mitchum?"

"Damn straight, Al Mitchum. Keller is pressing charges. But even if he hadn't, do you think he'da come to see his kid? Shit, he put her there! What the hell kind of man could do that?"

"Dad, quiet down. You're going to wake up Parker." I looked over my shoulder up the stairs behind us to make sure that wasn't the case. Dad took a deep breath as he got his emotions under control.

"Them two kids, I'll do anything, Monk. I won't let them down again."

"Dad," I breathed, closing my eyes at the love that suddenly soared through me. "You're not their appointed protector, but we'll do what we have to, okay?" Opening my eyes, I looked into his pained ones. He nodded.

"I knew I could count on you."


Parker followed me around like a little shadow. It had somehow become a silent understanding - I could have the dogs in the house as long as Parker could stay within two feet of me. Roy was dying, wanting to know why he couldn't smell and play with the new little person. Tut just glared, angry that there was someone else to take any attention from his perfect beagle self.

Today it was time to do laundry, as the kid had already soiled every single piece of clothing I bought her that first night with a variety of food stains. I really think that I could have taken all food remnants off the fabric and had a picnic.

Standing in front of the washer, waiting for it to fill with water to mix with the Tide with bleach, I grabbed Parker's overalls, the ones she had been wearing when I picked her up at her house. They, like her teddy bear, were a patchwork of stitches and patches. Some were crudely sewn, as if in a hurry, while others had been skillfully, lovingly done. I had no doubt Keller had done them all. Probably some before Parker had to go to kindergarten, thus the harried ones.

Kindergarten. Everything had happened on a Thursday, and I didn't get Parker until Friday afternoon, so I hadn't had to deal with Parker's school.

I had gotten her up and dressed, ready for a new day. We drove to Franklin-Stevens Elementary School near the post office. Parker looked okay, obviously comfortable with the brick building, crawling with other kids her age and older. I held her hand up the long, cement walk, flanked by autumn yellow grass, and the occasional flower bed.

Here's the funny thing - since Parker had come to stay with me, all four days of it, I had become very fond of the kid and even more protective. My eyes scanned all around us. I don't know, guess I was worried that Al Mitchum would come sneaking out of the bushes or something. Stupid, I know, but my mother always swore I had a maternal side to me somewhere.

The school looked as it had when I'd attended many, many years ago. Somehow, though, it seemed much smaller. Interesting. I found the office with relative ease, part from memory, part from following the helpful little signs posted every few feet. They really must take these kids to be idiots or something.

A secretary sat behind the long, tall desk. I remembered having to get up on my tippy toes to see over it when I was really little. Hell, who am I kidding? I'm still really little. Anyway, back to the story at hand. She had a headset on for the phone and was talking to someone about an attendance problem. The woman's pinned red hair shone under the fluorescent lights overhead, her entirely over-plucked eyebrows rising with her voice volume.

"He needs to be in class, Mrs. Allen. These are very impressionable years on young Donald's school habits." She waited but a moment before jumping in again. "No, Mrs. Allen. His doctor did not send a note, and nor did you. And the same to you." The red head clicked off her call, jaw pulsing as she frantically typed something into her computer, then her sharp, green eyes flicked up to me. She briefly glanced down at what could be seen of Parker, which consisted of the top of her head and part of her eyebrows.

"Hello," I looked the name plate in front of her, "Mrs. Schneider. My name is Garrison Davies and I've got Parker Mitchum here." I put my hand on the kid's shoulder. "Can I possibly talk to Mr. Hoff?"

"Regarding? And where is Keller?" Green eyes scanned the cramped office for the tall brunette.

"In the hospital."

"Oh my word." She covered her mouth with her hand and nodded. "Let me get him." She got up, quickly tugging her skirt into place, then scurried off to get the principal who was there when I attended FSE.

"Garrison? Grease Monkey Davies."

I turned, and an immediate smile filled my face. He looked the exact same, save for more gray hair, and less of it. His dark skin looked smooth and fairly wrinkle free. The gray in his hair and extra added padding around the stomach area were the only visible stages of aging eleven years since I'd been there last.

"Hello, Mr. Hoff. It's nice to see you." I smiled at him, taking his extended hand. He looked down at my charge, who returned the look with wide eyes. "You know Parker." He nodded. "Can we go into your office and talk?"

"Certainly. Fran, hold my calls," he said to the redhead, then led the way to the principal's office. "What's up?" he asked once he got settled. I sat in a chair in front of his desk, Parker standing next to me, refusing to sit on my lap.

"Well, Parker's sister, Keller, is in the hospital. These two are no longer in the home." I looked into his dark eyes, wondering what he was aware of. He sat back in the vinyl-covered chair, propping his chin up on a palm.

"Really?" From the suddenly quiet, and very serious tone of his voice, I figured he had an inclination of what had been going on. "What happened to Keller?"

"Well, I really don't think it's my place to say, sir, but needless to say, her father is in jail as we speak." I felt a small hand rest on my arm, which made me smile.

"Good. It's about time."

"Keller works for my father and I down at the hangar, and dad has taken custody of Parker here until Keller turns eighteen in a couple weeks. I wanted to let you know so that I'd be allowed to pick Parker up from school and such."

"Okay. How's that old flyboy doing, anyway? I saw him on that program on TV the other night." The principal smiled big, teeth almost blindingly white. My smile matched with pride.

"He's doing well. We're real proud of him."

"I bet. I was so sorry to hear about your mom, Garrison. We all really miss her spunk in the PTA."

"Yeah. We miss her spunk, too." My smile turned sad. "Well." Standing, I took Parker's hand in my own. "This one needs to get to class."

"Indeed she does." He smiled with kindness at my little charge.

"Run along, Parker." I gave her a smile and handed her the lunch bag I'd been carrying. She took it, then scurried from the office. Turning back to Mr. Hoff, I shook my head. "This kid thing has been interesting."


So, meanwhile in the laundry room, I looked at those overalls, wondering what color they had started out. I could tell that they had been washed, but it almost reminded me of what clothing washed on a washboard with lye soap must have looked like after awhile. The colors had all but faded into a nondescript, dull blue. Any patterns or cute little characters had long since faded away. The little metal clasps were also dull, the once very round edges now nicked and tarnished, much like the owner.

I tossed the garment into the now-filled washer, followed by Parker's ratty old teddy bear. Maybe I'd get her a new one. She had begun sleeping with me every night, hugging the edge of the bed no matter how much I tried to cajole her to be comfortable. Last night she had surprised me when I felt a little hand come to rest on my arm. I had stayed on my back nearly the entire night just so I wouldn't move and scare her away. Oh, does my back hurt today!

Washer purring along, it was time to start cleaning. It was so hard to get anything done with the kid in the house. Now that she was in school again for the week, I had all afternoon to do whatever I needed to do - including bugging the boys down at the hangar. I'd pick Parker up at two in the afternoon, and off to the hospital we'd go. This was the only time I really saw any sort of a smile on her face. I was glad to see that smile.

One afternoon found me sitting with dad on the back porch of the house, the dogs playing in the yard before us. Dad chewed on a toothpick and I sucked down a cup of coffee. It was a warmer cold day, and I was glad for the short reprieve.

"So how's things with the kid?" he asked, throwing Roy's ball for the zillionth time. The big black lab, Saint Bernard mix bounded after it.

"It's going pretty well, actually. She seems to be settling in pretty good. I don't mind, either. You know, having her here?" I glanced over at him and he nodded.

"That's good."

"Dad, I've been thinking."

"Uh oh." I shouldered him and he grinned.

"I'm going to ask Keller to stay once she gets out."

Dad's blue eyes looked at me, studying me for a moment. I think he was trying to see how serious I was. I met his gaze, non-flinching. "I think that's a real good idea, kid."

"At least until she can get on her feet. They can't exactly go back to that shit hole they called a home." I stretched my legs out in front of me, crossing my booted feet at the ankles.

"Nope. Probably a crime scene now," he said, tossing the saliva-covered ball yet again.

"Don't you ever get tired of that?" I asked with amusement. He shook his head.

"Nah. Love my grandsons." He winked at me, then took the end of the rope that Tut offered him. Dad played tug of war with the beagle, replete with growls.

"Think she'll go for it?" I watched, wondering if the dog would win.

"She might. She just might."


My stomach was filled with butterflies, and it wasn't from the seven extra floors we jumped in the elevator, either. Parker held on tightly to my hand as we made our way down the now very familiar hall of Keller's floor. The staff knew us pretty well by now, always saying hello and giving Parker sweet smiles.

Keller's room was dark, as always. The shade was always pulled halfway down, her blue eyes trained on the remaining part of the window. Today was no exception. She glanced our way when she heard the pitter patter of Parker's feet running across the highly polished tile. The kid jumped onto Keller's bed, wrapping her grateful arms around her big sister's neck.

The janitor smiled, nuzzling her sister's nose with her own.

"How are you today, Keller?" I sat in my chair, crossing my ankle over a knee.

"Alright," she said, her voice low and emotionless. She was getting out the next morning.

"I wanted to talk to you about something." I leaned forward in my chair and she looked at me, only looking half interested. "As I'm sure you're aware, you break out of here tomorrow afternoon." I swallowed. For some reason, this kid made me slightly nervous. "What were your plans when you got out?"

"Go home," she said simply.

"Where's that?"

She looked at me like I was an idiot. "Where you picked Parker up."

"Keller, that place is a rat hole. It's practically falling down. Besides, police have it roped off as a crime scene. You can't go back. At least, not yet."

"A rat hole?" Her voice was tinged with anger and disbelief, as though she were stunned that I'd say anything negative about her house, no matter how disgusting it was. She snorted. "How dare you say anything about how and where I live."

"Keller, it's not livable. I saw inside that place when I talked to your dad. There's barely anything inside, and what is, is either broken or smells like pee." The brunette narrowed her eyes and covered Parker's ears.

"Fuck you! How dare you judge me? Or where I live? That's been my home for seventeen years. Not all of us have been blessed with whatever palace you grew up in. And as for what we'll do? I don't need your help. I'll find a fucking apartment." She released her sister's ears, receiving a strange look from the little blonde.

I sighed, running a hand through my hair. I wanted to growl. "Okay, hang on a sec. I'm sorry, okay? I wasn't trying to judge you. It's not your fault what's happened. All I want to do is help."

"We don't need your help. And what does it matter whose fault it is? Does placing blame mean that my house will look more like yours? Does placing blame mean that my life will be more like yours? Does it mean Al would somehow turn into Frank? Get real." She turned to her sister, burying her nose in the thick, fragrant hair. Parker had found her teddy bear to be most fascinating. Since I'd washed it, and found out that the bear was actually blue, she was amazed. It was almost as if she'd gotten a brand new huggy toy. The kid wasn't listening to a word we said.

"Keller, don't be a fool. You don't have the money to get an apartment. It's not cheap to start a place. And yeah, I may have been lucky in who I got for parents, but don't think my life has been perfect, either. Look, this isn't a pissing contest." I stared at her, willing her to look at me. She refused. "Regardless of what you may think you need, think about Parker, what she needs."

Keller shook her head. "You play dirty." Her voice was soft. "Considering your dad has custody of my sister until I'm eighteen, I'd say this is all kind of moot, don't you think?" She finally looked at me. "You have two weeks before I turn eighteen. Then we're gone." That was it, she turned her focus back to Parker, and I had been effectively dismissed.

"Two weeks." I tasted the words on my tongue. "How about a month? That way you can save more money." She snorted.

"This is not a negotiation. You don't need to worry about my finances. I do. Two weeks." It was final.

Of all the ungrateful, foulmouthed, annoying teenagers! I screamed inside my own head. This little shit was going to piss me off, and piss me off good. It was only because of Parker that I didn't tell her to fuck off and figure it out on her own. Instead I took yet another breath.

"Fine. Two weeks." With that, I got up to give the sisters their alone time.


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