For complete disclaimers see part 1.

If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com or auth2b@hotmail.com

Control

by

Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

 

 

Part 5

Broom in hand, I walked across the hangar, past my baby and dad’s helicopter, and stopped at the pile of dirt that had been gathered already by me. How the hell does this place get so damn dirty? I glared knowingly at my two mechanics as they fought over who got to clean the windshield of the C-130 Hercules. The big plane hadn’t gone out in a little while. The rising price of gas and fewer large cargo runs kept her grounded.

Jerome realized that he was being glared at, so looked at me.

"What?" he said, Reggie following his gaze.

"You two!" I pointed the end of the broom at them. "Suck. You were raised in a barn, methinks. Jerome, how the hell did Annie put up with your messy ass?" I indicated the pile of grunge behind me. He gave me a sheepish grin, then turned back to his arguing partner.

Sighing, I glanced outside the huge, open doors. The clouds were gathering and I figured we’d have a pretty good snow by that night. With Parker in school and out of my care for the moment, I filled in for Keller. Fingering the oddly-placed screw hole in the smooth broomstick, I began sweeping again.

We had all been taking turns doing the janitorial work around here. I, for one, didn’t think it was fair for Keller to have to try and make up a month or more of shit when she got back. No matter how much of a shit she herself was. The nerve of that girl! Dad had told me to boil it all down to her simply being scared. Shit, if that was her scared, then what the hell was she like fully confident?

Scooping the dirt up in a large dust pan, I dumped it into the metal garbage can just outside the bay doors, then headed to clean the bathrooms. I contemplated donning a full contamination suit for that mess. Maybe Keller should get a raise.

I did, however put on the elbow-length rubber gloves. A Susie homemaker I am not, but I wasn’t stupid, either. Entering into the realms of Davies Hangar hell meant cleaning that bathroom that mostly men used. Penny refused, insisting on holding it until she left for lunch. Oftentimes I was stuck in the hangar until the next day, so I had no choice. Plus, to me it was part of my home, so I got used to the smell. But this was more than just the smell and knowing what parts of the floor near the toilet to avoid or chance getting yellow soles. Were guys not taught how to aim properly? How can they throw footballs a hundred yards to land in another guy’s arms, but not make it into the toilet that is no more than like two and a half feet away?

"Hey, Monk."

I turned to see Gabe walking toward me. I smiled.

"Hey, buddy. How did the move go over the weekend? Sorry I couldn’t help out. There was no way I was leaving Parker alone." He followed me into the bathroom, leaning against the open door.

"No problem. Frank and Reggie helped."

"Oh good." I glanced over my shoulder at him before filling my bucket with hot, Lysol-filled water. "Did you guys watch dad’s documentary that Jerome taped?" My friend’s dark head nodded.

"It was pretty awesome to see Frank all excited about his flying days." Gabe smiled, dimples winking at me. "He looked great in those old photos, too."

"I know. Handsome devil, huh? No wonder mom fell hook, line and sinker."

"Yeah well, your mom was quite the looker, too." He walked over to my nearly filled bucket, dipping a sponge in and beginning to clean around the sink. "Do you ever wonder what your mom looked like? Or your dad?"

"Oh yeah, all the time. With only a first name, I have nothing else to go on. Debra and James." I shrugged. "Sometimes I would picture her in my head when I was a kid. You know, lay in bed, thinking of her, wondering what she was doing." I smiled at the memory.

"Why not try and find her?" He re-dipped his sponge, wringing it out before going back for a second pass over the grease-covered faucet.

"Nah. I used to think I would, but I had a great mother. I don’t need Debra whatever her name is. She didn’t want me, so why should I want her?" I glanced at him. "You know?" I mostly meant what I was saying. Sometimes I’d still feel pangs of wondering and sadness. Why hadn’t she wanted me? I wanted to think that there was a good reason – that she couldn’t, or was sick or something. I had been granted the best parents anyone could ever want, but still. That doesn’t soothe a hurt child’s ego too well.

"I’m glad you feel that way. I would have killed to have your parents." He headed over to the shower stall with his newly-dipped sponge.

"Yeah. Well, they certainly claimed you, so I think you did pretty good."

"Guess so."

I got on my hands and knees, squirting some Clorox toilet cleaner into the big bowl to let it sit while I scrubbed at the floor around it.

"Okay, I have to ask, Gabe."

"What?"

"How the hell do you guys miss so damn bad?" I grimaced as my sponge came back yellow, rinsing it in the sink before dipping it back into the cooling Lysol water. He grinned and shrugged.

"I honestly don’t know. Guess not paying attention."

"Disgusting."

He chuckled. "So how’s Keller doing? Is she coming home soon?"

"Today. In fact, when I get done with this stuff, I have to pick her up." I tried to hold my breath as I scrubbed behind the toilet.

"Where will she and that kid go?"

"With me."

"With you?" He stopped cleaning and looked at me. "Really?"

"Yeah. They don’t have anywhere else to go. There’s not a fucking chance I’m letting them go back to that shit hole."

"True. Man, what an asshole that guy was."

"That guy was their father!" I could feel my anger building again. "That son of a bitch carved his fucking initials in Parker’s back, Gabe." I looked at him, green fire shooting from my eyes. He looked stunned.

"What?"

"Yep." I began to scrub harder, seeing the white of the tile coming through. Only a frigging week since Keller had been gone, and the place was already disgusting. How had we ever gone without a janitor? "Five fucking years old, and already scarred for life. I hate that bastard. I’ll tell you something right now," I pointed my sponge at my friend, "If I ever see that son of a bitch around here, or anywhere for that matter, I’ll fucking scalp him. Guaranteed."

"I bet you would."

"Thanks for your help, bud. I really appreciate it. However," I stood, wiping at my nose with the back of my gloved hand, "If I catch you missing this great big bowl with that itty bitty stream of piss, I’ll personally kick your ass and turn that little Italian pecker of yours into the sausage it looks like. Pass the word on to the other boys, too." He just looked at me, wide-eyed. Can’t imagine why.

###

I pulled the truck up to the main entrance of the hospital where patients could be picked up. I already saw Keller just inside the tinted glass doors. She was sitting in the wheelchair, dressed in the pair of sweatpants I had dropped off on my way to work this morning.

The automatic doors whooshed opened and Keller looked up at me. She looked tired, dark circles under her blue eyes. Her hair hung around her face in limp strands, thin and needing a wash. Her face was pale, eyes looking huge in the near skeletal frame. Her hands gripped the arm of the chair, veins popping out in the backs with the grip she had.

I smiled as I walked in. She only stared.

"Hi, Keller." She nodded the acknowledgement of my presence. "You ready to go?" She nodded again. I glared at the nurse who stood behind the chair, a death grip on the handles of the thing. "I’ll take over now, thank you." Without a word, I began to push her out into the cold afternoon.

"I can walk," Keller said, taking her feet from the footrests.

"I realize that," I said, pushing her a little faster so she wouldn’t try anything stupid. "But it protects the hospital’s insurance policy to keep patients seated until their final resting place outside the hospital doors." I was well versed in this, having fought my mother every time we brought her home from this place.

Keller sighed but said nothing. I had no doubt she was tired as hell of being cooped up. My janitor stood as soon as she could, the nurse hurrying behind me to collect the wheelchair and truck it back inside. I opened the door to my truck and Keller climbed in. I had the feeling that my helping her in the day I found her on the side of the road was the last time I’d be helping her do anything.

She got herself in and buckled up. I got in the other side and started up the truck. "The doctor told me yesterday that you were to be kept still and in bed. Your room is all made up for you, so you’re good to go." She said nothing. "Parker and I are going to go shopping for some clothes for you when I pick her up from school."

"I don’t need your clothes or your charity." Her voice was low and monotone. Not this shit again.

"Too bad, Keller. You need clothes, unless you plan to walk around naked." I pulled out of the hospital parking lot and we were on our way to my house. The drive was silent, save for my singing along with the radio. I would glance over at my passenger once in a great while, but she was always looking out the side window, her hands in her lap, body totally closed off for conversation. Even so, suddenly her voice, though low, filled the cab.

"I’ll pay."

"What?" I was confused.

"I said I’ll pay. If you insist on buying me clothes, I’m going to pay for them."

"No you’re not."

I was surprised by the amount of venom in those blue eyes when she looked over at me. "Do not attempt to tell me what I will or will not do." We stared at each for a moment as I stopped at a red light. "I pay my debts."

"Fine. But not with money." She studied me for a moment, eyes drifting over my shirt and jeans, then back up to my face.

"What kind of payment did you have in mind?" Was that fear I detected? She seemed to shrink slightly toward the door. I stared at her, my mouth starting to work, but failing me. Clearing my throat, I pushed on the gas again, getting us moving.

"Extra around the house or the hangar. Maybe I can get the boys to teach you a little something about the planes. We can always use another mechanic." The look of fear turned to wonder.

"You’d let me touch the planes?"

"Sure. Why not?" She said nothing for a few minutes.

"And what about Parker? I’ll pay her way, too."

"She can do stuff around the house, too. She already helps me with laundry." I smiled at the memory of her attempting to carry the big laundry basket. "Plus, she can do other things. Gather trash around the house. Whatever." I shrugged, not intending to make either of them do anything extra for some measly clothing and two weeks food and board. It seemed ridiculous.

"Fine." Keller turned back toward the window.

"Fine," I echoed.

###

"Hey, kid!" I smiled as Parker stepped out of the double doors to the school. She looked up at me, and that itty bitty ghost of a smile crept across her lips. "Guess what?" I said, taking her small, pink backpack from her grasp. She released it, holding her blue teddy with both arms now. "Keller is back home at my house." The kid looked up at me, golden curls bouncing with the movement. I could almost hear her say, really!!?? "So I was thinking, you and me would go to the store and you can pick out some clothes for her to wear. What do you think?" She nodded vigorously and we headed toward the truck.

TJ Maxx was a busy place on a Friday afternoon. People came and went, children yelling to their parent, who was inevitably across the store. I held Parker’s hand snugly in my own, her big eyes taking in all the ruckus around us. For her credit, she was doing much better. I could tell people still scared her, but she seemed to handle herself much better, not freaking out anymore. I still intended to ask Keller why she didn’t talk, though.

"Okay, little one. What is Keller’s favorite color?" Our eyes met, and Parker chewed on her bottom lip as she thought. Within moments she was leading me by the hand to a rack. There were shirts hanging on it of every style and color. She pointed to a black one. Big surprise. "Keller likes black?" Parker nodded.

"Okay."

Holding the shirt up, I looked to see that it was size medium. I chewed on my own lip as I tried to picture Keller’s frame. She was terribly thin, but tall. I bet if she filled out, she’d wear a medium. Even with her height, her skeletal structure still looked as though she wasn’t exactly a big girl. Probably meant to be lean. I tossed the long-sleeved button up into the cart, then turned back to my own private shopper.

"What else, Parker?" She continued to pick out clothing that was of darker shades – black, gray, dark blues and reds. Some of the actual garments she chose were hideous, but I at least had an idea of color. Moving us on, I found sweatshirts, t-shirts, long-sleeved t-shirts and even and black and dark gray sweater. There was a sale, so the prices were excellent. I just hoped everything would fit.

By the lion’s share of two hours, I had enough clothing for Keller to make about ten outfits, including socks, underwear and a couple bras. I really hoped I had those sizes right. About to walk out, I saw a pair of black and white Vans that I figured would fit her. Grabbing them and putting them in my cart, off to the registers we went.

The entire trip home Parker was beside herself with excitement. I’m sure the thought of having her big sister, who she seemed to adore, under the same roof day and night was thrilling beyond all compare for her.

We pulled into the driveway, and almost before the engine was turned off, Parker was struggling with her seatbelt, trying to get out of the truck.

"Hang on, Parker. Take these." I handed her two of the lighter bags, keeping the heavier ones for myself. The kid was careful to avoid the puddles from the earlier rain, then looked at me from the porch, waiting not-to-patiently for me to get the right key in hand. Trying to juggle the bags I carried, and my keys, was a real feat.

The dogs were on full alert behind the door, and Parker already was getting herself ready for it. We had it down now – I’d go in first and she’d keep herself flat against the wall, walking along it until she could escape to some other room while I got the dogs under control. It drove them nuts. All they wanted was to finally be able to say a proper hello to our houseguest. Keller had only handled them minimally better. She was not afraid of them, but hadn’t really looked like she knew what to do with them, either. She’d patted Roy’s head a few times, the big black dog demanding attention. That was all he got from her.

"Come on, kiddo." I took the bags from Parker once the boys were happily munching in the kitchen. She nearly bowled me over on the stairs, trying to get to her sister. I just hoped Keller was up there.

A smile graced my lips when I heard Keller’s excited greeting. I figured she was being pounced on by a five-year-old fireball. Once Keller and I had reached the house, I had shown her briefly around, and though she looked where I pointed, she seemed completely uninterested. I’m sure in her mind, what the house looked like didn’t matter since they’d be out of here in two weeks anyway.

I’d shown her the bedroom upstairs that I had originally put Parker in, which had been used for exactly three hours, then abandoned. My janitor seemed to approve, so we got her settled in. That didn’t take long, as she had nothing with her. All of her clothes the day I brought her into the hospital had been ruined by the thrown-up blood, then cut to shreds in the ER.

The sweats I had brought her hung on her thin frame, but at least were clean and warm. She had quickly climbed into bed, and though I don’t think she knows I saw, totally collapsed. The girl must be so exhausted – from her ordeal and her life. I hope she got some rest.

When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that Parker was already on the bed, signing wildly in her strange little way. Keller was ‘listening’ intently to what the kid had to say, and threw in her own comments. I had to remember to ask why Parker doesn’t talk.

I gave the girls some time for privacy, so I took a quick shower, then decided to check on the patient. Standing in the doorway of the smallish room, I watched as Keller lovingly stroked Parker’s golden curls, both pairs of eyes hooded with contentment.

"Hi," I said, crossing my arms over my chest, leaning against the door frame. Parker simply nuzzled her face further into Keller’s neck, but very aware blue eyes gazed at me. She said nothing. "How did you sleep?" She shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t holding up Parker’s head.

"Okay."

"How are you feeling?"

"Fine."

"Are you hungry?" My voice was soft, doing my best to stop the antagonizing that always seemed to sweep one, if not both, of our voices. If they were going to be staying with me, I might as well be nice. She looked at me, and I figured she was trying to decide whether to take my ‘charity’ or not. Finally she nodded, though her eyes drifted to the window. "What do you like?"

"Food."

Swallow one, swallow two. "I realize that, Keller. Is there anything you don’t like? Can’t eat? Won’t eat?" Suddenly I realized what Keller and Parker’s purpose was in my life – to challenge my patience. Dad always told me I needed more.

Again those eyes were on me. "I don’t know."

"Okay." This was no help. "How about hamburgers?" I figured this was a safe enough food. Besides, Parker’s head shot up, hopeful eyes looking at me. I smiled at her. She looked like a rabid dog.

"Fine," Keller said.

"Be right up. You two stay here." I hurried from the room, that cute little look on Parker’s face still fresh in my mind. I was growing fond of that kid. The stairs squeaked as I hurried down them. The boys wagged their tails happily at me as I passed them, rubbing each head as I went. "Hiya, boys," I cooed, two pairs of happy brown eyes looking up at me.

The meat was stuck into the microwave to unthaw, so I began chopping up veggies for the burgers and dug out my breakfast tray. That hadn’t been used in so long. Not since Celeste had come here to see me. I had made her favorite for her – waffles. I smiled at the memory, thinking I really needed to make a pit stop in New York. I needed to get me some lovin’.

My eyes roamed to the ceiling, knowing that my houseguests were somewhere overhead. It was very strange having more than just me in the house again. I had grown up in this house, knowing just what true joy and happiness could be for a kid. The house was always filled with laughter and happy voices. My childhood was not perfect by any stretch, as everyone has their problems, but I dare say it was better than most. My parents did their damndest to make sure I was happy and felt loved.

Once in a while I felt the niggling feeling of ultimate rejection. When a mother gives her child away, it stays with you the rest of your life. That feeling of abandonment never truly goes away, no matter how much the adoptive parents try to take it away. I respected mine for what they had done and loved them for loving me.

This brought my thoughts to Keller and Parker. What must they be feeling right now? Knowing that their own flesh and blood father had treated them like this? Had rejected them in a more heinous way than my own biological father had? He had kept them, but only to act as his personal punching bags. What had drove him to do such a thing? Had his own father done it to him? Where was their mother? She had never been mentioned by Keller, nor had the cops ever referred to her. I had so many questions.

The hamburger patties I made sizzled on the griddle as I stood watch with my spatula-holding hand resting on my hip. The dogs had finally calmed down, and were laying in various parts of the downstairs. Tut rested on the rug under the table. I could feel his eyes on me, hoping against hope that I’d drop some meat for him. Dream on, big guy.

I made some with cheese, some without, loading all the patties onto Kaiser rolls. I even cut one in half so Parker could get her small mouth around it. Tray loaded with food, condiments and veggies, I headed upstairs. I’d grab drinks once my offerings were dropped off.

Keller was murmuring softly to a rapt Parker when I entered. She had been smiling softly at the small blonde, her eyes filled with love and adoration. All this stopped the moment my presence was felt, and her face returned to its normal solid, stoic countenance.

"Dinner," I called happily, ignoring the slight sting of being left out. I set the tray on the table next to Keller’s bed, Parker’s eyes having followed its progress from door to table. "You two get started. I’m going to grab us all something to drink." With those words, I hurried out the door, pounding the stairs nearly two at a time. Filling glasses with milk and grape juice, I hurried back upstairs, doing my best to not slosh liquid everywhere.

To my utmost surprise, in the five or so minutes I’d been gone, Keller had a half-eaten hamburger sitting in front of her. Jesus, had she gone into suck mode?! Making no mention of it, I sat at the end of the bed, grabbing my own dinner.

Keller kept her eyes on me the entire time, wary and suspicious. Parker sat in her lap, happily munching on a bit of tomato, juices dribbling down her chin. Without even looking, Keller brought her hand up and wiped the mess clean. The kid didn’t miss a beat, shoving more burger into her waiting mouth.

Keller, however, had nearly stopped eating. I looked at her, my own sandwich halfway to my mouth.

"Why did you stop?" I asked. She just looked at me. "Please eat, Keller. Your body needs the strength."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?" I popped a French fry into my mouth, doused with ketchup.

"This." She indicated the room around us and the food she had yet to touch since I’d sat down.

"I’ll answer your question if you answer mine." I met her accusatory gaze, mine unwavering. I had questions, damn it. She said nothing. "Can Parker talk?"

"If she wants to."

"Why doesn’t she?"

"She doesn’t want to," she said simply, as though it made so much sense.

"How long has she been silent?" I dipped another fry into my ketchup/mayonnaise concoction.

"About a year." I could tell by the sound of her voice that this question/answer period was just about over.

"I’m doing this because I can, and because you need it," I said softly. She refused to meet my eyes now, instead focusing on helping Parker and nibbling her own dinner. "What else would you like to know?"

"Am I going to be fired?" For the first time in the very short time I’d known her, she looked halfway vulnerable, though was making a valiant effort to hide it.

"No! Of course not. Why would you?" I was stunned.

"Because I’ve missed work."

"Through no fault of your own, Keller. You didn’t choose this for you,." I indicated the bruises that still littered her body. "Dad and I are going to do everything we can to keep you on. Okay?" She didn’t answer really. Just a very small nod, which I nearly missed. "Well," I put my empty plate aside and stood, "I’ve got something to show you."

Grabbing the bags from TJ Maxx, I headed back to the sisters. Parker’s eyes lit up again as she jumped from the bed.

"Want to help?" She looked up at me and did nothing, but I could see she wanted to. I knelt down and opened up a bag. "Here." I gave her a shirt. "Hold that up, okay?" She nodded and unfolded it, holding it out. I grinned as her small body was dwarfed by its size. She turned and showed Keller. "Your sister has quite the fashion sense," I said as I stood, a couple garments in my own hands. Parker gladly showed each and every one of them to her big sister.

"Nice job, Parker," Keller said, flashing a tiny smile at her sister. I, apparently, had disappeared from view. Saying nothing, I kept feeding clothing to the kid and watching as she showed Keller up close and personal. Keller looked each garment over, turning it this way and that, holding it up to herself to make sure it would fit. Eventually I left the room.

###

I sat in the leather chair behind the desk in the office downstairs. My head back against the headrest, hands dangling off the arms, I was slowly turning it around in a circle. My eyes were closed, and I smiled at the blind motion going straight to my stomach. I loved that feeling.

With a sigh I remembered that I’d have to head to the pharmacy before they closed. The blunt trauma that Keller had sustained to her mid-section had broken three ribs, one of those having punctured her spleen. The doctors had removed the ruined organ and now she had to take some serious antibiotics. In the hospital they had been pumping her with them intravenously. I was also instructed to get her some medicine for yeast infections. The doc said that if she didn’t have one now, she most likely would from the high dosage.

Standing, I yelled my intention up to the sisters, and with my keys and wallet in hand, left.

I had to wait fifteen minutes for the pharmacy guys to fill the prescription, so I decided to wander around the discount store, walking down each aisle to see its wares. Already feeling my bank account being drained by the cost of the drugs, I was doing my damndest to not be seduced by anything. Okay, so intentions are good, but I am a shopper. A true shopper knows a deal when a true shopper sees one.

Just ahead on a display was a Barbie set, replete with a Ken doll, Barbie and little sis, Skipper. The whole shebang was under twenty dollars, so I grabbed one. Picking up the pink box, I saw that each doll came with two sets of clothing as well as cell phones for Ken and Barbie. A blue bear-hugging five year old came to mind. Tossing the box into my basket, I proceeded down the toy aisle. I wondered what Keller would be interested in. I couldn’t possibly imagine. She seemed so old, not knowing what a smile was, nor fun for that matter. What were seventeen year olds interested in?

This was not a good question, though. Neither Keller nor myself had been or were typical seventeen year olds. The only thing that could hold my interest then was a pair of wings. I had just wanted to fly and soar, my head in the clouds. What about Keller?

Sighing, I fingered a few things, puzzles, hand-held games and even a coloring book. Nothing seemed to fit.

Barbie, Ken and Skipper in hand, I paid for Keller’s medicine, nearly crying at the two-hundred-seven-dollar price tag, and headed home. The house was basically dark by time I got there. The late afternoon had gotten away from me in the hour or so I’d been gone. I saw a lone light on upstairs and nothing else. I wondered what they were doing. Were they curled up together on the bed again? Was Keller talking to her baby sister, making her smile as only she could? Was Keller perhaps planning for my own destruction?

I chuckled at this last thought. Probably. That girl just really didn’t seem to like me. I’m sure much of it was that she was scared out of her mind. How could she not be? The life it seemed she had led, and now this. She was being thrust into the care of a stranger when probably no one had cared for her before, and the girl had pride in abundance.

Making my way past excited dogs, I went to the kitchen where I unloaded my burden. Setting the plastic bag down on the kitchen table, the receipt beside it, I began to take things out. The pink box I set aside, excited to give it to the five year old. The bag holding Keller’s bottled drugs rattled, and I tossed it back into the empty plastic one and grabbed the box of Monistat 7. Toys, meds and glass of water in hand, I headed back up the squeaky stairs.

The girls were talking again. Well, the girl was, and the other was listening.

"Hey, guys," I announced as I entered, so as not to surprise or frighten them. Parker looked over her shoulder at me, but Keller just turned to look out the window. "Okay Keller, you’ve got some nice horse pills here." I walked over to the bed, holding the pink and white box behind my back. I set the massive pill on the bedside table, next to the lamp, as well as the water. "You need to take them twice a day. It’s a little late today, so today you’ll only be taking one." She nodded, but said nothing. "And, um, well . . ." I set the package of Monistat 7 on the side table, too. "This is incaseyouhaveanyitchingorburning." I couldn’t look at her, embarrassed for her and for myself for having to say it. Turning to Parker, who watched curiously, I grinned.

The girl had moved to sit on the edge of the bed, watching my every move. I knelt down in front of her, bringing my hand out. She looked at the box, then at me, unsure. A small hand came up and she began to chew on her finger.

"This is for you, kiddo. Have you ever had a Barbie before?" She stared at the box again, the three dolls smiling up at her, then slowly shook her head. Big eyes looked up at me, getting bigger with every moment of realization that the gift was hers. Her brows nearly disappeared into blonde bangs, and her blue eyes twinkled. For a moment, just a moment, she looked up at me, and a huge, full, beautiful smile lit up her face. Two small, even white rows of teeth flashed at me, then were gone. My heart melted – again.

Tiny hands wrapped themselves around the box, and the kid brought it in for a closer inspection. My smile was a mile wide at being able to make the little one happy. I let my gaze travel over Parker’s head to Keller. She was looking down at the little girl with a very strange look on her face. It was almost like stunned confusion, her shoulder slightly slumped. She looked utterly defeated. Sensing she was being looked at, stormy blue eyes looked up at me, then quickly looked away.

My melted heart ran into my stomach, making me feel sick. Shit. Maybe I should have gotten her something.

###

The hangar was abuzz with activity and loud voices. We had a huge shipment that had to go out, and dad was getting the Hercules ready for the trip. I walked across the tarmac, Tut and Roy with me, glad to be back to a semi-regular schedule, tails wagging like mad at the familiar surroundings.

Off to the west was dad’s helicopter, polished to a shine, and a group of men standing around it, talking quietly to each other, checking out all the Bell had to offer.

"Who are they?" I asked Reggie, who was picking at a particularly dark grease spot on his palm. He looked up, then shrugged.

"Not sure."

"Where’s Jerome?" I asked, watching with amusement as my boys attacked the mechanic, desperate for affection. My house guests still weren’t extraordinarily fond of them.

"In there." He pointed toward the bay door with his thumb, his other hand firmly ensconced in the thick, black hair of Roy’s neck. I jogged toward the hangar, needing badly to talk with the older man.

"Hiya, Jer," I said, smiling fondly at him. He was settled on the hard, cement floor, sorting through some tools. His dark eyes glanced up at me, and a soft smile entered them.

"Howdy Monk. How goes it?"

"Eh, not bad." I squatted next to him, wondering how the hell he was planning to get back up. His knees popped like firecrackers anytime he did just about anything. He got shot in the right one during Korea, and then cracked the left knee cap while in Vietnam on a bad jump.

"How’s our little mommy doing?" Shove. Jerome was still laughing, even as he lay on his side on the floor where I’d pushed him over. Feeling guilty, I helped him up, but not without a glare or four.

"I am not a ‘little mommy,’ thank you."

"Sure you are. You took them girls in. Real good of you, Monk." He looked serious and earnest. I smiled, looking down, feeling bashful.

"Nah. Just the way it is. Besides, I think I’m being punished for something."

"Why’s that? The five year old taking run of the house?"

"Ha! I wish that were the problem. Try the seventeen year old hates me and the world. She hates everything but that sister of hers. Oh," I smiled, soft and wistful. "You should see those two together. It’s so cute. They have this secret little language, cause you know the kid doesn’t talk for whatever reason." Jerome listened, smiling at the image. "Keller is so protective of that kid. It’s really kind of cool."

"Well, sounds like they’re all the other’s got. It’s good they’re together. How long are they staying with you?"

"Two weeks."

"Two weeks? Then what?" Jerome began to stand and I helped him, grimacing at the grunts and cracks from him and his body.

"Then Keller will be eighteen, and she thinks she can take care of her and Parker." I shrugged, not wanting it to bother me. "Whatever, you know?"

He nodded. "Yup. The young always think they know best." He grabbed up the tools he was looking for, putting them on the roll cart in the order he needed them. It always reminded me of a surgeon.

"Jerome, I have a question for you."

"Okay." He looked at me expectantly.

"How old is Cameron now?"

"Hmm . . ." He scratched his chin, trying to think of his eldest granddaughter. "I’d say eighteen this year. Why?"

"Well, as I told you, Keller will be eighteen in a couple weeks, and I haven’t the slightest clue as to what a girl that age is into. What do you recommend? What is Cameron into?"

"Boys." He grinned, dark eyes twinkling. I smacked him on the arm lightly.

"Yeah, somehow I don’t think Keller is into that just now. Really."

"Okay, okay. Let me ask her dad and I’ll get back to you, okay?"

"Kay." I smiled up at him and headed into the business office for my morning cup of tar.

###

Parker ran in ahead of me, as was her custom, hugging the wall so the dogs couldn’t get her. We’d made some progress yesterday afternoon. I held Tut, my thirteen inch Beagle, and knelt next to the kid. She looked at the dog, studying the big, open brown eyes and floppy brown and black ears. Tentatively, very tentatively, she reached out a small hand and touched the top of Tut’s head. The dog tried to lick her fingers, but that sent her wide-eyed to the wall.

"It’s okay, Parker. He only wants to give you doggy kisses." To prove my point, I let the dog lick my cheek. This made her look a little less frightened, but still not enough to come back over to us. Instead, she plowed up the stairs to see her sister.

As she did today. I placed her pink backpack onto the coat tree hook by the door, as well as my jacket. Stopping, I took a deep breath. Lemon? Pine Sol? Looking around, the dogs following me, I noted that the kitchen was spotless, the breakfast dishes gone, the counter clean and the toaster put away.

Either I’d been robbed by the dish thief, or someone had cleaned. Walking further into the house, including my office, I could see where the floors shined, the various throw rugs had fresh vacuum marks, and the smell of furniture polish met my nose.

"Keller?" I walked up the stairs, looking into the girl’s bedroom. Parker now slept with Keller instead of me. The janitor laid in the bed, covers up to her waist, Parker sitting at her side, Barbie and Ken already in hand. She looked at me. "Did you get up today?" She just stared at me, though as I looked into her face, it looked as though she were holding her breath, biting the inside of her cheek. "Are you okay?" She nodded vigorously, but still said nothing. Eyeing her for a moment, I left them alone.

I headed back downstairs to my office to get some ‘me’ time. It had been so long since I’d had anyone else in this house for longer than a weekend. I had lived alone for the better part of three years, either in this house, or in the itty bitty apartment I’d had before mom died. Living alone was something I was used to and enjoyed. I was totally the type of person who needed personal space and time to chill and relax. In many respects, it was nice having Keller in the house. Parker, though extremely self-reliant for a five year old, still needed attention and supervision. She needed help brushing her teeth and getting food. Keller insisted on helping her sister in the morning before school. I tried to give her some latitude, but knew she needed to stay in bed for at least the rest of the week. She had to be exceptionally sore from her surgery and the broken ribs.

The doctor had recommended ice be held to it during the day off and on. I always left her with an icepack, and hoped she used it. The bruising and swelling in her face had improved over the week and a half since the beating. Her eye was fully open now, though she still sported the evidence of a very nice shiner. The coloration was starting to turn that wonderful yellow color, some bruises fading all together.

I wished I knew what would make her happy, and what would make her trust me. I had no evil plot or intentions. I just wanted to help her and Parker. Was that so bad?

Sitting in the chair behind the desk, I looked at the model planes that surrounded me, either on shelves or on the desk itself. Some of these I had put together, while others dad had. His prized B-52 Bomber was encased in glass on the shelf next to the globe. He had so lovingly put that mammoth together, taking weeks. Every detail was there, every bit of paint and equipment. I smiled at the memory of laying on the floor at nine watching him. He wouldn’t allow me to touch it, but that was okay. I could watch.

The shelves were lined with not only the models, but books. Dozens and dozens of books. They ranged from the romance novels mom used to love to read, to the classics of my childhood. Also, on their very own shelf, were books and technical guides on planes – flying and fixing them. These books were old, dad’s from his Korea days and before that. He had been collecting them for the better part of fifty years. Like me, he had known even as a boy what he wanted to do with his life.

So many memories in such a small space.

Flicking on the computer, I went to the kitchen for something to eat while it booted up. Parker was sitting at the top of the stairs, dolls in hand. She had Ken and Barbie in both hands, and the dolls interacted. I watched for just a moment, a soft smile on my face. It was nice to see her acting like a kid. As I made my way to the swinging door of the kitchen, I heard soft banging from the top of the stairs and just shook my head. Kids and the way they played.

###

The seasons were officially in full swing, fall all around us, showing all her beautiful colors of the East. Truly an amazing time, and my favorite. Even if it did require me to rake more leaves than any tree had the right to produce and toss away.

The large backyard was covered in the little colorful buggers, and it was time to clean up. I didn’t want them to rot on the lawn, so I changed into an old, faded pair of jeans and a gray flannel button up. Tucking a few wisps of hair back behind my ears, I dug the rake out of the shed dad had built. The space was small and dark, smelling of cut grass and gasoline as the lawn mower had been kept in there for twenty years, as well as spare gas cans.

When I turned to head back out into the day, I swallowed a yell of surprise, putting my hand to my beating chest. Parker stood just outside the door, looking at me with curious eyes.

"Hey, kid, you scared me." I stepped out, sliding the door shut behind me. "Are you okay?" She nodded slowly, her eyes taking in the tool in my hand. "Want to help?" She stared at the rake again, but then finally nodded. Again, not a large one, and one I had to carefully look for, but it was there all the same.

Grabbing the roll of black yard bags I’d stuffed in my back pocket, I handed them to the little blonde.

"Okay." I knelt down next to her, showing her how to rip a bag from the others at the perforated edge. She took the bag I offered her. "Hold onto that until I say, okay?" Again Parker nodded, watching as I stood, heading toward my seemingly insurmountable task.

Parker watched with avid attention as I reached and drew the leaves in, forming large piles around the yard, trees continuing to drop more here and there. The kid watched with barely hidden fascination as a large, bright red leaf fell to her feet. She picked it up, twirling it between small fingers, looking intently at the veins that ran through the leaf, all ending in the stem between her thumb and index finger. A small gust of wind came up, ripping the leaf from her hand, wide blue eyes following its path up into the air.

I leaned on my rake as I watched the entire thing unfold, amazed at Parker’s wonder of it all. Then an idea struck. I imagined that devilish spark was in my eyes as I gently took the kid’s hand, knowing not to move too fast toward her. She was still extremely skittish – a fact I truly hoped would dissipate with time.

Parker watched me, part curiosity, part wary concern, as I let her hand go at the edge of the largest pile of leaves. I threw myself down into the pile, making the kid’s blue eyes widen in surprise. The leaves caught my weight easily, and I couldn’t hold in the giggle that erupted from me. Suddenly I wasn’t a twenty-three year old woman, instead I was a child again, destroying what mom and dad had worked so hard to clean up.

I sat up in my sea of leaves, throwing them up in the air, one landing on Parker’s head. This made me laugh even harder, and I beckoned for the curious five year old to join me. And she did.

I swore I heard the kid laugh, though I knew it was in my own head. Or perhaps just a wish. She was tentative at first, not entirely sure what to do, but then she figured it out. She tossed the leaves up into the air like a colorful salad, watching as they fell back to earth, many landing on her, others on me. She grinned from ear to ear, throwing her small body back into the pile, loving the natural cushion.

The fun thing about the kid was that since she didn’t talk, I didn’t feel the need to, either. It allowed me to just communicate with my other senses, feel without the benefit of speech. It was a different experience.

I glanced toward the house and saw Keller looking out the window at us. She was watching, her eyes so filled with something. Always something. I wished so badly that the girl would talk to me instead of taking on the weight of her very heavy world on her own shoulders.

I wanted to go invite the brunette to join them in their fun, but knew she couldn’t because of her injuries, and probably wouldn’t anyway. So instead I met the sad blue eyes, smiling. Keller held the gaze for a moment, then turned her face away, ultimately getting up from her perch near the window, and disappearing inside the second floor bedroom.

I turned my attention back to the kid who continued to play. She looked so much more carefree than normal. It made my heart melt. Again.

Throwing myself, almost literally, back into the play, I found myself on my back, leaves falling over me, half burying my stomach and nether regions. Going with it, I brought my arms out and began to pile leaves, burying myself.

I heard a high-pitched moan of some sort, and suddenly leaves were flying off me. I looked to see a terrified Parker staring back at me, desperately trying to get the leaves off my face. Her breathing was heavy, almost to hyperventilation.

"Parker?" I sat up, the remaining leaves that didn’t cling to my clothes or hair falling around my waist. "Are you okay?" She looked at me with huge, terrified eyes. "What is it?" She refused to answer and instead backed away, closing in within herself.

Playtime over, I sighed, not sure what I’d done. I tried to show Parker how to open the black trash bag, but she was no longer interested and ran back into the house. Up to Keller, no doubt. Sighing again, I began the arduous task of getting the leaves into the bags to turn into mulch later.

"Howdy, kid."

I looked up to see dad closing the gate behind him. I smiled and held my hand up in greeting.

"What’s up, old man?" I continued to stomp the leaves further into the bags with my boot, trying to cram as much as possible for fewer bags.

"Just came by to see how you’re doing." He looked up at the back of the house, then looked at me. I grinned.

"And to see how my houseguests are doing, huh?" He blushed, looking down at the grass.

"Caught me." He eyed me and I smiled, letting him off the hook. "How are they?"

"Not bad. Keller is still ignoring me, and Parker has her moments. She was out here a little while ago, but I don’t know." I sighed, leaning on the rake and staring up at the windows of their bedroom. "We were playing in the piles, then just that quick," I snapped my fingers, "she freaked out on me. Not a clue. It’s like constantly being around a skittish dog or something."

"It’ll take time, Monk." He slapped me on the back and I nodded. "Where are they?"

"In there." I nodded toward the house. "Probably huddled together in Keller’s room." He looked at me for clarification. "My old room. They both use it now."

"Ain’t that sweet." He teased. "That old room is getting some new life in it after all." I rolled my eyes and shooed him inside.

I finished up with the leaves, tossing the heavy bags toward the back fence for now, then headed inside. The boys were gathered around dad, who was feeding them licorice.

"Dad!" Hands on hips, I looked at him in stunned surprise.

"What?" he said, looking like a guilty little boy. "Parker wouldn’t take any." My glare immediately faltered, and I sat across from him at the table. He was just too cute, looking all dejected by a five year old.

"Leave some here, dad. If anyone can get her to take them, it’ll be Keller." I looked at the small pile he had on the table and took a couple of the long, ropey candies. I’d get them to her later.

"Do you need anything, Monk? Food? Clothing for them? Money?"

I shook my head. "I think we’ve got everything as under control as it can be."

"How long are they staying?" He patted Roy’s head, which laid in his lap.

"Keller insists on leaving once she’s eighteen and can get custody of Parker." I sighed, saddened.

"What? That’s nuts! Did you tell them girls they could stay here?" Dad’s eyes narrowed accusingly.

"Of course I did. Keller’s got more pride in her little finger than most in their entire bodies. She’s determined to do this herself, dad." I closed my eyes, leaning my aching forehead against my hand.

"There’s pride and then there’s just plain stupid stubbornness."

"I agree. All the same, it’s her decision."

Dad sighed, sitting back in his chair and grabbing a licorice, chewing on the end. He stared off into the distance, forehead creased in thought. "We gotta do something for them kids."

"I agree. Keller’s birthday is coming up at the end of next week. I thought maybe we’d do something for her down at the hangar." I also began to nibble one of the red ropes. Dad nodded.

"Sounds good. Maybe Penny can get her sister to make a cake or something."

"Cool. I’ll ask her." Penny’s sister, Martha, was known for her baked goods. Whenever she made a pit stop at the hangar, we were all happy campers for days.

"Well, I best be going. Just came by to check on you all." Dad stood, knees popping as he did so. "Damn cartilage," he muttered, then reached into his hip pocket. He tossed a rolled up twenty onto the table. "For food or whatever."

"Dad, I don’t need this."

"Take it," he said, pointing at me. "I want to help, too." I smiled, dropping my head and nodded.

"Okay. Thanks." Scooping the money up, I fingered it as I walked him to the door.

"See you at work tomorrow."

###

It was the third day in a row that the house was spotless, and I knew exactly who the culprit was. Either she was saying my house was such a disgusting mess that she had to get out of bed a week after surgery to clean it, or she was trying to pay some sort of debt.

My guess was the latter.

I’d decided to come home early today, grabbing a bite at home rather than some fast food joint or the airport café. The lock disengaged and the door swung open. I could hear the swish, swish of a mop on tile floors. Creeping inside, I peered into the kitchen to see Keller, mop in hand, head hanging as she swept the heavy cloth strands back and forth.

"Keller?"

She turned, eyes wide with fear and surprise, holding the mop between us. I held up my hands in a gesture to show I meant no harm.

"What are you doing? You’re going to hurt yourself." Genuine concern made my voice slightly harsher than planned, but I did not want this girl to pop her damn stitches. She said nothing, but seemed to relax. A little. I sighed. "Listen, I appreciate you cleaning, but Keller, your body can’t handle this right now." I indicated the large kitchen floor and house surrounding us.

"I pay my debts," she said quietly.

"I understand that. We’ve covered this. Pay when you can. Not now. You need to be resting now." Out of the corner of my eye, on the table, I saw a book lying open. Glancing over at it, I saw the drawings and technical sketches of the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet. I looked back at her, and she immediately looked away. I knew the book had come from my office and dad’s war plane collection.

"You said that I could touch anything in your house whenever I wanted." Blue fire was suddenly boring into me, nearly knocking me off my feet. I was stunned at the defensive venom in Keller’s voice.

"Whoa, wait a second. I never said anything, Keller." I tried to reason with her, but she continued to glare at me.

"Don’t say we can touch your stuff if we can’t."

"Keller, stop it! I never said a damn word." I was getting pissed now. "Don’t accuse me of something I haven’t done, just like I didn’t accuse you." I stared a hole through her, making her look away. "Read those books. It’s about time somebody did." She said nothing, and I took a deep breath to get myself under control again. "Do you like planes?"

Keller shrugged her shoulders. "They’re okay." She glared down at her shoes, then without looking up, she held out the mop. I took it from her, watching as she made her way slowly up the stairs.

Continued...

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