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

Note: Please withhold any editing mistakes. My beta does her best to fix up my screw ups. We’re all human, and mistakes won’t be fixed on the internet posts.

Control

by

Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Part 6

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birrrrrthday to Kellerrrrr, happy birthday to you!" I grinned as I presented a most confused janitor with a stack of pancakes on a plate, a single lit candle sticking out the top. "Blow it out and make a wish."

Keller, who had been in bed, sat up, looking at me with wide, confused eyes. Her hair was a mass of dark tangles all over her head, her large t-shirt collar exposing one very prominent clavicle. She stared at the candle and pancakes, blinking several times, then blew. And blew again. And again, unable to get a full breath through the pain of the broken ribs. Finally, the single candle flickered out. She looked satisfied at her accomplishment, but I had to wonder if it was air currents that snuffed the candle, rather than the weak attempt from her injured body.

She also looked as though she had no idea why I was telling her to do such a thing, but I smiled and clapped anyway.

"Happy birthday, Keller." I went to the dresser where I’d placed the tray with syrup, juice and Parker’s breakfast.

"Um, thank you," Keller said, her voice very quiet, but lacking the normal hostility. I nodded with a smile.

"I’ll leave you two to it. Enjoy." I left the bedroom, intent on my own breakfast downstairs. I let out a breath of relief as I hurried down the stairs, not sure how Keller would respond to my birthday wishes. She was eighteen today, and really didn’t look a day over sixteen, though I figured that was probably from her painfully thin frame. If nothing else, I planned to fatten her up. That way she could face the winter with much better luck health-wise. I wished there was some way to get those dark circles under her eyes to disappear, too.

Gee, I don’t wish for much.

I ran my hand down the banister, noting how smooth and shiny it was. Man, that kid could clean. If anything, maybe I’d hire her on to clean this place up once a week. I hated housework, but she didn’t seem to mind it and was good at it. I wondered if she’d take offense to that. Either way, I had to hurry to get me and Parker ready to head out for another fun-filled Thursday.

###

Over the weekend, I decided it was time to clean out the fireplace and get it ready for the upcoming winter. Hell, we could already use the thing as it was. So, I covered the entire living room with old sheets, making sure none of the furniture was exposed, as this was a most messy endeavor.

I hurried up the stairs to grab a couple more from the hallway linen closet. Parker sat in her new favorite spot – at the top of the stairs, tucked into the corner near the guest bathroom. She had her dolls out, Skipper sitting watching the action with Ken and Barbie. I heard banging as I reached the top, and looked down. Ken was being whacked against Barbie.

"Honey, don’t play so rough," I said gently, lightly ruffling Parker’s blonde curls. She looked up at me with unemotional eyes, then turned back to her toys. As I grabbed the old sheets from the very top shelf, I heard the banging again, and decided to let her learn a lesson. If the dolls broke, she’d learn she had to be careful with them.

As I passed by again, I watched as yet again Ken was being smacked into Barbie, his chest against her head. Parker laid Barbie down on the floor with an unceremonial thud, grabbed one of the Golden Books I’d bought for her and placed it on top of Barbie, covering the doll completely. I cocked my head to the side, wondering what the hell kind of game she was playing.

Figuring child’s play was child’s play, I hurried back to my original task.

I felt like Dick Van Dyke in ‘Mary Poppins,’ black from head to toe with soot from last year’s usage. The chimney was now clean, but I was not. A quick glance at the clock told me it was nearly six, and I knew that a couple of sisters would be hungry.

"Hey, Keller?" I called out, grabbing one of the old sheets to try and wipe some of the grime off me. I heard footfalls down the hall, then they stopped at the entrance of the living room. Keller had started getting up and around, and I didn’t say a word. It was her body, and I figured as long as she didn’t do anything stupid, she’d be fine. I could feel her restlessness. Next Monday she’d start work again at the hangar.

I looked over my shoulder at her, surprised to see a barely suppressed look of amusement. I knew that really only my eyes and teeth were distinguishable.

"Could you please make something for dinner? This took longer than I expected, and I need to get me and this place cleaned up." The brunette nodded and started to walk away. "Keller?" She stopped, looking at me expectantly. "Thank you." She stared at me for a moment, her face impossible to read, nodded, then headed toward the kitchen.

Looking around, I tried to decide how to do this. I was filthy and didn’t want to spread it around the house. I knew that Keller was in the kitchen, and glanced up the stairs to see that Parker was no longer there. She had probably followed her sister.

Quickly, I slipped my shirt over my head, then scrambled out of my shoes and jeans. My underwear and bra weren’t horrible, at least they wouldn’t leave a soot trail. Making sure once more that the path was clear, I scurried up the stairs and into the master bathroom. Laughing at my daring task, I washed myself off in the shower.

I thought I heard a giggle as I got closer to the bottom of the stairs, dressed in clean clothes. The sweet sound suddenly stopped, and I was disappointed. It amazed me how I could have a young child and young girl in my house, yet it was as quiet as it was before they arrived. With a heavy sigh, I pushed the swinging kitchen door open.

Keller sat next to Parker, who sat on the phone books I’d stacked for her, making it ‘her’ chair. She looked up at me, the grin still on her face from whatever her big sister had done. Keller was looking down at her plate with a half-eaten grilled cheese on it, and a couple spoonfuls of Mac ‘N’ Cheese.

"Hey, guys," I said cheerily, heading over to the counter where the food was ready for the taking. I swore I heard crickets chirping behind me with the warm welcome I received. Learning to try and keep my feelings from getting hurt, I loaded my own plate and sat down across from Keller.

She leaned over to Parker, wiping some errant cheese from the girl’s mouth.

"This looks really good, Keller. Thanks again." A simple nod was her response.

"Come on, Parker. Let’s get you bathed and ready for bed." Keller’s voice immediately softened, and she heaved the five year old out of the chair, setting her gently on her feet. The brunette grabbed both their plates, ready to head toward the dishwasher.

"I’ll get it. You two go on." I smiled at the confused look on the brunette’s face. "Really. It’s okay. You cooked, I can clean up." Keller stared at me, making me nervous. I ran a hand through my short, wet hair, trying not to break eye contact first. Finally she nodded, then they headed out, the door swinging lazily after they were gone.

I sighed, picking at my food.

###

I was nervous. Very nervous. I could hear the girls getting up and about, Keller giving Parker simple instructions such as, "Remember to brush your teeth, Parker. Let’s brush your hair. Make sure to go potty before we go." I smiled, following the same instructions.

This was the first day Keller had joined Parker and I during our morning ritual – first, I got the kid ready, then we ate, then I drove her to school. For a moment, just a very small one, I felt jealous. Stupidly so, but jealous all the same. I enjoyed my time with the adorable little blonde, as brief as it was. Just the two of us, and I had her attention. When Keller was around, it was as though I didn’t exist. She just looked up in awe at her big sister, matching blue eyes only for each other.

Keller got out of the truck with Parker, walking her as far as the flag pole. She knelt down and took the little one into her arms, telling her something. Parker nodded, then with a look back at me and a quick wave to Keller, she disappeared into the swarm of young children.

Keller got back into the truck, buckled herself in, and looked out the passenger window, watching until she could no longer see the school. With a sigh, she turned and looked out the windshield.

I turned on the truck’s radio, tired of the silence already, and we’d driven maybe a mile. I’d learned to not really try at conversation with the janitor. She’d answer my questions, basically, but never, ever add anything. I got the distinct feeling that she’d rather be left alone.

I couldn’t help but sneak glances at her once in a while. The bruises had gone down significantly, barely visible in most places. The stitches had been taken out last week during her visit with the doc, and her shiner was a mere pale memory. He had said her incision was healing well, and that she’d be just fine. He’d instructed her to gain some weight, at least fifteen pounds. She had nodded dumbly, but had quickly looked away. I wondered what she’d been thinking.

Health prognoses improving, and the girl now eighteen, a legal adult, she wanted to move out. I felt sad at this realization, and was suddenly filled with worry and doubt. Looking at my silent companion again, I began to chew my bottom lip, a hand going through my hair. I could feel that it was sticking up now, but didn’t care.

"Keller?" I said, after some thought. I could feel her eyes on me, but kept mine on the road ahead, feeling I could say what I had to say better without looking into those angry, haunted eyes. "I just want you to know something." I swallowed. "I know you said you wanted out of here when you turned eighteen, and you are that. Of course you’re free to go, as you never were a prisoner. But," I chanced a glance over at her to see she was staring out her side window again, "know that if you guys need anything, anything at all, just give me a holler."

Keller said nothing, nor did she look at me. I had the feeling she had heard every word I’d said, but would never take me up on it.

"Also, if you change your mind . . ." My voice trailed off. There was nothing more for me to say.

The rest of the ride was completely silent, save for the quiet hum of the radio. Soon enough, thank god, the hangar came into view. I just hoped the guys had followed through.

Keller perked up in her seat, staring out the windshield, then looking at me with confusion. "What’s that?" she asked, pointing. I followed her finger and grinned. Go, boys! Across the top of the large bay doors was a hand-painted sign which read WELCOME BACK AND HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KELLER!

"Looks like a sign to me." I glanced over at her in time to see her glare before it disappeared when she turned back to the hangar.

I parked in my usual spot, next to dad’s Jeep, and got out. Looking in the open door, I saw that Keller was still firmly planted in her seat. "You coming?" Almost as if I’d jolted her out of her reverie, she nodded, and unbuckled her seatbelt.

Keller was nervous, I could tell. Maybe even scared. The bay doors were open, and I could see the table laden with everything I bought beforehand. The boys had done real good. The boys in question started to stream out of the caverns of the hub of the hangar.

"Mornin’," dad said, shielding his eyes from the intense rays of the early morning sun.

"Hey, pop. Everyone." I turned to see that Keller was a few feet behind me, trying to take in everything.

"Happy birthday, Keller. Welcome back, kid," Dad said to her with a smile on his grizzled face, a toothpick already dancing.

"Uh, thanks," she said, taking in all the familiar faces of Reggie, Jerome and Penny. When her eyes landed on Gabe, she looked wary.

"This is my friend Gabe, Keller. Gabe, our janitor and Parker’s big sister, Keller."

"Nice to meet you, Keller. Happy birthday. I’m glad you’re feeling better. You had this one worried for a while there." He put his arm around my shoulders, and I blushed slightly. Keller only nodded in acknowledgement, eyes straying to the table. The group headed that way, and Penny opened the cardboard bakery box to show a quarter sheet cake done in white frosting with a caricature of the Red Baron’s Fokker Dr 1 drawn on it with frosting. A goggled pilot grinned from the open cockpit with Keller’s name written in black frosting in the plane’s exhaust.

Next to the small pile of brightly decorated paper plates and plastic forks was a stack of wrapped gifts. Keller’s eyes were everywhere, trying to take it all in.

Penny butted in front of me and stuck two wax numbers into the soft cake. A number one and eight were now sticking out of the top. The flick of a lighter, and their wicks came to life.

Dad pulled out a harmonica from his coveralls breast pocket and played middle C. We all fell into a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday.’ I wasn’t sure whether Keller wanted to deck me or bolt, but her eyes danced everywhere, trying to figure out where to land her gaze.

Reggie ended the song with a stirring, "You look like a monkey, and you smell like one, too!" I smacked him on the arm and turned to my employee. She met my gaze.

"Didn’t we already do this?" she said quietly, unsure.

"Yes, but that was just pancakes. Not real cake and presents." I grinned toothily at her. Her eyes scanned the gifts, then fell back on me.

"What am I supposed to do with those?" she asked. For the first time since I’d noticed her, she looked unsure of herself. I leaned in a bit.

"You open them, Keller. They’re yours."

Penny began to cut the cake as the janitor chewed on her lip with indecision. She looked at me again.

"Why did you do this?" My answer was interrupted by my secretary.

"Here you go, kiddo. The first piece to the birthday girl." The redhead smiled broadly, hand proudly resting on her hip. Keller took the plate and piece of cake, looking at it. I wondered if she’d ever had it before.

Everyone seemed to be holding their breath as we watched her. She took the fork in an unsteady grip and sliced a small bite from the corner of the square piece. Without further ado, it disappeared inside her mouth, and everyone erupted at once, talking, laughing, asking Penny where their piece was. I simply smiled, watching the slight look of enjoyment that I hoped I didn’t imagine pass across Keller’s face.

Her eyes met mine for just a moment before quickly looking away. Go ahead, shut me out. I know you’re enjoying that piece of cake.

I smiled happily as I accepted my own piece.

"We’ll bring Parker a piece," I said around a lump of frosting. Keller snorted.

"She’d inhale it."

I thought for a moment. "Then we’ll bring her two." I looked at her, my eyes twinkling. She snorted again and scraped the plate clean with the edge of her fork.

"Present time!" someone yelled, and again, all eyes were on the brunette. She looked around, then slowly made her way over to the side of the table where the neatly-wrapped gifts were stacked. She took her time, mindful to not rip the paper, finding every place where tape had been applied, and lifting it there. I was getting impatient.

"Rip into the sucker," I suggested. She looked at me like I’d just eaten a mouse, and continued on her own slow, sweet pace. They were her gifts, so I decided to shut up.

She found hand-held games inside, a couple books by various authors. A pair of slippers, and a toilet brush from dad. She looked to be in positively killer mode.

"Are you saying I do a poor job?" she asked, eyes narrowed.

"Nope, kid. I’m saying it’s a gag gift. Booby prize," he explained. "You’re supposed to laugh." He grinned, and she gifted him with the ghost of one. She did, however, examine the new toilet brush, replete with a matching holder. Setting it aside, she opened one of the smaller boxes, and we all held our breath. It was a brand new pair of Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses. We’d all put in the money to replace the glasses that had always adorned her face. Her old pair had been broken in the confusion of the ER.

She took them out of their protective box and held them up, seeing her reflection in the mirrored lenses. Without further ado, she put them on. A sigh of relief made its rounds, all of us worried she wouldn’t like them.

She looked at the final gift, from me. Taking in the box’s size, she looked at me. I smiled encouragement. Again, taking her time, she finally got the paper off of the two-by-three-foot box, refolding the paper as she looked at the box. On the front was a picture of the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet in flight. Inside the box was what would end up being a three-foot-long model of the great plane.

She looked up, saw she was being watched, and quickly put the box down.

"Thanks," she said, her eyes and expression hidden behind the new sunglasses.

"You’re welcome."

"Alright, everyone. Back to work," Dad called, followed by the grumbles of those still eating cake.

###

I was sad as I brought the Cessna to a stop on the tarmac. I missed being in the air daily. Since everything had gone down with Keller, I had only had two flights, and was going through severe withdrawal. I’d definitely have to heft my load up.

When I got into the office, dad handed me a sealed manila envelope. I knew what it was immediately.

"I think she’ll be pleased," I said, smiling at him. He looked worried, but nodded. "Where is she?"

"Cleaning the restroom, I think." He fiddled around in his drawer until he came up with an almost empty box of toothpicks. Picking the right one out, he shoved it between his lips. I turned and went in search of the janitor.

I could hear the bristles scrubbing against the tile floor. Keller was bent over her task as I entered the bathroom. Cleaning supplies were scattered throughout the room, showing she was giving the place a thorough scrubbing. I seriously doubt my handiwork had gotten the place near to what her cleaning standards were. The girl had an eye for detail.

Without a word, I walked up behind her. To my utter shock, with just one fluid movement, she was on her feet, and her eyes were boring into mine. I looked down and saw where her hand had grasped the material on the front of my flight suit. I met her eyes again, stunned.

Slowly she released my shirt, taking a step back, her eyes never leaving mine. She even seemed to raise her chin just a smidge, as if in challenge. I let it go.

I cleared my throat and brought the envelope up. "I have one last gift for you." My voice sounded thin, so I cleared my throat again. I didn’t want her to know she’d scared the shit out of me. She looked down at my offering, barely giving it a glance before her gaze returned to mine. "Take it, Keller," I said, my voice soft. I felt the small burden being lifted, not daring to break eye contact.

"Thank you." Her voice was also soft, but not with the gentleness I tried to install in mine. It was more obligatory.

"Open it. Please." Our visual cock fight continued for just a moment before her eyes dropped to what she held in her hand. I watched as she dropped the brush she’d held to the floor. She carefully ripped the sealed flap open, reaching inside to withdraw the clean, white sheets of paper. She looked confused. "Read it." She did.

"What is this?" She held the paper up slightly.

"She’s yours, Keller. Until all this is over with your father, one way or another. She’s yours."

Keller’s eyes took in the temporary custody forms again, her name typed in the space of temporary guardian of Parker Alberta Mitchum.

"You need to sign them so I can get them to our lawyer." The dark head nodded as she continued to look at the legal document before her. Since everything had happened nearly a month ago, I had the distinct feeling that Keller thought I was trying to take Parker from her. Nothing could be further from the truth; I felt the girls needed to be together.

Reaching into the breast pocket of my jumpsuit, I handed her a pen. Taking it in slightly shaking fingers, she used the wall as support and signed her name to the dotted line. Without a word, she handed both back to me, and I put them in the envelope for safe keeping.

"Thank you," she said, though her eyes remained on the floor. This time her voice, though quiet, was sincere.

"You’re welcome." I left her alone then, needing to unload my plane.

###

The day went by quickly, and I was glad. I was tired and cranky, and just wanted to go home and relax. I waited by the truck for Keller, who was gathering up her loot from earlier. I stifled a grin as I remembered walking past the bay door earlier. I had seen her sweeping, though the strokes were slow as the janitor tried not to be noticed. She was leaning over as far as she could, looking at the table filled with her goodies. I had wanted to laugh, but didn’t have the heart to embarrass her.

Our little threesome settled in, as had quickly become the routine. We ate dinner, which I usually cooked, and Keller insisted on doing the dishes. I was tired of fighting with her, so it just became the way things were. Besides, it was kind of nice to get a break from certain tasks. I thought Parker should help her big sister, but Keller insisted that the kid be able to be just that. So, Parker inevitably would hurry upstairs to grab her dolls, and plant herself in her little corner next to the bathroom.

We had somehow managed to drift into a strange sort of domesticity. It seemed natural to hear the banging of Parker’s play, and see Keller once in a while, as she ducked from her bedroom or outside. No one really talked much, save for Keller to Parker. The girls spent a lot of time together.

On this particular night, Keller had disappeared into her room, closing the door behind her. My gut told me she was looking at her gifts undisturbed. It warmed me somehow to know that she cared and was touched in some way by our offerings. It had stung a bit, the way she’d just shirked it all off at the hangar even though she did sneak looks from time to time.

I sighed, mounting the stairs, deciding to read in bed. Parker was playing with her dolls, and I watched for a moment. She seemed oblivious to me.

The Ken doll was once again being slammed into Barbie, Skipper sitting nearby. The Barbie finally sunk to the floor. The Ken doll was put aside, and the Barbie was covered with Parker’s sock. My brows narrowed. What the hell kind of game was this? The kid then grabbed the Skipper doll and put it behind her, picking up the Ken doll, and making him jump up and down, his little plastic feet making light thud sounds on the wood.

I was transfixed as I watched the kid grab Barbie from under her ‘blanket’, and the entire thing was acted out again. I had no idea what the dolls were supposed to be doing, but I decided I’d "eavesdropped" enough. About to turn away, I was surprised when I heard Keller’s voice.

"Parker." The kid looked up at her older sister, and saw what I saw – a single shake of the dark head in the negative. Parker set her dolls aside. Game over.

###

I had a damn busy day, and was glad of it. I would be flying the friendly skies all day long! A happy girl, I whistled into the front office for my morning mud.

"Mornin’, Penny." I grinned at the secretary, getting a curious glare in return.

"Ohhh, looks like someone got some last night," she purred, leaning back in her chair, eyeing me up and down. I rolled my eyes.

"With who? Roy?" I snorted, pouring the dark, strong-smelling liquid into my cup.

"Nah, I figured with that call service that’s not too far from your place." She grinned up at me, dark eyes twinkling with sexual mischief. It was my turn to look her up and down.

"Nah, you were off duty." With a sexy little grin, I stirred my coffee, then headed toward the office I shared with dad, followed by Penny’s laughter.

"Good one, Monk!" she yelled, and I grinned. The grin melted into confusion. There on the desk, sitting atop some papers, was a very tight roll of bills. I grabbed it, holding it up to my eyes. The money was rolled nearly as tight as the size of a marijuana joint, though it was obvious there was quite a few bills in the mix. I noticed a piece of paper where the money had lain. Picking it up, I read–

For my expenses. Keller

"Expenses?" I looked around, trying to catch sight of my elusive little friend. I saw her heading outside, her mop bucket being slowly pushed in front of her. She still moved much slower than her usual gait, but she seemed to be healing okay. I crumpled the note and tossed it to the desk top, marching out to have a little chat.

Looking around, the little shit a slick little bugger, I finally spied her. She was leaning against her mop handle, near where she’d dumped the dirty water, running a coverall-clad forearm across her forehead.

"Keller?" I walked up behind her, learning not to be silent about it. She looked at me, those damn sunglasses firmly in place. "What is this?" I held up the rolled money. I don’t even think she bothered to look at it.

"Money," she said, her voice low, already on the defense.

"Yes, I know what it is, what I want to know is why it was on my desk?" I felt like my mother as my hands automatically went to my hips. One of the few gestures I had that were purely her.

"I left a note." Keller raised her chin slightly, challenging.

"Expenses?" I cocked my head slightly to the side. "I don’t understand. I thought we discussed this."

"I saw that receipt. I know you can’t just toss out a couple hundred dollars for medicines for me." Her voice had become quiet. "That’s all I have right now. I’ll get more." I opened my mouth to protest, but her face hardened, and my mouth snapped shut. "I can’t just pay our way with housework." Her words were biting, filled with pride and desperation. "This is all I have right now. I’ll get you more. You have expenses, too."

I sighed, wrapping my fingers around the wad of bills. "You won’t let me say no, will you?" Keller only looked at me, her jaw working in silent, stubborn determination. "Okay." With that simple word, I walked away.

###

One thousand, eleven dollars! Probably every goddamn penny that girl had earned in her entire fucking life! I threw the counted money onto the desk, disgust filling me. I knew there was no way I could say no. I had learned a lot about the private girl that was Keller. She was full to the top with pride. That was all she had. There wasn’t a chance in hell I could reject her offer. In her mind, she was paying her own way, even if by a little at a time.

I felt like a schmuck.

Plopping down in the chair, I rested my forehead against my hand, suddenly feeling a headache coming on. I looked at the money, feeling like good ol’ Hamilton grinned back at me, sticking his tongue out.

"Asshole," I muttered, looking away. What was I going to do with it? There was no way in hell I was going to keep Keller’s money. No way, no how, not happening. My head jerked up with the sudden idea that filled it, and I blew a raspberry at the dead president. I knew my eyes held that evil little glint in them. I snagged up all the money and stuffed it into the breast pocket of my coveralls. I passed Reggie on my way to the truck. "If anyone needs me, I’m going to the bank."

###

"I just need you to sign here, ma’am." The helpful woman pointed to the line she’d marked an X at. I quickly drew my chicken scratch across it, admiring my unreadable handy work. I handed the paper back to the woman, as well as the cash, and she smiled, leaving the small, glassed-in office for a moment. I stared out the window that looked over the busy afternoon street of downtown Warwick.

Cars drove by at various speeds, a few pedestrians walking along the sidewalk, shopping in the cold, early autumn day. October was upon us, Halloween just around the corner.

The woman returned, and with another smile, handed me the little packet that told me how much was in the account I had just opened, as well as a little folder containing withdrawal slips. I smiled and thanked her. There wouldn’t be any withdrawals from this account for another thirteen years.

Tucking the papers into my pocket where moments before the money had been, I made my way out into the day. As I drove back toward the hangar, I passed Parker’s school, seeing dozens of little ones playing in the school yard. They laughed and chased each other, screeching in fright. I smiled, looking for a particular blonde. I didn’t see her, but knew she was there somewhere. It had genuinely surprised me how attached I was becoming to the kid. I had never really been one for kids. I had no nieces or nephews, nor cousins that were younger than me, or close enough to be with, anyway.

How had she done it?

I had never wanted kids. Still didn’t, basically. The thought had frightened me, not wanting anything to happen to me, and them being left alone, abandoned. I was not the type who got all googly when there was a kid or baby in the room, either. When mom used to have her friends over, and they’d bring or talk about their grandkids, oh man! All I could do was just sit there and roll my eyes. I thought it was ridiculous. Who gives a shit if they just said their first word? Soon enough you’ll want them to shut up, anyway. I had never understood it.

Keller was eighteen now. She said she wanted to take herself and Parker and start a new life for them once she became legal. She wanted to take that beautiful little girl out of the safety of my house, and take her out into the cold, uncaring world. Was it for spite? Pride? Fear of Parker being taken away? I thought I’d quelled that by dad signing his rights over to her.

I hated to think of the little girl going. Hell, I even hated the thought of Keller gone. She drove me nuts, and couldn’t possibly get any ruder, but still. At least if she was being rude to me, I knew she was safe. I worried that no matter how mature and grown up her life had forced her to be, she was still very naïve and had no clue about life’s expenses. Could she care for herself and Parker? Would they starve to death? I had the distinct feeling that Keller would never allow dad or I to help her or give her anything. Like, say, I decided to stop by the hole-in-the-wall apartment Keller would be able to afford and drop off dinner. Would Keller throw it in the garbage just to prove her point?

I hoped not.

My heart was heavy, waiting for those dreaded words any day. The girls were free, and Keller knew that. She could pack them up in the middle of the night if she wanted. There was not word one I could say.

###

Nothing had been said about the money since it was given to me a week ago. Nothing much had been said at all, really. Keller stayed in her little part of the house, and I stayed in mine, Parker our only link.

I had surprised the girls by bringing home a pint of ice cream a couple days ago. Parker had been thrilled, never really able to enjoy the cold treat before. Keller helped the girl remain basically clean, but didn’t say much about it. I’m not even sure if she had any. After we got everything cleaned up, remaining ice cream stowed away in the freezer, I handed Keller her check.

"Here you go." I smiled, and she looked at me, taking the check from my hand. She left the room and I sighed. Smiling at Parker, I turned to make a pot of coffee, wanting to ease the chill out of the house. I looked out the window, noting that the first snow of the season was getting a slow start. The small flakes were dancing around, lit in the dark night by an occasional car that drove by, illuminating the flakes in headlights. I could tell the snow was a wet one – the cars’ tires sloshed through the forming puddles. It would be so much fun cleaning off muddy puppy feet later.

Turning away from the window, I left the kitchen to head to my office when I saw Parker and Keller in the living room. Parker sat on the living room floor playing, and Keller sat on the couch. She was staring out the window, her eyes focused on what, I wasn’t sure. I looked toward the window, and from the darkness beyond, all she could see was her own lonely reflection. In that reflection I saw that her eyes had taken on that haunted look again. She looked so unhappy.

My gaze traveled over her, and I saw the check I’d given her sitting in her lap, face up. She looked down at it, then over at Parker, studying her sister for a moment before her eyes traveled back to the small, typed figure. The girl was making six bucks an hour and working full time, but it still wasn’t much, I knew. If only there was more to be done.

With a sigh, I headed on my path to the office, turning the computer on and waiting for it to boot. I grabbed a pen and began banging it lightly on the edge of the desk, watching as the Windows XP logo came up. About to click on the AOL icon, my gaze was torn away to something that landed on my desk. Realizing it was Keller’s check, I looked up in confusion.

"Keep it," she said, her voice low and dangerous.

"What? Keller, this is your paycheck." She had to know that, right?

"And I said keep it."

"Why?"

"We’re staying. I can’t afford rent, food, clothing, heat, all that shit on this." She tapped the check. "Keep it. It’s the best I can do for right now." She glared down at me, daring me to say anything or try and give it back. I sat there for a moment, stunned. She continued. "I may have a lot of pride, and I may be incredibly stubborn, but I’m not stupid. I’m not going to fuck up Parker’s life any more than it already is." She turned, her head drooping slightly, shoulders following suit as she walked toward the door. I had never seen her look so defeated. My heart went out to her.

"Keller?" She stopped near the doorway, but did not turn around.

"What?" she near hissed.

"It won’t be like this forever." My voice was soft, filled with understanding. This must have been one of the hardest things this poor girl had ever had to do – give up her pride.

I stared at the check for a moment, unsure what to do. As with the other money she’d given me, there was no way I could spend this. But at the same time, bills would start pouring in from Keller’s hospital stay, I knew. Dad and I would be in serious debt very soon, and there was just no way I could afford that, plus the extra bills for food, clothing, utilities, and everything else. I felt trapped.

Making a decision, I grabbed the check, shoving it into my pocket. The girls were still in the living room. The kid leaned against her big sister, holding her blue teddy bear, which seemed strangely thinner, and Keller was looking out the window again, oblivious to anything else.

"Guys, I’m going out for a few. Need anything?" I looked to both of them, only getting a glance from Parker. The brunette shook her head, saying nothing. "Okay. Be back later."

The snow was coming a little faster, though still nothing serious. I doubted there would even be any real accumulation in the morning. Turning the heat in the truck up a notch, I drove to dad’s.

He was up, as I knew he would be. All the lights were on in his small, one-bedroom cottage. This made me roll his eyes. And he wondered why his electricity bill was so high.

Dad’s old hound, Scurvy, was laying on the front porch, not even bothering to lift his head in greeting. I saw his big, watery eyes taking me in.

"Hey, boy." I petted his head, getting a moan in return. I knocked loudly, knowing he’d never be able to hear me over his football game. I grinned when I heard him yell at the screen for a bad pass. Finally he made his slow ass way to the door. Peering out through the curtained front window, he quickly threw the door open.

"Hey, kid!" he exclaimed, surprised at this unexpected visit. "Come in." He backed away, allowing me passage. "What’s up?" He knew me so well.

"I need to talk." I plopped down on the couch, watching as dad made his slow way into the recliner he’d had for thirty years. He looked at me expectantly.

"They’re staying," I finally said, stealing a swig from the half-full beer can that sat at dad’s chair.

"Who?" He swiped the can from me, taking a longer swig.

"Keller and Parker." I took the check out of my pocket, tossing it onto his lap. He took it in his hand, examining it. "She gave that to me."

"Why?" He tossed it back.

"Expenses." I sighed, running a hand through my hair. "She said she can’t afford rent and all that good stuff on her own, so they were going to stay. But I guess in order for them to do that, she gives up her entire damn check!" I could feel my anger coming back full force.

"Hold on now, kid. Just hang on and talk to me before you go and get yourself all riled up." He looked at me, making sure he had my attention. I took several deep breaths, then looked at him. "Let me get this. Keller’s saying that she can’t afford to get her own place, so she and the kid will stay with you. But in order for her to do that, she’s gotta give you her whole paycheck? Is that right?" I nodded.

"You got it." I sat back on the couch, slapping my hands on my thighs.

"Okay. Well, sounds like you got a couple options." He took another swig, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "You can put the whole thing in that account you opened up for Parker," he ticked off on a thick finger. "You can use part of the check for bills. Extra stuff being used, food and the like, then give the rest of it back. You can maybe even take a portion of the check out each month to use on stuff just for her. Stuff she’d need or want, you know?" At my nod, he continued. "There’s a whole bunch of things to be done, Monk. Don’t freak yourself out quite yet."

I sighed, feeling a little better. "I’m worried about those bills starting to come in." I ran a hand through my hair.

"You needn’t be." His voice was soft but very stern. I looked at him.

"What do you mean? We’re in debt to our eyeballs, dad! Once those hospital bills come in, you and I will be paying that off for the rest of our natural lives."

"Now, you let what I’m telling you get through that damn thick skull of yours. You needn’t worry about it. Got it?" He looked into my eyes, deep within. I nodded again, though with some reluctance.

"Okay."

"Good." He slapped my knee. "Want a beer?"

"Uh, sure." My brows drew. I didn’t like this one little bit.

###

When I got home, Keller was getting herself ready for bed. As I climbed the stairs, I saw Parker in their bedroom, sitting on the bed with her dolls and blue bear. The bathroom door was closed, and I could hear water running inside.

Knowing all was under control, I went into my bedroom and began to strip out of my clothes for the night. As I headed into the master bath, I heard a horrible crash coming from the girls’ bedroom. The bathroom door swung open, and Keller ran out, pulling her shirt over her head.

I froze from my place in the hall, wanting to know what had happened, and if Parker was okay, too, but I had seen a glimpse of the girl’s back before it was covered by the green material. There, on her lower back, by her waistline, was a very familiar scar. It was white and much fainter, but I had no trouble making it out.

AM

I felt the breath leave my lungs, my hand automatically going to my chest as I struggled for a moment. Jesus! He had done it to her, too?! The scar looked much older than Parker’s had. Was this his fucking branding technique? Something he did at birth?

"My god," I whispered, taking a deep breath. Getting my bearings back, I made my shaky way to the doorway of their bedroom. I saw the shelving that had been on the closet wall on the floor, their contents, some books and a small metal sculpture, on the floor. Parker was also on the floor, Keller kneeling next to her.

"You can’t do that, sweetie," Keller was saying, gently rubbing the kid’s knee. "You’ll hurt yourself, and you’ll break her stuff. You can’t climb on this stuff. Okay?" The kid nodded, looking up at her sister with big, scared eyes.

"Is she okay?" I asked, my voice soft. Keller looked at me over her shoulder. My eyes kept roaming down her clothed back, morbidly wanting to catch a glimpse of her scar again. I had to tear them away and meet her eyes.

"She’s fine. She’s sorry and won’t do it again." She turned back to her sister.

"It’s okay. All I care about is that she’s alright."

"She’s fine," was tossed over her shoulder. Taking that as my cue, I left them alone.

Once alone in my bedroom, I stretched out on the bed, surrounded by my dogs, and stared up at the ceiling. I thought about the decision Keller had made tonight to stay. It was a very mature, wise decision, and no doubt, heartbreaking for her. I had been amazed and saddened at the same time. I wished so badly that her staying here with me and the boys didn’t seem like such a prison sentence for her. Parker didn’t seem to mind being here, and in fact, seemed to have begun to bloom in the past month.

Why not Keller?

Was I that mean to her? Uncaring? Didn’t I do enough for her?

I knew these were stupid questions. Useless questions. I could take Keller to Macy’s every single day and allow her to shop till her heart’s content, but that would do no good. It all boiled down to she didn’t trust me, and I believe, saw me as another roadblock in a lifetime of them. What would make her happy? When would she find some peace and happiness? I doubted it would ever be under my roof, or anyone’s for that matter.

I sighed and turned over, intent on getting sleep.

###

Gabe grabbed me a coke, popping the top on his own and taking a long draw. He grinned with joy. He’d always been a sucker for soda.

"Man, I love this stuff." He took another drink.

"How many nails have you been able to dissolve with your addiction?" I asked, grinning.

"Probably an entire hardware store full." He smiled back. "S’okay. I love it." He downed the rest of his drink, then got up to grab another.

We sat in his new apartment, which was tiny, but functional. One big room, fully furnished, looked as though it had been there since the 1970s. Gabe didn’t seem to mind. I think he was just glad to have something that was bigger than eight-by-ten feet.

He was proud of his little corner of the world, a perma-smile fastened to his lips. He looked around the place, taking it all in, all his own personal touches decorating the place – such as the lovely Art d’Coke cans stacked in the corner. However, my personal favorite had to be the pair of women’s underwear tossed on top of the empty book shelves in the corner.

"I see you wasted no time," I said, pointing at the undies with my Coke hand. He followed my finger with his eyes and grinned.

"Hey, you try going two years!" He downed the second drink. I leaned forward in my seat.

"Dude, I have to know. Did you um, well, ya know." I quirked a playful brow at him. "While inside." My friend stared at me for a moment, trying to catch up with my train of thought, then it hit him. He looked away, then down, blushing slightly. I would not dare to ask such a question to just any guy. But my boy Gabe, not a chance I’d let it slip by. Besides, I knew if he needed to talk about anything, he would to me. We sat in silence for a short while, then finally he looked at me.

"Yeah." He was still crimson, his handsome face showing shame and fear at my response. I reached out and covered his hand with my own.

"It’s okay, Gabe. I don’t give a shit, man. It’s not like I’m shocked or anything. However, at some point in the near future, I will be asking you some questions about it." I winked, he rolled his eyes.

"Trouble."

"With a capital T, my friend." I chugged the rest of my Coke, squished the can in my fist and threw it at him.

"You," he pointed at me, "have some violent tendencies." He chuckled, tossing the caught can aside. "Soooo." He played with the tab on his own can, eventually getting it off and popping it into his mouth for that infernal chewing.

"Yes?" I asked, when nothing else was forthcoming.

"How are things with your employee and her sister? She looked a lot better at her birthday thing." He wiggled his tongue at me, the tab at the end of it. Grimacing, I looked away.

"Yeah. She looks a lot better. I think she’s even gained a little weight." I ran a hand through my hair, seeing that unbelievably ugly scar on Keller’s back again in my mind. Shivering slightly, I turned back to my friend. He looked at me curiously, but said nothing. "You should have seen her, Gabe. She was like a rail, bones sticking out everywhere. Reminded me of an alley cat, you know?" he nodded. "Totally scrappy, skinny, skittish and scared."

He snorted. "You make it sound like some horribly cheesy movie."

"Eh, shet epp!" I stuck my tongue out at him.

"Save it for the ladies." We sat in companionable silence for a moment. "So, you made the moves on her yet?"

My brows drew. "On who?"

"Keller." He looked over at me, dark eyes shining. I drew up my lip.

"Yeah, no. Not happening, my friend." I gave him a look that asked for no response. Like that ever stopped him.

"Not into chicks, huh?" He grinned, little dimples winking at me.

"You’re an ass, Gabe. I don’t give a shit if she’s into horses. I’m not into her." I gave him a forceful look. "And furthermore, she is my charge. Only a man would think like that. Gee, a lesbian and another woman sharing the same house, must fuck." I rolled my eyes at his laughter.

"Hey, I was only asking. Jeesh. Besides, she looks like she’ll be a real hottie some day." He wiggled his eyebrows, which only made me roll my eyes again.

"Pig."

"Dyke."

"Asshole."

"Carpet muncher."

###

I checked the handle of the truck, making sure it was locked. Sure that it was, I headed toward my house, seeing a couple lights flooding the windows. The smile leapt onto my face without permission, and though I tried to bring it down, it refused to go. It was nice to know there was someone inside waiting for you, even if they didn’t like you. To know there was another presence in the house made me sleep better at night. Especially since I knew that presence was finally safe.

I had to admit that I got a little thrill from knowing that Keller and Parker were safe and out of harm’s way. Dad and I had a lot to do with that, and it felt damn good to know. I had always admired people who went out of their way all for the good of another. I had never had the opportunity to do it until now, and was glad I had.

The house was quiet, save for some muffled music coming from upstairs. I made my way up after going to feed the dogs and finding that they’d already been fed. They squeaked under my weight, as they had done my entire life, no matter what size my body had been. I smiled at Parker who sat at the top in her corner, playing with the Barbie and friends. She smiled back, though much smaller than my own.

Moving on, I wanted to thank Keller for feeding the boys. I knocked softly, just loud enough to get her attention over the music coming from the alarm clock radio, which I could see on the bedside table though the small crack of the not completely closed door. I could also see the box of the model plane I had bought for Keller was sitting on the floor, along with one of her shoes.

There was movement, then the door was opened fully. When the janitor realized who it was, she quickly hid her left hand behind her back. Curious, my brows drew.

"What’s up?" I asked. She shook her head violently.

"Nothing." The way Keller’s blue eyes flickered away I knew something was up. I looked beyond her, seeing the parts of the model scattered on the floor, and the glue bottle with an open cap sitting next to them. My eyes flickered back to the girl, a soft smile curling one side of my lips. She blushed, looking away more. I reached around her, gently taking her left arm in my hand, and bringing her hand into view. The index finger and thumb were stuck together, and I could see the tell tale white glue that had seeped from between the glued fingers.

"Strong glue, huh?" I said, looking into her eyes. She nodded, but would not meet my eyes. I gently dropped her hand and went to the master bath. Finding what I was looking for, I headed back to Keller’s bedroom, instructing her to sit on the bed. Sitting next to her on the soft mattress, which I knew well, I brought out the nail polish remover and a cotton ball. Soaking the white fluff, I gently rubbed it over the glue, which began to immediately pull apart, a gooey string snapping between index finger and thumb.

Keller pulled her hand away, looking even more embarrassed. I closed the cap on the odorous chemical and looked at her.

"Thanks for feeding the dogs." My tone was soft, as I did not want her to think I would laugh at her mishap. She nodded, chewing on her bottom lip.

"Thanks." She wiggled her fingers, then quickly stood from the bed. I knew this was my cue, so I also stood. I glanced at the model out of the corner of my eye. It was coming along nicely, the shell just that, but recognizable. I wondered how long she’d been working on it.

Deciding it was time to take my leave, I did, closing the door to a crack. Glancing to my right, I saw Parker with her dolls. I leaned against the wall and watched.

Barbie was laying on the floor, face down, and Ken laid on top of her. My brows drew when the kid grabbed Ken and began to move him up and down. Realization sparking in my mind, I knelt down next to the girl.

"Parker?" She looked up at me, hand still moving Ken. "Uh, is that your mommy and daddy?" She shook her head, looking at me with those big, innocent blue eyes. I swallowed, feeling my stomach beginning to roll. "Is that you, honey?" She hesitated, chewing on her lip, much like her big sister, but slowly shook her head. She reached down and put her hand on Skipper, who sat nearby, seeming to watch. I began to feel the same panic as that day back in the hospital, when little Parker’s scars were revealed to me. I felt sick, and my hatred for the man I’d met once was increasing again.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Parker pointed a small finger at the door just a little ways down the hall. The bedroom door where Keller was working on her model. I glanced over my shoulder, seeing the golden lamp light sneak through the crack and hearing a Linkin Park song playing.

Looking back at the kid, I looked into her clear, blue eyes. "That’s Keller?" I pointed to the dolls. Golden locks bounced as the kid nodded. "And this?" My voice nearly squeaked as I touched the Ken doll lightly on the back. Parker’s face seemed to close in on itself, her eyes sliding into slits, her lips becoming a thin, white line. I knew instantly. "Al," I near whispered, and I saw the child shiver. "Good god."

Continued....

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