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 8

The house was alive with activity. The girls ran around, making sure everything was in its place, clean and ready for guests. I was in the kitchen, putting the last touches on the food. Deciding the house was good to go, I had my very own cleanup crew behind me, waiting for me to make a mess.

I brought the turkey out of the oven, lifted the big bird from the pan, and immediately Keller took it to the sink, scraping all the burnt parts into the trash, then washed it, leaving it on the rack to dry. She waited for me to make another mess, and I had to grin at that.

"Here. You two be useful. Keller, take the green bean casserole, and Parker, take the rolls." I swore I heard a ‘yes ma’am’ as they scurried out of the kitchen. Parker’s tongue bounced back and forth between peeking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated to licking her bottom lip at the smell of the fresh bread.

The table had been set by the duo earlier, me setting a place with my best china to model after. It looked great, all six places ready to go, complete with napkins, glasses, flatware, dinner plate, salad plate and handmade placemats that Parker had made with, well, her hands. You know, the kind where the hand is traced to form the turkey feathers and the thumb as the head? She drew on little feet and eyes and colored them bright, gaudy colors.

The dogs were currently locked upstairs in my bedroom. I did not need them sniffing around and knocking things over. Besides, they’d get all excited and jump all over everybody. Especially Parker. And though she had made friends with Roy, and he was her shadow, she was still wary sometimes.

"Okay, guys." I looked at them, Keller dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, Parker in pink corduroy overalls, they looked great. The doorbell rang, and my stomach rose. "Now, we talked about this." I looked from one to the other. "They’re just like family. You guys both know dad, Jerome and Gabe. There is absolutely no reason to be afraid." I smiled widely, both of them nodding.

I took the apron from around my waist, tossing it to the counter as I ran a hand through my hair. "Keller, make sure the fire is still going, please." I yelled as I hurried to the front door. Jerome stood on the other side, a smile and bouquet of flowers his only company.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Monk," he said, giving me a small kiss on the cheek. I gave him a one-armed hug.

"Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Jer. Come on in." I stepped back, allowing him to enter. He shivered, stomping the snow from his boots and cold from his bones. "Keller’s got a good fire going. Go warm up." He nodded, handing me the flowers. I accepted them with a smile, and put them in water at the center of the table.

I had never hosted such a holiday before, and certainly not for this many people. Usually dad, Jerome and I went out to eat, or had Hot Pockets. I wanted this year to be special. I seriously doubted that either of the Mitchum girls had ever had a true Thanksgiving before, and rarely did any of us get to eat so good.

It had been three weeks since Keller’s explosion at her old house. After that, I had taken her to the hospital, had the hand looked at and stitched, then had brought her back to my house, giving her some time alone. She had been silent during our entire time in the truck, which was not unusual, but it had been a different kind of quiet. This was not sullen and moody. It was sad, reflective and full of introspection. She had gotten so lost in her own thoughts that I’d had to call her name three times to get her to leave the truck.

I think, hope, that the janitor had been able to exorcise some demons that day. Say goodbye to some horrors, dead and buried. I know that is extremely optimistic, but with those two, I couldn’t help it. I believed in them, believed in the power of resilience. Something tells me we’ll never see that house again.

Things had changed somehow since that day. The hate and anger was still present in Keller’s eyes, but it didn’t seem to be so directed at me anymore. She was still quiet – I truly think that’s a part of her personality but it seemed more out of watching the world around her and listening than anything else.

My attention was brought back to the here and now when I felt a little hand tug at the hem of my sweater. I looked down and saw a pair of clear blue eyes looking up at me.

"Hey, you." I smiled at Parker and she grinned back, revealing little, straight white teeth. Little kids’ teeth always reminded me of Chiclets – so white and square. She pointed toward the table, brows shooting up in hope. I leaned down and gave her a very light kiss on top of her head. This was a new move on my part, having bestowed her with one for the first time just last week. She always kind of looked at me strangely, but didn’t move away. "Soon, honey, I promise. Okay?" She nodded, though didn’t look thrilled. I knew she was hungry. That kid was always hungry, it seemed. I loved it. She even now had a little rounded belly, like so many five-and-a-half-year-olds who were healthy and, hopefully, relatively happy.

Dad barged through the door, the wind and snow coming in with him. He was muttering about the ice on the walk as he set down a bottle of wine.

"Hey, dad," I called from the dining room, where I was setting out more food. Keller had joined me, and together we had the middle of the large table covered with wonderful-smelling dishes, the steam all billowing up into the overhead light.

"Hi. Damn that smells good!" I heard him stomp his boots, then take his coat off, hanging it on the coat tree.

"Yeah? Well hopefully it tastes just as good." I walked over to him and gave him a hug. "Happy Thanksgiving, dad."

"Same to you, kid." He smiled, blue eyes twinkling. I had to smile, seeing that his leathery skin was freshly shaved, the wonderful musky smell of Old Spice filling my nose. I would forever equate that smell with dad. "Hey, Keller." He smiled at the janitor and she gave him a nod.

"Hi." She turned back to making sure all the napkins were folded just right.

"And hello to you, little one." He bent down to Parker’s eye level, trying not to get his feelings hurt when the kid took a step back toward me. She looked down, stealing glances from below her bangs. I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"Can you say hi, Parker?" I said, my voice soft. She looked up at me, and, seeing my smile and encouraging nod, turned back to dad. She raised a tiny hand and gave him a little wave, the kind where fingers are involved, and not the entire hand. Dad smiled and stood. Her job done, Parker pulled away from me and ran to Keller, who was going around the table, pouring everyone a glass of water. Without a word, nor missing a beat, she laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

"Hey, old fool." Jerome walked into the room, newly warmed, and slapped dad on the back. They were the best of friends.

"I wondered where you’d gone. Saw that old heap parked out there." Dad pointed with his thumb toward the front door.

"Watch it, Jersey," Jerome warned, using his nickname for dad. I had asked many times what it meant, or where it came from, but the only answer I’d ever get was ‘It’s a war thing, tell you when you’re older.’ Guess I had to be ninety first.

"Yeah? What are you gonna do?" Dad huffed, puffing his chest out. I rolled my eyes and laughed.

"If I were twenty years younger, I’d kick your ass, old man." Jerome laughed, clapping him on the back again.

"Yeah, you and what army?" Dad laughed too.

"Him and this army of one," came a voice from behind us.

"Gabe!" I walked over to where he was unbundling himself, taking off his coat, scarf and gloves. He rubbed red hands together, blowing warm air on them.

"Smells good," he said, sniffing the air.

"It better. Happy Thanksgiving." I tucked my arm into his, and we walked to the dining room. Now that everyone was there, we could eat.

"Ditto." He gave me a kiss on my cheek. I grinned up at him. Dad and Jerome had already sat at the table, and Keller and Parker were standing nearby, not sure what to do.

"Hey," Gabe said to them, giving them both a winning smile. Keller eyed him and nodded in acknowledgement. Parker just stared.

"Sit down, guys. Lets eat," I told them. One more very wary look at Gabe from Keller, and she led Parker over to the chair where we’d already stacked her phone books. She helped the kid get settled before she sat down herself, including tucking a napkin bib-like into Parker’s shirt collar.

I took my seat at the other head of the table, dad sitting across me, and smiled at everyone. I was thrilled to have everyone that I cared so much about under my roof. I felt like a cheesy dork, my grin was so big. Jerome merely chuckled, tucking his napkin to his lap. I glared at him, then regained my smile.

"We don’t do the prayer thing in this house, but does anyone have anything they’d like to say before we eat?" I asked, looking around the table, meeting each person’s eyes.

Dad cleared his throat, drawing all attention on him. "I’d like to say first of all that I’m real glad Keller and Parker are here to join us this year." He smiled and raised his glass to the sisters. "Welcome and Happy Thanksgiving."

Keller looked down, slightly shy for a moment before raising her eyes to his. "Thank you," she said, very quiet. "Um, Happy Thanksgiving to you, too." Dad smiled and nodded, taking a sip.

"Good. Now that the mushy stuff is out of the way, let’s eat!" Dad said, pounding his fork on the table.

###

The men were enjoying themselves, telling stories and laughing at each other. Since I’d grown up with each and every one of them, I knew what they were talking about and could joke and laugh along. Keller and Parker, however, were not so privy to our private jokes.

Glancing over at them, I saw that Keller held her sister’s much smaller hand in hers under the table, gently rubbing her thumb over the soft back of Parker’s hand to soothe and calm her. The kid had also discovered that she could play in and make sculptures with mashed potatoes. She used her fork to push them this way and that on her plate, rolling over the little pile of peas, only to have a yellow lump with little green dots in it.

I tried to hide my smirk, wanting to tell her to quit it and eat the food, but didn’t have the heart. Besides, Keller beat me to it. She leaned down and said something very quietly into the little blonde’s ear. Parker nodded, then put a bite of food into her mouth. My gaze met the blue of the older Mitchum just for a moment, then Keller looked away. She tucked her spooked sister into a world of her making, making the kid smile and relax. She spoke quietly to Parker, her lips mere centimeters from the little blonde’s ear, making the small, even white teeth show and dimples wink.

I couldn’t keep the smile off my own face, watching those two. It was truly magic, the way they were together. I hoped that someday Keller would decide to have children of her own; she’d make a magnificent mother.

"Hello? Earth to Garrison."

Startled, my eyes darted to Gabe. "What?" He was grinning at me, that look of, ‘Yes, Monk, I know you’re a dork,’ right there on that handsome face.

"I said, are you going to put up a tree this year?"

"Oh, uh," I glanced over at the sisters again, watching as ever-so-slyly, Parker handed down a piece of turkey to her buddy, Roy. The smile returning to my face, I nodded. I saw dad looking at me, his blue eyes twinkling at my short stint of maternal pride that came from where, I don’t know.

"Good. The old farts said you didn’t bother last year," Gabe said, chewing heartily on a well-buttered roll. I shook my head, popping a piece of meat into my mouth.

"Nope. Sure didn’t. Wasn’t home that often."

"You going to get a real one?" Jerome asked, delicately cutting his bird. It always amazed me just how delicate the dark man’s movements were. He was a large man with huge, capable hands. But somehow they always seemed so gentle and soft.

"I don’t know." I turned to my charges. "Would you guys mind a real tree, or are you used to the fake kind?" Keller looked at me, utter confusion in her eyes for a moment.

"Uh," she looked down at her sister who was looking up at her, blonde brows drawn, "It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Whatever." Her eyes dropped to her plate and it hit me. They’d never had one.

"Then a real one it is." My mind was made up. We’d go out and get one in a couple weeks, and those girls would learn how to decorate one if it was the last thing they ever did. "It’s settled." My eyes drifted across the table to meet dad’s. He was smiling and nodded his approval. I smiled back.

###

Everyone was finished, and after my "I am not your damn slave" speech, the guys helped Keller and I clear the table and load the dishwasher. This gave everyone a chance to let their dinner settle, too. I brought out the pie!

"Who wants some?" I announced, carrying four pies to the dining room, one on each hand and each forearm. My high school waitressing days were showing. Dessert safely placed on the table, I looked down to see Parker standing at the edge, her eyes peeking over the edge, wide with wonder. If her mouth hadn’t been hidden by the tablecloth, I’d bet she was licking her lips in anticipation.

Keller set the tub of Cool Whip next to me on the table, and I looked up expectantly. Of course I had the usual orders for pumpkin pie from dad and Jerome. I’d expect nothing less. Gabe wanted cherry, and Keller apple. Now it was down to little Parker.

"What do you want, honey?" I asked, kneeling down to look into her eyes. She looked at me, then at the pies, not two feet away, then back at me. She reached a little hand out and pointed toward the pumpkin. Personally, I think it was because it was the closest. "Have you ever had pumpkin pie before, sweetie?" I asked, standing and starting to cut her a Parker-sized piece. She shook her head, blonde ringlets dancing about her head. "Well, you are in for a treat then, kiddo." I set her piece on a plate and topped it with whipped cream. Keller helped the kid onto her stack of phone books and we all waited, watching intently as she studied it, then smelled it, studied it again, then dug her fork into the soft, brown meat of the dessert.

Parker put the bite into her mouth, slowly letting the filling dissolve in the warmth of her saliva, softly smacking her lips together as the wonderful flavor burst onto her taste buds. A little of the white whipped cream slipped out of the corner of her mouth, the kid not caring a lick. Keller reached over and gently wiped it away with her napkin. Parker was entirely too intent on the taste sensations.

It seemed as if all of us leaned forward in our seats, wanting to see the final verdict. It happened slowly, starting with her eyes, which widened, the blue seeming even brighter than usual. It spread down her face, tiny nose wrinkling up as her lips curved into a smile, teeth beginning to show as her lips spread, goo oozing out between the neat rows. A small pink tongue flicked out to gather the runaway sweetness, and she dug in for more.

Releasing a pent-up breath of relief, I began tackling my own mammoth piece of pumpkin pie, my most favorite dessert in all the world.

###

The house was finally quiet, dad, Jerome and Gabe having left more than an hour ago. Parker had quickly fallen asleep on the couch, blue bear tucked neatly into her arms. Keller was in the den, trying her wings on the computer. I’d shown her how to use the internet, which to my utter amazement, she’d never laid a finger on. That was last week, and she had been enthralled ever since.

I set the book I’d been reading by the fire aside, and headed in there. Knocking softly on the door frame, blue eyes flicked up to look at me.

"Hey," I said, my voice soft.

"Hi." Hers was equally so.

"Some night, huh? Parker’s out cold in there." I nodded toward the living room with my head. She nodded. "Did you enjoy yourself?" Keller shrugged.

"It was okay."

"Listen, I know you aren’t into huge crowds or anything, but I was thinking that tomorrow, since there’s no school for Parker, and no work for us, that we’d head into Boston and do some Christmas shopping." I waited a beat, studying her face for any hidden reactions. When nothing was forthcoming, I continued. "We could maybe take in a museum or ice skating?" I raised my brows in question. "Get some lunch–"

"I don’t have any money," Keller said, her eyes falling to the screen before her, then down to her lap.

"I know, Keller. It’s okay. My treat. Traditionally the day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year, so I thought it might be fun. See all the decorations that are already up. I bet Parker would love it." I smiled, thinking of all I could show those two.

"If you want to take Parker then take her, Garrison. I can stay here."

"No." My reply was slightly louder than I’d intended it, but I was determined to not let the brunette’s stubborn pride get in the way of a fun day. "Either you come, too, or none of us go. You’re part of this little," I thought for a minute, unable to think of a word she’d like, "Whatever you want to call us. You deserve to have a good time, too."

Keller sighed, figuring she’d lose this battle. "Fine." My grin was huge.

"Thank you, Keller. We’ll have a good time, okay?" She nodded, though I could tell she was skeptical. "Well, I’m going to bed. You guys have a good sleep."

"You, too."

I turned to head out when I heard my name called softly. I looked over my shoulder and saw Keller chewing on her lip, eyes darting up to me, then looking away. "Happy Thanksgiving," she muttered, almost as if it had hurt her to say it. I smiled, appreciating the gesture.

"Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Keller." With that, I headed upstairs.

###

The sun was bright and warm, promising to make the chilled day comfortable and enjoyable. I steered the truck amongst the crazy drivers of Boston, narrowly dodging one accident after another. Two very wide-eyed sisters sat beside me, holding hands as they watched the cars whiz by.

Parker had never been out of Warwick, and Keller hadn’t been further than the little dinky town next door. She’d never been to Boston, and her wide-eyed wonder and awe was adorable.

Parker wiggled in the confines of her seatbelt, trying to get a better look at the tall buildings and mass numbers of people walking the streets and going in and out of businesses.

I decided while we were all fresh from a good night’s rest that we should start with shopping. Parking in the huge lot of a mall, I turned to Parker and Keller. "Okay guys, we’re here. Now, this place is huge, so Parker you hold on to one of us, okay?" She nodded, clasping Keller’s hand even tighter. I looked at the janitor. "You ready for this?" Keller looked out the windshield, seeing all the people bustling about, having the same idea as us. She nodded, taking it all in. "Okay. Here we go."

The mall was crazy busy already, and it was just after ten in the morning. The throngs would only grow as the day continued. Christmas decorations were everywhere, draped over anything that would stay still. Holiday music was piped into the enormous building, and the air was filled with excitement.

I’m not sure who looked more the five year old – Parker or Keller. Both had huge blue eyes, trying to take everything in. Keller had a death grip on her little sister’s hand, not letting the frightened child get more than a foot away from her actual body. They looked around, looking up as the building, which was several floors tall, soared up, decorations even hanging from the highest point. I always wondered how they got them up there.

I took them into nearly every store, letting them see just what was available to them, and trying to pay attention to anything that caught either of their eyes. Despite Keller’s usual carefully controlled countenance and reserve, not a whole lot escaped my watchful eyes that day. She wore her amazement on her sleeve, and I loved it. I took them into a toy shop, Parker nearly drooling all over herself at the wonder of the child’s play land. She was, however, frightened out of her gourd at the guy who was dressed in a Frosty the Snowman costume, his big, white, round body narrowly avoiding total disaster with cleverly stacked and organized end caps and displays. His big, black ‘coal’ eyes made the poor child press herself into Keller’s leg.

"It’s okay, honey," her big sister said, kneeling down. "It’s just some guy in a costume." She looked up at the giant snowball. "Watch." She raised her hand and waved, and Frosty waved back. "See?" She turned to her sister, who was still eyeing the fluff with cautious eyes, but also a spark of curiosity. Chewing on a finger, Parker raised a tentative hand in a tiny wave, the snowman returning it, mirroring her actions, even to how many times his fingers bent in wave. Parker gradually pulled away from the protection of her big sister and stood on her own two feet. She looked up at the costumed toy store employee, and removed her fingers from her mouth. She waved again, and so did he.

As I stood back, watching this from my place near a display of Matchbox cars, I smiled. The child, with only one of Keller’s hands on her shoulder, reached out and touched the white material of Frosty’s costume. Frosty was patient and let the child explore, little fingers wandering over the sparkly softness, brow slightly wrinkled as she concentrated on what she was doing. Often, blue eyes darted up to meet coal black, or to watch to see what Frosty’s hands were doing, and that they weren’t coming anywhere near her.

Keller whispered words of encouragement to her sister, rubbing her back in small circles once in a while. I think all three of us were caught in a world of awe, for three very different reasons. Parker was amazed that a character from a song could come to life; Keller amazed that her little sister was taking such a chance to explore, and me in awe of them both. I looked at them and saw a miracle.

###

Lunch was eaten at the Rainforest Café clear in Burlington, west of Boston. It was a pricey lunch, but I figured my shopping buddies would get a kick out of it.

Parker looked around her constantly, never wanting to sit still to eat her macaroni and cheese. Everything caught her eye, all the animals, brightly-colored plants and birds that stood at attention. A nearby elephant sprayed us slightly, making Parker grin.

Keller had looked at the menu, seen the prices, then looked up at me, worry etching her forehead. I held my hand up.

"Order what you want, Keller. No worries today." I stared into her eyes, challenging her to differ. "Okay?" Finally, after chewing on the inside of her cheek, to keep herself quiet I’m sure, she nodded.

After taking a tour of the restaurant, letting Parker see everything to her little heart’s desire, I decided it was time to go ice skating.

Asking the waitress, I found out where to go. Sherman Park was the place, and after a few wrong turns, we found it. There were people there, whirling around on the iced-over pond, or playing in the snow surrounding it. I led my crew to the little rental hut and paid our admission. I asked for skates for Parker and myself, then turned to Keller.


"
What size do you wear, Keller?"

"I don’t want any," she said, sticking her hands into her pockets. I knew what this was – she didn’t want me to spend any more money on her. Guilt was starting to get to her, and irritate me.

"Keller, come on. The lady is waiting."

She shrugged, looking out at the other skaters. "I’ll watch and keep your stuff safe." She looked at me, her eyes hard. Sighing, I knew there was no winning here, and I didn’t want the day ruined. I nodded, paid for the two pairs, and we found a bench.

At first I was practically carrying the kid, curious eyes looking down at the ice as it passed by under my blades. She reached a gloved hand down, trying to touch it, though it was out of her grasp. I looked at her, stopping near the rail.

"Want to try it, Parker?" I asked, setting her little feet down onto the cold, hard ice. She looked down at it, fascinated, then at me. She nodded vigorously and I smiled. "Okay. Hold onto my hand." I stood, taking her hand in mine, and we pushed off, very slowly. Her skates wobbled, toes getting nearer and nearer each other until they almost touched and she almost tripped us both. I stood behind her, bent over her small body, both of her hands in mine. We went very slowly, riding the outside of the rink to stay out of traffic. Parker began to move her feet, and soon enough the little shit took to it like a fish to water. She was slow, but had spectacular balance for a five year old.

I didn’t dare let go of her hand, but she was basically doing it all on her own. I was grinning proudly at her, thinking her pink cheeks and nose were adorable. Her golden locks managed to escape from underneath the hat I’d put on her head. She looked like a little elf, the long, pointy tip of the hat reaching her mid-back.

On our third pass, I noticed that Keller was watching, looking rather wistful. She rested her chin on her palm, eyes never leaving us. I slowed us down and tossed something at her. She caught my wallet, looking at me with surprise and confusion.

"Go get some damn skates!" I called out as we started to go around again. She glared for only a moment, then was up and hurrying over to the skate rental place.

I did my damndest not to laugh as Keller made her unbelievably unsteady way onto the ice. She walked on those blades like she was on her tippy toes, one very shaky step after another. I kept expecting her tongue to peek out in concentration as she stepped onto the ice, hand immediately going to the rail.

I let go of Parker’s hand, letting her wander in a small area free of guidance, and watched Keller trying to make her way over to us. I wanted to burst out laughing a few times when she nearly lost her balance and landed on her ass. She did, however, manage to gain it back, both hands shooting out to instinctively catch herself, should she fall. Her legs were wide, skates wobbly, much like a newborn calf trying to learn to walk. She glanced up to see how far she still had to go, then turned her attention back to her trek to get there.

Parker was also wobbly, but doing remarkably well. She was sure showing her sister up.

Finally Keller reached us, face red from the effort and breaths coming out in quick successions of white puffs.

"You okay?" I asked, trying to keep the smile off my face, but unsuccessful in my voice. She glared at me.

"Fine."

I bit my bottom lip to keep the mirth in. Parker made her way over to her sister, thrilled to see she’d joined us. She grabbed Keller’s hand, which almost made the janitor fall again. She caught herself, hand stuck to that railing like glue.

"Parker, why don’t you take your sister around." I grinned down at the five year old and Keller glared at me.

"Very funny, Miss Boitano."

I chuckled. "Why thank you. I take that as a compliment." I rather enjoyed watching the Olympic medallist.

Just to spite me, Keller took her sister’s hand, and they began a very slow, arduous lap around the rink. They stuck to the side, Parker constantly looking over at her big sister to make sure she was doing okay, seeming to sense Keller’s ice skating troubles.

I watched for a little bit, but figured they had it under control, so began my own laps. I loved the sport, even though I wasn’t spectacular at it. I could stay on two feet, but let’s just say that I wouldn’t be trying a Lutz anytime soon.

Eventually, when I’d look back at them, I’d see both their eyes twinkling, small smiles on their faces.

###

I think it was safe to say that the day was a success. Though sore, no one was seriously hurt, save for maybe Keller’s pride. She did eventually bite it, though not badly. She bruised her ego more than her body.

Parker was conked the entire drive home, and Keller had her head leaning against the window, eyes hooded as she watched the snowy landscape pass. It felt good. Damn good, like I’d done something right for a change.

I looked over at the sleeping Parker, head laying against Keller’s arm. The seatbelt was the only thing that kept her upright. I felt a surge of pride for some reason as I looked at them. Maybe a sense of satisfaction that I had given them a good day, or at least gave them some access to fun. I think even Keller had enjoyed herself at the rink, although whether her bruised knees would agree to that I don’t know.

Keller carried the tuckered kid into the house and tucked her into bed. It was late, and all of us were tired. I bid them a goodnight, then disappeared into the den. I had done some minor shopping for dad and the boys at the hangar, and Celeste, but now the real Santa Claus would come out.

I logged onto the internet and grabbed my credit card.

###

The boys were rowdy at the hangar, and I could see it was severely getting on Keller’s nerves. She already didn’t like Reggie. This was a known fact for anyone who saw them together. Reggie was a typical young guy who really liked women. He hit on them, but knew if he hit on Keller, he’d have certain parts of his anatomy rearranged by at least three people there at the hangar. So, he had to keep it to himself.

Keller worked well with Jerome, as he was a lot like dad. Very kind and patient. Reggie was loud, obnoxious and arrogant. Usually Keller waited until the afternoon to join Jerome, because by then either Reggie was gone for the day, or he was so busy with a project that he forgot to be an asshole.

However, today, since no one had been at the hangar since the janitor had cleaned it last, there was no reason for her to do it again. I told her to stick with Jerome all day, and told Jerome to keep the dog off her, should he suddenly become interested in the living.

Jerome caught up with me later in the day, once I’d come back from making a drop in Connecticut. I was in the office, unzipping my flight suit. Nearly jumping out of it at the unexpected visitor at the door, I put my hand to my chest.

"Goddamn, Jerome. Don’t sneak up on me like that." I looked at him with accusing eyes as he chuckled.

"Sorry. Guess the kid’s been teaching me something, too."

"Yeah, nice." I hung the suit up on the brass coat hook in the corner and looked at him. "What do you want now that you’ve taken three years from me?" Plopping down in the desk chair, I ran a hand through my hair and blew my bangs out of my eyes.

"I want to talk to you about Keller." He entered the office and closed the door behind him. Suddenly I was worried.

"Is she okay?"

"Oh yeah, she’s fine. Great. Listen, Monk," he sat down across from me, leaning forward in his chair, "I’m going to be straight up with you, Garrison. You’re wasting that kid’s time having her as the janitor."

"What?" Utterly confused, and feeling slightly irritated, I felt my defenses rising.

"She has so much talent and brains. You should see her out there." He pointed through the office window to the hangar beyond the short hall. "She picks up on things right quick, smart as a whip. She loves them planes. I see her in the mornings, rushing through all that cleaning so she can come help out."

I sat back in the chair, chewing this over and eyeing the mechanic. "What are you suggesting, Jerome?"

"I’m suggesting putting her on full-time mechanic duty. Yeah, she still has a lot of training left, and I’d be more than happy to provide it. If she could get herself certified, hell, she could have herself a career to feed her and Parker. It would give her a sense of pride, Monk." His dark eyes were bright as he pleaded Keller’s case. "You know I’m not going to be here forever, and you never know with Reggie. He talks big about leaving this place all the time. You’re going to need somebody you can trust when one of us leaves."

"And what about the cleaning stuff? If she’s following you around all day, who’s supposed to do that?"

"Kid, you and your dad need to talk that over. But that’s some raw talent just wasting away out there." We both looked out the window and saw dad showing Keller something on the Hercules. I watched her, watching how she listened intently to everything dad had to say, her head down with his in the electrical compartment. It was kind of cute, really.

Dad had unhooked something and held it up, explaining the different parts to her. I watched Keller’s fascination cross her face as she studied the clump of wires. I could almost hear the wheels turning from the office. I sighed.

"We can’t afford to keep three mechanic on here right now, plus a maintenance person, but I’ll tell you what," I looked at Jerome, as this would have to be through his help, too, "If you’re willing to work with her during your time off, I’m sure she’d jump at the opportunity." The dark man studied me for a moment, finger grazing his chin. He nodded.

"Okay. I’ll talk to her about it today."

"Great!" I smiled. "It’s settled."

###

"Hey, Keller." She looked up from the Plane and Pilot magazine she was reading as Parker colored.

"Hi. How was flying?" she asked, her voice soft.

"It was good. Thanks for asking." I dropped my coat on the couch. Having a Saturday flight in the morning, the sisters had been alone. "So did Jerome talk to you about working with him on the weekends?" I sat on the chair across from the couch. Keller fingered the glossy pages on her lap. She nodded. "And? Are you interested?"

Keller nodded. "Yes."

"Great! Okay." I swallowed. Hard. "Here’s the thing. Since you’ll be working a very different schedule than me, and the hangar is pretty far, and there may be times when you need to go somewhere else–" I swallowed again, taking a huge leap of faith. "I’m going to teach you how to drive." Keller looked at me as though I’d just swallowed a bug.

"I don’t have a car," she said, quite logically.

"I know. Follow me."

Keller tossed the magazine aside and stood. She followed me outside to the garage that was hidden behind the house. Turning the handle, I cursed the fact that I had yet to put an electric opener on the heavy, stubborn thing. Finally Keller helped me, and together we got the squeaky door up. Inside the old, musty space was a single object, covered in a white tarp.

"This was given to me by dad. It’s a 1965 Mercury Comet Caliente Convertible. This baby has all its original options – power brakes, manual steering, 289 Super Cyclone V8, 4 barrel carb, C4 Automatic, factory air conditioning, power top, rear seat belts, Chrome Dress Up package, and Cyclone hub caps." I grinned proudly at the candy-apple red car with the white rag top that I’d uncovered. I felt I was being watched and turned to see Keller staring at me.

"Huh?"

"Oh." I blushed, grinning sheepishly. "Sorry. I love cars." I cleared my throat. "Anyway, so we’ve got two cars. I figure this way, you’ll be able to go where you want, when you want. That kind of thing." I turned to her. "So? What do you say?"

Keller chewed on her lower lip, looking at the car, then at me. There was a small twinkle in her blue eyes that made my heart smile. She nodded. "Okay."

And so it was. I took her and Parker in the truck to an empty parking lot. I figured if Keller could drive the behemoth of a truck I had, she could drive anything. Plus, the truck did better in the snow, and I wanted something safe for her.

My charge watched intently as I showed her where everything was, me in the passenger seat with Parker sitting in the back seat of the double cab, watching between the bucket seats.

"Be careful with her at first. The clutch is very touchy," I instructed. Keller nodded.

"Okay." She had an intense look of concentration on her face, and I knew she was listening to me. She only managed to kill it three times before she got us going. It was slightly icy, but I figured it would be good for her to learn how to drive on it now instead of when she was alone later.

"Good," I complimented her when she managed to get the wheel under control after a slight fishtail. Keller, for her part, looked terrified, her eyes wide and face pale. I smiled. "It’s okay. You did really good." She glanced over at me, taking several deep breaths as she got the truck to a stop. She turned to look at her baby sister over her shoulder.

"You okay, Parker?" she asked the frightened little girl. The kid nodded, her eyes as wide as Keller’s. I reached back and patted her knee.

"It’s okay, honey." I smiled at the kid, and she nodded. Turning back to Keller, I asked, "You don’t have a driver’s license, right?" She shook her head. "Permit?" Again no. "Okay. I’ll take you down to the RMV and get you a book to study. You’ll have to take a test to get your permit, which means you can practice with me legally." Keller nodded.

"Okay."

"Then after six months, you can try for your license." Again she nodded. "Okay. Let’s take her around one more time."

"Okay." Keller revved the engine accidentally and glanced over at me. I tried to hide my grin, instead smiling encouragingly at her. The truck began to move again, and I subconsciously grabbed a hold of the ‘oh shit’ handle.

###

Driver’s book in hand, I grabbed the newspaper off the porch as I went inside. I could hear the alarm clock radio from upstairs, and Keller talking to Parker. The scent of fresh laundry filled the air, and I smiled, inhaling. I absolutely loved the smell of dryer sheets.

"I’m home, guys," I called up, looking through the small pile of mail as I headed into the kitchen. I heard little feet thudding down the stairs, then the feel of small arms wrapping around my leg briefly before it was gone. I looked up just in time to see the kitchen door swinging behind the little blue blur that was Parker.

"She hugged me." I grinned, unable to believe it. My heart swelled, and my chest puffed out a little. Tossing all the junk mail to the kitchen table and fingering the bills, which eventually also got tossed aside along with the paper, I walked back out into the hall and I called up. "You guys ready to go?" The music was turned off, and two pairs of feet thudded down the stairs. Just as I had requested, Keller and Parker were bundled up, ready to face the mid-December cold.

The sisters and dogs loaded into the truck, we headed off toward the Christmas tree lot. Finding a place to park the truck was interesting, as everyone had the same idea. Squeezing in next to another truck and a Honda, we all unloaded, Roy following Parker around happily, her big shadow. Tut led the way, his kingly head held high, tail high and proud.

Keller walked beside me, hands tucked into her pockets as we neared the fenced-off area of the lot.

"Keller, I was wondering something." She glanced over at me, giving me her attention. "I’d like to introduce Parker to Santa Claus, you know, the chimney, reindeer, the whole nine yards. Is that okay with you? Does she know who he is?"

Keller shook her head. "We didn’t have Christmas."

"I figured as much. Would it be alright with you, though?"

Keller sighed, breath coming out in white puffs, her cheeks already rosy. She looked at me as if to ask why I was asking her, though her eyes were clear and bright. "If you want to." She stopped us, a very brief hand to my arm. "Don’t disappoint her, Garrison. Either you do it all the way or not at all." She looked into my eyes. "Got it?" I nodded.

"I understand." I gave her the most reassuring smile I could, and we continued on.

The lot was filled with beautiful trees, just waiting to be taken home and decorated. Parker looked up at the huge things, eyes wide, not understanding why we were there. Keller took her by the hand, talking with her, asking which she’d rather have. The dogs followed us around, sniffing, tails wagging with gusto at the exciting experience of being in a new place full of new smells.

Families laughed together as they picked out their perfect tree and I saw what looked to be a new couple choosing their first tree together. It was a bitter-sweet day for me. Too often I wished I had someone like that to do this with, share it with. Dad wasn’t interested in the holidays anymore, so I didn’t bother. This year, though, Santa was definitely coming to the Davies house again.

My attention was brought back to the kid as she tugged on my hand. I looked down at her, and she began to point toward a huge, blue spruce. The thing must have been eight feet tall.

"You like that one?" I asked, kneeling down to look her in the eye. She grinned, nodding furiously, blonde ringlets bouncing around her shoulders. Her hair had really grown since she’d come. "That’s pretty tall, don’t you think?" She nodded again, a silly grin across her face. I looked up to see Keller’s eyes on the tree, hand shielding her eyes as she stared at the top. "What do you think, Keller?" She looked at me, then back up at the tree.

"It’s huge."

"It is. Think we can handle it?"

Keller shrugged her coat-enshrouded shoulders. "Maybe. Might have to saw off part of the top to get it into the house."

"No kidding." I stood again, trying to decide. I looked at the price tag and my eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. But one look down into that hopeful little face, and I had to do it. "Okay. We’ve found our tree, guys." I smiled at the sisters, receiving two very different looks from them. One elated, the other like I was nuts. You can guess which belonged to who.

###

I had already bought a whole truckload of decorations for this momentous event. This was good as the tree, which was tied into the truck bed, and over the cab of the truck, took up the entire thing. The guy at the lot had helped Keller and I get the thing into the bed, so I was awfully curious as to how we were going to get it out again, and into the house.

"Hey, Gar!"

I whipped around when I heard my name called. Gabe was walking across the street, where he’d parked his new/used Subaru, hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans to ward off the cold.

"Good timing. Get your ass over here and help," I called out, untying the last rope from the truck. Keller looked over at my friend, eyeing him and pushing Parker behind her.

"It’s okay, Keller," I said. "He’s a good guy." She glanced at me, but I couldn’t read her expression behind the sunglasses. My old friend jogged the rest of the way, taking in the tree the entire time.

"My god. Did you raid the Redwoods of Oregon?" He smiled at Keller and Parker. "Hi." Parker sank further behind her sister’s legs, sticking her fingers in her mouth to suck on. Keller merely nodded in acknowledgement.

"I think so." I patted the trunk. "Help."

"You got it."

The three of us managed to drag the thing inside, only scraping the paint from one door frame. I was pleased. Gabe and Keller held the tree as I sawed a foot off the bottom of the trunk, then they held her as I got the tree stand underneath, full of water. Once she was standing straight, we all took a step back and admired our handy work.

"It’s a beaut." Gabe smiled, patting me on the back.

"Yup. Better be for what I paid for it." I grinned at him. "What are you doing here?’ He shrugged.

"Just bumming."

"How’s the new job going? Wait, before you answer," I turned to Keller, who was starting to pick up fallen pine needles from the floor. "Don’t worry about those, Keller. Which room do you and Parker want to decorate?" She looked at me, then shrugged.

"I didn’t know we were picking one."

"Sure are." I grinned, and she rolled her eyes.

"I don’t care."

"Difficult. Fine. How about the stairs and hallway?" Blue eyes gazed to the areas in question and she nodded.

"Okay."

"Great! Then we’ll all do the tree."

Keller was certainly less than thrilled, as I figured she saw it all as a waste of time. I, on the other hand, was determined.

Gabe helped me to put the yard decorations out, including the plastic Santa and Mrs. Claus with the light inside that lit them up as they waved to the passerby. He helped me to staple the outside lights to the roof, and wrapped them around the shrubs and trees in the front yard.

"Okay, let her rip!" I called from the mailbox, where I’d finished wrapping my last string of lights. Gabe, who was in the garage, plugged in the extension cord that all the strands of lights led to. The entire front of the house lit up, including a path down the driveway, around the tree planted there, two shrubs, and the mailbox.

"Damn," he whistled, coming out into the yard to look at our handiwork. "It looks like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation." Gabe grinned as I slugged him.

"It does not. It looks pretty."

"Pretty?" His dark eyes looked into mine. I glared.

"Yeah, pretty. Got a problem with that?’

"Nope. Uh unh, none at all." He raised his hands in supplication and I smiled.

"I didn’t think so."

Freezing our asses off, I decided to go in, and Gabe had to head out to work. I said my goodbyes, marveled at the front yard once more, then grabbed the newspaper as I went in.

My progress stopped as soon as I opened the front door. Parker was carefully hanging candy canes on the balustrade, little pink tongue sticking out in concentration. Silver and red tinsel hung from just about everything that would stand still, including the light fixture above the front entrance. Little gold, silver, blue and green balls hung from the tinsel, and several from the coat tree arms. A large green wreath was slung around the newel post, and a snoring Santa was set up on the small table by the stairs where the phone rested.

I covered my mouth, trying to keep my laughter in. I was thrilled that they had taken so much time, and had actually tried to make everything look so Christmassy.

Parker finished with the candy canes, then turned and grinned at me.

"You did such a good job, sweetie," I said, walking over to her and running my hand gently over her hair, smoothing it away from her face. "You need a hair cut." I noted, then heard Keller come down the stairs, an empty cardboard roll that once used to be wrapped with tinsel. "Looks great," I said, grinning. She gave me a ghost of a smile.

"You wanted decoration, you got it."

"Yes I did. Let me put this in the kitchen and we’ll start on the tree, kay?" I held up the newspaper. Keller nodded.

Unfolding the paper as I went, absently pushing the swinging door open with my shoulder, I slowed my pace, coming to a stop in the middle of the large room. The headline above the fold of the paper read: Man Charged With Second-Degree Murder in Death of Wife

I began to read the first part of the article:

Al Mitchum was arrested Sept. 12 on charges of child abuse, sexual assault on a minor, incest and second-degree murder of his wife, Trudy Mitchum.

I stopped reading, feeling my blood go cold. Putting the paper down on the table, I took several deep breaths. Glancing over my shoulder, as if I could see Keller and Parker through the door, I swallowed the lump of nervousness in my throat. Finally getting myself together, I walked back through it, finding the sisters rummaging through more Christmas decorations that had been brought into the living room next to the tree.

"Keller?" I said, nodding her over. She walked to me, and I ran a hand through my hair. "What’s with the charges against your dad?" I asked, my voice low. Keller’s face paled and she glanced back over at her sister.

"Can we talk about this later?" she asked, looking at me briefly before her eyes began to wander.

"Okay. But I want to know what’s going on." She nodded, then walked back over to Parker.

###

The tree decorating went well, Keller and I both putting on a happy face for Parker so she’d enjoy herself. I think both our minds, certainly mine, was on the talk that was about to come.

When I heard the knock on my bedroom door, I realized that the time was now.

"Come in." I put the book I’d been reading aside and glanced at the bedside clock. It was nearly ten, and I knew Parker was fast asleep. Keller poked her head in, looking around before her eyes landed on me. I’m not sure if she thought I wouldn’t be alone or what. "Hey," I said, my voice quiet in the small bedroom.

"Hi."

"Come on in." I pulled my stretched legs up so I was sitting cross-legged against the piled pillows at my headboard. Keller walked in, gently shutting the door behind her, then walked to the chair in the corner of the room. I wished she’d sit on the bed with me, but didn’t ask. I looked at her, waiting for her to tell me why she was there.

She took several breaths, then swallowed. "I told you that my mother was gone." She risked a glance up at me. I nodded, silent courage. "She is gone, but she didn’t leave us." She paused, seeming to get her thoughts in order. "Two years ago, that man came home from being out who knows where. My mother had been doing dishes, and Parker and I were upstairs. I think I was getting ready to give her a bath or something. We heard them start to fight, which wasn’t unusual at all. Al was always accusing her of sleeping around on him, saying that was why Parker had blonde hair when everyone else’s was brown. The idiot didn’t stop to think that his own grandfather was blonder than a damn surfer."

I smiled, but remained silent, though I found myself leaning forward just a bit.

"So, we snuck down the stairs to the landing, where we always listened, Parker in my lap as we watched. Lots of yelling, name calling, that kind of thing. She was a slut, and he was an ignorant asshole. I think both were fairly accurate. So, we see them standing by the glass doors near the kitchen, fighting, then he disappears into the kitchen for a second, comes back out, and whacks her in the head with the frying pan that had been drying."

I remembered that frying pan, laying in a dented heap after Keller had finished with it. I wondered if it was the same one.

"I was so stunned I barely remembered to cover Parker’s eyes. But I did, and he yelled at her again, even once she was on the floor, blood starting to turn the rug red under her head. I couldn’t stop watching." Keller’s eyes began to take a faraway glaze, no longer seeing the carpet in my bedroom, but instead her mother’s lifeless body. "I knew she was dead," she continued, her voice calm, but emotionless. "Her eyes were open, but he hit her again anyway. A horrible sound, like someone trying to punch a bell with a bare fist. Guess it kind of was. I made Parker leave, run up the stairs like a quiet bunny." She didn’t blink as she saw deeper and deeper back into her memories. "Suddenly he stopped, I guess realizing what he’d done. He cursed, then threw the pan aside. I was terrified he’d see me, so as quietly as I could, I scurried up the rest of the stairs to our bedroom."

I took several deep breaths, trying to keep my breathing under control. I had to wait to react until Keller was gone. She didn’t need to see my pity or sorrow.

"I expected to find Parker in bed, but she wasn’t. Nope. She was standing at the window, up in her tip toes, looking out into the backyard. Wondering what she was looking at, I looked, too. He was out there, in that dirt yard, shovel in hand. He was digging, throwing dirt behind him, deeper and deeper, bigger and bigger. God, it seemed he dug for days. And then he was done. He threw the shovel aside and went back inside. I wanted to pull Parker away from the window, terrified of what we’d see next, but I couldn’t move. I was transfixed." Keller’s voice got softer, making me lean forward even more. "Then he came out again, carrying something in one of those big, black garbage bags. Something long and limp. I couldn’t believe he’d been able to fit all of her in there. I imagine he’d had to improvise, breaking things to make her fit. He tied up the loose end at the top with one of those wire ties. I saw her hair, just a few strands of dark hair, sticking out of the bag, lit up by the light in the kitchen. That was all that was left."

I trembled, fear, anger, sorrow and endless sadness coursing through me. My eyes fell to my hands as they played together on the comforter, Keller’s soft voice seeming to lull me into a trance.

"He picked her up, her body so limp in his arms, and just kind of . . . dropped, I guess . . . the body into the hole, laying her flat to make sure she’d fit. But I’m sure he would have found a way to make her fit either way." She smiled, but there was no humor in that smile. No, that smile made me get the chills, made my heart turn to ice, pumping ice water through my veins. "He grabbed the shovel again, and began to dig into the pile he’d made, throwing it on top of her. Her hair was still sticking out of that bag, one of the last things I saw before he covered that, too. That was all that was left of her. Gone." She looked at me, her eyes like ice. "See? I told you she was gone."

"God," I whispered.

"The next day we had a brand new patio."

"Why did you not go to the police?" I grabbed a pillow, held it to me for comfort.

"He would have killed us. And even if he hadn’t, Parker would have been taken from me. I was a sixteen year old kid, and Parker was almost four."

I nodded in understanding. "So you’ve had to carry this inside you all this time?" She nodded and shrugged.

"That’s life."

"It shouldn’t be." A thought occurred to me. "Parker. Is that when she stopped speaking?"

"Yes."

"Oh. I’m so sorry, Keller." It felt stupid and inadequate, but I needed to say it. I wanted her to know, whether it meant anything or not. She looked at me, her face calm, the storm in those ocean eyes seeming to have settled. She said nothing, did nothing but stand.

"I’m tired." She headed the short distance to the door, hand on the knob. She turned to look at me over her shoulder. "Good night, Garrison."

"Night, Keller." Then she was gone.

Continued...

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