For complete disclaimers see part 1.

Note: This is a request from my beta- if errors are found, please do not send them to us. Accidents do happen, from both writer and editor, and they will not be fixed online. Thank you.

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

Control

by

Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Part 9

In the two weeks since I'd been told about Trudy Mitchum's murder, I'd had a lot of time to think about it, mull it over in my head. The more this sick and twisted family history was becoming unraveled, the more I understood why Keller was like she was. And the more I had to question my own sanity for getting involved.

All said, today was not the day to ponder such mysteries of life. It was Christmas Day, and would be a day that neither Keller or Parker would forget. I had no idea what either of their experiences with the holiday had been, or if they'd even had any, but that wasn't going to stop me.

They had seen some presents under the tree throughout the past couple of weeks, as they'd arrived via the UPS guy. I'd frantically wrapped them all after the sisters had gone to bed. Last night in the freezing snow, I had run out to the garage where I'd been hiding 'Santa's' stuff. Dragging it all in, trying to be as quiet as possible, I made sure I didn't have a couple of mice watching me from the stairs as I loaded up the rest of the living room and put gifts together.

How on earth did my parents have so much energy Christmas Day after staying up half the night doing this stuff? My respect level had gone up a whole notch.

Finally stumbling into bed after two in the morning, I'd made myself get up early so I could stand back and watch. I wasn't disappointed. Around seven-thirty I heard two sets of feet and muffled talking. Parker had been excited last night, not sure what exactly was happening. My guess was she had drug Keller out of a nice, warm bed to see what was to come, as I'd already revealed to her that it would be a special day.

I watched from the kitchen door as, hand in hand, they made their way down the stairs, still in footy pajamas and a pair of flannel pants and t-shirt, and into the living room. The tree lights were on, and the milk and cookies I'd told Parker to leave for Santa were gone. When the kid saw that, she turned to look at her big sister with curious wonder in her eyes.

"Look at that, Parker." Keller said, kneeling down next to the table where the crumb-littered plate was. "He ate them." Parker grinned, little dimples winking in the morning light.

As they stood and looked around, both looked utterly stunned. Where there had once been about twenty wrapped boxes of various sizes was now filled with even more, including a brand new battery-powered scooter for Keller and a doll house filled with miniature furniture for Parker. There was a beautiful stereo system set up and softly playing Christmas music in the corner with a red bow on top of the CD tray. There was a rocking horse made of wood looking at the duo, and a huge teddy bear waiting to be hugged.

"Whoa," Keller said, her voice but a whisper. She looked around, turning in a slow circle, not sure what to make of it all. Her eyes were huge, taking it all in, looking much like her five year old sister. Parker let go of Keller's hand and ran to the huge bear, wrapping her arms around his soft body. The bear was nearly as big as she was! She left him and went to the rocking horse, not sure what to do with it, but eyeing it anyway. It was, after all, just her size.

Keller, on the other hand, went over to the red scooter, looking it over, putting a tentative hand on the black seat, the rims on the twelve-inch wheels gleaming in the twinkling Christmas lights.

"Merry Christmas, you two," I said, deciding to finally make my presence known. Both looked up, Keller snatching her hand away from the scooter, even though it had her name written on a tag taped to the handlebar. I gave them a bright smile, my bunny slippers scraping against the wood floor.

"Where did this stuff come from?" Keller asked, looking around her again.

"Nowhere," I said, winking at her. She looked at me, a bit of childish surprise in her eyes.

"This is too much, Garrison."

"Never too much. You guys enjoy yourselves."

"Oh, um, Merry Christmas." She gave me a sheepish little grin, little being the operative word, but it was there. My smile grew.

"Thank you." I walked over to the couch, coffee cup in hand. "Come on, guys. Open them up." I indicated the wrapped presents, Tut jumping up to sit in my lap. Roy watched from a safe distance, not sure what to make of it all. They'd get theirs later. I had gotten us all a stocking to hang over the fireplace. They had yummy bones to chew on later.

Keller looked at Parker, and directed her to a spot near the tree. I watched as they began to open the gifts, one by one. Keller took her time, just like at her birthday, making sure not to rip anything, and saved the bows. Parker, on the other hand, just tore into the paper with a glee I'd never seen before. It was a cacophony of revelry that made me smile. Parker's eyes got a little wider with each new item she took out of the box or package. I was charmed beyond belief.

Soon, the room was filled with new clothes for both of them, which seemed to make Keller happy. She looked intently at all the CDs I'd gotten her to use on her stereo. I got her an assortment of different kinds of music, not sure what she liked to listen to. There was everything there from Pink Floyd to Barbra Streisand and everything in between. She also seemed to like the X-Box system I got her with the flying games. There were books to read, mostly dealing with flying and planes, but also some fiction.

It took nearly an hour for them to get through everything. When dad had sold the Bell, he'd done very well on the price, and he was not only able to pay off Keller's hospital bills, but also pay some debts at the hangar. I had tried to get him to pocket the leftover money, as it was his baby, but he insisted. So, with the money I'd saved each month on bills, I splurged on Keller and Parker. I wanted them to never forget this Christmas, as it may be the only one I had with them.

"Garrison,"

I look up at the sound of my name. I'd been so preoccupied with watching Parker and her dollhouse that I hadn't even seen Keller come toward me. She was standing there, bare toes playing with the braided rug beneath her feet.

"Yeah?"

"Um, it's not much, but we've got something for you, too." She avoided my eyes, which I'd gotten used to. It seemed the only time she ever met my gaze was when she was angry with me.

"Okay," I said quietly, truly touched. She turned and headed up the stairs, followed by a barking Tut. A few moments later, she re-entered, packages wrapped in plastic shopping bags in her hands.

"Merry Christmas." She handed one to me that was shaped very odd.

"Thank you." I smiled as I took it from her hands. Turning it this way and that, I had the feeling I knew what it was. Carefully removing the plastic bag, I smiled as a miniature of my baby came into view. The model of the Cessna was about ten inches tall and had a wing span of maybe a foot. The detail was prefect, even down to the color. My grin grew, and I aimed it up at her. "Thank you so much, Keller. This is wonderful." She nodded, looking shy and unsure.

"This is from Parker." She handed me two drawings. The first showed Keller, Parker and myself as stick figures standing in a row, all holding hands. The Parker figure was in the middle, hold both of our hands.

"Aww." I melted, then looked at the other one. It was another stick figure me, this time playing in the leaves. I looked up, seeing Parker's attention fully ensconced in the doll house and moving the furniture around. Standing, I looked at Keller. "This means a lot to me, Keller. It's a wonderful gift." She looked down, nodding.

"Glad you like it."

"Thank you." I rested a hand on her shoulder for just a moment. She glanced up, just briefly meeting my eyes, but I could tell she was pleased with my reaction. Next I went over to the kid and knelt down. "Thank you for the drawings, sweetie." I mussed her blonde curls and she grinned up at me. I gave her a small kiss on top of her head. "Okay, you two knuckleheads. Who's hungry?"

###

It was hard to keep Parker at the dinner table the day after Christmas. She had completely lost interest in the leftover turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, rolls with butter and egg nog that she'd loved so much at Thanksgiving. Instead she kept looking over her shoulder, seeing all of her new toys and treasures waiting for her return by the tree.

"Parker," Keller said, leaning in to talk to the kid. "You need to eat." She pointed to the barely touched plate. Parker stuck out her bottom lip, but scooped up some potatoes, sulkily shoving them into her mouth.

I grinned and looked over at dad, who is also watching. He winked at me, then turned back to his own meal. He brought over gifts as well. A new set of tools for Keller, so she'd have her own when working with Jerome. He also brought offerings for Parker. She had nearly drooled, once dad left the room, at her new set of crayons and a whole assortment of coloring books. She had also licked her lips at the sight of the jar of licorice.

It was just the four of us today, Jerome having gone to his son's house, and Gabe visiting with friends and eating dinner at Tommy and Angel's house. It felt good, complete, like we were actually a family. I looked around the table and felt satisfied.

My satisfaction was interrupted with a knock at the door. Dad looked at me with narrowed eyes and I shrugged. Keller looked toward the door, and I could see the nerves beginning to bunch up. Was she afraid that Al was waiting on the porch? I smiled at the thought, though it certainly was a forced smile. What a way to ruin a day.

As I reached for the knob, I had to comfort myself with the knowledge that the bastard didn't know where I lived, and was still in jail. His preliminary hearing wasn't until Monday.

My eyes widened when the door opened, and I found myself wrapped in very soft, warm arms.

"Oh my god! What are you doing here?" I held Celeste at arms length, looking into her eyes. She smiled devilishly at me.

"Merry Christmas to you, too." She grinned.

"Oh, shit. Sorry. Merry Christmas." I gave her a full hug, closing my eyes with the pleasure of having her in my arms. She was not just a lover, but also one of my best friends. "Come on in. Are you hungry?"

"Starving!" she exclaimed, pulling her coat off and hanging it up on the coat tree. "I'm heading back tomorrow. I was around visiting the folks in Boston for Christmas. Smells wonderful in here." She looked around, as she'd never been in my house before. "I hope you don't mind the surprise," she said, eyeing me out of the corner of her eye.

"Of course not. I'm stunned, but happy." I smiled at her, leading her to the dining room.

"One of the great things about working at the airport. Great ticket deals." She winked at me and I chuckled.

"Dad, Keller, Parker, this is my friend, Celeste. She's flown here from New York to surprise me. Celeste, this is my dad and Keller and Parker." She nodded at everyone.

"I've sure heard a lot about all of you." She smiled at my family and sat next to dad, across from Keller. "Merry Christmas all."

"Merry Christmas, Celeste. Heard a lot about you, too," dad said, raising his brows. Keller only stared, and Parker played in her mashed potatoes, leaning slightly closer to her sister, unsure of this newcomer.

"What brings you to town?" dad asked, taking some more of the green bean casserole from the dish and handing it to our guest. Celeste took it with a smile and began to pile food on the plate I had grabbed her from the kitchen.

"Well, I had some extra miles, see I work at the airport, and wanted to say hello and Merry Christmas. I hope you all don't mind my interrupting your dinner." She looked around the table, seeing Keller's intense, wary eyes. "So, Keller, how do you like working for these two?" She pointed at me and dad with her fork.

"It's okay," Keller said, her voice quiet and unsure.

"Just okay? Jeesh. I figured it would be a hoot." I felt my breath catch at the smile she gave Keller. Celeste really was a beautiful woman. Keller, however, didn't seem near as enchanted as myself. I met dad's gaze across the table. He was worried, I could tell. How would Keller deal with this woman staying with us? I would have to talk with the janitor later and get her thoughts. If she was really uncomfortable with it, or Parker was, Celeste and I would stay in a hotel while she was here. Chances of her staying long were slim, anyway.

"Oh, uh, they're nice." She glanced at the redhead, then turned back to her own dinner.

I looked to Parker to see that she was only picking at her food now, not even taking a bite every ten minutes or so. She was finished.

"Parker, honey, if you want to go play go ahead. I think you're done." I smiled at the kid, who looked at Keller. With the nod of consent she saw there, she was up and out of her chair in record time.

"Parker, take your plate." Keller called to the excited five year old. Parker came back to the table and grabbed her plate and glass. She was in the kitchen for what must have been record time of putting a dish in the sink, and ran to the living room. I was partially afraid that I'd go into the kitchen and see the mess from her throwing it in there.

###

Celeste and dad were sitting at the table playing a game of cards. I could hear their laughter from inside the kitchen, where Keller and I worked on the dishes. She was washing and I was drying, working on pans that couldn't go into the dishwasher. She reached up, tucking a bit of hair behind her ear, leaving a sudsy smudge on the top of her ear. Chuckling, I gently reached up and wiped it away. When she looked at me to see what I was doing, I showed her the white fluff on my fingers.

"New fashion statement?" I asked with a raised brow, rinsing my fingers off in the rinse water. She smiled slightly.

"New shampoo."

"There you go. Washes your hair while you do the dishes instead of softens hands while you do the dishes?" She nodded. "Gee, I think you'd make a fortune with housewives who are running after a bazillion kids."

We were both quiet for a moment as we continued with our separate jobs. As I waited for the pans to pile up, I began to clean off the counters.

"Who is your friend?" Keller asked, to my surprise.

"I met her while doing a drop in the city about a year and a half ago. I go see her when I'm in the area. Is it okay with you if she stays for a day or two?" I whipped my towel around, letting it wrap itself around my wrist only to unwind when whipped the other way. Keller shook her head.

"It's your house."

"I know that, but you guys live here, too. If it will make you or Parker uncomfortable, we'll go stay in a hotel." I stepped back up beside her, rinsing the dishes she'd washed, then began to dry them.

"It's not necessary. We'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

Keller nodded. "Yep. Besides, I think me and Parker can find something to do to keep ourselves occupied while you guys visit." Her voice was quiet, but not unpleasant. In fact, I wondered if Keller could sing. Her voice was deep and rich.

"Okay." I was quiet for a moment as I began to stack dried pots under the cabinet. "You said Parker's birthday was in early January, right?" I glanced at her over my shoulder and she nodded. "I was thinking that maybe you and me could go shopping for it. I'd like to throw a party for her here, if that's okay with you. You know, maybe invite some friends from school and her teacher. Didn't you say she really liked Mrs. Romero?"

"Yeah, she does." Keller looked at me, sizing me up. "Why do you want to do that?"

"Because you only turn six once." I grinned. Keller obviously thought I was full of shit. "Okay, okay. I just want her to have a good birthday. I don't know how long you guys will be here, so I want to make the most of the time we've got." She sighed, shoulders rising and falling.

"Okay."

"Great!" I beamed, running more hot water into the rinse water. I glanced over, seeing Keller's hand as she ran the rag over the surface of a glass dish. The injury from her punching the glass door was still very evident. The cut marks that ran all along the back of the hand were not as angry and red as they had once been, but were still very much there. "How's your hand?" Keller quickly shoved it into the water, the suds effectively hiding it.

"It's fine."

"Are you sure? Does it still ache? How are the stitches doing? Do you-"

"Garrison." My concerned rambling stopped at the sound of her voice, and my name. I looked at her.

"Yeah?"

Keller grinned slightly, her eyes filled with amusement. "I'm fine." She looked me in the eye to make sure I got her message.

"Okay," I gave her a sheepish glance. "Sorry." She shook her head, then returned to her dishes.

###

Keller disappeared into the bedroom with Parker, ready to rearrange all the furniture in Parker's dollhouse. Almost as soon as their door closed, I heard one of Keller's CDs start to crank up. I think she'd already gone through about six of those suckers, and she just got the stereo yesterday!

Celeste and I disappeared into my bedroom. I was careful with how I was with her around Keller and Parker. Especially Keller. We had never discussed my sexual orientation, and I had no idea how it would go over with her. I didn't want Keller to feel uncomfortable around Celeste or me, or anyone else I may end up dating. I figured at some point she and I would have to have a talk about it, but tonight was not the time.

"I missed you," Celeste said, pulling me into her arms as soon as the door was closed, me against it.

"I missed you, too." My eyes closed as her lips descended upon mine. I kissed her back, my fingers tangling in her hair, keeping my moans quiet. She did the same. In record time, our clothes littered the bedroom floor, and we made our way over to the bed.

Release was quick and powerful, taking us both by surprise. We lay there, a tangle of arms and legs, both breathing heavily.

"Your dad is a great guy," she said, looking over at me.

"Yeah, he is." I rested my arm over my forehead, staring up at the ceiling fan.

"I wish my dad were more like him." She took a deep breath, looking down at our naked bodies. She trailed a finger over my ribcage, making me squirm. I glared at her.

"Tickle me and die."

She chuckled, abandoning any big ideas she may have had. We were both too tired for such activity.

"She's really beautiful," Celeste said, rolling over onto her stomach, breasts pressed into the mattress. I loved the roundness of a woman's breast, the sides of it. I traced a fingertip over the smooth skin.

"Who?" I asked absently, my complete attention on what my skin was touching.

"Keller. A little skinny, but beautiful nonetheless."

"Yeah, she is I guess. And if you think she's skinny now, you should have seen her when she first got here. My god. She looked like one of those kids in Ethiopia or something. It was horrible."

"I don't think I've ever seen eyes that color before. Very striking."

"Yeah, they are. I remember the first time I saw them. See, she always wears these damn sunglasses. But when she had them off one day, wow," I whistled between my teeth. "Gorgeous."

"I'm sure once she finishes filling out, she'll have them beating down her door."

I laughed at that. "Yeah, that won't happen. She wouldn't let it. You ought to see her with my mechanic, Reggie. He's this young guy, like twenty-five or something, and a typical guy, you know? Hits on anything with tits?" Celeste nodded with a grin. "She has to constantly put him in his place. He used to hit on me all the time, but his eyes seemed to have moved on to Keller. I'm just waiting for the day she cracks him one in the balls."

We both giggled, and Celeste yawned.

"I need to get some sleep." She rubbed at her eyes and looked at me. "Do you want me to go?" I studied her for a moment, trying to decide what would be best. I sighed and nodded.

"There's a spare bedroom up here. Would you mind terribly?" Celeste shook her head.

"I understand." She gave me one last, lingering kiss, then stood, stretching. I admired her long, lean body as she did. She pulled her clothes on, then quietly headed to the bedroom down the hall.

###

Morning broke through the window and hit me straight in the eyes. It blared through my closed lids, making me start with the intensity. Groaning my protest, I turned over, my back to the morning. I realized I was sore from my most energetic encounter with Celeste the night before, but was a happy girl all the same.

Smile on my face, I turned to my back and stretched, squeaking in the process. It was early, but I was awake and ready to roll.

I heard someone roaming around downstairs and figured it was Celeste. She had an early flight, so I figured I'd make her breakfast.

"Morning," I said, startling the redhead, who was gathering her luggage by the front door. She turned around with a smile.

"Morning yourself." She walked over to me and gave me a very soft kiss on the lips.

"Hungry?"

"Extremely." She followed me into the kitchen where she perched on the edge of a chair, watching me. "You're house is beautiful," she said, looking around the sunny yellow kitchen.

"Thank you. I'm afraid I can't take full credit for it, though." I glanced at her over my shoulder as I beat some eggs.

"Belonged to your folks first, right?"

"Yep. I was basically raised in this house." I grabbed a pan and stuck it on the stovetop. I poured some milk into the eggs and added a bit of cheese, then poured it all onto the sizzling pan.

"Man, by time I was ten, we'd already lived in three different houses."

I scrunched up my nose. "That must have sucked."

"It did. But what can you do?"

Eggs finished, I threw some bread into the toaster, and got out butter, jelly, milk and juice. Celeste made quick time with the food, as she had to catch her plane. I offered to give her a ride to the airport, but she insisted on taking a cab. Once the yellow car arrived, I walked her out to the front porch, and wrapped her in a warm hug.

"Be safe," I said into her ear, and she nodded.

"I will. Good luck with everything, Garrison," she said, brushing some hair from my eyes. "And get a damn haircut." I chuckled and nodded dutifully, though we both knew it would never happen. I leaned forward and she met me halfway. The kiss wasn't long, but it was deep, leaving me breathless. "See you later," she said against my lips, then headed down the steps to her awaiting cab, a suitcase in either hand. I watched until the cab had pulled away from the curb, then went inside, rubbing my chilled skin on the way.

Keller was in the kitchen, rummaging through the cereal cabinet. Her back was to me, her long, dark hair a mess. I smiled at the picture it made.

"Good morning, Keller." She didn't answer right away, but finally muttered a like response.

"Hungry? I can make you some eggs-"

"I'm fine." She filled her bowl with Life, added milk and a spoon, then walked past me to the table. I drew my brows, but said nothing. Someone had obviously woken up very pissy.

I turned to leave the kitchen, but stopped. "Listen, I figure since Parker starts school next week, we could go shopping then for her birthday. Sound good?" She nodded, but did not look up as she read the back of the cereal box. Oookay. "Well, I'm going to go shower."

"Kay."

Shaking my head, hating bad mooders, I went upstairs.

###

The drive to the mall was silent, and I had no idea why. Over the past few days, Keller had been unusually quiet, almost like it had been in the beginning. I thought we'd gotten past all this shit. She sat in the truck's passenger seat, almost hugging the damn door.

I glanced over at her from time to time.

"Keller? Are you okay?" I finally asked, not for the first time. She nodded, but said nothing, arms crossed over her chest. She wore her new leather jacket. When she had opened it Christmas morning, her face had lit up. It seemed as though she were rarely without it now. I thought it was cute.

I sighed, turning the radio up. Memories . . .

We found several different stores that had anything Parker would love. I let Keller pick out any and everything for the party. All the decorations, colors, anything that I knew she knew the kid would like. She chose party favors with rainbows on them. Nice and cheery. We got the little hats that attached with rubber bands under the chin. Noise makers, although I seriously doubted the sanity of that purchase, and matching plates, napkins and cups.

I had talked with Parker's teacher, and she agreed she would spread the word around her class and the children's parents to see who could come the following Saturday.

Keller took her time in finding things to get her sister for her sixth birthday. I stood back, watching as she compared prices, products, quality, everything. She wanted to make sure she got the very best for Parker.

As the day went on, however, Keller became even more quiet and distant. I was getting concerned. We were waiting for the guy to bring out the jungle gym to the truck, our breaths mingling in the cold, January air.

"Keller, what's wrong?" I decided the direct approach was going to have to do. I didn't want us to start spiraling down again into a world of misunderstandings and non-communication. I hated the two steps forward, three steps back, dance that seemed to plague us.

"Nothing," she said, looking out into the gray day.

"Bullshit." I turned to her, feeling myself getting angry now. "Look, Keller, if you want to continue with this fighting crap, go ahead. I, for one, want no part of it. If you've got a damn problem with me, then tell me." My hands were on my hips now, I meant business.

"Is this the truck?"

My head snapped around to see a guy standing there, the huge box loaded onto a dolly.

"Yeah." Yanking my keys out of my pocket, I stomped off toward the truck. I felt like a child, but I was so damned tired of these games. Keller followed behind, quiet.

The drive home was silent - me steaming, and Keller doing, well, whatever Keller does.

Unloading the heavy equipment wasn't much better. We spoke in order to tell the other person to move that way, or to slow down or speed up, but that was it. No talking, no laughter. I wanted this to be fun, but she would have none of it.

We began to take the cardboard box apart, setting pieces of the equipment aside, sorting. I glanced over at her from time to time, trying to find the best place to continue my rant.

Finally my irritation came out in a puff of white hot air, and I turned to my companion, hand again firmly on my hip.

"Okay, Keller. You're going to tell me what the hell is going on." She glared at me over her shoulder from opening the baggie containing instructions and hardware.

"I said 'nothing,'" she nearly yelled, taking me by surprise.

"Don't lie to me." My voice was low, warning. "Let's talk about this. Don't let it fester. If I did something, tell me."

Keller sighed, pushing her long hair back from her angular, very serious, face. She looked at me, those blue eyes of hers boring into me. She was ready for business, thus apparent by the set of her carved jaw and stiff body.

"When I was still in the hospital, and Parker was here with you," her voice was dangerous, reminding me of a panther ready to strike, "Did you ever do anything? Have you ever touched her when I wasn't around?"

"What?" I was stunned, my anger draining out of me from the sheer force of it.

"Have you?" she demanded. "Are you a predator, too?" Her voice rose with every word, the fire burning brighter. I felt the breath leave my body at the implication, and I slowly began to shake my head, denying such ugly accusations.

"Keller, where is this coming from?" I felt the sting behind my eyes, my blood beginning to run cold. Was she actually saying I was like, I did things like, I was anywhere in the same realm as Al Mitchum? My anger began to build in earnest again. "What in the hell are you talking about?! Are you dare asking if I've touched Parker inappropriately? Are you?" I took a step toward her, and she took one back.

"I saw you," she growled.

"Saw me do what? I have never done anything but be kind to that kid," I shouted, pointing toward the house, as if the kid in question were just inside. "I cannot believe you're accusing me of this!" I felt tears of anger and hurt begin to stream down my cheeks, which pissed me off even more.

"You were kissing Celeste!" she yelled back. "You're no different. I thought we were safe with you, a girl. But you're no better. You prey on girls, too!"

I stopped, my breath once again leaving me, traitorous in the cold air, slowly rising in the cold air only to disappear. I stared at her, feeling cold and profoundly sad.

"Keller . . ." I tried to speak, but my voice failed me. I swallowed and tried again. "Do you honestly think this? I am attracted to women, yes. I'm a lesbian, Keller, but do you really think I'd do something like that?" I gave her a pleading look, begging her to believe me. I was not the monster she was trying to claim I was. She looked at me, eyes hard. "Look at me and tell me you think I'd do that." I was open to her, she could read me like an airplane manual.

"Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me that you're a predator, too? That we were not safe from you, either! Why didn't you tell me that we were better off where we were? That I wasn't safe? That Parker wasn't safe? Why, Garrison? Why?" The veins stood out in her neck as she shouted at me, her face red, eyes an electric blue.

"I never lied to you, Keller. Who I fuck or who I don't fuck is none of your business." My anger was definitely back now. "Goddamn, Keller! I know you've had shit for a life so far, but I didn't do it!" I smacked myself in the chest. "I'm not here to fuck you over or to molest Parker. Jesus!"

She just looked at me, her jaw working, the muscles tightening then relaxing, only to bunch up again. "Did you do that while Parker was in the house?" She stalked over to me, her face in mine. "How can you expose her to that!?"

I pushed away from her, glaring. "Let's get something straight right now, Keller." I gave her dangerous look right back. "This is my house. You live here, and you're very welcome here, but don't you ever try and tell me what I can or can't do in those walls. And for the record, we were very quiet and very private, kept behind locked doors. Got it?"

She lifted her chin, jaw set at my words. Her voice was quiet. "If you want us to go, we'll go. We'll go right now. I'll go in there and pack up both of our things, and then you can do whatever, or whoever you want to!" As she spoke, her voice got louder until she was yelling again, hands clenched at her sides. She began to storm off toward the house.

"Keller!" I rushed after her, grabbing her arm to swing her around. If looks could kill, they'd be burying me in the shoveled snow right now. She looked like she wanted to deck me. "Stop this. You know I want you guys here. I'm sorry if you were upset by what happened with Celeste, and the reason I didn't tell you I was a lesbian was because I didn't think there was any reason to. My sex life is none of your business, so why tell you? I'm not dating anyone; it's not like there's anyone that comes around here to introduce you to."

She only stared down at me, nostrils flaring with her heavy breathing. I released her arm, and she pulled it away.

"Now, are you going to help me get this thing set up or not?" I pointed toward the pieces of the jungle gym. She glanced at them, then at me, and gave a small nod.

I took several deep breaths as Keller walked past me and began to sort the stuff into some semblance of order. Meanwhile, I stood where I was, trying to get my emotions back under control so I wouldn't kill her before we got the thing set up.

###

It was finally the day, and Keller and I had been avoiding each other since our argument. Saturday - Parker's birthday. She had woken up that morning to see colorful banners draped all over the walls and over doorframes. Helium filled balloons were taped to the ceiling and bounced on strings tied to the railing and doorknobs. The dining room table was decorated with bright paper that read HAPPY BIRTHDAY in every color imaginable. A giant cake with Parker's name on it waited on the kitchen table, and I fired up the grill in the garage to make hamburgers and hotdogs.

When Parker came down the stairs that morning, she looked around, stunned, at the magical transformation of the house. She looked at everything with wide eyes and an open mouth.

"Happy birthday, kiddo." I smiled, kneeling in front of the little blonde and giving her a big hug. She grinned at me, little white, even teeth.

"Parker, come with me," Keller said, coming in from outside. She grabbed her sister's hand, eyeing me as she led her away. I was crushed, thinking we'd gotten past all this. With slumped shoulders and a very heavy heart, I headed into the kitchen to make sure everything was just perfect before all of our little guests arrived. The dogs began to bark like mad, and I began to hurry, figuring some had arrived early.

"Kiddo?" Dad called out as he walked into the house.

"Hey, pop. In the kitchen." Within a few moments, the door swung open, and he appeared with a grin on his face. "Hey, you even shaved. What's the special occasion?" I handed him a package of brightly colored paper cups and plates. "Take those to the table, please."

He pushed the door with his hip. "Well you know, don't want the little ones to think the big bad wolf is here." He made a claw with a hand, making me laugh. I was so glad dad was there. I needed someone on my side at the house.

I didn't see much of Keller and Parker until the kids began to arrive.

"What's the matter, kid?" dad asked, re-entering the kitchen, looking for more to grab. He didn't have to look long. I handed him a package of plastic silverware and napkins.

"Nothing," I muttered, not wanting to get into this again. He looked at me for a moment, then shrugged and headed out to deliver his goods.

The doorbell rang, and one by one, the guests began to arrive. We ended up with fifteen children all said, including Parker, and then the teacher, dad, Keller and myself, and a few parents. A full house and the party got started.

The kid was so stunned to see her classmates coming to the house. And then when Mrs. Albright got there, her eyes turned into saucers, and a smile broke out over her face. Parker's teacher - Trish, she requested - was in her mid-forties somewhere, and as sweet as they come. I could easily see why Parker was so smitten with her.

I darted from kid to kid, making sure they all had what they needed or wanted, making sure everyone had enough food and drink. Keller kept herself busy also, staying by Parker's side, teaching her how to play some of the simple games that were set up for the kids. Dad made himself useful as well, allowing himself to be blindfolded by a gaggle of six year olds, and given a stick to try and destroy the piņata. The children giggled as he swung blindly, making it theatrical and funny. I was utterly charmed.

At one point in the day, he came up to me with a wide grin.

"So, when are you giving me some grandkids?" We watched a small swarm of girls who were oohing and ahhing over a new doll one of them had brought.

"Yeah, right, dad." I rolled my eyes.

"Oh, right. Silly me. Okay, let me think of how it goes." He pretended to be lost in thought for a moment, tapping his chin with a thick finger. "Not going to have kids until you're at least twenty-six, and then only if you're with someone who is willing to go through the unbearable torture and pain of giving birth. Did I miss anything?" He looked at me. I playfully smacked him on the arm.

"Nice, pops. Nope, you covered it all. I don't know. Maybe some day." I crossed my arms over my chest, watching the kids play and scream with each other. Even Parker seemed to be having a good time, though she still stuck to either Keller, myself or her teacher like glue. Even so, I saw her smile and join in on the games more than once.

Piņata busted, and all the candy picked up and either pocketed or creating a dentist's bill, the kids were getting tired. They had eaten their share and then some of hamburgers and hotdogs, chocolate cake and party treats. Kids were sitting in the laps of their parents, or sitting on the couch or chairs.

Every time I turned around, I noticed that Keller's eyes were on me, watching my interaction with the kids. Every time I touched one of them or got close. Every time I talked to one of them or helped them, she was watching. I almost felt as though I'd actually done something wrong, though I knew I hadn't.

She had nothing to say to me during the entire day, not good or bad. Just . . . nothing.

"So, I think this was a success," Dad said, coming into the kitchen. I had to laugh. He had fingerpaint on his face, and looked like a six year old's masterpiece portrait of a pirate. A little, uneven mustache was painted above his lip, and a patch covered half his forehead. I smirked, jamming the trash level down into the large, black bag so I could get the rest of the dirty plates in there.

"Yeah, it was a success, wasn't it?"

"Those kids are fun." He plopped down into a kitchen chair, blowing out a breath.

"If I only had half of their energy,"

"You! Shit, try being an old man like me." He got up and looked at his artful face in the silver of the toaster. Grimacing at his own appearance, he sat down again. "It's going to be a bitch getting this stuff off."

"Sucks being a woman with makeup, doesn't it?" I grinned at him over my shoulder. He snorted.

"How would you know?" He groaned loudly as he pulled himself up from the chair, and moaned when his back popped. Adjusting his shoulders, he walked over to the sink and began to run some dish water to wash the pans I used for the burgers.

He was quiet for a long time, then glanced over at me, quickly turning his attention back to the sink.

"You know, Monk, I joke about things, but I want you to know that I am very proud of you. I couldn't be more so, even if you were an actual boy."

I met his smile and smiled back. It had been a running joke between us for years. He had once told me that I was more boy than any son he could have had.

"I mean, what you did here today," he pointed toward the door to the kitchen, indicating the children beyond. "Them kids out there, Keller and Parker, you're giving them a chance." He gave me a wonderful smile, full and bright, making the lines in his face spider web out around his mouth and eyes. "I couldn't have asked for a better kid. Your mom would be real proud of you."

"Oh. Jeez," I looked down, suddenly feeling overwhelmed with pride and gratitude. "I don't know what to say." I ran a hand through my hair. Suddenly I felt a large, warm hand on my shoulder. Looking over, I saw dad standing there, and he opened his arms for a rare hug. He wasn't much for physical affection. I hugged him back, and relished it, even though it lasted for mere seconds. "Thanks, dad."

"Anytime, kiddo." He gave me one last smile, then left the room. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the night. Keller's apathy be damned.

###

The light of day was very bright. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and there was no snow predicted for the next week. Parker, a year older, was dropped at school, sporting some of the new clothes she'd gotten for her birthday the weekend before. She had a little extra pep to her step as she made her way up that long sidewalk to the brick building of her school.

The smile was basically glued to my lips. I thought she was the cutest thing since Gizmo the gremlin.

Now Keller, on the other hand, was anything but. She still had yet to say a word to me, save for a very quick and quiet thank you for Parker's birthday. For reasons unknown, I was still the enemy pedophile. It hurt. It hurt real bad, but I knew there was nothing I could do. I'd said my piece, now it was up to her.

We drove to the hangar, and I realized I missed her voice. Reaching for the dial of the truck's radio, I found a station and stopped when I recognized Avril Lavigne's voice. The song was "Nobody's Home."

I couldn't tell you why she felt that way,
She felt it everyday.
And I couldn't help her,
I just watched her make the same mistakes again.

What's wrong, what's wrong now?
Too many, too many problems.
Don't know where she belongs, where she belongs.

As I listened to the lyrics, I glanced over at Keller, the words bringing her to mind.

She wants to go home, but nobody's home.
It's where she lies, broken inside.
With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.
Broken inside.

Open your eyes and look outside, find the reasons why.
You've been rejected, and now you can't find what you left behind.
Be strong, be strong now.
Too many, too many problems.
Don't know where she belongs, where she belongs.

She wants to go home, but nobody's home.
It's where she lies, broken inside.
With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.
Broken inside.
Her feelings she hides.
Her dreams she can't find.
She's losing her mind.
She's fallen behind.
She can't find her place.
She's losing her faith.
She's fallen from grace.
She's all over the place.
Yeah, oh.
She wants to go home, but nobody's home.
It's where she lies, broken inside.
With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.
Broken inside.

She's lost inside, lost inside.. oh oh yeah.
She's lost inside, lost inside... oh oh yeah.

The song ended, but I kept hearing it in my head, the meaning behind the words, and how I could apply them to my own current situation. I thought about Keller, wondering what went through her head. What she thought of all this, and what had happened in her life thus far. Would she ever be willing to go to counseling? Would it even help her? She had so much pent up anger and trust issues, understandably.

How could she live her life so afraid all the time? Always looking over her shoulder, or that of Parker. That would have driven me insane years ago. Maybe that was the problem.

The day was fairly uneventful, save for dad's lazy ass not bothering to show up for his flight schedule for the week. I promised Jerome that Keller and I would drop it off to him on our way home.

###

"I'll be right back," I said as I opened the door to the truck. Keller nodded, fingers tapping along on her knee with the song on the radio. Hopping down from the tall Ford, I headed toward dad's small place. It was so evident that a man lived there; there were no flowers, the grass was neatly trimmed but militant in it's ordinariness. No frills or specialties in this place.

The front door was locked, but no worries. I grabbed the key from my key chain, shoving it into the stubborn lock. I'd leave the schedule on his kitchen table. The house was dark, all the drapes closed, shades drawn. It was quiet. Glancing over at the grandfather clock in the corner, I realized that it hadn't been wound, yet. He always did that on Tuesdays, so probably hadn't gotten to it yet today.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimness of the small room, I noticed that dad's bedroom door was closed, and my brows drew at that. Walking toward it, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I whirled around and saw Keller standing there.

"What are you doing?" I asked, hand on my wildly beating heart.

"Mind if I check?" she asked, nodding toward the bedroom door. My brows drew deeper.

"What? Why?"

"Just-" She took a deep breath, and I could tell something was very wrong. My startlement quickly turned to suspicion. "Please." She looked me in the eye, and I could see in hers that she was serious. There was something very wrong.

"Alright," I said after a moment's hesitation. "Be my guest." I nodded toward the door, and Keller walked past me. Hand on the doorknob, she looked back at me, then opened the door. Dim light spread out from the room, and I knew that dad still had the shades drawn in his room as well.

Suddenly my heart was pounding in my chest, and my stomach was doing gold medal-worthy gymnastics. Taking a deep breath, I made my feet move in the direction of dad's bedroom. Just as I was about to reach the frame, Keller appeared. She stood in my way, filling the doorway, her face bleak. She looked at me for a moment, her eyes falling for just a second, then they were back on me. Without a word, but several nervous glances, she opened her arms.

I felt my world crumble. I fell into her, looking over her shoulder. I saw the outline of dad's body in the heavy covers, laying on his side, back to us. He was so still, not moving at all. Not even breathing.

Keller tentatively wrapped her arms around me at first, my forehead resting against her neck. I could feel her swallow, and the warmth of her flesh radiate through me. I also couldn't take my eyes off of dad. I kept willing him to move, to sit up, roll over, do something. Anything.

I pushed away from the janitor, trying to push past her.

"No!" she said through clenched teeth as she held me back, not letting me get past.

"I have to see him. I have to talk to him and make sure he's okay," I growled, clawing at the flesh of her hands as they tried to keep me at bay.

"No, Garrison. No! There's nothing you can do for him now!" Her rich voice echoed off the walls of the small house and my heart. I stopped my struggling, finally collapsing against her. It caught up to me now, and I squeezed my eyes shut, not wanting to see it anymore; not wanting to believe it.

"No!" I screamed, the word forming in my heart and exploding through my mouth. I felt dizzy, I felt like I was dying. I felt like my heart had been split irreparably in two.

It was strange. There were no tears. Only a pounding that started at the very soul of who I was and slowly made its way outward. Through a daze, I felt that I was being led to dad's chair. I was sitting there, looking at everything and nothing, and somewhere I heard Keller's voice stop and start, like she was on the phone. Within a few moments someone else was there, who I later found out was the coroner of Warwick.

Soft hands were on my shoulder, bringing me from my dream world.

"Come on, Garrison," said the soft voice in my ear and suddenly I was on my feet, and we were heading outside into the warm afternoon. I remember seeing the sun so clearly in the sky. It was bright, its rays intense and hurting my eyes.

Had I realized it at the time, I would have yelled at Keller for driving the truck all the way to my house without a license, but desperate measures . . .

Somewhere in my hazy brain I remembered the coroner talking with Keller, saying something about a possible heart attack, and further investigation, and Brams Funeral Home.

We were suddenly home, and I was being steered to sit on the couch. I nodded dumbly, not entirely sure what I'd just agreed to. I didn't care. Some ruffling of papers in the other room, then Keller's voice again, a quiet hum in my addled brain.

"Jerome? This is Keller." The voice got quieter and quieter until it was just that hum. As I sat on my couch, which felt so foreign to me, listening to the gentle, soft timbre of Keller's muffled words, I felt something happen. My heart did, in fact split open, and the contents welled up in my chest, spreading to sting my eyes and leak onto my cheek, then another and another and another.

Suddenly my entire body was convulsing as the tears continued, making the skin cold and tight. I pulled myself up into a little ball in the corner of the couch, trying to protect myself from the hurt and the world. Head on my drawn knees, I cried like I've never cried before. There was a pain searing through me, tearing my soul into shreds, that I had no idea how to deal with. It was nearly suffocation in its intensity, making my body shake with each sob.

"Don't cry."

Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the sweetest little voice say this. I sniffled, trying to choke back my tears for a moment. I opened my eyes, and through the curtain of moisture, I saw the face of an angel. Her blonde ringlets were all around her head, into her eyes. She looked at me with large, innocent blue eyes, her small hand placed on my shoe.

"What?" I choked out, not sure I'd heard right, if at all.

"Don't cry, Garrison," she said, so soft and child-like, her very high voice sweeter than any sugar. "It's okay. Don't cry." She patted my shoe, and I looked at her in wonder, tears momentarily forgotten.

"You spoke," I whispered.

"Don't cry," she whispered back. I gathered the little girl into my lap, burying my face into her fragrant hair, and cried anyway.

Continued...

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