A Life Lived

Chapter 3

By Dabeagle

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What the fuck am I doing? I thought to myself as I navigated the streets. While the trooper had made a decent case for me driving the kid over to the hospital, I had a bad feeling that this was just the tip of the spear. I figured someone from social services would have to be called, and then they'd be calling me, wanting to know what I knew – and if they were like cops or lawyers they'd ask the same questions over and over in different ways to try and trip you up, even if you had nothing to hide.

I glanced over at the kid, who looked thinner while wearing my clothes. Shit. I was going to want those back. No way he'd be able to use them regularly anyway – he looked like he was melting inside them. I turned my attention back to the road, the truck sure in the swirling snow, which was accumulating more on the roadside than the asphalt due to the wind. I pulled up to the ER and parked as close as I could find legally – no doubt that trooper would harass me with a ticket or something if I hadn't. I could even hear him in my head, saying something stupid about there being no excuse for not following the law or parking lot rules or something equally trite.

“Okay. Let's go find this doc, huh?” I said, shutting the truck off. We climbed out, and he walked awkwardly in the over-sized boots, his sleeves and cuffs rolled up. It was silly but also adorable in the way only kids and old people can be. It's funny how we think that, sometimes. An old person suddenly becomes harmless, and then they become cute, much the way a kid can be cute, and perhaps it did have something with their perceived lack of harmful potential. Who knows, really? The human race thinks dumb things. A lot of dumb things.

The sliding door opened ahead of us, then closed behind as another door opened before us to help contain the elements from coming into the building. I didn't see the trooper, so I walked up to the triage nurse, who told me to wait a minute without looking at me.

“Sure,” I said. I mean, it'd have been nice if she'd at least made eye contact before telling me to wait, but then...maybe she was looking at something complicated. Or she had one more Mahjong tile to place. Who knows. She moved her mouse and made a few clicks. I glanced at the kid, whose gaze was roving around the space.

“Okay, how can I help you?” the nurse asked.

“I'm supposed to meet a trooper here? He's-”

“Oh, yes, come with me,” she said in a clipped tone and slipped from behind the counter.

“Well I could just-” My intent to tell her she could just take the kid and send my clothes back fell on the deafest ears imaginable as she continued to walk away. I looked at the kid, who was looking up at me. I shrugged, and we fell in behind her, following her through a set of doors and into the ER space.

ERs on TV are just rows of hospital beds with curtains between them, but this one was rooms ringing the outer edge with a bullpen space in the middle for all of the staff. The nurse led us to a room where the trooper waited, typing information on his laptop. It was then I remembered that he was going to finish his report here, so I would have to stay anyway.

The nurse had the kid hop up onto the gurney, and she took his vital signs. He kept looking to me with a question on his face, but I wasn't sure why. It was almost like he'd never seen these kinds of things done to him – blood pressure, temperature and heart rate. I narrowed my eyes as I thought for a moment. Maybe he hadn't been to a doctor either? If he was treated poorly, being restrained and not fed, then maybe he wasn't getting medical care, either. Could be. Maybe even likely.

The trooper started in with asking my side of things, which encouraged me, since I could probably head out afterward. If the snowfall wasn't too bad, then I could have the customer potentially come pick up their car, and then I'd have money as well as an open slot for new merchandise. That was the whole thing about used cars – turnover.

After I went over how I'd come into contact with the kid, the trooper turned his gaze to the kid and started in with known items like that his dad was a sheriff. He didn't get far, because we had a doctor in there so fast it defied reality. If anything, an ER is known for being a minimum of five hours even if you had a kidney in one hand and your spleen in the other.

“Whoa, look at this guy!” the doctor said, his English accented. He had darker skin, perhaps middle eastern heritage of some kind. “He's shrinking. Did someone get him wet?”

The kid's eyes went wide and he looked at me.

“It wasn't the water. It was the dryer. Setting was too high,” I replied, and the doctor smiled.

“I guess our nurse was pretty busy tonight. Let me get a gown for you,” he said and popped out of the room.

“What's a gown?” the kid asked.

“It's for doctor exams. You get down to your underwear and put this on, makes it easier for the doc to see you for an exam,” I told him.

He tilted his head slightly as if in thought. “Oh.”

The doc popped back in. “Okay.” He pulled a rolling stool over, tossed the Johnnie on the exam bed beside the kid and sat on the stool facing the kid. “So. My name is Dr. Ram. It's actually a very long last name, but you can call me Ram, okay?”

The kid nodded.

“Okay. So we have to do an exam, because there is some concern you aren't getting enough to eat, so I have to compare you as you are now to the average for a boy your age. I will have the Trooper and your friend stay here with you, okay?”

“Okay,” he said in a quiet voice, big eyes turned to me.

Why did I need to be here for this?

“Okay. I will give you a minute to get changed, and then we'll get started.” With a clap of his hands on his knees Dr. Ram stood up and exited the room.

“Okay, kid, let's get this over with, huh? Soonest begun, soonest done.” I picked up the Johnnie and snapped it out, turning toward the kid. He slowly slid off the exam table and pulled the sweatshirt off. Under the lights it was easy to see his ribs and the knobby bones on the ends of the top of his shoulders. The thin neck and those big eyes. Big eyes are okay on kids, endearing even. But on adults they made you look like someone was pinching your ass and you were permanently surprised.

I held the Johnnie out so he could slip his twig-like arms thorough the sleeves, then I turned him around to tie the back – though I really just didn't want to see his wrists. The tape was nearly off, but there was dirty glue residue showing – and it was definitely not the first time that had been done to him. While I can't be said to like kids, I also didn't wish harm to them. Most of the time.

The kid stood still for a moment, looking at the trooper and back to me.

“What's up?” I asked, leaning in closer.

He pressed his lips together. “Do I...have to take the pants off?”

I blinked a couple of times. My first instinct was to say something along the lines of 'you heard the doctor', probably followed by some commentary on his inability to follow directions. Maybe it was the big eyes, or maybe I'd just been thinking the doctor might be a new thing to him, but I modified my response.

“Well, yeah, kiddo. Haven't you been to the doctor before?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “No?”

I pursed my lips. “Okay. Well, not okay, but let's just move on from that.” I clapped my hands lightly. “So doctors check out our whole body to see how healthy we are. If we need help, then they can give us medication or just a really long lecture.”

He shifted his head a little to one side and frowned. “A lecture?”

“Sure! I saw a dermatologist once about this mole I had, next thing you know he's knee deep into telling me about sunblock and wearing hats because my hair was thinning – and he said if he could see my scalp, the sun could too.” I leaned closer. “Like the sun has eyes. What a cuckoo, am I right?”

He smiled hesitantly.

“So, see, the trooper has to take pictures of some things – like your ribs, maybe. But the doctor has to see all of you to make sure there aren't things wrong that he needs to help you with.”

He narrowed his eyes a bit. “Do they do that to you?”

I smiled. “Since I turned 40, they aren't as nice as just checking you out without your clothes.”

“What happens at 40?”

“Well, they-”

“Knock, knock,” Dr. Ram said, entering the room. “Not quite ready yet? Just slide those off and onto the chair.” He turned to the trooper and spoke in a low voice about the kid's weight, I think, but I couldn't hear enough to be sure. I looked back to the kid.

“Go ahead. You've got the gown on. Slide off the sweatpants, like you were changing your swimsuit under a towel.”

He looked at me blankly.

I shook my head quickly. “Just slide them off and set them on the chair, there, with the sweatshirt.”

With a quick glance at the doctor he shifted his hands and slid the sweats off, putting them onto the chair with the sweatshirt.

“Okay,” Dr. Ram said. We're going to take some pictures while we do this exam, all right? Why don't we start with the wrists – lots of tape! Can you tell me why you have all this tape on your wrists?”

The kid looked away. “I was bad.”

To be honest, I don't like humanity too much. In many ways I'd divorced myself from the species a long time ago, only standing back to toast the occasional marshmallow on the daily dumpster fire of my fellow humans. Too little empathy, too little intelligence properly used. Too much medieval beliefed in the dark, too many unable to make their own fire. Humanity is as flawed as creatures get. Whenever I watch sci-fi shows about some intelligent race coming to wipe out the human plague, they always lose me with the arguments about how nice people can be. Our potential. Bunch of self-serving crap.

We always want to boil things down to easy to grasp, single word answers – unless it rhymes, then that's better. Greed, power, selfishness, control. All basic to the human animal. Little kids have to be taught to share, mostly – some have it built in. I think it emboldens the greedier ones to ask for more than their fair share. I'm a firm believer in no good deed goes unpunished. The best I aim for in life is to be fair; after that all bets are off.

What I saw in that exam room was the worst kind of abuse of power. It was predatory, in a sense. Someone exercises power over another, and they like the feeling. They get high on it, and they need their next hit. During the course of the exam it came out that this kid was one of four. He told us things about how 'discipline' was carried out – lack of meals, removal of 'privileges' like a bed to sleep on, heating or cooling or restricting movement, like with the tape.

Yes, I felt badly for him. For them all. But it also reaffirmed my lack of faith in humanity. It was an ordeal to listen to; I can't even imagine having lived through it. It took hours between the health exam, the pictures and the endless questions. The kid kept glancing at me and then answering things. Sometimes it was hard to hear him – and other times just hard to hear.

I stepped out to hit the head and stretch my legs a bit; I get stiff if I stand around too much. Or if I sit too much. Or breathe too much. Everything at this stage was an exercise in moderation. As I walked back toward the room, the trooper stepped out to meet me.

“Mr. McKenzie, a word over here?”

I fell in just behind him, and he led me a few feet down the hall. “I have my sergeant and an investigator heading over to this kid's family home. But quite frankly, this is going to be a bit dicey for a couple of days. See, the county worker that we had quit about a month ago. The lady who is overseeing this county in the meantime is out on leave, and I'm not completely sure who from Child and Family Services is going to step in here. So if you don't mind, I'd like to keep some continuity for the kid through this and have him with you. Just for a few days, until we know who's doing what. Plus, if you don't know his family, it makes him safer than trying to put him in a group home where his parents can find him. Can you see your way clear to do that?”

I frowned. “Well. I don't know anything about kids.”

“They’re just little humans.”

“That's not the selling point you think it is.”

He smiled tightly. “I have three other kids that have to be taken away from the only – admittedly nightmarish – home they have ever known. This kid seems to have some level of trust for you, given his body language.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” I demanded.

“He looks to you before speaking. He's asked where you are or if you're coming back. He seems to have given you some trust – and as I noted, he's got reason not to trust anyone in a uniform. For the short term, you may be his best hope.”

I widened my eyes. “You've got to be shitting me.”

He shrugged, but remained all business beside that one human motion. “I can keep you updated and get you in touch with the county worker once that's squared. He was home schooled, so we'll have to work out his education, though I don't see him going back home anytime soon. There will be a meeting with a judge at some point; probably a quick thing, given the parents will claim it's unjust they can't see their kids.” He pursed his lips in a sour expression. “Once we get the other three settled, if they have room, I can see if they'll take him as well, but trying to keep siblings together is dicey at the best of times.”

“Shit,” I muttered. “I have a business. Work in the morning.”

“So do most of us, Mr. McKenzie.”

I gave him a sour look. “Okay. For now.”

“Good,” he said with a sharp nod. He reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a card, and handed it to me. “This case will likely be moved to the inspector in charge. You can always start with me as a contact point or if something happens; meantime, the inspector will reach out to you with developments, but you can always call me if you need to.”

He walked past me, and I turned slowly, heading back to the exam room. The kid had changed back into his – my – sweats. His big eyes locked onto me when I walked back into the room, and he moved to stand near me. Jesus H Christ. What am I supposed to do with that?

“The nurse is bringing some paperwork relating to his diet,” Dr. Ram said to me. “If he cannot keep down solid food right now, you may want to get him a nutritious liquid meal replacement so he can sip it and still get the nutrients he needs.”

“Uh, okay.”

“I'd also suggest a mild lotion for his skin where the tape was. We've removed the tape and glue residue, but his skin is a bit abraded and could use some moisture.”

I scratched the back of my head, and the doctor headed out from the room. The trooper reiterated that he'd be in touch – though his facial expression made the statement seem more like a warning. 'Fuck him,' I thought. It was a bit after three-thirty in the morning, so I told the kid to get his shoes – my boots – on so we could be ready to head out when the nurse got back.

“Okay,” she said, busting in with just as much compassion as she'd had when we arrived. “Here is the documentation on childhood nutrition and the appointment reminder for a follow up in a week. If any further symptoms develop, come back here right away.”

“Thanks, Nurse Ratched,” I said with a sigh. She didn't reply, just left the room. “Come on, kid.”

Outside a few inches had accumulated, and I pulled my coat a little tighter around me. The snow was light enough that the wipers cleared the window, but I had to wait a few minutes while the blower got the fog on the glass to clear.

“Well. Looks like it's you and me for a little bit.”

He turned his head toward me. “And Daisy?”

I snorted. “Try and leave her out of anything.” I nodded to myself. “So. We have a few things to do tomorrow. Important you get right to sleep when we get home. Don't want to have to drag you all over tomorrow.”

“Would you...use tape?”

I looked at him. “Tape? For what?”

He looked back for a moment. “For dragging me.”

Right then I think I knew what the start of a heart attack might feel like.

“No,” I growled. “No tape. I meant I didn't want you so tired that you'd be dragging your heels tomorrow.”

“Oh.” He looked forward. “I knew that.”

I put the truck in gear and headed for home, wondering about the wide chasm of things this kid may know. Some things we might take for granted, like visiting the doctor when you're sick, would be alien to him. But unless I missed my mark completely, I think he just flashed a dry sense of humor at me, unsure it was allowed or if he'd be punished.

My grandmother called it being fresh. That always confused me, because it was negative, but then she'd say in an indulgent tone that someone was spoiled rotten. Once we'd gotten inside and Daisy had a minute to sniff everything, I told the kid to go wash his face and not to forget behind the ears. I'd heard that often enough from my own mother, so it sounded like something a parent should say. I went up and pulled a blanket out and put sheets on the little bed in the spare room. I don't recall anyone ever actually sleeping in this room. It was usually just for overflow – and it was a little cluttered at the moment.

“Hello?” His voice echoed a little from downstairs.

“Up here. Come on. Let me see if I can find you a toothbrush.”

I heard him coming up the stairs and told him to go back and put the boots by the front door. He trooped back down and then came back up, meeting me in the bathroom. I held out some mouthwash to him. “Have to get you a toothbrush tomorrow, but for now at least you won't kill anyone with your breath.”

He looked at the bottle and back to me. “Do you use this?”

“Sometimes. Why?”

He reached for the bottle. “I just wasn't sure if it would help me – I mean my breath.”

I squinted an eye at him. “My breath doesn't stink.”

He looked up at me a little askance. “Yes, sir.”

Brat.

He opened the bottle and then looked at me.

“Pour a little in the cap, put it in your mouth and swoosh it around. Then spit it out – never swallow this stuff.”

He looked at the green liquid and then back to me. “What happens if someone swallows it?”

I leaned forward and pointed to my face. “I'm nineteen. I swallowed some, and now look at me.”

His eyes got a bit big, and then a tiny smile curled the ends of his mouth. “Nuh uh.”

“Yeah,” I said straightening up. “It's just not good for you.”

He followed my instructions, and I led him to his room. “I'll- oh. I guess Daisy thinks she's staying with you.” Daisy coughed a few times and then settled down on the bed. The kid walked over and sat down beside her and stroked the soft fur of her ear, causing her to lean into the attention and let out a small, huffing whine. “Now you've done it.”

“Done what, sir?”

“Made a friend for life. Stop with the sir, no one knighted my ass.”

“Okay,” he said.

“All right. Sleep well. See you in the morning.”

I went downstairs and turned off lights and put things away I hadn't before the kid had shown up. I half expected Daisy to show up to go out one last time and howl at nothing, but she seemed to be taking to the idea the kid needed her brand of furry comfort. Hopefully the trooper would get in contact shortly with whoever the county was going to send to get this kid on track. I finally headed upstairs and fell into a restless sleep, probably from staying up so late and all the nonsense the world had seen fit to throw at me the night before.

I woke around seven-thirty and headed for the bathroom. Daisy came trotting out to meet me in the hallway. She whined at me before starting a coughing fit. I knelt down to pet her, talking to her like she could understand me. She pulled away and headed back to the kid's room.

“What? You don't need to go out?” I asked her.

“Sir?” The kid's tone sounded a little strained.

“What did I say about that?” I growled as I headed for his door only to find him standing in the open doorway.

“I'm sorry. May I use the bathroom?”

“What? Of course! Of all the-”

He dashed past me, running to the bathroom and hurriedly unloading. I looked at Daisy and asked her if she was ready to go out, and she headed down the stairs ahead of me. I met her at the back door and let the dancing furball out before going to get her breakfast. I heard the toilet flush upstairs and water running – at least he washed his hands. Given what I knew, it was fifty-fifty if his parents taught him about germs.

Daisy scratched at the back door, and I let her in. The change in temperature hit her lungs, and she started coughing again but seemed more concerned with the food dish. Weird. I looked out the window set into the back door and noted the snow accumulation – probably a bit more than a foot, deeper in places where the wind had caused a drift. I looked down at the sound of Daisy knocking her dish around, hollow now that she'd scarfed it all down.

“Pig,” I told her affectionately.

The kid appeared in the doorway, silent in the thick socks I'd loaned him.

“Don't know how to use a bathroom?” I asked, more to say something than to question him.

“I didn't have permission,” he said quietly.

“What?” I asked, unable to trust my ears.

“I had to have permission. From an adult. Mom says there are things I shouldn't be doing, so I needed to have permission so she knew I was in the bathroom.”

“Christ. Was she timing you?”

“I don't know.”

I waved a hand at him. “Rhetorical question. Look – as long as you're here, you know when you need to go, so you have blanket permission to use the bathroom.” I paused. “Matter of fact, you're old enough to know – don't let anyone stop you from going to the bathroom when you need to go. It's your advice from me for the day.”

He seemed to think on that for a moment before regarding me seriously. “Does that mean I get one thing to remember from you every day?”

I sighed. “Don't overthink it. Come on.” I put on my coat and opened the front door, leading the way to the truck. “Here, start it up while I clean the glass off.”

“Start – you mean your truck? I can't do that!” he said, his tone filled with panic.

“What? Why not?”

“I'm not allowed to touch the car keys!”

I held my hand out to him. “Let me see your hand.”

He cautiously placed his hand in mine, and I turned his hand over and placed my keys in them. “They won’t burn you. Take that big one with the oval top and put it in the slot. Turn the key away from you until the engine starts, then let it go.”

His fingers squeezed the keys almost as if spasming.

“Come on, kid. It's just a truck. You can start it – you have permission.”

He pressed his lips together. “Yes, sir.”

“There's that 'sir' again,” I said with a sigh and picked up my broom from the front porch. I went to the passenger side and started wiping the light snow off the glass and mirror before moving to the windshield. I watched him from the corner of my eye. He climbed in and studied the ignition switch for a moment before inserting the key. He turned it back toward him at first, then turned it forward until the engine turned. That seemed to startle him, and he let go of the key before the truck actually caught. I told him to try it again, just hold the key longer. Daisy didn't look at either of us, just used her snout like a snowplow as she looked for interesting things to smell or eat under the snow.

He turned the key again. The engine caught, and he sat back with a look of mild shock on his face. I tossed the broom up onto the deck, plopped Daisy inside and climbed into the passenger seat.

“What are you doing?”

“I need my driveway plowed. You can see all the snow,” I said with a reasonable tone.

“Do you have a shovel?” he asked, his tone lost since my answer didn't really tell him why I was in the passenger seat.

“Nope. Now, move this seat up a bit so your feet can reach the pedals.” I pointed in front of him. “Grab that handle there near your feet and pull it up while you scoot forward. I'll help.”

He looked pretty damned scared. Whatever his parents had done to him probably forced him to follow directions – but his hand was shaking as he reached for the handle.

I reached out and put my fingertips on his forearm. “Hey, kid.”

He looked at me, and what I read on his face just pissed me off. He. Was. Scared.

“Look. There are a lot of dumb mo- uh, people out there, okay? Most of them, at least in this country, drive a car. The bigger jerks get someone to drive them.” I leaned forward a little to make my point. “None of them are any better than you, and they all had to learn sometime. Now I'm not talking about taking you out on the highway. That would be unfair, dangerous and illegal. What you're going to do,” I said, and pointed out ahead of the truck to the small detached shed, “is bring this truck over to the front of that building. See that big yellow thing?”

He nodded.

“It's a snowplow blade. You're going to pull up to that, and I'm going to adjust the blade and attach it so we can clear the driveway and the lot of my business. Okay? Nothing crazy.”

“But....” His voice was tiny, still scared.

“But?” I prompted him.

He looked at me, a guilty expression on his face. “I'm not supposed to touch the cars.”

“Okay, well, this one is mine – and it's a truck. You have my permission. Look, kid, having permission is a good thing – not touching other people's things without their permission is just good manners. But you have permission, so let's go ahead.”

I instructed him on the pedals and the gear lever and we made a few minor moves to help him get the feel of the old thing. After a good ten minutes of questioning if getting whiplash were worth the effort, he got the truck close enough, and then I showed him how to put it in park. I climbed out, and I think he nearly leapt, but then kids do things like that. Dogs get the zoomies and kids get...whatever the equivalent is. I pulled on the blade to get it lined up and dropped the pins in, then hooked up the hydraulic lines from the truck.

“Okay, back in,” I said. I got back in the passenger seat, and he sat down in the driver's seat with a bit of nervous excitement. “Now, the blade is on the ground right now, so you see these levers here? So you fiddle this one up and the blade goes up. You fiddle it again and you can lower it. This one lets you move it from side to side.”

“If I fiddle it?”

“Smart ass,” I grumbled. “Now lift the blade and back us up so we can plow the driveway.” I waited and looked at him with some impatience when nothing had happened. “Well?”

He gripped the wheel, fingers going a bit white and looked straight ahead. “I can't, sir.”

“Don't sir me. Can't what?”

“I can't do that.” He moved his hand a little, just pointing to the levers.

“Why not?”

He swallowed. “I forgot already. I'm...too dumb.”

I shifted on my seat. “Kid, look at me. Look at me now; I'm not speaking to the side of your head.”

He shifted slowly, tension on his face.

“Kid, how do you measure intelligence?”

His face immediately changed expression, slipping into thought. His eyes drifted from my face and he frowned a bit. Looking back to me he said, “I don't know.”

“Did you know that's a perfectly acceptable answer?”

“But it's...”

“Truthful. Now if I'd asked you how to start a truck when you got up this morning, would you have known?”

“Sort of?”

“Okay, sort of. But now, if I asked you, could you tell me? Maybe show someone else how to start this truck?”

He looked away again, and I had the idea he was thinking – looking for a way that he could still be wrong and thus right. He looked back to me. “I think I could. I only did it once, but it's not that hard.”

“Right. So, ignorant means we don't know something. Stupid means we can't learn something. More or less – go with that. So you're not stupid. You're ignorant of some things – and let me tell you a secret. No matter how much a person learns – even if they're an expert in a given field, there will still be far more that they don't know than what they do.”

He frowned, and again I thought he might be turning that over in his head. Looking back to me he said, “So you mean just because I don't know how to fiddle the levers yet – that I'm ignorant about how to use them – I'm not stupid, because I could learn?”

“Exactly.”

“But...you don't know how stupid I can be.”

I snorted. “Did you ever leave the plastic cover on a frozen pizza while cooking it?”

He stared for a moment. “No. Did you?”

“Let's not get bogged down in details.” I pointed to the levers. “That one lifts the blade.”

He reached out and fiddled the lever, and the front of the truck went down a little with the extra weight.

“Reverse. The lever right there. Don't forget to put your foot on the brake.”

He shifted around and continued to follow directions, backing us up, lowering the blade, and clearing snow from the drive. It took longer than it would have if I'd just done it, but I can remember my dad putting me behind the wheel for the first time in a parking lot and what it meant. Sometimes kids just need that. Hell, we all do. After the driveway was done, we swapped seats and I drove downtown to Lulu's, scraping the snow from the curb to make for some parking.

I grabbed a snow brush from behind the seat and climbed out. The kid helped Daisy down, who coughed a bit and then started sniffing. I opened the door and hollered that I was there and then went to clear the snow from my table and chairs and put Daisy's pad down.

“You're sitting outside?” he asked.

“They won't let Daisy inside,” I told him. “Pretty much she goes where I go.”

Jeannie stepped outside. “McKenzie, can you not yell every morning?” she glanced at my guest for breakfast and then back at me. “What's this?”

“The dog found him, and the pound won't take him,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes and looked at the kid. “Did he kidnap you? I can call the cops.”

He gave her the ghost of a smile. “No, Ma'am.”

She put her hands on her hips. “What? You mean you meant to be in his company? Are you sick?” She laughed. “Come on inside. It's too cold for you out here.”

I went to stand.

“I said him, not you.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

“Where I go, he goes,” the kid said. Great, now I'm his dog.

“Are you sure? He's a mean old man. He's only ever nice to his dog.”

“She's a very nice dog,” the kid replied.

“Nicer than he is,” Jeannie said with a smile. “Okay, let's go inside.”

I picked up Daisy's pad, and we shuffled through the door, sitting in a corner by the front window. Jeannie came over with my usual and asked the kid what he'd like to eat. She chatted with him about all the different things they had, and the kid just looked at me in confusion.

“What's the matter?”

“Not hungry, honey?”

He glanced at her and then leaned toward me. “I threw up last night.”

“Oh, right. Jeannie, let's keep it more on the bland side – maybe some oatmeal with cinnamon and toast to start?”

She looked at the kid and smiled. “That sound good, sweetheart?”

“Yes, ma'am,” he said with a nod of his head. “Thank you, ma'am.”

“Such a gentleman.” She leaned in. “You could teach this grouch a thing or two.”

“He taught me how to use the snow plow this morning,” he said promptly.

She grinned. “He's just trying to teach you so he doesn't have to. He's always up to something!” she laughed and headed away.

He adopted an expression of concern. “What does she mean?”

“She's trying to pick on me. It's something we do.”

“Something you do?”

“Sure. We like each other enough, I guess, and it's how we get along. We tease, but even though it's not the nicest thing to say, it's not coming from a bad place.” I shrugged. “Besides, I don't have to live with her, so whatever.”

Daisy stayed reasonably close, even though I had to call her back every few minutes. After we ate we headed over to the office. I brought Daisy into the office, and Annabelle grunted. She was looking down at her phone and nursing coffee on the couch.

“Don't mind her,” I said to the kid. “Coffee hasn't hit her brain yet.”

“I'll pour it on you,” she said and then looked up. “Oh! Who is this?”

“Kid, this is Annabelle. Take a good look so you know what to avoid later on in life.”

“Grouch,” she said and smiled at the kid, holding her hand out. “And you are?”

“Bailey, ma'am.”

“Ma'am? Manners. I like!”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay, I better get that parking lot cleared. Is that car ready for pickup?”

She shook her head. “Developed a misfire. I have a coil pack on the way.”

“Crap. Okay.”

“You're going to plow?” the kid asked.

“Yeah. Can't be helped.”

“Can I do it?”

It was the trace of excitement in his voice. He hadn't sounded excited about much since I'd met the ragamuffin, so maybe he was normally a bit more animated, but my gut said otherwise.

“Sure, why not? Let's go plow, kid.”




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