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Chapter Nineteen

"Can I give a shot to an owange again, daddy? Can I? Can I?

Brenna was in full-on wiggle mode in her booster seat. I saw Mason's grin in the rearview mirror.

"Maybe I'll even let you shoot a grapefruit this time."

"YEAH! A gwapefwuit!!"

Joe's mouth twitched; he quickly turned and looked out the window. We were sitting on either side of the little goofball. Bren held up her right hand. She was wearing a plastic glove.

"I'm ready! I'm ready! I'm--"

"I think this is your stop guys!" Shelby called out. Mason slowed the car and I saw the familiar building. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joe tense.

"I dunno about this," he mumbled.

"It's not that bad," I promised. "Besides, you told Krista you'd come to see her."

Joe looked like he would kick his own ass if he was able to. I hopped out of the car. Joe slowly opened his door. Bren's face crumbled.

"Why aren't you coming with uuuuu-ssss?" she whined. I turned.

"Mommy and daddy have lots of fun stuff planned with you. Joe and I are going to see our friends."

"B-b-but you're my fwiends!" Brenna complained. Shel crawled in beside Bren.

"Just think about how jealous Joe's going to be when you tell him you crawled through the big model heart," Shelby whispered. "And you can show Ally what you learned tonight. I'm sure she'd be your patient."

Brenna's patient? Oh, Lord.

"Sure, I said. Bren's eyes were filling with gigantic tears and she was making me feel guilty. Shel grabbed Bren's pudgy little arm and blew a raspy on the upper portion. Bren giggled; crisis averted.

"We'll pick you guys up in a couple hours and then we'll grab some dinner before we head back. Sound like a plan?" Mason asked. I beamed and nodded. Joe scowled.


"Woah, Joe. Tamper down your enthusiasm a little," Mason teased.

"Sorry," I said quietly. Don't ask me why I felt the need to apologize for him; it was just that someone had to.

"Don't apologize for the dweeb," Shel said swinging back out of the car. "If he's not careful I'll make him walk back to Sadieville."

Joe scowled and folded his arms. Shel blew him a kiss. I walked over and grabbed the sleeve of his shirt. "Thanks, guys. See you in a couple hours."

Shel got back in the car. The back window rolled down and Brenna started a loud chorus of 'buh-bye's!' Mason watched us until we reached the front door.

"Isn't there a mall around here or something? Joe asked. I tugged at his sleeve harder.

"Don't even think about it," I hissed.

I had called the day before and I was relieved that Blanche was hovering around the front desk. She smiled at me.

"This is a nice surprise," she said.

"You didn't tell them?" I asked. Blanche shook her head.

"Why do that?" she teased. She held her hand out to Joe. "I'm Blanche. You must be Ally's brother."

"Joe," he said shortly. I held my breath, but he extended his hand and shook hers.

"Krista and Cole are both out back enjoying the weather," she explained. "we just got done with popcorn and a movie."

"Don't these kids go to summer school or something?" Joe asked. "Why don't they have jobs or hang out at the mall or--"

"The children and teens that live here call this home because either their parents or the state have put them here. As such, they're under our care," Blanche explained patiently. "There are too many kids and not enough staff to allow them to run freely. Some of the teens are found volunteer work. When they turn eighteen, some of the organizations we charter through hire them full time. All children go to school through the year. But, overall, most of their time is spent here."

"Kill me before I ever get to a place like this, okay?" Joe whispered in my ear. My eyes widened.

"Here we are!" Blanche said. She hit the wheelchair mechanism and two glass double doors opened wide. Stones lead out to a nice, open courtyard. Blanche motioned for us to go on.

"If you need anything, just check back in with the front desk, okay?" she asked. I nodded.

The doors closed behind us. Joe seemed to freeze. I grabbed his wrist and followed the stones.

We found Krista first. She was in a one-piece swimsuit and sprawled on a chaise lounge. Her sunglasses were large, sparkly, and tinted.

"Hey Krista," I said. She jumped and sat up, yanking the glasses down. She saw Joe and blushed.

"You came!" she said. I had never seen someone look so surprised. "I was--"

"Those glasses are fierce," Joe said with a smile. He sat down in the grass next to the chaise. "Didn't think I'd come?"


Krista was so surprised to see Joe that I felt a little intrusive. I scanned the courtyard, a slight frown forming. Blanche had said Cole was out here...

I was about ready to go in and ask at the front desk, when I saw a pair of black sneakers barely sticking out from the canopy of a weeping willow tree. I walked away from Krista and Joe and made my way closer.

Besdes two smaller kids playing checkers and my brother chatting up a girl (like always), it was quiet and serene. The weather was warm and a soft breeze was blowing. There was no noise coming from the person under the tree. I pulled back a branch and squeezed underneath, feeling as if I was entering a tent.

It took my eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did, I realized that my suspicions had been correct. Cole was lying below the tree, his arms folded across his chest practically corpse-like. His eyes were closed; his chest rose and fell slowly.

I bit my lip. If it had been Brenna, she would have already yelled a million happy greetings. As it was, I didn't want to startle him. I was internally conversing with myself, trying to figure out how best to get his attention, when he beat me to it.

"Hello," he said.

"H-Hi," I said. He sat up.

"Ally?" he asked. I was about to nod when I realized I needed to use my voice.

"Yeah, it's me," I said. I sat down. The ground was dry. "My brother and I decided to come for a visit and--"

"And you found my secret hiding place," he finished.

"I'm sorry," I said quickly. He smiled.

"I said it was secret, not forbidden," he replied calmly. "Why did you decide to visit?"

My mouth opened, but my words got lost momentarily. "I wanted to see you," I finally said. It was the most honest answer.

"Me?" he asked. He lowered his head, his dark hair masking his face. "Why?"

"Well, I...uhm..." I stammered. I hugged my knees to my chest. "Why do you hide behind that long hair?" I asked.

"Why did we have to change the subject? I prefer talking about you."

"I don't like talking about me," I said quickly.


"Because, I'm nothing special."

"And I am?" Cole said doubtfully.

"Of course you are," I said softly.

"Because I'm blind?"

"No!" I said loudly. Too loudly. I coughed. "No," I said in a normal voice. "It's just that you're not like other guys."

That made him smile. "I'm not?"

"You're mature."

"And so are you," he said. "More girls should be like you instead of giggling and worrying about stupid things."

I flushed. I didn't take compliments well. I yanked at my ponytail. "So about that hair..." I said.

"Is it really so bad?" he asked. He shoved his hand through it. It fell back limply.

I bit my lip. I knew how badly the girls teased him about looking like a sheepdog, but it was unruly. If he would only let me...

"It's a little outta shape," I said aloud.

"You want to fix it," he confirmed.

"Not if you don't want me to," I said quickly.

The branches shook slightly as a breeze blew through the courtyard. Cole reached out until he found the large branch that provided him solitude. He pushed it up.

"What the hell," he said. "Besides, if you do a good enough job, maybe Kim will give you a raise. She's been after me forever."

My heart began to beat harder as he moved his way out from under the tree. "Are you serious?" I said. He paused.

"I am," he said.

"But you better hurry before I change my mind."