Southern Comfort

Part 6

By: Staci Faulkenberry

Ferret’s Folly
1 am

            “Hey, Jons.”

            He looked up to find Trixie sliding onto a barstool.

            “Hey, Trix.  What’ll it be?”

            “Something cold and sweet.”

The bartender thought for a moment, then grabbed a glass and began mixing a drink.

“You looked pretty deep in thought when I came up,” she observed, watching him crush ice.

“No, I was just…” He sighed.  “Okay, maybe I was.”

“Anything in particular or just the usual?”

“The usual?”

“Life.  Love.”

“Oh.” He speared cherries and pineapple chunks with a brightly colored toothpick, and slid Trixie’s drink to her.

She sipped the chilled, brightly hued drink.  “Mmm… this is good.  What is it?”

“A mango-pineapple blend.  Just trying something new.”

“So you gonna tell me what’s on your mind or do I have to beat it out of you?”

He chuckled and commenced to washing dirty mugs that had begun to overflow the sink behind the bar.  “It’s Cody.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not still thinking of sending her somewhere else, are you?”

“Honestly?  Some days.  I just don’t know what to do with her, Trix.  I want to help her.  I really do.  But sometimes, I just don’t know if having her here is the best thing for her.  It can be a little rough sometimes, you know, and she’s… she’s so… ahhh.”  He frowned as he vigorously scrubbed the lipstick-covered rim of a wineglass.

“Hmmm…”

Something in her voice made him look up.  “Did you hear about…?”

“Your pervert waiter getting fresh with her?  Yeah, I seem to have heard something about it.”

Jons hastened to his friend’s defense.  “He didn’t mean anything by it.”

“That’d be a first.”

“No, really.  Tony just… doesn’t think sometimes.  And he felt really bad afterwards.”

Trixie took another sip of her drink.  “Yeah, I know.  He’s hardly looked at her all night and I haven’t seen him try to teach her to dance.”

“I told him not to.  I’m taking over the teaching department.”

She arched an eyebrow.  “What else is bothering you?”

“I don’t know how to help her.  I really think she needs a woman around.”

“So get married.”

He gave her a sour look.  “Oh, there’s a wonderful idea.  Since you came up with it, why don’t you marry me?  You can share a room with Cody.”

She laughed.  “So romantic!  How could a girl help but say… absolutely not!”

He feigned a wounded expression and clasped his soapy hand to his chest.  “I’m wounded, Trix.  Truly wounded.”

They were silent for a moment.  Then, the feline spoke up. “I think Cody feels really out of control, Jons.  She needs to feel safe and…” She stopped abruptly.

“And?” he prompted, drying the newly washed glasses and putting them away.

“And… wanted.”

He turned to look at her.

“But mostly safe,” Trixie said hastily.

“She’s talked to you, hasn’t she?”

“A little,” the woman admitted. “I had to pry, though.  Girls like her… they feel so… out of control and afraid all the time.  Could you imagine living like that day in, day out when you’re that young?  Having your innocence and security just ripped away like that?” She snapped her fingers for emphasis.

He’d never tried imagining what it must be like to be Cody, but the sudden image of being twelve and living every day in fear flashed through his head and he shuddered.

“What do I do?” he asked.

“Just let her know she’s not a burden to you.”

He thought about her birthday, which she’d said shyly had been the best day she’d had in a while.

“We’re getting there,” he said.  An idea suddenly occurred to him and he turned to Trixie excitedly.  “Hey---who’s the most non-threatening, lethal person here?”

She gave him a strange look.  “What is this, a riddle?”

“No, I’m serious!” He scanned the bar, considering some of his more deadly regulars.

“You can’t have her whacked, Jons.”

He rolled his eyes.  “So… Sam?”

What are you talking about?”

“Self-defense!” He smiled. “You said she feels out of control, right?  That she needs to feel safe?  I’ll just get somebody to teach her how to fight.  If she thinks she can take care of herself, she’ll feel more in control, right?”

Trixie’s started to protest, then stopped.  “You know…” She absently stirred her drink.  “That’s actually not a bad idea.  Not bad at all.”

“You think I should have somebody teach her those… those martial arts things?  Or just street fighting?”

Trixie pursed her lips, considering.  “Just teach her how to get rid of an attacker.  She won’t need to know how to kill anyone.”

“Right.”  He held up a hand as a thin, unremarkable-looking canine slunk past. “Sam!  C’mere a minute, would you?”

 

***

 

            The next afternoon, Cody was curled up on the couch, thumbing through one of Jons’s books.  It wasn’t bad if you liked the classics, which the girl didn’t.  With a heavy sigh, she closed the book with a snap and tossed it aside.  She could have gone for a walk, but she didn’t like being very far from Jons.  He made her feel safe and she now felt sure he’d do what it took to keep someone from hurting her.

            At a knock on the back door, she looked up, puzzled.  Jons was working at his desk, dark head bent over a ledger.

            “See who that is, would you?” he ordered absently.

            She bounced off the couch and hurried through the kitchen as another, more impatient knock sounded.  She flung open the door to see a slim canine who looked vaguely familiar.

            “Oh… can I help you?” she asked uncertainly.

            “Hi, Cody.  Jons asked me to stop by this afternoon.”

            “Oh,” she said again, stepping aside to let him in.  Turning, she called, “Jons!  It’s somebody to see you!”

            “Actually, I’m here to see you,” Sam told her.

            Her eyes darted warily.  Though she didn’t think Jons would let somebody hurt her, she couldn’t help that initial reaction of gut-wrenching fear.

            “Ah, Sam.  Come on in.” Jons stood in the doorway to the kitchen.  “Y’all can use the bar if you want.  Nobody should be here for at least a couple of hours.”

            “F-f-for what?” Cody stammered.

            The bartender turned to her.  “Cody, this is Sam.  I talked to him last night and he’s agreed to teach you self-defense.  How does that sound?”

            She wasn’t sure she heard right.  “Self-defense?”

            “That’s right,” Sam said cheerfully. “Little things like us need to know how to hurt people sometimes, don’t you think?  I’ll teach you how to punch, kick, think on your feet, snap somebody’s neck like a twig---!”

            Jons cleared his throat and the canine hastily amended, “Well, maybe not that last one.  But I can definitely teach you how to hurt somebody who’s planning to hurt you.”

            “Sound okay?” Jons asked.

            “I…” She thought about that for a moment.  The idea had definite appeal.  “When do we start?”

            He gestured for her to precede him.  “Let’s go.”

            She led the way to the barroom where he immediately went to the dance floor.

            “Okay,” he said.  “Let me just get an idea of what you can do.  Attack me.”

            She just looked at him.

            “Honey, a stare ain’t gonna do nothing but make me think my fly’s open.  Now come on.”

            Feeling ridiculous, she charged him.  He easily dodged her, sticking out his foot to trip her up as she stumbled past him.  She sprawled flat on her face.

            “Hmm…” Grabbing her by the back of her shirt, he hauled her to her feet. “Basics,” he said thoughtfully.  “All the way at square one.”

            Embarrassed, she just stared at the floor.

            “Let me see you make a fist.”

            She did, thinking about punching him in the stomach.

            “Good,” he said.  “At least you know enough not to put your thumb on the outside.”  He held up his hand, palm towards her.  “Hit me.”

            She threw a weak punch and he shook his head.

            “Imagine I’m somebody who’d really want to hurt you.”

            “But---!”

            “Don’t worry.  I doubt there’s anything you can do to hurt me yet,” he assured her. “I just want to show you how to throw a good punch.”

            She stared at him.  Then, she imagined it was Fletcher in front of her, eyes lit up with malicious greed as he reached for her.  She drew her arm back and slammed her fist into his palm, knocking it back over his shoulder.

            “Whoa!” He was surprised.  “Good.  Very good.  But you’ve still got a long way to go, kid.  You’ll have to work hard.”

            “No problem,” she said.

            He studied her for a moment.  “Turn around.”

            “What?”

            “Turn around.”

            “Why?”

            Gritting his teeth, he snapped, “Just do it.”

            Uneasily, she complied.  As his arms closed around her, she gasped and tried to jerk away.  His arms tightened.

            “Let go!  Let go!” she shrieked.

            “Oh, yeah.  That’s gonna save you.”

            She was beginning to hyperventilate, her body shuddering violently.

            “Focus!” he barked.  “How are you gonna get away when somebody grabs you from behind?”

            Cody tried to pull herself together---to think.  She struggled harder and tried to slip out from under his arms.

            “First thing your attacker’s gonna suspect, kid.  Try something else.”

            Blinking away tears, she stomped his instep.

            He grunted and his grip loosened slightly.  “Better.  Now what?”

            She wrenched her body away from him and whirled to face him, tears silently streaking down her cheeks.  Her teacher regarded her with mild surprise, but no concern or pity.

            “Not bad.”  He crossed his arms over his chest.  “But in the time it took you to do that, I coulda drugged or killed you.  Next time somebody comes at you like that, don’t waste time struggling like you did.  Don’t freeze up.  Kick him if you can.  If you can’t, go limp like you fainted.  That trick works real good for dames.  If your hands are free, claw his face or poke his eyes out.  If they’re not, go for the goods.”

            She was puzzled.  “The… goods?”

            “Oh, sorry.  Grab his groin, honey.  Grab it and squeeze hard.  Yank it if you can.”

            Dubiously, her gaze flicked over him and she asked uncertainly, “Do you want me to do that with you?”

            Reflexively, he moved his hands in front of his crotch.  No!  Um… no.  Not necessary.  I’m just tellin’ ya.  You can punch me, kick me, or claw me, but for the love of Pete, don’t ever come near the goods, all right?”

            The girl nodded.

            “Okay.  Think you can do better?” 

Without warning, he lunged for her, one arm snaked around her neck, the other like a vise around her middle.  He felt her freeze up momentarily and she gave a faint whimper, but then he felt her fingernails dig into his thighs and her heel slammed into his instep hard enough to make him give a small yelp.  As his grip loosened, she again wrenched away from him, her fingernails raking his legs through the thin fabric of his pants.

Ow!” He glanced down, half afraid she’d ripped a few holes.

“I’m sorry!” She was horrified.  “I didn’t mean---!”

“No, that was good.  Good.  It’ll only work if your attacker’s not heavily clothed, but it’s a good strategy.”  Giving his pants a last rueful glance, he beckoned to her.  “You’ve gotten away from your attacker, but you haven’t put him out completely… he’s still a threat.  What do you do?”

She was nonplussed.  “I… I… I don’t…”

“If you can’t outrun him, you’re gonna have to either knock his lights out or hurt him so bad he won’t want to mess with you.”  He held his arm out, palm facing her, fingers curled tightly together in a half fist.  “Make like this and slam it into his nose.  Make sure you hit with the heel of your hand and make sure you hit hard.  Like this---!” He brought his hand up to gently bump her nose.  “But of course if I’d done that right, you’d be layin’ on the floor, dead.”

Really?” Intrigued, she tried to imitate him.

He repositioned her hand, curling her fingers more tightly and straightening her thumb so that it was parallel to her palm.  Then, he obediently held still as she brought the heel of her hand to his nose.

“No, you’re hitting with too much palm.  Work on your aim.”

She tried again and again until he was satisfied and Jons’s employees had begun to trickle in.

Sam called a stop to the lesson and looked at her seriously.  “I want you to practice all this in between lessons.  Get Jons to help if you want.  Just don’t hurt him.”

She smiled and promised that she would practice.

 

***

 

            After that, he taught her for an hour a day and she practiced with feverish desperation for another hour or two.  Jons had also gotten in on the act, teaching her how to use his guns.  They went to the landfill outside of town a couple of days a week and practiced.  Even the dancing lessons he was giving her had begun to come in handy, giving her an edge of agility that Sam told her would be one of her greatest assets if she ever found herself in a fight.  With her growing skill, she gained a little more confidence and didn’t cower quite as much around strange men.

            As she was washing mugs one night near the end of her shift, she noticed a raucous crowd gathering on the far side of the bar.  There were several dozen people crowded around something, occasionally cheering or booing, but always yelling and Cody thought she heard bets being placed.

            Jons breezed past her with an order of drinks.

            “Hey.” She stopped him.  “What’s going on?”

            He rolled his eyes.  “Knife throwing.”

            When she finished with the glasses, she strolled down to the crowd and wove her way amongst the rowdy onlookers.  Finally, she managed to shove her way to the front where, to her surprise, Sam was standing, knife dangling from one hand, looking utterly bored and contemptuous.

            “Blindfold ‘im!” someone yelled.

            The crowd liked that idea.  Before Sam could respond, the bear behind him had pulled out a bandana and tied it around Sam’s eyes.

            “Get ready to pay up!” the canine shouted.

            Cody looked and saw that they’d made a target out of a cardboard box and that someone had sloppily painted a blood-red bulls-eye in lipstick.  She barely saw him move, but suddenly, there was a swish and thunk that drew a roar from the crowd.  Directly in the center of the makeshift target, his knife hung, quivering.  The slim knife thrower casually removed the bandana and grinned carelessly at the crowd.

            “Pay up,” he said.

            Grumbling, people began digging through purses and wallets and shoving money into his hand.  With a chuckle, he counted and pocketed it.  As the crowd dispersed, he noticed Cody staring at him with her mouth slightly agape and her eyes wide.

            “Hey, short stuff.  Whatcha doing over here?”

            “Teach me,” she whispered.

            “Knife-throwing?”

            She nodded.  “Please?”

            He cast a glance at Jons, who was efficiently delivering a round of drinks to a crowd of businessmen.

            He’d cut off my drink supply for sure.

            “I don’t know, kid.  That wasn’t part of the deal.”

            “Come on, Sam.  Please?”

            He shook his head.

            “Fine.” She stalked to the target, wrenched the knife out, and stood where Sam had only moments before, hand poised to throw the knife.  “I’ll teach myself.”

            “Hey, whoa!  Whoa, kid!  Put that down before you hurt somebody!”  He snatched his knife from her, sheathed it in his boot and stood back up, scowling.  Then, he noticed her mulish expression and laughed.  “Okay, okay.  You win.”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah.  Somebody has to keep you from hurting yourself.” Again, he glanced at Jons. “Just don’t tell your buddy over there.”

            Buddy?” She was startled.  Jons wasn’t her buddy.  He was… what?  He definitely didn’t take her father’s place, that was for sure.  But a friend?

            “What’s the matter?  ‘Buddy’ ain’t a dirty word, y’know.”

            “No.  I just…”

            “What, he just free room and board to you?”

            She sniffed indignantly. “Definitely not free.”

            Sam laughed.  “Yeah, you do work your butt off for it, don’t you?  Well, c’mere, short stuff.  You stand like this…” He demonstrated and she did her best to imitate.  “No, don’t put your weight on the balls of your feet.  You ain’t in a fistfight.  Get comfortable.”

            She tried again and he nodded approvingly.  “Better.”

            Hesitating, he glanced down at his knife, then over at the bar.  “Maybe we’d better start you off tossin’ straws or something.”

            Strolling to the bar, he scooped up a few toothpicks and some pencils.

            “Hey, Sam.  What’s going on?” Jons looked at him suspiciously.

            “Just needed a few things for your girl to practice with.”

            The bartender raised a dubious eyebrow.  “You’re going to have her fight off toothpicks and pencils?”

            “No.  She’s going to be fighting with toothpicks and pencils.”

            “She’s supposed to be working.”

            “Lighten up.  She’s twelve.”

            “Uh-huh.  And what were you doing when you were her age?”

            With a roguish grin, Sam leaned close.  “Thievin’, fightin’, and generally staying one step ahead of the law.”

            “Your parents must be so proud.”

            They’re the ones who put me up to it!”

            With a laugh, Jons shook his head.  “Just make sure she doesn’t hurt anybody, okay?”

            “Why do you think I’m making her use toothpicks and pencils?”  Sam turned to go.  Then, he glanced back at Jons.  “And seriously, man.  Lighten up.  You’re too young to be that serious.”

            Indignantly, the bartender snatched up his tray and stalked off to fill a few drink orders, though he kept an eye on Sam and Cody.  He knew what the canine was teaching her, and it didn’t bother him, just so long as she didn’t hurt herself in the process.  He figured she’d give up when she found out that knife throwing was much harder than it looked. 

            As it turned out, she had a pretty good hand.  He could tell that Sam was impressed and more than a little smug by the time they called it quits and she returned to work.

            Buckteeth, who had been looking suspiciously speculative all night, came up to Jons as he locked the doors for the night.  “Jons, can I talk to you for a minute?”

            The bartender glanced at him.  “Go ahead.”

            “No… it’s…” The rabbit’s gaze flicked very briefly to Cody, who was washing mugs and looking as if she were about to fall over.  “It’s a private matter.”

            Curious, the bartender led him to his apartment where they sat at the kitchen table, sipping glasses of tea.

            “Look, Jons, Pat and I have been talking and, well, she really wants to let Cody come live with us.”

            The younger man raised an eyebrow.  “I thought you didn’t have the room.”

            His employee looked uncomfortable. “In the apartment we don’t, but…” He sighed heavily.  “I didn’t want to say anything, but we’ve had a hard time selling the house.  It’s old, you know, and nobody wants it.  Besides, since she met Cody, Pat decided she doesn’t want to live in the apartment.  She wants to take the house off the market and have Cody come live with us.”

            Jons couldn’t think of anything to say, so he covered his shock by taking a long swallow of tea.

            “I… I know I gave you a hard time before about her staying.”

            His boss nodded, frowning a little.  “I know I ought to be glad, but…”

            Buckteeth smiled wryly.  “You’ll be happy to hear that Pat really raked me over the coals when I told her about telling you the kid’d be all right staying in a bar.  She said the girl needs to be in school, not working nights and definitely not spending all her time around the kind of people we get in here.”

            “Try telling her that.  I told her to go to bed hours ago.  She wouldn’t listen.”  He paused.  “You really think it’s not a good idea for her to stay with me now?”

            “Knowing what I do about her, no, I don’t.”

            The ferret nodded thoughtfully, remembering the way the girl flinched whenever a man so much as clapped her shoulder.  Jons was a good shot, but most likely by the time he realized there was trouble and interfered, the damage would already be done.  He also knew having her stay in his apartment was a risk.  What if one his patrons decided to go after her one night?  It was just a few steps from the bar to her bedroom.  He knew she’d be better off in Buckteeth and Pat’s home, with a capable, caring woman looking after her and a more regular, less nocturnal schedule. 

But to his surprise, he found himself feeling fiercely protective of her and very reluctant to let her go, even to people he trusted as much as Buckteeth and Pat.

            Buckteeth watched his boss carefully, wisely saying nothing.  He thought he could guess what was going on in Jons’s mind and he’d seen the way the girl had taken to him after he’d rescued her.  Though wary, when she thought she was in trouble, she ran straight to Jons.  He’d seen the way the young bartender acted, too---as if he wanted to do everything he could to stand between her and danger.

            Which is why the rabbit thought Jons would agree to his offer.

            “She would be safer with you,” Jons said slowly.  “And Pat would look after her better than I ever could.”  He stared unblinkingly towards the bar for a long moment.  Then, he took a deep breath.  “I think it’d be best for everybody if she went to stay with y’all.”

            But he wasn’t as enthusiastic as he would have been a month ago.

Within a week, Cody found herself installed in a small room in Buckteeth and Pat’s charming older house on the outskirts of town.  She’d been bewildered and a little hurt when Jons had told her she was going to go stay with Buckteeth and Pat, but the woman had welcomed her into her new home with such warmth and motherly concern that she found herself glad to be there. 

Though it had no lock, she noticed that the door to her little room opened inward and was grateful for it.  If she ever felt endangered, she could barricade the door with her dresser.

Pat helped her unpack what little she had, and most of it was clothing Buckteeth and Pat had given her, themselves.

“And tomorrow, we’ll see about getting you enrolled in school,” Pat told her as she put neatly folded shirts in a drawer.

Cody made a face as she billowed the sheet above the bed.  School was all right sometimes, but she would have much rather been outside than cooped up in a classroom. 

“Here, let me help you, dear.”  Briskly, the rabbit smoothed the sheets on one side of the bed and tucked the corners under, patiently waiting for Cody to finish her side before she spread one of her own handmade quilts over the freshly laundered sheets. 

She nodded, but didn’t say anything.  Since her breakdown on the night Jons had rescued her, she hadn’t felt like talking much.  She’d felt too dirty and sick to want to talk and since then, she just hadn’t had anything to say.  She was unwilling to draw any attention to herself at all, fearing the worst. 

The paranoia worsened at work.  Thanks to Sam, she was gaining confidence, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that one patron was watching her.  He was a well-built tan bear who usually stuck to the shadowy corners and stayed pretty much to himself.  Whenever she glanced his way, she was unnerved to find him staring at her.  She took care to stay within sight and earshot of Jons, Buckteeth, or Tony whenever she saw him come into the bar, but could not shake the feeling of unease.  However, she said nothing because the bear never actually did anything.  Besides, she was afraid that mentioning it would make them think she was a big baby who needed to be protected, and she wouldn’t be allowed to work at the bar anymore.  She was proud of her progress, and couldn’t stand the idea of packed away like a fragile china doll.

She was sleepy all the time, too.  At night, she’d no sooner drift off when the nightmares would start and she’d wake up sobbing.  She wouldn’t sleep during the daytime because she hadn’t wanted Jons to know about it.

When Pat left to prepare dinner, Cody sat wearily on her bed and studied her new room.  It looked much like her temporary one at Jons’s.  They’d just moved the second-hand bed and dresser she’d been using there to her new room here.  There was blue floral wallpaper on the walls and white muslin curtains over the windows, but everything else was spare and almost impersonal.

I guess Jons’ll be glad to get his office back.

She had to admit that she liked the Wheat’s house.  The two-story house was nearly 75 years old with wavy glass in the windows, unfinished hardwood floors, small rooms, and lots of interesting nooks and crannies.  It was really much too big for the three of them, but neither of the rabbits had wanted to look for a new house when they had a perfectly good one waiting for them.

It was a bright, pleasant house situated on a tight corner lot.  It had been newly painted yellow with white trim and some rotten boards on the old wraparound porch had been replaced and painted as well. 

The girl had liked the porch swing in particular, and thought it would be a pleasant place to sit on warm evenings.  Getting to her feet, she walked over to the little window seat and peered out.  Her room was in the back of the house and overlooked a postage-stamp sized yard with a single oak tree standing in stately solitude in the center.  Drawing her feet under her, she leaned her head against the glass and closed her eyes.

            The next thing she knew, Pat was gently shaking her shoulder.

            “Cody, honey, are you all right?”  Immediately, the rabbit put a hand to her forehead.  “No fever.”

            “Just tired,” Cody said.

            “It has been a busy day.  Are you hungry?”

            She shrugged dispiritedly.

            “Well, skinny little thing like you doesn’t need to skip meals,” Pat said firmly.  “So you come on downstairs.  I’ve got a good, hot supper on the table.”  She hugged the girl.  “Oh, I didn’t know how much I missed having a big kitchen.  Moving back in here was about the best decision we’ve made in a long time.”

            Cody allowed the woman to lead her downstairs to the dining room where Buckteeth was hurriedly gulping down a cup of coffee.

            “Off to work, dear,” he said.  “Don’t wait up for me tonight.”

            Pat smiled.  “You know I will.”

            It was obviously their ritual.  The vixen shifted uncomfortably and averted her eyes as they kissed.

            “’Bye, Cody.”

            “Tell Jons I said hey,” she said softly.

            He smiled at her and tousled her hair.  “I will, honey.”

            With another kiss for his wife, he left.  Cody stared after him almost wistfully.  She’d just been starting to get used to the bar and Jons and found herself wishing just a little that she was still there with him.  She hoped this was the last change for a while.

            “Cody?  You want to fix your plate?”

            Starting a little, she turned to find a table laden with steaming dishes and her eyes bulged.  It had been a while since she’d seen so much food in one place.  In the center of the table was a platter of neatly sliced ham.  Arrayed around the ham were bowls of corn, green beans, stewed potatoes, and carrots and a basket of freshly made biscuits.  Mouth watering, she sat across from Pat, poured herself a glass of tea, and commenced to piling her plate high.  Her new guardian nodded with approval as she made herself a less loaded plate.

            “You eat all you want.”

            “You don’t expect me to eat all of it, do you?”

Pat laughed.  “I’d be surprised if you did!”

“What are you going to do with the rest of it?”

            “Oh, freeze it or throw it in a vegetable soup for tomorrow.  I don’t waste food.”

            “Neither do I,” Cody declared fervently.  Living on the streets had cured her of any desire to let food go to waste.

            They dug in.  Much to Pat’s delight, the vixen ate heartily, piling her plate twice and eating two pieces of the chocolate cake Pat had baked to celebrate living in a house again.

            As they lingered over the cake, Pat asked Cody about herself.

            The little girl sighed.  Why did adults always want to know ‘all about’ kids?

            “We lived on a ranch in Mershaw.  Then, Daddy won a contest for a trip to Starrywood and an airplane ride down the coast.”  She pushed the cake away and muttered, “The plane crashed.”

            “I’m so sorry, honey,” Pat said quietly.

            Cody didn’t respond.  She’d heard that so much that it had become meaningless to her.  It didn’t bring her family back and it didn’t make her feel any better.

            The rabbit looked at her with compassionate understanding.  “If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.  But if you ever do need to talk… well, I’m a pretty good listener.”

 

***

Ferret’s Folly

Later that evening

            “So how are things?” Jons asked.

            “Fine.”  Buckteeth dug through a drawer behind the bar until he found a new order pad.

            “Ya’ll getting settled in okay?”

            “Pat’s got her kitchen back.  She’s in heaven.”  Finding what he was looking for, he tucked it into an apron pocket and looked at his boss.  “And Cody said to tell you hey.”

            “Oh.” He paused.  “How is she?”

            “I think she’s okay.  She and Pat were sitting down to dinner when I left.”

            “What are y’all going to do with her?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Are you going to try to put her in school?”

            “Of course.”

            “Ah.”

            The ‘ah’ was sufficiently doubtful and it made Buckteeth pause.

            “You don’t think it’s a good idea?”

            Jons shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I mean, it’d probably be good for her to be around other kids.  Maybe make some friends, forget to be…” He smiled ruefully.  “Well, I doubt she’ll ever forget to think she needs to be on guard all the time.  But she does need some friends.”

            Buckteeth looked at him curiously.  “She really got to you, didn’t she?”

            Again, his boss shrugged.  He took his time filling mugs and putting them on a tray.  Then, as he hoisted it onto his shoulder, he said gruffly, “Nobody ought to be hurt that way.”

 

***

Land’s End Elementary School

Two days later…

 

Cody eyed the group of girls suspiciously.  They were a particularly silly looking bunch, in her opinion.  They lounged along the steps leading up to Land’s End Elementary School , reminding her of vultures hovering around something potentially dead.  All four of them wore pleated navy skirts and button-down white blouses of the type Fletcher had forced her to wear.  She shuddered at the memory and hurried past them.

            Or tried to.  One of them, a gangly brown bear with fat blonde braids, stepped in front of her and looked her over with cold assessment.

            “You new?”

            Completely unfazed, the vixen said shortly, “Yes.”

            She pushed past the bear, but the other three girls surrounded her.

            “Not so fast, shorty.”  An unpleasant-looking auburn-haired ferret planted herself squarely in front of the vixen.  Alice wasn’t finished talking to you yet.”

            The vixen scowled.  “Sounded like she was through to me.”

            “We were just trying to be nice.” The plump little rabbit tossed her brown braids.  She had the self-satisfied air of a teacher’s pet and Cody hated her on sight.  “We always offer to show the new kids around.”

            Arching one skeptical eyebrow, Cody smirked at them.  “I think I can handle it.”

            “You’re not a very nice girl.  Anyone ever told you that?  We could be your friends, you know.” Alice said.

            “Don’t look like you want to be friends to me.”

            The golden-furred bear laughed suddenly.  “You hear that, girls?  We’ve got a mean one here!”

            “Don’t you want friends?” the auburn-haired one asked.

            “Not the kind that gang up on me.”

            The four exchanged glances.  Usually, new kids were so desperate to please that they’d fall all over themselves to make friends as quickly as possible.  Clearly, this interloper would have to be taught the proper way an unproven newcomer should act.  The ferret gave a barely perceptible signal to her friends and they backed off.

            “Maybe we should introduce ourselves,” she said.  “I’m Shirley.  You’ve already met Alice .  The other two are Maude,” she gestured to the plump rabbit, “and Ida,” the golden-furred bear with black hair.

            The vixen just nodded shortly and pushed past them.  She hated groups, especially ones who dressed alike.  At best, they excluded loners like her, and at worst, they were bullies. 

            They surrounded her again and walked with her into the brick building.

            “Where are you from?” Maude asked.

            “Nowhere.”

            Tsk, tsk.  It’s not nice to be so mean when you’re new.” Ida told her.

            Cody sighed.  If I answer their questions, will they go away?  And where in the world is that classroom again?

            Pat had brought her to the school to register the day before.  It had been humiliating having to admit that she’d missed two years of school, and knowing that she was going to be placed in fourth grade instead of sixth had discomfited her so much that everything had been such a blur.  She barely remembered where the office was.

            “It’s also not nice to not answer when someone asks you a question.” Alice ’s eyes narrowed.

            “Name’s Cody.  Came from Mershaw.”

            “We’ll have to work on your tone, I see.” Shirley studied her.  “And your look.  Who on earth cut your hair?”

            “I did,” Cody snapped.  She didn’t add that Pat had evened it for her and she certainly wasn’t going to tell them why she’d cut it.  She was becoming increasingly annoyed.  More than anything, she wanted to be home with Pat or at Jons’s.  He’d certainly never suggested that she go to school.

            The girls laughed.  “I’ll bet your mother had a fit over that!”

            “My mother’s dead,” she said abruptly, hoping to shame them into silence.

            They stopped laughing and just stared after her as she hurried down the hall.

            She was late to class, but didn’t care.  She ignored the icy look her new teacher, Mrs. Marion, gave her as she slumped into the seat closest to the door.

            “Welcome to the class, Cody.  As I was saying before you came in,” the blonde bear said reproachfully, “we’re going to start a new chapter today.”

            As she launched into a detailed description of the long division, Cody let her attention wander.  She thought of Pat and wondered if she’d baked the bread she’d been mixing when Cody had left that morning.  Then, her mind wandered to Jons.  He was, no doubt, still asleep.  As Mrs. Marion droned on, the vixen couldn’t help but wish she’d stayed at the bar.  She liked Pat and Buckteeth; they’d been very kind and understanding.  But she didn’t quite see the use of school.  She could read and write pretty well and she could do basic math.  What else did she need?

            When am I ever going to need to use this?  Who cares what 163,034 divided by 42 is?

            But she forced herself to dutifully take notes as the teacher began to work problems on the board.  Failing school would be a poor way to pay the Wheats back for their kindness.

            At lunchtime, she found an empty table, and slowly ate the lunch Pat had packed for her, enjoying the solitude.  She’d felt as if she were under a microscope from the moment she’d come through the doors, with everyone eyeing and assessing her.  She hated the other students.  All of them seemed silly and she found herself resenting their blitheness without really knowing why.  She also found herself laughing scornfully when she saw two of her classmates in tears because they’d failed a quiz.  They cared about things that she could no longer bring herself to think of as important.

The afternoon was the same as the morning and when the three o’clock bell rang to dismiss them, she breathed a sigh of relief.  Her head ached and she felt as if she’d been beaten, but to her surprised disbelief, no one had really questioned that she, a 12-year-old, was in a class full of 9 and 10-year-olds.  She was one of the taller kids in the class, but she didn’t tower over everyone else.  As far as the work went, she was no worse off than anyone else in the class, but it was humiliating to be thrown in with a bunch of babies.

            I hate this.

            She trudged away from school, not really paying attention to where she was going, her mind filled with numbers and equations and history that she was supposed to remember for the next day.

            At the sound of a buoy, she looked up sharply and was surprised to find herself at the docks.  Up ahead of her, she could see Jons’s place and she made her way to it gratefully.

            The front door was locked, but she went around back and knocked timidly on the door.  After a moment, Jons opened it and regarded her with confusion.

            “Cody?  What are you doing here?”

            “I---!”  The truth was, she didn’t know.

            He eyed her closely.  “Didn’t you start school today?”

            She nodded.

            “How did it go?”

            Shrugging, she said, “Fine, I guess.”

            “Hmm…” He moved aside.  “Want to come in for a drink?”

            She stared at him for a moment.  Then, she laughed.  Grinning, he went to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of milk.  As he poured them both glasses and piled gingersnaps on a plate, she closed the door and sat down at the table.

            “So… that bad, huh?” He handed her a glass and set a plate of cookies between them.

            With a sigh, she closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair.  “I hate it.”

            “I wasn’t too fond of it, either.”

            “Bet you weren’t held back two grades,” she muttered.

            “What?”

            “Nothing.  Did you drop out?”

            “Me?”  He chuckled and took a cookie.  “Mama would have tanned my hide.  No, I finished.  Went on to college, too.”

            Why?”

            “Seemed like a good idea.  I knew how to tend bar, but I didn’t know much about the business end of things and Daddy didn’t have time to show me.  College helped.”

            She was quiet for a minute.

            “How are things going with Pat and Buckteeth?” he asked.

            “Great!”  Sighing, she took a cookie and bit into it.  “I just wish they wouldn’t send me to school.”

            “It’ll get better.  You’ll figure things out soon and won’t mind it so much.”  He smiled at her.  “And I pity anybody who picks a fight with you.”

            They were silent as they munched on cookies and drank milk.  Then, Jons asked, “Does Pat know you’re over here?”

            The girl shook her head.  Immediately, Jons pushed back his chair and walked to his office, where he called Pat.

            “Cody’s here,” he said after the rabbit had picked up.

            “At the bar?” Pat was bewildered.  “What’s she doing there?  Is she okay?”

            “She’s fine.  I think she had a rough day.”

            “Oh.” There was a pause.  “Tell her I’ll have supper ready soon.  Have you eaten?”

            “We’re having milk and cookies now.”

            Pat made an exasperated sound.  “You come with her then.  Somebody needs to make sure you eat.”

            “Thanks, but I’m working.”

            “Oh, for goodness’ sake!  You can take an hour off to eat a decent meal.  Milk and cookies are not a decent meal.”

            Jons rolled his eyes.  Pat was starting to sound like his own mother.  “I’ll see if I can get away.”

            “Is Buckteeth there?”

            “Huh?  Oh.  He’s here.  I think he’s out there helping Tony put bottles on the shelf.  Do you need to talk to him?”

            “Yes, I need to ask him something.”

            Jons put the receiver down and hurried to the barroom.  “Teeth!  Your wife’s on the phone.”

            “What does she want?”

            “She said she needs to ask you something.”

            “Oh.  It doesn’t have to do with Cody, does it?”
            “I doubt it.  Cody’s here now.”

            With a smile, Buckteeth picked up the extension behind the bar.  He and his wife spoke briefly.  Then, he hung up and turned to the bartender.

            “You, sir, are going to take Cody home and you’re staying for dinner.”

            Jons scowled.

            “Hey, don’t argue with Pat.  You should know better by now.”

            “Good grief!  You’d think a guy couldn’t take care of himself!”

            “Aw, Pat likes mothering.  Just let her.  It makes her happy.”

            Grumbling, the bartender returned to the kitchen.

            “Pat said dinner’s almost ready.”

            “Oh.” Guiltily, Cody sprang to her feet and scooped up her bookbag.  She should have gone straight home after school.

            “Don’t worry about it.”  An ironic smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.  “I’ve been ordered to bring you home and stay for dinner.”

            “But you’re an adult!  She can’t tell you what to do!”

            Sighing theatrically, he said, “If only it were that simple.”

            Laughing, she followed him outside to find his truck blocked by a sedan.

            “What the…?” Jons was exasperated.

            “Going somewhere?” A shadow detached itself from the long shadows on the far end of the alley.

 

End of Part 6

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