I got kind of quiet after that day. Well, quieter; I got a couple strange looks but no questions.
I didn't feel happy about what happened, but it was a relief to have it over with. I knew it was the right thing to do for me, and I could live with it. That was enough. It had to be.
Mia tried not to freak on me but she did get me a cell phone the very next day, programmed with her and Dom's numbers so that the next time I got 'lost' I could call her instead of trying to get home by myself.
Home. I thought about that for a long time after she said it. She didn't mean anything by it, but it sounded so natural when she said it. Because to her, it was home.
Was it home for me? As much as I wanted it to be, I didn't think it was. No one said anything, but I knew I was an imposition. I put a crimp in all the adult stuff they probably liked to do. Plus, I was a reminder of a time they'd all just as soon forget.
Vince and Leon weren't that comfortable around me. That was my fault, but it was true. Dom and Letty looked out for me, I knew they did, but they weren't my parents and they didn't want to be. Plus, it scared me how Letty could just look at me and know what I was thinking. I loved Letty, hell, I wanted to be Letty, but I was scared of her too. I was terrified that she'd tell me to get lost some day and she'd mean it.
Mia Mia was like the sister I never had. Sometimes, in my head, I pretended that she had married Brian and we really were sisters. But I knew that could never happen now, and it occurred to me more than once that my being there was probably holding her back if she wanted to date anyone else, and that didn't seem fair.
And what about school? The way everyone here felt about cars was contagious, and they reminded me of all the good times I had with Bri. I was learning a lot, too; more than once I'd handed one of them the tool they wanted before they asked for it, and some of the software Dom had in his garage was cool. He let me copy it onto Mia's computer and I played with that thing more than the video games downstairs. Mia showed me how to do a lot of the stuff she was learning in her business courses too, and I helped her do the garage books. Like I said, I learned a lot.
But it wasn't the same.
Even I knew I needed a high school diploma, especially if I wanted to go to college or something. I was in a holding pattern, and I needed to decide what I was going to do, where I was going to be come September.
I still owed Dom six weeks of work. I gave myself that long to figure something out.
Strangely enough, it was Leon I ended up asking for advice.
I'd thought about going to one of the others, but Mia was a total softie, Dom and Letty intimidated the hell out of me, and Vince only talked to me to play video games or a guitar duet.
So when I got back from picking up some groceries one day and found the place empty except for Leon, I put the food away and made a beeline for the living room. He was stretched out on one of the couches and reading a car mag when I walked in. I think he was waiting for Dom, who was probably running late.
He jumped a little, looked around, and relaxed when he saw it was only me. "Jeez, kid, carry a bell or somethin'."
He held up the mag and made a face, like 'duh'. I laughed a little, and he cracked a grin.
"Whattaya want, kid?" They'd all started calling me that. It was kind of funny, actually, that I felt like I'd gone from thirteen to thirty in a matter of months, and they treated me like a baby. It was kind of nice, though.
"Can I ask your advice about something?"
I actually giggled when he looked panicked for a moment, but he gestured for me to sit down and I did.
"I'm trying to decide where to go."
He wasn't following. "For what?"
"I need to figure out where to go, after here."
He understood me now, I could tell, but he didn't say anything.
"I can't go back, I know that. There's nothing there for me. I don't have any relatives that I know of, for one thing, and I'd just get stuck in some foster home. With my luck, I'd probably get some crooked cop after me too, worried that I know too much or something."
"You seen too many bad movies, kid." He didn't look like he enjoyed his own joke, but I appreciated the effort so I smiled politely. I was just happy that he seemed to be taking me seriously.
"Maybe. But I'm not going back."
"Where do you wanna go?"
I hesitated. "It depends. Where can I go? I'm a kid, I'm supposed to be in school, and I'm not old enough to get the kind of job I can live off of. Not," I added quickly, "the kind of job I'm willing to take." It's true. I got approached a few times when I was on the street, but I wasn't a cop's sister for nothing. I wasn't stupid enough to believe that dealing or hooking was anything but a death sentence.
I didn't think I could go through with that anyway.
He was nodding. No joking there.
"It did occur to me to get a fake ID. But I'm not sure how to go about getting a good one, and I don't think I have the kind of money that would take anyway."
"You should ask for a raise."
I grinned. Leon's funny in a low-key kind of way. He does this deadpan thing that's hilarious, although I know he gets uncomfortable if you make a big deal out of it. It probably had something to do with Jesse; from what Bri told me, Leon and Jesse were best friends, and losing him must have been real hard on him.
"So, got any advice?"
He thought for a bit. I didn't interrupt. When he did answer, though, it wasn't what I expected.
"I thought you were gonna stay here."
I was a little confused. "What do you mean?"
He just looked at me, like it was obvious and I was being a dimwit. "You're here. Why do you wanna leave?"
"I don't want to," I tell him honestly. "Hell, I don't know what I would've done if Dom hadn't helped me out. But I don't belong here."
He didn't look convinced.
"I'm in everyone's way here. I always kind of felt bad about that," I admitted, and it was weird to say it out loud. "And the thing is, there's no reason to keep doing that anymore."
"I thought you needed money."
"You don't anymore?"
"Not the same way."
He looked at the wall again, and I knew he was thinking about it. But we both hear the engines at the same time, and I know the moment is over.
"Thanks anyway," I said, sincerely, and start to head back to the kitchen, where I can get things started for Mia.
I paused with my hand on the door. "Yeah?"
"Talk to Dom before you do anything."
"That your advice?"
"That's my advice."
"Oh, and Leon?"
"I'm really sorry about stabbing you."
"Leon says you wanna talk to me."
I jumped, choking on the milk I was in the process of swallowing. Instantly Dom started whacking me on the back and walking me over to a chair. For a second I almost freaked when he touched me, just out of habit, but it really didn't seem like a big deal anymore so I let it go.
Finally I caught my breath. "God, Dom," I coughed, "trying to give me a heart attack? I didn't think anyone was here."
He grinned. "Sorry about that."
"No problem. So, what'd you want?"
"The question is, what do you want?"
I just looked at him, confused, until I remembered what he'd said when he first walked in. "Oh! You talked to Leon."
"I talked to Leon," he confirmed.
"What did he tell you?"
"Not much. Seems to think you're running out on us, though."
I squirmed a little. When he said it like that, it sounded kind of bad.
"Why do you wanna leave? Someone here giving you a hard time?"
"No. I just well, I've gotta figure out what I'm gonna do with my life, right?"
He nodded, although the way he did it said he was humouring me. Any other day I'd find that really irritating, but I was trying to make a point so I let it go.
"I can't go back to Seattle. And I'm not stupid enough to go off on some vengeance kick to kill some Trans or something, though that's something I'd pay good money for."
He shook his head in agreement, not even a trace of humour to be seen this time.
"So where does that leave me? I need to go to school sometime. I won't get anywhere in life if I don't have a high school diploma. And some day I wanna go to college, like Bri and Mia."
Dom listened, looking a little surprised. I'd never talked like this with him before, so I suppose there's no way he could've known any of this. I know I've never said a thing about wanting to go back to school. Or maybe he didn't know that Bri went to college.
If he ever asked, I'd tell him what for, too. History. He'd get a kick out of that. Bri could be such a nerd. That's probably why he became a cop in the first place, overcompensating or something.
"Right now, I don't even exist. I'm not Darry O'Connor any more. She pretty much died when her family did. Me? I answer to 'Kid'. I spend my days trying to keep out of everyone's way, and hiding. I'm tired of hiding, Dom. I want to live a little."
He raised an eyebrow at the melodrama, and I blushed a little, but I kept going. I wanted to get this out.
"I know how stupid this sounds. I hear myself saying it and I feel like an idiot. And I'm grateful, really I am. I know I know I'd be a lot worse off right now if you hadn't helped me out."
"So tell me, what do you wanna do with all this living?"
"Fucked if I know."
"Language, ki - Darry." I didn't miss way he made a point of saying my name. Heh.
"Sorry. But you know I'm right," I said confidently. "So, any thoughts?"
"Yeah. You sound way too old to be thirteen."
I wasn't sure if he was joking, but I responded seriously. "I'm not thirteen anymore."
Eyebrows raised, he stared at me. "You're not twenty, either, and that's what you sound like."
I rolled my eyes. "I know that. But I mean I'm really not thirteen anymore either. I turned fourteen on Tuesday."
Now he looked kind of shell-shocked. When I thought about it, I realised that the kids in this neighbourhood did seem to make a big deal about their birthdays. Hell, they have big parties that you can hear a block away. I never felt the urge to go to any of them, though.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"Why would I?"
We stared at each other. I think he was as confused as I was.
Finally he looked down, running a hand over his head. "I dunno. We could've had a party or something."
I had to giggle. This was the first time I'd ever heard him sound so uncertain about something. "Yeah, right, we'd get Vince in to sing 'Happy Birthday' and make everyone wear party hats. God, I'm going to have nightmares or something just thinking about it."
He laughed at that one, not a little laugh but a big gut-laugh that could probably be heard halfway around the block. When he calmed down, he still seemed a little peeved, but not so tense.
"You still should've said something. Mia could've made a cake."
I shrugged. "Whatever. Now, advice?"
"You want my advice?"
I gave him a 'duh' look.
He seemed like he was choosing what he was going to say carefully. "If money wasn't a problem, what would you want to do?"
I didn't answer right away. What if I said I wanted to stay here with his family and he said I couldn't? I couldn't handle that. But I didn't want to lie, either. And what did he mean about money? He was a mechanic. How much could he have? Oh, right. Criminal past, you idiot.
"I want to go back to school. But I don't want to go through the system."
He kept staring at me.
"You hate it here so much you can't wait to leave?"
He said it real casually, but I was still kind of shocked. He sounded like he believed it.
"I don't hate it here. I like it here."
"Don't lie to me."
"I'm not lying. You guys have been great. I know I'm lucky that I found you instead of those assholes that fuck up kids on the street."
"So why do you wanna leave?"
"It's not that. It's not. But I'm getting in the way here. I'm like some kind of leech or something. I didn't say anything before because I needed the money and I figured I had to be selfish for a while. But that's taken care of, and it's not fair for me to do this to you guys any more."
He looked angry by the time I was done.
I scooted as far back in my chair as I could. What did I do?
"Let's get something straight right now," he said, jabbing his finger into the table for emphasis, his voice and language getting rougher as he went on. "You ain't here because we're into charity cases. We would not've kept you around if we didn't want you around. That clear?"
A little dazed at how forcefully he said it, I just nodded.
"And you're no leech." He opened his arms as if to say 'look around'. "You ever see this place look so good? And I know you help Mia out around here so she has more time to study. She's getting better grades than ever, and that's a good thing."
Pointing out the window, he waited until he saw me looking right at the cars parked outside. "The garage? Shit, we haven't been so busy in years. Know why? The place is so fuckin' organised, there's nothing slowin' down jobs. Haven't lost a tool or a work order in months. And don't think I haven't seen you working those computers. You're gonna know that shit inside out soon. What's an air scoop?"
"Front facing duct, good for cooling carburetor intake, brakes, rads, that sort of thing." I answered without really thinking about it, remembering overheard shoptalk.
"What're traction bars used for?"
"Increase traction, um, by controlling suspension and rear end torque, I think."
"Does NOS really make a car go faster?"
"Not really. Punches up acceleration. There's a difference."
"What kind of car is the blue one I worked on this week?"
He sat back and grinned.
"Holy shit. Am I right?"
"Pretty much. And I said watch your mouth." But he still looked happy, so I knew he was kidding.
Suddenly I figured out where he was going with this. "Letty's a pretty kickass mechanic, isn't she?"
He nodded. "I only have the best on my team." He was serious, too.
"Think I could learn to be a mechanic?" I was getting excited. "Man, I can't wait 'til I'm old enough to drive."
Later, I'd realise that he was trying real hard not to laugh right then. I guess I was pretty transparent. But I didn't care about making a fool out of myself. Cars were serious shit. Bri had taught me that. But I'd always thought of them as a guy thing, not something I could do. Sure, Letty did cars, but Letty was no ordinary girl. Suddenly it was like the skies were opening up for me.
It was a pretty heady sensation. And I used to think windmills were cool. Then again, I used to wear dresses and go to school dances, too.
"We'll see. First, let me see what I can do about the other stuff, okay?"
Huh? "What other stuff?"
He laughed. "Shit, do you think about anything except cars?"
It took me a second to catch on that he was teasing me. I rolled my eyes and tried to remember what we were talking about before. "Oh yeah, the other stuff. Listen, I'm sorry."
It was his turn to look surprised. "About what?"
"I didn't mean to lay all this stuff on you. You guys have been great, and I know you didn't plan on having me around so long. I'll figure something out soon, okay? No more whining."
I waited anxiously for him to answer, worrying when it took him a minute.
His voice, when he spoke, was quieter than I expected. And when he was done you could've knocked me over with a feather.
"One of the reasons I liked Brian was that he didn't take short cuts. You know why I never thought he was a cop? Because he loved the cars too damned much. When he worked for me, he handled the tools like he respected them. He liked fast driving, but that was just a perk. When he worked on an engine, he'd go off in his own world. And he worked at it, too. He told me once that he didn't take handouts; that he paid his own way. And you know what?"
"What?" I was fascinated by this insight into a side of my brother I'd never seen.
"I believed him. Yeah, I know he was here because we were up to some shit. And it could've turned out a lot worse than it did. But in the end, he pulled through for us. I've thought about that a lot, kid. I've wondered why he threw so much away to protect us. It wasn't just for Mia. I think he liked it here. I think he felt like this was home."
He stopped there, just giving me time to absorb what he was saying. I wasn't sure I understood it all, but I got most of it.
"Darry, things were pretty messed up here for a while. And I ain't gonna pretend like it's always gonna be quiet like it is now. But when they were good, they were really good, and your brother was a part of that. He was family. As far as I'm concerned, you're family too. Got that? No more of this going for our sake bullshit. If you go, you go 'cause you got something to run to, not 'cause you're running away."
I just stared at him, mouth open. I'd never heard so many words come out of Dom's mouth at one time. But he seemed to mean them.
I had to think about this. This changed everything.
"I hear ya'. I'm just processing."
He nodded, liking that. Standing, he stopped at the fridge to grab a beer, and then headed into the other room, presumably to find one of the guys or something.
I just sat there for a long time, thinking. Seeing the place where I was with new eyes.
Next: Escape the Past