June 2002-Morning. Seattle, Washington.

 

“What flavor?” Kathleen asked the kids who came up to the ice cream stand. She tried to be cheery. She wasn’t a real people kind of person, but she had to put on a display to keep the job. She needed it along with her other minimum wage job as a cook at a local establishment. Not a fine establishment, just a hole in the ground that people come to eat at when they get lost in the city and need something to eat that’s halfway decent. She used to be on a better track when she was younger, but misfortune dealt her a hell of a hand in life. Every time she started to climb the corporate ladder, she’d have some kind of accident, and then fire. Squished. Her resume basically read hard worker who flakes out sometimes.

She even lost her restaurant job cooking pizzas.

“Chocolate, please.”

Kathleen’s nose wrinkled. Though she had lost her jobs, she never lost him. How she hoped she could. Cuyler. A greasy two-faced asshole who thought he was funny. He had a brilliant mind, but he never used it. He was a bum that never applied himself, and he tended to tag along behind her. She glared at him and made him an ice cream.

His look of dismay was worth it. “You fixed pistachio, not chocolate. You know I’m allergic to pistachio, Kitty Katty.”

“Don’t call me Kitty Katty!” Such a jerk. Her name was Kathleen. Solid Kath, Solid Leen. Kathleen! “Life is going decent for me, I don’t need you here ruining everything.”

“Oh, it’s not me that ruins it,” Cuyler smiled at her. “It’s just your terrible accidents. Chocolate please.” He handed his ice cream back.

Kathleen served the other customer first. He had been waiting. After she dealt with him, she grabbed a chocolate ice cream and gave it to him so he could leave.

“So you found a new job, huh?” He started to make conversation instead. “Where are you working?”

“So you can stalk me there too?” Ugh. “None of your business. Go away.”

“You’ve got to learn to be nicer to your customers,” he said once more before ending it. “Even the ones you have a secret crush on.”

Kathleen swallowed deeply and looked away. Disgusting. There were girls who treated the guys they really liked like crap sometimes. They were called school aged teenagers. If she liked someone, she would tell them, or at least be kind to them. There was no hidden crush on Cuyler. He was a burden on her, in the worst ways. Seeing his face sometimes was hard to bear. When she lost a job or a direction, she had to start from the ground up, except with him. He always found out her new place of worked, found time to visit her, and eventually he found a way to work where she worked.

That was not flirting. He was a stalker, but she couldn’t prove it. He never made the move right away. Never acted threatening. The most he could get away with was ‘I was worried about my friend’. He knew exactly how far to go to never get caught. She was convinced he was a genius. A genius hiding in trash.

His taste. His lazy attitude. She even swore, she knew that he had put her life in danger more than once. He never admitted it, but when she had someone after her (again), she cornered one of them and they swore to her. They swore.

She was ‘co-loaner’ on some nasty shit. And why would he do that? For fun. If it was fun, if it made life interesting, he did it, and he dragged her along.

So his comment about flirting? Was not welcome at all. “I think I just threw up in my own mouth a little, excuse me.”

Ignore him. Just ignore him. She caught him wink at her as he took a bite of his ice cream and finally walked away.

 

————————————–

 

June 2002- Same Day. Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

“Well this is interesting. Seems we won something. Honey?”

Miss Parker overheard her dad say those words at the table. She looked up from her homework. Jarod? His name instantly popped in her head. It was unlikely her family won anything big. Maybe it was a small thing, like a discount at their store and it was one of her dad’s favorites? She watched her mom come over and make a fuss too. “What is it?”

“Oh, wow. I won this?” He chuckled at Miss Parker and showed her a paper that was too far away to see. “This is the yearly vacation raffle the company throws before the summertime.” He looked at the dates. “Whoah, this is cutting it close. This is less than five days away.”

“So is it like Hawaii?” Miss Parker asked.

“Oh no, they wouldn’t raffle something that big,” her father replied, “This is a nice hotel in Florida. I think the boss has some connections to the owner.”

“Well, they have to give you the time off,” her mother said excitedly. “This is exciting! We never win anything.”

Jarod. His name popped into her head again. Jarod wouldn’t randomly just set her up to win something, unless he wanted to talk somewhere specific? Or maybe. Did The Centre find us? It was the last couple of days of her high school. She was finishing her last homework of the year. She listened to her parents talking about it. Jarod.

When she was twelve years old, she had gotten away from The Centre with Jarod. He helped her find a new family and a new life. He had popped in on her a time or two, but he couldn’t come back often. He had his own family, but he always swore he’d watch out for her. He said last time they met, he’d try to leave her to her own life. Let her enjoy her family and her own life, but if anything happened, he would emerge and get her out.

Was it Jarod?

 

————————————–

 

Georgia. Nowhere.

Family. It was a tricky block there. Besides the kids, Jarod had the residents themselves that could take a lesson in decency. His employer, his employer’s ex-wife but mother to two kids, and his employer’s current wife and mother to the other two kids were sitting down for dinner. The air tightened in the room, again, Jarod could feel the tension. The lies in that household reminded him of the shadows of The Centre.

Jarod’s employer’s ex-wife was showing signs of being pregnant again and it wasn’t going to be denied much longer.

“So, Natalie,” the current wife said to the ex-wife. “Looks like you’re getting a might bit fat? Maybe you should slow down on the food.” Natalie just gave her a nasty look.

“Well, dig in,” Jarod said politely. They lived in the middle of the country with no other property nearby except Jack’s brother and wife, and Jack’s sister. There were only two men at any of the properties old enough to get a woman pregnant, and it definitely wasn’t Jarod.

“I think we can actually scarf this down,” his employer Jack said as he looked at the chili. “Don’t you usually make tons to cover the rest of the hooligans?”

“I did,” Jarod said, “except that it got ‘frogged’ yesterday.” An entire crockpot of chili. The nearest town was far and he calculated a certain amount of food for the shopping. His chili would have lasted two days along with the rest of the meal of today. Now he had no leftover chili and just some small side dishes for the main family.

“Those kids.” Jack shook his head. “My brother never did raise them right.”

As misbehaved as the other kids were, Jarod hated the thought of them going hungry through the night. It’s not their fault they weren’t showed attention. Any love. It isn’t their fault they can’t get food.

Sydney had been the one to hand Jarod the slip on Jack’s caretaker job. Jarod knew there must be something there he wasn’t seeing, and he hadn’t made a move until he could see it. So far, all he did see was that Jack was getting a nice little paycheck from The Centre each month. Nothing big, just a quiet down kind of extra cash. No idea why, except that maybe his brother and sister had something to do with it.

Like it or not though, Centre or not, those kids couldn’t be living out there alone much longer. Jarod scraped his dinner, and looked out the window. The wind is heavier, but nothing said for the amount of dirt I see on my truck. He exited the house and went over toward his truck. As he approached, he saw two of the kids near it, bail. “Damn.” He ran toward his truck to check it. He looked back at the others. None of them were old enough to reach the pedals, right?

The dirt on it said otherwise.

——————-

 

“He didn’t make extra Aunt Par,” Judith said as she entered the door. “I checked. Michael and Vince say so too.”

“Good. He needs to concentrate on his own job, not us.” Aunt Par served Judith. “To the table. I have to see your Aunt Bar.” She moved up toward the stairs. She knew Sydney would eventually do something, but sending Jarod himself? Ridiculous. Couldn’t he offer just a little help without turning traitor on her? She opened the door with a smile to the woman in the middle of the room. The one the kids affectionately called Aunt Bar. She kept her name relatively similar that way if the kids overspoke, someone would assume the P and B were just misplaced. Kids growing. Getting confused. That kind of thing. “Good evening, Miss Bar.”

Bar looked over toward her. “Hello, Miss Parker. How are you?”

“I’m fine, but it’s not that. It’s Par.” Damn Sydney for writing Parker on the prescriptions too. She got out the pills. “Here you go.” She had needed medicine badly. Bar wasn’t quite on the ball, but she wasn’t dangerous. Her biggest problem was moving away from the chair. She had to go to Sydney to seek some medicine for the woman. She was looking better every day, even getting up every once in awhile to move.

“Is Denise and Arnold back yet?” she asked Miss Parker. “It’s been days since we’ve seen them.”

Months, actually. Poor woman. “No, not yet. Still looking.” She patted her hand. “Kids have been fed. House is still nice. Everything’s fine.”

“The cats, all the stray cats? They are fine?” She asked. “All of them, even Mittens new ones? Oh, I miss when I could take care of them.”

“They are all fine.” She once again had to use a connection, this time Broots, to put the word out about the cats. She was down to three now. At least Broots didn’t turn on me.

 “Jack and Natalie haven’t visited for a long time. They must be real busy. Can we go visit them soon? The kids getting better at taking care of it you think? Have you heard from Denise and Arnold yet either?”

“No, Miss Bar. Eventually maybe we can go visit everybody.” Fat chance.  She gave her some water for the pills she needed.

 

—————–

Jarod looked at the leftovers. Not much. He went to his assigned room and called Sydney.

 “Sydney.”

“I don’t see what I need to do,” Jarod said to Sydney. “These kids, I’m trying to get them help. Is that all I’m doing here though?” he asked Sydney. “Are you going to tell me anything else? Why is The Centre paying Jack off? What happened to his brother and sister?”

“I can’t tell you, Jarod. Just open your eyes and look everywhere,” Sydney insisted. “Everywhere.”

“Looking everywhere is tough when you’re feeding eight people, Sydney, but know that when you fail making ‘extra’, others starve for the night.” What was he going to do? “Maybe I should make some quick sandwiches. Something. Mayonnaise. Real small amount of tuna but spread on them? Maybe pickles over the top. “I am almost out of here, Sydney, I should have enough for those kids to get real care soon.”

Jarod heard a small knock on his door. He looked over and saw Stephanie. Not one of the resident’s kids. “I gotta go.” He hung up the phone. “I don’t have any extra tonight.” He hated saying that. “I can make you a sandwich. I can make you a plate of sandwiches and you could go take them to your brothers and sisters?” He would have to go shopping again to get through the week, but if she was coming for food, he couldn’t leave her to go hungry.

“Aunt Par’s getting fat,” she said. She held out her tummy. “Not like fat fat. Bouncy fat, like she swallowed a ball. Like how momma looked before she disappeared with daddy.”

A ball? Jarod had never seen the Aunt, just that Jack called her a trouble maker. “You think your Aunt Bar is pregnant?”

“I told Jack. He thinks I’m nuts ‘cause no one messes with her.”

Hm. It might not be pregnancy, it could be something else health related. It was high time he met this mysterious Aunt. “Let me make some sandwiches real quick and I’ll go check over on her before we go to your house. Travel in the car with me and you can show me the way?”

———————-

 

When Jarod got out of his car, he saw another girl, Judith, right by the door scolding Stephanie. Well? Sydney said look everywhere. As he approached the house, he saw most of the kids around the table. With food and plates and clean forks. “Your parents came back?” Jarod asked. They all shook their heads. Why were they eating at their Aunt Bar’s house?

“Stephanie brought him!” Judith yelled, glaring at him. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“All of you are lining up to eat at your aunt’s house.” Something was wrong here. He set the sandwiches down. “Where is your Aunt Bar?” Stephanie pointed upward. Jarod went upstairs. There was only one room and one bathroom up there. He knocked on the door and heard her voice. She invited him in. Instantly, he knew this couldn’t be the same figure he’d spotted on the property before. “Hello, Bar. My name is Jarod. I work at Jack’s. How are you?”

“Hi there.” She waved. “Have you seen Denise and Arnold yet?”

“No. Do you need some food or help?” He moved closer to look at her. She didn’t exhibit any signs of pregnancy that he could see, let alone a child. “How are you feeling?”

“Wonderful,” she said. “I don’t need any food. My doctor just fed me. She takes real good care of us. You should meet her.”

 “You have a doctor?”

“Oh yes. She’s been here for a week or so now. Or longer? She is much better than the last one.”

“That’s Aunt Bar,” Stephanie said from the door. “What do you want with Aunt Bar?”

“Do you know her doctor?” Jarod asked Stephanie. He looked back at the woman. “What’s the name of your doctor?”

“Doctor Par. She goes by Aunt Par since she helps so much around here.” She scratched her head. “I don’t remember your name?”

Well? “Jack didn’t say you had a doctor.” Jack didn’t mention the state of his sister at all. She couldn’t be the one coming back and forth. Why was he lying?

“Ah? She’s shy. She didn’t want me to mention her,” Bar answered back.

Jarod heard the front door open downstairs. Someone was hiding as a doctor. There’s someone here that shouldn’t be here. He’d be meeting this doctor soon. He looked around Bar. “Where’s your medication?”

“The doctor holds it. She keeps it and brings it to me only when I need it so I don’t get confused.” She smiled.

Jarod moved downstairs but heard the kids almost yelling in unison, “Jarod’s here, Aunt Par!” He went by the front door first, making sure she couldn’t back out.

Someone was here. Good or bad. The Centre was involved. He needed to see this through.

“Go away, she doesn’t want to see you!” Judith yelled at him. “Go away, you don’t belong here, go away!”

“It’s all Stephanie’s fault!”

“But she’s so big!” Stephanie complained back as she came from downstairs. “And we don’t have diapers or a crib!”

“Is not, Stephanie, you promised!” Judith yelled back at her.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Jarod made them all quiet down. “Where is this Aunt Par?”

“Hiding,” one of the littlest said at the table. “It’s what she does.”

“Hides.” The kids clearly cared about her. A nice person. It looked like she was taking care of everything. Maybe? Is it my mom? Is that why Sydney . . . No, she’s big like she is pregnant. She could also have something else wrong with her. Not to mention, she’s scared or doesn’t want to see me. He couldn’t rule anything out. “Stephanie.” Stephanie was now crying in the corner, isolated from the others who were angry. Jarod always knew there was a reason those kids didn’t like him. He moved closer to Stephanie. “Where would she hide at?” She didn’t answer. “You were worried, right? I can’t help her if I can’t find her. I won’t hurt her, I promise.”

She gestured to the room on the other side. “Her room.”

Jarod moved over slowly to the other side. Friend or foe, he didn’t know. He had to be careful, play both sides. Be prepared to fight or hug at a moment’s notice. He opened the door and looked in. Then he heard movement on the other side. Oh, I don’t think so. He knew someone trying to get away from him would try to get out. He tried to come out over the other side, but she already scooted by the kitchen. “Damn.” At least she was near. “Stephanie thinks you might be pregnant,” he called to her. “If you are, running around from me shouldn’t be something you’re doing.” He tried to move steadily closer. “If this is about The Centre, I am not with them. I am here to help.”  What else? “Do you know Sydney?” Still no reply. “This gets us nowhere. You can’t leave these kids behind, it’s obvious you care. I can’t just leave them here with someone that I don’t know either. Just, reveal yourself.”

He heard another sound, but it was too light. It was a cat. Then? He heard it. He really heard it.

“Get the hell out of my spot, Jarod! I never asked for you to show up, Sydney did! You hate me, I hate you, get the hell out!”

Parker. Aunt Par, of course. “By all means.” He took several steps back. “Are you pregnant, Parker?”

“Get out, get out, get out!”

She was, and she was finally running from The Centre. Not fair. That I have to. “Come out,” he muttered. “I already know you are, come out.” She didn’t. “Have you been looked at?” No answer. “I’m not leaving.”

She gave one cold laugh. “I’ve got eight reasons you will, unless you plan on fighting off kids?”

Jarod looked behind at him. Everyone from the six year old to the twelve year old were glaring at him. Everyone but Stephanie. Her eyes were just pleading.

“You are all just going to leave your Aunt Par in that condition?” he asked them directly. “Stephanie’s the only one around here with the most sense and bravery.” He looked toward her voice. “Some need more bravery. When they’ve been undeniably hurt, or have undeniably hurt others. Some need to have the bravery to ask for help. Sydney knew I would not be happy to hear about you, but he still got me here, Parker. I haven’t ran off.” He sighed. “Just ask for some help. Be the next brave one.”

He gave it a minute and then saw her starting to emerge. She no longer had her fancy business suits or style. She had no makeup, no hair style, and she was as plain as she could be. Her stomach was bigger but definitely not pregnant. “You aren’t pregnant.”

“No,” she muttered. “I’ve been out six months. I’d be a blimp by now.”

“They why are you hiding?” Great. Now he really just wanted to get out.

“I told you. Momma’s unfinished business.” She whistled loudly. “Everybody assemble, front room, on the double, PK up front!”

Jarod watched as more kids headed in.

“I betrayed trust, everyone’s trust. Even Broots’ trust, only for one thing, and I wouldn’t change it.” She moved forward and picked up about a two year old with red hair. She gave him to Jarod. “Meet Ronald. First Pretender kid. He’s Angelo’s son.”

What? Jarod stared at the little boy. He did have some traits.

“And Stephanie, who is supposed to stay here but does run off to the other side.” Parker picked her up. “And fibs.”

“I wanted him to help,” she said. “He’s supposed to be the best one. You are getting fat.”

“Mph.” She looked toward Jarod. “Here’s a blast from the past. Look at her eyes. Cute little girl? Damien’s,” she muttered setting her down.

Damien? “The ex-pretender?” That he killed to save Broots? Converted Pretender turned Cleaner for The Centre.“ . . . okay.”

“Genes don’t change just because jobs do,” Parker groaned as she bent over for another one. “This is Lucas, he’s Alex’s boy. Say hello Lucas.”

“I don’t like him,” Lucas said.

“Sure you don’t. Back down you go.” She looked around. “And Eddie’s girl. She’s the last one so breathe, you don’t have one.”

Jarod exhaled heavily. “Showing kids left and right suddenly, you could have started with that.” He looked out at them. “What about um?” Kyle. “Did he have one?” Did he have a niece or a nephew from his passed on brother?

“No, sorry.” Quick but simple. No relatives. She picked up Eddie’s girl. “Eddie’s girl, Lucy.” She put her back down. “Mom knew I wouldn’t be old enough to do anything for the other files, but she knew I could be around to stop a second generation. That’s what she expected of me.” She motioned to the other kids. “Nobody counts kids on isolated farms. I made a deal with his brother to keep quiet. That’s why you saw the PK kids playing around too.”

“So Jack’s brother and sister-in-law only had four.” Jack kept quiet about the pretender kids. “The other children’s parents?” Jarod asked. “Denise and Arnold?”

“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They aren’t coming back, and it’s not because they didn’t love their children.” She looked toward the others. “They’re okay. I’ve been here six months with them to get them through the truth too.”

“Taking care of twelve kids and one sick woman.” Jarod couldn’t believe it. “You should’ve told someone.”

“Ah, ah, ah. How to commit the perfect murder is about the same to committing the perfect crime,” she said. “The more that knew, the worse the chances I could steal them away. I involved Sydney for the medication she needed. I involved Broots because I had to get these cats out to better homes. I didn’t want you involved, period. The Centre sniffs your scent like dog to meat.”

“I took a period of rest.” Still. “You betrayed everyone you cared about, to rescue children.” He chuckled. “I approve.”

“Pardon me if I don’t jump up with pride.”

“I kept trying to get social services to go to their home and see them alone, but you didn’t keep anyone there.” Jarod smirked. “You kept them here. Tricky, Miss Parker.” Aww. “You saved Pretender kids. All of them. I really want to hug you?” He held out his arms. Wishing but knowing.

“No. Down. Away.” She backed away.

He looked at the little Pretenders. “They all have the gift?”

“Potential,” she uttered. “You can tell with some. Either way, they all need taken care of.”

He gestured to her. “You took my truck out, didn’t you?”

“Your truck was better on the highway. I kept the PK and the others fed on decent food. Mostly. I don’t cook, it was worth the drive.” Her nose wrinkled a second. “Did it twice before too, just didn’t kick up much dust. You, I said no hugs!”

Jarod stole a little hug. He was so proud of her. She did it. She kicked The Centre out of her life. “I want to help.”

“Of course you do,” she said. “I’ll get the others to the other home.” She saw their faces. “They are being expected.”

“They need taken care of,” Jarod assured her. “We’ll take care of the PK’s too. All Sydney had to say was children from The Centre were involved, I would have been right here to help.”

“He doesn’t know,” she revealed. “He just knew I was hiding out in a strange area for nothing to be wrong. None of you know anything.”

“I know that you’re finally ready to get past The Centre. That’s all I need to know.” He tried to hold her hand but she resisted. “Same Miss Parker.”

“Shut up. I told you, no one knows anything.” She gave him a look of cold, hard steel back. She wasn’t playing. She was serious. “None of you know anything. About anything. I wasn’t kidding. Help me place these kids somehow, but don’t expect any kind of friendship.”

Well, she wasn’t going to change overnight. “I got sandwiches.”

“I don’t want a sandwich.”

“You didn’t sneak away in my truck today. It’s getting later,” Jarod suggested. “Kids will need sandwiches.”

“Don’t you still have a job to perform?” she reminded him.

“Nope, just quit. Just ran away in the middle of the night, couldn’t take it anymore.” There was a husband and two wives watching their own kids. They did it all those years without his help. They could watch them again until they found someone else to fill the position. There were a ton of kids there, some that had lost their mom and dad, and more who never even knew them. At least Kyle never had one. At least he never had one either. The Centre were more interested in cloning him. “Do you have a spare bedroom?”

 

————————————-

 

June 2002- Same Day. Night. Tennessee.

 

Miss Parker answered her door, seeing Broots at it. “Yes, Broots?” She smiled as she listened to him. It wasn’t good news. “I’m sure things will be okay. Right?”

“I don’t know,” Broots admitted with a sniff. “I don’t know. I just got the call that security clearance is moving higher. I know that means something is coming. I used to be a cleaner in my younger days.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sure you were excellent at your job. I trust your judgment. But? What about food?”

“Don’t leave for anything,” Broots warned her. “Nothing. Your father wants you safe and sound, he called me himself. Bastard,” he muttered.

Oh. He must have been threatened by her father again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine. It’s just words now,” Broots told her. “Everyone I cared for hasn’t been in Centre hands for a long time.”

“Did you eat supper?” She asked cautiously. “You said you didn’t eat supper last night. Did you eat supper?”

“No. I don’t need to,” he insisted.

“You should eat,” she insisted more. “When things get bad, you don’t eat as much Broots. Please?”

He sighed. “Pack me a sandwich if you have to. It’s going to be a long night while I get answers from your father.” He shook his head. “I don’t get along with Raines.”

“I know,” she admitted. “I know. What’s he doing exactly? Do you know?”

“No,” he confessed. “I have nothing but threats and warnings that I better do my job. Stay inside for the next several days, don’t go out.”

She smiled. “Yes, Broots.” She promised that. She would never go against Broots. He was her life saver. Without him? It wouldn’t even be worth it to keep going.

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