Georgia. Nowhere.

“No. N. O.”

Jarod just grabbed three boxes of macaroni as he looked around the place. while she continued to fuss. “We need to go shopping.” He wasn’t surprised she lacked cooking skills. Instant food was all she had. “Relax, Parker. I’ll take care of it.”

“What are you even doing?”

Fixing good food. “Everybody’s getting full bellies tonight.” Heh. Life. It was never dull outside of The Centre. Who knew he’d be ending the evening cooking at ‘Aunt Bar’s’ with Miss Parker and a ton of interesting kids. “It’s great to be free. Never know what will happen.” He noticed a sidestep of Miss Parker. Yeah. Well. She better get used to it. He wasn’t leaving her presence until every kid there was safe and sound with a new life. “Did you tell them to frog up my chili?”

“Distraction, I needed real food,” she complained.

Yeah, and the weight gain she didn’t want to admit to? It wasn’t pregnancy, it was the rapid change in her diet. Some nights fat enriching cheap foods, others when she couldn’t get away, scraping by on ravioli’s. Without a proper diet, she was changing. She was doing what she could though, with what she had. Jarod stole a quick look around. The property was decent, but it would never have lived up to Parker’s standards. None of it, she liked luxury city. Six months out there. Even looking at her? It all took a toll on her. She hid and stayed out of the way, yet played doctor to the Bar woman and nanny to the kids.

It wasn’t her element. Getting out into the thick of the problem. She did it for the kids though. The PK’s, and the kids left behind with Aunt Bar, who couldn’t really even take care of herself well. “How did you survive this?”

“I’m just . . . good with kids.”

No she wasn’t. She could be, but she didn’t strive to spend time with kids. Strange statement. “Do you have better clothes?”

“It’s best to stay out of the way and unseen,” she answered back. “I like watching things from behind the pretty stage.” Something in her voice again. She walked away toward the couch.

“Well, food, soon,” Jarod said. He’d left his attention strictly on Parker during their conversation but now it was time to open it back up to all of the kids that were and had been making their presences known. Hungry bellies of PK’s and non-PK’s were the same. Some had been badgering him to cook faster, thanking him for having cooking skills, some still asking to go out and eat somewhere, and some just stating how much he shouldn’t have shown up. All dancing around him like monkeys needing attention. “Hey, hey?” He spied the girl last time that was around earlier that day. “No frogging the macaroni or nobody eats it tonight.”

“I’d still eat it!”

Ah. “Nobody eats raw frog tonight.”

“The french do it!”

Prepared correctly, fine. Out of the thick of the wilderness with the mud and water, hopping through who knew what and into the chili? Not fine. “I’d have to fix more food,” Jarod said, spying Alex’s boy who said both comments. “It would just take longer.” Name. Tip of tongue. “Lucas.”

“Jarod?” He felt Stephanie, Damien’s daughter, pulling at the hem of his shirt. “You’re a pretender.”

Not surprising Parker warned them about him. “Yes,” Jarod said as he started to fix the simple macaroni. Parker could have done it, but she’d already done a lot. She needed a break.

“Did you know my dad?” she asked him.

Oh. I killed your dad. He sighed. “Little.”

“What was he like?” Stephanie asked.

“What was my dad like?” Eddie’s daughter Lucy said, bouncing over toward him. “What was he like?”

“What was mine like too?” Ronald asked Jarod.

“Aunt Parker said that our dads were a mix of terrible and awesome,” Stephanie asked, still pulling at his shirt’s hem. “She wouldn’t tell us who was who. Who was who?”

Hm. “That’s . . . .that’s because it doesn’t matter,” Jarod told her. “It doesn’t really matter. You are all different individuals.”

“You express too much emotion for a simple question,” Lucas said, staring at Jarod.

Ah. He definitely had some of Alex in him. Jarod nodded toward him. “True. Some of your dads I’ve had experiences with. Good and bad, but it doesn’t matter.” He looked at the four potential pretenders again. “What made you biologically is not going to make you the same to your parents completely.”

“What about mine?” Ronald still insisted. “Do I look like him at all? Do we look like what our dads looked like?”

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he heard Miss Parker utter.

Jarod glanced behind him at Parker sitting on the couch. He knew what she meant. He couldn’t lie though. It wouldn’t be right. Ronald was Angelo’s son. “You do look like your dad does.” Subtle but enough.

“Does?” Ronald asked. “I thought he was dead? All of the dads are dead.”

“Your dad . . . he isn’t dead.” Jarod couldn’t bend the truth as much as it hurt. “Everyone’s is, except yours. Your dad isn’t . . . ready for society,” he settled on.

“He’s crazy?”

“He’s been changed by The Centre in a way that makes him different from whom he should have been,” Jarod said, knowing the truth always hurt. “His name is Angelo, and he’s still at The Centre.”

“Did you know mine too? Do I look like him?” Stephanie kept a hold of the hem on his shirt tightening it. “Jarod?”

“Do you know anything about our moms?” Lucas, Alex’s boy asked.

“Is it almost ready?” One of the regular kids that actually belonged there interrupted.

Good. Jarod could deal with that kind of disruption. “Food takes time, and I am making more than one box.”

“Aunt Parker makes one box at a time,” Judith said judgingly. “The most hungriest eats faster. She’s better at cooking than you.”

Jarod heard a small chuckle from Parker in the background. Or she doesn’t know how to cook away from the directions on the box. That was way more likely. “Not everyone does everything the same.” He eyed her extra close too. She was also one of the kids that had been around when the chili got frogged. “Definitely not a good idea to do anything to the food since there’s a large portion of it.” Jarod looked through the cupboards above and beneath him too for stuff to add to it. “Green beans.”

“I hate green beans!” One of the kids yelled from behind.

“I love green beans!” Another one yelled.

Optional side dish. Check. He looked deeper for things to add that Parker wouldn’t have outright eaten, but since she didn’t cook, wouldn’t be going after. Beans as a side dish? Okay. There wasn’t anything to mix with the mac that well. Most of it was bare except for all the different quick ravioli’s and mac and cheese. Never going to get far in the world if she doesn’t learn how to cook.

Same Time. Seattle, Washington.

“How does this place even run when food comes out like this?”

Kimberly heard another complaint about her cooking. Complain all they want, they are the ones who come by for the damn food. What do they expect, star quality at a buck fifty a burger?

“Even the toast is burnt.”

So was the tip probably now, but usually she didn’t get it anyhow. No decent cook was taking the job in that place on the salary it gave out. She flipped a burger. A little burnt. Edible, whatever. A little bit of ketchup would fix it up. She added the cheese. Shit, that was supposed to be added on the grill. She felt distracted today. In fact, she felt like she was getting sick. The flu? Just what she needed.

She plated the cheese, the bun, and the burger. She added extra ketchup and onions and pickles to make up for the mistake. Damn. It didn’t look too burnt, but her head. Her head was downright feeling dizzy. This always happens to me when Cuyler finds me. The dread of what he would pull her into.

He didn’t find that hole in the wall yet. He wasn’t involved yet, he just found the ice cream truck. It’d be fine.

Back to Georgia

As the kids ate, relaxed, and found their place in the strange house, Jarod came over toward Miss Parker. She was on the couch, currently a willing/unwilling pillow to Alex’s kid. Jarod did manage to find some tea, and remembering Carthis, decided trying to take her some wouldn’t be a bad start. “Everyone’s asleep.”

She looked at the tea a moment and took it. “Guess so.”

“A lot of children here. They won’t be able to stay together,” Jarod admitted. “They’ll have better lives though. Thanks to you. Aunt Bar couldn’t watch them in her condition. I never knew where they went to, Jack wouldn’t tell me. I’m glad it was somewhere safe.”

“I am not safe.” She had a distant look in her eye. “I am far from safe. I am the definition of witch.”

Jarod shook his head. “It couldn’t have been easy when you first arrived.”

She stared at the tea. “I had the PK’s with me. I thought it would be a cinch to hide out since I was paying off Jack. When I arrived at his brother’s house, the cupboards were empty. Cans on the floor. Empty. Trash piling up, but no kids. Remembering he mentioned his sister, it didn’t take long to find the house. When I got here? It was infested with the cats and those kids were starving. They had only brought a couple cans to their Aunt Bar too. Trying to take care of her.” She shook her head. “I got the place in order, got them good, and explained who I had been. What had happened to their parents.”

She wasn’t going to reveal it all yet, but Jarod knew what that must have looked like. The dirt hiding beneath the world. “Thank you for helping those people.”

“I didn’t do anything, Jarod.”

“No. You helped those kids.” She couldn’t deny that.

“I didn’t help you,” she muttered. “You spent your life behind glass. I never lifted a finger.”

“I don’t think I was on your list of things to be worried about.” Jarod grabbed his own cup of tea. “You couldn’t have broken me out anyhow.”

“Yes, I could’ve.” She held on tighter to her tea. “Everything’s made to be broken.”

Jarod just lingered on her. The way she said it. It was almost like a fact. “It took a genius, and it took me a very long time. Mister Parker’s daughter or not, I knew that.” He never could have even asked. “You’d just get yourself killed.”

“Yeah. I chose to not free you and live a comfy life.”

Still. There it was again. “It’s not your fault, Parker.”

“Things trigger things. Plans trigger things that can’t be changed.” Her tongue rubbed across her teeth, almost like a regret. “Sometimes, even when you find the good, you can’t escape the bad.”

“I’d never blame you for not getting me out.” It would be too dangerous.

“I paid a very big price for it happening.” Her voice slightly shivered. “Fate won’t let me escape. The fact that I have done everything I could to make you stay away from me and still? I end up stuck with you. Is proof of that.” She yawned. “You were like my mother, Jarod. I couldn’t save you anymore than I could save her.”

“I know.” Of course he knew that. “Just, forget it. Have some tea. It’s a new beginning, right? No more Centre. After this, do you need help finding a place?” She didn’t answer. There was no reason for her to still be so distant. “Do you need help after this?”

“You can’t help. No one can help me,” she openly admitted. “I just go round and round and round.”

“Like a record, Baby?” he teased, having had heard the song.

“I owed them, those kids aren’t justification of helping to be a good person. It was dues.” She looked away. “No, I don’t need help. I’ll be going back to The Centre.”

What?! “You’re kidding. You just freed yourself.” Ugh! “Parker, it’s too dangerous. Look what you just did. What if they catch you?”

“Then they kill me, no big deal.” She sipped her tea like he just said it was raining. It completely bypassed her like it was nothing.

“No Centre. Stay.” This time. He’d been refused before, but he had to ask. “I can get you out. I can keep you safe. The Centre will never find you.”

“I have to go.” She wasn’t budging. “Once the PK’s are OK.”

No way. “Your father isn’t even there anymore. Raines rules. Why do you have to go back?” He sneered, not content with her answer. “You would not go back to him of all people. He killed your mother, and you want to go to back to working for that man?”

“He did a lot more than that!” Her voice went off the scale. “You have no idea what he’s done! And you never will.” Alex’s kid woke up and it was clear she wanted to move.

“Then why stay?” What was he missing? Why did she want to serve the man who hurt her this much? She should be trying to get rid of him. It was Miss Parker, all she ever wanted to do was find who killed her mother and kill them. Why was she letting him go and control her? “Do you feel like your mind is your own?” Maybe they had messed with her brain surgically.

“That’s a loaded question,” she answered back. “I know that staying away from The Centre.” She seemed to roll her tongue around in her mouth. “It’s a break, at most. The Centre is my future. The . . .” She was hesitant about something. “Broots stays, I stay.”

Broots? “Broots? Broots staying at The Centre is keeping you there?” Why? “Is something wrong with his daughter?” She would care about that, she cared for Broots’ daughter. She was right there to pick her up that day at school when Broots got pegged as a mole. “I can help his daughter.”

“It’s not that.” Fidgety. “I don’t like it.” She moved around slightly on the couch. “Fate. I hate fate. I try to stay near The Centre, and you are running from The Centre, and we still get pulled together like this?” She rubbed her chin.

Jarod got up and went over toward the couch. He moved Alex’s kid slightly, putting him at the other end. He sat down next to Parker. Something was seriously wrong and she was hiding it. “What is it? You can tell me. You know you can tell me.”

“I need to start dating Broots.”

Dating Broots? “There’s nothing wrong with dating anyone.” He glanced at her. “It doesn’t sound like you want to though.”

“I don’t but . . .” She got an odd look on her face. “He’s nice though, real nice and I want . . . children. I really want children of my own. I wonder if I could convince him I want to be a mom and he was a good dad so it’d work?”

Jarod blinked a couple of times oddly. “That’s . . . a weird request, Parker.” What? She wanted children just like that?

“Why not? I could want a baby.” She pushed him slightly. “Why couldn’t I? Look at me. At my age, if I want one, I should go for it. He’s got a daughter. Seems reasonable. He’d be a good father.” She bit her lip. “I feel like I should have children. My biological clock is ticking out of control, and Broots seems . . . the best option. Maybe.”

“That’s not how it works and you know it.” Jarod shook his head. “Plus, you’re not itching for Broots.” A kid, she’s wanting a kid? Jarod looked around himself and scratched his back. Just about anyone hanging around the places he’d been in for a month might be lining up for a vasectomy by now. There was helping kids and doing the right thing, and then there was staying with a bunch of them forever. That even chilled him.

Of course, he’d never say that. He just needed to figure out why she was saying that. “You know a bunch of kids that need family now. Why would you want to actually get pregnant and have one?”

She rubbed her arm. “I don’t know. I just feel like, like I should have some.” She looked beside her. “I should want to scratch my own uterus out in the mess I’ve put myself in, but I don’t. There’s something inside. I want children. Lots of them.” She smiled. “Three. Two boys and a girl. It’ll help toughen the girl up while she still gets to be the one called the prettiest in the house. The boys will be real hardy boys, they’ll want to go out for every sport. I’ll drive them them to all the games, and I’ll attend the concerts she has. Ballerina recitals. Maybe she’ll be into sports when she gets older too like her brothers.”

Jarod just found himself staring at her. Right then and there, it felt like she was a total stranger. Miss Parker wouldn’t say any of that. Where was that line of thinking coming from? “You know I can’t believe you’re saying that.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not proving anything to you.” Standoffish. “I can do what I want. You just wanted to know why I couldn’t leave The Centre. That’s why. Enough said.”

Mmhm. She was up to something. “Maybe I should convince Broots to get out with you? Then, no more Centre.” That would get rid of her excuse.

“Okay . . . okay.” She nodded toward him. “Get Broots out and I’ll go with him. That’ll be fine. Somewhere kind of cold though. Mountainous. Small though, like this area. I like smaller areas, not real big.”

That. That wasn’t what she was supposed to say. Smaller areas? Miss Parker lived for the cities, she hated going to small areas. What is going on with you? He couldn’t even guess, and that was really saying something for him. He calculated and used his logical reasoning all the time to figure out the answer to so many things.

He tried to hold her hand but she let it go. “Is there any way I can take you out of this crazy idea?”

“I just need a baby.” She glanced toward him. “I imagine you’d be good.”

“Good what?”

“Material.”

” . . .” Jarod scratched the top of his head. Well? No, no, long distance thinking. “I . . .” He looked around them, some tiny part of him still having to contemplate. Number of isolated rooms in this place, stop it, Jarod. “It doesn’t happen the first time.” He shouldn’t have to point that out. “I think . . .” What did he think about it? ” . . . I mean, if you stayed and we got to know each other-”

“-Not sex with you, Moron,” she answered him. “Material already in The Centre.”

What? “What?”

“Permission. If I find some.”

“To be pregnant with my child?” That’s it. Jarod reached over and started to touch her forehead. Warm. “I think I brought an emergency doctor’s kit in the car.” It should have some fever reducer.

“Forget it. Broots will jump.”

“You want him or me to artificially . . .” Feverish, but there must be a degree of truth to it. What was she trying to say? “If I thought that is what you wanted? If it was what you wanted?” Jarod said seriously. “You could do that at any time. There are several places to go to for that kind of thing.”

“No. Only those I trust.”

Trust?

“I mean.” She realized her mistake. “Nothing. Just forget what I just said.”

“You trust me.” She said it. She doesn’t trust just anyone to get near her body. She wants someone in particular, not just a random person from a night. She was more than capable enough to get it done any way she wanted to. She wanted to know. That the dad was a good man?

Was it that simple? Was she just looking for a good soul she trusted to be the father of her child? Mister Parker. Lack of compassion. Raines as her real father. Yeah, maybe he could see it. She wanted her daughter or son to have a good biological father.

“I’m tired. I can’t think straight. I need to go to bed. Move.”

“I’ll go get you a fever reducer.” Jarod moved for her and watched her lie down. He watched Stephanie, Damien’s daughter, move over toward her feet and slide in to sleep. Alex was drooling on the couch on the other side of the arm. “No, No, Stephanie.” He moved the tired girl away. “You can’t sleep on her right now.” He then moved Lucas. A slight groan but the boy didn’t put up much of a fight. Too tired.

Jarod wouldn’t agree to it, even if she wasn’t feverish. He would never just leave his child for someone to raise, and he couldn’t stay with them. Plus, it wasn’t coming from a place of love, it was coming from a place of trust. Broots had feelings for her, but that might complicate things. She should be with someone for love, not because they would make a good father. If this is what she wanted though, he’d find a way.

He’d find her another love, like he found Thomas Gates for her.

Although after the island, it wouldn’t be quite as easy this time.

——————————-

Seattle, Washington. Night. Chester Street.

Over for the day. Kimberly took off her shoes as soon as she walked in the house. “What I wouldn’t give for something nice to drink.” She couldn’t afford it. She moved to her fridge and grabbed a cheap beer. Anything helped. If she was getting sick and she was the cook, they were going to make her stay home if she got a customer sick. “Damn it.” She still had rent to pay that month too.

She strutted elegantly along the ground in front of her, like she was wearing high heels. “If I had enough money, I wouldn’t have to kiss any of their butts.” She pulled out her key chain with the beer capper and took the cap off. She looked at it, imagining it was something nicer. Richer. “If I could just imagine you were a high class whiskey, life would be better.” Fat chance. She took a swig and went over by the window, looking out briefly to see some red lights go by. Average.

She turned on TV, looking for something to relax to before bed. I wish I could get out of this town. Go somewhere. Do something. She craved it. She craved any kind of adventure right now. Except what Cuyler brought, she wasn’t interested in that. “Maybe visit a museum?” No. It wasn’t good enough. She was salivating for something. She didn’t know what besides get out.

It’s all she wanted. She wanted out of Seattle. No, that isn’t all she wanted. “Dear Genie.” She looked at her cheap beer. “Bring me good whiskey, a beautiful house, no, an expensive beautiful huge house, and enough money to live in the lifestyle I dream. I want to be bathed in products as beautiful as me.” She laughed. “Think highly of yourself enough, Kimberly?” She was talking to herself now as she took another drink.

No, but seriously. If she could just have one drink of Maker’s Mark, it’d make her entire year.

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