Chapter Six

The rest of the semester practically flew by. Everything seemed like it usually did, only that my worry for Mercy had escalated slightly on that concert night. Some days, she seemed more distracted than other days, but yet, she never broke down. Regardless of what was going on at home, she seemed exceptionally normal. She acted as if she was the happiest girl in the world. I couldn't understand it! And then, right before my eyes, school was over, followed by Christmas. It's the worst season of the year for me. I love the music and whatever, but I am never more crushed than at Christmas.

Every year, I have to struggle to give my family a Christmas. Every year, the girls' hearts seem broken because they don't get a Christmas morning of gifts. They're lucky if they get a gift. This year was better than usual. My dad gave me about $30 for all of his kids. My mom gave me $30 total. Carl gave me $15 reluctantly. They didn't do any shopping. Angie ended up picking me up to do the shopping. I had to use some of my sisters' money for Kelly, Martha, Garner, and Percy. Angie begged me not to spend money on her. So, I didn't. But, I made her a nice card. All the kids signed it, except for baby Max obviously. Even Mercy signed it one day when she dropped by.

But all in all, my sisters each got one toy and one book. I gave Kelly a book too, but gave her a gift-card to her favorite store. I did the same with Martha. It wasn't much of a gift card, but both girls save up their money for Christmas. I got Max a really cool toy that helps him walk. It has a bunch of noise-making buttons too so that he could spend his time figuring it out. I got Garner a book, too, and gave him some art supplies. Garner, unlike most eight-year-old boys, loves to do art. His and Max's room is covered in his works of art. I think he really appreciated it. I got Percy some books that Angie can read to him and a little stuffed toy dog. I think he liked it.

It wasn't a bad Christmas for them. I mean, it wasn't horrible. The year before, I got the girls two books to share and a beanie baby for each. Kelly and Martha had to share a gift card and Garner got colored pencils, a good eraser, and printer paper. I gave a pack of diapers to Angie for Percy. Kelly cried because she saw the Christmas spirit fall from my sisters' faces that morning. The oldest, then, was five. Colleen went to the small tree we had and asked, 'Why does Santa always forget us? I try to be good.'

I wish I could have given them a better Christmas then. But the $45 I got this year from mom and Carl didn't come last year. It's not that we don't have money. Carl has tons of money. He could get everyone everything they wanted for Christmas and still have a lot of money. The fact is he doesn't want to. He thinks we don't deserve anything. I honestly don't care about me, and Kelly feels the same. But those kids, including Martha and Garner, all deserve to have a Christmas. But I guess it's part of his reign of power.

After Christmas was over, things seemed to stop. I had nothing to do around the house. The kids were fine most of the time. The house was clean, because between Kelly and me, no mess was left unclean. Carl and my mom were actually working most of the time. It was good to be at home alone, sometimes. But, I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself. The house seemed gloomy, and all the girls seemed to be in the gloomiest moods. I looked at Kelly, who was playing mom. She didn't mind, but the gloom didn't look good for her. Kelly and I got along great. She was like a sister to me, but we were also friends. We were enduing her father. She was enduring my same forced parenthood role. We were in this together.

On an impulse one afternoon, I turned on the radio to some dancing music. I turned up the lights so it wasn't dark. I went to where Kelly sat, staring into space. "It's too gloomy," I said. She looked at me with strained, grey eyes. She was mentally and emotionally tired. "Come one," I said, offering her my hand. "You know you want to."

"Nate, I don't think-"

"Then don't. Come on, let's dance." She considered fighting it, but decided against it. She took my hand as I helped her up. She started dancing with me, clumsily, to the music. A smile appeared on her face as I spun her around. She laughed. It was good to see my step-sister truly smile. It was a rare sight for me. "See, I told you that you wanted to!"

"Okay, okay, you were right." She smiled again, and started dancing on her own.

I stepped aside, but only did for a minute. Colleen, Tori, and Jaime came into the room looking shyly at us. It seemed as if they were afraid to smile. I got down to my knees and motioned for Colleen to come to me. She did. I looked up into her sweet eyes and smiled as I took her small hand. "Can I have this dance?" She giggled as I got up and started dancing in a crazy manner to the music. Kelly smiled as I twirled Colleen around a couple of times. Kelly went to the other two girls and got them to dance with her. Jaime's sweet little face lit up like it was Christmas, a real Christmas. Tori giggled as if this was the silliest thing she could be doing. Song after song, we ran around, dancing and twirling, occasionally jumping onto couches and chairs, tables and stairs.

Garner at one point came out with Lena, watching. He made some sketches of the smiles and dance movements. His art mind had kicked in. Martha came in shortly after him, holding Max. She took one look at us dancing and joined in. She danced with the baby, whose face lit up like Jaime's. It was good to see all the girls beaming. Even little Lena smiled, watching us. The atmosphere was livable. The gloom left. We knew it would be short-lived, but we continued to be happy until we had no choice but go back to the same grey gloom of our lives.

We danced for a while, though we slowed down a bit after a couple of songs. We called it quits after half an hour. We all sat there for ten minutes after, trying to catch our breath. Occasionally, Jaime and Tori would exchange looks and giggle. After the ten minutes flew by, they left, taking Lena and Colleen with. Garner was drawing Martha with Max. We watched for a bit, until he finished. Martha then left with Max, Garner following her towards where he liked to draw.

I sat with Kelly quietly for a while. She had her eyes closed, smiling. I figured this was the first truly happy home moment she had had in a long time, and wanted to treasure it. I didn't blame her. I couldn't remember ever being that happy at home since Carl had moved in. Any happiness was bliss.

For a while, I straightened up what we had messed up from frolicking around. I checked that the kids were okay every now and then. Kelly remained on the couch, apparently napping. She woke up once or twice to watch me, but soon falling into a sleep again. I did everything possible to make the house immaculate. I even straightened up the kids' rooms so that it looked good enough to be in a magazine.

After long, though, I got restless. I got my coat and told Kelly I was going to take a walk. She didn't answer me, but I saw her nod. I looked at the table near the door, where a small, wrapped box lay lonely. I grabbed it and threw it in my coat pocket. I knew I would need it soon enough. I didn't want anything to happen to it. Then I left quietly and started to walk towards the park a few streets over. It was a cloudy day, but it wasn't rain material. I liked it. It meant I could go to the park and think because it was unlikely that kids would be out on a day like this. I turned around at one point to see my mom and Carl pull into the drive far away down the street. But I wasn't going back for a while. I wanted some thinking time. I didn't care if they were home.

It was great, once I got there to the park. At first, I just sat in a state of nothingness. It cleared up the brain a bit. I then thought about the dancing we did. But, after long, my mind wandered: Memories that had been hidden away…

I lay on the ground, playing with little toy cars. My favorite was the blue Viper. I cherished it for years. I was surprised when Dad came out in the hall where I was. "Nate, you can't lay in the middle of the hall like that. You'll get stepped on, son." I collected my cars and went to him, pouring them next to him. He smiled paternally at me. I didn't return it.

"Why was Mommy crying?"

His smile dissolved. "The baby… Tucker was born asleep. They can't wake him up."

"Well, just let him sleep. He'll get hungry soon and'll wake up."

He frowned and said, "He won't wake up. He'll be asleep forever."

I looked at him in a weird way. "Is Tucker like Grandpa, Daddy?"

"Yes, son," my father said. "Tucker is like Grandpa. I'm sure Grandma and Grandpa are holding him right now, smiling down at you."

I looked up to the ceiling, as if hoping to see my grandparents and baby brother. But only a florescent light stared back at me…

I sighed. That was one of my earliest memories. I often wondered if things would be different if Tucker never died. I closed my eyes again, trying to find a new memory. Perhaps, a happier one…

I swung my legs impatiently. My toes barely brushed the cold tile floor. It was the same hall, but I didn't dare lie on the floor anymore. I was much too big to get away with that these days. All too suddenly, my father came out to me. I could hear my mother calling, 'Henry, Henry, come back in here!' But he sat next to me. "Hi sport, what are you doing?"

"Not much Dad, just waiting."

"Good, good," he said automatically. "Your mama, she's letting me name the baby. You'll get to come see her in just a minute. But I want your input. It's your sister, and you've every right to be a part of this, too."

"Sure, Dad."

"Well, I was thinking, either something with a 'C' or a 'G'."

I considered it a moment. "Go with a 'C'. It's a sweeter letter."

"Alright," he said excitedly. "Now, tell me what you think of these two names. I was thinking, either Colette or Colleen. Which one do you like?"

I didn't need to think. "Colleen. Colette is too aggressive. My sister needs to be sweet and nice and pretty. Colleen is a sweetheart name." In response, my father laughed. I frowned. "I wasn't joking!"

Still laughing, my father said, "I'm not laughing at you, Nate. I'm laughing because not only does my seven-year-old know the correct use of aggressive, but he called his sister a sweetheart. Listen, I think you'll change your mind about girls after little Colleen, son."

I shook my head. "No, sir, I won't, because I'm going to be a good brother. And no sister of mine is going to be anything but sweet. Right, Dad?"

Still laughing, my father said, "That's right, son. That's absolutely right." He dried his eyes from the tears of laughter. He said under his breath, "These are the moments parents live for." Then he got up, and motioned for me to follow. I did. He held the door for me. Inside, it seemed very clean. All the doctors were resting, and my mother lay in a hospital bed. She had dozed off. There was a brown couch near a window. I sat there, patiently. My father whispered something to the nurse, who nodded and whispered back. My father left, and the nurse came and sat next to me.

"Hi there, kiddo. Your dad tells me your name is Nate."

"Yes ma'am, that's my name."

She smiled sweetly. She seemed very young to be a nurse. Her face was soft and smooth and her eyes were a warm brown. He had curly black hair tied back. Her teeth were white and straight, almost perfect. Her voice was like honey, and she made me feel at ease. "Your dad is going to get the baby girl. She's in the nursery next door. She's very pretty. I hear you named her Colleen."

I smiled. "Yes ma'am."

"That's very sweet. She's going to be a darling little girl, especially with a great big brother like you!"

I giggled, "Thank you, ma'am.'

She smiled as my father walked in slowly, holding a tiny little pink bundle. I raised my eyebrows. I had never seen a newborn baby. I thought they were huge! But she looked tiny. "Nate, meet Colleen. She a little smaller than we'd like her to be, but she'll be okay." He gently placed her perfectly in my arms. She wasn't too heavy to me. She was perfect. Her skin was light and looked soft. Her eyes opened slowly, looking at mine in wonder. She didn't cry. I looked at her little lips, how small they seemed compared to my own. I saw one of her tiny little hands and stared in wonder. Little wisps of her hair lay gently on her forehead. My dad must have seen this too. "She has a lot of hair on her head. That's a good sign."

I looked at my mom suddenly, and frowned. She had a beautiful daughter. I hoped she would just stay with my dad, at least for this beautiful girl. She was too beautiful, to me, to ever be sad. She had the potential to have a smile that killed. But first, she'd have to learn to smile. I looked down at her again, and smiled. This was my sister.

I opened my eyes. That was one of my proudest days back then. I took the responsibility to be the best brother I could be on that day. I paraded around school for weeks with a picture of her, saying to anyone who would listen, 'This is my amazing little sister.' The teachers and other girls at my school thought I was the cutest thing. The boys mimicked gagging. The first time that happened was a boy in my class, at lunch. I punched him, and didn't get caught. I felt even more proud.

I helped Colleen learn to smile, and her first laugh was with me and Dad. As she got bigger, she would only try and walk on her own with me. And it was on my eight birthday that she took her first ten steps on her own. The first name she said, because 'Dada' didn't count, was mine. I was too proud of my little sister then. I adored her. And she was just everything I wanted my sister be seen as. She was sweet, beautiful, and nice. Every time she saw pennies, I taught her to flip them over to heads, for good luck. She still, to this day, does that…

I was walking home from school. The kids at school all had a long day, and were tired. I was in fifth grade. I was walking home to Carl's house. Mom was there with the girls, for Jaime was a few weeks old. I walked with Kelly, Martha, and Garner, who had afternoon kindergarten. Kelly was just as pretty then as she was three years later. The only difference was the traces of a woman could not be found. She looked very youthful, whereas her mind was more mature than any girl in our school. She was the one who handled the younger kids, most of the time. She was only a sixth grader.

As we turned a corner to the street of the house, Angie came out from behind a bush, where it was cool and shady. Angie looked remarkably younger. She had no trace of motherhood or maturity. She looked like any love-sick sixteen-year-old. Even though she was young, she was engaged to a man named Reese. That winter was to be their wedding. It had been Angie's one wish. She promised she would do anything for her parents and family if it meant she could marry Reese. Carl brushed it off and agreed. It meant less work for him.

She walked with us, holding Garner's hand. We walked quietly until three houses before Carl's, I heard a cry. "Nate!" Tiny Colleen was standing on the front step. Her sleeveless blue cotton dress hung down to her knees and her curly hair was tied back in a blue ribbon. She ran as quickly as she could to me, hugging me around the waist, "I missed you, brother!"

Those big, beautiful, innocent blue eyes looked up to me. She smiled earnestly, and I smiled back. I took her little hand as we walked back to the house.

Later in that house on that day, Carl would hit her for crying…

I shook my head to get rid of it. I never felt as angry at Carl as I had then. He had hurt my sister… My sister. I never knew how he could bring himself to hit a three-year-old girl. She only cried. And she whined in terror afterwards, which was much worse than her tears of pain. Her innocence was jeopardized that day, and it's the worst thing someone can witness. That's why I never stayed still. I would never let anyone hurt someone I loved. How could any man, with any self-pride, hurt a child; hurt a girl.

I happened to look up at that moment, which was fate. Maybe it was a message from God. Maybe it was a sixth sense. Perhaps, it was even a deep-down longing that went off. All I know was that I looked up. And I'm not sure how my whole life would be if I hadn't looked up at that moment. It seemed so little, but I think the rest of my life rested on that split second.

A person was walking quietly and silently. She had her head bent down with ease, and her curly hair bounced with every step. She seemed too quiet. I watched for a split moment, deciding whether to say hi or not. I didn't know what state she was in, and I didn't want to intrude. All this crossed my mind in that split second of looking up. Then I saw the car; the car coming right at her.

"Mercy, watch out!" She looked up with a look of terror, but stepped to the side just in time to get out of the way of the car. I saw the man inside jerk awake inside of the car, from my scream, and then controlled his vehicle. I looked and saw Mercy on the ground. She must have fallen over…

I ran to her as fast as I could, to make sure she was okay. She was breathing heavily, as if in terror. I didn't blame her. I was too, before I had even started running. I saw her hands shaking and she didn't meet my eyes when I got to her. "Mercy, are you okay?"

She snapped out of whatever state she was in, for she looked up at me and smiled. "Nate! It's you! How are you doing?" She held out her hand, so I could help her up. I helped her to the bench I had been sitting at. She sat next to me, turned so she could face me. She was smiling, and her eyes now reflected it. The violet in them was warm, making me think of flowers. It was reassuring.

"I'm really great," I said. "It's been dull for break, but not too bad. I just am ready for school to start."

She nodded in agreement. "Just five more days 'till school. I've been counting down. I'm so sick of home. Well," she added, "More than usual." She sighed. "So, you get anything good for Christmas?"

I shrugged. "No. I just got money from my dad. I probably will end up buying my school supplies. Carl is trying to avoid buying stuff for me if he can. Sometimes, he gets away with it." I frowned, thinking about the extreme dislike I had for Carl. It burned inside me. Then, I remembered Mercy was there for the first time with me in over two weeks. I smiled and looked to her. "What about you? Did you get anything neat?"

She returned the frown. "No. Tyme got me a CD, which was good. She made it from the whole family, because that's all she could afford for me. My dad got me a nice pair of earrings and a couple of books. But, other than that, he was limited. I don't mind. My little sisters deserve the big Christmas. I had mine when I was little." She smiled faintly. I looked at her cautiously. She seemed pretty on edge.

"So, you know that charm bracelet I lost a few weeks ago?" The sudden change in subject caught me off guard, but I nodded. I remembered it was the last day of the semester, and she was so upset, because it was one she had saved up all her money to buy. She'd had it for two years. She nodded in response to mine, and sighed. "I found out that my step-brother had given it to his little sister, and she broke it. She came to me the other day and confessed. She felt so bad… But it was broken up really bad. My step dad doesn't trust me with his tools and he won't fix it for me."

"I'm sorry," I said truthfully. But then I got troubled. She never talked about who lived with her. "Your step-brother?"

"Yeah, I have four: Carson, Judah, Brett, and Adam. It was Brett who gave it to little May. She's six. Brett is sixteen. For some reason, he likes to torment me." I nodded. For some reason, I was worried about these boys. Maybe not the younger one, for I knew one was ten. She had referred to a little boy. Did these older boys have anything to do with Mercy?

Before I could think about it, I remembered the little box in my pocket. I took it out. "I got this for you, actually." I remembered it all. I was out to buy the Christmas gifts. I was at a store that sold toys, jewelry, and clothes for young girls and teens. It had something for every girl and they had this awesome deal. If you bought a certain number of similar items, then you would get a free item from this list of stuff they had, to promote sales. One of them was this item. I thought Mercy would like it, especially given recent events.

"Nate," she said, sounding guiltily flattered. "You shouldn't have!" I shrugged, waiting for her to open it. She did, almost reluctantly. She tore off the wrapping paper from a black, velvet box that filled her palm. She opened the box tenderly, letting out a little gasp as she saw what was inside. It was a delicate, yet firmly made, silver charm bracelet. On it was a purple flower. I saw it and thought of her eyes. The charm had captivated me out of the hundreds of little charms the store had. In the middle was yellow, which made me think of happiness. It was what I wished for her.

"Nate, it's so pretty!" She looked up at me with awe, and smiled. "Thank you. But really, you shouldn't have."

I shrugged. "But I did. Besides, it was my money to spend for people I cared about for Christmas. Well, I did just that, didn't I? You're my best friend." She smiled in admiration.

"I feel bad; I should have gotten you something-"

"No," I said shortly. "I don't want anything. I don't need anything. I just want the people I care about to be happy and okay."

She looked guiltily at me, but turned her eyes to the bracelet. I helped her put it on. It complimented her skin. "They said that water won't affect the metal, by the way. So, you don't have to worry about that." She smiled.

"Thank you," she said. Her gaze lingered a moment on me, but soon turned to the sky. "It's getting late. I should probably think about heading home…"

"Is everything okay there?"

She hesitated. "For the most part all is fine, yes. Nothing is perfect." She looked down from the sky and then to me. She smiled. "I'm going to be fine." She stood up, and I followed. She turned to me and smiled again. "Take care, Nate."

"You too, Mercy." I smiled at her, too, and she turned and walked away. She glanced back once, smiled, waved, and then continued on. I sighed. Five more days 'till life returned to normal. I wondered if she ever had a normal life.