"You look like the walking dead," Taybree observed as Carlie and River came in from their early morning potty walk. "Well, rolling dead, anyways..."
Carlie smirked. "Brains?" she laughed, pulling a canine 'beg' pose. "I'm fine, I just need some caffeine – side effect of my meds, is all." After feeding River and filling her water dish from her bottle, the aquamancer made her way over to the mini-fridge and pulled out a 16 oz bottle of coke. "Sweet, sweet caffeine," she snickered, opening the bottle to the familiar hiss of carbonation and taking a long swig. She did a spit-take. "Double-You-Tee-Flyin'-Eff is this stuff?"
Unable to contain herself any longer, Taybree broke into a fit of the giggles. "Sixteen ounces of Sprite, add soy sauce to color," she snickered.
Carlie broke out laughing herself. "Nice trick, Taybree. Whale plaid," she laughed.
"Whale plaid?" Taybree asked, cocking her head to one side.
Carlie facepalmed. "Well played. Damn, I really do need some caffeine," she laughed, opening the fridge again. This time she checked that the locking ring was intact on the bottle of Dr Pepper she pulled out.
"Don't worry – I only tampered with the one," Taybree laughed.
"Note to self," Gracie laughed, coming out of her room with Aristotle perched on her shoulder. "Do not accept drinks from Taybree."
"Shower's free," Lexie said, coming out of the bathroom.
"Awesome," Carlie grinned. "I need a shower, and then let's go get some breakfast. After that, I think I'll grab a Frisbee and take the pup down to the park."
"What was up with those bad guys yesterday?" Maggie asked as students began gathering around the breakfast table.
"I hear Snarl reduced a Beemer to a literal pancake," Jake laughed. "Like, she went Rexie and used it as a chew toy!"
"I heard it was a bunch of drug dealers," Gina shrugged.
"I hear they had a teep," Kirk mused. "Maybe they were plotting to control the government?"
"What's up, guys?" Carlie asked, cruising up to the table.
Des folded his arms across his chest. "Forget it, Zach – if you don't wear the helmet, you don't get to skate. End of discussion."
"Daaaad... helmets are lame! They're for losers."
"Then only losers get to skate, Son," Issy said firmly, peering around her eldest son to where the younger two were practicing simple jumps on the half-pipe. "You wear the helmet, or you don't skate."
"Mooom! I'm twelve years old! I'm not a baby!"
"Zachary Alan Keel," Des said sharply – it was his Commander Keel voice. "Have I ever let you get away with whining?"
"... No, Sir." He turned at the sound of an approaching skateboard. "Raine!" he grinned. "Will you show me some moves?"
The rainbow-haired mechanic folded her arms across her chest as her board came to a stop and her black lab sat at her feet. "Not if you don't put on that helmet, I won't – you know the rule."
"You too? Raine! Helmets are lame! Tell my parents I don't need one!"
"Zaaach... Earth to Zach! Come in, Zach!" Raine rapped her knuckles on the side of her flowered helmet. "I've been pulling stunts since before you were born. I've been skating competitively since you were still in diapers. And I wear a helmet and wrist guards, and usually pads. If you like scraped knees and elbows, that's your business, but do you seriously think I'm gonna tell you that you don't need a helmet? Wake up and smell the coffee!"
"I'm twelve years old," he said defiantly. "I'm no baby."
"No, you're not a baby," Raine agreed, putting her hands on her hips. "Des, Issy – Young Mr. Zach here seems to be under the impression that he's a grown-up. You mind if I give him a reality check?"
Des and Issy looked at each other and nodded. "We've got nothing against tough love," Des said. "I trust your judgment, Raine."
Raine cracked half a smile. "Thanks, Des – that means more to me than you might realize." She turned to Zach. "Now, given that I'm working on my doctorate in physics, I could give you all the formulas and equations on mass, momentum, velocity, and inertia which detail why biking or skating without a helmet is a really stupid thing to do. But as you say, you're not a baby anymore, so I'll give you the grown-up answer."
Zach beamed with pride at the implication that he was a grown-up.
"It all started sixteen years ago. I was seven. I'd just gotten my first board a few months before as a birthday present. And I was young enough that I wore my helmet and pads simply because my folks told me to. Maa had just gotten her medical degree a couple years before; she was a resident at the local hospital, and she was on call at night. One Saturday, she came home hours late – it was almost lunchtime. And she looked like she'd been crying. Baap told me to keep my little brother busy, and walked with her into the bedroom. It was over an hour before he came out. I watched him walk over to the jar where he and Maa put all the loose change from their pockets every night and start counting out quarters and pennies. Then he turned to us and asked 'who wants chicken nuggets?' Harish and I stared at him in shock – we were a couple years past the point where dinner was often a few packages of ramen, a can of mixed vegetables, a couple handfuls of kidney beans, and a spoonful of curry powder to make it taste a little more like home, but we were still pretty damn poor."
Zach stared at her in disbelief. "You really had that for dinner?"
Raine nodded. "Couple times a week, usually, when I was really little – welcome to the life of a new immigrant, kiddo. The American dream lives on, but it doesn't happen in a day, and you do what ya gotta to get by. Harish and I got Happy Meals twice a year – once on my birthday, and once on his. But Baap counted out, to the cent, the exact amount of change for two happy meals and a six piece nugget. Harish and I thought we had won the lottery. So I got my board, and Harish got his tricycle, and we both got our helmets, and Baap herded us down to McDonald's, and then to the park. He kept us out of the house for hours. When Harish went down for his nap, I was helping Baap make dinner, and I asked him why Maa was sad. He sat down across the table from me and told me 'Rainie, sometimes doctors – even really good ones like Maa – can't save their patients. Sometimes they're just too sick, or just too hurt. Maa is sad because a boy she was taking care of died last night.'" She looked Zach in the eye. "That kid... died because he was skating without a helmet. Maa had to tell his parents that they'd never see him again, while she was beating herself up, wondering if there was anything more she could have done. And all Baap could do was hold her until she fell asleep, and then get the kids out of the house to make sure she stayed that way. I promised Baap that day that I would never skate without my helmet."
Zach looked thoughtful, but he wasn't ready to drop the surly tween facade yet. "Okay... but the pros don't wear helmets! They're so good they don't need 'em!"
"One, you're not a pro yet, Zach. Two, the smart ones do wear helmets. Fast-forward eight years or so. I was fifteen, and making a minor name for myself in the Detroit area competitive skating circuit. There was this one guy – he was a few years older than me, about twenty or so – who was hands-down the best competitive skateboarder in all of Detroit, and one of the top three in all of Michigan. Man, what I wouldn't have given to be as good as Felix... I never saw him wearing a helmet. Then one morning as I was getting ready for school, Maa called me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table. Felix had been in the trauma center that night."
Zach paused. "Did... did he die?"
Raine shook her head. "No. He didn't. Maa was able to save that one. But he'll never skate again. He can barely use his right hand any more, and his right leg works just about as well. His vision is all screwed up on that side too, so he's got no depth perception to speak of. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a total adrenaline junkie... but there's a huge difference between loving the rush and being just plain reckless. One of these things is okay, the other is not. Zach... falls can happen to anyone, from the newest total newb to the best pro in the world – and they do. I've had my helmet be the difference between a scraped up face and a concussion, and I've had my wrist guards be the difference between a sprain and a shattered joint. There's no such thing as a skater so good they don't need a helmet. No. Such. Thing."
"Okay," Zach nodded. "So... will you show me some moves?" he asked hopefully.
"Put on the helmet, and you got yourself a deal," Raine grinned.
"Hey, Carlie," Des grinned, waving at the aquamancer as she happily cruised through the park, a Frisbee in her lap and the world's happiest huskador retriever heeling at her side, smiling as only a dog can. For once, the dog was wearing, not her service dog ID vest, but a pink bandana with daisies on it and a pink plaid harness.
"Hey, Des," Carlie grinned, wandering over to say hello. "How's it going?"
"Pretty well," the SEAL grinned as the rottweiler lying at his feet and the lab lying by the bench watching his mistress skate got up and went to sniff noses with River. Three tails began to wag. Des turned to his wife. "Issy, this is Carlie, P.A.R.T.'s new communications specialist – the best we've ever had," he grinned. "Carlie, this is my wife, Issy."
"Pleased to meet you," Carlie grinned, blushing at the compliment as she reached over to shake hands.
"Likewise," Issy grinned, shaking hands. "What brings you out to the park today?"
"Figured I'd come fling the Frisbee for the pup," Carlie laughed. "And we went and checked out the canine agility course – River approves," she giggled.
"Is it okay if River, Sprocket, and Rex play together, Carlie?" Des asked. The dogs had apparently already decided of their own accord that it was.
"Totally," Carlie assured him. "Rivvie's off the clock." She smiled at the three dogs. "Well, well, Riv – looks like you've found some new friends." River yipped happily.
"Hey guys," Corwynn grinned, cruising up on roller blades with a blonde cardigan corgi with white chest on a sky blue collar and leash with a sunflower print. The dog began straining at her leash to go join Rex, Sprocket, and River, nearly pulling Corwynn over. "You wanna go play, Hallie?" she laughed, bending over and unclipping the leash. "Okay!"
"How's it going?" Cliff asked, cruising up on a scooter with a half-grown Newfoundland puppy on a red, blue, green, and yellow striped collar and leash. "Okay, Missy – you can go play. We came down here to get you some exercise anyways," he laughed, releasing the leash.
Des laughed as he watched the five dogs playing, yipping, and rolling in the grass. "Looks like the park has gone to the dogs this morning," he chuckled.
Five furry heads turned in unison. Twenty furry legs bounded across the grass. And five furry tails wagged as five dogs took up the chase to a chorus of barking. Their target shot up a tree and began to scold. "Squirrel!" Corwynn giggled.
"With the canine crusaders off leash, the squirrel mafia will rue the day it moved into Glenwood," Cliff laughed.
"Glenwood is safe... for now," Des said in a deep voice. He looked up as Zach and Raine began heading back over along with Max and Jesse.
"Nice work, Zach," Raine grinned. "Just don't let me hear any more of that bull about not needing a helmet," she laughed, jokingly rapping on his skull-patterned helmet. "You too, Max and Jesse – you're getting good on the half-pipe."
"I'll wear my helmet and guards - I promise, Raine," Zach grinned.
"Good," she nodded. "Well, Sprocket," she laughed at her dog. "Looks like you've found all kinds of buddies," she said, scritching him behind the ears. Raine grinned at the freshman who'd turned up. "Nice job on the mission yesterday," she said.
"Thanks," Cliff grinned. "So are you an upperclassman or..."
"Alumna," Raine laughed. "I graduated a couple of years ago – now I'm a bizarre hybrid of grad student, grease monkey, and faculty. I maintain P.A.R.T.'s vehicles and lecture and tutor in Kensington's physics department, and I'm working on my Ph. D."
"And she skateboards!" ten year old Max Keel piped up.
"Yeah, that too," Raine laughed. "But no one pays me for that."
The youngest of the Keel boys looked at Carlie. "Ummm... why do you use a wheelchair?" the eight year old asked.
"Jesse..." Issy began.
Carlie shook her head. "It's all right – I don't mind questions," she grinned. She turned to Jesse. "Well, I was born with legs that don't work quite right – I can't walk very far, so the wheels let me go where I want to, when I want to."
"Oh, okay," Jesse nodded, soon getting distracted playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock with his brother.
Like most children in Carlie's experience, he was satisfied with the simple answer. She'd always rather appreciated the refreshingly honest childhood innocent curiosity.
"Say, we were gonna herd these scalawags down to Jasmine's – anyone wanna come along?" Des asked.
"Sure," Raine grinned. She turned to the freshmen. "Jasmine's Java Jambalaya is a little indie coffee shop – her brew is so good that, in a town full of caffeine-starved students and coffee-dependent professors, she ran a Starbucks, an Alterra, and a Caribou out of business within a year," she laughed. "She's got conventional drinks, but what she's really famous for is her artistic creations and custom recipes. I'm pretty sure Des is the only person in town who drinks the SeaDog Special, for instance," she snickered.
"Is she okay with dogs?" Corwynn asked. A cup of non-dining hall coffee did sound good; she was getting homesick.
"You bet, as long as they're well behaved and on a leash," Issy nodded. "She's fine with skates too, long as you're not crashing into everything."
"Sounds like my kinda place," Cliff grinned.
"Totally," Carlie agreed. "I don't think I'm carrying a normal leash, though, River, so we'll have to put your work clothes back on." Reaching into a bag hardmounted under the seat of her chair, she pulled out River's spare ID vest and Velcroed it on over her harness, pulling the leash loop through a slit in the vest and removing the bandana.
"A normal leash..." Zach mused. "So does that mean you're carrying an abnormal leash?"
"Yep," Carlie laughed.
"What's her vest for?" Jesse asked.
"Well, River isn't just a pet – she also helps me with things that I have a hard time doing for myself, like opening doors, or picking up things that I drop. Her vest tells people that she's a working dog, and the law says she can come with me anywhere I go without her leash, even places where dogs aren't usually allowed. It also tells her that she's working – ever since she was a puppy, I've trained her to understand that if she's wearing her bandana, it means she's allowed to play, chase squirrels, get pettins' – whatever – as long as she comes when I call, but when she's wearing the vest, she's working, and she needs to check with me first."
"Can we see the abnormal leash?" Max asked hopefully.
"Sure – I know River won't mind, it's her second favorite thing, after fresh snow," Carlie laughed. Reaching under the seat, she pulled out a conglomeration of carabiners and bungee cords before unclipping a bike helmet from one of her handles. River's tail started wagging a mile a minute.
"You need a helmet?" Zach asked, surprised.
"For this? Ohhh yeah," Carlie laughed. Putting on the helmet, she clipped two of the carabiners to the leash loop on River's harness, and the other two to quick-releases mounted to the arms of her chair. "River is half sled dog – this is how we go sledding," she giggled.
"Looks like you've done some tinkering," Raine grinned, admiring the handiwork with a mechanic's eye. "Bike brakes?"
Carlie nodded. "And a few other odds and ends. I call it Frankenchair."
"Nice," Raine giggled. "Come on – let's head down to Jasmine's."
"Looks like Jazz is doing brisk business today," Raine grinned as the group approached the coffee shop to find cars parallel parked all along the sidewalk, the bike rack completely full, and remaining bikes locked to trees, benches, and any other available fixed object.
"Well, it is Saturday," Des laughed. He pointed at a Subaru with an assortment of bumper stickers and a vanity plate. "Looks like Toby and Cam are down here too – they usually bike everywhere, but I guess Rosie is a little young yet to go in a bicycle seat."
"P4R0D0X?...Oh..." Carlie facepalmed. "Pair o' docs. Nice."
"Siri's Serials," Cliff grinned. "I didn't know there was a comic book shop down here. I'll have to see if they carry The UnOrthodox."
"You read UnOrth?" Corwynn grinned. "Me too."
"I'm more of a The Grave fan, myself," Carlie grinned, unhitching her dog and putting away the tow leash. "But UnOrth is good reading too."
"Mmm..." Corwynn sighed as they stepped into the shop. "It smells like home."
"Your family into coffee?" Max asked.
"You could say that," Corwynn giggled. "My Dads run a coffee shop – I've been helping out since I was tall enough to see over the counter."
"Nice," Cliff grinned.
"I'll be with you guys in just a sec," Jasmine called from behind the counter. "Toby, Cam – one Caffeine Transfusion, one half-caff iced peppermint mocha," she called, setting two cups on the counter. "Kick in the Glass for Gabby, and a Sunrise Smoothie for Gracie," she called, adding two more cups before dashing off to answer the phone.
"Hey, Toby – what's in a Caffeine Transfusion?" Issy laughed.
"Black coffee, two jiggers of espresso, a pump of chocolate, and a pump of caramel," he laughed, sipping his steaming cup and passing the iced one to his wife.
"I needed that," Cam sighed, slurping on the straw.
"I didn't know you drank it half-caff, Cam," Des remarked.
"Usually, I don't," she laughed. "I had to make it through residency, same as he did," she smirked, pointing a thumb at her husband. "But a certain someone already doesn't sleep through the night," she said, smiling down at where Rosie was once again asleep in her sling. "Last thing I wanna do is put high-octane medic fuel in her system."
"I can see where that would be a problem," Gracie laughed, slurping contentedly on her peach, orange, and raspberry smoothie. "She is a cutie, though."
"Thanks," Cam grinned.
"Didn't know you were headed down here, Gracie," Carlie laughed. "Granted, I didn't know I was headed down here either," she giggled.
"Gracie was kind enough to give me a lift back to the staging point yesterday when my wings felt like they were gonna fall off," Gabby laughed, clapping the aeromancer on the shoulder. "I figured the least I could do was buy her a drink."
"Thing is, I'm only seventeen," Gracie smirked. "So Gabby suggested coming down here. And ZOMG, the Sunrise Smoothie is amazing."
"Sorry about that," Jasmine laughed, coming back to the counter. "Busy morning. Let's see here – jumbo SeaDog Special for Des, jumbo Loca Mocha for Issy, just-right Watermelon Italian Soda for Zach, just-right hot chocolate for Max – don't forget the whipped cream and sprinkles – and a junior Berries Gone Wild Smoothie with extra whipped cream for Jesse?"
"On the ball as always, Jazz," Des laughed.
"Jumbo Chai Storm for you, Raine?" Jasmine asked, getting started on Des and Issy's drinks as a high school barista saw to the kids.
"Please," Raine nodded.
"And what can I get you three?" Jasmine grinned, turning to the freshmen.
"I'd like a just-right iced mocha, please, with a jigger of half-and-half, and one pump each orange, amaretto, and chocolate," Corwynn grinned.
Jasmine paused. "A combination that amazing needs a name."
Corwynn paused, considering, then smirked. "How about 'Cool Beans'?" she laughed.
"Perfect," Jasmine agreed. "How's about you, Sir?" she asked Cliff.
"A just-right lemon-raspberry Italian soda, please, ma'am," Cliff grinned.
"Coming right up," Jasmine nodded.
"Keels – order up!" the high school barista called.
"And for you?" Jasmine asked, turning to Carlie.
"I think I'll take Gracie's advice and go with a jumbo Sunrise Smoothie," Carlie grinned.