It hadn’t taken long for Constance to learn a lot about Kermit. Some stuff she picked up on right away like the fact that he was a soldier. He might call himself “ex” or “retired” or whatever, but she knew that once a man became a soldier that was like becoming a certain type of animal. Beavers built dams, moles dug holes, arctic foxes listened to mice under the snow, and soldiers saw the whole world as ‘armed and dangerous’; it was a lens through which they viewed even the smallest things. A ballpoint pen could be a weapon.
In some ways Kermit was subtle about his military background—he was one of the quiet ones who didn’t brag about his skills—but in other ways, he was really overt. It was hard to miss all the security cameras, the fancy alarm system, and the brand-new extra deadbolt on the front door. He reminded her of her father, Staff Sergeant Will Washington, U.S. Army retired who’d met her mother, Alejandra Gutierrez, in Chinandega during the Revolución Nicaragüense when farmers were getting bombed as they walked home from the fields and a little girl could get shot from above by an attack helicopter. Her parents met in a war zone and Constance had been born in one. Her earliest memory was of a dead body and sunlight glinting off a shiny black rifle barrel.
Kermit wasn’t just a soldier, though, he was also a cop and that had made her wary at first (some cops were just in it for the power trip) until she started catching snatches of his phone conversations. He’d say things like, “Let’s see if we can get him into the “Big Brother” program instead of juvie,” or “If she’s a single mom with kids, give her a voucher for the Best Western. That’s better than spending a night in a shelter,” and pretty soon she figured out what kind of cop he was. Then she saw him with the boy and, yeah, whose heart wouldn’t melt watching them play the ‘who looks better in sunglasses game?’ or listening to bath time conversation that involved such careful planning for keeping shampoo out of Andy’s eyes. They were adorable together.
Not to say there weren’t problems; Andy didn’t just have ‘separation anxiety’, he had separation terror. Kermit was trying to get to where he could go back to work in person instead of just doing computer and phone stuff at home, but Andy wasn’t there yet. Constance’s main job over the course of the first week was to get Andy to see her as an acceptable substitute. She’d managed this because she’d just poured love over him by the bucket-full and sang to him (she had a good set of pipes) and rocked him and fed him. He got the picture pretty quick and, since he was just a little scrap of a thing, he started riding her hip everywhere she went, holding her earlobe. Her arms were getting a workout from carrying him. Meanwhile, Kermit was starting to get work done during the day instead of having to stay up late into the night after Andy went to sleep. All Constance had to do was walk Andy past Kermit’s office door whenever he started asking for “Mit” so he could have a sighting or, if he needed it, a hug, and some lap time. There were also plenty of times when Andy just played quietly on the floor by Kermit’s feet. He was still too calm and quiet for a four-year-old boy but Constance knew he’d start to come out of his shell more and more as time went by. She was already seeing more signs of that. Just yesterday, after she’d read him Where the Wild Things Are, he’d started jumping off the couch pretending to be Max in his wolf suit. He was going to be in little boy heaven when Peter and Ramona brought him an actual real live dog to chase around. They were coming tomorrow, and it was gonna be epic.
Ramona loved seeing Peter walk back into guide dog school with Hank and get treated like a celebrity. They both got swarmed. People came out of the woodwork. The trainers were ecstatic, high fiving each other all over the place and whooping it up like gym coaches or those people who ran jazzercise classes. They had a bit of a cop vibe, too, since everyone wore matching navy t-shirts tucked into black cargo pants and they had leather utility belts slung around their hips with compartments for…whatever dogs needed. One of them, Jim Brenner, was a retired K9 unit guy. He was extra pumped to see Peter and the two of them got deep into a conversation about victim care work. This conversation unfolded while they took Ramona around on a tour of the school and she got to see where all the magic happened. She was intrigued when she saw trainers pulling blind students around in a yard with harnesses like they were pretending to be guide dogs. That's exactly what they were doing, Jim explained; it was one of the first stages in the process.
“They won’t get matched up with actual dogs for a good while yet.”
“That’s all done by a closed-door committee,” Peter said.
“What, you mean like with doggie dossiers and deep deliberation?”
“Exactly,” Jim said. “It’s serious business.”
“Yeah. Well, they sure made the absolute best choice when they paired Peter and Hank up together.”
Jim grinned and lifted his palm for her to high-five. She smacked it and grinned back at him.
“They knew Pete was an active, strong guy who’d be going places a lot, a city dweller not like, say, Martha. Hey, you remember Martha, Pete?”
“Of course, I remember Martha. How could I forget?” Peter said, his smile spreading, “She’s like what you’d get if you crossed Betty White with Lucile Ball. I miss Martha.”
“Is she the one who sends you the funny cross stitches that say stuff like: “Warning, this proves I have the patience to stab something a thousand times?”
“Yeah. That’s her. She also sends me homemade cookies.”
“Well, so, Martha,” Jim went on, “lives in a small town, hardly ever ventures away from it, saunters around and loves to stop and have long chats with people southern-lady style. She needed Noodle not Hank.”
“Gotcha,” Ramona said. “I see what you mean.”
“Yeah. I knew it was a great match when I saw Pete and Hank click together for the first time. Really click. You remember that, Pete? You guys were navigating down a sidewalk next to a construction zone. There was a jackhammer going, an open manhole cover with traffic cones around it, some guy dropped a metal pipe real loud right close by, and then there was an idling van parked in an alley that started to creep forward. You and Hank snaked through all of it like champs and then when that van moved, Hank planted himself like a rock and made you stop before you could hear the engine noise over the sound of the jackhammer. He stopped and then you did hear the engine and I saw it dawn on you—like, really hit you deep down—that this dog wasn’t going to let you get hurt. No way. No how. Not in a million years. It was a beautiful moment.” Jim wiped away a fake tear, joking, but Ramona could see that it really had been a beautiful moment.
“Yeah,” Peter said, his voice reflecting the awe he’d felt at the time. “It went from theory to practice right then.” He snapped his fingers.
“Yeah, I live for those moments,” Jim said, punching Peter on the arm real gentle, the way a guy with big muscles would ‘punch’ his blind friend and it made Ramona smile. She’d pretty much been smiling the whole time.
“I hear you’re taking Roxie home with you today, for your friend. She got real close.”
“How come she didn’t make the cut?” Ramona asked.
“Well, believe it or not, she’s too obedient. She couldn’t defy orders every time she needed to. As you know, guide dogs gotta have that one stubborn streak that our boy Hank here has; the one that says “Hell no. We ain’t goin’ til it’s safe no matter how many times you say ‘forward, hop up’.”
Peter leaned down and patted Hank’s flank, no doubt remembering plenty of Hank’s ‘hell no’ moments, not to mention the Buick and Ming Hin’s sign.
“Roxie’s just too eager to please. She’ll make an amazing family pet. I hope she’s gonna get to be buds with a kiddo.”
“That’s the number one reason why we’re getting her,” Peter said, “For a little boy who just lost his mom.”
“Oh, Roxie will be perfect. I’m glad to know she’ll have a new mission in life. You gotta make sure your friend maintains her training. She’s top notch.”
“He will. He’s a cop, ex-military. He’s big on training.”
“Okay, good, but now I gotta say he should use a gentle touch with her. She’s a sweetheart. No need to be a drill sergeant.”
“Kermit’s not the drill sergeant type. Don’t worry about that.”
“All right then. It’s hard to give these dogs up, even to good homes. We do what we can to remember the end goal, but we still bond with them, ya know?”
“Of course, you do,” Ramona said, touching Jim’s arm, understanding completely. Peter had just sent a Christmas card to Nikisha Butler, Hank’s puppy mom and they were planning a reunion. The love went deep, of course, because it was Hank. Ramona had tried to describe to Peter the full cuteness of the baby Hank picture Nikisha had sent back but she couldn’t quite do it. He’d been all tangled up in yarn, sitting in her crochet basket, looking so contrite, wearing a little vest that said, “Guide Dog Puppy.” Ramona simply hadn’t done the description justice.
“Let’s go meet Roxie,” Jim said.
The kennels were indoors, large, and clean; they reminded Ramona more of dorm rooms than dog cages. Jim explained that the dogs got naps right after training sessions because sleeping helped make what they’d learned stick faster. Ramona was impressed by how meticulous the training process was. These dogs were specifically bred for this job and spent their whole lives in the service of it. There was something so noble about that. Seeing where Hank had come from—seeing the care and dedication everyone had invested in making him who he was— only made her love him more. As they walked, Ramona took Peter’s hand and squeezed it.
“God,” she said, “I don’t really have words for…this. All of this.”
“I know,” he said, sounding reverent. “This place, and Hank, gave me my life back.”
Lifting Peter’s hand, she kissed it, feeling unspeakably grateful.
Roxie was a yellow lab with bright eyes and a happy tail. One look and Ramona knew they had another winner. Hank seemed to agree. He chuffed and whined, wanting her cage door open and once it was, Peter let him off harness so he could have what looked like a sniffing party with Roxie. Pretty soon they were jumping into the play stance and trying to both wrestle and chase each other.
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” Ramona told Peter who knelt down so he could pet her all over.
“Yeah, she is,” he agreed, gripping her ears like handles as she licked his face.
“Sit,” Jim said and both Roxie and Hank plunked their butts down like he was a general about to inspect the troops. The way they both pricked up their ears and sat fully ‘at attention’ made Ramona laugh.
“Hank thinks he’s back in the army,” she said and Jim chuckled. Then, instead of a treat, they got a click from a little fob that he took out of his pocket.
“What does the click mean?” Ramona asked.
“It means ‘good job’.”
“Really? They’re satisfied with that?”
To Ramona it seemed like getting a carrot instead of a cookie but she supposed it kept the dogs from getting fat or it saved money. She was still gonna give Hank a treat, later, to make up for it though.
“Let’s get her out and let her run around some if she’s in for a long car ride,” Jim said. “We’ll go to the play yard.”
Instead of putting Hank back in the harness, Peter just clipped on his leash and took Ramona’s guide arm. It looked like both dogs were gonna get some frisbee time.
The brownstone on Bradford street was in a good part of Chinatown. Constance lived with her twin sister and her two kids in one of the bad parts. They wouldn’t have been stuck there if it hadn’t been for Cosima having to get away from Antonne. As she rode home on the bus after work watching the city scroll by, Constance thought about how much both of their lives had changed in just the last few years and not for the better. Constance still had a hard time saying the word “widow” just like she knew Cosima had a hard time saying “battered spouse”. Neither one of them could fully wrap their brains around how things had turned out. Cosima, who had always been strong and sassy, seemed totally lost now. There was so much that was unfair about her situation. It wasn't like she’d been naive and fell for the wrong guy. She, like Constance, had never been naive a day in her life. They’d both seen a man use his belt as a tourniquet in a coffee bean field when they weren’t much more than little Andy’s age, so it wasn’t like Cosima hadn’t learned to expect the worst even when she planned for the best. It wasn’t like she didn’t know how to assess danger but, the problem was, Antonne had changed. Cosima had met him when he’d been seventeen, a sweet guy who brought her leftover pizza from his busboy job. She’d fallen in love with him then when they’d both been kids. All the bad shit came later after they’d already been together for nearly a decade and thought they knew each other inside and out. They did. Hell, if you asked Cosima, she’d tell you that she knew that man sideways. He wasn’t supposed to get his brain rattled in combat and turn into a Jekyll and Hyde type person who was either trying to beat his family up one minute or crying like a baby the next. Cosima was tough, stubborn, and dedicated to her man, so she’d tried everything she could to get the old Antonne back. There’d been so many doctors and shrinks and pills, even shock treatments. Nothing worked well enough to get him back. All it did was get him functional enough that he could stay out of a mental institution and that kept him home and sad and dangerous. On a good day, he took up kitchen table space, and on a bad day he got violent.
It was pretty clear that the main source of Antonne’s anger was that he could remember the way things used to be between him and Cosima. He could remember playing with—instead of scaring—the kids. He wanted that back real bad, too. He wanted it bad enough that he’d fly into a rage and make Cosima use the self-defense training their dad taught them, hell, some of it was what Antonne had taught her. She knew enough to get away from him but she also had to protect the kids, so she didn’t always get away unscathed. There’d been more than one black eye, a sprained wrist, and the worst of everything were the rib fractures. The night Antonne pulled the knife out, that was it, it had to be. Cosima couldn’t fight that, so she knew she had to leave or else he’d find a way to kill her or the boys. Constance wished, so bad, that they all could have gone to their father even if it meant hiding behind him like bear cubs, but both their parents were gone by then.
The whole story was so sad. Just the other night Cosima had confessed that she felt both scared of Antonne and guilty for leaving him. That made everything get all jumbled up in her head. It’d been just over a year since she’d left and she’d let the restraining order expire cause Antonne had left everybody alone for a good six months now. Constance knew that Cosima still held out hope that something would change—some kind of miracle would happen—and Antonne would heal. She wanted her man back. Her Antonne was a war hero. He didn’t deserve this. But she wasn’t naive. She didn’t believe in miracles.
Constance’s own story hadn’t really been all that different from Cosima’s, except that instead of the TBI, her guy Jack had died in the Gulf War and the pain of that could still sometimes bring her to her knees. Constance and Cosima used to joke that they’d both up and married their father: a big, beautiful black man who knew how to carry a gun. They didn’t make that joke anymore, especially not when they were living in a place with bars on the windows and Cosima sometimes had to get up in the middle of the night just to check the deadbolt so she could relax enough to sleep. The boys had nightmares of hiding from “new” daddy and woke up wanting a hug from “old” daddy. It was heartbreaking. Constance had her military pension and (at first) a pretty fat savings account, but by now most of everybody’s money was all gobbled up so they were living in a dump.
Riding the bus home, watching the houses go from good to bad was one of the most depressing parts of her day. She tried to keep her mind on all the wonderful little boys she had in her life and how, when she walked in the door, Luis and Jose would pounce on her like puppies and they’d play til dinner was ready. Cosima was a genius in the kitchen even if she had to get the guy at the grocery store to sell her the produce nobody else wanted like the bell peppers that looked like they had testicles. Who cared if your vegetables had genitalia, or your carrots had arms and legs? They all cooked up the same. So, Constance knew that she’d get a good dinner and she’d make the boys laugh. Even though their place was small, it was still chock full of love.
Peter really wished he could see Andy’s face but at least he got to hear him laugh for the first time. Kermit had gotten the kid to laugh already but Peter still hadn’t heard it yet and it was going down in the record books as one of the best sounds ever.
“Oh, Peter,” Ramona kept saying between tearful attempts to describe Andy playing with Roxie and Hank.
“That boy’s in heaven,” Constance said near Peter’s left shoulder. He liked Constance. She had a voice like warm honey and a take no shit attitude. She was the kind of person Kermit needed in his life and she’d been a Godsend when it came to taking care of the kid. There was a lot more relief in Kermit’s voice, now, and he wasn’t so keyed up which was something Peter had been feeling like an electric pulse from him for a while now, like somebody’d plugged him into an outlet.
“Oh, Peter,” Ramona said again, squeezing his hand.
“How’s Kermit?” Peter asked, having not heard anything from his friend in a while.
“He’s…having some big feelings,” Ramona said. “Good ones. He’s watching them play.”
They were standing in a courtyard behind Kermit’s building that Ramona had described as a gated brick patio with a small square yard off to one side. It was a communal space but it didn’t get used much since there was a park with a playground nearby. Peter figured this space was going to be Andy and Roxie’s main hangout until the kid got more comfortable with the outside world. Peter liked how secluded it was; it reminded him of Pop’s balcony because of the way it muffled the sounds of the city. He could imagine his father strolling down here to play his flute and drink tea when the weather got a little warmer. Maybe he’d read a book of Chinese folktales to Andy or have a meaningful chat. A Shaolin master and a four-year-old boy had a surprising amount in common when it came to Zen philosophy. Of course, Andy would have to start talking more to have a real chat. So far, he didn’t say much but Janette told everybody not to worry about that yet. He was still working on just feeling safe and that took up a lot of space in his head. It was a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs thing. Roxie was gonna go a long way towards making the kid feel safe.
“Hey, take me over to Kermit,” Peter said to Ramona, “I just want to check on him.”
Ramona, who was still holding his hand, put it to her arm. He hadn’t brought his stick with him, and Hank was having too much fun to go on guide duty so Ramona was pinch hitting. When they got to Kermit, Peter reached out and got yanked into a quick, fierce hug. Kermit really must have been having big feelings if he was hugging people.
“Thank you,” Kermit said roughly, slapping Peter on the back before pulling away. Since they were both wearing sunglasses, nobody had to know what was going on behind them.
“This was…the right call. The right call.” Kermit cleared his throat. “She’s a beautiful girl.”
“Yeah, and she knows two hundred commands.”
“Jesus. You gotta give me a list. If this dog was a car, she’d be in a showroom somewhere.”
“She’s the Lamborghini of dogs.”
Peter heard another belly laugh from Andy and reached out to squeeze Kermit’s shoulder.
“God, that’s a really great sound,” he said. “I love hearing it.”
“Me, too,” Kermit said, sounding a little choked. Then Hank jingled his way over to Peter and bumped a soggy tennis ball into his hand.
“Throw it!” Andy called out as Peter turned around.
“Throw it?” Peter said, pretending to be confused.
He heard a whole bunch of collar jingling, and the sound of tiny tennis shoes running on bricks as Andy came closer.
“Throw this way?” Peter asked, feigning a throw to fake out the dogs and make Ramona duck. He laughed when he heard a startled squeal from her direction.
“Oh, no. Not that way,” Peter said. “There’re girls over there. How about this way?”
He turned toward where he knew Kermit’s building was and heard the ladies shout “No!”
Andy echoed with his own ecstatic “NO!”
“You’re gonna break a window!” Ramona called out with a laugh in her voice.
“Andy, help me out here. Which way should I throw this?”
“That way!” Andy yelled and when Peter turned his back on Andy, hamming it up, the kid started giggling helplessly.
Peter turned around again, and the women cheered, shouting “Yes!”
“Ohhh! This way! Right, Andy? Is it this way?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Andy was probably jumping up and down, the dogs sounded like they probably were too, and when Peter threw the ball, it started a stampede.
“I hope I didn’t just throw that over the gate or hit a potted plant or something,” Peter said as he got a pat on the back from Kermit who stepped up beside him.
“Nah, you just beaned an old lady going by with her walker. No wait, it was a baby in a stroller.”
“A couple more demonstrations like that and Andy might actually start putting two-and-two together that you, for real, can’t see. Blindness is a kinda tricky concept for a four-year-old.”
“Yeah, either that or he’ll just think I’m super dumb.”
“Correct either way, then,” Kermit said chuckling when Peter gave him a sideways shove and then ended up in a headlock.
“Break it up, boys,” Ramona called out as she approached. “It’s time for lunch, I’m starving.”
Peter let her pry him away from Kermit and they all went inside. Peter knew the layout of Kermit’s place pretty well by now, but he’d learned, the hard way, to be cautious of wheeled toys so he kept hold of Ramona’s guide-arm. Something smelled delicious.
“What are we having?” he asked.
“Gallo Pinto,” Constance answered. “My sister’s not the only one who can cook. In Nicaragua, this is a breakfast dish but since it’s basically rice and beans, it works for lunch too.”
“It smells amazing,” Peter said.
“C’mon bud,” Kermit said using his ‘Andy’ voice, “Time to wash hands.”
“Take me with you,” Peter said, thinking about the slobbery tennis ball and all the dog love. He let go of Ramona and, a second later, was really happy to feel Andy take hold of his finger.
“Hi,” Peter said. “Are you gonna be my guide?”
Andy didn’t answer but kept a tight grip on Peter’s finger.
“The coast is clear,” Kermit said, “Andy did a good job of putting all his toys in his toy chest, didn’t you, buddy?”
“Yeah,” Andy said, quiet now that all the outside stuff was over. Transitions were hard for him and there was a lot going on in his space right now with four adults and two dogs.
“Thanks,” Peter said, “You know, Roxie can help you pick up your toys.”
“What’s the command for that?” Kermit asked, taking Peter’s free hand, and giving him a real guide-arm, moving it into the position, behind his back, that was used for doorways.
“‘Take it’ for picking up the toy and then ‘drop it’.”
“Nice. Hear that, Andy? Roxie’s gonna be your helper. She’s so smart. Let’s let Pete wash his hands first, OK?”
“OK,” Andy said, letting go of Peter’s finger.
“Thanks,” Peter said, giving Andy’s hair a ruffle before finding the sink.
“No, he doesn’t need the stool, does he?” Kermit said. “Andy is pointing at his stool. Peter’s pretty tall. He doesn’t need the stool.”
“What color is your stool?” Peter asked Andy. Everybody was on board with Project ‘get Andy to talk more,’ so they asked a lot of questions. Plus, Peter just always liked to know what color stuff was.
“Blue,” Andy said.
Yeah, the kid either got that Peter was blind or he thought he still needed to learn his colors.
When they were all seated around the table for lunch, Peter felt some bumping coming from the chair beside him and then he felt Andy lean on his arm. The kid seemed to be reaching for something and then Peter had to clamp his eyes shut just as Andy pulled off his sunglasses.
“Whoa,” Kermit was up in a flash. Peter heard his chair scrape back. “Sorry.”
Kermit gave Peter his glasses back.
“We play a game with my sunglasses. I forgot to tell Andy that you can’t play the game, too. Peter can’t play because his eyes hurt when he takes the glasses off.” Kermit’s tone was really gentle, but Andy seemed to wilt like a flower deciding to die and Peter felt awful.
“Hey, buddy, it’s okay,” Peter said, reaching out and finding Andy’s head, stroking his soft, curly hair.
“Your eyes hurt?” Andy asked. His voice was so soft, and he couldn’t say his ‘r’s so ‘hurt’ came out sounding like ‘hut’.
“Not right now,” Peter said, slipping his glasses back on. “See? I’m okay when I keep my glasses on. I’m all good.”
“Sorry,” Andy said.
“No. Hey-hey. It’s fine. Don’t be sorry,” Peter said. “Can I have a hug?”
Andy climbed onto Peter’s lap and gave him his full body spider-monkey cling and Peter rubbed his back up and down. When Andy took hold of his earlobe, Peter felt his throat get tight. Andy hadn’t ever done this with him before.
“You didn’t hurt me. I’m fine,” Peter said and felt Andy nod against his chest. Jeez, how could anyone ever have raised a hand to this kid? How could they even have raised their voice? As far as Peter was concerned, Andy could spend the whole meal right where he was and when nobody insisted that he do anything else, Peter and Andy started sharing spoonfuls of Gallo Pinto, probably spilling beans all over the place but, whatever, the dogs would vacuum it up.
Kermit had done a deep-level background check on Constance Bailey, of course, because nobody was gonna be watching Andy without him getting the full skinny on them first. So, he knew about Master Gunner Antonne Bishop and he also knew about Army Staff Sergeant Jack Bailey of the 2nd armored division who was killed in action during the Tiger Brigade ground offensive in Kuwait City. There were only 147 battle deaths during the whole operation, so Jack had been one of the unlucky few. Bishop, after earning a bronze star for valor in the Gulf, was now living in a halfway house on the north side in between his occasional stints in county lockup for fist fighting. It was a sad story. Cosima and her two boys had been through a lot in the last few years. So had Constance. Her parents had died one after the other, not long after her husband’s death. She must have felt like her whole world was collapsing-- not for the first time. He’d dug deep so he knew about Chinandega, too, and a family’s harrowing struggle to get out of a warzone.
After getting a picture of Constance and her sister’s financial situation, the makeup of the household and their street address, Kermit had chosen a level of starting pay that was above the going rate but also not so high that it would look blatantly like charity. He had plenty of money in offshore bank accounts left over from various past…overseas campaigns, so that wasn’t an issue. Constance was helping him out in a lot more ways than were listed in her job description, so he wanted to help her, too, and money was one of the easy ways to do that. After deciding that things were working out with her, he’d upped her pay again, mumbling something about having just added a dog to her list. He knew he was going to keep looking for more ways to pad her bank account. He wanted to help give all of them a path out of Wentworth Gardens which was one of the only low-rise housing projects in Chinatown. He didn’t like that Constance had to commute there by bus and he made a point of sending her home well before dark every evening. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything.
The apartment felt really quiet after she left. Andy was usually asleep by eight and Kermit had discovered that, if he moved very, very slowly he could sneak out of bed and have a few hours to himself in the evenings. He used to crave the quiet but now it seemed a lot more empty than it ever had before. He was glad he had the dog. Roxie had such a calming presence and when she put her chin on his knee and looked up at him, wagging, he’d start petting her and feel his muscles relax. And just last night hadn’t she licked him awake, bumping her head on his shoulder, coaxing him out of a dream filled with gunfire and smoke? Thank God he hadn’t thrashed or done anything to scare Andy. He didn’t dream as often, now, as he used to, and it’d been a long time since he’d woken up swinging but he still had to worry about it. If Roxie became Andy’s guard dog in that sense, he’d be even more grateful to have her around.
In the kitchen, he washed the dishes by hand and made sure Andy’s favorite sippy cup was filled up in case he wanted it during the night. The sippy cup was acting just like a bottle. Janette said it was common for traumatized kids to revert back to babyhood and there were plenty of times, still, when Andy would wake up crying, so they’d get the sippy cup, and a blanket and go sit in the rocking chair until he felt better; just rocking and talking some or singing. Kermit couldn’t do much more than rumble in that department and he didn’t know any little kid songs, but Andy didn’t seem to mind if he droned his way through A Hard Day’s Night or whatever else came to mind.
He was just about to put the sippy cup in the fridge when he heard a soft cry from the bedroom, so he held onto it and went to check on Andy. He had to set the cup down on a dresser right away, though, because Andy wasn’t just crying. He’d puked on the bedsheets and the sight of that made Kermit’s blood run thin. His legs felt weak. Jesus.
“Okay, buddy,” he said, his voice hardly coming out, and he picked the kid up, pulling him into his arms and feeling a ton of extra heat radiating off his body. That was a fever. He had a fever. A high fever? Oh God. What was he supposed to do? Andy moaned. He was crying. He said, “I don’t feel good.”
“You don’t feel good. Okay. We’re going to fix it,” Kermit said, his chest tight. He needed to breathe. He needed to find the phone. He needed Kwai Chang Caine or maybe an ambulance.
“We’re going to fix it,” he said again. Caine was better than the ambulance because he’d come even faster, and it wouldn’t be like throwing the kid into an alien planet with strangers and bright lights and the chaos of an ER.
Kermit was on the phone with Lo Si’s granddaughter, apologizing for calling so late when Andy puked again all over the front of Kermit’s shirt. His heart went into overdrive.
“Tell him to hurry,” Kermit said with a tremor in his voice. Then he was off the phone, panicking, fighting to stay functional for Andy. His hands shook as he took off Andy’s shirt and then his own. He got water going in the bath but then Andy wouldn’t let him put him into the tub so he took a washcloth and, sitting on the lip of the bathtub, he did the best he could to wipe them both off. The heat. Andy’s skin was hot like he had a burner inside him, and someone had cranked it up. How could anyone’s skin be that hot? Time passed, it felt like hours and then a knock sounded at the front door. A check of the security camera showed Caine, Ramona, Peter, and Hank.
“You gotta help me. Help him,” Kermit babbled as soon as he unlocked and let everybody in.
“I will help him. Come, lay him down on the couch.”
“Yeah, okay,” Kermit said, and he tried to do as instructed except that Andy was clutching him so hard his hands felt like roots. Like he was a stubborn little weed that wouldn’t pull up.
“Can I help?” Ramona asked, coming close and reaching out for Andy.
“Come here, honey, it’s okay, Pop’s gonna help you.”
That didn’t work. Andy clung like a burr. Caine stroked the boy’s head and when Andy went limp, Kermit completely lost his shit thinking he’d suddenly fucking just died.
“It is all right,” Caine said, sending Kermit a wave of reassurance just as Peter’s hands curled around Kermit’s biceps from behind and he felt his friend working, physically, to steady him.
“I have merely made him sleep,” Caine said, taking Andy from Kermit making him lose his balance because looking at Andy’s limp form suddenly made Kermit see, again, images of dead children he’d seen being pulled from bomb rubble, their faces white with ash. Peter’s arm came around Kermit’s waist, a hand spread wide on his chest, bracing.
“Whoa,” Peter said, keeping Kermit upright, “I got you. Stay with me, soldier.”
“I…is he? Caine--.”
“He will be all right,” Caine said, putting emphasis on the last word, using eye-contact as a tether. “Peter, Kermit needs to touch Andy, to feel him breathe. Help him.”
Andy was lying on the couch and Kermit went to him, starting to kneel. Peter kept hands on him, giving him his bracing touch, and as soon as Kermit put his hand on Andy’s chest, everything steadied.
“Ramona, bring me a bowl of water,” Caine said, slipping something into Andy’s mouth, “And a washcloth.”
“Roger that,” Ramona said.
“He’s okay,” Peter said, speaking into Kermit’s ear. “Pop’s got him, now, okay? Everything’s gonna be okay.”
“Okay,” Kermit rasped, nodding jerkily, “Okay. Yeah. It’s just that he’s so hot.”
“You will cool him off,” Caine said, taking the bowl and cloth Ramona handed him and passing them to Kermit.
“Okay, yeah,” Kermit said again, sloshing some of the water but following orders. He dipped the cloth and started stroking Andy with it. The kid looked so small, hardly more than a baby. His eyes were closed, his cheeks were flushed, sweat dampened his hair at the temples. God.
“Doing good,” Peter murmured from his place at Kermit’s back, crouched like a catcher behind home plate, still holding his arms.
“Okay, yeah,” Kermit said, stuck on that because he was having so many memory flashes that they kept making everything inside him freeze up. Roxie nosed in close and stuck her head under Kermit’s elbow, leaning against him. Kermit forced himself to breathe, forced himself to stay present. He needed to stay with Andy.
“What’s wrong with him?” Kermit managed to ask.
Caine was smoothing his thumbs across Andy’s forehead, cupping his cheeks, fingering his lymph nodes. “I believe this is the same virus that Zhang Wie brought home from school on Wednesday afternoon. There will be fever and vomiting tonight and the same, to a lesser extent, tomorrow. On the third day he will be well, or nearly so. Try not to worry, Kermit. He will be well cared for. I assure you.”
The assurance came in a wave. Caine was sharing his qi or whatever the hell he did that made you feel like you were getting drugged with something wholesome, like a runner’s high. Yeah, it was like a huge hit of exercise endorphins, and it made Kermit feel both de-stressed and strong. Meeting Caine’s gaze, Kermit saw truth and honesty just radiating off of the guy and this time when he said “Okay, yeah,” he felt a whole lot steadier.
“Hey, Kermit,” Ramona said and when he looked up at her he saw that she had balled up all the sheets and blankets from his bed. “I’m gonna throw these in the wash. Where’s your linen closet?”
“Uh…in the hallway by the bathroom,” he said, feeling dazed by the swift transition from defcon 1 to…it was laundry time now?
“Great. I’ll finish cleaning up and then I can run down to Lee’s for whatever meds or supplies you need. They don’t close until 10:30.”
“Uh…” Kermit’s mind went blank. What meds did Andy need? What supplies?
“Do you want me to get you a shirt?” Ramona added and Kermit looked down at himself, remembering that he’d shucked his t-shirt.
Just then Andy started to wake up and Kermit forgot about everything else. Andy’s brow furrowed and Kermit saw his face twist up which meant he was about to cry and so he reached over and pulled him into a hug, pulling away from Peter’s bracing grip and deflecting Caine, who seemed unperturbed.
“Hey, buddy, it’s okay,” Kermit said, sitting down on the couch with Andy in his lap feeling them get skin-to-skin as Andy’s damp heat pressed to his bare chest.
“I don’t feel good,” Andy sobbed, and Kermit cupped his head, starting to rock.
“I know. I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re gonna feel better soon. I promise.”
Caine, standing up, put the backs of his fingers on Andy’s cheek, giving him a caress that made him stop crying and sigh heavily as if he’d just been cured. The heat of his fever was still there though.
“I will make tea,” Caine said. “Ramona, perhaps, if I write you a list…”
Kermit didn’t hear the rest. They were walking away and, as Kermit got flanked by dogs who came to wag and sniff at Andy, Peter rose from his crouch and came to sit next to Kermit on the couch, putting a hand on his back.
“What do you need, Kermit?” Peter asked, “A glass of water? Whiskey? Anything?”
“Thanks for coming,” Kermit said, glancing at his friend, ignoring his questions. “You guys must have been over at Caine’s when I called.”
“Yeah, getting some training in…and potstickers. Be glad Lo Si didn’t come with his frog piss.”
“I’m glad we didn’t need the big guns,” Kermit said, closing his eyes, stroking Andy’s hair.
“Scary seeing him get sick. Uncharted territory, huh?”
“Not exactly,” Kermit said thinking of typhoid fever and dysentery, “It’s just that the kids I’ve seen, the sick ones they…” Die. He couldn’t say it out loud. Peter squeezed Kermit’s thigh and nodded. He didn’t know a ton about Kermit’s clandestine activities but pick any third-world conflict zone and you’d get the drift.
“I want my sippy cup,” Andy said, and Kermit looked down at him.
“Yeah. We can get that,” Kermit said. “You wanna rock?”
Andy nodded and as Kermit stood up with him, Peter stood up, too.
“We’re gonna go to the bedroom,” Kermit told Peter. “I left the sippy cup in there.”
“Okay,” Peter said. “Holler if you need anything.”
“Holler? What is this, The Waltons? Little House on the Prairie?”
“It’s an expression,” Peter said, chuckling sheepishly, “It’s a thing people say: holler if you need anything.”
“Yeah. Uh-huh. I’ll be sure to holler.”
The bed was neatly made and, walking past the dresser to get the sippy cup, Kermit felt a flood of gratitude for all the simple-not-simple forms of help his friends had been giving him from the moment they’d stepped into his apartment. If you looked at everything on the surface (and discounted a dash of Shaolin magic) everything had, indeed, been simple (a bowl of water, a washcloth, a steadying hand, a newly made bed) but below the surface was a deep understanding of how to meet unexpressed needs. Kermit had lived too long on the dark side of the world to be able to either believe he deserved friends like this or take anything they did for granted so his bewilderment went hand in hand with appreciation.
“Here we go,” Kermit said, sitting down in the rocking chair with Andy, giving him the sippy cup which he held onto two-handed, like a squirrel with a nut. Andy curled up in Kermit’s lap and he didn’t feel quite as hot as he had before. Whatever Caine had put into his mouth must have been helping to bring the fever down pretty fast.
“Sing,” Andy said, popping the cup out of his mouth just long enough to make this request.
“Sing. Okay…hmm. Let me think…”
Rocking, closing his eyes for a moment, Kermit heard the radio playing near the barracks at Fort Bragg. Shirtless boys wearing dog tags were shooting pickup hoops on the tarmac. Topping the charts that year was “Stand by Me”.
“Oh, when the night…has come,” Kermit began, his voice low and chant-like “...and the way is dark.”
Andy’s eyes drifted closed, and Kermit rested his head back against the chair, using the rhythm of the rocking as a kind of creaky percussion.
“...and that moon is the only light you see.”
Roxie walked into the bedroom, her toenails tapping and sat down in front of Kermit’s feet, her tail thumping, adding a backbeat.
“No, I won't be afraid, no, I won't be afraid…”
Faintly, from the kitchen, Kermit heard the whistle of a teapot.
“...just as long as my friends come and stand by me.”
Kwai Chang Caine heard the purr of machine gun fire, the thick, concussive boom of a bomb and then got hit by a shockwave that sent him rolling off…Kermit’s couch. Rockets were falling with wild, hot whistles like entire crates of fireworks igniting all at once, men were shouting, dying. Kermit was--
Caine pulled him out of his dream, pulled them both out to a quiet room where there was the yellow glow of a bedside lamp, a still-sleeping boy, and a softly whining dog.
“You are not hit,” Caine said, even though, for a second he saw Kermit’s shirt soaked wet and heavy with glistening blood.
“No. It was a dream. A nightmare. You are safe. You are not hurt.”
Kermit writhed, gasping for air and the moan that wrenched from him was the sound of pure agony.
“No,” Caine said again, reaching inside the man’s pain, entering his torture in order to banish it; he had shockwaves of his own.
“You are safe, you are whole, you are home…Breathe, my friend. Feel me. Come back.”
Kermit tried to twist away but then subsided, his lost eyes pulsing up at Caine, bright with fear. Caine sent him an ocean-swell of qi to soothe him.
“All is well. Do not be afraid.”
Kermit shuddered. His heart was still pounding, his breathing was still fast but calming down. Caine palmed his forehead and lifted the younger man up so that he was braced against his chest as he leaned back against the headboard of the bed. Glancing over at the sleeping boy, Caine checked that his fever had not spiked. Roxie licked Kermit’s hand. The rest of the house slept on except for Hank who would soon be nosing through doors to find them. It was nearly dawn.
“What--where? Jesus, I’m--.”
Shoving up, Kermit lifted the hem of the shirt he’d worn to sleep in and discovered that he had no open abdominal wound, only a thick, star shaped scar that…yes…still harbored shrapnel shards. Caine could remove them if…allowed.
“Not hit,” Kermit rasped, and Caine had to resist the urge to pull him back against his chest and reestablish that level of comfort but the moment had passed.
“You are not hurt, Kermit. But you do have a fever.”
“Is fine. Sleeping. His fever is gone for the moment. I will make you tea.”
Rising smoothly to his feet, Caine watched as Kermit’s gaze sought his, showing such a mix of shame and indebtedness that Caine reached out and squeezed his shoulder. When would these men—these strong, wounded “sons” of his—learn that it was not necessary to repay him? The act of caring for them was its own reward, a privilege, an honor.
“Rest,” Caine said simply before leaving the room. He discovered Hank in the hallway.
“Yes, go visit,” he said. “That was a two-dog nightmare. He needs you.”
Hank followed instructions and went inside Kermit’s bedroom. He knew all about the rewards of giving too.
Constance was so tired of cleaning up puke. Everybody in her house was sick including herself and she and Cosima were taking turns either carrying a boy to the toilet or plunking one into the bathtub to detoxify him. There was a disgusting pile of laundry in a trash-bag lined hamper, unwashed dishes in the sink, and there were about to be two angry bosses because ain’t neither one of the Washington twins fit to get out of the house today. Kermit answered on the second ring and Constance winced at the gruff sound of his “Griffin”. Didn’t a griffin have the body of a lion and a giant eagle beak?
“Don’t eat me for breakfast,” she said, “but I shouldn’t be coming in today because—.”
“Are Luis and Jose okay?” He jumped in, throwing her completely off track.
“Uh, well, they’re sick. We’re all sick. There’s so much--.” She stopped herself from saying “puke” and then had to laugh when Kermit said it for her.
“Yeah. Us too. It’s our fault, or Andy’s. He’s patient zero.”
Kermit sounded as froggy as his Muppet counterpart.
“Do you guys need anything?” he asked, and Constance had to pull the receiver away from her ear and stare at it because she’d never, in her life, had a boss ask her if she needed anything?
“Um. No, we’re okay. I just need a day off work.”
“Take two. Or three. Get well.”
“Okay. That’s…very…Thanks for understanding.”
“Make sure they push fluids,” Kermit said. “The boys. If you see signs of dehydration, it’s ER time.”
Constance nodded dumbly and said “Uh-huh”. Then she heard Andy’s voice in the background, sounding plaintive.
“Gotta go,” Kermit said and hung up the phone. Constance stared at the receiver again for a few long seconds while her brain cycled sluggishly back through that whole conversation. Cosima didn’t have the same kind of luck with her boss who told her that she’d better clock in or beat feet, so she showered, dressed and, sick as a dog, took off to simultaneously disinfect and reinfect a bunch of rooms in the Motel 6 on Chestnut street. Constance had no doubt that she’d be scrub-brushing her own puke out of several toilets that day. For her part, Constance let the boys watch TV and handed them cups of watered-down juice; each time she did it she heard Kermit warning her about dehydration.
Two days later, tired but feeling human again, she finally found herself walking to the bus stop once more, like normal. It was a chilly, sun-kissed morning and her breath puffed out pure white as she walked with her gloved hands shoved into the pockets of her puffy yellow coat; the one the boys said made her look like Big Bird. Cosima didn’t like the coat because she said it made her stand out. You don’t need to go around looking like one of those guys in a banana suit advertising the grand opening of the new Frosty King on the corner. But Jack had bought her this coat, having found it at a consignment store, proud it was made with real down feathers and would keep her really warm. Every time she wore it, she remembered the satisfied look on his face and how much he cared about the inner construction of her comfort. Such a good, sweet man. She missed him every day and would have given anything to feel his big arms wrap around her again.
She had to admit that she did stand out at the bus stop like a bright-feathered finch surrounded by crows since everyone else was hunched against the cold in dark-colored coats or hoodies. She didn’t pay them much mind, though. Wentworth Gardens wasn’t the kind of place where you made eye-contact and chit-chatted about how much it rained last night. She wasn’t looking at her fellow bus riders which is why she happened to look across the street in time to see Antonne Bishop standing in front of Family Pawn, staring at her the way a mountain lion looks at a doe. She got just the one fulminating look and then, with a screech and a kiss of airlock brakes, the bus cut in between them blocking out the view.
Something was up with Constance. Kermit had never seen her act jumpy. Normally, she had an easy way about her that reflected a true la hora Nica sense of time. She came from a culture that believed there was “more time than life” and this manifested itself in long meals, slow walks, and a flagrant lack of punctuality. This last part she’d clearly modified in order to meet American standards, but the rest held true. Not today, though. Today, she was keyed up and he didn’t miss the fact that she kept checking the windows. He didn’t ask what was wrong. The one thing in life that he’d always been able to count on was for problems to reveal themselves and, in the usual fashion, they did.
At around noon he came out of his office for some Andy time and, relieved of her hip appendage, Constance got on the phone with her sister. Since it had yet to occur to her that he could understand the rapid flow of her Spanish, Kermit got a full report. Bishop was back on the chessboard. Good thing he’d done a little creative keyboarding a while back and kept that restraining order active. Now he could initiate phase two of his plan. After lunch he called Peter and, about an hour after that, he got word that, while it had taken four patrolmen to flank Bishop and they’d had to use three bean bag rounds, he was in lockup being held for an RO violation. Kermit’s next phone call was to the Silk Road Tea House and, with his office door firmly shut, he talked to Manchu for a solid half-hour straight.
Antonne Bishop reminded Manchu of Eikichi, a Mongolian sumo wrestler he’d once known who’d had a good, yet volatile, heart and moods that thrashed about like stormwind. If he could regulate Eikichi, he could do the same for Bishop assuming he was willing to submit to regular treatments. His chakras would always need calibrating but if he came to Manchu’s table often enough, his moods could stabilize. It saddened him that so much of Western medicine tried to force, artificially, what could be achieved painlessly in a natural way. There had been no need for shock treatments or pills that dulled the senses and clouded the mind. There had been no need for so many broken hearts…or broken ribs.
“Can you help him,” Peter Caine asked, his hand on Manchu’s arm reminding him, once again, of Genghis. Covering Peter’s hand, just as he had once touched his brother, Manchu said,
Beside him, Lo Si nodded, his hands inside his silk robes, the wisps of his beard trembling with the movement.
“Of course,” he echoed. “And I have a special blend of herbs.”
“I was thinking of passionflower and ginseng,” Kwai Chang Caine said.
“You guys are like a traditional Chinese medicine trifecta,” Peter said with a smile, “Bishop is gonna be back to his old self in no time.”
As Manchu did a fist-wrapped bow he saw Caine and Lo Si mirror his movement all at the same time. Peter’s smile spread into a grin.
“I love you guys,” he said happily. “Come on. Let’s go get nuomici and drink tea til our eyeballs float. My treat.”
It hadn’t taken long for Kermit to learn a lot about Constance. She was tough and kind. She had a smart mouth and an even smarter brain. From the first moment she’d called him on his bullshit with a “sweet” smile and “don’t fuck with me” eyes. With Andy, she was unfailingly loving, and, like nurturing soil, she’d been letting his attempts to cling become the setting down of roots, transforming a weakness into a strength. She’d been doing the same thing for her brother-in-law, Kermit realized as he drove Bishop to Wentworth Gardens and parked on the curb in front of her place. The whole family was sitting out on the front porch, huddled together like they were ready for a group photo. It was Constance who walked across the soggy front lawn ready to assume her role as intermediary.
“What if I—Griffin…. What if I—?”
“You’ll do fine,” Kermit told Bishop, tipping down his sunglasses to look him in the eye. “That’s why I’m here, remember? To make sure nobody gets hurt.”
“You got your gun?”
“I don’t need my gun.”
“You gotta make sure I—.”
“At ease, Gunner. If I need to, I’ll restrain you. Believe me. I know how to do that without my sidearm. But I’m not going to need to.”
“That’s right,” Constance said, leaning down to peer through the open driver’s side window. The days were starting to warm up. The grass was turning green. It seemed symbolic to Kermit, all this new growth and fragile hope. With his glasses still tilted down, he looked into Constance’s dark brown eyes and thought, not for the first time, about how beautiful they were. Not so much in how they looked but in what was behind them, all that compassion and willingness to give.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, trading her gaze back and forth from Kermit to Bishop. “You love those boys, and they love you. Things went fine last time, didn’t they?”
“I guess,” Bishop said dubiously, “I just don’t want to scare them no more. Not even for a second.”
“You won’t. You know why?”
“Because you’re not gonna let them see Kermit kick your ass and think you’re a wuss.”
She said this with a smile and Bishop let out a breathless chuckle. Kermit wished the guy could see how far he’d come in just a short time and how, underneath everything, he was still the same guy. The Chinese Trifecta was making sure of it. They were coaxing out his true self and keeping him nice and steady. The fact that Bishop insisted on daily treatments and didn’t even wince when he drank frog piss were both signs of true dedication.
“I won’t let your boys get hurt,” Kermit said, putting the same conviction into his voice that he would use talking about Andy. As far as he was concerned it was now his life’s work to protect any and all four-year-olds. He’d fight, to the death, for the preschool set. And frankly, hadn’t he always? He’d never been in it for the money or the warmongering or even for patriotism, he’d always, in his own messy way, just been trying to right wrongs and protect the weak.
“All right,” Bishop said, still sounding doubtful but looking, with longing, at the woman who, even after a year hadn’t filed divorce papers and his twin sons who were like carbon copies of him. Kermit knew what it was like to see yourself in a child’s face, and to see a man you’d loved beyond measure. It was like a form of echolocation, showing you what you’d lost along with what you still had: love layered on top of grief. Maybe everybody’s heart eventually got left in the ‘lost and found’ bin. Maybe, even when you thought the odds were a million to one, you could still get a second chance. Getting out of the car, leaning on the door, Kermit watched Bishop walk across the lawn with Constance, in the process of rejoining his family. He saw Cosima open her arms and get a swaying hug. Then two boys got lifted up, one in each strong arm, and Kermit knew that those kids finally had their “old daddy” back. Returning to Kermit’s side having faithfully performed her escort duties, Constance leaned back against the car door, mirroring his stance.
“That, right there, is what I like to see,” she said, slipping on the pair of killer shades he’d given her. Kermit pushed his own glasses up, crossed his arms over his chest and grinned.
“Oh yeah,” he said.