Travis Baker ran his fingers through his short, graying hair. “Promise me that you’ll let me know if there is anything that either of you needs. I want your word, Key-Key.”
The pause on the other end told him more than her weak assurances ever could. “Of course, Travis. But don’t worry about us. We’ve made it this far. I’m sure we’ll get through this, too.”
He wanted to keep his friend on the line. To argue with her, to tell her that he always worried about them, but he knew it would be pointless. He’d have better luck messaging her daughter Bree directly.
The child he had met that Christmas Eve so long ago was growing into a young woman. She was even a teen now. Still, Bree retained something ethereal that perfectly fit her mother’s nickname for her. Yes, Breeann Jackson was definitely an Angel.
He just did not want her to… He could not even bring himself to think it. But the stark realities of the past few months made it difficult to deny how precarious Bree’s health was. Now, this.
He sighed and said his goodbyes with the woman that had become his best friend over the past few years. Trav fought back the tears that he was no longer ashamed to shed. After his Christmas miracle, it might have been easy just to go their separate ways.
For a couple of weeks, they had. Then one night, after his mother had a particularly bad day, the phone had rung. She had finally slipped into a peaceful sleep, so he had raced to answer it before the sound woke her. Trav had been pleasantly shocked to hear the timid and vaguely familiar voice on the other end.
Keisha had apologized for intruding, but Breeann was concerned about him and his mother. She had found the number in her phone and hoped that it was alright to call. They had chatted for only a couple of moments then. He had been mindful that the call was costing precious money she did not have. But they exchanged email addresses, and he gave her his new cell phone number so that they could stay in touch via WhatsApp.
And they had. Over the past three years, Trav spoke or messaged with both of them regularly. Almost daily, in fact. Key-Key had proven a true friend after his mother’s death, supporting him through the guilt and recriminations. She had commiserated with him about the laborious and time-consuming process of getting his disability benefits through the VA. Though the processes were different, she had even offered sage advice about filling in the application. And, of course, Bree was always a ray of hope and light through whatever came.
Even now. Trav knew this must all be frightening to the young girl. Hell, this was scary shit for everyone. In some ways, it was every bit as horrendous as the war had been. Perhaps even worse. They were trained soldiers, doing their jobs.
But this new enemy? It was unseen. It could attack anyone. At any time. And its kill-rate was higher than most battles he had fought in. Higher still for the vulnerable. For people like Bree. If anything…
“Everything okay, son?”
Travis turned towards the doorway. His father leaned heavily on the frame with one hand and his cane with the other. The man’s health had deteriorated after his mother’s death. It was as if his dad had buried his will to live in that coffin with his wife of almost fifty years.
And this latest weighed heavily on Trav’s mind. They had been doing their best. Taking all the right precautions. His father had only been outside twice for doctor’s appointments since this whole thing began months ago. They had managed to get most of their groceries delivered, too. Hell, he could probably count on his fingers the number of times he had gone out. And each one of those had been fully suited up with a mask.
They kept all mail and packages in the entryway for at least three days, same with the groceries. Except for the stuff that needed refrigerating, those Travis washed down with a bleach solution. His hands were red and chapped from washing them so often.
But it was all worth it. Every day he had with his father, every moment he got to make up to him for all the pain he had caused them, was worth it all.
Travis used the back of his hand to brush away the tears as he forced a smile and nod. His voice was rougher with emotion than he would have liked, “Yeah, I was just checking in on Keisha and Breeann.”
“How’s our girls doing?” His father’s face lit with joy. He considered Keisha and Bree angels, living ones that gave him back his son just when he needed Travis the most. Hell, sometimes he thought the old man cared about them even more than he did.
And that was saying something. Those two had become his family. Considering his sons still wanted nothing to do with him, not that he blamed them. He had never been a real father to them. And while he knew that he was not and never could be one to Bree like Bryan would have been, still some warped part of him felt duty-bound and privileged to do what he could for them.
Trav was tempted to smile and lie, but he knew his father would probably see through it anyway. “I’m worried. Key-Key said that her boss gave her an ultimatum. She either comes back to work in the office, or she has to let her go.”
“What? But she’s a doctor. Surely the woman realizes the risks to that girl. How can she do such a thing?”
Travis saw his father becoming more and more agitated with each word. “Dad, like Keisha says, the woman has given her six-months. That’s more family leave than the law mandates. She even allowed her to do some work at home for a bit. But what she needs, what she hired Key-Key for, is a receptionist and secretary. And now, more than ever, the woman needs someone up front to handle the patients. And yes, to do an initial screening.”
“I know. That means Key-Key has to choose between Breeann’s health or her job.”
“Her child’s life or a roof over their heads and food on the table, that’s what you really mean, boy.”
Travis wished he could reassure his father, but the man spoke the truth. “I tried, Dad. I offered to help them out. To pay the rent, at least. But…”
“But that girl is too proud?”
He closed his eyes and swallowed the lump in his throat as he fought to get his emotions under control before he answered his father’s question. His eyes still glistened with those unshed tears when he opened them, prepared to do his best to explain to his dad what he did not understand himself.
“You know there’s another way, son.”
“If there is, Daddy, I can’t see it,” Travis felt his shoulders slump in defeat.
“Bring them here.”
“What? I can’t just ask them to pack up and leave their lives in Atlanta. Key-Key has lived there her whole life. She has family there. And Bree has friends, school, that church of hers.”
“Bah, family? Where’s that girl’s family ever been when she needed them? Ain’t much of a man that kicks his teenage daughter out when she’s pregnant if you ask me. Especially not someone who calls himself a man of god. And maybe those girls need a change? You ever think about that? A fresh start away from all those memories?”
“I’m not saying I disagree with you, Daddy, but if Keisha won’t take my money, I’m pretty sure she won’t give up her life, the independence she’s fought so hard for…”
“She would if she thought you needed her help.”
“What? I don’t understand…”
His father leaned his cane against the door and crossed his arms over his chest. Travis would almost call the look on the man’s face smug. “If that girl thought that you needed her help to care for this old man, well, it would salvage her pride. I’d be willing to bet she’d drop everything to come help out.”
His dad might just be right about that. Keisha might think that Bree’s generous heart came from the struggles that the child had endured her whole life, but he knew otherwise. She had inherited that spirit of giving from her parents, both of them. But it was Key-Key’s example of positivity in the face of every challenge that he believed her daughter emulated. They were brave for one another.
“Okay, but even if you are right, I can’t ask them to do that. This is small-town Texas. You know how these folks gossip. Look at all the crap that Chad has gone through bringing Rose and their daughter here. And they’re…”
He could not bring himself to say the word. Or to admit that the color of someone’s skin still mattered so fucking much in the twenty-first century. But he knew that around here, well, he would not be able to shield them from those small minds.
“I understand what you’re saying, Travis. But there’s a way that you can shield them from some of that. And make sure that those two have the kind of stability they never have before.”
“Well, please, enlighten me because you know I’d do anything to give them that.”
“You could marry the woman.”
Travis wished he was the one standing in the doorway. As it was, he gripped the table for what paltry stability it could offer.