Mrs. Daniels was sitting outside on the porch when they reached the house. Watching her inquisitive gaze, Brandi looked down at her shoes, and tried to think up some excuse for her absence. Something that her mother would agree with.
But, that was before Nicholas exited the house, and took a seat opposite her mother. Brandi’s lips moved silently, as if she was speaking to herself. By the scowl on her face, Roger guessed that the pep talk was anything but friendly. Or upbeat as she glanced at him. Ushering him up the narrow driveway, where her bike usually lay, and yet she didn’t even register its absence. Almost forgetting that if anything, her mother was the one, who would have the need to be angry or dismayed because she hadn’t been at home.
Indicting to the jacket she wore, Roger tugged at his own shirt, trying to get her to notice the revealing nature of the fabric. But Brandi brushed his fingers away and then after a moment’s hesitation and her mother’s accompanying stare, she pulled it close. Remembering that a few weeks earlier, she had been the one who had coerced her into buying it.
“You should be in bed,” Mrs. Daniels said, getting up from her perch on the rocking chair. Her skepticism about the stranger, did nothing to abate her feelings of misplaced trust and anxiety, as she blew her nose into a handkerchief, and then surveyed Roger, for some assurance that he should be there. And wasn’t intruding.
Perhaps, conscious of the questions his presence raised, he took a step forward and extended a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Daniels. I’m Roger Barnes.”
She looked at him comically and offered a fake smile, as Nicholas put out a hand to stop her. But she embraced the boy anyway. “You must be confusing me with somebody else, my friends call me Stein. Gertrude Stein,” she said, her eyes peering at Roger’s. “What are you doing with my daughter?” Roger released himself from her embrace and took a step back. It was as if this wasn’t how he had envisioned their meeting. Twisting his neck, he pulled at a stray curls at the back of his head and looked up towards the heavens.
“I wanted to make sure she got in safely,” he said, as Mrs. Daniels straightened her shoulders and wrapped the shawl more tightly around herself. Her face angling towards Nicholas who came closer, taking away the narrow space between them that would have served as an exit.
“Oh, really,” Nicholas said, grabbing his arm and poking his skin. “Don’t you have parents or some kind of curfew?”
Roger shook his head, angling to get a look at Brandi, who stood a few feet away and looked rather distant. Backed against the side railing, Roger shoved his hand into his pants pocket, wondering what he could say to stop them when his fingers brushed against a baseball. He retrieved it, and wiped his brow, no longer feeling stifled and hemmed in, as his eyes met Brandi’s. She was watching him, as he clutched the ball. Watching as the storm abated and the furrowed eyebrows started to even out and his breathing became a little more calm. Was she testing him? he wondered, plastering on a smile and becoming almost jovial. As if in response to their arrogance, he was saying okay, bring it on.
Behind them, Brandi cleared her throat and moved closer. “It’s nothing for you to concern yourselves with. We have world Literature with Mrs. Jenkins, if you must know. And tonight, he saved me from being stuck in another dimension.”
Nicholas scratched his brow, shifting his weight from one side of his body to the other, realizing for the first time that there was something odd about the boy and the ball. Something that he should have remembered. But for whatever reason his mind was drawing a blank.
Mrs. Daniels nodded, not sure how to take this. Even if she was the queen on a game of chess about to be sacrificed, she wasn’t going to show her hand, or take things at face value. She touched her daughter’s head and neck, trying to ascertain the extent of the fever before Brandi pulled away. “Thanks for that then. She seems okay.”
Brandi shifted her gaze awkwardly, not wanting Roger to think that this was an everyday occurrence. It wasn’t as though people came to their house willingly. Or casually. She dropped her silent phone onto the center table and raised her head. “Honestly mum, Teresa was the one who invited me out. Roger is just a back up. An escort,” she said, winking at him, until she saw his features fall.
Nicholas looked from on to the other suspiciously while her mother folded her hands and examined the dead phone. “Okay,” she said, sighing, not even bothering to turn on the phone and check for herself as Brandi moved silently towards the front door. She removed the jacket and handed it to him.
After a moment, she turned back as Roger accepted his jacket and made a motion towards the stair. “Oh and in case any of you are wondering, Roger’s also my guardian.”
Mrs. Daniels slammed her fist down on the table and Nicholas grunted as if he too was a parent. Her parent. Someone who had something to say on the matter. “And yet, you allow her to go out by herself and face that doom.”
“No, I did nothing of the sort,” Roger said pulled away, unprepared for the attack. The hostility brewing in the older man’s eyes as the scene from the diner came to him unbidden. “You should be the last person to talk about my action.” He stuffed his arms into the jacket. “Because your actions in the diner didn’t save her from being discovered. I am here, only to help make her into what she will become.” He edged down the stairs, waiting for them to raise any further objections as Mrs. Daniels pulled her daughter to the side and Nicholas glared, like a fire-breathing dragon who could demolish anyone.
“Says you, the boy who lacks history and connections.”
Roger turned back, unfazed, as if he had been called worse. Shaking his head. “Honestly I would have thought at least that you’d be glad, because our families have a shared history.” Nicholas looked at him doubtful before he pulled out the baseball glove and offered it to him. With thin fingers, Nicholas followed the lines of the family tree and saw that indeed there was some connection, before he offered the glove to Mrs. Daniels who did the same. Taking her time to sift through the names and discover their familial connection.
Then she looked at her daughter, wondering if any of this was new to her. But from her features, she knew that she had already know and that like with her father, Mrs. Daniels was the one who was now in the dark.
“What do you propose to do? Do you have some sort of plan?” she asked, leaning onto the railing, suddenly feeling tired and strained.
“She will meet with the nameless one,” he said, his eyes on Nicholas. “Unless you’d prefer another run in with Lucien.”
Mrs. Daniels raised an eyebrow as if this had been something that they had discussed and then slowly she nodded her head. It would be futile to go against the Foundation, she thought. Unnecessary to lose her daughter.
“Of course,” Roger said, as if reading her mind, collecting the baseball glove with his free hand. “Nobody’s losing anyone on my watch. Please consider Brandi a free agent. No one can touch her, until she turns sixteen.”
Mrs. Daniels nodded, as though this too had been discussed. But her face still seemed strained. Exhausted.
“You should tell her what you know, because Lucien has already found a way to use her friends.”
Brandi’s face turned scarlet as her mother’s eyes devoured hers. “Like I was saying earlier, Latoya’s not my friend and I didn’t injure her.”
Nicholas pulled out his phone and scrolled through the Foundation updates as if anything that happened was known to everyone within the circle. He scrolled through the pages, becoming more and more engrossed, until he looked up and saw mrs. Daniels leaning on his shoulder, her eyes almost pleading, and brimming with tears. “Then whatever the connection, you’ve definitely done something wrong, because Lucien is the least of your worries,” Nicholas said, placing a hand on her arm. “Unless you’ve already met the nameless?”
Brandi’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head. Not too far off, Roger sucked in a deep breath as the trees around them began to rustle and shake. Mrs. Daniels shrieked and went towards the door as if something about this frightened her. “Maybe we should do this inside.”
“Inside?” Brandi looked around at them, as if they all held a little piece of the puzzle that was quickly becoming her life. “What is it that you’re not telling me?” she asked, hands on her hips.
“Someone will show you the past,” Roger began, before Nicholas could cover his mouth.
“But that’s not the crux of it,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “In the end, you are the only one who can decide how things will go. Who can be saved.”
Brandi looked at him, not really following because she had no idea about who she would have to choose from and how she would be able to make the final decision. “How am I supposed to decide?” she asked, looking at each of them one by one.
Her mother gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “By conquering your fears and discovering your enemies,” she said, turning and going towards the open door. Nicholas nodded, following her inside. Their fingers joining even before they crossed the threshold. Standing there, Brandi could do nothing but contemplate their union which with every passing day was becoming less and less of a mirage. She could almost see it progressing further in her dreams, and she shuddered, as Roger gave her a plaintive smile.
“Catch you tomorrow,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, there are worse things.”
Like what? Brandi wanted to counter, but held her breath. She didn’t need another person hating her or doubting her reactions she thought as he turned to leave. “Yeah, see you in school,” she said, instead, not even concerned about the nameless one or her opponent because something else more piercing was rising within her. Thoughts of her father.