Hooray! Everything's all fixed! My apologies though to my co-author and to everyone else for all trouble and/or confusion I may have caused.
A huge thanks to all those who've stayed with us this entire time!
The cemetery was deathly silent. Not a sound could be heard, excluding the rustle of leaves from the occasional gust of wind.
Suddenly, the relative calm was abruptly shattered by the soft thud of footsteps as a single visitor suddenly entered the property. As she strolled through the open iron gateway, Frankie paused for a moment as she was beset by a nasty case of the chills that seemed to race up from the base of her spine to her neck. It never mattered how many months it had been since she started making this visits, she couldn't help but get plagued every time by the abundance of bad memories it brought up for her.
Nevertheless, Frankie took a deep breath and continued on, humming a small willy-nilly tune to help calm her nerves.
While navigating about the myriad of tombstones and grave markers, the young woman couldn't help but be thankful for the fact that she was no longer limited to bumbling about on her crutches any more, ever since her cast had been removed. Even now, she could've help but relish in the sensation of freely strolling about without the assistance of those cumbersome walking aids. While musing aimlessly about this fact, the girl made a quick mental note not to take such a basic freedom for granted again.
Finally, after a few minutes of what appeared to be mindless wandering, the redhead found exactly what she was looking for. Coming to a halt, she nodded respectfully to the two near-identical gravestones.
"Hey," She murmured, mustering up a weak grin. "It's me."
As soon as formalities were finished, the girl went straight to work by swiftly removing the small backpack she was carrying slung across one shoulder. Moving about silently, she carefully removed two small bouquets of flowers from her pack, and delicately placed one upon each grave with the utmost reverence.
Once finished with her offering, she automatically snatched up two older, badly wilted bunches of flowers that had already been sitting next to each tombstone long before she had arrived.
"Blecch!" Frankie spat at the offending plants before hastily shoving them back inside her bag before actually apologizing to the two gravestones, talking to them as if they were a pair of dear friends. "I'm sorry about that…I knew these things wouldn't last another week out here, I really should've switched them last time. Goodness only knows how many days you had to deal with those eyesores. Yuck!"
After grimacing at the mess in her pack back one final time before zipping it up out of sight, she couldn't help but allow herself to be consumed by a light bout of laughter.
"Sorry…It's just that…well, speaking of gross…we finally got word about what happened to Duchess after all this time. Turns out, after she went at me with the fire poker that night, they shipped her off to some state-run facility for "degenerate imaginary beings" or something like that. Not exactly too sure, all I know is that it doesn't exactly sound like a country club, and chances are looking pretty slim that Her Highness gonna get out of there anytime soon…thank goodness."
At this point her grin widened a little as she continued to giggle.
"Oh, and get this. Seeing as Her Majesty isn't residing at the house anymore, Bloo's been trying to get us to turn her old room into a billiards room. Can you believe it? Ha! He just goes on and on, begging us, telling us it'll bring some class to Foster's. Of course, mind you he doesn't really have any idea what he's talking about, as usual." She tittered, rolling her eyes. "By the way he describes what it'll look like, I'm almost positive that what he actually wants to do is get a couple pinball machines installed. Don't try and tell him that though, I made that mistake last week, and he spent half-an-hour telling me why he knew exactly what he was talking about, and…"
Realizing that she had actually been laughing it up with a pair of gravestones, Frankie silenced herself in mid-anecdote and blushed a little in embarrassment, feeling thankful that no one had been there to see her conversing so freely with two people who couldn't answer back.
Nevertheless, her self-imposed silence was doomed to failure, and before she knew it, the caretaker found herself striking up conversation yet again.
"…Sorry about rambling on like that." She chuckled weakly. "Just wanted to let you know how things were going on back at the house, I guess…not really much else besides that…"
She paused for a few moments, glancing down at the ground as she awkwardly shuffled her sneakers against the grass as she searched her mind for anything new to report.
"Well...guess that's it." Frankie muttered while she picked up her backpack and hefted it over her shoulder. "I guess I'll see you two later, huh?"
The redhead delayed her departure for a second or so, staring at the tombstones as if waiting for a reply.
"Sorry, I…" she murmured ruefully as her eyes began to water up. "I…. well, I know I probably say this every time…but…I…."
After a few failed stammered attempts, she finally managed to force the words out with a wan grin.
"…It's nice to see the family back together, huh?"
For a minute or two, she just continued to stand there in dead silence while smiling sadly at the graves. Then, without a single word she turned about and quietly exited, with the two bouquets serving as the only sign that she had ever been there in the first place.
Frankie sighed heavily as she began to stroll up the walkway to the massive Victorian mansion. She couldn't think of anything more depressing or emotionally draining that her peculiar little weekly visits, which was a bit odd because she made each trip voluntarily and-
Suddenly, her train of thought derailed when a small soccer ball rolled to a halt against her feet, catching the young woman off guard.
"Huh? " She murmured curiously, leaning down a little to look at it. "What on earth-"
"There it is!"
"It's mine, it's mine!"
"Oh no way, I'm gonna-"
The air suddenly became thick with excited whoops as a tiny mob descended upon the scene in fierce pursuit of the ball. Unfortunately, all of them scrambling at such a breakneck pace they all realized too soon that there was no way any of them would be able to halt in time without plowing into the unsuspecting redhead.
Luckily, the only girl in the pack managed to successfully swerve around at the last moment, clumsily skidding to a stop with her oversized banana-yellow cowboy boots. Likewise, the azure blob avoided collision by sharply veering off and ending up tumbling flat on his face.
If only the third member of the group had reflexes that were half as quick as the others…
Within a split-second, both little one and caretaker found themselves instantly down on the ground in a messy heap.
"YES!" Bloo roared triumphantly as he crawled forward and snatched the soccer ball while it rolled by. "Hahaha! Told you it was mine, I-"
His victory celebration was swiftly cut short as a frantic-looking Goo suddenly grabbed his nonexistent shoulders and began to shake him urgently.
"What?" the imaginary friend snapped as his she interrupted his celebration. "What's the…heck are you…uh…oh…"
Finally spotting the hideous wreck of humanity lying not too far off, the little creature allowed the girl to help him back up and together they warily approached the scene of the mini-catastrophe.
"Y-you guys okay?" Goo squeaked as she carefully made her way over. "Guys?"
"Ohhhh…." Frankie groaned dazedly as her head seemed to spin while she lay in a messy sprawl upon her back. "What on earth…"
As she struggled to gather her wits about her, she suddenly heard a yelp of shock followed by the sensation of a flurry of movement atop her, after which the face of an extremely worried-looking little boy came into view.
"...Frankie?" Mac asked softly. "Frankie, are you okay?"
From the way she just stared back blankly, it looked as if she was still badly disorientated from the crash….or at least that's the way it seemed until she sprouted an unsettling mischievous smirk.
Mac didn't even have enough time to finish a horrified whimper before the tables were swiftly turned, and in a flash he found himself pinned against the lawn by the fiendishly grinning young woman.
"Well, well, what do we have here?" Frankie sniggered. "Think you can just use me as your personal airbag, huh, Mr. Speed Racer? Eh? Is that it?"
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it!" Mac cried as he immediately began to try squirming loose. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't see you until-"
"Hey, no fair! Let go! Let go! Let go of him! Let go!" Goo began to jabber wildly in her friend's defense. "Mac didn't mean it! Nuh-uh, not at all! Besides, you can't even touch him! Oh no you can't! Nope! Nope! Nope! Not when he's still recovering and all! So hands off!"
"Still recovering?" the redhead scoffed with a roll of her eyes. "Oh, please, don't tell me you're using that worn-out excuse again-"
"Well, it's true!" Bloo chimed in. "He's still recovering from the surgery, and-"
"Really? After all these months? Oh yeah, and I guess that was a completely different, much healthier little boy who was racing about like a maniac until he rammed right into me?" Frankie teased before turning her attention back to her prisoner. "Look out, pal, it seems someone out there is trying to frame you."
"Huh? Frankie I never said that I- hahahaha! Quit it! Quit it! Quit it! Heeheehee!" Mac burst out squealing with laughter as the young woman began to mercilessly tickle his belly.
"Don't worry, Forever-Healing baby brother!" Frankie cried mock-heroically as she went to work. "Laughter is the best medicine, we'll have you up and back to normal in no time!"
"Yeeheeheehee! Stoppit! S-stoppit!" he begged, kicking his little legs and thrashing about wildly under her tenacious tickly grip.
"It's okay Mac, it's okay!" the redhead eagerly continued with her joke as she moved to his exposed sides. "As soon as you're finally better, we'll go and hunt your evil but healthy clone, and- OOF!"
Frankie yelped in surprise as Goo suddenly sprung forward, ramming into the young woman's side and knocking her onto her back.
"Get her!" the little girl cried, letting loose with a high-pitched battle cry as the playful fight was joined. Before Frankie could put up a decent defense, all three little ones dissolved into helpless laughter as they took their opportunity and simultaneously attacked in an effort to try and bring her down.
"Hey, hey! Get off! Off!" Frankie grunted, squirming about in a desperate attempt to crawl away as they created a miniature dogpile on her.
"Hahaha! Now we gotcha!" Bloo tossed back his head and let cheered triumphantly.
"No fair!" the redhead protested like a whiny toddler. "Three on one, that's cheap! No fair! No fair! No fair! No fair!"
"Say your prayers!" Mac chuckled as he felt the twenty-two-year-old wriggle about helplessly under their combined effort. .
"Please, don't! Stop it guys! No, no, no, no!" Frankie begged shamelessly as the trio seemed to be getting close to overpowering her.
"We're doing it!" Goo whooped. "We're doing it! We're doing it! We're –AUGH! We're not doing it! We're not doing it! Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Abort mission!"
Like a Venus flytrap catching its unsuspecting prey, Franke's arms shot up and effortlessly seized all three in a tight bear hug as she promptly dropped the weak-and-helpless façade.
"My turn!" she giggled like mad in triumph. "Oh, and don't think I'll try and use brute force like you, my little barbaric savages!"
"What're you gonna do then?" Goo squeaked curiously. "Hug us to death?"
"Yes!" the redhead joked. "After all, only love conquers all-"
"What?" Mac repeated incredulously. "What do you mean by – oh, blecch!"
Moving like lightening, the redhead quickly demonstrated how a nauseating amount of affection made an extremely effective weapon. Frankie swiftly planted a quickly sloppy kiss atop the head of every child and imaginary friend in her tenacious grip, who all protested vehemently in clear disapproval of her unorthodox torture methods.
"Aw, now don't we look absolutely adorable together?" Frankie gushed, nuzzling her captives mercilessly and thoroughly enjoying their revolted cries for all it was worth.
"Eww! Stoppit! Stoppit! Cut it out!" Mac protested.
"I'm calling social services on you! You hear me?" Bloo threatened. "So help me, I'll do it!"
"Call someone who knows how to use a mop first, because I think I'm gonna be sick!" Goo groaned.
"But we're just soooo cute!" The caretaker continued, keeping up the disgustingly cutesy routine. "Look at me and my little babies, all of us snugglin' and cuddlin' and-MMMPH!"
Her mushy torture session came to an abrupt end when Bloo managed to free a blobbish stub and wasted no time yanking the young woman's sweater hood completely over her face. As soon as Frankie tried to free herself, her prisoners immediately scattered like leaves in the wind.
"Run for it, while she's down!" Bloo yelled as he raced around to the backyard, as Goo giggled hysterically as she followed close behind.
"Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!" she paused to make a face and goad the young woman mercilessly. "Supidlazyslowpoke, can't get us! Heehee! Nyah! Nyah!"
"Oh yeah?" Frankie countered, grinning like an idiot a she finally ripped her hood off just in time to see the pair vanish around the side of the house. "Oooooh, just you wait, I'll-"
She was startled by the feeling of a pair of arms wrapping tightly around her stomach. Bewildered, Frankie glanced down to meet the gaze of the bright-eyed little boy as he hugged her warmly.
"Um…" The caretaker stammered, cocking her head curiously. "Pal? Uh, I think the point of the game is for you to keep away from-"
"I didn't say hi yet!" Mac just piped up happily, to which the redhead couldn't help but burst out tittering in response.
"Oh that's right, someone's a big sucker for routine." She snickered, tousling his hair affectionately. "A hello and welcome home to you too, kiddo. Sorry I wasn't here when you got back from school, I just went on a quick walk, see, and-"
"How are mom and Terrence doing?" Mac suddenly piped up. Immediately the smile vanished off her face and Frankie froze up the second the words rolled off his tongue.
"…What?" she finally answered lamely in an attempt to play innocent. "How are who doing?"
"Mom and Terrence!" Mac calmly replied. "You went out to go see them, right?"
Caught in a fib, immediately the caretaker's face lit up with a vibrant scarlet blush as she fidgeted with her ponytail a little. How a kid so young had a mind so sharp, she'd probably never know.
"They're…they're doing just fine, pal…" she answered softly as she began to squirm about guiltily. "I-"
"Mac, I'm sorry, I just wanted to replace the flowers, that's all!" Frankie started to babble regretfully. "I know you like it when we go together, and…uh, Mr. Herriman said I needed to…um…and I thought I wouldn't have enough time for…for…"
"Are you trying to come up with an excuse?" Mac asked as he did a poor job of stifling a few amused giggles. At this point the young woman stopped and hung her head a little in embarrassment.
"Sorry…" she apologized somberly. "I should've waited for you to get back, I know, but…well, I just…just….pal, you know I always feel guilty when I don't…well, I-"
"Frankie," the little boy suddenly tugged sharply on her emerald jacket as he continued to try and suppress his laughter at the sight she cut. "So why can't we just go and visit them tomorrow?"
Frankie silently gazed for a moment or two at the child and his fat, forgiving smile, as if she was stunned that she had gotten off so easily. What was even worse though was that this wasn't even a once-in-a-lifetime awkward moment. She couldn't even remember how many times she had gotten into a situation like this because she insisted handling this entire subject far too sensitively.
Now here she was again, sitting on the front lawn where her adopted little brother had just caught her fibbing like a naughty toddler. All in all, it was nothing more than the extremely peculiar life she lived in a nutshell. And as Frankie finally cracked a grin, she knew, as always, she wouldn't trade any of what she had for the entire world.
Finally allowing herself to ease up, the redhead burst out giggling as she eagerly swept him up into a tight hug.
"Oh jeez, Lord only knows why I work myself up about this." She snorted with laughter, while she nuzzled him gently. "Course we can go, pal."
"After I get home tomorrow, right?" he inquired excitedly, returning the squeeze.
For a few seconds, Frankie didn't reply, for she was too busy relishing in the fact that she could practically feel the healthy, rhythmic beat of his new heart as she held him close.
"No, I'm gonna go down right after you head out the door for school." She teased, grinning like an idiot. "C'mon, how else are you mom and big bro gonna see how well you're doing? Although…"
"Although?" Mac piped up curiously. The girl only chuckled mischievously as she flashed a sly wink.
"There's not exactly any guarantees you're gonna be doing so well tomorrow…at least not by the time I'm done with you today-"
"Ackpth!" Mac sputtered as soon as he remembered the game had never officially ended. "No way!"
Thrashing about like mad, he managed to free himself from her hold and back off a few feet.
"Ha! Nice try, Mac Foster, but you can't escape me forever!" The redhead laughed as scrambled atop her hands and knees and began to crawl towards him.
"Yes I can!" Mac snickered, sticking out his tongue impudently. "You can't catch me! You can't catch me! You can't catch me!"
"I'll get you my pretty, and your little imaginary blob, too!" Frankie cackled. "C'mere!"
With that she dove forward in a powerful lunge and tackled him to the ground. They had barely made contact with the lawn though before Mac immediately began to squirm about wildly.
"Quit it! Lemmego! Lemmego!" he yelped as he struggled, while the redhead playfully tried to wrestle him into submission.
"Heeheehee! I don't think so, pal! You're so going down-"
The words had barely rolled off her tongue before he managed to squirm out of her grip faster than a greased eel.
"Hey! Get back here, you little-"she cried as she made an unsuccessful grab. Mac just snorted with laughter and was off like a rocket.
"Haha! Told you! Can't catch me!" he shouted in mock defiance before darting off.
Shaking with mirth, Frankie managed to clumsily clamber back to her feet. Although she wanted to give chase and continue the game, she couldn't help but pause and watch blissfully for a moment as he darted off behind the house to join his friends.
Back when he was hovering between life and death with a failing heart, she had wanted nothing more than to simply watch him bound about, as a normal child should. Now that he had made a full recovery Frankie found that there were fewer things that gave her more pleasure than simply seeing him scamper and play, looking as healthy and fit as could possibly be. To her, the very fact that she could simply stand there and watch her adopted little brother sprint around the front yard seemed to be nothing short of a miracle to her. Smiling contently from ear to ear, Frankie peered to the sky for a moment as her thoughts turned to the brave soul who had made this possible.
She couldn't lie, the initial trauma of those few weeks long ago, all topped off with the horrific shock of that cold, rainy night at the hospital, added with Mac's long recovery process, none of it had been easy to get through.
Despite that undeniable truth, as hard as she could try the young woman could find no anger to harbor towards Terrence. As far as she was concerned, all was forgiven the moment the raven-haired teenager had had gotten over his rage and confusion long enough to sacrifice everything he had in a final attempt to save his little brother. If anything, she felt that she was the one who had a dept to repay, one that she hoped her undying appreciation would be enough to do the job.
Just before she raced off in playful pursuit after Mac and the other little ones, Frankie paused to glance heavenwards to voice her gratitude in the same manner she did several times a day, always with the utmost sincerity.