Time of Innocence
(aka Smiling Back V)
by RogueAngel

Rate PG - so far
Summary: A continuation of the Smiling Back universe. Danny and Grace have grown up. They happen to meet an interesting character who starts them asking some pretty serious questions about themselves and their parents.

Chapter 1

I didn't really want to be there that day. Well, I guess I did. I would have done anything to get away from the farm after the week I had had, but once I got to Tildy's it wasn't as much of a relief as I had hoped. I just wasn't in the mood to be as.... happy.... as everyone else in the shop. Grace was at her perky best, laughing with her friends, her green eyes sparkling as she tossed her pony tail over her shoulder - a move she had learned from some movie, I'm sure, because I never saw mom or Aunt Kate do it.

She had changed in the past months and I wasn't really happy about it. On the farm she was still the same old Grace; helping out on the plane and watching over her brothers and sister. It was at school or in town that I really noticed the difference. I was just a lowly freshman, but I could see how the social structure worked at Shelby High, and Grace was definitely on her way up. She may have been practically my sister, but I did realize that she was a very pretty girl, as did most of the other guys in school, unfortunately. She was getting sucked up into the social whirlwind of high school and I had the sinking feeling that I was loosing her.

Up until recently we would still meet at the clearing after dinner, at least when the weather was good. It was just our time; we had done it for as long as I could remember, but not any more, or at least not as regularly. She said it was because of all the homework she had...her being a sophomore and all. Well, I had homework, too, and it didn't keep me that busy. All she could think about and talk about was Thomas McKellar, so it was just as well she didn't meet me because I was getting tired of talking about him. He's the whole reason we were at Tildy's that day. The day that set my world reeling on it's axis.

Earlier that day I had happened to mention that Thomas might be going to the movies and Grace suddenly decided that we had to go to town. She was like that. Once she got an idea, she was off to the races with it. I actually admired her for it. I was much too cautious to just act on an idea. I liked to think things through.

It didn't take much to convince her mom and dad that it would be a good break for her. There had been a slight wrinkle when they said she had to take Matty and Drew, she hadn't planned on that, but Grace was always a clever girl. She talked my mom into letting me come too - on the pretense that I was so unhappy that a soda might cheer me up. Well, I was unhappy, but the soda didn't do a thing for me except make me want to burp. It didn't matter to Grace though, since I then became the unofficial babysitter of the terrible two. I told you Grace was clever.

So, there I was, sitting and staring at myself in the big mirror behind the counter, a blob of brown in a sea of colors and chrome. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown shirt - even my mood was brown. Grace was practically blinding next to me in her new pink dress that she had just from her Aunt Julianna, all the way from New York. All the other girls were dressed up nicely too; their Mary Janes polished to a shine, their bobby socks turned down just so, their dresses, skirts and blouses a rainbow of pastels. The guys weren't too shabby either...though there weren't nearly as many of them, but they were definitely doing their best to impress with their slicked back hair and starched bowling shirts. Personally, I never bothered with my hair, no matter how much cream I added to it, it always ended up in my eyes - and that stuff really stings.

'A Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On' came on the juke box, and I could see Grace's feet start taping to the music. She was one of the few girls who didn't care for Pat Boone or Johnny Mathis, but put on something fast - like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Fats Domino, and the girl could dance all night. Too bad I didn't have any nickels. There was an outside chance that if the music got too mellow she might decide to leave.

"Grace, can we go now?" I asked, deliberately putting a bit of a whine into my voice, just to annoy her. "I want to get home and see if I can take the plane up." I added, though there was very little chance of that happening. My dad was still royally mad at me. I had taken the plane out two Saturdays ago and I.... well, I was practicing some barrel rolls and flips, which I wasn't supposed to do without either him or my uncle in the plane with me, and the engine stalled. I had it under control. I really did. I didn't panic and I did exactly what they taught me and it worked...on, like, the fourth try.

By the time I landed I was pretty damn proud of myself. My parents didn't look too happy, though. Actually, I have never seen my dad as mad as he was then. Not even when Max Jenkins ran down 12 rows of corn one night after the Halloween party in town. His face was bright red as he ran up to me, my uncle right behind him, his face extremely white in contrast. I looked behind them to see my mother standing on the back porch, sobbing in my Aunt Kate's arms. That's when I started feeling a bit bad.

I hadn't thought.... well, as my dad pointed out quite forcefully, I hadn't thought at all... but he gave me plenty of time to do so. Grounded, no flying, for two weeks at least, and lots of extra chores. He didn't speak to me for two whole days after that and even then it was mostly grunts and directives; 'do this,' and 'do that'.

I honest don't think he could have spoken if he wanted to. Each time he saw me his face would turn red and his mouth would open and close like a landed fish. I could tell that he was trying to keep his temper from exploding, and I was grateful for that. I talked a bit with my Uncle Danny, Grace's dad. He didn't have much to say except that I scared everybody to death and that I should let my dad cool down a bit more before I tried to apologize for being so stupid. I knew good advice when I heard it, so I just laid low and did my chores... I just thought he would have cooled down by now.

Grace swiveled on her stool, her eyes still sparkling at some piece of gossip she had just heard. She shook her head impatiently, the smile leaving her face as she looked at me. Well, at least I had succeeded in annoying her. "Not yet. You said Thomas was going to the early show and then coming here. The movie just let out five minutes ago," she explained to me, as if I didn't know why we were still here. Her eyes were eagerly scanning each new customer in the mirror as they came into the shop. I began to get that feeling in my stomach again. That feeling that made me wonder whatever happened to Grace, my best friend. The Grace who could climb trees and hit a ball over the barn. That Grace wasn't around much any more, and I didn't understand this new one at all. What had happened to my best friend?

"Besides," she nodded over at her brothers by the comics, "Matty and Drew are happy."

I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, resting my chin on my hand. "They're always happy when the new issues are out." I tried to look my saddest, hoping for an ounce of sympathy from her. "Besides, I said Thomas might be going to the early show and that he might be coming here afterwards." She didn't even look at me, so I gave up on the puppy dog look. "I don't know what you see in that guy," I mumbled, staring into my empty soda. That look used to always work with her, but not anymore, obviously. She had other things on her mind, namely Thomas McKellar, and she no longer had any time to waste on me.

"Quit whining," she teased, her eyes sparking momentarily at me. For a moment I felt our connection again. She was back to being my friend, and not some flighty girl. But it soon passed as the front bell dinged and another customer entered, her eyes leaving mine to see who. "You sound just like Matty. At least I bought you a soda."

"Well, I'm finished," I pointed out unnecessarily, annoyed that she couldn't spare me five seconds of her time.

"Well, I'm not," she snapped back, swiveling all the way around on her chair so that she could watch the front door, her elbows resting on the counter behind her. She smiled brightly at a passing boy and I could tell exactly what he was thinking. Her new position showed off her...uh, well, feminine attributes...and if I noticed then you can bet the other guys did too. I swear, in the space of a school year she became one of the girls she and I used to laugh about. "I don't know why you think you can fly today. Uncle Rafe said you were grounded until next weekend - at least. No flying at all."

She was sounding all superior, like she was so much older than me and I was one of her little brothers. I always hated it when she did that. It was a habit of hers, though. She was only 8 months older, but you would think it was 8 years the way she talked to me sometimes. And this wasn't something new. She had always been like that. I had just learned to live with it.

"I was hoping that he might have cooled down a bit, or maybe Uncle Danny could take me up...." I defended myself. I knew it was a long shot, and I knew that Grace knew it too, but a guy's got to have hope, right?

Grace snorted, sounding decidedly inelegant. "Daddy isn't going to take you up unless Uncle Rafe says it's okay, and you know that's not going to happen." She couldn't even be the least bit supportive of me...give me a little encouragement. A 'maybe' was all I was asking for. I missed flying terribly and I was truly miserable. It wasn't an act. If she just took the time she'd realize that, I thought, resentment settling in my stomach.

"Oh!" she suddenly exclaimed, her eyes brightening. She quickly spun around, her hands reaching up to check her hair. I turned to see who had come in, but I already had a good guess - Thomas. "He's here," she exclaimed breathlessly. Honestly, you would have thought Elvis Presley had entered the building, as flushed and excited as she looked. Actually, now that I think of it, Elvis wouldn't have gotten that much of a reaction from her; Ricky Nelson, maybe. "Danny, would you go... over there," she waved me off like some pesky puppy. "I want to talk to Thomas alone."

I frowned at her, but it was a lost cause, she was too busy checking her hair in the mirror. I watched Thomas and his group of friends walk in, all heads turned towards them, the girls smiling widely. I liked Thomas; don't get me wrong. He was a junior and a pitcher on the high school baseball team, a good one too. I was the catcher, mainly because the other catcher, a senior, broke his leg. I have to give Thomas some credit: he didn't let all the attention go to his head. He knew he was good looking and that all the girls liked him, but he was still basically a nice guy.

I was a bit envious of him actually. It's not that I wanted to be surrounded by girls...it was just that we were both the same height, but he was more muscular than me. No matter how many push-ups and pull ups I did, I still looked scrawny. It wouldn't have been so bad, except one time I heard one of Grace's friends call me a beanpole. I might not have wanted the attention from the girls, but I didn't want them laughing at me either.

I hopped off my stool. There was no point in sticking around; I'd be ignored anyways. "Sure, sure," I told Grace, walking away slowly...a small part of me hoping that she'd call me back. It wasn't that she wanted to be alone with Thomas; she just didn't want me around when Thomas and his friends finally arrived.

"Hey, McCawley," Thomas' boisterous voice called as I walked past him.

"Hey Thomas. Guys," I nodded, trying to muster up a smile. Like I said, the guy was decent, I just didn't particularly care for Grace's fascination with him.

"Is Grace here?" he asked.

Great, now I was going to be his go between, too. I could tell Grace what Thomas was doing and then tell Thomas what Grace was doing - my new meaning in life. "Yeah," I answered, trying to sound casual. "She's over there finishing her soda," I told him, hitching my thumb towards her. Grace sat with her back to us, pretending she didn't know who was in the shop. If I didn't know she had spent the last 20 minutes waiting for Thomas to show up, I could have easily believed her little act.

"Cool!" Thomas replied as he walked past, slapping me heartily on the shoulder, like I was a good little messenger boy. "I'll see you at practice Monday."

"Yeah, see you," I answered, watching him walk up to Grace. The surprised, yet delighted look on Grace's face was quiet good. I would have believed that too, but I had seen her practicing it in the mirror in her living room. I shook my head with disgust. Great, just great, I thought. Now I'm stuck in Malt Shop Hell. Matty and Drew wouldn't want to leave any time soon and Grace was too busy holding court with Thomas and his friends, her eyes sparkling as she laughed at some remark he made. I was going to be stuck here forever.

Sighing, I found a vacant seat back near the comic stand where I could keep an eye on the trouble twins. I always carried a book with me, and today's selection was Louis L'amour's latest novel, Burning Hills. If I couldn't escape physically, at least my mind could wander freely through the Wild West.

I'd spent most of the previous week reading - when I wasn't doing chores for my dad, that is. It was the only escape I had since I couldn't fly. Flying was definitely my favorite escape, though I couldn't do it as often as I liked, but reading was a close second.

I had found two new Louis L'amour novels that I hadn't been able to get before, and some kind of fantasy book, The Fellowship of the Ring, hidden inside the barn where I usually went to read. It wasn't that I needed to hide, as long as my chores were done my dad didn't really care what I did. I think he was even a bit proud at how much I read. It was just that the loft in the barn was my special place where no one bothered me.

I had learned to read there actually, my uncle sitting with me on his odd holiday home from college, helping me struggle through Dick and Jane. Grace had learned to read during one long year while they were away and I was a bit jealous. Of course she insisted on lording it over me, reading everything to me like I was a baby. Uncle Danny understood my dilemma and he secretly taught me, so that by summer's end I was just as good Grace. He always seemed to understand what I was feeling.

I knew he was the one who put the books up there. He was just as upset about my stunts in the plane as my father, but he understood how being grounded for so long was more than enough punishment. If it hadn't been for those new books I would have sat and stewed on my lost freedom and become even more unhappy and depressed. So reading it was. If I couldn't fly, I could escape into a book. The fantasy book looked interesting and I knew my uncle and aunt really liked it, but I wasn't much interested in elves and dwarves at that moment. I wanted to become lost in the Wild West, like I saw on TV and at the movies. I could travel alongside Indians, or fight bandits with daring. I didn't have to think about what was going on in my life. I didn't have to worry about anyone else - not Grace, or Thomas, or my parents. I could be anyone I wanted, not some fourteen-year-old boy who was slowly losing his best friend and constantly butting heads with his father. With a book in front of me I was free from all my worries...and I liked it that way.

Slouching down into my chair I settled in. I became Trace Jordan, struggling through the hot Texas plains, buzzards circling, injured and tired, searching for a hiding place in the hopes that the men pursuing me would pass me by. I always had had a vivid imagination. It's how I survived all those years while Grace was away and there was no one to play with. Reading just stimulated everything even more. I could see the heat waves coming off the desolate landscape and hear the buzzard's wings as they swept down from above, excited by the smell of blood. The whole malt shop with it's buzzing voices and rock 'n roll playing on the nickel jukebox simply faded away until I was rather rudely interrupted by a old woman, who in the space of a few minutes conversation, managed to turn my life upside down.

"Boy!" her gravely voice slowly penetrated my dream world. "Hey boy!" she called again, but this time she added a not so light tap of her cane against my shin.

"Hey, watch it!" I yelped, glaring up at her. I was caught momentarily between my dream world and reality. I couldn't help wondering if the buzzards from Texas had followed me into the malt shop. That's the only image that comes to mind whenever I think of that old woman, Mrs. Gorf, I was to find out later. She was medium sized, but spindly and extremely wrinkled. She could have easily been a hundred years old. Her silver hair was the only relief in the ensemble of black that she wore; from her institutional black shoes to the onyx brooch that was pinned to her collar. She looked exactly like a silver haired buzzard with a cane. Oddly enough, though, despite her obvious love of black, her cane was a shiny red.

"Don't sass me boy," she warned me, her voice low and raspy, her penetrating black eyes looking me over carefully, taking in every flaw and imperfection of my slouched form. From the look of her pinched face I gathered that she didn't like what she saw. "You best watch them brothers of yours," she told me, pointing a shaky finger towards Matty and Drew. "They're going to damage something soon, mark my words."

I glanced over to see Matty and Drew playing swords with rolled up comic books. I guess they were bored too. "They aren't my brothers," I told the old woman. But brothers or no, I was still partially responsible for them. "Drew, Matty," I yelled at them, making them jump. I made my voice deliberately harsh so they would know that I was being serious. If you were too nice they would only continue doing their best to annoy you. They could be devious little monsters when the mood struck them. "Knock it off. I know you don't have money, so you better not ruin those."

The boys stopped their play and unrolled the comics, tossing them back onto the display carelessly. "Danny, can we go now?" eight-year-old Matty asked, habitually swiping at the hair that was always in his eyes. "We looked at all these and we're bored," he whined. Matty was really a great kid, but he sure could whine. I don't know why he bothered, though. Uncle Danny and Aunt Kate rarely let him get away with it, but he was ever the opportunist. I knew it drove Grace crazy, so it usually worked on her. She'd do just about anything to get him to leave her alone.

"Yeah, we're bored," six-year-old Drew chimed in. "I wanna go home." Now, Drew, on the other hand tended to use his eyes to get his way. He had green eyes, like Aunt Kate and Grace, but with long dark lashes that made them look startling. He'd bat those lashes at you and pout a little. He looked like a green-eyed puppy. The look worked amazingly well on all the old ladies in town. Drew was always getting free cookies and balloons.

"Yeah, me too," I whispered under my breath. Looking over at Grace I could tell that she had no intention of leaving soon. It would take a miracle to get her to leave while Thomas was still here; a miracle, or something really annoying. I couldn't help smiling to myself as a brilliant idea occurred to me. It was a dirty trick, but whatever got us out of here was worth it. Turning to the impatient boys I looked at them seriously. "Go ask your sister," I told them. "It's up to her." I couldn't stop a grin from spreading across my face as I watched them walk over to her. No one could whine better than Matty on a mission, and Drew could be quite persistent in his own way. I was pretty confident that we'd be out of there in ten minutes or less. Feeling smugly satisfied, I returned to my book.

"Not your brothers, huh?" the old lady asked slyly, thumping me with her cane again. I had forgotten that she was there. I looked up to see her still standing over me, both hands propped onto her cane as she stared at me intently.

"No, they're not," I said, shifting my legs out of her reach and keeping my eyes trained on my book, hoping that she would take the hint and leave me alone. Instead she pulled out the chair opposite me and sat down, her eyes never leaving my face.

"Don't lie to me boy," she barked, banging her cane against the floor for emphasis.

"I'm not lying," I replied sullenly. I remember feeling a sudden spark of anger course through me. Who was she to question my honesty? Everyone in town knew that Matty and Drew weren't my brothers.

The old woman actually scoffed at me in disbelief, her voice sounding as if she needed a good cough. "Your name Danny?" she asked belligerently.

"Yeah, so what?" I answered, hadn't Matty just called me that? Maybe the old woman had a hearing problem. I didn't care. I just wanted to be left alone. Deliberately I lifted my book, but I couldn't concentrate with her staring at me like I was some kind of interesting bug.

Frustrated, I finally put the book down. "What do you want?" I asked tightly. I had always been taught to be polite to my elders, but she was really irritating me. I didn't have the patience to deal with a crazy woman, especially not a mean one with a cane and the penchant to use it.

Now that she had my undivided attention, the old woman nodded over to where the boys were pestering Grace. Seeing the annoyed expression on Grace's face almost made me smile. We'd be going home soon. Unfortunately, it wasn't soon enough.
"That one," she pointed with her bony chin. "The bigger one - he's the spitting image of his father at the same age.

I shrugged. So Matty looked like his father, who cared? "So?" I asked, knowing that she wasn't going to let this go until she'd had her say. I was now almost sure that she was crazy.

Her beady black eyes came around to rest on me again, and I felt the force of her stare. I felt like a...moth...underneath a magnifying glass, as if she was studying everything about me. "You," she pointed a finger at me. "You look like him too. Oh, you might have some of your mama in you." She cocked her head to the side, studying me. "The chin's a bit different," she said thoughtfully, rubbing her face. "And your hair's a bit darker, too. But you look like him. Especially the eyes."

I frowned at her, shaking my head in disbelief. Now I was sure; she was definitely crazy. Along with the hearing problem she must have had a problem with her eyes too. All brown hair, brown-eyed kids looked alike. Why was she bothering me of all people, I wondered. There were dozen's of people in the malt shop. I'd had a bad enough week as it was, I didn't need more aggravation. Of course, I was the only one sitting alone and that, unfortunately, made me a good target. "You know my father?" I smirked, playing a long with her game. I'd told her several times that Matty and Drew weren't my brothers, so I doubt she would have heard me if I had said it again.

"I do," she nodded emphatically. "I used to be librarian hereabouts before I moved down to Atlanta to be with my sister in '37. I saw your father all the time in the library."

This time I couldn't help laughing at her words. My dad was a smart man, but his knowledge didn't come from books. Reading was never one of his strong suits. Even when I was little he would wait outside the library when I went inside, so I can't imagine him going to the library often enough for the librarian to get to know him when he was a kid.

I jumped when I felt a hand come down on my shoulder. I guess I was tenser than I thought after being pestered by the old woman. I didn't know what she was after, or what made her come up with her crazy ideas, but she was really getting to me. I knew who I was and who I was related to.

Grace looked down at me concernedly. "Come on, Danny, let's go home."

Thank God, I thought in relief. It was about time. The old lady was smirking at me, but I ignored her. I wanted to get as far from her and her crazy talk about my father as possible. "Sure," I agreed, trying not to sound too relieved at the idea of leaving. But as I stood up the woman began to cackle softly to herself and something inside of me just snapped. "Look, they aren't my brothers, okay?" I declared hotly, staring down at her. "Grace, you tell her!" I turned to face Grace, her face a mixture of shock and confusion. "Tell her that Matty and Drew are not my brothers," I demanded.

I watched as Grace looked bewilderingly between the old woman and me, a small frown appearing between her eyes. It wasn't like me to get so upset, especially at an old woman, but I just couldn't help it. This nosy old buzzard acted as if she knew everything about me, yet she didn't even listen to me when I told her the truth. I could feel my face flushing as I clenched and unclenched my fists. It had been a bad enough of a week as is; I didn't need this now.

"If the boys have done something...." Grace began hesitantly, her eyes focused on me though I continued to glare down at the woman.

"They haven't," the old woman interrupted. "It's just I don't like people that lie to me. I know what I know."

That was enough. I was seeing red by then. "I'm not lying!" I said throwing my hands up in the air. "Can't you hear? They are not my brothers. We are not related. Okay? My father would never set foot in the library. So just leave me alone!"

"Can I help you, ma'am," Grace asked confusedly, her hand resting lightly on my arm. "Danny isn't a liar. Maybe you're mistaken."

"Don't talk to me like I'm crazy, girl," the woman barked, her gaze shifted away from me and focused on Grace. I watched her eyes sweep up and down her form, taking in everything. "Who are you girl? Are you his sister," she demanded, nodded towards me abruptly.

"No ma'am, he's my...friend," Grace finally replied hesitantly. It was hard to pick a word to describe what we were to each other. Technically we weren't related, though we had been raised together like cousins. Friends would do well enough.

The old woman didn't seem to hear Grace at all. "What about those two boys?" she asked, pointed towards the front window where Matty and Drew were standing making faces at the malt shop patrons and laughing uproariously.

Grace waved at them to stop, but they only laughed harder, sticking their tongues out and crossing their eyes. "They're my brothers," Grace answered, still frowning at them. I could tell that Grace was uncomfortable talking to this crazy woman by the way she was twisting her hands, but she still met her penetrating stare without flinching. "Come on, Danny," she said finally grabbing my arm.

"Who are you parents," the woman barked sharply before we had taken two steps.

Grace stopped with a sigh. She had been raised just as I had, and being polite was a hard habit to break. I knew her patience was frayed, but she still managed to answer. "Danny and Kate Walker," she said simply. "Let's go," she whispered to me under her breath.

I wanted to go, but I couldn't. The old lady was cackling again, her face breaking into a smile, her wrinkles all but covering up her eyes. "That's what I thought," she crowed delightedly, tapping me with her cane again. "See boy, I told you, you look just like your father. Danny Walker Jr.," she declared. "No sense lying to me. I've known him for years. You read like him too," she pointed to the paperback that was still clenched in my fist. "That boy could go through books quicker than a weasel through a chicken coop!" She laughed hoarsely at her own humor.

I stared at her for a long moment, a sudden icy feeling in the pit of my stomach. This woman was crazy; she had to be crazy; to think that Uncle Danny was... She was definitely crazy I tried to convince myself. So what if I had brown hair and eyes like him...my dad and mom both had brown hair and eyes too. Just because I read a lot didn't mean anything. I didn't look that much like Matty. But somehow hearing her say those words, hearing her say my name that way...something tumbled into place in my mind and I didn't like the feel of it.

"My father's name is Rafe McCawley," I managed to say through clenched teeth. "And he doesn't even like to read."

The old woman stopped laughing and for a moment I felt triumphant. Now she'd apologize for her mistake, I thought. Then a speculative gleam came into her eyes as she looked at me, my stomach suddenly sinking like a rock. "That's what you think, boy," she told me, a sly look on her face, as if we were sharing some kind of joke. "That's what you think."

I'd had enough. Turning abruptly I pulled Grace out of the shop, wanting to get as far away from that old woman as possible. Grace didn't say anything, but she kept on looking back at the old woman, a frown on her face. I didn't look back. I couldn't. I was afraid that if I did I might just turn into stone.

End 1/?