(Author's note: one very kind reader suspected plagiarism when she saw this story posted at knittycat99's story space as well, so I wanted to make it VERY clear that we are co-authors. You are amazing, dear one. That is all. -amy)
Part One: Elementary School
The night the cops came and finally took Danny Puckerman to jail, Sarah pulled Noah away from the dinner table when the china started flying and pushed him up the hall into the closet of their shared bedroom. He wanted out of the dark, but she held onto him until the sirens were gone and Mom was crying at the kitchen table. When they emerged, wide-eyed into the heavy silence, Noah was clutching at her hand like he wanted her to hold him together.
Mom held them both in her lap then and whispered to them that Daddy was going away and not coming back, told them that she would protect them. She had been good at that for a long time, until Daddy started coming home late and not going to work. After that, all they could do was hide, because even when Daddy was bear-mad and screaming, Mom was right back in his face hollering that he wasn't ever going to lay a hand on the kids, not even if he killed her first.
He had tried, that night. Sarah didn't know who had called the cops, but it didn't matter in the end. Somebody called, the cops came, and the worst they were left with were broken dinner dishes, Mom's black eye and bloody nose, and Noah's nightmares.
He slept in Sarah's bed for over a month, wouldn't talk to anyone but that shy Finn kid who sat behind him in school, or to Sarah in their babble of twin-talk that drove Mom crazy. Sarah supposed they were lucky to have each other, and that Finn didn't care what happened with Daddy, because everyone else sure did. Sarah could hear the whispers that followed them in the halls at school, in the supermarket, on the playground. She felt the stares boring holes between her shoulders.
She hated them, all of them, because they didn't know what it was like to have a dad one minute and have him be gone the next.
Kurt missed almost as much school as he attended; that was just how things were since his mom got sick and had to go to the hospital in Columbus. He was just as glad, really, not to go to school. He liked the learning part okay, he just didn't like the other kids, so he was perfectly happy to snuggle up with his mom in her hospital bed and read to her, or have her help him with his math and social studies worksheets.
Only one day, she was too tired to listen to him read. Then she couldn't help with math, either. That was when his dad started having whispered conversations with doctors in the hallway, and Aunt Mildred came and stayed with him at the house while Dad stayed in Columbus. That was when Kurt went back to school, until the day his dad showed up in the middle of music class and hugged him in the hallway and told him that Mommy was gone.
He didn't go to school for two weeks after that, but when he did he wished he could be somebody else. The kids had always laughed at him, teased him, but things were different now. Now he was the boy whose mother died, and they all just looked at him in silence with sad, scared expressions on their faces.
He didn't sing in music class, didn't talk to anyone. He hadn't been in school enough to make friends in his class, really, so he ate lunch alone and wandered the edge of the playground at recess thinking about his mom and trying not to cry.
Finn thought that Sarah Puckerman might be the bossiest person in the whole third grade, and her brother was definitely the funniest, until something happened at their house. Finn didn't really know what that was, only that it made Noah quiet and Sarah protective, and the other kids looked at them funny and teachers whispered behind their backs.
Finn didn't think that was fair. He knew what it was like; he'd heard if before he knew what it meant, that poor Hudson boy, his father died in the Gulf, you know. It wasn't his fault his dad died, or that his mom was raising him alone. It didn't mean he was bad, or that there was anything wrong with his mom. He just didn't understand why it bothered people.
Sometimes Finn felt like he was the only one who realized that whatever had happened to Sarah and Noah wasn't their fault.
He was just getting friendly with Noah when that Kurt kid came back to class. He'd missed a lot of school, weeks of it at a time, but nobody knew why until Finn overheard Ms. Kenyon talking with Mr. Jacobs across the hall about how sad it was, that Kurt's mom was in the hospital in Columbus, that she was dying. Finn hadn't known anyone who had died, because he really hadn't known his dad, but he did know what it was like to only have one parent.
He watched Kurt for a week before he made his move. He waited until Kurt had almost completed his lap of the playground at recess before he darted out from where he was sitting with Noah under the monkey bars and grabbed Kurt's wrist. Kurt tried to yank away.
"Stop it! Let go!"
Finn just held tighter. "Come here."
He pulled Kurt into the cage-like area where Noah was digging at the rubber tire pieces with a stick, and tugged at him until they were both sitting.
"I'm Finn. This is Noah."
Kurt just rolled his eyes at them. "I know who you are. I'm not stupid."
"You just missed a lot of school."
"Yeah. My mom . . ." Finn watched Kurt turn his head, blink his eyes a couple of times and swallow hard. Finn wasn't sure what to say, so he stuck with the truth.
"I know. My dad died when I was a baby."
Kurt's eyes went wide. "Oh."
Noah just kept digging with his stick, sending the rubber bits flying. Finn nudged him with his knee; Noah talked to him, and to Sarah in that weird made-up language, but would barely even look at anyone else. He didn't say a word to Finn then, just nodded his head.
"Noah's dad is gone, too." He lowered his voice then, ducking his head to whisper into Kurt's ear. "I don't know what happened, he's just gone somewhere."
Kurt inched in, closed their little circle so that his knees were touching Finn on one side and Noah on the other. "I hate the way everyone looks at me."
Finn almost fell over when Noah dropped his stick and looked at Kurt. "Me, too," he said, his voice soft and unsure.
Finn just waited, because he could see that Noah had something else to say. Only it wasn't Noah who said it. It was Sarah, pushing her way through the metal rungs to join them. She held her head up and looked right at Kurt. "Our dad's in jail, for beating up our mom. And for drugs. But mostly for beating up our mom."
Finn wanted to laugh because Kurt clearly hadn't spent any kind of time around either of the Puckerman twins before their dad left; he looked like he wanted to run away until Sarah smoothed her hand over his hair. She was looking at Kurt, but talking to all of them.
"It's okay. We can take care of each other, now."
When the recess bell rang, Finn followed behind the others. He smiled as he watched them walk, Sarah in the middle, firmly gripping Kurt's hand on one side and Noah's on the other.
Burt threw his truck into park and all but ran into the school. He was late again, fourth time this month, and he wasn't sure how much longer the teacher who ran Kurt's after-school program would be so forgiving. She hadn't said anything yet, and hadn't charged him the late pickup fee, for which he was grateful, but he really did mean to be on time. For Kurt, as much as for himself.
When he skidded to a stop in the doorway of the school gym, he was surprised to see Kurt sitting in a corner with three other kids. One was a scrawny, sandy-haired boy, and the other two were darker, with identical golden brown skin and curly dark brown hair. Siblings, maybe even twins, Burt thought.
Kurt was bent over a book, and the others were listening with rapt attention as he read aloud until one of the siblings - he thought she was a girl - noticed the motion of the teacher next to Burt. She stared him down across the room, clearly daring him to interrupt, so he just stood and waited.
The teacher nearby leaned in. "Don't mess with Mama Bear," she said in a low voice.
Burt regarded the girl with the piercing glare and her friends. "Who is she? Who are they?"
The teacher pointed to the scrawny boy. "Finn Hudson. And the others are the Puckerman twins. Noah and Sarah. Sarah's something of their protector."
"Huh." Kurt hadn't mentioned anything about friends at school, but neither of them had really been talking much, lately. Burt just watched, then, taking in the way the group was sitting, all cross-legged with their knees touching, Sarah with one little hand on Kurt's ankle where it poked out from under his jeans, the other hand on her brother's knee. He watched, and waited, until a pair of frantic footsteps turned his attention to two women who had rushed through the door, much as he himself had done. They halted next to him in the gym doorway. The shorter woman gasped, almost to herself.
Burt turned and looked, didn't have to ask, but did anyway. "Which one is yours?"
"Finn. The taller one. Yours?"
"Kurt." Burt waved his hand at his son. "With the book."
The other woman's voice was warm and rich. "Which makes the other two devils mine. Sarah and Noah." Then, in almost an aside to the shorter woman. "I didn't know the twins knew Finn."
The shorter woman sighed. "There's a lot I don't know, these days."
Burt took in two pairs of scrubs, two pairs of battered clogs, two hospital id tags and two exhausted faces. He held out his hand. "Burt Hummel."
"Carole Hudson." Carole's hand was cool from outside; she wasn't wearing a coat.
"Ruth Puckerman," said the other woman.
"You two know each other."
"We're both nurses, in the ER at Lima Memorial."
Burt hadn't seen either of them here before, at pickup. But most days, even when he was on time, Kurt was the last one remaining, so that wasn't surprising. He'd had Tony opening the garage so that he could get Kurt up and ready and to school on time, which meant that he hadn't had Tony to close up in the evenings, which was why Kurt had to go to after school care in the first place. Burt was overwhelmed just thinking about it, and he rubbed his hand over his face before he got on to thinking about Elizabeth. Carole's voice reached him then, soft and kind.
"I'm so sorry about your wife."
Burt choked out a startled thank you, and shuffled a bit when Carole fixed both him and Ruth with a stare. "It gets easier. It takes time, but it gets easier. Okay?"
Burt shook his head, and Ruth let out a bitter laugh. "I'm sorry?" Burt managed to engage his brain, but still felt like he was missing something.
"Being a single parent. Finn's dad was killed in the Gulf War right after Finn was born. I've been doing this a long time. It's never going to be perfect, but it gets easier."
Burt didn't know what to say about that. All he knew right then was that he missed his wife and he felt like he was barely pretending at taking care of Kurt, and he'd somehow found his way into the orbits of these two women just because their kids were sitting in the corner together like some little cult or something.
He stuttered a little and adjusted his ballcap. "I gotta . . . Kurt. Dinner." He was about to cross the gym when he noticed the teacher leaning over, one hand on Sarah's shoulder and nodding with her head toward the three adults waiting. The kids got up en masse, shrugged into coats and shouldered backpacks, and walked over, Sarah in the middle with Kurt and Noah by their hands, Finn a few steps behind but with a watchful eye on the others.
Kurt broke away and threw himself into Burt's arms. God, he was so little, and so free with his affections. Burt whispered into the soft of his son's hair. "Good day, kiddo?"
"Okay. We were reading, and I didn't get to finish." He sounded dejected.
"Sorry, buddy. Maybe you can finish tomorrow. It's time to get home. Dinner."
Burt noticed Finn tucking himself under his mother's arm. "Mom, can we go to Cici's for pizza? Please?"
Carole closed her eyes, and her face reflected a look Burt was learning all too well. Pizza, albeit cheap and plentiful, versus heat or mortgage or gas for the car, or how much overtime at the end of the month? It was too much, some days.
Kurt grabbed onto the idea as well. "Please, Dad? Pizza? Cici's has salad and dessert. Dessert, Dad!" They hadn't had dessert, not real dessert, since Elizabeth died. Burt pretended to stop and think about it for a moment before smiling down at Kurt.
"Okay." He looked at Ruth, at Noah standing quietly with his hand still in his sister's, at Sarah, whose eyes were penetrating and strong, and too old for eight. "Would you all like to join us?"
Ruth paused, and then nodded. "Okay. I didn't have anything thawed anyway."
Carole thought it would be good for the kids to sit at their own table, which made the kids look proud. Burt knew it was really so the grownups could talk. After they'd worked through sodas and pizza and salad and dessert, Kurt pulled out his book and finished reading whatever had kept them so enthralled in the gym, and Burt leaned back in his chair.
"I can keep the kids, all of them, in the afternoons next month." Carole and Ruth just looked at him. He closed his eyes, but kept talking. "It'll be warm, and Schoonover Park is right across the street from my garage. It would be easier, if one of you has to work late."
They all knew what he was offering: the relief of not having to find $125 a kid for the afterschool or the added stress of those nights when work just went long.
Carole nodded at him. "You live on Maple, right?"
"We're just on Cedar. If you want, I can drive Kurt to school with us in the mornings."
Burt thought about the extra time in the mornings, how if he moved opening back to 8:30 instead of 8 he could put Tony back on closing and then he wouldn't have to keep the kids at the garage at all; he could take them to the park, or to the house, and it would be better for all of them.
"Thank you. That would be . . ." The unexpected kindness of these near-strangers was surprising. There hadn't been much kindness, not when Elizabeth was sick at least. After she died it had come in a wave, but now all Burt got anywhere were pitying looks when what he needed was some damn help. He swallowed around the brief surge of anger. "That would be wonderful."
Ruth had been silent through the whole exchange, but when she spoke she sounded drained. "We live on Vine. I could take the mornings you have an early shift, Carole. Or," she leveled her gaze at Burt, with eyes like her daughter's, "when I work early I could trade afternoons with you, Burt. That way none of us has to bear the whole burden."
Burt wanted to take exception for a moment, because Kurt was in no way a burden, but he understood what Ruth was trying to say. He nodded at her. "I think that's a good idea. I think the kids will like it, too. Kurt hasn't really had any friends, and he missed so much school."
"Will he still be promoted with the class?" Carole sounded concerned.
"Yeah. They were really good about giving us these packets. Kurt's a smart kid, he's kept up just fine. It's the friends thing I worry about."
"I guess it's good they found each other, then, huh?" Carole looked over to the kids' table, where Finn was taking a turn reading.
Burt crossed his arms across his chest, and smiled to himself. He felt something loosen inside, something he'd held tight to for longer than he'd like to admit. "Yeah," he said. "Maybe it will be good for us, too."
Finn's mom got him a football for his birthday, because he was old enough for the rec department flag football team. He brought it to school every day and to the park or Kurt's house in the afternoons. He didn't really know how to play, but Noah kind of did. Finn guessed that maybe Mr. Puckerman had played ball with Noah, back before things went bad, because Noah helped Finn arrange his fingers on the laces, and showed Finn how to throw a spiral. It didn't go very far; Finn wasn't very strong, and he was a little clumsy sometimes, but Noah always seemed to know just where Finn was going to throw it. He caught it every time. On the days that they were at Kurt's house, Mr. Hummel would come out in the yard with them and play. He showed Finn how to get more power in his throw, which Finn thought was pretty cool. He felt bad, though, that Kurt never played.
Kurt never wanted to play. At least, not football. Kurt liked what Sarah liked, drawing and reading and quiet things that made Finn want to crawl out of his skin. So Kurt and Sarah would sit on the back patio at the Hummel house, or next to the fountain at the park, and whisper and read or whatever while Finn and Puck played football.
But on the way home, or getting ready for snack in Kurt's kitchen, they would all sing. Not Mr. Hummel, because his voice was awful, but the four of them. Finn had all these old cassette tapes that had been his dad's, and they were the same kind of songs that Mr. Hummel liked, so Finn and Kurt usually knew the words. He was kind of surprised that Noah and Sarah did, too. The first few times, Noah got quiet and Sarah got all stiff, until Kurt told Finn that Sarah told him that their dad used to play guitar and sing, and he had taught them a lot of those songs, too.
The next time they got in Mr. Hummel's car, Finn leaned over and whispered to Noah. "It's okay to like music. It doesn't mean anything about you, or your dad."
Noah sang along after that. Softly. Finn kind of liked it when he did.
"I got these for our birthday last summer," said Sarah, holding up the black box of markers. "They're real artist markers. I can draw anything with them. Seriously - anything. Go ahead, pick something."
They were stretched out on the floor of Finn's family room, waiting for Mrs. Hudson to be ready to take them to school. Noah had the box of Honeycomb, and Finn kept taking handful after handful from the box. Kurt didn't know why Finn didn't just take the whole box, but if Finn didn't mind reaching over Noah to dig into his lap for more cereal, he wasn't going to bring it up.
"Um," said Finn. "A dog?"
"Easy," Sarah boasted, sliding the brown Prismacolor marker from its space. She began to color on the blank page in her sketchbook.
"What did you get, Noah?" Kurt asked. "For your birthday?"
For a minute, Kurt wasn't sure if Noah was going to reply. He didn't always. Sometimes Sarah ended up talking for him; other times the answer came out an hour later, usually out of context. But finally, the dark-haired boy stirred, and said, softly, "A guitar."
"It wasn't Dad's guitar," said Sarah. "It was an awesome one. It has an amp pickup and everything. Give me something else to draw."
"A mermaid," suggested Kurt, and she gamely selected light blues and greens for the scales.
"Can you play?" Finn asked, with apparent awe, taking another huge handful of cereal.
"A little," Noah said. He hesitated. "I learned the chords for that song we sang yesterday in the car. The one about Superman."
"I love that song," Finn said, smiling wistfully. "I'm totally asking for a drum set for my next birthday."
They all listened but did not comment on Finn's wish, knowing a drum set was without a doubt a much too expensive present for any of them to get, but knowing equally well that to step on someone else's wish was the worst kind of insult any of them could receive. They'd never do that, not to each other.
"Draw a drum set for Finn," Kurt whispered to Sarah.
"Already on it," she whispered back, showing him the page where she'd begun the picture. "What about you? What did you get for your birthday?"
"It's not important," he said, feeling himself blush.
"Yeah, it is," she insisted. "I want to know."
Kurt mumbled an answer, too quiet to hear. "What?" she said, leaning closer.
"A pair of silver slippers," he whispered. "Like the ones Dorothy had."
"I thought they were ruby slippers," she said, confused.
"That was in the movie," he said. "In the book, they were silver."
"Oh," she said. Into the pause, she selected her silver marker, and Kurt watched in silence as she began to draw a pair of elegant heels. "Would you read that book to us next?" she asked. "After you finish A Wrinkle in Time?"
"Sure," he said, slipping a hand into hers.
Noah liked to sit on the edge of the fountain in Schoonover Park, as close as he could get to the spray without actually letting it touch his skin. Sarah, on the other hand, just put her feet right in and didn't even care if the cuffs of her jeans got wet, which drove Noah crazy. The water wasn't the cleanest, but it was really the feeling of wet denim that made his skin crawl.
Sarah gazed across the fountain at Kurt, then Finn, and finally Noah. "I can do magic," she announced.
"How?" asked Kurt, dangling his bare arm in the fountain. The water was freezing cold, so cold that submerging a limb made it tingly and numb for a time, but it didn't seem to bother Kurt.
"My markers." Sarah held up her black box of Prismacolors. "I drew a question mark on my arm, here - " She rolled up her sleeve and showed them the stylized symbol. "- and immediately I got the answer to a question I'd been wondering about. It was like a Magic Eight Ball, guys, only better. Here, Noh, give me your arm."
Noah rolled up his sleeve and offered Sarah the inside of his elbow. She considered the blank canvas with a critical eye. "We should only use our powers for good," she declared solemnly. "I know: I'll draw something you're afraid of, and my magic will protect you." One eyebrow went up, but he didn't resist as she drew a hand on his skin. It was black and solid, like a tattoo.
"There," she said, with satisfaction. "Now no one can touch you." He slowly rolled down his sleeve, and didn't take his hand away from the spot on his arm for a long time.
"I want something to keep me on time," Finn said, presenting his skinny forearm. "A clock?"
"How about an hourglass," she suggested, and he nodded. "You know we don't care when you're late," she added, outlining the shape with blue marker.
"I know," he said. "But my mom does, and she said if I'm late to school again I can forget about that drum set we're saving up for." Noah inspected the hourglass on Finn's skin with silent appreciation, tracing it with a finger.
"Kurt?" she said.
"I don't know," he said, hands dripping from the fountain. "Drawing on your skin. Is it safe?"
"Let me check," Sarah said. She covered the question mark on her arm and concentrated. "Yes," she said with certainty, choosing a purple marker. "It's safe. And you need a butterfly."
Kurt didn't question Sarah any further, but he was slow to dry off his hands and unbutton his shirt cuff. "You can't be the only one who doesn't get the magic," she said, as though it were obvious.
"Yeah," said Noah, surprising them all. "You're the most magical of all of us, anyway."
They were silent, watching Sarah work her magic on Kurt's pale skin. "Why a butterfly?" Kurt asked. "Is it the metamorphosis thing? 'Cause I'm not really sure I want to change into anything else."
"Well, you're beautiful," said Sarah, and it wasn't embarrassing from her, it was just a fact, and they all knew it.
"Butterflies don't need moms," said Noah. "Or dads. They're just... whole, in themselves."
Kurt's mouth trembled a little, but he thought about this. "I still want my mom back," he said.
"I didn't say they didn't want their moms and dads," said Noah. "Just that they didn't need them."
"Oh," said Kurt, and he smiled, a rare, real smile, as he inspected the butterfly. "Well, that's fine, then."
June, Portsmouth New Hampshire
David hugged the ragged edges of the neighborhood lawns as he trudged home from school. He'd learned early that walking down the middle of the sidewalk only made him a beacon for the older, faster, skinnier kids who barreled home on their bikes, or liked to pick a target on his back with basketballs and footballs. He kept his head down, dragged his backpack behind him. He repeated the whispered words that had gotten him through the school year; he'd smiled, last week, when his countdown shifted from double to single digits. It was even better today. Five days left. Five days left. He rounded the last corner onto his street, and wrapped his fingers around the string under his t-shirt to reach for his house key. It was warm from laying snug against his skin all day, and he kind of liked the way it felt, the heat radiating into the tips of his fingers.
But when he got closer to his house, he realized he wasn't going to need his key.
He shook his head against the unexpected sight of both his parent's cars in the drive, and of his mom, tossing a duffel bag into the wayback of the station wagon, and his sister Lilly, her tiny face twisted up in anger. He could hear her, halfway down the block.
"Noooooooo! I want to stay with Davey!" He wasn't fast, but he booked it the rest of the way, dropping his backpack at the edge of the driveway and pulling her into his arms. He was too short to hold her well; her legs dangled down, and her plastic My Little Pony sandals hit him right at his knees. She buried her face in his neck.
David wheeled on his mother. "Where are you going?"
"Oh, Davey." Her hair was flyaway, and her eyes were liquid and dark, they way they got when she finished the better part of a bottle of wine with dinner. "My sweet boy, my baby. Mommy loves you so so so much, but I can't stay here anymore."
"Why not?" David felt the warm and wet of Lilly's tears sliding under the neck of his t-shirt.
"Daddy thinks I need help." She ran a cool hand along the side of his face, and he pulled away. "You don't think that, do you?"
David shook his head. He knew better than to disagree when she was like this. "No, Mommy." He hated lying, but sometimes telling the truth was worse. "Where are you going?"
"Lilly and I are going to see Aunt Laura, baby, at the beach." She closed the back of the car, and rested a hand on top of Lilly's head. David felt her shiver at the touch, and whimper a little. "Won't that be fun?"
"No, Mommy, no, I want to stay with Davey." Lilly's voice was muffled; David was having trouble holding her, so he sat with her in the grass and pulled her into his lap.
"Lillian Anna Karofsky, you're coming with me to see Aunt Laura at the beach, and that's final."
David brushed Lilly's strawberry blonde curls away from her face, and tucked his face into her so he could whisper in her ear. "Lilly-belle, it's okay." She turned and looked at him, her eyes so old and serious, too old for four. "Go with Mommy. Don't fight about it, it will only make it worse."
"I know. Here . . " David tugged on his key, and shifted Lilly so he could work the knot at the back of his neck. When he'd undone it, he snapped a long piece off to shorten it, and tied it off so it would fit Lilly. He slipped the string and they key over her head, and tucked the key under the front of her pink flowered sundress. "This will keep you safe until you can come home again, okay?"
"O-okay." Her voice was shaky, but she let her little hand rest over the lump the key made under her dress and smiled a tiny smile. "I love you, Davey."
"I love you, too, Lilly-belle. I'll always be your big brother, okay?"
Lilly looked panicked. "We're coming back, right?"
David thought about being younger than Lilly, about the yelling and doors slamming and the car squealing out of the drive. About the few times it had been just he and Daddy for days, peaceful and quiet until Mommy whirled back into their lives. "I don't know. She's always come back before." But something felt different this time.
David looked to where his mom was waiting, leaning against the car door. "C'mon, Lil. I'll help you get into your seat." He held her hand across the driveway, lifted her up into her booster in the back seat, and handed her the sippy cup of juice that had been sitting, abandoned, in the driveway. He kissed her soft cheek. "Have fun at the beach," he called as his mom pulled out of the drive. But he didn't believe his own good wishes, any more than he believed he'd be seeing his mom or sister any time soon.
The next morning, when David's dad called Aunt Laura down the Cape to see how mom and Lilly were, David wasn't surprised to find out that they'd never shown up.
They heard nothing for weeks, and then in July David's dad came home from work and told David that the company that ran the paper mill needed him to go to another mill in Oregon. They packed up and moved, left a change of address with everyone they could think of, but David just knew: his sister was gone, and he'd never see her again.