Scratching the Surface
Tessie blinked awake. Bright sunlight was streaming through the double balcony doors. The room was unfamiliar; red and pink wallpaper, dark brown furniture and white blankets. Where am I? She thought as she sat up. What's going on? Where's Mom and Dad…then she remembered. Oh right. They're…dead. No, they can't be. Doctors and hospitals exist for that reason, so people who are hurt can get better. The scary smiling face appeared in a memory. Uncle Jack…her heart began to race like it did the night before. Tessie shook, holding onto her Babar. Where was he? Is he coming for me? Where's Batman?
The doorknob turned, clicking open. Is it Uncle Jack? What do I do? Looking around, there was nowhere to hide. Under the bed…Tessie got off the bed and dove under it as the door quietly creaked open.
The cold wooden floors gave her goose bumps. She wanted to be back under those warm covers, dreaming that Mom and Dad were coming in to get her up for school. Tessie held Babar close. The stuffed elephant comforted her just as he had since she was very small.
Bruce saw Tessie scurry under the bed as he came in. Like last night, she had those big frightened grey eyes. Again, he remembered that look in his parents' eyes. He remembered having them himself. And how he used to hide away…just like how Tessie was doing now.
And he didn't know what to do. Sure, he had been in her shoes before. But that was a long time ago. That and he hadn't been around other people very much, let alone children. Other people made him nervous. Pretty much the only people he really dealt with were his loyal old butler Alfred and the criminal scum of Gotham's underbelly. Sure he hosted parties for the elite and he still was good friends with college buddy Harvey Dent, but he didn't really have much of a social life.
He had to convince her that he wouldn't hurt her. To do that, he had to gain her trust. And that wouldn't be easy. Getting her to trust Batman last night was simple. After all, he got her away from Napier and kept her from falling into the chemical vat. But she had nothing to do with Bruce Wayne. Sometimes…he wondered if he should just shut himself away in Wayne Manor and only come out as Batman. It was certainly tempting to.
Knowing that pulling or ordering her out would do more harm than good; he decided to sit on the edge of her bed. Maybe he could come up with something to say to her.
Tessie kept her breathing shallow so she wouldn't be heard. She watched the loafer shoes and jeans walk by her. The bed squeaked as the figure sat down on it. He or she didn't move for what felt like forever. Finally she couldn't stand it anymore. Does he or she know I'm here? Tessie timidly crawled to the edge. Maybe she can take a tiny peek, at least see who it is.
Bruce heard her crawling underneath the bed. Was she deciding to come out? He didn't look. Best to let her make the first move. Yes, she was coming out. He felt her moving her head out next to his shoes.
Tessie slid her head out and looked up at the figure. It was a man, average sized. He wore a black turtleneck and thin round glasses with his jeans and black loafers. She moved a little further out to see his face better. The frizzy brown hair was receding on the clean-shaven face.
He doesn't look like Uncle Jack. But she couldn't picture him as Batman. Who was he? Friend? Or Foe? Tessie couldn't decide.
She was looking at him. The silence was beginning to become very uncomfortable. New people made him nervous. Bruce wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Harvey and Gordon were here to interview her and find out her story. Might as well get it over with. He turned to her.
Tessie felt his cool gaze on her. He was looking at her, his blue eyes were wide and he cleared his throat nervously. Suddenly afraid again, Tessie pulled her head back under the bed. He knows I'm here, she thought as she shook. What was going to happen now? Where was the smile? Is he going to hurt me? Her thoughts raced with her heart. Can he hear my heart beating? She couldn't move.
Good job, Wayne. You overdid it, Bruce decided. He might as well just tell her now. "Um, you don't have to be scared. I, uh, won't hurt you." The words felt and sounded forced. Another awkward pause…she was scared of him. Not that he blamed her. Who wouldn't be afraid, especially after last night?
"Promise?" her voice was a faint whisper. He had to listen really hard in order to hear it.
"Yes, I promise." Bruce held out his hand to her. He heard her moving again to the edge. A tiny hand stuck out and gently rested it in his large palm. She gripped it tightly as he closed his fingers over hers. "There are a couple of people downstairs who want to talk to you. Don't worry, they're nice and won't hurt you. Are you ready to come out?"
"Yeah." She crawled out and he helped her stand up. Her face wasn't red anymore. But her eyes were still swollen. Tessie's hair was beginning to get tangled up in its braid and he noticed two little red stains on the knee area of her jumper. She must've scraped her knees last night, Bruce remembered that he did see her trip and fall last night. She gripped the threadbare blue-gray toy elephant.
He offered a small smile as they began walking downstairs. "What's your name?" Of course he knew. But Bruce Wayne didn't.
"Tessie," she said in a quiet voice and looking at him.
"I'm Bruce, how old are you Tessie?" They were walking down the hallway now.
"Eight." Her voice was a little more relaxed.
"That's a good age," he smiled.
"How did I end up here? Do you know Batman?"
He knew he couldn't tell her the truth. But he didn't really want to lie to her. Why that was the case, he had no idea. "No. I don't. He brought you here last night and told me to call the police as soon as you woke up." Bruce said. He looked up and happened to see Alfred at the base of the grand staircase with Harvey and Gordon. They turned to face them, smiling politely. Tessie got closer to Bruce, afraid. He flinched, uncomfortable at the thought of her so close to him. "Sorry that took so long, she was hiding."
"That's alright, Bruce." Harvey said before looking at Tessie. "Hello Tessie, do you remember us?"
Tessie shyly smiled. So she had met them before. "Hello Mr. Dent and Commissioner Gordon. Nice to see you again."
"Yes," Commissioner Gordon raised his very thick eyebrows. "Although I wish it was under better circumstances." The hardened cop turned his attention to Bruce. "Is there somewhere quiet where we can talk to Tessie?"
Perfect, now was his chance to hide away and listen in. Nobody would see him.
"Yes, there's the library." Bruce said, pointing to a double door off to the left. "Alfred, lead the way. I need to finish up something but I should be done in about ten minutes." He let go of Tessie's hand.
No. Tessie didn't want to be left alone. She had met Mr. Dent and Commissioner Gordon before and knew they were nice. But she didn't want to be by herself with them. She looked up at Bruce, not wanting him to leave her alone.
Tessie looked at Bruce with her wide grey eyes. Inwardly, he recoiled. Here was his chance to be alone and do work as Batman. She was making him nervous. Not because of something she did but because he didn't work much with people.
"Oh, I think she wants you to be there for her. Do you mind, Mr. Wayne?" Commissioner Gordon asked.
"Uh…" Bruce paused, unsure of what to do or say. Then he remembered the night in Crime Alley, how he had to give his statement alone without somebody familiar there. Alfred was on his way to pick up Bruce. Commissioner Gordon was kind, no doubt of that. But there wasn't somebody he knew there to comfort him. Tessie needed somebody to be there, as emotional support. "Ok," Bruce forced a smile and let her grip his hand again.
The elderly man in the suit led the small group to the library. He reminded Tessie of a grandfather. Not that she remembered her grandparents. They died when she was too small to remember them. Come to think of it, Mom and Dad were her only family. They must've been. They had never mentioned any aunts, uncles, cousins or anybody else. She didn't have any siblings either.
I could go on adventures, she thought, remembering her books at home. A lot of the heroes in those stories are orphans. And they live happily ever after. But I'm not brave enough, she realized sadly. She was scared last night.
When people were orphaned, they went to the orphanage. Tessie shivered as she sat down in one of the comfy leather chairs in the library. She had read bad stories about those places and didn't want to go there. So what would happen to her now? Maybe she can stay with Bruce…but she sensed that he didn't want much to do with her. She didn't know why he would. After all, she didn't know him.
The others sat down at other chairs that circled a small coffee table. "Thank you Alfred." Bruce said. The man bowed stiffly and walked away, taking his position by the door. He stood as stiffly as a statue.
"Tessie, you do know that your mom and dad are no longer with us?" Mr. Dent said in a gentle voice. She nodded, feeling tears biting at the corners of her eyes. Don't cry, she thought as she swallowed them back. She had to be a big girl now. "The Commissioner and I need to know what happened last night."
Bruce listened closely to Tessie's story. Most of it he had deduced already. The day had been a usual one, school followed by karate practice and taking the city bus home. Usually, one or both parents would be waiting for her. But they weren't there. There was a note telling her that they would be late from work that night. So she brushed it off, doing homework and settling down with a book.
She must've dozed off because the next thing she remembered, it was dark outside and her parents were home. But they weren't their usual selves. They were nervous, sharply scolding her for accidentally dropping her book and making them jump. Before she could ask what was wrong, they took her into her bedroom and pushed her into the closet with her toy elephant. Telling her to keep an eye on her Babar and not make a noise, they closed the door.
There was a loud bang by the front door of the house. Footsteps running. Another loud bang at her bedroom door. A loud confrontation between her parents and a man. A bright lights and loud gunshot. Her father stopped arguing. Her mother began screaming. Another bright light and loud gunshot. Her mother stopped screaming.
Silence. Not moving. Not crying or screaming. Footsteps running around. Things falling and breaking. Paper ripping. She tried to hold back a sneeze. But couldn't. The noise outside stopped. Footsteps came to the closet door. It whipped open. A man looking down at her. A wide smile and black eyes. Too afraid to say anything. Too afraid to fight back.
Yanked out. The mess. Red liquid everywhere. Mom and Dad lying on the carpet. Two holes seeping red stuff. Eyes blank and staring. Crying and screaming, she fought back. Not that it did any good. The man dragged her to the car, shoved her to the floor. Told her to stop crying and to call him Uncle Jack. Car squealed off, taking her away.
Tessie felt numb, distant. She felt more like she was watching a movie or reading a book. Any minute now, she'd wake up back home. She'd be safe and warm underneath her Little Mermaid comforter and sheets. Babar snuggled in the crook of one arm. The book she was reading last night haphazardly balanced on a corner of her nightstand.
Was that Mom calling at her to get up and ready for school? Is that the smell of Dad's world famous chocolate chip pancakes? Please, let this be a bad dream. Tessie wished with all of her heart and pinched a corner of her wrist. It hurt.
No. This is no dream. Tessie's stomach dropped and she wanted to cry. Mom and Dad are gone.
Bruce quietly studied Tessie as she talked about what happened at the Axis Chemical Plant. The grey eyes were distracted and her voice monotone. Shocked. That's what she's feeling now. Bruce remembered how everything moved and felt like a dream after his parents died. Deep down inside, he wanted to find out that it was a nightmare. Even though he knew it was real.
Now he was watching it all over again in Tessie. She was probably wishing that this was just a dream too. Bruce felt sorry for her. No. It wasn't pity. Empathy. He knew what it was like to lose all sense of safety and control. At least she had the mercy of not actually watching it happen. His parents died in front of him. Not that hearing it was better…he gently squeezed her hand, intending to comfort her. Tessie jumped a little bit but looked at him thankfully.
She finished her story. They were quiet, the only sound in the room was the ceaseless ticking of the grandfather clock. "Tessie, I'm sorry about what happened to your mom and dad." Gordon said, meaning every word.
"Me too." Harvey said. Tessie nodded in gratitude. "Tessie, before Uncle Jack broke into the house, did your parents mention a list to you or give something to you for safekeeping?" Now this was getting interesting, Bruce perked his ears and listened. Tessie shook her head. "Are you sure?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. They didn't give or tell me anything." She said, an edge to her voice. There were tears threatening to come down. Bruce nodded at Alfred to come over. Tessie needed some space. That and he didn't want to be around her if she started crying. Bruce prided himself on the fact that he could fix almost anything. Except when people were upset. He couldn't fix tears. It made him feel…helpless…not something he wanted to feel again.
That and he needed to find out what Tessie's parents were hiding. Harvey and Gordon knew more than they were letting on. He just knew that they did.
"Alfred, can you take Tessie to the kitchen and get her some breakfast?" Bruce spoke to the elderly man by the door.
Alfred, the grandfatherly figure came walking over. "Most certainly." He offered a white-gloved hand and a smile to Tessie. "Miss Tessie, you must be hungry." Her stomach growled. Yes, she was hungry, she thought as she took his hand.
"Tessie, I'm going to give Mr. Wayne my phone number so if you want to talk about anything, you will able to reach me." Commissioner Gordon said. She nodded as Alfred led her out of the library. Hopefully the kitchen wasn't too far away. At least Alfred seemed nice. Well, nicer than Bruce anyway.
Bruce watched as Alfred took Tessie out of the library. "Sorry about that, she looked like she needed some space."
"No, I think that was a good call." Harvey said before turning to Gordon. "Looks like we have our work cut out for us. Maybe we should tell Bruce what's going on."
Gordon sighed and looked at Bruce. "Mr. Wayne, what we're going to tell you is confidential. It regards an investigation that's currently ongoing. And it also relates to Tessie and why her parents were murdered."
"It won't leave this room." Bruce nodded, putting his elbows on his knees and leaning forward.
Commissioner Gordon cleared his throat. "Tessie's parents were Grissom's accountants. They were in charge of funneling funds from Grissom to corrupted Gotham City workers. To avoid charges of money laundering and fraud, Ted and Beatrice Hawkins agreed to gather a list of the officials in Grissom's pocket. Apparently, they were discovered. Neighbor reported gunshots and hearing a car drive away at high speed. Officers arrived and found Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins dead and Tessie missing."
"And you believed they gave this list to Tessie for safekeeping?" Bruce asked.
"Yes, and speaking of her, where can she go and be safe?" Harvey asked. "She has no other family that we're aware of. And no doubt Grissom is searching for her now."
"I have plenty of room. She can stay here. It's probably the safest place for her." Bruce said firmly. Until the list was found and Grissom's crime ring busted, he'd keep Tessie safe. He could do that.
Harvey raised an eyebrow. "I don't know, Bruce. Do you think you can handle taking care of an eight year old child?"
"Why not?" Bruce shrugged his shoulders. "Besides, as you put it, where else can she go?"
Commissioner Gordon sighed heavily. "It's settled then. Tessie will stay here."