The voice calling her was muffled by the closed closet doors. Hidden among the coats and long dresses, Kelly didn't move to answer the summons. It wasn't the first time her aunt had called for her. Aunt Claire was probably still fussing over the fact that she hadn't eaten any dinner. She didn't seem to understand that just thinking about food made her want to throw up.
Footsteps sounded in the bedroom just on the other side of the door. Someone had come looking for her. Kelly pulled a long red woolen coat in front of her, hoping that anyone who thought to open the door would miss seeing her. She didn't want to be found. There were too many people in the house - her aunt, her grandparents, the neighbors who kept coming by see above- and none of them were the ones she wanted to see. Even Maddie's brief visit earlier in the day had been unwelcome.
Her wish wasn't granted. The brass handle turned and the closet door opened, Kelly withdrew deeper into her corner.
It wasn't her aunt's voice this time. She wondered if it was possible for her ears to play tricks, because he shouldn't be here. He was a million miles away. Carefully she looked around the edge of the coat and saw black boots and green camouflage pants.
"Daddy." For the first time since she had woken from her nap to find that her mom wasn't back from the store, that she'd never be back, Kelly felt as if something was right in her world.
Warm arms wrapped around her and a gentle hand stroked her hair.
"I'm here, Kelly. I'm right here." He sat on the floor of the closet and she buried her face in his shoulder. Like a dam being released, she sobbed into his shirt.
"She's gone. Mommy's gone and she's never coming back." It was the first time she had said it out loud. Aunt Claire had tried to talk to her about it and she had covered her ears and ran out of the room. Grams had talked about 'going to live with the angels' and had looked shocked when she had yelled that angels didn't exist.
"I know, Kel." Her daddy's voice sounded scratchy, and when she looked up she could see that there were tears in his eyes. She'd never seen him cry before, not even last year when they were in Pendelton and he said goodbye in the garden of their base housing. She reached up and touched her hand to his cheek.
"I missed you, Daddy."
"I missed you too. More than you know." He held her tight and kissed the top of her head.
"Jethro." Aunt Claire called out from the top of the stairs.
"In here, Claire."
"Did you... oh good, you found her." Claire stood in the doorway of the closet and looked down at them. In the half shadows she looked more like Mommy, and it hurt.
"Yeah," Kelly could feel the rumbling of her daddy's voice where her cheek touched his chest.
"My parents said to tell you goodnight. They're in the guest room. I'm heading home now. I'm sure you and Kelly need some time alone."
"Thanks Claire, for everything. Knowing you were here..." Kelly closed her eyes and concentrated on the vibrations rather than the words themselves. She hated to see the sadness in her aunt's eyes.
"No need. You know I'd do anything for you guys. You two are my family and nothing ever changes that."
"Be careful driving home. The roads are wet."
"I will. And if you could try and get her to eat something, Jethro? She didn't eat anything for dinner and she mostly picked at her lunch." Claire leaned down and Kelly felt the gentle touch on her cheek. "I'll see you both tomorrow. Call me if you need anything."
"Tomorrow," Gibbs repeated. "Yeah."
"Bye," Kelly muttered as her aunt left.
"So what do you say, kid? Share a fluffer nutter sandwich with me? I've been on a cargo plane for hours and they don't even serve peanuts on those flights."
"Can we make it with extra fluff?" Kelly asked. It was the same question she posed every time. Fluffer nutters were their special snack. Usually they made two sandwiches and took them down to the basement, taking bites between working on the boat. Her dad said that a little sawdust made the sandwich taste better. Her mom said that they were crazy and she was going to sell them to the circus when it came to town.
"Sure." He stood without letting go of her, and carried her down the stairs to the kitchen.
Kelly woke, gasping, from a dream. Her bedroom was almost completely dark except for the glow around her My Little Pony night-light. When she had closed her eyes her dad had been sitting in the chair next to her bed, but now the chair was empty.
She didn't want to get out of her bed and walk through the darkness, but even more she didn't want to be alone. Jumping far from the bed - so that nothing hiding under there could reach her - Kelly ran from her room and down the hallway. The big bed that Mommy had slept alone in the last year was empty.
"Daddy?" She thought he would be here. This had been his room too, before Pendleton and Kuwait. Grandma and Grandpa were in the guest room, and there weren't any other beds in the house. If he wasn't here... what if he had gone back?
The bathroom was dark. Clinging to the banister she climbed down the stairs but found the kitchen, living room, dining room and den equally empty. She bit her lip in worry until she saw the light on in the laundry room. What Mommy called the laundry room, even though it wasn't really a room, just the landing at the top of the basement steps.
"Daddy." He wasn't wearing his Marine clothes anymore. His sweatpants were grey and the red baseball shirt was one she borrowed sometimes for pajamas. He also wasn't working on his boat. She wondered if he had forgotten how because he had been gone so long.
"What are you doing out of bed, kid?" He watched her as she came down the stairs and scooped her up when she reached the bottom step. Her feet were bare. She wasn't supposed to come down to the basement without shoes on, not since the time she had stepped on a nail and had to have stitches and a shot. He sat her down on the workbench.
"I dreamed the bad man was after me." She had the same dream every night since mommy died. She'd never seen the bad man but in her dreams he had black hair and big mustache, like Captain Hook.
"What bad man?"
"The bad man that shot mommy. In my dream I'm in the car too and I can see his eyes even though he's far away."
"Oh Kel." He smelled like sawdust when he wrapped his arms around her. "It was just a dream. I won't let anyone hurt you."
She believed him. Daddy would never let anything bad happen when he was around. He was a Marine: all the bad guys and even the monsters were scared of him. "Don't go away again."
"I'm not going anywhere except upstairs to bed." He carried her back to the stairs, putting her down on the first step. He held her hand as they climbed the stairs together.
"What if they make you go back to Kuwait?" Kuwait was too far away to keep the bad men from finding her.
"I already told my commanding officer that couldn't go back. I'm on leave now and when I go back to work it will be here in DC."
"Really." They passed by her room and went into her dad's room. The bed was still neatly made but her dad tugged down the blankets and stepped back so she could climb onto the bed. The pillow smelled like her mom. "Go to sleep, princess. No more bad dreams tonight."
"Will you sing our song?" He hadn't earlier. She knew he hadn't forgotten the words, because she and Mommy had sent him a tape at Christmas time.
"Only if you close your eyes."
Hush little baby, don't say a word...