Max sighed and walked along the sidewalk to the small but well-cared for house across the street. He’d just got home off of his shift and was still in uniform when two of his girls rushed him at the door. He was met by a spitting mad Dag (Dagmar, fifteen years old) and a crying Cheedo (Chelsea, fourteen years old). He backed out the door, listening to the complaints against the neighbor’s boy for trashing Cheedo’s bike and calling Dag names. Thankfully the other three girls decided not to get involved in this strange inter-house war.
“Settle down, Dag. I’ll sort this out.” He took a steadying breath and knocked on the neighbor’s door.
It only now occurred to him that he’d never even met Ms. Jobassa or her son. But it was a little too late to back out now. Especially when her eyes met his, t hen looked down at his uniform and her frown deepened. “What’s this about, Officer?”
“Ah, no. I mean, it’s not what you think.” He offered a small and reasonably reassuring smile. He felt Cheedo press up against his side. “I’m the neighbor across the street. My daughter says your son broke her bike.”
She looked at him, then Cheedo and Dag and turned over her shoulder. “SIMON! GET DOWN HERE.”
He winced a little at the sudden shouting but watched the skinny teenager descend the stairs. “What?”
Max looked the kid over, taking note of his shaved head and the scars on his face that looked like someone tried to carve him up like a pumpkin.
“Rockatansky next door says you broke the girl’s bike?” Jobassa stood leaning against the doorway, still blocking the entrance to the house, but watched her son step up behind her.
“Didn’t touch any bikes.” He stood straight and crossed his arms, which made Cheedo sink further behind him.
“Yeah well one of you did it!” Dag hissed from Max’s other side.
One? There were two boys? Max made a mental note to keep a better watch on the other children in the neighborhood.
Ms. Jobassa turned back to her son with an apologetic look. He didn’t seem surprised. “Go get Nick.”
“He’s sleeping. He probably didn’t do it anyway. Blondie is probably just making it up anyway.” The teenager protested, but a look from his mother made him turn back to trudge up the stairs.
They waited in silence until the heavy footsteps of two teenagers came down the worn stairs. The second boy, Nick, looked terrible with almost a grey pallor and dark circles under his eyes. He looked like a Halloween prop come to life and now Max felt bad for dragging this poor kid from sleep that he obviously needed.
“The Officer said his kid’s bike is broken. Did you do it?”
He looked at his mother first, then bright blue eyes landed on Max and he straightened from his slouch, revealing that he was taller than Max. “Yeah.”
“Why?” Jobassa asked him, since he either didn’t mind telling the truth or thought he had a good cover story.
“Cheedo called Slit ugly.” He looked over at Cheedo, who continued to hide behind Max.
He should have taken that overtime shift when it was offered. He turned towards his youngest, extracting her from her hiding spot. “Is this true?”
Cheedo nodded and squeaked out a meek affirmative. Max saw Simon stiffen in the background until Nick threw his arm around him in solidarity.
“Apologize to… Simon,” he glanced over at Ms. Jobassa who confirmed the name with a small nod.
“I’m sorry Simon.” Cheedo glanced up at the older boy, then flicked her eyes back down. Max turned to Dag.
“I’m sorry I accused Slit for something Nux did.” She replied crisply and not nearly as sincere as Cheedo was, but he knew that was the best he was going to get from her.
Some throat clearing inside the house prompted Nick to speak up. “I’m sorry I broke your bike. Bring it over tomorrow before school and I’ll fix it.”
Cheedo gave a shy smile and nod and took Dag’s hand, dragging her back towards their house. The boys took that cue to leave, Simon helping Nick up the stairs.
“Sorry for bothering you.” He said to Ms. Jobassa.
“It’s fine. Usually it is Slit’s fault. But I guess there’s a first time for everything.” She straightened and ran her fingers through her short-cropped hair.
“You call him Slit?”
“When I adopted them, they already had those nicknames. Slit and Nux.” She cast a fond look up the stairs. “Isn’t one of your kids called ‘Toast’?”
He smiled a little. “Yeah. Mine were nicknamed before they came to me too. Still haven’t figured out why she’s called ‘Toast’.”
They shared a smile, that connection. They each knew the other would understand what other parents wouldn’t. That this was one of those things that came with fostering or adopting. Some old habits are hard to unlearn.
“Well, goodbye Officer Rockatansky.” She nodded and started closing the door.
He dipped his head in a quick nod. “Goodbye Ms. Jobassa.”
He turned to head back home where, hopefully, everything would settle back to normal.
Normal was five sets of eyes staring him as he walked into the kitchen. “What?”
“Well?” Capable (Catherine, age sixteen) asked, running her hands along her red braids. “How’d it go?”
“How did what go?” He asked and checked the stove for whatever Angharad (her actual name, seventeen years old) was cooking.
“Did you tell her off for letting those skinhead war boys run around and break things?” Toast (Tina, sixteen years old) demanded as she finished setting the table.
“No.” He put the lid back on the pot and headed towards his room to change out of his uniform. Toast and Capable followed.
“Why not?” Toast asked, confrontational whenever she assumed things were unfair.
“Bike wasn’t broken for no reason. Cheedo called Simon ugly. Nick retaliated. He said he’d fix the bike tomorrow.” He shooed them out of the room, but could hear them shuffle outside while he took off his uniform and traded it for a fresh t-shirt and sweatpants.
“Slit is ugly. Not even to do with his scars either. He’s just nasty to everyone.” Toast complained.
“He is not. He’s just. He’s just angry,” Capable took the side of reason. He was thankful for that, at least.
He gently pushed the two girls back towards the kitchen. “What’s the story with them?”
“Well,” Toast started, dropping into her chair. “Their mom is part of some lesbian biker gang called, get this, the Vuvalini. Or she was. That’s the rumor at least.”
“Uh huh.” He looked to Dag, who filled her plate with salad and barely any of the main course.
“Slit and Nux are juniors. Well, Slit is. Don’t know what’s happening with the other one. He dropped out or something.”
“Slit is in my English lit class,” Toast fills in. “Never wants to read in class, but nobody ever does.”
“Nux was in my calculus class, until he stopped coming to school.” Capable said around taking bites of her dinner. “He was always nice enough.”
He mulled it all over in his head, the picture coming together. Strong woman adopted the boys, one scarred and the other sick. He could see why the older one turned to anger. He probably didn’t have an outlet for it. “What’s their mother do?”
Angharad looked up from one of her text books. “She’s a truck driver. Drives a big rig. Sometimes she parks it in the mall lot next to the bookstore.” Angharad would know, she’s had a part-time job at the bookstore since she turned sixteen.
Someone finally changed the subject to weekend plans and he was able to eat in peace. The evening was quiet and he slept about as much as he usually did. The next morning, he woke up in time to make breakfast for the girls, something he did on all of his days off. He happily packed lunches for Dag and Cheedo, the other girls buying their lunches. When he saw the kids get on the school bus, he decided to take care of this bike issue once and for all.
He puzzled over the gears and the pieces that were found by the sabotaged bike but without knowing exactly how it was supposed to fit together, it seemed more work to do than walk it across the street.
Ms. Jobassa was sitting in the garage, reading a newspaper when he walked up.
“That’s the infamous bike, huh? Pink. Just like I expected it to be.” She folded up the newspaper and stood up. “Nux’s still asleep. I don’t like waking him up before he’s ready. You want some coffee?”
He nodded. “Yes please.”
He left the bike and parts in the garage and followed her into the house. It was only now in the daylight that he realized she was missing most of her left arm. He did his best not to stare, just looked around her kitchen when she let him in. The walls were painted a mint green. There were boots on a mat on the floor. Nothing was too terribly feminine, but the place had a nice homey feel to it.
“How do you like your coffee, Officer?”
“Max. Just black is fine.” He watched her pop one of the pre-packaged coffee pods into the machine and when the liquid stopped, she set the mug on the table for him.
“It just occurred to me that we’ve been neighbors for three years and I didn’t know your first name.” She got her own mug and sat down across from him. “Mine’s Furiosa.”
He nodded, sipping hos coffee. “Yesterday was the first time we really met.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard all the rumors by now though.”
“Lesbian biker gang.” He watched her as she shook her head.
“It was an all female club. And they were also very surprised when I adopted the boys.” She set her mug down. “What about you?”
“There was a case I worked on. Found those girls in a bad way. Social services was going to split them up unless I took them all.” He gave just the barest of details, not wanting to relive that terrible time undercover in that drug lord’s inner circle.
She nodded, seeming to have a good sense of discretion. “Nux and Slit were in the same home, abused and neglected. Didn’t officially adopt them until Nux got real sick and had to rush that through so I could make medical decisions.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Been there.” He has. The girls had trouble adjusting at first, and the adoption process had been long and difficult.
She almost says something but the thudding on the stairs alerts them to the sleepy teenager in their midst. Furiosa got up and walked over, checked the boy’s temperature without a fuss and nudged him towards the kitchen.
Max watched the kid shuffle into the chair that Furiosa vacated and sat slouched forward, his eyes staring at the grain lines in the scratched wood of the table. He heard the rattle of pills in bottles and Furiosa set several orange bottles down in front of the kid.
Some sort of muscle memory must have awoken, since the kid easily popped all the childproof caps and counted out an assortment of candy colored pills and swept them into a neat pile. The lids were closed and the bottles arranged exactly so just in time for Furiosa to set a large glass down on the table. Max looked away, not wanting to watch the kid down what looked like enough drugs to make a small-time dealer rolling in cash.
“Officer Rockatansky brought over his daughter’s bike. You want to look at it now?” Furiosa asked and affectionately rubbed Nux’s head. He leaned against her for a long moment, then nodded.
The teenager got up and headed out to the garage to fix the damage he caused. Max watched him shuffle out the door.
“What-” He started to ask.
“They’re still not really sure what’s wrong with him.” She started to clean up the coffee mugs. “Just managing the symptoms now. Had to start home schooling him because he missed so many days. And that makes it hard on Slit and he doesn’t deal with it in the healthiest of ways.”
He nodded, mulling that over. “I’ll make sure my girls don’t start spreading any more rumors.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” She looked out the window and into the garage. “I’ll make sure that the bike gets done and back to you later.”
He stood up. “Thanks. Cheedo will appreciate it.” Later in the day, after the bus dropped the kids off, he watched Nux carefully hand the bike over to Cheedo while smiling a little too brightly at Capable.
Now that was something he was going to have to keep an eye on. So far his girls had been good about relationships. There’s been one or two dates, but nothing serious. But now that they were all reaching that age, he might have to dust off his shotgun.