Keeper Ch. 01byArdella©
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!"
At the sound of the baritone request, coming from the vicinity of the freshly snow-plowed driveway entrance, Blue Waters jumped practically an inch. It wasn't so much that jumping an scant inch in startled surprise was a big deal, it was the jumping an inch while perched near the topmost rung of a ladder leaning precariously against a tree branch, in the dark, while trying valiantly to keep from becoming hopelessly tangled in a long length of cheerily glowing Christmas lights that was the danger. Not a good time to be sneaked up on, Blue nearly groused out loud as she whipped her head around to see who the culprit was. It was also not a good time to whip your head around, she discovered.
Blue let out a squeaky "Ahhk!", promptly got a mouthful of aforementioned hair when the wind gusted just right... or wrong... and grabbed onto a ladder rung with gloved fingers when she felt herself tip dizzily backwards.
"Whoa... hey!" Prince Charming came loping up the drive to save her, but Rapunzel steadied herself, swiping the strands of hair from her lips. Why she hadn't put her hair into it's usual braid before coming outside, she didn't know. Poor planning, she guessed.
"John." John Keeper reminded her, stopping at the foot of the wooden ladder and laying a steadying hand on it, his head tilted up towards her, the glow of the Christmas lights shining down upon his face.
"John." Blue acquiesced, cursing herself when the words came out in a breathless mumble.
He smiled a little at that. Smiled as though he liked hearing his name being mumbled by a clumsy woman several feet above him on a ladder who's hair kept blowing in her face. Ha.
The awkward pause Blue just knew was about to occur, on her own part anyway, was dead-headed before it had a chance to bloom into something embarrassing by the animal that came tearing around the corner of the white clapboard house. Bounding through snowdrifts, tongue flapping comically, the shepherd mix 'woofed' again and galloped hell-bent straight for John.
Tensed for the inevitable crash of dog and man, Blue watched in awe as John calmly waited until the dog grew alarmingly close, then made a small gesture with his hand... and glory be, wouldn't you know it, but that darn crazy dog stopped. Stopped in his tracks, settled his haunches down, and just sat. Sat! Still as can be! Well, there was still a little thump-twitch to his tail, and his ears quivered forward. Little tell-tale signs that showed the dog was pretty darn excited.
"Huh. I didn't know he could do that." Blue's mumble was more of something akin to bemusement this time.
John flicked a quick look up to her before centering his attention on the waiting dog. Taking his time, he knelt to one knee, his calm face giving nothing away as he held the dog's gaze. The suddenly, with a wide grin, he made another mysterious hand signal and the dog leaped into action and was all over John as he held out his arms.
Sloppy dog kisses. Rump wiggling tail wags. Oh man, that dog was happy his master was home!
"Missed me, did you? Yeah. Good boy. Good boy, Abe."
Blue watched the touching scene for a moment, letting a smile slip over her lips. The smile faded just as quickly and she sighed and turned on the ladder towards the tree branch waiting for the string of lights she still held in her hands.
"Need any help with that?"
At the politely toned query, Blue realized the reunion had run it's course while she had balanced on her perch, lost in her own melancholy thoughts. She shook her head, both at the man who had asked the question and the dog beside him, just for the heck of it because they were both staring up at her now.
"No, thank you." She said, and winced inwardly. Really now, did she have to say it so primly?
He didn't look as if he believed her denial. Well, she didn't need help. Just because she had taken on a task that might be a little too much for her right now, especially on the evening of the funeral? What the hey was she doing this for anyway? Aunt Jean loved having the Christmas lights up every year, sure, but she was gone now. She would never see the pretty, festive lights again, and if anyone tried to get all 'Oh, Jean will look down from above and take such joy in the lights!'... well... whatever. Aunt Jean was gone and putting up the lights was probably silly, but Blue wanted to do it anyway. Just because.
But gone or not, Aunt Jean would have given her that look. That eyebrow thing. That look that said Blue was being difficult. Or rude. Rude, which she knew she was being right now. Mr. Keeper... John... was only trying to be nice. A good neighbor. "That John is the best neighbor to have, let me tell you!", Aunt Jean had more than once gushed to her, the first time not long after John had moved into the house he'd built down the road. Aunt Jean wasn't normally the gushy type, but with John? Well, John was the BEST neighbor, let me just tell you.
And here she was, being rude as heck. The least she could do was get on level ground with the man, Blue decided. Maybe easier said than done, as the light string, her heavy gloves, and the darned hair being wind-blown around her face made descending the ladder more of a trick than an accomplishment.
He seemed to think so also. "Wait... hang on... let me..."
Next thing she knew, John was up on the ladder with her, below her... oh man, his face was just level with the backs of her thighs, with her ass, and she wanted to giggle crazily at that... for Pete's sake how immature of her... and he was reaching up and taking the hopelessly tangled light string from her. He climbed down and as she followed she felt his hand on her arm, felt it even through the heavy coat she wore, to help guide her. Not that she needed steadying at this point, but after all he was the best neighbor, let me tell you.
The hottest neighbor, anyway, she thought as she tilted her head up now to thank him. Another lunatic giggle tried to escape as her brain compared John to her only other neighbor on this mile stretch of wooded road, Orley Green. Toothless old Mr. Orley, who looked to be 90, even though he was probably only... 85. Well, okay, he may be only in his early 70s, actually. It was doubtful even Orley Green knew how old he really was.
Suddenly realizing that these totally inappropriate thoughts and urges to laugh were only her mind's way of keeping her from crying, Blue pushed the hair out of her eyes, again, and tried to give John a smile, weak as it was. "You're here to collect Abe?" The dog glanced up at hearing his name, his tongue flopping out again.
"Ah, well, no. I mean yes, I'm here about Abe. And to see how you are doing." Before Blue could reply, John turned to look at the light display that she had managed to arrange around some of the bushes at the front of the house. "You know, I helped Jean with this whenever I was home this time of year. I'm going to miss her." he said quietly, his soft southern drawl feeling like a comfortable blanket. Turning back, he held up the light string. "You wouldn't mind, would you, if I...?"
"No, of course not." Blue shook her head. Before she had finished her agreement, he had already started up the ladder. Blue smiled at his little trick. She knew he had circumvented her refusal of help, finding a way around it. How could she say no to him now? And did she really want to refuse anyway?
Among all the people at Aunt Jean's funeral earlier in the day, small as it was, John Keeper was the only one that had quietly offered his condolences without taking her hand or kissing her cheek or hugging her and insisting that if there was anything they could do, just let them know. Oh, it wasn't that she thought they were all insincere, of course not! And she truly did appreciate the offers. It's just that, after a while, the small room in the only funeral parlor in town seemed to become more and more crowded and the air was stifling and Blue's hands wouldn't stop sweating and Lee, as good a friend as he'd always been, just wouldn't stop hovering with his hand constantly on her elbow or her shoulder and she just didn't want to hug anyone else...
It was just too much, and thank goodness it hadn't lasted much longer and she was able to come home... well, it was Aunt Jean's home, it hadn't been Blue's for several years now... and be by herself. Alone with her grief and her memories.
Blue absently studied John for a moment, then took up another strand and began arranging the twinkling lights across a snow dusted bush. Both worked in silence for several minutes.
"Thank you for coming to the service today. Jean would have appreciated it. She told me once that you were her favorite neighbor." Blue glanced at John.
"Between me and Orley, then?" John smiled fleetingly, if a little sadly. "Better not tell Orley that, wouldn't want him to be jealous." It was a small joke, and they both knew it, but Blue smiled back anyhow. "I wasn't sure I was going to make it back in time," John continued on, his hands busy arranging the lights, descending the ladder as he went. "Pure luck that I did. And it's partly why I stopped by." He paused and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, turning to her. "I'm afraid I have to head back tomorrow. I'm leaving early in the morning." He looked at Abe, who was busy sticking his snout into a snow drift and snuffling. "It wouldn't make much sense to take Abe home just for the night, as early as I'll have to be leaving, and I was just wondering-"
"I'll keep him." Blue interrupted, knowing what he was about to ask.
"Of course Orley will take him whenever it's needed. Whenever you need to go back to California, if I'm not back by then, he'll take Abe off your hands. Or even if you don't feel as if you can handle Abe right now?"
Blue knew all about the arrangement that the only three residents of this stretch of wooded road had in regards to Abe. Officially he was John Keeper's dog, but seeing as how John was away, for business purposes, at long stretches of time, Abe's second home had been with Jean. And if Jean couldn't take care of the dog for whatever reason, then Orley Green took him in. It had worked out no problems at all, because the neighbors loved Abe and Abe loved the neighbors. Win/win.
"I'll keep him." Blue repeated, reassuringly. Abe seemed to sense that the discussion was about him and had wandered close to Blue, sitting at her feet and looking up expectantly. At her agreement to keep him, she could have sworn the dog smiled.
"He likes you." John said quietly.
Blue looked up to find his brown eyes... no, not just brown, they were amber, or topaz... topaz, for Pete's sake... trained on her face. A little butterfly fluttered in her stomach, out of no-where, and she put her hand over her coat above the trembling spot, as if that would quiet it.
"Well I like him too." She bent down a little to coo and pet Abe's head, a good excuse look away from John's eyes. "We're old friends, really." Not like she and John, who were practically strangers even though they did have neighborly ties. Somehow it had happened that most of the times she had been able to come visit her Aunt, John happened to be away. There had been one or two occasions when she had seen him drive by on his way to somewhere, and he had held his hand up in a wave and nodded his head to her through the window of his old black pick-up truck, but that had been the closest she had come to him all this time.
Aunt Jean had said that between being away so often on business trips, (he was some sort of consultant, whatever that meant), he was also home for long intervals, but she just could never pin him down with any kind of guesswork about a schedule, other than what he let her know about right before each trip. So, while he and Jean had been neighbors for practically ten years now and she talked of him often, today at the funeral and this evening, right now, were the first times that Blue had met John face to face. It was probably only because Aunt Jean chattered about him so much that he felt familiar to her. Almost like they were friends already. Yeah, that was it, surely.
Abe nudged Blue's glove and she continued to pet his head as commanded. "Aunt Jean had him here several times when I came home to visit, and we got to know each other. Didn't we Abe?"
Abe 'wuffed' a little, then whined softly and looked expectantly at John. Blue looked down at the top of John's head with it's close cropped brown hair as he knelt in front of his dog and ruffled the fur under Abe's jawbone. "Of course you can stay with Blue." John murmured, just as if he were answering a question the dog had asked. "I don't blame you one bit."
Before Blue could look away and pretend she hadn't been staring, John glanced up and caught her. He stood, towering over her 5'4" frame. Oh lord, the man had to be at least 6 feet tall... no, most definitely more. Maybe 6'2"? More? For Pete's sake how tall was he? Tall. That's all Blue knew. He was tall. She bit her lip to keep from asking just how tall.
"So, what are you thinking about doing?"
Blue's lower lip popped out from the nibble she'd had it trapped in, and she refrained from blurting out a stupid sounding 'huh?'. Good thing he didn't pause much before continuing.
"I know it's probably too soon to decide," he said carefully, as if she would break down into tears if she thought much more about Aunt Jean's passing. "But I know you must be thinking about what to do with the house and all." He paused and looked up at the charmingly quirky three story home, and she thought she heard him sigh. "Do you have plans? At the least, know how long you will be staying?"
If he looked a little hopeful, she knew it was because of Abe. He needed someone to look after Abe while he was away. Well, of course there was Orley to do it, she reminded herself.
Blue looked up at the house also. She loved this place. It was her home, truly, even after living across the country for ten years, building a life for herself so far away. She had grown up here. Mostly, anyway. This was her home. Unfortunately, now it was missing the most important element. Aunt Jean.
Blue swiped self consciously at her eyes as her vision blurred. She didn't want to cry. She'd cried when she first came home two weeks ago and had been shocked at the sickness-ravaged appearance of the woman who had been a mother to her most of her life. She'd cried when she'd become angry at the realization that Aunt Jean had only called because John Keeper had convinced her that this was something that Blue needed to know about. And then she'd cried a little bit because she recognized Jean Water's stubborn independence and the near-hatred of the thought of being a burden as qualities within herself, and so she understood why Aunt Jean had waited so long to tell her she was dying. Whether or not she liked it, she at least had some understanding.
After those tears she hadn't cried, even once, during the two weeks that she had stayed with her Aunt, caring for her during her last moments of life, talking and laughing and remembering little things and big things, and just doing the best they could do for each other. Nor had she cried the morning she found Aunt Jean had slipped away quietly in her sleep, when Abe had nudged at her hand in the eerily silent pre-dawn until she had roused enough to follow the subdued pet to Jean's room. And no crying since then, not even today during the funeral. If she were going to start crying again she wanted to wait until she was inside, alone and safe in her third floor room of the house she grew up in, her personal sanctuary, until she shed any more tears.
She knew he was waiting for an answer to his question, and she angrily swiped at her eyes again, trying to make it look like it wasn't because there were any tears in her eyes, because she knew he was looking at her. She didn't look up to confirm it, but she could feel his eyes on her, and knew that if she looked up she would fall right into his concerned gaze and gosh damn it she didn't want to cry, so she busied herself with the lights again.
"What with the Christmas holiday and having another art teacher to fill in for me at the community college when needed, I'll be able to stay another two weeks." Out of the corner of her eye she saw John following her lead and arranging more lights. "But as far as what I'm going to do after that, I haven't quite decided yet, but... this is home. I can't imagine selling it, or anything like that."
"That means possibly moving back, here, to stay?" John asked after a long pause.
"I've got a lot to think about." Blue shrugged, and though she didn't look up she felt his eyes on her again.
Silently they worked on the cheery display, moving back to stand in the road when they were done to get a good view of their handiwork.
"It's pretty. Aunt Jean would be proud. Thank you, John."
John shoved his hands into his coat pockets and nodded, blowing out a puff of breath that turned white in the winter air. Blue felt like she should do something, like invite him in to get warmed up, have some hot chocolate. Something neighborly. Something polite. All she could do was stare at the Christmas lights making the snow covered house and trees and bushes glow. She thought she felt something move over the length of her hair that lay on her shoulder... the wind had at least died down now and wasn't blowing it willy-nilly... and when she turned her head John was pushing his hand back into his pocket, but she had probably just imagined... well, she didn't know what she had imagined. Nothing.
"As far as I know I'll be gone about a week." John broke the silence. "You've got my cell number." Yes, there was a list of important numbers on Aunt Jean's kitchen note board, and Blue knew that the second one down, after her own, was his. "And I've got yours." She was at first surprised at this, but then not, considering Aunt Jean had probably given it to him. "Call if... call for any reason. If you can't reach me right away, I'll call back as soon as possible. I promise."
He didn't really need to 'promise', Blue thought, but as she stood there tilting her head up to him, the way he said it and the way he was standing so close, like he was protecting her.
She took a step back, even though doing so made her feel suddenly cold. Chilled to the bone.
John made one of those mysterious hand gestures and Abe came trotting over instantly to sit at his feet. Leaning over, he said something only the dog could hear, then stood back up and nodded towards the house.
"Better get inside and warmed up. It's getting colder. Stay, Abe. Bye, Blue."
Blue and Abe watched 'the best neighbor to have around' walk away down the road until he turned the corner and disappeared.
John trudged home, the moonlight that reflected off the snow lighting the night enough to show him the way. Not that he needed it, having walked the road between houses so many times over the years he could have done it blindfolded. Even so, making his feet carry him home was an effort.
All he really wanted to do was turn himself around, go back to Blue, and tuck that woman into his arms. And keep her there.
Oh yeah, like that would go over well. Grabbed and hugged to within an inch of her life. She'd called the freaking cops on him.
Of course, he meant no harm. On the contrary. He only wanted to help Blue during this time of grieving. They were both grieving. Jean had been such a big part of his life these past few years, more than he'd ever expected. God, he was going to miss that feisty old woman.
John chuckled wryly as he waded through the snow to his porch, imagining Jean's reaction to him calling her 'feisty old woman'. Hell, he'd said it often enough, that very description of her having been spoken out loud during more than one of their lively conversations. The ones that almost always ended in snorted laughter and spilled beer.