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By:L Wilder

When I got there, I spotted her on the front lawn of the schoolyard, talking with a couple of her friends. It was a relief to see that she looked happy. She was laughing about something, but stopped the minute she spotted me. Without hesitation, she raced over to me and jumped in my arms, hugging me tightly.

“You’re here! You’re really here!” she squealed.

“I would’ve come sooner, but…”

“I’m just glad you’re here. I was so worried about you,” she cried, squeezing her arms around my waist. I pulled back and stared at her for a minute. I couldn’t believe how much she’d grown. She was almost fourteen now and looking at her reminded me so much of my mother. She had the same long brown hair and crooked grin. My eyes roamed over her, searching for any signs of bruises or welts.

Emerson shook her head and said, “I’m fine, Griff. He’s still mean as ever, but he doesn’t hurt me.”

“You know, I’ll kill him if he ever lays a hand on you. Never doubt that.”

“He won’t. Don’t worry,” she told me. “Are you okay? What are you doing with yourself these days? Where are you living?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d been spending my days at the YMCA and nights in the local homeless shelters, so I told her, “I made some friends. I’m staying with them ’till I can get a place of my own.”

“Good. I hated that you had to stay in those awful shelters by yourself.” A tear trickled down her cheek as she said, “I miss you so much, but I’m glad you got away.”

“I’m going to be gone for a while, so I won’t be able to get back here to check on you,” I explained.

“Where are you going?” she asked, panic filling her eyes.

“Gonna enlist. Just long enough to get on my feet… then I’ll be back.” I’d just turned eighteen, so I thought it made sense to join. When I’d gone in to enlist, I found out it wasn’t as simple as just signing my name on the dotted line. I had to give my background, where I’d been living for the past ten years, and that was just the beginning. I was lucky that the recruiter was willing to help me. I figured it had something to do with my last name. It was a small town, and I had no doubt that he knew my grandfather. I didn’t care why he helped me, I was just glad that he did. The recruiter helped me get my GED, and I just had to pass the AVSAB next week to have everything I needed to join.

“But why? What if something happens to you?” she pleaded.

“Made it this far, Em. This is something I have to do. I’ll be fine,” I explained. “You better get going. Don’t want you to miss your ride.”

“Please be careful, and come back,” she whispered as a small tear trickled down her cheek. She reached up and hugged me once more before she turned and ran for her bus. “Love you, Griff,” she called back.

I got out of the shower trying to remember the last time I’d been to see her. During my stint in the service, she’d become a typical teenager, busy with her friends and dating. After she graduated high school, she started college, by then I was a full-patch member of the club. I missed the sense of brotherhood I’d found in the military and joining Satan’s Fury gave me the family I’d never really had. My club and my brothers meant everything to me, and they kept me very busy. I hadn’t actually seen Emerson in months, but as soon as things settled down, I planned to go see her.

It was getting late, and I was starving. Before heading over to Cotton’s office, I stopped off at a local diner for a decent meal. The place was small, a little mom and pop joint that’d been there forever. The food was good, and the waitresses let me be. They quickly figured out that I wasn’t there for the small talk and left me to eat in peace. I pulled into the nearly empty parking lot and parked my bike at the edge of the lot. Just as I was about to kill the engine, I noticed a little pair of red tennis shoes sticking out from the side of the building. I used the tip of my boot to adjust my kickstand, edging my headlight over to the small shadow wrapped in darkness. A young boy, probably around seven or eight, sat with his back against the side of the building and his little arms wrapped around his knees. For a split second, I considered going inside, leaving the kid to deal with his own shit but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave him out here all alone in the dark.

I turned off the engine and walked over to him and instantly felt a pang of guilt when I saw the terrified look on the boy’s face. “You alright, kid?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, just stared at me like I was the Grim Reaper. Can’t say I blame him. My size could be considered threatening to just about anyone, and my beard and tattoos didn’t exactly make things any better for a freaked-out kid on the east side of town. He held his knees close to his chest as he looked up at me, trying to determine whether or not I was truly a threat. I didn’t want to scare the kid, but I couldn’t just leave him out here alone. Not really knowing what else to do, I shoved my hands in my pockets and leaned my back up against the wall next to him. I waited silently, hoping that he would figure out that I wasn’t there to hurt him, that he might tell me what the hell was going on.