L. B. Neptunia
I looked at the little girl in front of me. She was tucked up in my clean bedsheets, her little dog coiled on top, right next to her.
She had been scared when I brought her here. She had been scared when I went to the toilet and left her in the living room alone for a few minutes. And she had been scared when I told her that she could have my bed.
But after we’d eaten a bowl of Cheerios each, I promised to sleep on the floor right next to her, and she wasn’t scared anymore.
Now I was sitting on the edge of the bed, with her tiny hand in mine as protection against all the dangers in the world.
She was exhausted, and she missed her mom, but she was so brave to trust me, a complete stranger, that any firefighter would envy her spirit.
It felt strange to have a little child to take care of like this. But it was a good strangeness. The kind that warmed my heart in a way I’d never felt before.
This girl had lost her home, her dad, and almost her mother too. If Mrs. Montgomery had been inside that house one minute longer, it would have been too late. I knew that.
I’d seen it way too many times before. And now, she would be hospitalized for at least a few days, and her most precious little jewel was here with me.
And she could be here for as long as necessary too. Of that, I was sure. And just the thought made a spontaneous smile pull on my lips.
The only thing I worried about was how damaged her mother’s lungs were after inhaling all that smoke.
I lay down on the floor next to the bed, just as I promised, with my arms folded behind my head, staring at the ceiling. This was going to be a really sad Christmas for them, no doubt about that.
But I had so many questions... Where would they stay until they found a new place to live? Was it true that they didn’t have any family? That can’t be! At least friends?
They probably had lots of friends. Would their insurance cover the rebuild of their house? And would Mrs. Montgomery be okay? Mrs. Montgomery... Leila.
“Ben! Ben! Can we go see my mom now?”
I jolted awake at the unfamiliar sound of someone squealing into my ear. And it took quite a few seconds to comprehend what had happened last night.
I didn’t get much sleep, but looking at the eager five-year-old in front of me made me forget all about it. And now she sat on my lap and poked my nose.
“Your hair looks funny.”
I giggled at her straightforwardness. Kids...
“I’ve never seen a man with hair that long before.”
“Really?” I asked playfully and poked her nose back.
“Mm-hmm,” she hummed matter-of-factly.
“My dad had short hair, not black and curly like yours. His was light.”
I smiled at her but couldn’t help feeling a sting in my heart.
“Same as you then?” I said and twirled a lock of her hair between my fingers.
She might have inherited the hair color from her father, but I was absolutely amazed by how similar her eyes were to her mother’s. They were beautiful.
Dark blue, with long eyelashes framing them so perfectly. Oh, this little one should definitely have a dad to keep the boys away when she gets older, that’s for sure!
I blushed a bit. Why did I have all these thoughts? What made this girl, her mom, and her dog any different from other people I had saved in a fire? Truth was, I didn’t know.
“Molly needs to go pee-pee. Do you have a yard?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Oh. Of course! I… Yes. I’ll show you.”
I lifted Kensie off my lap and got up.
“Molly likes you, you know,” she said out of the blue. And I looked at the little furball sitting in front of the bedroom door, then back at Kensie.
“She does?” I giggled, thinking of how I didn’t really like dogs. But when I got to where she was sitting patiently and waiting for the door to open, I couldn’t help but stroke her little head.
Man, she’s smaller than a cat!
Molly got to do her business, and Kensie and I had another bowl of Cheerios. Then, I helped her brush her teeth. But she didn’t have any clean clothes. Only the green pajamas she was wearing.
And she stubbornly refused to shower without me helping her. So I decided to postpone that to later and drop by the mall to buy her some clothes before we headed to the hospital.
“Kensie? Do you like this?”
I held out a pink dress so she could see, but she only shook her head. She seemed shy again, just like she was when we first talked yesterday.
And even though I showed her several cute dresses, she kept shaking her head, tugging at my jacket.
“Hmm... I don’t think Uncle Benny knows what he’s doing here. Maybe you can show him what you want to wear?”
She giggled a little. “Who’s Uncle Benny?”
“Me.” I pointed at myself with a goofy smile but sighed when she shook her head again.
“You’re not Uncle Benny. You’re Ben,” she stated with a frown, then pulled me over to a rack of boys' clothing. Ahh. So she’s a little tomboy, huh? I would never have guessed.
I let her pick out a couple of outfits, a pair of shoes, and a winter coat and prepared to go pay. But she had other plans.
“Now we need something for my mom.”
For her mom?! I... She didn’t have any clothes either. Kensie was right. Leil—Mrs. Montgomery only had her nightgown, too, just like Kensie.
She would need something decent to wear when she got home. Well... to wherever they would go when she got discharged from the hospital.
I let Kensie lead me toward the women’s department and blushed nervously when it looked like she was heading straight to the underwear section.
Luckily, she walked right past it and over to a table with women’s sweatpants with matching jackets.
And together, we picked out a nice purple set that I imagined would look good on her. Or at least until she could buy her own clothes.
Oh, my God… This is such foreign territory to me!
But Kensie assured me that purple was her favorite color, and I prayed to God that I picked the right size. And with that, we paid and left.
Kensie ran toward her mother as soon as I’d opened the door to her room.
“Oh, baby!” Mrs. Montgomery exclaimed and tried to hold back a fit of coughs. She managed…almost. But her nose catheter fell out because of how tightly they embraced each other.
“Mom? Ben and I went shopping.”
Mrs. Montgomery held her at arm’s length so she could look at her, and I saw confusion written all over her face.
“Shopping? Oh, my. You have new clothes! That’s… Oh, wow.”
She looked at me, partially relieved and partially embarrassed.
“I…,” she started and swallowed. “Thank you so much, Mr. Cavanaugh. I will pay you back as soon as I get out. I will discharge myself after…”
She struggled to hold back another series of coughs. “I have talked to the doctor.”
She couldn’t hold back anymore and croaked over, gasping for air.
Kensie walked over to me and grabbed my hand. Firmly, she pulled me toward her mother, so I could sit on the chair next to the bed.
“Mrs. Montgomery… You are in no shape to get out of the hospital yet.”
“But I need…cough…to take care of…~cough~…Kensie! And Molly…~cough…~ Where is Mo… ~cough…~”
“Molly’s in Ben’s car,” Kensie said and climbed onto my lap. And I was surprised to find myself wrapping my arms around her like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“I mean it, Le—Mrs. Montgomery. Kensie can stay with me until you get better. No need to w—”
“Leila. Please call me Leila.”
Oh, thank God
“Okay, Leila. I really—”
But Kensie interrupted me.
“We bought clothes for you, Mom. And it’s your favorite color.”
I blushed like crazy, feeling like I’d stepped over every possible boundary between two strangers. This was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.
It was just weird to buy clothes for a woman I didn’t know. She will think I’m some creep or…
Kensie picked up the bag, pulled out the purple sweatsuit, and placed it in the hands of her mother.
She looked at me with the same deep-blue eyes as her daughter, and electric impulses shot through me. She…was beautiful.
“Thank you, Mr. Cavanaugh.”
She held up the pieces of clothing and studied them, and a faint redness brushed over her cheeks.
“Ben,” I said, wanting things to be less awkward because the tension between us was intense. Almost unbearable.
I’d never felt like this with anyone before, and I couldn’t quite understand what was wrong with me. But then…
“Ben is so silly! He told me to call him Uncle Benny. But I can’t do that. He’s not my uncle. He’s just Ben.”
That’s right, little girl. I’m just Ben.
“Really? He said that?” Leila exclaimed enthusiastically, but she couldn’t cover the redness in her cheeks. And she sent me a look of gratitude that made me relax.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to buy those clothes after all?
“Yeah! And you should have seen his hair when he woke up this morning. He looked like a troll!
“Haha! Oh! I forgot to tell you. I got his whole bed for myself. And Molly, of course. And he slept on the floor and kept the monsters away. And his bed is really, really soft! And he…”
Kensie rambled on, telling her mother about how things had gone since they parted last night, but I zoned out.
I was too deep in my own thoughts and too lost in those blue eyes to follow. But then Leila waved at me and brought me back to reality.
“Um... Yeah?” I shook my head to focus.
“I asked if it was okay if she could stay another night? I haven’t…”
“Of course! Yes! Kensie! Um... Do you want to borrow my bed for another night?” I looked at her, and she cheered loudly while nodding frantically.
Then she hugged me. If I wasn’t red enough in the face from before, I sure was now.
And this unbelievably good feeling I got when this little princess showed me with her entire being that she trusted me left me out of breath.
“I will pay you back tomo—” Leila started, but I didn’t even want to hear.
“No! Please! Just... No. Think of it as a... a Christmas gift!”
The emotions in her eyes said it all. And I actually felt my own eyes water because of everything that was said between us without uttering a word.
And to really make her understand that I meant it with all my heart, I placed my hand on hers as a shield against everything bad.
“Please let me. I promise you everything’s gonna be all right. Everything.”
Her eyes glazed over, and her bottom lip quivered. Lord, if I only knew her better, I would hug her.
She’d been strong for so long! Now it was time that someone took care of her. Them. And it was right there and then that I knew.
I wanted to surprise them. I couldn’t give them their house back. Nor Leila her husband or Kensie her father back. But I could make sure they had the best Christmas possible.
I could make sure they had a nice warm bed, a roof over their heads, lots of food, a Christmas tree, and decorations. And Kensie? She was going to get a serious amount of gifts, that was for sure!
But the greatest gift would be the one I would get: the privilege to give it to them and to be a part of their joy.
I squeezed Leila’s hand one more time and said, more determined than ever, “Everything’s gonna be all right.”
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