Seven years later
Leave it to a female to think the rules did not apply to her.
The little heathen from next door was crawling under the split-rail fence that separated the cottages again. Dax, who already had been feeling pretty damn grumpy going on a year now, wondered why she didn’t just go over the fence. She was big enough. It was almost as if she wanted the mud on her dress and her knees, to drag the ends of her dark red ponytails through the muck.
She crawled under, stood up, and knocked the caked mud off her knees. She stomped her pink, sparkly cowboy boots—never had he seen a more impractical shoe—to make them light up, as she liked to do, hopping around her porch several times a day.
Then she started for cottage Number Two, arms swinging, stride long.
Dax watched her from inside his kitchen, annoyed. It had started a week ago, when she’d climbed on the bottom railing of the fence, leaned over it, and shouted, “I like your dog!”
He’d ignored her.
Two days ago he’d asked her, fairly politely, not to give any more cheese to his dog, Otto. That little stunt of hers had resulted in a very long and malodorous night between man and beast.
Yesterday he’d commanded her to stay on her side of the fence.
But here the little monster came, apparently neither impressed with him nor intimidated by his warnings.
Well, Dax had had enough with that family, or whatever the situation was next door. And the enormous pickup truck that showed up at seven a.m. and idled in the drive just outside his bedroom window. Those people were exactly what was wrong with America—people doing whatever they wanted without regard for anyone else, letting their kids run wild, coming and going at all hours of the day.
He walked to the back screen door and opened it. He’d installed a dog door, but Otto refused to use it. No, Otto was a precious buttercup of a dog that liked to have his doors opened for him, and he assumed that anytime his master neared the door, Dax was opening it for him. He assumed so now, stepping in front of Dax—pausing to stretch after his snoring nap—before sauntering out and down the back porch steps to sniff something at the bottom.
Dax walked out onto the porch and stood with his hands on his hips as the girl brazenly advanced.
“Hi!” she said.
She was about to learn that she couldn’t make a little girl’s social call whenever she wanted. There were rules in this world, and Dax had no compunction about teaching them to her. Clearly someone needed to. He responded to her greeting with a glower.
“Hi!” she said again, shouting this time, as if he hadn’t heard her from the tremendous distance of about six feet.
“What’d I tell you yesterday?” he asked.
“To stay on the other side of the fence.”
“Then why are you over here?”
“I forgot.” She rocked back on her heels and balanced on them, toes up. “Do you live there?”
“No, I just stand on the porch and guard the fence. Yes, I live here. And I work here. And I don’t want visitors. Now go home.”
“My name is Ruby Kokinos. What’s yours?”
What was wrong with this kid? “Where is your mother?”
“Then is your dad home?”
“My daddy is in Africa. He teaches cats to do tricks,” she said, pausing to twirl around on one heel. “Big cats, not little cats. They have really big cats in Africa.”
“Whatever,” he said impatiently. “Who is home with you right now?”
“Mrs. Miller. She’s watching TV. She said I could go outside.”
Great. A babysitter. “Go home,” he said, pointing to Number Three as Otto wandered over to examine Ruby Coconuts, or whatever her name was. “Go home and tell Mrs. Miller that you’re not allowed to come over or under that fence. Do you understand me?”
“What’s your dog’s name?” she asked, petting that lazy, useless mutt.
“Did you hear me?” Dax asked.
“Yes.” She giggled as Otto began to lick her hand, and went down on her knees to hug him. “I always always wanted a dog, but Mommy says I can’t have one now. Maybe when I’m big.” She stroked Otto’s nose, and the dog sat, settling in for some attention.
“Don’t pet the dog,” Dax said. “I just told you to go home. What else did I tell you to do?”
“To, um, to tell Mrs. Miller to stay over there,” she said, as she continued to pet the dog. “What’s her name?”
“It’s a he, and his name is Otto. And I told you to tell Mrs. Miller that you are supposed to stay over there. Now go on.”
She stopped petting the dog, and Otto, not ready for the gravy train of attention to end, began to lick her face. Ruby giggled with delight. Otto licked harder, like she’d been handling red meat. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise Dax if she had—the kid seemed like the type to be into everything. She was laughing uncontrollably now and fell onto her back. Otto straddled her, his tail wagging as hard as her feet were kicking, trying to lick her while she tried to hold him off.
Nope, this was not going to happen. Those two useless beings were not making friends. Dax marched down off the porch and grabbed Otto’s collar, shoving him out of the way. “Go,” he said to the dog, pointing to his cottage. Otto obediently lumbered away.
Dax turned his attention to the girl with the fantastically dark red hair in two uneven pigtails and, now that he was close to her, he could see her clear blue eyes through the round lenses of her blue plastic eyeglasses, which were strapped to her face with a headband. She looked like a very young little old lady. “Listen to me, kid. I don’t want you over here. I work here. Serious work. I can’t be entertaining little girls.”
She hopped to her feet. “What’s your name?”
Dax sighed. “If I tell you my name, will you go home?”
She nodded, her, long pigtails bouncing around her.
She stared at him.
“That’s my name,” he said with a shrug.
Ruby giggled and began to sway side to side. “That’s not a real name!”
“It’s as real as Ruby Coconuts.”
“Not Coconuts!” She squealed with delight. “It’s Ruby Kokinos.”
“Yeah, okay, but I’m pretty sure you said Coconuts. Now go home.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m a lot older than you,” he said and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her around.
“I’m going to be seven on my birthday. I want a Barbie for my birthday. I already have four. I want the one that has the car. The pink car with flowers on it. There’s a blue car, but I don’t want that one, I want the pink one, because it has flowers on it. Oh, and guess what, I don’t want a Jasmine anymore. That’s my favorite princess, but I don’t want her anymore, I want a Barbie like Taleesha has.”
“Great. Good luck with that,” he said as he moved her toward the fence.
“My shoes light up,” she informed him, stomping her feet as they moved. “My mom says they’re fancy. They’re my favorites. I have some sneakers, too, but they don’t light up.”
They had reached the fence, thank God, before the girl could give him a rundown of her entire shoe collection. Ruby dipped down, apparently thinking she’d go under again, but Dax caught her under her arms and swung her over the fence, depositing her on the other side.
Ruby laughed with delight. “Do that again!”
“No. This is where our acquaintance comes to an end, kid. I don’t have time to babysit you, get it?”
“Yes,” she said.
She didn’t get it. She wasn’t even listening. She had already climbed onto the bottom rail, as if she meant to come back over.
“I mean it,” he said, pointing at her. “If I find you on my side of the fence, I’m going to call the police.” He figured that ought to put the fear of God into her.
“The policemans are our friends,” she said sunnily. “A policeman and a police woman came to my kindergarten. But they never shot any peoples.”
Dax had a brief but potent urge to correct her understanding of how plurals worked, but he didn’t. He turned around and marched back to his cottage.
He didn’t even want to look out the kitchen window when he went inside, because if she’d come back over the fence, he would lose it.
He’d known that family was going to be trouble the moment they’d arrived a few days ago. They’d cost him a table leg he’d been working on, because they’d slammed a door so loudly and unexpectedly that Dax had started, and the permanent marker he was using to outline a very intricate pattern on said table leg had gone dashing off in a thick, black, indelible line down the leg. He’d had to sand the leg down and start again.
Naturally, he’d gone to investigate the source of the banging, and he’d seen a woman with a backpack strapped to her leaning into the open hatch area of a banged-up Subaru. She’d pulled out a box, hoisted it into her arms with the help of her knee, then had lugged it up the path and porch steps to Number Three. She’d been wearing short shorts, a T-shirt, and a ball cap. Dax hadn’t seen her face, but he’d seen her legs, which were nice and long and shapely, and a mess of dark hair about the same color as wrought iron, tangled up in the back of the cap. She’d managed to open the door, and then had gone in, letting the door bang behind her.
Neighbors. Dax was not a fan.