Matt & Zoe - Charles Sheehan-Miles

Chapter One

Miss Annoying (Zoe)

The brakes on Nicole’s patrol car squeal as she brings it to a gentle stop in front of the unmarked building. It’s an old three-story white house with black shutters, with three cars parked in the gravel driveway. From the outside, there’s nothing to indicate this is an emergency shelter for children.

South Hadley is well outside Nicole’s jurisdiction, but all the same, I’m glad she’s here with me. The sunlight flashes off her badge as her shoes crunch in the gravel. We walk to the front door, and I feel tension in my chest. Nicole knocks, and I cross my arms. The sunlight is glaring down, hot against my shoulder, but I’ve been in much worse heat. My tension isn’t from the heat out here, it’s from what I might find inside.

The front door opens. A tired looking woman stands there, forty or so, with ill-fitting clothing.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m Officer Banks. This is Zoe Welch; she’s here to pick up her sister.”

The woman’s eyes dart to me, scanning over my uniform—rumpled from forty-eight hours of travel—then to Nicole—then back to me. “Miss Welch… my name is Linda Whitney. Come in, please. You’re … younger than I expected. I was led to believe you’re a Sergeant in the Army?”

I shrug. “I am. Or was—the Army discharged me yesterday.”

She leads us into an entry room. It’s bare, with refinished pine flooring, white walls and plain furniture.

“Please, wait here, and I’ll go get her. Um… do you have any identification?”

I open my functional purse and pass over my Army Reserve identification. I don’t have a current driver's license. I'll have to take care of that soon.

Linda frowns, looks at the photo on the identification, then back at me, as if she doubts I'm the person in the photo. I don’t know why—my Army Reserve ID was printed yesterday—the photo is clearly me. Without a word, she passes the ID back and I tuck it away. She walks out of the room, shutting the door behind her with a loud thump.

“Wicked friendly, isn’t she?” Nicole asks. Her tone is dry.

“I guess.” Another time I might have laughed, but right now it’s hard to have any kind of sense of humor. I’ve slept little since Captain Wilson awakened me in the Hardy Barracks in Tokyo forty-eight hours ago.

Sergeant Welch. I regret to inform you your parents were killed in an accident.

I have to hand it to Captain Wilson and the Army—they moved quickly. My first question when I learned my parents were dead was: where is Jasmine? Mom and Dad didn’t have any siblings, and our nearest relatives are some distant cousins in California.

The initial answer terrified me: nobody knew where she was. Within a few hours I learned that Jasmine was in an emergency shelter. The Army granted me an immediate hardship discharge and flew me home. I skipped the normal out-processing—Captain Wilkins and my First Sergeant stepped in and took over everything so I could be on a plane as quickly as possible.

I sway a little on my feet as the door opens and the sourpuss woman walks back in. Jasmine enters the room next. She’s downcast, hair hanging in her eyes, and wearing a clean but threadbare dress. At eight years old, Jasmine is about four and a half feet tall and weighs sixty pounds. Her wispy, dirty-blonde hair looks limp and lifeless.

“Jasmine,” I whisper, dropping down to one knee.

Her face whips up and her blue eyes widen, then in a blur she runs toward me, crying out the word, “Zoe!” in a choked, grief-stricken wail. She hits me hard and I almost fall backward. She begins to sob.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “It’s okay.”

It isn’t okay.

The accident was bizarre enough it made the news all over. I’d read the details. A truck full of premium commercial ovens hit a pothole, swerved across the road and rolled, throwing a one-ton stainless-steel gas range at my father’s 1961 Austin Healey Sprite, a car that was probably smaller than the oven that hit it. Mom and Dad were killed instantly.

I don’t know if things will ever be okay again. I lie to Jasmine and hug her tight, squeezing my eyes closed because, if I don’t, I’m going to start crying.

“We’ll need you to sign some paperwork…” says Miss Annoying.

“I’ll take care of that,” Nicole says.

“I’m afraid you can’t, she has to sign the papers.”

“Is this necessary?” Nicole’s tone is exasperated.

I look up. “I’ll sign. Whatever you need.” I stand, lifting Jasmine with