The tiny closet was miserably hot and stuffy, but there was no way ten year old Carly was going to come out into the relatively fresh air of the ugly trailer where she lived. Her arm throbbed with pain and she felt a bit of blood on her swollen lip. A cold glass of water would be really nice right now, but…looking at the odd angle of her right arm, Carly wasn’t sure if she’d be able to hold the glass. Another issue, she wasn’t sure if they had running water this month. Her father might have forgotten to pay the water bill, which meant that the county might have turned it off. There definitely wouldn’t be any ice, so cold water…well, any water would be helpful right now.
A noise from outside of her tiny room startled her and she froze, her fingers gripping the pencil more tightly. Was her father back already? Was he still drunk? Usually, she had a couple more hours before her father ran out of whiskey money and came home.
Nervously, Carly bit her lip, ignoring the slight pain. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the pain in her arm. She couldn’t move her fingers in that hand and…well, her father hadn’t ever found her in her closet before. Carly stilled, trying to quiet even her racing heart. If he found her, would he hit her again? Would he shove her against the wall?
Carly’s father generally ignored her presence when he was sober. But when he was drunk, he liked to take his fury at the world out on her, smacking her around. Sometimes, it was just a slap, which Carly could take. But sometimes, like today, it was…worse. A lot worse!
Ignoring the pain in her arm, Carly silently tilted her head, trying to hear. The footsteps were heavier than her fathers. And more careful, she thought. She’d learned her father’s tread, both when he was sober and when he was drunk. These footsteps didn’t sound right. They were…was someone else in the house? She bit her lip harder, trying to keep as silent as possible. No one could know she was in this closet! She hadn’t moved! Carly had barely breathed!
And yet, the footsteps stopped in her bedroom! They were right outside of the closet door! She looked around, but in the dim light, she couldn’t find any weapon, nothing that would allow her to fend off whoever was standing outside of this thin, wooden door!
Maybe they wouldn’t know! Maybe she was silent enough and whoever was there, wouldn’t open the door! She prayed, but didn’t really believe in prayers. Too many times, she’d prayed that her father would come home sober, or that he wouldn’t hit her. Or that there would be food in the fridge or water for a bath at night. So far, too many of those prayers had gone unanswered.
As the door slid open, Carly whimpered furiously. More unanswered prayers, she thought as the light streamed in, blinding her for a moment. But it wasn’t her father standing there, looking down at her. She blinked, trying to make sense of the image in front of her.
This man…he wasn’t her father! Who was he? A stranger, definitely. Although…even to her terrified mind, the man sort of looked like her father. This man…he had the same green eyes as her father. The same nose.
“Carly?” he said softly, bending down and she noticed that he was wearing clothes that a soldier might wear. Clothes that looked…strange.
And he didn’t smell like cheap beer or bourbon.
“Who are you?” she demanded with her angriest voice, trying to be brave in the face of this terrifying stranger. He was taller, bigger and more muscular than her father. If he hit her with those huge hands, Carly knew that she’d be a gonner!
“I’m Oz,” the big guy said softly. “I’m your brother. Oz Cole.”
Carly cringed away, not believing him. She’d prayed for a big brother. She’d prayed hard for someone big enough to stop her ugly, mean father from smacking her around. That was yet another unanswered prayer! She hated that stupid God for teasing her now, for taunting her with something she’d prayed so hard for!
“You’re safe now. I’m going to take you away so that our father won’t ever hurt you again,” the huge man said.
Carly didn’t believe him. For too long, she’d prayed for help, only to have her father come home and smack her around a bit more.
The man’s green eyes looked at her school books that were still spread out over her lap. “You’re doing your homework in the closet?” he asked, his head nodding to the open math book. “I used to hide out in the woods in order to get my homework done. Dad smacked me around too. Until I was big enough to smack him back,” the man said.
Carly’s heart pounded harder. “What…?” her eyes were wide, but she couldn’t finish the question. She couldn’t hope! Not anymore! It hurt too much when that hope was crushed under her father’s heavy hand.
“I know, honey,” he said, his voice gentle. Almost as if he really understood. “Ms. Carlson lives close by. She drove over here the other day, just curious and wanting to make sure that our dad wasn’t…” those green eyes glanced down, noticing her arm for the first time. “She was right, wasn’t she?” he demanded, his voice harsh once again.
“Right?” Carly whispered, wanting to be brave, but this man was huge! And muscular! And…she was scared. She hated being scared, but Carly was so hungry and her arm hurt too much.
“Our dad is hitting you again.” His head nodded to her arm. “How long since he’d done that to you?” he asked.
Carly whimpered, wanting to hide her arm, but…she couldn’t move it even a little. It hurt way too much. “I’m fine,” she told him, valiantly trying to be brave.
He shook his head, those green eyes compassionate. “You’re not fine. You’re hurt and I’m going to get you to a doctor.” With that announcement, he reached into the closet and lifted her gently into her arms. Carly had no option other than to wrap her unhurt arm around the big guy’s neck, holding on while he carefully lifted her into his arms.
As he cradled her against his strong chest, Carly looked up at him. “You’re not going to hit me for hiding?” she asked, embarrassed that her voice cracked, revealing her fear of this man.
The muscles in his jaw clenched and he strode swiftly out of the trailer. “Never!” he promised. “In fact, I’m taking you to a doctor and I promise you that our father will never hit you again!”
He slipped Carly into a big truck, then strapped the seatbelt over her waist. He was about to close the door when he stopped. Then the man did something crazy! He took off his top shirt, then carefully tucked it under her arm, being extra gentle. He had a tan-ish shirt on underneath, but the lack of that overshirt showed her exactly how muscular the man really was. They seriously rippled whenever he moved! She’d never seen so many muscles on a man before!
Fifteen minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of a hospital and Carly panicked. “We can’t go in there!” she gasped, shifting in her seat and wiggling, as if she could somehow get away.
Oz turned off the car and shook his head. “Carly, I suspect that your arm is broken. You need a doctor.”
She bit her lip, but that hurt too. “Mister, we don’t have any money for a doctor!” she hissed, fighting back the tears and panic.
The man ignored her, walking around to her side of the car, then lifting her back into his arms. “I have money, Carly,” he explained softly, but with feeling.
Carly wrapped her arm around his neck again, but her worried eyes searched the area. “Hurry!” she whispered, trying to shrink into his arms. “He might come!”
The big guy looked down at her, his jaw tightening. He looked angry, but Carly didn’t have the time to figure out why. Her father might get word that she wasn’t home and would come looking for her! What would he do if he found her here?!
“I need a doctor!” the big guy called out as he stepped through the doors of the hospital’s emergency room, not to anyone specifically, but his voice easily carried over to the three nurses standing behind the desk. All three of them turned, looking in his direction. “I think her arm is broken.”
Immediately, all three nurses hurried over, their eyes assessing Carly and her arm tightened around this man’s neck. “Mister, I need to leave here!” she hissed, afraid of the nurses and doctors who swarmed around her.
The man tightened his arms. “I’ll protect you, Carly,” he promised. “I won’t let him hurt you again!”
She looked into his green eyes. He looked sincere. But…how could he promise something like that?
A nurse nodded. “It’s broken,” she confirmed. “This way.” And the nurse led the way into the emergency room. “Put her in here,” she ordered, pointing to a big bed on wheels, then she pulled a curtain closed.
An hour later, Carly felt a whole lot better. They’d taken some x-rays of her arm and confirmed that it was broken, then given her something to numb the pain. With a lot of concern in the doctors’ and nurses’ eyes, her arm was slowly straightened out. She bit her lip harder, fighting against the pain. Carly didn’t want them to know how badly it hurt, but after a few minutes of the pulling, she simply couldn’t take it any longer and she blacked out.
When she woke up, her arm was heavy and she looked down at it. The thick cast looked odd against her pale skin.
The big guy was still there along with a police officer. Both men stood up and came closer to her when she lifted her head.
“He didn’t do it!” she gasped, pushing away from the police officer. She reached out to the man who had carried her in here. “He didn’t do anything wrong!”
The police officer smiled gently. “I know that Carly. May I call you Carly?”
The officer asked her questions and, it took a while, but eventually, the big guy convinced her to explain how she’d broken her arm. He also asked her to explain the bruises on her ribs and her face. Carly hadn’t even realized that her cheek was bruised.
When the officer left, she looked up at the big man. “You’re really my brother?” she asked, careful not to sound too hopeful. People tended to laugh at her when she hoped for something.
The big guy didn’t laugh. His green eyes looked down at her and smiled reassuringly. “Yes. I’m your brother. Call me Oz.” He put a hand to her hair and she liked his gentle touch. “And I’m going to take you some place safe,” he promised.
Carly smiled, not sure if she believed him.
“If I’d known that I had a little sister sooner,” he told her softly, “I would have been her a long time ago.”
Carly shrugged. “Dad sometimes just…gets angry.”
He leaned forward. “I know. I’ve been there myself. But he’s never, ever, going to hit you again. Okay?”
Carly smiled. “Okay.”
Huh! A big brother. She really had one!
Carly watched as Oz…such an odd name…spoke to one of the nurses. He was a good looking man, she thought. And big! She’d never seen any man as big as her big brother.
Carly closed her eyes for a moment. Just a brief moment while she whispered “Thank you!”
Ryker stared at the building, trying to understand what was missing. It was modern and impressive…and his expertise had helped make it happen. As part owner of The Solutions Group, Ryker was proud of the company he’d built…but still…something was missing.
“What’s wrong?” Oz asked, stepping out of his car and coming over to stand next to his best friend.
Ryker shook his head, trying to figure it out what was wrong with the impressive building. “It’s missing something,” he said softly.
Oz chuckled. “We have all of the latest technology and hired the brightest minds in the country. We’re so successful, we’re turning away business, Ryker. I can’t think of anything we’ve missed.”
Ryker still looked out, his mind going over the last few missions he’d completed for the company. “The last time I took my team out, several of them went around a fence-line instead of going over it. They wasted precious seconds and one of them was hurt.”
Eyebrows came down as Oz thought about that issue. “Joe on my team had a few issues as well. It might have been equipment issues, but…?”
Ryker turned to look at his friend and partner. “But you have your doubts.”
Ryker absorbed the issue, then turned to face the building again. “I have an idea,” he commented.
Oz looked at his friend, noticed the smile that wasn’t quite a smile. It was more…a dare, Oz thought. “What’s going through your diabolical mind, my friend?”
Ryker chuckled. “Let’s go to my office. I’ll draw it out for you.”
Thirty minutes later, Oz looked down at the paper. “I see where you’re going with this,” he said softly. “Is it doable?”
Ryker looked out the large windows of his office. “Yes. We don’t even need to take down any additional trees. In fact, leaving the trees in place would help, adding more complexity.”
“About ten miles, give or take,” Ryker replied. “I think this will train everyone to stay aware and alert.”
Oz looked down at the paper again, chuckling. “I think you have a very interesting mind, my friend.”