Chapter 1: Jason

“Here’s our little Di,” Tammy said as she tugged the skinny girl over by her arm.

“Hey,” Jason said and looked her over.

Di looked like a boy whose hair had been hacked off with a dull knife. Her eyes were the same listless brown as her hair. Thin legs stuck out of the cut off blue jeans and her chest was flat under her dirty red t-shirt. Underneath it all she wore filthy socks pulled up to her knees inside blocky plastic shoes.

“I know she don’t look like much, but she’s a hard worker.”

“I’m sure she is,” Jason frowned. The idea was looking worse as he glanced nervously around the yard. Tammy lived in a dirty wooden shack with chickens scratching around the muddy yard. When he glanced back at Tammy and Di, three skinny boys in their early teens ran up to see what was going on.

Tammy was called Grammy by the kids she fostered. She had talked Jason into the foster racket, claiming it was easy money from the state of North Carolina with the added benefit of unpaid labor around the house. She also used her foster kids at the tourist trap ruby mine she owned.

Tourists paid to use her muddy sluice to search buckets of mud and rocks for rubies, sapphires, and garnets in the local, mineral rich soil. The foster kids filled buckets out of the open pit mine behind her place and helped the tourists separate the precious stones from the worthless gravel, allowing Tammy to set on her ass all day.

Tammy seemed to sense his hesitation. “Di was my boyfriend Jerry’s grandbaby, you know. Before he died, he’d signed with the state to take her in. Her momma run’d off to God knows where after her daddy, Gerald, ended up in prison for killin’ a guy when his meth lab blow’d up. Gerald damn near broke ole Jerry’s heart gettin’ into drugs, but Di ain’t no trouble at all. If she didn’t make the boys all jumpy I’d keep her here.”

“Jumpy?” Jason asked with another glance at the boys. They all had guilty looks on their faces for some reason and Di’s face wore an angry blush.

“You know how boys get with a girl in the house. Restless, ya know? I’ll do better stickin’ with just boys from here on out.” Tammy licked her lips as her eyes shifted around. “Di did her best to help me out. You’ll see after you get her home.”

Jason shook his head. “I don’t know Tammy. Leanne cleaned Pawpaw out and split after he passed. I’m really tight right now. I got my hands full gettin’ the garage back into shape and don’t have time to babysit a kid. I wanted someone… older.”

“She’s older than she looks,” Tammy said. “She’ll keep the house and let you do your work. Won’t ya’, girl?”

Di nodded, staring at Jason like he was either her savior or the devil. Jason took a deep breath and considered again. He’d been out of the Army for three months and couldn’t seem to get caught up. His two sisters had moved out of Pawpaw’s house during his six years in the service, leaving the place empty since Pawpaw died the year before. Getting the house cleaned up and the industrial vehicle garage up and running was wearing him down.

“Get your things,” Jason sighed to Di and looked to Tammy while she ran back to the house. “We’ll try it out for a week. If it don’t work out you gotta take her back, Tammy.”

“Ain’t nothin’ gonna go wrong, mark my words,” Tammy said as she cuffed Jason on the arm. “My friend Lola in the social services office just needs you to sign this so she can send you Di’s checks instead of me. Oh, she also thought you were hot when she came out for your home study.” Tammy gave him a hungry smile. “Want me to set you two up?”

“No, I’m good.” The idea of dating a middle-aged social worker at twenty-four made him shiver in disgust. He signed quickly on the hood of his car while Tammy flipped the pages and pointed.

“Di!” Tammy folded the papers with a look of glee in her eyes that made Jason frown. “Come meet your new foster daddy!”

Di came back out of the house wearing a backpack and carrying a box. Her face showed nothing as Jason walked her around to open the passenger door of his ancient truck. After he pulled the seat up, Di placed the box behind it. Then she took off her backpack as she climbed up with a shy look.

“Thanks,” she whispered. Her voice was lower and rougher than Jason expected from her appearance.

After shutting the door and walking around, Tammy and the boys waved goodbye to them both. Di had her backpack clutched in her arms like a shield when he got in.

“Got on your seatbelt?” he asked as he started the truck and backed out of the yard.

“Yeah,” she muttered as she looked down.

Jason’s place was only five miles away as the crow flies, but it took thirty minutes by road twisting through the Smoky mountains. The antique GM truck growled and strained as it went up the steep grades, but Jason wasn’t worried. He’d worked on the truck since he was just a boy following his pawpaw around the garage. It had had three different engines in its life and he’d put in the last two. The current one had gone in just before he joined the service to work on Army vehicles for six years.

His grandfather had operated a large vehicle garage on Highway 28 for over thirty years. Pawpaw had left everything to Jason in his will, but his second wife, Leanne, had a friend at the bank who allowed her to pull all his cash before the account was frozen for probate. When he got out of the Army Jason had a nice nest egg, but it was dwindling fast as he got the garage and house back into shape.

Jason glanced over to see Di staring out the passenger window. He wasn’t much for small talk, but wanted her to feel welcome. “I hope you like your room.”

She looked over with a furrowed forehead. “I get my own room?”

“Sure,” he said and returned his eyes back to the road. “Your own bathroom as well.” When she didn’t say anything, he said, “I had two sisters who lived with me and Pawpaw growin’ up. They shared the room, but they’ve been gone for a few years now. I washed the sheets and boxed up the crap I didn’t figure you’d want. They left some clothes and shoes and shit, but it ain’t gonna fit you yet. We can probably go to the store to fix you out if you need anything else.”

“I got clothes,” she said with a quiet sigh. “Can I use the washin’ machine?”

“Of course,” Jason said. “I hoped you’d help washin’ mine and a few other things around the house.” He glanced over to see how she took it and saw her nod.

“I’ll do whatever you say as long as you don’t make me go back.” Her quiet confession had an undertone of desperation that spoke to his heart.

“They hurt you?” he asked her.

“The boys. They kept at me.” She looked out the window. “I didn’t do nothin’ but Grammy always said it was my fault.”

Jason nodded. Tammy’s words about the trouble with the boys came back to him. “I was young once and remember teasin’ girls when I was their age.”

“It weren’t teasin’.”

“Whadaya mean?”

She looked at him for a moment, weighing him with her eyes. “Nothin’. Nevermind.”

Jason was a little unnerved by her response. “Well, you’re out of there now and unless you drive me crazy I don’t imagine you’ll go back.”

“You ain’t gonna mess with me.” This was the first thing she’d said with any emotion and the hot resolve in her tone made him laugh.

“No, Ma’am,” he said with a grin. “Look, I’ll level with you. I’m only doing this because I can’t get my place running by myself. All I want is for you to cook for us, do some laundry, and keep the house clean. If you ain’t happy, I’ll tell that Lola lady down at social services and she can find you another place. If you wanna stick around, I’ll make sure you got clean clothes, a warm bed, and a little spendin’ money. Deal?”

She mulled it over, pursing her lips as she thought. “Deal.”

“So is Di short for Diana?” he asked, hoping to keep her talking.

“No. My daddy named me after Momma’s stripper name. I’m Diamond Rose Gantry.”