“Who’s that?” I asked, catching a glimpse of a girl with long, thick, black hair running swiftly down the hallway into one of the five bedrooms in the home of my best friend.
“The reason we are moving my stuff into my brother Ben’s room,” Charlie drawled sarcastically. “The little runt.”
“A new little sister?” I asked, not realizing until then that Charlie and his four brothers were getting a female sibling. I had assumed the Sullivans were adopting a boy.
“Yeah,” Charlie chafed. “She gets my room, and I, as the next youngest, get to bunk with Ben, the oldest, until he graduates this summer and goes off to the army.”
I placed the vinyl record collection Charlie had been gathering for the last five years on the floor next to the bookcase in his big brother Ben’s room. Charlie carried the soundboard and turntable. He never let anyone touch his precious turntable. The boy had dreams of being an old school DJ. He had all the equipment to do it digitally but preferred the traditional sound of records and scratching.
“I didn’t know having a little runt would be such an ordeal,” he continued complaining.
“What’s her name?” I asked curious about this new thorn in my best friend’s side.
“Colette. She’s French, I think.”
“Yeah. She isn’t as dark as me, but she isn’t as white as you either. So she’s something between French.”
“Ohhh. Ok,” I said, not believing him but also not caring about it all that much. “How old is she?”
“She’s ten, but she’s in our grade. She’s a ‘brainiac.’”
“Oh yeah? Is she in any of your classes?”
“No, of course not. She might be in some of yours, though, seeing how you are so smart and all.”
“I’m not smart,” I disagreed, not wanting this to be an issue between us. “Just bored.”
“Whatever. Anyway, she starts school next week, so you’ll see her there.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Help me with my clothes now.”
“Where are we going to put them?” I asked, looking around the room for another dresser that wasn’t already overflowing with clothes.
“Ben said he cleared out the closet for me.”
Walking over to the closet, Charlie opened it and saw that his brother had pretty much smooshed his clothes closer together. He’d given his baby brother about six inches of bar space to hang things on.
Charlie sighed in disgust and then turned, head low, defeated from this upheaval in his life. As he stomped to his old room, I followed smirking slightly at how dramatic my friend was being. Charlie had always been a bit of a drama queen. Being the youngest boy in a five-pack of boys made one act out quite a bit for attention. But now Charlie wasn’t the youngest one in the house. Colette was.
“Colette,” I whispered under my breath. I thought it was a pretty name. It sounded foreign but still pretty. I had only gotten a quick glance of her thick, black hair. Almost as black as mine. I knew she stood a lot shorter than the two of us, which wasn’t saying much since both of us were tall for our age. It came from having tall parents on all sides. So everyone in our grade was shorter than us. Everyone was shorter than the Sullivan boys and me, William, the only child of Harry and Betty Winchester.
I loved coming over to the Sullivan house. It was always so boisterous and fun. The boys were becoming men, but that didn’t stop the horseplay and hilarious pranks they constantly pulled on one another. I wondered how the Sullivan boys would treat their little sister, their first one ever.
“Hey,” Charlie greeted Colette glumly when he entered his old room. He didn’t stop to talk but continued to his dresser and began to pull out his clothes, dumping them into a plastic laundry hamper.
I stopped cold when I came around the open bedroom door and finally got a glimpse of her.
She stood by the bed, Charlie’s old bed, looking first at him and then at me. Her eyes were round and wide, much too big for her delicate face, but somehow it worked for her. They were the color of chocolate, my favorite. So unlike my own blue ones. Her nose was dainty, her cheekbones high. Her hair hung loosely all around her, curly and thick, to the middle of her chest.
Charlie had said she was younger than we were, but there were no girls in our class that looked like Colette. She looked like a small woman. Her body was – curvy. She had breasts and hips. Her sundress skimmed over her softness.
For once, I saw how opposite the other sex compared to me. Where I was lanky and tall but still a child, she was like a miniature grown woman. She was gorgeous, the first girl I ever thought about in that way.
It was all there, what she would look like in five years. At least physically. But, at the moment, the look in her eyes was even older. She was wide-eyed, terrified. Also, there was – darkness in her that I had never seen in any kid before. It made me realize that she was different not only in looks but also deep inside. And that intrigued me. I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to know why she looked so – afraid right then.
“H – hi,” I managed to stutter out, waving my hand sheepishly.
She stared at me, intermittently. Her eyes roved back and forth between the two of us as if she didn’t want to miss anything we would do. She reminded me of a defensive guard. Continually watching all the players, to anticipate the next play.
“My name’s Will,” I told her, speaking softly without thought. I saw that she was a nervous little thing that needed to be handled with gentleness.
When Charlie left the room with his piled high laundry hamper, she only stared at me with suspicion. I took a step toward her, and she backed up until she hit the bed. I didn’t think her eyes could grow wider, but they did. Her hands jerked up as if to defend herself, but she lowered them quickly and fisted her hands against her hips.
“You’re Colette?” I asked, hoping to get her to speak to me.
Slowly, she nodded her head but remained tense. I couldn’t figure out how to get her to relax. This was something I wanted to do for her. Show her that I wasn’t someone to be feared. I don’t know why it was so important to me to do so, but I needed her to know I was a good guy.
Her fear made me uneasy. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I should have left her alone, but I was already lost in those big, brown eyes.
Every protective instinct in my young male psyche rose to consciousness. I knew there was no going back from this moment.
“Are you French?” I blurted out without thinking.
Her hand went up to cover her mouth. I thought she might be getting sick, but then I heard it, and I was forever lost to her.
She was laughing!
I grinned goofily at the delightful sound. She tried to stifle it with her hand, but it wouldn’t be stopped. I wished she would allow herself to laugh out loud. Why didn’t she?
“I’m sorry,” she finally said between giggles, her hand still over her mouth. “I don’t mean to laugh. I’m sorry.”
Her voice was husky and low. I could listen to her laugh, giggle, and talk all day long. Never would I tire of her presence in my life.
I continued to smile at her. Before long, she lowered her hand, and the most brilliant smile appeared on her face.
For the first time in my life, I felt … contentment. It was an odd feeling, but not unpleasant. Actually, it felt kind of nice despite its newness. Everything I needed was right there in front of me.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked, cocking my head at her, still grinning.
Soon the corners of my lips drooped, and concern furrowed my young face well before adulthood. Colette had stopped smiling and now stared at me fearfully. Her hands gripped one another tightly.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice quavering with terror, real terror. “I didn’t mean to laugh at you. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad.”
“It’s ok that you were laughing,” I reassured quickly. “I’m not mad.”
“No one ever asked me if I was French,” she went on, her voice going high with anxiety. “I’m not French. I’m – I’m – a …”
“What?” I prompted with tremendous interest, taking a step closer to her, trying to be supportive.
“Please don’t,” she rasped, holding her hands out to me. That was when the tears began to fall, and I felt helpless, not able to figure out what I had done to make her cry.
“Colette?” I said, confused.
“Colette?” It was Grace Sullivan, the matriarch of the clan. She had come to check on us moving Charlie’s stuff into his new room and heard her recently adopted daughter crying. Before I knew what was happening, she had Colette in her arms as she sat down on the bed. She rocked the little girl as she murmured soothing words to her.
“You’re ok, Colette,” she fussed tenderly. “You’re safe here. William is a good boy. He would never hurt you, baby. Isn’t that right, William?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered without hesitation. “I would never hurt you, Colette. I’m sorry I scared you. I didn’t mean to.”
“See Colette,” Mrs. Sullivan began again. “We would never risk your safety by letting someone who could hurt you into this house. You’re safe here. I promise.”
“I don’t know the rules,” I heard her whisper.
“Only one rule,” Mrs. Sullivan said in a clear voice, so both Colette and I heard her. “Be kind to one another.”
“That’s it?” she asked, her voice growing louder.
“Yes, Colette. That’s it. Right, William?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered in total agreement.
“See. William knows the rule. He can help you if you get confused, right, William?”
“Yes, Mrs. Sullivan. I can do that.”
“Is that ok, Colette?” Mrs. Sullivan probed.
The little girl sat on Mrs. Sullivan’s lap and looked over at me, her eyes still shiny with unshed tears. They had stopped falling, and for that, I was very grateful. She stared at me for a long moment before finally nodding her head.
I let go of a breath I hadn’t been aware of holding and smiled at her. She returned a small smile to me, barely an inching up of her lips.
“I’m sorry for crying,” she apologized.
“No need to be sorry,” Mrs. Sullivan admonished with gentleness. “It’s ok to cry, but next time you come to get Mr. Sullivan or me if you need some reassurance, sweetheart.”
“I promise not to bother you,” Colette offered instead, looking back at the woman who had taken her in. “I won’t be a bother, I promise.”
“I know you won’t be, but it is ok if you are,” Mrs. Sullivan encouraged with a smile of her own. "That’s what parents are here for, to be bothered. To help you grow up.”
She stared at the women with what looked like wonder at her words. Almost imperceptibly, she nodded her head up and down but didn’t seem to believe the older woman’s sentiment.
“Now, when Charlie finishes moving all his clothes, I want you to hang up the new clothes I bought for you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Colette said politely. She crawled onto the bed and sat stiffly by the older woman’s side. She looked from me to Mrs. Sullivan, keeping an eye on both of us.
“William, why don’t you go help Charlie with his records since you’re the only one he trusts with them.”
“I will ma’am.” I turned to Colette and smiled softly. “See you around,” I told her. “I’m over here a lot.”
“Yes, you are, Mr. William. “I should charge you room and board.” Mrs. Sullivan agreed, teasing me.
“I can afford five bucks a week,” I offered up, fully intent upon paying if it allowed me to keep coming over here to be with Charlie and his brothers. And now their new sister.
Mrs. Sullivan chuckled and told me to put away my money. I was welcome at any time.
“We always have plenty,” she reminded me. They always did. Even my parents could drop by unexpectedly, and there would be enough food to feed them heartily as well.
“Thanks, Mrs. Sullivan. Nice to meet you, Colette,” I said before heading across and down the hallway to help Charlie out.
I smiled when I heard a faint, “You too.”