Under the Starlit Sky


The back door slammed with a loud crash against the wall as Fitz skirted through. He neither stopped to close it or to greet his mother who scrambled to catch the forms she had spread across the kitchen table before they scattered across the floor. Melinda snapped her jaw shut before bellowing at the boy who had already zoomed past and out the front door with much the same banging and crashing. She swore under her breath as she carefully lifted her arms from her overwhelming stack of paperwork. A beat later Trip entered the room with much the same fluster, minus the door crash, but causing just enough breeze to flitter several documents to the floor.

Melinda slammed her hands down to prevent any further flitting and let out a frustrated groan. It was Saturday and she had so much to catch up on after spending a week at home with a feverish six-year-old who was now fully recovered. And yes, it had been much too quiet for the last…oh, about fifteen minutes.

"Where is he?" Trip demanded through clenched teeth. "I'm gonna wring his skinny little neck."

Melinda closed her eyes and blew out a long breath then dropped the pen she had been holding and watched as Trip grabbed her forms from the floor and plopped them down on the table. She cringed at the thought of having to find their proper places…again. Why she had the slightest thought that trying to get all of this done…here…now…had been a good idea was now banging around her brain like dust in the wind…if it were possible for dust to bang. Oh, but yes this was the Coulson Saturday Circus, of course dust could bang. The damn stuff could probably sing and do the old soft shoe if given half a chance.

"What…" she began then drew a breath and calmed her voice…just her voice. "What is the problem now?"

Melinda gently folded her hands on the table and smiled at her eldest, waiting for some sort of plausible explanation.

Trip drew a deep breath then let it out in a dragon-like exhale. He tucked the basketball he'd been holding under one arm and shook his head. "That…" he paused searching for words acceptable for explaining the situation to his mother. "That little…" he stopped and swallowed hard the words still bubbling on his tongue.

Melinda continued to merely smile…not a happy smile…just a 'let's hear it' smile.

Trip gave a nod and shuffled from foot to foot then continued. "That little egg-head has something brewing in Jemma's potting shed. He claims it's some kind of fertilizer and he's got it all over my court. Damn it, mom! My shoes smell like sh…."

Melinda held up a hand, ignored the verbal slip and looked down at the boy's stocking feet.

"They're brand new and that stink'll probably never come out." He almost whined, then shook his head and moaned just above a whisper. "I'll have to burn them." He stomped one foot and growled. "The EPA'll probably have us arrested for some kind of environmental disaster."

Melinda slowly stood, pushing her chair back and standing at the table for a moment before moving to close the door still thumping against the wall. "It can't be that…"

She stopped and put a hand to her nose. The stench wafting through the open door was definitely a combination of rotten eggs, dirty diapers and definitely something that died…several days ago. She gagged a bit before making sure the door was secure.

"Yea," Trip nodded. "Nasty, huh?"

Melinda kept her hand under her nose as she nodded in agreement.

Trip narrowed his eyes and spoke through his teeth, squeezing the basketball between his hands. "Where is he?"

Melinda drew a cleansing breath. "That is disgusting." She waved a hand in front of her face and grimaced as she made her way toward the front door that also bounced on the little spring Phil had installed to keep it from putting a knob sized hole in the plaster. She peered out in both directions but did not catch site of her number two son. She shook her head and grabbed Trip's elbow before he slipped past.

"He's probably halfway to the park by now." The teen grumbled.

Melinda nodded as she closed the door. "He'll be back. He knows we'll feed him."

"Yeah, we can roast my new sneakers and let him chew on them for a while." He plunked down on the stairs and dropped his forehead to the basketball now set on his lap.

Melinda smiled and patted his shoulder. "Come on, there's a galvanized tub in the garage. I'm pretty sure some vinegar and baking soda will do the job. And Mr. Fixit can scrub the basketball court as soon as he reappears."

Trip pushed himself up and schlepped behind his mother toward the backdoor.


Phil munched on the crispy fried chicken, gave an 'mmmmm' along with an eyebrow wriggle and eyed his unusually quiet brood at the supper table. He took a second bite then wiped his mouth and fingers on his napkin before taking a drink. A quick glance at Melinda told him something was definitely 'up'.

"Sooooooo," he exhaled with a fatherly grin. "How was everyone's day?"

Jemma gave a quick shoulder shrug, unusual for the little girl who always had a positive comment. Fitz barely looked up from his plate and he wasn't sure but he was pretty certain Trip may have growled.

"My tooth falded out." Skye announced with a wide toothless grin. All four front teeth were now missing on the wriggly six-year-old. She attempted to bite into a chicken leg with her side teeth until Melinda intervened and cut into more manageable pieces. "Momma," the little girl whined. "I like eatin' chicken onna bone." She dropped her chin on her propped up hand and gave a large pout.

"You need all your teeth for that, bao bei." Melinda replied, pushing the child's plate closer to her in a nonverbal command to 'finish her meal'.

Phil gave her a wink then cut his own meat into smaller pieces, hoping to encourage their youngest to do as she was told. "So, Trip," he began without looking up from his chore. "Some new trick with the shoes? Soaking make 'em fit better?"

Trip narrowed his eyes at his little brother. "Only if it takes the stink outta them," he definitely growled.

Fitz dropped his fork and spread his hands. "How many times to I have to say sorry? It was an accident." He dropped his arms across his chest and matched Skye's pout perfectly. "And I spent the whole afternoon scrubbin' the bloo…bloomin' blacktop."

Phil turned down the sides of his mouth, raised his brows and looked to Melinda for an explanation. She cast a quick glance toward Fitz.

"He maked the whole yard smell like shit." Skye smiled around a mouthful.

"SKYE!" Melinda, Phil and Trip admonished immediately.

The little girl furrowed her brows. "That's what Trip sayed."

Melinda shot a quick 'stink-eye' at her eldest but addressed the youngest. "Nobody is going to say it again."

Skye raised one eyebrow and looked at her mother for a bit. "Not you eeder? Cuz you sayed daddy…"

"That's enough, Skye." Melinda warned. "Finish your dinner or no ice cream."

The little girl's eyes widened as wide as her toothless smile as she dug in. "I don't need dees teeths to eat ize cream, daddy."

"Nope," Phil agreed then turned to Fitz. "Care to elaborate, little man?"

Fitz was busy poking the food around on his plate and hoping his baby sister would keep everyone entertained. He side glanced at Jemma who had nibbled one green bean and seemed to be a million miles away. He shrugged his shoulders and looked up over his brows at his dad.

"I was just tryin' to help Jemma." He mumbled.

Trip let out a loud 'HA!' "Trying to what? Turn her into the smelliest kid on the block?!"

"Trip," Melinda warned calmly.

The boy let out a huff then chomped down oh his own chicken leg.

"I'm not seeing the connection here." Phil admitted. "How does soaking Trip's sneakers and scrubbing the basketball court help Jemma?"

"Ya fergot about the sh…" Skye piped up.

"SKYE!" Melinda cut her off. "Last warning, kiddo. Next one comes with a reminder."

Skye pinched her face into a pout then smiled and shoved a rather large blob of potatoes into her mouth. Melinda shook her head. They were going to have a long talk about certain vocabulary before bedtime tonight.

Phil tried again. "Okay just so Skye doesn't feel the need to remind us, again…the shoes, the court and the smell…has what to do with helping Jemma?"

Fitz let out a huff. "The shoes were an accident and the macadam was…"


"Compulsory," Melinda and Trip added, together.

The little boy rolled his eyes and blew a breath over his lip. "More like cruel and unusual punishment…" he mumbled.

"Something to say, Fitz," Phil warned. "You say it out loud."

Fitz cast a quick glance around the table at everyone who seemed to looking at him…except Jemma who was more interested in a small bit of buttered bread. He blew out another breath. "The smell…"

"Stench is more like it." Trip grumbled.

"Same goes for you, Bud." Phil warned again. Trip gave a quick nod and took a long drink of his iced tea.

"I didn't know it was gonna be so horrific. I was tryin to help Jemma get the Blue Borage that Bobbie sent all the way from London to bloom in her little cottage garden. It was supposed to be a fertilizer but I may have made it a bit too potent. I was about to dump into the drain when I trip and it just went all over the court and then Trip was all yellin and after me and well it all went downhill from there." He threw his hands up then let them fall to his lap.

"Blue Borage?" Phil wondered out loud.

"Bobi maileded them all the way across a ocean." Skye nodded. "She getted them from the garden in Shepsealed."

"They were Jemma's mum's favorite." Fitz added. "Bobbi got some from the garden in Sheffield…" he pronounced slowly and carefully for Skye who nodded her head. "Jemma's been tryin to coax them into a bloom here but they seem a bit stubborn."

Everyone stopped as Jemma's fork clanked against her plate. The girl drew a quick breath but not quick enough to stop the sob that escaped a moment before she jumped from her seat and dashed from the table. For a few minutes everyone stared at the empty spot.

"What now?" Melinda breathed as she dropped her napkin to her plate and hurried after her daughter.


Melinda stopped outside Jemma's bedroom door listening to the soft sobs coming from within. She rested her forehead against it and let out a soft breath as she wrapped her hand around the knob. Raising kids was a never ending job and these kids, well that job was sometimes more than she ever imagined. She'd lost count of the sleepless nights she'd spent and kept poor Phil awake as well. Skye wrestled with night terrors. Fitz battled demons of anger. Jemma bottled everything inside, refusing to 'burden' anyone with her problems…that she denied having. She smiled for a moment thanking fate for Trip her easy going teen. If the young man had issues, they had yet to surface.

She drew a breath, let it out slowly, patted the door softly and turned the knob.

Jemma lay, curled into a ball, with her back to the door. As soon as she heard the door she smothered her sobs in her pillow and scrubbed her eyes with the wadded up tissue she held. The girl held her breath as she felt her mother sit on the edge of her mattress. She tried not to stiffen when Melinda gently laid a hand on her back.

"Hey, xiǎo tiánxīn…" Melinda spoke softly, rubbing her hand in slow circles on the little girl's back. "You know Fitz," she smiled. "He won't give up until he solves the problem, no matter how bad it smells."

Jemma uttered a muffled sniffly giggle a second before a real sob escaped and she turned into Melinda's embrace. "Oh momma, that is not it at all," came out in a sobby mumble that Melinda barely understood.

Melinda frowned at her little girl's dilemma and bent to kiss the back of her head. For the moment it was better not to push, just to let Jemma have her cry. Questioning her now would only cause the child to shut down and deny any kind of issue. She'd claim she was overtired or just upset over the upset at the dinner table.

A few minutes later, just as expected, Jemma pushed herself up to sit next to her mother. She pulled a few tissues from the box on her night stand and wiped the away the last of her tears. "I'm sorry, momma. I should not be so dramatic." Jemma sniffled with a weak smile.

Melinda returned the same smile as she brushed the fine wispy hair from her little girl's eyes. She gave a very small nod indicating she was not buying it.

Jemma cast her eyes to the tissue she was wrapping around her fingers, finding it much more interesting than her mother's nonverbal accusation. She gave a small shrug. Melinda gently laid her hand over Jemma's and with the opposite lifted the little girl's chin and looked into her red-rimmed eyes.

"It's okay to be upset, Jemma. I understand. We all understand."

The little girl's lip trembled as a lone tear slid over her cheek. She quickly forced a smile. "Oh, I'm just being a nilly willy."

Melinda shook her head and smiled again. "Jemma," she exhaled softly. "I know those flowers were your mother's favorites. She had pots of them on the window sill of our dorm at university. She'd say they were her stars in the day." She kissed the little girl's head and added. "She'd dry out the leaves and make the best tea all winter."

Jemma drew a quick breath but could not stop the sob that followed. Again she fell into Melinda's arms. Again Melinda pulled her close and rested her cheek against the child's head. "Tomorrow you and I and daddy will take a trip to the nearest nursery and talk to someone about the best soil to get them to grow." She paused and chuckled a little. "We'll even take Fitz and let him look for the best fertilizer."

Jemma shook her head and slowly pushed herself back up. "It won't help, momma." She sobbed. "It won't mean a thing."

"Jemma," Melinda drew a breath. "I'm sure…"

The little girl turned and pulled open the drawer of the night stand. She shook her head again. "Nothing will help. Not Fitz's fertilizer or new soil or…or window pots. The Borage will not grow…" She shook a small pink envelope at her mother. "It can't grow because I haven't planted it."

Melinda took the small envelope and opened her mouth to ask, but Jemma continued.

"Bobbi went all the way to Sheffield and convinced the woman living there now to let her take seeds from the plants that grow there every year. She planted them in London and let them grow there so she could send these," she tapped the envelope. "She sent them here to me but I just can't. Momma I just can't…" Again the sobs overtook the little girl.

"Oh, Jemma…" Melinda quickly swiped the tear that escaped her eye.

"They would grow so well around the little cottage in the yard but…they would be there and I…I just can't, momma."

"Shh, shh…" Melinda hushed her child, rocking her gently until the little girl fell into a restless sleep.