The pile of metal in the corner called him over. The frame was draped in a sheet, its guts held in three different boxes and a plastic dairy case. It was a 1973 Harley Davidson Sportster, mostly, and it had likely spent more time as spare parts than an actual motorcycle. He had insane visions or custom building that Sportster into something badass, and he had been hoping that Tiny would help.
Even though he’d never actually asked the guy, come to think of it.
Knuckles pulled the sheet off the beater frame, sighing. He knew bikes, sure. He could fix them, knew the mechanics. But Tiny was the one that could build the bike itself, customize the frame and all the other parts that held the mechanicals in place. Making all those moving parts work with something made from manipulated metal was beyond Knuckles’ ability.
The frame was cold from being in the garage, and his hand felt the flaking paint and rust. It needed to be primed. If there was enough metal to be primed properly.
Not to mention all the grease and shit. What a mess the thing was.
With another sigh, he pulled the rolling stool up to the dairy case and leaned forward on his elbows to peer inside, groaning like an old man as his stitches reminded him they were there. As he was pushing the metal pieces around there was the smallest, cutest sneeze from the open door. His body seized, hands closing into fists and he shot to his feet, whirling on whoever had snuck up on him.
The little girl from next door. Her mop of curly red hair bounced as she jumped, eyes wide, and turned to leave.
“Wait,” he called out, feeling like absolute shit. He tried to soften his voice. “Hey, I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you.”
She stopped and turned back to him, hands on her backpack straps. Her eyes were still wide but it gave her the appearance of looking curious, not scared.
“You snuck up on me is all. I’m not used to visitors here.” He came forward, squinting into the light outside. “I’m Knuckles.”
Now her little nose screwed up as she frowned. He almost laughed.
“Why are you called Knuckles?”
“Umm, see these?” He held up his hands, the backs to her. He had a cartoonish bone tattooed on each section. “That’s why.”
“Did that hurt?”
He had to laugh now, and when he did she took a few steps closer. “Yeah, it kinda did. Not a lot of meat on the fingers.”
She had the cutest sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her wide hazel eyes were rimmed with the same copper as her hair, which was windblown and looked like it likely had a ton of tangles in it. Even now she pushed it out of her face like she couldn’t be bothered worrying about it.
“What’s your name?” he asked, leaning on the open garage door jamb.
She looked down at her beaten up sneakers with their discolored laces, then looked up at him with a squint of her own.
“I’m not supposed to tell strangers my name.”
“That’s a good rule,” he conceded. “Very good rule. But I’m your neighbor. And you know my name now. So…”
His explanation hadn’t convinced her. She still had a hilariously skeptical squint.
“My real name is Gregory,” he revealed, quietly like a secret. “Growing up I was just Greg.”
She chewed that over. Her shrewd little eyes were calculating. “Knuckles is better.”
Now he really laughed. “You think so?”
“Now you know all my names.”
“Where are you from?”
Just like a woman, changing directions on a dime. “I grew up all over. I think we spent the longest time in Idaho, but my dad was in Army. We’d move a lot.”
“My dad was in the Air Force,” she said, sounding excited. “He was on one of the big boats they land planes on.”
“Is that right? That’s really cool. He’s not in the Air Force anymore?”
Now her face fell. “No,” she said, that little-kid enthusiasm immediately gone.
Shit, she’d said too much. Maybe she’d been told not to talk about Dad? Christ, was he dead? Fuck.
“You don’t have to tell me, curly. I was in the Army, too, you know.”
“Yep. But I got scared and had to leave.”
She giggled a bit at that, and he had to smile. She was so freaking cute. Then she leaned to one side. “Are you making a motorcycle?”
Well, if it was somewhat recognizable maybe it wasn’t a lost cause. “Yeah. I’m going to build a new one out of an old one.”
“You already have a motorcycle. Did it break?”
“Nope. But I bought that one. I want to try building one.”
“Oh.” She made it sound like that was understandable with one syllable. “I like motorcycles.”
She took a few more steps forward, peering around him to see more of the garage. “I…um, I like how you can see them when they’re running. All the parts.”
“You want to see that bike?”
She nodded, her curls bobbing.
“Well, come on back then.”
He turned and approached the frame, smiling over his shoulder as she followed. She wasn’t scared, and maybe that was a bad sign. But he wasn’t one of the bad guys of the world. Not really.
“It’s really dirty.”
“Yeah, it is. I’m not even sure all the parts are here. It’s going to be a long labor of love, curly.”
“My name’s Annie.”
He looked down at her, completely charmed by the serious expression on her face. Telling him her name was some kind of gift, it would appear. He’d take it as such.
“Can I help?”
“What?” Now he was taken by surprise.
“I can learn how motors work. I can help you when you’re here working. I can hand you wrenches.”
There was no way he was laughing at her, but he had no idea how to process this. Surely no mother would want her little girl hanging out in a garage with a biker, getting grease on her clothes and accidentally learning a lot of salty language. But maybe that was a way to let her down; let her mother say no.
“Gotta ask your mom. But I’d love to have the help.”
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