A Picnic

Some stories begin as Story A and end up as Story B. The discovery of Story B while you think you’re writing Story A is one of the greatest things about writing. Also, “A Picnic” is not a reject. I’m not submitting it anywhere. It will find enough readers here but that’s the topic of another blog post.

The sound of the flushing toilet echoed like a shot in the dark apartment. Gary almost started even though he was the one who pushed the button. He stood for a while in the hallway between his bedroom and the bathroom, watching the tree outlines behind his semi-transparent curtains. The wind was picking up. This was not good. He had a job to do next day, a job he had delayed for years but could no longer put off. It was to be tomorrow, wind or no wind. Gary went back to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

Morning brought gray, cloud-filtered light but no wind. Gary took this as one more good sign showing him he was on the right path before he popped into the bathroom for a long shower before breakfast. Gary liked to start the day by cleansing himself with lukewarm water of all nightmares that could have visited him during the night. This night, there had been no nightmares—another good sign—but Gary kept to his routine nevertheless. Routine made life so much easier.

What made life harder, as far as Gary was concerned, were other people. They never thought about others’ needs and plans, his experience had taught him. Everyone only thought about themselves and this made him sad sometimes. He supposed there were those who truly did care about others’ needs, he had even met such people occasionally but the majority was simply frustrating. This frustration needed venting once in a while, otherwise he would explode. It was this venting he had been delaying for years.

He went out of the shower feeling fresh and ready to take on the whole world as he usually did in the morning. He rubbed himself dry with a rough towel and went over his simple plan again. The moment had never been quite right during the last five years. First he had married. The marriage had lasted three years and Carrie and him had gone their separate ways a year ago but then he got promoted at work and his workload suddenly doubled. Eventually Gary realized the moment would never be right unless he made it right. So he was making this moment, this late September day, the right moment to vent his frustration at the world and humankind.

 

“Come on, kitten, time to get up.”

Sarah blinked the remains of sleep from her eyes and smiled at her mother.

“Just a few more seconds,” she said.

“Okay, then,” Melissa said and crossed her arms. “How many are a few?”

“A thousand?” said Sarah and buried her face in the pillow.

“Nice try,” Melissa said and pulled the pillow from under her daughter’s head. “Come on, get up, get dressed, get breakfast. It’s picnic day.”

Sarah, now completely awake, stopped pretending she wanted to stay in bed and jumped out of it like a particularly eager cannon ball.

“Are we going to the same spot like last time?” the girl shouted from the bathroom.

Melissa put the pillow in its place and pulled the comforter loosely over the bed after straightening the sheet. She knew it would be better if Sarah did her own bed, of which, at seven and a half, she was completely capable, but she usually decided against it. How long would Sarah be her little girl?

“No, we’re going to a surprise spot your Dad found last week after work,” she called and checked her reflection in the mirror. Her skin was too smooth for her age, Melissa thought with slight distaste. A few lines would suit her.

“Cool!” Sarah called back.

“Everybody up?”

Jonathan was leaning on the door, hair still wet from the shower.

“Yep,” Melissa said. “Let’s go fix the basket while your precious does hygiene.”

“I heard you,” Sarah said and they heard a spitting sound. A second later their daughter’s head popped out. “Can we bring some peanut chocolate cookies?”

Her parents exchanged a look that said “Here we go again.”

“You had some yesterday, honey,” Jonathan said, graciously playing the bad cop. “How about tomorrow?”

“Just one?” Sarah looked so small and miserable standing at the door in her Ladybug panties. “Pleeeeease.

“Okay,” Melissa said, raising her hands in surrender. “But if you get a rash chocolate is banned for a week.”

“I know, I know, I know,” Sarah chimed and went back into the bathroom, closing the door behind her this time.

Melissa pecked Jonathan on the cheek.

“Thanks, partner. Let’s fix the basket.”

 

“A single espresso with milk, please,” Gary told the pink-cheeked girl at the coffee shop three blocks from his place. He tried not to look at her too obviously but he was tempted to get to know her a little better. Probably a lot better. She looked like an apple with these cheeks, an apple ripe for the picking.

“Here you go,” she said, oblivious to Gary’s increasingly elaborate thoughts and visualizations.

“Thank you,” he said, smoothing his hair back. He did this when he was nervous. He was checking if his hair was still there. Baldness ran in his family and although at fifty-one Gary still had most of his, he constantly worried about losing it.

The girl have-a-nice-dayed him and turned to the next client. Gary left the coffee shop clutching the disposable cup tightly, forcing himself to stop thinking about the pink-cheeked barista. He had places to go and things to do. Hopefully. The clouds had mostly cleared and the sun shone softly on the people scurrying around, going about their business. Gary thought his chances of success were pretty good. He stopped, took a sip from the cup and walked on.

 

“Can’t we go to another park this time?”

“But this is our place,” Jonathan said. “Since when don’t you like it?”

Sarah shrugged but kept going along the narrow path off the central alleys of the city’s largest—and some would say most dangerous—park.

“I like it. I just wanted to go somewhere else for a change.”

Melissa and Jonathan looked at each other. Melissa rolled her eyes and he grinned.

“Okay. Next week we’ll go to Stibbins Park, how’s that for a change? I’ll swing by during the week to scout for a good place for us. What do you say?”

Sarah looked at her parents over her shoulder, her chestnut ponytail swinging forward and then back as she moved her head. She smiled.

“I say that would be great.”

“Good,” Melissa said. “Watch where you’re going.”

Now Sarah rolled her eyes at her mother and her ponytail swung again when she turned.

Their place as the family called it was a remote part of the park off a narrow path that only dog owners who didn’t like socializing with their likes took. The latter usually cleared the space around 10 am, which is when the Walbecks arrived. Jonathan and Melissa started setting the picnic and Sarah, after a quick check to make sure there is nobody around, started doing jumping jacks.

“Wow, this day will go down in history,” Melissa said, watching her daughter wide-eyed. “The Day When Sarah Walbeck Started Warming Up with No Parental Pressure.”

“I shall record it for posterity,” Jonathan said and took out his phone.

“Oh, come on!” Sarah said and stopped jumping. “I just thought I’d surprise you in a nice way.”

“You did, hon, you sure did,” Jonathan said and snapped a picture of his now pouting daughter. “Go on, warm up. We’re doing target practice as well later.”

“Noooo.”

“Yes,” he said, the cheerfulness suddenly gone from his voice. “I know you don’t like guns but you need to be able to use them.”

“But I suck!”

“You suck because you don’t do it regularly,” Melissa said with that almost bored but polite voice people use when they say a thing for the umpteenth time and feel they will have to say it again another umpteen times in the future.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Sarah said with a tone identical to her mother’s.

“Sorry, baby, life’s hard sometimes,” Jonathan said, cheerful again. “Ham sandwich or banana, what do you think?”

“You always have the ham sandwich,” Sarah said. She was not going to be tricked into friendliness. She had to prepare mentally for the stupid target practice, which usually involved a BB gun Sarah had gotten for Christmas last year and a dozen empty cans. She had seen her mother and father do target practice in the shooting range in their house but for her it was the BB gun and she found this to be extremely lame.

“I’m an open book,” Jonathan said and put a triangular ham sandwich on his plate. He hadn’t had breakfast because of the picnic. Neither had Melissa, but she never breakfasted anyway. Now she sat on the picnic blanket, sipped green tea from a thermos flask and watched Sarah, who was now doing pushups.

“Slow down, Sarah, we’re in no rush,” she called.

“I want to get it out of the way,” the girl panted.

Melissa opened her mouth to suggest that getting it out of the way was not the point of warming up when a voice shook the leaves on the trees.

“Steven!” the voice boomed. “Steven, where are you!”

Rustling from behind the nearby shrubbery followed, making her pause. All three paused and turned to the rustling. A moment later a small woman of about fifty walked into the clearing.

“Oh!” she said. “I’m sorry. Have you by any chance seen a black Labrador around here? I took his leash off for a minute and the mutt was off like a lightning.”

“We haven’t seen any dogs,” Melissa said pleasantly. The look in her eyes was not pleasant, though. It was suspicious. Her slender frame had tensed. Jonathan was also wary.

The woman shook her head, oblivious to the change in the Walbecks’ posture.

“Thanks anyway.” She turned and started back down the path to the main body of the park. Twice they heard her call “Steven!” before she got too far to be heard.

The Walbecks waited until her steps and her voice completely died out before resuming what they were doing.

“Poor dog,” Sarah said. “She probably keeps him on a leash at home, too. Of course he’ll run away.”

“You can’t have dogs without leashes running around the park, Sarah,” her father said.

“Yeah but you know what I’m talking about. Can we keep him if he comes here?” she asked with a spark in her eyes.

Melissa shook her head with a smile to soften the blow.

“We don’t keep pets, Sarah,” Jonathan said. “You know that’s a hard rule.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get one when I grow up, yeah,” she muttered and started on the pushups again.

 

Gary sat on a bench by the lake. It was a real lake, not some artificial monstrosity like he had seen in other towns. There were ducks in it, and water lilies and even cattail. It was a real lake with real people walking around it or sitting in the grass in the shadow of the cattail or the benches thrown around along the alleys that led to the lake to make enjoying it easier.

Right now, at half past ten in the morning, there weren’t a whole lot of people here, Gary saw with mild annoyance, but they would come around noon. The weather was nice and everyone ate lunch in the park when the weather was nice. Gary was in no rush. He sat on the bench, watched the lake—and the people around it—and planned to spend half an hour here, then walk around to avoid arousing any suspicions, what with all the mothers with strollers and older kids, and then maybe sit down somewhere else for a quick rest before noon. Then he planned to have his lunch.

He smiled at the thought. If he had friends and one of these friends asked him what he was having for lunch today, Gary would tell this friend “You know, X or Y or Z, I’m not sure myself. I might have a taco or two, or I may just get a bite from Arby’s across the street. Or, then again, I might, just might, go for something a little more exotic like a life.”

Gary’s smile widened. To the passers-by who occasionally glanced in his direction, Gary looked like a man who was dreaming and his dream was a beautiful one. Indeed, he was in a sense dreaming—he was remembering his last murder.

Six years ago today, it had happened. A whole six years had passed and Gary could hardly believe he had survived so long without the rush of the kill and the high of the sight of life leaving the eyes of the person in his hands. But here he was, alive and ready for another fix. He was pretty optimistic about his prospects. The office buildings downtown were full of young, ambitious, arrogant people, many of whom would come to have their lunch here. He could take his pick. He couldn’t make a mistake. They were all arrogant.

Gary went deeper into his memories, relishing every moment that was carved in his mind, like the ones before it. Four times he had done it. He had never regretted a second of the experience, which had surprised him the first time, before he realized the people he wanted to kill were not exactly fully human. They were cheeky, arrogant subhumans. Human scolopendras, like the little many-legged monster that had bitten him once when Gary was eight. It had been so monstrously ugly and the bite had hurt so much he’d cried for hours.

 

“Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six…”

“That’s it. I can’t do any more,” Sarah panted and fell back on the ground letting her arms fall on her sides.

“Yes, you can. What you can’t is be a superhero without exercising,” Jonathan said and pushed back the glasses that had slipped down his nose while he held her ankles for a round of sit-ups.

“Oh, Dad, I can’t be a superhero anyway,” Sarah said. “I’m not a baby anymore.”

“No,” Melissa said. She had walked up to them and now extended her hand to Sarah’s. The girl took it and Melissa pulled her up. “You’re not a baby anymore and you know we won’t be around forever.”

“Yeah,” Sarah muttered. This was not among her favorite topics of conversation but she had raised it.

“And you know you will need to be ready for when we are gone,” Melissa continued softly. She slipped her arm around her daughter’s skinny shoulders and pulled her closer.

“I do,” Sarah said. She was on the verge of tears now so she hid her face in her mother’s belly.

“Oh honey, don’t cry,” Jonathan said, joining the embrace for a second before pulling back and squatting on his heels by Sarah. “Sarah, look at me.”

She stayed as she was for a while and then slowly looked up. Jonathan smiled at her.

“That’s right. No tears.”

The girl’s eyes were suspiciously red but she nodded sharply. Still, she kept her arms around her mother.

“Baby, we understand it’s difficult to get used to the thought but you know we can’t stay around forever, don’t you?”

“Yeah,”

“And we still have a good ten years together, right?”

“Right.”

“There you go,” Jonathan said and stroked her hair. “Come on, let’s have something sweet and bad for you.”

Sarah smiled with quavering lips and let go of Melissa. She watched them go back to the picnic table with pursed lips. Letting go was always hard but sometimes it was much harder than others. She clenched her teeth, blinked quickly a few times and joined her family.

 

Gary had slipped into the not too pleasant memory from his childhood with a twitch of the lips. A moment later he was whacked out of it by a huge black dog that appeared out of nowhere with a loud bark and planted its legs right in front of Gary. Gary started, his pores opened and unloaded their sweat cargo on his skin that suddenly felt clammy and cold. The dog barked again and wagged its huge black tail. Gary started to reach into the inside pocket of his jacket when a voice slashed through the air.

“Steven!” The word seemed to bounce off the sky. Gary blinked away the shock and saw the dog wasn’t that huge or scary. It was a regular-sized Labrador who had apparently taken to him.

“You found him!” the woman continued in her thunderous voice that sounded so huge for her small frame as she rushed to the mutt. “Thank you!” She patted Steven and deftly clicked the leash back in place on his collar. The dog immediately tried to pull away but the woman’s hand held him in place.

“Actually, he found me,” Gary said, surprising himself with the even, calm tone of his voice while inside an alarm was going off, yelling “You almost took your knife out! You almost took your knife out!”

“Yeah, he’s a tracker all right,” the woman said and laughed. “Susan,” she said and extended a hand. “Susan Millford.”

“I’m Gary,” he said, taking the hand and shaking it with just the right amount of squeeze to come across as a solid yet gentle person.

“Hello, Gary,” Susan said and smiled. “Mind if I sit down for a second? I just went around the whole park looking for this guy here.”

Gary returned the smile and moved to the right although there was more than enough space on either side of him. Susan ignored the wider space on the left and plopped on his right, the side where his knife was. He tried to edge away surreptitiously. He did not like people close to his knife before it was time.

“So, Gary, what do you do, then?” Susan asked. Steven had quickly given up his attempts to escape and was now lying at her feet, panting. Dogs always panted. That annoyed Gary and made him dislike them strongly. Still, he smiled at the mutt as he thought how much of his true identity he should reveal to this pushy woman.

She won him some more time by adding “Sorry, I know I’m kind of forward but I live alone and I work from home, so I don’t get to socialize a lot. You know how it is.”

Gary didn’t. He had worked in an office all his life. Yet he nodded in apparent understanding.

“I’m head of quality management at Samarinco,” he said. Going with the truth was easier for now. It was also smarter. The woman would remember him and the nice chat they’d had in the park.

“That sounds very responsible,” Susan said. A glint in her eyes suggested she was genuinely impressed. Samarinco was a large company. A packaging company. Everyone knew it. “I’m a copy editor. I freelance.”

“That’s… interesting,” Gary said. It was anything but interesting. He didn’t know what copy editors did and he didn’t want to know. But practicing politeness once in a while was good for staying in social shape.

Susan laughed.

“You’ve no idea what copy editing is, right?”

“You got me,” Gary said with a smile that had to look sincere because he had worked on it in front of the mirror hundreds of times.

“So, do you come here often, Gary?”

He was impressed. As far as Gary knew, everyone loved to talk about their job. They loved to complain about it and he couldn’t stand it. Every time someone came to him at the office or he overheard a conversation on the line at the coffee shop, Gary ended up picturing how he eviscerates the person complaining how hard their life was and how shitty or hard or both their job was. And this lady here had simply changed the subject instead of enlightening him about the fine points of copy editing. Surprised, Gary found he actually wanted to learn what these fine points were.

“Not really,” he said instead. “I don’t have much time outside work.” Now he was the one complaining about his job. A snort of laughter slipped out his mouth and nose.

“Something funny?” Susan asked. Her smile was so stubborn it looked like it was a natural part of her face. A nice part.

“It’s just that I really don’t like listening to people complaining about their jobs and here I am now, complaining that I work too much.” He was opening up to a stranger and he could do nothing about it. In fact he enjoyed it.

Susan laughed.

“I know exactly what you mean.”

 

Sarah was standing with her back to an ash tree, one of the few in “their place” as Jonathan called it. The bark was rough and it felt unpleasant to her skin under her T-shirt. But it was also reassuringly hard. Reliable. Supportive. Sarah saw the tree in her head, behind her closed eyes. Tall, thick trunk, branches reaching out to the sky and the clouds, covered with yellowing leaves, still thick on the branches but wilting, weakening.

The bark began feeling warm against her back and Sarah allowed herself a tiny smile. Immediately, Melissa’s soft hand fell on her shoulder and the smile disappeared. So did the hand. Behind her closed eyes Sarah watched the tree, the trunk, the leaves, the bark she was leaning on, grayish-brown, cracked and wrinkled. She watched. After a while, the bark began to smoothen under her back. The wrinkles and cracks filled out. Sarah watched as the trunk slimmed and the leaves thickened and darkened to deep summer green. She smelled the life in the leaves, at its height, the sun rays kissing and caressing every single leaf, feeding them, entertaining them. Sarah smiled again but this time it was a happy smile as she felt everything the leaves and the tree bark felt. She was part of the tree.

Jonathan was standing guard at the entrance of the secluded place but if anyone had been peeking through the shrubbery, they would have seen a small girl standing as still as a rock in front of an ash tree and then disappearing, dissolving in the air. Of course, nobody was peeking because Melissa was watching and she could see through the shrubbery.

Sarah opened her eyes.

“I did it!” she chirped. “I did it! On my own!”

The twin smiles of Melissa and Jonathan replaced the sun, which had hidden behind a cloud.

“Yes, you did, baby,” Jonathan said and spread his arms. Sarah jumped into his embrace. “I’m extremely proud of you and I mean that very literally,” he said as he swung her around.

“So am I. You’re going to become very good at this, Sarah,” Melissa said, joining them in a three-way embrace. “Do you know how few can master camouflage so fully at this tender age? I’m not joking,” she said when she saw Sarah’s skeptic expression. The girl beamed. Melissa held her tightly and kissed the top of her head. It smelled of sun and fall leaves, and a little bit of ash tree bark.

“I’ll miss you,” she whispered against Melissa’s skin.

“Oh, honey, I’m not going anywhere.” The woman pressed the little warm body closer still. “I’m right here and I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is,” Melissa said and pulled Sarah’s head up to look at her. She smiled. “You’ll see. I’ll only go when you don’t need me any more.”

“I’ll always need you,” Sarah said and squeezed Melissa again.

Melissa did not respond, she just rubbed the girl’s back as she looked at Jonathan. His smile was one of sympathy and shared suffering. They’d known each other for a very long time. They could read each other’s emotions better than anyone.

“Ready for some more fun?” Jonathan asked Sarah. She raised her head and let go of the woman she called her mother even though she knew Melissa was not her mother.

“Okay,” the girl said and brushed a dry eye. She was going to become the best student Melissa and Jonathan had. Maybe then they would stay a while longer with her. Even if they didn’t, they would remember her forever. It wasn’t half as good as keeping them but maybe, however unbelievable it sounded, Melissa was right and Sarah would not need them when she grew up.

“Right!” Jonathan said and clapped his hands. “Kick time!”

“Yay!” Sarah said though her enthusiasm was not in the usual amounts. It never was after a conversation about the future. “Let’s kick!”

 

The arrogant denizens of the office buildings nearby began crawling out for their daily dose of natural light. Gary sensed them before he saw them, like an oncoming raid of poisonous ants.

“Something wrong?” Susan asked. She was telling him some story about the dog after they agreed it was not worth wasting time talking about work.

“Sorry?”

“Your face twitched like you’ve smelled something rotten.”

“Oh,” Gary said. “It’s… I don’t like it when the park is full of people.”

“Ah,” Susan said knowingly and glanced around. “The office slaves are out, I see. I know what you mean.”

An idea struck Gary’s rusty imagination.

“Would you like to take a walk? I mean, if you have time, of course.”

The arrogant bunch would be safe from Gary today. Susan was a much better choice. She was a challenge—Gary enjoyed her company. Still, he knew this enjoyment was a transitory emotion. He knew if they spent any longer period of time together her presence would begin to grate on his brain. That’s what had happened with his wife, slowly at first, and then more and more quickly.

“So, have you ever had any pets, Gary?” Susan asked. They were strolling down an alley that led away from the center of the park, away from the benches and the picnic tables, into the wilder part of the park.

“Not really, no. My parents didn’t like animals in the house,” he said. Honesty was refreshing even if he could only be honest for a little while longer. He would be quick, Gary decided. Susan was a nice lady. And the dog. He would have to get rid of the dog.

“Oh, that’s a shame. Pets are good for kids when they grow up. And after, of course,” Susan said. “Isn’t that right, Steve?”

Steven barked and pulled the leash, dragging Susan to the nearby shrubbery.

“Thank God I didn’t get the Great Dane a friend was offering me after my last dog passed,” Susan said, laughing. “I can hardly keep this guy under control.”

“Why not let him run around a bit?” Gary suggested, seizing this chance to get rid of the dog without having to hurt him.

Susan turned to look at him incredulously.

“Are you kidding? Last time it took me half an hour to find him. He’s not one of those dogs that return to their masters after they get tired of running.”

“We’ll find him together,” Gary said with what he considered his most charming smile, resisting a sudden urge to smooth back his hair to make sure it’s still there. “It will be fun for everyone, Susan, just look at him.”

Susan looked at Steven. He was panting, eager to run, and run, and run. He was a young dog, full of energy that she did not have.

“Oh, all right, then,” she said and clicked the leash off his collar. “Be careful, young man! No squirrels!” she called after his fast retreating shape. “The world is full of wonders for him,” she murmured. “Sometimes I really envy him.”

“I’m sure there’s a wonder of two waiting for you, too,” Gary said. This conversation and flattery business was getting easier and easier by the minute. A distant pang of grief hit him at the thought he will probably never again experience another such a moment of ease and comfort with another human being but he had to do what needed doing. He needed it done.

“It’s so quiet here,” he remarked as he led Susan up another alley that seemed to end in a small forest. “So much better than that place with the benches.”

“Oh, yes, but there were people here as well when I came by looking for Steven earlier.”

“Oh,” said Gary. “Let’s hope they’re gone, then.”

Susan giggled.

The turned down the path that led from the alley to the forest, which was not really a forest but just a copse surrounded by lower growth.

“Well, it seems—” Gary said as he entered the clearing in the center of the copse. He couldn’t go on. His heart leapt up and choked his words off.

“Hi there,” Susan told the three figures standing several feet from her and Gary. “Me again. Sorry, we thought there was nobody here.” It was at this point that she noticed Gary had apparently petrified.

“Gary? Are you all right?”

He didn’t respond. He stared at the people in front of him wide-eyed, open-mouthed, incapable of breathing.

“He’s not all right,” Melissa Walbeck said. “And he doesn’t deserve to be all right. Honey?”

The girl, who stood in the middle between her parents, now took a step forward. Gary whimpered but did not move.

“Bones…” he whispered. “The bones…”

Susan strained to hear him.

“Bones?” She looked at the Walbecks pleadingly. “What’s happening here? Do you know each other?”

Jonathan shook his head. Melissa watched Sarah, who’d made a couple more steps and was now standing a foot from Gary.

“We were expecting you,” she said softly. He whimpered again and clutched at his chest. A second later he was on his knees on the ground, falling forward. His upper body met the ground with a thud. Susan shrieked.

“Calm down,” Melissa said as she approached the shocked woman who was now calling Gary’s name even though she didn’t make a move to help him. “Calm down. Look.”

Melissa squatted by Gary and flipped him over with surprising ease. Susan shrieked again. Melissa opened the front of his jacket and pulled out the knife.

“He was planning to kill you with this,” Sarah informed the woman. Melissa nodded.

“What? But how? Why? How do you know? Was he… was he insane?”

Melissa looked over her shoulder at Jonathan who shrugged.

“He was insane, yes. And we know because we have been following him. It’s our job,” she said, her tone suggesting more questions would not be welcome.

Susan was silent for a while, staring at Gary’s body, which was beginning to smell in a very unequivocal way as all muscles relaxed, including the ones responsible for keeping his waste inside. She made a face.

“His last words were about bones… That was weird.”

Melissa looked at her politely. So did Sarah.

“He was having a heart attack,” Jonathan said. “Saved us the trouble of catching him and bringing him to justice. You don’t have to stay, madam, we will take care of informing the relevant authorities.”

“Oh. Oh, good. Yes. Thank you. I’ll be going, then.” Susan looked at the body on the ground one last time, turned, waved the Walbecks awkwardly and left at speed. She wasn’t sure why she was in such a rush to put as much distance between herself and this family, she just knew she had to get the hell away from them.

“Steven!” she called when she stepped back on the alley. “Steven! We’re going home, young man! STEVEN!” She wanted to go home and forget about this day. She had never seen anyone die in front of her very eyes. It was not a pleasant sight.

 

“I didn’t even get a chance to touch him!” Sarah complained and kicked Gary’s upper arm. “That’s SO not fair.”

Jonathan put an arm around her shoulders.

“We couldn’t have know he had heart problems, baby.”

“Still not fair,” the girl muttered. “I wanted to kick him.”

“It’s the end result that’s important, Sarah,” Melissa said as she dialed 911. “Let’s pack before the police comes. Hello? Yes, there’s a man here and I think he’s dead. It looks like a heart attack. Melissa Walbeck.”

“Do you think he saw my bones?” Sarah asked Jonathan quietly.

He frowned.

“He can’t see your bones, Sarah, you’re human.”

She looked up into the hollow eye sockets of the man she called her father even though he had no role in the biological fact of her existence and sighed. She took in his bony frame wrapped in a thin veil of blackness, the same as Melissa’s.

“This is so uncool,” she said.

“No, it’s not. You’re a beautiful girl,” Jonathan said. She could hear his smile.

“Yeah, a girl.”

“One who will soon become a great warrior, too,” Jonathan said, squeezing her shoulder lightly. His fingers felt exactly like fingers, and the veil felt like a body. Sarah loved this about her adoptive parents. She loved everything about them. That’s why it was so hard to get used to the fact that ten years from now they would leave. They would leave because they were Tutors and there were other children out there that needed to be trained to protect humanity from the broken, twisted, or plain evil among them.

“I’ll miss you,” she said. Another squeeze of the shoulder was Jonathan’s only response.

 

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