What are we about

What are we about

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book One- Chapter Five



Chapter Five

Dad stepped back from the doorway, holding Josie by the shoulders. “You should be careful where you point those things, Sheppard.”
“I’m always careful, Agent,” Bill said as he stepped inside.
“Agent?” Josie said. She tried to turn, but her father had her tight by the shoulders, holding her in place in the line of fire.
The cowboy waved a weapon at her. “Come on now, surely you didn’t think that was your poppa?”
Josie wriggled against him, but her father held on tight. In fact, he pulled her to him in a hug, wrapping one arm around her shoulders until he squeezed her to the point of breathlessness. She strained to peer up at him above her shoulder.
Her father bore down on her with a look of utter disgust. “Pitiful child. So easy to fool.”
Only, it wasn’t her father’s voice. It was someone else’s voice. Someone she had heard earlier that day. Without warning, her father changed. His face shifted and broke apart while his body pulled this way and that. The image of her father melted into a cascade of broken pixels, slipping away in a tumble, and revealing a much harder man underneath.
Agent Rankin.
He snorted as he squeezed her tighter. “So much for the wunderkind. You’re just a stupid little girl after all.”
Josie wiggled and writhed, but it was no good. He had a death grip on her. “Let me go!”
“You heard the young woman,” Bill said. “You best oughta set her free.”  He nodded to his pistols. “Unless you want me to air out that fancy coat of yours with a couple of vent holes.”
“I don’t make deals with criminal scum,” Rankin snarled at the cowboy. He clutched Josie tighter and shouted back toward the dining room, “Bass! Get out here and help me!”
“About that,” Agent Bass said as he stepped into the foyer from the kitchen, with his hands raised.
A woman shoved Bass along with the barrel of a sleek, black gun, guiding him into the foyer. She stood about the same height as her prisoner, which put her a clear foot or so shorter than the cowboy. A thick belt hung from her waist, hosting a variety of dangerous looking weapons. She wore all black, from head to toe, with a single splash of color on her right upper arm. An arm band sporting a patch in the center. A picture of an orchid. There were so many strange and beautiful things about her, from her rich dark skin to her gathering of wild hair, but Josie only had a moment to gawk at her, before she spoke.
“Seems we have the upper hand,” she said. She paused and smiled, brilliant and perfect, then added, “Again.” Her voice carried a strange accent. It was foreign and familiar all at once. As if she were from any given coast of the United States, and also Japan, and England, and France. A melodic mix of them all.
Rankin sneered at her. “You have nothing of value.”
Bass gave a nervous laugh. “Rankin. Come on now. I am standing right here.”
The woman grabbed Bass by the collar and pressed the gun against his temple. “And I will kill him. Value or not.”
In a single, slick move, Rankin released Josie’s shoulder and managed to produce a switchblade. It unfolded with a practiced, crisp snick. Then the blade lay against Josie’s trembling throat.
“You are not the only one willing to spill blood,” Rankin said.
“Agent!” Bass gasped.
“Go ahead,” the woman said.
“Kate!” the cowboy scolded.
“Like I care if he kills some random kid,” she said.
“You care,” Bill said. He nodded to Josie. “She cares.”
“Let the child go, Agent,” Bass said, keeping his eyes on Rankin. “We aren’t here to hurt anyone. You let her go and Kate here will surely let me go. Won't you?”
Everyone fell quiet. The silence stretched into an uncomfortable couple of seconds. Long, awkward seconds.
“Kate?” Bill finally said. “You’ll let him go, won’t you?”
The woman let out a tired sigh and rolled her eyes. It was an epic, teenager level eye roll. It packed in equal amounts of disgust and disinterest while still showing a certain level of curiosity. Josie was impressed. It was the kind of eye roll she hoped to achieve some day.
“Fine,” she said. “Give us the brat and I’ll let this old man go.”
“Hey now,” Bass said. “I’m not that old.”
Rankin spat out an ugly laugh. “You don’t know who this girl is, do you?”
Kate narrowed her eyes.
“Who am I?” Josie said.
“Shut up,” Rankin said.
“Who is she?” Bill said.
“You don’t know?” Rankin said. “Oh this is too good. You really don’t recognize her?”
There came a brief pause, after which Kate drew a second gun and raised it to Rankin. “Let the girl go.”
Rankin laughed again then tightened his grip on Josie. “Figured it out? You always were the quicker one.”
“Figured what out?” Bill said. “Kate? Who is she?”
“She isn’t anyone, yet,” Bass said. “Let her go, Agent. None of us belong here.”
“Of course we don’t belong here,” Rankin said. “It was their intrepid leader that brought us here. We followed them. Straight to her.”
“Who is her?” Bill said.
“The one we’ve been looking for,” Kate said.
Understanding swept across the cowboy’s face. Bill’s mouth gaped open a bit. He waved the guns at Josie. “Her? But she’s just a kid!”
“Yes, she is,” Kate said, eyeing Josie. An impish smiled played on the woman’s lips. She released her hold on Bass, placing both of her hands on the weapon instead, steadying it at Rankin.
“Right,” Bass said. “She’s just a kid, which means none of us should be here. We should all get out of here, right now.”
“Let me go,” Josie said.
Rankin yanked her back by the hair of her head. “Quiet, child. You don’t want to turn this abduction into a murder, do you?”
“Rankin,” Bass said, raising his hands and taking a few steps toward Rankin. “This isn’t right. We made a simple mistake. Let’s go and let time sort itself out. Okay?” He laid a hand on Rankin’s shoulder.
The taller agent sneered down at Bass. “She knows everything. She can take us where we need to go.”
“She’s twelve,” Bass said again. “She doesn’t even know she knows. She won’t be any good to us like this.”
“We can’t leave her to them,” Rankin said. There was an almost desperate whine in his voice.
Bass shook his head. “They don’t want her either. Not really. Hell, man, they didn’t even know who she was until you told them. What are they going to do with a twelve-year-old girl? Take her with them?”
Kate made an exasperated noise. “Take her with us? What would we want with a kid?”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “What are we gonna do with a little girl?”
“See?” Bass smiled wide.
Rankin smirked. It wasn’t as cold as his earlier grin, but it also didn’t quite reach his eyes the way Bass’s smile did. The two men laughed for a moment, a shared, strained chuckled. The taller agent relaxed, loosening his grip on Josie. She shifted away from him, sliding out from under his arm. After holstering his guns, Bill crouched and wiggled his fingers at her. She sprinted to him, letting the man enfold her in his long arms and turn her away. For a complete stranger, his hug was oddly comforting. Josie peered over the cowboy’s shoulder at her potential captors.
Bass kept a hand on his partner’s shoulder. He laid a finger behind the right side of his own jaw, just beneath his ear, and said, “Retrieval.”
Each man faded into a dull band of light, then vanished. One moment they were there. The next they were gone. Josie blinked at the empty space where the two men stood only seconds before. She pushed free from Bill’s arms.
“What just happened?” she said. She stepped forward, into the now empty space.
“We just kept that son of a gun from nappin’ you, kid,” Bill said.
“No,” Josie said. “I don’t mean that. I mean, where did they go?” She waved her hands about, making certain the men were really gone. “They were just here. Where did they go?”
“Back to their ship I would think,” Kate said. She holstered her weapon and began poking at the long band on her right wrist.
Josie wrinkled her nose at the woman. “Ship? What ship?”
“The Allegiance,” she said. A few beeps came from her wrist band. “There we are. The authorities have been alerted.” She continued to poke at her wrist band, and it continued to make noises at her. Almost casually, the woman added, “They should be along soon for your parental units.”
“My parents!” Josie shouted as she whipped around to face the woman. In all of the confusion, she had nearly forgotten about her mother and father. “Where are they? Are they okay?”
“Calm down, little one,” Bill said. “Your folks are in that shed of yours out back. Safe and sound.”
“Thank goodness.” Josie counted to five. It was a trick her father taught her to calm herself whenever she got worked up about things. Mom and Dad were fine. They were in the garden shed. What were they doing in the garden shed? She bit her lip and looked up to Kate again. “But, they are okay?”
“They are alive,” Kate said, never raising her eyes. “At least they were the last time I looked.”
“What?” Josie said.
“She means they’re fine,” Bill said. He nudged Josie in the shoulder with his elbow. “That’s just the way Miss Kate talks. Her tongue is a bit sharp, but she’s got a good heart.” He smiled and touched a finger to his hat as he added, “A good heart and a beautiful face.”
“Shut up, Bill,” the woman said. She finally lowered her wrist and looked at Josie. The woman placed her hands on her hips, drew a deep breath, then blew it out in a quick huff. “Enough nattering, it’s time to go.”
“Right,” Bill said. “And, um, Kate? What are gonna do with, you know…” He jerked his head toward Josie.
Josie looked between the man and woman, not sure what Bill was getting at.
The whine of sirens rose in the distance, the police on their way.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Kate said. She slid a sleek silver weapon from one of the many hostlers along her hip.
“Um, well,” Bill said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “It is obvious, of course, because of how simple it all is. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that it wasn’t obvious to a feller like me. What would we be doin’ with her then? Exactly?”
“I thought I made that pretty clear.” Kate checked her unusual gun for ammunition while the sirens drew closer, then clicked the chamber back into place. She glanced to Bill. “She’s coming with us.”
“That’s what I figured,” Bill said.
“With you?” Josie said. A sickening pit of worry opened in her stomach, churning with a million ideas of what a kidnapper would want with her. What a kidnapper would do to her. Or maybe with what was left of her. “You just told those men you weren’t here for me.”
Kate shrugged. “I lied.”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “She does that quite a bit too. Ain’t she cute?”
“Cute,” Josie echoed. She took a tentative step toward the kitchen. “I should probably go and check on my mom and dad. You know, before we go.” She took another few steps, waiting for the chance to cut into an all out run.
“That’s a good idea, little filly,” Bill said. “You go on and say your goodbyes and we will wait right here for-”
Bill’s words were cut short by a muffled pop. Josie flinched and grabbed her left shoulder as something sharp bit into her skin. She felt around until her fingers brushed against cold metal. Something long and thin jutted out of her shoulder. A chill spread out from the foreign object, pulsing down her arm and her chest in heartbeat driven waves. She plucked the object free and brought it around to her eyes. Her vision doubled, then tripled. She couldn’t focus on the thing. Her breath started to come in ragged bursts.
“Waa?” Josie tried to say. Her words slurred. Her knees wavered under her and she slumped against the wall.
“Why’d ya tank her?” Bill said. “She was only going to see her mom and pop before we left.”
Kate holstered her weapon then crossed her arms as she eyed Josie. “Oh, Bill, you are such a fool.”
“Ah, I see,” Bill said. “She wasn’t going to check in on her folks, was she?”
“Nope.”
“She was gonna run away, wasn’t she?”
“Yup.”
Bill gave Josie an almost hurt look.
For some reason she couldn’t explain, Josie felt genuinely sorry to have disappointed him. She tried to speak, to apologize to him. Instead she slid down the wall in a slow collapse, coming to rest with a thump on the hardwood floor.
“Did you grab the book?” Bill said.
“I already sent it on,” Kate said.
“Rankin is looking bad, eh?”
“Yeah, I noticed that. It’s starting to take its toll.” She knelt, brushing a lock of dark hair from Josie’s tired face. “Don’t fight it, kid. It’ll only give you a headache later.”
“She’s right,” Bill said, crouching on the other side of Josie. “Miss Kate usually is.”
The pair smiled at her, both far too friendly for the situation. Josie heard one last word, before the lights went out and all went dark.
“Retrieval.”
****
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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Book One- Chapter Four



Chapter Four

After checking her email and talking with David online for a few minutes, Josie began her reading assignments for the semester. She sprawled out on her bed with her e-reader and dove into her first book. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had always been on her list, though it was usually pushed aside by dystopian fantasy or young adult romance. One chapter in she regretted waiting so long to read it while simultaneously pleased she could enjoy it for the first time. It was a typical reader conundrum, such sorrow and joy all at once. Sort of like having your cake and eating it too, slowly, page by delicious page.
Josie got so wrapped up in the book that she lost track of time. It wasn’t until well after seven, when her belly started to grumble, that she realized how late it was. About the same time her mother hollered up the staircase that dinner was ready. Josie put her book away and scrambled downstairs, sure she would get a lecture on responsibility since she forgot to set the table.
She didn’t. In fact, there wasn’t much conversation. Her parents sat at the opposite ends of the table and ate in silence. Well, not so much ate as pushed the food around on their plates. Mom kept eyeing Dad, and Dad kept eyeing Josie. After fifteen or so minutes of this, her mother finally cleared her throat and spoke.
“Do you have something you want to tell your father?” she said.
“No,” Josie said in slow drawl. “I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?” he said. “Something isn’t gnawing at you. Craving to be let out?”
Josie narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”
He waved his fork at her. “You’re a smart kid. Figure it out.”
A smart kid, huh? Not this again. Geesh. How many times were they going to argue about this? It was time to just lay it all down. If he wanted to know the truth, then she would give it to him. She put her fork down and took a deep breath, preparing to spill it all.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said, “but I already feel weird right now. I already don’t fit in and I know skipping grades will only make it worse. And I am scared, okay? Is that what you want to hear? I’m scared everyone will find out the real reason I missed the fourth grade. I know I’m a little smarter than the other kids in my class, but I’m not a wunderkind. I’m just, I just … I just want to be left alone. Okay?”
Josie hung her head, exposed and defeated. She had spent the last few weeks dancing around the topic with stilted refusals and tense rebuffs. Now there it was, laid bar. She nearly expected her dad to announce that enough was enough and she had no choice in the matter. But her parents went eerily silent. So quiet that Josie looked up to find them with matching looks of confusion and bewilderment. As if they had no idea what that little rant was all about.
Mom cut her eyes at Dad then to Josie. “That’s not what I was talking about.”
Heat rose to Josie’s cheeks. She picked up her fork again and began casually pushing her own food around the plate. “Oh, uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to … what were you talking about again?”
“I meant about what happened today. That man you saw.” Mom laid her fork down and leaned closer to Josie. “You did see him. Didn’t you?”
“Tell us what he said,” Dad blurted out, nearly over Mom’s question.
“Mom,” Josie whined. She flicked her eyes at Dad, in a silent not now gesture.
“Go on, hon,” Mom said. “You can tell him the truth.”
Josie furrowed her brow at Dad. “I wasn’t the only one that saw him. There were a bunch of us. The police were talking to him when we left. No big deal, right Mom?”
“What did he say to you?” Mom said.
So much for solidarity. “I told you, we didn’t talk to him.”
“Yes you did,” Dad said. “Did he ask you about the book?”
“What book?” Josie said.
“Goodnight, Gracie,” Mom said.
Josie dropped her fork with a loud clank against her plate before she realized her hand went slack. “What did you just say?”
“Goodnight, Gracie,” her mom repeated. The cheer in her voice, especially in time with those words, sounded alien and sickeningly strange.
Swallowing hard, Josie braced herself against the table. She felt dizzy, as if she would faint any moment. “Why would you say that?”
“Isn’t that the name of the book that man asked you about?”
“What book?” Josie said.
“This one,” Dad said. He yanked something from under the table and tossed it at her. It slid across the tabletop toward her, knocking aside a bowl of corn on its way.
Josie looked down at the thing, her eyes growing wide at the title.
Goodnight, Gracie, by Sarah Jackson.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I think you do,” her dad said. His voice had an unusual graveness to it. He also leaned in closer to her. “Tell us about the stories. Tell us exactly what they mean.”
Josie picked up the book and turned it over in her hands. The title alone was enough to bring a chill to her skin, but the photo of the woman on the back cover leapt out at her, nearly slapping her in the face with its familiarity. The woman looked like someone Josie knew. She pressed her mind for the name on the cover. Sarah Jackson? No, she didn’t know any Sarah Jackson. Yet she felt like she knew this woman. So familiar. Like it was someone related to her. An aunt or cousin. Or maybe …
Josie looked down at the photo, then up to her mother.
“Mom?” Josie said. “Is this you?”
“Me?” her mom said.
Josie held the book out. “This is you. Isn’t it?”
Mom peered at the cover, then nodded. “You know, it does look like her mother. Maybe she’s the one?” Mom snapped her fingers and pointed at Dad. “You’re right, it was a penname after all. Sara Jackson must be, oh, what was her mother’s name? Anna Blackwell.”
Mother said her own name with such detachment it left Josie feeling dizzy again.
“The girl will write it,” Dad said.
“What?” Josie and her mother said at the same time.
“She will write it,” Dad said, nodding to Josie. His eyes never left her. “She knows what the stories are saying. She knows where the pieces are hidden. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Josie said.
“You’re joking,” Mom said. Whatever humor or cheer she held in her voice was long gone, replaced by a terse panic. “Please, tell me you’re kidding.”
“I’ve never been more serious,” Dad said. He snatched the book from Josie’s hand. “She is the author. Everything in this book takes place before she turns thirteen. She has lived what is in those pages. She knows. Right at this moment in time, she knows.” He cocked his head at her. “Now, we will know.”
“Oh, this is bad,” Mom said.
“Shut up,” Dad said.
“Whoa,” Josie said and pushed back from the table a bit. Aside from the freaky weird way her parents were already acting, this was something completely off the charts. Dad had never, in all of Josie’s life, told Mother to be quiet, much less to shut up. What was going on here?
“This is bad, bad, bad,” Mom said. She stood and leaned over the table, placing her palms flat on the hardwood and frowning in distaste at her husband. A look Josie had never seen her mother bear to anyone, much less Dad. “You brought us back too far. She’s not the one. She might be one day, but not today. She’s not ready. We shouldn’t be here.”
“She’s ready,” Dad said, standing and shifting his gaze to Mom. He also leaned over the table, toward Mom, as if going head to head with the woman. “He wouldn’t have come here if she wasn’t ready. She will tell us everything. We can make her.”
“She’s twelve!” Mom shouted. “We can’t interrogate a twelve-year-old little girl for something she hasn’t even done yet. That breaks every code we were sent here to protect!”
“She’s our only hope! There will be nothing left to protect if that monster and his crew get their hands on the Mandala!”
The pair stopped shouting for a blessed moment. Josie rolled that idea in her mind. Mom and Dad shouting at each other. That was new too. Only, they weren’t Mom and Dad. Were they? No. These two holding the screaming match were not Anna and Brian Blackwell. No. Not at all.
Then who were the strangers arguing at Josie’s dinner table?
The ones that looked a lot like her mother and father?
Josie was about to ask when, in this space of quiet, there came a strong knock on the front door. Mom and Dad (or whomever they were) stared hard at one another. The knock rose again. 
“Go see who is at the door,” Dad said. He had a feral look in his eye that brought Josie to her feet without argument. “Get rid of them.”
Dad flickered then. It was the briefest of moments. A mere fraction of a second. If Josie had been looking away she would’ve missed it. In that instant, Dad’s form sputtered, like a candle flame or an old television set losing reception. Her father’s image wavered and something lay underneath the vision of her father. Or rather someone. The sight of her father flickering left Josie cold to the core. A wave of nausea swept over her.
The pounding came again.
“I said get rid of them,” Dad growled.
She backed away, nodding furiously, because she wasn’t sure what else to do. “Yes, sir. I will, sir.”
The person on the porch pounded on the door again, and Josie rushed to answer it. The dining room was on the opposite end of the kitchen from the front door, so it took her a few moments of the loud pounding to race across the length of the house. She reached the door, jerked it open and glared at the man on the doorstep. Tall and lean, the man wore an ankle length duster that hid pretty much everything. His hat was pulled low enough to cover his face.
“Scuse me, ma’am,” he said. “Can I interest you in a genuine leather-bound copy of the good book?”
 “No thank you,” Josie said. “We aren’t interested.”
“Are you sure about that, little filly?” the stranger said. He pushed his hat up his brow with a single finger, revealing an easy going smile and a stubbly chin.
“Mr. Sheppard?” she said, recognizing the cowboy.
The man gave a quick, curt nod. “I told you to call me Bill.”
The door jerked wide as someone else pulled it out of her hands. Josie whipped around to find her dad standing over her, glaring at the man on the porch.
“We don’t need anything you’re selling,” he said.
“I think you’re gonna want some of this,” the cowboy said.
Josie looked back to see a pair of guns pointed at her.
****
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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Book One- Chapter Three



Chapter Three

Though they wore matching black suits, the men were as different as night and day. One stood tall, at least as tall as the cowboy in the park, while the other was a clear foot shorter. The short one had a dark, rich skin tone and soulful brown eyes. The other was beyond pale, almost to the point of sickly, with eyes a washed out green, like the color of murky pond water. The tall man’s dark thinning hair made him appear even paler, while the shorter man had a head of curly gray hair cut close to the scalp.
The taller man grinned, revealing a mess of yellowing teeth.
Josie nearly screamed at the sight of the man from the park, and that cold smile of his. She took a step back, bumping into her mother behind her. Mom placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“This is my daughter,” Mom said. “Josephine Blackwell.”
“Hello,” the shorter man said. He raised his hand and nodded.
“Hello, Miss Josephine,” the taller man said. He never lost that chilling grin. There was a disturbing timbre to his voice. A deep edge that made it come off as creepy. Maybe it was the way he nearly hissed his esses, or croaked his effs.
“Hello,” Josie said.
“I am Agent Bass,” the short man said. He motioned to his partner. “This is Agent Rankin.”
“Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” Rankin said.
“I guess not,” Josie said. She lowered herself onto the loveseat across from the men.
They sat, as one again. Rankin crossed a long leg and grasped his knee. Bass reached into his jacket and pulled out a tablet. He swiped at the screen a few times.
“Have you seen this man?” Bass said and held out the tablet.
The photograph on the screen showed a busy street, with a blur of people rushing here and there. In the middle, in near perfect focus, stood the cowboy. His face was turned to one side, as if talking to the person beside him. Josie couldn’t make out the identity of the dark blur the cowboy was addressing.
“Who is he?” Josie’s mom said.
“He’s a suspect in an ongoing investigation,” Bass said. “He’s wanted for questioning in relation to a couple of robberies.”
“Oh,” mom said.
“We have reason to believe he has taken shelter in this area,” Bass said. “Have you seen him at all?”
“No,” Josie said as she glanced up to the agents. The word was out of her mouth before she realized it. She couldn’t believe she had said no. She lied.
Bass cocked his head at her, clearly confused. “No?”
Rankin lost the creepy smile.
Josie shook her head. “No. I’ve never seen him before.” She had no idea why she was lying. Maybe part of her just didn’t want to get involved. The other part just didn’t like Agent Rankin.
“You didn’t just see him in the park?” Bass said.
“No, sir.”
“Are you sure?” Bass said.
“My daughter already said no,” Josie’s mom said.
Rankin held a hand up to Josie’s mom. “Please, Mrs. Blackwell. This is official agency business. We are here to talk to your daughter, not you.”
Mom went quiet with a huff, but set her jaw in defiance. Josie recognized that huff. The silence that followed it wouldn’t last long, no matter how important the agent thought he was.
Rankin stared hard at Josie. Josie looked the man dead in the eye and once again the world narrowed to the pair of them. Everyone and everything else seemed to fall away. An odd feeling came over her. Nostalgia. Familiarity. Something her father called déjà vous. The sensation she had done this before.
“Did you see him?” Rankin said.
“No, sir,” Josie said.
“Did you talk with him?”
“No, sir.”
“Did he tell you his name?”
 “No. Sir.”
“Did he ask you about the book?”
“What book?” Josie said, almost too fast.
“Good,” Rankin said, settling back with that wide smile again. “Very good.” 
A chill crept over her again as the spell between them broke. All at once she felt like she might’ve said too much by trying to say nothing at all. Whatever game they were playing, Josie had just lost. She only hoped it wasn’t a major victory for the agent.
“We're done here,” Rankin said, standing suddenly.
Agent Bass slid the tablet back into his jacket. “Are you sure we-”
“He’s right,” Josie’s mom said, finding her voice again. “You are done. I am going to have to ask you to leave.” She stood as well, waiting to lead them to the front door.
Rankin pulled his partner to his feet by the elbow. “We obviously have the wrong house. I apologize for taking up your time.”
“Good day, ma’am,” Bass said as they passed her mother. “Sorry to have troubled you.”
Josie’s mother followed the men to the door and held it for them while they apologized again on their way out. She slammed the door behind them with that same, angry huff. “The nerve of some people.” She spun about on Josie, all empty fury and unspent ire. “Did you see how he told me to shut up? Like a child? In my own house? The nerve. I don’t care who he works for. Rude. What a jackhole.”
Josie tried hard not to giggle. She lost.
Her mother’s anger softened. “What are you giggling at?”
“I’ve never heard you use that word,” Josie said.
“What word?”
“Jackhole.”
Her mother bit back a grin. “You didn’t hear me say that. And you better not repeat it. But that man was a jackhole.”
Josie giggled again.
Her mother hugged her up and held her close. “I want to be mad at you for lying, but that man was just awful.”
Josie pushed back from her mom. “I wasn’t lying.”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
Of course Mom knew the truth. Mom always knew the truth. Somehow. The woman had a gift.
“Busted,” Josie said softly.
“You wanna tell me about it?”
Josie rolled her eyes. “Okay, I saw him, but so did everyone else. It’s not like I was by myself or he followed me around or something.”
Her mother crossed her arms, Josie’s book bag hanging from one hand. “You saw him, but didn’t talk to him.”
“No?” Josie said, unsure of herself in the face of mom’s superpower. “I saw him from across the playground. We all did. Me and the guys. Yeah.”
Her mother eyed her cautiously. “Okay, if you want to stick to that story.” She handed Josie’s bag back to her. “Besides, I know you wouldn’t put yourself or anyone else in real danger. Would you?”
“No ma’am.” She took her backpack. “Of course not.”
“Of course not.”
“Of course not what?” Josie’s dad said. He came around through the back, by way of the kitchen. Which meant neither of them heard him come home.
“Cheese and crackers,” mom said, her hand fluttering over her chest. “I didn’t hear you come in. You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“I wanted to check on the squash out back,” he said as he dropped his bag onto the hall end table. “Which are going gangbusters. We are gonna have squash coming out of our ears before it’s done.”
Josie smiled at the idea of squash coming out of her father’s ears. She left her parents discussing the family garden, and went up to her room. There, she closed her door, tossed her bag onto her bed and jumped on the computer. After a few minutes of clicking around, she heard a soft knock at the door behind her.
“Come in,” Josie said.
“Josie?” her father said. “How was the first day of school?”
She sighed and slowly turned to face him. She had been dreading this discussion all day.
 “It was okay,” she said. “School, you know.”
“Don’t I know?” He sat on her bed, which meant he wasn’t here for idle conversation. That was his favorite talking spot, for when he wanted to have a serious talk with her.
Josie tried to trick him, to turn the conversation toward him. “How was your first day?”
“Okay.” He shrugged. “Same thing, different year. Being a teacher doesn’t get any easier. You’d think I’d have it easy since I have all the answers, eh?”
Josie laughed a bit.
He patted the bed beside him. “Come over here so we can talk.”
There it was. She pushed away from the desk and slumped over to her dad, sitting next to him on the bed.
“So,” he started. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I am going to ask anyways. Have you given any more thought to-”
“No,” she said over him. “You promised to leave me alone about it.”
“I know. I know.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder pulling her tighter to him. “Can I at least ask you about your day?”
“I guess so.”
“Was today challenging?”
“Dad, it was just the first day.”
“I know, but you should be challenged every day.”
She wiggled out of his grasp and crossed her arms. She might have been a little under a year from being a teenager, but she already had that teenage pout down pat.
“Josie, you know I only want what is best for you.”
“You said it was up to me,” she reminded him. “You said I could choose, and I don’t want to do it. I am happy where I am. I want to stay with my friends.”
“You could make new friends. Better friends. Decent friends.”
She huffed and, amazingly enough, it sounded just like her mother.
“Josie really,” her father said. “I didn’t come up here to start arguing again. I promise. I just wanted to see how your day went. If you don’t want to move up to a place where your mind can flourish then that’s…” his words trailed off as he saw the look on her face.
The I’ve made up my mind and don’t want to talk about it look on her face.
She got that from her mother too.
His shoulders relaxed and he gave a resigned sigh. “Then that’s up to you. Really. I would never force you into a situation in which you weren’t totally comfortable. I don’t want to be, you know, that kind of dad.”
Josie reached out and touched his slumped shoulder. “You’re not that kind of dad. You’re my dad and I love you. I just don’t want to skip a grade. Okay?”
“Whatever you say, my little wunderkind.” Dad ruffled her hair with his big hand.
“I don’t want to. Not right now, anyways.”
Dad smiled a bit at those words. “I’m really glad you said that.”
“Why?” she withdrew her comforting gesture, suspecting she had fallen into some kind of trap.
“Because—and promise you won’t be mad at me—but I spoke with Mr. Rountree earlier this week and he said-”
“My principal?” Josie said. “Why are you talking to him?”
“Well,” her dad said, his eyes rolling a bit too loosey goosey in their sockets for Josie to get a straight read on his intentions. “I just wanted to see if the offer was still open. In case, you know, you change your mind or something.”
Josie huffed again. Her huff-fu was strong, for that award-winning snort got her dad’s full attention. He reached out and grabbed both of her hands into his.
“Only if you change your mind,” he said, way over emphasizing the you and your in that sentence. “I made no promises or deals. I just wanted to see where we stand. As a family.”
“As a family,” Josie echoed.
She worried how her decision would impact her whole family. Moving up meant moving along faster. It meant more chances at scholarships based on scholastic performance. It meant being noticed and standing out of the academic crowd. It meant being special. And special folks got better treatment. Fact of life.
But Josie didn’t want to be special. She was considered special once in a very different way. In the kind of special way that got Josie her very own shrink and a year behind in school. Now she didn’t want to be anything. She found it unbearable to even be Josie sometimes. Why would she want people to notice her and think her as special when she was at best faking it and at worst just … the worst? All she wanted was her few friends and a comfortable, predictable routine where everyone left her alone and treated her normally.
She wasn’t a wunderkind. She was a library book with scrawny, preteen legs. She wasn’t smart. She was absorbent, like an information sponge, soaking up everything she read or saw, and storing it for later in her big, spongy brain. She didn’t understand how to apply half of what she knew, she just knew she knew and that was the problem, wasn’t it? That seemed about as useful as having an instructional pamphlet on how to write instructional pamphlets but not being able to read the original instructional pamphlet on how to make instructional pamphlets because it’s in a foreign language.
“Only if you change your mind,” he repeated. “No pressure. No games. You enjoy the school year and if you find yourself … well…”
“Under challenged?” Josie asked.
Her dad smiled, warm and loving. “Yeah, under challenged. If you find yourself in that place, let me know and I’ll see if Rountree can help us out of it. Deal?” He stuck out his hand.
Josie took it into hers and pumped it up and down a few times. “Deal.”
“Good.” Dad stood and stretched until his back popped loudly. “I feel good about this. Don’t you?”
“I do,” she said.
“You wanna come watch TV with me?” he asked.
“I gotta get some homework done,” she said.
He cocked his head in surprise. “Homework on the first day. Huh. Maybe you are being challenged enough.”
“I guess we will see,” she said and returned her attention to her computer.
“I guess we will. Mom says dinner is at six thirty. Be sure to make time to set the table.”
 “Okay.” Josie could feel him lingering behind her in the doorway.
“I love you, beautiful.”
“I love you too,” Josie said, not turning around. She heard the door close and relaxed after he was gone.
She would think about that moment, much later, when the blackness of empty hours unfolded before her and time had no real meaning anymore. She would think about that moment. That single heartbeat in a lifetime of delight and regrets.
She would think about how she didn’t take the time to turn around to tell her father goodbye.
****
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