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.