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.
“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?”
“Did he tell you his name?”
“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.
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.