August 26, 2016
“Are you even listening to me?” Philip said.
Josie blinked and nodded as Philip’s voice grabbed her attention. She turned to him, not surprised to find his face sour with a pout. Pouting was Philip’s usual mood. “Yeah. Sure.”
Philip wrapped his hands around the chains of the swing and eyed her. “Then what was I saying?”
“Something about a dog.” She swayed a bit on her swing, trying not to look back to the man in black.
“Lucky guess,” David said from the third swing. “He’s always talking about his imaginary dog.” He kicked against the ground, setting his swing in motion.
“He’s not imaginary,” Philip said, setting his swing in motion as well. “I’m going to get a real dog one day. It’s going to be huge, like a horse. One of those masterstiffs.”
“Mastiff,” David corrected.
“Whatever. You’re just jealous because your mom won’t let you have a dog. Because you’re allergic to everything. Ain’t that right, Josie?”
“Uh huh,” Josie said, half listening.
She turned away from them to stare once again at the man in black on the other side of the park. He glanced around, at every face that came near him, as if he was looking for someone. She couldn’t explain why she was staring at him. He just looked so out of place. Despite the late summer heat, the man wore all black. Black suit. Black tie. Black shirt. Even his hair was black. The ultimate funeral attire. Only he wasn’t at a funeral. He was standing outside of a corner store in a small town in North Carolina.
The crisp swish-swish of the boys swinging back and forth rose from behind her, as did the murmur of their mindless conversation. The cries of the other kids playing around her faded to a dull drone as Josie concentrated. She furrowed her brow, wondering who the man was searching for. He looked around, up Main Street and down Third Street. He finally looked across the street, to the park on the opposite corner. The park she sat in. His eyes flitted over the boys and girls running and screaming, until his gaze landed on her still form. He didn’t just give her a cursory glance and look away, like he did with everyone around her. He looked right at her.
He saw her watching him.
The world tunneled to the pair of them; her on a swing set in the middle of the park, him standing outside of Mr. Parker’s store. She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. It was like the man had grabbed her with just his eyes, and held her in place there on the swings. She tried to stand, to turn and run, yet all she could do was stare at him. He stared in return. A cold smile curved his lips. He nodded to her, as if he shared a secret only the two of them knew. The sight of it made Josie shudder.
“Josie?” Philip said.
The voice of her friend released the hold the stranger had on her. She let out a yelp and tumbled from the swing, falling to her knees and nearly face-planting into the sand. David and Philip jumped from their swings and rushed to her side. They grabbed her by the shoulders and helped her to her feet.
“You okay?” David said.
“Yeah,” Philip said. “You nearly ate the dirt.”
“I’m fine,” she said, though she knew they could feel her trembling underneath their palms. Josie looked back across the street, to the corner where the man in black stood only moments before.
The man had vanished.
Of course he had. Maybe he hadn’t even been there at all. Perhaps Josie had just imagined the man in black. She looked down the street, narrowing her eyes at what she thought was the sight of two men in black suits turning the corner at the end of Third. Two men?
“Josie?” David said. “You sure you’re okay?”
She pushed the boys away, more embarrassed than injured. “Get off me. Let a girl breathe.”
David raised his hands as he backed off. “Fine. Whatever. Geesh, just trying to help.”
“Sorry,” Philip said. “Next time we will just let you break your leg.”
Josie let out a huff and brushed away the sand on her pants. “Thanks, guys. I’m not hurt or anything. I was just startled. That’s all.”
“Startled?” Philip said. He snickered and slapped David’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “She’s been reading again, hasn’t she? Man that is such a girly thing to do.”
Josie stood to her full four feet, put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips at him. It was the same look her mother gave her father countless times a day. It wasn’t until she began to hang around Philip that she understood what all the lip pursing was about. David was cool about things, but Philip took every chance to remind Josie she was not one of the guys.
“Don’t be sexist, dork,” Josie said.
“You mean sexy dork,” Philip said.
“Ignore him,” David said. “He’s just jealous because he can’t read.”
“I can so read!” Philip shouted. He shoved David, hard.
“Giggling at dirty web comics isn’t reading,” David said, and shoved back.
Josie pushed between the two. “Knock it off. Stop fighting over something so stupid.”
“’Scuse me?” someone said.
The trio stopped struggling, turned about and looked up. A tall man stood over them, at least a good six foot, maybe more. Tanned and lean, with soft, easy going eyes. The tufts of hair that poked out from under his hat were as brown as his eyes. Along with a gentle, kind smile, his face bore a thin layer of stubble suggesting he hadn’t seen a razor in a few days. Josie kind of liked the extra scruff, and how it made him look rugged. She also liked his outfit.
The man dressed as a cowboy. Not just some wannabe in boots and a Stetson, no. He wore the entire costume from tattered vest to worn gun belt, from canvas rucksack to leather chaps, from dusty boots to sun-faded hat. He looked every part a cowboy as Josie did a twelve-year-old girl. Josie knew this for a fact because not only was she a twelve-year-old girl, she also loved Westerns. She watched all of the old movies with her dad, and some of the television shows. She wasn’t obsessed with cowboys or anything, she just enjoyed the genre.
“Speaking of stupid,” Philip said.
Josie backhanded Philip lightly in the belly. “Don’t be rude.”
Philip gave a soft grunt and sneered at her.
“I hate to bother you younguns’,” the man said, “but I was wondering if you could help me. I am a might bit lost. I’m lookin’ for someone who is supposed to live 'round these parts.”
Josie smirked. Dang, but if he didn’t sound like a cowboy too. The man had the routine down pat.
“Don’t you know kids aren’t supposed to talk to strangers?” David said.
“Yeah,” Philip said. “Stranger danger and all that stuff.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “Oh, well then, that’s easily remedied.” He stuck a large hand in their direction and smiled a bright, easy going grin. “I’m William Sheppard. Some call me The Good Sheppard. My friends call me Bill.”
The three of them looked at the man’s hand, then at one another, then back to the stranger.
“That’s not how it works,” Josie said.
The cowboy’s smile fell. He pulled his hand back, as if it had offended her. “It’s not?”
“No,” Josie said. “Even if we know your name, you’re still a stranger.”
“Ah,” the cowboy said. “I think I see what you mean. Sorry ‘bout that. Is there a way we can not be strangers?”
“I don’t think so,” David said.
“I think you gotta know our folks first or something like that,” Philip said.
“It takes a long time before someone stops being a stranger,” Josie said.
“Good then,” the cowboy said. “Cause time is something I got lots of.”
By now the tall cowboy standing in the middle of the playground had begun attracting attention. Kids were wandering over to form a semi-circle around the man and stare up at him. He spun about, nodding at the crowd of gathering children. Cell phones appeared here and there as kids hurried to be the first to document the scene.
“Golly gee, there sure are a lot of little ones here,” he said. “This some kind of gathering place for children?”
“Where are you from?” Josie said.
The man never lost his smile as he tossed Josie wink said, “I think you mean when, little filly.”
Josie rolled her eyes with a loud huff. When was he from? She could see what was coming next. The man not only dressed the part, he planned on playing the part as well. It had all the hallmarks of something educational. So much for mystery. Josie guessed he was part of some educational circus or fair. Maybe something the town had organized to coincide with the first week of school.
Before he could begin his lecture, one of the gathering kids poked at him.
“Hey now,” the man said, flinching from the intruding finger. “I got a leg under there.”
“Are you a real cowboy?” one of the kids said.
“I reckon I’m real enough,” the man said.
“Do you do magic?” another one said.
“Not unless you consider sharpshooting magic,” the man said.
“What is sharpshooting?” the kid said.
The cowboy rubbed his stubbly chin as he thought. “It means I can shoot the middle out of a nickel at twenty paces.”
A few of the kids ohhed and ahhed, but most of them seemed unimpressed by this feat. In the age of first-person shooters, anyone could make the same claim.
“If you’re a sharpshooter,” Philip said, “then where are your guns?” He held up his phone, waiting for the man’s response.
Josie glanced to the gun belt. To her surprise it was indeed empty. She guessed not even educational cowboys could carry weapons onto a park without stirring trouble.
“Right,” the cowboy said, touching his empty hostlers. “Miss Kate said I can’t go prancing around this year wearing guns. Something about nines and elevens and folks being terrors or something.”
The kids shouted over each other, holding up their phones and questioning the stranger about all things cowboy. Josie shouldered her backpack and began walking away.
“Where ya going?” David shouted after her.
“I thought you liked cowboys!” Philip yelled.
Josie gave a quick glance over her shoulder to the tall, lean stranger and that easy going smile. She did like cowboys. What she didn’t like were learning moments. She got enough of those from her dad.
“I gotta get home,” she said, and left the cowboy behind to the throng of chattering children.
“Wait up,” Philip said as he trailed behind her.
She slowed enough to let the guys catch up.
“I wonder what his deal was,” Philip said.
“He must be from some show or something,” Josie said.
“Like a circus I’ll bet,” David said, joining them.
“Yeah,” Josie said. “Like a circus or something.” She headed across the street toward Mr. Parker’s store.
“You guys wanna game some tonight?” Philip said.
“Nah,” Josie said. “I need to start reading from my book list or I’ll get behind.”
“Aw, man,” Philip said. “It’s the first day of school and you’ve already got homework?”
Josie came to a stop in front of the store, the usual spot where the three went their separate ways. “That’s what happens when you take advanced classes.”
“I’ve got some assignments too,” David said.
Philip snorted. “I thought having smart friends would be fun but you guys are boring.”
“Whatever,” David said. “You just hang out with us because you’re hoping we will do your work too.”
“Hey,” Philip said, raising his hands in submission. “Can’t fault me for a good plan. Speaking of which, I might have some math for you to look at.”
Josie’s phone buzzed at her hip and she pulled it from her pocket. A quick glance revealed a short text from her mother.
She wasn’t surprised. Mom told her to go straight home from school today, but then the guys wanted to hang out for a while and, well, Josie just forgot. She bit her lip in thought, regretting not texting Mom sooner to let her know.
She nodded to the other two. “I gotta run. Give me a call later and maybe we can do something.”
“Nice,” Philip said. He began backing up while holding out a finger gun each to her and David. “You two are the best. You know that.”
“We aren’t doing your algebra,” David said.
“The best!” Philip shouted. He pulled his thumb triggers, turned and took off in a sprint.
David cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered after the boy, “Do your own homework!”
“Such an idiot,” Josie said. She scrolled through her other messages, flicking her fingers against the screen of her phone.
“Josie?” David said.
She looked up to find a worried look in his eyes. “What?”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Josie smiled. “Of course.”
“I know you’re still fighting with your dad about school this year and-”
“I’m fine.” Josie slid her phone into her back pocket. “I’m not the one with the problem.”
“He still mad at you?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “Mom’s on my side so he’s just gonna have to get over it. He keeps giving me that do-the-smart-thing speech.”
David wrinkled his nose at her. “Are you sure you did the smart thing?”
She hesitated a moment. “No. But I did what felt right. And I think that’s more important.”
He finally smiled at her. “You’re probably right. For the record, I’m glad you stayed with us. I know Philip is really glad.”
“I am not doing his work this year,” Josie said, then laughed. She hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and looked back across the street to the park.
The circle of kids was breaking up thanks to a couple of inquiring adults.
“Looks like the cowboy got busted,” she said.
“Looks that way,” David said, looking across the street with her. He hissed as a cop car pulled up to the scene. “Wonder why he thought approaching a group of kids in a playground was a good idea? Especially on the first day of school. Man, sounds like he wants to get arrested for being a creeper.”
Josie felt kind of sorry for the poor guy, especially when an officer climbed out of the patrol car and began waving the crowd away. The show was officially over.
“I better get home before I get in trouble,” Josie said.
David held out his fist. She touched his knuckles with hers. They each pulled back, opened their fist, then waggled their fingers at each other. David laughed as they parted and went their separate ways. Josie thought about David’s words all the way home. Why would a full grown man wander into a group of kids these days? It seemed like an invitation to an investigation.
She lived a mile or so from the park, which itself was across from the school. It was a pleasant enough walk, though in this late summer heat it leaned more toward a chore. She plodded along, head down, so lost in her thoughts she was home before she knew it. Josie cut across the lawn and reached for the front door. It opened just as she touched it.
“It’s about time,” her mother said from the doorway.
“Sorry,” Josie said, pushing past her mother.
“Where have you been?”
“I hung out at the park with the guys after school.”
“And you couldn’t text me?”
Josie kept going, heading for the staircase which led to her room. “I said sorry. Geesh”
The seriousness in her mother’s voice made Josie stop on the first stair and turn around. Her mother took on a worried look, furrowing her brow deeply as she bit her lower lip.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Josie said.
Mom came closer, putting a hand on Josie’s shoulder. She lowered her voice as she said, “Is there anything you need to tell me? You can tell me if you think you’re in any trouble. I won’t be mad at you. You know that, right?”
Okay, that was weird. Josie put her hand over her mother’s, and squeezed just a bit. “I know.”
“Good,” her mother said. She smiled for a moment. The smile faded and the worry returned. “There are some men here to talk to you.”
“Don’t freak out on me, hon. They say they are with the police.”
“The police?!” Josie shouted.
Mom hushed her. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m sure it’s nothing. They just said they want to talk to you about your school. Did something happen today?”
Josie’s mind raced back to the cowboy in the park, and the police that pulled up just as they were leaving. Surely this wasn’t about that. It was too quick. Too soon. “No. I don’t think so.”
Her mother tried to smile but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Are you sure you’re not in any trouble, hon?”
“No, Mom. I swear. You’d be the first to know.”
The smiled finally broke through, lighting her mother’s face. “Truer words were never spoken, child of mine.” She sighed as she ran a hand through Josie’s hair. Taking the book bag, Mom gently pushed Josie toward the living room door. “Well go on then. See what they want.”
Josie swallowed hard. She took a few tentative steps toward the living room, then glanced back at her mother.
“I’m right behind you,” Mom said.
Josie nodded and made her way into the living room. As she walked through the doorway, two men stood from the couch to greet her. A cold pit opened in Josie’s stomach, snaking chilly tendrils all along her spine. Two men waited to talk with her. Two men she had seen once that day already.