Old Encounter

There was something of a romantic sadness in the air that evening, though she knew it had nothing to do with the bittersweet endings of a love affair. It was the warmth of the crowded, yet unusually quiet restaurant, the cold rain outside, the taste of cigarette smoke and red wine.

She was happy Max had wanted them to meet in Venice. She hadn’t seen the city since the end of the Second World War. For fifty years she wandered across Europe, finally settling in England. The old continent was her latest passion, the British Archipelago and its inhabitants in particular.

She looked across the restaurant: a motley crowd of tourists and a few locals. Most of them were couples. The sound of their voices blended almost every language into undecipherable background noise accompanying the piano music. There were Norsemen, Britons, Spaniards, Franks and Slavs, the entire Europe gathered in a restaurant while outside the windows, rain was pouring over the Grand Canal.

Then she saw Max entering. As he walked past them, people would interrupt their conversations for a few moments, staring at him. He had that effect on most.

It was something about his attitude. Physically, he was anything but imposing: a thin and rather short man with gray military style haircut, wearing an expensive black suit. It was something in his walk or his manners, as if he owned everyone and everything. As he reached her table, he took off his gloves and kissed her hand as usual.

Horrible weather”, he said as he sat on the chair in front of her. He removed his black spectacles: the eyes were completely white. He closed them for a second, and when he opened them blue pupils appeared instantly.

Tired of playing the blind man, Max?” she smiled, offering him the half empty pack of Dunhill.

He took a cigarette holder from his pocket.

I have to admit, it is fun, every now and then. And it helps me with the annoyance of finding a seat on a public bus. But no matter, tell me, how’ve you been lately?”

He spoke in English, but there was no particular accent in his pronunciation It was the King’s English gone bland.

Oh, it’s pretty much the same like seventy years ago when we last met”

Is that supposed to be a reproach? You need not feel offended, my old friend. You know I prefer to avoid the companionship of our kind. My last two students were too much of a disappointment, wasting their lives on trivial matters. Ever since, I’ve spent most of my time among humans. A pretty interesting bunch, far more…predictable than us”

He looked at her through the thin wreaths of smoke. She hadn’t changed a bit, not that he’d expected her to. With her milk-and-coffee skin tone and charcoal eyes she still had the looks and gestures of an oriental princess. There was envy, admiration and lust in the eyes of those around them, masked under speech and gesture. For them she was an elegant, exoticwoman in her early twenties, for him she was the oldest of their kind, a being that had seen the freshly lain foundations of ziggurats.

So why the sudden change of heart, Max?” she asked. “I doubt it is nostalgia! Business as usual, I suppose?”

He moved the tip of his finger along the ivory cane propped up against the chair. The silver handle had the shape of an eagle with the letters SPQR inscribed on its unfolded wings.

Let’s order something” he sighed, grabbing one of the menus on the table. “I haven’t been to this city in quite some time. Let’s stay here for a couple of hours. I miss the air, and the cuisine. And I want you to tell me about the place where you live now. Deva Victrix, if I’m not mistaken…what did you say they call it nowadays?”

Chester” she smiled.

Yes, Chester…I still find these barbarian names too awkward. But it is better this way, I guess. The Empire belongs to history now”

And I’m in no mood for history, Max, not on an empty stomach, anyway”

I wouldn’t say empty” he replied, pointing to the bottle of wine.

She burst into laughter.

I could never tell why I allow you to babysit me”

You were never much for conventions, and I don’t think they would apply to us anyway”

I guess not”

They remained silent as the waiter brought the order.

Ah, can you feel that?” he said, savoring the smell. “If there’s one thing that never stopped evolving in all human history, it is gastronomy. Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

I already ordered” she answered, pointing to the second bottle of wine. “How do you like my manners?”

She poured herself a glass.

I will never understand why you’re supposed to let the waiter do that. When it comes to wine, every gesture has its meaning. I remember I wanted to buy my own vineyard at a time, I think it was after the First World War. I’m really not sure how I lost my savings back then”

The risks of modern world”

Or the risks of old age” she replied. “It wasn’t my first bankruptcy and I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last, but I’m still committed to not printing my own money. It’s a lack of respect for the sterling pound”

Max gazed at her.

Do you realize it, Cara? I sit here with you, a couple of yards away from the Rialto Bridge, in a restaurant that can be considered old by human standards, and I cannot understand how it all changed”

What do you mean?”

This entire century has left me behind. Instant communication, weapons of mass destruction, social revolutions, the Cold War and now Europe unified, like in the imperial days, computers, music and trends I will never understand and everything happens faster and faster”

She smiled softly.

Take a deep breath, Max. If I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re on the verge of stroking out or something”

It’s just that I feel like the world moved past me, like I slept all this time”

But you haven’t, you kept finding the new arrivals and teaching them, showing them what they’ve become ”

Yes, an old teacher, that is what I am. But teachers have retirement, Cara. And I feel like I need one as well”

The world is moving on, Max. We have to change with it. I know that some of us grow tired and withdraw, sleeping years at a time, sometimes even centuries. I, for one, chose never too miss a moment. So did you. I remember the first time we met. You were sitting near a tree, at the edge of a swamp, blinded, crazed by pain, not knowing what had happened to you. You were in disagreement with the world, as you are now”

He reached for her hand tenderly.

How could I forget? Can you forget your own death? For years I tracked down the Hun who blinded me, the one who poured the molten silver in my empty eye sockets. Vengeance helps, sometimes. I enjoyed making him choke on his own blood. Enough had he spilled that of others”

You had a purpose. You can find one once more. Actually, I’m guessing you already have, and that is why you wanted us to meet here”

She watched him pouring a glass of water. He touched the glass surface and the liquid instantly turned golden, crowned by a thin layer of white foam.

Bürgerbräukeller” he whispered to her. “That was the place. I used to have a pint of this every time that clown began his speeches, cursing the fate that made our kind impervious to alcohol”

What’s with you, Max?” she asked. “You don’t usually do these things in public”

I’m in a drinking mood after all, I guess”

Outside the windows, the rain had stopped. Looking across the Canal, Cara pictured the missing gondolas.

I wanted to talk to you because I needed to confirm something, something that has been a bother for quite some time now. Please don’t laugh. It’s not about my previous rambling. It’s something recent, a bad feeling I can’t seem to shake off. I’d say that that my entire previous…speech, could be compared to a midlife crisis, if I weren’t dead already. But in the last couple of days I somehow sense a change. I am not the only one either. Before I arranged this meeting with you, I saw Mendez. After that I spoke with Wolfe, in Frankfurt. They both confirmed that something feels wrong but dismissed it as nothing more than coincidence. I don’t agree. Damn, I was even going to speak to that Irish witch of a woman, but you know Flynn, she would deny anything just to spite me. There is something wrong with us, Cara. And I don’t think that Our Common Acquaintance has anything to do with it”

Cara emptied her glass.

I have to admit, I didn’t feel anything, Max. But I trust your instincts, especially with these things. What did the others say, exactly?”

Mendez said I should talk to you, as usual. I don’t think he ever got over you, anyway. Wolfe’s only interest is his business, he had an upcoming merger or something like that, and we only spoke on the phone. After that I called you directly”

Well, maybe Mendez and Wolfe are too young to actually notice the implications of this change. And maybe I am too old. If we were to look into this, the only one who could confirm your theory is Flynn”

I was afraid you were going to say that”

I guess age and experience really don’t matter when it comes to relationships. You and Flynn have been going on and off for five hundred years and you both act like you just hit puberty. It’s annoying, Max. If this is as serious as you think, I say we go straight to her”

You are coming along, right?”

Yes, but I’m in no mood to act as a mediator between the two of you”

I was hoping you’d agree. It’s not about mediating, but you know you’re the only one she actually respects, out of all of us. She’ll tell the truth if you’re there with me. As for my…relationship with her, I hope I don’t have to remind you that last time we met she tried to kill me”

You died once already”

And I prefer not to repeat that experience”

Understandable. Tell me, what is this bad feeling exactly? Or what’s it about?”

He stared at the half empty glass in front of him, trying to find the right words. After a couple of seconds he began speaking in his native Imperial Latin:

Our kind feels the balance of universe, the fabric of reality, the stream of time, basically the things that make existence function. You know there is a disorder, a minor imbalance every time another of our kind appears. They’re easy to track, I find them, I explain the rules, teach them about what they’ve become. But now there’s only the disorder, with no newcomer to provoke it. Nobody dies to live a second time. Our Common Acquaintance is nowhere to be found”

Searching for her would be useless”

Yes, she doesn’t appear to us but once, when we are granted the second chance of living. She’s the only one who can create more of us. How, or why, is beyond me”

I don’t know either. But I guess it is human nature to want to have a greater purpose. After we see her, we forget about it and simply live. Or we choose our personal greater purposes. The fact remains that I am the oldest of all deadkin, Max, yet I know as much as you about who and what we are, or how are we being chosen to have this second chance.”

So what do you propose we do?”

I agree that these turbulences in the stream are too weird to be ignored. We’ll visit Flynn, she might have some idea. I know she keeps in touch with some others, mostly those that serve her purposes”

Thank you”

What for, Max?”

Trusting me”

I always do”

Their glasses clinked discretely over the sunset bursting through the windows.

And then there was no need for a carrot (5)

There was a man on the bench next to him. Short and fat, with huge eyebrows and a mustache to match. There was something in his eyes. Maybe their very aspect, blue, tiny, pig-like. He was watching Lucy and Sinttaal didn’t need to use his powers to know what the man was thinking about. Just another sinner in the city. Sinttaal knew his kind, many had been executed during his reign. It was delightful to follow the trail of his thoughts, all the chemical reactions, the electrical impulses. Beneath his thick skull there was a world of wonder where time was crawling. The idea of reading a mind was improper. It was more like watching a little light traveling from one point to another, trying to guess which path will it take. With just a little concentration, the light could be deviated to a desired direction. Control.

Just a little nudge in the right direction and he could make people fall in love. Find the right answers. Turn housewives into prostitutes, priests into murderers and accountants into rock stars.

Some minds were easier to dominate, others were like a pinball machine. He could only approximate where the thought would end. What action it will transform into.

Like this one. The man had the desires but not the courage to act on them. Just another wimp with the wrong kind of pornography. The city was crawling with them. They could not unleash their desires upon a world that feared and treated them with revulsion. So they compensated through surrogates. Watching children on playgrounds. Watching hardcore materials on the computer while their bored and boring wives were sleeping. Sinttaal realized he had awoken into a world devoid of any real dangers. So many of them were well fed, protected and safe that they could only turn such surrogates to get their adrenaline kick.

He smiled.

Catching the thread of thoughts, he shifted its direction. The man suddenly stood up. There were tears forming in his eyes. He would go. Home. And probably beat his wife, as always, a way to compensate for his unfulfilled desires. That, however, was no longer Sinttaal’s concern.

He walked slowly towards the far corner of the playground. Lucy was drawing curved lines on the snowman’s body with her tiny fingers in a pattern of decorative waves. He stopped, a couple of steps behind her, and watched.

She was short and small for her age, lost in an over sized, fur-lined red padded coat which made her look like a miniature Santa Claus. The tip of the same-colored fur cap was hanging out from her left pocket.

She stopped and stared at her work. It was exactly what she’d wanted, except for the carrot issue.

When Sinttaal touched her shoulder she turned around, startled.

“What are you doing”? he asked.

“A snowman”

The answer came naturally, even with a hint of the teacher-like tone children use when confronted with absurd adult questions.

Sinttaal smiled. She was more interesting than he had expected. He looked at her, but only at the exterior. Her mind was the one he sought, he was sure of it, and he couldn’t deny himself the pleasures of conversation by reading her thoughts. The surface was equally enchanting: dark blue eyes, an oval face, surrounded by a cascade of blonde curls, doll-like features, inhumanly perfect. A beautiful child.

She looked at the snowman, and Sinttaal unwillingly caught the thread of a passing thought. “Replacement for the father she never met”. He frowned for a second. “Why should such minor dramas mean anything? How many of them happened during my sleep?” The thought was nothing to the little girl, a glimpse of later reasoning, nothing more. The greatest current tragedy was an unfinished work, a snowman without a nose .

Sinttaal pulled a carrot out of his pocket and handed it to her. He waited while she admired her now finished masterpiece.

“What is your name?”

“Lucy Davenport. And what is yours?”

Sinttaal didn’t answer. He looked at the snowman.

“It’s very beautiful”

“He doesn’t have a name yet, just like you” the little girl said.

“Do you want to know a secret, Lucy?”

He almost burst into laughter, seeing her pricking her ears up in honest curiosity.

“Come with me. We’ll sit on the bench and I will tell you”

“No, I’m sorry but I can’t leave him alone” she explained, pointing to the snowman who was a bit taller than her. She had climbed on the body to place the head part and then carefully repaired the damage.

“We all have to be alone every now and then, Lucy, even him. But that is not why you don’t want to come and sit with me on the bench”

“It’s….”

He pressed his finger against her lips.

“Don’t lie”

“I…I never lie!” she protested, rather sulky. “It’s just that the others might come back”

“The other children?”

“Yes, and they will break him. They always do that”

Sinttaal felt the anger burning again inside him. He imagined calling each and every brat back on the playground and making them eat one another alive. It was a calming thought, knowing it was well within his possibilities to actually do it.

“They will not come back, I promise”

“All right, but it won’t take long, right?”

She wrapped her tiny hand around two of his fingers and led him to the bench.

“So tell me!”

Sinttaal looked at her. ”She really doesn’t know what mistrust is!” For a moment he was tempted to ask: “Does your mother never tell you not to talk to strangers?” But he knew it would be useless and would only destroy a little part of her innocence. Nothing bad was going to happen to her anyway, so why bother?

“Lucy, do you know why it’s a bad thing to lie?”

After a couple of seconds she answered victoriously:

“Because mommy said so”

This was the best answer for all complicated questions.

Dear mommy, who hits you after having a few extra drinks, imagining that this is the best way to compensate for a paternal figure…the figure of the man who left her for another woman, tired of her. But not of you, little Lucy. You are his only regret

“That is nonsense, Lucy!”

“My mommy is no nonsense” she replied. Furious and dignified.

The sudden anger in her voice surprised him for a second.

“That’s right, Lucy, and I’m sorry. What I want you to understand is that I never lie either. And I am no nonsense”

He lay back on the bench, stretching his legs.

“You see, I am very old, much older than I look. And I need your help. This place has changed a lot since I’ve left. And I think you can be the best help I can get”

“Mommy says I’m good for nothing…sometimes” she mumbled.

Sinttaal allowed himself another moment of inner contemplation: of the mommy and an entire parade of tortures only for her. It was better like this, to let the anger take control for a mere second and then suppress it. Unleashed all at once, it would have consumed him, along with most of the town.

“Well, I don’t think that, Lucy! I think you are a wonderful little girl and I think you are the only one who could help me”

“I’ll try” she promised.

“Good…and because you are such a good little girl I have a gift for you. Look!”

She was speechless: from the far corner of the playground, her snowman was slowly rolling towards them. It stopped in front of her, as if trying to bend over and kiss her forehead, though its body made it impossible.

“Look!” she cried joyfully. “He’s alive! He’s…”

A second later there was white mixed with red, as the blood from her slashed throat hit the snow on the pavement. Sinttaal wiped the blade clean against his sleeve.

“You reminded me of her, little Lucy. The girl who smiled while the world around was being torn asunder. Now wait there, little one. Soon, the Messenger of the Gods will appear. The blond woman will come to take you. And I will wrestle you from her arms and then Death will forget you as it did me. I need you, Lucy, to help me recreate that moment when I remembered what it was like to be happy. But this time, the world will not end. And I will become king once again, with you as my princess and daughter”

The night had set itself upon the city. And mommy was still out there, with her potion. Sinttaal smiled.

And then there was no need for a carrot (4)

At first he didn’t notice but it was the air around that made him feel so good. That and watching the little girl, of course, but the air…thousands of years of slumber, trapped in a cold tomb under the ocean. Perfectly preserved. The sleeping mummy. At least gods didn’t require oxygen.

He remembered another smell. It was back in his old life, when he was worshiped, before the temple and the entire island, his world, were submerged. The altar chamber was filled with the smell of incense but there was a subtle hint of blood beneath it. How many had died there? Maybe one every month, for hundreds of years. One body could sate his hunger for as long as he’d want it, as long as the sacrifice was properly staged. Oh, how they ran! Oh, how he chased them through the room, how they hid behind the stone columns, how they would run till their feet bled!

But not her.

When the priests brought her, she just stood there, looking him in the eyes. He had forgotten how defiance looks like.

He invited her to sit down. Who was she, who was her mother, who was her father where did she live? And especially, why was she not afraid? Her answers? He had forgotten them. When he realized who she was, nothing else mattered.

A blond girl with blue eyes who knew no fear. His last mortal descendant.

“You know my name, and you know my ancestor was a slave in your harem, God-king”

He was proud of her. She was the descendant of a deity and she acted accordingly. But the hunger, it had to be tempered. The priests were under explicit orders not to disturb him for the next month and the room could not be opened from the inside.

“Oh, my beloved, you sat there with me for days, holding me in your arms, as I craved for your fear. But there was no fear in you. I was alone on a raft in the middle of the ocean and you were my salt water. And I remembered the days of torture when I waited for death to come and save me from the pain and she wouldn’t…When you walked through the room I could see only the flow of your body moving, that flesh… It was supposed to be as young and delicious as this child I am looking at right now, but you were like a hard piece of meat for an old man with no teeth left. Yet I tried. I plunged my mouth into you and you fell on the cold stone floor, bleeding, dying. That was the day I knew I am condemned to loneliness. That was the day of my mistake”

He was a god. He could see through the illusion of the world, right into the core of reality. What made it function. Space, time, creation, death, all the other aspects, a raging river that was the stream of Universe itself.

And he turned into a dam, stopping time and her blood from flowing. The dying girl on the floor smiled and held his hand. In that moment, he remembered what happiness felt like.

One second.

One moment, yet he could remember it better than anything else.

Then the dam broke.

Like the waves of the ocean in times of storm, reality broke through him. And although he could hear the distant sound of the island, ripping itself apart around him, all he could notice was the girl smiling. That night, his empire collapsed to the bottom of the sea, with him trapped in the chamber and that moment of happiness turned into a millennia long sleep, for Death could no longer take him.

And then there was no need for a carrot (3)

It was already dark when the snowman was finished.

Well, it still needed some adjustments and the carrot issue had not been solved yet, but, all in all, it didn’t turn out too bad. She couldn’t think of a proper name for it…for him. “It” sounded so disrespectful. He had to be a boy because she had managed to make it a bit taller than she was, and his shape suggested one of those McDonald’s addicts. There were a couple of them in her class and they used to visit that restaurant at least once a day. The snowman reminded her of them.

She had no friends at school and the teachers had noticed that. She knew it, the way they looked at her and whispered when they thought she wasn’t looking. She liked school for the subjects, not the colleagues. And Miss Hayley was just like mommy when she didn’t use the sleeping potion.

Yes, mommy could be loving and tender and patient, sometimes. And she used to be like that all the time when daddy was around. She couldn’t remember him very well…but he used to take her in his arms and pretend she can fly. It was slow and safe, loving and distant. All the memories about him were blurry, sketchy fragments of the past.

With her finger, she began to draw a pattern on the snowman’s body, a zigzag all the way around. She couldn’t tell exactly why, but the model seemed to be pretty interesting. It was better than just putting in charcoal buttons. Her creation had to be different from all the other snowmen in the world. He would also have to have a name, to separate him from the crowd, make him special, and make him know who he is. She wondered how others felt everyday, the other children on the playground, her classmates, everybody else. They weren’t special. They all had their mothers and fathers and probably the same interests since they would always hang out together.

Being different was not so bad, after all. At least you could create something that stood out. And at least your mommy would have special potions, even if their effect was not so fairy tale like. And she knew that when mommy would finally wake up she would enjoy the fresh, cold air.

And then there was no need for a carrot (2)

It was not yet the time to approach her, the little girl with her nearly finished snowman. The old physicist was wrong, time had nothing to do with relativity, and he knew that because he met it once. It was another age and another place, although it was on an island back then too.

Time and space were just two of the aspects. There was also death, and maybe creation and they were all just functions of the being that was Universe itself. That being, however, was a child. Not one like Lucy, with her snowman and her need for a carrot, but a spoiled brat who would turn against you on a whim. The only reason why a five year old would not tear you to pieces is because it doesn’t have the physical capability to do so. The Universe was the exception, Sinttaal had felt it.

Yet even with his intimate knowledge of time, he still couldn’t believe how much had passed since he had last been awake. By the modern count the age was called the 20th century, and by his calculations, he had been sleeping for more than eleven thousand years.

He could still feel that cursed smell of salt and seaweed. It had been around him for so long that it might have impregnated itself in his nostrils, make itself impossible to cleanse. But there were so many things to be done…he knew he would enjoy this age. Once he had been a god, maybe he would become one again. Not for the worshipping and the power or the adulation of crowds, no, those were byproducts. What he needed was a purpose to sate his hunger for greatness and a steady supply of female flesh to sate his hunger for fear.

Yes, those were the days, back in the old world…

Back then, life was easier. As ruler of his people, it was his duty to expand the empire, to make sure that every soldier in his army had had the pleasure of bathing in enemy blood, drench themselves in their wine and their women with only the smell of burning flesh and the cries of the victims accompanying them on their march. But this couldn’t go on forever. Soon there were no more lands to conquer; the empire had reached the edges of the world. There was nothing on the horizon but the great blue line where the sun god went to sleep every evening, and that line was impossible to reach. The world belonged to his people, and they soon became corrupted by the riches bestowed upon them. They turned on one another and, of course, they turned against him.

There was the blade.

And the poison it had been soaked in.

Then there was the funeral pyre and his helpless screams as the fire singed his flesh.

But he would not die.

They carried his tortured body to the temple and chained him there, hoping for Death to arrive and finally take him. She did come one day, after three hundred years, like any woman being fashionably late.

She smiled and her smile was painful. She unbounded his chains and her touch made the burnt flesh writhe in pain. And then she would writhe in pain as he chocked her, bashing her head against the stone floor.

Of course, he hadn’t kill Death, just his personal version. It was immortality he had gained, but also an eternity of pain. Soon he would find the way to ease that pain.

He was immortal. Impossible to destroy. Not even the gods of his people were like him, and they were soon forgotten. The people had a living God to pray to, a God who could speak and answer, and it was their king nonetheless.

Things soon changed. Who would dare to be corrupt when the God could be watching? Who would dare to speak up against such a powerful being? Who would dare to even whisper when they noticed how the young women in the capital began missing?

Their flesh was soft and tender, but devouring it was just the dessert. The main course was their fear as they were brought before him, chains around their delicate wrists.

The first fear was only out of respect for such a powerful and wise being. Then, as they gradually began to understand what their fate would be, it grew into a delicious terror. And when he finally bit into their flesh, that flesh would be soaked in fear, sweet and delicate as no dessert could ever be.

And then there was no need for a carrot (1)

Mother must have been drinking her sleeping potion again. It didn’t matter, not as long as there was the snowman she needed finishing. The sun would settle soon and there was still much work to be done.

She remembered a picture from one of her coloring books. Snowmen always had carrot noses and of course there were no carrots just lying around, waiting to be picked and used properly. She wondered if carrots ever dreamed of becoming noses, like she used to dream of becoming a doctor. She needed to find a cure for mommy’s sickness, and the sickness was called “suffering” and “daddy leaving”, and the treatment was in the sleeping potion bottle, the one on the shelf in the kitchen. A bottle with a red label she couldn’t read entirely. The potion was golden brown and mommy said she is too young to have any.

Mother must have been drinking her sleeping potion again because she said she would be gone for only five minutes and Lucy knew almost half an hour had passed already. Of course she couldn’t tell exactly, but mommy promised to buy her a red wrist watch for her upcoming birthday and then she would be able to know what time it is.

It was time to continue work with the snowman.

There was no point in asking for help. She didn’t know why the other kids ignored her. It had something with their parents and her mother but no one, and especially not mommy, had ever taken the time to explain to her what was wrong.

Maybe it was something wrong with her, that’s why others didn’t like her.

But somehow she could tell it had something to do with mommy. Mommy was different. That much she had noticed herself: other mommies had jobs and only one or two men around them, and one of them was always the daddy. Mommy rarely left the house and she had many friends. When they came to visit, Mommy locked her up in her room for an hour or so, although she had understood she was not allowed to leave her room when mother had guests. But that was called “precaution”. Lucy couldn’t give a textbook definition of the word, or understand one entirely, but it seems it was something absolutely necessary in some cases.

Gathering all the snow she needed was hard work but, little by little, she had managed to sculpt the snowman’s lower part. She could hear the other children playing but at that moment they didn’t matter.

There was a snowball thrown at her, she could hear the whistle as it passed by her left ear. It hit the nearby wall with a thump, a white spot on the red bricks. She didn’t turn around, but heard the boy’s mother scolding him. It didn’t matter, there was a snowman to be done, plus that boy, Trevor, was now forced to leave the playground with his mother. And he was a lousy shot.

The man on the bench was smiling.