With Mr. Caspian gone, Gage’s hours increased. He was happy for the bump in pay and the extra hours. He was saving for a car. His last car had been a lemon, quite literally, and he was ready for something other than the bus or walking. He also hoped to save some money to buy gifts for his aunt and cousins.
Missy Bagley’s birthday was next week, and he still had no clue what to buy her. Rhoda was zero help, being her usual gruff self, although she kept talking about a mystery man in her life. Missy had been on several “dates” recently with Kurt Shallow to the family’s surprise. Rhoda had thrown a fit, saying she “refused to be stepsiblings with Tom Shallow.” Sam had been spending more and more time with Ruby. The couple had seemingly worked out a plan to keep their relationship going long distance.
Gage sighed as he locked up the museum at half-past-twelve. He couldn’t make a relationship work when he was in the same town with someone. Feeling a bit lonely, he had tried to contact Natalya last week, just to check in with her, but he was informed by Asher Specter that Natalya was no longer working at Laffalot Funeral Home and moved back East. Yesterday, he was feeling desperate and called Lakshmi. She reminded him it was a fling nothing more, but she’d hook up with him last night if he could get to Simcago. He hung up the phone, feeling defeated. Woohoo was good, but he wanted more than that.
Today for lunch, he decided to head to Lost Willow Park. He didn’t particularly want to eat lunch out on the plaza like everyone did. He didn’t want to see Constance. She was the only person he hadn’t called back. He couldn’t stand the humiliation. He did call Kass last night since he wasn’t getting to Simcago, and they talked briefly. She was heading off somewhere for the evening and didn’t really have time to chat. She sounded happy. He wasn’t, but he had tried to play it cool.
When he arrived at the park, Gage pulled his bag of hot dogs and hot dog buns from his backpack. He wished he had thought to swipe condiments from the home fridge, but it was too late now. A plain hot dog would be fine. He headed down the pathway and stopped the moment he saw a familiar girl casting her fishing line into the pond.
It was Solèy. She appeared to be alone, and he didn’t hear anyone else around. She hummed a little tune to herself as she continued to fish peacefully on the shoreline.
“Hi Lè,” he greeted her as he approached quietly, hoping he wouldn’t startle her.
She broke out into a huge smile. “Well if it isn’t James Bond.”
He chuckled. “Gage, actually.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Briody… I remember… the man who wanted flowers for his non-first-date.”
“Yeah,” he shrugged awkwardly, shoving his hands in his pocket. “What are you doing out here?”
“Fishing, of course,” she answered.
“No one is here.”
“But it is best to fish in the morning.”
“The fish will come or they will not come. It makes no difference. I will release them anyway.”
“Okay…” Gage wasn’t sure what to say. “Have you had lunch?”
“No, not yet. My collective usually serves lunch early, but today our cook had a doctor’s appointment so it is everyone for themselves. What time it is?” she asked.
“Twelve-fifty-five,” he glanced at his phone.
“Oh my! How the time flies!” she giggled.
“Are you hungry? I brought hot dogs,” Gage offered.
“Hot dog…” she repeated with a puzzled look on her face, and then her eyes widened as if in shock. “You eat… dog?” she waved her hands in the air. “That’s crazy.”
“No, no,” Gage laughed. “A hot dog… it’s a cured meat… usually pork or turkey or something. You’ve never had a hot dog?”
“No,” she tilted her head to the side. “Should I have?”
“Oh, well, then you’ve come to the right place. I know how to make a great hot dog,” Gage boasted, puffing his chest out with pride.
“You came here after me.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m making you a hot dog.”
Twenty minutes later, Gage had grilled a whole plate of hot dogs, and had even found a tiny jar of spicy brown mustard in one of the barbecue area cupboards leftover by another park goer. It smelled fine and he had dipped his pinky finger inside to taste test it and it seemed fine. He placed the plate of hot dogs on a nearby picnic table and waited for Lè to join him.
“How do I eat it?” she inquired.
“Just pick it up and take a bite. I hope you like it,” Gage lifted his lunch to his lips.
She lifted the hot dog gingerly, eyeing him closely as he took a few bites and then mimicked him. Her eyes grew big again.
“Well, what do you think?” he probed.
“Delicious,” she affirmed, her mouth full of hot dog.
“If you like it, you should try it with the spicy mustard,” he recommended.
“Why not?” she smiled.
“Mmm… even better,” she remarked after a few bites of a mustard-lathered hot dog. “What are we going to do with the rest of them?”
“You mean the ones I don’t eat?” Gage teased, and then sobered. “I don’t know. Is there a homeless shelter around here?”
Lè pondered momentarily. “What a wonderful idea! We have a small shelter on the other side of town. You care about the homeless too?”
“Well,” he shrugged, knowing he merely said that to impress her. “Sure… I mean, they’ve gotta eat too. And it’s unfair that we have so many extra hot dogs.”
“Then we will take our plate to them,” she declared.
“Do you think they’ll mind?” he wondered aloud.
“They are delicious,” she winked at him.
He smiled proudly. “They did turn out nicely, didn’t they?”
“Best hot dog I ever had.”
“You’ve never had any before today.”
“Then it is the best hot dog I’ve ever had.”
“If you like my hot dogs, you should see what I can do with boxed mac’n’cheese,” he remarked.
“Oh, eating from a box, no no, no, we cannot have that,” she exclaimed. “We must cook everything fresh.”
“We?” he frowned, wondering what she meant.
“You should bring your hot dogs sometime though and cook them at the collective,” she added.
“Collective?” he puzzled.
“Oh, I live with other si’brids at Cherry Moon Collective,” she responded, and seeing his confused look, she continued, “That isn’t an issue is it.”
“No, why would it be?” he shrugged, despite feeling lost.
“Well,” she bit her lower lip. “Some people look down on us si’brids. You know? Simmian-Nativian hybrids. The laws only changed in the last fifty years or so to allow for inter-species marrying, though we’re really almost the same as you. They think we’re all witches or something. We only have one witch actually,” she paled. “Oh, that doesn’t scare you does it?”
“No,” Gage reached out and took her hand in his. “Why would that scare me? I know there are supernaturals out there, and there are Nativians who live on the land and respect the land. I know they were here long before the Simmians. You’re the first si’brid I’ve actually met so honestly, I don’t have anything to go on, but we are all people, so why would I treat you any differently? I know what it’s like to be on the outside.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears, and he wondered if he offended her. She took his hand and squeezed it and laid it against her chest.
“I appreciate your kindness, Gage Briody,” Lè replied, and bowed her head slightly as a sign of respect. “Not everyone treats us that way. It’s why we live at the collective.”
“How many live with you?”
Gage resisted the urge to wipe away the tears. He hadn’t known her long enough, although she hadn’t let go of his hand yet. He could feel her heartbeat. He felt his own quicken.
“There are only four of us now,” Lè said. “Myself, two weres, and a witch. Even if we weren’t si’brids, most of us are supernaturals, and we’re already outsiders because of this. We try to avoid town if possible.”
“But you work in the flower shop?” Gage said.
“I look the most normal, I guess,” Lè shrugged. “Well, my eyes, and I can breathe underwater.”
“No, that’s a joke.”
“But I am an excellent swimmer.”
“What were you saying about your eyes?”
“Well, haven’t you noticed?”
He turned to look. All Nativians had a variation of red eyes. He had never found this to be strange, only different. There was nothing wrong with different. In fact he kinda liked Solèy’s eyes. There was something soothing and familiar about them, like strawberry jam on whole wheat toast. A peacefulness filled her eyes, something he craved.
“They are lovely,” he responded, his voice hoarse.
She leaned over, cupping her hand against his clean-shaven cheek, and laid her lips on his own. Hers were slightly chapped from the summer sun, but she felt good against him. He closed his eyes and wished the moment wouldn’t pass.She smelled like honeysuckle and cinnamon, and tasted like the spicy mustard they had just consumed. He liked it.
Lè gave him a soft smile when she leaned back, placing her hands in her lap. “I wanted to know what it felt like…” she remarked. “…to kiss you.”
Gage felt his senses swimming, the attraction for Solèy overwhelming his ability to put words into sentences. He didn’t mind her assertiveness at all. In fact, he really didn’t find the kiss forward. She touched his cheek again, but this time she didn’t kiss him.
“You really must come to the collective, Gage Briody. You really would like it there. You might find the healing for your soul you are looking for,” she invited.
He flinched. He wondered how she knew.
“There is a darkness around you, but not an evil presence,” she remarked. “The darkness… is… like a cloud that shadows your pathway. Clouds are guides for a time. They help us through sorrow, but then they must dissipate or you become one with the cloud, and that can be very bad for your soul.”
He frowned. He wasn’t sure what was happening. She was reading him like a book, and he wasn’t sure he wanted his pages exposed. He pulled back, but she slid across the bench and moved her hand to his heart.
“And you have a beautiful soul, I just know,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Lè stood up, thanked him for lunch, promised to deliver the hot dogs to the homeless shelter, and left to collect her pole before walking out of his line of sight. Gage sat stunned, wondering what had just happened. Something stirred in his heart, something that had once been buried. He was beginning to feel alive again, her touch like kindling for his dying soul.
As he walked back to the museum, he was overcome with confusing emotions, ones he had tried to keep beneath the surface, ones he had promised himself he would never let out. He reached the office, and pulled out a new shirt as his own had been stained with mustard. As he buttoned up the new one, he shoved his other one in his backpack.
It wasn’t until he was back at his desk that he realized he had been crying.
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