A bouquet of flowers and a fresh eggplant were the next two things on her list. She walked through the collection of market stands, twirling her pencil between her fingers as she examined the paper in her other hand. Yes— a bouquet of flowers. But what sort of flowers would be best for the occasion? She liked all sorts of flowers. And Dale didn’t really care either way. Maybe she would just continue walking around and looking until something finally happened to catch her eye. Yes, that sounded like a plan.
She listened to her shoes scuff against the dusty ground as she continued walking, expertly weaving around and smiling at the other people around her. There had been a rainstorm just a day or so ago, but the resulting heat had burned all the moisture away after just a few hours. Summer’s last goodbye, most likely. Hopefully as autumn approached it would become cooler and wetter. They certainly needed it. She couldn’t help but wonder— had it rained at the Academy, too? How did they deal with rainstorms over there— did the students still have to walk about? What if one of them caught a cold? Who would give them hot soup and tuck them into their beds if that happened?
She shook her head exasperatedly. Why was she worrying so much? She had other things to deal with. Like flowers. She would get the flowers first. She looked around until a patch of color caught her eye. There was the flower stand. She walked toward it, smiling at the merchant standing behind the counter. “Good afternoon!”
The merchant rested his hands on the countertop, a toothy grin spreading over his face. “Good afternoon, Carmen. What can I get for you this time?”
Oh, goodness. He knew her by name. She came here much too often, didn’t she? Carmen tried to wipe the flustered smile off her face, realizing that the merchant was staring at her. “Um— yes. Can I get… that bouquet, please?” She pointed to the vase sitting right at the front of the countertop.
“The roses and sunflowers? Good choice, madam. That’s my featured bouquet for today. Very summery, if I do say so myself.” He bent down and sifted around beneath the counter for a moment. He raised his eyebrows as he stood up straight again, handing a near-identical copy of the model to her. “Special day for you?”
“Ah, um— yes. I suppose that it is.” She smiled, crinkling the paper cover over the bouquet with her fingers.
The man stared at her for a while before a flicker of realization passed over his face. “Ah! It’s about your son, isn’t it? Peyton?”
Carmen chuckled. “Yes. It technically is, I guess.” She looked down at the flowers, tracing her finger along one of the roses. “It’s going to be my first… special dinner with Dale, if you will. The first after he went off to the Academy.”
“Really, now!” The merchant grinned at her as he wiped a few petals off of the counter. “How long has it been, now? A month? Two?”
“About that long.” She waved her hand in the air. “I haven’t really been keeping track, if I’m being honest.”
“You haven’t?” He tossed his towel over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow.
“Not really, no. I feel like I haven’t been doing much of anything since he’s left. Everything is still just so… surreal, you know?”
“Ah, the post-child rearing phase. I remember that like it happened to me yesterday.”
The merchant chuckled, scratching at his thin beard. “Quincy’d never been that close to me, so it’s probably worse for you, but I remember that Xia and I had no idea what to do with ourselves for a few weeks after she left, either.” He chuckled, taking the towel off his shoulder to rub the counter again. “Never saw Quincy again, after she got on that bus. Heard that she works at the Academy research center now, though. That’s nice for her. Me? I’m happy selling flowers here in Silverhill.”
“Oh.” Carmen forced a smile, a small, sad smile. It was all she could do to keep her heart from racing; the merchant’s words were less than reassuring to say the least. Her fingers continued tracing the rose petals. They were soft, velvety. Like a baby’s skin. “Well— Peyton and I were very close, so I think that my— our— experience will differ a bit from yours, don’t you know? I’m sure I’ll see him again. He will come and see us again.”
“Ah, well, I’m not surprised to hear that. Peyton always seemed like a bit of a mama’s boy to me.”
Seems. Doesn’t. Present tense. He still exists, you know. Carmen pushed away the thoughts and nodded instead. “Yes. I suppose he does. But I’m sure that the Academy will help him get out of his shell and become more independent.” Or maybe, by some chance, it wouldn’t. Maybe he would stay a “mama’s boy” forever. Carmen couldn’t decide which one was better or which one was worse.
“Mm-hmm.” The merchant bobbed his head up and down as he finished polishing the countertop with a flourish. “Anyway. I don’t want to hold you back from the rest of your shopping for any longer. That’ll be twelve, please.”
“Alright.” Carmen dug into her purse and pulled out the cash, placing it into the merchant’s awaiting hand. “Thank you!”
“Thank you, madam. Have a nice day!”
Carmen smiled and waved before she walked off, tucking the flowers into her basket. Then, after a moment of thought, she pulled it back out and gave it a better examination, stepping to the side of the market so she wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. The burgundy-colored roses contrasted nicely with the bright yellow sunflowers. Deep green myrtle leaves and white baby’s breath accented the spaces between the flowers, completing the bouquet.
A nostalgic smile passed over Carmen’s face as her fingers traced over the baby’s breath flowers. She could still remember the bouquet she had gotten when she and Dale had brought Peyton home for the first time, and baby’s breath was one of the primary flowers that had been in it. There had been hyacinths too, soft blue and violet, but Carmen had liked the baby’s breath the most. Maybe it was because of the name, or the soft, sweet scent. She didn’t know. It was fitting, though— the first flowers they had gotten when Peyton had arrived, and the first ones they’d gotten after he’d left.
Now that she thought about it, wasn’t the new group of babies supposed to be arriving soon? Maybe even today? She hadn’t seen anything that suggested so… but then again it was already late afternoon, so the shipment could have arrived earlier.
She craned her neck, scanning over the people walking past and in front of her. No, no… wait— yes. There were a few sporadic people walking around with babies tied to their stomachs, or strapped tightly into shiny new strollers. Carmen watched them pass, feeling something akin to melancholy well up within her. Was she happy for them, or sad for herself? She wasn’t quite sure. What she did know was that it felt like she was about to cry.
Wiping at the corners of her eyes, she stuck a bright smile onto her face— she was happy for the new parents, after all— and continued walking. But with every new baby she saw, her mood grew a little more… sour, was the best way to describe it. She didn’t know what it was specifically. Was it regret she was feeling? Nostalgia, or longing? A combination of the three? Could it be that she was rethinking her choice not to submit an application for another baby with Dale?
She shook her head, exhaling sharply through her nose. She had discussed with Dale extensively that they would not have another child after Peyton, not for a few years at least. They had both agreed that they were ready to return to the workforce, to have a little less to stress about for a while. Now, though, as she looked over the couples doting over their brand new children, she couldn’t help but think about when she’d first set her eyes on Peyton’s chubby little face, and the way he used to coo and gurgle when she sang his name. She could still remember how he wiped off the kisses she planted on his cheek when he was with friends, and the way he tried to hide his smile and his blush when he turned away. Where had all that time gone?
Was she starting to tear up again? Carmen blinked rapidly a few times, setting her jaw as she continued through the stands. Now wasn’t the time to get so sentimental. Besides, she needed to get… eggplants, now. And tomatoes. And bell peppers. No more thinking about babies. If she thought about them and Peyton for too long, then she would inevitably start thinking about—
She cut off the thoughts, slowing to a stop near one of the vendors. There was someone over there already— two somebodies, in fact. And she recognized them. A smile crossed her face, and she stepped forward before they could have a chance to leave without noticing her. “Bailey, Fallon! It’s been too long, hasn’t it?”
Bailey and Fallon turned around. Carmen stopped mid-step. Strapped to Fallon’s stomach, face to her chest, was a baby. It took a long, painful second for Carmen to get over her shock. Once she did, she put that smile right back onto her face like nothing had ever happened. “Oh, you have another child? Congratulations! So much has happened in the time we haven’t seen each other, right?”
Fallon blinked. Then, as if just remembering, she looked down and placed her hand on the sleeping baby’s back. “We do. Isn’t he wonderful? His name’s Jasper, Jasper Gray. We got him last night— late last night, actually. Would you like to see his face?”
“Oh, of course. That would be wonderful.” Carmen took a few steps forward, trying to peer past the cotton swaddling. Bailey grasped the baby’s face and turned it so that it was facing Carmen.
He was quite precious looking. Brown skinned just like his parents, his dark lashes rested on his cheeks and his ruby lips had just the smallest amount of drool dribbling out of them. Carmen felt her heart swell, and she smiled. “Oh, Bailey and Fallon, he’s beautiful. I’m sure that he’ll fit into your family just perfectly.”
“Thank you. He’s lovely, isn’t he?” Fallon drew away, combing the black fuzz atop Jasper’s head with her fingers. “We’re a lucky pair of parents, that’s for sure.”
“Mm-hmm.” Carmen nodded. “And then, in just a few years from now, he’ll be off to the Academy. But it’ll just have gone by in a blink of an eye for you all. That’s how it felt with Peyton for me.” She paused. “Did it feel like that for you all with Kendall?”
Bailey looked to the side, put his hands on his hips, and sighed. “Yeah. I guess so. It did kind of go by in the blink of an eye, in retrospect.”
Carmen nodded again. “Mm-hmm. I wonder what they’re doing right at this moment?” It was the late afternoon, so maybe they were about to go down to dinner, or perhaps doing homework together. With Olive too, of course. All three of them together as friends, just as they always had been. Reese had said that Peyton would continue being friends with them after he’d left, hadn’t she? Hopefully, that was the case. That had to be the case. How would Peyton cope with the faster-paced Academy otherwise? It wasn’t like he could come back so she could comfort him, like it used to be in primaries.
Fallon and Bailey remained silent. Then Fallon finally shrugged. “Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s great.” She looked down to Jasper, rubbed his head, then glanced back up to Carmen. “Did you get a baby, as well? Is Dale at home taking care of it?”
A pit began to grow in Carmen’s stomach, and she felt her lips twitch. “Oh, no, we didn’t. We decided that we needed a break after raising Peyton, you know? Maybe we’ll try again next year, or the year after that.”
Fallon angled her head to the side, the smile on her face wavering at the corners. “Oh. I see.”.
Bailey sidled up to his wife to put an arm behind her back. He leant down to touch Jasper’s head, then looked back up to Carmen. “Are you two planning on going back to the workforce in the meantime, then?”
“Well— it isn’t like we have much of a choice in the matter, do we?” Carmen managed to let out a chuckle, combing her fingers through her hair. Already it felt like the parental aids they had been given throughout the years were starting to run dry. They’d have to get comfortable in their jobs within a few months so they could begin to earn a steady income again. “My artistic muscles have been itching for a while now. I think I’ll be happy to finally be able to jump back into painting.”
Fallon briefly glanced up from Jasper to nod. “Oh. Yeah, yeah. I agree.”
Carmen brushed an awry strand of hair out of her eye. She groped around the depths of her mind for something she could say to continue the conversation. “Well— to be completely honest, I don’t think that we’re quite over Peyton yet. Getting a new child now would— it would almost feel like we were trying to replace him.” She realized a second too late the implications that sentence carried. “I mean— that isn’t a slight against you, or anything. That wasn’t my intention at all. It’s just an issue that Dale and I have personally. You get what I mean, don’t you?”
But it didn’t look like they did. If anything, Bailey looked confused. “Well— I suppose that may make a bit of sense,” he said. “But that isn’t really what we’re in it for. We just want to raise children for the benefit of the City.”
“O-oh. I see.”
“Yes.” Fallon nodded, once again doting on her baby. “It’s such an accomplishing feeling, don’t you think— knowing that you’re helping out?” She looked up to Carmen again, that smile still plastered onto her face. “I hope that you’ll be able to experience it again. At least one more time.”
Carmen took a step back, forcing yet another laugh out of her. “I hope that I’ll be able to do that, as well,” she replied, not quite sure if she was telling the truth. “I think that Dale and I’ll be able to do it one more time yet.”
Bailey grinned. “I hope you do. We can bond over the experience, again.” After a second, he looked back to the basket in his hand and swung it from side to side, as if he had just remembered that it was there. “Anywho. I think that we should be getting home, now. Right, dear?” he asked, looking to Fallon.
“Oh— yes. I think that Jasper’s about to wake up.” Fallon placed a tender hand on the baby’s head. She used her free hand to wave at Carmen. “It was nice catching up with you. Hopefully our next meetup won’t be so spontaneous. You can come by to our house with Dale. Or we can come over to yours.”
“Of… of course.” Carmen took a step back of her own, slowly raising her hand. “I ought to get back home too, so I… so I can prepare dinner. I’ll see you two around, alright?”
“Sure. Have a nice evening.”
Carmen waved again, but Bailey and Fallon had already turned away to dote on their new baby. A strange sort of bittersweetness squeezed at Carmen’s chest. She watched them walk away for a minute before turning back to the vendors. Of course she would find herself reconsidering her decision not to apply for a new baby now. True, there was always next year… but time was running out. If a parent raised three children back to back right from the age they were allowed to do so, they would be just about the age where they’d become ineligible for application by the time the third and last child went off to the Academy. So realistically, each City citizen only had about three opportunities to raise a child up to Academy age.
Carmen and Dale were already older than the average City parent. And they’d raised… one child all the way up to Academy age. Carmen did the math in her mind as she walked up to one of the vegetable vendors. If they applied for a child next year, and got accepted, then… that would absolutely be the last chance they would have before they were ineligible. They would most certainly not be chosen after that. Carmen wouldn’t have been surprised if she figured out that they were on the backburner already— or maybe their age and experience could somehow be an advantage?
She continued wallowing in her thoughts as she picked up some more vegetables— the eggplant, some tomatoes, bell peppers, some black beans and some broccoli. Bailey and Fallon were a lucky couple. They’d gotten Kendall right when they’d turned twenty-five. Now they were only thirty-nine and they’d gotten another child to raise right off the bat. If they got accepted to raise another baby after Jasper got shipped off to the Academy, then they would have raised three children by the time that child went off to the Academy. What a fulfilling experience. What a fulfilling life. But it didn’t even seem like they were in it for the fulfillment— they just wanted to have the privilege of raising another child for the City’s gears..
Carmen pursed her lips, tucking two ears of corn into her basket. She and Dale had gotten together because of their love of children and their desire to raise as many as possible— more likely than not it had been the primary factor that had gotten them paired together. And now look— forty-six years old and they had only raised one to the Academy. Sometimes life just worked out in strange, disappointing ways, didn’t it?
She tried to shake the thoughts out of her mind, and half succeeded. Her grocery list crinkled between her fingers as she raised it to her fingers and crossed out spaghetti. That was the last thing she had to get. There was no need to continue walking around the market and seeing all the couples with their new babies, was there? She had to go back home and start preparing dinner. Yes, preparing dinner sounded nice.
Tucking her basket closer to her side, she hurried through all the stands and people to get to the front of the market. She tried not to look at the babies being carried around in carriers or strollers anymore— they were just serving to put her into more of an unhappy mood. When the crowd started to dissipate, she finally looked up from the ground. Thank goodness— there was a bus already here. She didn’t have to wait. Her pace increased as she hurried toward it, raising her arm to wave at the windows. Please don’t leave, please don’t leave.
Thankfully, it didn’t. The doors remained open in time for her to get onto the stairs and into the aisle. Pressing her thumb onto the screen at the front, she looked around. There was an open seat near the front; most of the passengers had collected near the middle and the back. She settled down there, putting her basket on her lap and looking out the window. After a minute, the doors hissed shut. Carmen lurched back slightly in her seat as the bus began to drive forward, the voice announcing the address it was going to as it usually did.
It was going to be a decently long drive. Perhaps not as long as it would be if Carmen lived at the border of Silverhill, but there would still be more than enough time to sit back and relax as the bus drove around the community, picking up and dropping off people. A twenty or thirty minute drive until she got to her own stop, probably. The first few days after babies arrived always were a bit hectic. Parents always had to get last minute supplies, neighbors always had to pick up “Congratulations” cards, friends always wanted to stop by to see the brand new addition to the family. Carmen could remember it all as if it had happened to her yesterday.
She slouched in her seat and pulled her grocery basket closer to herself. She closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them to look out the window. For some reason, she was feeling exhausted. Exhausted and… odd. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Actually… was it her herself who felt strange… or was it an external force that was making her feel as such? Carmen sat up, peering out the window as they neared the end of the neighborhood plaza. There were still plenty enough people walking around here to see what was going on.
Carmen rested her hand on her chin and watched the figures walking around beneath her. Yes, there were plenty of couples, and plenty of babies, but… was it just her, or did it seem like there were less young children out and about? Fewer toddlers, fewer tweens… could sessions have started up again already? She hadn’t been keeping track of the time, so maybe they had. But that didn’t make much sense, either— didn’t most of them take place earlier in the day? It was nearly time for supper now. And besides that, the whole atmosphere in the district felt… weird. Carmen watched her face screw up in her reflection. Maybe it was just her bad mood. That had to be it. Why else could she not realize any concrete problems with the neighborhood?
The bus came to a stop multiple times. Each time, some people came on and some people got off. Carmen watched them come and go curiously. She recognized a few, but some were new… a lot of them looked like they were just a little older than Peyton. New Academy graduates, maybe? It made sense.
Carmen pursed her lips. Where would Peyton go off to when he was done with the Academy? Only time would be able to tell. Maybe his career would require him to come back to Silverhill. They could chat and have tea with each other, like they used to do. Maybe he would even be able to live with them. And even if he didn’t get stationed in Silverhill, surely he would still come by occasionally to chat? That would be nice. That sounded like something he’d do. He wouldn’t be like the merchant’s daughter.
The rest of the bus ride went by in a haze. When the bus jolted to a stop, Carmen looked out the window. She recognized the houses out here. This was the stop just before her own. It wouldn’t be long now. It seemed like nothing special was happening outside the windows, really. Nothing unusual, nothing odd. The few people who were out and about were people she recognized. It didn’t seem like any of them had new babies. There were a few toddlers that she knew, though.
Carmen sighed as the bus began pulling away once again. Maybe she had been overreacting before. That, or she had jumped to too many conclusions. Everything looked fine. Everything was fine.
They went through the long, winding roads for a few minutes longer. When the bus stopped this time, Carmen was ready. She stood, clutching the back of the seat in front of her for support, before shuffling to the aisle. Some people smiled and waved at her as she walked to the front of the bus. She smiled and waved back before she climbed down the stairs and entered the street.
Her house eventually came into view. Carmen exhaled, feeling almost relieved for some reason. The humidity must have been making her feel tense. She snuck a glance behind her as she approached the front door. Her hand, slick with moisture, fumbled with the doorknob for a moment before it managed to open up. She stepped inside, toed her shoes off, and stepped into the living room. “I’m back.”
Dale shifted in the loveseat to turn around and look at her. A smile spread across his face, and he pushed his reading glasses back up his nose. “Welcome back. Starting dinner now?”
“Mm-hm. And look— I got flowers.” She dug into the basket and pulled out the bouquet, holding it out to him.
“You and your flowers…” he shook his head exasperatedly, but leant forward to sniff the blossoms anyway. “You’re putting them on the dining room table, I’m guessing?”
“Mm-hmm. I’ll go do that right now.” Carmen put the bouquet back into the basket and walked into the dining room, plucking the glass vase off the center of the table. Then she walked into the kitchen, putting the basket on the table. She walked over to the sink and switched it on, filling up the vase with water. Removing the paper covering off the flowers, she dropped them inside and looked toward Dale. He had his legs crossed and his feet propped up on the footrest, flipping through the newspaper. Carmen cleared her throat. “Reading anything interesting in there?”
“Sort of. I guess.” He flipped through the paper, finally stopping at something near the front. “Says here that the districts are supposed to be getting their new babies soon. Everything else is mostly just fluff, feel-good stuff.”
“Is that an old copy?” Carmen walked into the dining room, putting the now-decorated vase at the center of the table again.
“I don’t think so.” Dale’s voice carried into the room. “Why?”
“The babies arrived last night. In Silverhill, at least.” Carmen walked back into the living room, plopping down next to Dale in the loveseat. “I saw a bunch of couples carrying them around in the market. Bailey and Fallon even have one again.”
“Really? So soon?”
“I thought the same thing too— but hey, if it makes them happy, then I guess that I can’t judge…” She trailed off. “His name’s Jasper. Gray’s his middle name.”
“Jasper Gray McCloud?” Dale puckered his lips, as if tasting the name. “That’s nice. Wonder if Kendall knows he has a brother now.”
A sharp bitter feeling rose up Carmen’s throat. “Yeah,” she managed to say. “That would be… interesting. They should… write a letter to him, or something.”
She watched Dale’s face drop. Carmen tried to say something, but found that her voice had gotten stuck in her throat. Maybe it would be best if she went to go start dinner. She curtly turned on her heel and walked into the kitchen. What to start on first? Prepare the tomatoes? Boil the pasta?
“Guess Peyton’s having too much fun at the Academy to send letters to us, huh?”
Carmen waved her hand. “Oh, we were just joking about all of that, weren’t we? I don’t even think you can send letters to or from the Academy, anyway.”
“I guess. If you say so.” Dale’s voice dwindled away. He had never been the one to raise his voice, not even so he could be heard between rooms.
“Mm-hmm.” Carmen swallowed, unclenching her jaw. “I don’t want him to worry about us, anyway. Just let him focus on his studies and making new friends.”
It was a while before Dale spoke again. “You still miss him?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I miss him.” Carmen shook her head, tossing the tomatoes into a pot. “The house feels… it feels so empty without him being around, don’t you think so? In fact, everything in Silverhill feels sort of… off.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” she said, honestly. “But… it does. I’m sure you would have noticed it too, if you had come out to the market with me. Everything felt sort of weird. Like— there were a lot of babies, but I didn’t see that many toddlers or young children. You know, like ten and eleven year olds and stuff. That kinda struck me as odd.”
Dale paused. “It’s too late for any sessions to be going on,” he said. “Maybe they all just had early bedtimes. By some sort of coincidence.”
“I don’t know.” She poured some oil into the pot and shook the handle around, frowning. “I guess you may be right. But it’s still weird.”
“I wasn’t trying to deny that.”
“Alright.” Carmen stirred the softening tomatoes in the pan. “Hey— could you come and slice the eggplant for me? Then I can finish seasoning them.”
A heavy sigh came from the living room, then the paper slapping down on the table. “Alright. Just a second.”
“You’re so lazy, Dale. You know what? Nevermind. I’ll cut the eggplants myself. Just stay there and wait until dinner’s ready.”
“I was going to—”
He was cut off by a knock on the front door.
Carmen blinked. She turned down the burner and walked into the living room. Dale had sat up in his seat. For a moment, the only sound was the tomatoes sizzling in the pot. Then Dale turned to Carmen. “Um… expecting anyone?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get it, see what they want.” Dale grunted as he pushed himself off the couch. “You can keep cooking.”
Carmen swallowed, taking a step back. “Al— alright.” She walked back to the kitchen and continued stirring the tomatoes around. They were basically nothing but slush and skin left of them now. It was almost time to add the peppers… or maybe she would cut and season the eggplant next. Or boil the pasta? How did she usually go about this? Maybe she should have added another portion for the person outside… Her hands danced around the stove and cabinets, but they froze as she heard the door open.
Dale’s voice. “Hello?”
And then a stranger’s voice. “Hello. This is…” His— she assumed it was a man— voice became too quiet to be intelligible for a moment. Then, “is Carmen home as well?”
Carmen switched the burner off completely. She hurried out the kitchen and into the living room, stepping up behind Dale. “Hi,” she breathed, reflexively forcing a smile onto her face. Her eyes flickered over the person— no, there were two people— standing at the opposite side of the door. A man and a woman, wearing identical dark blue uniforms. A small bird was perched on the man’s shoulder, its beady black eyes all too intelligent for Carmen’s liking. She swallowed, feeling her heart start to pound for some reason. “Is there— can we help you with anything?”
The man and the woman exchanged glances. Then the woman turned back to Carmen and Dale, her face still stony, mirthless. “May we come in?”
Carmen took a step back, opened her mouth, closed it. “I— I— of course. Please, come in.” She took a step back, gesturing to the inside of the house. “I apologize for the smell. And the— the mess in the kitchen. We were just about to make dinner— actually, would you like to stay and eat with us? There’s more than enough for everyone. It may take a while to get ready, but—”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. We had something to eat before we came here.”
The woman stepped in, the man following after him. The bird on his shoulder darted its head from side to side. Both of them ignored it. “We would appreciate a place to sit, though,” the woman continued. “Perhaps the couch? Or at a table?”
“O-oh.” Carmen hesitated, then nodded. “How about the dining room table? It’s right at the end of the hallway— just walk through the kitchen and you should see it. I’m so sorry for the mess…”
“It really is alright, madam. We understand that you were preparing your supper. And we’ll leave you to it after we chat.” The woman strolled through the living room and into the kitchen. The man followed, leaving Carmen and Dale to hurry after them like it wasn’t their home they had just abruptly entered.
Upon entering the dining room, the man and the woman sat next to each other at the table, patiently waiting for Dale and Carmen to follow suit. Then they just sat there for several long, uncomfortable seconds, staring at each other while they waited for one of them to break the silence.
Carmen was the one to do just that. “Um—” she shifted her weight, playing with her fingers. “Would you all like something to drink? I squeezed some fresh lemonade just yesterday. Or— would you like some water? I’ll gladly get some for you—”
“Please, Carmen.” The woman held up a hand. “There’s no need for such formalities. I’m sure that you two know who we are. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you knew what we may be here for, already.”
Carmen squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and opened her eyes. The two Seekers were still staring at her. “N-no,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re here for.”
The man rubbed his forehead, his posture going slack. He looked over to his partner and sighed deeply. “Maybe we should have those glasses of water.”
Dale immediately got to his feet. “I’ll go get them.” He walked out the room, leaving Carmen and the Seekers alone. They were pushed into a stiff, uncomfortable silence once again.
Carmen swallowed the lump in her throat. “So… what have you two come here for, then?”
“Let’s wait for Dale to return,” replied the man.
Silence. Then Dale came back. He set down four glasses, and then sat down himself. He folded his hands on the table and looked down at them, his fingers twitching. Nobody spoke for a minute or so.
Carmen finally, somehow, found the courage to speak again. “W-well… could you tell us why you’re here?”
The man fidgeted in his chair, while the woman exhaled slowly and softly. Then the man looked back to Carmen and Dale. “Please get comfortable, you two. What we’re about to tell you… won’t exactly be pleasant.”
The bird flapped its wings wildly and opened its beak. It leaned forward like it wanted to caw, but nothing came out. The man reached up and touched it, and it went still.
Carmen shuddered and shifted in her chair, and came to find that she couldn’t get comfortable no matter what position she assumed. “What’s the matter?” She was getting lightheaded. “Please… please tell us.”
The man opened his mouth, faltered, looked away. The woman sighed and put her hand on her temple. The tension in her face melted away, and she rested her fingers back on the table. “We’re here to discuss the status of your son, Peyton Rory Williamson.”
Carmen felt her heart stop. A cry slipped from between her lips before she could keep it in. The sound of chair legs screeching against the floor pierced her eardrums, and Dale rose to his feet. “What happened to him?”
“Please, I ask for you to return to your seat.” The woman gestured for him to sit back down almost dispassionately. “We can’t continue this conversation if you’re in such an upset state.”
Dale stood for a few seconds longer. Then he slowly sat back down, his fingers clutching the tablecloth.
The man was staring at the table as well, his lips set into a thin line. The woman, on the other hand, didn’t take her eyes off of Dale and Carmen. “I’m not quite sure how I can say this in a gentle manner,” she said. “But… it is with great regret that I inform you that your son is missing.”
She found it hard to breathe. Her vision was spinning. “What— what… what do you mean?”
“We mean that he’s gone, madam. He’s disappeared, and we have no idea where he is.”
Carmen’s arms started shaking. She buried her face in her hands and took in several heaving breaths, but she still couldn’t get enough air in. Dale hesitated, then rested his hand on her shoulder, rubbed it uselessly. It was shaking. The two Seekers looked on silently.
Carmen somehow managed to peel her hands away from her face. She hiccuped, coughed, then opened her suddenly incredibly dry mouth. “H-how long? How long has he been gone?”
“We believe that he’s been missing for about three weeks now, miss.”
“He’s been missing for three weeks and you haven’t said anything to us?”
“Madam, you have to understand that discovering and processing situations like this takes a long time. We had to make sure that—”
“I don’t care! I don’t care! That doesn’t matter! I— I…” she shook her head, digging her nails into her scalp. “Why are you even telling us this? Why do we have to know this?”
Then the man started to speak, his voice low, regretful. “We’re telling you this because we need to ask you a few questions about the subject, madam.”
The subject. Like it was just some mundane thing they talked about every day. Carmen closed her eyes and shook her head again.
Dale’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “You just told us that our son is missing, and we had no idea. What makes you think that we’re even going to be able to answer these questions?”
“We don’t expect for you to have any concrete answers for us,” the woman replied. “We’re simply asking for your cooperation, and for you to answer any questions we ask of you to the best of your ability. After that, we’ll leave you in peace to allow you to… to recover.”
To recover. Carmen somehow managed to laugh at the absurdity of the word choice, but it devolved into a low moan. “F-fine. Fine. Ask us your questions and then just leave us alone. Please.”
The man furrowed his brow, then looked away again. The woman stayed as stony-faced as ever, though she did clench her jaw ever so slightly. “Do you believe that Peyton may have been negatively influenced? By a person, or an event, or anything else of that sort? Anything that may have caused him to develop any impulsive or unusual behaviors. Can you recall anything like that, Carmen? Dale?”
Carmen shook her head. “N-no. I don’t remember anything unusual…. things were normal up until he left.” She could retrace those last few days and hours like she had just lived them. Watching Peyton jumping onto the bus, preparing pumpkin muffins for his last breakfast with her and Dale, shaking him awake for the last time, and… and…
Carmen felt her lips turn to ice. The last day— the last night, the night before he’d been sent off to the Academy. The conversation they had shared with each other… Peyton’s headaches and trouble concentrating… could that have been—?
“Is there something that you want to say, Carmen?”
Carmen shot her head up, almost flinching at the sound of the woman’s voice. “N-no. It’s nothing. I was just.. was just…”
“Nothing?” The woman raised an eyebrow.
Carmen shook her head. She held her breath, but by some miracle the question was not pushed any further. If she answered, though, would they be able to find him faster? To make sure he was safe sooner rather than later? Would it be best to say something?
She didn’t get the time to think about it. “Well,” the man said. He cleared his throat, adjusting the collar of his navy blue uniform. He looked at the woman, then back to Dale and Carmen, pursing his lips. There was sweat beading on his brow. “If you don’t have any answers for us, then I suppose that we can take our leave?”
Carmen shot to her feet. “No. No! You can’t leave!”
Dale reached up and touched her elbow. His hands were still shaking, the coward. “Carmen, please calm down. Escalating the situation isn’t going to do anything for any of us. Please—”
“I’m not escalating the situation!” Carmen ripped her arm away from him. “We just found out our son is gone, and you’re telling me to calm down? I can’t calm down!”
The woman pushed herself away from the table. “Rest assured that we will be doing everything within our power to find him and bring him back. You don’t have to worry that we haven’t dealt with situations like this before. There have been cases like this before— in fact, there are various other incidents like this occurring right at this moment. We will be searching for them. All of them.”
“There are multiple children missing?” Carmen felt her stomach churn. She was going to be sick, right there on the tablecloth. “I can’t— I can’t believe nothing’s being done about it yet. What are you guys doing?”
“There are things being done about it, miss. The two of us do not make up the entirety of the Seeker branch.” The woman stood, and she didn’t spare a glance to her partner as he hurried to follow her. “We give you our deepest condolences. We will find them, and then things can go back to normal for you.”
“Go back to normal?” Carmen’s voice cracked. “You expect things to go back to normal for us?”
“Yes. They will go back to normal. It will be like he never left for you.” The woman stepped back, neatly pushing her chair back into its place at the table. “In fact, you won’t be thinking of him at all.”
Carmen stared at her, at a loss for words. Then it all clicked. “No. N-no. No. What are you— what are you talking about?”
The man looked down as he approached the hallway, as if he couldn’t bear to look her in the eye. “It’ll probably take up to an hour for the process to be fully complete. If we find Peyton, then of course we’ll undo it. But trust us when we say that this is for the best. It’s the best thing for all of us. You won’t have to stress about all of this anymore, while others can—”
“No! It isn’t for the better! No!” Carmen shook her head, already painfully, terribly aware of the tingling in her left wrist. She staggered back, her chair clattering to the floor, and she rushed after the retreating Seekers. They were already in the hallway. Carmen stumbled and fell to her knees, but she still managed to shoot her arm out and grab the hem of the male Seeker’s jacket. “Please—” she said, barely keeping herself from sobbing— “pl-please don’t. I can’t… please don’t make us go through his again.”
The woman turned around, staring down at Carmen. She looked over to the man, before she raised a hand to her ear and murmured something unintelligibly.
The man, however, crouched down and smoothed Carmen’s hair out of her eyes. His face was set into a hard, stony expression, a caricature of conviction. “I promise you, Carmen, that we’ll find him. We’ll find all of them. You don’t have to worry. Continue living life as you have, and we’ll do the rest. Things will right themselves soon.” Then, saying nothing more, he pried her fingers away from his coat. He stood up straight and nodded at the woman. They started walking down the hallway again.
Carmen shook her head. She covered her face and felt tears soaking the palms of her hands. Every gasp she took in escaped her in a series of guttural sobs, and she couldn’t stop them. Dale crawled up beside her wrapping his arms around her torso. She took her hands away from her eyes, barely noticing how they shook. The man was standing near the end of the hallway, staring at them. His eyes searched their faces and he opened his mouth, like he wanted to say something. But then he turned around and continued to leave.
Carmen coughed, wiping her eyes with the stinging inside of her wrist. “It isn’t fair,” she whispered, trembling even as Dale pressed his face into the crook of her neck. “It isn’t fair! It’s not right! You are failing all of us!”
This time, the man did not look back.