Amelia took Tad to the Little Corsican Bistro. She really liked their food and had promised herself during her previous visit to go there more often. It even served a couple of vegetarian meals so Tad could actually eat there. Even though he was a bit conflicted about Amelia paying for his food, he still let her because he hadn’t made any money of his own yet, and Amelia wasn’t about to let him commit any of his strange reality-warping thefts.
“You really don’t have to worry about it,” Amelia said once they were sitting down with their plates and Tad was still a bit uncertain about it, “I already paid for it, and besides, I was the one who dragged you here, so it’s only fair that I pay.”
Tad gave a ghost of a smile. It still wasn’t very smile-like.
“Alright. Fine. So… you wanted me to learn something here?”
“Mm-hm. I call it yet another social situation. We eat, and we talk, but this time in a public place.”
Tad nodded slowly.
“Very well. So that means some topics are not safe, right?”
“Exactly. But people don’t usually listen to other people that closely, so in some ways it’s safer than it feels.”
She considered it for a moment.
“Though then again it might not, one never knows.”
“Complicated, but interesting,” Tad said, “Exciting, even, I would say. So, what do you wish to talk about?”
“Well, how about-“
“Amelia? Hey, long time no see!”
Amelia turned her head towards the voice near her. Her eyes widened.
There was no mistake about it. Hal Breckenridge, Amelia’s ex-boyfriend, was sitting right there at the table next to them. His charming smile was still the same, as were the adorable and smouldering sparks in his eyes. And he was still the person who had left Amelia for a better bank account and better curves and with whom Amelia hadn’t really talked with since. In fact, she hadn’t even seen the man in a long while.
“Um… hi!” she said with a nervous smile on her face, “Long time no see! Where have you been? I thought you were in Sim City with… uh… you know… the nice lady…”
“Oh, you mean Marishka?” Hal said, “Yeah, it didn’t work out. I came back here and met Shirley. She’s just the greatest. She’s back there, talking to her boss on the phone, but I’m sure she’ll be happy to come here and say hello. Hey, Shirley! Come here!”
Amelia sighed and tried her best not to let her discomfort show. Talking to Hal was bound to be extremely awkward because of their relatively calm but still a bit unpleasant break-up. And to run into him now when she was a bit emotional and probably looked like a deer in the headlights at times… with Hal casually talking about his new girlfriends and having one of them turn out to be Shirley Lin, one of Amelia’s friends from elementary school… this could not get any more awkward. Or so Amelia thought. But then Hal’s sparkling eyes fell on Tad, and a smile broke on his face.
“Oh, hey, you on a date too?” he said, “Good for you, Millie! Hey, isn’t that the guy George arrested at the funeral?”
“Why, yes, that is me. Hello, Mr. Breckenridge. It is nice to meet a friend of Amelia’s. And of Mr. Dean’s.”
Oh, now it really was awkward.
“Actually,” she said as calmly as she could, “This is a friendly outing. Tad here has never been to this restaurant, so I figured I’d take him.”
“I have never been to any restaurant,” said Tad, “Well, not as a customer, anyway.”
Hal chuckled a bit nervously.
“Right. Oh, Shirley, you feeling alright?”
Shirley Lin walked to Hal’s table, smiling at Amelia.
“Hi Amelia!” she said, “It’s nice to see you!”
“Hi, Shirley,” Amelia replied, “Wow, I didn’t know you and Hal were together!”
“Oh, you didn’t? Oh, I thought everyone knew. Especially after the rumour mill started.”
“About the two souls,” Tad whispered helpfully – or at least he clearly thought it was helpful.
Shirley motioned towards her stomach. Amelia looked at it, noting that Shirley looked a bit uncomfortable standing up. Now she saw the rounded shape of her stomach and realised why. Though after the why had been answered, it was immediately followed by a very confused what?.
“Oh… um, wow, congratulations!” she smiled through her surprise, “I… you’re having a baby? Wow… I… uh… didn’t know you wanted kids, Hal… no, wait, that sounded rude. Sorry.”
Hal just laughed, although there was a hint of nervousness in the otherwise natural laugh.
“Yeah, neither did I! But hey, life’s full of surprises.”
“It all happened pretty fast. But Hal was just so… romantic, you know?”
“Yeah,” Amelia said and thought about their past walks on beaches and their excursions to watch the stars, “He sure is.”
“So, who’s your date?” Shirley asked. Amelia sighed.
“This isn’t actually a date,” she said, “This is Tad Dustpine, my tenant.”
“I have not been around people much,” Tad said. Amelia noticed that he had stood up from his seat, “Amelia has been helping me get into the community.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” said Shirley, “So how are you liking Riverview?”
“It is nice. Very sleepy and calm, with its small secrets,” Tad gave her a shy smile, “Um… may I ask you a favour?”
“Could I… listen to the baby?”
Shirley’s unsure expression morphed into a smile.
“Oh, of course!”
Amelia found herself holding her breath at first when Tad leaned his ear against Shirley’s baby bump. She wasn’t even sure why she was feeling so apprehensive about it. Did she imagine that Tad would somehow hurt the baby with his mere presence? Or was it just that this whole situation was so many kinds of awkward that she didn’t know which part of it she should feel awkward about. The fact that Hal decided it was a good idea to sit in the chair now unoccupied by Tad didn’t help matters.
“Well, it really has been a while,” he said, “How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Amelia said automatically.
“You look like it. As radiant as ever.”
Amelia blushed. Hal was still deceptively charming. She noticed the ring on Shirley’s finger when she looked away.
“Your… fiancée is right there,” she said.
“Hey, I’m just being innocently polite. It’s not like that Dustpine-kid isn’t putting the moves on my girl right now.”
She looked at Shirley, who was laughing, and then at Tad, who was talking in his usual, serenely dark voice.
“The soul of a foetus is so malleable,” he was saying, “So bright and yet formless. Already learning but without a proper consciousness. A baby is too, really, just… a bit more finished.”
“You seem happy.”
“I am. This baby was a… nice surprise.”
“Right… surprises are nice, I hear.”
“Well, I don’t think I should be worried about him.”
There was a quick spark of… something in his eyes. The hesitation of a man who wasn’t ready for commitment but who also felt some sense of duty.
“I don’t think he’s even trying to flirt,” Amelia said.
“I sure hope not. If he is, then that’s just sad.”
Amelia cleared her throat.
“Well, Hal, I wish you luck for your life. It was nice to see you.”
“It was nice to see you too.”
“Hal, we should keep going,” said Shirley, “I think we’re making Amelia uncomfortable.”
“Oh, you don’t need to leave because of me…” Amelia started, but Shirley waved her hand dismissively.
“It’s fine. We were done here anyway. Now I just want a cup of hot cocoa and some rest.”
“Sounds good, babe,” said Hal, “Let’s go. Bye, Amelia. Bye, Dustpine.”
“Good night,” said Amelia.
She watched them walk away together. She saw Hal’s tense shoulders and guessed that he too had been having the What have I got myself into? in his head a lot recently. But she wanted to believe that they could make it work. Really. She was happy for them. Honest.
Amelia looked up at Tad.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Do you want to go home?”
“Yes, please. Let’s go.”
When they got in the car, Tad seemed to be thinking very intently about something. Or maybe someone had died nearby. It was hard to tell.
“Mr. Breckenridge made you uncomfortable,” he finally said.
“Uh… a little bit. We used to date. It’s complicated.”
“Oh… Yes… I know that can make things… what you said.”
He nodded with the kind of knowledgeable nod that indicated he was absolutely clueless about the subject. Amelia chuckled.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll explain dating to you yet. It’s really messy even for humans.”
“Oh, good. It definitely sounds intimidating,” Tad said.
“I take it you… personifications don’t date a whole lot?”
“Some do, maybe just to try it out. Some do it to manipulate, but that is frowned upon. As for me, I can hardly afford such attachments in my line of work.”
“But you’re making friends now,” Amelia frowned, “That’s a lot of attachments.”
“Only one so far…” Tad said a bit uncomfortably, “I am taking great care not to let it impair my judgement.”
“Good to know.”
“Although… do you think I should find someone? It is not something every human does, but… would it would make me blend in better?”
Amelia shook her head.
“I really don’t think that’s a healthy starting point for a relationship.”
“Oh… Makes sense,” Tad cleared his throat, obviously trying to change the subject, “So, Mr. Breckenridge… you loved him once?”
“Yes,” Amelia smiled sadly, “But he’s not exactly one to settle down. So he and Shirley having a baby is definitely surprising. But hey, maybe he does want it now.”
“And I what?”
“Did you ever want children?”
Amelia bit her lip, and Tad’s eyes widened.
“Oh, sorry! Is that not appropriate to ask?”
“Don’t worry,” Amelia said, “Sometimes it isn’t. But now… well, I guess at some point I did want that. But after dad… you know, passed on… I started thinking about, well, the kind of pain his death caused and how I might just do the same to my kids… so right now I don’t. But you know, one never knows what’s going to happen…”
“This is a bit awkward.”
“I am sure things will work out for you.”
“Thanks. Do you see it or something?”
“No. I only see the multiple endings.”
The next day Amelia had already mostly forgotten about the uncomfortable afternoon. She couldn’t say that her mind was that much clearer about things, though. So she decided to take Brigitte’s advice and just focus on the more normal things.
Worrying about running into her ex and thinking about dating life was a start, but it wasn’t a very easy one. Maybe she should call Jon Lessen and ask if he was up for another outing. Or maybe she should just call Sandra and do something fun with her. They hadn’t been doing much together lately, and with Katie in France their usually close-knit trio felt a bit fractured at the moment. Well, to be honest her whole life felt a little bit fractured. Even her usually unwavering optimism had already accepted that.
At least Tad was being very approachable. Maybe their talk by the river had helped even more than Amelia had thought at first. Or maybe the almost normal chats at the bistro and in the car had renewed her belief that she was right about him. That their humanity project was not going to be for nothing.
He was still working in his garden with unwavering dedication in the following days, and Amelia often stopped by to talk to him after work. After cleaning the greenhouse and getting it into working condition Tad had moved outside and kept expanding the garden until it looked very respectable and fit for a professional, self-employed gardener. Nothing was bearing fruit yet, but the plants were thriving and growing very fast. And while Tad was working in his garden, serene and focused on caring for his plants, he seemed so… human. Like all the anthills and universes in his mind had been forgotten for a moment.
They had their usual tea break again, but now they sat in the backyard because it was finally warm enough for that. This time Tad seemed to be rather preoccupied by something. He hardly asked any questions about things that were obvious to people but not to him, and Amelia could tell that something was actually bothering him. She tried to ask him what was wrong, but he dismissed it with one of his un-smiles. Eventually Amelia gave up, and they sat in the setting sun, sipping peppermint-cornflower tea and enjoying the quiet. Tad kept glancing longingly at his garden, and in the fading light Amelia felt like she could see deeper into his eyes. There was such a crushing loneliness there that Amelia was startled and didn’t want to look again.
She thought about attachments, and how she had become attached to the person she feared the most. And how said person had told her that she was his only friend.
A few days after the incident at the Bistro Amelia came home to find Tad in the garden again, but this time there was a woman Amelia couldn’t recognise with him. They were talking, and Tad seemed a bit agitated, maybe even flustered. Amelia’s brows shot up. Tad making a friend on his own was… surprising to say the least. Maybe even worrying, for reasons Amelia couldn’t fully explain with logic. Not wanting to disturb them, Amelia backed away from her backyard and into her house. She had a feeling Tad didn’t want her there. So Amelia should respect his privacy and shouldn’t let her curiosity make her plaster her face to the dining room window and spy on the conversation. And she wouldn’t do that. She would stay strong.
At least for about thirty seconds.
Amelia could only see the two talking. She couldn’t really hear what was being said, or figure out what was going on. The woman was small, and looked rather old, but there was something very graceful and formidable about her. Maybe it was her beautiful, white hair or her neat, elegant clothes.
Maybe it was her deep, violet eyes, which Amelia saw clearly when she turned to look at her…
Amelia’s phone rang, and Amelia almost jumped at the sudden sound. She fumbled her phone out of her pocket and looked at the caller I.D. She smiled and answered. It was Sandra, asking her if she wanted to do something out in the town. Amelia cast one more look at Tad and the mystery woman and figured she could just ask what was going on later. It wasn’t like she could do any real spying with the double-glazed windows blocking out all the sound.
“Sure, that sounds like fun!” she said to Sandra, “It’s been a while since we’ve done something fun.”
“Tell me about it! There’s a free concert at the park. Jazz. See you there?”
“Perfect. I’ll be there.”
Amelia hesitated one more moment before she turned her back on the meeting in the garden.
In the midst of the fun and the jazzy melodies, Amelia could almost forget for a moment that so many strange things had been happening of late.
Tad, however, had no such luxury. Though to be fair, his “strange” had a very different definition than that of humans. To him, the strangest thing that had happened of late was making a friend. A real friend, and not just… someone he would talk to and form a momentary connection with. Someone who cared about him back. But even Amelia was so afraid of him, and yet she kept coming back to him. Tad didn’t understand it at all. He would have to someday gather up the courage to ask Amelia about it, but right now wasn’t the time. Right now, another strange thing demanded his attention. Tad hadn’t really considered that any of the other anthropomorphic personifications would be even remotely interested in his little excursion. But here was one now, standing in human form in his garden and looking angry like a murky ocean.
“Hello, Fate,” Tad said.
Fate was one of those personifications who was often also seen as a god – much like Tad himself was. She had been born in the ancient times to guide people’s lives when they had needed something to put their faith in and blame bad luck on. Well, in theory, at least. In reality, life was far too unpredictable for anyone to really guide it or even to predict what was really going to happen in each reality. And boy, was Fate bitter about it.
“Evening, child,” Fate said in her ethereal voice that didn’t use vocal cords. Her human form was deliberately non-human. Beyond the superficial details, it didn’t even try, because she didn’t feel the need to try. She did apparently feel the need to be disrespectful on purpose, though. Tad blinked a dying planet from his eyes and sighed, turning back to his plants.
“I probably do not need to point out the absurdity of you calling me a child,” he said, “I am not one of your disciples.”
“You look like one now,” said Fate, “What is this all about? This… ridiculous masquerade.”
“I do not see how it is your concern.”
“It is all of our concern,” Tad felt a non-existent breeze when she stepped closer to him, “You are breaking the rules by meddling with the order. By taking that ridiculous form and interacting with mortals.”
“I am not breaking anything, and you know that. Besides, I have been here for months already. Why the sudden interest?”
“It is going too far,” Fate hissed, “At first we thought it was just one of your strange whims that would pass, but it seems that you are adamant about continuing this farce until something goes wrong.”
Tad glanced at her, decidedly unimpressed. Something very old and very large in the depths of an ocean finally closed its eye for the last time.
“I am here because something was stolen from me, and I am looking for it. I will stay until I find it.”
“I see you are taking your time. And you have guided people’s lives already. That is my job.”
Fate tossed her hair over her shoulder. It cascaded like a curly waterfall. She looked at Amelia’s house and Tad felt the light, soundless whoosh of her taking a hold of an event and steering it somewhere. Sometimes her influence stuck, but a lot of the times it slipped off just as soon as she tried to tack it on reality. She smiled a little, so Tad assumed this time it had worked. Fate’s long-nailed fingers caught an insect from the air.
Tad winced when he felt it being crushed. His hands curled into fists.
“You have no right,” he said quietly.
“You have meddled with my work,” Fate said, “So it is only fair I meddled with yours. Perhaps that will make you realise how foolish this all is.”
Tad opened his right hand. The insect flew free, a tiny spark of a soul that found its place in the beyond.
“You are being petty,” he said, “I know what I am doing. You have caused worse with your own games in the past.”
Fate’s face darkened. She stepped forward again, and Tad was surprised by her boldness. Usually everyone who knew him shied away from him. And they had never dared to anger him before. But here was Fate – who to be fair had always been one of the boldest – thinking she could disrespect the world just to get to him.
“I am just as worried about the world as you are,” she said, “You should know that if something happens to you, it will be plunged into madness.”
Her lips quirked into a rather mean smile.
“It is probably the only time when anyone will actually miss you.”
He walked through a warzone in a faraway country, but he hardly noticed it. Fate’s words stung a bit too much. Fate must have noticed it, since her smile widened.
“Is that what this is really about?” she said, “A desperate attempt to matter to someone? To that woman? Or do you wish to gather a group of friends around you to make you forget that everyone in the mortal world hates you? That is only going to make things worse, and you know it. Because eventually they too will die, and you cannot be biased with whom you send away.”
“I know that,” Tad said softly.
“You are trembling,” Fate stated, “A very human thing. I doubt that is good for you. I have tried humanity once or twice too. Being alive is very… addictive.”
“I am not alive.”
“But you are pretending. Grasping at straws until the straws tie you down. Until that form will become too all-consuming and you could become trapped.”
“I know what I am doing. I am still everywhere.”
His hands were fists again.
“I certainly hope so,” Fate said. She reached her hand out towards a fly that buzzed past her.
“Do. Not. Touch. It!”
Fate froze. She saw the look in Tad’s eyes and heard the ice in his voice and realised she was going too far. Her hand dropped to her side.
“I apologise,” she said in a much more friendly tone than before, “It is not just me who is unhappy with this. You do realise that, do you not? Feel free to keep playing your little game, but you are alone with it.”
Tad gave her a sad smile.
“That is nothing new.”
“No, I suppose it is not.”
Fate turned away from him, and started walking away as if she needed to. Before she vanished into her own realm – or wherever she needed to go; it was much harder to keep track of other personifications than mortals – she looked over her shoulder and gave him one last condescending smile.
“Just try not to ruin this world. I quite like it.”
Then she was finally gone, and Tad was alone in the crowded world again. A queue of crashing windshields hundreds of kilometres to the west reached his ears, and then it was drowned out by the other dying noises all over the worlds.
He supposed that he should have had some kind of witty retort to Fate’s comments, but he had never been good at those.
By the time Amelia finally returned home, Tad hadn’t moved from the garden. He seemed to be standing deep in thought among his plants, occasionally talking to them but often without putting much heart into it. Amelia smiled at him.
“Hi!” she said, “Sorry, our teatime is a bit late today. Sandra called me. She just happened to notice a free jazz concert at the park and decided to invite me.”
“Oh,” Tad said, “Worry not; I was… working.”
“Are you okay? I saw you talking to a woman.”
“You did? Well, that probably explains why your friend happened to call…”
“Fate did not want you to listen in.”
Tad shook his head.
“No… nothing. I am well.”
Amelia didn’t believe him. Even Tad seemed to know she didn’t. He gently brushed one of the leaves of the nearest plant and sighed.
“I… When I talked about attachments… friends… I…”
He fell silent and searched for the words for a long while.
“One of the reasons I am here is because I am tired of being feared… and hated. I told you I needed a friend. I am very glad I found at least one. Even though you fear me too.”
Tad looked so heart-breakingly lonely again. Amelia had seen glimpses of it before, but only now did she realise that it actually bothered Tad a great deal more than he let on. She almost wanted to pat his shoulder, but settled for just smiling her gentlest smile.
“I’m not afraid of you. I mean… not you as in Tad.”
“But even Tad is Death. And you fear it. How can you not be afraid of me?”
Oh, darn. This was one of the human things Tad didn’t understand yet, wasn’t it? Amelia thought about her next words carefully.
“Well, people can separate approachable, nice aspects of even scary things. Like… I’m also afraid of hippos, but I liked this blue hippo in a children’s program when I was little. Because that one was cute and didn’t look like it could bite people’s heads off with his terrifyingly blunt teeth.”
“So Tad is like the blue hippo?”
“Yes… kind of.”
Tad’s face brightened.
“I never thought of it that way. Thank you.”
“So… is being Death really lonely?” Amelia asked.
Tad looked at her direction, but was probably seeing hundreds of kilometres elsewhere.
“I meet everyone and care for them all. But I never stay, and almost no one wants to see me. So yes, it is very lonely.”
“But there are far bigger problems in the world. I can just say it is an occupational inconvenience.”
Tad put his hand rather clumsily on Amelia’s shoulder.
“So how about that tea?”
When they walked back inside, Amelia didn’t notice the pale woman watching them. It was completely unnecessary for Fate to linger there, but she had always had a flair for the dramatic.
Fate shook her head in irritation, and then vanished again.
Author’s Note: Yay for more bonding! Also I had to do some more studying to suddenly transform the off-hand mention of Amelia’s ex from Chapter 1 into an actual character. And by that I mean I just used the most fitting townie I could find and then mess with his life first. Sorry Hal, your plans of becoming the ultimate womaniser have been put on ice because of unexpected pregnancy! Mwahahahahahaaa!
Also introducing Fate! She was one of the characters that just really randomly popped into my head. But hey, I’ve already hinted at other personifications existing so it stands to reason they wouldn’t just watch Tad’s unorthodox excursion without comment forever. Maybe she’ll make another appearance in the future. Maybe not. I don’t know yet. Yes, my story-planning is very… planned.
I hope you enjoyed, or at least weren’t hurt by possible awfulness. 🙂
PS. I’m still not sure about this image resizing I’ve been doing lately… some of the pics almost kind of look like crap but at least the file sizes aren’t through the roof anymore… ugh! I don’t know if I like the way some of these pics look now! I’m seeing pixels I don’t want to see! I THOUGHT I FOUND MY BALANCE BUT I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE AND IT’S DRIVING ME CRAZY! 😦