WARNING: Contains a slightly macabre death scene and offhand depictions of severe injuries (though no violence). It’s pretty tame but if you’re creeped out/sickened by pixel-blood, then read at your own discretion.
Even in a small town like Riverview there were some people who just flew under the radar. People liked to think that everyone knew everyone in a close-knit farming community like this, but the truth was that there were always some quiet outcasts. They weren’t obvious about it like Mr. Cottoneye, who sat in his bunker of a house, waiting for the apocalypse and yelling at everyone who got too close. They were more like the mailman whom no one could recognise out of uniform and who sat in his living room with just a cup of hot cocoa for company every night. They were like a person people pretended to know but could really barely name. And they could also have quietly shut themselves out of the world, like Erica Sato.
Erica Sato’s parents had moved to SimNation as a hopeful young couple with big dreams. They had lived in SimCity until Erica had come to their lives, after which they had decided that a big city wasn’t good for their young child. From a very young age, Erica had suffered from rather severe agoraphobia, so Mr. and Mrs. Sato had decided to move to the smaller, quieter Twinbrook, where they had lived until Erica was an adult and in love. Those had been the happier parts of her life.
After that several unfortunate events followed, most of which are sadly not a part of this story. What is important was that life kept clobbering Erica, tragedy after tragedy, until her traumas and her agoraphobia made her decide that moving to an even smaller town and locking the doors of her house and going out as little as possible was the best idea she had ever had. By the time a very hot June day, some rain showers that didn’t do much to relieve the sweaty air, and rather severe plumbing problems swept over Riverview, Erica Sato had lived there for three years, and the only people who knew about her were the mailman and a grocer, who delivered food for her in regular intervals.
So with that in mind it may have come as a surprise that her paths crossed with Amelia and Tad that day, or any day for that matter. Though perhaps it was not all that surprising, seeing how Tad met everyone, at some point, and into Amelia’s life she only came by proxy.
That morning several of the houses in Riverview were experiencing those previously mentioned plumbing issues. Erica Sato’s house was one of them. She had barely had time to open the kitchen faucet until it started to leak rather violently, and Erica’s day had instantly got worse. Though not as bad as it got a few moments later. For even though Erica was already quite experienced with keeping her own house fixed, this time there was perhaps more at work than just faulty pipes. This time, she had simply terrible luck on her side.
So it was a convenient not-coincidence that Tad Dustpine’s morning walk route that day happened to pass through her neighbourhood.
Erica Sato had flown mostly under Tad’s radar as well for a large part of her life. He knew about the deaths of her parents and of her boyfriend, of course. All of them had happened a bit too soon and too quickly. But after those she had disappeared from Tad’s mind, and he hadn’t paid her much thought until that morning when he woke up after a night of pondering and sensed that she had been marked for death.
She was still young, not even thirty. And as Tad ascended the creaky stairs to her home, he took a second to lament how avoidable a lot of the unfortunate deaths were in the worlds. But then the moment was gone, and he was back to being professional.
He opened the door.
The sound of spraying water greeted him. The water was raining up and then down from a kitchen sink that was stained with watered down blood. Water always made blood look very unreal, like red ink or watercolour paints. The blood spread even further than the water, getting drier and darker at some point, more real. Other than that everything seemed to be in a deceptively good shape. Though Tad didn’t need to open the doors under the sink to see that the pipes had burst into pieces quite fiercely, and that someone had been in front of them at the worst moment. He could tell that by looking at the woman crawling on the floor.
Her entire life of trying to keep things in order had conditioned her to kick the cupboard doors back shut even when her lungs were filling with blood. She was breathing panicked, hitching last breaths with a length of pipe protruding from her back. It was not the most gruesome thing Tad had seen that week, but he didn’t like to start comparing levels of gore or tragedy. If he stopped seeing each death as single significant events, he might forget how to step out of his usual bigger picture. Miss Sato was coughing up blood that she would probably soon drown in. She was trying to call for help, but she had no voice anymore. Not that it would have helped much anyway. The explosion might have been loud enough to alert the neighbourhood, but the neighbours probably didn’t even know she lived here.
But Tad knew.
“Hello, Miss Sato,” he said, “It is quite alright. I am here to help you.”
Miss Sato looked up, her foggy eyes wild and reminding Tad of a cornered kitten. Then she staggered to her feet, pulling the pipe out of her chest and barely wincing. Then the adrenaline stopped working again, and she stumbled into Tad.
Her arms wrapped around him, and she started to tremble and cry.
It was an uncommon reaction, but not an unheard of one. Most dying souls shied away from him, but some were – for a variety of reasons – happy to see him. In this case, though, Tad had a feeling that Miss Sato would have clung to anyone who genuinely promised to help her. He slowly raised his arms and hugged her back.
“I am here. You will go to a safe place. There will be plenty of room, plenty of peace.”
Miss Sato sobbed into his shoulder, and her body started to lose all of its strength. She was dying already when her legs went weak. Her more intangible arms still held on, though, and she regained her voice, even though it echoed much more than it had in life.
“Do I have to go?” she asked.
“Well, you cannot go back either. Not entirely.”
Miss Sato nodded against his shoulder. Her instincts were taking over. Usually it was the moment of panic that let the souls find the way to the beyond quickly. Tad was glad about that. The human brain was so complicated that if it were allowed to fully function in the time of death, things would get complicated too. People always had so many roads and second thoughts. Panic meant less in-betweeners. Those who got stuck halfway didn’t have the most pleasant of existences.
However, with Erica Sato, her death instincts weren’t the only instincts at work.
“I… help… Emily… I’m so sorry…” she cried.
“Emily? Who is Emily?”
But Miss Sato was already going, being pulled into the beyond by her shocked subconscious. She vanished from his arms, and Tad was left with the empty shell that lay on the floor.
“Um…” he said, “Well, I am glad that you found your way, but who is…”
“Oh. Um… Okay.”
Amelia was having a good day. It was a Sunday, and she was sitting on dad’s rocking chair with a perfectly sappy romance novel in her hands. The weather was too hot for going outside for long without a heavy refreshment arsenal, but thankfully she had already finished putting the house in summer condition during the last couple of weeks.
The railings had needed some new stain varnish, and the windows had begged for a wash, and Amelia was glad she had got the work done before the heat wave started. She had also trimmed the flower bushes and done some more repairs around the house. So now she felt that she more than deserved a calm evening and the chance to find out whether the two star-crossed lovers would get each other or not. The two lovers were just in the most romantic of places, the one where they had first met, about to declare their love for each other when the doorbell rang. Amelia stood up reluctantly and rather surprised. She wasn’t expecting guests. It was probably Tad, then. Perhaps he had another question about humans. Or maybe he wanted to have tea again. Amelia wouldn’t mind that.
She opened the door and gasped.
“Hello, Amelia,” Tad said and smiled rather nervously. He was holding a small girl in his arms. A… small, very real-looking child. Out of all the things Tad could have done, this was one of the least expected. The girl started to cry.
“Tad…” Amelia cleared her throat, “Who’s that? And… whose is that?”
Tad patted the girl’s head clumsily, but surprisingly gently.
“This is Emily Sato,” Tad said, “I rescued her.”
“You… what?” Amelia stared, “Um… like… really rescued? But I thought you didn’t… do that… Tell me you didn’t kidnap that child or something!”
“Of course not! What do you take me for? Honestly, I thought you trusted me better than that already. But…”
Tad looked around, the nervousness still evident on his face.
“It is a bit of a long story,” he said, “Perhaps we should talk indoors.”
Amelia massaged her temples.
“I guess we should, then.”
She could only barely hold her questions at bay until the front door was closed again.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
Tad adjusted his grip on the little girl and his smile became a bit less nervous. A bit.
“First of all, you do not have to worry. This time I am sure I did things right.”
“Mixing my work with humanity, of course,” now Tad’s smile gained a hint of pride, “I even called the police myself. Well, I did not call, per se, but thought really hard about calling and then the police thought I called.”
“It was actually a bit funny, I suppose. Mr. Dean was the one who answered the call. He arrived to the scene with his partner and asked me what had happened and I told him that I had stumbled upon the scene of the accident by chance.”
“A pipe explosion in the house. Mr. Dean and his partner – I think it was Mr. Breckenridge actually – investigated the house and then asked me if I knew the victim.”
“Miss Sato. I told them we had met, which was technically true, and then they asked me if I knew a good place for Emily for a moment. I said yes, because I could not think of anything else, and because I did know a good place. This place!”
Amelia stared. She knew Tad was really, really trying to make sense. And it was almost working too. But he seemed to be so hyped about this “rescue” that he kept slipping to his far less linear thinking.
“So…” Amelia frowned, “Why exactly did the police want to find a good place for Emily?”
“Because her mother got a pipe through her lungs?”
“What?! Tad! You’ve got to start over. Just… tell me what happened. From the beginning.”
”Oh. Sorry. Okay.”
And Tad did start over, this time managing to be more or less chronological. He told about the accident and about the end of Erica Sato. Then he told about her last words and the four-year-old girl who had sat in the slowly flooding living room, crying and afraid. Once he was done, Amelia was wiping away shocked tears.
“Oh… the poor girl… and poor Miss Sato!” she sniffed, “I didn’t even know anyone by that name lived here.”
“Not many did,” Tad said, “She had closed herself off from the world… along with her daughter. She lost too many in the past.”
Emily started to cry again. Tad sighed.
“Uh… can you help me with her? She keeps crying. And if I try to put her down, she cries even harder.”
The toddler – Emily – seemed to cling to Tad like he was the last safe thing in her world. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and she let out a squeak of protest whenever Tad made a move to get her to let go of his shirt.
“Shouldn’t we try to figure out if there’s some next of kin to her first?” Amelia asked.
“There is not,” Tad said at once, “Though I am sure the police will start thinking about that soon. I was honestly surprised they let me just take her, actually. Perhaps they thought that place was not good for her. I certainly thought so.”
“Fine. Let’s not stress her out further with social services or anything. Yet. We’ll make her comfortable and then think about calling someone.”
Tad’s eyes shone.
“I knew this was a good place for her!”
There was something far too hopeful in his voice when he said that.
Amelia climbed upstairs and went to her room. Elise the pixie-bear sat in its usual spot, looking pretty. Amelia lifted the bear up. She supposed there was no harm in someone else playing with it. She was a bit too old for it most of the time anyway. When she got back downstairs, Tad had finally managed to get Emily to let go of him. She sat on the floor, sobbing quietly. Tad looked at Amelia helplessly.
“Oh, cuddly things,” he said when he noticed Elise, “Are they powerful enough to get through the trauma of losing a parent?”
“They can be a good distraction. Also maybe we shouldn’t talk about Erica like that right now. Just because Emily hasn’t said a word doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand.”
She crouched in front of Emily, who backed away but didn’t start crying harder. That was a start, Amelia guessed. To be fair, she hadn’t been around children enough to deem herself skilled with handling them. But she knew enough to know that a warm smile and the sense of security went a long way.
“Hello, Emily,” she said gently, “My name is Amelia. And this is Elise. Do you want to say hello?”
Emily stared at Elise with shimmery eyes. Slowly, a tentative smile formed on her face, and she reached out with her hand. Amelia smiled when Emily slipped her arms around the bear.
“Okay,” she whispered, “So… what else… she’s probably hungry. I wonder if she has allergies.”
“I do not know,” Tad shrugged, “But… decide on a food item you wish to serve her.”
“What?” Amelia asked.
“Just do it.”
“Okay… uh… a jam sandwich? White bread, raspberry jam?”
Tad closed his eyes for a second.
“It will not kill her, at least. And there is only a small chance she is allergic at all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. If she were about to die, I would know.”
“Um… okay, I’ll take your word for it.”
Those were the weirdest instructions for serving a snack Amelia had ever got. But she trusted Tad. In many ways, at least. Though some might have said she shouldn’t. She walked into the kitchen and returned a bit later with a sandwich on a plate with her. Emily had moved into the living room, and was cuddling with Elise, sometimes even rather violently.
She obviously hadn’t yet realised what had happened to her and her mother. At least not fully. She did know something scary and bad had happened, and that her mother was hurt, most likely. Amelia wondered when it would really sink in. She doubted someone so little even understood death. Not that adults did either, but they at least knew it meant something permanent. She set the sandwich on the floor near Emily. The girl looked at it, wide-eyed, and then her eyes found Tad, who was sitting on the couch and looking just as lost as the little girl.
“You should eat it,” Tad said quietly, “I doubt you have eaten all day.”
Emily nodded slowly, and reached out towards the plate. Tad slid down next to her, and she cautiously took the sandwich into her tiny hand.
“She seems to feel safe around you,” Amelia remarked.
Tad just nodded. He didn’t speak for a long while. Only when Emily had finished eating and was yawning, stretching her jam-sticky fists towards the ceiling, did Tad finally say something again:
“I think she needs to sleep.”
“Yeah, I see that,” Amelia said, “We should really call the social services now. She can’t exactly stay here.”
Tad looked at Amelia, eyes wide.
“I… why not?”
“Um… because one doesn’t just decide to adopt a kid without any paperwork and endless discussion with the authorities? Besides, I doubt I’d even be qualified for that sort of thing.”
“I was not talking about… adoption!” Tad said, “Just… a good night’s sleep. A chance to rest without… I do not know. The questions and all the things people want to ask after accidents and deaths.”
He reached out his hand to Emily, and Emily looked at it for a second and then took it. She didn’t stop there, though; she crawled into Tad’s arms and clung to him again. Tad stood up, startled but with enough sense to keep his hold on Emily. The little girl seemed to nod off in seconds with her head on his bony shoulder. Amelia stared, but Tad seemed to be even more shocked than she was. He closed his eyes, as if listening to the situation would make more sense than seeing it.
“I still do not believe it…” he breathed, “What… what should I do?”
The sight was just so oddly comforting that Amelia couldn’t help smiling.
“I think she’d be more comfortable on the couch.”
Slowly, carefully like walking on glass, he came to sit on the couch. He moved Emily very carefully in his arms until she was in a more comfortable position. She stirred and made a small, faint noise in her sleep, but didn’t wake up. Amelia couldn’t say she blamed her. The day must have been exhausting for her. Now that she looked at her, Amelia again felt the same deep sorrow that had struck her when Tad had told her story. The poor little girl had nowhere to go now. And she was so young…
“She does not fear me,” Tad said quietly, still in awe of the tiny child in his arms, “She saw me reap her mother, but she thinks I am… safe.”
He shook his head.
“I think she paid more attention to when her mother clung to me. Miss Sato was in a panic. For her, anyone friendly was welcome to comfort her at that moment… I think that made Emily think I was a good person. Even though I was not good. Or a person. I just… was.”
“You saved her, right?” Amelia said, “I’d say that counts as good. Although… saving Erica too would have been… better, don’t you think?”
“Miss Sato was marked for death,” Tad said, “You know how it is. But Emily would not have died. She would have spent possibly a few hours scared next to her mother’s corpse, alone until the police found her. Had she not seen me, I would have probably alerted the police and left. But she was there… crying… reaching out to me… I did not know what to do… so I picked her up. And she trusted me. No one usually does. Not like this at least.”
“I’d hate to ruin this, but you do realise that she’s probably not old enough to understand the concept of death, right?”
“I… suppose you are right,” Tad said. He sighed and closed his eyes again, “You can… you can call the authorities in the morning.”
Amelia didn’t even realise she had fallen asleep, but after waking up and finding out it was morning she quickly concluded that she indeed had. The couch was surprisingly comfortable to sleep on despite being rather old and mostly made out of basket.
She yawned and stretched her arms, opened her eyes and then remembered what had happened yesterday.
Tad was still sitting on the couch, Emily sleeping in his arms. He was like a sentinel, or an ancient guardian statue that would come to life should anyone lay a hand on what he was guarding. His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to be all there.
“Tad?” Amelia whispered.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, “I was focusing on having a heartbeat so she does not start to think that I am not here. And I was working. At the same time. I had to get out of the house to remember who I am.”
“Oooookay… How’s Emily?”
“Asleep,” Tad said, “though I think she is about to wake up. She keeps stirring.”
Amelia stood up and stretched her arms some more. Her back gave a small pop. Perhaps sleeping on the couch wasn’t the best idea after all.
“Let’s get some breakfast and take her upstairs,” she said, “She can play in the library while I make the calls.”
Once they had got Emily to eat something and got her carried her up the stairs – she still refused to go much of anywhere without clinging to Tad – her face brightened a bit.
She actually braved the unknown and walked a bit unsteadily to Amelia’s old toy box. After some rummaging she dug out a toy dinosaur and giggled, clearly approving of it. She was an adorable sight, Amelia had to admit. Although the adorableness was shadowed by tragedy. Amelia sat down in one of the library’s armchairs and set her hands on her knees. She looked at Tad with her best serious expression.
“Okay, so, I’m going to call the social services,” said Amelia, “They’ll no doubt want to bring someone here. Then they’ll take care of Emily. Probably find her a good new family and home if she really has no relatives that could take care of her. You understand?”
“Yes. I am somewhat aware of how it works.”
“Well, the keyword being somewhat.”
“Okay. So… are you okay?”
“Me?” Tad frowned, “Why would I not be?”
“Well, because you seem to be so shaken by the whole thing.”
“Shaken?” Tad shrugged, though the movement was far less nonchalant than he’d clearly have wanted, “Well, I suppose you could say that. This is just… confusing. This… someone being so trusting even after she saw me… take her mother away.”
“I can somewhat imagine,” Amelia said.
“The keyword being somewhat,” Amelia chuckled, “Don’t worry. I’ll make the calls. You don’t have to talk to the social workers.”
“Oh… that is… nice. Thank you.”
So Amelia made the calls and tried to sound as business-like as she could, even though her voice kept wavering as she recounted Emily’s tale. Luckily the police officers had already alerted the social services about the situation at least somewhat. Apparently they had already been looking for little Emily, too.
Out of the corner of her eye Amelia saw Emily first playing with Elise for a while, and then cautiously approaching Tad and reaching out at him with her small hands. With a fragile smile, Tad picked her up again.
The social workers arrived in the evening. With them came George Dean in his police uniform. He shook his head at the door.
“So… how come you people have somehow started to be associated with all the weird deaths in the neighbourhood lately?” he said, and Amelia honestly couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. She just smiled and hoped she didn’t look too nervous.
The social workers introduced themselves as Carl Strummer and Bessie Biller, and they looked so different from each other that they could have formed a comedy couple in a film. Carl was skinny and stern, angular and clinical, whereas Bessie was warm and round, though even she had a bit of sternness in her eyes. Amelia led them into the living room, where Tad and Emily were waiting. Amelia automatically asked if they wanted tea or coffee, but they all said no. The social workers preferred to go straight to business.
“Well, this is certainly an unusual and tragic situation,” said Bessie, and the warmness Amelia had seen in her at first was kicked out by the slightly grumpy tone of her voice, “I can’t believe the police didn’t take the child to us directly!”
“Ma’am,” said George, “We were investigating the scene of the accident. And it seemed like the best solution at the time.”
“Well, I’ll certainly be reporting this to your superiors,” Bessie said, “But what is done is done, and little Miss Sato doesn’t seem to be harmed, at least.”
“I seriously hope you did not expect that Amelia would hurt a child?” Tad asked, and Amelia glanced at him. They had agreed that he would talk only when necessary. Apparently Tad had forgotten about that.
“Well, not her. But… well, never mind,” Carl Strummer said, “Thank you for reporting this. We won’t be taking too much of your time. Mr. Dean wants to get statements from you two, and then we can take Emily off your hands.”
“What will you do to her?” Tad asked. Emily tightened her grip on his shirt.
“We have already done a little bit of checking, and Emily doesn’t seem to have any close family left,” Carl explained, “A very unfortunate incident, indeed. So we will take her to our facility and to the hospital to make sure she’s alright. After that we will start looking for a suitable family. There are not many here in Riverview who take in children, but we will start from here anyway.”
“It will probably be for the best, seeing how this is likely the only town the girl has ever known,” Bessie said, “Now, I would like to talk to Emily. Could you set her down, Mr. Dustpine?”
Tad hesitated, and then set Emily on the floor. Emily’s lip trembled. Bessie rose from the couch and sat down in front of Emily.
“Hello, Emily,” she said, and the grumpiness in her voice was gone and she was filled with genuine warmth again, “I am Bessie Biller. How are you?”
Here it should be noted to Miss Biller’s credit that she was indeed very good with children. She had managed to calm down many a traumatised case during her already quite long career. But sometimes things didn’t quite click. It was just how life went.
And in this case, young Emily was still a bit too lost and confused to accept any sudden questions from a stranger who wasn’t even hiding behind a stuffed bear. She burst into tears again.
“Oh, dear, it’s alright, honey…”
“Perhaps I could be of assistance?”
It took Amelia a moment to realise it was Tad talking. Outside of him interacting with people in the context of his job, she had never heard him speaking so confidently.
Heck, he was almost smug when he picked Emily up and gave her a reassuring look and a couple of quiet words of comfort. Emily stopped crying almost instantly.
“There,” said Tad, “She trusts me.”
He probably didn’t mean to sound mean. Amelia was sure that he was just so immensely proud about the whole trust-thing that he couldn’t keep it hidden. Miss Biller didn’t seem impressed.
“That is wonderful. Thank you, Mr. Dustpine,” she said dryly, “But I think Mr. Dean wants to get your statements now and then we can be on our way.”
“Of course,” said Amelia, who was mostly just glad that her faint worst-case scenarios that involved kidnapping charges weren’t about to come true.
Tad hesitated again. Then his gaze hardened.
“Well, to me it looks like Emily does not want to leave me,” he said defiantly, almost childishly.
Somewhere nearby, the universe shifted nervously. Bessie Biller crossed her arms.
“Mr. Dustpine, can you honestly give me even three reasons why you could be a suitable caretaker for Emily?”
Tad stared at her for several eternity-long seconds. Then, reluctantly, he gave Emily into the social worker’s hands.
After Mr. Dean was done questioning them, they said goodbyes at the front door like Amelia had been taught was always proper to do. As Amelia watched their retreating backs, she sighed a long, sad sigh.
“I really hope things will be alright with her.”
Tad was quiet.
“Tad? Are you… oh my goodness!”
“I just missed a whole day of work, didn’t I?”
“Oh. I suppose you did.”
“I have to call my boss right now!”
“Right. You do that,” Tad said in the most anaemic, depressed voice she had ever heard coming out of him.
Amelia spun around. Tad was already walking towards his room with awkwardly shuffling steps.
“Tad? Are you alright?”
He didn’t reply.
Her missed work day and possibly angry boss forgotten again, Amelia rushed after Tad, but he was already in his room when she got to the door. The door was firmly locked, and Amelia knocked on it to no avail.
“Tad?” she asked again, but the silence was her only response.
This whole thing must have hit him harder than Amelia had thought. And she had already sensed that a lot of things had been amiss ever since that little, traumatised girl had clung to him for safety.
Amelia pressed her hand on the door, reminded of the time when things had been reversed and Tad had stood outside Amelia’s door, trying to get her to talk. Back then she had needed time. Perhaps he did too.
“Tad… I’m sorry this upset you,” she said, “Just… I hope you’re alright.”
She waited for a while longer, but then sighed and trudged back inside.
Author’s Note: I… I think I had something to say about this. Uhh… yeah, Emily is a character now! I think this started with me thinking that it would be funny to see Tad trying to temporarily take care of a small child… and then it turned into something much more far-reaching and serious. Yeah, this is probably why I can’t write funny stuff outside of some specific instances. I usually get distracted by the darker or more emotional things. Also this turned into this because I got this image into my head of Tad comforting a dead person’s ghost while their corpse is lying on the ground, which I then tried my best to recreate in the game and this all happened. It was a lot of fun to do.
Also I already said this in The Fey of Life -side of things, but I have a new computer now, so from the next chapter on the pics are going to be IN WIDESCREEN! Oh yeah! Or not… depending on your preferences. But I do quite like the new pics, although I now have to do some practising to make the closeups look good and without too much empty background…
Gotta love Tad’s kind of smug expression in the pic where he’s holding Emily and looking at Bessie Biller. That was accomplished entirely through in-game animations and without cheats and I was so pleasantly surprised by how that expression turned out. 🙂
Now, I hope you enjoyed and have a great time you awesome people!