This story at Fictionpress.
Also included this week:
A Story Across Years: Chapter five. "Tradition, of course. I wonder when it started."
Secret Life: Chapter nine. Sci-fi horror. "He is afraid. Afraid that he knows why he is here."
Was it a peculiar home? A peculiar family? Oh, indeed.
"If you continue to fight me about your vegetables then I can assure you that you won't be happy."
But some things are part of every family, no matter how peculiar.
Miss Taylor could hear the mother from the other side of the door. And the girl responded. Too quietly for Miss Taylor to make out the words, but the tone that she used conveyed the impression that she wasn't worried.
That was good. That was very good.
Miss Taylor knocked on the door.
It meant that she probably wasn't afraid of her mother.
"Elizabeth Taylor," she announced as soon as the door opened- which was very, very quickly. Miss Taylor held up her identification. "Child Protective Services."
Miss Taylor hoped that this would be a false alarm. But the problem that had been brought to their attention had nothing to do with whether or not the woman was doing anything that might make her daughter afraid of her.
Still, it didn't seem that the woman was afraid of CPS. That was either a sign that everything was alright or... or that she was such an unfit parent that she couldn't even begin to conceive of what she might have done wrong. Which would mean that they probably wouldn't be able to get her to fix the situation.
The apartment that Miss Taylor walked into was a modest one. There was a kitchen but the living room was doubling as the dining room. The girl- Nancy, according to their reports- was eating dinner on a TV folding tray. The woman... did not appear to be eating dinner.
"Not hungry?" Miss Taylor asked.
The woman laughed. "Oh no. I'll be eating later. I have a very restrictive diet."
Nancy appeared to be nine. Her mother couldn't have been older than twenty-five, and that was pushing it. At most, she couldn't have been older than sixteen when she had given birth to Nancy.
"I apologize," the woman suddenly said. "I'm Autumn Frase." She shook Miss Taylor's hand energetically, then gestured for Miss Taylor to take a seat beside Nancy.
The couch was leather. Probably older than Nancy.
There didn't seem to be more than two people living here, just as the report said- Hell, there seemed in some ways to be only one person living here.
Which, actually, gave weight to the unfortunate side of the report.
But definitely no father in the home. That was something that she could confirm right away.
Autumn pulled up a seat in front of the two of them. She sat with grace, and gave a stern look at her daughter. "Green beans. You. Now." Something peculiar came into her eyes. "Or you won't grow up to be like me."
Whatever was behind those words- and there had to be something- it got Nancy to resume eating.
"I'm sure that you didn't come here to make a social call," Autumn said, "social worker though you may be. If you'll forgive the pun." She paused just long enough for the silence to become awkward and for Miss Taylor to wonder if perhaps she was expected to respond. But as soon as she opened her mouth to do so, Autumn went on. "So if you'll get down to the business of, well, your business..."
"To cut to the chase, we've gotten reports that your daughter has been left at home alone."
"Well, that happens here and there, doesn't it?" Autumn replied.
"Not for days on end, it shouldn't. And not repeatedly." Miss Taylor smiled, and hoped that it reached up to her eyes. "But I'm sure that we can get to the bottom of this and discover that it was all just a big, big misunderstanding." She hoped. She couldn't figure out why she was in this line of work sometimes. Always hoping so desperately that she was wrong. Sometimes it was so, and she stressed for nothing. Sometimes it wasn't so, and the stress was added to by horror.
Autumn practically stared into her soul, her gaze was so intent. Beside her, Miss Taylor noticed, Nancy had stopped eating again.
Not out of curiosity- no, it was out of curiosity. But not only. There was stress there as well. Who the fear was for, or exactly what part of this meeting was triggering it, Miss Taylor couldn't determine, but it was there. That had the potential to not be good- or to be very good, because day-to-day life was always so peaceful that she was hypersensitive to stress. With as little as she had to go by right now, Miss Taylor thought that it was a very good toss-up.
Miss Taylor supposed that she ought to say something, but then Nancy spoke up. Miss Taylor wondered if perhaps she had caught some sort of... some sort of glance shared between the two before Nancy had spoken, but then Nancy repeated herself and continued talking. "It's late. I know because my mom is up and she gets up really late. Also, the clock says that it's five past seven. So."
"So?" Miss Taylor repeated.
"So we're your last people!" Her eyes lit up. "We can make hot chocolate! Can't we mama?" she asked. Nancy looked at her mother with imploring eyes.
"Well, I suppose that that depends on Elizabeth," Autumn said. "I can call you Elizabeth, can't I?"
This was confusing. Everything was confusing. Where had this come from? "Sure." Really. She couldn't remember the last time that a family had asked her to drink hot chocolate with them. Probably because there had never been such a time before now.
"Well then." Autumn grinned. "Do you have to return to the office at the end of the day or do you normally go home?"
"I can go straight home if I have to, but I don't see what-"
"But will they miss you?" Nancy asked, adopting a pouting expression. "That is, will they expect you to come to the office, and be worried if you don't?"
Miss Taylor also couldn't remember the last time that a nine-year-old child had prefaced a clarifying statement with the words "That is." For much the same reason as her other recent failure at recollection. "No, I suppose not. Why?"
"It makes things easier," Autumn said. "I don't have to wear your skin and mimic your voice for a few hours in order for everyone to see you end your day as normal."
If that wasn't the strangest thing that Miss Taylor had ever heard- and she had heard no fewer than three very strange things in the past two minutes- then she was going to give up trying to understand anything at all in the world.
Before she could think about it any further, though, Autumn moved. And there was only the barest fraction of a second for the words "People don't move that fast" to flash through her mind before her neck was snapped and she stopped being surprised forever.
Autumn looked the woman over. "It isn't often that dinner comes to me, Nancy. Might be the last time I get to eat before we have to move. They'll start looking for her soon." She turned to her daughter. "You need to mind yourself better. There was a moment when you didn't sound like a normal nine-year-old."
"What would you know about normal nine-year-olds, mama?" Nancy retorted. "You haven't been one since forever."
"1750 is hardly 'forever,'" Autumn replied. "And being old doesn't make me blind." She chuckled. "Actually, for our kind, it makes me less blind."
"Your kind," Nancy muttered. She turned away.
"Oh, Nancy. Nancy," Autumn said, and she gently nudged Nancy's chin so as to make her daughter look into her eyes. "You just haven't grown into your wings, dear. You'll be fit for immortality yet."
"Of course." Autumn stood. She picked up the social worker's body and began to take it into the back. "And don't forget to eat your vegetables. That's important while you're still human."
Notes for this story.