Kat was beginning to believe that they might just enjoy a normal life in Greenfield. Sure, there was that frightening situation when they first arrived. And then that incident with the tractor at Sergio’s work, but in the weeks since then, nothing strange or unusual had happened.
Spring was starting to arrive. While winter had never been that cold here in this small town in California, Kat could appreciate the warm, dry feeling of the sun on her skin. She was out with Alice in her stroller, walking along the streets of Greenfield, heading to a small park near the center of town.
A nice day like today, and the park was full of people. Well, at least as full as it could be considering the town’s small population. Several other mothers were there, with the older kids running across the park, and many of the younger ones in strollers like Alice, or in their mother’s arms. Despite being a little too gender stereotype-ish for Kat’s taste (she didn’t see a single man in the park) it was the closest thing she had to living a normal life.
Finding a bench in the grass, she sat down and removed Alice from her stroller. The girl was eager to see and explore the park, as much as she could given her still limited mobility. Kat set her down and let Alice hold the edges of the bench for support. The girl looked all around her, her golden hair driven in the slight breeze.
This. This was nice.
Kat allowed her thoughts to wander, whilst keeping an eye on Alice. After two months of remaining in the same location, they had seen no sign of Invergence. Kat was pretty sure they had lost them for good this time. In the last year, they had never been able to remain in one place for longer than a few weeks without Invergence inevitably finding them. This time, though, they were still here.
Travelling through time certainly seemed to have its advantages, even though the technology was limited here, and the social norms were certainly archaic compared to what she was used to. But overall, it was a nice change from constantly running for her life.
Of course, the apparitions they had seen on their arrival, and Sergio’s encounter with a tractor that ran itself, still troubled Kat no end. As much as she loved living a quieter life, she had the suspicion that it would not remain that way. And though she didn’t want to admit it, she knew that Michael, that Founder from Argo Force, had probably sent them here for a reason.
She still held a grudge against Argo Force. Not only had they left Kat and Sergio running for their lives for a year, but they had sent them here with no explanation of why. What was wrong with just explaining these things? It would certainly make their time here a lot easier.
Alice was on her hand and knees in the grass, speeding away as fast as her small appendages would carry her. Kat stood once Alice was a few yards away to bring her back. Alice protested but soon forgot her troubles as a bee buzzed by, distracting her inquisitive mind.
When Kat returned to the bench, she was surprised to find it occupied. A young boy, maybe five or six years old sat in the place Kat had just vacated. He had mousy brown hair and freckles on his face. His mouth was turned in a frown, and he didn’t look up at Kat as she approached.
“Oh hello.” Kat said “What’s your name?”
The little boy glanced at Kat, but didn’t say anything. Kat took a spot on the bench next to the boy, allowing Alice back on the ground. The girl promptly began crawling in another direction like a speeding turtle.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked the young boy, glancing around. She couldn’t see anyone nearby. “Are you lost?”
The boy looked at her and shook his head. Okay, well at least he could understand Kat.
She bent to stop Alice from putting a bunch of dirt in her mouth. When she sat back down on the bench, this time with Alice in her arms, she looked back at the boy to see him smiling for the first time.
“This is Alice.” Kat bounced the girl on her knee. “Say hi, Alice!”
Alice clearly wanted back to the ground, but Kat thought better of it for now. The boy still stared at Alice like he had never seen a baby before.
“Can you tell me where your parents are?” Kat probed again. She didn’t think it was good for this boy to be alone.
The boy shook his head.
“Do you know where your parents are?”
Kat sighed. “Well, maybe I can help you find them.” She stood and began putting Alice back in the stroller. The girl began to cry, upset that her exploration had been cut short.
A small hand grabbed Kat’s arm as she was strapping Alice in. The little boy was shaking his head, and holding onto her arm for dear life.
“What is it?” she asked. “You want to find your parents, don’t you?”
The boy shook his head. Kat pursed her lips. She hoped the boy was well treated at home. He didn’t look like he had any bruises or anything, so she could rule out physical abuse. At least in any serious capacity. Maybe if…
“Simon! Simon!” Kat turned to see a woman with perfectly shaped blonde hair running in their direction. “Oh Simon, there you are, I was worried sick!” As she approached, Kat recognized her. It was Norma, the woman who had sold them the house.
The boy, Simon, almost appeared to shrink against Kat’s leg. He clearly did not like Norma.
“Hello Norma, nice to see you here.”
“Huh? Oh yes, sorry I didn’t recognize you for a moment.” She turned back to the boy. “Come on Simon, it’s time to go home for some lunch.”
The boy didn’t move.
“So I take it you’re his mother then? I didn’t know you had children.”
Norma glanced at Kat, her eyebrows furrowed. “Just the one I’m afraid. And while I’m grateful that you kept him here, I really don’t appreciate you interacting with him. He’s a frail child and needs a delicate touch.”
Kat raised one eyebrow. “I don’t think there was any harm done.” Simon was still clutching one of her legs. Why was he so hesitant to join his mother?
“I’m sure.” Norma pursed her lips. “Come now, Simon.”
Kat gave Simon an encouraging shove, before he finally, reluctantly left her side. He took small steps to his mother, his head hanging as he walked. Kat didn’t like this at all.
Norma grabbed the boy by his shirt and was about to walk away when Kat said, “You know, I never got to thank you for finding us that house. It really is lovely.”
“Oh…yes dearie, no trouble at all. I’m glad to see you’re settling in. We don’t get too many newcomers here.”
“Yes, so we’ve heard.”
“And it’s nice to see you here, attending to your motherly duties.”
That stopped Kat short. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Well I just mean that you’re spending your time doing sensible things like tending to your child’s needs, rather than…well. Let’s just say I’ve seen you talking to that man Lance from the station. Now I’m sure it’s none of my business, but…”
“You’re right, it’s not.” Kat cut in. Who did this woman think she was?
“I’m sorry dear, my apologies.” Norma grabbed her son’s arm and looked like she was preparing to leave. “I’ll let you be on your way, I’m sure your husband will be home soon, and you’ll need some time to prepare dinner.”
That was too much for Kat. “Is that where you’re going? To take care of your darling husband.” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
“Oh, I don’t have a husband, dearie. He died in the war.”
Kat nearly cursed herself. She hadn’t meant to be insensitive. This was the culture of the day after all, it was something she would have to learn to ignore if she wanted to live a normal life here. Yet she did wish she could wipe that smug smile off of Norma’s face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.”
“No offense taken, dearie.” Norma held that over-polite smile. “It just means I’m in the market. I can’t keep running the real estate business by myself for much longer. I’m a woman after all, and much more capable of other things. I’m perfectly content to let the men handle the boring jobs.”
“I’m sure you are.” Kat said dryly. The woman didn’t seem at all upset over the death of her husband. She talked about finding a new one like going grocery shopping.
“Well then, I must be going.” Norma hitched up her skirts and began walking with her son to the nearest park exit. Simon took one last look at Kat before turning back in the direction they were walking. There was no emotion on his face anymore.
That woman. She had always thought the realtor had had a fake cheerfulness to her, but she originally thought that was just part of the act to sell a home. Turns out the woman was sickeningly sweet.
And as much as Kat wanted a normal life here in this small town in the nineteen forties, she’d be hanged if she let all that sexist garbage dictate how she lived her life. Perhaps she would find a job? But even as she thought it, she knew that wouldn’t happen here. There weren’t enough jobs for the men as it was. There was little chance anyone would hire a woman in this decade. To Kat’s knowledge, Norma was ironically the only employed woman in town, and only because she owned her own business. Maybe Kat could start a business?
She pondered the ideas as she pushed the stroller back home with Alice. They didn’t live too far from the park, so it only took a few moments to get there. It was only mid afternoon, but she saw many of the other mothers heading home as well. Probably to do as Norma suggested and cook for their husbands. She wasn’t a bad wife for making her husband cook after a long day of work, was she? Sergio said he enjoyed cooking, that it relaxed him and reminded him of his family in Argentina. Kat was a lousy cook anyway.
Kat pushed aside her internal conflict as she and Alice arrived at the house. Once inside, she fed Alice some mashed carrots, which the girl did not like, and put her down to sleep, which the girl would not do. She wailed and cried the moment Kat disappeared. By the time Kat succeeded in getting Alice to calm down, it was almost time for Sergio to come back home.
Sure enough, she heard the door open and the footsteps of her husband. Leaving Alice alone in her crib, she tiptoed out the door and greeted her husband with a kiss, but putting a finger to her mouth to indicate they should speak softly so as not to wake Alice.
“How was work?” she asked. That was a normal family-life thing to say, right?
“It was fine.” Sergio said softly. “Someone brought in a car that was so busted we pretty much told the guy he should buy a new car. But he insisted on this one, so we’re basically replacing all the parts. Then I went to the granary and…honestly it’s all a blur. I just want to sit down for a bit.”
Kat smiled. She liked this part. The boring part. Boring meant peaceful.
“How was your day?” Sergio put away his jacket and took off his shoes.
“It was…interesting.” Kat told him about Norma, the little boy Simon, and the way he appeared scared of his own mother. She also told him about Norma’s rather old-fashioned views on gender roles.
“Huh, well we are in the nineteen forties.” Sergio sat on the couch, and Kat sat next to him. “The war ended just a few years ago. People are having babies left and right, even here in this small town. I suppose we can’t expect much better. You know I don’t expect any of those things of you, right?”
Kat nodded and smiled, placing her head on his chest. “I know.”
“Also, you said that kid’s name was Simon? You don’t suppose…”
“No,” Kat shook her head. “I thought of that, and he’d be about the right age, but there have to be plenty of Simons his age in America. I mean, what would be the odds?”
“I don’t know, after last year, I tend to believe less in coincidences than I used to.”
Kat would give him that. She didn’t like how Argo Force had seemingly abandoned them over the last year, but there were a lot of coincidences that worked in their favor. The first of which was their encounter with Simon, an elderly minister who also happened to be a member of Argo Force, albeit a minor member like Lance. He had been the first to instill hope in the Rios family, hope that they could make it against Invergence, hope of a promising future for Alice. But even those few good weeks had come to an end.
They sat in silence for a while, Sergio’s arm around her. Her head rising and falling with his chest.
“I think you should train with Lance.” Kat said after several minutes.
“What?” Sergio looked down at her face.
“I do. You’re right, it makes sense to be prepared.”
“Wow, uh. That’s great!” Kat could see the excitement building in Sergio’s face.
“I have one condition.”
“I’m going to train with you.”
Sergio took a moment to process that, but soon his face lit up even more. “Awesome! We can be like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Only without the killing each other. Okay, bad example. Maybe more like Superman and Wonder Woman, when they were a power couple!”
Kat smiled. She liked it when he geeked out like this. “Just as long as I don’t have to cook.”
“Oh, absolutely, let me handle that. In fact, I should get on that right now.” He stood and made his way to the kitchen. Calling back, he said, “Did we run out of pickles?”
Okay, so maybe life wouldn’t be exactly normal, at least not by current cultural standards. But it was a life Kat could appreciate. Sure, they would start training with a slightly crazy martial artist, and they were undoubtedly still being pursued by an evil alternate reality organization with access to monsters. And of course, there was no denying that Alice was going to grow up to be a very special person. But they loved each other, and they helped each other, and that was normal enough for Kat.
True to her word, Kat had called Lance and told him that they would like to learn martial arts. Lance agreed emphatically and told them to meet him at an old barn a few blocks away. Sergio had finished work early, so they decided it couldn’t hurt to just start that day.
They brought Alice with them, since they had no babysitter to look after the girl. Sergio had suggested they have seperate training sessions with Lance, so the other could take care of the baby, but Kat insisted that their first lesson should include both of them. At least for now. Perhaps with future lessons, they could alternate. They were paying Lance, so he had no problems with the extra lessons.
As they entered the barn, Kat took in her surroundings. It was a large building, with bits of hay scattered across the dirt floor. Though it smelled a bit musty, it looked like this barn hadn’t been in use for a while, at least not for livestock. The ground looked soft and clean. Or at least as clean as a dirt floor could be. There was no sign of Lance.
“Perhaps we’re a bit early.” Sergio suggested. Kat glanced around, pushing Alice along in her stroller.
“I’m sure he’ll be along in a moment.”
“HEEEYYYAAAAA!” Kat and Sergio spun as a man with a mask jumped out of the shadows at them. Sergio immediately reached for a knife that he kept on his person, but Kat paused to look at the attacker.
She relaxed her shoulders and tilted her head in an expression of annoyance. “Not funny, Lance.”
“Your first lesson!” said Lance, with the mask still on. “Always expect the unexpected.”
“We got it.” Sergio looked a bit more flustered than he would have cared to admit. “We got that one, we have learned our lesson, now take off the mask please. You look like Jason Voorhees.”
“Who’s Jason Voorhees?” Lance asked as he took the mask off.
“You’ll find out in a few decades.”
“I see. Well then, are you ready for lesson two!” He spoke with a dramatic flare, like a circus leader. That was going to get old real quick if he kept it up.
“Lance, it’s okay you can drop the dramatics. We just want to learn.” Kat folded her arms, letting him know that they weren’t here to waste time. Since first meeting Lance two months ago, they had learned that if they gave him an inch he would take a mile. They needed to keep him focused.
“Ah…okay well, that is to say, I’m not exactly sure where to begin. No one has ever asked me to train them before.”
“Wait, no one? But we’ve seen you, you’re amazing at it!”
Lance blushed. “Not everyone at the station appears to recognize my talents like you two.”
“They haven’t seen you fight off ghosts,” said Sergio.
“Well I suppose not, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not sure where to start.”
“Why don’t you start the way you learned martial arts?” Kat offered.
“Oh, no you wouldn’t like that, not at all. Though I suppose…” Lance broke off, running his hand over his chin. “Yes, we could begin with that. It’s not a bad place to start.”
“What is?” Sergio asked apprehensively.
“Well, it’s going to be tough. Not at all easy for a beginner.”
“Can you just tell us please?” Kat tried her best to stay patient, but sometimes it was difficult with Lance.
“Yes, footwork. A great place to start.”
“Oh,” Sergio looked relieved. “Well, that doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Oh, you just wait. You see, the key to proper training in any physical discipline is muscle memory. There’s even something magic about it, I hear. It’s been a technique passed on from the ancient masters of speed and grace.”
“So what would you like us to do?” Kat asked.
“Well, let’s start with a few stances. These will help you keep your balance.”
Lance began to show them a few steps. Kat and Sergio imitated what he showed them. Despite Lance’s statement that he didn’t know where to start training them, he soon got into the spirit of things. He moved to correct their stances, showing them how to keep a solid footing on the ground.
It was clear he knew what he was talking about, even if he was a strange teacher. Kat did her best to follow along, and didn’t even get mad when Lance tried to push them both over, to prove that their footwork wasn’t right yet.
Mostly though, he just had them move from one stance to another, twirling around the barn as they did so. It didn’t take long before Kat was beginning to feel fatigue build up in her legs. So she was surprised, an hour later when Lance called out. “Okay, looks like we’re good on the warmup. Time to get into the meat of it.”
“Wait, what?” Kat and Sergio said together.
“Oh sure, you see muscle memory is just the beginning. We need to build up your strength. I’ve got a series of exercises that I do each morning, that we’re going to do now.”
And so they began with a series of pushups, core workouts, running in place, and a lot of other things that made Sergio and Kat wish they had rethought this whole training thing. And Lance expected them to do this every day?
Both parents were more than glad to pause to tend to Alice, who was upset that she had been left alone in the stroller. They let her out for a while, to explore the barn, but that meant taking more breaks to keep her out of trouble. While Kat and Serio were perfectly okay with this, Lance was less so. For all his distraction in getting started, he was hyper focused now. He not only spotted Kat and Sergio as he ran them through his series of exercises, but he did the work himself too, making it look easy.
The sun was almost down when they heard a loud beeping noise. It was Lance’s watch, or at least something that looked vaguely like a watch. It was one of Lance’s inventions, the purpose of which, Kat and Sergio had no idea.
“Oh, sorry, it’s getting late. I have to go.”
“Where are you headed?” Kat asked. To her knowledge, Lance didn’t do much outside of his own home. He didn’t have a significant other, and didn’t hang out at bars or anything. Not that there was more than one bar in town anyway.
“Oh, I just need to go take care of those ghosts again. Like the ones you saw when you first arrived.”
“What? You mean there’s more of them?” Sergio asked. His face had paled, and he was unconsciously rubbing his face, undoubtedly remembering the time that a ghost had touched him, nearly giving him frostbite.
“Oh yes, they come back every month.”
“Every month!” Now even Kat was taken aback. Why hadn’t Lance said anything?
“Yes, but I told you this, didn’t I?” Kat and Sergio both shook their heads. “But I was sure I did. No matter, it’s no problem at all. I’ve been taking care of them for about three years now. Ever since the war ended.”
“This has been going on for three years?”
“Yep, though I admit I still don’t know what’s causing it. They keep coming back at the same time every month.”
“Are they the same…erm…ghosts, or are they different each time?” Sergio kept rubbing his arm.
“Hard to tell sometimes, but I believe they’re the same. I’ve been at this long enough to recognize a few faces.”
Kat shivered. She didn’t need the reminder that this was not a normal life they were living. Something was happening in this town and she couldn’t quite make out what it was. But all of it made her uncomfortable, from the sickeningly sweet way in which Norma berated her, to the silent boy, to the ghosts themselves. To paraphrase Shakespeare, something was rotten in Greenfield.
“Anyway, I have to be going. It’ll take me a small while to get to the foothills.” Lance said again. He grabbed some of his things and made for the barn door.
“Hey Lance,” Kat called after him. “What exactly happens if you don’t fight them.”
Lance’s face sobered. “Then they enter the town. And believe me, you don’t want to see that happen.”
Kat swallowed as Lance retreated. She picked up Alice and gently placed her back in the stroller. Alice went along willingly, appearing a bit tired from running around the barn all evening.
You and me both, child. Kat thought as she felt her own muscles protest while they walked home.
No, life for them would probably never be normal again. Kat was beginning to accept that, though she still did not like it. However, that didn’t mean they had to lay down and take it. They could face their problems head on, and perhaps Lance could help with that, for all his eccentricities. Sooner or later, they would find out what was causing these so-called ghosts to appear in Greenfield. And maybe they could stop it.