Innocence

It wasn’t that I didn’t like little kids, I just tended to avoid them. I didn’t really know what to do when I was around them, and I wasn’t exactly popular among a lot of the parents. So, when the little girl walked up and tugged on my leg, I was shocked.

I had gone out to the park near where I lived to meet my boyfriend, Calix Anderson. He’d texted me right after I got there, telling me he’d be late because an issue had come up at the garage and he was stuck helping his older brothers fix a problem car. I’d told him it was fine, I’d wait.

The park was mostly empty, so I walked to one of the picnic tables in the grassy area near the playground. Perching up on the table I stretched my legs out in front of me and rested my feet on the bench. It was a clear, breezeless day, and the bright sunlight was warm on my back as I sat and watched the park’s few inhabitants. Due to the unusually warm fall weather, I was wearing a heavily tie-dyed tank top and white cutoff jeans that reached halfway down my thigh. I hadn’t been willing to give up my stiletto boots however, even though the knee high brown leather made my legs hot.

The park consisted of a typical playground area (slides, swing set, and a gazebo type thing to climb on) in the center of a carefully mowed grass field. A smattering of picnic tables with benches were scattered across the open area around the playground. A few kids played on the swing set while a couple of adults sat on a bench nearby and talked. Nobody seemed to have noticed the lone sixteen-year-old sitting on a picnic table.

Tired of people watching, I checked my phone again. It had only been two minutes since I arrived, so it wasn’t surprising that there was no word from Cal. I thought about sending him another message but decided I could wait. If I was really that impatient, I could just drive down to the Anderson’s family garage and pick Cal up once he was done. With a sigh I shoved the phone back in my pocket, just as I felt someone tug on my leg.

“Will you help me?” a voice asked. I blinked and looked down in surprise. A little girl was standing in front of me, one hand clutched on the toe of my boot. Her blonde hair was pulled back in pigtails and her big blue eyes regarded me worriedly.

“Um, what?” I was so taken aback I’d barely registered what she’d said.

The little girl frowned. “Will you help me?” she repeated.

“I…don’t know…” I tried to organize my thoughts. “What’s wrong?”

She eyed me for a moment, as if trying to decide if I were trustworthy. “I’m lost.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was playing on the playset, but then I went to find mommy and daddy, and they were gone.”

I glanced over at the playground, were a few kids were still playing. The adults I’d seen earlier were still on the bench, talking animatedly. “Those aren’t your parents?” I asked, pointing to the adults.

“No.” The girl shook her head vehemently, pigtails swinging.

“Oh.” We stared at each other for a minute in silence. She reminded me a little of my older sister, Jenny, I realized. They had the same blonde hair and blue eyes, and maybe a bit of the same personality.

Uncrossing my ankles, I slid off the picnic table while the girl watched me. I crouched down in front of her, so our eyes were on a level. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Natasha Quincy,” she said, enunciating each syllable carefully. “But everyone calls me Natty.” I smiled.

“I’m Jimmy Martins.”

Natty wrinkled her nose up and squinted at me. “Jimmy’s a boy’s name.”

“Yeah…” I trailed off with a mental sigh. With the fine-boned features and slim build I’d inherited from my mother, put together with my clothes and makeup, I shouldn’t have been surprised Natty thought I was a girl. It was better than some of the things people thought about me.

She stared at me with unabashed curiosity. “You’re prettier than the boys I know.”

This startled a laugh out of me. “Um, thanks?”

Natty gave me a gap toothed smile. “I like your hair,” she added, nodding to the neon pink stripe dyed into my chin length brown bob. “Pink is my favorite color.”

I grinned. “I never would have guessed,” I said, eyeing her glittery pink shirt, pink shorts, and pink shoes. Natty giggled.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Five!” Natty drew her small frame up proudly. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.” I smiled and stood up. “We should go find your parents; they’re probably getting worried about you. Where do you think they might have gone?”

Natasha twisted her face up, looking worried again. “There’s this place over there,” she pointed off to the right, across the road that ran parallel to the park, “where mommy likes to go and sit. It’s really pretty, with lots of flowers, and not a lot of people usually so it’s quiet. I was scared to go over there by myself though,” she admitted, biting her lip and glancing up at me.

“Well, let’s both go over there then,” I offered. Natty reached up and grabbed my hand, inspecting my pink and silver striped nails with interest. I walked toward the crosswalk with her, shortening my stride to make sure I didn’t outpace her. There wasn’t much traffic to speak of, and we crossed the road without incident.

There was no playset on this side of the park, but there were a lot of stone walkways and benches set among mowed grass and lustrous flower beds. We walked through the maze of paths, but every time we approached someone else Natty would shake her head at me. There was a large gazebo in the center of the maze, but it was deserted. As we walked past it though, Natty tugged on my arm and pointed to the left.

I followed her down a short flight of stone steps into another section of the park. It looked much like the part we’d just come from, with more stone pathways and benches. Sitting on a bench a few yards away was a middle aged woman in a white blouse and black skirt with her brown hair swirled up on her head. Pacing nearby was a man in a dark suit with a cell phone pressed to his ear.

“Mommy!” Natasha shrieked in delight. The woman looked up in surprise as Natty ran toward her. I stood, uncertain what to do, and watched as Natty flung her arms around her mother’s legs and beamed up at her.

“Why, honey, what happened?” Natty’s mother asked, still looking surprised. “I thought you were on the swing set playing with your friends?”

“They left,” Natty said, scowling. “And daddy wasn’t there either!” She turned to glare at the man who’d just gotten off his phone. His blond hair was the same color as his daughter’s, though his eyes were green instead of blue.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said, walking over to where Natty still clung to her mother’s skirt. “I had to come talk to mommy about something. I thought Erin would watch you until I got back.”

Natty sniffed disdainfully. “Well, she didn’t. She was in a hurry to leave because ‘something came up’ and rushed off with Ada before I realized you were gone too!”

“I’m sorry,” Natty’s father said again. He crouched down next to her and opened his arms to her. She pretended to ignore him.

“Well, we’re here now, honey,” her mother soothed, stroking Natty’s hair. “You came and found us just like the big girl you are.”

Deciding it was probably about time for me to leave, I took a couple steps back and turned to go. Her mother must have caught the movement, because she turned her head and looked at me, the surprised expression crossing her face again. “Oh, hello?”

Natasha glanced up as her mother spoke and grinned. Breaking away from her parents she skipped over to me. “This is my friend!” she said happily. She clamped an iron hand onto one of the bracelets I was wearing, and since I didn’t much fancy either losing the bracelet or injuring my wrist, I allowed her to drag me toward her parents.

Natty’s father stood up as we approached, both adults staring at me in obvious astonishment. Under his dark suit jacket, Natty’s father was wearing a collar. Not like the black choker collar I had on. His was a black and white clerical affair that stood up stiffly around his neck. I wished I could disappear into my boots, but knew it was a lost cause. There was nothing unnoticeable about me.

“Who’s this?” Natty’s father asked as his daughter stopped in front of him, beaming with delight.

“Jimmy Martins!” Natty piped up before I could say anything. “He helped me cross the street.” She shot another reproachful look at her father, while I tried unsuccessfully to tug my wrist away from her.

“Ah.” Her father looked back at me with his piercing green eyes. “Hello, Jimmy,” he greeted me.

“Uh, hi…” I fidgeted with the pink heart pendent on my choker, remembered too late I was trying not to draw attention to my attire, and hurriedly dropped my hand.

Natty’s father extended a hand toward me. “I’m Darren Quincy, Natasha’s father.” His lips curved up in a smile on the last part. Cautiously, I reached out and shook hands with him.

“I’m Natty’s mother, Selene.” Natty’s mother had risen from the bench and come over to where we stood. She smiled, a genuine friendliness in her eyes. “Thank you for bringing Natty over. I’m sorry if she was a bother to you.”

“Ah, yes.” Darren Quincy coughed and rubbed at the back of his head self-consciously. “I suppose I should know better than to trust Erin—she’s our neighbor. She’s very…scattered though.” He gave me a lopsided smile, that would have been heartbreakingly attractive if he were twenty years younger.

“It’s fine.” I bit my lip and tried to twist out of Natty’s grasp again. “I was just waiting on, um, a friend… We were going to meet up in the park.” I gestured vaguely with my free hand.

Apparently pleased that we were all getting along, Natty finally let me loose. She darted over to a flower bed and began hunting around for something. “Natty!” her mother scolded. “What are you doing?” She chased after her wayward daughter, leaving Darren Quincy and me standing uncertainly by the park bench.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to keep you from your engagements,” Darren said. “Thank you for humoring Natty and coming over with her.”

“It wasn’t a problem, really,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. I took a few steps back and turned to go, just as Natty raced over. “For you!” she exclaimed, skidding to a stop in front of me. She offered me a large maple leaf, presumably from one of the trees nearby in the park.

I reached down and took the leaf from her hand, turning it over to inspect it. “You like it?” Natty asked anxiously.

I smiled at her. “Yes, thank you. It’s very pretty.” The leaf really was pretty; it was a deep fall red with an almost purple hue to it. It must have just fallen from the tree today, because it was still intact and perfectly shaped. Natty clapped her hands together and beamed with delight.

Her father chuckled and shook his head in bemusement. “She really is taken with you,” he told me. “Natty doesn’t usually like strangers this much.”

I looked down at the young girl, twirling the leaf between my fingertips. Crouching down in front of her, I balanced the maple leaf on my knee, then stripped the bracelet off my right arm. It was a two inch wide bangle-type bracelet made out of bright multicolored thread. Natty watched me with wide eyes as I proffered the bracelet to her. “For you,” I told her.

“Me?” Natty squeaked.

I grinned and nodded. “Yeah.”

Natty reached out a hand and delicately took the bracelet from me, staring down at it with wide blue eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Why, that’s awfully generous of you,” Natty’s mother said.

“I have two,” I said, raising my left arm. “And it’s not every day you get a maple leaf as a gift.” Selene smiled at that.

I looked back at Natty as she turned over the bracelet, examining it with awe. “You like it?” I asked, although I was pretty sure she did judging by the look on her face.

“Yes!” Natty squealed. Clutching the bracelet in one hand she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me, shocking me and her parents. After a second, Natty let me go. “Thank you,” she said again. Her blonde hair framed her small face as she smiled at me, blue eyes alight. She really did look like my sister, except Natty was five and Jenny was eighteen. They also had the same selfless personality, I thought.

I knew a lot of siblings that always seemed to be at odds with each other, and Jenny and I had our tiffs too. But when it came down to it, we always had each other’s backs. My sister was my first and my best friend.

Unable to help myself, I smiled back at Natty. “You’re welcome.”

*          *          *

Walking back through the park maze my phone suddenly came to life. I snatched it out of my pocket before it had gotten even half way through the MASH theme music.

Hey, where are you?

I stopped and texted Cal back. Other side of the park. Give me a minute. Shoving the phone back in my pocket I took off toward the other side of the park.

Cal was leaning against the hood of my glossy red Jaguar convertible as I jogged across the street. He was wearing a dark blue t-shirt that clung to his broad shoulders, and khaki shorts. His short brown hair was wet, the color darkened to almost black.

“Hey, Martins,” Cal greeted, shoving away from the Jaguar.

“Hi,” I panted, a little out of breath from my run.

“I am never going to figure out how you manage to run in those three inch torture devices,” he remarked.

I rolled my eyes. “It’s called ‘balance.’ Which apparently, some people do not have.”

He grinned. “Ah, but you notice I managed to work an entire day at the garage and still show up perfectly clean.”

“Liar.” I reached up and ran a hand through his damp hair. “You took a shower.”

“Oh, all right.” He held up his hands in mock defeat. “I admit.” He shot me a sideways smile, hazel eyes glinting with amusement. “I didn’t figure you wanted me to show up looking like I’d rolled in a pit of automotive grease and reeking of sweat.”

I wrinkled my nose up. “Good guess.”

“So, what were you doing?” Cal leaned over and brushed a finger against one of the feather earrings I was wearing, making it swing back and forth. He’d given them to me as a present after I got my ears pierced just before I turned fifteen. The earrings were made up of the eye of a peacock feather, black-and-white spotted guinea feathers, and a few other multicolored feathers.

I smiled and reached up to catch his hand, lacing my fingers through his. “Making the acquaintance of the Quincy family.”

“Who are they?” Cal asked, looking a bit puzzled.

“While I was waiting for you, a little girl, Natty, came up to me and said she was lost. Her parents had gone to the other side of the park, and she was scared to go all the way over there by herself. So, she picked me to help her, I guess.” I shrugged. “She even gave me this.” I raised the leaf I was still holding.

“That’s sweet.” Cal took the leaf and looked it over, then handed it back to me. “And you say you don’t like little kids,” he teased.

I laughed. “I never said I don’t like them. I just…I’m not really around them.”

“I know.” Cal smiled at me. “So, what are we going to do now? I’m all yours for the rest of the afternoon.”

“Conduct the first successful winter invasion of Russia?” I suggested, arching an eyebrow flirtatiously.

“Can’t do it. The Mongols beat us by about 800 years.”

“How do you remember all this stuff?” I complained. Honestly, the boy knew more about history than some of the teachers I knew.

Cal smirked. “It’s my talent.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sure.”

Cal draped an arm around my shoulders. “Well, oh skeptical one? What’s on the agenda after not invading Russia?”

“How about exploring the park?” I gestured across the street at the maze of pathways and lush plant life. “You haven’t been over there before, have you?”

“Nope,” Cal said. “I must say, it looks more inviting than Russia though.”

I laughed. “Come on then. I know just where we’re going.”

Isabel Nee loves reading, writing, science, birds, and mythology. She sporadically practices archery, and is known to research bizarre genetic disorders which she then inflicts on her characters. Isabel has had prose and poetry published in elementia magazine and Showcase Selections ~ 2016. She is currently writing a YA fantasy novel, and hopes to some day become a professional novelist. Isabel lives in Kansas where she hatches chickens and (she would like to think) great ideas.

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