One moment the park bench was empty. The trails that snaked over the autumn ground were bare, raked clean from multi-colored leaves. Several people wandered over them. It was a brisk afternoon, nearly dusk.
One moment the park bench was empty. Across the asphalt path from it, a mulch-covered playground was crawling with half a dozen small children. A little girl wearing black tights and a long red sweater sat poking the dirt through the wood chips with a stick; little pieces of the wood clung to the fabric. Two boys took turns seeing who could run fastest up the slide. The others were clambering over the tire swing.
A man sat there primly the next moment. He was checking his sleeves and straightening them out, rebuttoning them carefully. He seemed at ease with the crisp and chilly weather, and if it had been summer or spring, he would have looked out of place. The background matched him; he wore gray and white, looking as dead as the trees that reached up to the sky with bare branches. His skin was ghostly, unhealthy, and dark rings sagged under his eyes.
When those eyes flickered around, he saw the little girl sitting and watching him with a peculiar, blank expression on her face. For a moment, he watched her, still playing with the hem of his gray jacket. A sudden grin split across her young face and she waved brightly. Taking it in stride, the man gave her a small, quaint smile in return, lifting a few fingers. It could've simply been a twitch, the way he waved.
The girl's brown curls quivered as she peeked over her shoulder. Apparently unnoticed, she turned back to the man. It was easy to tell she was up to no good by the satisfied look on her face as she bounced to her feet. For a few steps she seemed confident until she stood across the path from the bench.
"Hi," she chirped after a moment, crossing her arms behind her back. She couldn't have been more than six or seven. "You look sick," she added, still looking curious.
Head tipping sideways slightly, the man lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. "I am," he agreed, a spark in his eyes that hinted he knew more than she did. She mocked him, her own head tipping over crookedly so that all of her hair fell to the side. "Has your mother ever told you it is unwise to talk to strangers?" he asked smoothly, folding his hands across his lap and raising an eyebrow at her.
As if his words didn't even faze her, she hopped forward the last few steps and held out her hand to him. "I'm Aspen." She introduced herself brightly and waited. The man offered his hand and she shook his fingers. Even though his face hinted that he was getting up there in the years, his hands told a different story. His fingers were long and thin, unmarked and unwrinkled. They looked delicate, in a way that a woman's hands couldn't, and were free from the swelling and popping of arthritis. To Aspen, they were surprisingly cold - she hadn't seen anyone with such prominate blue veins.
After a moment, he replied, "I am Faber," in a quiet voice. "I suppose we are not strangers anymore, Aspen." The little girl grinned again. One of her front teeth was missing.
"Why are you sittin' alone?" Her head tipped back the other way. "Don't you have friends?" Her grin had turned into a frown at the thought. "If you don't, I can be your friend." Faber eyed her for a moment, and then he looked down at his hands since both had returned to his lap.
"As a matter of fact, I do not have any friends, I suppose. If you would like to be mine, I would be honored." Aspen stepped over and lifted herself up onto the bench beside Faber. After a few minutes of comfortable silence where Aspen kicked her feet and Faber looked around, he turned to her and asked, "Where is your mother, Aspen?" He'd been looking at the flustered flock of women sitting around on the benches closer to the nest of children in the play ground.
Raising herself up on her hands, Aspen peered around with a furrowed brow. There was a moment of panic, one that all little children have felt at one point or another, where she thought perhaps her mother had vanished. Faber paid close attention and noticed but said nothing.
"There she is." Aspen pointed as she spoke, towards a relaxing woman on another bench across the play ground. Aspen didn't appear to be worried about the distance between her mother and her. For near twenty minutes, she chattered away. She'd