The girls walked side by side along the edge of the road toward the cul-de-sac at its end. There, a small park claimed the far side of the circle. Several families from the neighborhood were taking advantage of the nice weather. Children ran amok on the playground while parents cooked hot dogs and burgers on a grill, chatted over the picnic tables, and enjoyed the beautiful, sunny weekend.
"Aw, crud," Willow bemoaned. "It's too crowded." Go figure. She had thought a picnic lunch was a great idea, but it seemed everyone else had had the same stroke of genius.
"Hey, don't worry, I'm sure there's room for two more," Tara reassured her.
"One more," Willow muttered. While she hadn't let it stop her from going out with Tara, the strange looks and wide berths she got from others for seemingly talking with herself were starting to wear her down. Luckily, she spied an open span of grass separated from the main picnic area by a row of low shrubbery. That would do nicely.
She spread out a thick patchwork blanket and secured one corner with the cooler she had been lugging. It wasn't windy, but you could never be too careful. She unzipped the top of the cooler while Tara tried to peek over her shoulder to see the food. "Hey, now," she giggled. She tried to block Tara's view.
"But Will, I'm *hungry*."
Willow laughed. "I didn't know you could get hungry," she said.
"Consider it a side effect of eating so many tasty things with you. Oo, is that fruit salad?" Tara leaned her head around Willow's side and made a quick grab for the edge of the cooler to tip it toward them. Chuckling, Willow gave up and moved out of the way.
Willow frowned. "Hey, so you know how other people see whatever it is they see that is different from what we see?"
Tara had opened one of the tupperware containers and popped a grape into her mouth, so she nodded and made a muffled noise of confirmation.
"Well, when you're stuffing your face do they see me eating all the food myself? Or do they see less food to begin with?"
Tara stopped chewing and narrowed her eyes. "Irs froot. Irs good frr 'oo!"
Willow wiggled her index finger threateningly and replied, "Oh, it's good for you." She aimed for Tara's belly and inched forward. "Obviously *very* good for you." Closer.
Tara's eyes widened and she scampered backward just before Willow lunged. "EEk! No!" She scrambled to her feet and wielded her fork defensively. "Back off, you! I've got cantaloupe and I'm not afraid to use it!"
The flung melon did little to slow Willow's advance, and they circled the blanket twice before Tara made a dash for edge of the shrubs. She managed to keep them between Willow and herself, and Willow soon retreated, not wanting the other families to see her running in circles around some bushes.
"You fight dirty," she groused when Tara edged closer to the blanket.
Tara rubbed a hand over her belly. "Anything to remain unprodded."
"Truce?" Willow offered.
Tara nodded and sat back down beside her. She returned the spilled fruit to its container.
After they finished eating, the girls took turns reading to each other from a book Willow had brought along. When it was Tara's turn to read, Willow would lie back with her head in Tara's lap, close her eyes, and enjoy the warmth of the sun on her face.
"He turned around and began down the pillar," Tara read. "This time he didn't curl up. He stretched out full length and looked straight into the eyes of each caterpillar. He marveled at the variety and beauty, amazed that he had never noticed before." To Willow, the words blurred and began running into each other, and soon her mind was filling in her own sentences and forming images unrelated to the story as she tumbled toward sleep. Only Tara's comment pulled her from it: "We have an audience."
Willow was about to be made to stand in front of her class to read a book report. No, wait, something about caterpillar pillars. No ... Her eyes fluttered open, and she looked up at Tara's face. It was at a funny angle. Too sunny. Right, Tara's lap. Reading. Picnic. Wait, audience?! Willow sat up, still disoriented. "Huh?"
Tara stabilized her and nodded toward the bushes. "Peeping child at two o'clock."
Sure enough, once Willow got her bearings she spied a boy watching them through a break in the line of shrubs. She recognized him at once. "That's him! That's the same kid from the restaurant."
"Mm hm." Tara didn't sound surprised.
Willow peered at her. "You know something, don't you?"
"Not really. Just ... it wouldn't surprise me if we kept running into each other. Like I said before, these things have a way of working out. Things get set in motion."
"Because you're supposed to be his guardian or whatever?"
"Guide," Tara corrected. "Being a Guardian is a lot more w--uh... not work, exactly. When it's something you love it's not work. But you spend a lot more time and attention on it. Guides just need to be there at certain important points in a person's life."
"And I'm supposed to have something to do with this too?"
The thought worried her, still. Willow didn't feel qualified to be involved with the plans of angels and the like. What if she didn't know what to do? What if she messed up? What if she accidentally zigged when she should have zagged, and caused heaven to crash. A tangent of her mind wondered what the core dump of that state would look like. She shook off the thought. On the other hand, she reasoned, if being a part of their plans meant that Tara got a pass from the higher ups to continue spending time here with her, she couldn't complain!
"Come on," Tara said, nudging her. She held out the book. "Your turn."
It was much easier to carry the cooler back to the house, and when she arrived Willow slung it onto the counter to wash that evening. Tara gave her a hug and thanked her for a lovely lunch, which made her swell with pride. Willow excused herself to use the bathroom, but when she passed through the study, Aunt Millie waylaid her.
"Ah, there you are," she said. "You've got a message on the machine."
"Oh, okay. Thanks."
How strange. Nobody left her messages. Her friends called from time to time, but it was never important enough to bother with a message. In Willow's experience, messages meant something urgent. And urgent meant something bad.
By the time she got back to the phone, she had worked herwelf into a state of coiled anxiety. She pushed play. It was a man's voice. "Hi, my name is Edward Fletcher. I'm trying to reach Willow Rosenberg. My wife and I are friends with the Richardsons--Paula and Greg? They said Willow used to babysit for them, and recommended her to us. We're looking for someone to sit for our son next Tuesday. He's eight years old. We live on Mayberry. If you're available, please give us a call. The number is ..."
Willow stared at the machine for several seconds after the man rattled off his phone number. Oh, boy, she thought, here we go ...
"You okay?" Tara asked from the doorway. Willow hadn't heard her enter.
For the briefest of moments, she considered clearing the messages and forgetting all about it. But no, that would never work. Not only was she certain they would find another way to get at her, but also she knew how upset it would make Tara. She sighed. "I think I'm going to be babysitting for that boy," she said.
Tara, clearly sensing her nerves, approached and folded her into a hug.
"I'm gonna explode heaven," Willow muttered.
Tara smooched the top of her head. "You'll do fine."