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A Day Like Today (A spin-off ficlet from The Doors of Time)

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Rose snaps her purse shut and stands up, her old bones creaking in protest, and she huffs out an annoyed breath and starts her trek toward the copse of trees where the usual meeting takes place. The sun is unusually bright today, though living in New York for the last decade or so, she can say with some certainty that “unusual” is starting to be pretty darn usual.

Pixie is already there, setting up chairs in a small circle, sheltered by trees. Rose still doesn’t understand that girl, and why she insists on being called ‘Pixie’ when it clearly isn’t a name. But she’s young, and a little bit lost, always changing her hair to ridiculous colors and dressing in the most absurd clothing. Kids these days.

Diego arrives just as Rose takes her seat, and then come Noah and Aiko, hand in hand, ever the inseparable pair. Joseph arrives last, still dressed in his work suit, a frown hidden beneath his furry mustache. Rose has often chastised him, told him to lighten up before he works himself into the ground. But all her wisdom seems to fall on deaf ears, most days. She’s far too old to worry about the kinds of things the rest of their group worry about.

Speaking of the rest of their group, it seems curiously short this afternoon. She knows Larry is on vacation with his family, and Minnie has been picking up extra shifts at that indecent place she calls a bar. She still doesn’t know any ‘bar’ that would let their female employees come in wearing the things Minnie does. Or, rather, the things she doesn’t wear.

“Shall we start?” Pixie declares happily, and Rose bites back a coy smile when she counts the number of piercings on her face again. Twelve. That poor girl’s mother must have her hands full with this one.

“I still say it’s global warming,” Aiko dives in right away, ever the scientist. Rose resists the urge to sigh. Everyone nowadays seems to be making quite a fuss about this ‘global warming’. She thinks it’s all nonsense. She’s lived on this Earth for 76 years and she has trouble believing a bunch of cars are melting the ice caps. That still doesn’t explain Central Park in the last years.

“I thought that wasn’t happening for another century…?” Pixie says with a small frown.

“Global warming is a very pressing problem, affecting our everyday lives and if we don’t—”

“Chica, we gonna rant or we gonna talk shop?” Diego cuts her off. Rose bites back a smirk. It wouldn’t be fitting for a woman her age to revel in the sour lemon look on Aiko’s face, her mind undoubtedly running through math problems and science theorems. She’ll do wonderful things, that girl, when she finally puts away the picket signs and concentrates on the science of it all.

“If Larry were here—” Noah starts, trying to be subtle about changing the subject, but Aiko shoots him a traitorous glare anyway. Sometimes Rose wonders again if she’d ever have met any of these people, learned about them, gotten to know them, if they hadn’t all come together with a similar interest. She smiles. Ever since Jacob died, Central Park has been the one place she’s come to feel like she’s a part of the world again. Her kids have their own children now, all living in different parts of the country, living happy lives, and she misses them but she knows it wouldn’t be fair of her to burden them.

Now that she’s found this group, she isn’t as lonely anymore. The park that served as her one saving grace in those few dark years right after Jacob’s passing… It’s grown so beautiful, so vibrant, and now she’s surrounded herself with people that have noticed the changes as well. She’s learned about their lives, and they’ve learned about hers, and it’s a comforting thing for an old woman to have. Companionship, even if it is just once a week, only for a few hours. These people mean more to her than they will ever know, and that is all well and good, as far as she’s concerned.

“Even Larry can’t explain everything,” Pixie says calmly, looking at Aiko until she seems to deflate and slumps back in her chair. Rose purses her lips and tries not to snap at her to sit up straight, she’ll ruin her back before she’s hit 40.

“I still think it’s one of them elf-things, with the socks,” Joseph cuts in, his voice gruff. He looks uncomfortable in his suit, but not overly warm, and Rose wonders again how that is, because she hasn’t felt a chill all day and her skin is paper-thin by now, so she chills easily. Just another part of this entire mystery, she guesses.

Pixie rolls her eyes, the purple of her contact lenses following just a moment behind her natural brown. “Harry Potter is just a book, Joe. Dobby isn’t real,” she says, and Joseph just crosses his arms and gives her one of his boardroom stares. Those two get along more than they’d ever admit. Joseph, your average Joe—if you’d excuse her pun—working a cubicle job with a wife and two kids at home in the suburbs. Pixie, a rebellious NYU student who attends smoky poetry readings about the Man trying to keep them down and fights with her mother like one of those purple fish Rose keeps seeing in the store windows.

“Besides, it’s gotta be the government,” Pixie adds easily, like it’s a given. The rest of the group groans but Rose just smiles on indulgently. “Think about it!” Pixie starts, excitedly. “You know they’ve been developing machines to control the weather. They’re just testing them out, trying to fix all the glitches! Like that snowstorm last August. And the squirrels? The birds? I’ve never seen pigeons so friendly, and I lived in London!”

Rose smiles, thinking about the birds. They do seem quite friendly here, but Rose hasn’t done much traveling to other cities to know if the birds there would react any different to her sitting on a park bench, feeding them. They don’t seem like regular birds, though, some days. And the squirrels… My goodness, she doesn’t know if anything can quite explain the way they all seem to act. She still swears there’s something else hiding in the trees, watching. But there’s no use getting paranoid in her old age.

“What about the flowers, then?” Aiko jumps in, challenging Pixie.

Pixie seems to hesitate, and then says hopefully, “Some sort of growth chemical. To use on the crops.”

“What, the ‘Man’ is going to feed us to death?” Aiko sneers, and Rose wonders yet again if she’s going to need to play peace keeper between those two. They tend to get quite riled up, even though Rose can’t, for the life of her, figure out why. Pixie seems to think the government is out to get them, and Aiko spends all that time protesting…

“No, they’re going to put mind-control agents in the crops and—”

“Dios mio,” Diego mutters, hiding his face in his hand. Aiko huffs and crosses her arms and rolls her eyes, and Noah chuckles obediently beside her, and Joseph just frowns against the implication that the United States government is less than perfect. Rose smiles serenely, still keeping her silence. She, unlike the others, is here less to solve the mystery of Central Park and more for the companionship. Though she’ll never tell a soul that, lest they think her not as dedicated to the cause as they and demand she leave the group. Not that they would do that to her, not when they know how much she’s missed Jacob and how much joy it brings her to see them every week. But she still wonders…

“Well, it makes more sense than ‘God’s doing it’,” Pixie mutters with a resigned glance at Diego, who sits up a little straighter and mumbles something in Spanish under his breath. He’s of the opinion that the ‘milagros’ happening in Central Park are God’s blessing, and Rose sees him often starting or ending the meeting with a silent prayer. She envies that man his faith, faith she lost long ago, still bitter from watching the light leave her husband’s eyes. Her daughter Bethany never could forgive her for that.

“What about Rosie,” Joseph chimes in, and Rose feels her eyes twinkle in amusement. As much as these others each mock the others’ opinions mercilessly, they all seem to be in agreement that her idea is the wackiest, though she can’t figure out why for the life of her. Minnie’s the only one who agrees with her, and with no disrespect to her, Minnie isn’t the sharpest tack in the drawer.

“You all know where I stand,” she says simply, folding her hands in her lap and trying to pull off the innocent-old-lady act, though by now they’re starting to see through it. She never was much good at acting. “I think it’s a person.”

“A person,” Aiko snorts, looking as if Rose personally insulted her. “A ‘magical’ person.” She shakes her head, unwilling to see further than her own mind, her head too filled with science and logic and analyzing things to believe in the impossible. Rose has been around too long to still think anyone could have all the answers.

“What, like a witch?” Noah asks curiously, and Aiko elbows him, hard.

“Witches can’t do stuff like this,” Pixie snaps. Rose sighs exasperatedly. She’s quite touchy on the subject of ‘witches’, something to do with Wicca, “which is not freaking devil-worship, jeez, you sheep.” Pixie and Aiko start bickering again, and Rose just lets them go at it, figuring they need to get their weekly fix before they can move on.

She hasn’t told anyone in the group this, but she doesn’t really think it’s a witch. Not in the sense that everyone seems to think she implies. She lets them draw their own conclusions, because who is she to spoil the fun? She loves to hear them using their minds to try to figure out why one theory is better than another, or why certain things couldn’t be possible. Even if it seems like all they do is fight, there’s more to it than that. There’s a certain comfort in the familiar routine, the way they bounce ideas back and forth and everyone is so stubbornly independent, at times. It lets them break free from their normal lives for a moment and be confident in themselves, because they know this is a safe place. Even if everyone else would think they’re crazy, the people in this group won’t, even if they mostly end up mocking each other’s ideas and fighting like children.

She thinks of Jessica, before she moved back to Milwaukee to be with her family, and how quiet she was. How her voice would shake when she’d ask “What if none of it is real? What if we’re all just crazy?” No one had laughed. They’d all assured her that this is real, and that she wasn’t crazy, that they’ve all seen the same things and they know it’s something more, even if they can’t decide what it is.

Rose thinks of the man that one day. The one that asked her if she believed in magic. The wonder in his eyes, the fear, the confusion. All things she’s felt, over the years. All things that made her wonder, briefly, if this was really just a fluke. Like a trick of the light, and old woman’s slow deterioration to senile. But there are just far too many people that have seen the things happening here. Far too many believers in this city.

There’s something more than this, out there. She knows it. Something different, but wonderful all the same. She can’t explain it. She wouldn’t even know where to start. But this…the miracle of Central Park, the blessings this city has seen, the changes, almost like mood swings. As if the city were a real thing. A real, living thing, with emotions and thoughts and a life of its own.

She doesn’t know what led her to believe it was a person, all those years ago, when things first started happening here. But all of it just seems too…human. Unless the city really is alive, she’s got to believe there’s someone out there that’s doing this, that the city and the park are connected to them, in some way. That the city feels what they feel.

It’s the only thing that makes sense to her, really.

Aiko and Pixie bicker on, but eventually things drift back around to civil, and when they’ve exhausted themselves with all the disagreement they finally start talking about their lives. How their week went, what new things have happened, how Joseph’s daughter is growing up and how Diego’s application to school is going. Pixie still fights with her mother, and Aiko still goes to protests with Noah trailing along behind sheepishly. Rose still lives alone, in the house where she and Joseph grew old together, raised a family in, but she’s not as lonely anymore and they know that.

When time wears on and things start to slow down, they each bid each other farewell. Rose goes to help Pixie with the chairs, but Joseph insists that a woman her age shouldn’t be doing any heavy lifting. She snorts and shakes her head, because there used to be a time where putting folding chairs in the back of Pixie’s rusty truck would not be considered ‘heavy lifting’. She lets it go for today, instead looking up at the bright, warm, sun and deciding to take a stroll around the rest of the park before heading home. She’s retired now. She has time to stop and smell the flowers.

She bids Pixie and Joseph farewell and sets off at a leisurely place down one of the lesser-traveled paths. It isn’t long before her legs begin to tire though, and so she finds a small bench in the shade where she can just sit and watch the park around her. She’s lived in New York her whole life, and she swears she’s never seen the park this beautiful before. Each and every day, it grows more and more beautiful, and even through the long winters, sometimes she sees flowers poking out impossibly through the snow. Little things. Little tiny miracles.

Her eyes wander between the people milling about, her fellow New Yorkers going about their own lives. There’s a mother with her daughter, sound asleep in the stroller. There’s a man throwing a frisbee for his dog. There are teenagers sullenly looking out from behind their bangs and trying to be discreet about the cigarette they’re sharing.

Her eyes move to and stop on a couple of figures, lying in the grass. They’re both men, one freckled and smiling with eyes closed, the sun warming his face. The other has shaggy brown hair and a warm complexion, and even horizontal, Rose can tell he’s tall, and broad-shouldered. They’re close to each other, the tall one propped up on his knees and facing Rose’s way. But she knows, even though they can’t be more than ten yards away, that he doesn’t see her.

He only has eyes for the other man, staring down like he’s the only thing that could ever possibly matter, smiling like he has everything he could ever want. She catches her breath, and her chest tightens against the overwhelming grief that suddenly overtakes her. She misses Jacob so much. Sometimes more than life itself. Their children always made fun of them for it, the way they’d grown old together and never once seemed to fall out of love, like so many do. They loved each other, truly loved each other, every single day of their lives. She still loves him with her whole being, even if she’s long ago accepted his death.

Jacob lived a full life. A rich life. He passed on smiling, in the end, and she can’t really ask for more than that, but seeing two people like that, sharing the kind of love she shared with Jacob… It hurts, all the same, even if that hurt is old and worn and familiar now.

She blinks and realizes her eyes are teary, and curses herself for getting so sentimental on a day like today. With the sun so bright and the entire park smelling of flowers and light and air and freedom and love. She thinks to get up, head back home before she makes a right fool of herself, but suddenly the man with the freckles opens his eyes and sits up, looking straight at her with confused lines drawn on his face.

Rose startles a little but doesn’t move to get up, staring back at the man, trying to decipher what it is he’s seen. His companion is next to him, a gentle hand on his shoulder, speaking words she’s too far away to hear, but are no doubt meant to be comforting, kind, and gentle. The kind of words that only lovers can speak to one another.

She hasn’t the foggiest idea how she knew these two men were lovers, but she always believed that love came in many forms, and trying to say that one kind of love was different or less important than any other was a losing battle, and a rather silly one. All this hullaballoo about men wanting to marry men and women wanting to marry women, it’s ridiculous, and she suddenly feels rather self-conscious, staring at these two men like she is. Perhaps they think she disapproves.

She frowns. Surely that isn’t why the man with the freckles suddenly seemed to notice her? Besides, she hadn’t been thinking anything along those lines. She’d been thinking of Jacob, the way his voice rumbled when he told her he loved her, the way his lips felt cold when her kissed her hand that last time…

The man with the freckles smiles, a little sadly, still watching her, and then he says something to his companion, soothing him, before looking back at Rose. He smiles so brightly that Rose can swear the sun brightens, and she purses her lips in confusion when the man lifts his palm and places it against the tree next to him.

For a moment, nothing happens, and Rose is beginning to think something is very amiss here, but then she blinks and suddenly, the tree bursts to life, hundreds of tiny, pink flowers blossoming brilliantly, sparkling in the sunlight. The grass grows greener and taller around them, flowerbeds grow so full that they seem fit to burst. The sunlight casts down warm, comforting rays all over the park, and when she looks down as something tickles her ankle, there’s a rabbit hopping contentedly over her shoe, like it hasn’t a care in the world.

Bewildered, she looks back up at the man with the freckles, her eyes wide in amazement. It takes her a moment, for the shock to subside and understanding to dawn, and then she gets it. He’s the one. He’s the one bringing magic to their little corner of the world.

She smiles like she hasn’t since Jacob died, smiles like the little girl she once was, and her grief seems soften around the edges now. She looks up tearily at the bright sky and thinks Look, Jacob. Look at all the magic in the world. Look at the beautiful thing we got to be a part of.

Her heart swells with joy, with childlike wonder, and the sunlight envelops her, reflecting off the grey of her hair, glowing against her closed eyelids, reaching deep inside her until all the darkness is gone. It’s the most amazing thing she’s ever experienced, save for maybe meeting each of her children for the first time and loving Jacob like she did—like she still does.

She doesn’t know how long she sits there, unbelievably light and filled with joy, but when she comes back down to Earth and opens her eyes, the man with the freckles and his companion are gone, leaving a gorgeous flowerbed where they sat. She isn’t sad, though—how could she be, with the sun so bright above?

She decides right then not to tell the group about this—about the man with the magic that brings New York to life. For one thing, she wants to keep meeting with her hodgepodge group of friends, and solving the mystery of Central Park would make their meetings awfully redundant. For another thing, what she just saw seemed private. She can’t imagine the rest of the world would be quite so content with leaving that man and his lover alone. She couldn’t possibly risk tampering with what they have. When you find that kind of love, you hold on tight, and you cherish it. She had 42 years of that with Jacob. Those two men—boys, really—have only just found it, and they have so much more love ahead of them.

No, instead she’ll keep this her little secret. And maybe if she smiles a little more coyly when the flowers bloom, or a thunderstorm suddenly clears up and lets in the sun, then people will just shake their heads and chalk it up to her being a senile little old lady. Or maybe they’ll have the same smile on their faces, a little more confused than hers but just as bright.

Because who in their right mind wouldn’t smile, on a day like today?