They all loved Victor Vale.
A single father attending a PTA meeting had undeniable charm, but Mr. Vale was something else.
Well, sure, all the women hovered towards him. He was tall and thin and ruggedly handsome, with gaunt cheeks that gave him the look of a starving model, carefully chiseled in trendy dieting and ill-fitted suits. In a man pale as him, black was a fashion statement. Mr. Vale never smiled. His blond hair was glossy, his expression, untouchable. He looked like he belonged broodingly in an advert, drinking whiskey from a crystal glass, staring nonchalantly at a window as a half-naked woman, just as thin and just as pretty, draped herself over him like fabric. No one figured what those commercials were even about, but all the moms had silently agreed that he belonged in one.
There was something else about Victor, though. Something more. Jesse had sensed it, every time he walked into a room. It was as if the presence of the man itself eased some unknown weight off her shoulders. PTA meetings were always a stressful matter. Yet, ever since Victor Vale had walked in, five months ago, their entire discussions about who'd organize the bake sale or the talent show seemed like petty squabbles, and everyone started getting along.
"Mr. Vale." She greeted, offering him a seat. They were away from the prying ears of the mothers, stuck inside an empty classroom.
"What can I do for you today, Mrs. Holden?"
"First of all, thanks for coming."
"Not a problem."
"Not many fathers make time for their kids these days."
For a teacher nearing her retirement plan, Jesse Holden dreaded meeting her charges' parents. When she'd first started teaching middle school kids, Jesse had been terrified of the little runts. It took her first school assembly to learn the parents were the unreasonable ones.
Not Mr. Vale, though. He was a very serious man, and he didn't talk much. But just sitting by him had her... comfortable.
"I'm sure Sydney appreciates your commitment," she added, in hopes it might brighten his mood. "My apologies for dragging you out of work."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"Ah, straight to the point, then." Jesse smiled. The way he said it, Jesse half expected her to flip on him. That was impolite. But her joints weren't even hurting, despite the dark clouds threatening a downpour, so she was in a better mood than she usually was when she had to confront a father. "How is Sydney doing?"
Jesse nodded. This was the point where she measured the parents. If they replied something like "You should know", or "You spend more time with her", it would tell Jesse a lot more than their idle chat.
"That's nice to hear. Is she visiting her mom this weekend?"
"As I've said before, her mother is out of the picture."
"You must have had her terribly young."
A beat. Victor continued as if it were nothing.
"Well, I've seen younger," Jesse rushed in. "You've certainly raised her right. She's a bright, smart young girl."
"But she has..." Heat crept up to Jesse's face. The man's presence made she feel a twenty-something again, young and inexperienced, and afraid she'd sound like badmouthing one of her students. "Behavior issues."
"She is brooding, and is uninterested in conversing with her fellow classmates. Though they welcome her in their games, she ostracizes herself, not joining in during lunch or class activities."
Mr. Vale's eyebrow twitched.
"Is Sydney causing any trouble?"
"Not at all! Heavens, no." Jesse flushed. "She's polite and hardworking, and I'm sure she could make a lot of new friends if she tried. I just... I have seen this behavior before. Understand, it's nothing wrong with her, but considering your delicate family situation, well, you might want to consult a psychiatrist to check if there's something you two can do to make her open up more towards others. Or perhaps..."
The teacher fumbled among her drawers before fishing out a book. It was worn down and well read, and as soon as Mr. Vale laid eyes upon it, a flash of recognition passed through his face. Jesse smiled. This book had gotten her to deal a lot better with her students.
"Have you tried self-help?" She directed her gaze towards the spine of the book, following Victor's trail. "That's funny. You, sharing your surname with my favorite authors... I guess this is a sign, then. Why don't you keep the book?"
"Mrs. Holden, I really don't want to-"
"It might help you understand what Sydney is going through. She's on the cusp of womanhood, and soon she's going to have many questions usually a mother is responsible for answering. Girls this age... Not all of them are about magazines, and fashion, and boys. God forbid, I was into mix tapes and the music club. But most are. And even if they don't, well. I'm not saying you're a bad father. I'm just saying she's growing. And she's a girl. And she is lashing out the only way she knows how to, so it might be good to listen, even if she isn't talking."
Mr. Vale stood up and left.
Jesse wasn't offended. Somewhere on the corner of her mind, she thought she should be. But Mr. Vale had carried the book with him, on his way out, stuffing it beneath his coat in his rush, so Jesse knew that he cared.
Men, she thought, sneaking a glance outside through the window. The clouds were gathering closer, heaving down the small parking lot. It didn't take Victor a full minute to find the way out and run to his car, avoiding the full stream of mothers that cheerfully waved at him.
He was right to hurry, of course. It was going to rain soon. Jesse could tell. Her knees were starting to hurt.
School had been Mitch's idea, of course.
"Just because we aren't normal, doesn't mean that Sydney doesn't get to live her childhood like a normal kid."
"Hey. I resent being called normal."
"What I'm saying is. Just because we are criminals-"
"I resent being called a criminal."
"Okay, starting over. Just because we — except Dominic — are criminals, it doesn't mean Sydney doesn't get to live like a child ought to."
"'m not a kid."
"You are thirteen."
"I'm thirteen and I raise people from the dead." Dol wagged his tail and barked. "And dogs."
"Cool. That doesn't excuse you out of class, missy."
Sydney kicked a rock out of their perfectly trimmed lawn.
They'd a lawn now. They also had a house, with a picket fence and a tire swing that Dominic had tied to a tree for her and a dog house for Dol, which resembled their house a little, except it was probably bigger, if it could fit all of Dol in. Sydney tried constantly not to think back to her old house, or the absence in the shape of Serena and their parents. Funny thing, considering not a single one of them had been there for her in the last year.
"I don't see why we can't live in hotels. And not go to class."
"We've got to lay low."
"So? I don't see how playing house is going to help."
"So the law states that, if we got a kid, she's either homeschooled or goes to school. Dios mio."
"See? Dominic agrees."
"That's a convenient moment to bring up the law."
Mitch had known someone who knew someone who made fake IDs. They'd gone to a bar together and drank a couple of beers, and then Victor had used his gift on him and the guy coughed up new brand identities for the four of them, after the whole Eli fiasco.
Four IDs, yes. It had gotten confusing, but after Sydney had gone and resurrected Victor, there was little they could do but hole up together. Her gift connected Victor to her as much as it had stitched her and Dol together. She wasn't sure Victor could leave, now. Even if he wanted to. Sydney didn't have her sister's power, but something about her made Victor follow — or she follow him — things were unsure by this point. With Eli trapped in the same box Victor had rotted away for ten years, there was little left to do. With Victor around, Mitch wouldn't leave, either.
And Dominic. Dominic couldn't.
He'd tried, back then. They'd bid their farewells and he'd gotten inside a bus (DUI had taken away his driver's license). One city away and he was fine. Crossing counties had him panting, and by the time he'd left the state, Dominic had jumped out of the bus and into the next one heading back.
Sydney swore Victor had done that on purpose. Which purpose, she'd never know. It meant she'd a bedroom for herself, though, and Dol usually snuck up to her bed.
He must have sensed her distress, because he whined and demanded an ear scratch. She liked their new house. None of them fit it, but at least it wasn't a motel room in the middle of the road. She had things, now. Sydney didn't want to face the inevitable moment where Eli would break out of his cell, like Victor had, and they'd have to find somewhere new to live. Or when Victor would die again and she'd have trouble bringing him back.
"Hey." Mitch got down to his knees. Sydney knew he'd been reading a Vale book on raising kids, to Victor's utter disappointment ("You don't want her growing up like me." "Too late, Vic."). It stated that kids felt respected when grownups got down to their level.
Sydney wanted to call it bull, but her ears perked up.
"You know, school term starts only in the next month. You'll have time to adjust."
The thing was, she didn't know if she could.
"We're all trying here," Dominic said, in a low voice.
She didn't see Victor trying. He'd come back different. Sydney suspected it wasn't much as being dead, as it was about not having Eli. They were all lost, now.
"Okay," she said, defeated. "Okay, I'll go off to school. But..."
Twisting on her heels, Sydney faced Victor. He'd never spoken much, but after death he'd hit a new low.
"But since my new ID states Victor is my guardian, I'm calling him dad. And I want him to attend *all* of the school meetings."
He couldn't deny her now; she'd brought him back, and now they were tied to each other. Sydney smiled. The face he'd made after that was worth getting killed over and over.
Sunday mornings were for walking in The Park.
Yes, The Park, with both a capital T and a capital P. There was only one, as there was a single mall, and a single school. Sydney thought she'd mind, being stuck in there for so long when her previous life was filled with adventure, but it turned out that merely three days getting shot at wasn't as life changing as she figured. Sydney still liked the morning breeze. Sun trickled down between tree leaves and warmed her and Dol's fur, and if she looked at Mitch just right, he'd run off to buy her anything she wanted.
Sydney had been lazing around a tree, waiting for him as she tossed Dol a stick, when Mrs. Holden showed up.
"Hey there." Jesse lowered her body. She was the stature of a common woman, so getting her eyes down to Dol's level was a matter of bowing slightly forward.
"Hey," Sydney said. "This is Dol."
"Doll? What a cute girl." Her tone of voice indicated she hadn't found Dol cute at all. Sydney had washed him and wrapped a pale blue scarf around his neck, so they would match, but he still was as big as a wolf. Sydney sighed loudly.
"No, not doll. Dol. It's a boy."
"I see. That's- That's a big dog you have there. Aren't you afraid he'll run off on his own?"
Jesse smiled tersely. Sydney shrugged; she didn't dislike her teacher, she just wondered if they were all like this. Not teachers, mind you. Just people.
But then, Mitch was people. Regular people.
She was saved from the awkward small talk by Mitch, waving from distance as he brought her her ice cream in one hand. A plastic bag dangled from his arm. Jesse tensed.
"Who's that, sweetie?"
Mitch slowed down as he approached, sweat trickling down his neck. Sydney snatched her ice cream cone from his hand and Mitch swiped it against his jeans, before holding out his palm for Jesse.
"You must be Sydney's teacher."
After a second of hesitation, Jesse shook his hand. It was slightly sticky and tattooed to the knuckles, and so large it engulfed her dainty fingers, making them disappear beneath his grasp. It was gentle, though. Like the man was aware of how big he was, and how much control he had to exert over his own strength not to hurt a woman twice his age and half his size.
Jesse stared at him, her face drawn into a blank.
"Her dad," he added, for consideration.
Sydney had dug into the bag to find a small packaged mango sorbet, which Dol licked at all too happily once she popped the lid open and set into the ground for him. Rubbing his fur, Sydney looked up. Mitch was blushing.
There was an obvious effect on a middle-aged woman when a man like Mitch blushed. Sydney's mouth was too full of chocolate ice cream to grin, but the feeling was there, somewhere.
"Mr. Vale usually attends to-"
"No, yeah. Her other dad."
It wasn't her super power, but Sydney could see the switch clicking into place in her teacher's brain. The wrong switch, but still. Mrs. Jesse wasn't super bright or anything, but she was cool, Sydney thought, especially when Sydney surprised her with her own genius and the woman could not save face for the love of it. That was funny.
"I've got more than one dad."
This was one of these times. Jesse blushed furiously, fiercely red, and forced a smile to her lips before shaking Mitch's hand with more intent.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr... Vale?" Her lips didn't form the word 'two', even though Sydney watched like a hawk for it.
"Just call me Mitch."
"I want you to know you are equally welcome to the school reunions."
Sydney hid her delight behind a spoonful.
"That's... Thank you, but I'll leave that to Victor."
There was a beat where no one said or did anything, the adults' hands still clinging awkwardly to each other. And then Mitch looked down at the plastic bag and said, “So, uh, can I offer you an ice cream or something?"
Jesse toed her shoes off after she'd found a seating.
Shenanigans was not famous for being comfortable, but it was the only pub in town, and Jesse craved a beer. She nodded at Mike and a couple of frequent customers. Not that Jesse was a regular, but she'd taught some of them, or their children. It was hardly the sort of town a woman her age would be judged for drinking alone — well, it was hardly the sort of town she'd be able to drink alone. Mike wiped the counter in front of her and asked her how the children were doing.
"Oh, I think Sheila's in NY," she said. She could never tell with Sheila. "But Greg is fine. Still married to that woman of his. Told him to find a quiet girl, settle down around here. She's a career girl, that one, more than Sheila."
"Not what I meant. Fancy a drink?"
"Only a Stout. German, if you please. How's the missus?"
"Good. Your students," he added, before opening the beer for her like a true gentleman. "Doing fine?"
Jesse tossed her hair back and laughed.
"Yes, they are my kids, aren't they?"
Only after she'd sipped her drink Jesse managed to relax. It'd been so long since she'd dared to go out, mostly spending her time in the company of her old TV. After Johnny died and the children were gone... Jesse thought she'd lose her ground, but in fact, she'd found freedom in having the house all to herself.
She massaged the sole of her left foot with her toe.
"Who's the newcomer?" She asked Mike.
There was a young man with a shaggy mane sitting on the bar, a couple of chairs away from hers. By his standing, he looked like a soldier, like her Johnny, and sure as a fact, once he moved the dim bar light glinted on a pair of dog tags.
"That's Dominic. It's all I pried from him, but he's been coming here every night."
"Really? He isn't ill mannered, is he? The last thing we need here is a stranger causing a ruckus." Jesse liked to think herself wasn't judgmental, but she had had enough of strangers for months. Sure thing, Sydney was a lovely girl, and Victor was charming — though she couldn't pinpoint why, exactly. Jesse didn't mind he was— Well, he was living with another man. It's just that she wasn't used to it and, certainly, Sydney could do with a more feminine presence in her life, and not someone so...
But she was very sure Mitchell was a perfectly fine man, qualified to raise Sydney as well as he had.
"They've been together for over six years," Sydney told her. Six years. That was a lot more than most couples nowadays.
Mike broke her train of thought.
"Nah, soldier boy is alright. He orders a Jack and Coke. Just stares at it, most nights."
Jesse frowned. She could relate. Johnny had liked a drink, but at the same time, he'd been trying to stop. He said she wouldn't understand what he'd seen, so Jesse shut up and didn't bother him for explanations.
Finding her way back into her flats, Jesse skipped two chairs over, sitting close to Dominic, who was mostly startled but surprisingly pleased to see her approach.
"To what do I owe the honor?" He laid back, offering her a struggling smile. To her astonishment, she saw he had different colored eyes, and part of his face was scarred.
She couldn't help but feel embarrassed. Jesse didn't let it show. She raised her hand, which he met in greeting.
"Jesse Holden," she said. "I've never seen you around."
"Well," he quipped, once he realized she was just an older lady looking for small talk — God, she was really old now, wasn't she? —, "I haven't seen you around either. I suspect I'm more familiar to the place than you are."
"Shenanigans?" She cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, I'll tell you I've tended to those bar stools myself, back in my time."
Dominic granted her victory graciously, bowing his head.
"Dominic Rusher, m'am. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"We've rarely got new people around. Coming back from service, are you?"
He hesitated, and Jesse was about to apologize when he shook his head.
"Not really. I've been off the hook for some time."
Judging by his look, medical discharge. Jesse didn't want to judge, so she smiled, pressing her lips.
"So what brings you here, Rusher? An old flame?"
The words made Dominic laugh. He looked handsome when he laughed; a little more like the man he'd have been, before the scars.
"Oh, does this mean this old lady has a chance?"
He shook his head, still smiling.
"I'm afraid not, m'am. In a certain way, you are right," he said. "I did move here for a girl."
"The plot thickens." Jesse giggled. "What's her name?"
"Sydney. Sydney C-Ah. Vale."
"I'm her father."
The idea had come to Sydney when Mrs. Holden asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Once, the answer had come easy to Sydney. Serena. The word echoed in her head, as if her sister herself said it, and now it was implanted there. It was only when Jesse directed the question to her — and Sydney couldn't very well mention her dead sister now, could she? — that Sydney realized she didn't want that anymore.
Serena had been mean. She guessed she was, herself, now. But at least she hadn't let a psychopathic asshole ("Vocabulary", Mitch said) try and murder her sister. Well, the joke was on Serena, now. Wherever she was, Sydney hoped she was feeling sorry for allowing Eli into their lives. Her life. So now she wanted to be the un-Serena. After she walked home, Sydney allowed her bag to hit the floor and announced to anyone willing to listen.
"I know what we do, now."
Dol's ears shot straight up.
Oh. Her eyes glanced through the empty room, and she was resigned to tell her ideas to the dog before Dominic popped out of the kitchen, frying pan in hand.
Mitch joined him.
"That's great, sweetie."
"No, I mean it."
"Should I call Victor?"
Dominic and Mitch exchanged a meaningful glance. Sydney stormed into the kitchen, fists curled in her hips.
"No- Listen. I've got an idea, okay. I can't let you— waste away."
"We're not wasting away. We're all having a great time about raising you, Syd," Mitch said. So yeah, maybe he was. Strangely, the tall, burly man was the one who'd fallen best into his role, perhaps because he had no otherworldly powers besides a knack for stealing. He liked Dol. He liked ice cream. In his core, Mitch just yearned for a normal life.
Not her, though. Not Vic.
"You're having a good time, Rusher?"
Dominic looked down at being called by his last name. Sydney pressed.
"People who're having a good time don't hit the bar every night. I thought Victor had taken away your pain!"
Not all of it. Sydney knew. There were some types of hurt that went deeper than others. Unfixable.
She was being such a child, and she hated herself for it. But there was no other way, not even when Mitch stared at Dominic, hard, forcing him to look away.
"I thought we had an agreement," he said, low. Dominic said nothing, but he was flushing. It only made Sydney more upset. "Look, Sydney, we are all-"
"Trying, I know. But trying doesn't cut it, Mitch. I'm worried about Victor. He..." Is family, now. He, and all of you. You're all I have left.
Her eyes grew hotly under her boiling rage. Sydney shoved her arm in front of her face and wiped the non-existent tears before she could actually cry. "Listen, I know what we do now. We— Lay low, sure. If you want. We stay here, and I go to school. But pick up your laptop."
Mitch did, Sydney suspected, because he was as worried about Victor as herself. News from the penitentiary hadn't been great, lately. If they ever had any. Sydney had been expecting — hoping — Eli would escape. Except...
Eli Ever— No, Eli Cardale, had not managed to avoid the system. He was still locked up, for all they knew. The world went on without him, and Victor had retracted into himself, as if as long as Eli was a prisoner, he would be, too.
He could play dad, sure. There were good days, and then there were bad days. On the good days, he'd take her out for a movie, or for shopping. He'd take Dol for a run. On the bad days...
There were more bad days, now.
Sydney sat cross legged on the floor as Mitch started up his laptop; the same one he had used to fill in their untraceable bank account with money from, from what Sydney had gathered, Eli's previous one. It'd allowed them to live fairly comfortable, so at least Sydney had Eli to thank for that.
Pushing Mitch over to the side, Sydney managed to find what she'd been looking for.
"Aha," she said, after she'd opened a folder called "Porn", inside a folder called "Do not open", inside a folder called "For Mitch's eyes' only". Mitch sweated. A shortcut for access to Merit's Police Department files was neatly stuck inside. "I knew it!"
"Wow," Dominic said to Mitch, deadpan. "I never knew your tastes were so peculiar."
Sydney smiled at him.
"He's got your picture in here."
Dominic quickly retracted his previous statement. Mitch was on his way to tell "You pick up an habit or two in jail" when Sydney shushed him, pushing on a couple of buttons until the window opened. The names containing Eli's initials had disappeared, obviously, but Sydney figured out she could keep exploring through the backdoor Mitch had installed.
"I've been thinking. If Eli used this to discover EOs, we could do it too, right? Could you do it somewhere else? Like... here?"
"He used this to communicate with the police," Mitch corrected her.
"Yeah, but— think. Dominic got in for his drunk brawling, right? And Vic— Well. I think all EOs I've got to know so far have crossed paths with the police."
"And what do you propose to do with this?"
"We investigate," Sydney replied, light shining in her eyes. "We find them."
"And then what?"
"We help them, of course! To do better. To be better."
Dominic and Mitch were both silent. They weren't buying it, but Sydney was resolute.
"I'm gonna call Victor," she said, getting up. "And I'm going to tell him we're undoing every bit of evil Eli has done to EOs. We're doing more than putting him away. We're proving him *wrong*."
Jesse smile once Sydney raised her hand in class.
It was the third time that week. Jesse nodded at the girl, calling her out to the front of the class to solve a math problem.
"Okay," Sydney replied, "But can I have Carol's help with that? She's really smart, and she's been helping me a lot in this class."
Warmth filled Jesse's heart with hope. Now, she didn't want to preen and say she was responsible for the change. No, that'd be on Vale's account, if Victor had ever actually opened the book. Well, whatever was going on for them, it'd worked. Jesse had been unsure at first, with what the company Sydney kept. But all they needed, it seemed, was a little push. Jesse had even rewatched Mamma Mia!, and if Amanda Seyfried could have three fathers and live happily ever after in an ABBA musical, so could Sydney.
Sydney hopped to the front of the class, a new friend's hand in hers.
Well, there would be a marvelous report waiting for Mr. Vale in their next meeting.
Perhaps all three of them.