Chapter 3 - Part 3
Their outings often brought them to Clearwater's central shopping district. It was the only place where Mathias could get the bulk of his weekly shopping done in one outing while maximizing his public appearance. The shops in this area formed a large circular court, the store front windows facing the large decorative fountain with no real significance apart from showing off the town's collective wealth.
Children were playing, screeching and laughing under the supervision of a watchful parent. Mismatched couples gathered, window shopping for things that they could not afford, but dreamed of owning one day. It wasn't uncommon to see older men courting women as young as sixteen. William would have to wait until his return from the war before he would be eligible to select a wife. Unless another arrangement was made, the earliest he could participate in the matrimonial contracts was at twenty-three assuming he didn't need societal rehabilitation. He had a girlfriend now. Nothing serious, just something to pass the summer months. He'd need to break up with her in a couple of weeks; he reminded himself. Parents were often leery of teenage love, often making some dire accusation of their daughters. Their worth on the matrimonial market lay in their virginity. He had no idea why. By being the son of the Master Hunter bought him privileges that the local boys didn't have, and that meant a lot less sneaking around and fewer angry parents. In fact, for whatever reason, it was going to be his girlfriend's fault when he breaks up with her, allowing him to escape guilt free.
The shops were two stories high; the top floor reserved for the business owners' living quarters. The roofs were set up to allow for heavy plant growth, showcasing the town's real talent in beautification through a process called re-greening. Over the years, Clearwater's green architects had given the town the appearance of living in harmony with nature. Flowers had failed to bloom this year, and the bushels of green were a bit on the sparse side, revealing the steel and stone surfaces beneath it. It gave the impression that nature had enough of its one-sided relationship and was in the process of packing it's bags for another town.
The overall failure of a thriving greenery had a huge impact on Clearwater's local green architect. Believing that it was just a bad year, William's father had decided to commission the local garden center for large weekly orders that he would collect and transport to the memorial site.
A customer stormed out of the shop, nearly colliding with the sliding doors that were only a half second from being too slow. "I don't give a damn about the weather conditions! You better find a way to fix it, or you'll never work in this town again," the patron raged with an unjustified self-importance.
William relished in the drama, waiting with baited breath to hear the old man conjure up some clever rebuttal. He wanted to know if the patron actually had the sort of pull to honour his threat. He imagined himself in that sort of position, shutting down businesses he didn't approve of. He'd start with Vincent's parents shop, just to prove that the little toad had no right to humiliate him in front of his classmates the way he did.
William smirked at the old man who shuffled out the door to greet them. The light in his eyes had dimmed, and he was looking his age this year, marking his face with deep worry lines at his mouth and forehead. There was no confidence in his stride, no smile in his eyes or joy in his stance. "Sorry, you overheard that," the proprietor sighed. Astral stared up at the old man as though peering into his soul.
The old man froze, aware of his young patron's frosty glare. "Grandpa wants some flowers," she said after some thought. She pulled her bear from her back and riffled through its contents to find her palm tablet. She fiddled with the device pulling up the message with the order and presented it to the old man.
He read it carefully. "I would love to fill the order, Lady Daamon, but I doubt that they'll survive the journey." He admitted.
She stomped her foot, snapping the old man out of his self-pity. "Make it work. If one bad year is all it takes to break you, I'd hate to think my family has wasted their time giving you their business."
He recoiled; wide-eyed. She was loud, intentionally so. "You will fill this order. Granddad is showcasing your work at his gala, and I will not have any of these stupid rumours impact the event. Do I make myself clear."
The people had stopped mingling to watch the young teen reprimand the business owner whose eyes watered as his face lit up. "Of course, Lady Daamon. I'll have the order sent this evening. Shall I send the invoice to the councilman?"
Astral nodded and returned the device to her bear. She had lost interest in the old man, apparently achieving whatever results she had meant to.
He bowed his head and returned to his shop before Mathias had a chance to speak with him. "Astral!" He growled. "You shouldn't talk to people like that."
Astral glanced up at Mathias as though noticing him for the first time. "Didn't you mention something about wanting him to do something to memorial? Hanging baskets or something..."
Mathias narrowed his eyes at her. He was thinking; William could tell, by the way his anger with the student melted away with the concern that he may have forgotten something important. Astral shrugged. "His personal touches should probably be added before the Lantern Festival if he wants to show off his real masterpiece."
The anger was gone now. "Right, thanks for reminding me." He made a note on his pocket tablet. "You need to be nicer to people," he reprimanded her dutifully.
"I don't know what else to do. Throwing money at him isn't dealing with the real problem. I see side effects of the core issue," she told Mathias cryptically. "I'm led to wonder if the intention was to build an ecosystem of sorts."
Mathias arched a brow as the idea struck home. William wasn't sure what Astral was talking about, but he was sure animals weren't the issue of the old man's failed plants. "That's nothing you need to concern yourself with," he told her while casting a glance to flowery display in the window. His father was right; the garden center's business was none of her business. It was better off dying out if it couldn't keep up with the changing environment.
Mathias led them to a little shop called The Atelier. As the name implied, the shop was home to a tailor. Old man Humphrey had become a tailor when he retired from the war and still does custom orders. The bulk of the business was handled by Mr. Humphrey's daughter-in-law who was a custom designer and expert seamstress.
Many of her custom designs were on display in the window featuring a strong Victorian influence combined with modern design. Every year, she'd select an era from the history books and feature fresh takes. It was hard to tell if her designs were popular since the people of Clearwater often favoured practical, durable clothing that was designed to last, not exactly a feature that worked in The Atelier's favour.
The charming little shop liked to keep a classic approach to running their business. A small brass bell enthusiastic ring announced the arrival of new patrons. Imported fabrics of a wide variety of colours and textures were on display on large rolls on the furthest wall. In the center of the fabric display, was a door that led to a private fitting area. Patrons would be treated like guests visiting friends as the seamstress worked her way around hems and waists to get just the perfect fit.
Behind the cashier's counter was a door with a beaded curtain that lead to the stuffier area of the shop. William could make out the shape of the aged Mr. Humphrey inspecting something under a magnifying glass.
The shop always felt old to William. He couldn't tell if it was the choice of colours, the custom fixtures, or the fashion showcase. Mrs. Humphrey emerged from the fitting area in her custom-designed ensemble ripped from the pages of history. She was a tanned woman in her late sixties with thick white hair, neatly tied up in a bun that propped up a cute little hat. Her dark eyes lit up at the sight of her patrons, but she never broke the character she was playing, at least in terms of movement.
"Early, as expected, Master Mathers," she greeted warmly.
"Sorry to inconvenience you, but I have a few errands I have to get sorted before nightfall. If you would be so kind to get started with William's fitting," he asked. William didn't see how it would be an inconvenience.
"It should take an hour," she told him, the smile never fading. "Will you be so kind to allow my daughter to accompany you. I have errands I need her to run as well."
'Subtle,' William thought.
Mathias nodded. It was a fair exchange.
"Kendra, darling," Mrs. Humphrey called, pushing aside the beaded curtain.
Kendra was in her late twenties, her eyes bore the hallowed look of someone who had seen too much but had recovered enough to exist in everyday society. "Yes, mother," she replied timidly. Her mother placed a gentle hand on her daughter's shoulder, before lifting her daughter's chin so that her averted gaze would recognize her mother.
Kendra used to be a vibrant young woman, or so William was told. She had left the village a few years before he had arrived to live with his father. Her tale was one of warning for the young local women, her failure to catch herself a husband before her eighteenth birthday got her sent to serve in the war. She was one of a handful of survivors from Clearwater. Since returning from her tour, she was a shell of her former self, preferring to stay well away from people. She gave William the impression of a carefully manicured doll. Not a single dark hair was out of place, done up in an elaborate combination of braids and knots. Her clothes resembled the modern Victorian combination presented in the window, whose rich colours made her cinnamon skin look smooth and flawless. He imagined her mother caring for her, gently stroking her hair while speaking softly to her in the hopes of calling out the daughter she had lost to the war.
"It's okay, Kendra, darling. Master Mathers will help you if you need it," her mother cooed while smiling if only to hide the tears forming in her eyes.
Kendra lowered her head and walked toward Mathias, who offered his arm. She wrapped her fingers around his arm and allowed him to lead her out. Playing timid and submissive the way that she did was a clever ruse to fetch herself the most available man in Clearwater.
"William," the seamstress pulled the boy from his thoughts, "if you would meet me in the fitting room. We can get started on your uniform."
"Right," William nodded. He glanced at Astral, who had set herself up at the counter to rummage through her nap sack. A teddy was half hanging out with its stuffing escaping onto the counter surface. He assumed that she wanted her bear mended. Stupid kid.
William stepped into the fitting room. The room had a simple decor with three doors leading to change rooms. There was seating for family, if needed, and a small table where tea and snacks would be served. He stepped onto the platform.
Mrs. Humphrey knelt down, placing her kit to her left and going over her tablet for William's records. "Stand absolutely still," she warned.
William held his breath. He knew that he didn't have to stay still; it was just a part of the game they played. The platform sprang to life, breaking apart as the components rose up to scan him, circling his body from head to foot. The platform rose up and slowly fell as it gauged his weight.
"I heard this joke the other day," she told him as part of their routine. "how did it go..."
She was terrible with jokes, she knew it too. That was part of the fun. He'd laugh because the joke was so bad, or she'd start with the punch line, or forget a whole section of the joke. He swore she did it on purpose. This time was no different.
"Looks like you've grown a few inches," she announced with a note of triumph in her voice as the platform returned to its dormant state.
"Really?" he glanced in the mirror ahead of him and scrutinized his height. He didn't feel taller. It didn't matter because Astral was still taller than him. It was obvious to him that she had to be some sort of freak.
"Looks like we don't need to do too much in the way of adjustments...," she said to herself, making some notes on her tablet as she wandered off. She returned moments later with one of his school uniforms. "I think just the one will do, we can make the adjustments on the others when we do the fitting."
He slid his arms into the white blazer with shield emblem over his left breast. He puffed out his chest, admiring how the jacket looked on him. Piece by piece, the vest, shirts, pants, and coats were meticulously measured to be the perfect fit for just him.
"Hey Astral," William called, "come check out my uniform." He wanted to taunt her with something her grandfather would never allow her to have: a normal school experience. Astral entered the room and gazed up at William questioningly. "Check it out!" he puffed out his chest. "I look cool don't I?"
Astral glanced to Mrs. Humphrey as though silently asking what she was meant to say in this situation. "You look so dashing, Mr. Mathers," Mrs. Humphrey cooed, squeezing his cheek. He felt properly foolish.
"Dad finish with your order, Lady Daamon?" Mrs. Humphrey always spoke to Astral with a similar gentleness that she used on her daughter. Astral nodded. "Yes, he said it'll be ready in a couple of weeks."
"That long for a bear!" William blurted.
"He needs major surgery," Astral explained in a tone that was far too serious for a child. "And recovery time."
"Whatever, you need to quit being a kid," William growled. This concern with her teddy bears wasn't going to win her any boyfriends, and it made her look stupid and weak.
"Hush now, William!" Mrs. Humphrey warned. "Dear, you need to hold on to that innocence for as long as you can, you hear," she told Astral. "There's no telling what direction life will take you, so you had best enjoy the little things for as long as you can. You're all done, Mr. Mathers. If you would do me the honours, Lady Daamon." She gestured to the platform.
Astral stepped onto it, taking William's place. He peered over the seamstress' shoulder to look at the data she was collecting. Astral was 157 cm (5'2") and weighed 50 kg (110 lbs). Mrs. Humphrey's gaze slid from her tablet to the watching William. The seamstress hid the contents of her tablet behind her ample bosom. "A lady never reveals her secrets," she told William with a wink.
The store bell chimed. "Don't worry it's just us," Mathias called to the fitting room. William's father spoke with Kendra, encouraging her to take down his order. He spoke softly to her, guiding her through each step and patiently waiting for her to finish each item on the list. She was playing him like a harp. William ignored the pair; there was nothing he'd be able to do about it anyway. It's not like his dad ever listened to him.
"We're all done here," Mrs. Humphrey announced. Astral took the seamstresses hand and hopped to the ground. "Got the Master's order, darling?" she asked her daughter, who nodded while keeping her eyes on the tablet in her hands.
"Thank you for your patronage, Master Mathers," Kendra squeaked. Kendra raised her eyes just as Astral entered the room, for a second they shared a silent conversation, and the timid woman's demeanour changed from frightened mouse to serene. She smiled to herself. "Thank you for your patronage, Lady Daamon," she said a bit more firmly. "We look forward to doing business with you in the future." Her eyes fell back to the console in her grasp, and she proceeded to the back room.
"Thank you for taking our orders," Astral replied firmly just as the seamstress' daughter disappeared behind a veil of beads.
"That was weird," William announced. "Anyone else think so." William couldn't quite put his finger on why he felt so weird about the way she spoke that line, but he got the impression that it was code for something.
Mathias cast his son a dark look. "It's the small gestures that help war veterans like Kendra. I don't want to hear that tone from you again, do I make myself clear?"
"We have your orders. They'll be ready for fitting in a few days. I will send a message to schedule your appointment at that time," Mrs. Humphrey smiled. Business concluded; it was time for them to leave.
- What are your initial impressions of Kendra?
- A personal question for those with friends or family who have served as soldiers. Did you notice a change in their personalities? In the way the carry themselves? Negative or positive, I'm curious about your experience.
- Have you ever had to or were expected to pick up an old life after a major life change? Example: going to college and coming back home for the holidays. Or probably more relevant to threshold millennials, having lived independently and started a career, and having to move back in with your folks due to the recession. It doesn't have to be negative, there are wonderful positive stories too, my mind just goes to the dark places faster than the good ones. Would you share your story - the experience, the emotion, the challenges?
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