"Seems to be no end to the horrors nowadays," the old man near the head of the table remarked, folding up his newspaper.
"Why, Mr. Brown, what's the matter now?" the innkeeper's wife asked, bustling in with a large jug of orange juice.
"Innocent kids dyin', that's the matter," Mr. Brown said placidly, gesturing for coffee instead. Mrs. Wells looked at him in mild horror as she went to pour for the table's other occupant. He continued, "Seems down in Beth'ny there's been some school shootin'. Psychomaniac lost his wife, took his gun and started shootin' random civilians- made his way to a school, even, and started shootin' the kids comin' outside. Cops couldn't get near 'im for a while, there was so many other accidents and things happenin', and the guy firin' like crazy too the whole time- but what's worse than those poor kids bein' murdered, I don't know. Says here 'bout thirty of 'em died, mostly eight- 'n' nine-year-olds-"
"P-Pardon me, sir." The man sitting across from him had dropped the small brown book he'd been writing in. "Is the name of the school given?"
"Why, you're from Bethany, aren't you?" Mrs. Wells asked in some surprise, bringing out the pitcher of milk. "Got family there?"
"Yes, ma'am," the man murmured distractedly, looking at Mr. Brown.
"Hold your horses, boy, I'm lookin'. Some Mission, it was... Ah, here! Santo Pedro Mission School- right religious name, huh? Poor ol' pups... Why, what's the matter?"
For the man had dropped his glass of juice, his face turning pale as the moon in the painting over the fireplace. It was apparently a much-tinted version of Starry Night, painted by the aspiring young Master Wells. None of the inn's lodgers ever took much notice of it, to Mrs. Wells's amusement.
"Let me see that paper, please," the man requested calmly enough, before grabbing that discarded object and scanning the article furiously. He looked a little psychopathic himself.
Inspector's words... Murderer's bio... Casualties. The man held the paper almost to his eyes, going down the list with a kind of resigned calm. Deborah Cunningham, 9... Christopher Sanchez, 10... Olivia Martins, 8...
Amelia Stanford, 9.
The paper fluttered to the ground, followed soon by the body of the man, now unconscious.
"There was nothing I could do, Nick," Mrs. Hayes said, dabbing at her tear-streaked face with a handkerchief. "I-"
"It's alright," Nick Stanford interrupted weakly, shifting his free arm. "She's gone. Amy's gone and that's that."
It isn't just that.
"Nick. I know this must be hard for you. Hell, it's taking its toll on me and I wasn't even related to the angel," Mrs. Hayes said with unusual vehemence. "But, you know, Amy's finally with Sandra now. They've been separated too long, mother and daughter, and they're waiting for you, I know they are."
"Mrs. Hayes, please." Stanford's voice cracked. A nurse looked in, then bustled out- nobody had time to wait on someone who was sitting up and talking quite well, although still hooked to an IV. Hospitals were full to the brim already.
Mrs. Hayes sighed deeply. "Boy, I'm so sorry for you-"
Nick thought fleetingly of a priceless memory from long ago: Sandra lying peacefully on the bed at home, cradling baby Amy's fuzzy gold head to her chest, her long brown hair framing them both in the drop of sunlight that entered through a cracked windowpane...
Coming upon that peaceful scene, he'd stopped short, gazing at them for hours from the doorway. His treasures. Nick Stanford had never felt luckier in his life.
Mrs. Hayes was still rambling, about God's great mercy and other things. Nick knew how deeply Amy must have affected her, because the Mrs. Hayes he'd known before didn't ramble. Although she was just the neighbor he'd left Amy in charge of, of course, everyone loved Amy.
He couldn't bring himself to care at all, though.
So he groaned and flopped limply on the bed. It wasn't hard- life felt like a limp dead fish anyway- but it did the trick. Mrs. Hayes summoned the nurse, who checked his pulse and told Mrs. Hayes that she'd better go, the gentleman was unconscious again and most likely wouldn't be up for a while. So that good lady left, followed soon by the nurse.
Then Nick opened his eyes, and for a while regretted sending Mrs. Hayes away- he certainly didn't want to be alone with his thoughts. Then he saw the newspaper lying next to his bed.
He flipped past the headlines, looking at the smaller, informative articles and ads. There were several classes and rehab groups, as well as smaller organizations. One caught his eye. Maria's Mosaics, it said.
A painting of a bird in flight, constructed in mosaic form with eggshells as the base, was the icon for the ad. It was for a small art-and-craft group that focused primarily on mosaic art. The first meeting was next Monday- Nick checked his phone- two days away.
He had a month's leave anyway, to get his affairs in order, go through with Amy's funeral, and take care of any other complications. It was standard company policy on any employee's close relative's death. He wasn't quite ready health-wise to go back to work either.
Home would be torture without Amy. Somehow, that quiet child managed to fill every corner of the house, as well as of his heart. Briefly Nick wondered how he'd ever go on living the same way without her.
He looked back at the ad. It was so simple, two days a week for three weeks, at a small lounge area in the local rec center. Run by a woman named Maria, obviously. There was no charge- Stanford assumed Maria was a community-service-oriented kind of person.
Maybe he'd give it a try... he certainly had no plans on Monday.