Virtue: the perfect example of Small Town, USA. Whereas the rest of the country had barreled head first into the 21st century, Virtue still clung to its 19th century charm. That wasn't to say they weren't up to date on the latest technologies; they simply didn't show it off. Hybrids are far more common than horse-drawn carriages these days, but either would look perfectly natural moving between the dozens of mom and pop stores along the main street.
One of those mom and pop stores was Sterling & Son, a bookstore that had been in Virtue almost as long as the city itself. Mr. Sterling had inherited the store from his father, and his father had inherited it from his father before him. When the youngest Sterling and his wife took over the business, and she became pregnant, everyone expected them to continue that tradition.
But something was wrong. After the third miscarriage, the doctors said that Mrs. Sterling would never be able to bear children. The couple was devastated. When they returned home from the hospital for the last time, passing on the business was the farthest thing from their minds. They simply wished for a child to call their own.
Just before dawn the very next day, they found a basket on their doorstep. Inside was the answer to their prayers.
Not everyone was happy with the arrival of little Alton Sterling Jr. For every person who thought the couple had been blessed by a miracle from God, just as many thought that something darker was at work. It was too much of a coincidence that the very next day, before anyone could have known about the doctors' bad news, there was a beautiful baby boy waiting for them to take in. It was too much for the superstitious citizens to leave unnoticed.
Regardless, Sterling & Son now had its heir, and twenty-five years later, Junior was left in charge while his parents left for a much needed vacation. A test, they had told him, to see how well he could handle the business on his own. He assured them that everything would be better than in order when they returned, that he was sure to pass their test.
They didn't know he would be giving others tests of their own.
Perhaps those superstitions weren't entirely wrong...
The first order of business for the day was organizing the shop, and Alton sadly had to admit things weren't going well. His parents had only left the night before and he'd already had to call them twice when the new shipment of books came in early and they wouldn't accept his signature on the forms. After getting the paperwork squared away, the delivery crew abandoned him to bring all the boxes inside on his own. One box, he could've handled, maybe even two, but six? And he couldn't leave them in the alleyway too long either. And the store was still locked, so...
That left Alton juggling two boxes and his keys while he tried to unlock the front door. Things were not going well on his first day alone.
It was a stroke of good fortune when one of the most notoriously helpful young ladies in all of Virtue just happened to be walking by. Sloane was walking briskly, dark blonde hair trapped firmly in a modern French twist and she dressed nicely in a pair of black slacks and a tasteful white blouse that dipped just low enough to frame her silver heart-shaped necklace.
"Dexter, sweetie," she was saying lightly over the phone held firmly to her ear. "I know it's your turn to choose what's for lunch today, but Mac' n Cheese isn't a meal. No, I'm not saying we can't have it, I'm just saying... yes, yes, put it on the counter and find something to go with it, okay?" Then, upon catching sight of the struggling bookkeeper out of the corner of her eye, she slowed her pace. Quickly, Sloane gave an apologetic, "Honey, I have to go. I'll see you soon, okay? Love you, bye!" and hung up, stashing her cell phone safely inside the brown purse that was hanging over her shoulder.
"Hello!" she called cheerily over to Alton, immediately redirecting her course over in his direction. "You certainly look like you could use an extra pair of hands! Would you like some help?"
Alton's glasses slipped down his nose as he tried to get a look at the stranger. He gave her an awkward nod, adjusting his load. "If you could take my keys and get the door, that would be wonderful. Thanks."
He waited a beat before shifting the boxes again to hold the keys out to her. "I'm surprised someone stopped. I've been having an awful time getting assistance today."
Taking the keys, Sloane unlocked the door as she responded with a small laugh. "Well, that's me always on the look out to lend a hand where it's needed." Holding the door open for him, the woman spied the other four boxes sitting nearby. Judging by their identical appearance to the two that Alton was carrying, it was easy to assume they were part of the same shipment. Eager to help the poor man out as much as she could, she volunteered, "If you'd like, I could help you carry in the rest of the boxes, too."
"Really, that isn't..." he began. "What am I saying? If it isn't too much to ask, I would be very grateful." Setting his load down on the shop counter, Alton took out a hair-tie to pull back his long hair, tucking a few stray strands behind his ears. It was moments like these that made people nervous: the young man had a dark beauty about him bone straight hair that was a lustrous black and stunning deep blue eyes that never seemed quite natural, and even something as mundane as fixing his hair could send uneasy chills down your spine. Alton either didn't know this, or chose to ignore it. "I'll get two, you get two?"
"Sure thing!" Sloane replied, shaking the thoughts of the young man's haunting appearance from her mind. She had noticed it, of course, but held firm to her belief that it was just her imagination. Ever since she was a little girl people had been warning her about him, her parents especially, but she felt it was wrong to judge a person by the way that they looked or their unconventional upbringing. Maybe she didn't know him very well, but that could always change. For all she knew, Alton was a perfectly nice guy, and from what she had seen so far, he was.
Hoisting one of the stacks of two boxes up in her arms, the blonde let out a rush of air as she carefully turned and headed back to the shop. "This is certainly one of those times I'm glad I lug heavy animals around all day."
Alton chuckled softly. "Oh? You work at the veterinary clinic on the corner of Lamech and Japheth, don't you?" He set the last two boxes down to close the door. "I need to remember to take Adonis in this week to get his teeth cleaned."
Placing the boxes she had carted inside next to his, Sloane nodded as she smoothed out her blouse, smiling all the while. "You guessed right: Dr. Lamport... but just call me Sloane." Looking around at the tidy little shop, the blonde couldn't help but wonder why she hadn't been in there before or at least for a good while. It really would due her some good to read a bit more, and peel Dexter off of the television.
"Adonis?" Inwardly, Sloane tried to recall the animal the name belonged to. It wasn't ringing any bells, but she did guess it wasn't a dog; Alton just didn't seem like the type.
A deep, throaty "Meerrrrrrroooooow?" announced the arrival of the Siamese, and the furry beast rubbed itself against Sloane's legs, as if asking why she had called him over. Alton couldn't help but laugh.
Sloane practically squealed in delight as her eyes snapped down to see the cat, and her grin stretching from ear to ear, she bent down to pet the Siamese and scratch him lightly behind the ears. "Why hello there; you must be Adonis." With a small giggle, she added, "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Turning her head to look up at the dark-haired male as she pet the small creature, Sloane explained, "I just adore animals. Of course, that was probably pretty obvious, considering my occupation, right?"
"Not necessarily." Alton opened one of the boxes and began checking the inventory for the books. "Though uncommon, I'm sure there are some vets who don't like animals. I try not to make assumptions about people until I get to know them better. The whole 'don't judge a book by its cover' thing."
He looked up from the paperwork with a satisfied nod. "Father will be glad to know these are all here. He said he would go through them when they got back, so I'll just put these into storage until they're needed." He offered Sloane a smile. "Would you like to stay for a cup of tea or a little late breakfast? I'm not opening the shop today, since it's Sunday."
Giving Adonis a final pat on the head, she stood. "Oh, tea sounds lovely. I'd love to stay and..." she started, but her smile faltered as she trailed off. "Well, I would love to," she corrected, "But I can't. My son's at home. I was on my way over for my lunch break to cook him something. Maybe I could take you up on that offer some other time?"
His smile wavered only slightly, but he nodded in understanding. "Of course. Do you have the store's number, or would you rather I give you the home line? I had father get the second line when personal calls began interfering with business."
"I'll take your home line... if that's not too personal. Oh, hold on I have a notepad in here somewhere..." Sloane answered, rummaging through her purse as she spoke before pulling out a small notepad and a pen. Clicking the pen open, she flipped to a blank page. "For emergencies and grocery lists; it comes in handy."
"You're very prepared." Alton gave her the number and scooped up Adonis in his arms. "The shop is open weekdays from seven in the morning until six at night, eight to five on Saturday. Feel free to drop by anytime though; just knock."
"Great, thanks! I'll be sure to do that." Flipping the pad of paper closed and stashing it away in her purse, Sloane gave him a polite wave as she started toward the door. "It was really nice to talk to you, and I'm sorry I couldn't stay. I'll be sure to stop on by sometime soon, though, maybe make a purchase! Have a nice day!"
With that, Sloane was out the door and trotting towards her apartment, trying to think of the possible dishes she could make with macaroni and cheese, given the confines of what she had in the kitchen. It felt like the closer she got to her doorstep, the less she felt like cooking at all. Why her son was so addicted to dairy products (and especially Mac' n Cheese), she had no idea.
Soon, she was pulling out her keys and unlocking the front door, and the sound of the old Pac Man game flooded around her. Accompanying the familiar Game Over jingle came a girlish groan and a tactless quip from the voice of what was obviously a young boy yet to hit puberty.
"You really suck at this game."
"I'm home!" Sloane called as she rounded the corner, beaming down at the small boy and teenage girl who were seated on a plushy tan couch. Immediately, the slightly-geeky girl dropped the controller and whipped her head around to face the woman. The two had a brief exchange where the blonde thanked the girl for looking after her son, and soon the younger of the two had bounced out, leaving the small family to themselves. As they talked, the boy had turned his whole body to prop his elbows on the top of the furniture and place his chin dully in his hands. He looked a lot like Sloane, with eyes a darker shade of blue and a very light slathering of freckles across his nose. He was dressed heavily, most of his head hidden underneath an orange-and-brown patchwork woolen hat, and smothered snugly inside a black jacket about three sizes too big for him.
"Hi, Mom." He greeted quickly before abruptly continuing, "I don't see why I need a babysitter anymore. I'm not a kid; I'm nearly ten."
"Maybe," Sloane agreed gently, approaching him to plant a peck on his cheek, "But I feel much better when I know you're not alone."
Dexter made a face, turning back around and hopping to his feet, hands in his pockets. With utter disdain, he complained, "Well could you at least ask someone other than Bethany? She has a lisp, and smells like eggs."
"Honey, that's rude. Bethany lives right next door, and she's a very nice young lady!" protested the single mother as she headed into the kitchen to scour for materials. Dexter followed, rolling his eyes.
"Being nice doesn't change how she smells."
"That wasn't the point." Shooting him a playful smile, Sloane added, "Besides, you smell like cheese, thanks to all the dairy products you eat, so don't point fingers, Mister."
He paused, chewing his lip as he tried to think of a rebuttal, in the end only managing a small "whatever" as his mother drifted restlessly from cabinet to cabinet, trying to decide what to eat.
"You know..." Dexter suggested casually, hope sparking in his large eyes, "You could always take the rest of the day off, and we could go out to lunch!"
Sloane sighed, turning to look at him. "Sweetie, I'd love to, but I really shouldn't..." At this, the boy visibly drooped.
"That's what you always say..." he complained glumly, scuffing his feet on the tile of the kitchen floor, "You never spend time with me anymore..."
"Now, that isn't fair..." the young woman whined sadly, a sad crease appearing on her forehead. She pouted as she looked at the disappointment clearly written across the face of her mousy son, mulling it over. It really had been a while since the two had gone out and done something together... and there hadn't been many appointments scheduled for the day. She could easily call in and get one of her coworkers to take over the rest of her shift; she rarely used her sick days.
The silence continued between the two for a moment longer before Sloane brightly asked, "...Chinese?"
Dexter's face lit up like a candle. "The Golden Frog? Really? Awesome, Mom! We haven't been there in forever!" Surging forward and grabbing her wrist, the adolescent practically dragged the blonde out the door, her laughing all the while.
The walk from their apartments to the restaurant in question took about fifteen minutes, time used for Sloane to call her work and notify them of her absence due to "family matters" and for Dexter to continue the debate that he was old enough to look after himself on the weekends and when she was at work after school hours. Masterfully, she promised him that they would talk about it more after they ate.
The Golden Frog was one of the newer establishments in town, growing slowly alongside the more popular diners and restaurants. The owners barely spoke any English, likewise with the chefs, but at least a handful of the waiters knew enough to keep things moving on the floor. The Lamports were lucky enough to get the only waiter whose first language wasn't Chinese.
"Welcome to The Golden Frog," he greeted as he handed them their menus. "My name is Avery and I will be your server today. Can I start you off with something to drink?"
He really did stand out amongst the mostly Asian employees with his platinum blonde ringlets framing his round, boyish face, and he couldn't have been much older than nineteen or so. He smiled expectantly at the pair, waiting to take their order.
"Well, hello, Avery!" Sloane greeted in response, glancing over the list of beverages listed on the back of the menu. "Hmmm... actually, I think I'll just stick to an ice water. How about you, little man?"
Dexter tugged on the side flaps of his hat, further obscuring his face. Growing a bit sheepish, as he had a tendency to do around people he wasn't used to, the boy inquired hopefully toward the waiting server, "grape soda?"
"I'm afraid we don't carry grape soda," Avery said with a slight frown. "We have cherry cola though. Would that be alright?"
Dexter hesitated, seeming to weigh his options, and then nodded in an embarrassed sort of approval. Throughout the exchange, Sloane couldn't help but be grateful for the waiter they had gotten. Otherwise, the grape soda conflict could have escalated into a whole other level of messy.
"Alright then," Avery said as he jotted down their drinks. "I'll be right back with those drinks." He started to leave, but stopped, instead crouching beside Dexter's chair and giving him a warm smile.
"Do you know what your Chinese zodiac sign is?" he asked.
Slowly, the capped child shook his head, barely blinking as he watched the waiter. "Can you tell me?" He asked, looking a little amazed; he didn't know how it worked.
Sloane put a hand on her son's shoulder. "If he can, he'll need to know the year you were born."
"Oh." Pausing, Dexter glanced up at his mother before looking back at Avery. "I'm nine, I was born in 2000."
"Hm..." Avery nodded thoughtfully, reaching into the pocket of his apron. "Then that would make you a dragon."
He placed a small clay figurine on the table. The tiny sculpture was a remarkably detailed depiction of a Chinese dragon, right down to its whiskers and scales. The gold paint had flecked off a bit around the base, but it still shimmered.
"Whoa!" the boy exclaimed, eyes shining as he snatched up the figurine, pouring over it. "That's so cool! Look, Mom! Look, look!" Sloane laughed as he practically shoved the expertly crafted figurine at her, carefully taking it and beaming at Avery.
"That was so nice of you... say thank you to Avery, Dexter. Always thank someone if they give you a nice gift!"
Nearly bouncing and barely able to take his eyes off the miniature golden dragon, the small blonde obediently chirped, "Thank you! This is awesome! You're the best waiter, ever! Mom, Mom, let's come here every day!"
Avery laughed and stood. "You're welcome, little man. I'd best be off to get your drinks." He turned and finally left their table, leaving them to peruse the menu.
The lunch rush (if it could be called that) was starting to pick up, and the tables surrounding them quickly filled with other patrons. Chatter volume rose to a moderate hum, and more servers came out on the floor. It was still easy to spot Avery as he returned with their drinks.
"Do you know what you want?" he asked, notepad once again in hand.
"I'll have..." Sloane mused aloud, giving a final sweep of the menu as she ordered, "the beef and broccoli plate with steamed white rice."
"I want the orange chicken with fried rice!" Dexter piped up immediately afterward, all of his shyness having vanished upon receiving his gift from Avery (which was once again resting on the tabletop).
"And can we get a side of egg rolls, please?" Sloane added politely as she stacked the boy's menu on top of her own and handed it to their server.
"Beef and broccoli with rice..." he muttered as he jotted everything down. "And a side of egg rolls. Sure, that's no problem." Avery left their table again and disappeared into the kitchen, passing another waiter as he headed towards a table nearby.
His customer was a young red-headed woman who giggled constantly, making it painfully obvious that she was trying to flirt her way into getting something for free. The waiter was clearly uncomfortable especially when she hinted that she might have to give "that nice ass of his" a good squeeze and as he backed away to take her order to the kitchen, he bumped into the Lamport's table.
Sloane's glass toppled over, spilling into her lap, while the waiter dove to catch Dexter's soda. He kept it from tipping, but unfortunately, his arm knocked into the figurine, sending it sliding off of the table and onto the floor.
While the effort made to save his soda would have normally been very much appreciated, Dexter wasn't even looking at the glass. Instead, while Sloane recuperated from the shock of suddenly being doused by water and tried frantically to mop up the mess with the thick cloth provided as a napkin, his eyes were fixed horrified at the spot where the small sculpture had hit the ground.
There, the dragon lay in several pieces, and the boy shook as he reached down and gingerly picked up the fragments, trying with all his might not to cry.
"Ah, so sorry! So sorry!" the waiter repeated, trying to help Sloane get cleaned up. "I get you new glass and napkin." He turned to the young boy and grimaced, taking in the damage before patting him gently on the shoulder. "Don't you worry; Ava fix! I go get Ava, and he fix it right good!"
The waiter disappeared before the small disaster could draw any more attention and came back seconds later with Avery in tow, chattering frantically in Chinese and pointing towards the table. Avery's responses were calm and quiet, and he sent the other waiter back into the kitchen before kneeling by Dexter again.
"Can I see it?" he asked, holding out his hand for the pieces of the dragon.
"I-It was an accident..." Dexter explained quietly, eyes downcast as he dropped the pieces into Avery's hands. Sloane just watched, frowning worriedly. He had been in such a good mood, but all too quickly it had come crashing down. The blonde woman just hoped that maybe the food would cheer him up and he'd forget all about the broken figurine by the time they went home.
Avery gave him a slight, almost cocky smile. "You know, dragons aren't so easy to defeat," he said, closing his fist around the remains of the figurine. "This is really nothing. All it takes is a little bit of courage, and it'll be good as new. Can you be brave for me?"
Dexter did his very best to compose himself, taking in a large breath and nodding as he looked into the face of the older male. "Of course I can," he answered confidently with a nod, pulling on the flaps of his large hat. "I'm almost ten!"
Avery's smile widened and he looked down at his closed fist. "That'll do it." Unfurling his fingers, he revealed a fully intact figurine, glinting as it had been before. The waiter laughed lightly and handed it back to Dexter. "If it ever breaks again, just bring it back to me and we'll prove you're brave enough to protect it, alright?"
His eyes going as wide as saucers, Dexter stared at the revived dragon, so amazed he couldn't even find the words to express himself. As Sloane watched, her eyebrows raised, as well. How had he done that? She hadn't seen him replace it. As she puzzled over this, her son rediscovered his voice and peeled his eyes off of the golden statue, looking back at Avery once more.
"Are you a magician?" he asked, excited. "How did you do that?"
The young mother put a hand on Dexter's shoulder, reminding him, "If he is, Honey, you know they can never reveal their secrets. Besides, he already told you that he was able to fix it because of how brave you were, remember?"
"Oh yeah..." The boy mused. "Well, I promise I'll protect it way, way better from now on!"
"Good." Avery stood, nodding towards Sloane. "Is there anything else I can get you? A towel, perhaps? Your lunch will be ready shortly, but if there's anything you need..."
"A towel would be nice, actually oh, and maybe a refill?" She replied, glancing down at her empty glass. "Other than that, I think we're fine. Thank you so much for your help."
"It's no trouble at all. I'll be right back with your water and a towel." When Avery returned, he also brought them a second plate of egg rolls, gratis from the owner for their troubles. When he brought their meal out, the other waiter was helping him, and he again apologized for bumping into their table and making such a mess (not to mention a fool of himself). Once Avery was sure they were all settled, he left them to their lunch, checking back every now and again to refill drinks and make sure things were still going smoothly.
And for the remainder of their time there, everything did go smoothly. Whenever Avery came by to check on them, Dexter tried to ask him questions (an action to which Sloane reminded him patiently that the young man was very busy and couldn't stay and chat for too long), and both the waiters were assured that they had absolutely no complaints. The food was delicious, and thanks to the complimentary extra batch of egg rolls, the young woman had to request a take-home box to pack them in. Then, after paying (and leaving Avery a handsome tip for all of his help and hard work), Dexter pocketed his dragon and the couple left with their leftovers in hand.
About twenty minutes later, they were home. The first thing Sloane did when they stepped through the door was check the clock. It was now about a quarter to three, making it a good two and a half hours since they had left. While she put her purse down in the kitchen, Dexter had made his way back to the living room, where he was shrugging his large jacket off and discarding it onto the couch. When he took off his hat and threw it carelessly onto the mantle before smoothing out his mess of dirty-blonde hair, Sloane approached him, resting her hands on the back of the sofa as she chided, "Alright, Mister, I would like you to take a shower before it gets too late."
Dexter groaned in response, shoulders sagging. "But Mom," he complained, opening his mouth to further protest when she cut him off.
"No buts," she interjected. "Your games aren't going anywhere, and I'm sure you can live another twenty minutes without them. Now, go on."
Her son made a show of kicking off his shoes and sending them flying across the room, but nonetheless trekked off to the bathroom.
"Don't forget to scrub behind your ears!" Sloane called after him, to which a muffled response of how he wasn't a kid and knew how to bathe himself was issued from behind the door. Smiling, Sloane looked around the living room and, with a sigh, set to picking up the boy's discarded clothing.
First, she went after the shoes, then the hat, and lastly his jacket. She had forgotten about the figurine he had placed inside of one of the pockets, and with a painful thump it fell from the garment as she put it in her arms and slammed down onto the hard wood surface of the coffee table that sat in front of the couch.
"Shit," Sloane swore reflexively, immediately feeling relieved that Dexter hadn't been in the room to hear. Taking in a breath, she bent over to retrieve what she was sure would be the (once again) broken pieces of the miniature dragon. What she was shocked to find, however, was that from its position where it laid on its side on the table, it was completely intact. In fact, it didn't look damaged at all.
Puzzled, the young woman put the small pile down on the sofa and sat, turning the golden figurine over in her hands. Other than being much more durable than the previous one, it was heavier than she had expected it to be. Without taking her eyes off it, she reached over and turned on the lamp that stood next to the furniture so she could see it better in the light. Her brow furrowed. Unlike the original statue her son had been given, this one showed no chips or flakes in the paint... and even more peculiar was that it didn't appear to have a coat of paint on it at all. It was smooth, flawless, like it was made out of real gold. In fact, it even had that cold metallic feel that a painted object should definitely lack.
A young waiter wouldn't give something so precious to a little boy that he didn't even know, so it had to be impossible, right? If it actually was made out of gold, what if it had been a mistake? If he had given Dexter the wrong statue on accident? It was strange for someone to bring something so valuable to their occupation in the first place, but Sloane shook her head on that last thought. She'd rather talk to Avery and get the story straight right from him before she went making assumptions. Still holding onto the small dragon, she stood and went into the kitchen, where she opened a drawer and began rummaging through a pile of restaurant brochures.
Soon, she came across the one she was looking for and pulled it out. It was made out of thick, forest green paper, and had golden Chinese symbols and an etching of a frog in the same color. At the top, it read "The Golden Frog." Flipping it over to the back, she located the phone number that was provided at the bottom, and repeating it out loud to herself as not to forget it, she grabbed the phone that was charging from its stand on the counter and dialed.
Sloane hoped that Avery was in a position where he could clear this up for her.
"Golden Frog, genuine Chinese cuisine. How can I help you?" The heavily accented voice was almost impossible to understand.
She couldn't help but hesitate as she tried to process the words behind the accent, but spoke as soon as she could, as not to be rude. "Yes, hello, I'm calling to speak to one of your workers, Avery. Is he available?"
"Avery?" the man echoed. "Ah! Avery! He left just few minutes ago. Sorry."
Sloane's face fell, but she tried to mask her disappointment. "Oh, that's fine. Thank you for your help; have a good day!" She assured him before hitting the end button and replacing the phone on its mount. This complicated things. In silence, the blonde tried to figure out what to do next. She could easily drop the subject of the figurine... but that just didn't seem right. Especially not with the possibility that this could be an important object to him.
She glanced at the phone and chewed on her lower lip lightly as she thought. The sound of the water was still running in the bathroom it had only been about five minutes, he'd still be in there for at least another ten. Not like ten minutes was enough time to chase down a waiter she knew next to nothing about, but if she waited, who knew how far he'd go? Sloane knew she couldn't leave Dexter alone.
Making a decision, she reached for the phone again and dialed. After a few rings, the familiar, high-pitched girly voice with the slight lisp answered.
"Hi, Bethany, it's Ms. Lamport." Sloane explained quickly. "Listen, I know it's short notice, but are you busy? Do you think you could come down right away and watch Dexter for a little while? He's in the shower, and something urgent came up oh, I shouldn't be long. Maybe a half an hour, an hour at most. Yeah? That's fine? Thank you so much, dear, you're a real life saver! Bye!"
Hanging up, Sloane put the miniature dragon into her purse and slung it over her shoulder, heading out the door as fast as she could. Bethany had watched after Dexter long enough for her to trust the girl; she knew how to get a hold of Sloane if there was an emergency, and didn't panic when he got difficult. Since she only lived next door, the young woman didn't lock the door, instead just closing it behind her and hurrying down the street in the direction of the restaurant. Maybe if she was lucky, he'd still be in the general area.
The sky was beginning to grow dark and overcast, threatening rain with a distant roll of thunder. It was getting cooler as Sloane got closer to the restaurant. She was still several blocks away when she caught a glimpse of that curly frock of hair that had to be his. He was headed down the opposite side of the street, carrying an old backpack with only one strap and wearing a well-worn windbreaker. He had it pulled closely around him, the zipper apparently broken. Avery was too busy watching his feet to even see Sloane across the street.
Looking at him, she was really regretting running out without grabbing a sweater. But that was her; always leaping before she looked. Glancing up and down the street to make sure no cars were coming, Sloane quickly darted across, calling out to the young man as she did so. "Hello? Avery?"
He looked up with a start, not realizing that someone had come up next to him. "Oh, hello ma'am." The teen gave her an embarrassed laugh. "Out for a walk after lunch?"
Sloane smiled at him. "Well, yes and no," she answered, rummaging through her purse to show him the figurine. "Actually, I was looking for you, to talk about this..." Pulling it out, she explained, "It fell out of my son's pocket when I was picking up his jacket, and I noticed that it was much more durable than the last one was. It's probably nothing, just me being paranoid, but the gold on it just looks and feels so real..."
She shook her head and gave a laugh, adding, "But that is kind of silly of me, isn't it? Why would you have a solid gold figurine of a dragon? I just get so wrapped up in things sometimes, I couldn't let the subject rest until I heard it from you."
Avery raised an eyebrow and took the figurine to look it over. After a minute or so, his eyes narrowed in confusion. "It certainly looks like one of mine," he admitted. "But I always work in clay. Mr. Auric won't let me work with the metals..." His shoulders fell as a dreadful thought settled in. "God, he promised me he wouldn't make molds of my figurines without telling me..."
"So then it was some sort of mistake," Sloan sighed, frowning sadly. "If this really is worth something then I can't let Dexter keep it..." she thought out loud, barely able to suppress a groan. "But he'll be so upset with me if he finds out that I took it and then gave it back he really loves the little thing."
The blonde woman could just imagine the look on her son's face when he went to fish the small statue out of his jacket and found it missing. He would be positively devastated... and then hurt, confused, and angry when she told him what she had done. He was too young to understand the reasoning behind her actions.
"What happened to the one I gave him?" Avery asked, now even more confused. "This certainly can't be it. Like I said, all of mine are made of clay. Mr. Auric lets me work with the scrap clay from his shop and said that if there's enough interest in my figurines, then he'll let me sell them up front. That's why I give them to my customers: to see if there's any interest." He scratched the back of his head, looking back at her and gesturing to the golden dragon. "Forgive me if I sound rude, but I can't imagine where your son picked this up."
Sloane's confusion mirrored his. "What do you mean? This is the very same one." Pausing, she closed her eyes as she recalled the events from before. "The first one you gave him broke on the floor when the other waiter bumped into our table. Then, you came and took that one and gave Dexter this one. He had it sitting on the table the whole time we were eating, and then when we left he put it in his pocket. I was with him the whole time, and I know he never switched it." Giving yet another pause, she opened her eyes and looked at Avery. "When I picked up his jacket, this was the only one in his pocket."
A loud thunderclap cut him off as the sky suddenly opened up and the rain began pouring down on them. Avery tugged on Sloane's arm and pulled her under the awning of the nearest building. He sighed, frowning at the change in weather. "I was hoping to get to the shelter before the storm."
"The shelter?" Sloane repeated aloud before she could help herself. However, instead of waiting for an answer, she looked behind her at the building they were in front of. The lights were on inside, and there was a very familiar sign on the window. It read Sterling & Son; it was the very same shop she had been to earlier that day.
"Oh! Maybe Alton will let us in so we don't have to stand here stuck in the rain," she suggested, knocking on the door after the thought came to mind.
The first answer was a deep mewing from Adonis, who was sitting in front of the door, staring at them contemplatively through the glass. Alton followed shortly, coming down the stairs to let them in.
"My, I certainly didn't expect you back so soon," he said with a chuckle as he held the door for them. "Nasty weather today. Can I get either of you anything to drink? Some tea, perhaps?"
"Yeah. Sure, thanks," Avery said absentmindedly, looking around the shop with curiosity. "I think this is the first time I've ever been in here."
Alton chuckled again, motioning for them to follow him after locking the door once again. "This way, please. We can have tea in the study in the back. Would you like me to get you some dryer clothes as well?"
"Tea would be nice," Sloane agreed as she walked behind the storekeeper. "But I think I'll be fine if you maybe have a towel I could borrow?" It was good that the awning of the store had been nearby. She was wet, but not soaked. She figured that if she mopped up the really damp spots, she'd be dry in no time.
The study was roughly larger than a walk-in closet, at least it seemed so with the four plush chairs, one table, one desk, one wooden office chair, and one grandfather clock tucked cozily into the space. The lamp that hung from the ceiling looked like it had once belong to a restaurant, and it filled the room with a warm glow just bright enough to read comfortably by.
While Alton offered them each a seat, he placed a hand on Avery's arm and turned the boy towards him, looking up into his face. "Name a color," the shopkeeper said, and when Avery didn't answer right away, he repeated the demand.
The teen hesitated, but after the second prompt, said the first thing that came to mind. "Um, yellow?" he offered. Alton nodded and released his arm, walking out of the room to get the tea and towels. Avery slowly sat down beside Sloane, looking over at her anxiously. "That was just a little strange..."
"Yeah..." she agreed, glancing at the open doorway Alton had left through before looking back at Avery. "I wonder what it was about?" She didn't expect an answer from him; he obviously knew about as much as she did on the subject. What she did want to know more about, however, was the figurine. At the moment though, she wasn't sure how appropriate it was to bring it back up. At the very least, she supposed it could wait until they had dried themselves off a bit.
Avery sighed, leaning back into the chair. "God only knows. That was Mr. Sterling's son, wasn't it? My folks used to always tell me to steer clear of him if I spotted him around. Something about him being queer or not right in the head or something." He let a halfhearted laugh escape him. "Not that they can do anything about it now though."
"So did mine," Sloane admitted, but then stopped, brow furrowing. "What do you mean?" She assumed that the young man meant that he was no longer living with his parents, so they couldn't control him he certainly seemed old enough to be on his own, but as it had been said before, Sloane didn't like to assume, so figured it best to ask.
"Nothing," Avery said hurriedly. "It's not important." He crossed his arms and turned away from her, shifting uncomfortably in the chair. Again, he sighed, but something was nagging at him and he turned back towards Sloane.
"You've lived here most of your life, yeah? Remember that fire about ten years ago along the row houses on Mercury Avenue?"
"All my life," the young woman nodded, watching him as she recalled the devastation he was referring to. "Of course I remember," Sloane assured. "It was a terrible fire I remember there was so much ash and smoke in the air due to it that school was canceled for a few days." At that time, Sloane had been a sophomore in high school. The natural disaster had been the talk of the town for weeks, and it had taken quite some time to finish refurnishing all of the homes.
Avery nodded along with her recollection, chewing on his lip before he said, "You ever hear how it was started? Grease fire in one of the homes. The whole conflagration spread out from there."
Sloane's face fell when he said this. By his expression and the tone of his voice, she had a sad feeling that she knew where this was going. "I... hadn't heard that."
He took a deep breath, realizing she understood. "Mom always made apple fritters as a special treat on my first day of school. Deep fried. She'd made them so many times before." Avery smiled, despite himself. "They... the police said that the pot must've boiled over, and that's what started it. I was too young to really understand it at the time."
"Avery, I'm so sorry..." Sloane reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, hoping to be at least a little comforting. "I can only imagine how hard that must have been for you. It would have been tough for anyone, but to be so young..." In all honesty, she wasn't quite sure what to say to him. She'd seen people heartbroken and inconsolable over losing their pets, so the subject of losing family members couldn't possibly have anything positive to be said.
He shrugged, but not to move her hand away. "I'm over it now, and I get by. That's what's important." Avery sat up in the chair, relieved to have gotten that out. "Things haven't been easy, for sure, but I'm still here, so I'm doing something right, right? I mean, The Golden Frog doesn't really pay the best, but it's enough for what I need. And if I can sell the figurines..."
He stopped and frowned again. "I still want to know how your son ended up with a golden dragon that looks just like one of my clay ones."
Sloane couldn't help but feel relieved at the change of subject. "So do I," she agreed. "He had the very same one in his sights since you handed it to him... and if you think that maybe he stole it, I'll tell you right now he would never do something like that!" The young woman knew that that hadn't been what Avery was insinuating, but she couldn't help but be offended at the mere idea. She had raised Dexter much better than that; he was a good kid and wouldn't ever willingly break the law.
"I'm more concerned that Mr. Auric stole my design to make a metal mold," Avery said in his defense. Before the conversation could go any further, Alton came back through the door, towels draped over his shoulder and a tray in his hands, set with a metal teapot, sugar bowl, cup of cream, and three ceramic mugs.
"Sorry that took so long," he apologized with a friendly smile. "I had to find another mug for the tea, and then I thought maybe I should put the towels in the dryer so that they would be warm, and... gah!"
Alton's foot caught on the edge of the carpet and he stumbled forward, sending one of the mugs toppling over the edge. Avery reflexively jumped up to catch it, snagging it before it smashed on the ground. The shopkeeper let out a sigh of relief, but somehow didn't seem surprised as he held out his hand to receive the mug. "How clumsy of me. Here, let me put it back on the tray."
"Sure, no problem." Avery reached to hand him the mug and gasped, dropping it again and jumping to his feet. Alton smiled, as if he knew exactly what was going on, set the tray down, and bent to pick up the mug himself before setting it on the table. Like the figurine, it was solid gold. "What the hell?" Avery exclaimed, but Alton just pushed his glasses up and began pouring tea, as if all of this was perfectly natural to him.
"Don't worry," he assured as he poured tea into the golden mug. "Once you learn to control it, you'll be able to change it back. If you want to, that is."
Sloane, meanwhile, felt rooted to her seat. She gaped at the teacup that had magically been transformed, Alton's words sounding like complete babble in her ears. What she had just witnessed made absolutely no sense whatsoever; it shouldn't even be possible. "Did that... was the..." she sputtered, stopping herself and taking a deep breath as she attempted to compose herself. Pointing at the cup, as if to ascertain its reality, she tried again with a small laugh. "That cup wasn't golden before."
"No," Alton confirmed. "It was ceramic. It turned to gold when he," he nodded towards Avery, "Caught it." The young man moved to pour the next cup of tea. "Forgive me, but I never got your name, Mr...?"
"Bennet. Avery Bennet." The teen couldn't stop staring at the mug, shaking his head. "That still doesn't explain what happened. How did my catching it turn it into gold?"
Alton laughed. "Why, just that: you touched it. It's your power as a Sin."
"I'm sorry," Sloane interjected. "His power as a... as a what?" She felt a little faint as she looked from one man to the other. "Did you say a Sin?"
"Yes." Alton poured the final mug and dropped a spoonful of sugar in before taking a sip. He looked at Avery, then at Sloane, and took a deep breath as he sat up in his chair. "I'll try to explain as best as I can, since you are the first Sin to make its appearance. Please, sit down. This may take a while."
Avery slowly sat back in his seat and hesitantly took the golden mug, since the shopkeeper had placed it in front of him. Alton took another sip of his tea before continuing. "You are the human manifestation of the desire for material wealth: the sin avarice. As a Sin, you have powers that reflect what you are known for, which in your case appears to be a Midas touch." He laughed a little, setting his tea on the table. "I wasn't sure how I was going to find you after I sensed your awakening. I guess I should be grateful for the rain."
The young lady tried her best to process all of this. It was ridiculous; Alton sounded like he was completely out of his mind, but she couldn't deny that the cup had turned to gold when Avery touched it. Sloane looked at the table, her fingertips rapping lightly on the side of her teacup. The small dragon stared back at her.
"Oh!" She exclaimed, suddenly making a realization. "So... so then if Avery really is a... um, has some sort of special gift that can turn things into gold, then... could that explain the figurine?" Looking over at Avery, she continued. "That would make the story much less confusing. Well, kind of." It did explain how her son had gotten a solid gold statue from a waiter that claimed to have given him a clay one, but of course the whole proposition of a Midas touch still seemed so unreal that it didn't completely clear up the issue.
Alton's expression brightened. "Ah, so is that what it was then?" He reached over and picked up the figurine to inspect it with all the gleeful enthusiasm as a child at Christmas. "Remarkable work, although I must say I'm more partial to European dragons. This was the first thing you changed to gold, yes?"
"It was made of clay," Avery said. "I gave it to her son when the first one accidentally broke."
"You felt sorry for him, perhaps a little panicked that he was upset?"
"Well... I guess so..."
Alton set the dragon back on the table, nodding thoughtfully. "Your emotions triggered the change, just as it did with the mug. You were afraid of it falling and breaking, so when you caught it, it changed to gold. You'll need to practice with your power if you're to avoid doing that in the future."
"I still don't understand any of this!" Avery threw his hands up into the air. "Why do I suddenly have this power? What do you mean I'm a Sin? And for that matter, how the hell do you know so much about it?" The teen rubbed his hands across his face. "Jesus Christ..."
Alton grimaced, shaking his head. "You should watch your language."
"So... wait, wait." Sloane put her cup back on the table and rubbed her temples, trying to understand everything. "You said he was the first, didn't you? That means... there are six others?" Pausing again, she backed up, another question popping up. "Why, exactly, are human manifestations of sins appearing?" She had so many questions, she wasn't completely sure which ones to be asking first.
"I don't know the specifics," Alton told her. "My job is simply to find the Sins and lay all of their options before them. For example, I can help you learn to control your powers, Avery, or you can choose to ignore them. I won't tell you which choice is right or which is wrong, or if there even is a right and wrong. It isn't my place."
Avery kept shaking his head, completely overwhelmed. "I'm so royally confused, I don't even know what to think. God damn it..."
"Please, stop that," the shopkeeper said with a frown. "It's rude."
"Alton," Sloane started, looking at him with an odd expression on her face. "I don't mean to sound rude with this next question... but why are you so calm about all of this? I mean, why is it your 'job' to find these people? How do you know all of this?" She had always thought that her parents were just being judgmental and superstitious when they warned her against him, but at this point she was beginning to think that there very well could be something wrong with the bookstore keeper's son.
He turned towards her with a gentle, understanding smile. "That is probably the easiest question to answer, but the hardest to accept. I'm not sure you would believe me or want to believe me if I told you the..."
A loud knocking interrupted him, and Alton's smile faded as his face paled with horror. He stood slowly as the knocking continued, walking to the doorway and stopping there, curling his fingers into his hands to keep them from shaking.