There’s a slight breeze in the air, the temperature one degree below perfect, with no hint of humidity. I’m sitting in the Chinese garden, listening to Zen music which isn’t playing, and writing like I haven’t written in a long time. Across from me, my sister, Annie, scratches away as well. Around me stone bridges arch across a placid, green-colored lake. Koi fish and small turtles swim lazily beneath the surface, while a few ducks float about up top. I sit cross-legged on a low ledge, bent over, writing as fast as my pen will go, needing to get my memories of this trip down on paper, needing to see them take shape with letters and words, and basking in the release it brings. I haven’t felt this inspired in quite some time.
“What are you writing?”
I emerge from my thoughts to find a young girl by my side. She looks to be about eight years old. Long blonde hair, streaked with highlights, hangs loose around her shoulders in uncombed locks. She’s wearing a tank top with spaghetti straps and short shorts.
“I’m writing in my diary,” I answer. Then, stirred by the friendly California ambiance that I’ve experienced thus far on my trip, I follow up with, “Do you have a diary?”
“Do you write in it?”
At this point, Annie gets up and comes over. “How often do you write?”
“Every day,” the girl answers. For someone who initiated a conversation, she’s not being very communicative.
“Who bought it for you?” Annie asks. No answer. “Did your mother give it to you?”
I try to get Annie’s attention. I can tell she’s realized her mistake. Maybe the girl doesn’t have a mother. You just don’t know.
“There you are, sweetheart.” A middle aged man walks up to us. He’s average-looking, with closely-cropped gray hair and a friendly smile. A semi-professional camera hangs from his neck.
He goes over to the girl, and Annie takes the moment to grab our own camera to get a shot of me. I get ready for the picture, but the man stops her and offers to take a picture of the two of us together. This is pretty standard fare in tourist spots, to swap picture-taking, as most people like to get all the members of their party in a shot. We agree and sit down on the ledge. The guy takes our camera and crouches. Annie leans into me, jokingly, and then straightens herself.
“That looked good,” he says, “go back.”
Annie’s hesitant about it, and so am I. She compromises, leaning in, but not as deeply as before. After he snaps the picture, he looks at the camera. “Very pretty, you’re both beautiful. Do you want me to take another one?” Before either of us could decide, he continues, “I’ll just take one more, to be safe.” He does, and this time we just sit normally. “Do you like it? I can take it again,” he says to us as he hands back our camera.
“No, no, it’s good,” we reassure him, barely glancing at it. It’ll have to be.
“Can you take of us?”
“Sure,” I reply. Annie, being closer, ends up taking the picture. I watch them, he sitting on the ledge, the little girl on his lap. “I love her golden highlights,” he says. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
We agree that they are.
“Thanks for the picture, now I’m going to take one just of her…the picture’s prettier when I’m not in it.”
The girl leans against the wall, her pose reminding me of a high fashion model. She does this casually, as if she’s used to it.
“Smile for Daddy, sweetheart,” he says. “You’re not in the mood of smiling today, are you? It’ll be good, honey, do it for me.”
After another minute or so, they move on and so do we. Alone again, we look at one another.
“Did you feel –?”
“Yeah, something’s weird about that situation.”
“Could be just a culture difference.”
“Or maybe he’s not used to spending time with his daughter.”
“If that’s really his daughter.”
“Even if it wasn’t, doesn’t mean anything’s going on.”
“Something’s going on.”
“There’s nothing we can do, though. We’re basing this on gut feeling, and besides, they left already. We don’t even know their names.”
“And false accusations can tear families apart. We don’t know that anything’s going on.”
Fifteen minutes later we round a corner to see the duo lying on the grass. His arm around her, her head on his chest. Looking at the sky.
They spot us. We wave.
We walk on.