Leo Palmer had a party trick, although even he knew it wasn't much of a showstopper. He could calculate on any given day exactly how long it would take the 457 bus to get from the city center to his stop at Ingleby—adjusting for traffic, weather, and an array of other complications. He could do it for other routes too, but that was barely of interest to him, let alone other people.
He'd demonstrated it once at his office Christmas party. He figured a bunch of accountants would appreciate something like that. His colleagues had been unenthusiastic, but that was a fairly natural state for accountants. Leo didn't mind. It was the numbers that he found fascinating. The people were a distant second.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. There were two people he cared about more than a balance sheet and more than the time-table of the 457. His wife and his young son sat at the top of this particular ledger, and as long as Leo Palmer had any say in it, that's where they'd stay.
All of this was somewhat standard fare, to be honest. An accountant with a fondness for numbers was pretty normal; so too a family man who loved his wife and son. In fact, Leo's life was actually quite ordinary—which is, really, the point: Leo and Elise Palmer were average. They didn't do anything to be singled out for what was to come. They just were.
Of course, like any normal couple, they had their disagreements. They had one on the very day they signed the lease for their one-bedroom flat: ground floor, weathered bricks, and a cracked concrete path with dandelions that came up to their knees.
"Jesus Christ, you're a cheapskate, Leo," Elise had exclaimed as she gazed at their new home. She was only half joking, and her husband rolled his eyes.
"You knew that when you married me," he retorted, tugging at one of the weeds with both hands. At last it came free, and he threw it to the side with a satisfied grin. "It's not forever. Just stick with The Plan, and we'll be fine."
"The Plan," Elise repeated, and smiled despite herself.The Plan (it was always rendered with capital letters in Elise's mind, such was its importance to Leo) had been debated at length. Stage one of The Plan was five years in Ingleby, two promotions for Leo, three pay rises, and then they'd move on. Stage two was somewhere else entirely: a backyard, two bathrooms, two cars in the garage, three bedrooms, and a couple of kids to fill them.
The baby boy who arrived just over a year into their lease had never heard of The Plan, and had no regard for the fact that he'd disrupted stage one. But—and this was the biggest surprise of all to Elise, even greater than the pregnancy itself—Leonard Palmer welcomed the alteration. It turns out that some people are just born to be dads, and Leo was one of those. He gladly revised The Plan to include a round-cheeked, fair-haired boy in that one-bedroom flat in Ingleby. He also slashed two years off stage one—determined that the cot would soon move out of the living room, and the occupant would have his own bedroom. And the backyard, and all those other things that came with being a normal family. Because that's what they were: normal.
* * *
Elise knocked loudly on her neighbor's door—louder than would have been considered polite, but Mrs. Morrison was north of seventy and could barely hear her own TV. Elise could hear it, though, every night. She didn't mind; it reminded her of her grandma.
The door opened a crack, and a watery gray eye framed by wrinkles peered through the gap.
"Hi, Mrs. Morrison," Elise said cheerily, and the door opened the rest of the way.
"I'm sorry, love," Mrs. Morrison replied. "I didn't know it was you. Come in." She bolted the door behind them and shifted her gaze down to the boy nestled comfortably on Elise's hip.
"And you, you precious thing. You're getting so big!"
Elise grimaced. The dull ache in her lower back was proof of that.
Mrs. Morrison noticed. "Put him down, love. Still not walking?"
Elise lowered her son to the clean linoleum floor. "Not yet. Soon, I hope. He'll be the last in his playgroup to do it."