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Jack Dawkins knew, in an abstract sort of way, that he made adults uneasy. He didn't know why, although he thought it might have something to do with the inexplicable mishaps that followed him around like a stray dog he'd fed once and could never be rid of again. He was partly correct. His teacher was certainly not made more comfortable by the knowledge that his recently retired colleague had nearly broken a hip when her chair fell to pieces beneath her, just as she was scolding Jack particularly forcefully for the consistently tattered state of his homework.

However, incidents like these were not the core problem that grown-ups had with Jack. He wasn't a child, Mrs Melton, the neighbor, had insisted once, after a few more glasses than she was used to, and although the friends from out of town had dismissed this notion out-of-hand, she was remarkably spot-on.

Jack, although, if anything, somewhat small for his age, had all the mannerisms of a person decades his elder. He followed the advice often given to other children his age and thought before he spoke, but on Jack, this trait was eerie. It was crafty, his teacher, Mr Baker, said. He wrote in a report sent home that Jack was the most deceitful and manipulative boy that he'd ever laid eyes on, but this was alright. Jack's father never read the reports anyway, and his mother was many years dead.

It was Jack's habit to sit quietly, move confidently and speak to no one as though they were anything but his equal. It was the last especially that got Mrs Melton's goat. Children shouldn't speak as though adults were their equals. It was conceited. It was arrogant. But she didn't really blame him. He couldn't help being odd, without a mother, and everyone knew his father had simply fallen to pieces after Mrs Dawkins' death. The boy needed taking in hand. And Mrs Melton would have volunteered for the position too, if it wasn't for her own small girls. Mr Melton had disappeared not long after the youngest one was born, and it was enough for her to do simply keeping them away from Jack's influence.

Not that Jack had ever given the girls any encouragement. He displayed a remarkable lack of interest in his peers, but this seemed to be exactly what fired their imaginations and stoked their curiousities. And there was opportunity, especially of late. Jack was making a great deal of money this summer, doing odd outside jobs up and down the street, and Melissa, Mrs Melton's youngest daughter, was making quite a hobby of following him around. She was out there right now, Mrs Melton grimly noticed as she glanced up through the kitchen window. Not even attempting to speak to the boy, which was a blessing, although perhaps if she did, the boy might be rude and send her away. What sort of eleven year old boy would bear being pestered by a nine year old girl for any length of time at all? But Melissa was simply watching, with big blue eyes, while Jack snip-snipped away at those hedges across the street.

Mrs Melton's frown deepened. No, Jack wasn't cutting hedges at all. He was turning around to speak to a very strange-looking woman. She didn't look related to anyone who lived on the street, and Mrs Melton was certain she'd never seen her visiting before. There was no car, and there was something about the woman's clothes, but it was impossible to put her finger on what it might be. It wasn't the clothes themselves, perhaps, but something odd about the way she wore them. A foreigner? No, there was something very familiar about all this, lurking in the corners of her memory. Mrs Melton made up her mind in an instant, flung the window open and called to her daughter. "Melissa?" Come away from there this instant. "I need some help with the dishes, dear." Melissa obeyed with unusual alacrity. She seemed to sense something about the woman as well. Mrs Melton sighed with relief as she waited for the sound of the door opening. It didn't really matter if Jack got mixed up with that woman and her distinctive otherness; he was strange enough as it was, and maybe it would suit him. But she remembered what had happened the last time that she'd ignored her feelings, and her own daughter's life would be better off without any more of such people.

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