The sun was beginning to make its descent as Chloe and Michael walked to the end of their street, but the air was still heavy with the heat of the day.
“Man, they should have done this at least a couple hours from now. I’m sweating already. But I guess people do have kids and can’t be out that late. They probably don’t want to be out late anyway after last Saturday…..” Michael said as he adjusted the tray he was carrying.
“If you ask me, they shouldn’t have done this at all. You know I hate things like this.”
“Come on, Chloe, it’ll be good to meet everyone. I keep running into our neighbors and telling them about you, but you’re never actually around. They probably think I’m making you up at this point.”
“Haha, that is fine with me. But I’ll humor you this time!”
They had recently moved in to their new home, a new construction in a new neighborhood. It was the talk of the town. The whole project was not yet complete, and the number of people actually moved in was small as a result. Someone had floated the idea of a get together at the grassy area at the end of the road so everyone in the new neighborhood could get to know each other. It sounded like absolute hell to Chloe, but Michael loved talking with everyone. So here they were, already dripping sweat less than a block away from their air-conditioned house, and getting ready to make some small talk.
“Oh look, there’s Hugh! I think you’ll like him. I think you’ll get along with his wife too; her name is Lauren.”
Chloe plastered on her most genuine fake grin as Hugh approached.
“Michael, it’s great to see you! Here let me help you with that,” he said as he took their tray of bruschetta and set it down on a pop-up table. “And this must be the mysterious Chloe!”
Chloe gave a good-humored laugh as she shook his hand.
“Not that mysterious! Just a busy working woman.”
“Lauren, my wife, will appreciate that. Let me introduce you.”
They approached a woman seemingly the opposite of Chloe, unphased by the heat and happily welcoming the families to the picnic. Dear God, she looked like she was actually enjoying it.
“Lauren, this is Chloe and her husband Michael. They’re the ones I’ve been telling you about.”
“It’s fantastic to meet you!” she practically gushed.
There were handshakes all around.
“I think we’ll leave you two to get to know each other,” said Michael as he winked at Chloe and walked off with Hugh. She stared daggers into the back of his head.
“Let’s grab a drink and find some shade,” said Lauren.
“I’m right there with you, as long as it’s of the alcoholic variety.”
“Of course! How do you think I would handle this get together otherwise?”
“I would never have guessed,” said Chloe, almost in awe.
“Raised by a PTA mom in the South. I can’t get hospitality out of my system, no matter how hard I try. She was really amazing. She would have organized this ages ago, made all the food herself, and had hand-made favors. All without the vodka.”
“Impressive,” Chloe murmured.
“I’ll say. They are hard shoes to fill.”
They had reached the trees at the edge of the grass, the shade bringing some relief to the heat of the day. They turned back to look at the families getting to know each other and enjoying the sun. Children ran through the grass, laughing happily, most already covered in food stains and loving every minute of it. The mouthwatering smells from the grill wafted over them. Even Chloe had to admit that it was pretty pleasant, as long as her interactions with actual people were limited.
As they both looked out on the scene and sipped their drinks, the glasses now sweating more than they were, Lauren murmured, “Our husbands seem to be getting along. It could be useful.”
Chloe looked over at Michael and Hugh, completely engrossed in what looked to be a golfing story being told, by the looks of the miming.
“Yes, I think it could. They can keep each other distracted. Any fallout from last Saturday? Any questions from Hugh?”
Lauren let out a happy laugh before answering. “None for me. You?”
Chloe beamed at her as she answered. “Me either. The newspapers also seem to be eating it up exactly as we wanted them to.”
There was a shout from the grill; it appeared the food was ready. The two women happily strolled back to join the others, briefly, wordlessly toasting each other in celebration.
Chloe deeply enjoyed her burger, not having realized she was ravenous. Oddly, she found herself pleased when her bruschetta was complimented. Normally, things like this would not phase her at best, irritate her at worst. It seemed like her conversation with Lauren had lifted her spirits.
The children had long since grown tired of the grown-ups standing around and run further out into the field, happily playing tag again.
In a lull in the conversation, one of the women Chloe did not yet know said in a hushed voice, “Did everyone see the news about last Saturday?”
“My God, it was awful!”
“I would have never thought something like that would happen here!”
“I’m trying to keep the kids from finding out; they’d have nightmares for weeks!”
“I’m so glad all our homes have security systems.”
“My teenagers are annoyed that they’re back on a stricter curfew, but I’m not taking any chances. They can hate me if they want to.”
Murmurs of consternation overlapped each other, everyone trying to talk all at once and at the same time, trying to make sure the children didn’t hear.
They were all referring to the viscous murders that had taken place in town. Last Saturday night, someone had terrorized a park in town. No fewer than four bodies had been found. Two teenagers that had snuck out, a jogger, and an old army veteran that had been out for a walk. The town had been stunned; the memorial at the gate of the park overflowing with flowers. The newspapers stated that police thought the person responsible was a migrant serial killer that had been working his way up and down the west coast. Everyone was so worried, today’s picnic had almost been cancelled.
The mood was very somber when all the murmurs had died down. The heat of the day suddenly not so hot as shivers ran through the crowd.
“How awful,” Michael said, his fist tight on his cup.
“Don’t worry honey,” said Chloe, “I’ll always be there to protect you.”
That got a grin out of him.
“I know you will, love. But in all seriousness, I don’t want you going to that park alone anymore, especially not at night. We can go jogging together, at least until they catch this maniac. I don’t know what I would do if that had been you found in that park.”
Michael drew Chloe in for a hug. As Chloe held him close, she looked over his shoulder and saw Lauren, arm in arm with Hugh, flash her a mischievous grin, and a wink.
She winked back. After all, they knew they had nothing to fear. Not from the park murderer anyway.