Project 52: Toppling Atlas

1 short story a week. 52 weeks a year.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dancing in the Mist UPDATED 02.15.13

     I know about that girl who disappeared in that field on a wet spring day. Ashlyn they called her; the girl who always walked through the flowers, until the mist swallowed her up. Ashlyn Vela was her full name, but she went by many others throughout her short life. Infectious names that whirled and stung around her head like “fool, freak, and imbecile”. If I still had the capacity to feel sorry for them, I'd weep for those men and women that went out of their way to hurt Ashlyn. Weep, because of the three names I wrote, those were of the nicest. The worst of the bunch were too ghastly to keep around, so I will never write them down.
     This type of treatment has always occurred with those who choose to swim upstream. Although, use of the word “choose” is fickle at best. Ashlyn never chose to be ridiculed, or beaten, or alone, for example. She did, however, choose to be happy - to be herself - tragic as that choice turned out to be. Ashlyn was neither slow, nor strange. She was a beautiful, and strong girl with a penchant for singing, lonely walks, and the sea. She was both delicate as a flower, and strong as the sun. She was as though a fairy from the old tales we all read in school.
     She left us many years ago, and the day I learned the truth of her disappearance was the day I wrapped my life up in a small burlap sack, and left my sleepy little town, full of similar people. The same type of superstitious fools and bigots that are to be found in any town like this. The dirt under their fingernails did well to hide the blood on their hands for many years. Carthage Springs may never recover from what I did to it, but the way I see it, that's considerably a better deal than Ashlyn was given. My name is Henry Showalter, and I was the boy who walked through the flowers, and slipped away through the mist. My name is Henry, and I am the man who destroyed Carthage Springs.
     I had been too young – too scared – to know it back then, but since I've known her – the way a man knows a woman – I have loved her. A few weeks after my 18th birthday, I lost my chance to let Ashlyn know how I felt. However, it is my expressed hope that if any trace of Ashlyn still dances on in this world, it will find its way to the content of these papers, and know of how much I cared for her, and of how much I hurt this town for what it did.
     I'll always remember the first day I spoke to her. She was beautiful back then, with a dark ring around her left eye, both of them red and puffy from crying herself to sleep. Beautiful, in the way she called my mind away from the typical occupants of a 16 year old: baseball, clubhouses, and general mischief. She made me want to put my arms around her, and whisper plans of running away, thoughts of which I had been musing for quite sometime now myself.
     You see, I too was different, but carried with me the ability to blend. A skill, which Ashlyn had not a lick of talent with. We lived in a small southern town, known for its pecan pie, hard-faced men, rocky beaches, and misplaced prejudices. Misplaced, because it was not wicked men or their wicked ways that our town hated. Instead, our town hated colored skin, outspoken women, and religious tolerance. A bad white man, for example, was a more important human being than a good black woman. I believe judging somebody on their looks to be as universally abundant as it is universally ludicrous.
For these reasons, I considered myself lucky to have been born to a mother who was an outsider. It was through her that I received the love that every human being is cursed to be without. The love to see that the color of ones skin does not dictate the strength of ones heart. I was shown that being a woman was not a handicap, that in many ways, women were stronger than a man may ever know. Most importantly though, I learned to fight for these ideas. Picking this fight would be the knife that whittled away my life, leaving a pile of strips tossed off to the side, and the skeletal remains of a strong branch. However, I am not just a single branch as most people of that town were. I have many roots, with which to keep me grounded, and many other branches, so as to constantly reach toward the sky.
     As I mentioned earlier, I had been planning on running away for quite sometime. My mother, god rest her soul, passed away when I was still young, and the relationship I had with my father was fickle, at best. I must have been six or seven when influenza took her from us, and my father and I handled the grief differently. I looked inward, and tried my best to live in a manner that would make my mother proud. My father, he opted for a lifestyle that would destroy his liver, and break whatever small bond him and his son may have had. My mother had always been physically frail ever since I was born (one of many reasons my father would come to hate me), but she never complained. My father did so twice as much to make up for that.
      I've always believed that a great man will encounter three even greater loves in his life. The first of these great loves is that of the immediate family. I call this the warmth. It is the kind of love that you bundle up, and brave even the fiercest of winter winds, so as to spend Christmas day with. It is the kind of love that always has enough dinner when you make an unexpected visit. Secondly, is that of the one true love, of which I call the passion. It is the kind of love that drives you mad, and sets fire to your blood. It is the kind of love that you look forward to seeing in the morning just before slipping off to sleep. Lastly, the final of these great loves is that of your children. I've spent many hours thinking of the perfect name for this, but I always am drawn back to the drive. It is the kind of love that you tuck in at night, promising to chase off any monsters that dare show themselves. It is the kind of love that you see more and more of yourself in, with each and every day that they grow.
     With warmth, passion, and drive in your life, there is no telling what a man or woman may be capable of. I believe myself to be a good man, and a strong man, but have never considered myself to be a great man. I say so, because I lost my first two great loves, and I have yet to come around to finding the third. It is with great sorrow that I tell you now, I'm unsure if I ever will. How could I lay with a woman who holds not the entirety of my heart; how could I raise children who could never feel the warmth of my mother's smile?
     When thinking of my mother - although I still hold a great many memories of her close to me - I always first recall the same night. I had been crying for quite some time when she found me. Walking over, she used her small fingers to tip up my chin, and give me the most wonderful smile. Wiping tears away with the back of my hand, I managed to blurt out “I'm sorry I made you so weak, momma,” in between gulping down oxygen to fuel more sobbing. Until the day I die, I will never forget what she said to me. She held my head close to her chest, and raked her fingers through my hair. “Henry, don't you understand?” she said. “I don't need strong legs, or a back, or even lungs. I have the strongest heart in the world, and you gave me that, darling.” To any of you who have the fortune of a good mother, you'll know that there is no other feeling like it. No pain killer, no psychedelic, no therapy like that of just a second of being with her. I miss her more as each and every day passes.
     By comparison, the only good memory I have of my father is the stench of alcohol seeping out from under a door, and whispering into his ear as he threw a lamp at me. I consider this a good memory, seeing as how he missed. Mother had always told me my father was a good man when they first met, but changed when they moved back here. She blamed the town, and had many fights with him over taking me away from it. “This town has teeth!” she used to scream at him. I had never understood what she meant by this until Ashlyn came around, but it most certainly did. It is of great misfortune to Carthage Springs that I too, had teeth, and a considerably stronger bite at that.
     Enough of all this lamenting nonsense, though. Let us jump ahead to that day I first managed to work up the confidence to talk with Ashlyn. It was a Wednesday, and as per usual, she sat alone on the side of the school. Today, she was talking to a plant; an endearing quality of hers that of course added fuel to the flickering fire of ridicule. As I approached, she eyed me suspiciously, although I personally had never insulted her. I never for a second blamed her for that apprehension, though. After all, if you're not stopping a problem, you're helping it.
     Being 16 is a strange time for anyone. We haven't yet trained our mouths to fully transfer what it is we're thinking, and what we're thinking is usually a hormonal mess. Everything is growing, and our minds are unaware of which direction to run. The outcome, is that the things we say are usually embarrassing, and often resulting in the opposite of what we had initially hoped for. I wasn't lucky enough to get “embarrassing”, instead, I managed to find “explosive”. “Your eye looks pretty bad,” I tossed out casually, holding my body cocked slightly sideways, and tilting my head down to her. I realize now, I held myself this way out of fear, but my body language probably appeared as though arrogant and offensive. I suppose it must have, seeing as how she reacted.
     To any kid on the playground, I was wincing in preparation of the tiny fist flying at my face, but that's not the truth of the matter. Honestly, I was already wincing from the stupidity of what I just said; my head saying so much, but my mouth blurting out so little. “Looks pretty bad,” I heard repeating in my head, as those knuckles flew towards my face in slow motion.
     The crunch of my nose breaking was quickly followed by the laughter of the children, and the stomping of Ashlyn's feet across the dusty school yard. I didn't really register any of it though, as the blood poured from my nose onto the ground. All I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. I was in love. Perhaps that seems strange to you, but if you don't understand what I'm talking about, perhaps you've never been in love. We are all strange, to some degree, but love is by far the strangest incident we will ever experience. It is the culmination of emotion, the driving force behind both the greatest, and dumbest things in history. The bulk of my time spent with Ashlyn was usually in the vein of the latter.
     “No, Henry! Keep your head tilted up, and quit talking!” Mrs. Margaret said from behind a fat finger waving in my face. She was one of only four teachers in our school, and just so happened to carry with her the know-how to treat all sorts of ailments and afflictions. It's all just part of the trade, though, seeing as how she was the mother of eight. If you're still unaware of how I could think women to be stronger than men, let that sink in with you. Eight children, on top of being a teacher of 62. Mrs. Margaret was tough as nails, and sharper than one too. She was an incredible woman, and I'm still fairly convinced she hated me.
     To this day, even though I think she may have never liked me, I believe she was one of the only good people in town. The Great Depression – as they'd later come to call it – was still young like me, but when it eventually jumped into full swing, Mrs. Margaret would leave the town to go live with a sister in New York City to help out. She'd never come back, and I thank whatever powers may be that she didn't. I'd have hated to see this town change her, if it could that is.
     Despite many attempts to keep me quiet, my mouth ran faster than I could think. It's actually sort of funny, in a sense, that I had no real moderation at this age. By moderation, I mean to say that my mind ran too fast for my mouth, or my lips moved too quick for my brain. They wouldn't have the trust to work together for many years to come. Currently though, my heart beat wildly, and all I could do was ride along with it, babbling to the ever uninterested Mrs. Margaret.
     After finally shutting me up – by threatening to break my nose again – she got the whole of what went down. I started off strong, explaining how I walked over to ask about her black eye, but I spent perhaps a bit too long describing how Ashlyn looked, sitting on that patch of grass, speaking to a drooping leaf of some plant. “It's not important how Miss Ashlyn looked sitting by herself, Henry!” she yelled at me during the recant. Clearly Mrs. Margaret and I had vastly different concepts of what was, or is important. The way Ashlyn looked that day was was exactly why I had a broken nose. Not to mention the way she spoke, and dressed, and isolated herself. My nose broke for a great many things about Ashlyn, the way she looked just so happened to have been the easiest to explain. The only change I made to the story was of how my nose was actually broken. I told her it was from tripping and falling, and not at all from the punch of a girl I had 30 pounds on.
     As I finished the story, Mrs. Margaret placed her hands on her hips and looked me directly in the eye. “Henry, I've had twelve children tell me Ashlyn punched you directly in the nose. I ought to paddle the both of you,” she spoke in a slow, and stern voice. I eventually managed to talk her out of it, although I assume she thought it only because I was embarrassed at being beaten by a girl. The truth though, was that I'd die on the spot if Ashlyn was punished because of me. I'd be out of the race before I even had the chance to truly dig in my feet and push for it.
     Walking from the nurses office most kids my age would be broken from the howling laughter of the students. Perhaps fortunately for me, at that moment, I was untouchable. I beamed sheepish grins at the kids, already deep in thought of how to next talk to her. Sitting in Mr. Lutz arithmetic class – a class of which I held only moderate skill in – I couldn't afford even the pretense of feigned interest. After the third piece of chalk was thrown at me, I again grinned as I floated through the laughter of the boys and girls of my classroom.
     Staying after school to bat the chalkboard erasers together was where I had my next grand idea! “Batting” is what we called it when you'd have to stay after to smack erasers together, so as to clean them. The clouds of chalk reminded me that on foggy days, Ashlyn would skip school, and go play in the grassy fields near the ocean. I decided I'd stage an accidental meeting, and spend my day with her. A great foreshadow of the things to come was the fight my father and I had when I told him where it was I was going.
     “The Bramblewood?” my father yelled, still sobered; a great occasion seeing as it was already ten past eight in the morning. “Yeah, I'm just going for a walk, school is out today, on account of the fog,” I replied, unused to seeing my father really care much for anything. Years of alcohol abuse took its toll on my father, and I was particularly fit for my age. Stumbling over to me, my father gripped a handful of my shirt, and pulled me in close. Looking me directly in the eye, he said “you stay the hell away from that place, do you hear me, boy?” Putting my hands on his shoulders, I wrenched his arms away, and set him down onto a wooden chair on our porch.
     I understand now it wasn't my fault that things turned out the way they did, but for many years I blamed myself for this conversation this day. Perhaps it was the foreign scent of sobriety on his breath, or the strange questioning that sounded an awful lot like care to a kid who never said more than a handful of words to his father. Regardless, for whatever reason, I told my father the truth of what I had planned. As I finished, my father's attention flickered in and out for awhile, until he finally looked up at me, and told me again to not walk near The Bramblewood. I did, and would regret telling him my plans for years. I was a stupid fucking kid, thinking I could rekindle a relationship with my father, but much like his status as a parent, his mind was long since gone. The Bramblewood held secrets much darker than its shade, secrets I wouldn't learn until it was too late.
     It had been a few days since that Wednesday, that wonderful day that my nose broke, and my heart grew. I can't recall which day of the week it was, but when telling friends, I always say Monday. So it was a Monday, and a thick sheet of fog blanketed the town. You may think with even such low visibility, it would be easy to slip out of town unnoticed, but you've obviously never lived in a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and you couldn't hide a cough in my town without tales of your deathly illness reaching every door before you even got home. If Mr. Peterson the baker, for example, would have walked out of his front door only seconds earlier, he would have noticed me walking towards the ocean in the east, when our school was found on the west. Small-town minds devour gossip, and honestly, to this day I find myself hard pressed to blame them. When nothing exciting happens around you, you fabricate. Hell, that was one of the reasons I think I came to love Ashlyn, her quality of day dreaming at all hours.
     Regardless, Mr. Peterson would have told Miss Karen – the widower – of what he saw. Perhaps he would add his own spin on it. “I saw the Showalter boy-”. “Henry?” Miss Karen would chime in. “Yes, Henry, I saw him sneaking around town, trying to avoid notice, seemingly up to no good,” he'd say. As Miss Karen made her way to pick up groceries, she'd stop by the barbershop to say hello to Sal. Sal was the only remaining member of the town that was in class with her. The rest had moved on, from the town or otherwise. Sal loved Miss Karen, but would never talk about it. This made him her choice of catalyst for an especially juicy piece of gossip.
     Eventually, rumors would be dropping alongside locks of hair, as old Jack Parker the milk man paid for his trim, and continued about his day. He would tell everyone on his route the news of how Henry was lurking around town with a wicker basket. Mildred Blass, the pastor's wife would pick up the news alongside her milk, and tell the women of her Knitting Circle. She'd talk of how the Showalter boy was seen with a shovel, and a black eye trudging about town. The Arbor boys would pluck it up with a handful of sweets from the window behind the high-backed chairs of the Knitting Circle, and they'd run home and tell their siblings. The Arbor family had nearly 9 children, everyone of them with a sweet-tooth for hearsay. They'd talk about how Henry and a Native American girl were running through town together.
     This snowball would roll all over town, picking up bits and pieces along the way. "Oh, he had alcohol on his breath, and bloodshot eyes. Just like his father, that no good Harry Showalter!" "I feel sorry for the boy, losing his mother and all. But that's no reason to be picking fights in the street." "I saw that Henry carrying a knife, and talking about killing a man!". It would snowball, and pick up all sorts of fantastical nonsense before finally ending up at door to the school. Miss Margaret was no fool, and after she whopped me all across town, she'd march me right up to the door of every house in town, and have me apologize for whatever transgressions I had supposedly committed. She knew I was innocent, “but it's for the peace of the town, not you," she'd say. I'd have to spend weeks under the watchful eye of the entire town, vulture eyes, hungrily awaiting what trouble I next manage to get myself into. Or at least until someone else managed to find themselves the center of new rumors. Either way, I'd never get to talk to Ashlyn if that happened.
      Very carefully, I managed to slip out of town without running into anyone, and shot down the old dirt road that lead to The Bramblewood. The wood, although truly a forest in fact, was a seldom visited location for the folks of Carthage Falls. Every now and then, a young woman would get lost in the woods, and her body wouldn't wash up ashore for days. This lead to all manner of folk tales, ranging from ghosts that haunted the trees, all the way to a witch that lived deep inside the woods. We were all taught the stories when we were young, and the majority of children took them to heart. There was a game the boys used to play during summer that was a combination of bravery and running speed. If you couldn't ignore the sneers and taunts of the children around you, the point of the game was to run to the wood, and smack the base of a specific tree. The Hearth Trunk we'd call it, the largest tree on the outskirts of the forest. Undaunted, I was the only child to walk past the tree, beaming with pride at the look of horror on their faces. The whipping I received when I returned home to Father O'Leary sitting on my porch, telling my father what my group of friends told him I did would wipe that smile right off of my face.
      I stared at the forest for a moment, petrified with fear. Not of something as silly as ghosts or goblins, mind you. The much more real fear of talking to a woman. What was I to say, what was I to do? My legs chattered to each other as I worked on finding the courage, when suddenly a flickering caught my eye. A red ribbon lay wrapped around a branch a few feet past the border of trees. Knowing it had to be hers, I decided to take the risk, and started off. Sweaty hand gripping for life to the handle of a small basket full of apples and sandwiches, I made my way through the trees towards the small field I assumed she would be playing in. A good fifteen or so minutes passed before I came into the clearing, and stood frozen in place once I did.
      There she was, my Ashlyn, standing in the middle of the field. A small rivulet ran through the clearing, eventually emptying itself into the Atlantic Ocean. A small wash-out sat near the middle of the field, and the carcass of an old fallen tree draped itself over the stream. A great, hulking mass of a tree, that was surely a reminder of hundreds of ruined homes that were vacated when it fell. Ashlyn stood on the log, dancing across its entirety, leaning over to smell the wild lily that grew alongside the bank. To this day, I do not believe it was the sight of her perched upon this log that froze me, but the voice that came from her. A beautiful voice pitched joyfully through the blankets of fog that were now laying low in the field. It was a silly song that I knew to be an original.
"Here sparrow, here lark, join me on the log.
The air is cool, the water's fine, go on and ask the frogs.
I see you fog, I see you fog, sneaking onto the tree.
Quit being greedy, little lily, and let your dew fly free!" 
      She sung to the birds, as she whistled and threw her arms into the air. Turning on the balls of her feet, and crouching down, she spoke in a low voice, and sang to the frogs laying under the cover of various plants in the stream. Dancing across the log, she kicked playfully towards tufts of fog, laughing in rhythm, and lightly smacked the the lilies, sending a shower of condensation into the air. The laughter abruptly ended as she slipped on the wet log, and fell into the stream. I understand, especially after what happened at school just a week prior, how much it must have both angered and frightened her to see me on the edge of the field fall down laughing.
      Picking up a sizable branch from the ground, she stormed across the field, brandishing it like a baseball bat. “You leave me alone, Henry Showalter!” she yelled, face strained in anger. I wish I wasn't such a damned fool, I never even looked at her face to see how serious she was. I was too preoccupied with kicking my feet and laughing. You see, I wasn't laughing at her in insult, I merely found what had happened to be so wonderful, and I couldn't keep the laughter inside. My heart was swollen, and I had to let it out. A wrist-sized branch catching me across the shoulders certainly set me right though. Everything came rushing back as I looked up and saw the look of terror in her eyes, tears just on the brink of flooding out.
      “What do you want from me, Henry!” she yelled, starting to cry a little. “Why won't you just leave me alone?” I tried to roll myself up to tell her, but she caught me on the leg, making me grip it and roll in the moist dirt. Eying my basket, she started to lift the lid with her branch; “What do you have in there, Henry? Something to throw at me? Something to humiliate me with?” I shook my head no, but as she opened it in entirety, she looked at the contents with absolute bewilderment on her face. “It's lunch,” I managed to say. “I wanted to bring you lunch, to apologize for yesterday.” Again, those suspicious eyes fell on me, and she lowered her branch only a hair before speaking up. “I don't know what you're up to, but you leave me alone, you hear?” she said. With that, she turned, and ran from the field, leaving me rubbing my leg to try and alleviate the pain. I hammered my fist into the dirt, tossing out my collection of swears, perhaps the only things my father had taught me in the years following my mother's passing.
     I've often heard the cliché “third times the charm,” and it leaves me wondering if any serious scholarly research has gone into it. I say this, because I have yet to see a third attempt do me wrong in this life. Even if I don't initially see it as such. A week had passed, and speaking to Ashlyn was harder than ever. She would run away whenever I was near, and never met my eyes when I tried to get her attention. Many years later, I came to realize that she was just shocked that someone was paying attention to her. She had absolutely no idea what to make of it, or how to act. Oh, Ashlyn, I'm sorry this world was so cruel to you.
     Summer break was only a few days away, and I knew I had to do something before we left school. She never came into town otherwise, and going to her would never work out. Whereas my father was just insulting, and emotionally vacant, Ashlyn's father was physically abusive; a great brute who lived on the outskirts of town, long since having been driven out by the people of Carthage Falls. 
      The school day crawled on by, every second feeling as though being dragged through resin. We were finally given a break to run around outside before I approached Ashlyn. In the books, the hero always presented a rose to the damsel, but our southern heat never meshed well with the delicate nature of many roses.
     So many aspects of school were different back then, - and I assume will continue to change for every few years that pass - but the promise of a summer break has continued its tradition of turning perfectly reasonable children into anxious bundles of wandering thoughts and fidgets; another thing I assume, and hope will never fade from the hearts of children. That's where we were, with only a few weeks until our break, and not a single student could hold still. It took - and I assume still takes - an impressive amount of patience to lead a class that spends more time with their eyes facing the windows than the chalkboard. It is in my experience that I say, with full conviction, it is not the teacher who is hard as stone that is the necessarily the best. On the contrary, I believe it to be those teachers who are flexible like grass dancing with the wind that stay with us our entire lives.
     The average kid had plenty on their minds, they were thinking of jumping into old farmer Warren's – or “worm” as we all called him – swimming hole after a long day of sports, and wrestling, and racing through town. They were thinking of building forts out of driftwood on the beach, and hosting large camp-outs where we would tell ghost stories, trying to scare each-other. Simon Green, the grocers boy, would always tell the best ones, although I never counted myself among the weeping boys that would soon run damage control by complaining about the ashes of the fire that blew into their eyes, making them water.      
     Well, that's how previous years had played out, anyway. It was a grand mistake that I thought myself the only one that saw women, and thought them to be more interesting than stickball, or going on silly adventures. We were sixteen, and this was going to be the summer of love for our class. Holding hands, and trading kisses where no one could see would infect all the kids of our small town, and I'm only mildly embarrassed to say that I too would spend seemingly all of my free time pursuing these nerve-wracking, but wonderful encounters with Ashlyn. For myself though, this would be a summer of uphill battles.
     Growing on the side of the school, a bland bunch of wild Daisy grew in sad patches along the wall. Snatching a fistful of the pathetic flowers, I stormed towards the corner of the school yard where Ashlyn normally sat by herself. Using my free hand to rake fingers through my shaggy hair, I thought through hundreds of scenarios of what I would say, of how to counter any misdirection thrown by Ashlyn. It's a spectacular disaster, over-thinking that is.
     I must have gone through thousands of possibilities by the time I reached speaking distance with Ashlyn, trying so hard to make sure everything was just right. Since my youth, I've come to accept that life does not carry itself in visible calculations. It is a tidal wave tearing through a calm pond. It is a rogue gust of wind that turns a still field of dandelions into pandemonium. It is a sudden storm that ruins the sunny day, and the unexpected warm day in the middle of winter. It's a great many wonderful and awful things that I'm sure I'll never come to fully understand, but there is one thing I'm certain of. I'm certain that it rarely goes according to plan. Or perhaps just not according to yours. This day did not necessarily go according to my plan.
     Turning the corner, I saw Ashlyn, and suddenly all of my rehearsed lines melted away. I still cannot tell if this made me happy, or infuriated. I honestly can't remember what I was thinking during the bulk of these early encounters with her at all. It is by this, that I use to remind myself that it truly was love; young love, at that. It is a blossoming sting, the most potent of all emotions, and if I can't recall what it was that I was thinking during these moments, I can still remember how it is that I felt. I remember it because somewhere inside me, I've been looking for those feelings again my entire life, but along with the years, they are quickly fleeting.
     It felt as though I was floating toward Ashlyn as I bridged the cap between us, and hastily tucked the arm holding the flowers behind my back. In the stories we read growing up, the hero would always surprise the princess somehow, and she would fall even deeper in love with him. Stories are charming, because they play out through calculations. The tidal wave, the rogue wind, the dreary and the sunny days, they only appear if the writer wants them to. Real life is often lacking in that intimacy.
     “Ashlyn!” I half-yelled, my face flushing a deep scarlet. “Don't go,” I said – much more controlled this time – “I have a present for you”. Once again, those eyes squinted at me in suspicion. I'm sure it can be easily explained that the stampeding hormones in my body, mixed with the way the light was hitting them did it, but honestly, at that exact moment, her eyes were the most wonderful things I had ever seen. The look on her face told me I had just said so out loud, and my poor knees finally lost the good fight.
     Although with quite some reluctance, Ashlyn crept towards me, and just far enough away to bolt if I moved towards her, asked if I were alright. Pulling myself together, I thrust the flowers towards her, and managed to bark “these are for you!” followed by turning my increasingly warm face away from her. The look of bewilderment on her face reminded me that I am no hero. Just Henry Showalter, a boy who did stupid things on occasion; although let the records show, significantly more often after seeing Ashlyn.
     It was not necessarily the pain that had me yelp, but rather the surprise of being kicked by such a small foot; a foot made for dancing across fields of fog, not for swinging with intent at someone. “You fool! Look what you did to these poor flowers!” she yelled. “Already, their petals wilt, and wither away!” Staring at her while rubbing my shin, I tried to apologize, but she spoke right over me. “I don't know what happened to make you change, Henry. You've never picked on my before. Hell, you hardly ever even acknowledged me. Why do you choose to pester me now?” she said, tears welling up underneath her eyes. What happened next, I would – and still do – consider to be the bravest thing I've ever done.
     “You're beautiful!” I shouted, quickly drawing the eyes, and subsequent pointing fingers of the now gossiping children on the other side of the yard. By the look on her face, I was legitimately worried that someone had snuck up from behind and slipped something cold down the back of her shirt. Her bulging eyes – no less beautiful than any other time – stared at me for awhile before finally muttering a single word. “What?”
     “You're beautiful, Ashlyn,” I repeated, this time looking her in the eyes. Taking a step back, she said “Oh,” before turning and running, dropping the flowers onto the dusty school yard. “It's all over,” I thought to myself. I'd take any ridicule that came my way, but how could I embarrass her so? Dusting myself off, I walked back into the school for our final lesson of the day. I walked, looking defeated, which was fitting in that I truly felt as though I were.
     Again, I had to sit through a class by Mr. Lutz, and I felt moderately bad that I would again be retaining nothing of what he said. My mind was spread out too thin, working on a hundred different problems at the moment. You'd think I would have learned my lesson on over-thinking, but I of course did not. I'm sure the general consensus is to blame my gender, I'm sure the sympathetic vote lies with the lack of a positive father-figure. I wouldn't argue either of those, honestly, but I personally believe those to both be products of over-thinking, an idea that in of itself makes me laugh. I think that like most things, the easiest answer is the simplest. I think if an idea is worth it, you won't learn it instantly. This must be so, seeing as how I still struggle with it to this day, so many years later than the events of these papers.
     It was time to head home, and I wasn't surprised to learn that Ashlyn never made it to her final class. I, Henry Showalter, had finally done it. I had embarrassed Ashlyn to the point where she skipped out on school. If I were one of those knights, and this were a story, I'd have my armor on backwards, and would have forgotten my sword and shield at home. I made the trudge home, completely aware of all the furtive glances, and smiles unsuccessfully hidden behind hands. The people of this damned town have ridiculous needs, and I frequently found myself to be the supplier. I sometimes would imagine my affairs being colored red, and afterwords, the townsfolk would look like circus clowns. This little trick didn't cheer me up today, but then again, I didn't really think anything would.
     Finally arriving at my house, I reached for the door, but did not enter. For a few minutes, I just sat, my body lazily slumped against the solid oak. I thought that if I entered my house at this moment, there was a chance that I may never come out again. My angsty young heart just wasn't strong enough to let things go on as they were. I decided that before I went inside, I would figure out some way to make things right. Perhaps I wouldn't win Ashlyn's affections, but I couldn't have her hating me; Lord, anything but that.
     Peeling myself away from the door, I started to pace back and forth on my porch. It wasn't until I heard my father stumbling back in from whatever trouble he had caused for the evening that I realized how time had slipped away from me. The sun had been down for hours now, and I realized I hadn't gained a single inch on the situation. I had spent almost half a day, essentially doing nothing, and I wasn't sure which emotion would win. Would I allow frustration to flare up, or would I slip deep into a depression?
     Turning to me, my father lifted his head, and looked at me through his glazed eyes. “Whatever it is son, just give it up,” he said with slurred speech. “You're a Showalter. We never win. Give it up,” and with that, he roughly pushed the door open, and fell onto the living room floor. It's a testament of how upset I was that I actually listened to advise from that devil.
     I walked past him, and headed for my room, looking forward to finally laying down. All hope was gone, and I was alone again. I thought to myself about how my mother would know exactly what to do, and the weight of the day finally fell on me. I cried for the first time in many years, huddled into a small ball on my bed. I cried, like a child, and didn't stop until I fell asleep. I miss her so much, I often wonder how bright my future would have been if her light wasn't put out so prematurely. I was wading in the ocean at the darkest hour of night, and I thought rescue would never come. I was going to drown, and I wasn't going to kick my legs anymore.
     Please understand that this night was just the culmination of many years of frustration. It wasn't that Ashlyn ran from me, for example, that had me a sniveling mess of melodrama. It wasn't necessarily that I resented my father passed out on the floor, and it wasn't even that I missed my mother, although that one was probably the largest factor. It was simply that everything that could go wrong, went wrong, all at the wrong time. I remember my mother telling me once “when it rains, it pours,” and this is another cliché I wonder if scholarly research has given time towards.
     Although I thought my life was over, waking up made me realize perhaps one of the only things my mother's passing gave me. I was considerably stronger than I thought possible. I felt ashamed that I wasted an evening's sleep crying to myself, but I didn't dwell on it. My feelings for Ashlyn were the same, but I knew that things were over, so I decided I would quit. I wouldn't embarrass her anymore, and I would focus on finishing school, and moving as far the hell away from this place as I could.
     My weekend was spent at Gregor Phillip's place, splitting logs for extra cash. He ran a lumber business, and before I came to experience the world, and just how vast it was, I used to think his operation to be the largest trade in the world. He sent out lumber to as far as five towns away, and was considered to be perhaps the wealthiest man in town. Although he was rough round the edges, I considered him to be the closest thing to a role model I had.
     If you had something bad to say about a man, chances were it could be applied to Gregor. He was rude, and he was crass. He spit often, and bullied when he couldn't get his way. He swore more often than not, and there was even a rumor with the town women that he occasionally visited a brothel over in Atticus, a larger town about half a day's walk away, or a few hours if you owned an automobile. Outside of Gregor, only a few in town had access to one of those conveniences. He was a great many other number of descriptive terms too, but he was also an excellent business man, and strong as an ox. I was lucky that my father never found the money I was saving up for when I finally ran away from this place. Mr. Green the grocer would have lost his entire stock of liquor.
     Working at Gregor's was one of the most important events of my young life for a great many reasons. While of course a strong role model, and a source of income were important, it was the smaller things that really helped me out along the way. I rarely ever had the opportunity to be alone; a drunkard father and a gossiping town saw to that. To this day though, I find myself frustrated at people who can't spend five minutes alone with themselves. While I would never encourage a lifestyle of it, loneliness gives you a fresh perspective to tackle problems. 
     Sometimes when I speak to myself, I know the voice I hear doesn't belong to me. That hoarse voice in the back of my head that offhandedly tells me to give up when I find myself in a difficult situation; I know that to be my father's voice. When I'm sad, and just want someone to embrace me, and tell me everything is going to be alright, it's Gregor's voice that tells me to straighten my back, and stop moping. When I just want to walk to the hill over on Parker's field, and fall asleep counting the stars, I can hear a calming voice coo to me that I'm going to catch cold if I don't go inside. I know that voice to be my mother's. Whenever I did something that seemed to be in mischievous fun, I could hear the nagging tone of Miss Margaret getting ready to flare up behind me.
     So many different opinions, so many voices going through my head, burying my own small voice under an avalanche. Don't get me wrong, I have pigheadedly pursued problems long since I should have given up, and I have acted like a sniveling boy, one who is old enough to act like a man, often enough. Even though I don't think I’ll ever stop, I know that I've spent too much time sleeping under the stars for my own good. Good advise is always good advise, and wisdom from the mouth of fools is no less wise. Sometimes a man just needs to listen to his own voice, though.
     It is through this mindset that I believe there to be great peace found in monotonous work. It's a sort of mindless distraction from all outside influence, but still an act of productivity. Just my axe, the various bodies of unlucky trees, and my own voice floating casually through my head. Nothing else could bother me during those hours, at least until Gregor came and would tell me to go home, and I'd finally see that the sun was almost below the horizon. 
     Working also gave me the opportunity to grow physically, to shape my body much in the same way I had been shaping my mind. My mind would start to grow as sharp as the head of my axe, my body as solid as it's handle. My goals as precise as my swing, and my problems started to seem more and more like trees that could be removed with the right tools. A sound mind, body, and soul were the tools I needed for my problems, and I was crafting all three.
     There was one more small lesson I was learning from all this time working at Gregor's. It was Sunday, and I was heading home early so as to get enough sleep for school. As I walked down the road, the early summer sunlight warm on my back, that thoughts of Ashlyn came crawling back into my head. Dare I try talking to her again? Could I salvage anything from the disaster I made on the schoolyard last week? That final lesson I recall learning from Gregor's is that you can't run from every problem. Some problems are trees that need to be cut, but some problems are trees that you need to grow. I had been learning how to finish, and completely ignoring how to start.
     Thoughts of Ashlyn fluttered around my head until I finally found myself at the stairs to my home. The entire walk, I had been mostly looking at the ground. I knew my way to and from Gregor's without any problem, and I was too deep in thought to look around anyway, even the sun had since set. It wasn't until I grabbed the handle of the door that I saw the back of a chair sticking out through a now broken window and heard the roar of my father tearing through our home. I closed my eyes, and heard Gregor's voice this time. I took a deep breath, and walked into my home.
     As I walked in, I was caught off guard at how wrecked my house had become. Overturned tables, and broken glass was everywhere. So much was happening all at once, it took me a moment to realize the path lead to my bedroom, where I could hear my father inside, swearing and breaking something wooden. When I peeked my head inside, something started to turn my body hot. My face red, my blood boiling, my body felt on fire. 
     My father was ripping books from the shelve, and swearing loudly to himself. I took a step inside the room, and found myself looking at the floor. A small wooden rocking horse lay smashed in half, a dent in the wall from where it was thrown. Looking up at me, my father started to slur his words, throwing his hand wildly, casting shadows along the wall by the flickering candlelight he had on the windowledge. “Where the hell ish all that money at, boy! I know Gregor is paying you. Where is that money!” he yells at me. 
     I've told you before that I was lucky enough to still hold memories of my mother dear, and I can remember the day my parents brought me home that rocking horse. My father was taking a business trip to the next town over, and my young adventure's spirit yearned to go with him. I remember how I sobbed, and begged my mother to let me go, but she just laughed to herself, and kept running her fingers through my hair. I thought she was so cruel back then, to laugh at me so! I know now though why she did it. It was my birthday, and my father wasn't going to be around to celebrate with me. Oh how I cried that day. 
     I cried myself to sleep, and can remember being gingerly awoken sometime that night. “Happy birthday, son,” my mother said. I frowned at her, and rolled to face away from her, getting ready to cry again. She started to sing a song for me, and although it stopped me from crying, it didn't fix anything. It was just a song afterall! What good could a song do? 
     I thought on this until I heard something else that wiped all of those thoughts out of my head. It was a man's voice singing along, my father's voice. My father, you see, was always distant when I was young. As I look back now, I realize my mother was right, it was this town that changed him so. That short trip to the next town over made him smile for a night, and it was one of the best moments of my life. My mother was alive, and my father was kind. It is a shining memory in my head that glows brighter as the others memories start to fade and disappear.
     My father pulled a box out from behind him, a great white thing, covered in red ribbon. Wiping the tears away from my eyes, my mother started that great, melodious laugh of her. I stared in awe as my father, still smiling, rustled the hair on my head, and said “Well what are you waiting for, son? Go on, open it!” It seemed my body grew stripes, and my teeth and fingernails grew longer. That poor box grew legs, and strange spiraled horns. I was like a tiger from the books I’d read, and I pounced on that poor deer-like animal of a box, and tore it to shreds. 
     I've had that rocking horse all these years, and it's always been a part of my life that helps me live with the creature my father had become. Whenever I wanted to smash his face in, I always remembered the smile he gave me when I pulled that wooden horse from that box, and I'd slowly start to forgive him. Something inside of me snapped along with that wooden horse, and I could no longer hear the words my father said.
     He stumbled over to me, and kicked the horse out of my hands, and grabbed me by the shirt. “Quit staring at the floor like that, you dumbass. Where's that money at?” he hollared, and that was when I first hit him. I caught him in the nose first, and heard the snap of cartilage breaking from my knuckles. I stuck him near the eye, and as I pulled my fist away, I could almost see the bruise that was going to grow in all black and blue there. I picked up a small plank of wood torn from my wall, and swung it across his back as he huddled away from me, holding the blood from his nose in. He fell shortly after the crack of breaking wood, and looked up me with such a look of terror. 
     I knew in that moment what he was afraid of. He had seen a look on my face, and although I had no mirror on me, I knew exactly what kind of face I was wearing. It was the same look that he often had after my mother had passed, the same look he had as I scrambled from my window, and easily outran him. I could almost hear my mother's voice in my head now. “Oh son... what have you done?” she seemed to say. Gregor's same in shortly after hers, saying “this is what you think a man does?” 
     I reached for my father, to try and comfort him, but he shied away, and started to shout at me. His eyes were wild, and he started to flail on the floor, kicking towards me, screaming for me to get out of his house. He smacked himself up alongside the wall near my window, and sent the candle resting on its sill sailing outside. A full moon lit up my room, hiding all the wreckage my father had made, only showing his face glowing faintly blue with the moonlight. Standing up, my face now mimicking the look of horror on his, I walked out of my bedroom, and ran until I reached the town.
     Pounding my fists on a wooden door, a woman in a white nightgown opened the door, holding a small candle. Miss Margaret glared at me, and started to say “Henry? Do you know what time it is? What exactly do you think-” until she realized the look on my face. The anger melted from her face, and concern grew in its place. She set the candle down, and placed her hands on my shoulders. “What have you done?” she said, shaking me. That's when the siren went off.
     The only truck owned by our town was purchased a few years back, and was quite impressively modified to be hold water in the back by a fella over in Atticus. Nicolaus Wawrzynski was a heavy-set balding man, who always seemed to be sweating. He was the mayor of our town, and he was driving the vehicle across town towards my home as another man sat in the passengers seat, cranking a siren. Men were starting to bustle from their houses with buckets, and were chasing after the truck.
     Miss Margaret looked me in the eyes, and didn't say anything for awhile. “Get out of here, Henry. Go run into the woods until all of this blows over. I can fix this,” she said. Miss Margaret's children had long-since grown up and moved on, and her husband passed away some years ago. I never knew why she stayed in this town, but I believe now that it was because the voices she heard when she tried to think. 
     Whereas my voices were from the adults I had grown up with, I think Miss Margaret's had all passed away, she herself being an adult, and nearing 50 years old! I think one of those voices kept telling her that this town needed her, and she couldn't leave. As I explain this, I assume most would agree that the voice must have belonged to a great human being, one who believed in right and wrong and the selfless pursuit of helping others. I just think that person must have been a great fool. This town needed Mrs. Margaret, but Mrs. Margaret didn't need this town. I'm glad she was able to get away, eventually.
     Turning back to me, she said “Go, Henry! Go hide out for the night, come back in a few days.” and stopped herself with a look of consternation. “Hold on, Take this with you,” she said, and disappeared from the door frame. She came back in a few minutes holding a cloth sack tied up. “It's some food and water, and the sack is an old blanket. Now go!” and gave me a small shove, and then slammed the door in my face. I still can't tell you if Miss Margaret liked me, but I do think that somewhere in that woman burned a protective motherly love for all children. Love by proxy is better than nothing.

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