Project 52: Toppling Atlas

1 short story a week. 52 weeks a year.

Monday, May 27, 2013



      “Don’t just stand there and scream,” cried Weil, the leader of our company. He was shouting over his shoulder at me; a slightly curved sword in one hand, and a fanged mace in the other. Both seemed alive as the blood that slicked the surface of the weapons would pulse and squirm, before jumping to the ground and digging into the soil like small crabs. It is my presumption, as well as hope, that it did so to die. If these actions are indicative of its nature as a seed, we are all doomed.
     Try as I might, my feet, tongue, and mind held still, as though an insignificant puddle of water that freezes over as winter unveils its first snap. The screams of men whirled around me, biting like flies; infighting amongst themselves to see which lucky pest gets the first taste. Whereas the cries of men latched on, freezing me under its touch, the sound of our enemies gripped me with blacksmith pincers, and set fire to my bones, snapping them under the weight of its invisible hammer.
     The creatures we were fighting were almost twice as tall as a man, but with limbs that seemed no thicker than the handle of a broom; they had a strength that blew past our perceptions of their anatomy. It seemed as though all the muscle and tissue had been removed from their faces, for taut skin stretched over their cheek bones and jawlines, giving the likeness of a human skeleton covered in flesh. The skin from around their eyes and lips had been roughly removed, leaving inky black pits for the eyes, and dark teeth - that seemed to shine as though coated in oil – that were set in a permanent smile. Their skin was so white, it reflected even the faintest light of our fires, giving the iridescent properties of a pearl.
     By far though, the most terrifying aspect of theses abominations were the sounds they would emit. As they walked, they would sway – in the likeness of newborn cattle - and I can only describe their sound as a hundred children, simultaneously crying, each trying to out howl the other. However, when they ran, it turned into a maelstrom of child-like giggling, and I cannot fathom how men like Weil could still use their knees properly when the hell screeches started to flare up around the battlefield.
     Turning his head around, Weil’s eyes came down on me as though augers and he started shouting. “Pick up a sword, boy! I said don’t just stand there and scream, you daft fucking-“. His fiery speech was ended prematurely as long, spindly fingers spider-crawled down from the crown of his head, and slipped into his mouth precisely. In one fluid motion, the hand ripped up towards the dark sky - where no stars danced, as thick clouds had filled in the heavens; flickering shadows and firelight played on their surfaces. His head was missing from the jawline up, and the rhythmic fountaining of blood splashed onto the smiling face of the creature that loomed above him.
     I cannot be certain, but in the wavering light of our fires, I swear I saw the eyes of the beast sucking in the blood, as though those inky pits of his eyes were absorbing the life source of our commander. Turning its head sideways – in the likeness of an owl trying to fathom the boldness of a lone mouse in a field - its voice flared back up to a parade of giggling that hung ominously around with the large smile that clung tightly to its face. I knew in that moment what the boar must feel like when it sees the hunter before death. This was not a battle between us as we had all believed when we were marched onto this battlefield – this was sport, not war.
     Life did not flash before my eyes, as I’ve so often heard in stories. It took only a second, and I fell in on myself, and knew it was over. The only thing left to do was to prepare my body for when my soul would depart. I thanked the twenty gods for the life I had been given so far. I thanked them for all the good I’ve seen in this life, and that I would die fighting to save all those things I’ve come to love; no matter that my personally being on this battlefield was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. With trembling hands, I ran my thumbs along the fallen blade of Weil’s sword, and ran them over my closed eyes. I prepared my body for death, and mourned for the men that lay in many-limbed mountains around me.
     Hands knotted themselves into my shirt, and roughly hoisted me off the ground. I tried as hard as I could not to piss myself – for no man should meet his gods soiled in such a way, but it was of no use. As the hands let me go, I stood with my eyes closed, covered in piss, and wept openly.  Dimly, I heard a voice shouting at me, and in my daze assumed it was of some powerful deity. As I opened my eyes, I saw Tommas, another company leader, and four men that held the creature pinned into the soil with large spears, the blades of which were longer than a man’s arm.
     Wide-eyed, I turned and tried to thank Tommas, but he took my shoulders, and began to violently shake me. “What did you do to the creature!” he shouted, his wild eyes flickering in the dim firelight. I didn’t necessarily understand, and when I said as much, a gauntleted fist caught me across the right side of my jaw. “The beast!” he shouted, “It was standing over you, staring as though confused, not attacking. What exactly did you do? Why didn’t it kill you?” Staring down into my hands, I tried to process what he was talking about, and my eyes froze on my thumbs.
     “Blood,” I mumbled, speaking over his growl to talk louder. “Blood!” I shouted, “I spread blood over my eyes, and it must have confused the creature, perhaps it couldn’t tell if I were friend or foe,” I spoke hurriedly – each word nearly tripping over the last. I watched as his face flashed through the spectrum of confusion: passing through bewilderment, stepping into curiosity, flickering through anger, and finally settling on suspicion. “Why did you have blood on your eyes, boy?” Tommas asked through slanted eyes.
     My heart was crawling up my throat as I realized what I had just admitted. “The Wild Faiths were outlawed many years ago, heathen,” he spoke with a cold, and calculating voice. Within seconds, his men plucked their spears out from the beast - as it had finally stopped thrashing its gangly appendages on the ground - and held them towards me, as though I were in the shape to try running. “The law says that heathens must be killed on sight,” Tommas muttered dispassionately. “Kill him.” His soldiers set their shoulders back, in preparation to lunge their oversized spears at me, and something foreign ran through my body. I had assumed I would feel fear in this instance, but I did not. I only felt pity towards these men; men who were on a battlefield, surrounded by monsters that could kill them at any moment, and they still could not allow a man to pray to gods other than their own.
     Something inside me snapped, or perhaps that’s too violent of a comparison. Perhaps it is best to say that a deep-rooted memory woke up inside of me, and I felt more alive – covered in blood on a battlefield facing a collar of spears – than I had in my entire life. My eyes flickered down, and sought the area that the beast had been laying, and wasn’t the least bit surprised when I saw the corpse to be missing. I looked Tommas directly in the eyes, and raised my chin to him, showcasing the neck of which his soldiers would certainly strike with proficiency in a matter of seconds. Tommas wore an emotionless face, and stared down at me as though I had gone crazy. “Be done with it,” he said. The first spear gave a loud clanking noise as it struck the ground, and only seconds flashed by before the other three followed. I must admit, it was pleasurable for me to finally see emotion run through that face of Tommas. Even better yet, it was one of terror, and I drank in the experience gladly.
    Tommas stared at me guiltily, before coughing up enough blood to coat his chin and neck, and finally passing. The abomination stood over him, sword through its stomach and spear wounds lacing its body; the noise of the creature finally dying down. They were both dead, and I walked over to prod at the bodies to make sure. Looking around, I finally realized the battle was still raging, but the waves of men were being effortlessly butchered. A few of the creatures turned towards me, expecting easy game, and stopped to look at my eyes for a while. The heat of the battle, and the nerves of being near death had caused perspiration to run down my face, washing away the bulk of my Do’saat blood. Try as I might, I was slicked with sweat, and the blood would only run down my face when I tried to reapply it. Turning away, I heard the crying turn into laughter as the beasts started to charge, and knowing that death would finally find me this time, I knelt down near the corpses of Tommas and the abomination, and spoke to them in turn.
     To Tommas, I thanked him for putting my faith to the test. I could have taken any number of routes to beg forgiveness, or lie about my beliefs, but I did not. I thanked him that I may leave this world, finally sure of myself. For so long, I sat in deference to The Sons of Sol, and kept my prayers tucked inside of shadows, watchful of their prying eyes. Thanks to the foul nature of Tommas, I would pass knowing I would hide no longer. I held anger in my breast towards the man, and wasn’t remotely ashamed that I was happy he came to know such terror as he did.
     To the slender creature near him, I crouched to my knees, and looked over into those writhing black maws that stood where his eye sockets would be. I tried to pear into their depths, and from the bottom of my heart, cursed them. “You truly are abominations, and I regret ever having felt pity towards you. I’m ashamed that I once felt sadness for you, thinking you were mindless creatures, and how I wished you could live human lives.” I spoke these words, until a particularly nasty thought fluttered into my head. Looking over at the corpse of Tommas, I realized that being a human wasn’t the penultimate experience in this life; that some humans where just as much beasts as these strange creatures were, and I fell to my knees laughing, knowing that even though I hated both of them, I would leave this soon leave this life, having the both of them by my side.
     I set my head down on the earth next to them, and started to hum an old song my mother once taught me. It was a prayer, carried on through our people since our beginnings.
     Of what challenges,
     may wicked men ever know?
     How difficult must it be,
     to have no self control?
     Walk until you drop.
     Walk until you drop.
     Sow your bodies field,
     enjoy the harvest’s crop.
Humming along, I pressed my face into the earth, and felt the powdered dirt underneath absorb the sweat of my face and cling to my skin. My people weren’t supposed to leave this world covered in dirt, but my face was so filthy at this point, I didn’t think it could hurt anything. The laughter was getting close, so I gently shut my eyes, and gave thanks all over again. “It never hurts to repeat gratitude, doing so makes up for all the times we forget,” my father once told me. It would be a lie if I told you I wasn’t terrified, but somewhere deep inside me, something small was dancing with glee at the prospect of seeing my parents again. Would they still recognize me? Would I recognize them? My father was killed during The Uprising, the only time we tried to stand up to the Sons of Sol. My mother died a few years after, as a result of a common disease. Stomach Rot was particularly bad that year, and Wild Faiths where withheld the cure, so that the Sols could make sure their own people were taken care of. My fingernails unconsciously dug into my palms, as I went further and further into the recesses of my mind, anger made sport of my body, as though wildfire during a drought.
     I was forcefully ripped from my dream-like state as something skittered across my eyelids. Even through the panic, I could still hear that the abominations weren’t upon me yet, so I assumed I had lain upon a shield bug. I regained my composure, and shifted my head slightly so as to give it room. “You won’t want to be here in a few moments, little guy,” I whispered. I wondered if those strange bloodling creatures were able to hurt insects, and with that thought, the fear I assumed I had beaten found its way back into my bones.
    I tried to lift my hands to my face to tear away the creatures, but my fingers tore through them as though water. It felt as though hundreds of small hands filled in the cracks of my eyelids, and forcibly pried them open, biting my eyelids in the process. The bloodlings were like small pools of dark water that could grow arms and legs and scramble along the surface. They were as though unimaginably horrific spiders that could flow like mercury. I howled in pain, but no amount of thrashing did any good whatsoever. The pain of having ones eyeballs forcibly plucked from their body is so unbearable; I cannot even bring myself to find the words for it. I howled, and I cried, and I sat as a thousand small hands tore into my face, eating away at the skin of my eye sockets, finally finding home in the newly formed caverns of my face.
     Although my world was black, I tried futilely to blink my eyes, but the muscles I used without thought were no longer there. It was such a helpless feeling, that I didn’t even notice the red ink that shot into the darkness of my vision. In seconds, I looked at the world through rose eyes, and saw three abominations nearly upon me. I had been defeated too many times on this day, and could no longer deal with such fear. I know how ridiculous it must be to hear someone say such a thing, especially as I look upon my words set to paper, but that was earnestly how I felt. I just could no longer find peace, or anger, or pity. I felt fear, and in such a moment of weakness, I raised my hands towards the abominations, and screamed as loud as I could: “Leave me alone!”
     It was of no sense I can explain to you now, but I could feel the blood that surged through my body, and I could feel it in others too. It was as though I could sense life itself, and could sense it as though sight, or smell. In my mind, I could feel the blood in their bodies, and saw it somehow as through a thread. Snatching them in my fist, I ripped them out of existence, and saw the creatures collapse as though puppets when the handles are dropped. I sat in awe as my mind tried to process the feeling of joy that was trying to seep into my mind. Before I knew what was happening, I was walking through the battlefield, shredding abominations left and right; each fallen body making me more familiar with this strange power. The cries of men turned into cheers as I tore through the abominations, until I turned on them too, and found myself howling in laughter. Behind my shrieks, I could hear the voices of a hundred children laughing like the abominations had; however, my own voice came through the loudest. I was a marriage of the humans and the abominations, and I had an ever-increasing well of destruction at my fingertips. Minutes tiptoed by, until silence fell on the field, and I stopped laughing. Tilting my head north, I saw the gleaming tower of Solius, the capital city of the Holy Order of Sol, and knew in that even the small amount of control I had over my body was quickly fleeting. It was wrecking my body as though a plague, and I knew that I would soon no longer exist as the human I once had. I would simply cease to be Seni the slave, and I would soon be a monster, and within the day, I’ll have some terrible name associated me, forever.
     Somewhere deep inside of me, the feelings of my youth - the feelings of anger that the Sons of Sol butchered my people for practicing peaceful faiths was burning inside of me, and I knew I would soon kill them all. The terror I feel for that is the only thing keeping me in control long enough to write this to you now. I have tried to cry, but I am no longer capable of forming the necessary tears. Thoughts whirled around me, such as “would I be able to die,” or “will he heavens still accept my soul when I do?” I feel myself turning, and am losing the memory of my parent’s faces. I am losing everything.
     Although I can feel myself slipping away, please remember that I was once a man of truth - a gentle soul - and I was forced to become a monster. But no, that’s not quite right, is it? How was I a monster? I will be killing lesser creatures, the humans and the abominations of which are both deserving of such judgment. I’m no monster, am I? If the gods are just for their judgments – if they divine for their power, am I not also a god? No, I cannot say such things, I am surely a monster, and these words are all just madness. Please, remember that I never wanted to do this. Goodbye, whoever finds this book. I’m not a monster. I’m not a monster. I’m a monster and I’ve a debt that needs to be collected. I’m not a monster. I’m a human. I was a human. I ws nt amonst... Imn ahumn...

-          Taken from a journal found on the Kreshan Battlefield , shortly before the fall of Solius in the year 172 S.C. The remaining pages were scribbled in an unknown language, and the back half of the journal was ripped off completely. The monster was pincushioned with arows, and set aflame after four bloodied years. It's body was chopped into seven equal pieces, and attached to weights. They were thrown into the six oceans, its head burned to a cinder and buried under a mountain.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Working Title: Dancing in the Mist

Working Title: Dancing in the Mist

     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, just a few hours of tranquility gives you a fresh perspective on problems you may otherwise have difficulty solving. It also should be said that loneliness itself can teach you so much of who you are, but it is a gamble. Spend too much time alone, and you may become addicted. Self-pity is so easy, so tempting; I'm sure it has ruined the plans of many great thinkers throughout history. Life is much too large to spend by yourself.

    Sometimes when I speak to myself, I know the voices I hear don'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 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, and it goes without saying that I have spent far too much time dabbling in mischief. 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 had almost reached 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 edge of my axe, my body as solid as its 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 another small lesson I was learning from all this time working at Gregor's that I'd like to mention. 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, those 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? The final lesson I recall learning from Gregor's that weekend 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, too deep in thought to pay attention to my whereabouts. I knew my way to and from Gregor's without any problem, so I never really needed to pay attention. Deep in thought, and muscle memory taking me straight home, I wasn't even aware that the sun had finally dipped below the horizon some time ago. It wasn't until I grabbed the handle of the door that I was abruptly torn from my thoughts. The back of a chair was sticking out through a now broken window and I heard the roar of my father tearing through our house. I closed my eyes, and wondered what I should do; run away for the night, or walk inside and stop my father from destroying our house? Hearing Gregor's voice in my head 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 lie everywhere. So much was happening all at once, it took me a moment to realize that there was a path leading to my bedroom, where I could hear my father inside, swearing and breaking something wooden. When I peeked my head inside, something started to heat inside of me; my face red, my blood boiling, my body felt on fire. My father was tearing my room apart.
    Ripping books from their shelves, and swearing loudly to himself, my father was covered in mud and wore his usual cologne of bourbon and sweat. I took a step inside the room, and thought as quickly as I could on what to say or do. I was large enough to easily manhandle him, but I know how much stronger kind words can be. I took another step towards him, and stepped on a small piece of splintered wood. White noise flooded my ears, and nothing else seemed to matter for that moment as I bent down to examine what I had kicked.
    A small, wooden rocking horse lie smashed in half on the floor, a dent in the wall from where it was thrown can be seen over my left shoulder. Looking up at me, my father was throwing his hands wildly, casting shadows along the wall by the flickering candlelight he had on the window-ledge. As the initial anger melted away, I could pick out some of what he had been saying. “Where the hell ish all that money at, boy! I know Gregor is paying you. Where is that money!” he yells at me, his words slurring.

    I've told you before that I was lucky enough to still hold many memories of my mother, 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 why she did it, though. At the time, all I knew was that 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 start up my crying  yet again. She started to sing a song for me, and although it stopped me from crying, it didn't fix anything else. It was just a song after-all, What good could a song do? I wouldn't know it then, but in the year to come, I'd remember this song; every single word, and I'd always regret not being able to hear more of them.
    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 years go by, even as other memories start to fade and disappear.
    My father pulled a box out from behind him - a great white behemoth, covered in red ribbon! Wiping the tears away from my eyes, my mother started that great, melodious laugh of hers. 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!”
I was caught off guard, you see, because of my father's actions. Not only was he smiling – which was a rarity in of itself – but he was smiling at me. Which of the two are a greater present to a young child?
    Snapping out it, I turned towards the box, and heard my parent's laughter turn into the sounds of wind and animal calls of some unknown African prairie. My body, it seemed, grew bold 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 hunted that poor deer-like box. Tearing it to shreds, I finally gave it one last swipe, and reached in to claim my reward! A small wooden toy, looked up at me, as though specifically created to be played with by my hands, to be watched by my eyes alone. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.

    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. Whenever I missed my mother, I would look across the room at that silly horse, and I would hear her laughter. That rocking horse was a silent witness to the awful thing my father had become over the years, and was the only one around to comfort me when mother passed. Something inside of me snapped along with that wooden horse, and I could no longer hear the words my father was saying.
    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 dumb ass. Where's that money at?” he hollered. 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 next struck 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, trying to hold 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 as a young child. I could almost hear my mother's voice in my head now. “Oh son... what have you done?” she seemed to say. Gregor's came in shortly after hers, saying “think this is what it means to be a man? Think because you struck a drunk that you're all grown up now?”
    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. His face and hands were covered in blood. 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 stepped 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 flushed from her face, and concern grew in its place. She set the candle down on a nearby table, and placed her hands on my shoulders. “What have you done?” she said, lightly 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 carry a large quantity of 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, and he was driving the vehicle across town as another man sat in the passengers seat, cranking a siren. Men were starting to pour 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. She saw the swollen knuckles on my right hand, and looked at the broken plank of wood in my hand. I honestly had no idea I was still carrying the damned thing. “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.
    My voices were from the adults I had grown up with, and likewise, I think Miss Margaret's were as well. Seeing as how she was nearing 50 years old, I now think that the bulk of voices she heard must be from people who have long since passed on. At this moment in my life, I started to understand that we are much more than just bodies. We can be carried on in word, and song, and picture. We can be carried on in memory, and in lessons.
    To be human is so vast, and complex, I don't think we'll ever fully understand what it means to live, but I hope we never give up on trying. We place living into the category of worldly gains, and judge dying off of a hole in the ground. We're taught all our lives that the world isn't so opaque, why should the beginning and end be any simpler? I don't mean to say that there is necessarily an after life, or anything of religious nature. I'm not here to preach, I just mean to say that there is so much we don't know, and we should always be feeding that curiosity to the point of overindulgence.
    I think one of those voices Miss Margaret heard kept telling her that this town needed her, and that 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 personally just think that person must have been a great fool. This town needed Mrs. Margaret alright, but Mrs. Margaret didn't need this town. I'm appreciative, because there are good people in this town, and I myself probably wouldn't be here writing this if it wasn't for the help of Miss Margaret. I'm just glad that she was able to get away from here, 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 or not, but I do think that somewhere in that woman burned a protective motherly love for all children; particularly those – much like myself – with wayward souls. Love by proxy is better than nothing at all.

    With everyone in town running frantically to help put out the fire – although I assume most people showed up simply because there is always gossip and rumors to be found at these gatherings – it was quite easy to sneak out of town. I still can't decide if it was human nature, or the small part of me that grew up here, but I was tempted to ask people running whose house or barn was on fire. I thankfully decided against it, and made my way across the outskirts of town until I found myself on the dirt path that lead to the ocean. Walking for awhile, I had time to calm down, and start thinking things through without my mind running faster than my legs. I'm thankful this all happened during the warm months. “Focus on the good things,” my mother used to tell me. Things could always be worse, after all.
    I had come to terms with what happened with my father, and knew that despite the very nature of the townsfolk, nobody would particularly blame me for hurting my father. He didn't really have any friends, and I've heard many whispers from people, wondering about how I've managed to deal with him this long. I Suppose I should thank him for teaching me patience one day, although I probably could never say it outright. My mind was now back to Ashlyn, but specifically on how to make it a clean break. Chopping trees down at Gregor's, I learned that going about the job swinging wildly always took more effort, and brought a dangerous fall. Relationships with people could benefit likewise from that. Plan carefully, keep yourself focused, and then swing. I needed to smooth things over, apologize for embarrassing her, and promise that I would leave her alone from now on. Perhaps if I could pull that off, she wouldn't come to hate me.
    As I walked down that dirt path, getting enough of that beautiful moonlight to keep on track, I thought about how things went down that day on the schoolyard. How I had given her that handful of flowers, and how angry she looked at me for it. I didn't realize that by snapping those flowers off, I had essentially killed them. They had perhaps months of beauty left, and I traded those in for a few days of a selfish gesture. I thought about how she would feel if she learned I chopped down trees with Gregor, and found myself laughing. It grew louder, and louder, until tears started to well up in my eyes. I couldn't necessarily tell you why I was laughing so hard, but it just felt right, and so I did it. In between bouts of laughter, I bent down and snatched up the occasional acorn as I made my way to the ocean. What I planned to do with them, I really didn't know at the time. It just felt right, and so I did it.
    I walked until I saw the ocean, and stopped myself. Looking over to the Bramblewood, I felt the acorns in my pocket, and suddenly everything clicked. I destroyed trees all day, why shouldn't I plant them all night? I stepped off my initial path, and walked towards the forest, knowing I'd find something of myself that desperately needed knowing there. For all the things I thank Ashlyn for, an appreciation of nature is one of the greatest in my eyes. There is something so majestic about listening to the orchestra of a forest, hearing all the individual rustles, and yelps, and chirps. The same can be said of its nocturne, if you are able to keep your mind at rest, and not create phantom dangers.
    A forest at night is incredibly dangerous; I do not mean to lead any of you astray in that regard. The fears, however, are predictable. Running could cause you to trip and break your ankle. You could poke out your eye, or fall into some miscellaneous hole dug by animals, or created from erosion. The call of a wolf, or any other fearsome creature could be dangerous as well, but most southern people know that those creatures tend to shy away from villages full of people. I accepted these dangers, and tread carefully through the forest, and was rewarded with such a beautiful sound. Crickets set the stage for owls to begin their strange hoots, followed by the shrieks of small rodents being snatched up by those not singing. I could hear the fox cry out triumphantly, as the rabbit shrilled his final note. Wind blew through the trees, smacking each leaf like the ivory key of a piano. I walked carefully through the forest, enjoying the song, until I came upon that clearing I so recently embarrassed myself in front of Ashlyn at.

    The clearing was stunning by moonlight; flowers I hadn't noticed the last time stretched themselves up to reach for the moon. Individual reflections of moonlight danced and gave chase to each other as the water babbled along the stream. The night seemed to glow as I made my way to that log laying over the stream and – taking off my shoes – dipped my feet into its cool water as I sat on that fallen giant of an oak. The forest didn't solve any of my problems, and I knew that I'd eventually have to confront my father. I wasn't running from my problems here, you see. I just finally found something else to clear my mind outside of work. Whereas Gregor's made me think clearly, helped me to see problems, and how to fix them, this night did the opposite. It allowed me to stop thinking, if only for a short while. It was relaxing to hear my own voice, without needing to swing an axe at something.
    I must have sat there for quite some time, thinking over everything that lead me to this night, and surprisingly enough, I started to cry. Not the wretched sobbing of the previous night, where I had thought the entire world was against me, and not the welling tears of earlier, when I laughed at myself for the problems I seemed to walk into. I cried for a brief while simply because I needed to, and somewhere inside I knew it would all feel better afterwords. It felt right, and so I did it. I was trading in all my time of complicated planning for one of acting by instinct.
    Something flickered in the corner of my eye, and I scrubbed the tears from them quickly. A section of tall grass grew alongside the stream, and I watched it for awhile before giving up. It was night time after all, and I was the intruder, not the animals. Stepping into the stream, I pulled a handful of acorns from my pocket, and followed the water towards the edge of the clearing. “It's about time I created something, guys, and I need you help me out with this. You've got to promise me to grow like I hope to grow. To try your hardest to get out of the shell you're stuck in, and reach high up into the sky,” I said, laughing to myself.

    Walking through that ankle deep water - pushing aside playful patches of reflected moonlight – something miraculous happened. For the first time in awhile, I wasn't thinking about stress. Ashlyn wasn't angry with me somewhere in my head, for I had tucked her away to the far back of my mind for the moment. I didn't think about my father's likely-to-be broken nose, because I had blurred the memory, and set it to the side temporarily. I didn't think about Gregor's approval, or Miss Margaret's frown, or Mr. Lutz's chalk, or Miss Karen's rumors. I worried about getting to the edge of the clearing, and planting these seeds, and I can only recall a few occasions in my life where I have since felt such a victory.
    Nearing the edge of the forest, I crouched down, and plunged my hand into the soil, raking out a few handfuls. I had honestly never grown anything in my entire life, and so I acted as well as I could, given my limited knowledge of the subject. As many people undoubtedly learn in life, this is usually the wrong way. We keep tackling problems like this, because underneath that inky cloud of failure that looms over such activities, there is a golden fruit tucked inside somewhere that we can only pluck out through experience.
    This manifested itself as me dropping an acorn into the hole, and ignoring the direction it was facing. I suppose I had just assumed that plants grew up, and that was that. Flattening my hand, I pushed the dirt back on top of the acorn like a shovel,  and poised myself to stand and walk a few feet over and start the next one.“You're doing that wrong,” a small voice said from behind me.

    It's always fascinated me that moments of love seem to stretch on for hours, whereas moments of terror seem to run twice as fast. Even in that wonderful, full moonlight glow, I'm not sure which flew higher: me, jumping nearly out of my skin, or the handful of acorns that I threw. Either way, I shrieked when I landed, and took off running as soon as my bare feet touched the ground. I looked over my shoulder for a second, and that's when I saw her.
    Ashlyn stood in that field, with such a peculiar expression on her face. Here eyes were large, staring at me as though I were the one that scared her. Her arms were pressed against her body, one hand rising to her face, almost as if she were embarrassed. Mud and water were climbing her dress, like she'd been laying in the stream. A long blade of grass was stuck into her disheveled brown hair, framing those big eyes, and showing a small pout on her lips. I knew in an instant that she was the culprit I saw in the patch of grass earlier. She was here tonight first, and when I walked on through, my mind and body at ease for once, I never saw her slip from the log, and hide in the nearest place she could find. My thought from earlier still stood, I was the intruder, not her.
    Her eyes seemed to sparkle in the moonlight, and time started to slow down again. What appeared to be a shadow fell over her left eye, and she looked thoughtful, as her fingertips rested on top of her lips. “Why are you still running, you fool?” I asked myself, but it was too late for me. I hit a fallen branch, and twisted my ankle, dropping to the forest floor. My head bounced off of a nearby stump from a long-since toppled tree, and the nearby darkness crept into my eyes.
    When I woke up, I saw Ashlyn's face near mine, cradling my head in her lap. Somewhere in the back of my mind, Gregor's voice started to speak up, telling me that men don't show such weakness in front of their loved ones. As I opened my mouth, however, I heard my mothers voice telling me to be quiet. I blinked a few times, and looked up into Ashlyn's eyes, and watched her mouth moving as though speaking, not hearing the words she was saying. I stared at her face, trying desperately to note every line, and somehow my own voice finally crawled to the top. “Kiss her!” it yelled. “Kiss her you idiot!” “I can't,” I thought back to the voice. “Wait, she's talking to me, isn't she? Shouldn't I be able to hear her?” I thought.
    Suddenly, time kicked back in, and I snapped out of the daze. “What did you say?” I managed to ask Ashlyn. She frowned at me, and yelled “you giant fool! You could have killed yourself,” and stood up. My head dropped back onto the dirt, and I winced before I stuck the ground. Immediately Ashlyn's face fell back into worry as she scooped me back up. Opening my eyes, I started to mumble an apologyl, but shook my head, and frowned right back at her. “Did you have to sneak up on me? Damn it woman, you scared me half to death!” I hollered. Ashlyn's eyes narrowed for a split second, and she looked at me for a moment before talking. “Don't make me drop you again, Henry Showalter,” she spoke in a low voice.
    I'll admit that I was the first to laugh, but it took only a matter of seconds for Ashlyn to join in. It was a funny incident, by all means, but I thought of how it would be if I were to read this in one of my books; the damsel standing over the knight in distress, yelling at him for being an idiot. The damsel, dropping the knight in a fit of anger, only to realize the additional pain she caused him. We laughed for some time, and added our own noise to the forest song; a rich, wonderful, joyous song. I stood up, and offered my hand to her. After a few seconds, she accepted it, and we started to walk back to the clearing. Although I had to favor my right foot, limping from the strain of falling, it wasn't hurt as bad as I thought.
    Looking back many years later, it was indeed a silly thought, but I was wrong to laugh at the idea of a woman saving a man. My entire life has been exactly that, and if a woman wants to push aside a man and slay a dragon, she'll damn well slay a dragon. I sometimes think back on these events in my life, and picture my mother, singing to a dragon and putting it to sleep. I think of Miss Margaret frowning a dragon into submission, and Ashlyn swatting at the beast with flowers it had stomped on. If you're willing to put on armor, and fight for what's right, it shouldn't matter what you look like underneath. The color of your skin, your gender, or your beliefs dictate who you are, not what you can or can't do. Prejudice is a monster everyone should wish to fight.

    Walking back into the clearing, Ashlyn lead us to where I had planted the seed, and started to dig the earth back up. I dropped onto my knees, and tried to stop her, but she lightly smacked the top of my hands. “I told you, you were doing it wrong,” Ashlyn said. “I put the seed in the ground, what could I possibly have done wrong,” I argued back. Sighing, Ashlyn pushed my hand away, and said “shut up and watch.” It took her a little while to find the seed, seeing as how she was digging into the dirt so gingerly, almost as if she was worried about damaging the acorn. “It's in a hard shell, you know,” I said under my breath, causing her to stop digging, and look me in the eyes.
    “So do you, Henry Showalter, but I've seen you cry. Does that mean I should be rough to you?” Ashlyn asked, tilting her head down and looking at me as though explaining something to a child. “I wasn't crying,” I tried to say, but she mumbled something, and turned back to her work. After a few seconds, I decided to try again. “I'm not a seed, Ashlyn, I'm a human, it's different,” I said, confidence oozing over my words. “Oh?” Ashlyn asked, feigning surprise. “Where you born this tall, Henry? Where you always able to carry on conversations like this? Do you plan to stop growing? It's not impossible, mind you, I know plenty of people that choose to stop growing,” she spoke. "Plenty of people that learn the difference between right and wrong, but then somehow still choose to do hurtful things. No, Henry, we're not very different from seeds at all." I opened my mouth to try again, decided to just shut up and watch instead. I saw a smile creep onto her face, and although every atom of my being was screaming for me to defend myself, I could do no such thing. I finally put a smile on Ashlyn's face, and I wasn't going to ruin it now.
    As she finally pulled the acorn out, Ashlyn held it up in front of me, and pointed to the cap. “This cap, this is the head of the seed. Always face this up, so as to give it the best course,” she said. I nodded to her, and watched her start reaching towards the hole in the ground.  “Secondly, don't just toss a seed in. I know that's the way most people think of human reproduction, but you need to plant it with care,” she said. I blushed slightly at her talking about such a taboo subject, and to my surprise, she did too. It was nice to be reminded that Ashlyn was just as human as me, and I started to relax a little.
    “Thirdly,” Ashlyn said, “you need to push the dirt on gently, so you don't hurt the poor thing.” I started to roll my eyes, but without looking Ashlyn assumed I would blow off the advise, and kept on talking. “If I were to bury you in food, would you not find it difficult to find a meal, Henry?” she asked. Reluctantly – a trend for the evening, I assume – I nodded, and let her continue. “And finally, you need to sing to the seed, so as to wake it up!” Up until this point, I was on the edge of my metaphorical seat, watching Ashlyn masterfully plant a future tree with interest. Now I looked at her with a blank face, and a flat mouth. “You must be joking,” I said, but she didn't respond. She wore a tender smile now, completely focused on the seed. Closing her eyes, Ashlyn placed her hand over the dirt, and started to sing.

“It's time to wake, my little seed,
I know for sure you will succeed.
Go on now, go, you are freed!
Climb to the sky with all your speed.”

    Her voice was so beautiful, I couldn't help but close my eyes, and just enjoy. Even if the song was silly, with the forest providing the instruments, I was completely under its spell. Finishing the song, Ashlyn opened her eyes, and saw me smiling with my eyes closed. “Pay attention!” she yelled, but it came out fast, and when I opened my eyes, even in that soft blue moonlight, I knew she was embarrassed. “Your song was lovely,” I managed to say, and it was of course the wrong move. Ashlyn stared daggers at me, and then broke out into a particularly wicked grin. “It's your turn now, Henry. Let's see if you were paying attention.”
    Picking up all the acorns we could find, we walked a few feet away from the first seed, and I started to dig my hole. Under the scrutinizing eye of Ashlyn, I did everything she asked of me. I was gentle as I placed the acorn facing up, and pushed dirt on top of it. Patting the ground with my hand, I stood up, and said “alright, onto the next one.” Crouched on the balls of her feet, Ashlyn looked up at me, and put on that mischievous grin again. It was the same grin I wore whenever I would hatch a particularly clever plan with Simon Greene, Todd Tilman, and the Rowd twins. I knew before she even opened her mouth what she was going to say, but knowing did nothing to help me out in this situation.
    “Henry,” she asked, looking up into my eyes. “You forgot to sing to it. How will it wake up if you don't sing to it,” she asked, feigning innocence. I'm not sure which surprised me more, if I was still in shock after hearing Ashlyn actually speak more than a few words after so long of knowing her as a wallflower, or at how much I genuinely wanted to sing so as to make her smile. She was hypnotizing, and I knew I was in trouble for it.
    Scratching the back of my head, I tried to think of an excuse out of the situation, but I appeared to be trapped. “Trees have been growing themselves for thousand of years, Ashlyn. Surely they don't need us to sing to them,” I said. She just kept smiling at me, and I knew I would eventually end up singing. Sighing, I crouched back down, and hovered over the seed. “It's time to wake,” I started to sing, and stopped as a small clump of dirt hit the side of my head. “You can't use my song!” Ashlyn said incredulously. “You need to pick your own!” Squeezing my eyes shut for a second, I turned towards her and exhaled deeply. “Well, could you at least go plant some of these elsewhere?" I asked. "I don't want you to hear me sing.". Rolling her eyes, Ashlyn snatched a few acorns from my hands, and said “alright, I guess,” while walking away from me. Deep down, I knew I could just lie to Ashlyn, but I was young, and in love. I could have more easily flown in the sky than lie to her when she had that smile on.

    As I knelt there, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't know that many songs, to be honest. I knew a few that I had learned from some of the boys, but I wouldn't dare sing in front of a lady. I did know some of the songs my mother used to sing though. I thought long and hard on the subject, and finally decided to sing one of my mother's songs, the kind she used when I was crying. She had been sick for awhile, and I now think this was the last gift she gave to me. It was called “Little Henry,” and was always my favorite.

“Dear, little Henry, don't you know I love you?
I love you so much, and you know it's true.
Strong, little Henry, there's no need to cry
Mama's here with you, you know we'll get by.
Brave, little Henry, even when we're apart,
know I’ll always be with you, deep in your heart.
Sweet, little Henry, you have me to lean on.
Even long after your Mama is gone.
I love you, Henry,”

    “I love you too, mom,” I said, and never noticed Ashlyn behind me until I heard a twig snap. Turning, I saw her staring at me, and misread her emotions. I'd like to blame the lighting, but no stage has ever glowed as beautifully as that clearing did. I misread Ashlyn, and turned my head away from her slightly in anger. “You don't need to stand there and stare,” I said. “I know my singing isn't that good, but I told you to go away, so don't you sit there and poke fun at me,” I said, wagging my finger at her.
     “Oh Henry,” Ashlyn said, as she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me. The hug caught me off guard, but that wasn't what had me so shocked. Although I had just sung that song out loud, I wasn't embarrassed in the slightest, nor was I sad. Strangely enough, I felt sort of happy. I think it wasn't until now that I truly realized that my mother was always with me. Ashlyn had her face buried in my chest, and was softly crying.
     In this moment, most of the “men” I would come to know throughout my life would have taken advantage of this situation. A beautiful woman, clutching to your chest, crying to herself; It's easier to blame biology than admit you're just an opportunist. Hugging her tightly for a second, I placed my hands on her shoulders, and squeezed lightly. “It's alright,” I said, and for a wonder, I realized I had actually meant it. Just another triumph to add to this night. "We've got a few more seeds to plant still." Scrubbing her hand over her cheeks, Ashlyn's eyes narrowed in determination, and she nodded her head in agreement.

     Neither one of us were particularly tired, and it was an unspoken agreement that neither of us wanted to go back home, so we decided to finish the acorns together. I remember Ashlyn sang more of her silly songs for me, and we laughed together as the time passed. Ashlyn told me that laughter would make a tree grow strong, and this time, I decided to shut up and believe her. It wasn't difficult, to believe in Ashlyn.
     We were finally down to one seed, and as Ashlyn covered it in dirt, she composed herself to sing, and then suddenly stopped. “Henry, would you please sing your song again?” she asked. My face immediately flushed, and I looked around, as if some physical excuse was just lying in the grass for me. Turning her head away, Ashlyn smiled, and said “it's alright if you don't want to,” and inhaled deeply to begin singing.
     I cannot begin to explain to you why it is that I started to sing again, but perhaps if I mentioned my reward, it would make some sense. As I sung my song, Ashlyn started to smile, and softly bobbed her head to the rhythm. This wasn't any ordinary smile though. It wasn't a mischievous smile, or a nervous thinning of the lips. It wasn't the full-mouth spread of a post-laughter grin, nor was it the soft, quiet curling of appreciation. She smiled at me, and to the best of my descriptive abilities, I can only tell you that I knew it was for me. Something like that changes a smile into a singular moment, frozen in time; a memory that never fades, never ages. It was a smile specifically for me, and I returned one specifically for her.
     Finishing my song, we patted the dirt flat, and Ashlyn stood to move away. “Ashlyn,” I called back to her. Turning around, she crouched down, and looked at me. “You said laughter makes a tree grow strong. Why did you ask me to sing a sad song?” I asked. Amusement bloomed on Ashlyn's face, and she laughed softly. “You don't think sadness can make a person strong too?” she asked. Turning, she started to stroll back to the log over the stream, and I swore the look she gave me was intentional. Was she referring to me with that line, or was I just over analyzing? Is life so obtuse that only the happy can be strong? Questions like these swarm through my head as I stood up, and chased after her, walking to the log.

     We sat on that log overlooking the small stream, and dangled out feet into its waters. We talked for some time, and I think I remember laughing a great deal more than I remember the actual conversation. We swapped stories, – laughing all the while – and only the good stories at that. Somewhere into the conversation, I believe we both came to recognize that we were crafting a brand new “good story”, one that we could share with each other. Lord knows we both had our share of bad stories to tell, but they would tarnish what we were building on that log. This continued on for some time, until my stomach joined in the conversation.
     Ashlyn held a hand up to her mouth, peering over her fingers with that feigned innocent look, but I could just make out the creases near her eyes. Anyone can fake a smile, but if it is genuine, you can always see it in the eyes. My youthful voice whipped out into my head, carrying on at great lengths as to why I should defend myself against her poking fun at me, and how unfair it was to laugh at something as normal as hunger. Perhaps I would have said something, but as I looked at her, I realized something fascinating.
     I had never known Ashlyn to have a friend, and somewhere throughout the night, I puzzled out that I might truly be her first. I wonder how it must feel not to be the one being made fun of? To be able to laugh at someone else's expense, without worry of repercussion. It was not pity I felt for Ashlyn that night, - a point I cannot stress enough - but rather a radiating sense of fondness to our budding friendship. She wasn't picking on me as though a bully, she was picking on me as though a friend. It's a bit humorous to me that such a small semantic is the difference between creating and destroying worlds.
     Ashlyn continued wearing her hidden smile, until her own stomach answered back to mine. I saw her eyebrows climb up her face as her eyes widened in horror, and had to catch myself from rolling off the log as I laughed whole-heartedly. Ashlyn joined in, and we laughed until our faces started to sting, which is the exact moment that a friendship is sealed. Catching our breaths, I pictured Miss Margaret storming out of the treeline, and lecturing me for laughing too loudly. Thinking of Miss Margaret brought back to mind her pushing a bundle into my arms and saying “It's some food and water, and the sack is an old blanket.”
     As I stood up, Ashlyn peered towards me, and I caught the smile leaving her eyes. “Are you leaving, Henry?” she asked nonchalantly. If it wasn't for those eyes, I would have trusted her tone and assumed she truly didn't care if I stayed or went. That smile still clung to her face, but I could see it in her eyes, she thought I was leaving her. My heart hit against my chest as though in dire need of a breath, but I calmed myself, and smiled at her. “I'll be right back,” I said. “I've a small surprise.” Ashlyn looked worried, but nodded her head. I feared she might be gone when I returned, but I knew the look she had as I mentioned “surprise.” It was curiosity, and I knew it intimately, seeing as how my own was insatiable.
     Walking away, I looked over my shoulder after a few feet or so, and saw Ashlyn crouched on the log, staring after me. She had her knees tucked up into her chest, and had her arms wrapped around them. At the time, I could only have assumed she was cold; which gave me even more reason to find that bundle. How could I have possibly guessed what was actually going through her mind? In my head, I had given her my word that I'd be back, and that was that. Why didn't I try to see things from her perspective?

     To try and make light of the situation, I often having warring thoughts over which to blame for this. Was it just my youth, and lack of experience that lead to this moment; or was it because I was a male, and all men are selfish? I assume that it is a masterful combination of the two, with a thousand other things added in.
     I find myself so often trying to analyze the construction of moments; trying to replay memories, and see where things might have gone differently. Even in these words I leave you now, I find myself trying to explain to you why certain things are the way they are. Don't let me fool you, I just like the sound of my voice and have no answers.

     I spent the next ten or so minutes casually searching through the grass, but had no such luck. Even though the moon was giving off that beautiful glow, as I've already mentioned an annoying amount of times, it was hard to see through the long grass. Worried about upsetting Ashlyn, I decided to drop down to all fours and start to really search. A creeping sense of anxiety started to worm its way inside of me, and I frantically started swatting at patches of tall grass, looking for that bundle. Why the hell didn't I remember where I dropped it?
     Brushing up against the grass so often had my arms ablaze. Everyone who spends time outside as a child knows better than to scratch an arm like this, but it grows increasingly difficult to concentrate when your body keeps trying to talk you into it. “Just a few scratches, just once, and then no more. It's easy, and will feel better,” a voice poked through, probably my father's. His always gives the worst advise. An onslaught of thoughts came rushing from my head, and I felt like screaming inside of my own skull. Shaking my head, I pushed them all away, and stood up for some fresh air, and looked in a circle around me until I faintly heard Ashlyn call my name.
     “Geez, she's so impatient,” I thought to myself. “A few more minutes,” I shouted over my shoulder, and continued to walk away from her. I kicked through the grass, finally giving in and scratching my arms. They'd be red in a few minutes, but I was too frustrated to really care right now. I reached near the end of the clearing, and decided to give up. There was no possible way I was going to find that bundle in this light, so I turned around, and peered at the log, and inhaled sharply.
     Just like that, Ashlyn was gone. “Where could she have possibly run off to,” I thought to myself, started to walk quickly towards the log. “She was probably bored, so she gave up and was playing in the water, or messing around with plants or something,” I told myself, but then a different thought crept into my head. “What if she thought you ran away...” it asked.
     Halting, I caught my breath, and looked around the clearing, wide-eyed. “Of course,” I thought to myself. “Of course she thought I left her, why wouldn't she have? I gave her my word, but where in Ashlyn's history did that mean anything?” She must have looked up when I was on my hands and knees in the grass, and assumed I ran off. How many people lied to her throughout her life? How many people just walked away and never came back; and here I stand, thinking my word alone could have erased all of that. You can do so much damage if you only look through your own eyes.
     Picking up the pace, I lightly jogged my way back, feeling a biting pain in the leg I had hurt only an hour-or-so prior. I yelled out her name, but the wind picked up, and pushed my words away with ease. I kept going, but then I stumbled across a particularly awful thought. “What if she didn't casually call out my name in boredom, but was actually shouting for help?” I thought. I thought about somebody kidnapping her, and in a moment of weakness, started to rethink the ghost stories the kids all told about this place. Hundreds of awful scenarios flooded my thoughts, and I tore across the ground and raced towards the log, my heart pounding so hard it filled my ears. My skin on my arms felt on fire, and the the ankle of my left leg felt as though being stabbed by a thousand small needles.
     “Ashlyn!” I yelled, as I ran towards the log, spitefully placed branches and sharp rocks cutting into my bare feet. I yelled her name again as I reached the stream, and tightened my legs in preparation to jump. I knew my athletic limit well enough to know that I could make it to the other side of the stream – if only barely – at the pace I was running with a hurt ankle. “She had to have been taken the opposite way of me, otherwise I would have heard her,” I thought to myself. My left leg hiked itself into the air, and I put all of my might down through my right leg to push off for the jump. I'd catch her before she got away, and apologize.
     “Why are you yelling, Henry!” Ashlyn hollered from behind the log, as she stood up with the bundle wrapped around her. Thoughts and information collided in my skull, and in that moment, the only thing I could do was stare wide-eyed at Ashlyn uncomprehendingly, my mouth hanging open like an imbecile. I jumped straight into the air, with my right leg stretched behind me, but changed the calculations as I saw her. It was the universally worst moment for me to try and back out of the jump, and it showed as I jumped straight into the air - and full-formed - fell into the stream. My wide-eyes and open mouth making me look like the world's ugliest fish.

     The sound of water rushed into my ears, and its subsequent acoustic echoing kept ringing as I just laid in the water, staring up at the sky. I still hadn't fully understood what was happening, but I was subconsciously starting to piece it all together. I had placed my bundle near the log, which was the most logical place to have put it, and Ashlyn was calling to let me know she found it. When I finally stood up, and the water drained itself from my ears, I heard a shrill noise, and looked about in confusion. Ashlyn was doubled over, and laughing so hard, she seemed to be trying to hold her stomach in.
     Picking myself up, I walked over to Ashlyn, and crouched down beside her. “Henry, you should have seen the look on your face!” she managed to bark out between fits of giggling. She tried to imitate the look on my face, but was too busy fighting a war between laughter and breathing. Having such anxiety plucked out of you in such a fashion can't possibly be good for the body. Still quite shaken, I walked near her, and looked her directly in the eyes. “I thought... I thought that you were in danger,” I said. Ashlyn wiped her eyes, and asked “what are you talking about,” but I interrupted her with a flying hug. This was my big romantic moment, the moment I knew I'd never let any harm come to Ashlyn again.
     In my mind, I'd wrap her up in my arms, and she'd blush, looking deep into my eyes. “Ashlyn,” I'd say. “Wha-what is it, Henry?” she'd ask, but I wouldn't respond with words. I'd pull her close, and kiss her deeply, letting her know how much she meant to me, and she would return it. I'd promise her that we'd run away together as I had been planning on for so long now, and we'd finish this life the same as all the books I read: happily ever after.
     Throwing my arms around Ashlyn, my plan immediately derailed as the inertia of my larger body crashed into her, sending us both tumbling into the stream. This would be the first step I took in realizing that you cannot calculate life. It happens just the way it wants to. Soaked to the bone, Ashlyn face turned red, and she turned towards me.
     “Damn you Henry Showalter, you didn't need to get both of us sick!” she yelled. Staring at her, I didn't know what to say, so I just shrugged instead. Ashlyn dipped her hand into the stream, and splashed water at me with a pout on her face. As I stared at her through the wet hair clinging to my face, and the look of shock that she had splashed me like that, we both started to laugh again, and eventually found out way out of the water.

     I understand any skepticism you may have over our budding relationship at this point. For all of the similarities we share, Ashlyn and myself seem to almost be complete opposites. Ashlyn is so sure of herself, and of the world around her, except for people. To her, a dark forest full of trees is easier to walk through than one filled with people. I used to think I knew who I was, but I am constantly surprised at the things that change me. One day, my father passed out on the porch could push me over the edge, but by the next day I walk around his sleeping body as I think deeply about a blister on my hand, brought home from work. I quickly came to realize I have no idea who I am, or whenever I find out, that person runs away.
     Despite all the differences between us, I believed we were both falling in love at this point. It's unbelievable that it appeared so suddenly, but I'd like to think that's just how love is sometimes. We weren't in a storybook romance, where innocuous plot points would always masterfully point us back towards each other in the end. We weren't lovers favored by any patterns of stars. We were just two lonely humans that found out we shared something with somebody else out there, and it was just as terrifying a thought as it was wonderful.