Central Deck

I felt the roughness of the concrete beneath me as I shifted on my perch. The world below me seemed so far away and I guess it was. Eight stories to be exact. I worked to control my breathing, in and out, in and out, over and over again that lesson I never had to be taught. On the next breath, I take a hit, feel it cloud my mind, just a little bit. I’m not totally gone, but I will be. Nothing matters anymore. Especially not being safe.

My hand hits the wall harder than I expected it to. I feel my cheeks move without my consent, grimacing as pain radiates up my arm and across my body. I take a depth breath, try to absorb the pain, try to make it drown out the rest of my life but it doesn’t really work. It never does.

I set down my blunt with more care than I thought possible at the moment and in the same motion pick up my bottle of tequila and bring it to my lips. Sputtering, I put the bottle back down, forcing the burning liquid down my throat at the same time. I’m starting to feel it now. The little I can see of the world, the few shining streetlights and the taillights of passing cars, begin to sway. Or maybe that’s just me. I’m never quite sure of what is happening when I get like this. I guess that’s part of the problem.

The blunt is against my lips again and I’m not sure how it got there but I take another hit anyway. Holding the smoke in my lungs, I look at the stars twinkling above me. My vision is clouded by the smoke as it escapes from within me, a sign of my inability to do anything right. A cough crawls up my throat and I struggle to keep it silent, like the rest of my endeavor. But I guess that’s another thing I’m bad at, keeping quite when I should. Or maybe keeping quite when I shouldn’t. I guess I’ll never really know.

It was all her fault anyway. Hope. Her name was such a contradiction to what she did to my life. But I couldn’t really blame this whole shit storm on her. But if she hadn’t been such a fucking idiot I wouldn’t be here right now. That’s not really fair to say, because it isn’t her fault I’m such a mess. I’d been waiting for this to happen for a while, this inevitable dissolution of what once was something great.

I’d only really gone to keep an eye on her, make sure she stayed safe. I didn’t want her there alone with both of them, knowing what happened the last time she got drunk. So I went even though all I really wanted to do was be at home, tucked up in bed with Netflix and a cup of tea.

It started out fairly tame, but it always seems that way until the alcohol hits. I didn’t drink much. A shot of vodka here, a sip of beer there. I wasn’t comfortable with these people, and besides, what’s so great about being drunk anyway?

“The freedom it gives,” she always said, but I never really believed her on that. We all work too hard to control every aspect of our lives. Why give it up because someone shoves a drink in your face?

I guess she liked to let go of her control. I guess that’s what she was doing when she went in his bedroom with him. I guess she let go of our friendship too in that moment, me laying on the floor in the living room, pretending to be asleep, her in his bedroom fucking him even though she didn’t give a damn about him. She just wanted to be “cool”, to escape her homeschooler image. But she lost herself in that escape. And she lost me too.

I gave up on us in that moment. I left without a word, grabbed my things and ran away. I barely made it to the car before breaking down, sobs ripped from my chest as I tried not to think about what they were doing in there. I wasn’t really that hurt or surprised. Mostly it was that little green demon that reared up every time she told me about her newest boy toy, the little demon that made me see red. The demon that destroyed too many of my friendships combined with my inability to fight against it.

The breeze hits my body, goosebumps race across my arms. It changes the direction of the smoke too, sending it off over the edge of the parking deck. I watch it as it floats away, swaying in time with the earth, trying not to lean too far forward for fear of falling. My mind drifted just like the smoke in front of my face as the memories tried to swallow me.

 

“Sorry I couldn’t meet today like we planned. My parents needed me at home.”

Her voice sounds like heaven to my ears while my heart is being shredded by all the thoughts going through my head. We hadn’t spoken in three days, hadn’t exchanged a single word since I ran away. All I’d gotten since then was a text berating me for leaving because it scared the shit out of her. Like she had any right to be mad at me for that night.

“It’s okay. I understand.” Steady. The words sounded steady. Unlike the completely erratic beating of my heart, threatening to burst through my chest.

The moment dragged on, silence on both sides of the phone. I started panicking, the silence causing my overwrought heart to beat even faster. So I rambled.

I told her things I’d never said to her before. My porn addiction. How her nudes had really bothered me. My jealousy of her ability to get anyone to talk to her. How I really wanted to fall asleep in someone’s arms last night. On and on I went, but silence was all I heard. Another moment passed before her voice came through the speaker.

“Is that all?”

The voice was calm, too calm, after everything I just said. “I wonder if she actually heard a word of that?” managed to cross my mind before she spoke again.

“Cause I feel like there’s more?” The questioning tone in her voice nudged at me, wanting me to respond with a negative, wanting me to tell her that this is all my fucked up mind could find wrong with our friendship.

The words made their way past my lips, almost against my will, “I think…. I’m kinda in love with you.”

The silence filled the empty space of my car while the world drifted in and out of focus. My breath was harsh against my own ears, once I started breathing again.

“I’m sorry……. But I don’t see you that way.”

That hole in my chest, the one that grew every time I lost a friend, threatened to consume me even as I knew what she would say next. The words left her lips and I mouthed them to myself, my body shaking like a leaf in a wind storm.

“We can still be friends, right?”

I wanted to say yes, wanted to believe that I could bury these feelings, wanted nothing more than to go back to being her best friend but my mouth formed words of denial, my body betraying my heart once again, “I don’t think I can be just your friend right now.” I waited a moment for her response, praying she would beg me to stay, praying she would care enough about me to see past my mask.

A heavy sigh. A moment of silence. “Okay. If that’s how you feel, I’ll respect it.”

Numbness overtaking my body, I didn’t hear my own response to her goodbye. My head repeated one phrase, over and over, as I got out of my car and made my way to the razor blade I had promised not to use anymore.

“Why’d you give up on me so easily?”

 

With fingers shaking, lost in my haze of memories, my hand didn’t connect with the tequila like I wanted it to. The crash as it hit the ground was deafening and yet barely a whisper in the night air. I’m scared to look, scared to see the shattered remains of the thing that was right next to me, high up on my perch. I try, try to force my body to look over the edge, try not to think about following the bottle to the ground. I bring the blunt to my lips, hoping it will calm me down. Or maybe it will push me over the edge. I’m not quite sure what I need right now. As the smoke leaves my lungs, memories cloud my mind, drifting over my carefully constructed walls.

It had only been a couple of days since the phone call and I was waiting once again. It seems like I spend 1all my time waiting. Waiting for it to stop hurting. Waiting for it to all get better. Or, in this moment, waiting for Anna to get off of work. My eyes, unfocused and fuzzy, scan the parking lot methodically, waiting for a glimpse of Anna’s teal hair. I glance at the clock, blinking, and look back up. And there is a flash of hair. A color I would never forget.

It wasn’t the teal of Anna’s hair. No. This was her hair. Hope.

My chest throbbed as she left the store. My heartbeat pounded in my ears, like the bass at a rock concert while my blood flowed through my veins, burning me alive but freezing at the same time. I didn’t feel my body and yet every nerve ending screamed at me for those hideously long moments, acutely aware of my pain.

My focus was so absolute I almost didn’t see him. But he was there. His arm around her waist, his head close to hers, whispering into her ear. Sharp pain shot across my body as the pieces clicked into place.

“Sorry I couldn’t meet today like we planned. My parents needed me at home”

Lies. Bold-faced lies. But why? Was she trying to avoid me? Trying to avoid our conversation? The inevitable heartbreak that it was destined to be? Or did she just want to see him? They always picked someone over me….

The car door opening jolted me out of my stupor. Anna slide into my passenger seat, sliding her back pack into the floor as she did so.

“Hey girl. Thanks for coming to get me.” A quick glance at my face. “Everything okay?”
A moment of silence dragged on, with only my ragged breathing filling the car. “Hope was here. She just left with him. She said she couldn’t meet today because her family needed her at home. So why was she with him?” My voice edged on hysteria but I couldn’t stop. “What did I do wrong? What is so fucking wrong with me?” The words that I had thought for so long filled the car, drowning me, drowning both of us.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, babe. She’s just a bitch.” Anna took a hit off her vape and the vapor filled my car for a moment, hiding me from her gaze.

Her words were soothing but they did nothing for the pain in my heart. I barely felt her hand on my shoulder, offering comfort that I didn’t want.

“I got some new shit yesterday. Let’s go try it out, see if it gets your mind off of her.” Anna’s voice filled my car again, calm and relaxed like we would soon feel.

My head was nodding before the words actually made sense in my brain. Forgetting was all I needed right now.

 

On top of Central Deck, a young man opened the door to the eighth floor with shaking hands, struggling to stay upright. He moved with unsure footsteps across the parking deck, trying to reach the far back corner where the lights never managed to reach.

“Tobacco-free campus,” he muttered under his breath. “What a fucking stupid idea. People need to smoke. It’s just a fact of life.” With his words as a reminder, he stopped a moment to light his pipe. But then he smelled it, even before lighting his own. It wafted toward him, enticing him into moving closer to the shadows created by the lights. As his eyes adjusted to the shadows, a figure started to take shape. It was sitting on the edge of the parking garage wall and he saw a flash of red, the glowing end of a lighted blunt, a sight he knew all too well.

He continued moving forward, hoping the person would let him smoke with them, because smoking is always better with company. Maybe they would even share, cause his stash was running low and his bitch-ass dealer wasn’t responding to his texts. He continued moving forward, already making plans about smoking until he couldn’t move.

I just want to feel something. Alive. Or maybe just less alone. I want my life to be like the movies. I want to ride of into the sunset, happily ever after. But I’d only felt a mutation of happiness for the past couple of years. It was always based on who I called my best friend. Too many people to count in the past couple of years, with Hope now at the top of the list. Even the thought of her name sends pain across my chest and her face across my eyes. My “best friends” never stuck around for long, no matter how many times they told me forever. Bullshit. But I still want them back, want to feel the joy that those friendship bring. But all I feel now is fear.

And God can I feel it. It’s breaking through the weed, through the tequila, through the thoughts of what I want to do, and it’s trying to control me, trying to make me do its bidding. It wants me to get down, to go home, to be safe. It tries to make me change my mind. But my mind is made up. I’m done now. So fucking done. And this time I won’t fuck it up.

 

He must of smoked more than he thought because in the next moment he tripped over the air in front of him. And then he was falling. He flung his arms in front of him hoping to break his fall. He almost didn’t feel them connect with the shoulder-blade of the person he had been moving towards as the ground rushed towards his face

.

Shuffling. I hear it behind me, startling me out of my thoughts. As I turn to look and see what has crept up behind me, a hand hits me in the shoulder, shoving me forward. My body moves without my say-so forced as it is by the body that just hit it.

Air. All around me, rushing past me on my way down.

Crash. Solid ground, unmoving as I impact against it.

Pain. Blinding, agonizing pain. Physical, for the first time all night.

The moment stretches on, through eternity.

Blessed darkness creeping across my eyes. Watching the stars twinkling far above me as the shadows overtake my sight.

 

It was gone. It had been there just a moment before sitting on the edge of the wall and it was gone. He moved closer to the edge, knuckles white against the wall. His first glance reveled nothing. Seconds stretch on for an eternity, and finally his eyesight adjusts to the damning darkness down below. A streetlight reflecting off a broken bottle, creating a small prism in the night. And then he saw it. The body he had desperately hoped was a figment of his high.

There it was, sprawled out on the ground, limbs stretched out at impossible angles, unmoving and broken. Lost in the horror of it, of what he had, or hadn’t, witnessed, he barely breathed as he struggled to grab his phone out of his pocket. His shaking fingers struggled to type those three simple numbers that were drummed into every child’s head. After what seemed like years, he heard a voice,

“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
He couldn’t speak, couldn’t make his body do anything. He tried, god he tried, but gargles are the only thing that came out. Numbness crept up his limbs, straight into his chest and it hit him like a feather that this was shock. His phone fell out of his unfeeling hand and he watched it spinning in the air until it hit the ground, shattering on impact.

The numbness hit his head then, mixing with his still-remaining high. His body fell from beneath him hitting the ground with a thunk. His breathing, quiet and even, filled the empty top floor of the parking garage.

I wasn’t aware of the commotion around me. The red and blue flashing lights, the siren song of an ambulance on the run, or the screaming and crying of the small crowd below. All I knew was darkness.

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Cheeks

Standing in the middle of the tent, almost unable to breathe, he had to force his legs into motion. His movements were slow, deliberate, and terrified. His heart was racing in his chest but his mind was as clear as a morning sunrise. As he neared the exit of the tent he had to stop for a moment and feel his face to be sure. All his fingers felt was smooth skin. There was no imprint there, just like he had feared would happen. But he couldn’t believe it. He honestly could not believe it.

He had heard vague stories about this, always told late at night when the elders weren’t listening. He knew it was rare, but he had never dreamed this would happen to him. Or not happen might be a better way to say it. His spirit half couldn’t find him. He was alone. He would be alone forever. He was so clouded by something that he wasn’t able to get in touch with his other half. His heart skipped a beat at this thought. He took another step toward the entrance to his tent but his legs wouldn’t move anymore. He didn’t think he could face them, all the hopeful faces waiting to see the imprint on his face. The imprint that hadn’t appeared during his failure of a ceremony.

The ceremony had started long ago, with the original leader of the clan. It was a story that had been passed down from generation to generation. It was said that one day the original chieftain got lost in the woods while gravely injured. He was just beginning to give into the throes of despair when a wild horse stumbled upon him in the clearing he was dying in. To his unending shock, the horse did not run away from him. Instead it came closer and closer until he could see the whites of its eyes. The story says they must have stared into each others eyes for several minutes before the horse made its move. It must have seen something kind in the chieftain’s eyes because it stopped next to him and allowed the man to ride it back to his camp where he received treatment for his injuries. From that day on, the man and the horse were inseparable. Their bond stretched beyond this life and into the next.

After many years, the horse passed away from old age. The chieftain was heartbroken, until his son, who was just reaching the age of maturity, came to him with the imprint of a hoof on his check. The young man told a magical tale of waking up alone in the woods with the spirit of the horse next to him. The horse asked if his spirit could join the young man’s body and help to guide him through his life. The chieftain’s son accepted the horse’s offer and the horse then put his hoof against the young man’s cheek, creating the imprint that he carried from that day forward. The chieftain was overjoyed to find out that the horse that had saved him had joined with his son’s spirit.

The chieftain journeyed into the woods to the clearing his son had described. He wanted to stand on the holy ground and praise the horse spirit that had been in his life for so long. It soon became tradition that each chieftain would leave the clan during a young man’s birthday and venture into the woods to pray and praise the spirit halves he felt there. Over the years, more and more of the young men of the clan were joined in spirit to that of an animal. Eventually, the clan created a ceremony to celebrate this monumental occasion in a young man’s life.

The ceremony became more prestigious as time passed, but it always followed the same basic premise. A young man, a week before his fifteenth birthday, the age of maturity in the clan, would build a tent in the woods, in which he would be bonded with his spirit animal. The young men were thought to be guided to the location of their tent, and the materials with which to build it, by their future spirit animal. Each young man would then spend his birthday in the tent, bonding with his spirit half. The time it took to bond varied from boy to boy, depending on the bond they had with the animal in the physical world. But the boys always left with some kind of imprint of their spirit half on their cheek as a sign of the animal’s spirit entering into the body of the young man.

On a crisp autumn afternoon, while in the woods collecting sticks for his mother’s fire that night, he heard the crunching of leaves nearby. He ducked into a bush and waited for the sound to pass. He heard them before he saw them, two older boys from the clan, one of whom just received his spirit half. They were talking in quiet tones.

“It was strange. I thought I would be alone for the whole thing. But a spirit actually came. He had the shape of a man but the head of a fox. His body was unclothed but painted red, like the clay from the riverbeds down south. I always thought the spirit would be less…. solid…..”
“What did the spirit do to you? Were you scared?”
“The spirit told me to light a fire in the tent. He stood in the corner while I did it and I swear his eyes were possessed. They were so dark and soulless. Almost like…..” He trailed off.

“His eyes were like what?”

“I really shouldn’t talk about this”, he replied, with a nervous glance toward the woods around them. “He said I shouldn’t talk about it. He said he would know if I talked about it.” The boy’s panic started to increase with each phrase, his body shaking with fear.

“Well just finish your other statement. The waiting is killing me. Please.”
The boy took a deep breath before he responded. His voice was quieter than a mouse when he said, “His eyes looked like the chieftain after a fresh kill. Dark, soulless, dead. But with that gleam that makes us all want to run…. That’s all I’m going to say. We need to hurry up and finish. We’ve wasted too much time as is.”

He had never felt the call like the other boys had. They all talked about it, especially as their fifteenth year came closer and closer. As each boy reached the age of maturity, they found solace and companionship in an animal or nature in general. But he never found this solace or companionship anywhere or with anything. When he walked in nature, he felt nothing. He felt no connection to the plants or the animals around him. He was terrified by this lack of connection in his life. So he learned to fake it. He followed the pattern of the other boys, being careful to modify his version of their stories just enough so they wouldn’t be able to tell that the stories he told were actually their stories.

The week before his ceremony he did what all the other boys had done. He wandered through the woods, praying he would feel called to build his tent somewhere, anywhere. Or that he would feel called to build with something he found. After a solid day without a call from nature, he decided that he would just have to fake this too. He tried not to make a big deal about the place he decided to build his tent. Most of the boys were able to explain why they felt like their place was right. But he just mumbled something about it just feeling right when someone asked, all the while praying they wouldn’t dig any deeper. Although he got a couple of interesting looks from some of the older clan members, no one questioned the place he decided to call his.

The morning of his ceremony dawned, clear and bright, with birds singing in the woods and dew glistening on the grass. His mother was beyond thrilled for his ceremony. She prayed he would redeem their family name after the shame that was his older brother. When his father passed away a few years earlier, his brother gave up on their clan. Their father had been ill for a prolonged amount of time and his brother thought that the clan medicine man had not done enough to save him, seeing as he was too busy trying to prepare for the ceremonies that were happening that week.

Because his brother thought their father had passed away do to negligence based on being too preoccupied with the ceremony, he decided he wanted no part in the ceremony. The entire clan was horrified when his brother refused to look for a place to build his tent, but they all held out hope that his fifteenth birthday would come and he would be unable to resist his spirit half. The clan was rather shocked when they woke up on the morning of his brother’s fifteenth birthday to find the young man gone.

He and his mother had spent the past several years trying to recover from the shame of his brother running away. His brother’s name was shamed in their clan because of his actions. In fact, there were certain members of the clan, particularly among the elders, who refused to acknowledge them as part of the clan because of what his brother had done. He knew his mother was hoping that his ceremony would bring their small family back into the good graces of the entire clan. He was worried that he was going to disappoint her, all the while praying that his spirit half was just having trouble reaching him. He was hoping beyond hope that his fifteenth birthday would force his spirit half to come crashing into his life.

The ceremony itself had one downfall in their clan. If a young man failed to find a spirit half on his fifteenth birthday, he was deemed too damaged to be a significant part of the clan. He was given to the chieftain to do with as he willed. Most of the young men who failed to find a spirit half remained in the chieftain tent for one night, presumably to learn about how to survive in the world outside the clan, before being forced out of the clan forever. On rare occasions, the chieftain would take certain boys as his, using them to do menial chores for him and his family. These boys were particularly tight-lipped about what they did for the chieftain although their eyes always seemed to be darting around, either looking for a threat or an escape.

What terrified him even more then disappointing his mother were the rumors. They had been flitting around camp for weeks, growing in hideousness each time they were told. Each story was slightly different but they all had one main character. The chieftain. The only other repeating factor in the stories was the presence of a young man with the chieftain. In some stories the men left the chieftain’s tent with suspiciously red eyes and dried tear stains. In other stories, the they left his tent with blood stains on their clothing. But the young men always left his tent under the cover of darkness and it was an unspoken but well understood rule that no one was to ask about what happened in the chieftain’s tent. No matter what story was told, the boys of the camp had become increasingly wary of the chieftain, each of them wishing to remain out of his sight.

He finally worked up the willpower to move. Putting one shaking foot in front of the other, he lifted up the flap of his tent and went to face his clan. Blinking to adjust to the sudden influx of sunlight, he watched as, one by one, the faces of his clan members fell as they saw his cheek. He turned to look for his mother, hoping she would not hate him for his failure. She made eye contact with him and deliberately turned her back on him, making her opinion of his failure know. He felt something break inside him at that point, perhaps the last piece of hope he had left in his life leaving him.

He wanted to sink to his knees, wanted to break down and cry, mourn the loss of his family and his future, but he forced himself to remain upright and strong. He watched as his clan walked away, each member turning their back on him, turning their back on the memories they shared together. He couldn’t say he was surprised though. He would have done the same thing if he had been on the other side of this ceremony. The lack of a spirit half was too shameful to come back from. At this point, he knew his time with the clan was coming to a close.

In a short amount of time, the only person remaining in the clearing with him was the chieftain. “There is no imprint on you cheek,” the chieftain remarked, his voice cold and level.

“There is not,” he replied, a slight tremble in his voice. “I have failed to connect with my spirit half. If I even have one.” This was said with a slightly stronger tone.

“You know what this means, correct”

“Yes I do. When should I leave?”

“You will spend tonight in my tent. I will explain to you about surviving outside the clan, among other things. You will leave before the sun rises tomorrow morning. You may have the afternoon to say your goodbyes, if anyone wishes to speak to you. Be at my tent before the sun sets.”

“Yes Chieftain. I will be at your tent before the sun sets.”

As the chieftain walked away, the young man shivered, but not with cold. There was something about the chieftain, something about the glint in his eye, or perhaps the rumors he had heard, that made him dread going to his tent tonight.

He made his way back toward the camp, his dread mounting with every step. His former clan members refused to make eye contact with him, lowering their heads when they noticed him walking by. He felt his heart break a little every time one of his former friends walked by without saying anything. His family tent came into view and he hurried to it. Perhaps his mother would actually speak to him before he left. When he entered the tent, she was sitting by the fire pit, watching the glowing embers. Hearing the slight whisper of the entrance opening, she looked up and into the eyes of her remaining son.

“Why are you here? Haven’t you been banished by now?”

“The chieftain gave me until sunset to say my goodbyes to the clan. You’re the first person to actually talk to me.” His words were spoken with a calm he did not feel.

“You shouldn’t have come back. You failed me. Just like your father and brother. You’ve left me alone in the clan, alone to fend for myself. How am I going to survive the winter? There is no man left in my family to hunt for me. Will I have to survive solely on what I can pick for myself?”

“Mother. You know I didn’t mean to leave….”

“I have no interest in hearing your excuses. I must plan how I am going to live by myself. Maybe I shall just die. It might be easier. Take your stuff and leave. I have no need for it here. I will need all the space I can get to prepare for this winter”

He did not even try to argue with her. Once she set her mind to something, the woman was impossible to sway. He grabbed his bedroll and extra jerkin and paused a moment to take one last look around his old tent.

“Hurry up and get out. I no longer wish to see your face.” Although her words were cruel, her voice sounded broken and defeated.

He continued on his way to the entrance, pausing for a moment next to his mother. He laid a quick kiss on her cheek and noticed the glossy look of her eyes. As he exited the tent for the last time, he pretend not to notice the streaks down her face or the gentle shaking of her shoulders, wanting to let her mourn his leaving in peace.

Looking at the sky as he left the tent, he tried to judge how much time he had left before he needed to be at the chieftain’s tent. Using a moment to stop and take a deep breath, he wondered if he would be okay. The wilderness was a terrifying place, especially for someone traveling alone with no weapon. He said a quick prayer that the chieftain would gift him with a weapon of some kind before sending him off but he didn’t get his hopes up. He knew it wasn’t likely that the chieftain would do something so kind to an outcast.

The sun was just starting to set as he walked up to the front of the chieftain’s tent. He turned his back on it for a moment and looked back on the camp he had called home for fifteen years. He watched the children being shooed inside by their mothers. He watched the men and women just a few years older than him do their awkward mating dances by the village fire pit. He watched the older men come in from the forest, bearing that days kill for their families. Turning to the forest, he gazed at it one final time from the safety of his clan before turning back to the chieftain’s tent to face his future.

Memories of the Past

Nathaniel looked over his shoulder to check on the young man riding behind him. Jared looked like a natural on the horse, his face rosy in the early morning chill. He had a slight smile on his face, only visible to Nathaniel because he had gotten to know the boy over the past few weeks. The boy tended to be quiet and reserved but animals brought something out in him. He actually looked alive when he was around his dog and now the horse.

Their journey so far had been easy. They had remained on the main road, trying to reach the town of Greensville where Nathaniel had heard a sooth resided. He hoped the sooth would help to guide him on his path The princess he had set out to rescue was rumored to be only a few towns north of there. It was unknown to him what beasts may be laying in what for him when he got there and he prayed that the sooth would be able to see the dangers ahead on his path.

*****

They had been on the road for a few days when Nathaniel got tired of having to slow down because the boy couldn’t keep up with him on foot. Nathaniel didn’t blame the boy but it was making their travels far slower than they should be. When they stopped at Aldebourgh because of the dark clouds in the sky, Nathaniel told Jared to stay at the inn and keep an eye on the animals. The boy agreed, that slight smile making its way onto his lips.

Nathaniel traveled into the town, looking for someone to buy a horse from. He’d made the decision to buy a horse for the boy to use the night before when he found the boy near their campfire for the night, his toes swollen and blistered. The boy never let any pain show on his young face but Nathaniel knew he had to be in massive amounts of pain with every step he took.

Nathaniel traveled into town and stopped at one of the bars near the center. He spoke to a few of the men there, trying to find someone to buy a horse from. The best name he got was Benjamin who lived near the edge of the village. Nathaniel made it to the man’s house with no problems, knocking on the solid door when he arrived at the man’s house. The door opened without a sound, a few seconds after his knock. The man looked at Nathaniel with only a small amount of confusion in his eyes, not recognizing the stranger in front of him.

“Are you Benjamin?”

“Well yes sir I am. What can I do for you?” a burly man with a thick brown beard and piercing blue eyes replied.

“I heard you have horses for sale. I would like to take a look at them.”

“Yes, of course sir. They’re ’round back. If you’d follow me.”

The two men walked around the stone building to the barn near the back. The man opened the tall wooden door to the barn and led Nathaniel into the cozy warmth of the animal filled building. The comforting sounds of animals filled Nathaniel’s ears and he took a deep breath of the musty air.

“These here are the ones I got for sale. They’re all strong, reliable beasts,” Benjamin led Nathaniel to the left side of the barn where three horses were located in separate stalls with fresh water and some dried hay.

Nodding in appreciate of the care Benjamin took of the horses, Nathaniel took a long glance at the horses. Nathaniel felt an immediate attachment to the white horse that was farthest away. He took the few required steps across the hay covered floor to the beast. It was a magnificent horse, pure white with a tangle free mane, obviously well cared for.

“Anything I should know about this one?”

“Most even-tempered beast I’ve ever seen. Got the stamina of nothing I’ve ever seen. The niece named him Snowflake. Not the most original name, but what can you say to a five-year old who sees a white horse?” The man chuckled at the last bit, lost in the memories of the girl.

Nathaniel and the man negotiated the price of the horse, Nathaniel getting it down to a fair price. Ben even threw in a saddle with the sale, seeming to sense that Nathaniel didn’t have time to waste looking for somewhere to buy one.

When Nathaniel arrived back at the inn leading Snowflake behind him, Jared was in the barn, curled up with his dog, snoring slightly. Nathaniel chuckled at the sight, remembering the days when all he needed was nap with an animal to be satisfied. He only had to say the boy’s name a few times before he stretched and let out a long yawn.

Confusion covered his face when he saw Nathaniel with a second horse, not understanding what was going on. Nathaniel blamed it on the fact that the boy had just woken up, he was usually quicker on the uptake.

“The horse is for you to use on our travels. I’ve seen your feet when we stop for the night. You should have told me that they were bothering you.”

“I don’t want to be a bother sir. I get food every night and a safe place to sleep. And you don’t smack me around. I don’t need much more than that.”

“Well I don’t want you to lose your feet because of me so the horse is yours to use. His name is Snowflake. The niece of the man I bought him from named him.”

Jared’s eyes were shining with a combination of joy and wonder. This was the brightest Nathaniel had ever seen his eyes and the boy’s lips were slightly parted.

The boy went up to the horse and stroked a soft hand down the side of the horse’s strong neck. The horse whinnied in response and his head to look into the eyes of the boy next to him. A few moments passed, the boy and horse lost in each other’s eyes before Snowflake seemed to decided he like Jared and nudged him for another stroke down his neck.

Nathaniel couldn’t help but remember another boy like this, who’d only shown true joy when he was surrounded by the beasts that made him happy. Samuel had been the stable boy when he was growing up, working in the stable from the time he was old enough to help. Nathaniel wasn’t really supposed to talk to him but sometimes he managed to escape from his nurse and he was always found in the stable.

*****

He first met Samuel when he was ten. Nathaniel had crept into the barn in the evening twilight, hoping to see the new horse his father had bought a few days earlier. The way his father talked about it he was almost expecting to see a unicorn hidden in the back corner of the barn. The nurse that told him that story had been sent away for “polluting” his mind with frivolous stories about things that didn’t exist.

After Nathaniel saw the new horse, a simple sleepy beast that didn’t do much more than blink at him when he looked into its stall, he decided to wander around the barn and see if there was anything interesting to look at. The goats were the same as they always were talking to each other in their goat voices. Nathaniel moved onto the cows next because they tended to be calm enough for him to pet without the worry of being trampled.

Samuel was in the last stall on the right side of the barn were the cows were kept. Nathaniel didn’t notice him at first because the boy was so quiet. He was a small child in worn, servile clothing with several patches sewn carefully into the elbows and knees. Nathaniel had never had his clothing patched, as he was never allowed to be rough enough in his play that he hurt his clothing.

As Nathaniel walked over to the boy, his boot hit a tool left lying on the floor, causing it to make a clatter that startled the boy in front of him. The boy turned around, a guilty look on his young face. He moved away from the cow he was petting, his hand coming to rest at his side.

“I’m sorry sir. I’ll get out of your way,” the boy said as he crept around the edge of the stall he was in.
“No it’s alright. I’m not really supposed to be here either. My name’s Nathaniel.” He stuck his hand out for the boy to shake, as he had been taught to do over the years by his many nurses.

The boy took Nathaniel’s hand with hesitation, like he was expecting it to be slapped away at the last second. His eyes were darting around the room, refusing to make contact with Nathaniel’s. Nathaniel noticed that his eyes were the most interesting shade of blue he’d ever seen. Like the blue of the ocean in the tapestry in the front hall, though the boy’s eyes contained a hint of green that the ocean was lacking.

“And your name is?”

The boy turned bright red before muttering something indistinguishable.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Samuel. Me name’s Samuel.”

“It’s nice to meet you Samuel.” Turning to look at the cows next to them Nathaniel asked, “Which ones your favorite? Mine’s always been that one in the corner. She’s such a surly beast. Reminds me of my aunt Mary.”

Samuel let out a small chuckled at the words and then covered his mouth with his hands, horror obvious on his face.

“Tis alright Samuel. She’s an awful woman. I laugh at her behind her back too.”

It took Samuel a few moments to calm down and then he seemed to remember the question that had been asked of him. “My favorite is the one in front. She’s got the sweetest eyes.”

The boys continued to talk for a while, moving from topic to topic with an ease that neither of them had experienced with anyone else. By the time Nathaniel went in for the night, he and Samuel were firm friends.

The boys continued to meet up every couple of days in the barn. They talked about anything and everything for hours on end, nestled in the comfort of upper level of the barn where Nathaniel’s family stored random odds and ends for the animals. The left over saddle blankets made a wonderful cover for the hard floor of the barn and the boys took advantage of the many that had been left up there. Nathaniel told Samuel all the stories his nurses had told him, Samuel’s favorites being the ones about the unicorns and dragons, filled with fighting and adventures galore.

*****

A loud pop from the fire startled Nathaniel out of his musings. Jared was sitting across the flames, his hand resting on the top of his dog’s head. He was staring straight ahead, his eyes unseeing of the burning wood. Mindlessly scratching the dog behind its ear, a spot that always reduced the beast to a puddle on the ground, Jared was perfectly still otherwise. Nathaniel had to appreciate that the boy was so attuned to his dog that he could find that spot without even thinking about it.

They were stuck in the woods tonight. Having to detour around an overflowing river had gotten them behind on their travels and they hadn’t made it to Woodbridge for the night. The stars shone brightly above them, twinkling and serene were they were visible in the gaps between the trees.

“My ma always loved the stars.”

Jared’s voice interrupted Nathaniel’s perusal of the stars above.

“She liked to tell me stores about them growing up, me ma did. Told me about a knight who climbed up the highest mountain in the world to touch the stars. He brought back a bit of star dust for his lady but she’d already moved on,” Jared looked at Nathaniel, seeming to think he would be told to stop talking like Rosalie always used to tell him when he started one of his stories. When Nathaniel merely gestured for him to continue, Jared took a breath and started up again.

“She left him for some rich bastard, his lady did. Said she didn’t want no man who would up and leave to go touch the stars. Ma said the knight was never the same after that. Always looking up to the stars that he so loved but had lost him his love. Climbed all the way back up, wanting to see that beauty again,” Jared paused to look at his dog for a moment. The fire crackled in the evening air, creating a small circle of warmth for the men seated near it. “When he got to the top, surrounded by all that star dust, all he could think about was his lady. My ma used ta say that he musta sat in that star dust so long he turned into a star. She always said he was that real bright one there, right above those little stars in a line.”

They sat in silence for a moment, both of them staring up at the star Jared had pointed out. The woods were mostly silent, the animals hidden away from the winter chill. The wind was calm tonight, only rattling the branches around them every so often. They were at peace for the night, guarded by the knight star nestled up above them. He shone like the fire, his twinkling a promise to keep them safe for the evening.

Rosebud Inn

The inn loomed up out of the receding sunlight. The sign hanging over the door had the words “Rosebud Inn” engraved into the pieces of wood that made it was made of. On either side of the door rose bushes were planted, beginning to succumb to the coming chill of the winter months. The building itself was a sturdy brick structure with wooden window covers. The wind was starting to pick up and Nathaniel’s body shook with each cold gust.

Nathaniel tied his horse, Umbra, to the post out front, hoping to get the poor beast into some warmth before the chill got any worse. Patting the horse on his nose, he stomped his feet in hopes of returning some feeling to them and turned toward the door. It was a massive oak masterpiece, roses carved all around the edges, and it opened with a low creak. Warmth escaped from the building and he welcomed the feeling around his chilled body.

He moved inside, the floor creaking with every step. The place wasn’t crowded, just a few farmers seated near the fireplace talking to each other and sharing a pitcher of beer. There was a bar across the room with two grizzled men sitting several seats away from each other, heads downturned and empty glasses next to them. Nathaniel’s brown leather boots were a sharp contrast to the worn wooden floor below him. There were obvious marks in the floor from where chairs and tables had been moved over the years. Rubbing his hands together to force some feeling into the appendages, he made his way toward the bar and the man located behind it.

The portly, grey-haired man was cleaning a glass while keeping his eye on the farmers by the fire. Taking note of Nathaniel’s fine clothing, the man perked up a bit and said, “My name’s Abe and I’m the owner of this here establishment. What can I do for you, fine sir?”

“I need a room for the night Abe. And I’ll require a warm place for my stead.”
“It’ll be five silver coins for the night and that’ll include tea tonight and breakfast tomorrow. My boy will take your horse out back. He’ll give him a good rub down, hay, and some fresh water from our well.”

“That’s sounds fine Abe,” Nathaniel reached into the small, drawstring bag at his waist and grabbed the requested five silver coins. “Here you go Abe. Now I’ve been on the road all day and find myself ready for a warm bed. Where can I find my room?”
“I’ll have the wife take you up there. Rosalie! I have a gentleman here who’s ready to be taken to his room. The blue room if you please, Rosalie.”

Rosalie strode through the door behind the bar, wiping here hands with a dish rag. Her dirty blond hair was pulled up in a simple braid and her clothes, while worn, were spotless. Rosalie had a round, rosy, face with kind blue eyes. “No need to bellow dear. I can hear you just fine through the door.” Turning to Nathaniel she said, “Up to the blue room we go. Did you need anything else, sir?”

“If you would send tea up in a bit, I find myself ill-suited for company tonight. And my horse will be taken care of?”
“Of course, sir. And I’ll send the boy out back as soon as I get you settled. Blasted boy needs to earn his keep.” She led him up the stairs, muttering about the laziness of the boy the whole time. After they reached the top of the stairs, she led him down the hallway to a room with a small plaque on it that said, “Blue Room”, in childish handwriting. When Rosalie saw Nathaniel looking at the plaque, she smiled and said, “My daughter painted that a couple years back. Insisted we had to call this the blue room. That was always her favorite color. She passed away last year. That horrible fever that went around.” Rosalie’s voice got more choked as she went on and her eyes were a bit watery at the end.

“Well I’m sorry to hear that. My condolences.”

“It’s okay. We’ve moved up as best we can. Learned to count our blessings and all. Except for that damn boy. Can’t get him to do anything.”

“Well I think I’ll turn in for the night. Thank you for all your help Rosalie.”

“Of course sir. Have a good night and breakfast is served from seven to ten tomorrow morning.”

He settled into the room, which contained very little. A bed, lumpy but clean, with a small stack of pillows and blankets placed on the end and small table and mirror. The table held a pitcher of water for him to wash his face with. There was a fireplace off to one side of the room along with a pile of firewood. The fire was lite and the room had a warm and cozy feeling. After he ate, Nathaniel stripped to his long johns and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

The morning sunshine flowed through the window beside his bed. Nathaniel wasted no time getting ready for the day, merely splashing some water on his face and slipping back into his clothing. As he didn’t bring much into the inn, there wasn’t much for him to grab on his way out. Making his way downstairs, he was greeted by Rosalie and told to sit wherever he liked for breakfast. The food was a simple but filling breakfast of porridge, eggs, and toast. There were a few other people in the main room with him but they all kept to themselves. When he finished eating, Nathaniel made his way across the creaking floors to Abe, who was standing behind the bar.

“Good morning, sir. Hope you slept well last night and that breakfast was to your liking”

“Everything was wonderful Abe. But I must be heading out. My horse is in the stable?”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll have my boy saddle him up for you and bring him round front.”

“That won’t be necessary, I don’t mind stabling the horse myself. The stables just round back?”

“If you insist, sir. I know the boy could do it. He doesn’t do much well but he can saddle a horse. But you were going to do it yourself. The stable is round back. Head out the front door and make your way out back. You can’t miss it.”

Nathaniel made his way to the stable with ease. It was a good sized structure with large wooden doors, opened to the sunlight. Rosalie was in front of it, standing with a boy who couldn’t be more than fifteen years old. As he got closer, Nathaniel saw that her kind face was bright red and the boy had a tinge of fear in his eyes. As he walked closer he was able to hear what she was saying to the boy.

“You stupid boy, thinking you can steal from me. We feed you, we clothe you, we keep you safe and warm and this is how you repay us? I should throw you out on the streets for your disrespect!” Her voice rose as she went on and the sound of her hand hitting the boy’s face echoed across the yard. Although her slap was forceful, the boy didn’t not move an inch more than he had to. Her arm reared up for another blow but the boy still stood strong.

Nathaniel quickened his steps to reach them. “Rosalie. What’s going on?”
“This blasted boy stole from me. I caught him red handed with one of the meat pastries I made for lunch in his hand. I feed the stupid child well but he never thinks it’s enough. This is the third time I’ve caught him stealing in as many weeks.”

“I can take care of him for you if you’d like. No need for you to waste your time on him. I know you have better things to do.”

“Well if you don’t mind, sir. I did leave some stew on the stove that I need to stir.”

“Well go take care of your stew, Rosalie. I’ll take care of the boy.”

With one last threatening glare at the boy, Rosalie gave Nathaniel a grateful curtsy and made her way back inside. Nathaniel got his first good look at the boy and his eyes were drawn to the bright red handprint on his left cheek. Nathaniel’s eyes slid across the boy’s face to his eyes. The boy’s eyes were a deep brown, framed by long black lashes. Freckles dotted his nose and curly auburn hair fell wildly around his face. His body was long and gangly, like he still had some growing left but he stood with a self-assurance that was strange for a boy his age.

“What’s your name boy?”
“My name’s Jared.”

“Why did you steal from Rosalie? Does she not feed you enough?”

“I didn’t steal no meat pie from that old witch. There were some scraps on the counter and I wanted to give up to me dog. He’s a mangy old thing but he’s all I got in this world. Don’t know what I’d do without the stupid thing. Doesn’t matter to me if I go hungry but I hate to see the old beast starve.”

“Does she always discipline you like that?”

“No sir. That was a tame one, that was. Usually she calls the old man out here, gets him to belt me real good.”

“Are you related to them?”

“No sir I’m not. They took me in when me mom died a couple months back. Told me I had to work for me keep. Try to do a good job for them but they’re never satisfied with my work.”

Nathaniel looked at the boy for a few moments. Taking a deep breath, he said, “I’m on a quest to rescue a princess named Isabella. The journey will be long and hard and there is no guarantee of anything but…. You are welcome to join me if you’d like. I can promise you now I will not lay a hand on you. No one deserves that kind of discipline.”

Jared looked at Nathaniel, his eyes bright and his posture strong. He clenched his fists several times before he spoke. “Well sir, I don’t think nothing could be worse than this. I mean I know I could be alone on the street but as far as living goes this ain’t very good. I’ll guess I’ll come with you. Give me a story to tell the grandkids someday.”

“Do you need to bring anything? My start has already been delayed and we must be on our way.”

Jared stood up even taller at the words we must be on our way. “I just have a few things to grab sir. And would it be alright if I bring my dog along? He’s my best friend in the world and I’d hate to leave him here with these people.”

“If the dog can’t keep up, we’ll have to leave him.”

Jared nodded at his words and ran toward the house. He disappeared inside in a hurry to leave. Nathaniel shook his head, wondering what the hell he’d just done. Deciding that this would just be a story to tell his grandkids, Nathaniel entered the barn to find his horse. The sunlight was flowing through the open doors and he found his stead with ease.

Umbra let out a whinny when he reached the stall door. He had to smile because his horse knew him so well. He ran his hand down Umbra’s neck, paying special attention to the spot right above his back that always made the horse ecstatic. He found Umbra’s saddle and halter hung up neatly on the wall behind him.

“I took special care of that one. Looks real well made and all. Thought it belonged to someone special,” Jared’s voice rang out across the stable.

“Well you did a fine job Jared. I appreciate your hard work. Do you have all that you needed?”
“Yes sir.” The boy hefted a small rucksack over his shoulder. “I’ve got everything but me dog. He should be out behind the barn. That’s where he usually waits for me.”

“Well Umbra is ready. Let’s go get your dog and be on our way.”

The Origin of A Ceremony

He had grown up with the story of the horse. That magical meeting between man and beast that had forever changed his father’s life. He knew the story like the trail to the watering hole. He could tell it in his sleep. He watched for years, the love shared between his father and the horse. It was almost as though they were two halves of the same soul.

He watched time pass, first with joy, then with worry, as the horse began to age. His father left the village less and less as the horse became frailer. Almost like he was afraid that the next time he left would be the last time he would see his dear savior. He feared his father would never recover from the loss of this horse that had been his constant companion for many years. He tried, for many moons, to come up with a way to save his father from this pain. He knew, deep within his heart, that there was no way he could stop the horse from dying any more than he could stop the sun from setting or the river from flowing.

Sitting with his clan mates around a roaring fire in the cold of an early winter morning, he watched as the young men, a few years older than himself, stuck their knives in the heat of the flames and then used the heated knives to imprint beautiful images on spare pieces of jerkin for the young women they shared the mating dance with. Watching the simple methodical process, he was struck with an idea, a way for his father to never lose the other half of his soul. He knew it would take time, time he didn’t have to waste and that he would have to be careful to not let anyone catch on to his plot but he thought that it might work

Before the sun began to shine over the mountain tops in the distance, he rose and left his family’s tent. He carried very little, his knife, a small piece of extra jerkin, and a kindling bundle were all he needed to begin his plan. He crept into the woods, praying that none of his clan would follow him on his mission.

Reaching a secluded spot in the woods, a grove of pine trees that had become his favorite spot over the long winter months, he began to collect a small amount of kindling and cleared a spot in the snow to light his fire. While the flames rose to a decent size, he used his knife to carve an image in the ground. Over and over he carved it, because it had to be perfect before he attempted to carve it into the jerkin.

When the fire was small but bright, heat radiating off of it, he moved forward with his plan. He let his knife heat until it was glowing as red as the flames it had been resting in. And then he did what he had seen the other men do. He imprint the image in the jerkin. Every spare inch of it soon became covered with the image he selected. He set the jerkin down, admiring his handiwork. Although it wasn’t perfect, he knew he could do it. He could save his father from the heartbreak that would surely destroy him.

Several moons passed as he perfected his craft. He could not work on it often, for fear of his mother noticing all the jerkin going missing. Each day he prayed he would have one more, one more day to ensure his plan would work. His father never left the camp anymore. The elders were starting to whisper about him, about how the horse was a demon who had stolen his soul all those years ago and now refused to leave him, to let him tend to his clan.

And finally it happened. It was a dewy spring morning, the sprouts of green grass just beginning to show through the ground, when the horse finally passed away. His father was inconsolable. He disappeared into the woods, unable to be near the dead body of his dearest friend. The clan was of mixed opinions. The elders hoped that perhaps the horse’s death would grant his father freedom from the claim it had had on his soul. His mother was worried, worried her husband would never come back and the clan would descend into madness. The rest of the clan just prayed that their leader would return as strong as he had when the horse first saved him.

The young man put his plan into motion as soon as his father left. He gathered the small pack he had hidden under his bedroll, the pack that had been hiding there since the first morning he had started the preparations for this very moment. He crept into the woods, quiet as a whisper in the wind, once again praying no one would follow him.

As he walked through the woods, he tried to focus on his breathing. He wanted to be sure he would not ruin his plan now, not when it could do so much for his father, for his clan as a whole. With the sun sending shadows through the blossoming trees, he traversed.

After what seemed like a far longer time than it truly was, he reached his spot among the pines. He almost seemed to feel their spirits reach out to him, to tell him that his future was bright. He took a deep breath, inhaled the wintery smell of pine trees and the faintest hint of the coming spring and settled in to do what he had come to do.

Like many moons ago, he started with a small fire. While the fire gained momentum, he laid out the rest of his tools. His pack contained his knife, freshly cleaned before he left the village, and the small satchel of healing poultice he had snatched from his mother’s bedroll when she was distracted.

With the fire blazing brightly, he steeled his nerves. Taking the knife in one shaking hand, he glanced at the pines, almost waiting for them to reassure him that this would work. The wind blew at that moment, the pines shook and whispered to him in their secret way, and he felt calmed.

He stuck the knife into the fire, all the while staring at the pines. With every breath of fresh pine into his lungs, he felt steadier. After several moments, he pulled the knife out of the fire and tested it against the barely sprouting blades of grass to ensure it was ready. With the grass sizzling beneath him, he brought the knife to his face. Painstakingly, with great care, he carved the image he had worked on for so long into his cheek. It had to be perfect. His plan had to work.

Each time he thought he would pass out from the pain, he looked to the pines and waited for their reassurance. And each time he felt calmed and was able to proceed. Finally, after what could have been minutes but felt like hours, he was done. His mission was complete. Now all he had to do was play the part. He let the knife drop from his fingers, shaking like a leaf in a windstorm now that it was over. He grasped the satchel of healing poultice, dropping it several times in the process from his shaking fingertips.

With application came sweet relief from the burning pain in his cheek. He felt around the wound as he applied the poultice, wanting to know if he had done it right. He could not tell from touch alone but he knew he could find a stream of water in which to check his reflection. And he would need the water to wash his face anyway. The poultice would need to be reapplied at least once before he went back to the clan.

But first he needed to rest and practice his story. He knew the success of his plot rested on his performance when he arrived back at the clan. He only hoped it would be enough.

His walk back to the village was slow, each step sending pain through his face. Even the slightest breeze against it caused his breath to catch in his lungs. As the pain continued, he wondered for the first time if his plan was actually worth it. Would all this pain be worth the end result? What if his father never returned to the clan, what if this was all for not? As these thoughts crossed his head, the smell of pine crossed his nose. Looking to his left, he saw a pine tree, like the ones that had comforted him through the whole experience. Letting his hand rest against its bark for just a moment, he felt that familiar calm wash over him. With renewed vigor, he continued his trek, assured of his success.

His mother was the first to see him when he entered the village. She was standing near their tent, worry clear in her eyes as she methodically scanned the forest in front of her. When her eyes landed on him, she seemed to stop for a moment, almost shake herself, before reacting. She ran, like a deer who heard a noise, and careened into him. He gasped as the force caused pain to rush through his face but the relief he felt in her embrace far outweighed any pain it caused.

She stepped back and finally noticed the imprint on his check. Her hand came to her mouth without her say so and she fought back tears at the sight of her son’s injury. He put a hand on her shoulder, hoping to calm her. “It’s nothing bad, mother. I promise. But I need to talk to father. Is he back yet?”

“It looks like it hurts.”

“It does not bother me too much. And the pain comes from something great, mother. Something I desperately need to tell father about. Is he back yet?”

Shaking herself out of her stupor, with the sound of tears in her voice, “He came back last night. He almost left again when he heard you were gone but the elders would not let him go. He has been in the tent all day, muttering about how he cannot lose you too.” This statement was too much for her, as a few tears escaped from her eyes.

“But I’m back now mother. And I shall not disappear again. But right now I need to talk to father.” With those words he pushed past her, gently but firmly, and made his way to the entrance to his tent. Taking one single, deep breath to steel himself for this moment he pushed the tent flap open.

His father’s eyes shook him to his core the instant he opened the tent flap. They were dead. He looked like he had given up, like he had no joy left in his life. His father looked at him like he was a dream. He rose slowly, with shaking steps, and crossed the tent. Hesitantly he reached his hand out, almost afraid to touch the child in front of him. When his fingertips connected with solid flesh, a dam seem to break in the man.

He pulled his son into his arms and held him tightly for moments that stretched into eternity. As his father pulled back, he finally noticed the mark on his son’s cheek. With gentle fingers, he touched the wound and, his voice shaking, asked, “What happened to you my son?”

“Father. I went into the woods after you left. I felt this pull. It was like nothing I could explain. It was like a voice in my head telling me I needed to go somewhere but it was not clear. Not like a voice actually speaking to me. It was more of a feeling.”

With slightly stronger steps, his father lead him to his bed roll, near the slow burning fire that always remained in the center of their tent. “Please continue my son.”

“The pull lead me to a glade in the woods. I can’t clearly remember where it was or what it looked like anymore. Because the moment I stepped into the glade, I felt this sense of rightness. Like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. And then a creature stepped out of the woods in front of me. Father. It was your horse.”

“My horse? My horse met you in the woods? But he died son. He’s gone.” Sobs rose is his father’s voice as he talked about his horse but he fought valiantly to keep them from escaping.

“It was not your horse as a living creature Father. It was his spirit. He came to me and told me he wanted to help me. Wanted to help guide my future.”

“But how son? How could a horse guide your future?”

“He said he could see into the spirit realm. Said he could see my life strings and that he could guide me on the right path.”

“What happened then my son?”

“I accepted his offer. His soul now resides beside mine in me. He left me with an imprint. A mark to show our bond.”

Before he could even gesture to the mark on his cheek, his father’s fingers were there, reverently touching the mark his horse had left on his son. “He left this mark on you? A mark to show your bond?”

“Yes father. He will be with me always. He may have left the clan physically, but he shall be with us forever in spirit.”

At these words, his father’s eyes came to life, like the first day he came back on his horse. He jumped up, with the energy of a man far younger than he. “I must tell the elders. I must show them that my horse was not a demon. He is going to guide us to the future.” With these words, and one last reverent touch to the mark on his son’s cheek, the man left the tent, more alive than he had been in many moons.

And his son was left alone at last. He let out the breath he had been holding. His plan had worked. His father was saved.

The Cycle

It’s always the simplest things that set it off. Today it was merely scratching my leg. No big deal, just a simple itch. But I wanted so much more. I wanted to run something much sharper than my fingernails down the side of my leg.

That brief feeling of pain was all it took. I wanted so much more. It hinted at that amazing feeling that I knew lied with sharp objects.

The pain brought clarity. A moment when the world and your mind stop screaming. For no more than ten seconds all the pain, anger, and sadness is gone. All there is is pain.

The whole world is reduced to one simple feeling. A base emotion. Nothing complex or heavy. Merely pain.

Pain is human. It’s natural. Or so I try to tell myself.

The problem is the pain never lasts long. So you need to cut again. And then there’s ten more seconds of clarity.

But that fades as well. So you cut again and again, hoping to keep that feeling forever but it never lasts.

And you look down and there’s blood everywhere. And then it starts to sting. And you wonder if you did too much this time. You refuse to believe that and just soak up more of the pain.

For the next few days the slightest movement causes a beautiful agony. But that to starts to fade. And you need a fresh cut to keep moving. Fresh pain to push you through the day.

And so the cycle continues.

The Effects of Words

She never thought she would end up where she was. A mental hospital was not very high on her list of places where she wanted to live in the future. She still craved the one thing she could not have. Although she had been in counseling for a month, she still needed it. She did not want to hurt herself, but her body craved it. The delicious feeling of control mixed with the tinge of freedom was what she needed, yet she would continue to deny herself until the urge went away. All she could do now was look back on the past and try to move on with her future.

It was hard for her to believe it had only been a month since she last tried to kill herself. She had been found by her mother in her bedroom with a bloody razor and a note. The day had started out normally enough. She had woken up and felt the need for physical pain to fill the void left by her lack of emotion. She needed the physical pain to feel anything at all. Her day had been long and filled with disappointment. Understandably, she could not wait to get home. When she walked into her room, she saw her mother using her laptop. At this point, her laptop was the only thing that kept her going. Shocked her mother had violated her privacy in such a way, she could not understand what her mother was screaming at her. The few words she made out were, “crazy” and “where did I go wrong.”

Her mother took her laptop away and left for work. She immediately went for her razor. Her mind kept going over those words. She was crazy. The world would be better without her craziness. She did not know what else she could do. Her control spiraled away after this. Perhaps it was a miracle her mother forgot something that day because it allowed her mother to find her. If her mother had been five minutes later she would not be alive.

This was not the first incident. It was the first her mother had seen what she did to herself, but not the first time she had gone a little too far. It had been at least a year before this incident. She had been in math class, which had always been her worst subject. The students had a test, and she had tried so hard to do well. She got her test results a week later. Her teacher called her aside after class to talk to her. Unfortunately, she had failed again. All the teacher could say was, “You are very intelligent, but you are useless unless you apply yourself.”

The only word that stuck in her mind was useless. Perhaps she was a useless addition to the world. Maybe everyone would be better off without her here, taking up space with her uselessness. Before she knew it, she was sitting in her car with her dear friend, her razor. Her arm was red before she could even think. Silver gleamed as she took out her frustration on her arm. She did not remember passing out nor waking up. When she woke up, she knew she had gone too far. She swore to herself it was the last time she would do this. Those promises never lasted long.

All of this stemmed from her first incident. The incident stuck in her mind, never fading or changing. She was only thirteen the first time she cut herself, and it was because of the first boy she had a crush on. It was a one of the guys in her history class. She told her best friend who she had a crush on, and her best friend swore she would never tell anyone. Her friend asked the guy she liked if he thought she was pretty. He said she was ugly because of the color of her hair. She could forgive him for being shallow, yet she could not forgive her best friend for what her best friend did next. Her best friend told the guy she liked that she had a crush on him. She got a text from him asking if she liked him. Immediately, she knew her friend had betrayed her. She was beyond destroyed on the inside. It was the first time she let herself trust a person, and the person betrayed her.

All she wanted was to escape her emotional pain. Her emotions spiraled out of control. Pain became her life. She focused on the word ugly. No one would ever like her because she was ugly. She never let go of her emotional pain. She merely masked it with her physical pain. She never talked to anyone. Refusing to make new friends, she lost herself in pain.

Looking back, she can not help but feel stupid. It was just a stupid boy, she tried to tell herself although it was so much more than a simple boy. It was the feeling of not belonging anywhere or being in control of any aspect of her life. Betrayal was something she could not get over. It destroyed her trust in the world. She longed for some form of control, and she received it. She never imagined her control would take control of her.