Part 1 - Sowing

Chapter 1 – The Garden

He'd overdone it.

With staggering breaths, Shadow the hedgehog forced his trudge onward through the scarcely populated Mobian countryside. That morning had been the last spent in the shoddy apartment of a human construction worker named Phil, who'd taken him in following a gruesome injury that had nearly claimed his life. Having healed just enough to travel, Shadow had made his way through the world portal to where he now strained against the rapidly intensifying pain. His gliding had long since reduced to unsteady steps as the stitched wound on his abdomen and anemic haze begged for him to stop. There was nowhere suitable to rest, though, and the late morning sun now weighed brutally on his dark quills from overhead. He finally toppled beside a tiny flower garden, landing hands and knees atop the peachy ruffles of blooming begonias. Head down, he heaved several deep breaths in an attempt to regain his bearings.

He didn't notice someone emerge from the nearby home built into the earthen ledge overlooking the yard, nor did he hear her approach. He became aware of her presence with the sound of her horrific gasp upon discovering his own.

"Oh my gosh!! I JUST PLANTED THOSE!!!"

Shadow didn't even have time to look up before a boot-clad foot met the side of his head, knocking him off the crushed flowers onto his side. He blinked through dizziness, beholding his unexpected assailant. Crouching beside the flattened blossoms, cupping them with her garden-gloved hands, a strikingly beautiful beige opossum in a colorful summer dress spoke to them soothingly. "Poor things…." Slowly, he brought his knee forward and began to push himself upright. The opossum turned from her flowers, her eyes widened into a cross between surprise and mild curiosity, almost as if she'd forgotten he was there. "…You okay?" He ignored her as he righted himself to a kneeling position, then paused with eyes shut as the dizziness overtook him again. "…Huh…didn't mean to kick yathat hard…." She stumbled to her feet. "Here, uh, lemme help ya up…." Shadow jerked his arm away as she began to take hold, then extended it to catch himself as his balance gave out once more. The opossum took a step back, now noticing dark drops of blood on the grass beside him. She followed the trail with her eyes to the slightly torn wound across his belly. Her mouth went crooked with disgust as she stood watching him silently for several seconds. "……You really shouldn't be goin' out in that condition!" she finally blurted, followed by another long pause. "Ahh…sorry about kickin' you…I didn't know you were hurt…." She leaned over beside him, her thick braid sliding over her shoulder into a wobbly dangle. "Can I help you? ………………………Can you talk?" Shadow opened his eyes and glared into hers, then shifted his gaze onto a watering can held in the grip of her long tail. He hadn't had anything to drink for hours.

"Could I get some water?" he asked hoarsely. The opossum's brow lifted.

"Water? All right." She straightened herself and trotted back to her home to fetch some, the can sloshing with each step. Shadow dropped his head and sighed.

As he consumed his fill of mineral-rich well water she'd brought, the opossum brushed one of the two strands of hair draped before her eyes aside, her expression much more pleasant. "My name's Maple," she introduced herself, her demeanor adopting a shy contour. She waited for him to give his own name, but he didn't. He'd had more than enough of this flake. Feeling his balance returning, he set down the cup and got to his feet. He glanced at Maple and made little effort to warm his cold tone.

"Thank you."

As he turned and walked away, she called after him, "Well wait a minute, you should rest yourself before you head out! You're just gonna end up in someone else's yard if you go on like that!" Receiving no acknowledgement of her words, she followed him and pressed on, "Or at least have somethin' for lunch! I just made chicken n' dumplin's, and you're welcome to have some! There's a whole lot!" At last, he came to a stop. He hadn't eaten in several hours either, his only breakfast that morning having been four slices of raw wheat bread. He stood with his back still facing her, considering her offer. His mind was still very woozy, his wound ached, he was starving, and there was no telling how long he would have to go before his next meal if he passed this one up. There didn't seem to be any harm in accepting.

"…I can stay for lunch," he finally replied as he turned about. Maple nodded with a half smile.

"All right, then! But this is just lunch, now, not a floozy invitation!" She turned and started back for her home. "I can't tell you how many times my hospitality has been taken for that."

Shadow shook his head as he followed, regretting his decision already.

Maple's home was an elaborate den of sorts, burrowed into the side of an eight-foot ledge and extending several feet below. A large oak tree was its towering roof, the giant's massive roots forming a makeshift staircase to the top of the ledge. Shadow was greeted with a chicken-tainted musty odor as he stepped in the front door. The inside was dim and damp. He found himself glad it wasn't it a cheery, sun-soaked country cottage like he'd half expected.

In the kitchen, Maple pulled a chair for her guest out from the meager wooden table. The scent of the dumplings was now thick and intoxicating. She stirred it with a ladle and dipped some out into a bowl as he took his seat, then sprinkled an appetizing dash of herbs and set it before him before serving herself. A pitcher of sweet tea and two glasses, forks, and spoons soon joined them. "Sorry it's not much," she muttered as she finally seated herself. "Normally when I have guests I try to make it more…well rounded." Shadow speared a dumpling and nearly had it to his mouth when the inevitable question came. "So what's your name?" He drew a quiet breath, then voiced the first stupid thing that came to mind.

"Joe."

"Joe? How'd you get that big cut?"

"I fell."

"Fell on what?"

"A rake."

"Mmm," Maple answered, her mouth full. "I stepped on a rake once. 'Bout knocked myself out! Hee-ee!" He took advantage of her moment of silent recollection to eat. It was brief. "So where ya from?"

Only after he'd taken his time to chew and swallow came his reply. "…Outer space."

Maple snorted as her hand clapped down on the table. "You're makin' this up!" Ironically, it'd been the only answer he hadn't. Noting that he did not share her amusement, she lowered her eyes to her bowl. "I guess I'm bein' kinda nosey…." she recognized sheepishly. The remainder of the meal progressed in awkward silence.

She's an excellent cook, Shadow thought to himself, though he was unsure whether it was that or the fact that he'd been subjected to Phil's cooking for so long. Beauty and talent—interesting. Judging by her appearance, she was probably a few years older than him, as far as aging went, at least. Flaky or not, it seemed odd that she wasn't-

"You like chocolate??" Maple suddenly inquired.

Shadow blinked. "It's all right…."

"I just remembered I've got some chocolate sugar cookie dough in the freezer! That'd make a perfect dessert! I'll toss 'em in the oven real quick and they'll be ready in no time; 'kay? Don't run off!"

At this point he wasn't about to go anywhere; he felt like he could fall asleep right at the table. Minutes later, that was exactly what he did, his face resting in his folded arms. After a while he was roused by a hand shaking his arm "Joe? I've got a spare bed that's a lot more comfortable." He was too incoherent to really comprehend or form an opinion of the concept, but he managed to blankly follow her lead to the neighboring room. The bed was just big enough for one, its frame built into the wall and only inches from the floor…ideal for crashing. He leaned until he fell over into it, bouncing once on its stiff springs. Ah yes, much better….

When Shadow opened his eyes, he had no idea how much time had passed. The room was brightened by sunshine peeking in one of the few windows. Maple was nowhere in sight, but he could hear footsteps in another room, along with the creak of a door. He pushed off the bed to his feet and followed the sounds into what he discovered to be her bedroom. As he stepped inside, however, all was quiet. His ears turned, listening, but there wasn't another sound in the entire house. He blinked, eyebrow cocked, and walked out of the room. A quick tour of the rest of the place turned up nothing either. Maple wasn't even home. He pondered the origin of the sounds for only a few moments longer before directing his attention to his departure. He needed to find someplace where he could fully recover before returning to Earth…to take care of unfinished business. He made his way to the front door and swung it open, finding himself face to face with Maple. Both recoiled, and Maple dropped several of the yams in her arms.

"Geez loo-eeze!!" she practically shrieked, "You scared the livin' daylights outta me!!"

"Hmph," was Shadow's only response before crossing his arms and changing the subject. "What time is it?"

"…It's about six thirty," Maple answered from the floor as she retrieved her yams. Shadow blinked, a bit taken aback.

"I was asleep over six hours…?"

"Nooo," she corrected, "you were asleep all night. It's six thirty in the morning."

Shadow's jaw dropped and arms broke apart. He brushed past her and peered out the door at the rising sun. "…Damn…." Apparently he'd worn himself out more than he realized.

"You must have been pretty exhausted," she shared his sentiment, her voice taking on a hint of humor.

Then another thought occurred to him. "Does anyone else live here?"

"Hm? No, why?"

"I thought I heard someone walking around…I know I heard it…but you weren't here."

"Ohhh," she acknowledged, standing back up, "that must've been the haunt." She strode toward the kitchen with her yams. Shadow remained in the doorway, his brow low.

"The what?"

"The haunt."

He quietly mimicked her drawl, not understanding. "Hawn...?" Oh. Haunt. "You mean…like a ghost?" he called after her.

"Yeah," she called back. "It makes all kinds of noises, like someone's walkin' around and messin' with stuff, and every single morning when I get up, the closet door is open." She emerged from the kitchen and walked up to the door to which she'd referred. "This one right here. Every morning."

Shadow made a face. If he hadn't heard it for himself, he would've thought her to be even more off than he already did. But he'd had enough of the subject; it was time to focus on more important things.

"…I need to head out. Thank you for your hospitality."

Maple hurried after him as he began to depart. "Oh, Joe, wait! There's somethin' I was wantin' to ask you." She hesitated slightly as he paused and peered back at her. "Ahmm…you're not lookin' for work, are you? I was wondering if maybe you'd like to be a caretaker for my garden. I've been needing one for a while now."

Shadow recalled the begonias he'd crushed on his arrival. The flower bed wasn't even five feet long; she couldn't possibly need a caretaker for that. He pondered her motives as she continued, "I don't have much in the way of money, but if you do this for me you can stay here for free. How does that sound?" The offer was exceptionally generous—suspiciously generous. Maple laughed a bit, seemingly unfazed by his trademark leer. "Well here, lemme show you the garden!" She led the way out of the house and ascended the oak root steps. He followed, blinking in disbelief when he reached the topside of the ledge. The real garden was enormous, stretching across well over an acre of land. Crops of every variety adorned the neatly plowed rows. He could only say one thing.

"You're out of your mind…."

"So they keep saying," she replied smugly, gazing in adoration of her work. "Well, how 'bout I throw in free meals? And you can help yourself to anything in the garden."

The job would obviously entail a great deal of work…but the incentive was exactly what he needed: a low-key location in which his basic needs would be met until he'd made his recovery. He stood overlooking the site in silent consideration, then turned to her.

"Deal."