A/N: This is taking off into a completely different direction and genre than I expected. I'm sorry that this is so…weird. Well, love it or hate it. Find the message…damn, I feel like a cereal box right now…
Childhood was so underrated.
Yes, childhood: the fun, carefree life in which nothing mattered but joy and playtime; the time where time never even existed; the memory that was too fun to clearly remember; the period when that homey sensation could never leave your chest; that amazing and overlooked past that lasted no more than a dozen years.
Ever since that incident four years ago, when I lost my last physically living shred of my childhood, people have been looking at me like I'm some pitiful crybaby. I know what they're thinking—so what? You were young. It's not like you did anything more than have fun, so why are you even sad still? At first, I had agreed with the voices behind my back. I pretended to realize that it was only the fun and the young thrill that I missed.
But then, one day, I just snapped. I didn't miss the fun—I mean, of course I missed the damn fun, but that obviously wasn't the only reason for the miniature hell that took up my chest. It was the solitariness, the loneliness I was so tired of that stayed with me for the years after my best friend was gone. It didn't matter how old you were…death didn't differ.
And it didn't help that I had absolutely nobody to help quell the pain.
The bells above my head banged against each other, making a reverberating, stinging smack in my ears. Ever since the incident—that was the only way I referred to what happened, now—my sense of hearing had become especially sensitive. Whenever someone screamed, I cringed, and every noise seemed to echo…louder and turned up, just for me. And I couldn't listen to music anymore. People couldn't sing around me. Not anymore…
Two loud, sensitive things happened in the next few seconds: one, the heavy store door slammed shut behind me. Two: Katie skipped up to me and greeted me in her high, girly voice.
"Hiiiiiii, Meryl! Welcome to Café Callaway! Wow, you haven't been here in so long! Let me get you a table—I'll sit down with you in a sec…"
I was silent, putty in her demanding hands as she ushered me to the table in the far right corner of the room. I sat down, not sparing a glance her way, and she reminded me that she'd be back soon as she hurried away. I knew why she put me here—so she could avert me from the stares I commonly received. I caught one of the men in the village looking at me—damn, it was such a small town and I'd forgotten people's names already—and glared back at him.
I wasn't sure what made me want to come here, but ever since the incident, Katie had been one of the few people I still kept in touch with. She was a few years older than me, but about six years younger, mentally. I told her everything…well, almost. That was a lie. There was nobody I told everything. Nobody…but…
As Katie promised, she was back in no less than a minute. She plopped down on the chair opposite me and folded her hands under her chin. Her bright, blue eyes examined me. "So, what's up?"
"Katie…" I was still looking at my hands, unsure if I should really say what was on my mind. We could skip the small talk. "Hey, do you remember…uh…"
"Remember what?" She blinked curiously, and I almost just gave up on the spot.
I kept going. Images of the dream were flashing in my mind. I had forgotten my purpose of coming here up to this point, and now my nervousness was coming back to me. "Four years ago…" I began again. I saw her tense up a bit in the corner of my eye. She might act childish at times, but she could be amazingly perceptive. She knew about my past—the general parts, at least.
I continued on before she could interrupt, lowering my head bashfully. "Do you remember, four years ago, in the forest, when I went in, and—?" I basically stuttered. I left my question unfinished. Perhaps she could fill in the blanks for me.
Or, perhaps, she could stare at me blankly in the manner of a dead fish. Almost everyone was like this whenever I mentioned the incident—though it wasn't often. Like, damn it, I wasn't going to go into shock or get a seizure by the mere mention of it. Obviously my chest might clench up a little, and I could go a little pale, and a bit nauseous, or ask to leave the room or…
"Meryl…" Katie suddenly took one of my hands. Hers were warm, or maybe mine were cold…I wasn't sure. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened," I said, but it sounded like a lie to me. It really wasn't a lie…but last night's dream had sparked something within me. And that voice that hurt me time and time again…why did it seem to provoke me this time? What was the cause of this sudden instigation?
"Then what made you go and…say this?" I could tell she was trying to be careful with her words.
I rolled my eyes. I guess I would always be a child in everyone else's eyes. "I don't know. It was just a whim thing. I was thinking of…well." I took a deep breath. "I want to go back to the forest; come with me?" It was more like a plea than anything else. I had no idea what I was saying, but I had to rush things in case she could think of a way out of my demands.
Katie's shocked face was definitely not a good sign. "Are you crazy?" she whispered, her face white as the bone underneath it.
"Yeah," I said, just so she couldn't argue with me. "Will you?"
"Meryl…" And the next thing I knew, Katie's arms were around me, and her cheek against my hair. "Please, please tell me you're not thinking about him again…"
I hated the emphasis she put on again. What, so now he was prohibited from my thoughts, just because he was dead? Hah. "I can think about whoever I want to," I retorted, and shoved away abruptly. I knew I was being rude, but it was part of the deal. My best friend dies, I turn crabby. I didn't care anymore, anyway. "If you don't want to come with me, I'll go alone."
"No…" she whimpered. Her big, childlike eyes closed; she could've been thinking or stalling. It was clear she didn't want to come with me.
"Yes. Well. I'm off. Later," I bade her farewell shortly, and left the store before I could see her reaction.
I cringed as the door smacked shut. I thought I heard, in the faintest squeak of the door hinge, Tim.
The sun was beating down on me by the time I had reached the mountain trail beside the Paradise Orchard, which led to the forest above. Prior to the saying, I told myself not to look up, but I couldn't help it—my chin tilted upward and I stared at the tall terraces that seemed to be a million feet high. I could do it. I could climb it, I'd keep telling myself. It wouldn't be like I'd be climbing the mountain…that was just a figure of speech…
I sprang back in shock of the unreal volume of the voice I couldn't recognize. My eyes shot down a man to my immediate right, sitting under the shade of a fruit tree.
"Um, yes?" I recognized the man as the new worker…damn; I still couldn't remember his name. Though I suppose I was oddly flattered that he remembered mine, and I tried to make an effort to remember his. Nothing came to me.
He suddenly shot me an uneven smile. "Do you remember who I am?"
It had become of a habit of mine to speak before thinking. My words whipped out without control. "Yes, of course I do, you moved into my house and you sleep beside me now." I immediately realized how disturbing that sounded.
Even his smile faltered, but it sprouted back in an instant. "Yeah," he chuckled. "Well…I'm Dan. Where are you going?"
I pointed in no direction—just a straight ninety degrees above my head.
Dan looked up in emphasized observance. He squinted at the glaring mountaintop, like I had just a minute ago. "You're climbing that thing? Cool."
I had to do a double-take. Cool? Well, that reaction was a first.
"Mind if I come too?"
My face must've changed dramatically, because his fell. "Well, if you don't want me too…" he began.
I shook my head quickly. "No, it's not like that. I just don't want you to…" Die. Geez, I hadn't considered that up to this point. I looked up at the enormous ridges of rock. It was a definite possibility, though… "I don't want you to get lost if I do."
"But then you'd get lost all on your own."
Damn. This guy saw through everything. "I'm not going very far," I lied. "Just picking some flowers five minutes up the trail…I'm sure you wouldn't want to do that…"
He began to talk the instant I trailed off, automatically disinterested. "Oh, well, in that case…" he murmured.
"…Yeah. So, see you later." Doubt it.
I began to walk away. That was easy. Anyone else in the village would have seen right through my lie right away—which made me remember why I felt so much more comfortable around strangers; you could be anyone you wanted around them and they wouldn't know if you acted like that all the time or what. After all, anyone else in this secret-less town would know that I would burn in hell before picking flowers, let alone climb a mountain for fun.
I quickened my pace, scarce of even a backpack on my shoulders. After all, my life could end in a few hours, so I didn't really give a crap anyway.
As I hiked, I let my mind wander.
The singing voice, slightly muffled but still audible in my dream last night, made me oddly curious. The pain I had been feeling for so long was so empty, so alone, except there was no solace in this kind of silence. I needed some physical pain that would make me absolutely writhe and squirm and—I stopped walking suddenly. I sounded completely mental.
But I just wanted a wake-up call. I kept walking again.
I didn't count the time, and I didn't keep track of it. All I knew was by the time the forest was even in view, my legs were aching. Thirst trickled down my parched throat like the water that wasn't there, and the rushing waterfall to my side wasn't helping. I climbed across the shaky wooden bridge, which trembled after each step I took.
And then I was there. I was back in the green haze. It seemed strange that I hadn't physically been here in four years because it all seemed so clear and familiar to me now.
An insect cricketed and I covered my ears, blinking hard. Stupid habits. I proceeded into the thick, deep-set brush, almost expecting something deadly to be on the other side. Perhaps everything would be pitch black when I made it through to the other side, or maybe there would be a gigantic monster. What if I fell off the world?
I pulled myself out from the brush and was surrounded by the same endless circle of trees. I knew I'd eventually get lost, but I was too lazy to mark my location well. Besides, I doubted I had the strength to walk all the way back down the trail. Without even thinking, I kicked off my shoes and made a little V-shape pointing to the entrance, well, exit of the forest. Then I continued onward, the grass cool beneath my socked feet.
Yes, everything seemed so very conversant… even the night was crisp and quickly darkening, like it had been before. Even though the place seemed creepy—haunting, in a way—it was a refreshing thrill from my everyday schedule. It was darker than it usually was, and if it were any regular day I'd be inside by now, in my room, most likely. Also, despite how familiar everything was, it all also seemed new…how I'd been aching for a fresh start, a new page…
The exciting, nostalgic atmosphere faded quickly, replaced by suspicion. It was strange. Not a single branch had fallen out of place, and there were no stray rocks or litter on the grassy tiles. I searched the ground carefully, trying to find something out of place, if anything…
There was a pinkish leaf on the ground. I leaned over and grabbed it triumphantly, as if spiting the eternally perfect forest had granted me some sort of victory. I was just about to throw the leaf over my shoulder and keep walking into green eternity when I stopped and looked at it.
Pink. Fall was in session, and the Mora trees in town were changing tones. Normally that would not have caught my eye, but in a forest so green through and through, it was impossible not to notice. I kept the tiny leaf in my palm firmly, tucking it between my fingers and thumb.
The air had grown sombre so very quickly. I actually began to feel a bit scared, and I almost laughed at myself for that. I already knew from experience that this was no ordinary forest…a mere voice could offset the most mystical of happenings. Like the long grass that would form walls around me, wrap around me and suffocate me into the deepest oblivion…or perhaps the sharp, churning vines that would follow me as I ran. I glanced around. Nothing was safe here.
I stopped walking mid-step when I realized where I was: dead smack in the middle of a very memorable meadow, the most gorgeous clearing imaginable, and the deadliest. I opened my hand, and the curious pink leaf was in pieces, crushed against my palm. The wind, which hadn't even been there to begin with, blew away the tiny bits and scattered them in my hair and into the nothingness of the air.
A sweet melody crept into my ear and I closed my eyes, at peace. I was quite sure the music was only coming from my head, but any second now and it would materialize into reality and…
A deafening noise drilled into my ears, painful as metal scraping against glass, as shattering as glass against the marble.