It was springtime once again, and this time we had two newcomers to Flowerbud Village. Both boys, to my luck. Knowing Ann, she would try to date the both of them. She always did, with more than half of the bachelors in this town. Of course, I rejected most of them before she had the chance to actually date them.
One of the boys' names was Jack. He seemed average, and took over the farm adjacent to ours. From the looks of it, he was friendly, but somewhat smug. And Ann couldn't help but be a giggling idiot around him. Girls would be girls, I supposed. She even gave away one of our baby horses for him. I don't know what got into her! But I was definitely going to keep an eye out for Jack.
The other was a straggler named Cliff. A man who traveled here and there, doing… well, nothing exactly. He just wandered about the mountains every day, feeding off of things he found on the ground, or things that people would give to him for charity. The best thing about this guy, though, was that him and Ann didn't get along. At all. Finally, there was one guy I didn't have to worry about.
Popuri kept hanging around, picking at the wooden fence as she went on and on about whatever popped into her head. Like always. Except lately, she had been growing more and more silent each day, and whenever she did talk, she sounded awfully upset. I wanted to ask what was the matter, but I didn't. I just toiled around the farm like usual, hoping that one day she would bring up what was the matter.
And she did. It was a broiling day in late summer, and the sun seemed as if it had been eternally shining since spring ended. It set very late in the evening, and rose early in the morning, not giving Flowerbud Village a break for rain. It was days like this when I wondered why I didn't wear short sleeves…
"My dad is thinking of leaving again," She commented one day as she stared off into space, looking sullen. Like a wilted flower, I suppose. I stopped working for a moment to stare at her, and then continued.
"I don't really know why, either. I mean, it's fine here in Flowerbud Village. Great, actually. Why does he have to be some stupid traveling botanist? Why can't he just settle down in one place?" She asked, to no one in particularly. I had never heard that kind of twang in her voice, a tone of anger hiding beneath the high-pitched manner. I stared at her while taking off my cap and wiping at my forehead. She stared back.
"I know you understand what I'm talking about, don't you?" She asked me, still gazing. I looked away, clearly uncomfortable. Sighing, she let go of the fence and turned her back to me, about to walk away. But something came over me, I wasn't sure what it was, but I felt the desire to respond.
"Yeah, I do." I said, clearly and crisply. She turned back around, frowning a bit, as if caught off guard. But then she smiled, causing me to scratch my head in embarrassment.
"I knew you did. Well, I should get back to the shop… I'll see you later." She called, waving before turning back around and wandering out of the farm. I couldn't help but wait until she turned into a speck in the distance before going inside the barn.
The last few days of Summer were killer. I couldn't help but feel like I was melting every time I set foot outside to work. The grass was always mushy beneath my feet and even the animals seemed to drag around the pasture with weary eyes and burning skin. I felt bad for them. But thankfully, Summer slowly but painfully ended, and Fall began.
Fall was always the best time for the animals. The air was cool; not too hot or cold, and the leaves that fell from the nearby trees always served as a good snack for them. It was better for me, too. Seeing as it wasn't always sunny, and the grass was a lot easier to handle.
But one thing was slightly weird about Fall beginning: Popuri hadn't showed up in a long time. I began to worry about her, but I couldn't do anything about it really. If I asked Ann about her, she would let her imagination get carried away, and if I actually went out and looked for her… well, that just wouldn't go well. So I stayed put, hoping to see her in the distance one of these days, gleefully waltzing towards the farm. It wasn't until a few days into Fall, as I was walking towards the shop for some supplies, that I saw her. And there was nothing gleeful about her step.
"Daddy, please. Don't leave," She pleaded, following the man who I had seen dancing with Popuri at last year and this year's Flower Festival. Except, the jovial man I had once seen dancing with his daughter now had a stern look on his face.
"Po, honey, I'm sorry. But I'll be back next Spring. My job calls for it, I can't stay here for right now." He replied austerely as he kept walking westward towards the exit of the village. She followed him.
"But what about mom and I? What about all of your friends here? Why do you always have to leave us?" She asked fervently, her face growing red as her voice cracked. Although I was pretty far away, I could still here the shaking in her tone, as if she was about to burst. Her father turned around to face her while grabbing onto her shoulders gently.
"All I can say is that I'm sorry." He said calmly, before kissing her forehead lovingly. With that, he turned around and walked towards the exit. But this time Popuri didn't follow him; she stood in one position looking hopeless and alone. I felt bad staring at this scene, even if it was happening right in front of the farm. So, I turned and headed for the shop, but I didn't neglect to take one last look at her. Oddly enough, she was staring right back at me intensely. It only made me quicken my step until I was safely inside.
Surprisingly enough, the next morning after I had finished herding all the animals outside, I saw a familiar pink head of hair lounging on the fence. Today she wore a light coat over her dress, seeing as clouds were covering the sky and the temperatures were dropping lower and lower each day. I breathed in a giant breath of cool air before venturing closer to her. She waved.
"Sorry you had to see that big display yesterday." She said dully, swatting at a crease in her dress. I shrugged, taking out a brush from my pocket brushing our cow, Betsy. Popuri sighed heavily.
"I'm just so sick of him leaving," She commented, "He's getting older and so is my mom… I just thought that he would understand that and stay with us. But he's traveling again."
I gazed at her as she looked down at the ground, her porcelain face contorting into a small frown. The dreary clouds above us thundered lightly.
"Y-you know," I began hesitantly, not exactly sure what had taken over me, "Before you know it… Sp-Spring will be here, and, uh…"
I stopped short, unsure of what to say next. I wasn't exactly great at the whole 'comforting' thing, but she smiled anyways. I felt suddenly embarrassed, and I focused my attention on Betsy again.
"You're right." She said softly. "I should look on the bright side… You know, even if you don't talk a lot, Gray, you have some good things to say."
Startled, I felt my eyes widen as I glanced back up at her again. Did she just compliment me? On my speaking? Well, that was a first.
"Uh, thank you." I replied, shoving the brush back into my pocket and patting Betsy's back delicately. I felt something wet land on my cheek and I groaned.
"Oh dear, looks like rain." She commented as a few more drops splashed on my skin. It felt good. "I better get going. See you."
I nodded as she turned and left, quickening her pace to a jog as the drops fell more frequently. Opening the barn doors, I herded the animals back inside and stayed with them for the rest of the night as the large spheres of rain pounded on the roof relaxingly.
Soon, Popuri's visits became more and more frequent. I didn't complain, it was just hard to concentrate on the animals sometimes with her leaning on the fence all the time.
It wasn't until around the end of Fall when I started to notice something was wrong with Cliffguard. My prized horse. It was around eight in the morning, and already all of the animals were outside. Except him. I don't know what was going on, but he laid in his stable lazily, his eyes droopy and his coat faded. I felt my breath quicken as I tried to get him to stand, but he just fell back down onto the hard floor with a thud. Quickly, I patted him to let him know everything would be okay, before I made a run for it.
As soon as I burst through to the outside, I saw Popuri on the fence, waving at me. I kept sprinting, and I knew she knew that something was wrong. She followed behind me, scuttling as fast as she could.
"Dad," I said as calmly as I could, even if my breathing was becoming frantic. "Cliffguard… there's something wrong… I need medicine."
My dad nodded sternly and pointed to the shelf. I dashed forward and grabbed a bottle before rushing back to the barn, Popuri hot on my tail. Flinging open the doors, I went over to my horse and crouched beside him, trying to catch my breath. Popuri looked worried stiff.
"I need you, come here," I told her, motioning with my hand. She steadily walked forward. "Can you just put your arm in front of his upper torso? He's well trained, he knows that it means to sit still."
She nodded nervously and walked towards the large horse.
"Don't be scared, he's not going to hurt you." I tried to reassure her, but it came out more harshly than I intended. She placed her feeble arm in front of his upper torso, like I ordered, and sighed in relief. I took the medicine bottle, poured a little into a tiny bucket that we used for chickens, and held it close to his nose. He sniffed it once and then turned his snout away, clearly appalled.
"Please, Cliffguard, you have to take this." I pleaded to the horse, not caring that Popuri was watching me freak out. He had to be okay. I reached my hand up and scratched him behind his soft ears; it was his greatest weakness. He immediately seemed to calm down, and I brought the bucket closer to his nose. Hesitantly, he slurped up a little bit of the liquid before snorting and pulling his head away. I sighed.
"Maybe dousing it in his food would help?" Popuri suggested in a frail voice. I mulled this over for a moment before shrugging and pouring the contents of the bucket into his fodder. He glanced at the food, but he didn't eat it. He didn't even sniff it.
"No appetite, and he's slightly jaundicing… it could be anything." I commented shakily, examining the horse a bit further. I don't know what got into him but it was scaring me to death. Cliffguard was my horse, my favorite one. And as cheesy as this sounded, he was almost like a best friend to me. I didn't have friends in the village until Popuri, if you could count her. So I spent a lot of time with this horse, petting him and sitting with him on rainy days. After all, I got him when I was just a kid, given to me by mom.
"Do you think your dad knows what's wrong?" Popuri asked.
"Dad's specialty isn't horses, it's more livestock. Cows, chickens, those kinds of animals. I have always been into horses more myself. He doesn't know much." I replied, not even noticing that I was having an actual conversation without stuttering or sounding strange. But I was too worried to care about things like that.
I sat down on the hard floor, clearly flustered. Popuri followed my actions, blowing a piece of hair out of her face as she did so.
"You don't have to stay," I stated, reaching to scratch behind Cliffguard's ear some more.
"No, I want to. Cliffguard could use some extra company." She said sweetly, looking at the deteriorating horse, who seemed to smile at her. Even if she was more of a flower person than an animal person, she sure had a way with Cliffguard.
He sighed in content as she scratched the back of his ears gently, all the while talking to me in a normal tone, just as if she was resting on that fence casually. Her voice soothed Cliffguard and me and soon we both seemed to doze off.
The next think I knew, I was jerked awake by a bumping noise. I ripped my eyes open and looked around to see that I was still in the barn, with Popuri sleeping soundly next to me, but Cliffguard wasn't lying down in his stable. At first, I was extremely ecstatic to see he was up and about, but then I noticed what he was doing.
The horse was walking around aimlessly, his head facing the floor, occasionally bumping his head into the wall. After a few moments of this directionless wandering, he began circling and circling. I could feel my heart stop, my breath hitch in my throat, my eyes lose their focus. Popuri stirred next to me but I wasn't bothered by this. I knew what was wrong with Cliffguard.
Ragwort poisoning. I had an old horse die of this before, and these were his exact symptoms. Manic wandering, jaundice, loss of appetite… and then he died. Just like that, he collapsed. There was no cure for Ragwort poisoning.
I could feel a pricking behind my eyes; fresh tears were building up. I blinked furiously as Popuri stared at me with curiosity.
"What is it?" She asked. I didn't respond, instead I rushed forward to hold my horse and stop him from walking. But he almost knocked me over, as if he didn't notice me trying to stop him at all. Popuri furrowed her brow worriedly. Sighing, I slunk down onto the ground and buried my face in my hands.
Ragwort was the most poisonous plant known to horses. I couldn't believe I had been so careless as to not notice it growing in the yard. And now what? Cliffguard was going to die. As far as scientists knew, there was no cure. I could feel my chest rattling, my ears ringing as I heard Popuri gently ask me what was the matter. But all I could hear was the blood pumping through my forlorn heart, violently and vigorously.
Stinging tears formed under my eyelids but I forbade them to fall. I could feel the salt pricking at my eyeballs, painfully urging to fall down my trembling jaw, but I couldn't do it. Instead, I rolled myself into a tiny ball and breathed heavily. I could feel Popuri beside me, saying my name, but I couldn't respond.
It felt like forever before I looked back up again, at the bleak barn walls and Popuri's worried face. Her cheeks were flushed, her appearance worried and ragged. I felt bad that she was staying in here with me, watching me freak out, but I pushed that thought into the back of my mind.
I looked at my horse, still aimlessly trotting, and I felt a lurch in my stomach. For a moment, I thought that I was going to throw up, but I kept it down for her sake. Outside, I could hear thunderous roars and pounding rain on the roof. Usually, I liked rain. But today, it was just a horrible symbol; cruel irony from the gods above that my horse was going to die.
Popuri and I sat, watching my horse wander for the longest time. I had no idea how much time had passed before he halted in his footsteps. His legs folded from underneath him and he clumsily fell to the ground into a sitting position. I walked over to him, his bloodshot eyes glancing up at me in fear. I reciprocated the look and scratched him behind his ears gently. It wouldn't be long now.
Popuri stood behind me, looking on at the horse with anxiousness deeply engraved into her features. I could almost feel the ground move from under me when another thunderclap sounded outside the barn. My heart pumped rapidly as Cliffguard's eyes drooped a little lower. My stomach wrenched, my muscles tensed, my senses were growing more and more dull by the second. I couldn't hear Popuri gasp when his eyes completely closed; I couldn't even feel my own tears gliding down my face.
The only thing I did feel was her hand snaking onto my shoulder, causing me to jolt with the electricity that flowed from her hand to me. I quivered at the sight of my horse, limp and lifeless before me. I stood with difficulty on my wobbly knees and ran out of the barn, careful not to trip. I arrived at the shop and burst open the door, frightening my father.
"Gray, you need to stop bursting in like this, the weather is already scary enough, I don't need yo-"
And then he stopped when he saw me. Shaken, woeful, covered in dirt, and red in the face.
"What happened?" He asked me.
"C-cliffguard. He's…" I paused, not sure if I could force out the word, "D-dead. He's dead."
My father looked at me with a sorrowful façade. But I didn't stick around for the 'circle of life' lecture. Instead, I left. I didn't go back to the barn, I couldn't. I saw Popuri out on the field staring at me intensely, the rain pouring down onto her, but I couldn't go back to her, either. Without even registering my movements, I ran.
I could feel the rain pounding against my body with every step I took. The wind was fierce and it ripped at my clothing. I felt my cap blow off behind me, but I didn't bother to retrieve it.
Soon, I saw a bridge up ahead and I ran across it, onto a rocky terrain. I kept running until my feet cramped and my lungs burned intensely. Finally, I sat down and let my back rest on a tree trunk as the rain continued to soak me.
I knew where I was. I was on the summit of Moon Mountain. Running fingers through my hair, I let my head rest against the tree and I sighed heavily, catching my breath. Above me, I heard a thunderous roar, and the crackling of lightning. I concluded that it probably wasn't a good idea to be under a tree.
So I found a snug, little rocky cove and sat there for a while before I realized how tired I was. I hadn't slept much in the last few days, and all that running wore me out. I couldn't help but doze off.
I was awoken by a thunderclap, splitting through the soothing rain like a knife cuts through butter. Startled, I eased my eyes open and stared around me, almost forgetting where I was. The skies were dark and bleak, but from the looks of it, it was morning. The rain continued to fall steadily. Small droplets fell from the rock I was under onto my nose. I stretched quietly, and then remember why I was under that rock in the first place. Cliffguard.
I could feel my heart pump remorsefully in my chest when I remembered the scene. How he collapsed on top of himself, wheezing, looking absolutely defeated. The droopiness of his eyes, the way he walked aimlessly around the stable… my stomach cringed.
I sat under that rock almost all day. I had no idea what time it was, or how much time was passing, but it didn't matter. Every time I shifted, I felt the uncomfortable squishiness of my rain-soaked clothing, but that wasn't enough to make me go back home. So I sat, itching to change my clothes, but I tried to ignore the feeling.
I fell asleep shortly afterwards. Something about the dreary day made me feel so exhausted and void of any energy. My eyes just seemed to droop without my consent, just like Cliffguard's had. I woke up the next morning to more rain, but it was a little bit lighter.
I coughed hoarsely, feeling sickness take over my body. But I ignored it. The only thing I felt like doing was sitting and sleeping. Just as I began to close my eyes again, I heard a melodic voice call over the drizzling rain,
"You might want this back."
I opened my eyes to see Popuri, holding my hat in her pale hands as the rain beat down on her. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn't seeing a mirage, but it was her. She approached me slowly, as if I was a wild animal or something.
I grabbed the hat out of her hands and pulled it onto my head. It was sopping wet, but I didn't care.
"How did you find me?" I asked, my voice cracking a tiny bit. As she got closer, I saw that her eyes were red and puffy. I felt a twinge in my chest.
"Well, your hat was in the river… and I figured you must be somewhere around here. I'm familiar with Moon Mountain, it's one of my favorite places to go." She replied. Timidly, she held out a delicate hand to help me up. I stared at it for a few moments, and then took it. I felt wobbly on my legs, but the feeling lessened as we made our way off the mountain. The rain seemed to stop once we reached the bottom.
"You know, everyone is worried sick about you." She said quietly. I furrowed my brow, clearly surprised.
"Yeah. Your dad, especially, he had everyone go on a hunt for you."
I scratched the back of my soaking head. That was not something I would have expected. As we advanced the farm, I felt the familiar feeling of my lungs being crushed. But I took in one deep breath and entered, trying my best to keep my cool. As I entered, though, I noticed something.
Flowers. Hundreds of them. Growing on the outskirts of the fence in which Popuri always leaned on. I stopped walking and turned to her, giving her a quizzical look. She blushed profusely.
"I… well, I missed you. And Ann said she's seen you marveling at flowers before and… ah. I'm sorry; I shouldn't have planted them at all. I'll just get my mom's sickle, and-"
"No," I said, almost harshly, "…Don't take them down."
Her hurt expression changed to a gleeful one. She held out her arms and wrapped them around me. Her rather short frame caused her head to rest on my chest. I felt a jolt when she touched me, but it wasn't a bad one. Timidly, I wrapped my arms around her and rested my chin on her head.
She pulled back for a moment, before turning red once more.
"Are you sure you like them? You can tell m-"
I silenced her with a kiss. I felt her smile on my lips as she reacted, wrapping her arms around my waist once more. Pulling back, I could feel my own face turn maroon to match hers.
"I love them." I replied.
A/N: The end! I hoped you like it. I always thought that Popuri and Gray were so cute. Review and let me know what you thought!