Chapter One: Roundabout
Well, here's a first. It's not fantasy. It's not sci-fi. It's not supernatural in the slightest, in fact. Huh.
So this is a bit of an experiment on my part, because I felt that the supernatural component was beginning to become a crutch for me, something to fall back on when I needed a quick solution, and I wanted a challenge. Hence the purely mundane tale here, but the challenge is keeping it as lively and interesting as my standard metaphysical regimen. Here's hoping I'm up to it…
Oh, and FYI, for the most part it'll be in first person POV between Corel and Ethan, but occasionally it'll be omniscient for the sake of delivery and order. You'll see what I mean.
"You're a big girl, Corel," they used to tell me. "Go and play outside." Strange words from parents to a six-year-old, I know, but they had my brother to deal with and I rarely caused them a moment's worry. "You're old enough, go entertain yourself."
So I did. Day after day, I went outside and amused myself in the backyard. My favorite place was under the big oak tree that marked the beginning of the Forest. It wasn't really a forest, just an acre or two of trees to divide property, but I didn't know that. Like any self-respecting, fairytale-devouring youngster, I knew that Forests meant Trouble, like being turned into a frog or eaten by a goat or the like. Trouble was to be watched enviously from a distance.
Thus, since I wouldn't come to Trouble, Trouble came to me in the form of a bright-eyed face peering at me from the depths of a bush on the edge of the Forest one sunny summer day.
I can't remember him very well now. He was my age, with fuzzy brown hair, dancing green eyes, and the disposition of a bouncy-ball: always springing from one heroic adventure to the next. Less than a minute after I first saw him, we were friends and I'd been persuaded to play Robin Hood in the forest.
I found later that rather than witches with powers of transformation, the Forest was full of secrets and legends that we could pluck from the air like fleeting, succulent fruit. There was even a Royal Palace, which was really a mansion my new friend resided in, on the other side of the trees, and a dirt path that wove its way between my home and his. From that day on, we lurked menacingly in the dungeons of his basement, became pirate captains and sailed the Seven Seas of the pool, explored the treacherous Brazilian jungle between our houses, and roamed the Savannah of his lawn, occasionally hunting down the unfortunate gardener we'd chosen. Looking back on that, I realize that we were only enacting Natural Selection, because we usually pounced on the oldest, slowest ones we found.
My parents never knew; after they turned me loose outside, I ran to the oak tree and waited until he came, armed with another expedition. As long as I returned home before dark, all was well and good and they didn't bother with where I was. We never climbed the oak tree, its branches out of both of our reaches, but sometimes we planned our feat of the day in its shade or used it as our headquarters. Summer days and nights passed; they were arguably the best of my life.
Then one day he wasn't at the tree. I waited and waited, then walked through the Forest to his house. The lights of the Royal Palace had gone out; the Seven Seas had been drained and there were no more gardening prey to be found. The grounds were totally empty.
When I went home and complained, my mother didn't believe he was real. For that matter, neither did my father. My brother laughed and called me a long, complicated word I didn't understand.
The more I told people about my friend, the more I heard that word, and in time I came to know what it meant. 'Schizophrenic' meant nobody believed me. It meant they thought I was wrong and that he never had existed. The more I argued, the more I heard that word, and all through elementary school and into middle school they called me 'Schizo'.
Eventually I learned not to talk about him. In fact, I learned not to talk much at all. The other students forgot, for the most part, though occasionally the whisper of 'Schizo' sounded in the halls, followed by giggles and a suppressed flinch on my part. When it got worse, I learned to talk, but only to fight back, calling them names and spitting out things I knew would hurt them. They realized I wasn't easy prey anymore and backed off; silence returned again.
Then I made friends with a girl my opposite. Where I'd learned to hold my tongue, she'd learned to wield hers with deadly accuracy, little to no prejudice, and a casualty that stunned me. More often than not it got her in trouble, but she could usually work her way out.
Before I knew it, ten years had passed since I'd met that boy. The Forest had lost its magic, but the oak tree hadn't grown fast enough to escape me, and now it was the Thinking Tree, my refuge when I wanted to get away. It would have taken a very determined fire department to get this particular kitty down when I was in one of my moods. Likewise, I had changed: my curly, dark brown hair had grown longer, so for the most part I kept it back in a ponytail; my eyes had shifted from bright blue to a stranger tone—the only way to describe it was the color of a northern sea, not gray nor green nor blue but caught between all three. Where my younger self had been adorned in anything from overalls to a swimsuit and fern fronds, I now opted for jeans, wider the better, and my big coat, with whatever I felt like for a shirt. I wasn't entirely indistinguishable from the pictures of my younger years, but there were differences.
There are always differences.
This much is true, though: I never expected the fairytales to come back to life when life was just beginning to come back to me.
The pre-dawn morning was dark and fresh, soaking with the sense that the world was about to spring into full swing once again. Once a dull purple, the sky had shifted to a clean, crisp deep blue, with a lighter edge building on the horizon. Birds were stirring, fluffing out their feathers to shake off any droplets the night had left and blinking eyes that were clearing free of dreams. Some glanced at one of two houses, and at the two lights that had gone on simultaneously.
In one house, a girl stopped gazing out the window and rolled over, delivering a surly cuff to the alarm clock singing its rowdy tunes. Her knees wobbled, then reluctantly held once she had made her way to the pile of clothes that may or may have not been clean and begun to rummage through them. Not a soul in the house was awake; she went to bed after all of them and woke up before all of them as well. They usually didn't notice.
In the other house, a boy glowered balefully at the alarm clock before switching it off and staggering out of bed. His father insisted that rising early not only built character but improved one's performance throughout the day; he insisted that rising early was an abomination to the Holy Institution of Sleep, and if humans were meant to wake up before sunrise they would have been born with alarm clocks in their foreheads. This meant nothing to his sire, though, and should his son not be alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic at a suitably ungodly hour the housekeeper had orders to pour ice water down his back until sleep was no longer an option. Thus it was that the ill-fated boy managed to stumble over to the closet, where his shirts and pants were filed away, and survey the options before him.
The girl stepped out of the shower about ten minutes later, noting small noises that said her cat was awake and the only other conscious thing in the residence. She didn't mind. It was much easier to get out and off to school when the rest of her family wasn't running amok and getting in her way as frequently as possible. Ren would be by in half an hour and they'd carpool to school—she wasn't allowed to touch her brother's car, and her parents didn't leave the house until after school had started. Chase would probably be up to his elbows in circuitry when they got there; her boyfriend had an affinity for electronics and a silicon thumb where they were concerned.
The boy sat down for breakfast and contemplated upon its mediocrity. Surely they could afford something better than Count Chocula; the marshmallows and the cereal puffs themselves were practically warring in the bowl before him, and from the looks of it, the puffs had met their Waterloo. Nonetheless, pondering the epic cereal battle before him didn't change the fact that it was the only breakfast food he'd scrounged up, short of something he'd actually have to cook himself. Not only did he have no great love for cooking, but it seemed to have no great love for him; more often than not, what was left in the pan after one of his cooking escapades required a Hazmat team for its disposal. This would have not bidden well for the later years of his life when he might actually have to cook for himself, but he was rather fond of microwave meals and thus was prepared for life on his own already. Except he wasn't sure about driving. He'd practiced the entire day before and his mother had arranged for him to take the test for his license on the upcoming weekend, but it took time to adjust to driving on the other side of the road.
The girl spat out a mouthful of water and toothpaste, wiping her mouth with a tissue and chucking it carelessly towards the trashcan. It didn't matter if it actually landed in the receptacle or not; she was in a hurry. The lights went out in the bathroom as she flicked the switch and swung the strap of her bag over one shoulder, then strode to the door. No one in the house was even awake yet, so she didn't bother to call out a farewell, instead slipping out into the clear morning. Her friend waited in the driveway, tapping her fingers impatiently on the side of the door, her car rumbling arthritically and occasionally letting out a gasp of black, vile-looking exhaust. She quickly got in, letting a distracted "Morning" pass her lips as she wrestled with the seatbelt. Moments later, the battered little car rolled out of the driveway and headed off to school.
The boy pulled on a jacket and hefted his backpack over his shoulders, then took a deep breath and steeled himself. It was all new. This would be one of the more interesting days of his life, particularly if certain suspicions of his were true…
His mother kissed him on the cheek, to his resigned annoyance, and his father clapped him on the back and pushed him out the door.
I climbed out of Ren's rusty pot of a car, gingerly closing the door behind me. The last time it had fallen off, it'd been a rainy day and I'd had a cold and damp ride home with the door lashed to the roof. "You need a new car."
"You're absolutely right," Ren agreed. "Tell you what—dig up twenty grand for me, and I'll get on it right away."
"I was just saying." She was usually like that, so I wasn't too offended.
"So was I, Goody Dawes, so was I." She linked arms with me and led us through the parking lot, a few cars rolling in as we left. Before us loomed the school, all brick and concrete and time-honored tradition. We passed through its doors with little reverence and split—she headed for the library, I for the tech lab, where I found Chase buried in the remains of a radio and muttering to himself like a good little mad scientist. "Hey."
He looked up, nodded with a smile, and scowled at the radio's innards. "Morning, Cori." Cori was his pet name for me; while I wasn't overly fond of it, I didn't mind too much. "Sorry, Hal's paying me double if I can get this fixed by tonight."
"It's fine." The mess of wiring and circuitry made no sense to me.
"You know, the way things are going, I'm going to need a microscope to repair stuff someday soon," he said distractedly. "Stuff like this, sound stuff, microphones and whatnot, it's getting smaller by the day. Crazy."
"Yeah." I nodded vaguely. "I'm going to go check in with Ren."
"Okay." He didn't seem to notice my exit, but he loved electronics like none other. I'd see him later in the day, when he wasn't so occupied.
On my way down to the library, I ran into Lillian Justen, the head of the drama department, and she stopped me. "Corel, I just put audition packets in the classroom. Be sure to pick one up, all right?"
I nodded. "All right." I'd been studying theatre for years now; the arts in general had always fascinated me, while math and science were my weaknesses. As an actor, I was flexible enough, but I knew I had a long way to go before I was as good as I wanted to be.
The second encounter en route to the library wasn't nearly so pleasant. The acting studies came in handy, keeping my face blank as I walked past a group of the so-called 'popular' boys. There wasn't even a slight change of expression to acknowledge the bawdy comments made in my direction; they knew I could hear them, and I knew that if I substantiated that, they'd only get worse. It wasn't anything new—Ren never let them get away with pushing her around, and being her best friend, I was also on the receiving end of the fallout. I didn't mind all that much, because they were idiots and I could have cared less about their opinion of me.
Ren was up to her ears in some book when I found her, so I situated myself at a desk nearby and started sketching. Lately, I'd been wondering if I'd made up that little boy of yesteryear, and considering what that time in my life had been like, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch. Still, something inside me insisted that I had been right, that he was real, and part of the way to prove it to myself was to see if I could draw him.
When I shifted, the cover of my sketchbook ripped a little further from its binding, and I glared silently, then closed my eyes. If I asked for money to buy a new book, my parents would give me a guilt trip about spending too much money. It was funny how they always had enough money for Jason and his so-called "gas money." I couldn't be the only one that noticed that my brother asked for about twice as much money for gas as it would take for him to get wherever he needed to. I couldn't have been the only one to notice the accumulation of empty Budweiser cans in his room, either—or maybe I was. My parents tended to have a rare form of tunnel vision when it came to him.
Time passed as I put down lines, erased them, frowned at the page, and put down another line. Before I knew it, Ren was tapping her fingers on my sketchbook. It was a habit of hers: tapping her fingers whenever she got impatient. I glanced up.
"Time to shuffle off to training for incorporation into capitalist America," she said dryly. In Ren-language, it meant that we needed to get to class soon.
"Right." I shut my sketchbook and stuffed it in my messenger bag, tucked the pencil behind my ear, and got to my feet. It was a Wednesday, so I had English first. "I'll see you at lunch." We parted ways and I headed off, winding through the hall and evading the human cholesterol of brainless masses standing around, talking and never noticing that they were, in effect, preventing the rest of the working school from transiting the corridors. Navigating between these clots of the high school "elite" was an art I had honed.
I managed to escape the thirty-seconds-to-get-to-class stampede, ducking into class and sliding into my desk before chaos broke loose beyond the doorways. About half the class was here; the other half would be arriving soon enough.
I had just pulled out my copy of The Crucible when a voice caught my attention. It wasn't because it was male, and it wasn't because of the pleasantly professional tone: there was a polished, precise British dialect accompanying it, which was not the standard for our very American little high school. Glancing up, I saw a boy in discussion with the teacher.
His backpack is new, and it looks mostly empty, I noted. For several years, I'd made it a habit to pick up the little details that gave people away. Nice shirt—definitely ironed, and not by his mother. Expensive belt and shoes. Same hand with the ironing did the khakis, I think…It all looks new, and not just first-day-of-school new. So he's got money, and either a rare sense of decorum or parents that want him to succeed.
Either he's a British good boy or a British bad boy—either way, I'd put money on freshmen girls swooning in his wake. If he's mildly attractive, sophomores too; decent-looking to actually attractive, the female upperclassmen are definitely going to be falling all over themselves for his jacket lint. That won't sit well with the guys here—he'd better do some fancy footwork and get himself well-situated fast, or he's definitely dumpster fodder. It was going to be interesting to see how all this played out, that at least was certain.
People were still sneaking in, and he was still in deep conversation with my English teacher, Mrs. Swanson. Moreover, it looked like it was going to take a while.
In fact, judging by the look on her face, there was definitely going to be a lot of swooning in the halls. I wondered idly if any catfights would break out in the halls; that would be interesting to see. Ren would be interested in all this as well. She was safe—she never went out with anyone—and I was safe, being quite firmly attached to Chase, so for us the havoc could be a spectator sport.
Smiling a little to myself, I pulled out my sketchbook and flipped to a clean page, then started doodling my old friend's face again. I definitely had time before we started class. Five minutes passed before Mrs. Swanson finished with him—or more accurately, he finished with Mrs. Swanson—and I heard her chair scrape backwards. At the same time, a shadow fell across my desk, and I sat up, startled. The new boy was looking at the sketch with something akin to alarm in his eyes, and then his gaze shifted to me—
—and I froze.
It was him. Aged ten years, the lines of his face crisper, but it was him. Those bright green eyes had not changed.
Then he was gone, striding down the row of desks. I blinked, trying to rationalize what had just happened and failing. My mind was still overwhelmed just trying to wrap itself around the notion that he really was real; the fact that he was back again was way beyond my comprehension at the moment.
Part of my mind shook itself free of the paralysis that had settled over it, and said slowly, My first friend…is here. He's back. He's here.
I had to talk to him. I had to. What if he wasn't the same boy? What if he'd changed drastically? But he couldn't have—he had to be the same boy, my fellow adventurer had to be there, had to be him—
"Alright, class, how many people read the rest of Act II last night like I asked?" Mrs. Swanson asked, slapping me back into reality—to some extent. I stared at her dumbly, mind still comatose. "Corel? Did you read?"
All my backed-up mind could come up with was, "Goody Proctor." There was muffled laughter behind me; I pulled myself together. "Read…yes. Yes, I read."
"But did you sleep at all?" she asked dryly. "Now, who wants to summarize what happened…"
Mrs. Swanson was a hardass on talking in class—and besides, I didn't trust my mind to carry me through a conversation quite yet—so I'd have to wait to ask him anything. This is going to be the longest class period of my life.
By the time Act II had been thoroughly dissected and the class was over, I was dying. I'd already stuffed my books into my bag well before the bell rang, and if I were any more nervous it wouldn't surprise me if I vomited butterflies all over my desk. Luckily, when the noisy clang filled the air, no butterflies actually were regurgitated as I shot to my feet.
There he was. The longer I looked at him, the clearer it became that he was the one. Same hair, only longer; same long lashes, same dancing eyes; the nose had only become a little stronger; it absolutely had to be him.
Heart pounding wildly, I walked up to the boy as he was dropping his new copy of The Crucible into his backpack. "Um…excuse me?"
He looked up. "Yes?"
The British dialect was troubling, but I brushed it off. "I—I was wondering—"
"Wait, you're…" I held my breath as he paused thoughtfully, ignoring the fact that he'd cut me off. "…That's right! Goody Proctor!"
I deflated a little, but said unsteadily, "Yes… but I was wondering—you're new—"
"Obviously," he snorted, swinging his backpack on.
This was looking worse by the second. "—but I—you look kind of familiar, so—did you ever live here?"
He hesitated, looking at me strangely. There's still hope, I thought as my mind started numbing out for the second time that morning. There's still hope.
"What are you, insane?" He laughed derisively, brushing past me. "If the accent didn't give it away, I'm sort of British. Sorry, but I'm going to be late for class."
"But—are you sure?" I asked, pivoting to follow him. "I could have sworn—not—ten years ago?"
"Look, lady." He stopped and glared at me. "I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday, much less who I ran into when I was seven. And even if I did, I sincerely doubt you would be ringing any bells. Now go chase some other bloke before I get a tardy my first day."
As I watched, he walked out, leaving me feeling betrayed for a second time.
Yeah, so much for the Macbeth essay I was supposed to write. Bloody monkeys. Oh well, it could be worse—I could be one of my main characters and die seven hundred times during the course of the story. Honestly, no notion when the second chapter will be up, so bear with me. I just started up writing again.