History as We Know it

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Chapter 3: Audrey Harlow

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"I'm not hungry."

"You should eat anyway."

Audrey Harlow was my neighbor, and I was mostly terrified of her up until the first time I actually talked to her. She was a fairly short girl with a character much bigger, the type of girl that scared most boys away before any of them could even think about making a pass at her despite having an uncommonly pretty face.

From what I had discovered during my year of living next to her, she was perpetually angry.

I arrived in front of my house at the exact same time that she chose to burst out of hers, throwing the door open and stomping down the steps. This was a fairly regular occurrence, so I spared her a short glance with the full intention of ignoring her anger – however, something caught me off guard.

Her eyes were glassy with tears.

In the year since my family moved into 1117 Valletta Drive, I had not once seen Audrey cry. I'd seen her furious, stormy, calm, irritated, even content a few times, but I'd never seen her sad. I figured her version of sad was just more anger.

I paused in my driveway, watching transfixed as Audrey slid down into a fetal position and buried her face in her knees. She looked smaller than ever like that. A billion ideas flew through my head – should I say something to her? Walk over and offer her a hug? Maybe I could send Grace because she was a girl and would more likely understand the situation?

In the end I did nothing.

0o0o0o

"Doesn't sound that strange," Grace dismissed me. "It sounds more like he was just trying to cheer you up. If anything, you're the one that sounds like a weirdo in that story."

"Hey," I defended weakly, playing with my fingers absentmindedly. "I–"

"Not to mention rude," Grace insisted, raising an eyebrow. "I mean this total stranger tries to comfort you, just for the sake of being kind, and you tell him to fu–"

"Alright, alright," I waved her off tiredly. She did have a point, after all. "So I was a little snappy. It felt like he was looking down on me, that's all. You wouldn't have liked it either if you'd had the day I'd had."

"Well I think tomorrow you should apologize. You said there was construction going on in the park?"

I glanced down at my feet. I considered telling Grace about Audrey, but in the end, I decided against it. For some reason it felt like I'd already intruded upon something I never should have seen – talking about it would only make me feel guilty. It wasn't my place to outline Audrey Harlow's weaknesses to others, even if those others were my harmless little sister.

"Uh, yeah. I guess you're right… I'll apologize."

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Audrey was in my English class, and from what I'd gained, she was terrible at English. I'd overheard the teacher telling her last week that she was failing with forty-seven percent, and if she'd make slightly more of an effort to actually hand more assignments in, her grade would improve. She'd looked properly bored during the entire discussion before finally replying,

"I hate English."

Luckily for her, our English teacher Mrs. Robinson did not share her fiery personality and merely sighed at the announcement. "So am I to understand that you're perfectly content with your grade? Audrey, you're getting ninety-five in physics. You're not stupid."

Audrey stubbornly looked away, refusing to answer the woman. Mrs. Robinson gazed at her for a few more seconds before eventually straightening and turning around. "Let me know if you change your mind about English."

At that moment, I'd wished I was a little more social – then I might have thought to approach her, offer a few words about how I wasn't a huge fan of English either and that ninety-five in physics is a sensational mark to be proud of despite her forty-seven in this class. But I wasn't, so I didn't, and instead worked on the semester-long poetry project that I was positive she hadn't started yet.

After school, it was the detour home again. As I came up toward the bridge, I thought long and hard about it. It was a beautiful walk, it really was. The path I tread along was the same kind of cobblestone you noted in pictures of Europe, grown in between the rocks with moss and the occasional wildflower. The trees in the park didn't stretch particularly high, but they were in full bloom, creating massive, green, umbrella-like domes that made the park feel almost as though it were indoors. On either side of the paths stretched plenty of space for sitting and stretching.

Absent-mindedly my imagination began to wander as I pictured the forest closing in on itself, the lush green underbrush growing into thick walls surrounding the area. Wolves and wildcats circled the trees, and I could almost see the golden glow of their eyes from the shadows between where the light bled through the patches in the branches. I liked the city, but so often I found myself painfully bored, dreaming about places beyond metropolitan first-world nations.

My family hadn't done a lot of travelling in the past. I used to try and seek out the parts of the city that were less populated with my sister for exploration purposes, but eventually my parents found out and banned Grace from tagging along, and it wasn't any fun to do alone.

When I got to the bridge, the wild image in my mind shattered, bringing me fully back to reality as my eyes honed in on the image of the curly-haired boy from yesterday.

I raised my eyebrows as I approached. He was lying splayed on his stomach across the flat railing, his arms and legs dangling on either side. I might have believed he was sleeping had he not sat up and slid into a standing position upon spotting me.

"Feeling better at all?" he asked, and I stopped, uncomfortably rubbing the back of my neck.

"Yeah," I admitted. "A bit. You were right. She is… brainless."

Audrey briefly flashed to the forefront of my mind, with her grade of ninety-five in physics.

"And I doubt she was beautiful, like you said."

I glanced up at him, perplexed. "Of course she is–"

"No," he cut me off, and rather than becoming annoyed, my curiosity just peaked. Had he seen Amy before? Everyone in a hundred-foot radius was aware of how beautiful she was. "There's no beauty in brainlessness. She might have been pretty – probably smoking hot, actually, if you were so broken up over being rejected by her – but you have to be careful with the word beautiful."

The way he spoke had me intrigued against my will. I wanted to write him off as strange, and maybe even a little creepy, but in the end, I found myself liking what he said. "So what would you classify as beautiful?"

He had an almost comically expressive face, made obvious by the way all his features changed in order to display his contemplation. He even reached up to his face, rubbing his fingers over his mouth as he thought about it. After a moment he brightened, and I could picture the light bulb appearing above his head like I could those bright, predatory eyes from earlier.

"I'll show you. Come on, follow me."

Yesterday I would have flatly told him no and continued home. And any other day with any other person I would have probably labeled the prompt as suspicious and ignored it. But his expressiveness had given him an honest quality in my mind, so instead of telling him off, I followed. After all, he hadn't paused and waited for an answer. He'd just started walking.

He was taller than me, and he walked quite fast, so I was always at least a step behind him. While he'd been so talkative on the bridge, he now remained quiet, and I noted the way his eye color matched the moss growing in between the cobblestone like mine matched the roots of the oaks surrounding us, or the murkiness of the city water that flowed underneath the bridge. He blended right in with the natural setting – even more so when we left the cobblestone path to cross into one of the more foresty parts of the park.

Eventually I broke the silence. "I've never been this far into the park before."

He glanced back at me, a small smile appearing on his face. He had looked so serious before that it had been as though he was concentrating too hard on taking in every aspect of his surroundings to keep up a conversation. One thing I noticed about him was that he never looked at me for long – instead his eyes were always wandering, darting around to look at new things as they entered his field of vision.

"Well, you probably only walk through here on your way to and from school, right?"

That reminded me of something. "… Yeah. How are you always on that bridge before me? What school do you go to?"

"I don't go to school," he replied.

I wasn't sure if this was because he'd graduated or because of a personal choice, and he didn't bother elaborating, so I dropped the issue. As we headed deeper into the trees, a new path appeared. It looked more like a game trail than anything else.

"Do you go through this way a lot?" I asked.

"I used to," he told me, "but not so much anymore. From this point onward, don't talk, okay?"

I nodded my understanding as the trail took a sharp turn into what seemed like a dead end. Rather than turning back, the curly-haired boy pushed through the foliage until we came out into the first real open space in ages – and that's when I spotted her.

Just across the small clearing there was a young woman who had set up a paint easel and a stool overlooking the same canal that eventually ran under our bridge. She was tall and willowy, draped over her canvas like her life depended on finishing it. Her shoes had been tossed off carelessly into the grass behind her.

And she was crying.

Even while she glided the blackened paintbrush up and down, there were tears spilled out of the corners of her eyes. It was the wordless sort of crying, with no shakes or sobs wracking her body to accompany the tears, but somehow more tragic to watch. As I continued to stare transfixed at the woman, the boy spoke up.

"Beautiful, isn't she?" he breathed. I nodded. On a completely objective scale I wasn't sure whether she could be labeled as traditionally attractive or not – her nose was long and somewhat pointy, and her short brown hair was mussed up in the back as though she'd missed it with her comb much more than once, but…

The scene itself was absolutely breathtaking. I didn't have the strength to look away.

"I've seen her three times," the boy explained. "I'm not positive, but I think she comes here every day. She's always painting the same picture."

"And she still hasn't finished it?" I asked, my eyes roaming over the full brushstrokes and color layering.

"Oh, no, she has," he said. "Each time she sits here until she finishes it. And then the next time, she paints it all over again."

"Always that woman?"

"Yes."

The painting was one that unmistakably projected the artist's sadness. It was a portrait of a woman with long, dark, wispy hair and exaggeratedly long, skinny features. Her eyes were drooping ovals of pastel blue, framed by wings of ashy eyelashes, and while her thin red lips were stretched upward in a Mona Lisa smile, she looked as though she was somehow saying goodbye.

"Do you know who she is?" I asked softly.

"The woman in the painting? No clue. I don't know anything about her or the painter. Truth be told, I would love to have approached her a long time ago, but every time I see her I feel like I'm just going to frighten her off."

"Like a doe," I blurted out, and then immediately felt my face burn. It was an odd metaphor to make aloud. My companion just murmured his agreement, however.

"She forgot her shoes here once," he told me, tipping his head to the side with that wide-eyed, curious look still present on his face. That was the last thing he said on the matter before turning to leave.

"Come on. It doesn't feel right, watching her for too long."

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I guess what I realized after visiting that tragic painting lady was how much it got me feeling – and, as a result, how little I felt on a day-to-day basis. For some reason, I voiced these thoughts out loud.

"You're afraid to get involved with anything outside your own realm of emotion?" he piped up, dark brows furrowing together as he mulled it about. I shook my head – not because he was wrong, but because of how strange that concept seemed to be to him. After all, he had told me that he'd been to see the painting lady three times, and each time she was crying. There was nothing unexpected when he took me to see her with him this time.

And yet, when I'd glanced over at him, I'd noticed even his own eyes had grown glossy.

"Kind of," I admitted, reaching into my pocket and extracting a Twix bar. He eyed it hungrily, so I passed half off to him before biting into it gratefully. "I had this friend, right? His name was Johnny–"

"Wait," he cut me off loudly, "you had this friend? You guys aren't friends anymore?"

"Well, not really."

"Why?"

"Would you let me finish?" I snapped.

"Alright, alright…"

"So he…" I chewed. "–Has this alcoholic mother who really makes life unpleasant for him. His dad's out of the picture. But now he's gone."

"He's dead?" he gasped.

"No! He ran away from home. And my sister Grace, she suggested to me that maybe I should go looking for him. The thing is… I don't want to. Even though he's my friend, even though I know that's what friends are supposed to do – look for the other when one runs away from home – I just don't feel it."

"So what you're saying," the boy articulated through a mouthful, "is that you were never really emotionally invested? Even though this guy had an awful home life and deserved all your feels?"

"… To put it simply," I admitted, my shoulders sagging a little at his phrasing. "It's just – I mean he was pretty much my only friend!"

"Huh," he eventually said, looking stumped. "You're weird."

I stared at him.

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Eventually I realized that I'd never asked for his name.

For some reason he looked pensive before answering, like he had to think really hard in order to remember. When he did say it, it sounded almost more like he was guessing.

"Oliver?"

"Oliver?" I repeated in the same tone. He frowned before nodding.

"Oliver. It's Oliver."

"Do you feel uncomfortable giving out your last name?" I asked seriously, my sarcasm invisible as usual. He was frowning again.

"Haven't thought of one yet?" I joked.

He didn't answer. I gave up.

"I'm Sam. Sam Dearborn."

Oliver brightened. "Cool name."

This inspired a laugh. "What are you talking about? Sam is the lamest name ever."

"Bob is the lamest name ever," he corrected me. "What would you rather be called?"

"My parents were going to name me Axel," I complained. This time, he was the one who laughed. "Can you believe that? I was going to be named Axel – after my grandfather Axel – and then at the very last minute my mom decides to go with Sam."

"Just Sam?" he inquired.

"Well… Samuel."

"See, that's better. Why don't you go by Samuel?"

"I don't know, maybe because it sounds dumb?"

"Doesn't sound any dumber than William or Robert."

"Those both sound dumb."

Oliver pressed his lips together. "You are being obtuse."

"I don't think anyone's… wait, no, my aunt called me obtuse once."

"Samuel."

"See, now you really sound like my aunt."

"Alright, how about this: when you are no longer unsatisfied with your life, you stop calling yourself Sam and you start calling yourself Samuel, okay?"

I couldn't actually remember telling him that I was unsatisfied with my life. But I agreed anyway.

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Authors note: Two days ago it was my birthday and I dropped the ball so hard that I forgot to even get a cake. I am such a failure.

I love you all even though none of you talk to me. Sorry for inconsistent chapter lengths.