Don't speak to Barnes the next day in school. Nor the day after. Nor the day after that. Several months go by where I avoid him and don't speak to him unless completely necessary. There were a few instances where courtesy demanded conversation, and Barnes was his usual, polite self during those awkward moments. He never apologized for his actions behind the Leary farm, but he did put a hand on my shoulder one day and reminded me that he didn't need to erase anything else unless I broke my promise to him. There was pity in his eyes when he said that. Pity for my sudden terror of him.
And I hated him for it.
Christmas comes and I get some books and the CD of an album from my favorite band. Abigail gets concert tickets for herself and her friends. The house smells like baking cookies and the hard candy that my grandma makes by hand on the kitchen stove. I smell sugar and cinnamon as soon as I come home each day, and end up baking cookies for Stephanie in Biology. Never did end up refining my list of potential friends, thanks to the drama with Barnes, so now having to start late in the year. She appreciates the cookies, but the teacher doesn't—the woman says that I have to bring cookies for everyone if I want to give my friends cookies in class.
Does she think that this is the third grade or something?
Bake cookies for everyone, just to spite her and prove that I can give cookies to anyone I [censored] well want. Gave two with extra chocolate chips to Stephanie and got a smile in return, gave a single cookie to everyone else and one that had somehow missed out on the chocolate chips altogether to the teacher. Saved Barnes for last and rather nervously put his cookie in front of him. There are extra because some people apparently don't like chocolate (heathens) and I plan to keep those for myself.
It's weird to watch Barnes eat. You'd expect more delicacy from an elf, but he licked the crumbs off his fingers like a little kid and snagged a second one out of the box before I could escape. Mischievous little smile playing around his mouth when he began his life of villainous cookie-theft. Third time I had seen him actually smile all year. It was weird.
Still don't trust him.
Weather turns colder than usual and temperature drops below zero during the daytime—odd for this place on the globe, everyone complains about it. You go outside for two minutes and suddenly can't feel your fingers or face. Frostbite weather, chilblain season. I think about Barnes camping out in the woods, without substantial shelter. He's not human, doesn't have much money, probably couldn't afford a motel room. Notice that he wears four coats to school and wonder what it would be like to sleep curled up on the ground in them. Couldn't be pleasant, not even remotely.
Check his fingers and nose for the waxy whiteness of frostbite when he comes to Biology. He knows that I'm watching him, but he doesn't say anything. Stupid, stoic Barnes. Wonder why he's here in the human world, doing human things like going to high school. Doesn't make the least amount of sense—then again, what can make sense, once you discover that elves and magic are real?
Try really, really hard not to care about whether or not he's doing alright. Eventually give up and let myself worry in earnest. Would deduct more points from mental scorecard, but now so far gone in the negatives that the exercise isn't going to matter even slightly.
I find myself gnawing more and more often on my lips. Scabbed and chapped now, the lower one split down the middle. It hurts to smile or laugh, makes my abused lips stretch too far and bleed. I overuse chapstick in a vain attempt to encourage them to heal. Fortunately, the sore on my face doesn't return.
Keep worrying about how Barnes is doing.
Finally give in and pack a basket full of blankets and food, attach basket to bicycle. Put on long underwear and two pairs of wool socks, with winter boots and turtleneck, sweatshirt, and jacket. Add gloves and a hat, and wrap a scarf around my face to expose as little skin as possible to the cold. Finally begin my long ride to the Leary farm. Not really so bad, actually, though still disgustingly cold. No wind, though it does start to snow. Pedaling keeps my extremities from freezing. Eventually reach the Leary farm after several hours of bike riding.
Don't bother with the house, just lean my bike against the side of the barn and carry the basket down along the little pathway through the woods. Icicles hang from the leafless branches, and snow blankets the ground and the upsides of the tree-boughs. Everything not covered by snow is edged with a border of lacy white hoarfrost. Entire landscape looks indecently beautiful, actually. Too bad that I have to endure sub zero temperatures to walk through a woodland that looks like it came straight off the front of a Christmas card.
Still snowing. Wish that I could be like a little kid again and catch flakes on my tongue, make snow angels like I did when I was seven. Too cold now, though, and I'd just feel silly. What if Barnes saw me? Weirdo elf would think I was crazy. Crazier.
When I find it, Barnes' campsite is deserted.
Barely any sign of his living in the area, really, except for patches of earth where the bare dirt shows through rather than a thin coating of stiff, dead yellow grass. For some reason (elfish nature magic?) the brambles and thorn-bushes and general entangling plants chose not to venture into the space where Barnes had made his camp. The snow does, though, and there's already a inch-thick layer of it on the ground that does a good job of concealing the ash-filled fire pit.
Putter around for a bit, hoping that Barnes will come along. Lean against a tree and watch the snow fall around me for awhile, waiting for him. I develop a layer of white on my shoulders and the top of my head. Eventually give up, though, and shake myself off to plod back down the path. All this effort for nothing, bah. And when I actually go out of my way to make sure that someone's doing alright...
Passing the pasture for a second time, I see Glenda Leary leading horses inside the barn. The sound of their hooves clopping down on the stony ground, the edges grating on pebbles and rocks, is the loudest noise in the area. Everything else is desolate and silent.
I pull my scarf down and away from my face so that the woman can see me. "You looking for him again?" she asks when she recognizes me, and I nod. She's as wary as before, and points to the barn. "He asked to sleep in the loft until the weather gets warmer," the Leary woman remarked, grabbing the bridle of a second horse to urge it to come toward her. She absentmindedly stroked the white blaze on its face. "You don't often get many of his kind that ask, rather than just take," she said very softly, so quietly that I almost didn't hear.
I watched her for a moment more, then walked over to the barn and went inside. Immediately felt warmer, maybe from the concentration of horses that rested in stalls, chewing hay or straw or whatever it was that horses eat. The air smelled of horse and dry, sweet grasses. Looked around and saw a stair leading upwards and took it, edging around the perimeter of the room in an effort to avoid the horses. Didn't really like them. Or trust them. Or even want to be around them, really.
Stairs creak under my weight as I walk up them, and I watch a mouse scamper along the dusty rafter a few inches above my head. This barn had been constructed in a time when people were smaller. The loft is dark and smells strongly of hay and undesired, dusty things shoved into corners for want of a better place to put them. There is a coating of loose, dry hay on the floor that rustles as I step on it.
I can barely see. There are chinks in the boards of the wall where light from outside shows through, but it isn't enough to really see much beyond the fact that the space I am standing in is large, with rectangular piles of baled hay piled up against the wall. It isn't as warm here as it was in the space below the loft where the horses were. The silence feels too strange, too watchful, to set me the slightest bit at ease. I feel as though I'm walking into a lion's den.
"Barnes?" I call uncertainly. "It's me, Sara..."
No answer. I wait for several long moments that seem to drag on for a couple of centuries. There is rustling in a pile of hay somewhere far to the left of me, but it may very well have been a farm cat that was roused from sleep by my voice. Considering the weather outside, I'd very well want to sleep somewhere warm and dry too, and I wouldn't want someone intruding on me.
I tried again: "I was worried about you..."
Still no answer, however. A board creaks somewhere to my right and my head swivels toward the noise, but the shadows of the loft are too deep for my eyes to pierce and decipher. I wish I had a flashlight. At the very least, it would make me feel a little better. This is playing out way too similarly to a horror movie. I take off my gloves and wipe my sweating palms on my pants, work spittle into the corners of my mouth that have suddenly gone dry.
"Um... so I, uh, I brought you some things that I thought you might like... Miss Leary said that you could be found here..." I take a nervous, shuffling step back towards the stairs, my snow-boots sounding obnoxiously loud as they scrape over the floor and drag loose bits of hay with them.
"I have known hunting hounds that were less tenacious than you," observes a dry, familiar voice that comes from a few feet to my left. A shrill, whimper/shriek of surprise works its way up my throat to the base of my tongue, and a few shreds of noise escape from between my teeth before I clench them tightly together.
"Barnes?" I ask. My voice trembles in a way that causes my pride to cringe in shame.
"Yes," comes the answer, and there is the click of something being switched on—a battery-powered Coleman lantern. The strong, steady white light shines out like a miniature beacon from its position in the elf's hand. I squint my eyes for several seconds against the onslaught of light, letting them adjust to the sudden brightness before opening them wide again.
Now that I can see him, I notice that his face looks annoyed, and his grey eyes take in the basket that I have tucked against my side. "What is that?" he asks, getting down to business. He looks as wary and distrustful of the basket as the Leary woman did of me.
"It's a basket. It has... stuff... in it," I said. This was all so horribly awkward.
"So I gathered," Barnes replied. He was still looking at the basket. "You have brought this gift for me?" There is hope in his voice, but also wariness.
I give him my own annoyed look, feeling embarrassment at my near-scream turn to irritation. "Do you really think that I'd bike eight miles in freezing weather just to bring soup and blankets to everyone I meet at school—yes, it's for you. Only you. What's your favorite, clam chowder or chicken?"
The confused look on the elf's face made the hours spent biking to this place into some time that was very well spent. I bite my lip hard in an effort not to smile. It works, though a scab breaks under my teeth and the raw flesh beneath it starts to bleed again. The mild sting of pain wipes away the last of my mirth.
"What kind of... clam chowder?" Barnes asks.
Another confused look was all I got in reply from the elf.
"Um... thick, creamy, smells like fishy stuff..." I trail off and watch as Barnes takes the thermos from the top of the basket and screws the cap off, drinking deep. He sighs once and I see his narrow shoulders slump down as the tension leaves them. He sits down on the nearest hay bale and wraps his hands around the thermos for the warmth that it emits, the lantern set down next to his foot.
"Thank you," he says, and there is honest gratitude in his voice. I nod and set the basket down, sitting down beside him and unwinding my scarf, unzipping my coat, tucking my gloves into my pockets.
"So... uh, can I ask you more questions than usual?" I asked, rubbing my hands together slowly. It was as close as I could come to not fidgeting.
Barnes didn't respond immediately, too busy with drinking the soup down, but I saw the corner of his mouth that was visible to me quirk upwards in a smile that was equal parts amused and exasperated. "Is your curiosity truly so insatiable?" he demanded once he had swallowed.
"Yes, yes it is."
Barnes held up three fingers, still smiling faintly.
Ooh, that was hard. Just three questions. Not nearly enough to sate my curiosity. But still, maybe I could cover the basics. "Okay, um... you once said that you didn't come from around here. So where you come from?" I asked.
"The realm of Túlin," Barnes answered easily, shifting himself on the hay bale so that he was facing me. From down below our feet, I heard a cat yowl in mingled pain and anger and a horse whinny in fright at the sudden noise. Someone had gotten their tail stepped on, most likely. Barnes' hair was neatly combed now, so that his pointed ears were exposed, and the left one twitched towards the noise. His grey gaze, however, didn't waver from my face in the slightest.
"How come I've never heard of... Túlin..." I asked, pausing and saying the last word slowly, trying to pronounce it correctly and savor the taste of it at the same time. "And how did you get here from it?" I finished.
Barnes reached down and grabbed the basket, digging through it until he found the second thermos and the plastic baggie filled with crackers that I'd also packed. The Ziploc bag was opened and placed between us, an invitation for me to eat as well if I so choose.
"That was two questions," Barnes pointed out.
"No, just one. The first part of it was linked to the second part by the word and, so it was all a complete sentence and thought. You did take English this semester, didn't you?"
The elf regarded me silently for a long time. Uncomfortable under his gaze, I plucked at a loose thread on the cuff of my jacket and worried at it, slowly teasing it into unraveling. At last, though, Barnes spoke and made my hands cease their fidgeting: "A clever trick of yours, then," he said, nodding his head solemnly once. "As for my homeland... Túlin is very near, but at the same time very far, from where we now sit. It is another place, different from yours..." he frowned thoughtfully for a moment, staring into the distance somewhere past my shoulder, before his gaze returned to me, "This year, at this school, I took a course in one of the sciences that was being taught. I had thought that it would be of little difficulty, for I am already grown to adulthood and knew much of the lore of my own people, but my assumption was greatly in error. Much of what I had been taught was contradicted, and not all things were addressed. Your people measure miles and kilometers and yards and feet, but you do not even seem aware of the distance that cannot be measured, the... the space between worlds..."
I stared at him, shocked and confused into dumbfounded silence, trying to wrap my mind around what the elf was saying. "I don't understand."
Barnes sighed, and I swore that I could see the tips of his long ears droop in disappointment at my failure to comprehend what he was trying to communicate, but then he tried again: "Imagine an... an alternate history. How did one of your child-rhymes go? 'For want of a nail'...?"
"...the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost—"
The elf waved me into silence and took a gulp of what was now chicken soup, the empty thermos that had once contained clam chowder placed back in the basket. "Aye, that song," he said. "But imagine a place where the nail was not lost, and the rider rode the horse, and the message was delivered, and the battle ended in victory rather than defeat. Your history would be utterly changed, would it not?" He didn't wait for me to reply, but instead drank another mouthful of soup and continued: "In one place, the nail was not lost. In another, it was. In that time when the nail is loose in the horseshoe but not yet lost, the thread that is what you call history unravels and becomes two separate strands, moving on from that single point in time as two separate events unfold—the nail remaining in the shoe, and it coming out and being lost in the grass. Each has different consequences from the other. Two separate threads of time, each different from the other, equating two separate worlds. But there are many such events in history where these things could have happened, and there are more than the two worlds I have described to you. Millions more. My homeland, Túlin, is within such a world."
I nodded slowly, finally beginning to understand what he was saying. It was a hard concept to grasp—worlds within worlds, undulating gently side by side, similar but not mirrored events unfolding out within each one as time went on, the list of differences slowly piling up until they were completely different from each other. I imagined them to be a little like soap bubbles, sometimes joining together to make bigger bubbles and sometimes dividing in twain to become smaller and more numerous.
"And the second part of my question?" I asked.
Barnes suddenly smiled: "Which has just become your third, rather than a part of the second," he pointed out slyly, grinning roguishly at me.
Realization sunk into my gut like a stone into a river. I groaned and put my head in my hands. "Argh! No, no, I meant—"
The elf laughed delightedly, peals of sound echoing among the rafters. "Here now!" he said, "I will answer, and tomorrow there will be another opportunity for your curiosity to be sated, if that is even possible. As for how I have come here from my own world to yours... there are connecting points between the worlds, places where a person can cross from one world to another if they have the knowing of how to do so. Traditionally, crossing points are in circles of stones, or rings of mushrooms, or places where it seems a little warmer or colder than the surrounding space—places where time does not flow as smoothly as elsewhere, or where the 'physics' that are so precious to your tutors do not always apply as easily. Some among my own people have the knowledge of traveling them, and this was taught to me so that I had the ability to come here."
"Why would you need to come here, though?" I asked.
Too late did I remember my limit of three questions, and Barnes only grinned at me again, silent mirth twinkling in his grey eyes. I glared at him sullenly. "You're an evil, malicious elf boy."
The grin grew wider in response. "If you took my teasing with more grace, then perhaps I would not find such joy in tormenting you," Barnes pointed out. The light of the Coleman lantern flashed on his teeth, and one of them gleamed in the light with a sheen that definitely didn't come from good brushing, regular flossing, and annual dentist trips. I stared at it.
"Your right canine is made of silver," I pointed out.
"So it is, and has been for many long years," Barnes agreed placidly, leaning back on the stack of hay bales that were behind us, cushioning his head on his arm.
"How many exactly?"
"Longer than the father of your father has lived—" Barnes broke off, chuckling softly to himself. "Ai, child, but there are few whom I have met that are so easy to converse with as you are—and I have been starved of company for nigh on half a year now, so perhaps your incessant badgering is wearing down my secrecy. If you leave now then you will arrive at your home before nightfall."
The compliment warmed me down to my core, and I took the dismissal with good grace. Standing up and zipping up my coat, wrapping my face back up so that it was safely hidden from the cold behind my scarf, pulling my gloves out of my pockets and putting them back on—it was all done quickly.
Barnes stood up as I moved to go back down the stairs of the loft. "I thank you for what you have brought me, both conversation and food," he said. There was a warmth in his grey eyes, a friendliness that I hadn't ever seen before.
"I'll probably come back, then," I replied. "To nag you some more."
"You will not find me objecting overmuch. Farewell, and safe travels."
I went home. Snow was still falling and the light was beginning to fail, the narrow break in the clouds on the western horizon letting beams of weak, ruddy sunlight fall across the snow. Snow itself was already a couple of inches deep. Still bitterly cold, especially hated trudging uphill on the roadside and pushing my bike alongside me—only good thing about that was that the action kept me warm. Began to seriously reconsider going to see Barnes again. Nothing was worth this much cold. Wind had picked up and was blowing snow into my eyes. Wind itself made my eyes water. Getting fed up with not being able to see.
Thought long and hard about giving in and calling Abigail to come and pick me up. Eventually, my pride made me decide against it. Finished my journey home just a little before the light failed entirely. Parents were worried sick about me being gone for so long and I was summarily grounded before I even got a foot through the doorway. Not allowed to visit friends for an entire month, since I can't seem to display sensible behavior when doing this on my own. Bummer. But hey, I get to see Barnes in school every weekday, so no biggie.
It's not like I have any other friends to see, anyway.
...Now that I'm thinking about it, not even really sure if Barnes is my friend or not. Never got around to putting his name on my list of potential friends and going about the process of getting him to see me as such. So no, guess Barnes isn't my friend. Just this guy that I talk to. He's nothing special.
Wish Abigail would stop looking at me speculatively and asking prying questions about why I didn't just ask her to take me over, seeing as she would have done so if I had asked. Don't like the things that she's implying. Older sister needs to get her head out of the gutter. She should know by now that I don't think that way about members of the opposite gender.
Also, discovered that fingertips had gotten a mild dose of frostbite. Apparently wearing gloves doesn't mean as much when you're outside for hours and keep your hands wrapped around bicycle handlebars without flexing them to keep the blood flowing. Nothing serious, but the tipping point for my mom. She was so worried about me getting hurt that she started crying. Ouch. Feeling serious guilt now. Have resolved to suck up my pride and ask Abigail for rides in the future. Really don't like making my mother cry. Makes me feel like an absolute jerk.
And all of this happened on the last day of Winter Break.