For those of you who have been waiting patiently, here is a special sneak-peek at Heir of Nostalgia- Absentia, volume 2 of the Heir Series. At the moment Heir 2 is scheduled for a September release, with volume 3 due sometime during Spring 2013.
I’m here to tell you, the world never started out this way. It became this way through a mistake, through my pride. I created the Hell we all have to live through. Because of me, the decisions I made, the world has been earmarked for suffering. I tore the veil between life and death. I caused the great shift, the new awakening. Because of me, the world will never be the same.
Phillip Valerian, age 15
Graffiti found scrawled on the side of the Majestic Theater, New York, circa 2010.
‘The King is dead!!
Long live the dead King!’
They say it’s often darkest before the dawn. I say, no matter what, night will always follow the brightest day.
December 24th has come and gone, and as they say, the world has moved on.
It’s one thing to lose your father, quite another to lose him twice in a lifetime. My heart was never cut out for such sorrow, such pain.
In the space of a single heartbeat, the city held its breath in mourning, the second time in less than a year. Not a sound to be heard, not another moment felt. Complete and utter silence, and in that silence the drifting, flailing fluffs of New England snow dominating the world, their lackadaisical drifting sounding like thunderous ovation.
Truth be told, my father drew his last breath no more than one hundred yards from where I now stand–am currently standing. In memoriam I remain motionless, knees locked, eyes closed, with my face turned towards the heavens.
Since that time, that terrible night last Christmas Eve when a rauen named Blair ended my father’s life, spring, summer and fall have passed. In the interim my world has darkened considerably.
“It is right,” she tells me. “Everything in its own time must die.”
Thing is, it was never my father’s time.
For a moment I imagine a world in which children form a circle, holding hands, faces tilted toward the sky, eyes wide and mouths open, all to catch the season’s first snowflakes on their tongues.
All I can taste and see are ashes.
Frozen in time they remain, hands and arms outstretched, inviting one and all to join them. I can sense their giddy laughter, innocence spilling out across the frozen fields before me like butterflies caught in a breeze. Cast in bronze, these children have no heart.
They are the lucky ones, for without a heart they cannot experience loss or pain.
A piece by Gary Lee Price aptly named the Circle of Peace.
How I wish I could play among them, join their swelling ranks, anything to turn back the clock, to press reset, to take back last December with all its awfulness.
What price would you pay to regain your innocence, recapture your childhood?
I would give anything.
“Are you ready?” she asked. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her reach out toward me. Her hand began to shake.
She never used to shake before.
“In a minute,” I snapped, drawing back. In that instant I hated everything about me, my temper, my endless grief, the loss of my father. Only then did I realize she too had suffered loss, maybe even a greater loss than I. She had lost a lover, friend and future husband.
In the next instant the sounds of the city crashed back in like a tidal wave, drowning out everything else, except for my grief, of course.
“I’m sorry…” I began. “I realize that it is past time, past the point of no return. Father’s been gone for more than a year now, and still not a word from him.”
Like the Park around us, we waited that entire time, silent and expectant for his return.
“And I realize that he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way than this,” I said. And the saddest part was, she knew that I was right. He would have wanted the two of us to move on, to move past.
Sometimes the dead do not always return back to life. Sometimes dead is just dead.
Without another word spoken, not even a simple good-bye, Kaelynn and I turned and left the park, the city, and our lives behind. Whatever we had waiting for us ahead no longer had to wait.
For Festus it was all about being outdoors and playing in the newly fallen snow. Well, that and possibly meeting the new next-door neighbors. After all, his mother always told him to be nice to people, to extend the hand of friendship… or something like that.
Startled he looked up, surprised to see his mother standing in his bedroom doorway. She was wearing baggy Mizzou sweatpants and one of his father’s old Toby Mac tees. She also must have been doing dishes for she had a wet dish towel thrown over her right shoulder.
As disheveled as she was, his mother was still a very beautiful woman, what most men would call a knock-out, blazing red hair piled high in waves over brilliant blue eyes, pronounced cheeks and full ruby-red lips.
To him though, she would always be just “mom.”
“Well, young man.” As she spoke her right hand wrung and re-wrung the dishtowel. “Are you going outside to play or not? Daylight’s awasting and dinner is just around the corner. You don’t have much time, you know.”
“Duhhhh.” Stopping in mid-sentence he pointed out what she already knew but refused to obey, namely the plastic sign plastered to the middle of his bedroom door, the one that said,
“NO GIRLS ALLOWED!”
Twelve going on thirteen, and in his mind he had all the time in the world to get ready. The world really was, as his mom would say, “his oyster.”
With a wry grin his mother took a quick step back, giving him his perceived space, laughter reflecting in her eyes. “Oh, excuse me,” she said.
“Just read it and weep,” he replied, yanking on his black and yellow snow boots. Once that was accomplished he fished out his favorite winter coat, grabbed his mittens, and grabbed up his old black cowboy hat.
“You really should wear a stocking cap,” his mother began.
“And look like a dork,” he replied. “I don’t think so.” After all, stocking caps were for sissies. Ten gallon cowboy hats on the other hand…
By the time he was done bundling up he looked more like an Eskimo, a wild-west version of an Eskimo, but an Eskimo nonetheless. On the inside, though, he felt like an overstuffed turkey being readied for Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, he was already beginning to sweat like a pig, and the bad news was he hadn’t even done anything yet.
He couldn’t wait to escape outside.
“How am I supposed to build a snowman,” he began, “when I can’t even touch my own nose?” With this he waved his left hand, then his right, both times attempting to swipe at his nose. He missed both times by more than a foot.
“I didn’t know that the ability to touch one’s nose was a skill required in building a snowman,” she said, having watched his dramatic display several times during her life.
And this was why he was ‘supposedly’ grouchy all the time. His parents never left him alone, not even for a minute, always pointing out the obvious, being sarcastic. At this rate he was probably going to grow up jaded, require hours of therapy. “Can I go now?” he asked.
In answer to his question she violated nearly all his posted rules by rushing in and grabbing him up, smothering his cheek in slobbery old kisses, telling him how much she loved and adored him. “Yes, my little man, you can go outside and play now.” Drawing back she began steering him out of his room and toward the back door, her mouth chattering the entire way. “Whatever you do, make sure you stay in the yard, and no all-day exploring. Dinner will be on the table soon. And don’t forget, you’ve still got plenty of homework left to do before tomorrow, and tomorrow’s a school day.”
“Yes, mom,” he said, shaking off her hand and rushing past. “Always the reminders,” he said.
Bouncing, he downed the stairs two at a time. In no time at all he was out the door and into the backyard. Before he could make a clean getaway though, his mother’s voice followed, “And make sure you introduce yourself to those nice neighbors’ kids if you see them. After all, they just moved in a couple of months ago.” And even fainter still, “Remember what it felt like to be the new guy on the block.”
Whatever else she was going to say was lost by the closing of the screen door. In no time at all, his footprints were all that were left to even show he existed.
There’s cold, and then there’s Montana-in-the-middle-of-January cold. Knuckle popping, lip cracking, so cold it freezes the snot inside your nose. Cold flumes of smoke clouding up your face with every exhale cold. At night it could drop well below -15 degrees and stay there for days. In ’54 it fell to a bitter -70 F at Rogers Pass, and that was just forty some odd miles north northwest of Helena, really close to where he currently lived.
And that’s pretty much cold by anybody’s standard.
However, it was nowhere near that cold on that day, or should we say, the evening that Festus left his house. As a rule it was staying in the low teens with single-digit wind chills. The sun had been out nearly all day, taking with it the majority of Old Man Winter, and yet, the chill remained. The sky overhead was a brilliant white, with bands of hammered grey hugging the northern tree line and forecasting the possibility of sudden intense snowfall to come.
Just one more reason for me to stay close to home, he supposed.
He was thirteen, however. And at thirteen the rules seldom seemed to apply. As a result, in no time, the all-too-familiar shapes and signs of his parent’s home were all but distant memories long since forgotten.
The ranch his parents lived on was huge, well over thirteen thousand acres, and half of that was cloaked in woods. Three large ponds and two brisk rolling streams completed the picture.
In other words it was all a young boy could ask for to explore. With all that space, he could explore like… forever.
At the moment everything around him, tree, grounds, barns, even his father’s car, was covered in snow, deep blankets of brilliant white weighing down pine trees, capping buildings, and turning skeletal bushes into sticks topped with marshmallow fluff.
Festus pretty much loved it all, the bite in the air, the way the cold smelled when he breathed it in, the way his cheeks went numb.
This, in his opinion, was living life to the fullest.
Their nearest neighbors, the ones his mom mentioned, lived almost directly to the west where the sun would set on a warm summer’s day. Their place was little more than a mile and a half drive from where he was, but less than half a mile as the crow flies.
His dad used to say that friendship was only a sleigh ride away, over the hills and through the woods…
Thirty minutes, red cheeks, and a numb nose later, he was on what his father liked to call the back forty.
Why forty? He had no clue since it was really more like the back couple hundred. All he really knew was that it seemed as big as the sky, as wide as the world as far as his imagination could take him. In reality the back couple hundred was mainly dense woods shot through with low rolling hills and two quickly moving crystal clear streams. It was the woods that drew him, however; something about the ‘oldness’ in them, the ancientness of them.
The sky overhead remained brilliant white, with bands of potential snowfall hovering just along the horizon. Nowhere could the sun’s light be seen, much less guessed at.
It was winter.
He loved being outside on a cold winter day, the way it made his eyes water, the smell in the air, the crackle and crunch of snow being trod underfoot as he made his way across a virgin landscape of blinding white and glistening ice. If the sun had been out as it had been that morning when his mom had him doing chores instead of being allowed to play outside, the glare alone would have dazzled and all but blinded him, and he would have been fine with that.
He chose to yell at the sky, no real reason other than to hear his own voice, feel the rush of blood burning through his limbs, and revel in the way his words seemed to echo back and forth in the woods. Ahead of him lay a whispery grey line of tree, lots of trees.
“Miles and miles of them,” I said.
He couldn’t help but laugh at his outburst, defiant to the end, no one around to tell him to “Hush it,” or “Quiet down there, young man.” He was currently headed toward what he liked to call the “Finger,” a name his parents hated, but in his mind’s eye, that’s what the clump of rocks with one outthrust splinter looked like, someone flipping the bird.
Protruding from the earth at a crazy angle, the Finger was a prominent outthrust rock, mainly grey, sometimes red, and occasionally sprinkled with gold. And it did look an awful lot like a ‘middle finger jutting up from the earth, and pointing towards the place of the setting sun.’
Funny what the mind can see.
As he approached the monumental piece of stone, he suddenly drew to a halt, not wanting to believe what his eyes were seeing. There, beneath the arch of weathered stone, for the entire world to see, was God’s finger touching earth. Seriously, it was like God had punched a hole in the heavens with his finger as a single beam of setting sun, brilliant and golden red, seemed to stab from the heavens, only to illuminate the very base of the rock formation, as well as the exposed struggling patch of green brilliance.
“Like spring done sprung in the middle of winter,” he declared.
He immediately fell to his knees beside the apparition, eyes wide, and mouth open, completely mesmerized by what he was seeing, lost in the moment. It was as if God had chosen him and him alone, to reveal the most beautiful place in the world to at this exact moment. In fact it was enough to bring tears to his eyes. It was like he had just discovered a little piece of a lost world that might have been, should have been, and hopefully would be again. In the sunlight’s presence, time pretty much came to a complete stand still. Minutes passed, and still the beam of sunshine remained, even as he drew his hand time and again through its brilliance–a thousand, thousand diamonds illuminating the back of his un-gloved hand.
“This must be what God felt like inventing the world,” he said to himself. “ A green garden set in the midst of an icy cold dark.”
“Beautiful isn’t it, the way fire plays with the ice.”
At the sound of her voice, he all but jumped out of his skin. The sky must have been similarly startled, for it just as quickly closed up as well, plunging the Finger into sudden darkness, taking away all but a fraction of the light in the world.
In the darkness that followed, flurries of snow as big as his thumb began to slowly drift from the sky, clinging to his coat sleeves, landing on his black cowboy hat and gloves.
Looking up, he was startled to see two slight figures standing before him, both pale-haired and blue-eyed. At first glance the boy and girl could easily be mistaken for twins, except the boy was older by more than a year at least, and the girl probably a little younger than he was, probably eleven or twelve.
Seems he’d found his new next-door neighbors after all.
Catching his breath he managed to stumble to his feet, his eyes sweeping across the girl’s elfin-like features and delicate lips. Now he knew what fine china looked like, a term his mom liked to use.
At the moment the girl’s face was framed under a pale blue stocking cap, drawn down tight, wisps of errant blond straying from underneath. She stood a good hand’s length shorter than her brother who looked just like her minus the delicate lips, of course. His eyes also seemed wiser somehow.
“Or shiftier,” Festus thought.
Both were dressed in navy-blue jeans, heavy, plaid overcoats, stocking caps and gloves. The girl’s stocking cap and gloves had dangles hanging from them, fluffy, white, pouf-balls.
Evidently his mother wasn’t the only one who liked to bundle her kid up ridiculously…
“What did you say?” he finally managed, attempting to pull his eyes from the girl’s features. Even though he disliked girls immensely, (first they had cooties, and second, they seemed to live for drama), he couldn’t help but find his eyes drawn once more to this one.
As a result, she smiled hugely.
With a crunch of snow the girl began to approach, older brother quick on her heels, his eyes locked on Festus’s face.
“I said,” the girl began, her voice sounding like an angel’s, “it’s beautiful what God can do with fire and ice. Even though they are complete opposites, they can work together to create beauty.”
Who in their right minds even talked like that, especially eleven and twelve year olds?
“What are you two even doing here?” he asked, striving to regain some sort of balance in his head. “You do realize you’re trespassing on private property.”
Like he’d just made a funny, the girl laughed, biting the back of her glove, her eyes crinkling up along with her smile. “You mean your parents’ land?”
At her words he felt himself blush, all the way down to the tips of his feet. “Are you lost then?” he asked, more embarrassed than ever. Why he asked them that he had no clue. Being kids they were obviously out and about like him.
He really hated the way she made him feel on the inside, all ‘jittery-like.’
“We’re not lost,” This came from the older brother, whose voice was already gravely. He was either the same age as Festus, thirteen going on fourteen, or maybe a year older. In that moment the boy’s blue eyes grew defiant. Thrusting his shoulders back, “We’re out exploring,” he said, almost daring Festus to say otherwise, “the same as you are.”
The girl immediately bit the back of her glove again.
“My home is back that way,” he said, jabbing, over his left shoulder, “which would put your all’s house that way.” He jabbed at the tree line behind them.
In that moment he was all too aware of how lame what he had just said sounded. He also noticed that the snowfall around them had picked up speed. Everywhere he looked it was falling white. That’s when it hit him, “Why hadn’t he heard them approach?” when every footstep he took produced all kinds of crunching and crashing and cracking.
He was about to ask them this when the young girl approached him again, stopping just this side of the “Finger,” close enough that the smoke from her voice mingled with his.
“I’m Ash,” she said, giving a little curtsy. “And this is my brother Elijah, but everyone calls him Eli.”
The entire time she spoke he couldn’t seem to pry his eyes from hers. Even the way her dimples appeared and disappeared as she spoke was enough to entrance him.
He really needed to get a grip.
“Fest-“he began, and then thought quickly enough to remove his cowboy hat. “Name’s Festus,” he finished, all the while running his hand through his hair. Replacing his hat, he then drew back on the glove he had removed, as he could no longer feel the fingers on that hand. It was that cold.
In an effort to alleviate the awkwardness of the situation, he asked the only other question he could think of. “So, what school do you all go to?” In that instant he wanted nothing more than to curl up and die, right there on the spot. He could be such the dork at times.
This time the girl, Ash, didn’t laugh, nor did she bite the back of her glove. Instead she reached out and gently laid her hand on top of his. “Our mom homeschools us,” she said, “so we don’t have to go to public schools. We’ve also got an older brother, but he goes to college. His name’s Alex. He’s also supposed to be down this weekend if the weather goes our way. At least that’s what Dad says.” Glancing around at the snow falling, “Hopefully this stops soon, otherwise…” In that moment her eyes grew sad, sort of distant. It was obvious she missed her other older brother terribly.
“I don’t have any brothers or sisters,” he said, hoping to make her smile. “Mom and Dad tell me that I’m the only child they’ll ever have, so I’d better fly straight.”
Then came the smile he was hoping for.
Elijah took that moment to intervene, jabbing an elbow gently into his sister’s side. “We really need to get going,” he said, his eyes darting off to one side toward the trees, the snow, and the sky around them. “It’s really starting to come down now.”
“And if your mom is like mine,” Festus added, “she’ll be worried sick about you two. Besides, I really ought to be going myself.” Looking around, he realized his footsteps leading there were no longer visible; the snow was falling so heavily. He probably twirled in place three times before agreeing with Elijah, “Man, it really is snowing… pretty freaking hard. I can’t even find my own tracks anymore.”
“Ditto,” Elijah replied, doing a little spinning himself.
“I think we’re lost,” Ash said, bottom lip starting to quiver.
“We’re not lost,” Festus defended, trudging back the way he came, only to find nothing, not one sign of his passage here, there or anywhere.
“Are you sure about that?” Eli asked, doing some trudging of his own.
In the end they all three ended right back at the “Finger.”
In the middle of Festus’s back, a tiny little fear set in.
“Can you call your parents?” the girl asked, all the while chewing at her bottom lip.
Shrugging, Festus answered, “I could,” he said, shoving his hands into his coat pockets, “If my parents let me have a cell phone.” He then withdrew his hands to show them that they were empty.
“Dashed again,” his father would say.
In this day and age he would say pretty much the same… rats!
Bad news, for the second time in as many hours. They’d come across the same stream. And how did he know this? By the stick of wood protruding from within its midst, that’s how. He’d placed it there the first time through.
More bad news, it was snowing so hard now that even with their recent passage, not a single footprint still existed of their original passage. “And that plain sucked,” Festus thought. Because if he couldn’t keep from backtracking over where they’d just been, how in the heck was he ever to find his way back home?
In the end Ash and Eli had joined him. They figured that since he’d lived here the longest, (They’d only been here a little over a month. Seems their parents liked to move around a lot.), he’d probably have the best chance of finding his way back to his home. Once there his mom could call Ash’s and Eli’s parents and have them come over and pick them up.
To this he agreed. After all, he’d never actually been all the way over to his neighbors’ place, only in theory, or ‘on paper’ as his Dad used to say. Sure, his parents had run him by the place in their car, but never once did it involve going across country.
All he could remember about their place was that it was big, as in ‘castle’ big.
Heaving a sigh of frustration, and after staring at the protruding stick a moment longer, he angrily pulled the offending branch out of the water and slung it as hard as he could into the trees behind them.
He felt like cussing- but he didn’t.
“Feel any better?” asked Eli, all the while keeping a wary eye turned his way. Meanwhile behind him Ash seemed to be struggling just to contain a smile, though he could tell it wasn’t all “fun and games” for her either. Tiny little worry lines creased her forehead, and she kept reaching out to hold her brother’s hand as they walked.
“A little,” he replied.”At least we won’t have to keep running into that stick anymore.”
“That was sort of the point though, wasn’t it?” questioned Eli.
Another sigh was his only answer. “How are you two doing?” he asked instead.
Ash rubbed at her cheeks and Eli looked worried. “Okay for the moment,” Eli replied. He didn’t add that they’d better find some shelter or home soon. This was a statement all three of them understood. It was really starting to get dark now. And the snow was still falling like crazy bringing a “shush” to the whole wide world, including the trees.
“At least I can still feel my toes,” he said, wondering if his two neighbors were telling him everything. His nose and ears were pretty much numb though; he figured theirs were, too.
“So… now what?” Eli asked.
“Do you want to lead us?” Festus fired back. In response Ash reached out and grabbed his arm. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, feeling the calmness once more wash over him. “I didn’t mean to jump at you like that.” It’s what I do when I’m tired and scared though. For the first time he was beginning to wonder what he’d actually do if they couldn’t find their way back home. The thought terrified him.
“No problem,” the boy shrugged.
Festus was pretty sure the boy was thinking the same thing as he was, darkness falling, snow falling, and no clue as to where home was… all added up to a bad feeling.
“Think we’ll see any lights when it gets dark?” asked Ash. Her eyes were darting around, almost in a panic.
“We might,” he answered. If Mom remembers to turn on the outside light, that is. Then again, she doesn’t even know that we’re missing… not yet anyway.
“Maybe they’re already out searching,” Eli added, trying his best to sound hopeful for his sister.
“You’re probably right,” Ash added. “Mom and Dad are probably already over at Festus’s house, sipping coffee and discussing with his parents how grounded all three of us are going to be once we get back.”
At that moment Festus would have loved “just being grounded” by his parents more than anything. Being grounded meant being found and being found meant arriving home in good enough condition to be grounded in the first place. “That and snacking on cookies probably,” he added. “I can just see my dad now, chatting it up with your dad on how we’re probably going to be shoveling snow for the next month and a half.”
They all three shared a smile, fleeting, but there.
It was weird how the snow and twilight seemed to confuse him, throw him off kilter as to where he was and where they were going. The second time crossing the stream meant there was either a new stream he never knew existed on his father’s land (highly unlikely) or they had been wandering in an ever widening circle, only to end up at the same spot they started from.
In his mind’s eye he could picture his dad’s land from above, how the land looked like Nebraska, long and narrow with irregular sides. Visualizing this he began to use his finger to draw a representation in the snow beside them.
“Okay,” he said, sketching as he spoke. “Here’s what I know.” After drawing out the general lay of the land, he drew one line through the midpoint, then a corresponding parallel line a few inches from that one. Together, they both cut the rectangular outline of his father’s land from top to bottom. “These are the two streams that cut across my parents’ land. Here’s what the land looks like from above.” At this point he punched his finger into the lower left hand corner of his map, a couple of inches from the left side. “This is where our house sits.” Now, moving to the right of his parents’ property altogether, he punched his finger in again. Looking at Ash and Eli, “And this should be close to where your house sits.”
On this, they all seemed to agree.
Three-quarters of the way towards Ash and Eli’s house, he punched his finger in again, almost smack dab in the middle of the rectangle. “This is where the ‘Finger’ is, the rock where we met. As you can see, I had to cross both streams just to get here, which is why after all our walking around we somehow wind up back where we started, here.” He began to draw a circle in the air above the first stream, the one closest to the “Finger.” “I’m so confused, because as you can see, we had to cross one stream to reach the other. I never planted a stick in that other stream.” He glanced guiltily toward the location where he had tossed the stick, its spot already erased by the quickly fallen snow. “I placed it there less than thirty minutes ago when we first crossed the stream.” His eyes followed the gentle sloping sides of the stream bed. It wasn’t a simple case of following the stream upstream or down; upstream and downstream both would lead them nowhere but even deeper into the unknown.
“So…” Ash began, after a long silence, “what does all that mean for us now?” Her eyes found his face. In them he could see complete trust. She wanted him to do the right thing and bring them home.
He never wanted to lose that trust.
“I say we start again,” he said, his eyes straying to the top of the embankment straight ahead. “If we can manage to cross this stream in a straight line, head up that hill and keep to the left side of that big oak tree…and if we keep going in a straight line, we should reach the second stream in no time at all. Maybe by then out parents will be out looking for us, or we will see some lights from the farm. Either way, we get back home. What do you two think?” In his mind it sounded right, which was why it was such a relief to him when Eli and Ash agreed.
Minds made up, they continued, talking as they walked. Overhead, flocks of ravens formed and reformed, winging through the trees, as if keeping eye on them.
“So, what do your parents do?” Festus asked the two of them as Eli piggy-backed Ash across the silvery flowing stream. Once on the other side he set her back down.
“Dad’s in sales,” Eli began, keeping a sharp lookout. “And as we said before, Mom stays home and home schools us. Dad is on the road all the time traveling; we barely get to see him anymore, which is sad in some ways, not sad in others.”
“What do you mean?” Festus queried.
“When he’s gone, he’s not telling us to finish up our homework all the time,” Ash added. “That gives us a bit more freedom than most.”
“And you two just moved in a couple of months ago?”
“Right at a month, come Monday,” Eli replied. “We’re pretty much used to it.”
“Used to what?” Festus asked.
“Being the new kids on the block. It’s pretty hard to make friends when all your parents ever do is move around the country. I swear… it’s like we’re living Southwest Airlines‘ logo, ‘You are now free to move about the country.’” He mimicked the commercial’s voice-over. “I’d do anything to be settled, put down some roots, you know, call someplace home other than the road.”
In that regard, at least, he figured he knew how the twins felt. Even though he’d been living in Montana the last couple years, his dad had been in the Air Force. They’d lived in England and Germany. You name the country and he’d probably been there. Thank goodness his dad was now more interested in computer consulting than anything else. “I feel for you,” he said, reaching out and squeezing Eli’s hand. “Been there and done that. And boy, does it suck… Parents just don’t get it.”
“So, what’s the first thing you’re going to do once we get back?” Festus asked.
“I’m going to have the biggest hot chocolate in the world,” Ash replied, smacking the side of a passing tree with a stick she had picked up along the way.
“I’m going jump into bed and pull the covers up over my head for about three days,” Eli laughed. “By then I should be warm again.”
“Agreed,” he said. Even the thought made him feel all warm and snuggly on the inside.
The wind began to pick up, driving the snow into their faces and threatening to knock them around. The trees above them began to whistle and scream.
Even the flocks of raven could no longer be found.
A sudden sound caused Festus to stop dead in his tracks, his right arm out protectively across Ash and Eli’s chests, causing them both to stumble to a halt. “Hear that?” he asked.
“Hear what?” Ash replied.
Eli began to look around. “Yep,” he said.
“What?” asked Ash again. “I didn’t hear anything. I wanna hear too.”
Looking over at Eli, sudden fear caused Festus’s skin to crawl. He suddenly wasn’t all that cold anymore. And the look in Eli’s eyes only confirmed his worst fear. In the distance, on the wind, a mournful howl sounded. Seconds later it was joined by another, then another, the last one much closer.
This time Ash heard it, too. “That’s a dog, right?” she asked, grabbing her brother’s arm and pulling him in close. “Someone let their dogs run free. That’s what we’re hearing, right?”
Festus didn’t say anything, and Eli wouldn’t say anything either. They just looked at each other in fear. It had gotten considerably darker by this time, and the invisible sun had just set.
“Things have definitely gone from bad to worse,” Festus thought.
Why, oh why, hadn’t he listened to his mother? She’d told him not to wander off, that dinner would be ready soon. Now here he was, huddled against a large, fallen tree trunk temporarily breaking him from the wind, snuggled up against two of his neighbors who seemed just as afraid as he was.
The woods had fallen almost completely black around them with no light in sight. They were pretty much lost, and now, it seemed the woods were suddenly full of wolves hunting them.
Things were heading from bad to worse, and quickly.
“What do you think?” Ash whispered, drawing close to his right ear.
In that moment he didn’t mind so much her being that close or being lost. “I’m not sure,” he said, trying his best to remain calm.
“I still think it’s best we wait the storm out here,” Eli added. “We’re pretty much out of the wind, and the snow finally seems to be tapering off. And it’s a whole lot darker now than it was before. I believe the more we wander around, the more lost we seem to become.” Granted, they’d been walking for quite some time now, and they hadn’t even crossed the second stream yet, which told Festus they were probably still walking in circles.
“Which means we’re still just as lost, if not more so, than before,” he murmured. Seeing the alarm reflected in Ash’s eyes caused him to swallow hard and swear to keep his opinions to himself in the future. After all, she was just a little girl and afraid enough.
Tears began threatening at the corners of his eyes. The more he thought about their situation, the less likely it seemed they would ever find home, at least until the sun rose in the morning. That would mean sleeping outside in the middle of a Montana winter, possible -15 F if not colder. It was already so cold he could barely feel his toes anymore, and if he was that cold, Ash and Eli were surely just as cold. He was about to say more when a sudden reflection caught his eye. Something had moved on their left, something close to the ground.
And completely silent.
His mind went immediately back to the wolves howling. What if the pack had found them? What if they were already being surrounded by wolves? He clapped his hand across Ash’s and Eli’s mouths, fear running rampant, as his stomach began to knot. “Shhhhh,” he said. “Something is out there.” His words were so low they could hardly hear him. At the same time he would be surprised the whole world couldn’t hear his heart beating, that’s how loud it sounded in his own ears.
Ash desperately looked around before burying her face in her brother’s coat. Eli looked just as afraid, but defiant as well. He seemed ready for a fight or flight, whichever opportunity presented itself.
As for Festus… he was just plain afraid, and would do anything to wake up and realize this was just some bad dream. But he was awake, and this wasn’t a dream.
There it was again, a light, movement, or whatever. This time he caught it out of the corner of his eye. Ash immediately grabbed his hand as if she’d just seen it, too. When he looked in that direction, though, he saw nothing but darkness. “What the…?” he muttered. He was about to motion Eli in that direction when all of the sudden…
“Farie fire,” breathed Eli.
“Ignis fatuus. It’s one of the Tylwyth Teg.” This time Eli wasn’t talking to them, but to himself, and he was staring off into the night to their right.
Sure enough, by following his line of sight, Festus caught sight of what appeared to be a flicker of light dancing under the trees, in between the snowflakes falling. As soon as his eyes began to focus in that spot, however, it vanished.
Not wolves, but something else entirely.
“How do you know what it is?” he asked.
Eli immediately shushed him, fingertip over his lips.
Okay, he thought. “How do you know about this?” he whispered.
Eli turned to face him, a look of “Really. I just asked you to be quiet and your only answer is to repeat yourself.”
In return he answered Eli with a “Really” look of his own.
After a moment of silence, Eli relented. “Our Dad used to tell us stories about them,” he began, his fingers gripping his sister’s left shoulder. “The rest I looked up on the internet.”
Festus was about to question Eli further when he realized Ash still held his hand.
It wasn’t all that uncomfortable after all, to be this close to a girl, so he squeezed hers back. In response she smiled, her eyes never quite leaving his face.
Then the fire was among them.
One second nothing but the strangeness of what Eli called “farie fire,” next to impossible to pinpoint and describe. The next, a pale blue luminance the size of the palm of his hand was flickering between them. In its eerie radiance Ash’s features were highlighted, a warm rosy glow that seemed to add substance with shadow and shade.
At his side, Ash fearlessly reached out to touch the colored flame, a candle flicker burning without heat between them. Behind her Eli simply stared, his eyes large and fearful, but curious.
I, on the other hand, was frozen with fright.
The luminance before us seemed more reflection than flame. Picture an absolutely black room with a candle softly shedding its golden radiance in the center. Now, place a small child next to the candle in that room, and have the child stare deeply into that flame. The outline that you see, that soft golden glow revealing the child’s features, was what was being reflected and shown in the blue flame lingering between us, ghostly images of children’s faces all around us.
“Amazing…” I exhaled, afraid to move, more afraid not to. I might have been imagining it, but it looked like a face of a young child, wide-eyed and curious, was being reflected back to Ash.
Like a candle in the wind, the light began to flicker. As soon as Ash reached out to touch it, tears of wonder in her eyes, it was gone, the darkness of the night collapsing back in around us. It took a moment before I regained my night vision.
“There are more of them,” Eli said, pointing out the flickering points of light that suddenly seemed to fill the woods around us. Some were bobbing and weaving but remaining stationary; others seemed to be drifting in and out of our location. Some were blue like the apparition that had appeared among us, others golden or brilliantly white.
All were mysterious, however.
“I hate to say this,” I began, still holding on to Ash’s hand. (She didn’t seem to mind anyway.) “We really need to start moving again.” Even though we were lost I felt we needed to keep moving, even in the midst of such mysterious circumstances.
“But they’re so beautiful,” murmured Eli, taking a step into the night.
“And yet, sad somehow,” replied Ash. And she was right. For all their beauty they did seem sad, heartbroken… I don’t know why.
“It’s real magic,” I exclaimed.
We moved through the woods and falling snow, like shadows on the wind, barely making a sound. The entire time we were surrounded by handfuls of flickering candle-light, oft times trailing, oft times beckoning, but at all times continuing. With every footfall I felt we were gaining ground, drawing ever near my home when all of the sudden, all the lights were gone except a handful of golden beams, bobbing haphazardly though the woods, interlaced among the trees– flashlights.
Then we heard the voices, my parents’ voices and others calling out.
“I’m here!” I wanted to exclaim. Instead I stood still, knowing that as soon as the adults found us the magic would be gone. As soon as the real world intruded, the mundane would occur. For you see, real magic had been offered to three lost children in the woods, all three yearning for home but being found by dancing fire instead.
Magic farie fire.
“We’re over here,” I finally whispered, looking first to Ash then to Eli. They both nodded, because sometimes the magic has to leave before a child can finally grow up.
In my opinion, it was going to suck becoming an adult.
I hope you enjoyed this sneak preview. There is so much more to come, including a second sneak preview in the upcoming weeks. Stay tuned and remember… always dare to dream, for our dreams can take us anywhere, even home!