--A Tree Falls--
Shea arrived home well after the moon had taken its place in the night sky, and oddly there was no light coming from the tiny house. The boy knew his parents were on the dull side, but it couldn’t be that late. And if they had gone to bed, they must’ve eaten dinner without their son. While Shea admitted it wasn’t a difficult task to forget about him, he wouldn’t have expected his own parents to do so.
The thin and somewhat ragged wooden door opened inward and with a soft squeak that made Shea cringe. Tiptoeing, as if his bare feet would make a sound on the dry earth, the boy crept like a thief into his own home. Whatever he expected to be awaiting him however was nothing in comparison to what he found.
His parents were silent at the kitchen table, silhouettes in the dark, just as Shea had left them. His father still clung to his book, and his mother still to her stitching. There was no yelling, no What-have-I-told-you’s, and no No-hilltop-berry-cakes-for-you-young-man’s. As a matter of fact, there was nothing at all except for an eerie quiet and a stale breeze in the dark of the tiny home.
No longer afraid to make noise, Shea ran over to an oil sconce that hung to the left of the still burning fire and now overcooked peacorn stew. He turned the peg at the base of the lamp, and with a spark, light flooded the room. Though the boy imagined his parents would awaken with the light, they did not, and Shea could now clearly, though not surely, see why.
Like statues they remained, unmoving, and no life seemed to be in either of them. Yet they weren’t dead, but frozen. Not like ice coating blades of grass, but like trees that had stood so long they simply ceased to move even with the wind. Shea tried to move them from their seats, but neither would budge in the slightest. Not even the green hair on their heads would bend or waiver. Frustrated, the boy began to yell.
“Dad!” Shea pounded the table. “Come on you stupid tree-louse! This isn’t funny anymore!” Harm stayed immovable, unblinking.
It was then that Shea noticed something odder still about his comatose parents. Both their eyes, unlike his but akin to all other shymen, had always been green in color. Like moss after heavy rain. But now, gazing at his father’s vacant expression, Shea realized the planter’s eyes had gone from emerald to a black darker than coal. Terrified by the nothingness he could see in his father, Shea turned to Constance. Her eyes were the same. Suddenly, the words of his grayed old friend didn’t seem so mad. Fear filled him like rain in a puddle. Leaving the effigies of his parents behind, the boy bolted out of the house on a beeline down the dimly lit streets of the Stump towards Harver’s Shop. His heart pounded in his chest, and his bare feet beat the cool ground like fish washed ashore, anxious and afraid. He would never again disregard the words of his elders.
On the sprint to Harver’s, Shea was thrown a bit off course. As he ran down the paths of the Stump he found himself being bombarded by a shower of pebbles. Following the rain of projectiles came the incredibly annoying sound of Thom and Dori’s laughter. The two overgrown and pudgy nitwits always seemed to know just when and where to find Shea, and when they found him they always seemed to know just how to make his life miserable. And so the chase was on, the two doggish boys hot on his heels. For overweight, lazy children, they did manage to cover ground quite quickly and soon Shea could feel them reaching for his clothes that billowed in the wind behind him.
He turned down one alley, they followed; down another, they followed. It was like running from his shadow. It was a pain in the rear as it was that they were chasing him, but the timing made it worse still. His parents sat at home, comatose, and there he was playing run-and-catch with the wonder-brain twins.
“It’s not a good time, guys,” he hollered over his shoulder as if it would do any good.
“Awww,” wheezed Thom, “wittle guy says it’s not a good time…”
“Awww,” panted Dori, “too bad, wittle guy. It’s as good a time for us as any.”
“They don’t give up, I’ll give them that,” Shea told himself, pantedly.
The good part about the numerous times Shea had to run from Thom and Dori was the fact that he had gradually built up his endurance. Slowly, and after about ten laps around the usual area, his chasers began to tire. Knowing they would come to a stop soon, he did not turn down another alley. Instead he kept straight, back on course for Harver’s. Behind him, Thom and Dori were doubled over, coughing and beaten. Thom managed to holler after him, “We’ll see you later, Shea! Go ahead and run home to mommy and daddy!”
“His house… is the… other way,” breathed Dori.
“Shut up.” Thom smacked his cohort.
And just like that, Shea won the race, and was once again able to pay attention to important matters. That was the way of life for Shea. His distractions were not like anyone else’s. Instead of worrying about girls, or friends, or anything that was normal, he had to worry mostly about watching his back and being ready to run at all times. These were day-to-day activities for him, and they simply came with the territory of being who he was.
When he arrived at Harver’s, Shea imagined he would find the old shopkeeper still in the backroom, packing and mumbling away. But as he neared his destination, it was all too easy to tell that the ironclad home and store was just as empty as Shea’s own house now felt.
The door was left ajar due to Harver’s obvious haste in leaving, and when Shea entered the dark space there was a stale smell that hadn’t been there before. It reminded the boy of the night he spent lying on the dirt behind his house because he was angry with his mom and dad. He couldn’t remember why he was so mad that night, and his parents were in no state to remind him. All at once, something that was once important enough for Shea to sleep in the dirt was rendered completely inconsequential. And the only one who might have some grasp on the rather distressing situation had disappeared like a tree in the mountain mist.
Feeling with his tiny fingers along the cluttered and dusty shelves of Harver’s shop, Shea made his way to the back room where he’d last seen the grayed and haggard old shyman. Behind the faded purple curtain, a beeswax candle still burned, but aside from a floor coated in tossed belongings, there was no sign of Harver. The battered desk was clean however, only a single sheet of parchment rested on its scarred top. Pleased Harver had not left his most loyal customer without any goodbye to speak of, Shea sat by the candlelight and read the old kook’s somewhat legible scribblings:
I am sorry I have left you with such a cranky impression of me. You must understand that I was in a bit of a hurry, as I’m sure you can tell by the look of things. I had no right to be so inhospitable to such a fine lad as you. All that aside however, I am sure I owe you somewhat more of an explanation. I will keep this short, so not to delay this old shopkeeper, and so I don’t bore you with my ramblings.
When morning comes, you must go find my brother, Mercer. He lives in the Upper Eaves. All I know of the Shadow, I have trusted to him as well. He’s rather forgetful but he might remember what needs to be done next. I know you’re being thrown into this mess, but there’s no other choice. Just be strong. I know you have it in you.
I am sorry for not being able to say more, but I’ve my own work to do and preparations to make. Now, go home and rest if you can. It may be the last chance for a good night’s sleep you get for a while.
And so, calmed but more confused by his old friend than before, Shea sighed, folded the letter away and walked home down the shadowy streets of the Stump. Shea couldn’t help but feel comforted by Harver’s words, yet everything seems darker when you’re young and alone.
The task was easier entering his house this time, and not so eerie, but it was no less distressing. Trying to keep his eyes off them, Shea blew out the sconce that lit the kitchen, and left his stone-like parents to their stillness. In his room, he didn’t bother to change into his cotton night-robes, and he didn’t bother reading any scary stories before bed. He’d had enough fright for one evening.
As he lay in bed, staring at the arched roof over his tiny bedroom, Shea wondered what preparations Harver was talking about in his letter, and what the old shyman knew that no one but he and his brother seemed to. The fact that the old shopkeeper had any family at all was enough to shock Shea, much less family that lived the rich life in the Upper Eaves. He pondered what kind of shyman the brother of Harver would be like.
Every shadow in his bedroom seemed to writhe and crawl in such a way that he lit a candle to eliminate their presence and his fears with them. He shivered under his blankets, though not from the cool night air. After what seemed hours he began to drift uneasily into sleep. Yet as his eyelids sagged, off in the distance, somewhere outside the Great Stump, Shea heard an unfamiliar sound. In the still of the night, when all else was quiet, a large maple moaned as if in great pain. A crack echoed out into the forest, and a thud signified the death of another tree. The boy would not sleep that night.