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Smoke Signals

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Rory sat on the porch, staring out over the overgrown fields and thicket of pines. The barn needed fixing, but that would require materials she didn't have and didn't have the means to buy. She needed to make her rounds of the town and hope someone - or many someones - would take pity on her and help get the farm back in order.

Rory knew that her success entirely hinged on her ability to get off of the porch and make a move, to do something, anything, productive. But she found herself sitting on the porch as if pinned down, her ballet flats rooted to the wood. Her fingernails, ragged from her anxious picking on the bus ride to Pelican Town, scratched at the grain of her grandfather's old rocking chair.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” she breathed, her heart clamoring, trying to climb up through her throat and escape.

She was still sitting on the porch by the time Mayor Lewis came around, looking confused at the lack of progress. He looked even more alarmed when he found Rory staring absently out into the wilds attempting to overtake the 100 acres around her.

“Rory, settling in?” he called up as he stepped around a fallen branch on the overgrown cobblestones leading up to the house.

Rory glanced his way and had to remind herself that responding promptly was how rational human beings operated. She forced a smile that felt alien on her lips; it had been a long time since she'd even tried to smile. “Oh, Mayor. Sorry, just… overwhelmed.”

Mayor Lewis nodded sympathetically, glancing out over the field in front of them. “I've been talking with some of the townspeople - who are thrilled to meet you, by the way - and we are putting together a task force to get this place cleared this weekend. If that's alright with you? I didn't want to presume-”

Rory felt the vice grip on her heart lessen slightly. Help. “That would be amazing; I don't know anything about any of this; I'd appreciate all the help I can get.”

The mayor chuckled softly, glancing down at his feet for a moment. “Well, I put a notice out and got a good response. Robin and Marnie are going to come up first thing Saturday to patch up the coop and barn to get things ready for animals. I think Jodi mentioned her son, Sam, is coming out, too. He's about your age; might be good for you two to meet.” Rory tried to ignore Lewis’ knowing smile. The last thing she needed was the stress of a boy her age mucking her brain up more than it already was. “If you wanted to go make introductions, you might be able to secure some more help.”

Rory nodded absently, swallowing. Meeting people. How long had it been since she'd done more than water-cooler conversation and shoddy pickup lines? “I'll go around today. I needed to stop by town for things, anyway. Seeds, I guess? I don't really….” She finally got to her feet, letting out a laugh that sounded more hysterical than she wanted. “I'm out of my element. Sorry.”

Mayor Lewis watched her kindly. “Pierre is going to come by later with some tools for you, free of charge. Your granddaddy didn't do too much with the land at the end, so his tools are shot. Maybe start clearing the land before thinking about planting or getting animals? Just a suggestion, of course. And lean on Robin and Marnie, they know everything about working and living off of the land. Do you still have the map I gave you?”

The map of where everything was in Stardew Valley. Rory was reasonably sure it was still on the rickety kitchen table where Mayor Lewis left it. “Um, yeah.”

“Good! If you're up to it, like I said, talk to your neighbors. We're all friends here - maybe a little cautious at first, but overall good folks. But I'm sure it won't take you long to make some impressions.”

Impressions of being a neurotic bag of nonsense, she thought venomously, but cleared her throat. “I'll, um. I'll get out later today.”

Lewis smiled, but it was the kind of smile that pursed in concern. He rapped his knuckles on the stair rails leading up to the porch. “Well, just wanted to say I'm glad to see another young face around here, especially on this farm. It's hard work, but it's freeing. Sometimes all you need is a new start.”

Rory wasn't sure if Mayor Lewis had been a therapist in a past life, but he was looking at her as if he could see through her. Had she mentioned the mental breakdown that led to her dismissal from Joja Corporation's central office? She doubted it; she'd put a lot of effort into not thinking about it. Even so, he was looking at her as if he had been there to witness her smashing her phone against the desk and tossing her computer monitor against the wall, all while screeching wordless, animalistic things at her coworkers.

“Thanks,” she answered belatedly, blinking back the memory and the sudden sharp pain in her chest. She let out a little breath discreetly as he waved and turned to leave, ambling up the path toward town.

Rory looked out over the grass clumps and saplings overtaking the field and sighed. It was time to be an adult, she told herself, steeling for the most uncomfortable thing she could hope to do: meet new people who would stare at her like a circus animal.

Circus freak more like. Rory gritted her teeth and entered her new house, moving into the bedroom to rifle through her clothes, still rumpled in her suitcases.



“Oh! So you're Rory!”

Rory was having a hard time controlling her thumping heart, but she managed to force a grin at the woman in front of her - Jodi, or so Rory’s map proclaimed. She was pretty, her eyes lined with laughter wrinkles, and a dish towel in her hands. “Yes, I'm sorry I'm just stopping in, I don't have phone numbers to call ahead-”

“Nonsense!” she exclaimed, gently pulled Rory’s arm and tugging her into the house. “We all just stop in around here, no need to call. How is the farm? Mayor Lewis said that it was getting rough. Oh, Rory, you should meet-”

Before she could continue, a loud cacophony of noise began somewhere to their right and Jodi winced. “Sam!” she shouted and then blanched at Rory’s wince. “Oh, honey, I'm sorry. Here, come with me.”

Rory followed Jodi down a small hallway and toward the source of the noise. Jodi swung the door to their left open, poking her head into the room.


The noise petered out - first the guitar, then the drums, and then the keyboard. “We're in the middle of practice, Mom!” a voice snapped.

“Watch the tone,” she returned, no heat to her warning. “Rory came by to introduce herself. Remember, you're going to help us fix up the farm this weekend?”

“I'm -- what?” the voice asked, sounding exasperated. “There's a show in-”

Jodi tugged Rory into the room and she stumbled, eyes wide, coming face to face with a spiky-haired blonde. He was about her age, maybe a little younger, and his hair was absolutely mind-boggling. She wondered, briefly, how much hair product he went through in a typical day.

The complaint that had been on his lips died immediately, and he blinked at Rory, looking shell-shocked. “Oh. Er. Hi. I didn't realize you were right there.”

Rory bit the inside of her cheek, glancing from Sam to Jodi. “Hi. I'm Rory. Sorry for barging in.”

“No, no, it's, um-”

Two more heads peeked around from a blocked corner of Sam's room. They were both pale, dark-haired, and curious.

“Hi,” Rory said awkwardly.

The girl had dark purple hair and an upper lip ring, but her face was refreshingly cheerful. “Hey! I heard the new girl moved in. Did you come to listen to us play?”

“How would that make sense?” the raven-haired boy asked incredulously. “She doesn't even know who we are, let alone our practice schedule.”

The girl rolled her eyes and smacked the boy, stepping from around the corner to say, “I'm Abigail and that dour face there is Sebastian. Welcome to the most boring town ever created. Hope you like staring at things, ‘cause that's ninety percent of Pelican’s appeal.”

“Abby,” Jodi chided before putting a hand on Rory’s arm. “Did you want to stay for dinner, dear? It's a ways off, but I'm sure the kids would appreciate an audience.”

“Definitely,” Sam said quickly, making Abigail smirk and Sebastian roll his eyes.

All of the eyes on her were quickly making her palms sweat and her heart race. After years of crippling panic attacks, Rory knew the warning signs. “Thanks,” she said quickly, clearing her throat. “But I really need to see if I can make it to Pierre’s before he closes.”

“Next time, then,” Jodi smiled gently, patting her arm. The woman did enjoy touching. It made Rory’s skin crawl in spite of the innocent intent.

“Next time,” she confirmed, offering an awkward wave to the three bandmates watching her curiously. “Later.”

“See you this weekend,” Sam called as she retreated. Rory heard Abigail’s tinkling laugh and Sebastian’s snort before she made it to the door.

The fresh breeze was cold and crisp, not perfumed with lemon cleaning products, and hinted at the snow she'd just missed on her March arrival to the valley. Rory gulped the air, taking advantage of the empty lane to lean against a lamppost and collect herself. Everything was happening so fast - too fast. She was still reeling from the mental break that led to her getting fired. She was still reeling from the bus ride into idyllic Stardew Valley.

As Rory’s breath calmed, she noticed the smell of the ocean and felt the sea breeze attempting to tug her hair out of its messy bun. Pushing off of the post, Rory practically stumbled toward the bridge leading to the beach.

The sand was blindingly white in the late afternoon sun. Rory kicked off her flats, toes curling into the sand. She stared out over the cerulean water, over the breaking waves splashing up against the pier, and finally caught her breath.

The water had always calmed her. It was a side effect of being an empath; that was what her mother used to say, anyway. A sensitive heart needs something big and constant to focus on; something to soothe the soul. A load of shit, Rory had always thought, but her mother's words seemed to have more credibility now.

She wandered to the water's edge, the tide flicking over her toes. Rory breathed in the salt, the tremoring in her fingers finally calming. She wanted nothing more than to grab the rowboat against the shack she'd passed and disappear into the shimmering air.




Elliott finally set his pen down, stretching. It felt as though he had been at the desk for days and, when he checked his clock, he winced. It had been close to four hours since he'd stood; nine since he'd eaten something. Elliott got to his feet and went to the mini-fridge in the corner, glancing in at the empty cooling unit. Of course he had no food; he hadn't been fishing in a week. He hadn't called out for food from Gus in a few days, either. Had it been two weeks since his last grocery trip to Pierre's?

He rolled down his sleeves and shrugged into his jacket, letting out a soft sigh. The last thing Elliott wanted to do on a Thursday night was brave the town square, but he needed food if he planned on staying alive long enough to make his novel a reality.

He had just stepped out of the shack when he was startled to find the beach occupied. At first, he thought it was Leah, one of the only people he saw on the beach in springtime, but it decidedly wasn't. The woman in the waves had pitch-black hair tossed into an unceremonious bun, the water wetting the ankles of her jeans.

He hesitated outside of his door until the wind from his open window dragged the door shut, making it bang against the casing with a loud crack. The woman spun around.

He stood on his doorstep, deliberating, watching the woman regard him warily. She had to be the new girl everyone had been buzzing about - the granddaughter of the kindly old man from Tallulah Farm. He hadn't expected to see her aside from the festivals - her grandfather had been reclusive. Elliott had, for some reason, assumed it would be a family trait.

Elliott hesitantly approached her. With every step, he noticed something. The sharp set to her shoulders, ready to fight. The tension in her legs, ready to run. Her dark eyes, slit in the sunlight and apprehension. “You must be Donald’s granddaughter,” he called to her and stopped far enough back to hopefully set her at ease. “I am Elliott. I live just there.” He motioned behind him, offering her a gentle smile. “I'm fairly new to town, myself.”

The woman’s tense shoulders drooped a little, and she nodded absently. “I'm Rory. Sorry, you startled me.”

“Apologies, it was not my intent,” he continued, taking a few tentative steps closer. She remained calm, but he noticed how her brow furrowed when he came to stand in front of her.

She looked as if she was analyzing him, both intrigued and slightly frustrated by what she found. Finally, she asked, “Why do you live out here?”

He wasn't sure if she meant Pelican Town, the beach, or the shack. “It is quiet here, quieter than in the city. I feel as though I can breathe here by the ocean; more so than in town. I prefer the water and the stillness.”

Rory nodded, wriggling her toes in the lapping tide. Her toenails were painted purple and chipping around the edges. The color sparkled like amethysts through the water. “Me, too. Too bad my granddad didn't farm fish.”

Elliott smiled, glancing out over the water. They stood beside one another silently for longer than Elliott expected; so much longer, in fact, that his stomach began to rumble unpleasantly. “I was heading into town for dinner. Would you like to come along? I am sure you can meet others; the tavern is always busy at this time of the evening.”

Rory scrunched her nose and shook her head. “No, thanks. I'm peopled-out for the day. ” Elliott couldn't help the initial wince at her words - had he offended her with his presence? Rory seemed to catch it and blushed. “No, no, I didn't mean you - you're the first person I've met that hasn't looked at me like a zoo animal. I just… people usually stress me out. I'm not very good at being a human.”

Elliott chuckled, relieved that he had somehow not been one of those people. The gawkers. “Self-care should be your priority.” His stomach protested again, and he grimaced. “Would you like me to bring you something back? My cabin is unlocked if you would like to sit inside."

She waved him off, looking awkward. “I'm fine, thanks. I'm probably going to head back to the farm, anyway.” Elliott wanted to kick himself for being so pushy, but Rory bit her cheek and added, “It was nice to meet you, Elliott.”

“And you, Rory.”

He reluctantly left her on the shore. At least her words had been positive; the last thing Elliott needed was another neighbor who found him off-putting.

By the time he returned to the beach, she had gone, leaving nothing to suggest she had ever been there.