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A Spinster's Heart

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It's 3pm on a Friday afternoon in late January, and my head is pounding. I've been debugging my code for the last hour, and it's still not working. I'm pretty sure that there's a semicolon missing somewhere, but damned if I can find it. Part of the problem with seeing it is that my eyes won't focus. Something about the combination of florescent lighting and computer monitors makes my vision blur. Reducing my screen time makes things better, but that's hard with my deadlines. And honestly, It's been too long since I've spent any reasonable amount of time outside. I always feel better when I'm in the woods. Two hours to go, I think. Then I can head home, and tomorrow I can go hiking!

Suddenly, I realize that I haven't properly taken a break today. Management is going to be pissed . Joja Corp recently got sued by someone for not providing proper break times, and so now everyone has to log them. I click the button on my workstation to do that, and then dig around in my top desk drawer. I'm sure I have some nice herbal tea in here, and I'd really like a cuppa and a minute to look out a window. Maybe when I get back, I can handle that persnickety punctuation.

Way at the back, my fingers stumble across something odd: there's an envelope of fine paper, with what feels like a wax seal on it. I pull it out, and look at it. "Oh!" I exclaim.

Grandpa's Letter.

My grandfather died 10 years ago, after a long and full life. I'd been new to the corporate world then, and had been enjoying the perks of being a gainfully employed adult. So I was surprised to receive an envelope with a note saying basically "Darling granddaughter, when you need a change, open this letter."

Ah, youth. I was certain, then, that I wouldn't ever tire of living in Zuzu city, with its bustling streets and endless entertainments, and that I certainly wouldn't tire of my job. But I'd kept the letter in my desk as a reminder of my beloved grandfather.

Looking at it now, I find myself thinking what I call "forbidden thoughts": they're the kind that whisper of a happy future that's based on a life very different from the one I've been living. They tell me that yes, I could take a year off of work, and try writing or traveling. What's the harm? 

I've been having these thoughts a lot lately. 

I sometimes think about moving home, but most of my friends have grown distant either emotionally or geographically. And what would I do for money? Get a job working as a greeter at Joja Mart? The jobs I'm qualified for are here. Yes, I have some savings, some investments...but those would only last so long. At least with the money I make here, I can travel and save for retirement. What would be the point of quitting? So, I've stayed on. But it certainly seems like it's time to open the letter. Maybe grandpa offered me some sage advice.

I give up on scrounging in my drawer, and walk to the cafeteria. There are several other kinds of tea there, and I need to think for a bit. I make a cup, and then go to sit by the big window which faces north. The scenery below is displeasing: the sprawl of Zuzu city lies 20 stories below, reaching out nearly as far as the eye can see. Miles of concrete and steel, broken only occasionally by the skeletal arms of a tall tree, until the horizon. There, the buildings seem to thin, and the forest that I love to spend my weekends in beckons. That's the only bit I like.

I take a sip of my tea, and think about my situation in more detail: 

Being in tech pays well, and Joja is a well-known company. Having it on my resume is potentially very good for me. But my youthful dreams of a writer's life have been coming back, making it known to me that they feel neglected. And to be honest, I'm really burnt out. Tech is stressful. I work long hours, sit too much, and find myself generally feeling beige. I'm not happy, I'm not hurting...I just exist. Sometimes I travel to a new place, but even when I do, I feel like an invisible observer. I want to be part of something bigger, I want to be part of a community, but I can't seem to find one. 

I notice my reflection in the window, and sigh. I feel beige, and look drab. My hair is a mess, chestnut strands sticking every which way out of my bun, and my green eyes look tired. My outfit is boring: Old jeans, blue button down, corporate hoodie, sneakers. Maybe I should do something about how I dress?

Quit stalling! If you're ready for a change, then open the letter already!

I take a deep breath, and pick it up. The paper is lovely–thick and textured, and clearly handmade. On the back, there's a red seal of a fox, chasing a star. I slowly exhale, then, in one quick movement, slide my finger under the flap to open it.

I don't know what I was expecting, but nothing momentous happens. I pull out the letter and see:

 

 

Dear Melanie,

If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change.

The same thing happened to me, long ago. I'd lost sight of what mattered most in life...real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belong.

I've enclosed a deed to that place...my pride and joy: Foxfire farm. It's located in Stardew Valley, on the southern coast. It's the perfect place to start your new life.

This was my most precious gift of all, and now it's yours. I know you'll honor the family name, my girl.

Good Luck.

Love,

Grandpa.

 

I am so amazed that I have to read the letter twice more before I believe it. Really? He left me the farm? He used to tell Dawn and me stories about it when we went camping as a family. We'd loved it. "What was that game we played? With the apple guys?" For a moment, I have an image of my cousin and me in the woods, putting sticks into apples to make arms and legs, then setting our little creatures up in a house we'd made for them of sticks.

Man, that was a long time ago.

Wouldn't that be a magnificent place to write? My traitor heart whispers.

"Shut up," I murmur in response, then quickly check that no one was around to hear me. All clear.

I check my phone. I have five minutes before my break ends. Time to go back to my desk.

I look out the window again. My vision seems clearer. I look back at the envelope. There's more in there--the paperwork, I guess.

I'm not deciding today, I tell myself firmly. Fix your damn code, and think about it over the weekend.

I find the problem within two minutes of returning to my desk. Turns out, I'd messed up my quote levels when copying a font name. Bloody hell.


——

On Saturday, I wake up early and head out to go hiking. I layer up well, knowing that the temperature is unreliable this time of year.

Outside, the sky is the misty slate blue of midwinter. The train takes me up to Lankershim Forest, and as soon as I hit the trees, I feel something within me start to unspool. I start walking. Even though it's mostly bare branches at this point, their silhouettes paint the ground with an interesting texture.

I get to the top of a hill and look out over a field. A flock of sheep graze on browned grasses. There's a fence to lean on, and I decide to stop and think. What should I do?

On a purely practical level, I know it's madness to give up a well-paying tech job to live on a farm and write. I can just picture my interview at another company: "What made you decide to leave Joja Corp?"

"Well, apart from the soul-crushing decor, I had this dream that beckoned me. And since my grandfather left me a farm, I thought, why the hell not?"

"Clearly, you are a paragon of responsibility. Please start tomorrow."

Yeah, not going to happen.

But that's the thing isn't it? I do have a dream beckoning...so why the hell not??

I checked my finances last night, and I certainly have the resources to live comfortably. And I might be able to freelance on some coding projects. And honestly..."It would make me happy." That comes out as a murmur, but I didn't expect to speak.

It's true though. I think it would make me happy.

Zuzu has become an increasingly lonely place for me over the last few years. My friends are often busy with their partners and kids, and I haven't felt like dating since I ended my last relationship a couple of years ago. Most of my friendships are digitally based, and could be continued from anywhere. And maybe my real-world friends would want to come visit with their families.


Maybe. Most of my friends are definitely city people.

The wind gusts through the trees, suddenly, whipping up leaves. As I watch them fly, a quiet voice says, "please do this. I'm very tired of pretending that I'm happy." I jolt at this, but it's true. I can't un-know this. I've been pretending that I'm happy, that I can make something lovely out of the life I already have. But like I thought on Friday, I'm just existing. And I don't see that changing. And even though "wherever you go, there you are" is definitely a challenge for me to overcome...maybe changing location will shake me up enough to change my behavior.

"Okay, I guess I have my answer," I say, to no one.

I spend the rest of my hiking thinking about logistics. I write lots of notes on the way home, and fall asleep happy.

——

On Sunday, my phone rings. I'm in my kitchen, making coffee, and trying to decide what to do next, so I'm happy to see the caller ID.

"Heya Dad!"

"Heya kiddo. It's been a while—I thought I'd give you a ring and see how things are doing."

"Aw, thank you. They're good. But I have some news to share."

"Oh, what's up?"

"You know that mysterious letter that grandpa left me when he died?"

"Yeah."

"Well, turns out, he left me his farm."

"Oh, no kidding? What'cha gonna do, kiddo?"

This is one of the things I love about my dad. He never assumes that I'm going to do anything. He just asks what I'm going to do, and offers me advice if I want it.

I take a deep breath. "Honestly, Dad, I'm planning on turning in my letter of resignation tomorrow."

"Oh wow."

"I know it sounds crazy and reckless, but–"

"No," he cuts me off, "Tell me about what you're planning. I take it you've got the money to live on if you need it?"

I sigh with relief. "Yeah. I looked at my savings, and I actually have enough to live off for at least a year. And I'm hoping that I can find a part-time job doing freelance web work or something."

"Aren't you going to be farming? You can make money that way too, right?"

I laugh. "C'mon, dad! Mom was the one with the green thumb. I'll probably plant some stuff, but we both know that farming isn't really that profitable. I just feel like I need to take some time to reassess what I'm doing with my life."

There's a sigh at the end of the line. "Yeah, I can understand that. I'm just sorry this is gonna take you farther away, kiddo."

"You're welcome to come visit, dad! I started researching the area yesterday. It seems like there's good fishing, and the town has a nice library. It might be fun over the summer."

"That's really sweet—I might take you up on that."

"I hope you do." There's a pause.

"Um, anyway, Dad, how are you?"

The rest of the conversation is pretty light. Dad tells me what he's been up to, and I fill him in on some other happenings. Just before we're about to hang up, dad asks, "Hey, have you told Dawn yet?"

"Um...no, you're the first person I've told. I'll probably tell her once I have more plans in place."

"Makes sense."

"I love you, Dad. Have a great week."

"You too, Kiddo."

We hang up. I sigh, and take a long sip of my coffee as I look aimlessly around my flat. My studio is nothing special, but I feel like I've made the most of the space. My bed is hidden from view by a big set of bookshelves, and the area near the kitchen is cheered up by a bright rug and a coffee table surrounded by cushions. Plus, there are plants everywhere: spider plants, snake plants, aloes, and a hydroponic box growing salad greens. Maybe I won't be a terrible farmer after all.

I take my coffee and sit down at the table. "What do you think, Fred? Ready to move to the country?" I'm talking to the maple bonsai that sits on the table. He was the first plant I bought when I moved to Zuzu after college, and he's taken the place of a pet. Yeah, it'll be great! I imagine him responding, then snicker. My life is ridiculous.

Upon further reflection, I decide to spend the rest of the day sorting through my personal belongings, and figuring out my next steps. Fortunately, I think storage and shipping aren't that expensive, and I think I'm ready to cull a lot of stuff too. The hardest part will probably be deciding what to do with my plants. 

——

Monday rolls around too soon, as it always does. But I have a spring in my step. I've decided to give my boss six weeks notice, and see what he says. If they decide to get rid of me after two weeks, that's fine, it'll give me more time to pack. But if they keep me on longer, that's great too, because I'll be paid longer. Win-win.

I don't feel like wearing trousers today, so I opt for a black knit skirt and heels with my button-down. It's like I've removed my boy-camouflage, and it feels good. When I get onto the train, I'm surprised to see my friend Rebecca sitting there, looking out the window.

"Hey Becks! I didn't know you were coming into the city today."

"Oh, hey Mel!" She smiles and pats the seat next to her. "Yeah, I'm doing some coverage at a clinic today. It's James' 3 rd birthday soon, and I thought it would be nice to have a little extra money to make the day special." Becks is a social worker. While she mostly does individual counseling, she sometimes works at clinics in the city doing psych cover when people are out.

"That's cool," I say. "That's in just a couple weeks, right?"

"Yeah. Do you want to come? I wasn't sure if you'd be bored. It's basically going to be me, and Dom, and a bunch of our parent friends and their kids." Ugh, this.

"No, I'd love to come," I say, trying to pretend I'm not offended. "Just because I don't have kids doesn't mean I dislike them. Things just...haven't worked out for me yet."

"I know..." she pats my shoulder consolingly, her tone condescending. "But you should really put yourself back out there. It's been 2 years since you broke up with Tate. I know it's super scary, but I'm sure you'll find someone. There are so many options these days!"

Double ugh. Why did I sit with her again? Rebecca always means well, but somehow manages to be a complete bitch. When I started telling her about my issues with Tate, she cut me off without letting me finish, and then told me that my relationship expectations were too high. She never bothered to understand the nuances of my situation. Yoba help me for wanting someone who shared my interests, displayed desire for me, and didn't dismiss and act condescending to me all the time. It wasn't quite abuse, but it was close. Case in point: one year, I was suicidally depressed, and my work suffered as a result. My previous boss wrote some terrible things in my annual review, and I had to explain the circumstances. Tate's response to the situation is that HR wouldn't care: all they'd see was someone who didn't properly manage her depressive symptoms. In other words: my depression was my fault.

HR was actually very supportive, and I started seeing a good therapist. As a result of the work with her, I found the courage to break up with Tate, and move on with my life. But the scars are still there: I've always felt like I was a little bit weird, and he confirmed it. I'm just not ready to come out of my shell right now. And I wish Becks would get that.

"It's probably not a good idea for me to start dating right now, because I'm going to be moving soon." I haven't told anyone at work, but I don't think anyone is going to overhear me. And if they do, who cares?

"What do you mean? Did you get a job somewhere else?"

"Kind of...you remember the letter from my grandfather I showed you?"

"Wait—did you open it?" Her brown eyes sparkle with intrigue.

"Yeah. He left me his farm. And I've decided to move there." She looks at me for a minute, then bursts out laughing. "What's so funny?"

"Yoba Melanie...you're a GEEK in your mid-thirties. What do you know about farming? It'll be brutal!"

"Excuse me?" I'm not in spartan shape, but I'm surprisingly strong for my age and job.

"You'll be tired all the time, and you won't have any money. How do you think that's a good idea?"

"Maybe I want to try something different. Why is that so wrong?"

She stops laughing and looks at me. "Holy shit, you're serious."

"Yeah. I am. I've got the money to do it, and I'll figure things out as I go along."

"Melanie..." Oh Yoba, here it comes.

"No." I say, standing up. "I know that you're about to give me some lecture about how I need to be practical, and be a 'grown up' but you know what? I've been doing that for 12 fucking years, and it's made me hate my life. At least this way, if I suffer, it will be because of a specific choice that I made, rather than because I'm following someone else's track. And if things suck in a year, I'll come back. Stop acting like being 26 days older than me makes you a font of fucking wisdom."

The blood's drained from her face, and I probably should be upset with myself, but I'm not. The train slows, and I walk to the other end of the car and get off. She can sit with her feelings for once. I'm over it. It'll be a bummer to miss the birthday party though.

Compared to Becks, my boss is a breeze. While he says that he's disappointed, he sounds excited for me. "I think it's really great that you're giving this a shot. A lot of people would just sell the land or sit on it. You're still pretty young...make the most of it."

"Thanks JT."

"You're welcome Melanie." He pauses. "And honestly, you've given us so much notice that I can probably hire you back if you decide you want to at some point."

"Thank you. I really...that's more than I could have hoped for, to be honest."

We chat a bit more, and then I go about my day. 30 workdays, and a lot of planning and packing to do. This should be fun.

Chapter Text

Lewis Merriweather sits at this kitchen table, eating his dinner of steak and roasted vegetables.  He's in good shape for his middle fifties, with lots of grey hair and a fine mustache.  He's fond of golf hats, and a couple sit on a coat rack near the door.

His thoughts are caught up in ways to bring more visitors to the town; to bring in more business.  Kingfisher City, a nearby municipality has offered to incorporate Pelican Town into their borders.  It might help them with their infrastructure problems, but Lewis is reluctant.  Not because he would lose his mayorship, but because he's concerned about what would happen to the people in his care.

They are in my care, he thinks, fondly.  As much as I can give them.

It's true that the town has been under his leadership for nearly three decades, and has seen its ups and downs.  But there are elections annually, and he's always been reelected.  Pierre ran against him a couple of years back, but had privately confided his relief at losing.  "I have a store to run," he said, "I really can't be bothered with mayoral duties in addition to that."

"Then why put yourself on the ballot?"

"To prove that the local democracy is still working!"

Lewis' phone rings, and he looks down.  It's his business line.  Who on Earth could that be?  Even though it's after hours, he picks up.  "Pelican Town head offices.  Who may I ask is calling?"

"Er…" the voice on the end of the phone is female, and sounds taken aback.  "Sorry, my name is Melanie Baker.  Is…Lewis Merriweather there?"

Baker, Baker…Wait! "Are you Arthur's girl?"

"Arthur Baker was my grandfather.  He left me his farm, and I've just found out about it."

Well, well.  He said she was stubborn. 10 years stubborn, I guess.

"Yes, hello, how do you do?  I'm Lewis."

"Ah, great.  Um, Mayor, I'm thinking of moving to the farm, and I'm wondering what condition the place is in.  What should I bring with me?"

A couple of bombs and a backhoe, he thinks, but doesn't say it.  "Well, my dear, I haven't been past your grandfather's cabin in a while, but I think it was being looked in on about once a year or so by our local carpenter.  Shall I ask her what she thinks, and send you some information by email?"

"Oh, yes, that would be great!  Thank you."

"You're welcome.  May I have your details?"

"Sure…"

She provides them, and they exchange pleasantries before hanging up.  Lewis taps his pen on the pad of paper by his phone.  A new person in town could mean new opportunities.  Especially if she does something interesting with Arthur's old place.

Mind abuzz, Lewis goes back to his dinner.  He's got a number of conversations to have in the morning.  Best to fortify himself for them now.

Chapter Text

The list of things I have to accomplish before my move date is pretty short, but turns out to be more complicated than I thought:

  1. Give Landlords 30 Days Notice
  2. Sort through clothes + STUFF and donate things
  3. Pack remaining things into boxes and ship or store them.
  4. Find new homes for plants (except Fred)
  5. Figure out how to get what I need for living to Pelican town (e.g. Bed?)
  6. Read up on local environment (what kind of soil do they have?)
  7. Figure out what to plant first. (Seed catalogs?)

Item one is easy, and items 5-7 can be tackled once I move, if I don't have time before then. But items 2-4? Those are hard. How do you sort 12 years worth of books? Getting rid of clothes, that's one thing. But books? Notebooks? I page through my old journals, finding doodle after doodle of characters, ideas for plots, titles, various chapters. Why didn't I do anything with this? I've had plenty of time to play computer games and go walking, how did I not find the time to write? And how do I have so many darn self-improvement books that I've never read? It's a little embarrassing, honestly, but it also feels like I'm conducting an anthropological study on myself. Who is the woman who lives in this apartment? She has a lively mind, and isn't happy, I decide. And she's very afraid of being seen.

This last bit is pulled from my wardrobe, which I realize is mostly quite boring. Lots of black, with a few brightly colored scarves. I have some formal dresses left over from the days when I would sing in concerts and did ballroom dance, but those don't get worn on a daily basis. I'm sure as heck not wearing rhinestones to weekly team check-ins at work. Maybe I should, I think, and laugh.

Despite the difficulty of the task, I do eventually manage to sort through my belongings. I send some to a freight company for later delivery, and put a few boxes in storage. The things I think I'll need right after moving go into two large rolling bags and a solar backpack. For Fred, I rig up a box that will let me tote him around on a rolling bag if I'm not carrying him.

I give the rest of my plants away to neighbors and friends. Despite my better judgement, I give a spider plant to Becks, who is somewhat stiff, but accepts it. We're not back to normal, but I guess our friendship survives after all.

Lewis sends me an email with extensive notes about the state of the house. It sounds, "rustic" at best, but is structurally sound. I consider cutting my waist-length hair to make it easier to manage with no indoor plumbing, but decide to wait. I like it long, and if my grandmother could wash hers in a tub on the floor, then I can too.

Lewis also sends information about the people and businesses in Pelican Town. I'm concerned about the insulation—or lack thereof—on my grandfather's house, and reach out to a local rancher named Marnie to see if she can sell me any straw bales. She says she can, and will be happy to deliver them when I get there. That will be something, at least.

Finally, my last day of work comes and goes without fanfare. I bake a cheesecake for my colleagues, and a few people take me out for a happy hour party. I have one drink, but leave early, hoping to finish packing.  There are a few days left for it, but they'll go quickly.

My last paycheck includes 200 hours of vacation that I've accrued and been unable to use over the last few years. Taking it in my hand feels like victory.

The last week of the month is a blur, and then suddenly, I'm on a bus, headed south out of downtown Zuzu. The tall buildings fall away as we leave, turning into stucco nondescriptness, and then the twee facades of the suburbs. After about 2 hours, we reach the countryside, and I'm greeted by rolling hills and woods. Winter still clings here, with piles of snow hanging on determinedly in the shadows. But spring is on its way: new shoots of grass poke up through the brown carcasses of the old, and buds of flowers and leaves sit plumply on branches.  Everything seems ready to burst out on a fine, sunny day. As we drive, I see that some bushes already have leaves on them, and watch famers readying the earth for planting.

More than anything, I want to stick my head out a window and smell the world. The view, even with such little green in it, is intoxicating. But there's no way to do that, so I content myself with thoughts of what it will be like to reach my destination. This is what I get to call home from now on. For as long as I want, or can make it work.

When the bus stops at Pelican Town there's an older vehicle parked by the side of the road. I wonder whose it is, but then my focus shifts to getting my stuff out safely. I grab my backpack from the overhead luggage rack, pick up Fred, and get off the bus.

Outside, there's redhead wearing a yellow vest who looks like she's been waiting for a while. "Are you Melanie?"

"Yeah, that's me," I say, holding out my hand. She takes it, and we shake. 

"I'm Robin, the local carpenter," she says, "Lewis sent me to meet you and guide you to the farm. It's not too far away. Do you need help with your bags?" 

"Maybe? give me a sec."

The driver of the bus has gotten out and popped the luggage hatch.  I haul my two large bags out, one at a time. He nods, re-latches things, and leaves. I settle Fred on top of one of the rolling bags, and look at Robin.

"How rough is the road? Can I pull these?"

She looks skeptical. "Probably? It's worth a try, at least."

"Cool. Lead the way for now, and if I need help, I'll let you know."

"Let me take one?" 

I consider the offer. "Actually, that would be great. Thanks!"

The walk from the bus stop turns out to be easy. The dirt is packed down and dry enough that the bags cause no trouble, and in about 10 minutes we're at the farm. I take it in. There's a small yellow house with a red tile roof, and a brick wall around it. There are lots of trees, and a couple of small lakes. It's all a mess. I knew from Lewis' letter that it was in need of some work. But it's even more run-down that I thought. Rocks and downed wood lie all over the place. Countless widow-makers hang from trees, and there are weeds and long grass everywhere. 

"I'm surprised the house is okay," I comment, and Robin laughs.

"Yeah, the paint's kind of faded, but nothing's fallen on it. Which is surprising. See that tree?" She points, and I look.

"Whoah!" The remains of a massive oak lie in the grass, and are within a couple inches of the back garden wall. "That is some serious luck!"

"Right?"

An older man who has a fine mustache and is wearing a hat comes out of the house. "Hi Lewis!" Robin calls.

"Ah, Robin, I see you've found our girl. No incidents on the way, I trust?" His voice is resonant and fits the words, despite their oddness. Incidents?

Robin just laughs. "Yoba, Lewis, you do have a flair for the dramatic. Everything is fine!" She puts the bag that she was pulling onto the front porch.

He harrumphs and crosses over to us, offering me his hand. "Lewis Merriwether. Lovely to meet you in person."

"Melanie Jones, and likewise." I note that his hands have calluses, but are overall soft. A working man who takes care of himself.

"I was just giving the place a final once-over. It all looks in good condition, but-"

"Is the pump working?" I break in, not wanting to know how he'll finish that sentence.

"Oh, yes. And the water's safe to drink. I had it tested."

"Oh, thank you for that! That's really kind." I pause. "Um...I was in contact with...Marnie?...about some straw bales for insulation. If you can just point me in her direction, I should be fine."

"She's just south of you. I'd be happy to show you the way, if you'd like?" Robin chuckles at this, and Lewis shoots her a look. "I thought you would likely have other things on today, Robin."

Interesting.

"Oh, I do," she agrees. "And I'm happy to leave that to you." She looks at me. "Melanie, if...when you're ready to update this house, just come and see me. I'm up that way," she gestures to a path heading north, "and I'd be happy to help." She pauses. "And any time you want to come visit, you'd be welcome."

"Oh, thank you!" She nods to us, and heads off.

"Shall we head to Marnie's?"

"Sure! Let me just put down my bags." I toss them onto the front porch, and then Lewis starts off, picking his way gingerly through the detritus. One thing's for sure: I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Chapter Text

Marnie turns out to be a lovely woman in her late 40s with loads of chestnut hair. She has a niece named Jas and a nephew named Shane living with her.  Neither of them are around, but she tells me to stop by of an evening if I'd like to meet them.  "A new face is always a treat," she says, "and you'd be welcome to stay for dinner."  I thank her, feeling a little awkward.  Taking her up on it feels odd without having something to bring along.  Maybe she'd take some firewood as thanks?  I decide to think on it.

Shane loaded the straw bales on a delivery truck yesterday, so we just have to drive them over.  Lewis offers to come with us to help unload, but Marnie laughs at him, makes a comment about his back, and waves him off. The look she gives him as he walks away makes my eyebrows raise.  Did she just check out his ass?? More evidence for the file of 'interesting', I guess.  Probably an open secret, since Lewis didn't touch her while he was there.

After we unload the truck, Marnie leaves me to my own devices.  I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon  covering the exterior walls of my cabin with clear plastic and straw bales.  Once the temporary insulation is in place, I set about familiarizing myself with the cabin.

Did I mention it's rustic?  It's VERY rustic.  The house has no electricity, and no phone lines, though it's in decent shape. The front porch and the wood rack on it are in good repair.  So's the roof, thank Yoba.  Inside, there's one main room, that has a fireplace, wardrobe, and a small table and chairs in it.  It has small windows on the north side, and another small window plus the door to the south.  At the west side of the main room there's a doorway leading to a smaller room that acts as a kitchen.  It lines up behind the wood rack on the front porch, and contains a sink, hand-powered water pump, and a large countertop with built-in shelves underneath it.  At the far end of the kitchen, there's another door that leads outside. Behind the house is a small walled-in garden area, which contains a small tool shed.  It also happens to be the location of the outhouse.

Think about that for a minute:
The.
Outhouse.

Mercifully, someone had the kindness to buy some toilet paper and put it in a tin can in there.  Plus, even though the weather is chilly, the seat isn't too bad.  I dread to think of how cold it will be in there during the winter.  I make a mental note to ask what it would cost to put in a heater.  A septic system seems out of the question, and this is probably more eco friendly than a regular toilet anyway.  But I don't look forward to having to go outside to pee during a snowstorm. 

In addition to the inconvenience of the outhouse, there are no facilities for bathing.  I brought a solar shower with me, which I fill with water, then set outside on the brick wall to heat.  The air isn't warm, but there should be some heat to be gained from the sun.  Grandpa left a large galvanized steel washing tub that's big enough to sit in, and a large bucket.  My plan is to fill it up some with water from the pump, heat a bucket of water on the wood stove, and pour the water from the solar shower into it as well to warm it up.  When summer comes, I can shower outdoors, but for now, it's that or sink baths.  Note to self: ask Lewis if there are public baths somewhere.  This is a town with a public beach.  Surely there's somewhere to shower off after taking a dip?

Once the bucket is on the stove to heat, I start unpacking.  One of my larger bags has camping gear and housewares in it.  I set up a bed in the main room, then move the table over to the window by the door to provide a home for Fred, and finally tack a few photos to the wall for decoration.  Mostly family, a few friends, a couple of extra good vacation photos from over the years.

The rest of the stuff in that bag goes into the kitchen: a few dishes and silverware; basic cooking utensils; a hand-cranked/solar flashlight + radio. Grandpa left some cast iron cookware, and some glasses, one of which I fill with water to drink. It tastes clean and pure, if slightly of iron.

My other large suitcase is full of clothes, which I unpack into the wardrobe. It's mostly practical things: t-shirts, jeans, sweaters.  However, I also brought some black knit skirts and a single fancy sundress. And a hat. I burn easily, so that was essential.  I only have three pairs of shoes with me: hiking boots, sneakers, and a pair of ballet flats. A few other things are on the way, but I think this should get me through the first weeks.

When my unpacking is done, I set my suitcases by the wardrobe, and then realize something: I have no food. And it's getting late. "What time did Lewis say the store in town closed?"  I check my cell phone: no signal, but it's 6pm. Definitely time for a trek into town.

I look at my clothes. They're clean enough for company, so I just grab my blue windbreaker and leave.

It's a two-mile walk, and it takes me about half an hour to get into the main part of town.  It's…quaint. There's a general store next to a doctor's office.  They're both closed. The shop has a board on it with a request for some kind of fish, and a calendar of events and wait, are these people's birthdays?

It's so cute, I almost can't stand it.

Looking around, I see that there's a main square to the south, with a couple of buildings near it. I walk down, and find that the wooden-sided place to the west is a saloon. Mercifully, it's actually open, so I go inside.

Marnie's there. "Hello Melanie!" She calls, waving to me. "Didn't expect to see you off the farm so soon!"  I walk over to join her.

"I realized I didn't have any food. So, I came into town to fix that."

"Oh, of course! Here, let me introduce you.  Gus is a sweetheart. And his food is amazing!"

I quickly discover that Gus is the proprietor, and that he's just as Marnie said. I choose to get a pizza and a salad, hoping to have leftovers for tomorrow. While I wait for my food, I get taken round to talk to the other folks who are in the saloon.

First, I meet Pam, a woman in her middle years with bleached-blonde hair and a lot of makeup.  Apparently, she used to drive the bus that I saw at the stop earlier, but it's been out of commission for a while.  She doesn't seem to be in the mood to talk, so we quickly move on.

Leah is a sculptor with ginger hair in a long braid.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but I feel a sense of kinship with her.  She's nice.  Friendly.  Seems to like the outdoors a lot.  Maybe it's that we both have long hair–though hers is redder than mine–or that we're both eating salad.  Whatever it is, I say it would be nice to meet up sometime.  "Can I see your work?"

"Definitely! I live just south of Marnie, by the lake. Drop by and say hello when you have the chance!"

I promise to, and then Marnie and I move on to the others in the saloon:  Clint is the local blacksmith, who has brown hair, and mesmerizingly blue eyes. While he's carrying a few extra pounds, his body looks powerful, and I imagine he's probably good with the ladies.  However, I rethink this when I catch him casting furtive glances at Emily.  He seems paralyzed by fear, even though she appears really friendly.

Emily works behind the bar with Gus.  Her hair is the same blue as her eyes, and her sunny disposition seems a natural complement to the color scheme.  I can't blame Clint crushing on her, even if there does seem to be something of an age gap. His shyness is kind of adorable.

Finally, there's Shane, Marnie's nephew.  He's of medium height, and has hair that's so black it's almost purple.  A 5-o'clock shadow darkens his jaw, and I'd imagine it's hard for him to look clean shaven for long.  For a moment, I picture him in a trench-coat and fedora, film noire style, but shake the image off.  He's dressed way too casually for that to fit his personality.

Marnie looks a little wary when she introduces us, and I quickly see why: Shane is drunk, and he's not a nice one. When I thank him for loading the straw bales, he makes an irritated noise and says, "yeah, well, I didn't have a lot of choice," without really looking at Marnie. I peek at her from the corner of my eye, and she's blushing.

"Well, thanks anyway," I say, and then take Marnie's arm in mine, leading her back to her table with a "see you around!"

As we sit down, Marnie starts with, "I'm so sorry–"

"Don't be. He's a adult. He can behave how he likes."

She sighs, "that's what I keep telling myself, but I worry. I see where he's at right now and just don't know what to do. He clearly needs help, but…"

"You can't give it?"

"Exactly."

"Well, I'll try to be nice to him.  See if there's anything I can do to help."  I cast a furtive glance in his direction, but he's not really paying attention to me.  He's back in his pint.  "These things usually aren't about the alcohol.  He seems pretty…down."

Marnie reaches across the table, and takes my hand.  "That's really sweet of you."  She pauses.  "This is ridiculous, but for the record?  I didn't force him to load the straw bales.  He volunteered.  He's a good man…just, a bit lost right now, I think."

I nod.

Gus brings my food over, and I dig in.  It really is good.


Marnie and I talk a bit longer, mostly about nothing, and then I take my leftovers and walk home.  As I leave town, I realize that the only light I have is my cell phone.  Fortunately, the moon is full, so I don't need to use it to see my way.

It's a little spooky, walking by myself in the dark in the countryside.  But it's also incredibly peaceful.  There's a breeze sighing through the trees, and a few optimistic frogs are singing to each other.  Something inside me seems to open up, and I swear that the world takes on a luminous quality.  I'm home, I think, really and truly home.

Chapter Text

The next day, I wake up with a sore back.  The camping cot seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but it's not a great long-term solution to the bed problem.  The air is a little chilly, but not too bad.  Tonight I'll try adding an extra log to the fire before I go to sleep.

I had my clothes for today stuffed into my sleeping bag, so they're pre-warmed when I put them on.  Jeans and a flannel.  It's very practical clothing, but I can't stand it.  There are some days when I just feel like wearing a skirt, and unfortunately, this is one of them.  After a bit of thought, I decide to change into a skirt and tights.  Hopefully, they won't get snagged too badly, and I can feel like myself for the day.

Breakfast is leftover cold pizza and salad from the night before, washed down with spring water.  I make a mental note to be sure to go back into town around midday to go to the store. Then head outside.  The air is chilly, and there's a layer of frost on the ground.  Fortunately, I have a jacket, hat and gloves to keep me warm while I walk the perimeter.  I also take my hair down from the braid I'd tossed it into, to give me an added layer of insulation. 

It takes me about an hour, and gives me a sense of what I have to work with.  There's a lot that's promising: tons of berry bushes are dotted around, and what seems to be a small orchard lies to the west of the property.  It's near the remains of a greenhouse, which lies near the trail to Robin's house.

A chunk of the property is taken up by four ponds.  Three of them are fairly small–useful for watering livestock or crops, but not very deep.  But the fourth is large enough that it could be used for aquaculture of some kind.   A lot of the land is forested.  The wood is mostly pine, but there are also some oaks and maples.  I'm hoping that the maples are sugar maples, and that I can tap them next year.  Dad used to be an arborist, so he should be able to advise me on that. I snap a picture of one to send him the next time I get cell service.

There are a few massive logs lying around as well.  To my layman's eye, they look like they'd still be useful for carpentry projects.  The bark has fallen off, but the wood isn't yet "punky"–decomposing.  I wonder if Robin might trade some work in exchange for them.  I can't use them myself, but she might be able to.

The soil doesn't seem great, but I'm hoping that if I scrape enough goop off the bottom of the ponds, and make mulch out of leaves that I can improve things quickly.  On the bright side, sandy soil drains well, so I can grow lots of root crops!

I check the time, and see that it's about 8 am.  It took me about 40 minutes to walk to town yesterday, so shouldn't waste too much time waiting for things to open if I leave now.  Out of curiosity, I check my mailbox, and find that I have a couple of letters.


One is from Lewis, officially welcoming me to town, and giving me a packet of Parsnip seeds.  Huh.  It's like he read my mind about the soil.

The second letter is from a man named Willy, who invites me to come visit him by the seaside, and says he has something to give me.

Well, at least if I'm too early to go to the shops, I can go say hello?

I head back inside, add a small log to the fire, and reduce the amount of air flowing into it.  Hopefully that will keep the fire from burning out while I'm away.  I put a bucket of water on the wood stove to heat, then I head out.

The route to town is really nice, and I've warmed up enough to unzip my coat by the time I get there.  Pierre's shop is just opening, and I walk in happily.  Just like the board out front, this shop is too cute for words.  It's the epitome of a general store, the type of thing you'd expect to show up in a movie about the westward expansion.  There are shelves filled with staples like flour and sugar, and some bins hold apples, carrots, and other assorted groceries.  There are also racks and racks of seeds and I see a sign reading, "order your seeds here for spring planting!"

As I reach the back of the shop, I realize there's a man back there looking at me interestedly.  He has medium brown hair and wears glasses.  "Hello," I say to him, walking closer.

"Why hello there.  Are you the new farmer?"

"I am indeed.  And are you Pierre?"

"Yep, that's me." He smiles, and offers me his hand, which I shake.  "So, what's the plan for the old farm?"

I chuckle wryly.  "Honestly, I'm not sure yet.  I'd like to plant some vegetables, but I don't know if it's too early, or what will grow.  Carrots? Potatoes? Squashes of some kind?"

"My wife, Caroline, might be able to give you some idea of the what. She's quite a gardener herself.  As for the when…" he thinks for a bit.  "Might be too early.  The last frost here tends to be the end of March, so you have some time for planning.  It's too bad your greenhouse isn't in better shape."  I look at him, quirking an eyebrow, then it hits me:

"It's funny—I knew I was moving to a small town, but I didn't realize quite what that meant.  Of course you know about the greenhouse."

"Ha!  Well, yes.  But it's also because my daughter–Abigail is her name–Abby loves exploring, and used to go wander around your place."  He pauses.  "Don't worry though.  When Lewis told everyone you'd be moving in, we told her she should stop wandering around your property, as it's not polite.  She'll…probably listen to us."  He makes a face that suggests this isn't a given, and I laugh.

"Oh!  That's okay.  If she wants to drop by and say hello and take a walk, she's welcome to.  I just want to know that someone's around, so I don't get surprised."

"That's very kind of you.  I'll let her know."

"Thanks!"

I go back to browsing what's available, and buy a number of items that I can cook or eat easily in the cooking facilities I have available.  I also buy some seeds, with the intent to plant them once it warms up and the soil is ready.  Hopefully by summer, I can eat salads from my front yard. 

Pierre offers to have someone drop them by my place, which I appreciate.  Canned goods, flour and sugar are heavy, even with a backpack.  "You might also want to talk to Marnie about milk and eggs," he says.  "Eggs can keep without a fridge, and a small bottle of milk will keep alright outside for a day or two right now."  I thank him again, saying that I will, and then leave.

As I step outside, it's right before 10am, and I decide to walk around before going back to my place.  I didn't realize how lonely it would be living by myself a couple miles from other people.  It would be nice to meet the rest of my neighbors and see what's around.  Plus, I have that letter from Willy, and need to text my dad.

It looks like there's cell signal here, so I do the latter item first. Dad texts me back quickly, and says that yes, the maples can be tapped. Nice. We exchange a few more messages, and then he says goodbye.

It's starting to warm up, so I tuck my gloves and hat in my backpack, and start walking south.  At the far end of the plaza, two women are chatting.  One has green hair and is dressed in wide orange trousers and a pioneer blouse.  The other has brown hair in a ponytail, and looks like your standard issue suburban housewife. The green-haired woman turns out to be Caroline, Pierre's wife, and the other woman is named Jodi.  Her husband is off fighting in the Gotoran War, and she lives with her two sons.  "Sam's just finished college, and is living at home while working at Joja Mart right now.  He's trying to find another job, but the economy isn't great for Music majors at the moment."

I chuckle wryly.  "Yeah, it hasn't been great for arts of any kind for a while.  Does he know what he's looking for?"

"Honestly?"  her blue eyes sparkle, "I think he's hoping to start a band.  I'm going to give him to the end of the year to find something, and then I'm going to start being a bit pushy."  something sad flickers behind her eyes.  "To be honest, it's nice to have him home.  His baby brother–Vincent–really missed him while he was at school. Now that their dad is away it's good that Sam's back."

When asked, they point me in the direction of the beach. At my further query, Caroline says, "there's no showering area down there, but up in the mountains there's a hot springs, which also has showers in it.  It's right behind Robin's house.

"Of course," she grimaces, "Joja was doing something up there and caused a landslide.  So it's not accessible at the moment.  But they're going to clear the way pretty soon."

Thank goodness.  I shouldn't have to worry about the bathing issue for too long then.  Except...

"'Pretty soon' seems to be longer than we ever expect though!" Jodi says. "How long has Marlon's place been blocked off?"

"Didn't Sam say they'd almost gotten that unblocked though?"

"Yeah, two weeks ago!"

The two women laugh, and then look at me.  "Sorry," Jodi says. "It's not funny, really. Just something we've gotten used to. I'd say it should be fixed by early summer, at the latest."

"Well, that's something," I say. "I'm sure I can make do with what I have until then."

With that, I give them my thanks, and then head to the beach.  It turns out that Lewis' house is right near the entrance.  He's out in his front yard, weeding, so I go say hello.  We exchange pleasantries, and I thank him for the Parsnip seeds.  He laughs.  "I'm trying to build goodwill so that if you grow blueberries on the farm, you might share some with me.  I do love a good blueberry now and then."

"I'll try to remember that," I say, grinning. We chat some more, and I find out that he has a tourist map showing the local area.  There are closeups of Pelican town, and also the towns on either side.  I thank him for that as well, then we bid each other adieu. 

I go south once more, heading for a bridge that leads to the beach.  Suddenly, I stop in my tracks.  On the bridge is the most beautiful man I've ever seen in my life.  He's tall, and has flowing red-gold hair that's gently waving in the wind.  His jaw is chiseled, his nose is patrician, and he overall has the bearing of aristocracy.  His clothes fit the picture: He's wearing a red suit that looks like it would be at home in a parlor of a century ago, and his shoes shine.  And is that a cravat?  My heart thuds, and I can feel my face heating up.  Ohforyobassake staaaaaahhhhhp I wail inwardly,  trying to shake it off.  You're on a mission to meet Willy! Plus, he's probably a total fluff-brain–neither of you would be interested.  Calm down!

Fortunately, he's been staring into the water flowing under the bridge, and doesn't seem to have noticed me standing around like a moon-struck schoolgirl.  Cautiously I approach, half-hoping that he won't notice me.

My footfalls on the bridge shake him out of his reverie, and he looks up, then seems surprised.  "Oh, hello," he says, "I'm Elliott.  May I assume that you are the new farmer?"   His baritone voice is melodious and cultured, with just a hint of some kind of accent.  Be still my heart. No, seriously, calm the fuck down!

"Yes, I'm Melanie.  It's nice to meet you Elliott."  I offer him my hand, briefly wondering if he'll kiss it, but he shakes it like a normal person.  When our palms meet, I feel a spark, and take a breath.  He is just another human being.  Please stop.

"The pleasure is mine," he says.  "And what is it that brings you to Pelican Town?"

"It's kind of complicated.  The short version is that my grandfather left me the farm when he died, and I've only just found out.  I've been working in the corporate world for a long time, and thought that it would be nice to have a change."  I'm still too embarrassed to tell people that I want to write.  Maybe once I know them better, I'll open up and confess the details.

"Ah, this I can understand.  I too tired of my former life and longed for something of more meaning.  After some assessment, I decided to take some time off from teaching in order to pursue my dream of writing."

"Oh, that's amazing!  Is your work somewhere I can read?"  He looks pained, and I realize that maybe that's a sensitive subject.  I wonder what he'd do if I told him that I write too?

"I was actually out here contemplating plot points," he says.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt! Shall I let you get back to it?"

He makes a face that I don't quite understand, then nods.  "Yes, I suppose I should.  But it was lovely to meet you."

"Likewise, Elliott.  I hope we meet again soon."

With that, I'm off, and down the bridge.  I want to turn back and stare, but don't, on the off-chance that he'd catch me at it.  That would be mortifying.  But despite that, my mind chants Ell-i-ott – Ell-i-ott. It's like a waltz.  Another voice in my head chimes in: Please don't start writing songs about him until at least your third date. AND THERE ARE NOT GOING TO BE DATES, BECAUSE HE IS CLEARLY A FAIRY PRINCE IN DISGUISE AND WOULDN'T BE INTERESTED.

A terrible disguise, another third voice offers.  Seriously, who the hell dresses like that?

I take a few deep breaths trying to calm down. Sometimes, my mind is a very noisy place.  It's not that I literally hear voices.  It's just that I talk to myself a lot.  Time to restart meditation, I think.  Now: where am I?

Here!

What time is it?

Now!

And what are you doing?

Going to meet this Willy guy!

Right.  So let's focus on that and the beauty of this area, not the gorgeous man, okay?

OKAY!

Getting to the beach requires a short walk through an arboreal tunnel, and when I come through it, the view is breathtaking.  Nestled in the embrace of the brush are soft white sands, sloping down to azure waters.   Gulls flock and terns soar, while sandpipers pick through the detritus left behind by waves.  To my left there is a small cabin, which seems even more rustic than my own.  Straight ahead of me is a pier, on which sits a small building.  Is it a house? A shop?  I decide to investigate there first.

It turns out that it's both, and is home to Willy.  He's a crusty old fisherman, with silver-threaded dark hair and a face so weathered it looks like wood.  He seems calm, almost like the peace of the ocean has soaked into his soul.  But there's sadness there too.  "I've noticed that younger people here don't care about the art o' fishing," he says.  "But yer grandpappy was an avid fisherman, and I thought you might like to try it.  So, here's an old rod of mine."  What he hands me seems to be made of bamboo.  It's lovely, actually, though it appears to have had many adventures already.

"I've set it up with some tough line, so you should be able to catch anything that lives around here.  Care to give it a whirl?"

"Oh, sure.  Thank you!"  This is honestly a little odd for me, though I used to fish with my family when I was younger.  I just hate the feeling of spearing a worm on my hook.  The grating, slightly squishy feeling, and the way the worm writhes at being hooked make me painfully aware that I'm killing something for my sustenance.  Same with watching the glassiness steal over the fishes' eyes when you pull them out of the water.  But if I'm trying something different by moving here, maybe it's good for me to be aware of this.  I need to be more honest with myself.  Honest about what I eat, what I spend my time on, and how I feel about things.  Eep, feelings.  My cheeks flame as a certain new acquaintance comes to mind.  Be here now, please. I remind myself.

Willy and I spend a couple of hours going over the basics of fishing.  He helps me bait the hook, laughing at the way that I get squicked out by it.  "You could always try bug meat, if y'go to the caves up north of town," he says, "but it's not a very safe place to spend yer time."

I catch a few mackerel, and he shows me how to kill them cleanly and fillet them, then cooks them up for us to share for lunch.  All in all, he seems very kind, and I give him my sincerest thanks before I leave.  "Willy—are there any vegetables that you particularly like?  Or anything that might grow on the farm I can give you?"  He laughs.

"That's very sweet of you.  If you have any extra corn or potatoes, feel free to bring them by.  I can add them to my chowder.  But seeing you fishing is really all the thanks I need.  It'll be nice to have someone to share this with."

Elliott is gone from the bridge, which may be a good thing.  I hope that he's getting some writing done.

Once I get back home, I consider trying to fish in the larger pond, but decide against it.  Instead, I put the fishing rod into the shed, and then go out and start gathering fallen wood.  By sunset, I have several large stacks set up in front of my porch: one of tinder, one of kindling, and one of larger branches that could be used for a proper fire.

I'm about to go inside when a purple-haired girl shows up on a bicycle.  There's a crate strapped to the back, and I realize this must be my groceries from earlier.  "Hello," I say, "are you from Pierre's?"

"Yeah, he's my dad.  Such a taskmaster."  The girl gets off the bike and removes the crate from it.  I walk over and take it from her, putting it on the porch.  "I'm Abby,"  she says, offering me her hand.

"Melanie," I say, shaking it.  "I hear you liked to come ramble over here?"

She blushes a little.  "Yeah, I hope you don't mind.  It's just that no one was around before, so we all thought this place was abandoned."

"No, I totally get it.  You're welcome to come and hang out here, if you'd like."  I guess I should think of Abby as a young woman, rather than a girl, since she looks like she's in her early 20s, but there's something about her that seems vulnerable and young.  I don't know why, but I really like her.  I want to be her friend.

"Uh…" I realize what I've just said, and correct myself.

"I just meant, as long as you let me know you're around, I'm fine with you walking around the property.  You seem like you can take care of yourself."

She smiles, "you're a little funny, but thank you.  I might take you up on it."  She looks around hesitantly.  "have you walked around the woods outside of your property?  It's really nice back there.  There are some lakes, and there's a tower where a guy who I think is a wizard lives."

"A wizard?"

"Yeah, I know it sounds bonkers, but I swear it's true.  There are all these weird noises, and sometimes strange lights from there."

"Huh.  This was my first full day here, so I haven't seen it.  But I will definitely check it out."

"Yeah, just keep walking south after you reach Marnie's.  If you want me to show you sometime, just stop by the store.  I'm taking classes online and working at Dad's so…my schedule is free."  She smiles.  I have the feeling that she doesn't talk much.

"That sounds good!" I think for a minute.  "Actually, what's your schedule like tomorrow?  Want to show me around?"

"Yes!  That would be awesome!"

"Cool.  Where should we meet?"

She thinks.  "I have band practice from noon to about 3.  Can I come over around 9?"

"Yeah, that's perfect.  I'll see you around then!"

"Great.  See you tomorrow!" 

"Yeah, see you tomorrow!"

She turns her bike around and turns on a headlight before riding back the way she came.  I go inside and look through my supplies before deciding to heat up some vegetable soup for dinner.

That night, I dream of the apple creatures, and a purple haired man, and of dancing with Elliott.

Chapter Text

Elliott appreciates routine.  Since he's moved to Pelican town, he's found it to be the thing that keeps him focused. 

Get up.  Stretch.  Coffee.  Write.  Eat breakfast.  Take time away from home.  Go home and write.  Exercise.  Eat. Write.  If he's feeling hungry, he'll have something light in the evenings.  Otherwise, he'll write until he's tired, and then go to sleep.

Some days, he visits Leah, his artist friend.  Some days he plays the piano, trying to improve on the skills he gained as a young man.  Some days he goes to the library, knowing that reading can help improve one's writing.  Many days, he stands on the bridge and watches the river flowing by.  But even through all of this, his focus is mostly writing.  Poetry, short stories, characterizations.  World building.  He wants to write a novel, but so far that goal has eluded him.  He can't seem to spin up the plot for something that big.  Part of it is that he can't decide on a genre.  But part of it is that there's nothing he feels is compelling enough to prompt the writing of one hundred thousand words.

Perhaps a poetry and story collection will suffice. He thinks.  After all, that would be a book.  Yet to him that seems like a second-place prize; a participation trophy, for one unable to engage at a champion's level.

He is thinking about this on a day in early March, watching water flow under the bridge, and reflecting on how it mirrors his days.  Footfalls rouse him from his reverie, and he expects to see Leah.  But though the woman on the bridge resembles her superficially, the two are not one in the same.  This woman's hair is darker–chestnut, not red–her nose is thinner, and her face is dusted with freckles.  She's got large green eyes, and is somehow doll-like in her appearance.  Though there are the suggestions of lines on her face, she seems young, hesitant.  Perhaps it's the rosy glow of her cheeks.

All this flashes through his mind in an instant, and he smiles as he says, "Oh, hello. I'm Elliott.  May I assume that you are the new farmer?"  He's done the math based on the gossip in town, and suspects that this early in the morning in the middle of the week, this won't be a tourist.

"Yes, I'm Melanie.  It's nice to meet you Elliott."  She offers her hand, and he takes it, noting that her cheeks flush at his touch.  How intensely charming, he thinks.  She is rather lovely.  Then: none of that, you've a book to write.

In spite of himself, he says, "the pleasure is mine." and means it.  Was that a spark he felt, as their hands met?  "And what is it that brings you to Pelican Town?"

"It's kind of complicated.  The short version is that my grandfather left me the farm when he died, and I've only just found out.  I've been working in the corporate world for a long time, and thought that it would be nice to have a change."

"Ah, this I can understand.  I too tired of my former life and longed for something of more meaning.  After some assessment, I decided to take some time off from teaching in order to pursue my dream of writing." This is the point where people generally roll their eyes and become dismissive, so her enthusiasm catches him off guard.

"Oh, that's amazing!  Is your work somewhere I can read?" Her eyes shine with admiration and something deeper.  Is that sadness hidden there?  How intriguing.  Her face is mobile, and she looks him full in the face, holding him, pulling him in.  But no, he mustn't get distracted.

"I was actually out here contemplating plot points."  More like I was trying to lure one in, as if fishing with my eyes.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt! Shall I let you get back to it?"

Once more, he is caught off guard, this time by her sincerity.  This woman seems like an open book, and he wants to lean in and read the sentences of her soul.  Focus man, focus.  "Yes, I suppose I should.  But it was lovely to meet you."  And Yoba help him, he's telling the truth.

"Likewise, Elliott.  I hope we meet again soon."  With that, she turns and walks away.  He watches her go, mystified, and then realizes that he's also enjoying the aesthetic quality of her walking.  There's a sway in her hips that draws the eyes, and he tears his eyes away, blushing.  I cannot afford to be caught up in these pursuits.  Focus.  But there is a humming under his skin, and words start to fill his mind, and so he rushes back home to his cabin.  And if what he writes is somewhat sordid, well, at least he's writing.  And if the new woman in town calls his muse to come out and play, well, perhaps he should see more of her.

And what a pity that will be. He thinks, wryly.  Not a pity at all.

Chapter Text

I wake up feeling languorous, reluctant to start moving. Fragments of my dreams tantalize me, and I want to skip back into them even though I'm rested. It's a good thing Abby is coming over soon, otherwise I might not get up.

I'm glad to be awake though, because the morning is beautiful.  The sunrise paints the sky in watercolor hues; the clouds stained pink with the promise of sun. Mist hovers over the ponds and above the grass, which is covered with frost. The cabin is warm, and I feel intensely cozy, like some forest creature in its den.

Breakfast is a light affair: a roll with butter, instant coffee with milk. As Pierre said, it does keep pretty well outside.  "What should I do in summer?" I muse. "Maybe I could put it in the lake?"

I'm not sure if there would be sanitary issues, but shelve it for further thought. The bottles are glass, so it might be okay.

Today is a trousers day. I toss on jeans, hiking boots and a flannel, before putting on my coat and going outside. The area close to the cabin is now clear of deadwood, and I consider my work options. I could go farther afield to continue with that, or I could start clearing the tall grass and weeds.

"I hate weeding," I say to no one, and then go to the shed to look for a pitchfork. It's going to take some serious work to get this land cleared. Delaying it won't help anything.

9AM finds me sweaty and annoyed, down to my t-shirt in the 5-degree weather. At least something's actually done. Shortly after I started weeding, I realized that I should really have a compost pile. So, I started one. At some point, I'll try to make a series of bins, but for now, what I have must suffice. There's a big pile of grass and weeds there, and a 5 by 5 foot patch of bare earth greeting the sun.  The soil is surprisingly good, given the geography of the area.  While it's quite sandy, there is some humus too.  I guess leaving it fallow where there are so many leaves to decompose helped.

I hear the whirr of a bicycle, and turn to see Abby riding up.  "Hey there," she says, riding up.  "Productive morning, huh?"  I look at the small patch of ground I have cleared, and laugh wryly.

"Sure, if this was an allotment in a community garden."

"Don't be so hard on yourself.  It's more than was cleared when you got up, right?"  This is a surprisingly kind assessment from someone who seems a little self-absorbed.  I smile. 

"True." There's a pause.  "Um, do you mind if I go change? I feel pretty scruffy."

Abby laughs.  "We're not going anywhere nice but if you want to change, go for it."

I think about how sweaty I've gotten, and the fact that if I change my tee, I can probably put my flannel back on.  "Yeah, I'll be out in a sec."

A quick change, and I'm ready to go.  As we walk across the farm, Abby points out various landmarks to me. "Those are salmonberries–people act like they're gross, but they're pretty tasty.  Especially when you make jam with them!

"If you duck under that big tree branch over there, you'll get to a clearing that seems like you could sleep in it.

"Robin once told me that she wanted to use that stump to make an epic table—you should see if she still wants to do it."

I'm interested in all of it, but that last bit really perks me up.  "Yeah?  I was thinking about seeing if she'd like to buy some of the wood on the property.  Maybe a swap for some carpentry or something." 

Abby gives me a sideways look.  "What's wrong with the house as it is?"

"Where do I start?"  She laughs a little.  "Seriously, I don't mind it, but it's very…"

"Rustic?"

"Yeah, I keep trying to find a better word for it, but that's what it is."  I shrug helplessly.

"Well, it's worth asking.  Robin is super nice.  I bet she'd be glad to do a trade."

"Thank you." I try not to sound skeptical, but it seems like Abby doesn't have much life experience outside of this small town. Of course, her parents do run a store, and she's known Robin a long time.  Still...Robin has to run a business.  How good of a trade would it be?

We reach the edge of the farm, and Abby starts pointing more out to me.  "That's Marnie's house—I guess you already met?"

"Yeah." Should I ask about Marnie and Lewis? Maybe when I know people better.

"And there's Leah's cottage, of course."  She then points to our right–west–and says, "on Fridays and Sundays, this lady parks a cart over there and sells stuff.  I think she's one of the Traveling people, but her wagon is pulled by a pig, not horses!"

"Huh.  What does she sell?"

"Seeds, weird produce…sometimes furniture."

"I'll have to check that out."

"If you keep walking past her cart, there's another huge tree down.  I'm not sure why no one's cleared it yet.  There's a lot of deadwood in the area behind it, and a pond."

"Nice."

Abby starts getting excited.  "Okay, and over here…" She guides me toward one of the large hills that dot this area.  "Is the tower."  I look up.  Indeed, there's a large stone tower perched at the top.  It's covered in vines, and looks like it belongs in a fantasy novel. Smoke comes out of a chimney that's perched on the roof.

"Who lives there?"

"I'm not really sure." Abby is looking at me avidly. "You can see it?"

"Um, yeah, of course.  It's plain as day."

"Sorry, I know that's a weird question.  But yeah...no one really knows the owner."  She's watching me still, as if searching for something.

"Wait, so no one knows the owner?  It has a door," I point to the chimney, "and there's clearly someone home.  Has no one knocked to say hello?"

"So…" Abby looks away.  "This is going to sound nuts.  But, honestly…you're only the third person I've met who's shown much interest in this place."

"Wait, seriously? Who wouldn't be interested in this?"

"Yeah.  And everyone else I've talked to is like 'lol, why are you spending time in the woods, it's dangerous!' or 'mysterious tower? Yeah, what about it?' I swear, it's like it's enchanted or something."

"Huh."  She looks up at me.

"Do you believe me?"

I think about this for a minute.  Do I? "I don't disbelieve you." I shrug.  "I can think of a lot of reasons why people would ignore it.  People don't like things they can't explain…and if the occupant is somehow making the tower seem spooky, then of course people would avoid it."  Abby looks a little disappointed, but not crushed. 

"Lewis said that the owner comes to local festivals, but I've never noticed anyone who looked like they'd live here.  Also...I tried knocking on the door once, but when I got about halfway up the stairs, I started panicking, and had to go back.  As soon as I walked down, I felt better.  Maybe it happened to other people and they got really freaked out."

"Whoah…seriously?"  I think about this.  The last few years, there have been news stories about rays that can make people feel fear in their presence.  "Does some kind of mad scientist live there?"

"My mom used to spend a lot of time in this area, but she said she couldn't ever find a way up to the place."

"Really?"

"Yeah.  I mean, the stairs are kind of hard to find, but not that hard."

"Where are they?  Do you mind if I test the fear zone?"

"Oh!"  She looks up.  "Yeah, that would be…interesting." She pauses, her eyes getting glassy as though her focus is turned inward.  "Yeah, that would be really interesting.  C'mon."

We walk a little ways, and come to a set of stairs that are somewhat hidden in the landscape.  Steep hills slope up to either side, and look somehow menacing.  Not really a place that invites visitors, I think.

When we get to the bottom, Abby starts looking a little anxious.  "Um…"

"Why don't we try going up together, maybe one step at a time?"

"Yeah, okay."

Maybe it's Abby's story, or maybe it's the general area, but the air here feels strange, somehow.  Thicker? Colder? Tingly?  I can't quite explain it, but this isn't somewhere I want to spend a lot of time.  We go up about six steps, and I notice that Abigail's already pale complexion has gotten a lot paler.

"Uh, you alright there?" I almost call her kiddo, but manage to catch myself.  She's not that young.

"I uh…"  She takes a deep breath, and swallows.  "Sorry, I'm just.  My heart is pounding, and I keep feeling like there's something screaming 'RUN AWAY, DANGER' in my head."

"Okay.  Do you want to go down?"  I take stock of myself.  I feel a little anxious, but I'm not panicking.  Yet.

"Are you okay?"  Abby almost seems offended.

"Okay, but not good.  Do you mind if I keep going?  This definitely seems weird."

Abby slumps, then nods.  "I'm…I'm going down.  I'll see you at the bottom."

I turn and look up.  The tower looms large in my field of vision.  I take a deep breath, and climb up the remaining steps.  At the top, I pause.  There's a weird static charge to the air, and I feel goose flesh forming on my arms.  There is definitely something not right about this place.

I manage to walk up to the door, but the static is so thick that I'm worried how my hair will look.  I reach out an arm to knock on the door, but my hand cannot make contact. There seems to be a force-field around the entire building.  It's like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when they couldn't touch the monolith!

Suddenly, I have the distinct impression that I'm not alone.  I look around, but I don't see anyone.  Nonetheless, I say, "Sorry to disturb you.  I just wanted to meet my new neighbors.  My name is Melanie, and I live on the farm to the north of here.  If you'd like to say hello sometime, please drop by."

I turn, and walk sideways to the stairs, then turn and RUN down them.  At the bottom, Abby is looking up at me with wonder.  I grab her hand, and drag her to the bottom of the hills, before stopping.

"Yoba, oh YOBA, that was literally the creepiest thing I've ever done," I say.

"What happened?!"

"The top…at the top, there was some kind of weird static charge.  And I literally couldn't touch the door."

"Whaaaat?"  It sounds insane to me saying it out loud, but Abby believes me.  We stare at each other.

"Yeah, and then I felt this…presence.  I apologized for disturbing the occupant, and invited them around to say hi sometime–"

"holy YOBA are you crazy?!"

"What? What's wrong with that? It's polite!"

"Don't invite freaky presences to your house.  Who knows what will happen!"

"Oh." I say, dumbfounded.  "Shit."

"Shit is right!"  Abby starts laughing nervously.

"Um, strange presence, if you mean any harm, please take my apologies by stay the heck away from my farm, okay?"  She's giggling harder now.

"You're ridiculous."

"Yeah, I know.  I gave away my dignity with my suits."  She snickers, and then I start chuckling, and suddenly we're just laughing our heads off together.  I think I've made a friend.

"We should go, right?"  She checks her watch.

"Oh man!  I'm late for practice!"  We walk really fast back toward Marnie's house.  Abby looks over at the road.  "Do you want to come with me? I can introduce you to Sam and Sebastian.  They're cool."  I think about it.  It's that, or keep ripping up weeds.

"Sure, I'd love to.  Plus, you need to get your bike at some point."

"Oh yeah!  Thanks for the reminder."

____

 

Turns out, practice happens at Jodi's house.  Her older son–the one she thought had rockstar ambitions–is the lead singer and guitarist for the band.  He's a tall blonde dude with hair straight from an anime, and a deep love for his denim jacket.  The other band member is named Sebastian, and he does crazy things with his keyboard.  It turns out that he's Robin's son.  His hair is dark and thick, and cut to hang down to one side of his face.  His eyes are a deep, rich brown and have an epicanthic fold.  Seems like maybe he's part Gotaran. I'm sure that's a little bit stressful, given the war.  It only started a few years ago, but even in Zuzu city, I noticed people of Gotaran ancestry were being treated differently shortly after the conflict broke out.

Abby plays drums, and sometimes the flute.  I listen to the band play for a while, and applaud enthusiastically after each song.  They're actually pretty good, if eclectic in styles.

"Are you guys going to have a show soon?" I ask.

"We've been thinking about it!" Sam says, "but we're not entirely sure what to call ourselves, or what genre to pick.  At some point, we should probably choose a genre."

"You guys already have a  really unique sound. Why not say you're pop/rock with a country twist?"

"Synth country?" Sam laughs.

"Electro-bluegrass?" Sebastian's mouth quirks up on one side.

"Western Rock?" Abby laughs.

"Actually," Sam says, "that sounds about right.  Western Rock."  The band members look at each other.

"Now we just need a name," Sam says.

"How about 'Fermented Banana?" I ask, laughing.  Sam and Abby look at me perplexed, Sebastian smirks.   Ah, a fellow webcomic nerd.  NICE,

"We can throw stuff around after we have more songs," Abby says.

"On that note, I should probably let you guys practice, and head out.  Abby, do you want me to bring your bike back to your house?"

"Oh!  Isn't that out of the way for you?"

"I don't mind.  Gives me a good excuse to stretch my legs some more."

"Yeah, thanks!  I have some class work to do tonight, so if you don't mind, that would be great."

"Sure thing.  See you all around!"  They wave me out.

 

It's about 1pm, and I''m hungry, so I grab an apple with some peanut butter at home before I take Abby's bike back.  Hopefully she won't mind that I rode it back to her parent's place.

After I drop things off, I try to decide what to do next.  You could go to the beach again… I feel my cheeks flush and decide against it.  Hopefully if I give it more time I'll be able to talk to Elliott like a normal person.

I feel like I've gotten a pretty good lay of the land to the south of town, so I decide to go north.  There are some stairs leading to the top of a hill that overlooks the square, and I take them, hoping for a good view.

I get a decent one, and also find a cute park.  There are some swings over in one area, and I go use one since I have nothing else to do.

The rhythmic motion of the swings is soothing, and I find myself in contemplation.

What am I doing here?

I knew this voice would show up.  It's the doubting, FOMO, Be Normal voice.  Call it the voice of Safety or Reason, if you want to be more polite about it.

Literally, what am I doing here?

Literally? You're sitting on a swing in a park in a small town, enjoying the day.

Touché.  But what is the point of this? Don't I need to be making money for when I'm old, vs burning it on an escape in the country?

I dunno.  There are people who work their whole lives to move to a place like this.  Why wait?

Fair. Besides, it's your third day here.  And you probably just pissed off a wizard today, so—

OH DUDE!  THAT TOTALLY HAPPENED, didn't it?

Somehow, in the fuss of meeting everyone in the band I'd completely forgotten about what happened in the woods.  Did that actually happen?

I decide that it's worth going back, but am distracted by the appearance of Lewis coming up the stairs.  He seems equally surprised to see me.  "Oh, Hello Melanie," he says, "I was just about to check in on the old community center.  Care to join me?"

"Oh, sure."  It turns out that it's a building at the other side of the park, which I haven't gotten around to looking at yet.  As we stroll over, I ask Lewis about the tower in the woods, as casually as I'm able.  "Oh, that?  That's no concern," he says.  "An eccentric fellow named Rasmodus lives there.  He comes into town sometimes on the festival days.  Otherwise he keeps to himself."

"Oh."  I'm honestly a bit crestfallen.  I'd been hoping that it was something more interesting than that.  But then I remember what Abby mentioned what Lewis said, and also the way people kind of pass over the tower.  Maybe this is something of that?  "So, when you say eccentric…?"

"He likes his privacy. Good with special effects. Sets up the Spirit Festival decorations."  Lewis pulls a big ring of keys out of his pockets, and slides to the one with a green plastic cover on it.  "Nice fellow.  Doesn't talk much. Something of a flamboyant dresser."  He opens the door.  "If you're worried about it, don't be.  But you can worry about this."

I'm intrigued more by the description of Rasmodius' clothing. You'd think he'd stand out in a crowd. But, I peer inside the building to be polite. The interior looks like it was beautiful once, but has fallen into disrepair.  The wallpaper is peeling, light seeps in from cracks in the walls, and there is dust everywhere.  Strangely, it looks like there's a little hut built from twigs and leaves in one corner.  Lewis seems to think that's weird, because he walks over to it and peers in.  "Huh, I wonder if Jas and Vincent were in here recently.  It must have been them, since there are no other kids around to make something like this."

The little hut sets off something in my mind.  Why does it look familiar?  A flash of color in the corner catches my eye, and I almost see—something—as I turn my head.  There's another flash, and I turn my head again.  Then, I catch sight of it—there's a small creature that looks a lot like an apple waving at me from the corner.

AN APPLE?!

The image of my cousin and I playing in the woods comes to mind.  "These little apple dudes keep the forest safe.  Be nice to them!" She instructed in the fashion of older kids everywhere.  I was totally into it, somehow knowing exactly what she was talking about.  My heart pounds.

"Melanie?" I've noticed that Lewis is looking at me with concern.

"Sorry, I thought I saw something.  Did you say Jas and Vincent built this?"

"They must have.  Who else would have?"

Little apple guys apparently,

"Wait, did you say you saw something? Drat, I thought we'd kept the rats out."  He looks at me.  "I don't suppose I might persuade you to take on a bit of a pest control project?"

"Ummm…Maybe?"

"It wouldn't be big, just putting traps in here, and checking them once a week."

"Oh, sure.  I can do that."  It will at least get me to go into town, which will be good.

"Great!  Pierre doesn't have them, but Joja does. It's to the East of here and across a river."

"Oh, thanks.  I'll check it out."

Lewis looks at his watch. "Blast—I need to go meet someone at the bus stop to get a ride to the Stardew Valley Fair planning meeting in Ternville.  Do you mind closing up?"

At my "not at all" he gives me the key. 

"Great!  Thanks a lot, Melanie.  I'll see you later."

He scoots off, and I'm about to follow, but decide not to just yet.  If I'm going to follow through with helping, I might as well see how big this place is.

Turns out, its pretty big.  I peer into most of the rooms, seeing more signs of decay.  In what looks like the crafts room, I find a weird brass plaque on the wall.  It's in a writing system I don't know, and has an elaborate border of leaves around it.

For some reason, it makes me think of the…whatevers…I saw earlier, which creeps me out enough to leave.

Over the river and through the town I go, and end up at Joja mart.  I sigh.  They may have been my employers for almost a decade, but that doesn't mean that I liked them or wanted to support them.  Still, beggars can't be choosers.  I walk in.

Compared to Pierre's shop, it's incredibly sterile and corporate.  It's got a familiar smell to it: the scent of baked goods made with loads of sugar and white flour. I wonder if all corporate groceries smell like this.

A man in a dark suit with weirdly maroon eyes walks over to me.  His dark hair is in a pompadour, and he looks supercilious.  "Hello, I'm Morris, customer service representative for Joja Mart.  Would you like to join today?"

"Ah, no thanks,"' I say.  "I'm looking for rat traps."

"Oh, they're in Aisle 7," he says.  Then, "Are you sure?  Lewis said that if one more person joined, We could have the community center as a warehouse.  It would provide more jobs in town and improve the area."  I briefly want to laugh at him, but decide against it. 

"I'll consider it," when Hell freezes over. "For now, I'll just get the traps."

"Lovely, lovely. Let me know when you want the application form." He oozes off, and I roll my eyes. Typical salesman. Always acts like they assume you'll say yes.  I'm not impressed.

As I walk along the aisle, I notice someone stocking the shelves. He seems familiar for some reason, and then I realize: it's Shane. "Oh, yeesh, no wonder you're such a grouch!" I exclaim.  His head comes up.

"Excuse me?"

I feel my face heat up with mortification. "Uh…I mean…"

Shane glares at me. "I'm sorry. I just used to work at Joja Corporate in Zuzu, andhonestlyIifeelsobadforanyonewhostillhastoworkforthem!"  I say all of this really quickly, and the last bit comes out in a rush. Shane's glare lessens then tiniest fraction, but he's still pissed.

"Then why are you in here?"

"I told Lewis I'd look into a rat problem in the community center, and he said Joja was the only place in town that sells traps."

"A real do-gooder, huh?" He seems condescending.

"More like, it seems like a bad idea to get on Lewis' bad side." I say it in a way that implies this is a joke. Actually, though, I'm kind of serious.

"Ha! Good one. He may be mayor, but he doesn't do much."

"I'll have to take your word for it."

"Do that." That was clearly a dismissal, but I can't quite let it go at that.

"Anyway, sorry for my foot in mouth disease. I'll leave you be."  He grunts in response, and I walk off.  Awkward

The rat traps are cheap.  As I walk back to to community center, I consider what I'm about to do. If the apple guys are real, do I want to harm them?  No, definitely not.  I decide to go back and investigate further, but I'll hide the traps somewhere, unset.

When I get back, I decide to put them in the drawer of a desk in the former admin office. Each time I turn my head, I see flashes of color and movement out of the corners of my eyes. It's a bit disorienting, so I finally say, "look, guys, if you want to have a peek at me, feel free to drop by my farm some afternoon when I'm out working. Or just send someone to say hello, now, if that's easier." I look at where I saw the last flash of color, and a green apple waves from behind a shelf, then disappears.

Holy flipping flip!!

I run over to the bookshelf and look behind it, to no avail. The little creature is gone.

I get a creepy feeling between my shoulder blades, and  turn around.  Nothing.

I nope right out of there, and stand in the sunlight for a moment, disoriented.  Did that really just happen? What is this town?  Wizards, apple creatures...it's all bit much.  And yeah, Lewis said that the guy who lives in the tower is just a normal guy but…I don't believe him.

I decide to go back home.  My muscles are starting to ache from the exertion earlier, and I think I've had enough excitement for now.  Time to go home to a warm bath and some pancakes.  Tomorrow will be a new day.

Chapter Text

When I wake up, my muscles tell me that I have been doing a lot of unaccustomed labor.  Rather than rushing out to continue digging or trying to chop wood, I decide to savor my coffee, and write my dad a letter.  Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure what to say.  If I were writing to my mom, I'd tell her about Elliott, but I feel a little weird writing in depth about him to dad.

Fortunately, I've known him my whole life, so I can catch him up on what he'd find interesting—or amusing.  We both like sci-fi and fantasy novels, and there's enough weird stuff in town to give him a sense of how otherworldly this place it turning out to be.  What I end up with is actually pretty entertaining, even to me.

Dear Dad,

I know it's only been a few days since I moved to Stardew Valley, but I thought it would be fun to write you a letter.  If you're wondering why I don't just call you, well, there are two reasons:

  1. This is more novel
  2. Cell service here sucks and I'd have to hike at least two miles to get a call in.  Crazy, right?

Not to say that I won't call/text (I did send you that one about the maple trees), it's just that you might end up getting more letters than calls at first.

Despite the bad cell coverage, I like it here a lot.  So far, I've met quite a few people, and they all seem pretty nice.  Lots of characters, too!  I've made friends with a girl named Abigail who used to explore the farm.  She's in a rock band and seems pretty adventurous.

There's an actual blacksmith, who seems to be in love with a local bar maid. There's also a guy who looks like Fabio, dresses like Byron, and lives in a shack by the ocean.  He says he's a writer, but it wouldn't shock me if it turns out he's actually a Selkie.

Surprisingly, he's not the most eccentric person in town: there's someone who lives in a tower in the woods, who I'm pretty sure is a wizard.  I haven't met him yet, but Abby showed me his house yesterday, and it's super weird.  The mayor got all shirty when I asked about who lived there, which just makes me want to know more.

Speaking of Lewis: The farm is even more rustic than he said, but I'm making do with what I have.  It's actually pretty fun improvising things.  The straw bales worked well to insulate the house, and so far, bathing in the washtub hasn't been too bad.  Hopefully I can rig something better up before the end of the summer though.  Otherwise, I might be moving home for the winter!

I guess that's about it for now.  I have garden plots to set up.

Hope all is well back home.  Please let me know how you're doing, and what days or times I can call you.  Maybe we could set up a phone date once a week?

Love you to bits,

Melanie

I address the letter and put a stamp on it, then take it out to the mailbox.  Surprisingly, there's a letter in it for me.  I take it out, quirking an eyebrow.  Like grandpa's letter, the envelope is heavy parchment, and sealed with wax.

The dark blue seal has the imprint of stars and a moon, and there's a small puff of smoke when I break it open.  I carefully pull out the letter inside, which is on equally nice paper.  It reads:

Melanie,

My sources tell me you've been poking around inside the old Community Center. 

Why don't you pay me a visit?

My chambers are west of the forest lake, in the stone tower.  I may have information concerning your… "Rat Problem".

Yours Sincerely,

M. Rasmodius, Wizard

"What."  It's not a question, it's a statement of confusion. "Seriously, a wizard?"  Yes, okay, I'd just written that to my dad...but I'd been partly joking.  I briefly wonder if Lewis told him what I'd said, but that seems ridiculous.  Ridiculous for a small town? Yeah, okay, maybe not entirely.

It seems like the only way to answer the questions running through my head is to go back to the tower.  Not a bad fate, all things considered.

I look over at my pitifully small field, and check my watch.  It's only 7:30 in the morning.  Everything I've ever read suggests that wizards are nocturnal creatures.  Although, it's all been fiction, so the reliability of the source material is in question.  Nevertheless, I decide to work on clearing more garden space, then head over in the afternoon.

———

It's about 4pm when I get ready to leave for the tower.  I didn't expect to leave that late, but I got caught up in what I was doing, and didn't find a good stopping point until mid-afternoon. The good thing is that I now 9 square meter plots cleared.  A good start. 

I decide that, if I'm meeting a wizard–and honestly, the fact that I'm actually thinking that is ridiculous–then I want to be clean and presentable.  So I do a quick pass with a washcloth and change clothes before leaving. 

Due to all the hard labor, I have a larger pile of dirty clothes than I'd like.  At some point, there will be wash to consider. Is there even a laundry in town? That's tomorrow's problem.  Now: Wizard.

It's golden hour when I arrive, and the light makes the tower look majestic and mysterious.  I approach the steps with trepidation, but today the air feels soft, even silky.  I'm able to touch the door, and, after knocking, a deep male voice calls, "Come In!"

I enter the building, and find a large room, filled with several bookshelves and various paraphernalia that I assume are occult.  A man with purple hair stands in the center of this, regarding me intently. He's tall and broad-shouldered, and wears a lot of black, though it's embellished with gold embroidery.  I wonder if any of the patterns have arcane significance.

"Hello, sir.  My name is Melanie.  You sent—"

"Yes, yes."  He waves my comment away.  "I am Rasmodius… Seeker of the arcane Truths. Mediary between physical and etherial. Master of the seven elementals.  Keeper of the sacred–well, you get the point."  He coughs politely.  "And you are Melanie.  The one whose arrival I have long foreseen."

"Because you talked to Lewis?"

Rasmodius looks annoyed, unimpressed with my interruption.

"No, I generally do not interact with him.  Your grandfather and I were acquaintances, and I kept an eye on his family once he left here.  I knew there was a strong chance that one of his children's children would arrive here one day.  And here you are."

This pronouncement seems intended to impress, but falls flat.  Someone leaving their grandchild a farm in a will isn't all that unusual, so it would be easy to predict.  If this guy "foresaw" something, it needs to be more specific than that to prove he's magical, not a scientist.  How'd he know about the "rat problem" then?  That thought stops me short.  Microphones? Hmmm…

"Well, sir, it's nice to make your acquaintance.  I'm sorry if I disturbed you yesterday."

"Ah," he looks sheepish, "not at all.  I was…away. You tripped my wards.  My apologies if my astral body caused you concern when I came back to see what was going on."

I think back to the feeling of a presence near me, and shudder.  This could all be further bluffing, but it did feel like I wasn't alone up there.  Could it really be true?  What would it mean if it is?

"You seem to be skeptical.  Here, I'd like to show you something."  He gestures toward an elaborate silver ring that's inlaid into the floor.  Together, we walk over to it, and he closes his eyes for a moment, before making some complicated hand gestures over it.  Suddenly, there's a flash of light, and a blue-white dome appears over the ring.  In it is one of the little apple guys.  A green one. It holds up its arms as if surprised or angry.

"Behold!" says the wizard.  I'm looking, and keep looking. It's hard to tell, but I think the little apple guy is looking at me sadly. "You've seen one of these before, haven't you?

"They call themselves the 'Junimos'.

"Mysterious spirits, these ones… For some reason, they refuse to speak with me." He makes a gesture, and the little creature disappears.

Maybe it's because you keep summoning and holding them against their wills?

"I'm not sure why they've moved into the community center, but you have no reason to fear them."

"I'm not afraid of them. But they surprised me."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. When I was young..." I trail off, unsure of how to say this.  "When I was a child, my cousin and I had a game we used to play, where we'd pretend there were 'little apple guys' who protected the forest.  We made a house for them in the woods one summer, and pretended we were protecting it from polluters."

"Really?  That's intriguing." He narrows his eyes at me, as if looking at something I can't see.  "Hmm…it's faint, but there's something in your aura that suggests an attunement to the forest. Perhaps it's in your blood.

"Do you remember any other strange occurrences from childhood? Whispers on the wind? Animals speaking to you, perhaps?"

"No, but I did see a weird golden plaque in the community center."

"'Weird'? How so?"

"Er...it was written in a script I've never seen before. And had lots of natural imagery on it."

"Most interesting." He pauses. "Interesting that you should use the word 'weird'. Its origins lie with the mystical.

"Stay here. I'm going to go see for myself.  I'll return shortly." With that he claps his hands, and disappears in a puff of mist and a flash of light.

I'm shocked. The flash was bright, but not blinding, and the mist is thin, not heavy enough to disguise anything. The man is gone, just straight up GONE.  I don't think there's science to explain that. Which means...

Well, it really strongly suggests the existence of magic.

Holy
Shit.

Suddenly, the door opens, and I jump in surprise. The wizard chuckles. "I thought that would be less alarming than reappearing back in the tower. It appears I was mistaken."  He  stops and looks at me gravely. "I found the note. The language is obscure, but I was able to decipher it. It said:

"'We, the Junimo, are happy to aid you.  In return, we ask for gifts of the valley.  If you are one with the forest then you will see the true nature of this scroll.'

"Hmm... 'One with the forest'… What do they mean?" His eyes lose focus, and he taps his chin. He looks past me, and his eyes snap back to the present. "Ah hah! Come here."

He walks over to the large cauldron that bubbles to the side of his workroom.  The liquid inside is green, and has steam coming off it it.  "This potion is made with ingredients from the forest.  Here…smell." 

I look at him for a long moment, but he meets my gaze unhesitatingly, and I realize that I'm not getting out of this.  Oy vey.  I lean over and take a tentative sniff.  It smells like…a forest.  Green growing things and decay combine to make something exotic, and for some reason, I feel like the scent makes me hear the wind in the trees and birds chirruping.  I close my eyes and inhale deeply.  Yes.  Definitely causing synesthesia.  That's…weird.  When I look at the wizard again, he smiles.

"What did you see?"

"Large trees.  And I heard…" forest sounds.

Rasmodius looks impressed.

"Well, well.  Seems I have a Sensitive in my home.  How very intriguing."  He turns aside to grab a cup and a ladle, then takes a measure out of the cauldron, which he hands to me.

"Here.  Drink up.  Let the essence of the forest permeate your body.  Let's see if we can't tune your sensitivities to the local environment."

Hesitantly, I take the potion.  "And if I say no?"

"Would you?  The Junimos came to you, not me.  Do you really want to turn down this call to adventure?"

I think about it for a moment.  This day has gotten very strange, very quickly. I'm talking to a wizard about nature spirits. This day can't possibly get more bizarre…right?

The brew tastes nutty, and sweet, and bitter.  It sings of a thousand thousand years of leaves, and the infinite twining of roots in the darkness.  It burns like the sun on the way down, and shudders of heat expand out through my body.  I feel like an extra eye opens in my forehead, and suddenly, I can perceive the infinitely complex web of life around me.  A voice says, "come, young one, and sit here."  How can I sit when I don't have legs or hips?  I am a tree…

Sometime much later, I wake up at home, tucked into my sleeping bag in my clothes.  I have no idea how I got here, but I don't feel scared…just tired.  Was all of that a dream? I wonder.  I briefly contemplate going to the community center to look, but it's dark outside, and it can wait until morning.

I get up long enough to add a log to the wood stove–why does it feel like it holds the memory of singing?–and change into my pajamas. And then I sink into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

I wake up feeling languorous and content. I hear the soft pata-pat-pat of rain against the roof, and close my eyes, snuggling deep into my sleeping bag. Outside, there is a raven on the roof, and two squirrels chase each other around an oak tree. The ground sings of the new life being nurtured in it, and trees hum with joy, calling their buds to break, so that new leaves can grow. Frogs sing their courting songs and the wind flies to and fro, spreading nature's gossip everywhere.

Wait, what? My eyes spring open, and I flail my way to the window. There are the squirrels. I risk going out in the rain, and sure enough, I startle a raven. I stare at it open-mouthed for a minute and then realize it's still freaking raining and go back inside.

I'm wet enough that I decide to change clothes before doing anything else. Snuggly things are a must: thick socks, jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and my softest sweatshirt. I stoke the fire, put the kettle on to heat, then hang my PJs over the back of a chair to dry. Then I sit down to think.

What the fuck just happened? I close my eyes again. There's a robin building a nest in the maple by the window, and some bats have gone to sleep in a cave north of the house. The rock is pleased by their company, and laughs with joy. I open my eyes again, stunned.

"What. The. Fuck." A pause. "I guess this is what I get for taking potions from strange men." The thought makes me laugh out loud, and I go into minor hysterics. It's completely warranted! I'M HEARING NATURE! I realize Fred is there at the table, and have a thought. Taking hold of the sides of his pot, I close my eyes again, and try to focus. Hi Fred! There's not a response per-se, but I...

Feel roots spreading through soil, there at the edges, it's so hard, but it's not stone, what is it? And where has the sun gone? The air here sings of sweetness to come but I long for the sun, and there's water outside and…

I open my eyes. "Sorry lil' buddy." Quickly, I take Fred out to get some water, and add "get a bigger pot" to my mental list of to-dos. "What the heck else was on there? Oh yeah…Talk to Robin, get more provisions, look in on the community center, and go see the Wizard again because apparently I'm still INTENSELY HIGH!" That has to be it, right? There were some mushrooms in whatever he gave me?

I have breakfast while trying to calm down. If there's one good thing about whatever's going on, it's that the…nature awareness…doesn't kick in until after a second or so of my eyes being closed. So at least when I blink I'm not being flashed with "birds getting down" or "your grass is really happy!" or "that worm is being eaten!" Small mercies. I'll take 'em.

Even after the dishes are done, it's still raining buckets, so I resign myself to a damp day. Fred comes back in. Rain gear goes on. I discover an umbrella in my luggage, and feel immensely pleased.

Being outside, it turns out, is harder than I expected. The new awareness–continued high?–is more intense when out of doors. The wind now whispers to me about all kinds of things. Birds, trees, a train, Sebastian outside smoking, a man in a tunic of leaves–Wait, what? I close my eyes, but the image is gone.

I try to focus on the physical sensations of my body, hoping it will ground me: the weight of my hiking boots. The feel of my skin inside my coat. The direction of gravity. The enemy's gate is down…

Somehow, I arrive at the wizard's tower. I can reach the door, no problem, but knocking does no good, and it's locked. Oh, Yoba! Now what? As I start to walk back home, there's another flash of the man in the leaves. There's the impression that he's north of me, somewhere higher in the hills. Can I make it to Robin's house? Maybe she can tell me who the heck this guy is.

It takes a while, but I somehow manage to get back to the farm, and then walk to Robin's. On the way, I pass the cave which I saw earlier. It's too dark to see anything inside of it, but I suspect that the bats are there, waiting for dusk to fall.

Up a path, past berry bushes and trees, and then across from an area covered by a landslide, I see a staircase leading down to a house. Hopefully that's the place. If it's not it, then I hope whoever lives there is friendly to strangers!

A sign on the door says that it is indeed the carpenter's place, and the operating hours are 9am-5pm Monday through Friday. Fortunately, I have my phone with me, and it says that it is indeed after 9, so I walk in. As I pass into the building and close the door, the sensations of nature fade into the background again, maybe even more than before. I take a deep breath, relieved.

Robin is sitting behind a counter in the front room. At the click of the door, she looks up. "Holy Yoba, you're soaked!" She comes around, and takes my umbrella. "Good grief, Melanie, what possessed you to come out in this weather? Shouldn't you be in your cabin? Or…" she trails off. "Please don't tell me the roof was leaking?"

"Oh, no, it's fine. I just wanted to talk to you about something, and I thought, the earlier the better!"

"Oh, what is it?" She looks hopeful. I can't exactly tell her about the visions, but fortunately, there's legitimate business to discuss as well.

"So…you know how there are a bunch of large trees down on the property?"

"Yes?"

"Well…I was wondering if you'd be interested in the wood. Or if you knew someone who might be interested in buying it."

"Oh!" Robin looks surprised and pleased. "There seems to be a lot of good hardwood down there. I'd love to take a look at it." She fixes me with a more focused gaze. "What would you want for it?"

"I'm not sure. Can we talk about some kind of house trade?" I pause. "Or maybe building a chicken coop?"

"You want to raise animals before you fix up your house?"

"Erm…" I'm completely taken aback. "Well, when you put it that way, it sounds pretty stupid. But…There's so much that needs to be done to bring the house up to 'modern' standard that it feels overwhelming. At least with chickens I'd have some company, and a source of food…or possible income."

Robin nods, understanding. "What would you want to do first?"

"Electricity would be nice. I could charge things without using my solar backpack, and there are electric water heaters and stoves. But isn't that really expensive?"

"It depends." She looks at me, measuring. "I know a guy in Gullswing village who could do the work for about 10,000 guilders." I suck in my breath and make a face. "I know, that's not a small sum, but it's about as low as you can go for running electrical lines."

"No, that makes sense." I think for a minute. Mom left me some money when she died, and that plus my savings is a pretty big chunk of change. But that would certainly take a bite out of it. "How much do you think it would cost to get internet run out there if I had power?"

Robin raises her eyebrows. "That I don't know. But Sebastian might be able to help you figure it out. Do you need it right away? He does internet stuff in the basement and you could probably use one of his machines." She pauses. "There's also the library."

"Oh!" I knew from the map Lewis provided that there was a library–with pretty good hours, for such a small town. But I didn't realize it had net service. "Are there terminals to use there as well?"

"I think so." Robin thinks. "Do you want me to see if Sebastian is up?" I check my phone, and see it's about 10am.

"Sure, if it's not too much trouble."

"No problem." Robin disappears through a doorway to my right, and I hear her walking down a set of steps. I close my eyes and rub my temples. After a couple of seconds, impressions rush in. Wow, there are a lot of spiders in this house.

I open my eyes again, and look through the doorway Robin left through. I see a white wall, and what looks like countertops. At first, it seems like a kitchen, but then I notice the microscope. What the heck? Is this a lab? There's Pyrex glassware dotted here and there, and petri dishes and other research paraphernalia dot the counters in the sterile-looking room.

"Why hello," says a resonant male voice from my left, and I turn to look. A tall handsome man with dark skin, warm brown eyes, and curly hair approaches me, smiling. "I'm Demetrius, Robin's husband. You must be the new farmer."

I shake his hand. "Yes, I'm Melanie. Nice to meet you." I look around. "Is this your lab?"

"Yes! I'm a husband, father, and scientist," he laughs. "This is my lab. Our daughter Maru helps me with my research into the local biome."

"Oh! Lovely." That's right…Sebastian mentioned that he had a half sister.

"She also works in the local clinic on Wednesdays. She's a very clever girl." Demetrius is clearly overflowing with paternal pride.

"It sounds like it." I pause, awkwardly. "Um, so, what about the biome are you researching?"

"Ah!" Another topic of unbridled enthusiasm, apparently. "When I first came here, I noticed an usually diverse population of flora and fauna. I've been trying to discern what it is that makes this area so unique. It's not just that it's an estuarine ecosystem. There are certain bacteria that appear to be unique to this region."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes! They're particularly good at breaking down volcanic rocks into soil."

"That's fascinating, actually." Does that explain why people keep saying the soil is good, despite it being by the sea?

"Always delightful to find someone who's interested. Are you a scientist as well?"

I laugh. "Only of the armchair sort, I'm afraid. I did fine in high school science, but when it came to Uni, I fell short of what was needed."

"Ah, that's too bad."

"Such is life. I might not be here if I had made it, and that would really be a pity."

"Well, if you ever feel like helping out in the lab, let me know."

"Oh!" I feel a prickle in my cheeks, and know I must be blushing. "I…I'd like that."

"Excellent! I'd be happy to have a set of hands, if you're not too busy farming."

I laugh awkwardly. "Everyone seems to be under the impression that I'll be setting up a really successful farm…but I'm not even sure if that's what I want. I'm…kind of giving myself some time to reassess my life's priorities right now. I'll certainly be gardening though!"

"Ah…" Demetrius seems mildly disappointed, and I'm curious as to what he'll say next, when the sound of footsteps on stairs reaches our ears. We both turn to look, and Robin and Sebastian appear.

"Demetrius."

"Sebastian."

Damn. Did it just get cold in here?

"Well, Melanie," Robin says, too cheerily. "Sebastian says he'd be happy to talk to you about an internet connection."

"Oh, great!" I look at him. "Where would be the best place to chat?"

"You can come down to my room if you'd like" he says, with a meaningful look at Demetrius. "It's pretty clean right now."

"Great!" I turn and look at the scientist. "I don't have a phone right now, but feel free to drop by if you'd like soil samples or want an extra pair of hands in the lab. I have nothing but time right now."

"Thank you," the charming and talkative man from earlier is gone, replaced by someone stiff and formal. "I would be delighted to have your assistance."

"Great!" I can feel Sebastian simmering with annoyance next to me, so I say, "Thanks, Robin," and then turn to him. "Lead the way?"

"Stairs are there," he says, gesturing.

It's only 10 steps to get down to his room, and I find what looks like a very cozy dungeon. There are gaming posters on the walls, and a shelf full of books. There's a large bed, a table that looks like it's set up for gaming, and a large L-shaped desk with two personal computers on it. "Oh wow," I say, "nice setup."

"Hah, thanks. I mostly use that for testing stuff." He points at an older model desktop machine.

"Oh, to check things on older browsers." He gives me an odd look. "What?"

"What did you say you did before you moved here?"

"I did web development for Joja."

"Seriously? Why did you move to a backwater like this?"

"Because I was burnt out, kid."

"Kid? What are you, like 27?"

"I'm 34."

"What."

I sigh. I have this conversation all the time. People have always thought that I'm younger than I am. Mostly, it's funny. Occasionally, it's annoying.

"Good genes."

"Wow, I'll say." He pauses. "Wait, but really, what was it like?"

I think about this for a bit. What was it like? I close my eyes trying to gather my thoughts. Oddly, there's no additional nature sense. Is it wearing off finally? I open my eyes and give him an answer:

"At first, it was really amazing. I grew up in Arborville--it's a tiny college town way up north. So moving to Zuzu City, working at an major company, with cubes and dual monitors and free coffee and whatnot...it felt like something out of a film. I was so excited to be an independent adult in the world, it was great!

"But...over time, I started to notice the drawbacks: long hours, soul-crushing lighting, bullshit politics. The people who dressed like the bosses, who talked about stuff the bosses liked, who would drink with the bosses, well, they were the ones who got promoted, who got recognized. Me? Hardworking me? I got great performance reviews, but I didn't really advance." I pause. "Not that I necessarily wanted to. Management isn't what I was interested in. But still. My male colleagues got recognized publicly a lot more often than I did. And it pissed me off."

"Huh." Sebastian looks thoughtful.

"Sorry, was that too personal an answer?" I realize suddenly that I've only met him the once before. Maybe that was too much.

"No, no, it was a personal question. Sorry." Now he looks disappointed.

"Honestly, if you're interested in a job there, I'd be happy to send your resume over to one of my old colleagues. I left on good terms, so it would be cool."

"Oh! Thank you." He seems genuinely surprised. Then he turns thoughtful again. "It's not that I don't like it here. I've actually got a pretty good freelance business going. But sometimes, I think it would be nice to see what it's like living in Zuzu city."

"I get that. If you want to think about it, go ahead. This isn't a limited time offer."

He laughs. "Thanks! Good to know.

"Hey though--aren't I supposed to be doing you a favor?"

"I dunno, depends on what you think information about internet service is worth. Does that count as a favor?"

"Oh, you just want information. And here I thought you were looking for service."

"And what kind of service might you be offering?" He smirks, and I realize how bad this sounds.

"What kind do you want?" He sniggers.

"I'm after your sexy, sexy internet," I say, breathily, and we both completely lose it. I realize it's been a while since I've laughed or flirted like this, and it takes us both a little while to calm down. "Whooo, okay, seriously though...any idea what a net connection would cost? Your mom said you'd know?"

"Oh yeah. I was in charge of getting a cable run up here. We use an independent ISP--not JojaNet, so it cost a little bit more. But mom is really pro-local business, so there was never a question of whether or not we'd go that way."

"Oh, that's cool. I think I would too."

He smirks at me again. "Figured you might. I'll ask my friend what he'd charge for it. He'll probably need to look around your place, see how far it is from a junction. How could he reach you?"

"Well, he can try my phone, but I've mostly been keeping it off." Sebastian gives me an inquiring look. "No reception at my place, and I've only got a solar trickle charger. No electricity yet."

"Oh, geez. Okay." He looks thoughtful. "I could walk down if you want?"

"Oh! That would be great! Or you could send me a letter, if you'd prefer." He laughs. "Yeah, yeah, ridiculous, right?"

"Definitely. Or very old school, if you want to look at it that way."

"How very charitable of you."

"Or maybe just old fashioned."

"Do you have any aloe? I just got burned." We start laughing again. Finally, I say, "I used to have a freelance editing/SEO service business that I did on the side. I'm hoping to reach out to some of my old clients to see if they have any work to send my way."

"Oh." He sits back, and I realize what I've just said.

"Oh, uh, I'm not looking to do full web development like you do. I'm basically just looking for something to help me get some extra money if I don't decide to go all in on farming."

"Ah, fair enough." He looks thoughtful. "You know, if you want to come up here and work for a while, you'd be welcome. And occasionally I could use an extra pair of hands to get some projects done. Any interest in subcontracting with me?"

"Oh! Yeah, that would be great."

"See, I knew you weren't just into my net connection." I start laughing again.

It's funny: I wouldn't have pegged this guy to be someone very outgoing. But we seem to get along surprisingly well. Maybe it's the way we met, or maybe it's because he's a fellow nerd, but it I feel like I've made another friend.

"I am still interested in getting net service. You can't put me off forever!"

He grins. "If you say so!"

We spend a little bit more time chatting, and he promises to get back to me in a couple of days. He also suggests that I check out the library. "I keep weird hours, and honestly, it's a pretty cool place. It's got a surprisingly good selection of sci-fi."

I say I will check it out. "Should I let you get to work?"

"Yeah, probably." He seems reluctant.

"If you feel bored this evening, feel free to drop by."

"Oh, thanks! I might do that. Usually, Sam and I head to the saloon to play pool on Fridays. Lots of people are there, actually. You should drop by."

"Oh! That could be cool."

"The coolest."

He's got that smartass expression again, and I laugh. Standing up I say, "okay, Mr Cool-guy, see you around."

"Later."

I close the door as I leave.

When I come up, both Demetrius and Robin are back working. Demetrius turns his head to look at me. "I didn't realize you were good friends with Sebastian."

"Oh!" I pause. "We only just met recently."

"Oh." He seems taken aback. "I heard laughing, so I assumed you were close."

"Ah, yeah. That surprised me. I am…well, I was...a programmer in my old life. I guess we just have more in common that I would have guessed."

"Huh." Demetrius looks thoughtful. "So, is he actually working down there?"

I raise an eyebrow, and gesture towards the lab. "Are you actually working up here?"

"You saw for yourself that I was."

"Right. And it's easier to see results when you're doing something with Petri dishes. Just because you don't see what Sebastian is doing doesn't mean he's doing nothing." Demetrius' face is hard. "Look, I don't mean to be a jerk, but I'm just saying to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you could ask him to write something to help with your data analysis or something." His face softens into something more thoughtful.

"I suppose I could do that."

"Hopefully it helps you both."

"Thanks," he nods.

I go back into the lobby area, and see Robin back behind her desk. "How'd it go?"

"Good, I think. We ended up talking about a few things. He recommended the library too, so I guess that's where I'm going next."

"Do you want to wait a while? It's awfully wet out there." Robin looks out the window, biting her lip.

"Umm..." I came up here looking for the leaf-wearing guy. And really, he should be my priority. Unless the effect is wearing off? I close my eyes and there's an owl nesting box under the back roof. Huh. Not fixed then. Maybe all the tech down in the basement interferes with it? How would I test that? "I think I'll be okay. It's refreshing to walk in the rain."

"Are you sure?" Her eyebrows are scrunched together in concern.

"Yeah. Um…what's the best way to get there?"

"Oh! Just follow the trail that goes south out front of the house. It'll take you into town. Cross one of the bridges and keep walking south, past Clint's shop. The next building south of his is the library."

"Oh, okay."

"One thing," Robin holds up a finger. "If you see a guy with white hair and a shaggy beard wearing leaves…don't freak out. HIs name is Linus. He lives up the hill from us in a tent." She sighs. "He's odd, but keeps to himself, mostly. Harmless, really, except that he sometimes rummages in the trash. But I don't think he'll hurt you."

JACKPOT! "Oh, thanks for the heads up."

"Are you sure you don't want to stay a bit? You could have some tea."

"I'm sure. But thanks, Robin. You've been a huge help. Do you want to come down tomorrow to look at the wood?"

"Sure! That would be great. The weather forecaster on the radio said it won't rain, so it should be fine."

"Awesome."

I pick up my umbrella and head out the door, taking a deep breath. I close my eyes, and again, a sense of living things sinks deeply into me. The grasses sigh happy songs about rain, birds huddle in trees. Wait, am I feeling what it's like to have feathers? This is just bizarre. Again, I find my feet, put my focus inside my skin, and walk back up the path next to the house. Instead of turning back towards my house, I head east. A gust of wind from that direction comes, and I close my eyes. There--an image of the man in the leaf garment, sitting contentedly surrounded by canvas. I press onward, and see a tent nestled under a large tree. It looks old, but is in good condition.

I walk up to the flaps, but hesitate. They're closed. How the hell do you knock on a tent? "Erm...hello?" My stomach clenches at the awkwardness of this. There's no visible change, but there's a sense of a pause from inside. I close my eyes, and allow my mind to fill with natural impressions. The tree is happy with the rain, and waiting for spring. Inside the tent, there is a kind being. He is wary, nerves tingling from my call.

"I mean you no harm. I just...I need your help."

I hear fabric move. The man--weathered, with shaggy silver hair and beard--peers at me from under lowered brows. "And what could you possibly want from me?"

"I'm sorry...but...I saw you on the wind and I thought you might help me. The wizard gave me a potion and I..." realizing the ramble coming out of my mouth, I stop abruptly. How ridiculous I must sound! But the man looks less wary, and more annoyed. And not with me.

"Rasmodius...what has that fool been up to now?"

"I saw...the little apple guys in the community center, and he thought being more aligned with nature would help me understand them." Does he believe me? Thank Yoba! The knot in my stomach loosens.

"Oh! The Junimos!" He opens the tent flap wide, and gestures me in. "Any friend of theirs is a friend of mine. Let me see if I can't balance your brain for you; get you a little less dialed into nature." I feel like it should be surprising that he knows exactly what I'm talking about, but it's not.

The tent is surprisingly clean, and smells of herbs and flowers. Linus has me sit on a camp stool, and hands me a large, smooth piece of sandstone.  It feels nice in my hands.

"Try to focus on that for a bit. Closing your eyes might help."

I do, trying to focus on my palms. Beneath them is a rough surface, cool but reflecting my body heat. And beneath that, there is a sense of laughter, joy. My eyes pop open. "What the?"

Linus holds out a cup, which appears to be made from a giant leaf. I take it in one hand. He reaches out for the stone. "All things have consciousness, if you look for it."

"Whoah." I look at the cup. "Um, do I want to know what's in here?"

He smiles wryly. "It's an herbal tincture, with some ginger as well. It should help turn the nature sense down to a manageable level."

Looking at the cup dubiously, I drink. It's not half bad, honestly. The flavor clears my head and is refreshing and energizing. It burns all the way down to my stomach, and from there sends a heat out into my entire body. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths, focusing on the heat. Slowly, I realize that I'm no longer subconsciously feeling the rain fall on the oak outside—I'm only hearing it fall on the roof of the tent. I feel a deeper connection to something…nature maybe…but that's it. I'm back almost to normal. My eyes open in relief. Linus is looking at me keenly, and I smile at him. "I think it worked. Thank You."

He laughs. "You're welcome. I'm glad to help."

"Can I offer you anything in thanks?" Something tells me this man has no use for money. The way his tent is organized, the way he looks so comfortable in his skin, what he just did for me…he lives this way for a reason.

Shaking his head sadly, he smiles ruefully. "No, no. I'm content in all things here."

"Oh! Do you…do you ever need firewood?"

"No, I'm really quite happy. But thank you. And do tell my friends hello if you go to visit them later."

I pause for a moment, and then realize what he must mean. "Oh! The Junimos? Sure."

With that I stand, and he ushers me out. The rain seems to be petering off, but I raise my umbrella nonetheless. "Thank you again," I say, turning to leave. Linus just nods in acknowledgement of the thanks.

---

I walk back past Robin's house and then continue downhill for a bit, paralleling a river. Eventually, I get down to the bridge by Joja Mart, and cross it, heading south. There's an unmaintained area by a park, and then there's a weird burning scent. I hear a muffled clanging noise, and come around the front of a small building. A sign over the door says "Blacksmith". Oh! This is Clint's place. I stop. The library is open fairly late, right? I might as well go in and say hello. When I walk in the door a bell tinkles, but it seems like Clint can't hear it over the din of the forge, since there's no response.

There's a counter out front, but no one is behind it, so I walk to the back of the building. Clint's there, smock on, working hard over a piece of red-hot metal. At first, he doesn't notice me, and I take a moment to watch him work. It's fascinating: he has an unconscious competence to his movements, they're economical, deliberate. Every strike seems to fall just so to shape the iron as it needs to be shaped. Actually…what is he making. Is that…a sword?

Huh. That's…weird. Maybe there are hobbyists around?

Suddenly, Clint looks up, and almost drops his hammer. "Melanie! How long have you been here?"

"Oh, sorry, not long. I uh…" I feel myself blush. "It was just fascinating to watch you work. I've never seen a blacksmith forging before."

"Hah…If you say so." He looks down, then back to me. "Sorry, did you need something? I'm at a tricky stage here–"

"Oh, no. I just…thought I'd say hi. If you need to focus, I'll let you work. Sorry to bother you."

"No, no. This just requires my full focus."

"Another day then."

"Yeah." He looks vaguely regretful, but I give him a cheery wave as I leave.  Hopefully he won't take that the wrong way, and think I'm glad to see the last of him.

Even though I can't have been inside more than five minutes, the rain has stopped. I look south, and there's the building that must be the library. I walk around to the front of it, and sure enough, there's another adorable sign noting it as such. But it also says "museum".

I walk in, and a lean man in a blue uniform and a brimmed hat looks up at me over both his spectacles, and a counter. He looks very official, so I walk over to him and say, "Hello. I'm a new resident. Are you the librarian?"

"In effect. I'm also the museum curator, though the collection displays a shocking paucity of objects at the moment." He makes a broad gesture, and I turn to look. There are several glass cases to my right, most of which appear to be holding only one or two items.

"I see. I'm...sorry to hear that?" I really don't know to respond to what he's just said.

"Yes, well, if you find anything interesting in your farm, please feel free to bring it by." He says this with a slightly sardonic tone, and a slight smirk.

Weird dude.

"Anyway, may I help you?"

"I was told that you have internet access here, and I was hoping I could get on a terminal. Was that true, and may I?" Somehow, this man makes me incredibly nervous, as if he's going to give me a grade for properly formed questions. Surprisingly, he gives me a genuine smile.

"You heard correctly, and you may. First, you'll need to sign up for a library card, however."

"Oh, of course." I pause. "Um...do I have to show you a utility bill as proof of address? Because I'm not currently connected to any." He laughs.

"No. In a normal library you would. But given that Lewis mentioned that you were moving to town, I will take it on good faith that you live on the farm at the west edge of town. A simple photo ID will suffice." He pulls out a form and hands it to me.

"Thank you."

I fill out the requested information, and then hand it back to him. "Excellent, excellent," he says, before handing me a library card. It's not laminated, just plain white cardstock, with a line on it where I write my name.

"Do you have an actual card catalog?"

"Yes, though it's mostly for backup these days. The main item lookup is via one of the terminals. There are two others available for broader use. Here, I'll show you."

He comes around the desk, and makes a "follow me," gesture. We walk through the doorway, and into the main room of the library, which is full of shelves and the glass cases I noticed earlier. "The terminals are over there," he says, gesturing to the back of the library.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Let me know if you have any questions."

"Will do." He nods and walks off. I walk back in the direction that he indicated, and find three very old looking devices settled on a long counter. One is marked with a sign reading, "card catalog. Please limit use to 5 minutes during busy times." Just for my amusement, I tap the space bar to wake it up, and grin when an orange monitor greets me. This is going to be awful to use, but so deliciously nostalgic.

It turns out the other two devices are somewhat better, being only about a decade out of date, not three, and I quickly log into my email account. I have about a thousand newsletters, and a couple of notes from my dad. I delete the former, respond to the latter, and send off a couple of quick messages to some friends about freelance projects, then log off. Now what?

I glance in the direction of the windows, and pause. There, just poking up above the top of a short set of shelves, is the top of someone's head. The hair looks red, and sleek. Is it…Elliott? Oh Yoba, what do I do?

My heart is suddenly racing, and I feel blood rush to my cheeks. I take a deep breath. Okay. He's just a person. The only way to get over this crush is to talk to him like he is a person.

I walk slowly over to the shelves, and peer around the end. Sure enough, Elliott's strong chin and elegant nose greet me in profile. "Oh, uh, hi!" I say, trying to act normal. "Elliott, right?" He looks up at me, his eyes slightly unfocused. Wherever he is, it's not here. Then he blinks, and meets my eyes. "Oh, Melanie! Hello. How nice to see you again." He stands, and suddenly I'm looking up at him.

"Lovely to see you as well. Um...what brings you here on this blustery day?" Really? That's your opening line?

"It is my common practice to come here several times a week and read. I find that taking in the good writing of past authors helps me hone my craft." He looks away briefly and blushes. "And if I am honest, my home is not always wind-tight. Thus, it is a respite from the cold to come here on stormy days."

"Oh!" I pause. "I'm sure you've thought of this, but have you tried calking your house?"

He pauses. "I have considered it, but I'm afraid my follow-through is lacking."

"Ah…"

"Also, I am somewhat uncertain of the appropriate kind of caulk for such a task."

"Hmm…Is there even anywhere to buy calk here?" I pause. "Pierre's or maybe Joja…or from Robin?"

"I suppose those are all options." His tone is noncommittal, which I take as a sign of disinterest.

"Sorry, I tend to get carried away with trying to help people."

"Ah, no, it is extremely kind of you. I may take the question up again before the winter returns in full force."

"Well, if I can help with the caulk, or anything, let me know. I'm…rather fond of building things."

"I shall keep that in mind." There's something about his tone that sounds bored. My guts clench and I feel my cheeks flush. Ugh, now I'm just going to be 'that dull farmer.'

"May I ask what you were reading?"

"Ah... Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Have you read it?"

"Yes!" I practically yell it, and he startles back at my voice. "Sorry. I love that book."

"Really?"

"Er, yes." I look up, wondering what I'll see on his face. Will he hate it? But no, he's smiling.

"It's a rare thing to find someone who enjoys literary fiction. What did you enjoy most about it?"

"There's not one thing, but several. I have a soft spot for weird science, and so this book appealed. But I also thought it was an amazing allegory for modern life. And appallingly prophetic, too. Did you know there's an muscle relaxant called Soma now?"

"Really?"

"Yes! And Huxley did a good job of predicting the careless, enforced carefreeness of today as well. That's part of why I moved here. I wanted to slow down and focus on what's real."

"Ah...that I can understand." He's giving me a funny look: assessing, surprised. "You are an intense person, aren't you? A woman of deep passions."

"Oh..." my eyes drop to the floor, and my cheeks flush. I think for a moment, then have the courage to meet his eyes again. "Yes, I suppose I am."

"When last we spoke, you alluded to uncertainty of your purpose here. Have you yet found something to which to turn your passions?"

"I..." there are too many bad responses here. 'seducing you' is one. Talking about my creative side also feels dangerous. I drop my eyes again. "It's still early days, so I'm afraid there's little progress there."

"Well," his voice is kind, "I hope that when you find it, you share your thoughts with me."

"If…if you'd like…" I mutter. Surely he's just being nice? Just then, I hear a bell chime, and we both turn to look at the door. A young woman with red hair in a rolled hairstyle walks into the library followed by two children.

The woman notices the two of us and waves, then walks over. "Hello Elliott," she says.

"Hello, Penny," Elliott says. "Have you met Melanie? She's the new farmer in town."

Melanie. You know, the farmer? I think, trying not to smirk. Would anyone in this town even get that joke? Maybe Seb would...

"It's nice to meet you." Penny holds out her hand, and I shake it.

"Likewise." I look around at the kids. One is a little girl with hair so dark the highlights look purple, the other is a little boy who is also a redhead. Dude...how many gingers are there in this town? Both kids seem they're school age, and it's the middle of the day. "Are you the school teacher?"

"Oh!" She looks over at the kids, who are shyly smiling up at us. "I guess so. We don't have a school in town, but I got my teaching certificate, so I'm trying to give them good start."

"You're giving them more than that," Elliott says, and he's smiling. "You're an excellent teacher. Even in the time I've been here, I've heard them improve their analytical skills." He smiles at the kids, trying to include them in his comments. "You're doing very well. I'm impressed with your creativity, Vincent, and your studiousness, Jas." The kids smile shyly, and give him their thanks. His manner seems very…professorial.

"Were you a teacher?" At my question, Penny raises an eyebrow at Elliott.

"You haven't told her?"

"We've only met twice." Elliott is looking distinctly embarrassed, his cheeks flushing.

"Oh!" Penny blushes. Two redheads with red faces. Oy. She continues, "you seemed like you were having such a friendly chat, I assumed you were well acquainted."

Elliott makes a negating noise deep in his throat, which hurts more than it should. Then he turns to me, saying, "before I came here, I was an English teacher. I sometimes help Penny with the children when we happen to be here at the same time."

"And does that happen often?" I ask, lifting an eyebrow of my own.

"Er…" Elliott blushes again. "I do come here frequently." He looks at Penny, and they smile at one another. I feel my heart stutter in an awkward, painful way. Of course he's got a crush. Maybe they're even together. That would be so perfect, right?  Two teachers...starting a school...

"Well, I guess I shouldn't keep you," I say, backing up. "It was nice to meet you, Penny."

"Oh, you too!" she says. She has the sweetest smile. "It's always nice to have a new face in town."

"Oh, thanks!" I say, managing a smile of my own. I give an awkward wave, and turn to go back to my livestock book search. Over my shoulder I call, "See you around!"

—-

I end up leaving the library with books on the local environment, chicken husbandry, and general farming. I also took out a copy of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I have no idea when I'm going to read it, but it's one of my favorites. I'll find the time.

When I first step outside, it's with trepidation. Not for the weather, but I'm still cautious of Linus' cure. However, it still seems to be working. Phew.

Suddenly, I realize that I'm not sure what to do next. The morning was so chaotic...what was I planning to do?

Oh. Right.

Go to the community center.

Hrmmm...

I look uphill, to the northwest where it sits. It's not that far, I tell myself. I'm capable of walking back up the hill. I pause though.

I am really hungry. Like, stomach growling hungry. I've been trying to be thrifty, but maybe it would be okay to go get something at Gus' place. Something cheap. Like...a cheese sandwich.

I do. It's friggin' delicious.

After my lunch, I go back out into the now sun-decked day. I turn and head North, walking uphill to the community center. When I get to the door, I pause. Do I really want to see if I can read that plaque now?

Yes. I have no idea what's going on, but looking in there will help me figure it out.

Inside, it's dark and cool. There's a "huuuu" noise from the wind whistling through cracks in the walls. Light shines in through the dust-covered windows, making watery pools on the floor. I feel like I'm being watched again. My skin crawls.

"Hello?" There's no answer, but I hear the skitter of small feet. Mice? Hah, I wish.

I take a deep breath. It's daytime, I tell myself. You'll be fine.

Once inside the community center, I walk back to the room that had the plaque. The writing is still in that mysterious alphabet. And yet...I can read it. Didn't the wizard say that it was basically a "If you can read this, let us know" sign? Did they swap it out? Now there's a poem, and then…a grocery list?

We thank you, friend, for being kind.
Our first request below you'll find,
Of each of these just one we ask,
This shouldn't be a tricky task.

Below this rhyme, there are illustrations of a daffodil, a dandelion, a leek, and some kind of plant with spade-shaped leaves.

What the actual fuck? I notice a movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turn my head, there's just a hint of a glowing apple creature, but it fades away. Hrm…I guess they want me to bring one of each of these things to the community center? Maybe I should ask the wizard. Or Linus. Maybe he can tell me what that last one is.

I look around. Flicks of color fade at the corner d my eyes. "Um...I'll bring you these, shall I?" I'm not sure, but it seems like one of the flickers jumps excitedly in response. But again, when I turn to look, there's nothing there. Shivers run up my spine, and gooseflesh puckers my skin. Yoba, this place is creepy.

I pull out my phone and take a photo of the plaque.  Unfortunately, the writing won't display, regardless of using flash. Of course. This couldn't be easy. I have a pen and some scrap paper in one of my pockets, so I make bad drawing of it, and then run out of the community center.

Out in the sunshine, I feel my nerves calming. The outdoors have always soothed me, and now, it's better still. I close my eyes, reaching for that sense of something more that still lingers after Linus' treatment. I can't tell how many insects are on a tree, or where the birds are, but I feel a deep, humming connection with nature all around me. In the center behind me, there's a pulse, almost like it's protected. I wonder what would happen if Lewis actually tried to sell this to Joja for a warehouse. Would they even be able to touch the place?

Wait. Linus' request. I turn back, and reopen the door long enough to call, "by the way, Linus sends his greetings!" then slam the door again.

I look around, and realize I have no idea what to do next. My phone tells me that it's only 1:30, but I feel exhausted. Thinking over the events of the day so far, I decide that it's not unreasonable to go home and read for the rest of the day. It would make sense to actually plan the farm, rather than just throwing seeds at the ground and seeing what grows. And I can't do good planning without knowledge.

"Right. Homeward bound then."

I drink tea, read, draw up plans, and make an early night of it. It feels decadent, and delicious.

Chapter Text

The next morning, I'm woken up by the sound of someone walking across the front porch, followed soon after by knocks on the front door.  I flail around in my sleeping bag, and call, "one sec!" then awkwardly make my way to the door.

It's Robin, who is surprised to find me sleep mussed and in my PJs.  "Oh, I'm sorry.  I thought you'd be up by now.  I was hoping to take a look at those logs with you."

"No, it's okay...Um, what time is it?"  My phone isn't to hand, but the quality of the light tells me it's well past dawn.

"8:30–"

"Oh, gosh!  I'm normally up by now."  I'm starting to get cold, standing at the door.  It's probably around 15, which isn't freezing, but is certainly chilly.  "Um, do you want to come in?  I can change in the kitchen." Now there's a sentence you don't say every day.

"I can, or, if you'd like a bit of time, I can go look at the wood.  Maybe come back and show you which stumps I'm interested in, and talk trades?"

"Oh, that would be great.  Thank you."

"No problem.  Sorry again for waking you up!"

"Really, no worries.  I'm glad you did.  My back wouldn't have thanked me for sleeping much longer anyway."  Robin looks at me in confusion, and I open the door enough to show her my cot.

"Holy Yoba!  Please tell me you have something better coming?

"Well...I would.  Except I'm not a fan of lying."

"Okay, I'm adding 'a decent bed' to the top of the 'things that we can do in trade' list."

I laugh.  "Thanks, I think.  Um..."

"I'll get going.  See you in a bit!"

I change into warm clothes, and look wistfully at my kettle and the table which is currently covered with notes and books. I got some plans done yesterday, and I was hoping to review them over a cup of coffee. Robin's a busy gal.  Hopefully this won't take long.  Or maybe she'd like to join me for a cup.  I think about this, then add water to the kettle.  Then I grab my coat, stuff my notes in the pocket, and head out the door.

The day outside is beautiful. Yes, it's chilly, but the sky is a bright shade of blue, touched only by a few clouds. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. It smells like spring: damp earth, melting snow, growing things.  I look around, and see a flash of copper off in the distance. Robin's hair.  She's coming back towards the house, so I walk out to meet her.

"Was there anything worth using?"

"Yes, definitely.  Should I show you?"

"I'll have to take your word on things, but sure."

We spend the next hour or so walking around.  Robin shows me the logs that she'd like buy, and tells me what she can give me for them, and why.  She also points out a few trees that she'd be interested in buying, if I was willing to sell.  Most of them seem to be in stands that could use thinning, so I agree.

"And of course, there's this one," she says, coming to a huge oak near the south end of the property.  It looks like it's about four feet in diameter, and has no branches for the first 16 feet of its trunk.  "There's close to a thousand board feet in this tree--assuming it's solid.  I could do some amazing things with this."

I look at the tree, and think about the apple guy–Junimos.  I think about nature, and what a wonder it is to have a tree like this on my property.

"I'm sure you could do some great things with this. But I think a grandmother tree like this deserves to live as long as she can." I hold a hand out and reverently touch the trunk. I'm not sure how I missed this before, but I'm definitely not selling her. She stays.

"Makes sense.  Good shade for animals in the summer, too."  Robin sounds regretful, but understanding.

"Oh, there was one other thing I wanted to suggest to you.  You see this downed tree here?" Robin points, and we walk back a bit.  There's a downed tree that's got all kinds of knots and burls on it.  Very interesting to look at, but not something Robin wants.  "Have you met Leah already?  The sculptor who lives near Marni?"

"Oh, yeah! With the long coppery braid."

"Yep, that's the one.  I was thinking she might be interested in this piece.  Maybe she could carve something into it."

"Huh.  I'll ask her.  Thanks!"

"You're welcome."

We go back to the cabin to talk numbers.  I offer Robin some coffee. Though she gives me a "really?" face when I say it's instant, she still accepts, and seems to enjoy it.

The sum we agree on pleasantly surprises me.  It's not enough to pay for power, but it will help me buy more seeds, some chicks, and will probably cover Robin's expenses for making a portable chicken coop.  "I was reading last night about methods for pasturing chickens, and it sounds like a cool idea.  But to do that well, I'll need a mobile coop."

"Oh, is that what you were doing yesterday?  We all wondered why you didn't come to the Stardrop for a drink."

"Oh!" I suddenly remember what Seb said about Fridays. "Does literally everyone go?"

"Well, not everyone every week, but most people are there a lot of the time.  It's a fun way to wind down, spend time with people."

"I guess it's a good way to build community, too."

Robin chuckles.  "I guess it is.  You should come out next week."

"I'll try to remember."

Robin agrees to build me a movable chicken house, and says "I would also be happy to build you a nice bed frame.  It's fast and easy, and well, honestly, it's got to be better than that." She eyes my cot pointedly, and I decide to take her up on it.  Not sure what kind of mattress I'll use, but I'll sort it out when the frame is ready.

Shortly after this, Robin leaves, and I ponder what to do for the rest of the day.  Since I'm already thinking about trees, I decide that I might as well go ask Leah if she'd like the funny looking log.

It's not a long walk to her cabin, and I see that there's smoke coming out of the chimney, so she's probably home. As I get to the front door, I realize there's the sound of voices.  Hopefully I won't be disturbing anything.  When I knock, there's a pause, and then Leah calls, "One sec!" She peers around the door, and opens her eyes wide in surprise when she sees me. "Oh, Melanie!  Hi."

There's a tone to her voice that suggests surprise, disappointment, and...frustration?  I can't quite parse it. Her expression is pleasant, but, "it seems like I've caught you at a bad time?"

"Kind of?" She steps outside quickly, and closes the door behind her.  "I was doing some figure drawing."

"Oh!" I wonder who her model is. "Sorry to interrupt."

"No, it's fine.  You couldn't have known.  I did say drop to say hello!"  There's an awkward pause.

"Um, I don't want to keep you from it, but: I have a log that I thought you might be interested in. So, when you have some time, come on over to check it out?"

"Oh!  That would be great.  Thank you."  She smiles, then looks at her door.

"Hey, go back to it."

"Thanks!  I'll see you around!"

"See ya!"

As she ducks back in, I swear I hear a familiar baritone saying, "Who was that?"  My heart does that annoying stutter again, the one that suggests possession and heartbreak. I suppose it would make sense for the artists to hang out together.  And, of course, hanging out doesn't mean anything.  Except, that it's only 10AM on a Saturday.  And, well...they're artists.  Aren't they notoriously nocturnal?

A part of me wants to believe it's a simple case of "artists hanging out."  And heck, that part wishes I could join their party.  But it seems like a private engagement, and I'm not really an artist. Doodles on notes don't count.  Still, that's something I didn't think about with regards to moving here.  Back in Zuzu, I went to many kinds of creative classes.  Does something like that exist anywhere around Pelican town?  I should ask Leah about that when I see her later.

I pull my notes out of my pocket, and see my note about checking chicken prices.  Unfortunately, when I go to the farm, the front door is open, but no one's in the lobby.  I hear some suspicious noises coming from one of the rooms, and decide that I definitely don't want to know what's going on back there.  So I leave.

Apparently Fridays are a good prelude to getting busy.

Back outside, I'm at a loss for what to do. In some ways, I'm overwhelmed with options. But in others, I feel like there's nothing pressing, or even calling me to sort out.

You could go read in the sun...

"Yeah, I could."

A girlish giggle comes from behind me, and I turn to see a blonde girl in a blue jacket, pink skirt, and Uggs. "Who are you talking to?"

About a thousand answers run through my head, some of them rude, some of them blunt, some of them ridiculous.  I can't choose any of them quickly, and so come out with, "Um...me..." There is something profoundly wrong about this situation. Despite the fact that I'm at least a decade older than this girl, I suddenly feel like my younger self: awkward, fashion-behind, uncool-geek-girl.  This is exacerbated when the chit in front of me giggles again.

"Why?"

Something about her tone annoys me, but I try to stay polite. "Lack of company, I guess. Isn't that what researchers say happens when one is alone a lot?"

"Hmmm..." The girl doesn't look impressed, but has also stopped giggling. "Are you the new farmer?"

"Yes?"

She looks me up and down, and summary judgement falls. "Oh. I was expecting something...more."

"Well, I don't know who got your hopes up. But you should complain to them, not me." I didn't plan for that to come out of my mouth, but, well...it's out now.  And I'm not taking it back.  The girl presses her lips in a moue of distaste, but doesn't say anything.  I take a deep breath, and let it out slowly.  "Look, I'm sorry if I'm being rude.  I'm just not used to people commenting on me.  Want to try this again? I'm Melanie, the new farmer." I offer her my hand.  She looks at it, then takes it, briefly.

"I'm Haley. I live in town with my sister, Emily."

"Oh!" Are you kidding me? This chick is Emily's sister?!  "Well, it's nice to meet you. What brings you out to the woods on this fine sunny day?" I'm speaking weirdly, but I'm so thrown off by this situation that I don't know what to say.

"I wanted to take photos of the daffodils. I noticed the ones in town are blooming, and there are tons of them in the woods."

"Oh! You're a photographer!" I didn't realize there was a camera strap over her puffer coat. She pulls her camera around and shows me.  "Nice equipment.  Do you show your work?"

She shrugs. "I've won a few ribbons at the Stardew Valley Fair.  That's about it."

"Congrats, that's cool." The mention of flowers niggles at me, and I remember the Junimos' list. "Er...where would one find a daffodil around here?"

"They're all over...but there are usually some close to the river.  Do you want me to show you?" Haley seems a little shy, but not defensive.  I guess my prickliness didn't offend her too much.

"Yeah, if it's not too much trouble.  I've only ever seen a few at a time."

"Oh, wow!  You should totally come with me!  Here, it's this way!"  She doesn't grab my hand, but she walks by me in such an authoritative way that I can't help following.  I notice that she stays far away from the entrance to the Wizard's tower–intentional? instinctual?–but we end up in the same general area of the forest.  A river runs through the trees, and there's a run-down house that's surrounded by wildflowers. 

"Oh, how beautiful!" I don't know why, but I've always loved human things that are being reclaimed by nature.  The house's walls have boards missing, and sunlight shines through the holes to dapple the ground.

"It's cool, right? If my sister ever finishes her collection, I want to do a photo shoot here."

"Oh, wow!  Emily's a designer?"

"Yeah.  She's obsessed with fashion.  You wouldn't expect it, right?" Haley giggles again.  Maybe she's just a lighthearted person.

"She...does strike me more as a new-age yoga babe." I haven't had a lot of conversations with Emily, but we've had a few exchanges that suggest a somewhat more spiritual outlook.

"Oh, she definitely is that, too." Haley nods sagely. "But she also loves clothing.  She says it's a means of self-expression." As we chat, she pulls out her camera, and snaps away at the flowers. I have my phone, so decide to take a few shots myself. I notice a plant that looks somewhat like the arrow-leafed one from the Junimo's drawing, and I point it out.

"Sorry to interrupt.  Do you know what this is?  I've never seen it before."

"Oh, that?  It's just horseradish. People gather it sometimes...it's gross."

"Huh.  Native to the woods here?"

Haley's back to photography. "Yep. People say that it's good for colds or something. But I've never really liked it."

"Fair. I've heard it's really hot."

"Exactly.  And the flavor is super bitter."  Abruptly, she stands up, and says, "well, I think that's everything I wanted.  Are you coming back to town?"

"Not right now.  I might hang out here a bit.  It's peaceful."

"Fair enough.  I'll see you later then."

"Yeah. Thank you!  And uh...sorry for the awkward start earlier." She waves this away.

"Don't worry.  Sorry if I was rude.  Sometimes I'm a little too direct, I think.  It's a thing." she pauses. "And I think I'm starting to get what Emily said. You're nice."

"Oh, thanks!" I can feel myself blushing. "You are too!"

"Aw, that's sweet!" Another pause. "Drop by sometime.  I'll show you these pics."

"Awesome!"

"Great! See you!"  She actually leaves this time.  I pull out the list of things that the Junimos wanted.  Sure enough, there's a bit of everything here: dandelions, daffodils, leeks, and, well, horseradish.

I think about how the Junimos are nature spirits, and decide that I should probably take the whole plants, not just the stalks. A stick ends up becoming a digging implement, and I gather one of each, tucking them into my arms to carry home.

When I arrive at the cabin, Seb is sitting on the porch. "Oh, hey!" I say.  He looks over, and raises an eyebrow.

"What's with the plants?"

"Offerings for the local nature sprites," I say, in as joking a tone as I can.  I'm hoping it will throw him off.  But he just nods.

"Kind of like the Flower Festival helps usher in a fruitful growing season?"

"The what now?" I gesture with my head that he should follow me, and we walk around to the small shed in the back garden. There are some empty pots back there, and I put one of the plants in each, then grab a trowel, and dig up some dirt to fill the pots.

"The Flower Festival.  It's on May Day.  Basically, it's been a tradition for about a million years that we get together and do a stupid dance to celebrate the middle of spring."

"Oh wow. Do you dance around a maypole in the town square?"

"Nah, just in lines in a field back that way," he gestures in a broadly southwest direction.

"Oh, huh."

"Yeah, it's kind of down past that tower that Abigail's obsessed with."

"Oh." Dude, people walk by there every year and haven't gotten curious about it? There is d.e.f.i.n.i.t.e.l.y magic at work.

"Is it...fun?"

"Honestly? I think the old people only have us do it 'because it's tradition'. But we usually have a big picnic and play games and stuff after it, so it's not too bad."

"That's cool."

"You should be careful.  You might get drafted to dance!"

"You should be careful. I might choreograph something." Seb laughs.

"What a fate!"

"Hush. I've done it before. It wasn't that bad."

"Uh huh. How many feet got broken?"

"You're a jerk." He laughs at me.

"So, you're saying I shouldn't tell you about internet options?"

"Erm...You are a kind young man, and I should make you cookies when I have the chance?" He laughs again.

"I am happy to accept cookies as a form of gratitude."

"Well, at the moment, I don't have any.  But would you take some coffee in the mean time? Maybe tea?"

"Oh, sure."  I leave the pots on the front porch and we go inside.  Sebastian tells me that it would be pretty expensive to run cables from Robin's house to my place.  But he's had another idea.  "I could probably set up a wifi extension that would send signal down to your place.  The connection wouldn't be amazingly fast, but you could at least do email, and basic browsing."

"Oh, that would be awesome. What would that cost?"

"60G for materials, and 4 dozen cookies for labor."

I laugh, "Yeah, cool, sold."  We shake on it, and then chat a bit about the library before he leaves.

Once he's gone, I realize it's past noon, and all I've had is coffee.  I make a quick sandwich, then water the plants I've uprooted. I guess just take them to the community center and see what happens? A part of me feels surprised at how nonchalant I am at the idea of nature spirits and magic but honestly, after the last few days...how could I not be?

Fred's box fits all of the pots nicely, and I manage to get over without meeting anyone. I briefly flirted with the idea of going at night, but decided that it was creepy enough without being dark.  Still, I wasn't sure how to explain what I was doing to anyone, so it was a relief to arrive unseen.

Inside, there's that same prickly feeling of being watched.  I quickly go to the room with the plaque, and set down the box.

Nothing happens.

"Er...I'll just leave this here, shall I?" I hear a chirrup from off to one side, and turn to see a green junimo pop out of thin air, and run to the box.  It grabs the edge, and starts dragging it to the door.  "You want help with that, little buddy?" it shakes itself in a "no" gesture, closing its eyes.  Then it disappears.

Suddenly, I hear chirrups from all over the building.  I peek into another room, and see a plaque. It's similar to the original, but has different drawings on it.  I want to take notes, but I'm getting super unnerved, so decide to leave. I can investigate more tomorrow, and maybe make a pencil rubbing of the engravings.

At the door, there's a basket made of colorful grasses.  Inside are a number of seeds and bulbs.  I pick it up. "Is this for me?" I hear a chirrup from above the door, and look up to see the Green Junimo wave, then disappear again.  "Thank you!" I yell, then leave.

Looking in the basket, I get the sense that these seeds are frost resistant.  Well, at least I know what to do the rest of today.

Planting takes neither a lot of time, nor a lot of energy.  But I decide to take an easy afternoon of it.  I sit by the window, reading Stranger in a Strange Land, drinking tea, and relaxing.  Tomorrow, I'll do more exploring, and see if people are less busy with...company.

That night, I dream of people having a party on my front porch, while I'm locked inside.

Chapter Text

Sunday, I wake up in a bad mood. Mostly, it was from the dreams, but it was partly because of all of the roadblocks the previous day. I really do want to get started on some bigger project, rather than dithering and researching. I've often found that action is the best remedy for a funk, so I decide to go out and do more digging.

By noon I have another 3 plots ready, and have formed a kind of structure around my compost pile. It's just built of stacked branches and stones at the moment, but I found some clay while building the planting beds, so I could potentially reinforce it with that.

My hands are starting to burn from using tools, so I decide to take a break. It's lunchtime, so I have a sandwich. Then I decide to go walk to the river again.

When I pass through the south exit from the farm, I smell smoke.  That's not surprising by itself, since a lot of people in the valley heat with wood. However, this is fragrant, smelling of cedar and...cinnamon?  I look to my right and inhale.  Yes, it seems like the scent is coming from that way.  I decide to follow my nose and see what's going on.

Shortly, I get a sightline past a large tree, and see a highly decorated purple wagon parked near the secret woods that Abby pointed out to me.  Oh, that's right.  Didn't she say one of the traveling people comes by here a couple of times a week? Suddenly, I notice a boar wearing a fez roots placidly for acorns. I guess that's what pulls her wagon. Um...interesting.

As I walk closer to the wagon, I see that there is a small, divided door in the side, the top half of which is open.  A woman with green hair and eyes sits beside it, looking out expectantly.  She waves at me. I smile and give a small wave in return.

"Hello."

"Good morning, lovely," the woman says. Her voice is a rich alto.  "How are you?"

"I'm well, thanks.  How are you?"

She smiles mysteriously.  "I am always well when I am here.  Have you come to look at my wares?"

"Hah, I suppose I have.  Mostly, I smelled the incense from your cart, and I was curious about it."

"Ah, good taste." She reaches behind her, and pulls out a piece of wood. "This is from a sacred Palo Santo tree. Smell."

Thinking of my run-in with the wizard, I take a cautious sniff, then make a noise of appreciation in my throat.  It's a delightful smell, somehow combining honey, cedar, and pine.  The woman chuckles.

"You like it?"

"Very much."

"Here, I will give you this piece." She holds it out, and I take it.

"Oh, thank you!" I now feel obliged to buy something from her. Hopefully, I can afford it. "Um, what else do you sell?"

"I have many things: seeds, furniture, housewares..." she trails off. "Perhaps you would like to come in and see?" She unlatches the bottom half of the door, then swings it open when I assent.

The inside of the cart seems larger than I would have expected.  The back third is closed off with a curtain, though I imagine this is where the woman sleeps.  The other bits of the wagon are covered in shelves, which are filled with all manner of things.  Pots dangle, cushions and blankets lie in colorful piles, and herbs in glass jars prick my curiosity.

There's a basket filled with envelopes which is of particular interest. It appears that the contents are heirloom varieties of seeds.  The fronts have hand-drawn illustrations on them, and on the back there are descriptions in a neat hand.  One in particular catches my eye: Rare-seed strawberries.  The description tantalizes:

A fragrant and sweet berry, it's flavor lingers like a kiss.
Plant in partial shade well after the last risk of frost.
Allow earth to dry between waterings.
It takes almost a full growing season to fruit, but is worth the wait.

Fascinating. I hold the packet up. "How much are these?"

She names the price which seems high.  Apparently my face shows my surprise, and she smiles.  "These are a very rare breed, madame, from far across the ocean. I promise you that they are a delicious and desirable crop.  I can't guarantee that I'll have them again the next time I'm here."

Implied scarcity--another selling tactic.  She's good at this. But this might be my only year to do this farming thing...so why not give in and buy them?  A fair point. I look at the seeds again, and then back at the woman. "Let me keep looking, and I'll think."

Just as it seems there's nothing as interesting as the seeds, an embellished book catches my eye. It's purple leather, worked with gold, and fastens with a buckle on the front.  I pick it up, and find that it's an unlined notebook. My heart does a little flip-flop.

If there's one thing that I don't need, it's another notebook. But this one is beautiful. Imagine what I could write in here!

Given the cost of the seeds, I'm almost afraid to ask the price.  And yet, I do. Surprisingly, it's more in alignment with what I would expect to pay for a notebook.  "Really?"

The woman laughs. "If you buy that, I will give you a special price on the seeds."

"How much?"

She tells me. I think about it for a moment, mentally shrug, and pay her.  I shouldn't be spending money recklessly, and I don't know if I'll buy from her again, but just this once, maybe it's okay.

She is very happy, and thanks me for my business. I wave to her as I leave.

 

As I walk further south, I realize that I'm close to Rasmodius' area of the woods. Given everything that's happened in the last couple of days, it would be really good to talk to him.  So, I decide to go knock on his door.  Except, I can't find the way to his tower.  There's the smell of wood smoke, and occasionally, I see a glint of light off of metal, which I assume is his roof.  But the woods seem to twist and tangle, routing me back to where I started.

The third time this happens, I cross my arms, and look in the direction I think his home lies.  "Ok, fine, I guess you're busy.  But, Mr. Mystical Wizard Dude, if I might have a fragment of your attention sometime in the near future, I would really like to talk to you about my interactions with the Junimos. They gave me a present."

I turn, and start walking towards the river.  And suddenly a voice to my right says, "What do you mean, a present?" I jump, and turn with an undignified squeak towards the speaker.  It is, of course, the wizard.

"DUDE! Don't do that!!"

He looks taken aback. "Dude?"

"What?"

He shakes his head. "Never mind.  What was this you were saying about a gift?"

"The day after you gave me the potion , I went back to the community center.  And looked at the plaque.  They requested that someone bring them various plants–"

"Which plants?"

"A daffodil, a horseradish, a leek, and a dandelion."

"And I assume you brought them these things?"

"Yes. And they gifted me a basket of seeds."

"Really?" he seems quite enthusiastic. "What kind of seeds? I must see them!"

"I have no idea.  And that might be a bit hard, because I planted them already."

"You...what?" His enthusiasm has turned to an indignant scowl.

I hold out my arms in a frustrated shrug. "I'm allegedly a farmer.  Farmers plant things.  What else was I supposed to do with them?"

"Bring them to me for inspection!"

"What, the madman who got me high and left me at home with no aftercare instructions?!"

"What?"

"Your potion. It didn't wear off overnight."

His brows lower in concern. "What do you mean?"

"I woke up sensing nature in a very vivid and intense way."

"When you say vivid and immediate..."

"I mean, I knew how many birds were in the trees around my house.  The grass spoke to me.  The wind brought me images." he sucks in a deep breath. I point at him rudely. "Yeah. That. That exactly."

"How are you feeling now?" He's hesitant.  As though talking to a time bomb.

I close my eyes for a couple of moments, then reopen them. The sense of oneness with nature is still there, but it's become such a normal thing that I don't think of it anymore. "Mostly fine. I met a man–Linus, is his name–and he helped me."

The wizard takes a deep breath and then nods. "He would have.  You're lucky, he's probably the only other person in this whole valley who could have."

"I tried to come to you for help first, but you didn't answer the door."

"I was...engaged in a deep working.  Your knocking almost made it fall apart."

"Well, I'm sorry about that.  But I was falling apart, because of your work.  And I didn't know what was happening."

"It probably would have worn off after another day or so."

"Right, but I didn't know that.  Which is why I said that you left me with no aftercare instructions." We glare at each other.  He presses his lips in a moue of displeasure.

"I suppose I should have given you more information about what might happen.  It has been a long time since I worked with another person.  I may not have thought through all of the ramifications of offering you the potion.  I apologize." His tone is stiff, formal. I guess he feels awkward.

I take a deep breath. "It's...fine isn't the right word, but things seemed to have worked out alright. Thank you for the apology." He nods.

"If you'd like to look at the beds where I've planted the seeds, you're welcome to come to the farm to look."

"Oh. Thank you.  That is kind."

"Yeah. I also wanted to tell you that there are more plaques in the center now.  Once I dropped off the first set of plants, they just appeared."

"Really?" He's starting to get excited again, so I reach out and grab his arm. "Please don't run off.  I was hoping..." I look away, then force myself to meet his eyes. "I was hoping you'd go with me to look at them."  He raises an eyebrow in an elegant nonverbal question. "I find being in the community center quite unsettling.  I was hoping you would be willing to go with me."

"Ahh." I expected him to be more condescending, but he's compassionate. "What do you feel there?"

"Er...I get the sense of being watched. And theres an intensity to the space. As if it's protected."

He studies me for a long moment, and then nods. "As I thought, you are a Sensitive. That's probably why you were so affected by the potion." A pause. A measuring look. "That, and you're a lot smaller than I am. Since it was titrated for me, it was more potent for you."  This feels like a further apology. I smile a bit.

"Does that mean you're willing to go with me?"

"How about I take both of us?" There's a mischievous glint in his eye.

"What do you mean?"

"Travel between places needn't be a solitary pursuit. What say you?"

"You mean...you want to magic me there with you?"

"Indeed."

I appreciate that he asked. Feeling surreal, I say, "Sure."

He grabs my elbow with his, and flourishes his cape.  I experience sudden and intense vertigo, and the world seems to smear into darkness around me.  Then there is a small explosion, and we're there in the community center. I'm completely off balance, and would fall if not for Rasmodius' arm.  "Wha...What?!" He chuckles.

"Nice landing." I glare up at him.  He's smirking at me.

"Is it always like that?"

"Oh no, people are usually much more disoriented the first time."

"Ugh, there's nothing worse than a smug wizard." He laughs at me.  I'm feeling slightly steadier, so I let go of his arm, and walk to lean against the wall. Steadier, but not that steady, I guess. I close my eyes and take some deep breaths. When I open my eyes again, the wizard looks contrite.

"Are you alright?"

"Yes. I think I'll walk home after this though, if it's all the same to you."

He quirks a smile. "As you prefer." He looks around. "I did not spent much time investigating here when we spoke a few days past.  But I see many interesting magical forces at work in this place."

"Oh?"

"Indeed.  This is well-protected, both by the Junimos, and by druidic magics."

"Linus?" I guess.

"The likely source."  The wizard walks up to a large fish-tank that's in a corner of the room where we appeared.  There's a plaque on it, shining despite the minimal light in the building. He makes a sound in his throat. "It appears to be a request for various fishes."

I walk over to take a look. Detailed engravings of different fish and mollusks are carved into the metal. A rhyme reads:

 

Those who nature's song can hear,
Should to land and sea be dear.
Mother river, Father sea,
Offer up their gifts to thee.
Will you share this bounty fine,
Proving gold that heart of thine?

"Wow...that's a lot of different fish." I honestly feel intimidated.  And a little annoyed. Seriously? I'm supposed to gather all of this?

"You should be able to find these on the beach." The wizard taps the images of shellfish.

"Well, that's something. I wonder if there's anything easier?"

It seems there are several options.  Plaques have appeared asking for all kinds of things: animal products, fruits, bits of copper. "It's almost as if they're asking for a bit of everything from the valley." I say this partly to myself, but Rasmodius responds.

"It would seem so. Perhaps they need all of these things in order to do some spell of their own."

I laugh.  At this point, it would be absurd to deny that magic exists.  But it still sounds so weird to hear him talk about it casually. "If you say so, I guess it must be true.  You are, after all, the subject matter expert here."

"That I am." He looks at me. "Have you ever thought about studying magic?"

"Uh. What."

His raised eyebrow is the only reply I receive.

"Dude–" Don't call the wizard 'dude'. "Rasmodius.  I learned magic was real a couple of days ago. When would I have had time to consider such a thing?"

He looks vaguely annoyed, but nods. "I suppose that's a fair point. But if you are interested, I would be willing to teach you."

"Even though I'm a smart-mouthed tech worker?"

"You're a smart-mouthed farmer now, and yes."

"I'm not a farmer yet.  So I guess that just makes me a smart-mouth." He chuckles. I pause, thinking. Like many people, I loved Harry Potter as a kid, and I could list dozens of fantasy books that I adore as an adult.  But would I want to learn magic? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! OF COURSE I WANT TO LEARN MAGIC!!! The enthusiasm of this inner voice surprises me, and I laugh. "I'm not sure what it would entail, but I'm intrigued by the idea," I say, doing my best impression of an actual adult.

The wizard claps and rubs his hands together. "Excellent, excellent. I'll adjust my wards so that you can always approach my tower. Please come see me two days hence. I shall be done with my current work, and we can discuss things." With that, he swirls his cape and disappears again. 

"But what about...the seeds." I sigh, then look around.  Now that the wizard is gone, I'm getting that eerie feeling of being watched again. "Uh, guys.  Do you have a preference on what you're looking for next?" I hear what sounds like a bell chime from the west end of the building, and peek into a room that's marked as the pantry. The plaque here had pictures of produce and animal goods on it.

I guess I should prioritize the chicken coop for sure then. "Thank you!" I call, and then walk quickly out of the building. I'm getting a bad case of shiver-spine again.

It seems like I'm always leaving the community center in mid-afternoon.  Since I've been completely rerouted from the river, I decide to go to the library and check my emails. I'm in luck, and some of my former SEO clients are interested in having me do more work for them.  There's no one here except the librarian, so I sit down and spend a few hours writing up some articles.  It's actually really handy being in the library, because all the research materials I could want are right at hand.

I knock off just before five, and decide to go pester Clint. I'm hoping that he might be able to sell me some of the metallic items that the Junimos have asked for.  And if I'm honest...I want to keep watching him work. It's fascinating.

Alas, he's not forging when I come in.  Instead, he’s standing behind his counter. He looks surprised, but not displeased to see me. "Melanie! What brings you in today?"

"Well...I was kind of hoping to learn something about your work. It seems interesting."

"Really?" His eyes are tight with confusion. "I only ended up a blacksmith because my father was one. And his father before him.  And...his dad before him."

"Whoah, you're the fourth in a family of blacksmiths?"

"Yeah, it's always been a thing around here." He shrugs and rolls his eyes a bit.

"I mean, I find that really cool, but it sucks you were forced into it.  What would you have wanted to be?"

"Honestly? An artist, probably. Maybe a sculptor."

"Oh. Is there some reason you can't do that now? Or try your hand at it?"

He sighs. "I'm just no good.  And this pays well."

"Does it?" I try not to let my surprise show.  But in a world filled with mass-produced stuff, blacksmithing seems like a really niche skill. Clint smiles wryly at my tone.

"Yeah. You'd be surprised.  There are a lot of folks fixing up old houses who want 'period' reproduction hardware, and a number of farmers around here who have their horses shod the old fashioned way.  And then there are the guys in The Adventurer's Guild–"

"I'm sorry, the what now?"

"The Adventurer's Guild.  You know, up by the..." he trails off. "Right, the mines have been blocked off since you moved in."

"Mines?" Want to ask some more questions there, Mel?

"Yeah, there's an old mine up at the north of town, kind of East of Robin's place. North of the lake. Joja accidentally blocked it off a couple of weeks ago.  They're meant to be clearing it, but Yoba knows when that'll happen." He shrugs. "Marlon and Gil run the guild.  I guess they're miners or something.  Maybe reenactors? They've commissioned swords and stuff from me in the past.  And sometimes Marlon's asked me to make several weapons for him to take to various events he attends. He sells them and splits the profit with me."

"Wow.  Sounds like you keep pretty busy."

"Yeah.  I also do some small-time smelting.  It's..." he shrugs. "It's not bad work." The phrase, "but it's not what I wanted" hangs there between us.

"Can you show me one of your pieces?"

"I was actually working on a sword when you came in the other day.  One sec, let me go get it."

What he brings out is more lovely than I could have hoped for.  It's three feet of shining steel, with a hilt elegantly worked in gold and silver. The edge looks sharp enough to cut a hair lengthwise. I take some time to admire the craftsmanship, then hand it back to him. "Looks like an artist's work to me," I comment. He smiles.

"That's nice of you to say."

"I may have a layman's eye, but I know what I like. The work on that hilt–" I point at it, "is elegant and graceful. And the design is really unique."

"Oh!" Clint's cheeks redden. "Thank you.  It's based on something I saw in the mines when I was a kid.  Someone told me it was dwarf script–If you can believe it." He chuckles a little, as if he's making a joke.

"Always good to get inspiration from the masters." I make it sound as if I'm making a joke too, and Clint chuckles appreciatively.  But honestly, after the last few days? It wouldn't shock me if there were dwarves in the mountain. And what I said to my dad about Elliott being a Selkie could also be true. Yoba! This is a weird town.

Clint goes to put the sword back, and I say, "So, you do smelting?"

"Just a bit, mostly small bars." He reaches under his counter and brings out a copper ingot.

"Do you do beads, too?"

"Yeah, come to think of it, I do." He reaches under the counter again, and pulls out some in copper, silver, and gold. I pull out one of each.

"How much?"

He raises an eyebrow. "What are you going to do with these, Farmer girl?"

"Make an offering to the local nature spirits." He laughs again.

"Touché. Ask a rude question, get a rude answer." he names a price, and I make a face. "It's the gold one.  For the silver and the copper, it would be less."

"No, I get it." I look at them longingly.  It would save me so much time to just get the beads.  But that's more than I really want to pay for this silly project. "Well, I'll think about it. How much are the copper ones?"

He names a much more affordable price.  I decide to buy two: one for the Junimos, and one for me. It could make a cool necklace, by itself.

"If Joja ever gets the path cleared, you could always look for raw materials in the mines."

"I'll think about it."

Clint nods. "Fair enough."

After I pay him, I turn to leave, then pause. "Are you going to the Saloon later?"

"Probably. I spent time there most nights. I can't be bothered to cook for myself very often."

"Dude, I feel you. Cooking for one is a pain." I pause, tempted to say something about Emily.  But no, not now.

"Are you going to head that way too?"

"No...I have some planting to do tomorrow, so I should make an early night of it.  But sometime soon, I'm sure."

"If nothing else, you should definitely drop by on Friday. That's when everyone is around."

"That's what I've heard.  Let's call it a plan."  He laughs, and I smile.  And on that note, I depart.

Back at the cabin, I place my purchases on the table, and shake my head. Yes, I did some work today, and will get paid. But I'm not rolling in money, so I should be spending more wisely. The only thing I can really justify having bought is the packet of seeds. And those were kind of extravagant by themselves. Oh well. As long as I don't buy any more notebooks, and skip the saloon for a while, I'm probably fine.

I end up spending more time reading, and drift off to sleep with thoughts of what tomorrow will bring. My last conscious impression of the world is of a light to the southeast, and the sound of waves from the ocean crashing on the shore.

Chapter Text

When I wake up, I have no idea what time it is.  But I do know that it's still night, as the world outside is bathed in soft, silvery moonlight.

I close my eyes and will myself back to sleep, but to no avail. I'm not sleepy at all.  Seems like dad's genes are in action, and I'll be awake for a couple of hours.

"Fine brain," I mutter, "what do you want me to do with this magical gift of being awake?" A heartbeat later, I remember how loud the waves sounded last night, and think of how nice it would be to sit on the beach. An internal argument over the insanity of going walking in the country at night ensues. I lose to my longing for the sea.

I quickly change clothes, putting on jeans, a t-shirt, a thick sweater, and equally thick socks to go under my hiking boots.  I put a thin pair of gloves on, and pull on a wooly hat before donning my coat.  Then I grab my backpack, into which I toss my new notebook, a pen, and my phone.

Stepping outside is a revelation. The air is warmer than I expected, and heavy with moisture. It smells sweet, and earthy, and feels good in my nose.

Around the porch is fine shroud of mist which adds a vermeil color to the grass. The effect is intensified by the light of the full moon, which hangs gracefully in the western sky. Looking at it makes me think about time again, so I hold up my hands, and measure. There are eight finger-lengths between the moon and the horizon. I've got about two hours before the moon sets. No time like the present.

It would be wrong to say that I head off into the dark, for the moon is so brilliant I have no concern for my footing. It's enchanting enough that I'm half-tempted to go south, to the lake the wizard's tower. But I decide against it, since that's the wilder area, and there could be...well, anything really. Bears? Instead, I walk east, along the road to town.

All is quiet in Pelican town.  The square feels strangely empty.  There's usually someone around, but not tonight.  I notice a well-tended planter and wonder, idly, who cared for it. Lewis? Surely he has other things to do.

When I get to the hedge between the town and the ocean, I pause.  The tunnel through is quite dark. While I don't think there's anything in there, it's hard not to be kind of scared. Don't be silly, I chide myself, then walk through.

The view on the other side makes me very glad that I came. The moonlight has rendered the beach magnificent. The sand sparkles as if made of fairy crystal, and the waves lapping gently along the shore look made of liquid silver. Behind and beside me, the woods seem mysterious, rather than threatening.

I walk down to the water's edge, and strip off my gloves to touch the surface.  It feels nice: cool, but not too cold. The air is also warm enough that I keep the gloves off, pocketing them. Straightening up, I close my eyes for a moment and appreciate what my other senses bring me: the susurrations of wind and waves, and the salty tang of the air.

It would be so nice to sit on the pier and write for a while. I walk carefully, trying to be mindful of the noise my boots make. Who knows how much sound gets up to Willy's sleeping loft? It would be a shame to wake him up.

As I come around the Fish Shop, I'm surprised to see that the bench down the pier isn't empty. A long, lean, familiar man is seated there already, wrapped in an overcoat, head tilted back to soak in the light of the moon. His profile is outlined in glowing light, and he seems at peace. I pause, unsure what to do. Is he asleep? It seems that my efforts at quiet were unsuccessful, as he languidly turns his head toward me, blinking his eyes open.

"Melanie?" His voice is soft, just above a whisper, but the damp air carries it straight to me.

"Hello Elliott. Do you mind if I join you?" I wonder if my voice sounds the same to him as his does to me. Somehow directly there, even though we're at least twenty feet apart.

"Not at all." He smiles, his eyes crinkling. "It's an unexpected pleasure, seeing you this night."

I cross to sit next to him and say, "Same here. I thought I was the only person awake right now." Strangely, I don't feel tension, unlike on our first two meetings. I just feel relaxed, as though I'm seeing an old friend. Maybe it's the hour, or the darkness, or the out of time feeling of this setting. Whatever the cause, I'm grateful for it.

"And what brings you out here on this eve?" He's turned to face me now, his hair backlit like a halo.

"Perhaps the moonlight?" I can feel my cadence shifting to match his formal way of speaking.

"Surely you could see the moon from your farm? Why come all this way?" He seems genuinely curious, which is surprising.

I make a hmmm sound deep in my throat. How much to tell him? Might as well be honest. "Sometimes I wake up, and can't get back to sleep for a while. I could tell this would be one of those nights.  When I was falling asleep, I could hear the ocean. So, when I woke up and couldn't return to my slumbers, I thought it would be nice to sit on the shore." I shrug.  "What about you? Is this your common habit?"

He smiles again. "No, this is unusual for me. I tend to be more of a lark, and a creature of habit. But my mind was full last night, and it seems Lady Luna's illumination was enough to rouse me. I decided to try listening to the waves to soothe me back to the land of Nod."

"Ah...Am I disturbing your attempt?"

"In the best way possible."

"Oh! Um...thank you?" He laughs at bit at this.

"It was a complement, and you are welcome." His smile is deep and heartfelt. My heart flutters. Dang it. There goes my calm.

"May I ask what thoughts filled your mind?"

He looks down at his hands, which I notice are clutched together tightly. "I–" He closes his eyes and take a deep breath, which he lets out slowly.

I hold up my hands in placation. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, I just know that sometimes talking to people helps me untangle my thoughts, which can lead to sleep."

His mouth quirks up into a half smile. "I'm unsure where to begin."

"You could start at the very beginning." 

"It is a very good place to start." He chuckles. "That would take a long time. Suffice it to say that I have been struggling somewhat with writer's block. As a result, I am uncertain of how to proceed from here."

"What do you mean by 'here'?"

"Pardon?" His face is scrunched in confusion.

"Do you mean, you're uncertain of how to make the story progress? Or is the 'here' you're referring to more of an existential crisis of some kind?"

"Oh! Both, I suppose. One stems from the other."

I nod, looking at him. "So, you have writer's block, and now you're not sure whether the writer's life is for you?"

"That is, perhaps, more bluntly than I would have phrased it, but yes."

"Sorry," I say, grimacing. "I've tried to overcome it, but I have a tendency toward bluntness sometimes."

"It wasn't offensive. Just, surprisingly direct."

"At least it wasn't offensive. That's something." I shrug. "That sounds like it's a very stressful place for you."

"An understatement. Nearly two years have passed since I moved here, and I have little to show for it."

"Oh? What does 'little' mean?"

"I have no book. I've written poems and short stories, helped children with their lessons and made friends. But none of those things are why I moved here."

"Poems and stories and a community don't sound like nothing to me. But I can understand your frustration if you're focused on a book. Did you have one in mind when you moved here?"

He shakes his head sadly. "I have always wanted to be a writer–someone known for my stories. Yet, my life always seemed too full for something longer than a few dozen pages to come through. I thought that if I left my old world behind, I would have space for something bigger. But it seems I was mistaken." He heaves a sigh, and looks away.

"I'm so sorry," I say, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. "I can tell you're hurting."

"What if I am a talentless hack?" it's almost a whisper, and my heart breaks for him.

"Elliott, I've never read your work, but I am certain that is not the case."

He turns to look at me then, eyes tight with pain. "Why? Why would you be certain of such a thing?"

Why indeed? "Well, I've always thought that writing a book requires one to partially inhabit another world. And you seem to already be living in a different world. You just need to put that on paper." He blinks at me, and I pull my hand away, blushing. "Sorry, that was a weird thing to say." Now it's my turn to look down at my hands.

"No, what did you mean by that?" I look up, he has a kind expression on his face.

"Most people don't...don't dress like you do. They don't speak like you do. You seem to embody the qualities of a gentleman from a century ago. Like you're a man out of time. What would that be like?" He blinks at me. Oh Yoba, am I babbling? I am completely babbling. He's going to think I'm a total weirdo!

"What a charming idea." He blinks, his eyes partly unfocused as his attention is drawn to something far away. "Yes, that...that has incredible potential." He looks at me then, as if I am the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. "Melanie, I do hope you'll forgive me for my hasty departure, but you have just given me inspiration–"

"Go!" I interrupt him, smiling, and making a shooing gesture. "Go work." He takes one of my hands, and kisses it with an intensity conveying many levels of gratitude, and then he gently releases it. Then he backs away a few steps, half-bowed in goodbye, and turns to run off. I note that he has good form, and briefly wonder if he was on the track team when he was younger. Then I shake my head, and look out at the horizon.

The moon is low, and the sky seems to be lightening, if fractionally. I check my phone for the first time, and see it's near 5AM. Shaking my head, I stand. After what just happened, it feels weird to sit here, knowing that Elliott will be working just behind me. Besides, I'm getting sleepy.

The walk home feels less magical than the walk here, but the world is still beautiful. I beat the sun to my house, and don't bother with changing back into my PJs, simply doffing my outer layers, jeans, and sweatshirt before crawling into my sleeping bag. My last conscious thought before surrendering to sleep is, I knew that adventure would involve writing. I just thought it would be my own!

Chapter Text

He awakens in the dead of night, after a very long day of bad writing. He'd tried. He'd put pen to paper. He pulled out his typewriter. He took a long walk by the river, he perused books in the library. He tried describing his earliest memory, the heartache of his grandmother's death, the sweetness of his first kiss.

There were words on paper, but he hated them all.

Finally, he gave up, and walked to the Stardrop Saloon, hoping to find inspiration–or sleep–in a glass of wine. He found the latter, his anxiety and self-flagellation lulled to a dull roar by the alcohol. Unfortunately, the respite was brief.

He wakes up, sometime in the night, to a flood of moonlight through his window. There's an aching in his chest, an inability to inhale or exhale fully. He needs air. Blearily, he looks out the window and sees there's a layer of mist rising from the ground, obscuring the demarcation between sea and sky. The world has changed to a liminal space, and he hopes that perhaps if he enters it, he will be transformed. Perhaps I will be luckier than Hamlet, and this too, too solid flesh will run, melt, and resolve into a dew.

He tumbles from bed, hair disheveled, and pulls on some clothes. His overcoat is on its hook, and he dons it, limbs still clumsy with sleep. Just opening his door is a relief. The air is so full of moisture that it feels like a cool hand on his brow, and the scent that flows in with it is sweet. He takes a deep breath, and quietly closes the door behind himself.

A short walk takes him to the section of the pier where there's a bench. He's careful with his steps, mindful of his friend Willy, who he hopes is still asleep. He deserves his slumbers, even if I cannot have mine. When he reaches the bench, he sits with equal care, and then leans back, sprawling inelegantly until his head is supported on the back.

What am I going to do? My savings are low, mother is hounding me, and no matter how hard I try, no idea sticks and grows. His mind flows for a while along these lines, and then he catches himself. "This is no good," he mutters, and pinches the bridge of his nose. "I need to breathe, and see if I can sleep."

His overcoat is made of a thick wool, and he's quite warm, despite a lingering chill in the air. He brings his attention to his breath, then to the feel of the air on his skin, then to the sounds of the waves, and the occasional peep from a sandpiper. He feels the tension start to slide away, or at least into the background of his mind, and thinks he might fall asleep. But then light footfalls on the pier rouse him. He turns his head sleepily, wondering who that could be, and is surprised to see a slight, female figure standing not too far away. Something about her posture suggests indecision, as though she's not sure whether to advance. Although he's only met her twice before, he knows her at once.

"Melanie?" His voice is soft, but he feels that she must hear him, because she smiles a little.

"Hello Elliott. Do you mind if I join you?" Her voice is quiet, and unsure, as if he has more right to this bench than she does. Somehow, seeing her makes his heart lift, just a little. Now he's not alone with his thoughts.

"Not at all." He smiles, his eyes crinkling. "It's an unexpected pleasure, seeing you this night."

She crosses to sit next to him, and he feels a warmth begin to unfurl in contrast to the ice in his heart. "Same here," she says, "I thought I was the only person awake right now." 

"And what brings you out here on this eve?" He angles his body to face her, taking in the topology of her face in the lamplight.

"Perhaps the moonlight?"

"Surely you could see the moon from your farm? Why come all this way?"

She hums at the back of her throat, and looks away for a moment, thinking. "Sometimes I wake up, and can't get back to sleep for a while. I could tell this would be one of those nights." She shrugs dismissively.  "When I was falling asleep, I could hear the ocean. So, when I woke up and couldn't return to my slumbers, I thought it would be nice to sit on the shore." Another shrug, as if to say it is nothing. "What about you? Is this your common habit?"

Elliott smiles, looking out to sea. "No, this is unusual for me. I tend to be more of a lark, and a creature of habit. But my mind was full last night, and it seems Lady Luna's illumination was enough to rouse me." a wry chuckle. "I decided to try listening to the waves to soothe me back to the land of Nod."

"Ah...Am I disturbing your attempt?" She sounds genuinely concerned, and he looks at her. Seeing her eyes tightened with worry, the warmth in his chest grows a little. How very sweet it is to experience kindness in a moment of heartache.

"In the best way possible," he replies.

"Oh! Um...thank you?"

He laughs at bit at this. "It was a complement, and you are welcome."

"May I ask what thoughts filled your mind?"

He looks down at his hands, which he hadn't noticed clutching. "I–" The cold, heartache, and fear well up again as he thinks of them. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, which he lets out slowly. I will not let this rule me.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, I just know that sometimes talking to people helps me untangle my thoughts, which can lead to sleep."

He nods, still looking at his hands, though his mouth quirks up into a half smile. "I'm unsure where to begin." Thoughts of everything flood his mind: his mother, his friends, his students. The life he ran from, and what he hoped to run to. This rumination is interrupted by a gently teasing response:

"You could start at the very beginning." 

It's so unexpected that it elicits a chuckle. "It is a very good place to start." He looks up at Melanie. Don't overwhelm the poor woman. You barely know her. "That would take a long time. Suffice it to say that I have been struggling somewhat with writer's block. As a result, I am uncertain of how to proceed from here."

"What do you mean by 'here'?"

"Pardon?"

"Do you mean, you're uncertain of how to make the story progress? Or is the 'here' you're referring to more of an existential crisis of some kind?"

"Oh! Both, I suppose. One stems from the other." She nods, seriously, as if she understands completely. Perhaps she does.

"So, you have writer's block, and now you're not sure whether the writer's life is for you?"

"That is, perhaps, more bluntly than I would have phrased it, but yes."

"Sorry. I've tried to overcome it, but I have a tendency toward bluntness sometimes."

"It wasn't offensive. Just, surprisingly direct."

"At least it wasn't offensive. That's something." She shrugs, again. Elliott wonders if this is normal for her, or if she's feeling a bit uncomfortable. "That sounds like it's a very stressful place for you."

"An understatement. Nearly two years have passed since I moved here, and I have little to show for it."

"Oh? What does 'little' mean?"

Inwardly, he sighs. I suppose that was an entree for further questions. But this is exactly what I was hoping to avoid thinking of! "I have no book. I've written poems and short stories, helped children with their lessons and made friends. But none of those things are why I moved here."

She smiles a little sadly. "Poems and stories and a community don't sound like nothing to me. But I can understand your frustration if you're focused on a book. Did you have one in mind when you moved here?"

He shakes his head sadly. "I have always wanted to be a writer–someone known for my stories. Yet, my life always seemed too full for something longer than a few dozen pages to come through. I thought that if I left my old world behind, I would have space for something bigger. But it seems I was mistaken." He heaves a sigh, and looks away. The ice in his chest has grown in size again, freezing his ribs into place. It's the exhaustion, he tells himself, it's making your body feel strange.

"I'm so sorry," she says, "I can tell you're hurting." Then she reaches out to put a hand on his arm.

There's something warm and comforting in that touch, and some inward dam breaks inside of him. The doubts that have been growing since the previous day come together in a single, agonized question: "What if I am a talentless hack?"

"Elliott, I've never read your work, but I am certain that is not the case." Her voice is warm, and soothing, like a cup of cocoa on a winter's eve. He turns to look at her, eyes still tight.

"Why? Why would you be certain of such a thing?"

The pause before she speaks feels like an eternity. Her response is unexpected: "Well, I've always thought that writing a book requires one to partially inhabit another world. And you seem to already be living in a different world. You just need to put that on paper." He blinks, feeling the germ of an idea starting to form. She takes this the wrong way, pulling her hand back and blushing. "Sorry, that was a weird thing to say." She looks down at her hands.

He leans towards her, a kind expression on his face. "No, what did you mean by that?"

She brings her head up, and seeing his look, says, in a rush, "most people don't...don't dress like you do. They don't speak like you do. You seem to embody the qualities of a gentleman from a century ago. Like you're a man out of time. What would that be like?"

"What a charming idea." He blinks, his eyes lose their focus as his attention turns inwards. What would it be like if Thoreau, or someone like him were brought here? What would he think of the social mores? How would he cope with the loss of not just his family, but his world? Ideas begin to swirl in his head, filling his mind like fireflies and his skin with a buzz of electricity. Somehow, he knows:There. After all of these months. There is the idea. This is the one that can grow and be nurtured to fullness.

His focus snaps back to attention, and he looks with adoration at the woman who has drawn out his muse. "Yes, that...that has incredible potential."

It is never his intention to be rude, but if I don't start writing this down immediately then I might actually perish from heartache and frustration. "Melanie, I do hope you'll forgive me for my hasty departure, but you have just given me inspiration–"

"Go!" Her interruption has great humor behind it, and she makes a shooing gesture with a smile. "Go work."

The relief he feels at her response cannot be conveyed in words, and in a moment of joy, he grabs her hand and kisses it, noting somewhere in the back of his head that her skin is surprisingly soft. Then he backs away a few steps, half-bowed in goodbye, and turns to run off. Even in his haste, he makes an effort to be quiet, still keeping Willy in mind.

He is not sure entirely, when he takes off his coat, or how he lights his lamp, or whether he bothered at all. Perhaps he simply wrote by moonlight. He is unsure how he got the paper, or found the pen, or when he sat in the chair.  All he knows is that for the next several hours, he writes. Words flow, scenes appear on the page, outlines get set down and expanded upon. A nascent universe unfolds into something big and detailed, and he loses himself, loses the time, hardly notices when his arm and back begin to ache from his efforts.

He writes, Lord help him, he writes.

Chapter Text

When I wake up again, I'm intensely confused about what occurred the day before. There was just a lot to take in. Did I really meet Elliott by the beach in the moonlight? Did I really agree to learn magic?? Here, everything seems so normal that it's hard to believe my meetings with the wizard or Elliott could have happened. But I'm in the clothes from my midnight jaunt, and my hiking boots have sand stuck in parts of the treads.  So that bit, at least, must have happened.  For the other, I'll have to wait until Tuesday for answers.

Suddenly it strikes me that Tuesday is tomorrow, which means that today is Monday, which means..."Wow, have I really only been here a week? Insane." I think of everything that's happened, and it boggles my mind. I decide to put my jeans back on, and then sit outside with a cup of coffee to figure out what to do with the day.

Outside, it's warm and sunny. After some thought, I decide to try something my mother did when I was in high school. By midmorning, I'm gathering half-decayed goop from the bottom of the ponds to put on the garden beds. When we rented a cabin by a lake, mom did just this. Her tomatoes grew like crazy. The soil here isn't as sandy as I expected, but it could be better. This seems like an easy (and cheap) thing to try to improve it.

There's a decidedly vehicular sounding rumble, and a large truck pulls into the yard. It turns out to be a delivery of my final six boxes. The driver is polite and efficient, and I help her unload things onto the porch.  Then she drives off, happy to get back to her normal route.  Apparently Pelican Town is off the beaten path.

I move the boxes inside, and open them one by one. They are mainly filled with useful things: shoes, clothes, some kitchen equipment, a collapsible hanging rack. But there is a box of books, and one full of notebooks, watercolor supplies, and a white plastic case with a handle. Upon seeing this last item, I smile, and reach in to pull it out.  It’s my Olympia typewriter.

Grinning, I open the case to reveal the bright pink machine inside. There’s a piece of paper already in the roller. I read it, then laugh. This was one of the first things I packed, since concern over the noise irritating my neighbors kept me from using it often. I’d forgotten what I’d written.  But there it is, plain as day:

Melanie:

If you are reading this, it probably means you’re settled into Pelican Town. Hooray! I hope you’re meeting some people, getting your hands dirty, and having fun. BUT! If you haven’t written or drawn something, or taken photos since you moved, THEN YOU NEED TO DO THAT. I hereby give you permission to play hooky for the rest of the day to do something creative. And by, “give you permission” I mean, “order you to drop everything and go be creative, you doof.”

You’re welcome. :-)

Mel from a few weeks ago

“Brat,” I laugh. Past me knew me so well. I haven’t done any writing for myself since moving, and haven’t really taken any photos either. A moment of thought, and I decide that painting some watercolors is in order.

“What, you don’t want to write?” I ask myself, surprised.

“Nope,” I reply. “I’m not in a story mood. I’m in a pretty colors mood.”

Okay then.

I move the table outside, grab what I need to work, then try to paint the scene in front of me. And, of course, this is how Leah finds me, about an hour later.

I see her walking up from the south, and panic a bit. The last thing I need is someone with skill looking at my shitty art!  But there’s no time put things away without calling attention what I was doing, so I rinse my brush and stand, hoping to draw her away.

“I didn’t know you were a painter!” She grins at me, as I come down the steps.

“I’m not really. I just enjoy painting for the kinesthetic-visual sensation of it.”

“Deep. Does that mean you do more abstracts?” She’s peering past me, trying to get a peek. I walk a little past her in hopes that she’ll turn away and look at me.

“Not really. I just, dabble. I’m no good, really.” I wave my hand dismissively. “Anyway, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Hmm...” Leah looks at me, gauging something, but I’m not sure what. “If you say so. I can’t know that unless you show me.”

“I’m, just feeling self-conscious.” Suddenly, my mind flashes back to the previous night, and Elliott’s forlorn question about his art. “What if I’m a talentless hack?” Yoba, are we all just broken creatives here?

“If I promise to be nice, will you show me? I’ve been dying to have another artist to play with!”

“Aren’t you friends with Elliott?”

“I mean, he’s creative, but he’s not an artist you know? He’s a words guy. I like touching people through their eyes." She makes her own dismissive wave, then looks at me teasingly. "C’mon, show me!”

I sigh. It’s plain that she won’t take no for an answer, so I wave her over to the porch. There’s one painting drying, and another that I was working on, using Fred as my subject.

“Oh, interesting. You’re using watercolor almost like it’s colored pencils, or acrylic” Leah says.

“That’s what I mean about being ‘no good’. I don’t really know anything about the medium.”

“It’s fine! You have a good eye. I can see what you were getting at.” She smiles and looks at me, then. “If you want me to show you how to use these more, I’d be happy to. I think you could be pretty good with more practice.”

“...really?” The question comes out quietly, and in a small voice.

Leah seems to sense that something’s up, because she reaches out to me and puts a hand gently on my shoulder. “Are you ok?”

“Um...I just...didn’t expect you to be nice.” Again, my voice is small and quiet; young even.

“Your face is turning redder than a tomato. Breathe woman, breathe.”

“I...can’t.” Suddenly, I realize that if I take a breath, I’m going to start crying like a small child. I squish my eyes closed, and then take as deep a breath as I can. I hold it for a count of 8, and then let it out slowly for 16 counts. I do this again twice more, and then open my eyes. Leah’s face is scrunched in an expression of concern. “Sorry,” I say more normally. “I’m better now.”

“Are you?”

I laugh self-consciously. “Yeah. I just...It’s a sore spot. I’ve run into a lot of people who have told me that it’s too late to be an artist.”

“Whaaaaat? What does that even mean? It’s never to late to be an artist. That’s one of the magical things about it.” I stare at her in shock. “I mean, sure, if you want to have some kind of A++ career showing art in fine galleries where fancy people eat tasteless canapés and make inane comments, that might be challenging. But as far as I’m concerned, if you put brush to paper, and if you put thought and intention into your work, then you’re an artist.”

“I wanna hug you SO BAD right now.”

Leah holds her arms wide. “C’mere.” The hug is warm and genuine, and I feel myself relax. After a moment, I step back.

“Sorry.”

“No, no sorry." She shakes her finger in front of my face.  "That was a nice hug. I’m glad I could help.” She grins at me, and I smile tentatively back.

“Okay, then. Thank you.” I take a breath. Accept that people can be nice to you. She probably means it. “Um...So, what brings you around today?” Leah laughs at me, and I join in. “Awkward segue, but I am curious.”

“Well, I remembered what you said the other day about the log? And I thought I’d drop by to see it.”

“Oh!” After everything that happened in the last day, I’d completely forgotten about that. “Great! It’s actually more toward your place. C’mon, I’ll show you.”

We walk off together, me about half a step ahead of Leah, until we get to the southwest corner of the property. There’s a thicket of berries here, and a large piece of wood with interesting burls on it. “This is it. Robin says she can’t use it, and I know you sculpt so, I thought you might want it.”

Leah walks over and touches the log reverently. “I think this is oak,” she murmurs, smiling. “I definitely want it.” She looks up then. “How much?”

“Huh?”

“How much do you want for it?”

“Um...I hadn’t really thought of taking money for it. It was just going to be a gift.”

“Whoah, seriously?” She looks at me, then back to the log. “This is really nice wood. It would burn well. These logs last a long time when they’re in a fire.”

“Seems sacrilegious, when someone looks at it the way you just did.”

“Yeah well, most people don’t have a reverence for wood like I do.”

“How about this: you teach me more about watercolor painting, and you can have the log.”

Leah turns and looks at me, grinning. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. You have something I want. I have something you want. And it’s an excuse to hang out more, because you seem cool.”

“Deal!” It’s not quite a shout, but almost. I grin.

“Awesome. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get this log to your place.”

“Oh, I’ll have my errand boy do it.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Errand boy?”

Leah laughs. “Elliott. We help each other with tedious chores sometimes–you know, gathering firewood, that type of thing?–and I keep joking that he’s my errand boy.”

An image of Elliott's profile, lit by the moon pops into my head. Without thinking, I say, “If you need one, I guess he might as well be hot." I flush, then quickly add, "isn’t he a bit old to be called a boy?”

“I suppose I could call him my butler, but that's too dignified. He’s too stuffy as-is.” She rolls her eyes. “He’s a sweet guy, but he takes his ‘old fashioned gentleman’ routine a bit far. Do you know he doesn’t even own a tee-shirt?”

“Honestly, that doesn’t shock me.”

Leah laughs. “Fair. Seriously, I appreciate an eccentric as much as the next person, but he takes it way too far. Who does he think he is? Henry David Thoreau?”

I chuckle. “I keep wondering if he’s actually a Selkie.”

“Holy YOBA that would make so much sense!” She grins. “What I’m saying is, he is aesthetically pleasing, but doesn’t do anything for me. Hot is in the eye of the beholder, right?”

“True.”

She pokes me. "So, miss ‘hot one’ does he please the eyes?”

I start blushing and look down. “Er...yes. I must confess that he pleaseth mine eyes.”

“What.” She starts laughing. “‘Pleaseth’? Are you Wilhelmina Shakespeare or something?”

“Ugh, no. I don’t normally talk like that. I’m just...uncomfortable.”

“Oooh, a crush!”

“Oh come on, you said it yourself: he’s aesthetically pleasing.”

“He is. But there are definitely other guys worth crushing on here.”

I think of the other fellows in town, and nod. “I can see that. Are there any you’re crushing on right now?”

Leah’s cheeks flush pink, and I grin. “Yeah. There’s a certain someone who I see a lot. But who doesn’t seem to notice I exist.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I think he likes girls with blue hair.”

“Wha—ohhhh.” I pause, and Leah seems to think I’m judging her.

“I mean, I don’t know him that well, even after living here for a year. But when we’ve talked, he’s generally really nice, and...well...”

“The heart wants what it wants.”

She looks up. “Well...is it the heart?” I laugh, and she flushes even redder. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded!”

“No, no, I get it. Sorry for laughing. He does seem really nice. And those shoulders...”

“Right?? And we both work with metal.” She sighs, looking down at her hands.

“Why don’t you talk to him more?”

“I guess I’ve gotten into the habit of talking with Marnie. She’s really sweet, and seems to need a friend.”

“Ah, I get it.” I nod. “Well, I was thinking of going to the town meetup on Friday. If I’m talking to Marnie, you could go talk to him. Why are you laughing?”

“Marnie and Lewis will be having one of their ‘not dates’ on Friday. So that’s never a problem. It’s more like finding an excuse to talk to him.” Bing! "Interesting" confirmed!

“Hmm...he showed me one of his swords the other day—" she starts snickering, "yes, yes, shut up, a metal one, not that one–and it was really cool work. Tell him I mentioned it, and you’re curious.  That could be a good entree to conversation, right?”

Her face lights up. “Yes! That’s awesome. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.” I look around, realizing it’s gotten kind of late. “Um...what are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“Honestly, I was just going to keep working on a mobile I’m making.” She looks around. “Do you mind if I take some of these pinecones?”

“Oh, not at all.”

“Thanks!”

Shortly, her coat pockets are full and she’s ready to leave. “I should be done with this on Wednesday. Want to bring your paints over in the afternoon?”

“Sure!”

“Great!” And with that, and a wave, she’s off to her work. I shake my head at the strange twists and turns my conversation took, and then go back to the house. I have boxes to put away, paintings to get drying, and sleep to get. I have the feeling tomorrow is going to be a very strange day.

Chapter Text

A great "krack-a-THOOM" of thunder wakes me on Tuesday, and I sit bolt upright in bed. There's no rain yet, but more rumbles of thunder suggest that there will be soon. Dressing quickly, I consider whether or not to go to the Wizard's tower before the storm hits. But it seems very early. I suddenly realize I have no idea when I should go see him. Maybe he's written me another letter?

Checking the post, I find that there are actually three pieces of mail for me. One is a letter from my Dad. One is on stationery that I recognize belonging to Rasmodius. The last is on familiar, but unexpected letterhead: a note from Joja Corp.

This last piece turns out to be a notice that the rubble blocking the path to the mines has been cleared. Thinking back to my conversation with Clint, I consider going to check them out. But the weather deters me. Instead, I make coffee and read the other two letters.

Rasmodius requests my presence around—but not before—2pm. I raise an eyebrow at the emphasis he put on that particular note. What would happen if I did show up early, I wonder? I'd probably be unable to find the place, or accidentally set the world on fire or something. This last thought makes me laugh a little, before I move on to Dad's letter.

Dear Melanie,

It was great to hear from you the other day. I like the idea of sending letters back and forth. I'm free for a phone chat any time, but if you want to call me once a week, why don't we try for Thursdays?

Sounds like there are a lot of characters in town. Pretty typical for that area I guess. It sounds like you're enjoying meeting them. I'm glad.

Things here have been pretty quiet. It snowed again the other day, which was a surprise. I shoveled the drive, but didn't go out. Just stayed home and watched some anime. Did I tell you about Cross Game? I've really been enjoying it.

Let me know if you have more tree questions.

I Love You,

Dad

I chuckle. This letter is 100% Dad. He's such an otaku, and straight to the point. It makes me feel like he's right here with me.

I briefly debate whether to write him back or not, but realize there's no reason to wait. Regardless of what happens today, it's not like I'm going to write "Oh, btw, started magic lessons. Real interesting stuff." There are some things that have to be experienced to be believed, and the existence of magic is one of those. Heck, I'm not even sure I believe it, and I've experienced a lot in the last few days. My letter back is pretty short:

Dear Dad,

Good to hear from you. Sorry about the snow. Yikes! Staying inside sounds like a good idea.

Down here, it's starting to warm up. I planted a few wild seeds I found the other day, and am hoping I can plant more in early April.

I think you mentioned Crossgame, but I can't wait to hear more about it when I call you on Thursday.

Love you,

Melanie

I take this out to the mailbox, and drop it in. I might talk to him on the phone before the letter reaches him, but it still seems like it warrants a reply.

The storm seems to be passing to the West, so I decide to kill some time by going to town to talk to Caroline about last frost dates.

We have a fairly informative conversation, and I decide to get serious about planting in a couple of weeks.  "If you want more information, you should talk to Eleanor," Caroline says. "She's the one who does all the planting of the town flower beds. She's lived here her whole life, and can tell you more than I can about gardening here." I make a mental note to look Elenor up on Thursday, and order some seeds. I decide to spend the time between getting home and my appointment with the wizard by digging up more beds for planting.

A few hours later, another patch of ground is bared to the sky, and it’s time for me to go. Should I bring anything with me? I look around my house. While it's starting to feel more like home, it's not as if I have anything that a wizard would want. Or at least, that's what I think until my eyes fall on the notebook I bought on Sunday. So far, it's empty, and it does seem arcane somehow. I tuck it in my backpack, and leave the house.

I reach the wizard's tower just after 2:30pm. There's no twisty maze of green passages (all alike) nor is there a sense of foreboding upon climbing the stairs.  But when I reach the door, I do get an impression of the air being particularly thick around it. My knock is quieter than I expected.

The door swings open, and I peer inside the tower. Rasmodius is not in evidence, which is eerie, yet somehow unsurprising. "Hello?"

"Hello, young adept," a voice says from behind me.

"Gah," I say, spinning around. The wizard stands in the front courtyard, grinning in a pleased way. "I guess I should have expected that."

"No trickery, I assure you. It is simply that I have just returned from my work."

"Uh huh. If that's true, then I'm the queen of Sheba."

He walks past me and holds the door open, making an elegant gesture to enter. "Your majesty, welcome to my abode."

Smiling wryly, and shaking my head, I walk into the tower. The door closes behind me, but the light level barely changes. There aren't a lot of windows, but somehow, it's fairly bright in here.

I stop after going a few steps into the room, and turn to look at Rasmodius. He stops too, and we regard each other for a moment. He breaks the silence first.

"So, you've come after all."

"Did you think I wouldn't?"

His lips quirk to one side. "I see many things. But reading the future isn't like reading a book. The actions that people take constantly alter the future, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large ones. It is more correct to say that, with concentration, I can see probabilities, and possibilities. It was highly probable that you would come today. But there were possible futures where you didn't."

"Why didn't I?"

"In most of them, I believe you were preoccupied, or started to doubt the veracity of my abilities. In one of them...let's just say that you might not want to enter the mines without a companion."

"Umm....wow, ok." What the hell is in those mines? "I guess I'm glad to be in this reality, then."

"I am also pleased with this outcome." He doesn't say anything further, and I get the impression that he is waiting for me to speak.

"Sorry, but I'm not sure what to say to you. I'm curious about what you said–that I might be able to learn magic. How does one go about that? I uh–" I break off and fish in my backpack, drawing out the notebook and offering it to Rasmodius. "It seemed right to bring you some sort of gift, if you're going to be my teacher."

He smiles at me, and takes it. It looks right in his hands. "A lovely offering. Thank you." He tucks it under his arm, then makes a gesture toward a low table that's surrounded by cushions. "Let us sit and discuss."

We sit, and he puts the journal on the table, regarding it for a moment before moving his gaze to study me. His eyes are intense, but I can't tell if he's looking at me, or around me. After several heartbeats, my insides twist with anxiety.  "What do you see?"

"Your aura is clearer than it was two days ago. It seems the potion has worn off. Which is good. But you're more fully aligned here in the valley. If you close your eyes, what do you feel?"

"Umm..." I try it, blocking out sight of the room and the wizard. I feel my attention skittering all over the place, so I try pulling my attention into my skin for a moment. My heart is pounding, and I take a couple of deep breaths, listening to the soothing whoosh sound it makes. Then I try to sense something outside myself. The result is surprising.

The first thing I perceive is the tower. Somehow, I know that each stone is self-aware, humming happily to itself and the other stones. The roof is made of copper, which is inscribed with runes. I sense that there is energy flowing through them from different points in the valley, and being smoothed out somehow as it passes through.

I follow one of the flows out past the roof, and take in the land around the tower. It sings of happiness and balance, with an undercurrent of sadness for a time past when this was the natural way of things everywhere. I follow it and follow it, and then–

"Gah!" My eyes fly open, but it takes me a moment to reorient to the inside of my own skin. "What. What was that?"

"What did you see?"

"I followed a line of energy through your roof to its origin, and suddenly there was a bright, chaotic light and a—a sound?" I break off, not knowing how to describe what I sensed. But the wizard nods, understanding.

"Where was the light coming from?"

"It was high up."

"Any guesses as to what it might have been?"

I close my eyes again, sifting through my impressions. For some reason, I have the feeling that it was to the North and West. But it was a long line of disruption, I realize, not just one point. "Holy crap, were those high tension wires?" I open my eyes as I say this, and watch the wizard's face shift to a look of delighted triumph.

"That is certainly how I perceive them. So I suspect it was."

I feel my jaw go slack, and then quickly shut it. "Um...my mom was always really nervous about living near high tension wires. I guess she had good reason."

The wizard sighs. "Yes. Much of our modern world is out of balance with the natural order of things."

"Some people would say that's what we were striving for."

"And is that what you say?"

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, stalling. Is it? "I think it's an unintended consequence of trying to survive. We've lost touch with our place in nature." I shake my head thinking of some of my colleagues. "Do you know there are people who have never been to a forest? Or walked barefoot on grass? Do you know there are people who think old people are ugly or scary?" I take a calming breath. "Sorry. I try not to be judgmental, but it's hard sometimes."

Rasmodius laughs. "Don't apologize. I was astonished when I came here and encountered the 'modern' world."

I quirk an eyebrow. "Is this when you tell me you're an immortal, or from an alternate universe or something?"

He barks a laugh. "No! No. I'm not that old, nor am I that exotic. But I grew up on an island far from here, where people are slower to adopt new technologies. I found a book of magic when I was in my late teens, and began studying it. The pursuit of further magical studies is what lead me away from my homeland, to come here."

"What's so special about Pelican Town?"

"I meant Stardew Valley as a whole. It's rife with ley lines, and has a magnificent balance of the four elements."

"Ley lines are supposedly rivers of energy, right?"

"Supposedly," he scoffs, "what do you think those lines you followed from my roof were, girl?"

"Those were ley lines?" I decide not to give him crap about calling me 'girl'. For now, at least.

"Indeed."

"Innnnnteresting." I take a moment to contemplate this. "So, your roof, is it controlling the lines?" I think some more. "Or...they seem unfocused as they come in. Are you refining them somehow?"

The wizard looks pleased again. "It would be most precise to say that I'm restoring them to their proper order. But I do occasionally harness their energies for my work."

"How important is precision to your work?"

"In magic, precision is everything. The more you know about something, the more precisely you can instruct it to change."

"Huh. Kind of like programming."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, for example, if you upload an image to use as the background on a button, it might display as different colors in different web browsers. You can work around this somewhat by specifying a color profile, or by building the button wholesale from code. The more detailed you are in your instructions, the more precisely things will render for everyone."

Rasmodius nods. "Quite right. If one wanted to control the weather—"

"Can you?"

He raises an eyebrow. "I wouldn't recommend it, but yes. However, it is very tricky. There are many variables, and large systems at play. It's easy to cause a drought, flood, or blizzard."

"Oh. Not good."

"No indeed, though..." he's caught in thought, then nods decisively. "Come outside with me."

Outside, he directs my attention upwards, to the clouds. "Do you see those clouds there? The lower, fluffier ones?"

"The cumulous poofs that are to the south-west, left of the abandoned house?" I didn't notice it before, but Rasmodius has a great view from his tower.

"Yes, those are the clouds. Pick one." I give him a look, which he returns with a chastising expression. Sighing, I make my choice.

"Ok, the very round one, in the middle of the group."

"Excellent. Reach out to it with your mind. You can hold up your hand if it will help."

Reach out to it with my mind? What the heck does that mean?  I look at the cloud again, and reach my hand toward it, imagining that I can touch it, hold it in my hand. I feel a tingle in my palm. Wow, the mind is a powerful thing. Or is it the nature sense? No...this is different. Clouds aren't alive. "Ok, now what?"

"Imagine a surge of power flowing from your heart out of your hand and into the cloud, forcing it to dissipate."

I drip my hand and look at him. "What."

"Make the cloud disappear. Don't worry, that small of an a change won't hurt anything. Here." He looks at the sky, and reaches his arm out, pointing toward a cloud near the one I chose. He makes a slight flicking gesture with his hand, and then drops his arm.

Nothing happens.

"Um, was that—"

"Wait a moment, and watch."

I look up. One of the clouds seems to be fraying at the edges, and as I watch, it thins out, and disappears. I want to say that this is nothing but a freak wind aloft, but the clouds around it are unaffected. I turn back to Rasmodius, eyes wide, and he smiles. "Okayyy. I get it, I think."

"Try again."

I extend my arm, reaching for the cloud, and then close my eyes. In the space where my heart sits, I imagine a ball of light. At first, it's white, but then I perceive a slight purple overtone to it. I imagine this light flowing down my arm to my hand, and feel a pool of heat in my palm. I open my eyes, and look at the cloud. I point, and imagine the light from my hand flowing into the cloud. "Blow apart," I murmur.

After a couple of moments, I feel a breaking sensation in the flow of energy, and the warmth in my palm fades. I look at my hand, confused, and then look back up. The cloud is losing its roundness, spreading slowly out across the sky, thinning around its edges. I stand, transfixed, and watch it fade out into invisibility.

"Wow..." My voice is hushed. Did that really just happen?

"Nicely done." The wizard sounds pleased. I turn to him, and he is genuinely smiling.

"I'm...not sure what to say."

"Surely you have questions."

"Too many. Did I really just do that?" I look up again, wondering again about odd winds aloft. But the rest of the clouds are still moving at their sedate pace, borders clear and firm.

"Indeed."

"HOW?"

"Everything in the world is connected. Things that are closer to one another are easier to affect than things that are farther away. But tweaking these connections is what magic is all about."

"Wow..." There's another pause, where it feels like Rasmodius is waiting for me. Finally I say, "So. How does one learn magic?"

"One starts by learning about their internal energy systems. Come back in, and let's try a few things."

For the next hour or so, he runs me through different guided meditations. It turns out that the 'expanded nature awareness' that I got from the potion was really more of an 'energy awareness'. It was just tuned more towards living things in the natural world than it was tuned towards anything else. With focus, I can sense the flow of energy within my body as well. Rasmodius assures me that, with practice, I can perceive the flow of energy in others, and get a big picture view of energies in the landscape.  But he has me start small, looking at myself first.

After the third or fourth exercise, I ask him, "Is this because of the potion?"

"Which part?"

"All of it.  Would I have been able to sense all of this if I hadn't drunk it?"

He nods slowly, making a low noise of understanding in his throat. "You're asking if I gave you these abilities?"

"Yes, that's it."

"That isn't really a yes or no answer type of question. Most human beings have some ability to sense and manipulate energy. Most of us never realize it, or fulfill our potential.

"When I first met you, I saw that you were a Sensitive–someone who has an inborn aptitude for sensing subtle energies. And you were already attuned to the natural world. The potion I gave you simply enhanced what was already there, in the way that years of meditation and study would have."

"So, what you're saying is, this...whatever this is..."

"Magic. Call it what it is. Names matter."

I take a deep breath. This shouldn't be so hard. "This...magical talent... that I'm developing is something that I had anyway. But it might have been like a seed without water or soil?"

"Think of the potion as fertilizer, if you prefer. You might have started to attune yourself further by farming. It's just that the process was sped up by the potion."

"Honestly, if you hadn't written me that letter, then I might have left and checked myself into a mental ward for a breakdown. Seeing the Junimos really shook me up."

Rasmodius smiles wryly. "Did you really think you were going mad?"

I think back to my last year with Tate. I remember the way that shadows seemed to move and change when I looked at them. I remember the pounding of my heart when I went into work, and the many times I went up to the roof of the office to contemplate the possible end to my pain. I remember being unsure of what was real, and what was normal, and of feeling like no one would care if I died.

"I've been to a place very near that before," is all I say, and give a casual shrug as if it's of no import.

Rasmodius reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder. "Something happened to you."

"I'd rather not get into specifics."

"I can understand that. Everyone has things they don't want to remember." His eyes cloud for a moment with pain of his own. "I have an idea. Let's go outside."

Behind the tower is a large courtyard of stone, which has an opening to the forest. Rasmodius has me take off my socks and loosen my shoe laces, but leave my shoes on at first.

"Close your eyes, and feel into your energy body. Sense where there are stronger points and where there are weaker ones." He pauses. I follow his instructions. For the first time today, I get the sense that there's a weak place to the left of my heart, there's something jamming my throat, and there's a strange weakness near my gut as well. It's a bit unsettling, like something's been taking bites out of me.

"Now, I have my arm out in front of you to steady yourself on. With your eyes closed, please step out of your shoes, and put your bare feet on the earth. See what changes you can sense in your body, if any."

I reach out for his arm, and step out of my shoes onto the ground. The earth is fairly cold beneath my feet, and the grass tickles. But it feels good.

Bringing my attention back to my energy field, I notice that it seems a lot stronger. The bare patches also seem to have some oomph to them, as if they're being filled in, or healed by something. Experimentally, I step back into my shoes. The extra energy fades away.

I open my eyes and look at Rasmodius. "What was that?"

"A demonstration of the power of nature. What did you perceive?"

"My sense was that my energy field got stronger and...filled in...when I was standing on the grass."

He nods. "We are part of the Earth. The Earth sustains and energizes us. If you ever get to the dark place again, make sure to spend time outside, touching the ground with your bare feet if you can. It will help you." He sighs. "The holes are something we can talk about and work on at a later date."

I want to ask him more, but am afraid to. What does it mean, to have holes in your aura?  "Is that it for today?"

"I suspect that was rather a lot. How do you feel?"

"Hmm...very laid back, but like I need a nap."

"Your body will seek homeostasis after what we've done today.  Sleep. Practice sensing your energy, and meditating. Come see me in a week. We'll talk more then."

"Okay." I start sorting out my socks and shoes situation, and then decide to just take them off and walk home barefoot. The ground isn't that cold, and I'm still unsettled by the holes. Maybe they'll fill in a bit more as I walk.

"Oh, and Melanie," I look at Rasmodius. He seems very serious. "I know that you have taken on work with computers, but if you're able to, try to avoid too much exposure to manmade energy. It will set our work back."

Well, crap. There goes my wifi idea. I guess I need to talk to Seb, quickly. "Okay."

"Good." He nods. "Enjoy the rest of your day."

"Thanks, you too."

 

 

When I get home, I write down the exercises that Rasmodius ran me through, as well as my perceptions from each of them during the afternoon. It seems sensible to track things, and see what changes–if anything.

That night, my dreams are full of light, and there's a sense of music, even though I couldn't tell you what it sounded like.

Chapter Text

Elliott

Words have flown from my fingers. The change from birdsong to frog song and the intermittent necessity for a lantern have alerted me to the passing of days. But apart from these signs, I paid no attention to time. It was as if a powerful force had overtaken me, and said, "you shall be an instrument of words" then played me enthusiastically.

Friday morning finds me wrung out; as limp as if I have exerted myself in some feat of athleticism. The period of inspiration—madness?—has left me, and I take stock of what has happened whilst I straddled two worlds.

I seem to have taken in sustenance and water, as the detritus of bread and various drinking vessels are to be found around my home. I know there were periods of unconsciousness, but I haven't any notion as to their duration or quality. I cannot in good conscience call them sleep, for I was so consumed by a waking dream I could hardly discern it from reality.

My body does not seem overly sore, which suggests that I also stretched. Good. I stretch now, fully, enjoying the sensation, then walk to my desk.

I pick up the last pages I wrote, appreciating that my handwriting didn't turn to a scrawl even in my haste to get words on paper.

The prose is not hellacious, thanks be to Yoba. It seems that James is in quite a predicament, having fallen and hit his head in a mine. This, I remember, is what I chose for the inciting incident to get him to the future. It's one of the great questions of the novel: is he dreaming of our world, or truly here? I need to start into his interactions in the future, so I sit down, and pick up my pen.

Something has happened, though. The words aren't there. I reach out, and find nothing of the inspiration I felt the previous days. Instead, there is just me. I am alone with my thoughts, and three chapters, and an outline.

"Sometimes the best way to summon your muse is to sit down and do the work," I mutter to myself. With a sigh, I start to write. One sentence after another comes out, and I am appalled by them all.

After several hours of this nonsense, I stand, stretch again, and look around my cabin with displeasure. Perhaps a change of scenery is what I need to fix this dry spell. I don my overcoat and put a notebook and pen into the pocket. The wind's susurrations summon me. Perhaps walking in the woods will tempt inspiration to strike again.

 

Melanie

The rest of the working week passes fairly uneventfully. On Wednesday, I spend some time painting with Leah. It's calming, and she's fun to talk to. Apparently she was starting to make it big in the art scene back in Zuzu, but are left because her partner was unsupportive.

"She basically told me that I needed to grow up and get a 'real job' even though I was making enough to pay my chunk of the bills. Some of it was from a part-time job, but most of it was from my art.

"I even had some work in a group show at Gallery Zed, and she didn't bother to come. That was when I realized that she didn't understand me at all.

"Luckily, I sold a few really big pieces from that show, so I had some money to spare. I told Kel that I was leaving, and then moved here. I figured the cost of living would be lower, so I could focus on my art full time."

"Has that worked out for you?"

She grins. "Mostly. I forage for wild foods a lot, so my costs are pretty low. And Marni rented me this cabin for a song. Really, my challenge these days is that I need more exposure."

"That does sound challenging. Pelican town isn't exactly the hot art scene. Do you have plans for that?"

"I've got a website. I'd love to do a show here, but I don't know what the turnout would be."

"So, you basically need help with logistics?"

"Something like that."

"Maybe Lewis can help you?"

"Probably. First I need to get more work done."

"Fair enough."

Our conversation turned to other things at that point.

Apart from that visit, I practice the meditations the wizard set me, and work on digging up the soil for more beds. After two days of work, I have 20 meter-squared plots ready for seeding. They are nothing much to look at, just grass-free turned earth, enhanced with muck and bordered by sticks and stones. But they're gorgeous to me.

I note with some interest that there seem to be sprouts coming up in the plot that I seeded with the Junimo's thank you gift. I take a photo of them and send it to my Dad before our Thursday chat. When we speak, he tells me that he's sorry, but that's not really his area of expertise. "No problem, Dad. I guess that was really more Mom's area anyway."

"Yeah." There's a long pause as we both think about her. She was a very complex woman: an academic with a profound love for gardening; a voracious reader with indiscriminate taste; innovative, and clever, and a deep thinker. We've never been the same since she died.

"Well, no biggie. There's a library in town, so I can look it up there. Or wait and see what happens."

Dad laughs. "That could be an adventure!"

"You betcha!"

The rest of our conversation is a lot more upbeat. 

 

Friday dawns overcast, and I dig out the radio I'd stashed away to see what weather is predicted the rest of the day. Allegedly it will just be overcast, not raining. Still, this strikes me as a good opportunity to hang out in the library.

Rather than take the direct route, I go via Robin's house. I haven't heard from her or Sebastian in a few days, and want to talk to both of them.

The bell on the door jingles as I walk in, and Robin looks up, smiling as she sees me. "Hello there stranger! How's life on the farm?"

I laugh. "Busy! How are things? Are you working on something new?"

"Yeah, I've been contracted for a remodel in Starfish harbor. It's a big one." She pauses. "Actually, some of the wood you have lying around would be great for this. There's a piece of knotty pine that would look amazing in the dining room."

"Oh, awesome! I was actually meaning to talk to you about the wood anyway. What do we need to do to get things moving on it?"

"Oh! Right! I have a friend who can come down next week and haul it away. I can tell him which bits to keep for me. The rest will go to a mill."

"Oh great! Just let me know which day, and I'll be there."

"Excellent. Probably Tuesday. He has to come down from the desert to get it."

"Whoah, so far?"

"There are closer mills, but the wood dries faster out there."

"Ah, gotcha."

"Any final thoughts on what you'd like in trade?"

"Honestly, I'd just really like that chicken coop. And a new bed. I know my place isn't huge but the camp cot is killing me."

Robin laughs at this. "You could fit a queen bed in there, and have room left over."

"You think?"

"Yeah, definitely."

"One queen bed frame then, please."

"I have one in the garage. Want to see?"

"Sure!"

 

It turns out that she has not one, but three bed frames in her garage. Each of them is a work of art, carved intricately with a different motif. One has an elaborate geometric shape, another is a pastoral scene, and the last is a pattern of interweaving branches.

I feel my heart lifting in wonder at the beauty. "Did you make all of these?"

"Yep! Sometimes business is slow in the winter, so I do this to keep myself occupied. Plus, they sell well at the Stardew Valley Fair in the fall."

"There's a fair?"

"I keep forgetting you're new to town. Yes, there's a fair. We have a number of other festivals during the year, actually."

"Oh, nice! Are they on the calendar?"

"Yes! And Lewis can give you a full annual calendar, too."

"Doesn't the town have a website?"

"No," a man's voice says from behind us. We turn, and see a rumpled Sebastian walk into the garage. "I keep telling Lewis that we need one, but he's not interested in my opinion."

I raise an eyebrow at his tone. "And this is a pet peeve?"

He half smiles. "Pet's too strong a word. It's intermittently annoying."

"Ahh...still, bummer."

"Maybe you should say something, Melanie!" Robin says.

"He might listed to an outsider." Seb's tone is musing.

"Especially one who didn't spend her youth getting into trouble!" Sebastian grins unapologetically at this.

"Ok, I feel like there's a story here," I say. "Care to share?"

"Rotten egg tosses at Easter, anchovies in the Luau soup...you know, youthful hijinks."

Luau? Wow, that's a legacy event name if I ever heard one.

"So, you were a troublemaker?"

"I'd say Sam was more of one, but I wasn't against following his lead..."

"That's for sure. I remember when you boys stuck that frog down Abigail's shirt."

Sebastian smirks. "She didn't talk to us for a week." He turns back to me. "Anyway, Melanie, you might as well bring it up to him."

"Yeah, happy to. If he says yes, I'm foisting the work off on you though."

He holds up his hands. "Only if it's a paid position. I'm in the middle of something." Robin gives him a skeptical look. "Seriously, I am. I had to sign an NDA and everything."

"Wow, that's major," I say, hoping to break the tension. Why doesn't anyone seem to think that Sebastian is employed?

He looks at me and smiles a little. "I'm glad you understand."

"Are NDA's a common thing?" Robin sounds pretty skeptical.

"It depends on the kind of work," I say. "But it's not unusual, especially if it's a corporate client." Turning to Sebastian, I add, "Are you going to be able to tell us when the project is done?"

"Maybe in a few months, when they have their official launch."

"Awesome. I can't wait to see it."

"Hah, thanks." He looks at me for a long second. "Speaking of projects...I've been so caught up in coding that I forgot to look into the cabling to try to get wifi down to your place."

"Oh!" Nice that he brought it up for me. "Actually, I was thinking about it, and it might be better if I just use the library's connection. That will force me to come i to town once in a while." And that's a perfect excuse to avoid talking about magic. Though, the look on his face would be priceless.

"Fair enough. Saves me some work, too. But let me know if you change your mind."

"Thanks! That's really nice of you."

"Speaking of town," Robin breaks in, "are you coming to the Stardrop tonight?"

"Oh, Fridays are that thing, aren't they?"

"Yeah! Pretty much everyone in town drops in. There's dancing. You should come! It'll be fun."

My ears perk up at "dancing" but Sebastian rolls his eyes. "You and Demetrius dance, Mom. No one else does."

"You used to dance with me!"

"When I was four!"

Picturing little Sebastian dancing with Robin is too cute for words. I can't hold back my grin. "Pics, or it didn't happen," I say.

"Ooh, gotcha there, mom!"

"True, I don't have a photo of that but I do have other pictures." The look Robin gives Sebastian–and his resulting look of horror–sends me into gales of laughter.

"I clearly picked the wrong morning to come work on my bike," Seb says, and retreats.

"Sorry," I call after him, trying to stifle my laughter. He's gone though. "Oh dear..."

"It's fine," Robin waves a dismissive hand. "He's not usually up this early anyway. He'll be back to himself after a cup of coffee."

"Oh, yeah, I getcha. I'm not much before my first cup either." Robin nods sagely.

"Anyway, Melanie, would you like one of these beds?"

"They're all gorgeous, but I really like the one with branches. Can I have that one?"

"Definitely!"

I make a little happy noise. "Can I...can I hug you?"

"Yes!"

Robin seems like she's only about 10 years older than me. But there's something about her hug that reminds me so much of my mom, I find myself tearing up. We separate and I don't hide my expression fast enough. "Hey, what's wrong, honey?"

"Sorry--it's just been a really long time since I've had a mom hug."

"Oh! Is she...?"

"Yeah, she died just after I finished uni. Breast cancer."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" She give me another hug, which I accept gratefully.

"Thank you. It really hurt when I was younger, but it usually doesn't hit me like that anymore."

"My parents are still alive, but I was close to one of my grandmothers. I still miss her."

I nod. "When my grandpa died, it hit me pretty hard. He used to take my cousin Dawn and me camping, and was generally just a lovely human. He taught us to respect and love nature."

"And he left you the farm."

"Yeah. I...was surprised by that." Thinking of the last week, I wonder how Dawn would have handled things. I guess I should tell her about the farm. I owe it to her. "Dawn was more outdoorsy than I was. She's a park ranger now! So I'm surprised that grandpa didn't leave the farm to her. She seems the more natural choice."

"Maybe he thought this was the only thing that would tempt you away from a city?"

"Hmmm...maybe that's it." It would make sense. I didn't love living in a city, but that's where my job was. So why would I have moved anywhere else?

Robin squeezes my shoulder, smiling. "I'm sure he made the choice he did for a reason."

"Here's hoping! Worst case, I can always ask Dawn if she wants the place. Or we could sell it to Joja."

"Ugh, don't even joke about that!"

"Sorry, sorry," I'm laughing. "I can't help myself."

"I guess, you're entitled. But ugh!" She looks back at the bedsteads. "Anyway, I can bring that down to you later, if you want?"

"How about tomorrow? I don't even have a mattress yet, so there's no rush."

"Ah, fair enough. Do you know when you'll get one?"

"I'll probably order one today. I'm off to the library next."

She nods. "I hope you get a good one." She pauses, then, "will we see you later?"

"Yeah, I'll drop by the Stardrop for a bit. Sounds fun!" And if it's not, I'm giving myself full permission to bugger off after a very short bit!

"Great! I'll see you tonight."

She escorts me out of the house, and I wave goodbye to a rather chagrined looking Sebastian who's walking down the hall with a cup of coffee. Poor kid, I think, and snicker to myself.

The library turns out to be less absorbing than I'd hoped. While I have emails and some short writing projects to do, things are quiet. After a few hours, I'm finished with any electronic work. I suppose that I could go back to my house, but am reluctant to do so. If I do, I likely won't leave to go to the Stardrop later.

Would that really be a big deal? The whole town goes, and you're basically an outsider. No one will really care or even notice if you're not around.

I know that it's important to go to things like this to make friends though. Maybe it would be nice to go down to the beach?

The clouds are still very thick, but it doesn't feel like there's a threat of rain. I walk out onto the pier, and sit on the bench. Too bad it's empty! I think some part of me had been hoping that Elliott would be there again, but alas, he is not.

I spend some amount of time looking out to the horizon where sea and sky seem to meet and fade to infinity. Suddenly, I notice bright blue lines that seem to run around each nodule of vapor at the bottom of the clouds. Are the clouds about to break up? But no, it's not that. The blue looks as if it goes through some of the lumps, reappearing on the other side.

What the heck?

Over the last few days, I've felt myself getting a better understanding of the extra sense that feels "magic". Tentatively, I close my eyes, and "reach out" to the lines. There's a humming running through them, as if they are full of vibrant energy. What would happen if I shook them a little?

I give one of the lines a gentle pull, and then sit and watch. Slowly, ever so slowly, I watch the clouds begin to come apart at the lines, letting sunlight stream down onto the sea. Rather majestic looking, really. I pull out my phone and take a picture. Then, in a fit of whimsy, I send it to my Dad. He replies quickly:

> WOW, nice shot! Is this in pelican town?

> Yeah, pretty good, hey?

> Definitely. I need to come visit!

> Come any time, Dad. You might want to bring an air mattress though.

> Let's figure out a date when we talk on the phone next.

> Sounds great!

I put my phone away and look up again. I still see the lines. What are they? I look at the time, and decide that I might as well trek to the wizard's' tower. If he's home--and I can get there--then I can ask him.

Surprisingly, I'm able to find the place without trouble, and there's no resistance when I climb the stairs. When I knock, Rasmodius calls, "come in." Seeing him, I pause in surprise. He is sitting at a low table, eating a sandwich. It smells like...is that tunafish?!

"Um...should I come back later?"

"You could, but as you've walked all the way here you may as well come in." He wipes his mouth with a paisley napkin, and comes over. "You have questions, young adept?"

"Erm, just now, I was at the beach, and I noticed blue lines running through the clouds. I tugged on one, and the clouds seemed to break up."

"Mmhmmm..." He pauses, waiting for more.

"Well, I was wondering what the lines were, and if I've broken something by messing with them."

He smirks. "Those are smaller Ley lines of air. Some Ley lines are very large and have a massive impact. Some are smaller, flowing along the lines of the gulf stream, and other large winds."

"Do they form because of the winds?"

He shrugs. "It may be that, or the winds may flow from their action. It's a hot topic of debate amongst academic wizards."

Of course it is.

"As for whether you have broken something, no. While you may have started the clouds breaking up before they would have otherwise done so, you couldn't have done anything permanently damaging so easily."

"Thank goodness."

He smiles. "I'm glad to have put your mind at ease."

"I appreciate it." Looking around, I remember he was eating his lunch. "Sorry, should I let you get back to..."

"Ah, yes. I've been doing some research, and should probably get back to it."

"Well, thanks again for letting me in."

"It was the responsible thing for a mentor to do."

I let myself out. He must get lonely. It would be very weird to be the only one who knows that Magic is real. Although, it seems like he knows Linus. I wonder if they were friends and had a falling out?

I check my phone, and see it's about 4:30. I'm so close to home, it would be so easy to just...go chill. Close the door. Pick up a book...

No! I can do this. Just a bit longer.

I look around and find a convenient rock to sit on. Then, I pull out my notebook. I page through it, sorting through to-do lists, doodles and outlines.

There--the last thing I'd written related to my novel idea. I pull out my pen and start writing.

----

Doctor Jones stares at me, her expression unreadable. "So, you say you've been having recurring dreams about this 'Agnes' person."

"Yes. She's...she seems to have been someone important to me. Are you sure there was nothing in my file about her?"

The doctor adjusts her glasses, a sign that I'm learning signals that she's buying time. "As far as I know, there's nothing in your open records about an Agnes. But what's in your sealed records might be more useful."

"Sealed records?"

I almost think she winces. "Yes. Those who go into the long sleep like you did often leave additional information for themselves. Sometimes, there was a log that family members could contribute to. As I'm sure you can understand, the access to this is restricted."

For some reason, I have a hard time believing that records would go untampered with for centuries. But I suppose that's not important here. "How do I get access to my file?"

She pauses. "You can get access through one of the terminals here. But you have to get sign-off."

"Sign off?"

"We have to be sure that you're ready for what you might find in there."

I purse my lips. "So what you're saying is, you get to say whether or not I can see those records?"

"An oversimplification, but yes. I certainly have some say in it." She smiles. "But you do too, Christa. Do you want to open that file? Do you feel like you're ready for what you might or might not find in it?"

What if Agnes doesn't exist? I think on this for a moment. "I think I'd like to know what's in there. If Agnes doesn't exist, I'd rather know, so I can put these questions to rest."

Dr. Jones nods. "That's a very healthy response, Christa. I'm sure that you can handle whatever's in there. So I'll give you my sign-off at the end of the session. In the mean time, would you like to talk about what your hopes are for what's in there?"

----

"What are you working on?"

I'm so deeply into my work that the shy voice takes a moment to sink in. Then I look up, surprised. Jas is standing a bit away, regarding me solemnly. She has a jumprope in hand, and is wearing bow in her hair. It's tooth-achingly sweet.

"Just some writing." I smile. "Sometimes I like to write stories."

"Like Mr. Elliott?"

My smile deepens. "I suppose, yes, rather a lot like Mr. Elliott. But I've never been a teacher, so it's a bit different." She nods her head, sagely. "Did you just come from jumping rope?" Jas nods again, looking a little shy.

"I don't have many people to play with. So I come jump rope out here a lot."

I nod, thinking of my own childhood. It's hard being an only child when there aren't a lot of kids to play with. "You don't want to play with Vincent?" She rolls her eyes.

"He's ok, but I see him all. the. time. Sometimes I just want to play by myself."

I laugh. "I get that." I look at the sky. "It's getting late. Are you headed home?"

"Yeah. Aunt Marnie wants me to come home before the sun is down. She's just gonna drop me off with Vincent's mom and then go to the Stardrop though." She sighs. "I wish I could go."

"Jody doesn't go?"

"No, she says she'd rather hang out with me and Vincent. We watch movies."

"That sounds fun."

"I guess it is." She shrugs.

"Well, I'm headed the same way. Can I walk with you?"

"Mmm...ok."

"If you want to go alone, that's ok too." I don’t want her to think I’m a creeper.

"No, I don't mind. Aunt Marnie says not to go anywhere with strangers but...I kinda know you. And you know Mr. Elliott, so you must be ok."

I'm touched. "Thanks, Jas." Not that I know him well, but I guess I'll take it.

Jas is a pretty quiet kid, but she points out a few things on the way to Marnie's house. "That tree is fun to climb," and, "Vincent fell off that rock once and dropped his ice cream. He was really sad." When we get to Marnie’s house she turns to me. "I guess I’ll see you later."

"Thanks for walking with me to the path."

She smiles at me, but doesn’t say anything. Just turns and runs to the house. I briefly consider the wisdom of yelling "have fun with Vincent" after her, but decide that would be a bit much.

As I walk into town, I notice how dark it’s getting. The clouds have a few streaks of pink on them, but it’s almost dark, and the streetlights are on. The air still has some warmth from the day, but if the clouds clear entirely then it’s going to be quite chilly tonight. I’ll put an extra log in the wood stove when I get home.

That thought brings me comfort as I approach the Stardrop Saloon. You don’t have to stay long if you don’t have to, I remind myself. Then I pull on the door.

I was expecting it to be loud, but even though music is playing and there are some conversations going on it’s a tolerable level of noise. It just seems like a group of people being happy together. Which it is. This...I can deal with.

Looking around, I take in more of the scene. Robin and Demetrius are dancing swing by the jukebox, and Clint and Willy are sitting together, although not really talking. Clint is shooting glances at Emily from time to time when her back is turned.

Pierre is at the Bar, chatting to Gus, and Pam and Shane in their usually locations. Lewis is sitting at a table near the window, and Leah is at a separate table behind him. Amusingly, I notice that she is shooting furtive glances of her own at Clint. Seriously, girl, make a move.

I’m about to go over to her when I hear a CRACK followed by cursing and laughter from the other room. Must be a pool game. Is that where "the kids" are? I decide to check it out.

Sure enough, Sebastian, Sam and Abby are hanging out in the back room. The guys are playing pool. I watch for a minute, and decide that a more accurate description is that Sebastian is kicking Sam’s ass at pool. It’s impressive, but I feel bad for the blonde guy. Sebastian is lining up a shot with his back to me, and I decide to troll him a little bit. Sneaking up behind him I say, "Dude, you didn’t tell me you were planning a murder tonight." His shot goes a little wonky, and he turns to glare at me.

"Was that really necessary?"

"I mean, no, but who am I to resist temptation?"

He mutters something under his breath, shaking his head.

"Thanks Melanie!" Sam says, before completely failing to get his shot in.

I shake my own head, and go to sit by Abby. "Let me guess, Sam was really bad at Geometry?"

"I’m not sure he even took Geometry," she replies.

"Got it." Interesting that she got the reference though. "Also, Hi."

"Hi, yourself. Where have you been, by the way? I haven’t seen you around for a while."

"Um, I’ve mostly been around my farm. Cleaning land, that kind of thing."

"Sounds like a lot of work."

"Yeah..."

"Still more fun than homework!"

I laugh. "Remind me what you’re studying again?"

"Graphic design. But I’m also taking a stats class to fulfill some requirements."

"Oh, yeah. You have my sympathy."

There’s another CRACK and we look up.

"Seriously, does Sebastian have a pool table at home or something?"

"No, he’s just...good at Geometry, I guess." I laugh at that.

"Fair enough. Anyway...I guess I just wanted to say ‘hi’."

"Well, hello." Abby pauses. "Have you had any strange presences show up on your farm?"

I’m taken aback for a minute before I remember what happened after she showed me the tower. "Uh, only if you count squirrels. Or Leah."

"Hah! Leah’s definitely an artist's artist, but she’s not a strange presence."

"No, she’s not. She’s really nice!"

"I think so too."

We make some more high-level chitchat for a while, and then I decide to go back into the main room. I’m starting to get hungry, and I want to do something about it.

In the main room, not much has changed. Gus and Emily are busy behind the bar. Caroline has come in to sit with Pierre, and they’re laughing quietly about something. I notice Marnie has joined Lewis at the table, and she’s staring at him with starry eyes. Wow, worst-kept secret EVER.

I place an order, and walk over to Leah’s table. "Hey! Mind if I join you?"

"Oh, not at all! How are things going?"

"Good, you?"

"Good! I’m about done with my latest sculpture."

"Oh, the one you were showing me the other day?" It was pink and metal and I found it very confusing. But her explanation of the concept behind it sounded interesting.

"Yep, that’s the one!"

"Neat! Have you thought more about how you’re going to market your work?"

"Still not sure." She sighs. "I wish there was a gallery in town. I don’t really want to have to take my stuff all the way to Ternville–or to Zuzu!–just to show it."

"Word. Maybe you could have a showing in town?"

"Where though? If we still had a community center, it might be one thing. But Lewis said it’s been out of commission for years. And besides, who would come all the way out to Pelican Town just for an art show?"

"Wait, isn’t there a Stardew Valley fair every year? Is there an art contest as part of that?" The Arborville Art Fair would probably be too far to go. But the Kelsey Community Fair always had an art contest. Maybe they do here, too?

"Huh. I don’t know. I should ask Lewis." We look over at his table. "Um, when he’s NOT on a ‘not-date’." We both chuckle about it.

"Who knows, maybe if it doesn’t exist already he could propose that as a different part of the fair."

"Maybe." She sighs and looks at the pint of beer she’s been slowly drinking.

"I mean, the worst that can happen is that the idea would get turned down."

"Yeah, I guess."

Don't be such a busybody. She's clearly uncomfortable. "Sorry. Food for thought, anyway."

She half quirks a smile. "I guess I should be more optimistic. I just sometimes wonder if Kas was right."

"Kas was an asshat, and you know it." That gets a laugh out of her. Success!

"That's really sweet of you to say."

"Is it? I'm judging someone pretty hard." She laughs again. I look over, and see people peering at us, wondering what's funny.

"Well, you're judging them in my favor, so I'll call it nice."

I snicker. "Fair enough."

Gus brings over my salad, and I thank him. "Hey, do you want to maybe go sit with some other people?"

"Maaaaybe. Who did you have in mind?"

"A certain blacksmith."

"Aw, c'mon. Seriously?" Leah's blushing.

"Why not? He's also nice...you should talk to him about art!"

"I dunno..." She looks at her pint. I stand up.

"You'd be doing me a favor. There's nothing more awkward than eating in front of one person. If you guys are talking, then I won't feel as self-conscious about shoving lettuce into my face like a philistine." At her look of confusion, I elaborate, "I just don't think there's any elegant way to eat a salad, ya know?"

"Hmm...I guess that's true." She looks at her pint glass again. It's almost empty. She glances at Clint's which is in a similar state. "Sure, why not?"

We stand. Leah goes to the bar and orders a cider for herself, and, "another round for Clint and Willy." Gus grins, and pulls the pints, then hands them to her.

When we approach the table, the men look up in surprise. "Mind if we join you?" I ask. They both make vague shrugs meaning, "sure, if you want" so we sit.

"These are for you," Leah says, handing one glass to each of the guys. They mumble their thanks, and I take a bite of my salad. The rocket is crisp and makes a nice contrast to the goat cheese and cucumbers. Heavenly!

"So, um...how are things going?" Leah directs this broadly, and the guys shrug again.

I swallow my bite, and say, "Clint, I was telling Leah here about the artistry of your sword hilts. She was curious about it."

"Oh!" he blushes a bit. "It's not much. My dad always used to get on my case about spending too much time on the hilt decorations. But on the slower days, I sometimes take the time to embellish my work."

Leah's looking at him intensely. "What's the process like?"

"Well, you start by..."

I turn back to my salad with a smirk. Although I'm interested in the process too, I'm happy to focus on eating for now, and let them talk. I catch Willy giving me a querying face, and I give him a nonchalant shrug, at which he chuckles. Hah, he knows what's up. Nice.

As I'm finishing my salad, I hear the bell on the door tinkle, and look up to see Elliott walk in. He doesn't seem to notice me, and I turn to look away, feeling my cheeks flush. Woman, did you not decide to stop acting like a 12 year old around this man? Take a deep breath and look at him like a normal person.

I turn back with a smile, but he's already walked past our table, and is up to the counter. Despite the music playing, I can still hear him say, "good evening, Gus. How are you?"

"Hello Elliott! Always a pleasure to see you. What can I get for you tonight?"

Elliott sighs. "I think a glass of red wine is in order."

"Rough day?"

"Yes, unfortunately."

"I'm sorry to hear that." I turn away, trying to focus on the conversation at the table. Willy is explaining his techniques for carving fishing lures. Huh. Seems the conversation has taken a turn.

"It's all about the knife being particularly sharp, y'see," he says, "and so when you make a flick like this," he demonstrates "it removes just a sliver of wood, creating a scale-pattern."

"That's amazing!" Leah is clearly enthralled.

Clint looks interested as well. "Have you ever thought of putting some gold wire into the indentations of the scales? It might help adding a realistic flicker to the tackle."

Willy smiles. "Are you offering me your goldsmithing services?"

Clint smiles a little. "Well, it could be an interesting project. Like I said, detailed work is fun."

"Would the weight be a problem?" I pipe up. Everyone turns to look at me. I blush. "Sorry for being quiet before."

"No, it's fine. Food..." Leah waves. "Anyway, what do you mean?"

"I just mean, gold is heavy. Wouldn't there be a trade off between the added lure of the shine, compared with the relative buoyancy change from adding gold?"

Willy looks really proud of me, which I find kind of hilarious for some reason. Clint and Leah both look thoughtful. "Could be worth testing," Clint says.

"You might want to try working on different kinds of wood. I know where you can about six or seven kinds. Would that help?" Leah looks hopeful, and her offer is met with agreement.

"I'm happy to whittle anything you bring me, miss."

"I think it would be fun to try making a few different kinds. We could try gold vs. silver, maybe even copper..." Clint is musing, and suddenly all three of them are very excited by this combined project. It seems like now that the ice is broken, Leah's getting along with Clint quite well.

In a moment of discourse between the two men, I lean over and murmur, "hey, do you mind if I excuse myself? There's a writer I'd like to go pester."

Leah looks at the bar, then smirks. "Turn about's fair play. Have fuuuuuun."

"Oh shut up." I don't mean it meanly though.

Elliott is staring morosely into his wine. When I sit down next to him, he doesn't look up. Not a good sign. For whatever reason, I'm caught in a fit of inappropriate whimsy, and say,
"Your face, methinks, is lined to tell a tale,
Fit for one who through rough seas did sail."

The rhythm of this little couplet is extremely questionable and I wonder what the hell has gotten into me. Srsly, that's your opening line, you dorkus? But somehow, my words seem to break through Elliott's melancholy, and he looks up to smile at me, sadly.

"My muse came on and sang to me for days,
But now she's left me shattered and alone,
I now know not where inspiration plays,
Or if for some great crime I must atone,
Alas with her all pretty words have fled,
And thus I feel I might as well be dead."

I blink. Shit, I am completely outclassed at this game. "I'm sorry to hear that. But also...does that mean you were able to do some writing after the other night?"

He nods, solemly, smiling slightly. "It was as if...I...disappeared. My directive consciousness. And instead, it was replaced by story. The story filled me and flowed through me, out onto the page." His eyes glass over a little in happy reminiscence. And then he's jolted back to the present. "However, this morning, I woke up and the story was gone."

"Gone?"

"The immediacy, the words, the presentness of it."

"Ahh, I see." I nod. "And that's what has you staring into a wine cup?" He nods sadly, looking back at said cup. Rough stuff, that. "I'm sorry. That...sounds difficult."

"I finally wrote the way I'd always hoped I would write. And now..."

"Now you're wondering if it will ever come back?" He nods. I nod back. "I can understand that fear, but, did this just happen today?" Another nod. "And you've been writing since...early Tuesday morning?" This nod is accompanied with an a querying sound from the back of his throat. "Hmm...well, that's a very small sample size to extrapolate from."

"I beg your pardon?"

Argh, why am I suddenly getting a weird and sciency? I can feel my cheeks flushing and my ears starting to burn. "I don't mean anything rude by that. It's just, maybe you were a little fried from such intense focus. Maybe your body needed a break." I pause. He's studying me intently. "And there's some quote from a famous writer, like, 'I write by inspiration, but fortunately, it strikes at 10am every day.'"

"9 AM," Elliott says, but he's smiling. "Faulkner, I think."

"So you've heard it."

"Yes, and I've kept a strict schedule. But nothing changed until–" he breaks off, suddenly.

"Until Tuesday morning?"

"Um?"

"I've also heard the advice, 'write it ugly, edit it pretty.' Seemed to help with some of my emails when I was still at Joja." I don't add that it was advice to myself from myself, or that I developed it while working on fiction. "I bet that if if you sit down and write trash for an hour, there will be good bits in it that you can mine out later."

Elliott nods. "Sound advice."

I reach out and put my hand on his forearm, then smile up at him. "I'm sure it wasn't just a fluke. If you got that much inspiration, then that story was meant to find life through you."

"You seem so sure." His eyes no longer look haunted. Life is coming back into them.

"Well," I choke back a laugh, "what can I say? I believe in magic. And stories seem like a special kind of magic to me."

He chuckles a little, then looks away muttering, "a page of trash," like he's thinking about it.

I take my hand back and look away, too. Demetrius and Robin are still dancing, though it looks like they've switched from swing to...is that nightclub two-step?

I look back, and Elliott is off staring into the mysteries of the universe again. "Well, anyway, good luck."

"Oh, thank you." He shakes himself. "I apologize for my preoccupation."

"No need. I understand how hard it can be to have something you want, and feel like it's just out of your reach." At that he looks at me, really looks. And it feels like he's staring into the secret, broken depths of my soul.

"I am very sorry to hear that," he finally says.

I give a short, nervous chuckle. "Thank you. It uh, it did get better, with time."

"But it never resolved?"

"Mine was not a thing which could be fixed with time and practice, I'm afraid. But I found other things which filled the void and time dulled the ache of dreams destroyed." I pause. "Sorry, that was way more melodramatic than I intended it to be. I just liked the rhyme." He laughs. Thank YOBA.

"Well, thank you for that advice and optimism." He sighs. "I suppose I should get back to it."

"You should probably try for a good night's sleep and then get to it in the morning. 9AM and all that." He smiles.

"Thank you again, Melanie. Your kindness is a light in the darkness."

I smile. "Thank you for your patience with my well-intentioned meddling."

"Never meddling. Always welcome."

I smile, and decide that's not a battle I want to win. "I'm glad." I look around. Everyone is ensconced in their conversations, and honestly, I'm a bit full on interaction with relative strangers at this point. "I think I shall take my leave as well. If you'll excuse me?"

"I should pay my tab. Have a good night, Melanie."

"Thanks Elliott. You too."

The tinkle of the doorbell goes unnoticed as I leave. But I feel an extreme weight lift. I made it. I went to the town's thingy, talked to people like a normal person, and didn't have a panic attack or modify my personality. Winning.

Still, I walk very quickly through town, not quite fleeing. I only slow my steps when I reach the path to the farm.

It takes me a while to wind down. But when I do sleep, my dreams are full of light and friendly faces.