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Swimming in Silence

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         Farren lay on the small, worn mattress in the small, worn farmhouse and stared at the ceiling. Right above her was a skylight, the only non-rustic feature of the small shack she now called home. Through it, she could see the night sky, littered with thousands of stars. They twinkled in clusters and streaks, like handfuls of tossed diamonds. She had never seen the sky so luminous, so dynamic. City lights drowned it all out.

         Her limbs were sore; they felt leaden, pinning her into her mattress. She was so tired, so exhausted. But that wasn’t new. Before she moved to the farm she had been just as tired, just as sleepy –– she just didn’t have a reason.

         The ache and strain of her muscles was mind-numbing, and the hum of cicadas was near deafening in the silence of the forest. The leaky faucet plinked rhythmically; the noise lulled her restless mind to sleep.

        


        

         At 6:00 am the freshly risen sun streamed through the window, nearly blinding Farren. It had been almost a month since she moved to the farm and she was still unused to the early light and her early rise. She groaned, awake, and tried to nuzzle further into her comforter. It was no use.

         With a huff, she got out of bed and placed her feet on the cold, wooden floor. Goosebumps covered her entire body, and she cursed every thought she had had about cute and relaxing life on her grandfather’s farm. So far, rustic seemed like a ribbon-tied word for run-down. A leaky roof, broken heater, and room so small she could almost reach the oven from her bed had seemed charming compared to her studio apartment, but now that she was living it was anything but. Oh, and she shouldn’t forget the outhouse. The first week she was too scared to shit; what if a bug flew up her ass?

         Farren padded to her kitchen, a mere five paces away, and peered into the near-empty fridge. A carton of eggs, a jug of milk, and a few apples were the only items inside, each leftover welcoming gifts from her “neighbors” –– it seemed ridiculous to call them such, as each lived at least a 30-minute walk away. Eggs and milk from the animal farm to the south, and apples from the general store owner in town. She had only met a few townsfolk: Marnie from the ranch to the south of her farm, Pierre and Caroline from the General Store, Robin, and Mayor Lewis. She planned on keeping it that way. Getting away from the suffocating social pressures of her life in the city and becoming an active member of the quaint mountain community didn’t quite line up. In a year-round town of less than 50, she was sure it didn’t take much for everyone to know your business.

With a sigh, Farren grabbed an apple and slammed the fridge shut.

         Farren left the house, and stood in the door frame, staring out at the land that now belonged to her. The flat fields spread on for acres and acres; in the distance, one could make out the tops of the orchard trees and the silo of the animal farm. Mountains met the sky at the horizon. Joni couldn’t help but note that she much preferred a mountainous skyline to the square, manufactured city one. A small portion of the field in front of her house was cleared, and a smaller portion tilled with seeds freshly planted; despite it being a small fraction of the land, seeing the orderly rows of small green sprouts made Farren feel something in her chest.

She took a bite out of her apple, the juice running down her chin and the crisp crunch sitting in her ears. It was the sweetest thing she had ever tasted.

         Everything seemed more vibrant here –– the sights, sounds, smells, tastes. The grass and trees and weeds weren’t just green, they were verdant. The air wasn’t just clean, it was fresh, crisp, clear. It was as if she had been living her whole life behind a pane of glass, and now she was allowed to actually interact with the world. The air burned a cold clear path into her lungs, the blisters from her hoe stung her palms, the soft murmur of forest creatures replaced the hum of electricity in the city. She wasn’t sure she had ever breathed until she left.

         Taking a final bite, she tossed the apple core off her porch and into the growing compost heap 30-some feet from her house. She was planning on constructing a bin for it, a bit farther away –– she could imagine in the sweltering summer heat the compost heap wouldn’t smell like such a great idea.

         The wooden planks of the porch creaked underneath her feet as she descended into the fields. First off, watering the small patch of land she had planted in. The only farming things she had the foresight to bring were seeds and pesticides - her small window-box in her city apartment had a nasty grub problem. She had come with almost three crates of parsnip seeds and one of potato and a few gallons of her favorite organic pesticide; she had read that those grew well in the valley this time of year and wanted to crack on into farming as soon as she could. She planted them in small amounts; only 100 square feet of farmed land at a time. The first round she had planted as much as she had time to in a day, but when it came around to maintaining and watering all that land she had almost passed out from exhaustion. From then on, she set a reasonable limit that still left her time to complete other tasks on her farm, including beginning to clear the rest of the land.

         Reasonable was a lenient way to phrase it; she had never worked so hard in her life. From a desk job to manual labor, her muscles were protesting profusely. She could feel farming in her whole body; in her stomach, her arms, her legs. She felt it as she lay in bed, as she ate, as she breathed. She had never felt so much pain –– pain so livening, so euphoric. She embraced the ache; she liked the burn, the sting. She relished it, in fact. It reminded her that she was real.

         The repetitive motion of watering was soothing to her mind and she could almost zone out. Almost. Her thoughts were still racing, but they were easy to lose in her rhythmic counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Water the next patch.

        


 

 

       

Farren was almost done watering her farmed plot of land, the sun nearly at its peak, when a voice interrupted her. “Farren.”

She jumped. She turned to look at the person, raising a free hand to wipe the sweat from her brow. Her hand pulled away slick, and she was sure she looked just as drenched as her forehead felt. It was Robin, the carpenter that had helped her move into the house.

Robin’s hair was pulled into a ponytail, but loose copper tendrils had escaped and framed her face and the name of her neck. Her thick cream sweater and vest from the early spring were gone, instead, she wore a simple white shirt under a pair of dark wash overalls. Practical, plain, and somehow still nice. In her hand was a small basket, with some gingham fabric covering its contents. Farren couldn't help but think how at home Robin looked in nature. Farren thought she looked out of place, like her mere existence ruined the synchronicity of the farm.

“I just wanted to stop by and drop off some food. It’s nothing much, just a salmonberry cobbler and cauliflower soup.” Robin took a few tentative steps toward Farren, being careful to avoid the neatly planted seeds. She passed Farren the basket, and the latter murmured her thanks. “I didn’t see you at the Egg Festival a few weeks ago, and I just wanted to see if you were settling in okay.”

“I am. I was just trying to start clearing this land.” Farren’s tone was light, joking. At least she hoped it was. The plot of land was a wreck of weeds, rocks, and branches, and in the years since her grandfather had farmed wild trees had started to sprout up.

Robin rested her hands on her hips and surveyed her small plot of sprouts and the remaining property. “You’ve made some great progress.” She smiled warmly at Farren.

“Thank you, Robin. It was very nice of you to stop by. Could I invite you in for –,” Farren paused as she wracked her brain for something to offer her guest, “um, to share a piece of your cobbler?” Farren laughed and raised her hand to the back of her neck abashedly. “I’m afraid my kitchen stock is in a bit of a sorry state.”

Robin let out a friendly laugh. “Thanks for the offer. I actually can’t stay long, I’m on my way to Marnie’s to check out a leak in her chicken coop.” Robin peered at Farren’s land once more. “If you ever want a coop of your own you have a lot of space I could imagine building one on.”

“Oh, yeah.” Farren hadn’t even considered animals. She was having a hard enough time taking care of herself. “I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”

“I also wanted to invite you to the upcoming Flower Dance! It’s a spring tradition in the valley, and everyone in town will be there.” Farren toed the soil as Robin chattered on. “All the young people dance and there’s lots of food. It would be a good chance for you to meet some of the townsfolk like Mayor Lewis wanted.” Robin’s inflection was colored with humor at the last bit. When Robin and the Mayor had dropped Farren off at her grandfather’s old cabin, the Mayor had told Farren she should introduce herself to everyone. Both her and Robin had scoffed.

Farren looked up and realized Robin was staring at her, waiting for a response. “Um…” Farren’s mind was racing, trying frantically to think of an excuse. Falling short, she replied, “Sure.”

“Great! I’ll make sure to introduce you to my son. I think you guys are around the same age. The dance is right by Marnie’s farm, to the south of your farm,” Robin said. The kind redhead began to walk across Farren’s land to the aforementioned place and turned to wave goodbye over her shoulder. Farren watched her go, hand raised to her brow to block out the sun. Robin’s basket felt heavy in her hand.

Farren brought the basket inside and placed the thermos of soup into her refrigerator. She took a fork she assumed was clean and began eating the cobbler. The dough was sweet and soft, the berries were tart. She closed her eyes and chewed. It tasted rustic, like home, like a sugary, sun-ripened summer day.

Like hell she was going to go to the Flower Dance. She didn’t need to be the New Girl. Imagining the hubbub that her arrival at a town function would create, especially in a town as minuscule as this, made Farren shudder. Unnecessary social interactions were exactly what she had hoped to avoid by moving from the city to her grandfather’s old farm, and what she had avoided for her first few months on the farm.


 

The night was just as quiet as those before it. Farren was alone in the small house, sat on the threadbare carpet, in front of the massive, old TV. There was some sort of cooking show on that Farren was half paying attention to as she nursed the last of the beer she had bought last week from Joja. Pierre’s was closer, sure, but Joja was cheaper and open later.

         The Joja cardboard crap pizza tasted like nothing. Though Farren couldn’t quite remember if she could remember tasting anything. Everything she ate at night tasted the same: ashen and heavy and bland. She chewed methodically and licked the extra sauce off her fingers. The sauce was just as insipid as the rest, and she couldn’t help but yearn for the greasy, fresh pizza from Zuzu.

         The breath she released was more like a groan. Pushing her empty plate aside, Farren pulled her notebook onto her lap and tried to force thoughts of the city out of her head. No twinkling lights on the river, no sparkling champagne in tall glass flutes, no crisp suits and fluttering chiffon dresses. There was the scratch of her denim overalls, the heavy, sticky mead from the Saloon, the ripple of the breeze across the pond in her field.

         In her notebook she was planning out how to invest her seeds for the summer; she had found her grandfather’s old crop journal in some boxes from the old shed. The pages were filled with neet grid-like maps of his farmland and careful calculations about which crops yielded what price, which were the heartiest, who liked which. The familiar handwriting left Farren feeling empty and like a disappointment. She had planned on just tossing seeds down in whatever pattern she felt like that day. There was no deliberation, no planning, and certainly no math involved in her seed investment strategy.

         Thinking about her grandfather hurt. Thinking about anything from her life hurt if she was honest with herself. Her thoughts were too wild, too uncorralled. Her farm work was all that kept her from falling apart completely, and at night there wasn’t enough to distract her – she was too tired to keep working, and she wasn’t sure what animals lurked. She’d read each book on her shelf and the limited channels left much to be desired.

         Sitting on that threadbare carpet, three months into the wild, three months from the city, Farren let herself cry. Sitting on that threadbare carpet, three months separated from her past self, Farren let herself think about what she had lost, what she had left behind.

         Sitting on that threadbare carpet Farren let herself feel.

 

Chapter Text

 

The days passed in repetitive, silent bliss. Wake, weed, water. Farren liked the solitude, the almost stifling, overbearing quiet of the farm. Alone with the woods and the insects, the bright sunny days weren’t nauseating and Farren could muster enough energy to get out of bed. To brew coffee. To get moving

She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt this awake for this long. The last six months had been muggy and sluggish and she could barely get herself to go through the motions. Maybe the difference wasn’t the location, but the motions. Maybe farming woke something up in her that working for a big corporation like Joja didn’t.

Farren went out to work on her land after drinking a strong cup of coffee and almost immediately noticed the upturned mailbox flag. Dread pooled in her stomach as she walked towards it, the cerulean sky and verdant trees suddenly dull.

She opened the mailbox and pulled out a thick, creamy piece of stationary. Printed in neat, blockish letters was a message reminding her of today’s Flower Dance. It was signed ‘From Mayor Lewis J’.

Farren sighed. She had to go; she had promised Robin.

Closing the mailbox, Farren made her way inside the farm house. She tossed the note on her table on the growing pile of mail. People from town had made it a point to send her letters informing about various events and even requests for items. She had only had a few harvests so far – there was no shot she was doing personal deliveries of a single parsnip.

Farren sat at the foot of her bed and opened the large trunk on the floor. She sifted through clothes, quickly moving past denim and cotton until her fingers caught on ironed linen. She pulled out a modest dress: fabric the same pewter as her eyes with a high neckline and a white peter-pan style collar. It would do.

 


 

The dance was as awkward as she had feared. The field was largely empty; no one had started dancing. The townsfolk were arranged around the perimeter in small groups that seemed too cliquish to approach. Despite Robin’s reassurance to introduce Farren to her son and his friends, Farren hadn’t seen the kind redhead, and didn’t want pity friends. She stood at the entrance of the field with her hands gripped tightly on her ceramic dish.

She figured she shouldn’t show up at her first town event empty handed and had made a small blackberry crumble, but looking out at the large spread of food was overwhelmed with how inadequate her small contribution felt. She shifted awkwardly, both avoiding eye contact and searching the crowd desperately for a familiar face. She felt too hot, and the collar of her dress was tight at her neck. It was sudden, the sense of dread and simply not belonging; so sudden it swallowed her up and she could choke on it.

“Farren!” The cheerful voice gave her a start. Robin was standing to her side, smiling. “I’m so glad you made it. Did you make a dessert?”

Farren nodded silently, too scared to speak in case her voice caught.

Robin’s steady hands grasped the dish and took it out of Farren’s hands. She placed it on one of the long buffet tables. “I’ll introduce you to Sebby.”

Farren couldn’t do anything other than nod and follow Robin. She could feel the weight of the townsfolk’s stares and did her best to walk with her chin up. She focused on grounding herself: on the feel of her long hair swishing between her shoulder blades, the brush of her linen dress against her thighs, the pinch of her shoes at her toes.

The pair approached a trio of young adults around Farren’s age. They stood in the far corner of the field, one smoking while the other two chattered. The purple-haired girl nudged the smoker with her elbow when she caught sight of Robin, and the black-haired boy looked up and quickly dropped and stomped out the cigarette. Robin’s jaw was tight as they approached.

“Sebastian, Abby, Sam, I wanted to introduce you to Farren. She’s new in town and around your age, so I was hoping you could show her around today and make sure she feels comfortable.” Though the words were kind, Robin’s tone had a clear meaning: do this.

Farren’s cheeks burned. They would think she couldn’t meet new people for herself. She hated feeling helpless.

“Sure, Mom!” The enthusiastic response had come from the third member of the small group, a tall, blonde man with an easy grin. He reminded Farren of a golden retriever.

Robin smiled and gave the young man an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Thanks, Sam.” Sam, Farren thought, not Sebastian?

The purple-haired girl, Abby, smiled at Farren. She stuck out her hand and Farren grasped it. “Nice to meet you.”

Satisfied, Robin turned to go. When she was a few feet away she called out over her shoulder, “Seb, I saw you smoking. You really should try and quit.”

Sebastian’s face was pink, clearly embarrassed at his mother’s admonishment. He muttered something under his breath.

Standing alone with the trio, Farren’s face felt so warm she would have thought it was mid-summer, not early spring. “So…” She sounded nervous. She took a breath and steadied her voice. “What’s the deal with this festival?”

Sam answered. “Basically, some decades-old mating ritual that’s totally dated and annoying. Only the adults like it and that’s because they don’t have to dance, they just have to watch and eat Gus’ food.” Abby and Sebastian let out light laughs; Farren assumed Sam’s assessment was truthful.

“Totally true. The worst part has to be the dresses,” Abby said. “They’re white and old with necklines high enough they’re almost turtle necks and discolored armpits from generations of dance-induced sweat.”

“Abby, the dresses are not that bad compared to the blue outfits we have to wear.” Sam had shifted to include Farren in their small circle. She could feel her nerves diffusing as the group continued to talk around her.

“Great, you guys have to wear monochrome suits. The girls have to wear thirty pounds of lace!”

“Abs, at least the dresses are hot in an old-timey way. There’s nothing remotely appealing about the suits.”

“He’s right.” Farren almost flinched at the sound of Sebastian’s voice. He hadn’t said anything since she had walked over, and between Sam and Abby’s banter she had almost forgotten he was there.

Abby and Sam glanced at Seb. Abby had a small, concerned smile, and Sam just looked overjoyed that Sebastian had talked in front of a stranger.

“So, Farren was it?” Abby turned her attention to the brunette.

Farren nodded.

“You moved in on Granger’s old farm right?”

“Yeah. He was my grandfather.”

“Nice. We all used to love him.” Abby leaned closer and lowered her voice as if she was telling a secret. “Lewis used to make him dress up as Santa for the Feast of Winter Star. We aren’t supposed to know though.”

Farren let out a good-natured laugh. “Sounds like Grandpa.”

“So, why’d you move to Pelican Town, Farren?” Sam’s question was innocent; there was nothing malicious in the asking. Yet, Farren tensed up – the defenses she had cautiously let down were raised once more.

“Just wanted a change of pace.” Farren gave what she hoped was a non-committal shrug. Sam and Abby seemed to accept it, but Sebastian’s eyes lingered on Farren for a beat too long. She shivered. It felt like he could see right through her.

“Change of pace,” Sam scoffed. “A change of pace from lightning to snail.”

 


 

Farren tucked herself away behind the buffet table. She was alone with Pam, watching the dance. After recommending Gus’ cherry wine, Pam had remained silent. Farren found her company quite agreeable: both sipped on the sweet wine, with only the sound of the babbling brook between them. The air was warm and seemed to embrace Farren; the heat at night was so much more comforting at night than it was in the day: it was a hug, not a smother.

Farren drained her glass. The wine was sweet and heavy; it stuck to her teeth when she swirled it in her mouth. The dance was about to start and she felt fuzzy, but not fuzzy enough to ask anyone to dance.

The young women and men were lined up in what she had to assume the elders thought were good matches. Despite the ugly outfits, each member mannered to look quite beautiful. The dim light of twilight washed each participant in a soft blue glow, the only additional lighting fairy lights strung up between trees.

The dance was quick and was over before Farren had finished her third glass of wine. She had managed to stay upright and calm for the entire dance, though she almost snorted when the guys started squatting as part of the dance. Lewis had shot her a dirty look. Maybe she didn’t stifle it as quickly as she thought.

When the dance dispersed, so did the parents and older folks in the community. Farren made to leave too –– three glasses of wine and she was ready for bed. She had never been much of a drinker in the city and it showed.

Before she could leave the clearing, a warm arm wrapped itself around her shoulders. She began to draw away when they spoke. “Don’t leave just yet! The after-party is just about to kick in.” They sounded eager and maybe a little tipsy themselves.

Farren peered up at the person. It was Sam. His hair was still spiked unreasonably high, and their faces were so close that she could make out a small smattering of freckles on his nose. The dim lighting did him well: it shadowed his jaw and brought out the gray in his eyes.

“Afterparty?” Farren asked.

“Afterparty.” Sam turned her around and began walking her back toward the clearing. “The Flower Dance is a janky tradition, but Lewis lets us use the rented sound rig and lights every year to have an actually fun dance afterward. Abby’s putting on the playlist right now and Emily’s mixing drinks.”

Farren must have looked apprehensive because Sam redoubled his efforts. “Come onnn.” His voice was a near whine. “I’ll dance with you and it will be so much fun. I mean, you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Haley break out the worm. You’d think she’d be worried about getting grass stains on her dress, but…”

Sam continued to jabber on as they drew nearer to the dance floor. Farren was listening intently to the music; Abby had good taste. The purple-haired girl had put on a punk track with a good beat that got people jumping. Farren could feel the pulsing beat in her veins and her legs were almost twitching. She wanted to dance.

The feeling caught her by surprise; it had been so long since she had wanted to do anything purely for the fun of it. She leaned into the feeling, grabbing Sam’s wrist from her shoulder and started dragging him to the middle of the field, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Come on, blondie. Show me your moves.”

 


 

The afterparty was decidedly fun.

Everyone in the town seemed looser; almost everyone was unbuttoned and smiling and dancing. The fairy lights had a glowy halo around them, and Farren was unsure if that was the innate ability of the light or an effect of the extra three shots she had taken.

Emily had retired as bartender for the night and was now dancing with Farren and Haley. The three were probably the most adventurous with dance moves: Emily was feeling herself, likely with the help of some pot Farren had seen her smoking earlier, and Haley and Farren were both doing more club-like dances. Maru and Penny were doing some sort of jumping dance, Sam and Alex were moshing each other enthusiastically, and Leah and Elliott were slow dancing to the upbeat song. Harvey was long gone, Shane was polishing off a bottle of something strong, Abby was DJing, and Sebastian was probably off sulking somewhere.

Haley was surprisingly friendly. After her initial nose-wrinkle at Farren’s muddy shoes and bare face, she had warmed up to the farmer quickly. The two bonded over a shot and apparently using the same box dye; Haley used it to add some highlights in the warmer months, and Farren had dyed her own hair blonde for much of high school. Now dancing together, Farren couldn’t help but think that Haley was one of the people she would have avoided back in the city. In fact, Farren was pretty sure she would have avoided Haley at any point except after alcohol.

The next song was more similar to the electric that played at bars in Zuzu. Farren shimmied and rocked to the beat, her and Haley shaking closer and closer. It had been so long since Farren had danced. It felt good. She and Haley were getting all sorts of freaky, egged on by Sam and Alex’s wandering eyes. The girls were giggling and swaying and touching their hair, and Haley leaned so close Farren could smell her lip gloss: coconut. “Want to give them a real show?”

Farren just laughed. Hayley brought her hands up Farren’s sides, her fingertips kissed their way along her shoulders, her neck, until they were buried in her hair. When she leaned in, Farren had just enough foresight to close her eyes and pucker up.

Haley’s lips were soft and lip gloss-sticky and sweet; the kiss was short. Farren felt warm when they pulled apart, and a quick cursory glance over to Alex and Sam said that both the boys thought so as well. In fact, Farren thought she saw Alex swipe a quick hand across his mouth.

Farren caught Hayley’s eyes and the two doubled over laughing. “Did you,” Hayley panted, “see that? Alex was totally drooling.”

“Totally,” Farren agreed. “I’m going to get some water! Be right back.” With a playful hip bump, Farren left towards the unmanned bar.

As Farren approached the small table, she noticed Sebastian, holding up a bottle of tequila, brows furrowed as he inspected it.

“Reading the nutrition label?” Farren quipped.

Sebastian looked up, eyebrows slightly raised. He didn’t answer.

“There’s only 65 calories in a shot of that stuff, no need to worry about it going to your hips.” Farren smiled at the young man.

“I- I wasn’t reading the nutrition label.” Sebastian looked down at the ground, one hand raising to scratch the back of his neck. “I was just debating how bad an idea it would be to take a shot before I leave.”

Farren leaned against the bar next to him, suddenly aware of how tired she was. Her limbs felt stretched and sore from the morning’s farm work and then the afternoon’s dancing. “Leaving so soon?”

Sebastian gave the brunette a wry smile. “Dancing isn’t exactly my thing.” He set down the bottle and leaned against the bar, mimicking Farren.

“Wow really?” Her voice was dripping with sarcasm. “I couldn’t tell.”

“Seems you were too busy making out to notice anything.” His words were surprisingly sharp, biting almost.

Farren gave him a side-long glance. “Jealous much?” Her stomach fluttered. She had never been good at the quick banter that was commonplace at bars. That was much more her sister’s speed. But tonight she had shed just enough inhibitions to not overthink the exchange.

Sebastian scoffed. “Hardly.”

“You’d probably be fine with a shot. I don’t think you’ve had enough to drink that it would make it hard to walk back.” Farren looked down at her nails, picking half-heartedly at a hangnail. She peeked up discreetly at Sebastian, taking in his long, black hair and wide, lash-framed eyes. He was so pretty.

Sebastian nodded. “Yeah, but I have to do some work when I get back.”

"Work?"

"I free-lance. Computer programming."

Before Farren could ask, Sebastian grabbed the previously discarded bottle by the neck and started walking away. He glanced over his shoulder and lifted his chin, a silent goodbye.

Farren watched him walk away.

Chapter Text

            Pierre’s shop didn’t get the summer seeds shipped in until the first of June. Farren was flicking dejectedly through the miscellaneous packets in the bargain bin, her mood dampened after finding out she’d have to make the thirty-minute trek into town again in three days to pick up new seeds. Her last harvest had gone particularly well and she had a good amount to invest in seeds for the coming few months.

            “Hey, Farren, right?”

            Farren glanced over her shoulder to see Abigail making her way to her from the door in the back of the shop. “Hey, Abigail.”

            “You can call me Abby.” The girl came to a stop in front of Farren and the bargain bin. She rocked on her feet. “Everyone does.”

            “Abby,” Farren repeated.

            “Do you have any plans for tonight?” Abby watched the farmer expectantly.

            Farren wished she could lie, say that she had weeding to do or something, but Pierre knew she had just spent the morning clearing her field for new crops. “Ah… no. I’m free.”

            The purple-haired girl grinned. “Nice! Sebastian, Sam, and I go to the Saloon on Fridays sometimes. You should totally join! Gus has great food and watching Sam get creamed at pool is always entertaining.”

            Farren’s cheeks hurt. Maybe she was trying too hard to smile. “Sounds nice. I’ll swing by and check it out.”

            “Cool.” Abby turned to leave, but before she did her fingers fished out a packet of seeds. “You should plant these in the fall. They’re my favorite.”

            The bell on the door chimed as she left, leaving Farren with a slightly crumpled, but probably still good, packet of pumpkin seeds. With a sigh, she picked out an old packet of pink melon, sunflower, and poppy seeds, along with a loaf of home-baked bread and checked out.

            “Let me know when the new seeds come in.” Farren eyed her bargain packets suspiciously. “I’m not sure I trust these to grow.”

            Pierre laughed. “I’m not sure I would either.”

            Farren left and took the long way back. She walked down past the Saloon and along the river, approaching two houses. A middle-aged woman was outside the farther one, tending to her flower boxes. The one closest had a pretty sun decal hanging above the door. Farren stopped to admire it: hand made with yellow paint so pretty and glossy it seemed to shine itself.

            “Emily, my sister, made the sun.” Farren turned to see Haley standing behind her.

            The blonde girl was much more casual than she had been at the Flower Dance, white dress swapped for a blue camisole and pink skirt. They hadn’t spoken since, but Farren hoped that their kinship wasn’t exclusive to dancing at afterparties. “It’s beautiful.”

            “Yeah.” Haley squinted up at the ornament. “Are you heading back to your farm?”

            “Yeah, just taking the long way back. I haven’t explored town much since I’ve been here.” Farren looked down at her shoes, suddenly self-conscious of the mud-caked boots she’d been wearing. Haley was so pretty and poised and Farren was sure she looked like a wreck. Farming wasn’t exactly something to get dolled up for.

            “Do you want to come in for a snack? I just made some sun-tea and have some jam that would probably go well with that bread.” Haley gestured to the loaf Farren was carrying from Pierre’s.

            Farren thought for a moment. She could say no, go back to her farm and sulk alone for a while and gorge herself on plain bread and whatever she had managed to forage that week. Or, she could go in for a possibly awkward meal with Haley. “Yeah, jam sounds good.” Better than plain bread and some wild horseradish at least.

            The two went inside the house. The living room was normal; a cozy couch was adjacent to a coffee table littered with different fashion books and magazines. The kitchen was sky-blue, and straight out of a catalogue; a bowl of ripe, rich fruit sat at the center and fresh-cut flowers were at home in a nearby vase.

            Haley opened the fridge and leaned inside, rummaging around, while Farren took a seat at the kitchen table. She removed the loaf of bread from its bag and placed her seed packets on the edge of the table.

            “Aha!” Hayley closed the fridge and placed a large pitcher of iced tea and a small jam jar on the table in front of Farren. Haley took a seat.

            Farren asked where Haley bout her jam, and she told her about an organic store in the town over; they sold the best stuff from farms in the valley. Farren filed the information away; maybe she could sell some of her stuff there one day? The kitchen was silent aside from Haley sawing at the bread and Farren sipping a cool glass of tea. The soft hum of the country was so different from that of the city; Farren found she preferred the flutter of birds wings and rustle of leaves to the drone of cars and ACs.

            “I- I can’t open the jar.” Farren looked up at Haley who was slumped in defeat. Silently, she reached for the jar and twisted it off with a pop. Farming had done her well; in the city, she had needed help opening jars too. “Thanks. You’re pretty strong, huh?”

            “I guess.”

 


 

 

            The jam was too sweet, Haley was too sweet and Farren felt like an intruder sitting there and pretending to be nice. She just sat there and ate and listened to Haley prattle on about cuticle care and some new fashion trend in Zuzu. Farren was well-practiced in maintaining conversations she wasn’t invested in –– she had been an accessory at many a corporate function, making small talk with housewives of important men.

            At home, she felt hollowed out. Her stomach was full and the late spring air was soft on her skin, but her whole body was stiff and plastic. Farren just wanted to sleep, to lie in her bed and never get up. Maybe she could sleep until she died; her body would rot and her blood would pool. She could just stay there, silent and waiting forever. No one knew her well enough to come check up on her.

            Except maybe Pierre. He would want her to keep buying seeds.

            She climbed into her bed and pulled up the soft, worn sheets up to her chin. It was so easy to just close her eyes and sleep.

 


 

            Farren woke up groggy and disoriented. The sun was setting over her property, coloring everything a pretty orange-pink. She glanced at the clock: 6:00. She cursed lightly, swinging her legs off the bed and placing her bare feet on the hardwood floors. She had probably 20 minutes to get ready and meet Abigail, Sam, and Sebastian at the Saloon.

            Quickly, Farren brushed her teeth and her hair and began to pilfer through her large trunk of clothes. She assumed she should wear something casual, but not too casual. Her sister would have called it ‘casual-chic’. Farren chewed on her lip, staring at the seemingly infinite pile of clothes, daunting and unwieldy. She released her lip, the coppery taste of blood sitting on her tongue.

            She swiped the back of her hand across her mouth and it came away smeared with red. Closing her eyes, she counted her breaths. The floor felt unsteady, felt like paper under her feet, just about to break open and let her fall. Nausea rolled over her and her body was shaking; she could hear the soft rustle of her clothes.

            Farren reopened her eyes and grabbed the first thing she saw.

 

 

            By the time she was in town, the sky had turned from orange to a pretty shade of blue. It was that hour of twilight where everything lost its color, falling victim to the dusky blue light. It was one of Farren’s favorite times; if she wasn’t going to meet people she would have stopped and stared for a while. The nights were so much cooler than the days and the air was soothing, cool, against her flushed skin. Her fingers found the pulse point at her adjacent wrist; her heart raced.

            But she was going to meet people, and she tried to muster nerves about them not liking her. She felt placatingly neutral; gone were the nerves from the flower dance – she couldn’t bring herself to care about what they thought or if they wanted to talk to her. She was going because she said she would, and she would smile and laugh and try to have a good time, but she would feel the same way she had since that morning: plastic, stiff, severe.

 

 

 

            The Saloon was near-rowdy. The lighting was soft and honeyed, the wood dark and smooth in the low lighting. The old jukebox in the corner played some folk song that had people up and dancing, the music tinny and loud. The sound left a feeling like a hand at the back of Farren’s neck. She was taken aback: most of the town was there, laughing, dancing, drinking. A few people waved to her as she made her way to the bar. Gus smiled at her and asked if she wanted a drink. She guessed her face said it all; he didn’t wait for her to order and just bustled away. When he came back, he was holding a glass of his home-brewed mead.

            Farren had never had Mead until she moved to the valley, and she found she liked it quite a bit. It wasn’t high in alcohol content but was sweet, fizzy, and light. It tasted like she was drinking sunshine.

            Farren accepted the glass and smiled, passing over payment. She made her way to the backroom by the vintage arcade games and pool table.

            Abby was settled in on the frayed couch, watching Sam and Sebastian play a seemingly intense game of pool. Well, Sam looked intense. Sebastian looked almost relaxed.

            “Hey,” Farren said, settling in next to Abigail. She nodded to the boys. “Who’s winning?”

            “Sebastian. He always wins.” Abigail was watching her friends closely, fondly.  Farren was suddenly overwhelmingly wistful. She missed her life, the people she left behind. These people who were friends, so close, so intimate made her ache.

 

 

 

            “Shit!” Sam exclaimed as Sebastian sank the 8 ball into a corner pocket. “How do you keep beating me?”

            “I don’t know, dude.” Sebastian smirked. “Statistically you should have beat me at least once by now. Even by accident.”

            Sam let out a flustered moan as he flung himself on the couch to the right of Farren. “Farren, beat his ass.”

            Farren laughed. “I’m pretty useless at pool.”

            “What good is a new girl if they can’t even beat Sebastian at pool?”

            “Don’t be rude, Sam,” Abby chastised.

            “Hey, Sam, how many times have you played Sebastian and lost?” Farren made her tone light, inquisitive.

            Sam shifted, twisting to lay his head in Farren’s lap. His hair brushed her bare thighs. “We’ve been coming to the Saloon on Fridays for almost ten years. So a lot.”

            “Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?”

            Sebastian laughed. “We already knew Sam was insane.”

            Sam sat up, indignant. “Hey!”

            Abby laughed too, reaching over Farren to ruffle Sam’s hair. “Sorry Sammy, but Seb’s right.”

            Sebastian pulled a stool up near the couch and sat. He was so long and lithe, and Farren was staring, staring, caught up in how beautiful he was. It nearly took her breath away.

            “Farren.” Sebastian’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. She started, her face flushing. Had he caught her staring? “I was hoping to pick your brain about life in the city.” He studied his fingers.

            Farren nodded. He looked up, catching her eye.

            “What is it like?”

            The lights seemed cooler now, dark instead of cozy. The music from the jukebox was grating. Her mead was bitter as she swallowed. “Lonely.”

            “Lonely?” Abby laughed a little, unsure if Farren was joking. “There are so many people.”

            Farren shrugged. “There are so many people, but you don’t get to know any of them. We- I lived in the same apartment for almost 3 years and didn’t know my neighbors.” She shifted, uncomfortable with three sets of eyes watching her. She watched the amber liquid swirl in her glass. “Maybe it's just me, but being near a lot of people just made me realize how small my life is, how small I am.”

            “That makes sense.” Farren looked up at Sebastian. “What did you do in the city?”

            “Um, I worked at Joja. R and D.”

            “Ick, Joja.” Sam stuck out his tongue and stuck his finger in his mouth, imitating vomiting. “What’s R and D though?”

            “Research and Development.” Farren’s voice was quiet. “I was a chemical engineer, helping create new Joja Cola flavors.”

            “Sounds boring.”

 


 

            “Yeah. It was.”

            After another round of pool, Farren was ready to go.

            “I’m going to head out. Thanks for inviting me tonight.”

            “No problem, Farren! Come any time!” Farren smiled. Sam smiled back; he was so happy, and she was sure that the invitation was genuine.

            Sebastian stood up from his stool. “I’m gonna head out too.”

            The two walked out silently, the sudden shock of cold air after the cozy warmth of the Saloon stilling conversation. Both walked north through the town square and when they reached the doctor’s office Farren jammed her hands into her pockets. “So, I guess this is where we split up.”

            “I guess.” Sebastian wasn’t looking at her, he was looking at the ground. “Can I walk you back to your place?”

            Farren’s head spun – had she heard him right? “Isn’t that, like, the opposite direction of your house?”

            Sebastian raised a hand to the back of his neck. She couldn’t be sure in this lighting, but his cheeks looked flushed. “Yeah, but I don’t mind.”

            “Y-yeah. Okay.”

            The pair made off down the road past the bus stop, the hum of summer cicadas and cooing owls loud enough to muffle the silence between them. Farren focused on the noise of the wild, swelling up around her, swaddling her, leaving her head full.

            “What you said earlier, about the city being lonely…” Sebastian cleared his throat. “Do you feel less lonely here, in Pelican Town?”

            She stayed quiet. Step, step, step. The sound of their shoes against the cobbled street was swallowed up. “No. Though, that may be due to my self-imposed exile.”

            “Yeah, I hadn’t seen you around until the Flower Dance. Not that I, uh, get out that often.”

            “I came here for the stillness. I thought it would be a good idea to be alone.”

            “You thought? Do you not still think that?”

            Farren kicked at a pebble; it skipped ahead of them, disappearing into the grass along the side of the path. “I’m not so sure anymore.” There was silence again between them. Farren was heavy, each step like one through sand: slow, weighted. The wide-open sky and sprawling, vast wilderness was overbearing, stifling somehow.

            Sebastian’s voice, though quiet, was like breaking glass. “I think loneliness might be independent of the place.” He was so contemplative, so soft. “I’ve lived here my whole life, I know everyone, but no one knows me. I’m alone in a town with familiar strangers.”

            “Shit,” Farren said. “That’s deep. Could be a song lyric.” She glanced up at Sebastian. He was smiling.

           

Chapter Text

            When summer rolled in, it was hot and heavy – not in a good way. Farren sat on the beach, sprawled stomach-down on a towel, with a growing pool of sweat collecting in the small of her back. The air was dense, belligerent that afternoon, pressing her further into the towel. She peeled a tangerine, the rinds sticking under her fingernails.

            Segments popped between her teeth, one by one, tart explosions on her tongue; the flesh was tender, sweet. Her fingers were sticky, and her head ached from the sun. It throbbed in time with her heart: pulse, pulse, pulse. Her sister would have called it a heat headache, where your brain feels swollen and gorged on sunlight and just a little too big for your skull – it presses up against the bone, into the temples.

            Farren was mostly zoned out when Haley poked her with a sharp, manicured nail. “Time to flip.” Farren complied, turning onto her back and tossing an arm across her eyes. “I’m going to go see if Willy has anything to drink. Do you want something?”

            Willy? Farren was confused for a moment, then remembered the nice, if not scruffy, guy who gave her a fishing rod. She nodded; the water she had packed that morning was long gone.

            Farren could hear Haley’s fashion magazine flipping closed, placed carefully next to the brunette’s head. She’d almost dozed off when something whacked her in the stomach, jolting her awake.

            Farren sat up and her head spun. She felt woozy, disoriented, her eyes squinted open when a small kid she only half-recognizes runs up to her.

            “Sorry, ma’am!” His chubby kid fingers pointed to a foam football next to her. The whack, Farren thought. “May I have my ball back?”

            She was so nonplussed that she handed the ball back, silent. He ran off, left Farren blinking spots out of her vision. “What the fuck?” Her hand is pressed against her forehead and the horizon is still shifting, spinning. Her head wasn’t just throbbing, it was pounding. The blood was live and violent in her veins, pressurized and aching.

            She stood up, leaving when Haley came back. “Hey, Farren, are you heading out? You’re going to have an uneven tan.”

            Farren waved her hand around her face as a sign of indifference. “I’m fine with that. The heats really getting to me though. I’ll see you around?” She took a step forward and nearly fell.

            “Shit.” Haley was there, arm around Farren’s waist, her hand cool against Farren’s hot, slick skin. “Drink some of this water.”

            Farren gulped it down; the bottle was empty by the time it left her lips. “Thanks Hale; I’m good though, really. I’ll see you later.”

            Farren left that time, unsteady and determined.

 

            She’d made it to Marnie’s ranch when gulping down that whole bottle didn’t seem like the best idea. The water was sloshing in her stomach and the image of chewed up tangerines floating in water and stomach bile made her throat tight. She stopped, shutting her eyes tightly, trying to ground herself. Her chest was suddenly tight, everything was suddenly tight as she clamped down, willing the nausea away.

            It’s no use; by the time she realized it wasn’t coming, it was already there, she barely made it to a bush adjacent to Marnie’s silo. It was over quick and burned in her throat, mouth, nose.

            “You okay?” The voice was gruff, deep. Sandpaper.

            Farren straightened and wiped her mouth absently. A man, probably a few years older than her, stood nearby. “I’m fine. Just got a little too hot at the beach today.”

            “Okay.” The man stopped for a moment, his head almost cocked in thought. “Who’re you?”

            “Haven’t you heard? I’m the new girl.” Farren jerked her chin to the small beaten path to her right leading up to her property. “Though, new is relative. It’s been a few months.”

            “Gotcha. I’m Shane. Marnie’s nephew.”

            “Cool. Farren.”

            “Well, it was nice to meet you Farren.”

            “You too, Shane.”

 


 

            Farren cooled off in one of the natural pools on her property. She dug out some extension cords and dragged her rickety old fan to the side and sat in front of it, the air especially cold on her wet skin. She was feeling much better when the fireflies started to come out, small fairy lights in the summer night sky.

            She dragged herself out of the pond and into the clothes she had left folded next to it. She could go to bed. She was still jittery though, still shaking. She decided to go for a walk through the forest, expend some extra energy. The bed was so old that if she was worked up and trembling the whole frame would jostle, knocking the headboard against the wall.

            When she made it to the river south of Leah’s cottage, a lit lantern caught her eye. On the dock of the nearby pond sat Shane, with a pack of beer beside him. She made her way over, quietly. He looked so tired: bags under his eyes and hollow cheeks. Her heart ached; it looked like he hadn’t slept in a while.

            “Hey,” she called out.

            Shane flinched, squinting to make out her approaching form. “Farren?”

            “Yeah. Mind if I join you?”

            He grunted. It wasn’t a no, though.

            She sat down next to him, careful not to slide on the wood dock. It looked like splinter central if she was honest. Slipping off her shoes, she swung her feet off the side, and they skimmed the stagnant pond water. The fireflies were more numerous here than they were on her farm and in the complete dark of the forest they looked like shifting stars, dancing and airborne.

            “Do you want a beer?”

            Farren accepted, silent. The can was cold between her fingers and she was overwhelmed with sudden affection for Shane and everyone in this town. They truly were kind; feeding and providing and talking. They sat side by side for a while, quiet aside from the chitter of animals and insects and the soft lapping of Farren’s foot-wake waves against the dock. A single weeping willow was on the opposite shore, its boughs bowing into the water, leaves kissing the surface. The tree was bent, weighed down, so intangibly lonely. Farren’s eyes burned.

            “Buh,” Shane said. “Life.”

            Farren hummed an agreement.

            “You ever feel like no matter what you’re going to fail?” She didn’t respond, waiting for him to continue. “Like- like you’re stuck in some miserable abyss and you’re in so deep you can’t even see the light of day?

            “I just feel like no matter how hard I try I’m not strong enough to climb out of that hole.” He fell silent. Farren was silent too, her mind racing.

            “You are.” Her voice was like a gunshot, breaking the charged quiet between them. “You are strong enough.”

            Shane scoffed. “You don’t even know me.”

            Farren turned her head, looking at him. He was slumped over, hunched in on himself. He looked small, scared. She swallowed. “I don’t have to. Everyone has it in them to fight it.” She put down her beer and braced her hands behind her, leaning back and tilted her head back to the sky. Shane’s eyes stuck on her extended throat, bare and vulnerable. “Fuck. If I can do it, so can you.” He didn’t ask; it was probably better that way. She wouldn’t have answered.

            Farren downed the rest of her beer. “Fast drinker, huh? A woman after my own heart.” Despite the joking words, his light tone was too harsh, too stiff. Farren forced a laugh.

            “Don’t make it a habit.”

            A little late, Farren thought to herself. The truth of that statement hit her hard. She would never consider herself someone who drank to get away from anything, but she realized that in the last year she had at least one drink most nights. She needed it at parties as a social lubricant, but alone? It made everything a bit softer, a bit more kaleidoscopic and twinkly.

            The two sat for a while, just watching the woods. Watching the willow.

 


 

Farren stumbled across her property in near blackness, tripping over rocks and slamming into trees. Her right hand hung at her side, fisted tightly around a handful of wild sweet pea flowers she had picked on her way back. It was around here somewhere.

Suddenly it was right in front of her: a clearing in the treetops so the moonlight could break through, illuminating a small stone shrine. Farren approached, reaching her free hand out to trace the carved letters.

They were weather-worn, not as sharp as they had been at his funeral. It had been a few years and winters in the valley were harsh. She liked it better this way. Her grandfather had been weather-worn, too: sun-dried, leathery skin and long, lean muscles, and her same harsh gray eyes. On him they hadn't looked so harsh; they were a misty morning to her tempestuous storm.

She looked down at her right hand; her knuckles were white around the flowers and she tried to loosen her grip. Her fingers moved stiffly, unwrapping the small bouquet as she placed it at the altar of the stone shrine. There were small, red crescents lining her palm when she turned it upwards.

Her knees hit the tiled ground, and suddenly she was on her hands and knees, choking out sobs so loud she was sure she’d wake all of Pelican Town. She was hysterical, dragging her nails along the stone tiles so rough they cracked and ripped and bled, but she couldn’t feel it.

She leaned forward, pressing her head to the shrine. She pressed it in, quaking as she choked on the clean, wild air until she could focus on the pressure of her head against the stone. She focused on the hurt. And ignored the ache in her chest.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

            Farren felt raw. She had dragged herself from her grandfather’s shrine to her bed somewhere around dawn and had been lying awake ever since. The flesh of her knees and the heels of her hands was tender and torn. The watery gray dawn filtered half-heartedly through the skylight above her bed and she was trapped, unmoving, under the weight of her comforter. She felt barely sentient, a piece of clay that hadn’t been given purpose.

            She stretched her fingers one by one, each stiff and blood-stained. She cringed at the memory of raking her nails across the rough-hewn stone of the grave. carelessly, she touched her cheeks, her probing fingers harsh against the delicate skin. Her fingers came away damp.

 

 

            Farren had fallen into a smooth rhythm that season: wake up before dawn when the wan light barely illuminated her property, and water the plants. On Tuesdays and Saturdays she would meet Haley at the beach to tan; Friday nights she was in the Saloon with the rest of town. It wasn’t much but it was stable and cathartic in its structure.

            The past week it had all gone to shit.

            After she managed to drag herself into bed, she hadn’t been able to drag herself out of it. A thunderstorm had cracked down on the valley and it rained for almost three days: the pressure to water her plants was gone. She stayed in bed, barely rousing to use the bathroom and drink water.

            She felt like a husk, a hollow, yawning cavity. When the thunder cracked close to her house and the winds shook the windows, she could feel the rumble in her chest, could feel it resonate into the farthest parts of her.

            When the rain cleared, she tried to stir, to get up. She didn’t.

 

 

            The next Friday, almost a week later, she dragged herself out on her porch swaddled in her comforter and clutching a mug of coffee. Steam rose and brushed her chin, her hands were raw red under the ceramic. She couldn’t tell if the coffee was hot; she could barely even tell if it was coffee. Her crops had almost entirely withered, and the weeds had begun encroaching.

            A single monarch butterfly flew past. Its delicate petal-wings flutter, propelling its body through the heavy summer air. Its flight is just controlled, it teeters on the edge of erratic. Farren’s eyes are stuck on the iridescent wings winking at her under the sun. Her breath is caught in her throat, her mind is caught on this beautiful thing that exists for nothing, for no one.

            Farren watches as it lands on a wildflower, already half brown and wilted in the late July heat. She wonders if it knows that summer is ending soon, knows that when September closes in leaves and early nights will fall in, days frigid and brief blinks of sun bookended with immense and lonely dark skies. She hopes that it doesn’t.

            She’s reminded of the summers she used to spend here, on the farm, when she was small. Farren, her sister, and brother would run around their grandfather’s farm, barefoot and sticky from ice-pops. She remembers waddling behind her brother, hands clasped with her sister’s as they chased down butterflies and farm animals.

            Their mother would yell, her voice echoing across the large field, “Farren! Willa! Aspen!” They’d come back sun-streaked, with dirt caked on the soles of their feet and the juice of berries fresh from the plant running down their chins.

            Her mother, father, and grandfather would each grab a child and wipe their faces, their hands, their feet with old, worn washcloths, wet with river-water. Everyone would laugh. Farren almost smiled; she was nearly swept up in the pure, unfiltered happiness of childhood nostalgia, but the memory started to fade and crack.

            Back to herself, back to the tangle of weeds that had come of her grandfather’s farm, back alone in the old farmhouse, the silence was deafening. Farren was totally alone. She was sick to her stomach, the coffee suddenly thick and bitter.

 


 

 

            That night at the Saloon everything seemed a bit muted, a bit quieter. Sam and Sebastian were playing a half-hearted game of pool, Abby and Haley were sitting silently on the couch. All four were watching the clock as the small hand came around to the eight.

            Sebastian took a shot. The pool stick jerked towards the cue ball, hitting it at an awkward angle. The ball spun out, knocking balls of both solids and stripes askew on the table for landing in the middle pocket. He cursed under his breath. “I guess I’m not on my game tonight.”

            Sam grunted in agreement, not even cracking a smile as he placed the cue ball on the table. Things felt off, just slightly off-center and tinted. Like looking at a familiar picture with sunglasses on, or coming home to all the furniture shifted half a foot to the right.

            “I thought she would be here,” Haley said to Abigail.

            “Yeah, I did too.” Abby didn’t usually talk to Haley; none of them did. But when the blonde girl game over and asked if they had seen Farren that week and they couldn’t say that they had, she asked to sit and wait with them.

            Haley looked over at the clock for what seemed like the hundredth time since she had arrived at the Saloon. It wasn’t usually what she did on Fridays, she’d rather be developing photos in her dark room or watching movies with Alex, but Farren had missed their beach day twice that week. Haley hadn’t seen the brunette around town either.

            “You know,” Haley said, chewing on a loose hangnail, “I haven’t seen her since last Friday, right before that huge thunderstorm. She’s all alone out on that farm…” Haley trailed off; she didn’t need to finish. All four were thinking the same thing: what if something had happened to her.

            Abby placed a gentle hand on Haley’s shoulder. The blonde girl almost winced at the contact. “She’s probably fine. I can swing by her place tomorrow and check in on her; I’ll keep you posted.”

            Haley nodded, still a little unsure. “Okay.” She glanced at the clock again, full on chewing her nail at this point. “I’m going to head home. Tell me if you see her.”

            As the blonde walked away, Abby stood, brushing her hands against her thighs. “I’m going to go get drinks. Who wants one?”

 

 

            Three hours and several rounds of drinks later, Sam had decided it was time to see Farren. Abby was just drunk enough to agree and Sebastian wasn’t persuasive enough to convince them otherwise. Sam was stumbling, leading the pack past the bus stop, the grass along the path dotted with sweet pea flowers. The night air smelled like them: heady and clean.

 “Sebby! We want to see Farren now!” Sam was petulant, insistent. He batted Sebastian’s hand off his arm. The trio was nearing the farm. Part of Sebastian wanted to stop Abby and Sam as they stumbled, laughing and falling, up to the house, but the other part of him wanted to see the same thing they did. He wanted to see that Farren was okay.

            The farm was desolate at night, the overgrown land a forest in the dark. Sebastian noted the once full blueberry bushes in front of the house were dry and shrunken, the leaves flaking between his fingers.

            Sam made it to the door first, slamming into it with his whole body. The windows shook in their frames at the contact. With the three of them standing on the porch Sebastian realized just how small the farmhouse was. He opened his mouth to try and stop Sam one last time, his stomach suddenly a knot of dread, but he was too late.

            Sam opened the door and stumbled in, hushing Abby and Seb loudly. Abby followed him in. Seb stayed at the threshold, looking in. He was caught off-guard at how little was inside.

Aside from the bed and TV, there was a single framed picture in the kitchen and a stack of three cardboard boxes. The entirety of it was honest-to-Yoba probably smaller than his set up in the basement. His eyes scanned the sparsely furnished room, catching on Farren. She was sitting up in bed, staring.

            She was confused, not tired. He could almost feel it from his spot at the door, the lightly restrained, bristling annoyance. It was tight and palpable in the air. He imagined he could see porcupine-like spines on her, raising and prickling at Sam and Abby. Just when he thought she might snap, she sighed, the tension and annoyance draining out in one tired breath.

            Farren simply laid down and rolled over.

            Sam had found the framed photo on the table. “Shit, Farren! You looked hot with short hair.” He looked closer, holding the picture mere inches from his face. “Wait – is this even you? It looks kinda off.”

            Abby started for the picture, but Sebastian cut her off.

            “Sam. Abby.” Sebastian kept his voice level, quiet. “We see she’s alive and trying to sleep. Let’s go.”

            The two left, heads hung like scolded children. Sebastian spared another glance toward the lump of sheets. He could see her shaking.

            On the walk back to town, he realized he was shaking, too.

 

 

 

            The next morning Sebastian left Sam’s house early. The sun was barely rising, the bottom of its swollen belly just so kissing the horizon. Sebastian walked up through town to the farm, his hands crammed into the pockets of his jeans. His breaths were even, measured, as he tried to clear his head.

            He stopped by Pierre’s and picked up some pastries and coffee. He was barely balancing the two cups in his hands as he knocked on Farren’s door.

            When the door opened, he tried not to look shocked. It was Farren alright, but she looked paler, harder since the last time he saw her. Her eyes were deeply shadowed, her cheeks sunken. Her hand was firm, white-knuckled, on the door as she held it open, a guardian to her home, blocking off his entrance completely.

            “What?” Her voice was raspy, sore like she hasn’t spoken in years.

            Sebastian held up the bag of pastries and one of the coffee mugs. “I brought you some breakfast.” He held his breath.

            When Faren stepped back and widened the opening of the door, Sebastian loosed the breath – it felt like a knot untying in his chest. He stepped inside, tentative and careful on the hardwood floors. “You can sit on the floor. I don’t really have that much furniture.”

            Sebastian folded himself in front of the television. Farren did the same, her knees slipping underneath the large sweater she’s wearing. He passed her a lukewarm coffee and places the bag of pastries between them. It was silent as they drink their coffee, watching each other.

            They didn’t speak after the coffee. Not for a while. Sebastian ate a from the bag. Farren tore one apart into small little pieces. She brought them up to her lips, but never put one inside, never chewed or swallowed. Sebastian’s eyes were fixated on her hands and mouth.

            He cleared his throat, gunfire in the still air of the cabin. “How – um, are you okay?”

            Farren almost laughed; she could feel it deep in her chest like a bubble at the bottom of a boiling pot of water just waiting to rise up and out. She squashed it down, held it. Sebastian looked so large sitting in her small house, his knees pressed awkwardly between her boxes and her TV. He was posed in what Farren assumed he wanted her to think was nonchalance, ease, but his shoulders were too tight, and his brows had a deep crease settled between them. Her fingers twitched at her side; what would he do if she just reached over and smoothed it out?

            “I don’t really want to talk about it,” she answered.

            “Okay.” Sebastian flexed his hands. “But – well, if you ever, you know, do want to talk about it you can talk about it to, um, me.”

            “Okay.”

 

            Sebastian stayed with Farren for the rest of the day. She set him up on a cushion in front of the TV and took out a bowl of cut melon. The TV made a loud echoing click when its turned on. The thing is so old you can almost hear all the circuits getting electricity and switches flipping.

            When the screen caught up with the speakers, it played some program on the cooking show. “It’s this or the weather channel,” Farren informed him. She wondered if he heard the sharpness in her voice, could feel how skittish and shaken she felt.

            It had been a while since someone had come and stayed with her when she was like this. Her friends in the city called it a blackout; she’d drop off the grid, ignore phone calls, stop going out. They all knew to leave her be, let Willa handle it. Without Willa, though, no one had stepped in to get her up. Having someone here to do it, having it be Sebastian left her feeling jumpy and affection-starved.

            Sebastian stretched out his legs in front of him. “That’s okay with me.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

         When Farren heads over to Sebastian’s she doesn’t know what to expect. The walk from the baths to Robin’s is short and Farren takes it slow, trying to steady herself. There’s a tight, gnawing pent up energy in her chest that isn’t quite excitement – more creeping dread. She focuses on the weight of her backpack on her shoulder, the feel of her wet hair brushing against her neck, the heat of a summer evening.

With each deep breath, she imagines the color blue filling her body: first her fingertips and toes, then filling each limn until the color is nestled in her chest. Her therapist in high school told her to do that when she had test anxiety, but the habit had stuck.

         She knocks on the door to Robin’s shop and feels silly. Busting in had never been a problem before, when she asked Robin to fix a leak or a loose floorboard. This was different; she was invited over as a guest, not a customer. Farren shook her head and rolled her shoulders, imagining the tension leaking out slowly, air leaving a leaky tire.

         The invitation had come by way of Abigail. The girl had stopped by Farren’s farm to invite her to their Thursday night plans and stayed for a while. The purple-haired girl had dipped her feet in the nearest pond, watching as Farren dug up her wilted blueberry bushes and planted fresh melon seeds. Her company was shockingly calming, her voice low and steady. She had talked while Farren worked, telling the farmer about nothing in particular: high school girlfriends, her online classes, the impending arrival of fall.

         “I am so looking forward to September.” Abby was flitting around the edge of tamed land, ankle-deep in weedy grass. “Fall is my favorite season. Plant me a few pumpkins, will you, farm-girl?” Farren had fake-glared and agreed to try and grow some of the squash.

         “Hey!” Robin was standing in the doorway, beckoning Farren inside. “I’m officially off the books today, but if it’s urgent I wouldn’t mind listening to the woes of your crap-shack.”

         Farren laughed awkwardly. “Actually, ah, I’m here to see Sebastian.”

         Robin hid a smile. “Sure thing. Have fun!”

 

 

         Sam and Sebastian were leaning against his bed, the latter holding a blue, blown glass bong to his lips. Abigail and Farren had pulled over some seat cushions, leaning against each other affectionately.

         Farren’s eyes roamed Sebastian’s room. It was pretty spacious, but the lighting was abysmal. A single bulb flickered in the center of the room. For social situations it was fine, the dim lighting was cozy, but Farren couldn’t imagine working down here. Sebastian’s desk was cluttered with crumpled notes and loose post-its, notes about current jobs and coding ideas.

         “Do you read a lot?” Farren’s eyes were stuck on his bookshelf, looking for a familiar title. There was lots of fantasy, sci-fi, the kind of stuff Farren would lose herself in during college. Her eyes caught on a DVD case: Woman in the Moon.

         Sebastian looked over at Farren. She looked so different than she had that first time they met: pale and thin and out of place. She was tan now, cheeks pink from farming in the sun, and her arms and legs were packed with tight, lean muscle. Her hair was long and unkempt, tied up in a haphazard knot on her head.

         “Yeah. I like how you can escape to a world totally different from your own.” His eyes flitted to the door, so quick she almost missed it. “I haven’t been reading as much lately, been too busy with work.”

         Abigail rolled her eyes. “He’s really into shit about space.”

         Sebastian ducked his head, his cheeks flushing lightly. “I guess I never fully grew out of the I-wanna-be-an-astronaut.”

         “That’s sweet. I noticed you have Woman in the Moon on DVD. I would love to watch that.” Farren shifted, laying on her stomach and kicking her legs up in the air behind her. “It was one of my sister’s favorite movies.”

         “Was?” Sam was only half paying attention when he asked the question.

         “What’d you bring?” Sebastian nodded to Farren’s backpack, abandoned a few feet away.

         “Oooh, can someone pass it to me?” Her stomach rolled, and she closed her eyes, breathing in deeply. The air was thick with the oily, herby smell of Seb’s pot. She could have kissed him at that moment, she wasn’t ready to broach the topic.

         Sam reached over and passed the bag to Farren. Three sets of eyes were trained on the farmer as she reached into the pack.

         “I’ve been going into the mines recently and found some stuff the last time I went down I thought you guys might like.” When she opened her palm there was a fist-sized raw amethyst, all different shades of purple, sharp and crystalline. Abby gasped, her fingers reaching out tentatively.

         “I love these! Is it for me?” Farren nodded shyly. “Nice! I was getting hungry anyway.” Abby nudged the farmed fondly.

         “Sam…” The farmer produced a tiger’s eye stone, small and round, semi-polished. “I just thought of you.”

         “Woah! That looks sick. Thanks, Farren.”

         “And Sebastian.” She passed a closed palm in front of him. He held out his hand as she pressed something smooth and cold into his palm, their hands brushing. Farren shivered at the contact.

         “Is this-?” Sebastian cut himself off, inspecting the small teardrop stone in his palm.

         Sam leaned over to get a closer look. “That looks like a frozen tear!”

         Farren smiled. “It’s so cold even though I brought it up from the mines like an hour ago. It probably has a really high specific heat, so it takes a while to come back down to room temperature.” She pressed a hand to her sternum, rubbing from the center out along her collar bone. “Sorry. That was kind of nerdy.”

         “Nah, your geek out was cute,” Abby said.

 

 

         The group was laid out on the floor, limbs intertwined and overlapping. Farren’s head was on Sam’s stomach, Abigail’s head on hers, and Sebastian’s legs were woven between hers. The whole group was laughing at something they couldn’t remember, the air and the light soft and warm. Farren could almost ignore the building anxiousness in her chest; when she pictured it, it was a dark figure in the corner of the room: always there and felt, brushing against the edges.

         “Can we get snacks?” Sam asked.

         “I’ll go.” Farren sat up, starting to shift and free various appendages. Abigail groaned as her head was shifted onto the floor. “I have to pee anyway.”

         “I’ll come too.” Farren offered her hand down to Sebastian and pulled him up with a hard yank.

         The two picked their way across his room and up the stairs. The kitchen was at the end of a long hall, and everywhere Farren looked she could see Robin’s love. The house was where her love of labor and her family came together, and it was clear in the careful construction of the house and the small, detailed engravings along the walls.

         Sebastian rummaged through the fridge as Farren hopped up onto the counter. “You know,” his voice was muffled in the fridge, “you shouldn’t go into the caves alone.”

         Farren blinked. “Huh?”

         He closed the fridge door, arms full of fruit and some cookies. “It’s dangerous down there. You could get seriously hurt.”

         “Okay, dad.”

         “I’m serious, Farren.” He came to stand in front of her. She didn’t even try to read his expression, jaw clenched and closed eyes. “Don’t be reckless.”

         Farren could feel her high wearing off. “What the fuck? I’m an adult. I can decide what’s reckless and what’s not for myself.”

         His jaw worked. “You’re not thinking. They closed those mines for a reason, you know. They aren’t stable. Are you trying to kill yourself? And for what? Gifts for your friends and an apparent death wish aren’t re– “

         “Woah.” Farren brought up her hands, pushing Sebastian’s chest. She hopped off the counter. “You don’t know me well enough to do this. I can’t do this right now.”

         She stalked to the front door, cramming her feet into her boots. “Tell Abby to take my backpack. I’ll pick it up at Pierre’s soon.”

         She was gone before Sebastian could even breathe.

 


 

 

         When Farren got home she was so mad she was shaking. She didn’t know why it set her off – he was mostly right. The mines probably were dangerous, but it felt so condescending. She rubbed her jaw, trying to ease up some of the tension.

         She wondered if she had packed her mouthguard. She used to grind her teeth at night and wore a mouthguard. It probably got left behind, was probably sitting in some junkyard somewhere with the rest of her crap she didn’t think was worth moving. An entire life, discarded like trash.

         The genuine worry in his voice when he spoke made her feel rough like if he probed too hard he would get hurt. Honestly, he probably would. She was just as jagged as the uncut amethyst she gave Abby.

         Her chest was aching, and her fingers traced the frame of the photo on her counter. She wanted to go back, back to Zuzu, back to the past where everything felt okay. Maybe not great but okay, she knew where she fit in, new which bed she slept in, which job she went to, which friends she talked to. A Zuzu where she and Willa were in an apartment so small they’d bump into each other when they breathed.

         Farren imagines Willa as if she were still in that cramped apartment. Her hair the same dark brown as Farren’s, swishing at her jaw. She liked to sit in the middle of the living room on the bare floor; she would push all of the furniture to the edge of the room, the table so close to the couch you couldn’t sit, and the rug rolled up and shoved in a corner. Surrounding her like a halo would be an array of shit: half cut-up magazines, glue, pastels, and charcoal pencils. Her sister was an artist, always trying something new, something different. Farren could almost smell the ink of the freshly printed magazines and the chemical tang of glue.

         Almost.

         But when she breathed in through her nose, instead of ink and glue was the musty resin and wood smell of the cabin, the sweet rot of summer soil not far off.

Chapter Text

         When Haley invites herself over, Farren isn’t quite sure why. “Isn’t it just a glorified pot-luck?”

         Haley let out a frustrated sigh, leaning forward to see into her make-shift vanity. The girl’s rigged up Farren’s handheld mirror on a pile of books and against the TV. “I guess you could call it that. I think a better way to describe it would be the last time to show off those gorgeous legs of yours.”

         Haley shoots the lightly flustered brunette a wink.

         “The last chance…?”

         “Think about it – after the Luau the only other times to go out are Fridays at the Saloon. And all the other festivals will happen when it’s too cold to wear dresses with bare legs.” Haley shot a disdainful look at Farren’s clothing trunk. “And I doubt there are any cute stockings in there.”

         “Hey!” Farren laughed. She’d be the first to admit she had few to no going out clothes.

         Haley put both hands up in mock surrender, a mascara wand gripped tightly in one hand.

         “I guess you’re right.” Farren chewed on her bottom lip. She reached for Haley’s bottle of powder blue nail polish. “I’m borrowing this.”

         Haley grinned wickedly. She knew she had won.

 

         By the time Haley was done with Farren, she was plucked, pruned, and ready for auction. Abigail had come by at some point, her curled hair and winged eyeliner a testament to the truth of Haley’s words: the Luau was apparently the time to go all out.

         All three girls were sat on the floor around Farren’s trunk. They had been through its contents several times by that point, and Haley stood, reaching her arms above her head to stretch. “I’m getting a snack. You guys look through again.” She walked toward the kitchen-area,  muttering something that sounded a lot like ‘we need to go shopping’.

         Abigail and Farren made brief eye contact. Farren bit her cheek, hard, suppressing a giggle. Abby leaned into the farmer. “You look hot enough as it is. Don’t stress too hard, Farren.”

         “I’m not stressed. Haley is.” The farmer reached for a worn pair of overalls. “I’d wear these if she’d let me.”

         “She definitely would not let you.”

         “Aha!” Haley wandered back over to the two on the floor. In one hand she had an apple, in the other was a satin camisole with lace edges. The lace and satin were both white, the latter decoratedwith small, delicate cornflowers. “This is perfect. Cute, summery, and just a little bit slutty.”

         Farren’s eyes were steel as she reached up and yanked the shirt out of Haley’s hand. The blonde’s mouth fell open. “Where did you get this?” She wasn’t really asking. She knew already.”

         “I- I poked around in some of the boxes you had sitting by the TV. That was sitting at the top of one.” Haley glanced at Abigail, worried. Abby looked just as confused.

         “Why –“ Farren cleared her throat; closed her eyes. Haley didn’t know. No one did. “Please don’t go through those. I’ll just wear my black dress.” She stood and walked to the boxes, folding the shirt and tucking it gently inside.

         “O-okay.” Haley stood behind Farren, her hand light on the farmer’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

         When Farren turned to face Haley, she was smiling. “Let’s get me ready to luau! It’s going to start soon.”

         Abigail was holding up the dress for her when they turned back.

 


 

 

         The beach was hot. It was late enough in the day that it wasn’t quite lunch, but it definitely wasn’t dinner. Farren’s drink glass was sweating in her hand and she kept alternating hands, surreptitiously wiping the other on the skirt of her dress.

         She was standing at the edge of the dance floor, watching Haley dance with her sister. She couldn’t pull her eyes away, the two laughing and twisting together, so familiar with each other that no step was awkward or unpredicted. Farren’s eyes burned as she drained the rest of her drink.

         “Afraid they’re going to run out?” Shane had come to stand beside her, holding a beer in one hand and another one of the fruity drinks Farren had been drinking. He passed her the full drink, placing her empty glass at the edge of a table.

         Farren smiled tightly. “Just thirsty, I guess.” The two stood barely a foot apart, she could feel the heat from his body on the side of her arm. She was sure her face had the glowy summer sheen of sweat and she could feel baby hairs plastered to the back of her neck. “Who in their right mind would eat soup in this weather?”

         Shane let out an undignified snort. “The governor.” Shane leaned closer to Farren, their shoulders brushing as he pointed to the governor, feigning inconspicuousness. “The short, rotund man in the purple suit.”

         Mayor Lewis and who Farren now knew as the Governor stood at the edge of the pot luck pot. Marnie stirred the mixture, adding bits of milk and cheese after tasting. Farren’s eyes passed over the sick-green soup quickly. She could almost taste bile thinking about the wacked-out ingredients: fish from Willy, veggies from her and Pierre, wine from Gus, foraged goods from Linus and Leah, and Yoba-knows-what from Sam. The blonde man had confided in her earlier that he once put an entire pound of Anchovies in the soup. “Lewis was totally bugging,” he had informed her, denim-clad arm slug over her shoulder.

         Farren’s eyes caught on Abigail pushing a large, black speaker. “What do you think she’s doing?”

         Shane barely glanced over. “Oh. Her, Sam, and that emo kid have a little band. Lewis lets them play a few songs every year.”

         Upon further inspection, Farren noticed Sam tuning a guitar, Sebastian precariously balancing a keyboard on a stack of old crates, and Abby lugging another speaker to the edge of the dance floor.

         Sebastian had shed his usual sweatshirt – it was hot even for him. Farren’s eyes were caught on his arms flexing as he lifted the keyboard. They were pale, sure, but strong. Her hand was rubbing from the top of her sternum along her collar bone and back; she wanted to go help, but she wasn’t ready to apologize for freaking out the other day.

         Not yet.

 


 

         Almost everyone went to the Stardrop after the luau. Sebastian was still riding a bit of a performance high, which, with the help of pot, gave the saloon a shimmering, dreamy feel. The air was almost hazy in their booth from the joint. Sebastian was sitting in a booth next to Sam, their knees touching, as Abby jittered across from them. There was a half-picked plate of fries between them which had gone cold.

         Sebastian liked how slow and technicolored everything got when he was high. The jukebox’s neon lights were captivating, the song almost slow. The bottles behind the bar were jewels sparkling in the light of small, flickering candles set on the tables. And the people – everyone looked different tonight, like a more put-together version of themselves.

         Farren looked especially beautiful. Her long, brown hair was glossy and his fingers itched to run through it. Her black silk dress was almost shimmering against her body, hugging and draping over her hips.

         She was leaning against the bar, chatting with Haley, her ponytail tossed over a shoulder. His eyes were stuck on the curve of her neck into her shoulder; sloping and smooth and so startlingly feminine. His blood felt carbonated, fizzing in his veins, bubbling up, up, up.

         He stood up fast, his palms slamming flat against the table. It jostled the plate of fries. “I- I, uh, have to-,” he cut himself off and left the booth.

         Sebastian straightened up and walked towards Haley and Farren. He caught the tail-end of Farren’s laughter and his steps nearly faltered. Haley’s eyes met his over the farmer’s shoulder and her eyebrows raised. Farren turned to look at him.

         Farren turned back to Haley, her satin dress brushing up against the blonde, and whispered something low. Haley laughed, affectionately pinching Farren on the arm before leaving.

         It was just the two of them then and up close she was even more captivating. Her nose was just the slightest bit red, peeling a little on the bridge from the sun. Her cheeks were pink, flushed; eyes wide as she looked at him – shadowed and lash-framed.

         “Hey…” Sebastian trailed off. His hand clenched and flexed at his side. “Y-you look nice. Um, I came over because I wanted to apologize for jumping on you about the mines yesterday. It isn’t my place.”

         “It’s fine. There’s nothing to apologize for. I snapped too.” Farren fingered the hem of her dress. “It’s nice. To have someone care about you.”

         “You have a lot of people that care about you.” Myself included, Sebastian thought.

         Farren tilted her head and looked at him. It felt more like she was looking through him. She hummed something, a non-committal agreement.

         The two stood for a beat, just watching each other.

         “I’m going to head home.” Her voice was weightless.

         “Let me walk you.”

         “Yeah,” Farren said. She had been there, laughing and drinking and apologizing, moments ago. A breath ago. Even as she was watching him, she wasn’t seeing him. She was too far away. She was already gone.

        

 

 

            The walk to the farmhouse was silent and sluggish. Sebastian couldn’t tell if he was the one making it awkward, or if Farren can feel it too, the anticipation, that feeling like the air just before it rains, just before one big crack of thunder and the rain comes down in sheets. Nothing but a smell, and then everything all at once.

            Farren was light on her feet as she ascended the steps, bouncing. Her shoulders were sloped though, turned down with an unspoken burden. “Do you want to stay for a little? I can bring you some tea.”

             “Sure.”

            Sebastian set himself up on the steps to her house, sitting on the second one and spreading out his legs in front of him. The moon was full and wide, so close he could imagine reaching up and picking it like a ripe peach. It cast the whole farm in a silvery light, turning the green, waxy leaves of her crops colorless.

            He heard the door open behind them, and Farren passed him a warm cup of tea. The steam rose, earthy and just a little sweet. Farren settled herself beside him. “I added a few spoons of honey to them. I think they taste better that way.”

            “Thanks.” He took a cautious sip. The tea was hot, but good, the taste steeping and citrusy. “It’s good.”

            “It’s one of my favorites. It was my sister’s favorite too.”

            Sebastian measured his words. “The picture on your table – is that your sister?”

            Farren nodded. He was watching her as she stared out at her farm, counting her breaths and noting the glassiness in her eyes. “My sister. My twin. Willa.”

            “You guys look really similar.”

            “Yeah.” Her voice was a breath. “We did.”

            “Did?” Sebastian felt Farren tense up beside him, her muscles clenched tightly, so tight she shook. “Oh. Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”

            Farren let out a choked laugh. It sounded more like a sob. “Yeah.” She placed her mug down beside her. It hit with a loud thunk, tea spilling out onto the step. She leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her legs. “God. It sucks.”

            “I can’t even imagine.” They were quiet for a while.

            Farren sat up eventually, her face wet with tears.

            “I- I can’t imagine how hard it is to lose a sibling, but I understand loss.” Sebastian drew his legs close to his body. His stomach was tight. “I lost my dad. When I was young.”

            Farren started to speak, to offer condolence, but Sebastian cut her off. “I just… I want you to know that you can talk to me about it. About her.”

            Farren leaned into him, her head propped up on his shoulder. “Thanks.”

 

Chapter Text

            Haley slept over at the farmhouse that night. “It’ll be totally high school style. Hair-braiding, face masks, and pedicures. We’ll skip the pillow fight though,” Haley said when she presented the idea. She had been insisted: she had lots of stuff she needed Farren’s opinion on, and Emily had a friend coming in from the desert and staying over. Farren thought Haley just wanted to question her after her early-departure after the Luau afterparty. The two had shared the tub of fruit salad and a slice of pink melon cake Haley had brought, the sweetness of each cloying. Haley was as sugary as the cake. Farren liked it, liked the friendship. She always felt so bitter, but being with Haley made her feel mild.

            “Okay so our first step: I brought this healing mud mask.” Haley held a large tub up and peered at the back instructions. “We just need to add water.”

            “Mud?” Farren asked. “You’re going to willingly put mud on your face?”

            “Uh…” Haley scrunched up her nose. “You don’t think it’s the same as the mud out there right?”

            “I’m going to pretend to ignore the disdainful look you just shot to my farm. And it’s probably at least a little different.”

            Haley chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Mud isn’t so bad. I didn’t really get this ‘farm thing’ at first, but I think I can get used to it. It’s quiet.”

            “I didn’t really get the farm thing at first either. I still kind of don’t.” Farren laughed. “The only thing I’ve grown is parsnips and like… one melon. I’m shit at this farm thing.”

            Farren looked down at the floor they were sitting on. Haley had spread out a barrage of blankets she had brought, making a nest. Farren felt safe, cocooned here with Haley in her soft, cotton nest in the small, familiar farmhouse.

            Haley reached for her glass and poured the water into the powder. Quickly mixing, Haley picked up a glob with her index finger and smeared it onto Farren’s face. “Let’s do this!”

 

 

            The farmhouse was weirdly quiet. The whole evening it had been full: full of laughter, the chatter of the TV, the smell of Gus’ pizza, the soft, flickering light of candles. When Farren had turned the lights off and settled in next to Haley in her bed, the small cabin seemed enormous, full of silence and shadows and nothing. They were quiet next to each other, sides pressed up close and staring at the stars through the skylight.

            Willa would have loved this. The thought hit Farren like a punch to the gut, and suddenly she was imagining the night with Willa there. Willa picking some crap horror movie to watch, Willa putting on the radio and starting a pillow fight with Farren and Haley, Willa laying on her back, between Farren and Haley, each so stuffed with food that they couldn’t speak. Happy and warm and alive. It hurt, and Farren ran her hand over her abdomen, pressing down. She imagined she could feel a bruise from the impact.

            She sucked in a haggard breath, the first loud sound in a while.

            “You okay?” A whisper, careful not to break the strange, settled stillness in the house.

            “Yeah. Just lost in thought.”

            “Oh. I get that.” A beat passed before Haley continued. “Can I ask you something?”

            Farren felt Haley roll onto her side to face the farmer. Farren did the same. “Sure.”

            “What’s going on with you and Sebastian?”

            Farren wasn’t sure why the question caught her off-guard. She was expecting something about Alex, maybe about why she had moved to the valley, but not this. “What?”

            Haley’s eyes were wide and sparkling in the starlight streaming through the window. “Come on, it’s a small town. Plus, I saw you leave the saloon with him the other night.”

            Farren was quiet. What was going on with her and Sebastian? They weren’t really close. Maybe… connected was a better word. But, Yoba, what does that even mean. Connected. “I don’t really know. I just feel… drawn to him.” Haley started to laugh, but Farren silenced her with a gentle elbow to the ribs. “Stop! I don’t know. I just enjoy talking to him and when we’re alone I feel like he can see straight through me.”

            Haley mulled this over for a bit, twirling a loose blonde curl around her finger. “Huh. The ‘see straight through you’ thing seems a little creepy if you ask me.”

            “It’s not,” Farren said, decisive. “It’s kind of nice. I’m not expected to put up a front, because somehow he’d know that it was a front.”

            “I wish Alex was deep like that.” Haley’s tone was joking, but Farren could hear the truth to the words like the edge of a knife, steel flashing in the soft darkness. “He likes me and we get along, but sometimes I wonder if he gets me. Or if he just thinks I’m hot.”

            “Haley.” Farren wrapped her arm around the other girl’s waist and pulled her into a hug. “You’re so much more than hot, and I’m sure Alex can see and appreciate that. You should show him your dark room. Start a conversation about your interests.” Farren rested her chin on top of Haley’s head, her hair soft against Farren’s neck. “If he doesn’t bother putting in the effort he’s not worth it. He doesn’t deserve you.”

            “Thanks, Farren.” Haley’s words are pressed into the skin on Farren’s neck, muffled and mumbled.

            “Anytime, Haley.”

 


 

 

            When Haley left, Farren sat down on the now-bare floor. With two people in the house, it had seemed cozy, lively. Alone it felt like the husk of a home, empty. Or maybe Farren just felt that way herself.

            It was so easy to smile and laugh and get caught up in the pretense of being okay with someone else there, especially Haley. Haley was a force of nature, the sun around which things orbit, dynamic, radiant, nourishing. Sure, she was shallow and rude at first, but she warmed up quickly. Farren was reluctantly jealous of Haley’s easy smile and bubbly personality. She was the kind of girl Farren would have called an airhead at school, but now it didn’t seem like such a bad thing: to love and laugh so easily.

            The sun was just setting, the sky frothy and pale orange. The hush of the house, the placid silence was chafing. Farren had to get out, had to go somewhere. She was up, feet crammed into boots and walking out the door before the thought had finished forming. The door slammed behind her, the calm shattering like glass.

            The balmy summer night air was soft and soothing against Farren’s angry skin and with each step she could feel the electric, unsteady feeling flow out into the ground. She was a kite, suddenly tethered, head pulled out of the clouds.

            She didn’t know where she was walking, she just walked. Walked along the long mountain trail over the tunnel leading out to the highway, past tall pine trees, and past the mountain. She stopped at the edge of the lake, her reflection holding her captive.

            Farren hadn’t looked at herself in the mirror in weeks. It hurt sometimes, to see the same gray eyes staring back at her from the reflective surface. The same gray eyes, the same pale skin, the same dark hair. It hurt too much.

            Looking at herself now in the rippling, glassy lake, Farren shuddered. The circles under her eyes were more like bruises and her skin wasn’t pale: it was ashen, colorless. She sunk to her knees, kneeling beside the water and staring at her reflection.

            A raindrop fell, disturbing the image.

            Farren peered up at the sky, wondering what it was about the rain in the valley. The once clear sky was overcast, the dark rolling underbelly of a cumulonimbus poised just overhead. The rain always seemed to know her feelings, seemed to find kinship with the tumult. Or maybe the smell of rain in the air, the earthy, metallic tang triggered something unconscious, warned her of the rain. And in the rain, she could hide, could feel without fear of being seen.

            It was all too much, the anticipation waiting for the rest to follow cresting in her like a wave. How had she lasted so long in the valley? Riding out some half-formed whim? She was gasping like she was just dropped into freezing water, choking on things she wished she could say. She'd thought she had left it all behind in the city, her grief, her longing, all packed up with the last of Willa’s things and shoved into the dumpster outside her old apartment. Why was she remembering in a new place with new things and nothing on display to remind her?

            Maybe it hadn't been easier to grieve back in the city, but instead easier to forget that she was gone. Willa was still there: there in the empty room of her apartment, in the sunshine beating down on the pavement, in soy-milk lattes, in the magazine cut-out collages, and big oil paint portraits still there in the living room, a dirty paint palette and half-full cup of colored water waiting for her to come and dip a brush in.

            In the farmhouse, there was nothing but Farren and the stinging loss of her sister, her family, her life. Everything she had once relied on was gone, and her entire future was bet on this farm. On this town. The enormity of the rest of her life looming ahead, countless years to spend in this town without her sister made Farren sick. She clutched her stomach tight, willing away nausea, holding onto everything she held inside, too scared to let go.

            When the rain started to come down, Farren didn’t move from her spot behind the lake. She sank into the soft ground and tilted her head up to the sky, letting it wash away the tear tracks on her cheeks.

 


 

 

            “Farren?” The voice was familiar but Farren couldn’t place it. She was shaking so hard she was surprised she could hear anything over the chattering of her teeth. “Shit, Farren, what are you doing out here?”

            Farren shifted, peeked over her shoulder. Sebastian. She wiped her nose on her arm and a hysterical laugh bubbled up. “I could ask you the same thing.”

            He was watching her like she was crazy, like she was crazy and fragile, and he wasn’t sure if she would jump in the lake or break into a million pieces. She wanted to yell that she could do both, she probably already had. “I came out to smoke. How long have you been out here?”

            She shrugged. “A while.”

            A warm hand rested on her shoulder and she flinched away. She could feel the touch burning on her shoulder. “Come with me. You can warm up in my room.”

            Farren didn’t say anything but took Sebastian’s hand and let him pull her up. She was stumbling, shaking in the rain, her hair and clothes plastered so tightly on her body it was like a second skin. Sebastian wrapped an arm around her waist and helped her walk toward Robin’s house. When they grew nearer, she grew fitful, fighting out of his grasp. “I don’t- I don’t want to drip on the floor.” She didn’t want to be any more of a burden than she already was.

            “Don’t worry. I’ll clean up later.”

 

 

 

            Sebastian had handed her a big, fluffy towel, a shirt, and a pair of boxers as he pushed her into his small ensuite bathroom. Farren liked the direction; she didn’t want to have to think. As she undressed, she thought wistfully of Joja: the mindless, repetitive, step-by-step work. Sure, she had more freedom here in Pelican Town, but freedom wasn’t what she thought it would be. She missed losing herself in the methodical work in her lab and ordering in from the same five restaurants, reading the same paper, seeing the same people. Everything was suddenly so dynamic, and she was a fish out of water, drowning on land.

            Farren turned the water as hot as it went when she stepped in and it stung against her sore skin. She closed her eyes and just let the water wash over her until she was red and raw and the water ran cold.

 

 

 

            “Thanks,” Farren said as she exited the shower. Sebastian was working at his desk, typing almost frantically.

            “Hold on.” He hung onto the last syllable a beat too long.

            Farren settled herself on the floor, leaning against his bed. If she tilted her head back against the mattress and closed her eyes, she could almost convince herself that the clack of his keys was the sound of rain against the farmhouse and that the last few hours hadn’t happened.

            “Sorry about that, I just had to finish something. How was the shower?”

            “It was fine. What were you working on?”

            “You look pretty red.”

            “I like my showers hot.”

            “Okay. I do freelance work as a programmer. You know, computers and shit.” Farren still had her eyes close but heard his chair scrape back on the floor. She felt him sit down next to her.

            She almost smiled. “I do know computers and shit. You forget I worked as a chemical engineer for a major corporation. I’m no country bumpkin.” She opened her eyes and saw Sebastian giving her a sidelong grin.

            “My bad, city slicker.”

            Farren elbowed him, the movement propelling them closer together until their thighs were touching. “What’s your current project?”

            “You don’t have to pretend to be interested.”

            Farren rested her head on Sebastian’s shoulder. “I’m not pretending. I like knowing what’s going on in my friends’ lives.” She could almost feel his apprehensive look. “I swear. Pinky promise.”

            “Pinky promise? Maybe you’re more country bumpkin than city slicker after all.”

            “I’ll let you know that in Zuzu pinky promises hold more weight than blood oaths.”

            “Really? I’ll keep that in mind when I move there.” Farren could almost feel a shift as he spoke the words, could hear the upturn at the end of his sentence. The thought of Zuzu excited him.

            “When you move there?”

            “I, um, I’m planning on moving out there once I have some money saved and apply for some real programming jobs.” Sebastian flexed his hands on his lap. His fingers were long and lithe, like the rest of him. Pianist fingers, Willa would have called them. “Freelancing is fine for now, but I want something bigger, something more enduring.”

            “Nice.” It was anything but. There were things Farren missed about Zuzu, but this synchronicity and fondness of people in the valley… she wouldn’t trade it.

            “Yeah. And, back to your original question, I’m setting up a website for a bakery in the town over. They’re hoping to tap into the tourism market.”

            Farren nodded, her cheek brushing against his shoulder as she moved. Sebastian’s phone vibrated in his pocket; Farren sucked in a sharp breath before releasing through laughs. “Yoba, that scared me.”

            “Me too.” Sebastian fished it from his pocket and glanced at the message. “Blech. It’s Sam. I’m not in the mood to go out and see people.”

            “Oh.” Farren’s cheeks burned and her throat clamped. “I can go. I’m so sorry to impose-“

            “Not you!” Sebastian nearly yelled. “This is nice. It’s… easy. I’m just not in the mood for Sam and Abby; I had a really long day of programming and they don’t really get it. They think I just surf the web all day.”

            Farren scoffed. “Programming is definitely not web surfing. I’m sorry they think that. It’s seriously a hard job.”

            “I- yeah. Thank you.”

            Farren’s head was off his shoulder as she looked at him, head cocked. “Thank you for what?”

            “Never mind.” Sebastian bit his cheek, holding back a smile.

 

            The two coexisted, intermittently chatting while Sebastian worked on his code and Farren sprawled on his bed with a book she had picked off his shelf. It was quiet and peaceful, and in that basement with Sebastian, Farren felt less sharp, less uneven. It was easy to quiet her mind, to push back memories and feelings and just sink into the feel of someone else there.

            Sebastian spoke first. “So, want to tell me what you were doing out in the rain?”

            Farren’s mind went blank and pages flipped out of her fingers. “Not particularly.”

            “You don’t have to. Talk about it, that is.” He turned to face her, interlocking his fingers and stretching his arms high above his head. The black t-shirt he wore rose with the movement, revealing a strip of pale abdomen. Farren swallowed. “I just want you to know that you can. I won’t judge.”

            “Yeah. Okay.” She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth quickly, releasing it as she began to speak. Her feet had been kicking in the air and they halted. “Haley slept over last night and then she left, and I felt so overwhelmingly lonely that I had to get out. But out… it all became too much, too quickly, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

            “Willa.” Sebastian said it like a statement, but Farren knew it was a question.

            “Yeah.” Farren closed the book and traced the edge of the cover with her index finger. “Wuthering Heights. You didn’t really strike me as a Bronte fan.”

            Sebastian scratched the back of his neck. Farren liked when he did that; she could read it easily: he was bashful or embarrassed and pink-eared. “When Maru was in middle school she went through a literature phase. She was convinced she wanted to study English and made me read it.”

            Farren smiled. “Willa studied English in college. But in the least pretentious way possible. She was so in love with books and art and really any form of expression. It was sweet, a wide-eyed, reverent love, so pure and unpolluted. This was one of her favorite books.”

            Sebastian remained quiet, watching Farren.

            “There was this one quote she loved. ‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’ She used to write it down everywhere: on her pant leg, grocery lists, homework assignments. She used to write it in the margins of my journal and along the tops of my assignments.

            “ ‘Whatever our souls are made of, sister, yours and mine are the same,’ she would say, tugging on my hair. It used to annoy me; I didn’t get it. I didn’t believe in souls or Yoba or any of it. I still don’t, not really. But if souls are real, I know mine and Willa’s were made of the same stuff. I have this whole box of essays and journals and pants and converse that she wrote it on, a whole box of her and I don’t know what to do with it. I can’t get rid of it, because it hurts too much. I can’t unpack it, because it hurts too much. It’s all too much.”

            “Shit,” Sebastian said.

            “Shit.” Farren rolled onto her back. “How do you do that?”

            “Do what?”

            “Get me to say stuff. Get me to bare my soul to you. I never mean to say it, never mean to share.”

            “Maybe our souls are made of the same stuff.” His tone was light, joking.

            “Maybe.” Farren’s wasn’t light.

            “It’s okay to say stuff. It’s good to unload, to share your thoughts. I want to listen.”

            “Okay.”

            Sebastian turned back to his computer. Farren lay on her back staring at his ceiling. The farmhouse and her freak out felt miles away, her feet felt steady. She wasn’t scared the ground was going to fall out.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

            ‘Shit at this farm thing’ was an understatement.

            Waiting in the mailbox that morning had been a crisp, white envelope from Farren’s bank in Zuzu city. Her fingers were shaking as she tried to open it and there was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t want to open it.

            The memo was brief, matter-of-fact. The account was being closed due to inactivity and a balance below the minimum threshold. There was a check for the remaining funds included. Have a nice life.

            Farren sat on the ground. She put her head on her knees and pressed her hands flat and hard against the packed earth. Her breathing was staggered, shaky, the smell of dirt and sweat thick in her nostrils. The check was so small. So much smaller than she thought.

            It definitely was not enough to get her through the winter.

            How had she not realized how little she had? How could she be so careless? Farren wanted to beat her head against the side of the farmhouse but refrained. A dead Farren certainly wouldn’t make it through the winter.

            She stood up, brushed the soil off of the back of her pants, and set out to work. She was not going to give up easily.

 

 

 

            Giving up didn’t seem to be the problem. When Farren went to pick some of the tomatoes

she had planted she realized the bottoms of the fruit were rotting. At the bottom of each vegetable was a spot of rotted vegetable; dark, puckered skin marring the red, round tomatoes.

            She threw a tomato hard against the ground. It broke, wet seeds spilling out. “Fuck!”

            The melons had to be better. Farren stomped over to her small patch of melons. There was some discoloration but overall they looked fine. Still, she wanted to be sure. She brought the melon over to her porch and picked up her pickaxe. With a thunk, she cracked it open. Dull green grubs were settled in along the rind of the melon. “No. No no no no no.”

            Farren ran out to the rest of her melons. She cracked open another. And another. And another. They were all the same: fat, inch-long worms gorging themselves on the rinds.

            She tried to remember when she had last reapplied her pesticides. And she couldn’t – she didn’t remember reapplying since the first time. “Yoba. You idiot.” Idiot was an understatement.

            Her tomatoes were rotten, her watermelons were infested, and her blueberries had all wilted during her week of self-pity. She stared woefully at her vegetables, trying not to think of how much she spent on seeds and how little she had left for fall seeds.

 


 

            Farren was sitting in the small dock in Cindersap Forest, staring at the still water. Dragonflies flew near the surface, occasionally skimming and causing ripples. The panic over her vegetables had passed quick: her heart had beat so fast she thought it might burst, so fast she thought it would wear out like a car with too many miles on it. It hadn’t and after throwing away her crop failures she felt… neutral.

            It reminded her of the first time she failed a test in college: she had gotten the grade back and cried in her room for an hour, sure she’d be so sick with disappointment that she’d never stop crying. But then she’d stop crying and keep going, and it was almost like nothing was wrong. It was three days later that Farren realized even though she wasn’t feeling badly, she wasn’t really feeling anything.

            “Hey, Farren.” Shane crossed the doc and sat down next to her.

            “Hey, Shane.”

            “How’re you?”

            “Honestly? Kinda shitty.” Shane had spilled his guts to Farren the last time they were here; she figured it was time to return the favor.

            “What’s wrong?” He was genuinely asking. Another thing Farren liked about the valley: when people asked how you were, they genuinely wanted to know the answer.

            “Uh.” Farren pushed her hair pack with her hand, traced the line from her sternum, along her collarbone and back. Again. Again. “I guess I’m not so good at farming.”

            “Yeah, uh, you don’t really strike me as the farming type.” Farren sent Shane a withering glare. “Oh, shit. That’s your livelihood, yeah? Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to be insensitive. You’re just smaller than I woulda expected. Wispier. I’d swear a strong gust of wind could blow you away.”

            “I’m not really the farming type,” Farren confessed. “I hadn’t grown much aside from cactuses until I moved here.”

            “Can you even call that growing something? Don’t they come full grown?”

            “Hey! Who said this was pick on Farren time?”

            “Sorry, sorry.” Shane laughed easily. Farren was glad to see him like this – carefree, laidback. “What went wrong?”

            “What went right?” Farren sighed. “My tomatoes started rotting from the bottom, my melons are infested by these glutinous little worms, and my blueberries are dead because I didn’t water them for a week.”

            “Bad luck. You really gotta go on heavy with the pesticides, ‘specially in the summer.” Shane shifted, leaning back on his arms. “Animals are way easier than plants I swear.”  

            “Shane, I can barely afford to feed myself, let alone build a coop, buy animals, and buy feed for said animals. I’ve set up a few of my grandfather’s old tappers and lugged out an old apiary from his shed, so I can probably bottle and sell that to a store. It definitely won’t be enough to get me through the winter though.” Farren flopped lamely onto the dock.

            There was nothing else to be said: she was a failure. She could feel it now, that sinking, sickening feel: she had disappointed herself.

            A large hand stuck itself in her line of vision, Shane’s face following. He had stood and was offering her a hand up. She took it and let herself be pulled up. “You didn’t fail. It takes a lot more than a busted crop to hit rock bottom.” He stared into her eyes. “This town will help you; it’s more than just a town, it’s a community. All you have to do is ask.”

            Farren nodded. She wouldn’t ask. She couldn’t.

 


 

   

         Farren had enough for a few crates of pumpkin seeds, eggplant seeds, and fairy rose seeds. She was all in; she spent everything she had and kept only a couple of hundred around for an emergency. Foraging would have to suffice for fall – her friends might even invite her over for meals sometimes, so she could make it work. She had to.

            Pierre promised to deliver the seeds by the end of next week when their growing season was beginning. Farren was so grateful for Pierre: he was just as cutthroat and money-hungry as sellers in the city, but he was also kind and gave help when necessary. She was largely suspicious that he offered her quite the discount on her autumn seeds.

            She was walking up to Robin’s, gathering up wild grapes on the way. Her arms were full by the time she got there, knocking on the front door with her foot. It opened, revealing Robin, wide-eyed at the sight of Farren with two armfuls of summer grapes. “Oh, dear! Let me get you a bag for those.”

            The redhead was off before Farren can stop her. Farren kicked the door closed behind her and calls out, “Thanks, Robin!”

            The house was weirdly quiet. Usually when Farren visited she could hear the clinking of glassware from Demetrius’ lab or Maru tinkering on some new robot. She peered around, trying her best not to be nosy; no one seemed to be home aside from her and Robin.

            Robin reappeared with a canvas bag, yellow with age. “Sorry it’s a little old, but it should do the trick.”

            “Thank you, again.” Farren dumped the grapes into the bag. “So, where’s the family?”

            Robin gestured for Farren to follow her. The two made off for the kitchen, where there was a fresh-made loaf of bread on the table, steam still rising. “Demetrius is at some sort of conference, presenting his latest paper. Maru went with him. Seb is probably downstairs.”

            “Ah.” Robin was bustling with the coffee pot as Farren sat at the table. She loved this kitchen, this house. The wood was warm and swirled irregularly and the air always smelled like something home-cooked.

            It felt like home.

            Farren couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt at home. Probably back in her shoebox with Willa, but it felt off without her, felt wrong. Before that, when they lived with their parents… that wasn’t home. Minimalist and spotless and metal – it felt more like one of the fancy restaurants with small entrées her mother loved. This house was lived in, cozy. There were markings on the door frame tracking the kids’ heights throughout the years, coffee rings on the table, worn books, and soft, threadbare pillows.

            Farren’s snapped out of her reverie by the sound of a plate sliding across the wood table. Robin’s cut a slice from the fresh loaf and smeared it with thick, yellow butter. A steaming cup of coffee is next to it. “Robin…” Farren trailed off, her voice choked.

            Robin shrugged, smiling. “I just whipped this up earlier. It’s sourdough, Seb’s favorite. I thought it would be nice to have tonight for dinner, just the two of us. I’m making pumpkin soup, too.” She gazed past Farren, her eyes going soft. “When Seb was younger he would beg me to make the pumpkin soup. He’d hug both my legs, wrap his arms so tight around them that I couldn’t walk, until I’d agree to make it. I miss him being little. Needing me.”

            “He still needs you.” Farren took a bite of the bread. The butter was sweet and good, the bread soft. “Even if he says he doesn’t.”

            “Thanks, Farren.” Robin suddenly perked up. Farren could almost see a lightbulb flashing over her head. “Oh! I just had the most wonderful idea. Stay for dinner!”

            Farren nearly choked on her bread. Dinner with Robin and Sebastian? “I don’t want to, um, intrude on your night together.”

            Robin was already waving her off, grinning and twirling a loose strand of her copper hair with her free hand. “Nonsense. Maybe with you here, he’ll actually talk. I can’t believe he’s 24, he’s still as moody as he was at 16.”

            Farren couldn’t imagine Sebastian as moody. Shy, sure, but he had always been so calm with her. She felt leveled near him, like a tumultuous sea brought to placidity. “If you insist…”

            “If she insists on what?” Farren spun around and saw Sebastian standing in the entrance of the kitchen. If he was surprised to see her, he didn’t show it.

            “That I, uh, join you guys for dinner.”

            “Oh. Sure, that’d be great.”

            Farren turned back in her seat. Robin was smiling coyly at her, a cat who caught a canary.

 

            Dinner rolled around quickly and Farren was trekking back to the log house in the mountains, freshly made peach pie in hand. She had been unsure what to wear – it wasn’t a formal invitation, but she didn’t want to show up in her perpetually stained overalls and mud-caked boots. She had opted for a pair of tight, black jeans and a top, and had rinsed the mud off of her boots.

            Sebastian opened the door when she knocked. “Thank god you’re here. Mom’s been interrogating me in the kitchen. Maybe she’ll let up now that you’re here.” He let her in.

            As they walked to the kitchen, Farren was struck by just how tall Sebastian was. She was eye-level with the space between his shoulders, and though his head isn’t hitting the ceiling he has to duck a little to get through the door frame into the kitchen.

            In the kitchen, Robin was manning the stove. Donning an apron, hair clipped back, and stirring a pot of something creamy on the stove, she was the picture of domesticity. On the kitchen table was a pot of tea, small cups set up at each of the three seats, and a small plate of onigiri and sashimi.

            Sebastian pulled out a seat for Farren before taking one himself. He poured her a cup of tea. “It’s green tea. Is that okay?”

            “That’s perfect.” Farren wrapped her fingers around the cup, steam rising and warming her face. She watched as Sebastian picked up a few pieces of the sashimi and placed them on his plate. His movements were tentative, controlled.

            “The onigiri has tuna in it,” he trailed off, scratching the back of his neck with his hand. Farren rather liked that nervous tick, found it endearing. “It’s, ah, it’s my favorite.”

            “So, is tonight the night of Sebastian’s favorite foods?” Farren smiled at him, his cheeks pink from the attention.

            “Yep! I wanted to treat my boy,” Robin said. “Soups almost ready, so eat some of the appetizers. It’s not often I make more than one course.”

            Farren reached for an onigiri. It was carefully made, a small strip of seaweed perfectly wrapped along the bottom. She took a bite. “Mm. This is good.”

            “Seb made those.”

            “Mom!”

            Farren smiled. “You made these?”

            Sebastian was bashful, staring intently at the table. “Yeah. My dad was from Japan, so we do our best to keep some of his traditions alive. Sashimi was his favorite, too.”

            “That’s sweet.” Farren wanted to reach across the table and grab his hand, soothe the hurt a little. She was sure his dad passed a while ago, but time doesn’t help mend the loss. It quiets it, fades it, but never fully heals it. Farren wondered if they’ll ever feel healed again, the three of them in that kitchen.

 

 

            The soup was good, thick and creamy, made with cream fresh from Marnie’s ranch and the first crop of pumpkins from a farm to the north. Farren wiped up the last bits of her soup with a piece of Robin’s sourdough.

            “So, he’s standing at the train station staring at the trees and the grass and looking confused as all hell. I was there working on some repairs at the bath house, so I decided to go ask if he needed directions.”

            Sebastian groaned “Mom, Farren doesn’t care.”

            “No, I want to know. It’s nice to hear about him. He sounds like a wonderful man.” Farren was warm from the food and the company, and at that table with Robin and Sebastian she felt at home, at peace. A little rag-tag group of mourners, too far past the funeral date to even dub themselves as mourners. It was the only word that fit, though.

            “He was.” Robin has a far-off smile, so swept up in the memories. “Anyway, I go up and ask if he wants directions. It turned out that he missed his stop by a good hundred miles. I let him stay with me until the next train out. We ended up hitting it off and when he left he promised to call. I didn’t think he would – we had only known each other for a day, there was no reason to feel as connected as I did.

            “But he did end up calling. And visiting. And when he finished studying in Zuzu he moved to Pelican Town to live with me.” Robin reached across the table and pinched Sebastian’s cheek. He batted her hand away. “And then we had this little one.”

            Sebastian was flushed from dinner, pink to the tops of his ears. Robin had told a whole host of stories from when he was little. Farren was an intent listener, ready to fall into place at this table with them. When the time came for her to leave, she didn’t want to go.

            Robin didn’t want her to either. “You can stay in Maru’s bed tonight. Have breakfast with us tomorrow.”

            Farren wrapped Robin in a tight hug. She knew the woman was sturdy, made from stuff stronger than wood, but in her arms she felt small. “I have to get back to the farm.” She had to get back to reality more like it. It scared her: how easily she slipped into their rhythm, how much she wanted to stay. And for more than the night. She didn’t want to love them, didn’t want to open herself up to the heartache.

            “Okay. Bye, sweet girl.”

            “Bye!”

 

 

            Robin and Sebastian were cleaning the plates. She was washing, her hands soapy as she passed a wet plate to Sebastian. He dried them with steady motions. It was a familiar routine; the two often cleaned up after dinner as Demetrius and Maru were more likely to prepare it. As much as Sebastian didn’t want to admit it, it was one of his favorite times: a few spare moments alone with his mother, where they could talk about his father freely.

            That night, though, the conversation was different. Quiet. Both were too wrapped up in their own minds.

            As Sebastian dried the last plate and Robin let the warm water drain out of the sink, she said the first real thing all evening. “That girl’s sad. Too sad for 23. Hell, too sad for 50.”

            “Yeah.” Sebastian stared out into the hall, stared like he could see her on the long mountain road connecting their homes. “I know.”

Chapter Text

            “Okay, I thought you said the Luau was the last summer festival.”

            Haley waved her hands around. “Yadda yadda. I might have fibbed a little. The Moonlight Jelly Festival is way more lowkey, though. No eyeliner required."

            Farren closed her eyes, focusing on the feel of the water lapping against her side. The two were swimming in the small lake on her property, enjoying one of the last warm days of the year. “Do I have to dress up?”

            “Not at all. You can go all ‘farmer chic’.”

            Farren stuck her tongue up at the sky, not that Haley could see. A dragonfly flew by overhead, wings iridescent flashes in the sunlight. “Wouldn’t you want to go with Alex? Watching some bioluminescent jellyfish sounds kind of romantic.”

            “Biolumi-what? And Alex is out.” Haley aimed for disdain, dismissal, but Farren could hear the hurt in her friend's voice.

            “Oh? What happened?”

            Haley grumbled something incomprehensible. Farren waited a few moments, and Haley cleared her throat. “I think I just realized we don’t care about each other. At least not in a real way, a way that matters. Sure, it’s easy and he’s hot, but… I don’t know.”

            “You want something more,” Farren finished. “You deserve more. You deserve someone who’s into you in more than a physical way, Hales. You’re so great.”

            “Thanks, Farren. I guess sometimes I get caught up seeing myself the way other’s see me: just some pretty, shallow girl.”

            Farren almost got up and hugged her. "Yeah, you’re pretty and you like shopping, but you’re also loving, funny, and honest.” Farren stood up, waist-deep in the water. She pantomimed tossing out a fishing line and trying to pull it in. “You’re a catch, Hales.”

            The blonde smiled. “You too.”

 


 

 

            The moonlight jellies Festival was lowkey, and Farren found she preferred it to some of the other festivals she had attended. Everyone was standing in small, isolated groups, watching the water. There wasn't the pressure to chat, dance, or pretend you were having a better time than you were. Haley and Farren had staked out a spot at the end of a pier far away from everyone else. The water was dark, so dark it blended with the night sky to the point where Farren couldn't make out the horizon. Farren’s legs swung over the edge of the pier, toes skimming the water as she kicked her legs.

            “Are you sure you should be doing that?” Haley asked. “We’re out to watch jellyfish… what if you get stung?”

            Farren quickly pulled up her legs and hugged her knees. “You’re not only funny… you’re smart, too. Yoba, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”

            Haley laughed.

  

 

 

            The boat was about to take off. Haley had explained earlier that the light from the boat drew out the moonlight jellies and helped everyone see them as they migrated through the sea. Haley was snapping photos as Lewis released the candle-bedecked boat from the pier by Willy’s shop, capturing the townsfolk in the warm lighting of the flames.

            The light shifted from yellowed-fire to a silvery glow as the jellies began to arrive. The villagers looked on in awe, faces lit up by the bioluminescence. Farren’s eyes were trained on the jellies, and she tried to memorize the feel of this moment, so perfect and pure. She focused on the soft, round jellies in the ocean, the feel of the worn, wooden boards on her bare legs, of Haley next to her, the sound of hushed whispers and the shutter of Haley’s camera, the heady, heavy smell of seaweed and saltwater. The ocean was flecked with glowing jellyfish, almost a reflection of the twinkling stars above. She would exist here, in this instant, forever if she could.

            “Hey.” Sebastian had approached the two girls, his voice soft, as if he didn’t want to disrupt the reverent hush of the festival. “Can I borrow Farren for a moment?”

            Haley waved him off, eager to get back to her pictures. Farren stood, brushing off her hands on her legs. “Lead the way.”

            Sebastian and Farren walked about halfway down the dock until they were in front of a big boulder, a solitary figure breaking through the dark ocean water. All around its base were small, baby jellies. “Oh my gosh! They’re so cute.”

            Sebastian laughed. “I figured you would like it. They baby jellies always seem to find their way to the Lonely Stone.”

            Farren looked up at him inquisitively. “The Lonely Stone?”

            It was hard to tell in the dim lighting, but Farren thought he looked a little pink. “Uh, that’s what I call this rock. When I was younger, my dad used to take me out to the dock, and we’d sit near it and he’d make up stories about the rock. I named it the lonely stone; he had told me the stone left its family deep in the ocean to come see us and I cried the first time he told me. I don’t know why, I just felt so bad for the stone, all alone in a new place with no family.” Farren could feel him shifting, could hear his breathing. “I told him we could be the Lonely Stone’s family. Kinda silly now that I think about it.”

            “I don’t think it’s silly.” Farren’s eyes stung. She told herself it was the spray of the ocean. “I think it’s sweet.”

            Sebastian’s hand brushed against hers. She reached for it, hesitantly, each brush of skin tender and tentative until their fingers were interlocked. His hand was big and warm around hers. They were quiet for a long time, watching the Lonely Stone even as the jellies had left, the townspeople, too.

 


 

 

            Haley had waited for Farren at the beach. Farren, Haley, and Sebastian were now walking back to the farm, talking and laughing and just enjoying the company. They were passing Marnie’s farm when Haley had the brilliant idea to take pictures with Marnie’s cows.

            “Come on, Farren. They’re so cute and you’re a farmer, so you’re supposed to be good at stuff like this. We’ll just hop the fence, pet a cow, and leave.”

            Farren thought Haley had lost her mind. “Aren’t you worried about getting dirty?”

            “Pfft. I went swimming in your murky little pond today-,” Farren interrupted Haley with an offended scoff, “I’m totally pro farm girl now. A little dirt is totally worth petting a cute, fuzzy cow!”

            “Yeah, Farren. Your farm girl status is about to be revoked,” Sebastian joked.

            “I don’t even have a pet! Let alone a cow!” Farren crossed her arms defensively. “I have a vegetable farm.”

            Sebastian and Haley stared at her blankly.

            “A ‘vegetable farm’?”

            “Yeah, have you ever grown a vegetable?”

            Farren’s mouth was dropped open in an ‘o’ shape. “I grew a few parsnips!” Sebastian and Haley laughed. “I don’t like the two of you ganging up on me! Aren’t emos and preps supposed to hate each other?”

            “Stereotyping is totally high school,” Haley said.

            “Yeah, Farren, totally high school.” Sebastian smiled at Haley. Farren guessed they were as surprised as she was that they were getting along. It was made easier by a shared target.

            “Okay," Farren conceded, "let’s go pet a cow.”

 

 

 

            Getting over the fence had been the easy part. Approaching a cow was way harder than either girl had anticipated. Farren was a little scared of the large animals, and Haley kept getting knocked off when she tried to mount one.

            Sebastian had Haley’s camera and was snapping pics, laughing at both girls.

            Farren found a sweet cow and grabbed a fistful of grass from the ground. “Here you go, pretty girl.” The cow started to eat the grass from her hand, its lips and teeth soft against her palm. When all the grass was gone the cow began to lick Farren’s hand, its tongue fat and tickling. Farren laughed. “Haley! This cow is super friendly! I’m sure it’ll let you hop up.”

            Haley approached slowly, and pet the cow’s head for a few moments. She then carefully tried to mount it; Farren gave her a hand up. Once settled on the cow, Haley smiled broadly for the camera.

            “Good job, ladies!” Sebastian called out from behind the camera.

            Farren continued petting the cow, admiring its soft coat and big, brown eyes. “You know, I think I might want a cow one day. She’s so c­–,”

            Farren was cut off as the cow shifted and knocked Haley off. The blonde let out a yelp as she slid off of the cow and fell flat into the mud. Sebastian and Farren were silent as Haley sat up, blinking, covered in mud.

            Just as Farren was about to apologize, Haley started cracking up. She was bent over, slapping the ground, laughing so hard tears pricked her eyes. “Oh. My. Yoba,” Haley panted. “That was hilarious.”

            Farren laughed, too, relieved Haley didn’t seem upset about her surely ruined outfit. She offered a hand to help the blonde up. Haley gripped her arm firmly and yanked, pulling Farren down into the mud with her.

            The farmer gasped, appalled. Seeing Farren covered in mud, stunned on the ground next to her, sent Haley into another fit of laughter. Sebastian joined this time, cackling.

            Farren dug her fingers deeply into the mud. She stood, and walked to the fence. Pouting, she asked, “Help me over? I think I bruised my ass when I landed on the ground.”

            As Sebastian stepped closer to help Farren over, she tossed a fistful of mud right at his chest. It hit with a resounding slop, flecks spraying and splatting on his face. She was giggling, backing away as Sebastian stared at her, a slow grin growing on his face. He hopped the fence quickly, gracefully and began to approach both giggling girls.

            He bent down, scooping up a handful of mud. Leaning conspiratorially toward a cow, he asked, “Who should I go for first, huh Bessie?”

 

 

 

            Covered in mud, that hopefully had a low cow-shit-content, the trio made their way to the farmhouse. Farren made sure everyone was clean before she sent them off. Alone in the farmhouse, she pressed her hand to her chest. Her heart felt full, so full it hurt.

Chapter Text

            The smell of spaghetti and tomato sauce was making Farren nauseous. Every time she cooked the smell would sit and stew in the small farmhouse until the thought of whatever she had just eaten had her stomach clenched. This time, she had made a copious amount of pasta for lunch, and the unfinished pot was sitting on her stove, taunting her.

            She had a vague, half-finished thought. Robin liked spaghetti, right? She could bring the leftovers to Robin. Be neighborly.

            Farren packed up the spaghetti and left before she could second guess herself.

 

 

            She walked in without knocking. Robin looked up from behind her desk, tucked her pencil behind her ear. “Hey, Farren! Have a nice walk?”

            “Always do.” Farren was fidgety, shifting her weight, playing with her hair. Was this a mistake? Was it weird? “I brought you some extra pasta I made. Spaghetti. I remember you saying it was a favorite.”

            Robin’s head cocked to the side as she smiled. “Thank you! Do you want to stay for some tea?”

 

           

            The tea was warm and sweet, ginger and vanilla warming Farren in the deepest parts of her. They were quiet at the table, the sound of the wind in the trees and the creak of the house the only noise between them.

            “So…” Robin started. “You and Sebby are getting close.”

            If there was any implication in her words, Farren missed it. “Yeah.”

            “What’s going on with you two?”

            “He’s easy to be around. It’s an easy friendship.”

            “Hmm.” Robin took a sip of her tea, eyes cast downward. “Easy.”

            “Just… I don’t have to think too much when I talk to him. I hope he feels the same way.”

            “I’m sure he does. I’ve never seen Seb warm up to someone like you.” There was immense fondness, love in Robin’s voice when she spoke about Sebastian. Farren was envious; to have family to love you so purely, to accept you wholly… she had never had that. “Well, maybe except your grandfather.”

            “Oh?” Farren didn’t remember her grandfather much. Her mother had stopped taking her and her siblings to the farm shortly after her eighth birthday. She complained of the commute, but really Farren thought it was because Grandpa was the only one who could read her. There was no lying to Grandpa.

            “Yeah. Everyone loved your grandfather.” Robin reached a hand across the table, grabbed Farren’s. Both women had rough hands, skin tough from hours of manual labor. “I was so happy when you moved in, so happy to see someone bring that farm back to life.”

            “I… I don’t know if I’d say that.” The tea was dark, so dark. Farren was lost staring at it, sitting at the edge of a cliff, leaning, leaning, leaning. The enormity of the property, of her failure, of her future, was looming, swelling, cresting like a wave ready to knock her down, pull her under.

            “I would. Sure, it’s a work in progress, but I know you can do it.” Robin’s hand tightened around Farren’s. She met the redhead’s eyes, so warm and caring. It was a punch in the gut, so hard Farren nearly choked; she imagined the affection in Robin’s eyes as knuckles digging into the soft flesh under her ribs. “Your grandfather used to pay the kids to help with the harvest in summer. He’d give them a dollar coin for every basket of blueberries they’d pick.

            “I remember dropping Sebby off, the whole farm dark with round, ripe berries. They were easy to pick, you gently touch them and if they fall off they’re ready. Sebby would always come home with a hefty pocketful of dollar coins and a stomachache from too many blueberries.” Robin was smiling softly, her eyes crinkled and teary. Farren squeezed her hand back.

            “I’d love to hear more about Seb as a kid. If you want to share.” Farren could almost imagine it: a gap-toothed twelve-year-old, the kind that shot up before the muscle came in, lanky and tall and awkward.

 

 

            At first, it was fine. Robin had led Farren to the attic and brushed an inch of dust off of boxes of photo albums and scrapbooks. It was pictures of Seb, 5 years old, with a pregnant Robin and a grinning Demetrius. It was pictures of a chubby, red-cheeked Maru, small hands fisted around Seb’s long fingers. It was the two in matching pajamas on Winter Feast.

            But then Robin took out a book plastered with thin, worn paper, yellowed and hand bound. It looked older than the rest, revisited more often. Inside were pictures of a young Robin and a tall, dark-haired man Farren had to assume was Sebastian’s father.

            It was the two dating, the two marrying. Robin, pregnant, and his father next to her. There was a small ultrasound; Sebastian was the size of a lima bean. These pictures were so filled with love, with heartbreak, with grief. Farren’s chest felt tight, her stomach full and heavy. She felt like she was violating Sebastian’s privacy, like she was skimming the most intimate parts of him without his permission. Her lips were glued shut as Robin kept flipping through.

            Picture after picture, Farren could almost feel the idyllic happiness of Sebastian’s childhood. Barefoot, chubby, with big, dark eyes and cheeks scrunched up in a smile. Her eyes stick on the last picture. It’s the only one on a big, blank page halfway through the scrapbook and she can feel it like something behind her, like something in the corner of her eye. It’s Sebastian’s dad and Sebastian sitting in the wooden kitchen of this house, the windows cracked, making onigiri with sticky rice and tuna. His father has a stack of perfect, palm-sized onigiri. Sebastian’s small hands and face are covered with rice.

            “This was the last picture I took before…” Robin cleared her throat, voice thick, strained, “before he got sick. I have others, pictures towards the end, but it feels wrong to put them here. To think of him that way.” She shrugged as she looked at Farren. “I want to remember him like this.” She pointed to the lone picture.

            Farren didn’t speak, she didn’t think she could. She could feel a lump in her throat; she felt sick over the heartbreak in Robin and Sebastian’s life, sick over knowing things he didn’t tell her. She selfishly thought that it was better the way Willa went: all at once. There was no waiting, no what-if. She just was and then… she wasn’t.

            Farren reached over and gathered Robin up tightly in her arms. Robin was shaking, but she was quiet. Farren’s heart went out to her: losing your husband young, raising a child, and having to deal with your grief and his… it must’ve been impossible. It must still be impossible. She held her for a while.

 

 

            “I should be going.” Farren was shaky standing up. She offered a hand to Robin.

            Robin gripped it, pulling herself up. “Of course.” The attic stairs let them out in her shop. Robin slid the steps back up, closing the hatch up. “Wait here!”

            Robin disappeared and Farren waited, fidgeting. The house was silent around her, unlike its characteristic groans and creaks; she could hear her blood loud in her ears. She itched like she had been put into her skin and it wasn’t settling quite right. The guilt of perusing Sebastian’s past sat like blood under her nails.

            It wasn’t long before Robin came back, Sebastian in tow. Farren’s stomach constricted. “Seb, walk Farren home. It’s getting dark.” She gave him a playful nudge towards the farmer.

            “That’s okay, Robin. I don’t mind walking back alone.”

            “Nah, Farren, I want to walk you back.” Sebastian smiled softly at her. “Who knows what’s out there.”

            Farren smiled tightly. “Right.”

 

 

            It was almost a habit now, a tradition. Him walking her back to the farmhouse. She told him she thought so.

            “Yeah, you could say that. I like the walk, it’s good to clear your head.” Farren hummed an agreement.

            The sky was darkening, the stars just beginning to poke through. Farren thought her heart was beating so loudly Sebastian could hear it. Farren froze in her steps as she spoke. “I need to apologize.”

            “For what?” He didn’t stop walking.

            “Um, when I visited today your mom started showing me old albums. And – and we looked at the one of you and your dad.” Sebastian stopped; Farren continued on, eyes closed. Maybe it would hurt less if she couldn’t see his face. “I wanted to stop. It felt wrong, to see those parts of your life without your permission. I just– I couldn’t say no. I’m so sorry, Sebastian.”

            He was silent for a moment. Farren’s eyes were closed so tightly they hurt. He was close when he laughed. The sound shocked her eyes open and she was staring at him, watching him laugh in the shadowed, ashy light. “Thanks, Farren.”

            “You’re not… you’re not mad?”

            “No way. It’s really sweet that you didn’t want to learn about things I wasn’t ready to tell you. But, it’s not that I didn’t want to talk to you about it. About him. I just didn’t ever want to bring down the mood.” Farren reached out and grabbed his hand. She looked up at him, eyes wide and so earnest it caught him off-guard. The trees around them seemed so tall they could swallow them up, hide them here forever, and maybe it was that blanket, that shelter that made him want to share suddenly, the words bubbling up and sticking in his throat.

            “I want to listen to you. I want to hear what you have to say. It’s not bringing down the mood. I care about you.” The words were jarring in their honesty, and Farren hurt. Caring about someone seemed wrong, seemed too soon.

            “He wasn’t sick for that long.” They resumed their walk, footsteps easy and quiet. “I was too young to really get that he was sick. He just stopped going to work one day and spent a lot of time at the house in bed, a lot of time with me and mom.

            “I get now that it was cancer. But the whole thing just feels confusing and almost fake, staged, when I think back on it. It was textbook pancreatic cancer: not there until suddenly it was, overbearing and terminal. I didn’t cry at the funeral. I probably didn’t cry for a good two years because I was just waiting for him to come back.

            “I finally got it, that he wasn’t coming back, when Abigail’s grandma died and I realized that her grandma and my dad were gone in a way they couldn’t come back from. I remember sitting in her room with Sam, peeling an orange, when it just suddenly… happened. I still can’t eat oranges. The smell makes me feel unsteady, like I’m falling and can’t pull the parachute.”

            Farren was quiet beside him. There wasn’t anything she could say, wasn’t anything she was supposed to say. They both knew sorry was useless.

            Her farm came up quick, quicker than she had hoped, and they stood in front of it for a while. Impulsively, she wrapped her arms around his waist, pressing her face into his chest. “You’ll be okay. You aren’t damaged.”

            And then she was gone, the door closed behind her.

            Sebastian stood, staring at the closed door and dark windows before heading home.

Chapter Text

            A lightning storm rolled in the first week of autumn and Farren opened her window before she slept to let it in. She liked the sound and smell of rain; when she was younger and it was storming she’d sit outside, wrapped out in a comforter and watch it, rain spraying her face and eyes flashing with each lightning strike. She climbed into bed by seven, body shaking under the covers. Her blanket stilled her limbs. She fell asleep easy.

 

 

            A crack sounded through the farmhouse, followed by a thud that vibrated through the building. Farren jolted up in bed, wet from the rain through the window. The roof was crushed, tree branches breaking through and brushing the floor. Her heart pounded in time with the thunder, or it was so loud it sounded like thunder in her ears. She couldn’t tell the difference.

            Outside, she could see that an old oak tree crashed into her roof, the trunk cracked and singed with lighting, small amounts of flame being put out by the rain as it poured. She had crawled out past the sweeping branches and the smell of burning wood settles into her as she stares, house crushed and collapsed.

            A glance at the sky told her it wasn’t quite six; she set out on the forest path behind her house to Robin’s, barefoot and pajama-clad.

 

 

            Farren was nervous outside Robin’s house. Her feet were scratched and caked in mud and her clothes are wet to the point they’re stuck to her skin. She had been numb until right then, moving without feeling, but seeing herself reflected in the glass panes of the door was a shock to her system. She looked drowned, small. Her knuckles were white, rapping on the glass.

            Maru opened the door. Her eyes widened at Farren. “Shit. Come in.” No questions asked.

            Maru was warm; she made Farren warm too, with a big, dry towel, a cup of cocoa, and a spot by the crackling fire in the living room. “Thanks.” The word fell flat between them, soaked up into the wood floors.

            Maru cleared her throat, her eyes everywhere in the room but Farren. Farren could tell she was uncomfortable; they hadn’t ever been alone. Usually, she’d crack a joke, say something to ease the tension, but in that moment she didn’t have it in her.

            Maru found her voice. “Can I – would it be rude of me to ask what you’re doing here? It’s not even seven.”

            Farren took her in then, really. She had warm, dark skin and kind eyes; she was wearing her nurses uniform, likely about to head to Harvey’s for the day. Farren had interrupted her morning. “Uh, I’m sorry for crashing in on your morning. A tree fell on my house during the storm and I was hoping to get out of the rain and also talk to Robin. I don’t mind waiting.”

            “Shit. Sorry. The storms get pretty bad here.” Maru glances behind her, eyes sweeping from the hall that leads to Robin’s room to the stairs leading to the basement. “Mom should be up soon. I can give you some dry clothes while you wait.”

 

 

            Farren had just about nodded off when Robin walked in.

            “Hey, Farren. I’m sorry about your house.” The woman settled into the couch next to Farren, wrapped a strong arm around the girl’s shoulders. Farren is caught up in that motion and caught up in Robin’s arm. She thinks of the woman and her wood, as sturdy and enduring as the trees. Farren remembers her mother telling her that nature was proof of Yoba, proof of intelligent design: humans were too clumsy to create something so perfect. Farren had always gotten lost staring at trees; they were eternal in her eyes, large, steadfast protectors. She’d hold them so tight she’d scrape her palms on the bark, bleed into it. The urge hit her then: grab onto Robin, hold onto the steadiness.

            Her hands shook as she took out the crumpled mass of bills. It was just shy of one thousand. “This is all I have right now.” Farren hiccupped. “I used a lot to start my fall crops. Please, if you can, take this now and I’ll pay back the rest when I can. I-I just can’t bear it.”

            “Can’t bear what?” Robin was softer than the trees, she was the earth. Farren could plant a seed, could plant her hope in Robin and she would care for it, grow it, nourish it.

            “I can’t bear losing home again.”

           

 

            When Farren left, Sebastian watched her go from the shadow of the stairs. She barely noticed, barely realized the tall dark shadow was more than the cast of dark against the wood. The rain had cleared, the path covered in a thick fog that stuck to her skin, reminding her of the cold desperate walk that morning. She pinched her thigh, hard. Still awake.

            She was caught up in the past, mind bogged down with thoughts of home. When had the Valley become home? She felt a flare of fear, the sharp edge of betrayal. How could anything be home when she was not whole? How could she be at home without Willa? The feeling was a double-edged sword: rolling in her stomach and embracing her simultaneously.

            Home had never been a place for Farren, not really. She found it more in people, in feelings. She found it with Willa, leaning her head on her sister’s shoulder as she painted and hummed. With Haley, in the farmhouse, curled up on her bed. With Sebastian on walks back to the house.

            Her feet and uneasy thoughts brought her to Haley’s doorstep, the painted yellow sun smiling at her. Taunting her Farren stared at it, eyes boring into each extended sunbeam.

            “Farren?” It was Haley. She had a trash bag in one hand, pore strip across her nose. She leaned around Farren tossing the trash out. “What are you doing here?”

            “Can I stay with you for a while?” Farren looked at the ground, at Maru’s old tennis shoes and the frayed bottoms of her borrowed jeans.

            “Of course.” No questions asked. Again. The kindness of the town rushed through Farren’s veins like a drug, lifting her up a little. She pinched her thigh again. That time, it stung.

            Haley lead her into her room, sat her down on the bed. “Do you want a pore strip?” She didn’t wait for an answer as she gets one ready. Farren was putty in Haley’s hands as she sponged water on Farren’s nose and pressed the strip down, smoothing the edges.

            Haley didn’t stop there. She climbed up onto the bed behind Farren and brushed the farmer’s hair until it was silky. She proceeded to braid it, her fingers practiced and meticulous. They didn’t speak, didn’t have to. Something soft and acoustic was playing through the room and Haley had turned on some soft pink string lights. The feel of Haley’s fingers on her scalp was soothing, and Farren wondered how she was holding everything together. How she could be so caught up in a moment. She was malleable and the town helped her find shape; she was passed from person to person until someone could help; Maru to Robin to Haley.

            She was warm, so warm, like the sun above the door.

 

 

            When Farren woke on Haley’s couch, she felt nothing. The sunshine from the night before had evaporated. She pinched herself hard on her thigh to make sure she was awake, the touch just barely registering. She shook her hands, shook herself, focused on the feeling of her pulse, the sheets on her skin.

            Her dream had felt real, in the same ethereal, distorted way of a memory. She was young, ten maybe, walking behind Willa. Their hands were clasped between them, and Willa was pulling her through a crowd toward something big. Farren could feel that cheeky comfort, the deep-seated happiness of being near her twin, of being in sync. Suddenly, Willa had been ripped out of her grip, pulled farther ahead out of sight. Farren’s feet were cemented to the floor and she searched the crowd for the familiar brown hair.

            The strangers grew nearer. Their hair brushed against Farren’s wet cheeks, their clothes were brushing against her skin. They pressed in so tight she couldn’t breathe. Choking on tears and hair and breath she woke up on Haley’s couch, lurching off and onto the floor. The fear and complete loneliness from the dream was real and lingering.

            Emily found her like that: clutching her knees on the floor. She helped Farren up, brought her to the table, made tea. They sat like that for a while, until Farren’s tea went cold in her hands. Emily asked if she was okay and Farren said she wasn’t and the conversation was dropped.

 

 

            A week passed before Robin called saying the house was ready. There was a Farren shaped imprint on the couch and Haley waved goodbye from the front door until Farren couldn’t see the house anymore.

Chapter Text

            “Oh my Yoba, how did you not notice walking up?”

            “Yeah, Farr, you must be the most oblivious person ever.”

            “Seriously! It’s like three times the size.”

            Farren’s head was reeling; she tried to laugh, but it came out a little choked. Her farmhouse – or at least what she thought was her farmhouse – was full of people. Robin and Jodi had just left, leaving Shane, Abby, Sam, Haley, and Sebastian behind. Sebastian was nursing a beer in the corner, Shane was propped up next to the TV, fiddling with the bunny ear antennas on the old TV. Abby, Sam, and Haley were sitting on the floor near Farren, chattering amiably.

            It had been just shy of an hour since she walked in, just shy of an hour since seven people surprised her with a newly upgraded house and a party. The whole town had chipped in money, help, and furniture, and Farren’s friends had pooled together money and gifts to have a house-christening party. Farren thought she might cry. She felt so loved in that moment, she could feel everyone there, could feel them filling up the farmhouse. She was full, brimming with contentment for that brief moment; the town wanted her, the town wanted her.

            She was full, happy. Why couldn’t that be it? She could feel something constricting in the back of her mind, like a caress at the nape of her neck. Some nagging feeling that it was wrong. That something was about to happen, something irreversible, groundbreaking. There was expectation, anticipation, sour in her mouth.

            Farren straightened up, getting off the floor. “Can I get you guys anything?”

            After a chorus of nos from those in her living room, Farren made her way to the newly expanded kitchen. Gus had given Robin his old stove, which was as fresh as a daisy compared to the rusted-shut contraption she had before, and Farren’s eyes stuck on it when she got there.

            “Need some air?” Sebastian’s tone tried for light, but Farren heard something more. Something guarded.

            “Shocking, I know, considering how much more air there is in this place now.” Farren looked down at her feet on the newly tiled floor. She glanced up at Sebastian; he wasn’t looking at her. “Thank your mom, again. I can’t even express how grateful I am.”

            “I will.” Sebastian nudged her with his elbow. “It must be nice: having indoor plumbing and a bedroom you can’t see from the kitchen.”

            Farren laughed, eyes straying to the bedroom door. “You have no idea.”

            “Mm, I think I might. My history class in high school did cover the shift in the Valley to indoor plumbing. You’re about… fifty years behind schedule.”

            Farren stuck her tongue out at him. The tightness had lessened. It was always so easy to relax, to fall into Sebastian’s presence. He made her feel small; like he was the ocean and she was pulled under, idly lead by the currents.

            “So, what’s up?” His voice had taken on a near indiscernible edge.

            “How do you mean?” Sinking, sinking, sinking.

            “I mean, I saw you walking up to the house. You were so lost in your own head that you didn’t notice your house was different.” He pushed a restless hand through his hair. It fell to his waist, fidgeted the hem of his shirt, slipped into his pocket. “You have a good mask, Farren. It’s hard to tell what you’re thinking. But your eyes are a tell-tale. They’re so big maybe they can’t help but be expressive. But tonight… tonight trying to read them was like trying to look through an icy window.”

            Farren pulled back, stepped away. It felt like she broke through the surface, suddenly cold and gasping for air. “Maybe you should stop trying to read me.” She left him in the kitchen, sat on the floor between her friends.

 

 

            “Farren, you are so pretty.” Haley was beyond slurring her words at that point. The syllable stresses were all off and it was hard to differentiate one word from another, but Farren understood the sentiment all the same.

            “Haley, you’re so pretty.” Her words were clearer, but not by much. She was only a few shots behind. She and Haley were lying belly-up on her living room floor, staring at the new wood beams of the ceiling. It was a little unsteady, a little fizzy, and the feeling settled into her gut. She shaped words silently with her lips, practicing so they didn’t fall flat, didn’t sink.

            Haley rolled onto her side, nuzzled her head against Farren’s shoulder. “I love you. You’re so nice and strong and you bring me stuff when I put stuff on the request board and…” She kept rambling, and Farren nodded, trying to keep up but it sent the whole world spinning.

            “Haley, Haley,” Farren put a finger over Haley’s lips, “shhhh. It’s okay. I know. You too.” Where Haley was a supportive, sentimental drunk, Farren was incisive.

            They lay there like that for a while, staring at the dark beams streaked across her ceiling, arms and legs a mess. Farren was stable, solid in the arms of her friend. She didn’t feel like she was going to wash away.

 

 

            Farren was almost sobered up two hours and a few cups of coffee later. She went outside for fresh air, head swimming from body heat and too much tequila. The farm soothed her; looking out at the infinite, velvet sky, and her cluttered, rolling fields she felt the vast peace of the valley. If she closed her eyes she could focus on one thing at a time: the feel of the freshly sanded wood porch under her feet, the taste of crisp, night air, the sound of fall leaves rustling and skittering along the ground, the smell of sawdust and smoke.

            Her eyes popped open. Smoke.

            She whirled, a bit too hard, a bit too fast, and had to clutch the rail of the porch to steady herself. Leaned against the side of the house was Sebastian, taking a drag from a fresh cigarette. The smoke and the wood reminded her of his bedroom in the house of wood: almost stale, sitting on his clothes, in his sheets.

            “Party get to be too much?” His voice was polite, distant.

            Farren’s gut clenched. It was her fault, she reminded herself, she’s the one who snapped. “Party’s died down. I just needed the air.”

            He nodded.

            “Being in there felt like a little too much; the new space and the people. Maybe I had too much.” She picked at her nails, looked up at him through her lashes.

            “Maybe you didn’t have enough.”

            She laughed, though she wasn’t sure he was joking.

            Whatever was between them felt slackened, the usual tension faded and weak. She could feel the loss in her stomach, rolling and lonely. “Hey, um,” she cleared her throat, “I’m sorry about earlier. I get defensive sometimes.”

            “S’okay.” He took another hit, blew a smoke ring at her. He laughs at her startled face; she laughs too. He does it again.

            “Woah!” Farren leaned against the house next to him, arms brushing. “You know, Willa can do that too! She’s actually – shit, uh, Willa could do that. She was pretty good at it.”

            Silence settled around them, the wind in the trees the only thing audible over Farren’s heart pounding in her ears, so loud she swore Sebastian could hear it. “Shit, Sebastian, I’m sorry. I always make it awkward. Sheesh, what’s wrong with me?”

            “Farren– “

            “I mean, Yoba, acting like your dead sister is alive over a year later?” Farren laughed harshly. It was hysterical, jagged. “Talk about delusional.”

            “Farren.”

            “I do it a lot though, you know? Like, see shit I think she’d like and send it to her email. It’s not till I hit send or it bounces back that I realize she won’t read it. I’m a shit show, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sor-“

            “Farren!” Sebastian’s voice was so firm it stopped Farren in her tracks. He wrapped his arms around her, held her tight to his chest. She was shaking against him. “Please don’t apologize. I’m so sorry.” His hand was at her neck, stroking her hair. “I know. I know sorry doesn’t do it, but I am. I’m sorry you have to deal with this loss, and I’m sorry for whatever happened to make you feel bad about experiencing it.”

            “Right-o, my dude.” She jerked away. Her eyes were glassy in the glimpse that he caught, but she was back inside, door slamming behind her before he could say anything. Typical Farren, she thought bitterly, pulling away when you meant to draw near.

 

 

            It was quiet when Sebastian woke, nothing but the soft, sleepy breaths and the bubble of the percolator. Farren was barefoot in the kitchen, brewing coffee so black he can smell it, thick and bitter.

            “Can I have a cup?” His voice was hushed, careful not to break the silence, his steps to the kitchen cautious and measured.

            She was silent as she poured a cup, another. She passed one to him. It was so early the sky was still dark, just a little faint dawn where the sun’s about to crest the horizon. The anticipation hung heavy off of his ribs, spooling and spilling into his gut. The coffee was so bitter he winced as it went down, Farren watching over the lip of her mug.

            “Want to watch the sunrise? It’s going to happen soon.” Farren was hiding behind her mug still, her free hand rubbing rhythmically along her collarbone. Her fingertips strayed to her breast bone, settled above her heart. “I can feel it right here, something swelling, just about to burst.”

            Sebastian was acutely aware of his own heart beating harder, harder. “Yeah.”

           

            Pre-dawn on the farm was beautiful, the light at the edge of the horizon quivering with anticipation of the sun about to break past the horizon barrier. The two sat so close their legs touched. Sebastian had finished off his coffee, only dregs remaining. Farren’s had gone cold in her hand. In the soft light Farren looked like a ghost; unsteady and watery at the edges, like if he reached out to grab her she might spook, might sink into the mist and the dew and dissipate.

            Autumn lingered like a cold hand cupping the valley, drying out the trees and sending multi-colored senescing leaves hurtling across the farm. “I can’t believe it’s fall already. Time keeps moving faster.” Without Willa. She didn’t need to add it, he heard it all in her voice.

            “It does. Winter is slow though. Everything seems to move at half-speed in cold.”

            Farren hummed a silent agreement, eyes trained on the horizon. The bright yellow sun had just begun to peek over, so vibrant it was near orange. “I’m sorry about last night.” She blew air out through her lips. “I just get… flustered.”

            Sebastian looked at her. Her dark lashes cast shadows on her cheeks, and her freckles looked like constellations he could map, and he was so overcome with longing that he had to cross his arms, tuck his hands under them. It was there, warm and low: he wanted to kiss her. “Don’t apologize. I get it.”

            She got it, too. “Time keeps moving faster. It’s going to be gone before we finish blinking.” She squinted up at him. “Don’t you want to go? Leave Pelican Town?”

            Sebastian was caught off guard. “Yeah.” It was knee-jerk, visceral, and the answer he’s recited over and over again. “I want to get a programming job in Zuzu.”

            Farren looked away from him, back at the sun rising and rising. “Then do it. If you keep waiting for the ‘right time’, it will never come.”

            The words sunk heavy in his gut. Stones tossed into a still pond. He felt sick and sad at the thought of leaving the valley, lonely at the thought of a city with perfect strangers.

            “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

Chapter Text

            “You know,” Sam gestured with his fry, ketchup splattering on the table, “you’re still pretty city-girl for a farmer.”

            Farren wrinkled her nose at him. It was late Friday, Farren, Sam, and Sebastian were tucked into a booth in the Saloon, a heaping plate of fries sat between them. Abigail had been sick all week and had to miss their Friday tradition; Farren had been worried that without Abby as a buffer, the conversation would fall flat. It hadn’t. “How do you mean?” Farren popped a fry into her mouth.

            Sam spoke around a mouthful. “Well, for starter’s, you’re still scared of bugs.” He held up one finger.

            “They’re gross!”

            “Then, your farm is… not so farm-like.” Two fingers.

            “You got me there.” Farren thought about the sad state of her farm.

            “You still think Pelican Town is the backcountry.” Three fingers.

            “It isn’t?”

            Sebastian laughed this time. “Definitely not.”

            “Definitely not,” Sam agreed. “You’ve never camped. That’s four.”

            “Since when is camping a prerequisite?” Farren was indignant. She dunked a fry angrily in the ketchup.

            “Since forever!” Sam was laughing now, waving his four fingers in the air, not bothering to try and hush himself. The crowd had grown quieter as the night went on, most of the patrons leaving. They were the only customers left aside from Shane, who was talking with Emily across the bar. “Probably not last, but the last I can think of right now, you order craft beer. You get that weird city shit with fruit in it and it just,” he slapped his hand on the table for emphasis, all 5 fingers extended, “it doesn’t make sense.”

            Farren gaped.

            “Craft beer is kind of snobby,” Sebastian said, looking at her as he sipped on his beer.

            “Once you go craft you never go back!”

            “City girl,” Sam sang.

            “Fine.” Farren looked around the Saloon, eyes catching on the tall, wooden grizzly. “What would help prove that I’m more country than city now?”

            Sam pretended to ponder the question. Sebastian was smiling at her, just the right side of his mouth tugged up; their knees brushed under the table. “Come camping with me and Sebastian this weekend.”

            Farren waited, letting the idea simmer. They finished off the plate of fries, banter light and easy between them. As they left the Saloon, she said, “Sure. Camping. Just tell me when and where.”

 


 

            The morning of the hike was crisp and cool, the autumn foliage a kaleidoscope of reds and yellows. The breeze elicited goosebumps on the back of Sebastian’s neck. He and Sam stood on Farren’s porch, waiting for her to come out. The lights of the farmhouse were dark. “You don’t think she’s asleep right?”

            “No way, man.” Sam didn’t sound as sure as his words.

            The door opened and she was there, standing in front of them, hair twisted back into twin braids, small strands escaping and framing her face. Her pack looked bigger than she was. Her shorts showed off more of her legs than Sebastian thought he had ever seen, just skimming the tops of her thighs, thighs and legs so long, long, long. His eyes are stuck on the line of muscle running up the side of her calf, her thigh, disappearing into the hem of her shorts.

            “Hey, Farr!” Sam was chipper early in the morning, surprisingly. Sebastian suspected caffeine was involved. “Are you ready?”

            Farren smiled, so warm that it hurt to look at. Sebastian was caught staring at her mouth as she answered. “Ready as I’ll ever be. Gotta prove to you country boys that I’m a full-fledged small-town girl now.” She held up her hand in mock salute.

            The trio made their way across Farren’s farm, heading towards Cindersap Forest. The ground was uneven and weedy, and soon enough they were passing Marnie’s. “So, where exactly are we camping?” Farren asked.

            “It’s a secret.” Sam was grinning, almost bouncing on his heels. Camping was one of his favorite things; Sebastian knew he wouldn’t readily admit it, but he found nature and the quiet a welcome distraction from the hecticness of his home. Sam, Abby, and he had been camping at the same place every summer since they were fifteen.

            “It’s this clearing we found back in high school.” Sebastian filled Farren in. “It’s deeper into the woods than most people go, past that old, dilapidated house in the south of the forest and into the really dense part of the wild. The trees are so thick you almost can’t see the sun.”

            “Oh!” Sam reached into his pack, nearly toppling over at the shift in weight. “I almost forgot. Since we are going deeper into the woods, you should take this.” He passed Farren an aerosol spray bottle, hefty and black.

            Farren held it in her hands, contemplated for a bit, before asking, “Mace?” She tossed it from one hand to another. “Unless you guys are planning on abandoning me in the woods, I don’t think I need mace.”

            “It’s not mace.” Sebastian was holding back a laugh.

            “It’s bear spray.” Sam was nonchalant.

            Farren sputtered, stopping in her tracks. “Bear spray? As in… to spray a bear with?”

            “It’s not common, but there are bears deeper in the woods,” Sebastian noted. “Grizzlies, actually.” The three began to make their way deeper into Cindersap. Farren’s shoulders were noticeably tenser, her knuckles white around the black cannister. “If one starts charging just spray this in two-second bursts and the bear should leave.”

            “Shit.” Farren’s eyes were wide; Sebastian could see her whole iris, from the dark outer rim to the small, light, starburst center. She was beautiful, even scared. His chest constricted.

            “Don’t worry.” Sebastian wanted to reach out, smooth the crease between her brows with his fingers. “In the past eight years, we’ve never seen a bear.”

            “Yeah.” Sam cackled. “We’ve only seen the tracks.”

 

            It was a different kind of wood than Farren was used to. The trees were packed so densely it was dusk under the canopy, the light filtered and dim even at mid-day. The ground was dark, packed earth, covered with tawny, rotting pine needles. The smell of the green and decay was sharp in her nose, and her heart fluttered at each sunspot, areas where the foliage was sparse, and the sun came down in honey gold streams. In the pools of sunlight, grass and flowers burst up, knee high.

            “How much farther is it to the campsite?” Farren shifted her pack on her back. She thought she would have been more tired – they had been walking for three hours at least. Farming had done wonders for her muscle and stamina.

            “I ask the same thing every year.” Sebastian was a little red, his breathing a little deeper. Spending your day programming wasn’t the most physically taxing activity.

            Sam laughed. He was ten feet ahead of Farren and Sebastian, his steps growing larger and faster the deeper into the woods they got. “Probably only another ten minutes.”

            The sound of a twig snapping echoed throughout the forest. The birds fell silent. Farren could hear her heart, Sebastian’s breathing. “Was that a bear?” She inched closer to Sebastian, grabbed his hand tightly.

            The birds started chirping again. “We’re fine.” Sam kept walking.

            “Don’t worry, Farren.” Sebastian’s gaze was intense. Farren couldn’t keep it; she looked down to the ground. “You can definitely outrun me.”

            Farren laughed, then squinted, peering into the trees. Through breaks in the trunks she could see something bright, reflective. Her hand tightened around Sebastian’s; his tightened in response. “What’s that up ahead?”

            Sebastian squinted too. “Looks like water. That’s a good sign. We’re close.” He picked up the pace, his long legs carrying him faster than Farren could keep up with, their arms tugging taut between them. They started jogging, the light reflecting off of water glittering through the trees.

            They broke through the tree line into a clearing. Ahead was a cliff, a rock ledge jutting out of a rising mountain, and a large, crystalline lake. All around were wildflowers, brushing against Farren’s calves. Farren’s breath caught in her chest; it was so beautiful.

            She dropped Sebastian’s hand and started to run, her feet falling heavy on the delicate earth until the soft thud of dirt and grass turned into the crunch of pebbles. She stared out at the water. “The water is so clear!”

            Sebastian was at her side. “Yeah.”

            “It’s obscene!” She looked up at him, eyes wide with childlike awe. In the soft sunshine, Sebastian’s skin looked warm, almost golden. He was smiling down at her. She smiled back.

 

            Sam had finished setting up the tent and the three of them had changed into their swimsuits. They were standing at the top of the small cliff, the lake still and glassy underneath them. Farren was looking at Sebastian out of the corner of her eye, her eyes following the long line of his spine, sticking to his lightly muscled arms. She pressed a hand to her cheek to feel if it was warm.

“Okay,” Sam stretched his arms behind his head, “who wants to jump first?”

            “I’ll go.” Farren stepped forward to the edge, stared at the sheer drop. Her heart should have been pounding at the thought, but it was still, steady. She glanced at Sebastian over her shoulder. Her heart picked up, stuck on a beat for too long. She had jumped before she turned back around.

            The fall felt like it lasted forever, her stomach rising in her throat, the air whipping past her. She kept her eyes open the whole way down, watched the sky blur into the horizon, watched the world fall around her. It felt shockingly like grief, familiar and heavy and unsettling. Her gut felt tight; it was the same looming feeling of the phone call telling her about the accident, the sound of her phone hitting the floor, the heavy silence of her friends in her apartment after the funeral.

            Suddenly she was in the water, cold, shocking her out of the freefall limbo her thoughts had been trapped in. She realized how quick it had been as she sank to the bottom of the lake, hugged her knees to her chest, released her breath in a slow stream of bubbles floating up. The lake was deep and dark and staring up at the light sparkling on the surface, Farren felt sick. She felt like she was crying; if she was the tears were lost to the water.

            Falling had been like the light refractions coming down through the water, bits and pieces of a feeling that could be pieced together into a memory, a moment. Farren stretched her limbs, moved them, propelled herself upwards.

            When she broke through the water, she took a loud, gasping breath, the oxygen rushing to her head. Her eyes stung and she wanted to cry, to sob. She felt like a newborn: raw and tender, propelled out of the quiet dark and into the bright world.

            “Farren!” Sam’s voice sounded far away. “You okay?”

            She began to swim toward shore, clearing the spot under the cliff. “I’m good!”

 

            Sebastian and Farren were floating near each other, she could hear the gentle swish of his limbs through the water. Sam had gone back up to the cliff to jump off again.

            Farren cleared her throat, stood up in the water. It came up to just below her collarbone. “Tell me something about yourself.” The words were cumbersome, awkward, chafing in the peacefulness of the clearing.

            “Huh?” Sebastian stood now too, watching her.

            “Um…” Farren could feel her cheeks flushing, she could feel it bloom in her cheeks, spread to her ears, down her neck. She couldn’t look him in the eyes. “I want to know more about you.”

            “Okay. Sure.” Sebastian settled into the water. “I’m a Sagittarius.”

            Farren splashed him with water.

            Sebastian held up his hands in mock surrender, laughing. “I’m serious!” He waded a bit closer to Farren. “When I was like thirteen and Maru was eight, she was really into astronomy. It was her birthday and I got her an astrology book.” Sebastian lowered his eyes, embarrassed. “She still liked it though, even though it wasn’t quite what she wanted. She read it and came and told me all about our compatibilities and my horoscope.

            “I wanted to hug her in that moment, to never let her grow up. She was so small, so bright-eyed. I knew that when we got older, she would stop seeing me as her infallible older brother. She’d realize that I was human. And I guess – I guess I wanted to be more than that for her; I wanted to be worthy of being someone she looked up to.”

            Farren was quiet for a moment. She let it settle, before responding. “I think you are. Worthy.” She waded closer to him, rested a hand on his arm. “She’s lucky to have had you as a brother.”

            Sebastian laughed harshly, without humor.

            “I’m serious. You’re smart, hardworking, self-motivated, kind…” Farren trailed off. “Maru’s lucky to have you in her life. So am I.”

            Sebastian stared at her. She shifted, swam away a bit. “Tell me something about yourself.”

            “Do you know what Farren means?”

            Sebastian shook his head.

            “It means to wander.” Her voice was steady, slow. “Yet I’ve never wandered a day in my life. Willa was always the adventurous, passionate one. I was practical, predictable. I used to tell myself I’d wander wherever she went. It feels like too much to bear alone, now. If anyone was a wanderer, was okay alone, it was her.”

            She heard Sebastian take a breath, swim closer to her. “You’re a wanderer. I mean, look at yourself. You wandered all the way here.” He reached out and brushed a hair between her ear. “And I think you’re more than the predictable one. You’re passionate. I–,” Sebastian stopped, looked away, “I don’t think I’ve met anyone more so. You throw yourself into everything. You feel things so strongly.”

            His eyes were framed with dark, wet lashes and Farren was staring. They were a breath apart, a moment apart.

            “Cowabunga!” Sam jumped off the top of the cliff, canon-balling into the lake. Water sprayed onto Sebastian and Farren, and they pulled apart, laughing.

           

            The three of them had built a campfire and had eaten a fire-roasted dinner. Farren was picking out bits of burnt marshmallow from her teeth, Sebastian was smoking a cigarette, and Sam was playing something acoustic and slow.

            “You know, for country boy shit, that songs not too bad.” Farren leaned back on her hands, the grass soft under her palms.

            Sam let out an indignant cry. “Please don’t tell me you think this is country boy shit.” Farren raised an eyebrow; Sam looked at Sebastian, pleading. “Seb!”

            “Sam is right. This is for sure not country boy shit.”

            Farren let out a breath, blowing hair out of her face. It had dried in long loose, waves after their dip in the lake. “Anything acoustic is country boy shit.”

            Sam made a noise that sounded shockingly like a whimper. “You, Farren, are uncultured.”

            Farren stuck out her tongue. “You can call me uncultured, but I’m not the one who was playing country boy shit at a campfire.” The smell of burning wood and earth was comforting. The sky was dark, the moon full and luminous. Farren was content, sitting by the bonfire with good company. “Since you guys were bashing me for some ‘city-girl’ habits, I brought a treat…” Farren reached behind her and pulled out a six-pack. “Craft beer.”

            “You didn’t.” Sam sounded somewhere between disgusted and intrigued.

            “Oh, I did. I had Pierre order this from Zuzu: it used to be my favorite.” Farren passed a can to each of the guys. “Don’t bash it before you try it.”

            They were quiet as they opened the can, took a sip. “It’s good.” Sebastian took another long drink. “Shit. I wish it wasn’t good.”

            Farren looked smug, a shit-eating grin plastered on her face.

            Sam was crest-fallen. “I can’t believe it’s good.”

            “Cheer up, buttercup.” Farren scooted closer to the blonde, nudged him with her arm. “Gus’ is a close second.”

            Sam perked up. “True! Gus does have good shit.”

            Farren stared at the blonde for a moment, eyes lingering on his sharp jaw, his big, pretty eyes. “You know, I think you and Haley would get along pretty well.”

             “Oh man,” Sebastian said. “Oh man.”

            “Stop, Seb!” Sam was beet red.

            “You should not have said that.” Sebastian smiled at Farren across the fire.

            “Why?”

            “Sam had the fattest crush on Haley in high school.”

            “No!” Sam looked like he wanted to hide under the nearest rock. “I didn’t!”

            “Yes. He did.” Sebastian was laughing, clutching his stomach.

            Farren was laughing now too. “How cute! High school unrequited love.” Sam swatted her hand away as she reached over to pinch his cheek. “For real though, I could set you guys up. I really think you’d hit it off.”

            “Yeah.” Sam tried for nonchalance. “That’d be cool.”

 


 

            The night was peaceful, quiet. Farren slept well sandwiched between her two friends in the tent, and when they left the next day, she was sad to leave the clearing behind. They dropped her off at the farm, and Sam made his way back towards town. Sebastian lingered for a moment. They stared at each other for a second, the breath between a moment, before she broke it off. “Bye, Sebastian. Thank you."

            He just smiled.

Chapter Text

            “They’re pretty good, huh?” Haley’s eyes were twinkling, caught on Sam in his roughed-up denim jacket, shredding his guitar and wailing into the microphone. She was leaning against the bar, close to the stool Farren was sitting on hip brushing Farren’s knee. They were close enough to the make-shift stage that Farren could see sweat beading on Sam's forehead.

            Farren nodded. “Yeah.” Her head was full of cotton and her vision went a little with the movement. She was all sorts of worn out: her day had been spent harvesting pumpkins and trying to shake the dread she’d been feeling all day. Abby's snare hit on each downbeat and Farren could hear her heart beating along, like a ticking bomb.

            She took a sip of her water and tried to smooth out all the roughness. She ran a hand over the skirt of her dress, rubbed her jaw, working out the tension. Stress has set her whole body like rigor mortis: jaw, joints, muscles all locked up and tight.

            She’d been watching him all night. Abby and Sam were vigorous, violent with their instruments, all head-banging and thrashing limbs, but Sebastian was placid, steady at the piano, an island in the raging sea. Their music was kind of alternative, kind of punk, a hybrid of rock and piano. The kind of indie shit her friends back in Zuzu would have eaten up.

            The thought made her queasy. “I’m going to head to the bathroom. Be right back.”

            Even though it was just the Saloon, the trip to the bathroom felt unfamiliar. Emily had decked the place out for the show: dimmed the lights and hung reflective streamers all down the walls so the familiar warm wood is silver and cool. Farren’s head pounded in time with the pulsating lights Emily had rigged up.

            She braced her hands on either side of the sink. Her head was dipped as she breathed through her nose, staring at the distorted mirror-image of herself on the sink head. She turned on the faucet. Breathed again.

            She wet her fingers, placed them on the back of her neck. She was all kinds of flushed, could feel the beer and half a pretzel rolling in her stomach. Her hands were wrapped around the sink again, white-knuckled, as her stomach lurched. Hard.

            She closed her eyes and focused on the cool smooth of the ceramic, counted her breaths. Each one was the stroke of a paintbrush, covering the tumult with calm, quiet blue. She could see it: blue paint running through her veins. It had been at least ten minutes, but the shaky, startled feeling had lost its edge.

            Farren turned off the faucet and heads back towards the bar. The band had just started a new song as she slid back onto her stool.

            “You okay?”

            Farren glanced at Haley. She was still staring at Sam, but her hand is gentle on Farren’s. “I’m fine. What’d I miss?”

            “Nothing much. They just started another original. Sam said it was new. Sebastian wrote it.” Haley nudged her softly in the side.

            Farren’s ears perked up. The beginning was instrumental: just piano and guitar. Abby came in on the drums, and Sam kicked it up a notch, jumping and hitting the guitar louder, faster. When he stepped up to the mic it felt like time slowed for a second, lagged just a little.

            “All these familiar faces, familiar places are haunting me.” His voice was raw, clear. Farren shivered, leaning closer to listen.

            “My mind erases my safest spaces

            and I can’t breathe.

            She sees in me who I want to be
            And it keeps me up at night.

            Lidded eyes and starry skies,

            I’m falling, won’t put up a fight.”

            The guitar and drums fell away for a beat, just Sebastian on the piano, steady and melodic. Everything kicked back in all at once, pulsing drums and heavy guitar, the chorus upbeat and loud.

            “Woah, I’m going down

            and woah I start to drown.

            I’m all choked up and out of fear

            I wonder if she knows I’m here.

            Too young, too dumb to let go;

            I wonder, wonder if she knows.”

           

            Farren’s ears were ringing as Haley and her waited for the band to pack up their stuff. Abby was the first one to go, lugging her drum set out on a set of wheels, waving goodbye to the two girls waiting by the door. Her face was pink from exertion, a sheen of clean sweat shining on her forehead.

            Sam was next, his guitar strapped to his back. “What’d you guys think?”

            “You guys were so good,” Haley gushed. She was twirling a strand of long, blonde hair around her finger, biting her lip. “Your voice is, like, wow.”

            Sam grinned down at her. “Thanks, Haley. Mind if I walk you home?”

            Haley glanced at Farren. “It’s cool, Hales. See you both soon.”

            “Cool.” Haley looked up at Sam. “Let’s go rockstar.”

            Farren watched them walk away. She could hear them laughing from the stoop of the Saloon, could see their silhouetted figures hold hands in the moonlight.

            “Farren.”

            She looked up; Sebastian was next to her, his keyboard bag slung over his shoulder. “Hey, Sebastian. I was wondering if I could walk you home.”

            His face was unreadable as he nodded.

 

            It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but as she walked him up through the park to the mountains it seemed anything but. Silence was heavy and awkward between them and Farren’s hands were restless, scratching at any available skin. She was sure she’d have red patches when she got home.

            It was a cold night and their breath billowed out in front of them in new-white puffed clouds. Farren could imagine that cold chilling her farmhouse, frosting the windows. The morning before she had woken up to ice-crystals on the skylight above her bed. She knew Sebastian’s room would be warm, the whole house would; cold nights like these stopped at the stoops of well-made houses.

            She closed her eyes for a moment, her mascara-heavy lashes weighed down on her cheeks. “So, what did you think of our music?”

            Farren starts out of her thoughts. “Oh! Um…” Her mind is racing, all the words just out of reach.

            Sebastian shifts, raising a hand to the back of his neck. “It’s okay if you didn’t like it. I know it’s not really everyone’s thing.”

            “No!” Farren had nearly yelled. “I did like it. I really loved that song Sam said you wrote.” She was worrying her hands between her, fingers running over cuticles and pressing at blisters. “It, um, it reminded me of the first time you walked me home.”

            Sebastian cleared his throat, shifted his hands into his pockets. “It was kind of based on that conversation. At least parts of it.” She waited for him to finish, wanted to give the words time to air out, space to grow. He didn’t.

            “Nice.”

            Their steps fell into the same rhythm the rest of the way back.

 

            After she dropped him off, Farren headed for the train station. Deep in the pocket of her coat was a ticket, folded and unfolded so many times it nearly broke in half. The train came hurtling into the station, screeching to a halt almost too late, almost all the way through the second tunnel. It moved too quickly for an old train, all rusted iron and cracked leather seats. She climbed on and settled into a seat, her head rattling against the window. It started to rain after a while, the beads roll down the window, and Farren felt a curious mix of cozy and bored, itching with anticipation and sick dread for the train to pull up into the last stop on the line.

 

            Zuzu was everything Pelican Town wasn’t: ubiquitous skyscrapers and smog, neon electricity, angry drivers, and angrier pedestrians. There were trees lining the street Farren walked on, anemic and skinny, some big-wig’s attempt at sprucing up the city. It was colder there than in the Valley, too, farther from the ocean. Faren knew that the bone-chilled feeling wasn’t exclusive to the colder months: it was familiar and enduring, fueled by the chemical, counterfeit happiness.

            Her boots thud on the cracked cement sidewalk, and she can’t help but think back to this time last year. Instead of dull thuds, there were sharp, stiletto clicks as she walked from work to her apartment, her legs prickled in the cold under the thin fabric of her slacks. Her legs were bare now, she was still in her dress from the Saloon, but she couldn’t feel the chill.

            It was all a distorted kind of familiar: the flashing ‘open’ signs, colored awnings, blank stares from passing strangers. Less vibrant though; it was all blacks and grays compared to the farm’s bright blues and greens.

            Dawn broke, a watery, pallid sunrise just taking hold, when she arrived at the cemetery. The gates were black wrought-iron and tall, higher than the tallest building in Pelican town. She pushed it open with a tentative hand.

 

            The grave was still new compared to the ones on either side, the lawn well cared for and manicured. Someone had lit a candle, left a bundle of flowers. Farren hoped it had been her parents.

            She sat, criss-cross on the grass, patted the earth gently. She reached into her pocket, pulls out a crumpled fairy rose and a packet of ginger tea, Willa’s favorite. She tore off the petals, spread them at the base of the headstone, ripped open the tea sachet and sprinkled the dry tea leaves there too.

            “Hey, Willa. Happy birthday.”

            Crickets, a silence so loud it hurt Farren’s ears. She wanted to reach up and cover them with her hands, tuck her head between her knees and cry, but she’d cried too much already. She didn’t know if there are any tears left in her.

            “I wanted to come and visit. It’s our twenty-fourth birthday. Crazy, right?” Farren’s eyes burned. She laughed, so loud she thought it might wake the dead. “At least I can say I’m the older one now.”

            It wasn’t funny, she knew it wasn’t, but it still elicited a giggle. When she sobered up, one look at the grave and all the empty graves around her, she lost it again. She laughed so hard her sides hurt, laughed so hard she choked and then all of a sudden it was sobs, wet and loud and wailing.

            She didn’t know how long it was until she regained composure. “I promised I wouldn’t do that. I know you wouldn’t like it.” Farren laid down, belly to the ground, left ear pressed onto the earth. Fresh grass tickled the shell of her ear. She imagined she could hear a heartbeat beating at the same time as her own. Her fingers scraped the dirt.

            “Everything is so fucked up. Everything has been so fucked up since you left.”

 

            Farren woke up to something prodding her side. Her eyes were swollen almost shut, her mouth dry. She sat up, looked around and saw two people standing in front of Willa’s grave, just watching her. “Farren?”

            She wanted to bolt and her eyes flash crazily in any direction looking for a quick escape. There wasn’t one. Her heart was frantic, trying to beat its way out of her chest. “Mom. Dad.”

            “We weren’t expecting to see you here.” Her mom was doing the talking. Typical. Her dad looked only half alive, pale and slumped over beside her.

            “Why? It’s our day.”

            Her mother sighed. “Well, you just up and left one day. I assumed you wouldn’t be back.”

            There was bile in Farren’s mouth. “You assumed wrong.”

            “Are you going to join us for lunch?”

 

            Lunch made her feel worse, made her feel dead too. Her parents didn’t know how to handle her, didn’t see the ‘fragile’ label. Her mother was wearing gloves, trying to be cautious, but kept plowing through warning signs, speeding up when she should have slowed down. She didn’t ask about the farm, didn’t ask about her leaving Joja. She asked about how Farren was dealing with the grief, how it felt to be without a twin.

            “I mean,” her mother said between sips of wine, “I can’t even imagine. Together since birth and now you have to do it all alone.” She looked at Farren across the table, tapped her nails against the white tablecloth. “Though I understand how it feels. There is nothing worse than losing a child.”

            Farren felt so mad she was sick, shaking so hard the water in her glass quaked. Her father was insipid, a ghost, barely there. One of the few times she had spoken with her brother, Aspen, he had mentioned that their father had been using again. Said he looked brittle. It hurt to see it with her own eyes.

            She wanted to scream that it was unbearable. That it felt like someone had ripped off her limbs and left her to bleed out. She couldn’t even try to staunch the bleeding.

 

            She cried the whole train ride back to Pelican Town.

Chapter Text

            Sebastian had been waiting on her porch for the better part of half an hour. He was beginning to feel creepy, maybe a little stalkerish as he raises his hand to knock again. He thinks back to that first time they were in her house, the sweet taste of melon and her sad, blank stare. His stomach lurches; if she’s like that she shouldn’t be alone.

            “She’s not here.” The voice took him by surprise; he whirled so quickly that he wacked his elbow into her door. Shane was in the field staring at him, holding some rust-crusted watering can.

            “What?”

            “She’s not here.” Shane was so apathetic he sounded indifferent. The careful, gentle way he was caring for the plants said otherwise. “She stopped by the other day, asked me to come water her plants. Said she’d be out of town for a bit.”

            “Did she say how long?” Sebastian was already walking off the porch, leaving.

            “No.” Shane started to grow annoyed, he’d watered the same patch of pumpkins at least three times during the short exchange.

            “Okay.” Sebastian’s head reeled. “Thanks, man.”

 

            He needed some way to quiet his thoughts, some way to blow off steam. A distraction.

            His fist was on Sam’s door before he could think twice, and when Sam saw his face he almost did a double-take. “You okay, dude?”

            “Yeah.” Sebastian shook out his hands. “Yeah. Just need to not think for a while.”

 

            Sam had some new shit and it’s good. It’s some weird, obscure strain he got the last time he was in Zuzu; grown in an urban atrium. Sebastian wasn’t picky – he’d been smoking the stuff Emily grew in her window box. He didn’t know when pot got so complicated. Sam rolled a hasty joint and cracked a window. They sat underneath it, backs to the wall next to each other, the same way they used to in high school. They had spent countless days there, blowing the smoke out the window so Jodi wouldn't smell. Sitting there now made Sebastian feel juvenile, small.

            “Shit.” Sam blew out a slow stream of smoke. “I need to get my own place.”

            Sebastian took a long hit. The end of the joint burns a little brighter. “Don’t I know it.”

            It smelled like smoke and pine-sol: evergreen with a hint of lemon. Sebastian’s mind made out shapes in the smoke; he saw Farren’s hair and the curve of her hip, saw Maru’s telescope, the old clock on the decrepit community center.

            Sebastian pressed a hand to his mouth. The smoke looked like breath in cold air, and he’s reminded of the night of their show, Farren walking him to the front door. They had stood so close he could feel parts of her brushing against him, stood so close he could feel her breath hot on his lips when she pulled away, gone before he could blink.

            He took another hit. “Yoba, I needed this.”

            Sam looked at him through the side of his eyes. “Farren.”

            Sebastian nodded. He could feel the edge of his high.

            “What’s going on with you two?” Sam stretched out his legs in front of them, ashed the joint on his bed frame.

            “Honestly, dude, I don’t know. I can’t get a read on her.” At least not when it came to himself.

            “But are you into her?”

            Sebastian was quiet for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah.”

            “I don’t get it. Seems like a little too much baggage if you ask me.”

            “Well, I didn’t.” Sebastian bristled, thought of Farren’s vulnerable face as she told him about Willa. Sam had always been a little flighty, a little scared of the big stuff.

            Sam put up both hands. “Sorry. Just, she seems kind of… dark, you know?” He reached for a can of Joja cola from the pack he stored under his bed. “Not sure you need that right now.”

            “I guess.” Sebastian tried to change the topic, groped for something to say. Everything was slowing down, giving him more room to form thoughts. “What are things between you and Haley? I saw you guys leave the gig together.”

            Sam shifted again, twisted around so he could lay on his back, prop his legs up against the wall. “I don’t know. She’s hot for sure, funny, too. We’re going out soon.”

            “Nice.”

 

            Farren was nestled deep in sunflower-scented sheets. “It was horrible!”

            Haley was painting her nails, sat on the floor near Farren’s head. Farren had come to Haley’s right after she got off the train, couldn’t stomach being alone for another second. “It sounds horrible.”

            “I mean, I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting it. They lost her too. But seeing them there at the grave… it just fucking got me. They weren’t there for years, weren’t there after the accident. They were barely even at the funeral. Just crammed it in in the middle of their day.”

            Haley looked up at Farren, saw her staring, dry-eyed at the ceiling. “Damn.”

            “It was already hard enough to go. I guess Aspen went that morning, left flowers.” Farren let the idea roll around in her head a bit: him, at Willa’s grave, mourning her. The whole family felt disconnected, separate parts that didn’t add up to the same whole. “I haven’t talked to Aspen in a while. He calls sometimes, tries to make things better, but he doesn’t get it. None of them do.

            “They treat it like it’s the same issue. Like it’s the same sized hole, but it’s not. It’s just the same shape.”

            “I’m sorry, Farren.” Haley climbed up into bed next to her, wrapped her arms around Farren’s waist. Her head found the crook of Farren’s shoulder. “Would it help if you saw Aspen?”

            Farren sighed, sunk into Haley’s embrace. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. He has his shit together. He has a wife and a job and a 401k. Crap, I think he got an RV; last time he called he said he wanted to swing by, park it on the farm.”

            “Ew. Adult stuff.”

            Farren nodded. She felt so cold still, could feel the chill of the earth and Willa's headstone under her fingertips even now.

            “Can I ask?” Haley’s voice was a near whisper.

            “Ask what?”

            “How did it… happen?”

            Farren’s mouth went dry, tight. Her jaw felt wired shut. But there was a part of her that wanted to say it, that wanted someone to know. “It was right around Winter Star. She was coming back from a book signing, walking on the sidewalk. Someone had been drinking, I guess, and hit her. Wrapped their car around a pole. She was dead on impact.” Farren’s fists tightened around the sheets. “They said her brain was spilled out on the pavement.”

            “Shit.” Haley held her tighter, like she was trying to hold her together.

            “Talking about it sometimes doesn’t feel real. But it happened. Aspen stopped coming over. Dad started drinking again, taking shit he wasn’t supposed to. Mom started working more than she breathed. We fell apart without her.” Farren was crying, her tears soft and quiet, pooling onto the pillow under her chin.

            “I’m sorry. I would say it’ll be okay, but it’ll probably never be okay in the same way again. So, I’ll say it gets better.” Haley gave her a small kiss on her shoulder. “You’re already putting yourself back together.”

 

            Sebastian was leaving Sam’s house, lighting a fresh cigarette when he saw her. So small, just a slip of a girl, walking toward the woods. “Hey.”

            She winced, turned to look at him. “Hey.”

            He could see from there that her eyes were red, that she’d been crying. She almost fell into him, weak and boneless in his arms. She felt a little sharper, a little sadder. He walked her home.

 

            The farmhouse was quiet, empty. “Can you stay tonight?”

Chapter Text

            Haley was fully decked out: metallic, shimmering eyeshadow and highlighter, a tight silver dress. She glued two glitter-covered Styrofoam balls to the top of silver pipe cleaners, and they sprouted out of her headband like antennae. “Do you like it?”

            “Sure. Alien, right?” Farren and Haley were making their way up to Sebastian’s house, passing through the town square. Every building and tree they passed were draped with cobwebs and orange string lights and each table of food they walked past made Farren’s stomach grumble. She had sold Gus a shit-ton of fresh pumpkins earlier this week and he went all out: pumpkin cider, pumpkin donuts, pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup. “Are you sure Zuzu will be more fun than this? The food looks so good.”

            “Hot alien,” Haley corrected. “What are you supposed to be? And yeah, this seems fun on the surface, but after you eat yourself into a coma and go through the lame maze there’s nothing else to do.”

            Farren looked down at her black dress. “A farmer in a dress. And I think a food coma wouldn’t be so bad right about now.”

            Haley let out an exasperated sigh. “Farren,” she dragged out the second syllable, “you already are a farmer. Jeesh.” Haley hooked her arm through Farren’s. “I still love you. Maybe you’re the farmer whose field I drew crop circles in.”

            “If you draw any crop circles on my field, I’ll kill you.”

            Haley laughed, the sound high and pealing. “And besides, we’re going to Zuzu for more than just Spirit’s Eve bar discounts.” Farren’s stomach dropped. “We’re going to celebrate your birthday!”

 

            When Haley and Farren arrived at the mountains, Sam, Abby, and Sebastian were waiting by Robin’s minivan. “Mom said I could take her car. It’s cheaper than 5 train tickets.”

            “I am not going to be the designated driver.” Haley pointed at Farren. “Neither is the birthday girl.”

            Abby laughed. “Don’t worry, Seb’s already volunteered. I don’t think Robin trusts any of the rest of us to drive her car anyway.” She was wearing a long, black dress, with a large medallion at her throat. She noticed Farren’s gaze and said, “I’m a character from the Solarion Chronicles.” Farren nodded in response.

            “Shotgun! And dibs on picking the music!” Sam had his hair slicked back and was wearing a leather jacket over a white tee and black jeans.

            “Are you supposed to be a T-bird?” Farren asked.

            “For sure, baby, and this minivan is Grease Lightning!”

            Sebastian scoffed. “Sure it is.”

 

            The bar was crowded, but the five of them had managed to snag a table tucked away in the back. The lighting was dim; the people there were just silhouettes until you got closer and the music was so loud Farren could feel it in her chest. It was brutal inside: people packed so tightly that breathing is hard, guys buying drinks for girls they don’t know and laughing a little too hard. It was all a little loud and a little too much. Farren wanted to reach her hands up and cover her ears.

            “Let’s start this with a round of drinks,” Abby said flagging down their waitress. She was young, not much older than them, with thick eye makeup lining her dark eyes. Farren stared at them, so dark they were almost black. The bottom of her nurse’s dress skimmed the wooden table. “A round of whatever’s festive, please.”

            “Monster Mash Margaritas,” the waitress offered.

            “Sounds great.” Abby smiled at her, all shiny teeth.

            She was gone then, her pristine white uniform lost in the crowd. There was something about Spirit’s Eve that made Farren uneasy. People dressing up and pretending to be anything that they aren’t, anyone that they aren’t. When the shots come back she takes hers and the one the waitress brought for Sebastian.

 

            “I can’t believe you spent your birthday alone!” Abby was a few drinks in, not far ahead of Farren, and sat right next to Sebastian. The two were so close they had to be touching, and the thought sent an uneasy pang through Farren’s stomach.

            “I guess I’m just not big on birthdays.” Lie. Willa and Farren used to go crazy for their birthday, used to plan the perfect parties for days. It left a sour taste in Farren’s mouth to think about.

            “Seb isn’t either.” Abby leaned into him, pressing fully into his side. He was sipping on water, just watching the two talk. Haley and Sam had gone up to sing on the small karaoke stage they had rigged up a few minutes ago and had disappeared somewhere on the way. Farren had a hunch they were making out in the bathroom. She wondered if there was a line of couples waiting to get in.

            “Hm.” Farren wanted to stand; she was sticky with sweat, the air so muggy and dense it was almost hazy. “I think I’m going to go catch a breath.”

            “Want me to come?” Sebastian pushed out his chair, ready to stand. “I could use a smoke.”

            “Uh,” Farren’s eyes searched the crowd for an excuse. “Sure.”

            “I’ll order some fries for the table while you guys are out!” Abby was leaned back in her chair, an easy grin on her face as her eyes roamed over Sebastian’s retreating figure.

 

            The air of the city wasn’t any cleaner than the air inside. Farren had forgotten this, the smog, the pervasive, heavy, cloying feel of the city. She yearned for the clear air of the valley.

            “It doesn’t seem like you’re enjoying tonight.” Sebastian held up an unlit cigarette to his lips, striking his lighter.

            Farren looked at her feet on the pavement, toed the cement a little. “I guess it’s not really my scene.”

            “I guess I assumed it was. Since you lived here.”

            “It never really was. There’s stuff other than bars in the city.”

            “Oh, yeah?”

            “Yeah. There’s this lovely atrium rose garden at the top of my old apartment building. The landlady was some sweet old woman who liked gardening.” Farren leaned against the glass pane wall of the bar. “She had that glass room full of roses and candles and coffee tables. She had these huge, old, maple bookshelves that were stacked with the classics. The pages were so thin it felt like you could tear them when you turned them. Her handwriting was in the margins of almost everyone.”

            “That sounds nice. Peaceful.”

            “It was. The air was warm. Steamy.” Farren wrapped her arms around herself. “It felt cleaner than the air in there, even though it was just as heavy.”

            Silence fell between them, and they could both feel it there, unspoken. The night he had spent sleeping on her couch. The comfort he had brought her. She hadn’t told him what was wrong, he hadn’t asked. Just popped on a movie and held her when she cried, tucked her into her bed. He was gone when she woke, and most of her was glad. She flushed at the memory of asking him to say. The house felt too big, too empty and she thought it would swallow her whole if she had to spend that night alone.

            “Farren?” She was jolted out of her thoughts, attention drawn to a man taking a smoke nearby.

            She recognized him, recognized the warm, dark skin, the short, curly hair, the wide, strong shoulders. “Adam?”

            “Shit.” His eyes were wide and his cigarette hung limp and unlit in his hand.

            “I’m going to head inside.” Sebastian was tensed up. “Want to join?”

            Farren bit her lip. “I think I’m going to stay.”

            He nodded, slipped back into the bar, disappearing into the crowd.

            Farren walked over to Adam. “It’s been, what, almost two years?”

            “Yeah.” He looked over at her. It was like he was looking at a ghost. “Shit,” he repeated.

            “Shit,” Farren agreed. “Spirit’s Eve celebrations?”

            “Yeah. You?”

            “That. And a late birthday celebration.” Farren dipped her head.

            “Right. Happy birthday.”

            There was a quiet, persistent sadness building between them. “It feels wrong hearing it. Because it isn’t really happy, is it?” A car drove past, splashing up rainwater. The drops were tears falling against her legs.

            Adam looked at her. Farren looked away. Meeting his gaze hurt. Seeing all that grief mirrored right back at her hurt. “I guess not. I visited her, you know. That day. Cleaned the place up a bit.”

            Farren thought back to the swept plot, the fresh flowers, lit candles. “Thank you.”

            “I wanted to.” He took a long, slow drag. Offered it to Farren.

            She took a long, slow drag too.

 

            Her back was pressed so firmly against the brick wall of the alley next to the bar that she could feel the crevices between bricks through the fabric of her dress. His hands were in her hair and running down her side, touching just the right places. Their lips were fused in something almost like passion, something more similar to grief, mourning. It was all teeth and tongue, but it was good. It felt good.

            He picked her up, hitched her legs around his waist. Her hands were on his shoulders, going down the tight muscle of his arms. How unfamiliar he felt, someone who she knew so well. He was pressed so close she could feel his heartbeat against her chest, could smell his aftershave. She knew his birthday, his parent’s names, his best friend, but she didn’t know him like this.

            With each touch, each breath between them she could hear their only concurrent thought, the question of each kiss, each nip: Willa, Willa, Willa, Willa. If Farren closed her eyes tightly enough, ignored everything but this moment, she could feel her there in her, could feel her close.

            Adam’s hand touched the top of her thigh, traced the outline of her tattoo. The one who’s twin was on Willa’s thigh, deep under packed earth.

            Farren felt sick all of a sudden, her head spinning, body locking up. She pushed, though, closed herself tighter. Fell into the kiss.

            His fingers were tracing her jaw and he was kissing up her throat up, up until he was at her ear, breath soft and warm. “Willa.”

            It was a bucket of ice water. Farren jerks away, beached and reeling. Adam put her down and her feet were unsteady on the pavement, buckling until her knees slammed down on the wet tarmac. She threw up on the street, the burn of alcohol and stomach acid stinging in her nose. His hand was on her back, gripping her arm as he helped her up, held her steady. They stared at each other, panting, and she could see that he wasn’t seeing her. He was seeing Willa.

            She pulled away again. “This is- this was a mistake.”

            Farren started to leave, wrapped her arms around herself. Adam was quick to follow, his hand reaching for her waist. She shoved it off so quickly, the touch burning her. “Wait. I’m sorry. I just-”

            Farren raised her hand. Stop. “I know.” She took a few steps away. “We were both looking for her and that’s fucked up.” She laughed, near hysterical. “Really fucked up.”

            Adam looked like he might let her go for a second, but when she turned again, he said, “Where have you been?”

            “Gone.”

 

            Farren was flustered when she got back to the table, knees scraped up and bleeding, lips red, and hair mussed. Sebastian’s gaze hardened and he looked down at the table. Haley scooted over, waved Farren over.

            She slid in next to her friend. “Where have you been, birthday girl?”

            Farren took a sip of her drink. She stared at the ice, mostly melted, floating lazily in the dark liquid. “Catching up with an old friend.”

           

            The group started to leave. Sebastian and Farren were shepherding their much more intoxicated friends out the door when Adam stopped her. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

            Sebastian shot him a glare.

            “Sure.” Farren put a hand on Sebastian’s arm. The harsh look he gave her made her recoil. “Wait for me by the car.”

            “Will do.”

 

            The city noise was as familiar as it was jarring. Adam lit another cigarette, smoked half of it before he said anything. “It’s okay, Farr.” He took a hit, released it slowly. It billowed out in front of him. “It’s okay to live without her. To move on. She’d want you to.”

            “Yeah.” Tears pricked her eyes. She told herself it was the smog. “You too.”

            It was quiet and comfortable, and she could feel Willa there between them even stronger than before.

 

            The ride back to Pelican Town was mostly silent. Haley, Sam, and Abby were passed out in the backseat. Sebastian’s fists were tight on the steering wheel. “So, who was that guy?”

            Farren glanced at him. His face was unreadable, but she could see the tension in his jaw. “Adam. I knew him when I lived in Zuzu. He was Willa’s boyfriend.”

            “Oh.” He didn’t know what to make of that. Neither did Farren.

            “Yeah. I guess we sort of fell out of touch after everything happened.”

            “I get that.” Sebastian gave her a fleeting glance before cementing his gaze to the highway in front of them. “It’s hard to be near people that remind you of who you’ve lost.”

            “Exactly.”

            There was a prolonged pause, that passed awkward and was settling into comfortable. “So, did you have fun?”

            “Huh?”

            “Did you have fun tonight? At your birthday?”

            “Uh,” Farren paused for a moment. “Honestly, not so much. I feel kind of raw.” She picked at her chipping black nail polish. “I think I would have preferred Gus’ food and the crappy maze.”

            Sebastian hummed an agreement. “Crowds aren’t really my thing either. Plus,” he grinned at Farren, “Gus makes a mean pumpkin burger.”

Chapter Text

            Sebastian had a laptop open in front of him and a set of jewel-colored dice were sprawled out on the table. Sebastian an Abigail had eager looks on their faces and Farren was just trying to keep up.

            “Dreadlord Xarth cast a shadowbeam! Roll for stealth to avoid the attack.”

            Sam grabbed the 20-sided die. He rolled it and let out a cry when he read the number. “I got a four!”

            Abby was next. She blew gently against the dice. “For good luck.” Her toss was precise and the dice wobbled a bit before it stopped, as if deciding her final fate. “Nat one. Shit.”

            Sebastian rolled too. A three.

            Farren’s hand shook as she picked up the dice. “Come on, Farren!” Sam cheered.

            She shot him a shaky smile. The dice clattered across the table and stopped in front of Sebastian. “Nat twenty!”

            Sam let out a holler. “Heck yes!”

            “Far, you only have enough spells to heal one member of our party.” Sebastian’s eyes were guarded as he asked, lips tilted up at the corners. “Who do you save?”

            “You.” The answer was past her lips before she even had time to turn it over. She held his gaze though, didn’t shy away.

            “Thanks.” Sebastian ducked his head, skimming the small player’s handbook in his lap. “I cast Purebolt and Xarth falls to dust.”

            “Order has been restored, yet again. All thanks to Goblin Destroyer.” Abigail leaned into Farren, nudging their arms together. “And their farmer friend.”

            Farren smiled. Her chest was so tight she could feel it in her throat, behind her eyes. She was so close to crying at the thought of friendship, of loving people again. “Yeah.”

 

            Sam and Abby had left almost half an hour ago but Farren was far too comfortable on Sebastian’s carpet. Her legs were stretched out and sore from farming, her head propped up on Sebastian’s shoulder as he read a book. She tried to follow along, but her eyelids were drooping. She stirred, convincing herself she would leave, but yet again the warmth of Sebastian’s body and her acute awareness of gravity’s effect on her limbs held her in place.

            The basement was dark and murky; a comforting stillness. Farren could almost feel the roots of the mountain underneath them: old and still and stone.

            She imagined she could stay here forever, next to him in this quiet space of time. When he wasn’t stressed about work, when Abby and Sam weren’t there, when she wasn’t thinking about pesticides and fertilizer. It was easy. As easy as breathing.

 

            Farren jolted awake. Her head shot off of Sebastian’s shoulder and he flinched at the sudden movement. “Shit. What time is it?”

            Sebastian’s voice was a few pitches lower than normal, husky and quiet in the night. “Just past midnight.”

            Farren rubbed her eyes. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

            He shrugged. “You seemed like you needed the sleep.”

            “Yeah.” Farren leaned her head back down. “I guess I did.” Sebastian turned the page in his book. “How’s the book?”

            “It’s good. It’s relaxing to read something other than code for once.”

            Farren hummed in agreement. “I get that. I have a fern inside and tending to that is so much more enjoyable than actual farming.”

            “I can imagine farming gets pretty tiring. Physically and mentally.”

            Farren worked at a knot in her shoulder absently, pushing her fingers into the muscle, wincing slightly. “Yeah. I’ve never been so sore.”

            “I can’t even imagine. I think my muscles have the opposite program.” He laughed. Farren wanted to listen to him laugh forever. “I sit all day and then they scream to be used.”

            “I bet a nice walk would help out. The beach is a pretty good distance.”

            “A walk actually sounds good right now. Do you wanna go?”

            Farren answered without thinking. “Yeah. I do.”

 

            The town was heavy with humidity at night. It seemed to smother everything, even flies sat still on windowsills and tree branches. Farren wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, eyes trained on the moon, round and full above them.

            “I swear, I can, like, feel the water vapor condensing around me.” Farren ran a finger up her forearm. It came away damp.

            “I know, right.” Sebastian squinted as he peered up at the sky. A cloud rolled in front of the moon, casting the small bridge to the beach in darkness.

            They kept walking in silence, the crash of waves on the shore and the crunch of sand under their feet the only noise between them. The whole world felt still around them, as if everything had halted its motion. Everything but them and the tumult of the ocean.

            Farren could feel the humidity cresting, could feel the anticipation in her chest – a storm was coming. The warped, wooden boards of the dock creaked under their feet. She peeked up at Sebastian to see if he had been watching her as they walked. He hadn’t; his face was withdrawn, distant, brows furrowed almost imperceptibly. Her gaze returned to the ocean.

            The once comfortably quiet was suddenly stifling; she could feel it like a sweater, clinging to her skin. Farren was scrounging for words, but each time she reached for one it was sharp, like shards of glass.

            They reached the end of the pier. The sky was growing murkier as the clouds grew closer. She could smell the faint metallic singe of rain and it brought bile to her throat. “What’s wrong?” Her voice was thick.

            “Huh?” Sebastian tried for nonchalance, but it came off as cold. Farren’s head almost throbbed as her thoughts raced – what if she had done something to upset him? What if he hated her?

            “You haven’t spoken for a while. You- you haven’t even looked at me.”

            Sebastian reached a hand to the back of his neck, scratched and squinted at the sea. “I was just thinking.”

            Farren’s eyes stung. She told herself it was the spray of the ocean. She couldn’t tell what was more turbulent: the waves or her. “Want to talk about it?”

            Sebastian chewed his lip. Silence was heavy between them. “I can’t compete with him.”

            “With who?”

            “That guy. From the bar.”

            Farren swallowed. “Adam. There’s nothing to compete with.”

            Sebastian laughed again. “He knows you in a way I don’t, in a whole life I don’t know. I can’t compete with him. I can’t compete with your history.”

            “I’m not asking you to.”

            “You don’t have to ask.” Thunder cracked in the distance, lighting shooting out on the horizon. A gale ripped its way across the ocean, tossing seagulls. They were paper in the wind, crumpled flashes of white in the lightning flash. “He gets you on some weird, fundamental level that I can’t. Grief is glue when you share it and it’s okay, I get it-“

            “You’re not listening to me.” Farren’s voice rose. “I don’t want him.”

            Sebastian continued rambling. “He’s easy and familiar and you both miss her, and I didn’t even know her. Yoba, this is so shitty-“

            “I want you, you idiot!”

            He fell silent.

            “I want you. I left Adam and the city behind because being reminded of her all the time hurt too much. It hurt to breathe. Spirit’s Eve was such a mistake; we were both shocked and hurting and looking for something between us that wasn’t there.

            “He was looking for Willa in me and I was looking for Willa in him, but with you, I don’t have to look. I know you and I know what’s there and I know that it’s what I want. So, the real question isn’t if I want Adam. It’s if you want me.”

            Sebastian sat down on the edge of the pier. Farren sat next to him. “Look at the clouds on the horizon.” The large, billowing rainclouds were growing nearer. “I hope they come this way.”

            Farren was quiet, watching the clouds.

            “I like this weather. I feel like it makes everything disappear.” Sebastian was fidgeting his hands in his lap, fighting to find the right words. He opened and closed his mouth soundlessly. “Being around people makes me feel anxious. But not you.”

            Farren looked up at him. He was watching her intently. “I feel the same way.”

            He leaned in, so close she could feel his breath on her cheek. “Can I kiss you, Farren?”

            Her heart stuttered. “Yes.”