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After the Dark – Part 1 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The sky brimmed with the promise of tears. The clouds had lingered all day, waiting for an opportunity to spoil the mood. They could have come sooner, for my tastes. I’d reached the point I get to in any celebration when I just can’t sustain the required, expected feelings any longer. Maybe my tolerance is low, or I’m just a grumpy sod who should be allowed to go home early, but I’d had enough half the day ago. Pleading a headache, and the cure of fresh air, I’d taken off on my own for a few minutes of peace and quiet. I slipped out of the chalet’s back door, hands and expression placating my friends – just in case one of them felt they ought to accompany me.
I found myself under those clouds, and on the edge of the lake. I released the breath I’d been holding all day and let my shoulders shudder it all out of me. It was much quieter out here; behind me, the chalet vibrated with music, chatter, and laughter. It wasn’t like I was abandoning them. I’d be back, once I’d done a bit of sulking and kicked some stones into the water. The afternoon was rapidly fading away, and the sky was turning that rich teal that I love at this time of year. The sun, low over the lake, and the first hint of a moon sketching itself into existence. A beautiful place, and apt for celebration, though if I was honest with myself, I rather resented being back. As gloomy as the clouds I scuffed my way through the thin grass to the shore, careful to step around the young, hungry saplings; those would be a task for another day, not that I’d remember them.
Such a pretty, still lake. I kicked a few pebbles out of the sand, messing up my smart boots. They had a good weight to them, and I couldn’t resist breaking that perfect surface. The first stone, as always, began with a promising string of skips, but vanished sooner than I’d like. The calm now ruined, I watched the ripples spread and fade away. Pebbles two and three did a bit better. The fourth I hurled as far as I could, and lost myself for a minute of stamping at the sand, hoofing the stones every which way. At least I’d uncovered a few more bright prospects. I brushed the sand off them, for streamlining purposes, and tossed them, frustrated, back to the ground.
A walk. I’d promised myself a walk. The lake, and this little wooden house were the first things I could remember. A place to grow up, to make friends, and lives together. And now we were back, to take it all away. My feet led me inexorably around the lake, its gravity had always drawn me on. When I was younger in my time, I’d taken to climbing out of the window at all hours of night. I’d been restless, prone to insomnia through over-excitable thoughts, or some restlessness in my spirit that made sleep an elusive property of consciousness. Hard won, and surprising when it crashed down on me. The night-time walks didn’t help me sleep, but they did fill the time.
I would fold back the covers just so – not in a heap – that would create pockets to be filled with cold. Better to leave it neat and open, ready for me to slip back in later. Then I’d pad across the wooden floor, flip the catch atop the sash window and slowly slide it up. The damned thing always seemed to stick, and ground its way upward with what seemed an appalling sound. Still, it never woke my sibs. I’d always forget its racket by the next day, and would chide myself for failing to oil it, or whatever it is that would soothe a wooden window frame, saddened by its age into deformation, vexed near-nightly by a youth who wouldn’t let it sleep. Presumably it still got stuck; perhaps I’d test it later.
The path round the lake is half sand and half ragged patchwork of pressed down rubble, kicked loose and into the waters by people like me. It wound in a way that spoke to my feet, and together we skirted the water on my left and the ever-darkening woods to my right. ‘Woods’ was probably an exaggeration. Here there were mere copses competing for light and earth, none grown so large as to dominate the area, all just toughing it out, waiting to see which would suddenly sprout up and bully the others into shade and diminution. Still, I kept my distance, respectful. There’s no need to intrude – there was space, for now, for all of us. The lake had returned to a glacial stillness, in anticipation of full moonrise, which would be upon us soon enough. Time yet for a walk.
From the window I could half-slide and scrabble my way down the wooden-shingled roof, its heart-shapes under my hands and feet. As I grew older it became a smoother ride, my confidence grew and I would take longer strides. Until that night it was raining and the tiles were slick. I slipped almost immediately, just one foot out of the window, spinning me head and shoulders into the roof, one leg snarled over the sill. After that I put both feet out together. I certainly didn’t stop going for those moonlit walks. The short drop beyond was always easy, and then I could be off. A half-dozen backwards glances to confirm that I wasn’t missed, and I was away.
The half-drawn moon fleshed out its colours as the sun faded, grew bright and yellow and cast its buttery glow over the lake. Calia out in all his glory. The trees began to unfurl their secondary leaves, and I paused for a moment to watch them spread their thick spines, the leaves filling out like sails being caught by the wind, straining between the spines. All to catch that creamy light. The lake developed its first ripple; not from any stone I’d cast, but from Calia’s twin, lending her weight to his pull. The two came as a pair, and sure enough, the ripples grew into waves as the lake was being dragged to the east, and Talens emerged from behind Calia. The trees shuddered, their leaves rippling like the water, soaking up the light from the twin moons. I could feel something of their magic myself, all lined in yellow, caught between their victim, the lake, and the trees who hungered for the moons’ touch. This was why I used to come out at night. To feel part of the world, to see the parts that we usually missed by being asleep, or inside, or in the city where the trees were less common. It’s too easy to miss out on the simple things.
I was glad to be out walking, even if I still wasn’t happy about being here. The sounds of the chalet had long since faded, replaced by the meaty shuffle of the leaves and the involuntary tide of the lake. It had been years since I’d tasted this air, felt the moons here, all with the promise of returning home to a bed, which would be chilled from my absence, but would soon warm up as I lay there, watching the moons disappear over the other side of the world. And I’d go back soon too, but it would be for the last time. I was torn between dragging this walk out as long as I could, and returning to the others and cherishing our little family. It was, of course, somewhat selfish of me to leave them at all, but that too was a thing I wasn’t entirely ready to give up.
A wave sloshed over the path, splashing up my trouser leg and through the lace holes of my shoe. It really had been too long, I’d known every step of this road and felt its tides to the second. But now I had a wet foot. It seemed certain that was a metaphor for growing up, or forgetting one’s youth, or something. The world is full of symbols if you care to look for them, though that doesn’t accord them actual meaning: one man’s inspiration is another’s tedium. As I pointlessly shook my foot (well, it was hardly going to get the water out of my sock, was it?) I was startled further by a voice behind me, calling my name. I turned; there’s no avoiding the ones you love.
“No one’s ever come out after me before,” I said, attempting to repress the flux of emotions that suddenly welled up with my words.
“I always assumed you wanted to be alone, Jenn.”
I grinned. “Of course I did, and of course you did.”
The moonlight sloshed its bright yellow over Maina. She was a bit taller than me, and in the moonlight she glowed like a spectre. In a heartbeat she was beside me, in another, her arm was tucked firmly through mine.
“Did you come out every night?” she asked, her shoulder bumping against mine.
“Most nights,” I said, companionably bumping back, “it’s the moons. And the trees. And the lake.”
She laughed, a soft sound that I mostly felt rather than heard. “I stopped wondering where you going after a while. Once I knew you were coming back. That window must have woken me every time until I got used to it. Squealed like murder.”
She shook loose a laugh that I didn’t know I was waiting to let go of. Another deep breath.
“But it’s lovely out here,” Maina looked up at the moons and sighed, basking a little in their light, “maybe I should have joined you.”
“I think I might have liked that,” I admitted, “I didn’t know you could hear the window.”
“Are you kidding? There was nothing in that house louder – not even bloody Aer’s snoring.”
“I thought it was one of those noises that was louder in your head, like when you pop your jaw, but no one else can hear.”
“I can confirm that the window is not inside your head.”
“Is that your foot?” she asked.
“Nope, that squishing sock sound is entirely in your mind.”
We smiled. She rested her head on my shoulder and we went on.
“I was coming back,” I started, “it’s just–“
“It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?” Maina interrupted, “you always were terrible at these things. Do you remember Aer’s party? When he got that job, out at the hospital?”
“Maybe,” I hedged.
“He was bragging about how well the interview went, and how good he was going to be at looking after people – and you – you couldn’t stand it.”
“We’d been telling him how great he was for hours. Well, it felt like hours.”
“And then Rumala slipped, and fell down the stairs.”
“I’d forgotten that,” I clapped my free hand over my mouth, “that was a really bad fall. Didn’t she break her arm?”
“Kind of. Turned out she’d broken it days ago, falling out of a tree. Since it had popped back into place, she thought it must be all alright. Falling down the stairs proved her wrong. That scream!”
“Even thinking about it makes me feel queasy,” I said.
“Ha! You don’t remember properly do you? As soon as the attention switched from Aer to Rumala, your face absolutely lit up. You looked delighted,” Maina leaned heavily on me for emphasis and my foot squelched especially loudly, “I bet I was the only one who saw. You weren’t pleased about Rumala, but you were thrilled not to be talking about Aer any more.”
“That’s not–“ I started, but unable to honestly continue that line, “–fine. I was, plus it gave Aer something to do instead of talk about himself. He did do a good job of looking after Rumala, I’ll him that.”
“Ooh, that must have hurt to admit,” Maina was beaming at me, “and is this the same? Everyone’s together again properly.”
I booted a stone into an approaching wave, breaking its concentration. The moons picked up the slack though, and they kept coming, thick and fast. I angled us further up the path, away from the water’s edge.
“I don’t know. It all seems so silly now. It just goes on so long that it feels forced, I feel like I’m having to try to be all happy and pleased.”
“And you’re not,” Maina said, turning me to face her, “I know you’re not.”
“Are you? Are you really alright with all this – tomorrow we’re going to end it all, and none of us will be together any more, and it’ll be like we never happened,” Maina stared at me, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shout. It’s just…”
“Jenn. You don’t have to go too. You know that, right? You do know that.”
The damn tears weren’t in the clouds any more, they’d snuck into my eyes while I was gazing at the moons.
“I– I can’t. How could I go on alone? And you – is this what you want? Or are you just going along with it because Aer and Rumala have decided it’s time, that they’ve had enough of each other, and the rest of us are just going down with them.”
“Talens’ sake Jenn. You’d have them go on, unhappy, fallen out of love. And what, just persist?”
I took back my arm, and folded them both about me.
“That’s not how it’s done,” Maina continued, growing angry now, angry at me, “you’re being selfish.”
“Because I want to live? Because I don’t want to sweep all of this away, sweep you, and Aer, and Rumala, and Eleran, and Tesh, and Miqual and Teresa’s into nothing? Because I don’t want to forget everything we’ve had together? Selfish? I think Aer and Rumala are being selfish, and taking the rest of us down with them.”
“But – we all agreed, Jenn. We all agreed. And we all came out here – the shettling is tomorrow – and now you’re doing this? I thought the story about Aer’s party was funny, but it’s not. It wasn’t Jenn just being Jenn – this is, I don’t know what this is. I can’t believe you.”
I reached out for her – a conciliatory hand, an apology I had no words for, but she spun away.
The moons now only lit her walking away from me. Sharp, angry paces. Maybe it was best that I’d always walked alone here before. But that was stupid thinking too – to blame Maina instead of myself. I knew what I was agreeing to. A group shouldn’t take shettling lightly, but nor should its weight press them down, or hold them back. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, tried to listen just to the trees leaves fighting for the moons’ touch, the waves slapping down on the shore, tried to hear my own heartbeat and drown out the wail in my heart. Ever unwilling to submit, I carried on my walk.
Aer and Rumala were a beautiful force of love. I’m not sure when they fell, fully, for each other. Presumably that was being revisited back at the chalet, probed and enriched by sharing our memories and thoughts. Sometime after the broken arm I guessed. Aer had put her arm into a sling, and taken her out into the woods. There weren’t many of the right kind of tree near the chalet. These are all too young now, and they were younger then, too involved in jostling for space to be concerned with us. But Aer knew where there was a much older relative of theirs. He’d found it one summer, off hiking with our mothers and fathers. I hadn’t gone on that trip. It must have been him, probably with Tereis and Tesh, since they were inseparable. I don’t know what I was doing that summer. It must have been when I’d taken up music with a vigour, soon to be abandoned when I discovered I wasn’t really going to be very good at it. But they found this big old tree, its roots thick and massive. There was no doubt that it was part of the alltree. Its primary leaves were turned crimson, because it had grown large enough to dominate its neighbours and could now subsist solely on its nocturnal photosynthesis.
It would have been perfect, if Aer could have actually found it again. But he couldn’t, and after leading Rumala around for hours, in pain from her broken arm, he had to admit that he couldn’t remember where it was, and bring her back to the chalet and father had to call for an ambulance. He Aer spent the whole ride into town apologising profusely to Rumala. I guess that did the trick, somehow. Ah, but they fell so hard in love. We’d all lived together, just waiting for such a romance to break out. Once it had, it gave the rest of us licence to fall too. It seems to be the way. Tereis and Tesh, always together, now gained an extra glint in their already gleaming and mischievous eyes. Theirs was a love that had not faded. I’d rarely seen them when they weren’t holding hands, or at least pressed shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. And I loved them dearly too. Even Aer, ridiculously pompous Aer. Maina, Eleran, Miqual and I fell in and out of playful and passionate spells. None of us had the fire to match those first two, enduring pairings. Instead we slipped with equanimity and friendship through a happy cycle of relationships with each other. I regretted not having more. I’d always had an eye for something special for Maina, and though we spent time together, it never hit that peak I had hoped for. What I felt was never quite reciprocated, and I drifted away a little. Never far – how far can you slide from your circle? We grew up together and knew each other inside out.
Why then was Maina so surprised that I now felt this way, that deep down I didn’t want to go through the shettling? Surely it should have been obvious that I wasn’t ready, that it was too soon, that I hadn’t done something, that Maina and I had not truly found each other. If we ended it all now, we never would. But perhaps we never would anyway, no matter how long we went on. The walk had turned out less soothing than I had hoped for. Maina now knew how I felt. Would she be back at the chalet now, telling the others? I was torn between hoping she would, and hoping my secrets would remain mine. Like my midnight walks. Except those had never been secret, no matter what I thought. Would things have been different if someone had followed me one night, come to ask me if I was alright? Or would I have resented their interference? Either way, I had to accept that this dilemma was in me, not in them. They did what they thought best – to allow me my privacy, my night time thing, and to not interfere. Being freely given that freedom has a cost. It was a trust placed in me, and I didn’t know how that trust should lie in my heart.
Waves steadily surged across the lake, dragged about by the massive lunar forces. I could be selfish. I could ruin the shettling for all of them, for all of us. Or I could return to my circle, to my family and friends, and do what was right for the group. If we could no longer all bear to live with the weight of our memories and each other – clearly Rumala and Aer couldn’t, watching them together since they had split up was a pain I felt to my very core – then we would support that.
I turned on the twins, and felt their light warming my spine as I headed back to the chalet.

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