Muddy shoes dangled above the trickling stream. Attached to the shoes was a trio of voices, badgering and exclaiming and remarking. Their discussion was disturbing the peace of the forest- or so an outsider would say. To them, they were entertaining the trees.
“See, I have the perfect relationship between the protagonist and her friend. And yet, every single backstory I try to come up with for either of them is just...sooooo cliche.”
“Tell me the basis of the backstory for your protagonist.”
“Her parents just died-”
A sharp intake of air. A sigh.
Winston dangled his arms over the railing of the bridge the three sat on, staring down at the shallow water. “You can do better than that, Geo. Maybe she runs away from her parents- realizes she wants a different life.”
Belle ran a hand through her fire-ombre hair as she thought about the context. “But your protagonist is a rule-follower, right?”
“Er,” Geo began as he flipped back a page in his notes. “Yes?”
Belle pulled herself to her feet and stared up at the cloudy sky beyond the tetris of tree branches. “I need inspiration. I haven’t been able to focus on writing the past month or so.”
Geo’s notes crinkled as he shoved them back into his backpack. “We could all run away so we have first-hand experience on how to write it!”
“Yes, and while we’re at it, you should stab me so I know how to write that as well!” Winston mocked.
Geo shrugged. “I think you’re supposed to be mocking me but that’s not a terrible idea.”
Belle laughed. “I call stabbing you.”
She climbed up onto the metal pole railing and perched with her legs tucked underneath, hands gripping the top and hair dangling 15 feet above the creek. She imagined plummeting, and how injured she would get. A piece of her mind was telling her to fall. At least it would be exciting. “Life’s been unbearably boring.”
Geo nervously grabbed her arm. “Please don’t jump.”
Winston just stood beside her and nodded. “Being a teenager is being condemned to despotism.”
A silence between the three.
Then, “I have an idea.”
Winston grabbed both of their arms and began to pull them down the-
Winston waited patiently as Belle untangled herself from the railing before yanking them alongside him down the road-
“Just follow me, will you?”
Belle and Geo followed Winston after briefly collecting their things, wondering why he was walking with such purpose into the middle of nowhere.
The sophomores padded silently through the dirt pathway, staring around at the leafy canopies and rustling undergrowth. The air seemed to get heavier as the trees got wider, and a frigid wind whispered tidings of welcome. Welcome to this dark, dank refuge.
Winston left the path and wound through dense thickets, thwacking aside the branches and thorny limbs. Belle kept getting slapped by the branches he released, and was soon ducking periodically. Geo wasn’t paying attention well enough as Belle adapted to survive the destructive Winston, and became victim to the flying thorns.
“Ooooowww,” he moaned, dabbing his scratched forehead with his sleeve. Belle’s laughter spread to Winston and the troop emerged from their short-lived adventure as the stereotypical bloodied and laughing teeneagers they were.
“So,” Belle began as she pulled a bandage for Geo from her pocket, “are you following a map to lost ruins or something out here, Winston?”
“Why d’you just have a wad of bandades in your pocket?” Geo injected in feebly.
“Hush,” Belle said, “I always come prepared. I also have a bunch of pads if you want to see. In different colors.”
Winston interrupted Geo’s discomfort by jumping atop a fallen tree trunk and exclaiming with the pride of a new father, “This is the place! I can feel it.”
The ‘place’ was in fact a miniature chasm of sorts, jagged rock walls of a cracked boulder split apart and highlighted by a fallen tree through the center. Moss and vines clawed their way down and across the rock walls, connecting and weaving in vivid patterns.
“It looks like a portal to a fantasy world,” Geo oohed.
“Must be,” Belle said, folding her arms. “And Winston is connected to its hive mind. After all, he feels it.”
“Pfft,” Winston said, and stepped his way across the damp wood. “C’mon.”
Belle and Geo followed him, balancing on the squishy oak. They brushed aside vines and squeezed through the other side of the chasm, finding Winston sitting atop another jagged rock.
“And this shall be our shrine of writing,” he proclaimed.
Geo scanned the small clearing with apprehension, from the towering, jutting rocks to the mossy ground beyond the trunk. It was almost like a room, with uneven, rough walls pointing to the sky and naturally lush carpeting. Belle latched onto the tallest rock in the circle and began to claw her way to the top.
A drop of rain trickled down Geo’s forehead. He squinted up at the sky, making out whirling, darkening clouds.
“We should go back,” Geo said, fiddling with his backpack straps.
“Why?” Belle asked as she reached the peak of her personal mountain.
Winston held his hand out. “Because it’s gonna rain.”
“So? It’s the weekend, we don’t need to be anywhere.”
Geo’s brow furrowed. “We could get soaked. And then lost.”
“You’re right,” Winston nodded. “We could.”
“We could also have the time of our lives,” Belle added with a grin. “Listen guys, school has been an oppressive force rigged against us the past few weeks. We’ve been slaves to pointless work and disrespectful teachers. We haven’t had the time of day to even live, because all these people are telling us the deadline for an essay is more important than our passion, our humanity.”
“Yes!” Winston agreed.
“So, now is our time to live on our own terms. This shrine shall be dedicated to our writing- the passion of our kin. And, Geo…”
A familiar dark sheen covered Belle’s eyes- she did that when she was thinking about the future. Geo waited for her to finish.
“Maybe this will be a time to remember, for when you leave.”
Geo pulled in a deep breath that churned his insides. His grey eyes, reflecting the sky, gained their own resolve.
“18 days,” he whispered.
Winston let himself down from his perch. “We will meet again, mark my words.”
“How ominous,” Geo joked. Regardless, Winston pulled him into a hug. Belle remained silent.
She dug through her backpack and pulled out the confidential journal she’d kept for nearly 8 months- a new record. Most of her journals she threw away from the sheer embarrassment of the assorted stories she’d written inside. In this dark green journal, she flipped to a blank page halfway through. Then she pulled out a mechanical pencil and clicked the eraser. And began to write.
“Buried in the core of the forest, as precious as jewels and as rare as ruins, kindred souls thrived,” she read aloud. “There were three of these rare writers- for writers they were and write they most definitely hardly ever did. Nonetheless, they were the kind of souls that would exact each other’s thoughts and grow together in an overwhelming passion to be great.”
“Despite the fact that, in their own minds, they already were great,” Winston continued.
Geo laughed. “Of course we are! We are the most tactful and talented writers the world has ever known- the only downside is that no one will ever realize it.”
“Geo, that doesn’t make any sense,” Belle said between smiling lips.
And the story grew in length and absurd wordiness, even as the sky opened and surrounded their storytelling. By the time darkness coated their hideout, their invention was dripping in as much humor as rain. Their parents were also concerned, if you must know. Winston was the only one who had data and had looked at his phone after losing track of time to 18 messages from his family.
“Rest in peace,” Geo had said.
Eventually they marched back through the portal entrance, the forest, and into regulated society once again.
Belle had said it. Geo and Winston looked at her from where they were, trying to rewrite this one stupid sentence in their story.
Winston had been pushing the thought of Geo leaving farther and farther from his mind as the date careened at them full-force. Even though the three of them were sitting amidst stuffed boxes in Geo’s attic, literally helping him move, it could be surprisingly easy to disassociate from unpleasant things sometimes.
“Yes,” Geo sighed, “Now are you gonna help us write the ending scene of this? We’ve never actually managed to both finish a story and edit it together. And I want to be able to before I- it’d just be nice.”
Belle and Winston shared a look. He just shrugged.
“Geo,” Belle began softly. Her and Winston had discussed the callousness Geo had had the past few days. “If you want to talk to us about leaving, that would make a lot of-”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Geo snapped.
“We know you’re scared, and we aren’t going to let you push us away,” Winston said softly. He himself had been scared, but he desperately wanted to be there for Geo.
“Look,” Geo muttered, “I hate that I’m leaving, okay? I loathe it. But maybe, if we can just finish this story, we’ll be able to move on. You can both forget about me and live on, and I can feel like… at least… at the very least I had closure.”
Belle ran a hand through her hair. Geo found a decent wording for the dysfunctional sentence.
Winston looked between the two- his closest friends. He watched them avoid eye contact and veil any emotions.
“Well maybe, Geo, I hate this.”
And he walked out.
Geo would leave tomorrow.
Belle sat on the railing of the bridge, by herself. Rain whispered through the breeze. The first week of summer break.
In her left hand, she held an envelope. A car stopped beside her, and Winston climbed out, telling his mom he’d be back by dinner.
The two were left in the rainy wind, observing the planet at its best.
“It’s in the envelope.”
“The entire thing?”
“Good. He deserves it.”
A warm tear dripped into the overwhelmingly frigid water far below.
“I don’t want to say goodbye again,” she whispered.
He leaned against the railing. “Me neither.”
“40 days,” she gasped, because her breathing was being hijacked by emotions.
Winston rested his head on his knuckles. “We’re already starting to pack.”
She shook her head. She dismounted the railing shakily, her feet hitting solid ground again. “I don’t want to say goodbye. Here,” she said, and extended her arm to Winston. The envelope trembled in her grip. “Tell him I’m sorry.”
He stared at the envelope. On its front a name was scrawled, Geoff.
Then he met her bleary eyes.
And told her no. Because no matter how much it hurts to lose someone, no matter how empty it makes you feel to watch them leave, having them in the first place was worth it. And no amount of loss could ever take away the power of connection.
At least, this is what Winston wanted to say. This is what Belle wanted to hear. But when Winston faced Belle, and saw the darkness she was feeling at losing yet another friend, his mouth went dry. And he took the envelope. And watched her walk away, fiery hair contrasting the grey day.
Winston then stood as a solitary figure, eyes dripping and face distorted, holding the envelope like a lifeline. He ripped the drawstring out of his hoodie and tied the envelope to the railing as securely as possible.
Then Winston ran, wishing he could forget but knowing if he had the choice, he would feel this pain over and over again if it meant meeting people like Belle and Geo.
Geo showed up 5 minutes later, to a soaked envelope with bleeding words and a soulless goodbye.
But he blamed himself. Because he thought this was what he wanted.
Geo sat on his patio, watching the sun set for the last time in his home, gripping the ragged pages from within the envelope.
The entire story was crammed in there, with all the hidden jokes and nods and shooting dialogue.
It was wonderful in his eyes, and it brought on so many memories that he had to remind himself where he was as well as when he was.
It was also completely worthless.
That’s why Geo stood up with only the dying sun as his witness, and ripped the pages in half, one by one.
He got his phone. He texted as fast as his fingers could fly, argued with his parents until they finally gave in for pity’s sake, and booked it all the way to the writing shrine.
He was nervous they wouldn’t show up.
Winston was first, balancing nervously on the tree trunk.
Belle showed up late, after darkness had seeped in.
When the three all faced each other again, Geo began by telling them he had ripped their entire story into shreds.
They all began to laugh and cry at the same time.