The Gentleman, the Maiden, and the Rugged Traveller

Fighting tears of frustration, I scraped the sand with desperate fingers, hoping I would find something good this time. Even after two hours of digging in the moist riverbank, I was as angry as I had been when I ran out of the yard, and the only things I had found were a couple rocks, a pair of tweezers and a handful of rusty silver coins. The sight of my meagre assembly of junk was depressing. Disgusted, I rolled back on my heels and glared across the river at the shadowy trees.

I remembered a quote from the book of Luke that said your treasure is wherever your heart is. When I read it, I knew they were talking about me. Discovering old treasures that had been long ago buried was what kept me going, and usually succeeded in calming my nerves when I was hopping mad, but on this day I was just too upset. Still, I enjoyed it on an unreachable level. There was something about digging up dirty coins, glassless mirrors and other ancient paraphernalia that made me feel connected to the past by a golden thread of opportunity. Settlers had navigated this river, accidentally losing some of their belongings overboard, which were washed ashore for me to find a hundred years later. I hadn’t even known the river existed before a few hours ago, but the history that radiated from the ancient trees and ageless waters made it feel like I had been coming here forever. Along with the fact that it looked like the river at my old house, I felt right at home. I hadn’t thought to put on bug spray or sunscreen before running out of the house, and the consequences were dire. This was the sunny side of the river, and it was the middle of summer, so you can imagine how incredibly comfortable I was.

The river rolled by lethargically, rapids farther down loudly begging me to come and play. When I took the time to be still and listen, I could hear birds calling to one another, just softly enough to fade into the background. The steady plinking of the water made me ruefully think of Colorado. For the umpteenth time, I wished we hadn’t moved to this melancholy little town. The only good thing was the hot excavation spots. What emerged from the sand was another coin. I was so tired of finding coins I just left it there. In the wooden box in the house there was probably enough coins to start a small business, or maybe a collection for Graham to take up when he got old enough not to eat them.

Cloudless blue skies marked the limits of my imagination, and the forest made me feel small. I found a new spot since this one had been dry and started digging again, uprooting little plants and cutting my hands on rocks. I could have really used a glass of lemonade, or even water. My fingers struck something soft that stuck fast in the mud. With one final yank I held in my bloody, dirty hands a purse caked with goopy grey mud and grains of sands. There were a handful of coins and a few rumpled bills inside. From the little that I could see, it seemed to be from the Victorian era. Jose could take a closer look at it later. I held it up to the blazing sun; it was too dirty to make out the colour. I washed it as best as I could in the river, relishing the cool wetness. The thought of swimming would have been very appealing had I not been wearing a new pink tank top. I was most certainly not going in my underwear. Despite my best efforts, by the time I was finished with the shining, bright blue handbag, I looked like I had been dug up from the bank. Cringing when I looked down at myself, I gently laid the purse on the pile with my other findings to be observed later. Smiling now, I went a little farther up, the bank giving way as I walked. Bending down with my palms flat on the ground, I saw it: the footprint of someone with very large feet. They meandered everywhere, and I hadn’t even noticed. Now, this was what I was talking about. My unknown person had stood in this spot for a very long time, maybe ten minutes. He wandered up and down the beach, slowly and stately. Walking to the edge of the water, he had sat down, his hands making imprints behind him. He had probably run it through his fingers several times, where little piles had formed. Getting up, he waded into the river…and that’s it. I wandered up and down shore, even splashed to the other side because heck, I was already wet, but there was nothing as far as I was willing to go. Inexplicably racked with disappointment, I stared at the last print before going back to my treasure spot. Now I was doubly frustrated. The stupid footprints were the last of my problems. I bristled, once again, as I remembered why I was here in the first place.

The fight with Frank had been over chicken and gravy. He brought home KFC for his lunch break today, and I had taken a few chicken wings, waiting while Frank used the gravy. I hated KFC takeout. The greasy fries were unappealing, so the only thing my meals consisted of was not-as-greasy chicken, and sometimes potato salad if he happened to bring some.

“Pass the gravy please,” I asked him when he just set it in front of him. He looked at my plate and snorted.

“Gravy goes with French fries.” he said, starting to eat. Having lived with him for almost three years, his irrationalities didn’t faze me anymore. I didn’t even mention the fact that I had been putting gravy on my French fries long before he stormed into the picture, and three years later he was just bringing it up. He wouldn’t give me the gravy, though, instead, true to his childish nature, slammed it down in front of him. So I reached over and grabbed it myself. Rachel, my older sister, glanced up, also indifferent to the family affairs, but we could smell the proverbial gunpowder in the air.

“EXCUSE ME!” he shrieked in his grating pig’s voice. “Gravy goes on FRENCH FRIES!!!!” Ticked off, my mother told him to knock it off, but he snapped at her. Gee, spasm much. When I calmly told him that I put gravy on my chicken all the time, he picked up the French fry box and looked like he was going to throw it at me. My cool facade melted. His random acts of violence never failed to send my heart running.

“I don’t want French fries!” I yelled, panicked.

This didn’t seem to break through the mealy, worm infested head. Everything always had to be his way.  “Melody,” he said, turning to my mom, “would you like some gravy before Haley drowns her chicken in it?”

I wanted to drown him!

I wished that his control-freakishness would have been a warning to my mother that maybe something wasn’t right with his head, and if I had known what would come three years later, I would have said what was on my mind. The Deplorable It went back to work, and Rachel had taken off in her car, so I took off to the back yard, steaming rage.

I wanted to kick something very badly, but I kept my feelings to myself. The yard was already cleaned of its artifacts, and the tall trees beyond the fence intrigued me. Without a glance at the house behind me, I opened the gate and stepped through, keeping on until the trees thinned to reveal this crystalline river.

Now, I was dripping wet and shivering with the sudden breeze. I made my sullen way back to my pile of discoveries. They fit in the purse. I started toward the forest. How long would it take for my mother to realize I was gone? I was in big trouble when I got home.

With a sound of surprise I stumbled to a halt when I caught sight of the resumed footprint trail. I swore they hadn’t been there before. They led into the woods, mere depressions in the soil when they left the sand. Upon closer inspection, I observed that the sand was still wet beside the water. So the person had been here recently. I took off.

It was a fairly straight way, parallel to the river which was always visible. I had no idea whether I was going north or south. Abruptly, the foot prints stopped again, at the base of a beautiful, humongous tree. A sycamore. It had sweeping branches and a rich abundance of leaves that made up for about three trees all by it. The top brushed the sky. At first I didn’t see the boy, way up in a branch with a notebook and a pencil. I guess he didn’t see me, either, because when I shouted up to him, he yelled and his book came flapping down. Loose papers went flying off into the distance. Reflexively, I dove after the book, ripping a page as I did so. When I looked, I was despaired to see that it was actually a sketchbook, and what I had ripped was a beautiful, half-finished yet incredibly detailed drawing of the river with the towering, shadow-throwing trees and mountains in the background. And a big rip right through the middle.

“Did you rip my sketchbook?” he exclaimed, dropping to the ground. He shot after the runaway drawings yelling all the way. Breaking out of my frozen state of horror, I ran after him. “Oh, no you don’t!” I said as a drawing of a leopard drifted playfully overhead, just out of reach. With a jump I snagged it, and then one of people sitting around a bonfire, one of an intricate empty vase on a windowsill. Frantically we chased after them, but we were too late. They landed in the river; the rapids immediately sucked them under and swept them away. For a moment I thought the boy was going to dive in after them, but he just turned and walked toward me.

“Thank you,” he said, taking papers from me. I squeaked out a reply, feeling so terrible I couldn’t speak. He looked so incredibly sad that my heart contracted.

“I’m so sorry!” I cried.

“It’s okay,” he said, trying to smile. “I can make other ones.” there was no way I could have dogged him back to the tree again unless some invisible force moved my useless limbs. He found his sketchbook and stuffed the drawings inside. Closing the book with a snap and laying it gently on the ground, he extended his hand. “I’m Will. What’s your name?”

Still blushing like an idiot, I took his soft hand with my own freezing cold one. “Haley…Williams. Um, pleased to meet you?”

He grinned for real this time. “Wow, cool name! It’s really okay about the pictures.”

No one else would say it was okay just like that. Other boys from my old school would have been wounded for days, giving me the silent treatment for at least an hour. “They’re amazing,” I said. “How old are you, anyway?” 

“Thanks. I’m thirteen. And you?”

“Twelve…you don’t seem thirteen.” And then again, he did. It was kind of like looking through a bad quality holograph, where the two pictures don’t transform properly and you can always see one of the underlays. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was so strange about him. He was kind of handsome, with wavy chocolate hair and eyes almost the colour of limes. His clothes were almost as wet as mine. He was really tall, almost a head more than me, with feet that were almost too big for him. My mother said that boys were like puppies; you could tell if they were going to be tall by their feet. But it wasn’t even his size that made him look older. He just did.

“That’s what everyone says about me,” he said, still showing off his teeth. “What were you doing, anyway? I could see you by the river, but I couldn’t quite figure it out…”

Oh, why not? “I was digging for treasure. Didn’t find much, though.” I held up the damp purse. “I like history.”

He tilted his head, appraising me. “Did you just move here? I haven’t seen you around school before.”

“Yeah. Colorado.” The classic excuse: job transfer. Frank was some sort of super star where he worked, something with contracting, and apparently the boss of his new firm had absolutely begged that he come. I suspected there was something wrong with them, though I couldn’t complain about the extras his multiple raises got me. “My step-dad works here now.”

Suddenly he was smiling at me. “You’re parents are divorced too?” he said, like it was such a wonderful thing.  I just nodded, knowing I should be getting home. The dominant part of me wanted to stay out here with Will, even though I had just met him. He seemed really cool. The thought of not being totally alone come September was a welcome one.

“Do you think I could see your drawings, Will?” I asked hesitantly. “They’re really nice.” And I promise not to lose them this time.

“Sure. If you let me see what you found in the bank!”

The forest floor grew dark as a cloud obscured the sunrays, turning everything a darker shade of green. Nature was one of my favourite things. The serenity and life in the woods was kind of fascinating. The mosquitoes, not so much. In Colorado my friends and I mostly hung out around the neighbourhood park or the streets where only three cars passed a day. My friend Annabelle Stoffer had especially liked hanging around an old beat-up bridge over the dry stream where lots of cool things were to be found. Frank had taken us camping once and I got stung by a dozen wasps and bees and got poison ivy and mild sun stroke and sunburn, along with a varied assortment of scratches and scrapes, so eventually my mom took me home. That’s where my paranoia over sunscreen and bug spray came from. Now I could only really enjoy being outdoors when I was looking for something, or hiding or running away.

Will sat cross-legged on a log and I leaned against the nearest tree. The sketchbook was nothing special, with legal sized pages and a faux leather cover. He sure enjoyed drawing naturalistic things, like a log cabin in the woods and a large Victorian house surrounded by flowers. Even though they were all in black-and-white, it was almost like I could see the colours in the way he shaded each of their delicate petals. I recognised the middle school, covered with snow and dripping icicles. It was hard to breathe at a normal rate. They just looked so real! As engrossed as I was, I didn’t even notice when he sat beside me and regarded his art over my shoulder. He scared me when he whispered into my ear.

“Haley. Be very still.” He slid the book out of my hand and very carefully, silently, turned to a new page. With a finger to his lips, he pointed with his other hand into the distance. My heart leapt into my throat, and I swear I almost peed my pants.

It was a bear.

“Shhhhh,” he said again, barely a breath in the wind. I couldn’t have made a sound if I had wanted to, as constricted as my throat was. He took a pencil from the box at his feet and actually started to draw the bear, as it sniffed in the bushes one hundred feet away. Was he crazy?

“Relax,” said Will. “They can smell your fear…” he grinned. Like that would make me feel better. Yup, he was definitely crazy. The bear snorted, raking one giant paw over the ground like a massive horse pawing. The fact that it actually moved made my breath stick in my throat like gum in someone’s hair. I tried to give Will a wide-eyed look, but his hands were flying over the page, the bear materialising before my eyes. He only looked up a couple times, and twenty minutes later, I was almost fainting and Will was basically done.

“Can we go now?” I squeaked. Apparently, I was a little too loud.

With a grunt, the bear turned its head, looked right at us, and charged.

“Will!” I shrieked, leaping to my feet. The thing moved fast!

“The tree!” said Will, launching himself over and up into the branches. The grunting grew closer and closer, but I didn’t dare look back. I shot up the tree after Will. He scrambled a branch higher, pulling me after him just as the bear reared up against the tree. It barely missed my leg with its ten-inch claws.

“Keep climbing!” shouted Will. He wasn’t scared at all, just trying to be heard over the bear. By the twinkle in his eye I could tell he was actually enjoying himself.

“Can’t they climb too?” I screamed back. The bear roared, showing dripping, brown teeth that were longer than my fingers. A shudder ripped over my spine.

“Not those ones. Come on!”

Pretty soon we were so far up that the bear looked like a little toy. It circled, growling and spitting saliva. I gaped down at it, kind of realizing why Will was so fascinated. At least we were safe now. Still, I screamed every time it tried to rock the tree. Will shushed me again, saying that we had to convince it that we weren’t up here anymore, and when I glanced at his face he was completely calm, lethargic even. I suddenly felt silly in total freak out mode, with him looking like he did this every single day. My mouth snapped shut like a trap door.

It was cooler up here. Not as many mosquitoes, either, but plenty of other many-legged insects made up for it. A caterpillar tried to crawl up my arm, one of those ugly fat ones that look like porcupines. Now I wanted to go home more than ever. Getting eaten by a bear was so not worth avoiding getting in trouble. I could see my house on the horizon. Will shifted to look down the tree; he concluded that the bear had gone.

His hair was stuck all over with twigs and leaves, which was charming. The fact that he was crazy kind of overrode that. “That was awesome!” he said, starting the climb down.

My panic was back. “Will! What if its still there? It could come back!”

“Don’t worry. It was just making sure we weren’t going to hurt it.”

We were going to hurt it?”

He nodded gravely. “Yeah. Even though this is private property, poachers still come. There used to be at least eight dozen here, but now there is only five or six.”

“Five or six? In the forest?” I couldn’t help speaking emphatically. This was crazy! What if the bear had come along when Will hadn’t been here? Well, I surmised, I probably would have gotten away before it knew I was there. I definitely wouldn’t have stopped to capture the moment of sheer terror. At least the drawing looked good. “I’m definitely not going down there now!”

“Okay!” he agreed. “So I’ll see you later.”

I scrambled down after him. “Wait, no, come back! Don’t leave me up here! WILL!”

Smiling, he held out his hand to me and helped me down like a proper gentleman. “It was my understanding that you wanted to stay up there.”

“No, I just didn’t want to come down. Are you sure the bears are gone?”

His face turned serious. “No, of course not, but Haley, I come here almost every day and I only see them once every ten days. Only once in my life did I see more than one in a week.” His lime green eyes didn’t hold even a trace of twinkle. I decided to believe him.

As much as it pained me, I knew I couldn’t stay out here forever. Going home was like knowing you had to go to the dentist, had to face the gallows when you know you have committed a crime. I knew that my mother would probably have a conversation with Frank, but he would justify himself in one way or another. He was disgustingly persuasive, and when he wanted to he could even make you feel bad for him. One of his favourite things was giving the “Nails In My Heart” speech, followed by the “Just Trying to be a Father Figure” speech, and finally, the “Do You Want Us To Sell This Place and Just Get a Divorce” speech, always at family meetings when he has done something really mean. Actually, whenever he was giving a lecture, he always used the exact same arguments, all the time. Or he slammed something and drove away at top speed, before returning for a family meeting. I hated family meetings.

“I have to go,” I said, cringing. His eyebrows knitted but I just waved my hand. “Please, will you walk me home? It’s not very far.”

All he did was smile and motion for me to lead the way. Every little noise and shadow in the trees made me flinch, and once I was sure I saw a bear staring at me from behind a bush. Maybe I was going crazy, like Will. This was not a place I planned on visiting again anytime soon. Something Will had said drifted back into my mind.

“Did you say this was private property?”

He nodded. “My dad’s,” he said proudly. “We live right over there.”

Well. What do you say to that? I would have apologized profusely had he not seemed so pleased, and I did feel embarrassed for having encroached. He was grinning, of course. In the hour that I had known him, I hypothesized that he almost never stopped smiling, and not a whole lot could faze him. The complete opposite of Frank. Wait, no, comparing him to Frank was an insult of the highest kind. One thing was for sure, I could really get to like Will. Maybe living here wouldn’t be so bad with him living a couple hundred metres away. That is, of course, if I was ever allowed out of the house after my mother was done with me.

The walk to the house passed pleasantly, with him asking me a lot of questions about all sorts of stuff. I tried to steer clear of disclosing my distaste for Frank, and he seemed to know to let it go. We were at the gate, and the sight of the house filled me with choking dread.

“See? Not one bear. Will you come back tomorrow? I think I know a hotspot for buried treasure…but you have to go with me to show you aren’t a trespasser.”

Shifting uncomfortably, I glanced nervously at that imposing screen door. “Actually, I’m not sure if I can.”

He twisted his lips. “Come on, Haley. The bears won’t eat us. If you want, I can even get my step mom to come pick you up and we won’t have to go through the woods at all.”

I sighed. “It’s not that. It’s just—I kind of ran away from home, and I think I might be grounded.”

He let out his breath. “Oh. That’s okay! Just let me know when you can, and then we can go dig up the—well, you will have to see for yourself. See you later.”

“Hey wait!” I exclaimed. “How am I going to reach you?”

“Right. Just look up Montgomery, Thomas in the phone book. That’s my dad. Okay?”

How odd. “Okay. See you later. Maybe…” I added with a look toward the house.

He friendly-punched me in the arm before turning back. “Don’t worry.”

And I didn’t. Not until I walked into the house and saw my mother.

“Haley,” she snarled. “Where the hell were you? I looked everywhere for you! Do you know how worried I was?”

“Sorry,” I mumble.

bled. My feelings of guilt were not yet banished—it’s worse when you know you’ve done something wrong. Just get it over with. The lecture, some tears, and another lecture, me agreeing that I had not done a good thing, another lecture, and then my favourite: What am I going to do with you?

“Just tell me Haley, I don’t know what to do anymore. Grounding you? Taking away your iPod?”

The funny thing about parents is they think that you’re actually going to tell them what your punishment should be. Well, I think my punishment should be you making me do dishes for a week and putting me to bed an hour earlier. Yeah, right.

My mother sighed. This piqued my interest. Would I be given a reprieve? Thinking of Will, I suddenly started to look at her as though I were paying attention, drinking in every word, filing it away in my cabinet of lessons learned. My only conclusion was this: what had happened with Frank was of no concern to her. As long as Haley does something bad, nothing else matters. Perhaps I thought these thoughts out of bitterness, but there was a part of me that truly believed them. Sometimes it just felt like nothing I did was ever right, even though running away was technically classified as bad, in my book as well as hers. It was just too bad she didn’t care more about the cause than the effect.

“Well, Haley, I hate to do this”—I’m sure—“but you are grounded, young lady. One week.”

This clever declaration was met by a blank silence from me. A week wasn’t that bad. Frank had once grounded Rachel and me for a month for not doing the dishes one night. This was as good a reprieve as any.

I walked up to my room to change out of my dirty clothes, which thankfully had dried or else my mother would have asked why I was so wet. My room was coming along nicely. I had been allowed to repaint the walls, and they were a light Jamaican blue with aquamarine trim. My shelf was still in the garage. It would have been nice to put my treasures on it so I could stop hiding them in the yard, where Graham couldn’t get them. My mother had had a fit when he got into one of my boxes last year. A little stuffed yellow bird sat perched on the bed frame, watching me with its beady little eyes. And last but not least, a painting of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee that my father had gotten my mother before he died. She said I could have it, and I could tell she just really didn’t want it. Seeing it made me feel a little bit guilty. It’s not that I wanted to have fights all the time and disappoint my mother, it just sort of happened. She just couldn’t see that we couldn’t stand Frank. He couldn’t see that we couldn’t stand him either, or maybe he just didn’t care. Even though I was only twelve, the sad reality that I had no father struck me hard. It was one of those “it can’t happen to me things”, except way after it has already happened. The bedsprings creaked as I fell into it, sobbing quietly into my pillow.

“Haley? Come here please! I forgot that you need to run to the store and get milk. Carmen and Shane are coming!”

Oh, no. not Uncle Shane and Aunt Carmen. Carmen is Frank’s sister. They weren’t so bad; it’s just that they had a kid, about my age. Her name is Abigail.

I loathed Abigail.

Mom was obsessed with sending me to the store for things. The idea that everything was within walking distance of just about everywhere in town amused her to no end. If I hadn’t been so tired I would have argued that I was too tired and that she should call Rachel to pick it up when she came back from wherever. The urge was even stronger when I saw her at the stove, mixing something in a pot while reading from a recipe book. Why Carmen and Shane were such a big deal was a mystery to me, but I did like eating something other than sandwiches and soup from a can.

“Bring Graham with you,” was the only thing she said to me. I put my little brother in his stroller and stepped out into the hot afternoon. The houses in the neighbourhood all looked the same. Someone was grilling burgers on the front grill, with twenty or so people milling in her yard. They were all laughing. Graham pointed at them and gurgled something about toast. Graham could be a pain, but he made me smile. He turned and stared at me with his big grey eyes for a few seconds before returning to talking to himself.

Abigail’s coming was heavy on my mind. She hated me, and I wasn’t too crazy about her either. When the feud between us started I wasn’t sure. Abigail was top of her class in everything, had loads of friends, and took piano, tap, ballet, knitting and singing lessons. The Perfect Kid. If only she wasn’t such a snob when the doting adults weren’t around. The few times she had come to visit in Colorado, I had been charged with showing her around and keeping her occupied, and she turned her nose up at everything I showed her or tried to do with her. The girl didn’t even like ice cream. Her precious sensitive teeth were the bane of her existence. I was guessing she had never heard of Sensodyne.

Abigail’s argument against me was that I was too moody and selfish, always looking for ways to please myself. Just because I didn’t spend every minute of my life obsessing over how to make her happy like everyone else seemed to. Also because she was still mad I had beaten her at that one lousy game of chess. I hadn’t even been paying attention or trying, and I guess she underestimated me. Oh well.

Her parents must not spend every minute trying to make her happy, I reasoned. They were making her come here, after all. I smirked. Bring it on, Abigail.

I bet my mother was making scalloped potatoes. Frank would probably get started on some steaks when he got home, or grilled chicken. I could just smell it as I walked down the street, passed the happy people and smiling families. A slight breeze offset the effects of the sun. There were more clouds too. Maybe a storm would come up. Maybe even a thunderstorm! Abigail hated thunder, and it got really loud around here.

The Co-op was small and cool, never more than three or four people in there at a time. Jenna, the woman at the only till, greeted me as I came in.

“Oh, and you brought your little brother! How delightful!” she came around from the back of the till to kneel next to him, cooing and baby-talking. I smiled proudly. Graham could have won a cuteness contest. With a toothless grin he reached out and yanked on Jenna’s long braid that was flipped over her shoulder. She giggled and tickled his nose with it. I left him with her to get the milk, which my mother would have killed me for. That’s when I saw Rachel, huddled in the behind a shelf, giggling. There was somebody with her.

“Rachel? What are you doing here?”

She jumped, squealing. The other person turned out to be Marcello Caplino, the boyfriend she had scored almost immediately after we had moved here. He quickly moved something out of my sight as Rachel gave me a cold glare. “None of your business!” she snapped, turning a little red. “And you shouldn’t leave Graham alone! How many times have we told you that? You don’t listen, do you, you little dot!”

I quickly lost interest in whatever she was doing this time. “Fine, whatever. Just make sure you’re back before supper. Shane and Carmen are coming.”

She rolled her eyes, her eye shadowed lids bobbing up and down. She was only sixteen, but she felt the need to wear makeup all the time. That was the only reaction I got from her, and she turned her attention back to Marc. Shaking my head, I went to pay for the milk. Rachel was like a setting sun, beautiful, bright and colourful one minute but with the ability to turn day into night as soon as something got in her way.

“See you later,” said Jenna, winking and waving at Graham. I smiled back and left.

In the parking lot, two men were sitting on the tailgate of a bright blue truck, talking. I couldn’t help overhearing as I passed: “Apparently his name is Frank Tabby. Well, I took my truck in, he did his thing in fifteen minutes, what would have taken someone else hours to do, and it now it runs like it’s new! So there. I told you new guys weren’t that bad!” The man slapped his buddy on the back and they both laughed.

Go figure.

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