A/N: We’ve been productive lately! I’m sure I’ll heavily edit this once I’m not literally struggling to keep my eyes open. But for now, this is what I’ve got.
The quilt was emerging from the wood nicely. The patterns I had planned weren’t perfect. Drawing wasn’t my strong suit. But with the three-dimensional aspect of the wood I could salvage the designs. That was where my skill lied.
I had brought my tools to my room before I had gone to sleep. This morning I opened my shutters and, pushing bedhead and cowlicks aside, went to work, littering wood shavings over my clay-stained sheets. Early to bed and early to rise, they say.
My room was cluttered with old pieces already. Some of them were finished, many weren’t. My work wasn’t well-planned. If I had an idea, I started it. If a piece slipped from my mind, which they often did, it lay forgotten and gathered dust.
There were also sculptures hidden around the house. Not in places where my parents would see them and scold me for making a mess, just unused shelves and cabinets with doors that stuck too much to allow for easy, daily use. A few of my found-object pieces were stored in caches at the fringes of the woods behind my house like dirty magazines from the 80’s. That wasn’t ideal. I only put things that were sturdy and easily-washed outside, like plastic. I don’t know why I care about that. I don’t have room to display them anywhere even if I wanted to. Cleaning my sculptures would be as pointless as preservation already was. Yet, I refused to allow any of my pieces to become unrecoverable.
Time ate away at the morning like my tools ate away at the wood. Slowly, but steadily, and not in any way that I could measure. Suddenly, my alarm broke me out of my stupor. I put my tools on my nightstand, counting them twice, then three times, to make sure none were hidden in my pile of sheets. I left the sculpture where it was.
Getting ready was routine. I noticed that the sole of my shoe was starting to wear through. I could dig my finger into the heel, which was apparently hollow. Cheap. I looked at my old pair of shoes, faded and word, then to the cabinet that held the duct tape. Old shoes. Duct tape. I went to the cabinet.
On the way out I made sure to scratch my dog behind the ear and get him some water. Someone had left his bowl empty. I went to my car. The adhesive of the tape stuck to the ground where a corner had folded over. It would wear off eventually with enough steps. I got into my car and tightened my laces. I used to drive my neighbor, but eventually she told me that she didn’t need me to drive her anymore. She didn’t give any more detail than that. Now it was just me.
It was a quick ride to school down the narrow, winding road spotted with potholes that always made me feel like I was drifting off the road. Once I got to school, it was the same long walk to the school doors from where I had parked. Already I felt clouds settling over me like the fog that clung to the football field. I looked at how the haze played against the grass, the chalked lines, and the stands. My fingers twitched, molding clay in my head. I was gone.
The morning was uneventful. I put forth effort in my classes, as much as I could muster at least, but the tests that were too tough for me didn’t really get to my head. Some people said that made me a burnout. I disagreed. I did as much as I could to prepare, and from that point any failure is unavoidable. Why worry about what one has no power over?
The only thing in the entirety of the school day that truly had sway over me was the lunch bell. I would have been the first one out the door if I wasn’t the only person whose bag wasn’t packed up already. I was too spacey to put all those movements together until the drone of dismissal snapped me awake. I missed my headstart while I put my things away, my muscles suddenly obeying me again, then made my way out as quickly as I could.
It took all my effort not to throw open the teacher’s door like a madman. Under the guise of calm, I returned to the same spot as before. Michelle and Lily made room for me without a glance this time.
“Ashton, do you have Mrs. Jacobs?” someone asked. I started. It was Jace. I shook my head, and he continued into some sort of grievance he had with a social studies teacher. My eyes found his lips. I sometimes read lips if my ears weren’t working fast enough. That was all this was. Yes.
After that, I slowly joined lunchtime conversations more and more. At first it was only Jace including me. My fingers twitched every time my name was shaped by his lips. Lily joined him soon and, organically, Connie and Michelle followed suit and began including me too. Asking me things. Saying my name.
I got into the flow over time. Sometimes I would say something wrong, or throw in a statement that didn’t fit quite right. But so did the others. We weren’t a perfect group. But we were bound tightly to each other with sinewy thread that even the blades of a sculptor couldn’t hope to sever. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t try. But there was something that always kept me with them. It was an urge, something primal, that whispered how strength lay in numbers. No matter what happened between us, no matter how strained our bonds became, I never left them. None of us left. The thought of sitting alone again, biting into apples and my tongue while listening to music with heavy guitar and thumping drums, was not even a possibility my brain would entertain. Going to the same classroom at the same time every day was the only way things could be. It was inevitable, like gravity.
So I didn’t even think twice when I went to the same room the next day. And the next. And over and over until I was one of them, getting glimpses of a past that I had never been a part of.
They were thrilling. We talked about everything. Sometimes one person would just talk about their day, or their week. Sometimes we all would. Sometimes we would talk about ethics or morals or politics. If one person was home sick, we would talk about them behind their back. I could only imagine they all did the same for me. I didn’t mind. My ears could burn all they liked. It was worth the drunken thrill of digging up the bastard flaws of the people who I was starting to call friends.
Sometimes we would talk about books. I didn’t read much. It took me a while to get through a book. The only time I really read was during downtime in class or just any time I got bored at school. Addison was the one who got the most into it. She was analytical in a way that only a writer can be. The rest all faded in and out. They had favorite genres that they didn’t stray too much away from. Jace’s was realistic fiction. The rest all muddled together. We often had two or three conversations going at a time, so if anyone hadn’t read that day’s book, there were other things to say.
We didn’t start spending time together outside of school until Addison gave us a push. She was working on a short film, the subject of which has long faded from my mind. She invited us to come to some field with a drainage ditch pipe large enough to walk into. It was perfect to film in, Addison said. She offered to drive.
I lived the closest to Addison, so she picked me up first, giving me my choice of seating. I was thankful to be able to ensure that I sat on the left. That ear’s performance was poor, so at the right side of cars all I could hear of conversation was the muffled roar of voices and the radio. Jace joined me in the back, scooting to the middle seat when Lily took the right. My skin burned where his thigh pressed against mine. Michelle was in the passenger seat. That was all that Addison’s car was made to house. Connnie sat in the trunk, and Payton lounged across all three people in the backseat, singing poorly along to the music on the radio at the top of their lungs. At the sight of a police car, we would all start yelling, jokingly frantic. Connie would obligingly duck her head to stay out of sight, and colorful Payton would throw themself onto the floor, crushing our feet and laughing as they did.
Addison’s field was underwhelming. It was a moderately-sized rectangular plot in the middle of a quiet residential area. Three sides were blocked off by a wall of scrappy forest, the fourth was sliced cleanly by asphalt. There wasn’t room for Addison’s car to pull over, so she parked on the dirt. Over time, her tires wore grooves into the land.
The long, unkempt grass gave me rashes along my shins, and a graveyard slept quietly across the single-lane country road. We started out filming there, Addison bouncing back and forth between realistic and fantasy, coming-of-age and horror, and all of us happy to play along. I had done theatre as a kid, so it was easy for me to slip into the mind of someone else. After me, Payton and Jace were the most serious about our projects. The rest played along, but focused more on drinking lemonade that didn’t have enough sugar that Michelle had made and laughing. I would pick apart bundles of grass seeds as they did. The citrus burned in my throat.
After a while, Addison finished her films and didn’t start any more. She would bring a small leather journal or a laptop, which I’m sure had grass and dirt lining the underside of its keyboard, and work on books or songs. Sometimes she would bring a guitar. Everyone brought their own hobbies along, bit by bit.
Lily liked fashion. She had a college-ruled notebook of dress designs. She tried to design me a suit once, even offered to make it for me. I bought one at Wal-Mart.
Payton brought their paint in a (likely artificially) worn wooden case that closed with a buckle. They carried canvases in a burlap sack slung over their shoulder. I wasn’t sure how good that was for the art. But I wasn’t a painter.
Michelle brought a video-game console that glistened black like obsidian in the autumn sun. I’m not sure what games she played, just that there were chimes, metal clanging, and people shouting. She didn’t use headphones.
Connie and Jace both brought books. Connie’s were usually romantic, belonging to a subgenre that I wouldn’t expect anyone to be brazen enough to openly read in front of friends. She didn’t even try to hide some of the covers. Jace switched between classics the size of a brick, modern books with stickers boasting some prize or another, and oddly specific nonfiction. He once read a book entirely on one type of tree.
I was the last one to start bringing my hobby along. I was hesitant to work on my sculptures in public, but it sounded better than tearing leaves apart in silence. I didn’t exactly receive an outpouring of support, but a bad word was never said about my pieces. No one said anything at all. When I brought my wooden quilt along, they acted like they didn’t even see it. That made sense. We didn’t bring our things to be complimented. We did it to create.
I chose to hold my work and tools in my lap rather than throwing them in the back on top of Connie, who was already wedged between Michelle’s various equipment and Payton’s art supplies. She would sometimes work her way out from between the two and poke her head over the backseats, but she mostly would just listen to and join our discussions from where she was. The radio wasn’t on loud enough to drown her out.
At first, Addison had just played the “Top Hits” stations. The overabundance of talk shows had ruled that out fairly quickly. After that, we took turns with the auxiliary cord. We all liked different genres. Addison liked the kind of music that adults would probably say branded her as a burnout. Michelle was ruled out from the trade-off within minutes of a soliloquy by a string quartet. Lily, who Connie expected to play ukulele tunes laced with sugar and vanilla, liked heavier hip-hop. Payton took up the mantle of liking cutesy, artsy songs that no one had ever heard of. I think they found pride in that. Jace had playlists upon playlists, most of which were made up of songs too melancholy to be enjoyable in a car overflowing with seven rowdy teenagers. Connie and I passed on our turns, both of which Payton gladly took for themself. After a few rounds of this, Addison made a playlist that paid homage to all of us. She prioritized her own taste, of course, but peppered in songs that rest would like as well, skipping Michelle’s classical preference. She laughed and said she understood.
I liked hearing the music that my group liked. It let me learn more about them without having to talk and pry. I copied Addison and started making my own collections of songs. These weren’t for Addison’s car. They were just for me. Each one began almost exclusively made up of Jace’s songs. I added a few that the others would like. Then I deleted some of Jace’s. I had to make them equal. Skewing towards Jace was a coincidence.
Time went so fast then. School felt like Purgatory, while lunch was a small shot of Elysium. So was the field every day after school. Not every weekend.. Michelle was an overachiever who gave herself more work then she needed. But we would spend the time we could there. The smell of grass and dirt swept through my nose like wind stirring the dust in a long-abandoned house, and the gentle sounds of bird song, Addison’s guitar, and Michelle’s video games felt like hands running through my hair and down my arms. The fingers were studded with silver rings in my head. The metal was cold against my skin after spending so long alone in the dark.
Our little band began sneaking into my sculptures as time went on. I still had no quilt patches carved out for them, but my new sporadic projects held little tokens of them. A shimmer, a flame, the cross of a marionette, an eye where it didn’t belong, a seam ripper. There were also things that I couldn’t give the shine they deserved. I cast them off every time. These became little signatures; things I could spend my time on as I worked. They became like worry stones. As my hands passed over my works, my fingers would linger over them. I would scratch at them with my nails.
The quiet days of work began shifting like some great beast thanks to Jace. One day, I looked up to glance at him like I always did. He was gone. No one saw where he had left to. A snap and a yell drew our attention to the trees. There was a flash of black like a giant crow, and a flap in the breeze like wings. It was Jace and his button-up shirt, swinging from a branch with one hand as another dangled free, a newly-split branch slipping out of its grasp to the ground below. He saw us looking and gave a wide wave as the broken tree limb caught on others on its way down to the forest floor.
“I’m okay!” His voice sang across the clearing.
Michelle asked what the hell he was doing. He was climbing. Payton got up and bolted for the treeline, getting dried grass stuck to their paint palette in their rush. They leapt up and grabbed a branch in the tree next to Jace’s, heaving themself up with more strength than they looked like they were capable of. Their progress upwards was slower. They didn’t look used to climbing trees. I rubbed at the calluses on my hands, then found myself on my way over, following the path that Payton had trodden down. I didn’t remember getting on my feet, but I drifted like a phantom. Jace had stopped where he was, leaning against a branch with trust that went against the way the last one had betrayed him. He was talking casually to Payton, who was hollering things unfit for a residential area between sharp breaths and strained grunts. I found an unassuming tree, less ambitions. It had easier footholds than Payton and Jace’s trees. I made my way slowly and steadily upwards, feeling my thick skin give way to the rough bark. I winced once or twice as I accidentally hit the healing bruises on my arms and legs against the wood. I went across branches and between trees, soaring upwards as naturally yet slowly as a balloon without enough helium. Soon, I stopped. Jace was reclined in the tree I was climbing, just below me. Payton was on their way to meet him. They looked up at me and started, nearly losing their grip on the tree as they swore.
Jace followed their gaze and jumped as well. I blinked at him, still as the trees and ready to reach out and catch him if he fell. He didn’t.
“Ashton,” he sighed, grabbing his chest and reclining again, “you scared me. You look like some sort of ghost child.” I blinked again. Payton chuckled. I didn’t. They heaved themself up to be on Jace’s level. They asked if anyone else was creeping around up here like some sort of fucking rodent. I looked across the field. The others had moved into a tight circle without room left for the three of us. I counted them. Four. I shook my head.
Payton sighed and thanked God that there weren’t any more people sneaking around to scare the shit out of him. Jace shushed them. There may have been kids nearby. He looked up to me. I was peering over a branch with my legs pulled up under me in a crouch. My shoe soles had long since been worn smooth, so moss served for traction.
“Come sit,” Jace said. I swung my legs down where I was, but Payton nodded to a gnarl of branches between them and Jace.
“Get down on our level, squirrel boy.” I made my way around and down as Jace and Payton squabbled over whether my virtues lent themselves more to my being a squirrel or ghost. They decided I was the ghost of a squirrel by the time I got settled. Jace laughed. My mouth twitched.
I pulled my knees to my chest and started picking bark off of the joint between bough and body. Payton said that was bad for the tree. I stopped.
My knees started to hurt from the angle after a bit. Jace was talking about the girls, and Payton was spouting filthy nonsense. I listened, straightening my legs every so often. My joints popped softly.
When the sun hung low in the sky, Michelle’s voice rose up to us, too quiet to be heard clearly. Jace asked her what she said, and she said something back at the same volume. She was immediately followed by a much louder Lily asking what we had said. Payton shouted over Jace to ask Lily what Michelle had said. Lily reported that they were about to leave. Addison would leave without us if we weren’t ready.
While Payton and Jace stirred, I vaulted between two branches and let gravity carry me down, grabbing branches on my way to slow me enough to avoid injury. I hit the ground and made my way over to the girls, who were busy putting their things away. I recovered my wood block, brushing soil off of it and triple-checking my tool collection in its leather pouch, and brought both to Addison’s car. I was in the car when Payton and Jace, who looked like they had taken their time descending, were flying across the field, stumbling and laughing as they ran. Payton was yelling something as they paused to put their painting away. Jace scooped up his book without stopping and thrust through the cluster of girls ambling towards the car, throwing himself into the car beside me before they had the chance. The bone of his shoulder jabbed into the muscle of my arm and a breath hissed through my teeth. Jace grabbed my arm, and without thinking I jerked away. He was apologizing profusely as everyone else piled into the car. Payton asked if he was bullying me as they clambered on top of us. Jace said no. I said yes. He laughed and lightly punched my arm. After a beat, I grabbed the same spot, acting as if he had made the injury that he had caused worse. Jace’s eyes went wide. Connie asked what was going on. Payton played along with mock shock and sympathy. Michelle watched with those eyes, and Addison started the car. Lily laughed.
At that, Jace’s face broke out into a smile. It was yellow and bright. Payton pinched his cheeks and Lily cooed. Connie rested her chin on the back of the seats and ruffled his hair. Michelle smirked. Addison put on her playlist. The first song was one of hers, naturally.
We drove off towards the pink and orange horizon.