Day 176 of 365 Days of Writing Prompts: Write about finding a way back home.
Shannon: When I was first asked to work on the documentary in my hometown, I did everything I could to try to get a different assignment. There was a reason I’d only traveled home for the holidays and very important special occasions. However, if I didn’t this one it would take years to get a second chance to prove myself. I didn’t have that kind of time.
I’d be spending the next few months taking up a room in my parent’s bed and breakfast until I could find a better option. The rest of my time would be spent interviewing my old neighbors. The ones who had never left, never forgot the crime that happened here years ago, and would probably have a few questions about where I ended up too. I’d kept my past at a distance for so long, I just hoped I could survive one more summer in a place where I never felt I belonged.
Erin: I lived right next to the water tower as a child. So if I could get close enough to home I could find the rest of my way home. To this day it has ruined my sense of direction. Now my phones GPS is my water tower, but at least I always find my way back home.
What brings your character back?
The rumours crept their way through the students, with varying degrees of accuracy and specificity, like an insidious vine taking root in the ancient grounds we’d come to think of a home of sorts. No one spoke of it in anything louder than an undertone and when I entered a room even the most vocal fell instantly silent. Surprisingly, everyone seemed to believe the illness that had plagued a good deal of us was the culprit of it all; that perhaps more of us were ripe to drop dead before their eyes. I suppose it was less that I’d been her roommate and more than I was sick along with her, and no one wanted to sound too terribly interested in the morbid possibility.
Though I knew better than they, and most of the student body, did, I still felt the icy spines of terror mingle with the grief that had already settled on my heart. While I’d spoken with lots of people about how they thought they knew Cari, she didn’t open up to anyone else. She hadn’t told a single soul, other than perhaps Mira, that she secretly loved the freedom being under her spell granted her. The burden of remembering everything she’d ever seen weighed heavily on her shoulders, and I struggled to understand how she felt. In the short time we’d known each other, I’d learned to understand a girl who was my opposite in almost every way possible; she pretended to not care about anyone, even though she did. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have realized that I was being so selfish with my life when I wore a mask of compassion, while I felt no real connection to anyone. But when Cari pretended to not care about anyone, she felt enormous guilt for it.
My roommate made me see how I could be a better person, and the White Rose Society couldn’t take that away from me. Though, they certainly tried. For a week after Cari disappeared, because that was the official story, I went about my days in a daze and my schoolwork became indecipherable drivel punctuated with nonsensical words and jumbled letters. Professors didn’t know how to handle it so I was sent to the university’s psychologist for evaluation; it was simply grief, but it wasn’t going to just go away.
When I got back from the counselor’s office, a note waited for me on my bed on the wrong side of my locked dorm door. It lay there like an ominous symbols of impending doom, so I swept it onto the floor, dropped my bag so heavily on the floor I hear something crunch and leaned back on my bed. Across the room, Cari’s bed stood cold and her closet empty as though she’d never existed in the room at all. As I closed my eyes and imagined what might have happened to her after she left the room that night, I thought about what I could have done to stop her from going.
That line of thought always disappeared down the edge and into despair where I spun in circles; if I’d gone to help her she might still be alive, but there was nothing I could do now, but I could have done something. Blinking suddenly, breaking the dangerous line of thought, I rested my eyes on the masterpiece painted on the ceiling.
After a couple of days, someone from the university had come to paint over it, but I wouldn’t let them in the door. A day later some of the welcoming committee stopped by to request the picture be well-documented and painted over. Again, I couldn’t let them; the shock was still so fresh in my mind and I felt like it would negate her even coming to the school to destroy it.
In the end, they stopped pestering me in the hopes I would eventually consent to it. I wasn’t ever going to give them permission to do it, but I made a decision to leave the university and go home. Perhaps I’d start a charity to help people like us, or do some research on the Dryad Society I kept hearing about. But I just couldn’t stay in a place that would cover up the murder of a student in the wholehearted way they had.
Taking pictures of the map on our ceiling, I devolved into a puddle on the carpet, letting the tears flow freely as I snapped as many photos as I could. The second I told them I was leaving, I knew they’d come to ruin her masterpiece, but I wanted to remember this place forever to remind me what I was fighting.
But, as I was throwing my camera back into my bag and straightening my comforters someone knocked lightly on the door, humming slightly. At first I felt sick to my stomache; this was exactly how it happened with Cari and I didn’t think they’d risk my not reading the letter this time. I crossed the room when the knock came again, slightly more insistent the second time, and listened through the crack for any clues. When I decided I couldn’t determine who it was without opening the door, I unlocked it and pulled it ajar.
Standing before me was a pixie in a light shabby chic dress and long, wispy hair that fell down her back. Though she wasn’t smiling, there was a strange, friendly nature to her worried eyes and thin-lipped frown. When she stuck out her hand, I gripped it firmly, using up my remaining strength to appear strong in the face of a non-yellow-eyed person. “Hi, I’m Elsa. I’m really sorry Lynn,” she stated in a calm, steady tone as she stared into my soul. “I’m so sorry about Cari, but I really do need to speak with you before you go.” Without further explanation, she dropped her hand, reached into her bag and pulled a small, folded piece of paper sealed with ice-blue. She dropped the page into my still-outstretched hand and turned on her heel, pacing out of sight within seconds.
It took me a long time to come to terms with moving from the spot, closing the door and locking it securely behind me. There was a terrible battle being fought between two sides of me; the part that wanted to get back at Mira and hers, and the half that just wanted to go home before anything else had a chance to happen. Both sides, however, agreed that this Elsa chick might be baiting me, so I left the letter lie for a few long, terrible hours. Something about the secrecy of a letter made me furious and somber at the same time.
I’d gone to bed to lie awake tossing and turning until the wee hours of the morning, as I’d done most nights for the past week, when I had a sudden thought. Bolting upright so awake I might have just hade an eight-hour sleep, I flicked on my lamp and gazed hungrily at the letter on the carpet. Clearly this woman knew that Cari had been killed and hadn’t simply been an accidental death because of some off-colour whiskey, so she must know at least as much as I did. And, from where I could see them both, her letter was sealed with a completely different crest; perhaps it was the Dryad Society.
Prowling out of bed and picking up the square of paper as though it were a dangerous animal that might bite me at any moment, I carefully opened it a moderately-sized brass key dropping into my lap. I spun the metal object around to make sure it was real, as a dreamlike state had taken over from the usual sleepless exhaustion that had been plaguing the nights. Though I wasn’t completely certain of the validity of the key, I laid it gently on my bedside table to read the messy scrawl that was on the paper.
I don’t have much time and I don’t want to tell you anything until we speak in person so I’ll keep this brief. Your friend didn’t accidentally die; it’s been written in the stars for longer than either of us can comprehend. We don’t know if what they were doing worked or not, for sure, but based on their leader’s mood, I’d say it’s a safe bet that it didn’t work. That doesn’t mean any of us are any safer, though, it just means they’re mad now. The key opens the door. Find N.A. at S.A. for directions.
I stared at the vague note with deep interest as the thick black lines blurred together and sloshed around in my head like too much water. There were obvious instructions somewhere in there, but I couldn’t decipher their meaning. When the world swam in an ocean of deep, murky water I let it swallow me whole.
Suddenly waking with bright afternoon sunlight dripping in through the open window, I gave a start as I nodded awake and found myself leaning awkwardly against my bedframe with Elsa’s letter lying beside me. Sleep had been piled in my eyes after the first good nights’ sleep I’d had in a week and I blinked it away viciously. Yawning loudly and stretching my stiff muscles, I got to my feet and switched off the unnecessary table lamp. Then I stooped to pick up the open letter, rereading it in my head with the key in my fingers.
When I’d committed the short instructions to memory, I stuck the letter under my mattress, along with the red-sealed one, and rushed out the door. Along the way to the campus offices, I strutted past groups of gossiping students whispering behind their hands as they saw me pass them; I couldn’t get off this island fast enough. At the same time, though, I felt like I belonged with a lot of these people more than I’d ever done before, which gave the urge a metallic taste in my mouth. The offices loomed and I mounted the stone steps, still stiff-backed and with a sore head, but determined all the same.
Once I was standing in the dim entrance hall, lined with dark wood panelling and hung with elegant tapestries with inscriptions, mostly Latin, needlepointed into the rich fabrics. To the right was the student affairs office, which I assumed was referenced in the letter, though the clerk there was very strict and was never in a good mood, so I figured the quest was already a lost cause. As I slid through the doorway, admiring a particularly exquisite marble bust, I spotted the secretary with her head bowed before her computer screen, clearly in deep thought. I was about to chicken out when I shifted my weight and the floorboard I was on squealed horribly into the relative silence, arousing the messy-haired woman.
“Yes, dear?” she asked in a courteous voice, a slight smile twitching at her lip. With an interested tilt of her symmetrical face, she looked like a puppy waiting for me to ask her a question, knowing full well she wouldn’t answer it anyway.
I moved forward a few steps deliberately, mirroring her tired smile and speaking in a squeaky voice that Cari would have found hilarious, “Well-” With the thought of Cari, came a prickling behind my eyes and I stopped myself before the waterworks could start. Nodding them away, I started again. “Sorry, I know you’re very busy, but I needed to find a student whose, uh, whose key I, uh, found this morning,” I lied through my teeth, deciding at the last minute against a vague reason. “The initials are N.A. and I figured you could just give me a list of those students so I could ask them.” I finished, the smiled growing slightly, before adding in a rushed tone, “Please.”
After a moment of thought, she glanced round at her desk before chuckling dryly, “Actually, as luck would have it, I had a list spontaneously print this morning with one name on it; Nira Andrelli. This stupid thing is always printing random stuff, but I guess it was just meant to be,” she spoke in a calm voice, as though this kind of thing happened all the time, handing me the page with Nira’s information. Nodding politely to her, I took my leave without giving her the chance to realize how strangely-serendipitous that was.
Nira, as it turned out, was in my dorm building. When I knocked on her door and showed her the key, she pulled me into her messy room and told me she’d take me lest someone else saw me; she seemed very excited to have a mission from Elsa and wouldn’t shut up about it the entire time. After doing a couple loops around the campus just to be sure, we finally arrived outside an uninteresting door and Nira knocked, slid her key into the lock and opened it for me.
Ushering me ahead of her, she shut the door and torches flared up in a long, damp hallway leading down. We stepped down into a comfortable room after a minute of leisurely walking down the stairs, hanging onto the cold metal railings. The whole room was filled with students milling about, some sporting wide eyes and bitten nails while others leaned against comfortable furniture with apathetic expressions on their faces. Elsa was flitting about passing people papers and doling out hugs as though they were candy.
When she spotted me, she rushed over with a paper in her trembling fingers and a quiver in her voice, “Ah! Great, Lynn, things are starting to heat up so we’re sending a lot of you home, just to be on the safe side. We’re all in danger so we’re going to make some holes in those apple lover’s plans. Ha!” she shouted over the din, passing me the paper. “This is a ticket for the ferry. Most of these people will be joining at the crack of dawn tomorrow so you’d best get back to your dorm and pack.” Pausing for a much-needed breath, she saw the melancholy look in my eyes and laid a hand heavily on my shoulder and whispered, “I really am sorry about Cari. That should never have happened. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now.”
We stood silent and still for a moment of quiet before she hurried off to the next group, leaving me feeling oddly cold and alone with my way back home firmly grasped in my hand.
August and Mocha gets off the merchant ship after the crew bids them farewell. They managed to convince him to wait until they were paid, because then they could give him enough for a few days. August finds a place to sleep for the evening that takes dogs. In the morning, he takes a shower, eats, and then looks for a map. The crew told him the city they would land in, which is in Virginia. He finds a road that’s headed Northwest, toward Minnesota.
He knew his team was in New York, but he needs to see Heather. To be sure that she’s home, that she’s alright. He packs up the map, then hefts his backpack, “Let’s go, Mocha. We have a lot more walking ahead of us.”
Mocha barks, excited to be moving. August starts for the correct road to get out of the city. They have to stop once in the evening, but finally step out of the city and continue down the road with forest on either side. Mocha stays by his side obediently, but occasionally runs ahead when there is a squirrel or other creature.
When evening falls, August is determined to keep walking. His feet are sore and even Mocha is protesting a bit. At the next motel they find, August pays for a room. They don’t allow dogs, so Mocha sleeps just outside the door. The next day, they are back to walking, eating as they go.
They briefly pass through Pennsylvania into the tenth day. August stops at a gas station for a new map. He walks into Ohio and takes a seat at the side of the road. He massages his feet, watching the occasional car pass him. Mocha sits next to him, panting. “Sorry, girl,” August says as he notices her paws are cut up a bit. Mocha licks them as she lays down. August runs his fingers over her fur, but knows he can’t do much about her paws. He knows they should keep going, but he’s tired. They’ve been walking all day.
A shadow then comes over his back as a car pulls up. August turns around and looks at the blue sedan. The passenger window comes down, revealing a dark skinned middle aged woman with a ball cap.
August nods, “Hello.”
“Why are you sitting on the road for?” She asks him.
August sighs, “Just trying to get home.”
“Need a ride?” The driver asks, who is another woman like the first.
August doesn’t want to refuse, but he doesn’t know these people, “I’ll be okay.”
“We’ll give you a ride. Where are you headed?” The passenger asks.
“No, ma’am, you don’t have to,” August says.
“Boy, your dog is exhausted and you are too,” the driver states, “We are offering you a ride and you say no?”
“I was taught to not get into strange cars,” August states.
The two look at each other, then back at him. “Where are you headed?”
“We can bring you as far as Indiana,” the driver states, “I’m Dixie.”
“And I’m Karla,” the passenger adds, “You?”
“…August. This is Mocha,” he motions to the dog. Mocha stands up and puts her front paws on the open window. She licks Karla’s chin. August chuckles to himself.
“Well, if Mocha likes you, who am I to disagree,” he says as he stands up. He opens the back door and Mocha bounds inside. August sits down on the seat and closes the door. He sighs for a second, happy to not be sitting on dirt. He puts his seatbelt on and they’re off.
“You must have had a long journey,” Karla states.
“Yeah…” August sighs.
“Get some rest. Lord knows you need it.”
August doesn’t have to be told twice. He leans against the window and arm, curling his feet up. Mocha lays her head on his boots.
The car stops and August wakes up. He looks around, seeing Karla and Dixie getting out. Dixie turns to him, “Evenin’ August.”
August gets out of the car, finding he’s at a farm. He gets his hopes up for a second, but then knows it’s not the Morse Farm. “Where are we?”
“Our home. This is as far as we can take you, but we’re in Indiana,” Karla states.
“Thank you,” August lets Mocha out of the car. She sticks to his side.
“Come on in, we’ll cook you something. And there’s some dog food for Mocha,” Dixie insists.
“I don’t want to impose,” August says, “we should get going.”
“It’s late. You shouldn’t be walking in the dark. And you could use a bath, young man.”
“Well…” August looks out to the road.
“There’s a bus at the next town. It could take you farther. But it won’t return until tomorrow,” Karla informs.
“How do you know that?”
“Our brother is arriving on it tomorrow.”
August nods, ‘Yes, they would know that.’
“Come inside and off your feet. We insist.”
August follows them. Karla starts making dinner, while Dixie gets August up the stairs and into the bath. August makes sure to scrub all the dirt off. When he’s out, the second pair of clothes he brought is clean. He dresses and goes down the stairs. Dixie is looking at Mocha’s paws. Mocha protests, but doesn’t pull away.
“I’ll give her a bath,” August says. Mocha starts to stand up, wincing at her paws.
“There’s a hose outside,” Karla states from the kitchen. August goes outside. He sheds his shirt and washes Mocha. When both are dried and August dons his shirt again, they both go inside. Mocha eats her dog food and August sits down with the women for a good home cooked meal.
After the meal, August is thoroughly exhausted. He insists sleeping on the couch, but he and Mocha are ushered to a spare bedroom. Even though he slept on beds in the past nights, they might as well have been wooden slabs compared to this bed.
In the morning, there’s eggs, bacon, and toast waiting for him. He finishes, and cleans the back of their car of the dirt he tracked into it. He was determined to pay them back for their generosity. He cleaned the dishes and made his bed. Then Dixie drove him to the bus stop, where she’s picking up her brother.
The man stepped over to the car, eyeing August curiously. “Dix, who’s this?”
“This is August. We found him sittin’ at the road in Ohio,” Dixie says, “we gave him a room for the night. He’s such a nice boy, and needed to get to Minnesota.”
“Your sisters have been very kind to me, sir,” August says. The two shake hands.
“My name’s Bart. Do you have a ticket for the bus?”
August shakes his head, “But I have some money for one.” He starts to look for the wallet he’s been using. He then frowns when he notices it is empty, “…I thought.”
“Young man, don’t worry,” Bart says.
“Oh no, sir, you don’t have to pay for my ticket,” August says, seeing where this is going.
“It’s a long walk to Minnesota, August,” Bart says.
“We’ll be fine, won’t we Mocha,” August states, ruffling the dog’s head, “Besides, the bus may not take dogs.”
“I can help with that,” Bart says. Dixie lightly slaps her brother’s arm with a scoff.
August gets onto the bus, paying with his ticket. There’s an alarm sounding. The driver gets out and goes to the back of the bus, which opened up. He mutters, closing it and turning the alarm off. August sits at a window seat. He hears quiet panting. He looks down. Mocha is squeezed under the seat next to him, smiling wide. He puts a finger to his lips, suppressing a smile.
Next stop, Janesville Wisconsin. And then home.