“Axel! Wait up!”
Axel stopped, turned around and saw Jess, one of the other two teenagers in Everwood, walking towards him at a fast pace and with a bounce in her step. A look of disdain shot across his face, if only for a second. Was it of surprise or disappointment? Who knows.
Jess was of average height, but around Axel she appeared very short (he was probably almost a head taller than her). Her dark, naturally straight hair went down to about her shoulders and was often unkempt. She did try to keep her hair tidy using a headband, but her efforts was never entirely successful. She didn’t have to try very hard to look more stylish than Axel anyway.
Axel didn’t value his friendship with Jess as much as he did his friendship with Evan, the second of the other two teenagers in Everwood. However, he thought: I can’t push her away, because there’s literally no one I could befriend in my age bracket as a substitute. She’s not really that bad, anyway.
“Oh, hey Jess,” Axel said, quick to recompose himself.
“Hi! Doing some shopping?” she asked.
“Uh, sort of. I think I just finished shopping.”
“You think you finished shopping?”
“Well, I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention. But I have this bag full of groceries and everything,” he held up his shopping bag.
Jess sighed. “It’s a wonder you have enough focus to get out of bed every morning.”
“Hey, I can concentrate when it comes to important matters, like getting out of bed!” Axel grinned. He tended to diminish his own arguments like so for the sake of making a joke.
“But how do your parents trust you to get the groceries when you’re so out of it all the time? My parents never let me do it.”
“You want to do this? Going to the store is boring,” he placed one hand on the side of his head, as if taking hold of a dial, “which is why I tune myself out,” he added, twisting the imaginary dial with a smile on his face. Jess looked unimpressed.
“Axel, you’re such a doofus,” she sighed. He interpreted her use of ‘doofus’ as a term of endearment. “Don’t you buy some extra snacks for yourself or something? You know, to make it all worthwhile? That’s what I would do.”
“Nope, and that’s probably why your parents don’t let you do this. I’ve gained the trust of my parents because they give me money and a list of things to buy from the store and I get them. No more, no less, and I give them exact change. That is, no cutting corners and no getting extra things for myself.”
“…And does that pay off?”
“Of course!” he exclaimed and suddenly stood upright, raising a finger. “Well I mean, I can’t say for sure, but…” his stance faltered, and he began to scratch his head. “I think they’ve been turning a blind eye to when I go into the forest.”
Jess frowned. “You’re still doing that?”
“Of course!” he repeated, but remained slouched. “It’s where I go to, uh, clear my head.”
She looked at him with a trace of suspicion. “Isn’t that what your bedroom is for?”
“Nope. My bedroom is strictly for sleeping in. I’ll have you know I’ve got a system to adhere to!” he grinned once more. Jess looked confused. He sighed, shoved his free hand into his pocket and looked downwards. “I mean, I could just go to my bedroom, but it’s got this huge window that faces the forest, and it’s like the trees are peering into my room, taunting me, beckoning me…like the forest is saying to me, ‘Hey Axel, I bet you wish you could be inside me, huh?’ ”
A moment passed, then Axel realised what he just said. Jess appeared to be suppressing the urge to burst into laughter.
“Okay, that came out wrong,” he added in a panic, “but you get the idea.”
“I get that you need to install some blinds for that window. And you might want to see someone about that tree fetish of yours,” she grinned. Axel did not. “Oh come on,” she pleaded, “that was funny!”
“If you won’t laugh at my jokes, I won’t laugh at yours.”
“Who said I was joking?” she grinned again. “Okay sorry, I’ll stop. But still, be careful in there. Did you hear about the monster in the forest?”
Axel let out a sigh as soon as he heard the word ‘monster’. “Hear about it? That urban legend has been shoved down our throats for years now. It’s nothing new, just something our parents told us to keep us out of the forest.”
“No, I’m talking about what happened recently. My sister was telling me all about it. She said one boy actually saw the monster, feasting on a bird on the outskirts of town!”
Axel raised an eyebrow. Suddenly, he wasn’t so eager to drop the subject. “Huh. Did your sister say what the monster looked like?”
“Uh…” Jess tilted her head, recalling her memory while pretending to be deep in thought. “Oh yeah!”
What this boy saw was a strange creature indeed. The creature had its back turned to the boy, yet he could see that the creature had the figure of a small child. Dozens of waving red tendrils were deeply rooted within its back and black fog appeared to emanate from the creature’s skin, making it look like a living shadow. It was hunched over, holding the bird it was feasting on in two hands. It bit off chunks of the bird at a time. However, the creature’s appearance was mangled by gossip, and given the witness was a small child, the initial description was likely inaccurate to begin with. Jess had only described the creature to Axel as a ‘huge shadow thing that had red snakes coming out of its back’.
Axel let out a chuckle after hearing the description. “Snakes coming out of its back? This kid must have a wild imagination,” he retorted with a light smirk.
But still, he thought, aside from the snake nonsense, the description isn’t too dissimilar…
As he contemplated, his smile vanished. “Hm. Well, did the kid say it did anything violent or threatening?”
“It was eating a bird!” Jess exclaimed. “If it saw the boy, it probably would have tried eating him too!”
He frowned. “Not necessarily. There exists dozens of predatory animals that would eat birds but not humans. Cats, for example…are you sure he didn’t just see a cat?”
“But we’re not talking about an animal, we’re talking about a monster!”
“Please. There’s nothing to suggest it’s monstrous.”
Certainly unusual, but not a monster.
“And why are you so ready to defend this…not-a-monster?” Jess retorted.
“I just don’t think it’s wise of you to antagonize something you know little about.”
Jess didn’t seem to take Axel’s scrutiny well. As he noticed the frustrated look on her face, he quickly added, “Why are we even discussing this? We’re going off a child’s word, who was conveniently the single eyewitness to this occurrence. It could all be complete lies.”
Jess paused. “I know it might just be a random rumour spread by the kids around town, but…” she trailed off, then continued in a quiet voice, “just keep it in mind, okay?”
Axel avoided her gaze, and ran one hand through his hair. “Fine, whatever,” he responded dryly, “I’ll consider the existence of a monster with snakes coming out of its back next time I go into the forest.”
For about half a second, he thought.
Approximately five seconds of silence passed.
“So,” Jess suddenly returned to her joyful demeanour, “done any drawings lately?”
At this, Axel reached into his jumper pocket and after a moment of rummaging, pulled out a sketch pad. “Ah, here it is!” he said as he opened it. “I scribbled something based on a dream I had last night. Want to see?”
She nodded. As he flipped through page after page, she looked over his shoulder in bewilderment, staring at all of his weird drawings.
Jess had always been interested in Axel’s sketches and scribbles as she was a bit of an artist herself. Her father, Howard Roxton (Jess took her mother’s last name), had started up his own paper in the past few months: The Roxton Review, which Jess’ artwork was published in once every week. The paper itself was mediocre; every day in Everwood was a slow news day, and anything that was moderately interesting was usually already published by the dominating newspaper, The Everwood Times. And while his family would never admit it, Howard wasn’t that good of a journalist either. However, his paper managed to make a satisfactory amount of sales from people who bought it only to check out Jess’ artwork once a week, Axel being one of those people. Howard remained oblivious to this though, and he never understood why sales of his paper would spike on only one out of seven days.
“I call this the Dream Monster,” Axel said. “In my dream, this jerk tried to kill me!”
Finally reaching the drawing of the Dream Monster, he handed his sketch pad over to Jess. He watched her, curious to see her reaction. What his eyes met was however, a confused expression.
“I can’t make out parts of the drawing…” Jess uttered, looking back to Axel. Stepping over to her side with the sketch pad now in view, he was surprised to see how illegible his drawing was; he swore it looked better when he made it. His eyes must have deluded him.
“Oh…sorry, I drew this straight after I woke up. I must have been half asleep, which is probably why it’s a little sketchy.”
Jess pointed to the individual parts of the drawing. “Those are its eyes, right?”
“And the squiggly lines over the eyes…?”
“Oh. Those are worms, which have…infested the monster’s eye sockets.”
Axel looked at Jess and saw an uneasy expression on her face. He watched as she looked over the drawing once more; he could tell she was hesitant to ask for further clarification, and decided it was best not to point out anything else.
After another moment of studying the drawing, Jess gave the sketch pad back to him. “You said this was chasing you in your dream? That’s a nightmare, Axel! Weren’t you scared when you woke up?”
“That would require me to care enough about my dreams to elicit an emotional response,” he answered with a smirk. “Which I don’t.”
“Yeah, I got that,” she mumbled, unamused. “I get that a lot from you, actually. When you’re not completely out of it, you don’t care about anything. Aren’t you concerned about anything? Anything at all?”
“Sure I am!” Axel tried to sound offended.
Jess looked doubtful. “…Like?”
“The works, really; world peace, meaning of life, that sort of stuff,” he smiled. Jess only sighed, at which his smile faltered. “Dreams can’t be scary anyway,” he added in an attempt to reassure her. “This monster isn’t real,” he pointed at his drawing as he spoke, “it’s a figment of my imagination.”
“Axel, if that was in my dream, I would be terrified!” she said, pointing at the drawing to mimic his actions. Her arm movements were much more forceful and swift than Axel’s, though.
“Well yeah, but that’s just because you’re…” he stopped himself, since he knew he would regret finishing that sentence no matter how he ended it. “Never mind. I just know better than to be scared by something that my mind made up.”
“Oh, please Axel. Don’t be afraid to show a little emotion!” Jess looked up to him again. He didn’t respond. “Express yourself! Open your eyes to the world! Or something along those lines.”
Axel remained silent, but not from annoyance; deep in his mind, something shifted.
“Hey! Don’t zone out on me when I’m talking!” Jess continued.
“Hey!” Axel mimicked her voice. “I was listening.”
Jess looked doubtful. “Well, promise me this. In fact repeat after me: I, Axel Heronicus, promise to make more of an effort to stop zoning out, to pay more attention and to care about more things in general.”
Axel was sceptical, but obliged. “I, Axel Heronicus, promise to…whatever you said.”
Jess sighed. “Close enough.”
Another approximately five seconds of silence passed.
Jess returned to her joyful demeanour again. “Well, I’ve gotta go. See ya, Axel!”
“Uh, later,” he mumbled, a bit confused at her change in attitude. As the two walked in opposite directions, something occurred to Axel. “Oh, and you know what?” he turned, “I think I just cared about what you said.”
Jess looked back and smiled weakly.
“That’s right! I care about caring!” he added.
“That’s great Axel,” she kept smiling, but had a feeling he only called out for the sake of wordplay.