ToE – Company and Shadows – Part 1

5 days before the expedition into Everwood Forest, night

A shiver ran up Axel’s spine, throwing him out of his daze.

What have I been doing? he thought to himself. A quick survey of what lay in front of him suggested he was lying on his couch, watching TV at his house. However at second glance, he realised it wasn’t his couch, nor his TV — this wasn’t even his house! But if it wasn’t his house, whose house was it? Axel looked around and noticed what appeared to be a family photo, framed and hung on the wall. The photo displayed a mother, a father and two daughters, one in her late teens and the other a small child. Upon closer inspection, he recognized the older daughter as his friend, Jess. He concluded that he was in Jess’ house (a safe assumption). But where’s Jess, then? The only reason he would be in her house would be to hang out with her, yet here he was sitting and watching TV by himself — not hanging out with her. Perhaps we were watching TV together, but she left to go to the bathroom or something? That would make sense. She’ll probably be back soon. I better just wait here.

There were times when Axel fell into a trance-like state from inactivity or doing repetitive tasks, like a computer on standby. He could reduce his responsive system down to the simplest form necessary for survival: breathing and blinking plus walking, eating and drinking if required. He was even capable of holding basic conversations if approached while in this state. However, he remembered little from when he was dazed. Unfortunately, Axel had a discussion about this exact thing with Jess the day before and how much it frustrated her. Promises were even made for him to be more attentive. So, not wanting to disappoint her, it was important to Axel that he pretend he hadn’t just forgotten everything he had been doing. But considering it more, he wasn’t sure how to go about doing so because he didn’t know where Jess was. Was she waiting in another room, expecting him to follow? If so, she’d know something was up if he waited on the couch. Or was she going to come back? Then it would be weird if he got up to look for her. Considering this, Axel eventually decided that continuing to sit and watch TV was the option that required the least physical effort and was therefore the best one.

At least, he would have continued watching TV had a young girl not walked in front of him and sat down on the carpet to watch, obscuring his vision. He recognized her as the younger daughter from the family photo: Jess’ sister.

Ah yes! This is Lucy, Axel remembered, Jess talks about her sometimes…well, complains about her sometimes, but that’s not important.

Ever eager to get a clear view of the TV screen, Axel spoke up. “Excuse me Lucy, would you mind moving over a little? I can’t see the TV properly.”

Lucy turned around and gawked at Axel (probably wondering who this person was and how he knew her name). “What?” she asked.

Axel was never good at speaking with children, since he refused to dumb down his vocabulary for them. He noticed others avoid complex words and ideas when speaking to children, and he never understood why.

What’s the point of that? he wondered. They’ll never learn anything that way. However, Axel neglected to admit that this ‘baby speak’ he despised was exactly how his parents talked to him as a child.

“I said, would you mind moving over a little?”

“Who are you?” Lucy asked in return, ignoring Axel’s request.

“I’m Axel. But I’d still like you to –”

“Oh!” Lucy exclaimed. “You’re Jessie’s friend, aren’t you?”

Axel nodded, and couldn’t help but notice Lucy still hadn’t moved.

“Yeah, I know you,” she said (continuing to sit still), “Jessie talks about you sometimes.”

Axel, suddenly intrigued, decided to drop the subject of Lucy’s absolute immovability. “Oh? What does she say?”

“Depends…” Lucy’s eyes wandered to the ceiling. “Bad things recently.”

Axel looked unimpressed.

“But don’t be mad at her for that!” Lucy panicked, “she hasn’t been feeling well for a while now.”

“What do you mean, is she sick?”

“No…Something’s been making her feel bad. Making her think bad things. Say bad things.”

Axel raised an eyebrow. “And how do you figure that? I’ve been around her recently and she seems alright.”

“She keeps quiet about it. But I can tell. Sometimes I get this feeling when I’m around people. When I walk by Jessie’s bedroom and she’s in there, I only feel bad things.”

“…So you’ve only got a general feeling? No specific examples or evidence?” Axel gave her a wry smile. “Sorry Lucy, but that isn’t proper grounds to be building a persuasive argument upon. Gut feelings are meaningless in a debate.”

Lucy looked at Axel, confused. He must have lost her with his talk of persuasive arguments. Axel sighed. He didn’t want to disagree with Lucy, even if she was a child (which to him meant she was naïve and prone to being wrong), since she would have been around Jess a lot more than him.

“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure not to be mean to Jess, in case you are right,” Axel said, scratching his chin in thought. “And if you are right,” he added, “that’s a ridiculous amount of empathy you have. You said you feel bad if you’re around someone else that’s feeling bad?”

Lucy nodded her head.

“Hm, then how about this? Tell me how you’re feeling after a moment.”

Axel thought back to the dream he had the previous night. The Dream Monster, unmoving, yet imposing incomprehensible pain upon Axel.

And the worms…

Lucy started to panic, and shut her eyes. “I feel bad,” she whispered.

Axel raised an eyebrow. So she knew I was thinking of something bad? he thought. Does that mean she just read my thoughts?

“What was I thinking?” he tested Lucy.

“How would I know?” Lucy retorted, as if it was the dumbest question in the world. Then she went quiet again. “It was just…bad.”

Riiight. Maybe this kid’s just a weirdo, Axel concluded. A pessimist. Probably claims everyone is feeling bad all the time.

He decided to toy with Lucy one more time so he could go back to watching TV. “Say, I couldn’t help but notice that you shut your eyes when you were feeling bad. What’s up with that?”

“My dad told me to close my eyes until the bad things in my head go away.”

Axel grinned, and jumped on her words like a predator leaping onto prey. “But that won’t work forever, Lucy!” he exclaimed. “The darkness — your bad feelings — they learn. They adapt. Soon enough, closing your eyes won’t be enough to stop them. And what do you do, then? Try something different? That might work…but once again, not forever. Superstition can’t save you from the darkness, oh no! Sooner or later, it will begin to consume you — corrupt you. And in the end, all that will be left of you is a shrivelled husk of what once was, but is now…no more.”

Axel noticed Lucy had shut her eyes. Despite me saying how useless it was to, he thought.

He smiled to himself, satisfied. Some people enjoy the laughter of children, while Axel evidently enjoyed their fear. And he added, his lips still curled, “and you know what might save you from the darkness a little while longer? Moving over a little.”

Then Lucy, still panicking, looked up at him and obeyed. With a clear view of the TV once again, Axel let out a breath of satisfaction.

But his satisfaction was short-lived. A familiar voice startled him before he could get comfy — a female voice.

“Man that was dark!” Jess exclaimed, having suddenly appeared, standing behind the couch. “You should write children’s books.”

Needless to say, Axel was caught by surprise. “Oh — uh — hey Jess,” he stammered, twisting his body around to face her. “Just telling Lucy a story.”

“About darkness and corruption? You’re lucky Lucy doesn’t even know what a shrivelled husk is. What’s taking you so long, anyway?”

‘What’s taking me so long’, what’s she talking about? Axel wondered, a little worried.

Then, Lucy piped up. “I do too know what a shrivelled husk is!” she retorted. Of course, she didn’t actually, but she didn’t like Jess saying she didn’t. The interruption gave Axel some more to think, at least.

Ooooh, I guess Jess was in another room waiting for me after all. Curse me for deciding to continue lying on the couch.

“Quiet Lucy, I’m trying to defend you,” Jess said to Lucy.

“Doesn’t sound like it…” Lucy mumbled.

Jess groaned, then turned her attention back to Axel. “So? What was taking you so long?”

“I dunno, I guess I got too comfortable on this couch,” he uttered with a weak chuckle. He started to bounce on the couch to try and emphasise how comfy it was.

Jess wasn’t amused. Then, she came to a sudden realization: “did you completely zone out?” she asked. “Is that why you didn’t follow me, because you forgot?”

“No! No, Lucy distracted me,” Axel panicked. “That’s why I didn’t follow you to…uh…”

He stopped, hoping for Lucy to interrupt him. But she didn’t, and Jess was waiting for him to finish his sentence. “Come on Axel,” she said impatiently, “where were you meant to follow me to?”

Come on Lucy, you interrupt Jess but not me? I could use a few more seconds to think…

Axel’s eyes shot across the room; there were several connecting rooms and he didn’t see what one Jess had come from either. He considered guessing a random room, but eventually decided to confess his ignorance. “I don’t know,” he shrugged.

Jess gave a contemptuous ‘hmph’. “As I thought.”

Axel frowned. “Look, why is this such a big deal?” he shifted to a forceful tone and took a more upright position on the couch. “I’m a bit forgetful, sure, but it sure isn’t your place to criticise me for that.”

“It isn’t because you’re forgetful…” she trailed off. Then, she whispered, “It’s because you made a promise to me.”

Axel gave a similarly contemptuous smirk. “Heh. Well I guess that shows how valuable your promise was to me.”

His words pierced Jess’ composure. She stood there, her stance faltering, as if his comment had physically hurt her. Then she uttered, “I guess so.”

And then Jess turned to leave.

A few seconds after, Lucy spoke. “Why did you make Jessie leave like that?” she asked, innocent as a flower.

“Uh, I guess I went a little overboard…I’ll apologise to her later,” Axel mumbled. It’s not like I actually didn’t value her promise anyway, he thought. “Your sister can be a bit mean, though.”

Lucy didn’t respond.

“So uh,” he continued, “what were we talking about? Bad thoughts?”

“Oh!” Lucy exclaimed, as if she completely forgot what happened with Jess. “My mum taught me a special dance for making the bad feelings go away, too. I’ll show you!”

Before Axel could object, Lucy already had gotten up and started spinning, reciting what her mother had told her.

“Bad feelings, go away,

in my head you cannot stay,

nor in my heart, where my feelings lay,

so why don’t you just go away?”

Lucy stopped for a moment, then sat down again. She looked up at Axel expectantly, seemingly waiting for his approval.

“Uh, very nice,” he obliged, with a weak smile (and a raised eyebrow). Really, he was suppressing the urge to grimace. Habits children possessed like this, a dance to prevent bad thoughts, frustrated Axel as much as ‘baby speak’. Why are her parents shielding her from negativity with a silly dance? She’ll never learn to cope with bad things properly if she keeps it up.

So, he decided to use this dance to scare Lucy and dissuade her from doing it further. “But Lucy, like I said before, that won’t work forever, will it?” Lucy didn’t answer, but he continued anyway. He figured if his previous approach had failed, it was because she simply didn’t understand his talk of darkness and corruption. So Axel decided to approach from another angle. “Let’s look at things realistically. When you’re older, you’ll start making more friends, and start spending more time with them. What would you do if you were feeling sad or scared or any other ‘bad feeling’ when you were out with your friends? Would you sing that song and start spinning around like you just did?”

“Maybe,” she mumbled after a moment. Lucy wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this, but she didn’t like it. Axel was unconvinced with her answer and continued.

“And again, if a bad thought floated on into your head during this,” he made a gesture of a butterfly flapping its wings with his hands, “are you really going to close your eyes for however long it takes for the thought to float back out?”

After some thinking, Lucy nodded her head with more confidence.

Axel frowned. She’s only saying yes to be defiant, he thought, she doesn’t realise how dumb her habits are. I can still correct her behaviour.

“Remember that you would be in the company of your friends,” Axel reminded her. “They would all be exchanging looks as they saw what you were doing. They would think you’re weird.”

Lucy paused at this. Axel was expecting her to begin shutting her eyes or start dancing. But his words didn’t seem to distress her. In fact, as she looked up at him, instead of a worried expression there was a cautious smile on her face.

“Axel,” she whispered, “do you really think I’ll have friends when I’m older?”

Axel was stunned. That’s what she took from that comment? he thought. Was she too stupid to realise I insulted her, or was having friends that incredible of a thought to her? Didn’t Jess say yesterday Lucy heard that some boy saw the ‘monster of Everwood Forest’? But if she doesn’t have friends, then…

Axel tried imagining the scenario in his head. Perhaps outside the school, the kid, probably panicking, gathered all the children around – all his friends – to tell them all about what he saw. And who is sitting by her lonesome within earshot of the kid’s story? Lucy.

Balls. She really doesn’t need me being mean to her. What the hell am I doing, criticizing a child for being taught habits by her parents to keep her happy? She was talking about feeling bad just because she thought Jess was feeling bad, for goodness sake!

Nah. She can dance if she wants to.

After pausing to think about everything, Axel smiled the most he had the whole night and nodded.

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