3 days before the expedition into Everwood Forest, night
“Axie? Really?” Axel hissed.
“It’s a thing she does. She adds an ‘ee’ sound to the names of people she likes. Think of it as a good thing!”
“I’ll think of it as a silly thing.”
Jess merely groaned in response.
Axel was back at Jess’ house, but as it turned out, she wasn’t the only person he was there to spend time with. The two were waiting by the microwave, making popcorn. Axel looked back to Lucy through the kitchen divider. She was idly watching TV, sitting on the carpet.
“So is she just going to be sitting with us the whole night?” he asked.
“Is that a problem? She likes you! I don’t know how you did it after repeatedly trying to scare her, but you made a good impression last time you were here.”
The microwave started beeping. Jess opened it and gestured for Axel to pass her a bowl.
“Alright, fine,” Axel sighed, sliding the bowl across the counter. “But I’m not going to dumb down my vocabulary for her.”
Jess poured the bag of popcorn into the bowl. “I wouldn’t expect you to. You’re not the kind of person to make sacrifices.”
“At least you recognise that I consider it a sacrifice.”
“Unfortunately, you don’t recognise sarcasm,” Jess uttered, grabbing the bowl. The two walked back to the couch in front of the TV. Axel immediately collapsed onto the couch. Jess leaned over and offered some popcorn to Lucy.
“Thank you Jessie!” Lucy exclaimed, carefully picking some from the bowl. Jess gave an aside glance to Axel, seemingly to point out Lucy’s addition of an ‘ee’ sound at the end of her name. Axel merely rolled his eyes in response.
Axel had been thinking a lot about the forest since he met with Shade the day before, and was eager to talk to more people about it. He scooped up a handful of popcorn and shoved it into his mouth. Still chewing, he blurted out to Jess, “Hey, have you ever thought about what’s on the other side of Everwood Forest?”
This was his idea of subtly inserting it into conversation.
Jess eyed Axel, perturbed, though mainly because with every word he spoke he was getting closer to spitting out a mouthful of popcorn. “Um, not really. Why?”
“I mean,” Axel swallowed. “Isn’t it weird that it was never mentioned to us in school?”
“Since when were you so interested in education?” Jess retorted. “I remember when I was there, you and Evan went to lengths to avoid learning. You two and your ‘ignorance is bliss’ song, I swear…”
Axel smiled at the mention of the song, though it quickly faded when he noticed the contempt in Jess’ voice.
“Anyway,” she continued, “you have to remember that our school wasn’t exactly directed at our age bracket. If you wanted to learn more you should have dropped out and gotten home-schooled like me.”
Because Everwood’s community was so small, there was only one class in the school, so Axel and Evan (and Jess, when she was enrolled) were grouped together with the children. Although the two were given different work than the children, there was a higher demand for the children to be educated than them. Axel and Evan were inevitably neglected and graduated only in the loosest sense of the word.
“Yeah…but that’s over now,” Axel uttered. “In a few months I’ll start working anyway.”
Axel trailed off. He wondered how his question led him to question his own education.
“Anyway,” he repeated, “isn’t it in the children’s interest to know, too? It’s basic geography.”
“Children only need to learn the geography of Everwood Town,” Jess said. “All the adults here were born and raised in this town. Did you expect to leave here?”
Axel didn’t answer. Instead he turned to Lucy, who was focused on the TV. “Hey Lucy, are you interested in what’s on the other side of the forest?”
Lucy was excited to be directly addressed, but hesitated when she heard the word ‘forest’. “We shouldn’t go into the forest because there’s a monster,” she said, reciting what various adults had told her. “I heard that one of the boys saw it!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, eating a bird,” Axel sighed. “But ignoring this…monster,” he spat the word out, “would you think it’s worth knowing what’s on the other side?”
Lucy looked puzzled. “But we wouldn’t be able to get to the other side because of the monster…?”
“And that invalidates it, then?” Axel raised from the couch, growing frustrated. “We’re not allowed to know because there’s some danger? Some threat?”
Axel said this without even considering that the supposed monster, whom he knew to be Shade, wasn’t actually a threat. His outburst seemed to have been brought upon by some other principle. Lucy gave a look even more uncertain than the last.
“Axel,” Jess interrupted, “could you not implicitly encourage my sister to wander into the forest?”
Axel turned to Jess, disparaged, but did not respond.
“Look,” she sighed, “I’m not trying to discourage you from being curious, I’m just trying to provide reasons for why none of us know. School is only concerned with teaching children the basics, and knowledge of what’s beyond the forest isn’t necessary when everyone spends their whole life here.”
Axel raised an eyebrow. “And you’re okay with knowing that you’ll never leave town?”
“I’ve come to accept it over the years,” Jess let out a breath. “I’m surprised it took you this long to consider, honestly.”
Axel thought back to the years spent singing ‘ignorance is bliss’ and swallowed hard.
“I’ll become the greatest artist in town though, so I’m okay with it,” Jess smirked.
Axel coughed. “Only since you’ll be the only artist.”
“Not my fault there’s no competition.”
“What if I become an artist?” Lucy interjected. “I bet I’d be better than you!”
“Lucy,” Jess smiled, “if you were an artist too, then we’d collaborate and make even better art.”
Lucy beamed. “Aww, thanks Jessie!”
Axel wanted to talk about the forest more, but realised the conversation had flowed past it. He was wary about appearing obsessed over it, so he didn’t want to force it into conversation. In the meantime he didn’t seem to pick up on the sisterly bonding taking place. “Sure,” he grinned, “get her to collaborate because you’re scared she’d beat you otherwise.”
“Hey, shut up,” Jess retorted. Axel looked back with a pout, then picked a kernel from the bowl and flicked it at her, hitting her right on the forehead. Jess was ready to smack him in response but stopped when she heard Lucy giggle at it. Instead, Jess only gave Axel a glare that he interpreted as ‘If that didn’t entertain Lucy, I would kill you’. He swallowed, and nodded in acknowledgement. And yet, he considered it as a challenge. If he kept Lucy happy, he could get away with more. Axel wondered what else he could do to entertain Lucy. He glanced at the TV, and noticed Lucy had been watching some children’s show with puppets.
“Hey Lucy, you like puppets, huh?” Axel smiled. Lucy looked over to the TV, seemingly to double-check what she was watching. She then looked to Axel and nodded. “Jess, go fetch me a torch and turn out a few lights,” he ordered. He intentionally sounded forceful to test the limits of what he could get away with. He was pleased to see that she complied, though with some reluctance.
Axel faced a blank wall and held one hand in front of the torch. He twisted his fingers around to make an image on the wall.
“Look,” Axel said to Lucy. “It’s a duck! And now…” he moved his fingers around. “It’s a rabbit! And look!” he shifted his fingers again. “Now it’s a dragon!”
Lucy was impressed at how Axel projected shadows on the wall, but not so much at the images he made. “Why do the dragon and the duck look the same?” she asked.
“He didn’t say he was good with shadow puppets,” Jess scoffed.
“Hey!” Axel exclaimed. “The dragon and the duck are totally different! This one breathes fire!”
Axel demonstrated the dragon ‘breathing fire’, but this only meant him gesturing the dragon opening its mouth and simultaneously making hissing noises. But after two times, a peculiar thing happened.
As Axel gestured the dragon opening its mouth for a third time, a silhouette shaped like actual fire flung forth from the shadow dragon’s mouth. The dark flames curled along the wall, twisting and turning, before crackling in the light of the torch. Lucy, amazed, had her eyes glued to the wall in wonder. Jess, stunned, turned around to check Axel’s hands to see how he did it. However, she apparently looked to him too late because his hands weren’t moving when she observed him. And lastly, Axel, the most confused of all, had no idea what the hell had just happened because he did nothing at all to produce the fire effect.
Jess looked up from Axel’s hands and noticed the utterly confused expression on his face. “Uh, are you okay?” she asked.
“Y-yeah,” he stammered, “I just surprised myself with how good at shadow puppets I am.”
“Axie, that was amazing!” Lucy said, eyes beaming. “How’d you get so good?”
“Yeah actually, that was pretty good,” Jess admitted. “I doubted you at first, but you must have been leading us on. How did you make those fire effects? You barely moved your hands for that bit.”
“Uh, ah ah ah,” Axel wagged his finger, “a shadow puppeteer never reveals his secrets.”
“Isn’t that saying only for magicians?” Jess probed.
“Nonsense, it can be applied to other professions. Now, uh, could I use your bathroom?” Axel didn’t wait for Jess to respond before getting up to leave. By now, Axel had figured out what was going on; he had only gone to the bathroom to get some privacy.
In the bathroom, he leaned over his shadow and stared intently at it. Waving an arm around, he confirmed his suspicions: his shadow’s arm movements had more weight to them.
“Shade! What are you doing here!?” he hissed.
A familiar voice came from his shadow. “You said I should familiarise myself with the town if I ever hoped to integrate myself into it! So I’ve been chilling in your shadow all day.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me you were going to follow me into town?”
The voice snickered. “Heh. Well I wanted to be able to spook you next time you visited the forest by talking about things you wouldn’t think I was there for.”
Axel groaned. “Ignoring how petty that is, that doesn’t excuse you manipulating my shadow back there. When I said familiarise yourself with the town, I meant observe! We don’t need more rumours about you appearing in town.”
“Oh please, surely you’re not comparing me eating a bird to entertaining a child?”
“It doesn’t matter what you were doing, if people know you were involved then they will freak. The ‘monster of Everwood Forest’ showing up in someone’s house? I doubt children have even considered that you could appear anywhere other than the forest. We need to fix your reputation before you can make any appearances in town.”
Shade sighed. “Well can we hurry up with fixing my reputation? I hated sitting there and listening to that child, Lucy, say why she couldn’t go into the forest.”
“Yeah I’m sorry, that must suck. But at the same time we’re playing a long game; no wild or crazy event is going to solve all this. You keep watch around town, without interacting with people, and be wary about being caught doing anything. I’ll try and drop subtle comments here and there to defend your reputation whenever it gets brought up.”
“Alright,” Shade uttered with some resignation.
“Great,” Axel smiled. “Now, if you’d like to watch me try and entertain a little girl while simultaneously bothering her older sister, feel free to stick around.”
“It’s not like I have anything else to do.”
“You got me there,” Axel grinned as he reached for the bathroom door.