Authors: Jamie Rowboat
Tags: #Fiction Young Adults
"Yes, I do," Marie replied.
Marie's friendship with Charlie had taken her by surprise in many different ways. He was not particularly good-looking, but he had the strength of kindness in his eyes and a natural caring manner. She had come to understand a lot more about Charlie as she got to know his parents and entered his home life. The simple unity that existed in their family was something that she envied. What had puzzled her though, was Charlie's nervousness, which seemed out of context with the stability of his upbringing. Evelyn had laughed when she'd brought the subject up in the kitchen the weekend before.
"He's got an angel in his life and he's terrified that she's going to fly away because he's too inexperienced to make her happy. That's why he's nervous Marie, that and the fact that he was born that way and I've become grey before my time trying to relieve it," she'd said, with a broad smile. Marie and Evelyn had found a simple place of enjoyment in each other's company over the past few months. They each had a natural reserve to their characters that had taken a while to melt. However, Evelyn had soon sensed the deep beauty of the young woman who stood on the threshold of their family. When she was with Marie, she thought that she was looking at herself in a mirror. The way Marie spoke and felt about life made Evelyn's heart jump with empathy and she adored the chance to give the young woman the space to have her thoughts heard and welcomed. Something she had yearned for so hard herself at Marie's age, but had never received.
With Evelyn, Marie felt a freedom that she had not experienced before. She had a chance to express herself in a way that she would never have dared with her own mother. Jackie was far too caught up in her own life to hear about her daughter's. There was a new boyfriend, an old husband and a career for Marie to compete with for attention. She knew her mother loved her, but she was too stretched to really tune into Marie's needs and it had been like that for as long as she could remember.
"Oh my goodness, Charlie! What's happened to you?" gasped Gemma.
The question pulled Marie out of her thoughts and she followed Gemma's gaze in the direction of the main gate, where Charlie was entering, leaning heavily on his bike. Even from where she was standing, Marie could see that he was a mess. Charlie's bloodstained shirt was hanging loosely out of his pants and his face looked blotchy and swollen around one of his eyes. Marie threw down her trowel and overtook Gemma, who was already walking over towards him.
"Are you okay?" she said, before taking his bike from him and leaning it on a nearby post.
"Not really," said Charlie, plomping down on the grass in a big heap. Marie crouched down beside him and touched him on the hand. He looked up and Marie was shocked to see the swelling around his right eye.
"Oh Charlie," she said gently, "did you fall off your bike or something?"
"More the 'or something'," Charlie croaked weakly. Gemma appeared beside them with a bowl of steaming water that smelt of eucalyptus, and a clean white towel.
"Come on, let's get you cleaned up a bit," she whispered.
With that, Gemma sat down beside him, dipped the corner of the towel in the water and began to gently clean his face. With such attention, Charlie soon cheered up and over a mug of steaming hot tea in the office, he told them about his run in with Tony's head. Charlie decided that he didn't care about Tony's threat, he'd been carrying the fear of these bullies in his stomach for too long and this incident had forced him to let it all out.
"That bastard, he's always looking for trouble," said Marie, as she held an ice-pack to the side of Charlie's face.
"He's only perpetuating what has been inflicted on him," said Gemma. "He just thinks that's the way things are. I happen to know a bit about his home life and his father, Mac is a vicious man. Sorry Charlie, I know that's not much comfort to you at the moment, but in the long run you will have far more chance at happiness than he ever will," she continued.
"You feel sorry for him after what he's done to Charlie?" said Marie indignantly.
"Yes I do. I feel sorry for anyone who seeks out violence at such a young age. It means that, unless something radical changes, they are heading for a lot of pain in the future," replied Gemma.
"Well, I think."
"It's okay, Marie," interrupted Charlie, "I understand what Gemma's trying to say and it feels great that you want to protect me. But I'm okay now, I still feel a bit weak because I couldn't stand up to him, but I'm not going to let it spoil everything. Maybe now he'll leave me alone. I'm certainly no threat to him."
"You're a wise old person in a young body, Charlie," said Gemma, giving him a big kiss. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong cheek and Charlie let out a yelp of pain.
"Ohh, sorry Charlie," she said.
"That's okay," said Charlie, wincing. "It's getting late and I'm due back home soon. Mum's invited you to come to the Tandoori house with us, Marie, is that okay? We could ride home together, what do you think?"
"That sounds great, but are you sure you're okay to ride home?"
"I'll be fine. My face is a bit bruised, that's all. It was never that flash anyway."
"Are you sure you feel like it?" asked Marie.
"Yes I do. It'll be beautiful up at the top of Flexford hill at the moment. Come on, I'm up for it if you are," said Charlie.
Marie just nodded her consent and they were soon huffing up the long slope with a bright orange sky for a backdrop. Half a dozen houses lined the road that ran up the hill and they were all designed differently. Each one was constructed in a different century and they were well-visited by historical societies from all over the country. 'An instant snapshot of architecture through the ages', as the brochure put it, but today there were no tourists around as Charlie and Marie struggled to make it to the top. They were silent as they clenched their hands onto their handlebars and pumped their legs, while slowly the hill took its toll. Not even Charlie's aching face was enough to dampen his enjoyment of Marie's company. His body felt stable again and his humiliation was soothed by the nurturing he had received. Some days, they had to get off and walk the last bit, but today they had enough momentum to make it all the way to the top. They dropped their bikes in a heap under the large oak tree that dominated the top of the hill and flopped down beneath its great, outstretched limbs to catch their breath. They sat there quietly for a while, listening to the birds above them fighting for good sleeping positions in and watching the changing light in the sky before them.
"Charlie," whispered Marie after a while.
"Yes," whispered Charlie, although he was wondering why they had to be quiet all of a sudden.
"I love you Charlie, even with your bruised face," she said lightly touching his cheek. "I love you like no one else in my life and I don't trust anyone like I trust you. Your friendship keeps me alive," said Marie, her eyes glistening.
"I feel the same," replied Charlie quietly. He had never heard Marie talk like this about anything and it floored him with its directness. He said no more, but gently reached for Marie's hand and felt a rush of energy through every part of his body as her soft, warm palm touched his own. She looked at him tenderly and then, in the tiny movement of her head, which tilted to one side, he knew it was okay to kiss her. Her lips were as soft as petals and Charlie was surprised at the passion in her approach. By the time they came to their senses, it was getting cold and the sky was no longer orange but a darkening red. They stood up slowly and made their way back to where they had left the bicycles. Not a word had been said between them for quite a while, as neither of them wanted to destroy the magic of the moment with any clumsy outbursts. Having untangled their bikes, Charlie held both of her hands for a moment.
"Will you be my girlfriend?" he blurted out.
"I thought I already was," said Marie with a smile.
"No.I mean do you." Marie stopped him from saying anymore by putting her hand over his mouth.
"I know what you mean, silly, and yes I will," she said, leaning over the handlebars and kissing him openly on the lips. "Now come on. I'm getting cold, let's get home."
So they broke their touch and Charlie climbed onto his bike feeling better than he had all day, maybe ever. The incident with Tony had shaken him tremendously, but right now he could hardly feel the ground beneath his feet and his sore cheek seemed like nothing anymore.
"WHOOAA," screamed Marie.
"YEEHAAR," bellowed Charlie as their bikes started to pick up some real speed on their way down the hill. They had done it loads of times before, it was their reward for a successful assault on the long hill. Making it all the way to Charlie's house without touching the pedals was the aim, but it took nerve to go fast enough at the beginning to make it to the driveway.
The excitement built in his chest. With his trusty steed beneath him, he was finally the invincible knight. The Johnson's dog was unaware of this new status that Charlie now carried. He just saw a young man hurtling along the boundary of his territory. To the dog, it was an unthinkable act of terrorism that must be rebuffed if any sense of pride was to be maintained within the neighbourhood pack. With this thought in mind, the little Jack Russell raised himself to his full twelve and a half inches and belted across the lawn towards his target. His somewhat small stature and the rapidly fading light meant that Charlie didn't see him until he had shot beneath his master's gate. Fearlessly pursuing his own piece of glory, the dog came scampering across the verge into Charlie's path. Charlie did remarkably well under the circumstances, but even though he managed to avoid the flying mutt, he swerved far too sharply and hurtled into a car parked on the opposite side of the street. The sudden crash launched him over the roof of the car and it was there that Marie and the dog's owner found Charlie lying quite still beside the car.
As Marie looked down at her friend and Mr. Johnson cradled him in his arms, she knew in that one moment, that everything had changed. Charlie was clearly very badly hurt. His eyes were open, but they stared up at the sky in a crazed manner and as Mr. Johnson held him, Charlie's body started spasming in a grotesque, freakish way. After that, everything became a blur of activity, screams for help, rushing faces, ambulance drivers who tried to be kind but didn't have time to be. Marie found herself being swept along by the tide of emotional activity, but it wasn't until she was in the waiting room of the hospital some time later that anyone acknowledged that she was there at all. It was Charlie's dad who finally saw her need. Trevor had always had a tender spot for her and now, having rushed into the waiting room, he came over and hugged her tightly. Evelyn arrived moments later, looking ashen, and when she saw the two of them, she came rushing over.
"Oh, Trevor, what's happened?" she gasped.
"I don't know yet, they haven't let me see him. They've been trying to stabilise his condition. That's all I've been told so far," said Trevor holding his wife to his chest. Evelyn pulled herself away from his embrace and wiped her nose with her sleeve.
"I'm so sorry Marie, you poor thing, are you okay?" she said, touching her palms on Marie's cheeks to dry her tears. Marie couldn't say anything, so she just nodded.
"WUMP WHAA," went the screen doors. Three doctors, who looked weary from the endless intensity of their work, emerged and ushered the bedraggled group into the ward. Trevor held Evelyn and Marie closely as they entered, to somehow steady them for the entrance into the world of intensive care. A huge bank of equipment flashed and bleeped behind Charlie's bed and various tubes connected his stomach and head to an intricate life support system.
"Oh, Charlie," whispered Evelyn, sitting down in a chair next to the bed and touching him lightly on the arm. It was the most senior of the three doctors who spoke.
"I'm afraid your son is badly hurt," he said, before taking a deep breath and continuing. "He's fallen into a coma as a result of the crash. Although his physical condition is stable enough, we really don't know if he will come back or not. There isn't any fracture to his skull and there seems to be no inflammation of the brain. This is positive because it means there is little chance of any significant brain damage occurring if he wakes up. We're doing everything in our power to help him but the situation is critical for your son. The only thing we do know for certain is that he needs his family now more than ever before. To hear your voices, to have music around him that he likes, or even to hear someone he knows reading some books that he's familiar with. Anything at all that helps him know that he's needed and loved here. In our experience of such cases, the ones who come back always seem to have been drawn back by one of the things I've mentioned."
"It sounds so hopeless," said Trevor.
"No, Mr. Tucker, please don't think that. I have witnessed some incredible recoveries from similar situations. The problem is that — medically — we can do very little for him, other than to keep his physical condition stable. But, what we do know is that people in comas are like kites. They are, in some way, floating and the sound of familiar voices helps them come back down, or at least stay anchored, while their bodies try to fix themselves," replied the doctor.
Marie was now in such a desperate state at the back of the room, she didn't care what the doctor said, or anyone else for that matter. She heard their voices, a distant babbling in her ears. Adults questioning adults, a constant to-ing and fro-ing that seemed to explain nothing. Fear was everything now, but none of the words helped her pain. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs,
"I've lost him, don't you realise. I've LOST HIM."
Shamir came out of his meditation with a sudden jolt. He had been sitting in the high branches of the fig for many hours and his whole body was aching. His mind was clear though, and the fears he had woken up with were now gone. The answer to his disturbance arrived just after midday in a light breeze that crept up the valley from the direction of the sea. Shamir and the old tree received the news at the same time. As the breeze shimmered through the fig's highest branches and struck Shamir lightly in the face, it refreshed his senses with the nectar of clear thought.
"Mm, I need to prepare things," said Shamir.
"Indeed," sighed the tree.
With that, Shamir stood up from his sitting position and swung lightly to the ground. He made straight for the path home, having quickly nodded farewell to his friend. Shamir had been witness to many events in the valley over the years and he was a master wizard, but the idea of a visitor from the outside world still distressed him.
It was the ritual of cleaning the house and arranging the new clothing that calmed Shamir in his preparations. He knew someone was coming to the valley and, after the pain of previous attempts, he was praying that this time it would go well. Such a guest would need gentle nurturing and calm surroundings if they were to stand any chance of surviving their arrival into the elfin valley. Of the few people who had been flung between the worlds over the years, only one had made it through the transit alive. Tragically, she had died within a few days of arriving and it had broken Shamir's heart.
"There," he thought, putting the final touches to his work. The house now sparkled with life, changed from a single hermit's dwelling into a home awaiting company. The wardrobe had been stocked with various clothes to give Shamir as many options as possible to offer his new guest. Each garment had been woven from the fine elfin cloth made in the valley. The pantry was similarly provisioned with every type of jam possible, not to mention nuts, grains, elfin cakes, sweets, pies and biscuits, all cooked by himself and now weighing down every shelf to the point of breaking.
Once the house was prepared, Shamir scurried towards the edge of the woods and along the riverbank. This particular path was his favourite at this time of the year, as it passed through the area of the forest where they had planted predominantly beech trees. In early spring, with their foliage still translucent in its newness, the three hundred year old trees literally shone with beauty. Today, Shamir hurried past the beeches, intent on reaching the valley's place of ritual called the 'crown of trees'.
"Good morning," said a voice from one of the beeches on the side of the path.
"Good morning, Kanook. I was wondering when you'd appear," said Shamir, glancing up.
"I just heard the news in the lovely sea breeze that came up the valley about fifteen minutes ago. Did you catch it?" asked the chief elf.
"I certainly did. It was beautiful," said Shamir, realising that to say more to an elf is to tempt fate. With only the tiniest encouragement, elves will launch into an hour's conversation on the greatest of all topics — the weather.
"Do you need my help this time?" asked Kanook.
"Yes I do," said Shamir quietly.
The elf nodded and the pair strode off towards the steep end of the valley, each enlivened by the other's company. The crown of trees sat on the only cleared section on the valley's northern side. Through geological circumstance and the co-operation of the surrounding trees, a great cone of earth, which looked like a huge molehill, had remained uncovered by the rich foliage of the valley. The crown's only decoration was a perfect ring of karri trees that sat like a necklace round its edge. The great trees stood well over thirty metres tall and were the proud guardians of this sacred place. In this formation, with their great roots intertwined beneath the earth and their branches above, the karris created a cathedral of transformative energies. This was the place of highest ritual within the elfin kingdom and it was the main gateway to the outside world. Rarely was the circle visited by any except the elders of the valley tribe and, of course, Shamir. Even he only visited the circle when it was clear that something of great importance was taking place, or to undertake one of the seasonal rituals that were performed there.
Shamir and Kanook approached the ring in silent respect. They performed the ritual of entry, by laying a small bunch of flowers at the foot of the mother tree, and stepped lightly into the circle. They then bowed to each tree in turn and sat down in the middle of the great sphere and quietly began to sing the elfin song of welcome.