Highway

She had a painful past, one that made her put up barriers against everyone. When she is alone, she feels an odd connection to nature, as if there was something she is missing out in the wild. She brushes it off, but it never leaves. But when a mysterious man who knows more about her than he should wanders into her town and offers her a better life, she decides she has nothing to lose. As her life starts to look up however, she begins to have strange dreams. Suddenly, she is faced with questions about her life. What do the dreams mean? Who is this man? Could she really open up to someone, or would she get hurt again? As her past begins to haunt her, she must decide who she’s willing to trust. Will she shut out another person to protect herself? Or will she finally let her guard down and learn to love again? Only time will tell.

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12. The Nightmare And The Incident

Highway Chapter 12

 

I heard the scream. At first, I thought it to be her. But then I realized it was coming from my own mouth. I am running so fast my lungs burn as I drag in air. The broken glass glints in the moonlight. The floor is slick with an unknown substance. I slip, suddenly falling. It all blurs, and I feel numb. The feeling of numb overcomes my body. I am falling, unable to catch myself. Then he is there. I can’t see his face, but I know who he is. My face twists in agony, and I try to speak. I am silent, suddenly rendered mute. I can only reply with a silent scream.

I jolted awake with a start. Covered in sweat, my shirt soaked, I could feel drops rolling down my forehead. I looked around my surroundings, shaking off remnants, and remembered that I was in the woods with Matt.

It was only a dream. What a strange dream, though. What was happening? Why was I dreaming about something so odd? And yet, I felt as if I knew that dream. Something about this wasn’t right. But I looked over at Matt, peacefully sleeping, and I chased away the shadows.

I was here, and it was only a dream. Letting the sound of the fire and the cool night air lull me, I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, and fell asleep.

“-onica” I heard softly, almost like a part of my dream about rabbits. “Veronica, wake up.”

The voice said. I shuffled in my bag, still attached to the dream world as I was petting a stray rabbit from the field.

“Veronica” the voice said, much more insistent, followed by a shake to my shoulder.

The sudden contact made me jump. Trying to clear my eyes of bleariness, I realized Matt was crouching there, in front of me. He said something about leaving. Looking at my watch, the time read six. Was he out of his mind?

“It’s six in the morning! What the hell is wrong with you? I am not going anywhere at six in the morning except back to bed!” I exclaimed.

There was no way I was doing anything so early in the morning. I slept until 10 a.m.

I buried my head back into my sleeping bag. He tried to reason with me, convincing me his insane request was necessary for us to make it to the motel. It was bribery, and I had, admittedly, fallen prey to the thoughts of a warm shower and fluffy pillows. When he pleaded for me to work with him, I swatted him away exclaiming angrily that I would when it wasn’t so early. Leave me alone, I thought to myself. Just wait another few hours.

Matt made some threat about the consequences of not waking up, but I was too tired to take anything serious. Sneering, I told him he didn’t have the guts to do anything. He left, mumbling about warnings, and I began to sink back into sleep. Just as I felt my eyes get heavy, I was rudely interrupted.

A wave of iciness washed over me, and I jumped out of my sleeping bag. The sudden frozen liquid caused me to yell, shocked by definition. My clothes were sucked to my skin as if they had been melded together, and my hair was sopping wet, dripping all over my back. I was shivering, my teeth chattering uncontrollably.

I searched the area for the source of my discomfort, only to see Matt standing there, a still dripping bottle open in his hand.

“You!” I screamed at him accusingly, “Did you just pour water on me?”

I could feel my anger rising, heating up my chilled body. He simply remarked that he had warned me. I could feel my breath hitch, quickly deteriorating into puffing breaths. How dare he? Who the hell did this man think he was? I looked at him murderously, thinking on how I would make him pay for this. He was too big for me to downright attack, but I could sneak something. Maybe I could let a squirrel loose in his sleeping bag, or set a raccoon on his clothes. No, that would be too simple. Maybe I would kick him wildly every night, letting him believe I am dreaming. It would be an “accident”, and it would cause interrupted periods of sleep. If I couldn’t sleep, neither could he.

He threw my bag at me, telling me to get dressed. He ignored my presence as I got madder and madder. I could feel my cheeks flush, and a headache had begun to grow. I didn’t quite know what to say.

Then, recovering from my moment of confusion, I barked at him, asking if he expected me to be okay with this. This was not going to just happen without me saying something about it. What gave him the right? He looked at me with those eyes, unaffected by most everything.

“What I expect,” he replied with a no-nonsense tone, “is that we get things done when they need to be done, and that we do it together. If you don’t want to do this anymore then be my guest, I’ll take you to town and you can get directions to where you’re going.”

I froze mid sentence. What did he just say? His voice had gone from  happy-go-lucky to one of authority and power. I realized with frustration that I was the one who was the underdog. I was relying on him to give me something else in this world, and that meant following some rules. Would he really let me go so easily? He sounded rather serious, and I was not willing to go back to that wretched town. Hoping looks could kill, I trailed off to the forest cover, using every curse word I knew to describe him.

Peeling off the wet clothes, I put on dry ones hastily, still chilly from the polar water still sticking to my skin. Taking a hair tie from my wrist, I pulled my hair into a ponytail, hoping it would keep the water away. Fuming, I walked back to where he was.

Only stopping to grab my bag, I marched past him, ignoring him. Realizing I didn't quite know the way, I stopped and waited impatiently for him to show up. Once he walked past me, I felt my anger rise again.

“Just so you know, Matthew,” I said his name with a vengeance.

I told him he wasn’t forgiven, and that he was just a guide. He agreed. We walked to the next town, while I gave him the cold shoulder and attempted to ignore every part of his existence. As we walked, I spotted a group of beautiful flowers. I turned to Matt to ask what they were, then remembered my anger for him and crossed my arms instead. He told me what they were regardless. I kept my eyes straight ahead.

The rest of the journey he told me more stories. I tried my hardest to ignore him, but couldn’t help but listen. He told the best stories.

We reached the town, and I realized that I knew this town. We used to come here on field trips in elementary school. This was my favorite place to be when I was younger, for my life had not gone down the drain yet, and I had friends who would accompany me. I had only begun to feel the isolation.

I looked about, remembering my adventures throughout the town. Ice cream there, reading books there, playing tag in that field.

When Matt suggested I do some exploring, I forgot my anger in the rush of elation. I agreed wholeheartedly, and ran off.

“Be nice!” he called from behind.

I put my hand up to show I had heard, and then started to explore.  I went through all of my hotspots of back then, smiling at most of the memories. Kids were playing soccer, and I sat on a nearby bench, watching them play. Their laughter and energy was refreshing, and I laughed lightly.

I imagined myself playing with them, the ball flying towards me before I evaded and took control. I envisioned kicking it down the field with expert footwork and bringing my leg back for the winning goal, sending the ball careening into the net. The other players came to my side, rushing and cheering, lifting me up on their shoulders.

Shaking my head, I reminded myself it didn’t matter now that none of this had happened. A childish fantasy, it was one I often dreamed when I was younger.

I always wanted to be lifted up on someone’s shoulders, but I had never gotten enough interaction with anyone. The students didn’t want to play with me, and I wasn’t encouraged to join any teams. I wasn’t a “role” athlete. 

I looked at my watch and discovered that I had been sitting on the bench for longer than I had expected, and it was now 11:15. I needed to meet Matt back at the gates, and despite being angry at him, I didn’t want to make him worry. I set out on the route back to the gates.

  As I rounded the corner, the sight of people flooded my eyes, there were a few hundred people gathering at what appeared to be a parade. They were swarming the area, and I saw no way through. Not wanting to shove people, I made my way around the thin path that had formed at the edges, having to wait twice while some party goers flounced by. It took me forever to make my way back to Matt, and I could see he was worried before he even saw me.

When I greeted him with an apology, he informed me in a strained voice he had been worried. I looked away from him, telling him about the parade, but worried he was upset. He breathed out a sigh, and then gave me what appeared to be a grateful smile, asking me if I was ready to go. I nodded.

Then, remembering I still had the walkie talkies, I threw one at him, telling him it would keep us in touch. Smiling, he headed towards the direction of the parade.

The crowd had grown even bigger, something I had not thought possible. Something about all of these people made me uncomfortable. Whatever it was made me nervous, and I moved closer to Matt, my shoulders brushing against his. I wasn’t one for affection, but I suddenly felt an instinct instruct me to stay close to him, and I was happy to oblige. He yelled something about going through them, although I could barely hear him over the constant roar of the people. He held out his hand, as what I guessed to be a link attaching us together.

But I wasn’t a child. I didn’t need to hold someone’s hand to get through this., I became embarrassed, and withdrew. I snapped at him I wasn’t a child, and to worry about himself. He told me to stay close. I tried to follow him through the people, but the space was non-existent.

People were moving spastically, and I lost sight of him a few times, being blocked by a person. But when a rush of partiers ran through us, I was swept away by the wave like motion of the crowd. Trying to force my way through, I looked for Matt. He was tall, so I tried to spot him that way.

After a few panicked moments, I managed to spot him. But he was several feet away, and gaining an inch seemed a battle. Using my instinctual desire to my advantage, I ducked in and out of the people, weaving, and shoving when necessary.

He seemed confused, and I guessed he was trying to “sense” me. There were too many people, so he was just looking around. Forcing my way through the people in front of me, I accidently  pushed them away with too much force, slamming into Matt.

He looked at me relieved, and I grabbed his hand with force. I didn’t know if I could find my way if I got lost again.

We finally made it out of the crowd, and I was immensely relieved. I noticed our hands were still attached and, feeling silly, pulled my hand violently out of his.

We started to make our way to the motel, and I asked him more questions. I wasn’t too angry at him anymore, and I loved to hear him talk about nature. I also asked him some silly questions, for it made us both smile.

When we reached the small building, we checked in. we had nothing to do, so while Matt sorted supplies, I took advantage of the television in his room. It was bigger, and I was bored. Watching an old western, I began to think about how similar Matt was to the silent protagonist. When I voiced the opinion to him, he scoffed, comparing me to the boy who had tripped me.

We made fun of the bad acting and plot, enjoying the cool rooms protecting us from the heat. When dinner came, we ate hotdogs from the local vender. I headed upstairs to our rooms, for my feet were still killing me from yesterday, and Matt stayed for another few minutes. 

Just as I was getting ready for a much needed shower, I heard Matt taking one. Irritated he had gone first, I thought about flushing the toilet and scalding him. But I was not that mean, and so I waited around. When he finished, I knocked aggressively on his door, fixing an irate look upon my face. After admonishing him, he told me it was all mine, calling me princess. I growled at him for giving me a nickname, and expressed my displeasure. Then, I told him he could have gone first anyway for it was ladies first, after all. He appeared mildly stung, and I reveled in my victory.

I gathered my sleeping clothes, colorful shorts and a soft t-shirt with a musical score on it, and headed into the bathroom. I turned on the water, the warmth and water pouring down on me blissful. As I scrubbed my hair and body, I reflected on how crazy my world had become.

It had been strange enough without Matt being involved. He was someone I couldn’t even describe. Sometimes he made me so mad I couldn’t stand it, such as this morning and when I can’t get a rise out of him. But then, he also has this uncanny ability to make me happy. I’d known him for two days now, and yet he had already become someone different to me. I didn’t like to think that someone was special enough to change me, but I already felt as if he could. I felt myself becoming less unhappy all the time. Something about this situation was soothing.

Today, in the crowd, I had felt drawn to him, as if he were safe. I thought I didn’t trust anyone, and while I wasn’t telling him all my secrets, I had placed a part of my life in his hands. And he had done only good things with that part. Except for this morning. I didn’t know what was going to happen to this, to us. Now I sound like there even is an us. He had said I would want to leave when I “awakened” as he called it. But could that be true? Could I really be alone again? I had done it for years, but I was growing tired of it.

Telling myself I was thinking too hard, I shut off the water. Taking my brush out, I ripped through my hair savagely, erasing all evidence of tangles.

Becoming bored again, I knocked on Matt’s door. He answered in a high falsetto voice, with an added Okie twang. I stifled a laugh, not wanting to let him know he was funny. I flung open the door in hopes of surprising him, but I ended smacking him in the face. Feeling slightly bad as he held his nose, I retrieved an ice pack for him. Although I wasn’t proud of the accident, it was funny as hell. I apologized in a voice similar to his, speaking of being clumsy. He snorted, and we both laughed.

After that, Matt found a book and was reading, while I watched a singing competition show. When Matt got up for a glass of water, I seized the opportunity to steal his spot on the bed. He came back, and tried to shoo me, but I didn’t budge, and so he moved to the floor. His head was blocking the television, though, so I scooted over to the other half of the bed, allowing him to claim half a side.

I found a documentary on Meerkats, and was now watching it upside down, my legs crossed and leaning on the wall above the headboard. As I grew tired from waking up so early, I thought to mess with Matt one more time before going to bed. I told him I was mad at him still, to which he replied that was a shame for now he couldn’t give me his gift. He had bought me a gift?

“Secrets are bad! Come on, tell me what it is!” I exclaimed.

He refused, and with some more complaints and name calling, he finally gave in. Extracting it from his backpack, he held up what looked to be a stuffed octopus. Not knowing what to say, I was silent. In truth, I thought it was the cutest thing I had ever seen.  For a moment, I thought I should reject it, because I didn’t want to seem childish and vulnerable. But Matt wasn’t judging, and he even seemed worried that I wouldn’t like it. And so, after a second, I gently took the animal from him. It reminded me of the only happy times of my life, and his little content smile brought one of my own to my face.

I thanked Matt, for it truly was something special to me, despite being such a small act. I got up to leave, feeling sleepy, the octopus cradled in my arms, fur puffing out where I held him. Then before I left, I threatened him into silence, for nobody else could know I liked the octopus.

As I lay snuggled in my blankets, the octopus next to my pillow, I felt warm and happy. Matt had found the only thing I was a softy for, and it made me happy. I would cherish the octopus for a long time. Sleep made my eyes heavy, and I began to drift away. I could feel the fluffy tentacles of the octopus brushing against my face, and I smiled. Tonight, instead of bunnies, I would dream of the sea. And in the sea would be my octopus.

Running again, the walls blur past me. The cheery smiley faces are no longer cute, for now they only seem macabre. The man is there, his dark hair matching his aura of black despair. I am frozen in horror, surveying the scene before me. Her body is limp and broken, lying on the floor. Blood is pooling out from around her, staining her white dress and leaving it maroon and tainted. I feel confused, for I know not who she is, but only that she had been important. I hear my own scream again, and watch in fear as the man rises from his crouch. He stands there in front of the woman, head down, still looking at her. Beside him is a sharp knife, and the light streaming in from the windows gleams against the silvery surface, catching the crimson drops as they fall from the tip. The air is sharp, the metallic smell of the woman’s blood, sickeningly sweet,  filling the air. I can’t see her, for her face is turned away. All I can see is her hair, once a beautiful copper, now tainted with the very same vermillion that is on the weapon. My legs shake, and suddenly they give in. the man seems to notice my presence for the first time and takes a step towards me, over her body. As he looked up from the ground, I saw his expression. His face was twisted with a wicked smile.

I jumped up in my bed, smacking the headboard. Cursing quietly in pain, I looked around in fear. The remnants of the nightmare clung to me like a parasite, turning every dark shadow in the room into a fearsome monster. In a moment of paralyzing panic, I thought I saw that smile in the darkness, but then it was over.  The darkness returned to normal, shadows were only shadows. The light from the moon filtered in, cascading into my room like a stream.

My hair was damp, for I had obviously sweated a large amount. I was still shaking, as if a shiver had overcome my body. Goosebumps rose up on my arms and legs, and I could feel how tense I was. . Why was I having these dreams? What were they about? They always had that terrible man in them, and now the woman. But she had been alive in the last one, and she had been hurt, if not dead in this one. Something about the dreams felt entirely wrong down to my very soul, and they scared me bad each time I had them it seemed. These were not like the nightmares I had as a child, ones of monsters or evil villains. These dreams were dark and painful, and remained for a long time, as if they had a message to tell me. 

Drawing in several shaky breaths, I attempted to calm myself by singing a lullaby softly. I didn’t want Matt to wake up in the next room, but I couldn’t sit here like this anymore. I had sung this lullaby since I was very little. I couldn’t remember who had taught it to me, but I had a feeling it had been someone very close to me. As I softly trilled the lullaby, I saw the octopus I had been given next to my pillow. Seeing its goofy smile gave me a bit of relief, and I drew it close it me, tucking it under my chin. I swayed softly as I continued to sing, feeling better with each moment. It was a soothing song,  despite perhaps being a bit haunting. I had known it as long as I could remember, and I could never forget the words. Something about it always calmed me down, even when I had been sad as a child. It was like magic.

Looking at my watch, it read 4:30. Matt would probably wake me around 6 or 6:30, I thought. Settling in with a hope of sleep, I soon realized that my efforts were futile. And so, with nothing better to do that didn’t make noise, I counted how many dots were on the popcorn ceiling. I lost count once, and had to start again. There were 1,536 bumps, stretching from one end to the other.

The day was starting to come to life outside, the sky becoming lighter and lighter until it was a pale blue. I was exhausted, from yesterday and now today, and felt my eyes finally becoming heavy. Of course, this was when Matt decided to knock on my door. I didn’t respond at once, for I was fatigued and did not want to get out of bed to answer him.

“Veronica?” he called, “Are you awake?”

I attempted a groan, and he seemed to hear me through the wall.

“Let’s not have a repeat of yesterday, okay? I don’t want our mornings to be like that.”

It was a reasonable approach, and I knew I would face consequences if I didn’t  wake up. Dragging my weary, bone-tired body out of bed, I went to answer the door.

“What?” I asked sleepily, the heaviness still in my eyes. The light coming from his room blinded me momentarily, but my vision adjusted. Matt regarded me for a moment, and I could only imagine what I looked like.

“It’s about time we started to get ready,” he answered softly, “is that okay?”

He was expecting a fight, I knew, but I was too tired to give him more than a mumble. I went to my sink, splashing my face with the crystal cold water, trying to wake myself up. Resolving to stay away from scary movies and sugar, I hoped I would sleep better tonight because I was so tired. I refused to believe these dreams were of importance, for I didn’t have any connection to things like that. I thought it merely to be some unfortunate circumstances. I had always had nightmares after watching scary movies.

I got dressed, putting on a pair of black shorts and a white, breathable t-shirt. Gathering my stuff, including the newly added octopus, I checked to see if I had everything and turned to leave. Matt was waiting for me, seemingly confused by the absolute lack of protest I was raising.

“Are we going?” I asked,  a bit of my attitude seeping back into my voice.

Relieved I had at least greeted him rudely, he nodded. We trekked out of the hotel, and departed on the road

“Where are we going?” I asked Matt, who was studying a map intently as we walked.

“We are head to a town called Smithington,” He replied.

Expecting the question that came next, he said, “It’s just a quick stop. I need to get a new map of the area. Then we will head to the bigger city Thicksville. There is someone there who I want you to meet, an old friend of mine. He is a drifter as well, but he has taken to staying mostly in the city. I think he has lost it, but he lives a mile out of the city and walks there every day. He likes to tell stories to the kids in the city, and the locals can’t do much about it.”

He sounds kind of like me, I thought to myself. When I voiced the thought to Matt, he smiled.

“I could agree with that, he’s just as crazy.” He said, giving me a snicker.

I pushed him, simply saying, “You sir, are a jerk.”

He only laughed. We traveled along the side of the highway, speaking little snippets of conversation along the way. Matt didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who talked a lot, but he would always answer my questions and carry on conversations we had engaged in. All I had to do was start the conversation. The road was an interesting place, so I never ran out of material. What was that hawk doing? Were those prairie dogs scared of us? Did owls really lick lollipops? He smiled at that one, before saying he hadn’t ever seen one doing it, but couldn’t be sure.

For being as wise as he seemed to be, and achieving this “inner peace,” he still was a kid at heart, always joining me in reciting jokes and puns. It made him even more endearing. Something about him was unlike anybody I had ever met before, and it wasn’t just that he knew about what I was feeling. He seemed to always know if a joke was a bad idea, or if I was mad how to make me forgive him. It was alien to me, and I dismissed it as just being thankful I had met someone who wasn’t unkind.

Still, he was the first person I thought I could call a “friend.” My feet had ceased to scream at me when I walked, but there was still a dull ache that occurred.  When we stopped to fill up our water from a nearby stream, I dropped onto my knees and sat down, resting them.

Matt glanced at me for a moment, but understood I was resting, and took an unusually long time to look at his map. I got up after a few minutes, wanting to rest more but understanding we needed to head out. 

We reached the small town, and I browsed the shelves of a nearby store while Matt talked to a heavyset man with a  mustache about the map. Hoping to find a gift for Matt to act as a return gift for my octopus, I was disappointed as I came up empty handed. I returned to where he was, still talking to the man.  He seemed to be giving Matt a hard time, and I came to understand that the thing that made me like Matt, made others bother him. This would have made me mad had I been Matt, but he wasn’t at all. His voice remained polite and breezy, and his stance was open and friendly. I supposed this was how he got around all the time, and I resolved to get him to teach me how to do it. Although I thought that the people who rejected us deserved getting yelled at, I also thought it would be good to get what I wanted without threats. If I was to do what Matt did, I would have to be friendly with locals.

Finally getting help from the man, we headed out of the town. It was soothing to the soul, walking beside this man and listening to the birds call each other. The sounds of streams and animals filled my ears. A Tumbleweed rolled by, crunching as it hit the ground, and then leaping confidently again like it owned the place.

“Hey, Matt,” I called.

He turned elegantly, walking backwards so he could see me.

“’Sup?” he said, nodding to me.

“How can you talk to those people so calmly? They purposely bother you.”

He appeared thoughtful before saying, “I just do. When I first drifted, I was rude to everyone all the time. But then I figured out pretty quickly this wouldn’t get me anywhere, and so I changed tactics. You have to maintain a voice that is casual, and non-threatening. Make them feel like you aren’t going to ‘bother’ them, and so stay as polite as possible. Obviously, if they’re really rude, you can say something to discourage that, but most of the time it’s just best to take a little bit of disgrace to get what you need. People like to feel they have the power.”

I tried to create the tone he used, asking him if it worked. He had to work with me on it for a little while, but after a time I could recreate the voice to use in situations. We walked an obscene amount of miles, the sun beating down on us, and I began to get irritable.

“Matt, we have been walking  forever. Can’t we take a break?”

I was sweaty, I was hot, my calves hurt, and I was just plain tired. He looked at his watch, and then the sun, and then at me. He thought for a second, and then began singing.

What was going on? Had he gone crazy at last? He was singing a crazy song that I remembered from long rides on buses or trips to places. He was singing, and it was the most bizarre thing ever. Here was a grown man, tough from long days, stubble shading his chin, singing to a kid’s song. He crouched in front of me now, swaying in a ridiculous way. I realized that he was gesturing me to join him in his absurd endeavor.

“No way,” I said, scooting away from his outstretched hand. “I said no! Stop trying to get me to do it!”

I exclaimed as he moved again, still holding out his hand.

Sighing with exasperation, I complained, “You aren’t going to leave me alone until I sing with you, isn’t that right?"

He laughed, interrupting his song, and agreed. 

“All right.” I said, mildly annoyed but finding his antics just a bit amusing.

“Hey now, hey now, here’s what I say now,” he sang the first line.

Looking grim, I sang the next line.

“Happiness is just around the corner.”

He continued, and I began to fall into the routine of the song. I felt myself become more energized as I sang the silly song, and I put more into it.

“Hey now, hey now, here’s what I say now, we’ll be there for you!”

At this point, we were shuffling along the road, dancing in time to our tune. Without even realizing I had left the spot we were in, we finished our song quite a ways away from the place I had wanted to rest.

“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked Matt, surprised I had had more energy now.

He glanced at me and then, covering a smirk, said, “A magician never reveals his secrets.”

I rolled my eyes at him, but couldn’t remove the smile that had attached itself to my face. We took turns singing the stupidest songs we could think of, to pass the time and help us ignore fatigue and pain. Matt was a horrible dancer, but I couldn’t have been much better. 

When we finally reached our camp spot, I felt giddy and silly. Matt and I set up the camp, telling each other really bad puns.

“All the toilets in the police station were stolen. Police have nothing to go on.” Matt said, snorting.

I laughed, and countered with, “ I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.”

He chuckled. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out his flint and steel to start our fire.

“Wait!” I said hurriedly.

He paused, looking up curiously.

“Could I,” I said awkwardly, “I mean you, could you teach me how to light a fire?”

He looked surprised, but seemed happy to oblige.

“Come here,” he said, a friendly smile upon his face.

He gave me the flint and the steel, telling me which was which. He demonstrated how to strike them together to create sparks, and told me to gently blow on the tinder when the sparks caught.

I tried several times, creating a shower of sparks, but never catching.

“Slower,” he said, observing, “If you strike it too fast the sparks won’t hit the tinder and will go out before they can catch on fire.”

I grew frustrated until I said, “I am going slow! The stupid thing is just broken.”

I huffed, and turned away from the fire.

“Never mind, this isn’t worth it," I grumbled.

I heard a sigh from behind, before Matt called me back.

“What?” I asked, peeved he was making me think of this.

“Come here.” He said with authority.

Sitting back down, he handed me the tools. Before I could protest, he shushed me.

“I’ll help you, okay?” he said.

He scooted behind me, then used his extra height to reach over me, his arms creating a circle looping down from my shoulders to my hands, which he held. I was very aware of his closeness, and I could smell what I assumed was him. He smelled like minty gum, which I thought odd because I had never seen him eat a piece.

Pulling myself away from the strangeness of being so close to a person, I tuned into what he was doing. He brought the steel down on the flint at a 30-degree angle. Quick, but not jerky. Sparks showered from the tools, and we almost caught the tinder on fire. When he gestured for me to repeat the action and get it started, I gave him a doubtful look.

“You can do it, I promise. Just give it a try.” He urged gently.

Sighing, I attempted to recreate the action. Bringing it down with swift but accurate precision, I struck the flint at a perfect angle. The sparks flew away from the tools, burning embers glowing and hot. They landed on the tinder, and started to glow against it. A small line of smoke rose from the material.

“Blow on it, quick,” Matt instructed, “But not very hard.”

I bent down to see better. Blowing softly and with gentle care, I fanned the fire. It grew, and soon caught on to the wood. And just like that, I had started the fire.

Matt gave me a cheer and a high-five.

“I knew you could do it!” He said.

It was such a simple task, but it made me feel more accomplished than I ever had before. I hadn’t ever really followed through on anything that didn’t work right away for me, but here was the product of my efforts. I smiled at Matt, who gave me a brilliant grin in return.

We sat by the fire, and talked as we ate. The sun had gone down, and we could see the stars that were coming out. We stargazed for a while, following shapes in the sky. As we settled in for the night, I unzipped my octopus, who I had decided to name Ozzie, from my backpack, hiding him hurriedly in my sleeping bag. Matt hadn’t seemed to notice. I would accept the animal, but I wouldn’t want anyone to know I slept with it.

I said my goodnights to Matt, and sank into my pillow. I would sleep tonight, I hoped, for I had no contact with sugar or scary things.

The exertion of the day, along with a lack of sleep,  caused my eyes to feel heavy almost immediately. I felt myself slip into sleep, and hoped for a night of quiet and dreamless sleep.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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