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    Ratio Harken
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Evergreen - 4. Chapter 4

I kneel to inspect the wall. Morning floods the room and highlights the imperfection even more. The light blue paint on the wall was chipped from the impact, a little bit of white powdered plaster dots my fingertip when I pull back. I brush it off on my jeans.

And then there’s my phone. Shattered at the corner, a ragged fault line splinters out towards the middle of the glass face. I power it on and wait, impatient. The lag unbearable as everything struggles to update. It functions, I guess, but I can feel the cracked glass on my thumb, a reminder that nothing survives unscathed.

PJ had sent back;

Goodnight

2 AM.

And then there’s all the missed calls from mom. And the texts, one after another:

call me

just what to check in

Evan are you getting these?

I called your father, he says you’re ok

Call me

Call me.

I had ignored them all last night. I feel bad that she had to call Frank, but I wonder, morbidly, how that conversation passed between them—my father as implacable as a stone wall and my mom like a flood looking for cracks.

I call her back. It rings forever and then goes to voicemail. So, I call her office.

Her executive assistant picks up and recognizes me instantly. Like mom had mentioned to look out for my call. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.

“Evan, she’s in a meeting right now. Do you need me to interrupt?”

“No, it’s nothing important.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. It’s ok. Thank you.”

“Once she gets out, I’ll let her know you called.”

“Uh, can you let her know service is a little weird here? To text me instead.”

“Okay.”

I end the call and text:

i’m ok. service is bad

call you later

That was a lie, but it works. Explains it away.

I then look through more notifications on social media. Time passes and I find myself scrolling through some of my old posts and pictures. It’s nostalgic at first but then that unease surfaces. There’s a strange separation between then and now, and I’m not sure where the line was drawn or when my world dissected. Pronounced now by how distant the smiling photos of me seem behind the cracked glass face.

I place my phone down, carefully on the end table. Like it’s suddenly now this fragile thing since it broke.

I get up, leaving it there and go out to the kitchen.

The entire house smells like coffee. The scent seems to tangle with the morning light coming in through windows to brighten the dark wood ceiling beams and floors. Grace is in the kitchen leaning over one of the counters and leafing through a magazine. She brightens when she notices me.

“Morning!” she says. She closes the magazine which I notice is one of those tourism guides you often see at rest-stops.

“Morning.” I say back, but I can’t seem to take the next step out of the hallway.

She is dressed in a flowy blouse and jeans. I notice a stack of papers protruding out from her purse and her car keys on the counter. “I have to go into town to run a few errands, and I thought I’d wait till you got up. They have this farmer’s market in the next town over. It’s not that far from where I’m going, and you might enjoy it. I could show you the area.”

“You shouldn’t have waited” I say, not giving myself room to say yes. I didn’t come here to be an inconvenience. I didn’t come here for Grace to act like she needed to cheer me up and take me out. I thought it was the right thing to say, and that maybe somehow, she would understand. But I watch her expression falter and her gaze fall back to the glossy magazine cover now closed. And I know I have to say something… Anything, to extricate myself, to explain—it’s not you, it’s me—But all I manage is, “Sorry.”

“Are you sure?” she says, concern and something else like disappointment overlays her soft features.

“Yeah. I’m just not really feeling like going out. If that’s ok?”

“Alright, well... I made some breakfast, it’s in pan there. Pancakes and eggs. Of course, you’re welcome to anything you want. Just help yourself.” She says this, pats me on the shoulder and takes her car keys and purse as she goes, turning back before she descends the stairs. She casts a worrying look. Or maybe she thought I’d change my mind?

I speak before she says anything. “I’m ok.” I say, willing a smile. “Trust me. Maybe next time?”

She smiles at this. “Yes, I’d like that.”

And she goes. I hear the front door shut downstairs.

I look to the upstairs landing and notice Bryan’s room at the top of the stairs is open just a crack. Bryan is probably still sleeping. The pug dog, suddenly alert, comes bounding down the stairs in a stampede of dog paws against hardwood. He brushes by my legs and circles. His nametags jingle on his collar as he bounces.

Going back to the kitchen I can’t help but to eye the leftovers, though not the eggs or the pancakes that Grace made. I take one of the cupcakes left in the tray covered with cling wrap and have that with some coffee. I struggle between which kind of creamer to add. They have about four different ones—I admit it’s a little ridiculous. I settle on one that’s supposed to taste like a cinnamon roll. As if the cupcake wasn’t overkill enough.

I sit at the kitchen table in the seat facing the deck. Wrinkles is sitting in the spot where the door opens, his little tail wagging and his face pushed right up on the glass. Looking out and down past the deck I can still see the tables set up below in the yard. All the food had been taken in, the decorations taken down and thrown out. The tables were still there though, scattered and sitting bare in the yard.

I finish the cupcake and my coffee and wash up. Right in front of the sink there’s a small kitchen window that looks down onto the empty side driveway and faces the green trees at the side of the house. I look out. The shifting green leaves and the sun filtering through them. Everything seems so alive out there and yet I’m in here. Distancing myself from everything again. Like nothing changes anymore except the scenery.

I go back to my room and toe my sneakers on. Focusing on how easily my feet slip in. I bend and tie them. And re-tie them. And go, before I think too much about it.

Wrinkles follows me, but I stop him at the deck doors and place my body to block him from coming outside with me.

“Stay,” I say and use the signal Grace had showed me earlier in the week. He sits in front of me, his tail wagging wildly. I back out through the patio door and onto the deck, shutting it between Wrinkles and I.

He whines, throws his two front paws on the glass and scratches ineffectually. His fur skin bunching at his neck and he reminds me a little of a seal howling alone on a beach somewhere.

I like Wrinkles. But Grace had warned that he was a flight risk if he wasn’t watched, and I honestly didn’t want to focus on watching him while I was collapsing tables.

I try not to think much of anything and focus on the task. The more you do something the easier it is. It’s true for most things including this. Starting anything at all is always the problem. That’s why I have to jump on it.

Eventually, I figure out the mechanism that folds the legs of the tables down and flush to the bottom of the table board. You know you got it when you hear the click, and mechanism releases. Then it folds back easily without having to force anything. The sun peeks through the tree canopy above and the warmth of it feels nice on my skin as I work. Hope this feeling runs forever.

I collapse all tables and lean them by the gate that leads out to the side of the house and the driveway. I figure it’s easier this way. I can leave the gate open and drag them through and around into the garage. Grace had given me the code. It’s my father’s birthday. I type it into the panel and the garage door opens with a groan.

I drag the first one over and place it inside the garage and lean it between a wall and a bucket of ice salt. There’s other stuff here in boxes, some labeled, some forgotten. And my father still has his old Mustang there parked, a little beat up, a little lonely sitting in the dark garage untouched. I wonder why he doesn’t get rid of it so they could store one of the cars they actually drive in here.

His car isn’t here. His regular car I mean. He isn’t home. He works weekends too; Grace had made the excuse for him despite me not even asking the other day. Did my face really show it all? When he gets home, I should go make peace and be done with it. So I can leave like nothing ever happened. Like I wasn’t here at all. I feel embarrassed about how our conversation went last night. Me, being emotional and for what?

It’s nothing. It should be, nothing. But it feels like everything at once. It wasn’t unique these days for things to get under my skin.

I breathe in, deep. The garage smells of moth balls and motor oil.

I come back out, the light a little blinding compared to the darkness of the garage. I press the code in again and watch the door come down.

Going back around to the yard I enter in, unlatching the yard gate from the place I had it open, but something slips past by legs and out of the gate in a flash.

I experience the shocked feeling of falling in your sleep, except I’m wide awake. But it’s the same feeling looking at Wrinkles free on the gravel stone driveway. I could’ve sworn I shut the deck door.

“Wrinkles.” I crouch, trying to ground myself more firmly and say, “Come here boy.”

He doesn’t.

I inch closer, but he just stands at alert and backs up slightly.

And then, from behind me, “Wrinkles! Where’d you go!” I turn and see Bryan on the deck and looking down into the yard. I witness the pattern of shock on his face as he notices me, the gate door wide open and Wrinkles in the side driveway.

I look back to Wrinkles and reach for him but he turns and runs straight into the wood.

I don’t have time to think. I get up, check my sneakers and run. And for such a short round thing he’s quick and moves effortlessly through the thin underbrush and between trees like a rabbit.

I don’t know where I’m going—I just go.

Follow, until everything begins to look the same, and I don’t know how deep I’ve gone into the wood. There’s just trees and rock. I spin, looking for something to orient me, but I can’t see any of the houses peeking through the trees anymore.

A sound, a movement, and I look back.

Bryan wordlessly puts a finger up to his mouth as signal to quiet. And then he points forward through the trees.

I see nothing. Just trees, greenery and the rocky ground covered by dropped leaves. But then, I spot Wrinkles and he seems to spot us too and turns tail.

A look, a quiet deliberating conversation passes between Bryan and I and we separate. Standing a few paces away from each other, but parallel, we move in the direction Wrinkles went.

The ground curves upward and then down again. It’s thicker here, trees above and winding brambles underneath them that I must weave through in search of the pug. The underbrush tugs a little at my jeans but I press on. My heart drums wildly in my chest, I grasp at it as if to keep it from falling out.

It gets thicker, these large bushes block the way, but I see Bryan going through with ease, making a path between them by carefully parting the offshoots. I push my own branches away but jump at the surprise pain. I let the branch go, but it snaps back and hits my arm. “Damn it” I say, my audience being only the trees themselves. I don’t know if Bryan heard, I only see the bright color of his shirt through the leaves.

I press on, carefully pulling them back and aside, untangling vines blocking my path by only touching between thorns.

I hear a rushing sound and the ground slopes down and when the forest breaks it overlooks a small riverbed. A stream, moving quick but no wider than about 8 feet across. And this strange feeling washes over me but it’s something I can’t place. Like the water is deeper than it is, despite me being able to see the bottom. And then I see him, Wrinkles at the bank, back to me. He’s drinking, and I stand still and stop breathing for a moment. I can hear his tongue lapping at the water.

I step closer, hyper aware of how different the ground feels here on the steep pebbled bank. Of course he hears me, and just turns his head to look at me, one almond shape eye narrowing and sniffing up at the air.

I move forward in a rush bounding for him.

My world flips.

~ * ~

There is this understated delay between the brain and the body. Pain being one example of it. I feel it like a void in air like when you pop a bottle open. Vertigo, when the world slips from underneath you and you just free fall. And your body just recoils to it. I feel the stones at my back and the sight above me a crack of illuminated sky in the green tufted tree canopy.

I sit up, still shocked from the fall. I’m wet from the stream and it’s rushing around me gently. Wrinkles runs towards me right through the water. It’s not too deep after all, coming up right to his collar. He just lifts his head and doggy paddles. He jumps up and places two paws on my shoulder, almost pushing me back again. My fingers falling further back into the riverbed gravel. He dips his head forward to lick at my cheek, I turn away. He goes for my neck, tail wagging.

And then he turns, I turn too to where we came from and a rustle in the brush I can hear from above the banks and Wrinkles just follows it.

It’s not Bryan.

He’s in his jogging outfit again and this time I notice his wired headphones hanging off his neck. The sun haloing his features a little. I saw him just last night coming down from the deck and I had brushed him off as he walked past me. “You alright?” he says, his voice a little deeper and smoother than I had expected. I realize, this is the first time we’ve spoke. He offers a hand to pull me up.

“I’m fine.” I say, not taking his hand. I hold Wrinkles tight, lifting him up with me as I try to find my footing.

I stumble.

“I have him” The runner says, taking Wrinkles off me. And then he’s cradling the dog easily in his arms, Wrinkles with both paws on the runner’s shoulders and standing up. Wrinkles licks him on the cheek and the runner just laughs and goes to kiss the dog back. Wrinkles turns his head away, not wanting to reciprocate. The runner just laughs.

Bryan appears from behind a few trees and stumbles onto the riverbank. “Are they ok?”

“They’re both fine.” The runner says looking to Bryan who is obviously winded from the adventure “Breathe.”

Bryan, the panic still on his face says, “Shut up” and tries to take the dog from the runner.

But the runner just turns away from him.

“I got em. Don’t worry about pug pug.” He says, already walking away. “Help your brother.”

Bryan glares at his back and I swear if a look could kill a man this guy would be a few times dead. I’m already up and trying to squeeze water out from the bottom of my jean legs. When I glance back up Bryan is looking at me. His expression had shifted. Softer somehow, but it’s odd and I can’t read it.

We walk back through the forest, the three of us. I trail behind. Wrinkles is in the runners arms, two paws on his shoulders and looking back at me. He’s panting heavily and he looks like he’s grinning.

The runner and Bryan are walking in front of me and talking. I don’t care enough to try to follow any of it.

I focus on the trees, the way the forest sounds and Wrinkles. I also notice Bryan’s stride is off and he’s limping a little. But it looks like he’s trying to hide it. Did he fall too?

And suddenly, like the universe heard me, Bryan trips, but catches himself. “Damn it,”

“You should get that looked at.” The runner says.

“Shut up. I’m not wearing the goddamn brace.” He snaps back.

Wow. I guess Bryan is this way with everyone.

He turns on me as if hearing my thoughts. “Don’t mention any of this to my mom.” He says.

“I won’t.”

They talk some more, their voices barely audible through the cicadas crying, and I just wish I could just fade into the trees.

Sorry about the long delay for this chapter. Thanks so much to all that are following so far -Ratio

Copyright © 2020 Ratio Harken; All Rights Reserved.
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I just camo across this story today and am enjoying it.

Do you plan on posting more regulaRly from now on?

Have a nice day.

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Evan's separation from life is shown over and over:  He'd prefer texts.  His phone shows "how distant the smiling photos of me seem behind the cracked glass face" (behind the damage).  Additionally, "everything seems so alive out there and yet I’m in here" (at the same time refusing to accompany Grace on her shopping trip). He rejects the breakfast Grace made him to eat a cupcake instead.  He even keeps the glass door between Wrinkles and him. 

When Wrinkles takes off for the forest, does Evan run after him for Wrinkles sake or to get away from Bryan? Even here, he finds branches and thorns in his path, and he is ultimately done in by a stream that even a little dog can navigate.  

Bryan's relationship with Evan (or lack of one) is demonstrated:  He ignores Evan's mishap completely, saying to the runner, “Is he [the dog] ok?” His lack of empathy towards Evan is emphasized when the runner says, “They’re both fine.”  His actual antipathy towards Evan is revealed when the runner says, "Help your brother":  Bryan glares at the runner for saying so and makes no move to assist Evan. By the end of the chapter, the reasons for Bryan's hatred of Evan remain unclear.

Bryan is also seen to have health issues:  He limps and refuses to use "the goddamn brace.” 

So one brother has mental issues, and the other, a physical one.  (Bryan may not technically have mental issues, but he could certainly use an attitude adjustment.) I will be interested in seeing how the brothers interact going forward. 

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One more thought about the stream:  Physically, the stream is mild enough for even  a pug to tackle.  However, Evan perceives that "the water is deeper than it is," and it causes him to stumble. A metaphor of life? Interesting that the runner helps Evan to find his "footing" again. A bit of foreshadowing?

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Great chapter! Bryan is a bit of a douche. Thank you!

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2 hours ago, travlbug said:

One more thought about the stream:  Physically, the stream is mild enough for even  a pug to tackle.  However, Evan perceives that "the water is deeper than it is," and it causes him to stumble. A metaphor of life? Interesting that the runner helps Evan to find his "footing" again. A bit of foreshadowing?

The stream is definitely mild at best, but Evan's own fear still manages to throw him off balance. Thanks for pointing this out. The runner definitely offers Evan the help but at this point in time Evan is reluctant to take any bit of help from anyone. Thanks for reading travelbug! 

32 minutes ago, mfa607 said:

Great chapter! Bryan is a bit of a douche. Thank you!

Yeah, he is honestly. 😅 Hoping he will improve with time.

4 hours ago, Tonyr said:

Do you plan on posting more regulaRly from now on?

I certainly hope so! My personal goal was is about 2-3 chapters a month. Thank you for reading, I am working on the next chapter and hope to update before the end of the month.

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On 3/15/2020 at 4:09 PM, travlbug said:

Evan's separation from life is shown over and over:

Thanks, trvlbug. A great assessment of the chapter and the characters to this point. And a great chapter, Ratio. Because of the lapse between this chapter and the last one I had to reorient myself To the story. Hope the next chapter comes sooner.

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13 minutes ago, Arran said:

Because of the lapse between this chapter and the last one I had to reorient myself To the story. Hope the next chapter comes sooner.

Arran, thank you so much for reading so far and being willing to re-orient between the gap in updates. I hope to update soon and keep a more regular schedule as the story progresses.  

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9 minutes ago, Ratio Harken said:

Arran, thank you so much for reading so far and being willing to re-orient between the gap in updates. I hope to update soon and keep a more regular schedule as the story progresses.  

I like the story because it’s been mysterious from the beginning and here we’re into chapter 4 and so many mysteries remain. Trvlbug’s assessment made me see it in a different perspective. It was a great help. For a moment, I thought I saw a chink in Bryan’s armor, but not so.

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Started reading this story today, found myself unable to put it down and read all four chapters in one go. Great story, super engaging and well written. There’s a couple of spelling mistakes in chapter three and you accidentally called Brian Evan once in the same chapter. All in all love it so far, and love the continual mysteries that keeps coming up making it hard to stop reading. Looking forward to seeing how things play out.

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