Chapter 1: Before
An old playset creaks and moans beneath the weight of three kids using it. Grayson and Aspen swing on the rusty swings, Aspen going higher and faster so as not to be defeated by her arch rival. I hang upside down from the monkey bars, my black hair cascading down in an effort to reach the ground. Wesley does pushups on the ground in front of us; he’s trying to get muscular even before all the girls start realizing they like that in a guy.
When his arms bend and bring his body closer to the ground, the high grass makes him disappear. It hasn’t been cut in ages if the state of the house it sits behind is any indication. The faded roof sags in the middle. The windows have been boarded and re-boarded; there is no glass to be seen. The white siding is the color of dirt near the bottom, fading to the lightest brown on top.
No one has lived here for years. We know this because we’ve been coming here since age six. Now, at age thirteen, it’s our secret hideaway. Abandoned by society, neglected by nature, but treasured by us.
“So, let’s discuss adoptions this week.” Aspen swings her legs and flies up high in the sky. She’s higher than even I am on the monkey bars, a precarious position to be in on even the most reliable of playsets. This rusted thing of the past could break at any second and she’d fall to the ground.
Still, Aspen’s confidence soars with her swing. In the split second she’s suspended in air before making her downward descent, she has the audacity to wink at me.
Grayson’s swing reaches half the height Aspen’s does before falling limply back towards the ground. He moans and rolls his eyes at Aspen, saying, “Why do you insist on doing this every week?”
“It’s a safeguard against boredom.” Aspen tries to kick out and hit Grayson on the way down, but he expertly swerves to the side. This isn’t the first time she’s tried to physically harm him, though she knows it’s almost always in vain.
“This weekly conversation is actually the root of the majority of most of my boredom.”
“We’re twelve.” Aspen says. “Why do you insist on talking like you’re a forty-year-old failing author?”
Grayson rolls his eyes but says no more, prompting Aspen to go on. “So, Auden. Jasper. Lilly.” She counts off children on her fingers, not bothering to hold onto the swing. “They all got adopted.”
“So?” This comes from Wesley. His body materializes through the yellow grass as he finishes his last pushup of the set and sits upright. His brown hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat, the curls momentarily subdued. “Penni, don’t you think you’ve obsessed about adoptions for long enough?”
“Well,” Aspen’s voice is venomous. “I’m never going to get my own adoption, so I might as well fantasize about someone else’s.”
The blood is rushing to my head as I hang upside down. When it becomes too much, I swing my body up and through one of the wide, circular monkey bars so I’m laying flat on the inside of the metal rungs. “We have more important things to do than be adopted.” I remind Aspen. After all, we were chosen years ago to join the Council at an older age. It’s an honor to be chosen; they rule over our society with wisdom and love.
“The Council is a group of old, socially awkward centenarians who wear robes even when they aren’t at home.” Aspen’s voice is appropriately bitter. “I’d personally rather have a family.”
Wesley snorts in laughter, Grayson groans in frustration, and I let out a long sigh. We’ve been fighting this battle for years. Aspen constantly flips a switch between excited for and resentful of our time on the Council.
So I change the subject to one I’d much rather obsess over. “Hey, Gray.” I say, reaching out with my voice and grabbing the boy’s attention. His freckled face turns to me, wide ears seeming to expand just to listen. “Tell us the story about the lake.”
Wesley stands up. “Do all girls have to have a useless obsession to something?” He asks.
Aspen shoots him a scolding look. “We need something to distract us from the worthless basket of boys we have to choose from.”
My eyes stay locked on Grayson’s as we both ignore the bickering in the background. Grayson’s eyes are hazel and constantly sparkle with curiosity. The lake story is one thing Grayson and I both adore. It’s as familiar as Aspen’s family-rant.
“Okay, so there’s this lake deep in the Resdon woods.” Grayson begins, sliding his feet on the worn-out dirt beneath him to halt the swinging. He likes to focus just on the story and nothing else. “It sat on some land owned by this lady, Myra.” Now, all of us were paying attention to his words. “She was young and beautiful, and adored by a nice man in the village named Austin.”
Grayson looks to me and I pick up on his silent message. “They fell in love.” I take up the story-telling now. “And Myra showed him the lake on her land one day. It became their treasured secret.”
“Myra got taken one day.” Aspen continues. “By a cruel man from the village.”
Grayson nods in confirmation. “And Austin looked for her for years. He went to every house in the village and beyond asking if anyone had seen his love.” The only sound is the quiet creaking of Aspen’s slowing swing. “No one had; she was gone forever. When people in the village asked what Austin missed most about her, he always said that he longed to be in his lover’s arms.”
I smile at that dose of intimacy. “Still, nobody knew about the lake.” I say. “But Austin went there everyday because it made him feel so happy, like he was in Myra’s arms.”
“He enchanted it.” Aspen says, her eyes lighting up at the mention of magic. “So that, should anyone find it, a swim in the water would take them to the place they longed for the most.”
What I loved about the story was the vast possibilities. Everyone longed for something different, but the lake could somehow still provide for everyone’s greatest desires. It made me think about what place I longed to be. Home had an abstract meaning for me, as I had never had my own.
At birth, children in Resdon were given up to be raised in a healthy and safe group home so every child would be given the same nourishment and opportunity. At age five, the interviews began with individual families on the prowl for a new addition. Then adoption. Then forever.
But I grew up with the knowledge that I’d never be adopted. I’d never be given a forever home. Orphans drift in the wind between broken and not, or at least I do. But you can’t miss a home if you’ve never had one.
So the place I longed to be in was the future, where I’d make decisions for all of Resdon and beyond. Where I’d have power and respect. And as far as I was concerned, I already had a family. The wild Aspen. The cocky Wesley. The curious Grayson.
They were my family and they were my future. When I was with them, I never really had to long for anything.