A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 6: Adelyn

By Tuesday, Aspen’s mystery illness has disappeared. Even more exciting, she has the day off of work, so she comes to my house around noon once Sebastian is at work and Ezra has gone off to grocery shop.

I tell her all about my meeting with the Council and how I have an actual appointment in three weeks. She blows this right off, telling me I’m crazy to even consider going. At the last second, I decide to tell her about my encounter with Grayson.

“And he seriously told you not to go to the meeting?” Aspen asks. She lays on her stomach on my bed, her elbows propped up and her head in her hands.

I sit at my desk, a white monstrosity that blends in with the white walls and the white flooring. Everything is white and, like the rest of the house, completely impersonal. The only thing that even hints at who I am as a person is the abstract, colorful art I’ve hung above my all-white bed and the elephant-shaped clock on my bedside table. Ezra detests it for its defiant flare, but it’s the only thing that helps me breathe in the space.

“Yes, he told me not to go to the meeting.”

“Then you shouldn’t go!” Aspen reasons. “If the guy that works for the Council is telling you not to go to a meeting with them, don’t you think you should listen?”

I sigh and spin the chair, grateful for the wheels beneath it. “I don’t know.” I say. “I mean, yeah, it would make sense not to go. But he was really vague, and I’ve been trying to get an appointment with the Council for ages.”

“Just forget about the Council.” Aspen begs. “Isn’t it time to move on with your life? Start thinking about the future you have, not the one that was ripped away?”

I purse my lips and turn the chair away from her. Everything is confusing right now. I want nothing more than to go to the Square and get my letter from Emerson, but that won’t be here for hours. There has to be something to distract me.

“Hey!” Aspen perks up behind me. I spin around to look at her. “Let’s go get lunch somewhere.” She suggests.

As if on cue, my stomach rumbles. “Fine.” I stand up. “I’m starving.”

“I’ll text Grayson and ask him to meet us.” She pulls out her phone just as I whirl around.

“What? No.”

“Too late.” She says, holding up her phone for evidence. I stare at the incriminating device for a moment before it rings. She glances at the screen, frowning in concentration before breaking into a wide smile. “He said yes!”

“What?” I run over and rip the phone out of her hands. Sure enough, the text thread listing “Gray” as the recipient has a single text reply from Grayson: Lunch sounds good. Where should I meet you?

“Tell him you changed your mind!” I beg, already texting in the box.

Aspen tears the phone away before I can hit send. “No!” She says. “This is a great opportunity. We can interrogate him about what he meant yesterday.”

“How do you even have his phone number?” I’m near tears, though I couldn’t guess why.

Aspen shrugs. “I have everyone’s phone number.” She says. “If you really wanted a meeting with the Council, you could’ve just asked me to text Soren. She’s really cool once you get to know her.”

I want to pummel my best friend.

Aspen insists on going to a run-down joint in the bad part of Resdon simply because her friend works there and she wants me to meet her. The streets here aren’t even cobblestone; they’re cracked pavement with little green weeds popping up everywhere.

The restaurant is a squat building with a huge picture of a clock in the window, a chicken in the background. As far as I can tell, the restaurant is a twenty-four-hour chicken restaurant called Around the Cluck.

The parking lot is empty, of course. The fact that it’s old enough to even have a parking lot is astounding. None of the newer businesses bother with parking lots; nobody drives anymore.

“Grayson is going to be so confused to show up here.” I say as we cross the parking lot. “You sent him the address, right?”

“Look who wants little Gray to show up after all.” Aspen’s lips tilt into a grin. Her hair is dyed an electric blue today. She dyed it over the weekend. It’s Ombre, fading to the palest blue at the bottom, so light that it’s almost white. Walking behind her is so familiar. I can see her long, tanned legs and the effortless grace with which she carries herself.

It’s unbearably hot today, so we both have on shorts and t-shirts. Our lazy appearances match our location.

Inside Around the Cluck is just as underwhelming as the outside. The floor tiles are brown and the walls are the color of mustard. At the counter, a girl with a hunched back and a hairnet covering a mess of red tangles glances over at us. Sunglasses in the shape of hearts cover her eyes, despite the fact that we’re indoors.

Aspen grabs my arm and leads me to the counter. “Vivian!” She exclaims. “So good to see you!”

“What are you doing here?” The girl behind the counter—Vivian—asks. She scowls at my best friend and crosses her arms over a red uniform t-shirt. A chicken embellishes the top right corner of the shirt. “You promised you wouldn’t come back here.”

Ignoring Vivian’s icy greeting, Aspen grabs my hand and smiles excitedly. “Adelyn, this is Vivian.” She says. “She’s working through school. She wears sunglasses at all hours of the day, and her favorite animal is a sloth.”

“Why do you always introduce me like that?” Vivian asks.

I shoot Aspen a questioning look: how many times have you introduced people to Vivian? Why does she hate you?

Aspen catches my unsaid questions, as all best friends should. “I come here all the time. They have the best chicken in town and whoever I’m with gets introduced to Viv.” She says. “And she hates me because her boyfriend was in love with me.” She then looks to Vivian, her eyes pleading. “Which I didn’t even know. I mean, I’d talked to your boyfriend once in my life and that was to borrow his Chemistry notes for school.”

“I don’t believe you.” Vivian says. “Now why are you here?”

“Because it’s Fry-Day,” Aspen says. “Get it? Fry-day?”

“It’s Tuesday.” Vivian deadpans. “And I’m not serving you.”

Aspen scoffs. “I call fowl.” She looks at me as I try to hide my laughter, and fail. We both burst out laughing and Vivian visibly fumes with anger.

We order our food when we’re calm enough and head to a booth far, far away from Vivian. I take a seat on the red vinyl booth and wait for Aspen to come back with her customary mountain of ketchup. Before Aspen gets back, the door opens and a bell goes off. My head flies toward the noise just as Grayson walks into the restaurant.

He looks visibly flustered. The ceiling is so short, his tall head almost reaches it. Freckles hide most but not all of his blush. His eyes scan the room until they land on me. With the confirmation that he’s in the right place, Grayson’s shoulders relax and he heads towards Vivian to order.

Aspen rushes over as soon as he starts talking. “When did little Gray get so tall?” She whispers, settling into the booth next to me.

I scoot over to give her more room. “Probably around the same time he dropped off the face of our planet.”

Aspen nods as Grayson finishes up his order and Vivian follows him to our table, carrying a tray of food. She sets our meals in front of us as Grayson slides into the seat across the table. He smiles in lieu of a greeting and waits until Vivian has walked away to begin speaking.

“So, um…” Grayson bites his lip. “Thanks for inviting me?”

“You’re welcome?” Aspen makes light of the question mark on the end of Grayson’s thanks. His blush deepens and I send Aspen a scolding look. She shrugs her response.

Vivian comes out a moment later with Grayson’s meal. She disappears a moment later without a word, and we dig into the chicken.

Aspen takes one bite and moans in pleasure. “This is eggscellent.” She says through a mouth full of food. Her words muffle, but the meaning is clear.

“Did you come into this place with a whole bunch of chicken jokes ready?” I ask her.

“No.” She smiles mischievously. “I’m just wingin’ it.”

We eat in silence for a few minutes, shoving in bites of heavenly chicken and French fries. The food tastes infinitely better than I had anticipated. Who would’ve thought that “greasy” could be a codeword for “lifechanging?”

Then the sirens start. Grayson’s so startled, he chokes on a huge bite of chicken and grasps the edge of the table until his fingers go white. The siren picks up steam until it is loud and insistent, a firetruck on steroids.

We’re having a drill today. These sirens are meant to alert the citizens of Resdon when they are to meet in the Square for an announcement, but today’s sirens were scheduled. Ezra has been reminding me of them for at least a week, as she always does, since these drills take place around the same time every month. We wait for the sirens to die down and silence to win out before resuming our conversation.

“So what do you think?” Aspen asks, swallowing a bite of food.

“It’s good.” I say. I want this chicken to be my last meal. “Actually, it’s fantastic.”

“And the restaurant itself?” She gestures to the mustard walls and generally dingy establishment. “Pretty high class, huh?”

Grayson raises an eyebrow at me, silently asking if Aspen is insane. I glance at my quirky friend, used to her antics. “A KFC would work too.” I admit.

Aspen chokes on a bite of chicken. “What?” She spits out. “No way.” She shakes her head and finishes off the chicken in her throat. “KFC is where all the morally deficient chickens go to see another chicken strip.”

“Oh, my gosh.” Grayson is shaking his head in astonishment. He looks to me. “Is she always like this?”

I grin. “Around the Cluck.”

Again, Grayson blushes and I immediately feel bad for making things worse, but Aspen laughs like it’s the funniest thing in the world. “You don’t know me anymore, Gray.” Aspen says. “I’ve only digressed.”

He laughs nervously. “I can see that.”

“But you’re still weird too.” She counters. “And I’ve heard about this weird conversation you had with our mutual friend Adelyn yesterday—”

“Okay!” I cut her off. For some reason, I’m not ready to break into interrogation mode yet. We’ve made Grayson uncomfortable enough. The familiar feeling of wanting-to-protect-Grayson makes a comeback from my childhood. “Aspen, do you want my last chicken tender?”

She glances between me and the peace offering on my plate, then eagerly reaches out and grabs it. “Can’t wait to gobble this up.”

“Turkeys say gobble.” Grayson corrects her.

“And cows say moo.” Aspen glares at him. “What’s your point?”

While she finishes off the last of her chicken, Grayson and I sit back and watch her awkwardly. We aren’t as comfortable together as we once were. Four years sits as a roadblock in front of us.

“Well, this was fun.” I say, standing up as Aspen finishes her meal. “We should do it again.”

Grayson follows me up, but Aspen stays sitting. “But I have so many more chicken jokes!” She protests.

Grayson and I exchange a look. He sighs and crosses his arms over his chest. “Okay, Penni. You have one minute to fit in as many chicken jokes as you want, and then we’re done with them.”

After four years apart, I’m surprised Grayson still remembers how to handle Aspen so well. She nods vigorously. “Okay…” Grayson says. “Ready…set…” Aspen looks ready to burst. “GO!”

“We should form a band.” Aspen says. “A chicken can be on the drums—he’s already got the drumsticks. Also, did you guys notice how tiny this place is? I feel so cooped up. Adelyn, we should watch a movie tonight. Maybe a chick flick? I saw this one everyone is talking about yesterday, but it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I got in a fight with the guy selling tickets, but in my defense, he was egging me on—”

“Time’s up.” Grayson says. “Get up.”

Aspen stubbornly stays in her seat. “But that wasn’t a minute!”

Grayson starts to answer, but I hold a hand out to stop him. “I’ve got this one.” I say, turning towards the front counter. “Vivian!”

Vivian turns her head towards us and Aspen jumps out of the booth. “Okay, okay.” She says. “No need to get Viv. I’m coming.”

We head outside to the parking lot, and awkwardness eats me up inside. I’m not sure where to go from here. We need to ask Grayson about his conversation with me yesterday, but I don’t know how to bring it up.

“Shoot.”

I glance behind me, where Aspen is walking slowly and looking at her phone.

When she looks up, I see the apology in her eyes and feel myself break down in response. “I have to go to work.” She says. “One of the other employees called out sick for the afternoon shift.”

“You have to go right now?” I ask. She knows what I’m really trying to say: what are we going to do about Grayson?

Aspen shrugs. “Yes, I have to go right now.” She walks past me and then past Grayson. Before leaving us for good, she turns around and waves.

And then we’re alone. Just like that. “Um…I—”

“Can I show you something?” Grayson asks suddenly.

I’m stunned, but I nod my head anyways. Anything to procrastinate on this conversation.

“It’s not far from here.” Grayson promises, looking sheepish. “I mean, it’s kind of in the woods, but, um…”

“In the woods?” I can’t hide the disbelief in my voice. The last time he wanted to show me something in the woods, we were six years old and it was the playset. But that ended up fine, and although I probably shouldn’t, I trust Grayson. So I shrug. “Let’s go.”

Instead of turning left out of the parking lot of Around the Cluck towards central Resdon, we turn right and walk down the dilapidated pavement. I thought all that was out here was wasteland and factories, but the tree-lined road continues for farther than I anticipated.

We mostly walk in silence. I need to bring up our conversation from yesterday and ask him to elaborate on his warning. The words keep moving closer and closer to existence, then shy away as soon as they meet my lips. It’s as if they’re scared of the open air and finality of a question.

So I ask about something else I’m curious about. “What do you write in your journal?” He doesn’t have it with him now, a rarity. The few times I’ve seen him offhandedly in Resdon, he’s always held it close to his body. I glance beside me at Grayson.

He ducks his head and looks away to hide the blush, but I’ve known for years that his love for stories and words has always embarrassed him. “Stories, quotes, things I notice…anything really.” He shrugs.

“You still write stories?”

“Of course.”

Silence falls again; the only sound is our feet smacking on the pavement. Finally, Grayson points to an opening in the dense forest and we start on a path through the woods. Branches poke out onto the trail. I keep my eyes open and alert as I duck under low-hanging branches and sidestep thorn bushes.

The trail is narrow; Grayson walks ahead of me as there is only room for one person width wise.

“What’s the last thing you wrote in your journal?” I ask, even though I know it’s probably better not to push the subject.

Ahead of me, Grayson tenses up but doesn’t stop our brisk pace. The uneven terrain doesn’t phase him. “I wrote down that Sullivan calls his SUV the ‘Sully-van.’” He says. “I just thought it was funny and wanted to remember it.”

I laugh, releasing the tension balled up inside my chest. Grayson is still the little boy from my memories, albeit a few feet taller. I can talk to him and nothing bad will happen. “Wait…an SUV?” I ask. “Sullivan drives?”

“Not very much.” Grayson admits. He pushes aside a thin, bending branch and holds it to the side until I pass. “He just drives from the Council House to the outskirts of central Resdon then walks from there. It’s impossible to get down the streets anymore.”

“I didn’t even know they still made cars.” I say.

“They don’t.” Grayson says. “But the manufacturers made an exception for one of the five members of our governing body.”

I hesitate to ask my next question. “Gray…why do you work for them?”

Grayson’s shoulders tense through his thin gray t-shirt. He’s not one for ostentatious outfits either. “I don’t know.” He says. “I guess once they told us we couldn’t be on the Council anymore, I still wanted something to do with the process. I’ve always been interested in government and the way things are run. I just don’t understand how people so easily hand over their power to other people. I want to be a part of it.”

I can understand that, but why didn’t he just ally with me and try to fight their decision? I don’t think he cares any less than me. He just went a different path, but it’s one I can’t support. If he really wanted to be involved in our government, he would talk to the Council about it. Especially now that he knows them personally.

We come to a split in the trail. Grayson points to the trail on the right. “That trail leads to the chasm we used to play by.” He says. “And the trail on the left leads to the lake.”

“Really?” I hadn’t thought about the chasm in years. This new path to it means I’ll likely be back soon, to see how it has changed if nothing else.

“Yep.”

“Why don’t you want me to go to my meeting with the Council in three weeks?” The words just slip out.

Grayson picks up the pace and tries to increase the distance between us, but I speed up to match. “Gray—” He’s getting further and further away. “Grayson!”

Finally, Grayson pulls to a stop in front of me. It’s so abrupt, I run right into his back. My forehead connects with his shoulder blade so painfully I’m sure it’ll bruise. “Ow!” I bring a hand to my injury and step beside Grayson.

And then I see the lake. The trees break, revealing a small dirt beach and the shimmering water beyond. Sunlight dances off the water, little wisps of white in the clear blue plane of sea. Trees trace the outline of the water all around, tall and strong and green. It looks like an oasis, a haven, a miracle.

“Grayson—”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” He asks, his voice nostalgic.

I can’t even answer. The memories pound in my head, over and over, begging to be released from my brain and its harsh boundaries. So there’s this lake deep in the Resdon woods. A story told by a wistful boy with his head in the clouds.

A swim in the water would take them to the place they longed for the most. Aspen’s voice now, finishing the story we all knew by heart.

“It’s beautiful.” I finally whisper.

Grayson grins at me, seeing how affected I am by the tranquility. It’s another thing we share—a love for the beauty of nature. Artificially built products are ugly and bulky, unnatural in the grand scheme of the world. Only nature can remind us how life is actually supposed to be.

“Let’s take a swim.” Grayson nods his head towards the crystal water.

The lake’s surface is impossibly smooth. I don’t want to disrupt the peace, but I also want nothing more than to dive right in. Is it a crime to alter nature? Maybe. Is it a crime to enjoy it?

Grayson gives me a light shove and runs towards the lake.

“Wait!” I call out. “We’re going to get wet.”

“That seems to be true of children who swim in lakes.”

I scowl. “You know what I meant.”

Grayson laughs. “Adelyn, you want to swim. There’s no denying that.” He’s right and we both know it. “So just swim. Forget about the consequences for once.”

“Okay, first of all…” I edge closer to the water. “Who abducted my friend Grayson and stole his identity? The Grayson I know never forgets about the consequences.”

Grayson gives me a sad smile. “Are we friends?” He asks. “We never see each other anymore.”

I don’t have a good answer, so I keep walking forward until I’m right by the lake. Right next to Grayson. Right near my breaking point. I want so, so badly just to jump right in.

“Well, I hope we’re friends.” Grayson finally says. “We can’t erase all the memories we have of our childhood. Maybe the friendship is ingrained in us as well.”

“Maybe.” I murmur.

Though I stare straight at the water, I can feel Grayson’s kind eyes on me. I wonder if he’s reminiscent, contemplative. I wonder if he sees the girl I used to be. I wonder how much of that girl is still a part of me today.

“Let’s take it one step at a time.” He whispers, shaking off his flip flops and taking the first fateful step into the water. “Besides, you’re wearing shorts. You can just get your legs wet and then get out if you want.”

“Yeah,” I nod. “That’s probably best. I’ll just get in to my knees.” If I go all the way in—if I swim under—I know I’ll come back up a new person. I’ll come back up as Grayson’s friend and someone who should care about him and want to be near him, but I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment. Grayson is my past. Grayson lives in the life I had when I was going to be a Council member and rule the world.

I may have cheated and kept Aspen around, but she’s my best friend. Grayson is a cruel reminder of everything I’ll never have.

But I take the first step into the water, still in my flip flops. And then the next. When I’m up to my knees in ice cold water, Grayson joins me at my side. We look out on the rest of the small lake, probably the size of the bottom story of my house, and just breathe.

The world is hushed. The constant bombardment of noise of central Resdon has long since been left behind. Standing here now, I can’t imagine going back. I think about Emerson and her world, how almost everybody is gone. Her world must feel like this all the time. She must feel like the last person on earth, like the world stretches out around her and there’s only here and now. Resdon doesn’t exist. It’s a fabricated town of distractions and activity, but this? This is real.

This water was here long before us. These trees are stronger than I’ll ever be. The air I breathe is the freshest I’ve ever tasted. It’s liberating to be away from the many scents of phony people with cheap perfume and the desire to stand out.

And then Grayson pushes me. Hard.

I instinctively hold my breath as I go flying towards the lake. It hits my body hard and I’m submerged under the weight of the water. I flail and wave my arms, desperately reaching for the surface.

Finally, I feel air. It’s cold against the water coating my skin. Grayson is nowhere to be seen. How long was I under water? How did he just disappear?

I whip my head around in every direction, even kicking out around me underwater to see if he’s there. But I’m alone. I can feel that if nothing else. There’s nothing or no one here but me.

On shore, I can see clothes scattered across the dirt beach. A blue hoodie and jeans by the looks of it, but I have no idea how they got there. Grayson and I elected to keep our clothes on, but who else was here to drop off clothes?

I stomp back towards shore, my clothes dripping fat drops of water all around me. Hot anger is so intense it makes my head spin. Grayson thinks he can shove me underwater and then run away? I’m going to find him and probably drown him, just to stay with the theme. Even if he left these clothes for me, I don’t have it in me to feel grateful.

When I’m fully out of water and back on shore, I stand in the clearing for far too long deciding what to do. My wet clothes cling to my skin uncomfortably, but I have more dignity than to pick up a discarded outfit off the dirt and change into it. Or do I?

Because I can’t exactly stroll though Resdon on the way to my house with wet clothes plastered on my body in a way that’s almost scandalous, I give in and admit defeat. I’ll have to keep my bra and underwear on, but the extra hoodie and pants is a godsend.

Before ripping the wet t-shirt off my body, I glance around at the surrounding woods to search for Grayson. If this was all some ploy to see me shirtless, I’ll murder him for sure. Besides, it’s not like any Resdon police are going to search the woods on the way to the wasteland for a body. And if they do, no one is going to pin it back to me.

The woods are quiet and still. If Grayson wants to see me shirtless so bad, then screw it. He’ll see me shirtless. My bra will stay on and my dignity will stay intact…mostly. I throw my wet shirt on the towards the forest and pull on the dry one with lightning speed. As much as I’d love to feel confident in my body with the possibility of a boy my age watching in, I’m just not. I’m skinny and small everywhere and completely lacking any appeal. So that’s the glorious show he’s getting—a less than attractive teenage girl with confidence issues and a bra with the bow in the front that practically counts as a training bra.

My shorts come off next—which I also chuck towards the forest angrily in what might be Grayson’s direction—and I throw the faded jeans on over my sopping wet underwear. As soon as the pants come up, someone comes crashing through the woods and into my clearing.

I whirl around as if caught in the act and face the intruder with unwavering fear. It’s an older woman with silver hair in a pony tail and a concerned frown on her face. When she sees me, her eyes light up.

“Emerson!” She exclaims. To the woods behind her, she yells, “I found her, guys!”

In a matter of seconds, three other people come rushing out of the woods. Two teens and a burly looking bald man. All look exhausted and harried. All look thankful to see me.

The burly man steps forward and wraps his arms tightly around me before I can even think to protest. “Em!” He says. “You didn’t come home last night. We’ve been looking for you for hours!”

I’m in complete shock. Why are they calling me Emerson? Why are they glad to see me? What on earth is going on?

“How did you even remember how to find this lake?” The teenage male asks. He’s as tall as Grayson, though his skin is midnight black compared to Grayson’s ghostly pale. “We only came here once.”

I refrain from telling him that we did nothing. I’ve never seen these people in my life, but my brain is working overtime to connect the dots. The enchanted lake is real. It has to be. How else would I be flung into Emerson’s world, where I’ve longed to be for ages. The place you long for the most.

And they think I’m Emerson. Do we look alike? How—in all our letter over the years—have we not discussed our appearances? We’ve talked about everything from favorite foods to first kisses. I guess our relationship is a testament to the fact that looks don’t matter, but how do we just so happen to look exactly alike?

“Wow…what happened to your face?” The teenage girl asks. So I suppose Emerson and I don’t look exactly alike. “Did you…did you pluck your eyebrows? And brush your hair?”

And here I have a choice. I can masquerade as Emerson and be inducted into her little mismatched family…or I can introduce myself. I don’t know why I make the decision I do. Maybe it’s because there’s something so exciting about being someone new, or maybe it’s because I don’t know them at all and they could attack me or something if they knew the truth.

But my decision is one I can’t come back from. I nail myself into my own coffin. Or I open the door to my new future. Wherever Emerson is, she can explain it all when she gets back. For now, I’ve made my choice.

“Yeah, I thought my eyebrows were probably getting a little too unruly. Even for me.”

The teenage girl scoffs. I rack my brain for her name. Emerson and I haven’t actually talked a lot about our families; it’s a topic we were just discovering. But it’s right on the tip of my tongue. It’s…right…there…Zofia!

I smile with satisfaction. Zofia matches it with a grimace. “Why are you so happy?” She asks. “You scared us to death. I hiked through the stinkin’ woods for you. Jerk.”

“Sorry, sorry.” I say. “I just…needed to find myself.”

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