RETURNING to Bar Harbor, Maine after all these years away from home should have set Peter Crawford’s heart racing with excitement. Should have, because as the taxi sped down Caruso Drive towards Bar Harbor Road Peter’s mind was inundated by pictures and flash imageries of gloom and doom.
When he’d left five years ago, he’d never thought he would ever return to this place. He’d never called or sent any message to his family all those time he was gone. He’d done his best to cut himself off from them, entirely staying away from Maine and similar states. He’d wanted nothing to do with his father and his brother and their people … well, up until last week, when it became painfully clear that he had to return home.
Emphasis on the painful.
Peter sighed thinking it would bring sooth to his nervous mind. On the contrary; it gave greater detail to the pictures flashing through his mind.
Peter took a moment to look at the bulging backpack in the backseat next to him. It was a testament of what his life had been reduced to, a brazen relic of who he was and what he was. In the pack was enough clothes to last him for a few days, then he wouldn’t have to show up in this town again, hopefully for the rest of his life.
Peter knew what people of his kind thought of him. He knew all too well. But he didn’t care. He’d made his peace with himself—his nature—since he’d watched his younger sister get skewered in the chest by a shaft of metal; since he’d found out the truth about his mother.
At first, it had been hard not to care: all those hurtful words that stung fiercer than the sting of a scorpion. But as time healed the tear in his heart, it had also hardened his mind to the words of people.
Yes, he didn’t care. He’d moved out of his father’s house when he turned sixteen, and then he’d altogether moved out of the State six months after that, vowing that nothing would ever bring him back.
Sadly, he found himself breaking that vow.
The taxi turned south on Bar Harbor Road and raced towards Trenton Bridge. As the vegetation thickened and flourished, Peter could feel the power rush through him like an aphrodisiac.
True, he’d never felt this much power in a long time. There were more trees in Maine than there were houses and people put together and multiplied by ten. There were the occasional buildings, but most of the road was bordered on both sides by thick, lustrous trees.
Traffic was denser than he remembered. The summer air was dry but rich, and the sun scorched the town with furious abandon. When they passed into Trenton, the number of buildings increased, as did the number of pedestrians. Summer in the Bar Harbor area saw the population rise from a few thousand to a few ten thousand.
Summertime, many new faces. Day time, easy recognition and targeting. These were two 'times' he had sworn he’d never be caught dead in places like Maine. Unfortunately, he was in such a dire situation he could not wait till winter, when all the people who sought to do his kind harm were in Iron Range, Minnesota.
Peter gazed past his small, middle age Asian driver to the bridge ahead. He took in a deep breath, his mind sizzling with so much power that he could sense the taste of cherry wood in the back of his tongue. His hands buzzed with ability. He looked down at them in surprise. It had been a long time since he’d Levitated. He could feel the woods, the green, and the leaves calling out to him. He could feel their rich voices in the wind blasting through the taxi.
He could feel the response of his body, giving in to desire. He could already feel the life force of many coursing through his veins, making him invincible.
Peter swallowed hard and looked up, resisting the urge to yield to it. It had betrayed him. It hadn’t been strong enough to save his sister. It boasted of great power, but Peter had realized the painful way that it was all just a feeling. When push came to shove, when it came face up against those who lived for their destruction, it failed with utter effortlessness.
Peter felt a frown crawl up his face as he remembered the events of his sister’s death.
It was on that dark note that the taxi crossed Trenton Bridge to the east side of Mount Desert Island.
As quick as the screams of a captive vanish when the ax is brought down on his head, so did the richness, the voices, the power, the life of the woods vanish.
It wasn’t replaced by silence, but by something far worse. Pain. Anguish. Death. Resistance. All of which Peter was well familiar with.
The Eastside of Mount Desert Island.
Peter realized his whole body had tensed the whole time he’d been resisting the call of the woods. He relaxed back, as he could no longer feel any pull. He allowed the anguish around to soothe him, releasing himself into its receiving embrace.
Though the forestry in Mount Desert Island was heavier and looked every bit as lush and vibrantly green as the one in Trenton and by simple logic should have given him greater power, it was not the case. Instead, Peter felt weak, sapped, and lifeless.
It was the curse of his kind; Wooders.
What good were powers when they didn’t work well in your home town?
Breathing the same air as the hurting greenery was starting to take a toll on Peter. He had misjudged his ability to find solace in the emotions of the surrounding trees while fighting its pull down a dark path. The resistance he had built up against this as a child living in Bar Harbor had obviously crumbled by reason of lack of use.
Peter struggled for a moment to regain his composure.
In the rearview mirror, he could see the weird look in the driver’s staring eyes. Peter turned away, feeling a tear roll down his cheek. He hadn’t felt this much pain since he had left home. The rolling trees by the side of the road oozed a deep seethed agony. The smiling faces of other drivers, the sounds of joy and rejoicing resounding from the lips of passersby, these all starkly contrasted the blanket of strife that clung to the atmosphere over the Island.
Peter knew they could never feel the woods like he could, nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from loathing them for their insensitivity. It was plain cruelty, ignorance or no ignorance.
When they turned on Knox road, Peter felt his breath shallow out. He tried to correct the anomaly by taking deep breaths, but his heart had started to race again. The pictures returned with more vivid clarity.
The driver slowed the cab as they approached his destination, and the number of people outside shot up to stampede proportions. Peter didn’t recognize any one of the faces staring into the cab as they drove by. It made him feel like sinking into the backseat until he became indistinguishable from it.
Things happened in Bar Harbor. Dangerous things.
They took several turns and ended up on Mill Brook Road, where the forestry was densest and the people light, if not inexistent. They passed several houses tucked neatly within the mass of trees on the roadside. The closer they got to his stop the more he scolded himself for being so careless that he had ended up in this situation in the first place.
The raging emotions blanketing the atmosphere had reduced to a background buzz when Peter got his stop. He paid the driver, grabbed his backpack, and started down a path from the main road without looking back at the driver, whose inquisitive eyes bore holes into Peter’s back.
It was a ten-minute hike to his father’s gates, one that the driver could have easily driven him to. But Peter knew that the taxi wouldn’t have made it past patrol.
Peter arrived the lookout post and found Mr. Barkley standing in the glaring sun with about five dozen chopped wood lying in scattered heaps around him. There was another man Peter didn’t recognize a little way down the path, past the large wooden house next to Mr. Barkley. Peter didn’t recognize him, but the man was dressed like a gang biker, chains, tattoos and all. He had a hard look in his eyes, and his hands were balled into a fist.
“Hello, Mr. Barkley,” Peter said as he approached the man. “It’s me, Peter.”
A look of confusion flashed across the man’s face. “Peter?” Barkley Sanders was one of Father’s right-hand men. A powerful Wooder, though you wouldn’t suspect this, what with his puffy appearance, tender eyes, and simple dressing. He was wearing a plain bottom down shirt and pants.
“Yes,” Peter assured him. “I’m here to see my father.”
A huge smile lit up the man’s face. He tackled Peter in a bear hug. “Peter?” he said afterward. “It’s been what … five years?”
Peter smiled. “It’s been a long time.”
“Hey, Barkley, is everything alright there?” the other man called.
“Everything is fine, Blake,” Mr. Barkley replied. “It’s Peter Crawford.”
“Come on,” he said to Peter. “Let’s get you inside. Your father and brother will be thrilled to have you back.”
Peter nodded and allowed the big man to lead him further down the path. His father he was sure of; his brother, he was not so sure of.
Blake nodded at him as they passed by and disappeared into the woods.
“A lot has changed since you left,” Mr. Barkley said.
“Well, first your father is now Chief Elder.”
Peter nodded. He’d heard the news a couple of months ago. His father had won by a unanimous vote of the Council of Elders. Unlike Metalers who had a monarchial system of governance, or the Earthers, who preferred democracy, Wooders favored a communal system of ruling its people. Each clan was guided by an Elder, who was part of the Council of Elders. A Chief Elder was elected every two years and had a final say on every matter concerning Wooders.
“There’s also been a lot of people living in your house since you left,” Barkley continued. They’d left the dirt strip, which ended in a thick wall of trunks, and found a hidden path leading deeper into the forest. Barkley didn’t seem to show any sign of it, but the more time Peter spent in the cover of the towering trees, the more anguish tried to rent his heart. He found himself stifling winces and decided it was better if he didn’t accidentally touch any of the trees.
“What do you mean a lot of people?” Peter asked, tensed. He didn’t really like a lot of people. Too many variables.
“It’s as if he couldn’t bear to be left alone after you ran away,” Barkley said, as though a teenager running away from home was as normal as a dog crossing the street. “I mean, when he became Chief Elder, there were more people living in the house and even more people coming in and going out. But it all started when you left.”
Barkley grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to a stop. “Listen to me, kid,” he said in a serious tone. “You left us for good when you were a teenager.”
Peter started to protest. “Mr. Barkley—”
“Ah, ah,” he cut him off, shaking his head. “No one’s accusing you of anything. What I’m saying is I hope you’re back for good.”
Peter kept silent. He was anything but back for good. However, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get what he wanted by going around telling everybody he was only here to use them.
Mr. Barkley gestured down the path, where it met another dead end. Peter took a closer look, and he realized that the path wasn’t just cut off by tall trees. These trees were evidently out of place and wrongly grown … except they’d been Levitated into place. Their trunks were about thirty feet in diameter, rising to a height of about a hundred feet. Like a raft, each trunk looked like they’d been slammed into place to form a formidable wall, stretching away to the sides.
Set in place by reverence, Peter reached out from his core and felt the trunk directly before him. It wasn’t shallow. He could feel its hardness. He could feel its unyieldingness.
“Baobab,” Peter whispered, following the wall as it stretched east and out of sight.
“Fire-resistant barks, leafless most of the year, toughest tree known to man,” Barkley said with a hint of pride in his voice. “It’s the perfect protective barrier around the Chief’s house.” He paused, gave a look in the direction of the lookout post, and added, “That is, of course, when you add the numerous Wooders patrolling the environs.”
Peter still couldn’t wrap his mind around it. The enormity of power it would have taken to make the wall. It was staggering. “These trees don’t even grow here. How could he have so many in so little time?”
Barkley smiled. “Growing them is easy, you know that. Levitating them under this atmosphere, now that’s the hard part. Once they had been grown to maturity on the Westside, they’d been transported here. It had almost killed your father to raise up the barrier.”
Barkley looked up at the trees around them with a pained look in his eyes. Peter saw that he felt it, too. The struggle and strife. Only that Barkley had developed an innate resistance to it.
“No one gets in unless they can Levitate wood,” Barkley said, pulling out of his reverie. “I’ve got to get back.” He turned and walked back the same way they had come.
Peter stood where Barkley had left him, not sure what to do next. He hadn’t done any heavy Levitating since he’d run away. Not Levitating was one way he could forget about his past. Now he stood before the hardest tree in the world, which his father had used to form a wall around his house, and he was expected to make a path through five layers of it in an area that made it impossibly hard for Wooders to use their powers.
He was beginning to think his father had built the wall specifically to keep him out. The son who had betrayed him and ran away.
Peter desperately thought of alternatives to solve his problem. Yet, no matter how he thought of it, the only way forward was through those Baobab trees.
Peter let his mind fall to silence and took in a deep breath. The pain came rushing back into the fore of his mind. Peter let it swirl there for a moment, feeling decades of violation and outright injustice against wildlife pierce through his consciousness with rabid intensity. He put a leash around the storm and brought it under control like a chariot master.
Peter stepped closer to the four trunks occupying where the road should have been until he could perceive the raw fruity scent it gave off. He puffed out a breath, swallowed hard, and reached out and touched the rough trunk surface. Immediately, his mind was flooded with imageries of each tree that formed the barrier. Where they’d been grown, their life cycle, what Wooder had manipulated them in any way.
It was strange.
He could feel every one Baobab tree, smell their specific scent, and taste their sweet, tangy flavor on his tongue. The information he was receiving was too much for him to bear, and they kept on pouring into his mind with the force of a flood. Peter’s senses became overloaded by the onslaught, and he began to swoon.
Before he could blackout, he felt another Wooder make contact with the barrier, somewhere along its circumference. The Wooder spoke calming and assuring words to him, skillfully channeling some of the inflow away from his mind. Peter seized the advantage and pushed back on the inflow, stifling it to a reasonable speed.
It was then Peter realized the ground was vibrating. The trees were responding to him, setting of a vibratory response into the ground. Peter also realized there was a limit to what he could do now he had control of the barrier. He could still sense their unyieldingness.
“I need a path through,” he muttered, reaching two imaginary hands through the middle of the two center trunks. He felt a spark of resistance at the intrusion and paused to let it fizzle. He began to shove them apart. The vibration got worse, the resistance to his mind flared, and the trees began to push apart from each other.
With each foot he moved the trees, he felt his life drain away. The ground trembled. Barks wined aloud. Leaves and fruits rained down. Peter fought blackouts, desperately clinging onto life until a two-man path emerged between him and the open field beyond the barrier.
Peter relinquished his hold on the Baobab barrier and collapsed to the floor. He felt like a massive weight had been lifted from him. He found himself panting, and his blue polo T-shirt was drenched in perspiration.
Peter looked up at the path he had made. The first thing that caught his attention was the impossibly huge mansion standing in the center of a wide open field. Then he saw a crowd of people. And they were all staring at him in amazement.
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