Misty Haze

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Chapter 3: Barely Even Friends

It didn’t take long for everyone to find out Mark was missing. In fact, it was Ashley who had brought it to everyone’s attention.

They all knew Mark hadn’t made it home, and that Mark was hurt, the problem was they hadn’t known where he was. So the search was taking forever.

“We think he might have been drinking,” Randy said, “His flask is missing.”

“Why would he do something so stupid?” Carrie asked, and Matt sighed.

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” He said, “Do you remember the time he came to Brook Falls, like that? He had his bike that day.”

“He’s lucky he hasn’t killed himself,” Lori said, and Ashley glanced at her.

“If we don’t find him soon that’s exactly what he’d do.” Ashley said, shaking her head, “He’s alive but barely. We need to find him soon.”

“Ash, we’ve looked everywhere, we are out of options,” Randy said, and Matt shook his head.

“Maybe not,” Matt said, “Ash, you know Mark better than any of us. Where would he go if he was upset about something.” Ashley thought for a few minutes and then nodded.

“The lake,” She said, “Mark always goes to the lake to think.” The others nodded.

“Looks like we’re starting a search from the lake,” Randy answered and the boys ran off, Jordan and Larry with them. Ashley sat down at the table and rested her head on her hand. Lori walked over and took her by the shoulder.

“They’ll find him.” She said, “It will be okay.” Ashley nodded.

“I know,” She said, “It’s just Mark and I haven’t left things off in a good place. If anything ever happened to him...” Her voice trailed off and quivered. Lori just shook her head.

“Nothing’s going to happen to him,” She said, “He’ll be okay,” Ashley turned her gaze out the window and strummed her fingers along the edge of the table. So much had happened in such little time that, she wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

Did she love Mark?

Of course, she did, she supposed that she always would. Yet, after everything that had happened and continues to happen when they were together, it was something that Ashley was done looking into. As much as she hated to admit that it was the truth.

She didn’t want to be with him again. She didn’t want to cope with that pain. It was simply too much. They had tried time after time and always ended up with the same result. A relationship together was pointless. She knew that he would never understand this decision. So, she put her point across the only way she could, getting back with Jordan.

However, that might have pushed things a bit too far. Her being with Jordan had upset Mark, drove him to drink, Mark ran himself off the road and now they were desperately searching to find him. Her plan didn’t go as she’d planned it.

Was it something she should have expected? She knew Mark probably wouldn’t have taken the news lightly. As if knowing at that moment what she’d been thinking Lori glanced at her, as she sat down in the chair opposite.

“Why did you bring Jordan to Brook Falls like that?” She asked. Ashley sighed, and shook her head.

“Ever since Mark and I got together, it’s been one thing after another. From Becky to Misty, to him fighting with anyone who dares to look at me,” She said and sighed. “I’m tired of it, I just can’t-do it anymore.” Lori narrowed her eyes.

“You don’t want to be with Mark anymore?” She asked, and Ashley sighed but shook her head.

“No,” She replied, “I don’t. I just can’t not anymore, it’s too tiring, too consuming. It’s just different... like it’s way too much.”

“Why didn’t you just tell him that before dropping such a bombshell on him?” Lori asked and Ashley sighed again.

“I thought about it,” She answered and shrugged her shoulders. “But, it’s Mark. When has he ever gave up on anything, especially when it came to us? How many times would I tell him it was over, and he’d insist that it’s not. It was all that I could think of that he’d get the picture.”

“He’s missing right now though,” Lori said, “Because of how he took your message.” and Ashley shook her head.

“No,” She replied. “He’s missing right now because he messed up again. He’s not going to pin this off on me. I didn’t force him to drink, I didn’t force him to drive that bike. It’s on him.”

“That’s a bit cold, don’t you care about him anymore?” Lori asked, and Ashley sighed again.

“It’s Mark,” She answered, “Of course I care about him. I still love him, I’ll always love him. It’s just being with him is too much, I can’t take the drama. I’d rather just not be with him.”

“Have you not considered how a choice like that will affect him?” Lori asked, and Ashley narrowed her eyes.

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“You never made this choice with him, you made this choice for him.” Lori said, “You might be able to live without him, but how can you assume that he can live without you. You’re forcing the choice on him.” Ashley pulled a face.

“I’m sure he’ll do just fine,” She replied, “It isn’t the first time.”

“Maybe not,” Lori answered, “Yet, I remember what those other times did to him, I can’t see this being any better.” Ashley became angry.

“I won’t be bullied into staying with him!” She shouted, “Why can’t it just be accepted that I don’t want to be with Mark anymore?” Lori sighed.

“I do accept it,” Lori said, “And the others will as well. It’s just that... I don’t think Mark’s going to be as accepting.”

“If he truly loves me he’ll let me go,” Ashley said, and Lori nodded.

“It’s not him letting you go that worries me,” She said, “It’s him living without you that is a bit worrisome.”

“It’s Mark, I’m sure he could find someone new at Brook Falls High, fairly quickly,” Ashley said, and Lori shook her head.

“And if it’s Becky or Misty you’ll be a hundred percent okay with that?” Lori asked. Ashley remained silent for a moment and looked to the floor.

“It’s none of my business who he dates.” She answered, and Lori shook her head.

“But it would bother you, just as much as you being with Jordan has bothered him.” Lori said, “Mark thought all he had to do was fix things with his brother and the two of you would be together again. This was quite the shock for him, I’m surprised he’s handled it this well.”

“So I’m to blame because he assumed something?” She asked, and Lori shook her head.

“No,” She said, “You’re both to blame. Either of you can handle this in a mature way. Both of you keep messing up and blaming the other. You’re constantly getting angry at him, even when it’s you that messes up and he’s no better. The two of you will never get it right until you both grow up a bit.” Ashley dropped her mouth.

“That’s a bit uncalled for.” She stated, and Lori glared at her.

“It’s the truth, you keep playing games with each other when it comes to this relationship. Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if you two love each other, or just the way these games make you both feel.” She said, and Ashley glared at her.

“How dare you question my feelings for Mark,” She replied, “I can assure you they are genuine.” Lori glared at her and shook her head.

“Are they?” She asked, “Because lately, it doesn’t seem like it.”

Just then the others came bursting through the door, they were carrying Mark and plopped him down on the kitchen table.

“Call an ambulance!” Matt screamed.

Mark’s eye’s met Ashley’s as Lori called the ambulance. He said nothing, Ashley turned her gaze away.

“I’ve really got to get going. I’m glad you’re okay Mark.” She said coldly and walked away.

In the weeks to follow, Ashley avoided any one on one time with Mark at all costs. That included anytime he tried to strike a conversation with her in the group as well. Doing so nearly killed her, as she could see the hurt in his eyes every time.

It wasn’t easy but had to be done, because Ashley knew that it wouldn’t take much before her emotions took over and she was melting for him again. She knew that this was how it had to be if she was going to make sure that they would never be together again.

She could tell he was having trouble understanding this, and he cornered her after church. Frustration was written all over his face as he glared at her.

“Why are you doing this?” He asked, and she shook her head.

“Doing what?” She asked, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” Mark rolled his eyes.

“Don’t play stupid with me,” He said, “You know what you’re doing. Why are you acting like there was never anything between us?”

“Because there isn’t anything between us Mark, not now.” She said, and he glared at her.

“You can’t just stop loving someone that fast.” He said, and she shrugged.

“Well, I don’t know what to say, Mark, Because I don’t love you. Maybe I never did.” She replied, and he glared at her and shook his head.

“I don’t believe that.” He said, “I think you’re just afraid.”

“What would I be afraid of?” She asked and Mark swallowed.

“Your afraid of getting hurt again, so you’re putting up this wall between us.” He said. She shook her head and laughed.

“I don’t want to be with you, anymore!” She shouted, “That doesn’t make me scared, it makes me tired.”

“You’re tired of me?” He asked, and she laughed and shook her head.

“I’m tired of everything, Mark. When we are together, there is nothing but drama and pain. I’m done with all of that.” She said and started walking away.

“I know you still love me,” Mark shouted, “One of these days I’m going to prove it.” She sighed and glanced back.

“You’ll be searching for the rest of your life for that proof Mark,” She answered, “I’ve moved on.”

“We’re meant to be together!” Mark shouted, “We’re twin flames!”

“Mark,” She said shaking her head. “Take a look around, we’re barely even friends!”

She watched Mark as he clamped his jaw closed, swallowed and walked away.

The following weekend, when Ashley arrived in Brook Falls, Mark wasn’t waiting for her like the others. When she asked about him, no one would give her an answer. She figured that because of his broken leg, Mark was doing what he could to stay off it. However, she soon learned that Mark staying off a broken leg was like trying not to breathe.

Mark spent most of his time that weekend, on his land with Willy, an old friend that just recently moved back to Brook Falls. They were sitting in the remains of an old 1970′s Volkswagen, that had no doors left, and was nearly buried in the grass. The two were drinking, and Ashley learned that Mark hadn’t stopped drinking since the night she brought Jordan to Brook Falls.

“It’s becoming a bit of a problem,” Matt finally confessed. “He hasn’t been to school for a week and hadn’t bothered going to work in even longer. My parent’s don’t know what to even do with him anymore.”

“It’s only Mark,” She replied, “Talk to him about it.” Randy was the one shaking his head.

“That’s not Mark, at least not the one we know.” He said, “He’s different, Ash.” She looked around at them and shook her head.

“And you’re all blaming me for this?” Like it’s my fault he’s this way?” She asked.

“Well,” Lori said, “He wasn’t like this until he lost you.” She scowled.

“That’s not fair!” She exclaimed, “Mark has been like this before. It’s not just what happened between us that has made him like this, he’s always been this way.” Randy shook his head and sighed.

“Yeah,” He answered, “But before he lost you, he controlled it. Now he doesn’t even care.” Ashley sighed and shook her head.

“Well,” She said, “That’s not my problem.” Surprisingly, it was Larry who glared at her this time.

“Since when were you so cold?” He asked, “You have claimed all this time that you love him, but you act like this when he needs you the most.”

“I don’t have to explain myself,” Ashley replied, “Especially to you.” Randy placed a hand on Larry’s shoulder.

“Forget it,” He said, “The Ashley we knew is gone as well. Port City saw to that.” She glared at Randy.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asked, and Matt shook his head, narrowing his eyes.

“It means that the city has changed you.” He said, “You’re not the same, the way your treating Mark of all people is proof of that. I’m surprised you even come back here at all. You’ve become one of them.”

“Brook Falls will always be my home!” She cried.

“Yet, there is nothing left of Brook Falls inside you,” Matt said, “From where I’m standing, Mark’s better off with Becky or Misty. Because even they are better people than what you’ve become.” Ashley’s mouth dropped.

“That’s a little harsh don’t you think?” She asked, and the shook their heads.

No more harsh than how you’re treating him.” Randy answered. She laughed quietly, shaking her head.

“I don’t get any of you.” She said, “For years you have forced us together even when we’ve broken up. For some reason, ya’ll think that Mark and I have to be together or it’s the end of the damn world. For once I’m not letting that happen, I’ve finally decided to stand against it, and what do I get for that? More bullying, trying to force me to be with someone, that I don’t want to be with.”

“Is that what you call what we’ve done for you? Forcing?” Lori shouted, “Where do you come up with this shit? We’ve only done what you and Mark wanted us to do. Help you remember that you love each other and want to be together. We’ve only ever helped you fight the karma that tries to keep you apart.”

“Love?” She screamed, “Love? How could I ever love a low-grade farm boy like that? He’s nothing but a drunk!” As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she had no idea where on earth they came from. She had never felt so shallow in her life, but she could never take the words back. Her friends looked at her with just as much surprise.

“And the truth finally comes.” Matt said, “Mark is better off without you and your snobbish ways. And you know what, so am I.” With that, Matt walked away. Ashley turned back to Lori.

“I never meant..” She started but Lori shook her head.

“Save it for your Port City Posse.” She said, “I’m done.” Lori turned and followed behind Matt. Ashley glanced at Carrie with pleading eyes.

“Carrie, I..” She started but Carrie shook her head.

“I don’t want to hear it.” She said, “I expect that bullshit from Larry every single day, but not you.” Carrie followed the other two. Ashley turned to Larry but didn’t even have to say anything.

“You used to be so caring, and nice.” He said, “What happened to you?” Without waiting for an answer Larry followed the rest of them. Ashley was left alone with her brother and she sighed.

“Randy I..” But Randy was also shaking her head.

“Don’t,” He said, “Who are you, Ash? What happened to my sister? Mark used to be everything to you but if you can turn your back on him so easily, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Maybe you’re only nice to our faces.” With that Randy walked away as well, leaving Ashley all alone.

A single tear glistened down her cheek as she watched her friends walk away. Had she really changed that much since then? She did after all say the worst things about Mark, the boy she at one time did love. What exactly happened with that? When did she stop loving him?

Ashley walked down the road, and toward the first bridge before she even realized where she was going. She leaned against the wooden railing and looked out over the water.

Port City was changing her, and not for the better.

She had become snobby toward her friends, toward Mark in a way that she’d never been before. She couldn’t even remember who she used to be, all she knew is that it wasn’t this. She pulled out her diary and began reading the pages, and more tears glistened her cheeks.

They were absolutely right.

She was no longer the girl who wrote these pages, and she didn’t know how to become her again. She’d completely forgotten who she was, and there was only one person who knew that, but after everything, she’s done to him, would he help her?

She drew a deep breath and exhaled, if he didn’t, she’d be lost forever.

Turning and walking back up toward the houses, Ashley’s hands deep in her pockets, she tried to play it out in her head. Every time she approached him, he’d laugh and turn her away. But was that really what he’d do? Or what she’d do now?

How did she allow herself to become so mean?

She made her way into the Thomas yard and out back where he was sitting in that Volkswagen with Willy, drinking his life away.

She took a deep breath and walked toward the car, she exhaled and built up the nerve.

“Mark?” She asked, and the laughter from the car died down and he gazed at her, she could feel the hurt beneath his eyes.

“Ash?” He asked, “Come to rip my heart out more?” He said it in a bitter tone, and it actually stung. She supposed she deserved it. Ashley shook her head and sighed.

“No,” She replied, “I was actually wondering if you could help me with something.” He gazed at her as his laughter died.

“Are you shitting me?” He asked, “After the way you’ve been treating me, you have the nerve to ask for my help?” She sighed, again. Knowing that she deserved this as well.

“I’ve lost myself, Mark,” She said tears filling her eyes. “Port City has changed me, and I don’t like who I see in the mirror. I don’t recognize the person I’ve become. Mark, I hate hurting you and the others but I can’t remember how to be anything else.” She could feel the tears begin to fall and she felt foolish standing there. He’d make fun of her tears for sure. However, something inside told her that would be something she’d do right now, and not him.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” He asked, and she nodded. Mark climbed out of the car and put his arms around her.

“We’ll figure it out, okay?” He asked, and she cried in his arms.

They went out back to the meadow and sat together on the fence, Mark called Midnight, but the horse just wouldn’t come.

“It’s me.” She said, “Midnight won’t come near because of me.” Mark shook his head.

“I don’t think that’s it.” He said, “No matter how much you’ve changed, you still share a soul with me. Midnight would still come around.”

“But what if me changing, changed everything.” She said, “What if we are no longer twin flames?” Mark exhaled and shook his head.

“I’m not sure if that’s something that can be changed,” Mark said, “It’s part of who you are.” She shook her head and sighed.

“And is the part of me that made me feel connected to you.” She said, “I can’t feel that anymore Mark. It seems to be gone.” He shook his head.

“It’s not gone,” Mark said, “I can still feel connected to you. If it was gone wouldn’t the connection end on both sides?”

“I’m not sure,” She answered, “Maybe not if you still loved me.” Mark laughed and shook his head.

“You still love me,” He said that’s one thing I’m sure of. Ashley gazed into his eyes and shook her head.

“Don’t be so sure,” She replied, “I feel nothing.” Mark laughed and gazed out at the meadow.

“It’s shut off somehow,” He replied, “You’ve blocked it out, but I know it’s there and I can prove it.”

“How?” She asked, and the next thing she knew, Mark’s lips were on hers. Everything began to spin around them at that moment. For a second, Ashley felt as if she was back on that rock near the toilets, the day it all started. The feeling inside her, the thumping of her heart. For that one moment, she felt connected to this boy in every way possible.

When the kiss broke off, she went back to feeling empty inside. Mark glanced into her eyes and smiled.

“We’ll always be connected,” He said, “That’s not the problem, you moved to Port City and been exposed to their attitude. Thing’s between us haven’t been the best either, you’ve become empty inside. You’ve slowly lost yourself.”

“The horse?” She asked and Mark sighed.

“Hasn’t been the best these days,” He said sadly, “She’s getting old and frankly, I think I’m going to lose her.”

“That’s a shame.” She said, in an unfeeling tone that made Mark shake his head.

“That’s not an Ashley response,” He said, and she glanced at him, eyes narrowed.

“It’s not?” She asked.

“No,” He replied, “My Ashley, would have had tears in her eyes, so would have felt my pain, and knew that there were no words that she could say to me to make me feel better, at all. Instead, she’d say nothing, and hold me.”

“That never even came to mind.” She admitted and Mark nodded. “What if I’m lost forever? What if we can’t get myself back to who I was.”

“Well,” He replied, “Hopefully we can, but I’ll never stop loving you no matter what.” Ashley pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes.

“I hope you’re not thinking that this will get us back together?” She asked, “I mean I’m not saying it eventually won’t happen but. I’m messed up Mark. I need a friend right now more than anything.”

“I understand.” He replied, “I’m here for you always, you will find yourself again, I’ll make sure of it.” Ashley smiled and laid her head down on Mark’s shoulder. She knew that he’d never let her down, he would always be the one constant in her life.

One minute Midnight was galloping around the meadow, and the next, she collapsed. Mark started yelling and jumped the fence and ran toward the horse. Ashley followed, as Mark’s father came out of the barn and running to them. Matt followed behind his father.

Overwhelmed by everything, Ashley could barely understand what was going on around her. Words like vet and death were floating around a lot. The only thing Ashley knew for sure, was that Mark was upset, she knew it, she saw it but she didn’t feel it. It was as if her connection to him was damaged and she feared it may never be fully repaired. For she feared that she might never be the same, and therefore nothing would ever be the same for her again.

Mark remained with that horse the rest of the weekend. He didn’t even want to go to church. Some might say his connection to that horse was unnatural. Others would believe he loved that horse more than her. Whatever made Mark stay with that horse so long, she believed she at one time would understand. However, right now, she was even more baffled by it than anyone else.

Not that the others were talking to her. They were all still upset over the things she’d said. She supposed she couldn’t blame them for that. She was being cold, and some of the things she’d said were completely snobbish.

She figured it would take a while before she made it up to them, that is if they’d ever forgiven her at all. She decided that because she cared about them forgiving her, all wasn’t lost, at least not yet.

Ironically the only one who seemed to care about what she was going through was the person she hurt the most. Right now, he was preoccupied, with a horse.

How a person could get so attached to a horse, she didn’t understand, at least not the way she was at this moment. Maybe, Mark had been right, so much bad stuff had happened that now she just felt empty inside. How she was going to fix that she had no idea, maybe she would always feel this way? She knew that Mark believed it could be fixed, but Mark believed in a lot of things didn’t he? Had she believed in a lot of things at some point too?

Ashley went back home to Port City, with Mark not moving an inch away from that horse. She moved through her school week in what seemed like a dull, and uncaring manner. On Wednesday night, during dinner. her mother looked at her in concern.

“Ashley,” She said, “Your father and I are becoming worried. You’ve been so disconnected. We feel that you’re not handling your recent break up with Mark.”

“It’s not that Mother.” She replied, dryly.

“Then what?” She asked, “What is bothering you?”

“It’s this place,” Ashley answered. “Port City is changing me.”

“If you feel that strongly, maybe you should move back home with your father.” She answered, and Ashley shook her head.

“No,” She answered, “I’ve got nothing left in Brook Falls if I moved back home now I’d just feel more lonely.”

“What can we do?” Her mother asked and Ashley shook her head.

“I just got to remember who I used to be.” She said and took a bite of her potatoes.

Ashley called Randy on Thursday night and found out that everyone was still angry with her from the weekend before, and Mark still wouldn’t leave his horses side. That was the first weekend, Ashley did not return to Brook Falls.

Instead, she locked herself in her room, turned on some music and read passages she had written in her diary to try and remind herself of who she used to be.

The following week, she did nothing else but go to school. She even dumped Jordan, to keep herself from having distractions.

Once again on Thursday evening, she called Randy, everyone was still angry with her, and Mark was still occupied so she skipped that weekend too.

At this rate she might never go back to Brook Falls, she was shutting herself away, not bothering with any of her friends and her parents was getting worried.

By Wednesday of the following week, her mother came into her room to let her know that Mark Thomas was quite upset, his horse had passed away, and that maybe Ashley should call him. Ashley seemed unaffected by the news.

“It’s just a horse,” She said, “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Even with Mark not distracted by his horse, Ashley skipped the next two weekends, it was like she just didn’t care about Brook Falls at all anymore. Was she worse?

Eventually, Ashley’s father stopped calling, and her mother has no idea what else to do, did the unthinkable the following weekend.

Ashley came home on Friday and walked into her room to mope when she stopped in the doorway and dropped her mouth.

Mark was laying back against her headboard, his feet crossed, his arms folded behind his bed. There was a grin planted on his lips.

“Good afternoon.” He replied, and Ashley glared at him.

“What’s going on?” She asked, and Mark chuckled.

“Your parents are getting worried that you might be depressed, they asked me to come spend the weekend with you, and see if I can get you back to your old self.” He said.

“They still think it’s our breakup that has me in this state.” She replied.

“Are you sure it isn’t?” He asked, “Ash, you were happy with me, remember? You’re only getting worse. You haven’t been in Brook Falls for weeks.” She lowered her head.

“No one wants me there anymore,” She said, “I have nothing left.” Mark raised an eyebrow and jumped off the bed.

“Who says?” He asked, and Ashley sighed.

“Everyone is angry with me because of these changes, and you were busy. Besides, you of all people should hate me.” She said, and Mark shook his head.

“But I don’t.” He said, “I could never hate you. No matter what, and they don’t hate you either. It will blow over, but not with you avoiding the situation.”

“I’m not the same person I used to be, and I have tried to get that back I can’t.” She said, “It’s like everything I ever was is gone.” Mark was already shaking his head.

“It’s not gone,” He said, “When are you going to see it? I see it, our friends see it, hell, even your parents see it.”

“See what?” She asked, and Mark stepped forward and took her hands in his.

“You’ve lost yourself because you’re not happy anymore, and you’re not happy anymore because we aren’t together.” He said looking into her eyes. She gently wrestled her hands away from his.

“You know we can’t,” she cried. “Every time we try to be together something tries harder to tear us apart.”

“Yeah, but that’s why we fight twice as hard to be together.” He said, “We can’t go on living like empty shells can we?”

“We live in two different places,” She said, “How is it going to work?”

“Come back home?” He asked, and she shook her head.

“I don’t want to mess up my last year of school.” She said, and Mark nodded.

“Then,” He said, drawing a breath. “We’ll figure something out.”

“I don’t know about this.”She said, and Mark took her hands again and gazed deeply into her eyes.

“Do you love me?” He asked, and she shook her head.

“I don’t know!” She cried, and Mark’s lips touched hers and she could feel the electric currents pulsating through her veins.

“Do you love me?” He asked again, and she nodded.

“Yes,” She replied, “Yes, I do.” Mark smiled and touched his lips to hers again.

“Then, that’s all that should matter,” He told her between kisses. He pulled her closer, slammed the door to the bedroom, and guided her over to the bed. “You love me as I love you... we should be together, don’t you think?” He asked, Ashley nodded, and he pulled her down onto the bed. Giggling they overcome yet another obstacle holding them back. Sadly, it wouldn’t be their last.

When Ashley returned to Brook Falls the following weekend things were different. She and Mark had come to an agreement. When they were in the same place at the same time, they were together. When they were apart then they could date other people and either could get angry with the other and for the most part, the relationship worked.

That first weekend she returned, it took some time to rebuild her other friendships, and she wasn’t fully sure that they were as strong as they once were.

However, none of that mattered as long as she had Mark, the rest would fall into place, in time. It was Matt, who she had the hardest time connecting with. He still couldn’t forgive what she said about his brother and she knew that was partly because he’d taken it as a personal blow as well.

It was getting close to winter now, and Christmas was right around the corner. It would be the first Christmas that Ashley would spend away from Brook Falls, away from Mark. They tried not to dwell on this fact but they knew it was true. The worst was that once the bad weather hit, her weekends in Brook Falls would be far and few between.

Because of that, they made the most of their time together.

Most of her remaining visits were spent with just her and Mark. With the others still a bit upset with her, it was the only place she felt like herself again.

They were in Mark’s room, laying in his bed when Matt came into the room and rolled his eyes.

“I’m not staying, I’m just getting my things.” He said. Mark kissed the top of Ashley’s head.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” He said, “I’ll let the two of you talk.” Mark got up from the bed and walked out of the room. Matt watched him go before he turned to Ashley.

“So what are you going to do, hurt him again?” He asked, and Ashley sighed.

“That’s not fair!” She said, “You know I love your brother.” Matt shook his head.

“Do I?” He asked, “Funny, I thought he was just a farm boy.” She sighed.

“I wasn’t myself,” She said, “I had said a lot of things Id normally not say at all. You know me, Matt, you know I’m not like that.”

“I don;t know you at all,” He said, “I knew you before you moved to that place. Forgive me if I don’t trust you, but you were downright nasty. You didn’t give a shit about anything, especially him. He’s back to normal for now, but the moment you decide to take it away from him, he’s going to go right back to the mess he always is, and you won’t give two hoots.”

“I’m not leaving him again.” She replied, and Matt laughed.

“Yeah,” He said, “Not until he messes up again. Anything that gives you the excuse to scream at him, make him feel like crap and walk away.”

“You know that’s not what happens.” She said, and Matt shook his head.

“That’s exactly what happens.” Matt said, “Most of the things you make a big deal over, aren’t even that bad. It’s only a matter of time before you crush him again. It’s me who has to pick up the damn pieces when you’re done.”

“You make me sound like a monster!” She cried, “As if you think I do these things on purpose.”

“Well, I think you do!” He shouted, “I think you like the drama, and you don’t give a shit who you hurt in the process. That includes him.” Ashley frowned.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” She replied, “We used to be friends, but I understand, you hate me now. I get it.”

“I don’t hate you.” He said, lowering his tone, “I hate how you’re treating my brother.”

“I’m not doing it on purpose,” She replied, “I’d never do that, he means the world to me.”

“For now.” He added, “Until he does something that makes you angry again.”

“I’ll make you a promise,” She said, “If something happens again, and I end up hurting him, then you can hate me forever.”

“Well,” He said, “I guess I could live with that. But, if you hurt him one more time, I’ll never forgive you again. You guys shouldn’t be doing this to each other, anyways. If you love each other, be together, it’s not that hard.”

Ashley nodded, and Mark entered the room.

“Everything better?” He asked, Matt, pressed his lips together and nodded.

“At least for now.” He said and walked out of the room. Once he was gone, Mark frowned his gaze fixed on hers.

“He wasn’t too harsh on you,” He asked, “Was he?” She smiled and shook her head.

“No more than I deserved.” She replied, “He’s having a hard time trusting me.”

“He’ll get over it,” Mark added, and Ashley nodded.

“Hopefully he will,” She said, “Anyway, I made a deal with him.” Mark raised an eyebrow.

“What kind of deal?” He asked, and she sighed.

“If I end up hurting you again, he can hate me forever.” She replied. Mark nodded but narrowed his eyes.

“Should you have taken that risk?” He asked, and Ashley pulled a face.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asked, and he sighed.

“Given the type of relationship we have and our track record, making a promise like that might be suicide love.” He said, and she narrowed her eyes.

“Are you betting against us, Mark?” She asked, and he shook his head.

“Of course not.” He said. “But, we can’t just not expect the unexpected. Anything can happen, that we might not be prepared for. If something happens, and we split up, he might blame you and end your friendship. That’s not fair to either of you. It’s my fault as much as it’s yours.”

“I don’t plan on hurting you again though,” She said, “So if something does happen, I’m not going to handle it the same way as before. Hopefully, it doesn’t even come to that.” Mark sighed, as he climbed back onto the bed and put his arm around her.

“I don’t think we should say that.” He said, “I’ve noticed anytime we hope for something not to happen, something always does. Why jinx ourselves like that.” She chuckled.

“I highly doubt being hopeful that our relationship works out is jinxing us.” Ashley stated, “We’ve already proved that we can get through anything.” Mark pulled her closer to him.

“I really don’t think we should push our luck, love.” He said, “Let’s just not focus on anything else but us. I’ll talk to my brother, make him see reason. He’s not going to hold you to that promise.”

“They are my friends,” She said, “I hurt them as much as I hurt you. It’s going to take time for me to make it up to them. They aren’t as forgiving as you.” He kissed the top of her head.

“That’s because I love you,” He replied, “They love you too but in a different way. There is nothing you could ever do that I could never forgive you for. With me, there is no reason you will ever have to say sorry. I love you flaws and all.”

“Maybe that’s the problem though.” She said pulling a face. “Maybe we are too forgiving when it comes to each other. We overlook what each other has done, push it off as nothing and therefore nothing gets resolved. Then, we just keep making the same mistakes, hurting each other in the process.”

“Maybe, you’re just over thinking this too much.” He chuckled.

“We make mistakes because we are human,” He said, “There is no book written on this subject. We’re just making it up as we go along. Randy, Lori, even my brother can’t truly understand that. They’ve never been in a serious relationship at all, let alone one as complex as ours. They don’t understand us, and as much as they try they never will. Even if they end up in a serious relationship.”

“Lori is in love with Randy,” Ashley said, “You must know that.” Mark nodded.

“Yes, she has feelings for him,” Mark admitted, “But, you also know that Randy doesn’t return those feelings. He might never return them. So, even though there are strong feelings there, she might never understand the level we are at. Honestly, what we have is extremely rare. Even our parents have not experienced a love at this level.” Ashley sighed and snuggled in close to his chest.

“I wish we could help them understand,” She said, “Maybe then they won’t lay blame on one side if something happens between us. You and I, we’ve been through a lot together, and I’d give anything to be with you. However, if I had to step away if your happiness depended on it. I’d do so in a second.” Mark kissed the top of her head again.

“As I would for you,” He answered, “However, the only thing in this world that can make me happy, is you,” She sighed again.

“I’ve been thinking about things,” She said, and he nodded, “About after graduation.”

“What about it?” He asked, and she sighed.

“I’d like to come home, back to Brook Falls, but not to my dads.” She said, and he narrowed his eyes.

“I’m not sure I follow.” He said and she blushed and chuckled.

“There was a few times, when things got bad, that you mentioned running away and getting married.” She said, and Mark smirked.

“You want to run away with me?” He asked in amusement.

“Not exactly that part.” She added, and Mark laughed and nodded.

“Oh, you want to get married.” He said, and she blushed even more.

“I haven’t ruled it out.” She said, and he laughed again.

“Are you sure you want to marry me?” He asked, and she rolled over and climbed onto his lap so that they were face to face.

“I love you,” She said, “Why wouldn’t I want to marry you?”

“Well,” He said, smirking as he gazed into her eyes. “I am just a farm boy, after all.” He shrugged his shoulders, and Ashley’s face wiped of all amusement.

“No,” She replied, “You’re not just a farm boy. You’re my farm boy, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” She brought her lips to his and kissed him deeply. He pulled her closer to him, and kissed her back passionately, lifting her up and twisting her over so that she was now on the bottom.

“Of course I still want to marry you.” He said, “You’re my love.” He fumbled with her buttons clumsily. Her hands cupped his hands.

“Mark,” She whispered, “We’re out of protection.” He sighed.

“Let’s not worry about it,” He said, “I’m not going anywhere, and even if I was, and you ended up pregnant, I could never walk out on my child.”

Had it been too early for them to make such a huge promise to one another? Ashley would think about this moment for years to come and wonder that exact same question. Yet, on that night, in that room they had, and even though that promise was larger than anything they had ever promised each other before, they knew that they would see it through, because they loved each other, and love conquered all.

Didn’t it?

The next afternoon, Mark and Ashley were sitting on the Thomas’ porch, it wasn’t sunny, and yet it wasn’t raining either. The others joined them, though none of them were looking very chipper that day. They said nothing as they sat around them, and Ashley began to feel slightly uncomfortable as if her presence was making them this unfriendly.

It seemed Mark might have thought the same thing because he cleared his throat.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, and it was Randy who spoke.

“There’s another meeting at Town Hall about the highway.” He said, “My dad just left.”

“Is that still going on?” Ashley asked, feeling so disconnected at this point since she moved to Port City the topic hadn’t come up until now. Mark swallowed and nodded at Randy.

“Yeah,” He said, “The government keeps pitching offers trying to buy up the properties that are in the way of the highway.” Ashley shook her head.

“But, no one in Brook Falls would fall for that would they?” She asked. Larry pressed his lips tightly together.

“They’ve already managed to get seven out of ten properties.” He said, and Ashley’s eyes popped.

“What?” Ashley asked, “So many? Whose left?”

“Your dad’s station, Miss. Stevens Flower Shop and...” Mark started and glanced at Carrie.

“My house.” She said, and Ashley gasped. “My house is one of the lasts and I wouldn’t be worried, except the fact that my dad lost his job last month because Brook Falls Grocer sold. With all this happening, he can’t find any other work in Brook Falls. Money’s tight and I fear my parents might sell today.”

“But,” Ashley said, “If your parents sell your house, where would you live?”

“My parents have been talking about possible jobs in Port City, I’m assuming that’s where they are planning to go.” She said, and Ashley sighed.

“What are the chances they won’t sell?”She asked, and Carrie shook her head.

“Slim.” Carrie said, “They’ve already started packing the house.”

“That’s sad,” Ashley said, “Brook Falls is your home, your entire life is here. Larry is here.” Carrie nodded. Yet, Lori spoke up.

“As sad as Carrie’s situation is, it’s not even the worst of it. That leaves only two properties that won’t settle for the highway. They won’t negotiate much longer. Not for two, if those two owners don’t settle soon, giving what the government wants, they are going to seize the properties.” Lori said.

“That means Dad.” Randy said, “If dad loses the station, he and Amanda are leaving Brook Falls.”

“But, what about the house?” Ashley asked.

“He’s probably going to sell it,” Randy answered.

“But it’s been in the family generations!” Ashley exclaimed, “That’s our home, I thought the town was on board to fight this?” Mark rubbed her back.

“They were,” He said, “But the government won’t take no for an answer and they have been offering large amounts of money, much more than the properties themselves are even worth.”

“So people can’t pass on the offers,” Matt added.

“They’re calling it, progress,” Larry added, but Ashley shook her head.

“Brook Falls is the last small town left in the province. That area is what gave it that charm. What’s going to happen to that with this progress?” She asked, and the others shrugged their shoulders.

“Things are changing, love.” Mark said, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” Ashley jumped to her feet.

“We’ll see about that.” She said and walked off the porch and down the driveway.

“Where are you going?” They shouted as they chased after her. Yet, she ignored them and continued walking up the road toward the Town Hall.

She didn’t stop until she reached the parking lot and before they could stop her, she continued inside, interrupting the meeting. Everyone turned in her direction and silence fell.

“What are you people doing?” She shouted, “You can’t ruin Brook Falls with that!” She said pointing to the proposal of the highway. “They call it progress, but it’s destroying our town.” Becky Hicks glared at her.

“What are you even doing here?” She asked, “You left Brook Falls, what do you care?” Ashley glared at her.

“What do I care?” She screamed. “I grew up here and this is my home. Brook Falls as it is now is a great place to grow up. It has a charm that no other place in this province can even compete with. Trust me, I live in Port City, with its large highways, and huge malls. You don’t want that for this town, you have no idea the type of people it attracts.”

“These things are the future,” Becky insisted, “Brook Falls can’t live in the past forever. Mark control your unbalanced girlfriend!” Mark glared at Becky.

“Just because she sees things differently than you do, doesn’t make her unbalanced!” Mark shouted, “She’s got more say in this than you do!”

“She left Brook Falls,” Misty shouted, “She can’t care about the town that much!” Ashley glared at her.

“I was forced out of the town by you!” She shouted, “But that’s not the point. This progress is killing something that isn’t broken. These new businesses will attract more than this town could ever begin to imagine. Right now your children live rather sheltered lives. You don’t have to worry about who they’re with or what they’re into. Embrace this progress and all that will change. No one will want to live in Brook Falls anymore. No one will want to raise their children here anymore. It will just be another place on the map polluted with a crime that no one will want to call here home.”

Becky’s father took a few steps forward.

“Young lady, I think you better leave, this doesn’t concern you.” He said.

“It concerns me a great deal. Who the heck do you think you are Mr. Hicks. Ever since you moved your family here you’ve been nothing but trouble. Your spoiled brat of a daughter has done nothing but manipulate, plot and scheme against others here. Your progress will just bring other kids just as nasty as her to influence the kids here.” Ashley shouted.

“You can’t blame my family because you can’t keep a tight leash on your boyfriend!” Becky shouted.

“Your family leaving last year was the best thing you could have done for this town, but it wasn’t good enough, was it? The damage your daughter did in your time there wasn’t enough for you! You couldn’t wait to take this job, come back and manipulate those you know into selling off their land so you can get a big fat paycheck!”

“Now stop right now!” Mr. Hicks shouted.

“You don’t give a rats ass about this town, you came here to bully these people out of selling off their land, making them think they didn’t have a choice. Yet, you know as well as I do, if they never signed anything, then this highway would never be built. You forced them into accepting something none of them wanted in the first place.” She shouted Mr. Hicks turned to Mr. Carson.

“If you don’t control your daughter and get her out of this hall in the next few minutes, I will have her arrested and charged with harassment.” He shouted.

“For what?” Todd shouted, “Speaking the truth?”

“Get her out of here,” He shouted, “I’m warning you!” Todd turned to Mark and gave him a pleading look. Mark stepped forward and cupped Ashley’s wrist.

“Come on,” He said, “You’ve made your point, love.” Mark was able to get her to leave, the others followed behind them.

“You sure told them off.” Randy laughed, and Ashley shook her head, as her fists began to clench.

“It wasn’t good enough.” She replied, “Carrie’s still going to be leaving, we might still be leaving. I’m getting so sick of Becky Hicks and her family.” Mark stepped forward and pulled her into his arms.

“You can’t stay mad at her forever,” He said, “I’m here, I’m yours and I’m not going anywhere.”

Ashley wanted to believe him, but she knew all too well, that Becky Hicks would never be finished, not until she had everything she wanted, and what she wanted the most; was Mark.

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