Episode Four

#Episode 4: A Thorny Problem
Ryan (August 1991)

Yellow Rose may signify a fading or decrease of a once overwhelming love, or infidelity. If the buds remain unfurled when given, the flower may indicate a heartfelt apology. If paired with three peonies, Yellow Rose denotes shame and jealousy. If conjoined with two White Roses, a heart broken by betrayal. Also, Friendship.

          “DUDE, I am not kidding around, I know you’re out here. Your mom told me you were going picking flowers or something. I didn’t know you have a girlfriend. Do you? Seriously, if you are going out with somebody and never told me I swear I’m going to be so frickin’…”
          Ryan stopped muttering and put his hand over his eyes as he stepped into the clearing, his eyes briefly squinting and watering at the brightness exposed without the thick canopy of trees to hide it. Once his vision had adjusted, he could just make out a slight figure in the distance. As he made his way through the grass, he could see it was Hrothgar crouching on the ground on the far side of meadow, not so far from where a small river cut through on the far side.
          He was sick of this, really. Gar had blown Ryan off yet again, and he’d gone over to his friend’s house just to be told he’d been gone for hours. This was after Hrothgar had canceled twice before, apologizing each time and visibly shrinking in a way that somehow drove Ryan crazy. Ever since they met, anytime Gar thought he’d upset someone he’d slump and roll his shoulders inward and bend his head inward, as if he could curl into a ball and just disappear, or like an armadillo, leave no vulnerable part of himself visible to those he feared may attack him.
          Yeah, the kid got teased. Even hanging with Ryan and his friends didn’t alleviate all of that behavior, and lord knows Ryan had enough flak from his other friends over the years for putting up with it. Yet, there was something about Gar that found him protecting the slighter, paler, more studious boy since they had first started school. He liked to think that he helped his friend grow out of the worst of that awkwardness. Still, maybe it was the way Gar sometimes still acted as if he deserved to be abused, as if he expected it, that drove Ryan so crazy. It got his hackles up especially because he had no idea where it came from. Gar’s parents were weird, sure, but they loved him like crazy. His whole family was like that, odd and goofy but you could tell they all got along. It was as if the boy had been born hurting.
          Ryan hadn’t been able to comprehend that, at first. He’d always been the kid who took on Johnny Prentiss when he’d gone after the girls on the playground, pulling their hair and tripping them to be first up the jungle gym. He usually would pick whichever kid that wasn’t so great for his team in gym class so that they wouldn’t be excluded. He treated, most times, everyone how he wanted to be treated.
          Maybe that was ‘cause of his mom, as Gar had once pointed out years ago. Even before the divorce, he had always tried to put himself between his parents’ increasingly frequent fights. When his father had finally left for San Keros, it wasn’t just his family that had been broken. Ryan had been the peacemaker, had actively used his knowledge that his parents both cared deeply for him to try to keep them together. When all his efforts eventually failed, it was a damning indictment of their feelings towards him as well. They didn’t love him enough to heal the breach between them, even though he sometimes had thrown himself bodily into that chasm to serve as a bridge.
He remembered that phrase, after all these years, exactly as Gar had said it—and his shock as Hrothgar had uncharacteristically reached out and hugged him. Ryan had cried for over an hour in his friends arms, exhausted from trying to save what could not be saved and defeated by his desire to love his parents back together. And they’’d never spoken of it again; not that night. They’d sworn, as they’d turned off their flashlights and got into their sleeping bags on the floor, that they at least would be together forever—that even if their parents and friends might fail them, the thing that was Ryan and Hrothgar would remain.
          As they grew older, Gar relaxed quite a bit. He joked more, he smiled often, he even tried out for a few sports teams after Ryan gave him enough of a side-eye. Gar learned to cover his oversensitivity with sarcasm, and even made a small circle of friends of his own.
          Now, in the span of just a few weeks, his best friend had somehow become an expert at sneaking away from him and his parents. In addition, while he was pretty angry about the lies and misdirections, he was equally worried about Hrothgar. Already fidgety whenever he was around more than two people at a time, ever since his grandma had died Hrothgar had actively faded out of the lives of everyone who knew him. He’d taken that weird physically folding inward thing he did that drove Ryan to drink and found a way to do it socially, folding himself out of conversations, plans, hallways. Even to friends. Maybe especially his friends. He just wanted to know why—if it was a girl thing, well, he ought to have the balls to at least own up and tell his best friend. He hoped that’s what it was. Hell, he’d throw the guy a party!
          Cursing the heat baking his shoulders, he regretted instantly that he’d only thrown on a sleeveless shirt when he’d left the house after Hrothgar. The bad burn he’d gotten last summer had given him a mantle of almost solid freckles across his shoulder blades, and he could just imagine the talking to his mom was going to give him if he spent enough time in this clearing to get another burn.
          He heard something running through the woods not that far off, headed closer. Whatever it was, it was big. Bigger than Ryan, and he was certain he didn’t want to go up against a bear or some pack of wild dogs on his own. He’d heard about some homeless guy who’d been attacked by some roving pack of dogs in San Keros last year, and he’d had nightmares for a week. He didn’t want to have this conversation with Hrothgar, but if he had been acting as odd as his friend had been, he’d have wanted Gar to confront him, too. Besides, whatever was trampling the forest behind him sounded like it might be getting closer. Whatever might happen between them, he was sure Gar wasn’t going to eat him in a deserted alley. Or meadow. Whatever.
          Ryan headed towards his friend, where Hrothgar was sitting in the tall grass, apparently muttering to himself. He had a fanny pack on, of all things, and he was kneeling on one of his favorite brown tweed sport coats. Gar seemed completely oblivious to his approach, entirely absorbed with something on the ground in front of him that Ryan couldn’t make out just yet. As Ryan eventually approached his kneeling friend, he started to make out what the smaller teen was saying.
          “…Almost didn’t think I would find you here today, man. You don’t need to hide from me. How’s it going? I brought you some fruit. Some apple slices I saved from lunch today. Lemme get em-”
          “Dude, who are you talking to?” Ryan asked quietly, not sure whether it was going to be anger or something else when he finally raised his voice.
          If Ryan could’ve seen Gar’s face at that moment, he’d have seen a look of red-faced panic, as he clearly had not heard the other boy approach. However, he couldn’t see that, only see his friend tense as if caught, refusing to turn around and talk to him.
          “Oh…um…myself, I guess,” Hrothgar said deliberately, not looking his friend in the eye. Instead, he kept his gaze downcast, focusing on the trampled grass before him. He reached into his fanny pack, took a slice of apple, and threw it on the ground in front of him, continuing as if Ryan wasn’t even there.
          “OK…you brought yourself some apples…you’re asking yourself what’s up…” Ryan took a deep breath, just like his therapist had taught him. That had been Gar’s idea too, when all the anger from the breakup had gotten too much and he’’d started to lash out. He’d done it one too many times near Hrothgar, and he saw Gar visibly draw back from him one day after he’d come close to failing a history test. His friend had forced himself to reach out again, and urged Ryan to talk to someone, anyone, about what he was feeling—because he was starting to sound a lot like the bullies Ryan had routinely try to overcome on Gar’s behalf.
          “Gar, are you OK?” Ryan was pretty sure the answer to that was no, but he wasn’t leaving until he got some answers. “Your mom said you were down here picking flowers or whatever. I thought that was weird, since we were supposed to go the movies this afternoon. Thought I’d head down to see what’s up. Didn’t expect to have to crawl through a whole forest to find you, though. Those pricker bushes are not my friends. So. You blew me off to have a picnic with yourself in the middle of the woods?”
          “No, oh god, that was today?” There went those shoulders in that classic slump. The sincere anguish in Gar’s voice put Ryan at ease. Clearly, his friend hadn’t meant to ditch him intentionally, though that only mollified him a bit.
“I’m sorry. I forgot…I’ve been busy, I guess. And no, I was talking to…that duck over there. See? She usually has a couple babies with her when I come, and I thought…you know, fruit, ducks…” Even as he said it, Gar knew how absolutely lame it sounded. It was obvious that for whatever reason Ryan wasn’t able to see him, and there was no way he could describe his real reason for his recent actions without Ryan thinking he’d lost it completely.
          “Alright, Listen, Gar. You’ve been dodging me for almost a month now. Hell, you’ve even been skipping lunch plans and eating outside all by yourself. None of the guys see you out with anyone, and you barely remember to return my calls. I thought I was your best friend. Your best friend. Who you just blew off, for like the fourth time this week. For a duck. Do you get why maybe I’m a little angry here?”
          Hrothgar stayed motionless, refusing to look his friend in the eye. Afraid to see what might be there in that stare. Afraid to take his eyes away from what he was seeing that his friend clearly was not, in case it might vanish. Deadlocked between fear and hope, he threw another of the apple slices on the ground about two feet in front of him, trying to find the words to explain.
          “My grandma died. I know you know that, you came to the funeral. Well, she didn’t just leave me these glasses. Which I love, I know you hate them but I love them. She left me some books, too. Well, she didn’t leave them to me, I guess. She just left them. The weekend after the funeral, when Mom and I were clearing out Grandma Rae’s house, she said I could have them. Guess my grandma’s family had owned that florist shop she ran when we were little for a long time. Her grandma’’s mom even helped run some sort of shop like it back in Scotland. They used to go in the woods, pick flowers and press them into the books, and write down where they found them and how to use them and stuff. It’s cooler than I thought.”
          “So you’re just ditching me ’cause you decided flowers were pretty?” Ryan couldn’t keep the snark out of his tone. He hated feeling this ugly inside, but Gar had promised him.
          “Man, I get it. You loved your grandma; you miss her. I do, too. She was a cool lady, but do you really think she spent all her time as a little girl out in the forest? No friends, no nothing?” Ryan could feel his cheeks start to get red. His anger was starting to get the best of him. Sometimes it was so hard to keep it in check, and Gar usually was the one to help calm him down.
          “No, it’s just…,”Hrothgar bit his lip, his grandma’’s frames sliding down the bridge of his nose, “it’s like I didn’t really know her, you know? Like, she was my grandma, and I love her, and we did stuff and everything, but she was also this person. She had all these ideas, and plans, and I don’t know…I guess this makes me feel like I’m getting to know her, the real her—the one that was herself, and not just my grandma. When I’m out here, I feel like she’s with me. And when I find something cool, it’s like I can feel her smiling at me. I know it’s dumb. And I’m sorry I’ve……”
          “Ok, ok,” Ryan said, his temper cooling, “But dude, you can’t just leave the rest of us behind, right? You said she had this whole life outside of you that you’re trying to know. Well, right now your life is only about hers. You don’t talk to anybody; you don’t hang with anybody. Hell, even your parents are eventually going to notice you’re not yourself. It’s as if you just fade into the woodwork when you can’t just slink off on your own. You’re not living, man. You’re like a ghost.”
          Hrothgar blinked and recoiled as his friend’s phrasing hit a little too close to home. Reaching out in front of him to what seemed like Ryan towards absolutely nothing, Gar began petting something that wasn’t there.
          “Maybe I am a ghost…or maybe I want to be. Not dead. I’m not saying that, I’m just saying…”
          “What, that you just want to be left alone, forever? That’s pretty selfish, dude. And pretty cold.”
          “Well,” Hrothgar whispered, “I can’t help how I feel.” After a moment of silence, in which even the wind seemed to hush, Gar continued even more quietly, “I’m seeing things differently these days. I’m not who you think I am.”
          “Look at me, Gar,” Ryan was surprised to find how loud his voice had gotten, loud enough to crack midway. “You look at me, and you tell me you want me to leave you alone. You tell your best friend that you don’t want him around. Say it. SAY IT TO ME.”
          “I do want you around, Ryan. And you are my best friend. ” He couldn’t let his friend see the tears in his eyes, and he couldn’t stop staring at what lay before him. This was it, the moment he had tried so hard to avoid. He was splitting open at the seams, and only the emptiness would be left.
          “But right now, this is where I need to be. I promise I’ll do better. I will. Just please…” Gar couldn’t finish it. That knot of dread that lived in his stomach unfurled, its tendrils snaking through him and rendered him mute.
          “Please what, Gar?”
          …leave.” It was more breath than word, and he immediately wished he could take it back. The ugly sound of it hung between them, the meadow sitting in silence as both processed their shock. Gar couldn’t do this right now; there was no winning. Ryan clearly couldn’t see what was happening, and Hrothgar wasn’t willing to risk losing this new part of his life to make his friends eyes. It was a gift—he was a gift, maybe from his grandma, maybe not—and if Ryan had been able to see what was really happening, he’d have gladly confided and shared the experience with the boy he’d always thought of as a brother.
          “Fine. I’ll go.” Ryan spoke in short, clipped phrases. “Call me when it’s good and convenient for you. I might pick up the phone. If I’m not busy petting the air or something.” Ryan held back the punch he so badly wanted to throw and instead bolted across the field back into the forest, fleeing the stranger that wore the shell of his best friend. The wind against his cheeks whipped away the tears of anger and betrayal he would let no one—not even Gar—see.
          Sniffling briefly, squinting to keep the rest of the tears inside, Hrothgar’s grandma’s red-rimmed glasses slipped far enough down his nose to fall off completely, onto a bed of clover beneath him and Gar followed after, curled into a ball with his back to his friend as his form vanished into the forest. He stared, even as the tears overflowed his capacity to hold them in, and watched the last piece of carved apple vanish into the mouth of the mystery that sat before him.


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