Episode Five

#Episode 5: Neon Tetrahedron
Beth (August 1991)

          Beth had crept along the edge of the meadow, keeping in the shadows of the tree line as she observed the two boys. The older, bigger one looked familiar. She thought he was in the grade behind her, but she didn’t recognize his friend. She watched most of the exchange at a small distance, not wanting to intrude. She’d had no idea this meadow was even here, of course, having never crossed the river before. And it looked like the water ran through the far side of the field, too.
          Was it wrong that she was more concerned about using the meadow as a new place to sketch than respecting the boys’ privacy? His friend had left him sitting in the grass alone, and she wasn’t sure what to do next. Clearly, this kid had found it first, but he didn’t seem the type to want to bother her. Maybe he wouldn’t mind sharing his space with her. The clearing was big enough for both of them without really bumping into each other. Of course, the minute she thought in his direction he glanced right in her direction, stood up as if in a daze and then after a few awkward steps started to jog towards her with an oafish grin.
          Unsure of what to do, she raised her hand in a weak wave and brushed her hair out of her face. A gentle breeze was blowing through the field, and her shoulder-length auburn hair was constantly blowing into her eyes. The boy—Gar, she’d heard his friend call him—stopped several feet from her and kept glancing from her to the ground about a foot in front of her. The boy had mousy brown hair that hung a bit shaggy on the sides, mud brown eyes that hid behind glasses in a red mottled plastic frame that she’d picture more on her mom than on someone their age—let alone a boy.
          They stood there staring at each other as the awkwardness grew between them. Finally, Beth waved again to get his attention and said, “Hey. I’m Beth.”
          “I’m Gar…um…”, as he pushed his glasses back up his nose and wiped what appeared to be tears from the corners of his eyes. The gawky boy was wearing a suit jacket or something over a t-shirt and faded jeans that were far too long, covering his sneakers almost completely. An open fanny pack sat low about his waist.
          “Sorry,” Beth admitted, “I didn’t mean to interrupt you……”
          “No, its fine, really,” Hrothgar stammered, “You’ve been exploring, looks like. You should feel proud. First time I ran into the swamp I lost my shoes.” He gestured to her muck smeared sneakers with an exaggerated frown and followed it by a deep shrug of his narrow shoulders by way of explanation.
          “I almost did, twice!” Beth laughed, glad not be alone in her embarrassment. “I was just making my way back home when I saw the clearing from the stream.”
          He reached into his fanny pack, pulled out some blackberries, and offered them to her. “I picked these from that nasty thicket by the oak trees. They’re wild blackberries, so they taste a little different. Want to try one?”
          Beth paused, trepidatious about taking the berries from a stranger.
          When Beth paused, obvious in her apprehension at taking the fruit from a stranger she’d just met, it was Hrothgar’s turn to laugh. Gar twisted sideways a bit and awkwardly tried to open the small backpack she’d previously overlooked snug on his back. The almost painful to watch dance was made doubly so as he tried to preserve the ripe black fruit still left waiting in his hand.
          “I promise,” he huffed as he strained to take took out an old book and, succeeding with a flourish, flipped through several pages before handing it to her. He bungled the book in the process and managed to drop the offered berries out of his hand into the grass. The book, at least, remained in his offered hand.
          Beth took the book, as Gar looked on abashed at his blunder. It took only a few pages for her to be fascinated. This book was old, the bulging binding holding slightly yellowed pages, each filled with looping handwritten script. Between several were flowers and leaves, pressed flat to serve as bookmarks or examples of those plants the author hadn’t had the time or inclination to draw. She was jealous. Most of the pages contained illustrations that she could only hope to reproduce after years in art school. The fine level of almost pointillist detail made clear the vine she’d encountered just a few minutes before, and the enlarged picture of the berry drawn at the bottom of the page left little doubt it was the same as what Gar had been holding in his hand.
          “That was my great-grandmother’s. She had a florist shop in town, and her mom and she used to gather many of the extra bits for arrangements out here. She was a pretty talented artist, at least judging by the book. Obviously,” he grinned as he reached into the pack and offered her a few more berries, “she had a sweet tooth as well. Alas, only the addiction to sweets was genetic.”
          Beth took the offered berries, and popped one in her mouth. It tasted, for the most part, like the same berries her mom picked up at the supermarket—but it had a bit of a bite as well. Something astringent, unexpected—a lot like this Gar character. He was far more sociable than she’d first thought. She could hear her mother castigating her, murmuring about judging a book by its cover.
          “Good, right? The bite takes some getting used to,” Gar offered as he popped one in his mouth himself. “I usually can only handle a few at a time.”
          Beth flipped a few more pages as she placed the last two berries in her mouth. Some of the foliage she’d tried to draw was in here and it put her work to shame. Nevertheless, she grew visibly excited when she found a detailed picture of the tree that had given birth to the magnificent swarm of butterflies earlier. Not just a tree like it, but the exact tree. She remembered its fat gnarled trunk and the almost perfectly ovoid, tall stretch of his branches.
          “Recognize that, do you?” chewed Hrothgar good-naturedly. “I stumbled across that monster a few weeks ago. It’s a Linden tree, and an old one at that. There are some in Europe that are over a thousand years old!”
          The boy seemed more excited about plants than anyone she’d ever met. It was a little off-putting, honestly, that level of honest intensity. Gar was oblivious, however, and continued on.

It’s said you cannot lie under a Linden Tree, for it unearths the truth. Germanic and Baltic peoples used to call all their judicial meetings and many of their celebrations under its branches for this reason. Also called by many the Tree of Lovers, women in Lithuania used to make sacrifices to the Tallia tree for fertility and domestic tranquility.

          At that point, Beth noticed two things: firstly, that Gar was quoting the text that wrapped around the large drawing of the tree spread across both pages she had opened; and secondly, that Gar wasn’t looking at her at all while he recited the words. Instead, his eyes darted in a small circle from her feet towards the ground on her left—which was decidedly empty.

Linden protects against ill luck, the strike of lightning, and spirits that would cause harm to a household. Its sweet sap calls to bees so potently they temporarily collapse in ecstasy.

          Handing the book back to Gar, Beth reached into her suede messenger bag and retrieved her own sketchbook, flipping through the pages until she got to the most recent, her depiction of the Linden tree awash in the blue glow of wings. She took a step or two towards Gar and handed her own book over, enabling them both to compare them as they stood side by side. Gar raised his eyebrows and whistled through his front teeth.
          “Wowsa…did you draw that?”
          “A little bit ago, yeah,” Beth confessed. “I’d just crossed the stream, and the sun pretty much blinded me for a second when the wind let it through the branches. The whole area must’ve been covered with moths and butterflies, but I didn’t notice until I almost ran into that tree. Then suddenly…”
          “A rain with skin of feathers,” Gar finished for her wistfully.
          “That’s a rather poetic way of putting it. There were hundreds of them,”
          “Man,” Hrothgar exhaled, “that must’ve been amazing.”
          “I was scared to breathe,” Beth admitted. “I waited until they left before I tried to draw.”
           Gar turned the page and saw the partial studies Beth had made of the two visitors who had kept her company as their friends fled their meeting. He looked up at her and there was something she’d never seen in anyone’s face before……awe, maybe? She had his full attention now, didn’t she? No more of the distracted stares around or through her, the intensity she’d felt from him before was nothing next to what was revealed in his eyes now. Beth began to feel uncomfortable. Gar must’ve felt it too, because he looked away quickly. Neither knew quite what to say.
          Gar broke the silence first, his gaze having eventually dropped again to the grass at her feet, as he asked in a hushed voice sounding much younger, “is…is he yours?”
          “Is who mine?” Beth asked slowly, having heard enough of the previous conversation between Gar and his friend to wonder what precisely was going on with the younger boy—and her own temerity in approaching him. Well, perhaps not. Her father had cursed her curiosity since as far back as she could remember—and with cause. She did seem to bring a mess with her, despite all her attempts to the contrary.
           “You know, him,” he gestured to the empty ground in front of them. “I’m only asking ‘cause he ran right towards you once he saw you, and I’ve never seen him do that before.”
           “I don’t see anyone there, Gar. Who are you talking about?”
          Hrothgar bit his lip again. Contrary to what Ryan thought, he hadn’t just been vanishing into the woods for the sake of vanishing. It had started at his grandma’s funeral. He’d tripped on the way out of the church and fell, breaking his glasses as he landed face first. He stood up, then reached down between his legs to grab the shards of his broken glasses off the sidewalk and watched—for a second—the parade of people and cars cross the street into the cemetery, only upside down. That was what it felt like, he thought briefly—as if the world had been shaken violently and flipped upside down. Then he had stood up and headed over, supporting his mom as they walked across the street to the cemetery. The next day, rather than get a new pair, he’d asked his mom if he could get new lenses put in his grandma’s frames. Touched, his mother had agreed.
          Only a few days later, he picked up his new glasses and noticed almost immediately that something was different. He kept thinking he saw something moving out of the corner of his eye, but it shifted out of view whenever he turned his head to look. Sometimes, if he stared for a little bit, he could see soft rainbows like he saw in the sprinkler around plants, and birds and stuff. He didn’t say anything, of course. It wasn’t that big a deal. But then he had gone exploring in the woods with the flower journals and had found himself face to face with something impossible.
          “Oh, well…I, um…forget it,” Gar said to the girl standing in front of him, the world in front of him coming back into focus.
          “No, really. Am I missing something?” Beth implored. “Is someone else here? Are you talking about your friend?”
          “Which friend?”
          At that, Beth felt a shiver run down her back. She’d only seen the one that had argued with Gar and run back into the forest, but the meadow was tall enough, conceivably, that she could’ve overlooked someone. Maybe more than a single someone. Especially if they were lying down, or deliberately hiding. The boy looked 12 or 13 at the oldest, but that didn’t suddenly make her feel all that much safer. Not if there was a gang of them.
          She shook her head quickly, doing her best to shake it off. No one had known she was coming to the preserve today. Even she hadn’t known for sure until she’d managed to sneak away. So how could some secret conspiracy of boys gather together and follow her, through the muck and what had happened at the tree, and her not notice? This wasn’t Neverland, and she wasn’t Jane. Feeling better, her curiosity got the better of her as always.
           “Not the one who just ran away,” she responded with a knowing glare. She had plenty of practice with that look. She had to use it often enough to keep her little brother out of trouble.
          Gar looked relieved. In fact, it was amazing how much his whole face changed once she said those words. The grin that split his face changed almost everything about him. The menace that had permeated the air seconds before popped like a bubble when confronted by blinding white teeth arced in a smile and the eagerness that caused him to dance from foot to foot.
          “Yeah?” Gar seemed to almost vibrate with energy as he spoke, eyes alight, “I sort of thought maybe you noticed him. He definitely noticed you.”
          She watched as he threw a slice of apple on the matted grass between the two of them. He’d seen him do that before. A few times while his friend had been here, and then a few more as she’d talked to him.
          “He gets hungry fast,” Gar burbled, slowly gathering speed. “Like, I don’t even know how he survives without me here to feed him. I mean obviously he does, ’cause who knows how old he is, really, but…”
          Beth was confused…was Gar talking about an actual friend of his? Now it sounded more like someone describing their favorite pet. Beth stopped paying attention to Gar’s rambling as she looked down to where Gar had dropped the apple. The patchy grass was a foot high where they were standing, but for the life of her, she couldn’t see the brick red slice of fruit that had been there just a moment before. Trying her best to not look alarmed, she asked, “How did you meet him?”
          She was only half listening; focusing more on buying herself time to process what she was seeing than anything else. Where did that slice of apple go? Just what had the kid found, out here in the woods? She shouldn’t call him a kid—he was at best only two or so years younger than her, at her best guess. It was his strangeness and enthusiasm that made her think of a child, she supposed.
          Gar seemed almost slavering to talk about his friend, and launched into his story. By the time he’d finished his second sentence she was sure he could see the look of disbelief on her face—but he continued undeterred, letting the words carry him away as he told her what was the most preposterous story she’d ever heard.
          She hardly noticed when she sat down across from him and he did the same, the crushed clover spread beneath them, the itchy seed-filled spikelets of grass mashing into their ankles.

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