Episode Eight

#Episode 8: What’s in a Name?
Hrothgar and Beth—(August 1991)

Lily of the valley signifies the capacity to envision a better world.  If paired with rosemary, the flowers denote profound loss and regret. Humility.

          Beth spent most of the night sketching the elaborate fantasy the strange boy had conjured up to fill his loneliness. The strangeness at the end of their time together was something she did her very best to push to the very back of her mind. By morning, though, it had crept back forward with the light of the sun and she found herself pacing the floor of her bedroom. She only snuck downstairs to grab some cereal when she thought she heard her mom leave for the day. Alas, she had just gotten the box out of the cupboard above the fridge when her mom returned with a laundry basket full from the clothesline. “Oh, great Bethie, you’re up. I’m running late. Would you mind folding these and putting them away? If any of them are still damp, go ahead and hang them back up for a bit.” Her mom bent down and kissed her above her forehead, and said, “Mind your brother today. He has a play date with the youngest Carpenter boy around noon. They’’re taking a few boys to the water park for his birthday.”
          Her mom grabbed one of the stale bagels from the door of the fridge and headed towards the door with it in her mouth and she grabbed her purse. “Present is on the counter. Love you,” she garbled around the bagel as she closed the door. Moments later, she heard the familiar sound of the doors slamming and the car pulling out of the gravel driveway. At last, she was alone in blessed peace with her cereal. Each piece of Cinnamon Toast Crunch was like a little tiny slab of heaven, a small piece of sweet toast she was glad to make vanish into her very thankful mouth. She paused, however, as she felt her stomach flutter. Tiny pieces of food vanishing into a waiting, thankful mouth only made her think of yesterday. Suddenly, she wasn’t quite so hungry.
          From the other room, she suddenly heard a crash followed by far too much laughter. Rushing through the swinging door that led to the den from the kitchen, she saw Josh and Shadow both rolling around on the floor in a sea of stuffed animals. The little terrier poodle mutt loved to sleep surrounded by his furry friends—even though the plush figures were really Josh’s toys. So who knew who knocked them off the shelf? Honestly, she was just glad the two of them were ok and having a good time. She glanced at her watch. Two hours until Josh was getting picked up, and she could head out on an adventure of her own. The fluttering in her stomach grew stronger at the thought. She didn’t have to go back to the clearing. She could go anywhere.
          She needed to take her mind off it. She took a deep breath and jumped into the plushy pile with her brother and their barking dog, tickling both as a full scale stuffed animal war broke out. The tickling and head bopping lasted a good long while before both Josh and she were wheezing more than laughing as they tried to catch their breath. Shadow, however, was nowhere near done. He kept trying to jump on the both of them with little barks followed by repeated slathering of their arms and necks with kisses. Well, more like tongue slobbering.
          Beth stood up first, much to Shadow’s dismay. “Alright, that was fun…you can pick whichever you want to play with for the next bit, but put the rest back. I’m going to go let Shadow run around a bit out back. You can watch cartoons if you want to. It’s 10:30, right? I think your X-Men or Batman is on. I’ll be back in a few.” She snapped her fingers a few times, but Shadow was still too worked up to follow the sound. She whistled to him four times in short bursts—a sound they’d used since he was a puppy to mean he was due to get a treat—and led the eager dog out the door and into the backyard. Through the window, she could hear the familiar sound of the X-Men theme song playing, and she sat down on the small picnic bench and watched Shadow frolic within the confines of their fenced in yard.
          A soft breeze was blowing, and many of the dandelions that had grown far too high let go of their downy seeds to drift lazily about the yard. She was going to have to mow back here before Friday came. If her dad had to do it on the weekend, she was sure she’d hear about it. The sun felt good, and she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the gentle heat warm the totality of her face. She woke from her momentary daze when she heard Shadow growling. Shaking the sun from her eyes, she saw Shadow’s face pressed right up against the wooden fence with his normal playful features twisted into a snarl. Getting up off the bench, she headed in his direction. As she did, the dog started barking as it backed up towards the sound of her approach, as if he was putting himself between her and whatever it was that had raised his literal hackles.
          “Who’s there?” Beth asked. The empty summer air didn’t answer. As she approached the fence, she could hear rustling on the other side, as if something was moving about. Shadow was barking loudly now, showing his teeth in a way she’d never seen before. The air seemed to go preternaturally still, thicker somehow and filled with the smell of cinnamon and basil and something else she couldn’t identify. The small dandelion puffs hung in the air unmoving as if the whole world had taken a breath and waited to exhale and resume the languid business of the day.
          Shadow abruptly stood on his hind legs as if to beg, and barked once with his tongue hanging out in what Beth could’ve sworn was a grin. Then he lost his balance and fell sideways, rubbing his back in the grass as he exposed his belly for petting. Beth bent down slowly to do just that and was rewarded with earnest sloppy kisses. The breeze was back, a firm gust that dispersed the strange scent as well as the seeds that had been airborne to new homes in the lawn.
          It was only after Shadow finally did his business and played fetch for a few minutes that they both headed into the house. Turning her head to look back, she saw the fence that had so bothered the dog was facing north—towards the woods. Moreover, that where she had stood by the fence there now seemed to be some sort of small bush or shrub. She was sure she hadn’t helped her mom plant it. In fact, she was sure she hadn’t had to straddle it when she’d investigated a moment before. Unnerved, she went back into the house.
          The next hour passed uneventfully. She gathered Josh’s swimsuit, towel, and a small lunch in a brown paper bag as well as the present and eventually saw him off. Eddie Carpenter didn’t leave the car, for which she was thankful. His young brothers were decent enough, but Eddie was a bad seed. She’d never liked the boy, nor his cronies—they seemed far too invested in proving just how tough they were, and usually at some poor kid’s expense.
She gathered up her sketchbook and some snacks into her messenger bag and headed out for Finn’s Wood. She wouldn’t have to go the clearing. But she could. If she felt like it.
          When she got there, Gar was waiting for her. He’d brought what she could only surmise was an old plastic paisley tablecloth to sit on, and what looked like a small cooler. He waved to her as she stumbled through a large, dense cluster of columbine almost as tall as her shoulders. She waved back and approached without any of the reluctance she felt inside. Her stomach was a riot of butterflies, and her skin tingled with a fine layer of dew. The small river was to their left, a patchwork riverbank of rocks marking the water’s edge a mere two feet from where Gar had set up shop.
          “I wasn’t so sure you’d come today,” Gar said with a smile that reached his eyes. Just like yesterday, his face transformed in that moment into something so childlike and believing. It was impossible not to smile back, even as he patted the ground across from him. Placing her bag down first, she sat down cross-legged in her ripped jeans and put her hands in a salute over her eyes. The sun was far brighter here than at home, no doubt due to the lack of the trees that dotted the landscape of her development.
          “I wasn’t sure myself, honestly. I spent most of last night and then again this morning, trying to make sense of…things.”
          “I know how that goes,” Gar nodded, “but you can’t, really.”
          “Really what?”
          “Understand,” Gar continued, pulling a leaf off a nearby milkweed and squeezing the white ooze out onto his finger. “I mean, you can, but you can’’t. He’s a mystery. Maybe with a capital ‘M’. All of his kind are. That’’s sort of the point.”
          “But surely…”
          “There are rules, of course. You learn them in time, by spending time with him. You do what he does, and you eventually figure out why. Or you don’t. Sometimes he does stuff—even after all this time—and I don’t have the foggiest clue why.”
          “And only you can see him,” Beth mentioned lightly, as between one blink and the next the milky ooze vanished completely from Gar’s finger.
          “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m the only one that has seen him so far. But who knows why that is, and what might be true for other people?”  Gar gave her a pointed look.  “I’m just glad we didn’t scare you yesterday. He felt bad.”
          “Oh?” Beth asked, adding the milkweed to her growing list of things she’d yet to explain.
          “He was a little excited apparently—that beaver couple we had helped build the dam for? The lady beaver had just given birth to her babies and he wanted to go see her. He didn’t mean to cause such a commotion as he left.”
Maybe it was the way he said “lady beaver” that made Beth chuckle, or how ridiculous this entire conversation was.
          “And how were they?”
          “He said they were good. We stopped in to visit on the way here today. They didn’t like me nearby very much, but they did bring them out so he could see them. I got to peek. They’re cute, like tiny fat ferrets.”
          Beth got out her sketchbook, imagining the scene. This imaginary—maybe not imaginary—friend guiding Hrothgar to these beavers, who brought out their children like something from the Lion King. It was preposterous. It was every bad cliché Disney movie and fantasy novel she’d ever read all crumpled up together until the words kissed.
          Her pencil took to the page and she started to draw the scene as she imagined Gar had seen it. Gar handed her a small Tupperware container of pineapple and she took a piece as she studied his face.
          “Go ahead; have as much as you want. He doesn’t like it. Or tomatoes, either.”
          “The acid,” Beth munched her way through the word as the pineapple squirted its juice down her throat.
          “Hunh?”
          It was comforting to see a look of bewilderment on Gar’s face for a change. “Pineapples are acidic, so are tomatoes. Maybe he doesn’t like acid? “
          “Hey, could be! Never thought of that, really. Best not bring him some spaghetti then, hunh,” he said as he looked towards the right. No doubt, he was seeing his “friend” again.
          “Actually, pineapple has an enzyme that actually works to digest you as you eat it.”
          “WHAT?” Gar looked terrified as he stared at the clear plastic bin of pineapple chunks swimming in their juice.
Beth didn’t mean to laugh so heartily at his shock. She tried to choke down at least a bit of her mirth. “Relax, Gar. At worst, it’s the reason why if you don’t wash your face you can sometimes get little sores on your lips or tongue when you eat too much pineapple. It’s not going to eat you from the inside out.”
          The scowl Hrothgar had wasn’t for her, but for that invisible figure that was somewhere to their right.
          “Well, I didn’t know, ok? Sheesh. A guy can’t know everything.”
          The sound of the river filled the silent space between them for a while, as Gar experienced whatever silent communion he had with the creature and Beth took her time to sketch the chiaroscuro of sun and shadow on the river’s surface, and the beavers crawling out of their dam as the blue creature Gar had described waited eagerly outside. She’d portrayed it yesterday more like a satyr, but today it seemed smaller, more compact, like a faun.
          “So what happened next?” pondered Beth, breaking the companionable quiet with her question.
          “After what?” Gar looked lost.
          “After your weird dream?”
          “Oh. Well, I did what I should’ve done in the first place. What else does the son of two professors do? I went to the library and did some research.”

Hrothgar—Two Weeks Ago

          Needless to say, when Gar got home the day Kaithias first communicated with him, he immediately logged into Google to search for the creature’s name. He was disappointed to discover nothing. Nothing at all in all of the World Wide Web went by the name, or acronym, or place Kaithias. So that got Hrothgar thinking……maybe he needed to figure out what his blue friend was called instead. After all, parents can name their kid anything. Gibberish, if they wanted. He shook his head. Finally. A name worse than his own. Imagine being named Gibberish Jones?
          After another hour, he had found yet more nothing. His concentration only broke due to the doorbell ringing. Much to his surprise, his uncle stood upon the porch when Gar opened the door. Apparently, they’d all agreed to go fishing that afternoon a week ago and with everything that had happened it had completely slipped Gar’’s mind. That said, he didn’t get to spend a lot of time with his uncle Ben, and he was grateful for it. He reluctantly let go of the idea of spending the rest of the afternoon online trying to find some clue as to just what he was dealing with in his shaggy blue friend. Instead, he spent the day out at Lake Corbin, catching and releasing a few small fish.
          The conversation was awkward, as Gar had spent the last several weeks ignoring most of his friends to spend time in the preserve, and he definitely wasn’t about to utter a word about that. Still, it was nice to spend time with his uncle. These little fishing or camping trips had once happened off and on all summer long, when he was little. These days, they were lucky to fit in one or two all summer long. His uncle had changed a lot since his divorce a few years back. These days, he specialized in real estate around the lake country just to the west of the city. Judging from his uncle’s clothes, cars, and Christmas gifts, Gar judged that business must’ve been good. He supposed if he’d been surrounded by rich people buying second or third homes they only use for a few months out of the year, then he might develop a taste for that kind of lifestyle, too. As it stood, though, that kind of life seemed so foreign to Gar. He supposed he wouldn’t be surprised if Uncle Ben had worked with Bryce or Emily’s parents. He could picture them hosting parties in their lake houses over the summer. He supposed he’d be invited to those imaginary parties, with all the drama that would festoon.
          Sitting in a comfortable silence on the gently rocking boat, Gar wondered what Kaithias was up to. The gentle pitching of the boat and the sun baking down led both nephew and uncle to dozing. Not really sleeping, Gar’s eyes narrowed to slits as he struggled to stay awake and his imagination took hold of his ever-scattering focus. Drifting between sleep and wakefulness, Gar found himself joining the creature as Kaithias wove between thick, old grape vines that threaded through the branches of a swamp oak. Time stretched into a sort of humid, languid forever. Pausing for a moment, Kaithias and Gar found themselves face to beak with a heron, its wings tucked but eyes searching. Kaithias met the majestic bird’s eyes and Gar looked on amused as the two began a staring contest that might well last the entire afternoon. The world twisted and turned, just slightly, just enough to catch Gar off balance. Neither of the other two seemed aware. The world pivots again, and suddenly he found himself back in the boat, his uncle stretching his arms high above his head in an effort to shake off his own sleep.
          “Seems like we’ve both taken the advice of the fish,” Ben yawned as he scratched beneath his left arm. Disoriented, it took Gar a moment to recognize where he was and what was happening. Scrambling awake himself, the boat roughly sloshed left and right as he scooched himself upright. “Calm down, Gar,” Ben laughed, “you’’ll scare the fish. If there are any fish. We might’ve gotten the only three in the whole damned lake.”
          Gar merely harrumphed in agreement.
          “So, eh…How’s the love life?
          Gar tilted his head and looked at his uncle incredulously. “Great segue”.
          “Well.”
          “Nonexistent,” Gar grumped, “I’m busy enough just trying to stay in Mom and Dad’s good graces and keep up with my friends to worry about that crap.”
          “Seriously?” Ben asked, unbelieving. “There’s no one you even have an eye on?”
          “It’s not a crime, Uncle Ben. You should seriously see the drama my friends deal with every single day. It’s not pretty. Why would I want to put up with that myself?”
          His uncle Ben looked genuinely perplexed.
          “Look, I’m not really comfortable…”
          “We used to talk about anything, Gar.”
          “It’s not like I’m keeping secrets here, Gar said, doing his best to keep the guilt out of his voice. “There just isn’t anyone. There are a bunch of my friends that aren’t dating right now. Just chill. I promise to call you the second I fall in love, or like, or even mild-tempered lust with someone, ok?”
          That came out decidedly more bitter than Gar had meant, but it was out there. Hrothgar Jones, once the Cyrano to all his friends, was finding more and more often that his emotions were overfilling his words, and the overflow was rarely pretty.
          “And now I’ve just made everything super awkward. Sorry, Gar. I just, you’re mom mentioned that you’ve been spending a lot of time alone. I just wanted you to know I was here, if you needed to talk, or had any questions, or…”
          “Dad already gave me the talk, Uncle Ben.”
          “The ta…?”
          It was fun to watch Uncle Ben gulp the idea down.
          “Oh, yeah. Good,” Ben continued. “So. Um. Your Mom says you joined the wrestling team? How’s that going?”
          Gar couldn’t help but laugh.
          “You are the master of the segue.”
          “I am,” His uncle added, alongside some sheepish laughter of his own.
          “Ryan and some of the other guys talked me into it. We’ll see what happens in the fall.”
          “I was on the team in college, you know.”
          “No, actually. I didn’t. Were you any good?”
          “Well, now you do. I don’t like to brag, but for the two years I was on the team, we were just about undefeated. Well, in the state, anyhow. So if you’ve got questions about that, there’s no reason you can’t give your favorite uncle a call.”
          “I will,” Gar replied with a genuine smile, “Thanks, Uncle Ben.”
          The rest of their time at Lake Corbin was actually pretty great. They laughed and joked, and Gar found himself opening up in a way he really hadn’t all summer. It was with mixed feelings, then, that he soon found himself back in the car and on the way home for chicken and veggie pockets, one of his grandmother’’s favorite recipes. She’d found a whole circle of Syrian friends when she moved here to the states, and she’d added elements of their cooking into her own as an adult. The meat and veggies were cooked in a thick, somewhat spicy sauce that was awfully addictive. Gar was always sad that he could only stuff the pita bread with so much—he usually ended up with torn bread and a pile of delicious filling on his plate.
          After supper, his father used the computer right up until Gar had to go to bed, so he trudged upstairs resigned to his ignorance until the next day when he could bike to the library. His dreams that night were a hodgepodge of his experience in the forest and the dream from the day before, muddled together in a patchwork fashion that rendered it full of meaning but impossible to decipher. When he turned on the computer the following morning, the rainbow haze was so strong it made reading the screen almost impossible. Squinting, he was able to make out some words through the nimbus, but not enough for the computer to be helpful and not without giving himself a killer headache. He called his mother’s secretary, let her know where he was off to, and headed to the middle school library.
          Instead, he found himself in the library, going through fantasy books and reading mythology anthologies hoping for any mention of his strange new friend. After the first hour, Gar’s eyes were leaking frustration. It seemed like every book of mythology he picked up had some sort of forest creature sort of like Kaithias, but none of them seemed to come close to the reality.
          Some battered Time-Life book mentioned something called a leshy. They were an Eastern European forest spirit that could be big or small and might have horns or hooves. However, some stories said they didn’t have either, or only had one or the other. They were supposed to only wear one shoe and a red scarf—and Kaithias did neither. His friend had sky blue skin and fur, and leshy were supposed to have pale white skin. They were supposed to protect and nurture plants and animals and have magic. Gar sighed. How is it that all these people interacted with these strange creatures and none of them could agree with each other? Gar acknowledged that there’’d been diversity in the gathering of Kaithias’, but not to this ridiculous extent!
          Moving on from the leshy, Hrothgar turned to an encyclopedia entry on satyrs next. That in turn led to several well-illustrated books of Greek and Roman mythology. At first, satyrs seemed to be more horse more than goat, playing pipes like from his dream, but none of them seemed to have the strange colors of fur or skin he saw. The punch he had unfortunately experienced did seem a lot like ambrosia from some of the myths he was reading, though. The creatures he’d encountered were tame compared to some of the pictures he was seeing of Satyrs and their chosen proclivities. Man, was he grateful for that. This was awkward and confusing enough without adding sex into all of it. He slammed the book in embarrassment, and got a few baleful glares in kind.
          Digging through the encyclopedia, he discovered a listing for a few books on Irish and Scottish mythology. A quick perusal of the card catalog had those volumes in his hands in a few minutes. Flipping through, the first likely contender was a gruagach. They were Scottish, which Gar was excited to discover, but then he wondered why a bunch of Scottish spirits would be hanging out in the woods in New York. Moreover, there seemed to be some confusion as to what a gruagach was, whether it was a house spirit like a Brownie or something associated with rivers and nature. And though gruagachs weren’t blue, they were known to always have “blue bonnets”—which might be code for something. Then again, maybe Hrothgar was just reaching.
          Then there were the Fauns, which seemed the closest based on the art and the stories he took the time to read, but then again the other book had said Satyrs sometimes were described as goat-like and not horse-like. Fauns seemed more capricious and silly than Satyrs, which definitely agreed with Kaithias’ personality. They didn’t seem obsessed with sex either, Gar was relieved to read. They seemed somewhat mindless though—and Kaithias seemed more like he had ADD than that he was stupid. Hrothgar sighed. This wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought. He hadn’t expected there to be a giant lit arrow pointing from the ceiling to the book that would have the perfect definition of whatever Kaithias and his kin were, but he had hoped that he’d walk away with at least some answers rather than a notebook filled with contradictions. He put his pen down and stretched his fingers, which were starting to cramp. Glancing at his watch, he’d been at this for about two hours already.
          He grimaced when he saw Seth walk by, with his Walkman in his bulging shorts pocket and the over-sized earphones in his ears crushed his spikey, gelled black hair.  Seth approached, completely oblivious to Gar who had hidden his head behind another of those over-sized Time-Life books as cover. Until he sneezed, of course. Alongside the slippery long noses, the Jones family was well known for their near sonic boom-inducing sneezes. You could always find a Jones using their sneeze as a method of echolocation. It made allergy season particularly embarrassing for someone who usually spent concerted effort to go unnoticed. Also, apparently, in libraries.
          “Gar?” posed Seth, a smile lightening his normally gothically thin face. “What the hell, man? How’s it going?”
          “What? Oh, hey, Seth,” Gar said, putting on a surprised face. “What are you doin’ here?”
          “Just taking out some old LPs for a mixtape I’m making for Cole. He asked me for something to pump him up before practice.”
          Diving into the text he’d held up as a smokescreen—something about telepathy and the aura—Gar didn’t notice the brevity of Seth’s answer or the fact that his friend was standing there, not quite tapping his foot, waiting for him to respond.
          “Am I bothering you?”
          “Nah, man, sorry. What were you saying?”
           Seth curled one of the corners of his mouth in something between a pout and a frown.
           “What are you reading, here?”
          Gar groaned on the inside as Seth dropped his bag and started picking up some of the books strewn about the desk.
          “Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men? The Secret Commonwealth? Wild Wisdom: The Wood in Greco-Roman Myth? This isn’t really what I’d call light summer reading, man.” Seth took in all the various mythology and folklore books opened up around his friend in a semi-circle and looked at Gar perplexed.
          Why had Gar thought Ryan was the one to fear about his recent discoveries? Sure, Ryan was his best friend, and far more sensitive then he’d let anyone but Gar see. But Seth was the actually insightful one. The only one who could keep up with Gar’s sarcasm when he was really on a roll. He could easily dodge Ryan with general lies, but Seth was a different beast altogether. He seemed to see effortlessly into the heart of things. Gar needed to think quickly. He briefly thought about confiding in Seth about Kaithias, the headaches and rainbow halos, everything. It’d feel a ton better to not be going through it all alone. But if he guessed wrong, or if he couldn’t prove it to his pretty open-minded friend, the rest of his summer could just as easily be filled with shrink appointments and medications. Could he take that chance? His whole future could blow up with one wrong word. He trusted Ryan and Seth as much as he trusted his parents—but this was too big even for that.
          “I’m working on something.”
          “Clearly.”
          “Ugh, don’t be that way. I mean, I’m like writing a book or something.”
          “About mythology?”
          “Sort of. It’s complicated. It’s about…”
          Vertigo cut off Gar as a swirling cloud of blue and yellow swirled around Seth and tears came to his eyes. A dull ache settled into his temples and began to spread.
          Watching his friend trail off and his eyes unfocus just past him, Seth admitted, “Eddie has gotten tons worse since you’ve stopped hanging out with us. It’s exhausting constantly having to defend you against all of that idiot’s jealous ramblings.”
          When Hrothgar didn’t respond right away, Seth added, “I know Ryan can be a tool, but he’s the best friend you’re ever going to have. And he must really care if he’s fighting so hard for you.” 
          “You make it sound like he’s in love with me,” Gar snorted, doing his best to focus.
          “No,” Seth dissembled, “of course not dude.” Then it was Seth’’s turn to look away.
          Trying his best to explain without really explaining anything, Gar proceeded to launch into the more mundane experiences he’d gone through earlier in the summer. His grandmother’s death, the flower journals. Showing them to Seth as proof, Gar then launched into this bizarre pitch of a story involving the origins of a flower language going back to ancient Greece and beyond.
          Flipping through the journals, Seth sat still befuddled as to the hold they had on his friend. “I get that you want to feel connected to your grandma, man, but what does that have to do with ditching Ryan and me, and the rest of the guys?”
          “There’s tons of research to do, and I want to try to incorporate some of this flower stuff into it, and I guess I just wanted to get as much done during the summer because, once school starts, who knows how much time I’ll have to devote to it? I know you’re the same way about the record shop,” Gar said as he nodded to the bag Seth had dropped by the edge of the table. He wasn’t feeling guilty. He wasn’t acting defensive. Nope. “You spend half the summer in the city looking for new tracks.”
          “Dude, I’m not the only one who’s noticed you’ve pulled away. I’’m just the only one coming to you. Ryan’s been calling you every day pretty much, and you either don’t call back, or wave him off with some bullshit answer. I don’t want you to get so lost in whatever it is your feeling, whatever it is your doing, that there’s no way to come back to us. Up until all this, I felt like we could pretty much tell each other anything, but it’s been weeks, and if I hadn’t pressed the issue right now, would I have even found out about what little your telling me?”
          Before Hrothgar could even reply, Seth gathered more steam and continued, “And don’t lie, dude. Ryan may have fallen for it, but I know there’s more that you’re not telling me. And I don’t want you to, not if you don’t want to. But I miss my friend, man. You’re the only genuinely cool kid in that completely ridiculous posse. Come save me from them every now and again, ok?” He was quieter by the end. And he clearly was waiting for some sort of response. Seth never really raised his voice like that. He was the calm, cool one. Gar was the overenthusiastic one.
           Gar nodded his head, his eyes still unfocused. The swirling colors around Seth seemed to get richer somehow as he talked. He wondered if he reached out towards his friend what the colors would feel like on his fingers. Warm? Or would they smudge, like oil on water.
          “What did I just say to you, Gar?”
          “Hunh, what? I’m sorry.”
          “Jesus Christ! I’m right here. Can you at least pretend that you give a damn about what I’m telling you?” 
          “I do care; I just…” Gar tilted his head to the side at an odd angle as another spell hit him head on, and the colors around Seth explode first into an orangey-pink and then into a thundercloud of throbbing red with jagged lines of dark purple. The dull ache behind his eyes radiated across his forehead and began to pulse in time with his vision.
          To Seth, it was as if Gar had suddenly noticed him for the first time. When he’d first walked up, Gar’s eyes had seemed lazy and unfocused, but now it was the opposite. The piercing gaze Gar directed at him now stripped him down to every pore, every breath, every blink. His blue eyes seemed bluer somehow as they took in everything about Seth and kept digging, a scalpel cutting away his clothes and his music and his words and looking beyond all of that. Seth couldn’t look away as Gar peered through him, deep inside. And that, that’s just about the last thing he ever wanted Hrothgar Xavier Jones to do.
          “I…I have to go,” Seth proclaimed, finally letting out his breath. His abdomen hurt as if it was cramping. “But you call me, buster. Or call Ryan. I’m all for you trying something new…but just don’t leave us all behind, ok?”
          Gar might’ve said, “Sure” and might’ve smiled as Seth squeezed his shoulder as he walked by and left him to return to his research. Like a dream, one moment seemed entirely disconnected from another and all of it felt surreal. The feeling gradually faded along with his headache as he sat there staring at the books spread out in front of him. Gar glanced at his watch. He’d need to leave soon if he was going to bike all the way home in time for dinner. As he packed up several of the volumes, he found one he hadn’t had a chance to read yet. Leaning over the table, he skimmed through the dusty, yellow-paged book on British mythology until he stumbled across the word woodwose.
          Now, at first, there was something about that name that struck Hrothgar as funny. However, the more he read about it, the more intrigued he was. Sometimes they were described as some sort of forest spirit, not unlike a lot of the others he’d read about. Other accounts seemed to depict normal folk that had some sort of fit and ended up living in the forest, where they seemed to magically grow wise and start issuing prophecies and could seem to read others intentions.
          Well, that sounded a little too eerily close to Hrothgar’s own situation. He’d come here hoping to find answers to what kind of being he’d befriended and he’d only grown more confused about that, but this thing about the woodwose…he couldn’t tell the future, of course. No one could, no matter what Diane Warwick said late at night on the television. Nevertheless, he had noticed that sometimes the rainbows he saw around things tended to change with people’s moods. Maybe that’s what they meant about reading people’s intentions? Maybe the reason woodwoses existed—in his head, every time he heard that word it sounded like Elmer Fudd—was because they had made friends with something like Kaithias, and had a link like he did? Well, that was something. Except he’d started seeing the rainbows and getting the headaches before he’d ever met the blue-furred fellow. It’d all started the morning of his grandma’s funeral and honestly, he didn’t want think any more about that particular topic.
          He walked the books back to where he found them, shoved his notebook in his backpack and went to fetch his bike from the rack outside. Pedaling through the side streets of downtown, he made his way back to his development with ever hastening speed. As he did, he felt that familiar pressure on the sides of his head and the rainbow coruscations slowly envelop everything in his sight. As he sped by, the whole world became nothing but light, multicolored brilliance that spilled into more of the same, a nebula of color that Hrothgar passed through as gossamer and translucent as the air itself.
          He was surprised when he got home that his parents weren’t home yet. In fact, the sun hung in the sky almost as high as when he left the library over a half hour earlier. He checked his watch, and it agreed. He’d been pedaling for about 38 minutes. When he got the spare key from its hiding place and got in the house, however, he found his watch must’ve been fast, because according to the microwave clock and the one on the VCR, he’d made the entire trip from downtown to his house in about 10 minutes instead.
          As he began emptying the dishwasher and setting the table, Hrothgar took a moment to take in what he’d experienced today. He couldn’t really remember what he and his uncle had talked about, neither on the way to or from the lake or while they were on the boat. His fight with Seth made him feel awful, but even the details of that had already started to fade a bit. He could remember every word he read today, though—every single confusing, contradictory word. He could remember the dream from two nights ago as if it had just happened. In fact, that dream felt much more real than either conversation. Somehow, he was sure his grandmother would’ve understood. There was nothing in the journals to indicate they’d ever experienced anything like what Hrothgar was going through, but anyone who trusted a language of flowers to communicate emotions and secret messages would’ve understood the power of his recent experiences, how intoxicating they were.
          His parents didn’t seem to notice how distracted his was during dinner. His dad’s favorite TA had finally finished his first draft of his dissertation, so both his mom and dad were in a celebratory mood as they chatted about Chad’s chances for completing his study before the winter. It came out of left field, then, when his mom casually introduced that she’d run into Ryan’s mom at the supermarket on the way home. One minute it was “Chad needs to really think about who he wants in his control group before the next meeting,” and the next it was, “I ran into Amanda at Price Chopper, and she invited you over for dinner tomorrow night before the carnival, since Ryan said you were going with them. Glad you’re spending time with him; you’ve been a bit of a recluse this summer.” There was no discussion, just facts laid out in the way only a mother could. The deed was done, and he did his best to not bite his lip in annoyance.
          Later that night, Kaithias and he swung from vine to vine like Tarzan in a forest that was much warmer and wetter. Tall cypress trees grew in groves. His friend kept changing shape as they avoided alligators and large pythons that hung from the trees like vines, When he’d see Kaithias one moment he’’d have the legs, ears, and tail of a horse, as well as a…he didn’t even want to think about that last part. When he’d land on the forest floor alongside him, his friend would shimmer and instead he’d have the legs, horns, and curly fur of a goat. They’d take a moment to taunt the large cat they could hear approaching through the underbrush, dancing a jig as Kaithias played the wooden pipes from his dream. Next, he’d be a tall white hairy man with a red scarf and emerald vines and foliage for a beard and hair. Throughout all the transformations, and their adventures through the tropical dream forest, the kind, wild eyes that found him stayed the same linden green.

Hrothgar and Beth—August, 1991

          “So what was it?
          “Hunh?”
          “What did you decide he was?”
          “I decided it didn’t matter,” Gar shrugged. “No one else seemed to be able to agree. Maybe they were all right, or all wrong, or Kaithias isn’t like anything else anywhere. There’s no way to know for sure. Seth was right about that, at least.”
          “What’s that?”
          “Trying to figure it all out was driving me crazy. I needed to take a step back.”
          “You call this a step back?” Beth looked around and couldn’t help but scoff.
          “No, of course not. I didn’t understand then,” Hrothgar admitted easily. “That came later, when I got dragged along to that stupid carnival.”
          “I didn’t think it was that bad,” Beth said, as she smiled remembering Elena and her antics that night, many of which involving the ginormous amount of cotton candy they’’d both somehow managed to ingest.
          “I know. You seemed to be having a good time with your friends.”
          “Wha—” Beth’s words caught in her throat. The days since meeting Hrothgar in the clearing had abated that initial trepidation she’’d first felt when he’d approached her. Now it all came rushing upon her at once.
          “I saw you at the Carnival. That’s when everything started to make sense,” Gar gulped. “Don’t run away this time.”
          “Gar, you’re scaring me,” Beth whispered.
          “I was scared, too, at first. Just let me explain. I promise there’s no Psycho butcher knife hiding under the blanket.”
          Beth did her best to look surly. “That so reassures me.”
          “Please. After what I’ve told you, that is what I’d lie about?”
          She took a moment. Eventually, she offered, “You make a point.”
          “I do at that.”
          “So?” Beth asked as Gar dug through his seemingly bottomless fanny pack and offered her an orange.
          “No apples today?” Beth asked as she purposefully took the offered fruit slowly from the younger boy’s hands.
          “Nah, used the last of them up yesterday. He gets blueberries today.”
          Talking about the invisible, indescribable creature as if he was a house pet was ridiculous, but it made her feel more secure. The creature felt safer than the fey child fidgeting in front of her.
          “Ok.”
          “Ok?” Gar puzzled.
          “Tell me about the Carnival.”
           Gar tossed a handful of blueberries into the sky. They never reached the ground.

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