Heart of the Woods

An Array of Oddities

Yawning, Jeremy slowly opened his eyes. His first thought was how relieved he was that nothing had waked him up. Looking around, he saw Jamie curled up in a little ball breathing calmly; she looked like an angel, the way her curls framed her face. Amy had somehow gotten her sleeping bag tangled up and was halfway out of it, mouth open wide in a slight snore.

Lying back down, Jeremy closed his eyes, willing himself back into a light snooze. Jeremmmmmy, a voice called, whispering into his ear. It was wicked sounding and scratchy, without a way to tell whether it was male or female. Jeremy, it breathed, caressing his face in a slight breeze.

He panicked, trying to force his eyes to open. Once he did, he saw no one was there. You’re all alone, Jeremyyyyyy, it goaded, making his heart rate thunder in his chest. Behind him… He had to look behind him. Trying to move, he discovered that he was frozen. The voice continued to call his name, sounding louder and clearer each moment. At last he twitched his arm- a movement although minor, enough to make him strain against the paralysis.

The moment he could fully move, he sat in an upright position. Was it a dream? Or was what just happened real? Pulling his knees up, he rested his head on them. What was going on? Was he really just crazy- mental, perhaps? From what he could see, no one else looked even remotely bothered as they lay in their peaceful slumber.

Sweat left his blanket sticking to his body uncomfortably, causing him to wriggle out of it. Might as well wait here for everyone to wake up, he thought, choosing not to go out of the tent alone. As brave as he may act, he knew it was only skin deep as the fears of what could lay outside his safety net caused him to cower.

Looking at his watch, he realized it was later than it looked. There was dim light shining through the tent, making it feel like early morning, but his watch claimed it was already 8:30. Scratching his messy hair, he put the watch up to his ear. The ticking was soft and steady; everything was normal, that was, if you wanted to call anything normal anymore.

The crack of thunder caused Jeremy to jump with a start. Amy and Jamie awakened from the sound, looking around wildly in confusion. “It’s just thunder,” Jeremy said in attempt to calm them. At least, he hoped it was just thunder. Before he could contemplate what else would be the cause of such a noise, the sound of rain hitting the tent confirmed his statement. It started off gently, a light pitter-patter that was soothing to the ear. But quickly, the heavens opened up to release buckets of water, cascading onto the tent as if demanding entrance.

“Wer zer no oose ovin,” Amy said, struggling to be heard over the catastrophe.

“What?” Jeremy loudly replied, his eyebrows scrunched in an effort to hear.

“Well, there’s no use moving,” Amy hollered out.

He nodded back, glancing at his sister’s wide-eyed look as she snuggled up to her pillow. Inside the tent, it became much harder to see as the dark masses of clouds swirled above and about them, cracks of thunder splitting the sky into pieces and crumbling the earth with its loudness. Each bang never ceased to startle Jeremy as he tried to calm himself. It was just a thunderstorm, for God’s sake. How could he be acting so childish?

Lying back, he closed his eyes in attempt to ignore the raging storm surrounding him. A jerk of the legs was the only sign that his attempts were feeble. Twisting about uncomfortably, he finally gave up and reached into his backpack to eat an apple.

Amy followed lead, pulling a ripe green apple out of her bag. The crisp sounds of the two biting into their apples caused Jamie’s hunger to eventually overpass her fear of the storm as she reached into her own bag and began to munch.

For what seemed like forever, the storm relentlessly came down on them, until at last there was silence. Hollering out to his friends in the other tent, Jeremy was glad to receive a loud hello back. He decided it was best to wait a few minutes to make sure the rain had passed.
Unzipping the flap, he looked out and was surprised to see there was no sign of rain on the ground. Sliding his finger across the side of the tent, it came off dry. He shook his head, walking to Samuel and Merrick’s tent. For as far as he could see, there was no water on the ground. As the other two saw his puzzled look, they looked around not believing what had just happened.

“When will I stop being surprised by all the tricks that go on in this place?” Samuel questioned, shaking his head. At that comment, Amy and Jamie came out of their tent.

“What gives!” Jamie exclaimed. “There was rain. I HEARD it.” She shook the tent for signs of water, perplexed as to how she could hear something that did not happen.

“I’m getting pretty tired of this place,” Jeremy said, face expressionless.

“No matter how tired we are of what’s going on, it’s not going to change anything,” Merrick said, pulling out a pen and paper. “I have decided to keep track of what’s going on in case we need to use some of this information in the future,” he explained. Jeremy felt the flash of jealousy before he could stop it. Why wasn’t he as orderly and in control as Merrick? Why did he have to go off raw emotions instead of thinking things through? More importantly, why couldn’t he find something that he was good at?

Turning his back to his friends and sister, he started to put up the tents. Might as well do the only thing I’m capable of doing well, he seethed, disappointment in himself turning to anger. Silently, he put his part of the tent in his backpack and handed the rest of them their own share before stomping ahead on the road to nowhere.

Although the scenery was bright and colorful, ominous black clouds cast their unruly darkness upon the group as they continued to proceed. It wasn’t long before the droplets started, heavy clouds unleashing their loads. Not caring to stop or pay any attention to the rain, Jeremy kept walking, head cast low. It wasn’t until a drop landed on his arm that he noticed there was something off about the rain.

“The rain’s purple,” Amy stated, too intrigued to be worried about the unusualness.

“Indeed it is,” Merrick nodded as he placed his journal into his backpack for safe keeping.

Jamie held out her tongue, willing a drop to land on it. “Jamie, this rain could be dangerous,” Jeremy exclaimed, fearful of the effects it could have.

“Mmmm, it tastes so good though!” she replied, catching more on her tongue. Curiously, he stuck out his own tongue, catching a drop. One drop wouldn’t hurt, would it? The place it landed left a tingling sensation in his mouth. The water was an indescribable taste of sweetness and sourness.

Before long, Jamie started giggling. Glancing at her, the group worriedly tried to calm her down.

“What are you laughing at, Jamie?” Amy asked, failing to catch her attention. As Jeremy made eye contact with her in a nervous glance, he himself started to feel funny. It became hard to walk in a straight line as his head felt fuzzier and lighter. Laughing, he bent over in a gasp. A quite feminine giggle erupted out of his mouth in a fit of hysterics. He could hear his friends calling out to him, trying to help him walk, but his head was so cloudy that he had no idea what was what.

“I think I’m….. On something,” he struggled to say as he dopily smiled. It was as if he was very drunk, only he felt detached from reality, in a world of his own. Nothing was funny, yet everything was hilarious as he felt his friends slowly guide him down the path.

Slowly, he felt himself regain consciousness. The rain had passed, leaving a false beauty of a rainbow hovering in the distance. Merrick and Amy loosened their grips on his shoulders as his walking straightened out. Jeremy’s mouth hurt from the laughter and the hint of a smile that still splayed itself across his face. Looking about, the edges of objects were only slightly fuzzy and outlined in an unusual glowing light. The moment he caught sight of his sister however, the smile became replaced with a frown.

Jamie was hardly conscious, mumbling bits of words that didn’t make sense as Samuel struggled to carry her limp body. Every couple of seconds, her legs would thrash wildly as she giggled. She had tasted more drops of the drugged rain than Jeremy had and she was much smaller. Who knew how long she would be like this?

No one deemed Jeremy’s mental state of mind as stable enough to carry his sister when Samuel’s arms grew tired. Merrick took up Samuel’s backpack so that he could place her onto his shoulders to relieve the stress; none of the others were strong enough to carry the girl on their own.

Eventually, they had to stop for Samuel’s sake. They gave Jamie water from her water bottle and set her down against a boulder. Her shoulders slouched as she appeared to have finally gone to sleep.

Jeremy sat down, thoughts of how stupid he had been to taste the rain replaying themselves in his mind, as he rested his forehead on his hands. The bright scenery made him feel sickened so he shut his eyes, willing his location to magically warp to his cozy bed. Upon opening, it didn’t come as a surprise that nothing had changed.

If there had ever been a time where Jeremy had felt helpless, none could compare to his current state of doubt. Dusk quickly approached, mosquitoes buzzing around Jeremy’s ear regardless of how many times he swatted them away. At the sound of his hands clapping together in attempt to kill one, Jamie’s head started to turn. Groggily, she looked around, eyes drooping in disarray. Amy turned to her and asked her how she was feeling.

The response was a quiet slur of words that no one could decipher. Trying again, Jamie mumbled, “Throat hurts.” Samuel passed her some water which she greedily devoured. He winced at the loss of what little drink they had left.

“These bugs are driving me crazy,” Jeremy said, hastily pulling parts of the tent out of the backpacks.

Merrick shined a flashlight into the sky, revealing a cloud of massive mosquitoes. “No wonder!” he exclaimed, hurrying to help Jeremy. The sound of buzzing grew louder as they hurried to get inside. No one wanted to be eaten alive by bugs.

With the tents up and only a few more itchy spots on his back and arms, Jeremy lifted his sister’s still weak body inside before Alice and quickly jumped in after, zipping up the flap. He killed the few that had managed to follow them in before relaxing as much as his mind would allow.

They decided on having dried fruit and beef jerky for the night, stomachs unhappily settling on the meager meal, before calling it bed time. The sounds of the bugs outside the tent served as white noise, making it much easier to fall asleep than the night before, as all three exhaustively passed out.

They woke up late the next morning. The sun was high- its shine barely detectible through the tent as Jeremy sat up and stretched. 10:38AM his watch said. He wondered why they had gotten the chance to sleep without disturbance. Looking at Amy, he realized she was awake and rummaging through her backpack.

“Morning,” he said, throat husky from just having woke up. There was no need to say ‘Good morning’ since he was sure something would ruin it.

“Morning,” she echoed. After a few more seconds of rustling in her bag, she pulled out her toothbrush. “I don’t want to waste too much water brushing my teeth but there is no way I’m going to just stop.”

“Oh, my head,” Jamie groaned, causing both young adults to look in her direction.

“It’s almost like you’ve got a hangover from what happened yesterday,” Amy commented.

You would know, wouldn’t you Amy?” Jeremy grinned. Scowling, she left the tent to brush her teeth. Focusing on his own head, Jeremy didn’t feel any headache. He must have slept it off, but poor Jamie was going to be crabby all day. Opening up his backpack, Jeremy found some Aleve. This should do, he thought, handing one to Jamie. “Twenty-four hour relief, Jame, so you should feel fine in a bit.”

It was not long before he heard Amy holler, “Uh, I think you all should come see this.” Changing shirts to one of his remaining clean ones, he stumbled out of the tent. Expecting some horror, Jeremy looked around prepared to take action. He walked around the tent to the side that faced the untraveled pathway. It came to him as a surprise when the thing that had caught Amy’s attention came into view.

“Let’s go get the others before we approach it,” he said, pulling her towards Merrick and Samuel’s tent. The two boys were crunching on their Frosted Flakes cereal, bed hair a sticking up in all angles when Jeremy cautiously unzipped their tent flap.

“Hey guys, what’s the matter?” Samuel asked.

“You’ll have to see for yourselves,” Amy replied back in excitement. They followed her out of the tent, got Jamie, and returned to the next obstacle on the path.

“Wow, this is just like in that medieval story my dad used to read to me,” Merrick said. And wow indeed, Jeremy agreed, staring at the circular stone that was dead in the center of the walkway. It was an ordinary stone around the outside which contrasted with the center of a dark green crystal; a beauty that made the group pause in awe. But what really caught their attention was what was in the middle of such a gem. Standing mightily in the center was a sword.

The part that was not embedded into the crystal seemed to radiate a silver light without the Sun. Its hilt was elaborately adorned in the same beautiful green that the weapon was partially obscured in and rubies that were deep like blood. As Jeremy got even closer to it, he could see the word “Lionhearted” in gold across the guard.

“Step right up, boys and girls,” the familiar sound of Puck announced from above the stone. He must be using a microphone to amplify his voice, Jeremy thought based off the way it boomed against his eardrums. “There is a marvelous proposition awaiting the bravest and truest of the group. The Lionhearted one of you will be able to pull this lovely sword out of the stone.”

“What’s the catch?” Merrick questioned. If something was too good to be true, it probably was.
“No catch,” he replied, sounding as if he were stretching back in a chair. “In fact, the person who does get the sword out will be Gifted.”

Gifted? Knowing how Puck enjoys the little games, Jeremy hardly thought that a ‘gift’ would be wanted from such a deceptive source.

“Come on, come on, we haven’t got all day!” he clapped his hands together, eagerness in watching the friends strain to pull a blade out of stone all part of the show.

Scowling, Samuel stepped forward. He was the strongest and it was only likely that he would be the one selected. Not to mention, he’s braver than me, Jeremy sulked. He opted to go last, that way he would not have to struggle embarrassingly in front of everyone else. Watching Samuel’s muscles flex- large biceps responding by getting impossibly bigger- it came as a shock to the whole group when the sword did not budge.

“Tough luck, kiddo,” Puck said, sympathy oozing with sarcasm. Samuel turned a light shade of red as he stepped away from the rock and stood next to Amy. She patted his arm, calmly approaching the stubborn stone.

Jeremy couldn’t help but grin as he watched Amy, who had absolutely no muscle in her arms, tug on the hilt of the sword in vain. Turning away she smiled sheepishly at them all before going over to Samuel to give him a high-five.

Puck was respectfully quiet during her attempt, but he started to whistle as Merrick stepped up. It had no melody and made Jeremy start to get a hint of the headache Jamie had woken up with.

Observing the word and stonework of the sword first, Merrick pushed his ever falling glasses back to the top of his button nose before stepping back to give his arms room. Slowly, he pulled upward on the hilt. Nothing happened. A dive bomb whistle from Puck added a sound effect as Merrick quickly got out from being the center of attention.

Nudging Jamie forward, Jeremy waits. If she couldn't remove the sword, then…No. Jeremy couldn’t think of the if-thens to his racing thoughts.

Puck lets out a loud guffaw of laughter as little Jamie shyly stood on the rock. The sword seemed too tall for her to properly remove even if she was the Gifted one. Her arms and legs looked gawkier than ever, knobby knees slightly shaking as she gave a clumsy pull, only for nothing to happen. “Ah man!” she exclaimed, face flushed from the strains.

Jeremy felt all eyes move to him as he numbly shuffled up to the sword. He could practically feel the energy it held before he placed his right hand onto the hilt. Whether it was from his hands or the weapon itself a vibration traveled up and down his arms in an electrical manner. Tiny hairs rose from his neck and arms as he slowly eased the sword out of the stone. A flash of light blinded him for a moment, yet he could not unglue his eyes from the blade. It was as if it had enveloped his entire being into its magnificence. And then it stopped.

Stumbling off of the rock ledge, he was fazed by the afterglow of the light. The sword, which had looked so heavy and mighty, was surprisingly light in his hand. Its sharp point made him handle it delicately as he joined his friends.

“Before I leave, don’t forget this,” Puck called out right as an emerald and gold scabbard fell from the sky, hitting Jeremy on the head.

“Yeah thanks,” he said meekly, too in awe of what had just happened to have a snider remark. Puck’s response was to pop away, leaving the group in a wordless silence. Jeremy sheathed the sword and then proceeded to sit on the edge of the rock. The rest followed suit. Merrick pulled out his magnifying glass and journal, inspecting the emerald part of the stone, before quickly scribbling away at whatever observations he discovered. Samuel and Amy split a granola bar, munching away in silence, while Jamie took a closer look at the hilt of the sword.

“It’s so pretty,” she said admiring the way the rubies and emeralds harbored light from various different angles.

“It is,” Jeremy nodded in agreement, still not seeing why someone would choose him to be the lionhearted. He was a pessimistic coward. Samuel should have been the one to bare the title and unknown gift. Speaking of gifts, what had happened when he had removed the sword from the stone? Just thinking about the phenomena brought the electric currents to race through his arms, making his fingertips tingle. Nervously, he cracked his knuckles.

Wiping the crumbs off his jeans, Samuel stood up and said, “This isn’t over. I think we should start walking again so we don’t lose daylight.” Everyone followed his lead, slowly getting up. Jeremy’s back was aching from sleeping on the hard ground for so many nights, his legs were sore from the constant walking, and his head was beginning to throb in the oncoming of a headache. He popped in one of the Aleves and swished it around with water before brushing the dirt off of his pants and collecting the tents.

The sword seemed to be more of a pain than a treasure as it constantly bumped against Jeremy’s leg. He could feel a bruise coming in and the weight of the sword in its sheath made him start to walk sluggishly as the day progressed. Studying each of his friends, it was impossible to miss how washed out and spiritless they were. Not only were they in need of a hot shower and some crisp clothes, but their minds were in need of hope. It would be hope that would give Jeremy the will power to get out of this nightmare. Hope was, unfortunately, very limited.

“Today hasn’t been bad yet,” Samuel spoke into the distilled air. The loudness of it woke Jeremy out of his trance.

“Knock on wood,” he said curtly. Anything could happen between now and dusk and who was to say that nothing would disturb their night as well?

“I’m tired,” Jamie groaned, lagging behind the rest of them by a few paces. “Can we pause to get a snack?” Her question must have been rhetorical as she stopped right then and there to sit on the ground, not giving the others a chance to disagree.

“Man, Jeremy. Your sister’s going to be as stubborn as you,” Merrick predicted with a twinkle in his eye. His glasses reflected the setting sun which slowly digressed downward before them.
Scoffing, Jeremy sat next to his sister. As whiney as she was, the similarities were there. He hoped she wouldn’t be like him when she grew up. To see his sister struggle with the same uncertainties which lay before him caused him to feel the first pangs of sadness he’d felt since stepping foot onto the path. During the entire journey he had been too fueled by the present to think about the future. It was a blessing as much as a curse, the way he was able to forget about his typical worries and replace them with action-filled scares. What would he do when life returned back to normal? If it returned back to normal, that is?

Amy passed Jeremy a bag of chips, pushing him out of his never-ending reverie. There was an uneasy feel about the group as the sound of him crinkling the bag served to be the only audible noise. Had they run out of things to say, or was the exhaustion hindering communication?

“I think we’re all extremely tired,” Amy said softly as a yawn escaped from her mouth. “Maybe we should go to sleep while we still can so that we’ll be physically and mentally stronger tomorrow?” Her suggestion was supported by Jamie’s mimic of a yawn, Merrick and Samuel’s nods, and Jeremy’s indistinguishable grunt of a response.

Sighing, Jeremy began to assemble the tents. Samuel accompanied him, whistling a tune to lighten the mood. By the time both were up, his attempt had long faltered into the permeating silence. Jamie, feeling uncomfortable by the awkwardness of the group, quickly made her way into the tent before zipping it up to keep out the bugs.

Standing outside of the tent and looking off into the distance, Jeremy avoided his friends and sister. He felt like a magnet of negativity. Yet, he couldn’t help that he closed off when things didn’t go well, and the guilt in knowing that it made his friends’ spirits go down caused a heavy weight of sadness to press down upon his shoulders. His mind was numb as he felt the sinking feeling of the indefinable mental gravity trying to smother him. A violent shake of the head allowed him to reach the surface as he gasped for air. He was stronger than that.

The feeling of eyes watching Jeremy caused him to spin around and face a worried Amy. “Are you okay?” she asked, stare piercing into his soul. He could not lie.

“I’m just stressed out. You know how I get,” he replied, averting his eyes. She was not fooled, he knew. Lying was not his strong point, for his moral conscience would always kick in, creating anxiety and disappointment in himself. Stepping closer, Amy wrapped her arms around him in an embrace. It caught him off guard- he was known to retract from touchy-feely situations- but somehow this time was different. Jeremy needed the comfort. Her arms lingered around his body a moment longer than was expected before she let go and got into the tent. Sighing, he followed, ready to escape into a world of dreams, where nightmares could not roam.
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I hope you enjoyed. :]