Other [FanFic] Stages (Ch.26/26 - Jul. 9 - epilogue soon)

Discussion in 'Fan Works' started by Kid Absurdity, Jul 18, 2016.

  1. Kid Absurdity

    Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

    Howdy!

    I haven't written creatively beyond running tabletop RPGs in a VERY long time, and I decided that I missed it right around the time I got bonkers into Stardew Valley on its release. That meant that months later, I finally got sufficiently inspired to write and thought that what I had was sufficiently good to show off to this unanimously supportive fan community. Many internet love-hearts to you all.

    I wouldn't say that this fic has goals so much as themes and questions it wants to explore. It'll be very slice-of-lifey, especially at the start as characters and plot threads get introduced. I'm working toward some supernatural mystery and a bit of action too, but that's a ways down the track. I hope you find the pacing builds up to solid payoffs, but that is what I'm worried the most about, so please consider pitching me constructive feedback around pacing in particular and everything in general.

    But enough about me, you clicked this to read my story about my farmer.

    This post has been updated with the subsequent chapters as well.

    Enjoy!



    Thunk-ker-thunk-ker-THUNK!

    The inter-city bus bounded over a pot-hole, jolting the young adult out of his dozing spell as the side of his forehead skidded up along the windowpane, leaving a red mark. He didn’t remember what he was dreaming, and was surprised he’d gotten to sleep as easily on this bumpy highway. In spite of being tired enough after packing up his city-life, his mind had been a whirling torrent of thoughts, hopes, and anxiety. Anything that could come to mind about this potential new life in the country probably did, especially since he was going it alone. His family was in a whole other province, save for his brother, who went overseas to study. Luckily for his brother, he got out before the war started and wouldn’t be affected, hopefully until the war was over. Whatever he was dreaming about, if anything, it was probably chaotic and it was probably something to do with all of that.

    The circumstances surrounding him being on this bus for 11 hours so far were both clear and not at the same time.

    What was clear was that his life in the city had reached a dead end. He’d graduated in theatre, and after a long spell of unemployment because no one was hiring for that, he had jumped at the chance to work at the headquarters of Joja Corporation just to support himself, move out of the family home, and get his adult life started. Given his education, he could at least act like he enjoyed the work, for a while, but as weeks turned into months turned into a year and change, his hopes of finding other options or even upward mobility at Joja dried up.

    What was not clear was the complete set of circumstances in which this move was happening. Seventeen years before, the then 6-year-old boy, his siblings, and his mother crossed the bulk of the country to visit his grandfather with an urgency he didn’t fully grasp at the time. When they arrived at his grandfather’s farm in Pelican Town, they all saw that his grandfather’s vitality had waned. They spent a lot of time crammed into his grandfather’s tiny farmhouse, talking with him, attending to him, until he asked to speak with everyone privately, one by one.

    He waited anxiously in the tiny dining area as his younger brother, Terrence, nearly 4 years-old at the time spent some time in the room, before emerging beaming, holding an envelope with a large, green wax seal, that he handed to their mother with a simple “Grandpa said open this when I finish high school.” His older sister, Maeve, then 9, was called in next, and after she spent her time, she emerged, looking a bit more concerned, with an envelope of her own, with a red wax seal. “Grandpa said open this when I know what I want to do when I grow up.” And then it was his turn, and he wasn’t sure whether those gifts in the envelopes would be the last he ever got from his beloved grandfather but he was afraid of that.

    By the light of a pair of large white candles, the young boy could see that his grandfather’s face was pale, but the old man still smiled reassuringly as he beckoned the boy toward his bedside as he lay there calmly. “Come, Archie, sit by me.” Still uneasy, Archie did.

    “I’m happy you all could come to the farm to visit me,” his grandfather continued. “Your mother told me that you were the most excited to see the farm again, is that true?”

    Archie nodded dumbly, still unable to bring himself to speak, grasping the fact that it might well be the last time he saw his grandfather alive.

    “And that you’ve been practicing your music every day?”

    He nodded again as his grandfather asked him to open the drawer on the nightstand. There was a book in it, atop which sat a tin whistle.

    “Would you please play a song for me?” his grandfather asked.

    Hands shaking, Archie picked up the pennywhistle and put it to his lips, playing, haltingly, the lullaby his mother used to sing him. She said her father always used to sing it to her, and that his mother would sing it to him, as far back as anyone in the family could remember. His grandfather smiled and reached under his pillow.

    “You keep practicing your music; you’re getting better every time I hear you play. And that song always makes me want to sleep and dream happy dreams, so thank you. It’s time for your gift,” he said, pulling an envelope out from under the pillow. This one looked like the other two envelopes save that the wax seal was purple, which Archie noticed with a shiver. “All of you children are getting something that will help you later on in life. I’d like you to have this sealed envelope. Don’t open it yet, have patience, and listen closely. There will come a time when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life, and your bright spirit fades before a growing emptiness. When that time comes, then you’ll be ready to open it. Now that the lullaby is setting in, let your Grandpa rest...” Archie was profoundly terrified.

    Much more recently, only a couple of weeks ago, the now 23-year-old Archie had arranged a change of shifts to interview for a set design job for a musical that would be debuting in Zuzu City a few months down the track. He’d been passed over for a promotion at Joja not long before, and his frustration with his job situation was boiling over. He received another kick when he was down at the interview, when, in spite of his knowledge and skills being up to the task, he was dismissed with a polite but no less frustrating “Thanks very much for coming all this way, but we’re looking for someone with more experience.” The paradox of needing experience in order to get experience was often in the background of his mind when he did go off looking for other work, and he seemed to be brushing up against it an awful lot lately. His mind wandered to other interviews for other jobs that he had gone for of late, trying to get out of his job at Joja. Why do you want to work here? He would think to himself, mimicking various interviewers he had encountered over the past months, because I am a big fan of not starving to death. His experience at Joja HQ had re-inforced was that there had to be more to life than not starving to death. On the bus ride back to Gallibrand City, he realized that he was spinning his own wheels, and that he needed help to escape the sterile, routine, anti-social rut his life had become. Usually when he would think about the envelope his grandfather gave him all those years ago, he would dismiss it as not time to open it yet, because his dreams still outweighed his memories, and he was still making enough effort and incremental progress toward moving his life forward that the envelope could wait.

    His cellphone rang, it was Maeve calling.

    “Bro! How was the interview?”

    “It was a nice conversation ‘til the very end, I’m on the bus back to Gallibrand now.”

    “Didn’t get it?”

    “They wanted a more experienced set designer. Could have mentioned it in the ad and saved me hours on a bus each way, too.”

    “Well, you’re still working, you didn’t lose anything by it except a few hours. And you know you can always come and work with me.”

    For all that he knew Maeve meant well, he felt humiliated every increasingly frequent time that she offered him work at her company. She’d pay him better than Joja for the same sort of dead-end administrative work he was doing, but he preferred not mixing family and business, and he wanted so badly to succeed on his own merits. “For you, and you know I’m too proud for that, thanks again for the offer, though.”

    How much longer can I do this? Archie thought to himself, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he couldn’t for much longer at all. He needed help, and not Maeve’s particular brand of help. He called his mother to tell her he’d be coming to visit that evening. His mother had been there when his siblings opened their envelopes, with money for Terrence’s overseas university tuition and what would become Maeve’s start-up business fund, and having heard what his grandfather had told him, she too was curious about that final envelope. She had suspicions of her own as to its contents, but never discussed them beyond the fact that neither of them thought it was money – not that Archie felt that money was what he needed at the moment so much as a purpose. Tonight they’d both find out...

    The envelope contained a letter and, as the gift itself, the deed to the farm, on the other side of the country in remote Pelican Town. He remembered the trip where he was given the envelope, and spending time with his grandfather there the couple of summers before, but he hardly remembered the farm that he had inherited, where his grandfather lived and worked the land. He remembered being told that it was once a town in the proper sense, but after the mines had closed and the miners moved elsewhere, it was a shadow of its former self. As to the farm itself, he remembered the living room of his grandfather’s house, with its roaring fireplace and the TV that would only pick up three public broadcasting channels. He remembered his sister once accidentally hitting him in the head with a plank of wood with a nail in it while trying to knock apples down from one of the trees in the orchard, but little else of the farm, or the people, or the town. His grandfather was well-respected, he could certainly remember that, and while the old man had put his faith in Archie that he would live up to the family’s name and restore the farm to its former glory, Archie himself was less than convinced. Of all the deathbed ideas Grandpa could have had… he thought; my businesswoman sister or genius brother could absolutely smoke me at running a farm, but they can’t run the farm because they’re busy succeeding in life. He wasn’t sure whether changing his career to farming would be harder than lining up steady work in theatre, but he was pretty sure it’d be harder than working at Joja ever was. The hope was that it would be more rewarding, that it would be a chance to go it alone and succeed for himself, and that’s why he quit the job, his friends in the city, and the city itself to try it out. I could always go back, he thought, before realizing how demotivational that actually was; but c’mon, Archie, don’t give up before you even start.

    “Stardew Valley Exit: 32 miles”

    Archie tried to remember the road trips to visit Grandpa in Pelican Town. The highway would exit onto a country road that the mining company built to truck the ores out. The mining towns around the edges of the valley, nearer to the mountains, would connect to a hub a few miles from Pelican Town proper, where the bus would turn off toward his new home. He willed himself to stay awake to collect his thoughts but after what seemed like blinking, the roadside sign read:

    “Pelican Town: 2 miles”

    The bus stop for Pelican Town was nothing impressive, with nothing beyond but a dirt road leading toward the town itself, bounded by a wooden fence. The empty, broken-down bus parked just ahead of where the bus that Archie was riding on pulled to a stop did not inspire any further confidence in the whole endeavor. He stood up, stretching, rubbing his rangy bangs out of his eyes, before rolling his shoulders and picking up the backpack and messenger bag that, along with a duffel bag and a fiddle in the undercarriage of the bus, were the sum of his possessions for the foreseeable future. He stood up, still slouching and uncomfortable from the thirteen-hour ride, and got off the bus to find that the driver had already unloaded the duffel bag and the violin case, and that an older, red-haired woman, who was wearing a tan cowboy hat, had scooped them up with what seemed like a lot less effort than it took him to haul them to the bus stop in the city.

    “You must be Archie,” she asked him, rhetorically, cheerily more than matter-of-factly. There wasn’t anyone else getting off the bus. “I’m Robin, the town carpenter. Mayor Lewis sent me to pick you up and show you to your new home.”

    He nodded dumbly, still taking everything in, from the enormity of his being there to the crisp air of the valley.

    “The farm’s just to the right on the dirt road from here.” She continued; “You can’t miss it, but better you get there and set your things down before wandering about town!”

    “Thanks, and for carrying them as well,” He replied with a weak grin and a shake of his head. “It was enough of a pain getting all this to the bus stop in the city.” He paused. “I remember coming here once or twice when I was younger, but not where the farm was, or what it was like, or much about my grandparents. Did you know them well?”

    Robin seemed a bit surprised that he had asked. “Not particularly, no. Your grandmother had passed away before we moved into Pelican Town, and because your grandfather insisted on doing everything on his own until he got sick instead of hiring me on jobs, we didn’t cross paths so much. He was a stubborn and determined man, I had to respect him for that even if it drove me nuts.”

    They had rounded the bend and walked for a few minutes already, when a gate with a worn-out sign reading “Finnegan’s Farm” came into view. Through the gate the path led up to a small cottage. “Here you are, welcome to your new home!” She set down the duffel bag to open the gate, waving him in and following behind when she had picked it back up. “The house is just ahead. Mayor Lewis is just inside getting the last bits ready for you.”

    Archie thanked her as he took in the mix of excitement and apprehension about returning to Grandpa’s house, with its blurry nostalgia, but there was nowhere else for him to go yet. He made it most of the way to the house when he dropped the messenger bag with a start. The farm was so overgrown with trees and rocks and weeds that it resembled a primordial forest more than it did the fields and orchards he only vaguely remembered. He must have groaned pretty loudly, as Lewis came bounding over from the house to reassure him that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, and in time, he’d get it all back to the way it was. In time? How many years!? he thought.

    Robin and Lewis exchanged greetings and a chuckle about his state before Archie finally snapped back into reality and offered Lewis a handshake. “It’s nice to meet you in person, and to pass on the ‘hello’ my grandfather asked me to in the letter,” he told him, fishing it out from the messenger bag to show the mayor, who took it gently, almost reverently, and read it.

    “You have two siblings?” Lewis inquired.

    Archie nodded, looking a bit uncertain at their mention given his own insecurities about measuring up to them. “Yes, that’s right.”

    “Your grandfather wasn’t the sort to play favourites, so if he gave you this farm, it’s because he thought you were the best person to handle it.” Lewis was being very sincere, but Archie wasn’t wholly convinced.

    “He’s right, but only because I’m the only person who can handle it right now. I’ll put in the work to prove him right the way you actually intended that, though.”

    “It’s a long story, but if you’re even half as determined as him, you’ll make it work and then some. And it sounds like you are.” As he finished talking, Lewis clapped a hand on Archie’s shoulder for emphasis.

    “Thanks, Lewis, you seem to know the right things to say,” the young man replied with a weak laugh.

    “Twenty years of political experience, my boy,” he dismissed Archie’s statement with a booming laugh of his own, his grey mustache twitching as he guffawed. “You get yourself settled in, it was a long bus ride. The tools are in the shed in back, and the local agricultural fund kicked in for some seeds for you to get started. They’re on the table.”

    With a nod, he ascended the stairs toward the door to his new home, and life, before Lewis added, “And don’t forget to get out and meet the townsfolk soon, you only get one chance to make a first impression! Town’s just past the bus stop.”

    Archie was hit with the sudden realization that the social side of things had barely occurred to him, given how busy he expected to be with farming and how little thought he’d given to the fact that there was also a village and other people in it. Lewis and Robin gave him curious looks as he seemed stunned into stupor by the mere idea.

    “Thanks. I’ll do that.” He finally responded.

    From the porch, He looked out upon his overgrown farm, with the pond where he and his siblings would swim and fish just barely visible through the trees and brush. Tomorrow, assuredly, was going to be a long and gruelling day, like most of what he imagined his future would be. He sighed, dreading the labour of it but also awaiting having a purpose again with eagerness.




    A carryover from his city life, and his student life, was sleeping in more so than most when given the opportunity, so when a bunch of roosters crowed from somewhere south of the farm, Archie was jolted into wakefulness with a start as any further chance of sleep was thoroughly cocked up. He figured that he would clear a small parcel of land in front of the farmhouse and plant the seeds from the agricultural fund, relieved that he wouldn’t have to buy the first batch of seeds with his own limited savings. He had some money left over from his previous job, but didn’t want to dip too deeply into the reserves. Without city rent to pay, it would be manageable for a while as long as he started growing some food to keep him and the farm going.

    There was hardly any space on the farm that wasn’t overgrown, and he took to clearing the land of stones with his grandfather’s old pickaxe, wondering how the stones had even materialized there in the first place. He had never swung a pick in his life, and the jolt of the metal hitting stone reverberated up the handle and into his arms with every strike. When his arms got too wobbly, he swapped over to the scythe to cut through the brush that was covering even more of the farm than the stones were, thinking about how he just needed a pith helmet and a machete, or a fedora and a whip, to look like the wilderness explorer he was starting to feel like on his own civilized property. Luckily for him, he was able to clear out sufficient space to plant the seed packets without felling any trees, but it took about five hours of solid work and he was already getting very hungry, and worn out, when he decided to walk in to town at around 11 that morning realizing he had skipped breakfast.

    The dirt path led out from the farm and past the bus stop, before winding beyond the treeline separating the town from the road. Even in the daylight, the canopy of the woods toward the roadside and the incompletely cleared terrain toward the city gave the trail a slightly dark, claustrophobic air until he arrived in the town proper, where the landscape opened up again. With no knowledge of the town, he kept walking straight along the cobblestone road that the path turned into, at the north of the town square, stopping outside the town’s clinic, and peeking into the window. There were no patients in the waiting room. A young woman wearing glasses, a nurse’s scrubs, and a cap, was sitting at the reception desk, looking bored out of her skull. Remembering Mayor Lewis’ admonition to go out and make a good first impression, Archie figured that it shouldn’t be too hard for him to be more enjoyable than the nurse’s day seemed to be going. He opened the door, jangling the bell that was attached to the inside of the doorjamb and snapping the woman out of her reverie.

    “Oh! Hello!” she greeted him, as her head snapped around to look at the door, “You must be Archie, the new farmer!”

    Archie smiled. “That’s me! I should have expected word to travel at least this fast.”

    That elicited a laugh from the nurse. “It does in this town, but especially because you met my mother yesterday. She told us a bit about you.”

    “I was completely spaced out from the bus ride and the state of the farm, hopefully she didn’t say anything too awful,” he joked. “Us?”

    “The rest of the family - my father and my half-brother. I’m Maru, by the way.” She extended her right hand. “Mom didn’t say anything you should take personally, just that you didn’t seem to know what you got yourself into with the old farm.”

    “She’s right. I didn’t. Still don’t,” Archie admitted, giving her hand a firm shake. “It’s not even midday on Day 1 of the job and I am a wreck. My arms feel like wet noodles. Painful, burning, wet noodles. I really thought smashing rocks into smaller rocks would be less taxing.”

    Maru nodded her assent. “That’s the muscle building – and the character. Mom always says hard work builds character.”

    Archie had a chuckle of his own. “She would.”

    “You don’t know the half of it,” Maru laughed knowingly.

    “I hope she’s right on both… and you seem very young for a nurse.”

    Maru nodded again. “I’m not trained as one, Doctor Harvey is teaching me a few basics. It lightens his workload and looks great on my college applications.”

    “It already seems a bit light, and you didn’t seem that young.” Archie said, gesturing toward the empty waiting room.

    Maru nodded patiently. “Oh, I’ve been out of high school for a couple of years now, just figuring out what I want to do before I commit to a college program. And it’s also way cheaper for Harvey to hire and train me than to pay the liability insurance for working completely alone.”

    From Archie’s position as someone who optimized his time in college for passionate learning over outcomes, he was at least glad to have stuck to one program too. “Taking the time is smart. I don’t wish that I had done the same, but it may have done me some good. Leaning toward medicine?”

    “Engineering, actually” She replied, as a door elsewhere in the clinic opened, and a tall, reedy man with a mustache emerged into the waiting room, wearing a collared white shirt and a green jacket. “Hi, Doctor Harvey,” she greeted him, “meet Archie, the new farmer!”

    “Nice to meet you!” Harvey offered, extending his hand for a shake. “Social call or health concerns today?”

    “More the former,” Archie replied, shaking Harvey’s hand firmly. “Lewis said I’d do well to meet people and I’ve been over-exerting my arms clearing the farm. I have no idea rocks that size even would have even come from…”

    “I’m no geologist,” Maru interrupted, “but probably rockslides from the cliffs alongside the edge of your property.” That made some sense to him, more than any alternative he had conjured up.

    “Huh. I had forgotten about those.” Archie paused, trying to remember the details from his childhood visits. “Otherwise, I’d like to schedule a blood test for before the spring is out.”

    “We can arrange that. Do you have a requisition?” Harvey asked.

    Archie hesitated before answering, blushing slightly out of embarrassment and frustration. “Uh, no, I didn’t think to get one from my previous doctor before the move. I can call his office and try to get him to send it to you?”

    By way of response, Harvey handed Archie a business card. “The fax number is on it, best he send it that way. Worst case, schedule a check-up, we’ll discuss it, and I can write one myself. The clinic’s open weekdays, 8-4. It’s a small town, so you shouldn’t have to wait very long even if you just walk in, but it’s easier on me if you make an appointment.”

    He nodded his assent, evidently relieved. “Since you both mentioned it, how small is the town? Mayor Lewis gave me the impression I should try to meet literally everyone in it.”

    Maru was the first to respond: “You should! Even Sebastian! There are no more than 35 people, including you. You can do it by week’s end, especially since half the town is usually at the saloon on Friday nights!”

    Archie was shocked, and looked it. He’d been a city-dweller all his life save for the odd summers where he’d spend substantial time in Pelican Town, but it was bigger then. More populated, booming with mining. “That is way fewer people than I thought there would be.”

    Harvey laughed, with a bit of a nervous edge. “Tell me about it, but it’s not all that bad to get to know your neighbours in more depth, even if it is by necessity.”

    “Is that because that’s how people are here?” Archie asked.

    “For the most part they are, but you also don’t want to go mad from isolation, especially right after moving here. That medical advice is free,” The doctor’s tone underscored a sense of familiarity with the subject, but Archie thought the better of asking at that moment.

    “Well, it was nice to meet you both,” Archie said, waving, and thinking about putting Harvey’s advice into practice, “but I’ve got more of the town to see. Very pleasant start, though!”

    They waved goodbye and saw him out. After the door shut behind him, Maru and Harvey turned to each other.

    “What do you make of him?” Harvey asked.

    They speculated and gossiped for about ten minutes before getting back to their light workloads for the day.

    Leaving the clinic, Archie’s stomach growled at his brain. He had started to work without eating, and hadn’t packed all that much in the way of food when he left the city, another indicator of the rush with which he left. It was to his great relief that the general store was right next door, some sort of snack would set him aright as he continued about his explorations.

    It seemed that every building in the town had a bell on the opposite end of the door as his entrance became a lot more conspicuous than he perhaps hoped, even if he was here to meet people as well as find something to eat. The store was fairly quiet at that moment. A purple-haired woman was stocking shelves with baking supplies; hefting small sacks of flour and sugar with ease and packing them into neat rows with efficiency, while a bespectacled, brown-haired man was ringing up another woman’s purchase until the bell sounded, at which point he looked to the door expectantly and everyone turned to look at the door.

    “Greetings, stranger!” the man behind the cash register said, loudly and enthusiastically.

    “Hello, name’s Archie,” he replied before being cut off by his stomach growling again, which started the purple-haired girl snickering. “Pardon me,” he added, before continuing, “I’m the new farmer, though, even more than that right now, I am very hungry.”

    “Pleased to meet you, Archie, and good luck,” the man answered. “I’m Pierre, and I’ll be happy to talk more once I finish ringing up Leah’s purchase. In the meantime, my daughter can point you to the snacks. Abigail!”

    The purple-haired woman sauntered over and Archie realized how out of place she looked given the rural setting. The purple hair was one thing, but her fashion and make-up made Archie instantly think “goth”. Along with the heavy eye-liner, she was wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, along with a pair of combat boots. Only the sky-blue blouse and matching bow in her hair would have seemed out of place at Dark Wave Cabaret, So Goth I’m Dead, or Stakehouse Goth Supper Club, and even then not that much, since most goths liked an accent colour. She was pretty short in spite of the boots, curvy, and, to Archie’s tastes, pretty cute. For his part, Archie was not a goth himself even though he’d been to goth venues in a couple of cities.He was only a dabbler in the subculture even when he did go. He enjoyed the music at their clubs, the fashion, and the general devil-may-care attitude people had there. He was very surprised that there would be one here, in a town of 35, and glad there was someone he could sort of relate to in terms of aesthetic foibles.

    “Pleased to meet you,” she told him, giving only slight tonal indication that she was actually at all pleased to meet him. “There aren’t many packaged meals today, those usually come in on Thursdays. There are some muffins and stuff like that.” She led him down one of the aisles to a small fridge, where Archie picked out a carrot muffin after eying a sandwich whose contents neither he nor Abigail could reliably identify.

    “Pleased to meet you too,” Archie told her in turn, “if also a bit surprised. I never would have expected to see a goth in a town of 35 people.”

    Abigail seemed to appreciate either Archie’s directness about it, or familiarity with it, and chuckled at that. “Oh, thank Yoba, it is such a relief that of the other 34, there’s another person here who gets it.”

    Though exposed to the scene, Archie was not convinced he got it at all, or, if he did, more invested goths had very different ideas about what it all was. Having encountered it through music and being interested in the aesthetic idea of finding fatalistic beauty in entropy, death, and decay, he imagined a cross between a nightclub and an old-timey salon, where dance music and philosophical discussions were available to whoever wanted to partake in either. Then he actually went for the first time when he turned 19, and he found out that there were few differences between the goth nightclubs and the generic ones. The goths were far more superficial than he thought, but also open to talking, and minimally judgmental about stuff that wasn’t how people dressed or what music they listened to. Quietly, he responded, “I’ve been to some events, but I’m still not sure I get it. How much is the muffin, by the way?”

    “80 Guilders. I’d like to hear more about that, I still haven’t gone to one in the city yet.”

    “80? Goodness, I hope this is an amazing muffin…” Archie mused.

    “You can get a Joja-brand muffin for 60 over the river, but this one isn’t 17 percent processed cardboard,” Abigail replied, testily, her mood swinging rapidly. Archie resolved never to try haggling with her.

    “Yoba above, point taken, sold. I don’t want to see another Joja-brand anything for the rest of my life if I can help it.” Between the hunger and the alternative presented, Archie conceded that he’d pay the price for the muffin, not to mention trying to reverse course rather than tick Abigail off even more. Between her sarcasm and her temper, she would fit right in with the city goths, he thought.

    “Mention that to my dad, he’d be oh-so-thrilled to hear it. They’re trying to run this store out of business and it’s causing some other problems.”

    “Like what?” Archie asked, a bit aghast. He was familiar enough with Joja’s corporate strategy for low-population areas, undercutting the local businesses until they can’t stay afloat, but the unspecified other problems were both new and potentially worrisome.

    “One of my friends, Sam, works part-time at the Joja Mart in town. Dad’s pressuring me to stop spending time with him, and it mega-sucks. There just aren’t that many jobs in Pelican Town, y’know?”

    Archie sighed. “That’s awkward, but I guess you just ignore it as much as you can?”

    “Well, I argue with him about it, too, but ultimately, I’m an adult. Under my parents’ roof, it’s their rules. Whatever. Anywhere else on Yoba’s green Earth, it’s not. We hang out at the saloon sometimes, or pretty much anywhere but here, and Dad can deal with it.”

    “Maru told me half the town is at the saloon on Friday nights. You in the saloon half?”

    “Yeah, me and the other town misfits.”

    “Alright, please go on…” Archie was all ears, as he had generally found loners, outcasts, and non-conformists of different stripes easier to get along with.

    “Sam and Sebastian. Sam’s a loudmouth punk with a distaste for authority figures. Sebastian is a big ol’ emo… young adult. Come say hi on Friday, I’ll introduce you. It’ll give them something to distract them from their pool game.” Abigail’s smile returned somewhat at the thought of the coming weekend. “You want something to go with that muffin? That hardly seems like it’ll tide you over.”

    Archie turned around and browsed the nearby shelves, picking up a package of beef jerky before starting toward the cash. “Excellent upsell, you’ve got a great future running this place,” Archie joked, meeting with a disapproving glare from her. “I’ll take this, I guess. Sorry to cut this short, but I should pay and eat before I get delirious or collapse. Nice meeting you.”

    “You as well, though I can assure you I won’t be running this shop. Ever. Enjoy your food and the town.” Archie wondered what that reaction was about.

    As Archie reached the cash, Leah, the woman who was buying her own groceries, had hefted her bags over her shoulder and was on the way out, as Pierre quickly rang up Archie’s two-item purchase. After filling Archie in on the fact that he’d be one of the prospective buyers for his produce, he also told him, with some curiosity about it, “you and Abigail seemed to get on pretty well.”

    “I guess so?” Archie replied absent-mindedly, starting to un-wrap the muffin while considering how many times her mood shifted in the brief conversation. “What makes you say that?”

    “She doesn’t talk much, and not just because she puts on her silly persona. But, she didn’t just zip right back out here the second after handing you that muffin. Speaking of, there’s no eating in here. That’s how we get ants. I do not want to get ants.”

    “Fair enough, but I’d better eat this sooner than later so I’ll cut this short. Nice meeting you.” Fumbling in his pockets, he dug through his change and paid up.

    “You too, farmer,” Pierre replied, wondering what was going on with his daughter this time. He never seemed to know, and these days, right when he thought he had caught up, something would change. He wasn’t sure whether the farmer would be a good influence, but given her taste in friends, he was skeptical. He’d have to keep an eye on that.





    Leah was waiting for Archie outside the store, where she had set her bags down a few steps from the entrance, grabbing his attention and greeting him just as he took a wolfish chomp out of the muffin. Without the immediate pressure of his hunger, Archie finally looked at her with some attention, properly noticing some of the details that he perceived earlier but that didn’t really stick in his mind in his distraction; that like him, she was a redhead, even paler than him, and quite thin, but she had a blush of health to her and she looked physically strong. She was a few inches taller than Abigail, who was substantially shorter than Archie was, and wore her hair in a distinctive-looking double braid. She was eying his grocery bag disapprovingly.

    “You’ll need more nutritious food to do all that farm work!” She told him, energetically. “But where are my manners? I’m Leah, and it’s nice to meet you!”

    Archie agreed with her assessment, if not so much her timing, as he swallowed the bite of the muffin. “You’re right; I just didn’t want to wait to cook something. It was a pretty strenuous morning and my stomach is not a happy chappy right now.”

    “There’s always wild forage and salads if you don’t want to cook,” Leah said, with a somewhat inspired and somewhat hopeful tone. “You’ll eventually learn where all sorts of stuff grows around town. It was a lifesaver when I first moved here.”

    “Oh, when was that?” Archie inquired, intrigued by the idea of there being another relatively new arrival in the town.

    “Just over a year ago,” Leah replied, “which makes me the third most recent arrival, before Elliott and you.”

    “I haven’t met Elliott yet.”

    “Well, you’ve only been here a day, and Elliott can be…” she paused, shifting a bit uncomfortably in spite of her bringing Elliott up in the first place, “reclusive at times. He’s a writer, and he focuses very hard on his work. He’s also a lovely person and a good friend.”

    “I can understand that,” Archie said with some sincerity. “I dabbled in playwriting, and I remember the desire to obsess over the details and to sink a ton of time into the challenge of producing something of value. It helped that there were always deadlines if I ever wanted it to get on stage.”

    “Ooh!” Leah exclaimed, “you and Elliott should have interesting things to talk about, then! He’s a more of a novelist…” Again, she paused and squirmed a bit. “An aspiring novelist. He’ll get there eventually, I’m sure of that. He’s nothing if not dedicated.”

    “I look forward to meeting him, but what about you?”

    “What about me? Everyone wants to know about you!” she laughed, “but it’s only fair. It’s easier to show you than tell you, though, so let’s walk and talk, alright? I’d like to put these away and I don’t live very far away,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, which still held her grocery bags. Leah described the landmarks they passed and the people who lived or worked in them as they walked. They cut south through the plaza of the town square, past the saloon and a couple of houses not far from the river, before following the cobblestone road westward, not too far south of his farm, he reckoned. They passed by a couple of houses before the cobblestones gave way to a packed dirt road like the one from the farm to the bus stop, and the river took a bend to practically lap up against the edge of the path. To their right was a large complex with a number of coops and barns, and a variety of farm animals roaming in fenced enclosures. This, Archie thought, this is where that Yoba-damned rooster lives. He opted against shaking a fist at the ranch in case someone was looking out the window at the time. Across the road from the complex, just a few feet from the riverbank, was an eccentric looking cabin, with a roof shaped like the teeth of sawblades, round bay windows, and what looked like a small windmill in the backyard. Leah led him to the door of the cabin, before unlocking it and ushering him in as she set her produce down on the kitchen counter and started putting things away. Glancing about the cabin’s interior, Archie was very quickly able to get the sense of what Leah was about given the sculptures and easels, canvasses and palettes, chisels and brushes, that dotted the livable space. The works all seemed to be in different stages of progress, but nothing was clearly finished, to his eye.

    “You were right,” Archie told her, as he looked over an oil painting of a river landscape.

    “Oh? I love being right, but about what?”

    He pointed at the same painting. “It was easier to show me. You could have said ‘I’m an artist’, but it doesn’t really register until you see the stuff. Like this painting,”

    Leah’s curiosity was piqued. “What about that one in particular?”

    There’s something about the brushwork and the colour palette that make the overall landscape look both inviting and mysterious. All I could see it needing is another happy little tree right about… there,” he said, tracing an outline of what he imagined to be a birch tree a couple of millimetres above the canvas while Leah watched him intently.

    “In terms of composition, that could work,” Leah replied cheerfully, “that part of the canvas doesn’t have much to draw or direct the eye’s attention. I’m especially glad that you got the aura of mystery I was going for, though. I painted this further into the forest along the river, and, like a lot of places around town, there is something mysterious about it that I can’t put my finger on.”

    “I’m relieved that I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself talking about art for a change. Happy too. I did have a question, though.”

    Leah chuckled, “Art’s subjective, so even if you say something idiotic about it, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. What did you want to know?”

    “Why is all of the art in here close to, but not quite, finished?”

    Leah took a deep breath to compose her thoughts before answering. “I do store some finished pieces in the shed out back, but, for the stuff in here, when I get to the end of the process, I get uncomfortable with closing off the possibilities and committing to what the art is going to be. I also struggle with having to think about what I’m going to do with a completed piece.”

    Archie nodded in response, reflecting back on taking three whole weeks to write the last five lines of dialogue to close out one of his scriptwriting projects. The dialogue wasn’t any better for the time he sank into it, and it was anxious for him as well. “I understand struggling with finishing projects,” he told her simply, “though I have to admit that I thought the typical workflow for visual artists was pretty straightforward. Make art, exhibit art, sell art, repeat.”

    “Typically, maybe.” Leah sighed, her shoulders drooping a bit. “Anyway, join me for a walk, I’ll show you a couple of foraging spots.” Archie agreed readily enough, happy at the chance to see some more of the natural parts of the area.

    “And for what it’s worth, you’re very good at painting,” Archie told her.

    “Thank you,” Leah replied, straightening out somewhat as she held the door open for him. “It’s very flattering, even from someone who calls himself an idiot about art.”

    Archie burst out laughing. “Art’s subjective, just because I’m an idiot doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” At that, Leah started giggling, which turned into a roaring laugh that sent her face into a full blush. “Now let’s go,” he concluded.

    “Sure,” she replied, ushering him back out the front door of the cottage, “though I’m actually much more of a sculptor.”

    They walked along the river to the southwest of the town where Leah pointed out leeks and spring onions growing with a bit more enthusiasm than Archie felt. They’d be nice as accompaniments for dishes, but they hardly seemed like the sort of thing to eat on their own. They cut northward through the forest and out toward a pond with a pier extending out into it that Archie may have gone fishing at with his grandfather and siblings in his childhood, talking about what brought them to a place as remote as Pelican Town. For Leah, it was to get inspired in her art by the pastoral setting, and to get away from a controlling ex-boyfriend who wanted her to give art up in favour of something that paid. For Archie there were some similarities, and he respected Leah’s decision to leave her own city to rediscover herself. It seemed that she really had in the year she’d been there; she didn’t seem at all out of place in the quaint country village with her hippie sensibilities, and her foraging, even if by necessity, was something inconceivable for an urbanite. For Archie’s part, he had had the job that paid – not fantastically, but enough, and it wasn’t fulfilling him. He wanted to get away from the city’s capitalism, and his family’s expectations, at least his still living family’s expectations. He wanted to do his honest best at this whole farming thing after his grandfather’s all-too-generous bequest. If he couldn’t chase his dreams of the theatre for now, he’d chase his some smaller dreams and go from there. Maybe he’d fit in to the town in time as well.

    He was distracted from the conversation and train of thought by his stomach growling again as the muffin he had eaten had no more nutrition left to offer. They walked back to their respective homes, each happier for having met the other.





    By the time Archie had dinner and a long bath, he was essentially ready to conk right out. He pulled the violin case from under his bed and the pennywhistle from it, playing it idly, mucking up a note every few measures in his fatigued and slightly distracted state before deciding to call it a night. He’d eventually play the fiddle itself, but it seemed he was only playing music when he was already exhausted and the fiddle was more of a production while the tin whistle was ready to go.

    The next day he slept through the rooster crowing on account of his exhaustion, and awoke at around 9 AM to find a heavy rainstorm in progress. He’d never have expected rain like this after the beautiful previous day unless he watched the weather report on his grandfather’s old TV the night before, which he forgot to because he hadn’t fully internalized how important keeping track of weather conditions is for a farmer. While he felt he could clear more of the overgrowth, he didn’t particularly want to when he considered the rain and the way his arms burned from the muscle and character building. At least he wouldn’t have to water his tiny parsnip field, which he hoped wouldn’t have the seeds flooded out of it.

    He cooked up a quick omelette and made himself some coffee, lamenting the fact that he wound up entrusting his beloved espresso machine to one of his friends in the city for a while, until he could get the farm up and running. He figured that maybe by the summer he’d have a party with his city friends and get the espresso machine back, though perhaps it’d be sooner, as he was motivated by the fact that two seasons of filter coffee didn’t thrill him. Today, though, nor beggars nor addicts could be choosers.

    He figured he’d explore a bit more of the town, maybe meet some more people. He’d heard a bit more about a few of them from Maru, Abigail, and mostly from Leah as they walked around the southwest of the town. Of those, Elliott probably interested him the most, as a fellow man of literature, which meant that he’d be talking a long walk to the beach, after which time he might visit the saloon for lunch. He pulled a bright yellow, hooded rain slicker from his duffel bag and put it on; glad he decided to pack it in the first place, stuffing the pennywhistle from his grandfather’s weathered nightstand into the raincoat’s pocket.

    Leaving the farm, he barely noticed that the flag on his mail box was raised, which he had only ever seen in cartoons before. The cartoons were sufficient education for him to understand that it meant that some mail had arrived, which surprised him somewhat. It was too soon to start receiving electricity bills, or mail from the city. He hadn’t met the bulk of the town, though he was making progress on that. Who could it be? As it turned out, there were several pieces of mail, to Archie’s surprise. He reached into the mailbox and pulled out a small sheaf of envelopes and flyers.

    “Advertisement from Pierre’s general store,” Archie murmured to himself. “Clever man, saw I bought enough for one day and hit me with the ad straightaway…” His wry bemusement took a more negative turn when the next flyer was an ad for the local Joja Mart. There was an envelope from Doctor Harvey with another business card with the clinic’s phone and fax numbers on it, with a note explaining that it was just in case he lost the first card. Archie hadn’t yet, or at least so he thought. He also thought that there were worse things in life than having an obsessively diligent local doctor, so he kept that one. There was also an envelope from someone he hadn’t met, a fisherman named Willy. The gist of the note was that he’d been out of town on a fishing trip and had just returned, he was eager to meet the new resident, and was offering a free fishing rod to keep the art and craft of fishing alive. That pretty much settled it for Archie; in the worst possible weather, and in order to meet Elliott and Willy, he was going to take his first beach day in Pelican Town.

    He trudged through the dirt path that was now more of a mud path past Marnie’s ranch and Leah’s cottage and down through the southern part of town, coming to the bridge across the river, that led to the beach, before the river bent northward toward its origins in the mountains somewhere north of town. He leaned over the railing to gaze into the muddy waters beneath; almost sure he saw a fish dancing in the refracted currents, a fine omen for a rainy afternoon fishing.

    The beach was only a short way further from there, and Archie picked up his pace. When he arrived, he was instantly struck by how pleasant the beach would be on a sunny day, especially a summer one. He had been when he visited his grandfather, but having a more adult appreciation of beaches went a long way toward accounting for his current enthusiasm. Striding toward Elliott’s cabin, his boot clipped against something sticking out of the sand. It was a large clamshell, still shut, that had somehow managed to wash up on the beach in the tide. He picked it up and appraised Elliott’s residence, which looked a bit ramshackle, but as though the rain was at least running off of the roof and through the primitive-looking eaves. The lights in the window were out, and after no reply when he knocked, Archie proceeded up to the docks toward Willy’s fishing shop, shell in hand, taking in the salt air of the Gem Sea for the first time in about 15 years. He parked himself outside the door of the shop before turning away and sitting at the edge of the docks to gaze out to sea for a while. The rainclouds swirled and the surface of the water roiled with waves and in the whole span of what he could see, there wasn’t a boat on this side of the horizon. He thought about the city and its hustle, his move here and his enjoying it so far in spite of feeling that he was leaving a piece of himself behind. Fumbling in his pocket he pulled out the pennywhistle and tried to remember, awkwardly at first, a sea shanty his mother once taught him, that his grandfather had once taught her. He fumbled an awful lot of notes on his initial attempts before finally getting it right about 20 minutes later, during which time he hadn’t noticed when the door to the shop had opened a crack, and then fully, as the fisherman stood listening from the doorway.

    “I do love songs o’ the sea.” Willy told the startled Archie at the end of his successful play-through of the song. “Yer grand-pappy would sometimes sing ’em when we’d fish together.”

    “I hear a lot about him, but no one else I’ve met yet save Lewis seems to have known him all that well,” Archie said, his curiosity piqued.

    “I didn’ae know ‘im as well as Lewis, but we’d fish and talk at times. He’d talk about the farm and his children and grandchildren, me about the sea and the catch. Back then near everyone fished, now it’s a dyin’ and lonely art in this town, only three other people still do it,” the fisherman explained.

    “From your note, I didn’t even realize there were any others,” Archie responded, putting away the pennywhistle and picking the clamshell up off his lap as he stood. “What’d he say about his family?”

    Willy shook his head and chuckled. “We’ll discuss that over fishing. Come in, let me give you the fishing pole I promised you and then we’ll get on to that.”

    Archie could hardly disagree with waiting the short time to find out a bit more about his enigmatic grandfather’s attitude toward the rest of the family, or maybe to ferret out some clue as to why he was the one taking over the farm. He followed Willy into the shop, which was quaintly and tastefully decorated to a maritime theme. Seashells, taxidermied fish, and an anchor decorated the walls, and model ships, some in bottles, topped some of the shelves. Display cases held fishing rods, bait, and tackle, and an electric cauldron sat behind the counter, switched on. Archie pointed at it. “What’s the soup?” he asked.

    “Trout soup today, hearty for the weather we’re havin’. Could do chowder tomorrow with that clam you’re holding,” the fisherman replied.

    “I’ll take a bowl of soup when we head out to fish. Here you go.” Archie handed him the clam. Willy opened up the cash and counted out 50 Guilders for him, handing them over, smiling.

    “Soup’s free today since you’re humourin’ me and fishing in this weather. Don’t want you catchin’ cold. I’ll buy any marine life you find or catch. Pierre doesn’t undercut other local business; bless ‘im, so I’m the only one in town who will.” Willy reached over to pluck up a worn bamboo fishing rod, leaning up against the read wall. “And that’s what you’ll use to catch ‘em, for the moment. It’s me old rod, still in good shape. I’ll give ye a small bit of bait for starters.”

    Fishing rod in one hand and takeaway bowl of soup in the other, Archie sat back down at the edge of the dock where he sat before, with Willy preferring to stand beside him. Realizing that casting off while sitting down was a pain, Archie stood and flung his line out into the sea. His cast was a little bit rough, but Willy seemed pleased enough.

    “Yer rusty, but you’ve done it before.”

    “Aye,” he replied, almost taking on a bit of Willy’s accent. “Granddad taught me ages ago, but I’ve barely fished since. Nowhere much to in Gallibrand City.”

    “Gallibrand’s a ways away. I’d have figured yer family would have sooner settled in Zuzu.”

    “We did at first, then dad got a new job and the family moved again. I think mum would have rather stayed in Zuzu, to be closer to her father, if nothing else.”

    “He loved ‘is daughter, Lachlan did. Was the pride of ‘is life until she had children, then he had more prides of ‘is life. People talk about his farm, and he was proud of the place the work he did, but only family was the pride of ‘is life,” Willy sounded wistful as he remembered his fishing buddy of old times gone by, while Archie took it all in.

    “Ever since I learned he left me the farm, I was wondering why he left it to me rather than to mum or to his other grandchildren.”

    “Yer mum had her husband, career, and you lot to look after. She couldn’ae very well move the family here, especially after the move across the country to Gallibrand City. One day, before he got sick, we fished a bit and he said something about talkin’ with her, and how two of her children were born for the city and one had a country soul.”

    “I wonder what he meant.” Archie said, tugging gently at the line in response to what he thought was a bite, then starting to reel in.

    Willy laughed. “Try askin’ yer mother.” The laughter intensified as Archie pulled a wad of seaweed from his hook before casting off again.

    “I will, but I think that’s more something granddad understood. Mum doesn’t talk about souls.”

    They talked a little bit more, about Archie’s grandfather and themselves, fishing, and the boom days of Pelican Town and how life changed since the mines shut down. Of particular note to Archie was the identity of the other three people in town who fished. One was Elliott, who lived on the beach, one was Leah, and it was nice to learn that they had another thing that they enjoyed in common, and the other, a man he hadn’t met yet named Linus. As Willy told it, Archie’s grandfather kept close friendships with two people in Pelican Town – forming a triumvirate of L-names: Lachlan, Lewis, and Linus. So Archie thought that talking more to the two of them would be in order. Over that time, Archie sipped his soup and caught a couple of sardines that he sold on to Willy, while Willy had more luck, and experience on his side, catching some herring as well before they packed up their gear and said their goodbyes and nice-to-meet-yous.

    On the way back toward town, Archie decided to try fishing in the river from the bridge where he thought he saw a fish earlier. Sure, that fish would be far downriver by then, but after a knock on Elliott’s door yielded no response again, he stopped on the bridge and cast out, just as someone approached from the town square to cross toward the beach, carrying a couple of grocery bags. He had long hair that looked a bit disheveled in the rain, and his maroon corduroy jacket and his tan slacks were already soaked.

    “Are you Elliott?” the farmer called out, his focus quickly snapping back to his bobber.

    “Yes, I am!” he replied, hurrying over out of a desire to get out of the rain sooner. “You must be Archie. Leah told me about meeting you, and I’m pleased to meet you too. I actually stopped by your home before getting my provisions, but I must have just missed you.”

    “I tried knocking at yours before meeting Willy. I appreciate you being proactive about meeting me. It’s draining doing all the work trying to meet everyone and make a good first impression.”

    “I remember that well from my own recent move here. I must admit, it wasn’t without an ulterior motive. I was discussing some of my writing with Leah and mentioned that I had gotten stumped on rendering a particular stretch of dialogue. While she sometimes contributes critique on my writing, this time, she suggested I speak with you about it on the grounds that you are an expert on the subject, as you are a playwright and plays are mostly dialogue.”

    Archie shrugged, taking his focus off of the fishing line and looking at Elliott.

    “I consider myself a former playwright, and she might be overstating it even then, but I might be able to help you once I catch something.”

    “You’ll forgive me for not wanting to linger in the rain any longer, I hope. I’ll be in my cabin for the next few hours. Leah also mentioned that you might say something like that, and to tell you that what she told me was her best subjective guess in case you did.”

    Archie laughed and waved Elliott on. “Go dry off, I’ll be there soon. Know how to clean and cook a fish?”

    Elliott nodded. “One learns it quite quickly living on a beach. Nice to meet you, be seeing you.”

    It took around twenty minutes for Archie to reel in a smallmouth bass. It wasn’t a huge fish by any stretch, but he was hoping it’d make a good snack for him and Elliott now that he had imposed cleaning and cooking it on him. He strolled back to the beach, the bass still thrashing against the hook because he didn’t have a weighted stick to club it with on hand. By the time he knocked on Elliott’s door, the fish wasn’t quite slowing down, but it wouldn’t be too much longer before it asphyxiated out of water. Archie thought that the club would be the lesser of two evils and made a mental note to get one from Willy in the future. Elliott had changed into more casual clothes, a pair of blue jeans and a white, short-sleeved collared shirt, and glanced at the fish still thrashing on the line.

    “Smallmouth bass. I’ll have you know that this species tastes better than it looks. May I?”

    Archie gestured to Elliott to go ahead, and Elliott took the fishing pole from him, took the fish off the line, and swiftly sapped it. Archie noticed that, like the farmhouse, Elliott didn’t have a full kitchen and was using a camping stove as the latter started scaling and filleting the fish. In fact, there was very little to the cabin, a writing desk and chair, a bed, a small countertop and sink, and an old piano.

    “Tell me about dialogue,” Elliott said off-handedly, still focused on the bass.

    “Isn’t that a bit general?” Archie’s confusion was evident on his face.

    “Phrased like that I suppose it was, my apologies,” Elliott focused on the fish, which nearly slipped from his hands as he struggled not to drop the bass. “Rather, what are some of the most notable approaches that playwrights take to making their dialogue true-to-life?”

    “There are probably as many approaches as there are playwrights, but the most common is to listen carefully to how people talk. For example, you’re formal, polite, and don’t interrupt people, whereas I’ll interrupt you in a heartbeat if I have a question and probably swear a lot more than you. Listen to people, even take some notes, and map the appropriate stuff onto your characters.”

    “I tended to think of playwrights as being more like novelists, isolating themselves in a garret somewhere.”

    “I would say that’s one of many strategies, and even worse for playwrights than how bad it is for novelists. Playwrights need to understand people not just to write characters, but to think in terms of actors and directors.”

    Elliott considered that with some consternation. “It has been the approach I’ve been employing,” he said.

    “I’m sorry to hear that. Some playwrights work from developing such a keen understanding of their characters that they can simply imagine their conversations and transcribe them. It’s very hard and time-consuming, especially if you’re not used to it. O’Carey is one of the playwrights that did that to great success.”

    “I think I’ve only read one O’Carey play,” Elliott mused, “It did seem like very true-to-life, though I had no idea that’s why it was.”

    “That’s one more O’Carey play than most people read.” Archie noticed Elliott dredging the fish in flour. “Breading the fish?”

    “Indeed, please go on, you have my almost complete attention.”

    “Another technique is to do improvisations with actors – give them a brief character sketch, and let them run the scene, then record it and keep the good bits. It’s a bit like running theatre in reverse. Barrick uses that technique all the time.”

    “Given how political Barrick is I’m surprised his dialogue sounds organic rather than stilted,” Elliott noted.

    “His genius was recognizing that his actors weren’t as fanatical as him. He could focus on directing, and trust them to find the right words…” Archie paused, looking at Elliott discerningly, “you have read some esoteric theatre.”

    “I’ve had a classical education in the liberal arts. While we didn’t distinguish theatre from literature as such, we read a great deal in general.”

    “That also explains the piano.”

    “Quite so. I allow myself an hour or so a day to practice, though my skill has atrophied a great deal since those days.”

    “I know that feeling, I was an adolescent fiddler musician, my ability has decayed as well, and now I’m more of a dabbler.”

    “Adult life makes a mockery of us all,” With a flourish, Elliott tossed the fish into a skillet of oil on the camp stove, filling the cabin with the sound of sizzling.

    Archie stretched out and craned his neck to look into the skillet. “Except the fish, I suppose.”

    “Touché.”

    Eventually the fish was ready and they continued the discussion over food.

    “So those are some techniques for dialogue writing. What’s the problem with yours?” Archie asked.

    Elliott began a long-winded and not entirely satisfactory explanation, to Archie’s perspective. Conspicuously, he wouldn’t share any snippets of the dialogue itself. Archie decided that running improvisations seemed to rule itself out as a method for Elliott, at least at that time. After poking and prodding refused to yield anything concrete, he suggested that Elliott work on developing his understanding of his own characters, and to make sure that their dialogue wasn’t uniformly as formal as the way Elliott talked. As the fish finished cooking and the breading got golden brown and crispy, they changed the subject to their respective moves to Pelican Town. Archie shared his frustration with the city, corporate life, and the weight of familial expectations, while Elliott was much more matter-of-fact:

    “I had a wealthy upbringing with tremendous advantages, but I got so frustrated constantly hearing that all of my successes were because of my family’s wealth. I moved here to work on my novel in less than luxurious conditions to prove that I could do it without all of that hanging over me.”

    Archie was intrigued about a lot of aspects of this. Their mutual determination to prove themselves was a strong commonality, but Archie wondered; did Elliott have a safety net or cut himself off completely from his family? How urgently was he approaching the novel? How could he streamline his writing process if he was spending all the time on it that Leah claimed he was? “Leah is convinced that you will,” he told him.

    “Yes, as she has always been, it just has not been quickly enough for either of our likings.”

    “That seems strange to me. She knows very well that you can’t rush art.”

    “You’re correct, it was life that she wanted to rush, not art.” Archie suddenly understood Leah’s discomfort and hesitations around Elliott, if not how the responsibility for it was distributed between them. “I attribute it to unlucky timing,” he added.

    “I wish you both the best,” Archie replied, non-committally, knowing that the best for one may not be the best for the other unless that unlucky timing lined up better.

    “Thank you. I wish you the same with your farming, and thank you also for the instructive lecture on dialogue. I hope it proves as generative as it was insightful.”

    So did Archie, but something about the whole conversation left him less than convinced that it would, at least in the near future.




    The rest of the week was sunny, and the respite of the fishing day gave Archie’s arms some opportunity to recover from the beating he put them through. He continued clearing his land, the first sprouts of green on his parsnip field inspiring him to grandiose visions of what the restored farm could be as his first harvest slowly approached. He kept to himself for most of the time, less out of a specific desire for isolation but rather because he thought that investing the time and effort early would yield returns later. He continued exploring the town a little bit, meeting more of its residents, greeting people in ways that turned out more perfunctory than earlier in the week. The politeness of the greeting visits was appreciated, but that the rest of the town had stuff to do during the week as well.

    Most of his forays off his land were purposeful. There were two major events of those days; opening his account at the Pelican Town branch of the Stardew Valley Regional Library and taking out as many books on agriculture as he could carry, and the reaction from his sister when she called him on the Thursday evening:

    “Bro!” Maeve greeted him in her usual way. “How are you?”

    Archie set the phone on speaker mode and placed it on the table. “Even more exhausted than that time I stayed up from sunrise through the all-night cast party.”

    “You? Exhausted? It’s not your health again, is it? Joja don’t exactly work you to the bone.”

    “I’m healthy, and who knows, I might even be in a semblance of shape soon. I have the appointment for the blood tests in a couple of weeks too.”

    “So what is tiring you out? New girlfriend?”

    “I wish. I quit my job at Joja.” There was an awkward silence before Archie continued. “It’s OK. I had a new job in hand.”

    “Archie, you clown! Why didn’t you tell me? Congratulations! Come over tomorrow, we’ll celebrate and you can tell me all about it!”

    “No can do, sis. The job’s in a whole other province and so am I for the foreseeable future.”

    “To think I’d be all alone in Gallibrand, my brothers off globetrotting… Make it to Zuzu City after all?”

    “Not Zuzu, no. I’m in Pelican Town.”

    “What!?” Maeve’s incredulity was off the charts. “That Pelican Town?”

    “Yes, that one.”

    “You can’t be serious.”

    “I’m on Granddad’s farm, Maeve. That’s the job. My first harvest is tomorrow.”

    “…That isn’t funny, Archie.”

    Archie raised his voice as he answered; “If you don’t believe me I’ll dump a chunk of my savings into taking a bus into Hub Town just to send you an organic parsnip by courier.”

    There was another long pause.

    That’s what was in your envelope?” Maeve asked, indignantly.

    “Yes.”

    “I don’t believe this…”

    “Maeve…”

    She hung up abruptly and even though she believed him as far as being on the farm, Archie contemplated sending her the parsnip by courier anyway, just to include a note telling her where to shove it when it arrived. He sighed deeply. He unconditionally loved his sister, but he didn’t always like her. He thought she was as materialistic as she thought he was a lazy underachiever. He stared at the phone on the table, expecting the whirlwind of text messages between the siblings and their parents that usually accompanied family arguments to begin soon, but was interrupted by a timid knock on the door.

    “It’s unlocked,” Archie said to whoever it was, not caring to ask in that moment and feeling suddenly drained. “You can come in.”

    It was Leah, who took in the farmhouse with her artist’s eye. “I’d never actually been in here before,” she said, awkwardness apparent. “It’s, uh, quaint.”

    “That’s one way to put it. How much of that did you hear?” Archie asked, wearily.

    “Everything from your health,” she admitted.

    “I’m not sure if I’m more bothered that you overheard the family argument or that you overheard my sister implying I’m so lazy that the only thing that would tire me out is a woman. I love her, but she makes it bloody hard to like her sometimes.”

    “Family, can’t live with them, can’t live without them, right?” she joked, in a conciliatory way.

    “It feels like it sometimes. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

    “I wanted to invite you to the saloon tomorrow night,” she explained. “A lot of the town will be there for you to meet them, and we can continue our conversation from the other day.”

    “I’ll be there. Maru and Abigail told me about Friday nights, and it’s nice to have another invitation. It’s very considerate of you to come by for that, Leah.”

    “Think nothing of it. We were all new here once.” They talked a few more minutes before Leah took her leave.

    By Friday afternoon, Archie had cleared up another small patch of land and harvested and sold his first parsnip crop. It would be a decent boon to him and a small one to Pierre, who would need all the good circumstances he could get with Joja breathing down his store’s proverbial neck. He opted not to take the trip to Hub Town to mail his sister a passive-aggressive parsnip, choosing instead to somewhat hastily replant the field with potato and kale seeds he had bought from Pierre. They were more expensive seeds, but more people were likely to like those than parsnips, the worst vegetable, and the profit margins would be higher. Everyone loved potatoes and hipster demand would drive up the prices of kale for years to come, Archie hoped.

    He sat at the living room table to read one of the agricultural manuals he took out from the library, waiting for 6 o’clock to head over to the saloon to meet more of the town, including Abigail’s friends. He was learning about the relative merits about different kinds of fertilizers and the ways you could and couldn’t combine some of them when he was struck by how boring, if practical it all was.

    The evening rolled around not too long after, and Archie started his walk into town just as the sun was about to set. The canopy of the treeline leading toward the bus stop darkened the reds and purples of dusk in the valley further, but in a way Archie found soothing. The scattered streetlamps in the town square hadn’t lit up yet, and the town was cast in a fading orange-gold light that gave it the brief illusion of being a City of Gold. Archie’s aesthetic reflections were cut short as the music coming from the vintage jukebox in the corner of the saloon grew louder and louder. Of course it was country music. While Archie enjoyed the city’s nightlife, he had a sense Friday night at the Stardrop Saloon might be more of an experience than the city nightclubs, maybe even the goth ones that typically were an experience if nothing else.

    While Archie had stopped into the saloon, and even taken a meal there during the week, he was excited about spending some of the remaining profits of his parsnip harvest on a decent meal and the beer he’d been bribing himself with the prospect of for the previous few days. When he pushed open the double-doors and surveyed the main room, he was surprised at the number and variety of people, because he had never seen more than a handful of townsfolk in the same place at once.

    Gus was working the kitchen, leaving Emily, who he hadn’t met yet but who Gus had told him about, taking care of the bar. She was dressed in a red smock that seemed well suited to the risk of having drinks spilled on it, and she had a messy hairstyle, dyed electric blue. The bar was where he went first as he looked about.

    Of the people he recognized, Leah was seated alone at a table on the far wall, very slowly eating a salad and sipping a glass of wine. Willy, and Clint, the blacksmith, were having beers, with Willy seemingly trying to cheer the forlorn metalworker up. Robin, and at Archie’s best guess, Demetrius, were dancing awkwardly, but good-spiritedly, to the music from the jukebox. Even Pierre was there, drinking a beer of his own and shooting furtive glances in the direction of the arcade, where Abigail probably was hanging out with people Pierre didn’t like in part because Pierre didn’t like them. A couple of lone people, an older woman and a stubbly man in a Joja jacket, were nursing what looked like their several-th beer.

    Archie greeted Emily and introduced himself, which set her delightedly chattering at a mile a minute.

    “Archie, welcome to Pelican Town! You’re just in time for the spring festivals too!”

    “Festivals?” he asked, tentatively.

    “The Egg Festival is this Sunday, and the Flower Dance is a couple of weeks after that!”

    “Sounds like… fun?” The titles of the festivals were self-evident enough, but not completely descriptive.

    “Any excuse to get the whole town together to party is fun by me! The Egg Festival has a hidden egg hunt, and we eat all sorts of egg-related food. The Flower Dance is a formal dance in the forest. They’re great fun!” Her enthusiasm was palpable and a bit contagious, as Archie considered how he might enjoy either.

    “You’ve gone a long way toward convincing me. I’ll be going, and it’ll be a good way to meet anyone else I haven’t.”

    “Great! Since they’re already at the bar, have you met Shane and Pam?” She asked, gesturing widely to indicate the two loners several beers deep.

    “Neither.”

    “I’ll introduce you quick!” She walked over to Shane first, along the inside of the bar, and Archie followed til he was standing at the stool next to him. “Shane, meet Archie, the new farmer.”

    Shane languidly glanced up at him and mumbled a hello before returning his attention to his pint-glass. He didn’t seem that drunk yet, just anti-social. Archie said it was good to meet him and moved on to meet Pam, who was much more verbose while drunk, especially after the initial pleasantries, which Archie surmised she glossed over quickly because she didn’t especially enjoy being pleasant.

    “Grandpa, shmandpa, I don’t see why any young’un with a future would throw it away on this dump of a town!”

    “Your opinion has been noted,” he replied coldly, deciding against mentioning that he didn’t have a future at the time. Who would really look worse for him saying it? Probably him, he thought.

    While she saw that she offended him, or so Archie believed, she didn’t apologize so much as mumble something under her breath and get back to drinking. Back at the centre of the bar, at least out of whispering earshot, Archie hushedly told Emily “thanks for that, I didn’t know there were people to avoid in this town. Now I do.”

    “They’re not awful people,” Emily replied, “but they can be very prickly. What can I get you?”

    “I’ll take a pizza and a pale ale, please. Gus can choose the toppings, just no seafood and not plain cheese.”

    “Sure thing, grab a seat and I’ll bring the pizza over, want to take the beer now?”

    “More than almost anything,” he said, smiling almost wistfully.

    Emily chuckled and pulled the pint, handing it to him with a coaster. “Enjoy your first Friday here, nice meeting you!”

    Archie looked around the room again. Leah was still slowly picking away at her salad and glass of wine. There were voices coming from the arcade. He figured he’d check in with Leah first and then head in. He walked over to the table Leah was sitting at.

    “Mind if I join you?” he asked.

    “Please, go ahead. It can get a bit lonely even in a crowd sometimes.”

    “I’m surprised to hear that coming from you in particular,” Archie told her. This was true, because of how sociable she had struck him as being when he met her for the first time. He said as much.

    “Well, I know people who are here, it’s just the same groups of people having the same conversations that I don’t fit into a lot of the time. I could talk about fishing with Willy, for example, but he’s commiserating with Clint most of the time.”

    “What about the people around our age, in the arcade?”

    “I like them well enough, but we don’t really relate to each other,” She replied matter-of-factly. “The only close friend I’ve made here so far is Elliott, and he rarely comes to the saloon anymore. He’s always writing.”

    “But you prefer going out on Fridays to working on your own art.”

    “Of course, Archie, I have to live a little!”

    “I agree, and speaking of, can you tell me a bit more about the Flower Dance? Emily said it’s coming up but not very much about what it is.”

    “Oh, goodness, it is coming up. It starts off as a casual enough party, but the main event is a formal, ritual dance. Emily makes dresses for all the women and the guys all dress formally too.”

    “I don’t even think I packed a suit.”

    “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Everyone will be glad to see you and you’ll get to see what it’s like.”

    “It sounds like fun. How’s the art coming?”

    “Oh, you know, slowly. I might take you up on adding a tree to that painting, just trying to figure out what kind. A maple, maybe.”

    “I was thinking a birch, personally.”

    “Ugh, artistic decisions are hard.”

    “You’re not wrong. I’m going to head to the arcade to meet Sam and Sebastian. Want to join us?”

    “I might trail in later, going to finish this first,” she said, gesturing at her still rather full salad bowl and looking a bit disappointed. Seeing as Archie wasn’t completely sure whether Leah was making a career out of the salad rather than a meal of it, he wasn’t counting on her further company that night. Since she’d been keen to continue talking about art, he wondered what was up, but opted not to prod her about it.

    “Enjoy!” he suggested as he walked across the saloon toward the arcade, the beeps and boops of 8-bit audio growing louder as he approached, along with Abigail’s very creative cursing, which left Pierre looking even more askance at the arcade than he was earlier.

    Sidling through the entrance he saw Abigail mashing away at the Journey of the Prairie King cabinet and her two friends half-engaged in a game of pool and half-engaged in watching the spectacle of Abigail’s unladylike behaviour with detached amusement and familiarity.

    Abigail had just gotten game-overed as Archie walked in and hadn’t yet noticed him when she continued shouting, if using some milder words than moments ago. “Seriously!? Who in the hell is the sadistic 8-bit assclown who designed this brutal piece of shit that I cannot seem to stop playing!?” She turned to her friends, who were stifling laughter of their own, looking toward the door, then turned around to see Archie had witnessed the outburst. She blushed. “Hi Archie,” she added quietly.

    “Evenin’, misfits!” he greeted the group who, thanks to asking around earlier in the week, he was able to differentiate. Sam was about as tall as Archie, just shy of six feet, and wiry, with a mess of spiky blond hair and a thousand-watt smile. He was wearing a ragged jean jacket full of patches of punk band logos. Sebastian was a few inches shorter, and quite thin, with a side-parted fringe of black hair. He was wearing dark purple jeans and a black hoodie. “Leah said she may join us after finishing her salad, so maybe in like 3 hours,” he joked.

    Abigail and Sam laughed, and Sebastian softly chuckled, all of them having had prior experience of Leah pacing her eating at extremes. Abigail explained that she’d either devour things as fast as Archie inhaled the carrot muffin earlier in the week, or eat like she was shooting a time-lapse video of herself eating.

    Sam was quick to break the ice. “It is so exciting to have someone new in town, bro, you would not believe. Breaks up the routine! Isn’t that right, Seb?”

    “I guess,” the shorter man replied with a slight smirk. “Archie’s the third person to arrive in the last year, but it’s still the three of us in here every Friday night, playing the same games.”

    Sam sighed, still smiling as he turned to face Sebastian. “Why’ve you got to always harsh my buzz with your factually correct statements and your practicality there, Buzz Killington?” Turning back to face Archie, he added, “at least now I can rotate off the pool table. You play him.”

    Archie gathered up the balls as Sebastian, who signaled to Archie to break, racked them. “So what do you do to pass the time the other days of the week?” he asked no one in particular.

    Abigail was the first to answer. “I help mom and dad at the store and take online classes in Archaeology through one of the city colleges. I’m hoping to save up and go on one of the digs in the next year or two.”

    Sam spoke up next. “I work at Joja Mart and help look after the fam while my dad’s on deployment. I play a bunch of music, and Seb and I sometimes play tabletop games.”

    “Like what?” Archie cut in before Sebastian’s turn to answer.

    Solarion Chronicles, mainly,” Sam started, before getting cut off by Abigail’s opinion on the matter.

    “Nerrrrrrrds.”

    “I haven’t tried that one,” Archie said, "my friends were all about Swashbucklers of the Seven Seas.”

    “Another nerrrrrrrd,” Abigail continued.

    “Abigail tried it once, it might surprise you to hear that she didn’t care much for it and would rather watch her nerdy Sunrise Archipelago import cartoons.” Sam added, as Sebastian finished setting up the pool table. Archie took his shot, a decent enough break, but didn’t sink anything. Sebastian carefully maneuvered around the table before pocketing a string of 3 solids.

    “They’re not cartoons, they’re animés, you toxic shitheap,” she replied defensively, setting Sam laughing even more, after which even Abigail laughed at herself.

    “I work as a freelance programmer,” Sebastian said, matter-of-factly, when it was Archie’s turn to shoot.

    “I’m not saying Seb’s lying,” Sam cut in, “but he’s gotten uncannily better at videogames ever since his recent career change.” Sebastian flushed and glared at him.

    “Sam, you’re crossing the line,” Sebastian replied, while Archie sunk two stripes before accidentally scratching. He fished the cue ball out of the pocket and lined up his shot.

    The room hushed as Sebastian took the opportunity Archie’s misplay afforded him and ran the table from that point. Archie offered him a handshake with a “well played.”

    Sebastian didn’t seem thrilled about it, and gave Archie a fairly limp shake. “You too, at least relative to Sam.”

    “Cold!” Sam replied, as Abigail and Archie laughed and the mood was slightly restored to the room.

    “So why are you two the town misfits?” Archie asked the guys.

    Sebastian answered first, in the same quiet and measured tone he’d so far said anything in. “I don’t really try to fit in at all, plus, working in the tech sector is a bit out of place here.”

    Sam quickly followed him up. “And you don’t get out much. Me, it’s just that Lewis and a lot of the adults have it in for me,” launching into a surprisingly accurate imitation of Pierre, he continued, “Sam, Joja Mart is the devil and stay away from my daughter.” Abigail’s peals of laughter were audible throughout most of the saloon as Pierre was probably the picture of consternation in the other room. Sam continued on to his Lewis impersonation. “Sam, stop doing sick skateboard tricks off of Emily’s cilantro planters. Sam, stop trying to amend the town’s constitution to ‘PURE ANARCHY’ at every town hall meeting. Adults, man, I just don’t get ‘em.”

    They all laughed at the ridiculousness of Sam’s purported antics, Archie especially because it was all new to him. “Amazing.”

    “It’s stupid, is what it is,” Sebastian chimed in, smiling. “You don’t use the democratic process to kick-start anarchy.”

    “He wasn’t being serious about it, though, was he?” Archie asked.

    Sebastian and Abigail looked to Archie, then Sam, then back to Archie.

    “Was he?” Archie asked again. They all laughed. Archie never got a clearer answer but eventually stopped caring in the crossfire of the banter. They played games, they talked, and as the night went on Archie continued enjoying their company and the lack of judgment they seemed to have of him. Sure, Sebastian was quiet, Sam was a clown, and Abigail was still Abigail, but they were fun to be around.

    Hours later, Leah never having finished the salad, poked her head into the arcade quickly to wish everyone goodbye before she left. Sebastian waved as Abigail, Sam, and Archie vocally wished her a good night. They idly speculated about what was going on with her.

    “Romance problem,” Sam suggested.

    “Nah, art, obviously,” Abigail countered. The two of them continued arguing at an increasingly fevered pitch and tone while Archie walked over to Sebastian.

    “What do you think, and are they always like this?”

    “I think it’s none of my business, and no, just most of the time.”

    “Opposites attract, eh?”

    “They’re hardly opposites.”

    “I meant to you.”

    “Oh. Huh. I guess…” Sebastian conceded, considering the whole idea as if for the first time. Not long after the argument broke off, without a clear victor, and leaving Archie with the impression he ought to follow it up with Leah, they decided to call it a night and return to their homes. It was the start of a pleasant weekend, though the concept didn’t exist for Archie anymore as such. The fields demanded constant attention, and though less of a job, maybe his friends would too.




    The subsequent weeks brought a semblance of stable routine to Archie’s life, but unlike the one he felt in his city-bound employment at Joja Corporate Headquarters, this routine felt like one he wanted to participate in because he was invested. The bitter torrent of text messages he was expecting from family members never came, and he assumed his sister had largely gotten over not inheriting a farm she would never have wanted to put to use anyway. Eventually he’d call her. The big news in the town was that one of the abandoned mine shafts, damaged by Joja’s construction surveys, was back to spelunkable condition, which Archie was considering, but not all that much because he wasn’t generally a fan of tightly enclosed spaces, his farmhouse notwithstanding.

    The Egg Festival came and went with few notable incidents. Shane was more talkative, bordering on enthusiastic, because the work he had put in on Marnie’s ranch to help set the Festival up was being recognized in a way his work at Joja Mart wasn’t. Abigail won the egg hunt, beating Archie and Vincent out by a single egg, winning a straw hat that was so completely out of step with her fashion sensibilities that Archie figured she’d probably burn it or something. He ate a larger number of eggs than he had in recent memory. Lewis was pleased to see him and he managed to meet the rest of the townsfolk, except for Morris. Morris managed the local Joja Mart store, though he commuted from Hub Town. He closed the store as no one was expected to go there, but didn’t show up to the festival. Neither Archie nor Morris was put off by his absence from the festival in the slightest.

    Over the couple of weeks following, his mornings were filled with expanding and managing his fields, his afternoons with fishing and nature walks, and his evenings with reading agriculture manuals unless something else presented itself. Given that his farmhouse was out of the way for everyone save Marnie, Shane, and Leah, he didn’t expect many visits, and neither did he receive any. The following Fridays at the saloon were a bit more balanced; he spent some time discussing art and valley life with Leah, hanging with the misfits in the arcade, and talking with Emily a fair bit as well. She was friendly and excitable, but perhaps one of the most down-to-earth, and eccentric, people he’d ever met.

    The day of the Flower Dance had finally arrived, and it was a beautiful and sunny spring day. Archie had decided that he would maintain the farm, but take advantage of the festival to justify a day off of clearing the land and working on expanding it, even though it was only a half-day festival. After watering his crops and installing a new scarecrow, he showered, and was considering which clothes to change into. Given the request to dress formally and his lack of a suit, he had two options. There was the grey work pants and blazer he would wear to job interviews and his previous work at Joja, or, there was the kilt and vest ensemble he (and his father, and brother), wore to Maeve’s wedding, which was a somewhat surreal experience. Archie enjoyed the wedding quite a lot, but found it pretty strange that the couple, and their parents, opted for a surprisingly traditional Emerald Isle wedding given that it was four to five generations ago that the families emigrated to Ferngill in search of a better future than the famine-stricken island was liable to provide, just before the Kingdom became the Republic it now was. As it turned out, in addition to a surprising degree of Yoba-praising zeal, and more interminable speechifying than the average wedding, and rowdier drinking and dancing afterward, it also meant wearing kilts in his family tartan pattern, which he never knew the Emerald Islanders had a concept of, much less his own family having one. Archie had few doubts his sister would marry another Emeralder given her enthusiastic participation in folk-dancing and other cultural activities that brought, and kept her, in contact with others in the immigrant-descended community. His brother was studying there at that very moment. For his part, while Archie had learned to play folk instruments, and his family had visited the ancestral homeland with him a couple of times, he felt he had more of an intellectual connection to the place than a nationalistic one. He read the literary luminaries of that migrant generation, and thought their dialogue, prose, and verse encapsulated the modern condition he lived in as well as the famine times, from its majestic highs to its squalid lows. Consequently, he felt like a bit of a fraud wearing the kilt, but it seemed far more appealing to him in that moment than wearing the job interview clothes that still had the miasma of failure on them. He decided that since he had come to the valley to escape his failures and re-create himself, today he’d embrace his inner Emeralder and see what might come of it.

    About ten minutes, and a couple of attempts at binding the kilt properly, later, he completed the ensemble with a sporran that he stuffed the ubiquitous pennywhistle into. The fiddle was too bulky to carry, and while he didn’t anticipate playing any music at the festival itself, he thought he might want to later in the day as a means to continue to unwind. He hastened his way out to the clearing in the Cindersnap Forest where Lewis told him the festival would take place. Wooden fencing bedecked with coloured paper banners cordoned off the festival area, and a shop booth, manned by Pierre, who looked askance at Archie as usual as he arrived, was the first thing he saw. Archie waved.

    “Farmer.” Pierre flatly greeted him.

    “Shopkeeper.” Archie returned, in a similar tone, hinting with no subtlety that this was a first-name basis town, and that he would not take any condescension from Pierre. Nearby, Robin, who was standing with Demetrius, started snickering. Before any argument got launched into, Archie greeted the two of them and moved away from the booth without so much as looking at what Pierre was selling. If Archie had looked back, he would have seen Pierre’s sudden look of dejection.

    “What an interesting fashion specimen,” Demetrius said, as Robin continued laughing.

    “I was told to dress formally,” Archie replied, smiling, “and this should be comfortable to dance in, at least. Your children around?”

    Demetrius gestured toward further into the festival enclosure. “They’re both somewhere in there. You go have fun.”

    “And you,” Archie wished them, pressing on into the festival grounds, where the bulk of the town had assembled, mostly in the small groups he’d already become familiar with.

    Nearing the parquetry dance floor, which Vincent and Jas, the children of Pelican town, were running about on, he spotted different groups of his friends and people around their age. Maru and Harvey were discussing something while Harvey was looking on nervously. Abigail, Sebastian, Sam and Penny, were some distance away and locked deeply in a conversation of their own. Alex, the jockish gridball phenom, was talking with his grandparents while Emily’s younger sister Haley, a fashionable young adult who was the centre of her own universe and expected to be the centre of everyone else’s, was on the floor, practicing dance moves while dodging the children underfoot. Leah and Elliott were just a few steps further into the grounds than Archie was, so he greeted them. Both were surprised at his appearance, with Leah inspecting the pattern up close, scrutinizing it like a piece of artwork. They were still exchanging pleasantries when Archie felt a sudden breeze on his backside, where Sam had snuck up behind him and flipped the back of the kilt up.

    “I guess it isn’t true what they say about what people wear under those,” he said, laughing, while Leah and Elliott looked aghast.

    “Sam!” Leah started to admonish him sharply, before being cut off by Archie, who put a hand on Sam’s shoulder amicably. Sam squirmed as Archie suddenly clamped firmly down on it.

    “Don’t worry about it, Leah, he’s just interested in my native culture, isn’t that right, Sam?”

    Sam, looking increasingly uncomfortable stammered out, “Uh… yeah, that’s exactly it.”

    “Soldiers don’t wear anything under, they even call that going regimental,” Archie started to explain, “dancers always wear something under, and this is a dance.”

    Sam began to blush forcefully as Archie held him in place, which Leah and Elliott had started to notice. “Fascinating,” he said, weakly.

    “There aren’t really rules about it, but it’s considered good manners, especially if you dance energetically,” Archie continued, staring at Sam, and tapping him lightly on the cheek with the back of his other hand. “And, culturally, you flip up a man’s kilt and you can expect to get dropped on the spot. So consider this a warning,” he informed him. Right as Sam began to relax thinking that that was the end of it, Archie abruptly released Sam’s shoulder and swung the back of his other hand toward Sam’s jaw, missing his face but loudly clapping the hand he was holding Sam’s shoulder with a moment before, drawing the attention of most of the assembled crowd. “Now run along.” Archie gently shoved Sam toward where Abigail, Sebastian, and Penny were watching with mixed expressions. Penny looked embarrassed, which was not out of character for her in general, whereas Abigail, and especially Sebastian, looked incredibly smug. Sam scrambled back to his friends with his tail between his legs.

    “Sorry you had to witness that,” Archie told Elliott and Leah, “but after my talk with Pierre earlier I am not in the mood for that kind of disrespect today. At least he didn’t pull up the kilt from the front.”

    Leah looked at him with some consternation. “You probably scared the living daylights out of him, don’t you think you went a bit far?”

    “Not really,” Archie replied, “I think I had to be forceful about it, or I’d be dealing with his pranks for the rest of my life.”

    “I also think your reaction was a bit strong,” Elliott added, “but it did have panache.”

    “Flatterer,” Archie replied, before asking how they both were, out of both interest and wanting to change the subject.

    Elliott groused a bit about continuing writing struggles, but indicated he had made good progress with his dialogue, while Leah had started on a new sculpture. Archie told them about his successful potato and kale harvest before asking to speak with Leah privately for a moment.

    After Elliott excused himself and stepped out of earshot, Archie asked Leah if she’d have a dance with him. She was probably as close to a friend as he’d made here.

    Looking a bit like a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheel truck, Leah declined. “I have to be honest, I don’t want to dance with you.” Archie wasn’t thrilled about that development but appreciated the honesty and wished her goodbye as he wandered off further toward the dance area, where he was met by Emily, who started scrutinizing his clothes in a much more thorough way than Leah had.

    “This workmanship is amazing!” She blurted. “I’d hate to think of how many sheep worth of wool I’d go through trying to make something like this!” Archie had momentarily forgotten that Emily was the one who made the white dresses that Leah, Emily, Haley, Maru, and even Abigail were wearing.

    “I guess my father found a very good tailor for these,” Archie replied, briefly pondering something. “Emily, is there only one dance today?”

    “Not exactly,” she answered. “There are a few group dances, but only one partnered one, and that’s not for everyone – that’s what the white dresses are for.”

    “Oh,” Archie replied, “not blaming you, but I wish someone had mentioned that when I was asking about the festival.”

    “Sorry!” Emily said with a slightly guilty smile. “It really didn’t occur to me at the time. No partner?”

    “Not yet, anyway.” He shrugged, though he was getting a bit more annoyed about the whole situation. “I’ll ask Abigail.”

    “By all means, though, I think Sebastian beat you to it.”

    “Well, I’ll ask anyway, the worst she can say is no.”

    “When I used to dance at these people said the same, but added that the second worst thing I could say was yes. Don’t worry too much about it, Archie, I have a plan.”

    Archie smiled. “Does that plan, perchance, involve dancing with me?”

    Emily laughed. “Absolutely not!” Archie flushed, as she continued “I haven’t danced at one of these since Haley started to. Don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine.”

    Archie did not have the utmost confidence that it would, in fact, be fine. Struggling to hold on to his cheer and manners alike, he wished Emily a good Flower Dance and moved on to walk toward the misfits plus Penny, when he was interrupted yet again by Jodi and Lewis, who had rushed up to apologize for Sam’s behaviour. Archie appreciated the apology, and told them as much, but added that the two of them had already sorted it out like adults and that he considered the matter over and done with.

    Eventually, he made it over to them. Sam’s “prank” notwithstanding, he enjoyed the company of that group, though he still didn’t know the first thing about Penny besides the facts that she was Pam’s daughter and that she taught the local children in lieu of them commuting to a school in Hub Town.

    Sam groaned as Archie approached. “What did mom and Lewis want?”

    “To drop the hammer on you,” Archie said with a dramatic pause as Sam groaned again, even more loudly. “I told them it was unnecessary,” he added, after letting Sam stew in it for a few seconds.

    Sam became flustered but eventually started laughing at the situation and himself. “You’re a jerk sometimes, Archie, but thanks for calling the dogs off.”

    “Call your mom a dog again and I’ll change my mind,” Archie added as Sam blushed with great force.

    “Damnit! That’s not what I meant…”

    “Anyway, how are the rest of you?” Archie asked as Sam continued to flounder.

    “I’m ok.” Penny replied. Sebastian looked like he didn’t especially want to be there and said as much, while Abigail said she’d have to ask Emily to make the dresses black next year, but seemed all smiles.

    “Why do you have that outfit, anyway?” Abigail asked.

    “My sister had a traditional Emerald Isles wedding,” Archie told her. “And that meant family pattern kilts and the like. I never actually thought I’d wear it again.”

    “Until your own wedding, right?” Penny asked with more enthusiasm than he’d ever seen her display. So far, she’d always been a shrinking violet around Archie.

    “I didn’t think that far ahead,” he admitted, “and I’m not as hung up on the idea of marrying another Emeralder as my sister was.”

    They talked another few minutes about the wedding and the Emerald Isles and the Flower Dance before Archie asked Abigail for a moment of her time to ask her to dance. The response was pretty similar to Leah’s, though a gentler let-down as Abigail let Archie know that she found the request flattering even if she wasn’t going to take him up on it, whereas Leah seemed to find it terrifying.

    The whole Flower Dance was starting to aggravate him, since amid the pair of rejections it was starting to feel like the town, the people of which unequivocally wanted him to be there, was having a laugh at his expense while he couldn’t properly participate in the main event. He had a brief chat with Linus to exchange pleasantries and let him know that he wanted to discuss his grandfather with him, before setting himself up at a picnic table in a far corner of the festival grounds. Aside from taking in the floral displays that elderly Evelyn Mullner put together, which showed some fantastic craftswomanship, Archie was resigned to spending the day seething and practicing his music. The festival symbolizing the rebirth of Spring seemed to him to highlight his own incomplete integration to the town, and incomplete rebirth.

    A while later Lewis announced that the proper dance would soon begin, and for the townsfolk to gather around the dancefloor. Archie stayed at the picnic table, knowing that it was petulant but feeling like he didn’t owe anyone his prickly presence at that moment. Lewis was about to signal to Gus, himself a violinist, to start playing the music, when a distant screech of braking tires coming from the road near the bus stop interrupted the proceedings. Everyone was thankful that no sound of impact followed it. The townsfolk milled around aimlessly and speculated about who could possibly have been screaming along the rural road while Lewis tried to regain control of the event. For his part, Archie had no idea, but he noticed Emily move her way from near the dancefloor over to the entrance to the festival, where a couple of minutes later, she was joined by another, very winded, woman. From the distance, he couldn’t make out the fact that she was apologizing for arriving late, or too many details of her appearance, but she was wearing a blue dress and had long, unnaturally crimson hair. The newcomer and Emily exchanged a hug and some very rapid pleasantries before making their way back over toward the dance floor.

    Most of the townsfolk gawked at the newcomer, presumably not all that familiar with her, which surprised Archie a bit. There weren’t exactly a parade of visitors, but in a town this small, being acquainted with people’s friends as well as the townsfolk themselves didn’t seem that farfetched. Archie was still considering that from his vantage point at the picnic table, where he put the whistle away out of musician’s courtesy to Gus. Gus started playing a slow waltz on his violin, and the townsfolk, the men in their suits and the women in their white flower dance dresses with petal-trim, began their ritual steps. Archie didn’t have time to even begin to process the steps when he noticed that the late arrival had walked up toward the picnic table.

    “You’d rather be dancing,” she said with an airy glee.

    “I would,” he replied, his mind starting to swim against the contradictory currents of his previously foul mood and the fact that the woman who had just shown up to the festival before looking for his attention in particular (and probably a dance) was gorgeous. In fact, Archie wasn’t sure what was in the water in Valley that caused everybody of his generation to be attractive, whether conventionally or regardless. At closer distance, though, this woman was a head-turning knockout who could easily be a metropolitan model, and she was done up like one. Her hair was an array of curls, accented by a pony tail tied off with a blue bow at the back.

    “Hurry up and dance with me while there’s still a song,” she told him.

    Archie did not need to be asked twice, and rather than crash the carefully orchestrated ceremony of the dance floor, they danced by the picnic table, Archie a bit rigidly, still in disbelief, and her as airily has her laugh but occasionally misstepping. Archie was sure that they looked a bit ridiculous, but only Emily was watching them and that was with divided attention anyway.

    “I’d have arrived earlier, but Emily only reminded me this morning and I hardly had enough time to get ready and get here,” she told him apologetically, though Archie hardly thought she had anything to apologize to him about. They hadn’t even met, Archie wasn’t expecting her in the first place, and she had, and at least for the moment, saved him from having an outright miserable festival.

    “What’s your name?” Archie asked.

    “A…- Call me Sandy. Emily told me your name but she was talking so fast telling me to dance with you I could hardly hear it,” she said with a laugh.

    “Archie. It’s nice to meet you, and thanks for the dance. You don’t live in the town, what brings you here?” He was curious about that. For the weeks he’d been here, no one visited the town, or to his knowledge left it to go visit anywhere else. Visitors seemed a rarity.

    “I live in the Calico Desert. The only flowers you get are on cacti, nothing like the valley flowers, which I love!” Archie could not help but think he was receiving a very blatant hint. “Emily told me about Pelican Town and the Flower Dance when she road-tripped in the desert last summer.”

    “Is it what you were expecting?” He asked.

    “I was expecting to catch up with my friend and go home with a trunk full of tulips and daffodils, and I will.” They twirled, and Archie saw the couples on the dancefloor continuing their synchronized spectacle, which he felt that he and Sandy were making a bit of a mockery of, enjoyable though their own dance was. “The only surprise was Emily springing you on me at the last second.”

    “It sounded more like the reverse to me, not that I’m complaining. Pleasant surprise, I hope.”

    “Very,” she said with a bright smile. “You’re a good dancer, if a little tense, and a little inquisitive, but so far so good!”

    “The questions are only out of interest,” he told her, relaxing gradually. “Now that I’ve met the whole town, there aren’t often new people to meet, and in a town this small, strangers arriving is one the most interesting things that happens.”

    “Emily says the same thing, and she’s the bartender! She’s got the most social job in town, she gets to hear everyone’s secrets, and it’s not enough! That’s why she travels a lot, like her parents.”

    “I was wondering about them, actually.”

    “Oh, I’ve never met them, but they’re off continents away, living out of backpacks and a camper van. Not bad for middle age, is it?”

    “I dreamed of that kind of adult life on the road and on tour, and now I’m doing the exact opposite, living as a farmer!”

    “It’s the same for me!” She replied with some enthusiasm. “I own the Oasis, in the Desert.”

    “You own an oasis?” Archie asked, quizzically.

    “Not an oasis, The Oasis, it’s a shop, it’s named after an oasis, there’s one right near it, but Cactus Town owns that.”

    Gus started to wind down the waltz.

    “Wouldn’t happen to sell crop seeds, would you?”

    Sandy took a hand off his shoulder and lightly duffed him atop his cap, smiling and feigning greater irritation than she actually felt before putting her hand back. “It’s a festival and we’re dancing! Don’t think about farming and don’t make me rattle off inventory, for Yoba’s sake!”

    The “Dance” part of the Flower Dance wound to a close with Gus finishing the waltz. The couples on the dance floor pulled apart and took two steps back from eachother. The men bowed and the women curtsied in synch. The rest of the town applauded. Sandy didn’t notice the music had stopped, and Archie was more than willing to keep the pretense alive, humming an extension to the tune just loud enough for the two of them to hear for a while longer, before pulling her into a tango dip, to wrap up their own dance, oblivious to attention they had started to draw from a visibly annoyed Lewis and a crowd of murmuring, surprised townsfolk, who were all watching the Flower Dance moments prior. It only dawned on Archie that even Robin and Demetrius, who would dance a good chunk of their Friday nights away at the saloon, weren’t dancing throughout, and how odd that seemed to him.

    After they finished dancing, Sandy added, “Rhubarb, Starfruit and Beets. Come by and visit. My part of the desert doesn’t get that many visitors either,” and then they detached themselves from each other without the formality of a bow and curtsy.

    Lewis, who had previously been all too concerned about Archie, stormed over to the corner of the grounds that Archie and Sandy staked out for themselves, the rest of the town keeping at a distance, but still within earshot of what they expected to overshadow the Flower Dance itself in terms of things they’d talk about for weeks to come. “Archie!” Lewis exclaimed with a mixture of anger and disappointment, loudly enough for the gathered town to hear, “what did you think you were doing?”

    “Dancing.” Archie replied matter-of-factly, confused about what could possibly have elicited Lewis’ reaction. “We’re at a dance. That’s what you do at them. What’s the problem?”

    Lewis, still angry, became flustered in addition at Archie’s response. “It’s a ritual dance that the whole town is meant to be a part of. It’s critically important that it includes the whole community!”

    Sandy began to look extremely uncomfortable at the whole scene unfolding in front of her, as Emily rushed over toward them. Archie’s prior irritation returned in force, and his temper got the better of him. He snapped at Lewis: “It included five couples. That’s it! If you’ve got a problem with me making another outsider feel way more welcome than I do, or salvaging some enjoyment out of this inside joke of a day, don’t bullshit me about community and don’t expect me next year.”

    Something Archie said seemed to strike a collective nerve, as the townsfolk, especially the older ones, began to murmur amongst themselves with an air of panic. Even Lewis, in spite of the anger at having his event ruined and his authority challenged in a very public way, took pause at it.

    “No one told you about the ritual and why we do it?” Lewis asked him.

    “They just said to come and dance and enjoy myself.”

    “I should have explained it myself,” Lewis told him in a much more subdued way than he had just been talking. “We all may have just shot the town in the foot,” he added. Turning to the assembled crowd, he yelled, “I hereby end this year’s Flower Dance!” The murmuring crowd didn’t move, until Lewis added, forcefully. “Everyone except Linus, go home!” Turning back to Archie, he told him to wait, and that they’d explain it all to him.

    Archie asked him to wait a minute while the townsfolk left and Linus walked over. Emily and Sandy were standing behind the picnic table, both looking a bit embarrassed. “In spite of the reaction, thank you both,” he told them. “Where can I catch up with you after I finish with them?”

    “Saloon’s closed for the rest of the day, so we’re going back to mine,” Emily told him. “You’re more than welcome.”

    “I’ll get changed and head over right afterward.”

    Sandy gave him a hug and a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks for making an outsider feel welcome. And don’t get changed, that outfit is simply adorable.”

    Archie, in his surprise at the sudden display of affection, blushed. “You got it,” There were a lot of its that she had in addition to his assent to keep wearing the kilt at that moment. “Be seeing you.”



    Emily and Sandy were the last of the townsfolk, and the most reluctant of them, to leave the Flower Dance. Neither was keen to leave Archie, Lewis, and to everyone’s surprise, Linus, alone to discuss exactly how Archie and Sandy, due to the string of miscommunications, had screwed up the festival and, apparently by extension, the town as a whole. They lingered by the entrance a short time, glancing back toward the picnic table, before making their way back toward Emily’s house.

    The three men sat at the picnic table at Lewis’ urging. The bit of intervening time gave Archie a chance to cool his jets, especially as he picked up on Lewis’ sincere worry. Something bigger did seem to have gone wrong at the Flower Dance, but he couldn’t imagine what. Haley being angry about the whole town talking about someone other than her was a given, but not enough to evoke the kind of reaction that had occurred. Archie resolved to at least hear his grandfather’s friends out. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back, rubbing the fine wool of his cap unwittingly while waiting.

    Lewis sighed deeply, and was the first to speak, while Linus, seated next to Archie, loomed more than anything. “Do you remember the Junimos?” he asked him.

    “The what?”

    “The Forest spirits,” Linus cut in and answered.

    Archie looked back and forth from Lewis to Linus. They seemed serious.

    “I might have read about them once or something…” Archie started, before being interrupted by Lewis.

    “It sounds superstitious, but there’s something to the stories of them looking after the forest and the town while things are in harmony between them. Every year, we have the Flower Dance the same way, to renew their blessing on the town.”

    “It does sound that way.” Archie said.

    “It went wrong the year your grandfather moved here too.” Lewis continued, unperturbed about Archie not being on board with the whole idea of forest spirits.

    Though Archie had only known his grandfather as a farmer, which was now a family occupation, Lachlan Finegan had, like his grandfather before him, who was the first of the family to move to the then Ferngill Kingdom, worked in construction. He mostly paved roads in Zuzu City, where the family settled after emigrating from the Emerald Isle. Being descended of a migrant minority in those less enlightened times, confrontation followed him wherever he went, and he would fight with his co-workers, with native Ferngillers haranguing him in the streets, and with his own parents. Strong from years of manual labour, and having developed his skill at boxing in his youth, he won the vast majority of those fights, but he and his parents eventually decided that neither the city nor construction work was for him. After some deliberation, they agreed that it would be best for Lachlan to go and work on his uncle’s farm in the Valley.

    The uncle was pleased at the idea, as his sons, who were freshly adults, had decided to become miners rather than continue working on the farm, given the mining boom times the town was having. Lachlan, however, wanted nothing more to do with irritants in the air and swinging a hammer or a pick. While his cousins saw Lachlan as a threat to their inheritance, Lachlan was so sincerely dismissive of the whole idea that his uncle would ever leave him the farm that they got on alright, at least in the early going.

    That year’s Flower Dance, Lachlan was introducing himself to the townsfolk, who were much more numerous at the time, when the younger of his cousins, Connor, arrived at the festival drunk past tipsy. Connor sought out his dance partner for the year, the same Evelyn who made this year’s flower arrangements, and insisted, forcefully, that they practice their dancing together. Evelyn was helping some of the other elder of the town with flower arrangements, and didn’t want to be pulled away, when Connor started dragging her toward the dance floor in spite of her protests to the contrary. It was a shocking scene, with the town stunned into inaction in their shock at the novice miner’s appalling behaviour, save for Lachlan, who planted himself right in their path.

    “You know that’s no way to treat a lady, cousin. Best to leave her be and collect yourself.”

    Both of Lachlan’s cousins were large, strong men, growing up with farm chores and labours, and recently adding mining to that list. They were notorious in the town for their drunkenness, their tempers, and their occasional violence, though Lachlan hadn’t seen the latter firsthand yet.

    Connor wouldn’t be deterred. His words slightly slurred, his violent intention to put both Evelyn and his cousin into their places was clear; “Best you leave us be, or you’ll be collecting your teeth!”

    Lachlan didn’t hesitate to wrench the arm Connor was gripping onto Evelyn with free of her, and to take the fight to his cousin. Lachlan was about as strong as Connor, but unlike him, he had an adolescence filled with fighting and learning pugilistic technique. Connor landed a few swings, staggering him, but Lachlan won the fight decisively, knocking his cousin out cold with a wicked uppercut.

    The town, and Lachlan’s more kindly uncle, had no idea what to do about the whole situation. One of the Flower Dancers would only wake up in the doctor’s clinic a while later. They couldn’t very well condemn Lachlan too much for what he did, but neither could they condone it, especially since the whole festival, which, then, as now, the older generation better knew the stakes of, was in jeopardy.

    A pall of ill fortune came over the town that year. Many of the farm’s crops withered before the summer harvest, and the mountain river flooded, both near its source and into the mines, slowing down the operations and putting the town’s economy into a pinch, and damaging the roads and some of the homes near its bank. It was a lean year for everyone – from the miners to the blacksmith to the farmers to the ranchers to the shopkeepers to the woodcutters and so on until Lachlan, learning about the Junimos from the friends he would make, Lewis and Linus, decided to go seek them out and make amends.

    The story got hazy from that point, because Lachlan never told Lewis or Linus exactly the same thing about what happened then. They each explained some of the things Archie’s grandfather had told them, some of them clearly contradictory to others. They were, however, able to piece together was that he had agreed to bring them a set of offerings, and to mend the community of the town, which struck them as a tall order since influencing others was by no means a guaranteed proposition.

    Archie was neither sold on the whole idea nor sure he liked the implication that he’d be about to be asked to do the same, but Linus changed the course of the conversation. “Lachlan said you saw them as a child. Do you remember that?”

    “No…” Archie started, before feeling the tug of something in his memory and stopping himself cold mid-thought.

    He was on the farm one summer as a small child, no more than four or five, before his grandfather had taken ill. He was playing with his sister in the orchard, the two of them chasing each other around trees and throwing acorns at each other until Maeve had gotten the idea that she wanted to knock an orange out of one of the trees. His grandfather was low-tech about his tree-fruit harvesting, either letting them fall to the ground, or deftly knocking the out of the trees with a two-by-four with a nail in it.

    Maeve had found the old board, and lined it up for a swipe at the orange without realizing the struggle she’d have holding the board in check. Unluckily for Archie, who was standing in decidedly the wrong place, when Maeve lost control of it, it clipped his head, leaving him woozy and with a couple of gashes, including one where the rusty nail had skidded through part of his scalp. Archie fell to the ground, wanting to cry but feeling so disoriented from the impact that it didn’t even occur to him to, while Maeve shrieked and went running off to get the doctor.

    Alone and in a daze Archie thought he was hearing strange birds in the orchard, making trilling combinations of honks and squawks and chirps, before opening his eyes to see what looked like an animate fruit with concerned eyes staring at him, hopping up and down near his head on spindly legs. Though it hurt him to do it, he turned his head toward the sounds to see several more of them surrounding him, making their high-pitched squonk noises. When Maeve, the doctor, and his grandfather arrived to the orchard, the little creatures were still there, and Archie asked if they saw them. Maeve shook her head, and the doctor fretted about Archie hallucinating from the impact before his grandfather simply told him, “they’re the Junimos.” The doctor, still fretting, also looked unimpressed at the old man humouring his grandson on that score as he disinfected the wound. The peroxide stung to high heaven, starting Archie properly crying. Against that backdrop of a pain on his head, he hardly noticed the tetanus shot that was to follow.

    Later his grandfather explained the Junimos to him but what they were, and their story, remained faded from his memory.

    “Wait. Yes, sort of,” he finally continued, explaining what little he recollected.

    “That’s exactly the story he told us.” Lewis said.

    “So he actually saw them too?” Archie asked.

    “Who knows? He could have been humouring you.” Lewis suggested.

    “I very much doubt that was the case,” Linus told Lewis. “He always said that one of his grandchildren had a soul for the Valley.” Turning to address Archie directly, he told him “I think you’re him and I suspected that that’s the reason why.”

    “That sounds a bit naïve to me,” Lewis replied gently, “but stranger things have happened than people saying they’ve seen Junimos.”

    “And if they look after our town, what does it matter if we see them or not?” Linus added.

    “Should I be worried that I haven’t seen them since?” Archie asked.

    Linus shrugged. “I don’t know, but what I think Lewis was driving at with the whole Flower Dance reaction is that you might be justified in being worried if you don’t see them soon.”

    Lewis nodded. “Meet me at my house at sunrise tomorrow, Archie. We’ll see if we can’t placate them after our disharmonious Flower Dance. And, for starters, I’m sorry for berating you.”

    Archie chose to forgo the handshake Lewis offered and pulled him in for a hug. “Apology accepted, and I you.”

    “I’m glad you’ve made some friends here, Archie, go run along and enjoy the rest of the festival day with them.”

    “Will do. Cheers, gents.” He offered in return, as he jogged off toward Emily’s. This was going to be a story, if he could figure out how he’d even begin to tell it.



    As Archie jogged back through the trees and back toward the riverbank, kilt flapping in the wind, he couldn’t help but feel the forest was judging him and found him wanting. He had felt that way about a lot of things in his recent past – the city, his family, his workplace, but he also knew he felt different this time. His determination to prove himself had grown less frantic during his few short weeks on the farm – he was getting to the point that he thought he’d be able to survive and thrive regardless of what life or spirits of the forest threw at him. Only the crush on Sandy that he was rapidly developing was leaving him feeling insecure and on edge, and after over a year without that kind of prospect, or the heightened emotional state that came with a new one, he found it almost welcome. The challenges of the Junimos, he thought he could take on, her, though; it was more unclear in his mind.

    He made quick time to Emily’s house and knocked sharply on the door in staccato bursts. TAP-TAP-TAP…tap tap. It was Haley who answered the door, clearly expecting someone else. “Hey Alex…” she started saying, cheerily, before the realization that it wasn’t Alex at the door dawned on her. Her sunny tone of voice turned icy very quickly. “Oh. It’s you. They’re in the living room.” She turned around in a huff and hurtled off down the hallway toward her room, slamming the door shut behind her before slowly opening it a few moments later so that she could hear Alex knocking at the front door.

    Archie wasn’t that immediately concerned about Haley. She’d get over it eventually, and as it was the fact that he barely had anything to do with her anyway suited both of them just fine. He kicked off his shoes and socks, and walked into the living room. It was actually the first time he’d been inside Emily and Haley (and their traveling parents’) house, which was charmingly decorated with tasteful colours and mementos of trips to various places that they all had taken. A boomerang from the Kangaroo Flats, a tribal mask from the Lion Savannah, a pair of bongos from Lightning Island, all tastefully adorned the walls, with smaller knick-knacks adorning the mantle and the tops of shelves. When next the parents returned Archie would have so many questions to ask about the wider world, which was easy to forget existed in the small, remote, and insular community.

    Thinking about Pelican Town’s isolation and size made him feel all the luckier about the coincidence of Sandy’s arrival and the good fortune of Emily’s plan (it didn’t seem to him like she had that for an initial plan at all) going to plan (if there ever was a plan to begin with). Emily and Sandy were sitting close together on the middle of the couch, looking at a propped-up fashion magazine on the coffee table, when Archie walked into the room and sat down on the sofa opposite.

    “Can you make that for me?” Sandy asked her.

    “I think so. It looks tricky, but not beyond me.”

    “Oh thank goodness. I would hate to have to go looking in a Zuzu City department store.”

    Archie was curious. “What are you looking to have made?” He asked her.

    Sandy looked up over the top of the magazine. “Always full of questions,” she joked. “Emily’s going to make me a bridesmaid’s dress. Thank goodness the bride-to-be, a darling old friend of mine in Zuzu City, decided on a colour I’d want to wear again someday.”

    Emily interrupted her with good-natured laughter. “Good, I’d hate to make you something you’d only wear once.”

    They all shared a laugh. Archie opted against asking what colour the dress was for now. As much as Sandy seemed to enjoy answering his questions as much as she did gently chiding him for asking them, he figured that he would have ample opportunity to find out as they hung out and as the day went on.

    There was another knock on the front door, and Haley emerged from her room, casting a withering glare at the living room as she passed, before resuming her all-smiles sunny disposition. “Hey Alex!” She greeted him with carefully stage-managed cheerfulness. Archie hated to admit it, but he was actually somewhat impressed at her acting as the two of them entered the living room as though nothing was ever amiss. In fact, Archie wondered why Emily and Sandy had elicited her wrath as well as himself; and whether it was rational or not.

    Alex seemed to have cottoned on to the fact that something was amiss even if he wasn’t sure what, but he powered through his unease enough to remember his manners. “Hi Emily, Archie…” he scratched his head, “visitor,” he extended a greeting to Sandy after finally picking a word.

    “It’s Sandy, pleased to meet you. You danced well, by the way, helped Haley look like a proper Flower Queen,” she told him, which surprised Archie a little because he hadn’t particularly noticed Sandy paying any attention to the dance floor while they were dancing.

    “Thanks,” he answered, a bit hesitantly.

    Archie and Haley read Sandy’s comment in two very different ways. Archie thought she was being disingenuous, but to try to defuse Haley’s evident prior anger. The fact that Haley was the Flower Queen was probably something Emily would have told Sandy in advance. It was common knowledge in the town well in advance, Archie just didn’t care enough at the time to take much notice of that fact. Haley thought Sandy was making a mockery of her, especially given the way Sandy had played a part in upstaging the Flower Dance proper. Partially regretting his good manners for a moment, Alex winced in anticipation of what was to come.

    “HMPH!” Haley huffed, turning around and staring angrily at Sandy, who glanced over in her direction. “Not enough that you ruined the event? You have to patronize me too?”

    While Archie wanted to immediately jump to Sandy’s defense, he had somewhat exhausted his ill temper when he unloaded on Lewis earlier in the day, and regarded Haley’s outburst with more amusement than anger of his own.

    Sandy, for her part, didn’t take the bait. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, “though if they didn’t want others to dance, they could have put a sign up.”

    “Or told us more about it,” Archie added, which Emily looked less than thrilled about since she was his main source of information about the Flower Dance in the first place.

    “Just a set of unfortunate misunderstandings,” Sandy concluded.

    All the while, Haley was growing more and more agitated, and since Archie and Sandy weren’t giving her the reaction she wanted, she turned to another more familiar target in her sister. “Misunderstandings that could all have been avoided if you showed any consideration!”

    Emily, in spite of knowing Haley the best of all the assembled company, was as dumbstruck as the rest of the room was, while Haley continued her rant; “You could have told either of them that everyone watches the main dance! You could have never invited her to begin with!”

    Emily started to shake, though it wasn’t clear which emotion out of numerous possible candidates was the cause.

    “And that’s not to mention the shabby-looking crap you gave us to wear! What were you even thinking?” Haley added with outright and evident malice.

    Alex was the first person to react, gently taking Haley by the arm and trying to usher her away. Haley looked like she had more to scream at her sister, but calmed down a little bit and went with Alex toward her room. That gave Emily a bit of time to gather herself, though she was still shaking, and breathing heavily.

    “Let’s go walking,” Archie suggested. Haley and Emily would both have an easier time calming down away from each other, if the family dynamic was anything like Archie’s arguments with his own sister. And, to kill two birds with one stone, he also wanted to show them the farm, since neither of them had been. Emily and Sandy agreed, and while Emily still looked distraught, hopefully the air, the walk, and the distance from Haley would all do her some good. They walked past Sam’s house, where he was tooling around with his skateboard. Sam waved at the three of them, but was gently rebuffed by Archie telling him that it wasn’t a good time, so he wished them well and let them walk on. It was after they had walked on past Leah’s cottage and Marnie’s ranch and on the forest path leading up to the south of the farm that Emily let out the sigh she had been bottling in and started to cry gently. They stopped walking.

    “I’m sorry, guys,” Emily said in between tiny sobs. “She gets to me sometimes.”

    Archie and Sandy approached to hug her, creating a pause in Emily’s train of thought. “There, there, darling,” Sandy told her.

    “She knows very well how to get to me,” she added.

    “Siblings tend to.” Archie said, empathetically, adding, “And for what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s anything to blame you for.”

    Sandy looked at him curiously, but didn’t say anything, while Emily thanked him. They kept walking in silence and soon arrived at the pond by the southern entrance to the farm, which was still largely overgrown, though Archie maintained a path from the entrances up to the fields and the farmhouse.

    “Welcome,” he told them.

    Sandy looked around at the farm in all directions, a bit dumbfounded. “It’s so overgrown!”

    Archie laughed. “You should have seen it when I arrived – it was tragic! Now I’ve got proper little fields instead of a balcony herb garden. By the fall, it should mostly be usable land!”

    Emily cupped her hands together and dipped them into the pond, washing her face with it, and looking a bit refreshed for it, along with having the tears being indistinguishable from the other water.

    “The house is just over there, we can hang out there for a bit,” Archie told the two women. “But Emily, are you OK?”

    “Better now, thanks,” she replied, and it seemed sincere given that she was starting to smile again. “I know she was lashing out and that I shouldn’t take it personally, but blaming the whole thing on me and attacking my passion projects was over the top.”

    Sandy, relieved to see her friend in better spirits, said as much; “I’m glad to hear it, Emily, and Archie?”

    “Yes?” he answered.

    “You put it a very strange way when you said Emily wasn’t to blame.”

    “You’re right,” Archie answered, “though that’s not what I said at all.”

    The two women looked at him with a bit of confusion. He continued; “I’ll explain, though this is going to sound a bit strange.” He retold his conversation with Lewis and Linus, about the Flower Dance and the way it was supposed to show the town’s sense of community, and the superstition attached to it, with the Junimos and their blessings and lessons.

    “So, Emily, maybe you are responsible for some small part of the festival going how it did. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame you for any of that. If it’s all about community, you did the most to extend the community. You invited Sandy, and looked after me, and poured however much work into those dresses, which looked great on them. And it made the town’s divisions more apparent so maybe we can fix them. So I’d sooner thank you and that’s what I meant.”

    Sandy and Emily exchanged an inscrutable look.

    “That’s nice of you, Archie, if maybe a bit naively optimistic,” Emily responded.

    “Well, aside from enjoying both of your company, that’s what’s stopping me from running back to your house and verbally obliterating your sister,” he said, gesturing toward the farmhouse. “She’s got a lot to learn, and one day she will. But it’s not today and maybe it’s not me she’ll learn it from.”

    Sandy and Emily assented, and the three of them headed up toward the house. Archie pulled out his grandfather’s old wooden dining chairs and they sat on his patio, talking about whatever interested them at the moment; fashion design, style, the desert and the town, dancing, the Junimos and speculation about what Archie and Lewis would be doing the next day, more about themselves and their attitudes toward things, and so on. At a certain point Archie went to use the washroom, as much out of needing to as wanting to give Emily and Sandy a few minutes without him. He returned with his fiddle case and, after securing their permission, started playing some of the songs he remembered, reels and jigs, Emeralder ballads, more popular music he’d taken the time to learn, whatever struck his fancy. Having hardly touched the fiddle in some time, it was rusty, but as a backdrop to the continuing conversation, it was pleasant enough for the three of them.

    Eventually, the late afternoon rolled around and Sandy decided she’d be best off driving back to the desert before it got dark. Archie volunteered to walk her back to her car, and Emily gave her friend a hug and they said their see-you-arounds before Emily headed back toward her house via the southern path. Feeling the extent of his crush on her, Archie was fairly quiet as he walked Sandy off toward the bus stop, where she had parked her car, until they arrived at the bus stop and he remembered something specific.

    “Hey, weren’t you planning to leave with a trunk full of valley flowers?” he asked.

    Sandy nodded. “Not the whole trunk, but I didn’t have the opportunity to buy any after all the commotion,” she said, sounding a bit disappointed about that fact.

    “Wait here a minute,” Archie said, briskly walking along the side of the wooden fence that bounded the road near the bus stop. He’d often seen daffodils growing there, and he hoped that Evelyn left some of them alone in the course of her picking a massive amount of the wildflowers for the festival. He found one in the lengthening shadow of one of the fence posts, a little on the smaller side but suitable to his purposes, as he gingerly squatted down to pick it, before walking back toward Sandy.

    Extending his hand to offer her the daffodil, he told her, his voice lightly fluttering like the flower’s petals in the spring breeze, “After the great time I had with you today, I couldn’t have you leave the Flower Dance without at least one.”

    Sandy’s reaction was expressive, to say the least. All at once, her eyes seemed to light up and the blush rushed to her face to match Archie’s as she took the hand holding the flower and pulled him into a close hug. The next moment was enough of a blur that they were very suddenly kissing without him having any idea who instigated it, not that either of them was complaining. A few minutes later they pulled apart, Sandy gently plucking the daffodil out of Archie’s hand, each looking more than a bit surprised at what had just happened and how.

    “Ask Emily for my phone number, and come visit the desert any time you’re able to leave the farm,” she told him.

    “I’ll be happy to, and you’re welcome here when you have the time to get away,” he replied.

    “Wonderful.”

    Inwardly, Archie agreed with her as he watched her climb into her hatchback, and drive off waving at him. No sooner that the car was out of eyeshot that he broke into an idiot’s grin and walked home with a spring in his step he had found quite lacking for some time. After a very rough start, his first Flower Dance in the Valley had reached a very satisfying end.


    That night, Archie struggled to sleep, and slept uneasily when he finally did, for two reasons: the first and foremost in his mind was the uncertainty and excitement around Sandy and what the future might hold. They had each made a strong and positive impression on each other, which Archie found exciting. Ever analytic, and to excess at that, he gave his mind free roam to wander onto possibilities realistic and unrealistic alike, and the way he was unintentionally carving out his place in the town and its local culture. The second was the morning’s Junimo-hunt with Lewis and what that might mean for him. That was both less and more of a concern for him than Sandy was. With the distance between Pelican Town and the Calico desert, and their respective careers, Archie didn’t expect to see Sandy every day, or even every week. The way Lewis seemed to put it, though, the Junimos would have impact on his life every day, at least for the remainder of the year, and summer hadn’t even started yet. Just when he became convinced he wouldn’t be able to sleep, he fell into restful slumber, and he awoke to Marnie’s rooster crowing more refreshed than he thought he had any right to be at dawn, considering how late he actually nodded off. He took that as a good sign.

    He also took it as a good sign when the shower didn’t start off vacillating between extremes of scalding and frigid water thanks to his grandfather’s old water heater for the first time since he had moved in, and his breakfast of French toast, though not a good sign, was tasty enough. He walked the path into town that led past the bus stop, looking wistfully at the fencepost he plucked the daffodil out from under the evening before. The pastel pinks and orange hues of dawn were different to the copper glow of sunsets, and while Archie was awake at dawn, he was never in the forest early enough in the morning to appreciate the natural splendour they brought. He made a note to tell Leah that she’d do well to get up earlier to capture those on canvas if she hadn’t already.

    The centre of town, which looked magical with the dew and coloration of the morning light, was still asleep. Down on the beach Willy started some early morning fishing before his shop would open, but otherwise, only Archie, making his way toward Lewis’ house, and Lewis himself, were awake.

    Archie made his way up to the mayor’s house, which was significantly larger than his farmhouse, though not significantly more modern, from the outside. He knocked, and Lewis answered a short time later, with a thermos-bottle of coffee in hand. “Take this,” Lewis told him, “it’s not as good as what Gus makes, but we might need the pick-me-up later.”

    Archie hooked the handle of the mug topper around his index finger. “Makes sense to me, though, for this hour, I’m more energized than usual.”

    “Slept well?” the mayor asked.

    “Not what I’d call long enough, but yeah, I did.” Archie replied.

    Lewis nodded. “Same.”

    They exchanged pleasantries about the way the rest of the day of the Flower Dance went, until they left Lewis’ property, Archie mentioning the argument between Haley and Emily and some segment of his conversation with Sandy, with Lewis bringing up a more extensive conversation about the Junimos with Linus and another conversation about the Flower Dance the year Archie’s grandfather had arrived, with Evelyn. Lewis led them along the path northward from his house, along the river and into the mountains.

    “I thought the Junimos were forest spirits,” Archie said aloud.

    “They are.” Lewis told him.

    “So shouldn’t we be looking for them to the West, in the forest?” he asked.

    “That’s very perceptive of you, and you’d be right except for one thing.”

    “And that is?”

    “You’ll see,” the mayor told him.

    They walked up into the town’s playground and then over toward the dilapidated community centre. The building was falling apart, and it looked like nature was reclaiming it for its own after decades of neglect. Lewis unlocked the door and ushered Archie inside.

    The floorboards were rotting and the sub-floor was cracked by tangle and roots pushing through, leaving traces of the mossy earth below visible. The drywall was anything but, and was crumbling. The entrance hall, in stark contrast to the world just outside the door, smelled strongly of loam. It was like no building Archie had ever been in, but from the traces of what was left, Archie began to make out the purpose of some of the rooms. “What happened to this place?” he asked Lewis.

    “Time did,” Lewis told him. “The community centre was built a long time ago. My grandfather was the mayor then. The neglect’s more recent. When the mines closed, and people left, we couldn’t afford to keep it operating, of even to maintain it. Your generation didn’t get to experience it, though I wonder if they would have or if it’d all be videogames and solitary pursuits anyway.”

    Archie walked along one of the walls surveying the room, taking it all in, including an odd pile of debris that vaguely resembled a tent that he nearly tripped over. “It’s hard to say. I don’t know if a space like this would change our habits or open us up to each other more. We seem pretty established in our interests and who our friends are, and once the shine of me being new and novel wears off, I’ll probably slot into a niche like that too.”

    “That makes me a bit sad,” Lewis replied. “When the town was bigger, having those little groups felt less isolating than it does today... and don’t look at me like that, I’ve seen a lot of friends leave this town.” Archie was definitely looking at him like that, and tried to stop with modest success at best.

    Archie explored the building while Lewis waited in the entrance hall. The pantry and kitchen weren’t faring any better than the rest of the building with their collapsed shelves and rusting appliances. The art room resembled paint wildly thrown at a room, and the office looked like it had been ransacked. A vault with a dangling door occupied most of the basement along with a rusted out furnace. Archie climbed back up to the entrance hall.

    “What would Pelican Town have to store in that vault?” He asked Lewis, figuring the mayor might have had some idea.

    Lewis nodded with amusement. “Oh, just documents and mining royalties, it’s a lot less exciting to think about when you realize there was never a bank here and there hasn’t been a lawyer in decades.”

    “Sounds like paradise,” Archie half-joked, getting a guffaw out of Lewis when he heard a skittering sound coming from the area near the debris structure. “Did you hear that?”

    “Nothing,” Lewis answered. “One of the Junimos, I’d wager, I haven’t noticed a trace of them since I became the mayor, and I doubt I will again.”

    “You used to see them too?” Archie asked, with some incredulity.

    “Oh, yes, and Linus too. That’s what brought us and your grandfather together. He hasn’t seen them since he came back to Pelican Town to live wild either. We older folk just have vague memories to help you go by, I’m afraid.” Archie was still trying to take that in when he heard the noise again and turned around sharply. Still nothing.

    Lewis continued after a pause, his reminiscence giving way to practicalities. “I’ll explain it later, but I think this will answer your earlier question about why we came here and not the forest. Stick around a while, and I’ll see you at the saloon later. Friday night, after all.” He turned and left the building.

    It hadn’t occurred to Archie that it was Friday. Usually he’d consider that when watching the TV before going about his farm chores, all of which he delayed that morning. He supposed he would see Lewis later, though he would have appreciated it if he had stayed inside the building long enough for him to say goodbye. He took a seat by the debris structure and he waited.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    He thought he’d be getting hungrier or thirsty by now, and he wasn’t. He waited some more.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    And nothing.

    He stood up and took a step toward the door, and was interrupted with a torrent of squonk noises coming from behind him.

    He turned around and didn’t see anything, and then he remembered how small the Junimos were. He looked down, and still saw no Junimos, nothing but the rotting floorboard and a sheet of birch bark outside the debris structure with seemingly unintelligible sigils on it. He bent down to pick it up to a renewed chorus of Junimo noises coming from all around him at maddeningly close proximity, but he still couldn’t see them. He looked at it, turning it over and around before figuring out that one of the signs meant “THIS SIDE UP”. That was as far as he got with it, and after looking it over for about another ten minutes, and trying looking at it like a magic eye puzzle only to find that there wasn’t a picture of a sailboat ready to jump out of the birch bark scroll, he carefully rolled it up and tucked it in his inside jacket pocket.

    “I have absolutely no idea,” he said, to no one in particular. The Junimos squawked and honked and squonked at him with what he took to be encouragement as he left shaking his head with incredulity about the whole situation, disappointed about not seeing the Junimos themselves. It was already late into the afternoon, and a gentle rain began to fall, to Archie’s relief, since at least he wouldn’t have to water his crops. He legged it over toward the library, which Gunther, the librarian, was about to lock up.

    “Hi, farmer Archie,” Gunther greeted him. “I have to ask you to make any browsing you want to do very fast, I’d like to beat the traffic on the way home tonight; my daughter has a recital.”

    “Point me to local folklore and I’ll be out of your hair in a right hurry,” Archie replied, “I wondered why you weren’t at the festivals, now that I think of it.”

    “I would go, but the extra days off are rare enough that I try to spend them with my family. My daughter would probably love the festivals; my wife would need persuading to come out here.”

    “What’s the next one?” Archie asked.

    “Luau, I think. Beach party and a barbeque. That would take me back to my youth.”

    “Maybe you should get started on the persuading early, now, folklore books.”

    Gunther led him into the library and to a tall set of shelves. “Second shelf from the top, left side,” he explained, before cutting himself off suddenly, “hmm… one of the books is missing, and I’d have remembered checking it out. I hope the other ones will do.”

    Archie glanced at the titles, picking one off the shelf, and then pointed at one unmarked leather-bound book. “What’s that one?”

    Gunther glanced at the book. “That’s an interesting story. Around fourty-five years ago, an anthropologist was doing research on the local culture of mining towns. He settled here for a while and took these field notes, but he disappeared in mysterious circumstances before he could publish them. My predecessor found the book and kept it here.”

    “May I borrow it?”

    Gunther sighed. “To be honest with you, it should be on a reference shelf rather than in circulation, and I should scan it into a digital format. How about I send you the digital copy tomorrow and save you the trip?”

    “That suits. I’ll check this one out, thanks.”

    Gunther looked at the book, and then Archie curiously, “Yoba and other Ferngill Spirits. That’s an interesting choice; I didn’t take you for a religious man.”

    “I’m not, though I might become spiritual in the very near future,” Archie replied. Gunther found that enigmatic. “Thanks for your time, enjoy your evening, and remember, for the Luau, persuade!”

    He laughed. “I’ll see what I can do. Happy reading, Archie.”

    Archie jogged headed back home across the square as Clint was leaving the blacksmith’s shop to head toward the saloon, cementing for Archie that it was even later than he thought it was. He was never in the habit of jogging, but it took him longer than usual to get winded, a sign his physical health was improving already. Once there, he carefully unrolled the birch bark scroll and put it inside the front cover of the book, which he stowed under one of his pillows as he went to shower before joining his friends at the saloon, still unsure of how he’d explain this whole business.

    He walked briskly toward the Stardrop Saloon, the damp ground giving slightly under his boots as he propelled himself forward comfortably, like walking on a cushion of air. In fact, he thought that a number of things were more comfortable than they ought to be given the early rise, relatively light breakfast, and skipping lunch. Ordinarily, he’d be ravenous, but tonight he was pleasantly eager. Pushing open the double doors, he saw the usual Friday night crowd assembled, plus Maru this week.

    All eyes in the room turned to see who walked in, an artefact of everyone knowing everyone. What Archie tried to observe was who let their gazes turn into stares as they lingered on him a little bit longer than propriety dictated. He noticed Pierre, Leah and Emily doing it, but it was too fast for him to tell much more. He walked a bee-line straight to a back table where Lewis, Willy, Clint, and Marnie were having a conversation over food and beer.

    “Excuse me everyone, hope you’re well, Lewis, may I have a few words with you, please?”

    The rest of the table exchanged slightly curious glances as Lewis rose from the table and walked with Archie over toward the jukebox, which was loud, but about the only notably empty space in the saloon.

    “How was your day?” Lewis asked him.

    “Very strange,” Archie said. “The Junimos left me a scroll but I can’t figure out what it means.”

    “That’s a new one on me,” Lewis said. “I’d only seen them once, and they weren’t writing at the time.”

    “Got any suggestions?”

    “Linus might have an idea; or even the Wizard…”

    As if the Junimos weren’t enough, Archie’s world-view stretched at the limit. “There’s a wizard?”

    “Have you ever walked west through the forest near your farm?” Lewis replied, “He lives in the tower there.”

    “I must not have, I never saw a tower,” Archie scratched his now aching head.

    “Abigail sometimes spends time there on the weekends, she’s in the arcade, feel free to ask her. Is there anything else?”

    “No. Should I tell you what it says once I figure that out?”

    Lewis shook his head. “If you think it’s important. We’re all involved, but you’re the one they’re dealing with for a reason.”

    Archie shrugged and thanked Lewis, letting him return to his conversation with the older adult crowd, while inwardly being mildly annoyed about how he had to play supernatural errand boy for the town. Rather than let that get compounded by his hunger, he made his way to the bar to place an order for food, and another blessed pale ale, with Emily, who, for all her staring at Archie’s entrance, was far from hiding her intentions when he got there.

    “How was the rest of your evening yesterday?” She asked, smiling widely.

    Archie smiled in turn. “Actually really pleasant, thanks for asking, and causing it. Heard from Sandy since?”

    She shook her head. “Not yet.”

    “She said to ask you for her phone number, but if you want to hear that from her before giving it to me, that’s fine.”

    “I’ll text her when things quiet down a bit. Gus doesn’t like me using the phone on the job, but this is urgent,” she joked. “I didn’t think you’d hit it off that well.”

    “It’s funny, I hardly know the first thing about her, but a lot of what I did learn, I liked. I can see why the two of you are good friends.”

    “And?” Emily added, grinning mischievously.

    “And she’s as hot as glowing coals.” Archie replied, feigning exasperation.

    Emily laughed, bordering on cackling. “I’ll try to get the ok to give you her number before the end of the night. Want anything?”

    Archie thought about it briefly “One of the night’s specials, a pale ale, and to see if things are stabilizing between you and Haley.”

    Emily shook her head as she started pulling the pint of beer. “Not yet, it’ll be a few days before she cools off about the Flower Dance, it’s pretty much the highlight of her year. We’ll get there. I’ll bring your food over to you when it’s ready.”

    Archie took the glass and thanked her before checking in with Leah, who seemed less outright terrified and more embarrassed than she did the previous day. Leah asked how he was and he answered that he was doing very well, which relaxed her a bit.

    “I was worried you took yesterday personally,” she told him.

    Archie thought about it for a few moments. “It was less you saying no and more how scared you looked when I asked that bothered me.”

    Leah sighed deeply. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I’ve been trying to work out a lot of stuff lately, but especially relationships and what I want out of them and such. You poked at a raw nerve, that’s all; it’s not your fault. I didn’t really have a chance to explain.”

    Archie looked at her with some concern. “Any success with that?”

    “Hard to say,” she said, shrugging. “It’s a lot of coming to terms with a very poor history, and who knows what’ll stick.”

    “I wish you the best,” he offered, nodding sympathetically, if gravely.

    “What about you?”

    “What about me?”

    “Your Flower Dance seemed pretty fraught. I didn’t expect you and Lewis to blow up at each other like that,” she told him straightforwardly.

    Then it was Archie’s turn to sigh. “He was able to calm me down when he explained his side of it to me, but I didn’t appreciate the whole event making me and Sandy feel like outsiders. If I had a say in it, I’d do things differently next year.”

    Leah nodded, with the same expression of embarrassment. She also felt a tinge of guilt. “I felt really badly about that, actually. I’m glad you stood up for her, and yourself. Maybe we will start doing things a bit differently.”

    “It’d be nice,” Archie mused. “How did you enjoy it? I know the blow-ups are the talk of the town, but that notwithstanding it seemed pretty nice.”

    “It was pretty enjoyable catching up with Elliott; he was as gentlemanly as usual and is a surprisingly good dancer.”

    “That’s good,” Archie said, with a bit of unease.

    “And Sandy?” Leah asked, somewhat excitedly, “what was it like dancing with her, and who is she?”

    Archie explained what little he knew, that she was Emily’s friend, that she lived in the desert, and that she was hard to lead but fun to dance and to talk with. Leah said she thought that was nice. He extended another invitation to join the misfits in the arcade and was about to get up when Emily arrived with his plate of baked fish and a gleaming smile to match the mischief in her eyes.

    She deposited the plate on the table along with the bundled up napkin and cutlery, and then set another napkin with something scribbled on it on the other side of the plate before turning on her heel, addressing Archie before walking back to the bar: “One nightly special, and one hot redhead’s phone number. Don’t say I don’t look after you, Archie!” He practically blushed crimson at Emily parading that one publically, but he couldn't disagree that she was looking after him, in her way.

    Leah was a mixture of shock and bemusement as Archie stammered out a “thank you” and pocketed the napkin. He sipped his beer and started eating, and he noticed that Leah had already finished her salad early into the evening this time.

    “You ate better this week,” he said.

    “Yeah!” Leah agreed, “It was a bit less stressful.”

    “I’m glad.”

    They talked about art and their respective weeks, though Archie omitted the day’s Junimo business. He finished his beer and his meal and dropped the plate, the cutlery, and the mug off on the counter, thanking Emily again while shaking his head as she laughed heartily. He had a similar, if briefer, conversation with Maru about the Flower Dance and their respective weeks, and she reminded him that his blood test appointment was coming up soon.

    Pierre scowled at him as he entered the arcade. Archie jauntily waved back. Eventually Archie thought that Pierre would be less petty about everything, especially since he wasn’t interested in chasing his daughter at present, which was true for all of one day. But until then, Archie would take the high ground.

    The arcade was a familiar but slightly different scene. Rather than bashing her head against the brick wall that was Journey of the Prairie King, Abigail was sitting quietly on the sofa drawing something in a sketchbook, while Sebastian and Sam played pool. Archie gave the trio what had become by now the usual greeting of “hey, misfits!” and the subdued energy of the three of them sprung to life. Sebastian smiled a little bit. Abigail hopped up out of her seat and walked toward him, while Sam turned away from the pool table and held his arms out as if to offer a hug, still holding his pool cue in his left hand. “Welcome, Pelican Town’s Worst Flower Dancer, Destroyer of Festivals!”

    Archie’s laughter boomed throughout the room and spilled out into the main hall of the saloon as he walked over to the pool table and leaned against one of the corners. “I contend that I did just fine as a dancer, it was the flower dancing part that got me.”

    “Your mystery partner seemed to enjoy it,” Sam continued, egging him on.

    “That’s because she did,” Archie deadpanned, “though the flower dancing part also got her, so we had that in common.”

    “Who was she?” Abigail asked with intense curiosity.

    “Her name is Sandy, she’s a friend of Emily’s who lives in the desert on the outskirts of Cactus Town,” Archie told them.

    “I’ve ridden through Cactus Town on the way to Zuzu City,” Sebastian said. “The desert’s nice at night, but I find it unbearable during the day. Have you been?”

    Archie shook his head. “We passed through a different part of the desert when I bussed in from Gallibrand, but I haven’t been up to that part of it. I might look to visit if I can figure out buses and whatnot.”

    “That’d be almost as much of a pain as Sam,” Abigail added. “That broken down bus by the bus stop used to run the route from Zuzu City to Hub Town, stopping at Cactus Town, the eastern Calico Desert, and here. It was running at a loss so the company discontinued the route through here and runs it express from Hub Town now.”

    Sam looked visibly agitated, but more about the bus than Abigail’s disparaging comment, as he chimed in, evidently angry. “Yeah, and what’s worst about it isn’t the lack of convenience. Pam drove that bus, and after she lost her livelihood she’s taking Penny’s down with her.”

    Sebastian walked around the table and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Don’t make loud enough of a scene for her to hear you. You know how she’ll take it and what she’ll do,” he told his friend quietly. Sam nodded gravely, and Archie began to understand more about the way the people of the town’s lives, and their suffering, were open secrets.

    “What happened with Penny?” Archie asked, but Sebastian cut him off.

    “Ask her sometime,” he told him bluntly, “it’s her story to tell or not.”

    Archie nodded. It was a bit strange to him, but fair enough, he thought. It took a few minutes for Sam to return to his joviality, and when he did he ribbed Archie about how Archie ruining the Flower Dance meant that Lewis would leave him alone for a change, or about his new girlllllfriennnnd.

    Sebastian was fairly quiet for a good chunk of the night, but seemed to be enjoying himself until Maru headed into the arcade and walked straight up to Sebastian to tell him something that Archie couldn’t hear, at which point, looking mildly annoyed, Sebastian said his goodbyes for the evening. Sam looked a little lost and headed over to play some Journey of the Prairie King, leaving Archie with the sketching Abigail.

    “I have a couple of questions for you,” Archie asked.

    “Sure,” Abigail said, with a shrug.

    “What’re you drawing?”

    She tilted the sketchbook toward him and the page showed a cartoon comic of Sebastian and Sam arguing about something. It was nothing stellar, but the two of them were definitely recognizable.

    “Neat,” he concluded. “Second question, Lewis mentioned a Wizard who lives on my side of town, and said you might be able to direct me there.”

    Abigail seemed to light up at the prospect. “You’re not after a love potion, are you?”

    Archie shook his head, blushing profusely. “No, come off it, after all I had to hear about that from Sam…”

    “I didn’t think you were interested in the occult and all that as well,” she said.

    “I’m not,” Archie said, and Abigail’s smile began to droop, “or, at least, I wasn’t,” he continued, covering up his previous statement. “But after chewing me out for ruining the Flower Dance, Lewis made mention of the superstitions surrounding it and why he thought it was such bad news for the town.”

    From the arcade cabinet, Sam’s voice resounded throughout the arcade, “WOOOOO! Level 2!”

    Abigail glared at him briefly as he kept playing, the turned back to face Archie expectantly.

    “Junimos and stuff, surely you know this better than I do after living here all this time?” He said.

    Abigail shook her head. “Not really, no. Mom and Dad never mentioned it to me. Alright, I’ll tell you what, I’ll take you to the Wizard tomorrow afternoon, and introduce you, but I get to listen in, deal?”

    Archie considered it for a short time. “You get to hear us discuss the Junimos, the Flower Dance, and the aftermath. Any family business, you don’t. Anything else, we decide as we go. Are you on board?”

    Abigail had a giddier smile than when they were discussing the urban goth clubs. “Agreed! Meet me in front of the store at 2 and we’ll go.”

    They shook hands on it and parted ways for the night, saying goodbye to Sam, who was still crushing the Journey of the Prairie King under his gaming prowess, on their respective ways out. After they left and Sam finished his game, he quickly texted Sebastian to let him know to be in front of the general store at 1:55 the next day, because there was finally going to be some excitement in this town.



    The next morning, a misty one that gave way to the sun, Archie powered through his farm chores, feeling invigorated without any particular reason for it. He put it down to the fact that he was taking clear-cut steps toward getting his life in order, even if those involved Junimo scrolls and wizards. He was also somewhat excited to spend some time with Abigail, since they hadn’t really spent any one-on-one time since his second day in town. After showering, and briefly calling Sandy – leaving her a message to let her know that he had gotten her phone number after all, and to tentatively arrange to meet up the following weekend, Archie grabbed up the copy of Yoba and other Ferngill Spirits he had taken out from the library and sat down at the kitchen table to read it while his lunch was warming up on the ancient stovetop. He leafed past the birch bark scroll to where the blank page before the table of contents would be only to find that it wasn’t blank.

    “We are the Junimos.” Archie read with excitement and trepidation. There was more text below it, but he anxiously flipped to the next page, and started reading: “We are the Junimos.” They were the Junimos, and he was very confused. He kept reading.

    “You are the son of the daughter.” Archie found that odd too – he was, no doubt, his maternal grandfather’s grandson, but something pointed to his grandfather being of particular importance, beyond Lewis’ story of him seeking the Junimos out all those years ago.

    ”We have seen you, you have seen us.” “But will I again,” Archie thought.

    “We are Keepers of the Forest. The Town is in the Forest. The People are in the Town.” That, at least, was reassuring.

    “The People left the Town. The Town grew bitter. The Town grew small. The Junimos Kept the Forest. The Junimos helped the People. The People learned Community. The People learned Harmony. The Junimos were happy. The Junimos Big Helped the People. The People forgot Community. The People forgot Harmony. The Junimos Kept the Forest. The Junimos helped the People.” Archie couldn’t tell whether the Junimos’ version of the recent history of the town saw them vary the help they gave the humans of Pelican Town, but he could only imagine so.

    “Son of the Daughter, help the People remember Community. Help the People remember Harmony. The Junimos will Big Help the People when they remember.”

    Archie grabbed a notebook and a pen, with the idea of jotting down some ideas as to how he would actually do that. He stared at the notebook, lost in thought as his lunch overcooked slightly. No ideas came. He ate his lunch, straining to think of something – still no ideas came.

    After eating a fitful lunch, he bounded off toward the general store at around 10 : 00. The town square was busier than usual that Sunday afternoon. Leah, Sam, and Sebastian were standing by the saloon, having a conversation, with Sebastian leaning up against the wall and having a smoke. Maru and Penny were reading books in the main square. All of them waved back politely when Archie got their attention on his way to the store.

    As usual, Pierre was behind the counter and Abigail was stocking shelves, though this time there was the sound of loud dance music coming from the hall adjoining the store. Archie greeted Pierre with as much politeness as he could muster, the shopkeeper’s passive-aggression beginning to rather tick him off. Pierre, though aggravated at Archie in general, greeted him coolly but politely himself, and his attitude seemed to soften a bit after Archie’s large seed purchase, as well as a muffin and a ham and cheese sandwich for the road.

    “I didn’t think either of you cared for this kind of music,” Archie said.

    “Give me an opera over it any day,” Pierre replied, “the women do dance aerobics classes in the function hall on Sunday afternoons. Physical fitness is important.”

    Abigail snorted a bit derisively at that but otherwise said nothing while Pierre glared at her. Looking to defuse the tension a bit, Archie told Pierre he wanted to make an appointment with him to discuss optimizing his crop proportions for the coming summer. Looking a bit relieved that Archie was taking the whole business of agriculture seriously, as well as the prospect of making more money than in the previous seasons off of him, he readily agreed to meet him the following week. But then, Archie managed to annoy Pierre again very easily.

    “So, are you about ready for our appointment?” He asked Abigail.

    She nodded eagerly. “I just have to stack some rhubarb and put some oil and vinegar on the shelves. Should be just a few minutes.”

    Abigail disappeared into the stockroom leaving Archie and Pierre alone.

    “Is this a date?” Pierre asked him.

    Archie shook his head. “She agreed to introduce me to one of the people I still haven’t met yet. I’ll be walking there with her alone, but it’s no date.”

    “Who’s that?”

    “Lewis told me about a so-called wizard…”

    Pierre tensed up, reddening with aggravation. He pinched the bridge of his nose, as though beset upon with a sudden headache. “Of course. I try to get Abigail to stay away from him and she just won’t listen. And now you’re dragging her over there.”

    Archie shrugged. He knew very well that he wasn’t dragging Abigail into anything, but he also thought that letting Pierre know that she eagerly volunteered may not be helpful either, so he deflected the responsibility onto a third-party. “I didn’t even know about him until yesterday. Lewis thought I should speak with him about the superstitions around the Flower Dance.”

    Pierre waved it off in annoyance. “Go ahead, just don’t linger with him.” He sighed, muttering something under his breath about Abigail that Archie couldn’t quite make out.

    It seemed to Archie that he was being placed in the position of having to defend people far more than he would have preferred lately, but it was not something he particularly shied away from. “Pierre,” he said, “your daughter is alright, and she’s going to stay that way.”

    Pierre’s annoyance softened slightly, being replaced incrementally by curiosity. “I don’t see it like that at all. She’s not really developing. She’s still rebellious and immature, still into her childish occult nonsense, her friends are all maladjusted. I love my daughter, but I don’t think she’s alright.”

    Archie didn’t appreciate the implication, but decided to let Pierre off the hook rather than lambast him this time since he was showing some sort of empathy and vulnerability instead of just being a dick. “Anyone around our age would chafe in a town this small, Pierre.” The older man nodded at that. “And our friends have all got a rebellious streak, but their values are good. I’d rather Abigail and I have friends like that than some phony that looks good on paper but would be the first to stick the knife in.”

    Pierre lowered his head in thought.

    “Pierre, I disagree with you about her,” he continued, “but I understand you. You worry about how all those things you see as negative will come across to an outsider. Speaking as one, they’re not nearly as big a deal as her positive qualities.”

    “And those are?”

    “Start looking for them and find out for yourself. You’re her father, it’s your job.”

    Any rejoinder Pierre might have had was cut short when Abigail emerged from the stockroom with a box full of vinegar bottles. She started gingerly striding over toward the shelf she’d be stocking when she noticed her father looking off. “Are you alright, dad?”

    “I’ll be fine, thanks, Abigail,” he said, standing up and making his way toward the front of the store. “I’m going to get a couple of minutes of air. You don’t mind waiting ‘til I get back?”

    Neither Archie not Abigail had any objections. After Pierre left the store Abigail asked if he had any idea what had gotten into Pierre. “Yes,” he said, and that was all. Abigail didn’t press the issue, figuring there would be a whole afternoon for that.

    After a couple of minutes of only slightly awkward standing around, Pierre came back in. “Your friends are outside,” he said, surprising Abigail.

    “You didn’t tell them about this?” She asked Archie, who shook his head. A bit confused, the two of them left the store to find Sam, Sebastian, Leah, and Penny standing outside waiting for them.

    “Hey, you two,” Sam greeted them, “your outing to see the wizard sounded pretty interesting when you were discussing it yesterday.”

    Abigail looked indignant. “How in the world did you do so well at Journey of the Prairie King while eavesdropping on us, jerkface?” Her priorities were clearly in order.

    Sam smiled and shrugged. “You’re loud when you’re excited and, unlike you, I got good at the game, anyway, I invited Sebastian and Leah when I left the saloon.”

    “And Penny?” Archie asked.

    “I called her this morning,” Sam replied. “She wrapped up spending some time with Maru and was free to join us.”

    “Maru didn’t want to?” Archie asked again.

    Sam shrugged again as Sebastian looked slightly more uncomfortable than usual. “She had a project of her own to do. She wishes us luck.”

    Archie though perhaps mildly annoyed, gave the matter a bit of thought. “Alright, everyone’s more than welcome for the nature walk to the Wizard’s Tower,” turning to face Sam specifically, he added “everyone who agrees to the same conditions Abigail did is welcome to my conversation with him unless he says otherwise.”

    There was a momentary commotion since Sam never mentioned anything about conditions, since he probably assumed Archie forgot about setting any. After being asked, Archie repeated the conditions, that anything about the Flower Dance and the aftermath was for everyone to hear, everything about his family wasn’t, and everything else was to be discussed. Leah, Sebastian, and Penny readily agreed, while Sam decided to make more of a fuss about it until Penny hugged him from behind and urged him to let it go and get going, which silenced Sam’s objections lickety-split. Archie made the suggestion that they walk over toward the Wizard’s tower at a leisurely pace so that they could all to enjoy the weather and the forest together. Only Sebastian was slightly put off, but not enough so to object out loud.

    Leah and Abigail took the lead, Leah because she could point out interesting things about the forest’s flora and fauna, and Abigail because she knew exactly where the wizard’s tower was, assuming he didn’t just magically relocate it on a whim or every Tuesday or whatever other magical scenario Archie could conjure to mind. They picked some mushrooms of different sorts and Leah admonished everyone not to eat the red ones. Mostly, they talked, and they did so in a larger group than they ever typically did, which made the whole day feel strange, different, and exciting on the basis of them learning more about each other, even without taking into account the fact that they were going to see a wizard. To Archie’s surprise, Penny did most of the mediation. While holding Sam’s hand for basically the whole way, she asked Abigail and Leah lots of questions about the forest and the wizard, and she connected their answers to something about someone else in the group, bringing them all into a wider discussion as they tried to piece together some of the puzzle around the Flower Dance for themselves:

    “Mom never mentioned anything about superstitions around how it went,” Penny said. Pam had been in Pelican Town the longest of any of their parents, and Penny was born and spent most of her life in Pelican Town.

    “Mine either,” Abigail agreed. “Or dad, but he doesn’t care about that sort of thing.”

    Archie and Leah, being new to the town, looked to each other and shrugged, while Sam and Sebastian started arguing a bit more about why none of the older generation ever mentioned it to them. While they speculated about reasons, Archie was beginning to formulate an idea of his own about and he wasn’t sure he liked the implications of that idea. If everyone actually knew what the Junimos wanted, would they ever be able to do those things freely rather than out of selfish self-interest? And if he had a large chunk of the town about to learn it from the Wizard, or his own newfound knowledge, what would happen then? Was there any difference if only one person – Archie – knew about it? If the Junimos told him to do stuff and he did it, that was all well and good, but if he did those things freely without their direct intervention, wouldn’t that be better?

    Archie’s philosophical wanderings and daydreaming came to a halt as the silhouette of the Wizard’s Tower became visible through the tree-line against the sky, with a strangely-shaped and large refracting telescope poking out of an upper window. They still had some walking to do to get to the tower and to keep the conversation fresh, Leah changed the subject by asking what everyone dreamed of doing with their lives. Some of the answers surprised Archie in terms of their content, others in terms of their tone. Sam excitedly discussed how he wanted to be a rock star, matching Leah’s enthusiasm for art. Abigail wanted to go off on adventures, hence the archaeology classes, while Sebastian insisted, with some vehemence, that he didn’t have lofty professional goals beyond leaving Pelican Town forever and doing the same sort of programming work he was already doing in one of the big cities. In contrast, Penny was much more forlorn, even sad-sounding, in spite of her current work, when she mentioned that she wanted to be a teacher. Archie mentioned how his aspirations were changing. He wanted to work in the theatre, and while the farm was about the furthest thing from it, he was excited to try to do farming well and try to make his mark locally. He mentioned his businesswoman sister who made big strides in Gallibrand City, but who couldn’t see her contributions compared to the sheer size of the place she lived. In a town of 35, Archie could see whatever difference he’d eventually make. Sebastian looked pensive but not dissuaded, whereas it seemed to resonate a bit more with Penny, probably considering her work tutoring Vincent and Jas.

    Eventually they came to a clearing with a pond in it, from which the trail to the Wizard’s tower was clearly visible. Archie was struck by how surreal the whole thing was – him being here, a wizard being here, a wizard being a thing compared to the hyper-rational city, the works. He gaped at the tower, a bit dumbfounded by it, as Abigail led the rest of the group on, leaving Archie to follow them. A few minutes and some small-talk later, the group had stopped at the base of the stairs leading up to the tower’s door, leaving space for Archie to walk up to the landing and knock on the heavy oak door. There were no metal knockers build into it, and Archie hardly imagined that him knocking would carry very loudly at all as he brought his arm up, pulled his hand back, and swung it forward toward the door, which swung open of its own accord before his knuckles touched it, leaving Archie momentarily confused.

    He looked through the door and there was no one in sight, and he waited, uncertain about whether he should proceed.

    An unseen voice boomed out from somewhere in the tower. “All of you can come in!”

    Archie leading the way, followed closely behind by Abigail, they entered the tower. Archie didn’t know what he expected a Wizard’s tower to look like, but he wasn’t quite expecting what he got. Dusty old tomes sat atop neat, modern bookshelves that looked like they came from a flat-pack furniture warehouse store. A large cauldron was bubbling over a fire pit dug into the stone floor, not far from a modular dining table with a tasteful place setting. The tower had a hint of the earthy smell the community centre did, emanating from that cauldron, though not nearly so intense.

    The Wizard appeared, though not how Archie expected given the booming voice he’d just heard from what he thought was the entryway. Rather than literally appearing, he walked briskly down the stairway from further up the tower, also surprising Archie in the fact that he looked much more like a cowboy than like how he imagined a wizard would look. He wore a black cowboy hat over his unnaturally purple hair - even considering man-made dyes as natural - black pants, and a black and gold poncho. He had a distant look in his eyes.

    “I’m not used to visitors, and definitely not this many at once,” the wizard’s voice brimmed with a frenetic energy, “so tell me what this is all about.”

    Archie pulled out the birch bark scroll from inside the book and glanced at it. It still showed the Junimos strange sigils on it, so he asked everyone, including the Wizard, to gather around him to take a look at it. “Lewis said the Flower Dance was a ritual to renew the Junimos’ blessings on the town and that I ruined that. This is what the Junimos had to say about that, but I can’t read it.”

    “If you can’t read it, how would you know that’s what it is?” Sam immediately challenged him.

    “I’m impressed you’re going that far along with it, I’d expect the first response to be ‘there are no Junimos’,” Archie replied.

    “Still,” Sam shot back.

    “I’m expecting they’d write something important instead of a grocery list. Dear farmer, bring us 5 stalks of corn, and we will save the town.”

    While that was going on, Leah, Abigail, Sebastian and Penny were looking at the scroll and making no more sense of it than Archie did the first time he looked at it. The Wizard gave it a cursory glance and then looked toward Archie, and Sam, whose momentum in the argument carried him into a rapid babble of talk.

    “Be silent!” The Wizard yelled at them.

    “Huh? Was that a spell or something? I can still talk,” Sam said.

    “No,” the Wizard sighed, “I just hoped you’d be surprised enough that I yelled at you that you’d actually shut up. I can decipher the scroll, but it will take time, energy, and because of those, payment. I sense the magical energies of purple mushrooms. Give me those and I’ll translate the scroll for you.”

    Archie handed him the couple that he picked, remarking that he thought the Wizard would just use magic to do it instantly. The Wizard countered that proper magic was a matter of painstaking research and precision, save for a few basic incantations.

    “Like turning people into frogs?” Sam asked.

    The Wizard shook his head.

    “Or putting someone to sleep for a hundred years?” he continued. The Wizard shook his head again. After a few more guesses, the Wizard glared at Sam.

    “Abra-bazinga,” he said, as Sam’s mouth kept moving as if he was talking but no more sounds issued forth. “Now, purple mushrooms, please,” he said to the rest of the group. They all handed over their mushrooms, Penny, Abigail, and Sebastian, eagerly, and Leah reluctantly. Sam hadn’t picked any because he was allergic to mushrooms, which was probably just as well because he wouldn’t have been in a rush to hand them over to the wizard at that moment.

    They bade each other goodbye and left the tower, and as soon as the tower door shut, Sam’s voice returned.

    “Wow, what a jackass, silencing me like that. All I was trying to do was learn what a simple incantation did. Is that so wrong?” Sebastian and Penny began cracking up. “And I still don’t know. What a load of crap.”

    The group walked back through the forest, a bit faster returning than they did on the way as the coolness of evening was already setting in. They speculated about what the Junimo scroll might say, and reflected on how they enjoyed the day together. Archie invited everyone to have dinner at the saloon, but no one was in a position to take him up on it. Sebastian and Sam had their Solarion Chronicles game, Abigail had a family dinner, Leah was working on an art piece, and Penny avoided the saloon as a matter of principle. As they got closer to town and people split off to go on their separate ways, Archie asked Penny to speak with him a bit longer, which, though looking a bit surprised, she obliged him as they started walking toward the trailer.

    “Thanks for coming,” he told her, “I wasn’t expecting anyone else, but I’m especially glad you were there to keep the talking going. You were really good at keeping everyone involved.”

    Penny laughed shyly. “I do it with Jas and Vincent all the time, if they didn’t have as much in common, I have no idea how I’d teach them nearly as effectively.”

    “About that,” Archie added, “you said teaching was your dream?”

    She nodded, that sad, forlorn look returning.

    “I don’t understand how you’re looking so sad about doing your dream thing.”

    “Oh,” she replied, “the two of them are great, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. It’s more of something I managed to scrape together. Before you moved here, I was studying to be a teacher at Ferngill National University.”

    “Which campus?” he asked. He was curious about it since he had studied theatre at the Gallibrand City Campus.

    “Gallibrand City,” she told him, to his surprise.

    “No way! I grew up there, and did my degree there too. It’s a long way away, though.”

    Penny nodded. “I liked the city well enough, but the university especially. I miss having a group of people who were motivated by the same thing. Did you study theatre?”

    The two of them arrived at the trailer. Penny put her ear to the door for a few seconds, and then pulled her head away from it, looking relieved.

    “I did,” Archie answered, “and it was a similar experience studying with some people who were passionate about it. Making theatre, trying things… But what happened?”

    “Mom couldn’t afford to send me with her job as the bus driver, but I got a scholarship that covered the tuition and a bit of the rent. When she lost her job and got sick, I had to come back and look after her. Now she’s gotten worse with no sign of improving, my scholarship’s lapsed, and I don’t think I’ll ever get back there to finish.”

    Penny looked devastated saying it, though she did with a surprising degree of calmness, as if she’d long since come to terms.

    “No online courses?”

    She shook her head. “Field placements, and this doesn’t count, it’s not in a school.”

    Archie sighed. “That sucks.”

    Penny was more philosophical about it. “It’s strange. Teaching the children is a lifeline but it’s also a painful reminder that I’m stuck at the same time.”

    “What’s keeping you here? Is it just the money?”

    “Well, there is that. But I couldn’t turn my back on mom. No way.” There was an adamant edge in her voice. “Not after what it did to her when dad did.”

    Archie was silent for a long while. “I’m sorry,” he said lamely.

    Penny shrugged. “It’s not ideal, but sometimes you have to let go dreams to make reality work.”

    Archie, in his idealism, wasn’t convinced. “Sometimes they’re still there to be picked back up. I hope you manage to sooner than later.”

    Penny opened the door to the trailer and climbed the single step leading into her home. “Thanks for the sentiment, Archie. I think I’ve given up on this one, though. Have a good night.” She shut the door gently and locked it.

    Archie sat on the step for a long while, thinking about the whole situation. He felt like he should do something, and in the context of the Junimos and restoring the town he felt like he had to do something, but he had no idea what to do, and how to make it work in this delicate situation. He slowly rose and started his walk home with a troubled mind.



    Archie’s concerns for Penny, the town, and Junimo quests quickly shifted to percolating on the back burner as a set of his own concerns came up. A few days after the trip to the Wizard’s tower, he received two pieces of mail. The first was from Harvey, informing him that the blood test requisition from Archie’s old doctor in Gallibrand City had arrived and that he could come by and take the test whenever. The second was from the Wizard, saying that the translation was finished – and listed on the letter. Archie was curious as to whether the Wizard would get it right, and to the latter’s credit, the translation did basically match what Archie read in the book in terms of content though not in terms of writing style. Whatever else he might think about the Wizard and his arcane abilities, he was correct about something that would be exceedingly hard to guess.

    The spring was verging toward its end with a series of rainy days forecast to send the season off, which left Archie with less to do around the farm. He could continue hacking at grass and trees, and chipping rocks in the rain, but it was much slower going and probably not worth the extra man-hours for what could be done much faster in any other weather. Given his harvest schedule before the season’s end, and following another moderately successful harvest, he realized that he had some time where he could justify taking a short break from farming, that as long as it kept raining, he’d have virtually no farm maintenance to do. A small vacation to another locale might renew his focus and sharpen his mind for coming up with solutions to the issues he was now faced with.

    He decided to look into options after getting his farm chores for the day and his medical business attended to, which, given the rain, he didn’t expect to take very long. A few hours later, the seeds he bought from Pierre were under tilled ground, getting gently hydrated, and he had eaten a proper lunch. He realized the Gunther had never sent him the anthropologist’s field notes, and so he resolved to visit the library to find out what happened as well. Walking past the bus stop, Archie felt his eyes getting drawn to the rusting metal hulk, once a crucial lifeline for the townsfolk to get around, two of them in particular, and he stood transfixed a short while, his mood a tangled swirl of sadness and aggravation. He hadn’t even noticed that Abigail was taking a walk along the road until she snapped him out of his reverie by tapping him on the shoulder.

    “It’s not that fascinating, Archie,” she told him.

    Archie took a deep breath. “Until Penny told me about that bus yesterday, I would have agreed with you. Those poor women.”

    Abigail shrugged. “I feel for Penny. She tries so hard. Pam, I think we were all sympathetic for a while, but she’s just wallowed in it since.”

    “Penny said Pam was sick.” Archie said.

    Abigail started shaking her head, and then stopped abruptly. “Sort of.”

    “Sort of?” Archie repeated, uncertainly.

    “I’m not really comfortable discussing it, Archie.”

    He nodded. “Where you walking to?”

    “The store, eventually, I wanted to see if any of the flowers here grew back in since the Dance. Bit too early, I think.”

    “I’m going to the clinic today, I’ll walk with you. It’ll make up for the bigger group cutting into our solo adventuring time.”

    Abigail giggled. “Is that what you thought it was?”

    “You keep saying you want to go on adventures and that was the closest I’ve gotten to one here. I got to see you in your element a bit, which was cool, but there were a lot of distractions. Eighty percent of them were named Sam.”

    “I still can’t believe he did that.”

    “It surprised me too, his hearing is sharp as a bat’s, but I’m glad he did it.”

    “Me too, it was fun. Did you hear back from the Wizard yet?”

    Archie nodded and tapped a couple of fingers on his jacket pocket. “Yep. I don’t know if I should share it in detail just yet; not because I don’t trust you, but because it might complicate this whole Junimo thing a whole lot, but if it’s any consolation, the town isn’t doomed and you’ll be the first person I’ll tell. ”

    Abigail smiled warmly. “I’ll hold you to that.”

    They walked into town, and arrived at the building housing the clinic and the general store. Lewis was standing just outside the general store entrance, looking at the bulletin board when he noticed them walking up.

    “Good afternoon, you two.”

    Abigail nodded in way of greeting, while Archie offered a more ebullient hello before asking Lewis about how best to get to Cactus Town by bus.

    “You can get a bus there from Hub Town. They run hourly from there,” Lewis started. “Off to visit your dance partner, or just desperate to get out of the rain?”

    Archie burst out laughing. “I didn’t think you had that in you, old man. What’s on the bulletin board today?”

    “Sebastian wants a Jade for some reason.”

    “That’s weird.” Abigail and Archie said simultaneously, immediately afterward exchanging a look and laughing, before Archie cut it all short. “Anyway, I’ve got business at the clinic, so have a good day, both of you,” they waved as Archie entered the building through the clinic door and Abigail headed to the store.

    Maru was working at the front of the clinic when Archie walked in, and looked surprised to see him in spite of the multiple reminders she gave him about the blood test. “Hi, Archie,” she greeted him, her tone professional, “come for the blood test?”

    “Yep, are you drawing the blood, or is Harvey?”

    Maru shrugged. “His choice. I’ve done it before, depends if he wants to supervise or do it himself. Grab a seat in the waiting room and I’ll go get him, but how was your walk the other day?”

    “Actually really pleasant, and I’d have never guessed Penny would be that good at steering a group conversation. It’s too bad you couldn’t join us.”

    Maru shook her head. “I don’t think Sebastian would have been nearly so agreeable if I did. It’s a shame, though. I needed some iron for something I’m building, so I went mining instead.”

    “I still haven’t tried it,” Archie replied, “two questions – is it enjoyable, and did you happen to find any Jade?”

    “Yes to both, actually. It’s physical and a bit tedious, but it’s fulfilling pulling something out of the earth.” She paused, and then laughed a little. “Now that I think about it it’s kind of like your job – I don’t know if you’d enjoy a hobby that’s quite that close to it. I did find a piece of jade, though.”

    “Sebastian put up a note up on the notice board that he’s looking for one.”

    “Huh.” Maru said. “That’s weird.”

    “Why?”

    “I can’t imagine what he wants it for. He likes Frozen Tears way more, and Abigail prefers amethysts. I wonder what that’s all about.”

    “Maybe it’s to match his jaded attitude,” Archie joked.

    Maru laughed, and then swatted him on the shoulder. “Bad farmer. No geology puns.”

    “But geology rocks!”

    “We’ll use a thick needle,” she threatened jokingly. “Go wait in the examination room, we’ll be right there.”

    Archie plodded over to the examination room, and slouched into the chair, rolling up his left sleeve and shifting his elbow in the gap in the arm-rest, looking for a comfortable position for it. Shortly thereafter, Harvey and Maru walked in, and Harvey took control of matters much more assertively than when Archie popped in to say hello the first time.

    “Alright, Archie, before we get started, there are a couple of things I want to discuss with you.”

    “Sure thing, doc,” he replied, not sure what there was to discuss in particular.

    “Great. First off, I’d like Maru to practice her phlebotomy, if that’s alright with you. I’ll supervise it closely.”

    “Oh, that’s fine,” Archie said feeling quite relaxed about that whole idea.

    “The second thing is about whether you’d be willing to share details of your health history with her, or whether you’d prefer not to.”

    “It’s confidential either way, right?”

    “Yes.” Harvey said simply, with Maru nodding her assent.

    “Alright. I’m fine with both.”

    “Great,” Harvey said, “it’ll be a good learning experience for her. Alright, Maru, the requisition’s right here, set up the collection vials and see what your best guess as to what we’re looking for in the tests is before you start.”

    Maru picked up the clipboard with the requisition on it, and quickly skimmed the categories, picking out four vials, one each with a red, orange, blue, and purple cap, sticking a label to each one, before preparing the needle, whereupon she looked at the list of blood markers more carefully for a minute, murmuring to herself as she considered each entry until…

    “Wait a second, Harvey, why is there a test for alpha feto-protein? That’s a pregnancy hormone.”

    “Great spot, Maru, it does belong there, along with one other odd-hormone-out.”

    She kept looking a while longer before walking over to one of the bookshelves and pulling down a medical dictionary. A minute later, she was satisfied with her result. “Beta HCG. Another pregnancy hormone, and, according to that manual, it’s also a cancer tumour marker.”

    “Excellent work, Maru.” Both the doctor and nurse were smiling broadly, and Archie was at least a bit impressed by the wannabe engineer’s approach and acumen. “Those two markers combined, are a strong indicator of cancers, especially in men and children, but also in women who aren’t pregnant. How long since you were treated for yours, Archie?”

    “Just over two years since the surgery and radiation treatments,” he answered, shifting in the chair a bit uncomfortably. “Got to make sure they got it all on a twice-a-year basis.”

    “That you do,” Harvey said, “alright, Maru, you can get started.”

    Maru wrapped a tourniquet around his bicep and swabbed over part of his upper arm with rubbing alcohol before pulling a sanitized needle from its packaging and preparing it, and the vials. Maru asked him what the treatment was like, and as he was describing the crippling nausea that accompanied his first radiation treatment, the one before they told him to take anti-emetics first, she deftly stuck the needle into one of his veins and, one-by-one, filled the vials, before removing the needle, swabbing the puncture, and bandaging it.

    “Stick around for a few minutes to make sure the puncture seals, but we should get the results back from the lab in about a week,” she said.

    “What lab?” Archie asked.

    “We have an agreement with one of the clinics in Hub Town. I’ll drive your samples over later today,” Harvey said.

    “Mind if I catch a ride with you?” Archie asked, “I’m heading there anyway to catch a bus to the desert.”

    “Do you have sunscreen?” Harvey asked in turn.

    “No,” Archie answered.

    “Go next door and buy some, then we can go whenever. My next appointment isn’t for a couple of hours and it’s a shorter return drive than you waiting for the bus. You fine to hold down the fort, Maru?”

    “As long as nothing catastrophic happens in the next half an hour or so, sure,” she said.

    Archie waited the requisite few minutes and then stepped out to duck into the store to buy sunscreen, before quickly returning. “Are you always that insistent?” he asked his doctor.

    “Yes. I take my patients’ health seriously. Also, you’re a redhead without freckles, and you don’t need to be a doctor to guess how the desert sun will go for you without sunscreen. Also also, you just had a blood test for cancer markers.”

    Archie paused to take all of that in. “Points taken. Thanks for the lift, and the medical advice.”

    They walked behind the clinic to where Harvey parked his old station wagon, which was hardly the status symbol car of city doctors, though it was meticulously clean. After Harvey unlocked his door, manually, and let Archie in, Archie ducked into the passenger-side seat.

    “This is actually my first time going to Hub Town since I moved here,” he remarked.

    “It’s not especially interesting of a place, but the variety is nice sometimes. Different shops and restaurants, and I go watch movies at the theatre there sometimes.”

    “Prefer any genre in particular?”

    “War movies.”

    “That is about the last thing I would have guessed.”

    “I wanted to be a pilot. Couldn’t do it with these, though,” he said, tapping his fairly thick-lensed glasses. “It’s a bit of living vicariously.”

    “I have a sort-of-related question,” Archie began, “how did you come to be the doctor here, of all places? It’s not exactly glamourous, and, no offense to your car, it doesn’t seem to pay like the city does.”

    Harvey sighed slightly but answered in a fairly good-natured way: “Connections. The previous doctor retired and was looking for someone to sell his practice to. I was graduating med school and my father knew a friend of his. It doesn’t pay like the city, but this time next year, my debts will be paid off. It’s a good thing the governor still thinks it’s worth putting some money into the clinic.”

    Archie nodded. “Has it been like you imagined?”

    “Pretty much, save for the slower pace. I do sometimes get lonely; it’s a very small town to begin with, and not everyone who wants to get close to their physician.”

    “I never thought about it that way,” he said.

    The rest of the car ride was relatively quieter, though still pleasant enough. Harvey pointed out where the larger clinic with the medical lab was, along with some of the other landmarks in the town before dropping Archie off at the bus stop. It didn’t seem like anyone else was going to the desert that day, as Archie had the bus to himself when it arrived a few minutes later. He watched out the window as the bus pulled out along the forest-bounded highway, and through the mountain pass, westward and inland. The trees gave way to scrub, and the scrub soon gave way to sand and isolated palm trees. The bus got warm in spite of the air conditioning.

    While Archie thought that Pelican Town’s bus stop was deserted, the Eastern Desert bus stop was even more in the middle of nowhere. Cactus Town was a mere 10 minutes away, but there was very little out here but sand, the lower-case “o” oasis, and the uppercase “O” Oasis. He phoned Sandy.

    “Darling!” She greeted him. He was amused at how low the bar was for her to call someone darling, but it was a bit flattering nonetheless.

    “I made it to the desert,” he told her. “I’m looking forward to seeing you.”

    “That’s wonderful – do you mind exploring for a bit by yourself, I should wrap up here in about 40 minutes.”

    Archie didn’t mind. “Sure, any sights to see?”

    “There are a few. You can’t miss them,” she said, with a hint of mischief, “but definitely wait for me to catch the view out to sea from the cliffs.”

    “Great, I’ll meet you soon.” They hung up.

    Archie wandered around in the desert, keeping an eye on the road lest he find himself without a point of reference. One of these days he’d have to buy a compass. He found the oasis to the north, an impressive freshwater pond considering that it was in a desert, on a sea-facing plateau. There were even fish swimming in it, and flowering cacti around it. The natural features of the valley were distinctive and surprising, and the surrounding areas also had their own wonders and charms. A higher peak nearby housed the cave, with a mysterious door with a massive skull on it. The cave was a welcome reprieve from the sun and heat, and Archie was glad that he had the sunscreen on hand.

    When he ventured out into the desert again he stubbed his foot on a coconut half-buried in the sand, which he picked up to examine. He didn’t know much about coconuts at all, but it might be something someone back in town would want. They were pretty creative with their cooking, and exotic ingredients were always welcome. A bit further away still was a colossal dinosaur skeleton, which Archie thought was unbelievably cool. As a kid he found dinosaurs and paleontology fascinating, and while he never grew out of it, he did prioritize learning other things. He made a note to suggest that Penny take Jas and Vincent to see it, especially since it was in the middle of the desert and completely free to look at. In fact, Archie marveled at the fact that no one had carved their initials into the bones in spite of the lack of apparent supervision of the skeleton.

    He paced around it, trying to remember what kind of dinosaur it might have been, and his memory failed him. There was no informational plaque.

    The heat started to wear on him a bit as more and more time passed, and he decided that the air conditioned store would be as good a place as any to wrap up his first stage of exploration. It seemed very large for a store, even by city standards, and the architecture looked rather new and modern, which seemed surprising in a waterless backwater like the Eastern Calico Desert was. The stock wasn’t that dramatically different to Pierre’s save for a few sorts of things, though the daily special of ice cream was awfully tempting. He helped himself to an ice cream cone and walked up to the cash register, which was unoccupied, to pay for it. It was then that he noticed two things that were out of the ordinary; the sound of Sandy shouting at someone in the back storeroom, and the fact that there was a bouncer leading into the storeroom. A short time later, Sandy emerged from the back, looking flustered, though somewhat happier when she saw Archie holding an ice cream cone and some packets of starfruit seeds.

    “Shift’s over,” she told him. “Get a second cone for me, ice cream’s my treat. I can’t wait to leave today.”

    Archie dutifully grabbed a second cone, asking, “That employee you were yelling at going to be OK to handle it?”

    Sandy shook her head, looking a bit anxious. “Oh, that wasn’t an employee. It’s a long story.”

    “You know I’ve got questions, right?”

    “You always have questions.”

    “Well, you probably don’t go a day without a bunch of customers asking why there’s a bouncer leading into your stockroom.”

    Sandy sighed with vexation. “I don’t. The seeds cost 4000 Guilders. Can we get going, please?”

    Archie paid for his purchase and they left the store. Sandy walked him southward toward what he presumed were the cliffs looking out over the sea. They enjoyed their ice cream and each other’s presence in relative silence as Archie wished he also brought a hat. He should have borrowed the straw hat from Abigail when he had the chance, he lamented inwardly. A few minutes later, they reached a stone bench a few metres back from the edge of the plateau, and took a seat, looking out to a seemingly endless sea. Archie looked toward where he thought Pelican Town was, but couldn’t see that beach along the shore. Sandy laughed a little as she looked in the opposite direction. Archie looked that way and asked her what was there.

    “Past Cactus Town, Zuzu City is in that direction. You can get a similar view from the plateau down toward the city across the river, just with a skyline instead of water,” she told him.

    “Sounds nice,” Archie said, “though this view is relaxing.”

    “Yeah,” Sandy replied.

    “You seem like you can use the relaxation today,” he added.

    “I certainly can, that argument wound me right up, and to think, it was all about me leaving my own business early.”

    “That doesn’t make sense. You own the place, who’s going to tell you otherwise?”

    “The man who runs a social club out of part of the building had what to say about it, but it’s not his call. He just gets aggravated any time I leave work a bit early or go on vacation. He does pay a generous rent for the space, though.”

    “Huh,” Archie said, neither having expected her to explain it nor sure how complete of an explanation it was. “If you’re looking for someone with retail experience and a reasonable amount of discretion as a stand-in, I may know just the person.”

    “At the end of summer I may be looking for just that. I’d like a longer vacation.”

    Archie scooted closer to her and put an arm around her waist. “You’ll get it,” he said simply, “I may do well to take on a temporary farmhand so I can take one too, when I can afford it.” Sandy laughed and told him that if he was that obsessive about farming he’d probably be able to afford it sooner rather than later. They shared a few quiet moments and a quick kiss before Archie asked what she had in mind for them to do, since she knew the desert. The plan was dancing and live music at the Cactus Town Community Hall, and she assured him that it was not just for the old folks as they walked back to the store where she had parked her car. A very pale man in a dark duster and cowboy hat was leaning up against the front door to the store, prompting Sandy’s agitation to return.

    “Is that your social club guy?” Archie asked.

    “Yeah, that’s him,” She practically spat.

    The pale man called Sandy over, and she reluctantly parted from Archie to go and speak with him while Archie looked on in the parking lot. After a few minutes, Sandy returned to unlock her car when the man shouted for Archie to come over. Archie and Sandy exchanged a glance before he shrugged and walked over.

    “You’re not from the desert, where’d she meet you?” the pale man, who looked almost a pallid bluish-grey, asked.

    “In Pelican Town,” Archie replied flatly.

    “My goodness, what a pleasant surprise this is,” the man replied, not put off in the slightest by the cool reception. “Here I was, thinking there was nothing and no one interesting in Pelican Town, and suddenly there’s a new farmer with big plans who’s dating my business partner. Tell me, have you ever gone mining there?”

    “Not yet,” Archie replied.

    “Oh, you definitely should,” the pale man replied.

    “I may very well do that, mister…”

    “Qi. Mister Qi.”

    “Well I may well do some mining, Mister Qi. I hope we can square our respective demands on Sandy’s time.”

    Mr. Qi waved off Archie’s suggestion. “Go enjoy your date. Be seeing you, and by the way, it’s pronounced Qi.”

    “We will, and I thought Qi is what I said.”

    “With practice and coaching you’ll get it right. Don’t you worry. Remember. Qi.”

    What a strange guy, Archie thought as he walked back to the car. Mysterious, even.

    “What was that all about?” Sandy asked him.

    “He found the fact that we were dating interesting, and didn’t seem too concerned about your schedule. He also is the second person in as many days to suggest I give mining a try and apparently his name is subtly hard to pronounce.”

    “I think he’s interested in what people pull out of the mines, maybe does a bit of it himself. He keeps the store stocked on rare geodes.”

    “Is there really a market for rare geodes?” Archie asked with some incredulity.

    “Rarely.”

    They got into Sandy’s hatchback and drove into Cactus Town proper. It was definitely larger than Pelican Town, which was not difficult, but more densely packed, probably to efficiently distribute water. Sandy noticed Archie’s backpack bulging as he unslung it and set it on the floor.

    “What’s in the bag?” she asked.

    “I found a coconut while I was wandering around outside.”

    “Oh, that is perfect. I can make us a great soup with that after we go dancing.”

    They took a quick bite in town before the dancing started, with Archie pleased to eat some city foods he missed – while Gus was a versatile chef, the saloon felt limited in its selections sometimes, and Archie appreciated the sushi platter the two of them shared. They talked about culture; the respective cultural offerings in either town, which, for the moment, Cactus Town seemed to have Pelican Town, and even Hub Town, perhaps, beat. Archie mentioned the local folklore he’d learned about, with the Junimos and all that, though setting aside the visit to the wizard for the moment. Sandy admitted that she found the whole idea a bit ridiculous, but the desert had its own folklore with creatures like genies and the like, so who was she to talk?

    When they got to the Community Hall, it struck Archie that it was something like he imagined Pelican Town’s community centre to be in its prime, if larger still. It made him wish that Pelican Town’s were still usable for events like these. The hall had a large dance floor facing up onto an elevated stage, with an upstairs balcony. The bands, a rockabilly group and a swing jazz ensemble, were tuning their instruments as groups of friends congregated awaiting the performance and the dancing. Everyone was a stranger to him, and he imagined a decent enough number of them were to Sandy as well, given that Cactus Town was not that small. He was pretty excited to dance. He was no great shakes at it, but he had done some dance classes as part of his theatre training and he enjoyed her exuberance when dancing as well. Apparently, she enjoyed dancing with him too if this was her idea. Sandy introduced him to a few people, acquaintances of hers, who made no particular impression on him, when the rockabilly band started playing.

    Dancing with Sandy at this event was a very different experience to waltzing at the Flower Dance. If anything, Sandy was a bit more erratic in the way that she danced and Archie’s mood started at a much higher point so it didn’t spike upward like the week before. It was nice not to think about farm work or Junimos, just to focus on the music and the beautiful woman in front of him. They danced a long while until deciding to take a break and get a drink, then sipped on their glasses of wine watching some of the more experienced, and more unconventional, dancers, before one of Sandy’s acquaintances pulled her away for what Archie thought would be a few minutes. He kept drinking his wine and watching the dancers, and danced solo for a bit before realizing that over half an hour had passed. He walked a quick sweep of the lower floor, before deciding to check out the view from above, where he found Sandy and a couple of her friends laughing and in an animated conversation that left him feeling a bit conflicted. She could enjoy herself however she wanted, he thought, but it was their first date. He smiled and gave her a thumbs-up when she turned her head, then walked back downstairs. He’d dance and enjoy himself until she wrapped up. The rockabilly band had wrapped up and the swing orchestra began playing.

    About another ten minutes later, Sandy intercepted Archie on the dance floor and they quickly resumed their dancing. “Sorry about that,” she apologized, “childhood friend, and I haven’t seen her in years.”

    Archie shrugged, causing Sandy to shift the hand she had on his right shoulder. “It’s fine; introduce me afterward if you want.”

    “I may just,” Sandy said non-committally. By the end of the night, she hadn’t.

    At around midnight, the orchestra announced that it’d be the last song for the night, a slower, bluesier tune to wind the night down. They danced close together in silence as a mischievous smirk started to form on Archie’s face. As the song reached its final measures, Archie gently plucked her hand from his shoulder, led her out from his chest, and pulled her back toward her into a tango dip, planting a kiss on her lips before hauling her back up to standing.

    “How long were you waiting for to do that?” She asked him.

    “Since I saw you run into the meadow where the Flower Dance was,” he answered, deciding he may as well be honest about it.

    “Flatterer.” She smiled. He shrugged and smiled too, as they left the building.

    “Thanks for bringing me,” Archie told her, “That was a lot of fun.”

    “Glad you enjoyed it; it’s nice to have a dance partner for one of these.”

    “I have a hard time imagining you not having your pick of any dance partner in the place.”

    “Not everyone’s as smitten with me as you are, Archie,” she told him, and he wasn’t sure whether she was joking or not.

    It was a quiet drive back to Sandy’s small bungalow. It hadn’t occurred to Archie, in his haste to get to the desert; that the buses back to Pelican Town would have long since stopped running by the time the evening date would be at an end. Sandy, however, seemed to anticipate it with her talk of making soup earlier, which Archie felt a nervous thrill about. The pace of his first dates was not usually this accelerated. The house wasn’t especially large, but it was very modern in terms of its architecture and decoration – it had an open-plan layout with modern trimmings – a modular black leather couch, a large flat-screen TV, an impressive looking kitchen with top of the line gas appliances. Archie couldn’t help feel envious given that his first house, the farmhouse, didn’t even have a kitchen, but he also hadn’t thought he’d own a house for a decade until he opened that letter. Sandy busied herself with cooking Tom Kha soup, and making small-talk about the Desert and how wonderful it was while Archie continued to look around.

    They ate the soup in relative silence, save for Archie complimenting her on the soup being very good, though by then it was already pushing 1:30 AM, far later than Archie was in the habit of going to sleep. He yawned in spite of himself, while Sandy hadn’t flagged a bit.

    “Help me clean up,” Sandy requested, “and then we’ll get some sleep.” Archie obliged her, the nervous thrill returning. While Sandy showered, he looked for a book to read, and found none around the house, just the odd magazine that wasn’t of particular interest to him. Maybe the books are all in her room, he thought. He flicked on the TV to see what was on the digital channels his farmhouse didn’t get but wound up settling on watching the Queen of Sauce anyway. When Sandy got out of the shower and had changed into her sleeping clothes, Archie took a fast shower as well. He had been distracted from the fact he needed one after all that dancing. After putting his pants back on and brushing his teeth with a spare brush, he rejoined Sandy in the living room, thinking she’d probably have him sleep on the couch. Sandy’s immediate plan for herself didn’t involve sleeping at all, as she swapped the channel to a movie. They cuddled up and watched it a bit, and the next thing Archie knew, he woke up on that couch the next morning, with her in his arms, and a pain in his neck because that couch was not nearly as comfortable to sleep on as it was for sitting. Sandy’s face was obscured by her unruly post-shower hair and he brushed it away lightly to reveal a more timid smile than he’d ever expect of her when she was awake.

    They said their be-seeing-yous after breakfast, once Sandy had parked her car back at the Oasis and opened up the shop. Mr. Qi was waiting outside and waved to the two of them wordlessly when the car pulled up. Left to his devices, Archie found another couple of coconuts to being back to Pelican Town with him, and overanalyzed everything about the previous day for the whole bus ride home, and the bulk of his catch-up time on farm work. The situation was good, he thought, though he could imagine numerous ways for it all to go wrong, and as many strategies and contingencies to deal with that if and when the time came. It felt like the fresh new relationship it was.






    He didn’t see Sandy over the next couple of weeks, though he did arrange that she should visit again for the summer festivals, which were drawing ever closer. They each occupied their time differently, her running the Oasis and him preparing his farm with the advent of summer. Pierre recommended an emphasis on berries, but with enough of a generalist set of crops to satisfy local demand and maybe sell on to Hub Town, and so that’s what Archie did. The spring was profitable enough that the greater expanse of land he had cleared was largely tilled and planted by the end of the first day of Summer, after a gruelling 14 hour day of planting. He awoke so sore that he barely managed watering his newfound seedlings the following day. As he considered the larger yields he’d be expecting, along with the town’s small size, he decided he’d need to look into marketing his product more widely, something he hadn’t expected to happen for a while yet, and something he wasn’t entirely confident about doing in the first place. About a week into the summer, when the soreness subsided and he harvested his first crops, he called his sister in the evening for the first time since her blow-up over Archie’s inheritance.

    “Bro!” She greeted him, sounding a great deal more delighted than the last time they spoke. “How are you?”

    “Hi Maeve,” he returned, relieved that she wasn’t still totally embittered, “I’m doing well, but I need your help.”

    “Not with clearing that overgrowth, I hope.”

    “No, stuff that’s more your speed – business plans, and marketing, and all that stuff you eat, sleep, and breathe. I need your help leveraging my synergies to hit my KPIs and OKRs and get all my ROIs validated and into the TPS reports by the end of the quarter.”

    Maeve laughed. “You’re a shithead.”

    Touché. This set Archie to laughing as well. “Yes, but in seriousness, a shithead whose farm is going to outgrow his ability to handle it pretty soon without help. I’m going to be growing more than this town will buy by the Fall, if not over the summer.”

    Maeve thought about it. “I can’t make it down ‘til the last weekend of summer thanks to my own work, but I can give you some basic advice to get you prepared.”

    “Please.”

    “How do you sell your crops and stuff now?” She asked.

    “The general store in town buys them and resells them at a markup,” he replied matter-of-factly.

    “That’s it?”

    “So far, yeah. The Joja Mart in town doesn’t buy from me.”

    There was a pause before Maeve said anything, and when she did, in was venomous. “There’s a Joja Mart in Pelican Town now?”

    “Unfortunately, yes.”

    “That’s not good, Archie.”

    “I know that.”

    Maeve sighed in exasperation. “No, Archie, listen. They run the general store out of business - and you know they’re trying to - what happens to you then?”

    “I would need to find somewhere else to sell to.”

    “Right, and if Joja is opening in places as tiny as Pelican Town, where would that be?”

    He paused to think. “Organics shops in the cities, I guess, they don’t compete directly with Joja.”

    “Smart. Now how do you sell to them while also growing all the crops, while you also don’t drive?”

    “I get into a position to pay for help, and then get it,” he hazarded.

    “Not quite. Now listen, here’s what you need to do…”

    The next week, Archie finally remembered the anthropologist’s field notes about Pelican Town, that Gunther still hadn’t sent him, so he broke from his recent routine of staying largely secluded on the farm. He had even been skipped out on the saloon soirée for the first week of the summer, giving himself all too much time to think about how his relationship with Sandy was progressing, to call his family, or to frantically try to figure out how to prepare what Maeve suggested he needed to. He worked longer and longer hours, his endurance slowly building, out of a renewed sense of urgency about needing to grow the farm as fast as possible. He finished late into the evening with the exception of those blessed few rainy days most of the time, and even if he couldn’t afford to till over the whole grounds of the farm, he finally managed to clear the bulk of it, save a few clusters of trees. He would read a short while, or practice his music, and then fall asleep to do it all again the next day, and that routine continued until Harvey visited him one foggy morning before the clinic opened, when Archie was lugging his watering can up from the pond.

    “Archie!” the doctor yelled, with a wave as he walked up the dirt path toward the farmhouse. When Archie was him, he set the watering can down and jogged over.

    “Doctor, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Archie asked, smiling.

    “Your test results are back, and on that front, you’re healthy,” Harvey replied, “though it seems you’re ignoring some of my advice.”

    “You can’t possibly be telling me I should already be wearing sunscreen in this mist, Harvey.”

    The doctor shook his head. “Not that advice, the advice about isolation. No one’s seen hide nor hair of you since the end of Spring, and that’s neither healthy nor good for the farm.”

    How?” the farmer asked, quizzically.

    “People buy your crops for different reasons. For some, it’s because they’re the best they’ll find, for others, it’s to support Pierre and the town, for others, it’s to support you personally. You being active about town, that’s helpful marketing.”

    Archie didn’t particularly think about it that way until then. He thought it was a pretty captive market; either people would buy from Pierre, and by extension him, or the Joja Mart. He didn’t think people were backing his farm in particular when buying their groceries. He did, however, realize his neglect of the town, his customers, and his friends in recent days, and had a hard time imagining the Junimos would be too happy about that.

    “You’re right, Harvey,” he admitted, if a bit reluctantly. “It’s Friday, I’ll work a half-day, get some books from the library and spend the evening at the saloon, which speaking of, I never see you at.”

    “I usually go to Hub Town for a movie on Fridays,” the doctor replied.

    “Skip it this week. You’re taking your own advice and joining me,” Archie gently demanded.

    Harvey looked very surprised at that development, and hummed and hawed for a couple of seconds while grasping for a response, before finally concluding that he would. “The movie will still be there on Saturday, I’ll see you later.”

    “Have a good day, Harvey, thanks for stopping by.”

    Archie kept true to his word, and made his way over to the library early in the afternoon, and it was one of the few times he saw anyone other than Gunther there, since Penny was teaching Vincent and Jas at one of the reading tables. Archie and Gunther greeted each other and small-talked about the upcoming Luau - which Gunther, his wife, and daughter would be attending this year, which was pleasing to Archie to hear before they got down to business.

    “Gunther, you forgot to send me the digital copy of the anthropologist’s field notes.” Archie stated directly.

    “I did not forget, Archie, the book went missing before I could scan it!”

    Archie looked at Gunther quizzically. “It went missing between you locking up and leaving for your daughter’s recital and the following morning?”

    Gunther held his palms out in front of himself. “Yes, Archie, between that and the previous museum curator stealing the exhibits, it’s been a very embarrassing year.”

    “You should put in cameras or something,” he suggested.

    “Funding cuts,” Gunther replied.

    Archie turned to leave the library. “I’ll put a notice up on the board. Happy hunting, Gunther.” Gunther said nothing.

    Archie thought something was wrong. There were too many coincidences happening at once, he realized, as he reviewed the facts in his head – Gunther refused to loan him the field notes, and then they went missing over that same night. Gunther wasn’t carrying any books when he got into his car at the end of that day. There were pretty few options left – either someone driving down the highway broke in to the library and took it, one of the townsfolk did, or it was there the following morning and Gunther was misleading him. If someone driving down the highway decided to stop for some overnight crime, the book was long gone and there was nothing he could do about it. As for the townsfolk, it would take Archie a while to look into it, but checking up on the last possibility would not be very difficult at all. He took a seat leaning up against a tree behind the library, reading and waiting, distracted by the intermittent metallic noises of the blacksmith’s shop.

    At around 3 in the afternoon, Archie heard the front door of the library open and shut, and he slipped around the tree to try to unobtrusively spot which way Gunther went. The librarian walked briskly up the path to the mountains, his blue jacket and hat bobbing slightly as he went. Archie had never seen him leave the library building before closing hours, nor go anywhere but to his car. He walked as quietly as he could, keeping to cover as much as he could. Gunther climbed the carved out staircase leading up to the mountain path, and Archie waited until he had climbed all the way before starting his own ascent.

    By the time Archie reached the top of the steps, Gunther was already out of sight. He bit back a curse out of frustration, but when he thought about it some more, he realized there were only so many places the errant librarian could have gone. The Adventurers’ Guild, Linus’ tent, Robin’s house, those were the only places that were up this way, and he would have to rush back to the library back the way he came. He inched his way into the entrance to the mine, from which he could sort of make out the adventurer’s guild and the tent while remaining largely hidden from view. The air inside the cave entrance was heavier and moister, cooler than the summer day outside, stale and stupefying. He stifled yawns as he watched and waited, before, a few minutes later, Linus emerged from his test and walked over to the ridge looking out over the mountain lake, with Gunther following shortly behind him. He wasn’t sure because of the distance, but it didn’t seem to him that either of them were carrying a book, but Archie thought he’d know exactly where to look when something gripped his shoulder, nearly startling him out of his wits as he wheeled around to see Marlon.

    “You weren’t heading into the mine, were you?” The older man asked.

    Archie was pretty tempted to lie about going mining, but decided it wasn’t worth covering his tracks about this. “Not today, though I’ve been told I should get to mining one of these days.”

    “Come by the guild first if you decide to. The mines aren’t empty, you know. Have a good day.” Marlon walked out as briskly as he said it, and by the time he left and Archie resumed his surveillance, neither Linus nor Gunther were in sight. Archie walked up to Linus’ tent and tapped on its exterior. Linus was not at home. He poked his head into the tent and didn’t see the book, before making his way back to the mountain lake to fish for a while before going home to get ready for the night at the saloon.

    Archie arrived at the saloon a little earlier than usual, with the intention of telling Leah and the misfits that he had invited Harvey along and asking them to be a bit more accommodating than they usually were, which wasn’t a complaint about them so much as mindfulness to Harvey’s own sense of loneliness and isolation. Among the misfits there was a bit of reluctance, but when the possibility of Sam winning a game of pool for once was raised he assented, with Sebastian even cracking a hint of a smile while Abigail didn’t particularly care one way or the other.

    As he usually did, he took his dinner in the main room at Leah’s table after placing his order with Emily and apprising her about his perspective on his trip the desert and the date, which he was surprised that Emily had heard very little about from Sandy herself given their friendship. He and Leah caught up on recent events – Archie’s trip to the desert, the date and farming at the start of the season, Leah’s art and the way her on-again off-again relationship with Elliott was switching on again. Harvey arrived, to the surprise of the bulk of the room, looking a bit nervous and apprehensive as Archie waved him over. The three of them talked and ate, mostly discussing the upcoming Luau. Archie shared the story of trying to persuade Gunther and his family to come, with his success at that uncertain. He kept the fact that his view of Gunther had diminished after the recent suspicious goings-on with the field notes to himself. Leah asked them what they’d bring for the communal soup, which was the first that Archie heard about this particular aspect of the festival, along with the fact that the provincial governor would be there to judge it. Leah was going to forage up something, and Harvey would bring some nutritious vegetable or another. Archie wasn’t sure, but he’d try to bring something good from his own harvests. As the conversation went on, the usually wound-up Harvey started to relax, and he hadn’t even been drinking. Archie excused himself and asked Harvey to join him in the arcade, where Leah joined them after finishing her own meal for a change.

    As with the nature walk, the dynamic in the arcade was very different when there were six people in it rather than the usual four. While the conversation started off restrained as everyone was feeling each other out, it quickly became freer-flowing as they played games and did their things. Leah watched Abigail sketching and gave some thoughts on technique, Sam and Harvey had a series of close games of pool because they were both comparably inept at it, but Sam’s light-heartedness added to the friendly atmosphere of it. Sebastian and Archie managed to have a more extensive conversation of their own than they ever did when Sebastian asked Archie what the idea behind all of this was.

    “The town’s so small it’s easy to feel alone, right?” Archie answered, rhetorically.

    Sebastian nodded. “Sure is, some of us embrace it more than others.”

    “Right, but I think it’s better to set things up so that people know they can choose to be alone together.”

    Sebastian gave Archie an inscrutable look. “That’s not alone anymore, is it?”

    “It’s more about the choice of it. Harvey didn’t think he could talk to anyone about anything other than their health. He still might not do it much after this, but he’ll know he can and that it’s up to him.”

    Sebastian took it in silently, and when Archie got up to do his social rounds of the room, Sebastian considered his typical position of being alone in the group, and how much of that was by choice.





    When the day of the Luau finally rolled around, Archie was struck by the fact that he’d be likely to have another confrontation at this festival, same as the last, though something he’d actually be able to anticipate this time, but he was also amped up slightly differently at the prospect of another visit from Sandy, and his morning coffee. His chores went quickly because he was brimming with caffeine, energy, and nervous tension, and all of that over a book and a beach party. The thought occurred to him that he could sneak up to Linus’ tent and pinch the book himself, but he felt surprisingly bad about the idea given how irritating the conspiracy around the book was. Maybe the experience at the Flower Dance, and with the Junimos, had softened his attitude, and Archie decided to try talking with him first. He hadn’t really spoken to him much, the conversation with Lewis on the day of the Flower Dance and the occasional pleasantries while fishing at the mountain lake notwithstanding.

    He was also surprised by the fact that he had packed swim trunks, or maybe his mom had thrown them in when he wasn’t paying attention when she came over to say goodbye before he moved out of the city. He wasn’t sure anymore, and while he didn’t much care for swimming, the heat, coupled with the humidity, made the idea of a dip in the sea appealing. He called Sandy to check when she’d be coming and to suggest that she bring some swimwear as well. She laughed and said of course he’d suggest that. He laughed and said that after sleeping with her, what’s the big deal about swimwear anyway?

    He was wrapping up the phone call and getting back to harvesting some crops when he saw Leah making her way up the dirt path leading from the river up toward his house. He put the phone in his pocket and jogged over to meet her. On closer inspection she looked a bit nervous, though not as much so as at the Flower Dance.

    “Hi Leah, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

    “I, uh, have a favour to ask of you.”

    Archie could tell she was apprehensive about something, but he wasn’t sure whether it was the act of asking, or the substance of the request.

    “Go on…” he urged her.

    The words practically flew out of Leah in her similarly heightened nervous state. “It’s a long story, and normally I wouldn’t ask something like this, oh Yoba, I’m rambling. Elliott asked out me on a date, and I’d like you and Sandy to join us and make it a double-date.”

    Archie had his own mixed feelings about the idea, and thinking them over was only making Leah more nervous about everything. “I don’t mind, personally, and Sandy’s coming for the Luau so I’ll discuss it with her before then. What’s the story?”

    Leah sighed in a mixture of relief and agitation. “I’d just feel less stressed about it that way…” she started, before cutting herself off with a different line of thought. “No, that’s not entirely true. I’m not so sure I should be doing it and I’d feel better about it if the focus wasn’t just on the two of us.”

    Archie nodded. “Still unpacking your thoughts about relationships?”

    “Yes, and trying to figure them out as far as relationships with him, specifically. I think having someone to discuss it with after the fact would be good, and, well, the only other couple in town is Alex and Haley, so you were my first choice.”

    Archie thought about it briefly. He still had a bit of a negative vibe about Elliott that Leah, in her optimism about people, seemed willing to forego for her own part. She had become a pretty good friend since his arrival, one awkward patch excluded, and he did want to help her out in her own search for happiness. “I’m in if Sandy is, and I’ll try to sell her on it during the Luau.”

    Leah startled Archie with a quick hug. “Thanks, Archie! I really appreciate it.”

    “Quick question?”

    “Yeah?”

    “What do people do after the main party part of the Luau?”

    “Not that much, typically. People hang around the beach for a bit but usually trail off pretty soon after.”

    “I’ve got an idea for something fun that’ll give you and Elliott a chance to meet Sandy beforehand. Do you have plastic wineglasses at home?”

    “Yes, actually.”

    Archie smiled reassuringly. “Perfect. If you can bring those and some long, thin branches with you to the beach, it’d be a big help. I’ll take care of the rest.”

    Leah eyed him, trying to figure out what the branches would be for. “Sure thing, Archie.”

    “Trust me, Leah, it’ll be fine.”

    “I’m not worried, Archie, just bring enough wine for me not to care even if it isn’t,” she joked.

    He clapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Deal. See you later.”

    Leah walked back along the southern path, looking more relaxed and secure in spite of Archie’s enigmatic surprise.

    Archie finished picking his crops and decided to bring a few fairly large ears of corn to add to the soup, before heading inside to shower. He figured he’d have about twenty minutes spare between getting everything ready and Sandy arriving. After toweling himself off and changing into his swim trunks and a t-shirt, he took a leisurely jog into town to stop in to Pierre’s store.

    Pierre was nowhere to be found, and Abigail was behind the register when Archie walked in, which didn’t bother Archie that much. They exchanged hellos before Archie went off in search of his grocery list for the evening; a couple of boxes of graham crackers, some chocolate, a jumbo bag of marshmallows, and two bottles of wine. As Abigail rang his purchase up, she quickly cottoned on to his overall plan. “Post-luau bonfire?” she asked him.

    Archie nodded. “Exactly.”

    “Can we come?”

    Archie thought it over quickly. “Yes, it just complicates a couple of things as far as what I was planning.”

    “And those are?” Abigail asked, impatiently.

    “I only bought enough stuff for 4 people, and it was going to be something akin to a double-date.”

    Abigail waved off the idea that that was any kind of problem. “I’ll bring stuff, and we’ll leave a bit earlier. Who’s the other couple?”

    “Leah and Elliott.”

    Abigail gave Archie an indecipherable look, but her tone said it all. “Oh, Yoba, not again…”

    After a few seconds of silence, Archie asked her to explain.

    Abigail sighed in vexation. “They’ve been on-again-off-again ever since Elliott moved here, and every time it’s off again it’s for the same reason.”

    “So he can write?” Archie ventured.

    Abigail shook her head. “That’s a pretext, not a reason. If you ask me, what happens every time is that Elliott decides he got what he wanted, then ignores her until the cycle starts again. It irritates me so much, seeing Leah go back and get hurt and disappointed over and over and over.”

    Archie, who had his own suspicions, pinched the bridge of his nose, pondering what he’d gotten himself into. “I was afraid of something like that.”

    She put a hand on Archie’s shoulder. “I don’t know why Leah and the town give him a free pass. It’s a strange thing. In some ways we’re so progressive and in others we’re so stuck in our thinking. Look, there’s no stopping them, but please look out for her as best you can, ok?”

    “I don’t know what that would even mean in this situation, Abigail.”

    “Yeah, it was a big ask. I understand.”

    “I’ll see you there. Enjoy the luau in spite of it.”

    He turned on his heel and walked out of the store, fuming, and already pretty sure how the night would play out regardless of whether Leah and Abigail’s apprehensions about Elliott were correct. He’d be a perfect gentleman in the early going, when outside eyes were on him, and no one would see abrupt change coming until it did.

    He made his way back to the bus stop, where Sandy parked her car in the makeshift lot in the meadow a few minutes later. They greeted each other excitedly and started walking back toward the farmhouse, filling each other in on their recent goings-on. True to his word, Archie explained the double-date proposal and his plans for the bonfire to her, asking her to let him know by the end of the night if she’d be up for the subsequent outing. He didn’t explain the wider situation with Leah and Elliott, but his verbal recoil at the idea that he was playing matchmaker clued Sandy in to the fact that something about the situation was not as it seemed, but they both let it go as they drank a cup of mint tea in preparation to walk down to the beach.

    “I’m still amazed at this place,” she said, speaking of the whole farmhouse.

    “It’s only a little smaller than my city apartment was,” he replied.

    “But no kitchen, though?”

    “I do miss having one of those. The town carpenter says she’s happy to add one to the house once the farm is profitable enough.”

    “When do you think that’ll be? You rarely talk about the business of the farm so much as the work of farming.”

    “About a year from now, I think? I’m not totally sure on it, but I’m starting to build up some profit.”

    “That’s respectable,” she said.

    “Yep,” Archie added, finishing his tea. “Want to change into your swimwear and then we’ll head down?”

    “It’s on under the sundress, actually,” she informed him, as they moved for the door, Archie grabbing up his bags full of groceries, corn, and firewood, and slinging them over his shoulders and leading her past the bus stop and toward the town. He pointed out the doctor’s office and the general store, the saloon and the houses, and the library and the smithy over the river. He told her what little he knew about who lived where. He knocked on the door to Emily and Haley’s house but they had already gone to the beach, it seemed, as there was no answer.

    “The town is also really small.” Sandy mused aloud.

    “Smaller than I ever thought it’d be.” He replied.

    “You grew up in one of the biggest cities in the Republic, how do you manage adjusting to that?”

    “By finding fulfillment in different things than I did in the city, the work I’m doing, finding ways to contribute to the town’s well-being that’ll stand a chance of recognition, honestly I think I’m becoming a better person since I moved here.”

    “You found some answers?” She asked.

    Archie grinned and nodded. “Not enough to make me stop asking you a million questions every time I see you, darling, but yes.”

    They crossed the bridge over the river and continued along the dirt track down to the beach, where an impressive scene had already begun. They were among the later arrivals, and whoever was organising the event had gone fairly all out, in Archie’s opinion. A massive pair of tiki statues flanked a large open fire-pit, where Linus was attending to roasting a pig while Gus was serving cocktails out of tiki mugs from behind a portable bar nearby, which had a pyramid of coconuts placed on it. He was lighting some of the drinks on fire. Island and surf music blared from a pair of speakers, while the bulk of the townsfolk were up to their respective somethings. Sam and Vincent were taking turns cannonballing off the docks, splashing anyone unfortunate enough to be caught nearby, which, in this case, was Gunther, and, presumably, his wife and daughter. Archie smiled. For all his frustration with the librarian lately, he was pleased to see the man spend a bit of time in the town he worked, though getting splashed absolutely served him right. He hoped his wife would warm up to the place a bit too. He suggested to Sandy that he’d set their bags down and then find Emily before introducing her to more of the town, which he did quickly, leaning them up against the side of Elliott’s cabin and unpacking a couple of beach towels for them to lie on later. Emily was at the far end of the docks, over by Willy’s house and shop and out of Sam and Vincent’s blast radius. She was both very surprised and happy to see her friend; leaving Archie a bit surprised himself that she hadn’t announced that she’d be coming. The surprise seemed to be a pleasant one though, as they giggled and hugged and caught each other up on their recent developments.

    Given that Sandy’s arrival wasn’t heralded by screeching brakes this time, and word of the farmer’s new relationship with the woman from the desert had spread like wildfire through the tiny town, the interest in her arrival was more muted than at the Flower Dance, though Haley continued to make a point of avoiding the three of them. They made a point of greeting Lewis, who was standing in the shadow of a larger stranger who turned out to be the provincial governor, and who seemed familiar to everyone else who was actually from that province. Lewis seemed a bit anxious, but was much happier to see Archie and Sandy alike this time. Lewis explained that the Luau was the one event each year that the governor made a point of coming out to, to check up on the region and its agricultural products, its skilled crafts, and its economy. The governor had some brief words about being pleased about Archie restoring the farm, and how he’d consider buying a retirement property here. He greeted Sandy with a more rigid, if effusive politeness born of greater familiarity than he even spoke to Lewis with in his capacity of one elected representative to another. Cactus Town is closer to Zuzu City and bigger, no wonder she’d see him more, he thought.

    Sandy handled most of the rest of the introductions with the same seemingly effortless grace that Archie found so attractive in her to begin with. She seemed to have a knack for talking to almost anyone. A quick compliment toward Abigail’s sense of style here, a hearty laugh at one of Sam’s awful jokes there, and by and large, by the time Archie had introduced her to most of his friends and acquaintances around town, they were favourably disposed toward her. While she didn’t outright alienate anyone, there were a few blind spots – she actually didn’t relate particularly well to Leah and Elliott at all, because while she had a great designer’s sensibility as far as her tastefully decorated house, she was not particularly keen on art, and had considerably more difficulty relating to the pair of artists. Archie wondered about whether it would have been any different with him in slightly different circumstances. He had put his theatrical career on hold, but an idealistic artistic sensibility definitely drove him before his transition to the farming life. The idealism persisted, the aesthetic obsession, he was less sure.

    He had a couple of conversations that he wanted to have, so he excused himself from Sandy and Emily and bee-lined for Gunther and his family. The librarian and his wife and gotten a safe distance from Sam and Vincent, though his daughter, who was about Vincent’s age, was playfully needling him from the edge of the dock and exchanging splashes with him.

    “Gunther, I’m glad you and your family made it,’ he offered by way of greeting.

    “I appreciate your insistence on it,” the librarian replied. “Ella seems to be enjoying herself,” he added, gesturing over toward his daughter, “and that roast pig smells phenomenal.”

    Gunther’s wife seemed a bit on edge, but, on glancing over toward their daughter laughing and registering her husband’s sense of enjoyment of the event, her own disposition lightened up a bit. “So you’re the one who hectored him into bringing us here?” she asked.

    “I didn’t think anyone hectored him,” Archie replied, a bit nervously. “I just made it clear that we welcomed him, and his family, being here for more than his work, though I’m hardly a representative of the town.”

    She laughed as she faced Gunther. “There is a charm to these people, dear.” Turning back to Archie, she moved to excuse herself. “Excuse me, young man, I should speak to that child’s parents,” she said, gesturing in Vincent’s direction, “can you point me to them?”

    Archie scanned the beach and saw Jodi near the fire pit, and pointed her out to Gunther’s wife. “Over there, with the long, straight red hair. Her name is Jodi.”

    “And his father?”

    “Off to war, regrettably,” he said simply.

    She nodded in understanding and hurried down the dock to the beach, leaving Archie and Gunther alone and in a considerably more awkward state.

    The two men stared at each other uncomfortably for a moment until Archie broke the impasse. “I’m gladder that you’re here than I am annoyed with you, Gunther.”

    Gunther continued to regard him uneasily, as Archie continued. “It’s nice to see the town get to know you and your family a little better, you were unintentionally secretive leaving town right after work every day, you know?”

    “I suppose it is, Archie,” Gunther replied, mechanically.

    “Are you still concerned about that whole business with the anthropologist’s field notes?”

    “I’d be lying if I said otherwise,” Gunther admitted.

    “Don’t be.”

    “Not interested anymore?” The librarian asked.

    “Quite the opposite,” Archie started, with Gunther looking a bit crestfallen, “but it’s not your problem anymore.”

    “I beg your pardon?” Gunther responded, incredulously.

    “I know you gave it to Linus. I’m going to talk with him about it as soon as I finish up with you. Now the whole business with the book is his responsibility. Enjoy your Luau,” Archie told him, turning to walk back down the dock as Gunther stood there looking at him, partially stunned. Archie quickly cut back across the beach toward the fire pit, where he noticed Gunther’s wife and Jodi having an animated conversation nearby. He didn’t overhear much, but he presumed that Jodi thought it was good for Vincent to have someone else close to his age around, and that playdates might be arranged. He wondered how Jas would take that.

    He watched Linus rotating the spit for a couple of minutes before interrupting him with a question: “Where did you learn to glaze and roast a pig?”

    “The Volcano Islands, years ago,” Linus responded. “Though, it’s not quite the same without fresh pineapples.”

    “I understand that you did a lot of traveling between leaving here and coming back.”

    “Decades worth of it,” the wild man replied with a nod.

    “Like Emily and Haley’s parents?” he asked.

    “A bit different to them. More living local for a while at a stretch than going place-to-place. You get to know a place better that way when you’re not concerned about time.”

    Archie had a hunch, a gut feeling, that this simple conversation had pieced part of the puzzle together. “And its people, I gather,” he said simply.

    “Yes, them too.”

    “I didn’t take you for being all that interested in culture in general, since you seem to shun it here,” he said, trying to sound more matter-of-fact than judgmental.

    Linus scoffed. “I’ve seen enough culture to last a dozen lifetimes. The biggest cities in the world, remote communities, and you know what all the accumulated civilization of the planet is building toward?”

    Archie shook his head.

    “Suffering and Joja Marts. War and pollution. I’ve had enough of culture.” Linus said, beginning to redden.

    “Then why did you go through all the trouble to get hold of the field notes about Pelican Town? I know Gunther gave them to you to keep them from me.”

    Linus nodded, his face still flushed. “You’re cleverer than your grandfather was.”

    “And you’re avoiding the question.”

    “Hardly,” Linus spat. “I know those notes. I know there are things in them that you won’t want to read, and there are things in there I don’t want you to read. Now what do you want them for?”

    When Archie put it into words, he realized how foolish some of it sounded: “To try to get some insight into why my grandfather gave me his farm and what the Junimos want from me. To figure out where I am so I can figure out why I’m here. The same things I’ve wanted since I got here.” He paused, deciding to end the game they were playing, “I wanted to ask you nicely to let me read them, rather than steal the book back from your tent while you had a pig to watch or make a scene while the governor’s here. What’ll it be?”

    “You might be even more stubborn than your grandfather, and I’m telling you that as a warning, because while it isn’t obvious, that cost him. Come by my tent another day, I’d rather be around when you read them.”

    He nodded, thanked him, and walked off with more questions than he started with.

    Before rejoining Sandy and Emily, he stopped at his bag to pick up the corn he’d brought for the communal soup, and handed the ears off to Marnie, who was charged with cooking it. She seemed happy about his contribution, while Shane was helping with some of the rest of the prep for the soup, scowling. Archie greeted him and Shane promptly told him to leave him alone. Archie was not put off by this in the least, having enough people around who enjoyed his company. He said hello to Evelyn and George, Caroline, Pierre and Jodi, Willy and Clint. Sandy had taken up a spot on one of the beach towels near Elliott’s cabin, and Archie joined her on the adjacent one. Alex and Sam were throwing a Frisbee nearby. Sandy lifted her sunglasses to look at Archie eye-to-eye.

    “You keep strange company,” she said.

    “How so?” Archie asked.

    “You’ve hardly said a word to people of our generation all day,” she said.

    “Actually, this is a bit of a rare exception, and we’ll have the bonfire for that,” he replied, going on to explain about it being the first time Gunther came to town for any reason other than to work, and Linus agreeing to share some historical field notes on the valley with him so he could learn more about his new home.

    Sandy looked at him strangely, shrugged, and put her sunglasses back down, enjoying the sun. Archie took off his shirt, applied some sunscreen, and lay down on his own towel, lobbing the tube toward Sandy’s side in case she wanted to use it. Archie’s farmer’s tan, considering his pale skin tone and tendency to freckle rather than tan was still fairly pronounced from all the time he was spending outside during the summer. He hadn’t really afforded himself the time to just lie on the beach or live idly. Even his fishing was purposeful, and he felt a great deal of contentment lying there with Sandy next to him before the heat began to get to him and he decided to go swimming in the ocean before the roast pig and the soup were ready. The water was cooler than he expected, the shock of the abrupt change in temperature jolting him into a more wakeful state. Sandy joined him not long after and they swam, roughhoused and splashed each other for a while before returning to the beach when Lewis announced over the PA system that the festival meal was being served. They hastily swam back to shore and toweled off before the wider community came together to see how their soup, with one ingredient per person, turned out.

    While Archie expected they’d all have their soup at once, it was apparently a tradition that the governor taste it first and judge it for all to hear. He couldn’t help but wonder how that would go if the soup were judged to be bad; and the governor poisoned everyone’s expectations of it before they had a chance to try it. He shook his head as he listened to the governor pronounce it to be a good, but not exceptional soup. Then Archie’s mind wandered to how gazpacho would probably make a lot more sense than a hot soup on a blazing mid-summer’s day while he collected his own bowl of soup and found himself agreeing with the governor, which most of the town also did. Linus served him a healthy chunk of one of the pig’s cheeks – not a cut Archie was particularly accustomed to, but Linus assured him it was the best part of the pig, which Archie couldn’t help but agree with after finding it almost impossibly tender, juicy, and flavorful. He marveled at the mystery of how Linus had done it, and he shared it with Sandy, who was similarly impressed. They stopped by the bar where Gus had taken a break from serving the exotic flaming cocktails. Pam was struggling to stay balanced on her elbows on the bar-top and looking pretty unsteady.

    Archie looked at Gus inquisitively, as if to ask how he allowed Pam to reach that point. “Pam, are you alright?” he asked her.

    She mumbled something that Archie interpreted as “haven’t been in years” before lolling over to one side, looking as though she was going to pitch over off her stool and into the dune below, before swatting her arm out in Sandy’s general direction, continuing to ramble incoherently.

    Archie turned to Sandy, “Join me while I get her home safely?” he asked.

    Sandy didn’t look thrilled about it but assented, while Archie hauled Pam off of the stool and propped her up, preparing to slowly amble up the beach. He looked back toward Gus. “How often does she get like this?”

    Gus was silent, looking on guiltily.

    “Too much. I understand. Find Penny and tell her we brought Pam home.”

    Archie walked between the slumping Pam on one side and Sandy on the other, up the dunes and onto the path leading into town. What would normally be a pretty brisk walk was fairly ponderous, and the whole of the trip was made more unpleasant by Pam’s moments of comprehensibility, during which she lashed out at Archie, and, to Archie’s greater embarrassment, at Sandy, having gotten so smashed as to mistake her for her daughter. She ranted about how Archie had no right to interfere, and about how Penny would never amount to anything, even trying to lunge across Archie to take a swipe at Sandy a couple of times to accentuate an ill-conceived point. When they got to the trailer, he tightened his grip on Pam while he asked Sandy to fish the keys out of her purse, before carting her inside while Sandy waited on the doorstep. He set her down across the couch on her side, and pulled over a waste-paper basket that he stuck a fresh bag into. He scribbled a quick note that he pinned down underneath one of the two large glasses of water he left on the coffee table for her. The note simply read, “We need to talk”.

    He emerged from the trailer to see a distraught-looking Penny running up from the beach with Sam trailing well behind. He took Sandy’s hand and walked toward them.

    After ascertaining that Pam was relatively OK, which is to say as well as can be hoped for, considering, she stammered out a mixture of thanks and apologies to Archie and Sandy – thanks for bringing Pam home, apologies for not being around to take care of it herself and ruining their Luau. Archie shook his head. “I’d rather not have, but given the circumstances, I’m glad I did. Go have a look, but I’d keep my distance from her.”

    Penny zipped into the trailer while Sandy whispered to Archie. “I don’t envy that poor girl.”

    Archie nodded grimly. “Me neither. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.”

    Sam remained silent, but the tension in his shoulders and fierceness of his blush and glare alike gave a clear outward sign of how he felt about the whole business. Eventually, he murmured to Archie, “This has got to stop.” The three of them exchanged looks of uncertainty, though Sam seemed relieved; perhaps just to have said it out loud to someone else.

    Inside the trailer, Penny was pleasantly surprised by Archie’s handling of her mother, until she saw the note under the glass of water and tensed up, before gently plucking the note out, and carrying it with her to her room where she tore it up and put it in her own waste-paper basket before sinking onto her knees and sobbing into her hands.

    Though the incident had cast a pall over all of their moods, the three of them returned to the beach determined to enjoy their after-party millennials-only bonfire. The governor had left in the interim, and Lewis was supervising the older adults, plus Leah, Elliott, Maru, Sebastian, and Alex, dismantling the decorations, while Gus was packing away the bar. When he saw them returning, he set down a pair of bottles and jogged over, himself looking emotionally exhausted as well. “I am so sorry about that,” he said.

    Sam began laying into Gus verbally, ranting, if quietly, but with a hard edge, about his recklessness enabling Pam, before Archie managed to interrupt him.

    “Gus, on the walk to the trailer, Pam mistook my girlfriend for Penny, let loose some vicious insults and took a couple of swings at her.”

    Gus looked fretful and dismayed at the point-blank revelation. “You owe Penny an apology, and much more,” Archie continued. “And we’re going to find a way to address this. Not right now, but I am not going to let you off the hook. We’ve got a Town Hall meeting next week. Think of something by then, please.”

    Sam looked like he had a great deal more to say, but also seemed strangely satisfied at the resolution, whereas Sandy looked on feigning impassiveness but her own sharp mind at work trying to assess the situation and Archie alike in his handling of it. After they left Gus alone and walked down toward the water, Sandy asked him, “Are you really planning to take that family issue public?”

    Archie nodded, and without hesitation, answered affirmatively. “Yes. It stopped being a family issue when she took a swipe at you.”

    Sandy wasn’t entirely comfortable with his answer but didn’t have a counter-argument ready.

    The next little while was quieter as Archie started setting up the campfire with little to no knowledge about setting up campfires. He eventually managed to get a mixture of bark, twigs, and starter fluid to catch without creating a towering inferno pillar of flame, and the larger logs from trees he’d cut down around the farm heated up and ignited as well. Eventually people moved their beach towels around the fire and sat around it, not looking for warmth on the balmy midsummer’s evening, but welcoming the light and convivial atmosphere. Archie and Sandy sat by Leah and Elliott, with the misfits completing the circle, Sam sitting next to Sandy on the other side, flanked by Sebastian, with Abigail sitting next to Elliott. The wine flowed fairly liberally, though Archie and Sam were relatively restrained in their consumption after the incident with Pam earlier. They took their sticks and roasted marshmallows over the fire, a long conversation starting that was punctuated by sips of wine and bites of s’mores.

    Being a relative stranger, Sandy was the object of many questions that weren’t asked by Archie for a change. Leah asked about the landscape of the desert, and while Sandy did it justice in her explanation, Archie added his own details, mentioning the views from the cliffs and the dinosaur fossil that he had forgotten to suggest Penny take the children to see. Sam was also interested in that idea and said he’d bring it up with Penny if Archie forgot. Sebastian, once again, mentioned that the daytime weather of the desert didn’t suit him, but talked about loving motorcycling through it at night. Abigail didn’t seem as interested in getting out to the desert in particular so much as getting out of Pelican Town for a little while in general, while Leah expressed interest in wanting to try painting different landscapes and vistas. Elliott didn’t think the change of scene would affect his writing much, but was on board to go anyway.

    The possibilities of group trips being raised was one topic that Archie largely stayed out of, though it made him happy to see people taking interest in places outside their sleepy little town.

    They discussed the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies next, that being the next Pelican Town festival, and one that Archie actually had some recollection of from visiting his grandfather as a small child. More so than past luaus, the bioluminescent jellyfish made a strong impression on him, and he expressed an almost childlike glee at getting to see them again, something that Sandy found both surprising and at least slightly endearing, along with the rest of the crowd. Archie mentioned that he’d already invited Sandy, and that his sister was also going to be coming to visit. People asked about Archie’s sister, and he explained that she was very different to him, a high-powered businesswoman with focused ambitions as opposed to his intellectual and idealistic drifting. Leah, recalling the telephone conversation between Archie and his sister that she had overheard, asked how they generally got along. Pretty well, Archie told them, though like any sibling, she knew which buttons to push to aggravate him on those rare occasions that she chose to. He was happy to introduce her to everyone when the festival happened. Sandy smirked as she remarked that his sister sounded like her, putting an arm around Archie’s shoulder. Returning to the talk of the festival, even Sebastian, who was usually pretty restrained discussing anything he was excited about, told them that he found something tranquil and comforting in the jellyfish’s annual migrations. Sam joked that it was because it was a festival that took the focus off of people for a change, though there was a core of truth to what he was saying - most of the rest of the assembled people thought. “It’s a more interesting topic for a festival than eggs, anyway,” Sebastian said, his dislike of eggs evident in his tone.

    Sandy found the beach agreeable – while the desert looked out to sea from its plateau, she rarely got to the base of the cliffs or any beaches in the area. The oasis wasn’t quite the same as an ocean, and while she liked the ocean, like Archie saw when they went on their date, she looked more to the city than the sea. Elliott gave his impressions of living on the beach. Those were a bit surprising because aside from the relaxing background sound of waves crashing into the shore, there wasn’t that much Elliott actually liked about it. He didn’t surf, or swim particularly much, so he rarely made use of the proximity to the water that he had, looking to the sea and its changes of temperament as inspiration for his writing. Sandy asked him what it was he was writing, and while he wasn’t that much more forthcoming than he had been when he discussed dialogue with Archie in the springtime, the answer surprised Archie: “It is a novel about writing, very post-modern, I know, but about the sacrifices that have to be made in the name of art, and whether they’re worth it or not.”

    Abigail and Archie immediately glanced toward Leah, who seemed surprisingly un-phased about having been one of the sacrifices Elliott made. “That doesn’t sound like my kind of book,” Sandy told him, “but I wish you luck.” Elliott tried to represent his writing a bit better to Sandy, with little success. Though Archie didn’t mention it out loud, he found that this was one of the similarities between himself and Elliott – their tendency to overthink and intellectualize life, whereas she was more preoccupied with living it. That was one of the ways Archie thought opposites attracted between himself and her, her occasional frustration at his questions and approach to problems notwithstanding.

    They kept on talking as a large group until Abigail, Sam, and Sebastian excused themselves shortly before midnight, leaving just the two new couples. The dynamic shifted slightly no sooner than the trio were over the dune leading up to the path to town. Leah scooted closer to Elliott and leaned against him, with Elliott lazily draping an arm around her hip. Archie was surprised at how natural it all looked given their awkward history.

    “What are the odds that two people would come here around the same time to turn this place into an artist’s colony?” Sandy asked, idly.

    “We’re artists, not mathematicians,” Archie said, lumping himself into that category in spite of his limited artfulness lately, eliciting a snort from Sandy.

    “The rents were inexpensive,” Elliott pointed out. “A pre-requisite for artists. Apparently, with the collapse of the local mining industry, there were too many houses, not enough people, and not much real estate value. My cabin…” he said, gesturing to the shack behind the fire pit, “had been unoccupied almost as long as Archie’s farmhouse, from what I’m told.”

    “It’s not just that, though,” Leah added, “there is something beautiful about the landscape and the pace of life here that’s conducive to it. You get to know yourself, and be yourself, and that’s so important to making art. I’ve been so much more productive than when I was living in Zuzu City that it’s hard to believe.”

    “Think you’d want to stay when you strike it rich, you two?” Archie asked them.

    Leah unhesitatingly said she would while Elliott said he wasn’t sure. The city still held a great deal of attraction to him, though he admitted that once he could get his first book out of the way, he could do it from anywhere. Leah turned the question around on Archie, about whether he thought he would stay in Pelican Town long-term.

    “Yeah, I think I would. The stuff I miss about the city seems small compared to feeling the fulfilment of farming and feeling like I have a place in the world,” he answered.

    “What about you, Sandy?” Leah asked, excitedly.

    “I like visiting the valley, but it’s the desert or the city that are in my future,” she replied. “I’ve got my home and my business, and a pretty good life.” She turned to Archie. “What would you say to a commute from Cactus Town?”

    Archie certainly never considered it. “There are good reasons to be in the fields close to dawn, I’m not sure it’s commuting work,” he said simply, trying not to think too much about the implications going forward. “Though I have no idea what I’d do here in the winter; and the desert seems like an appealing place then.”

    No one around the bonfire actually knew what winter farming would be like. Archie had no immediate haste to add animals to the farm, which he imagined would be the bulk of any winter work and income, but the price of barns and feed held limited appeal. He’d have to ask Pierre, or resign himself to taking seasonal vacations, like a reverse schoolteacher, just without the accompanying income.

    More wine and small-talk flowed; with Sandy agreeing to the double-date sometime early in the autumn since her schedule was already a bit off with her two summer trips to the valley. As one-in-the-morning approached, the two couples’ respective focuses narrowed away from conversations and inward, toward enjoying time with each other rather than company. After a while of silent cuddling Archie suggested it may be time to call it for the evening. Sandy agreed, and Elliott and Leah decided they’d sit by the fire a bit longer. Archie debated asking Leah if she was going back to hers, but decided it wasn’t his business even if he was suspicious of Elliott’s motives. It was, ever and always, her choice. Though a bit disquieted about that, he packed up the towels and leftover marshmallows into his bag and joined Sandy for the walk up to the farmhouse, letting Sandy know he was glad she came for the festival, even if a lot of things got in the way of them spending as much time together as he would have liked. She didn’t seem fazed, but he assured her he’d make it up to her even if it was only a perceived problem on his end.

    They were both unsure what direction their relationship was going, or even where they wanted it to, but both wanted to enjoy it in the present. It was the first time that Sandy had slept over, and she was surprised at how comfortable the house was with the nighttime breeze drifting through the window, along with the sounds of the forest animals, the likes of which she didn’t hear, due to the limited wildlife and how loud the desert gales could get. They cuddled closely both out of wanting to and the circumstances of the cramped bed; though Archie thought it was more comfortable than her couch. They kissed, caressed each other, and explored each other’s bodies, which was vastly more enjoyable than their impromptu exploration of their own futures was. When they woke up to the rooster crowing at the early hour of midsummer dawn, Archie spied a look of contentment on her face along with that of surprise at the novelty of being woken up by a rooster. They smiled at each other and went back to sleep.





    After the Luau, when Sandy drove back to the desert and after Archie had spent a good chunk of his day in the fields, he finally decided to take the initiative on what his sister had asked him to do some weeks back. In order to do that, he would need some help, and from Leah, specifically, so after cleaning himself up he passed by her cottage, only to hear her shouting at someone on the phone this time. When she started shouting at him to stop calling, he pieced together that it was her controlling ex-boyfriend from the city. He stepped away from the door for a bit and waited it out, and a couple of minutes later, Leah, blushing and flustered, burst out of her cottage only to notice Archie standing not very far outside. The absurdity of the situation dawned on her too.

    “So,” she said with a forced laugh, “how much did you hear?”

    “A sentence or two, but enough to guess who you were shouting at,” he answered, fairly honestly. “I actually wanted to ask a favour of you, or, I guess you could call it a commission.”

    “You want me to make you art?” She asked, slightly incredulously.

    “Nothing as lofty as art in its glorious subjectiveness this time, sorry, I need a logo for the farm and I’d like you to design it. I can’t pay a huge amount, maybe 4500 Guilders.”

    “Throw in a couple of veggie baskets and you have a deal. What are you using the logo for?”

    “Stickers for the produce, marketing, a website one day, maybe. I think that by the fall I’ll be able to grow more than there’s local demand for. Even now, Pierre is saying I’d better start making jam out of my blueberries, because there isn’t much more of a market here. Not like I can make much jam on my tiny hot plate…”

    Leah excitedly agreed; she was glad to have a paying project to tide her over while she literally chipped away at the sculptures she actually wanted to spend her time making. With that first stage taken care of, he looped through town and up to the mountains to go to Robin and her family’s house before stopping in to see Linus and read the field notes. He entered through the carpenter’s shop door, raising excitement and false hopes for Robin that there was going to be a big woodworking job for her. He hadn’t really caught up with Robin since the Flower Dance, and they exchanged small talk about how their respective business was going, and his grandfather’s old house. He mentioned that his girlfriend seemed to prefer something more modern, which Robin scoffed at. For her part, the wood panelling of thirty years ago’s home décor trends had never and would never go out of style. He asked if Sebastian was in, as he wanted to commission him for a job. This was even more surprising to Robin, who pointed Archie toward the basement, where Sebastian lived, and told him to knock very loudly. Archie did. Some muffled muttering and a few seconds later, Sebastian opened up his door, clearly surprised to see the farmer there.

    “Hey Archie,” he said with a bit of a yawn, walking past Archie and up the stairs. “Good timing, I need some more coffee before I get back to work, what brings you here?”

    Archie followed him up to the kitchen. “I have an upcoming job that I wanted to see if you can and would be willing to do. I’m not sure I can pay you what it’s worth, but I can pay.”

    “What’s the job?”

    “Leah’s making me a logo for the farm that I’m going to need digitized, and that would look good printed on something as small as a produce sticker.”

    Sebastian considered it, looking surprised. “Holy Yoba, Archie, you do not mess around with the easy jobs. It’s outside my usual expertise – I can do it, it’ll just take me some extra time to research how to approach editing graphics for small-surface printing. I’m a programmer; I just dabble with image editing.”

    “How much do you think is a fair price for it?”

    “4000. 500 an hour for 3 hours of research, 1250 an hour for 2 hours of work.”

    “Alright,” Archie said, offering a handshake to seal the deal, thinking about how over half of his forthcoming blueberry harvest’s profits were about to get expended, but it was an investment that his sister assured him needed to be made. “Pleasure doing business.”

    “Stick around for coffee,” Sebastian offered, to Archie’s surprise. Archie agreed. They discussed a range of topics – the bonfire, Sebastian’s current freelance contract, Archie and Sandy, Leah and Elliott, Abigail’s suspicions, much of the gossip. While Sebastian could be aloof sometimes, he was keenly perceptive of what was going on around town, and he had his opinions of them, even if it sometimes took a great deal of coaxing to get them out of his mind and into the open. At some point during their discussion, Demetrius walked into the kitchen looking for some coffee of his own, and was surprised to see Sebastian above ground, and talking with someone. Archie and the scientist exchanged greetings before he puttered back off to his lab. Shortly after, Sebastian excused himself to get back to work, leaving Archie to pass back through Robin’s shop on his way out. He thanked her and let her know that Sebastian was going to help digitize his farm’s new logo, which Robin thought was almost as wonderful as building farm buildings on his property would be, or expanding his house, or renovating it to fit his girlfriend’s modern sensibilities. Archie said he’d keep it in all in mind for when he could afford it with a weary laugh while Robin cackled to herself.

    He pressed on along the plateau to Linus’ tent. The older man was standing by his fire-pit, looking out over the mountain lake, when he heard Archie approaching. Without turning around, he told Archie to take a seat, which Archie did next to the ashen logs. After a few minutes, Linus turned to walk back toward his tent, pausing to let Archie know, “rain tomorrow”.

    “Forecast was just for cloud and wind,” he replied, having watched it after waking up.

    “They’re wrong. It’ll rain,” Linus repeated. Archie shrugged and waited while Linus dipped into his tent and returned with the field notes. “I hope you find this worth it,” he said, gently depositing the book on Archie’s lap.

    “So do I,” Archie said, flicking open the front cover:

    Notes on a Cultural Probe of Mining Towns

    L. Forester – Department of Anthropology

    Ferngill University – Zuzu Campus

    He glanced over at Linus then back to the book, skimming it for topics of interest, Junimos, agriculture, and mining, the intersections of which the migrants to Ferngill from the Finegan family occupied.

    Pages 17-18, [dated 44 years ago]: While Yoba-worship is pervasive in the Stardew Valley region, the rural farming and mining towns have developed their own regional variations on the faith and spirituality more broadly. Ensconced between the Cindersnap Forest, the Gem Sea, and the Sawtooth mountain range, the hamlet of Pelican Town, population 247, is a prime example of such variations. In contrast with monotheistic Yoba-worship, local superstition holds that mischievous spirits from within the mountains, roughly analogous to the Aos Sì of the Emerald Isles – traverse the mines causing mischief, occasionally foraying into the town itself. Rumours of dwarves and subterranean monsters abound, particularly among the miners.1 The fishermen have their own nautical superstitions, of merfolk and sirens, misleading will o’ the wisps in storms, and even ghost ships prowling the waves in search of no one knows what. Those who make their homes in the forest make occasional offerings to the Junimos, purported to be helpful nature spirits. While evidence of their existence, and helpfulness, is thin on the ground, the troubles that befall the miners and those who eke out their living at sea largely pass over the forest.

    1) Minor injuries to the miners beyond the ordinary scope of their exertions are startlingly more common than one would expect out of a town with an entrenched mining culture for three generations. It seems that hardly a shift goes by without some poor sod getting dazed by a rock falling on his cap.

    He continued leafing through the book, finding the tone changing from the dry, detached, academic one into a more involved one as the anthropologist stayed in the town longer and longer, and got to know more of the people living there.

    Page 53, [dated 42 years ago]: This summer, one of the farms in the Cindersnap Forest part of Pelican Town, experienced a boom that could scarcely be believed. The other farmers produced about the same as they always had in spite of the soil not being significantly different from property to property, a fact confirmed by Professors Grattan (Geology) and Rathborne (Agronomy). Initially, the owner of the property in question, Lachlan Finegan, claimed it was the luck of the Emerald Isles following him. The town is more inclined to point their fingers toward the Junimos, and each explanation is about as likely as the other. It defies both description and belief.

    “Did anyone ever find out if that first boom year on the farm was thanks to the Junimos?” Archie asked Linus.

    “Yes,” he replied, “he did, so keep reading.”

    Archie kept skimming the book, picking out an observation of interest here and there, but it wasn’t until another entry dated several years later that the entry Linus was referring to came up.

    Page 119, [dated 39 years ago]: Over the past few years where I would take my summers doing fieldwork here, I have benefitted from the friendship of the fortunate farmer, Lachlan Finegan both in terms of company and his astute cultural observations about life in Pelican Town being the way it is because of the particular configurations with which nature, culture, and the economy intersect here. Today, while his wife was making a social call to the Mullner house, we sat sipping whiskey in his farmhouse, as cozy as it was cramped, when I observed a great change in my friend’s behaviour. It was not habitual for him to start his drinking alone, which I brushed off at the time as he was only more animated than usual for his intoxicated state, though he seemed more disinterested in our line of conversation. As I realized some hours and tumblers later, that was because he had something very specific he wanted to say, something that he had hidden for a long time and that had weighed heavily on him, but that he only felt that he could express in a less coherent frame of mind.

    “It was the Junimos,” he said.

    “What was the Junimos?” I asked him.

    “The farm,” he told me, guiltily, as though all of his effort in building and maintaining it, and the good it did the stability of the town was all rendered invalid. “The boom years, it’s all because of them, and what I’ve offered them. Oh, Yoba, what I’ve offered them,” he near to wailed, burying his face in his hands.

    I took a long and anxious sip of my whiskey and put a hand on my friend’s shoulder.

    “I pledged my life to this place, but that wasn’t enough for them, oh no, not nearly enough,” he began, his voice shaking. “Not just me, but one of my descendants.”

    Archie stopped reading, stunned, as he tried to piece together the consequences of that sentence in his own mind, while Linus turned away. He felt nauseated.

    His voice shaking, he tried to get the older man’s attention. “Linus?”

    Linus’ response was strained as well. “It’s in there. I told you that you wouldn’t like it, but you might as well commit to it, now.”

    With a deep breath and belaboured movements, he opened the book and kept reading.

    The explanation was a muddled one, as much due to the whiskey as his own perturbed state. At first, I wasn’t sure of what the problem was, since he hoped to keep the farm in the family anyway, though his daughter was ill-disposed to taking it over. The subtle tendrils of the Junimos influence would ensure that whoever that hapless descendant was, however many generations down the line, they would never enjoy any greater success in their lives than running this farm in this remote mining town.

    He swore me to secrecy about what he had told me, and in my cowardice, I agreed.

    Suddenly Archie saw all his failures in the city in a new light. Sure, he was an unmotivated millennial in a difficult job market, but perhaps he also kept failing for reasons beyond his control. And while the Junimos were pleasant enough in their stated goals for local harmony with nature and among the townsfolk, they were not, universally, nice, in human terms. As much as he had come to enjoy farming, and found fulfillment in the work, in the moment he finished that paragraph, he wanted nothing more in that moment than to leave for the city or the desert, to go back to his struggle to find his own way, against the current of fate the Junimos had dumped him in, and to never look back.

    Grimly, he kept reading, the next entry of note was dated about ten days later.

    I could only in good conscience keep what Lachlan told me a secret from the town, but not his wife, who had also become a friend, and who had every right to know what Lachlan had signed their bloodline up for. She had a grudging and superstitious respect for the Junimos, but that didn’t stop her from being absolutely livid. In the next few days, she’ll be going to Mayor Lewis, the local officiant, to start the process of divorce. Any trust whereby the townsfolk would help me with my research, however, is shot to pieces. I don’t expect I’ll be returning after the end of this summer.

    “The Mayor Lewis my grandmother went to for her divorce; he was the current mayor’s father?” Archie asked.

    “His grandfather. The Lewis family was in the habit of marrying and having children early, the current mayor being the exception.”

    “I thought Lewis was his first name.”

    “It’s the first name everyone calls him.”

    The divorce was finalized quickly, creating rumour and scandal in the town and one further surprise for me. The former Mrs. Aisling Finegan asked me to take her to Zuzu City rather than her staying in Pelican Town.

    The final entry was dated much more recently, only sixteen years ago:

    I came back to Pelican Town for only the second time since leaving with Aisling. The first was two years ago, when, after a happy and travel-filled period as my companion, she died. I thought I owed it to my old friend to tell him in person. The town has been in disarray since I left, the local mining industry is near to collapse, but the farm marches on as ever it has.

    With the benefit of years to reflect on it, Lachlan forgave me for telling his secret and ruining his marriage, though maybe he always cared more about the farm and the Junimos than it. He invited me to take up residence here again, something I have to admit I had considered but didn’t for fear of the past.

    Lachlan confided one open secret to me, having no fear of me breaking his trust with it. He has grown sick and expects to live only another two years or so.

    This most recent time was when he died. Like my relationship with his former wife, his former farm, and his former town, my relationship with him was a complex one, but one where I wanted to be present when his soul was steered off of this great green Earth. My anthropological survey is a dead project, but with all those intervening changes in my life I may yet stay in Pelican Town.

    “You wrote this.” Archie said aloud to Linus, half-asking and half-telling. He had pieced together that Linus was an old friend of his grandfather’s with exposure to the Junimos.

    “Yes,” the older man said.

    “I need some time alone,” Archie said, getting up and starting his long walk back toward the farm, book in hand, and a torrent of negative emotions; anger, fear, anxiety and helplessness, in his heart.



    The rest of the summer Archie kept to himself, continuing to work toward growing the farm but resenting it at every turn. If the forecasts called for rain the next day, he’d hustle through his chores and catch the bus to the desert, eager to be out of the Junimos’ grasp and in Sandy’s for a while. Pelican Town started to feel a bit insufferable, not because anyone was aggravating him in particular, except for Pierre. The shopkeeper was starting to boil Archie’s blood with his constant talk about the autumn Harvest Fair and how he was going to win the grange display contest yet again this year, as though Archie’s products, or those of any of the other artisans in the city, weren’t even a competitive consideration.

    He went to the saloon on Fridays to spend time with Sam, Sebastian, and Abigail. Leah was occasionally there and occasionally not, given her relationship with Elliott being on again. Archie’s heart wasn’t particularly in it, and it showed, though only Abigail really pressed him on it, and let up after Archie told her he’d tell her about it a little later on.

    The one reprieve from Archie’s funk was the buzz of excitement about the upcoming Dance of the Moonlight Jellies, one of the few festivals in Pelican Town he remembered from his childhood visits to his grandfather’s farm over the summers. Vast migrations of bioluminescent jellyfish passed by the beach and the docks, and Archie remembered being mesmerized by them as a child. He was excited to see them again, and, each for their own reasons, his friends were too. Everyone found the jellyfish beautiful, but Sebastian welcomed the cooler weather coming, Sam built up, and got caught up in, Vincent’s excitement about it, and Abigail enjoyed the holiday giving her some harmonious family time. Archie was additionally excited that his sister was finally coming to visit, half a year after he’d moved into the place. For all the friction in their personalities, outlooks, and life paths they managed to be very close, especially after his health scare.

    The morning of the festival, Archie went to meet his sister in the meadow by the bus stop, where he suggested that she park her rental car. Since Archie didn’t drive, or have a car, the space that his grandfather used to park his was occupied by trellises of chili peppers stretching upward to get the most sun. His sister flew in from Gallibrand to Zuzu City, business class, he was sure, and drove through the desert in the sporty rental convertible that she gently eased to a stop in the meadow. He imagined that the drive would have been a very enjoyable one with the rag-top down.

    “Bro!” She greeted him, pulling him in for a forceful hug that he returned in kind, startling her with the strength of it. “The farm work’s been good for you!” she added with a laugh.

    “Welcome, sis. Thanks for crossing the country. It’s nice to see you,” he said, a huge grin on his face.

    “It’s good to see you too. Can we grab something to eat in town after we drop my bag off? I’m starving,” Maeve ranted, “the quinoa I had for breakfast wasn’t the most filling thing in the world.”

    “I’ve got food at home if you want,” he replied.

    “No offense to your cooking, Archie, but I’d appreciate the convenience and I want to see the general store your business depends on,” she countered.

    Archie shrugged. She had made the point that in addition to seeing the jellyfish, she wanted to use her couple of days in Pelican town to help Archie’s business out. They rounded the bend in the dirt road leading up to the farm and no sooner than did they pass through the gate than Maeve squealed in delight. “Oh Yoba, Archie, this is already looking so much better than those photos of the disaster zone this place used to look like. How did you do it?”

    “Working fourteen hour days,” he replied casually. “I was motivated thanks to Joja threatening to ruin the joint.”

    Maeve looked surprised. “It has been good for you.”

    “Not all good, but I’m definitely working harder. Let’s get you set up and then fed.”

    They walked more slowly up to the farmhouse, replaying memories of years long past with their family here, the pace of things continuing when Archie opened the door and let Maeve in, watching with interest as she took it all in – the old fireplace, their grandfather’s table, photos on the wall, the simple and utilitarian couch he commissioned from Robin so that there’d be room for both of them to sleep.

    “You’ve hardly changed the place,” she mentioned.

    “I’ll worry about interior decorating when I’m swimming in money,” he replied, “but getting a kitchen would be nice.”

    She nodded. “I’m sleeping on the couch?”

    “Yeah, provided my girlfriend doesn’t boot me out of the bedroom,” I’ll have to be on my best behaviour today,” he joked.

    “With how picky you were in the city, I’m surprised you found one here so quickly,” she teased, though there was some matter-of-fact truth to it.

    “Technically, she found me. I think you’ll like her. She’s very business-minded, like someone we both know.”

    “Yoba, the one time that I don’t take a trip involving business networking my brother’s dating a business type. Mom and Dad will never believe any of this.”

    They laughed, and walked back toward the bus stop and into town. The square was comparably more bustling than usual since more people had the day off than usual. Maru and Penny were reading on one of the benches between the square and the cemetery, Lewis was out and about checking in on things while Evelyn was doing some gardening. They kept the introductions short so that Maeve could get some food, though the expectations of everyone getting to meet the farmer’s sister were running high. The general store was more bustling with activity when the pair walked in, as Jodi and Emily were buying camping chairs and blankets for the night’s festival, Leah, Demetrius, and Harvey were all getting groceries. Archie grabbed a couple of chairs and blankets, and a muffin, while Maeve spent more time looking at the food.

    The pleasant bustle of the store didn’t last. A couple of minutes after they walked in, the bell on the back of the door jingled again as an only vaguely familiar person walked in. Archie knew that the man, who was dressed in a double-breasted suit; far too formal for the locale, and wearing small circular glasses, was Morris - the manager of the local Joja Mart. He hadn’t had much occasion to meet him, save for walking past the Joja Mart early in his visit and from correspondence about taking out a Joja membership, but he felt instantly repulsed, and tense. He could only imagine how much worse Pierre was feeling at the moment his nemesis strode into his shop.

    “I have a gift for all you hard-working residents of Pelican Town,” Morris shouted with joy tinged with a hint of malice. “Coupons for half price on all Joja Mart purchases, valid today only!”

    Pierre groaned and seethed at the underhanded tactics he felt powerless to prevent, as the scene unfolded around him. Archie, and Maeve, from down the aisle she was in, glared daggers at Morris, while Jodi, Emily, and Demetrius went to grab their coupons and leave the store. Harvey and Leah didn’t move, as Morris zeroed in on the farmer.

    “You’d probably save 2000G on your purchases today, and 50 on the muffin alone!”

    Archie shuffled the things he was holding, and told Morris to wait a moment as he walked down an aisle. Thinking he’d replace the goods he was going to buy, Morris smirked wickedly at Pierre before turning around to see Archie return with everything he was holding before, plus another five muffins.

    “Sorry about that,” Archie told him, “it was the strangest thing; I just suddenly started feeling unbearably hungry. Can you please step to your left? You’re in the way,” he added, gesturing at the counter and a slightly relieved looking Pierre.

    “What?” Morris spluttered. “But think of the money you could save.”

    Archie shrugged, walking straight toward the counter with little heed for Morris, whose shoulder he clipped on the way. “I’ll pay not to buy your flimsy, processed crap. Happy Dance of the Moonlight Jellies.”

    Flustered, Morris offered coupons to Leah and Harvey, who both declined them. Archie assumed it was due to their general health-consciousness. Morris turned on his heels and walked toward the door, pausing to inform Pierre – “You can’t sustain this forever,” before leaving. He missed Maeve entirely.

    “Well, that was unpleasant,” Archie said as he started loading his purchases onto the counter, then, calling out, he shouted, “sis, you find your food yet?”

    Maeve stomped up to the cash with a ham, cheese, and tomato sandwich and a packaged salad. “What a scumbag.”

    Pierre started to ring up the purchases with relief manifest on his face. “That cost me half my customers for the day, but thanks, all of you. I wish I could compete with that.”

    “Pretty soon, you might not have to,” Archie said, cryptically, as he paid for the festival supplies and the food for himself and Maeve. “After you ring up their purchases,” he said, gesturing to Harvey and Leah, let’s talk business. Harvey, I appreciate what you did, Leah, especially given your budget, same to you.”

    Some brief outpourings of solidarity followed as the doctor and the artist left the store, wishing the Finegans and Pierre good luck in carrying out their business.

    “Are Abigail and Caroline around?” Archie asked.

    “Abigail is, Caroline’s out.” The shopkeeper replied.

    “You may want her to be around for this. It could be a good learning experience.”

    Pierre looked at Archie curiously before exiting the shop and into his house, returning with Abigail, wondering on his way there and back what it was about the farmer that allowed him to so easily commandeer tense situations. He thought that the farmer’s fiery temper at the Flower Dance was a bad influence on his daughter, but that his attitude was also aimed at helping his business. He couldn’t imagine what the farmer was planning, especially in so far as his daughter would be involved. When Pierre and Abigail got back, proper introductions between them and Maeve were made, and they explained the situation with Morris, which set Abigail off onto an angry cursing rant of her own. Once Abigail had expended her fury, Archie took the lead.

    “Alright, I think what happened shows that Joja is getting as desperate as you are if they want to take more losses to drive you out, and they probably will be able to because of the amount of profits they make in the city. I think you’re screwed unless you diversify your business, and my sister had an idea that should let you side-step Joja Mart completely instead of getting stuck competing directly with them.”

    Pierre looked uneasy and apprehensive, while also being interested, but it was Abigail who urged them to go on and explain.

    “Pelican Town is too small a retail market for either you or Joja to be sustainable, in my opinion,” Maeve said, “and it’s the same problem for my brother and the farm. He’s hitting the point where he can’t sell everything to you because it’ll rot on the shelf before there’s enough demand for it in town.”

    “That hardly sounds encouraging,” Pierre responded.

    “Believe me, Pierre, the fact that it looks like an awful situation is what makes the solution so simple and elegant,” Archies told him. “Please go on, Maeve.”

    “To solve both problems, you partner up. Pierre, you become the distributor for the farm’s produce, selling to organic food stores in the larger towns and cities at a markup, and split the profits. Joja can bleed themselves dry trying to put Pierre’s General Store out of business, but with Pierre’s Organics Distribution as a side-line, your livelihood and family will be fine. Archie grows the farm and his market, and makes a little bit extra off his share of the markups. You both win, the town wins, city-folk who pay 400 Guilders for a head of farm-grown organic kale for some reason win. Think about it.”

    “It’d be a different life selling to shops and delivering to the cities,” Pierre mused. “I’d need someone to look after the shop.”

    “You have someone,” Archie said, pointing directly at Abigail, who was beaming. “And you’d probably need to work on some Wednesdays, too. Look, discuss it among your family and let us know when you’re ready, but if you could before the first fall harvest, that’d be best for us.”

    “I pulled in a favour from my company’s lawyer, and I’ve got a draft template for a contract back at the farmhouse,” Maeve told Pierre and Abigail, “it should be pretty straightforward to negotiate the terms and fill them in, or worst case, I can pay to have him re-draft something.”

    “Have a chat with your family about it, Pierre, without us around,” Archie said, picking up the chairs, blankets, and muffins. “See you at the festival, pleasure doing business, and down with Joja Mart.”

    “Please tell me we’re toasting to that tonight,” Maeve added.

    “Grab a bottle of wine,” Archie said, good-naturedly, even though he wanted to get going at that point, as he waited and then paid for the bottle, before the two of them moved to leave to enjoy their food and prepare for the festival. “Oh! Abigail - one more thing.”

    “Yeah, Archie?”

    “If your family decides to go for this, be vague about what I offered until we’re underway, please?”

    “I don’t think it’s necessary, but if you insist,” she said, with a look of consternation.

    “I do,” the farmer concluded. “I’d rather Joja stay blissfully ignorant until we start to bleed them.”

    They said their goodbyes, and in the store, Pierre and Abigail began a long talk about the merits and flaws of the Finegans’ plan. Outside, Archie and Maeve found a bench to sit on and tore into their food. The square had mostly emptied out, affording the siblings a return to their privacy.

    “You handled that well,” Maeve told him. “You were just pushy enough.”

    “Thanks, and you made it seem perfectly rational.”

    “That’s because it is, Archie, but only because you’ve ramped your production up this fast. You have to maintain this now,” she admonished him with earnest seriousness. “If he agrees, you have responsibilities to a lot more people than just yourself with this farm.”

    “It’s funny,” Archie said, running a hand through his hair, smoothing its waviness out momentarily, “not long before you got here; I was completely demotivated to do much farm work at all. I learned some stuff about the farm, the town, and our grandparents that really gave me pause.”

    “What could possibly… wait, our grandparents? Both of them? Spill it, Archie.”

    “I got hold of an anthropologist’s field notes about the town. He lived here while Granddad was middle-aged, when it was still a mining town. They’re on my bedside table if you want to read them yourself,” He informed her.

    “I will, can you give me the capsule summary first?”

    “Sure. Remember the Junimos?” He asked, by way of a preamble.

    “The forest spirits people think exist around here.”

    “And the ones I saw the day you brained me with that plank. Bear with me when I say this, but I’d experienced a lot of reason to believe they’re real, before reading that Granddad struck a bargain with them in those notes. He thought they existed, Grandma did too, and the anthropologist, who should have been the most skeptical, bought in after eliminating other possibilities.”

    “Like what?”

    “Read it yourself,” Archie said, waving her question off with an air of irritation. “We’re talking about what I found and how it affected me. Which is: Granddad bargained with the Junimos such that they’d ensure the farm’s success, but someone in the bloodline would be fated to come back here, it being the only place they could succeed. Turns out, that’s me, and I’m not exactly happy about having no say in the matter. It made the success feel as meaningless as cubicle work at Joja HQ. Grandma was also not happy, as it turned out. As soon as she found out about that, she started the divorce proceedings and ran off to the city with the anthropologist. I don’t know why she never spoke to mom after that, though. Guilt, maybe?”

    Maeve took it all in, looking confused at points and concerned at others. “Does mom know?”

    “Not yet. I’ve been sitting on it a bit. Eventually she will, though I’m not sure what it’ll help.”

    She nodded. “But you, it seems so weird to hear that coming from you, you’re the least fatalistic person I know. Remember what you told me when you decided to study theatre?”

    “I remember that like it was yesterday,” he mused, smiling wistfully, “I told you I’d rather make my own bad decision than my family’s good one. Same deal here, I’d say.”

    “Except it was your decision to come here. You could have sold the place off the second you opened that envelope, but you chose to become a farmer instead and bust your ass. Even if you were fated to come here, you weren’t fated to magically become a hard worker out of nowhere.”

    Archie paused and reflected on that, stroking his chin. “I’d have to think about that some more.”

    “Feeling more motivated?” she asked.

    Archie didn’t know, and said as much.

    By the time Sandy arrived, after dinner and later than anticipated, there was hardly any time for small talk and introductions to Maeve before they had to head down to the beach to ensure they got a good spot to observe the jellyfish from. Sandy was skeptical as to what all the fuss could possibly be about, prompting stealthy eye-rolls from Maeve in the darkness of the evening. Archie waxed nostalgic about his past experiences of the festival; so much as he could remember them. While his enthusiasm was normally contagious, Sandy’s skepticism didn’t go away, though she was fully prepared to let Archie enjoy it even if she wasn’t entirely open-minded about it. She liked the undivided attention she got when Archie fled to the desert, and the change of pace, while refreshing, left her wondering why the evening’s activity had to be looking at jellyfish, of all the possible things they could do together. But that was Pelican Town’s village provincialism, she told herself.

    As it so happened, their presence at the beach was not only anticipated, but several people had clustered by the mouth of the path leading onto the beach, waiting for them. Pierre’s family, and Lewis, flagged them down as they approached, looking to be in good spirits.

    “We discussed your proposal,” Pierre told them, leaving Sandy somewhat confused as to what this was all about.

    It was actually Maeve who was the first to answer. “We’re glad. I don’t mean to be rude, but we’d hate to linger on business during the festival, so can you please cut to a quick summary?”

    Pierre nodded. “We just need to pin down the exact numbers, and scale them according to how much Archie can provide so we’re covered against risks like poor harvests and the like. We can negotiate it and finalize it in the next week or so.”

    “Great!” Archie told them, simply, scanning the beach for a good spot to sit at. Leah and Elliott were sitting outside of Elliott’s shack, talking casually. Alex and his grandparents were off on a far corner of the beach, and it seemed that a lot of the town hadn’t arrived yet, giving him an early selection of seating space. He decided that Willy would be the most informative about the Jellyfish themselves, which could present a nice bonus to the evening, so he ushered Sandy and Maeve out to the docks, to sit near the front of Willy’s cabin. At the base of the docks, he was surprised to run into Gunther and his wife. They were overlooking their daughter playing on the beach with Vincent and Jas, while talking with Jodi. He greeted them quickly, introduced Maeve and Sandy to them, and let them know how pleased he was to see them back, before walking out onto the docks themselves.

    They unfolded their folding chairs and took out the blankets, as the crispness of Autumn was finally coming in at night. Maeve sat down, huddled up in the blanket and kicked back, taking in the ocean, while Archie and Sandy set up their chairs, but sat on the dock, cuddling up with each other.

    “So what was that about?” Sandy asked him.

    “We’re working on a deal where he distributes produce from the farm outside of town,” Archie informed her. “There are bigger markets to tackle, and it should help both of us keep our businesses afloat.”

    “That’s very clever,” Sandy responded, “though I’m a bit surprised you didn’t come to me about it too.”

    “She’s the clever one,” Archie said, tilting his head toward his sister, knowing full well that all three of them were clever in different ways, “and we never really talked about your store’s business in enough depth for me to know you were interested in farm-grown organics.”

    Sandy shrugged. “I could see our customers liking having the choice, I’m not sure how much it would sell, though.” A somewhat lengthy discussion about the people of the Calico Desert and their demographic and consumer profiles followed, with Maeve asking a lot of questions that Sandy answered to varying degrees of completeness. It could have probably gone on even longer before they were interrupted by the sound of a creaking hinge, as Willy stepped out of his home to see the trio sitting up against the front wall of his house. Archie quickly greeted him and introduced him to Maeve and Sandy, before asking him to tell them a bit more about the Moonlight Jellies.

    “There’re a lot o’ things we don’t know about ‘em,” he offered as preamble, before waxing a bit more poetic about the marine life that formed the basis of his land-bound one. “They’re migratory, and they come ‘ere this time o’ year, every year I can remember. But no one knows where they go from here. They light up to see in the deep ocean, where they live. Same like an anglerfish’s bulb. Then they come here, to our shallow moonlit water, and they light up all the same. We dinnae know why, but we appreciate it all the same.”

    The three of them thanked him as he moved to walk down the docks and onto the beach.

    “When do they arrive?” Sandy asked before Willy got very far.

    “Midnight, give or take,” the fisherman shouted over his shoulder. “We send a boat with a candle out to sea, and then you won’t miss ‘em.”

    It was about half past ten, so while they were afforded a great vantage point to watch the jellyfish, they also had a great abundance of slightly awkward time on their hands. While Sandy was gracious and polite, and Maeve was Maeve, the dynamic with the three of them was not nearly so easygoing as Archie had with either of them individually. This was not lost on anyone involved. Maeve suggested that Archie should catch up with his friends before the jellyfish arrived, so he asked if Sandy wanted to join him. Sandy opted to wait for him, giving the two businesswomen some time to discuss, he presumed, business things.

    He walked along the other side of the docks to the beach, where Sebastian, Abigail, and Sam were standing, and he greeted them. Abigail cut the other guys off, startling everyone else, and pulled Archie aside.

    “Remember when I told you I’d never run the store?” She grilled him.

    “How could I forget?” He replied.

    “I didn’t want to run the store. I still don’t, but I’d like to pick up some experience beyond stocking shelves while I’m living here,” she ranted, looking both noticeably tense and more relieved as she went on.

    “I thought he was going to give you the responsibilities while he’s in the towns working on the new venture,” he said. “Why isn’t he?”

    “Mom’s going to do it,” she answered, flatly.

    “I’ll talk to them,” Archie tried to reassure her. “I don’t know what I’d say, mind you, but hopefully we can arrange some time for you to be in charge, even if your mom is supervising things. If worse comes to worse, I might be able to arrange something with Sandy for you to manage her store while we go on a Winter vacation.”

    Abigail seemed surprised at the response. “Thanks, Archie. I think I’m bashing up against not knowing what I can even do in Pelican Town anymore. I don’t mind helping Dad out, but I don’t want to do this forever.”

    He put a hand on her shoulder. “I hope you find something, and I’ll do what I can to help. You’ve got bigger dreams, even if you haven’t picked which one to chase.”

    They rejoined their friends, who had no difficulty discussing something else amongst themselves. When they returned, Sebastian had lit up a cigarette and was enjoying a rare lull in a conversation with Sam.

    “It looks like Vincent’s been getting along well with Gunther’s daughter.” Archie mentioned to Sam.

    “Yeah, dude! It’s great – we were lucky growing up with more of us around the same age. He isn’t so lucky, but I’m glad he’s got another friend, at least. He’s a good kid, y’know?”

    “And he doesn’t cramp your style too much,” Abigail joked, getting a good guffaw out of Sebastian and Sam alike.

    “I’m real glad,” Archie said. “You should make sure to meet my sister before she leaves tomorrow. I think you’d all like her. Hopefully Sandy is handling her in overprotective big sister mode.”

    Sebastian smiled. “That’s cute.”

    Abigail looked sharply at him. “That is about the last thing I thought you’d say.”

    “It’s cute because Archie is a grown adult, and because I would never do that with Maru.”

    Archie shrugged. “It wouldn’t suit you anyway, you’re not intimidating enough.”

    Sam cut in. “Ex-cuuuu-se me. I think you’d find that he can be plenty intimidating in the right circumstances. Try playing Legendary League with him sometime and listen to the creative ways he’ll threaten to remove your vital organs.”

    Sebastian chuckled at him and put a hand on the taller man’s shoulder. “Well, I wouldn’t have to if you weren’t such a feeder noob.”

    Archie and Abigail shrugged at each other, while Sam protested that he was not, in fact, a feeder noob, and Sebastian listed a number of instances in which Sam’s actions were noobish, and entailed feeding an opponent. After getting three-and-a-half items deep, Abigail and Archie walked off past Elliott’s cabin, where Abigail cast an anxious glance at him and Leah.

    “Have you seen Emily?” Archie asked her, both out of wanting to know and by way of a distraction.

    “She was at the back of the beach with Clint and Shane the last I saw,” she offered.

    “I’d like to let her know that Sandy’s here, care to join me?”

    She shook her head. “Nah, I’ll take my chances with Sam and Sebastian. Thanks again, Archie.”

    “You’re welcome.”

    Archie jogged over to where Abigail had pointed. Shane had since left, leaving Clint and Emily alone together. Archie waited in the wings for a gap in their conversation to say hello and to let Emily know that Sandy was in town and to say hello before the end of the night, before zipping back off toward the docks, and not a moment too soon as Lewis was preparing to launch the boat ahead of the arrival of the jellyfish. Archie offered to help out, but didn’t realize that the boat itself was barely large enough to hold the large candle. For symbolism’s sake, though, Lewis magnanimously let him “help” push the boat out to sea, before urging him to get back to his seat and enjoy the show. Archie took off down the dock, rattling the wooden boards with each stride.

    He got back to the spot he had taken and moved one of the folding chairs directly next to Sandy’s, slipping into the seat and bundling up with her under a large green woolen blanket. The tiny wooden boat bobbed as its prow cut through the fluctuating tide, carving a path out to the Gem Sea while the townsfolk’s anticipation built up. They waited as the boat pulled beyond the docks and inched toward the horizon, the flame flickering and nearly fading out of sight. Then, Maeve thought she saw a patch of the sea looking a bit more green than black, though Archie wasn’t so sure. While they argued about it, the patch of green grew in size and brightness as the bioluminescent jellyfish swam toward the shallows. If it were just a few, or a moderate sized school of them, it would have been pretty, but not nearly as impressive as the mass migration of jellyfish that it seemed there were. There were probably more than ten thousand of them, Archie estimated, all glowing, a beautiful show. Even Sandy, who had been so skeptical of the whole thing, leaned forward to watch with a mystified look, there being nothing quite like it in the desert save for the cacti flowering after the rare rainy days. Though there was more than enough to focus on in the water, Archie thought he saw something above him in his peripheral vision, and looked up to see a shooting star, pointing it out to Maeve and Sandy.

    “Make a wish,” Sandy suggested.

    “OK,” Archie said, pulling her close and kissing her while Maeve smiled and sighed.

    They watched the jellyfish inch toward the shore, circling and dancing beneath the waves in a hypnotic pattern, before, as a mass, they began to swim out from the inlet of the beach, back out to sea and Yoba-knows-where.

    “That was beautiful,” Archie mused aloud.

    “Made me feel like a kid again,” Maeve agreed. “I don’t think I’d seen that since I was 9.”

    “It was impressive,” Sandy said, a hint of surprise in her own voice. “I haven’t seen anything like it before.”

    “I keep thinking this valley is full of surprises, it’s just that was the most obvious one,” he said.

    “You do love your surprises,” she replied, prompting a snort from Maeve.

    “The only thing he likes more than getting surprised is doing the surprising,” she said, with the knowledge of having grown up with him that it was completely true. And while Archie wasn’t necessarily thrilled that his girlfriend and sister were ganging up on him, he knew it was true too. So much of his rural life, from the festivals to the dealing with Pierre, was motivated by his eagerness to surprise people. It was, he concluded, his theatrical nature.

    Their walk back from the beach was interrupted with many of the townspeople wanting to meet Maeve, given the beginnings of the business deal as well as simply being someone new to speak to. She handled that gracefully even though it was with less aplomb than he’d seen Sandy handle the few awkward situations he had seen her in. Maeve was a different kind of businesswoman, more driven, more always-on-the-go, and it filtered into her dealings with people. She didn’t give too much away, especially about how she thought her brother was doing, or much in way of embarrassing stories about him, which she easily could have, but she didn’t alienate anyone either. The walk through town and back to the farmhouse was fairly quiet, but relaxed. Archie and Sandy went to bed, while Maeve made herself comfortable on the couch, hoping against hope they wouldn’t be noisy, and thinking of what a mismatch the two of them were.




    Archie, Maeve, and Sandy all woke up early – Archie out of the habit of wanting to get into the fields early, Maeve out of the habit of being a go-getter whose peak productive hours were in the morning, and Sandy out of a need to get back to the desert to mind her shop. Archie cooked a batch of blueberry pancakes with part of the last harvest of the summer to go with everyone’s coffee. The table talk was of vague plans, what they’d do today. For Sandy, it was running her store before an evening of reading design blogs, and possibly a movie. For Maeve, it was enjoying a relaxing day. For Archie, it was press-ganging his sister into helping with the farm chores before they’d both enjoy a relaxing day together. Maeve did not look disappointed at this revelation, not that she’d ever demonstrate an unwillingness to do work in front of her brother. Archie and Sandy idly discussed the double-date they’d be going on the following week before the time came for Archie to walk her back to her car. No sooner than they were five steps from the farmhouse, before Archie had a chance to take in the slight discoloration of the autumn leaves, did Sandy inform him:

    “Your sister is intense.”

    Archie laughed. “Yeah, that’s the word everyone uses. What’d she do to give you that impression?”

    Sandy ran a hand through her hair, “Let me just say that I thought you asked a lot of questions – she wanted to know everything about my business from the supply chain to the demographic profiles of my customers.”

    “Sounds about right.”

    “She also asked a lot about me.”

    “She’s a protective big sister,” Archie replied. “I wouldn’t think too much of it.”

    “I think I made a fine impression, but it was uncomfortable.”

    He apologized. “I should have seen it coming, to be fair,” he added, neglecting to mention that he had suspected it was but he thought Maeve would ultimately approve of her by the end of it anyway.

    “Get away from people for long enough and they’ll surprise you in ways you wouldn’t expect,” Sandy replied.

    “I’ll try not to let that happen with you,” he said, thinking it was romantic at first, then quickly changing his mind once it was out of his mouth.

    Sandy, for her part smiled, they shared a quick kiss, and she was off to the desert. Maeve was sitting on the steps to the farmhouse when Archie got back.

    “What’s on the agenda?” she asked.

    “It’s the first day of fall, we’re going to harvest the last of the summer crops, then buy seeds for the fall, plant, and water those. These are usually the hardest days, I’m glad I’ve got some help.”

    “You should get help from the town,” she suggested.

    “When I can pay for help from the town, I might just,” he shot back. “We’ll have a nice lunch in town, and a good long talk, it feels we haven’t since well before I moved here.”

    Maeve nodded. “I’m looking forward to it.”

    Archie nodded. “I could guess. After the heart-to-heart you had with Sandy last night, I was sure you’d have something to say.”

    Maeve nodded again. “I do, it just isn’t what I expected it would be.”

    Archie motioned to her to go on.

    “You can do so much better.”

    Archie was momentarily stunned. His own infatuation with Sandy was pretty high-powered, and he acknowledged that in that moment, at least. It was part of why he thought the opposite; that it was him who was out of her league, rather than the other way around. It wasn’t just that she was attractive, inferno hot, even, but that she had that effortless social grace and confidence that he still felt he was playing at having. It seemed so incongruous to him that he could only answer with a confused, “wait, what?”

    “She’s gorgeous, Archie, and pretty pleasant, I’ll give you that, but she’s even lazier than the worst I’ve seen you, and your personalities don’t match at all.”

    Archie scratched his head. “I don’t understand how she’s lazy. She’s got her main business and her side-business;; she’s profitable enough that she doesn’t have to concern herself with money, what’s the issue?”

    “I can tell she’s not stupid, but she’s really ignorant about key aspects of her own business. She doesn’t care about learning about them, she doesn’t care about growing it, and she’s perfectly happy to let it stagnate and her with it. She hasn’t read a book in years. Even when you weren’t doing much to chase after your dreams, at least you dreamed big. I could respect that with her as much as I did with you... ”

    Archie cut her off. “You had a funny way of showing it,” he told her, tersely.

    “That’s because I wanted you to do more about them, not because I thought the dreams were stupid!” She protested, shaking her head forcefully enough to send her own red hair swinging. “She has no ambition, and you’re more ambitious than you would ever care to admit. Whether it’s with the farm, or just trying to understand the world, you obsess over the details. She doesn’t care, Archie, and unless she starts to, you’re spinning your wheels with her.”

    “I haven’t really seen that side of her, and it hasn’t been an obstacle yet,” Archie replied.

    “Look, maybe it will work out for you two, but I’m giving you my best prediction and advice. Try to get her to care about what you’re doing, because what’ll you do if she doesn’t?”

    Archie thought about it some more. She had no desire to move from the desert to the valley, or into his farmhouse, whatever modernisation might come down the track, at least not yet. In the long distance of the relationship it wasn’t always clear to him what he offered her, though they seemed mutually satisfied, but Sandy did seem indifferent about certain things aside from the geography of it.

    “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought that much about the long-term potential, just trying to enjoy it as it happens,” he said, truthfully.

    “That’s fair, but you’ll have to start thinking about it eventually,” she conceded. “The sex good?” The bluntness of the question surprised him.

    “Yeah. It’s definitely good,” he replied.

    “I could tell. Thin walls,” she replied pointedly, before pausing to let her brother squirm before offering him a congratulatory high-five. “Enjoy yourself, but figure this stuff out eventually, ok?”

    “Will do, now help me with the last of these crops,” he said, sighing and blushing in evident agitation.

    They harvested the last stray blueberries and peppers before turning out the roots with hoes. It was a few hours of strenuous work, which Maeve soldiered through brave-facedly, though her discomfort was starting to show after the first hour.

    “You don’t have to keep on this,” Archie told her. “You should be comfortable on your flight back, not burning in every muscle.”

    “I’d rather be helpful.” She was terse, and proud, Yoba bless her, and Archie was sure she wouldn’t voluntarily stand down on a matter of work.

    “Be helpful filling up the watering cans instead for a few minutes, you’re the harder worker, but you’re not used to this.”

    After a few hours, the fields were cleared and the two of them headed into town for lunch and to buy the seeds they would be planting that afternoon. Pierre and Maeve haggled a bit about the proportion in which the profits of the joint venture would be distributed, but it ended with Pierre signing the contract with a split that Maeve said was in a favourable range for Archie. Archie signed as well, and the next stage of the farm’s development had begun in earnest. With help from Maeve, the planting went quickly, and the siblings bid each other a warm goodbye, with Maeve admonishing Archie to visit the family in the winter, something he was more than willing to do in the absence of having crops to grow or farm animals to look after. As the autumn was starting he didn’t have a good grasp on how he would spend the winter, though he had a number of unfocused ideas. He could try mining, like so many people had recommended, he could take short trips into the desert to beat the cold and spend time with Sandy, he could even travel a bit further afield if the fall was prosperous enough and the war wasn’t putting too much of a strain on being able to travel. He gave all of that some thought as Maeve piled her things into the rental car and drove off toward Zuzu City Airport.

    The next morning, while Archie was watering his freshly-planted crops, he was surprised to see Leah walking up the southern path onto the farm, a portfolio case in hand. Visits from Leah were infrequent, especially this early in the morning, as she was inclined toward either sleeping in or more solitary nature walks this early into the day. She was smiling widely while also looking nervously alert when she waved to Archie, pointed to the case, and shouted “It’s ready!”

    Archie put down the watering can and walked up to greet her and usher her into the farmhouse. “I’m so excited,” he said, “and your timing is perfect!”

    Leah looked at him strangely. “Because your sister just left?”

    “No,” Archie said, starting to clear off the antique teak table in the living room. “I’d rather she were here, but I’ll send her a photo. It’s because Pierre and I just signed a business deal that should help both of us out, and the logo is going to be a useful part of it.”

    Archie continued by explaining the distribution deal, which Leah thought made a great deal of sense. Of course it did, Archie mentioned, his sister was always the sensible one, but he was pleased both by the sense that he was starting to set down roots in the valley and the prospect that it might be profitable.

    Leah opened the portfolio case and started spreading different sketches and drawings and paintings across the table, which was nearly too small to accommodate all of them. Archie marveled at some of the drafts of his new logo, and some of the sketches that clearly weren’t for the logo but highly entertaining. There was a flattering looking sketch of him holding a Junimo in the dramatic pose that the tragic protagonist of the timeless Shakespen tragedy did, and another of Archie gazing out over a field of wheat that would not have been out of place on one of the Republic’s propaganda posters. He thought both were great, though he had no idea why Leah would have made them, but he got a bit too distracted to ask when the more landscape-oriented logo drafts came out. There were different combinations of landscape features around the valley – the hills, rivers and forests, combined into his farm differently, along with fields and produce.

    The final product was a very artful combination, showing the hills in the background, the forest on the edges, and a stream running through the fields, where a lone farmer worked, with barrels of varied produce in the foreground. At the bottom of the oval, a royal blue background with “Finegan’s Farm” written in a classic font, with a tiny Junimo dotting the “I”. He was floored by how good it was for the relatively short turnaround time.

    “Leah, this is amazing,” he told her, “I don’t know how you did it, but you captured the farm as it is, and as I want it to be.”

    She blushed. “I used a lot of my landscape paintings as reference, but there was a lot of research, trial, and error. It was fun trying out some different techniques.”

    “I saw that in some of your sketches. The Junimo skull one and the propaganda poster are hilarious. I’d love to keep those, if you’re OK with that.”

    Leah thought it over briefly. “For now, choose one,” she offered.

    It was actually a trickier choice than Archie expected, but he went with the Junimo one owing to his theatre background. He thanked her for the drawing and the logo with a spontaneous hug. They talked a bit more about the logo, and when Archie mentioned he’d have to bring it over to Sebastian for digitising, Leah suggested they walk up together, and she’d do some sketching by the mountain lake. Archie helped Leah pack up the rest of the drawings and they hit the road. Once they were onto the mountain path, Leah caught Archie with the question that had been preoccupying her.

    “Are you and Sandy still up for that double-date?”

    Archie nodded, though his tone of voice indicated he was less than thrilled with it. “Yeah, we should be able to on Friday or Saturday, which do you prefer?”

    “Saturday,” she replied, “I’d rather you have your Friday night at the saloon, to be honest.”

    “That’s considerate of you,” he said. “I have to tell you, I have some misgivings about it.”

    “What’s the matter?”

    He sighed, against his desire to be more unaffected by it. “I’m fine with telling you what my read on Elliott is but you need to understand that people behave differently when other people are around. He can behave perfectly well on the double date, and that isn’t going to mean as much as I think you hope it does.”

    “I know,” she answered quietly. “But I’ve always missed when his heart wasn’t in it before. I’d like a better chance at not being behind the curve this time, that’s all.”

    “If you don’t trust yourself or him, it’s a bad start, but we’ll see in a few days. How’ve you two been since the bonfire?”

    Leah shrugged. “Stable, I guess. I’ve seen less of him since I’ve been working on the logo, he’s been writing as usual. Thanks again for thinking of me for that job, it was different, but refreshing.”

    Archie laughed. “I knew you were talented, but not that you were that talented. I think my sister would say it’s on par with the big city ad agency her company uses. You could easily make it in the city, but I respect you for choosing to be here and to make the art you’re making. That and I’m glad you’re here in general.”

    Leah’s face lit up with a smile. “Thanks, Archie. It’s not that I mind the city, but I’m glad I’m here. I love the freedom of it - I can make what I want to try making, I can take nature walks for hours if I’m not feeling productive, and the people are friendlier.”

    “I agree, for the most part. I’m not sold on Haley, but people have been really good to me in general.”

    Leah laughed as they pulled up to Robin’s house. They walked in through the entrance to the carpentry shop where Robin was looking over a blueprint, until the surprise of customers prompted her to look up at the door expectantly.

    “Archie, Leah, what can I do for you?” she asked.

    “We’re here to speak with Sebastian, actually,” Archie started, “Leah finished the new logo for the farm, and now it’s Sebastian’s turn to work his computer magic on it.” He paused. “Leah did a beautiful job with it, would you like to see it?”

    Robin looked tremendously excited about it. “Of course I want to see it! How exciting!”

    Leah beamed while she extracted the sheet from the portfolio case, which Robin scrutinized with her craftswoman’s eye.

    “It’s excellent work, Leah, excuse me a minute, I’ll have to show the rest of the family,” she said, peeling out of the room and stomping across the house to gather Demetrius, Maru, and a still-groggy Sebastian.

    Aside from Robin, Maru was the most excited about the logo, asking Leah a bunch of questions about art, and how she did it. The answers didn’t mesh with Maru’s engineering approach to things, but she was a good sport about it. Demetrius found the logo very pleasant and to the point, which prompted Robin to try to explain what she found evocative about it. Sebastian liked the logo but was nervous about the prospect of digitising it for use on small packaging, especially given one problem.

    Sebastian yawned. “It’s too big for me to scan here. I’ll have to take it to a print shop in Zuzu City before I can get started, do you mind?”

    Archie glanced to Leah, and they both shook their heads. “Let me take a photo of it first,” Archie said, pulling out his cellphone. “My sister will want to see it.”

    Leah opened the portfolio case and pulled out a hard plastic tube, that she plunked the logo drawing in after rolling up the sheet. She handed it to Sebastian. “Drive safely,” she admonished him.

    “I will,” he deadpanned, before starting to walk out of the shop. “Coffee, anyone?”

    Archie and Leah accepted his offer and followed him out, bidding the rest of Sebastian’s family goodbye. “When are you going to go?” Archie asked.

    Sebastian shrugged. “The sooner the better, I don’t want to have to cut through the desert in the midday heat. I can take a laptop and work from a café til early into the evening. You know the print shop can probably do a better job than I can, right?”

    “Use your judgment,” Archie told him, “but the print shop will always be there, so give it a proper try first, as long as you keep the original scan intact, there’s nothing to lose by it.”

    Sebastian nodded, taking a long sip of his coffee. “Will do.” He started walking down the hallway toward the stairs down to his basement bedroom. “Have a good day, both of you,” he added, hastily. They both did after they looped around town, past the library and back to Leah’s cottage, where they bid each other goodbye, Archie to finish up with the crops and Leah to go foraging in the forest.

    The few days until the double-date went by quickly, with Archie working extra-hard to ensure the autumn crops thrived in their early days of growth. The saloon Friday was a bit more entertaining than usual with Leah joining Archie and the misfits for a change. Even though Abigail was still immensely skeptical about the oncoming double-date, she didn’t give Leah too much of a hard time over it, and in Leah, Abigail had finally met her match for ineptitude at video games.

    The afternoon of the double-date, a rainy one in the valley, Archie, Leah, and Elliott piled into the bus to Hub Town, to catch the one to the Calico Desert. There was an undercurrent of tension to the brief bus rides, during which everyone was quiet and a little bit on edge. Aside from being brought on board as a watchdog, Archie was trying to navigate his own thoughts about what Maeve had to say about Sandy. Doubts swirled like the eddies of current crashing into the beach. Leah was nervous and excited about the potential for resolution if nothing else, and as for Elliott, who ever knew what he was thinking?

    Archie called Sandy as they were approaching, and she let him know that she was getting held up a bit at the store again, so to go for a short walk in the desert before meeting her. When the bus pulled up at the stop, they stretched out and disembarked, all surprised at the desert’s warmth compared to the oncoming coolness of the fall in the Valley. The only difference that Archie noticed in the weather was a stronger breeze. He showed Leah and Elliott the dinosaur fossil and the oasis, and picked up some of the coconuts strewn in the sand. Leah and Elliott both seemed to take in the new landscape with aesthetic eyes, Leah taking in the sunlight striking across the carpet of sand, creating glistening, rippling undulations across the dunes into the horizon, the protrusions of cacti, and turning the dryness of the desert into a visual representation. For Elliott, perhaps something similar with words instead of images.

    “Feeling inspired?” Archie asked.

    Leah nodded affirmatively while Elliott looked guarded and pensive without really answering one way or another. Archie ushered them toward the store, where Mr. Qi was as conspicuous as ever in his duster and hat. Though Archie found him awfully strange, he mustered up the manners to greet him.

    “Hi, Mr. Qi,” he offered.

    Mr. Qi grinned with savage glee. “You’re almost there on pronouncing it. It’s pronounced Qi! How are you, farmer?”

    “The farm is going well, and so am I. We’re excited to see your business partner, this is Leah, and that’s Elliott, both of you, this is Mr. Qi.”

    “It’s pronounced Qi,” he replied good-naturedly. “More visitors from the valley - how wonderfully uncommon! Farmer, this is a pleasant enough surprise that I won’t even chastise you for not having gone mining yet. You really ought to. You don’t know what you might find in there.”

    “In the winter, when I don’t have crops to grow,” he suggested, which Mr. Qi seemed pleased enough with, if not entirely thrilled.

    “She’s just wrapping up, go on in,” he said, gesturing at the door. He didn’t seem to be in the mood for that much more small talk that wasn’t about mining, though he was weedy-looking enough that Archie could hardly believe he’d ever swung a pick enough to justify his seeming passion for it. Then again, the same could have been said for Archie and farming at the beginning of the spring, so he let it slide.

    While Sandy wasn’t entirely sure about the reason for the double-date, she seemed quite thrilled about it. She greeted Archie effusively, and Leah and Elliott not much less so before the four of them hopped into Sandy’s hatchback and drove into Cactus Town proper to go to that same sushi restaurant that Archie and Sandy had gone to. Leah was a bit apprehensive about the menu but found a noodle and mushroom stir-fry that suited her more than raw fish did, and the double-date was off to the races.

    While the food was delicious, the conversation was not particularly free-flowing. Sandy wasn’t altogether that interested in Archie’s business deal or the new logo for the farm, and art talk in general wasn’t her forte either. Archie and Elliott were more attentive to Leah’s recent projects, while Sandy was polite, at least. The bigger surprise, for most of the table, was Elliott’s faster-than-expected progress with his novel. He mentioned that he expected to be finished by the middle of winter, the first time Archie, or even Leah, for that matter, had heard him speak of a firm deadline for any part of his writing, much less the whole thing being done.

    “… in fact, this trip to the desert is just the kind of new experience that could frame this last part of the book. I shall have to come back earlier in the day.”

    That, finally, turned out to be the thing to pique Sandy’s interest in the conversation, and perhaps the double-date on the whole – she did love the desert, after all. Elliott was guarded about the sort of experience he’d want to have there, as he didn’t want to spoil the book, but he mentioned the sort of rut he’d felt like he’d been in in the Valley. Leah and Archie were both silently concerned, and shared a knowing glance with each other about it. Sandy, however, seemed pleased about more people showing an interest in the region, so she and Elliott launched into a deep discussion of the tourist attractions of the desert, while Archie and Leah mostly listened to pick up ideas for when they’d eventually return. After a while, Archie and Leah began a small side-conversation of their own about what she’d look to create with the experience of the desert fresh in her mind.

    “Landscape paintings, a portrait of the dinosaur fossils, maybe even a sculpture of it, there are a lot of ideas!” Leah told him, excitedly.

    “I think you’d love to paint the view out to sea from the edge of the plateau,” Archie replied. “Sandy took me there on our first date, it’s a view that strikes awe into one’s heart.” For her part, Sandy was distracted from her conversation with Elliott by the mention of her name, and smiled in satisfaction when the subject of discussion was shared with her.

    In the course of the dinner, Archie came to a complete conclusion, and to a partial one. The complete conclusion was that if Elliott didn’t bring Leah on his trip to the desert, their proto-relationship wasn’t going anywhere. The partial one was that it was really strange to Archie that while he and Sandy managed well in their conversations alone, the dynamic to the double-date was awfully strange. He had gotten used to being the focus of her attention, and he also chalked it up to having been on alert about Elliott, something he’d have explain to Sandy in full later on. The combination of the doubts about the relationship that Archie may have always had, but were certainly brought to the forefront by his discussion with his sister, and that, meant he was decidedly not on his A-game that evening. He’d arrange another date with Sandy, individual, to make up for it. Perhaps in Zuzu City the next time.

    When Archie and Elliott paid the bills, after an excellent dessert, they hopped back into Sandy’s car, and she dropped them off in Hub Town to catch the last bus back. The ride in was as silent as it was on the way out.




    While the double-date’s relative awkwardness left a bit of a bitter taste in Archie’s mouth, the way things on the farm were accelerating, he was a bit distracted by it as he prepared for larger harvests to come in, and for Pierre to sell the goods on at even higher profits. A few days after the double-date, Sebastian came through with the digitized and printed labels and produce stickers, enough for the first harvest Archie was expecting, though the Zuzu City Print Shop was going to have a lot of repeat business, he anticipated. He had a brief meeting with Pierre about the plan for him selling on, and to his credit, the shopkeeper had been making a number of calls to arrange sales visits in Hub Town and Zuzu City the coming Wednesday. Pierre also reminded him that the Harvest Fair was coming up, with the grange display contests; that he always won, due to his superior produce, et cetera. Though this was his business partner now, Archie got his hackles up at the man’s incurable smugness, especially since he didn’t produce any of his produce. While Archie was able to power through listening to Pierre’s boasting, he resolved to take the man own some much needed pegs when the competition rolled around.

    He made time to meet up with Sandy in Hub Town for an evening movie, and stayed the night at hers. The conversations were a bit more stilted than usual, though still pleasant. Archie felt that he had done something to offend her and was walking on eggshells. Sandy was her usual self, but a bit more muted. While they were cuddling together before going to sleep, she asked him what the double-date was all about.

    Archie sighed. “Leah’s been let down by Elliott a number of times before, she wanted to get a gauge on him, with an outsider’s perspective – mine. Though I think she’d welcome yours too.”

    Sandy nodded distractedly. “And?”

    Archie shrugged. “And I don’t know. They were both really jazzed about the desert - maybe they can enjoy it together.”

    Sandy mulled it over in silence before eventually adding that that would be nice. “They seem well matched, a pair of similarly obsessive artists, they should understand each other.”

    Archie’s reply was animated. “I agree! They should but I’m not sure they do. At least not yet, and Leah’s forgiven him way more than I would.”

    “You hold grudges,” Sandy scoffed.

    “Not really, no…” Archie started before being cut off.

    “You’re gunning for your business partner for sassing you, Archie.”

    She had a point, which Archie was forced to concede.

    “OK, a little bit…” He trailed off considering the wider conversation. “I wonder how well we understand each other.”

    “In some ways, very well, I think, but we have big blind spots,” Sandy told him. It was not something he expected to hear from her.

    “Like what?”

    “That our lives are going in different directions, would be the main one.”

    “I thought about that,” Archie responded. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal – yeah, I’m committed to the farm, but Cactus Town isn’t that far away that we wouldn’t be spending time.”

    Sandy was somewhat mollified by that, but not entirely. “And the 14-hour workdays?”

    “A necessary evil for the short-term, but the farm should be running at close to capacity by Springtime,” he said – it was an estimate, but he thought he could do it, especially with the Winter to regroup and prepare. “But what about you? Where’s your life diverging?”

    It was a rambling reply that Archie struggled to keep up with, but what he did ultimately understand was that she was happy in her house, happy with her business, and wanted to stay put and enjoy it as much as possible, in company. Archie didn’t see that as mutually exclusive with his own interests, and he said as much, partially reassuring Sandy. They opted to simply fall asleep in each other’s arms that night.

    On the Friday before the festival, there was a raucous commotion in the saloon, over and above Shane or Pam getting drunk (as usual) and mouthing off to someone. Archie missed the beginning of it, having been in the arcade trying to calm down an agitated Abigail, who had been passed over to help run the store while Pierre was on his sales visits in favour of Caroline. The raucous and loud argument from the main room caught the young adults’ attention. From what they could piece together of it, Pierre extended his bragging beyond Archie, to Clint, Marnie, and Willy. The fact that long-suffering and kind-hearted Marnie was the one to start shouting him down indicated how aggravating Pierre must have been. Archie fumed about how he had received the same treatment, and he found a surprising amount of sympathy from Abigail, who seemed to also be on the outs with her father at that moment. Sam, Sebastian, and Leah found it all terribly off-putting too.

    Archie also realized he had no idea what goes into a grange display and asked.

    “A variety of your best crops,” Abigail suggested. “Dad mostly does produce.”

    “Everyone does their specialty, except Robin, for some reason,” Sam added, casting a quick glance at Sebastian, who shrugged. “Marnie does animal products, Clint does gems and metalcrafts, fish for Willy. You do you, baby-boo,” he suggested.

    “I will,” Archie said, “and if he thinks he’s going to beat me with produce, he has another thing coming.”

    “A bunch of his display probably is your produce,” Sebastian suggested, “you’d probably be looking at a tie at best, you’re competing against yourself.”

    Archie thought a bit about that and then cracked up. “You’re a genius.”

    Sebastian looked confused, but graciously gave Archie an “I know” of acknowledgment, while having no idea what was so ingeniously insightful about what he had just said.

    At the end of the night, when people said their respective goodbyes, Sam held Archie up to speak with him alone for a moment. “You’re up to something again,” Sam told him. “And I want in.”

    Archie smiled innocently. “I’m not, but come to my place with Sebastian and Abigail before the festival starts because legitimate and definitely unrelated reasons.”

    Sam held out a fist, and the two exchanged a bro-fistbump. “My man!” Sam said, excitedly, with his smile looking a little bit more predatory than usual.

    On the morning of the Harvest Fair, Sam, Abigail, and a groggy-looking Sebastian turned up at the farm while Archie was sorting through his recent crops to make the final decisions on what was going to go into his own display. There were some high-grade hot peppers and melons left over from the summer, but the blueberries were no longer good. Some wheat and corn were ready to go, but not exceptional. He figured he could round the display out with a geode he found clearing the farm way back when, since rocks don’t spoil. He was a bit distracted when Sam shouted a hello from right behind him, startling the kneeling Archie to his feet.

    “Yoba alive, that spooked me,” Archie said, catching his breath. “Hi everyone.”

    Sebastian nodded nonchalantly while Sam and Abigail were more effusive with their greetings, before they got down to business.

    “Something like this happens every year,” Abigail told them, “the Harvest Festival turns Dad into a jerk.”

    The three men looked at her silently, waiting.

    “… a bigger jerk.” Abigail hastily corrected herself. “And having a go at the rest of the town’s craftspeople was way out of line.”

    Sam cut in. “So when she found out you had a plan, she was more than happy to help out.”

    Archie looked only a little bit surprised. “Isn’t it good for your family when he wins?”

    Abigail shook her head. “Not really, it’s too small a competition to really get any fame from it, but with business being rough, he’d cling to any recognition he’d get.”

    “And you?” Archie asked Sebastian.

    Sebastian shrugged. “I’m bored, but stuck at the festival with the family. This’ll give me something to do other than look at people’s grange displays over and over for hours.”

    Archie chuckled. “That was more candid than I was expecting. Are you guys, uh, real pranksters?”

    “Yeah.” Sebastian replied.

    “Tell me about that one sometime. Ever engaged in psychological warfare?”

    “Only daily,” Abigail replied.

    “Ever tried an elaborate distraction?”

    “Well, technically, yes.” Sam answered.

    “Alright,” Archie expounded dramatically, drawing on his theatrical training, “I can see that I will not have to teach you how to be pranksters. I need a distraction that’ll pull Pierre away from his display for a few minutes.” He pointed to Abigail and Sebastian. “And you are going to be that distraction.”

    “What about me?” Sam asked.

    “You’ve got the most important job. You’re the one who has to sell it well enough for Pierre to leave his stand. Here’s what I’m thinking, but you guys will have to help with the details…”

    A short while later the plan was hashed out, and the misfits scattered to rejoin their families with mischief in their hearts, while Archie obsessively sorted out his produce, trying to find just the right things to put on display. Eventually he decided he wasn’t finding anything better on short notice, and headed down the southern path to town, past Marnie’s ranch, and Leah’s cottage. Marnie was just leaving to head to the fair as well, and they exchanged polite greetings and wishes of good luck in the competition. Marnie wasn’t too confident about either of their chances, but Archie wasn’t too put off. “Welwick’s Oracle said the spirits were pleased with me today.”

    Marnie shook her head and laughed. “It’s a TV show, Archie, the spirits are pleased with absolutely everyone who watched it today.”

    “Well, I’m feeling lucky,” he replied. And he was, though it was also tinged with some regret about potentially causing a scene at another local festival, and disappointment that Sandy couldn’t make it out to this festival, though she’d been a good sport about the other ones. He did feel in command of his destiny today, probably due to his decision to make bold and reckless decisions in terms of dealing with Pierre.

    Leah wasn’t at home, and he figured that she was either out for a walk or at the fair early. He’d catch her eventually, he thought, and jauntily strolled into the town square, produce in tow. He waved to the townsfolk as he walked up to the general store, where his display stand was set up directly next to Pierre’s, which was meticulously set up. A stunning display of fruit and vegetables topped the straw matting in the display box – blueberries and melons, oranges, peppers, cauliflower, grapes, and others. Archie had to hand it to Pierre. Even the foraged grapes looked exceptional. He was in the middle of closely examining them when Pierre returned to his stand from inside the store.

    “Sizing up the competition, there, farmer?” Pierre asked, still inveterately smug.

    “I’m impressed,” Archie told him. “The oranges and grapes are a really nice touch,” Archie told him, “and your arrangement is excellent. It looks to me like the melons and peppers are from my farm.”

    “The blueberries and the cauliflower are too,” Pierre told him.

    “What? How?” Archie asked, dumbfounded. “My berries all rotted, and cauliflower is a spring crop.”

    “I used a blast freezer,” Pierre replied simply. “It’ll be useful when we start selling elsewhere as well, it expands our options for what to sell when. Anyway, you should get started on setting up, people are starting to arrive.”

    Archie set up his own display under Pierre’s watchful eye and expressive mouth, as Pierre was sizing the competition up as well, along with serving up a bit of smack-talk to go with useful business facts like the fact that he had a blast freezer. When Archie finished, Pierre had a detailed look of his own. “Good quality produce, Archie, but you’re just strewing it around with no regard for presentation, and the geode is out of place.”

    Archie shrugged and made a half-hearted effort to feng shui his crops while Pierre tut-tutted at him. Emily wandered by the displays, oohing and aahing at both of them. “I’m getting such a good vibe from both of these!” Of Pierre’s she continued, “That’s so beautiful!” and of Archie’s, “that’s great minimalism!” The business partners looked at each other and shrugged before thanking Emily for her comments. Archie asked Pierre to look over his stand while he checked out the other displays, which Pierre agreed to, snarkily mentioning that he looked earlier so he wouldn’t have to leave his display alone. Archie felt a pit in his stomach. Sam would have to sell the heck out of it to draw the slightly paranoid Pierre away from his display for long enough that Archie could put his plan into action.

    The other displays were visually impressive, but Archie thought that it was going to be a two-horse race between him and Pierre. Clint’s metalwork was functional, but he didn’t go through the touches of embellishing them. He felt sorry for Clint – the guy never especially wanted to be a blacksmith in a town this small, and unfortunately, it showed a bit in his work. Willy’s fish were genuinely impressive, especially the large albacore tuna and the giant purple sea cucumber, but they were ill-suited to being out of water. Marnie’s animal products were the next most impressive to his and Pierre’s display, he thought, especially with a massive cheese wheel as the centrepiece for duck eggs, foie gras, milk, and wool.

    A distraught Leah caught Archie’s attention as he left Marnie’s display to walk back toward his own. “Archie, have you seen Elliott today?”

    “No. He’s not at home?”

    “No, he isn’t.”

    Archie found it very strange, especially since Elliott wasn’t prone to leaving his cabana unless it was for a specific purpose. “We’ll ask around.” The two of them split up, walking through the square asking the villagers. No one had seen him so far today.

    “Could he have gone to visit his family? Archie asked.

    “It’s unlikely,” Leah told him. “They live pretty far away, and it didn’t look like he had packed for a long trip. Maybe some kind of emergency?”

    “Maybe, but if it is, at least it’s not him having it, otherwise Harvey would know.”

    Leah considered it quietly. “Who knows?”

    “I don’t, but I have suspicions.”

    “Me too.”

    They wished each other well for the day. Archie was disappointed for her. It seemed like in spite of the fluctuation of their relationship, she could always at least bank on Elliott for some company at the festivals up until this point.

    Back at his display, Mayor Lewis was doing an informal pass of the display booths, saying hello to the townsfolk and participants, before the formal judging was set to start, about an hour later. Lewis seemed pleased at both of their displays as he tottered off toward Clint’s on the other side of the square. It was not that much later that Sam walked up from his house across the square directly to Archie and Pierre’s stands. “Hey Archie, sick display, hi Pierre.”

    Archie smiled and thanked him, knowing that not commenting on Pierre’s display was sure to get on the older man’s nerves. While Pierre started fretting, Sam continued. “Yours is nice too, Pierre, but I actually wanted to discuss something else with you, a strange thing happened with Abigail earlier today that I can’t quite put my finger on, maybe you can help me out.”

    Pierre’s look of concern redoubled. “Well, uh, what happened?” he asked, unused to the millennials being anything but secretive about their goings-on.

    “Well, when I was playing with Vincent outside my place, I saw her walking off toward the forest with Sebastian. I felt a bit excluded, but y’know, fair enough. I asked if they’d be back for the festival and they told me it depends. ‘Depends on what?’ I asked. Good question, Sam. Abigail told me it’d depend how long the Wizard would take to brew a protection potion for her. Can you imagine? She doesn’t go in the mines, what could she possibly need to be protected from? Bears? It makes absolutely no sense to me. What do you think, Pierre?”

    Pierre, for his part, got progressively redder as Sam told the story, first, he flushed at the mention of Sebastian and Abigail going into the forest. He blushed even more deeply at the mention of the Wizard, then again at the mention of the protection potion. “I’m not sure either, Sam,” he stammered, “Archie, watch my display, please,” he added, as he peeled off toward the forest.

    They watched Pierre zoom off into the distance.

    “Sell it well enough?” Sam asked, grinning with his Cheshire grin.

    “I’ll say,” Archie said, “he certainly bought it. Now stand in front of Pierre’s display and keep talking with me. You choose the topic.”

    While Sam rambled on about Solarion Chronicles, Archie gently lifted the fruits and vegetables that he had identified as being from his farm, before carefully sitting them back down in their original locations. “Great. Done.”

    Sam looked confused. “It doesn’t look any different. I thought you were going to do something to his display.”

    Archie shook his head. “I did do something to it, it just couldn’t be obvious. You’ll see at the judging, enjoy the show.”

    A few minutes later, Pierre, still blushing furiously, came back to town with Abigail and Sebastian behind him and stormed furiously over to Robin, exchanging some heated words. Robin took Sebastian aside and quickly discussed something with him, before returning to Pierre, and, from Archie’s best guess, asking him why he would ever believe anything that outlandish coming from Sam of all people.

    Pierre returned to his display stand, trying to calm down. He quickly checked that all the produce was intact, and seeing that it was, started shifting it around minutely to make it look just right, while Archie’s throat clenched, as any bigger moves could reveal the trickery, but Pierre eventually settled back down to await his inevitable victory.

    “That sure was something.” Archie said.

    Pierre shook his head, and Archie wasn’t sure if Pierre was chiding himself or Sam by it. “It was considerably more innocent than he suggested. They were just cuddled up under a tree near the forest lake. Not that I approve of that, either.”

    “They’d be a pretty good couple, I think, though I don’t know how much staying power they’d have,” Archie replied.

    “Hopefully not enough that what just happened becomes a real concern,” Pierre decided.

    Not too long after, Lewis hopped on the PA system and informed the town that the formal judging was about to begin, with Willy, Clint, Marnie, Archie, and Pierre having their displays judged in that order. Archie asked Pierre if they were meant to stay at their booths or follow Lewis. It was their choice, though people usually stayed at their booths so as not to influence the judging. That suited Archie just fine.

    It took a while for Lewis, with the crowd of townsfolk who weren’t competing lagging just behind, to make his way up to the store and to start appraising Archie’s display, with surprising inscrutability. Archie had no idea how his produce was stacking up, and was sure by the end of it that if he ever found himself in a game of poker against Lewis, he would get absolutely smashed. Lewis was a very detail-oriented judge as well. He picked up each item, turning it over in his hands, looking for hidden imperfections on their undersides. He would not be fooled by basic visual merchandising technique, which was exactly what Archie was banking on. When Lewis moved on to Pierre’s display, while Pierre watched from a distance behind the stand, he picked up the melon, brought it close to his chest, and gently spun it, stopping when his eyes alighted on a flash of royal blue against the melon’s green skin. Upon closer inspection, it was a Finegan’s Farm produce label. Lewis’ stony visage was etched with slight confusion as he replaced the melon. He moved on to the oranges and the grapes; then saw the same royal blue against the green under-leaves of the cauliflower, and against the scarlet red of one of the hot peppers. He replaced the crops without a word and walked back to the PA system, calling Pierre and Archie to report there.

    The crowd was instantly abuzz, as this was not standard procedure. After the judging, it was usually straight on to the announcement of the scores, but something was different this time. Archie and Pierre looked at each other and ambled over to Lewis, whose face now openly demonstrated his consternation.

    “Pierre, which of the crops in your display are from Archie’s farm?”

    “The cauliflower, melon, hot peppers, and the punnet of blueberries are.”

    “I suspected as much, not least because they have the farm’s label on them. I’m not used to that kind of carelessness from you, Pierre.”

    “What?” the shopkeeper spluttered. “There aren’t labels on them!” Then the penny dropped. “Or, there weren’t.”

    Archie’s smile widened. “There weren’t. But I think it’s only fair that I should get the points for growing the things.”

    “Absolutely not!” Pierre burst out yelling before getting cut off by Lewis.

    “Absolutely not, indeed.” Lewis said, though not as an addition to Pierre’s outburst. “Go join the crowd, it’s time for the results.”

    Archie joined the misfits, who were standing with Robin, on the fringes of the crowd.

    “So what happened,” Sam whispered to him.

    “No idea, Lewis kept what he was thinking to himself.”

    He didn’t keep it to himself that much longer when he picked up the microphone and addressed the crowd.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, it’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the results of the Pelican Town Harvest Fair! We had a field of 5 competitors this year, our most in over a decade. Congratulations and applause are due to everyone who participated!”

    The town broke into a polite round of applause, and then Lewis continued.

    “Clint’s metalworking display scored 52 points out of a possible 100. Willy’s Fishing display scored 54 points. Marnie’s Ranch’s display scored 62. Archie Finegan of Finegan’s Farm and Pierre’s General Store…” The crowd started to buzz with anticipation,

    “are tied…” and then they burst into a commotion as Pierre and Archie looked at each other, Pierre in shocked confusion and Archie also surprised but more indifferent,

    “with a score of zero points. They are both disqualified from this year’s competition for breaking the contest’s rules. Archie is disqualified for tampering with a display, and Pierre for using another competitor’s goods in his. This year’s winner is Marnie!”

    The town, still abuzz and in shock at the double disqualification, still mustered a roaring round of applause for Marnie, who Archie rushed over to congratulate.

    “Congratulations, Marnie,” he said, laughing good-naturedly, “I was just thinking about how lucky it would be if I didn’t have to deal with having to listen to Pierre gloat over winning. I guess Welwick was right after all!”

    Archie bought a few rounds of drinks for the misfits at the saloon that night, and invited Leah to join them, given her distress earlier in the day. Leah was looking morose and very slow at sipping her wine and eating her salad again, which Archie recognized as a sign of emotional turmoil. While he definitely replayed the sabotage for the misfits’ amusement, the evening was tempered with trying to reassure Leah – not of anything particular to where Elliott may have gone or what he may have done, but that fundamentally, she was alright. It had a limited effect. At around ten past twelve, Archie got up to leave and asked Leah to join him, surprising the rest of the people in the arcade.

    “Easy there, ladykiller,” Sam quipped.

    Archie glared at him, brusquely replying. “I don’t really have time to argue with you about how off base you’re being right now.”

    “What’s the hurry?” Abigail asked while Leah slowly started getting up.

    “The last bus from Hub Town arrives in seventeen minutes.”

    “So what?” she continued.

    “So I want to know if Elliott is coming back on that bus.”

    Abigail squeaked out a muted “oh,” and the group said their goodbyes and scattered with Sam, Abigail, and Sebastian walking back to their houses and Archie and Leah meandering toward the bus stop.

    “You think he went to the desert, don’t you?” Leah asked him.

    “I do, and didn’t you think it too?” He answered with a question of his own. “It seems to me it almost doesn’t matter whether he did, with how distraught you got over it.”

    “I wasn’t that distraught,” Leah pouted.

    “You eat and drink that slowly when you’re anxious,” he stated simply, “and I understand why you would be. Wherever he went, you’re probably going to have an unpleasant conversation to get through. I don’t envy you that.”

    Leah sighed, and her shoulders started to shake, jostling her braid, as they arrived behind the fence by the road near the bus stop, where Archie had picked the daffodil for Sandy after the Flower Dance, a few minutes before the bus arrived. They waited in tense anticipation, both uncertain of whether they wanted to see him walk off of that bus, or whether they preferred some other, unforeseen outcome. The hum of the engine and the sound of the tires bumping over the road came before the bus’ headlights lit up the road, and the bus gently coasted to a stop. The bus looked mostly empty, and with Archie and Leah standing back from the stop, the driver, if he even saw them, wouldn’t have taken them for would-be passengers as the bus finished its route off in the direction that Archie never took it. The door hissed open, and Elliott skulked out into the autumn night. Archie glanced over toward Leah, who even in the darkness of night, seemed on the edge of tears.

    “Elliott,” he called out gently, startling the other man, who surely did not expect to be intercepted on his way home. “You had us worried sick.”

    Elliott walked over to Archie and Leah, addressing him first. “A thousand apologies. How was your Harvest Fair? Victorious?”

    “In a manner of speaking. I was disqualified. It was phenomenal - you really had to have been there. I’m glad you’re safe, but you’ve got some explaining to do.” He glanced over to Leah. “You good?”

    She nodded.

    “Goodnight, then,” he told them, walking off toward the farm, thinking that Leah would not be good.

    He flicked on his porch light, and pulled out a book he’d taken out from the library, an actor’s biography, determined to read for a little while, both for his own sanity and to ensure that if Leah cut through the farm on the way to her cottage, that he could make sure she resembled being ok. It was a chapter and a half later that he heard heavy, thudding, footfalls on the dirt road leading into the farm, accompanied by sobs and sniffles. Crap, he thought. He watched as Leah stumbled along the perimeter of one of his fields, before realizing the outside light was on, and then, that Archie was watching from the porch. She froze, torn between running home, and away, or toward him. He set the book down, and waited. They looked at each other for maybe half a minute, but it felt like an hour, before Leah started taking slow steps toward the farmhouse. Archie offered her a hand up, and the chair he was sitting in to read, while he leaned up against his front door.

    “He was in the desert today,” she started.

    Archie nodded. “I was afraid of that.”

    “I… I tried to explain how it made me feel, and I couldn’t even finish. He said… he said he met a new woman in the desert,” she elaborated, her voice straining as she choked out the last part of her sentence: “and he’s pursuing her.”

    Archie’s heart sank. His own relationship was going through a rough patch, and his past relationships weren’t fantastic, but they never exploded that spectacularly, thanks to very one-sided callous disregard. His face burned bright red.

    “What’s wrong with me?” she asked. “Why does this keep happening?”

    “Don’t blame yourself.” Archie told her. “It’s not because there’s something wrong with you. You made a mistake, that’s all.”

    Leah seemed unconvinced, but thanked him anyway. “I’m going to get home. Thanks for being a friend, Archie.”

    He gave her a hug before she went on her way. She was still shaking, and he knew she’d be struggling with it for a while to come. He wished he had a better idea of what to do to help her.

    He pulled out his phone and saw that he missed a couple of texts from Sandy while he was at the saloon. He’d call her in the morning, he decided, and went to bed. He had a difficult time falling asleep with Leah’s predicament on his mind.

    When he woke up the next morning, with rainy weather outside that meant no immediate farm chores, he gave himself the opportunity to sleep in an extra hour and a half, waking back up in time to call Sandy while she was enjoying her breakfast.

    “Hey Archie,” she greeted him, “how was the festival?”

    “Oh, like the Flower Dance,” he replied. “I wound up causing a bit of a stir.” She asked him to explain, and he did.

    “… so that was that,” he concluded. “Though there was something troubling in the aftermath, when Elliott got back. He said he met a woman he’d be pursuing in the desert. Did you happen to introduce him to anyone?”

    There was a noticeably long silence. “No, Archie, I didn’t. He’s talking about me.”

    While he thought they were suddenly chummier on the double-date, that still blindsided Archie because he never considered – never would have considered, that to be a serious possibility. “What?” he asked, lamely.

    “We were going nowhere, Archie. We had problems, and I didn’t want to fix them.”

    For all his quick-wittedness in other situations, he didn’t have a clue how to respond to this one. He stayed silent for a while.

    “Goodbye, Archie,” she said, with finality, her parting words a decree as much as good wishes. She hung up the phone. Archie lay back in bed staring at the phone, pulling the covers up over his head, and trying in vain to get back to sleep.




    The abruptness of the breakup threw Archie off almost as much as the reason for it. Sure, he recognized the inherent problems of the difference between his position in life and Sandy’s, and their diverging paths, and he had been willing to make compromises, even if it wasn’t to go as far as she wanted. That much, he could grasp, and he could understand why she may not want to go along for that journey with him, though it didn’t seem to him that they really tried substantially to work it out, so soon after the issues had been brought to the fore. He was disappointed about that. That she would dump him to start with Elliott, knowing full well his tendencies, he could not understand on a number of levels. She was too proud for that, for one thing. She must have thought there was something different between herself and Elliott than there was between Leah and Elliott. Maybe the trusting nature that opened Leah up to Elliott’s abusive behaviour was simply less of a factor. Maybe she thought she could be the one to wrap him around her finger. Maybe it was a lot of possibilities, but thinking about them gave Archie a headache and didn’t make him feel any better emotionally either. And while he fumed about it, he went about his farm tasks mechanically, out of a sense of responsibility to Pierre as much as, if not more so than, out of a drive for profit or actually feeling like doing them.

    It was impressive enough that the town didn’t know about those events for over a week. Leah and Archie kept to themselves, and Elliott was either writing or off to the desert early in the morning – Archie didn’t care which, but without all of the parties being especially communicative, the town knew something had happened, but not what. One of those mornings, a rainy one demanding less farm work, he was feeling too agitated to fish, like a bundle of aggression looking for a fight. Without having rocks left to break on the farm, he decided he might as well break some of the ones in the mines until he felt better. He took his bag and his pickaxe and walked up to the adventurer’s guild, to check in with Marlon, like he’d been told to.

    The wizened adventurer seemed a bit startled by the bell on his door ringing when Archie opened it, but the surprise seemed to be a pleasant one as he had a roaring laugh about Archie’s sabotage at the Harvest Fair. Archie managed a small smile at that before telling him that he’d finally decided to do some mining.

    “Glad you remembered to stop in. You’re a bit under-equipped,” Marlon told him.

    “What am I missing?” Archie asked.

    “A weapon and some food, by the looks. Give me a minute.” He went rummaging through a large wooden footlocker, pulling out a wooden sword, before also picking up a couple of pieces of jerky from his desk. “With the slimes and bats and whatnot, it’s dangerous to go unarmed. Here, take this. They hassle you, just bop them, and let me know how many of what you clear out.”

    “Sounds great,” Archie replied, “thanks.”

    Marlon didn’t really sense much amiss with Archie since they’d only had very brief conversations, but he figured he’d follow the farmer down for his first mining session, just to make sure nothing went amiss. It didn’t take him long to see that something was troubling him; since the first few swings of his pickaxe were far more aggressive than they needed to be to break those rocks. It seemed like Archie was trying to pulverize them into a fine gray mist, muttering his frustrations aloud to himself. The rhythmic smashing of the rocks attracted one of the slimes that Marlon had mentioned, and it was squelching its way up toward Archie from the side, on the fringes of his peripheral vision. He raised his pick for another swing at the outcrop of rock has was excavating, when the slime suddenly launched itself off the cave floor and into his outstretched arm, startling him into pivoting away from the rock and jolting the pickaxe off the ground, sending it off on a couple of wild bounces. His arm hurt, and he felt sluggish and weak compared to moments before. Using his other arm, he wrenched the slime off and grabbed the sword, slicing at the slime wildly. He had missed a swing and the slime lunged again, bouncing off of his pants, leaving a trail of ooze down his shin. Eventually, forcing himself to calm down a little and stay on task, he caught the slime with an underhand swing as it leapt at his legs again, slicing it clean in half. He recovered his pickaxe and stood over the dead slime, wondering what the hell it actually was. He’d never seen anything like it.

    “Archie.”

    The farmer whirled at his name being called, and saw Marlon standing a short distance away. “You can take your frustrations out on the rocks, but you need to keep a clear head down here or you can get very badly hurt. Let’s go together for a bit.”

    Archie didn’t necessarily want the company, but he also didn’t want to get slimed to death so they walked together through a few floors of the mine. Marlon pointed out particular semi-precious stones and rock formations, and Archie hit them. Marlon pointed out different kinds of living hazards, and Archie hit them until Marlon also pointed out where to hit them; at which point Archie still hit them, just roughly in the specified location. All the hitting did gradually tire Archie out, and he sat down on a rock to offer Marlon some jerky when he felt a sudden pinching on his posterior and leapt up with a start. He had sat directly on a rather offended cave crab. Marlon howled with laughter.

    “Oh, and pay attention down here, Archie. No ifs, ands, or butts.”

    Archie rolled his eyes and they kept on for a while longer. He’d filled his bag with ores and semi-precious stones, and his arms ached like back at the beginning of his farming career. He didn’t necessarily feel that much better, emotionally, rather, he was approaching being too tired to be aggressive. He suggested to Marlon that they return to the surface.

    “If we go down one more from here, we can ride the elevator back,” the adventurer suggested. Archie kept at his search for the ladder down amid rock growths and undergrowth, finally finding it. “After you,” Marlon offered.

    Archie eased his way down the ladder, arms screaming only to find a tiny area, hardly excavated to mine at all, about the size of a small room, with an elevator stop and, curiously, a comically oversized treasure chest in the middle of the room that he just had to try to open. The lid yielded pretty easily, and he was surprised to find, of all things, a pair of leather desert boots, in his size, that might even be suitable for lighter work on the farm, while also being more comfortable in the mines.

    “Hey Marlon!” He called up the ladder. “Did you put this here?”

    Marlon scrambled down to look at what Archie was referring to. “Nope. Nice boots, though.”

    Archie precariously put the boots into his already bulging backpack and pressed the button to call the elevator. That was when Marlon decided to ask what was on his mind.

    “Relationship trouble,” Archie said simply, not opting to go into the wider details.

    “You’ll pull through,” Marlon said sympathetically. Then he chuckled. “If your dignity can survive that rock crab, it can survive that.”

    Archie returned to the mines the next few days after that first outing when his farm chores were finished, skipping the Friday evening at the saloon. No one other than Marlon and Gil saw much of him, save for isolated contact on the walk up, or when he bought groceries, and he was distant with everyone until the Sunday, when he walked out of the mine toward 11 at night, covered in bruises, scratches, mud, coal dust, small lacerations, and monster guts, to find Sebastian standing near the exit by the mountain lake, smoking a cigarette. Archie stopped in his tracks as Sebastian looked him up and down.

    Sebastian took a long drag from his cigarette. “Feeling better?”

    Archie wasn’t sure he wanted to have the conversation that he thought was coming, but since it seemed so rare that Sebastian instigated them, he decided, for better or worse, to go along with it. “Not really.”

    Sebastian nodded taking a relaxed breath and cycling the smoke from his lungs. “Sorry to hear it.” He pointed at Archie’s bag. “You changing careers?”

    “Taking up a new hobby, though I thought monster slaying and smashing rocks would be more cathartic.”

    He nodded again. “On Friday, when we realized you weren’t coming to the saloon, I thought about something you told me a while back.”

    Archie’s curiosity was piqued. “And that was?”

    Sebastian took another drag. “That people can choose to be alone, or they can choose to be alone together. I thought you might appreciate knowing you have both choices too.”

    Archie stood there, taking his own supposed wisdom back in, turning it over in his own mind, and giving some thought to what he wanted beyond the intensity of emotion telling him to vent his aggression until he could control it. “I do appreciate that,” he croaked out, eventually.

    “You want to talk about it?”

    “No, but I know I should,” Archie told him. “I’m trying to figure out where I should even start.”

    Sebastian offered him a cigarette and Archie declined. “The beginning works for me. I know Leah’s worked up because Elliott’s dumped her again, but not what your story is, if that helps you figure out where it is.”

    Archie found his way to a nearby tree and sat down, leaning back against its trunk. “Leah had asked me and Sandy to go on a double-date with her and Elliott, and for me to tell her whether I thought Elliott would stick to it this time. It was a disaster.”

    Sebastian frowned. “How come?”

    Archie shrugged in vexation. “It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did. We’d all been talking about the desert when Sandy and Elliott got wrapped up in a conversation of their own, and the whole double-date dynamic fell apart. Both Leah and Elliott were excited to go see more of the desert, get inspired, all that jazz. I warned Leah that if Elliott went off to visit the desert without her, to run like hell.”

    “And he did?”

    “Yeah, he snuck off on the first bus the day of the Harvest Fair, and he was on the last one back. I was so dismayed for Leah when we saw him step down off that bus.”

    Sebastian winced. “But what about you?” he asked.

    He explained how he left Leah and Elliott at the bus stop to sort their relationship out, and how Leah cut through the farm sobbing on her way back home, the frustration in his voice mounting steadily. “He straight-up dumped her, said he’d found another woman in the desert he’d be pursuing. I figured Sandy had introduced him to someone, the next morning I found out it was actually her he was talking about when she dumped me. It’s not like we didn’t have problems, but I thought we could try solving them first, y’know?”

    Sebastian nodded, puffing out a smoke ring before putting the cigarette out. “She thought you couldn’t?”

    Archie nodded. “Sort of, but she said she didn’t want to anyway. She wants someone to live with her out in the desert, and I don’t want to commute to the farm every day on top of working the long hours, stuff like that.”

    “Thought she’d cave and move here?”

    “I wishfully hoped, but I didn’t give it that much thought at all. It was too early. Now that I think of it, I don’t think Elliott would rush to move either, but I could be wrong.”

    “Yeah, it seems like it’s been longer than it actually was. Not even a year yet, but most of it with her.”

    “There’s also the fact that we’re both headstrong, stubborn people, and I think that suits me better than it does her.”

    “Huh?”

    “She’d challenge me on things all the time, and I was excited to think it over, pick and choose, and be better.”

    “And her?”

    “She’s comfortable where and how she is. Or she was. I’d like to presume she isn’t anymore, given the circumstances, but that’s wishful thinking. My sister thought that’d be an issue eventually.”

    “Don’t you just hate sisters being right all the time?” Sebastian asked, a bit of strain in his own voice for the first time.

    “Yeah, buddy, though at least she might be right about me finally being able to succeed at something.”

    Sebastian paused a while before answering. “I hope she’s right. You’re well enough suited to the place.”

    Archie picked up on it. “I appreciate that, but I’m more concerned about you not feeling like a success right now.”

    Sebastian sighed. “It’s not that, I’m succeeding somewhat with programming, just not as fast as I’d like. It’s rough in the house, and part of it’s because she’s succeeding so much. I want out.”

    “I’d have thought she’d be starting university this fall, she’d be out of the house, and what then?”

    “Spring term, maybe? Maybe she’ll do online classes for a bit to save the family some money? I don’t know. And it’d probably be even more awkward with just the three of us in there. If there’s one thing I’m grateful to Maru for, it’s keeping Demetrius too busy with hands-on parenting to bother me.”

    “Huh.” Archie said, non-committal. “You’ll succeed, just differently, and between you and me, I think it’ll take you out of this town, same as Abigail.”

    “Why same as her?” Sebastian asked, a bit confused.

    “She’s got bigger dreams than taking over the store, not that Pierre would give her any responsibility anyway. By the way, Pierre said you got into character a bit more than I’d have guessed on that prank we pulled on him.”

    Sebastian rolled his eyes. “I don’t know that we see each other that way, but it made the wait in the forest more bearable. Though, we were talking about you.”

    “I don’t feel good, man, if I wasn’t smashing rocks and cave creatures, I’d have probably gone spoiling for a fight with Elliott by now.”

    Sebastian shook his head. “I don’t think so, besides, even if you didn’t realize it, turns out you just dodged a bullet, and each of them stepped into one.”

    “You think?” Archie asked. He could have said it in a viciously sarcastic way, but was surprisingly earnest about it.

    “I’ve seen and heard enough to know that Elliott has no idea how to treat women, and that Sandy’s judgment is awful. You do the math.”

    The beginnings of a smirk started to crease Archie’s face. “I’m bad at math. Can I foist it off on Maru?”

    Sebastian laughed dryly. “So you ready to get back to being your chipper old self?”

    Archie thought briefly about it. “I’m getting there. Thanks.”

    “Didn’t happen to find a piece of jade in there, did you?” Sebastian gestured at Archie’s backpack.

    “I did. Didn’t Maru give you the one you were looking for ages ago?”

    Sebastian laughed. “Of course not.”

    Archie fumbled around in the pack and tossed Sebastian the stone. “Least I could do, friend.”

    “Cheers,” Sebastian replied, before wishing Archie a good night and walking back toward his house, tossing the stone from hand to hand, and looking it over from all angles.

    Archie returned to his feeling better for having the conversation. On the Friday of that week, a couple of days before Spirit’s Eve, when he showed his face at the saloon, people knew something had happened, and maybe even the specifics of what, but didn’t give him any hell over it. He placed his meal order with a very apologetic Emily, who gave him his first beer on the house.

    “I’m so sorry, Archie! I never would have expected that from her,” she told him.

    While Emily was a cause of their relationship, Archie hardly held that against her. “It was a big surprise for everyone involved, I think, but don’t worry about it. Eventually I’ll hope she’s happier and I’ll know that I am, but I enjoyed the good times. I’m still glad you threw her my way at the Flower Dance.”

    “Speaking of, I wonder if she’s going to come to next year’s,” Emily started, before catching herself. “Uh, sorry. That’s probably not what you wanted to think about right now.”

    “If she does, she does. I’ll have a whole winter to cool off. Hah. Winter. Cold. Ingenious.”

    He checked in with Leah while he waited for his food to arrive. He wanted to make sure she was OK, but also to give her some space since he also felt partly responsible for what had happened.

    “How’re you doing?” he asked.

    “I’ve been better, but I was doing worse the last few days,” she said. “I stayed at home a lot, finally started putting some of that emotion into art yesterday, then decided I’d still rather spend my Friday nights out. How about you?”

    Archie shrugged. “It’s pretty similar. The last few days I’d finish my farm chores and stay in the mines ‘til well past dark, taking my frustration out on the rocks. I probably could have kept up with that if I didn’t run into Sebastian afterward the other day. Say what you will about him, but they guy’s a grounding influence.”

    Leah seemed a bit surprised. “He seems so uptight a lot of the time.”

    “He sort of is. He’s on edge most of the time, but it makes him pretty perceptive. I’m glad you’re – we’re – doing better. Enjoy your meal.” He started walking off toward another table to set himself up to eat.

    “You too, Archie,” she replied.

    Spirit’s Eve came and went, and the year gave way to the onset of winter – the part of the year Archie had the least farming to do. He spent a lot of the winter mining, building more lean muscle and endurance, still going to the saloon on Fridays, still a bit withdrawn compared to his usual self. When taking a trip to Clint’s to upgrade his pickaxe, he caught himself wondering whether this was his usual self and his time with Sandy was the happy anomaly. He felt the sting of missing her in the circumstances.

    Deeper down the mine, he had found some natural wonders that most of the town, for lack of interest in what lay underground, probably had never set eyes on. The mineshaft snaked out into a cavern with a vast underground lake, and deeper still, where the temperature of the caverns defied nature, another cave contained a partially frozen lake. He had been in no mood for fishing in that period, especially in the windy winter outdoors, but toward the middle of the winter, he sunk almost whole day into fishing in the underground lake, surprising Marlon when he showed off his haul of fish rather than minerals, and Willy when he sold them on to him.

    One of the things Archie had been looking forward to in the winter was going vacationing with Sandy. They never really made a plan, but he imagined they’d go from the desert out past Zuzu City and beyond, but with the borders still largely closed due to the war, the destination would have had to be in the Republic. With that off the table, Archie had to figure out how to spend what remained of the winter before the spring thaws came and a huge amount of time would go into getting the farm and the distribution company up and running. He could go back home to Gallibrand City, on the same buses that took him here, and visit his family, but then he quickly thought about how long it had been since anyone other than Maeve had been up to Pelican Town. He quickly dashed off the text messages inviting them to celebrate the Feast of the Winter Star at his house. They’d just have to bring their own air mattresses and blankets. He’d sneak a trip to the city in before the New Year - and maybe invite his friends for a party to usher in the New Year and the anniversary of his move.



    On one of his walks up to the mines, Archie detoured from his usual route to pay a visit to the Community Centre, for the first time he’d gone since the spring. He was largely over the agonizing questions of free will since his sister’s visit, but had contented himself with acting in what he guessed was the town’s benefit. He hadn’t thought to check in with them to see how he was actually doing on that, a key point since it was set to be tied to his farm’s success, with the Flower Dance less than a season away. Before he even got to the building, he was surprised by seeing Haley in a very fashionable winter jacket, photographing snow-topped branches, the snow-topped community centre, and snow-topped playground equipment. He’d rarely seen Haley much at all, and certainly not doing anything creative aside from coming up with new ways to whine about things, so he was intrigued and greeted her.

    She was a bit apprehensive, but willing to go along with the conversation. Apparently nearly a whole year was enough time for her to cool down over the Flower Dance. “Hi Archie, you’re looking better,” she said, gesturing to his winter parka, or maybe talking about him in general.

    “And you’re looking more interesting than I’ve ever seen you,” he said, pointing to the camera. “I didn’t know you were interested in photography.”

    Haley smiled an actually sincere smile. “Oh, yeah! Everyone thinks, ‘oh, Haley is going to go off and be a model…’” she began, leaving Archie unsure whether anyone had ever thought that at all. “… and I’d do it for a while, but I’d much rather be able to be a good fashion photographer.”

    To Archie, that made a lot of sense, and he said as much, though he added that the landscape photos she was taking were pretty far away from fashion portraiture.

    “Yes, duh, but it lets me work on lighting and technique and composition. But wait! I can take some photos of you… if it isn’t going to hold you up. What are you doing up here anyway?”

    Archie didn’t know where to begin explaining. “I wanted to stop at the Community Centre on my way up to the mines.”

    Haley’s face scrunched up a bit. “That abandoned rat-hole? You’re even stranger than I thought.”

    “You can take some photos in there if you like - capture some rural decay on film.”

    Haley thought it over. “That could be good for a portfolio,” she decided.

    Archie opened up the front door of the Community Centre and stepped inside. In the depths of winter, it smelled less of freshly upturned earth, but a few steps in, Archie quickly realized that the place had changed since he was last there. The interior walls were no longer falling apart, though the wallpaper looked like it could use some work. The kitchen and the art room had been tidied up, and he looked down to see that he was standing on freshly timbered floors. Had Robin come through in the past seasons?

    Haley followed Archie in, not having a recent reference point for his confusion about the improved state of the building. She started looking around in a mix of apprehension and excitement.

    “Mind if I look around?” she asked.

    “Go ahead. Could you keep it to half an hour or so, though? I just remembered I have to speak with Robin today.”

    Haley readily agreed and took off to photograph various corners of the Community Centre, while Archie unzipped his coat and took a seat by the Junimo hut. “How am I doing, little guys?” he asked softly, bordering on a whisper. To his surprise, the squeaking and honking and squonking noises began to issue forth from the hut building into a cacophonous, discordant din that only he could hear. Shortly thereafter, another sigiled scroll came shooting out of the door of the hut, landing in front of him. He picked it up and pocketed it. He couldn’t read it, but he wasn’t sure he was living up to their expectations. “I’ll try harder,” he said. The Junimos had nothing to say in reply.

    Haley wrapped up only a few minutes later than Archie would have liked, rejoining him at the entrance. “Like, parts of it are pretty run down but it’s really not in as bad shape as people said.”

    “I think Robin may have done some work on it. The floors look brand new.”

    “But why?” Haley asked.

    “Maybe she got really bored,” Archie suggested. “Anyway, I also feel bad that we got off to a really awful start this year, and that I just sat on it. I’m planning to host a New Year party, if you’d like to join us.”

    “Who else is going?” she asked.

    “I haven’t invited anyone else yet. Pretty much everyone around our age except Elliott and Shane.”

    “I don’t get along very well with most of them,” Haley said, flatly.

    “I know that, but you and Alex are both welcome anyway.”

    She perked up a bit at that. “I’ll consider it, and I’ll let you know. Thanks.”

    “You’re welcome.”

    Their rapprochement begun, Haley stayed in the playground a while longer, snapping snow-topped exteriors, while Archie pressed on up into the mountains to Robin’s shop. Robin looked surprised to see him as he kicked the snow off his boots before walking through the door. “Archie, what can I do for you?”

    Archie greeted her warmly. “I’ve got a question for you and an invitation for your kids, if they’re around.”

    Robin put her palms on her countertop. “Fire away.”

    “Did you redo the floors of the Community Centre in the last few months?”

    Robin shook her head in bewilderment. “No. I didn’t think anyone’s been in there this year. Are the floors fixed?”

    Archie was also confused. “Yeah, good as new.”

    They both thought that was strange. “What are you inviting my children to?” Robin asked.

    “A New Year’s party. I was thinking of nicking back to the city for one, but decided to host something instead.”

    Robin considered that. “How lovely, just don’t let them get completely wasted.”

    “If they decide to come, sure. Are they around?”

    Separately, Archie invited them both, not hiding the fact that he was inviting both of them. He was a bit distracted by the mystery of the Community Centre’s floors while doing it. Maru was enthusiastic, since there hadn’t really been any house parties in the whole of the year, and Sebastian thought it’d be a nice change of pace, though he wasn’t entirely thrilled that Maru would be there.

    Instead of going mining, he doubled back home to try putting the Junimo scroll inside of the book of field notes again, to get a translation. It didn’t work, so he started trudging toward the Wizard’s tower in search of greater insight when he ran into Leah by the river outside her cottage, doing some fishing. He told her he was off to see the wizard and asked if she’d like to join him for the walk. She declined, but mentioned he could stop by on his way back to see some of the art she was working on. He accepted, and invited her to the New Year’s party, which she sounded excited about, before heading off into the forest. This part of the forest was even more scenic than the wooded parts of the mountain, though the frozen lake would have been more visually impressive without the layer of snow obscuring the ice. The snow here was nearly pristine, with so few people going out the Wizard’s way. He made his way to the tower, drew back his hand to knock on the door, which, like the first time he visited, startled him by opening before his fist made contact with it. The Wizard and a surprised-looking Abigail stared back at him from the tower’s foyer, as Archie stepped inside.

    “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said.

    “It’s cool,” Abigail said with a slight smile, short-circuiting the Wizard’s grandiloquent speech before it occurred.

    “What brings you here, Archie?” The wizard asked.

    “I have two questions for you, one of which I’m comfortable with Abigail knowing the answer to.”

    The wizard nodded, and Abigail’s smile widened, though she was still concerned about the other question. “Go on.”

    “The floors of the Community Centre were recently re-done, but not by Robin. Do you know who might have done that?”

    “Were they? Excuse me a moment, I’ll go see for myself,” and with that, the Wizard disappeared in a flash of purple and golden light.

    With Archie and Abigail left alone, it would have quickly turned to small talk but for the mystery evoking speculation. Lewis? A secret Joja Mart marketing initiative? The Junimos? No one knew, but they were very curious.

    “Indeed they were. I don’t know for certain yet, but I’ll let you know when I do find out. Your second question?”

    “What does this say?” Archie asked, pulling out the new Junimo scroll.”

    “Last time you paid me in purple mushrooms, what will it be this time, Archie?”

    “I’ve been mining a lot lately. Any minerals you’d want?”

    Abigail seemed excited at Archie’s response, while the Wizard pondered it over. “Two Earth Crystals will suffice,” he offered.

    “It’s a deal. I don’t have them on hand, but I’ll bring them by when the translation is ready. Just send me a note like last time.”

    “So be it,” the Wizard said, taking the scroll and setting it down on his table. “Abigail was just telling me about you sabotaging her father’s display. It was a fine distraction, playing in a number of his anxieties. Though, in the future, I’d prefer you keep me out of it. Call it a small favour for services rendered.”

    Archie shifted uncomfortably, but agreed. Sure, some of it was Sam’s idea, but the story had spread and trying to shift the blame was hardly likely to work with the Wizard. “I’ll leave you two to it?”

    “We were just wrapping up anyway,” Abigail volunteered. “We can walk back together.” Archie assented.

    Not long after they left the Wizard’s Tower, Archie asked her how her father was doing. As it turned out, he was behaving differently in some ways. On its own, being the butt of Archie’s mutually destructive prank, in full view of the town, would have only made Pierre angry at his business partner, but seeing the rest of the town reveling in his getting knocked down a peg made him reconsider his haughty attitude. He was still unwilling to give Abigail much responsibility around the store, but the self-examination was doing him some good, Abigail thought. As they reached Leah’s, Archie mentioned she’d invited him to see some of the art she was working on.

    Abigail nodded, preparing to walk the rest of the way home alone. “You treat her nicely, Archie.”

    Archie chuckled. “I will. She’s still stinging, and Elliott’s true self coming to the light’s only made me more determined not to do anything approaching that.”

    “She deserves someone like you, Archie.”

    “She deserves to be ready to think about relationships again, and so do I, for that matter, but thanks. By the way, see you at the New Year’s party…”

    “…What New Year’s Party?” she interjected in a blaze of excitement.

    “The one I’m hosting. I’ll take your enthusiasm as a yes?”

    She nodded eagerly and started bounding off toward her home, while Archie approached Leah’s cabin tentatively. Abigail had sowed the twin seeds of hope and doubt in his mind, as much as he didn’t much want to think about pursuing anyone at quite that moment. But if he were to, he could see himself doing far worse than Leah. He knocked on the door, and Leah let him in. He kicked off his boots and was surprised to see her cabin in a much more orderly state than the last time he was in it. Rather than the brushes and canvasses strewn about, everything art-related was much more narrowly focused in one area of her living room, toward the window, where there was one easel with a painting on it, and one wooden sculpture.

    “It looks different in here,” Archie said.

    “Oh. Yeah,” Leah answered. “A couple of days after the Harvest Fair I got a call from my other jerk ex. I was so angry while stewing in here that I ended up cleaning the entire place after throwing my phone at a wall” she said, gesturing to a dent in the wallpaper, a ding on the wall, and the fractured remains of a landline telephone that were the exception to her cleaning the entire place.

    “That’s some timing,” Archie said.

    “It’s almost uncanny. Any turbulent or stressful time in my life, there he is. Any time I’m happier than usual, there he is. It’s aggravating.”

    “I’m sorry to hear it.”

    There was an awkward lull in the conversation that seemed like a lot was being left unsaid on both sides, before Leah ushered Archie toward the sculpture and the painting. The sculpture was hard for Archie to place an analogous shape too, in spite of it being simple. It looked like a loose knot; or a loop of rope, with a rounded base and two curved arcs reaching in opposite directions, like shoelaces. It looked like it should roll off of the stand it was on, surprising Leah when he tried to start it rolling before saying anything about it.

    “It’s screwed in to the stand,” she offered.

    “I can see that,” he said, peeking under the sculpture. “Though you hid it very well, I can’t see it from here.”

    “What do you think?”

    “I like it, though I’m not completely sure why,” he said. Leah looked at him expectantly and told him to go on. “It can mean a lot of things. And maybe it’s the timing, but what I’m pretty overwhelmingly getting from it, is that that sculpture is telling me to hold on loosely to things, beliefs, people.”

    Leah looked at him quizzically. “Can you explain that a bit?”

    Archie tapped on one of the arcs, extending from the base. “Sure. That’s a person. Or a thing, whatever.” He slid his hand along it, tracing the path outward, past the other arc running in parallel. “So’s that one,” he said, tapping the other one. “They’re going in different, opposite directions, unless…” he started retracing them back the other way, toward the centre at the base of the sculpture. “… unless they were moving inward all along. If you tightened that shape any further, you would have forced them inward.” He had started blushing, not entirely satisfied with the spaciness he perceived in his explanation.

    His embarrassment didn’t register with Leah. “That’s surprisingly close to what I was going for with that,” she told him. He asked her what she was going for with it, but she deferred, saying that answer was for another conversation. Archie wasn’t entirely satisfied, but neither did he want to press the issue. He turned his attention to the painting itself, an abstract piece in blacks, crimsons, violets that to Archie’s mind, was a chaotic roil of colour and emotion alike. He gazed at the painting and suddenly felt as though the canvas was moving underneath the paint. He felt nauseous and uncomfortable, even stagger-stepping as he wrenched his gaze away from the canvas.

    “Whoa,” he said. “That was one of the strangest art experiences I’ve ever had.”

    “I was in a state when I painted that.” Leah replied, and Archie couldn’t tell whether excitement or guilt was predominant in her tone.

    “I think I could feel it looking at it. It was not comfortable, but it’s impressive how much range your art has. You should exhibit some of it during the new year.”

    “I don’t know…” she started to tell him, her voice quivering.

    “I understand, and I know how hard it is to put yourself and your work out there – not as well as you do, but I get it. I believe in you, I believe in your art, and I believe it’ll be good for you to do it.”

    Leah seemed to consider which objection to bring to bear, but simply asked, “Good?”

    “Yeah, good.” Archie started, as if the moral and ethical dimension of having the art show was clear as day. “And for a lot of reasons – it’ll be good for you to get your talent recognized, to launch your career, to rebuild your confidence, and to show Elliott what an actual artist looks like. It’ll be good for the town to have something that isn’t a festival on the social calendar.”

    “And how’s it good for you, Archie?” Leah asked with wearied skepticism.

    Archie felt a bit dejected that Leah would ask him that, as if he were manipulating her, though he realized how difficult things must have been for her, with her recent troubles caused by yet another manipulative man in her life. “I get the joys of watching a friend succeed and living in a village with the beginnings of an arts and culture scene.” He paused. “I should go. I’ll see you around.”

    His walk back to the farmhouse was morose. He hated seeing Leah like that – thinking the worst of people, closing herself off to avoid the pain of opening her own vulnerability out onto the world. For as long as he’d known her she was really proactively pleasant to be around. She put sincere efforts into her craft and lived like she didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and he respected all those things. Her spark of optimism kept her looking for the best in people, and it was the first time he’d ever come face to face with that spark extinguishing itself, and he found that immeasurably sad. Junimos, he thought, I hope some of your blessings find their way to her. His mind drifted back to what Abigail had said about Leah deserving someone like him, and he mulled it over for a while. What does ‘someone like me’ mean? Archie knew he was brash, and that he moved through life in Pelican Town with confidence that was sometimes justified, and sometimes manufactured because the situation needed it more than Archie actually had it. He’d been somewhat sensitive to other people while he was in Pelican Town, but was he really anything that special? He wasn’t the ferociously protective friend Abigail was, the grounding influence Sebastian was, the… whatever Sam was, the seeming saint Penny was, he wasn’t what any of them were, and he didn’t know where the puzzle piece of his soul fit in this town.

    After some fitless fiddle-playing when he got back to the farmhouse, Archie received a text message. It was from Sandy and he didn’t know what he expected – an apology, bitter recriminations, something emotionally relevant. It wasn’t what he expected, just a straightforward text asking if his friend with retail experience was free to look after the store over a range of dates toward the end of the winter. Exasperated, but it being too late to go to the mines, he tried reading and playing music, watching TV and punching the living daylights out of one of his pillows. Nothing calmed him down until exhaustion crept in and a restless sleep overtook him.

    He awoke groggy, and after a breakfast of dry toast, he tuned in to Welwick’s Oracle. He had skipped watching yesterday but could interpolate when his fortune was from how his day went. Today, the spirits would smile on him and everyone else who clawed their way out of bed to watch. After cleaning himself up, he put on his parka and boots and left the house to see he had mail. There was a letter from Lewis about the upcoming Winter Festival, and to his surprise, the Junimo scroll, the same as he’d left it. As he looked at the scroll, the sigils rearranged themselves into letters.

    We are the Junimos.

    We are Keepers of the Forest. The Town is in the Forest. The People are in the Town.

    You are the son of the daughter.

    You make the Town remember Community.

    You make the Town is remember Harmony.

    Come to the Junimos.

    Together we begin to big help the People.

    Archie smiled broadly in spite of his previously awful mood. Sure, it was fatalistic that he was in the situation, but his work would earn some rewards. He walked to the community centre with intent, but no clear direction for how he or the Junimos would “big help” the town.

    He unzipped his parka and sat down outside the Junimo hut, with the scroll in front of him. He closed his eyes, and he waited for the squeaking and honking and squonking that never came. Concerned, he opened his eyes. Several Junimos stood on the corners of a new scroll, with crude stick drawing sketches. They looked just as Archie remembered them, and tears began to well up as he recalled wondering if he’d ever see them again. There was one drawing that looked like a house, and one that looked like a bridge. One that looked like a rectangle on wheels and a few others he couldn’t place. The Junimos waited expectantly. Archie pointed to the sketch of the rectangle on wheels, which dissolved into sigils that formed into letters.

    We are the Junimos.

    You are the son of the daughter.

    Bring the children of the mountain to the big carriage

    Smiling, he thanked the Junimos, put his parka back on, and zipped up the mountain to Robin’s shop.

    “Archie!” she greeted him, “I hope you’re well. Are you finally here to buy something?”

    He shook his head regretfully, he had been visiting a lot without supporting Robin’s business as much as he’d have liked. “Sadly, no, though I’m hoping the spring harvests put me in a position to. I need your children’s help with something, are they in?”

    “Sebby’s in the basement, I’m not sure he’s awake. Is it urgent? Maru’s working at the clinic today.”

    Archie thanked her and forcefully rapped on the door to Sebastian’s bedroom. A few moments later, a groggy-looking Sebastian opened the door, knowing it wasn’t anyone in his family who knocked like that.

    “By Yoba, Archie, what are you barging in here this early for?”

    “I need your help with something big, please,” he said, simply.

    “It’s not another prank, is it?” Sebastian asked warily.

    “No, it’s a challenge worthy of your skills. Get some coffee, and meet me at the bus stop with your motorcycle tools in an hour, OK?”

    “You think I’m going to fix that bus?” Sebastian groused.

    Archie shrugged. “I honestly have no idea what you’re going to do. It’s Junimo stuff. They said bring you and Maru there – strangely, that was actually one of the more straightforward things they ever communicated.”

    Sebastian looked at him strangely. “Alright, but you owe me a favour.”

    “Deal,” Archie said, without hesitating, though in retrospect, he thought he could plead a case to not have to owe him one, starting with “bruh, why you got to do me like that?

    He zipped down to the clinic, which was fairly quiet. Only Penny was in the waiting room, where she excitedly discussing something with Maru behind the desk when Archie walked in. Maru slipped into full on professional mode. “What can I do for you, Archie?”

    Archie didn’t know quite how to answer. “I’ve got a favour to ask of you that’s going to involve some amount of your workday, if Harvey will let you leave early.”

    “Oh? What’s that?”

    “I don’t know exactly. I think it involves you and Sebastian looking at the broken down bus engine.”

    “What do you mean you don’t know?” Maru demanded, quite reasonably, in his opinion, while Penny sat watching in a mix of confusion and excitement.

    Archie decided to simply go with the truth. At least Penny might back him, after the outing they took to the Wizard. “I mean that I was asked by mythical guardian spirits of local folklore to make sure you and Sebastian were at the bus stop at the same time today. I’m just the messenger, but I think it’s so the bus can get fixed.”

    Maru remained incredulous. “I couldn’t get that engine to work. I’ve tried before.”

    “You didn’t try it with him, or the Junimos, backing you up,” Archie quickly retorted.

    “But…”

    Penny cut Maru off with one of the gentlest interruptions Archie had ever heard. “Excuse me, Maru, but please do it, I’ll clear it up with Harvey, just go.”

    Maru hesitated and then reluctantly agreed, and she and Archie walked out of the clinic together toward the nearby bus stop. A few minutes later, Sebastian’s motorcycle came into view down the road and pulled up in front of the bus, and he set his toolkit down on the ground. They popped the hood on the snub nose of the bus, revealing the engine block beneath it.

    “So, now what?” Sebastian asked Archie.

    “I don’t know, I was thinking you’d try figuring out what was wrong with it,” he replied.

    “Go inside and try starting it,” Sebastian suggested. “The key should still be in there, somewhere.”

    Archie had a monstrous time trying to pry the bus door open, but got into the driver’s seat eventually, looking about for the key for a while before realizing it was in the ignition. He turned it.

    Sebastian and Maru started arguing about the engine’s lack of functioning. Sebastian suggested the crankshaft should have been turning, but wasn’t, whereas Maru didn’t think the ignition was sparking. They checked the spark plugs, which seemed to be in working order. Maybe it was just hard to see the sparks in daylight. They kept trying for an hour and a half, slowly getting into a rhythm with each other. The crankshaft had stopped turning, but that didn’t seem to be the only problem.

    While they were discussing the issue, a van sped past, before slowing down and turning around in a gentle U-turn, stopping behind Sebastian’s motorcycle. It was marked up with the logo of the Zuzu City Transport Commission. The driver rolled down his window and stuck his head out. “You kids trying to fix that thing?” he asked, with a hint of incredulity.

    Maru nodded and walked up to the truck. “Yes. We found one problem, but we think there’s more than that. What do you do at the transport commission?”

    The driver grinned. “I’m a bus mechanic. We even still use some Larson-Olson mini-buses like that one, though they’re getting phased out soon. I can have a look if you’d like.”

    Maru happily assented and led the mechanic over to the bus’ engine block, where Sebastian was gently unscrewing one of the mounting screws on the crankshaft. “Crankshaft won’t turn,” he told the mechanic, simply. The mechanic took a closer look at it.

    “There’s a bit of shear along the forward end of it,” the mechanic said, “gesturing to what may have seemed at first glance like a gouge borne of regular wear-and-tear. Looks like it might have damaged the bearings it’d need to turn properly. You good to unmount it?”

    Sebastian unmounted the front end of the crankshaft, allowing a clearer look at the bearing beneath, which was visibly warped from the shear. “Good spot,” Sebastian told the mechanic, who was looking over that end of the crankshaft, “we completely missed that.”

    “I have a replacement bearing shell in the truck. We can mount that and see whether it’ll turn.”

    “What’s it going to cost us?” Sebastian asked.

    “I’ll have to call in, but probably nothing. This is a Hub Town Public Services bus. HTPS keep going on and on about how much better their mechanics are at fixing things and customer service than the ZCTC. My manager especially wants to get a shot in at them, he’d probably write off the cost of a bearing. I’ll be right back.”

    The mechanic hopped back into his truck to place the call, emerging a few minutes later with a Larson-Olson engine main bearing shell and a wide smile.

    “Can’t imagine my luck, the one time I’m taking this road back from our annual conference, and some budding young mechanics are at work on an abandoned rival bus. This is just too good.”

    Under the mechanic’s supervision, Sebastian swapped out the bearing, which Maru held in place while Sebastian re-mounted the crankshaft to it. Archie turned the key again, and this time the engine fired, and turned, but irregularly. One of the pistons wasn’t firing properly. Archie cut the engine.

    “Regulator, maybe?” Sebastian suggested.

    “Or a valve.” Maru opined out loud.

    “Could be either, it’s easier to check the valve on the camshaft first,” the mechanic said, pointing at another shaft. “That’s the assembly for that piston, the valve should be underneath the gasket. Sebastian swapped wrenches and unscrewed the nut holding the gasket shut, while Maru took a look inside the cam.

    “It looks blocked with something, I can hardly even see the valve,” she reported.

    “Probably a worn seal,” the mechanic suggested. “It’s a known problem with older model Larson-Olsons. May I?” The mechanic dug his index finger into the cam by the valve, dragging out a tendril of oily gunk. “That’d be what’s blocking the intake, the seal must have failed and the valve flooded with that. I can fix that up.”

    “We should be able to do it,” Sebastian protested.

    “I can talk you through how, if you really want to, but it’ll be grimy.”

    Sebastian and Maru were not afraid to get their hands dirty, so the mechanic talked them through extracting the valve, clearing it, and fixing the rubber seal with a replacement unit he also pulled from the truck. It took about an hour before they replaced the valve and Archie was given the green light to try the engine again. He turned the key and the engine fired, and turned, with the previously errant piston seeming to run in step. Archie shut the engine again while Sebastian, Maru, and the mechanic celebrated.

    “Think it’ll be driveable?” Sebastian asked him.

    “I can inspect it, though it’ll take a while. And it’s cold out, is there somewhere around here with soup or coffee?”

    “Yeah, we’ll get you something,” Maru said, knocking on the bus door, which Archie opened, much more easily from the inside. “Archie, can you grab some soup and coffee for us all while he inspects the bus? It’ll take a while, and it’s cold out there.” Archie nodded and scurried over to the saloon, returning a short time later with 4 take-out coffees and chicken and corn soups, which they ate together inside the bus, which, with the engine running, was the warmest place around. They talked about engines, the plan for this bus to be converted to use as a town service, and themselves. The mechanic, whose name was Karl, was intrigued by the crew he worked with to fix the bus – the computer programming motorcyclist, and the engineering-minded nurse who were half-siblings, and to a lesser degree the farmer who persuaded them to come try fixing it on this winter’s day. Karl was particularly excited because he thought the teaching component of fixing the bus was a lot more fun than he usually had with his work, and that if they’d be willing to vouch for his service, he thought he might even be in for a promotion when he got back to Zuzu City. The young adults readily agreed. They’d take some photos, and if the bus was roadworthy, its maiden voyage would be to Zuzu City’s bus yards for a promotional stop.

    When Karl was nearly done inspecting the bus, Penny, Harvey, and Lewis arrived on the scene. Harvey was looking disappointed that Maru was still out there, while Lewis was intrigued about the mechanic’s truck and the man’s legs poking out from under the bus and Penny was curious about what was going on and why it took so long.

    “How’s it going, there?” Lewis asked Maru.

    “We got the engine running, with Karl’s help,” she replied, pointing under the bus’ carriage. “He’s just finishing checking the brake lines.”

    Harvey, Penny, and Lewis all lit up at the news. “I thought that bus was a writeoff,” Lewis said. “The company that owned it sure did.”

    “That’s because…” Karl said, pulling himself out from under the bus, “they didn’t have these people to help them, or the Zuzu City Transit Commission. The bus can probably run, but there are some problems that we’d be better off looking over at the yards in Zuzu City. The tires are a bit warped from the bus sitting in the same position, and I can’t be sure about the brakes and steering column without getting the bus lifted. You should have it towed there rather than risk it on the highway.”

    While Archie and Lewis discussed who they could call to tow the bus with the mechanic, Maru and Sebastian looked bittersweet. “I’d have liked to have been able to finish the job,” Sebastian muttered.

    “Me too,” Maru replied, “but it was cool that we got that engine fixed together, at least.”

    Sebastian could only smile and nod. “Yeah, it was.”

    “Couldn’t have done it without you,” Maru told him.

    Sebastian’s smile took on a wry twist. “It would have taken far too long to do it without you.”

    While all of these conversations were going on, Harvey was left with a teary-eyed Penny he wasn’t quite sure what to do with. He asked her if she was alright, and tears streaming down her face, she simply replied that she was doing much better than that.




    The winter continued apace in its gelid splendour, and, aside from a brief adventure to the Zuzu City Transit Commission bus yards with Sebastian, Maru, Penny, and a sedate and conflicted-looking Pam, he saw little of the town in spite of being over his anti-social, post-breakup phase. The bus was given its complete inspection and certified roadworthy, which was a point of elation for Penny and Pam, if tinged with apprehension. Could she get to a point to safely drive that bus, day in and day out?

    Archie was finding that the mining he was doing was sufficient to keep him afloat, if, a bit on the gruelling side. While he was less withdrawn, he saw relatively few of the townsfolk until the run-up to the feast of the Winter Star, when about a week before the big winter holiday; Lewis asked him if he’d be at the holiday festivities. Archie mentioned that he was expecting to host his family, or at least most of it, since his brother still away studying and unable to return due to the war and the closed borders. Archie wasn’t in nearly so much contact with his brother as his sister, not out of any dislike, but just a sense the two were growing apart since his early teen-age. But, the Feast of the Winter Star is a holiday where you think about family as much as spend time with them. Lewis told him the town has a big potluck dinner on the night, and that they could easily be accommodated for the meal and the gift exchange, provided they brought gifts. Archie thought that was nice, and it would take some pressure off of him as a host, and perhaps as a sous-chef for his mother, whose cooking was far more ambitious than it was sensible. He eagerly agreed.

    Though the cold was wearing on him, between the freezing outdoors and the clammy, damp coolness of the mines, he was resisting a trip to the warmth and sun of the desert thanks to the newfound negative associations with it. At the same time, he wanted to be warm someplace that wasn’t his shower or the magmatic sauna-esque hellscape of the lower levels of the mines. He decided he wanted to just sit somewhere scenic and talk to someone. He thought he’d invite Leah, but she wasn’t at home when he went to invite her. And, given her newfound suspicion of him, maybe it was for the better. He went to the store to pick up some picnic food – bread, cheese, some cured meats and some olives, and was only slightly surprised to see Caroline supervising the store, since he’d never seen her working there since he moved in. There was a little bit of small talk about the distribution agreement for the spring as she rang up his groceries, and he asked if Abigail was around. Caroline went to get her, and the two women returned shortly thereafter.

    “Hi Archie!” Abigail greeted him with some enthusiasm. “What’s up?”

    “I might have found you a short-term retail management job, and I’m readying up for a picnic, want to join me?”

    Abigail seemed not to be able to decide between whether to be excited or confused, while Caroline’s emotions seemed harder to read – both in terms of Abigail finding some other work, or picnicking with the slightly unstable farmer.

    “In this weather? Are you insane?” Abigail asked him.

    “You wound me. You know very well that I’m mostly sane, just too willing to ignore the fact that some of my ideas are bad. This idea isn’t even bad, much less insane. It’ll be just cooler than room temperature.”

    “Alright,” Abigail conceded. “Beats my plans for the day.”

    “Hold up, Archie, what’s this job?” Caroline interjected.

    “That’s Abigail’s business, but if you must know, my ex-girlfriend is looking for someone to manage her shop in the Calico Desert while she goes on a winter vacation,” he answered straightforwardly before addressing Abigail directly. “It’ll pay, though I’m not sure exactly how well. I didn’t ask because I didn’t really want to speak with her,” he added with palpable blitheness.

    “We’ll discuss it over food, want me to bring anything?” Abigail asked.

    “Something to drink would be nice,” Archie suggested, and Abigail ducked off to one of the fridges, returning with a bottle of pomegranate juice, dutifully paying for it before practically bounding out the door with Archie.

    “This is not like you,” Abigail opined, “what’s going on?”

    “I really wanted to talk with someone, and I had stuff to talk about with you. I’m glad I didn’t catch you working.”

    Abigail stuck her tongue out at him before countering with a smug pffffft as they walked up toward the mountain. “Mom would probably have stocked the shelves to get me out of there, especially with a guy. It’s practically all been grooming for marriage for the last few years, and Yoba knows they think you’re the greatest for helping with the business. You’re not taking us to the bathhouse, are you?”

    Archie shook his head “Yoba no.” Then, he shrugged. “I haven’t even helped anything yet, it’s only in the spring that we’ll see if the whole plan works – though, I am pretty good.”

    “Yeah, you are,” she said as he led her to turn toward the entrance to the mines and ushered her inside.

    “This is your idea of a romantic locale?” she asked.

    “A scenic one. Romance wasn’t on my mind – or, it was, just not like that,” Archie answered, beginning to stumble over his words and thoughts while Abigail looked on bemusedly and they piled into the elevator cabin.

    “Go onnnnnn…” Archie pressed the button for floor 20.

    “Have you even been in the mines?” he asked, deflecting her question with one of his own.

    “Yeah, a few times, as a teen. I never went that deeply into them, why?”

    “Because there are some areas that are really impressive,” he said, pressing the call button for the elevator. “I wanted to spend some time at one, but not alone, and I had stuff to ask you.”

    “Oh?”

    “Well, about the work at Sandy’s store for one thing. It’s aggravating that it’s so her and Elliott can take a trip to Fuck-off-ity-land, but it may be useful for you to go and run her shop. It’s from tomorrow to the day before New Year’s, Winter Star and the day after excluded. Just a few days.”

    “And I’d commute back here?”

    “I guess so. She didn’t say anything about housesitting.”

    “Seems reasonable, tell me what the shop is like?”

    Archie did for a short time before the elevator arrived and they stepped out onto the electric lantern-lit landing overlooking the underground lake, where Archie unrolled a blanket and started laying the picnic food out. “The water’s perfectly still. It’s pretty calming. Yoba knows I needed that lately.”

    Abigail nodded and gingerly sat down on the blanket. “Yup. I feel you.”

    “I’ll get to asking you about the other thing, but let’s eat first.”

    They dug into the picnic and Abigail marveled at the underground lake for a while, with a bit of small talk.

    “What did you mean when you said Leah deserved someone like me?” he asked.

    “I pretty much meant what I said. You are pretty good, Archie, but on top of that you’re not the kind of guy to do the things other guys did to her.”

    “That’s a pretty low bar, but I get you. I had a talk with her that same day, and it was so strange to see her become suspicious of me. It was really difficult, too.”

    “What’d you tell her?”

    “That she should hold an exhibition of her art in town. Her recent stuff is either really powerful or really good.”

    “And?”

    “And she asked what I thought was in it for me. Seeing her succeed as much as her talent and work deserves - that’s what,” he said with emphasis, nearly spitting out the last two words.

    Abigail nodded slowly, understanding the complexity. “That’s the romance that was on your mind?”

    “Yeah, sorry to disappoint you and your mom,” Archie joked.

    Abigail punched him in the shoulder. Hard. “No offense, Archie, but…” She punched him again. Harder. “… I’m not sure you’re my type. Or anyone else in this town is, for that matter.”

    “Well,” Archie said, rubbing his shoulder. “maybe you’ll meet a cute desert guy or something.”

    Abigail harrumphed. “You think so?”

    “Nah, I think you’re going to meet some strange people, but I never ran into cute guys visiting her shop. I was a bit too focused on Sandy to notice, though.”

    “Not hard to see why.”

    “Yeah, she’s pretty stunning.”

    “To the degree that you ignored your problems together.”

    “I didn’t ignore them, I thought the problems were premature. It hadn’t even been a year yet and I’m supposed to want to move in with her in the desert? Come on.”

    I agree, though relationships to tend to move faster out here than in the city. People get to focus on each other more than making rent.”

    Archie paused to consider that one, given the somewhat accelerated pace of his relationship leading into the accelerated pace of his breakup. “Huh. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think you’re right.”

    “Of course I’m right.”

    They talked a bit more, before determining that Abigail would go and stand in at Sandy’s store while she and Elliott went on vacation. Neither of them was thrilled, but there was some practicality to it. Archie detoured by Pam’s trailer to let her know that he and Abigail would be taking the bus out to the desert early the next morning, where he also let Penny know it would make a good field trip for Vincent and Jas, before trying again at Leah’s. She was at home this time, and after being let in, Archie quickly explained that he’d be going to the desert to drop off Abigail tomorrow, and asked if she’d like to join him.

    “What’s Abigail doing in the desert?” Leah asked.

    “Standing in for Sandy at her store for a few days.”

    “Why are you doing her a favour?”

    “Abigail?”

    “Sandy.”

    “I’m not doing it for Sandy, Abigail needs some retail management experience, and she’s going to get it whether Pierre likes it or not. And you were excited about the desert, so I’m inviting you.”

    Leah looked weary more than anything. “Sorry, Archie, I’m going to pass.”

    He gave her an inquisitive look and took his leave.

    The next morning he was surprised to see Penny, Vincent and Jas at the bus stop when he showed up to join Abigail on her trip. “Hello, you three, what brings you out here?”

    Vincent was bobbing up and down with excitement “We’re going on a field trip!”

    “Where to?”

    “The desert!”

    “That’s great. I’m going too. I think you’ll love the dinosaur skeleton.”

    “Dino…” Vincent’s mind raced at the prospect of seeing a dinosaur skeleton, momentarily silencing before he broke into a litany of saying how cool it would be, while Jas also looked excited, if in a more subdued way.

    “Are you visiting that lady?” Jas asked him.

    “Not this time. Abigail is working at her store while she goes on vacation. I just wanted to go somewhere warmer. By the way, did any of you bring sunscreen?”

    None of them had.

    Archie reached into his rucksack and pulled out the tube of sunscreen, gently tossing it to Penny. “You all don’t want to burn.”

    As Abigail arrived, Archie was small-talking with Penny, before Pam also arrived and they piled onto the bus. The drive was non-eventful, with a bit of gossip and small-talk exchanged with Penny, who thanked Archie for his part in getting the bus fixed. It was a very small part, he thought, but he was happy to help and said as much. Archie mentioned to Abigail that he’d invited Leah and she declined, and Abigail shrugged it off. On his way off the bus Archie asked Pam how it felt to be behind the wheel again, and she told him it was a mix of terrifying, and good to have something to do.

    They arrived early enough that Archie and Abigail could join Penny and the schoolchildren at the dinosaur fossils, where Penny, who hadn’t seen them before, was able to give a pretty erudite lecture about what kind of dinosaur it was, and how it lived to a rapt audience of the kids and childish adults. Archie and Abigail bid the children goodbye and headed toward the Oasis, where Archie leaned up against a side of the building while Abgiail went in to handle her business. She had asked him if he intended to join her, or to see Sandy, but he didn’t think either was necessary. Abigail could take care of it without him, and while he had a lot he might have said to Sandy, he had very little to say to her. A few minutes later, he was only slightly surprised that Mr. Qi had sidled up alongside him.

    “Greetings, farmer.”

    “Mr. Qi,” he returned.

    “You’re getting better at the pronunciation, keep at it.”

    Archie laughed. “I took up your advice about mining. I have to thank you for it - it kept me afloat through the winter time.”

    “I’m delighted; though sorry it didn’t work out between you and my business partner.”

    “How come?”

    “Because I’d rather talk to you than the new guy,” Qi replied, prompting another laugh. “Your friend, Sandy’s replacement…”

    “What about her?”

    “She’s trustworthy?”

    “I don’t know, but I trust her.”

    Qi seemed satisfied by that. “That counts for something.”

    “It’s not going to take her long to ask about the bouncer leading into the back of the store.”

    “I should hope not, she’d be very dull if it did.”

    “What kind of club is it back there.”

    “A very exclusive one that I hope you’ll have the opportunity to join one day,” Qi replied enigmatically, as Sandy and Elliott left the store and climbed into Sandy’s car, never casting a look back at the store or noticing Archie and Mr. Qi.

    “I’m going to duck into the store,” Archie told him. “Abigail can use a friendly face for her first customer as a manager. Want some ice cream?”

    “Ice cream would be nice,” Qi said, then, quickly added, “Almost as nice as you pronouncing my name right.”

    Archie inaugurated Abigail’s retail management career to the tune of two cones of ice cream. He took his out to the bench at the edge of the plateau, overlooking the Gem Sea, watching the waves crash against the shore, getting lost is his thoughts for hours until the time came for Abigail to close up shop and for them to take the bus back.



    The visit from his family for the Feast of the Winter Star was not as eventful as Archie had expected it might be. They got to see how he’d changed. There were as many superficial changes as here were deep ones – the pudge of his sedentary lifestyle had given way to lean muscle, especially in the wake of his winter mining spree. His posture had improved with his confidence and he stood tall, the orange of his hair had softened slightly, into a more cupric shade. His face, though still looking youthful, had a bit more of an edge to it, as though his experiences and newfound maturity was written on it, just without the accompanying wrinkles of age quite yet.

    The fireplace blazed cheerfully along, and the farmhouse was warm and unaffected by the blustery winds outside. The conversation was similarly warm, mostly expressions of surprise at Archie having taken to the farm. It was out of his prior character, but the terror of having no place in the world had, paradoxically, motivated him as it subsided when the farm became his place in the world.

    They ate breakfast and drank coffee, sharing their experiences of the year. With his breakup being the most recent notable thing on his mind, Archie was a bit more reserved about things, though he’d long since told Maeve, whose business was continuing to do very well, to the point that in a couple of years she and her husband, Tim, who’d come along for the trip, might look to have children. Archie’s parents were still acclimating to being empty-nesters, but filling their days with all manner of hobbies. His mother reminisced about her childhood in Pelican town – about her own hell-raising with a friend of hers before she decided to move to the city and not to look back. Of all people, Archie was surprised to find out that it was Caroline, who seemed to be the most unassertive, undistinctive adult in the town save for when she was trying to force Abigail to be an unassertive, undistinctive adult.

    The catch-up with his family was nice, if for no other reason than to finally be able to show them that he could handle adult life for once, but it was a holiday with a family emphasis, even when they emerged to walk about the town before attending the festival dinner.

    Archie’s mother and Caroline had their reunion while Archie introduced his family to whoever approached them, mainly his friends and the older adults. Lewis offered some remarks on how nice it was to have visitors, new and returning, and while Archie’s mother may have had mixed feelings about the idea, she treated him graciously enough. The meal, as was expected for the festivals, was a veritable feast for the aptly named holiday; that was punctuated with stories, laughter, and interruptions for mystery gift-giving. This was a moment that Archie was dreading ever since he’d gotten the note from Lewis telling him that he had to give Elliott a gift this year. He agonized over what to do, much less than he did over what to get him. He still thought that not lashing out at him was as much of a gift as he’d hope to muster up. He wound up ordering a copy of Fight for Your Write: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Novel and struggled for a week on end not to write something passive-aggressive in the dedication. The book, hastily gift-wrapped, dangled languidly from Archie’s left hand as the assembled town wrapped up their desserts.

    Before Archie could get up to deliver Elliott his gift, he felt a hand gently rest on his left shoulder. It belonged to Leah, who was holding an impeccably wrapped small gift box adorned with green wrapping paper and an orange ribbon bow. “Happy Winter Star, Archie,” she told him, while he hesitated.

    “Should I open it now?” he asked, unsure of what the protocol was.

    “Of course you should! Don’t you enjoy presents?” she replied with an almost childlike glee, watching Archie expectantly as he stood up, and gently undid the bow and opened the box. It contained a small wooden carving of a Junimo, with a note on the underside that read; Happy Winter Star, Archie. This gift is a placeholder for something that needed a bit more time, but please keep it and I hope you enjoy it anyway. –Leah.

    Archie smiled. “That is a great gift, thanks so much.”

    “You’re most welcome.”

    Archie showed the carving to Maeve and her husband, and to his parents. Everyone thought the quality of the sculpture was great, though Archie’s mother seemed to have a visceral and negative reaction about the content of it, which she quickly smoothed over with Leah. When Archie mentioned that Leah was the one who designed his logo, Maeve immediately pulled her into a conversation, allowing Archie time to deliver his gift to Elliott, who had been sitting toward the other end of the long table with Sandy. Archie felt a lump in his throat as he uneasily walked to that end of the table, taking the time to greet everyone he passed that he hadn’t spoken to yet, Marnie and Jas, Jodi and Vincent, George and Evelyn, before he came face-to-face with Elliott and Sandy, who looked only scarcely more comfortable than he did. They all looked at each other in awkward silence.

    “Happy Winter Star,” Archie offered, somewhat lamely, extending the gift out to Elliott, who hastily took it and muttered out a brisk thank you. When he saw the book, he seemed pleased enough while Sandy looked aggravated, clutching at a bright yellow book of her own. Archie knew that Sandy was not a book person, and wondered who got it for her, and what it was, but not enough to ask her. He wished her a happy holiday and started moving hastily back toward his family, nearly bumping directly into Shane as he turned around. Shane was holding a case of Joja Cola that he shoved into Archie’s arms.

    “Happy Winter Star,” he offered with a mix of sincerity and apathy, while Archie pondered the gift he’d just received and what he’d actually do with it, as well as the fact that everyone was only meant to receive one gift for the exchange.

    “Thanks, Shane, happy Winter Star to you. Best wishes for the year,” he replied politely, but without particular warmth, as he walked back toward the table looking at the case of soda in disgust. It was convenient that he got given a case of soda as he was about to host a house party, but at the same time, he would rather his guests drink a good soda.

    The misfits were having a discussion not far outside of Archie’s path and he briefly joined them to wish them well and catch up. While Abigail was indignant about the fact that he was carrying a case of Joja Cola, she was talked down by a more excitable Sam than usual.

    “Archie! This is the best Winter Star ever! My dad’s coming back in a week!”

    Archie nearly dropped the case of cola in his shared excitement, before setting it down to give his friend a hug. “That’s wonderful news, Sam, I’m so glad. Must have made any gift you got pale by comparison.”

    Sam shook his head. “Nah. Well, yeah, but Jas gave me some wicked sick Solarion Chronicles novels, and I can’t sneer at swords and sorcery, especially swords.”

    “What’d you give this year?”

    “A 6-pack of purple boxer shorts, to Lewis.”

    Archie thought that was a bit of a strange gift, but kind of funny for a reason he couldn’t put his finger on, while they kept discussing the gifts. Sebastian got Haley an antique mirror that he found in a city shop, and got a hand-made beach shirt from Emily. Abigail fumed a bit about receiving a cookbook from Jodi, calling it “bourgeois housewife bullshit” before admitting there were at least a couple of recipes in it that looked really good. She was also the one who gave Sandy what it turned out was a copy of Relationships for Dummies, which brought a wide grin to Archie’s face, less out of vindictiveness but more out of knowing that Abigail would back him, publicly, to that degree.

    “Isn’t that a bit rude?” Archie asked.

    Oh, no.” Abigail replied, brimming with sarcasm. “I won’t get a glowing reference for my five days of work at her store.”

    Along those lines, Archie told them about the book he got Elliott, which they interpreted as a slight against the would-be author, that scumbag. Archie didn’t feel that the gift came out of a place of anger all that much, though he didn’t want much to do with either of them. He also told them about the cola and the sculpture, which prompted a great deal of speculation on their part about Leah’s intentions as Archie made his way back to his family.

    Leah had since moved along and was in the middle of an animated discussion with Emily and Gus, but she’d apparently made a good impression while she was talking with them. “The people here are so nice,” Archie’s father told him, as a means to welcome him back into the conversation.

    “For the most part, they really are. There’s an ethic of helping your friends out here.”

    “Not like the city?” his mother interjected.

    “Hard to say, but I haven’t heard from my city friends since the summer. It’s not that I don’t miss them, but it’s more personal in a village this small.”

    As the festival wound down, Archie led his family back to the farmhouse, where he relinquished the bed to his parents, and set himself up on one of the air mattresses he bought from Pierre in anticipation of the family visit to discuss business things with Maeve and Tim before they’d all go to sleep. The following morning, after exchanging some gifts of their own, the visit came to a quick end as they started on their return trip. For Archie, it was nice to see them, but he thought it would be a more significant event for his parents, to see that he really had established himself in his new life after nearly a year.

    It was a quiet post-festival recovery, which he spent doing a mix of preparing for the New Year’s party and fishing in the underground lake. On the morning of New Year’s Eve, he was surprised by a knock on his door, one early enough in the morning as to actually wake him while he was enjoying a holiday sleep-in. He hastily put on some pants and a t-shirt and opened his front door, where Leah was standing outside with the sculpture of the loose knot next to her on the porch, snowflakes landing all over her face. “Hey Archie,” she greeted him. “I couldn’t finish it for Winter Star, but I want you to have this.”

    Archie rubbed his eyes, and gawked at Leah in disbelief. “What?” he said, dumbly, before catching himself. "I love it, but I can’t help but feel you should exhibit it, or sell it to some rich city aesthete, rather than give it to me.”

    “I thought so too, but I had a change of heart. Help me move it inside, it’s tricky maneuvering it through doors with one person. Grab that end.”

    Archie picked up the sculpture from the base while Leah maneuvered the top of it. Like the Junimo carving, the base of the sculpture had “How I Feel About Archie” written on it. He nearly tripped over his feet as Leah set about trying to find the best place to put the sculpture, his mind racing about his interpretation of the sculpture – to be willing to let go of people. Was it a farewell gift? “Uh, Leah?”

    “Yes, Archie?”

    “Is that the title on the underside of the stand?”

    Leah blushed slightly and paused. “Oh! Right, yes, it is. I probably should have mentioned that.”

    “So, what does the sculpture mean?”

    “It’s art, Archie, it’s subjective,” Leah responded, teasingly. Archie was incredibly frustrated in that moment, but stewed silently until they had at least placed the sculpture. “It fits right in this corner!” Leah added, with satisfaction. It did, the old wood she used to carve it complemented the walls of the farmhouse, and the overall look of the place.

    “It’s beautiful,” Archie said, dead-pan, trying to process Leah’s seeming refusal to tell him how she felt about him, through sculpture or words.

    “It’s good that there’s some more art in here,” Leah told him, “it was a bit too minimalistic when you moved in.”

    That got Archie thinking back to his university days and his theatre-making. “Art’s good for the soul.”

    Leah smiled and nodded, before telling him “I’ve got to get going. I’ll see you tonight,” and she was off. Archie watched her go, looked at the sculpture, and threw his hands up in frustration. He loved the gift, which was much more than he thought he deserved, but the mixed messages were messing with his head as he walked over to Pierre’s to pick up the last of the party provisions. At the store, Shane was leaving with a few beers of his own.

    “Hey Archie,” he said, subdued, looking at the ground. All of that was unusual.

    “Hi Shane, what’s doing?”

    “New year, hopefully better than the last,” he replied, shaking his arm carrying the beer for emphasis.

    “I hope so, best wishes.”

    Shane still stood there, fidgeting a bit. “I heard about your party. Can I come?”

    Archie thought it over. Shane had pretty much always been unpleasant to him, and to the best of his knowledge, most anyone else, but he also needed a social outlet and hadn’t shacked up with his ex-girlfriend. “Sure, just don’t get too drunk and don’t ruin anyone’s good time.” He offered Shane a handshake, which Shane returned a bit limply.

    When the evening rolled around, and the guests arrived, the party began a bit awkwardly. While they all noticed, and praised, the sculpture adorning the corner of the living room, the guests typically gave the people they were less familiar with a wider berth. That did not immediately lead to interesting and flowing conversations, in spite of Penny’s conversation-directing abilities, though Penny seemed a bit agitated in general, perhaps due to the alcohol liberally flowing around her. The typical cliques kept to their own; Alex and Haley, the misfits, Penny, Maru, and Harvey. While Archie was playing host, Leah and Emily kept each other company. As Shane, who was the last to arrive, walked in, Alex had entered into a rant about the difficulty getting enough protein from eggs without also getting too much fat, because his athletics demanded precise dietary calibration, and the audience was less than rapt, sitting in awkward silence.

    “Oh,” Shane said, with a hint of curiosity in place of his usual sneer, “you should ask my aunt for eggs from Calvillo chickens. They cost a bit more, but have more protein in them.” Everyone turned to look at Shane, as they had no reason to expect him to be there, much less to be the one to save them from Alex’s bro-onslaught.

    Alex seemed a bit puzzled by it too, but was not one to be unappreciative of good advice. “Thanks, bro. I never would have thought of something like that. I’ll do that.”

    The equilibrium restored, the party continued apace, with drinking and snacking, and a lot of talking about what they’d all be doing in the upcoming year. A lot of the people’s goals remained the same. Alex was going to work on his fitness and try out for Zuzu City College’s gridball team toward the end of spring, while Haley was going to finish building her photography portfolio. Harvey had his career in order, and it was mostly business as usual for him, while Maru was going to keep narrowing her vast array of options down. Sebastian, looking less comfortable while Maru was expounding on it, said this would be the year he hoped to leave Pelican Town and try to make it in one of the cities, while Abigail was aiming to go on her first archaeological dig and then make some decisions. Sam was just excited to spend time with his father early in the year, and everyone was glad to hear he was coming back soon. Emily was going to try to take her seamstressing and turn it into a business, though she’d keep helping Gus out. With Pam driving the bus again, Penny hoped to develop her teaching skills more, but wasn’t sure how. Shane’s goal was to find somewhere to work that wasn’t Joja Mart, while Leah announced that she was going to exhibit her art in the Spring. When Archie’s turn rolled around, all eyes were expectantly on him.

    “I’m going to grow the farm and try to be a better friend,” he said simply. It occurred to him that he was at a different stage in his life to a lot of the assembled group. Like Harvey, he had his career now, less wild and unharnessed potential than most of the others in the crowded farm house.

    As the conversations continued, and the groups shuffled members, with Archie bouncing back and forth between them to play host, it was quickly approaching midnight, so he turned on the old cathode-ray television to see the fireworks and celebrations in Zuzu City Square, with the countdown to the New Year. The room quieted down as they watched the bands and the showmanship of the city’s celebrations, before the assembled guests yelled along to the countdown.

    10!

    Sebastian sneered at the loudness of it all but put on a show of being in the spirit of it.

    9! 8!

    Haley fidgeted with her camera, looking to capture the climactic moment that was about to happen.

    7! 6! 5!

    Penny looked at the television screen in rapt attention, while Sam scooted over next to her.

    4! 3!

    Shane started to open another beer, then glanced at the bottle, hesitated, and set it back on the table.

    2!

    Emily and Leah exchanged a roaring laugh about something.

    1!

    Archie took a seat in front of the TV, satisfied at throwing a successful party.

    Happy New Year!

    The room erupted in a roar and a burst of light from Haley’s flash-bulb. No sooner than Haley set the camera on the table did Alex pull her in and kiss her, while, toward the other end of the room, Sam gave Penny a quick peck on the lips as well. Archie smiled and almost reflexively glanced across the room to Leah, who was staring at him, whereupon his smile melted into a confused look. He got up, grabbed a glass of water, and leaned up against the wall next to the sculpture, surveying the party winding down. He hadn’t intended for the bulk of the crowd to leave shortly after midnight, but it was a long walk in the snow for some. Archie said goodbye and gave his best wishes to everyone as they left, until only he, Leah, and Emily remained in the house.

    “I’ll help you clean up,” Emily volunteered.

    Though Archie wanted to talk with Leah, he wasn’t inclined to say no to some help. “That’d be great, it’ll go much faster.” Leah also helped out, and the cleaning went fairly quickly given the small size of the farmhouse.

    “I still feel badly about Sandy,” Emily told him, while Leah watched the conversation intently.

    “I don’t see why you should, anything after the Flower Dance was on us.”

    “I may have over-sold you a bit.”

    Archie laughed. “She’d have seen through that pretty quick,” he retorted, which got a laugh of agreement from Emily, “I agree with her that our lives were going in different directions, I’m just disappointed about how she chose to handle it.”

    “You are now, but it hurt you then,” Emily pressed.

    Archie sighed. “Yeah, but that’s not your fault, you were looking out for a friend as best you could, and then things got more complicated.” Archie chuckled to himself. His situation with Leah being exactly what he just described was not lost on him. Leah started shoving paper plates from the table into a garbage bag, scrutinizing the conversation intently, while Archie started packing away the empty bottles and cans for recycling. “And I’ve learned a lot from that experience that’s going to make me happier.”

    “Like what?”

    “How to communicate, and also how not to communicate.”

    Leah and Emily both smiled, wryly, at that.

    The clean-up concluded, Emily took her leave as well, leaving Archie and Leah alone in what felt to him like a tense standoff.

    “Hey, Leah.”

    “Yes, Archie?

    “That sculpture is beautiful, but it’s also the most mixed message I think I’ve ever encountered. Can we discuss it?”

    Leah took that in with a bit of pause. “Yes, but not tonight, sorry. Happy New Year.”

    “Same to you,” he said, shifting his hips as though he was planning to take a step toward her before freezing. He wanted to resolve all this newfound tension, not to mention to give her a hug. He could almost swear he saw similar trepidation in her before she said goodnight and left.





    The end of Winter brought about a return to the established routines, the long workdays of clearing and planting the fields with a diverse range of crops that the town would need and the cities would buy. Archie would have spent the day uninterruptedly planting the seeds he would buy from Pierre the morning after New Year’s until well past dark, but with the morning’s two pieces of mail; that he read over his coffee, came an imposition on his time for the day that he was happy to accept.

    Archie,

    Sam’s father, Kent, is coming back from the war today. His bus is scheduled at 1 PM. We’d like as much of the town to be on hand to welcome him as possible.

    -Lewis

    He was going to have a mildly hung over, very late night of planting seeds indeed, but that was a moment he wouldn’t dream of missing. The other piece of mail announced Leah’s art show.

    Hi Archie,

    As you know, I took your advice about exhibiting my art in town on board. The exhibition is in a week. I hope you can make it, and also that you can help me carry some of the bulkier sculptures over to the Square. Please let me know.

    -Leah

    He whipped up a large breakfast to power him through the day, checked the weather and watched a bit of Welwick’s Oracle before heading over to the general store with his spreadsheet of seed orders. He was surprised to see Abigail running the shop when he walked in.

    “Hey Abigail, big order today, is your dad around?”

    Abigail suppressed her giggle a couple of seconds after starting to. “He’s too hung over. My parents had a New Year’s party of their own. I’m glad you hosted that, I can’t even think of the last time we had a house party. Haley’s sixteenth birthday, maybe?”

    “That long ago?”

    “Yeah, unreal, isn’t it. Nice new sculpture, by the way,” she added, winking at him.

    Archie’s frustration swelled up. “Yeah, it’s beautiful but it’s doing my head in.”

    “Too aesthetic?”

    “No, just that it’s such a mixed message that I don’t know what to think of it. Last time I talked to Leah about that sculpture, I interpreted it as being about letting go of people.”

    “I see?” Abigail replied, not fully seeing it. “I don’t think she’s giving that to you to tell you to go away, Archie.”

    “I know that, just not much else, and it’s bothering me.”

    She sighed in vexation. “What seeds do you need?”

    Archie handed her the list and she busied herself assembling them.

    “The two of you are being idiots, you do realize that, right?” Abigail asked, pointedly.

    Archie glared at her.

    “You should go be happy idiots together,” she added, cackling as she finished packing the seed packets into a large paper bag.

    Archie took the bag and started briskly walking toward the door without responding to that.

    “Hey, idiot,” Abigail added forcefully, stopping Archie in his tracks. She was still smiling. “That’ll be 17,605 Guilders - 17,600 for the seeds and 5 for the psychological help.”

    His face red, he paid his bill and booked it to the farm to start turning over his fields and planting them, which he did wordlessly, barely even looking up at the clear blue sky, before making his way over to the bus stop to greet Sam’s father before lunch.

    Basically all of the townsfolk were there except the commuter Joja employees. Sam had a struggle securing the day off, but Morris realized during the discussion that he didn’t want to make his branch look anything less than patriotic, so the problem was solved. The bus pulled in about ten minutes late and it quickly became an emotional scene as Sam and his family looked expectantly at the bus as it pulled up, and the doors opened and a few moments later, the soldier, still uniformed, stepped down into his town amid tears and shouts of joy. Sam and Vincent both tearfully rushed up to hug the father they hadn’t seen in over a year, with Jodi following closely behind. The joy of the reunion masked Kent’s exhaustion as the family exchanged hugs and words before the rest of the townsfolk got to greet him, with hugs and handshakes. For Archie, it was the latter, and when he introduced himself, at the tail end of the strong handshake, the infantryman simply said, “thank you for being a friend to my son,” before moving on down the line. Archie was sure he’d have more opportunity to speak to Kent as he re-adjusted to civilian life.

    That opportunity hadn’t come up when Friday evening rolled around and Archie headed to the saloon. He’d spent the past days frantically getting the farm up and running as quickly as he could to start bringing in the harvests and the money to keep his business ventures afloat and to pay for some creature comforts for the old farmhouse that he was starting to consider.

    The jukebox was playing some old rock n’ roll music while the usual suspects were scattered across their usual places. Leah was picking at a salad half-heartedly when Archie placed his order at the bar, and doubled back to briefly join her.

    “I’ll be at the exhibition, and I’m happy to help you move things,” he told her.

    She looked a bit less stressed after hearing that. “Great, thanks. I can’t believe it’s already coming up so soon.”

    Archie chuckled. “It feels to me like it’s been a long time coming. That’s the difference in perspective, I guess.”

    Leah didn’t seem particularly amused. “If you say so.”

    He didn’t feel like this was going to go anywhere fast. He rose from the barstool to make his way toward the arcade and the lighter evening’s entertainment of the misfits. “After your exhibition, we’ve got to talk.” Leah nodded as he walked away.

    Sam wasn’t in the arcade this week due to a family dinner, so Abigail and Sebastian were the only ones in the arcade that night. They were having an animated discussion when Archie walked in and waved, in contrast to his usual slightly obnoxiously loud greetings.

    “You look tired,” Sebastian told him.

    “I am. 60-hour week and a lot on my mind,” he replied.

    “Farm stuff or Leah stuff?”

    “Both.”

    Abigail stood up from her side of the sofa. “I’ll be right back. You guys sit down and have boy talk.”

    Archie took her seat and he and Sebastian launched into discussing it while Abigail left the arcade and stomped right across the main room of the saloon to Leah’s table and sat herself down in front of her. “I don’t know what you think you stand to gain from keeping him stewing, or what he thinks he stands to gain from waiting, but you’re both being complete idiots and it’s starting to aggravate me. When I go back in there, I’m going to tell him to sort this shit out. And you, sort your shit out too, this is ridiculous and it’s gone on long enough.” Abigail sat there a couple of seconds, watching for Leah’s reaction, which there wasn’t much of one aside from surprise. When Abigail got back to the arcade, the two men were, as far as she was concerned, overanalyzing some things to the point where any conclusion they could draw was bullshit. Abigail gestured to Archie to vacate her seat, which he did, leaning up against the wall near the sofa, next to the rack of pool cues. “Archie, you’ve got to sort this out. One more ‘will she or won’t she’ conversation and I will flip a table at you.”

    Both the men looked surprised at Abigail’s outburst, though Archie’s expression quickly changed into one of defeat. “I don’t want to pressure her into anything, or do anything like Elliott.”

    Abigail did not let up. “She knows you’re not Elliott, show her at least that much respect, and yourself too for that matter.”

    Archie mulled it over silently while Sebastian and Abigail turned the discussion to other topics. After a few minutes, Emily arrived with his order of a spicy eel platter. She placed the plate on the coffee table in front of the couch. “I don’t know what the two of you said to Leah, but she seems pretty distraught right now.”

    Archie and Abigail exchanged a glance before Archie excused himself to go find out what was going on. Most of the salon regulars hadn’t noticed Leah hunching forward, leaning her face into her hands, her red face, the streaks of her hastily wiped-away tears. He quickly paced across the saloon and sat down at her table.

    “I’m sorry I upset you,” he said.

    “Yoba, same to you, Archie. I didn’t realize it had reached this point.”

    “I thought I was pretty clear about that.”

    You were,” she replied with evident frustration, “I didn’t know what I made of it. I’m still struggling with that.”

    “I don’t want to rush you into anything…” he started, before Leah cut him off.

    “You aren’t, and I don’t want to leave you twisting in the wind, Archie. You’ve been too good of a friend to deserve that. But I haven’t worked out how I feel about you and what to do with that.”

    Archie took it in quietly, mulled it over, and played back his reply in his head before saying it out loud. “Can we start by agreeing that the name of that sculpture was a mistake and go from there?”

    Leah chuckled weakly in spite of herself. “Your sister’s right, you are a clown.” She paused, considering her own words. “Maybe it was the spirit of Winter Star, Archie. I’m grateful for you, and I wanted to give you a really good token of it.”

    “Little anxieties aside, you really did. I’ve had a lot of time to think this winter. I thought we grew a lot closer since the incident, and the more we did, the more I wanted to.”

    Leah nodded. “I don’t know whether I can do that right now.”

    “For now, you have an art show to figure out first.”

    “I know, it’s exciting and terrifying. I won’t keep you waiting much longer than that - the exhibition will help clear things up for me.”

    “Deal.”

    “Deal.”

    The art show was only a few days later, the day after the Egg Festival, where Abigail again beat out Vincent in the Egg Hunt by finding one more egg. The Egg Festival continued to be a slow day for Archie, who continued to resolutely refuse to intrude on Marnie’s business by adding animals to the farm’s purview. He ate eggs and chatted with people, making a point of having his first lengthy conversation with Kent, whose adjustment was complicated by the fact that he felt like he’d lost his sense of perspective about his sons. Archie was hardly the best suited to tell him about Vincent, but he did recognize some positives in Sam that he thought might help Kent to reconnect with him on the right foot. Sure, he told him, Sam was directing his energy in a million directions at once and applying himself fully to none of them, but he endured his unpleasant job to support the family, had a strong moral centre, and looked out for his friends and family. He was getting the important stuff done, and was growing as a person. Kent was relieved to hear it.

    Archie arrived at Leah’s cottage the following morning to help her transport some of her pieces to the town square, and was relieved to see Alex approaching to help as well when he saw how large some of the sculptures, hidden under numbered burlap tarpaulins, were. Leah quickly explained that she had taped numbered sheets of paper around the square, and to match the numbers on the tarps to put the art where it needed to be. There were only four very large sculptures that required Alex and Archie to co-operate to move them into place. After all of his farming and mining, Archie had gotten much stronger than when he arrived, but was still lagging behind the athlete in physical fitness, though Alex was more impressed with Archie than the farmer was with himself as they hauled one of the sculptures to the square.

    “You been lifting, bro?”

    “Nah, bro. Lately, tilling fields, and I spent most of the winter mining. I need more endurance than I do strength. What about you, what’s your regimen looking like?”

    Alex explained it in a great deal of depth, it seemed like a mostly very good workout routine for strength and endurance building, but it seemed to Archie there was one thing missing.

    “Do you fit any flexibility training into it?”

    “Naw, haven’t found a good way to yet.”

    “You should probably look into it, it’s good for agility and preventing injuries. I’m really curious about what these sculptures are.”

    “You can always look under the tarps, besides, you’re close with Leah, haven’t you seen what she’s been working on?”

    “I’d rather be surprised a bit later, and she’s only shown me one painting so far. She’s self-conscious about her work, even if it is killer. I hope she comes out of this exhibition as confident as you.”

    Alex guffawed. “I don’t really get art or speak to her much, but I hope it’s good for her too. Confidence is important – winning is like, 10% mental.”

    Archie wasn’t sure he agreed with Alex’s math, but he appreciated the sentiment. “How’re you and Haley, by the way?”

    Alex took a deep breath, and smiled lightly. “I think we’re both mellowing out a bit, it’s good for us.”

    “I’m glad,” Archie said with a nod as they kept moving the sculptures to the Town Square, if more quietly. Archie never had antipathy for Alex, but neither did he ever feel like he had that much to discuss with him.

    By the time that the exhibition was about to begin, a surprisingly large crowd had gathered in addition to the townsfolk, though Elliott and Sandy remained conspicuously absent. Lewis had called the provincial governor to invite him, and some calls to regional media outlets had a few journalists and a reviewing critic in. A bit of promotion had led to some people interested in art coming in from Hub Town, the desert, and even a couple from Zuzu City. The exhibition itself was a tightly curated one, with Leah leading the crowd from art-work to art-work, removing the tarps to make each piece a surprise reveal before giving brief summaries of each. After the first couple of pieces, landscape paintings of the wilder outskirts of the town, the nervous edge left her voice and she was powering through and even beginning to enjoy herself. Her abstract colour piece, the one that made Archie feel disjointed, changed up the audience’s expectations as Leah demonstrated her range, before moving into smaller carvings, figure studies, and full-sized sculptures before the big reveal of her larger sculptures, including one like the one Leah had given him. There were egg-shaped people bobbing up and down, shifting assemblages of pink piping, and generally speaking, things that challenged Archie’s understanding of what sculpture was. It was, in his subjective experience, good art. As Leah wound down her explanation of the final sculpture, she added;

    “There are a few people that I’d like to thank for making this exhibition possible. Mayor Lewis did a wonderful job taking charge of promoting the event so I could focus on the art. Alex Mullner and Archie Finegan were instrumental in setting up the larger sculptures, and without Archie’s idea to do this in the first place, friendship, and consistent encouragement, it never would have happened. Thanks, all of you.”

    The guided exhibition shifted to wine-and-cheese schmoozing, and Archie gave Leah a lot of room to socialize with everyone while Haley documented the art and the occasion with her camera. He took up a vantage point outside the general store, next to a shorter, black-haired man he hadn’t noticed before.

    “Some art, huh?” Archie said in way of greeting.

    “Meh,” the guy replied.

    Archie shrugged. Everyone’s a critic. He watched the proceedings from a distance with a sense of satisfaction and rejoined the crowd, taking a look at one of the programmes listing the selling prices of the art works. Given the massive amount of work Leah put into them, the numbers made sense to him, but were maybe a bit out of step with their market value, though by the end of the afternoon, she had sold over half of them. He and Alex started putting the tarps back over the artworks to transport the ones that weren’t purchased, or that were too large to fit in a car, back to Leah’s cottage.

    “What was your favourite one?” he asked the gridballer.

    “The red, black, and purple painting,” Alex replied near-instantly.

    “Really? I liked that one, but I found it uncomfortable to look at.”

    “I had a lot of memories looking at it. It made me think of my parents and my life now. It was uncomfortable at first, but then it calmed me down.”

    Archie blinked, struck by the idea he had missed something obvious. “Maybe I just didn’t look at it long enough.”

    Alex shrugged, as they unloaded the last of the sculptures into Leah’s storage shed, before Alex said a quick goodbye to him and Leah and zipped home for dinner.

    “You did it!” Archie told her.

    “I did, and people liked it! They were buying it afterward, it went much better than I hoped,” she replied, a bit overwhelmed with the emotion of the success that Archie thought was a long time coming.

    He gave her a high-five and pulled her in for a hug. “Maybe it’s not all subjective. Maybe you were objectively good at art all this time.”

    Leah laughed. “Oh, come off it. I needed this, though, Archie. I needed to know I could handle it.”

    “After the first couple of pieces, you seemed totally natural at it.”

    “I was so nervous,” she replied. “I was shaking.”

    “Like you are now?” Archie asked. She was trembling a little bit inside of the hug they hadn’t released.

    Leah playfully shoved him in the chest. “Yes.”

    Archie let her go, but kept one hand on her back. “The Flower Dance is in a few days.”

    “That sneaks up on me every year.”

    “Would you like to be my date this year?” he asked, glancing over to see whether her reaction was any different from last year.

    This time, she did not look like she was about to be hit by an oncoming truck. “I would like that,” she told him.

    “A lot’s changed in a year.” He pulled her back in close.

    “It sure has, including me, but not the part of me that wouldn’t want to take the chance. Are you going to wear the kilt again this year?”

    “I haven’t got any other formal clothes, so yeah.”

    “There aren’t many formal occasions in town.”

    “True. We could start having masquerade balls.”

    “Archie.”

    “Or box socials.”

    “Archie.”

    “Or black tie cocktail soirées.”

    “Archie, shut up,” she demanded, gently shoving him again to accentuate the point, starting to laugh in spite of her annoyance.

    After a few seconds, Archie pulled back. “It makes me really happy that that part of you didn’t change in the end.”

    “Me too.”

    They both grinned a bit unsteadily as they looked at each other expectantly for a few seconds, before pulling each other closer and into a particularly mutual kiss.

    “Want to watch a movie?” She finally asked. “We can curl up under a blanket with some cider.”

    “That sounds lovely.”




    The spring continued on with minimal incidents outside of a very awkward Flower Dance where Elliott and Sandy made their presence as a couple felt a bit more than they did at Winter Star. They insisted on dancing in the main dance, Elliott having taught her the formal steps, leaving the town with an extra couple. Given that Lewis knew in advance, he asked Archie what he thought of it.

    Archie’s perspective had hardly changed since the last time. “I’d open it up to the whole town. The Junimos want a harmonious day more than exactly five couples dancing, and we’ve already established that there’s no good to come from excluding anyone.”

    “But it’s how we’ve always done it…” Lewis said.

    “Well, yes, but even if how you’ve always done it was right then, it clearly isn’t anymore, so why not shuffle it up a bit.”

    Lewis was non-committal when he left on mayoral business and to think about it.

    Archie and Leah coupling up was more or less known to the town, but Archie hadn’t officialised it in the traditional Valley way, sealing the relationship with a bouquet. It caught him off guard when he heard it, being accustomed to the city tradition of discussing it like mature adults. He realized, though, that he was choosing to play by the unspoken rules of the valley in a lot of ways, and it’d be foolish to resist the idea of giving Leah a nice bunch of flowers to symbolically do what they had already done anyway. He knew just who he had to ask for help making it that extra bit special. A brisk walk to the Mullner house later, while Alex was out and George was cantankerously watching TV, Archie enlisted Evelyn’s help in assembling a bouquet of spring wildflowers for him to give to Leah. Sure, he could buy a packaged one from Pierre, but ahead of the Flower Dance he wanted something with that little bit of added personal touch and extra oomph.

    While Archie had had fairly little contact with Alex or his family, Evelyn was nonetheless as happy for him as she was to share the news. “George, did you hear! The farmer asked me to craft him a bouquet to give to Leah!”

    Across the house, her husband grumbled something that didn’t carry intelligibly over the rooms separating them.

    “Hey Evelyn, how did you and George make your relationship work for so long?”

    “By picking our fights carefully, dearie. Now take some of these cookies home with you, Alex loves them, but he shouldn’t eat too may when he’s training.”

    Archie happily accepted the cookies and the advice.

    On the day of the dance, as he was dealing with binding the kilt and the butterflies in his belly, he was mentally running through the steps that Leah had shown him when Lewis knocked on his front door. After hastily fastening the kilt, he opened the door and ushered the mayor into his house.

    “It’s going to be a much happier time this year,” Archie said by way of getting down to business.

    “I’m glad you’re confident, I’m considerably more nervous about it. I am trusting you with the tradition, here, Archie.”

    “As far as I can gauge what the Junimos want, that’s not the issue, and maybe it never was. I’m more nervous about Leah, and seeing Elliott and Sandy there, even if it makes very little sense.”

    “Given the circumstances, I’d find nerves to be quite natural, myself.”

    “Well, that’s it. I’m giving Leah a bouquet today and I guess there is always the chance that she’ll say ‘no thanks’. I don’t think she will, but the uncertainty is there. With Elliott and Sandy, I don’t know I should feel about it, or how I do feel about it, or how I will feel about it when they’re in front of me. I hope it isn’t, but it could always be another Archie Finegan brand festival surprise.”

    Lewis laughed. “If you could keep a straight face with Pierre at the Harvest Fair, you can handle all of that with some grace. Though I still wonder how you’d have disrupted the Festival of Ice if you’d been up to going.”

    Archie chuckled. “I’d have found some way to lose my chill, clearly. If you’ll excuse me, I have a bouquet to pick up, and I’m glad you’re on board with opening the festival dance to everyone.”

    They quickly parted ways, and Archie jogged over to the Mullner home to pick up the bouquet of flowers, an immaculate arrangement of daffodils, red tulips, and a pair of well-preserved winter crocuses providing a contrast of colours he thought Leah’s aesthetic eye would appreciate. It was wrapped in white paper with red trim.

    “Evelyn, this is uncannily beautiful, and I’m sure it’ll make Leah’s day. Thank you so much.”

    “You’re very welcome, Archie. You were right to come to me, I take pride in arranging flowers.”

    At that point Alex emerged from his room and into the foyer in his festival blue suit.

    “You’re looking sharp,” Archie told him.

    “Thanks. I never could get behind your kilt get-up, but hey, big day,” he said, waving at the bouquet.

    “Yeah, a lot of it caught me by surprise. Did you ever give Haley one?”

    “A couple of years before you moved in, yeah.”

    “Did you feel like your heart was jumping into your throat all day on the day that you did?”

    Alex laughed upon recollecting it. “Yeah, something like that. I was confident from sports but not about that kind of thing. You’ll be alright, though.”

    “Thanks, man, see you there.”

    “Later, bro.” Alex said, extending a fist, which Archie bumped before leaving to the forest clearing where the festival was being held.

    As in the previous year, Pierre was manning his stand, selling an assortment of flowers, and tubs thereof, but unlike the previous year, he greeted Archie warmly and by name, and told him he was disappointed he bought the bouquet from a florist. Archie explained that Evelyn assembled it by hand, as a gift and a favour.

    “Caroline told me about the winter picnic you and Abigail went on. It’s not for her, is it?”

    Archie shook his head. “Leah. Though without Abigail, this wouldn’t have happened, or at least, not nearly this quickly. She’s a good one, your daughter.”

    “So I’m learning, Archie. So I’m learning.”

    With the sight of Archie carrying the bouquet, the buzz among the townsfolk grew. Most of them had a good idea of where the whole thing was going, but the tension around it made for a gossip-worthy event. Clint started animatedly telling Willy how he’d try to learn from how Archie did it to work up his own courage to approach Emily, while Robin explained it to Demetrius. “What a fascinating courtship ritual,” the scientist concluded as he watched it unfold. Even Sandy and Elliott’s heads turned as Archie cut across the dance floor, narrowly dodging Vincent and Jas, who looked at him transfixed as he kept walking like he was on a mission. Leah was chatting with the misfits, and Penny, waiting for Archie to arrive when she saw him approaching, the bouquet in his arms, looking noticeably surprised. The conversation hushed, leaving only Sam keeping on talking as Archie approached the group of his friends while the rest of the assembled company kept whispering at him to shut up.

    “Well, so much for subtle, I guess,” Archie said with a bit of a nervous edge as he walked up, interrupting Sam and minutely adjusting his already perfectly straightened cap, “hi everyone, can you excuse us for a few minutes?”

    They stepped a few yards away, to being barely within earshot as they watched the proceedings with interest.

    “Um, hey,” he greeted her, feeling like his heart was going to pound through his ribcage.

    “Hi, Archie,” Leah said with a hint of a blush and a broad smile.

    “I also wanted to give you something beautiful,” he said softly, almost struggling to get the words out while offering the bouquet, “and, hopefully, to get us started right.”

    Leah looked carefully at the bouquet, not because she was especially pre-occupied with those particular flowers, but because she’d seen the bouquets that Pierre was stocking. This bouquet was not one of them. “It’s gorgeous. Where did you get this?”

    “Evelyn picked out the flowers and assembled it.” He was starting to tremble holding on to the bouquet as if it had gotten unbearably heavy while Leah was asking questions.

    “Thank you.” She relieved him of the bouquet, and threw her arms around him as they gently spun around in the surprise embrace. A kiss provoked cheers and applause from the bulk of the assembled crowd. Elliott and Sandy were not swept up in that wave of emotion, and Archie felt the weight of their gazes on him, though even Shane permitted himself to crack a smile as Archie and Leah rejoined their friends.

    “It’s not usually that showy, is it?” Archie asked no one in particular.

    “Not typically.” Penny told him. “Sam wasn’t. That was beautiful, though, I wish you both well.” The rest echoed Penny’s good wishes.

    Abigail gave both Archie and Leah a hug. “Thank Yoba you two decided to be idiots together,” she said, clearly joking with her tone, but also meaning the content of what she said.

    The dance itself went smoothly, when it started, in spite of the deviation from tradition. The rest of the young adults of Pelican Town partnered up with their usual partners, while Elliott and Sandy, and Archie and Leah, took up their places on the opposite ends of the line. Jodi and Kent, and Robin and Demetrius took up spots on the dance floor while Jas continued to chase Vincent around it, trying to get him to dance with her. Evelyn wheeled George’s chair out onto the floor in order that they could, if not dance, at least move rhythmically. Emily, Shane, and Clint looked on, and when Shane said he’d rather not participate, an emboldened Clint asked Emily to join him for the dance. Emily seemed surprised, but energetically accepted, and they got into position just as Gus started playing the dance. The pairs began to move, except Vincent, who stopped suddenly, shell-shocked by being on the floor when the music started, as Jas caught up to him and led him in an impromptu imitation of what the adults were doing.

    Archie remembered the steps that Leah had taught him, though it was a small miracle since that was the last thing he was focusing on when her beaming smile, one he felt he hadn’t seen in a long time, was staring him in the face, and he couldn’t help but smile along as the whole town, insofar as they wanted to participate in the Flower Dance, did. He wasn’t glad to see Elliott and Sandy there, but he was glad that Sandy got to be a part of the festival this year because the town’s perspective, or at least Lewis’, had evolved.

    As the festival wound down, while Archie was catching up on the gossip with Emily and hearing about her surprise return to dancing at the festival, Sandy interrupted them, to say hello to Emily, unsurprisingly, but also to ask to speak with Archie, who was surprised by that. They hadn’t much talked since the unceremonious goodbye, and Archie felt like there was little of value to say, but he obligingly followed her over to where she and Elliott had been standing and talking.

    “So, how are you?” she asked.

    “Better,” Archie replied, truthfully, “the farm is up and running again, and there’s the excitement of a new relationship I’m finally able to welcome. You?”

    “I’m glad for you. I’m happier, too. I feel like Elliott and I are moving at the same speed.”

    Archie shrugged. As far as he was concerned, the reason was never as important as the way it happened being particularly hurtful, and he wasn’t invested in whether their relationship ended happily ever after or in a flaming wreck. “I never wished misery on you, but I can’t say I’m that excited for you.” He waved toward Leah. “Given their history, I’m a bit worried, but you seem to have it under control.”

    She nodded. “We have an understanding.”

    Archie didn’t want to give that too much thought. “Don’t leave without your flowers this year. Take care, and give my regards to Mr. Qi.”

    “Take care, Archie.”

    Elliott also briefly greeted him, with cool civility. “A gaudy display, Archie, but again, it had panache.”

    Archie sized Elliott up, and considered his response, as he didn’t want to provoke an outright altercation. “I’m not ashamed of her, what do I care?” Elliott frowned, as Archie continued. “You don’t know what you gave up on.”

    “Perhaps not, but I am, for now, happier for it. The book is nearly done, and your advice to go seek out new experiences was instrumental.”

    “Trying to pin our situation on me, that is just classic. So long, Elliott.” Archie did not wait for a reply to rejoin Leah and his friends.

    The spring and summer marched on, and Archie and Leah’s relationship with it. The distribution arrangement with Pierre, combined with his hard work setting up his fields, brought in significant enough dividends that he was starting to consider what he wanted to do with them. A small percentage went into a slightly more lavish Luau bonfire, where the couple, the misfits, and Penny had a delightful time in spite of Sam having too much sugar from the s’mores and becoming uncomfortably hyper.

    On rainy days, and there were a fair few that Spring and Summer, Archie would alternate between spending time with Leah, and mining. He reached a level of the mines with no ladder down a couple of days before the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies. In the small excavated room there was nothing but a small treasure chest, containing a key with a skull-shaped handle, and a VIP card for the Qi club. Archie smiled at the prospect of returning to the desert with a new context early into the fall.

    Maeve returned for the Moonlight Jellies, and in addition to checking up on the partnership and ensuring everything was in place to keep the gravy train rolling, she spent a day with Archie and Leah sat outside Willy’s cabin, on the same folding chairs Archie bought the previous year, marveling at the jellyfish moving by, enjoying a more mutual and free-flowing conversation. Maeve was less into aesthetic pursuits than her brother, or the artist, but she could see Archie and Leah’s common ground much more clearly than Archie and Sandy’s. After the fact, she told him that this relationship seemed to make a lot more sense. In Maeve’s estimation, they both thought there was value in exploring and learning about themselves and the world, where Sandy didn’t. She also added that Leah could much better tolerate Archie’s obsessive philosophical examination of things than her, or most anyone.

    He finally hired Robin to add a proper kitchen onto the farmhouse, which brought her a great deal of excitement that Fall, when on a rainy day, he booked a bus ride to the desert with Pam and headed up. On the way they discussed Penny and her plans for tutoring the children.

    “It’s a shame,” Pam said, “it’s not sustainable. Those two are going to get to high school age, and then what’s she going to have?”

    Archie bit his lip. “I’ve been thinking about that. Now that you’ve got work driving the bus again, do you think she’d be able to go back and finish her degree?”

    Pam sighed and shook her head. “Even with working again, we can’t afford that.”

    “I might be able to help a bit, but she doesn’t want to leave you alone, you know?”

    Pam took a deep breath. “Oh, Yoba. After feeling like I could do nothing but drive her away. I may need some help, but she should go finish it up. But you’d really be willing to help foot the cost?”

    Archie reached over the back of her seat and put a hand on her shoulder. “To a point. My sister owns a rental apartment near the university, so maybe she can stay there for cheap. Maybe there are other scholarships she can get, she hasn’t looked in ages. I’d be willing to chip in something. As for you, we’ve got a good set of people to come up with a plan; Lewis, Harvey, Gus. We’ll figure something out, that is, if she wants to pick that back up.”

    Pam took it all in, and it became apparent to Archie, in spite of her silence, that mother and daughter would have a long talk back in Pelican Town.

    The bus pulled up at the stop near the Oasis and Archie disembarked, asking Pam to wait up for him, as he didn’t think it would take him more than half an hour. He bee-lined to the shop and bought a few dozen packets of beet seeds.

    Sandy graciously rang up his order. “Still doing well?”

    “Can’t be beet,” he replied, grinning, waving the seed packet in her face conspicuously. “Elliott move in with you? We’ve been seeing him less and less around Pelican Town.”

    Sandy nodded. “He’s working from my house today. He showed me a bit of his novel last night.”

    Archie looked genuinely surprised. “He never showed me a word of it. I wondered whether it actually existed.”

    Sandy nodded again. “It exists. It’s even pretty good. He took his negative emotions and turned them into a story.”

    Archie rolled his eyes. “Come on. Really?”

    “I know how surprising it must be.”

    “I guess? I didn’t really see him tearing himself apart.” Archie said, not particularly sure what he thought as he walked toward the back room, something he never had done before, as the bouncer moved to block the entrance before Archie flashed the VIP card and the bouncer obsequiously got out of his way.

    “You have a VIP card!?” Sandy called after him incredulously, as he walked through the door, letting that fact answer the question for him.

    The club, as it so appeared, was more of a casino than a club with a few patrons gambling away, though there was an opulent lounge area, where Mr. Qi and the governor were having a conversation. Presuming that he was a VIP rather than a mere club member, Archie didn’t hesitate to go and join them, which prompted a smirk from Mr. Qi. “Welcome, Archie. I’m pleased you could finally join the club.”

    The Governor greeted him politely, while Archie continued to survey the scene.

    “Nice place you’ve got, Mr. Qi. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t quite this.”

    Mr. Qi smiled. “And I wasn’t expecting you to finally pronounce my name right, but look how far we’ve come. I’m surprised you didn’t ask your friend what was in here.”

    “I didn’t even ask Sandy what was in here after the first time. I’m surprised you’d think I’d have asked her.”

    Mr. Qi turned to the Governor. “You see? I’ve got to make this place even more exclusive to get people interested.”

    “Good thing for you there are few enough interesting people you’d want to invite anyway,” the Governor replied. Turning to Archie, he asked, “what did end up in that Luau soup, anyway? Delicious, I tell you.”

    He chatted a short time longer before excusing himself and catching the bus back.

    Pierre won the Harvest fair that year by a single point, but was the very picture of graciousness about it with Archie and the other competitors that time, while Archie’s hard work on the farm kept paying dividends through the autumn. In the winter, with his proper kitchen, he could focus on making small batches of preserves, and other refined products from his crops to keep an income flow going, rather than mining out of desperation, but given the year he had, it wasn’t entirely necessary. He was eager to spend more time during the winter with his friends and with Leah in particular. There wasn’t an endless assortment of things to do in Pelican Town, granted, but they took their Friday dinners together at the saloon before hanging out with the misfits. At one such meal, during a long pause in their conversation, not an awkward one, just due to a line of discussion ending, while simply enjoying each other’s quiet company, Leah told Archie that when she was with him, silence was bearable. It was perhaps the most romantic thing that Archie had ever heard, and it prompted him to talk that little bit less and to appreciate that little bit more. They ice fished in the frozen lake, and went on walks, and when the cold became too overbearing they day-tripped to the desert. They watched movies cuddled under a blanket drinking cider. They supported each other and managed just fine.

    Maeve invited him and Leah for Winter Star in the city that year, and the discussion around that got pretty intense. Leah was torn between wanting to spend it communally among the town, and also wanting to spend time with him, while Archie hadn’t been back to his hometown in nearly two years. As a compromise, the two of them went to visit a week earlier, coinciding with a surprise visit from Archie’s brother. With the war winding down and the borders easing open, he was able to fly in from the Emerald Isle, which he insisted Archie (and Leah) would have to visit. Archie even managed to catch up with some of his old theatre friends, with Leah, and amid the joy of reminiscing over past creative accomplishments, Leah noticed that Archie still didn’t sound entirely convinced when he said he’d given all that up when he became a farmer.

    The second annual New Year’s party at Archie’s was more comfortable given Robin expanding the house, and with the initial awkwardness of having done it for the first time gone. Alex had made the cut for the regional gridball team, and Haley had sent off her portfolio and was waiting to hear back. Maru started taking some university classes online to figure out what program to commit to, while Harvey continued his business apace. Sebastian was still living at home, but getting more regular freelance contracts from one of the big urban software houses, and he’d taken up playing music with Sam more, and Abigail, to the point where they were getting pretty good. Archie sometimes jammed along with them for a change of pace, but wasn’t a fixture of the band. Abigail had started to take on more of the managerial duties at the store, and had gone on her first archaeological dig in the fall. Penny was trying to figure out what to do since Vincent was going to be high school aged before long. Emily had a first date scheduled with Clint in the spring. Leah made and sold more art, though she hadn’t exhibited it in the same way as at her initial show. She thought that she’d be able to start showing it in larger venues, Hub Town, or Zuzu City, maybe.

    The couples were more coupley while they were also more social, and to Archie, it was starting to feel like the whole town, but especially its young adults, was growing up some but also growing together.





    Indulging in some early spring fishing on the beach, Archie was joined by Willy, who regaled him with a nautical legend in the valley that had carried over onto land and become a tradition in Pelican Town. On a rainy day, a mysterious mariner appears on the beach, with a pendant for sale as a token of love, that the villagers take as a marriage proposal. Archie found the timing of Willy telling this tale a bit suspect, given that it was something Archie was surprised to find himself considering. While half a year of a whirlwind relationship with Sandy didn’t give him any impression that marriage was even vaguely in the cards in the future, the near to a year with Leah did have him thinking about the long term. Their relationship wasn’t perfect, but they seemed to work through the flaws and come to compromises through the use of very open communication, and Archie didn’t see any signs of that letting up. He thought it would take a great deal of mental discipline to be watchful of any signs of neglect on his own part, but he was finding it easier than he expected to check himself before he wrecked himself and to keep both himself and Leah happy. He asked Willy about that timing.

    “Oh, there’re rumours around the town, y’know…” the fisherman replied enigmatically.

    Archie found that a bit strange. “There are plenty of people in happy relationships for longer than us,” he interjected.

    Willy nodded. “That’d be true, but y’two have your futures more in order than they do. And as I was sayin’, there might be rumours a-swirlin’, but I see your look when you fish here, and you don’t love sardines that much.”

    That Archie couldn’t argue with. He handed a few of the sardines he caught off the pier over to Willy, who reached for payment before seeming befuddled when Archie indicated he wasn’t going to take any. “It’s for the story.”

    When Archie went home, he saw the flag up on his mailbox, and fished out the letter, which was from Leah. Given how frequently they saw each other, this struck him as an uncommon occurrence.

    Archie,

    Meet me in the forest by the lake for a picnic lunch at midday, the day after the Egg Festival.

    -Leah

    P.S. <3

    He smiled to himself, still amazed at how alive and special the little things Leah did made him feel, which applied both to the picnic and the post-script.

    The day before the Egg Festival was a bucketing rainfall, and Archie found himself stuck returning to the thought of the story of the mariner and his pendant, and thinking that maybe he would propose to Leah. Not that soon, he thought, since they hadn’t really spent all that much time living together in close quarters, but eventually, if things kept on the way they were going, perhaps. He drank his morning coffee and ate his breakfast before pulling on his rain slicker and beginning the long walk to the beach. The town was dead quiet, as the bulk of the townsfolk were sticking to the great indoors. Archie didn’t see a soul.

    He crossed the bridge over the river and pressed on toward the sea, walking down the steps and over the wet, windblown dunes and into a scene that surprised him, a completely drenched Sam, with no umbrella or raincoat to speak of, deep in conversation with a bearded stranger. He approached behind his friend and sidled up alongside him, greeting both men, while Sam looked as though he was ready to burst from excitement, and then also embarrassment.

    “Well, this is a first,” the mariner said. “You’ve both got that twinkle in your eye, and I only have one pendant.”

    “You were thinking of proposing too?” Archie asked his friend.

    “Yeah, we’ve been seeing each other a long time, y’know?”

    “How long now?”

    “Almost 5 years.”

    Archie nodded appreciatively. “You can learn a lot about someone in 5 years.”

    “Yeah, and I’m feeling pretty sure I want to marry her. What do you think?”

    Archie thought it over. He was so pre-occupied with the possibility of his own potential engagement that he hadn’t given any thought to Sam’s. “I think it’s a great idea, but a bit too early.”

    Sam looked incredulous and a bit hurt by Archie’s comment. “What? You’ve only been with Leah for a year, how does that make any sense?”

    Archie took a deep breath. “It’s not that. I’m sure Penny would be thrilled – thrilled to be engaged to you, thrilled to get out of that trailer, the works. But, she’s got one bit of unfinished business and I think it’d be better for both of you if she took care of it first.”

    “Her teaching degree. She told me about your offer a while ago, by the way. I appreciate it, though damned if it didn’t make me feel completely inadequate.”

    “Yeah, I’m sorry about that, but keep it in perspective - you’ve been an emotional pillar in her life and I barely know her. You can support her emotionally better than I can dream of. She gets a bit agitated with me whenever I try, to be honest.”

    “She can be prickly about it, yeah, not that I blame her, even though it frustrated me too.”

    “So, look, she might not want to admit it out loud, but I’m dead sure she regrets giving up on teaching in the first place. The way I see it, support her through that, let her know you’ve got her back, and that she can go into marrying you knowing she can have her dream career if she wants it too, rather than risk letting her regrets fester into resentment that can destroy the whole thing.”

    Sam was starting to come around to Archie’s way of thinking, but wasn’t entirely willing to let Archie have the one mermaid amulet. “It makes sense that I should talk to her about that first, I’ll give you that, but you and Leah, isn’t that a bit too abrupt?”

    Archie shrugged. “I thought so. I think the difference is that with her art show, and I guess with me after it, she’s taken care of her thing she should do to not resent getting married.”

    “And what about you?” Sam pressed him.

    “Me? I’ve got the farm, and a path for the future as long as the valley soil holds up.”

    Sam wasn’t entirely convinced. “You sure you don’t have the one thing that would turn to resentment?”

    “I had it at the end of my first year, when I thought I failed at theatre in the city because the Junimos tied my fate to this place. I think I’m over it now.”

    Sam nodded, still skeptical, as he pulled out the 5000 Guilders to pay the mariner. “Sorry, Archie, I don’t know when the next time I’ll save five grand up will be. You’ll have to wait ‘til the next rainy day, or propose like a city boy.”

    Archie clapped him on the shoulder. “I respect it. You’ll find a good time to give her that thing, I’m sure of it. Now get out of the rain, you madman.”

    Sam cackled manically for good measure as he scurried through the town toward his house, past his house, and over to Leah’s cottage, to tell her the story of his encounter with Archie at the beach, his advice, and what he thought Archie’s regret that would lead to resentment was while Archie turned to fishing.

    The Egg Festival ended in a climactic Egg Hunt, that ended in a three-way tie that year, with Abigail, Vincent, and first-time-participant Archie all finishing dead even with 10 eggs collected. Vincent was over the moon at finally winning the thing, if only partially, while Lewis had to find a way to split the prize of a tea set, which Vincent was not nearly so keen on as his one-third-shared-victory. Archie, Sam, Leah, and Penny all seemed extra alert, and the festival was mostly uneventful beyond the further catching up with everyone, but the rumours had continued ever to spread, and Robin eagerly approached Archie, alone, mercifully, to congratulate him on his intention to propose. It did not take a genius to figure out the path that the gossip had taken to reach the carpenter, but Archie wasn’t too frustrated about it. He’d never been embarrassed of Leah before, and he certainly wasn’t about to start now. “She still has to say yes,” Archie reminded her diplomatically.

    The next day, Archie cleaned himself up and went to the general store to buy a bottle of wine and some goat cheese for the picnic, both of which weighed heavy in his hands as he gave thought to the enormity of what he was thinking of doing. His stomach churned, and he whitened to the point that Pierre expressed concern about his sudden change in state. “I’m anxious,” Archie told him, “big changes ahead. I need to clear my head.” He took a detour to the Community Centre, still slowly seemingly repairing itself, to sit outside the Junimo hut. He sat there silently a while, contemplating his proposal, and told the Junimos, reverently, though not as a prayer, “I sure hope this works out well for both of us.”

    He left the Community Center to a solitary chirp, only a little bit more at ease for speaking his concern aloud. The Junimos looked after his farm’s well-being, though Archie felt they didn’t owe him anything in particular. He cut back through town toward the clearing in the forest, by the lake, where he spied Leah sitting on a patchwork quilt, unpacking her picnic basket and arranging the plates and containers of food with the sort of attention to detail Archie expected of her art works. He paused in his stride, took a deep breath, and ambled over slowly, with weighty intent for the day. He would have preferred it to be spontaneous because it was more his style, but with the thought in his head, it never would be possible again. He smiled, if with a bit of a grimly determined edge, as he walked up to the picnic blanket, holding out his purchases for Leah to collect.

    She returned his smile, and with an air of mock annoyance, told him, “I love those, but you didn’t have to bring anything today. The point was for me to treat you,” she said, wedging the wine between a salad bowl and the picnic basket. “This salad is foraged from regional ingredients – dandelions, spring onions, cactus paddles.” Archie was surprised at the last one, he hadn’t thought to eat cactus before, much less tried it.

    “You’re branching out,” he said, wondering if that counted as a pun when discussing cacti.

    “I’m not just learning how to be an artist, you know,” she replied, gesturing for him to sit, “but I do want to thank you for helping me become a real artist…” she added, before trailing off as she squinted to look at something behind him before her face twisted into a visage of anger and dread. Archie turned around to follow her gaze, to see the shorter, black-haired, surly man from the art exhibition emerging from the treeline and walking straight toward them. It surprised Archie to see him back in town, and he had a very bad feeling about it.

    “You have a lot of nerve, coming here,” she told the interloper, starting to shake with anger.

    “It’s not the first time. I was here for your exhibition – your art’s gotten so much better.”

    The compliment caught her off-guard, causing her to bristle even more. “You never cared about it before.”

    “I do now.”

    Archie interrupted the conversation with a disdainful pffffft at that statement, surprising both Leah and the interloper, who both suddenly looked at him expectantly. “If all you could manage when I asked what you thought of her art was ‘meh’, you don’t care about it that much.”

    Caught in his lie, the man reddened noticeably, taking a deep breath, trying to preserve his self-control. “I did buy one, but more importantly, I miss you, Leah. I want you back, babe.”

    Archie had seen Leah agitated to the point of loathing herself before, but never as baleful toward any other person as in the moment she snarled at him. “After all you put me through you decide that when I succeed, no thanks to you, that you want me back? You make me sick.” She turned her back on him and took a few steps, putting some more distance between herself and either of the men, while the man kept walking toward her. Archie quickly stood up to interpose himself between the two of them.

    “This is between me and her, hick,” he told Archie, trying to shove him out of the way as he hardly broke his stride to barrel past. Archie was pushed back a couple of steps before bracing himself and stepping into his path again, as they locked gazes in the beginnings of a standoff that Leah quickly interrupted.

    “Archie, please, step aside,” she told him, in a tone that struck him as deeply conflicted. His eyes darted between looking at her, and her ex, as she walked toward them and he stepped out of the way, on the verge of tears because in addition to having feared the relationship with her would never start because of this ex, he dreaded that not that it had started, this could also be how it would end. She stepped slowly over the picnic blanket and across the clearing, straight toward the intruder, who seemed a bit surprised himself. “I’m sorry, Archie,” she told him as she walked past him, looking shockingly devoid of emotion given the situation, more like an automaton or a puppet. The apology crushed him. He felt short of breath and light headed, and helpless to do anything but watch Leah play out her choice as she kept walking and her ex began to smile cockily.

    “That’s right, baby,” he said, “I love you and you love m…”

    Time seemed to slow down for Archie as he watched Leah suddenly accelerate toward his rival, cutting him off abruptly by hammering him in the jaw with a wicked haymaker, staggering him as he clutched his rapidly bruising face while Leah tore into his ego with the harshest, most profane invective he had ever heard in his life, including at the fiery-tempered Finegan family reunions. His despair turned into confusion at first, then joy at her not walking off into the sunset with the kneeling jackass caressing his jawline. Anger at her toying with his emotions like that swiftly followed.

    She was quick to apologize to him again afterward – sorry that he had to see her be violent, about the whole event, about how that must have felt for him. At first, Archie wanted almost desperately to stay mad at her given the scare she had just given him, but that anger gave way to understanding, to respect and admiration, grudgingly at first but growing stronger, for her standing up for herself and not having to live with the sword of that old relationship hanging over her head, over their heads. He also respected, if with a bit more trepidation, how good of a deception it was, because fooling even Archie into thinking it was over was actually the perfect setup for that glorious sucker-punch. She had come up with one hell of an improvisation, and it took commitment to the act, the character and the script. It took him some time, but he realized how much their personalities were rubbing off on each other. He felt his love for her more intensely, but also that it was perhaps more fragile than it was the day before in spite of her decisively slicing through that dangling loose end, who scurried back into the forest and off to the bus stop.

    They returned to their picnic but it wound up a bit half-hearted after the drama that had unfolded. They small-talked a bit but it felt emptier than any other small talk they did in the face of the day’s events.

    “I went to buy a mermaid pendant yesterday,” Archie told her, breaking a silence that had become uncomfortable for him, a rare occurrence in their relationship thus far.

    Leah looked at him in surprise, if not as intense of a shock as when he asked her for the dance at the first Flower Dance he was at. The fact that he did wasn’t a surprise, because Sam had told her, rather the fact that Archie told her when Archie was all about surprises seemed out of character. As it happened, Archie felt like he’d had enough surprises to last a lifetime in the last twenty minutes. Ultimately, Leah agreed with Sam’s assessment of the situation. “Did you?” she asked cautiously.

    Archie shook his head. “Sold out,” he said.

    “Hmmm…” she replied. “It’s a bit too early, don’t you think?”

    He shook his head. “I thought so, then I didn’t, now I’m not so sure. Even now that I understand why you did what you did today, I’m wondering again.”

    Leah nodded. “I’ll never hurt you like that again,” she told him, earnestly, sincerely.

    “I know.”

    “And I do want to marry you…”

    Archie smiled and nodded as Leah continued.

    “But I’m not marrying you until you make some theatre, Archie.”

    His smile turned into a dumbfounded expression as he stared at her, understanding exactly where this imperative had come from. He hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself, much less to Sam, or even Leah, but suppress it though he did for as long as he was on the farm, he did want to make theatre again, if for no other reason than to know that he still could. He had embraced being a farmer, the town’s farmer, the Junimos’ farmer, but he never wanted that to be all he was. He felt the excitement he’d buried in the rapid maturing he had in Pelican Town resurface, but he was confident that he could direct it productively this time, alongside his other pursuits.

    “You’re on,” he told her.

    She pulled him in for a kiss. “Break a leg, darling.”

    “Why stop at one?” he asked, laughing, as he felt two weights lifting off his shoulders.




    By the time Archie’s annual blood test rolled around, he was beginning to feel outright sick for the first time since his move to the valley, just a few days before another Flower Dance that he was looking forward to. He chalked it up to the emotional pendulum swing that he was riding since the picnic. Harvey postponed the test until he kicked whatever virus was going around, but admonished Archie to have a couple of days without exertion to make his healing quicker and easier on himself. This was not easy for Archie to swallow given that his work was money and a means to get the town what it needed – Pierre the competitive advantage to stay in business, Lewis some tax money to fund maintenance projects, Robin the occasional bit of work, everyone a source of gossip.

    He wasn’t at his most conversational, even with Leah, while resting it off. He was still processing what had happened even if he had the giddy glee of allowing himself to more fully be himself again in terms of what his own desires. She seemed understanding about it, bringing him over vegetable soup that they ate mostly in silence. He mentioned his worry about the upcoming harvest and planting that he shouldn’t be doing on medical orders, and Leah told him not to worry, and that she’d take care of it, which reassured him. He didn’t know how, exactly, but he knew that she would.

    The next morning he was somewhat surprised when Penny spent a short break from teaching visiting him, especially given Penny’s declaration after the initial small talk about Archie’s condition had passed: “I told Marnie, Jodi and Kent that I’m going back to school in the Fall. I got some support from the university, but I’m going to need some help from you, too, if your offer still stands,” she told him.

    Archie nodded, smiling, tremendously glad that her dream was slowly inching back on track. “You’ll have it, but I’ve got something to ask of you too.”

    Penny looked at Archie apprehensively. “What is it?”

    “I’m going to need a director for a short play I’m writing.”

    Penny was incredulous. “What? I’ve never directed a play before!”

    “I’d do it, but I need to act in it too - I’ve thought about this and you’re the best choice in town.”

    “How?”

    “I’m also going to need child actors and you’re the only person around who can wrangle Vincent and Jas into some semblance of orderly behaviour. Call it a class project?”

    Penny weighed her options. She knew it would be a lot of work, but that the trade-off was a good one; she’d get to go to school, though she hardly thought Archie would withdraw his support even if she didn’t help him; she’d get a directing credit which would be good if she was ever called on to teach or support drama at any future school; and maybe, just maybe, being in a story would be a way to get Vincent and Jas more interested in reading them. “You’ll have to get the kids on board first, but I’m willing to do it. What’s the story of the play?”

    “I have absolutely no idea yet, but it’s going to have to be especially good.”

    “How come?”

    “It’s a bit of a long story, and I’m telling you this in confidence, ok?”

    She nodded, and Archie explained his intention to propose to Leah at the picnic, which elicited a squeal of delight from Penny: “So you’re going to actually propose soon, right?”

    He explained that he would, but that Leah said he shouldn’t until he made some theatre. “I thought it was a bit cruel at first…” he said, trailing off, realizing that he might want to avoid spoiling Sam’s intentions.

    Penny thought about it. “If you saw it as cruel she might have lost you right then, but you clearly wanted to do it.”

    Archie nodded. “That’s just it. She can be cruel, but not like that. She’s giving me a chance to deal with a big regret first, before it can risk boiling over and destroying the whole relationship, and the marriage with it.”

    “Do you really miss it enough for that?”

    “I thought my relationship with Leah might be even more important than that part of myself, but the more I think about it, the more I do want to do it, and the more I think I wanted to all along. I just hid it from myself in this big blind spot because the past failures were too painful.”

    Penny nodded with understanding. “Do you think everyone has some big regret they should clear up before marriage?” Penny asked him.

    “Maybe it’s just us.” he replied, a little too quickly, letting on that he had thought about this before. “You with your degree; and me with theatre. Leah and her art, and until recently, her ex. Sam?”

    “That he drifted through adult life without focusing on anything,” she replied.

    “He did well with helping support his family, though. If he can endure Joja, he can find out what he wants and go big at getting it.”

    “That’s true. Maybe he just needs a push. I certainly did.”

    “You’ll get to be an example to him.”

    Penny nodded. “Thank you.”

    “You’re welcome?” Archie replied, tentatively, not knowing what he was being thanked for.

    “For the perspective. And for standing up for Leah. It means a lot; to more than just her. And thanks for making me earn the help you’re giving me – it’s better for my self-respect that way.”

    Archie was tempted to wave off the latter comment, but they both stuck in his mind. Leah’s situation was awful, but perhaps not uniquely awful in Pelican Town’s recent history. Maybe Penny’s father was like that, for all he knew, or others. And Archie was prideful all his life, but starting to temper that with a bit of realism. “You’re welcome,” he said pausing. He thought about how he hardly stood up for Leah short of interposing himself between them, and thinking that he’d fight for her if it came to that, but she didn’t need him to stand up for her. She just needed someone to stand with her, and he would. Maybe he felt like he didn’t do much, but, subtly, he did, and he knew he would. “I’m proud of her.”

    Penny bid Archie goodbye and headed off to town while Archie drifted back to sleep. He was keeping himself mostly in bed because he knew that if he stepped outside into the cool spring air, he would be too eager to work. He liked the feeling of being productive, and he did not like the feeling of worrying about the crops over-ripening in the fields, the planting that needed to be done, the money his short convalescence cost Pierre and his family, which Leah assured him was well in hand. As he pulled open his blinds, he stopped dead in his tracks, profoundly surprised by the sight of five people working in the fields, planting, harvesting, rinsing and packing crops.

    Linus was directing Leah and Alex in the fields amidst helping out himself, while Abigail and Sebastian were rinsing and packing up crops for Pierre to take into town to sell. They seemed to be making a good pace, and well on the way to wrapping up for the day before noon even rolled around thanks to the extra hands, while Archie stood and took in the sight of his friends coming together to help, tearing up at first, before ceasing his resistance, crying from the emotion of the moment as he took it in. It was Linus who noticed him through the open window first, and whispered to Leah that he’d woken up. She stood up and ran over to the window, her loosely tied bandana looking like it could fall off at any step as he braid jostled it, which Archie only thought were all the more becoming of her. He was still crying and even more intensely in that moment.

    “Hope you’re resting well, Archie,” she told him. “I got some people to help out.”

    Of course she was the one who would organize that, he thought. When he saw the sweat on her brow, the dirt all over her, and the smile on her face, he knew he wanted her to marry him, and for them to keep looking after each other as they’d started to do. He thought he wanted to when he’d discussed it with her, several days before, when he was happy to embark on her challenge to make some theatre, but now he knew he did. This was the kind of person there was long-term potential with. There was just a play to write, and to stage, and the everyday operation of a farm to attend to first.

    Leah stayed over the next couple of nights, helping him out on the farm during the day and keeping him company. It was loving, but also sometimes silent, with Leah sketching out prospective new sculptures or paintings while Archie wrote with intensity that would suggest his life depended on it. He was starting to feel like the life he wanted did. He returned to the routine of running the farm, and the outside help faded away as people returned to their own pre-occupations, but not before Archie thanked them and offered them thank-you gifts. They had done a huge amount of work, and Pierre returned with another profitable set of orders based on the amount of produce his surprise helpers had pulled in, and the crops kept coming at a rapid pace.

    The morning of the Flower Dance, Archie was feeling mostly better, and as he got the kilt ready as usual, he was surprised to hear a knock on the door, and even more surprised to see Mr. Qi of all people standing outside. They exchanged their good mornings.

    “You haven’t been back to the club, I wanted to make sure everything was alright,” Qi told him.

    “I’d gotten sick a few days ago, but I’ve recovered now. There’s a local festival today, you should stick around, maybe have a dance with someone.”

    “Sick,” Qi said with slightly exaggerated concern. “You’re not contagious, are you?”

    “No, all clear. Is there anything I can help you with?”

    “Well, there is one thing. Your friend Abigail, I understand she’s interested in archaeology?”

    “She is. She went on her first dig a couple of seasons after you met her.”

    “I see. And has she gone digging in the mines?”

    “Not that I know of, at least. I think the monsters keep her from it. She seemed to prefer doing it in less supernatural locales.”

    “She should work on that, but as it so happens, I have caught wind of another site of archaeological interest in the Valley that she could do well to go and excavate, though she shouldn’t go alone.”

    “Are you suggesting I should go with her?”

    “I’m suggesting that someone should, though probably someone with more flexible commitments than you. Let me know if you can find anyone,” he said, turning to leave before Archie interrupted him.

    “How about the two of us see about speaking to just such a potential someone at the festival?”

    “Oh, how very splendid. You have twisted my arm, Archie, but who should I dance with?”

    “I have no idea, we’d have to see who’s there. I’ll be meeting Leah soon, you’re welcome to walk over with us.”

    “Leah? The artist from town who garnered regional attention recently, you mean?”

    “That’s her… though, wait, she did?”

    “Oh yes, quite. I even have one of her sculptures in the club now, that charming pink piping one. Very naughty, I thought. Outright erotic. Perfect for the club.”

    Archie shook his head in disbelief as they walked over to Leah’s, thinking to himself, over and over, art is subjective, art is subjective, art is subjective…

    The introduction went as weirdly as might have been expected, and the three of them walked over to the festival grounds to enjoy the dance. Archie introduced Mr. Qi to anyone who was interested in meeting him, and Abigail jogged over when she saw the three of them arrive.

    “Of all people I didn’t expect to see you here!” Abigail told Mr. Qi, with evident excitement to see him.

    “A social call turned into a longer visit to your charming sleepy little town,” Qi said, smiling. “And, I’ve got exciting news for you in particular!” Qi proceeded to explain to Abigail about the archaeological site he had heard about in the valley, not worthy of his attention, but perfect for a pair of amateur archaeologists to make a discovery and earn some recognition.

    Abigail asked if Archie would join her, but he said that while he’d like to, he had things to take care of closer to home, so Abigail excused herself and went to find Sebastian to discuss it with him, while Archie and Leah excused themselves and left Mr. Qi to his own devices. Archie checked in with most of the townsfolk, and got Vincent and Jas on board to act in his play, before spending his time lavishing his attention upon Leah.

    When the dance was called, people took to the floor in much the same configurations, except this time a more sober than usual Pam had a partner in Mr. Qi, who garnered a great deal of attention because strangers in a small town always do. After the dance, Penny expressed her joy about her mother finding a dance partner for a change, even if he was kind of weird.

    Sebastian agreed to go on the dig with Abigail, more out of a short-term drop-off in freelance programming work than particular enthusiasm for it, but it did get him out of the house he never felt that comfortable in. He hadn’t taken a proper vacation in a while, and the fact of it being to go dig up some long-buried thing was sufficiently interesting enough to compel him to accept. Archie was plenty curious about it, and if he didn’t have the pressure of the farm to manage and a play to write, he would have eagerly gone. Robin, for her part, was thrilled that Sebastian was getting out of the house more, and with a woman, at that, though Demetrius was skeptical for the latter same reason. Pierre and Caroline hated the idea but couldn’t really stop her after she’d already gone on a previous dig.

    A couple of Fridays later, Abigail and Sebastian returned to town, seemingly empty-handed, joining Archie, Leah, Sam, and Maru, who was making one of her infrequent appearances at the saloon. By this time Archie had made some progress structuring the play, which was going to be about a couple of children discovering the Junimos after running away into the forest, and helping save their town with the Junimos’ guidance. Sure, Archie thought, it’s a children’s morality play, but it can capture the way the town’s changed these last couple of years

    They came into the saloon, with Sebastian following Abigail a few steps behind, rather than the arm in arm Sam had expected. “How was the dig?” Maru asked, eagerly.

    “Stressful,” Abigail started, “but amazing.” Sebastian merely nodded in agreement.

    “What did you find?” Leah asked.

    “A burial mound in a hill where a hill shouldn’t have been,” Abigail replied. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t quite that.”

    “We think it housed a major noble from the early days of the Ferngill Kingdom,” Sebastian added. “Some professionals from Ferngill National University will assess it, and we found a few little coins and trinkets to donate to Gunther too. But we’ve got some other news.”

    “You finally decided to start dating after all this time?” Sam interrupted.

    “Yoba, no!” they both shouted at him in unison. Abigail looked at Sebastian, who told her that she should tell them.

    “We’re moving to Zuzu City in the fall. We haven’t told our parents yet, so please keep it quiet until we do.”

    The table, but especially Sam, looked shocked as Sebastian explained: “When the experts from Ferngill National University came to verify the find, they were eager to get Abigail into their program. Not only is she good at it, but getting a woman with a major find under her belt in her early twenties on board - that looks too good not to do.”

    “The scholarship is going to be pretty good,” Abigail added.

    Maru was very excited by Abigail’s newfound academic success. “That’s excellent! I’m going to be starting there in the fall, too!”

    “You finally decided what you wanted to do?” Archie asked her.

    “I knew for a while, it’s just more convenient to start the electronics engineering course in the autumn.”

    “But what about you?” Leah asked Sebastian.

    “Right,” he replied. “So these experts came in and started filing information about the stuff we found into this ancient, unintuitive, piece-of-junk database, because they’re interested in really old things, not technology. I told them I could build them a better custom system and maintain it, and they were interested. They’re offering a one-year contract that might lead into something permanent. I’ll finally get to see if city life is all that.”

    Congratulations and high-fives abounded, though Sam was noticeably struggling with it. They all knew that come the fall, with most of the young people in Pelican Town moving out, the dynamic was going to change a great deal. Penny was going too, if for a shorter time, and Haley and Alex were expecting to hear about their own applications soon. Archie realized that of their generation, it might only be him, Leah, Emily, Shane, and Sam left in town after all was said and done, along with the slightly older Harvey.

    Archie excused himself from the table, and asked Sam to join him. Grateful for the respite, Sam followed Archie out of the saloon and toward the trailer, where Archie knocked on the door. Penny was surprised to see the two of them, together, and not in the saloon on a Friday night. She picked up on Sam’s discomfort quickly and asked him what was wrong.

    “Everyone’s leaving in the fall, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

    Penny seemed more confused than anything, the word not having reached her yet.

    “You’re going to finish school, Abigail and Maru are going to start, Sebastian’s moving to Zuzu City, and I’m spinning my wheels. I’d have managed with you away, but now the band’s going to be on ice, no gaming nights, nothing else. I am going to go crazy.”

    Penny moved to console Sam while Archie simply added, for Penny’s benefit, “by the way, that bit about Sebastian and Abigail leaving, please keep that under wraps ‘til they tell their folks. And Sam, for what it’s worth, Leah and I will be here for you.”

    Sam coughed out a “thanks, bro,” before launching into a heart-to-heart with Penny that Archie didn’t feel worthy of being a part of, though, after his own discussion with her, he thought he knew where it would go. After all, Sam didn’t have to support his family with Kent back from the war. He could spend time reconnecting with his father, sure, or working at Joja Mart if he wanted, but it was going to be time for Sam to dedicate himself to something too. Archie wondered what it would be, and he hoped it would be a good for him, whatever it was.

    Sebastian was waiting for Archie in front of the saloon having a smoke when he got back. “Took it badly, didn’t he?” he asked.

    “He’s happy for you, just feeling left behind,” Archie told him. “Everyone is getting ready to head off on new adventures. He’s got his dad to get to know again, but he’s feeling behind the curve. He’s going to miss you both, and Penny being away in the fall as well is going to make it hard on him.”

    “I forgot about that. Poor guy.”

    Archie shrugged. “He’ll find something to do and go hard at it.”

    “Yeah, I just hope it isn’t too big of a struggle until he does.”

    The realization of people going their separate ways, even though most of them were going to Zuzu City, took an impact on more than just Sam. People who hadn’t taken a particular interest in each other suddenly did, because their shared experience of Pelican Town was at the heart of their identities going forward as much as their individual interests and personalities were. The bonfire at the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies that year was an outdoor repeat of the New Year’s party. Archie’s sister didn’t make it that year, but the crowd was much larger as all the youths in town took part in it, except Elliott, who opted out along with Sandy even though the conversation was more civil this time around.

    In a trickle flow, people started leaving the town. Penny was the first to go, taking the long ride to Gallibrand City that Archie had taken on his way in to Pelican Town, all that time ago. Maru and Abigail took the bus to Zuzu City, with both of their parents wishing them tearful goodbyes. Pierre and Caroline couldn’t believe Abigail’s sudden success, or departure, and they were themselves surprised at the fact that getting what they thought they wanted – her out of the house, on to new things, was perhaps not entirely what they wanted at all. The following day Sebastian motorcycled over, and Alex and Haley departed in the Mullners’ beat-up truck. The town felt emptier, but the people who remained knew that the people who left would be back in some capacity, for festivals, holidays, and as Archie had extracted as a promise from everyone, his play, whenever it was.

    Archie paid frequent visits to Sam in that time, to see what he was getting up to, which was seemingly little. He was saving up money from his Joja Mart job, and spending his days off practicing his guitar for long hours. He tried his hand at writing some Solarion Chronicles fanfiction that really needed some polish, and a plot-line that didn’t make anyone who encountered it stupid by osmosis. He did seem to struggle in his solitude for a while, but he started getting serious with his song-writing; investing in a basic home recording setup and recording guitar, bass, and vocal lines so that when the band was back in town, they would have things to record. Archie was surprised at the nuances of music production that Sam had picked up on – the editing he did to the recordings was awkward at first, but sounded surprisingly crisp and professional after a pretty short time.

    For his part, Archie was also that bit lonelier, but the fact that he was spending more time with Leah made up for it at least somewhat. Both of them were acting like Archie was going to finish that play and then the two of them would get married, but it did provide a further motivation for him, even if the farm work and growing the business to approaching the farm’s capacity left him with more time to think about the play than to actually work on it too much until the end of Fall. He chipped away at it frequently even during the warmer seasons, but it took the onset of Winter and the decision to write instead of to mine to make the big progress. Around the end of Winter, a few days before Winter Star, everyone started to trickle back into town. Penny was the first one back, her teaching placement over with the primary schools on holiday earlier. Catching up over a cup of tea, Archie was pleased to learn that her placements went well, that she was able to handle the city children and received positive and enriching feedback on her work. It was back to Pam’s trailer for her for now, though she had gotten word from one of her old teachers at Hub Town Primary that there would be several teachers retiring the following year. She’d be ready to step in, and she thanked Archie for the timing of it all.

    He shared a draft of the script with her, taking on board some of her feedback in terms of changes for the local audience. The result was toning down a bit of the overly philosophical parts, and upping the sentimentality a bit to compensate, appropriate suggestions, he thought, given his tendencies.

    Alex and Haley were the next to return, separately, having broken up during the early part of their stay in the city. The sudden realization of having a world of people to choose from, and no need to play to the town’s expectations, left them both wondering what they were doing with each other to begin with and coming up short of answers. They wanted to figure their desires out, only separately. Maru, Sebastian, and Abigail followed a couple of days later, all excited about their time in the city but also their visit home. Sebastian and Abigail spent a great deal of time reconnecting with Sam, and making music, but part of their excitement about the visit was knowing that they would be leaving Pelican Town again.

    It was only three days before Winter Star, which was Archie’s self-imposed deadline, that he finished the script and took a trip to the Zuzu City print shop to print and bind a few copies – one for himself, one for Leah, one for Penny, to direct, one each for his child actors, and a few for the adult ones he had yet to recruit, himself excluded. The following day was Leah’s birthday, and in addition to treating her for a nice meal and giving her a sculpting hammer and a set of chisels that he commissioned Clint to make as her gift, he gave her the copy of the script as well.

    “So it’s ready?” she asked him, voice quavering.

    “The script is, but the actors, the stage, the props, sound and lights – they’re not, but they will be soon. Penny’s ready to direct, I need to finish recruiting. I figured out who I want to do what, finally.”

    “That’s so exciting! How do you feel about it?”

    “Terrified, but it’s going to be so worth it,” he said with a broad smile. “And not just because we’ll be getting married afterward, though it’s a big part.”

    Archie started calling in numerous favours he accumulated over the course of the years to recruit the actors and crew for the play – Sam to run sound, Maru for lighting, Robin for props and set-building, for which Leah also volunteered. Linus accepted the role of the Junimo King, and Shane the role of the faceless corporate villain, reluctantly at first until he realized he would basically be imitating his unpleasant boss for laughs and abusing Archie, who was going to be playing a very Shane-like character.

    From across the town, people were ready to help Archie live a dream of his, and, as with his farm, he wasn’t going to disappoint them.




    Archie invited his family up for Winter Star, and they all came except for his brother. With the war with the Gotoro Empire over, he wasn’t stuck on the Emerald Isle that year, but he had opted to spend it there with friends and his significant other that Archie had as yet not met or even heard anything about. Terrence was always secretive even when they were living in the same house, so the fact that it was a surprise didn’t bother Archie much. The Feast was similar to the previous year, but Archie made more of a point of integrating Leah into the family discussions, ahead of their expectation of joining each other’s families, though it had only then occurred to Archie that he’d never met Leah’s family. He didn’t make a point of saying he thought they’d be engaged soon, but when his father asked him how their relationship was going, he didn’t hold back about their expectations either.

    During a lull where the two of them were alone, Archie finally broached the subject of her family with her. There was very little family on her side – she was an only child, and her father, a Ferngiller, had died young of a heart attack while Leah was at university. Her mother returned to her native Fjordlands after his death. They were infrequently in contact after that, as they grew apart after Leah opted against returning. He didn’t know exactly what to say, besides offering his long-after-the-fact condolences, but he wanted to make sure that she never felt a lack of a family with him and his, and their own family should they come to have one.

    The New Year’s party, with everyone having returned, was a more epic one than in years past. With people having had a taste of life outside the idyllic, pastoral Pelican Town, they wanted to cut loose before they scattered into the wind again.

    “So, how do you like the city?” Sam asked Sebastian, who shrugged in response.

    “Too many damned people,” he replied, “it’s better for me than mom’s house, and I like the variety, but I don’t think I’d want to stay forever.”

    Abigail snorted at him. “Why stick to one city? There’s a whole world to explore! Besides, I can always use a strictly Platonic dig-buddy.”

    “Get Qi to do it,” he shot back. She stuck her tongue out at him.

    “What are you going to do?” Sebastian asked Sam.

    “Keep taking my audio engineering classes in Hub Town,” he said non-chalantly, “I’ve been smashing them so far.” Even Archie and Leah, who had been in town with him the whole time, had no idea he was ever even taking them. “And if Penny gets a job there, well, it’s only a few minutes’ drive.”

    Haley and Alex were also both eager to get back to the city, which offered her a different set of things to photograph and him his sports. Being part of the university’s gridball team gave him more of a sense of purpose. Harvey and Emily were absent from that year’s party; Emily went to Zuzu City with Clint to watch the fireworks and the ball drop in person, and when Maeve was in town for the Moonlight Jellies, she suggested she might know someone in Hub Town who’d be a good match for the doctor. So far, at least, it seemed she was correct.

    Maru was the only one who seemed reluctant to go back to the city – not because she wasn’t fulfilled, but she found living at home, and the locale of the valley, far more her speed. Shane was much the same old Shane, just drinking much less.

    When the countdown started to ring in this new year, Archie and Leah weren’t nervously waiting across the room from each other, but rather cuddled up together at the foot of the couch, well prepared.

    The new year brought intensive preparations, both getting the farm up and running, and helping Penny with the rehearsals. He felt he’d need to step back, but Penny’s insecurity about directing the play had her asking a lot of questions, even though Archie thought she was more than capable. Seeing it in action in the rehearsals, he made a few script changes to make the dialogue flow better, and it was starting to come together for a summer performance, which added a new slate of things to do to Archie’s list as he handed the directorial concerns back off to Penny while basking in the fact that the actors seemed to be enjoying it. He commissioned Robin to cut boards for Archie to build a portable stage and some theatre flats, and Emily to make a stage curtain and some costumes. He prepared the list of technical gear he would need on top of Sam’s single microphone and mixer, knowing he would need to take the trip to Zuzu City to get the stuff when the time was right. It would probably be in Robin’s truck, and he realized it may well finally be time to learn to drive now that he wasn’t in a densely populated public transport city for several years.

    Time seemed to slow down as the day of the play drew near. A few days before the Flower Dance, Archie got a letter in the mail from Sandy:

    Dear Archie,

    I hope this letter finds you and Leah well. Elliott and I were hoping to make it in for this year’s Flower Dance, but we’ve suddenly got a clashing function in Zuzu City. He got his book accepted for publication and there’s some sort of dinner with the publishers.

    I was hoping we’d actually get to talk more this time. Just because Elliott is prickly around you doesn’t mean I need to be. Can you save me some tulips, please?

    Sandy

    He showed the letter to Leah, which she processed slowly, seemingly surprised at multiple things about it. She didn’t mind that Sandy was making the overture, and, as she explained, didn’t particularly blame Sandy. To her mind, Elliott would have done it anyway, and if not Sandy, it may have been anyone else.

    “I didn’t think he had it in him to get the book done, and published,” Archie said. “And now we’ll have two artists from Pelican Town who are recent success stories.”

    “Three, counting you by the time his book goes to press,” Leah corrected him.

    “Think you’re going to read it?” he asked, to be greeted by a curious look in return.

    “No,” she responded. “The book might be beautiful, but it doesn’t mean he’s hurt me any less.”

    Archie nodded, even though he’d considered reading it himself, if only to see if Elliott had any writing chops at all. He certainly wouldn’t hurry to. When it was in a bargain bin, maybe he’d consider it, because even though Elliott had done something deliberately hurtful to him and Leah, it had the secondary effect of bringing the two of them together, though Archie did still hold the grudge. While the rest of the town may have missed having Elliott and Sandy there, Archie and Leah had a more relaxed dance in their absence, with the thought of their engagement being more or less assured, and no insecurity about it. As it did when the youth were largely away, life went on.

    Having sourced the tech gear in Zuzu City, Archie did end up soliciting Robin’s help to get the equipment in her truck. Archie thought that Robin would ordinarily have press-ganged Sebastian into helping, but with her son in the City, he figured it would be the two of them. The truck ride through the desert and on toward the city passed in fairly gregarious conversation. Robin couldn’t remember the last time there was a play in Pelican Town, and asked Archie why he was sinking so much time into putting one on for such a tiny crowd.

    “Because it’s my tiny crowd,” he declared, before adding “and because I wanted to see if I could, and because I want to see the town develop an arts profile, and mostly because Leah wouldn’t agree to marry me unless I did.”

    Robin looked at him curiously, it being news to her. “What, really!? Why wouldn’t she?”

    “She realized I wanted to do it before I did. She’s perceptive… about a lot of things, anyway. She thought it’d be better for us if I did this first. And to think, I was going to propose to her over a year ago already.”

    “You’re a patient man, Archie.”

    “It’s why people don’t cross me,” he joked.

    “But to wait that long when you were that deep in love? We could all tell that Flower Dance you brought her the bouquet.”

    He thought about it for a brief moment. It was difficult at first, maybe, but he never felt like it was that much of a long wait, or that he was being held in limbo while the relationship wasn’t developing. Strangely, while it put the pressure on him to write the play, it took a lot of the other pressures of the relationship off him. “I never was good at being subtle about that kind of thing.”

    “Good. Being subtle about that kind of thing is stupid. I realized that with Demetrius early on.”

    “You’ve been patient too, with him and your whole family. How is it now that the kids are out?”

    “It’s easier now, we don’t feel like we’re always walking on eggshells with the kids, we’re getting to remember what we used to be like before parenting changed us, or in my case, becoming a parent for the second time did.”

    When the truck pulled up at the equipment rental shop, Sebastian was outside it, leaning against a wall a few steps away from the door, finishing up a cigarette. As Archie descended from the truck, he greeted his friend, who he was surprised to see.

    “Hey, I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

    “Well…” Sebastian began, before Robin cut him off.

    “He can move to the city, but there’s no escaping helping his mother, now let’s go!”

    The three of them piled the gear, speaker stacks and a mixer, cabling, truss, a lighting console, stage lights and a small follow spotlight, into the truck fairly quickly while Robin and Sebastian, with minimal input from Archie, discussed his life in the city. He seemed far more relaxed, being out of the basement of his mother’s house, having, for now at least, found a place to call his own and where he felt more widely valued. Sebastian still felt like he could go back to Pelican Town having seen that he could make it in the world, for all of Demetrius’ words to the contrary. Robin had mixed feelings hearing that, but was ultimately glad her son could be comfortable in the city, or back in Pelican Town. It was good to have options.

    On one of the trips, the shopkeeper asked where the rental was going, having never heard of Pelican Town, and what it was for.

    “I wrote a play, and I’m staging it there,” Archie told him, explaining a bit more about the town.

    “You’re not making your money back with it,” was the response.

    “Well, the tickets are certainly too cheap for me to, but I’m lucky enough to be able to worry about art rather than money. You’re welcome to come and see it, though. It’ll help support my soul-ravaging coffee addiction.”

    It seemed that Archie had been pitching his play to a lot of people in different ways – to Lewis as a boon for the town, to Mr. Qi as an artistic flight of fancy, to Leah as proof that he was stabilizing and ready to commit to her, to Sandy as a cultural experience, to his family as something he actually still wanted to do, to his theatre friends as a way to revisit the good old carefree student days, and to complete strangers as something that would enrich their lives enough to justify a trip out to Pelican Town, of all places.

    It was absurd, incongruous, the sort of thing that should never work in a locale that small, and that was part of the appeal for Archie. It was a grand enough gesture, on enough levels, that it just might stick, because while Archie wasn’t expecting to stage another play afterward, he didn’t want it to be the last one Pelican Town saw, though he had to make sure this play was a good one first.

    With a bit of further help from Robin, he assembled the stage in the large shrine and function room alongside the general store, and with Sam, the sound and lighting, before starting the few days of tech rehearsals. In the early going, it was a bit tricky to gather Shane and the child actors at the same time, but eventually Morris decided that he thought it would be good for his, and the Joja Mart’s image, if they were seen supporting the arts, especially since they missed an opportunity with the last artistic event. He let Shane and Sam leave work a little bit early and, to Archie’s great surprise, ordered a ticket.

    The tech rehearsals breezed by with the only trouble arising out of the lights needing cells to soften the glare, and Vincent getting a bit nervous and forgetting some lines. Making the cells was easy enough for Archie to do after a bus trip back to Zuzu City to get the coloured acetate sheets he needed, and with Vincent, it was Penny to the rescue. She calmed him down, telling him a story about how nervous she was her first day teaching the city children, but how she was able to overcome it by knowing she was as well prepared as she could possibly be. She scheduled a little extra rehearsal time with him and Jas to make sure, and the boy’s confidence returned. Archie was, as ever, impressed by how she handled herself around the children, and handled them.

    The villagers living away made it back to town ahead of the show night, where they gathered at the saloon. Leah invited him to join her there, but he declined, saying he wanted to take a bit of time to himself to focus, and that she should have fun. The town was abuzz about the following night’s event, a bit more-so even than Leah’s art show, because of how implicated in the town’s goings-on the farmer had become, while Archie’s mind and heart raced through mental checklists of preparation and thought. Are the cells good? Yes. Do the sound and lighting operators know what they need to do? Yes. Are there enough chairs. Yes. Should I give the mermaid pendant to Leah right after the curtain call or wait on it a bit? Not sure, hmmmm.

    On the night of the show, while Archie was backstage preparing the table full of props, still more people arrived in town to see the show. Sandy, and even Elliott, returned to Pelican Town. Mr. Qi and the Governor, with a couple of regional theatre critics and another dozen or so people in tow from the Qi club, including Welwick and local cooking show host the Queen of Sauce, arrived not much after. The man from the rental shop, and only one of Archie’s university friends, had made the trip from their respective cities. Archie’s family milled about outside the general store in the gentle drizzle, mingling with Leah and Caroline, and the townsfolk while Lewis hobnobbed with everyone. In this instance, Archie’s family included his brother (with his significant other), who never told Archie they were coming. Even Morris, widely reviled in Pelican Town, was putting on his best manners as the local representative of the Joja Corporation even though he thought the play would be stupid and a terrible waste of his time.

    As the murmuring crowd filled the hall, Archie gathered Penny, the actors, and the backstage helpers to give them their final pre-show pep-talk. “Alright, everyone, we’re coming up on the most exciting part of any theatre production. You can hear the buzz of the crowd, and pretty soon, the lights will go out, the curtain will open, and all the work we’ve all been putting into this will start to feel real. It’s a great feeling to perform on stage, and I want you all to enjoy it the most you can. Penny, I want to thank you for taking on directing us, and to tell you you’ve done a great job for a first-timer and in general, getting the most out of us. Don’t worry about a thing, have fun out there, and break a leg. Oh, and Shane, really crank up the abuse when the scene comes.”

    Vincent and Jas took their places for the opening scene, and when the curtain opened and he spotlight fell on Vincent, he froze for the briefest moment before realizing he was prepared and powering through delivering his lines. The next scene saw Archie, in the role of retail grunt, getting screamed at by Shane, who, true to Archie’s instructions, improvised laying into him verbally with impressive G-rated vitriol. Linus’ appearance as the Junimo King, who the children ran into in the forest when they ran away from Shane’s character after getting caught poking around in the store’s trash, was played with a tenderness that surprised Archie, watching backstage from the wings. A monologue saw Shane reveal his evil corporate plan for the town and the show went to a brief intermission for a set change.

    During that time, checking in on each other, the actors were all fired up. The crowd was mostly pleasantly surprised, though Morris found the content objectionable and borderline slanderous.

    In the second half of the play, the children tried convincing Archie’s character to follow their plan to help the city, but were thwarted by Archie’s character’s generally clownish incompetence at things even though he wanted to help. It forced the kids to save the town themselves, with the help of tiny magical gifts from the Junimo King that had further-reaching impacts than their appearance would belie, setting them up as greater heroes and providing comic relief for the crescendo, a tense, if occasionally funny, scene where the kids gave Shane’s character his comeuppance by using the Junimo King’s gifts to give the town better things than the store could for cheaper, and the town found its values again.

    Shane hammed up cursing the children to high heaven and storming off the stage in a huff as Linus entered from a trap-door in the stage to impart some final wisdom before a short scene with the children tied up the action as they decided to rummage around in one of the local old men’s trash instead on some subsequent day.

    The curtain closed. The crowd (minus Morris) applauded and cheered as the house lights started to come up, and Archie could have sworn he heard honks and squawks alongside the clapping and cheering. The curtain opened again as Linus walked to the front of the stage to take a bow to continued applause. Archie and Shane jogged onstage from opposite sides to follow suit, and then the children, the protagonists, to louder cheers still. The curtain closed and Archie took a moment to grab a gift for Penny, from the whole cast, that he had hidden backstage, to present to her when she took her bow when the curtain opened again for the last time. Timidly, blushing, but beaming, Penny made her way to the front of the stage to join the actors in taking a bow, and to accept her surprise gift.

    The curtain closed. The house lights came up. The cheers and applause dissipated into droning murmurs save for Morris making a scene about being personally insulted. Archie congratulated his cast on doing an excellent job, and quickly slipped out from backstage to intervene, only to see Pierre escorting the Joja Manager off his property. He ducked out the rear exit to make sure everything was OK. The two rival shopkeepers got into a fierce argument until Morris saw the playwright approaching from around the corner and started hurling abuse and threats at Archie, and before Archie could even think to intervene, still processing the adrenaline of performing, Pierre walloped the Joja rep with a ferocious hook, sending him fleeing into the night. The business partners exchanged a handshake.

    “Causing a scene on your property?” Archie asked him.

    “Yep.” The shopkeeper replied.

    “Well, thanks partner,” Archie said, extending a hand, which Pierre shook firmly.

    “And you, partner, for giving me the chance to sock him in his ugly mug, and for keeping the business alive.”

    “And the evening’s entertainment?”

    “I said that, but the play too,” Pierre replied with a smirk that Archie would never have expected to see on him.

    The two of them re-entered the building to see the actors and crew mingling with the crowd, their families, mainly, but given the small size of the venue, relative strangers had full access to speak with participants in the show. Archie scanned the crowd looking for Leah, but couldn’t spot her right away, alighting instead on his family and hurrying over to receive congratulations, hugs, and the surprise of seeing his brother, his significant other, a boyfriend this time, as it so happened, right beside him.

    “Nice to see you. The play was cute,” Terrence told him.

    “Thanks!” he said, pulling his brother into a firm hug. “So’s he. Seeing you is a great surprise.”

    His brother smiled at how ordinary the revelation was while his boyfriend blushed at the compliment. “Let me introduce you.”

    “Sure,” Archie replied, “I have someone to introduce you to as well, but I can’t find her.”

    “We met her, don’t worry.” With that he got introduced to the man his brother was seeing, also an Emeralder, a lawyer named Sean. While Archie found him to be a good conversationalist and seemingly a nice person, what he found the most encouraging was that he recognized the way he looked at Leah in the way they looked at each other.

    While that conversation was going on, Penny, who was joined by Sam, and the rest of the cast, were talking with the visiting guests. Mr. Qi, a little bit, but mainly the journalists and theatre critics. Vincent rushed over to get Archie to join them and to discuss the genesis of the play for their benefit.

    “It’s a long story,” Archie told them, “but it was a gesture of love for my soon-to-be fiancée, who insisted I stage a play before proposing to her, my love for the art, and my love for this town.” They discussed the process of writing and staging it a little bit before the visitors went on their way, and he congratulated his cast again, still scanning the room trying to find Leah. Where is she? He thought, nervously. I know she was in the audience, where could she have gone?

    Archie chatted briefly with most of the rest of the crowd as it started to dissipate. Archie’s friends all seemed to enjoy it, finding it either cute or charming or at the very least interesting to watch. By the time he finally reached Elliott and Sandy as the adrenaline high was starting to fade. “Hey, you two. Hope you enjoyed the show. Have you seen Leah?”

    Their reactions were quite different, Sandy offering him a quick congratulatory hug and peck on the cheek while Elliott grudgingly and standoffishly told him that he thought the play was good. Archie congratulated him on publishing his book, and that he hoped his advice on dialogue all those years ago was helpful. Elliott actually smiled slightly at that. “I couldn’t point you to the specific changes it brought about, but I think it did help. And I saw it in your dialogue as well.” They discussed it in a bit more depth, before they mentioned that they had seen Leah leaving abruptly a couple of minutes after the show, but weren’t sure where she went.

    While Gus and Emily had both come to see the play, it had been agreed beforehand that the cast and crew party would take place at the saloon after the sets were struck and the technical gear packed away. With some help from Robin and Sam, it quickly was, and the cast, crew, and their families and friends converged on the saloon about 45 minutes later. Eventually, it would just be the people involved in the play left, but they wanted the chance to mingle.

    As Gus and Emily led all the attendees in, the platters of food had already been prepared and laid out, and there was Leah at the door to greet Archie, who was beaming with joy at the apparent success of the play, and the implications of their reunion. She looked a bit nervous, not in a negative way, but a bit overwhelmed, which Archie had chalked up to her helping out as they exchanged a quick kiss.

    “I hope you enjoyed the play as much as I did,” he told her, smiling broadly.

    “I enjoyed it a lot. Vincent and Jas were adorable, and you were a great buffoon!”

    “Yeah, that’s what you’ll have to look forward to the rest of your life with,” he joked, eliciting a nervous laugh and smile from Leah. “Thanks for putting me up to doing it, though that was by far the most anxious I’ve been on stage.”

    “It didn’t seem that way.”

    “Oh, thank Yoba, I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest because I wanted to focus on what came after so much.”

    “Let yourself enjoy the immediate success first, Archie. You all deserve it,” she replied, smiling.

    The party continued with the citizens of Pelican Town and Archie’s family mingling while the mayor and the governor spoke outside. It was a pleasant reunion for the returning emigrés and people thought it was nice to have something that wasn’t a festival to bring everyone together again – and these art things were pretty nice. The misfits were particularly interested in getting the hot gossip about what Archie was like in college from his visiting friend, and there were many stories exchanged that brought out howls of laughter, especially from Sam.

    At one point, while Archie was talking with his siblings, Leah having just finished congratulating Penny, interrupted to pull Archie aside, into the small private room in the back of the saloon, where a picnic basket and a bottle of sparkling wine sat on the table.

    “I still owe you a picnic,” she said, smiling.

    “We should spend some time out there, but let’s have starters, at least. I’m starving.”

    “Alright, sit down and close your eyes.” He did, and a few seconds later, after he heard her popping the cork and filling their glasses, she told him to open them again. She was standing next to him, smiling wide, flute glass in one hand and a seashell dangling on a chain of beads, and then it struck him. Aside from the beads, it looked just like the pendant he still felt on the inside of his jacket pocket. He reached for it, and pulled it out, the shell on his held in place on a simple leather cord, and picked up his glass with the other hand. They clinked the glasses together and hung the pendants around each other’s necks as the townspeople and Archie’s family burst in to see them deep in a kissing embrace. The townsfolk, and Archie’s mother, seeing the matching pendants, knew instantly what was going on even though it was far more common for only one per couple to get handed off. This was, after all, not that traditional of a couple. There were further cheers, rounds of applause, and congratulations as the pair announced their engagement. It hardly came as that much of a surprise to the town save that it had taken until that moment, but Archie’s family, save Maeve, were surprised because Archie didn’t speak to the others quite as much, so their information was a bit more out of date. Penny and Vincent were the most vocally thrilled about it but there were many quiet congratulations and reassuring statements of sentiments that the two of them would be great together. They both knew they would but it was still nice to hear as they finished their picnic alongside the town having their refreshments.

    The wedding was scheduled for the day after New Year’s, when all the townspeople would be back, and Leah’s mother flew in to attend. Archie tried to treat her as nicely as possible, and Leah too, but he noticed some distance and coldness there that he hoped would dissipate in time. Emily had made Leah a beautiful wedding dress that Archie didn’t see until the day of the ceremony, and he was blown away by how it highlighted Leah’s beauty in new ways. Archie, in the only formal wear he owned, his Emeralder ensemble, felt outshone but fiercely proud as they recited their vows and Lewis pronounced them husband and wife.

    After the farm was up and running for the Spring, they took their honeymoon, spending a couple of weeks travelling the Emerald Isle and the Fjordlands. For Archie, it was strange being off of the farm for all the time he had spent on it, and strange being away from Pelican Town for all he was invested in it, but the farm was in good hands with Linus and Pierre helping the newlyweds enjoy their transition to married life. While they were away, Robin was extending the farmhouse again, to prepare for Leah to move in, even though she would keep the cottage as a studio space and a gateway to the forest, and when they returned they were surprised at how natural and easy the move was. They cuddled up in bed, with glasses of mulled cider, not to watch a movie, but to experience being with each other, married, in that moment.

    “What’re you thinking?” she asked him.

    “I’m thinking about how lucky I am with how life changed since I came here,” he said, “and how many stages I’ve been through.”

    They felt fortunate together, in a silence that was bearable.




    Contextual note: I was discussing whether Abigail is a goth with some people, and the general consensus seems to be probably not even though I like to think of her as such. That's part of why I'm looking to take her characterization in that direction. Then I got distracted by the thought that a comedy series about a goth in a town of 35 people could be very funny. So I wrote some vignette scripts, that will sometimes accompany chapters (especially ones with Abigail in them) as bonus material. Here is the first one:

    Goth Abigail's Goth Adventures of Gothiness

    (CAROLINE is talking with ABIGAIL before dance aerobics.)

    CAROLINE: You should exericse with us. You'll live a longer and healthier life!
    ABIGAIL: But I welcome the inevitable embrace of death.

    *laugh track*

    CAROLINE: You'll also keep fitting into your corsets.

    *laugh track*

    ABIGAIL: I'll go get changed.

    *laugh track*

    CAROLINE: Bazinga.

    *laugh track*




    (ABIGAIL is learning magick at the WIZARD's tower. The two are facing a table with a burning white candle on it.)

    WIZARD : You should try that spell to extinguish that candle.

    (ABIGAIL performs an incantation. The candle is still burning but has turned black.)

    *laugh track*

    WIZARD : Almost, though I don't know if that's going to be helpful.

    ABIGAIL: Are you kidding? I'm going to use that on all my clothes!

    *laugh track*

    WIZARD : Abra-bazinga.

    (ABIGAIL turns into a FROG.)

    *laugh track*

    FROG-ABIGAIL: Ribbit.

    *laugh track*



    (ABIGAIL and SHANE are drinking at the saloon bar.)

    SHANE: How are you, Abigail?
    ABIGAIL: I am full of ennui.

    *laugh track*

    SHANE: Me too.

    *laugh track*

    (ABIGAIL and SHANE sip their drinks.)

    ABIGAIL & SHANE: Bazinga.

    *laugh track*




    EPISODE 4

    (ABIGAIL and ELLIOTT are discussing literature at the library while GUNTHER is working in the background.)

    ABIGAIL: I mostly read goth literature. You know, the spooky stuff, supernatural horror.

    *laugh track*

    ELLIOTT: Oh, the Victorian classics like Shelley, Stoker, and company, and the works they later inspired?
    ABIGAIL: Who?

    *laugh track*

    (ABIGAIL pulls a GOOSEBUMPS novel off of a nearby shelf and waves it in ELLIOTT's face.)

    ABIGAIL: This, Elliott! This is the good shit!

    *laugh track*

    (ELLIOTT is profoundly confused.)

    GUNTHER (from a distance): Bazinga.

    *laugh track*



    (ABIGAIL, SAM, and SEBASTIAN are at band practice.)

    SAM: But what kind of music should we play that really represents us, Pelican Town and Stardew Valley?
    ABIGAIL: Industrial!

    *laugh track*

    (Sam and Sebastian look at each other.)

    *laugh track*

    SEBASTIAN: Abigail, I'm not sure that repr-
    SAM: Bazinga!

    *laugh track*



    (ABIGAIL is hanging out with SEBASTIAN and SAM in SEBASTIAN's room. She is holding a shipping box.)

    ABIGAIL: Guys, check it out, I got a bulk discount on these goth finger claws!

    *laugh track*

    SAM: Ooh, cool!

    *laugh track*

    (A short time later, ABIGAIL and SAM have put a goth finger claw on every finger on their right hand.)

    SAM: These are sick! Fistbump, bro!

    (SAM and ABIGAIL bump their right hands together with a mighty metallic CLACK, and then recoil in pain.)

    SAM & ABIGAIL: OWWWWWW.

    *laugh track*

    SEBASTIAN: Bazinga.

    *laugh track*


     
      Last edited: Jul 9, 2017
      Oxyligen, Gabaw, Risukage and 3 others like this.
    • Alkanthe

      Alkanthe Oxygen Tank

      Wow. I love all the detail you've put into this! I can't wait to see more!
       
      • MagicallyClueless

        MagicallyClueless Giant Laser Beams

        !!!!!! this is great!

        I really like the elaboration of Archie's family background and what led up to his ultimate move. I just. MMmmMMMM detail. And this was so much to read, WHICH IS GREAT. I love long stories and explanations and just, yes, more. MORE.

        I look forward to the next chapter!
         
          Alkanthe likes this.
        • Risukage

          Risukage Existential Complex

          *Gasp!* Your farmer also has a musical/theater background! You are awesome.

          I like what you've got so far, put up more when you get the time and inspiration. And like I tell everyone here, quality over quantity! I like a good story, and this is a great start. Keep it up!
           
            Alkanthe likes this.
          • Kid Absurdity

            Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

            Thanks, you three! You should know that though I haven't commented on any of them yet, I've been reading yours as well and enjoying!

            There is already more written, as I've been at this for about 7 weeks before releasing any of it. I'll be editing that and writing more, and probably looking for weekly releases until I get a better sense of the way my writing flows with a soft deadline.

            @Risukage : Yes, my farmer does, though I think I am taking those aspects of the character in very different directions than you did with yours. Given how fast you write, I'll know long before you will!

            @MagicallyClueless : As I have been immensely enjoying your story and its craftswomanship, I am very pleased to hear that. Particularly, I like the way that details of your characters emerge from the natural movement of the plot - such that things don't seem contrived. I'm hoping that mine shares that feature as it continues.

            @Miss Alkane : Very interested to see your approach to magical mystery, and glad to have you on board too!
             
            • Gabaw

              Gabaw Scruffy Nerf-Herder

              Those first few years after school man. hits home for a lot of us I think :p great start. your farmer is totes relatable and I got a feeling that we'll be seeing eye to eye on things. "not starving to death" is a great pastime :rofl:
               
              • Kid Absurdity

                Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

                @Gabaw : I'm living that stage of life, trying to find a path. I think some of my own frustration at that experience was conveyed in that chapter.

                Everyone else, here's some writing:



                A carryover from his city life, and his student life, was sleeping in more so than most when given the opportunity, so when a bunch of roosters crowed from somewhere south of the farm, Archie was jolted into wakefulness with a start as any further chance of sleep was thoroughly cocked up. He figured that he would clear a small parcel of land in front of the farmhouse and plant the seeds from the agricultural fund, relieved that he wouldn’t have to buy the first batch of seeds with his own limited savings. He had some money left over from his previous job, but didn’t want to dip too deeply into the reserves. Without city rent to pay, it would be manageable for a while as long as he started growing some food to keep him and the farm going.

                There was hardly any space on the farm that wasn’t overgrown, and he took to clearing the land of stones with his grandfather’s old pickaxe, wondering how the stones had even materialized there in the first place. He had never swung a pick in his life, and the jolt of the metal hitting stone reverberated up the handle and into his arms with every strike. When his arms got too wobbly, he swapped over to the scythe to cut through the brush that was covering even more of the farm than the stones were, thinking about how he just needed a pith helmet and a machete, or a fedora and a whip, to look like the wilderness explorer he was starting to feel like on his own civilized property. Luckily for him, he was able to clear out sufficient space to plant the seed packets without felling any trees, but it took about five hours of solid work and he was already getting very hungry, and worn out, when he decided to walk in to town at around 11 that morning realizing he had skipped breakfast.

                The dirt path led out from the farm and past the bus stop, before winding beyond the treeline separating the town from the road. Even in the daylight, the canopy of the woods toward the roadside and the incompletely cleared terrain toward the city gave the trail a slightly dark, claustrophobic air until he arrived in the town proper, where the landscape opened up again. With no knowledge of the town, he kept walking straight along the cobblestone road that the path turned into, at the north of the town square, stopping outside the town’s clinic, and peeking into the window. There were no patients in the waiting room. A young woman wearing glasses, a nurse’s scrubs, and a cap, was sitting at the reception desk, looking bored out of her skull. Remembering Mayor Lewis’ admonition to go out and make a good first impression, Archie figured that it shouldn’t be too hard for him to be more enjoyable than the nurse’s day seemed to be going. He opened the door, jangling the bell that was attached to the inside of the doorjamb and snapping the woman out of her reverie.

                “Oh! Hello!” she greeted him, as her head snapped around to look at the door, “You must be Archie, the new farmer!”

                Archie smiled. “That’s me! I should have expected word to travel at least this fast.”

                That elicited a laugh from the nurse. “It does in this town, but especially because you met my mother yesterday. She told us a bit about you.”

                “I was completely spaced out from the bus ride and the state of the farm, hopefully she didn’t say anything too awful,” he joked. “Us?”

                “The rest of the family - my father and my half-brother. I’m Maru, by the way.” She extended her right hand. “Mom didn’t say anything you should take personally, just that you didn’t seem to know what you got yourself into with the old farm.”

                “She’s right. I didn’t. Still don’t,” Archie admitted, giving her hand a firm shake. “It’s not even midday on Day 1 of the job and I am a wreck. My arms feel like wet noodles. Painful, burning, wet noodles. I really thought smashing rocks into smaller rocks would be less taxing.”

                Maru nodded her assent. “That’s the muscle building – and the character. Mom always says hard work builds character.”

                Archie had a chuckle of his own. “She would.”

                “You don’t know the half of it,” Maru laughed knowingly.

                “I hope she’s right on both… and you seem very young for a nurse.”

                Maru nodded again. “I’m not trained as one, Doctor Harvey is teaching me a few basics. It lightens his workload and looks great on my college applications.”

                “It already seems a bit light, and you didn’t seem that young.” Archie said, gesturing toward the empty waiting room.

                Maru nodded patiently. “Oh, I’ve been out of high school for a couple of years now, just figuring out what I want to do before I commit to a college program. And it’s also way cheaper for Harvey to hire and train me than to pay the liability insurance for working completely alone.”

                From Archie’s position as someone who optimized his time in college for passionate learning over outcomes, he was at least glad to have stuck to one program too. “Taking the time is smart. I don’t wish that I had done the same, but it may have done me some good. Leaning toward medicine?”

                “Engineering, actually” She replied, as a door elsewhere in the clinic opened, and a tall, reedy man with a mustache emerged into the waiting room, wearing a collared white shirt and a green jacket. “Hi, Doctor Harvey,” she greeted him, “meet Archie, the new farmer!”

                “Nice to meet you!” Harvey offered, extending his hand for a shake. “Social call or health concerns today?”

                “More the former,” Archie replied, shaking Harvey’s hand firmly. “Lewis said I’d do well to meet people and I’ve been over-exerting my arms clearing the farm. I have no idea rocks that size even would have even come from…”

                “I’m no geologist,” Maru interrupted, “but probably rockslides from the cliffs alongside the edge of your property.” That made some sense to him, more than any alternative he had conjured up.

                “Huh. I had forgotten about those.” Archie paused, trying to remember the details from his childhood visits. “Otherwise, I’d like to schedule a blood test for before the spring is out.”

                “We can arrange that. Do you have a requisition?” Harvey asked.

                Archie hesitated before answering, blushing slightly out of embarrassment and frustration. “Uh, no, I didn’t think to get one from my previous doctor before the move. I can call his office and try to get him to send it to you?”

                By way of response, Harvey handed Archie a business card. “The fax number is on it, best he send it that way. Worst case, schedule a check-up, we’ll discuss it, and I can write one myself. The clinic’s open weekdays, 8-4. It’s a small town, so you shouldn’t have to wait very long even if you just walk in, but it’s easier on me if you make an appointment.”

                He nodded his assent, evidently relieved. “Since you both mentioned it, how small is the town? Mayor Lewis gave me the impression I should try to meet literally everyone in it.”

                Maru was the first to respond: “You should! Even Sebastian! There are no more than 35 people, including you. You can do it by week’s end, especially since half the town is usually at the saloon on Friday nights!”

                Archie was shocked, and looked it. He’d been a city-dweller all his life save for the odd summers where he’d spend substantial time in Pelican Town, but it was bigger then. More populated, booming with mining. “That is way fewer people than I thought there would be.”

                Harvey laughed, with a bit of a nervous edge. “Tell me about it, but it’s not all that bad to get to know your neighbours in more depth, even if it is by necessity.”

                “Is that because that’s how people are here?” Archie asked.

                “For the most part they are, but you also don’t want to go mad from isolation, especially right after moving here. That medical advice is free,” The doctor’s tone underscored a sense of familiarity with the subject, but Archie thought the better of asking at that moment.

                “Well, it was nice to meet you both,” Archie said, waving, and thinking about putting Harvey’s advice into practice, “but I’ve got more of the town to see. Very pleasant start, though!”

                They waved goodbye and saw him out. After the door shut behind him, Maru and Harvey turned to each other.

                “What do you make of him?” Harvey asked.

                They speculated and gossiped for about ten minutes before getting back to their light workloads for the day.

                Leaving the clinic, Archie’s stomach growled at his brain. He had started to work without eating, and hadn’t packed all that much in the way of food when he left the city, another indicator of the rush with which he left. It was to his great relief that the general store was right next door, some sort of snack would set him aright as he continued about his explorations.

                It seemed that every building in the town had a bell on the opposite end of the door as his entrance became a lot more conspicuous than he perhaps hoped, even if he was here to meet people as well as find something to eat. The store was fairly quiet at that moment. A purple-haired woman was stocking shelves with baking supplies; hefting small sacks of flour and sugar with ease and packing them into neat rows with efficiency, while a bespectacled, brown-haired man was ringing up another woman’s purchase until the bell sounded, at which point he looked to the door expectantly and everyone turned to look at the door.

                “Greetings, stranger!” the man behind the cash register said, loudly and enthusiastically.

                “Hello, name’s Archie,” he replied before being cut off by his stomach growling again, which started the purple-haired girl snickering. “Pardon me,” he added, before continuing, “I’m the new farmer, though, even more than that right now, I am very hungry.”

                “Pleased to meet you, Archie, and good luck,” the man answered. “I’m Pierre, and I’ll be happy to talk more once I finish ringing up Leah’s purchase. In the meantime, my daughter can point you to the snacks. Abigail!”

                The purple-haired woman sauntered over and Archie realized how out of place she looked given the rural setting. The purple hair was one thing, but her fashion and make-up made Archie instantly think “goth”. Along with the heavy eye-liner, she was wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, along with a pair of combat boots. Only the sky-blue blouse and matching bow in her hair would have seemed out of place at Dark Wave Cabaret, So Goth I’m Dead, or Stakehouse Goth Supper Club, and even then not that much, since most goths liked an accent colour. She was pretty short in spite of the boots, curvy, and, to Archie’s tastes, pretty cute. For his part, Archie was not a goth himself even though he’d been to goth venues in a couple of cities.He was only a dabbler in the subculture even when he did go. He enjoyed the music at their clubs, the fashion, and the general devil-may-care attitude people had there. He was very surprised that there would be one here, in a town of 35, and glad there was someone he could sort of relate to in terms of aesthetic foibles.

                “Pleased to meet you,” she told him, giving only slight tonal indication that she was actually at all pleased to meet him. “There aren’t many packaged meals today, those usually come in on Thursdays. There are some muffins and stuff like that.” She led him down one of the aisles to a small fridge, where Archie picked out a carrot muffin after eying a sandwich whose contents neither he nor Abigail could reliably identify.

                “Pleased to meet you too,” Archie told her in turn, “if also a bit surprised. I never would have expected to see a goth in a town of 35 people.”

                Abigail seemed to appreciate either Archie’s directness about it, or familiarity with it, and chuckled at that. “Oh, thank Yoba, it is such a relief that of the other 34, there’s another person here who gets it.”

                Though exposed to the scene, Archie was not convinced he got it at all, or, if he did, more invested goths had very different ideas about what it all was. Having encountered it through music and being interested in the aesthetic idea of finding fatalistic beauty in entropy, death, and decay, he imagined a cross between a nightclub and an old-timey salon, where dance music and philosophical discussions were available to whoever wanted to partake in either. Then he actually went for the first time when he turned 19, and he found out that there were few differences between the goth nightclubs and the generic ones. The goths were far more superficial than he thought, but also open to talking, and minimally judgmental about stuff that wasn’t how people dressed or what music they listened to. Quietly, he responded, “I’ve been to some events, but I’m still not sure I get it. How much is the muffin, by the way?”

                “80 Guilders. I’d like to hear more about that, I still haven’t gone to one in the city yet.”

                “80? Goodness, I hope this is an amazing muffin…” Archie mused.

                “You can get a Joja-brand muffin for 60 over the river, but this one isn’t 17 percent processed cardboard,” Abigail replied, testily, her mood swinging rapidly. Archie resolved never to try haggling with her.

                “Yoba above, point taken, sold. I don’t want to see another Joja-brand anything for the rest of my life if I can help it.” Between the hunger and the alternative presented, Archie conceded that he’d pay the price for the muffin, not to mention trying to reverse course rather than tick Abigail off even more. Between her sarcasm and her temper, she would fit right in with the city goths, he thought.

                “Mention that to my dad, he’d be oh-so-thrilled to hear it. They’re trying to run this store out of business and it’s causing some other problems.”

                “Like what?” Archie asked, a bit aghast. He was familiar enough with Joja’s corporate strategy for low-population areas, undercutting the local businesses until they can’t stay afloat, but the unspecified other problems were both new and potentially worrisome.

                “One of my friends, Sam, works part-time at the Joja Mart in town. Dad’s pressuring me to stop spending time with him, and it mega-sucks. There just aren’t that many jobs in Pelican Town, y’know?”

                Archie sighed. “That’s awkward, but I guess you just ignore it as much as you can?”

                “Well, I argue with him about it, too, but ultimately, I’m an adult. Under my parents’ roof, it’s their rules. Whatever. Anywhere else on Yoba’s green Earth, it’s not. We hang out at the saloon sometimes, or pretty much anywhere but here, and Dad can deal with it.”

                “Maru told me half the town is at the saloon on Friday nights. You in the saloon half?”

                “Yeah, me and the other town misfits.”

                “Alright, please go on…” Archie was all ears, as he had generally found loners, outcasts, and non-conformists of different stripes easier to get along with.

                “Sam and Sebastian. Sam’s a loudmouth punk with a distaste for authority figures. Sebastian is a big ol’ emo… young adult. Come say hi on Friday, I’ll introduce you. It’ll give them something to distract them from their pool game.” Abigail’s smile returned somewhat at the thought of the coming weekend. “You want something to go with that muffin? That hardly seems like it’ll tide you over.”

                Archie turned around and browsed the nearby shelves, picking up a package of beef jerky before starting toward the cash. “Excellent upsell, you’ve got a great future running this place,” Archie joked, meeting with a disapproving glare from her. “I’ll take this, I guess. Sorry to cut this short, but I should pay and eat before I get delirious or collapse. Nice meeting you.”

                “You as well, though I can assure you I won’t be running this shop. Ever. Enjoy your food and the town.” Archie wondered what that reaction was about.

                As Archie reached the cash, Leah, the woman who was buying her own groceries, had hefted her bags over her shoulder and was on the way out, as Pierre quickly rang up Archie’s two-item purchase. After filling Archie in on the fact that he’d be one of the prospective buyers for his produce, he also told him, with some curiosity about it, “you and Abigail seemed to get on pretty well.”

                “I guess so?” Archie replied absent-mindedly, starting to un-wrap the muffin while considering how many times her mood shifted in the brief conversation. “What makes you say that?”

                “She doesn’t talk much, and not just because she puts on her silly persona. But, she didn’t just zip right back out here the second after handing you that muffin. Speaking of, there’s no eating in here. That’s how we get ants. I do not want to get ants.”

                “Fair enough, but I’d better eat this sooner than later so I’ll cut this short. Nice meeting you.” Fumbling in his pockets, he dug through his change and paid up.

                “You too, farmer,” Pierre replied, wondering what was going on with his daughter this time. He never seemed to know, and these days, right when he thought he had caught up, something would change. He wasn’t sure whether the farmer would be a good influence, but given her taste in friends, he was skeptical. He’d have to keep an eye on that.





                Contextual note: I was discussing whether Abigail is a goth with some people, and the general consensus seems to be probably not even though I like to think of her as such. That's part of why I'm looking to take her characterization in that direction. Then I got distracted by the thought that a comedy series about a goth in a town of 35 people could be very funny. So I wrote some vignette scripts, that will sometimes accompany chapters (especially ones with Abigail in them) as bonus material. Here is the first one:

                Goth Abigail's Goth Adventures of Gothiness

                (CAROLINE is talking with ABIGAIL before dance aerobics.)

                CAROLINE: You should exercise with us. You'll live a longer and healthier life!
                ABIGAIL: But I welcome the inevitable embrace of death.

                *laugh track*

                CAROLINE: You'll also keep fitting into your corsets.

                *laugh track*

                ABIGAIL: I'll go get changed.

                *laugh track*

                CAROLINE: Bazinga.

                *laugh track*

                 
                  Last edited: Jul 22, 2016
                • Risukage

                  Risukage Existential Complex

                  Was that an Archer reference? 'Cause I think I saw an Archer reference. :D

                  Also, continuing to get a kick out of this. Loving the flow of dialogue and character interplay. I daresay you're better than I am. :p
                   
                    Gabaw and Alkanthe like this.
                  • Kid Absurdity

                    Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

                    "Leah! Leah. LEAAAAH!"
                    "WHAT, Archie?"
                    "DAAAAAAAAAAAAAANGERZOOOOOOOONE."
                     
                      Risukage, Gabaw and Alkanthe like this.
                    • Gabaw

                      Gabaw Scruffy Nerf-Herder

                      +1 for foibles. and that hilarious goth bonus :rofl: Really digging your writing style so far and can't wait for more. It's got an even pace and tone to it and it's very pleasant to read.
                       
                        Risukage and Alkanthe like this.
                      • Kid Absurdity

                        Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

                        Glad you enjoyed the bonus. I figured our senses of humour would line up because I cracked up at that comedy fic of yours that's making the rounds again. I commend you on it because I find writing gags like Goth Abigail relatively easy (I wrote 10 of these in a couple of days), but sustaining comedy over the span of a narrative very hard, personally.
                        --- Post updated ---
                        After @MagicallyClueless unknowingly forced my hand, Episode 2 of Goth Abigail's Goth Adventures of Gothiness is available in the first post.
                         
                          Last edited: Jul 23, 2016
                        • Risukage

                          Risukage Existential Complex

                          Abbygoth. Hehehehehe. :3
                           
                            Alkanthe likes this.
                          • MagicallyClueless

                            MagicallyClueless Giant Laser Beams

                            *elegantly flies into the thread*
                            yesss goth adventures best adventures
                             
                            • Kid Absurdity

                              Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

                              A slightly shorter chapter this time around, with another episode of Goth Abigail's Goth Adventures of Gothiness.



                              Leah was waiting for Archie outside the store, where she had set her bags down a few steps from the entrance, grabbing his attention and greeting him just as he took a wolfish chomp out of the muffin. Without the immediate pressure of his hunger, Archie finally looked at her with some attention, properly noticing some of the details that he perceived earlier but that didn’t really stick in his mind in his distraction; that like him, she was a redhead, even paler than him, and quite thin, but she had a blush of health to her and she looked physically strong. She was a few inches taller than Abigail, who was substantially shorter than Archie was, and wore her hair in a distinctive-looking double braid. She was eying his grocery bag disapprovingly.

                              “You’ll need more nutritious food to do all that farm work!” She told him, energetically. “But where are my manners? I’m Leah, and it’s nice to meet you!”

                              Archie agreed with her assessment, if not so much her timing, as he swallowed the bite of the muffin. “You’re right; I just didn’t want to wait to cook something. It was a pretty strenuous morning and my stomach is not a happy chappy right now.”

                              “There’s always wild forage and salads if you don’t want to cook,” Leah said, with a somewhat inspired and somewhat hopeful tone. “You’ll eventually learn where all sorts of stuff grows around town. It was a lifesaver when I first moved here.”

                              “Oh, when was that?” Archie inquired, intrigued by the idea of there being another relatively new arrival in the town.

                              “Just over a year ago,” Leah replied, “which makes me the third most recent arrival, before Elliott and you.”

                              “I haven’t met Elliott yet.”

                              “Well, you’ve only been here a day, and Elliott can be…” she paused, shifting a bit uncomfortably in spite of her bringing Elliott up in the first place, “reclusive at times. He’s a writer, and he focuses very hard on his work. He’s also a lovely person and a good friend.”

                              “I can understand that,” Archie said with some sincerity. “I dabbled in playwriting, and I remember the desire to obsess over the details and to sink a ton of time into the challenge of producing something of value. It helped that there were always deadlines if I ever wanted it to get on stage.”

                              “Ooh!” Leah exclaimed, “you and Elliott should have interesting things to talk about, then! He’s a more of a novelist…” Again, she paused and squirmed a bit. “An aspiring novelist. He’ll get there eventually, I’m sure of that. He’s nothing if not dedicated.”

                              “I look forward to meeting him, but what about you?”

                              “What about me? Everyone wants to know about you!” she laughed, “but it’s only fair. It’s easier to show you than tell you, though, so let’s walk and talk, alright? I’d like to put these away and I don’t live very far away,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, which still held her grocery bags. Leah described the landmarks they passed and the people who lived or worked in them as they walked. They cut south through the plaza of the town square, past the saloon and a couple of houses not far from the river, before following the cobblestone road westward, not too far south of his farm, he reckoned. They passed by a couple of houses before the cobblestones gave way to a packed dirt road like the one from the farm to the bus stop, and the river took a bend to practically lap up against the edge of the path. To their right was a large complex with a number of coops and barns, and a variety of farm animals roaming in fenced enclosures. This, Archie thought, this is where that Yoba-damned rooster lives. He opted against shaking a fist at the ranch in case someone was looking out the window at the time. Across the road from the complex, just a few feet from the riverbank, was an eccentric looking cabin, with a roof shaped like the teeth of sawblades, round bay windows, and what looked like a small windmill in the backyard. Leah led him to the door of the cabin, before unlocking it and ushering him in as she set her produce down on the kitchen counter and started putting things away. Glancing about the cabin’s interior, Archie was very quickly able to get the sense of what Leah was about given the sculptures and easels, canvasses and palettes, chisels and brushes, that dotted the livable space. The works all seemed to be in different stages of progress, but nothing was clearly finished, to his eye.

                              “You were right,” Archie told her, as he looked over an oil painting of a river landscape.

                              “Oh? I love being right, but about what?”

                              He pointed at the same painting. “It was easier to show me. You could have said ‘I’m an artist’, but it doesn’t really register until you see the stuff. Like this painting,”

                              Leah’s curiosity was piqued. “What about that one in particular?”

                              There’s something about the brushwork and the colour palette that make the overall landscape look both inviting and mysterious. All I could see it needing is another happy little tree right about… there,” he said, tracing an outline of what he imagined to be a birch tree a couple of millimetres above the canvas while Leah watched him intently.

                              “In terms of composition, that could work,” Leah replied cheerfully, “that part of the canvas doesn’t have much to draw or direct the eye’s attention. I’m especially glad that you got the aura of mystery I was going for, though. I painted this further into the forest along the river, and, like a lot of places around town, there is something mysterious about it that I can’t put my finger on.”

                              “I’m relieved that I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself talking about art for a change. Happy too. I did have a question, though.”

                              Leah chuckled, “Art’s subjective, so even if you say something idiotic about it, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. What did you want to know?”

                              “Why is all of the art in here close to, but not quite, finished?”

                              Leah took a deep breath to compose her thoughts before answering. “I do store some finished pieces in the shed out back, but, for the stuff in here, when I get to the end of the process, I get uncomfortable with closing off the possibilities and committing to what the art is going to be. I also struggle with having to think about what I’m going to do with a completed piece.”

                              Archie nodded in response, reflecting back on taking three whole weeks to write the last five lines of dialogue to close out one of his scriptwriting projects. The dialogue wasn’t any better for the time he sank into it, and it was anxious for him as well. “I understand struggling with finishing projects,” he told her simply, “though I have to admit that I thought the typical workflow for visual artists was pretty straightforward. Make art, exhibit art, sell art, repeat.”

                              “Typically, maybe.” Leah sighed, her shoulders drooping a bit. “Anyway, join me for a walk, I’ll show you a couple of foraging spots.” Archie agreed readily enough, happy at the chance to see some more of the natural parts of the area.

                              “And for what it’s worth, you’re very good at painting,” Archie told her.

                              “Thank you,” Leah replied, straightening out somewhat as she held the door open for him. “It’s very flattering, even from someone who calls himself an idiot about art.”

                              Archie burst out laughing. “Art’s subjective, just because I’m an idiot doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” At that, Leah started giggling, which turned into a roaring laugh that sent her face into a full blush. “Now let’s go,” he concluded.

                              “Sure,” she replied, ushering him back out the front door of the cottage, “though I’m actually much more of a sculptor.”

                              They walked along the river to the southwest of the town where Leah pointed out leeks and spring onions growing with a bit more enthusiasm than Archie felt. They’d be nice as accompaniments for dishes, but they hardly seemed like the sort of thing to eat on their own. They cut northward through the forest and out toward a pond with a pier extending out into it that Archie may have gone fishing at with his grandfather and siblings in his childhood, talking about what brought them to a place as remote as Pelican Town. For Leah, it was to get inspired in her art by the pastoral setting, and to get away from a controlling ex-boyfriend who wanted her to give art up in favour of something that paid. For Archie there were some similarities, and he respected Leah’s decision to leave her own city to rediscover herself. It seemed that she really had in the year she’d been there; she didn’t seem at all out of place in the quaint country village with her hippie sensibilities, and her foraging, even if by necessity, was something inconceivable for an urbanite. For Archie’s part, he had had the job that paid – not fantastically, but enough, and it wasn’t fulfilling him. He wanted to get away from the city’s capitalism, and his family’s expectations, at least his still living family’s expectations. He wanted to do his honest best at this whole farming thing after his grandfather’s all-too-generous bequest. If he couldn’t chase his dreams of the theatre for now, he’d chase his some smaller dreams and go from there. Maybe he’d fit in to the town in time as well.

                              He was distracted from the conversation and train of thought by his stomach growling again as the muffin he had eaten had no more nutrition left to offer. They walked back to their respective homes, each happier for having met the other.



                              (ABIGAIL and SHANE are drinking at the saloon bar.)

                              SHANE: How are you, Abigail?
                              ABIGAIL: I am full of ennui.

                              *laugh track*

                              SHANE: Me too.

                              *laugh track*

                              (ABIGAIL and SHANE sip their drinks.)

                              ABIGAIL & SHANE: Bazinga.

                              *laugh track*

                               
                                Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
                              • Gabaw

                                Gabaw Scruffy Nerf-Herder

                                Archie hit it off big time with Leah. Waifu confirmed :rofl: and he's def right. "just because I’m an idiot doesn’t mean I’m wrong" lmao imagine that in a different context, like engineering. anyway some good background on his motivations coming to the valley. also who knew abby and shane would get along :p
                                 
                                  Alkanthe likes this.
                                • CjBeats

                                  CjBeats Scruffy Nerf-Herder

                                  Finally got around to reading, and I'm really glad I did.

                                  It's really good. The detail is great, the dialogue is great, Archie is great, it's just great. Keep doin what your doin and I shall keep reading.
                                   
                                    Kid Absurdity and Alkanthe like this.
                                  • Risukage

                                    Risukage Existential Complex

                                    Man, you hit it right on; there's something to be said for the satisfaction of completed works, but there's also that weird sense of loss when something is done because that's it, nothing more, that's the end. Love his eye for detail and visual balance... Also, dat Bob Ross reference, tho. :p

                                    And I love your character interactions/dialogue. They feel real and three-dimensional, so to speak, not just caricatures or one-dimensional gags. Really looking forward to following this. I appear to have met my match and rival in writing here! *Fistbump!*
                                     
                                      Alkanthe likes this.
                                    • Kid Absurdity

                                      Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

                                      @Gabaw : Imagine the "just because I'm an idiot doesn't mean I'm wrong" attitude in politics. Spooky!

                                      @CjBeats : Cheers, mate. Gonna keep at it slow n' steady.

                                      @Risukage : I see us more as comrades than rivals and competitors but if it pushes us to write better, I'll accept it! *Fistbump* to you too.
                                       
                                      • MagicallyClueless

                                        MagicallyClueless Giant Laser Beams

                                        my spidey senses tell me that another chapter is coming soon! <3

                                        good good
                                         
                                          Risukage likes this.
                                        • Kid Absurdity

                                          Kid Absurdity Void-Bound Voyager

                                          Chapter 4 (with bonus material) are ready!



                                          By the time Archie had dinner and a long bath, he was essentially ready to conk right out. He pulled the violin case from under his bed and the pennywhistle from it, playing it idly, mucking up a note every few measures in his fatigued and slightly distracted state before deciding to call it a night. He’d eventually play the fiddle itself, but it seemed he was only playing music when he was already exhausted and the fiddle was more of a production while the tin whistle was ready to go.

                                          The next day he slept through the rooster crowing on account of his exhaustion, and awoke at around 9 AM to find a heavy rainstorm in progress. He’d never have expected rain like this after the beautiful previous day unless he watched the weather report on his grandfather’s old TV the night before, which he forgot to because he hadn’t fully internalized how important keeping track of weather conditions is for a farmer. While he felt he could clear more of the overgrowth, he didn’t particularly want to when he considered the rain and the way his arms burned from the muscle and character building. At least he wouldn’t have to water his tiny parsnip field, which he hoped wouldn’t have the seeds flooded out of it.

                                          He cooked up a quick omelette and made himself some coffee, lamenting the fact that he wound up entrusting his beloved espresso machine to one of his friends in the city for a while, until he could get the farm up and running. He figured that maybe by the summer he’d have a party with his city friends and get the espresso machine back, though perhaps it’d be sooner, as he was motivated by the fact that two seasons of filter coffee didn’t thrill him. Today, though, nor beggars nor addicts could be choosers.

                                          He figured he’d explore a bit more of the town, maybe meet some more people. He’d heard a bit more about a few of them from Maru, Abigail, and mostly from Leah as they walked around the southwest of the town. Of those, Elliott probably interested him the most, as a fellow man of literature, which meant that he’d be talking a long walk to the beach, after which time he might visit the saloon for lunch. He pulled a bright yellow, hooded rain slicker from his duffel bag and put it on; glad he decided to pack it in the first place, stuffing the pennywhistle from his grandfather’s weathered nightstand into the raincoat’s pocket.

                                          Leaving the farm, he barely noticed that the flag on his mail box was raised, which he had only ever seen in cartoons before. The cartoons were sufficient education for him to understand that it meant that some mail had arrived, which surprised him somewhat. It was too soon to start receiving electricity bills, or mail from the city. He hadn’t met the bulk of the town, though he was making progress on that. Who could it be? As it turned out, there were several pieces of mail, to Archie’s surprise. He reached into the mailbox and pulled out a small sheaf of envelopes and flyers.

                                          “Advertisement from Pierre’s general store,” Archie murmured to himself. “Clever man, saw I bought enough for one day and hit me with the ad straightaway…” His wry bemusement took a more negative turn when the next flyer was an ad for the local Joja Mart. There was an envelope from Doctor Harvey with another business card with the clinic’s phone and fax numbers on it, with a note explaining that it was just in case he lost the first card. Archie hadn’t yet, or at least so he thought. He also thought that there were worse things in life than having an obsessively diligent local doctor, so he kept that one. There was also an envelope from someone he hadn’t met, a fisherman named Willy. The gist of the note was that he’d been out of town on a fishing trip and had just returned, he was eager to meet the new resident, and was offering a free fishing rod to keep the art and craft of fishing alive. That pretty much settled it for Archie; in the worst possible weather, and in order to meet Elliott and Willy, he was going to take his first beach day in Pelican Town.

                                          He trudged through the dirt path that was now more of a mud path past Marnie’s ranch and Leah’s cottage and down through the southern part of town, coming to the bridge across the river, that led to the beach, before the river bent northward toward its origins in the mountains somewhere north of town. He leaned over the railing to gaze into the muddy waters beneath; almost sure he saw a fish dancing in the refracted currents, a fine omen for a rainy afternoon fishing.

                                          The beach was only a short way further from there, and Archie picked up his pace. When he arrived, he was instantly struck by how pleasant the beach would be on a sunny day, especially a summer one. He had been when he visited his grandfather, but having a more adult appreciation of beaches went a long way toward accounting for his current enthusiasm. Striding toward Elliott’s cabin, his boot clipped against something sticking out of the sand. It was a large clamshell, still shut, that had somehow managed to wash up on the beach in the tide. He picked it up and appraised Elliott’s residence, which looked a bit ramshackle, but as though the rain was at least running off of the roof and through the primitive-looking eaves. The lights in the window were out, and after no reply when he knocked, Archie proceeded up to the docks toward Willy’s fishing shop, shell in hand, taking in the salt air of the Gem Sea for the first time in about 15 years. He parked himself outside the door of the shop before turning away and sitting at the edge of the docks to gaze out to sea for a while. The rainclouds swirled and the surface of the water roiled with waves and in the whole span of what he could see, there wasn’t a boat on this side of the horizon. He thought about the city and its hustle, his move here and his enjoying it so far in spite of feeling that he was leaving a piece of himself behind. Fumbling in his pocket he pulled out the pennywhistle and tried to remember, awkwardly at first, a sea shanty his mother once taught him, that his grandfather had once taught her. He fumbled an awful lot of notes on his initial attempts before finally getting it right about 20 minutes later, during which time he hadn’t noticed when the door to the shop had opened a crack, and then fully, as the fisherman stood listening from the doorway.

                                          “I do love songs o’ the sea.” Willy told the startled Archie at the end of his successful play-through of the song. “Yer grand-pappy would sometimes sing ’em when we’d fish together.”

                                          “I hear a lot about him, but no one else I’ve met yet save Lewis seems to have known him all that well,” Archie said, his curiosity piqued.

                                          “I didn’ae know ‘im as well as Lewis, but we’d fish and talk at times. He’d talk about the farm and his children and grandchildren, me about the sea and the catch. Back then near everyone fished, now it’s a dyin’ and lonely art in this town, only three other people still do it,” the fisherman explained.

                                          “From your note, I didn’t even realize there were any others,” Archie responded, putting away the pennywhistle and picking the clamshell up off his lap as he stood. “What’d he say about his family?”

                                          Willy shook his head and chuckled. “We’ll discuss that over fishing. Come in, let me give you the fishing pole I promised you and then we’ll get on to that.”

                                          Archie could hardly disagree with waiting the short time to find out a bit more about his enigmatic grandfather’s attitude toward the rest of the family, or maybe to ferret out some clue as to why he was the one taking over the farm. He followed Willy into the shop, which was quaintly and tastefully decorated to a maritime theme. Seashells, taxidermied fish, and an anchor decorated the walls, and model ships, some in bottles, topped some of the shelves. Display cases held fishing rods, bait, and tackle, and an electric cauldron sat behind the counter, switched on. Archie pointed at it. “What’s the soup?” he asked.

                                          “Trout soup today, hearty for the weather we’re havin’. Could do chowder tomorrow with that clam you’re holding,” the fisherman replied.

                                          “I’ll take a bowl of soup when we head out to fish. Here you go.” Archie handed him the clam. Willy opened up the cash and counted out 50 Guilders for him, handing them over, smiling.

                                          “Soup’s free today since you’re humourin’ me and fishing in this weather. Don’t want you catchin’ cold. I’ll buy any marine life you find or catch. Pierre doesn’t undercut other local business; bless ‘im, so I’m the only one in town who will.” Willy reached over to pluck up a worn bamboo fishing rod, leaning up against the read wall. “And that’s what you’ll use to catch ‘em, for the moment. It’s me old rod, still in good shape. I’ll give ye a small bit of bait for starters.”

                                          Fishing rod in one hand and takeaway bowl of soup in the other, Archie sat back down at the edge of the dock where he sat before, with Willy preferring to stand beside him. Realizing that casting off while sitting down was a pain, Archie stood and flung his line out into the sea. His cast was a little bit rough, but Willy seemed pleased enough.

                                          “Yer rusty, but you’ve done it before.”

                                          “Aye,” he replied, almost taking on a bit of Willy’s accent. “Granddad taught me ages ago, but I’ve barely fished since. Nowhere much to in Gallibrand City.”

                                          “Gallibrand’s a ways away. I’d have figured yer family would have sooner settled in Zuzu.”

                                          “We did at first, then dad got a new job and the family moved again. I think mum would have rather stayed in Zuzu, to be closer to her father, if nothing else.”

                                          “He loved ‘is daughter, Lachlan did. Was the pride of ‘is life until she had children, then he had more prides of ‘is life. People talk about his farm, and he was proud of the place the work he did, but only family was the pride of ‘is life,” Willy sounded wistful as he remembered his fishing buddy of old times gone by, while Archie took it all in.

                                          “Ever since I learned he left me the farm, I was wondering why he left it to me rather than to mum or to his other grandchildren.”

                                          “Yer mum had her husband, career, and you lot to look after. She couldn’ae very well move the family here, especially after the move across the country to Gallibrand City. One day, before he got sick, we fished a bit and he said something about talkin’ with her, and how two of her children were born for the city and one had a country soul.”

                                          “I wonder what he meant.” Archie said, tugging gently at the line in response to what he thought was a bite, then starting to reel in.

                                          Willy laughed. “Try askin’ yer mother.” The laughter intensified as Archie pulled a wad of seaweed from his hook before casting off again.

                                          “I will, but I think that’s more something granddad understood. Mum doesn’t talk about souls.”

                                          They talked a little bit more, about Archie’s grandfather and themselves, fishing, and the boom days of Pelican Town and how life changed since the mines shut down. Of particular note to Archie was the identity of the other three people in town who fished. One was Elliott, who lived on the beach, one was Leah, and it was nice to learn that they had another thing that they enjoyed in common, and the other, a man he hadn’t met yet named Linus. As Willy told it, Archie’s grandfather kept close friendships with two people in Pelican Town – forming a triumvirate of L-names: Lachlan, Lewis, and Linus. So Archie thought that talking more to the two of them would be in order. Over that time, Archie sipped his soup and caught a couple of sardines that he sold on to Willy, while Willy had more luck, and experience on his side, catching some herring as well before they packed up their gear and said their goodbyes and nice-to-meet-yous.

                                          On the way back toward town, Archie decided to try fishing in the river from the bridge where he thought he saw a fish earlier. Sure, that fish would be far downriver by then, but after a knock on Elliott’s door yielded no response again, he stopped on the bridge and cast out, just as someone approached from the town square to cross toward the beach, carrying a couple of grocery bags. He had long hair that looked a bit disheveled in the rain, and his maroon corduroy jacket and his tan slacks were already soaked.

                                          “Are you Elliott?” the farmer called out, his focus quickly snapping back to his bobber.

                                          “Yes, I am!” he replied, hurrying over out of a desire to get out of the rain sooner. “You must be Archie. Leah told me about meeting you, and I’m pleased to meet you too. I actually stopped by your home before getting my provisions, but I must have just missed you.”

                                          “I tried knocking at yours before meeting Willy. I appreciate you being proactive about meeting me. It’s draining doing all the work trying to meet everyone and make a good first impression.”

                                          “I remember that well from my own recent move here. I must admit, it wasn’t without an ulterior motive. I was discussing some of my writing with Leah and mentioned that I had gotten stumped on rendering a particular stretch of dialogue. While she sometimes contributes critique on my writing, this time, she suggested I speak with you about it on the grounds that you are an expert on the subject, as you are a playwright and plays are mostly dialogue.”

                                          Archie shrugged, taking his focus off of the fishing line and looking at Elliott.

                                          “I consider myself a former playwright, and she might be overstating it even then, but I might be able to help you once I catch something.”

                                          “You’ll forgive me for not wanting to linger in the rain any longer, I hope. I’ll be in my cabin for the next few hours. Leah also mentioned that you might say something like that, and to tell you that what she told me was her best subjective guess in case you did.”

                                          Archie laughed and waved Elliott on. “Go dry off, I’ll be there soon. Know how to clean and cook a fish?”

                                          Elliott nodded. “One learns it quite quickly living on a beach. Nice to meet you, be seeing you.”

                                          It took around twenty minutes for Archie to reel in a smallmouth bass. It wasn’t a huge fish by any stretch, but he was hoping it’d make a good snack for him and Elliott now that he had imposed cleaning and cooking it on him. He strolled back to the beach, the bass still thrashing against the hook because he didn’t have a weighted stick to club it with on hand. By the time he knocked on Elliott’s door, the fish wasn’t quite slowing down, but it wouldn’t be too much longer before it asphyxiated out of water. Archie thought that the club would be the lesser of two evils and made a mental note to get one from Willy in the future. Elliott had changed into more casual clothes, a pair of blue jeans and a white, short-sleeved collared shirt, and glanced at the fish still thrashing on the line.

                                          “Smallmouth bass. I’ll have you know that this species tastes better than it looks. May I?”

                                          Archie gestured to Elliott to go ahead, and Elliott took the fishing pole from him, took the fish off the line, and swiftly sapped it. Archie noticed that, like the farmhouse, Elliott didn’t have a full kitchen and was using a camping stove as the latter started scaling and filleting the fish. In fact, there was very little to the cabin, a writing desk and chair, a bed, a small countertop and sink, and an old piano.

                                          “Tell me about dialogue,” Elliott said off-handedly, still focused on the bass.

                                          “Isn’t that a bit general?” Archie’s confusion was evident on his face.

                                          “Phrased like that I suppose it was, my apologies,” Elliott focused on the fish, which nearly slipped from his hands as he struggled not to drop the bass. “Rather, what are some of the most notable approaches that playwrights take to making their dialogue true-to-life?”

                                          “There are probably as many approaches as there are playwrights, but the most common is to listen carefully to how people talk. For example, you’re formal, polite, and don’t interrupt people, whereas I’ll interrupt you in a heartbeat if I have a question and probably swear a lot more than you. Listen to people, even take some notes, and map the appropriate stuff onto your characters.”

                                          “I tended to think of playwrights as being more like novelists, isolating themselves in a garret somewhere.”

                                          “I would say that’s one of many strategies, and even worse for playwrights than how bad it is for novelists. Playwrights need to understand people not just to write characters, but to think in terms of actors and directors.”

                                          Elliott considered that with some consternation. “It has been the approach I’ve been employing,” he said.

                                          “I’m sorry to hear that. Some playwrights work from developing such a keen understanding of their characters that they can simply imagine their conversations and transcribe them. It’s very hard and time-consuming, especially if you’re not used to it. O’Carey is one of the playwrights that did that to great success.”

                                          “I think I’ve only read one O’Carey play,” Elliott mused, “It did seem like very true-to-life, though I had no idea that’s why it was.”

                                          “That’s one more O’Carey play than most people read.” Archie noticed Elliott dredging the fish in flour. “Breading the fish?”

                                          “Indeed, please go on, you have my almost complete attention.”

                                          “Another technique is to do improvisations with actors – give them a brief character sketch, and let them run the scene, then record it and keep the good bits. It’s a bit like running theatre in reverse. Barrick uses that technique all the time.”

                                          “Given how political Barrick is I’m surprised his dialogue sounds organic rather than stilted,” Elliott noted.

                                          “His genius was recognizing that his actors weren’t as fanatical as him. He could focus on directing, and trust them to find the right words…” Archie paused, looking at Elliott discerningly, “you have read some esoteric theatre.”

                                          “I’ve had a classical education in the liberal arts. While we didn’t distinguish theatre from literature as such, we read a great deal in general.”

                                          “That also explains the piano.”

                                          “Quite so. I allow myself an hour or so a day to practice, though my skill has atrophied a great deal since those days.”

                                          “I know that feeling, I was an adolescent musician, my ability has decayed as well, and now I’m more of a dabbler.”

                                          “Adult life makes a mockery of us all,” With a flourish, Elliott tossed the fish into a skillet of oil on the camp stove, filling the cabin with the sound of sizzling.

                                          Archie stretched out and craned his neck to look into the skillet. “Except the fish, I suppose.”

                                          “Touché.”

                                          Eventually the fish was ready and they continued the discussion over food.

                                          “So those are some techniques for dialogue writing. What’s the problem with yours?” Archie asked.

                                          Elliott began a long-winded and not entirely satisfactory explanation, to Archie’s perspective. Conspicuously, he wouldn’t share any snippets of the dialogue itself. Archie decided that running improvisations seemed to rule itself out as a method for Elliott, at least at that time. After poking and prodding refused to yield anything concrete, he suggested that Elliott work on developing his understanding of his own characters, and to make sure that their dialogue wasn’t uniformly as formal as the way Elliott talked. As the fish finished cooking and the breading got golden brown and crispy, they changed the subject to their respective moves to Pelican Town. Archie shared his frustration with the city, corporate life, and the weight of familial expectations, while Elliott was much more matter-of-fact:

                                          “I had a wealthy upbringing with tremendous advantages, but I got so frustrated constantly hearing that all of my successes were because of my family’s wealth. I moved here to work on my novel in less than luxurious conditions to prove that I could do it without all of that hanging over me.”

                                          Archie was intrigued about a lot of aspects of this. Their mutual determination to prove themselves was a strong commonality, but Archie wondered; did Elliott have a safety net or cut himself off completely from his family? How urgently was he approaching the novel? How could he streamline his writing process if he was spending all the time on it that Leah claimed he was? “Leah is convinced that you will,” he told him.

                                          “Yes, as she has always been, it just has not been quickly enough for either of our likings.”

                                          “That seems strange to me. She knows very well that you can’t rush art.”

                                          “You’re correct, it was life that she wanted to rush, not art.” Archie suddenly understood Leah’s discomfort and hesitations around Elliott, if not how the responsibility for it was distributed between them. “I attribute it to unlucky timing,” he added.

                                          “I wish you both the best,” Archie replied, non-committally, knowing that the best for one may not be the best for the other unless that unlucky timing lined up better.

                                          “Thank you. I wish you the same with your farming, and thank you also for the instructive lecture on dialogue. I hope it proves as generative as it was insightful.”

                                          So did Archie, but something about the whole conversation left him less than convinced that it would, at least in the near future.




                                          EPISODE 4

                                          (ABIGAIL and ELLIOTT are discussing literature at the library while GUNTHER is working in the background.)

                                          ABIGAIL: I mostly read goth literature. You know, the spooky stuff, supernatural horror.

                                          *laugh track*

                                          ELLIOTT: Oh, the Victorian classics like Shelley, Stoker, and company, and the works they later inspired?
                                          ABIGAIL: Who?

                                          *laugh track*

                                          (ABIGAIL pulls a GOOSEBUMPS novel off of a nearby shelf and waves it in ELLIOTT's face.)

                                          ABIGAIL: This, Elliott! This is the good shit!

                                          *laugh track*

                                          (ELLIOTT is profoundly confused.)

                                          GUNTHER (from a distance): Bazinga.

                                          *laugh track*




                                          The next couple of chapters after this will continue to be expository set-up heavy, but the writing is starting to shift toward satisfying some interim plot points. Not that anyone's been complaining about expository set-up.

                                          In case you were curious, O'Carey and Barrick are analogues of playwrights Sean O'Casey and Bertolt Brecht, though O'Casey wasn't one to isolate himself completely and Brecht's use of improvisation is different to what I've described Barrick's as. Brecht can veer toward deliberately wooden dialogue as well as other effects to break immersion and suspension of disbelief, but for purposes of the fic, I'm falsely claiming "close enough".

                                          Also, this Goth Abigail Goth Adventure of Gothiness may be the best one I have written to date.

                                          EDIT: Also also, I'm pleased I managed to sneak in one pun about bass drops.

                                           
                                            Last edited: Aug 6, 2016

                                          Share This Page