by George Potter
Dawn found him on the north side of the mountain, sheltered against the wind. His small fire from the night before still lived, and took only a handful of gathered twigs and a few moments of stirring to set to dancing again. He unpacked the aging enamel coffeepot from his pack and filled it with icy water from the nearby stream, sitting it precariously on the cross made by the two largest pieces of mostly burned wood in the fire. When it approached boiling, he threw in a handful of ground coffee and waited.
There he sat, as the world faded into view with the rising son and took notice of him; a tall-for-his age fifteen year old, thin and lanky, with close cropped black hair and the first smudges of a beard. Gray green eyes reflected the new light calmly, lacking the usual teenaged surliness. They simply observed and--more often than not--enjoyed what they saw.
The state of his campsite reflected something of his character as well. Other than himself, his fire, a backpack and a sleeping bag, the area looked undisturbed. No tracks led to this place and none would be found leaving it. No litter defaced the ground. He considered these hills and this forest to be his home, and he had been taught by his mother from an early age to keep his home in order.
As he sipped the bitter first cup he thought of his mother and smiled. She would not approved of his style of coffee making--considering it wasteful and messy. The strength and sheer number of his mother's opinions was one of the reasons that he often spent nights on the side of this and other hills.
The main reason, however, rested a half mile downhill and a mile uproad, dreams still singing behind her closed eyes.
It took only two cups of the brutally strong coffee to get him in a walking mood. He made quick work of cleaning the pot and re-packing his meager gear. Before he left he paused by the trickle of a steam. In the flow of the water he lightly sketched a double hex, a composite blessing and ward against ill. Etched in the surface tension, the magic quickly spread. From this humble beginning, gravity would create the many forks and branches of Grassy Creek, and--with one skillful shape--he blessed all who lived on her banks.
Smiling, he wished them a silent good day, and began his journey down.
The trails he followed were known by few and fewer every year. One of the reasons he was accepted and liked by the old timers in the area was his curiosity and willingness to use such knowledge. Unlike the majority of his generation, he found the past to be a vast and fascinating treasure trove, as important to existence as present and future.
He moved along the trails with a sure step and surprising speed. He followed them from instinct rather than memory, a map drawn on his soul rather than his mind. He made it down the hill in less than ten minutes, emerging in a natural field by the two lane blacktop that everyone called Farmer's Road. The narrow field was separated from the passing traffic by the Cow Fork of Grassy Creek, and shielded from sight by a copse of elm and oak.
He followed the foot trail a slightly uphill quarter of a mile east until he came to a natural crossing of the creek. He stepped nimbly over the flat stones and emerged on Farmer's road in time to return the amiable wave tossed to him by a passing coal truck.
If he continued east, a twenty minute walk would bring him to the highway that led north to his home. But he turned west, intent on his morning business.
As usual, his stomach clenched with worry and anxiety rose in him. He called himself a fool. He knew that she was all right. The connection they shared was the most powerful he'd ever experienced: he knew when she had a cold or stubbed her toe. Even as he worried he could feel her calm heartbeat and knew she would wake up no worse for wear, though probably hungover.
He fretted anyway, and would until he saw her face and watched her chest rise and fall as she breathed.
Just over a half mile up the road he caught sight of the car. The dirty white Cavalier was it's usual battered self, no sign of accident or injury.
He smiled as he drew closer. Cat was waiting for him, patiently cleaning herself on the roof of the car, knowing his habits as well as he did.
"Keeping an eye on her for me, girl?" he whispered when he arrived, running a hand down her sleek spine. She favored him with a sidewise glance and resumed her routine.
Cat had been with him for almost five years now. She'd been living with a town couple and had simply decided to follow him home one afternoon when he'd passed her on his way. The people she had lived with called her--for unknown, probably horrific reasons--Bootsie. She'd shed that awful tag with her former life, and had been just Cat ever since. She was his friend, companion and--in most things--his co-conspirator.
He looked in through the window and the tension left him. He grinned with real pleasure. Laine was curled up in the backseat, her face a serene and innocent mask of slumber.
It was a face that inspired a thousand conflicting emotions on the deepest levels of his self. A face that haunted his thoughts and dreams. A face he cherished and adored.
The face of the woman he loved.
Laine Wallace was a short dark haired girl who tended towards chubby. She had the most lovely gray eyes--like looking into an oncoming storm. He thought she was incredibly beautiful. Some guys considered her plain or even ugly, but he dismissed them as fools too blinded by spoon fed ideas about beauty to recognize the glory of such a unique face.
As he stared, her eyes opened. She gazed at him blearily for a moment, then smiled and yawned.
"Good morning, Kevin." she said, stretching from her uncomfortable position. "If you have a cigarette I promise I'll love you forever."
Even though he knew she wasn't serious, you've never seen a pack produced quicker.
Kevin made himself comfortable in the passenger seat while Laine smoked and woke up. She told him the story of the previous night and he listened as if he hadn't observed it all--laughing and gasping and expressing shock in all the right places.
In truth, though, he had quietly followed her through the entire night. From the moment she left her parent's house until the instant she parked her car and passed out in the backseat. He'd watched her dance and laugh and joke with her friends. Watched her drink Absolut and apple juice past the point of stupidity. Suffered through her long makeout session with some guy he did not know but now hated like fire. He'd watched--hidden by a short distance, simple shadows, and an elaborate glamour. Watched and waited, ready to step into the situation and do what needed doing if anyone or anything threatened her with harm.
This is what he did every weekend.
Laine was sixteen--one year and three days older than Kevin. She viewed that as an almost uncrossable gulf. They had known each other since birth, had gone through every grade of school together, and been friends since infancy. Kevin knew that Laine loved him, but that her love was brotherly.
It tore his heart out.
But he did not allow it to show--the heartbreak or the love--just as he did not let her know that he watched over her while she partied. Kevin's kin--and those like them--were old hands at hiding reality behind an illusion of the commonplace.
"I'm getting old." she complained as she crawled from the backseat and climbed behind the wheel. To do this she steadied herself on Kevin's shoulder, and he held his breath, memorizing that touch, savoring it.
"You just drink too much." he replied, keeping any judgment out of his voice. She smiled, and refrained from disagreeing.
She started the car and the sound of the engine made Kevin wince. The damn thing sounded like a herd of dying buffalo. Shifting into drive and pulling out only increased the hideousness of the noise. Laine drove as if the car was a brand new dragster--gaining too much speed far too quickly. Under his breath, Kevin muttered a hex of protection, empowering it with his very real fear.
"You should really bring this car to the house, girl." he told her when the hex was complete. "Let Dad look at it. It sounds..."
"I know." she sighed, casually passing a loaded truck around a curb marked no passing. "I hate to bother him, though. I'm broke."
Kevin rolled his eyes. "You know he wouldn't charge you. He likes you." He paused until they rounded a particularly bad double curb without dying. "And everybody else seems to live with asking him to work for free."
Laine's face took on a surprisingly prim set. "Just because everybody else is doing something doesn't make it right for me to do something." Kevin stifled a laugh, and wondered if she knew how much she sounded like her mother.
"I'm not a bum." she informed him. "Hey...gimme another smoke."
He shook his head and laughed. Laine didn't seem to catch on. He smoked on occasion, but mostly kept the cigarettes for her. He lit one and passed it to her.
They reached the end of Farmer's Road and Laine turned to him. "You want a ride home?"
"Nah." he told her. "I'm heading to Edge Hills. If you're not doing anything you should take me. They want a twenty sack. I got some of that kill shit like I got last year."
Laine's eyes widened. "Aww, hell! It is harvest time, ain't it!" Her face broke into an expression of delight and surprise. She pointed the car towards Edge Hills and sped off without another thought.
"If you forgot about that you really are drinking too much." he told her.
She just grinned at him.
Halfway to their destination, the muffler fell off. They ended up announcing their arrival at Edge Hills with great fanfare and much annoyance.