Friend of the Wood

byLesLumens©

"Sorry, I wasn't thinking. Yeah, the doc can't find a thing wrong with me. Guess I'm just tired. Actually feeling better now. Maybe I just needed to get up."

"So, are you coming home?"

He paused a moment before answering. "Not yet. Mom's been calling and nagging me, so I'm going to go by there."

"Okay. Well, call me later then."

"Will do, babe. Gotta go."

"Love y..." Her brow furrowed when she heard a click before she could finish. She chalked it up to poor signal.

"Everything okay?" Nathan asked when she got back to the car.

"The dunderhead just had his phone turned off while he was at the doctor. He's fine."

"That's good. Ready to head home?"

"Yeah. Sorry to ruin the day over nothing."

"It was fun," he disagreed. He ran his fingers through his still damp hair and said, "At least we don't need a shower."

Terra laughed. "It was. Thanks."

"You're welcome," he said, and then put the car into gear for the drive back to the house.

****

Terra looked at her phone, saw that it was just after eight, and tossed her book away with a scowl. I can't believe he's doing this again.

His slow responses to her texts and the occasional missed call were something she'd grown to accept, but the last few days were too much. She popped out of bed and stomped down the hall.

"Honey, are you okay?" her mother asked as they met each other near the back door.

"I don't want to talk about it," Terra grumbled as she walked outside.

She purposely steered away from the clearing where the family usually gathered, and made her way deep enough into the trees to gain some privacy. Beneath the boughs of a huge pine, she pulled out her phone and called Keith.

She barely let him answer before asking, "When were you planning to call me back?"

"I forgot. Give me a break."

His distracted tone and lack of an apology reminded her of every little inconsiderate thing he'd done recently, and something inside her snapped.

"It seems like all you do is forget lately. First it was coming out to the lake. Then I call you and you say you're sick. When I call to check on you, I can't get hold of you and I'm worried to death. Is it too much to ask to call me back when you told me you were going to?" The last hovered tantalizingly close to a shout.

"Sorry, okay. Why don't I come pick you up?"

"And what? Go back to your place and fuck? That's all you seem to care about any more. It's all I can do to get a text out of you unless it's about having sex."

"I don't want to fucking fight about this right now."

This time, she did shout. "Fine then."

A stab of her thumb ended the call and she closed her eyes, not sure whether to scream or cry. After a couple of minutes, she sat down hard on the carpet of pine needles and leaned back against the tree — trying to calm down.

A brief chattering caused her to look up at a tree a few feet away. Two squirrels were clinging to the bark, looking at her with their tails twitching. One of them let out a series of chirping, inquisitive cries when she made eye contact.

"I don't have anything to feed you, and I'm not really in the mood," she said when both squirrels moved down the trunk a couple of feet.

She sighed when they let their tails droop before scurrying back up into the obscuring boughs.

Thinking that she wouldn't get any peace from the critters, she was about to get up and lock herself in her room when she heard rustling off to one side. Upon turning that way to discourage whatever animal was thinking of approaching her, she instead let out an aww upon seeing the tiny bunny peeking at her from the undergrowth.

It had to be barely weaned from its mother, considering the size of it. It eyed her warily for a moment, and then bounded across the distance toward her. The rabbit froze just out of reach, looking at her, and then behind it, trembling all the while.

"It's okay," she whispered while slowly extending a hand, palm up. "I won't hurt you. You're safe here."

The rabbit stretched its nose toward her and sniffed, then jerked away. A few moments later, it did so again, but moved closer. Slowly but surely, it moved toward her until its nose was nearly touching her fingertips.

"You can come here. I won't let anything get you," she said as she pulled her hand back.

The bunny's ears twitched, and it suddenly leapt into the triangle formed by her crossed legs. Terra giggled and reached down to pet it. The rabbit stiffened at her first touch, but then relaxed and settled into its comfortable nest.

"See, you're okay," she whispered as she stroked its soft fur.

The bunny didn't react when excited chatter arose from the tree where the squirrels had vanished. The pair once again scurried down the trunk, but ignored Terra. Instead, they leapt to the ground and ran toward the edge of the woods.

"Hey, bushtails," she heard Nathan say.

Tracking the sound of his voice, she could just see him through the foliage. Much to her surprise, the pair of squirrels leapt onto his shoulders.

"Okay, now. Calm down." He blew out a puff of air and shook his head when one of the squirrel's tails tickled his nose. "Here you go."

She was taken aback by the way the squirrels were reacting to him. It was a common occurrence with anyone in the family — often to the point of being downright annoying — but she'd never seen them accept anyone else so completely.

Upon thinking about it, she did remember him feeding the squirrels with her brother at times, but this was something altogether different. As he fed peanuts to the perching squirrels, he made his way into the trees.

"Just the two of you? Where's everybody else at?" he asked. "You hiding back here? You weren't shy a few minutes ago when you were jumping everywhere trying to get my attention."

She scrunched up her nose, wondering how that could be. The animals had only seemed to notice him as he was approaching. She shrugged it off, assuming it must have been some other squirrels closer to the edge of the trees.

He made eye contact with her after a couple of seconds, and the squirrels sitting on his shoulders made a noise that sounded very much like laughter.

"Friends of yours?" she asked, a smile spreading across her face.

He chuckled and shrugged, lifting both of his shoulders' passengers.

"Friend of yours?" he asked in turn, nodding toward the bunny tucked in between her legs.

"I guess so. Something scared her, and she ran over to me."

"She's a little one," he remarked as he walked closer. The squirrels barked in agitation and Nathan got the hint to shell another peanut for them.

"So, what are you doing out here?"

"Uhm..."

Even in the fading light, she could tell he was blushing. "What?"

"It's about the game. You probably wouldn't get it."

She rolled her eyes and sighed theatrically. "Just tell me."

"Okay. Well, I play a druid in the game. Coming out here with these guys is kind of inspiration."

"So, you're a protector of nature, huh?"

His voice dropped into a lower register and took on a noble tone when he responded, "None shall despoil this place of nature's blessing while I and my faithful animal companions stand watch."

She giggled, and Nate's blush deepened.

"Yeah, I knew you would think it was stupid."

"No, that's neat. You even looked different when you were talking like that."

"That's sort of the idea. You become someone else in the game."

They both heard Dale call out, "Nathan, pizza's done and we're ready to go again."

"Guess I'd better get back," he said while nodding toward the edge of the woods. He pulled a few more peanuts out of his pocket, exciting his 'animal companions'.

"Okay, bushtails, you're going to have to work for the rest of them." He then tossed the nuts off to the side. The two squirrels didn't even give them time to settle before jumping down to grab one each.

"Don't suppose you have a carrot in your pocket?" Terra asked, nodding down at her own furry friend.

He cleared his throat. "No, uhm..."

She laughed. "I was kidding." When she heard her brother call out Nathan's name again, she said, "Better get going before he casts a spell on you."

"Later," he said before making his way back out of the trees.

Terra was more than a little surprised how the interruption had broken her bad mood. Thinking about it nearly turned her down that dark road again, though.

Shaking those thoughts out of her head, she considered the fluffy bunny still happily nesting between her legs. She hated the thought of leaving the frightened, nearly defenseless rabbit alone again. Even as she struggled with that quandary, she felt a familiar presence.

"I will watch over this one, Xanterra," her great-grandmother said as the dryad peeked out from behind a tree. "She has wandered far, and her mother worries for her."

The rabbit perked up its ears when Xantina said something to it in a language Terra didn't understand, but somehow felt as if she should. A second later, the bunny hopped over to the dryad and allowed her to pick it up.

"So, you were here looking for her, Grandma?" Terra asked as she stood up and brushed pine needles off her bottom.

"I watch over the young ones and guide them to where they should be," the dryad said with a mischievous lilt to her voice. "Your mother worries for you, too."

"Guess I'd better go talk to her, huh?"

Xantina swept over with a giggle, not answering the question, and kissed her great-granddaughter on the cheek. Graceful as a dancer, she vanished into the foliage a few seconds later.

Terra found her mother standing on the porch, absently caressing the leaves of a large potted fern. Taking the initiative, she said, "Sorry, Mom," as she walked up the steps.

When her mother opened her arms, Terra settled into the hug and found she had to fight back tears.

"Why don't we go for a walk before it gets too dark?" her mother suggested.

Terra sniffled and took her mother's hand.

****

Driving to Keith's the next morning, Terra was trying to keep an open mind. The walk had turned into a conversation that ended on the porch swing late in the night. It wasn't that she hadn't heeded her mother's advice before, but hearing the experiences behind that knowledge put those words of wisdom in a whole new light. Her mother had been through everything she was dealing with as the popular girl in school — and more.

She needed to have a serious conversation with Keith, and she had to swallow her pride. Having always been at the top of the social ladder, she'd become accustomed to guys doing anything she wanted. That long talk had made her realize that she might need to be a little more considerate if she wanted a relationship to work.

The phone rang about halfway to his apartment, so she turned down the music and tapped her Bluetooth earpiece to answer.

Her sister said, "Nate and Dale just came back from Parker's Lake. Somebody's been out there and trashed the place again."

Terra let out a growl and squeezed the steering wheel tight. "How did the cops miss them?"

"I don't know. I checked with Dad and he said that the sheriff was going to send someone out there at least once every night."

"I'm on my way to Keith's."

"I know. Don't worry about it. John's coming over, and Nathan's going to get his brother's truck again. They don't think it will take the four of us long to clean up. I thought you'd rather find out sooner than later."

"You're right. No matter how things go, the last thing I would want is bad news afterwards."

"That's what I figured. John's here."

"Talk to you later then."

Thinking about the lake actually proved a welcome distraction. She'd begun to work herself toward an anxiety attack by mulling over what she wanted to say to Keith, and worrying about what he was going to say to her. By the time she pulled up in front of his apartment, she'd come to the conclusion that the police were going to need some help catching the culprits trashing the lakeshore.

Keith's car was in the lot and his motorcycle was parked in the shelter, so she assumed he was home. As she walked toward the apartment building, she heard his voice. The direction told her that he was at the pool, which could only be accessed by residents. Changing course, she walked toward the fence so she could call to him to meet her at his apartment.

It so happened that he was sitting on the other side of the privacy fence right where she reached it. She paused for a moment before saying anything, because he was talking to someone.

"Yeah, I fucked up and Terra's in one of her bitchy moods."

That did nothing to reassure her. She swallowed hard, thinking that bitchy was probably the perfect description for the way she'd been acting. Before she could summon up the strength to call out to him, he answered something one of his friends had said.

"She'll get over it. She can't resist the D. At least it gets me out of that tree-hugging shit for a couple of days. Fuck, I get so sick of that shit. I take trash with me to throw out the window of the car sometimes to make up for having to throw every frikkin' bottle or can in the right bin when she's around. She's lucky she's an epic piece of ass or I'd have kicked her to the curb by now."

Terra stood on the other side of the fence in open-mouthed, stunned disbelief. She thought about screaming at him, but she was too mad for words. Instead, she spun on her heel and stormed to the car, changing his name in her phone to Fucking Jackass along the way. She sped out of the parking lot, but only a short distance down the road, she pulled over into a gas station lot. The last thing she needed was a ticket on top of what she'd just discovered.

It had been a lie from day one. The first time he'd asked her out was to a tree-planting event for Arbor Day, and now she knew it had been nothing more than a calculated ruse to get into her pants. She banged her fist on the steering wheel and pinched her green eyes closed — refusing to cry.

After a few minutes of cradling her face in her hands, she sucked in a deep breath and let it out as a blast. Grabbing her phone from where she'd tossed it in the passenger seat, she called her sister.

"He wasn't home?" Ella said by way of answering.

Terra could hear her brother and Nathan talking in the background as they picked up trash at the lake.

"Yes, he was home."

As much as she knew her sister had never liked Keith, there was genuine sympathy in Ella's voice when she said, "I'm sorry. What happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it right now. I'm too mad, and I'll look like some kind of crazy woman screaming into my phone. Feel like a camp out?"

After a brief pause, Ella said, "That went by a little fast."

"I'm trying to avoid that jackass, and I need something positive to do. I want to camp out somewhere near the beach and try to catch whoever's been making that mess there."

"Hang on a second." Terra could hear the wind blowing and the sound of her brother talking fade into the distance. "Tonight?" Ella asked when she stopped.

"Every night until we can call the cops to come bust them."

"I've got plans with John tonight."

She knew it would be painful to watch her sister and John enjoying each other's company, but still suggested, "Maybe he'll want to come. He was in Scouts, right?"

"No, I mean I have plans."

Terra's eyes shot wide open when the significance of her sister's emphasis on plans hit her. Things between the two were moving even faster than she'd realized. "Oh! Oh, okay."

"Maybe Dale will come out with you?" Ella suggested with an apology in her voice.

"He has that Scout camp out."

"Oh yeah. Nathan? I really don't think you should be out here alone. I mean, I'll come out tomorrow, but..."

"It's okay. I guess I could ask Nathan. One way or another, I'm staying out there tonight."

"You want me to say something to him? See if he has any plans?"

"I guess. I'm going back to the house. I feel like I need a shower right now."

"Okay. Mom stayed home today."

Terra suppressed a groan. As much as she appreciated her mother helping her sort through her feelings the night before, she didn't really want to go through it again.

"Thanks for warning me."

"If you need someone to talk to, I'm here."

"I know. Good luck tonight."

"Thanks. I'll talk to Nathan."

She hung up and decided she was at least calm enough to drive rationally. She started out planning things she would need that night, but after a minute or two, her brain went numb. She drove the rest of the way home on autopilot, her thoughts a slow moving, incoherent mess.

Her mother was watering a Ficus tree when Terra walked in. A sigh escaped the older woman because she knew her daughter's early return didn't bode well. But, rather than asking what happened, she pointed at the end table near the couch instead.

Terra looked and saw a movie she'd wanted to see that had just come out on Blu-ray. "Thanks, Mom," she said as she picked it up.

"Actually, Nathan brought it over for you," Brooke said as she moved to a huge, bushy red Geranium in the corner. The plant had started as a single bloom Terra had brought home from school for Mother's Day years and years before.

Terra's phone rang, and her vision went red when she saw Keith's new name on the display. She hurled her phone at the couch.

"I swear all guys are thoughtless assholes who only care about one thing."

Her mother's eyebrows twitched upward and she asked, "All?" while nodding to the Blu-ray Terra was gesturing with as she fumed.

It took a second or two to sink in, but then Terra shook her head and said, "Nathan doesn't count."

"And why's that? He's a guy, isn't he?"

"He's... He's Nathan. Come on, Mom. He's a nerd."

"Well, so was your father."

"He still is."

Brooke chuckled. "Yes, and I wouldn't have it any other way. At least nerds aren't completely full of themselves when it comes to relationships. They listen, learn, and... Well, let's say they're very attentive to your needs once they get over being backward."

"Eww — Mom." Seeing her parents nude on a regular basis was one thing, but that was something entirely different.

Her mother giggled. "Well, it's true. I'm just saying that maybe you should consider looking past bad clothes, a bad haircut, and lack of social skills. Those are things you can fix in a man. You can't fix stupid, self-centered asshole."

The surprise of hearing her mother so casually toss that curse out caught Terra off balance, and she couldn't think of a thing to say.

"Just something to think about," her mother said as she moved to the nearly identical Geranium on the other side of the doorway — nurtured from the plant Ella had brought home the same year. "If you need to talk, I'm right here. Any time."

"Okay. I'm going to go take a shower."

"You could always take a nice long bath in our bathroom if you want," her mother called after her as she headed into the hall.

The thought of that was enough to make her take her mother's advice once again.

****

Old man Parker looked dubious as Terra explained what she planned to do. He confirmed it when she finished by saying, "I don't know. Don't seem real safe to me."

"We're not going to confront them or anything. We'll be able to see anybody coming way before they could see us. We're just going to call the police and come straight back up here," Terra tried to reassure him.

"Y'all are bound and determined, ain't ya?"

She nodded and scowled. "I'm tired of some jerks ruining it for everyone else."

"They're trespassing if they go past the gate. That's all we need to see. We don't actually have to wait for them to get there," Nathan added.

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