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"Howdy stranger! Nice tree you got there. Mind if I join ya?"
I looked up and was greeted by her beautiful smile. Her lips gently pressed against her rosy cheeks, slowly revealing her perfectly aligned teeth, like a perfect pearl necklace. Her pure chestnut hair dangled against her freckled face, radiating the warmth of winter hearths and echoing the colors of her eyes.
"Heellloooo..." She waved her hands inches across my face.
"Ohh hi!..sorry...yeah you could sit here, it's a free country." I joked nervously as I snapped out of my trance.
She paused a moment, staring at me like I'm some kind of weirdo. Then smiled.
"My name is Tiana. Nice to meet you." She stretched out her right hand to greet me.
"Ummm...nice to meet you. I...I'm Timmy." I awkwardly shook her cold tiny palm with long, thin fingers. She could be a pianist.
She stumbled over and sat right next to me. Seeking whatever shade it could provide from the midday sun. Despite the summer heat, kids were running all over the playground, laughing and screaming their heads off, making the most of their lunch break.
"I see you sitting here all by yourself every day. Why don't you join us sometime."
"We could play Hopscotch! But I must warn ya, I'm very good at it."
I stared at her. My face was frozen in an incredulous expression as I desperately try to say something, but instead of words coming out of my mouth, I was babbling incoherently.
"Huh? You're funny...Anyway, I'll let you in on a little secret. But you must not tell anyone about it! Pinky promise?"
Not really getting what's going on at the moment, I obliged.
"Cool! You see, the secret to the game of hopscotch is the rhythm. You got to count it inside your head...."
She continued to explain her secret mechanics to hopscotch but I find it hard to pay attention. Her voice slowly faded into the background. I was just staring at her enthusiastic smile as she chatters away.
Now don't get me wrong, I wasn't falling in love with her, I'm too old for that, and I think girls are gross. It's just that I'm a very timid kid, so talking isn't exactly my forte, let alone talking to a popular girl in our school. She just moved here few months ago but already she has lots of friends, many secret admirers, even the teachers seem to adore her and her straight A's.
While me, on the other hand, is your typical quiet kid in class. Everything about me was average so I blended in perfectly. Well, almost too perfectly...sometimes I feel like I'm just invisible. I don't have any friends due to my timid personality but I do consider myself lucky that I wasn't bullied by our class jerk, Michael. He's a world-class douche bag that bullied my classmate Peter, just because he wears a thick heavy glasses. The teachers couldn't do anything about it. I heard it was because his parents were rich or something.
"Earth to Timmy, earth to Timmy." she moved closer, her face was inches away from mine. She smelled like peaches.
"uhh.. yea...rhy...rhythm" I stuttered as I snapped back to reality.
"Hehe! Where were you?" Her left eyebrow raised as she tilted her head slightly to right like a confused puppy.
"No silly!" she bumped her fist into my shoulder. "You were spacing out."
"Yeah, I do that a lot sometimes..."
"You know it's rude to not pay attention when someone is talking right?"
The deafening siren of our school bell blaring in the air, signalling the end of our recess, breaking the fun and playful atmosphere. Some kids were emitting a long deep sighed as they struggle to drag themselves back into the classroom.
"I guess I'll see you tomorrow then. Bye Timmy." She gave me a smile and skipped back to class.
We started to hang out every recess and I was getting more comfortable around Tiana. Although her nonstop chatter could give you a massive migraine sometimes. Her laugh was contagious and I feel like I could be myself around her. The other classmates were giving us the stare but Tiana told me to pay no mind to them because they were just jealous.
Weeks turn into months and our friendship grew and grew. We also started to hang out after school. We live in a small town called Mellow Creek, it's nestled between thick dense woods and craggy hills. Because the town kind of isolated, we don't have much to do here except exploring the woods. We do have huge mall at the edge of town, but no one ever goes there ever since the disappearance of a young boy.
"So...what do you wanna do?" Tiana poking me with her fingers. She knows I'm ticklish.
"Hey...cut it out...I don't know..what do you want to do?" Me swaying my body left and right to avoid her pokey fingers.
"Hahaha...stop moving around! What do youuuu wannaaa doooo?" She continues to attack me with her twig-like fingers.
I grabbed a hold of her hands to stop her from poking me. I thought I saw her blushed.
"Let's go explore the woods! I know a beautiful small creek that we can hang out but you must promise me not to tell anyone."
"Huh, the woods? Nah...my dad says it's dangerous. Many people had gone missing and recently they found several dead bodies...." she was freaking out...
"Hey...calm down. I'll keep you safe. I've been hanging out in these woods since forever and it's the safest place you can be if you follow the rules. Trust me." I bump my fist on her shoulder.
"The rules?" She was hesitant.
"Look we won't go deep into the woods and if you feel uncomfortable being there, we'll leave immediately. No questions ask."
"I'll even teach you how to catch frogs." I grinned and wiggled my eyebrows up and down to seal the deal.
She burst into laughter. "You're an idiot you know."
"Takes one to know one." I replied. She attacked me with her twig-like fingers again.
"Okay Okay, stoppppppp....I'm sorry. Let's go before it gets dark."
It turned out to be one of the most fun days we had. I brought her to my super duper secret base, near a small creek which I spend most of my free time here. Tiana knows nuts about outdoors. She mostly stayed in her room studying because of strict parenting and their high expectation towards her academic result. She gets excited at every single bug or squirrel she sees. I swear her eyes lit up like it was about to pop right out. She also has this strange fascination for frogs. We spend our whole afternoon trapping frogs, observing ants, squirrel stalking and stacking rocks by the creek. Our fun had to come to an end when the sun is about to set.
*Squirrel stalking is a popular game here in Mellow Creek. The goal is to sneak as close as possible to a squirrel and give it a scare. You can shout, screech, stomp the floor, etc. Anything except physically hurting the squirrel. The squirrel here has excellent hearing and are sensitive to vibrations from the ground. So most players have no chance of getting near a squirrel. It's a challenging game that we Mellow Creekers enjoy.*
"Oh, Fishsticks! I'm so late! I told my mom that I was attending after-school activities for extra credit and she is expecting me to be back by 18:00. She's going to kill me." Tiana is freaking out again.
"It's 17:50 now, common! We can make it. I know a shortcut." I grabbed her hands and we sprint towards her home.
"Hey! slow down...How are you running so fast with that short legs of yours." Tiana struggles to keep up.
"Now that's just insulting. Common we're almost there." As much as I hate to admit it, Tiana is taller than me.
"Ohmygod, My lungs are burning. Are you sure we are in the right way?"
I looked back at her, grinned and wiggle my eyebrows. It's 17:58.
"We're gonna have to run through that bush ahead of us. Brace yourself." I gave her a heads up.
"Wait what!? I'm not gonna do that!" She replied.
"Yes you are! We don't have much time. Common! Trust me." I tighten my grip around her hands. She didn't resist.
"I swear Timmy Allen! I'm gonna.......!" She screamed.
We burst through the thick bushes unscathed, except for a couple of leaves and twigs stuck on her hair.
We were just a few blocks away from her house.
"Pffttt...You look like Dumbledore..." I was struggling to keep myself from laughing at her messy hair. It's like a bird nest.
It's 6:01 now.
"Whaa--tt? Ho--ww? Argh, I swear I get you tomorrow!" She shouted as she ran towards her home.
I was about to go home when she suddenly turns around.
"Ohh and one more thing! Thanks, Timmy." She smiled and flipped me her middle finger. I did the same and watched her disappear into the corner of the street.
Unlike fairy tales, all good things must come to an end in real life. For the next couple of weeks, Tiana started to distance herself from me. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why. And soon we stop talking to each other. I know it's not her fault and I never blame her for it. I still greeted her with a smile. But one day, things started to go way downhill.
It was a gloomy Wednesday morning. Mrs Palmer, our cheery and sprightly class teacher came in with a very serious look on her face. Which is very unusual for her and all of a sudden the noisy and chaotic class came to a silent. We've never seen her like this before. The whole class was on their best behaviour.
"Good Morning class. I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. Our classmate Michael Baker and Peter Perez is missing." She took a deep breath before continuing. I could tell she is holding back her tears.
"The school forbids all students from going anywhere near the woods. Anyone caught will be punished with a year of detention, no excuses, no exception. Any questions?"
We were shocked by the news. The class was awkwardly silent for a full 5 minutes. Our day went on as usual except during recess. Boys and girls are gathering in groups, gossiping on what happened to Michael and Peter. There's a rumour spreading around the class on this tragedy. It's from a classmate whose father was the officer in charge of the missing case of Michael and Peter. Apparently, they found their bodies in the woods, 10 miles away from our town. Each of their bodies was drained of blood and stuffed awkwardly into a tree. Our local newspaper tried to cover it up as a fatal cougar attack. But it's obvious it's not a cougar. The townspeople knew something, they just don't like to talk about it. I've spent most of my spare time roaming these woods and I know a certain area is forbidden by the locals, especially going deeper into the woods.
As we are finishing our last class. Mrs Palmer had another announcement.
"Okay class that's it for today. I have another announcement to make before you leave. No student should ever walk home alone. We are implementing the buddy system. I urged you to strictly follow the rules and be safe."
We packed our bags and went our own ways. I was on my way home and I saw Tiana walking home alone. I knew I shouldn't approach her but I was worried about her safety. So I ran up to her.
"Hey! You know it's against the rule to walk home alone."
"Jesus! What the hell Timmy. You scare the crap out of me!" She jolted.
"Geeez..sorry. I guess I was too loud. Where's your walk home buddy?" I asked.
"I ditched em. I told her my mom was picking me up and she went home with another group. I just needed some time alone." She avoided eye contact with me.
"Okay. I understand. I'll leave you alone but you must at least let me walk you to your block. As long as I know you're safe, I'll leave." I insisted.
"No..no it's not that. I'm really sorry Timmy. I....."
I broke her sentence with a fist bump to her shoulder. "You don't have to explain. I understand." I gave her a cheeky wink.
She gave me a WTF look. "That's sexual harassment you know."
"Ohh geez. We're 6th graders. You're about as flat as the ground we are walking on. It's like I'm sexually harassing a floor or something." I smirked.
"Take that Stumpy!" She jabbed my belly with her bony fingers.
It's like time has stopped when we were messing around. It's fun and kind of sad at the same time. As soon as we reach her block, we bid farewell to each other. At that moment, I felt something was not right, but I couldn't tell what was it.
"I'm glad I got to meet you, Timmy Allen. You're the bestest friend anyone could have."
"Hey..Is something wrong? You're not leaving Mellow Creek right?" I asked. She smiled and left. The hint of sadness in her smile is enough to shatter my heart. I guess I got my answer. But it's for the best.
The next day I was hit by a dreadful news. Tiana was missing. She got into a heated argument with her parents and she ran away. She was missing for more than 8 hours now. The search party that was formed just hours after she was missing? They never came back. People are afraid to enter the woods now. We had limited manpower. I followed my gut and went to search for her at my secret base.
I was hit by a wave of relief when I saw her sobbing by the creek. I'm so glad she was safe. I sat beside her and never said anything. She grabbed on to my shoulder and started sobbing more loudly. Somehow she knew I'd find her here.
"It's okay. I'm here." I patted her head.
"The suns about to set. I think we should get out of here. It's not safe here at night. Your parents must be worried sick!"
As I was trying to stand up, she tightens her grip around my arm and pulled me back down.
"My dad said that you're a bad influence for me..." she sobbed.
"He said you were responsible for my bad grades and I was not allowed to speak to you ever again."
"Hey, that's fine you know. Your dad just wanted the best for you." I comforted her.
"No..that's not it. Last night, I've gotten into a heated argument with my mom and dad. They were going to send me to a psychiatrist to evaluate my mental health."
"Wait what...?!." I shook my head.
"Mrs Palmer told my parents that I've been talking to myself for months, she even caught me playing on my own in the woods. She was worried about me and so she paid a visit to my parents."
"They said you weren't real." She sobbed and handed me pictures of her talking to herself.
"I could've swore these are the moments we spent together but the picture shows me talking to no one...I don't understand......"
"Mrs Palmer...she took the pictures as proof for my parents...."
"Tell me! Timmy Allen. Are you real!?" She clutched my arms tighter and cried.
"I am. But only to some of you. You're holding on my arms right? It's hard to explain but I've been here since the dawn of time. I have no form. My appearance is entirely up to you."
"You came to me because of the loss of your little brother. The pain that you felt magnifies the spiritual side of you. Which is why you were able to see me and physically touch me."
"I...I don't understand..." she was confused.
"We have to go Tiana! The sun is setting! There are dark beings in this woods, you need to get out of here, now!" I warned her.
"No...no...I don't understand...No...Tell me the truth, if I go, I might not see you again right?"
"You've known my true form now, so you are right. You might not see me again. Now come, let's go! We don't have much time!"
"No...I'm sorry Timmy. I'm not going back." She grabbed a knife, ran towards the water and slit her throat.
"Noooooo!" I screamed and watch her fall into the water.
I was too late. She was gone. And all I could do was to sit beside her lifeless body.
Moments later, a white mist emerged from her body. Drifting towards a tree in tranquillity. Wisps of silver-white smoke curled and danced their way around the tree.
I smiled as I approached her.
"Howdy stranger! Nice tree you got there. Mind if I join ya?"