Chapter 1: Prologue
The droning of the overhead HVAC, mixed with the endless tapping of dozens of keyboards, filled Winter’s head and rattled her insides. You’d think one would get used to the background noise, but after six years she still couldn’t shake the uneasiness that settled itself deep into her mind. Perhaps if her work actually involved something worthwhile, it wouldn’t be so bad. Instead she was a zombie, with the sole purpose of answering stupid questions posed by stupid customers via Joja’s website.
“ Is your steak gluten free? ”
“ Are your potato chips made out of potatoes? ”
“ Is bacon made out of chicken or beef? ”
“ Do you sell vegetarian coffee? ”
That day, a Friday, was like any other, or at least it started that way. After each question was answered, Winter’s eyes slid to the clock in the bottom right corner of the monitor screen to see how much closer she was to getting out of there. Each time it was a disappointment, seeing that no matter how quickly or slowly she worked, time didn’t go by any faster. 1:39pm. 1:43pm. 1:50pm.
Winter was awoken from her stupor, by a nasally, unmanly voice she knew all too well. It was her supervisor, Mr. Paulsen, a man with slick black hair combed over an increasing bald spot, and a suit that wreaked of old man’s after shave. “How are things, Miss..?”
“Winter, sir.” She sighed. “Winter Andrade.”
“Ah, yes!” He snapped his fingers in an obnoxious, swooping motion, smacking his tongue behind his teeth. “How is your productivity? You know we expect only the best here at Joja!”
“Of course, sir,” Winter chirped sarcastically. She had only been with the company for six years, you would think that she would know how things worked by that point. Or, perhaps, that her supervisor would remember her name. “Productivity is great, as always.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Normally at this point, Paulsen would make his way to the next cubicle to check on the next zombie. For some reason however, he lingered. A new inquiry popped up in Winter’s queue and she quickly selected it. Winter began to type her response to the customer’s question when a cloud of aftershave slid over her shoulder.
“Your response is a little lackluster there, Miss Andrade.” Winter felt the warmth of his breath on her neck, and her shoulders tensed in response. “Let’s try to ensure the Joja spirit is withheld in these responses.”
“Of course, sir,” Winter slid her chair deeper under her desk in an attempt to flee, her abdomen pressing into the cold metal.
“Otherwise, great work!” Mr. Paulsen put a hand on Winter’s shoulder, giving her an uncomfortable set of squeezes. “I look forward to seeing your further performance.”
He finally left her cubicle and moved up the row, yet his aftershave lingered. Winter grabbed a folder from atop her desk and waved it furiously, finding her efforts mostly futile. She slapped the file back down on the desk, pale sapphire eyes moving once again to the clock. 1:57pm .
A disapproving grunt escaped from Winter’s lips, and she took a quick look around to ensure her safety before she slid her phone from one of the side drawers. She was amazed how much she depended on merely checking her phone for notifications to pass the time, and she succumbed as often as she could. This time, she had received a message from her best friend Regina, who worked in a cubicle a few rows away. Instead of answering a queue from the Joja website, she had the absolute pleasure of answering phone calls all day.
OMG WINN he’s here!!
Winter’s brow furrowed and she sent a quick message back, her eyes continuously scanning her surroundings to ensure she wouldn’t get caught by a slinky supervisor with obnoxious cologne.
Who is here
Hottie McBody, who else do you think im talking about?
I still don’t think he exists.
Well he just made his way down our alley, so he should be to you any time now
What does he even look like?
He’s wearing a red tie, you cant miss him. Walking with a bunch of corporate dudes.
Winter was startled by a cough a few cubicles back, and she quickly threw her phone back into the drawer. She faked a couple coughs of her own and leaned out far enough to where she could see up and down her “alley”, as they were called. Each alley consisted of two rows of cubicles, roughly twenty on each side, with a walkway passing through the center of these rows. These alleys were separated from others with a dividing wall, that reached up to the ceiling and served multiple purposes: division, soundproofing, and “client confidentiality” they called it.
That’s when she saw him. Hottie McBody, along with a group of five or six other corporate executives, was walking down her alley from behind. Immediately Winter’s heart sank, and it was definitely not in a good way. It wasn’t even remotely positive. Oh, she knew who Hottie McBody was. She unfortunately knew every nook and cranny on that finely-chiseled chocolate frame, for she had visited his hotel room for a number of corporate visits over the last few seasons and explored every inch of it. Winter could already smell his unique fragrance, and she felt like she was going to vomit.
No time to vomit, however, for he was closing in on her.
“...and we found that to be especially worthwhile, as the numbers show an increase in productivity with these trainings.” Somehow Mr. Paulsen had weaseled himself in with the executives, and Winter hid her panic behind a smile as she pretended to tap away at her keyboard. What a time for there to be no one in the queue!
“Speaking of!” Mr. Paulsen’s voice sounded like he was screaming through a megaphone, pointed directly at her desk. “A direct example of how these trainings are beneficial to the growth of our associates! Gentleman, this here is Winter Andrade. She attended one of those retreats several weeks ago, and her productivity has skyrocketed.”
One of those retreats. She wished she could forget that retreat and the events therein, especially as she turned in her seat and her pale blue eyes landed on the red silk tie that lay before her. They climbed, past the collar, past the slightly-pointed chin and defined jawline, up to the dark brown eyes that held an amused expression.
He held her eyes, and Winter’s ears burned as her heart thumped within them. She could no longer see nor hear Mr. Paulsen or the other executives as they deliberated. All she saw was him, and he was just as focused on her. Hottie McBody. Marius.
“...Winter? Miss Andrade?”
Winter choked, coughing for a moment before she looked to one of the executives that had called her name. “Y-yes, I’m sorry.”
The visiting executives asked her a series of questions regarding the trainings they had implemented to help propel Joja even further into world takeover. Winter answered as brilliantly as she could, ensuring she spoke with finesse and educated diction. Especially because Marius was there. Before long they had gotten their fill, and they continued down the alley. Winter watched Marius’s back until it slid past the edge of her cubicle, and she suppressed the urge to scream.
Things were quiet after that. Winter re-entered her previous zombie state, tackling her queue without actually proofreading what she was saying. She was worried, very worried. With Marius there, she couldn’t enjoy her weekend to herself. She couldn’t escape him; even if they were not physically together, knowing he was nearby was enough to make her skin crawl and anxiety to rise within her.
Winter held her stomach, sure she was going to vomit before the day was through. “Quiet down,” she whispered to herself, rubbing her stomach to coax the sickness away. Her eyes slid to the corner of the computer screen. 4:56pm.
There was a buzz in her side drawer, which caused her to flinch. She removed her phone once again from its compartment, pressing the home button.
Meet me in the garage.
With her purse held close, Winter sat on the bench just inside the door to the parking garage, her leg shaking uncontrollably. Her blue eyes searched frantically for his usual car, a sleek black two-seater sportscar with darkly tinted windows. Thankfully Winter didn’t have to wait long, as she saw it careening around the corner, the faint sound of smooth jazz bleeding from a small crack in the driver’s window. “Get in,” came a low voice, and Winter could feel her stomach turn.
Moments later she was cradled in the bucket seat on the passenger side, and as soon as she closed the door, she felt his hand on her knee. Winter flinched, her eyes moving from his hand to his well-defined jawline. “M-Marius, I--”
“Shh shh,” he soothed, his hand briefly moving farther up her thigh before returning to her knee. “We don’t have to talk. Just let me drive you to the subway station.”
“Okay,” she breathed, feeling the smallest bit of relief. He often had moments like this where he didn’t like to talk, and as things had gotten tense she was thankful for these times. Winter didn’t have to pretend that his very presence didn’t threaten her sanity; she could hide it behind blank stares out the window.
He surprised her, however, when he suddenly broke the silence halfway through the short drive. “Winter darling, you haven’t forgotten about that little project you needed to take care of, did you?”
Winter felt a lump in her throat, and she held an arm across her abdomen as she felt her stomach toss. She could feel tears forming in the corners of her eyes, and she pleaded with them to stay away. She kept her face tilted toward the window. “No, I haven’t forgotten. I was going to take care of it next week--”
“Next week?” Marius’s voice suddenly grew serious, and he clicked his tongue in disagreement. “That won’t do. How about tonight?”
Winter’s gaze shifted to him, and she shook her head with fervor. “N-no, not tonight. I have a gig. I’m performing downtown--”
“Winter, let me speak clearly.” There was a pause in traffic, which had absolute terrible timing as it allowed for Marius to turn toward her. “You know I have never supported such hobbies as these ‘ gigs ’. Now, I expect this project to be taken care of tonight. You don’t want to upset me, do you, darling?"
Winter couldn’t help the tears from flowing then, her eyes returning to the window. She knew there was no fighting him, for it would not end well if she did. Marius had a lot of power, within and outside of the Joja Corporation. If she didn’t complete the task she was given, her life would change, and not in a good way. Winter gulped heavily and nodded her head. “Yes, sir.”
“Aren’t you glad to be back at work, Winn?” Regina sarcastically remarked as the two girls stood by the coffee pot in the Joja breakroom. Regina was a short, slightly overweight young woman two years Winter’s junior with thick blonde hair that frizzed and tangled no matter the atmosphere.
“I don’t think it’s much of an improvement,” Winter sighed. She had spent most of the winter season stuck with bed rest on medical leave, receiving 60% of her regular salary. She didn’t have much in the bill department thanks to the fact that the majority of her college tuition had been paid for by her parents, but she didn’t make much to begin with despite several years of tenure.
A couple other Joja employees made their way into the breakroom, and Winter found herself straightening and smiling to her best friend. “Oh but I’m definitely glad to be back here, Regina.” Regina, of course, knew Winter well enough to know what she was doing: hiding behind a facade of positivity she saved for the outside world.
“Well, glad to see you’re back to your old self, Winn.”
“Hardly,” Winter admitted through gritted teeth. The duo chatted briefly over bland coffee supplied by their mutual employer, until their fifteen minute break had elapsed. Regina offered Winter a hearty hug before they separated, telling her that things would return to normal. Boy, did she hope so.
The day carried on as any other. Winter shuffled through her queue, answering serious and how-can-they-be-serious questions from various customers meandering around the Joja Mart website. Her routine varied just slightly, however; she refused to check her phone for notifications. Winter wanted to avoid her phone as much as possible.
“Delivery for Miss Andrade.” Winter looked up from her computer to see a messenger holding a beautiful bouquet of red roses. Initially Winter was elated to find that someone had sent her a gift, especially after her ordeal, but her excitement waned when she realized that the roses came with thorns. She thanked the delivery boy (a Joja employee, of course), and she hesitantly grabbed the card that flashed itself.
The hand grasping the card began to shake. As she realized it, Winter took a deep breath and exhaled slowly to calm herself. She put a smile on her face and tossed the card in the trash bin that sat next to her desk. Don’t lose that smile, she willed herself.
Winter began rummaging through her desk in search of scissors she had lost in there many months before, hoping to tear the roses to shreds, but instead she found a white envelope with an ornate purple seal. Her brows furrowed in confusion, unsure of what she had found, until she began to examine the seal. Quickly she opened the envelope, reading its contents. And then she read them again. And a third time.
“If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change…”
Chapter 2: A Bus Named Desire
Winter finally escapes the anxiety of city life, replacing it with the quiet calm of the Valley. Did she make the right decision?
It was raining Winter’s last night in Zuzu City, and she couldn’t be happier about that. Rainy weather was her favorite, for it seemed to purge the city’s skies of the thick layer of smog that blanketed above, and cleansed the city’s sins with it.
The single window in the room was left cracked just slightly, a cool, refreshing mist from the rain billowing into her room. Two over-sized suitcases sat open on her bed, having already been empty for a couple of hours as she thought about her task. She knew she had to be strategic about what she would bring for her new life in Pelican Town. The first suitcase she deemed her "household" suitcase, into which she initially laid two pillows, followed by a layer of towels, a couple freshly-laundered small throw blankets, and a couple flat sheets. In the crevices surrounding she put whatever small items she could fit, including some sentimental decor items she would use to make her new place a home.
The second suitcase would house mainly her clothing. Before she filled it, however, she pondered the seasons she would be experiencing. In the city there really were no real "seasons", just slight fluctuations in temperature: the spring was warm, the summer was hot, the fall was warm again, and her namesake season got a little chilly. There were no variables besides a bit of rain here and there, and every now and then in the Winter they'd get snow flurries. Regardless the time of year, the city always looked the same: dull, claustrophobic, and gray.
After Winter had sorted her clothes by season, packing only the items she knew she would wear, she began filling the remaining space within the luggage. She had almost forgotten to pack her shoes, of which she had many to choose from, and so she had to put serious thought into which pairs she would bring. She had heels and sandals galore, neither of which would be very practical for her new life. She had to remind herself she was going to be a farmer now, and she had to change her way of thinking. Winter carefully collected more reasonable dressings for her feet, mostly sneakers, though she did include a couple neutral sandals just in case. In the back of her closet Winter found a pair of ankle-high work boots she had long since forgotten. Call it fate, but they were exactly what she needed. She dusted them off, added a bit of polish with care, and set the slightly-worn boots next to her bed for the following day.
The last thing she would do is pack a backpack with whatever small items remained, including her laptop, and after she finished this she took a step back to gaze at her bedroom. A lot of her material belongings remained behind, but Winter had managed to gather the important things. She felt a small pang in her chest, and moisture in the corners of her eyes, as realization struck. Besides her college days when she stayed in a dormitory, she had never moved out of the apartment she shared with her parents and younger sister. Winter was setting out to begin a brand new journey, on her own in a place that did not know her. A place that had known her grandfather, and her father when he was young, but it was a place where she, Winter Jade, could start fresh. None of these new people would know what she had gone through, the mistakes she had made. She crossed her arms, allowing herself to smile. Finally.
There was a soft knock on her door, her door cracking open. “Winnie?” Her sister, a teenager just over half her age, looked forlorn as she stepped into the room. “Are you all packed now?”
“Yeah, I just finished.” Winter offered her sister a small smile, her eyes quickly moving to a small alarm clock on her bedside table. 9:24pm . She made a mental note to throw that into a suitcase somewhere, and outstretched her arms toward her sister. “Autumn, you aren’t sad, are you?”
“Well what do you think?” Autumn looked incredibly innocent in that moment, freckled cheeks rosy, her bright orange hair pulled into a tight braid at the nape of her neck. Before long the girl had joined her sister at the opposite side of the room, arms wrapped tightly around Winter's waist. “I can’t believe you’re leaving tomorrow.”
“I know. I can’t either.” Winter rested her cheek on the crown of Autumn's head, arms wrapped around her sister. “Before I know it, I’ll be on that bus in the morning.”
“Are you scared?”
Winter paused. Was she? She had been all-too ready just hours before, but now she wasn’t so sure. Unease settled in her stomach, and she let out a small sigh. Was she making the right decision? Had she been too hasty? She’d made her choice after she read her grandfather’s letter probably for the sixth or seventh time. It was dressed to her alone, and upon reading it she felt a warmth in her chest that had been lost for quite some time. That letter had turned up at that very instant for a reason. Winter didn’t even put in her two-weeks notice, she simply didn’t come in again after that. Didn’t answer any calls, asking where she was and why she hadn’t come in. She sat in bed and smiled as the phone rang continuously, and for the first time in a long time she felt powerful.
There she was, just a few days later, wondering if that had been the right thing to do. Winter took a seat in the papasan that sat in one corner of the room, crossing her arms. “I don’t know. I’m nervous, but I don’t know about scared.”
Autumn looked around the room, emerald eyes holding onto a few droplets of sadness in each corner. “You’re leaving a lot of stuff.”
“Well I can’t bring everything on a bus, silly.” Autumn giggled, and Winter smiled warmly. “The rest is yours, if you want it.”
Autumn's expression brightened, eyes wide and glittering. “Really? I can have your TV?”
“It’s just a crappy Joja one.”
“Yeah, but it’s so much bigger than mine!” The excitement in the thirteen-year old's voice was apparent
“Well yes, it’s all yours. Along with whatever else I’ve left. You can go through those clothes, those shoes --”
“Shoes? My feet aren’t as nearly as big as yours.” The girls shared a moment of laughter before Autumn took a seat between the two large suitcases. “Do you think you’re going to like it?”
“Well,” Winter exhaled, leaning back into the chair and crossing her legs. She ran her fingers through her hair. “It’s going to be different. I never thought I would be a farmer, of all things. Spend 40,000g on college, only to be milking cows and raising chickens.”
“You’ll be on your own though! No rules, no curfew, you can play your music as loud as you want...” Autumn bounced where she sat, until realization struck. “You’re going to leave me here alone with those two! ”
“Mom and Dad aren’t so bad,” Winter chuckled. “Mom has her moments where she can be a handful, but it’s their job to be annoying sometimes. Dad’s mostly harmless.”
“Yeah I guess.. I just can’t believe you’re leaving.”
Winter’s eyes drifted to the window, looking past the puddle forming on the sill and out to the night sky. “Yeah. I know.”
“I can’t believe your bus is late!” Winter’s mother, Gwen, paced about the terminal, every few seconds checking her wrist watch for the time. “All these buses and none of them are for you. Of all days!”
“Mom, chill,” Winter sat on the bench with her belongings laid out in front of her, her younger sister snoring softly from her lap. “The bus was due at 6:30. It’s 6:42. It’s a small town, it’s not that big of a deal.”
“Your mom’s just anxious,” her dad, David, yawned.
“Oh hush up!” Gwen rubbed her forehead with a kerchief, which she just as quickly slid back into her coat pocket. She walked back to her family, latching onto her husband’s arm. “I just don’t want to see you late on your first day, is all.”
“Mom, I’m sure teacher will forgive me if I give her an apple.” Winter smirked. How her mom was behaving brought back so many memories from her youth. She remembered how her parents had always been there for her first day of school no matter what the year, and how her mother would always fret if the bus was late. This was just like all those times, only this time she wouldn’t be coming back at the end of the day.
“Should I go ask someone about it?” David began, but before anyone could reply, a bus that didn’t match any of the others rolled into the station. It was smaller than the city buses, and differently colored. “Oh, that must be it!”
Winter patted her sister’s shoulder to rouse her from her nap, suddenly feeling invigorated. As soon as Autumn sat up Winter was on her feet hustling to the curb, her eyes bright. “Yes. It’s here,” she breathed, fidgeting with the long raven braid that had been draped over one shoulder. The bus grew closer, seemingly in slow motion, and Winter turned to face the ones she’d be leaving behind. “I better get my stuff.”
Almost immediately her mother was in tears, and she could see moisture gathering behind her father’s glasses. “Winter Jade, not so fast!” Her mother chirped, waving her hand briskly toward her daughter. “You can’t just up and leave without saying goodbye!”
In the mere seconds since discovering the bus, Winter had already gathered her belongings and set them to the curb, with her family watching in awe at her sudden speed. She looked quickly to the bus, moments away, and she turned to face them while shaking her head. “I wouldn’t do that, Mom.”
“Winnie,” her sister sniffed. “You’ll come back and visit, right?”
“You’re crying already?” Winter grinned at Autumn, setting a hand on each of her sister’s already shaking shoulders. “Don’t be sad. I’m only a few hours away.”
Her father pulled Autumn to his side, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “We’ll visit her for Winter Star,” he said, referencing the Feast at the end of the winter season to celebrate the new year. “We used to do that when Winter was a baby, when Pop was alive. Now we have a reason to go back again.”
The sound of brakes hissing behind them meant the bus had arrived. A few others had gathered around them to board it, making Winter antsy. “Well, this is it.” She joined her family in a quick, obnoxiously tight hug. She waited for the other passengers to load their things and board before she broke away from their huddle. “Help me with my bag, Autumn?”
Autumn shuffled behind her, both of the girls handing the suitcases to the driver to store beneath the cabin. Another quick hug to her sister and Winter hopped up the stairs, finding her seat just a few aisles back. The window was lowered, and she poked her head out to say her final goodbyes.
“Promise you’ll call when you get there!” Her mother blubbered, standing on her toes to wave.
“I will,” Winter agreed, offering a big toothy smile as the driver called for final boarding.
Moments later the bus eased away, and Winter watched as her family, huddled at the terminal, grew smaller and smaller around the bend. When she could no longer see them she turned to let her eyes explore the surrounding cabin of the bus. There weren’t many others on board the small vessel, maybe ten or so, with a couple familial groups. This observation only confirmed the fact that she was leaving for a small town, with few who would have a regular need to travel to-and-from Zuzu City.
Winter pulled her phone from her jacket pocket, pressing the home button to allow the screen to turn on. She already had three new messages from her family members, including a text from her sister telling her to send pictures of her trip. Winter couldn’t help but suddenly feel lonely. She had changed her phone number for her change in scenery, with true hopes of starting fresh. The new number had only been awarded to a couple others besides her family, including her best friend Regina. Winter purposefully made sure that the ghost she wanted to leave behind would never have a chance to discover it.
With a final sigh she reached into her other pocket to retrieve her wireless headphones, letting the wire that ran between the buds rest behind her head. Winter eased her posture and settled in for the long trip.
Though she had hoped she'd catch a quick snooze, Winter was wide awake, feeling like she was in a foreign land. As the bus inched farther and farther away from Zuzu City, dreary grays melted into beautiful shades of green. Before too long the bus had removed itself from the busy highways surrounding the city, and was instead bumbling along a quiet road nestled between lush forestry and rolling hills. She hadn’t been away from the city in years and years, and it had only ever been to another city. This was a new experience altogether, and she couldn’t take her eyes off all the green.
She snapped a few pictures along the way, sending them to her sister who had at some point already fallen asleep. She smiled knowing they would be there when Autumn awoke, and her eyes again began their dance around the cabin. A blond woman sat at the helm, humming along to some faint jazz music that caused Winter to grit her teeth. Another woman and her son sat immediately across from her, the young boy playing a game on his mother’s phone. A man in a blue suit tapped away at a laptop a few seats back, and a couple older ladies chatted not far from him. A diverse group of people indeed. Winter began to wonder if all of these folks lived in the Valley, or if it was merely a stop on their way to another destination. She would know soon enough; her eyes caught sight of a green sign at the side of the road, with an arrow pointing in the direction in which the bus was going.
Winter’s heart began to race and she sat up, fingers tense on the headrest of the empty seat ahead of her. Through the windshield of the bus, she noted that they were approaching a tunnel ahead. Before long they were shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the bus’s headlights and small yellow sconces that dotted the walls of the tunnel. Winter could feel her heart thumping in rhythm with the lights as they passed, and her eyes widened eagerly as she saw the opening ahead.
Moments later, the bus had stopped just a few paces from exiting the tunnel. A hiss of the brakes marked the time for her to be disembarking, but she waited to see if any others would be getting off as well. None of the others made any movements toward the now-open doors at the front of the bus, nor seemed to care that they had opened at all, and so Winter made the discovery that she was the only one that would be taking her leave.
She looked down at her phone and read a few text messages up, to a message from her father:
Pumpkin, I am so very proud of you for going on this journey. I grew up in Stardew Valley, and have many fond memories from my time there. I feel sad that I haven’t been since your grandpa died. I know that you will honor his memory there, and will be a big success. Remember to keep smiling.
I have an old friend meeting you when you get there. She is a redhead like your sister, so you’ll know her right away.
Love you always,
One corner of her lips curled in a small grin, and she looked out the window. Sure enough, a woman with medium-length orange hair was standing at the stop, eagerly looking up and down the bus from window to window in search of her. Winter removed her earbuds and shoved them again into the pocket of her dark purple jacket, putting her cell in the other pocket. She stood and went to the front of the bus, thanking the driver before disembarking.
The crunching of fresh earth beneath her boot as she stepped off the bus felt sentimental. The beginnings of Spring warmed her cheeks, the promise of a new chapter of her life just a day away. A hand raised to shield her eyes from the sun, and she caught the gaze of the first member of Pelican Town she would be meeting.
“Hello!” The woman chimed, beaming. “You must be Winter Jade!”
“Just Winter, ma’am.” Winter bowed her head momentarily in greeting. “My dad’s the only one that really uses my middle name, too.”
“Gotcha. No problem!” The woman closed the space between them. “I’m Robin, the local carpenter. Your dad told me to meet you here and show you to your new home. Mayor Lewis is there right now, tidying things for your arrival.”
Winter could vaguely remember her father speaking of the mayor. Dad had gotten quite excited when Winter had told them of her plans to move. Over dinner that night, Dad told them stories from his youth in the small town, reminiscing about his father’s brilliance and the welcoming nature of the townspeople.
“Wow. Such a warm welcome. Thank you, Robin. Can you help me with my suitcase?”
The driver opened the hatch containing her two suitcases, and Robin grabbed one while Winter grabbed the other. “The farm’s right over there, if you’ll follow me,” Robin said. Winter nodded in agreement, and the two set off. Winter could hear the bus leaving behind them.
Winter followed Robin down a small dirt path. It wasn’t long before the duo reached the farm, and Winter’s eyes widened in.. what was it? Awe? Surprise? Disgust? She wasn’t sure exactly, but she felt a large influx of emotion that weighed heavy on her chest. To her right she saw an old wooden bin, maybe five feet across, possibly used for storage. Just past that box and to the right was her mailbox, followed by her new farmhouse. It wasn’t exactly small, but it wasn’t quite large either; the cabin was in somewhat disrepair, though it seemed to have a hearty structure. She looked beyond it to the fields, and she felt her heart sink. The grounds of the farm were what pulled at her heart most, for there was a sea of rocks, twigs, weeds, and numerous trees that would easily take days, if not weeks, to clear. Winter thought she heard the faint sound of water not too far off.
Robin tore Winter from her thoughts. “This is Springdew Farm.” Robin smiled warmly, obviously seeing the uncertainty painted on Winter’s face. “Sure, it’s a bit overgrown, but there’s some good soil underneath that mess!”
“Way, way underneath, I’m sure,” Winter sighed.
Robin chuckled robustly. “With a little dedication you’ll have it cleaned up in no time.”
Easy for you to say, Winter thought begrudgingly. Robin seemed nice enough, but was she toying with her? Did she not see the place?!
Robin led Winter to the porch. “And here we are,” Robin began with a smile that reached from one ear to the next, setting down the suitcase she had been holding. “Your new home.”
With a creak the front door to the cabin opened, and a tall, older gentleman of medium build emerged from the doorway. He wore brown pants and a green long-sleeved shirt, a brown cap adorning his head along with a brown vest on his upper body. He tipped his hat, and Winter offered a small wave.
“Ah, the new farmer!” The man smiled, his moustache raising with his eyebrows. He tipped his hat, and Winter offered a small wave. “Welcome,” he began, stepping down to be level with the ladies. He took Winter’s hand and gave it a brisk shake. “I’m Lewis, mayor of Pelican Town. You know, everyone’s been asking about you.”
“You don’t say,” Winter said with a small chuckle. She could feel the debris behind her staring a hole in her back, but she ignored the unease it brought and put on the usual cheery demeanor she made sure to have.
Winter held a small smile as Lewis and Robin argued about whether the house was “rustic” or “crusty”, the two conversing as if they were old friends. Soon Robin and Lewis took their leave, and Winter was left alone with her grandfather’s old house. Her new house.
Winter climbed the few steps up to the porch, pulling her two suitcases behind her, each hitting a step along the way with a small thump . She left them by the front door and set her backpack beside them, taking in the sight of the room she entered. Looks could definitely be deceiving, as the house had definitely looked larger from the outside. The entire structure was one room, save for a small bathroom off to the side. A fireplace sat in the far right corner, a creaky table set before it. A small bed was nestled in the corner to the right of the door, and a small old-school television set was in the far left corner atop a small wood stand. “Wonder if it gets Pay-Per-View,” she joked to herself, forcing a grin.
Winter stumbled upon a small box on the floor, with enough tape to supply a Joja warehouse wrapped around it. She knelt down before it and grabbed a note that laid on top. A gift from Lewis, 15 parsnip seeds.
Oh yeah, she remembered, laughing again to herself. I’m a farmer now.
I know things are a little slow to start, but I'm the type of person who really likes to really set the stage before jumping into things. Please leave comments with anything you may like, any questions, or (constructive!) criticisms you may have!
Chapter 3: Beginnings
It's Winter's first day in Stardew Valley. What better way to spend it, than to run around introducing herself to everyone in the town like the Mayor suggested?
Oooh, two for the price of one! I know this chapter is a bit on the short side, but from this point forward we will be truly jumping into the story. Enjoy!
Ignoring the fact that she had an entire farm to clear, Winter took Lewis’s advice, left for her in the note that came with his gift of parsnip seeds. He suggested that it would be a good idea for her to roam around town and introduce herself to the other inhabitants. She had a couple days before she truly needed to get to work as Spring came along, so she decided it was better to get it done and over with. She had always been able to relate to multiple groups of people, so she hoped that she would quickly find some folks to become familiar with.
First impressions had always been important to her for the most part, and she felt this was especially important since everyone had evidently been asking about her. They all probably knew my grandfather, so there’s that at least. She rebraided her black hair, still damp in places from her morning shower. She pulled open the suitcase that housed her clothing on her new bed, deciding to put on a nicer outfit. A dress, perhaps? Too flashy, she needed to blend in with her new crowd. Overalls? Maybe that was pushing it too far, she didn’t want people to think she thought they were country bumpkins. She looked down to her current outfit, dark-washed skinny jeans with a gray graphic tee. She had also been wearing a dark purple jacket, and her new-ish boots rested on her feet. Winter changed her mind; her current outfit was fine.
Winter found town easy enough, walking just past the bus stop and following the road signs. She was amazed at how easily she could breathe, extremely unlike where she lived. Used to live. This place, Pelican Town, was definitely no Zuzu City, and she felt like she was already starting to love it.
It was just before noon at this point, and a Saturday, so she figured she would have no problem finding places that were open. First she stopped by the clinic (which was actually closed, go figure) and greeted a gentleman with disheveled hair, dark-rimmed glasses, and a thick brown moustache. Harvey. He advised her to check next door and speak to Pierre, the owner of the general store. He would be able to give her an idea of where she needed to go to meet everyone.
A small bell dinged overhead, announcing her entry. She was greeted by a man behind the counter toward the back of the store. Pierre. They spoke briefly, until his attention was grabbed from behind her. “Let me introduce you to my daughter,” he started with a smile. “Abigail! Come here. Meet the new farmer.”
Winter turned, her eyes catching a sea of purple bobbing toward them. “Oh that's right...I heard someone new was moving onto that old farm.” The girl smiled slightly, holding her hand out for Winter to shake.
“Hi, my name is Winter.”
“I’m Abigail.” The girl tilted her head just slightly, looking Winter up and down with a brief silence. Her smile deepened, eyes narrowing slightly, and she looked Winter in the eye again. “It's kind of a shame, really. I always enjoyed exploring those overgrown fields by myself.”
“I-I’m sorry?” Winter’s brow furrowed. She didn’t know whether she should feel offended, or --
“I don’t mean anything by it!” Abigail giggled, waving in apology. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to upset you.”
A bit of small talk later, and Abigail hopped up and down with an idea. “Hey Winter, why don’t you stop by the bar tonight? A lot of people will be there. You can just knock out a bunch of introductions while you’re there!”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Winter nodded. She wasn’t so sure about Abigail just yet; she seemed nice, but the girl was definitely… quirky. The fact that she existed in this small town, however, gave Winter hope. She had been somewhat worried that she wouldn’t find a crowd to fit in, that she would have to force relationships like she had done in Zuzu City. One of the big reasons Winter had decided to take up her inheritance of the farm was so that she would no longer have to do that. Perhaps with Abigail’s help, she’d find her new niche in Stardew Valley.
Winter did a bit of shopping in the general store before she left, Pierre giving her a small rucksack to house her new goods in. Pierre told her she would have to come back the following day, the first of Spring, to get seeds, but she still managed to grab a little fertilizer and a couple food items she’d prepare in her fireplace. Like a Young-Lady Scout. She was amazed at how much she could fit in the small bag without it tugging at her shoulders, decided it was probably something in the valley air that gave her the sudden super-strength.
Though she would save a lot of it for that evening at the bar, she walked about the town to get her bearings and met folks along the way. First she stumbled upon a young woman, Penny, playing with two children, Jas and Vincent. Then Maru. Elliot. Leah. Willy. Alex. Evelyn and George. Winter began to feel like a broken record, seemingly saying the same thing and hearing the same things with each introduction. Yes, I’m the new farmer. Yes, I’m aware my name is a season. My sister is also a season. Yes, it’s funny.
Soon it was nearly five, and Winter felt like she needed to go home and change for the evening. The town had a saloon -- not a bar like in the city, it was a saloon -- and she realized she wasn’t quite sure how she should dress for a saloon. In the city when one went to a bar, you usually wore a bustier and the highest heels you owned. However, she had left her heels back in the city, and she wasn’t sure if wearing a revealing outfit would appeal to the valley crowd. When she eventually returned to the farmhouse she elected to merely change into a slightly-dressier blue button-down, with a pale yellow camisole underneath. Winter kicked off her boots and put on a pair of black and white Discourse sneakers, and she removed her hair from its braid, leaving her hair slightly curled in a neater manner than was normal for her black locks.
With each step she took on the pathway that led her to town, Winter felt more and more nervous. She was so unsure why she felt so uneasy. She had always been a very bubbly, sociable person. She had to be. Her mother expected her to be, because that’s how she was herself. No matter the circumstances, no matter the mood, no matter how much she hated her life, she had to put on a happy face and pretend that she had it all together. She had to make friends with everyone, she had to make the grades, she had to be in the clubs, she had to go to a respectable college like ZCU... She had to be liked. It wasn’t until recently that the facade she had built became even more important…
With very little misdirection she found the saloon, and hesitated before walking inside. She watched the valley bugs buzzing about the entry light, lost in thought. Come on, Winter. She couldn’t be down. She couldn’t hold herself back. She had to redirect. Winter raised and lowered her shoulders briskly, shifting from one foot to the other in attempt to psyche herself up. Her attempt was thankfully successful, and she felt a wave a relief wash over her. She could go in with no troubles! Winter’s inner pep talk was interrupted as a patron slid past her to the door, a gentleman with plenty of stubble along his chin and untidy dark hair. She muttered an excuse me , her nose crinkling to the faint smell of alcohol that drifted from his person. She gave it a couple moments before she also stepped inside.
The sound of piano drifted through the saloon, small conversations littering the atmosphere. It quieted ever-so-briefly as she walked in, and with a quick look around she found most eyes had unshockingly fallen on her. With a smile she made her way around the room, introducing herself once again. She saw Lewis, seated next to a robust woman with wild brown hair. Marnie. She continued around. Pam. Gus. Emily. Shane, the grumpy patron from just outside the door. Clint. She had finished the room, though she heard laughter coming from an adjacent room and made way.
It was a game room of sorts, equipped with a couple arcade machines, billiards table, a couple couches, and a Joja cola machine. There was a familiar face, Abigail, playing one of the arcade machines near the entry of the room, who noticed Winter right away. As soon as Abigail looked away to greet Winter, a sound of defeat chimed from the machine, and the young woman sighed.
The sound of pool cue hitting a ball shifted Winter’s gaze, and she noticed two others in the room, both seemingly near her age. The first, a fellow with a tall stack of blonde hair, seemed distressed, obviously not the one winning their game. The second she immediately locked eyes with. His eyes were a deep gray and naturally narrow, with dark hair falling before them as he leaned forward to make his hit of the cue ball. The moment lasted mere seconds, but in a cliche way, Winter felt like it lasted quite some time.
“Hey guys, meet the new farmer.” Abigail had moved next to Winter, and her presence caused Winter to break her stare.
The initial gentleman, the blonde, was the first to greet her. “Hey, I’m Sam. Good to meet you.”
“Hello, Sam.” Winter offered him a smile. “My name is Winter.”
“No kidding, like the season?” Sam grinned, putting his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket and nodding. “That’s a pretty cool name. Never heard anything like that before.”
“I get that a lot.”
“And that over there is Sebastian,” Abigail pointed to her friend on the opposite side of the pool table, who had straightened and was chalking the end of his pool cue. Winter’s head tilted just slightly as she studied him. He definitely didn’t come off as sociable as his two friends, and that puzzled her.
Sebastian managed a brief “hi” before he lined up another shot, going for the eight ball amongst a litter of stripes. It sank directly into a hole, which made Sam cringe. “Gee Seb, could have at least waited until the new girl wasn’t looking. Now you made me look bad.”
“That’s not hard to do,” Sebastian finally said, his voice low and cool, a barely noticeable grin on his otherwise stoic face.
“Hey now,” Sam laughed, Abigail joining with her own. Winter smiled. It was evident that the three of them were good friends, and that impressed her. She had been correct in assuming Abigail was not alone in this town, that there were others who didn’t fit the same “small town” mold. The three of them definitely came off as the more rebellious of the town, both in dress in demeanor, and deep down Winter hoped that she would be able to fit in with them somehow.
The rest of the evening was spent socializing, mainly with Abigail, with Sam chiming in here and there to offer his input to whatever topic they were discussing. At one point Winter realized she had not eaten since that morning, and she ordered a pizza. Within a surprisingly short period of time the pizza was presented, and she made the decision to share with the trio. Sam and Abigail accepted with quite vocal thanks, though Sebastian did accept a slice and say thanks as well, in his own way. Winter was happy to offer them some, a peace offering of sorts, and the four of them ate and conversed.
After they had finished eating Winter excused herself, saying goodbye to the other patrons of the saloon as she made her way out. It was nearly ten, and she had had a very long day. She felt quite drained, more so emotionally than physically. She pegged that the change of scenery had not fully hit her, and as she closed the door to her new farmhouse she realized that it was more true than she had pondered on the ride to town. She slid down the door, streams of fresh tears gliding down her cheeks.
Chapter 4: Blisters of Spring
It's the first day of Spring, which means it's time for Winter to become a farmer. Will her first day go smoothly, or end in disaster?
The first day of Spring meant it was time to get to work, and Winter had absolutely no idea where to start.
She had awoken that morning at 6 am, a couple hours earlier than she normally would have back in Zuzu City. Sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar house, in an unfamiliar town, did not allow her to get much in the sleep department; therefore, she awoke much less rested than she normally would have. This did not mean she lacked determination. Before leaving the city, she had paid off a good bit of her debts with the little bit she had saved up from working for Joja, leaving even less to begin her new life. If she was going to survive out in the Valley, she had no choice but to put in the work.
A small fire was started in her fireplace, and she used it to cook herself breakfast. Winter munched on a granola bar as the two eggs cooked in their bed of aluminum foil, pondering what her priorities would be for the day. She for sure needed to make it to Pierre’s shop when it opened to purchase some more seeds. There was no way she would be able to survive on parsnips alone. In fact, she couldn’t even remember ever eating parsnips in the past. Did you sautée them? Put them in a salad? Feed them to the woodland creatures in an attempt to catch herself some real food? No, she definitely needed to buy as much of a variety as was offered by the small general store.
After eating her eggs by hand, cursing the fact that she hadn’t thought to bring utensils from the city, Winter dressed and pulled on her boots. She’d wasted an entire hour on breakfast, so she needed to get started if she was going to make any headway at all. She grabbed her laptop from atop the table for some tunes, along with her phone, and proceeded outside.
As soon as she stepped out of the aged cottage, she wished she had never left her bed. Overnight she had somehow forgotten the fact that her new residence was a complete and utter mess, with branches and rocks strewn every which way, a jungle of weeds swaying in the spring breeze. How would she clear all of this? She sat on the top step of her porch, placing her laptop on the wood next to her, and sighed. Winter, what did you get yourself into?
Winter looked to her right, seeing the tools she had left out the day prior. Light bulb. Taking care to not step on her laptop, Winter hopped up and moved over to the pile of well-loved specimens. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as hard as it looked, as she had everything she would need. Winter had spent a number of years as a Young-Lady Scout, and while there wasn’t much wilderness they got to explore in the concrete jungle, they definitely had been taught about certain things using the wonderful technology of the book. She’d use the scythe to hack away at the overgrowth, her hammer to smash at the rocks, and she even had an axe to take care of the wood. Simple enough, right?
Starting up some music on her laptop and setting an alarm for when she needed to head to Pierre’s, Winter gave herself a brief pep talk before she moved the tools she would need closer to her workspace. But as she picked up each tool, ready to use them, feeling the weight and adjusting her grip as necessary, she realized that she had absolutely no idea what the fuck she was doing.
The axe and hammer were easy enough. You swing, you maybe land where intended, you possibly even get some salvageable materials to use. When she picked up her scythe, however, she eyed the blade and felt a lump grow in her throat. It seemed dull enough, which wasn’t really a good thing but felt right for her current situation. Winter made a few practice swings, and luckily she managed to keep herself from losing a limb. If only Grandpa had left an instruction booklet. Deciding she didn’t want to kill herself that day, Winter returned to her previous perch on the top stair leading to the house and looked up how to properly use the scythe on her cellphone.
With her newfound knowledge of farming (thanks to good ol’ Boogle.com), she suddenly felt energy coursing through her veins and began hacking away at the weeds about her farm, leaving bundles of fiber for her to collect. She figured that she could potentially use the materials she gathered from her work for future projects, and so she made a mental note to start a collection at the side of her farmhouse. Once she got into a groove she actually found that she was enjoying herself. She hummed along to the low music that traveled to her from the laptop, and within what felt like a few minutes, it was time for her to go to Pierre’s.
The rest of her day, following spending nearly all of her money at Pierre's, surprisingly went pretty smoothly. She wasn’t quite able to get anything planted, as she gained a sudden bout of obsessive-compulsive disorder and had to make sure everything was perfectly aligned and prepared before she did anything definite. Seeds are too expensive to screw it up. Regardless, Winter was proud of the work she had accomplished in her first day. She managed to clear an entire section of the farm, till the land, and prepare for the planting she would do the following day.
By about five o’clock she was ready to call it quits, her muscles aching, especially in her lower back and her legs from all the up down, up down she had done that day. Winter wasn’t exactly an unfit person, having been pretty blessed genetically while also going for runs nearly every morning before work. She had never really done manual labor before, especially not to that degree, and so it was only natural for her to hurt. She had also been a dummy and not gotten any gloves while she was at Pierre’s, so the skin of her palms was torn and bore blisters.
Winter took the hottest shower she could stand, swirls of black circling the drain as the muck was washed from her skin. Utilizing a washcloth she had, thankfully, remembered to pack, she scrubbed at her skin and brought it back to its normal level of cleanliness. When she felt she couldn’t possibly get any cleaner she closed the water valve and stepped out of the shower.
After brushing her teeth and applying moisturizer to her face, Winter began to leave the bathroom, but stopped when she noticed her reflection in the full-body mirror that hung on the door. She paused and studied herself. First, her eyes: naturally a pale, nearly iridescent blue, they looked lackluster and dull. Next she noted the freckles on her face, or lack-thereof; she had spent so much time indoors on bedrest during the winter season that she had nearly completely lost the speckles that dusted her cheeks and nose. She could feel her hair, which was naturally thick and wavy, already beginning to frizz as it dried. Letting her towel drop to the floor, Winter studied herself further. She was indeed gifted in the gene department, naturally having a moderate bust, small waist, ample hips and “legs for days” (as Regina had put it), but she noticed that she was looking a little plumper than she remembered. Bedrest meant she couldn’t work off all the food she was emotionally eating, but until now she had not taken the time to truly look at herself enough to realize she had gained some weight. Luckily, farm work would take care of that for her.
Winter finally dressed, choosing a black graphic tee with some small time band’s logo across the front, and a pair of denim shorts that hugged her hips. She pulled her dark black hair into a messy bun at the back of her head. Winter looked about the room and decided she would rather not cook her evening meal using some sort of aluminum foil vessel. Instead, she’d take another trip to the saloon to grab a bite to eat. She took another route to get there than the norm, choosing to head past the ranch to the south instead of passing the bus stop. It was a longer way to get there, but she hadn’t really been able to take in the scenery via that route just yet.
She took her time on her stroll, her eyes skimming around to take in every detail for future reference. As she approached town, however, she realized that it would probably be a good idea to check her money to ensure she had enough to even feed herself.
She continued walking as she scrolled through her phone, a few moments later interrupted by a voice calling out to her. “Hey!” Winter looked up, her eyes searching, until they stopped on a couple familiar faces. Sam and Sebastian stood together by the river, each of them with a lit cigarette in one hand. Sam used his other hand to wave her over enthusiastically, and Winter obliged.
“Hey you two, how are things?” Winter offered the two of them a warm smile as she approached them.
Sam shrugged, a look of mild amusement on his face. “Not too shabby, miss Last-Season.”
“That was funnier in your head, wasn’t it?” Sebastian shook his head with a grin, taking a long drag of his cigarette.
“Probably was,” Winter glared at Sam, but she found herself laughing anyway. “So are you guys just hanging out, or..?”
“Yeah. Just hanging out.” Sam shrugged again, flicking his half-finished cigarette off toward the river. He turned to face Winter, putting both hands in the pockets of his denim jacket. “How was the first day of spring, farmer?”
Winter groaned. “As much as I’d love to say it was rewarding, it was mostly a disaster.” She held up a hand to show the mess she had created on her palms, and Sam winced. “I went into it so determined and ready to get shit done, but I quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.” She let her hand fall, a small grin on her face.
“Well what are you on your way to do now?” Sam inquired, rocking on his heels. Sebastian remained quiet.
“To be honest, I was on my way to the saloon to get some food.” Winter crossed her arms, taking a deep breath in and exhaling slowly. “Nothing too extravagant as it is the first day of spring, but I’m already tired of cooking in my fireplace.”
“Cooking in your fireplace?” Sebastian’s brows furrowed, and his head tilted just slightly to the side.
“Yeah,” Winter chuckled. “I don’t have a kitchen, so I had to use my fireplace to cook eggs this morning. It wasn’t a.. Total disaster, but I also had to eat them by hand, so there’s that too.”
“Well why don’t you come have dinner at my place?” Sam quirked up, motioning to one of the houses that sat behind the trio. “My mom’s making baked fish, I’m sure she’d be more than happy to have a guest! Especially the new farmer.”
Winter’s eyes lit up, a smile rising in the corners of her mouth. “Really? I wouldn’t want to impose --”
“Oh you wouldn’t be,” Sam put an arm around her shoulder, giving her a brief, assuring squeeze before he removed it. “My mom loves visitors. Sebastian’s like a son to her at this point, so he can attest.”
“Okay, well, if it would be all right --”
“It’ll be fine! You in, Seb?” Sam looked to his friend, who took a final drag on his cigarette before he also flicked it toward the river.
“Nah. I think mom’s expecting me for dinner tonight.”
“Right on,” Sam nodded, giving his friend a pat on the arm. “We’ll see you later then.”
“Later,” Sebastian gave a small wave, his eyes meeting Winter’s and lingering for a moment. The moment was cut short by Sam pulling Winter’s attention away, having her follow him to his house. Sebastian shook his head and started in the direction of the mountains.
Sam opened the door and allowed Winter in first, muttering a “m’lady” with an extended hand before he followed after her. “Mom!” he called, cupping a hand on one side of his mouth to help carry the sound. “We have a guest for dinner, okay?”
“Of course,” came a voice from the kitchen, out of view. “Who is it?”
“It’s the new farmer --”
“-- Oh why didn’t you say so!”
Sam gave Winter a wink, and she smiled. “See, I told you she loves company.” Sam led her to the kitchen, where his mother held the oven ajar just slightly, enough so she could take a quick peek. The amazing aroma filled the air, and Winter’s stomach growled loudly. Sam grinned at her. “Mom, this is Winter.”
“Winter? Like the season?” His mom wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and turned around. The woman had a sweet face, so Winter decided she wouldn’t cause a stink for the over-used association. “Well that is just beautiful!”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“My name is Jodi.” Jodi crossed the kitchen and extended a hand. Winter held up one of hers apologetically, showing her mangled palms, and Jodi suddenly looked concerned. “Rough first day, huh?”
Winter nodded. “It looks worse than it really is.”
Jodi shook her head and looked to Sam. “Samson, go grab the first aid kit from the bathroom --”
“--Really, it’s not that bad --”
“ -- Nonsense Winter, you need to take care of that so you can do your work tomorrow!” Jodi motioned for her to have a seat at the kitchen table, and she obliged. Within moments Sam returned with the first aid kit, and Jodi began rummaging through it. “I have some antiseptic spray in here somewhere, and some ointment.. I’ll let you take these bandages, too. Hopefully those blisters will heal tonight. Do you not have gloves, Winter?”
Winter could feel a flush go to her cheeks, and she shook her head. “No. I’m new to farming, so the thought didn’t even cross my mind.”
“I have some you can use. I help Evelyn with gardening around town sometimes, and we already planted the early spring flowers.” Jodi’s smile carried to her eyes, and she motioned for Winter to extend her palms. Winter set both arms on the table, letting the back of her hands rest on the wood surface. Jodi sprayed the antiseptic spray all along the sores that graced Winter’s palms, paused for a moment, then gingerly applied the ointment. “I’m so used to my two boys, this is the first time I’ve sprayed someone with that without them squealing.”
With a raised brow, Winter looked to Sam. “He was a tough one, huh?” She grinned as Sam grew visibly embarrassed.
Jodi nodded, laughing lightly. “Sam was worse than Vince when he was a little boy. He was banged up all the time, always came home crying --”
“Okay, okay!” Sam interrupted, shaking his head fervorously. “That’s enough, mom.”
“Yes, wouldn’t want to embarrass you in front of your new friend,” Jodi gave Winter a knowing glance, and Winter smiled back to the woman. “I’m finishing up anyway, we’ll wrap them with bandages so the ointment can work its magic.”
“Thank you, Jodi.” Winter couldn’t remember the last time her mother had been this nurturing toward her or her sister. Usually it was her father that would clean up their scrapes, her mother was typically too busy. Gwen always had a very strict schedule, lead of an important law firm in Zuzu City that took on high-stakes criminal law. This often left her father with the Mr. Mom duties.
As Jodi closed the first aid kit after wrapping Winter’s hands, a ding came from an egg timer that sat on the counter next to the oven. Jodi stood and slid the first aid kit to Sam, who returned it to the bathroom, and moved to take the fish out of the oven. Winter watched from the table, her palms already much relieved thanks to Jodi’s tender care. She closed her eyes for a moment and let the wondrous smells from the baked fish waft to her nose, and she felt more at home than she had since leaving the city.
Crickets chirped around her as she began her walk home, a tupperware dish with leftovers in one hand while the other held a flashlight that Sam had given her for the walk home. It had been a long time since she had dinner at someone else’s house, that she felt like she was back in school. They had all engaged in small talk, with Winter avoiding the truth behind her reasoning for leaving the big city. She was pleased to learn more about her new friend Sam. She learned that a few nights of the week he spent a few hours at the nearby Joja Mart -- which she hadn’t even known existed in the small town until that gathering. As much as she wanted to stay far from Joja, she knew that it would probably be a good idea to make a stop there to get some things for her house, at least until she could afford to build them or purchase them through other means. Joja Marts typically were cheaper than regular stores, but she had never been to one in a town like that, so she had no idea what to expect.
Winter kicked at some rocks with her boot. Suddenly she heard the thumping of footfalls behind her. “Hey, Winter!” She stopped and turned toward the voice, seeing Sam jogging toward her. “Mom wanted me to bring you the gloves. She said that they’re yours, you’d get better use out of them.”
Easing to a stop he held the gloves out to her, and she carefully grabbed them. With the light of the flashlight she saw the pale pink cuff of the gloves, letting her fingers run along the small flowers adorning the hem. They looked well taken care of and held no stains that she could see. They definitely belonged to Jodi. She felt bad that she would be ruining them as she took care of the farm.
As she was about to thank him, Sam spoke up. “So hey, listen. This might come off a little weird, but… do you want to exchange numbers?”
Winter could feel her cheeks warm just-so, and she hoped that the night masked her blush. “Y-yeah, sure.”
“I’m not being a creep, I swear.” Sam grinned, big enough for Winter to see in the dim night light.
Winter chuckled. “I know, Sam. What’s your number, I’ll text you.”
Sam listed off his phone number, and Winter punched it into her phone. She shot him a quick text message, and he nodded as it was received. The two of them exchanged goodbyes, and they turned their opposite ways. A few steps off Sam called to her, “Let me know you made it home!” Winter smiled and agreed. She could sense that this was the beginning of her social life in Stardew Valley.
I grew up playing Harvest Moon and Rune Factory, and even with Stardew Valley I always wondered how the main character just KNEW how to be a farmer.. So, I figured I'd have a little bit of fun with it. Hope you enjoyed the chapter!
Chapter 5: No Love for Honky-Tonk
Winter somehow makes it through her first week on the farm, with some definite success! Rain on the seventh day brings a break for her, and her friendship with two of the town's bachelors grows.
The first week of Spring went by pretty quickly, and that was mostly thanks to the exhaustion that plagued her. Winter didn’t realize just how unfit she was; she had thought she was actually doing well for herself. However, with each day came tenderness in muscles she had somehow never used before. Her legs screamed, begging for her to stop, but the work that was required of her called for the most strain on them in particular. And her back. Boy, did she wish she had paid attention to those Joja training videos on lifting. Was it lift with your arms, lift with your legs, don’t lock your neck..?
It took the first couple of days for her to fully till, plant, and water the seeds she had bought at Pierre’s the first day of Spring. After the hours of work she didn’t feel like doing much else. Winter simply went inside after finishing her duties, took the longest shower she could muster, and immediately went to bed after giving her sore limbs a good rubdown. The only eating she did was during breakfast hours, she was simply too tired to eat any other part of the day.
As days passed her workload lessened. All of her seeds had been planted, so all she had to do was go around and water them every day. Watering, of course, was a chore all in itself. After watering a row or so of her crops, she would find her can had emptied. At that point she had no choice but to take a short trip to the nearby pond to fill it back up. She did this over, and over, and over again, every day, with each trip somehow taking much longer than the prior. Though her sanity was being tested from the ridiculous repetition, she was thankful for the break her legs were getting. This time, it was her arms’ turn to feel sore.
Without her even noticing, six days had gone by. It was Saturday, which used to mean a day off from the daily grind; however, her new life came with no days off. Her alarm clock buzzed at 6 a.m. that morning, just as it had before, and out of habit she found herself pressing the snooze button…
...a couple of ten-minute snoozes later, and she remembered that snoozing was really no longer an option for her. Daylight hours were precious, especially before the sun had fully risen. These hours were best, because if she did the hard stuff then, she could take care of the easy stuff when the sun was at its hottest. Winter laid in her bed, hair sprawled every which-way, and stared at the ceiling with intense uncertainty. How am I going to keep doing this? A hand slapped to her forehead, sliding down dramatically until it rested on her sternum. Get a grip, Winter. You can’t be moping like this.
She cracked a couple eggs into a pan-shaped piece of aluminum foil, letting it sizzle in her fireplace as she dressed herself. A brush was pulled through her knotted raven hair, which she pulled back into a messy bun at the crown of her head. The bland and boring eggs were hastily eaten, and she crumpled the foil into a ball and tossed it into a trash can in the corner of the room, fashioned out of an old tin pail she had found at one corner of the farm. The once-pink gloves that had been gifted to her by Jodi, the palms now blackened from her labor, were pulled onto each hand and she stepped out of her farmhouse to begin her work.
The next few hours went by somewhat quickly, or so they felt that way; quite honestly, Winter’s mind had mostly zoned out for the beginning of it, finally pricking up when she stumbled upon some crops that needed harvesting. By the end she had managed to pick several potatoes, a few bunches of kale, some radishes, and a few beets. It was by far her best harvest yet, much better than the parsnips a couple days prior; and despite having a few unlucky plants that didn’t turn out so well, she couldn’t help but be excited. The basket she used for picking was filled and heavy, a trophy she carried to her porch with an energy she hadn’t felt in a number of days. She quickly sorted the veggies she would be keeping for herself, and the rest she immediately took to Pierre’s for some quick cash so she could buy more seeds.
With her newfound energy, the rest of her chores were finished quickly. It was about three when she wrapped things up. The vegetables she had kept for herself were laid out on her table after first washing them in her bathroom sink. She took inventory, trying to figure out what gourmet concoction she could pull together with the odds and ends she had raised. Winter was by no means an excellent cook, but she had imagination, and usually that was good enough for her.
Leah had mentioned before that a lot could be gathered around the town, and how she had managed to pull together a salad simply from foraged goods. Since she was in a cooking mood, Winter decided there was no better time to run around and find herself some other items she could throw together. Using a tote she had brought from the city, Winter padded around town, managing quite a bounty. Wild horseradish, leeks, spring onions, some brown mushrooms... The tote was quickly weighed down by the items, and she excitedly ran home to drop off her treasures.
It was the first real meal that Winter had made for herself since coming to the Valley. Using a pocket knife she had packed in one of her suitcases, she sliced up a potato, a couple radishes, as well as some onion and mushrooms. They were then wrapped in foil, which Winter carefully placed beside the small fire she had raised in her fireplace. While that was cooking Winter flipped through the three channels on her television, bits of static fizzing in the corners periodically as she listened to the weather forecast for the following day. Rain. Good, less to do tomorrow.
She finished her meal, satisfied not only with the taste, but extremely proud that she had managed to get results for her hard work. Never had Winter thought she’d get so much fulfillment for something so simple as raising some vegetables in a garden. She’d had flower boxes growing up, hanging from her apartment window high up from the ground below, and Dad would typically help her grow simple plants, like flowers and beans. It was perhaps his way of retaining a connection with the Valley he grew up in, or even his way of staying connected to his father who had passed when Winter was little. Most of the time the plants would either die, or once they had sprouted she would lose interest and they would wither away. Now this was her livelihood, and quite honestly would, at least for a time, be her only means of having food for the table. She had no choice but to do well.
The shower that followed felt quite invigorating. As she washed away the dirt and grime of the day, a tune bobbled in her head. First it made her hum, and soon she began to sing. " ... If he's gone to stay, that old rocking chair's going to get me.. ." She hadn’t sang in a long time, but with the fulfillment she had gotten from raising those crops, came contentment. Maybe moving out to the country truly was a good decision.
Rain in the valley was different, so very different, from rain in the city. The droplets hitting her roof reminded Winter of those wooden tubes filled with beads that you played with in music class as a kid, made to mimic the sounds of the weather. It calmed her, and ultimately she decided she would sleep in. The rain would make it so she wouldn’t have to water her crops, thus cutting down drastically on her workload, so what shame was there in getting a little rest?
Instead of actually falling back asleep, Winter found herself tossing about underneath her blankets. She was restless. Trying to sleep longer actually felt wrong to her! She was ready to take on the day, she was ready to do what she had to do, she needed to get shit done ! But what was there for her to do?
About thirty minutes after her alarm initially went off, she left the comfort of her bed and trudged about the room, trying to find something to occupy her time. In her laziness her room had become quite cluttered. Dirty clothes piled up next to her bed, the suitcase housing her clean laundry opened up on the opposite side. She suddenly realized that she would, at some point, have to do laundry… But how? In her family apartment in the city she had both an oversized washer and an industrial dryer, but in her new home she had neither. A picture suddenly emerged in her mind: she was outside wading about in the small pond next to her fields, swishing her clothes about in the water to get them clean like a human washing machine. While the image was actually quite hilarious, causing her to chuckle, she decided washing her clothes by hand would be an absolute last resort… For the time being, she merely pushed her dirty laundry underneath her bed to hide the clutter.
Winter continued her mild cleaning spree, wiping down the few surfaces she had with a damp towel, which she then used to fashion herself a makeshift mop using the handle-side of her broom. She filled an old bucket with water, using some multi-purpose cleaner she had purchased from Pierre’s her first day, and swished the water about her floors. As she finished she took a look at her work, and while it only had done so much , it definitely was a start.
Winter dressed and put on the rainboots she had (thankfully) brought from the city, stepping outside to take a survey of her fields. From her porch she could see the promise of another bountiful harvest, green sprouts popping up all over the rows she had planted. She had some flowers that had fully grown at that point, several Blue Jazz and Tulips ready for picking; she gathered them and figured she would make it a point to bring a bouquet to Jodi as a thank-you for her kindness the other day.
It was about noon when she finally began her trek toward the house by the river. She wore an old water-resistant windbreaker her dad had given her, belonging to him for quite some time; it kept her shorts and black graphic tee dry beneath it. The rain thankfully was not terribly heavy at that point, which helped her save the flowers from utter destruction. Her rain boots, however, muddied quite quickly.
She knocked on the front door of the blue cottage, and mere moments later Vincent opened the door. “Hi there,” Winter offered him a warm smile.
“What do you want?” was all he replied, a suspicious-yet-inquisitive look on the small boy’s face. Sheesh, Winter thought. I know I’m a stranger, but geez..
“Is your Mom home?”
“Yeah, she’s in the kitchen.”
“May I come in?”
Vincent eyed her up and down, his eyes stopping on her boots. “Yeah okay. Better take off your shoes, momma hates when we get mud in.”
Winter looked down to her boots, and she determined it would probably be best if she just left them outside. She kicked them off and set them to the side of the door, but still under the overhang that covered the entryway, hoping that would be enough to keep the rain from filling the insides. Vincent had already left, leaving the door ajar for her. She gave her body a quick shake to remove any water droplets that may have hung on her windbreaker, and continued inside.
She quickly found Jodi in the kitchen, just as Vincent had said. Jodi was of course quite welcoming, reminiscent of when Winter had joined them for dinner. They engaged in a bit of small talk, Jodi asking Winter about the farm and how things were going. Winter’s face lit up as she told Jodi about her first harvest, again thanking Jodi for letting her use her gloves.
“I’m just glad they’re getting some use out of them, Winter dear.” Jodi took a quick sniff of the flowers Winter had just given her, taking them to the kitchen sink. “These will look so nice on my table.”
The sound of music drifted from down the hall, and Winter looked toward the sound. It definitely didn’t sound recorded, which made Winter quite curious. “Is Sam home?” she finally asked, turning back to look in Jodi’s direction.
“Yes he’s here,” Jodi said, dropping the flowers in a glass vase she had conjured from one of her cabinets. “He’s in his room with Sebastian.”
“Is that them? The music, I mean.”
Jodi exhaled, her shoulders slouching somewhat as she did so. Apparently, Winter realized, Jodi was not a fan. “Yes, that’s them playing. You can go say hi if you’d like.”
Winter thanked her and padded down the hall. She stopped when she heard a few notes coming from what sounded like a guitar, which quickly erupted into a flurry of sound that melded together with notes from a… synthesizer? She first listened from outside the door, a small smile on her face, before she opened it as quietly as she could. The music grew louder as she entered, and Winter found it easy to tiptoe through the entryway to the room. She looked around the corner, seeing both Sam and Sebastian. The two of them were very engulfed in their music, not even realizing she had entered, and Winter found some comfort in knowing how they felt in that moment.
Sebastian, whose fingers had just been dancing across the keys with a grace that clashed against his dark exterior, was the first to notice her. He stopped playing abruptly, his back stiffening. Winter was looking at them with a childlike wonder, her eyes big and a smile on her face, and he felt a flittering in his chest he couldn’t quite understand. He looked over to Sam, who was lost in his strings, and Sebastian cleared his throat to gain his attention.
Sam looked up to Sebastian, his browse raising with a small “Hmm?” Sebastian nodded toward Winter, and Sam turned to face her, silence coming from his guitar. "Oh, hi Winter!" Sam grinned, running a hand through his gravity-defying hair. "Sebastian and I were just having a little jam session."
Winter approached the two. “I’m sorry I interrupted. It sounded really good!”
Sam’s cheeks flushed somewhat, and he set down his guitar. "We're trying to start a band, but we still don't know what kind of music to make. There's too many possibilities."
Sebastian scoffed, and Winter looked up to find him leaning against the wall behind his keyboard, arms crossed. Her head tilted slightly to the right, pondering Sebastian’s stance. He seemed distant, closed off from the two of them, and she wondered how he felt about the whole ordeal. Sam seemed like the type to come up with plenty of ideas, but the two of them seemed so different that she believed there was no way they would come to an agreement easily. She didn’t know how right she was in thinking so.
“Say, Winter…” Her brows raised, and she brought her attention back to Sam. He was engaged in a very nonchalant stance, and Winter could only guess that it was his attempt to look ‘cool’. “What type of music do you like?”
Winter was actually quite confused about his question. She had definitely grown up with an appreciation for music, finding something she liked in all sorts of genres. But why, of all people, was Sam asking her that question?
Sam saw that he had taken her aback, and his ‘cool’ attitude melted away into slight embarrassment. His cheeks rosied. “W-well, what I mean… Okay, if you had to choose from cheerful pop music, experimental noise rock, hi-energy dance music, and honky-tonk--"
“Honky-tonk? Really Sam?” Winter laughed, her grin carrying to her eyes. “Somehow I doubt Sebastian would be for that one.”
Sebastian raised a brow, a small smile raising with it. “Got that right.”
Sam shot his best friend a glare, and Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Seriously though,” Sam continued, his attention returning to Winter. “What would you say is your favorite?”
Winter pursed her lips together, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well..” She proceeded to the chair at the opposite side of the room, removing her jacket before taking a seat. She draped the slightly-damp windbreaker over her now crossed legs. “Honestly, I feel like noise rock probably fits the music I was just hearing from you guys. You two come off a bit too rebellious for pop or dance music.”
“Hear that, Seb? She thinks we’re rebellious.” Sam chortled, rubbing his palms together, and Sebastian replied with a light scoff. "You know what, though? That's exactly the kind of style I've been thinking about... for the band.” Sam stepped around the keyboard to stand next to Sebastian. Sebastian straightened, turning toward him. "What do you say, Sebastian?" Sam put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Should we do this?"
Winter saw Sebastian visibly inhale, and she wondered what he thought about the whole situation. He didn’t come off as her biggest fan, not in the least, so he probably had his own thoughts about her barging in suddenly and deciding on the genre of music for them. Winter examined his body language as he shook off Sam’s hand, turning to his synthesizer. He quietly pondered, letting his fingers drift across a few of the keys without actually pressing down to make sound. Sebastian eyed her, and Winter felt the hair at the back of her neck raise. What was up with that guy?
Sebastian finally looked back to his friend, and he nodded. “...Okay. Let’s do it.”
Sam celebrated by jumping around in place like a little kid, waving his hands happily above his head. Winter beamed, happy to have helped the two of them come to a decision. Sam listed off a number of ideas he had for their music, grabbing his guitar to illustrate what he was thinking. Winter watched as the two friends tossed ideas back and forth, every now and then offering her own input into whether she liked or disliked something. She watched them play and felt a nostalgic warmth grow in her chest. She had been part of many ‘jam sessions’ with friends back home, and she was happy to have stumbled upon something familiar in Pelican Town.
Hours passed, and it was finally supper time. Sam invited Winter to stay for dinner, with Jodi’s blessing of course, and she happily accepted. This time, Sebastian decided to join as well. The three of them (mostly Winter and Sam) conversed over dinner, a robust spaghetti with buttered slices of toasted bread. Vincent piped into the conversation whenever he could, and Winter made sure to give her utmost interest to whatever story he told. It reminded her of when Autumn was younger. She saw in Vincent the same wonder that Autumn had, feeling proud whenever he was complimented or given the attention he craved. She hoped that Autumn wasn’t missing her too much.
Winter helped Jodi with dishes after dinner concluded. Sebastian excused himself and started home. She figured it was probably time for her to leave, as well, and Sam looked somewhat deflated when she mentioned so.
Winter chuckled. “Disappointed, Sam?”
“Well yeah,” he mumbled, a slight blush falling on his cheeks. “We were having such a good time.”
“Well I’m sure there will be other times,” Winter started, and Sam smiled brightly. “Do you guys practice often?”
“As much as we can, really. Now that we have some direction we might actually get somewhere though.”
“I’m happy to be of some assistance.” Winter began for the door, and Sam followed. “I’m actually glad that I’ve managed to snag some friends. I was worried I’d be a loner. Speaking of..” She stopped before reaching the exit, a small look of worry on her face. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but… what’s up with Sebastian?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… He seems kind of standoffish toward me. Did I do something to upset him?”
“Oh, no, that’s just Seb.” Sam chuckled, giving Winter an assuring grin. “He’ll warm up to you eventually. He’s just quiet to start off.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, definitely. You have nothing to worry about.” Sam pulled an umbrella from behind the plant that sat next to the door, offering it to her. “Here. You can give it back when I see you again.”
Winter graciously took it from him, wondering if there was something behind what he had said? “Sounds good. See you later, Sam.”
Winter stepped out the door, the quiet sound of light rain reaching her ears. She was thankful to find that the insides of her rain boots had remained dry, sliding each boot onto their respective foot. She opened the umbrella and stepped out into the rain, rotating to look back to the doorway, where Sam lingered.
“Hey, Winter,” he began. She could see a warmth in his eyes, which caused her to swallow hard. "Thanks for the help. With my guitar skills, and Sebastian's wizardry on the synthesizer, we're gonna be a screaming success. I'm convinced of it!"
Winter nodded. “I think so too, Sam.”
Hope you enjoyed the latest chapter! I'm now going to make it a point of posting new chapters on the same day(s) of the week (unless, of course, I absolutely HAVE to crank something out sooner!). So for now we will say, I'll try posting for sure on Tuesdays.. Other day of the week TBD.
Chapter 6: This Hat Was Made For Farming
It's time for the annual Egg Hunt! Winter battles Abigail for the top spot -- will she come out on top?
The thirteenth of Spring rolled around, the day of her very first festival since moving to the quiet town. Winter recalled from stories she heard from her father that, when Grandpa was still alive, they made the trip to Stardew Valley specifically for two festivals each year: the Egg Festival, and the Feast of the Winter Star. Having been so young at the time, Winter could not evoke direct memories from these events as a child; she could, however, vaguely remember her grandfather’s face, with an expression so full of glee and pride, dwarfed by his age and the wrinkles it had wrought. Somehow she even remembered his laugh; it was hearty and came from his gut, loud enough for the entire town to hear once you got him going. Her dad said he got most of his features from his mother, Grandma Pearl, who had died long before Winter was born; but when he broke down into absolute fits, often over board games with her and her sister on Friday evenings, she could definitely hear hints of Grandpa’s laughter.
Winter wasn’t sure exactly what she should wear to such a festival. From what she could tell it was more casual of an event for the adults, though she had overheard that the young ones usually donned more dressy, yet youthful, spring-inspired outfits. In a trip she had made to Marnie’s ranch for the eggs she would use for her breakfast, she overheard Jas speaking about the dress she would be wearing to the event. It helped Winter decide on her own outfit: she settled on a light blue cotton dress that rose just above the knee, cinched at the waist and with a halter-style blouse. A white cardigan was pulled onto her shoulders, both for some modesty and to also shield her shoulders from the sun. To pull the look together a white beaded necklace, reminiscent of a chain of pearls, was slipped around her neck, with a matching bracelet on her left wrist. Since the path to town was mostly dirt, she decided against wearing sandals. Instead she chose a pair of cream-colored flats which she had never actually worn prior to that day. She left her dark, wavy hair down save for a french braid that ran along her hairline, the end tucked beneath an ear. The rest cascaded over her shoulders, reaching down nearly to her waist.
Winter arrived in the town square shortly after nine, greeted with laughter and chatter amongst the other townsfolk. Atop a couple of long, rectangular buffets sat trays of finger foods and small appetizers. These tables sat in the town square to the left of a number of round tables, pale green linens covering each of them. Just below in another area to the left of the saloon, a large and somewhat weathered yellow rug with specks of pink and blue was laid out. A few more high-tops were dotted around the outskirts of this rug, as well as a picture stage that made you into an egg-bearing rabbit, the mascot of the event.
Winter greeted a few of the familiar faces that spread out across the event, stopping when she reached Robin. Robin had been speaking with Caroline, Pierre’s wife and Abby’s mother, but the woman was elated to see Winter had arrived. “Wow, you look great!” Robin beamed with motherly pride as she gave Winter a one-up. “I haven’t seen you this dressed up!”
“Yeah, t-shirts and jeans are usually more my thing,” Winter chuckled, her fingers inadvertently grasping at the fabric of her skirt. “But I figured I’d dress a little nicer for the festival. Hopefully it’s not too dressy.”
“Wish I could get Abigail to wear dresses like this,” Caroline sighed longingly. Yeah, Winter couldn’t quite imagine Abby was one to wear dresses. If she did, they’d probably be all black, and in the place of beads would be spikes and maybe little skulls. Is that too stereotypical?
Speaking of Abigail, Winter’s eyes trailed over Caroline’s shoulder to find the familiar purple locks nearby, next to an even more familiar dark silhouette. Abigail and Sebastian were mere steps away talking amongst themselves, oblivious to the fact that Winter had arrived. She felt a pang in her chest, embarrassed to have hoped they would be waiting for her. She wasn’t sure if they could call themselves friends yet, though she surely felt a closer connection to the blonde-haired boy she hadn’t realized was walking up behind her.
“Boo!” came a voice over one shoulder, uncomfortably close to her ear. Winter jumped, and in a flurry of instinct, her hand raised up to smack back and over her shoulder at the face of whoever it was. She quickly realized it had, in fact, been Sam, as she heard his pitiful whimpering start from behind her. Quickly realizing that she had unknowingly attacked the poor guy, Winter turned with her hands cupping her mouth to hide her look of horror.
“S-Sam, I’m sorry!”
Sam was rubbing at his nose, a look of defeat in his eyes. “Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for…”
Winter put her hands on her hips. At that point her face was noticeably red, completely embarrassed of their current predicament. “Well then you shouldn’t have snuck up on me!”
“I get it, I get it, save it for Spirit’s Eve.”
“No, not even then!” She stepped closer to him, tilting her head to the side in an attempt to inspect the damage she had inflicted. “I didn’t hurt you too bad, did I?”
“Not badly enough,” came an amused, deep voice behind her, followed by female giggles. She looked over her shoulder to find Sebastian and Abigail had sauntered over, replacing Caroline and Robin and both visibly entertained by the show they had just gotten.
“Ha ha ha, laugh at my pain,” Sam grunted with a small, dejected sniff. Winter felt absolutely terrible for smacking him, completely evident in her uncomfortable stance, but to be fair it was his fault... When Sam saw how flustered she had gotten, he waved his hand at her assuringly. “It’s not that bad, don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
“You look nice, Winter.” Abigail was the one to finally change the subject, and Winter mentally thanked her. “I haven’t seen you with your hair down before.”
“It’s a lot longer than I expected.” Sam grabbed a small lock of her hair, briefly inspecting it between two fingers. “And a lot wavier.”
“Thanks, I guess?” Winter pulled her hair over one shoulder, releasing the few strands from Sam’s grasp, suddenly feeling even more overwhelmingly self-conscious. She felt like she was back in high school, her wardrobe being scrutinized by her peers. Back then, more than any other time in her life, Winter had to force a happy face in front of those she called “friend”. Her mother expected nothing but excellence, and so Winter exhausted herself with multiple clubs, team memberships, and naturally she had to be first place with everything. She was class president, varsity volley-baller, prom court… And she absolutely hated every moment.
She had to remind herself that these three were not her friends of the past. So far they had behaved completely differently, and hadn’t yet earned that stigma.
Soon Mayor Lewis drew everyone’s attention, announcing that they would begin the egg hunt shortly. Abigail suddenly was overcome with a look of utter determination, rubbing her palms together. Winter chuckled. “Excited much?”
“Abby wins every year, it’s kind of tradition at this point,” said Sam. He sighed, shaking his head briefly. “No one else stands a chance.”
Winter shifted in place, finding an opportunity to redeem herself from nearly destroying Sam’s nose. “Well, maybe I’ll try to grab that title from her.” Abby was shot a teasing look, but Winter found herself greeted by a glare that bore deep into the depths of her soul, as if she had offended the purple-haired beast.
The gears in Abigail’s mind ticked in their rotation, and after a quick moment, her hand was outstretched to Winter. “You’re on!” Winter could see the fire in the girl’s eyes, a grin spanning from ear to ear. Reluctantly Winter took Abby’s hand, giving it a small, limp shake. What am I getting myself into? “Fair warning, though. I kind of, well, definitely have an advantage. They hide the eggs in the same spot every year, and I’ve had it memorized since I was five.”
“Cheater,” Sebastian mumbled under his breath. Abigail’s intense stare turned to him this time, though he seemed unphased. Instead, he chuckled. “Do you deny it?”
“Of course!” Abigail crossed her arms, her posture straightening to a stance of pride. “I’m just resourceful.”
Sam snorted, and Winter looked to him with a small smile. She enjoyed the relationship the trio had, finding it similar to the one she shared with Regina back in the city. Since the pair met in college, they had enjoyed many adventures with one another; night clubs, slinky bars, karaoke joints, you name it. While Winter was a relatively social girl herself, or at least was very good at faking it, her best friend took the cake by far. Fueled by fruity cocktails and shot after shot of tequila, by the end of the night Regina always had gained a few more friends and contacts in her cell phone. Regina was a little boy-hungry, also; in fact, she’d have been all over Sebastian. Reggie had a thing for tall, darkly-dressed, brooding types, which of course fit his description. If Regina had spotted him in a bar, nothing would have stopped her from approaching him at some point. Perhaps she would have ended up at home with him somehow; even though, in the current reality, she doubted Sebastian would be for it, Regina always got her way...
It was finally time for the egg hunt, and the contestants lined up on the speckled carpet. Lewis explained the rules, counted down, and they were off. Giggles came from Vincent and Jas, who Winter realized were only truly competing with each other. A flurry of purple hair flailing behind her, Abigail took off toward Lewis’s house, a set course in mind for where she would gather her prey. Winter decided she would go the opposite way, instead heading back in the direction of the bus stop. They had just under a minute to find their eggs, and Winter cared not for the fact she was wearing a dress. She tried her best to be brisk in her movements, being careful not to allow her skirt to sway up too high.
She found her first egg to the left of the buffet tables, her eyes catching sight of another just behind some trees nearby. Then came a couple behind Pierre's stall, another to the left of the hospital... The fifty seconds alloted for the collection felt much longer than they were, for Winter had somehow managed to get all the way past Pam and Penny's trailer when she heard a foghorn signalling the end of the hunt. Her eyes fell to her basket, fashioned out of multi-colored strands of hay, and found that she had actually managed to snag a good number of eggs. Would it be enough to beat Abigail?
The contestants returned to the speckled rug and lined up. Vince and Jas giggled at one end, comparing their baskets with immense pride, and Winter stood next to Abigail at the opposite end. She snuck a peek at her true opponent’s basket in the corner of her eye, and found a similar number of eggs. I should have found a couple more…
“How’d you gals do?” Sam had also joined the hunt for the multi-colored eggs, and he proudly held out his basket filled with a whopping three eggs to the girls with his signature grin. “Think I beat you?”
“Not a chance!” Abigail gave him a playful shove, holding her own basket closer. “No way I didn’t win again this year.”
I hope that isn’t true, Winter thought, swallowing down the hard lump that had formed in her esophagus. She realized that it was childish to want to win such a competition, but she wanted it desperately. Her youthful years had returned; once again, the pedestal her mom required her to reach had emerged, and she had no choice but to climb atop. It had been so ingrained in her brain, that even something as simple as an egg hunt made her extremely competitive. But what did she have to prove to these people? Mom wasn’t there, and they were all simply enjoying the festival, a time for them to come together. Sure, there would be a winner of the hunt, but no one, with the exception of Abigail, truly cared who actually won. Why couldn’t she change her attitude?
“Wow, look at all these eggs!” Lewis’s voice broke Winter from her reverie. "Now if only I could get you kids to pick up litter this efficiently, we'd have the cleanest town this side of the Gem Sea!" There was a group guffaw, though it seemed mostly forced. Perhaps they had heard that one before? After all, Lewis did seem the type to recycle his jokes.
As Lewis and Marnie counted the eggs, Winter stood awkwardly next to her opponent, anxious to find out who would turn out as the winner. Sapphire eyes wandered in the meantime. She gave a small wave to Jodi, standing near George and Evelyn by the buffet tables, and her eyes continued on their journey. She stopped when she found Sebastian to her left, leaning up against a lamppost. His posture was mostly loose and casual, his hands lazily resting in each pocket of his jacket, though his shoulders were tense. Winter guessed that he was probably uncomfortable in these sorts of social situations, especially when he was left on his own. Then she studied his face. Sebastian's stare was distant, possibly reaching far out beyond the square, past the beach and out to the vastness of the horizon...
“...the winner of this year’s egg hunt…” Hearing Mayor Lewis begin to speak made her realize she had been staring. She turned her head quickly away, a flush spreading across the bridge of her nose. Quizzically, she looked back to the lamppost, and in that brief moment Sebastian had also looked to her, and their eyes met.
“..the new farmer, Winter!” Blinking rapidly Winter tore her gaze away from Sebastian, returning her attention to Mayor Lewis. She was actually surprised to hear her name called, though definitely relieved that her duty to her mother had been fulfilled. The quiet growl from beside her echoed that Abigail was not a happy camper in that moment. The other townsfolk offered supportive applause, and Winter stepped ahead of the line to get closer to Lewis. “Here’s your prize! Enjoy.” Lewis handed her a frumpy, yet somehow charming straw hat. It had a pale green ribbon stitched across the crown, “Pelican Town Annual Egg Festival” embroidered across in silver thread.
“Nice! Good job, Winter!” Sam clapped loudly as he approached. Abigail slid up behind him, a deflated look on her face. “Try it on!”
“This thing?” Winter eyed the hat, holding the brim daintily between her thumb and index fingers, as if it were a brittle piece of china that could break at any second. She slid the hat atop of her head, hearing the sound of the dry hay scraping against her coarse hair. The Spring sun, high in the sky at this point and shining down on the festival, left a hazy checkered pattern across her cheeks through the shade the hat brought. She determined that it may have actually been a blessing for her to win the hat; as summer approached, she would need it.
“Well, if you didn't look like a farmer before, you definitely look like one now. “ Robin had made her way over to the group, a maternal sparkle gleaming in her eye as she looked at Winter. If her hair were cropped above her ears, she could almost pass for her mother’s twin. By this point her mother would have paraded her daughter around from group to group, showing her off like a trophy. Winter’s mom would never admit that she was one to gloat, but in her line of work, especially in Zuzu City, showing off your successes was a part of daily life.
A few of the other townsfolk had come by to congratulate her, and Winter actually felt bad for Abigail, as she could sense the thick cloud of awkward that settled between them. Haley, the blonde-haired fashionista of the town who reminded Winter so much of the friends of her youth, approached her as well.
“Hey… You.” Winter stared at her incredulously, wondering how the girl had already forgotten her name after the mayor announced it loud enough for the world to hear mere moments before. “That's a super cute dress. That hat, though,” Haley pointed to it and smirked. “Not so sure about that.”
Yep. Just like those old friends.
Winter removed it from her head and smoothed down her hair, holding the straw hat behind her back. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
As Haley began walking away, Abigail scoffed. “What a bitch,” she mumbled, just loudly for the blonde to hear. Sam sniggered and Haley paused mid-step. Winter held her breath, grateful when Haley continued walking away a short moment later.
Mayor Lewis announced that lunch would be beginning shortly. The townspeople dispersed, meeting up with their families and maneuvering toward whatever table they had claimed for themselves earlier in the event. Sam, Sebastian, and Abigail parted ways, and Winter waved meekly toward them. She took a look around, seeing Emily and Gus bringing trays of food out to the buffet tables from the saloon. The pizza she had shared with her new friends in that establishment those few nights ago was so delicious, she was excited to taste the feast that awaited.
“Hey you.” Without her realizing it Leah had slid up next to her, and Winter was thankful she wasn’t as jumpy as before. “Would you like to join us over here? I don’t want you to have to eat alone.” Leah motioned to one of the nearby high-tops, where a man with long, flowing hair shining like warm honey, was already standing. Winter nodded in agreement, and the two linked arms as they walked together to the table.
Winter had remembered introducing herself to the gentleman that stood with them at the high-top, though his name was fuzzy at first. He seemed to keep to himself for the most part, though she recalled that he lived in the shack on the beach. Evan.. Ethan.. Eric.. “...It’s Elliot, right?” When his brows quirked up and he smiled, she figured she had guessed correctly. “Sorry, I’m absolutely dreadful with names.”
“Well you had to learn the names of everyone here in town, so I think you have some time still to play the newbie card.” Leah replied with a giggle, and Elliot with a grin. “You’re going to enjoy the food at these events. If there’s punch though, watch out, ‘cause Pam’s probably spiked it.”
“Though, is that really so bad?” Elliot remarked, pointing to the straw-haired woman who sat at a table nearby with her daughter Penny, her expression showing she had probably already had a few too many.
Winter pursed her lips, studying the woman whom they were referring. Pam indeed seemed a little rough around the edges, but Winter wondered what could possibly bring the woman to drink, and so early at that! Seemed there were people like that in every town, though perhaps the city had an entire village-worth of drunks nestled every which way. Pam at least seemed a bit more put-together, with her hair feathered back in a style from decades past, a salmon-colored jumpsuit covering her short and plump frame.
Once Gus and Emily had finished bringing out the food, event-goers began to shuffle in to grab their plates of the luscious meal. Winter and Leah stepped up together, Leah carrying the conversation as they picked at the different trays before returning to the high top. Leah and Elliot spoke of art, literature, and all things beauty; it was refreshing for Winter to see a different viewpoint, one that she had never really explored herself. Elliot, with his discerning wit and keen attention to detail, had a particular manner to his articulation that made Winter feel like she was at a poetry reading. While Leah was perhaps not as put-together verbally, Winter could tell that she saw the world in a similar fashion, instead speaking to the physical patterns, curvature, colors and textures of her medium. Winter surmised that the two had grown close due to their likeness, and she smiled as she witnessed it.
There was a buzzz in the pocket of her cardigan, and she pulled her phone out in wonder. Since coming to the Valley she was contacted very little, save for a few “How are you?” texts from her family and Regina. Shockingly, it was none of them who had reached out.
enjoying the food??
Winter looked up to see if Leah and Elliot would notice her replying. She didn’t want to come off as rude, though they were deep enough in their conversation that she doubted they would notice.
Yes, it’s really good!
you okay over there? you look a little bored.
Are you spying on me?
Sure enough, when Winter looked up to the table Sam shared with Jodi and Vince, she found him looking in her direction. One side of his mouth hooked up in a grin, and his eyes fell to his phone, hidden in his lap.
no way. im not a creep, remember?
Winter chucked to herself, sliding her phone in her pocket. Her eyes raised to Leah and Elliot, who still were locked in their conversation, and a small smile lingered on her lips as she did her best to find a way to jump in.
The festival finally concluded sometime after 1 pm, and Winter made her way toward her farm to finish up her chores for the day, her new accessory atop her head. The pockets of her cardigan were weighted down with as many strawberry seeds as she could afford from Pierre’s event stall, all of which would be planted by the end of the evening. Winter decided that the event had been overall quite a success. Through everything she managed to snap a few pictures on her cell phone, including one of her in the guise of the Egg Hunt rabbit. This one she sent off to her family, her dad especially getting a kick out of it as he recognized the same wooden scene from when she was a baby. Just has some fresh paint , he had told her.
She changed into the outfit she had worn earlier in the day, finding no sense in dirtying a new change of clothes. The mess of laundry she had slid under her bed continued to grow, and so it would be incredibly irresponsible for her to add to it unnecessarily. Winter returned outside and tilled a few new plots for her strawberry seeds. She pressed them into the ground one by one, immediately following with a sprinkle from her watering can. Pierre had explained that it took eight days for them to grow, but that they would continue to grow after that, so she figured she would be able to get at least a couple harvests before the season was through. Something sweet would be nice for her palate, and maybe would be a nice, juicy treat after a hard day of labor on the farm.
It didn’t take her long to finish planting, and so she decided she would try to do a little tidying up about the farmhouse. She swept the porch, the boards creaking under her weight. (She would have to talk to Robin about patching them up, lest she falls through and hurts herself). She ran a wet washcloth along her table and the other surfaces in her room, also taking care in wiping down her bathroom sink and tidying up the countertop. The last mountain for her to tackle, quite literally at that point, would be the pile of laundry that poked its head out from underneath her bed. She thought back to the picture she had had in her head just days before, of her swishing her body around in one of the ponds on her farm to clean the clothing. If she was able to test the water, and it seemed clean enough, maybe it would actually work? She figured she would just ask Robin about that as well, as the woman probably had a better idea of what she could do.
Dismissing that chore for another day, Winter stepped outside and took a seat on the top step leading down to the ground. The sun was just beginning to set on the horizon, beautiful hues of pink and orange next to the darkening horizon. A yawn escaped her, interrupted by the sound of a familiar buzzzz in her back pocket. She patted her hands together to remove any dirt she may have accumulated on her palms, before she pulled it out to check her messages.
you looked really nice today, by the way. and i dont mean that in a creepy way.
Winter chuckled, pressing reply and allowing her thumbs to tap against the glass.
I know you arent being creepy, Sam. Thank you for the compliment.
youre welcome. you going to bed early tonight?
Yeah, probably in a few hours. Maybe I’ll see if queen of sauce is playing so I know how to cook something when I get a kitchen.
oh yeah, hows that fireplace going?
It works… but it sucks.
right on. well good night, Winter.
Into the third week of Spring, Winter found that she was getting the hang of this farming thing. Not only was she finding that her work was getting done much earlier in the day, but she no longer felt the tenderness in her muscles that had plagued her in the very beginning. She had lost the pooch from her season of bed rest, tonality also returning to the muscles of her limbs. While she had accumulated some strange tan lines, her skin had browned quite nicely, new patches of freckles dusting her cheeks and along her shoulders. The straw hat she had won at the egg hunt was a new staple in her wardrobe, so all she needed was a couple pairs of overalls and she would definitely fit the part of ‘Farmer.”
While she knew she still had a lot to learn, she felt that her harvests were becoming much more bountiful. Coupled with the foraged goods she gathered, she was beginning to actually make a little bit of money for herself. The box that sat to the right of her farmhouse she had learned was used for shipping, so instead of having to haul a big load to Pierre’s shop before it closed (and hopefully it wasn’t Wednesday!) she could just leave it in there and he would pick it up the following morning. This saved her even more time.
It was only inevitable that she would finally have to tackle the laundry beast at some point. Bright and early that Wednesday morning, the 17th of Spring, Winter struggled to find a clean pair of shorts to wear. Her unmentionables she could easily wash in the shower when she was bathing herself, and while she could wear some of the heavier garments multiple days in a row, she was beginning to feel more and more slobbish as time went on. That day, after finishing her chores, she cleaned herself up and made the trek up the northern path toward the mountains, where she hoped Robin would have a solution for her task at hand.
“Hey, Winter!” Robin greeted her from beside her counter, where she sat on the floor assembling what looked like a small kitchen chair. “What brings you all the way out here? Finally ready to get some work done on that crusty old farmhouse?”
“Not quite, Robin.” Winter crouched down beside her, eyeing the furniture piece with awe shining in her eye. “I actually need some advice, maybe even a favor.”
“Sure, no problem. But could you do me a favor first?” Robin wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist, simultaneously removing some hair from in front of her eyes. “Can you head down those stairs and grab Sebastian for me? I completely forgot that I needed to tell him something.”
Winter looked to her right toward where Robin had directed her, suddenly feeling nervous. “Yeah, sure. Is that his room?”
“Yeah, he lives down in the basement. Has quite a bit of room down there, plus it’s the coolest place in the house when summer rolls around. Now be a dear and grab him, would you?”
Winter nodded and stood, taking careful steps toward the doorway to the basement. Each stair down felt like some giant leap, though not a creak could be heard, a sign of Robin’s good craftsmanship. She reached the bottom, where to her left stood a nicely-sized washer and dryer set. Perfect. She smiled in relief, making a mental note to ask Robin about them. But first she had the task at hand, and as she focused her attention to the door that was closed ahead of her, her nerves returned. She took a deep breath and gently knocked.
After a faint “come in” was heard from the other side, slender digits wrapped around the doorknob and pushed it open. Sebastian’s room was just as she had thought it would be: dark, with mostly stone walls on all sides. There was beautiful woodwork both as crown molding and on the floors, surely done by the talented woman upstairs. Winter took a step inside, the sound of swift-moving fingers on a computer keyboard finding her ears. The room was definitely cooler than the higher floor of the house, as Robin had suggested, a crispness to the air around her. Everything had a place, from the posters and pictures on the walls, to the board game that sat open on the table in the center of the room. Winter half expected his room to be dank and cluttered, but somehow she wasn’t surprised that Sebastian was actually quite neat.
To the right of the entry door was a radio, a black couch, and just beyond that a desk with two computers. Sebastian, whose fingers danced on his keyboard just as they had on his synthesizer in Sam’s room a couple weeks prior, sat in front of one of the monitors. Half-moon spectacles rested on the tip of his nose, dark eyes set just atop the brim as he lifted his gaze to her. Winter gave a small smile and a wave, which received no response. He looked back down to the monitor, continuing his work.
How rude! I’m not just barging in here for no damn reason! Winter’s nerves vanished, replaced by distaste from her being ignored. She approached his desk, stopping next to him, but instead of opening her mouth to give him a piece of her mind, she found herself mesmerized by the speed of his typing. I haven’t seen anyone type that fast before.
After a moment of silence, she spoke up. “What are you doing?”
“Gimme a sec,” he responded quickly and monotone, his eyes stuck to his screen. Winter suddenly felt very confused. What could he possibly be doing on there, that so much of his attention was demanded?
She decided to take a seat next to his dormant computer, swirling somewhat from side to side in the swivelling chair. A minute went by… Winter pulled her braid over one shoulder, untying it and redoing the bottom half of it. Another minute… Should I leave? No, Robin asked me to do her this favor. Another minute. Maybe I should just tell her he was asleep or something…
“Sorry,” he finally spoke, and Winter straightened her posture in the stool. "I just needed to finish what I was working on." A couple clicks of his mouse, and he removed his glasses, setting them next to his keyboard.
Finding his attention had finally shifted to her, Winter picked up the small stool and moved it closer to him. She sat back down and leaned closer, trying to see what was on the screen. “What are you working on?”
Sebastian cleared his throat, running his fingers through his unevenly-cut dark locks. “I do freelance work as a programmer.”
Her brows raised, half in shock and half in respect-filled awe. “Wow! A programmer, in a town like this?”
“Strange, right?” Sebastian chuckled. There was a chime on his computer, and he maneuvered his mouse on his screen. He grunted, closing his eyes as he processed. "That was from Sam... I guess he wants to hang out… I do not feel like going out today.”
Winter tilted her head, puzzled. “It’s actually a pretty nice day out. Maybe you could take a break for a little while?”
Sebastian sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t do breaks.”
The sound of the door opening prompted both of them to turn their heads. Robin entered the basement, wiping both hands on a dish towel. Maybe she didn’t trust me to get the job done? She smiled to Winter, which made Winter rethink her previous thought, and looked to her son. “Sebby, I forgot to tell you, but I ran into Abigail at the store. She said she was looking for you.”
Winter turned her gaze to Sebastian. In the time since she had looked away, his elbow had come to rest on his desk, his chin nestled in the palm of his hand. His expression had grown colder, more closed off; something about this exchange had irked something in him. Winter suddenly felt horrible for having barged in, even though it had been at the request of his mother. Or perhaps, if she had told him already that Robin had a message for him --
“Did you tell her I’m working?” Sebastian grumbled, a defeated tonality to his voice. Winter guessed that this had not been the first exchange of this sort between the two.
Robin shrugged her shoulders, her hands coming to rest on her hips. “Well, I did.. But she said she’d probably stop by sometime soon anyway.”
As the conversation continued Winter watched the changes in Sebastian’s overall demeanor, frustration evident on every inch of his body, from the slouch in his posture to the way his lips pursed. As Robin exited the room she could see a quiver in his brow. There was a moment of silence between the two, broken by a small sigh that escaped the man’s lips. “No one takes my job seriously, Winter. That’s why I don’t, can’t take breaks.” Sebastian rubbed at his chin, his features suddenly looking very tired. “No one ever bothers Maru when she's working at the clinic. I think they believe I'm just surfing the web all day."
“That’s right, Maru is your sister.”
“ Half sister.”
“Oh.” Winter gulped down a bubble of air, hesitating. She pondered whether she should prod him farther, but figured it would probably be a better idea to change the subject all together. She and Sebastian were friendly , but perhaps they weren’t quite friendly enough. “Programmer. That’s actually really interesting. Your mom’s a carpenter, your dad -- step dad? -- is a researcher. I know you said you're a freelancer - - what is it you really want to do?”
Sebastian leaned back in his chair, his arms stretched out and hooked on the edge of his desk. He tapped his fingers quickly on the painted wood, sucking on his bottom lip. "Well, I'm trying to save up so I can move out of here. Probably to the city or something.” Pausing for a moment, he ran his fingers back through his hair, holding his hand atop his head for a moment while he pondered. Letting his hair fall back into place, he turned slightly in his seat so he was facing Winter, who eagerly listened. She was happy he was opening up to her. “I think if I'd gone to college I'd probably be making six figures right now… but I just don't want to be part of that corporate rat race, you know? Well, and I guess I just feel more comfortable hidden behind the computer than dealing with people face-to-face."
A light bulb brightened in Winter’s mind, a realization. As she listened to Sebastian, studied his mannerisms as he moved from topic to topic, she learned more about him than she had in any interaction up to that point. He had social anxiety? He must have, it made so much sense! She had been in contact with him in situations before where there were more parties involved: the river with Sam, the saloon, the Egg Hunt. Here it was just the two of them, and in very familiar territory at that, so no wonder he was suddenly talking to her more than he ever had before.
“Wow,” Winter found herself suddenly blurting out. She had been smiling, proud of her realization, and Sebastian stared at her confusedly.
“Did I say something…?”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry!” Winter giggled. “This is just the most that we’ve talked. I’m so glad.”
Sebastian quirked a brow, studying Winter’s face. “Okay.. Well, I should get back to work... I need to get this module finished by tomorrow.”
Winter’s smile weakened, and she felt a warmth in her cheeks. “Oh, of course. I’m sorry, Sebastian. Good luck on your work.” She stumbled off of the stool, giving him a small wave before she turned toward the door. Curses flew through her mind, replaying their conversation in her mind. What could she have said differently to get a different outcome? Should she have asked more about his relationship with Maru? Instead of being so giddy over the fact that he opened up to her, maybe she should have played it off all cool -like? Maybe if she had told him right off that Robin was the one who sent her down --
“Hey, Winter.” Winter stopped just before the door, and looked over her shoulder to see Sebastian had stood. He rubbed at the back of his neck, thinking for a moment, before he continued. “Thanks for listening.”
Winter felt a chill in her spine, and her smile returned. “Of course, Sebastian.”
Well, I promised you guys Tuesday, and here it is eeeearly Friday morning. My bad, life happened! I've officially gotten the introductory chapters out of the way, so starting this chapter we begin to dig into the actual meat of the story. Hope you like it!
The last of her harvest for that Sunday lightly thumped at the bottom of the shipping box, and Winter could already feel her pockets filling with the gold she would receive from that day’s work. Long before Winter awoke every morning, Pierre made his way to the farm, rain or shine, to collect whatever she might have gathered the previous day. At this time he also brought her mail. When she awoke one of the first things she would check was her mailbox, which had a separate compartment just for the ledger left by Pierre, with whatever bounty she had scored for that shipment. Some days were better than others, but as her farm became more and more prosperous, she always had an idea of what she’d be getting by the end of the night. Sunday’s harvest was one of those that were just okay , but knowing she’d be getting something for her hard work the following morning still brought a smile to her face.
She took a final walk around her rows of crops, all of which were coming in nicely. Every time a new crop was planted, she became increasingly neat with the new seed’s placement. She found that doing so ensured each plant was getting the proper amount of space between them for growth, but also it was visually quite pleasing. The rows of varying colors, from the radiant red strawberries to the vibrant green of the growing kale leaves, began to look like a work of art to Winter. In such a short amount of time she had developed a passion for farming, something she would have never dreamed of in the past. She had grown to love the feel of soil between her fingers, looked forward to seeing the finished results of her labor. She thought she had previously known the value of hard work; but since moving to the Valley, that had all taken on a whole new meaning.
Winter finished her duties for the day with plenty of time to spare, and while a shower and a nap sounded like a great idea, she decided instead to do some more work around the farm. Sapphire eyes gazed around to determine her priorities. First would definitely be tackling the remainder of the brush, which had become severely overgrown many years prior. If she had time, the rocks and logs that were strewn about would be her next project. While she enjoyed the sight of the trees around the property, she knew she would need to cut at least some of them down; however, she would talk to Robin about that first.
Winter grabbed her pickaxe, scythe, and logging axe, carefully carrying them closer to the edge of her untouched territory. She adjusted her grip on her scythe, gloved fingers gripping the handle at opposite ends. Still not completely sure she wouldn’t chop off a limb, even after nearly a season of use, she made a few practice swings before she started for the grass. She began higher on the stalks, giving it a couple more swings to bring it down to an acceptable height. Once she got into a groove she began to accomplish a lot, her body swaying with the blade as it chopped away. She was careful not to slash at any trash or debris that she found along the way, figuring that destroying the blade would probably not be in her best interest.
An hour or so went by, and she had made a lot of progress. She set down the scythe, her body still swaying with the memory of her movements over that hour’s time. She leaned against a tree to settle herself, running the back of her wrist over her forehead. A couple more hours and she’d go inside, well-deserved rest to fill the remainder of her day. She smiled and took a deep breath, exhaled, and leaned down to reach for her scythe --
“Huh?” Winter straightened, quirking a brow as she took a quick look at her surroundings. She felt like she had been pulled from a daydream, suddenly finding herself somewhere she did not remember coming to, surrounded by trees that were unfamiliar to her despite having them around for quite a bit of time. Other than the whistling of the wind billowing through the trees there had been no sound alongside the blade slashing at the grass.
“There it is again. Hmm.” She carefully stepped toward the cries, keeping each footfall light so as to make as little sound as possible. “Must be a -- oh!! A kitten!”
Winter’s eyes fell on a small orange cat, maybe a few months old, huddled underneath a couple logs that had fallen together to make a sort of shelter for the small beast. It looked up at her with startlingly pale yellow eyes, its body quivering at the sight of the monster that had appeared before it.
“You look so scared, little one.” Winter removed her gloves and shoved them into her back pockets, running her palms against her jeans to remove any dirt that remained on her skin. She knelt down, knees on the earth, and outstretched a hand toward the creature. “It’s okay.” She clicked her tongue gently, tilting her head with a smile. “I won’t hurt you.”
The kitten gazed at her, unsure of whether it could trust her, and slowly inched toward her hand. It sniffed at her fingertips, whiskers twitching, yellow orbs locked on Winter’s face. Winter stayed still, trying to maintain a calm visage so as not to scare the little one. A moment later it proved successful, as the kitten began rubbing its cheek against her fingers. Winter slowly scratched at its neck, and moved on to its back when she deemed it was comfortable enough. Before long she heard content purrs, louder than she would think possible from such a tiny thing.
“Do you want to come with me?” Winter twirled its tail, fluffy and lightly striped, around her finger. The kitten mewed at her, and Winter giggled. “It is awfully lonely in that house. It would be nice to have a roomie.” She tested the cat’s comfort level by pressing up on its tummy lightly, and when the cat didn’t flinch, she picked it up and rested it against her chest. The purrs vibrated against her skin as she stood, running a hand along the kitten’s head. Her gaze moved to her tools, making a mental note to pick them up later.
Winter started for the house, humming lightly to help keep the kitten calm. It rested against her chest, eyes closed, comfortable in Winter’s arms. Winter couldn’t help but smile; she had always wanted a pet, but her mom was terribly allergic to dander. The closest Winter had ever gotten was a betta fish that set in an intricate bowl on her bookshelf when she was nine. She was excited when she got it, but quickly grew bored. It eventually ended up on her father’s desk, something new for him to enjoy.
Upon entering the farmhouse, the kitten’s attention averted to its new surroundings. Winter closed the door behind her, careful to be quiet to prevent startling the kitten, but she found that it was surprisingly comfortable with her at that point. Winter was happy with her choice to clean the space the day prior, as she figured the cat would probably be antsy to leave if it instead was greeted by that mess. She leaned down and set the small cat on the wood floor. Its nose began to twitch as it sniffed, giving itself a moment to acclimate before it began to explore.
Winter watched it with a small smile, stepping to her table to grab her phone to check the time. 2:36pm. “I should probably find some food and stuff for you, huh buddy?” She watched as the fluffball rubbed its neck against the leg of the table, claiming its new home. Winter grabbed a bowl -- which was actually the tupperware she had forgotten to return to Jodi -- and filled it with water from her bathroom faucet. Closing the bathroom door behind her, she set the bowl down on the ground. The kitten mewed happily as it began to lap up the water, and Winter gave it a light pet. She grabbed her satchel from the tabletop. “I’ll be back.”
Marnie’s would definitely be the first place to check. She sold fodder for other animals, so it would make sense that she’d have something for a cat, wouldn’t it? She took to a quick gait, excited to return home and play with her new friend.
“Well hi, Winter!” Marnie greeted the farmer as she entered, chuckling at the sight of the girl. “You look like you’ve been working hard today.”
Winter gave herself a one-up, having completely forgotten how dirty she was from her day’s work. Perhaps she should have cleaned up a bit before heading out? Winter smiled meekly. “Y-yeah, it’s been a busy one.”
“How can I help you, farmer?”
“I found a stray kitten on my farm. You wouldn’t happen to have any cat food, would you?”
“Cat food? No, none of that here.” Noticing Winter’s shoulders slump, Marnie patted the countertop to grab her attention. “But I know who probably would! I think I’ve seen some at Pierre’s shop.”
“Oh, I didn’t even think of that. Thanks, Marnie!”
“Before you go, let me grab you a little something.” Marnie held up a single digit as she removed herself from behind the counter. Winter watched as the woman padded into her kitchen, soon returning with a small bottle of milk. “Hopefully this can help.”
“Thanks, Marnie! How much do I owe you?”
“Not a thing,” the woman waved the thought away. “Anything to help someone willing to take in a homeless animal.”
“Oh! Thank you so much!”
With the bottle weighing down the bottom of her satchel, Winter started for Pierre’s.
Winter had done absolutely everything she could to avoid the JojaMart, which stood menacingly at the opposite side of the river that ran through the main part of Pelican Town. When she had initially been told about the place’s existence, she told herself she would never, ever visit. Other than being a reminder of the past she was wishing to forget, these JojaMarts were part of an initiative by Joja Corp to, quite honestly, take over smaller towns. Joja had a large presence within cities, but they craved more, and Winter and Regina had joked that they would eventually attempt global domination.
Despite her best efforts, there she was, the bitter blue outer walls of the store a stark contrast to the lovely greens of the Valley. Pierre’s general store did not have what she needed, so she had no choice but to try the JojaMart. She gritted her teeth and walked toward the entrance, holding her satchel close to her person.
The glass doors slid open, and Winter squinted her eyes against the glare of the fluorescent bulbs. The stale atmosphere wrapped around her like a straight jacket, and it took all of her energy not to turn around and leave right that second. She was reminded of the JojaMarkets back home in Zuzu City, massive warehouse-style stores similar to this JojaMart, only much, much larger. Both shared the same cold color palette, variations of blue creating an overall sterile environment, with the faint sound of jazz on the overhead speakers. The major difference between them was the traffic in the stores. The JojaMarket was always busy, and being the only store of its type in the city made that possible. Regardless the time of day, you were always bumping carts with other shoppers, always waiting in massive lines. At this small JojaMart, in the middle of Pelican Town, Winter guessed the only people that graced its presence were the expressionless employees.
Well, perhaps they weren’t all expressionless. Toward her right there was a counter Winter could only guess was the “Customer Appreciation” desk, which most other places would call Customer Service. Joja Corporation would do whatever it could to mask the funk that was their business. Sprawled in, you guessed it, blue letters on the side facing the doors, were the words “Join us. Thrive.” Behind the counter stood a man with slick black hair that curled on his forehead, puny round glasses, and an obnoxious red bowtie. He reminded her so much of her supervisor back home, Mr. Paulsen. Both of them tried too hard to appear as welcoming as possible, but Winter could see the greed behind those spectacles.
“Greetings!” The gentleman’s voice was higher-pitched than Winter had expected, but just as pretentious. She could sense a high energy from the him as she approached the counter. She was probably the first new face he had seen in a long time. “My name is Morris, welcome to JojaMart! How may I be of some ser--”
“Winter! Hey!” Carrying a crate of mixed fruits, Sam trotted up to greet her. Winter was happy, albeit surprised, to see a familiar face. She noticed his expression shift as he noted the state of her dress. “Looks like you’ve been having fun.” Winter rolled her eyes, picking a small piece of grass from her tank strap. “What are you doing here?”
Winter eyed the gentleman behind the counter, who she could tell was trying his best to hide his glare. “I found a cat while working on my farm today. I need to get a few things for him. Or her. Not quite sure yet.”
“A cat, how cool! I tried asking my mom for one, but she --”
Morris interrupted by clearing his throat, and the two friends looked at him. “Samuel,” he remarked through gritted teeth, his face pink. Winter looked to Sam for his reaction to being called the wrong name, but when she didn’t see one, she guessed it had not been the first time. “Please escort our guest to the appropriate aisle. Then resume your work.”
“Sir, yes sir.” Sam gave a mocking salute, and Winter giggled. The two removed themselves, Sam leading the way toward one of the aisles. “That’s exciting, though. Your first animal.”
“Yeah, I think so too.” Winter smiled to herself, placing a hand over her chest where the cat had previously rested. “It makes me nervous, though. I’ve never really cared for another living thing on my own before.”
“I think you’ll do great.” Sam gave her an assuring grin, and Winter felt a warmth in her chest. “We don’t have a ton -- oh hey, look, there’s Shane, he works here too -- but we got a few things to get you started at least.”
“As long as you have some cat food, that’s really all I need. Everything else, I can wing it.” They finally made it down the second-to-last aisle, and Sam gestured to the pet section like those showgirls on the gameshows. “Oh, you actually have more than I thought you would.”
“Who’da thunk, huh?” Sam chuckled, puffing out his chest as he leaned against the shelf. By now Winter had determined that he would take any chance he could to impress her, and though she questioned why, she found it flattering. “Think you could manage with what we have here?”
“This is perfect, actually. Thanks Sam!” Winter had already began gathering items to purchase, shoveling different flavors of canned cat food into a litterbox she had grabbed first from the shelf.
“Yeah, sure.” Sam cleared his throat and eased off the shelf, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. “If you ever need any help with him, maybe I could, you know, assist..”
Winter balanced the litterbox on one hip, grinning at her friend. “Didn’t you just say that your mom never let you get a cat?”
Sam’s cheeks reddened, and he scratched nervously at his temple. “Well not exactly, Morris didn’t let me get that far.”
Winter scoffed, and she moved the litterbox to the other hip. “I think anyone that wants to get anywhere with this corporation has to dress exactly like that guy. He reminds me of my supervisor back home.”
Sam perked up. “You worked for Joja Corp?”
Winter suddenly grew nervous, and she gulped. “Oh. I haven’t told you that yet, have I?”
“Nope. Well I don’t blame you for leaving, I hate this place.”
“Yeah,” Winter began, her voice barely above a whisper. “That’s why I left.” Winter shifted uncomfortably, and as Sam opened his mouth to speak, she started again to stop him. “Well I should probably bring this to the front, I need to get back home.”
“Here, let me take it up for you.” Sam grabbed the litterbox from her, and she smiled in thanks. He led her back up to the front, his gait peppy and full of energy as usual. Morris eyed them from his desk, and Winter tried to keep up with Sam. “I hope kitty likes his new house. He chose a good momma.”
“I hope so. Thanks, Sam.”
Sam nodded and left her side, returning to the Appreciation desk to grab the crate of fruits he had left. The woman at the register, devoid of any joy in her expression, chewed absently on a piece of gum. Each time she reached for another item, it was an eternity until it made its way to the scanner to be added to the transaction. Winter eyed her incredulously. Had Joja completely gobbled up the woman’s soul? In the time it took for her to finish ringing up the cat items, Winter jogged to a couple aisles to grab a few other things: some packaged soup, plastic cutlery and dishes, a frying pan and small pot, a thermos, and some juice boxes. Thankfully there were no other customers in the store, or Winter might have felt bad for “holding up” others in line.
Winter finally paid for the goods, and fit what she could in her satchel to make it easier to carry home. The woman grunted a “join us again soon”, handing Winter her receipt and returning to her previous slumber-like state behind the register. Winter’s brow furrowed and she uttered a “thank you” before she started for the door. Perhaps she had it good in the city; she could imagine that working in a place like this would suck out your soul much faster than sitting behind a desk. Same buzzing of the fluorescent bulbs ahead, same boring jazz music, same sleazy members of management. But at least she had the excitement of the keyboard tapping around her, and Regina to let her in on the office gossip.
The glass doors slid open, and the welcoming fresh air of the outside world greeted Winter’s nose. From behind her she heard Morris chime “Have a nice day!”, and Winter’s feet put a little more energy into getting her out of there.
♪♫ “ ..Some people long for a life that is simple and planned, tied with a ribbon. Some people won't sail the sea 'cause they're safer on land, to follow what's written...” ♪♫
A towel adorning both her head and her body, the steam from her shower filling the bathroom, Winter set the kitten -- which she had finally discovered was a male -- on the countertop next to her sink. He purred loudly, a chorus alongside Winter’s singing, running the recently-purchased pet brush through his luscious mane to loosen any dirty that may have been nestled between the strands. Winter then wet the brush just slightly, deciding to take a chance on their budding friendship. She had never heard of a cat enjoying a bath, nor did she feel like testing that thought in that moment. Instead, using light strokes she continued to run the now-wet brush through the cat’s coat. There were no protests from him; on the contrary, he was obviously enjoying the attention with an expression of pure contentment.
Winter ran a dry washcloth along the kitten’s body to remove any leftover moisture. Setting him on the ground she continued her own pampering, removing the towel from her head and wringing out her already curling hair. She hummed as she brushed her hair, and after she had added her product to the dark strands, she applied lotion to her arms. She heard the kitten call her from inside the other room, and she followed his meows.
She had started a fire before heading into the shower, allowing it to naturally grow in its place. Winter put a pot of water on the flame to bring it to a boil, and as she waited she gave her new friend plenty of attention. She grabbed one of the cans of cat food from her satchel, peeling back the lid and setting it on the floor next to the water bowl from earlier, which she emptied and replaced with some milk. Perhaps the greatest meal he had ever had, he eagerly lapped at the milk. Winter giggled and stroked his back.
Soon she eased into bed, full from the packaged soup she had prepared for herself. While it was definitely a downgrade from the fresh ingredients she had become accustomed to, there was something comforting in the packet of MSG she consumed. She pulled her blanket over her body, and as she felt her muscles begin to calm and meld into the mattress, she was greeted with a mew.
“Oh, of course!” With a smile Winter leaned over the edge of the bed. The kitten sat on its haunches, neck fully craned as it eyed her from the floor. His fluffy tail swayed from one side to the next, and he cocked his head to one side as if questioning her. She stroked his head and back a couple of times before she lifted him up, and he claimed a spot at her feet. After circling for a moment he plopped down, stretching his legs out to begin kneading at the blanket.
Winter’s heart was filled with a comforting warmth, knowing this little creature had come to her for a reason. He was young and needed someone to care for him; she needed something to care for. Fate was not something she ever really believed in, but if there was a time she would start, that had to be it.
“Now I just need to come up with a name for you.” Winter laid back, letting herself settle once again. The crackling of the dying embers in the fireplace grabbed her attention, and her eyes fell on the soup wrapper that had been left on her table. Her eyes shifted from the wrapper to the kitten, whose purrs had quieted as he fell into a deep sleep, and Winter sighed. Her eyes closed, and she quickly began to feel the heaviness of sleep. “Miso.”
So sorry that it's taken so long for me to update, and doubly sorry for this being a short chapter! Next chapter is going to be just as lengthy as the previous, I promise! For now, I thank you for your patience, as I was working through some things in my personal/professional life.
Song snippet is from "Tightrope" from the Greatest Showman.
Tomorrow we're all getting together for the Flower Dance. If you can find a partner, you might even want to participate in the dance yourself!
Winter was beginning to be amazed at the amount of festivals the small town had. Sure, the city had its own versions of many of the same holidays, but in the day-to-day hustle most were simply half-assed or swept under the rug altogether; mostly they were just placeholders for the half-priced candy sales in the days following. In Pelican Town things were viewed otherwise. Each holiday had special meaning, and was a reason for the town to come together and celebrate. There was heavy preparation involved, and this festival was definitely no different.
As she walked through town following her duties for the day, rucksack filled with her laundry from the past week, she passed by Pierre’s shop. Out front, near the calendar, Mayor Lewis stood over a table with a few of the townsfolk, including Evelyn, Jodi, and of course Gus. From where she was standing she could see various things strewn about the tabletop, including what looked like some elaborate blueprints and sample bouquets.
“Oh, Winter, hi!”
Winter looked up from the table and met Jodi’s gaze. The woman held a cheerful smile which carried to her eyes, bringing soft wrinkles in the corners. Winter approached the table, shifting the weight of her laundry on her back, hoping that her clothes weren’t as smelly as she imagined them to be.
“Winter dear,” Evelyn started, her sweet voice slightly shaky with her age. “Might we ask you a favor?”
“Sure,” Winter slid the straps of the rucksack from her shoulders, carefully placing it on the toes of her boots.
“We need your opinion on flowers for the festival. We’ve decided between these bouquets and these --” Jodi motioned between two arrangements “-- but we want your thoughts on the flower crowns for the girls.”
Winter’s brow furrowed. She was a farmer, having probably actually supplied a few of the flowers herself; they were, after all, relatively easy to cultivate. She even was a bit of a girly girl, perhaps, despite playing in the dirt for a living. But why would they need her opinion? Wouldn’t Haley be a better fit?
She inhaled deeply, offering a small shrug. “Well, pink would be the obvious choice, but maybe that’s a little too plain? I would use all the colors you have.”
“That’s not a bad idea. The festival is celebrating the season.” Mayor Lewis grunted his approval, Jodi and Evelyn nodding in agreement. The Mayor turned to face the new farmer. “Will you be joining us for the Flower Dance tomorrow, Miss Winter?”
“Yeah, of course. I’m not really that good of a dancer, though.”
Evelyn sighed lightly, her beady eyes sparkling. “I loved to dance in my youth. George and I would dance together every festival --” Gus grunted humorously, and Evelyn chuckled herself. “I know dear, hard to believe that we were young once.”
Pulling her rucksack over her shoulders Winter quietly excused herself. She briskly checked the calendar, as she tried to regularly, and continued on her way up the Mountain Path.
The fresh air of the Valley was something Winter had grown to love, and the mountains brought a certain coolness that made it even better. Perhaps it was the lake that refreshed the atmosphere, making Winter want to take a dip in its sparkling water. As she approached Robin’s house she decided that it may not be too bad of an idea; next time she’d come to do laundry, she would bring a swimsuit and have a short swim -- after, of course, making sure the water was as safe as it looked.
There was something different about the carpenter’s shop that piqued her interest. As she grew closer she realized that the garage, which had been closed every other time she paid a visit, was actually open that day. Through the glare of the sun she made out the frame of a motorcycle, which looked well loved with chrome pipes, a blue tank, and a brown leather seat. It was hoisted up, and underneath on a mechanic’s creeper she spotted a pair of black and white vintage sneakers.
Winter stopped her approach as she heard a clang of metal hitting the concrete of the garage floor. Sebastian muttered a small “shit ” and adjusted himself on the creeper, the wheels creaking. A couple more clangs and he audibly sighed, sliding out from under the motorcycle. He ran the back of his wrist across his face, his dark hair wet with sweat and clinging to his forehead. When his arm moved from in front of his eyes he spotted Winter. “Oh, hello.”
“Hey Sebastian. Is this your bike?”
“What, you haven’t seen it before?” He sat up, wiping his hands on a worn mechanic’s rag he had retrieved from his back pocket. “Hmm. I guess I haven't shown it to you.”
The blue paint sparkled in the Spring sun, and now that she was closer she could see the faint outline of black smoke-like flames dusted along the tank and fender. Winter dropped her bag closer to the door of the cabin, returning to examine the bike further. “It’s incredible! Does it run?”
“Of course it does.” Sebastian slid back down onto the creeper, returning to his previous position.
In that moment, a cloud hid the sun, shading the ground below. The breeze picked up, swaying nearby trees, and Winter shifted her gaze to the surrounding terrain. There seemed to be a sparkle to the area suddenly, a change in the atmosphere she couldn’t quite place.
A socket wrench creaked with each turn under the bike. “Sometimes,” he started, his voice calm. Winter looked again to Sebastian. “I make the long ride out of Stardew Valley after sundown…There's nothing else like it, blazing along the empty stretch of road toward the faint city glow.”
The manner in which Sebastian was speaking reminded Winter so much of that day she stumbled into his room. Usually he was relatively quiet with her, only asserting himself when he felt comfortable or it was appropriate. These times were different, and she was glad that he was warming up to her. He spoke with a fondness that was evident, as if the subject was something very dear and important to him. Like before, he mentioned the city, and Winter could tell that he had very high hopes for city life. He was so innocent. She knew that from the outside looking in, the city definitely seemed charming, much more welcoming than it actually was. Increasingly over the past few years, Winter felt that the city was more like a succubus than anything: it beckoned you inside its walls with promises of wealth and prosperity, pleasure even, but in the end you were more dead inside than ever before.
“Once I've saved up enough money, I'm going to head out on my own... to the city and beyond, just me and my bike."
“Oh.” Winter’s voice was quiet as the atmosphere around them returned to its previous state. The sun reclaimed its position in the sky, and she squinted momentarily as her eyes readjusted.
She had done everything she could to escape the city, and Sebastian was drawn, beckoned to it...
A rush of liquid met Winter’s ears, followed by the shuffling of his tools. “There we go.” Sebastian slid a pan filled with a dark liquid from beneath the bike. “Oil’s changed.” He slid out from under the bike again, this time bringing himself to his feet. Winter’s eyes followed his face, studying it as he ran the red rag between his fingers. His face was slightly flushed, probably from the heat of working under the bike, with one cheek stained by a some grease. She had never seen him look this way, but by his expression, she could tell that he enjoyed what he had been doing. Winter liked seeing this side of him.
Sebastian caught her gaze, and Winter quickly looked away. “W-well, Robin said she emptied the washer for me, so I’m.. gonna go start a load.” She had no idea why she felt so embarrassed in that moment, but as she quickly grabbed for her bag, she felt his eyes still on her. When she briefly glanced back up, she saw that they indeed still were.
He was completely silent, and Winter was oblivious to the fact that his lips were curled up into a smile as he watched her step inside.
It was inevitable that they would bump into each other again, as the washer and dryer were right by the door to his room in the basement. There was a small landing that led from the base of the stairs to the door, with a little space to the side where the machines sat. Actual physical space there was not, so when Sebastian went into his bedroom moments after she started loading the washer, they awkwardly danced at the bottom of the stairs to allow him through. She pressed her body against the washer, and he slid as close to the wall as possible. He emerged from his room just a moment later, this time with a bundle of clothes and a towel. Because they had practice from the time before, the second pass came without a hitch, and Sebastian disappeared at the top of the stairs.
Winter poured the detergent Robin had loaned her into the basin, her mind drifting off. She pictured Sebastian on his bike. In her vision he wore stereotypical biker gear, with a leather jacket and a half helmet adorning his head. Aviators concealed his eyes. From beneath the helmet his hair swayed majestically in the breeze, and he looked so content. She wondered what he thought of when he rode? She doubted his mind was blank, but what is it he was interested in besides his music and programming? Winter realized that she really had no idea what Sebastian’s interests were. She wanted to find out.
Water began to fill the machine and she climbed back up the stairs. Robin was no longer in her shop space to the left, and so Winter made her way to the kitchen. When she found that the woman was not there either, she decided to take a seat at the kitchen table. The house was quieter than she remembered it ever being, and she welcomed it wholeheartedly.
Stifling a yawn with one hand she used the other to retrieve her cellphone from her back pocket. She first set a timer for the amount of time reflected on the washer, then decided to send a quick text to check on her sister. Autumn would probably be getting home from school around that point, unless she had taken on some sort of after-school activity. If she was anything like Winter as a teen, she definitely had enrolled in something. Mother urged the both of them to indulge in extra-curriculars, and Autumn succumbed just as easily as Winter. Hopefully she does something she likes.
The timer ticked on, and as time passed Winter fell deeper and deeper into the hole that was her cell phone. It was nice to check out mentally sometimes, but when she did that back in the city, she actually had a medium into which to escape . Upon leaving she had gotten herself a new phone number, had closed all social media accounts, and removed herself from most attachments to her previous life. Now when she looked to get lost in technology, all she had was news articles to gaze through. How boring.
The sound of feet padding on the wood floors broke Winter from her thoughts, and she looked up to see Sebastian. He wore a black shirt -- of course -- with a pair of dark wash jeans, his feet bare against the ground. His hair was still wet from his shower, combed backward, and boy did his pale skin look mighty shiny.
Sebastian opened the door to the fridge, leaning down to look inside. Winter’s eyes caught the sight of bare skin as his shirt separated from his pants on his lower back, and she felt a warmth on her cheeks. Chill out, girl. He grabbed a couple bottles of water and closed the door, walking over to the table and having a seat across from her. He offered a bottle to her, and she accepted it.
“Not much else to choose from, Mom doesn’t really care for soft drinks.” He twisted off the cap to the water and took a swig. “Unless you want some carrot juice. Tastes like dirt, but she’s on a real health kick right now.”
Winter chuckled. “I don’t really like carrots in their usual form, so I’ll pass on that, thank you.”
He shrugged with a small grin. “Suit yourself. More for her.”
They sat in silence, and Winter spun her cellphone around on its face on the tabletop. She watched it, trying to find something to say to start conversation. Eventually Sebastian was the one to speak up. “Hey... so... maybe I'll take you for a ride some day.”
She perked up, her posture straightening as she moved her attention back to him. “That sounds like fun! I’ll admit though, I’ve never even ridden on a regular bicycle before.”
“Yeah. There’s lots of them in the city, ‘cause driving is pointless with all the traffic. But there’s not really anywhere to learn how to ride to begin with.”
“Interesting.” Sebastian rubbed at his chin for a moment before continuing. “Well there’s not much to riding on a motorcycle really, at least for a passenger. You just gotta lean with the bike and not against when you turn, or else you’ll lose balance.”
“Do you often have someone else with you?”
Sebastian’s face fell suddenly, and Winter began to worry that she had perhaps stepped into some forbidden territory. He sniffed, taking another drink from the water bottle, his hand tense against the plastic. He swallowed it down hard and set the bottle on the table. “Not often, no. Abigail, a few times.”
“Oh.” Winter’s response was rather abrupt, her brows furrowing. She cocked her head to one side, bringing her elbow to the table and resting her cheek in the palm of her hand. There was a story behind his reaction, and it was eating up her curiosity. It was the first time he had been tense in that manner. Did he have some sort of history with Abby? They did seem to have some sort of connection…
Her phone began to beep, signalling the end of her wash cycle. Winter mentally thanked it for causing an interruption, as their conversation was beginning to plummet into awkwardville. “Excuse me, time to throw my clothes in the dryer.” Sebastian nodded and leaned back in the chair, twisting the bottle cap between his thumb and index. Winter stood and headed down the hall, and finally down the stairs.
After moving her clothing from one machine to the next, Winter went back to daydreaming about Sebastian on a motorcycle, this time with Abigail behind him. There had to be something there, she knew it… Especially in that town, they were an even more obvious choice for a couple than Alex and Haley were. Both wore dark clothing, belonged to the same friend circle, and seemed to be interested in similar things. It was only natural for them to come together, right? Now that she began to really think about it, in the past Winter had noticed that Abigail always seemed to stand closer to Sebastian than she did to Sam.
There was a twisting feeling in her chest, and Winter raised a hand to rest against her sternum. What was it she was feeling? Anxiety? Surprise? Jealousy ? Perhaps it was a mixture of all these emotions and more, but why did she feel that way? She barely knew Sebastian, was really only just starting to get to know him. She knew Sam most out of the group, as he was more willing to be open about himself within the friend circle. Why did she suddenly feel so attached to Sebastian?
Winter leaned against the wall opposite the washer and dryer. She rubbed at her forehead, feeling frustrated with herself as she began to discover why. She had lived a life where so much was expected of her, where she had to paint on a face that wasn’t hers, and as a result she rarely got a dose of actual reality … So what she would do, is she would fantasize and start to develop imaginary feelings with these images in her head. They’d play out like the movies, where everyone lived happily ever after. She was incredibly naive when it came to romance. Sure, she had guys interested in her growing up, a girl with looks like hers couldn’t go without them. But until Marius, she had never taken the bait.
See, like Sebastian, Marius was different than the people she had usually surrounded herself with. Marius was older than her for starters, and ruggedly handsome. He was an accomplished businessman and very wealthy as a result. He had no problem paying with big bills, driving expensive luxury vehicles and wearing suits that cost more than she made in six months on her Joja wages. So when he made his advances, it pulled her so far out of her usual frame of life, that she was hooked instantly.
Shame on you, Winter. Sebastian is nothing like him.
No, Sebastian could not be compared to Marius, and she knew that. But they were similar in that they were different , and different was dangerous.
Cindersap Forest had never really been a place she explored before, save for the eastern edge near Marnie’s ranch and Leah’s cabin. If it weren’t for the signs leading her in the correct direction, she would have definitely gotten lost. Wooden posts dotted the path, white-painted arrows leading the way. She figured the other townsfolk would appreciate her look. She had taken care to nurture her dark curls so that they fell in neat and frizzless spirals over her shoulders. A yellow and white vertically-striped sundress with spaghetti straps draped over the curves of her frame, contrasting with the dark work boots on her feet. She was glad she had decided to wear her boots after giving them a good scrubbing, because even though the path was mostly cleared, there were a few spots where the brush creeped in. Winter expected to hear remarks about them, but she tried her best to make the rest of her appearance look much classier in order to drown them out.
Finally reaching the westernmost edge of the forest, a fence made of multi-colored garland led her toward an incredibly narrow makeshift bridge. It created a crossing over a very steep gorge, the faint sound of a steady creek drifting up to meet her as she carefully stepped across. Winter hadn’t ever been afraid of heights, but in that instance her heart beat rapidly out of her chest with each meticulous step. She felt a wave of relief crash over her as she made it to the opposite end, and when she turned around to look at the bridge she had just crossed she pondered the sanity of whoever had made it. (Seriously, were they thinking about safety?) Another wooden sign urged her forward and she continued around a bend, beginning to hear peppy tunes in the distance.
Seeing Pierre’s festival stall assured her that she had indeed chosen the correct path. Winter stopped to check out his wares, which were mostly flowery decor items in wooden crates and mock wine barrels, but her eyes stopped on a scarecrow that leaned up against one end of the counter. It looked oddly human-like, with hair made out of what she could only guess to be corn husks, a straw hat atop its head, and a flannel shirt stuffed with straw. She’d spotted a few crows as she started her chores in the mornings, and mostly she just shooed them off and began her work. But this… perhaps this scarecrow is what she needed!
“Hey Pierre, how much for that scarecrow?”
“Good eye, farmer!” Pierre rubbed his palms together, a big grin on his face as he prepared his sales pitch. “That there is no ordinary scarecrow. We have special ones made for only the most special of occasions. We call them Rarecrows, and you can only get them certain times of the year!”
Only in a small town such as this, would someone get so excited over a scarecrow.
“...And you can have it for only 2,500g!”
A lump caught in her throat, and her brows furrowed. “2,500g?” Her eyes fell back on the humanoid on a stick, and she thought back on how much money she had saved up until that point from her farming. She could absolutely afford it, but would using so much be a wise decision? It would wipe out a good chunk of what she had saved up.
Winter swallowed hard and forced a smile, deciding to hide the fact that she couldn’t quite afford the purchase. “Thanks, Pierre. I’ll come back and see you after the festival.”
Winter could see the defeated glisten in his eyes, but just as she had done the same, he continued to smile. “No worries, enjoy the festival!”
With a small curtsy she continued on her way. Just past the stall she spotted Emily and Caroline, involved in what appeared to be a pretty deep conversation. Winter could see Clint standing a few feet away, and the look on his face held an expression of… longing? Not feeling like jumping into that can of worms she let her eyes wander again, finding Leah and Elliot standing together next to the river. At almost the same exact time Leah happened to look over and she waved energetically, beckoning her friend over.
“My my, you sure look nice!” The two exchanged a small hug in greeting, and Leah caught sight of Winter’s peculiar accessory. “And the boots are a nice touch.”
“I didn’t really know what to expect, so I kind of figured what the hell.”
Leah laughed, her smile reaching her eyes. “It’s okay, it actually suits you!”
“Thanks,” Winter offered her friend a small curtsy, then shifted her gaze to the gentleman standing next to Leah. Even though she had bumped into him several times by that point, she still couldn’t believe how much he looked like someone from one of the romance novels her mom fancied. “How’s it going, Elliot?”
“Other than watering my own flowers this morning with salt water” -- Winter winced, and he smiled in agreement -- “nothing could tamper with my mood on this beautiful spring day.”
“That's.. ouch.” Winter gave Elliot a sympathetic look, and he offered her a smile in return. “Can’t say that’s something I wouldn’t do.”
Leah pressed a hand to Winter’s shoulder, giving it a light push as she giggled. “What are you talking about, Winter? You seem to be doing so well for yourself.”
“Well maybe,” Winter sighed lightly, her lips pursing as she thought about her farm. She had for sure come a long way, but she didn’t quite feel as though she was there yet . The coin she made from selling her crops to Pierre was nowhere near what she made in the city at Joja. Thankfully Grandpa had willed the farm to her, so she had no need to pay rent. This helped, though she was still curious about utilities and how they worked. When she had arrived her lights and water were already running, and she doubted that these were included in Grandpa’s will. She’d have to ask Robin about that later.
“Have you had anything to eat yet?” Elliot motioned to the table at the opposite side of the field where their feast was situated. When she shook her head, he smiled warmly.
Leah spoke up then. “You should go grab yourself a plate. We will have plenty of time to chat later on.”
Winter gave them both a “see you later” before she adjusted her skirt and began her journey to the buffet table. She took a moment to let her iridescent eyes scan the area she had yet to explore. The field nestled at the side of the forest was surrounded by short cliffs leading to small patches of land, wild flowers dotting the brush along the ledge. A wood fence separated the field from the cliffside, with various flower pots helping to decorate the division. Some of the townsfolk sat along the fence, chatting amongst themselves, while Haley danced around the center of the field with a look of sheer determination.
When she finally found herself at the dinner table, the smell of fresh baked bread was the first thing to meet her nose. She felt her shoulders comfortably droop as she eased, and a warmth fill her chest. Mmm, bread! She grabbed a plate and reached for the dinner rolls that sat in a wicker basket closest to her. A gruff chuckle came from her left.
“Straight for the rolls, eh?” Winter looked up to see that it was Pam that had started the conversation. It appeared that the woman had taken a bit more time to adjust her appearance for the festival. Her hair was feathered around her face and plastered with hair spray, framing cheeks adorned with possibly a bit too much blush. Her lips were painted with a bright pink gloss, and pale blue eyeshadow made the brown of her eyes lighten somewhat. Pam definitely was stuck in another era, but Winter was proud of her for at least trying.
Piling a couple of the rolls on her plate, Winter nodded. “I’ll probably come back for some more a few times before the day is through.”
Pam laughed heartily, her shoulders shaking with each guffaw. “Hey, you like what you like!” Pam gave Winter a couple hard pats on the back before returning her hand to assist with holding her plate, filled with its own feast. Pam audibly inhaled. “This is the life though, ain't it kid? Sweet wine, a babbling brook, warm air…”
Winter looked over one shoulder to the stream that ran along the side of the field opposite of the cliff. It was very relaxing, for sure; the sound of the water rippling along, the sounds of the chattering of the townsfolk, and the soft music created an air of easy contentment. Winter couldn’t help but feel at ease.
The easy atmosphere soon melted away, as Winter heard a familiar voice from just past Pam. “You not going to say hi to us, Winter?” Abigail waved her over, and Winter smiled. “Get over here!”
“Coming Abby,” Winter plated herself a bit of salad before grabbing a fork, nodding to Pam. “See you later.” Pam grunted and continued to pile food onto her plate.
“We were starting to feel a little lonely over here,” Sam mock-pouted, and Winter rolled her eyes. “Took you long enough to get here.”
“Well,” Winter started, grabbing a roll from her plate. “Maybe you should learn a little patience.”
“Sheesh,” Sam raised a brow, a giggle coming from Abby. “No sympathy from you.”
“Only when it’s necessary.” Winter winked, and Abby’s giggles increased. Taking a bite of her roll finally, her eyes wandered and found Sebastian nearby, leaning up against a fencepost. His pale skin reflecting the spring light, she knew this was definitely not his scene. Bright colors and brilliant flowers didn’t exactly match his black attire. She swallowed her bit of bread, and she smiled at him. “Hey, Sebastian. Having fun?”
A small smile rose on the corner of his mouth, and he raised a brow humorously. “Loads.”
“This is his favorite festival, isn’t it Seb?” Abigail stepped toward him, her arms laced behind her back. He rolled his eyes. Abigail giggled again and walked closer to Winter, who was chewing on another piece of her dinner roll, dipped in a bit of ranch dressing. “Are you going to dance, Winter?”
Winter paused, dough resting in one cheek. She hadn’t thought about that yet; it was the Flower Dance , after all, she should have known there would be dancing. She felt nervous suddenly. It wasn’t that she was a bad dancer; on the contrary, she had taken a number of classes from middle through high school. How could she be sure the type of dancing this bunch performed? They were in the country, perhaps line dancing?The La La Glide ?
Winter finally shrugged, swallowing the wad of bread in her mouth. “I mean, maybe. I don’t see why not.”
“Just be happy you aren’t subjected to this dumb dance they make us do every year,” Sam ran a hand back through his blond locks, which sprung right back up when released. “We gotta wear these ugly blue jumpsuits. They’re scratchy and smell like mothballs.”
“The girls have to wear white dresses.” Abby crossed her arms, her fishnet sleeves lightly pressing into the pale flesh of her arms. “They’re not my style, but I do it for my mom.”
“This sounds like some fertility ritual.” Winter’s brows furrowed, puzzled.
Sebastian chuckled from his spot, adjusting his weight on the post. “You got it,” he began, sliding his hands into his front pockets. “That’s exactly what it used to be, a century or so ago. Every festival has some strange history like that.”
“Ladies and Gentleman!” A voice boomed over the speakers, the words melding with feedback from the system. Mayor Lewis stood near Pierre’s stall, a microphone in one hand and a long-stemmed flower in the other. “We are soon going to begin the Flower Dance, so those participating in the Dance should proceed to the dressing rooms.”
With a collective sigh Sam, Abigail and Sebastian started walking in the direction of a few stalls in the far corner of the field. Winter waved, her thumb and index holding a piece of bread. “Good luck, you guys. I’ll be over here.”
Winter picked up her fork and began munching at her salad, eyes scanning for another companion. There were plenty of people around to choose from, as the entire town had gathered around for the festivities. Even Linus, the town bum (homeless person? transient? she didn't quite know what was his politically-correct title) had come to take part. On the opposite side of the food table stood Robin and her husband Demetrius, who she had not really gotten to know just yet. She decided this would be a good opportunity to start learning about the fellow.
“Hi Robin,” Winter tapped the woman's arm, and Robin turned.
“Hey there!” Robin grinned, wrapping Winter in a soft hug. “Are you enjoying the festival so far?”
“I haven't really been here long, but “ -- she held up her half-demolished plate of food -- “The food is great.”
“Well the town comes together for the whole thing. Caroline baked those rolls -- aren't they to die for?”
Winter nodded enthusiastically. “To be honest, I think I've had three already.”
“Demetrius loves them, too. Don't you, honey?”
Demetrius cleared his throat, putting a fist in front of his mouth to help mask it. “Yes, definitely.” His hand then fell back into his front pocket. With shoulders slightly raised showing his discomfort, Winter saw that perhaps he and his son were more alike than they came off.
Son .. Winter had yet to become close enough with the family to really ask about their hierarchy. Obviously Demetrius was not Sebastian's father, Sebastian's skin tone made that obvious enough...
Winter was broken from her thoughts by Mayor Lewis’s voice on the speakers. “I think we’re ready to get started. Everyone gather 'round the north side of the event field!”
Robin and Demetrius linked arms, Robin giving her husband an affectionate smile as they began their walk. Winter tossed what remained of her plate into the trash next to the table. She scanned quickly to decide where she would perch, catching an empty spot in the far corner of the field, near the cliffs.
One by one the young folk of the town left the changing area, dressed in their obnoxious festival wear and partnered up with a member of the opposite gender. Leah and Elliot, Haley and Alex, Sam and Penny, Maru and… Winter's eyes stopped when they noticed Abigail and Sebastian. Abigail looped her arm around Sebastian’s elbow, the other hand obnoxiously swishing about the skirt of her white dress. Though they'd told Winter that this was a tradition they were forced into every year, Abigail didn't seem phased by that. In that moment she was beaming, standing as close as was comfortably possible to Sebastian.
Winter felt her heart thumping in her chest. She was reminded of the day she met Sebastian at his garage, working on his bike. When she asked if anyone had ever ridden with him, he had said Abby.. and he hesitated. This was the final piece to convince Winter that there was, most definitely, something going on between the two. And if not now, there was definitely some sort of history.
Otherwise, why would Abigail look so happy in that moment? It wasn't for show. Winter knew what show looked like.
They lined up by gender, their dance partner standing across from them. The music started, sounding like it was probably recorded at the beginning of the sound age. The dance was short, the steps very simple, with a whole bunch of swaying and bending your knees and… it reminded Winter of her recitals back in elementary school. Quite honestly the team looked mostly ridiculous, especially Haley, who was adding more energy and passion into her movements than was necessary. Despite the looks on their faces, depicting mostly mock enthusiasm, Winter could respect the fact that they were all willing to uphold tradition.
The song ended to thunderous applause, and Winter straightened her posture as she joined in. The teams broke away into their respective familial groups. She held a smile through pursed lips. What was she supposed to do at that point? Awkwardly join up somewhere? She half wanted to just make her way back to the food...
“Yo, Winter!” She looked up to find Sam was making his way toward her. Past him, Abigail and Sebastian stood together, looking in her direction. “We’re gonna blow this popsicle stand. You have a swimsuit?”
“Uh, not with me.” Winter tilted her head in confusion. “Why do you ask?”
Sam straightened the collar of his suit. “Well, not much is gonna happen now that the dance is over. Go get it and meet us at the beach, okay?”
The sun beamed down as she walked across the bridge leading to the beach. She had changed into a black and gray heather raglan and denim shorts, a pair of flats adorning her feet. The bow created by the red straps of her bathing suit’s halter top rested at the nape of her neck, peeking above the collar of her shirt. A towel draped over one arm, she adjusted her straw hat on her head.
The sound of the ocean waves met her ears and she smiled. She had yet to venture to the beach for fun since coming to the valley, only to collect a few shells and morsels to sell to Pierre for some extra cash. In total she had maybe gone to a beach for recreation once or twice in all of her years, and the only real memories she had were from how her mom always burned within moments of stepping out into the sun. The city skies were veiled by a thin layer of smog, which helped to protect its dwellers from the harmful rays. At the beach there was no such thing, and so her mom had left some hours later with a nice, crispy red shell.
Perhaps that was what Winter needed, a little sun.. When she was getting dressed prior to heading to the beach, Winter had taken a moment to look at herself in the mirror. Through work in the fields she’d lost the little bit of flub around her tummy and her inner thighs from when she was out of commission during the winter season, and there was some muscle tone appearing in her limbs. What was most striking, however, was the difference in color on her skin. She had always had a darker complexion compared to her mother and sister, taking after her father’s side of the family. Working out in the sun had left her skin uneven, with her arms and legs especially having a somewhat darker tone than the rest of her body. She finally understood the phrase “farmer’s tan”, and it was definitely fitting for her situation. Winter thought she looked pretty silly, but figured this get together would be a good opportunity for her to work on evening out that tan.
Twangy, ska-esque music blended in with the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore. There was a female giggle, following by male laughter, and Winter’s eyes followed the sounds to the three figures just past Elliot’s cabin. Sam and Abigail splashed about in knee-deep water, Abigail clutching the brim of a dark blue sun hat to keep it from flying away. On the still-dry stretch of sand just north of them sat Sebastian, his knees bent and elbows resting upon them. He was still mostly dressed, wearing some long blue board shorts and a gray tee. A small boombox sat next to him, playing the music she had been hearing.
“Oh hey!” Abby was the first to notice her. She waved, her mesh swim cover-up billowing in the breeze. “Glad you could make it.”
Winter smiled, stopping at the water’s edge. “Well, I figured I could use a bit of sun.”
“Aren’t you out in the sun all day?” Sam turned to face Winter. He was shirtless, wearing only a pair of floral board shorts. Sam sported the best tan out of the three of them, and Winter felt her eyes briefly drifting… Her examination found that he was actually quite toned, some muscle definition obvious on his torso. She tipped her hat to hide the flush to her cheeks.
“Yeah, but even so, I’ve got some weird tan lines going on.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it!” Sam crossed his arms with a big grin. Abby giggled and splashed him with a bit of water.
Wait… was Sam flirting with her? Or was she just overly reading into things, like she had a tendency to do?
Winter cleared her throat, deciding to shrug it off and play along. “Hope you brought your sunglasses, ‘cause you’re about to be blinded by --” Winter gestured to her torso in an exaggerated motion “-- all of this. ”
Winter removed her straw hat and placed it, cap side down, on the sand. First her towel dropped into the bowl that it formed. Next she slid off her shorts, then peeled off her shirt, folding each piece and setting them down on her towel.
“My oh my, Win!” Abigail held her hand over her mouth, chuckling between her fingers and crossing her arms. “Is that what you city girls wear when you go to the beach? You look like Haley!”
Winter suddenly felt very self-conscious as she examined her ensemble. “Wh-what do you mean? I look like Haley?” When Abigail giggled once again Winter’s eyes returned to examine her cohort. Abigail wore a dark, probably black, one-piece swimsuit underneath a see-through mesh cover up that matched the color of her hat. Winter, on the other hand.. Though perhaps she wasn’t the most well-endowed person, her halter top definitely helped her case.. And perhaps her bikini bottoms sat a little low on her hips… Winter’s frame was relatively pear-shaped, meaning she had hips and legs for days , so perhaps it was a bit much…
Perhaps she should have dressed a little more modestly? Did she even own a one piece swimsuit? If she had known this would put her in the same group as Haley --
“Well I think you look great!” In an effort to break the awkward tension that had risen between them, Sam finally broke the ice. “I, uh, see what you mean about that tan though.”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks Sam.” Winter gritted her teeth, her eyes narrowing as she grabbed her shorts and slid them back on. For modesty.
Abigail and Sam returned to their playful banter among the waves, and Winter took a seat in the sand next to her clothes. Abigail confused the heck out of her… She was usually so very nice, but certain moments she became completely different. The seemingly malicious tone Abby had carried when she compared Winter to Haley didn’t sit well with her. What was her problem?
The light thump of someone’s butt hitting the sand next to her removed her from her sulking state, and she found that Sam had come to join her. She offered him a small, forced smile.
“Hey, you okay?” His eyes were calm, sincerity gleaming within them. “She didn’t upset you, did she?”
“Upset me? No, definitely not.” Winter forced a larger smile, batting away his question with her hand.
“You can be honest with me, you know.” Winter’s eyes drifted away to where Abigail had been standing, finding that she had not moved, but Sebastian had joined her. “She can’t hear you from here. Especially now that Seb has joined up with her.”
“Why does that make a difference?” Winter dug her toes into the sand, her legs slightly bent in front of her. Maybe this was her chance to do a bit of digging? “...Is there something going on between them, or something?”
Sam scoffed. “That’s old news. They’ve been on-again-off-again for years.” Sam stretched his arms out behind him, leaning back with his legs crossing in front. He closed his eyes, letting the back of his head tilt back, basking in the sun. “They dated back in high school, took a break when Sebastian and I graduated. She was a grade behind us. And then since then, it’s been.. Well, on again, off again.”
“Oh. Well that explains a lot.”
“Yeah.. Usually Abigail’s so far up Sebastian’s ass, trying to get his attention any which way she can. Especially when they’re off-again, and she’s wanting to be on-again.. Like now.”
“Can’t say I haven’t noticed.” Winter inhaled deeply, letting the air escape in one easy, drawn-out exhale. “I know you guys are friends.. But.. What’s her problem?”
Sam tilted his head to look at her, taking a moment to study Winter’s face. He smiled warmly. “She did upset you, didn’t she?”
Winter caught his eyes, and she shrugged. “Yeah, kind of hard not to get upset when someone compares you to Haley. I mean, what does that even mean?”
“I wouldn’t let it wind you up, Winter.” Sam sat forward and grabbed a bit of sand, letting it trickle between his fingers. “How about we stop worrying about friggin’ Abigail, and see who can build the biggest sand castle?”
Winter smiled. “I accept your challenge.”
Hey guys, sorry it took so long for me to post! A lot has been going on, and I hit a bit of writer's block as well.. Hopefully you enjoy the chapter!
Chapter 9: Ghost of You
Potential Emotional Trigger Warning.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Before Winter knew it, Spring had said it’s goodbyes, and the Valley welcomed Summer to the region. Even on the first day the heat found its way to Pelican Town. She awoke as usual and prepared her morning breakfast of eggs over an open fire, with some veggies sprinkled into the sautee. She thought it was the warmth radiating from her fireplace that kept her home cozy in the wee hours of the morning. As the hours slid by when she was outside, plucking the remnants of spring’s final harvests that had wilted seemingly overnight, she knew that it wasn’t the fireplace after all. No, it was the new season saying its hello’s.
Ugh . It was noon, and Winter had pulled every little stray hair she could find up into a messy bun at the back of her head, to keep the strands from sticking to her moist skin. She couldn’t believe how quickly the weather had changed, and it was only the first day! Winter hoped it wouldn’t get any worse as summer progressed. In her heart, she knew it probably would.
After she finished tilling the soil, she ran to her bathroom to apply a cool washcloth to the back of her neck. It felt so good, and she soaked it all up. Winter removed her faithful straw hat and examined herself in the mirror as she ran the cloth around her neck and shoulders. Her cheeks, shielded from the worst of the sun’s rays by her hat, still were flushed from the heat. Her shoulders were starting to get a bit pink as well. Winter made a mental note to invest in some sunblock, something she didn’t quite need in the spring, but surely would now.
Using the now warm rag, Winter started to clean herself up a bit for her trek into town for the season’s seeds. Dabbing at her arms, a flash of orange slid into her peripheral. Miso had hopped onto the toilet lid, the still-growing cat’s oddly large and fluffy tail curled around his body. His green eyes were narrow, looking her straight in the eye, and she knew what he wanted. She had forgotten to feed him, and Miso was not a fan of her in that moment.
“Hey bud, I’m sorry.” She let the cloth drop into the sink and she stepped over to pat his head. He twitched his whiskers and closed his eyes, raising his nose. “Oh come on, it’s only been a few hours. You’ll live. ”
“Okay, okay.” Winter stepped out of the bathroom and moved to the corner of the room where she kept her cat supplies.. Naturally, instead of finding cat food, she found an empty bag devoid of kitten sustenance, a couple crumbs lingering at the bottom.
Winter turned, her eyes falling on the orange cat sitting patiently next to his bowl. “Well, guess you’re gonna be waiting a bit longer. I’ll grab some when I get these seeds and -- oh, what am I kidding? You don’t understand me.”
Miso’s tail tapped lightly against the wood floor, reminiscent of the inpatient tapping of a digit on a tabletop.
“Maybe you do.. I don’t know. Anyway.” Winter shrugged it off and ran back into her bathroom to grab her hairbrush, running it through her frizzy and tangled wavy hair to create a less-messy version of her current ‘do. After the much neater bun was situated at the nape of her neck, she placed her hat back on her head, grabbed her rucksack, then stepped outside.
The bell chimed as she entered Pierre’s store, and the cool of the inside A/C unit pulled her in. Her eyes moved to the counter, discovering that the shopkeep was absent. Instead, his daughter was manning the register, flipping through her phone. Winter felt a tightness in her chest. She and Abby hadn’t spoken more than a few, choppy sentences since the day of the Flower Dance. It made things awkward, but Winter just didn’t know how to take the girl. One moment she was a somewhat playful, all-around nice young woman; the next, she was an abrasive, unkind individual from a different planet. Did she have some sort of disorder? Was inconsistency just a character flaw of hers? Did she have a twin sister that masqueraded as her from time to time?
Who knew? In that moment, however, she needed seeds, and Abigail was the only one who could grab them for her.
“Hey Abby,” Winter smiled meekly, grabbing the attention of the girl (because the door chime hadn’t done the trick).
Abby smiled wide. Apparently she was in a good mood. “Hey Winter, what’s shakin’?”
Winter stepped up to the counter, pressing her palms against the wood. “Summer’s here. Time for more seeds. What do you have?”
“Well, you’ve got melon, radish, blueberries, corn…” Abigail ticked off each available seed on a finger, her voice relatively monotone as she did so. “..and sunflowers. And coffee beans, there’s those too, but they’re hard to come by so we only have one packet.”
“I haven’t had coffee in ages. ” Winter sighed lightly. “That sounds so good, if only it weren’t so hot.”
“Is it? I haven’t stepped out today.” Abigail’s eyes roamed from Winter’s still-flushed cheeks to the burn rising on her shoulders. “You should wear sunscreen.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Winter shook her head, trying to keep her eyes from rolling into the back of her head. “I’ll take at least one of everything for now. Make it three melons, a couple corn seeds..”
Abby jotted down Winter’s selection onto a small piece of paper and knelt down to grab the seed packets from the shelving underneath the counter. In the meantime, Winter walked through the few aisles of other goodies Pierre kept stocked. The two things she wanted most, of course, were not there: no sunscreen, and no cat food. She called out to Abigail to inquire about them.
“I think Dad ordered a box of sunscreen but it hasn’t come in yet.” Abigail appeared from behind the counter, neatly piling the packets on the countertop. “Cat food though? I don’t think we ever carried that. Did you try Marnie’s?”
“Yeah, she doesn’t carry it either.”
“Bummer.” Abigail began inputting the seeds into the register, a ledger printing as she pressed in the prices. “All of this comes out to 1,320g.”
Winter dug around in her rucksack for her coin pouch, a makeshift nylon bag she used to have her makeup in. She carefully counted out the coins and handed them to Abigail before sliding the seed packets into her rucksack.
After Winter thanked Abby she turned to leave, but with a few steps, Abby spoke again. “Hey, Winter. I forgot to give you these.” Winter turned and Abby tossed the packet of coffee beans toward her. “Dad didn’t mark how much they are, anyway, so I’ll just give them to you. They can’t be too pricey so it should be fine.”
“Oh.” Winter flipped the packet in her palm. It was a brown paper material with a white note card pasted to the front, with two gold-colored beans illustrated on the card. Winter smiled warmly. Abby was definitely in a good mood today. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”
The bell chimed again as she exited the store, and Winter shifted the strap of her sack on her shoulder. Stop one down, now to.. Winter’s eyes looked to the distance, past the pub, Pam and Penny’s trailer, and in the direction of her arch nemesis.. Joja Mart. There’s nowhere else she possibly could find cat food, and they probably had sunscreen as well. She had no choice but to venture in.
The overhead lights of the JojaMart were just as piercing, yet numbing as they had been previously. The front desk was empty, no sight of the irksome supervisor that had been manning the post on her previous visit. Winter was relieved that she wouldn’t have to push past him to get what she needed and get out, because on that day she did not have the time, nor the patience, to deal with that.
As she neared the aisle containing the pet supplies, she caught the sight of a familiar set of blonde hair. Sam was maneuvering a tile buffer about the floor, his eyes distant and showing his lack of enthusiasm for his task. Winter could see a single headphone wire dangling from his left ear, disappearing into his collar.
When he noticed her, the color returned to Sam’s eyes and a smile rose on his face. “Hey! Winter!” He waved, the buffer starting to drift far to one side, and his hand quickly fell to steady it. Winter chuckled as he fumbled with the controls to turn it off. “I thought you said you were gonna avoid this place at all costs.”
“I did. But then I ran out of cat food, and Miso is not happy with me about it either.” Winter adjusted the rucksack on her shoulder, crossing her arms and smirking. “You look like you’re having the time of your life.”
Sam playfully pushed at the buffer, which shifted slightly, and rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, definitely.” He moved the machine to the side of the aisle to keep it out of the walking path, then bowed and put a hand out in the direction of the pet supply aisle. “Shall we?”
“Of course.” Winter mock-curtsied with her invisible skirt, then stepped past him into the aisle.
As they rounded about the corner of the pet supply aisle, Sam quickly brought himself to her side. “How’s summer treating you?”
Winter pursed her lips, shrugging slightly. “Well, so far it’s okay. But if it’s gonna be this hot on the first day, I don’t know if I want to see the rest of the season.”
“Yeah sometimes it can be pretty rough.” Sam laced his fingers behind his head. “Since we’re close to the sea we at least have a breeze most of the time, but the sun still can be pretty bad. Best part, though, is that my birthday falls in this season!”
Winter smiled, tilting her head. “Oh really? When?”
“Seventeenth!” Sam quickly stepped in front of her and turned, grinning from ear to ear with childlike innocence as he stepped backward to keep pace.
Winter couldn’t help but chuckle. “So, is there a party planned, or do you--”
Something caught Winter’s attention in her peripheral, and she looked out over Sam’s shoulder. Down at the opposite end of the aisle a group of suit-clad business folk rounded the corner, a few holding clipboards and pointing in various directions of the store. She could hear them speaking but could not work out what they were saying, though she figured they were having some sort of corporate walk, or…
Her vision shifted so that it was reminiscent of staring into a pair of binoculars; anything around her became dark, blurry, and all she could do was focus straight ahead. Her chest sank, as if her sternum was drooping down into her belly. It can’t be… She had looked up just in time to see that from around the corner a staggeringly tall figure appeared, standing out against the dull backdrop of the Joja Mart. Dark skin, an expensive tailored suit, and a tie that bore right into the back of her eye sockets.
A red silk tie.
“..Winter? Hello? You just got all pale--”
“S-Sam, I have to go!” Without waiting for a reaction Winter turned on her heels, her rucksack pulling on her shoulders as she sprinted toward the store’s entrance. She heard Sam call after her but she couldn’t make out the words, for the sound of her thumping heart made her numb to everything else.
She had never run so fast before, her legs aching as her boots pounded against the hard earth of the town’s landscape. She was running so hastily, and yet the time it took for her to reach the farm seemed like the longest span of time she had ever experienced. Did it take a few minutes? Half an hour? Her gaze was focused straight ahead, never turning to either side to check her surroundings. What if she looked behind her and saw him, chasing after her? Did he recognize her? Had he seen her there in the store? Did he know she was there? Is that why he was in Pelican Town?!
She could hear his voice in her head, low and smooth like a shot of whiskey.
‘Winter, Winter darling…’
Since coming to the Valley she had never locked her door. The townspeople had been so kind, so she had never felt a need. There had been nothing to fear.. Until that point. If Marius had tracked her down, if he knew she was there, she knew it was only a matter of time before he would come find her. The door was quickly shut behind her, the loud thud rattling the connecting walls. Though she had no idea if it actually worked, only that she had seen it in the movies, Winter grabbed the closest chair and wedged the back of it against her doorknob. She had no coverings over her windows, but there were old curtain rods placed above each, and so she frantically grabbed whatever towel, pillow case, or oversized shirt she could find to tie up in front of the windows. Miso meowed confusedly, but she had no time to console him. She had to make sure Marius had no way of knowing she was home.
By the time her windows were covered her body had calmed somewhat, feeling more secure in her home. Even still, Winter could feel her heart racing in her chest. She took a deep breath to try and calm herself further, but it didn’t work. Scenes of Marius finding her, coming to her home to taunt her and, worse, seduce her , filled her head and made her heart rate quicken all the more. Surely she was the reason he was there, what else could it be? He was too high on the corporate food chain at Joja for him to be there for any other reason. Winter had moved all the way out to Pelican Town, severed any ties she had to that man, and somehow he still found her.
She felt her eyes moisten, and before she knew it steady streams of tears rolled warmly down her cheeks. “Fuck,” she whispered, her voice shaky and heavy. Her breath quickened and caused her shoulders to rock, morphing into all out shudders as panic seeped into her bones. Shakily she stepped to her bathroom, hands grabbing at the edge of her sink to keep herself upright. She raised her gaze to look in the mirror, seeing that her face, which had earlier been flushed from the sun, was ghostly white, her forehead glistening with perspiration. Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes, irises dull and full of fear.
‘ ..darling, you haven’t forgotten about that little project you needed to take care of, did you?’
His voice echoed in her mind, and she gasped sharply. Her legs began to shake and she took a step back, and as she did so her knee buckled. Kneecap met the cool floor of the bathroom and Winter slumped to the ground, her back coming to rest against the tub. Her shoulders raised and fell with each breath, and she raised a hand to cover each of her eyes.
Visions of that past winter came to her mind then, images she had wished to forget, and up until that point had somehow managed to. She could see herself stepping out of a fancy sports car after it pulled up to the bus station. She saw herself fumbling for her phone in her pocket as the car slinked away. Though she could not hear the words, Winter knew what she was saying to the person on the other end of the call. “ I can’t come to the gig, I’ve got something I have to take care of..”
She heard the sound of a bell ringing as she opened a door.
Smooth, peppy jazz music, set to distract.
Brightly-colored pamphlets littering the table at the end of the row of chairs.
Cold, bright overhead lights.
Somehow Winter had managed to fall asleep there at the base of the tub, curled into a fetal position, clasping her phone in one hand. Vibration against her palm startled her awake, and she pushed herself up, her shoulder aching from the hard floor beneath her weight. Her eyes caught Miso curled up at her feet, the faint sound of his purring meeting her ears. What a good boy.
Winter slid her phone into her back pocket and finally stood, stepping in front of the mirror to examine herself. Color had returned to her face, the skin around her eyes puffy and red. Her hair was still pulled back into a bun at the back of her head, but it had loosened as she lay on the tile floor. She removed the hair-tie and used her fingers to shake her thick locks loose, the frizzed waves falling over her shoulders. She decided it would have to do for now, as she wasn’t in the mood to tame it.
Winter knelt down and picked up Miso, the ball of fluff melting into her chest, purring deeply and looking up at her with sleep-laden eyes. A couple of small kisses pressed against his head and she stepped out into the main room. Holding Miso close she looked around, seeing that no light was seeping past her makeshift curtains. Winter sighed and let a quick “shit” escape her lips, and after setting him down at the foot of her bed, she pulled her phone from her pocket. The lock screen lit up, the time reading “8:06 pm”, and it listed off three missed calls and five texts from Sam.
(3:06p) hey winter, are you home??
(3:06p) i just got off work & wanted to check on you. you ran outta the store real fast.
(3:42p) ?? winnnnnn?
(4:12p) well when you get home or you wake up or w/e, i left some things for you on your porch. ok? I didnt know what he liked so i just grabbed something
(4:14p) i hope everythings ok. ttyl
Winter quickly moved to her door and removed the chair from in front of it. Opening the door she heard crickets chirping from all around her farm, only a sliver of light left on the horizon. Stepping outside her eyes caught the sight of a small parcel at the top step of her porch, a brown paper bag which had been folded over to protect its contents, next to a small bag of food. A smile emerged on her lips and she grabbed the two items, bringing them inside the house.
Miso, hearing the rattling of the dry food within its bag, quickly arose and meowed as loud as his lungs could allow. Winter chuckled and crossed the room to pour some of the contents into his bowl, Miso not waiting for her to finish before his head dove in. She set the bag down and took the other to her table. Inside she found several feline paté cans in various flavors, as well as a small burlap toy filled with catnip and a couple plastic balls with bells inside. And a tube of sunscreen. Winter couldn’t help but smile at Sam’s thoughtfulness. Not only had he bought the items for her, he had brought them to her home and waited outside for over an hour to give them to her. Not to mention, he seemed genuinely worried about her.
She took out her phone and shot him a quick reply.
I’m ok, Sam. Miso says thank you. Let me know how much i owe you.
With Miso appeased Winter decided it was time for a shower, not only to erase the grime from the day’s work outside (which she was way behind on, so it would be double-time the next day), but also to wash away all of the emotion she had felt several hours before. She kept the water cool enough to battle the encroaching summer night, but warm enough so as not to freeze. After first rinsing off the dirt she decided a bath would be nice, and she pressed down the latch to allow the tub to fill.
She dropped a couple dollops of body wash into the water as it filled, filling the air with the smell of spring cherry blossoms and bringing bubbles into the tub. Once it filled she turned off the faucet and eased down into the water. Being surrounded by the water was a welcome feeling that had a calming effect on her muscles, her body melting into the curves of the tub. Her hair swayed about her head and she lowered her head down to her hairline in the water. Her eyes closed and she sighed, allowing them to open once again.
Why was Marius in Pelican Town? There’s no way he could have found her. She hadn’t allowed her old job to know where she was moving, and the only ones who knew were her family and Regina. What bills she had remained billed to her parent’s home. So how was it he had come to find her?
Perhaps she was being over-confident. Why would he look for her anyway? Marius was a man of distinction and wealth, demanding perfection and the finer things in life. She was easily replaceable, a nobody in comparison. It would be a waste of his time and resources to try and find her, when there was dozens of other girls he could instead choose to be with.
Winter felt like such a fool. She had panicked at the sight of him there in the JojaMart, and for what? He hadn’t even noticed her. Yet she had run all the way home, forgetting the whole reason she had even gone to the store. What was it all for? Because she felt in her heart that maybe she was worth coming after? She couldn’t afford to be that cocky. The entirety of her new life was on the line.
A couple of days passed, and her first summer on Springdew Farm was finally starting to take shape. Winter had put in extra work on the second day to ensure her tasks were completed for both that day and the previous. From there it was easy-peasy, simply ensuring that her crops were growing in nicely and taking care of whatever else needed to be done around the farm. She had made the decision to not leave home for a few days, just in case Marius lingered in the town for whatever reason. A man of sophistication like him she doubted would stay long, and that she was thankful for.
After her chores were completed on the fourth day, she deemed that it was the proper time for her to thank Sam in person for his kind deeds a few days prior. Winter washed up and put on a clean set of clothes and sneakers before she made the trek at the opposite end of the farm, passing Marnie’s ranch along the way. It didn’t take her long, her knuckles wrapping on the front door of his house a short time after.
Sam was the one to meet her at the door. He had been swiping through his phone as he opened it, though it was quickly put away when he saw who had come to visit. “Hey, Win!” Sam smiled his notoriously large grin and pulled her into a hug. “How you doin’? You hungry? I was just about to have a snack.”
“That sounds great,” Winter agreed. She followed him inside to the kitchen, taking a seat at the familiar kitchen table. She ran a fingertip along the leaves of the fern that sat in the middle of the table.
“So,” he began, “whatcha in the mood for? I’m not the best cook, but I can whip up a mean scrambled egg.”
“Eggs work for me,” Winter smiled, though she had honestly grown tired of eating them since they had become such a staple in her diet due to their relatively low cost. She wouldn’t tell him that though, as he was being gracious enough to make her something in the first place.
Sam stepped over to the fridge and opened it, peering inside for a moment. He grabbed a few sauces and set them on the counter before he made a move for the half carton of eggs that sat on the top shelf. Holding them in one hand he used the other to close the door. Winter saw him turn on the veil of confidence he always had when he was around her, and he grabbed one of the eggs and tossed it up into the air. “So, are you a two egg girl or do you like -- oh sh-SHIT!” As he went to catch the egg it slid through his fingers and straight to the floor, and with a small crack it had transformed into a wet heap of goo and shell. “What a mess.”
Winter cupped a hand over her mouth and giggled, sliding from behind the kitchen table. “Oh Sam.” Sam looked at her, his cheeks turning red, and she offered him a reassuring smile. “It’s okay, let me help--”
“What was that sound?” Jodi turned around the corner, tying her braid over one shoulder with a look of concern. She moved further into the kitchen, and when her eyes caught sight of the eggy mess on the floor, her brows lowered. “What happened?”
Winter could hear Sam gulp beside her, and as he opened his mouth to speak, Winter interjected. “It was me, Jodi.” Winter looked between mother and son, confusion on both of their faces. “Sam handed me the egg, and I dropped it. I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” Jodi crossed her arms, her lips pursing together. “I guess it’s not such a big deal. Sam, would you help her clean it up?”
“Yeah of course, Mom. Sorry.” Sam quickly looked between Jodi and Winter, shuffling around to the sink to grab a wet rag to clean up the egg.
Jodi opened the fridge as Sam dabbed at the egg on the ground. “Why don’t I make us all something to eat? I’m pretty hungry myself.” Jodi smiled and grabbed a few things from inside, skillfully balancing the ingredients with one arm while she closed the fridge with the other.
“Sure Jodi, sounds good.” Winter could never refuse her cooking. It reminded Winter so much of home. After the egg was cleaned up Sam motioned for Winter to return to the kitchen table. Winter took her same spot at the table, resting her hands in her lap. “Your son did something very nice the other day, Jodi.” Winter decided to take the time to compliment him in front of his mother, knowing it would make the both of them feel good. Grabbing a couple colas for them from the fridge, he raised a questioning brow as he listened. “I had forgotten to grab a few things from his work for my cat Miso, and he picked them up and brought them over.”
“Well how nice, Sam!” Jodi had begun chopping up some of the ingredients for her dish, but took a moment to look over her shoulder to smile at her son. “I raised such a good boy.”
Sam popped open his soda as he sat down at the table perpendicular to Winter’s seat, handing her the other after he was seated. “I have my moments,” Sam muttered with mock-cockiness, a grin on his face. Winter giggled and shook her head, sipping from her own cola.
In all her motherly glory Jodi whipped up a rather extravagant meal in only a few minutes, frying some veggies and mixing them in with some beef strips to create a stirfry of sorts. She could never say it, but she was glad there was no egg in the dish. Jodi set two plates on the table for each of them and one for her, stepping to the fridge to remove a cheesecake that she then set in place of the fern at the middle of the table. Sam had already begun to eat when Jodi let out a “bon appétit!”
Small talk mixed in with each bite, the meal was quick, and Jodi washed the dishes as Sam and Winter ate a slice of cheesecake. Sam slid a piece into his mouth and let it sit for a moment, audibly savoring the taste. Winter raised a brow and upon noticing it, Sam quickly swallowed the bite. “So Winter, I don’t know if you’re free, but when Vince gets home in a bit I was gonna take him down to the beach. You game?”
As if on queue, the door opened and a surprisingly morose Vincent stepped in the house. He walked into the kitchen and threw his backpack on the ground, rubbing at one eye as if he had been crying. Jodi turned to welcome him home but was taken aback by his outward appearance, quickly moving closer and kneeling in front of him. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
“Hello? Anyone home?”
A voice came from the front door, and Jodi looked to Sam. “Honey, that’s Penny. Can you go greet her?”
Sam raised from his chair and met Penny at the door. Winter awkwardly bit at her cheesecake, watching Jodi whisper to Vince. He nodded and shook his head “no” when he answered whatever questions she was asking, and finally she pulled him to her in an embrace. The sound of the door closing made Winter look to the archway leading into the kitchen, where Sam soon appeared, rubbing at his neck.
“You ready to go to the beach, kiddo?” Sam ruffled his brother’s hair and Vince nodded slowly, turning to step toward his room. Jodi followed him. Winter studied Sam as he returned to the table, chugging the rest of his soda, his expression soft. He swished the soda around in his mouth before swallowing, his gaze moving to Winter. “Do you need to go home and change?”
“No, I’m okay wearing this.” Winter smiled and covered what remained of the cheesecake, pushing out her chair and carrying the dessert back to the fridge. “Is he going to be okay?”
“Vince? Oh, yeah, he’ll be okay. Rough day at school, I guess.” Sam grabbed the dishes that remained and slid them into the sink. “It’ll be good for him to get some fresh air on a day like this.”
“He reminds me of my little sister when she was younger. The face she would make when she got heartbroken over any little thing.” Winter chuckled, picturing her sister. “Autumn is a teen now, but I still see that look from time to time.”
“It is pretty cute. Poor guy.” Sam dried his hands just as Vince and Jodi emerged in the kitchen. Vince had put on a pair of swim trunks and a beach shirt, a pail filled with the makings for a sand castle in one hand. Sam tried his best to brighten his expression by looking excited. “You ready, bud?”
Vince nodded lightly and turned to head to the door. Jodi had a worried expression on her face, but she smiled when she noticed Winter was looking at her.
Winter and Sam walked next to each other, both following Vince’s lead as they strolled to the beach. It was a quiet walk, with Sam digging his hands into his pockets and staring at his little brother. Winter had a feeling that it had been something more than just a bad day at school that was bothering the tyke, especially with how it was bothering not only him, but the entire family. Whatever it was, Winter did not want to pry, but she couldn’t say she wasn’t curious nonetheless.
The sound of the beach waves met their ears, and Vince hustled out toward the water. Sam and Winter both removed their shoes and carried them as they walked onto the beach. Vince found his spot in the sand and dumped out his pail, dropping to his knees and starting to build his castle. Winter and Sam stood nearby. Silence remained.
Probably a good five minutes or so passed before Sam finally was the first to speak up. Vincent had already made good progress at his castle, obviously a kid-professional in the art. First a sigh, and then Sam said through a small smile, “Our dad used to take us to the beach on sunny days like this.”
“You guys never really talk about your dad.” Winter tilted her head as she looked at him.
“Sam..?” Vince approached the two adults, who turned their gazes to him. Tears began to swell in the corners of his eyes, and he hiccuped. Sam knelt down in front of him. “Is dad ever going to come home?”
Winter’s brow furrowed, and she crossed her arms over her torso. The ocean breeze picked up, sending a few stray strands across her face. Come home? Where was their dad?
“Of course, buddy. He’ll come back as soon as he possibly can, don’t you worry.”
“B-but Miss Marnie was watching the news, and Jas heard them say that all of our troops are getting shot to pieces.” Vince’s eyes finally began to overflow, and he rubbed at his cheek with the back of his arm to wipe them away.
Troops.. Their father was a soldier?
“Oh Vince, don’t believe everything you hear!” Sam put a hand on each of his brother’s shoulders, giving them a light squeeze before pulling him into a tight hug. “Don’t you remember how strong dad is? He'd never let a pathetic Gotoro grunt get him like that! Don't you worry!”
Winter felt a tightness in her throat. With all that was going on in her little neck of the woods, it was easy to forget that there was a war raging out there. She even remembered reading recently about how entire platoons had gone missing overseas. Was their dad part of one of those that did? Winter couldn’t imagine if it was her father that had gone to war. Her father was definitely not a soldier, he would get eaten up out there. She couldn’t imagine.. Losing him.
Winter returned from her thoughts to find Vince had started crying into Sam’s shoulder, and Sam was rubbing at his back with a few small pats every so often. “Always remember that mom and I are here to play with you if you ever feel lonely, okay?” Sam looked back to Winter, and she noticed a slight sheen to his eyes. “I’m sure Miss Winter would come and play too, right?”
Vince gazed up at her just over his brother’s shoulder, and she gave him a smile and a thumbs up. “Of course, you can count on me little man!”
Vince giggled and smiled, waving at her. “Okay!” He wiped his eyes on Sam’s sleeve, pulling away from his brother to return to his sand castle.
Sam fell back onto his butt, running the fingers of his one hand through his hair. Winter stepped closer and sat next to him, digging her toes into the sand. “To be honest, Winter,” Sam began, his voice quiet so as not to let Vince hear. He crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. “I have no idea if my old man will come back... We haven’t heard from him in a long time, and we’ve all read the reports. Our soldiers are falling by the thousands. But I can’t tell my brother that, can I? I don’t know, should I be honest with him?”
Winter patted his knee, offering him a small smile. “I think you did the right thing, Sam. Kids should have hope, you should have hope too. I can’t begin to say I know what you’re going through, but you can’t give up on hope.”
“I guess you’re right, Win.” Sam briefly grabbed her hand, giving it a small squeeze. “Kids should play and have fun while they still have the chance.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, laying back onto the sand with his hands cupping his head. Winter leaned back on her palms, her eyes returning to Vincent, who was working on assembling a moat around his castle.
“Oh, did I tell you?” Sam sat back up, dusting sand off of the back of his hands. Winter knew this was him changing the subject, and she was glad that he was willing to move on. “The band’s really starting to come together. We’ve arranged our first song. Abigail is actually a really good drummer and, well, it seems like Sebastian is glad to have her on board.”
“Still trying to be ‘on again’?” Winter rolled her eyes. “That’s good though, Sam. I’m glad. Consider me your first official groupie.”
“We could use a merch slinger. I mean, we need merch first, but when we do have some.. We could use one.”
Winter giggled. “Okay, Sam. One groupie-slash-merch-slinger, at your service.”
“Sounds like a plan!”
Sam stood and joined his brother at the sand castle, using his hand to dig a deeper moat. Winter watched them from her spot in the sand. She was amazed at how that family continued on with their lives despite having such an important member of their family away at war.. She admired their strength and their courage, and more than ever, she admired Sam. Underneath his calm and sometimes silly behavior, he was hiding the fact that he had to be strong not only for his brother, but for his mom as well. Perhaps he wasn’t a soldier, but he was carrying the weight of his family nonetheless, and not once had she heard him complain.
Winter suddenly remembered that his birthday was coming up in just a couple of weeks. He had mentioned it when she met him at Joja Mart on the day of her freakout session, and as far as she knew he had nothing planned. Sam liked attention, but in a town like what they lived in, how big could a birthday party be? As she watched Sam bring a pail full of sea water to fill Vince’s moat, Winter decided that she would take his birthday into her hands. He deserved to have something special happen, and she knew just the person to help.
Careful to remove all of the sand from her palms, Winter grabbed her phone and tapped away at the screen.
hey regina, wanna help me plan a party?
Wow, it's been a while, fellow Archivers! It's been a month of absolute chaos for me, destroying my muse and keeping me from writing at all. I greatly hope you enjoyed this chapter. I've got some good stuff planned for the coming chapters, which will (hopefully) come at a much quicker pace, as long as I can keep this muse in check. Stay tuned!