Ayame didn’t speak again as she led me outside, although, after a certain point, she did let go of my wrist, obviously believing that I wouldn’t be straying away any time soon. Even after she released her grip, the pressure of her touch didn’t disappear immediately, and I glanced at it as I shook it out.
The air outside was growing cool, and as we waded through the nearly empty sidewalks and streets of the neighborhood, passing by silent houses where dim light escaped through short, square windows, reaching into the darkening street and casting large, straight shadows on the ground. At one point, as we passed a house with a high, smudge-covered white fence, my ears were assaulted by the muted bark of a local dog, but aside from that, the night was silent, the background noises of the town fading into each other and leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Honestly, I was a little surprised at Ayame’s initiative in leading me out of the library, even if I had no idea why she had decided to do so. Of course, it’s not like she was the type of person to hold back–whether it was in academics, interpersonal relationships, or anything else, she made it a point to give nothing less than her best–but, even for her, just grabbing my hand and whisking me away from the library was at least a step above her usual behavior.
After some time travelling through the residential area of the neighborhood, the distribution of the houses shifted, clustering together on the right, while opening up into a sprawling, hilly field on the left, surrounded by a tall, green wire fence. As we approached the entrance, a simple break in the tilted wire, it suddenly hit me where we were headed: a park.
Actually, once I thought further into it, I realized that it wasn’t just any park, either–I’d been there plenty of times when I was a kid, both fishing with my parents and simply walking around. As Ayame and I entered the public space which, unsurprisingly, was entirely empty at that time of evening, I glanced around, taking stock of its features, now familiar.
Following the well-worn dirt path winding through the center of the rolling land, we made our way past lone trees, both single and groups of benches. My eyes trained towards the sky, now more of a deep purple than blue, I occasionally strayed off of the path slightly, soaking the bottom half of my sneakers on the damp grass, but I didn’t particularly mind–the view made up for it.
At the corner of my vision, the sun was setting behind the hills, skewing light and splashing the few surrounding clouds with shades of orange, pink and red, calling to mind a watercolor painting. Then, the path curved sharply to the right, shifting the slanted rays of light behind me, where they shone past, bouncing off of the surface of the small pond that I now faced.
Directly in front of us was a tall, twisting willow tree, its thin, wispy leaves hanging low over the surface of the water and, without comment, Ayame moved to stand under the tree, and I moved next to her. The pond stretched out in front of us, a small circle of black amidst the blue-green expanse of grass, cat-tails shooting towards the sky and blowing slightly in the breeze, and I took a deep breath, taking in the damp scent of the area.
Ayame, finally, turned to face me, her eyes shining a cool blue.
“Well, I guess we can talk, now.”
Her statement seemed to me an obvious invitation to do so but, for some reason, the long stretch of silence, simply walking together and taking in the scenery, made it hard for me to respond. After a few seconds of running over responses in my mind, however, I finally managed something.
“What do you think we should talk about?”
She gave it a moment of thought, staring over the surface of the water, shifting slightly, before speaking softly.
“Anything, although I’d prefer if we started with what’s been bothering you lately.”
“What’s been bothering me?” I asked, sticking my hands in my pockets.
She gave me a sideways glance, her dark eyebrows arching slightly. “There’s a reason I brought you all the way out here, Asher. Ever since we started running into the supernatural, you haven’t been acting like your usual self. You seem so much more….distracted. We’ve all given you space to sort it out, but I don’t think it’s good for you to keep going like this. I was hoping you would tell me what’s wrong.”
Her words rung in my ears, and the first thing I thought was that, at some point, my friends must have gotten together and discussed the effect the past few weeks had had on me. At first, I wanted to harbor some resentment towards them for it but, in the end, I couldn’t muster it–it wasn’t as if they were talking behind my back or anything, they were simply worried.
And so, with that in mind, I took a deep breath, and turned towards Ayame.
“Alright, I guess I can try, at least. Do you want to go sit down?”
Immediately, Ayame’s eyes brightened, took on a slight look of what I took for relief, and she nodded. Leading the way, we walked a few steps down the path, before coming to a bench facing the pond. Although it was slightly corrupted by the bench’s position downhill, we had a relatively good view of the pond and the colorful horizon beyond and, as I began to speak, that was where I trained my eyes.
“I don’t actually know how much I have to say,” I began, watching a small dragonfly dart past us. “At the very least, though, I’ll try to explain what’s been bothering me.”
Ayame gave me a silent nod, apparently not wanting to interrupt my willingness to talk. I took that as my signal to continue.
“You guys are right that all of this stuff has been getting to me, at least recently,” I said, trying to push away the slight feeling of embarrassment welling up in my chest. “It’s just that, well, Italy was enough to change my view on pretty much everything, and that was only the beginning.”
She looked at me, silent, and I went on.
“A few months ago, I didn’t even believe in ghosts, but now I feel like there’s a good chance I’ll be attacked by one on any given day,” I said. “It’s hard to deal with, and the worst part is, I know absolutely nothing about why it’s happening. That’s the part I really can’t accept.”
A bird flew over our heads, probably heading back to its home for the night. I glanced down at Ayame’s hands, folded in her lap.
“Does that happen with you guys, too?” I asked. By that point I was already up to my knees in the whole “spill your soul to your friend” thing, so I figured I might as well just dive the rest of the way in. “Are you ever scared about what might happen to you?”
Her response was immediate.
“All the time.”
“And how do you deal with it?” I asked, both surprised at her response and desperate to know her answer. “Are you okay with just not knowing?”
“Of course not.” She clasped her hands tighter. “I want to know what’s going on more than anything, just like you. We all do.”
I diverted my eyes from Ayame, casting my gaze across the once again glassy surface of the pond. Her words, spoken with such confidence of purpose that I couldn’t help but believe them, rang in my ears, and I sighed. “I just don’t know how we’re supposed to figure it all out.”
“Neither do I,” she admitted, stretching her legs out, shifting a little closer to me in the process. She looked in my direction. “It’s hard not to know, I get it, but you can’t let it take over your life.”
Part of me wanted to respond, to tell her that I wasn’t letting it take over my life–and I don’t think it was–but I decided not to. Brushing her bangs to the side, Ayame continued.
“I can’t tell you that everything is going to be fine, or that we’re definitely going to be able to figure all of this out,” she said, “but there’s one thing I want you to know. It might feel like you’re facing this alone, and that you have to find out what’s happening alone. But that’s not the case.”
Every once in a while, the sound of a car rolling past the park rose from the background, mixing in with the dwindling chirp of birds, but her voice rang above it all. She was turned completely towards me now, leaning a little bit forward.
“We’re all a part of this, Asher, and every one of is going to be there if something happens. You’re not going to be alone.”
She stopped, taking in a deep breath, and I looked at her. Her eyes, open wide, were the color of the ocean at night, and they met mine.
“W-well, that’s what I wanted to tell you,” she said suddenly, her eyes shifting to her own hands. “I didn’t want you to think we hadn’t noticed, or didn’t care, or anything.”
Her voice had grown quiet, and I thought about the events that led up to us coming to the park, how, when Ayame found me in the library, nearly overcome by stress and panic, her first thought had been to take me away and tell me that she and the others wouldn’t leave me alone.
Honestly, I almost felt like laughing just from the situation, and how odd Ayame must have felt just by doing that, but I didn’t want her to think I was doing so at her. Instead, I smiled.
“Thanks, Ayame,” I said. She glanced back at me. “I’m glad you told me.”
“Oh, no problem,” she said, her ears a shade darker in the shadow. She fell silent, looking towards the sun, nearly set, a tiny semicircle of bright, otherworldly orange. I did the same.
Then, I thought of something.
“By the way,” I said, still focusing on the quickly disappearing light. “Did you end up finding any books?”
She looked as if she had almost forgotten about the library, giving me a questioning glance before seeming to remember. Holding up her finger in a “one second” gesture, she fished through her bag, before handing me three small, paperback books.
‘That was all I could find,” she explained as I flipped through the pages of the first volume. It seemed almost like a dictionary. “It’s not much, but they do have a pretty good description of draugar in there, and I found a section on Banshees in the second volume. I figured it as a good start.”
“Wow,” I muttered, still looking at the yellowed pages. “This is great.”
After a few more moments of looking through the first volume, which was separated by culture and contained detailed accounts of all kinds of mythological creatures associated with them, I handed the books back to Ayame. She placed them back in her bag, and I brought my ankle to rest on the opposite knee, leaning forward and thinking about our conversation and, most of all, the information she had just found.
“Maybe,” I began, pausing for a second to collect the newly-formed thought before continuing. “Maybe I shouldn’t focus all of my attention on finding and studying this stuff myself. In one day, you’ve found as much as I did in months, and I know that wasn’t on accident. It might be a better idea for us to go through all of this together. That is, if you’re okay with that.”
Ayame thought for a moment, and I wondered if she was going to decline my offer, after all. Luckily, though, she just smiled.
“That sounds great,” she said. “When should we start?”
Something like excitement leaped up in my chest, and I was tempted to suggest we start immediately, but then I stopped myself. Looking around at the park, the sun finally winking out on the horizon, water gathering on the short blades of grass at our feet, cattails blowing in the breeze, sending ripples racing across the dark surface of the pond, I realized that we had all the time in the world.
I knew that, when the time came to start searching for answers again, Ayame would be there, along with Miller and Cat, and, I found, that knowledge helped diminish the feeling of having to do everything as quickly as possible that had been lingering at the back of my mind for the past weeks.
And, besides, I didn’t want this to end just yet.
So, with the cool breeze of dusk making its way through the park and washing over us, we sat in pleasant silence, not feeling the need to say any more, and remained that way, up until a familiar feeling of warmth burst forward in my chest.
It started slowly–so slowly that I hardly noticed it–but, by the time that I made the realization that I recognized the feeling, it was practically burning a hole in my chest, reaching out with arms of fire, spreading down to my fingertips, down to the pit of my stomach, a painless warmth working its way to my very center.
“Is something wrong,” Ayame asked, her voice a little rough from such a long time without speaking. Apparently, the feeling was having some kind of effect on me outwardly, as well, if only to make me lean forward in confusion.
I’m not sure how I knew, what part of me hidden within the depths that recognized the feeling, saw it for what it really was. It was impossible, if I really thought about it but, at that moment, I didn’t think–only spoke.