Hazel and Holly — Early Ambitions and Ablutions
Previous: Harvest Home
Francis was a kind and generous host, even if he did seem a little soft in the head. They ate their sandwiches with ham and mustard (eggs and mustard for Holly) until they were all full and nearly falling asleep at the table.
“I’ve only got a single spare room,” Francis said, “so you need to decide amongst yourselves who gets it. The rest of you can stay in the barn out back.”
To Hazel, Hemlock said, “You and Holly take the bed, Hawthorn and I will sleep in the barn.”
“Absolutely not,” said Hawthorn. “I refuse to sleep out in the cold and filth with unwashed animals.”
Hemlock stared at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“Do not test me, Hemlock. I’ve put up with much, but I can only be pushed so far. I don’t care who I share that bed with, but I will be sleeping in it.”
“It’s fine,” Hazel said. “Holly and I will sleep in the barn. Right, Holly?”
Holly jumped up and down. “I’ve always wanted to sleep outside with the horses!”
Hazel turned to Hemlock. “See? It’s fine.”
Hemlock let out a heavy breath, rubbed his eyes, and nodded. “I’ll join you out in the barn, if you don’t mind. I’ll send in the driver, and he can bunk up with Hawthorn.” He turned to his brother. “If that’s all right with you?”
Hawthorn drew himself up. “Why wouldn’t it be? I’m nothing if not reasonable. Have him bring in the luggage while he’s at it.”
He went upstairs as Francis showed him his room while the others made their way outside to the barn. They had a lamp this time, so they were able to avoid the patches of mud that the rain had caused. The downpour has lessened to an even pattering of drops, which abated once they got inside the barn. Despite the storm, the interior was still surprisingly dry in most places. Holly walked around to pet the horses, before making a little bed of hay for Chester. Then she gathered a great big pile of hay for herself and lay down in it. By the time Hemlock had finished helping the driver carry in Hawthorn’s luggage, she had already fallen asleep.
“That didn’t take her long, did it?” Hemlock said as he sat down next to Hazel in a pile of hay.
“She’s a champion sleeper,” Hazel said.
“I wish I could sleep so soundly.”
“You and me both.”
They fell into silence.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Hazel said.
Hemlock looked down at his hands and shook his head. “I don’t know what to think anymore. Hawthorn can be a real bastard sometimes. But now… I don’t know. Maybe I’m just as bad as him.”
“You’re not as bad as him.”
“And yet I’m still as much to blame for our… strained relationship. I… I never realized that before. I feel awful.”
“So fix it.”
He shook his head again. “How?”
“By doing better. By trying to do better. I don’t know if it’s enough. All I know is that I’ve put my foot in it more times than I can count when it comes to me and Holly. But I always try to own up to it when I’m wrong, and I try to do better. It all seems terribly inadequate, but it’s all I have. It’s all I know how to do. I need to believe that it’s enough. I hope it is.”
“I hope so too,” he whispered.
She took his hand and he peered at her through the gloom. Then he kissed her, gently, and they lay down in the hay together, finding comfort and warmth in each other’s embrace.
Hazel awoke to a cock crowing in the silver-lighted gloaming. She groaned and rolled over, covering her ears with fistfuls of hay, but it didn’t help dampen the racket. Unable to fall back asleep, she sat up, picking strands of hay out of her hair as she blinked at her surroundings.
Thin streams of blue-grey light filtered through the wooden slats of the barn. The air smelled sweet and, despite the animals they shared their lodgings with, surprisingly fresh. She nudged Hemlock and woke him up.
Hemlock blinked at her, then groaned and rolled over. “No.”
“What do you mean ‘no’? It’s morning.”
“It’s dawn. It’s not at all the same thing.”
“Well, it is today. I can’t sleep.”
“Lie down, and then you’ll sleep.”
“Come on. You’re as bad as Holly.”
“She’s clearly the wiser sister.”
“Oh, don’t even.” She took his arm and tried pulling him up, but instead he grabbed her and pulled her down on top of him.
He grinned. “That’s better.”
Hazel tried to look annoyed, but the smile stretching across her own face betrayed her. “You’re really pleased with yourself, aren’t you?”
Hazel let the moment stretch on, enjoying the quiet closeness with Hemlock, wanting to linger there with him just a little while longer. “We should get up,” she whispered.
Hemlock smiled and continued to look into her eyes in such a way that made the heat creep up her neck and her heart quicken. Then he nodded and let go, and they both got to their feet.
Holly remained oblivious and continued to sleep like a stock.
“Let her sleep longer,” Hemlock said. “We can wake her after we look around.”
Hazel nodded and they made their way out of the barn.
Yesterday’s storm had passed, leaving a clear morning to shine upon a freshly washed world. Hazel could see now they weren’t in a town at all. It was just a house and a barn, surrounded by tree-dotted fields.
“Is this it?” she said. “I thought this was supposed to be a town.”
“It was difficult to see last night in the storm. We might have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I’m sure Francis can point us in the right direction.”
“He seems like an odd one, doesn’t he?”
“Well, we don’t exactly keep normal company ourselves.”
Hazel gave a wry grin. “True.”
The cock continued to crow behind the barn, and so Hazel and Hemlock headed in the opposite direction, past the house to a little field surrounded with a wooden fence and a ramshackle shed in one corner.
“What do you think’s in there?” Hazel said.
“Farming supplies? Outhouse?”
“Let’s go look.” She started towards the shack.
“If it’s an outhouse, I really don’t think we’ll want to look,” Hemlock said as he trailed after her.
“We’d smell it, if that was the case. And I don’t smell anything.” She reached the shed and nudged the door open. It was dark and windowless inside–not much bigger than a closet–the air thick with dust and smelling of rusted metal.On the walls hung an assortment of tools. There was a table, taking up most of the space within, which bore a crate covered with a filthy cloth. A few flies buzzed around it. Hazel reached out to take a peek.
“You looking for something?”
Hazel started and jerked her hand away, spinning around to find Francis standing a stone’s throw away. He was dressed in stained overalls and a fraying straw cap. His overalls were too short, and his bony ankles continued to peek out over his well-worn, plain leather shoes.
“No, just looking around. I didn’t think anyone was up yet.”
“I’m always up with Rufus. Didn’t you hear him?”
Hazel suppressed a grimace. “Yes, I did.”
Francis studied her a moment then nodded. “Breakfast will be on in a minute. You can go inside and wash up if you’ve a mind.”
Hazel smiled, hoping it didn’t look forced. “Thank you. I think we will.” She and Hemlock left the shed and headed towards the house.
“What was under the cloth?” Hemlock whispered.
“I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t farming tools.”
He eyed her. “It was just a covered crate. I’m sure it wasn’t anything remarkable. Certainly nothing we need to worry about.”
Hazel pursed her lips, but she nodded. “You’re probably right.”
They walked into the house and found Hawthorn milling about in the front room, perusing the shelves of dolls. “There’s water on in the kitchen for you to wash up.”
Hemlock lingered a moment, fidgeting with his hands. He opened his mouth but then snapped it shut again and headed towards the kitchen. Hazel trailed after him.
He busied himself with transferring some of the heated water on the stove to a pitcher, avoiding Hazel’s gaze. “I don’t know if I can do it,” he said after a while. “Apologize to Hawthorn.”
“You don’t need to explain yourself to me, Hemlock.”
He stared out the kitchen window as he held on to the steaming pitcher. “I know. I just… I don’t want you to think less of me.”
She took the pitcher from him and he turned to blink at her. “The man is insufferable at the best of times,” she said. “So, trust me, my esteem of you is in no threat of diminishing in that regard. Just make sure that whatever you decide to do–or not do–it’s not something you’ll later regret.”
Hemlock gave her a small smile and nodded.
“I’d better go wake up Holly.” She held up the pitcher and smiled. “Thanks for the water.”
Hemlock’s tight smile stretched into a grin. “My pleasure.”
She walked out to the barn and to where Holly still lay sleeping in the monstrous pile of hay. Hazel nudged her with a foot. “It’s time to get up.”
Holly groaned and mumbled something incoherent, and then fell back asleep.
Hazel pursed her lips. Then she grinned. She tipped the pitcher over Holly–just a little–and dribbled some water onto her face.
Holly twitched and swiped at her cheek, but remained sleeping.
Hazel increased the dribble to a steady stream, and Holly bolted upright as she sputtered and coughed.
“Good morning,” Hazel said, smirking.
Holly stared at her as she wiped at her face with a sleeve. “You poured water on me?”
“Quite effective, don’t you think? I might do it again in the future. Gone will be the days of struggling to get you out of bed. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.”
Holly glowered at her. “You really need a hobby.”
Hazel grinned. “Don’t be sore. We need to wash up anyway, and be thankful that this water was warm.”
Holly opened her mouth but then seemed to think better of it and snapped it shut again. They both used the water to wash up–which was little more than them splashing water on their faces and drying them on their skirts. Hazel would like to wash up properly–with soap and the like—but not here in a drafty barn with Francis potentially skulking about.
“You and Hemlock have fun last night?” Holly said, grinning. Her voice had taken an overly sweet, taunting tone.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Hazel said drily. “But you were asleep, so I guess you won’t.”
“Was it amazing?” Holly said as she leaned into Hazel. “Was it magical?”
Hazel rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Holly, who needs a hobby now? Go pester Hawthorn if you’re in need of romantic frivolity.”
Holly’s face sobered, and Hazel frowned in confusion. “What’s wrong?”
“I… I kissed Hawthorn,” Holly said.
“Back in Sarnum. In the graveyard.”
“Is that what happened? I knew something was weird when Hemlock and I walked in.”
“It was weird, that’s the thing. I… I don’t think he enjoyed it. I don’t think I enjoyed it. I don’t know why I did it.”
“Maybe because you’ve been pining for Hawthorn since the day you met him?”
“I haven’t been pining.”
Hazel raised an eyebrow.
“All right, I’ll admit I might have been rather keen in my fondness for him…”
“Mildly obsessed is more like it.”
“But I’m not pining,” Holly continued, ignoring Hazel’s interruption. “You’re making it sound like I’ll wither away and die if he doesn’t notice me.”
“You mean you won’t?”
“Besides, I’m pretty sure he has noticed me now. I think I made sure of that in the graveyard.”
“You do have a knack for getting noticed.”
“It’s just…,” Holly slumped her shoulders, “I’m not sure it’s his attention that I want anymore. I’m not sure if it feels right.” She peered at Hazel with dewy eyes. “What does that say about me?”
“Good grief, Holly, it doesn’t say anything other than perhaps you having a dreadful sense of timing.”
“But if I don’t love him, then who? What if I never find someone to love? What if I’m not capable of it?”
Hazel took hold of Holly’s shoulders in a firm grip. “Now you listen to me. You’re the most infuriatingly loving girl I know. You take the most wretched of us into your heart, even the ones who don’t deserve it. Including me. Including Hawthorn, even if you might not love him the way that you hoped. It’s going to take an exceedingly rare soul to be worthy of your love, Holly, so don’t you be sad about this. You just keep being you, and if it’s right, it will happen.”
“But what if it’s never right? What if it never happens?”
“So what if it doesn’t? You’ll never be alone, I promise you that. Not as long as I draw breath.”
“But you have Hemlock now.”
“And you have the both of us. For as long as you can stand us.”
Holly wiped at her eyes. “Promise?”
Hazel nodded and swallowed. “Promise.”
Holly took a deep breath and gave a shaky smile. “All right, then.”
Hazel squeezed her shoulders. “Feeling better?”
Holly nodded. “I think so.”
“Good, because there’s a shed I need you to go investigate while Francis is eating breakfast.”
Next: Witnessing Trouble