markgunnells (markgunnells) wrote,

Unpublished Fiction: Dear Friends and Bittersweet Partings

To continue my new series where I share stories of mine that never saw print, I'm offering up a piece called "Dear Friends and Bittersweet Partings." This one was written many years ago, long before I was ever published, and it's sort of a fantasy story that is really about a love of reading, and that feeling you get when you finish a great book.


It was one hell of a battle. Apocalyptic, even. There were moments during the fight when I doubted my friends and I would succeed. One of the beasts had bitten a chunk out of Anjelika’s thigh; Henton had nearly been crushed by a falling stalactite dislodged by one of the winged creatures. In the end, however, the five of us stood triumphant, the beasts vanquished from the land. Henton, Anjelika, Maverick, Lilah, and myself—we had held our ground and won the emancipation of our people.

Maverick dropped to his knees next to Anjelika, who was propped against the cavern’s cold stone wall. Her right thigh was a mess, bloody and shredded. True to form, her face remained still and calm, evincing not the slightest hint of the pain I knew she must be feeling. Maverick, his love for Anjelika shining from his eyes with the brightness of an exploding sun, was ripping his shirt into makeshift bandages, tying them firmly over the wounds. Lilah and I, the two youngsters of the group, stood nearby, murmuring assurances that Anjelika would be fine.

Henton, our leader, stood at the mouth of the cavern, staring out at the distant horizon. The scorching light of dawn was beginning to bleed over the edges of the world, seeming somehow a metaphor for our unlikely victory over the beasts that had terrorized our land for so long.

“It is over,” Henton said softly, and I was struck by the odd mixture of emotions I heard in his voice. There was relief certainly, and joy, but also regret and melancholy. I guess when you’ve dedicated your entire life to a single goal, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future once that goal is accomplished.

I walked over to Henton, placing a hand on his shoulder. I could think of no words appropriate for the moment, but sometimes words are not needed. We stood mutely, side by side, watching the night give birth to the sun in an agony of light and heat. Behind us, Anjelika had regained her feet, supported on either side by Maverick and Lilah. The three joined us and we stepped out into the morning. The sky was a delicate shade of pink and the air warm as golden honey on our skin.

Henton turned to me, taking me by the shoulders, and looked down into my eyes. He was a full four inches taller than me, and I always felt like a child in his presence. “You have been a loyal and faithful friend, Neil Harlow,” he said. “You have stood true and proven yourself a courageous ally. On behalf of my entire people, I wish to thank you for your help and companionship.”

Absurdly, I felt tears prickling at the corners of my eyes. I looked around at my four best friends in the world and noted the same expression on each of their faces. One of sorrow, of pain, and of loss.

A gnawing unease had crept into my gut and was spreading a cold numbness throughout my extremities. “Guys,” I said with a nervous laugh, “cheer up. We won. Where others failed, we persevered. The battle is done. Why so glum?”

“Precisely because the battle is done,” Henton said with a cryptic smile. “Events have unfolded according to their predestined course. We have reached the end of our journey.”

“What do you mean? We have freed the people of this land; the journey is only beginning. Just because we have finally won the battle does not mean life is over.”

“No,” Lilah said, planting a soft kiss on my lips, “but our story is.”

A nameless fear sank its claws into me. “What are you saying?”

“We are saying goodbye,” Henton said solemnly. “Your time with us has reached its end. You cannot follow us beyond this point.”

“You’re deserting me?” I asked, tears flowing freely now. My mind was a kaleidoscopic jumble of confusion and betrayal. “You’re going to leave me?”

“We must,” Henton said, tears of his own sliding down his pale cheeks. “We have taken you as far as we can. Now it is time for you to turn back.”

“I don’t want to go back,” I shouted, surprised by the intensity of the rage I heard in my own voice. “It’s boring there; I’m nobody there. I like it here, where there is adventure and magic and camaraderie. You can’t expect me to give all this up.”

Unable to meet my eyes, Henton said, “This world is not yours. You have walked with us but are not one of us. The conclusion has been reached, and we can tarry no longer. Goodbye, my brave friend.”

Without further explanation, Henton turned and started walking toward the distant horizon. The morning had become unaccountably foggy, and he was soon lost in the mist. One by one, my friends turned their backs on me and followed Henton, disappearing into the fog. First Maverick, then a limping Anjelika, and finally Lilah, pausing to blow me a kiss before vanishing from sight.

I collapsed to the ground, an emptiness opening inside me that threatened to devour me whole. My anguish was so deep that it burned up my tears before they left my eyes, leaving me gasping and breathless. I stared at the spot where my friends had disappeared, my sense of loneliness closing over me like a shroud. I could not imagine facing another day without Henton and his gang in my life. I wanted to follow them, see what they did next, where they would go now, but I knew Henton had been right. I had reached the end, and it was time to turn back.

* * *

Neil Harlow looked up from the book in his lap. The dorm room was quiet except for the soft snoring of his roommate, and the desk lamp next to Neil’s bed provided the only illumination. Neil glanced at the clock. 3:20 a.m. Much too late to still be up, especially when he had an eight o’clock Statistics class in the morning. But he’d gotten caught up in the book and couldn’t stop reading until he’d reached the end. He glanced down and reread the last paragraph.

“‘It is over,’ Henton said softly, an odd mixture of emotions in his voice. There was relief certainly, and joy, but also regret and melancholy. When one has dedicated his entire life to a single goal, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future once that goal is accomplished.”

Neil closed the book, reluctantly placing it on the table next to his bed. He leaned against the headboard for a moment more, feeling a real sense of loss and loneliness, then feeling silly for feeling such a feeling. It was just a book, after all. Words on paper. Nothing more. No reason it should feel more real to him than his own life.

With a sigh, Neil turned off the lamp and burrowed under the covers. Soon he was asleep and dreaming of dear friends and bittersweet partings.
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