Dogwood

She’d stumbled upon it as a schoolgirl. She’d been running through the forest outside of town to escape the girls who hounded her at school. She’d run until the tears had stopped then kept going until her lungs hurt. Then she’d run even further. She had no idea how long she’d been running but she stopped cold after emerging into the meadow.

The forest had given way to the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen. Her days were filled with bleak, post war landscapes that contrasted with the paradises of her dreams. But the meadow had felt more magnificent than any dream, for it had been real. White and pink dogwood trees had dotted the clearing. The angelic sweetness of honeysuckle had brought a smile to her face. A thin, silver stream had snaked its way between the flowering trees. She’d looked on in awe, taking in the blush red of the azaleas that ringed her new found paradise.

She had stepped cautiously into the clearing, not wanting to shed the image should it be no more than a cruel mirage. She had reached to pluck a tender pink petal from the closest tree and finally accepted the meadow for the miracle it was. As she’d taken in the view, tree by tree, flower by flower she’d realized this had been a garden once. Someone had taken great pains to arrange the bushes and trees in an aesthetically pleasing pattern. Heavy overgrowth indicated the garden pre-dated the old wars. After all, who had time to tend such wonders anymore?

She had returned to the garden many times over the years, telling no one of her secret place. Not even her closest friends knew to where she so often disappeared. After her father died the visits had increased, occurring almost daily. In these days of disease, starvation and constant fighting the garden brought a sense of peace and calm her life desperately needed.

Today she stood in the center of her secret garden and absorbed the serenity. The boy had come to her again today. His relentless pursuit of her hand seemed to have no end. For years he had courted her affections, yet she could not reciprocate. He was too cruel, too self-absorbed for her to consider anything beyond acquaintance.

Unfortunately he was the clan chief’s son. As such he felt entitled to anything he wanted, including her. She did not understand for she was not the prettiest, the smartest, nor the funniest girl in town. In fact she was rather stubborn and independent. This though, according to her mother, was precisely why he persisted. For someone who could have anything he wanted, the girl who said no became infinitely more desirable.

He’d expressed that desire again today. She’d been on her way to the market when he fell in step next to her. He wasn’t going to give up on her, he’d said. He was to be the next clan chief, which would make her the most powerful woman in the town. She could have anything she wanted. Her mother would be well taken care of.

None of it mattered to her. He was a pig. She could never be with someone who had such disregard for others. She’d told him so. He had not taken it well.

She had finished her errands and retreated here to find solace. She sat at the edge of the stream with her back against a pink dogwood. The scent of honeysuckle was stronger than normal. The sweet aroma always relaxed her. She arched her back, tried to work out the kinks earned during morning chores. She reached into her pack and brought out a fresh peach she’d picked yesterday evening. She lost her grip and it rolled away, several feet past her outstretched hand.

No mater, she thought to herself. She reached out from within and the peach gently rolled back to her, coming to rest against her leg. No one knew of her minds ability. She’d noticed it early while doing schoolwork. She’d been able to manipulate pencils, rolling them back and forth across the table. She soon graduated to other small items but never really explored the ability.

She’d heard stories over the years of others with similar powers. It was thought the post war radiation had some effect on certain people. These minor mental abilities manifested from time to time but if found out exile usually followed. People feared what they did not understand. Always had, always would. So she kept her abilities to herself, content with retrieving the occasional utensil or stray fruit.

She reached down and picked up the peach, wiped a few loose pieces of grass and dirt from the skin, and took a bite. It wasn’t quite ripe and the tart juice ran across, then dripped from her fingers.

A gentle spring breeze ruffled the flowers, sending a handful of petals cascading from their limbs. The breeze carried them across the meadow. This was her favorite time of year. The spring had brought all of the garden’s flowers to bloom together. The trees and bushes now lost their petals occasionally to the breeze or the casual pull of gravity. The effect was a gentle, botanical snowfall that proved more healing than any doctor proscribed treatment.

She leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes. The sun’s warmth pressed gently against her skin. She slowly worked her way through the peach, pitching the pit into the stream with a quiet splash. She exhaled slowly, forcing the last bit of air from deep inside her lungs as she felt her muscles begin to relax. She concentrated on the pressure placed on her back by the narrow tree trunk. The rest of her body began to disappear as she lost herself in the garden. Finally, even the tree trunk disappeared from her thoughts.

Life’s worries left her. The concerns that came with daily life blew away with the dogwood petals. She let go of everything and just let herself exist, alone in her garden.

Time ceased to pass for her, yet when the shadow came to rest across her face she knew she had been gone for quite some time. She didn’t usually notice the shadows of passing clouds in this state. The first clue that something was wrong was that she noticed the shadow at all. Her face had cooled noticeably, the result of several minutes out of the sun. She was mildly annoyed at the prospect of starting her meditation again. She cursed the lingering cloud and wished it away without opening her eyes.

Then she heard him cough.

She sprang up like a cat, jumping back to position the tree between them. Her shoulder slammed against the trunk sending a shower of petals onto the breeze. They fell in her hair, around her feet, were carried away by the stream. The meadow’s peaceful beauty was now ruined by his mere presence. She looked up to meet his gaze.

His smile made her stomach turn. He told her how beautiful she looked, sitting beneath the dogwood with the sun on her face. He’d never seen anything so wondrous he said.

She asked how long he’d been standing there. He said only a few minutes. Then, with a smirk, he admitted to following her from town.

Her head spun. She’d always been so careful, making sure no one followed her. This had been her sanctuary, a benefit surely to end should anyone else soil its grounds. She had years of practice avoiding followers, cutting trips well short at even the slightest hint of an intruder.

Yet here he stood, glaring at her with lust in his eyes. She realized then her mother had been right. He did not love her. He probably didn’t even find her attractive. She was no more than a prize to be won, a challenge to conquer. He could, and did have any woman he wanted. All except her and that fueled his passion.

She told him to leave, told him this was her private retreat. He told her his family laid claim to all lands in the region, therefore the garden was his. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. Her heart ached for the loss of her refuge. Her mind raced to calculate his intentions.

He made them clear seconds later. His speed surprised her. He had her by the wrist before she even registered his movement. As he pulled her towards him her foot shot out and connected with the inside of his shin. The blow landed just enough for his grip to relax and she pulled free.

She felt his hand scrape across the fabric of her shirt as she turned and ran. She heard him laughing as she leapt across the stream. Her heart began to race, both from fear and exertion. She heard his laugh growing closer.

She expected the tackle that came next but not the blow to her head. Bright white stars flickered in and out of her vision and she struggled to regain control of her thoughts. Her breath escaped her as she landed on the grass, his full weight atop her.

He knelt across her back and laughed at her attempts to squirm free. His large, brutish hands beat around her ears in a mocking show of power. She thought to scream but realized none but the birds were within earshot. Her temple exploded in pain as his fist crashed against her skull with terrible purpose. She felt herself begin to fade.

When her mind cleared she was on her back, his weight pressed against her hips as he straddled her. He leaned forward to take the kiss he said he was owed. She tasted the salt of his blood as her teeth sank into the corner of his mouth. Her own blood mingled with his as a fist connected with her mouth. She would pay for that he said.

She felt his weight shift over her thighs as he pressed his hands against her elbows, pinning her to the ground. He leaned forward again, bared his blood stained teeth. She spit her blood into his eyes as he approached. Her jaw broke as his fist returned.

Her mind retreated in on itself. She knew she could not overpower him, yet a thought nagged at the back of her mind. Something was just out of her grasp, something that would help her.

She turned her head to the side and saw the peach.

She wondered if it would work. She’d only moved pencils and fruit before. How could it help her now? She reached within herself and then out towards a nearby rock. She heard him gasp as it glanced off his shoulder. She turned her head to look him in the eye. Yes, that was me she told him.

He hit her again and she felt the power rise within her. Her heart began to race. She realized there was much more inside than she’d ever thought possible. She threw another rock. This one hit him in the back. His hands came off her arms. She tried to wiggle free.

The sun glinted off the knife as he pulled it from its scabbard. Her mind immediately discerned its deadly destination and she knew action was needed.

She reached inside one last time. She reached with all she was, asked for all she had. She closed her eyes and concentrated on him. She felt something deep within, thought it was the pierce of his knife, realized it was something much deadlier. Her body trembled with a great energy. It welled up from a dark place in her mind and exploded out. She lost control of herself, her mind, her body.

She heard him break, felt him fall limp across her. She held her breath for a seeming eternity, afraid to move. When she finally exhaled the sobs came in terrible waves. Tears streamed down her face and her body shook. She cried until the tears ran dry and her throat burned.

When she finally regained control she pushed his limp frame away. His lifeless form tumbled onto the grass. His eyes, devoid of life, stared at a cloudless sky.

She had meant only to escape but had instead ended a life. She felt nothing for him, but this power terrified her. Whatever it was, whatever she was, no one could ever know. She would take this secret to her grave. For now though, she had to get out. She knew she would never return. She picked up her pack and strode solemnly towards town.

As she reached the forest’s edge a breeze passed through the garden. A shower of pink and white cascaded from the trees and blanketed the grass. But she did not see it for her back was turned on the sanctuary that had become a nightmare.

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