Mist hung in the air. Thick clouds had crept downwards during the night as if to taste the earth, and were now too heavy with scent to lift back up again.
Bushels of dead, wet leaves crackled under every single step with a sound close to crumbling paper. Only a few birds were twittering solitary in the early autumn chill, chattering angrily at one another, or singing softly just for themselves.
The heavy hummus scent of the forest hung in the air, the smell of trees, grass and leaves, all encompassing. Jean took a deep breath, and felt the sudden, dry, stinging brush of the cold air on the inside of his nose. He smiled,
and resumed his walk, treading on as quietly as he could.
Not because he needed to, but because he enjoyed being an unseen guest, rather than a vicious intruder. Walking softly gave him the chance to spot the elusive wild animals that most people would never see in their life times. Because they stomped so noisily around that deer would flee from them just to avoid getting deaf.
Only a few moments ago, he had seen the outlines of several of them, some not yet quite fully grown. Their light brown bodies gleamed slightly in the light of the rising sun's thick golden rays, which painted everything in magical shadows of brown, reaching the ground through mostly bare leaves.
Moments like this made him admire the beauty of nature. The perfection encountered in all living beings and the timelessness found in all of his surroundings. Nature did not have to worry about jobs, or money. What did a ray of sunshine care, if it arrived at work too late? What did a deer care, if the customers were politely spoken to?
Did a bug care, that the female it had placed its beady eyes and admiration on, had sex with another bug first? It would simply move on, and find someone else. Or mate with it anyway, and hope for the best.
„Thought I‘d find you here. Enjoying your carefree time?“
Jean smiled, without turning around. He knew that voice better than any other. Better than
that of his mothers, and better even than that of his own body. It was deep, slightly dark, and as smooth as a touch of silk. Absolutely lovely to listen to, no matter what was being said.
„Well, carefree..., if you want to call it that,” Jean replied, his smiling turning a bit bitter. “What brings you here so early? You're usually not the woodsy type. What, or who has kicked your butt to leave your bed at this insane hour, and come to this place?“ he asked, gesturing at the trees surrounding them with his outstretched arm.
“Oh, but I am!”, the voice replied smoothly. A smile was distinctly audible in it. “A very woodsy type I am! One who loves to simply observe. There are many strange creatures to be found in the forest on an early morning
such as this. Did you know that? Like, for example..” the voice trailed on, “the good old Homo Sapiens Sapiens Jean. Quite a fascinating creature that is. Exceptionally rare to catch out and about on his own these days. It is a rather shy fellow, especially now. It has been... withdrawn of late.”
“Yeah, that creature is quite weird”, agreed Jean. He pulled his hand through his short, dark hair and turned over to face his oldest and dearest companion.
Az was sitting on top of a rock, one leg leisurely hanging down, the other propped up like a sort of improvised rest. His hair was cut short, and not quite fashionable, but still in a manner that suited him very much. In his right hand he held a dead leaf by the stem, as if he had been marveling at it for quite some
time now. He continued speaking in his smooth, eerie voice, tapping it lightly against his leg. “I have been hoping to spot that creature here, for a few days now. Since I know the Homo Sapiens Sapiens Jean usually loves his morning walks, and prefers this particular route. So I waited, at this very spot, morning after morning, hoping to speak to him.”
“And here, he is...” Az finished, pointing lazily in Jean's direction.
“You could have called”, replied Jean, calmly walking over to his friend, with a spring in his step. “No need to sit here in the cold for several hours, waiting for me.”
“Ah, you know, it is worth it. I got to spot several other rare critters. Deer, wild boars,
frogs, flies, biting insects… you know, the really rare stuff.” Az's own smile faded a little and his bright, green eyes focused on Jean, who now looked like the picture of youthful energy, ready to make his mark on the world.
But only on a first glance. A closer look would reveal that he was not quite as young as he appeared. He might have been close, or at the beginning of his forties. It was his eyes that gave him away. They looked strained, and worn, surrounded with lines etched by life's daily worries. “So you look like you got the results. Did you…?” Az asked, curious.
“Tell them? Hell no, of course not.” Jean shuddered slightly, his face clouding a little. “I can't do that. I've been out all night, thinking. I can’t believe that I haven’t
spotted it sooner. I was a fool in believing Monica.”
“Monica”, Az murmured. “Yes. I feared that I was right from the beginning. I could read the truth in your eyes, you know? And in hers too, I am sure. But I cannot believe that she is still trying to bully you into marriage like this, with the kids and the pregnancy… Do you have a solution?”
“Yes”, answered Jean. “I have been thinking. I’m not going to tell anyone what she did. Not even the kids. Let them… let them think that they…belong.” He shrugged. “Despite myself, I do love them. Somehow... I realized that last night. They are not at fault. I don’t want them to feel disconnected, or displaced. The way I did. Before I met you.” He sighed. “As for myself, I... Well... I'm going to go.”
“Will you move away? They will still find you, wherever you go. And I am certain, Monica is going to get into your face for what you did.”
“I know. I'm not thinking about moving. I am thinking about leaving.”
Jean felt the weight of Az's eyes falling on him. Az had his head cocked to one side, and his eyes gleamed with the spark of understanding. Jean shuffled his feet, and looked away.
“I see,” Az said after a moment. “Well. I can help you with that as well.”
Jean sighed, and rubbed at his forehead. It had started to prickle, and burn at the area just before his temples. A sure sign of a
stress-related headache. They came easily these days.
“Are you sure? Because I'm not convinced I would want you to…” He stopped, and sighed again. He was doing a lot of that too lately. “I haven't even told her. I couldn't bring myself to tell her there is not going to be any marriage. I didn't even really refuse her in the first place. I just couldn’t. I haven't yet agreed to a wedding date, that's all. That was all I could bring myself to do. So all the while, she is picking the colors, and the orchestra, and the napkins, and all that other crap, thinking everything is just dandy.”
“Hm,” Az murmured quietly. He slipped gracefully off his rock, and calmly walked over to him. “Well, you have to decide. Marry your personal version of hell and stay with
her, or get into years of law discussions, into arguments and psychological trauma anyway, just without the marriage. At the bottom line you can choose between the fire and the frying pan. Practically the same thing.” He smiled ruefully. “She will not let you go without a terrible fight. Right now, she does not know what we do. If you do not act soon, she will bully you into marrying her anyway. I am dead certain about it. And knowing you, you will probably agree.” He paused for a moment. “Are you sure of your course of action?”
“Yes. I'm going to run. The permanent way I think. If you know what I mean.” Az nodded thoughtfully and Jean continued. “I am sick of it. I am tired. I am drained. And... I don't want to go through this hell. I am afraid, Az. And I'm done. I don't want to lose my job, my
family, my friends and everything because of her schemes. Because I believe she'd be able to somehow twist it. Make it all my fault. Making me the bad guy. And I can't live like this anymore. But I can't call it quits either. I would never be able to trust a woman again. And there would probably be rumors that I did... something. People will think bad of me. I just know it. They've been thinking of me as the bad guy for years. Monica took care of that. Painting the picture of the ungrateful boyfriend since.. oh, I don't know... Whatever I will do, they will all leave me. Everybody will.” He stopped, suddenly, and looked crestfallen. “Everyone... except you, of course.” He paused again, feeling anxious. “You will stay, when I… I mean… Will you stay with me? Or will you want to leave too?”
Smiling, Az put his left hand on Jean’s shoulder and squeezed gently. A firm, reassuring pressure. “Never.”