Crossings and Stepping Stones is a short story I co-authored with Dustin Brackbill. This is our second completed story. Our first one, Crumbs of Curiosity, started with a simple prompt. I began the story while he finished it. We alternated turns in between. The rules were simple: no discussion of the story whatsoever. This was difficult and fun and it certainly stretched our creative writing muscles. With Crossings and Stepping Stones, we again alternated turns this time with Dustin beginning with an original prompt and the first part which left me with the job of finishing it. With this particular story we did have several conversations and as you read you'll see why that may have been a wise choice. Still stretching our creativity, we are very pleased with this story and we thank you for reading and sharing our dream...(speaking of sharing, please share on Facebook).
Crossings and Stepping Stones
A Short Story by: Dustin Brackbill and Ryan S. Graybill
A Short Story by: Dustin Brackbill and Ryan S. Graybill
Part 10 (But only the first part of part 10)
As Ashlyn wrote the note, she nervously peered out the window to make sure the coast was clear. A strange, uninvited adult at a kids’ camp searching through suitcases would not go over well. When she glanced out the window she noticed Janet and the young Ashlyn had stopped just a few yards away. Recalling what had just unfolded moments ago with Janet’s life-coaching, she was actually surprised how much she remembered everything from that one summer at camp. However, she had no recollection of the conversation taking place right outside. Realizing that life – not to mention alternate lives as well – gives you insurmountable memories, she knew it was impossible to remember every intricate detail. She did remember walking off into the woods after the conversation in the cabin only to be found later by another counselor. It was after that she whittled her cross during free time rather than the designated arts and crafts time. Curiously, Ashlyn crept across the cabin floor closer to the door in order to be in better listening range.
“I almost forgot,” Janet put her hand on Ashlyn’s shoulder. “There’s something I would like you to do for me.
Ashlyn didn’t say anything. Being asked to do a favor meant someone else had confidence that she would actually be successful in whatever they were asking of her. Being asked this forced her inhibitions and low self-esteem to surface.
Sensing a rising barrier, Janet continued. “There’s a young boy being dropped off at the camp…”
“In the middle of the summer? Why is he coming so late?”
“Well, Ashlyn, that’s kind of why the staff and I thought you would be perfect for what I’m about to ask.”
“He’s like me isn’t he?”
Janet smiled. “For one, if he is like you then that would be a wonderful thing.” She lifted up Ashlyn’s chin and smiled again hoping it would be reciprocated. “The truth is we don’t know much about him other than his family life is a lot like yours. And when it came up in a staff meeting I immediately mentioned you. I think it’ll be a good thing.”
“So, what am I supposed to do with him?”
“Just be friendly. Welcome him. Show him around. Be there so he’s not sitting alone at mealtime or around the campfire.”
“What do you know about his family?”
Smiling again, “I think that’s something you and he can talk about.” They continued their walk up to the pavilion where campers were whittling away at the wooden crosses.
Older Ashlyn was floored. With no recollection of the conversation she just eavesdropped on, she couldn’t wrap her mind around the strange sensation she now felt. It was a strange mix of emptiness and joy. Either one, she couldn’t explain it to herself.
She walked back over to her note. As she picked up the pen, something struck her. A thought. Trying to shake it off and render it ridiculous, the tenacity of this thought seemed to be tethered to her subconscious. She was still a novice and couldn’t begin to explain all the ins and outs of time-traveling, but just through the experience of it all, she learned. Certain emotional adjustments were made through these experiences, but she was completely unaware of them. Similar to blowing bubbles or riding a bike, it’s tiny adjustments that keep you from spitting your gum out or scraping a knee. You aren’t necessarily conscious of it all, but it’s the experience that forces them upon you while you remain unaware. Unaware until you’re blowing bubbles and riding bike at the same time. Unaware until a thought like the one that Ashlyn was having comes out of nowhere.
Ashlyn considered for a moment the repercussions or the effects of their time-traveling. She wondered if not only certain events change, but also that certain events are created. She wondered if right choices were being made somewhere on the their life’s timeline then different events, such as the conversation her younger self just had with the counselor, would occur. Maybe, she continued to explore this tethered thought, the new events are a sign that all three of them have reached their specific destination with the right choices in tow and it’s a sign of going home. For good.
Even after delving into those possibilities, Ashlyn still had a remaining desire to abandon the whole idea. But she still couldn’t shake it. She was on to something.
Ashlyn, realizing time was sensitive, began once again writing a letter to her younger self, but immediately became distracted by an old-sounding horn followed by screams of curious children. Just as curious, Ashlyn looked through the window towards the main lodge. All she could see was a swarm of campers. Forgetting herself, she stepped outside to gather a better look. Soon she realized she was an uninvited stranger walking towards a group of kids. Feeling a slight panic, she looked around. Fortunately everybody, including counselors, were fascinated by what appeared to be a colorful and oddly painted tractor and wagon.
Ashlyn noticed a hat and a counselor’s shirt hanging on a nearby wash-line. They were slightly damp – most likely the effects of the afternoon’s water-balloon battle – but still dry enough. Pulling it over the shirt she already had on, followed by the hat, Ashlyn did her best to continue to walk towards the crowd and seamlessly blend in with the camp community. It worked.
“Hey! Stop standing around and get in here!” The angry shout startled her. It came from the kitchen doors that were located in the back of the main lodge.
Ashlyn pulled her hat down and turned around. “Me?”
While his shouted had startled her, his obnoxious and joyous laugh about knocked her to the ground. “Ha! Ha! I’m only kiddin’ with ya! Just having fun. Are you tonight’s kitchen duty?”
Ashlyn raised her head so she could get a good look at the man that stood a few inches taller than she was. With eyes widened, she took off her hat and hoped against all hope that Anvay, the camp’s cook, would recognize her.
“Ashlyn?! Ashlyn, is that you? You’re here?! Wow, I can’t believe it!”
“Hi, Anvay,” Ashlyn said smiling and chuckling. “I am remembering the very first time I saw you and I gotta say, I never thought I’d see you wearing flip-flops, a T-shirt and holding a spatula.”
“Stranger things have happened! Believe you me!”
“I’m sure they have.”
“Come inside and help me out. We’re servin’ burgers and dogs after their hayride.”
The two friends chatted while preparing dinner for what would be a large amount of salivating campers. While the burger flipping and frying of fries took up most of their time and didn’t allow for too much conversation, there was a sense of comfort and a sense of destination-completed between them.
When Ashlyn was able to tell him about the strange thought she had had, his reaction was comforting. “I felt it too! I felt the exact same thing, Ashlyn. And let me tell you, we’re getting close.”
Ashlyn smiled and dunked the potatoes into the grease. Through the sizzle, she lost her smile. “We’re just one short.”
“Don’t be worrying about that. He’ll show up.”
“If he backtracked…digressed, I mean…then we’re not any closer to getting back to that intersection.”
“Hon, it’ll be alright.” Anvay gave her a toothy smile that eased her worries.
“It’s good to see you smiling, Anvay.”
“I smile all the time chicky-baby!”
Ashlyn laughed at her friend’s silliness. It felt like a long time since she had seen him happy.
“I’ll tell you all about it after dinner while the kiddos are around the campfire. In the meantime though,” he banged the spatula against the metal counter. “Chop-chop!” he shouted. “I need those fries, lady!”
The ravenous campers returned from the hayride through the forest and along the river about twenty minutes later. It only took them two seconds to barge through the doors into the mess hall. Ashlyn, still with her borrowed shirt and hat, stood behind the counter ready to serve looking for her younger self. She was one of the last ones and was quickly invited to join one of the tables. She talked a little, but barely cracked a smile. She appeared more disinterested than sad. Ashlyn then noticed her younger self kept looking outside in the parking lot more than engaging in conversation.
“Anvay, come here a second.”
Anvay carried over some platters to the counter as the counselors were leading the campers in a song of prayer. “Recognize that little beauty over there?”
“Well, yes I do! And you know what? I knew there was an Ashlyn here and I didn’t even think about it being you.”
“I’m worried about her. She doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. She just keeps looking out at the parking lot.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. She’s just looking out for the new arrival who…actually, should be here any minute.”
Several minutes later, the campers, along with the counselors, gathered around a campfire just a short walking distance away from the lodge. The crackling flames accompanied by the chorus of crickets invited everyone into a tranquil yet deep and spirited state. One counselor, with his acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder led the kids in a song. And while they sang about asking for oil in their lamp, Anvay and Ashlyn stood at a distance.
“Ever think about the intersection? Just seems so strange that it ever really happened?”
Anvay kept his gaze on the fire while tapping his foot to the song the campers were singing. “To be honest…not much.” He interrupted himself as he began to clap along. “That surprises you doesn’t it?”
“I suppose a little. It’s just that…I seem to always think about it or not think about it, but always know it’s there and…whether you’ll get back.”
“I know what you mean and to be honest there was a point where I was, I guess you could say, obsessed with it.” Anvay paused here and appeared to Ashlyn as reflecting upon something as if being there side by side made something in them or perhaps around them seem stronger and more evident. “I’ve worked here at this camp for twelve summers now. For the first year, I admit, I kept an eye out for the both of you every day. I waited and waited, but then something happened. I became absorbed in something that I never paid much attention to before.”
“What? What was it?”
Anvay chuckled. “Myself.” Ashlyn didn’t reciprocate his smile. “Let me explain. Remember when Dwayne talked about beginning with the end in mind?”
“For too long I thought that the end was the intersection. So all my focus was on that. But the intersection is not the end. At least not for me and I don’t think it is for any of us. It’s serves more as a stepping stone just like all events in our lives are. So I, and being here at this camp really helped with this, turned my focus on me. I became absorbed in discovering who I am and what I was meant to be. I learned to take each stepping stone whether tragic or exhilarating and chose joy above all else. I now know what I need to do to get back to that stepping stone where we all met for the first time.”
While what Anvay had said penetrated through Ashlyn’s consciousness, she noticed the necklace he was wearing. She stared at it before finally asking, “Do you think there is some kind of strange person or dynamic force behind all of this…what we’ve been through? What we’re going through?”
“I do. And that force is same for everyone.” Anvay noticed Ashlyn looking at his hand-carved cross. “That’s what I believe anyway.”
Ashlyn reached out and held the cross in her palm studying it.
“I became quite the whittler during my stay here,” Anvay grinned widely.
Ashlyn began to speak, but was interrupted by the crunching of stones beneath tires as a taxi with an Arizona license plate pulled into the long lane leading up to the lodge and eventually parking beside them.
Before anyone even stepped out, Ashlyn knew exactly who it was.
This is only the end of the first part of Part 10...