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Woodward Part 2 (Fiction)

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2

David's birthday party was back in February. We did nothing super special, it was just a few friends at the house, we decided to geek it up with party games, a pinata and video games. We decided we just wanted to celebrate a good life. That's when I first met Further Henceforth.

She was taller, skinner and prettier than I imagined. Her reddish-brown hair came to her knees and made her deep blue eyes pop. It was awesome to see that she was wearing moccasins instead of trendy sneakers or Uggs.

Under her arm was tucked a square present. I cursed myself yet again for forgetting to mention no gifts on the invite e-mail.

Virginia Collinder, she said incredibly formally, holding her hand out. Further Henceforth, she finished when I shook her hand.

Alright, well, at ease, Further. I replied, relaxing a little when she smiled. I just hoped she didn't actually see it as mocking. I can put on a good front at the best of times. David's been saying a lot about you.

Has he? she replied quickly, tilting her head as if in contemplation. That's strange, considering I haven't told him that much. Eric was right, this girl was off.

Well, um, I hesitated. She really caught me off guard, few people can do that. The kids are in the living room and you can put your present with the others in the kitchen.

She smiled thinly and walked into the house. Outside of her looks, I couldn't see why David was interested in her. Teenagers are a whole other species.

I went and hung out with the parents who decided to stick around. I didn't mind. I knew the three of them from growing up anyway. We occupied the kitchen table and shared a bottle of single-malt, Frank's last great pre-junky achievement. Thanks for the hooch, pops. The kids were blasting the TV volume as they played video games, so it was safe for us adults to talk openly.

So, I started, pouring myself a shot. Not to be the one who always brings up the elephant in the room, but...

Further Henceforth, Sue said, letting out a chuckle. I always loved Sue, she's Eric's mom. That whole family is a school of strange fish. They're scary rich, emphasis on scary. No one's even sure if their money is new or old. No one's been brave enough to check.

There was no point in holding back my skepticism. I mean, yeah, she's strange, but Further seems nice enough. The rest of the family can't be that bad.

There have been stories, Don said, pouring his second two-fingers. The Henceforths own an old cottage out near Roanoke. Of course, that's not odd. He sipped and wiped his mustache. The odd part is the tree. Black as night and about five stories tall, I reckon. The tree never bore any fruit and the branches have been bare for as long as people have remembered. Those brave souls who have ventured close enough have told stories of scrapes and loud husky breathing coming from inside the trunk.

Of course, that just may be a tale to keep kids off the land, Don resigned and downed his drink. That tree, though, that is real.

The word is that the cottage has been in that family for generations, Erin almost whispered. Visitors that go there never quite come back the same.

We moved onto other subjects and talked and laughed until the sun started going down. Then we went and played party games with the kids. I'm sure they saw it all as dorky, but even Miss Henceforth seemed to be enjoying herself. David later refused to wear a paper hat, but let me take pictures of him blowing out the candles on his cake.

I was relieved when it was just David and me again, lounging on the sofa and watching him mercilessly channel surf. Thanks for the party, he murmured.

Aw, you're welcome, chum! I patronized and flattened his gel-spiked hair and wiped my hand on his shirt. He laughed and playfully swatted my hands away.

Though you did forget to add 'no presents' to the invites, he scoffed and fixed his shirt.

I laughed. I'm sorry. You have to admit that even your shrink would say it's unhealthy for you to think I'm the only person in this world who doesn't suck.

You just suck less, he zinged. Eric's cool. He's always been there for me, even when I was in the hospital. Further's not bad, either.

Not bad, eh? I mocked, nudging him with my elbow.

Yeah, she's hot, he snorted. Though she's different too. She's the only person at school who doesn't look at me like she's expecting me to explode. Even Eric looks at me like that sometimes.

Totally waxing cliché here: it's hard for people to not fear what they don't understand. Especially as a teenager, I reassured, putting my arm around his shoulder and giving a small hug. My mind went right to Further and the story about the tree and wondered what could be inside.

His phone vibrated and he held it up to me to show me it was Further calling. I sat back on the couch and dismissed him with a flick of my hand.

When he was in his room, I opened a window and lit a cigarette. The melancholy was really setting in. I missed Florida and you so much. I also hoped David would never find out what I gave up to have a life with him. I didn't know if he would forgive me.

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