We built the settlement in the woods. Each structure ordered, set in a grid, crowded close for protection against the ugly things that skittered in the trees at night.
Jacob saw the ugly things, just like the rest of us. They glistened and grimaced against the light thrown from the torches perched over each doorway and the bonfires burning at intervals between buildings. But when it came time for him to erect his own house, he put his a few steps further from all the rest.
And when he sat on his porch at night, when the ugly things moved, it wasn’t the branches that his eyes were trained on.
It was our houses.
Our settlement’s population was transient. People arrived through the trees and left only on the brightest, sunniest of days—arriving in groups from other settlements, leaving to seek out better places to live. Or safer, they hoped.
My parents realized long ago that there was no safer. The spindly, long-legged things were everywhere, and it was only the light of day and fire at night that kept them away. So rather than long treks through the woods in search of something better, we focused on our storehouses of wood and torches.
And then there was Jacob.
He arrived alone. That was the first thing that made him a figure of intrigue and fascination. Once he finished building his house, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere, despite his clearly communicated aversion to the rest of us. He stayed inside all day—when the rest of us were out—and only sat on his porch at night.
The girls tittered about how soulful his eyes were, and how his curls looked so soft against his forehead, and how his arms would feel so good around their waists in the dark. I listened, and agreed, but stayed silent.
What I felt when I looked at him would be spoiled by chattering about it with the other girls. Instead, I gathered an armful of torches as an offering and marched up the stairs to his porch.
“I have enough,” he said. He didn’t make eye contact and his voice was dismissive.
“No such thing,” I answered, and set the torches beside his door. He was sitting in the only chair—a rough, rickety thing—so I braced my hands on the porch rail and slid up to sit.
“You’re out here every night. Aren’t you afraid of the ugly things?” I said, sweeping my arm at the woods.
At that, he slid his eyes to mine. “That’s why I’m out here every night.”
“But you don’t even watch the trees.”
He paused. “The things in the trees aren’t what I’m afraid of.”
“Are you afraid of me?” I asked, and used the smile that always worked on the other boys.
I didn’t really expect it to work on him—he seemed tougher to crack. But a sort of sudden awareness came over his face. “No,” he said. “I’m not afraid of you. You can sit here.” He stood. “I’ll get another chair from inside.”
I felt my face flush in the torchlight, but I remember thinking it was odd: the sudden change in character.
Three weeks later Jacob gave me a ring. We had been sitting on his porch every night together—talking, sometimes sitting in amiable silence, the hum and crackle of the fires doing the speaking for us.
At first I thought the ring was like those worn by so many others in our settlement: a thick band of silver with rounded edges. Then I saw a dark stone embedded in the band. The stone looked black in the torchlight, but gleamed red in the light of day.
“Turn the stone to the underside of your hand,” Jacob said. “Don’t let anyone see. Guard it like the light guards us.”
I smiled, and did. The stone felt like a secret between us; something that only we shared.
She arrived soon after. It was dawn, and the settlement was just coming to life.
She strode in, silhouetted by the rising sun burning behind her. I was blinking the sleep from my eyes as I made my way to the mess hall for breakfast. When I saw her I stopped, dumbfounded that another stranger had arrived through the woods alone. What was even more remarkable was that she must have walked through the trees at night, to have arrived so early in the morning.
Stopping in the center plaza, she carefully eyed each house in turn. Her eyes stopped on Jacob’s house, distinct with the two chairs on the porch. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the flicker of movement from the back of his house toward the woods. But the sun was in my eyes, and I couldn’t be sure.
From where she stood, she wouldn’t have been able to see what I saw. But I know she saw me looking at Jacob’s house. I turned back to see what she would do. She strode purposefully toward me. When she emerged from the sun’s glare, I had to stop myself from taking a step back when I saw what she wore.
Around her neck hung one of the ugly things—stiff and dead—the size of a dinner plate, its spindly legs extended. Her clothes were a striking shade of red. Her hair stuck out in messy, short tufts and her eyes, heavily lashed, blazed with menacing intensity.
She stopped in front of me. “I’m looking for something that belongs to me,” she said. Her eyes flicked back to the two chairs on Jacob’s porch and then down to my hand. “May I see your ring?”
Find Meghan on Twitter: @StiggeMe
THOUGHT PROCESS: I first conceived of Jacob’s character during a workshop exercise led by Maggie Stiefvater at a Madcap Retreat. She taught us to stylize the character, not transcribe; and that really resonated with me. Maggie sent us off for 10 minutes to practice, which is when I wrote the first section of this story.
I used to think, “What would this character logically say or do right now?” Wrong, Meghan. Create, not transcribe. Humans often behave illogically, especially in situations of growth or change (arc!). Logically, Jacob should put his house close to the others, for protection against the things in the trees, but instead I created Jacob as a bit of a misanthrope, who has a reason to stay away from people. Stylize, not transcribe. Create, not transcribe. (I say this in my head often, now. You’re in my head, Maggie.)
Then our first prompt for this blog was “a stolen ring, a fear of spiders, and a sinister stranger.” The things in the trees became arachnid-esque creatures, and the most sinister stranger (more sinister than Jacob) arrived at the end.