"Kevin...Kevin, wake up. We're almost at the station."
Two days out from having left the din of The City. Two days spent train hopping. Two days of the roll of evergreens punctuated by dark brick tunnels. Two days of trying to get Penny to stop terrorizing the lady with the food cart. (And two days of watching Kevin pick the food cart clean.)
It doesn't feel right to summarize it like that. It was two days alone with my thoughts, which never seem to leave me alone. Two days felt more like two months, but two months ago, I was bleeding out in an alleyway for sticking my big, stupid nose where it didn't belong. Sometime between then and now, I decided leaving it all behind was the better option.
Penny peeked out of the overhead baggage compartment with a set of keys on a ring. "Seb, look what I got!"
"Uh, what are those?"
I yelped and swiped the keyring from her paws, pulling her with them. She tumbled out from above and landed on the seat opposite mine on all fours.
"Penny!" I snarled. "You'll get us in trouble!"
She giggled and climbed back up into the darkness.
Kevin stirred. Kevin, my long-suffering aardwolf friend—I moved for all our sakes, but especially his. He'd been doggedly loyal, by my side every day during the search for Penny, through all the uncertainty, the teasing, the fits and stops. Somehow, even after I put him through the panic and misery of almost getting myself killed, even after all those nights spent broken down by my hospital bed—he still wanted to be my friend.
I don't deserve him, but I'm glad he's still with me.
"We're almost there?" He asked, yawning.
Wasn't long before his snout was pressed up against the glass again. "...Man, I've never seen so many trees before..."
"Oh, you've never been out of The City, have you, Kevin? Here, if you like trees—" I rummaged through the front pocket of my suitcase, pulled out the brochure, and handed it to him "—you'll like where we're going."
"Forests, waterfalls, beaches, warm year-round, and APRICOTS. Barely a few hundred people around. It's wonderful." ...Admittedly, I'd only seen pictures before we started packing up and leaving, but—it sounded nice, I think.
"Ooooooooh...do you think the people are nice?"
"Yeah! Well, I mean—they should be. You know small town people, very—friendly. Hospitable. Not like city people, that's for sure."
"Yeah...city people are mean. I want apricots now."
The train car rumbled under the force of the breaks. A tinny voice came over the speakers. "Now arriving at: Apricot Bay."
Kevin squealed; I love seeing him that happy. As the train rolled into the station, a cozy, blocky brick building that didn't look a thing like The City's train station, we gathered our bags and stood in wait.
The oblivious heron conductor passed by our booth one last time, and I tried my best not to give eye contact.
Penny stuck her tongue out at him.
My first steps off the train disoriented me. No city smog to breathe here, no cracks in the sidewalks, not a sign of decay to be found. I could see brightly colored houses and shops for what seemed like miles, their windows curtained with flowers and their facades choked with ivy overgrow. The rocky cliffs of the bay hung barely visible behind it all, on the other side of town. The townspeople bounced a little. It was warm out, for the first time in months; Kevin even took off his jacket, which I've never seen him do before.
A hand-carved wood sign sat planted just outside the outer limits. "Apricot Bay: Settled 1919," it said, and stylized white and deep purple apricot blooms wrapped around the lettering. It was cheesy, but it was home now.
We passed through the town square on the way to the house, where the flagstone gave way to an apricot tree towering in the center. Its branches spidered out and stuck out sharply, and though it wouldn't bear fruit until the fall, it seemed plenty on its way there. For shade, it was rather lousy and thin, but for size? I've never seen a tree that big, and—
—Something about it nailed me to the ground. I felt like I'd suddenly forgotten everything I should've known in that moment, and I never quite realized how tiny and inconsequential I was until I saw myself beside it. I froze anxiously, like I was on trial and its leaves decided my fate.
My gaze shot to Kevin, but I could barely focus my eyes on him. We stood trading stares in silence for a moment.
Whatever it was, he didn't need to tell me twice. I walked a little faster the rest of the way, fast enough for even Penny to trail me.
Thankfully, before long, we'd arrived at the house. I found us a little three bedroom townhouse down one of the bay's cul-de-sacs, something close to the north beach. I figured Kevin and Penny could go down there and play in the waves when I was busy with work or something.
"Hey Seb, someone's at our mailbox!"
Wasn't much for talking right now, but I looked anyway. He was a fire fox about my height, orange-and-white streaked coat (albeit less loud than Penny's), bundled up in long pants and a turtleneck under his uniform, and carrying a messenger bag absolutely stuffed with papers. His face lit up when he saw us.
"Hello, hello! Are you the folks moving in today?"
Kevin, on the other hand, was more than happy to talk. "Yeah!"
"Well, welcome! Always nice to see fresh faces around here. Where are you all from?"
"Golly, city folk? I could never live in The City, I always miss home too much." He wrapped his bushy tail around his ankles and looked down. "Oh, how rude of me, I forgot to introduce myself! I'm Arthur, your mailman. I'm on my rounds right now."
"I'm Kevin, and these are my friends, Penny and Seb."
I couldn't listen to it. I left without a word.
Behind me, I heard the conversation continue.
"Oh dear...is he okay?"
"Seb gets grumpy sometimes."
"Yeah, he's a stinky," Penny chimed in.
I wandered inside, heading straight for the master bedroom I'd claimed for myself, locked the door, drew the blinds, turned up the AC, unpacked my computers, and basked in the bright blue glow of my screens once more.
The scenery wasn't about to stop me from business as usual.