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Into Thin Air, Chapter One
I open the creaking door of the shack delicately, as if not to disturb what sits inside. I always enter this way, standing tip-toed in my satin shoes and grasping the wood with light fingers. It is like interrupting an important conversation between the King and one of his many subjects – terrifying, yet very exciting.
Morning sun streams through the cracked wood, glinting off the dank windowpanes and into my eyes. With a quickened heartbeat and a look around, just to confirm no one has followed me, I push on the door. It swings open, revealing to me the treasure, my treasure. It never gets less beautiful.
Just as I take in its full wonder, a branch snaps outside. I turn at the noise, sweat slicking my cooled neck in fear. No one, not one person, can see me here, doing this. Paranoia sweeps over me like a low-flying bird, and before I can even check to see if a follower has seen, I slam the door shut and bolt through the woods. I run, run nearly as fast as I did the night Mom died, back to the place where I belong.
I hate that place. The castle's stone walls are cold, and the paintings that line the hallways are hard-faced. Living there my entire life has not done anything to make the place more familiar, more comfortable. Walking in the front doors brings an anxious line to my lips, a cautious crease to my brow. Haunting memories linger there, and they always will, I am sure.
The castle's looming towers pierce the spring sky before me as I exit the forest, still running. I allow myself to slow to a jogging pace, and strain my ears for any noise other than the pounding in my chest. Nothing. With my luck, it probably was just a branch snapping, nothing more. Better safe than sorry, I suppose. The castle stands in its awful magnificence in front of me, and I cross the evenly cut grass lawn to the side door.
As I enter the kitchen, a stout woman with brown hair tied in a bun is making something that smells sweet and salty. It is Phale, one of the housemaids I've grown to love. It may seem strange that someone of royal heir like I should converse and even befriend the servants of her household, but I really am not a normal person of royalty. Not at all. At this thought, my mind flashes quickly to my treasure in the shack, then zips back to the present as Phale turns around. Her plump reddened cheeks fold into two cheery dimples.
“Miss Corynne, so lovely to see you awake. Though, I did not see you come down earlier.”
“Nice to see you also, Phale. Yes, I went through the parlor hall. I apologize if I alarmed you.”
“Not in the least, miss! You have been outside often in the recent weeks, and I figured so. But you must be starved!”
As if cued by the maid's words, my stomach gurgles softly. My cheeks redden like hers, but Phale does not seem to notice. She turns back around to the sizzling pan in front of her.
“Sausages are on, dear, and buns are cooling. You will also be pleased to know that the wild blackberries have ripened enough for picking, and are chilling as we speak. Shall I serve them with breakfast?”
A grin draws itself from my mouth as the thought of juicy blackberries enters my senses. I nod, a bit too enthusiastically.
“Yes, please, Phale. You know how I love them!”
She chuckles, dimples taking their rightful place once again.
“That I do, miss, that I do. Now, I laid out today's attire for you. Not to worry, it is nothing overly fancy; the blue one with lace trim, and buttons down the spine. Do you know it?”
Before I can respond, Phale keeps chattering. This is a habit of hers. So many of my questions remain unanswered, but I find it funny.
She turns again to face me.
“Yes, well, no complaining if it itches or anything of the sort. You know your father likes for you to dress properly, and I do too, if I may say so. He is the king, after all, and the ambassador of Fogsmoore is arriving on his visit today, as you may be aware.”
Without even trying, I scowl like a punished child.
“Now now, I know he is a bit – well, odd, I suppose,” says Phale in a quiet, cautious tone.
“Oh yes, just a bit,” I respond sarcastically, prying a hot bun from the cooling pan. Phale swats at my hand playfully.
“Your casual fashions just will not do for his visit, though I know you loathe me for saying it.”
“I do not loathe you, Phale! How could I? You're on of my only friends in this place,” I say. “I just do not...” I search for the word. “...enjoy the company of the ambassador. You know why, I know you do. So there is no use hiding it from me.” I bite into the hot roll in my hands and give her a smirk.
“Miss Corynne, I have no idea what you speak of,” she responds nonchalantly. But I keep my eyes on her, the grin still lying on my lips, and she turns around with two stubby fingers pinching her nose. The other hand swishes in the air around it.
“I knew you knew!” I say through laughter. The ambassador has a silent reputation of smelling like an awful cross between body odor and stale bread.
“Knew what? Like I said, miss, I do not know what you mean. Now get! My sausages will burn, and your father is coming for breakfast at exactly 10 o'clock. Wren is waiting in your bed chamber to assist you with readying yourself, and you have only twenty minutes until breakfast. Go on!”
I pop the last bite of the bun into my mouth, thank Phale, and head out of the kitchen with a smile remaining on my face.
Wren, Phale's accompanying housewife, helps me wash and dress myself for the day. I like Wren nearly as much as Phale – both have always been far more than servants to me. Breakfast is delicious, as it is each day, and my father, King Darren, is rigid and terse as always. I even spit the word father in my thoughts – it just is not at all fitting for the man. I often times call him King instead. Since Mom's death, at least.
The ambassador arrives, smelly and cold. He and the King converse as I sit uncomfortably in a chair across from them. Wren stands straight as a needle in the corner of the room, a tea tray in her hands, waiting for the appropriate moment to interrupt.
My thoughts are on nothing but the shack, my treasure. Had someone discovered my whereabouts earlier? It could not have been Phale nor Wren, because they were tidying and cooking for the morning. It could have been nearly anyone else, though. Or, hopefully, just a squirrel snapping a twig. Nevertheless, I want to get back to it. I need to --
“And you, Corynne, turning sixteen in, what is it now, a month? Two months?” a nasally voice questions.
I snap back to reality at the mention of my name. Ambassador Grimmel looks at me curiously, and the King's eyes are cool and stern.
“Uh, err, yes sir. Forty-seven days, sir.”
“Ah, look who is counting. How do you feel about that? Excited to be merely Corynne no longer? Looking forward to being called Princess Corynne, I am sure?”
“Yes, sir, looking very much forward to the change,” I respond convincingly with a tight smile. I look to Wren, who gives me a small nod as if to say, “Right answer.”
The ambassador sends a small smile my way, then returns to his conversation with the King about foreign trade. I curtsy and excuse myself “just for a moment,” I say, and stride into the parlor hallway. Before exiting the door, I notice a warning look from Wren, but do not have time to respond. Once in the hall, I do a quick sweep to make sure no one has noticed, and slip quietly out the door to the awaiting shack.
I keep a steady pace until I reach where the riverbed dips into solid earth. The water bubbles softly, echoing through the empty castle yard. Sneaking a final glance behind me to ensure no eyes see, I clench my dress in my palms and jump across the stones to the other side of the river, to my favorite place in the world.
Upon reaching the shack, I allow myself to catch the breath that comes only in spurts. I enjoy running; I find it exhilarating. It frees me as I free my crimson hair from its ribbon. This time, no twigs snap, and I enter the shack with quiet anticipation.
And there it is. It sits contently on the old, creaky floor, illuminated by the sun's gold light. It basks in its warmth, looking as though it has just woken from a long nap. I smile to myself – I created this. My treasure is the one thing that lets me escape my life, the one thing that makes me feel normal and happy and alive. My treasure is a hot air balloon.
I stroke my fingers lightly across the frayed fabrics of the balloon, each color muted from sunlight. Some areas are more faded than others, because the sun hits them more often, but I find the imperfection inspiring.
If only my life were like the balloon, patched and handmade with love, taken care of by someone, free to fly as I please. Where, though I am taken care of by housemaids and cooks and servants who care about my well-being and wardrobe, I do not have anyone who loves me unconditionally. I do not have anyone who I can talk to about anything, tell stories with, except Ryland – but Ryland is gone now. I force myself to stay out of that realm of thinking as a deep, sad longing overcomes me, but I cannot help looking to the corner of the shack.
Ryland's vase sits there. We made it together, he and I, a few days before he had to leave. That was six months ago, when the war was just beginning to get out of hand on our end.
Our country, The Realm, had two allying countries, Swiftland and Strindom, turn against us just when we needed them. King Darren was desperate, and made the cowardly decision to deploy all young men aged fourteen through forty who were physically capable of the task. Ryland, a muscular boy due to his work in the cornfields all day, was up to par for battle. However, though he tried to put on a strong face for me, I knew he was terrified.
We were best friends, he and I. And whenever I look at our vase, a determined thought comes to my mind, no matter how many times I try to shoo it away. It is nearly impossible, I know. Nearly. But I am strong enough to make it happen. The words echo in my mind every day, the ones he said to me the day before he left. I will survive, Cory. And when I come back,on your birthday, we'll run away, you and me. Forever.
I had nodded, tears flooding my emerald eyes. It was the worst day of my life, and one of the only things I remember is a heartbeat, pulsating faster than I had ever felt before. It had fear in it, fear of not seeing your best friend ever again. The heartbeat was not mine. It was Ryland's.
My birthday is forty-seven days from today. I sit in the shack, still staring longingly at Ryland's vase, my eyes going slowly back and forth between it and the hot air balloon. An idea comes upon me, a nearly impossible, probably absurd idea. Nearly. Probably. I shoo it away, but it enters again, forcing its way into my brain. What if Ryland does not return?