Under a Gently Swaying Sign
A silent peace fell over Neovia as the sun slowly and tranquilly disappeared under the horizon. The trees in the distance were set aflame by the sun's evening glow, and a mist was settling lightly on the cobblestone streets. Old iron street lamps on every corner slowly flickered on as if awaking from a sleep; their soft golden light tinted the mist with tiny, warm sparks.
Shops along every street were closing in preparation for the night. A red Ixi swung in the shutters over her windows with a dull creak and clang as they closed. A Kougra swept the dusty stoop of his shop, and the lights in a book store flickered and winked out. Over on a small street labeled Taramore Street by the sign post, one shop remained open among the sleepy gray houses. A sign with faded, gold letters on a green background swung lazily outside the store. It read in neat, cursive lettering, "Instrument Repairs and Restoration".
The shop's door opened and a Lenny walked out, carrying an old, battered violin case. He shuffled down the street with his shadow dragging along behind him. The door was shut softly by a blue Kacheek, who then returned to a little counter inside the shop and began to clear away the papers that lined its surface. Behind him, cases of instruments in need of repair leaned peacefully against the wall. The Kacheek glanced up from his work when a green Gelert appeared quietly from a back room.
"Have you finished up for the night then, Cyrus?" the Kacheek asked.
"I just finished replacing a few pads on a clarinet," Cyrus affirmed. "What about you, Avery? Finishing your paperwork I see."
Avery smiled. "I'm just organizing a few things. If you're heading home, I can lock up myself when I'm done here."
"Well..." Cyrus said slowly, "I do need to leave, but I've got an- um- errand to run before I head home."
Avery looked up from his papers and frowned. "What kind of errand?"
Cyrus avoided Avery's gaze and watched the street outside the window of the shop. "I've got to see the Brain Tree about something..." he muttered. "I should be back by morning. Nothing to worry about, nothing to worry about..."
"You know I'm going to have to protest. Venturing into the Haunted Woods at this hour? You know the dangers as well as I do."
"Don't worry, Avery, I promise you everything will be fine," Cyrus assured him. Making his way out the door, he paused at the threshold. "If I'm not back in the morning, you probably should come looking for me," he said in a joking way, chuckling, meaning to poke fun at Avery's worry, but Avery did not smile. Cyrus stepped out of the shop and closed the door with an ominous click.
Avery put down his papers and walked to the window, watching his friend walk slowly down the street and disappear into the twilight. Even after he could no longer see him, Avery gazed with worry at the place where the mist had hidden his friend from view. Sighing, he returned to the old desk and pulled a set of keys from a warped drawer. With one last look around the shop, he walked out into the street and locked the door behind him.
Darkness shrouded the streets of Neovia, and the lights on the street corners guided the Kacheek to his small house two streets over from Taramore Street. Avery walked slowly, worried and musing over his friend's condition. No doubt he would be well into the woods by now, but was he safe? Would he return the next morning? The solemnity of Avery's state of mind was reflected by the dismal gray buildings surrounded by the embracing mist of the night.
* * * *
The Neopian sun was greeted each morning in Neovia first by the tombstones of the graveyard that formed the eastern border of the town. The stones somberly waited for the sun, and welcomed it with the timeless, breathless silence that only the dead posses. Its rays reached Neovia just as its residents were awakening and its ghosts were slowly settling back into their graves for the day.
Avery, out of habit, was quick in getting himself ready and preparing for another day of work. He meticulously bathed, dressed, ate, and brushed his teeth before exiting out of his home and walking over to Taramore Street. To the passerby, nothing was particularly different about Avery this fine, gray morning. The only indication that something was remotely wrong was that he somehow didn't seem to notice the Neovians who greeted him with their friendly waves and words.
When Avery turned onto Taramore Street, his eyes immediately looked to the green and gold sign of the instrument repair shop that was swinging in the gentle breeze. There was a reluctance in Avery's step as he approached the store. He knew that if Cyrus had returned, he would already be at the store, would have already opened up an hour ago... But what if Avery drew near and found the door still locked? What if Cyrus had not returned from his journey? Avery didn't want to think about it...
The few minutes that it took for Avery to walk down Taramore Street passed in a fleeting, non-existent span of time. He wished that it had taken longer, that he could still be shuffling along the cobblestones. Avery wanted time to continue to cushion him from knowing whether or not his friend had returned safely. But it was impossible to avoid, he was already there, standing in the middle of Taramore Street. Avery paused for just a moment, hovering in front of the door under the gently swaying sign, put his paw on the polished doorknob and turned it.
The doorknob only turned a quarter of the way before he felt a resistance and the surly click of the door lock was heard. Avery let his arm drop limply to his side. He knew that Cyrus had not returned from the woods during the night. He was not working happily in the back of the shop repairing instruments. He was not safe. He was not here. Taramore Street seemed to spin around Avery, the cobblestones rotating under his feet as cold shivers ran across his skin. His body felt heavy, his breathing uneven as he kept repeating the one fact he knew for certain in his mind: Cyrus is not here.
With the seconds tangibly ticking by, Avery turned away from the shop and sprinted down Taramore Street with the green and gold sign still swinging gently behind him.
* * * *
That day Avery led a group of Neovians on a search through the Haunted Woods to look for Cyrus. The path from Neovia to the Brain Tree was scoured thoroughly. Every tree was searched; no rock was left uninspected, and each shadow was illuminated by a lantern's glow to search for some sign of Avery's lost friend. No trace was found, however; the woods had consumed all evidence of Cyrus' passing through. Not even a paw print remained.
The Brain Tree was questioned, and he confirmed that Cyrus had indeed been to see him. However, that had been hours ago during the dead of night. Though Avery had the opportunity to ask about the reason for Cyrus' visit, he didn't. He had no desire to know why Cyrus had not returned from the woods. The search continued for the entire day, until the sky began to darken and the Neovians had to return to town for the night. Nothing was ever found.
For days the search was continued; each day the group of Neovians growing smaller as they lost hope. Eventually only Avery was left, searching alone in the dark woods for his friend. But, eventually, he too had to give up and return to the store on Taramore Street. Life had to continue. Without Cyrus.
* * * *
Much time had passed now, since Cyrus' disappearance. The instrument repair shop still stood in the same place; Avery ran it by himself now, repairing the clarinets, violins, and various other instruments that found their way into his hands. But somehow the shop seemed a little emptier, a little darker. No more days were passed within its walls with pleasant conversation, joking, and laughter. The gold paint on the still swinging sign seemed to have faded by a hundred years rather than just a few. Avery could be seen behind the old warped counter at the end of the day, organizing his papers and locking up. He rarely smiled anymore, and had become sort of a dour recluse, preferring to work alone and return to his empty home each night.
This particular night Avery locked up slightly earlier than usual. The sun had not yet set and the nightly fog was still a light mist swirling in the air. This night would mark the passing of exactly two years since Cyrus had disappeared. Though Avery had lost hope and had stopped searching long ago, he found himself taking a left on Lithing Street and heading down the path that led him into the Haunted Woods.
The shadows of the trees were long in the light of the low sun. Their gnarled branches reached searchingly upward as they fought to block out the intrusive light. Avery was cast in shadow, which perhaps mirrored his thoughts as he wandered slowly down the narrow, sinuous path. Gloomy and morose, Avery had returned to where he last knew Cyrus to be. Where Cyrus had perhaps become lost, disorientated in the wood's labyrinth of trees and undergrowth. If only he had found him in time. But he hadn't. Avery sat down heavily on a small, rotting stump and rested his head in his paws. Why had he come here?
Avery was lost in his thoughts when he suddenly became aware of a faint, barely audible noise coming from behind a tree to his left. Avery froze as he listened intently to the repetitious sound. He heard the sound of deep, even breathing from the ground beneath the tree. Raising his head in the fading light of the sun, he leaned cautiously back to peer behind the old, twisted tree. In the twilight he could see a sleeping form curled among its roots.
The green fur was disheveled and matted with dirt and mud; the nails were long and chipped. The skin was pulled gauntly against bone, and a thin scar ran across the wild face. But the form was so familiar, like a memory once forgotten and then suddenly remembered when an unknown catalyst triggers its revelation.
Avery stood from the rotten stump and moved closer in order to identify this fleetingly familiar form. As he moved, a twig snapped underfoot and the sleeper under the tree jolted awake. The Gelert was on its paws in a second, its body tensed with wide eyes staring wildly at Avery. A low growl rumbled from the savage throat, and the frightened Kacheek froze. The Gelert was wild and savage; its teeth were bared as it stood ready to spring at Avery.
Avery should have ran; he should have turned around and ran as fast as his legs would have permitted him to, down the path he came and back to the safety of Neovia. But instead he remained and put a paw to his chest as a word escaped from his lips,
"Cyrus," he breathed.
The Gelert snarled and leaped at him, teeth glistening. Avery jumped to the side but was sideswiped by the Gelert's heavy paw. A burning sensation shot up his arm, and Avery winced at the pain. He didn't look down at his arm but knew that a deep gash must have appeared. The Gelert was now to the right of Avery, ready to attack him again, but Avery spoke before it could,
"Cyrus," he whispered, "Friend, look at me, you know me."
Avery looked deep within the Gelert's wild eyes, but nothing except the wild nature of the woods stared unintelligently back at him. Another snarl and flash of the Gelert's teeth.
"Cyrus, please," Avery pleaded.
The Gelert's eyes locked with Avery's, and from the abyss of darkness in the eyes of the Gelert there was a spark of recognition. A spark of forgotten memory was found, and it ignited into a blaze that chased away the savage wilderness from the eyes. Cyrus stood staring at Avery for a long time, the seconds slipping past with the swiftness of memory. Then, in a wave of sudden weakness, he collapsed to the ground.
Avery rushed forward to support his friend, and felt small sobs shaking Cyrus' body. Cyrus looked sorrowfully through tears at the wound in Avery's arm.
"I'm sorry, Avery," he said, "Forgive me."
* * * *
Taramore Street is now just as normal as ever. Busy Neovians bustle among the shops and under awnings, their steps resonating on the cobblestone street. Outside one store a freshly painted sign swings gently in the breeze. In gold and green it proclaims "Instrument Repairs and Restoration". Inside a Kacheek and Gelert are talking casually, joking between one another and laughing. Black instrument cases line the walls and an old warped desk stands with papers lining its surface. The shop seems to radiate with the contentment of the two friends who have been reunited after two years of gloom. All who enter under that swaying sign cannot help but to be reminded that there is always hope, even in the darkness of the Haunted Woods.