Fallenwood #1

by Leslie D. Soule

Ashley Kensington is a girl overwhelmed — 23 and in college, she works an unforgiving retail job, still grieves over the loss of her stepfather to circumstances beyond her control, and despairs over her mother's heartlessness.

With self-doubt creeping in, and a sense that a bright future is beyond her reach, she runs away from it all and finds her way to a magical realm known as Fallenwood, a place that for all its charms, is no less plagued by problems of its own.

Nevertheless, she meets up with friends like the mysterious sorcerer Will Everett, the talking cat Greymalkin, and the court jester Terces Solario, who show her the way down a path that can only lead to trouble, but with the promise of a bright future lurking on the horizon.


Chapter One

~ Ashes to Ashley ~


As Ashley Kensington went through her daily routine one boring Tuesday afternoon, it dawned on her that her life was nothing more than a slow countdown till death. She kept the feeling to herself, preferring tortured silence to pitiful glances or questioning looks.

I want to die.

She would have committed suicide by now, but her Catholic upbringing taught her that killing herself would mean condemning her soul to hell for all eternity. Still, the pain bore down on her heart like a pallet of concrete bags. Who cares? I have done nothing with my life. She was twenty-three, working as a cashier at a hardware and outdoor supplies store, and already she felt extreme exhaustion coursing through her body. Her days consisted mainly of trudging her way through a boring retail hell as she wore herself ragged with constant work and a full load of college courses. The monotony of cashiering left too much room for an ongoing inner monologue. There’s got to be more to life than this.

A customer cleared his throat, startling Ashley from her thoughts.

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

As he handed her his money, the feeling of grimy dollar bills disgusted her. She jerked back and blinked, sucking in a deep breath of air as she counted out his change. There is nothing redeeming about a world where money is everything and the individual means nothing. She wondered what price these retail owners would put on her soul or her stepfather’s.

Ashley’s stepfather Richard had been her best friend, the one person that she felt had truly understood her. But now he was gone, vanished from the Earth for all time, the victim of a bout with diabetes. At least that’s what she’d been told. Never having gone to medical school, her knowledge of what transpired was limited to her own sight, and to rumors and the words of others. He had been diagnosed and then fought diabetes for two years, his body’s condition steadily worsening. His eyes weakened, and then he went in for four-way bypass surgery on his heart. The veins for his heart were taken from his leg—a leg that developed gangrene and had to be removed. His other leg was eventually taken as well, and he had to begin dialysis treatment. It all happened so quickly. Was this some kind of curse? She knew the story about a fortune teller long ago predicting that he wouldn’t live past fifty. The cosmos sure seemed intent on making that happen. The list sounded like a menu of horrors. Richard died due to complications from diabetes, and while Ashley’s sisters claimed they were visited by his spirit, Ash had only nightmares. Now she knew the nightmares were real, and that they would never end.

She was still grieving and felt that she’d be grieving for the rest of her life, unlike some people. Not even six months after he passed, her mother had started dating again. Her sister had called her that morning and told her about the upcoming wedding that she was not invited to. Not that I would go, but Mom could have invited me at least. It would have been a nice gesture. So now she looked back on the events of the past. Four years had come and gone since she lost Richard. Has it been that long? I should be happy for Mom. I shouldn’t still be feeling so...disturbed. At the time, it hurt more than she could express, but wasn’t time supposed to dull the pain?

The turn of events brought everything back to the surface.

She clenched her fists as the customer droned on. Her head ached and her stomach churned and bubbled.

“Are they going to hurry with those bricks?” the customer asked, tapping his watch. “I have a meeting in half an hour.”

She felt the slickness of her palms as she called for assistance from the garden crew. “Chris,” she murmured into the phone, clinching her eyes as she turned away from the counter, “Are you able to get a pallet of bricks? Ten minutes? Okay, thanks.” Her gaze fell as she turned around, knowing the customer would be upset. She’d already prepped herself, mentally surrendering. “It’s gonna be ten minutes or so.”

Goose bumps rose all over her arms. I should have called in sick. She knew that her sisters would be dragging her up to the Anderson Property in Nevada City. She loved it there. However, it was not somewhere she wanted to go now. Richard’s family had waited to scatter the ashes until his father, Earl, a man Ashley had thought of as her grandfather, had also passed away. Ashley had hoped that day would never come. If only the people we love would never die. They deserve better than this disgrace of a tribute.

The memorial for her stepfather had been a joke. Richard was a Buddhist monk. Ashley wondered what possessed her mother to plan a Christian ceremony at the funeral home. She clenched her fists beneath the counter as she recalled the priest’s words after having invited the attendants to speak. Only one person did—one of Richard’s female friends from way back, a woman with blond curls and a dignified manner. After that, no brave souls ventured forward. The priest said, “Well, he couldn’t have been that bad of a guy.”

Ashley had wanted to sock him in the face. He wasn’t a bad guy at all. In fact, he was better than the rest of us. But she didn’t have the courage to say a thing, and regretted it ever since.

None of the family members had even been given a proper opportunity to mourn. A hard knot formed in her stomach as she thought about how circumstances had unfolded. She blamed her mother for not telling Richard’s brother and sisters when the doctor had given him three months to live. Only Richard’s wife, his stepchildren, and his parents were aware that he’d been handed a three-month death sentence. When the news of his death hit them, it struck with the force and swiftness of an atomic bomb. Ashley blamed herself, too. I should have done something, anything. There were times when she forgave herself. I was only nineteen, and barely that. What could I have done? She hated that she’d only given herself over to denial at the time. The sinking feeling in her stomach still lingered whenever she thought of him.

She often pondered how things would be if he had never suffered from diabetes and passed away. There was no telling how much easier and happier her life would have been with her stepfather’s kind guidance to see her through the years that, as they were, had been full of turmoil.

Ashley wanted to howl her insensate rage to the uncaring universe and whatever forces had taken her stepfather away. But she knew it wouldn’t get her any closer to the person that she had lost—the man who, though she didn’t want to say it, was now a ghost of memory. she often wondered what her stepfather’s appearance would now be if he had lived. His sandy-brown hair might now be flowing white or just dotted a little with white streaks or flecks. Perhaps his sharp face would look more wrinkled and weathered. Would his dark, intelligent eyes have subdued with time?

She turned away, wincing as though in physical pain.

what Ashley thought about most though, was whether her stepfather would even recognize the timeworn, confident, but shaken person she had become. All she could do was to reassure herself that the path she had taken in life was a true one, and that her stepfather’s last words to her still rang true: I’m proud of you. Still, this hope fought against the desolation that threatened to destroy her. Her stepfather had been her guiding star. He had been an intelligent, witty, and an intensely good man, possessing a rare caliber of spirit. But the cruelty of Ashley’s mother not only made the grieving process immeasurably harder, it threatened Ashley’s sanity as well.

What sort of love is that? How could she just discard him like that? Her stepfather was a man, a good man—not a freaking disposable razor.

The work day came and went, and Ashley piled herself into her little silver Saturn, her body feeling like a pile of mush. Her eyelids flickered like candle flames in a sudden breeze, moving up and down in quick succession as she fought off sleep. She tapped absently at the butterfly air freshener that dangled from her rearview mirror. Thank goodness “home” is just down the street. She allowed herself the fleeting luxury of a deep breath of smoggy city air and then turned the key in the ignition, the engine roaring to life. She drove home in a stupor, her brain on autopilot as the roads melted away and eventually gave way to the front door, and then the bedroom door. She collapsed fully clothed onto her bed, not even bothering to brush her teeth before drifting off into a deep slumber.

"Fallenwood" by Leslie D. Soule


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