Somewhere buried under the sands of time rests a place we all believe to know but may never return to. A medium which we may be free to idealize, regret but never relive. For all humanity’s attempts to preserve it, a simple truth must ultimately be accepted. It exists only once as the fleeting now. And once its time has run out, it cannot be resurrected.
This would prove a painful lesson to Scarlett Pierce; a young woman whose spirit for adventure had yet to be beaten out of her by her own adolescence. In her attempt to escape the sleepy town she calls home, Scarlett would often spend time in the neighboring woods she once explored endlessly with her childhood friends Ren Clement and Juliette Miller. It was in these woods she could even now find comfort in the form of their childhood tree house. A modest shed turned sanctuary now much too small to properly hold anything other than abandoned mystery novels, UFO posters and the lingering memories of summer adventures. The three built the tree house together with far more help from Ren’s father than Scarlett actually remembers. In her mind, it will remain their childhood home brought to life with every sleep over and mystery explored. Imaginary or not, it seemed as though no mystery could elude the three. One mystery however, crashed through their world of pretend and with it, reality came flooding in all at once.
Now years since Juliette’s disappearance, the shed has been decommissioned. Ren has moved away, and the two remaining adventurers have grown apart. But still, that final mystery hangs over their heads like a wraith. It is one they have pushed to the back of their minds and desperately try to forget. Though the years have pulled them apart, today the years will bring them together. For today marks ten years since the three buried a slice of preserved time for themselves and made the pledge to one-day return to uncover it. And with the ink on her calendar fading, Scarlett just so happened to eagerly find herself in her tree top shelter directly above the burial site, waiting for Ren’s arrival. Scarlett, tired of plucking at out of tune guitar strings, sat up, and began tapping her boot to the tune of her own impatience.
Finally, Ren’s voice broke the tension with a single “Hey you up there?!”. Just barely peeking her head out of the doorway Scarlett shouted back down. “Come up here and see for yourself!” Ren, visibly shaken by the thought of climbing up the fraying rope ladder declined the offer. “Nope, I’m good down here. I find it’s the best way to avoid a death by rotting floorboards!” With one final shout before grabbing hold of the ladder and gliding down it with ease in the face of Ren’s fears, Scarlett exclaimed, “Suit yourself!”.
Now at the base of the tree, Scarlett turned to Ren with excitement in her step. “Ren if you’ll take these, I have a few words I’d like to say.” Scarlett handed Ren a small plastic shovel with a faded coat of pink paint and a warm soda can. Ren begrudgingly played along and raised the can up high as Scarlett began her speech. “We are gathered here today to immortalize not just a friendship but an idea… maybe the idea of a friendship? You know I believe it was Gatsby himself who once said ‘Can’t repeat the past? My dear Carraway that’s a load of horse feathers!’ It is in that spirit-“. Reaching his limit, Ren tossed his can aside, lifted the shovel up high and cut in. “In the name of father, son, and holy ghost amen!” Ren slowly kneeled down over the marked patch of dirt and made peace with the fact that he will be digging a ditch with a pink toy shovel in the name of friendship. In an attempt to skip over this reality, Ren quickly plunged the shovel into the dirt over and over until he was finally greeted by the sound of a muffled but metallic clank. With his excitement dwindling Ren let out a sarcastic “Hallelujah”. Scarlett crouched down, picked up the dirt covered capsule and cleaned it off. Ren looked at the capsule as though it was his first time ever seeing it. “That’s the ‘time capsule’? I always remembered it being I don’t know, a lot bigger and shinier” Ren said. Scarlett whole heartedly disagreed. “Looks just as great to me.” Scarlett said. “Scarlett, it’s a tin lunch box with Scooby-Doo’s face plastered on the cover.” Ren retorted. “You’re damn right it is.” Scarlett said proudly, as she pushed aside the remaining dirt revealing the now warped and dented box.
Scarlett peeled open the weakened cover and was met with a solitary envelope sitting patiently for its unearthing. On the front of the envelope was a doodle of a Water Lily. Scarlett stared at it with her hopes shattered. “Wait what? That can’t be it! Where’s the rest? Why is there just a stupid letter here?!” Scarlett chucked the box aside and began digging once more in search of their childhood mementoes. Ren picked up the box and called for Scarlett’s attention “Hold on!”. But Scarlett now on her knees, desperately searching the ditch for shreds of her childhood, had entered a world of her own and could not hear him. Ren tried once more. This time, he pulled her away from the dirt by her shoulders. “Scarlett wait! See the name written on the back??” In vibrant pink letters the name “Juliette” demanded to be read. Scarlett grabbed the enveloped from Ren and gripped it tightly in disbelief. “This can’t be real.” Scarlett said. Scarlett tentatively opened the letter, and with her voice on the verge of breaking, she began reading.
Dear Scarlett and Ren,
If you want the truth about your treasure, we’re gonna have to play a game.
Here are your clues!
Like seeds grounded tight
Through deception you will grow
Quenched only by light
Ren took a beat to recenter his thoughts. “So then, it’s a riddle.” Ren said. Still reeling from the discovery, Scarlett chuckled and let out a relieved; “She always did love games.” Seemingly finished with the letter’s contents, Ren stood back up. “Well that settles it. Juliette hid our things to mess with us. Guess we shouldn’t be too surprised considering.” Ren said. Ren looked down at Scarlett who was still captivated by the letter. He noticed the smile that overtook Scarlett’s face. “What is that? What’s that face you’re making?” Ren asked. Scarlett regained her composure, stood back up and met Ren’s eye line. Scarlett inquired, “What do you think she meant by the ‘truth’?” Scarlett continued, “Do you think she was trying to tell us something?” At this point Ren already knew what would come next and began pleading in defense. “Scarlett no. Please don’t do this.” Perplexed, Scarlett asked; “What? What am I doing?” Ren pressed on, “You do this. You get invested in little things and then take them way too far.” “No I don’t.” Scarlett refuted. Ren insisted, “I’m begging you not to read too much into this. Juliette is gone. We’re passed this right?” Ren asked. Scarlett took a moment to reevaluate her feelings before giving her obligatory response. “Yea…we are.” Scarlett said. A wave of relief washed over Ren’s face. “Look it’s getting late so let’s just put the letter back in the box, bury it and be done with this.” Ren suggested. Scarlett agreed and Ren asked her once more for good measure. “Promise you won’t let this fester?” Ren pleaded. “I promise.” Scarlett said softly. At Ren’s insistence, the two agreed to let the matter go and head their separate ways.
Later that night Ren received a call. With his eyes still shut, Ren spread his arms through his bed sheets in search of the phone. Finally, Ren answered his phone with an exhausted; “You promised.” Scarlett disregarded his frustration and cut to the heart of her call. “You’ve got to come back here now!” With his eyes barely open, Ren squinted through his phone’s screen light and checked the time. “Oh come on it’s one in the god damn morning! Why are you even up??” Once again, Scarlett refused to indulge Ren in his self-pitying. Scarlett repeated herself for the final time. “Just get over here. Now.” Scarlett said assertively. Ren heard the desperation in Scarlett’s voice so he got dressed, hopped on his bike and headed back to the tree house.
Once he arrived at the base of the tree, Ren regretted to see that the glorified lunch pail had been unearthed once more. Only this time, the hole dug was far deeper and beside it was a mountain of dirt. “Hey I’m here!” Ren shouted up to the tree tops. “Great come on up!” Scarlett shouted back down. Ren looked at the fraying rope ladder once more and decided against climbing it. “Can’t you just come down?” Ren asked. Scarlett poked her head out to find Ren. “Are you kidding with this again? Ren you built the thing. Trust your handy work and get up here already! We don’t have time for this!” Scarlett contended. Ren tested out the weight of his foot on the bottom step and cautiously began his climb. All the while, he mumbled in frustration to himself the entire way up.
Fifteen hesitant steps later, Ren reached the top, gripped onto the floor boards tightly, and caught a glimpse of his summer home for the first time in years. As he propped himself up into the tree house, Ren exhaled sharply in relief and took notice of its current condition. As Scarlett greeted him, Ren noticed the lunch pail along with its trail of dirt, a pile of journals, empty cans thrown on the floor, peeling posters barely hanging onto the walls and a distinct musty smell that all at once reaffirmed his better judgement. “I’m going to die here.” Ren remarked. Ren stood up straight and immediately hit his head on the ceiling. He quickly hunched back down and bit down on his lip, silently expressing his pain. “HMMPhhh!” Ren muttered. “Haha, yea this place might be a bit cozier than you remember.” Scarlett said. “Cozy huh?” Ren asked. Ren stepped on a chocolate wrapper that caused him to take another look around the room. This time, Ren observed a sleeping bag, a tarp and empty bags of chips. In that moment it hit him how lived in this little shed actually was. Ren took a moment to think about the proper phrasing of his question. “Scarlett how much time to you spend up here?” Ren Asked. Evidently made uncomfortable by the question, Scarlett stepped back and sat down on her sleeping back. “Not that much. I just don’t get company very often so I don’t tidy up often.” Scarlett continued, “Never mind the mess though. We need to talk about the letter.”
Ren sighed heavily in disappointment and began his lecture. “I don’t care what missing piece you stayed up to find. It’s just a pointless game made up by a kid. It doesn’t mean anything. At a certain point you just have to-“. Having heard enough, Scarlett cut in “Grow up?” After a brief pause, Ren nodded his head in agreement. Scarlett found her confidence and matched Ren’s tone. “Look, there are a lot of times that I wish I could pretend like nothing ever happened and move on. Then maybe I could join you on your path to adulthood. But I always thought there was a reason why I could never let our childhood go. And finding her letter today…I just. I think this is our last chance to try to make sense of everything.” While Ren maintained that playing Juliette’s game would not amount to anything, he could tell his friend was in pain and agreed to help. “Blind ambition will only get you so far you know?” Ren asked. Scarlett smirked in agreement. “I know. That’s why I have you. Oh and this.” Scarlett reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out a bronze pocket compass that hung at the end of a beaded chain and hooked it around her neck. Covered in scratches and worn by time, this compass was very dear to Scarlett. It guided the three adventurers back home after every day of play and she believed it could be their guide once more.
Upon seeing the compass, Ren finally let some enthusiasm escape. “Hey our compass! Where’d you find it?” Ren asked eagerly. Scarlett noticed she finally had Ren’s attention and decided to make it last. Scarlett began playfully, “Well Ren, the compass actually goes back to the letter. So if you’ll allow me to continue, you’ll see that my deductive abilities have only gotten stronger over the years.” Scarlett said. Ren apologized and asked that she continue. Scarlett grabbed the letter and showed it to Ren. Scarlett explained, “Alright, so looking back to the letter’s first line, ‘like seeds grounded tight’. I figure that’s gotta be a reference to the time capsule right?” “Lunch box.” Ren said, correcting her phrasing before nodding in agreement. Scarlett went on. “So I went back down and dug the thing back up. Only this time I didn’t stop at the capsule. I dug like three feet deeper and there ‘grounded tight’ was our compass!” After her genius went unpraised, Scarlett began soliciting. “Ren? Did you hear me? Why aren’t you praising my genius?” Scarlett gave Ren a moment to take in her discovery. However, Ren remained lost in thought as he stared at the compass. Scarlett pressed forward with her thoughts. “Anyway I’m thinking Juliette scattered our things as a trail for us to follow.” Scarlett said. Still staring at the compass, Ren tilted his head and finally spoke up. “Huh that’s weird.” Ren said. Scarlett defended her idea. “Not really. I mean, look how vague the second clue is. How else would we know where to go?” Scarlett said. Ren clarified, “No I mean the compass is broken. The arrow is pointing south instead of north.” Scarlett looked down at the compass and a moment passed before she figured it out. “Ren you’re a genius!” Scarlett praised. “I’m a genius for remembering that north is back that way?” Ren said as he pointed to the city. Scarlett explained her thought process. “Don’t you get it? Juliette messed with it. She knew that we always followed the compass north to get back home. And now its pointing south? Ren, she’s telling us to go further into the woods!” Scarlett exclaimed with excitement. Skeptical, Ren said, “That seems a little elaborate for a child to put together. I’m worried that you’re reading too much into this.” “And I’m worried that you’re not using your imagination.” Scarlett retorted. Still tired from his 1:00 a.m. wake up call, Ren said, “Makes sense.” in defeat.
Ren salvaged any supplies he could find thrown about the tree house and gathered them in a back pack. Armed with a small flash light, loose rope, and whatever bags of food that remained uneaten, Ren felt better about what he knew was a horrible idea. Scarlett took the first step forward into the unknown with pride and the duo began their trek south. As they journeyed further into the woods, the heavy night air settled over the two adventurers and the forest began to overtake them with every step they took. Though in unfamiliar terrain, they stayed true to the compass and talked their way through the darkness.
“So how do we know when to stop?” Ren asked. “I think we’ll just feel it. You know? Although it couldn’t hurt to take another look at the second clue.” Scarlett said. Scarlett pulled out the flash light from Ren’s supply bag and shined it at the letter. She read aloud. “Through deception you will grow.” Scarlett said. Ren contemplated. “Deception huh? Man, could she have made this more convoluted? Maybe you’re right. We’ll just know it when we see it.” Ren said. “Now you’re getting it.” Scarlett said.
Some time had passed before the two arrived at an unfamiliar site. “Hey check it out, a river.” Ren said. The river surged so audibly that it commanded the attention of anyone who walked by. Several smooth stones rose up from the water breaking up the unforgiving current. Scarlett spotted a small bridge that spanned the river’s width and decided for the both of them that they would be crossing it. The bridge hung a couple of feet above the rushing waters. It was narrow, lacked a side railing and was made purely of wooden planks bound together by weary nails. Many of the wooden planks were either missing or warped by the rushing water beneath. Even before stepping on, Ren saw the smooth stones dispersed in the water as more reliable than the bridge at his feet. “When do you think this was built?” Ren asked. Scarlett grew impatient. “Don’t tell me you don’t trust the bridge either. For god’s sake, do you have any idea how many questions you ask before doing anything? Just have faith and keep moving!”. ‘Better than doing whatever comes to mind without so much as a second thought’ Ren thought to himself. However, just as he did many times in the past, Ren bit his tongue and trusted in Scarlett’s judgement in the face of his reservations.
Scarlett began crossing first and with each step on the slick creaking boards, Ren’s anxiety worsened. Scarlett looked back to Ren who was being so cautious with his almost blind movements it seemed as though he was taking each step twice. Scarlett couldn’t help but poke fun at him. “Careful where you step or a twig might sneak up on you.” Scarlett said. “I can barely see a thing. Excuse me for not feeling safe in the middle of no-AHH GOD”. Ren shouted as he tripped on a branch and slammed down against the bridge’s floor boards. “Damn it!” Ren yelled while holding his ankle in pain.
Scarlett hurried back towards Ren to see what had happened. “Pfft. Oh my god I think you actually tripped on a twig.” Scarlett said while holding back her laughter. Ren pressed down on his ankle to assess how bad the injury was. “Crap I think it’s sprained! Ren said in a panic. Ren looked up to see Scarlett on the verge of snickering. “Oh my god you’re enjoying this aren’t you??” Ren asked in shock.
“Calm down a sprained ankle isn’t so bad. And no I’m not enjoying the you getting hurt bit. But the mystery and adventuring bit yea I’m loving that.” Scarlett paused as she saw the judgement on Ren’s face. “I’ve waited a long time for this. So what if I’m having fun?” Scarlett said defensively.
Still on the ground clutching his ankle, Ren asked. “What part of this is fun to you??” Ren asked.
“Uhh almost all of it?” Scarlett said.
“We got a letter from our dead friend.” Ren said.
Scarlett corrected Ren’s phrasing. “What a drama queen. She obviously wrote it when she was alive. Just Relax. I mean it’s not like purgatory gets a postal service Fe-De… DeadEx.”
Sleep deprived and injured, Ren could no longer tolerate Scarlett’s attitude. “Can you just once take something seriously?!” Ren vented.
Surprised by Ren’s sudden burst of anger Scarlett replied defensively. “I am taking this seriously I just don’t get why we can’t have fun with it.”
Ren continued. “Because this isn’t a fun little game anymore.”
“How aren’t you scared to even be back out here again??” Ren demanded to know.
“Easy. I never left.” Scarlett said.
After a brief pause, Ren replied in a cynical tone. “No I guess not.”
Irked by his comment Scarlett asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that after everything that happened only you could come out the other side not having learned a thing.” Ren paused. “Scarlett, you live in a tree.” Ren said plainly.
“I don’t live in a tree. I just like it spending time out here.” Scarlet said.
Ren could tell Scarlett was still running from the truth with her words. “That’s my point. You like it this way don’t you? Nothing’s changed for you. You never had to grow up. You get to stay in this little bubble and push everyone out while you play pretend. Well you know what? We don’t get to play anymore. We lost that privilege a long time ago. It’s time to wake up!” Ren said in a burst of anger.
Scarlett let his words settle in and felt like she had lost Ren for good. “You know there used to be a time where this is all we ever wanted. What ever happened to that?” Scarlett asked.
“I faced reality. You didn’t.” Ren said as he stood himself up using the same small branch that toppled him.
With eyes beginning to water Scarlett fought back. “Oh please you didn’t grow up. You just ran away! You moved away and you left me behind to deal with everything on my own.”
Ren protested. “Excuse me for wanting move on with my life! You know you’re not the only who suffered when Juliette died. These past few years haven’t been easy on me either. Or god what about Juliette’s parents for that matter?! Stop pretending like you’re the only one who matters!”
Scarlett now in tears, tried to recompose herself. “I don’t know why you try so hard to forget about those days. But believe it or not, those were that happiest times of my life. And I won’t let you ruin the few memories of them I have left.” Scarlett turned her back to Ren and started walking towards the middle of the bridge. “Why don’t you just hobble back to California. I can handle the rest alone.” Scarlett said.
Each step forward brought Scarlett to a new low and by the fifth step the bridge’s floor boards creaked in agony. Before long Scarlett was near the bridges end when the boards gave out from under her. Scarlett plunged into the water with such speed and intensity that Ren could only catch her cries. As the water dragged Scarlett down its current with ferocity, Ren leapt across the remaining planks without thinking and began chasing after her. Scarlett, now already several meters down the river began violently thrashing her arms against the water in search of a something to grab on to. With the night sky still hanging over their heads it was nearly impossible for Ren to make out Scarlett’s position and was guided by the sound of her voice. Ren sprinted as quickly as his tiring legs and injured ankle would allow.
Once he saw that Scarlett had successfully clung to a stone, Ren grabbed a chord of rope from his bag and tied one end to a tree. Ren crouched down to the side of the river and threw Scarlett the rope. “Scarlett! On your left! Make a knot!” Ren shouted desperately. Scarlett squinted through the darkness and the rushing water long enough to see Ren’s blurry silhouette. Scarlett did her best to tie herself up in the rope with one hand while gripping onto the stone with the other. The current out muscled Ren’s grasp and slammed Scarlett into another stone. In just an instant, Scarlett’s world went from a dark haze to absolute black.
In that moment, Scarlett saw flashes of memories. Deceptively however, they were not her own. Through the blackness came flashes of truth. She witnessed racing images of a young girl. Hanging from the girl’s arm like an anchor was a was a toy pail. The pail was bright pink and filled with mud, water and floating Water Lilies. The girl’s face remained hidden from Scarlett. However, upon seeing the girl step onto a slick wooden surface Scarlett scraped together every last drop of consciousness she had left and determined the girl’s identity.
A muffled “Scarlett!” would steadily and repeatedly cut through the haze offering Scarlett a lifeline back to reality. The dream faded as Scarlett regained consciousness. Ren gripped the rope tightly and inch by inch began pulling Scarlett out of the water. Once safe, Scarlett slowly opened her eyes to find Ren hunched over her with tears in his eyes and relief in his voice. “Thank god you’re alright!” Ren said. Scarlett slowly sat up, coughed up the lingering water from her lungs and shivered in exhaustion. Ren removed Scarlett’s drenched jacket and noticed a pink flower with a lengthy rope like stem wrapped around the collar. He set the jacket and the flower aside and wrapped her up in his coat. Ren propped Scarlett up against a tree, told her to rest. As she leaned her head back, Scarlett let out a soft “Juliette” before falling asleep with a smile on her face. That night, feelings of remorse and relief came over the both of them. Ren leaned back against the same tree, shut his eyes and contemplated his fault for Scarlett’s current condition. Scarlett thought about everything Ren had told her before the accident. And with feelings of guilt, shame and fatigue the two found peace in their sleep.
After that brutal night, a catharsis was found. The following morning offered a healing light on the two’s friendship and psyches. They woke up to the sound of gently flowing waters and the feeling of sun light piercing through the tree tops’ canopy. The light was so intoxicating that as their skin drank it in, they could feel its warmth down in their bones.
Scarlett turned to face Ren as he woke up. “Thanks for the hoodie” Scarlett said gently. “No problem. It looks better on you anyway.” Ren said kindly.
Ren continued. “I’m sorry for what I said before…”
Scarlett stepped in. “I get it. alright? What happened was hard on both of us. And you were right by the way. I don’t think I ever really grew up. I got used to living out dreams in my head. And then when they never actually happened I just got angry and blamed you for leaving.”
Ren replied. “But I did leave. And I didn’t see you were in trouble. I should’ve reached out to you.”
Scarlett tried to put Ren at ease. “Look the truth is… I always knew you were going places. Even back then I could see it. That’s why I liked you. You knew what you wanted and you always figured out a way to get it. For a while that’s the part of you that balanced me out. I relied on that. My ‘blind ambition’ needed you there to point me in the right direction. I guess I just thought we’d always have that no matter where life took us. But somewhere along the line you did grow up and life took you on these amazing adventures without me.”
Ren began with his own interpretation. “See I’m not so sure you’re right about all that. I don’t think ‘growing up’ had that much to do with it. Don’t you remember what I was really like back then? Scarlett, I was a nervous little kid who had tons of ideas swimming in my head just like you. The only difference was that before meeting you I couldn’t follow where any of them led.” Ren looked to Scarlett and saw the beginnings of a smile. Ren went on. “You think I’m all grown up and I have all the answers? Well guess what? Nothing’s really changed for me either. I’m still that nervous kid with all these questions. But thanks to you I realized what it meant to dive into something even without having all the answers. Scarlett, you gave me the courage to do that.”
Upon hearing those words, Scarlett knew how much their past and future actually meant to Ren. What’s more, she felt Ren’s pain and understood that he too, lost a part of himself after the trio’s days in the summer sun were over. In an act of vulnerability Scarlett reached toward her chest, wanting to clasp her compass for comfort. To Scarlett’s surprise, it was no longer hanging around her neck.
“Hey where’s my compass?” Scarlett asked.
“I’ll check the bag. Are you sure you had it last night?” Ren asked.
“Dude I tied it to my neck.” Scarlett said.
“Sorry. I guess the river must have taken it.” After a pause Ren came to a realization.
“How are we gonna get home?” Ren asked.
Scarlett took notice of her coat. “What’s that on my jacket?” Scarlett asked.
“Dirt mostly” Ren said.
Scarlett looked at the pink flower wrapped around her jacket’s collar and was reminded of her vision. “Wait I’ve seen this before. Ren show me the envelope Juliette’s letter came in.” Scarlett said. Ren retrieved the envelope from his bag and passed it on. Scarlett flipped it over and stared down at Juliette’s doodle of a Water Lily once more in disbelief.
Scarlett stood up and took in her surroundings. Daybreak had revealed that the two had actually drifted down to the mouth of the river. The raging waters had subsided in this sanctuary built solely by nature. And at the heart of the small reservoir was a collection of Water Lilies so vibrant and beautiful they lifted Scarlett’s heavy heart and erupted forth a smile from Scarlett so bright it rivaled the sun’s light. This was not a defensive smile that hid the truth. But a genuine smile. A true and vulnerable smile. A smile of joy, hope and closure. Ren looked at Scarlett and for just a moment, in that wonderful smile, he saw Scarlett as that confident, innocent, and joyous little girl he once knew.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
A story about our perceptions of the past and how they shape our future.
Scarlett and Ren reunite when they uncover a letter written by their deceased childhood friend Juliette. The two journey into the woods in search of acceptance, closure and the truth.