The One That Stays

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by William Blake

At some point in the world’s strange existence of turning, I was spat out into the unending gray Hills of Life. I had no say in the matter of who I’d be nor how close to the end of the hills I was. That much I was told by the middling parts of the journey’s beginning. It’s not nearly as soon as I’d have liked, but hardly anything here is suited to what anyone likes. And that’s how the place stays functional.

Throughout the pilgrimage,the only thing I would be able to control was the company I kept. And even then: bad weather, and the terrain, and other circumstances such as the not-very-remote-chance of you or your companion being conflagrated by a star falling out of the sky—I could certainly pick that out of your control as well. But it was as close to control as control would get, or so I was told when walking alongside my first companion—my parent, who indeed, I’d had no say in. With them, there was only the choice to walk away.

Exception number one, then: you get to choose your friends (sort of), but you can’t really choose your family.

So of course, the question of what makes a good friend turns up. Some miles into the walking when my legs were tired and my tongue was not, I turned casually to the walker by my side and dared to raise a question. They were busy yammering with someone else next to them, but I was very bored. Such were priorities.

“What makes a good friend?” I asked, the moment there was a pause between the babble. 

Whether they were annoyed or not, I wasn’t bothered enough to remember. They did say, however, something along the lines of don’t hurt ya, make ya laugh, got my stamp of approval, someone respectable. The last bit was fittingly vague.

Alright, then, I thought. Armed with that golden knowledge and ready to set off into walks of my own journey through the long plains, I began to walk faster and farther away than before. I’d stopped holding my companion’s hand as much, and before I knew it, they weren’t my companion any longer at all. I’d walked away, and I’d never go back. I was out. 

And very alone.

Well, define alone. In my wanderings of relative silence without a designated companion, I’d come across a group of similarly dressed figures of blue, chattering amongst themselves about everything and nothing; nothing of consequence to me. Some of what they said was amusing, and some of what they said was mildly intriguing. Tales of the angels and monsters; tales of great human crafters; tales of the sun itself. I referred to the mental checklist.

They didn’t hurt me. They made me laugh. And the other two didn’t really matter anymore, anyway, without my first companion beside me.

So those were good friends for a bit. We walked together, and got deeper into the plains. A couple miles, and then I met the figure in pink. She’d appeared as nothing more than a figure in the horizon, but even then, something had clicked. I knew I had to talk with her. Ask her about my favourite things.

Music, and books, and colours, and several stories later, we were getting along just fine. The figure in pink was just like me. She spoke of dragons and castles, but never of crafters and the sun; of music and books, but never of the fields around us. Never lessons, either. Yet there was always something new awaiting our talks—something brighter, further away: a new adventure we could dream together.

It was then that I considered a good friend. Exactly like me, and always ready to talk of more. We would accompany each other forever, I’d thought. And thoughts are often disappointing, in the fields.

She was a mirror to me until I was not me. The fields, they change you, eventually. Walking through them, the grass sometimes tickles, and sometimes, it cuts. Your feet get calloused, your calves scribbled with light scars. Though maybe she changed as well. I could never tell.

We left, after that. I walked the next mile alone. It was strange, after so long, to have silence among the buzz of the fields. Others were walking around in their own directions, but none were close enough to me. I had no wish to venture towards them, either. Maybe if I let them come to me, would that make a better friend?

And so the next friend I had came to me, not I to him. He loved the colour green, loved stories with castles as well as crafters, music that flowed in the way music should never flow, and cared nothing for books, as much as he loved a good story. Stories don’t have to be told that way, he insisted. For the longest time, I couldn’t agree. But he was decent company: a person I’d never been exactly like, anyway, would never leave simply because we’d changed. Right? We could talk about the sun’s setting and rising, and all that came with it, all the change, because we were always changing too. He wouldn’t leave for that.

No, I left. He’d fallen down and didn’t know when he could carry on. To be stranded out in the fields while everyone else continued their walk was a waste of time. You only had so many sunrises and sunsets to walk the length of the world. When your days were up, you’d leave. And that was it. No say in that, either.

I left, and walked for a mile more. Occasionally, I drifted into gaggles of other walkers, then walked alone again. The silence wasn’t right, the talk wasn’t right, even the pace of walking didn’t feel right. So I took to walking with the people that stopped and changed direction every so often. None of us had any end in sight, and at least they were honest about it. They were hard to find, but popped up often enough. Whenever they were walking my way, I’d latch on to them for a while. Walk a mile or so before they changed course again. Just to wag my tongue. They understood that there were no promises, not even a hope for companionship for the rest of our days. 

Yes, it still wasn’t the same as the one I’d left. But it was decent enough to settle for.

What makes a good friend? I asked one, some day.

Love, they replied. 

And what makes that?

They only shrugged. Ask someone that stays. 

Again: they didn’t lie about knowing anything they didn’t. So I thanked them for their time when they decided they’d leave. Then I paused, sat down, and watched the horizon.

The sun was sinking. I was alone again, with the other walkers continuing their journey some distance away. I waited for a bit.

Then I decided to turn back. Lost time was only lost time, and I had to know the answer more than any extra miles I’d get. If he was still sitting. I had a feeling he would be. He hadn’t been one to continue walking—only because of me, had he walked so fast. Another way in which we had never quite agreed.

Miles passed and miles more stretched before me. I didn’t quite remember the terrain—I’d never bothered to properly take it in. I had always been walking too fast. 

That didn’t matter. He stuck out like a beacon, still just sitting there, when I reached the place where we’d split. 

I came back to him. I asked about his leg.

Just fine, he said. 

Then why aren’t you walking?

He shrugged. Felt like waiting.

Of course he had. I held out my hand to him. 

Maybe he wouldn’t take it; maybe he simply wanted to die in a place where he was comfortable. Maybe he had been more comfortable without me.

He didn’t take my hand, but he was smiling. Only if we can walk slower, he said.

I thought about it for a bit. Then I nodded, If you’ll stick with me. For the rest of the journey.

He took my hand, and we began to walk at a slower pace than before.