The wind was the only thing Lia could hear apart from the rush of blood in her ears. She concentrated on her work, on continuing her interview, because that was what mattered.
But it was difficult to focus. All it took was Teo saying I really appreciate you and her mind was whirling off in a different direction. He still held her hand and still looked at her in a way that made her think he had been meaning to kiss her and she wanted it more than she had imagined. She hadn’t kissed anyone in so long, hadn’t allowed herself to because she had to focus on her work, and now he reminded her that part of her missed it. It was so long since she had felt this kind of heat with anyone…
No, Rosalia, focus.
It took actual effort to release his hand and grasp her recorder so she could start the interview. She shook her head to free herself from the thoughts.
“Ready?” she asked.
“I think I’ll cut down that tree over there,” he said, pointing to an old, crooked tree that looked like it was about to fall over. “And… yes, I’m ready.”
Lia followed him to the tree and while he started chopping it down, she turned on her recorder and asked her first question.
“Teo, why did you move into the forest?”
He let the axe swing at the tree, hitting it with a loud thump, then he swung it again before answering.
“Because… I assaulted my dad.”
Lia’s heart must have stopped for a second before it continued, beating harder than before.
“What?” she asked.
Teo let the axe fall down at his side. “Already disgusted with me, huh?”
Lia shook her head. “I’m not, it’s just… I’m surprised. Tell me what led up to that happening.”
Instead of answering, he looked at her, suddenly concerned, and she was certain it was because she didn’t manage to guard her expression. She saw his hand twitch like he wanted to hold hers again, but then he let it fall back at his side.
“Lia? Are you okay? You look, well, not okay.”
“No, I’m fine,” she lied, then winced and shook her head. “Later. I’ll tell you later. Please go on, Teo.”
He didn’t look convinced, but he nodded, picked his axe back up, and took another swing at the tree. The old trunk creaked ominously, while its branches whipped around in the wind.
“You already know all the other stuff—his hoarder’s house, his lying, the state of my brother and I, and the bullying. You know I was angry. It started because of the bullies in school, but as I got older and stronger, they stopped targeting us and I still got into fights. The older I got, the angrier I got.”
He swung his axe again, twice, thrice, and then the tree fell and landed with a thud, throwing up the dead leaves in a cloud. Teo walked to the next tree he needed to cut down and Lia followed at his heel with the recorder held out so it could capture his story. His voice became quieter and more strained as he spoke and maybe she ought to have reminded him of the recording, but engrossed as she was in the story, she simply followed and listened.
“Mum and dad started realising when I was in my teens that it was a problem,” he said. “I think they wondered if I was a pressure cooker that would explode someday and I wondered, too. They tried to figure out why, but it never made sense. I didn’t know why. I’m still not sure except… I guess that’s how I am around people.
“Eventually, dad sat me down for a serious talk and he said that because I’d never hurt anyone at home, it was safer to stay there. He was the one who told me to quit university and stay home. I’m too dangerous to be around people.”
Another tree fell to the ground, but Lia barely noticed it. He turned to her with the axe in his hand and his intense eyes on her again brought those unwelcome feelings to the surface. Everything in her responded to the anguish in his eyes, to the guilt that radiated off him like a mist. God, she had felt like that so many times.
“But you’re not dangerous,” she said and meant it.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” He turned to the next tree and gave it a hard whack with the axe that sent the whole tree shuddering and creaking ominously. “It got worse. I lived home for two more years after turning eighteen and then one day, my brother got an offer. One of the most prestigious universities in the country offered him early admission and a full scholarship—that was basically his whole life made and we were all so happy for him. At least… I assumed so.
“Dad… he had this smile on that felt wrong and he isolated himself to write even more than usual. While mum and I helped Nevio get ready and look for somewhere to live, Dad was barely there for weeks. Those weeks were actually happy. We were all so excited and it made me happy to know that even though I wasn’t fit to be out there, my brother was. He was going out, doing something incredible. But then… then they withdrew the offer.”
Teo’s shoulders dropped and Lia could almost feel the disappointment and sadness radiating off him.
“It was so sudden, it knocked us all out completely. There were some vague excuses in the letter they sent, but none of them made even a little sense. Dad said it must be something to do with university politics, but he wasn’t upset.”
Lia licked her lips. “Was it him?”
“Yeah.” Teo turned to her and he suddenly looked unlike the man she knew. His eyes were dark with rage as he continued. “Yeah, it was him, even though I don’t know how or what he told them. I thought it was suspicious that he seemed to get happier after it was all called off, so I confronted him and since I’m an angry psychopath, I was loud enough that mum and Nevio heard. They came along while I talked to him, but he wouldn’t admit it.”
“Oh,” Lia said.
“I lost my shit.” Teo hit the tree with a thwack. “The pressure cooker exploded.”
He hit the tree again.
“I yelled in his face, called him things I had never even dared to think about him. I insulted him and everything he did—his books, his mountains of hoarded crap, his selfish sulking. I told him he was a damned liar to his face.” Teo looked at her meaningfully. “He freaked the hell out. He started throwing names right back at me, accused me of ruining our family, said I was dangerous, and he kept sticking his finger in my chest and I slapped his hand away. He retaliated. And then… then I shoved him. Hard.”
Lia froze on the spot. Vivid pictures of a man falling flashed in her mind, but the man wasn’t Teo’s father. The tree Teo had been cutting down groaned and it was on the tipping point, kept together only by a few centimetres of bark. All the while it threatened to topple, Teo kept talking like he couldn’t stop it now.
“I left right away. I finally did the one thing I was afraid that I’d do, so there was no way I’d stay there and risk hurting them. I didn’t even stick around to find out if he were okay. He hit one of his hoarder piles and the only thing I saw before leaving was a stack of crap falling on him and my family rushing to help. I was out of there before he even cried out in pain. At the time I didn’t feel bad, all I could think was that I wasn’t going to stay for a moment longer, so I left and… and I took the car.” Teo let out a cold laugh. “I took his damned car and sold it to some shady guy who didn’t ask questions. I spent the money on this place and never looked back. That’s me, Lia.”
He swung the axe and gave the tree a final hard chop with the axe, but it didn’t fall like the others. A hard gust of wind came in at that moment and Lia watched, as if in slow motion, how the tree changed direction—it was just slightly, but it was enough—and careened towards her. She opened her mouth and the recorder fell from her fingers. All she had time to think was that it was going to hurt, and then Teo’s arms wrapped around her and pulled her out of the way.
The tree landed less than half a metre from her in the damp soil and her heart hammered wildly in her chest. She was enveloped tightly in his arms, but as soon as the tree was down, he loosened his grip on her.
“Lia,” he said. He took her head in his hands and looked her in the eyes with frantic worry. “Lia, are you okay? God, did you get hurt? Are you…?”
“I’m all right,” Lia managed after a few seconds. “Everything is fine.”
He looked at her for several moments, not letting go of her, then he shook his head. “This… this is why I’m alone,” he said in a low voice. “What was I thinking? You shouldn’t be out here when the wind’s picked up like this. We need to get back.”
“I thought you had more work…”
“Doesn’t matter now.”
Teo let go of her and picked his axe up, then he motioned for her to follow, but Lia was rooted to the spot. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come, because there was no way she could say everything that came to her mind. The imprint of his hands was still on her face, and everything he had told her swirled in her head. It was such a confusion of sadness and guilt and she wasn’t sure if it was all empathy or her own muddled emotions from years ago.
While she stood there dumbly, the wind picked up further and brought with it the first hint of rain. She noticed because of the fat drops that started darkening his T-shirt.
“Let’s get you back to the cabin,” Teo said, placing an arm around her, and she moved like in a daze.
They started walking, but he hadn’t taken more than two steps when there was a loud, unpleasant crunch as he stepped on the voice recorder.
Author’s notes: Hi guys! Welcome back to another chapter. We’re edging closer to the end, bit by bit, and this is one of the chapters I’ve really looked forward to. I’m rather pleased with how the pictures turned out and had a lot of fun playing with the darkness and the storm and rain effects. They are fairly dark, though, so maybe pull a curtain so you don’t get sunlight on your screen for this one lol.
I just want to apologise to the ones who subscribe to e-mail, if you got an e-mail, tried to open it, and then got told this post was private. I accidentally posted ‘publish’ prematurely and I don’t know if it sent out e-mails. If it did though, well, that’s why.
Anyway, I’m as ever sorry for how long it’s taken to get this out (even though at least it was less than a month), but I think that’s just how it is now. I don’t really work on stories or pictures during the week, but I mostly reserve it for weekends. And yeah, some weekends I’d rather play videogames or watch tv shows. 🤷♀️ Even if it’s quiet around here, I am still here at least.
Thanks so much if you made it this far and I’ll see you in the next post.
Love you all,