CHAPTER ONE – AN EMPTINESS
Ever have those days where you just can’t imagine why you got the hell out of bed? Days that seem to bleed into the next? Days that mean nothing and amount to nothing?
Welcome to Cassi Wakeland’s reality.
Cassi sat at her desk, eyes heavy and half closed as she stared at the little clock in the corner of her computer screen. Seconds passed as she waited for those numbers to change, for the dreaded four to change into a five. Five meant it was time to go, to head home, dump her messenger bag on the floor, sink into the couch and pretend the next day wouldn’t be an exact carbon copy of today.
There it was. Like magic, the four became a five and Cassi was on her feet and out the door. The office she worked in was tiny and cramped, the oxygenating house plant in the corner doing little to keep her from feeling as though she were suffocating throughout the nine-hour day. She typed up spreadsheets all day in her empty little office alone. She worked for a company that churned pens out into the world. That’s right, pens. Blue, black, and red. Those were the colours of the pens. They had lids. They wrote on paper. End of story.
Cassi hated her job.
Working at the small branch of the pen company called Inkers had been a thing for four years since Cassi moved into the little village of Costell at the age of twenty. She hated it at first sight. The building itself was the blandest shade of grey she could imagine. There were no trees lining the concrete path that led to a glass sliding door. The grass alongside the path was dead despite the efforts at resuscitation by the sprinklers. Inside the building, the story got worse. White walls devoid of pictures glared back at Cassi. A sticky leather couch took up one side of the reception with a dead plant beside it. Foliage didn’t seem to last long here. Across from the sad scene was a white desk that almost disappeared amongst the matching walls. Behind it sat one of the very few workers at that branch of Inkers. Her name was Sally. It was a bubbly and bright name for a woman who wore a perpetual frown on her face and looked as though she might have killed the plant with her stare alone.
Cassi hated Inkers with a passion from that first day onwards. Sally was as mean as she looked, the boss was a creep who stared at Cassi’s breasts for half a minute before introducing himself, and the office she would be confined to for nine hours a day, five days a week, was the size of a shoebox.
But, as they say, a job is a job… and Cassi needed a job.
Costell was a small village on the edge of a thick forest. There were less than one hundred people living in Costell and everyone knew everyone. They were a friendly sort, sure, but only to each other. Cassi was new to their little family and was, by default, the black sheep. In four years since moving in at the edge of the village, Cassi had made only one friend. Her name was Tash and she was the manager of the only place keeping Cassi sane.
The nature reserve.
Nestled in the woods behind Cassi’s house was the Costell Nature Reserve. It stretched on for miles, covering most of the woods. Inside it’s boundaries, the dwellers of the forest came in all forms. Birds that serenaded all day and night, deer that roamed during the light of day, wolves that stalked the night… Cassi loved them all and every moment not spent at work was spent in the Nature Reserve. It was the one place in Costell where she truly felt at home. It was little surprise to Tash, then, that at five-thirty on the dot, her best friend Cassi was waving to her through the small window set into he door of her expansive wooded office.
Smiling, Tash waved her in, the key to the reserve gate already in her hand.
“Hey Tash!” Cassi strode into the other woman’s office as though she worked there herself, eyes already on the keys in the dark skinned woman’s hand.
Laughing, Tash tossed them through the air. “Catch.”
Swiping the keys from mid-air, Cassi clutched them tightly and instantly felt the stress of the day begin to roll off of her in steady waves. Tash touched her shoulder gently, a sheet of paper on a clipboard in the other hand.
“You know the drill, Cass. Sign in and come back with the keys in an hour. We’re closing up early today for Terrance’s birthday. He’s having a patry at the pub.” Tash paused for a moment, wondering, then asked, “Did you want to come, Cass? I’m sure Terrance wouldn’t mind. He’ll probably be too drunk to even-“
“No, I’m fine,” Cassi said quickly, anxiety sparking up in her chest. “I barely even know Terrance, let alone anyone else you work with.”
Tash sighed and gave Cassi’s shoulder a squeeze. “Come on, Cass. You could get to know them. Make some more friends, you know? Maybe… I don’t know… find a girlfriend?”
Cassi’s cheeks bloomed bright red and Tash knew she had taken a step too far. Cassi had taken time to come out to Tash after they had met. Tash herself was straight, but with a gay brother she was a huge ally for the LGBTQ+ community. Feeling safe enough to tell her, Cassi had finally come clean with the truth one night after her and Tash had met three weeks before. Cassi had only discovered her sexuality a few years before and having grown up in a less-than-friendly community when it came to gay people, Cassi struggled to find peace with it. She had never told her parents, either, and it was causing a chasm of strain between them.
Tash had known the moment she met Cassi that she was one of those people you had to be gentle with, but the African-American woman knew that without a small push every now and then, Cassi wouldn’t ever get past her crippling anxiety regarding her sexual preferences. But she woman also had to know when to let things be. That was her own vice.
“Oh Cassi,” Tash said, shaking her head in irritation with herself. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t pressure you.”
Cassi clutched the keys tightly in her fist as she inched backwards towards the door. She waved off Tash’s apology. “It’s okay, really. I’m fine. I’ll be back in an hour.”
Without another word, Cassi was gone. Tash stared at the door as it closed behind her friend and heaved out a heavy sigh. All she wanted was for Cassi to be happy within herself. She knew that moving to Costell had been rough with her boring job at Inkers, her lack of social skills, and her parents pressuring her to come home every week. Cassi looked miserable… until she came to collect the keys and enter the Reserve almost on a daily basis.
The Reserve was where Cassi seemed to come alive.
THE NEXT DAY
Cassi woke up to another day of work at Inkers. The previous night’s visit to the Reserve was wearing off fast as she climbed out of bed and prepared for another day of torture. After her shower she found herself staring back at her reflection in the mirror, taking in her sharp, angular face, her tall stature, and her shoulder length black hair. On the outside she looked fine, she supposed, but on the side she felt herself shaking apart.
Not for the first time she found herself wondering if this was all there was for her…
Later that evening after another day of spreadsheet fun, Cassi found herself curled up on her couch watching reruns of a comedy she hadn’t seen since she was a child on her tablet. In the background, calm jazz soothed her along with the glass of white wine in her free hand.
As she sipped at the bubbly liquid, she felt herself winding down and considered heading to bed. The sudden squawking of her phone broke the calmness of the evening like shattering glass. Sighing, Cassi set aside her wine, turned the music emanating from the speakers off with her remote, and paused the show on her tablet.
The ringtone of her phone seemed to grow more insistent as she put off taking the call. She knew who it was. Only two people called her. Tash, who would be at home with her husband and daughter, and Cassi’s mother.
Sure enough, the caller ID alerted her to her impatiently waiting mother on the other side of America.
Cassi hit the ‘accept call’ button with a heavy heart. None of the recent conversations with her mother had gone well and she anticipated this one would be just as much of a disaster.
“Hi, mum. How are you doing?”
Cassi hoped the words coming out of her mouth sounded more sincere than it felt saying them.
“Cassi Wakeland why haven’t you called me in over a week?”
Cassi felt her stomach tighten. She had no excuses that her mother would accept. “Sorry, mum. I’m still… uh… trying to settle in here.”
A pause on the other end. “It’s been four years.”
“Yes, and things are still a little hectic.”
Cassi’s mother sighed on the other end. “Well, whose fault is that? Honestly, you up and leave your family for another state entirely, and you expect me to feel sympathetic?”
Cassi’s heartrate was speeding up. “I wasn’t asking for-“
“You need to come home.”
Cassi closed her eyes as they watered. “I can’t do that, mum.”
“Why not? Weren’t you happy here?” Her mother sounded sad now, and Cassi’s heart ached.
“It’s not like that. I just… needed something new.”
“Something new.” Her mother said the words as though they were a foreign food, tasting them. Apparently, she didn’t like the taste. “You’re move was selfish, Cassi. You left your mother and father, your sisters, your cat for christsakes, and for what? A new life? Well, it must be nice to be able to walk away from your family to find something better.”
Cassi’s heartache was fast becoming anger. “Mum, that isn’t what I meant,” she said, her teeth clenching. “There was more to it than that.”
Another pause. “What was it, then? What was so unbearable?”
Cassi’s heart hammered in her chest as temptation rose. It would be so easy to tell her mother that she was gay. Just say the words. End it fast. Officially leave the ball in her court. Give her the next move.
But she couldn’t. Cassi couldn’t bare the thought of losing her mother. Memories fluttered through her mind of herself as a young girl, her mother laughing with her, loving her dearly. Things may be different between them now, but the memories wouldn’t ever change or fade. Her mother had given her such a warm, carefree childhood. She couldn’t hurt her.
“It was nothing, mum. I just wanted a change, like I said. I’m sorry that it’s hurt you.”
Cassi’s mother let out a long breath on the other end of the phone. “You won’t reconsider? We’ll always welcome you back, Cassi.”
There it was. The image of her mother’s open arms beckoning her home, the old house behind her, the lights on, laughter within…
It would be a lie, though, and Cassi knew it. If that was what she wanted, the truth would remain hidden, buried and forgotten. Cassi refused to do that to herself. She deserved to be loved no matter who she loved in return. That image wasn’t real. She shook it away.
“I’m sorry, mum, but I need to stay here, at least for now.” She paused a second, clarity stilling everything around her. She knew why she had come here. “I need to find myself,” she said, more to herself than her mother.
A final pause, then her mother’s usual words of goodbye. “You’ve disappointed me, Cassi.”
The line going dead was like a knife through Cassi’s heart.
The Reserve was dark and silent apart from the soft, subtle sounds of the nocturnal animals within. The Reserve was never fully asleep.
Cassi stood at the gate entrance, the keys shaking in her hand. Behind her, the main cabin was empty, the lights off and the sound of Tash’s laughter missing. Tash would be in bed at this hour, asleep and waiting for a new day of managing the Reserve.
Cassi couldn’t sleep.
After the phone call with her mother, Cassi was a nervous wreck. Her pulse hammered in time to her heartbeat. She couldn’t sit still. Anger coursed through her alongside sadness. It was a terrible combination. She had tried to seep for an hour but every time she closed her eyes, her body surged with the need to move. Before she could stop herself she was walking the short trail behind her house to the Reserve.
Knowing Tash wouldn’t be here hadn’t stop Cassi. She had been entrusted by her friend with a spare set of keys in case she ever needed access to the cabin office outside of the Reserve. Cassi hadn’t hesitated as she opened the small building and headed inside to retrieve the gate keys.
Standing outside of the Reserve now, the key poised to slide into the lock on the gate, Cassi felt something inside of her stirring. A sense of freedom, anticipation for the calmness the forest would give her.
She slotted the key and turned it in the lock… having no clue that this night would change her world entirely.