(this is the second part of Claire's story. The rest may be found under this tag)
Breakfast is icy.
There's something wrong with the house, something beyond the crushed lawn and torn siding outside. Claire struggles to swallow half-frozen scrambled eggs and too-chunky orange juice; her parents don't fair much better.
Finally, finally, she reaches the end of her mandatory presence (denoted by her father getting up to do the dishes, and her mother receding into her morning emails). Neither of them notice when she leaves. They never do.
She tells herself that she prefers it this way.
It's true, really. It is true. Claire's seen the way her classmates' parents fuss over them, the hovering helicopters and closeknit ties, the way their lives are monitored and managed—how horrible! How could she possibly want that? Why would anyone—
It's warmer outside.
Perhaps something of the darkness (the creature in the darkness? Claire isn't quite sure how to think of it, even now) has lingered behind; perhaps the house is just that horrid. Perhaps it's just an unseasonably warm day.
It's a mystery; nothing to do but shrug and carry on.
Claire should probably be going to school. It is a Monday, is the end of a quietly strange weekend, and she is sure that someone will notice if she doesn't. Well, probably. Maybe? So often they don't.
Still, she probably should ...
As the decision swirls in her skull she finds that her feet have swept her in quite the opposite direction; she's already five minutes into the forest, up that leaf-strewn path into the overgrown hills, past old growth redwoods and scattered oaks, birdsong filling her ears—
"Ah well," Claire sighs to herself, "it'll be fine."
Whatever worries grew in her mind, whatever unkind things sprouted from obligation's whispers, don't stand a chance. The forest is too pretty for that, too alive—full of ferns and moss, chirping insects and flitting birds—[...]everywhere she looks there's something new, something fascinatingly beautiful; an ecosystem opening around her, welcoming her in in a way that manufactured places never have. Each crawling millipede and sharp-eyed squirrel, each distant rustling snake and fearful lizard—!
The sun crawls steadily up the sky as she loses herself in joyous exploration. There's never enough time, and that too-scarce resource's departure leaves her with aching legs and rumbling stomach—and, she realizes with a start, absolutely no idea where she is.
That's probably fine, though, right?
She just has to retrace her steps, down the hills and out of the forest ...
With how distracted she's been
She really has no idea which path she came down.
She carefully sits down, leans back against a redwood's warm bark, wishes she'd remembered to grab her backpack on the way out of the house ...
Wait, did she?
No such luck.
Maybe she'll remember next time; maybe her discomfort will become a lesson.
... fuck that, though, right? It's not like she's just going to sigh and give up. She can't be that far away from the house, can't have made such good time with all of her diversions and distractions: losing herself in moss doesn't make for fast hikes.
But still ...
When she finally picks a direction she's sure it's the right one—doesn't she remember that stand of trees, that fallen log encrusted with ferns? She must, she really must. It has to be the right way. She can practically feel civilization's buzz rising around her as she walks—
Ah, no. That's bees.
A lot of them, too, more than she's ever seen together. A proper swarm, filling the air before her, drifting up from pale flowers towards a distant hive's waxy bulk; busy as bees ever were, eagerly working towards some unknowable goal, as bees do.
Claire watches, mesmerized; they move so beautifully, so coordinated and with such purpose—from flower to flower to hive, from effortless dance to newly-blossomed flower to sunlit dance, a swarm moving as one—and there, in the center, the hive covered in its own waxy flowers—
She could lose herself watching, and she does—
Lost in a sea of glittering gold specks, lost in that flow, her feet drifting forward beneath her into the heart of the swarm, into the space cleared against the hive, into that place that was meant for her—
All she has to do is reach out and hug it; all she has to do is fall in, to let the golden wax claim her as fresh flowers sprout across her fading form—and all she is will feed the hive, all she is will be reborn—
It sounds so good, doesn't it?
So inviting ...
But Claire's not that lucky, not this time, and it's rather before the last moment that her stomach rumbles and her bee-trance breaks beneath that painful ache. She shakes herself, backs away—
And, not knowing why, plucks a flower to carry away with her.