Harmon peered through his bedroom window into the moonlit darkness that enveloped the town and the surrounding woods. He was supposed to be reading the texts on his desk in front of him, but his mind was wandering like a ship that couldn’t find land. He was thinking about adventures. He wasn’t thinking about his own adventures, for Harmon had never been anywhere but the town of Spring. Instead, he was thinking about the stories found in the worn books stacked haphazardly under his bed. Hidden treasures, exotic lands, and endless excitement could all be waiting for him beyond the woods, but he couldn’t leave the town’s borders. Spring was his inescapable prison, and his father was the warden, always keeping a vigilant watch over his prisoner.
Deep down, Harmon knew he was being a little dramatic. Yes, he wasn’t allowed to leave his excruciatingly dull hometown, but his lot in life could have been worse. He could have been trapped in an actual prison, and besides, there were far worse towns to live in. Spring wasn’t exactly a bustling city, but it was bigger than most of the sleepy little hamlets that littered the roads leading to the City of Light.
Even the cathedral where he and his father lived wasn’t an unsuitable home. In fact, the cathedral was one of the largest and finest buildings in the area, and the view from his bedroom window on the third floor could rival the best landscape paintings around.
Harmon could see everything from his window. He could see every flower, tree, home and business that resided in Spring, but on this night, like many other nights, his gaze was focused on only one place—the house at the end of his street.
He could hardly make out the shabby exterior of the home, but he could clearly see the soft glow of light illuminating one of the house’s windows. Was it her window? Harmon didn’t want to know; he preferred the mystery. He preferred to think that the light’s presence was intended for him, to reciprocate those hidden feelings that twisted his stomach in knots whenever she was nearby.
This idea about the light would probably seem absurd the next morning, but for some unexplainable reason, his thoughts always had an unusual amount of clarity at night as if the darkness allowed Harmon to truly see the world for what it was. At night, everything made sense, every plan seemed possible, and everyone else was blind to the truth.
Sleep would eventually come, and this strange courage that he felt would vanish with the darkness, but someday, Harmon would talk with his father. Someday, he would reveal his true feelings about the town. Someday, he would shirk his father’s mantle and find a new life for himself beyond the woods. He would forget about this prison. He would forget about these burdens. He would forget about the time he spent here waiting for his real life to begin.
Harmon paused his contemplation as the small light vanished and reappeared in a different location of the house as if he were watching the glow of a firefly switching off then on as it traveled across empty fields.
Harmon wouldn’t forget everything when he finally escaped his prison. There were some things in this town that were worth remembering.
* * *
“I’m not ready.”
“Are you prepared? Did you study?”
“Begin, and Sol will guide you to the right words.”
Harmon began to talk, but his words lacked any passion or energy. Instead, he felt like a prisoner mindlessly breaking apart rocks for no real purpose or pleasure.
Four months ago when Harmon turned fourteen, his father started to teach him how to speak to a congregation. Like a master blacksmith teaching the art of mending metal, Harmon’s father was teaching him the art of giving a sermon that motivated people to dedicate their lives to worship, faith, and service.
Harmon was his father’s apprentice, but he dreaded the day he would take his father’s place as the high priest of Spring. A town’s high priest customarily chose his own successor. Harmon’s father had chosen his only child, which left Harmon feeling like a prince born to take the king’s throne and all of the responsibility that went with it.
This was not an easy burden. Everyone, including the town council, had to follow the high priest’s leadership, or they risked going against the will of the Sun God himself. There was no higher office in the town, so to become a high priest required years of intense study and practice, which meant apprentices had to dedicate much of their youth preparing for the position.
Every week after the Sunday sermon, the congregation would leave, and Harmon would stand at the podium. The pews would be empty. His only audience would be his father, and the lifeless faces of saints in the stain-glass windows that lined both sides of the chapel. He preferred the dead saints over his father. The saints just stared at him from the glass like ghosts forced to watch life but never participate. His father did participate.
“According to the Sun Priest Ezekial . . . I mean Est—” Harmon said, trying to find the right words to start his sermon.
“You’re hesitating.” His father said in a stern voice as he approached the front of the podium. Harmon tried to look away, but his father had a way of forcing eye contact. “How are people supposed to believe in your words if you can’t even pronounce Ezephrain’s name with a little confidence?”
Harmon’s father was not a cruel person. Most of the townspeople considered Theodore Misaen one of the kindest people in Spring. His white hair and long beard made him look wiser than his age, and his gentle blue eyes made people feel welcomed in his presence.
The high priest, however, was not just a man of appearances. He was also the primary source of Spring’s charitable work. He fed the hungry, provided healing to the sick, and even offered a hand to those who just needed help doing their chores. High Priest Misaen was a saint among sinners, or at least, that was the opinion of the townspeople.
The townspeople didn’t know everything about Harmon’s father. They didn’t know that he was an absolute perfectionist. They didn’t know that he would never allow himself to be seen faltering in any way. They didn’t know that he demanded his son live the same mistake-free life.
Every week Harmon stuttered, confused Ezephrain with Edward or one of the other thousand people mentioned in Sol’s Testament, forgot to make eye contact with the audience, or skipped a verse entirely while reading aloud. Every week his father would have disappointment written all over his face; every week Harmon was miserable with guilt.
This painful routine had been occurring unchanged for months and months, but Harmon had hoped to make this Sunday different. He had hoped to be ready, but just like every Sunday, he failed to prepare properly as if he was destined to always let his father down.
“The book of Nathan states very clearly that we must find humility and become servants to this land.” Harmon’s voice was shaky like it usually was when he performed for his father, but at least, he hadn’t mispronounced another name. “If we are to prevent the land from breaking apart again, we must—”
“That quote isn’t from the book of Nathan,” Harmon’s father said, sounding exasperated. “You should know that you are talking about the writings of the Sun Priest Nicolas. Nathan wrote about the Sun God’s role in our kingdom’s formation. The book of Nicolas discusses the issues of pride that lead to the destruction of mankind.”
“Sorry Father . . . I’ll . . . I’ll fix it.”
“See that you do.”
As Harmon struggled his way through the rest of the sermon, mistakes continued to pile up at an excruciating pace. Any third-party observer could have recognized that he wasn’t remotely prepared. His father should have just given him a lecture about responsibility and sent him to his room to finish the sermon; however, the high priest was stubborn. He wasn’t about to let his only apprentice escape practice even if it meant Harmon’s sermon would carry on at a snail’s pace as every mistake was dissected and discussed.
After twenty miserable minutes, the sermon was mercifully over. Harmon, seeing an opportunity to stall, immediately turned from the podium and pretended to gather more notes from his binder. He didn’t have any actual notes. He was just flipping through blank pages, hoping that his father wouldn’t ask him to make a second attempt.
He wasn’t ready; he was never ready. Much like every night that he was supposed to be studying, Harmon had stayed up reading the secret stash of adventure books under his bed, so during the precious few minutes between the end of the Sunday sermon and the beginning of the practice sessions with his father, Harmon had to hastily scribble down his talking points while his father was busy dealing with the few townspeople that had lingered around seeking guidance over trivial matters.
Harmon half-heartedly hoped that if he wasted enough time flipping through his binder, the practice session would eventually fade into the past and be forgotten. He had no doubts that stalling was a terrible plan, but he was under the influence of desperation. Desperate people tended to act foolish, and Harmon was no exception. He knew he was caught in a trap with no escape, but he would rather look like a fool than face the dreadful truth that he would have to make another attempt at the sermon.
“Harmon, are you ready to try this again?” his father asked, masking the question’s cruelty behind the veil of his empathetic tone and facial expression.
Like a criminal cornered in an alleyway, Harmon had no choice but to turn and face his captor. He approached the podium again, but before he could attempt to win his father’s approval, Harmon was distracted by what appeared to be a new audience member standing in the shadows at the back corner of the chapel.
A veil of darkness hid every feature of the mysterious guest, but by the shape of the figure’s shadowy silhouette, Harmon could tell that he shared a similar age and build with whoever was hidden by the dark shroud. However, when this unexpected audience member stepped from the shadows and revealed skin as black as night, Harmon couldn’t imagine someone more different from himself.
Growing up, Harmon had heard of the dark-skinned people of the Northern provinces, but they were like a mythical creature. His only mental images were based on other people’s descriptions from the tall tales and legends that circulated around the town. This boy looked nothing like how he envisioned the people who lived in the Dark Lands. In Harmon’s mind, they were tall and menacing savages that wore fur and carried crude weapons. This boy was tall, but he was far from menacing. He wore no furs and carried no weapon. His clothes were quite ragged, but they were a style traditional to the Sun Kingdom.
What would the town say about this? Harmon turned to his father to see his reaction, but the high priest was as stoic as ever. Harmon shouldn’t have been surprised by his father’s reaction; the man was not human. When it came to emotions, his father could be as well guarded as the king’s personal vaults.
A person from the Dark Lands was sitting in the chapel. His arrival was perhaps the most exciting thing to happen in the town in a hundred years, and his father’s response was reminiscent of the way he reacts to receiving his morning bowl of oatmeal.
Harmon couldn’t hide his emotions like his father. He openly gaped at the stranger like a child watching a circus performer, and while he was stuck in this trance, his father quickly and quietly made his way to the back of the chapel to speak with the boy.
“Where are your parents?” His father asked, but despite the calm and comforting demeanor of the high priest, the boy said nothing. Harmon’s father tried once again, but the boy refused to speak or even acknowledge that he was being spoken to as if he were deaf and dumb.
“Harmon, I need your assistance,” his father said as he signaled for Harmon to come closer. “We are going to have to cancel our practice. I need you to come and help me find this boy’s parents.”
Harmon nodded his head and felt a mountain’s worth of pressure leave his shoulders. He would not have to disappoint his father anymore that day. A small miracle had just occurred, but before he could sit down and breathe a sigh of relief, his father was walking toward the door with the boy in tow, and Harmon was forced to chase after them.
* * *
Harmon felt like he was in a baker’s oven. He had not been outside for a very long time, but his forehead was already covered with perspiration. He hated to sweat. He hated the feel of the salty residue that was left behind as if he had just bathed in dirty water, and he especially didn’t want anyone to see him in his currently sweaty, disheveled state.
It was at this moment that Harmon decided that his first adventure would be to somewhere with a colder climate. He would avoid deserts, or at least, he would start off trying to avoid deserts. It was impossible to know where an adventure would lead, but he just hoped it would be to somewhere with tolerable heat. These thoughts were all just idle musings because his first adventure was not going to happen in the foreseeable future. He had to stay in the present, and at the current moment, he was miserable and walking down the sidewalk toward the many businesses of Spring.
Harmon’s father was hoping to find someone who knew where the parents were or had seen the boy’s arrival to the town, and there was no better place to locate information than the local shops. Usually, the people that ran the shops were the first to meet any outsiders, but as Harmon and his father visited each store, they realized that even these usually reliable sources of information knew nothing of the boy’s situation. It wasn’t until Harmon and his father visited the post office that they received their first lead of the afternoon.
“You should ask Tony Fields,” Alby, the town’s postmaster, said as Harmon and his father were leaving the post office. “I knows for a fact that he’d been hunting them woods last night. He might’ve seen something.”
At the mention of Mr. Fields’ name, Harmon’s stomach felt like it had somehow gained a ten-pound weight. Why did Alby have to mention Twyla’s father? They left the post office, heading back toward the cathedral, and they didn’t stop until they reached the house that was at the end of the street—Twyla’s house.
His father knocked on the door while Harmon tried to subtly hide himself from view; however, as soon as the door opened, Harmon’s father took a small step to the side, which placed Harmon directly in the middle of Twyla’s line of sight.
Despite the visit being impromptu, Twyla looked as beautiful as she always did. It didn’t matter if she wore makeup or fixed her hair. Twyla always had a natural beauty like a flower blossoming in spring. Her short red hair and dimpled smile flowed together like the masterpiece of a famous composer.
Harmon didn’t say anything; he couldn’t say anything. Who could? He felt like he was underwater, and no matter how hard he wanted to take a deep breath and speak, he couldn’t find any air. His only response to her sudden appearance beyond door was an awkward lift of his hand, acknowledging that he knew her and nothing more.
“Hello, Twyla.” His father said, bringing Harmon out of his stupor. “Is Mr. Fields home?”
“Yes, High Priest.” Twyla said in her usual courteous manner that the adults in the town adored. Harmon’s father consistently spoke highly of Twyla for her manners and would often use her as an example when he felt Harmon was not being respectful enough. “I will go and get him.”
Twyla left the doorway, and only a moment passed before a large brutish man, who also had red hair, came to the door.
“I know why you’re here, High Priest.” Mr. Fields said before Harmon’s father could open his mouth. “You’ve found some kid from the Dark Lands, and now you’re parading him around town.”
Harmon had been right about the town’s excitement. Word of the boy’s arrival must have already spread through every house in Spring.
“I need to know if you saw anything last night,” Harmon’s father asked with a hint of annoyance in his voice. Apparently, his father didn’t like Mr. Fields suggestion that they were parading the boy as if he were some prize that they had won. “His parents are missing and at this point, any information is good information.”
“The answer is no,” Mr. Fields said in an almost growl. “Even if I did know something, I ain’t helping someone of his kind. You more than anyone should know why.”
“We don’t even know where the boy is from,” the high priest said. The annoyance was gone from his voice; instead, he sounded much like the way he did when speaking during intense council meetings—calm but firm. During their practice sessions, Harmon’s father called it the voice of leadership.
“I don’t need anyone to tell me where the boy’s from,” Mr. Fields said, his voice sounding angrier with each word. “I think I can tell.”
“Mr. Fields, you are not here to cast judgments on other people. That is the responsibility of Sol, and no one else.”
“High Priest, I have always respected the job that you’ve done, but sometimes, you’re blind, and you can’t see that some people shouldn’t be saved.”
“What harm could this child really do?”
“He’s cursed, and I don’t want any part of it. Your job is to teach the town, but my job is to protect my family. You keep that boy away from here.”
The door slammed shut, and Harmon’s father let out a sigh of disappointment.
“What was that about?” Harmon asked, confused by the entire encounter.
“Old scars run deep,” His father said as they walked off the porch and headed to the next house on the street.
Harmon had expected the town’s excitement, but he was surprised to also see large amounts of hostility. Mr. Fields was not alone in his sentiments toward the boy, and all afternoon, other townspeople had shockingly similar reactions to the high priest’s arrival to their door. In some cases, people wouldn’t open the door when they knocked, or if the people answered, they would cower behind their door as if the big slab of wood could somehow prevent them from catching whatever plague the outsider carried.
Harmon could not remember a time when the town as a whole was hostile over anything. There were minor fights here and there. They mostly dealt with disputes among neighbors, but his father never had any problem resolving those. This hostility was different. The arrival of the stranger had somehow tapped into a hidden darkness that had been walled away and forgotten inside the bodies of every person in town.
The boy appeared to be unfazed by these reactions. He was apparently not only deaf but also blind. As he solemnly marched behind the high priest, he reminded Harmon of a corpse that had come back to life. The young man was moving his limbs, but he seemed to have no comprehension of his surroundings. He didn’t even appear bothered by the hours of walking around in the heat.
Meanwhile, Harmon was desperate for a break. His legs were tired, and sweat had soaked his shirt’s collar and armpits. His wavy brown hair was sticking up on the sides and in the back, giving him the appearance that he had just rolled out bed after a long afternoon nap.
When Harmon’s father finally called off their search around dinnertime, Harmon had to hold back his elation. He wanted to go to his room and lounge out on his bed, but more importantly he wanted to avoid being seen in his currently unkempt state by any of his peers, especially Twyla.
* * *
Upon their return to the cathedral, Harmon’s father wasted no time before summoning the town council. He wanted to have an emergency meeting to organize search parties because the council would have to vote on any chosen course of action.
The council would ultimately decide how many search parties would be sent to look for the boy’s parents, how long they would continue to search, and how far out the search parties would travel from the town’s borders. Harmon knew that his father wouldn’t just leave the decisions to the council. The high priest usually presented the options to appear diplomatic, but in the end, the council always went with his recommended course of action.
There was no reason that this meeting would be any different, so when the elderly men that made up the council started coming through the cathedral’s doors, Harmon assumed that everything was now under control and that he could slip upstairs to his room, avoiding any more of the drama that was unfolding around him. His excitement from the boy’s arrival had dissipated after the hours of walking around town, and now Harmon just wanted the privacy of his room and the comfort of his books.
“Son, can you stay with our guest and watch over him during our meeting?” His father said in a tone that Harmon immediately recognized as a command and not a request.
“Harmon, everyone has an obligation to help the young man in this dark time.”
“But Father, he might not appreciate having a babysitter who is roughly the same age.” Harmon thought that this argument was sound even if it had nothing do with the real reason he was avoiding his father’s request. Watching the stranger wasn’t a difficult chore; however, the townspeople had made their feelings about the boy’s arrival quite clear. They didn’t like the boy, and Harmon preferred to avoid any ridicule that he might receive for appearing to befriend the outsider.
“I’m not asking you to babysit,” his father said. “I’m asking you to show compassion to your fellow man. I’m asking you to extend the hand of friendship to a lost soul. I know some in the town disagree with this notion, but a high priest’s job is sometimes to teach by example.”
“I understand, Father,” Harmon said weakly. His father’s words had cut him deep, and like usual, he was consumed by a guilty conscience.
“You know what you need to do,” Harmon’s father said before turning to join the town council who were all gathered in his office and already talking in heated voices.
The office door slammed shut, and Harmon was left alone with the mysterious stranger for the first time. At first, Harmon didn’t really know what to do, so he just stared at the young man as if he were a soldier guarding a prisoner. The young man didn’t look up from his seat on the bench by the office door; he just kept his eyes on the floor. This uncomfortable standoff continued for several minutes before Harmon finally broke down and attempted to make small talk.
“What’s your name?” Harmon asked as he took a seat on the bench beside the young man.
The young man said nothing.
“My name is Harmon.”
There was still no response, but Harmon ignored the silence and continued to talk.
“Why did you come here?”
There was still no answer.
“I wouldn’t have come to this town if I were you. There’s nothing to do here unless you enjoy getting yelled at by old people, which is why I don’t plan on staying here forever. Someday, I’m going to leave, and I’m not coming back. I’m going to have my adventure.”
The young man still said nothing, but his gaze lifted from the floor and rested on Harmon.
“Do you know what an adventure is?” Harmon continued. “People travel to far off lands, and they uncover ancient secrets and treasure. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to head out in a direction and go until I’ve found something. I might unearth something that will change the world . . . or at the very least, I’ll get to see something new.”
“I know what you’re thinking. Won’t it be treacherous? Yes, I know that I’ll have to face loads of dangers like barbarians and monstrous creatures, but don’t worry because I’m not afraid of anything. Great adventurers are never afraid of anything. Fear is definitely not stopping me. In fact, there is only one thing holding me back . . .”
Harmon trailed off as he thought about his father. He could almost picture the scene inside the office. The council probably shared similar feelings about the mysterious boy as Mr. Fields, but none of them would stand up to his father. Mr. Fields was an exception, but he was a rare visitor to his father’s sermons, which could explain his extraordinary boldness.
The high priest probably had the council already nodding their heads in agreement as he chose the course of action. Harmon’s guess was that his father would want them to search for the boy’s parents as extensively as possible. He would request the maximum amount of manpower. Harmon shuddered at the thought of himself trying to convince the council to do anything. How was he supposed to replace his father? After a million years of practice, Harmon still wouldn’t be able to take command of a room like his father.
“Do you know what a high priest is?” Harmon asked, but this time he didn’t bother pausing for an answer. “My father is the high priest of Spring. He is perhaps the most respected man in town, and eventually, I’ll have to take his place . . . then the town will lean on me for answers to their problems, and I won’t be able to leave. Do you see my dilemma?”
Harmon knew that he was being a little too personal with the stranger, but it was nice to express himself aloud. He had been hiding these thoughts and emotions for so long that they poured out of him like water from a well. Did it matter if the boy knew anything? What was the risk? The boy didn’t speak. Harmon could have received more feedback from conversing with his own reflection in a mirror.
“Can you keep a secret?” Harmon asked even though he already knew the answer. “I wish I didn’t have a father, I wish that I could be rid of these burdens that he heaps on me, and above all else, I wish that I could be rid of the guilt because it’s the only thing keeping me here.”
“Your father loves you,” The young man said in a raspy voice that Harmon could barely hear. “You should appreciate that.”
This sudden revelation that the young man was neither deaf nor dumb stunned Harmon to the point that he could no longer speak. He tried to make words but only gibberish came out of his mouth.
“Thaddeus,” the young man spoke again, interrupting Harmon’s confused rambling.
“What?” Harmon asked, still bewildered by the sudden turn of events, but at least, his question was coherent.
“You asked me earlier what my name is.” The young man said, his gaze returning back to the hallway floor. “My name is Thaddeus.”