There’s a sparkling magic when old friends meet – their eyes lock on familiar faces and their mouths blossom into smiles of recognition. In that brief moment, a treasured sunrise of shared memories and significance dawns between them. They say love is in the little things – a remembered birthday commemorated with a precious Pennant card, a thoughtful “hello, thinking of you” text message every few months, a photo of a spectacular view sent as an email attachment on the third Tuesday of a rainy April month when one is home in bed with a temperature. Aspen would always be friends with Mathias.
“Hello old friend,” he waved, nonchalantly, but his tone was filled with kindness.
“Hi,” she replied, parsing his subtext.
She really didn’t mind the title. Old ‘friend’ implied roads traversed together, and memorable journeys past, and the strength and resilience facing the test of time.
“It’s good to see you,” she practically squeaked.
Even after all this time, their was a slight hitch in her tone every time she first encountered Mathias Watson. Something about his presence made her feel happy dancing butterflies every time. She wondered if he felt the same, but she felt it foolish to ask. She was too afraid to make the first move, despite the fact that she had convinced herself she was half in-love with him.
Aspen was too much of a lone wolf to truly settle down, or so she told herself. Yet every year come December, she traversed into the mountains with Mathias. It became their holiday tradition. Sometimes they had other snow trekkers join them, but most years, they braved the cold dark woods alone, and yet together.
Mathias always spoke of getting “off the grid,” something Aspen didn’t understand but accepted. She loved living “off grid,” if off grid meant living alone in a cabin in the woods on the edge of a hollow with the grand sweeping Cascadian Mountains as her backyard. Mathias, on the other hand, lived in the bustling, loud, rude, overcrowded, exciting, colorful San Myshuno an hour’s train ride away in a stuffy, narrow apartment, spending his days typing furious amounts of code as a programmer by trade. Still, he heeded the call of the wild and hired Aspen as a guide all those years ago to take him on a journey into the mountains away from his technological trappings for eight days.
They were night and day different, but there’s something in the polarity that was exhilarating, attractive even, at least to Aspen. She had never once acted upon her private feelings, not even when they shared a sleeping space as one of their tents had blown away in a fierce snowstorm. They slept back to back, and she lay awake, half the night, biting her thumbnail as she listened to his steady breathing, so close she could sense his heartbeat. Mathias was a perfect gentleman. Part of her wished he wasn’t, but again, she wasn’t so courageous as to make a move. Aspen’s cheeks flooded with color at the mere memory. She hoped Mathias didn’t notice.
“What are you doing here this early in the season?” she inquired, quickly trying to think of something, anything to break the awkward tension of all of ten seconds.
To Aspen, this was an eternity.
“Well,” he opened his arms wide as if about to make a statement of significance or offer a hug.
She still wasn’t great at reading body language and she certainly didn’t want to offer an embrace if he wasn’t. That wouldn’t be awkward at all… she felt sheepish even thinking about it. Overthinking it. Oh shut up! she internally urged in a panic.
“I’m glad you asked,” he continued, calmly, coolly, like the smooth surface of water so clear and calm, one could see all the way to the river-polished pebbles on the bottom. “I took a job. A client wants me to build him a website.”
“Really? That’s great!” Aspen exclaimed, probably a little too over-enthused.
“Yeah, he’s here in Hidden Hollow, and figured I’d get a good sense of his work here if I actually came and observed. It should help in my design of the site,” Mathias continued.
“Sounds smart,” she nodded. “So where are you staying?”
Calm down, eager beaver!
Mathias relaxed into a soft chuckle. He looked genuinely happy she asked, but perhaps she was reading into things. As usual.
“He’s putting me up at the inn- Jack’s Place,” Mathias replied.
“That place is ancient,” Aspen shook her head.
The inn was one of the first businesses built during the final stages of negotiations for the Hollow Accords. Aspen’s own grandmother, Frances Beckett, played a significant role in changing national opinion about supernatural law. Hidden Hollow, a town once overrun by vampires, or pyres as they preferred to be called, became a sanctuary for supernaturals and their allies. Frances had worked tirelessly as a civil rights lawyer to repeal unconstitutional laws and fight for equality for all. She was a pillar in the Supernatural Rights Movement, and a critical linchpin in the vote to turn the Hollows into places of learning, cultural exchange, and understanding.
It would take half a century to undo a millennia of hate, mistrust, and fear. Many non-supernaturals were skeptical about the potential profits to be gained by moving their businesses to the Hollows. However, Jack, the first of three generations of Jacks, opened up a restaurant and inn, a stopover point for curious and enlightened travelers.
Even so, Aspen had been inside. It wasn’t much to sneeze at – the furniture old and musty, the bed-springs squeaky, the mattresses sagging, and the food was typical diner fare, in her eight-year-old opinion. That was the first time, her father, Cecil had brought Aspen to meet her grandmother in Hidden Hollow. Cecil hushed his daughter, insisting that the presence of the inn and its customers and even their bed was a sign of progress. Aspen had wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t sure how much she liked “sleeping” on progress if it smelled like mothballs and lost socks. And the only reason they were staying at the inn was because her grandmother only had one bed in her home.
“I’d let you stay at my place, but I’ve only got a single bed,” Aspen started absently, and then hurriedly added, “Well one bed. Actually, it’s a double, and it’s not like we haven’t shared a tent before but… what I meant is I don’t have two rooms. I always planned to build a loft in my grandmother’s cottage, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so all I’ve got is the bed in the master and only bedroom and the couch. It’s not much, but it’s actually pretty comfortable, not that you want to stay there… here… with me… er…” she trailed off, feeling incredibly uncomfortable.
Mathias offered a disarming smile.
Aspen didn’t understand it. When she was leading a team of five to ten charges through the vast wilderness, she was confident, concise, to-the-point. In fact, she often wondered if she was off-putting or appeared to be barking orders. In reality, that was her survival mode. Keep a level-head for the tourists and everyone will make it out alive. But in social situations, she was her own worst enemy, often rambling beyond the point of cohesion and comprehension, speaking her mind too freely without a filter.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Hey don’t apologize,” he leaned forward with an inviting hug. “I’ve missed you.”
As she leaned into his embrace, she could smell his woodsy shampoo, like a fine fur tree at Christmastide and a wisp of cherry wood smoke.She couldn’t help but smile when her gloved hands slipped through not one, but two tears in his favorite striped blue hoodie. For years, she told him to replace the jacket, but it was his treasured jacket. He would keep it forever… or at least until all the fabric had fallen from his body piece by piece. There was something comforting about the holes in the same place, slipping her hands through to his grey tee shirt as she had done many times before. She closed her eyes and celebrated the moment of intimate friendship. She knew him so well as to know where the rips in his jacket were. That spoke volumes about his level of trust to her, even if it seemed so trivial to him.
“You give the best hugs,” he whispered.
Her eyes lit up and she grinned with pride. “Thank you… and uh… my couch is always open.”
Instantly, she regretted her statement, hoping he didn’t assume she was a drunken floozy with a revolving door.
“Thanks, I might take you up on it,” he replied. “Wanna grab some dinner?”
“I am starving,” she bobbed her head. “How much of the Hollow have you seen?”
“Not too much,” Mathias shrugged. “Usually I bypass this station.”
“Come on,” Aspen reached for her bag. “I know just the place.”
Author Notes: Thanks for reading. I truly enjoyed writing this chapter. When I finished, I wondered if she was true to her character in The Lost Christmas, and then I realized, yes, outgoing introverts can appear to be different ways in different circumstances. As an INFJ, I’m infinitely more awkward in social situations than I am in workplace scenarios or situations where I am in charge of the safety and well-being of a group. I call it my “survival” mode too.
Aspen is an over-analyzer, as is a common side effect of the overactive imagination and the overthinking habits of an INFJ mind. Perhaps it’s not always the healthiest trait, but here, I find Aspen’s awkwardness adorable and goofy. She’s a young woman in the early stages of love, but not obsession, even if she is obsessively detailed… like remembering the places where his jackets had tears… as if made for her fingers. Here’s an intimate moment between platonic friends, for now, and that’s what I love about writing this scene.
Speaking of over-analyzing… XD A bit of “Hollow” history… Hidden Hollow popped up in Livin’ A Simmin’ Life (LASL). It is the location of Lizzie and Joseph’s impromptu honeymoon when they stay with Tara Terrano. The Hollows were relatively off-limits to outsiders and non-supernaturals, the borders often patrolled by police and military. Lizzie would’ve been about 25 during her stay in the Hollow. A few years later, she is estranged from her husband and it is during this time, I first wrote about the city-wide curfews.
The Cascadian parliament invoked a curfew in order to protect their citizens and to try and combat the violent vampire gangs, most in the Vampires for Freedom Alliance (VFFA) flooding the streets with illegal bloodlettings, and the Independent Order, two gangs of non-supernaturals “soldiering” to “protect” the rights and freedoms of typicals.
By the end of 2409, the Sim Nation had come to assist, forcing a ceasefire with their superior military presence and power, cleaning up the streets, and signing the Hollow Accords to promote peace and ensure civil liberties for supernaturals. In a swift and shrewd movement, Cascadia was annexed and the Sim Nation gained more power. Cascadia is technically a “territory” of the Sim Nation, but their queen co-rules with the Sim Nation president in a diarchy. Frances Beckett made history at the young age of 27 when she helped usher in the Hollow Accords.
Maybe you don’t care that much about the history lesson or timeline, but I wanted to provide context for Aspen’s commentary. She is now a grown adult, recently acquiring her grandmother’s estate, left to her after the death of Frances Beckett. The year is approximately 2443. I’ve always assumed Lizzie was approximately 17 years older than Kass (KCLKF), and then Kass is about 20 years older than Aspen.
FYI, Pennant is my Simworld version of Hallmark Cards and Movies. 🙂 Hope you enjoyed! And thank you for putting up with all my excessive wordiness and details.