Monday, August 4, 2014

Ashley Saga Part III

Chapter 1
“Ashley? Ashley, wake up. Ashley!”
Ashley’s eyes slowly opened. For a moment she saw nothing but a bright, overhead light. Slowly her eyes came into focus on the face hovering over her.
“Ashley. Can you hear me?”
Ashley nodded slowly. “Yes.”
“I think you were dreaming.”
Ashley nodded again.
“Was it scary?”
Ashley finally found her voice. “Not exactly. More strange than anything. I dreamed – ”
“Wait. I meant to tell you your sisters are here.”
Ashley’s mind was still a bit clouded. “My sisters?”
“Yes. You know, Debra and … and …” Why could Tiko never remember her name? “and the other one.”
Ashley smiled. One of the things she found most attractive, but also most annoying about Tiko was his apparent inability to remember details like her older sister’s name.
Ashley’s mind was suddenly alert. “Wait a minute! What are you doing here Tiko? This is my house and my room, you have no business being here and the last I remember …” Ashley trailed off. What could she last remember? Suddenly the details of her life were very vague. There was Phillip. She paused, remembering, painfully recalling their short yet adventurous life together. His tragic death still kept her awake at night. She recalled also Cornelius and a courageous journey which resulted in her meeting Tiko, but beyond that … nothing. She wasn’t even sure how she’d gotten home from her last adventure.
“Tiko, did you bring me home?”
“Yes,” he said. “Last night.”
Her face flushed. How could she have gotten herself into this situation? Though she wasn’t exactly sure how she’d gotten into this mess, there was no time like the present to redefine boundaries. After all, he was a nice hobbit/human, but they had only just met. “Tiko,” she began. “I’m not certain how you ended up here, but you should know I’m not the type of girl who brings dates home with me, especially first dates.”
Tiko chuckled, until he caught sight of Ashley’s face. “Are you serious?”
Tiko’s face fell. “The doctor said something like this might happen,” he muttered.
Ashley was still nestled in her bed. Tiko couldn’t very well tell her she’d better take a seat, yet he know the news would be shocking. “What is the last thing you remember?”
Ashley considered, then slowly answered. “Meeting you.”
“That’s the last thing you remember?”
Ashley nodded.
“So everything else – my masterful proposal, our moonlight walks, the trail ride down the Grand Canyon, our wedding, our honeymoon – ”
Tiko nodded. “We were married about a month ago and then we decided to be adventurous and go camping for our honeymoon.” He paused, his voice dropping in volume. “That’s where it happened.”
“What happened?” Ashley knew he was baiting her, but it didn’t matter, she had to know.
Tiko’s gaze turned away from Ashley, as though he were picturing the scene in his mind. “It was overcast when we left, but I didn’t think much of it, even when the clouds broke and the drizzle began. We set up our tent in the rain. In many ways it was highly romantic. You, me, a cozy campfire … but all that was before the snow.”
“Snow? Wait; when did you say we got married?”
 “Yes. Massive amounts of snow. The tent collapsed on us and I was knocked out. When I came to, I couldn’t find you. It took two days for me to locate you and dig you out. You were nearly frozen.”
“Frozen? Like the movie?”
“No sweetheart. Much, much worse. There was no Olaf, no music, no reindeer and no academy awards. There was only you; buried for two days in snow and completely unresponsive when I finally found you.
“I took you to the hospital immediately and they did all they could.” Tiko finally Ashley’s eyes once more. “Ashley, I thought I lost you. You can’t imagine how happy I was when you finally opened your eyes.”
Tiko leaned toward her as if to kiss her. Ashley panicked. Perhaps what he said was true, but she had no recollection of him or of any of it and his advances seemed rather forward. “Didn’t you say my sisters were here?”

Chapter 2
Lottie, Lottie, not a hottie.
Lottie, Lottie, cold and snotty.
Lottie, Lottie, very naughty.
Lottie, Lottie, cannot squatty.
Lottie, Lottie, can’t go potty.
Lottie, Lottie, has no body.
“Really Ashley? It’s like your seven years old again.”
“Sorry,” Ashley answered, “but not much rhymes with ‘Debra’.”
“Zebra,” responded Lottie.
“Are we’re suddenly British?” asked Debra, heatedly.
“It’s lovely to see you both again and have you in our home,” Tiko said, hoping to smooth things over before the situation had a chance to escalate.
Lottie and Debra seemed to respond to the cue. Ashley, in contrast, was annoyed. These were her sisters. And what was with him calling it our home? Was Tiko a con-artist and had come up with the whole story of the hospitalization, avalanche and the two of them falling in love? It wasn’t as though she couldn’t take care of herself, but this was a mind game and she’d had slightly less experience with those.
Using her voice of utmost politeness, Ashley kindly asked, “Tiko, would you excuse us? I’d like to visit with my sisters for a bit.”
He looked hurt, but nodded slowly and headed out into the yard. He’d better not be messing with my zinnias, Ashley thought. She waited until she was certain he was out of earshot, she turned back to her sisters. “What brings you by today?”
Lottie opened her crocodile handbag and pulled an assortment of letters from it. “Mail!!”
“Mail? From whom?”
“Several people.”
Ashley’s mind was still reeling. “Why don’t you read it to me, your voice is so solid.”
Lottie smiled knowingly.
“Some are for me and Debra and some for you. I’ll just read them all.”
Ashley nodded her assent.

“I don’t understand the bunny picture,” Lottie remarked.
“It’s from a past acquaintance - someone who knew me back when I was associated with Bishop Cottontail.”
Neither Lottie nor Debra commented, so it was up to Ashley to propel the conversation forward. “Do you know anything about that guy?”
Debra and Lottie looked at one another and then back to Ashley. Debra spoke first. “Are you joking?”
Ashley hesitated. “No. He claims we dated and got married and that I nearly died on our honeymoon, but I don’t remember anything more than meeting him when he saved me from a trash receptacle.”
For a moment, both sisters stared. It wasn’t like Ashley to joke around, but maybe after the loss of so many of her beloved friends she had finally realized life was short and worked to develop a sense of humor.
“Ashley, do you really not remember him?” Lottie asked. As the oldest sister she often felt responsible for her two younger sisters, but if Ashley genuinely had forgotten Tiko, would there be any way to help her?
Ashley shook her head.
“The doctor said something like this might happen as a result of the accident, but you were doing so well,” Debra claimed. “Try, Ashley, think back and try to remember him.”
Ashley focused intently. “I don’t even remember the accident.” she said.
“What’s the most recent thing you can remember?”
Ashley thought. “My dream last night.”
Debra paused, but only for a moment. “Okay. Why don’t we start there?”

Chapter 3
            “That was really weird,” Debra evaluated.
            “But has nothing to do with your issue,” Lottie reminded them. “Listen, I’m no psychologist, but the logical solution is to recreate your honeymoon, sort of a do-over. Maybe it will trigger your memory and your relationship with Tiko will be restored.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Ashley asked. “That is madness. I couldn’t possibly go away with a man I hardly know.”
“You know him,” Debra reminded her, “you just can’t remember him.”
“How is that better?” Ashley retorted.
“It will be okay. We will come with you.” Lottie offered.
“You and Debra are going to come with me? ON MY HONEYMOON??!!  You’re sick,” Ashley said.
Lottie stood and began pacing the room, as she always did when she had a big idea. “We won’t come with you. We’ll go in disguise … as … as another honeymooning couple –”
“No!” Debra interrupted.
“Why not?”
“Because, Lottie. You and I both know that if we go as a couple I’m going to end up being the man.”
“I can’t help it if your facial features are less feminine than my own.”
“C’mon, Debra. It’s for Ashley. She’s your sister. Do it for Ashley.”
“No way.”
“Please,” begged Ashley. What if Lottie is right and this will bring back my memory.”
Debra hesitated. “Okay fine, but I’m not using a fake man-voice.”
“As I was saying,” Lottie said, “we’ll pose as another couple on our honeymoon. If you get too stressed or need a way out, we’ll be there. We can pretend to meet you and become quite fond of you both. We’ll be your first ‘couple’ friends. Then we can join you for dinner or dancing –”
“If I’m the man, I get to lead while dancing,” Debra interrupted.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” agreed Lottie, turning back to Ashley.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. I want to see you be brave! Do this for yourself. Aside from the hairy feet and constant necessity to go barefoot, Tiko is a wonderful hobbit-man.”
“Yes, but –”
“We’ll go put on our disguises. You’ll see. Wait right here.”

Within 45 minutes, Debra and Lottie returned. Debra had seemingly grown a substantial black, handlebar mustache and was wearing her stupid, straw hat. Lottie was caked in heavy make-up and wore a pill-box hat covered in feathers with a blue bird perched on top.
“You look like a chicken died on your head,” Ashley evaluated.
“But Tiko will never suspect!” exclaimed Lottie
“The letters you brought mentioned a straw hat and bird hat. Have you worn them before?”
“Jut to your wedding,” admitted Debra.
“My wedding? You wore a bird hat and a stupid, straw hat to my wedding, yet you think Tiko will never suspect? Did I marry an idiot?”
“Men never remember details. Besides, he was too engrossed in you to pay attention to either of us. He won’t remember the hats and he won’t realize it’s us.”
“I still think this is a terrible idea.”
“I promise it will be worth it. We can sit down and make jiffy-pop.”
“Fine, but at the first sign that something is going wrong, I’m out.”
“Agreed,” Debra and Lottie responded together.
“Now go find Tiko to tell him of your plan,” instructed Lottie, “and we’ll meet you up the canyon later on.”

Chapter 4
Several short hours later, Tiko and Ashley were packed and ready to go. Though she knew he would prefer that she sit next to him, Ashley positioned herself as far away as possible on the bench seat. He eyed her, as if to comment, and then decided against it, strapped on his seatbelt, and started the ignition. “Where are we going?”
Ashley pulled out her compass. “27 degrees to the south.”
Tiko checked the display on the dash. “Just south okay?”
Ashley rolled her eyes, and then nodded. The drive was a silent one with the only words being spoken  by Tiko as the two passed the sinister gatekeeper. At last, Tiko slowed to a stop near the pit toilets.
“This is it?” Tiko asked.
Ashley sighed. “I know it isn’t exotic, but it’s shaded … as long as you follow the shade.”
Tiko didn’t respond, but he instead got out and opened the passenger door. Ashley hopped out, hardly acknowledging him. Clearly the weekend was going to be awkward and tension-filled. In silence, the two unloaded their gear and set up the tent. Not a word was spoken as Tiko connected the propane to the two-burner stove. Camp chairs were set up beneath the shade of a nearby tree and still only the sounds of nature filled the air.
“That should be one sign,” Tiko commented.
“Did you see how harmoniously we worked together? We didn’t even need to communicate to get unpacked and set up. That is how synced our minds and souls are.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “I don’t know that our being able to set up cam demonstrates compatibility. After all, I could have done all of this on my own. You’re only here as an accessory.”
“An accessory?? What did I ever do to you?”
Ashley shook her head. “Nothing. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t vent my frustrations on you.” In a gesture of goodwill she reached out and took his hand. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.
Tiko didn’t answer, but seemed to soften.
For awhile, the two sat and watched the minimal traffic on the two-lane road. At last, a truck pulling a horse trailer pulled up and stopped in a site next to them. An odd-looking couple emerged from the vehicle; an older-looking woman with a feathery hat and a young man with long curly hair and a black mustache.
“Hello,” the woman called eagerly, waving to Tiko and Ashley
Ashley rolled her eyes, but decided to play along, “Hello,” she responded grudgingly.
“Lovely afternoon, isn’t it?”
Tiko spoke this time. “Great afternoon for a honeymoon!” He hoped the encroaching strangers would catch the hint and move along.
His wording must not have been clear enough because the man proceeded to open the door to the saddles and bits while the woman unloaded the horses.
“It’s our honeymoon too!” the women shouted over her shoulder. “We couldn’t be happier, right Timothy?”
Timothy nodded, but didn’t speak.
“How interesting,” Ashley remarked, that you would bring four horses for two riders. It’s almost as though you were expecting to meet another couple.”
The woman laughed nervously. “Oh … well all our horses need exercise, so we usually ride one up the trail and the other down, though now that you mention it, we’d love for you to join us.”
Ashley eyed Tiko. “Sure,” he shrugged. “It’s something to do.”
The two watched as three white steeds and a smaller brown horse were unloaded, saddled, and prepped for the ride.
“This is Nacho,” the woman said, stroking the muzzle of the brown horse, “and Arted, Max and Silver,” she added, gesturing to the other three.
Ashley just nodded. Tiko smiled and started toward Arted. Debra and Lottie, or the man and the woman, got on Max and Silver respectively. That left Nacho for Ashley. Leaning her head against him she whispered, “I think you are the sanest of the lot of us.”
Nacho whinnied in response and Ashley deftly straddled the animals broad back.

Chapter 5
It seemed like hours passed as the trail ride continued. The two couples conversed casually, but Ashley felt nothing. As the seemingly never-ending trail ride continued, Tiko dropped back to join Ashley. “Are you having a good time?”
She nodded.
“It’s nice that they happened to have two extra horses,” Tiko tried again.
Ashley nodded again. Silence fell between them. Ashley could tell Tiko was trying. She could at least meet him half-way.
“Where did we go on our fist date?”
Tiko grinned. “The Dairy Delight.”
“Dairy Delight?”
“Yes. We went bowling and then walked down to the Dairy Delight. We put some coins in the jukebox and played One Directions ‘She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful’.”
Ashley smiled in spite of herself. “So you’re telling me that to make a first impression you took me bowling and then to a local burger joint?”
“I am part Hobbit. We live simply.”
“Did we ever visit the Shire?”
Tiko nodded. “We had a grand reception there after our wedding. The hills were bright green and as the sun set, fireflies emerged.”
“It sounds so beautiful,” Ashley whispered. “I wish I could have seen it.”
“You did. You just don’t remember it.”
Ashley looked ahead. The trail ride was still going on, yet it almost seemed as if they were going in circles because very little progress had been made. “How far are we going?” Ashley called.
The older woman turned in the saddle. “Just until the song ends. I have music on my iPod that plays continuously. When the song ends, Silver knows to turn back.”
“Isn’t there any way to turn them back sooner? I’m getting saddle sore,” Ashley complained.
The woman thought. “They’re an Ubsbleckistanian breed and they only respond to commands in their native language.”

“How do I say stop?”
“Yes. Hoof, Silver!” the woman commanded. Immediately the horse she rode stopped.
“Hoof, Nahco!” Ashley shouted.
“Hoof, Max,” whispered the manly Debra.
“Hoof, Arted,” shouted Tiko.
All the horses stood still, awaiting further command. “Now how do we turn them around?” asked Ashley.
“In Ubsbleckistanian, it’s ‘Ife’,” said bird-headed Debra.
“Ife?” repeated Ashley.
“Yes, like this. Ife, Silver!” The horse the woman rode turned to face the opposite direction.
“Ife Nacho,” hollered Ashley. Immediately, Nacho turned.
“Ife Max,” Debra commanded.
“Ife Arted,” shouted Tiko.
Down the trail, the ride continued. For awhile the new friends continued downward until suddenly Max stumbled and collapsed. Debra-man got off and tried to pull him back to his feet. “He’s broken his leg!” the young man exclaimed.
“Nothing left to do but shoot him,” Ashley said, evaluating the break.
“Don’t be a fool!” the man spat. “It’s a perfectly good horse. We’re not going to shoot it.”
“It can’t walk on three legs. It will starve. It’s the only humane thing to do.”
“How will we get back?” asked the woman, “and what will we do with a dead horse?”
“There are bears around that can consume the carcass.”
“You’re sick,” hissed the woman.
“Hold on, hold on, ladies … and gentleman. I know a thing or two about horses. Let me have a look at him.” Tiko said, dismounting to look at the broken leg. Taking two straight piece of wood and some colorful adhesive, he straightened the leg and splinted it. Working quickly, he finished his task. “That should hold until we get back. We’ll have to double up and take of the saddle so he doesn’t have to carry any extra weight.” Pausing, he looked to Ashley. “May I?”
She debated, and then nodded. More agilely than she thought possible, Tiko swung himself up behind her in the saddle leading the limping Max behind. Ashley had to admit it was strange having him so close, strange, but not entirely undesirable.

Chapter 6
The ride back was agonizingly slow. The sun was low in the sky as they rode back to the enclosure surrounding their camp.
“Can I make dinner for you?” the woman offered. “It’s the least I could do after you saved my horse.
Ashley was physically and emotionally exhausted. It was nice to have someone else offer to cook. Nodding her head, she accepted. Lottie was a tremendous cook and though Ashley was looking forward to dinner, she was anxious because their carefully orchestrated plan was not working. She had enjoyed talking with Tiko on the long, long trail ride, but she still had no recollection of who they had been together.
“How can I help with dinner?” Ashley asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman answered. “I enjoy cooking. Why don’t you and Tiko go sit in the shade?” She motioned to a tree some ways in the distance. “I’ve heard,” she continued, “that it is the tree of revelation and if you sit beneath it for awhile, amazing things will be revealed to you.”
Ashley glared, but – taking her camp chair – she followed Tiko to the tree. For awhile, neither spoke, but instead sat in companionable silence, as a gentle breeze whispered through the leaves.
“How did you propose?” Ashley finally asked.
Tiko didn’t answer right away. Finally he spoke quietly. “We were in a forest, much like this one. I’d gone with you as you returned to the Wetlands to look for the purse of crocodile. Somehow we were led astray by the snarky gatekeeper and ended up in a forest. I wasn’t planning to propose, but a near-death experience led me to believe it might be my only chance.”
“What happened?”
“We were in the woods, deep in the woods, trying to find our way out of the forest. We were so focused on finding our way out that we weren’t paying attention until I felt hot breath on my neck.”
“I’m not much of a lady.”
Tiko smiled, “Not you; the great badger-bear.”
Tiko rolled his eyes. “You can remember a character from an animated film, but you don’t remember us and falling in love?”
“No, it wasn’t Mordu,” continued Tiko, “but it was a huge black bear with gray striping in the fir.”
“Hence the badger-striped bear?”
“Yes. I turned around and there he was, his enormous jaws ready to snap, claws like daggers protruding from his paws.”
“I was afraid it was the end for us, so I told you I loved you and said I wished we had more time and that I had hoped we’d get married and now it looked as though there would never be a chance.”
“You said all that before the bear attacked?”
“No. I said it as I was fighting. I managed one good hit that took out his eye. It didn’t kill him, but it damaged him enough that we were able to get away.”
“Naturally, now he is the bear with the ‘one dead eye’.”
“So we found our way back to the main trail and headed for home. On the drive back, you asked if I was serious about what I had said. I agreed I was. The ring didn’t come until I was able to battle some Orcs, but it did come.”
Ashley looked down. “What would I do with a ring? During many phases of my life I haven’t even had any hands.”
The metal was melted down and forged into the flowers you wear as earrings.”
Ashley didn’t respond. The tale was lovely, a bit soft for her taste, but lovely none-the-less. Yet it did nothing to remind her of who she was. She looked up, scanning the horizon. “Tiko,” she whispered, “is that him? The bear with the one dead eye?”

Tiko followed her gaze. Climbing over the fence, a bag of enormous marshmallows in his paw, was the fattest bear Ashley had ever seen.
“No. That bear has two eyes and from the looks of him, he’s eaten no fewer than four people.”
“Then why are we just sitting here?”
“Look at him,” laughed Tiko. “He can’t even get enough footing to get over the rails.”
“Jazz cakes are ready,” called Lottie, still posing as the newlywed bride.
Diner was delightful. Flavors Ashley had never dreamt of exploded inside her mouth; chocolate chip, blueberry, cocoanut and pineapple. For one of the first times in her life, Ashley felt relaxed, peaceful, and like she was almost royalty.

Chapter 7
At last, all the Jazz cakes were consumed.
“My husband and I were considering a ride after supper,” the woman said, clearing the dishes. “Would you like to join us?”
“A ride?” asked Ashley.
“Through the glen, shooting at targets. My husband has this amazing trick of balancing an apple on his head. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind doing it so that we could shoot the apple off his head.”
The woman’s husband glared.
Ashley sighed. She had enjoyed the afternoon ride and the time with her sisters, but if Tiko really was the man she had fallen in love with, she needed to find out. “I think we’ll decline. After all, Max still needs a good rest.”
“You could double up again, or Timothy won’t be riding anyway since he’ll be holding the apple.”
“Thank you, but no. I think we’d rather take an evening walk. It’s cooled down enough that the weather isn’t too stifling and maybe we’ll see some bats.”
Tiko looked momentarily surprised, and then pleased.
Lottie the bride, studies Ashley’s face. “If you’re sure …”
“Then the tree of revelation worked?”
“No,” Ashley replied, “but even so, I think we’ll refrain.”
Tiko stood and held out his hand to help Ashley to her feet. “Where shall we go?”
“I noticed a park as we drove in. Maybe we should head down that way.”
“To the park?”
Ashley shrugged. “Don’t you sometimes like to go to the park; reflect on your inner child and all that?”
Tiko chuckled.
“Reflect on your inner child? You’ve lost your edge, Ashley.”
Ashley thought about it. Perhaps he was right. If so, this whole weekend had been a terrible idea. All those years of training and sacrifice … and now… was she to be undone by a part hobbit? “Maybe we should skip the walk. This isn’t working. I don’t remember you; I don’t remember us. The only solid memory I have is of me. And you’re right. I’m losing myself. If I lose that, what do I have?”
Tiko stopped walking and turned her toward him. “Don’t give up yet, Ashley. Give it a little more time. Trust me.”
“What if I never remember? What if what you say has happened never really happened. I can’t trust you, I don’t even know you!”
Tiko continued walking, both hands shoved in his pocket. Ashley watched his retreating figure only a few moments and then, finally followed him. She caught up quickly, but didn’t speak and he also seemed to have nothing to say as they strolled, light leaving the valley by degrees. Ashley had no idea what he was thinking, but her thoughts continued to focus on the futility of it all. Why had she agreed to this ridiculous plan? What kept her now from turning around, getting in the car and driving home? He was part hobbit. Surely he was resourceful enough to find a way home and by then she could be long gone. But where would she go? What adventure lay ahead? No, what she needed was closure. If what Tiko said was true, she had to stick it out and find out. And if it was a lie … well he would soon have evidence that she hadn’t really gone soft.
The sun had set completely and a pinkish haze reflected against a sign. Ashley looked ahead, read the sign, reread it, and closed her eyes.
“What is it?” Tiko asked, speaking for the first time in several minutes.

Ashley pointed. Tiko followed the direction of her finger. “Oh, don’t worry about that. You know a cougar would have no defense against you and if something should go awry, I have your back.”
“I remember,” Ashley whispered.
“Tiko, I remember.”
“But how?”
“How many years younger than me are you?”
He hesitated, afraid this was a trick question. “Five.”
“Don’t you think by most accounts that makes me a cougar?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“A cougar who has shown lack of fear toward humans." Ashley shook her head. "I'm that cougar, that fearless cougar. I remember it all. The bear, the shire, the proposal and even the tent collapsing around us. I remember it all, Tiko.”
“Then you remember how in love we were – are.”
“Yes.” Ashley agreed. “And I think it’s time we walked back to our camp and told my sisters to go home.”
“Your sisters?”
“Debra … Lottie … Please don’t tell me you really fell for them being a couple.”
Tiko hesitated. “No,” he agreed at last, “but I know they care for you as sisters should and I hoped if I played along with whatever plan they had devised it would eventually be to our benefit.”
Ashley smiled. “And so it has been.”