Like a mother hugs her foal before bedtime, the evening sun embraced the landscape in its reddish-orange light. Like a mother’s cooing, the gentle breeze was comforting and reassuring to those it caressed. Like a mother’s nuzzle, the air was warm and loving, not at all uncomfortable.
I gently placed the thick tree branch in my mouth onto the pile, adding more fuel for the fire, before turning around to retrieve another from the many scattered around on the grass. We had scheduled this small camp-out in Sweet Apple Acres the week before, and all of us were pretty excited, even Rarity. I figured she would've been fussing about sleeping outside under the stars, but I guess her muddy experiences with her little sister have toughened her up a bit. Heh, it was about time.
We were building the fire because it got rather cold out here in the orchard at night. Twilight had always told me that it was because there weren’t any tall buildings to block the wind, and no street lamps to produce any heat. If we didn’t build this fire, well, it would be pretty hard to sleep out here.
My eyes raked the ground for old, dry tree branches. Wet ones wouldn’t burn well, and would produce way too much smoke. I turned my head and called over my shoulder, “How you guys doin’?”
A yellow, pink-maned head popped out of a nearby tree. “I-I’m trying to find dead leaves, but there aren’t that many of them up here...”
I snickered up at her. “That’s because most of ‘em are on the ground...”
She blinked at me in realization. “Really? I’m sorry...” A flap of her wings, and she was on the ground, scouring the dirt for the aforementioned leaves. I smiled warmly at her, before resuming my own search. Each of us were to find certain parts for the fire, and lay them accordingly. A fire needed to be built, moving up from materials that caught and burned quickly to materials that were stubborn but burned for longer.
My orange ears perked as I listened for the others. Nothing. Well, Rarity was to find twigs, Rainbow Dash was to get small sticks, and Twilight and Pinkie were supposed to find fallen logs. The pile of timber for the fire was pretty big already, but it just needed a bit more. I decided to walk back to it, the dry leaves crunching underneath my hooves, before sitting down. Only a few minutes passed before Rarity, Dash and Fluttershy joined me.
The fire was almost ready. We just needed the logs, so it would burn long into the night. I shivered as a blast of cool air buffeted me, and I cast a quick glance at the setting sun. It was like a foal crawling into bed, slow and deliberate, as if it wasn’t quite sure how to get in. I smiled as I remembered how Apple Bloom used to pounce on her bed covers and wrestle with them back when she was very, very young.
It took them a while, but Twilight and Pinkie soon returned with three large logs, neatly dropping them on the fire materials with a dusty crunch. Twilight stuck her horn into the leaves at the bottom, igniting a little ember with a small glow of her magic.
Rarity, Fluttershy and I were all huddled together for warmth, while Dash insisted that she could handle the cold all by herself. I grinned when I saw her shivering.
“Ya’ sure you don’t wanna come over here with the rest of us, Rainbow? You look pretty cold over there all by your lonesome.” I chuckled, resulting in a very red-faced blue pegasus.
“I-I’m fine! I’m a pegasus. Cold doesn’t affect me!” She shot me an indignant glare, before setting her hooves and sitting down. It had only been a few seconds before she started shivering again. “Th-the fire’s almost ready, a-anyway...”
I looked at the pile of drywood. The young fire inside sent out small lashes of yellow flame as it grew, like a snake tasting the air. It wouldn’t be a roaring fire for at least another ten minutes.
“No it ain’t, Dash,” I corrected as Twilight and Pinkie joined our little huddle. It almost felt like I was part of a hoofball team. “And it ain’t gonna be fun waitin’ for it to get hot.” I looked at the sun again. It was no longer in sight, and darkness was beginning to engulf the land. “Come on over. You’re gonna get sick.”
“I said no!”
I sighed, taking off my hat and examining it. There was a small rectangle of embroidery on the inside, emblazoned with text that said Love, Big Mac. I smiled at it.
Soon enough, the fire was blazing, and the temperatures had dropped to freezing. We held our hooves to the fire, Rainbow Dash sitting a little too close, but I didn’t blame her; she was probably colder than the rest of us. Her teeth were chattering, which Pinkie found amusing.
“Oh Dashie, I bet I could feed you a carrot and it would be diced!” Ponyville’s premiere party pony giggled, rolling onto her back and kicking her back hooves into the air. She received a brief amethyst glare.
“Oh, don’t poke fun at the poor darling, Pinkie,” Rarity said, although her own snickering betrayed her false concern. Even I was chuckling.
“But diced carrots are tasty! We always dice our carrots at Sugar Cube Corner before making Carrot Cake make carrot cake out of them,” Pinkie said, licking her lips as she stared off into space. “Mmm...” She began slinging her tongue around, much to Rarity’s disgust.
“My Mom and Dad loved carrot cake. Uh, the food, not Mr. Cake. I was never really fan of it, though,” Twilight commented, holding her hooves a little closer to the fire and savoring its warmth.
I froze, my smile vanishing. No, don’t think about that right now. I forced the smile back onto my face, pushing away my previous train of thought before it led somewhere... unpleasant. “What do ya’ have against carrot cake?”
“Oh, nothing really. I just don’t really like it, is all.” Twilight smiled at me, then at Rainbow Dash. “How about you, Rainbow? Do you like carrot cake?”
She shook her head, her vibrant mane wiggling back and forth. “Nah. I don’t eat sweets much. I’m an athlete, so I need to eat healthy, no matter how bad it tastes.” She made a face at the ground. “Blecghk...”
“My... The stars really are beautiful tonight, aren’t they?” Rarity whispered, craning her neck to look up at the sky. Everyone else followed suit. Just like the nursery rhyme, they really did look like diamonds in the sky. Ever shining, ever twinkling. In Ponyville you could see quite a lot to begin with, but out here, where there were no surrounding lights... they were everywhere.
“Yes... Hmm... I wonder if some of the animals I’ve taken care of are scurrying around up there, even though they’re not around anymore...” Fluttershy mused.
Something inside me clicked. As I stared up at the sky, I began to see the smiling faces of two particular ponies. And then I saw-
I jerked my gaze away, staring with wide eyes at my hooves as I began to shiver, but not from the cold. I shook my head vigorously. No. Never think about that. It didn’t happen. Forget it. Forget. I shut my eyes tight, gritting my teeth and fighting back a whimper as I took several slow, deep breaths to clear my head. After I had locked up that image in the closet at the back of my mind, I swallowed and opened my eyes. All of my friends were looking at me with varying levels of concern.
“Hey Applejack, uh... You okay?” Rainbow Dash asked. I smiled at her, and focused on another subject before I started thinking about something unpleasant.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry none about me.” I swept my gaze over the others, who gradually took their eyes off of me. We kept talking for hours into the night, until Luna’s moon was high in the sky and the fire had receded to glowing coals. At this point, everypony was yawning and lying down, ready to hit the hay. Well, except for Twilight.
“Mmm... Speaking of the color pink, have you guys met my mom? She’s awesome. She’s really fast... like me...” Rainbow Dash mumbled through a yawn.
“I don’t think so, Rainbow. Where does she live?” Twilight asked, the only pony still wide awake. Apparently her body clock was set later than the rest of us. I knew she stayed up late to look at the sky through her telescope, so this was no surprise.
Twilight chuckled. “Well, that explains it.” She turned to me with a smile, and a little red flag rose in my head. Please, don’t let her ask what I think she’s going to ask.
“Applejack... You’re the only one who’s never said anything about your parents.”
I felt my ears get hot as my head shot up, my eyes wide. “They’re fine!” I shouted, a bit too loudly, panic lining the edges of my voice. I didn’t want to talk about this. Just don’t think about it.
Twilight seemed taken aback by my sudden outburst, and looked at me with worry. Apparently I shocked everypony else out of their exhaustion too, for they had all raised their heads to give me sympathetic glances.
“Applejack... Are you really okay, dear?” Rarity asked, her ocean-blue eyes twinkling with concern. The burning in my ears intensified until it felt like they were going to catch on fire, the sensation spreading to my temples.
I looked back at Rarity, forcing a smile to my face. I didn’t think it matched my eyes, however. “I-I’m alright. N-no problems here.” My voice was shaking, and Celestia, I was lying through my teeth. It was getting harder to keep up this fake smile by the second, too. It felt like there were boulders tied to the corners of my lips.
Rarity frowned. She obviously didn’t believe me. Regardless, when I felt the burning of tears behind my eyes, I quickly shut them and faced the ground, trying to stop my body’s incessant shaking. I poured a layer of concrete over that closet in the back of my mind. It never happened.
I had almost purged the thought when Fluttershy spoke up. “Did something happen to them...?” Her voice got quieter as she spoke, ending in a whisper. I wasn’t entirely sure if she was talking to me, or to somepony else. I didn’t even have to look at her to know that she had shrunk back.
I flinched, my eyes snapping open and looking at Fluttershy. I could barely make out a dark yellow blotch through the blur of my tears. I shut my eyes again, curling up around myself and facing away from them. Obviously they had seen through my fibs. I was never really a good liar. “I don’t wanna talk about it.” I hoped that would get them off my back, at least for tonight. Maybe they would forget about it in the morning.
My ears perked up as I heard a few hoofsteps, before I felt a gentle hoof on my shoulder. “Applejack...” It was Twilight’s voice, soft and comforting. I ignored her, although she didn’t remove her hoof from my shoulder. I swallowed and willed myself to stop shaking, but I couldn’t stop the tears that steadily dripped down my cheeks.
I eventually cleared the thoughts, the... memories, from my mind. Memories that never happened, I reminded myself. “Goodnight, guys,” I said, my voice devoid of emotion.
“Goodnight...” Twilight whispered, taking her hoof off of my shoulder and lying down next to me.
I didn’t open my eyes again, falling into a dark, dreamless sleep.
I slammed my back hooves into the tree behind me, shaking loose most of the apples. My older brother did the same from the other side, shaking off the rest of them. Lowering myself to the ground, I turned and cast a smile his way, which he eagerly returned.
It wasn’t quite applebuck season, but every now and then there were a few apple trees whose apples were ripe before or after the usual harvesting time. This was one of those trees. There were only a few of them today, as far as we could tell.
“So, uh... Anything interestin’ happen last night at you n’ your friends’ li’l camp-out?” Big Macintosh asked. I was about to answer ‘nope’, but then I remembered.
I looked directly into his eyes. “Big Mac... they asked me about... about Mom n’ Dad. And I came real close to just breakin’ up in front of them...” To my surprise, he stepped forward and wrapped a foreleg over my withers.
“...Did you tell ‘em?” he asked solemnly, concerned. I shook my head, and he nodded in understanding. “Ya’ don’t have to if ya’ don’t want to. Although, maybe it would be best if you did. I know ya’ don’t like to talk about it... or even think about it... but maybe your friends should know.”
It. It, it, it. It never happened.
Macintosh’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Sis... Are you really tellin’ yourself that? You’re gonna go mad.”
Oh horse apples, did I say that last part out loud?
Mac shifted his wheat stalk from one end of his mouth to the other. “...How long?”
I swallowed, quieting my voice to barely more than a whisper. “Since day one.”
His eyes widened, the wheat stalk falling out of his mouth. “Applejack, that ain’t healthy. Bein’ in denial for that long...”
I glared at him, my throat swelling ever so slightly as I prepared to yell, but caught myself. I wasn’t in denial. It never happened. Mom and Dad were still here. They just... had to go away. I knew it for a fact.
Mac’s shocked expression gave way to worry. “Sis, you need to talk to somepony. Tell your friends, okay?”
I nodded slowly, maintaining my glare. “Sure.”
We finished the rest of the early-bloomers in silence.
I steadily trotted through the streets of Ponyville, occasionally waving and spouting a quick hello to other ponies passing by. I took a deep breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth. The meager town smelled as it always had: like concrete.
My friends had invited me to lunch. As usual, Rarity had insisted that she cover the tab, which Rainbow Dash was entirely okay with, while some of the others wanted to pay for their own meals. I was one of them, so I brought a small bag of bits, which jangled at my side as I walked.
Turning a corner around the local bowling alley, I saw my friends sitting together at a large table topped with a fru-fru-ey pink polka-dotted umbrella. They smiled as they talked to each other, but upon sighting me, their cheerful expressions gave way to concern. Regardless, I smiled at them as I sat down.
There was silence between us for a few seconds, punctuated only by the clopping of the occasional citizen pony passing by. Even Pinkie, the usual motormouth, was uncharacteristically quiet as she stared at me.
Fluttershy shuffled her hooves. “A-Applejack... We’re worried about you...”
I shifted my gaze to her, and she shrunk back. “What for?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Well, ever since last night, we’ve all been wondering about your parents.” I cringed slightly at Twilight’s inappropriately forward statement. I shook my head rapidly for a moment, clenching my eyelids.
“Can we talk about somethin’ else? Please?” I begged, giving them all a pleading stare.
Rainbow Dash placed her front hooves on the table. “Listen AJ, I’m the element of Loyalty, and right now I’m feeling pretty disloyal just letting you sit and stew on whatever it is that happened to your mom and dad.”
“You don’t have to face this alone, dear...”
“We can help you... Uhm, if that’s okay...”
“Maybe I can bake a super-special cake to help you feel better?”
I pressed my hooves against my ears. “I don’t wanna talk about it!” This was not how I imagined this little lunch date would go. They just had to pick the most uncomfortable topic on Celestia’s green earth.
I froze, my eyes snapping open. The images were coming back. Fire. The ear-shattering crack of wood splitting. Blood. A scream. Two. And the scream of a filly. No, wait... that was me.
‘Applejack, run! It’s not safe he-’ There was a ground-shaking thud.
I gripped my head and collapsed onto the table, shaking. I began to whimper, my chest heaving. I heard the panicked sounds of my friends all but leaping out of their chairs and gathering around me.
“Applejack? W-what’s going on?” Rainbow Dash asked, her voice cracking with anxiety.
One of them hugged me. I thought it was Twilight. “She’s traumatized. Obviously, we’ve brought back a painful memory.”
“O-ohmygosh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry...!” the soft voice of Fluttershy whimpered.
“Shh... It’s okay, dear...” Rarity whispered, gently stroking my mane with a hoof. “She needs more time,” she said to the others. I swallowed, trying to calm myself as I tried to shove the images back into my mental closet. They kept slipping out of my hooves, continuously resurfacing and demanding that I relive them. No, not relive. That day never happened in the first place. Rarity stroked my mane until my whimpers subsided to shaky breaths, and stayed for just a moment longer until I was able to lock that horrible memory back up. After I had calmed myself enough to stop trembling, she and the others retook their seats, although I could almost feel them looking at me with concern.
Moments later, the waiter -- a grey unicorn in a snazzy suit -- came by, most likely perceiving me as asleep. I was still lying on the table, my eyes closed, my breathing paced. However, I couldn’t help but smirk as I heard Pinkie place her order, undoubtedly causing the waiter to regret taking hers first.
“And put extra cheese on it! No wait, less cheese and more jalapenos! I like jalapenos. They’re spicy but really tasty! Don’t forget to add extra cheese and less jalapenos! Tomatoes are tasty too, so put some of those in there. And I want less cheese! Do you have extra jalapenos? Mmm... Mr. and Mrs. Cake tell me that I shouldn’t eat too much spicy food or I’ll end up all uptight like Twilight, so-”
“Hey! I’m not uptight!”
There was a lapse in conversation for a few seconds, before Pinkie giggled and snorted. “Suuuuuuure...”
I opened my eyes to see Twilight glaring at Pinkie, and I chuckled to myself. All the others looked at me as I lifted my head, my mane slightly tousled. The waiter smiled at me like I was the savior of his soul, before looking at Pinkie. “So, you want a chef’s special sandwich with extra cheese and jalapenos,” he concluded, walking away from her and towards me.
Pinkie lifted herself onto the table with one hoof and reached towards him with the other. “Noooo! I wanted less jalapenos!” The waiter ignored her.
“Good morning, sleeping beauty,” he jested to me, his horn lighting up as a clipboard swung in front of him. “What will you have?”
Pinkie continued to rant behind him. “Did you hear what I said about the extra olives? I don’t like olives! Hey, listen to me!!”
“Uhm... Do ya’ll have any grilled veggies?” I asked.
The waiter nodded. “Would you like the special? Only three bits.”
I smiled at him and nodded back, and he moved on to Twilight. Soon enough after taking our orders, he came back and served each of them.
Pinkie glared down at her sandwich with a pout. “Hmph. I wanted more jalapenos.”
Twilight and Rarity ordered salads with dressing, Rainbow Dash ordered a salad without dressing, and Fluttershy was digging in to what looked like an extra-large plate of hors d'oeuvres. The small cubes of cheese and vegetables even had toothpicks jammed into them. My plate was the only one that was steaming. I looked at it, unsure if I should eat it now or wait until it cooled.
We ate in relative silence, the minds of everypony but me only able to think of one particular subject that was now an unspoken faux pas between us. Some of them turned to look at me with open mouths, as if to say something, before morosely turning away. “So... How’s the weather today?” I asked nonchalantly, hoping to get everypony’s minds off of this. I didn’t want to talk about it.
Apparently Pinkie was eager to change the subject, as she suddenly broke into a wide grin. “It’s great! It’s all sunny but not too hot, perfect for going outside and blowing bubbles! I like bubbles! I was talking with Rarity’s little sister Sweetie Belle and her friends earlier and I told them they could get a bubble-blowing cutie mark! So then they raided the general store of half their stock of bubble soap and I dunno where they went but they’re probably blowing super-fun soap-tastic bubbles!” She threw her hooves into the air.
We all smiled at the party pony, but nopony said a word. In the quiet, I began to hear Big Mac’s voice.
“Sis, you need to talk to somepony. Tell your friends, okay?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I felt my throat tighten as I considered telling them what happened. Or, what didn’t happen. Ugh... Applejack, stop it. You’ve been lying to yourself for almost a decade. Tell them. They only want to help.
I swallowed, gritting my teeth, feeling my ears burn. I needed to do this. They were all worried about me. They knew something was up. I couldn’t keep dodging the subject. This was for them as much as it was for me. I needed to keep my composure, and just say it.
“G-guys...” My voice was barely more than a whisper. “Listen...”
They were giving me their uncontested attention. I swallowed again, breaking off the cement of my mental closet and creaking the door open, revealing the memory of the worst day of my life.
“M-my folks...” I was already tearing up. I summoned images, painful experiences, that I had forced down for several years. “T-there was... We were...” I tightened my chest, trying to keep from sobbing. “Fire... W-we were in a f-forest... T-trying to g-get out...” Opening my eyes, I couldn’t see two hooves in front of my face. I put all of my willpower into trying to control my breathing. I needed to keep it together, otherwise I would never get this stubborn parasite off of my chest.
I choked, suddenly unable to form my miserable whimpers into words. I felt a stern hoof on my back, and I flinched, whipping my head to the side to see Rainbow Dash’s frowning face. “AJ... We’re here for you, okay?” she whispered. I wasn’t aware that Dash was deep enough to give any form of sympathy, but at the time I didn’t care for specifics.
“I... Mom and Dad...” I shut my eyes tight. “They were r-right behind me... B-but... One of the trees...” I couldn’t bring myself to say any more. One minute my parents were running behind me, and the next... I saw things that no filly should ever, ever have to see. There was blood. Far, far too much. They told me to run away, but instead, I ran to them. I ran towards the fallen tree, galloping through something... wet, before another one came crashing down and marked the last time I ever saw my parents. Although, in that glimpse, I couldn’t even recognize them...
I suddenly realized that I was sobbing into my forelegs again. I wanted to just bawl like the little filly I was so long ago. I regretted ever opening my mental closet and pulling out that memory. I wanted to just forget it ever happened. I had never accepted it.
I couldn’t even remember exactly what my parents looked like.
“AJ, uhm... It’s okay... I-I’m sure that... Uhh...” Dash stuttered, obviously inexperienced with comforting an upset pony. I felt myself pulled into a group hug between my friends. All of them were willing to help me, and as much as I wanted to deny it, I needed it.
A ghost of a smile graced my lips as I looked back at them, tears still squeezing themselves out from under my eyes. “Thanks...” I muttered. I felt a tad selfish at keeping secret what could’ve possibly been the biggest problem of my life, when I had five friends who were willing to understand. It was selfish and monstrously self-destructive.
Upon seeing my face, each of them gave soft smiles in return. “Why didn’t you tell us, dear? You were so upset...” Rarity asked, frowning.
To be honest, I did not know how to answer that. So I spouted the first thing that came to mind. “Because I didn’t want to think about it.”
They simply hugged me tighter. I couldn’t force out the whole story of what happened, but I don’t think I needed to. The details would cause any filly weeks of sleepless nights. It was... gory. I’ll leave it at that.
As it turned out, Big Macintosh and I had missed a few of the ‘early bloomer’ trees from earlier. I wasn’t surprised; my mind wasn’t exactly on my work at the time. We set out to buckin’ em, and I felt better about myself than I had all day. We had yet to say more than a few words to each other, mostly because Mac had noticed the unusual spring in my step and decided not to say something that could potentially destroy it.
Macintosh finished up the job I’d started with the nearest tree. “So... You told me you were goin’ to lunch with your friends. How’d that go? Did you... ya’ know...?” He looked at me curiously.
I held his gaze for a moment, but then smiled at him. “Uh huh... I didn’t tell them the whole story, but...”
He smiled back. “Do ya’ feel better now?”
His smile vanished. “You know, AJ... I wasn’t there. I didn’t see what you saw. I did my fair share of cryin’, but I only know what ya’ told me after ya’ came runnin’ home. I guess that was why it was a li’l easier for me to accept it.”
Normally I would have yelled at him for implying that I couldn’t accept something that for so long I believed to be false, but I knew that he was right. I couldn’t accept it. I’d been denying it for my entire life since that fateful day. But now... I believed that I finally could.
Mac smiled at me again. “AJ... Do you know where your hat came from?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? Ya’ gave to me for my birthday. It was yours, wasn’t it?”
Mac shook his head, still smiling. “Naw. It wasn’t mine... You know about the embroidery on the inside?”
I removed my trademark hat from my head and looked at the colorful rectangle in question. Love, Big Mac. “Yeah, what about it?”
He grinned. “Try to take it off.”
My eyebrows rose as I stared at him. Concedingly, I brought the hat to my teeth and bit the edge of the rectangle. To my surprise, it appeared to be stuck on with glue, weakened with age. I slowly peeled it off, my eyes widening at what was underneath.
I now saw why Mac did this. The embroidery was never attached to the hat. He glued it on there because he was trying to protect me from what was originally sewn into the fabric, like any good brother would do in the situation that their little sister faced. He had started wearing this hat after the... incident, and on my next birthday, he gave it to me. He wore it for several months, just to make me think that he owned it, so I wouldn’t suspect anything when he finally hoofed it down to me.
Stitched into the fabric, in neat, glossy black thread, was--
I just stared at it for a few seconds, hot tears welling up in my eyes. I slowly looked up at Big Mac, who gave me a warm smile.
“Mom n’ Dad were gonna give that to ya’ for your birthday. But, seein’ as what happened, and how much pain you were goin’ through inside... I didn’t want you to see that part. So I stuck that on there until you were ready.”
I walked to him, tears rolling down my smiling cheeks, and wrapped my forelegs around his neck. He nuzzled me in return.
“I love you, Big Bro.”
“Love ya’ too.”
Edited by Beige Monkfish