Elliott stopped by a pet shop on the way home from work the following day, where they picked up a collar and leash with hopes of bringing the dog home that evening. The only problem was that when they arrived on the hilltop, the dog was nowhere to be seen. They tried whistling for it, in hopes that it would respond to that. It did not.
Elliott was peering into the underbrush, in case the dog was just hiding in the shadows, when they got the creeping feeling that they were being watched. Ever since they’d gotten over their fear of being chased and bitten they’d felt pretty safe in the park, so it wasn’t as if they’d just made themself paranoid. The feeling came out of nowhere, as it sometimes does when one is actually being watched.
“Hello?” they called, trying and mostly failing to sound confident. There was no answer, but the feeling persisted.
They thought about fleeing, which is what a more rational person might have done, but they were still a creature of habit, and dammit, this was their hilltop. They looked about for something to defend themself with, as this was apparently the hill they had — quite literally — decided to die on. They found a fallen branch not far from the path, and once they were wielding that, a new wave of courage rose up in them. It’s amazing what a blunt object can do for one’s confidence.
“Who’s there?” they demanded, brandishing the branch. “I know you’re there, come out now!” they insisted with the conviction of the terminally brave.
The bushes rustled behind them and Elliott spun around to face the direction of the sound. A boy emerged from the underbrush, a watchful expression on his face and both hands held erect in a gesture of surrender. Elliott guessed he was in his early to mid teens — probably 15 at the oldest. The large, dark eyes that peered at them from under a mop of disheveled black hair held a curious air of both innocence and worldliness which Elliott had trouble reconciling.
“Would you mind putting the stick down, now?” the boy asked, though he didn’t seem overly concerned.
“Oh, right,” Elliott said sheepishly. “Sorry.” They set the branch on the ground. “What are you doing lurking in the bushes, anyway?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well it’s a bit creepy.”
“Really? How old are you?” The kid’s tone was more curious than mocking, but Elliott couldn’t help feeling embarrassed.
“23,” they admitted. “But nobody can tell you’re just a kid when you’re hiding off in the bushes like that.”
“I was just waiting for you to leave,” the boy said, “I didn’t mean to creep anybody out.”
“Well, good. Anyway, have you seen a dog around here?”
“Nope,” the kid answered. “Are you missing one?”
“Kind of. Not exactly,” Elliott admitted, “I’ve been feeding a stray, but it didn’t show up tonight.”
“I’ll just put some food out for it, and then I’ll leave you to,” they trailed off for a moment, considering, “to whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Alright,” said the boy.
“Alright.” Elliott set some treats out in the usual spot, and with one last look in the boy’s direction, they continued on their way home.
The teen was there again the next night, though this time he didn’t hide in the bushes. Elliott gave him a nod of recognition as they paused to set some biscuits out, then hurried along, leaving the kid to his own devices. The exact same scenario played out the night after that, as well.
When Elliott ran into the kid for the fourth consecutive night, they found him kneeling off to the side of the path, half obscured by a gnarled old oak, and in the act of lighting a candle. He used a stick of burning incense to do it, and the scent of frankincense hung on the air, which is to say it smelled like a fucking cathedral.
Elliott found themself watching, transfixed, as the boy lit the candle and stuck the base of the incense into the earth so that it stood upright, a ghostly swirl of smoke trailing in the air. It was only when the boy turned to look at them that they realized they’d been staring.
“Hello,” said the teen, who didn’t appear to be annoyed by the intrusion. He might have even expected it, given that they always seemed to run into each other.
“Hi,” Elliott responded. “Can I ask what you’re doing?”
“Just lighting a candle.”
“Right. Silly question… I guess I meant to ask why you’re lighting a candle.”
“Well…” said the boy, looking slightly sheepish, “it probably sounds stupid, but when my family first came here from their homeland, this was where they came to pray to their gods. That’s about all I know about it, but I like to come here and light candles. It makes me feel somehow connected to my ancestors.”
“Oh, really? That’s actually pretty cool,” Elliott admitted.
“I only brought one candle, but you can light an incense if you want,” the kid offered, holding out another stick.
“Sure, thank you. It smells nice,” Elliott said, taking the stick. They held it into the candle flame until the end ignited, then waited for it to begin smouldering before blowing the flame out. They stuck the base into the ground as the kid had done, and the two sat in silence for a minute, watching the smoke. “What’s your name?” Elliott eventually asked. The kid seemed to think for a moment.
“You can call me Puck,” he said.
The kid was smart, Elliott thought, not giving out his real name to some stranger he’d met in the park. In retrospect they probably shouldn’t have asked, but if they were going to run into each other every night, it seemed like it would be less awkward if they had some way of referring to one another. Furthermore, the name, though somewhat ridiculous, was oddly befitting of the impish youth who appeared to them in the woods. Probably a drama kid, Elliott noted.
“I’m Elliott,” they replied.
“Nice to meet you, officially,” said Puck. The two returned to watching the smoke in silence. Eventually Elliott began to get cold, since they’d dressed for vigorous exercise and were now sitting still.
“I should get back to my run,” they said. “You be careful getting home,” they added for good measure.
“I’ll be fine. I’m just going to stay until the candle burns down,” Puck explained.
“Alright, well, see you,” said Elliott, and with that they began jogging back down the hill.
After their post-run shower, Elliott found themself rummaging through their desk drawers for a pack of incense they’d bought at some point in college. At that time they’d hoped to use it to cover up some of the unsavory aromas produced by their then-roommate, but had found the scent a little too strong, and so after using one stick, the rest of the packet had been abandoned to the recesses of… somewhere.
Had they thrown it away? It was possible — there’d been a great purging of things after graduation, when they’d moved into their current studio. Elliott was, in most respects, a bit of a minimalist, though they didn’t consider themself to be one. The day-to-day battle against the ever encroaching forces of clutter gave them the feeling that they were something of a hoarder, even as it drove them to an increasingly austere lifestyle.
After sifting through the better part of their apartment, they finally found the incense in a box of some of their college things, which had been on a shelf in the closet. The scent of amber was a dead giveaway as soon as they opened the box, and they recoiled from it on reflex before triumphantly fishing it out from between a binder of their essays and a stack of old notebooks.
When they left for their next run, it was with the package of incense, rather than the customary dog biscuits. There was something about the kid’s nightly vigil that made them think they could use a friend, or maybe a mentor — somebody who could generally be a good influence. Elliott had no real qualifications in this area, but at least they could bring their own incense in a show of solidarity.
On top of the hill Puck had already taken his place under the same oak tree, where he knelt in the flickering light of a candle, his eyes closed as shadows danced across his face. He looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps and his face broke into a grin as Elliott proffered the package of incense.
“You brought your own,” he observed, the amusement obvious in his voice.
“Yeah, well, I’ve had it for years and I doubt I’ll ever use it again. You want it?”
“Don’t you want to stay and light a stick?” Puck asked, and Elliott had to admit that they did.
“Alright,” they said, and used the burning candle to light the stick. “So do you like… pray, or meditate, or something?”
“Or something, I guess.”
Elliott began to wonder if maybe they’d misread the situation. The way the kid had appeared to them, hiding in the shadows, sunken into his faded black hoodie, had made him seem troubled. Now that he was demonstrating a confidence that Elliott themself lacked, they had to wonder if they hadn’t been projecting their own — yet unrealized — emotions onto him. Were they really so lonely that they were trying to hang out with a teenager?
The incense nearly burnt down, they stood to go, offering the remainder of the package to Puck again. The boy didn’t take it.
“Why don’t you come light another tomorrow?” he asked, his previous air of friendly mocking giving way to sincerity. Maybe Elliott had been right to begin with.
“Oh… alright,” they agreed. Puck smiled.
“See you then.”
And so began Elliott’s new routine, or perhaps it would be more fitting to call it a ritual.