The Worst Fire Emblem Awakening Play Through Ever: Chapters 5 and 6

The following post is part of my series “The Worst Fire Emblem Awakening Playthrough Ever”. Spoilers ahead for a six year old game.


Welcome back to the worst Fire Emblem Awakening play through ever. When we last left the Shepherds, a tween was getting upset that he couldn’t come to war and blonde Carmelita Spats was about to cause an international incident. In no way will we come back to that storyline for any reason. Also, added more people to our ragtag party of an army, including the strong, silent type, our resident Mary Sue1And Chrom’s future wife. and a talking suit of armor. I’ve also been down a rabbit hole of Awakening content on TV Tropes. I cannot be held responsible for what I say or do as a result of this.

In this post, we’ll be playing through chapters 5 and 6. While these chapters are a bit on the longer side, I feel like I go long enough between posting updates in this series that it’s worth it. Plus, these aren’t the most time consuming chapters I could write on.

Chapter 5: The Exalt and the King

Chrom, Lissa, and Emmeryn are walking through a canyon when they come up on King Gangrel. He’s clearly a bad guy due to the cocky way he stands, as well as his gigantic fur neck covering. Emmeryn tries to negotiate to avoid political turmoil, but she’s quickly interrupted by another baddy, Aversa. Aversa appears to be one part sorceress and two parts see-through clothing. Gangrel and Aversa have captured Maribelle, who is doing her best Chris Jericho impression by calling people troglodytes. Aversa is arguing Maribelle’s insolence is an act of war, and though I know Maribelle is supposed to be on my side, I’m thinking Aversa may have a good point, despite the fact that she and Gangrel are clearly overreacting.

Gangrel accuses Maribelle of being a spy, however instead of arguing Maribelle is too much of an asshole to people who she sees to be below her station to be a spy, Emmeryn’s idea of diplomacy is to say please. Gangrel says no, Chrom gets angsty, and then Gangrel wants the Fire Emblem — which is also the name of the mythical shield belonging to the Ylissian royal family — in exchange for Maribelle. Emmeryn and Gangrel then have a short expositional dialogue explaining what the Fire Emblem is and its powers2To save the world before bedtime., before Gangrel mentions that the whole reason he hates Ylisse is because Emmeryn’s father was a mass murdering sociopath of an exalt.

Chrom then shoots fir…er…kills someone with a sword first, actually starting a war. Great job, hero. You broke it.

Aversa then tries to shame Maribelle into feeling like she started this war when a blast of wind magic kills the guard that’s beside Maribelle. Our teen from last chapter, Ricken, is here to save the day. The level then begins with Ricken and Maribelle cornered, because while Ricken is brave, he is also quite stupid.

I accidentally skip the short cut scene between selecting units and the level actually starting, only to be reminded that the boss in this level is Randy Orton. Because Ricken and Maribelle are cornered, it’s in my best interest to save them first3Despite my desires to the contrary., which means we get another dose of Frederick Emblem, as he and Miriel go off to save our captive friends. I have Lissa and Sully follow, as both Ricken and Maribelle are particularly squishy at this point. Meanwhile, the rest of our crew takes the long way around, picking up XP and items along the way. Except for Vaike, that is, who will be Maribelle’s support partner in the long run.

We get Maribelle and Vaike teamed up, transferring Lissa over to Ricken in the process so Sully can run solo. This doesn’t go amazingly, but she doesn’t die, so it works out. Christopher and Sumia are particularly good at killing our attackers, so the left side of the map is cleared quickly. Even Ricken manages to get in on the fun and games, cleaning up where Vaike misses.

Despite reinforcements being a thing for the first time in this level, we clean up pretty easily because Sumia and Chrom can double hit most anyone when paired. But wait. Breaking news!

Frederick crits someone and we get that beauty of a line. Despite having a 2% crit chance. It’s so good.

We finally advance on the boss, who tries to deliver an RKO out of nowhere to Ricken, but Ricken dodges it. This allows Kellam (of all people) to come in and clean up for the win.

After the fight ends, Lissa and Maribelle reunite. Chrom apologizes to his sister for starting a war and Emmeryn says that it’s okay. Frederick reminds everyone that if this is, indeed, a war, more troops will likely show up and want to battle, so they should get a move on. We do, ending the chapter.

Chapter 6: Foreseer

Outside Ylisstol castle, Chrom is staring into the distance, reenacting the cover of Faith +1’s debut album. Christopher Robin wants to know why he’s out so late. Chrom is dealing with the fact that his father committing brutal war that killed several people on both the Plegian and Ylissean sides. We have a War is Hell moment before Chrom brings up that his father’s death made Emmeryn the ruler of Ylisse at age 10. We’re 15 years on now, but Ylisse seems to be in pretty good shape for having a young person run the country. It’s almost as if the real world could learn something from video games.

The conversation is interrupted by clearly-not-a-girl Marth, who warns Chrom and Christopher that an assassin is here to kill Emmeryn. Marth spends far longer than should be necessary convincing them that a threat on the life of the ruler of an entire nation needs to be taken seriously, but she manages to get the point across by slaying a second assassin that has arrived to kill Chrom. A third assassin then shows up because reasons. While he manages to get the drop on Marth — splitting her mask in two with his sword, Chrom kills him. Everyone is then shocked…SHOCKED, I SAY…to realize that Marth is a girl. She then gives speech about how she’s impressed she managed to fool everyone, leading into the beginning of our level.

Some guy named Validar is here to take over the castle and Emmeryn is encouraging us to flee while we still can. That said, the Shepherds aren’t going anywhere — in fact, we gain a few new members on turn two in the form of Gaius, a sticky handed thief, and Panne, the last of a rabbit-like shapeshifting race called the taguel. Marth is an ally for us in this level and she’s here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. It’s evident by the critical hits she’s dealing out that she’s all out of bubble gum. Cleaning out the incoming army takes a little bit longer than expected, as I didn’t do a massive amount of reeking box grinding prior to this level, but it’s still not too much of a challenge. Eventually, we draw out Validar and let one of the newcomers, Panne, get the final blow to end the level.

After the level, Chrom is excited to see Emmeryn safe, while Phila feels as though she’s let Emmeryn down due to the assassination attempt. The gang realizes Marth is now gone and nowhere to be found. Chrom runs off looking for her and finds her in the castle courtyard. Chrom offers to repay her for saving his life, but she turns him down. Her logic is that history has been rewritten, which may be true, but we’re clearly not even close to the end game, so there’s more of the story rewrite, I’d presume. Marth then vanishes into the darkness, as she’s Batman.

Emmeryn thanks Panne for her assistance in saving her life. We then get backstory on the taguel and let’s just say humans have been super shitty to them. Emmeryn tries her best to make amends for humanity’s terrible treatment of the taguel and Panne is annoyed, but appreciative. We then cut to Validar trying to sneak around in the darkness after his failure to kill Emmeryn, only he’s confronted by a mysterious figure named Grima who is displeased with him. Grima spares Validar’s life, but that’s all we learn for now.

Back in Ylisstol, Phila is playing the role of inept detective quite well, while Chrom is busy blaming foreigners for the attack. Emmeryn tells him to STFU and not be an asshole, because Emmeryn is basically purity personified. Chrom and Frederick convince Emmeryn to let them relocate her for safety’s sake, which is where our level ends.

End of Level Recap

Below are the unit progress and support progress we made in these chapters. I did a touch of reeking box grinding between chapters 5 and 6 for sake of getting some levels on our healers. This leads to some of the massive growths in terms of both levels and supports you see below.

Units

  • Vaike – Level 10 Fighter
  • Chrom – Level 8 Lord
  • Miriel – Level 8 Mage
  • Kellam – Level 8 Knight
  • Sumia – Level 7 Pegasus Knight
  • Panne – Level 7 Taguel
  • Christopher – Level 6 Tactician
  • Lissa – Level 6 Cleric
  • Sully – Level 6 Cavalier
  • Maribelle – Level 6 Troubadour
  • Ricken – Level 5 Mage
  • Gaius – Level 5 Thief
  • Stahl – Level 4 Cavalier
  • Lon’qu – Level 4 Myrmidon
  • Frederick – Level 3 Great Knight
  • Virion – Level 2 Still Here Because I Can’t Get Rid Of Him

Supports

  • Christopher & Kellam: None to C
  • Chrom & Sumia: C to B to A to S
  • Frederick & Miriel : C to B to A
  • Chrom & Vaike: None to C
  • Vaike & Maribelle: None to C to B
  • Ricken & Panne: None to C

On Rejection

There’s a colloquial usage of a word in the English language that’s always befuddled me. There’s a specific way the word ‘break’ is used that essentially makes it come off with a positive connotation. See: break the seal, break a streak, break a slump, and others. Basically, it’s used to mean ‘to bring an end to something’.

I’ve found this weird for the longest time in part because of the primary usage of the word break. As a verb, it’s meant to indicate when something is separated or shattered, while as a noun, it’s an interruption4The verb can also mean an interruption, but in this context, it is more commonly a noun.. Yet, regardless of the exact nature of the usage employed, the word break typically has negative connotations. With the exception, again, of bringing an end to something.

It’s been a rough couple of years for me in the working world. To explain why though, I need to take a step back and give a little context. One of the things I’ve been working on for quite some time now is trying to get myself to the point where I could make a transition to a human resources role. It’s something I’ve wanted for a few years now and I’ve made an active effort everywhere I go to try to learn things the best I can so that I can grow into such a role. But then I watched the people who supported my move transition roles or leave the company. While I gained new support in some cases, other key folks felt I needed to be further entrenched in the role I was in because I was too valuable to lose. I don’t say all of this as a matter of sour grapes — things worked out the way they did for a reason and I hold no ill will against anyone for it. It’s needed context.

And then our office got shut down.

I took a job that I though would help me out. A job that I thought (from the interview process) that would both be a step forward in my role and responsibility, and one that would help me to have opportunity to grow my career with supportive people who wanted me to move up, but also to do so on my timeline.

Two days into the new job, I realized I was wrong on so many levels. I had been misled heavily in the interview process by the director over our department about the department, its resources, the nature of my role, its responsibilities, and its seniority. Over the course of the rest of the year, I’d learn that the career growth opportunities I’d been led to believe existed were in the company, though not to the extent as they were originally portrayed. There was nothing I could do though. I had no where to go back to. And considering I had changed jobs in the extremely recent past, companies wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole — longer if they owned large enough poles.

I felt like all of the work I’d put into my career to that point was a waste. My career had taken a massive step backward. I wasn’t challenged anymore. I didn’t feel like I fit in with my new employer, be it socially, ethically, or mentally. I had just gotten out of what was, at times, the worst job I’d ever been part of, only to feel like things had managed to hit an even lower point. This wasn’t a feeling of imposter syndrome. I’d had that and knew very well what that felt like. This was something new. I felt rejected. By prospective employers, by my current job, by my previous job, by those who didn’t believe in me, by those who did believe in me…if you can think of someone it felt like I was getting this feeling from, you’re probably right.

While all this was going on, a former coworker of mine reached out to me seeing if I had any interest in doing a freelancing writing project for the company she worked for. I was somewhat interested, though nothing ever came of the project. Considering I was having struggles getting my own freelancing work off the ground at this point, it would have been a welcome gig, though one I definitely would not have had time for in retrospect.

Later in 2018, I interviewed at the same company for what would have been a dream role. I had a lot of confidence that the role would come to fruition and that it was just a matter of time before it happened. Then, right when I was hitting what was arguably my lowest point mentally with how rejected I felt by everything work related — all while combined with a massive amount of non-work related stress — I found out the budget had been cut for that role. I didn’t get the job.

I was on my break when I found out. On my breaks, I typically walk around the parking lot in an effort to get some exercise, as sitting in a cubicle all day is a rough way to lose weight. In that moment, I found myself standing in the parking lot of a nearby building, crying because I felt like I was never going to get out. Nothing was going to change for the better. I felt like the world was rejecting me, no matter how hard I tried to make things better.

Things did — and are still getting better. I write this post, including the previous 900+ words of sadness and frustration, to remind people that in order to advance your career, it requires a ton of hard work. Not just a little bit here and there. Not just one day of hard work and you’re set for the rest of your career. Do your best every day. Even if what you’re doing isn’t what you’re passionate in, do the best you can and put some of that passion towards finding something to fuel your passion. No one is going to help you out of the rut. Sure, you may find someone who helps you take those last few steps and helps you land a new role. But if you’re not putting in the leg work yourself leading up to that point, they’ll never see your hand poking up from the ditch to grab.

 

How Smeargle (Almost) Made Me Quit Pokemon Go

aka: Yes, people do still play Pokemon Go, you anti-nerd killjoy.

In late February of this year, Pokemon Go finally introduced one of the few Pokemon in the first four generations of the series that had not yet been released — Smeargle. While there were still other Pokemon that hadn’t been released in the game to this point, Smeargle’s omission was both peculiar and understandable, all at the same time. On one hand, most of the Pokemon that had featured slow releases in Pokemon Go had either been legendary/mythical Pokemon5Mewtwo, Lugia, Articuno, Mew, Celebi, Dialga, etc., had unique ways of evolving6Evolving via trade with an item, evolving when leveling up while knowing a certain move, evolving while in a certain location, or Feebas’ weird double evolution possibility., or were Spiritomb7The idea behind this — doing a series of tasks based around Spiritomb’s lore — was amazing. The actual quests themselves were tedious as all hell, as everything around Spiritomb revolves around the number 108.. On the other hand, Smeargle feel into a small subset of Pokemon whose entire gimmick in the game wasn’t covered in any way in Pokemon Go. The best parallel was Ditto, which uses the move Transform prior to changing into whatever Pokemon it’s facing.

Smeargle only learns one move in the main series games — Sketch. The move Sketch allows Smeargle to copy whatever move was last used on it and permanently learn that move to its moveset. This means that Smeargle can learn nearly any move in the entire game, save for the moves Chatter, Struggle8Even though Smeargle can’t learn Struggle via Sketch, it can use the move if it depletes the uses of all of its known moves, just like any other Pokemon., and Sketch itself. Considering the largest movepool in Pokemon Go prior to Smeargle’s release was Mew at 39 total moves, Smeargle certainly could have proven to be a challenge for Pokemon Go developer Niantic.

The way Niantic chose to implement Smeargle in the game was ingenious. In another recent update, Niantic introduced its AR camera feature. This feature allows you to take photos of Pokemon already in your inventory with those mons projected in the real world. This feature was already present when you encounter wild Pokemon9Though quite unwieldy, as most players I know completely shut off the AR catching mode to make catching easier., but because Pokemon Snap is a fandom that just won’t die10I adore Pokemon. This blog has plenty of evidence of that. But where I break from the Pokemon fan base is in my distaste for Snap. Not only should Snap not be remade, it’s proof that just because you slap Pokemon on something doesn’t mean that thing will be good., this was a hotly requested feature in Go as well. Smeargle will randomly photobomb your picture with whatever Pokemon your taking pictures of, giving you a chance to capture Smeargle after the event.

Notice I said randomly in that last sentence. Yes, your encountering of Smeargle is at the mercy of RNGesus. This is where my rage-fueled story begins. Most times below are estimated, though I have a few exact time stamps from pictures.

  • Monday, 4:14 pm: I learn that Smeargle is in Pokemon go and how to acquire it. I load the game, take one AR picture of my Alolan Vulpix, see I didn’t find Smeargle, and close the game. I find the feature and encounter mechanic really cool, marking the last time I have this thought.
  • 7:45 pm: After dinner and cleaning up our kitchen, the wife and I begin trying to encounter Smeargle in earnest. My father-in-law texts saying he found his in around 60 photos, so this seems like a fun way to kill twenty minutes or so before I start editing.
  • 8:00 pm: Both the wife and I are around 100 photos without seeing Smeargle. We’re having fun seeing what stupid pictures we can take, so it’s fine.
  • 8:15 pm: After some searching on Reddit and Discord, we learn that Smeargle’s appearances are completely RNG based. While some people are finding them quickly, others are literally in the thousands of photos with no encounters. My heart sinks a little, but we keep going.
  • 8:30 pm: As part of our last search, we learn that Smeargle can get moves from Community Day Pokemon. This leads me to taking the next 100 or so of my pictures of an Espeon I have that knows Last Resort.
  • 8:50 pm: I am now quite tired of looking at Espeon’s face. Both my wife and I are growing frustrated with the process. She’s at around 250 pictures, I’m just over 300.
  • 9:05 pm: My wife wants popcorn and House Hunters. She has since the Smeargle search started. We’ve both grown angry at the lack of HGTV in our lives. We resolve to spend five more minutes trying to find Smeargle before we give up.
  • 9:06 pm: My wife’s mundane super power kicks in and she encounters Smeargle within 60 seconds of the previous discussion. I decided I’m going to finish out our pre-discussed five minutes, go make popcorn, and continue searching for Smeargle, as the asshole has already ruined my editing time.
  • 9:12 pm: Popcorn in hand, my photo taking resumes as we watch a young couple with a $900,000 budget look for a home in rural Ohio. She’s an avant-garde perler bead artist while he invented hand sanitizer for blockchain. They agree on nothing, yet want a place where their pets — which they insist on calling fur babies — can roam free. The pets will be picking the house. Somehow, this infuriates me less than Smeargle.
  • 9:35 pm: My wife goes to bed. The struggle continues.
  • 10:15 pm: Now at over 500 pictures with no Smeargle, I pause for a few minutes to do some research on how Smeargle works. Apparently you’re limited to getting one per day. Which is great, as I still have zero. I find a Reddit post where someone says they’re over 2,500 pictures with no Smeargle. I consider going to bed, but I’m committed at this point.
  • 10:45 pm: After another half hour of failure, I open Smash Brothers to kick the crap out of something out of rage. I go to Spirit Board and Smeargle is one of the first things that pops up. Fuck you.
  • 11:25 pm: I finally relent and decide it’s time for bed. I’m over 780 pictures at this point. I try taking a picture in the dark to see what happens, but Pokemon Go’s AR function can’t recognize a flat surface in the dark. Which is great, because it seems to have a hell of a time doing the same thing in the light, so at least it’s consistent.
  • Tuesday, 7:50 am: I get to work and have a little time to kill before my shift starts. Smeargle hunt, round two.
  • 7:58 am: Eight minutes later, Smeargle finally shows up. It photobombed a Shuckle, because you don’t fuckle with Shuckle. I didn’t get the moveset I want, but I don’t care. I’m done. I’m fucking done.

Listen, I get it. Some games have RNG-based grindfests. And if that’s your thing, awesome. But Niantic? This was genuinely the worst thing I’ve had to do in Pokemon Go. And I was around when the original gym system existed. If you’re going to give us Smeargle in this way, at least bring back the footstep Pokemon tracker. That was the best.

Book Review – 10:04 by Ben Lerner

After a full year of the blog not having any book reviews on it, I fully planned to have a new review up on the site sometime in January or February of this year. And this post is proof of making good on that promise. This just wasn’t the book I had planned on reviewing. I’ll be sure to get to that book in the not to distant future, however I’ve decided to preempt that review with one about Ben Lerner’s book “10:04” for two reasons.

  1. I have significantly more to say about “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”11The book linked in the paragraph above. than I do about “10:04”. This is partly because I wholeheartedly loved “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”, partly because I feel like the messages in that book are much more poignant in today’s society than the average book, and partly because I’m a huge fan of Hank Green. It’s also partly because I have conflicting feelings about “10:04”, which I’ll get into below.
  2. “10:04” is the first book that I’ve read in years that made me actively ask ‘what in the fuck did I just read?’ and not have it be completely in a bad way12I’ve had quite a few of the ‘what in the fuck did I just read?’ in a bad way books over the past few years. This list includes, but is not limited to, “The Red Inn” by Honore de Balzac, “Lucky Us” by Amy Bloom, and “The Iliad” by Homer..

The premise of “10:04” — an author writing about the process of writing a book — is simple enough. Much like Hollywood fetishizes over movies about Hollywood, authors love reading books about other writers and their writing processes, be they fictional or otherwise. That said, “10:04” is not so much about the author’s journey to write a single book as much as it is a journey to write four13At least four. You could make the argument it’s more than that with the different ideas he details, but there’s four solid books discussed. different stories over the course of the book. It is a beautifully relatable tale in that regard. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many story ideas that I’ve had that I’ve started, only to scrap them later for a better idea, or when I tired of writing the initial story. Lerner does a masterful job of grasping with this concept in “10:04”, as well as the many reasons why authors have mental hurdles when it comes to writing works that are intended for future publication.

The various stories detailed with in the book, however, also become its downfall to a certain extent. Though the main storyline flows linearly and coherently, when bits and pieces of the stories that the author is writing are worked into the book, it makes for a confusing read. This was even more noticeable in the audiobook version of “10:04”, where the reader of the story did not clearly delineate when the narrator was switching between telling his own story and telling a story he had written (though there was a notable exception later in the book that was done flawlessly). Instead of having a flowing, coherent read, those who choose to listen to the audiobook may experience minutes at a time where they’re confused whether or not they’re reading the main story itself or a story within a story. From what I’ve seen in a quick skim through the physical book, this is better laid out in the book itself, hence why it is a criticism on my part, though not a chief one.

“10:04” is very much a metafictional look into writing a book from the view of an author within a book. I love this style of writing, particularly when it’s done well. There are several nods to the fact that the author/narrator of this book knows that you, the reader, are consuming his current book. With that said, it’s not intrusive enough to be a distraction from the main story itself. The book has a few interesting subplots, particularly the relationship between the author and his best friend, Alex, in their quest to conceive a child through IVF14There’s a moment in this particular subplot that’s incredibly cringey. It works because the main character is portrayed as flawed and somewhat impulsive, but at the same time doesn’t work because of how much the main character seems to focus on morality in the book. Even after finishing the entire book and understanding how that scene fits into the larger context of the novel, I still don’t understand the need for its inclusion. It just adds an unnecessary reason to hate the main character to the story.. The overarching goal of the author finishing his story — or what that story would eventually become by the end of the book — is molded and changed by the various subplots within the story, which helps them flow quite naturally.

My biggest complaint about “10:04” is how frequently the main character of the story would talk smart just to sound smart. Since the main character is both an author and a professor, it goes without saying that this individual would have an extensive vocabulary and would deploy it regularly, both as the narrator of a metafictional piece and in his day-to-day interactions with other people in the book. With that said, there were several times throughout the book I was left wondering whether the main character was meant to be portrayed as a pompous intellectual or not. I don’t think this was the intent when the character was written, as evidenced by the main character’s interactions with children in the book, as well as most of his time with Alex. But there were enough times where I felt like the narrator was trying to impress someone with his verbosity that it was distracting — arguably the most distracting part of the book as a whole.

With that all said, there is something that “10:04” does better than most any book I’ve read15Definitely in recent memory, possibly ever.. The way that Lerner planted small pieces of the story at the beginning of the book and then integrated them throughout the story as it moved along was superb. From the repetition of the poem “High Flight” to discussion on the ethics (and weirdness) of eating baby octopuses at fancy restaurants16As well as several other running items., the whole book felt like it tied together beautifully because of how much every little thing discussed mattered. Some authors17Hello! will go on long tangents aside as a method to world building or moving a subplot along. Lerner did this, but he took it a step further by using these tangents to create an environment for the story where you, as the reader, could latch on to these small details spread throughout the book. They’d draw you back into whatever was going on in the story, no matter how lost you were.

Initially after ending “10:04”, I had no idea what to think of the book. I texted Megan of the book review site Soul Meets Books and said the following:

Today in books I have no idea what to think of: “10:04” by Ben Lerner. It’s the first book I’ve read in a while that made me think ‘what in the fuck did I just read?’

After a bit of time for reflection, I think I know what in the fuck I just read. “10:04” does what it is intended to do in a great way — to provide a first person examination into the process of writing a book, along with all of the influences that go into it, all in a metafictional way. It is limited by intertwining stories within the story that make the story unnecessarily complex, as well as a narrator who inconsistently deploys complex vocabulary in such a way that can be a put off to some readers. With that said, I think I find myself more intrigued by “10:04” after reading the book than I was during my read of the book. That’s not a small feat to achieve when writing a book about the process of writing a book. “10:04” has made me think about the process to writing a book — as well as the various intricate details involved that make a book truly exceptional — more than the vast majority of books I’ve read. I don’t know that I’d recommend “10:04” to everyone. If you’re not engaged with the main point of the story, it can be hard to get invested in the characters aside from the narrator. But if you’re a writer in any capacity, I do think “10:04” is worth your time.

Foxtails – Extended Version

The following post is an extended version of a short story I wrote in August of 2017 by the same name. Those who support me on my Patreon account at the $10 a month level not only got early access to the extended story you see below, they also got an exclusive patron-only audio reading of this story. If you’d like to get future perks such as this (or any of the other perks I offer), support me on Patreon.


I stood at the end of the bike path and stared out into the park before me. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes, clouding my vision temporarily before I wiped it away. I took a deep breath and made a mental note as to how my day was progressing. 18.5 miles done, 18.5 to go.

I walked my bicycle through the grassy park and toward the picnic area on the far side of the park. I leaned its emerald frame against the support posts of the gazebo and walked over to the nearby water fountain. The chilling liquid flowed forth from the silver spigot and hit my lips with its icy touch. My face flinched back instinctively from the shock before I went back in and took a couple of long drinks from the water’s flow. Though the water had a slight metallic aftertaste to it — and an even more faint scent of sulfur along with it — I gulped the water down ravenously. It was shit water, but it was familiar and comforting.

I knelt to the ground, adjusting my shoes around my feet in an effort to limit the soreness that would develop on my ride home. With calm and purposeful movements I learned as a teen, I unlaced the top holes on each side of my shoe, weaving their plastic coated aglets back through those top two holes, creating a loop I could swoop the opposite lace through. For whatever reason, this configuration of shoe tying always made my feet less sore after a run or a ride. At the bare minimum, the placebo effect was strong with this ritual.

I took a moment and absorbed my surroundings. It had been thirteen years since I was last in this park. As I expected when I set off on my ride today, not much has changed here. This town never changes. Sure, the gazebo had a fresh coat of paint (or two) in that time. The swing set had gone from a four seat apparatus to a three seat one. The people walking by had grown measurably older. But at its core, this was the same tiny hamlet I left after high school. While its charm and nostalgia had grown to tourists as it aged, the shortcomings of the town — and its people — appears as larger and more hideous blemishes to me with each new year. At least I was just passing through. Had my mission for the day required anything longer than this, I’m sure I would have said something to someone that pissed them off. It always happened that way.

As a warm summer breeze blew in from the west, I grabbed my bike and hopped on, pedaling back up the path via which I had arrived a few minutes prior. June was hardly my favorite month to be outdoors — I strongly preferred a jog through the vibrant October foliage or a hike in the frigid January air — but this seemed different.

I wasn’t more than twenty yards from the gazebo when an old man waved and called after me frantically.

“Ollie?” he shouted. “Ollie? Is that you?”

I kept pedaling, pretending I didn’t notice him. He was right about my identity. Everyone knew everyone in this small town. I just knew this man better than most. His name was Albert Kariss. He was a custodian at the elementary school, assistant coach of the wrestling team I captained in high school, and the neighbor of my third girlfriend, Mallory Quill. Even though I knew Albert and found him to be one of the less objectionable people in this area, I wasn’t about to talk to him today. My mind wouldn’t let me.

For weeks I had been battling this feeling that I was missing something. It took me a while to put my finger on what exactly was lacking. At first I chalked it up to being overworked and under caffeinated, though a long weekend and copious amounts of espresso later, I was still perplexed, albeit shakier. I took a short vacation from my day-to-day life to clear my head, skirting off from my townhome in northeastern Ohio to spend some time at a secluded cabin in upstate New York. However by the end of my time away, instead of having clarity and calmness, the feeling had only become more pronounced. It was as if a ghost from the past was calling out to me, beckoning me to seek it out. Yet no matter how loud the ghost yelled for me, I could not recognize its name, or its purpose.

The source of this feeling, however, I was sure of. I decided to take one last shot at trying to satiate whatever was stirring inside of me. Perhaps I was acting quixotically in hoping that there was some silver bullet that could kill this nagging feeling. It was a phase. It would pass. All things do. Yet, despite knowing this fact, or at least believing in the passage of all feelings, factual belief or otherwise, I set out for a place I hadn’t been in nearly a decade and a half, recreating an activity lodged even further in the past along the way.

A little under a mile up the path from the gazebo, I came to a road crossing. The bike path was leaving town — this would be the last road I’d cross for four miles — but not before crossing over a tiny street that saw virtually no traffic. In one direction, I could see the side street end on the main street of town. There were three or four houses on the street, all bunched at the corner of the primary road. In the other direction, the road continued on for around two hundred feet, crossing the bike path before becoming a dead-end at a fence leading into acres upon acres of soybeans. A tractor was more likely to cross the bike path on the road than a car. A bench sat on either side of the end of the road, often serving as a final stopping point before the park for any biker or runner needing a breather.

In my youth, I had stopped and sat on those very benches countless times. When running, they provided me with a place to sit for a few minutes before I finished my workout. Had I lived in the area as an adult, I likely would have done the same thing, though because I truly needed a breather rather than the act of laziness that my teen self took it as. If I was biking, particularly with a group of friends, the benches where a place for those of us who rode faster to pause for those who moved at a more leisurely pace. But those weren’t the moments that I associated with this place in the archive of my mind. At the age of 14, it was where I had my first kiss.

Mallory was my third girlfriend — well, literally third. I should really count her as my first girlfriend, as the previous two relationships lasted a combined five days of sixth grade. That said, she was technically my third girlfriend…but my first kiss. My first romantic kiss. Granted, I had been exposed to sloppy kisses from my great aunts that smelled of equal parts cigarette smoke, day-old hollandaise sauce, and that one old lady perfume that no one knows the name of but every seventy-year-old white grandmother who carries two Bibles in her purse seems to use. Those kisses were the stuff of nightmares. Mallory’s was not.

A group of eight of us had decided to bike the entire trail over a two-day span. Our parents all dropped us off at my friend Steve’s grandparents’ house, which was at the opposite end of the trail from the park with the gazebo. We’d ride that afternoon to Mallory’s house, which was just minutes from the park. We’d stay there overnight, then rode back to Steve’s grandparents’ so that our families could pick us up the following afternoon.

The first day of the ride was pleasant, albeit uneventful. Steve and his best friend, Matt, stopped at every possible gas station on the way to buy something. Usually it was a candy bar or something cheap like that. Apparently before the ride began, they had set a goal to see if they could ride the entire trail while stopping at every gas station on the way and buying something, all for under ten dollars. No idea if they succeeded. I spent most of the day riding in a group of three featuring Mallory, her best friend, Anne, and myself. The other three members of our group featured the Covelli twins, Ashleigh and MacKenzie, along with Ashleigh’s boyfriend, Trent. Throughout the day, Ashleigh and Trent kept sneaking off, trying to find somewhere just off the path to make out without the rest of the group noticing. Unfortunately for them, MacKenzie watched them like a hawk, leaving their freedom to be more of a want than a reality. Between all the stops for everyone, the ride took most of the day, even though it shouldn’t have.

We arrived at Mallory’s house in time for her father to make us all hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. The group of us stayed outside and huddled around the fire pit long after the sun had gone down, and well after Mallory’s parents and sisters had gone to bed. Around two in the morning, the twins were the first to turn in, quickly followed by Steve, Trent, and Matt. Anne snuck off to have a cigarette, while Mallory and I shared a blanket to protect us from the cool summer breeze. We worked our way through the quarter bag of marshmallows left, burning all of them to a crisp just to see how long they’d stay on the skewer.

About four o’clock, Mallory and I made our way inside, walking hand-in-hand up the narrow steps leading to her back patio. She went up to her room, while I curled up on a couch in the basement. I could hear Steve snoring from the recliner across the room, his tenor tones nearly perfectly alternating with similar snores from Ashleigh — or was it MacKenzie? — in the next room over. I was nearing sleep when I felt someone poke me lightly on the shoulder.

“Are you two dating yet?” Anne asked, the smell of yet another cigarette running off of her breath and into my nostrils.

“I think so?” I said, unsure of the actual answer. “At least, I want to be.”

“That’s good. As long as you make her happy, I won’t have to slit your throat.”

I could hear Anne smiling through the darkness.

“Sleep tight!” she said excitedly as she left the room.

I did not, as Anne put it, sleep tight.

On the second day of the ride, Steve decided that he wanted everyone to race back to his grandparents. Most of the group took off and rode as fast as they could, but Mallory and I didn’t feel like trying hard. The late night had sapped both of us from our energy, and though a massive stack of pancakes for breakfast was helpful, I still felt like I’d been hit by a train. Mallory, sensing my fatigue while feeling a good bit of it herself, had apparently convinced Anne to give us some time to ourselves. At least we’d enjoy the ride, even if we fell asleep midway through.

We stopped at the benches by the soybean fields and sat for fifteen minutes or so, watching as the sun melted the dew off of the giant foxtails growing by the fence at the road’s turnaround. Mallory leaned her head into my shoulder, resting there as we watched the droplets fall or vaporize, depending on their size. Her strawberry blonde hair still smelled strongly of the campfire from the night before.

“Is Anne actually going to hurt me if we date and I fuck up?” I asked, my eyes closed as I focused on the lingering scent of burnt maple wood and sugar emanating from Mallory’s soft locks.

“Depends how you fuck up,” she replied. “Did you mean to hurt me?”

“In this hypothetical situation? No.”

“Then no,” Mallory said, squeezing my hand in hers. “She’s all bark and no bite.”

As we got up to leave, Mallory gripped my hand and pulled me towards her. We only kissed for a moment, but in that moment, time stopped. I know its cliché to say, but everything around me evaporated from existence. All that there was in that moment was Mallory, me, and that slow, soft kiss.

It ended as soon as it began. Mallory laughed and jumped on her bicycle, pedaling off as quickly as she could into the distance. I gave chase after her, catching up around a mile later. We eventually caught up with everyone else, save for Steve, who won his own race convincingly. Despite that middle school kiss, Mallory and I broke up before the summer ended. I couldn’t even tell you why at this point in life. It just sort of happened.

We went our separate ways throughout high school, always staying decent friends, but never being particularly close. She went off to college at Central Michigan, while I pursued my studies at the University of Buffalo. We wouldn’t date until graduate school, where we happened to end up in the same economics program at Wright State University. I married her seven years later.

As my mind drifted back from long-gone days to my adulthood quest to free my mind, I parked my bike and sat down on the same bench Mallory and I had sat on as teens. It wasn’t literally the same bench — the rotting wooden benches had been replaced by nicer composite ones some years back — but the view was the same. Giant foxtails fading into farmland, dew clinging to their edges like tears on eyelashes. In the distance, I heard thunder echo through the sky. Even if I was bound and determined to relive that moment where I found that first glimpse of love, the world was not going to melt away for me today.

Save for a quick burst of rain, my ride ended uneventfully. I loaded my bicycle and drove home slowly. It wasn’t a race, after all. I arrived home shortly before dusk and unloaded my bike from the bed of my truck, taking a moment to refill the water bottle I’d brought with me from the hose on the side of my house. After a short breather, I left my house began to pedal up the street, just as I had nearly every day for the last year.

Unlike the bike path from earlier, which largely wound through small towns and farm land, this trip covered sidewalks and bike lanes through the suburbs. Though traffic was light this evening, I still had to be aware of my surroundings at all times. My mind couldn’t wander and linger as it had this morning or afternoon, lest I get hit by the driver of an over-sized pickup truck who was too busy texting to see me. Even though the ride was short — a mile and a half at most — it felt like it took twice as long as the 37 mile round-trip trek from earlier thanks to the amount of focus I had to place on not becoming a distracted driving statistic.

I stopped at an iron gated cemetery, locking my bicycle to the fence outside. I entered by foot, taking the same robotic path I always did — twenty-three steps forward to the first footpath, turn right, one hundred and six steps forward, turn left, then nine steps forward. I could do it in my sleep, I’m certain of it. There’s plenty of times I’d made the same walk in a fog, both a literal one and a figurative one. Sleep walking couldn’t be that much harder.

I came to a stop, reached into my pocket, and removed the giant foxtail heads I had picked from the grass by the bench. I placed them on Mallory’s grave and kissed the headstone, hoping that somewhere…wherever she may be…she was feeling the same way she did when we both had our first kiss.

The feeling of missing something wasn’t gone. I don’t know why I expected it to be. In the thirteen months since Mallory’s passing, the feeling waxed and waned, but never fully disappeared. I had hoped that reconnecting to a point in the past that was such a profound instance of happiness for me — as well as for Mallory, as she would admit after we’d been dating for some time — would calm the hollow feeling inside my soul. But it didn’t work. It never did.

I sat down on the rain-dampened path in front of Mallory’s headstone, staring ahead blankly at the monolithic slab in front of me. After a few moments, my eyes began to unfocus and my vision blurred. It was almost as if I were staring through the headstone, as if it weren’t even there. The exercise had become part of my routine since Mallory had died. It made me feel like the grave wasn’t real. If the grave wasn’t real, she couldn’t be gone. I’d get up from my seated position, bike home, and she’d be there, annoyed I’d left without telling her.

It never worked.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, rising from my seated position slowly. The long ride was finally starting to catch up to me, my back and hamstrings pulsing with dull, deep throbs. There was only one place left to go: home. I didn’t want to go back. I never did. But I had to. If I didn’t go home, there’s a chance I wouldn’t come back tomorrow. If I didn’t come back tomorrow, that was the first step to Mallory being forgotten. The memories of her were all I had left. I wasn’t going to let those go too.