I stopped taking all of my bipolar medications in late February and early March. For a week or two, I spaced them out, intending on slowing each one down one by one. I got impatient and went faster than I should have. But let’s be honest: when you’re taking poison that you know is killing you, it’s only natural to want the poison gone as soon as possible.
And yes, my medicine was killing me. Not like a poison does, exactly. It was eating me alive in a different way. I was taking it like someone takes an antibiotic. My ever-changing moods and constant desire to kill myself was the bacterial infection, and the antipsychotics were the cure that would somehow make those intense feelings go away. That, of course, is not what antipsychotics do, and not how treating mental illness works. But I’m going to be honest again: if they weren’t doing that, then what the hell were they actually doing?
I’m not going to pretend like I was trying to ignore all of my doctors. For all I know, maybe the medications ended up messing with my memory. But here we go, honesty number three: I can’t tell you what my medicines were supposed to do. I don’t know what an antipsychotic does. I don’t know what Effexor does. Was it supposed to “take the edge off” of the most intense feelings of self-hatred? Make me feel more in control during times of incredible emotional turmoil?
Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that medicine wasn’t the solution, and I didn’t have a backup plan.
I’ve been in Limbo for a long time. I’ve had a number of jobs, and I’ve had to throw all of them away because I couldn’t endure. One mistake in my medicine schedule, and any semblance of stability is thrown immediately out of the window. Wrong medicine? Well, here’s to two more months of waiting just to see if it “works”. Hint: they never did. Then try something new, and more waiting. Watch a movie with something particular twisted? Read a book with a particularly horrid detail? There goes the rest of the week. Watch someone on the news argue? Accidentally watch a hate-filled YouTube video or Tiktok? I have to wait at least two days for the sting of those emotions to become diluted and fade before I can focus on literally anything.
When I shoved a bottle full of pills into my mouth and swallowed, I noticed a couple of things. First, I had already made the decision way ahead of actually performing the action. I had made the decision without full knowing, so clearly that the suicide attempt was almost effortless. It was just a thing. A fully natural action. It was only about thirty seconds after I had swallowed the pills did I realize the full weight of what I had just done.
And that hit me hard. Hard enough that when I realized I couldn’t force myself to throw up (I was too afraid to physically do so), I called 911 for help.
Would the overdose have killed me if I didn’t? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s ever been the relevant question.
So, now that I am not taking any medications for my bipolar disorder, what does it feel like?
I still can’t watch movies or television. Body horror in particular is the worst; I’ll never scrub the idea of Unwinding out of my head (thanks Mr. Shusterman). I still can’t watch intense political debates. I still can’t approach Twitter. I still don’t trust myself with work; I have never been as dependable as I know I can be. I’ll still stumble into thought patterns that I consider “sticky”, that won’t resolve themselves without a lot of sleep and time.
There are moments of complete torture that feel like my nervous system is being overcharged, where I’m suddenly feeling way more than my power lines can handle, and it’s all I can do to pace around the room and occassionally hit my head like an old black-and-white television set that never gets clear reception. This happened most intensely about a month after I stopped all of my meds, and now it only happens when I’m stressed out. I actually find it slightly relieving to hit my forehead, my left upper arm, or my chest at times. I want to scream sometimes, but I don’t cry too much anymore, even though I intensely want to.
Did my medicine stop me from feeling? Or did they allow me to feel? Did it moderate or not? Why was that never consistent? And why do I not know, even all these years into this ordeal?
It took blowing up at my mom, then my sister, then my cousin to finally gather the courage to stop taking my medications altogether. And now that I have, I realize that medication never really was the answer. Or an answer. At all. I might have tried to explain how frustrating it feels to be back at square one, fifteen years after the fact. But I have to be honest one more time: there isn’t a square one to go back to. I left square one way behind me, before my mission, before I feared the world, and before these emotions began to overpower me.
The only difference between the medicated me and the non-medicated me is a complete lack of optimism. When I tried to commit suicide, I did so without a real understanding of what I had chosen to do. I hadn’t really given up. Even in that moment, I hadn’t really stopped trying. Not until now. I’ve never been so close to just… not wanting to try anymore. Maybe sometime soon I’ll finally admit that there really isn’t anything I can do to change the mess in my mind.
I walked willing into the presence of Death like a casual friend without looking at the chaos and darkness that encompassed Him. When I saw it, I became afraid and ran. And now I’ve come to a horrifying revelation: I’m still shrouded. The darkness I saw didn’t belong to Death at all. It belonged to me. I’m worried that I’ll choose that Angel’s embrace again over the brittle hope of a better life.
Always and forever, I feel like I’m one bad spark away from wanting to throw it all away. That’s no way to live.
I’ll write out more details about the methods and tools I have, but I wanted to organize all of my individual Facebook posts and pictures into a single blog. Hooray for acid, electricity, and metal!
This is a piece of aluminum I etched tonight with vinegar, salt water, and a 9-volt battery. I am thrilled that:
It only took ten minutes to get the shape that dark.
The sharpness of that line is incredible for a first demo.
I can go crazy with the designs, no matter how intricate.
The procedure is basically the opposite of electroplating, so now that I have the tools, I can do that too (just need a stronger acid and a ventilated space). I might buy a plate of copper to see if the procedure works there, too. I would love to make etched copper with a green patina (go all steampunk).
Copper! One had the copper etched away (on left) and the other had everything but the shape electroplated with tin. I only let the electroplating run for about a minute because of how hot my 9-volt battery got. Turns out there’s a reason electroplating is done with very low voltage over a few hours; the tin really started bubbling and I could clearly see the color darken, kind of like blowing breath on a cold window. Not bad for salt water and vinegar! Very cool so far! I might be brave enough to try muratic acid next, we’ll see. I might keep practicing first and use AA batteries.
My latest (well, first, really) project as a member of the Dragon’s Keep D&D group: a front panel for my dice case. This is the Dragon’s Keep logo which I printed and hand-cut out of vinyl onto tin-plated steel. Wish me luck!
This is total trial and error, but this is awesome. For my next: copper plating a stainless steel tribal tattoo.
My first successful electroplate! Copper on stainless steel! And I learned some things!
1. If the vinyl on sharp corners is damaged or applied wrong, it’s time to cut new vinyl and try again. No amount of patching will keep the acid out once the metal is submerged (see the huge dark splot on the left).
2. Patching other areas that have nothing to do with the design will still not work. So no patching, period. All the vinyl needs to be one whole secure piece or things will go wrong (you can see the dark spots on the right side).
3. My ventilation mask works fantastic. No more light-headedness and coughing like the projects I’ve done in the past. If I’m going to do it right, I’m going to do it right and protect myself. I’m not an invincible 18 year old anymore.
4. Copper dissolves in acid and plates WAY faster than stainless steel does. I had the wires flipped and practically nothing happened when the steel plated the copper. I fixed it and the steel became copper-plated in five minutes.
5. I’m going to be spending a fortune on batteries unless I buy a power supply.
(This is an introduction to my dragonborn cleric for my current Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s a bit ahead of the current game, fan fiction of the fiction. 😀 I hope it’s fun to read!)
The City of Splendors, the people of Faerün called it. The shipping port of Waterdeep. The city employed every race along the coast, from diminutive gnomes and dwarves to fair elves and mighty dragonborn. Humans and halflings filled the streets, going to and fro between their daily tasks and chores. Clever scoundrels and orphans that belonged to no one played in the alleyways, always listening for secrets (or shiny things) they could sell to buy their next meal. The main cobblestone thoroughfare was wide enough for four wagons to ride abreast, but it seemed every other corner of the city varied in width.
And the doors! They were certainly constructed for average citizens to pass, even the doors that led to the interiors of taverns, stores, and warehouses. Honestly, nothing was built for a dragonborn. Not specifically, not here in Waterdeep. Of course, for the wealthy, buying an appropriate door was of little consequence. For those of more meager means, passing through dozens a day became a dull tradition to endure. Most dragonborn could get away with lowering their heads beneath the door frame and trying with all their might not to bump into anything. Most had practiced their urban lifestyle and set it out of their minds.
Etri was not an urban dragonborn. Nor was he small by any means. Standing a full head above regular dragonborn, Bahamut had graced the blue-scaled half-dragon with strength and durability beyond his peers. To make matters worse, Etri wore thick and well-worn armor crafted from hefty plates of iron, dull not from neglect but from weary use. Atop the rucksack upon his back hung a shield crafted of ironwood and steel, emblazoned with no symbol. At his waist, he carried a steel mace, forged with as much heft as the dragon himself. Coincidentally, the mace was bright and free of the grime that covered the rest of Etri. If there were any doors that this dragonborn could fit through, they were surely too high-class to allow him anyway. With dreadlocks of cerulean adorned with iron rings and the hint of horns at his temples, even the burliest creature would no doubt avoid him.
Were this the truth. He would have cleaner armor. And a much cleaner shield.
He certainly made an impression as he entered through the city gate and passed through the throng of city-dwellers. Trying to keep his golden eyes in the direction of his feet, he could never truly ignore the stares that followed him. Halflings and gnomes gave him wide berth. Humans and dwarves, no matter their stature or mass, watched him with suspicion, fear, or combative approval. Perhaps the only peoples that didn’t blindly stare were orcs and tieflings; most of them received the same kind of attention, and had learned to ignore it.
The only detail no one ever noticed about the dragonborn would have revealed the true nature beyond all the muscle and scales. Upon his neck and graced above the neck of his mail was a small gold charm in the same shape as his shield. In the very center had been inlaid with a small azure gem gifted to him by his mentor Korok. Rest his soul, only the quill and the gem he carried reminded him of his old friend. Beyond these physical mementos, Etri had only memories of healing, guilt, and redemption. It was his mentor that taught him of the great Bahamut, a selfless life beyond stinking fish and saltwater.
Yet Korok had not been granted time enough in life to help Etri find an answer to a great mystery: why Etri’s scales had begun to reveal flecks of metallic yellow beneath the scratches and cracks of his blue. The same shining color as the small piece of jewelry.
Even before his mentor adopted him, the blue dragonborn always made an impression on those he worked with and cared for. For all his sharp spines on his brow, claws on his hands, and fangs tightly meshed inside his stoic complexion, Etri spoke in soft tones. The pride of his youth had been torn away by the scars upon his arms and face. Perhaps not his temper when conflict arose. And although he considered himself a sage and a researcher, he never felt very bright. As a nestling, the call of the sea had been stronger than the call of education.
For thus did he come to Waterdeep. Surely the City of Splendors would have answers.
On that bright and cheerful day, Etri’s mind was deeper than the sea he once trawled. Only two locations in Waterdeep would he find an answer to Korok’s last question. The first were the Halls of Justice, located deep in the Castle Ward. Although the subject of gold dragons would fit within the purview of righteousness, surely there was little chance a priest from Waterdeep would wish to speak of any dragon, least of all to a gigantic stranger from the other side of Faerün. The second location and the more likely would be the Font of Knowledge, located just a street away from the temple.
If anyone questioned why, he had the letter. It would prove his intentions. If it did not, what would the city guard do? Arrest a dragonborn for wanting to learn?
At first, Etri lost his way, even with the directions given to him by a town crier. He traveled south and found himself at the market. It would have been a good location from which to orient himself. But with the traffic bustling in the wide space, he couldn’t see any signs, even above the heads of the townspeople.
He took it slow at first. There was little rush, the morning barely passing into a warm afternoon. Walking beside the many stalls and vendors in the marketplace, he contemplated if anything might strike his fancy. He had eaten before he entered the city, anticipating the long lines that no doubt filled the eateries. Curious, he passed by a blacksmith’s forge; an odd spot to set up shop, what with the constant heat of the day and the roar of the daily crowds. Hanging from hooks outside the smithing space were swords and daggers, maces and hammers, and even scimitars and rapiers of various sizes (matched to the size of people who would hopefully wield them). Etri nearly considered a polearm of some make, perhaps a bardiche. If he couldn’t use it in a fight, he could use it to butcher or split thin wood.
In the end, he decided against it. He already had trouble entering doors. A large polearm would make it impossible.
Etri then decided to find the best assistance any busy city could provide. He stepped into an alleyway just off the beaten path and spied his tour guides: a trio of young lads, two humans and a gnome, each younger than the other, tossing a leather ball. The moment they saw the giant dragon, they stood to their feet, quite ready to flee.
“Don’t be afraid, little ones,” Etri said, offering the children a small wave. This gave him time to approach and kneel. “I am seeking the Halls of Justice. I know it lies within the Castle Ward, but I don’t know the way. I don’t suppose you know which direction I should head?”
The boys looked at each other, considering the request.
“I’ll not ask for your help without compensation. If you guide me to the ward, I’ll give each of you a silver piece. Do we have a deal?”
At this news, all three boys lit up like wildfire.
“Certainly, sir!” cried the gnomish lad, waving to Etri. “It’s this way!”
“Yeah, it’s this way!”
From the path they led him, Etri would never have found his destination. The boys waved him down alleyway after alleyway, down thinner roads and carriage stops, through stables and past a smaller smithy and tailor’s shop. As he continued, the tenements disappeared, turning into apartments and large classy homes. The stores matched the paved streets, their goods glistening behind glass windows for gentry to admire. The boys led him through the yard of one residence in particular, and he knew for certain he would be detained for trespassing. Fortunately, no lawman or resident witnessed his crime, and he continued on with greater haste.
At last, the children stood next to a carved stone wall, and held out their hands to stop the dragon.
“This is it, sir!”
“Can we have our silver now?”
Etri grinned, kneeling down before them. It was not too long a time when he had been so bold.
“Nearly,” he said. “Do you know the way to the gate to the ward itself? Do they have guards stationed there?”
“Yes sir,” said the oldest boy. “It’s south, that way. We would take you there, but the guards shoo us away before we can get in. There’s mighty green gardens back there, but we’ll never get to see them.”
“Yeah, not ever.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Etri said. “Would you believe me if I said I used to be as small as you, wishing I could play in gardens and eat fancy food?”
“There’s no way!” said the middle boy. “How’d you get so big and strong? I bet you beat up wolves and bandits all the time!”
“Have you ever killed anybody with your club?” asked the gnomish boy.
“Sadly, yes. But only in defense of the innocent. And to guard my companions.” Etri reached up to the charm around his neck. “I am a cleric of the god of dragons. I worship Him, and do my best to serve His will. And His will is to give aid to all, even the smallest and poorest.”
Etri reached to his belt and produced a silver piece for each of the boys.
“Thank you, kind sir!”
“You’re really nice!”
“Could we worship dragons too?” asked the oldest human. “Maybe we could be strong like you.”
“Perhaps not,” Etri said with a claw to his lips. “Most dragons don’t care for it. And you’ve heard stories of dragons burning down villages, haven’t you? I can’t imagine many people here would approve.”
The boys looked away.
“But there is a way you can serve the Light, if you wish to.”
“How?” asked the younger human.
“Take your silver and get yourselves something to eat. Treat yourselves. But then afterwards, share your fortune with someone in need.” Etri stroked the frill beneath his chin. “Do you know anyone sick? A widow who lost their husband at sea? Another boy or girl who hasn’t eaten in days?”
The boys paused in thought.
“There is Missus Alassen.” The older boy shrugged. “Her hubby got killed by bandits upways to Neverwinter. She don’t have much left.”
“And Landi.” The gnome said with a nod. “He’s so sad all the time.”
“Is Landi this widow’s son?” Etri asked.
All three boys nodded.
“They deserve a bit of kindness after all their suffering, don’t you think?”
“Yes sir,” they said.
“This is charity. It is a most simple act of goodness.” He placed his coin purse back on his belt. “Do not feel you must do this. You have earned your silver, and it is yours. Just consider my advice.”
“I’ll do it,” said the gnome. “I want to be like you, Sir Dragon.”
“Me too,” said the humans.
“I only do what I can,” Etri said with a dry chuckle, standing at last. He towered above the children, but they showed little fear. “As we all should.”
“We’ll help our friends!” said the oldest boy, racing back the way he came. “Come on!”
“Thank you, Sir Dragon!” shouted the two other boys, following after. Etri took a pause and watched the children sprint further into the town and out of sight.
Etri shook his head with a beleaguered smile. Not distant in his mind was a man who had given him the same gift. Perhaps if he had taken the advice as a child, he would not have burdened himself under his own stupidity.
“Halt!” said the Castle Ward guard. He wore shining armor that reflected the dignity of his position, his royal sword within a tight leather scabbard hanging at his waist. Even though his helmet covered much of his face and head, Etri could still see fear in the man’s eyes as the dragonborn looked down upon him. Perhaps the only support that bolstered him was his fellow standing opposite him at the archway entrance.
“Good day, sir,” Etri said, attempting to sound as non-threatening as possible. “I am looking for the Halls of Justice and the Font of Knowledge. Might this be the correct way?”
“What business do you have there?” The guard nearly stammered.
Etri took a step back. There was no use lying.
“I am searching for answers concerning my heritage.” Etri considered his words. “I have heard much of the research performed by the sages of Waterdeep about dragons… and rumors of dragons. I am a cleric on sabbatical from my monastery seeking any information I can find.”
“Your heritage, eh?” asked the distant guard. “Ancestry? Blue dragons, no doubt. I’ve heard they are quite vicious monsters.”
“Gold, perhaps,” Etri said, resting his weight on his mace. “My only clue. They take to mountains and plains. I used to be a sailor by trade, born not far from here. But now I serve the Light as a cleric, and I do not understand my own nature. This has left me with great confusion as to my familial line.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Very intriguing, sir,” said the guard. “I would much like to learn of what you find.”
The fearful guard looked at his comrade as if he had gone slightly mad.
“Indeed?” Etri’s head tilted. “Not many wish to learn of dragons.”
“I ask all who pass for tidbits,” the guard said with a laugh. “Whoever they may be. Some even grant my request! They make for wonderful stories for my children.”
“That is wonderful,” Etri said with a nod. “I will report on what I find. If I cannot find you, perhaps a note will suffice?”
“Certainly,” he said. “I would be very grateful.”
Etri looked back at the guard staring up at him.
“I may pass, then?”
“Aye sir,” he said, nearly tripping aside.
“Thank you, Cleric.” The guard saluted Etri. “I will await your return!”
As the little boys had described, gardens of flowers and trees filled the Castle Ward, as prim and proper as man could design. If he wore his priest robes and not his stuffy armor, Etri might have felt more within his element in that beautiful place. The streets were paved with intricate puzzles of marble, the kinds of organized stones that make children hop to avoid the lines between. Small fountains and songbirds brought natural music to the concourse, Etri’s second favorite ambiance besides the calls of gulls and waves.
Walking apace between the civic buildings were priests, researchers, and nobility that enjoyed the religious and academic ward, away from the hustle and bustle of markets and grocery. Every soul that came into viewing distance of the enormous cleric did their best to choose a different path, whether this path led down another avenue or through the nearest garden. He even dared laugh at one terrified elven noble who fell over a finely manicured hedge trying to avoid him.
Although Etri’s calling was pure and lawful, he still had fun at other people’s expense every once in a while. With the flick of his wrist, his thaumaturgy created a terrible snarling growl to erupt from behind the elf. The horrified gentleman let out a feminine shriek before flailing to his feet and sprinting away towards the Castle Ward gate in complete terror. Etri then realized he had likely forced the friendly guards at the archway into a difficult situation, and hoped they could forgive him when he returned.
Despite the majesty of the man-made structures, one monument towered and excelled beyond them all. Mount Waterdeep took up much of the horn of the city’s harbor, upon which settled the Peaktop Eyrie. Etri could easily view gryphons flying in organized groups, saddled with warriors of high renown and skill. Etri had heard tales of dragonborn whose skills had sharpened so near actual dragons that they themselves grew wings and soared the skies. It would probably be the only way Etri would ever get off the ground. That, or taking a flying leap off a cliff, which he didn’t think particularly wise.
As luck would have it, Etri’s feet led him right to The Halls of Justice. This temple, no doubt dedicated to Tyr, a deity of even-handed justice. An ironic title, given that most depictions described the Blind God as missing his left hand. The clergy supported charity above martial might, which had given Etri hopes that the temple might hold clues. He proceeded up the marble steps towards the entrance, impressed by the mighty marble columns that upheld the pantheon of the Triad above. The guards that stood sentinel beside the doors did not question him, although they did give him very concerned stares. One of the doors was already open (a door more than large enough for an actual dragon), so he stepped inside.
The temple was a beauty to behold. Pillars of stone held up a gorgeous arched ceiling that drew the eye heavenward, gauche imagery of knowledge and judgement painted upon its surface. Beneath the arches were carved walls of marble which framed stained glass windows of unmatched quality. Each window displayed different religious iconography, displaying the splendor for which the city was named. Distant from the entrance were pews of hardwood, and beyond them was a pulpit before a marble sculpture of the great god Himself: a humanlike figure with a great beard holding aloft a sword in one hand, supported by the handless left arm. In that moment, there was no service, creating a silence inside the sacred space that Etri appreciated immensely. He always felt safe inside a temple of order, no matter the deity worshipped within.
Etri waited in peace for a moment before a human entered from a small room beside the cathedral proper. He wore plain white robes, his long hair drawn back, a small white cap resting atop his head. He did not seem perturbed by Etri’s presence, walking up to the dragonborn cleric without hesitation.
“Good day, dragonborn,” the priest said with a small bow. “Welcome to the Halls of Justice.”
“Sir,” Etri said, greeting the priest in return with his fist to his heart and a deep bow. “I am sorry for the intrusion.”
“There is no apology necessary.” The priest motioned to the greater space within. “We welcome peoples of all races to the Temple of Tyr, so long as their intentions are pure. How can I assist you?”
“To be honest,” Etri said. “I am unsure if I have come to the right place to find answers to my questions.”
“For a follower of the great Bahamut,” the priest said with another bow. “All things are possible.”
“I am… surprised you could tell.”
“It may also surprise you to know how many dragonborn in Waterdeep also worship the god of dragons. Most worship in secret, naturally. Dragons are creatures of violence to most.”
“Of course. I suppose I have come to the wrong place to learn of dragons, then. Perhaps the Font of Knowledge will hold more promise.”
“You are a cleric, are you not?” the priest asked.
“I am…” Etri said with a deep chuckle. “Again you’ve caught me at a disadvantage.”
The priest gave him a wave.
Etri proceeded behind the priest through the same small door beside the cathedral. He then found himself within a large library of sorts, one of surprising height and depth. Upon all four walls, even below the windows of the far wall, large bookcases stood, filled with hundreds and perhaps thousands of books and scrolls. Some papers and documents appeared fresh and new, some were contained within glass displays for protection from dust, and even more were sewn together in entire anthologies.
“What knowledge do you seek?” asked the priest.
Etri opened his mouth, but no words came. The collection of documents, certainly more expansive than the monastery library, filled him with a bit of excitement.
The priest smiled.
“Even the sages at the Font of Knowledge come here to research religion.”
“I have never heard of a temple housing texts from other orders,” Etri said, stepping forwards. “Especially those of dragonborn.”
“Ours is not typical, and this is not a fact that those of regular attendance know. Tyr insists upon the prosperity of all races, not merely those that believe in Himself. Of course, Her High Radiance is not one to put the worship of other gods above Tyr, but she allows this library to exist to control the information available.”
“Ah,” Etri said. An ulterior motive. “I see. Why trust a stranger with this knowledge?”
“You are not the first dragonborn to come searching for answers.” The priest smiled. “And hopefully your calling begets your trust. What are your questions?”
“I don’t know if you have noticed the very signs I wear on my scales,” Etri said, pointing to his arm. “I am dragonborn, aligned with tempest and storm. The hue with which dragonborn are hatched does not change… or so I thought.”
The priest stepped forwards to examine him. His curiosity was very apparent.
“Fascinating,” the human said. “And I thought it was merely the metal of your armor that shined.”
“Gold,” Etri said. “Is it not?”
“I am unsure. I am not well versed in the traits of dragonborn, despite my personal research.”
“Royal dragons empower themselves with flame, and are just as like to rule with righteous fervor than with demanded authority.” Etri placed his claws on his hips and stared at the ground. “I have felt neither of these impulses. In fact, my control over thunder and lightning has only sharpened. I do not know what this means. Or if they have a connection at all.”
“Bronze dragons,” the priest said. “Sailors in Waterdeep are very familiar with them… or at least where their nests are.”
“Is that right?” Etri asked. “Bronze, not gold! Please tell me you have research on these dragons I can study.”
“We do indeed. Before I show you, I trust you will keep this library and what you learn in confidence.”
“You have my word,” Etri said immediately.
The priest stepped forwards and held out his hand.
“I am Brother Kylan Worlit. It is a pleasure.”
The dragonborn shook the man’s hand.
“Etri,” he said. “Etri Valkandrian. Believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”
With his armor removed, Etri felt considerably more comfortable; a strong defense did not contribute to the pursuit of learning. Tomes and texts sprawled themselves over the writing desk in the center of the library hall. At his ready command was his brass quill, his travel-worn leather journal, and two ink cups, one which he had already dried as the afternoon continued. Although the chair upon which Etri sat creaked at his weight, he did not let it deter him from reaching across the desk again and again for the many documents Brother Kylan had provided. Each one held details about the metallic and sea-faring dragons, official registrations of dragonborn coat-of-arms, and even dubious attempts to connect dragon family lines together. These were likely guesses if not outright lies; few dragons would admit to fathering generations of mortal spawn, and even fewer mortals would approach them to ask.
As the evening arrived, Etri took the long pipe from his pack and placed it in the corner of his mouth. He had stopped smoking under Korok’s insistence years ago, but he still felt the comfort the bent piece of driftwood provided him. Just as simple as a nestling, he always thought.
Bronze dragons. Curious. Interested in knowledge, if only for the sake of knowing. Playful? This Etri doubted. How would anyone come to that conclusion? Perhaps there was more to this point, however, as Etri read a fascinating story of a young girl stranded upon a deserted isle far to the west, perhaps even further than Moray. The book did not name the child. A clutch of bronze dragons played and cared for her, according to the record, led by a young dragon that shepherded the wyrmlings.
The tale ended with the young girl flying upon the back of the dragon, returning to the outskirts of Waterdeep. The dragons were never seen again. No directions, no further details.
Etri continued reading from the brief description. Large, vicious, even for those with good natures. Three thick bones grew from their cheeks and up to the crest of their heads. Most had a single frill near the tops of their necks. Etri massaged his out of reflex.
Storm, lightning, even rain and seas beckoned to them. Many notable bronze dragons had participated in large conflicts, especially those that threatened their nests. But according to the Nalmareedy Almanac (which was surprisingly accurate for a popular publication), most bronze dragons did not seek out battle, and detested killing if it did not serve a noble cause.
Then came the tale of Felifarn, one of the greatest historical curiosities of Waterdeep. This particular dragon had a fondness for sunken treasure, and carried what he found back into an underwater cave just a few leagues away from the city’s naval walls. As it so happened, the dragon spent much of his time not diving, but spending time among the human populace, disguised as a man in a dashing uniform from some non-existent shipping company. Dragons were famous (or infamous) for their shapeshifting abilities. The more Etri read, the more he could hope that bronze dragons lived up to the inquisitive and well-natured qualities described inside the scrolls.
Near the falling of the sun, another brother of the temple entered the library to replace and light the candles. He did not mind the cleric quietly reading, and graciously agreed to retrieve a lantern with which Etri could read more clearly. Etri felt very hungry and tired after the brother left, but he could not part his eyes from each page.
Not more than ten minutes after his lantern burned did the door to the library open. He lifted his eyes, expecting the same brother to step inside. Instead, an older figure slowly entered, stopping at the edge of the desk opposite Etri. She gained his attention in an instant. Her bearing gave her the air of nobility, but the garments she wore belonged to the church, without doubt. This was no simple sister. Etri quickly pulled the pipe out of sight and lifted himself from his chair in habit, giving the woman a respectful bow.
“Good evening, milady,” the dragonborn said, his voice as low as the candlelight. “I hope I am not disturbing the peace of this sacred place.”
“Brother Kylan offers much to an outsider, I see,” the human woman said, her voice with slight disapproval. “As with most knowledge, I say let sleeping dragons lie. But alas, when a cleric of a great beast arrives seeking what he ought not, people begin to talk and suspect. Do you not agree?”
“I agree, milady,” Etri said, a bit hesitant. “I only intend-“
“You will call me by my rightful name, Her Radiance Ghentilara,” said the woman. “Or the Sunrise Lord. No other.”
Etri’s eyes widened. He spoke to the Sunrise Lord herself, the high priestess of Tyr.
“Your Grace!” Etri shook his head. “I mean, Your Radiance! I thank you for the use of your beautiful library. I do not mean to impose upon your good grace, I-“
“But you do, dragonborn,” said the Sunrise Lord. “Although I am not without sympathy. There are few who understand from whence they come. Often it is only nobility are so filled with want of pedigree.”
Etri nodded, diverting his eyes.
“But I see that you are not nobility, nor are you driven by simple curiosity.”
“No, Your Radiance.” Etri’s eyes closed. “I do not know from whence I come. I have only known the road and the sea, and the guidance of my Lord.”
“Is it mere longing for family that drives you?” asked Ghentilara.
“It is not.” Etri set his quill down upon the desk, trying to form his thoughts. “No doubt you are familiar with my kind. For all my life I went where the wind blew me. I found stability from the faith my mentor taught me. He was… an old dragon taken before his time. I survived while he perished.”
“I do not know who I am, Your Radiance. I do not understand the powers that grow within me. Even my very scales betray what I once thought certain. I defend the innocent, aid the downtrodden, grant healing to the afflicted. But I do not know why.”
“Interesting.” Ghentilara walked around the desks with her eyes squarely upon Etri. “You would question your very nature? Follow the wind and waves as you say? If my knowledge of the great beast is correct, I am certain Lord Bahamut would not approve of His cleric changing at the whim of scrolls and books.”
“I cannot disagree,” Etri said with some sadness. “But I do not wish to change why He made me. I only wish to understand what happened to my mentor… and to me.”
“And you believe you can learn this knowledge through communion with a dragon?”
“I am uncertain.” Etri’s clawed finger then rose. “Your Radiance, perhaps this letter given to me by my mentor will help make sense of my pursuit.”
Upon the desk sat the very words Korok had given him, written a mere three days before he died and discovered a day later by the young dragonborn. Etri handed the paper to the older woman.
“It seemed nothing of my mentor’s death was coincidence.”
My life is coming to an end. When it will arrive I do not know, but I know it follows after me with haste. Lest you worry, it will not come from my own hand. And it will not come from illness or age. I do not wish to die, if it meant I could spend more time with my pupil. Perhaps teach him better manners.
None of this is your fault. Read this again: none of this is your fault. When my blood stains the ground, you will learn something about your old friend that may be difficult to comprehend. Few will mourn my passing. It may only be you. This does not sadden me. Bahamut calls to this old dragon, and I will answer Him without fear, as I hope you will when we finally reunite inside the celestial crystal halls. Perhaps I will meet the mate you choose. Perhaps I will meet your nestlings once your wandering days end.
When you find this letter and witness what remains of me, you will have many questions. I would tell you not to seek answers. But you have not listened to me before, and I do not expect your curiosity to vanish. Indeed, it is why I chose to be your mentor.
You have wisdom beyond your short years, and compassion that shines beyond your stature. Cultivate your soul in justice and soberness, and you will build a brighter world for all dragonborn. Brighter for all races across Faerün. Lord Bahamut has plucked you from the sea and set you upon the path of grace. Never forget the lessons I have taught you. And for heaven’s sake, boy, keep your weapon clean! Few bat an eye at a dirty brawler. But no one will ignore a cleric whose weapon reflects wisdom over violence.
When I die, look upon my body and see for yourself what has happened. Follow my blood. And follow yours. Only when you understand your origin will you understand the danger I have placed you in. Do not speak of this to anyone you do not trust. It will give you the chance to prepare.
I will die. But you will have time. I suppose this is the last gift I can offer you.
Yours in timeless brotherhood,
Ghentilara read the letter thoroughly, the interest quite apparent as she handed the slip of brown paper back to the dragonborn before her.
“Ominous. Pray tell, how did your mentor die?”
“Quite suddenly, Your Radiance. One moment we were traveling by carriage towards Baldur’s Gate four days distant, and the next the carriage was upszide-down. I was knocked unconscious, bleeding heavily. I crawled out of the ruined cart, and upon the ground some yards away lay my old friend, his scales charred by flame and filled with barbed arrows.”
Etri bared his teeth for a moment before remembering who stood before him.
“When I saw the hooded figures trying to abduct my mentor’s body, I charged forwards and attempted to fight them off. I succeeded in clipping one of the bandits in the arm with guided flame. But I was in no condition to capture them. They fled on horseback, leaving me in shock.”
“So what of the letter? What did he mean by ‘follow his blood’?”
“This is my unanswerable question, Your Radiance. As my blue-scaled mentor lay lifeless upon the ground, I witnessed what I thought impossible. His blood was no longer blue. It pooled around his corpse, shimmering gold. Plain as if he had granted me a fortune in death. In all my days, I have never heard of a dragonborn changing so.”
“His blood then began to burn. Like oil lit from a candle. As I watched for mere moments, his golden blood evaporated to nothing, leaving his body drained and cold.”
“Allow me to presume,” the Sunrise Lord said. “That you too have fallen under the same mysterious condition?”
“Yes, Your Radiance.” Etri raised his hand. “When I cut myself, I bleed gold. Blood that evaporates with arcane flame in mere moments. Under the candlelight it can be difficult to see, but my scales too have begun to change. Korok hid nothing from me, yet I don’t know if I will soon have to hide my face, my tail. I may have to abandon my charge if my very presence injures those around me.”
“Korok was not your kin, if I understand correctly. Yet his affliction passed to you.”
“I have no answers,” Etri said. “Least of which is knowing if my condition is an affliction at all. A poison, an illness, some form of dark magic, none of these seem to apply.”
Etri laid the letter back upon the desk.
“All I understand is what my mentor described in that letter. That I am in great danger because of my blood, and that I must prepare. For more of these hooded figures, perhaps. I do not know.”
Ghentilara stepped to the desk to cast a glance at the documents Etri had focused upon for the last few hours. The dragonborn took a step backwards to allow her room to pass the unrolled scrolls and documents one by one across the table.
“Isn’t that curious,” she said with a certain lilt in her voice. “Bronze dragons.”
“Indeed. It was Brother Kylan who had given me the idea. Perhaps I do not bleed gold, but bronze. It would match my upbringing by the sea, my martial focus of storm and lightning, and perhaps even my very nature.” Etri cleared his throat. “I have never intended to meet a dragon. Nor ask a favor of one. I will admit, the very idea of such a meeting fills me with a bit of trepida-“
“I will help you.”
Etri’s jaw hung for a moment.
“You will?” He shook out of his daze. “I mean, I would more than welcome your assistance, your Radiance. I would certainly offer my services in return.”
“You will, cleric of Bahamut.” The regal woman turned to pace towards the library door. “I have duties to attend to tonight, and have little time to explain now. Understand that I mean to offer you a mutually beneficial arrangement, one that will require a being of your skills and… stature.”
“Yes, Your Radiance,” Etri heartily agreed. “I am at your disposal.”
“Before you make yourself disposable,” Ghentilara said with a quiet chuckle. “I want you to understand that my request will not be trivial. I will be placing you and the cityin danger should you fail. Tonight, consider praying that my Lord will protect you as surely as Bahamut does.”
Etri bowed before the distinguished priestess.
“Clean up before you leave, will you?” Ghentilara asked with a hint of humor and a wave of her hand. “And return here sharply at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. We shall discuss the matter then.”
“Certainly, I will.” Etri gave a last deep bow. “Thank you, Your Radiance.”
(This is my favorite scene in the book. Enjoy the rough draft!)
The next day after Ian returned from school (a day of limited bullying, fortunately), he told me something I had suspected for a while: Aaron and Chris were both dying to see me again. Somehow, they had resisted telling Ian’s aunt and uncle why they wanted to visit Ian so badly. At least, Ian was fairly certain they had kept their mouths shut. It had been Catherine that had told them to hold off coming over so as not to frighten and exhaust me. When I learned this, I told Catherine at dinner that although it did make me a bit nervous, I wouldn’t mind having them say hello.
I don’t know what I expected.
The very next morning, I sat quietly reading something on Ian’s phone early in the morning when I heard a horrifying stampede. Before I could even wonder who or what had entered the front door of the house, the guest room door burst open and gave me a heart attack.
“Hi little boy!”
Then, before I could even think about retreating, a blond-haired monster with bright blue eyes barreled into the room. He didn’t even stop beside me. The blue-tan-ivory boulder crashed upon the mattress, sending me into the air. I came back down with a thud, and while not painful, the shock of the giant yatvi flattened my confidence. He sat cross-legged in front of me, immediately placing his head in his hands and excitedly eyeing me. He’d probably removed his shoes at the front door, and the nausea of bare human boy crashed upon me like a wave.
“Chris!” shouted Ian’s voice as he entered the room. “What are you doing! I told you not to hurt Lenn!”
Ian came and knelt in front of the bed at my side, and another familiar face met mine: Aaron, the red-haired and freckled cousin.
“Hi Lenn,” he said brightly with a quick wave.
“Vah sulm, Lenn?” Ian asked.
I have to admit, I was more than a little shaky. I stared at all three ka yatvi staring back at me, and cleared my throat.
“Uh, s-sia, sulmtol…” I whimpered. “Hello Aaron, hi Chris.”
“What are you talking?” Chris asked. “What’s shumptol?”
“It’s Lenn’s language,” Ian said. “He’s been teaching it to me. He said ‘really good’. I don’t think he means it, though.”
“Sure I do,” I replied quietly, rubbing an arm.
“You can talk,” Aaron said, resting his arms on the bed. “Chris and me were really worried you would die. But I knew Uncle James would fix you right up.”
“Codahke, Aaron,” I said. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t found me. How did you find me? Why were you playing near the river that day anyway?”
“It’s a shortcut to the park,” he said. “It’s not far from our house, and we go that way a lot. We don’t tell Mom about it, though, she’d yell at us. She doesn’t want us to drown, I guess.”
“Say that shumptol word again,” Chris said. “I wanna learn it too.”
“Shulm… tol,” Ian said slowly.
“Shool-hmm tole?” Chris rolled the sounds around in his mouth. “That’s hard to say.”
“Not really,” Aaron said. “Shulm-toll.”
“It is for me. Shoolm-tool.”
“I’ve taught a lot of kids how to speak English. But I’ve never taught yatvi how to speak Yatnasi.”
I got blank stares from the young cousins.
“Yatvi means human,” Ian explained. “And Yatnasi is his language.”
“So what’s he called?” Aaron asked, pointing at me. “He’s not a human, right? He’s way too small.”
“What’s the word?” Ian asked again, snapping his fingers. “Yat…? Sorry Lenn, I can never remember.”
Chris leaned towards me, tilting his head like a puppy dog.
“You say English words funny,” he said with a laugh.
“Hey, that’s not nice,” Aaron said, shoving his younger brother’s shoulder playfully. “That’s just his accent. I think it’s cool.”
“Can I pick you up?” Chris asked, thrusting his hands forwards. My eyes nearly bulged out of my head. Fortunately, Aaron and Ian quickly shoved Chris’s hands back down.
“No no no…” Ian stammered.
“Stop, stop!” Aaron agreed out loud. “He’s not an animal. He’s a person. You can’t just grab him.”
“But I asked him first! And I wasn’t just gonna grab him! How come Ian can pick him up and not me?”
“Because you’re not responsible like him.”
“Nuh-uh! I am ‘sponsible!”
I shook myself out of my fear.
“Ian? Can you help me up?”
Holding out his hand, I leaned against it and grunted myself to my feet. My bad knee immediately bent backwards, and I winced at the discomfort. I snapped it back into a straight position.
“Whoa…” Aaron exclaimed.
“Ah!” Chris shouted. “Did you break your leg?”
“No, guys! It’s just-”
“Ian, Ian,” I said, patting his finger. “Let them ask questions, it’s okay. I was very sick as a child and it made my leg this way. Ian and James call it ‘polio’.”
“Oh. I’ve heard of that,” Aaron said. “Does it hurt? Your leg, I mean? Can you walk on it?”
“It only hurts if I bend it too far back. It’s a bit difficult to walk on, but I’ll soon be okay enough to use crutches to get around.”
“What’s a polio?” Chris asked.
“It’s a virus that can paralyze and kill people,” Ian said. “Especially kids. It’s really scary, but humans don’t get it anymore because of vaccines you get as a baby. Lenn’s people still get it, I guess.”
“Did I get a vaccine so I won’t get it?”
“I’m sure you did.”
“That’s good. I like my legs straight.”
“I’ll bet you run really fast on them,” I said. “Faster than me!”
“Yup!” he said proudly.
“Well,” I coughed, carefully stepping out of my blanket nest towards the boy sitting before me. “Might as well get this over with.”
I stopped a half-foot from Chris’s folded legs. This young boy may have been the smallest yatvi I’d ever seen, but he still sat over me like a thick tree trunk.
“Chris, I’m going to trust you. Lift me up.”
“Lenn, are you sure?” Ian asked.
“I’m sure. So long as Chris promises to be careful.”
“I will, really,” Chris responded.
Despite the promise, Chris’s hands descended and monstrously closed in around me.
“Wait, wait…” I said, grabbing his hands as they approached, pulling the delicate fingers downwards. “Hold on, don’t take me all at once, you don’t want to make my wound worse. Hold me down here instead.”
I placed my hands on my hips, and Chris obeyed. His hands were cool and clammy to the touch, not to mention considerably smaller than Ian’s. They took my waist a bit tightly, and I soon felt my feet part from the bed, rising up to his eye level.
For a moment, he examined me. And when I say he examined me, I mean he brought me very close to his face and stared. His eyes darted across my features like a pair of bright-blue plates, and his long eyelashes blinked up and down like waving sails. He even went so far as to slightly rotate me side-to-side as if testing the gravity of my limbs, which swung heavy and loose.
“Wow,” he finally said, his breath smelling like a mixture of sugary cereal and toothpaste. “You’re so cool.”
I laughed, reaching a hand outwards. He leaned forwards as if knowing what to do, and I patted him on the forehead.
“I’m not that interesting, really. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘cool’. Except maybe by Ian. Serdi.”
He tilted his head.
“What’s ‘shur-dee’ mean?”
“It means ‘thank you’.”
“Oh. What’s ‘you’re welcome’?”
“Hmm.” He made a goofy face. “Shur-dee-ah!”
“Very good. Sulmtol!”
I felt a finger tap my shoulder.
“Where do you come from, Lenn?” Aaron asked. He chortled. “You’re not an alien from another planet, are you?”
“Oh, come on,” Ian moaned.
“Turn me around, would you Chris?”
The fingers rotated me to face the two older boys with interesting dexterity. I placed my hands on the edges of Chris’s own.
“No, I’m not… what did you say? An ay-lin? What is that?”
“Alien. It’s a scary person thing that comes from outer space.”
“Scary?” I shrugged. “I’m not scary, am I? What’s outer space?”
“Up past the atmosphere.”
“Like, above the clouds?”
“Yup, way above the clouds,” Aaron said, showing the distance with his hands. “Up in the stars.”
“Like the star war? I sure don’t come from there.”
Ian shoved Aaron sideways.
“Besides, aliens are green, with huge heads and great big eyes.” He widened his eyelids with his fingers. “Does he look green to you?”
“Whatever, you don’t know what an alien looks like, nobody does! If he is an alien, maybe he’s got a hidden spaceship somewhere. We should go search for it!” Aaron then grinned wildly. “What if he goes up during the middle of the night and abducts cows? Or shrinks them with a laser beam? That would be awesome!”
I burst out into laughter, as did the cousins.
“What, cows? What would I do with a cow? You kañi are so strange!”
“Kahn-yee?” asked a young voice behind me.
“It means ‘little boys’.”
“I’m not a ‘little boy’. I am great-big to you,” Chris said with a giggle, and I felt a pair of great thumbs press me forwards and massage the middle of my back.
“Hey! I am too, you know,” Aaron said.
I locked eyes with Ian and saw a grin on his face.
“We already talked about this, Lenn. Remember?”
I wobbled my head.
“Okay, fine. But I’m still older than all of you. How old are the two of you?”
“I’m nine and a half,” Aaron said.
Swift as a bird, Chris placed me onto the surface of the bed. My stomach leaped into my throat as I landed.
“I’m almost six,” he announced, revealing why he’d let me down: he held up five fingers in one hand, and a bent index finger on the other that showed just how close his birthday was. Then, as quickly as he’d placed me down, he picked me right back up again, his hands grasping me too far up my chest.
“Chris, you can’t just put him up and down like that. Be careful, please,” Ian said.
“Down on my hips, remember?” I said, grunting. “You’re getting a little too close to my bandages.”
“Sorry,” he whispered, leaning me back and laying out my prone body horizontal trying to follow my instructions. My legs hung limp, and my arms did the same between his thumbs.
“That’s not a good way to do it,” Ian said, and I heard the bed heave under pressure as he reached for me.
“No, I can do it, I can,” Chris said.
Chris then flipped me back vertically, and wrapped his hands back onto my hips… trapping my arms at my sides.
“Guh,” I heaved as the young boy’s hands rotated me forwards, the edges of his bony skin shoving my stomach inwards.
“Chris, stop,” Aaron said behind me.
“Come on, give him to me, Chris,” demanded Ian.
“No! No, I can do it! Let me hold him!”
In trying to keep me away, Chris yanked me backwards against his chest, and my face rammed into him. Two months ago, I would have been screaming in fear. Instead, the soft collision and this kañi fumbling with my entire body made a mindless laugh burst from my lungs. I had truly gone insane, and I think my laugh shocked them all.
“Ian, Aaron,” I choked. “Wait! I’m fine, I’m fine. Chris, it’s okay. Don’t squeeze too hard, I need to pull my arms out.”
The tightness faded immediately, and I plucked my arms out from between myself and his moist hands. I then felt myself slip forwards, and I reached out to grab the front of the boy’s shirt.
“Ah, careful Chris! Don’t drop me, please!”
His grip reformed around me properly, and again, Chris lifted me up to his eyes. Instead of excitement, I saw a face of concern and regret.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Phew,” I said cheerfully. “No problem.”
“Chris isn’t allowed to pick up the kittens at home,” Aaron laughed. “He plays with them too hard.”
“Nuh-uh! I’m getting better!”
I laughed with a moan.
“That, uh… that would have been good information to have a minute ago.” I patted Chris’s thumbs with both hands and looked up at his round face. “But you did very good, Chris. Sort of.”
He lit up like a candle.
“Yay!” he said with great big nods.
* * * * * *
The rest of that day, I became a merry little captive to the three kañi. From video games and watching funny movies on Ian’s phone to spending time in the backyard (keeping to the shadows of the porch as well as I could), I attempted to remain independent. But, of course, without crutches and practically limping by the late morning, I was carried and traded between all three boys like a pillbug. Catherine watched over all of us (or specifically me) to the point that she joined the boys whenever I was brought out of Ian’s room.
I could tell Ian was doing his best to keep me and Chris separated. Chris carried me around like a doll when it was “his turn” (which Ian begrudgingly allowed), and when he couldn’t, he poked and prodded me with every chance he could get. Aaron, on the other hand, was much more respectful. He was very calm and quiet for his age, mostly keeping his hands to himself. He followed directions much like Ian, but allowed me a bit more “freedom” than Ian preferred; whenever it was his turn to watch me, he let me walk instead of lifting me, and didn’t seem to know when or how to offer help when I stumbled. I didn’t mind all three of them, all things considered. But they certainly critiqued each other about the way I should be treated.
As the clock at Ian’s bedside table read 3 P.M., we spent the time watching an entertaining show on Ian’s television. Or, at least, the television was on; whether anyone was watching was debatable. Aaron sat in the chair, Ian laid on his bed, and Chris laid belly-first on the floor with his head in his hands. Naturally, as I sat on the floor resting my legs from playtime outside, Chris was right before me, and he was more interested in me than the cartoon. Aaron had begun to drift off, and Ian was engrossed on his phone, so I had no one to ‘protect’ me from the youthful and entertaining ka.
“You know,” I said to him as he bobbed his bare feet back and forth behind him. “I teach kids your age how to read and write. Do you have a teacher that does that for you?”
Chris nodded, his fingers dancing under his chin. He sniffed every few seconds as if allergic to something.
“Miss Rodriguez is my teacher. She’s really nice. But I’m not good at reading.”
He said every other word with an ever-so-slight pause, as if wanting to get everything out of his mouth correctly. I always found that endearing with kids his age, even if it annoyed some of the less-patient parents I negotiated with at the village.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It just takes practice. Have you learned how to spell your name?”
“Sulm! That’s a great start.”
“Shul-hmm? What’s that mean?”
“It means ‘good’. Like ‘sulmtol’, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding as if completely understanding.
“What do you like to do at school? What’s your favorite subject?”
“Hmm,” He tapped his finger on his nose. Then he snapped up. “Drawing.”
“Oh, that’s mine too. What do you draw?”
“With crayons,” he answered awkwardly. “I draw dinosaurs and houses and trucks, and all sorts of stuff.”
“Sulm,” I said again. Then I frowned. “I’ve read the word ‘dinosaur’ before. What’s it mean? What’s a dinosaur?”
“You don’t know what a dinosaur is?” Chris asked, leaning closer to me.
“Nope, I don’t.”
He spread his arms out as wide as they could go, leaving him breathless against the floor. His fingers nearly hit me on the way up.
“They’re great-big monsters that lived a million-billion years ago. Some of them ate plants, and some of them with big sharp teeth chased other dinosaurs and ate them.”
“A million-billion years ago?” I asked. “How do you know something lived that long ago?”
“Um… people find their bones and dig them up. And then put them in museums. I saw some when I went with Mom.”
“Their bones, huh?”
“They’re called fossils,” Ian added from his bed.
“Yeah, foss-sills,” Chris nodded.
“Interesting. You know, if my people found old bones, we knew it was important to stay away because that meant monsters like wolves and foxes and birds hunted there. If they found us, they would hurt our families and friends, and… and we’d all get very sad.”
Ys yul, those were bad memories. Images of a torn-off arm and blood-stained snow filled my mind, but those were hardly appropriate to share with a five-year old boy. Chris pouted.
“That makes me sad, too. I don’t want monsters to eat my family.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that too much. You’re great-big, remember? Monsters would be afraid of you instead and run away.”
“But I’m not great-big,” Chris admitted, folding his arms on the floor and resting his head on them. “I’m small. I get scared that something will eat me.”
“Like dogs, huh Chris?” Ian said. “Are you still afraid of dogs?”
“Nuh-uh,” he said quickly. “Well… not small dogs. Big dogs are scary.”
“Every dog is big to me, so I’m certainly afraid of them. Cats, too. They’d all rather chew on me.”
“But you’re not afraid of big people like me?”
Chris’s fingers floated towards me and took hold of one of my feet. He pulled me towards him, causing me to slide through the thick carpet on my bottom. I don’t know if he correlated his question with his actions, but I certainly made the connection.
“I am… sometimes,” I whispered, pulling back. “Especially if they try to hurt me. I was very afraid of you when you and Ian and Aaron found me.”
“Me?” Chris stopped tugging, satisfied to tap his index finger and thumb around my ankle. “But I’m not scary.”
“You can be. If you picked me up and put me in a cage, I couldn’t get out. If you didn’t help me find food or water, I’d get very hungry and thirsty and sick. If you weren’t careful, you could drop me or step on me. You know?”
These novel ideas floated through Chris’s mind as well as across his pensive expression. His tongue came out of his mouth, licking his upper lip as he thought.
“That wouldn’t be very nice,” he said finally. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“What if you did it on accident?”
He thought again, his hand covering his lips.
“I’d be really careful… and say sorry.”
“That’s a good answer,” I asked. “I’m glad.”
“Well, you’re being very nice to me right now. So thank you, Chris. Serdi. You boys have all been very kind to me.”
Chris’s hand approached me (naturally the one he used to cover his tongue-soaked lip) and gently patted me on the head. Unsure of what he planned to do next, I laughed and tried to gently push him away. Instead, he took hold of my arm and bent it up and down like a stick on a hinge. He didn’t even have anything to say about his actions; he simply hummed to himself.
“Hey,” I said, patting his thumb with my other hand. “You’re silly.”
“Shoolm, shoolm,” he whispered. “You’re very… um, flex-ee-bull.”
“Well, careful,” I replied. “My shoulder hurts if it moves too much.”
He let go, but gently squeezed my foot again. Ian must have been watching, or at least listening.
“Chris,” he growled. “Don’t touch Lenn without asking first. You’re gonna hurt him.”
“But I won’t.”
“Hey, Chris,” I called to him, recapturing his attention. “Can you help me up?”
He rose from his belly and sat upon the floor with his feet tucked beneath him, and reached out his hands to grab me and lift me again.
“Not like that,” I said. “Just give me your hand so I can stand up.”
He did so, and with some effort, I clambered to my feet. Unable to stop a yawn, I paused for a moment, leaning against the young boy’s open hand.
“Hey Ian,” I called. Ian’s face quickly appeared over the side of his bed. “Is it okay if I go back to the guest room to sleep?”
I heard his phone click off, and he sat up. He bent down to take me in his hands himself, but Chris intercepted him. Powerful kañi hands hauled me into the air and presented me to my not-so-little brother. My head spun, but I said nothing about it.
“Here you go!” Chris said cheerfully.
Ian’s face flashed with annoyance, but he didn’t say anything as he took me by my waist and cradled me against his chest.
“Serdi again, Chris,” I said.
“Um… oh yeah, serdia!”
“Can you stay here while I take Lenn to bed?” Ian asked.
“Uh-huh,” Chris replied, immediately turning himself and flattening against the carpet to watch the television. Ian rose and stepped over the youngest ka, muttering under his breath something akin to “thank you very much, you little dork”. I laughed, patting Ian’s chest, and he let out an airy guff.
After about an hour, the little yatili and the large yatvi came back into the guest room. Aaron and Chris told me that they needed to head home, so they said goodbye and departed. Juni had lost his energy since going to Ian’s room, and soon fell asleep underneath the blanket as Charsi and I researched the map on Ian’s phone for another while.
There wasn’t much detail I could see on the map, even in the simplistic map, that would give us any indication about which direction Elder Ordi might have chosen to lead everyone. Gatherers could travel as much distance as they could carry food and water. But the greater question was if they could escort sixty inexperienced yatili through the wilderness at night with the same resources. So instead of relying solely on the map, I decided to look up some of the different food sources we had relied on up in the hills.
To my absolute pleasure, humans had already done all of the work for me: all I had to do was read and identify. They named them differently than we did. Thornberries to us became thistleberries, the wickedly-sour poisonberry became the pin cherry, and disease roots became black morels. Some of the plants and fruits were poison (as I and the gatherers knew very well), some bloomed only in specific times of the year, and I saw others I had never even seen before. Charsi pointed out the ones she knew, and she tried to explain to me the taste of the fruits and roots she recognized. Unfortunately, she compared them to yatvi foods Eliza had fed her and Juni.
“Sorry,” I told her, more often than I wanted. “I haven’t eaten that.”
She got frustrated at first. But she laughed when I pointed out one in particular. The page showed a black fruit called a currant. I recognized it immediately. I was taught to call them ‘iketsal yodsi’: ‘long night of stomach pain’. She completely agreed with the name.
“A little after meeting Eliza, she fed one to Juni and I. We both had stomach aches allnight long. She thought she had poisoned us, that she was going to kill us. She cried the whole time.”
“What did Xande say?”
“He wasn’t there… at first. Then he came home. Eliza showed him everything we ate,and he actually laughed at her. He told her we weren’t going to die, but she still stayed home all week to take care of us and make sure.”
I rolled my eyes at Xande, although I admit I probably would have done the same thing.
“From then on,” Charsi said. “She always always asked Xande what she should feed us.She asked him so much that it’s a joke now. He doesn’t think it’s funny, but we do.”
“So she does feed you more than chicken nugglets.”
Charsi snorted, covering her nose with her hands in embarrassment. I cracked up immediately.
“Hah!” I leaned to rest on my back. “That got you.”
“I don’t usually do that,” she said with a sheepish smile, wiping her nose. “Don’t tell Juni.He’ll be obnoxious about it for days.”
“No promises,” I grinned, making her whine. “Hey, if it’s not too much to ask… How didyou and Juni meet? Eliza told us how she met you both, but not much of what happened before that. You weren’t from the same village, were you?”
Charsi folded her arms.
“No, I’ve never lived in a village. The first time I saw Juni, he… well, he actually saved me from being hit by a tire.”
“A tire? What, a car tire?”
“I don’t think so. It was a lot bigger than that. A truck tire, or a yatvi machine tire.”
“Was it… attached to a yatvi machine?”
“Oh,” Charsi said with a chuckle. “No, it was a garbage tire, by itself. Juni and I had been living in a yatvi garbage dump for a long time. We had never seen each other before, though. Big yatvi trucks would drive through and dump off new things, and the pile would have food sometimes. But I got greedy. I didn’t check to see if the truck would come back. By the time it did, I had dug down too deep, and got myself stuck. Juni appeared out of nowhere and pulled me out just as the tire smashed down.”
I shook my head.
“Unbelievable. How old were you two?”
“Maybe… seven,” she said with a shrug. “Juni was probably nine. We lived at thegarbage dump for a long time before we ever saw another yatili.”
“It must have smelled horrible. You didn’t actually live in the dump, did you?”
“No, outside it. In a gopher den.”
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“You’re not that small.”
“Well, Juni dug it out first, just to make sure nothing was home. Technically, it was hishome before we shared it.”
“And where did you live before that?”
“Inside a broken metal container. I didn’t live there long, it was the place I had hid when… after my father died.”
“Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I miss him, but I think he would be happy to see how big my family is now.”
She nodded with a grin, pulling her hair behind her ear.
“My mom died last,” said a voice behind Charsi. I looked over, and there was Juni, staring at the ceiling with his hands resting behind his head. “She told me to be strong, left tofind food for us both. She never came back.”
Juni looked our way.
“When I found Charsi, she cried every day for a long time. I think you wereeven afraid of me.”
“I was,” she admitted. “I was afraid of everything.”
“Well,” Juni said with a shrug. “We had plenty of food and water. Some of it was actually pretty good. It was hard to get, though. It was all out in the open, yeah, but there were so many rats and birds I had to fight them off to get anything. Instead, I usually just went for the sealed stuff that didn’t weigh much. Eliza calls it ‘expired food’.”
“Expired?” I asked. “Like, dead?”
“Is that what that means?” Juni shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess yatvi call it dead when they don’t think it’s good anymore. I don’t know why they think that. If it’s in a closed bag, it’s good to me.”
“Me too,” Charsi said. “Even if it’s warm when it shouldn’t be. Of course, Eliza always tells us ‘expired food’ will make us sick. It never did, though.”
“So you two spent, what, a year near a garbage dump, and you never saw another yatili in all that time?”
They both shook their heads.
“I always thought someone would find us,” Charsi said. “But we neversaw anyone. Except Xande, of course.”
“I always wished we found someone who could make us both some decent clothes,” Juni said, tugging at his shirt. “It’s not like we were naked or anything. But sometimes all I had was an itchy robe with pieces of plastic…”
He pointed to his cuffs, his chest, and his head.
“…tied to me as armor. I looked so stupid. It was always really cold and uncomfortable when it rained. Winter was vyshtal ese-”
“Juni!” Charsi exclaimed. “No swearing!”
“Vaya,” I said quickly, pressing my finger to my lips.
We all looked at Ian’s face for a silent second. His light snoring didn’t change.
“Sorry,” they both whispered.
“Anyway,” I said, looking directly at Juni. “Continue. And with cleaner words.”
I expected shame from him, but there was none. He chuckled instead.
“Right. So we’re crammed inside a gopher hole, right? I’m out searching for food again. It’s in the evening, when there are fewer birds. I was whistling to myself instead of being quiet, which was pretty stupid. I’m digging through a cardboard box when something touches my shoulder. I think to myself, it has to be a bird beak, or a cat tongue, or something else terrible…”
Juni gestured dramatically.
“I freak out and dive into the garbage, screaming. I feel something grab my shirt, and itpulls me out. It’s Xande. It was hard for him to cover my mouth and stop me from running out the box with one arm, but I’m glad he did, because right outside the box was two garbage men.”
“Why was Xande at the dump?” I asked him. “He wasn’t looking for food, was he?”
“Nah,” Juni said. “He was looking for lights. Electric lights. His had gone bad.”
“I told him he could take our lights, since we didn’t need so many. He wanted to leave right away, but I begged him to see Charsi first. He finally listened to me and followed me, and after we shared some food with him, he told us to follow him and that he would find us a home.”
“What do you mean, just like that? A yatili home? Or a yatvi home?”
“I think he meant yatili at first,” Charsi said. “But when we didn’t find anyone for a long time, I think he changed his mind. It was too dangerous to keep moving. We needed somewhere to live safe, and Xande said he couldn’t keep us that way by himself.”
I scratched my forehead.
“That doesn’t sound like him at all. Why Eliza? She told us she was the one who found you.”
“She did,” Charsi said with a smile. “Xande’s plan was for us to sit on the kitchen counter for her to find us. But she came home too soon, and we were still on the floor. Xande hid. Juni screamed his head off and ran. I was the only one who stayed put.”
“I think you mean I saved you,” Juni insisted. “If I hadn’t tired Eliza out by running away, she might have grabbed you first.”
“Sure,” Charsi said with sarcasm.
“You didn’t answer my question, though,” I said. “Why Eliza?”
“She didn’t own a dog,” Juni said. “Or a cat.”
“No, it was more than that. Xande said she was special.”
“He found us a place to hide, and he spent a few days studying yatvi in their homes,” Charsi explained. “He didn’t want a home that had kids. Or animals. He said he didn’t mind ifthe yatvi were married, but he preferred only one yatvi learned about us. And he had to know that the yatvi was a kind person. I don’t know why he thought Eliza was kind. I’ve never really asked him.”
“Huh. Well, he was right after all.”
“Yes, he was.”
“So what was it like meeting her for the first time?”
“Do you have to ask?” Juni moaned.
“The most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Charsi said. “Xande had only taught me alittle bit of English, and Juni had no idea what she was saying.”
“I did too,” Juni responded. “I just didn’t know how to say anything back.” He turned to me, pointing at Charsi. “I don’t get how she learned English so fast. And Xande won’t tell me where he learned English. You know, though. Don’t you? Was it in your village? Who taught him? Wasit you?”
I pursed my lips.
“No, it was definitely not me. I would like to avoid being punched when I see Xandeagain, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”
“There’s a lot Xande won’t tell us, actually,” Charsi said. “Like about where he goes all the time. He’s a really quiet person. He acts tough in front of Eliza, but… well, I’ve seen him cry when his shoulder hurt. He cried when he talked about Aria too.”
I couldn’t imagine him like that. I’d never really seen him in private, though, so I couldn’t have known.
“Don’t tell Xande you’re telling Lenn stuff like that, Sisi,” Juni said. “He’ll stop talking to you.”
Charsi waved her hands.
“He’s stopped talking to me before. When I ask too much. So I don’t, because I care about him. He lets me help him when he’s not mad at me, so I do my best.”
“He wasn’t keeping me a secret,” I said. “He certainly doesn’t care about me enough.And if he told you about Aria and the village, it isn’t that.”
“Well, I’m not about to ask him again,” Juni said. “Last time I tried, he wrapped his arm around my neck and laughed at me. Like we were wrestling, like I hadn’t even said anything.”
Charsi and Juni both shifted their eyes towards me.
“Don’t look at me,” I told them. “He already wants to kill me. I probably couldn’t even askthe question before he’d tear my leg off and club me with it.”
Juni laughed at me, and Charsi’s nose got all scrunched up.
“I never thought there would be someone Xande would actually hurt. And Eliza. He had never pulled out his knife to hurt her before.”
“He’s hit me before, but even for him, pulling a knife seemed a little… extreme.”
“Do you think,” Charsi asked. “When Aria comes, do you think you could become friends?”
“We would be related,” I said, dreading the thought. “But that’s probably it.”
“Hmm… Not even talk?”
“Ian would have to hold you,” Juni said. “And Eliza would have to hold Xande.”
He held up two fists and made noises as if they were squawking.
“And then you could shout and scream until you liked each other!”
“I wish it worked that way.”
“It’s not how it worked with you and Ian, is it,” Charsi asked. “I can’t imagine being found by all three of those boys at once. I would have died.”
“I was too busy actually dying to be scared,” I told her, smiling. “I lost so much blood, it took me at least two weeks to be scared of Ian. And I didn’t even see Chris and Aaron a week after that.”
I pointed at Juni.
“How long did it take you to stop being nervous around Eliza?”
“Hah,” he said to the ceiling. “Who says I stopped?”
“I wasn’t lying when I told Ian that Eliza still scares me,” Charsi said. “Especially if I don’t expect to see her. She can be really quiet when she wants to.”
“She doesn’t do it on purpose, does she?”
“Just to me,” Juni said quickly. “She’ll wait until she knows it’s just me, and she’ll stomp her feet and shout ‘boo’! I hate it when she does that.”
“Ian cares too much about what I think of him,” I said. “When he teases me or scares me on accident, it’s like he regrets it. That I’ll just stop liking him.” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that.”
“That’s so weird.” Juni said. “He scared me, but I still like him.”
“That’s what I told him. I must be his brother now because I don’t think he believed me. You’llhave to tell him yourself.” I poked Charsi’s shoulder gently. “Ian really worried about you when Aaron held you. I’m glad he was holding onto me at the same time, or he might have stopped you from trying.”
Charsi watched Ian for a moment.
“I never thought in a hundred years I’d ever get to meet human boys. And all three have promised to protect us.”
“Still think they’re monsters?” I asked her.
“Just a little.”
“Meeting human boys, huh?” Juni teased. “You gonna fall in love with one?”
Charsi and I both leered at him.
“Eww, what!” Charsi swatted the words away in disgust. “No way, are you crazy?! We’renot even-! No!”
“I’ll bet you’re in love with Ian!” he sung. “I’m gonna tell him you said so!”
Charsi scooted herself towards Juni, and in a flash of frustration, smacked her brother’s shoulder. All it made him do was laugh, and he retaliated by poking Charsi in the ribs. Both of them struggled, growled, and laughed. Loudly.
“Hey, you two! Keep it down! If you wake Ian up, I’m going to-”
The movement of the hairy head that laid prone upon the pillow next to ours didn’t make a sound. Neither did the bed, not that I remember. I was looking at the two bickering children when I saw Juni’s face go cold. Then Charsi’s turned white as she gasped. I then turned, and not more than four inches away from me floated a scowling blue-green eye. It turned my stomach for a quick second before I recognized the dimple beneath it.
“Ah,” I said, pointing. “Before you say anything, I’ll remind you that you wanted to sleep in here.”
“I was sleeping,” growled the human. “But I guess I’m not anymore.”
My pleasant smile quickly passed on to him, and we both laughed. The great happy eye then passed from me to Eliza’s two troublemakers.
“Hi Charsi, hi Juni,” he whispered. “What’s up?”
Juni recovered faster.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Charsi wants to tell you something!”
Charsi turned and slugged her brother’s arm. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she could, but it surprised me more when Juni took it in stride.
“H-Hi Ian,” she said as she timidly turned. “How are… um, how are you feeling?”
“I’m okay,” he replied. “I kept hearing my name. Were you talking about me?”
Charsi slammed Juni’s mouth shut.
“No, no! Well, I mean, only a little, about, uh… how you’re our friend, and that we’re family now, and not-”
Juni tore her hand off.
“Ian, Charsi said that she lo-”
Charsi slammed both hands over his mouth.
“Hush!” she hissed.
Ian looked at me looking slightly confused but very amused. I just smiled back at him.
“Juni wants Charsi to say that she loves you,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “Isn’t that strange?”
I looked back, and saw Charsi’s face turn red. Juni, now freed of his sister’s hands, filled the room with cackling laughter.
“Lenn is on my side!” Juni shouted.
“There aren’t supposed to be sides!” Charsi shouted back, forcing her brother’s head away. She swiveled to face me, slapping the pillow. “Lenn, you’re mean! You can’t just tell Ian things like that!”
“But…” Ian said, immediately playing along. His expression turned to one of feigned sadness. “You don’t love me at all?”
Charsi sat, very visibly stunned.
“No!” she exclaimed. She skipped a beat. “Well, uh, I didn’t… I didn’t mean… Love, like a… like a cousin, and not like…”
Juni cackled all the harder. Ian’s face appeared injured by Charsi’s stammered words.
“You!” She pointed at Ian, then at me. “I… I know what you’re doing! You can’t do what I did! That’s not fair!”
Ian’s dimple returned and he smiled. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s all fair,” I replied. “We’re all family now, so we’re supposed to tease each other!”
“But I don’t like being teased!”
Ian’s hand appeared from beneath his blanket and approached Charsi carefully. She attempted to stop the fingers before they reached her, but they instead took her gently by the hand.
“I know what you mean, Charsi,” he said, sounding tired. “And I’m sorry I scared you when I fought with Lenn. I only wanted to protect you from Aaron. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.”
Her wounded expression turned thoughtful.
“Oh, I…” she whispered back. “I know… and I’m, um, sorry for making you worry. You shouldn’t have to when you’re so hurt.”
Ian smiled as best he could.
“And I love all my cousins. Even Juni.”
Juni’s face scrunched like he’d eaten a whole lemon.
“Ack,” he spit, sticking his tongue out. “Ñeh serdi.”
Ian’s fingers released Charsi’s hand and flew straight to Juni. Enveloping all sides of his head, Ian gathered the boy’s long, white-blond hair and lifted it upwards. Juni yelped and shooed Ian’s hand away, smooshing his hair back into place. It got the point across without much effort.
“Ñeh! No! Now Ian’s mean!”
“Okay, kañi and kalñi, we get it. We’re all mean,” I sighed with a chuckle. I turned back. “How are you really feeling, Ian?”
“Bad enough for me to get Catherine?”
“…maybe not yet.” He pulled back to rest upon his own pillow. He then pointed at his phone before bundling his blanket up beneath his chin. “Teach me something. I’ll try not to fall asleep.”
“Can I tell Ian about how Juni and I met?” Charsi asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “Go right ahead.”
She nearly began, but she caught herself mid-breath.
“Ah, um… how do you say ‘sarefi reasar’ in English again?”
“Oh yeah. Dump. Right.”
“Dump,” Juni said in English, testing the word. “That sounds funny.”
“What about a garbage dump?” Ian asked.
“Let Charsi tell you,” I said.
Ian nodded, and Charsi began.
“That’s why I was so afraid of you,” Charsi said, now herself laying beneath the edge of the blanket. The room had grown chilly, and even I slid down and sat close to Charsi to warm up beneath it. “Every yatvi I ever saw would have killed me. Or that’s what I thought. I only knew Eliza, and I didn’t want to be scared again like Eliza scared me.”
“I’m sorry, Charsi,” Ian mumbled, laying his head upon the flat bed instead of the pillow. “I didn’t know.”
“And I want to think I’m like Xande,” Juni said. “That I’m big and strong. But… I’m not. Not really.”
I patted Charsi’s back.
“You two are much braver than you think. I never went through anything like that growing up.”
Ian’s eye closed.
“Me neither. I feel like such a loser. I can’t even do simple things like go to school without ending up like… this.”
He placed his hand directly upon his broken cheek, just light enough to feel the pain.
“But you have a mom and dad that love you,” Juni said.
“And you’re a hero,” I added. “All you have to do is look at my scar. You knew just what you had to do to save my life.”
“I’m not a hero.” His eye looked back at me. “If I was, other people would like me.”
“Well, we like you.”
Juni and Charsi agreed.
“You know what I mean, though,” Ian said. “I don’t have any friends. Not even at church. I want to stay home for the rest of my life where people actually care.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I chuckled. “But you know you can’t do that. You showed me that there’s so much out in the world to learn. What if you go out there, come back, and teach me everything you learn? Then I can teach it to Aria and my child, and Charsi and Juni? Who knows, we might even find other yatili who want to learn too.”
“Yeah!” Juni said. “You could be a teacher like Lenn and teach a whole room of yatili!”
Ian gently smiled.
“You think there’s enough of you out there?”
“To fill a room?” I looked at Charsi, and she shrugged. “There has to be.”
“Are we going to learn from you and Ian?” Charsi asked. “Before all that, I mean.”
“You’ll have to ask Eliza,” I said. “I’m not sure what she has in mind. Do you really want to learn from a cripple and a goofy kañi?”
Charsi laughed along with her brother.
“I live with Goofy every day,” she said plainly, throwing her finger towards Juni. “I don’t mind.”
“And I live with kalvalin idi,” Juni replied, pointing back at her. “I’m used to it.”
“What does that mean?” Ian asked. “’Girl’ something.”
“Smart weird girl,” I said.
“I’m smart, not weird,” Charsi insisted. “You’re the one who can’t do math.”
Juni slapped the blanket.
“I can too!” He paused just long enough to make everyone doubt. “Well, Eliza just makes it confusing with big numbers!”
“I’m bad at math too,” Ian said. “I hope Lenn knows.”
“Uh,” I said. “I don’t do numbers. Maybe Eliza will be a guest teacher.”
I’m sorry, the encryption key you entered is incorrect. Please input encryption key now.
I’m sorry, the encryption key you entered is incorrect. Please input encryption key now, or all data on this recording will be erased.
Encryption key accepted. Beginning playback of recorded holotape message:
This is Catja Stelzner, junior reporter for the Charleston Herald. Or, at least, I was. And if I’m discovered with any of the information I’m about to send you, I don’t think anyone will ever see me again. I think I’m already dead, in fact, and unless you’re fast enough to report this, you probably are too. They’ll bury anyone with this information so deep, they’ll even bury the backhoe just to make sure there’s no evidence.
Okay, details, details… The whole reason this thing started was an announcement from the lead editors to search for information about any business or company that seemed shady enough to do business under the table, weed out corruption. Maybe find financial records in the government archives that didn’t quite match the type of work they performed. Simple enough, right?
I spent five months in the basement of the capitol building, sifting through paper record after paper record, electronic entry after electronic entry, trying to do research on one company in particular:
I know, I know, you’re probably thinking: what the hell is a junior reporter doing, performing research on the nation’s largest defense contractor? If I even mentioned what I was doing, everyone would call me a communist sympathizer, I’d lose my job, and I’d never find work in Columbia again. I used every excuse at work to continue my research. But West-Tek could do no wrong. All the numbers matched up. All the signatures signed. All the ‘I’s dotted and the ‘T’s crossed.
But this was personal to me. My husband, Deeter, died of the New Plague in 2068.
I was away in Canada on a reporting job about the proposed annexation when I heard the news. They didn’t even let me see the body. There was no funeral. I couldn’t afford it. His parents lived in Germany, and mine in Sweden, and there was no use trying to get any of them on a plane with the government travel restrictions. I tried to send a message back there about his death, but I’m not sure they ever got it. Knowing what I know now, they probably intercepted any message with his name.
I exhausted every lead I could think to search in the archives. This meant I had two choices: move on to something considerably less dangerous, or follow the only real lead I had: Deeter.
I knew something was wrong from the very moment I called AVR Medical. When I said Deeter’s name, the nurse on the other line went silent. The doctor I spoke with skirted my questions and said Deeter had died of external hemorrhaging and suffocation. I demanded to see his medical records, demanded to know where his body had gone. But the only thing he could say was that it had been sent to a biomedical center for research into a cure for the Plague. They didn’t need to specify which “center” he’d been sent to, because I’d been there several times covering news reports of medical revolutions discovered there.
The West-Tek Research Facility, just north of Huntersville.
Two months ago, just before the sun went down, I got in my car and drove. I don’t know what I intended to do when I got to the facility, as there was no doubt the highest security imaginable: cameras, electronic turrets, guards, probably even dogs for all I knew. All I had was the ProSnap camera in my shoulder bag. I didn’t even bring my reporter’s badge because I knew if I were detained, the Herald would face serious consequences for my actions. The road to West-Tek through Huntersville was closed due to quarantine, so I drove around Whitesprings to get there.
I arrived just before the front office’s closing time. I would have preferred to face a firing line of Chinese soldiers than walk into this place, if only for the fact that the Chinese would end me swiftly. But the only thing driving me was my beloved Deeter. Whether he was alive or dead, I would find him.
There were guards outside the office, and they eyed me with suspicion. I was right about the dogs. But my camera was hidden in my bag, and I kept my head upright and continued walking. Confidence. That was the key. The automatic doors opened, and I strode right up to the reception desk, where I saw a young woman standing, filing papers.
“Welcome to West-Tek!” she said cheerfully. “How can I help you?”
I stammered, and said something stupid about performing inspections of the emergency sprinkler systems.
“May I check your bag? It’s just routine, to make sure you don’t bring in anything that could contaminate the labs!”
My heart sank, but I handed her my bag. She dug into it, no doubt saw my camera, and her eyes widened. I knew in that moment I was as good as dead. But then her expression returned to sugary and cheerful.
“Ah, Doctor Forsythe!” she said, returning my bag to me. “Doctor Landis will be so pleased to see you’ve come a day early. Here’s your electronic pass. Now, be sure to wear it everywhere you go in the building! Wouldn’t want any accidents to happen, now, would we?”
She then hustled me towards the door beside the desk.
“If you head straight down this hallway, take a left, then a right, you’ll find yourself in the hydroponics lab. From there, take a right and you’ll be exactly where you should be. Most of the staff have gone home for the day, so you shouldn’t have any interruptions at all.”
She didn’t seem perturbed that I said nothing in return. Her cheery disposition melted when she handed the pass to me. She turned back to her papers at the reception desk, filed them, grabbed her purse, and practically booked it out the front doors. I couldn’t believe it. She was just waiting for someone with a camera to come striding into the building. I never caught her name, and I don’t know what happened to her. I can only hope she escaped safely. If I see her again, I’m going to throw her a champagne party.
I followed the directions she’d given me, and what I saw amazed me; I’d never seen any of the crops they were growing inside that lab. The corn looked rotten, gourds of all sizes and colors grew in planters. And frankly, I didn’t want to know what the disgusting tomato-looking plants were.
I took a right from the lab, walked up a ramp, and stepped into a vast room that smelled of ammonia and sulfur. It was then I saw the tanks. The liquid inside the uncovered tanks glowed a sickly green color as if made of radiation. Making sure no one was around, I took several shots of the tanks and moved on. Most of the facility was a maze of machinery, and I didn’t quite know where to go next. I descended another ramp and stepped through an automatic door that led to a stairwell. Cautious for any sounds or movement, I found myself on the second floor in front of two large doors with a terminal beside it.
I know nothing about working with computers. Besides word processors, of course. But I knew how to turn a terminal on, so I did. It called for a password, and I thought I didn’t have one. But then I remembered the badge. On the back was a long string of letters and numbers. I knew that if this was wrong, the entire facility would go on alert and know exactly where I was. My fingers were trembling as I typed the keys, and I had to backspace a few times. But it worked. The doors opened.
What I saw then I’ve only imagined in my most horrible nightmares. Inside glowing green tanks floated giant abominations that looked human but misshapen, with green skin and muscles like a twisted professional bodybuilder. I took as many pictures as I could.
I snuck further into the labs (avoiding the tanks) and found myself in a hallway lined with experiment rooms complete with what I assumed were one-way windows. Inside most of them were dead monstrosities. I couldn’t tell if they were actively rotting or if they simply looked that way. The terminal beside the door gave me a name: Sheila Dauber from Huntersville. I crossed the hallway and looked at another terminal: Thomas McDevitt from Huntersville. There was practically no difference between female and male, if they were indeed the test subjects.
I knew the New Plague had struck that town pretty hard, and that West-Tek and the feds had been sent to give aid. I never could have imagined what West-Tek was actually doing to them.
I looked through one of the rooms and saw a holotape sitting on the table. I grabbed it. The audio on that tape is, well… It’s graphic. I can’t imagine anyone willingly performing tests like these on other human beings, other Americans. It’s included for you to review. I’d say destroy it after you’ve dictated it, but you might need some kind of proof besides a sheet of paper. I can’t advise you either way.
I continued further, hearing nothing but the sound of electronics and bubbling tanks. That is, until I happened upon a larger experimentation room. I peered through the glass and saw something incomprehensibly terrible. A formless blob, limbs coming out in all directions, no head that I could see. It rolled around on the floor aimlessly, and I could hear its rasping breath over the room’s intercom.
I took a picture, but I think it saw the flash through the one-way window. If it even had eyes to see. It made gurgling sounds as if its mouth were pressed flat upon the ground, and it rolled over until a disturbing orifice appeared.
I then heard a sound I’ll never forget for the rest of my life, an echo that I will take to my grave.
The thing said my name.
And it had Deeter’s voice.
Although the experimentation room had a terminal beside the door, I didn’t dare turn it on to read the name. A choice that will forever haunt me.
I regret that my investigation ended there. I panicked, retracing my steps as I began to hyperventilate. I saw one staff member in hydroponics working late, and I’m pretty sure he got a look at me as I strode past him. He didn’t say anything, though, and I managed to maintain my nerves long enough to give the guards my “Doctor Forsythe” pass and walk to my car.
I didn’t know where to go after that. I couldn’t return home; they had my face on camera. I couldn’t go to the Herald with my camera and that holotape; they were too close to the government, too close to West-Tek. And who’s going to believe a junior reporter with fuzzy images and a doctored holotape?
Look, I know the group you belong to. It doesn’t matter to me. I can only hope that you’ll believe me and spread the word about West-Tek’s evil. Those tanks of green glowing liquid created those creatures and turned my husband into something utterly inhuman. Huntersville is being harvested to create these monsters. And who knows what else they have in store for us? For all we know, they might have even created the New Plague in the first place as an excuse to kidnap people and experiment on them.
Please tell America about West-Tek. Don’t let the world forget about Deeter Stelzner. I can’t tell you my location, but I will try to contact you again soon. There are others like me in hiding with more evidence of West-Tek’s horrors. But I’m sure you know that already.
This is real. It’s happening now. And America is too blinded by war and patriotism to see it.