I awoke before the sun did. Or it seemed I had. From what I could tell, the day would be a stormy one. I looked over towards where the red clock numbers under the television should have been, and I found myself instead staring at the sleeping body of a boy. Ian was facing me, and most of his blanket had fallen down towards his feet during the night. I couldn’t tell before, but he was shirtless and appeared to be wearing long flannel pajamas.
It was curious. Usually I woke to my own scent in my blankets, which was awful at the best of times. But in the last few days, my skin instead smelled like soap. Like an Iatvi. I had asked James, and indeed, Doctor Petersen was the reason I had no trace of dirty canal left on any part of me: he had cleaned every part of me himself. This didn’t concern me as much as it could have; it was more the fact that I previously had a pad beneath me and a towel on top to take care of bathroom business. He told me that, considering my bandages, it was probably a bad idea that I tried to bathe in the sink anyway, so he used cold and wet wipes to clean around the sealing injury. These two facts that he had cared for me this way made me incredibly embarrassed and humble, and during those days in his care, I thanked him every single day.
Of course, there was nothing to do with my hair; no man could tame it, not even me.
That morning, though, the room smelled different. One was laundry detergent, stronger now. The second was Ian and his blanket. Without the clash of anything cooking in the kitchen, it was strangely comforting. Yes, I had siblings, but I never really knew them or spent time with them. I slept alone in the cold in my little school. Even during the summers in the forest, when the sunlight streamed through the gaps in the ceiling, I awoke to silence. Sleeping close to an unfamiliar person, I didn’t know how to feel about it.
I raised myself up, and felt the burn across my neck. It had improved in the few days since, but getting used to movement in the morning was a struggle. I sat up and popped my back as I lurched forwards. A yawn emerged, and I stifled it as much as possible to keep my throat and neck from overstretching. My blanket was warm, but so was the room, so I tossed it away from me. My right leg stretched easily, my left leg not so much. It may have been warped, but it needed stretching too; I bent it as far as it would, the knee slightly bending forwards instead of backwards. Good enough. It never got ‘better’, exactly, but I felt incredibly strong compared to my life as a teenager. You always told me to go out and exercise, but I never did listen. If I had known I would be putting so much pressure on this weak leg of mine, fighting for my life… Well, I might have been more attentive to your advice.
For a moment, I simply sat there, too tired to get up, too awake to fall back asleep. I kept looking back at the boy sleeping. A week and a half ago, I would have died of a heart attack to be so close to an ataika, this young boy. I couldn’t get over the difference in our sizes and lives. I wished again what I’d wished many times: I wished I were Iatvi. A smart Iatvi who could walk and talk with other Iatvi and go anywhere I please in complete safety.
If I had said as much to any of the gatherers or elder Iatili in the village, I would be kicked or spit on. Iatvi kept vicious monsters like cats and dogs as pets. They set traps for mice, but might as well have set traps for us. I would be swiftly reminded of how destructive and murderous they all were.
They weren’t wrong, I suppose, thinking about how one careless action by the child sleeping beside me could have ended my life. What was a teachable moment for him put me in a coma for three days. But then, those damn vyshtal, those idiots back at the village, were never wrong, and the spears and hooks they wielded ensured it. My people weren’t different from the Iatvi, though. Just as destructive. Just as murderous. They simply thought they had power and knowledge, where the Iatvi had that and much more.
You didn’t speak to me when I tried to talk to you about these things. You walked away from me more than once. But the Petersens never abandoned me, or threw me away. Ian wasn’t the one who gave me the scar across my neck. Or my sadness. I could blame the elders all I wanted, of course. I could blame my parents. But in the end, my choices were what ruled me.
All the negative emotions that welled up in my mind buzzed about so loudly, my head lifted and I looked at Ian as if he would wake by the chaos of it. But he was still fast asleep. I sighed and attempted to put it out of my mind; now sleep was truly far from me.
Trying not to grunt and groan, I fought through my bandages and my bum leg to stand. If I jumped or took mighty steps, I imagined the bed would shake Ian up.
A thought crossed my mind, a delightful one that shook me out of my haze in an instant. I wanted to do something. It would be strange. Daring. And when would I ever get the chance to do it again? My lips curled at the prospect.
I crawled out of my ‘nest’ and onto the bed itself; my bedding didn’t lay upon a mattress only, but a soft stitched blanket on top neatly laid flat… well, mostly flat, before Ian crashed down upon it. The bed was decidedly thinner even by Iatvi standards, as my bedding sat only a foot away from Ian’s dozing head. Or did he just move closer to me during the night? I shrugged, and approached him.
I couldn’t believe it: for the first time, I stood taller than him. Taller than his head was wide, anyway. I could see the red clock lights over his messy hair. Both his arms were laid in front of his head, blocking me from his face. I had to do something about them first.
I stood there for a moment, planning my method. I bent down and tested how best to do this. With the softest touch of my hand, I slid my fingers over his wrist. I continued brushing his skin for a moment, pinging the ethereal hairs that grew across the surface. And then it happened: his lower hand zipped around and scratched the spot with his fingernails. I pulled away just in time, and watched Ian’s face for a moment. His eyes didn’t open. He remained asleep.
I smiled. Now how to open up his arms…
I hobbled over to his elbows; his golden-white torso wider than I was tall, his scent very strong. If he reacted badly, I would probably get splattered between his arm and his chest. So, prepared to jut backwards, I reached out my hand and slid my fingers across his smooth arm. Again, no immediate effect. But then I reached up higher and higher, aiming for his underarm. And in a flash, his hand flew to itch, and I threw myself into the fabric beneath me.
Unfortunately, this had the wrong reaction. Ian fell from his side to his back. I frowned. Not what I intended.
So, standing to my feet and returning to Ian’s head, I folded my arms carefully and pondered. The idea popped into my head. Right in front of me (more specifically, at thigh level) was Ian’s ear. I stepped around to the top of Ian’s head, wary of the hand that would surely fly to correct my actions. I parted his soft brown hair to gain access, and bent down.
A week ago, I would have considered this incredibly suicidal. The threat level had been reduced to just probably suicidal. I reached my hand down against the ear and traced my finger around the flexible outer edge. I even squeezed his ear lobe out of simple curiosity. I couldn’t stop a laugh; Ian was right, I was weird, the whole thing was weird. He didn’t move right away, although I did see his head and his lips twitch at my touch. So I went with something a bit more influential. I bent lower and drew my finger right around the edge of the dark hole of his ear. When this didn’t work, I stuck all my fingers in there and wiggled them around.
Like a bolt of lightning, his hand flew to his ear, and I backed away. He groaned as he jammed his finger into the hole, and I thought for sure he was going to wake. To my surprise, he didn’t appear to. In fact, he rolled back over onto his side, I’m assuming, to ensure the itching of his ear wouldn’t happen again.
I thought I was such a genius.
Without his arms to stop me, I stepped before his enormous sideways face. Now I could enact my plan. I bent down, and the morning breath from his nose hit me immediately; not the most pleasant smell in the world. It was time to stop that. With both my hands, I pressed Ian’s soft nose together. The air stopped. The effect was immediate. His mouth opened to replace his nose and he sucked in, snorting and vibrating and gurgling like an engine. I struggled to hold a laugh; his nose wasn’t difficult to keep closed, but I only held it for a moment more. I released it, and he returned to normal.
I learned that day that the strange kid could sleep through anything.
I whispered. I waited. Nothing.
“Ian,” I said in a normal speaking voice.
I gave Ian’s nose a soft bop with my fist. He flinched, but didn’t open his eyes.
Time to bring out the guaranteed solution: screaming. I cleared my throat.
Ian’s eyes shot wide open and he let out what could only be described as a voice-cracking yelp. He sat up like a spring-loaded boulder, throwing me backwards on my rear. It hurt my neck a bit.
“Huh? What? Wha…! Lenn!”
His eyes quickly shot in the direction of my bedding, and he leaned over to look inside, ignoring me completely. I was in shock at the boy appearing to collapse upon me, but my laugh was building despite the danger. When Ian saw the bedding empty, his face became the very image of panic.
“Lenn!” he shouted, obviously disoriented. “Lenn, where are you!”
He looked underneath the blanket at his feet, across the bed, towards the television, and beneath him on the floor below.
I couldn’t help it. I burst out with laughter, kicking my legs and trying very hard not to put strain on my neck. Ian’s eyes descended upon me, and for a split second didn’t understand what was going on. Unfortunately, he picked it up quick.
“You!” he said, pointing an accusing finger. “It was… it was you!”
“No!” I said, rounding my ‘O”. “It wasn’t me. It was just your imagination!”
Without warning, Ian came crashing back down. He made the entire bed bounce to the point where I think I parted with the surface for a moment. Lifting his head with his hands, his lips curled into a malevolent grin, showing his large and awkward front teeth.
“So…” he asked. “Are you ticklish?”
“No, uh… n-not at all. Why… would you ask me that?”
“Which one’s your good leg?” he asked me next, his fingers creeping dangerously close to my feet.
“Uh…” I said, my eyes going wide. “Neither. They’re both bad.”
“That’s not what you said. This one?” he asked, his thumb and forefinger pinching my left foot.
“Ah!” I cried. “Not that one! Please!”
“Oh,” he said, grabbing my right foot. “So it’s this one.”
“No, uh… that’s, um…”
Immediately, he used one hand to grab my right knee in place, and dug his fingernail across the bottom of my foot. Later, I was impressed at the care he took not to hurt me, but that didn’t occur to me at that moment; I was too busy panicking as my nerves exploded and I burst out into uncontrollable laughter. It was the first time I’d really laughed in months. I didn’t even care about my wounds. The voice that emerged from my throat came out loud and clear, rasping all the while.
After the torture ended (sooner than I thought it would), I laid exhausted as Ian crawled over and sat on the end of the bed. He stretched, impressively reaching his hands beyond his bare feet, finishing with a yawn; I could hardly believe that one of his feet was much wider than me, and a good amount of my height. Now that he was seated, I could see how… healthy he looked? Thinking back on the kids at the village, they were always dirty, hungry, and skinny. Ian was, for lack of a better word, spotless. And he had a good amount of meat on his bones, by comparison. Olem, if not for Ian, I would have wasted away just like the kids. As I stood and walked towards him, he folded his legs beneath him and hunched over, a tired yet comfortable smile on his face.
“I’m not sure I like my new voice,” I told him, taking a seat on the bed about a foot and a half away from him. “I sound like a tired old man.”
“Your voice was different before?” he asked.
“I wonder if it will ever change back.”
“That kinda makes me sad.”
“It’s okay. I’m just glad I don’t have to use sticky notes anymore. Talking is much easier.”
“Nice pants, by the way.”
“Oh… yeah. I keep losing my voice before I can thank your mom for them. Would you tell her for me? Tell her that they’re the best gift I’ve ever gotten.”
“Uh-huh,” Ian said. He cupped a hand to his mouth. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but she said she’s going to make you a shirt, too.”
“No, uh… yul. It means, um… ‘wow’, I guess.”
“Oh,” Ian said. “Remember when you told me your name? You’re just ‘Lenn’? You really don’t have a last name?”
I shook my head.
“Iatili don’t have last names. Just titles.”
“It’s what I am,” I said. “I… don’t think it has a direct translation. ‘Iat’ means person. ‘Ili’ doesn’t really have a meaning itself.”
“‘Iat’? Like, Iatvi?”
“You remembered? Vah sulm, Ian. ‘Vi’ doesn’t have a meaning by itself either, except to describe what you are.”
I shook my head.
“Sorry. Instinct. It means ‘you’re good’.”
“Vah sulm,” Ian repeated. “I’ll remember that. So what was your title?”
I rolled my eyes and bit my lip.
“I… don’t want to tell you.”
“Come on, tell me,” Ian said. “I won’t laugh or anything, I promise.”
“What’s that mean?”
“…it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Huh?” he said. He peered down at me. “It has to. You can’t just tell me and not say what it means.”
“You’re going to laugh, and I don’t want you to. Everyone does.”
He zipped his lips shut with his fingers.
“I won’t make a sound.”
My brow sunk as my eyes watched his.
“It means…” I sighed. “‘Cute… little… teacher boy.’”
Ian’s neck went downwards to plug his throat.
“Don’t you dare!” I pointed my finger at him. “I told you not to laugh!”
“I didn’t!” Ian said with a grin. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t call you… say it again? ‘Kani’ something?”
“I’m not telling you. The gatherers gave me that title when I was ten, and the stupid thing stuck. They used it just to make fun of me.”
“Cute little boy,” Ian said, pinching my hair upwards with his finger and thumb. I shoved him away.
“Stop it! Olem, I’m not little, and I’m not a boy! I’m older than you!”
“What’s oh-lum mean?”
“It means…” I said, still a bit steamed. “Ah, I don’t know. You say it when something bothers you.”
“Yes, like you,” I grinned.
Ian rested a hand on his chin.
“So,” Ian said. “What’s your language called? Like, English, French, Spanish?”
“None of those. It’s ‘Iatnasi’.”
“Yee-aht-nah-see…” Ian said, looking up at the ceiling. “Yee-aht. I thought you said that meant ‘person’.”
“It does. ‘Iat’ means ‘person’, and ‘nasi’ means ‘words’, so… ‘person of words’. Words are just like a person who can act and make change. The elders knew it was important to learn English, so that’s why I was able to live as a teacher. Even though the parents of my students didn’t like the idea of learning reading and writing from… a… ‘norisin’… oh, what’s the English word…?”
I folded my arms.
“Someone whose limbs are crooked and can’t walk…”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m just trying to think of the English word.”
“Um…” Ian hummed, folding his arms as well. After a moment, he said: “I can’t think of anything.”
I shook my head.
“Um, they… Oh, they didn’t like a broken boy like me teaching their kids, since they might learn to think and act like I do. But the elders insisted they learn English from someone, and I happened to be there.”
“And then they just kicked you out?”
“Most of my family had died by then, and so had all the elders that had let me teach. The village decided to move, and they decided I couldn’t keep up. So much for all the kids I taught for all those years.”
“So what happened?”
“Well…” I said, scratching my head. “My friend Aria… tried to speak up for me. But they didn’t listen to her. And… I was so afraid… I…”
Ian rested his arms on his knees and his head in his hands, waiting patiently.
“Via havilktal,” I whispered beneath my breath, looking down at my hands. “Neh anga lai ehr ilir…”
“What did you say? What’s that mean?”
I closed my eyes. The memory was too fresh.
“It means…” I whispered. “I can’t talk about it. Maybe I’ll tell you another time.”
Ian lifted up, grabbing one of his big toes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“All I’ll say is,” I told him. “Don’t say anything to your family that drives them away. Always treat them right and love them, no matter what.”
“Even the family that hates you?”
So he remembered what I’d written about… them. I shot a frown at the boy. He made a face.
“Dad’s right, I have a big mouth. Sorry.”
“You say dev a lot.”
“What does ‘dev’ mean?”
“It means ‘sorry’. Devtol means ‘very sorry’.”
“‘Deev-tall’. I’ll remember that. I think. You’ll have to say all these words to me again.”
“I will,” I said. “I’ll probably slip up and start speaking Iatnasi a lot. So, via devtal lai li Iatnasi ilir. I’m sorry if I speak Iatnasi.”
“That sounds cool,” Ian said. “I’ve never heard a language like that. Wait… can you say a bunch of words all together? Like, a few sentences? I want to hear what it sounds like fast.”
“You won’t understand anything.”
“Hmm. What will I say… How about: “Qin vis ataika, preda dur lai vaisi waer lia umovre Iatvi. Angisi lai komar komesol sas zerike, janeir jani tol parda devi, eilir li eilwae hoji pendu devi. Nedilat tevralisi lai monrisi dol penduar lia pendu ves.”
Ian sat stunned for a moment.
“…what did you say?”
“Nothing important,” I said with a shrug.
“Huh.” Ian shrugged back.
He didn’t press the issue further.
“So what about you?” I asked him. “Who are you, Ian Petersen?”
Ian pursed his lips sideways and looked at the ceiling.
“I dunno,” he finally said.
“Come on,” I groaned, folding my arms. “You’re the first Iatvi I ever meet, and you just say ‘I dunno’?”
“But I’m boring,” Ian said with a moan. “All I do is go to school all day and sleep.”
“But you get to sleep in a warm bed!” I said. “And I’m assuming your school isn’t some cardboard box in the dirt. Does your school have a name?”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “Broadmore Elementary School.”
“And what do you learn at Broadmore Elementary School?”
“Um… math, English, how to use computers, science, P.E..”
Most of the words were familiar. I knew the word ‘computer’. I didn’t know anything but that.
“What’s P.E.? Does it stand for something?”
“I think so,” Ian said. “Something exercise. Oh, physical exercise. Yeah, like running, push-ups, sit-ups, that sort of thing.”
“How long do you go to this school during the week?” I asked.
“Everyday except for Saturday and Sunday, and class starts at 7:45.”
“In the morning?”
My shoulders slumped.
“Yul. My kids would never have learned anything that early.”
“I know,” Ian said with a nod. “I don’t.”
“And when do you get back? Nine? Ten?”
“No. I get out at 2:15.”
I counted the hours in my head.
“That’s… six and a half hours!”
“I know! It’s too long.”
“I was lucky to get an hour of teaching before everyone got bored… How does your teacher do it?”
“She makes it fun,” Ian said. “Well, kind of. Missus Olsen teaches all kinds of different stuff.”
“Oh. Okay. You probably read lots of books, not just scraps of paper.”
“Yeah,” Ian moaned. “I hate it. My textbooks are so boring.”
“What?” I asked. “No! No book is boring! Iatvi books are amazing!”
Ian looked down at me with piercing eyes and pouty lips.
“But you’re a teacher. You think all books are cool.”
“Yeah, and you should too! You can learn anything you want from books!”
Ian’s insidious glare sat upon me for a moment. Then, he deftly turned himself right off the bed, making me bounce. Now on his feet, he became the tower of a child that I remembered.
“Come ‘ere,” he said, holding out both of his hands to me. “I’ll show you where you can really learn anything you want.”
I don’t quite know what expression I wore at that moment, but it must have been frightful as Ian’s intensity melted.
“Don’t worry, Lenn. I’ll be careful with you. Promise.”
I hesitated for only a moment more before hauling myself up. I didn’t reach for Ian, exactly; more like lifted my arms and waited for his hands to grab hold of my waist. I half-expected Ian to fling me into the sky, but he was very slow in bringing me upwards. As if holding a toddler, Ian placed me over his shoulder again, and I balanced myself by holding onto his shoulder bone. His unblemished skin was remarkably smooth, and to be honest, being rested against it unsettled my nerves.
“Ahh…” I whispered.
Ian paused immediately.
“What? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, it’s… it’s just…” My hands slid across the warm surface of Ian’s shoulder. “This is very strange.”
“Me holding you?”
“If you told me a month ago that I would be held by an Iatvi boy now, I would have done something… different.”
I looked over at his face, and he wore a solemn expression, perhaps even hurt.
“No no,” I said, waving my hands. “I don’t mean to insult you. It’s nothing you’ve done. I’ve just been taught all my life to avoid Iat… I mean, humans, at all costs. But now that I’ve met you…”
“I get it. If I were your size, I’d be scared all the time.”
“Phosia, via… Er, I mean… I know I’m lucky. You and your whole family have been nothing but kind to me.” I patted Ian’s shoulder. “And me tearing my throat open is not your fault. Someday, if you ever take me back to that river, you’re going to help me find whatever it was that slashed me and we’re going to bury it.”
Ian laughed, sending vibrations through me.
“I promise,” he said.
“Okay. Where are you taking me?”
“Just to my room,” he said, and stepped towards the door.
“Oh, wait,” I said quickly.
“Can you…” I smiled sheepishly, pointing to the side table. “Can you grab one of those crackers for me?”
Compared to the small guest bedroom, the dining room and kitchen were practically freezing. Ian’s feet thumped across the hard floor, and I felt like I was riding some large beast. I munched on the cracker in my hands; not only was it not rotten and damp, I’d never had anything that crunched so delightfully. Once across the kitchen, I took a terrible bite and a fourth of the cracker followed its namesake, cracking away and falling against Ian’s chest and onto the carpet below.
Ian kept walking.
“Getting my house dirty…” Ian whispered under his breath.
“Dev…” I said.
“I’m kidding!” he responded cheerfully as he entered his room.
Ian passed the chair in the center of the floor and placed me upon his bed with much care. I sat down as he turned to his desk. This room was also chilly, although it would probably be just right if I’d been properly dressed. From the tabletop he unplugged the strange device I’d seen a week prior, the thing he’d described as a phone.
My heart sank.
“I… I don’t want to learn about polio anymore.”
Ian looked confused for a moment.
“What? No, don’t worry, we don’t have to. We can learn about anything else. Can you scoot over a bit?”
I tried to, but found it difficult.
With both hands around my hips and legs, he slid me down past the center of his bed. He then took a seat, swung his legs right over my head, and laid down flat. After adjusting his pillow to lift himself up, he waved at me.
“Here, come see.”
Careful not to break the rest of my cracker on Ian’s bed, I got on a hand and knee until I reached the side of Ian’s arm. I tried to stay seated on my own, but found it easier to lean against the boy’s bicep; I did so lightly, still a bit hesitant to rely on him. With Ian on his back, I could easily see the phone’s screen that he held upright just above his belly. He pressed a few buttons on the phone until a nearly blank screen appeared. He pressed a box with a finger, and letters appeared for typing.
“What do you want to learn about?” he asked, looking at me.
I looked back at him blankly, munching on the cracker.
“What do you mean?”
“What have you always wanted to learn? I’ll search for it on the internet.”
I swallowed, and the cracker burned all the way down.
“What’s an internet?”
“Nope, no questions, just tell me what you want to know.”
I looked at the phone and then up at the ceiling. Something that I’d always wanted to learn? I scratched my cheek.
“This is silly…”
“I… I know zhereda… Um, what’s the English word…? Light. Light something. Oh, lightning, yeah. I know it comes from the sky when it rains. But why?”
“Oh, that’s a good question,” Ian said. “I actually don’t know that either.”
Ian’s thumbs went to work, spelling the words ‘why does lightning happen’ in the box. The next screen that appeared was filled with line upon line of information. Ian read the largest text first.
“It says… ‘Lighter, positively charged particles form at the top of the cloud. Heavier, negatively charged particles sink to the bottom of the cloud. When the positive and negative charges grow large enough, a giant spark – lightning – occurs between the two charges within the cloud.’”
“Positive and negative… what? I don’t understand.”
“Me neither. Hang on.”
His thumb clicked one of the lines, and a page came up filled with text.
“Lightning is… an electric current. Oh. Have you ever seen a power outlet? Hopefully you’ve never put anything metal in one. I did when I was little. It gives you a big shock.”
“Power outlets and lightning are the same thing?”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “It’s electricity. Electricity makes things work.”
“So lightning makes things work, too?”
“Well… not really. It’s too strong. And it strikes all over the place, so no one can use it. I don’t think so, anyway.”
I folded my arms.
“So… electricity comes from clouds. What else does it say?”
“When the ground is hot, it heats the air above it. This warm air rises. As the air rises, water vapor cools and forms a cloud…”
“Okay, water in the clouds, which is why it rains.”
“When air continues to rise, the cloud gets bigger and bigger. In the tops of the clouds, the temperature is below freezing and the water vapor turns into ice. Now, the cloud becomes a thundercloud. Lots of small bits of ice bump into each other as they move around. All these collisions cause a build up of electrical charge.”
I scratched my head.
“Ice makes electricity?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“‘Eventually, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges. Lighter, positively charged particles form at the top of the cloud. Heavier, negatively charged particles sink to the bottom of the cloud…’” He skipped a bit. “Oh. ‘This is like static electricity sparks, but much bigger.’”
“Wait, wait… static is electricity?”
“Uh-huh,” Ian said. “It’s just really really weak electricity.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Weak to you, maybe! Every time I get shocked, I feel my heart stop!”
“I’ll have to remember that next time I shuffle my feet across my carpet with socks on.”
Ian frowned at me.
“You’ve never heard of that? That’s the quickest way to shock someone with static.”
I lifted myself from Ian’s arm and waved my hands.
“Well, don’t try to do it! My heart’s been through enough!”
“That’s true,” he said. “What else do you want to learn about?”
For about an hour, we went back and forth exploring this strange thing called the ‘internet’ on his phone. I learned about how Iatvi purify their water for safe drinking, how Iatvi books are made and published, and even about how far away the moon is from the earth (yes, it is another world, although much smaller than ours and without air). Part of the internet included a massive collection of information about everything humans knew about the world and the people in it, and nearly every word on each page connected to another page. Page after page after page, I pointed out a word, and Ian would pull up more info. I felt, and he agreed, that we could spend an eternity doing this.
They were so much beyond us. I always inherently knew that, but it hadn’t really sunk in until then. What had I accomplished in life? I taught some kids to read and speak a language that wasn’t ours. The first time I’d ever left the comfort of a home I hated, I became mortally injured and had to rely on someone else to support me… as had been the case as long as I could remember.
The more I learned from Ian, the more depressed I became. It should have been exciting, with a world of information at my fingertips. But it wasn’t, not then. After a while, I slid myself away from Ian’s arm and moved to the edge of the bed, clutching my middle against the chilly air. Ian continued reading for a moment until he realized I wasn’t listening anymore.
“…Lenn?” he asked me, rising from the bed. “What’s wrong? You’re not in pain, are you?”
I shook my head after shooting a glance at the boy.
“No, I’m just… I’m nothing,” I whispered.
Ian slid towards the end of the bed and took a seat beside me, his phone now turned off and in his lap.
“Is it something I said?”
I shook my head again, clearing my hoarse throat.
“No, you’re fine, it’s just…” I shut my eyes. “Vysht, I… I’m smaller than… everything. Crippled. That’s the word I was trying to remember before. Crippled. Everything in this world can kill me. ”
I took a breath.
“A mile is a four-hour journey to someone with working legs, and a whole day for me. But you can drive a car that distance in minutes, seconds even. My body isn’t the only thing that’s crippled. My mind, too. It seems like everything in the world has already been discovered. So what’s the point in learning it? I can read and write, but that’s all I’ve ever known. I’m crippled, and the only thing I’ve loved in life was learning about what humans knew. I’m nothing. I don’t know anything.”
Ian said nothing. I didn’t look at him.
“The only reason I’m alive is because of others. Aria fed me and clothed me until I could learn English and then teach it. Then… I left, and you and James and Catherine are keeping me alive instead. If you hadn’t found me, I could have been eaten by a dog, or pecked to death by birds. Or another human could have found me and I’d live the rest of my life enslaved. My life isn’t mine. It never has been. And I don’t know what to do now. Once I’m healed, where do I go? What do I do?”
I felt ready to cry.
“I don’t want to be me anymore.”
For a moment, the air blowing through the vent was the only sound in the room. And then I felt a human finger ruffle my hair.
“Cute little teacher boy,” Ian said.
My anger flared, drying my tears. Ian’s finger disappeared before I could reject it.
“Stop it, Ian! Vysht, I’m being serious!”
Ian was not hurt. In fact, he slid off of the bed and knelt right in front of me. His left hand gripped my bare foot and played with it, and the heat made my skin burn.
“I’m being serious too,” he said. “I want you to be my teacher.”
I stared at him.
“Didn’t I just tell you I know nothing? What good of a teacher would I be to you? You’re a kid, and you already know so much more than-”
“Lenn, Lenn,” Ian said, lifting a hand. “Shh. I want you to read cool things, and then I want you to teach them to me. It doesn’t matter if humans discovered it, there are tons of things I don’t know. And my grades in school aren’t that good. It would really help me.”
I shook my head and looked down at my lap.
“All my life I’ve only learned scraps. I know words, but I don’t know what they mean, what they really are.”
I looked up into Ian’s eyes.
“And why do you care about me so much?” I asked him. “Even people who knew me for years hated me. I’ve only known you for a few days, and I couldn’t speak for most of them.”
Ian’s expression fell.
“Because…” Ian leaned back a bit, looking at the ground. “Well, I thought that… I mean, I don’t have friends at school. No one cares about me there. Aaron and Chris are my cousins, but they go to another school. And I thought… maybe I wouldn’t be invisible anymore if… if I had a friend I could talk to. I thought you liked it here. When you get better, I don’t want you to go.”
My legs crossed and I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. After a moment, Ian looked up at me again and watched me.
“I do like it here,” I whispered. “I understand. I only had one friend my entire life, too.”
“I mean… I’m not going anywhere for a while. And I owe you and your family my life.”
Ian’s face became a little brighter.
“I can’t promise I’ll be a very good teacher. There’s so much I don’t know, and…”
“It doesn’t matter!” he said, excited. “If you help me learn, I can help you learn too. I know I haven’t known you for that long, and that I hurt you… But I want to be friends.”
“Ian, we are friends, I just wish I knew my future. I wish I… I don’t know… I wish I had the choices you do. I don’t know if I can ever leave this house, even when I’m healed. I can’t survive on my own. I never had training to live outside.”
My lips pursed sideways.
“I never had cousins to visit or play with. I never even had parents who cared about me.”
“Well, now you do!” Ian said. “Remember what I said on Sunday?”
My eyebrows raised.
“That you’re my brother?” I asked.
“Right!” he said, showing a great smile. “Do you believe that?”
I crossed my arms.
“I… I don’t know.”
After a moment, both of Ian’s hands took my feet; I’d come to learn that the silly kani was quite affectionate, even to someone like me.
“Tomorrow, let’s talk about it. Dad and Mom can help too, they’re better at talking about it than I am. Is that okay?”
“I want to talk about Nephi, too.”
“Nee-fie. Not Neh-fee.”
“Yeah,” Ian said with a laugh. “Some of the names in the scriptures are hard to say.”
“It’s not ‘leh-hee’, is it?”
“No, it’s ‘lee-high’.”
“Huh. You’re right, that is confusing.”
“So…” he said, falling to the floor on his bottom. “What do you want to do now?”
I shrugged, and everything was quiet.
“I think…” I said. “I’ve been on the move for so long, I… I don’t know what to do with myself. I think that’s what bothers me the most.”
“How about…” I said. “That I use the bathroom and then I walk around for a while. I’m curious to see your whole house.”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “We can have breakfast, too. But won’t you get tired?”
“Probably. But I have to retain at least some of my dignity. When you carry me, it makes me feel like a one-year old.”
“Hah! And I’m going to grow even taller, so soon you’re going to feel like a one-month old!”
I rolled my eyes.
“You’re right,” I whispered. And then I thought about what I’d said moments ago. “Uh… also, sorry for my bad language. Don’t go around saying vysht.”
“Veh-sht? What does it mean?”
“I’m not telling you.”