With an additional blanket, a large drink of water, and the introduction of a small heater in the corner of the room, Ian and James left me to sleep. I didn’t fall unconscious for days at a time, fortunately. Instead, I slept fairly regularly during the night and through most of the day, letting the rest of the week and some of the next slip out from under me. During the afternoons and evenings, Ian spent time with me, if not at my side then sitting on the end of the bed doing homework or playing one of his video games. Most of the time I did not sense him, although occasionally his jostlings broke me from my rest. When I was awake, he would read to me from the scriptures or his phone. While I often didn’t feel well enough the first couple of days to comprehend the meaning of the stories he told me, I eventually regained sense enough to follow along.
Incomprehensible to me, Ian helped me do everything James and Catherine didn’t have time for, including feeding me breakfast and dinner. James, of course, changed my bandages and even kept an alarm on his phone to check on me during the night. No longer floating out of my mind and mumbling in Iatnasi, I slowly became more conscious.
By the time Wednesday of the following week rolled around, I was no longer physically devastated… but very very thirsty. I drank and drank but rarely needed to go to the bathroom. James prescribed strict bed rest, even though it was beginning to become uncomfortable laying down all day; Ian helped keep my bed adjusted and my body raised. James also allowed Ian to give me grape and apple juice, coconut juice (which I didn’t prefer nearly as much but accepted because of Catherine’s insistence of its healthiness), and many kinds of fruit I’d never eaten. One or two evenings when the family cooked beef or chicken, my mouth would water, but Ian would come into the room not with solid meat but with a small cup of broth. Not as satisfying as the real thing, but still eons beyond anything I’d ever tasted.
On Saturday, Ian told me he’d sleep in and thought I would do the same. But nearly two weeks in bed drove me to insanity, and I couldn’t take it anymore. The red-light clock read 8:14 when I shoved my blankets from myself and did my best to stretch. Several of my bones popped, and I found myself between a struggle of cool air from the vents and warm air from the heater. I much preferred the cool. So, for the first time in way too many days, I leaned my legs over the side of my blanket bed and sat up. My joints were more than happy to extend, and the slight sores on my shoulder bones and hips delighted at the ease of pressure.
I listened to the sounds in the house. I could hear no one. I slid on my bottom towards the edge of the bed and, testing my arms and my grip on the tied yarn fibers of the blanket, decided I had the strength to descend. With only a single minor slip-up, I felt my bare feet fall into cushioned carpet. Even on my spindly leg, the mere act of standing thrilled me.
I hobbled towards the partially-opened door when I immediately heard a giant’s footsteps emerge onto carpet and then onto hardwood.
“Ah, sulm,” I whispered sarcastically. As quickly as possible, I stepped forward and pressed my back on the white wall beside the door frame.
I expected the door to burst open, which was a fairly silly idea considering how responsibly Ian had been acting. Instead, the door creaked open, and I thought for sure the human would look down at me. But, sure enough, his gaze fell upon the bed. He walked forwards, his bare ivory feet sliding across the speckled carpet beside me; I didn’t have the heart or the energy to try to escape through the door and play hide-and-seek, so I simply stood there. He wore his pair of flannel pants as well as a blue shirt; I missed wearing a shirt of my own, and longed for the day I would wear one again.
“Lenn?” Ian said, bending over the bed. He slowly lifted up the blankets. “Lenn? Not again… Come on, where’d you go now? You’re supposed to be sleeping…”
Ian’s first reaction was to look under the bed. He knelt down and pulled up the blanket from the floor to peer underneath… As if I could be under there comfortably with my bandages on.
“Lenn? Lehhh-nn? Where aaaaarrre you?”
I laughed lightly (although it hurt my neck to do so), and Ian turned around.
“There you are,” he laughed. Ian rose straight up above me on his knees, and I stared at him for a moment. I smiled weakly.
“I’ll never get used to you looking down at me like that.”
Ian put his hands on his hips like a father scolding a child. “You shouldn’t be out of bed, mister. Remember what Dad told you? You’re going to pass out again.”
I copied his stance.
“No I won’t, mister. It feels so good to be on my feet again. I’m not dizzy anymore anyway. Come on, I want to go on a walk.”
“What if you get tired and sleep for forever again?”
“I won’t,” I replied. “Actually…”
“Can I go outside?”
“Why? People will see you.”
“In front of the house, yes. But what about the back? Your house has a fence, doesn’t it? I can see it through the dining room. Other Iatvi couldn’t see me there, could they?”
Ian hummed, tapping his finger against his chin.
“I guess our fence is tall enough…” he said. “What if I go ask Mom and Dad first?”
“Yeah, they would know if it’s safe.”
“They’re probably still sleeping. Do you want to come with me to ask?”
Ian’s hands outstretched towards me.
“I’ll be okay,” I said, holding my hands up. “I’ll take a walk into the kitchen, and you can meet me there.”
“Promise you won’t fall over?”
“Come on, quit babying me. Although… I do wish I had my crutches.”
“Maybe I can make you some.”
“Or, maybe I can make some instead, if you find me some things I can use.”
“Yep, or that.”
Ian stepped back through the door and I followed after him at my own pace. I realized he was headed back towards the hallway in the direction of his room, but as I entered the dining room and looked, I saw the door at the very end of the hallway slightly opened with Ian leaning inside. It must have been James’ and Catherine’s bedroom. Almost a month, and I still hadn’t gotten the full tour. By the time I got to the table to rest against the closest wooden leg, Ian closed his parents’ room door and stepped back towards me.
“Dad says it’s all right as long as we don’t go too far from the porch. Further than that, and it might be dangerous. The kids that live next to us have a trampoline, and they’d be able to see you.”
“What’s a… tram-poe-leen?”
Ian stood over me, propping himself up with his hands on his knees.
“It’s a big black thing you jump on. The kids could jump super high, and they’d be able to see you over the fence.”
My mind didn’t quite form an image of something an Iatvi child could jump on that wouldn’t collapse into a pile, but if it indeed existed that close by… I didn’t want to risk too much just for a glimpse of the morning sun.
“That’s fine. I just want to feel sunlight again.”
Ian stepped beyond the dining room table to the ‘doors’ made of glass. Instead of opening in or out, one side slid sideways into the other. I followed after Ian as well as I could as he pulled the door open. Immediately, a blast of warm morning air poured into the kitchen. Ian stepped outside, and walked out to the very edge of a field of deep-green grass. He sat down, draped in sunlight that shone from the east. I awkwardly crossed the threshold, and Ian and I shared a patient smile.
My surroundings were positively surreal. I could comprehend the inside of a cavernous Iatvi household just fine, but seeing the amount of land a single family owned stretched out before me…
“What is that?” I asked, pointing. Beside the sliding door to my left was a colossal contraption that looked like a stainless steel cylinder held up by a set of strong black iron legs. Beneath it was another steel cylinder which connected to the upper cylinder with a looping black hose.
“What? Oh, the grill?”
“A grill? For cooking food? It’s huge.”
“Yup,” the boy said. “It’s Mom’s. She loves it.”
“Ouch,” I whispered, snagging my weak foot behind me and wobbling. The porch beyond the sliding doors was concrete. Smooth concrete for an Iatvi, but not for me.
As I came close to the edge of the porch, Ian held out his hand to me. I leaned against it, easing the ache of my flimsy leg.
I stepped into the day. The sky was a bright and beautiful blue, marked with spots of evaporating clouds beyond the horizon of the Petersen’s crimson timber fence. My eyes could barely take in the glorious light. A long strip of rainbow-colored flowers grew at the edge of the fence, a set of four metal chairs sitting close to them shaded by a set of enormous leafy trees that grew at the edge of the yard. And between the far fence and myself was a field of the most glorious and verdant grass I had ever seen. The moment my feet sank into the lush foliage, I turned on my heels and fell backwards. Just as I thought it would, the springy and itchy surface cushioned my fall.
“Whoa,” Ian said, scooting himself backwards so the light could fall on me instead of his shadow. “I thought you fell for real this time.”
“Ahh…” I sighed, taking in as large a breath as I could. The air smelled fresh, and the warm and delicate breeze blowing across the lawn felt wonderful on my skin. “Your grass is amazing. How do you make it this green? And short?”
“Our sprinklers. And Dad fertilizes it, and cuts the grass with our lawnmower.”
“Does what now with what? What’s a lawnmower?”
Ian laughed, dipping his face upside-down directly over mine.
“It mows lawns, silly. Do I have to explain everything to you?”
I resisted the urge to feel embarrassed.
“Hey,” I said, pointing upwards. “Ve andi. Be nice to me, okay? You know everything about you Iatvi is new to me.”
“But you’re supposed to be my teacher.”
“I can’t be your teacher if I don’t know anything. You’re my teacher first, and I’m your teacher afterwards.”
I closed my eyes against the sun and allowed myself to stretch out a bit. I sighed.
“Lindiata… Lindi… ata… Oh, unlo va nase?”
“I’m trying to think of the English word for ‘lindiata’. It’s how you’re feeling towards another person. Eh, sort of. ‘Lindi’, actions, and ‘ata’, thoughts. Oh, come on, it starts with an ‘A’… Ah… Ahdi… Ahn-doe-doo…”
“No, shush,” I said, laughing with him. “Altitude? No, that’s high up… Atti-dude?”
“Do you mean ‘attitude’?”
“Yes! That’s it. Attitude.”
“What about attitude?”
“It can mean someone is… being clever with someone else, right? Sarcastic? Or… what’s that funny word? Sissy. No, sass. Sassy?”
“That’s right,” I said. “You’re getting sassy when you’re around me. You’ve got an attitude.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You tease me.”
“So? You tease me too. That means you have an attitude,” Ian retorted.
“I do not.”
“Yeah you do.”
I felt a finger prod me in the stomach, and it pushed breath out of me.
“You’re sassier than I am.”
“When have you ever heard me be sassy?” I asked. “I’m quite the serious person.”
“Uh-huh, cute little boy,” Ian growled.
“See? Attitude, right there. And it’s ‘cute little teacher boy’. Kanisi-PROT-la. If you’re going to use my title, you have to say the whole thing.”
“Well, you’re not a stranger anymore, you know? I’m nervous around people.”
“It’s not just because I’m tiny to you?”
Ian smiled and shrugged.
“I guess it helps.”
I gave him the same sign.
“I can accept that.”
“I’m just glad you’re happier, Lenn. I don’t like seeing you in pain.”
“Have you seen your cut?” Ian asked, pointing a line across his neck.
“I think it’s a little more than a cut.”
“Uh-huh. You know what I mean.”
“No, I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll have an amazing scar to show for it, though. I’ll have to have your dad show it to me in a mirror.”
Ian then grinned back.
“You can say you got into a sword fight with someone.”
“If I did, I’m not sure I won.”
“I hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else, you know.”
I nodded again.
“Just thinking about it makes my bones shake,” I said. “Other Iatili live out there somewhere, I know that. I wonder how they live safely.”
“I dunno.” Ian looked sideways towards the sun. “I wonder if any other people like you live with humans. Nice humans, I mean. Hopefully not bad ones.” He looked back down at me. “How many of your people are there? Are there many in the world?”
“In the world? I have no idea. The elders used to talk about other colonies close by they used to trade with, but I guess it’s been a long time since they were around. Maybe my village went to find them.”
“How many of you were there?”
An eyebrow raised.
“Hmm. Maybe fifty? Sixty? Quite a few. There was plenty of water for a long time, and we planted our own food for years. But the water dried up and the food went with it. I heard scouts were sent out to find water. I don’t know if they ever found some. They never told me if they did.”
“Wow,” Ian said. “Dad kept saying we were in a drought, so that makes sense. But… how come no humans ever found your village?”
“It almost happened one or two times in my life. But our village was well-hidden, and our scouts let us know if any dangers were coming. Sometimes dogs or big birds would try to attack us, but our guards were well-trained and always chased them off.”
I scratched my side.
“Everything was usually okay,” I continued, “Except when everyone got sick. That happened once every few years, when some of the gatherers brought back dirty food. Everyone ate it, and everyone would get sick for weeks. Without gatherers working, supplies would run short, and people would get sicker. That’s when kids and the old would die. It always happened that way. Those were the hardest times for me, when Aria took care of me the most.”
“That’s awful… I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t think things could be better anywhere else,” I said. “The elders thought our only chance to survive was to take what didn’t belong to them. I’m glad I wasn’t a gatherer. I hate the idea of stealing, even if it’s the only thing that keeps you alive.”
“That’s a good thing, I think. I wouldn’t like doing it, either.”
“Seeing you and your family, though… Your mom and dad earn everything they have, don’t they? And you don’t have to worry about anything besides school and learning about the world.”
I offered a sideways grin.
“I’m just… jealous, I guess. I want that life. I feel like I’m stealing from you.”
“But you’re not,” Ian insisted. “As long as you want, you can live here. I’ll bet Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind at all. You can live under my bed or in my closet, and you can do whatever you want.”
“Your closet,” I said with a laugh. “No way. I need a little more room than that, I think.”
“How about a shoebox?”
“Sure, let’s make it worse.”
Everything fell silent for a moment. Silent, except for a large child shuffling himself in the grass. Once Ian’s shadow disappeared, I closed my eyes and relaxed. I thought the boy had simply crawled away.
And then I felt somethings curl down from my hair to my forehead. These somethings forced my head further into the grass. Desperate that something was planting me into the ground like a seed, I tried to fight off the force with my hands and a shout. I felt cool knobbly skin and hard awkward nails. They weren’t fingers, and the smell confirmed it.
“Wha- Ack!” I cried. “Get… ah! Get your… dirty toes off my head!”
Ian sounded unable to contain his laughter. The toes pulled away and they didn’t return.
“Agh, now I need to wash myself!” No matter how much I rubbed and wiped, the gross stench remained in my nostrils. “You just wait, when I don’t have to wear bandages anymore, I’m going to climb on your face and put my feet right up your nose!”
“Hah!” Ian laughed. “No way! I’ll grab you first!”
“I’ll sneak up on you while you’re sleeping! Especially if I’m going to be sleeping in your closet.”
The boy shuffled himself in the grass again, and his shadow covered me as he crawled upon his hands and knees. I sat up and stared him straight in the face.
“Maybe you shouldn’t sleep there then, huh?” Ian asked.
“Scared I’ll crawl all over you like a spider?”
“No,” he replied. “But if you did, I’d really squish you.”
I shrugged, continuing to wipe my forehead.
“You are disgusting,” I whispered beneath my breath. Ian snuck in another laugh. “But I think you’re right. Not a good idea. I’m not sure where I should go, but… if it keeps me hidden, I guess you can keep me anywhere.”
“In a suitcase? Or maybe in my backpack, and I can take you to school with me. Like you said.”
My eyes bulged and I shook my head.
“No, no no. Let’s not do that. I’m not that small. I’m not spending six hours in there.”
“Sure you could. I’ll bet I could squish you in there. All scrunched up in a ball.”
I pointed at him.
“No squishing, Ian.”
“Heh. Maybe I’ll do that when you’re asleep.”
I glared at him, and his happy expression didn’t change.
“I’m not sure if you’re being serious or not.”
“I’m very serious,” he said, becoming almost haughty. “Actually, I am quite the serious person.”
I squeezed my eyes and folded my arms.
“Don’t make fun of me, kani.”
Ian giggled, wobbling his head and crossing his eyes.
“What’s kani mean, anyway?”
“It means ‘little boy’.”
“I am so much bigger than you, kaaah-neee,” Ian said, poking me in the leg.
“Age trumps size,” I said.
“What’s that mean?”
“I can call you little because I’m older than you.”
“Well I can call you little because it’s actually true.”
“Me being older than you is just as true.”
“Fine,” I said, waving my hand. “You win. I’m the kani. Feel better now?”
“Yup,” Ian said with a huge grin.
“See what I said about your attitude? Anyway… do you think we could go have breakfast? After you get me a cleaning wipe for my head.”
“Yeah. What do you want to eat?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Surprise me.”
Ian pursed his lips sideways.
“Hmm. I’ll bet I can find something.”
I didn’t lie. I truly felt much better, both physically and mentally. I felt safe as well, a rare feeling for me. I still missed you, Aria, but I knew you were somewhat protected and not alone like me. Even though you could get sick or injured, I also knew you could take care of yourself. I didn’t know anyone better at enduring hardship than you. I would see you again, and I would get my strength back so I could make it so.
I managed to stay energetic past breakfast and even into the early afternoon before finally feeling my exhaustion return. Before heading back to bed, though, Ian managed to convince me to try my hand at playing his video game again. I did so hesitantly.
Promising they were only practice matches, we both played with several different characters so I could ‘see how each one felt’. I didn’t quite know what that meant at first, but it was true: each character moved in slightly different ways, with some moving and jumping quickly and some prowling across each stage with sluggish steps. He instructed me on the many functions of the controller for a second time and we began. Although I still couldn’t match Ian’s dexterity (which he demonstrated to great effect when he smashed my character all over the screen), I did manage to chase after his character and hit him a few times. And while I was certain he let me, I hit him enough times to knock him off the platform and win a single point. Of course, after that, the match’s time limit ran out before I could repeat my victory, and Ian ended up winning. I couldn’t let him feel too superior, however, and challenged him to several more matches with a different character each time. I felt more confident with slower and more powerful heroes (ones I had the ability to control), and as I continued to play, I improved. By the last game, I think I actually knocked him off the stage legitimately, and the shocked look and hilarious shout he gave me when I succeeded confirmed it.
Back in bed, I slept until the late afternoon when I again felt well enough to stay awake. I surprised both Catherine and Ian by stepping into the kitchen on my own, and together we ate a small meal of a vegetable called celery and a creamy spread called peanut butter (it tasted nothing like butter, but peanuts sounded delicious if its butter was any indication). Afterwards, Ian invited me back into his room and told me he wanted to show me something different.
“Here you go,” he said, lifting me up onto his bed. I steadied myself as he laid down, and again I rested on his arm as he produced his phone. Instead of learning knowledge from the ‘internet’, he instead pulled up an ‘app’ (which apparently was short for ‘application’, a word I still don’t fully understand) that showed me all sorts of short videos. Some were very funny; Ian’s bright laugh was infectious, so even if I didn’t fully understand what was going on, I could laugh with him instead. Some were remarkably inspiring, showing off some new device or invention that some genius Iatvi had created. These were my favorite, and I could hardly recognize anything used in their construction besides metal, plastic, wire, and wood.
“Iatvi are so smart,” I said to Ian, stifling a yawn. “I don’t get it. How do they come up with these things?”
“No idea. Aren’t they cool, though? I’m not that smart.”
“I bet you will be.”
“No way,” Ian disagreed.
We watched more videos. The next were painful to watch; for some reason, the Iatvi in these videos accidentally or even willingly chose to injure themselves in all manner of ways. Young men (my age and younger) flung themselves off of rooftops, rode on dangerous wooden boards with wheels called skateboards, or even lit themselves on fire. Whether or not they needed to be treated for their injuries afterwards, the videos never showed. Ian would laugh at these, and I would just cringe.
“I don’t think you should laugh at someone getting injured like that,” I insisted.
“But they’re really funny,” he said. “And they posted the video, so they get lots of views.”
“People watching it.”
“…why would they do that? Wouldn’t that make other Iatvi want to hurt themselves?”
“I guess,” Ian said next. “But if they get hurt, they just go to the hospital. It’s not like anybody in these videos dies or anything.”
“How do you know?”
“They wouldn’t put the video on the internet if someone died in it.”
“Nobody can put up bad stuff like that.”
“But you can put up a video showing you crippling yourself?”
Ian shrugged back.
“I dunno. I guess if someone like you broke an arm or a leg, it would be really bad, huh?”
“Absolutely. Gatherers stop working after accidents like that, and that makes life worse for the whole village.”
“I’m sorry.” Ian said, forlorn, dropping his phone down on his chest. “I won’t show you those anymore.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m just… not used to seeing people get hurt. I’m not sure I like it very much, even if they’re doing it for fun.”
The sun very nearly set in the sky beyond the window of the guest room when I heard a soft knock on the door. Strange.
“Um…” I shook off my sleepiness. “Hello?”
The door clicked open, and in stepped a timid human boy. He stuck his head halfway through the door as if ashamed he had knocked.
“Lenn,” he whispered. He held his hands together and his hollow voice sounded as though he’d been crying. “Can I talk to you?”
“Yeah…” I replied, wiping my eyes. “Yeah, of course.”
Ian stepped inside. He walked around the bed to the other side and, to my surprise, laid down. He positioned himself close to me, rolling to his side and folding his arms around himself. He remained quiet for a moment, biting his lip and staring down at the surface.
“Do you…” he said, his voice a breeze. “Do you like me?”
His question caught me off guard. Holding my bandages steady, I rose up from my bed.
“I s-said… Do you like me?”
I tilted my head.
“Of course I do. What kind of question is that?”
Ian looked at me for a moment more before returning his eyes to the bed.
“What makes you wonder?”
Ian’s face darkened to match the sky outside, and he didn’t reply.
“I’m okay, Ian, don’t worry about hurting me anymore.”
“No, it’s… not that.”
“I’m not a good friend. That’s why no one hangs out with me. Everybody at school… makes fun of me or ignores me… And when you came to live here, all I do is hurt you and annoy you. Dad told me not to bother you so much. I didn’t mean to walk into your room without knocking this morning, or show you bad videos. Dad says I shouldn’t be watching things like that anyways.”
“Ian, it doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “If you bothered me, I’d tell you.”
He didn’t look at me for a while, shivering from the air conditioning in the small room despite the light jacket he wore.
“Ian,” I said.
He didn’t look at me.
“Listen. This is your home. And this isn’t my room. As far as I’m concerned… you can come in whenever you want. I may not have privacy, but I don’t much care anymore. If it wasn’t for you, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t find water. Yul, you help me go to the bathroom every single day. And James knows that…”
Ian’s expression remained unchanged.
“Give me your hand.”
I held out my arms to him. He reached for me, placing all of his fingers across my lap.
“Look,” I said. I extended my hand as wide as I could and measured it across his middle and index finger. I barely wrapped around the tops. “See, I can barely grab two of your fingers. You’re a human. You have more strength in a single finger than I have in my whole body. You could have locked me in a cage or stuffed me in a box, hid me from your parents and showed me off to your friends. That’s the first thing I thought any human child would do to me. Even if my legs were normal, I wouldn’t be able to do much in your home without help. And… viara vestiid… I would be dead without you. There’s only one person who cared about me so much, but… I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.”
Ian’s eyes closed, and I heard his voice whimper as tears came to his eyes.
“So yes, you silly kani. I like you.”
I slowly rose from my bedding, and Ian retracted his hand. I limped down from the blankets and stood in front of Ian’s face. Just as before, I could see every detail on his youthful features, from the light freckles that crossed his nose to the droplets of saline that formed beneath his eyelashes.
“No crying, okay?” I whispered, reaching my hand out and weaving my fingers through the hair in front of his ear. “I’ll talk to James. You don’t annoy me.”
“If… If you were human…” he trembled, his voice shaking me through. “You wouldn’t be my friend. You would ignore me like everyone else.”
“That’s not true,” I replied. I pursed my lips, patted the boy on the cheek, and slowly walked towards the foot of the bed. Ian’s eyes must not have opened to watch me, as he didn’t acknowledge me until I leaned down and brushed his arm.
“Come on,” I said simply. “Move over.”
“…huh?” he whimpered.
“I want to check something.” I gently motioned his arm sideways.
Ian listened with hesitation, unwrapping his arms from around himself. He nearly scooted away as I knelt down. But as I placed my ear against his jacket, he stayed completely still. I waited for a moment. Sure as a ticking clock, I heard it loud and clear: pumping with a slow and steady rhythm (much slower than my own), I could hear and feel the beat within him.
“Ah-ha,” I said.
“What?” Though his voice was light and airy, it rumbled deep. I stood up and leaned against him.
“You have a good heart,” I told him with a slight grin, bopping his chest with a fist. “I’d be able to feel that whether I was human or not. You know what I mean?”
Ian sniffed, and for a moment, let the sadness in him pass. At last, he threw his own shy grin back at me.
“You’re weird,” he said simply.
“What?” I said, throwing my hands up as I stepped back over to his eyes. “Weird? That’s what you think of my ‘heartfelt’words?”
“Heartfelt. I get it.”
“Thanks. I came up with it myself.”
I sat down. Although the sunlight out the window was dimming rapidly, I could still see the shine of his green-blue gaze watching me.
“I don’t mind you at all. Bothering me?” I said, biting my lip. “Nah. I like your company.”
“But I don’t mean to wake you up all the time.”
“Don’t worry so much. Trust me,” I said. “I’ve slept enough in the past two weeks to…”
My eyes widened, and I sighed. An English teacher who can’t remember how to speak English.
“Dunrvair… dunrvah… Ah, what’s the word…?”
Ian watched me blankly as my mind spun.
“It’s a strange word… And I may not be using it right, anyway. Aww, It’s not like ‘dunrvai’ at all. ‘Ess’. ‘Sis’. ‘Siss-something’.” I knocked on my forehead. “No, no… come on, I know this. All of these ‘S’ words are messing up my head. ‘Sal’… no. ‘Sur’. ‘Suss’. ‘Steen’? ‘Suss-stur?’ No, ‘stain’. ‘Suss-stain’?”
I snapped my fingers.
“Yes! ‘Sustain’. I’ve had enough sleep to ‘sustain’ me for the rest of my life.”
“Nah, that doesn’t sound right. It makes better sense in Iatnasi.”
“You really do like words. You’re such a little teacher boy.”
“Heh, yes I am.”
“This is going to sound strange,” I said, tilting my head. I’d been thinking about this for a while, and with his words, it seemed right. “You’re afraid of me, aren’t you.”
“Are you just scared you’ll hurt me again? Or are you afraid of me because I’m older than you?”
Ian answered by withdrawing a bit, refolding his arms.
“Both. I guess.”
I folded my own arms and crossed my legs.
“You remember the first question I asked you the day you brought me here? I wrote it on a piece of paper.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I asked you why you cared about me so much from the very beginning.”
“Can you answer me? Why you cared so much at first? You didn’t see me as some kind of animal, did you?”
Ian quickly shook his head.
“Something strange? A tiny little cripple, something that looks like a human?”
He shook his head again.
“So what was it? What was I to you?”
Ian’s eyes paced back and forth for a moment, and he squirmed a little bit as he adjusted his legs.
“Well, I…. I wanted… I don’t know, I wanted a brother…”
I chuckled, leaning back against the blankets.
“A brother? Really? All you wanted was a little brother, huh?”
“An older brother,” he said with coy but honest lips. “I mean… I thought you were young when I first saw you, but… then you told me how old you were.”
“That changed what you thought of me?”
“I dunno. I didn’t think of anything at first. But then you got hurt, and… when Dad said you got your voice back, I got really scared. You’re an adult, and you’d probably yell at me like Dad does. Or I was scared that you weren’t going to talk to me anymore and just leave. I felt so stupid. And then I do things like making you play my hard video games… or showing you videos I know I shouldn’t watch. Or even putting my toes on your head. I keep doing stupid things to you, and I’m scared you’re going to go away.”
“Except for your toes,” I said with a laugh. “Those weren’t stupid. They’re new to me, and they’re exciting. And I never thought you were stupid. I mean, my…” I couldn’t tell the truth yet. “I want to see my friend Aria again, but I can’t go back to the village. Where would I go?”
Ian frowned deeper.
“Come on, I know that look,” I said. “I make it all the time. Don’t be mean to yourself.”
The boy looked away, sniffing. I watched him for a few seconds; everything about him was filled with hesitation. The moment I stood up, his eyes rose up immediately. It took me a moment, but without a word, I approached his face. He didn’t lean away, but his eyes crossed and vibrated when I came too near. I reached out a hand and placed it on an eyebrow, fluffing the hairs; they were dark and impossibly delicate, not rough and tumble like my own.
“You’re an incredible human, Ian. You know that? You’ve been so patient with me.”
Ian’s scowl had disappeared, replaced by curiosity. His eyes blinked, and I swear I could hear them pop as the eyelids collided with each other.
“So your dad yelled at you,” I said, bending down to look directly into his eye. Ian’s head swayed, and a deep rumble made it clear. “I’m sorry. He’s probably just as worried about me as you are. I hope I’m not making life hard for you.”
“You’re not,” he said, his great lips gently forming the nasally words.
“You know what?” I replied. I took a seat right next to him. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m all healed. But… until then, maybe I’ll just be your big brother. Is that okay?”
“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “I’d like that.”
“So long as you wash your hands and feet? And help me walk?”
Ian blinked a few times again. In the darkening evening, it was like staring at glass.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be friends with a ka Iatvi. I can only imagine what Aria would say if I told her. She wouldn’t believe me.”
“What does ka mean again?”
“It means boy,” I answered. “Like kani, small boy. I think you’re kaval Iatvi, though. A large boy.”
Ian’s lips creased into a smile.
“How do you say ‘old’?”
“And… what are you called? Not Iatvi, but… I forgot.”
“So… you’d be a… um… Iatili kani… ato? Iatili… little boy… old? Hmm.” Ian frowned. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“Close,” I said. “Kaniato Iatili. Iatili at the end. Kani and ato become one long word, sulm. You could say atokani, but other Iatili would look at you funny.”
“Yeah. Just the way it is.”
Ian’s eyes watched me as well as they could, close as I was. I then watched as his hand rose and advanced towards my back. His palm pressed lightly against my back, and I came to rest against the bridge of his nose.
“Thanks,” he said with a quiet reverence. “I’m glad we’re friends. Er… brothers, I mean.”
“Ha,” I said, nervous to feel his heat and pressure on my back. “Brothers.”
He nodded as his hand fell.
“And since we’re brothers, I guess we can tease each other. Attitude, right?”
Ian chuckled but said nothing.
“So if I call you maitoka, smelly boy, what do you call me?”
“Maito… kani? And… kaniato… So, maitokaniato? Old and smelly little boy?”
“Hey, look at you,” I said, patting his eyebrow. “You learn quick. It gets complicated with a lot of endaiva, doesn’t it? Um… ajilek… no, ajelk… What’s the word? Like, ‘blue’, or ‘round’.”
“That’s right! That’s right, kavalin. Smart boy.”
“Ha,” Ian laughed, showing his uneven white teeth to me. “Don’t you forget it.”
I grabbed the tip of his nose and wiggled it up and down. I laughed.
“How could I?”