A week or so passed, I believe, after the cousins went home. My injury continued to burn and itch, but motionless rest and the cream medication James applied helped alleviate some of the pain. I’m a heavy sleeper, as you know, and don’t move around much during the night, so that certainly helped. But the more I moved about during the day, the more the pain increased, leaving me in between a state of restlessness and a state of discomfort that didn’t seem to end. Worse (or fortunately?), my energy levels were slowly returning to normal, so being forced to remain stationary killed me.
I learned something rather interesting: Iatvi children don’t usually attend school during the summer months. They call it ‘summer break’, and they enjoy time away from responsibility. Can you imagine if the children at home could do this? Even the teachers who worked at the schools often had to find other employment. Essential cleaning, sewing, and gathering practice by the kalka wouldn’t happen, and I wouldn’t have been fed for three months out of the year!
Unfortunately for Ian, he didn’t have this luxury. Come to find out, neither did Aaron or Chris. James and Catherine had enrolled Ian in summer classes at a local school to help him further his education. James described it as ‘helping him reach the point where he could attend a private school’. I didn’t quite understand the difference between what they called ‘public’ and ‘private’ school at first. But apparently, this ‘private school’ was rather prestigious. No wonder Ian wanted me to be his teacher: the expectations his parents had placed on his schooling were rather high, miles higher than I had ever placed on my own students. It seemed to frustrate Ian to no end, but it was hardly my place to say anything about it. I merely offered my services to help him study. Hesitant at first, James and Catherine worried that my condition would worsen if I did so. But I insisted I would like nothing more than to help him.
When he returned home from school, Ian would show me his homework. His math was beyond me; I have never been skilled with numbers, and I couldn’t assist him very well there. His ‘science’ textbook, on the other hand, was fascinating to me. Weather patterns, the structure of the earth, the makeup of the stars in the sky, and even the very basic elements that make up the world… I even spent the time I had alone peering into the screen of Ian’s phone in my desire to learn more. How did Iatvi know of such things? Ian didn’t share my thrill initially. But as I learned more and shared details with him that his book did not contain, he listened to me with much more interest. Lastly, I assisted him in his English and vocabulary. Yes, translating some of the words in my head continued to be challenging. But for the most part, Ian remained patient with me, and often became amused at my inability to remember. Much of it was rote memorization, and it was simple enough to read off thick postcards to test his memory.
Interestingly, when Ian did leave me his phone to use, every so often the phone would erupt in very loud ringing. A dark screen would replace my reading and display a strange string of numbers. Often, the numbers would be accompanied by the name of a place; I never recognized any of these. A few times, I would see Catherine’s or James’s name, but I never could gather my courage to “answer” the phone and talk to them through the device. After a time, the ringing would end, and I could continue my studies.
Three times near the end of these two weeks, however, a particular name would appear a few times: Eliza. I asked Ian who this was, and he told me it was the name of his oldest cousin on James’s side of the family. She lived a few towns away, he told me, and when he called her back, she would mysteriously not answer. He sent her a few word messages asking her what she wanted. She replied with a single question: she wanted to know what time Catherine would be home the upcoming Friday. I don’t know what Ian told her, and I didn’t think to ask for any other details. After all, it was hardly my business. Ian did tell me that I would probably have to hide in Ian’s room if she or any other family came over. I told him I didn’t mind.
That Friday, James went to work early. Ian went to school at his typical time. And I thought Catherine would remain at home as she usually did; she appeared to be the homemaker, although Ian told me she had some kind of job and worked downstairs on a computer from home. How easy would gathering be if you could stay in the comfort of your home and perform your work on an electronic device?
Around 10 o’clock, however, I heard footsteps on carpet, and then the click-clacking of heels on hardwood. I expected Catherine to check on me.
But she did not. Instead, I heard the great front door open and close.
I had been left alone inside the Petersen home before, so it didn’t bother me overmuch. Surely she had locked the door before departing to keep everything they owned safe while she was out. I continued to read from Ian’s phone in my lap, keeping notes about my studies on a postcard with a piece of graphite.
At 10:23, I heard the front door open.
My head lifted. Surely it was Catherine, so I continued reading. As the door closed, I expected the usual footsteps on carpet and hardwood.
I heard very little.
I frowned. Had Ian or Catherine returned home, taking their shoes off at the door? They didn’t usually do that. I was tempted to investigate, but I doubted anything was really wrong. It’s not like anyone would enter James’s and Catherine’s house without contacting them about it first. Sure, the thought of a robber or burglar crossed my mind. But my paranoia of living in a Iatvi home had faded for the most part. So, stupidly, I turned back to Ian’s phone.
No one checked on me. For about ten minutes after the front door closed, I listened for the sounds of Ian or Catherine. Every so often, I heard gentle footsteps somewhere distant in the house, passing down the stairs into the basement. Nothing to worry about, then. It was just Catherine returning to work.
About five minutes later, I heard the footsteps climb the stairs and approach the guest room. Everyone in the house had taken to knocking on the door before they entered, which was more than kind of them. So before the footsteps reached the door, I called out to the person on the other side; I’d grown way too comfortable.
“Catherine?” I asked. “Is that you?”
The footsteps disappeared. Complete silence for a few seconds.
The doorknob of the guest room turned and the door slowly creaked open. A face then appeared, halfway concealed behind the white door roughly at Catherine’s height. With a great green eye, this face looked directly at me.
It was not Catherine.
For what seemed like an endless duration, I merely stared at the eye. No other features of this Iatvi seemed relevant to me. It did not blink. Nor did it move…
And then it did, and so did I. The door opened wide, supposedly revealing more of this Iatvi. I did not wait to see these features. In fact, I let out the loudest and most terrified scream I’d ever produced with my new voice and scrambled in the precise opposite direction of the door.
“Wait!” I heard from a very feminine voice, but I certainly did not. In fact, panic so filled me that I failed to make a full stop at the very edge of the bed. My hands slipped on the fabric, and I felt weightlessness as I tumbled off the side into the dark space in between the bed and the television table. I collided with the floor and quite possibly part of the bed’s metal frame, but I did not feel it. Instead, I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could (stumbling at once as I attempted to do so with my left leg).
“Wait, wait! Please!” said the great voice. I did not… or wouldn’t have had I had the choice. I stood a bit higher than the underside of the bed. So while I could not see the footsteps of this Iatvi rushing around, I certainly heard them. Filled full with fear and adrenaline, my eyes darted around me for options. Forwards wasn’t one of them. Under the bed was one, but the bandages around my neck and shoulder would have stalled me before I had time to dive underneath. I spun around to see if there was hiding space in between the table and the wall. I saw the mere shadow of width, so I attempted to wedge myself in between. Unfortunately, too narrow; I could barely hide my arm.
I slammed my back against the wall just in time to see the Iatvi peering down at me from up above. Intense green eyes watched me for a moment, and this time, I couldn’t help but recognize other features.
A woman. Curled and bright red hair that frayed in many directions, mostly tied up in a bun. Dark eyebrows, perhaps colored with makeup to be this way. Deep freckles across her face, and a delicate complexion. Smallish nose, thin lips, and an angled chin that might have resembled Ian’s to me if I’d had the mental ability to make that comparison.
I suddenly became very aware of pain. And I could go nowhere.
Then, this Iatvi woman said perhaps the only thing she could have whispered that wouldn’t have made me collapse in terror.
“Lenn?” she said. “Vah op se les?”
Lenn. Is that your name?
I stopped breathing. But something possessed me to open my mouth and exhale what air I had left.
Who are you?
I then trembled another whisper.
“Unsa phodal Iatnasi?”
How do you know Iatnasi?
“Lenn, neh ve odane. Via dunsas.”
Lenn, don’t be afraid. I am a friend.
For another eternity, we simply stared at each other. I didn’t know if she were trying to figure out how to capture me, if she were merely studying me, or if she were attempting to find a way to approach me without causing me more panic.
“…my name is Eliza,” the woman said quietly. At this moment, I became aware that she was not an older woman. Not in the least. “I’m sorry I scared you so badly.”
I was shaking intensely at this point.
“Wh-what d-do you want?”
“I came to see you,” she said simply. Her face was reaching beyond the view of the bed. “May I sit on the floor?”
I said nothing. I didn’t need to. This Eliza stepped around the bed fully into my view and took a seat on level with the end of the bed. She wore a light green blouse and long denim pants with holes in the knees that ended above her ankles. And yes, it appeared as if she had removed her shoes at the door, as she wore short white socks.
She raised her hands.
“Vah sulm, Lenn. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk.”
She had no accent. Yet she spoke Iatnasi.
“Unsa… “ I repeated. “Why…? How do you know…?”
“I’ve been caring for a pair of Iatili children and their guardian for about two years now,” Eliza said. “The kids are Juni and Charsi. When I found them in my apartment back then, I scared them to death too… In fact, I was stupid… Charsi was so scared she didn’t move, but it almost took me fifteen minutes to make Juni stop running away.”
If my legs worked, I certainly would have done the same. I did not tell Eliza this.
“Neither of them spoke English very well. Juni knew almost nothing. Charsi could stumble through a simple conversation. But I hear you’re quite fluent.”
The names of these children were not familiar. How could she possibly know about me…?
The answer was fairly obvious.
“Chris…” I whispered. “And Aaron, they… they told you…”
“Lenn, please don’t be mad at them,” Eliza said. “They didn’t actually tell me anything… at first. I went over to their house for Sunday dinner with my aunt and uncle, and after dinner, I heard Chris and Aaron playing around. They kept saying the words ‘sulm’ and ‘serdia’ over and over… I called them both into Aaron’s room to ‘play video games’…”
She bent her index and middle fingers in the air twice. I didn’t know what that meant.
“…and I asked them how they knew those words. They both turned bright red and didn’t say a thing for a while.”
“…you knew…” I whispered.
“Aaron told me everything. Please, please don’t be mad at them. It wasn’t really their fault.”
“…what are you going to do with me…?” I asked.
Eliza waved her hands.
“Nothing, Lenn, nothing, I promise! I just… had to come see you myself, make sure you were really here. The oldest Iatili living with me, he takes care of the kids… his name is Xande.”
My stomach immediately sank into my feet, and I felt dizzy. I might have passed out right then and there had I not been mind-numbingly afraid of doing so in front of an Iatvi I didn’t know.
“No…” I whispered.
It couldn’t be him.
About five more seconds passed.
“I told him your name,” Eliza continued. “And… his face looked about the same as yours.”
“No… no…” I whispered. “No, it can’t be him. There’s no way he’s still… he would never get…”
“Get caught by an Iatvi?” Eliza said. A smile formed on her face. “He said the same thing. He’s always said I just got lucky. The kids slowed him down or his arm stopped him from climbing, garbage like that.”
“His… his arm?”
“Oh,” Eliza said, her smile fading. “Um… How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”
My mind spun back the clock.
“F-Five…” I stammered. “Five years… I thought he was dead.”
“He… he went gathering… and…” I tried to piece in my mind how it could have happened. “He never came back. The gatherers went searching for him, and… all they found was blood, and… a severed arm.”
Horror crossed Eliza’s face.
“They were sure something had eaten him whole…“ I whispered. “Aria was devastated…”
“Aria? Xande’s sister?”
I looked up at her.
“Xande… told you about her?”
“He said… you and Aria were… close.”
To the Petersens, I had always called you a friend and nothing more. It distanced me from the pain. But it was more than that, wasn’t it? It had been for a long time.
“But… how are you here?” Eliza asked me. “Why are you not with her? Xande always told me that Aria would remain safe so long as you stayed with her.”
I couldn’t speak for a moment. There was no way Xande would talk about me like that. Just like every other member of Aria’s family, Xande hated me and resented me for spending so much time with you. You always told me to ignore him, try to focus on my work without riling him or the other warriors up. When he “died”, part of you died with him. I know it. He was your only remaining family, your protector. He was everything I couldn’t be. If someone like him had attracted you, I would not have been part of your life.
If this Xande really was your brother… Begging for forgiveness would hardly matter, and I wasn’t about to, either.
“I… I was…” I swallowed hard. “I was almost killed… trying to get away from home.”
“Killed?” Eliza asked with a drawn breath. “Why?”
I had escaped death once. But if Xande knew…
“I… neh… neh angia lai ehr ilir.”
I can’t tell you.
“Undai? Ehr va… veszer vol?”
Why? Is it… too painful?
Tears filled my eyes. My weak legs lost all strength, and I slumped down to my knees in a heap. Immediately, my mind and my heart shattered, and I cried. There was sorrow, yes. Sorrow for you. Sorrow for everything I put you through. But there was intense anger as well.
“Ne angia lai ot wendir!” I screamed at the top of my voice, forcing air out as much with my abdomen as with my arms.
I can’t do this.
“Vai penike! Ne angiam lai se indir.”
I’m a failure. I couldn’t protect you.
“Ne vaim markol kald, ys vysht vol… vai nal vol… lai se ondir…”
I’m not strong enough, too much of a bastard… I’m too weak… to love you…
“Renria lai vesir! Ne angia lai ehr wendar sadendis! Aria, devtol! Ahhhh! Renria lai vesir!”
I want to die! I can’t do this anymore! Aria, I’m so sorry! I want to die!
I could no longer remain on my feet. I collapsed into the carpet, shriveling into a miserable ball. I released all of my anger into intense spasms and force, and I could not breathe. The wound across my neck had not been entirely forgotten, and I dug my nails into the bandages underneath my shirt as if to rip them apart. Every emotion that I’d repressed in the last six months burst from me like a violent storm. Aria, if I had access to a weapon or a sharp instrument of some kind, I would have committed my life to an end. I thought even this ‘God’ the Petersens spoke of desired my death as well.
I had lost you forever, Aria. And now your brother would emerge from death and end my life for what I’d done… if I couldn’t summon the strength to do it myself.
Any immediate danger I had felt from the Iatvi girl moments before had evaporated. I did not hear the young kal Iatvi approach me until I felt her hand gently comfort me.
“Lenn…” she whispered. Her whisper reminded me much of Ian’s compassion. “Lenn, via lunesias. Des… ne wendia lai vesir.”
Lenn, I am a stranger. But… I don’t want you to die.
“Ke vansira, ke vansira. Ke vansira… Neh se fenikke, kaldi.”
He will kill me. Don’t let him, please.
I gurgled and gasping for air.
“Ne fenikkiria lai ot byrdemir.”
I will not let that happen.
It took me more than a while to calm down. Between the unfamiliar young woman looming over me as I sat in the dark corner of the bedroom and the thought of being murdered by your “long-dead” brother… I thought that more than just my injury had healed in the time I’d spent under the Petersen’s care, that perhaps I had time to recover emotionally and clear my mind before I could devise a plan to find you. Whatever sense of safety and stability I had found in that place shattered completely. What I had told Ian resounded through my head: everything in the whole damn world wanted me dead. Accidental, purposeful, coincidental. All ways. It didn’t matter.
I did not speak to Eliza. For as long as I remained under her shadow, no words could emerge from me. I didn’t dare ask questions because I didn’t want the answers. I didn’t dare divulge additional information of my guilt because I didn’t know what she would tell Xande. I simply remained upon the ground with my back to the Iatvi, wishing that the long fibers of the carpet would swallow me whole.
Eliza did not leave. Nor did she prod me for information. She simply sat behind me, at times brushing her finger along my shoulder and arm. She simply spoke to me.
“Lenn? Aaron told me that you teach kids. I think that’s really great of you. I think you would really like Charsi and Juni. Neither of them know their birthdays exactly, but I think Charsi is ten and Juni is twelve. I want you to meet them. If you can handle the two psycho boys, then you won’t have a problem at all with Jun and Sisi.”
“Xande isn’t a bad guy. I promise you. I know that whatever might have happened between the two of you can be fixed. For all the time I’ve known him, he’s been nothing but a hero to the kids… and so kind. He’s got a handicap, sure… well, an arm-icap, I guess… He’s just… a proud little Iatili. You probably know that already. And he never stays in one place for very long, he hates being stuck somewhere. He climbs all over my apartment. Yeah, with a single arm, without a rope or anything. I’ve had to yell at him a couple of times for hiding in my closet or in my cupboards waiting to scare me. And he’s been teaching Juni how to do the same thing! I can catch Juni before he scoots away, but Xande, he’s just nuts. He’ll dive headfirst off of the shelves in my closet and grab a shirt on the way down! He even dares me to try to step on him just so he can practice avoiding me. He’s so insane…
“You probably know what he was like growing up. He’s just… restless. I won’t see him for two days, and then he’ll suddenly show back up on my apartment patio with some… just, something. A sack of candy, or crayons for Sisi, or toys… you know, the twenty-five cent ones you get out of a toy gumball machine. One time he even came back with a really expensive piece of jewelry, a gold bracelet with real pearls. Seriously, real ones! He tried to play it off like he’d found it in some dumpster, but I looked up the markings on the inside, right? The thing was seriously, like… three-thousand dollars! I demanded he take it back where he found it, and… well, he did disappear for another night or so, so I assumed he’d done as I said.
“What did I find inside my makeup drawer a week later? The dumb bracelet! I got so angry, and he knew I would be! I didn’t see him for three or four days after that. Not even the kids knew where he’d gone. I went to the police station and gave them the bracelet. I told them I found it in the gutter on my way to work. I thought for sure someone would have filed a police report for something like that, so when they didn’t make me fill out paperwork or anything, I thought I was lucky.
“Well, Xande finally shows his face again. I chew him out and told him I’d turned it over to the cops. You should have seen his face. He has the gall to start yelling at me! He kept saying it was a gift, that I threw away days of work, and that I should have been grateful for his ‘skills’! I always told him my job didn’t pay me enough for how hard I work, but I never expected him to go ‘rob from the rich and give to the poor’! He took my complaining as a challenge to go and steal something, and when I told him that I didn’t take ‘dirty’ money, he didn’t speak to me for at least a week. I tried telling him that I could get arrested for trying to sell it, but apparently that didn’t compute in his teeny-tiny mind.”
“Sorry. I get worked up about him sometimes. You seem like a completely different person. You’re even helping Ian with his homework? That blows my mind. Aaron and Xande both told me that you can’t… well, you can’t move around much. I’m, um… sorry if it’s a sensitive subject. But Aaron told me how good both you and Ian have treated each other, and I’m so proud of both of you.”
She fell quiet.
“You were probably even taking notes for him when I barged in here, huh? Can I see?”
I said nothing.
“Ooh,” she said quietly. “You write like Sisi, nice and small. Hah, obviously. Although… your handwriting is really good. Better than mine! Let’s see… um… ‘Voli… ys cadas qa mydurn’…? Hmm. Voli. Circle? Cadas is time. Oh shoot, what is mydurn? I’ve heard Sisi say that word before, what was she talking about…?”
Eliza paused again, and I heard the bed creak.
“His phone locked… what’s his birthday again? He’s ten, so… hmm. Ah, there we go, he really should change that. Oh, moon! Mydurn is moon! So, ‘circle and time of the moon’? Phases of the moon, huh? I wonder if those words translate correctly. You don’t have to say anything, maybe you can tell me later.
“‘Parda yod’. Hmm. ‘Light’ and… ‘full’? Oh, full moon, that makes sense. And then… ‘Parda ishta’. Half-moon. ‘Pendu yod’. Full-shadow. ‘Pendu ishta’. Half-shadow. And then back to parda yod. Very cool. And then a bunch of numbers… Dates, too? Neat.”
“Oh… I’m totally going through your homework, Lenn, I’m sorry… There’s no way Ian knows how to read Iatnasi. So this isn’t for him, is it? Xande did say you were one of the smartest Iatili he knew. You’re probably loving Ian’s phone. Ha, the derpy little kid wouldn’t even have one if Aunt Catherine didn’t worry about keeping track of him. She should just slap a GPS tracker on his ankle. That way he wouldn’t watch all those dumb videos he keeps sharing.”
As if I were just some acquaintance, Eliza continued to talk to me about all manner of things, from the weather outside, how little she was looking forward to a week-long training session at her job (apparently she was an “accountant”), to craft projects she had in her apartment that “the kids” were helping her with. She was very friendly and her voice was light and cheerful, and it nearly caused my confidence level to rise high enough to turn around and face her. I didn’t, but that didn’t deter her from continuing her one-sided conversation.
Eliza said Xande had been living with her and these two mystery children for two years… what had Xande been doing for two years in between those times? He was alive: why did he not return to the village at all? And missing an entire arm… I couldn’t picture him with only one. I wanted to ask Eliza these questions about Xande, but I sincerely doubted that someone as proud as that hard-headed warrior would have explained very much to a Iatvi. But, then again, two years… What could possibly have kept him anchored in one place for that long?
And why had he not returned to you?
I’m not sure how much time passed. I thought she would talk to me until Ian came home, but considering that was still three hours away, I couldn’t stomach that possibility. I wasn’t losing my mind in panic at that point, merely forcing myself to breathe slowly. Eliza was so fluent in Iatnasi, she actually began to describe her daily life to me in my language. It seemed… wrong? No, that’s not quite right. Fascinating, yes, but… Maduni. Inappropriate.
“…so that’s when Xande shows up and tries to ‘console’ me about everything. ‘Your work can’t be that hard,’ he says. ‘You’re not at risk of death counting numbers,’ he says. I wanted to be mad at him, but… he had a point. This was… what, a few months ago? I’m not the one in danger wherever I go. It really made me start thinking about what kind of future Jun and Sisi are going to have, and if it was really appropriate for them to stay with me for so long. Xande never talked about leaving, and neither did the kids, but… the thought of it has never really left my mind, you know? I imagine you know a lot about this. You come from a village, sure, but the way Xande described it, it sounded as if life was just… horrible. Could I really let those three leave to… to live in the wilderness alone? I just don’t think I could ever-”
The front door opened and closed shut with a slam.
At this, I carefully turned myself over and shot a glance out of the side of my eye, ignoring the pain in my jaw. The shadow of the Iatvi woman was truly upon me, but she wasn’t looking down at me. Instead, she was looking over her own shoulder towards the door of the room.
She sighed, and I felt the slight breeze of her breath.
“Okay. This… will be very interesting.”
Her eyes then descended to see me, and I very much wanted to roll back up in a ball. But for everything I’d heard her share with me, I couldn’t do it. I simply returned her look. Her expression turned from content to concerned.
“Viara sulm, Lenn?”
I blinked a few times in thought. Of course I wasn’t going to be “okay”. But I was fairly certain I wasn’t about to die. I nodded up at her.
Then, Eliza stood to her feet, towering over me just as James did. She stepped back around the bed towards the door, leaving me to collect myself. I heard her depart the room and leave the door open behind her, and I carefully lifted myself up to my feet as best I could. My bottom and my elbow were sore from my descent and my neck burned from my self-torture, but pain wasn’t the first thing on my mind. Instead, it was firmly on what sounds I would hear next.
Silence, at first. Eliza’s footsteps vanished, perhaps downstairs. Who had returned home?
I waited. Then, somewhere in the house, I heard a sharp shout. Was it Eliza or… Catherine? I wasn’t certain.
I shook my head, wiping tears from my eyes. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was a coward, no matter how I felt about the “resurrection” of Xande. The only hopeful track of thinking I had about our eventual… discussion… was that Eliza would be right behind him, and that Ian would be right behind me. I gathered my dwindling courage and hauled myself up the yarn fibers of the blanket. And just as I rose to the very edge, the guest room door opened, the surprise making me lose focus and slip.
“Lenn!” said Catherine’s voice, filled with fear. As soon as she spotted me clinging to the edge, she reached over the bed, took my arms, and hauled me upwards until I stood on my weary feet. “Dear, are you all right? You’ve been crying… You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”
“N-No,” I lied, itching my arm. “Catherine, I’m… I’m all right.”
“I’m sorry,” I heard behind Catherine. “It’s more like I freaked him out so bad, he jumped off the bed to get away from me. I should have stayed in the hallway or something instead of coming in.”
I took a moment to gather a breath.
“Vis sulm, Eliza. Ehr vam… tol lai dranirke. Ys namitol.”
It’s okay, Eliza. It was just… a lot to learn. And very quickly.
“Sisi ilal dur lai ke viar namivol. Ehr ke vam faem.”
Sisi always says that I am too fast. It was my fault.
Catherine’s eyes darted from me upon the bed to her niece behind her.
“You… you can speak his language?” she gasped with her eyes wide as a pair of moons.
I heard Eliza laugh.
“It’s a long story. If you have time, can we sit down and talk? I understand if you have to get back to work…”
Catherine let out a sort of laugh-shout.
“No no!” she said without hesitation. “After this? I’ll make time! My team will have to continue without me today, I want you to tell me everything.”
Right on cue, the door clicked shut, and I heard a backpack falling off of human shoulders. I turned my head around the side of the guest room door frame to see Ian step into the kitchen. Without a glance, he aimed straight at the refrigerator. As he peered inside and produced something from a lower shelf, I stepped towards the dining room table. My eyes still burned and I felt exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. Not yet.
Our eyes met as I limped.
“Hi Lenn,” he said with a wave. He placed his food on the island counter. “Are you okay? Just taking a walk?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “How was school?”
“It was…” he began, but then his shoulders fell. “Um, I’ve got a writing assignment due Monday. Do you think you could help me with it?”
“Later on, sure. Right now, we’ve got some things to talk to you about, if you have a second.”
“Sure,” Ian asked. Then he paused. “Who’s we? You mean you and Mom?”
“Your mom and-”
Voices emerged from downstairs. Ian’s eyes shot wide as he swung his head towards the sound.
“Who’s here?” he whispered to me.
“Your cousin Eliza and Catherine. That’s what we needed to talk to you ab-”
The conversation of the two women became loud as footsteps began to climb upwards. I looked at Ian. Ian looked back at me in horror. Without a word, Ian rushed around the island. Terrifying as an avalanche, Ian barreled towards me, grabbed me with both hands, and together we flew into the guest room. My heart leaped out of my throat as Ian tossed me onto the surface of the bed, and I barely caught my breath as Ian shut the door behind him.
“Ian, Ian,” I said, my head spinning a bit. “Hold on, it’s just-”
“Ian?” called a voice from behind the door. Catherine. “Are you home?”
“Um… y-yeah Mom, I’m home!”
There was a slight pause.
“What are you doing in there?”
I could hear the painful cogs in Ian’s head turning.
“I’m… uh… I thought I would… do my homework in here! And then I’ll probably take a nap!”
I rolled my eyes. Real convincing.
“Hey, Ian. It’s fine, it’s just-”
“Shh!” Ian shoved his finger to his lips and cast a glance at me over his shoulder.
“Ian, come on out, we’ve got something to tell you.”
“I, uh… I… can’t! I’m… changing into my pajamas! Don’t come in!”
Another slight pause.
“You have pajamas in there?”
Ian spun his head around and waved me towards the end of the bed.
“Lenn, hide!” he hissed. “Y-Yeah, Mom! Give me just a minute!”
“Ian, it’s fine, open the-”
Catherine knocked on the door. In a flash, Ian locked the door just as the handle jiggled.
“Ian. What’s going on? Come on, hon, open up.”
“Mom… Mom, hold on! I can’t…!” Ian turned around to face me and mouthed the word ‘hide’ as desperately as he could.
“Ian?” asked the second voice.
Ian’s wide eyes blinked.
“Oh, h-hi Eliza! I can’t come out yet, give me a second!”
Ian then advanced towards me, his hands outstretched. I struggled backwards.
“No, Ian, no no no-”
“Lenn?” Eliza asked. Ian stopped dead in his tracks, his clenched fingers not an arm’s length away from wrapping about me. “Lenn, ile Ian lai amir kada.”
Ian’s jaw hung limp as he stared at me. After a moment, I grinned at him.
“Ian, Eliza says to open the door. I think you should listen to her.”
“Yes, she. Come on.” I held up my hands. “Help me up. Like I said, we need to talk to you.”
Gingerly, Ian picked me back up in his hands and cradled me in the crook of an arm. He unlocked the door and opened it just a crack… His mother opened it the rest of the way, and I looked up at Catherine and Eliza with an odd smile on my face.
“Even if Lenn wasn’t staying with us,” Catherine said with a laugh, ruffling Ian’s hair. “You’ve never slept in there by yourself, silly head.”
“Aww, look at little Lenn,” Eliza said, resting her hands on her knees and peering down at me. “Ian holds you just like a baby!”
“Olem,” I moaned, waving her taunting away. “It’s not like I have a choice.”
“I’m sorry,” she laughed. “It’s just that whenever I hold Juni like that, he gets real defensive. I do it sometimes, you know, rock him back and forth just for fun!”
I looked up at Ian’s face: pure confusion.
“How do you know Lenn’s language?” Ian asked. “Did you… know Lenn before?”
“Come sit,” Catherine said, motioning to the table. Everyone moved, taking a seat in chairs as Ian carefully placed me upon the wooden surface.
“No, I only just met Lenn. Sorry to say I’ve been keeping a secret from everyone, just like you have.”
“You have Iatili too!” Ian exclaimed. “How many do you have?”
Eliza rolled her eyes.
“Don’t make it sound like I’m collecting them!”
“I’m taking care of two kids and their guardian… at least, that’s what he calls himself. There’s Juni, he’s twelve or thirteen, somewhere around there. Then there’s Charsi, a beautiful ten-year old girl. Xande watches over them, and he’s a little older than Lenn. I think. Lenn and Xande, they know each other, although…”
“We’re not exactly friends,” I said, looking at Ian. “He’s Aria’s brother.”
Ian’s eyebrows lifted.
“Your friend Aria? Her brother? Oh. Yeah, you said her family didn’t like you.”
“And things have… become a lot more complicated since I last saw him.”
“What? What do you mean?”
Catherine and Eliza stared at me. A pit formed in my stomach, and I coughed.
“I’ll… tell you later.”
“I have an important training coming up with my work that will take me out of town,” Eliza continued. “I’ve let the kids stay at my place alone for that long before, but they never like it, and I worry about them the whole time. Xande watches them… sort of. He’s gone more often than he’s around, though.”
Eliza took Catherine’s hand.
“I can’t tell you how great it is to finally have someone to talk to about all of this. It’s not like Jun and Sisi are hard to feed, but it’s tough teaching them and taking care of everything they need when I’m gone for most of the day. They’re just like human kids, they need attention or things fall apart for them. I’ve wanted to tell you and the rest of the family, but Xande warned me not to, and I wanted to protect the kids…”
I nodded, and Ian did too.
“So,” Catherine said to Ian. “How would you and Lenn like to babysit next week?”
“Uh-huh,” I said with a laugh. “Juni’s older than he is. The only one who would need to be ‘babysat’ is Xande.”
“I’m worried about that,” Eliza continued. “The kids will be fine, they’ll love having somewhere else to explore and play. But Xande… you should have seen his face when I told him about Lenn. I haven’t seen him for a few days, but he told me that if the kids are coming over, then he is too. If I do bring him over, Ian, it will be your job to protect Lenn.”
“Protect him? What, is Xande going to try to hurt him?”
“I don’t know,” I said under my breath, stretching my arms down my legs. I didn’t look up at the Iatvi around me.
“I’ll only bring him if he swears to be civil. Otherwise, they’ll have to talk over the phone or something. Or text, I don’t care. I just met you, Lenn, but you know Xande better than I do. Is this a good idea?”
I shook my head.
“No, it isn’t. But he deserves… I need to talk to him. Face to face. Maybe it won’t change anything, but he deserves to know what’s happened.”
Eliza lowered her eyes to match mine.
“Caldisem ke xenif. Neh se rotira seli unlo kan.”
You heard my promise. He won’t hurt you with us here.
“Are you sure you don’t want to tell us what’s going on?” Catherine asked. “We’ll be better prepared for anything that might happen.”
I covered my face with one hand, and wiped my still-burning eyes.
“No, he… he should be the first to hear it from me.”
“Well,” Catherine continued. “This is certainly interesting. I cannot believe we’ve all had the same experience with Lenn’s people… How many other humans know about them? It certainly isn’t common knowledge.”
“Nope. But something tells me that the Iatili have many problems and may rely on human help more than we think.”
Eliza looked to me.
“How often do your people exile their own?”
I pursed my lips.
“Not terribly often, although…” I cleared my throat. “Anyone who can’t pull their weight in the village can be abandoned. If it wasn’t for Aria, I would have been left to starve years ago. And where would I have gone? Only real desperation would make me ask for Iatvi help.”
“Both Juni and Charsi are orphans. They aren’t related; you’ll be able to tell that by looking at them. Their parents died years ago, and they’ve told me that before meeting Xande, they survived by eating from dumpsters. Both of them were very malnourished, and I only found them because I came home at the right time and heard them scavenging for food in my kitchen. If Xande had both of his arms and the kids knew how to hide, I wouldn’t have discovered them at all.”
“All I know,” I said, reaching over and patting the back of a young hand. “Is that Ian could easily have shown me off to other kids, shown me to the whole world. Any of you could. But you didn’t. Maybe all Iatvi are better people than we’ve always believed…”
“So, Ian,” she continued. “Is babysitting okay? I’ll bring them over tomorrow and introduce you. If you want, I’ll pay you for the whole week. What do you think?”
Catherine nearly interjected.
“No way!” Ian said with a quick shake of his head. “I don’t wanna do it for money. I’ll do it for free.”
I half-smiled at him.
“Hey, you are a good kid.”
Ian gently bumped my elbow with a finger.
“What about you, Lenn?” Eliza asked with a smile. “You want to get paid to help teach the kids?”
“I’ve seen Iatvi money before. I’ve wrapped important papers in dollars, if you can believe it. Besides, what would I spend it on? Thanks to James and Catherine and Ian, I don’t need anything.”
“Oh, rich guy, huh?” Ian teased.
“They were just that common,” I said. “And the gatherers loved that sort of thing.”
“You guys are awesome. I can’t believe I finally have a place to go for help with Jun and Sisi. It’s… it’s been a hard year for us. Everything a kid would need… it’s not just food and water. Xande and I are horrible at sewing, so Juni’s clothing is always falling apart. And Sisi wears Juni’s old clothes as soon as he grows out of them.”
“I would love to help there,” Catherine said. “You let them know as soon as you get home. Tell them to pick their favorite colors, and I’ll get started right away when they come over.”
“Catherine made my clothes for me,” I said. “She measured me and had my pants done in… what, a few days? They’re wonderful.”
“Thank you, Lenn. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, that’s all.”
“All right!” Eliza said, clasping her hands together. “Yay! You don’t know what this all means to me!”