Late evening came, a few hours after Eliza had departed. Sleep was the furthest thing from my mind, and I couldn’t simply remain in bed waiting for the next day to come. I’d felt this way too many times, my stomach tied in knots and so filled with anxiety that I thought I might die simply by dwelling on the future. To be perfectly honest, I preferred the threat of actual danger to the impending feeling of doom, if only for the fact that seen danger can be avoided. Unseen events cannot, and from the sound of things, Xande’s reaction to my presence away from you was not positive in any way.
I stepped into the kitchen, limping a little slower than normal. I had expended a lot of energy that day, and I didn’t imagine the next day would improve it. I stayed in the middle of the floor, noticing for the first time that I didn’t feel compelled to remain in the shadows of the expansive room.
Footsteps emerged from a room downstairs, and then marched upwards towards me. I paused, prepared to wave down the Iatvi if only to avoid being kicked or smashed. But as his head emerged from the stairs below, James spotted me immediately.
“Lenn,” he said with a grin. “Just the man I wanted to see.”
I expected James to continue his ascent and dwarf me, but instead he sat upon one of the steps further down, keeping his eye level at mine.
“Come on over,” he waved. He played with something in his hands, and as I drew close to the edge of the carpeted stairs, I recognized what they were immediately. “What do you think? Will these work for you?”
My eyes widened as he handed me a pair of expertly crafted crutches. They weren’t wood or twigs to which I was accustomed. In fact, they appeared to be made out of sleek metal tubes, shaped and bolted together wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Wrapped straps of leather protected the tops for comfort, underneath which was added a cushioning of foam. A crossbar secured the middle of the crutches as a place to hold my hands, and upon the bottoms were rubber pegs to keep the metal from scratching the floors… as if I had ever had to worry about that before, right?
For longer than I should have, I simply held them in my hands. James had given me crutches designed to last for years, and they did exactly that.
“Well?” he asked with a half-grin. “Go ahead, check the height. I took Catherine’s measurements, but I had to guess a little. Crutches should fit below your armpit and let you bend your elbow.”
Gently standing on my weak leg, I took a crutch in each hand and placed them under my arms. Right away I noticed the problem; they were both a little high, and even attempting to rest my weight on my left side made my injury sting. James saw the expression on my face.
“Not quite right, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Once they’re lowered, they shouldn’t hurt. I’ll go ahead and fix them, they should be done by tonight before you go to bed.”
“Wait…” I replied. I had been too surprised to connect the dots. “You… made these?”
“Of course. I tried to find some Lenn-sized crutches at the pharmacy, but they were sold out.”
I smiled back.
“These are incredible,” I said, handing them back to James. “I can’t believe that you would do that for me. I was expecting wood poles and tape… Maybe sticks and string. I’ve built crutches with worse.”
“Nonsense, Lenn. You should know me better than that by now. It was a fun challenge. Do you know how hard it was to find screws and rubber pegs that small?”
“I can guess,” I replied with a nod.
“Let me get an accurate measurement really quick. Hold this next to your arm, would you?”
James gave me one crutch, and I held it to my side. From his shirt pocket James produced a thin-tipped pen, and made a black mark perhaps three of my fingers in width. He repeated this with the other crutch, and examined them both to make sure they were the same length.
“Perfect. I’ll fix these right away, and you’ll be all set.”
“James, I just… don’t know what to say. It’s been so hard for me to walk, and I’ve never had a set of crutches like this… Serditol. Thank you, really.”
“We all love having you here, Lenn. Ian’s really brightened up a lot since you arrived. He hasn’t made many friends, even in our church, and school has been particularly hard for him.”
“He’s said so,” I said. “He hasn’t told me specifics, but… I think other kids make fun of him for some reason.”
“Believe it or not, much of it is because of the church we go to. Many of those kids’ parents don’t believe what we believe, and they teach their kids that it’s okay to push Ian around for staying true to his beliefs.”
“What?” I frowned. “But why? Why do they care what Ian believes?”
“I don’t know,” James said. “Some people just feel the need to punish others for being different.”
I folded my arms.
“Hmm. I know something about that. I wish I could do something. If I were human, I’d teach those kids a thing or two.”
“I’m sure you would. I’m just glad you’re here to help Ian through the day.”
“Well, I owe it to him. I owe it to all of you.”
“Catherine told me about Eliza,” James said, shaking his head. “I can hardly believe it. She’s been hiding these kids for so long… I can’t wait to meet them. And I hear you’re going to teach them.”
I laughed, scratching my nose.
“I don’t know what Eliza expects of me. But it sounds like they may be outcasts like me. And I figure outcasts should stick together… if they’re not scared out of their minds from being in a new place surrounded by new people.”
“New human people, you mean.”
“Well, you let me know how it all goes tomorrow. I know I’d only add to the fear if I joined you, so I’ll hide in my office downstairs until everything calms down a bit. But before then, let me go fix your crutches. Are you headed to Ian’s room? You want me to put them anywhere, or bring them to you when they’re done?”
“Um…” I put my finger to my lips. “Maybe you can just leave them in the guest room. I figure I can walk around for one more day.”
“Sounds good, I’ll do that.”
“Thank you, James, thank you. I won’t stop saying it. I hope I can find a way to pay you back someday.”
“You already are, Lenn, don’t you worry.”
James disappeared back down the stairs, and I hobbled towards Ian’s door. Closing an ear with my finger as I passed the electronic bug repeller, I noticed the bedroom’s door was slightly ajar. I pushed it open, and it made no noise; squeezing through the gap, I found the room relatively dark with the sun mostly gone outside the window and the warm lamp lit on Ian’s bedside table.
I didn’t call out to him. He was lying on his bed upon his stomach, engrossed watching something on his phone (typical Ian) with a pair of wired ear-shaped somethings he called ‘headphones’ jammed in his ears. Apparently, they allowed Ian to listen to the sounds of his phone without bothering anyone else. Keeping to the shadows beneath his dresser and television, I carefully climbed the sheets at the end of his bed until I stood about a foot away from his bobbing feet.
I had plenty of room on the side of the bed to avoid them, but his legs still made me a bit nervous. I walked past them quickly and approached his side above his hips.
His attention remained on his phone. When Ian focused, it was very difficult to unfocus him. But this certainly did: I grabbed hold of his t-shirt around his middle and hauled myself up onto the small of his back. Ian’s hand immediately swatted at me as if some small bug jumped onto him, and he shook side-to-side to buck me off. I held onto him firmly, though, and pushed his hand as it bounced off of my arm.
“Huh?” Ian asked, pulling out one of his headphones.
“Hey,” I announced. “Quit moving.”
He did so, but not without letting out a guttural laugh that rumbled through my good knee.
“…what are you doing?”
“Taking a seat.”
“On my back?”
On all fours (or three-and-a-halfs, since my bum leg just dragged behind me), I crawled upwards. I could feel his muscles flexing beneath my hands.
“Ah!” he said, his head pulling backwards. “That itches.”
“I hope so,” I said, finally stopping at the gap between his shoulder blades. Sharply prominent through his shirt, I could practically use them as handholds to keep myself situated upon my new sitting place. When I rested myself (sitting beside the discomfort from his spine beneath me), I dug my fingers into the fabric of his shirt, scratching him. “What are you watching?”
“I’m listening to music,” he said. “Want to hear?”
He offered me the headphone he’d just removed, and I took the head-sized plastic frame. For being such a large speaker, I had a hard time hearing any sounds emerging from it without bringing it very close to my own ear.
From within the speaker, I heard the rhythms of electronic music, of pianos and guitars, of lyrics I had a difficult time understanding, and beats to which Ian gently swayed. For three or four songs, we didn’t say a word to each other. Instead, we just lost ourselves in the music. The songs weren’t intense or gentle; they were simple enough to relax and complex enough to distract. I felt infinitely comforted to have anything floating through my mind beyond my own thoughts, and I’m sure it was similar for Ian. I wasn’t sure the tunes were familiar to the funny ka, as the notes he hummed didn’t exactly follow the tones. But I found myself doing the very same thing, entranced by the sounds.
In the middle of the next song, Ian piped up.
I put the headphone down in my lap.
“Can you tell me now?”
“Tell you what?”
“Why you’re afraid of Xande,” he said. “I don’t want him to hurt you.”
I sighed, continuing to scratch the boy’s back.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s… not for a boy your age.”
Ian was silent for a moment.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s like that.”
I tilted my head.
“That’s the same thing Mom and Dad say about my adoption. Or when they talk about my birth mom. They always say they’ll tell me when I’m older.”
“It’s okay if you don’t trust me,” he continued. “I won’t ask anymore.”
“Ian, don’t say that. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s… it’s that I don’t trust myself to say it out loud. That it will become too painful if I tell someone.”
Ian remained quiet, and the music continued without me for a few moments.
“Hah. It won’t matter by tomorrow, though. You’ll know by then anyway.”
I sighed and rested my arms on my curled knee.
“…do you promise to keep it a secret until I talk about it?”
I turned my head as well as I could, and I saw Ian’s head nodding up and down.
“Okay… So, I… I wasn’t quite telling the truth when I said that Aria and I were just… friends…”
The morning came in an instant. The moment the front door shut, I stood to my feet as if ready for combat. My heart beat a million miles per minute, and Ian could sense my apprehension. He stood up and opened the door, taking a peek into the kitchen.
“Hi Ian,” Eliza said. “Keep your voice down, yeah?”
“Is that them?” asked Catherine from somewhere outside the room.
“Yes, come on in.”
Eliza entered first, stepping around Ian to kneel at the end of the bed. In both hands she held a large green backpack that she guarded close to herself as if her life depended on it. Or, several lives, to be specific. Catherine stepped in behind her with a kitchen chair, placing it against the wall and taking a seat. Ian knelt back down beside me.
“You guys ready?” Eliza asked. She wasn’t talking to us. From inside the backpack I heard a voice give a quiet confirmation, and with that, Eliza set the bag down on the surface of the bed and unzipped the main compartment. After a short moment of sure hesitation, two figures emerged from the darkness within, dressed in a collection of rough black-and-blue clothing that didn’t seem to fit them properly: a blonde-haired and pale young teenage boy, and a raven-haired almond-eyed girl that clung to his side. They covered their eyes from the bright window light, and the moment they saw the enraptured audience before them, they stopped.
“It’s okay, guys,” Eliza said, looking upon them. “This is my family. Don’t be afraid, you’re safe here.”
“Hello, little ones,” Catherine said cheerfully. Ian gave a small wave and a friendly smile.
I did not. Because my gaze was firmly attached to the figure that next emerged from the dark. He showed no fear behind his long jet-black hair, and the leathers he wore might well have been standard-issue for all gatherers I’d ever known. His face bore the familiar scars that I knew by heart, as well as the nasty glare he always reserved for me. The only part of him that appeared out of place was literally out of place: his left arm. All that remained was part of his shoulder; his sleeve clung to his belt like an empty banner.
He advanced on me. I walked towards him. I’m certain Eliza had scolding words prepared, but Xande spoke first.
“Why are you here, Lenn?”
He always said my name with a surprising amount of contempt. This time was no different.
“I might ask you the same thing,” I replied.
“No, not this time. You don’t get to argue with me. Tell me why you’re here.”
The sharpness of his Iatnasi hadn’t changed. I always thought his accent stronger than mine, but hearing it out loud from him then, I began to doubt. Maybe it was from his time away.
My eyes narrowed.
“Ask Elder Ordi. Ask the gatherers.”
Xande pressed his face towards me.
“Well, they’re not here, are they? You didn’t just leave. There’s only one reason Ordi would have you exiled. Aria couldn’t protect you this time, and I want to know why.”
“As if they needed a reason.”
Xande shoved me backwards with his hand.
“Xande, cut it out!”
“Not now, Eliza!” Xande barked in English.
“You’ve always been like this. Pushing me around is your only answer.”
“And whining is yours. You can’t blame your broken leg for everything shitty that happens to you. Maybe if you tried to actually do something useful, everyone wouldn’t hate you so much.”
“If you didn’t have a teacher, you wouldn’t even be able to spell your name. You wouldn’t know rat poison from sugar by the label without Aria. Without me.”
Xande’s eyes rolled so hard, I thought he might lose them.
“Again, and again, and again. Your argument never changes. I can spell my name just fine without you. You’ve always thought yourself so important, sitting in your dirty ‘school’ wasting everyone’s time while we fought for everything you ate. No one needed you. No one needs you.”
Xande came within a hand’s width away from my face.
“I won’t ask again. Why are you here? Why couldn’t Aria protect your sorry ass?”
I attempted to remain resolute in the face of this pretentious Iatili, but… he deserved to know, no matter what I thought of him. I couldn’t help but withdraw and break away from eye contact.
“You know why.”
Xande shoved me again, nearly making me trip backwards.
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why don’t you tell it to my face?”
“Xande, you’re scaring the-”
“Shut up!” Xande shouted. “Tell me, Lenn. What did you do to her?”
I wasn’t going to feel shame for this. You wouldn’t want me to. I stared back at him, shoving my face into his.
“Ke hountia Aria.”
I’m not quite certain what I sensed first, the crushing weight of Xande’s fist connecting with my nose, the drain of blood bursting forth from my nostrils, or hearing the thumping sound of his knuckles as I reeled backwards and collapsed. The world spun and I saw nothing but stars; I heard, however, a collection of frightened gasps and Eliza’s voice emerging loud and clear.
“Xande, what the hell?!”
“Get off of me! Put me down, woman, I’m going to tear him apart!”
“You’re not touching him again, you hear me!”
“Xande! Why did you do that?!”
“Lenn, are you okay?! Come on, get up!”
Ian’s hands gathered me about my waist and lifted me to my feet. Unprepared, I wobbled back and forth and waited a moment to balance with his support. Blood oozed down my shirt and no doubt onto the fabric floor, even on Ian’s hand. I felt the hard cartilage; it didn’t feel broken, exactly. Perhaps Xande didn’t have the momentum buildup from his missing arm, but it didn’t make the strike any less painful.
I could hear Xande roaring to attack me again, but he was nowhere to be seen. Eliza must have removed him from the bed.
“No, Xande! Cool off, or I’m locking you in the backpack!”
“Let me up there, you bitch! I’ll kill him!”
Eliza’s head tilted in amazement.
“Oh, I’m the one acting like a bitch? Fine, you want to play it like that?”
“Don’t touch me, Eliza! This is between me and him!”
Eliza removed the backpack from the surface of the bed. I still couldn’t quite see past the pain, but in that instant, I heard everyone in the room gasp.
“Oh,” Eliza said with a laugh. “The big man’s got his knife, huh! Taking the high road, aren’t you!?”
From my perspective, it appeared that Eliza began wrestling and swiping at a Iatili on the floor.
“Xande, stop!” yelled the teenage boy.
“Xande, don’t hurt Eliza!” shouted the girl.
Three seconds of grunting and angry roars, and the scuffle came to a head: Eliza withdrew her hand like a bolt of lightning, sucking on her ring finger.
“Ouch! Damn it, Xande! Fine!”
Eliza’s hand shoved the ex-gatherer hard enough to make him collide into the far wall. The thump made everyone in the room wince, especially the two kids; they clung to each other all the tighter.
“There,” Eliza said, placing a piece of reflective sharpened metal next to the teenage boy on the bed. “Don’t let him have that, Jun.”
“Eliza! Let me go! We’re not done!!”
“Yeah, we’re not done,” she said, with surprising calm. “But you are.”
A Iatili was thrown into a backpack with force enough to sound like a book dropping to the floor. And then, ziiiiiip.
“Let me out! Now! He doesn’t deserve her! I’ll kill him for this, you hear me?!”
“You’re insane,” Eliza said, removing something from the backpack. Did she anticipate this? She must have, as she removed a thin plastic strip from a bag in the front pocket. Looping it through holes in the zipper handles, the plastic strip made clicking noises and secured the zippers together. Without his knife, he wasn’t getting out. “Little loser. Excuse me, I’m going to lock him in my car. I’ll be just a second.”
“Do you need a bandaid, Eliza?” asked Catherine, standing.
“No, I’m fine…”
Ignoring the mad screaming of the Iatili within, Eliza took the backpack and exited the room. I heard the front door close before I attempted to speak.
“I’m… sorry for the blood everywhere.”
Catherine and Ian whined.
“Lenn, don’t worry about it…”
“What did you tell him?”
I looked at the kids at the end of the bed that now appeared horrified, and I leaned against Ian’s warm hand.
“I… I said… I offered myself to Aria.”
“What does that mean?”
My face turned a slight red color, which may have increased the flow of blood from my nose.
“I can’t…” I gurgled.
I looked at Catherine, and for a split second, saw confusion on her face. But then realization dawned on her.
I patted Ian’s hand. I then looked to the Iatili distant from me.
“I’m sorry that was the first thing you had to see here,” I said to the two kids quickly, pinching my nose. “Are you two okay?”
Neither of them answered right away. To my surprise, however, the boy stepped towards me with his sister in tow at his side.
“It’s okay,” I said, raising a hand. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
“We’re not afraid,” said the boy in a very pronounced accent. It sounded different than mine. “What about you?”
I wiped my nose with my sleeve, and saw a thick smear of red. I couldn’t help a small laugh.
“I deserved it,” I said quietly. “I knew he would react that way.”
“You did not deserve it!” Catherine exclaimed.
“Yeah!” agreed Ian. “That wasn’t cool at all!”
I cast a glance at the Iatvi, then back to the Iatili kids. The boy’s expression was solid, but the young girl reserved her judgement, clinging to the teenager and hiding her face in her long hair. Now standing a few inches away from Ian’s hand, they looked up at him, then back at me.
“You married… Xande’s sister?” the girl whispered. Her voice was crystal, delicate and pure like the color of her dark-brown eyes.
My eyebrows raised. The boy looked down at the girl, and I gave her a small smile.
“Yes,” I said out loud to her. Out loud for the first time. Of course, just like the translation of the word ‘offered’, it wasn’t quite marriage, but… close enough for a ten year old. “I love her. And I miss her.”
The girl nodded. Then, to my surprise, the boy raised his hand to me.
“I’m Juni. This is Charsi.”
“Oh,” I said, noticing my correct hand covered in blood. Ian lowered his stained hand a bit, and I offered Juni my opposite. “Sorry, it’s good to meet you. I hope Xande hasn’t made me sound pathetic. At least I can take a punch.”
Charsi lifted her hand as well, and she delicately shook mine.
Juni gave a small smile.
“He tried. But…” he said. “I don’t believe much of what Xande says.”
“I’m grateful for that.” I motioned towards Catherine and Ian. I then spoke Iatnasi just to see their reactions. “This is Ian. And his mother Catherine. He’s Eliza’s cousin, and she’s Eliza’s aunt.”
“Hello,” he said. “Eeen. And Cah-ter-een.”
I smiled; though a bit different than mine, his pronunciation sounded just like that when you taught me English.
Eliza returned a few moments later with a frown on her face. Ian returned as well with a damp washcloth for me, his hands now clean.
“He is not a happy camper,” she said, kneeling back down before the side of the bed. “Swearing at me the whole time, in Iatnasi and English. He’s definitely not coming back here until he learns to relax.” She looked at me and held out her hand. “I’m sorry, Lenn. I had no idea he’d hit you like that.”
“I did,” wiping my upper lip and testing my nose again. Sore, but nothing more. “He hasn’t changed.”
“He’s going to be okay out there, right?” Catherine asked. “In your car? It’s going to get pretty hot.”
“As much as I’d like to make him sweat a bit, you’re right,” Eliza said. “I’ll probably have to go real soon.”
“But… our stuff is in the backpack,” Juni said, pointing to the door.
Eliza’s eyes widened as her lips pursed sideways.
“Shoot. You’re right.”
“The front pocket,” Charsi added.
“Val sia?” Juni asked.
Charsi nodded harder.
“Bodlis Eliza lai vamir lia ardi.”
“Oh. Sulm. I don’t have to cut him out of there until I get home.” Eliza turned to me. “Seriously, though, you’re okay? Your nose isn’t broken?”
“No, it just hurts, that’s all. I’m glad he didn’t use his knife, but I’m more grateful it wasn’t Elder Ordi standing over me. When he found out… he really did try to kill me.”
“Are you serious?” Eliza asked. “When was this?”
“A week before Ian and the boys found me. Aria tried to keep everything a secret, but there was only so much she could do to hide it. Eventually, everyone could, well… see what had happened.”
“Aria is pregnant, then?” Catherine asked.
I looked up at her, then back down at the bed. I nodded.
“That’s a good thing, though, yeah?” Ian asked, patting my back.
I nodded again.
“Xande had this figured out,” Eliza said.
“Yeah. All he needed was confirmation.”
“But Xande told us he has been gone from your village for a long time,” Eliza said quietly. “If he didn’t want this to happen, why did he leave? Why did he come to protect the kids?”
“He’s just like the other gatherers,” I said with bitterness. “When he lost his arm, I don’t think he could bring himself to come back.”
“Why?” Ian asked.
“Ha, look at me. I can hardly move with this leg of mine, and he’d taunted me for years. If he came back without an entire arm, he’d be unable to keep up with the others. He’d be exactly like me. I could call him a… oh, what’s the word… nissahnk. Hip. Hipo. Hipo-something.”
“Hypocrite?” Eliza suggested.
“Sia, a hypocrite.”
“That sounds like Xande. Asking him about his arm has always been a touchy subject.”
“But he’s never home,” Juni said. “He’s always climbing, running, jumping…”
“Like he’s compensating for something.”
“I’m not sure I know what that means,” I said.
Catherine gave Eliza a look. Eliza smiled.
“Not like that. Although I wouldn’t be surprised.” Her explanation went over my head. “He doesn’t let himself fail. He’s never felt sorry for himself, at least not in front of other people. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. Has he ever talked to you guys about his arm, or Lenn?”
Juni shook his head.
“Not me. I asked once. He got angry.”
Charsi looked a little sheepish.
“Xande talked to me about losing his arm. That he hated the pain in his shoulder, and how he had to use his teeth to tie knots. He talked about Aria, too. He said she was beautiful and kind. One time, he said-”
She paused. Eliza lowered her eyes towards her.
“Did he say something about Lenn?”
“I think so. That a boy always took his sister away. Um… ‘kalyti’.”
“What does that mean, Sisi?”
I chuckled, folding my arms.
“He called me that a lot,” I said. Turning to answer the blank stares, I continued: “It means ‘idiot boy’.”
Eliza frowned at me.
“Well, maybe not ‘idiot’, exactly. Dumb. And smart. Stupid, but not stupid. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Someone smart but acts dumb?” Eliza said with a smile. “Makes me think of you, Ian. You’re a total nerd.”
“A nerd? I am not,” He paused, lifting his nose in the air. “I’m… refined.”
Holding back a grin, I tilted my head.
“I’m not… familiar with that word. Nerd?”
“Ha,” Ian said, nudging my shoulder with the back of his hand. “You’re an English nerd. It means you’re weird. Smart with words but goofy.”
I shrugged, looking up at him.
“I’ll accept that.”
“But Lenn,” Ian continued. “You’ve gotta find Aria. If she’s gonna have a baby soon, you want her to be safe, don’t you? What if she gets sick? Or your baby gets sick? With polio… or something really bad?”
“Ian…” Catherine said, lightly scolding him.
“That’s why I panicked when you told me about polio in the first place, Ian. I wanted the vaccine for her, but I wanted the vaccine for my child, too. I don’t want them to be crippled like me. I just don’t know how to help them. The village could have gone in any direction, and to be honest, I’m not sure I could point out where the old village was in the first place.”
Everyone appeared somber.
“It’s not like we can call a search party, can we?” Eliza asked.
I shook my head.
“I think we are the search party.”
“What if we bought a pair of really fancy night vision goggles?” Ian asked. “One of those with heat vision? Er, that can see heat, I mean. Then we could see Iatili easy.”
My eyes widened a bit.
“…if that’s real, that sounds horrifying.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s beyond my budget,” Eliza laughed.
“Ours, too,” Catherine agreed.
I folded my arms and bobbed my feet up and down.
“I know I just got punched in the face…” I growled. “But that vysht…”
I looked at Juni and Charsi.
“Uh, I mean… sorry for my language…”
“It’s okay,” Juni said with a shrug.
“I think that idiot in the backpack might be the only one that could track them. Considering he wants to murder me, though, I don’t think he’ll help me. Elder Ordi wants me dead, anyway.”
I closed my eyes.
“And Aria might not want to come back with me at all.”
“Why?” Ian asked.
“But you love each other,” Catherine said. “You don’t think she would?”
I shrugged. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the memory that floated through my mind.
“I… I said some very terrible things to her… to make her stay in the village. I couldn’t let her leave with me. I couldn’t let her throw her life away.”
I expected someone to argue with me, but they didn’t.
“I have no experience gathering. Neither does she. Even if we both left together, our best efforts couldn’t possibly have been good enough. We would both die. We would all die. And… I couldn’t let my choices do that to her. I couldn’t do it to her or to our child.”
“But you didn’t die,” Ian said. “We would have saved you.”
“If we knew back then, maybe,” Catherine said, resting her hand on Ian’s shoulder. “But if they had been together, things might have gone very differently. If you hadn’t found Lenn like you did, he wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
“Lenn,” Juni said. I looked at the boy, and he took a pause. “Xande won’t help. But I want to help. I want to help you.”
“I do too,” Charsi said, sounding equally as confident.
“Me too!” Ian said quickly.
I smiled at them, and Eliza spoke up first.
“You three are the best,” Eliza said proudly. “I think we’re kind of stuck, though. Until we come up with a plan, or Xande pulls his head out of his butt, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”
“We’ll think of something,” Ian said. “Right, Mom?”
“Yes, absolutely. I’ll go ask your father, I wonder if he might have any ideas.”
“Maybe Ian and I can go hiking, see if we can find anything. There’s got to be some trace of them out there,” Eliza said.
“I’ll come with you,” I said. “It’s as good a place to start as any.”
“And you two can start working on Xande when you come home,” Eliza replied to the two young Iatili. “There’s bad blood between him and Lenn, but Xande’s gotta recognize that this happened, and there’s nothing he can do but work with Lenn to help Aria.”
“I made all this happen… Without me, Aria would have found someone stronger, someone who could take care of her. Someone her family didn’t despise. It doesn’t matter, though… She means everything to me. I want to take her away from our terrible lives. I want to keep her safe, make her comfortable and carefree.”
I looked up at Catherine.
“I wouldn’t have known anything different if I hadn’t found refuge here. But I can’t take advantage of your family, Catherine. I’ve taken up so much of your attention by myself, what would my new family take from you? I can’t ask you to care for me, Aria, and our baby forever…”
“Why not? You’re my brother.” Ian asked. “Mom, why not? I want to help Lenn and Aria.”
Catherine reached for me and took my hand.
“Lenn, what do you really want?” she asked me.
I looked away.
“I… I don’t know… “
“Yes, you do,” she said with a soft smile.
“I can’t even begin to repay you for saving me, for feeding me, for caring for me. What could Aria and I possibly do to earn our right to stay here?”
“James and I have been talking about this, Lenn. You’re free to leave at any time… once you’re strong enough, of course. We would never keep you here against your will. At the same time, though, we couldn’t bring ourselves to force you away to fend for yourself out there. You’ve come to mean a lot to us, Lenn. And now that I know you have a family to protect, there’s no way I could leave Aria and your child out in the cold. I just couldn’t do it.”
“It’s the same reason I keep these two around,” Eliza said, patting Juni’s back. “Three, counting that blockhead Xande. I’m not putting them in chains, but I would never forgive myself if they got themselves hurt or killed if I gave up on them. No matter how hard things get, they’re part of my life now.”
“Yes, exactly. You’re part of our lives, Lenn,” Catherine agreed. “You earn your keep by being part of it.”
“We’re brothers,” Ian said, ruffling my hair. “And I won’t let my big brother get hurt. And if you’re my brother, then Aria is my sister.” When I laughed, he scratched his cheek. “Um, sort of. You know what I mean.”
I shook my head in amazement and said nothing for a moment.
“Viamen indiata rundi,” Juni said, catching my attention. “Sisi ys ke. Huh Eliza?”
“Wha’d he say?” Ian asked.
“That they’re part of your family, too.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Ian said with a grin.
“I’d love to hold a baby,” Charsi said, making a cradle of her arms. “Maybe a baby girl?”
“No way, ataikani!” Juni said with a laugh. “Then I can teach him kickball.”
“Yeah, a boy! For video games!” Ian said.
“I… I haven’t really thought about that. But… I can’t bring myself to even start until I see Aria again. If I find her, then we can think of better things.”
“When,” Catherine said, leaning forward. “When you find her.”