Monday proceeded smoothly. The kids didn’t wake up until well after the sun rose, leaving me free to roam around. Catherine helped me to some water and fruit, and then, just for fun, I asked her if I could sit in Ian’s room. She helped me, and I voluntarily played Ian’s video game myself in hopes of improving my skills. I know, imagine me, wasting time; I’ve never really done that before!
When Charsi and Juni finally woke up and discovered me playing in Ian’s room, they became as bold as me and explored the bedroom freely. I continued to play, but listened and watched the Iatili over the edge of the chair. They would murmur to each other about things they found, including books and boxes, plastic containers filled with pins and pencils, and even their miraculous discovery of a red bin beneath the bed filled with something they called “legos”. These strange multicolored blocks, cubes and squares, wheels, bars, and bolts could all be connected in a million different ways, and there were so many that they both decided to build a house for themselves. Within a few minutes, they did indeed build a little hovel they could stand up in.
Yes, Ian had said I could play while he went to school. But I never had, and now that the kids were doing so as well, I felt a tinge of guilt for invading Ian’s sanctuary. But the time passed so quickly, it wasn’t until the clock beneath the television read 1:37 PM that I realized we all might want to move our activities back to the guest room. I pressed the button on the controller that made the game disappear. I looked down at the Iatili kids.
“Hey,” I told them. “I think it’s about time to head back.”
“Back where?” Juni asked.
“The guest room,” I said, probably translating the phrase “guest room” incorrectly. “At least until Ian comes home. I don’t know how he’ll feel about all of us being in here.”
Juni and Charsi looked at each other and returned their spare blocks to the large bin.
“Okay,” Charsi said. “That’s a good idea.”
“Ian won’t care though, will he?”
“I’m sure he won’t. But let’s be sure first.”
Juni nodded back.
I descended to the floor (landing on my back for good measure), took my crutches, and together with the kids stepped into the hallway and into the kitchen. Below the banisters we heard faint music. Just as we passed the very end of the stairs, however, we heard the sound of Catherine’s voice emerge from downstairs.
I crutched backwards and the kids followed after me behind the last banister. My eyes grew wide; Catherine’s voice was not normal.
“…when did this happen?” she practically whispered, no doubt into her phone. She sounded to be on the verge of tears. “Please tell me he’s okay… Where are you now? What do I need to bring for him?”
Catherine emerged from downstairs, and her eyes caught all of our stares on her way up. Painful stress colored her complexion as she gave a weak wave, stepping around us and proceeding into Ian’s room.
For a moment, Juni, Charsi, and I simply looked at each other and listened.
“How did it happen…?” she asked. We could hear nothing of the other side of the conversation. From the sound, we heard Catherine rummage through Ian’s dresser. “Why would he do this to him? Ian never said anything about-”
“Ian?” Charsi whispered, holding her brother’s arm and looking up at me.
“Something happened,” I whispered back.
“Ian vah sulm?”
“Neh phodia,” I replied. “I don’t know.”
“What do we do?” Charsi asked.
“Follow me,” I said, crutching forwards. “Keep to the wall, Catherine might not see us.”
“You’re at Memorial, right?” Catherine asked. We didn’t need to worry about her at all; Catherine knew we were following her, confused and scared. I’ll freely admit it, I was afraid. If something had happened to my little brother, I would never forgive the Iatvi that dared lay a finger on him. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. I just need to take care of the little ones. I love you.”
I wasn’t afraid of Catherine. But I was horrified by the tears in her eyes.
“Where is Ian?” I asked her. “Someone hurt him.”
“…yes,” Catherine said, trembling.
“Don’t worry about us, Aunt Catherine,” Charsi said. “Go help Ian.”
“Come on, everyone.”
Catherine waved us on into the kitchen where she quickly prepared food and water for us. So distraught and rushed, she simply placed the plates of fruit and bread and cups of water on the floor beneath the kitchen island and disappeared into the hallway in a flash. We stood there dumbfounded until Catherine returned from her bedroom with a filled duffle bag.
“Catherine, please… what happened to Ian?” I asked.
Still trembling, she leaned down over me.
“I… I don’t know,” she said. I’m fairly certain she wasn’t telling the truth, but given the fact that none of us Iatili could have done anything but worry, it’s probably better that she didn’t. “I’ll come back as soon as I can. Though I may be gone for a while.”
“We’ll be okay. Take care of Ian for us.”
Catherine nodded and rushed out the front door, locking it behind her.
As the sun faded into dark, the general feeling between the three of us Iatili grew equally as dim. No news. No one had returned. Juni and Charsi continued building with legos in Ian’s room as I wrote down some teaching notes, but the excitement they’d shown that morning had vanished. Once their small dwelling was finished, they entered inside and talked with each other. After a while, they fell asleep, their whispers fading.
I didn’t worry about running out of food or anything ridiculous like that, although I did wonder how we were going to spend the night without any lights. Off to bed, I guessed. Once the light had gone out enough that I could no longer write, I stood up and stepped towards Ian’s bed. Although his mother always told him to, he never made it. I suppose I was grateful, as it helped me find a comfortable place to settle and rest.
“Memorial”, she said. I didn’t know where or what that was. It sounded like a place where they took dead people to “remember” them, but I threw that thought out of my mind as quickly as possible. Ian wasn’t dead, I was positive. But from Catherine’s reaction, it was obvious that he hadn’t simply tripped and sprained his ankle. If this “Memorial” was a clinic of some kind, then Ian’s situation was likely dire. I knew there was nothing I could do. Just like finding you, I could not help Ian on my own and probably never could. Even if I knew where Ian was, I wasn’t Xande; I couldn’t simply hit the streets and find him, just like I’d never be able to climb the mountain again and find you.
The thought of Ian’s pain and my hopelessness made me think of something I hadn’t realized. I could barely make it out, but behind Ian’s television and beside his dresser was a large calendar with colorful images on top and dates beneath.
July… July twenty-something.
Since the terrible night I had been thrown into the wilderness and discovered by the Petersens, it had been… five months. I couldn’t deny it. You’d already given life to our child, walked through the intense pain without me by your side. I don’t pity myself, I only regret that I couldn’t have held your hand tightly and shared your love as your eyes fell on her for the first time.
My mind floated like a branch in a river. Like always, I did not know what to do, what to think, how to remain calm. My hand rose to my bandages. The wounds still stung, but soon I wouldn’t need them.
How long would Ian require bandages?
I nearly faded off when I heard a tinkling sound from somewhere outside the room. It didn’t alert me too much until I heard the familiar sound of the front door opening.
I rose up immediately and climbed down the side of the bed. By the time I sank my feet into the carpet, Juni and Charsi had emerged from their hut, just as alert.
“Who is it?” Juni asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Anyone with a key could be part of Ian’s family… we might not know them. Let’s stay hidden.”
The kids agreed. With my crutches beneath my arms, we all moved towards the rear of Ian’s desk and then into the blackness of the space between Ian’s bed and the wall. In the darkness, we all stood with our backs flat against plaster and paint, and listened.
The wooden floor of the kitchen creaked. No shoes. One pair of Iatvi footsteps became two. I couldn’t see their faces, but I’m sure Juni and Charsi noticed as well. I had a suspicion of who it might be at that moment, and I could only hope.
A voice. Then two voices. Light and loud.
“Stay here,” I said to the kids, scooting past them. “I have a feeling I know who is here.”
“Who?” Charsi asked.
“If I’m right, Eliza told you all about them.”
I crutched to the very edge of the desk wall, the room practically illuminated compared to how dark the hiding spot had been. Below the door was a thin slice of light from the kitchen outside, but I couldn’t see anything through it. The two Iatvi who had entered the house were busy being confused. But if I wasn’t inside the guest room, then surely this bedroom would be the next place they would check.
I was right. Four feet slowly approached Ian’s door and paused for a moment, four pillared shadows from beneath. The door silently opened, revealing a pair of Iatvi contrasted from the light behind them.
The upper light clicked on. I recognized the Iatvi immediately.
Chris stepped into the room first, wearing a bright green t-shirt and white shorts, his feet and legs bare. Aaron entered behind his brother, wearing almost the same clothing save for the color blue.
“Lennnn?” Chris sung. “Lenn, where did you go?”
“Lenn, it’s just us,” Aaron said. “Are you in here? We need to talk to you.”
Chris’s first investigation was behind Ian’s television. Aaron stopped near the chair in the center of the room and scanned around him.
I gulped. This never got easier. Slowly, I crutched out of the shadows.
“Hi boys,” I said.
Their attention immediately latched onto me.
“Lenn! There you are,” Aaron said, quickly taking a seat on the floor.
“Hi Lenn!” Chris said, a bit too excited for my liking. He came to sit down on the floor, nudging as close to me as he could (no surprise there).
“Are you okay?” Aaron asked. “Are those… crutches?”
I paused and nodded.
“They are,” I said, lifting my right one. “Aren’t they great? Your Uncle James made them for me.”
“For real?” Aaron asked. “Can I see?”
“Me too?” Chris peeped.
“Sure.” A large hand approached, and I placed my precious metal crutch in the center. “Just… be very careful with it? It’s given me a lot of freedom.”
Aaron admired it very closely for a moment, greatly approving. He passed it to Chris, who eyed it and picked at the leather strapping with his fingernail before handing it back to me.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me you know something about Ian. We don’t know what happened.”
“Ian got really hurt today at school…” Chris began.
“Wait, ‘we’?” Aaron asked. “Do you mean Eliza’s… um, what are you called again?”
“Yeah, yeah, Iatili. Are they here? Can we see them?”
“What are their names?” Chris asked. “I want to see them too. Are they smaller than you, Lenn?”
“Hold on, hold on,” I said, raising my hands with my crutches beneath. “You’re probably scaring them right now. I don’t know if this is a good time for you to meet each other. Maybe when Catherine or Ian are here you can see them.”
“Oh. Okay,” Aaron said.
“Aww. But I’m not scary.”
“You’re a little scary.”
“Nuh-uh!” Chris said, pushing his older brother’s shoulder.
“Please, Chris, Aaron, tell me what happened to Ian. Is he hurt? Is he in a clinic? Is James with him?”
“Um… yes to everything,” Aaron said. “Except he’s at a hospital, not a clinic.”
“Some stupid guy threw a baseball bat at Ian!” Chris exclaimed.
My expression burst into shock. I knew what the sport was.
“Why would someone do that!?”
“Well, he didn’t throw it exactly,” Aaron said. “He was playing baseball with his class, and some other kid was gonna hit the ball. He hit the ball… but he let go of the bat too soon, and it hit Ian in the face.”
“And people started laughing at him!” Chris said.
“Yeah, Aunt Catherine said the mean kids all laughed at him until Ian didn’t get back up.”
“Didn’t… get back up?” I asked, my knees weak. “You don’t mean he’s…”
“No, he’s not dead or anything,” Aaron continued. “But he hasn’t woken up yet. It’s like when you told us you were in a coma, except… I’m not sure it’s exactly the same. Aunt Catherine said Ian had to have a bunch of tests done to make sure he’s all right. She said that Ian has broken bones and a concussion.”
“What’s a concussion?” I asked, barely able to breathe.
“I think it’s where your brain gets hurt.”
“His…” My throat seized up.
“But the mean guy that did it,” Chris said. “He’s been mean to Ian for a long time.”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “Catherine and James both say that he might have done it on purpose.”
My fists barreled up on my crutch handles.
“I’d kill anyone that hurt Ian like that,” I whispered.
Aaron and Chris both shared glances and leaned backwards a bit. They obviously hadn’t expected that from me.
“…no, don’t… kill anyone, Lenn,” Chris said with a pout. “That’s not good.”
“That guy’s gonna get in serious trouble, don’t worry. If he really did it on purpose, then he’s gonna have to pay for Ian’s surgery or go to jail.”
“Surgery? He had surgery?”
“He had to have his face bones put back in the right place. Aunt Catherine said they even put in metal to hold them together.”
I couldn’t hold myself up. I’d never heard of such a thing before, and I’d never thought someone as kind and gentle as Ian could be assaulted so mercilessly by someone of his same age. I dropped my crutches and fell to the floor, and I finally knew the feelings Ian’s mother had felt hours before.
I heard Charsi’s voice behind me, and two seconds after, I felt the girl’s hands hold onto my arm; Charsi too had begun to quietly cry. I didn’t hear Juni’s voice, only his footsteps as he too joined me in front of the Iatvi boys. Blinded by tears, I simply sobbed silently for a few moments. I felt a warm force take hold of my right foot.
“Don’t be sad, Lenn,” Chris told me. “Ian’s gonna be okay.”
“Aunt Catherine said he’s gonna stay in the hospital tonight, and if everything goes right, he’ll come home tomorrow. He’ll need lots of sleep, and only eat through a straw for a while.”
“Why isn’t there anything I can do to stop these things…” I choked through breaths. “Why do these things happen? Aria, and then Ian…”
“Please, Lenn,” Charsi said, her voice dancing on the words even as she quivered. “Ian and Aria are going to be all right.”
“Yeah,” Juni responded. “Ian’s strong. And you told us Aria is strong, too.”
“That’s right,” said Aaron’s voice above me. “Ian’s tough, he’ll get better fast. Eliza called me last night and told me about your wife. I’m gonna help you search for Aria, too.”
“And me!” Chris said. “Camping will be fun!”
“We’re not just going camping,” Aaron pointed out. “We’ll be doing a lot of hiking. You can’t complain.”
“I’ll just climb on your back and you can carry me!”
“It’s more like you’re going to be carrying one of them,” Aaron said, no doubt pointing at Charsi and Juni. The Iatili kids fell silent, and I wiped my tears away in time to see the terrified looks on their faces.
“Please don’t be afraid of them, Jun, Sisi,” I said, my voice wobbly. “They’re very good boys. They’ll listen to you.”
“Uh-huh,” Aaron said, and Chris nodded along with him.
“But Chris and Aaron,” I said, sniffing. “No touching them, okay? You can poke me, but they’re off-limits unless they say you can. All right?”
“Promise.” Aaron whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Chris said, releasing my foot. “I won’t.”
“It’s okay, I’m not mad. I’m just telling.”
“Aunt Catherine wanted us to come see if you needed anything,” Aaron said. “She said to tell you she didn’t mean to leave so quick and scare you. If you want, we can stay the night and make sure you don’t get lonely.”
I looked at Juni and Charsi. I knew Charsi wanted very badly to shake her head, but I said:
“What about school? What about your parents?”
“Aunt Catherine was tricky,” Aaron said with a grin. “She said she wanted someone to watch the house and clean while they were taking care of Ian, and Mom said yes as long as we promised to call her when we got here. She said we could both take a sick day. I knew exactly what Aunt Catherine was talking about.”
“I did too!”
“You did not,” Aaron grinned. “You said you were gonna miss coloring tomorrow.”
“Well, I am. I just didn’t think about Lenn.”
“Lenn, I’m scared…” Charsi whispered as quietly as she could, holding onto my arm.
Juni said nothing, but partially hid behind my back.
I tightened my lips and looked at the two Iatvi above me.
“Aaron, Chris, can you… lay down?” I asked. “Just in front of us, so you’re not quite so big.”
They did so, and soon two boys with faces as large and cheery as the full moon huddled around us, Aaron’s head laying upon his arms and Chris’s supported by his playful hands. I began to struggle to my feet when a bright set of pale fingers offered themselves to me. Juni switched sides to stand behind Charsi, and Charsi let out a small gasp.
“Thank you, Chris,” I said, leaning my arm upon his fingertips. My voice cracked; the thought of seeing Ian with metal holding his bones together shook me to my core. Once on my feet, both Aaron and Chris handed me a crutch and I propped myself up. “Thanks.”
“Did Eliza tell you about these two?” I asked Charsi at my side. She looked at Aaron in slight panic and nodded.
“Sh-she said they were small,” Juni said.
“They are kani,” I said with a pathetic laugh. “Remember how big James is?”
“Kani… Little boys?” Aaron asked.
I offered the boy a smile.
“That’s right. Although I do remember that Chris is ‘great-big’ to me.”
“Uh-huh,” Chris said. A single finger hovered towards me, and before I could lean on my crutch and wave it away, it touched the top of my head and fluffed my messy hair.
“Although… I look up at you when I do this.”
His head fell to the carpet and turned sideways. Out of a single eye, he did indeed look ‘up’ at me with a grin.
“So Ian is going to be okay?” I asked Aaron. “I mean… Is there anything I can do?”
Aaron thought for a moment.
“Well, we can’t bring you to the hospital. And you can’t… Wait, yes you can!”
He bent himself sideways and produced something from his pocket. He placed it on the floor before the three of us Iatili. it was a phone… but a very strange one. Unlike Ian’s, this phone had a hinge and folded open to reveal a keypad of numbers and a small screen.
“Let’s call Aunt Catherine,” he said, taking it in his hand and pressing a number of click-clackety keys. “We can see if Ian is awake.”
“Yes, please,” I whispered.
Aaron pressed a few more buttons, then placed the phone on the floor. It began letting off an electronic buzzing noise, on and off, on and off… Then, we all heard a click and slight muffle.
“Hi Aunt Catherine,” Aaron said cheerfully. “Is-”
“Hi Aunt Catherine!” Chris echoed, leaning towards the phone.
“Um,” Aaron mumbled, shoving his younger brother aside. “How is Ian doing?”
“He’s doing all right,” Catherine’s voice said through the phone, now sounding much calmer than hours before. “He’s awake. But he’s very tired from the pain medicine the nurse gave him. I’m not sure he can talk just yet.”
“That’s okay. I’m at your house, and Lenn and the little kids wanted to see how Ian is. They’re on the speaker now.”
“Oh good,” Catherine said. “Hello everyone! Are you doing all right?”
Aaron pushed the phone towards us. I could not see Catherine, but I could hear her. I much preferred face-to-face communication; I still don’t like phones to this very day.
“We… we’re fine,” I said out loud. “Please tell me Ian is going to be okay…”
“Don’t you worry, Lenn,” she said, her voice muffled with a bit of static. “His surgery went just fine. He’s resting now.”
“Why would someone do this to Ian?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Charsi asked. “Why Ian?”
Catherine’s voice remained silent for a moment.
“I don’t know. James and I are trying to figure that out. The school called the police when they called us. They told us they had to gather evidence of the incident, prove if the other boy did it on purpose…”
On the other end of the call, I heard something whispered to Catherine in a very uncharacteristic tone:
“Of course he did it on purpose. The school has done nothing to protect Ian all year…”
It sounded like James.
“James, tell me this kamadan is going to be punished,” I said.
I didn’t see their reactions, but Juni said “sia” under his breath and Charsi made a positive hum.
“He’s teased Ian since the first grade,” said James’s distant voice. “He has punched him, kicked him… and the school did nothing. I’ve talked with his parents, but that didn’t solve anything. Now that little shit almost killed my son…”
“James!” Catherine hissed.
Aaron and Chris’s faces burst into shock, and so did mine. I’d never heard James angry before. It made my temper flare along with his.
“Ian shouldn’t ever see this boy again,” I said. “This boy should be locked up forever.”
“Is there any way to make him go away?” Charsi asked.
“The police took the boy from the school,” Catherine said. “But it depends on what they find if they’ll do anything.”
“Don’t worry, Lenn,” James said, his voice solid as stone. “This isn’t happening again, and I’m going to make sure of it.”
“Please, let’s not talk about this now,” Catherine said, no doubt trying to calm her husband and I. “Right now it’s time to make sure Ian rests and gets better. It’s going to take a few weeks for Ian’s pain and swelling to go away, and many weeks after that for everything to heal. Let’s just be there for him.”
“But if we don’t jump on this now, this kid and the school are going to get away with everything they’ve-”
“I know, hun, I know…” Catherine said to James.
Then a mumbling sound came from the phone’s speaker, and though it sounded as rough as my own voice, I recognized it.
“Ian!” I shouted, as if my voice could reach further through the phone if I yelled loud enough. Charsi and Juni leaned in closer to me.
“Ian, honey,” Catherine said, and we heard a muffle. After a quick second of waiting, a youthful moan came through. It had the semblance of a word, but I didn’t catch it. Another moan emerged, and it sounded like: “…ehnnn.”
“Ian, can you hear me?” I asked, unable to lean much further with my legs splayed out as they were in front of me. “Ian, don’t talk! You’ll hurt yourself!”
“…ehnnn,” said Ian’s gravel voice again. “Ahh… orrry.”
“No, Ian, you have absolutely nothing to be sorry about. None of this is your fault. We’re all safe, it’s you we’re worried about.”
“Yeah, Ian!” Juni said behind me. “We want you to get better!”
“Yeah!” shouted Chris and Charsi at the same time.
On the other end, there was silence from Ian. Catherine’s voice was delicate.
“It’s okay, Ian, it’s okay. Don’t cry, you shouldn’t move your face too much…”
“…ehnnn,” said Ian again. “Ehh… Ehhve ouu.”
The sounds didn’t make sense.
“What did he say?” asked Charsi.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I looked at Aaron and Chris, and they both shrugged.
It was quiet for a moment more. A few muffles came from the phone.
“I think he said he loves you, Lenn,” Catherine said. “He just nodded.”
I sat stunned for a moment and looked at the floor. Then a small smile appeared on my face.
“Silly kani,” I whispered. Aaron grinned, and Chris gave a small giggle. “Catherine, tell him… that I love him too. I don’t know how, but I’m going to take care of him the way he took care of me.”
I heard two moans that sounded like someone humming.
“He heard you,” Catherine said brightly. “Sounds like Ian loves his big brother.”
All of the kids chuckjed, and I did too.
“Call us when Ian gets to come home,” Aaron said. “We’ll clean his room and get everything ready for him.”
Chris eyed Aaron and made a “sp-p-p” sound with his tongue.
“I’ll help too, except for Ian’s socks. And his underwear. He can pick them up himself.”
“Just so you know,” Catherine said, delighted. “Ian’s trying very hard not to laugh!”
The two Iatvi boys didn’t exactly have a good place for both of them to sleep. Aaron did get the couch in the living room while Chris took the floor. Or, he would have taken it, had he not had the brightest idea in the world (according to him): he would sleep on the floor in the guest room. Charsi and Juni thought the idea absolutely horrifying, and Chris refused to sleep in the living room like a decent kid. I hardly had the power to make him, of course, and neither did Aaron, no matter how insistent he was. But I didn’t want to make this argument more contentious than it had to be. So, in order to satisfy everyone, I relented and agreed that I would also sleep on the ground as a ‘warning’ if Chris were to wake during the night and scare everyone. Naturally, as Aaron arranged my bedding on the floor near the door, Chris scuttled right up close, placing his pillow right beside me. Aaron scolded him and shooed him away. Reluctantly, he set himself up below me instead. That didn’t stop him from reaching out for me once the lights turned off, nearly wrapping his hand around my leg. It was my turn to scold him. At last, he listened to me, and fell asleep with his hand above his head.
When sunlight came through the window the next morning, I was the first to rise. Just to tease Chris the way he teased me, I stretched and limped over to Chris’s arm. Just as I had practiced with Ian, I traced my finger across his skin until he zipped with his other hand to scratch. I didn’t stop. Three or four more times, I tickled and he scratched. Finally, he swatted at me, and I fell backwards into the soft carpet. He opened his eyes, and although obviously sleep-drunk, he recognized me and giggled with an enormous yawn.
“Hi,” he whispered.
“Nope,” he said, his voice full of repulsive morning breath.
“Yes you are.” I told him, giving a yawn of my own. “Because I am.”
“Maybe a little,” he said, closing his eyes.
He didn’t reach for me, exactly. Instead, he tried to be clever, and placed his hand palm down very, very close. Then, with his pinky, he bent it sideways under my right foot and bent my toes back.
“So,” I said, deciding not to complain. “You haven’t told your mom or dad about us, right?”
“Nuh-uh,” he said, opening his eyes. He paused for a moment. “But I do pretend to play with a little person. I don’t say your name, though.”
Without showing emotion, I cringed.
“You do? What does your mom think about that?”
“She just laughs at me. Aaron yells at me about it. In secret, though.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t do that,” I said. “That might be a little dangerous for us.”
“But she says I’m just pretending, and I am. She doesn’t know.”
“I like to pretend that I live with a little person, and I built a house out of legos for him to live in.”
Chris nodded, quite serious.
“And I give him food and water, and never put him in a box.”
“Just like I said, right?” I grinned.
“Yup, just like you said.”
“Does this ‘little person’ have a name?”
Chris looked away.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know a good one.”
“That’s okay. As long as you pretend in secret, maybe it won’t be so bad. Just don’t tell your parents the truth, right?”
“Right,” Chris said with a nod. He yawned again, and I think I saw all the way down to his stomach.
“Are you gonna go back to sleep?” I asked him, standing up. “We don’t want to wake up Charsi and Juni, do we?”
Chris shook his head.
“Nope,” he said, rolling over onto his side. “Can I come play with you?”
“I wasn’t planning on playing,” I said with a chuckle. “I was writing down notes on how to help Juni speak English. But since I don’t really have my old papers, this is difficult. Remembering everything is hard.”
Chris didn’t say anything.
“But there are building blocks in Ian’s room. Maybe you can play while I work. Does that sound good?”
“Yeah, and I can build a house for you.”
I stopped myself from rolling my eyes.
“You think so?”
“And it will have lots of rooms, and a place for you to sleep!”
Then I held my finger to my lips, and Chris made an “oops”, covering his mouth. I folded my arms and grinned.
“I’ll head to the bathroom first and meet you in Ian’s room. Let’s stay quiet until we get there, yeah?”
Chris burst from his blanket, tossing it towards the wall and standing by the door. He waited for me as patiently as a little kid can while I grabbed my crutches and followed after him.
Chris waited beside the bathroom until I finished (believe it or not), and together we entered Ian’s chilly room. Before I could stop him, Chris kneeled down and disassembled Juni and Charsi’s little hovel, using it to begin construction on his own masterpiece. I intended to go right back to writing, but Chris asked me to wait so he could measure me according to brick sizes. Chris’s enthusiasm remained upbeat, but when he realized that I was probably too tall for the size and scope of his project compared to the amount of legos he had at his disposal, he looked pensive.
“Maybe it’ll be a little house,” he said.
“Do you have a lot more legos at your home?”
“Uh-huh,” he answered, connecting brick to brick. “And they’re not these weird ones.”
He picked up one that looked like a solid yellow spring, and tossed it back into the bucket in disgust.
For an hour, I wrote down everything I could squeeze out of my brain from the lessons I had put together at the village while Chris played in front of me. Aaron then sleepily entered the room, greeted me, and sat beside me while he summoned the energy to stay awake. His red hair flew in every direction but decent.
“Hi sleepyhead,” I told him.
“Hmm-hmm,” he mumbled with an exhausted face, his blanket draped around him like a grand robe.
“Even though you wake up at 7:45 every morning, you’re still this tired after sleeping in?”
Aaron nodded, his eyes closed.
“It’s because school doesn’t give us enough sleep that I have to catch up.”
“What about a nap after school?”
He shook his head.
“I never wanna. When I wake up, it’s already night.”
“Sure. Oh, sorry, Aaron… But do you think we could call Catherine again to see when Ian is coming home?”
Aaron rose back up, his blanket a thick blue-and-purple curtain stretching into the sky. As he exited the door and turned the corner, a pair of sharp shouts echoed through the hallway.
From my point of view, Aaron did his best to lift his blanket from the floor like a ballgown, stepping around the very corner of the door against the wall. Aaron’s blanket slid, and the electronic bug repeller clattered out of the outlet to the carpet.
“Charsi! Juni!” I said from beneath Ian’s desk.
“Are you all right?” I heard Aaron ask. “I didn’t hurt you, did-”
“Go away!” Juni shouted. “Go away! You’re scaring my sister!”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!”
“Just leave us alone! Don’t…! Ah! No! No!”
“It’s okay, it’s okay!”
All was not okay. In returned a shirtless Aaron, bereft of his blanket, holding two doll-sized figures in his closed hands. Aaron kneeled down as fast as he dared and released the kids onto the carpet in front of me. Juni tripped, tumbling over and over. Charsi flew into my lap, crinkling the notes I was keeping. In a flash, they both scrambled behind me, shivering and trying their best to hide. Charsi was already crying.
“Aaron,” I growled, keeping my temper down for just a moment. “Is your last name Petersen?”
“Um…” Aaron’s eyes were wide. “…yes?”
I gave him the nastiest expression I could muster.
“Aaron Petersen!” I shouted, pointing at him. “You know better than that! I told you not to touch them without their permission! You scared them to death!”
“I know, I’m… I’m sorry! I didn’t…! I mean, I wasn’t gonna-”
“Aaron, don’t be a butthead!” Chris shouted, also pointing at him.
Aaron swirled around, anger flashing on his face.
“I’m not a butthead, stupid!”
“I’m telling Mom you called me stupid!!”
He raised his fist and threatened to hit his brother.
“If you do, I’m gonna pound you!”
“No you’re not, Butthead! She’ll ground you!”
“Don’t call me a butthead!!”
Their sudden argument became louder, and their fight was only a few inches away. Juni clutched my arm tightly as Charsi trembled with her face covered. As the only adult in the room… I had to do something. Although the Iatili behind me held me back, I stood to my feet, taking my crutches in arm.
“I hate it when you call me that, and you know it!”
“Butthead, butthead!” Chris sung. “I don’t have to listen to you!”
“Yes you do, shithead! I’m in charge!!”
“I’m telling Dad you said a swear word!!”
“Hey, kani!! Stop!!”
I’m unsure why I was walking towards them, as if I had any control to pull the two giants apart. Aaron grabbed Chris’s shirt.
“Let me go!” Chris shouted. “Leggo!”
Chris shoved Aaron backwards. Aaron’s balance leaned… And like a mountainous tower collapsing under its own weight, the boy fell down and down… And I was very in the way.
I’m unsure why I didn’t just panic. Maybe I was too tired that my reflexes weren’t tuned properly. Maybe I was in teacher mode; I pulled fighting students apart so many times, it didn’t fill me with adrenaline anymore, even when these particular children could have turned me into paste. But either way, no, I didn’t move, and I felt the weight of a two-ton boy’s heel come down over my left shoulder. I toppled over as surely as Aaron did, fully expecting his heel to grind me into the carpet and leave nothing but a red stain. But part of me must have snapped out of it in that split second as I peeled sideways.
Now on my back, I lay stunned and confused as to why my arm was quickly losing circulation. I looked, and the great foot had pinned my crutch against my appendage.
“Aaron…” I growled, not loud enough.
“Get off of him!!” Juni shouted. “Iatvi, get off! You’re hurting him!”
Aaron, a bit dazed, had no idea where I was, and moved everything except his foot in a desperate attempt to search for me. Finally, the pressure lifted, and I could move my arm again. The wound beneath my bandage cried for mercy, but I didn’t feel like anything had been irreparably damaged.
“Lenn!” Aaron shouted, spinning around and kneeling over me. “Lenn, Lenn Lenn, no no no… I didn’t smash you, did I? Are you all right? Please be all right!”
“I’m f-fine,” I replied, turning over. As I did, and as I lifted my crutch up with me, something snapped off. I looked, and the entire lower half of the crutch had been bent with the lower bar now on the floor; where the screws and bolts were, I had no clue. “Oh. Good.”
“No, Lenn! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to do any of it! It was Chris!”
“No it wasn’t!”
I felt Aaron’s hands wrap around me, setting me onto my feet. I wobbled.
“Aaron, Chris,” I said deeply, looking up at the boy’s face with a glare. “Go to the front room. Now.”
I turned to Juni.
“Take Charsi to the guest room after us. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Juni nodded as the little girl continued to sob and shiver against his arm. Aaron’s hands pressed into the carpet before me, recapturing my attention.
“I’m sorry too, Lenn, I didn’t-”
“Out in the front room! Both of you!”
Looking back now, I must have looked like a mouse commanding a pair of wolves to march. But both Iatvi boys obeyed me immediately, stepping out of the room with their shoulders hung low and their voices silent. I slowly crutched out of the room after them, and reached the front room with frustration; my right leg was mighty compared to the other, but that didn’t mean it was prepared to resume life without support. I didn’t have to tell them to, but as I entered the chilly open space of the front room, they both sat on the floor right next to each other. As I came into view around the wall:
“I’m sorry,” Aaron whispered. “I didn’t mean to break your crutch! Chris pushed me-”
“I did not!”
“Just… stop.” I growled. My breathing grew heavy as I rounded the last banister, passed the threshold of the stairs, and leaned against the last banister before the boys. “Stop. Don’t tell me you’re sorry. You could have injured me badly, Aaron, but you didn’t, so I forgive you. Ian learned the same lesson. But you scared Charsi and Juni so much that they probably won’t ever trust you. What made you fight like that? Don’t tell me you yell at each other like that often.”
Aaron looked away, coincidentally beyond the banisters. I turned to look with him, and saw Juni and Charsi pass by in a flash until they disappeared into the far room.
“Answer me,” I said, snapping my fingers and looking at both boys. “Why did you fight like that in front of us?”
“I didn’t mean to!” Chris whined. “I just… do it.”
“Me too,” Aaron agreed softly, rubbing his hands together. “I dunno…”
“Aaron, why did you disobey me and touch Juni and Charsi when I specifically told you not to?”
“The… the blanket was covering them, and I was making it worse, so I… I dunno, I tried to help, but…”
“Chris. Why did you make Aaron so mad?”
Chris mimicked his brother.
“I’m not trying to boss you around. But your excuses aren’t good enough.” I folded my arms. “You’re bigger than us Iatili,” I said. “Do you think you should be our protectors? Or are we just toys to you?”
“You’re not a toy,” Aaron said.
“You’re not,” Chris said at the same time.
“So what about Charsi and Juni? Are they pets or people?”
“People,” both boys responded.
“They’re afraid of you. And I was very afraid of you when you saved me, remember? So what are you going to do to gain their trust back after scaring them like that?”
Both boys looked at the ground, appearing to think.
“Maybe I could just… talk to them. Really quietly. Apologize too.”
I nodded at Aaron.
“Okay. What about you, Chris?”
He paused for a moment more, and then perked up.
“I could bring them some candy from my house.”
Aaron looked in Chris’s direction for a moment, then thought twice about something.
“Aaron…” I gruffed.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice that. You don’t think Chris’s idea is a good one?”
“Hmm,” he said with a shrug.
“Be patient with your brother, Aaron. He’s learning, just like you are. And you know what I think? I think his idea is a good one. When I came to live here, your Uncle James and Aunt Catherine gave me the most delicious dinner I’ve ever had. It made me trust them a lot. Food is a good way to get to know someone.”
“Yep, it is.”
“Does Charsi like chocolate?” Chris asked.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “But I sure do. Let’s try it.”
“Okay,” he said. “I will.”
“And you can talk to Charsi, Aaron? What will you talk about? Besides apologizing.”
Aaron pursed his lips.
“What if you talked to her about how she met Eliza, and what she does everyday? And then you can tell her about what you like to do.”
“Can I talk to her now?”
I shook my head.
“No, not right now. I need to talk to her first, see what she thinks about this. It’s all up to her, okay?”
Both boys nodded again. I might have left it at that, but I think the inner teacher came out of me. Or maybe I had become more than that in the last few months.
“You are brothers,” I said, limping forwards. Aaron couldn’t resist sitting up onto his hands and knees and reaching out for me; as I came into range, I leaned against his hand as I continued walking. “I may not have much experience being an older brother, but I’m not excited to see Ian when he comes home in pain. What if one of you got hurt like Ian did? Would you fight then?”
Aaron and Chris both shook their heads.
“You want to be brothers in a family forever like you say, right?”
They both nodded.
“So,” I said, sitting to the floor. “What are you going to do to make sure that happens?”
They were both silent for a moment.
“Not fight,” Aaron replied.
Chris nodded in agreement.
“Sure, you can promise that. But do you think you never will again?”
Aaron shook his head, and Chris looked at him.
“In good Iatili families, every family member has a title given to them as a child that tells everyone else what kind of person they are. If you’re very peaceful and quiet, part of your name could be ura, quiet. If you’re known for your kindness, you could be called adi. If you defend your family from danger, your name could include inde, or protect. Aaron, you are the older brother. Do you agree that you should be Chris’s inde? Protector?”
“Chris?” I said, looking at the boy. “You’re the younger brother. Do you agree that you should be kind to Aaron – adi – and help him keep your family safe?”
Chris nodded just as quickly.
“And what do you think,” I said. “Are Juni, Charsi, and I part of your family now?”
“Yeah,” both boys said with enthusiasm.
“So what are you going to do?” I asked them. “Now you know who you are, you tell me what you plan to do.”
“I’ll protect you,” Aaron said with quiet confidence. “And Juni and Charsi. And Chris too. No matter what tries to hurt you.”
“And I’m adi? So… I’m supposed to be nice to you and everybody?” Chris asked.
“Those are better promises, don’t you think?”
“Uh-huh, I can do that,” Aaron said.
“Me too,” Chris said with an emphatic nod.
“Good,” I said. “I hope so. I’ll go talk to Charsi, and then we can make Ian’s room ready for him. Aaron, would you call Catherine, see how soon Ian is coming home?
“Yeah, I will,” the boy said. “Um… do you need help getting to the guest room, with just one crutch?”
“If you help me get to my feet, I can make it. Go ahead, and I’ll be back.”
“I want to go home.”
Sitting with Charsi beside me and Juni in front, I folded my arms; I had expected this request.
“I suppose you can,” I told her, bending my legs as normally as possible. “I’ll bet Catherine could take you. But it would be awful lonely for you there.”
“I don’t want to go,” Juni said.
My eyebrows raised at the young man before me.
“Really? I didn’t expect that from you.”
“I’m like Xande,” Juni said with a confident grin. “It will take more than a couple of Iatvi babies to scare me away.”
“But they’re monsters,” Charsi said quietly, wiping the tears from her red eyes. “They yell so loudly, and I hate being picked up like that… I thought the boy was going to throw me.”
“He did.” Juni scowled. “He threw you into Lenn’s lap. If he had hurt you, Sisi, I would have found something sharp and hurt him right back.”
“Yes, and revenge would have been very productive,” I said sarcastically.
“I don’t understand you, Lenn. The boy nearly kills you, and all you do is give him a lecture. And he destroys your crutch, and you don’t even seem angry.”
“I don’t get mad easily,” I said. “I never have. And you’re right about one thing: those boys are just babies. What would you do? Yell and shout at them, insult them, and make them hate you? You never have to worry about getting mad at Eliza, because I imagine she forgives just as easily as I do. But little boys don’t forgive easy, and they don’t forget.”
“Forgive? What do you mean? They should be apologizing to us, not the other way around.”
“And they are. Think, Juni. We’re alive because of the Iatvi. At least it’s that way for me. That doesn’t mean Ian and Catherine and James… and, yes, Chris and Aaron… it doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful people. But the moment I forget that I owe all of them my life and take it for granted is when I’ll stop deserving their help.”
I rested my hand on my chin.
“Ha, not that I deserve it anyway. If I start bossing the boys around and don’t make peace with them… Well, there’s little reason for them to keep me safe and secret.”
“That’s why it scares me,” Charsi said, drawing her legs close. “They know about us now. They can do whatever they want to us.”
“But they shouldn’t,” I said, looking at Charsi then Juni. “And they’re learning that. Aaron and Chris have only visited me a few times, so they don’t quite understand what I am. What we are. Especially Chris. If I don’t give him enough direction, he starts treating me like I’m some kind of fluffy pet. That’s why you have to be the one in charge.”
Charsi sniffed and looked my way.
“I’m not used to being in charge. Juni and Xande boss me around. Only Eliza does things for me.”
“Hey, that’s not true!” Juni said, folding his arms. “I do things for you a lot.”
“You like Ian, though,” I said. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Well, remember what Eliza told you. If you get too scared of the big boys, you can always spend time with Catherine or with me. I just don’t want you to be alone.”
“And Xande probably isn’t home anyway,” Juni said. “When he gets mad, he disappears for a long time. And he was very mad.”
Charsi remained silent, contemplating as tears fell down her cheeks. I placed my hand on her shoulder.
“Can you wait until Ian and Catherine come home? Then you can decide.”
Again, she said nothing, watching her lap. Juni looked at me with unsure eyes, and I looked back at him.
“I need to go watch the boys,” I said in English. “They can clean on their own, of course, but they’ll come pop their heads in here if I don’t keep them out. And I think you both have had your scare for the day.”